MEet our guest editors for issue 149, jan-mar 2019
(Poetry and short fiction submissions open now through September at Submittable)
Guest Poetry Editor
Howard Faerstein was born in Brooklyn and is currently living in Florence, Massachusetts. He has gone on to become first a bookmaker (OTB, not small press), then a wanderer of high deserts in New Mexico and SW Colorado, and now is one of America’s legion of adjunct professors (teaching American Literature at Westfield State University) majoring in gardening, birding, and poetry. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals over the past four decades. A chapbook, Play a Song on the Drums he said, appeared in 1977. No Sweat and other plays have been work-shopped and produced at The Westbeth Theatre in Manhattan. His debut poetry collection, Dreaming of the Rain in Brooklyn, was published by Press 53.
Read his poem "You Ask How I Describe You to My Friends" from Googootz and Other Poems, coming fall 2018 from Press 53.
Guest Short Fiction Editor
Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia, for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her debut short story collection Shelf Life of Happiness will be published by Press 53 in October 2018.
Read her story "Best Man" from Shelf Life of Happiness, coming October 2018 from Press 53.
You Ask How I Describe You to My Friends
by Howard Faerstein
I tell of a man jailed for the fifth time
because of his fear of liberty and I say
because of my fear of life without you, I could be arrested too
but that’s about me and so I say it’s also true
that I can’t describe you because I’ve used up
my allotment of consonants and vowels except for double u’s
and since we’ve met it’s been a whirlwind
and I’m windblown and wayward.
Sometimes I tell them that you reflect the shine
juncos drop on shadows of falling snow or I say
that waking up, speechless Harpo is in my bed,
blonde hair like on the curly kale uncovered in March thaw.
Then I tell them you’re like pigeons on a peaked roof
or wasps in winter or gulls blown inland,
maneuvering between our laughs, their cries,
circling ghost-like over St. Mary’s cemetery,
a matted ocean of grassy graves
where violet blends into orange.
I never say you’re my main squeeze, gf, lover, old lady.
I say you’re more like a mackerel than a flounder
since you’ve got those pretty eyes on both sides of your burnished face.
I’ve even admitted to feeling like the Subaru when it kicked
into gear on its own, taking every zigzag of the driveway
until smashing backward into an oak. That’s how much the wagon
craved love—broken glass, crunched trunk, the mud—
and so I add you remind me of the old men gathered in storefront shuls,
reciting the blessing for the new moon of Tishrei
and how Coltrane played a different solo each night at the Vanguard
when the quartet laid down My Favorite Things.
And one final thing, I confess
you make me think of Daddy Wags,
Cleveland Indians’ leftfielder, I thought had the highest
and sweetest cheek bones
until I met you.
by Virginia Pye
Snow fell hard up in Reno. The interstate started out gray, but as the elevation rose, the white line disappeared and cars crawled as they came into town. Keith gently pressed his foot against the floorboard in sympathy with Caroline, who was at the wheel and making slow, intermittent progress behind a snowplow that scattered wet sand. It struck the windshield and made a sound like rice hitting the backs of a bride and groom.
Keith had arrived in San Francisco on a flight from New York that afternoon. He was here to serve as best man to his closest friend Don, who planned to marry his new girlfriend Caroline up in Reno on this Wednesday afternoon. No one had expected a surprise late-April storm and Keith wondered if that might change things. From the passenger seat, he handed Caroline a bandanna, which she used to wipe the fogging glass.
The car heater whirred on high to keep Don warm in the back seat. He was fast asleep and snoring, a sleeping bag bundled up to his chin. Keith remembered that familiar sound from their tiny freshman dorm room where their beds had been so close he could reach across and poke Don to get him to stop. Keith was tempted to do that now, but when he looked around, the sight of Don made him suck in air between his teeth. Keith’s old friend looked worse than bad, even when sleeping, or maybe especially when sleeping.
Caroline spoke softly. “He wants his ashes tossed out over the ocean.”
Keith nodded as if he were prepared for this. He had met Caroline for the first time at the airport only a few hours before and assumed they’d skirt the issue for at least a little while longer.
“He wants you and your old buddies to toss them into the ocean off Cape Cod.”
“Sure,” Keith said.
He couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t fathom it—how Don had arrived so suddenly at the end of his life. As the wipers did their hypnotic best with the wet snow, Keith looked at Caroline’s striking profile and tried to piece things together. A half year earlier, this petite, athletic-looking woman had moved in with Don when he could no longer take care of himself. Don hadn’t bothered to mention over the phone that she was a beauty, though he did call her a dynamo and someone to be reckoned with, which Don said he needed. She had taken over caring for him with intense, though loving, determination. Based on what Don had said, Keith had pictured someone more masculine, a hardy nurse-type, not this fine-boned woman with the blond ponytail and Pacific-blue eyes.
The even harder part to figure was that three months before that, Don had seemed perfectly well. In August, Keith and Don had done wind sprints on the beach in Wellfleet with their college friends. Maybe Don had been slower than he used to be, but none of them were getting any younger. By the bonfire, Don had brought out an African drum and everyone danced. He’d just gotten back from two years in Swaziland with the Peace Corps. Keith had no reason to believe Don was anything but fine.
That fall, Keith had flipped past occasional Times articles about the new gay illness, worse than cancer. Then Don said the word AIDS over the phone and Keith started seeing it everywhere. From what Keith gathered, Don’s treatments were experimental, complex, and highly ineffectual. He looked like shit and had said point-blank he wouldn’t be around for long. The snowplow’s chains scraped rhythmically now like the drum made out of a gourd and seeds that Don liked to play, his head tossed back and his mouth open. That was the Don Keith knew.
“He’s got his funeral all figured out,” Caroline said. “Typical, meticulous Don.”
“You guys talk like that? I mean, about afterwards?”
“It reassures him to know things will go on without him.” Caroline turned the car into a parking lot. “I guess it helps him feel ready.”
She adjusted the rearview mirror so she could see Don sleeping in the backseat. “We’re here, love,” she said in a louder voice. “The Silver Bells, just like we planned it.”
Don shifted and grumbled. The sleeping bag rustled a little, and then suddenly more, as he started to fight it, his arms caught in the slick fabric, his eyes still shut. Keith reached back and tried to pull the bag down Don’s chest, but in half-sleep, Don knocked him away and kept thrashing.
“Keith’s here, honey,” Caroline said. “Time to wake up.”
At these words, Don finally stopped struggling and the bag slipped down from around his chest to make a forlorn puddle at his waist. His eyes flicked open and, although Keith searched in them for signs of pain, or suffering, or sadness, a wide smile appeared across his friend’s too-thin face.
“Fuck you guys,” Don said with a happy lilt.
“Hey, man,” Keith said and reached to squeeze his friend’s bony knee. “Time to rise and shine. You’re getting married.”
Pink neon flashed through the thick snowfall—two hearts, two bells, alternating over the parking lot. Caroline had pulled her Corolla next to a rusted Cadillac, the only car left outside the cement-block building.
“Looks like a porno shop,” Keith said.
Don cocked an eyebrow. “How perfect is that?”
Caroline turned off the car engine.
“All right, let’s go,” Keith said and didn’t hesitate as he climbed out.
The door slammed behind him with a muffled echo. It took him a moment to notice that he hovered alone in the quiet as snow accumulated quickly on his shoulders. Overheated and headachy from the long drive, he welcomed the biting wind. He peered back into the car and remembered that of course Don couldn’t move fast. His friend was an invalid now. It would drive Keith crazy to go so slowly all the time. It would have driven the old Don crazy, too. It didn’t seem to bother Caroline, though. She had the patience of, what?—Keith drew a swirl through the snow landing on the hood—an angel. He scattered the snow with his open palm.
Keith peered through the fogged window again and watched as Caroline reached back to unbuckle Don. But then, to Keith’s surprise, Don slapped her hand away, and not in a gentle or kidding fashion. He lashed out several times, but Caroline’s voice retaliated just as firmly. It cut through the glass of the window and the hush of the snow. She was a teacher scolding a naughty kid, her voice controlled and calm, yet full of purpose.
“I’m not taking any bullshit from you,” she said. “This was your idea and I’m with you, but you’ve got to control yourself. It’s the fucking drugs. Just try not to be a pain in the ass today.”
Keith blew warm breath on his fingers and wondered how Caroline managed, how they both managed. Don had never been an angel, and apparently now that was truer than ever. Keith stomped the snow off his boots and felt something like embarrassment at the strength of his own sturdy legs.
Caroline climbed out of the car and shut her door. “Your turn,” she said.
“Sure, I’ll get him,” Keith said, but then paused. “Hey, you OK?”
Caroline sighed. “I’m fine. I’m the fucking bride.”
And although she said it with a smirk, in that moment she looked like a bride to Keith. She tipped her head back, exposing a white throat, and tried to catch snowflakes on her tongue. He realized how young she was. Seven, maybe even ten years younger than Don and he. She wasn’t shivering, but seemed to be vibrating with cold, or trepidation, or even excitement. Where the snow fell on her neck, the skin turned instantly pink. She let out a long breath and then walked around and fiddled with her keys to open the back of the station wagon.
Keith could see why Don had fallen for her, though his friend had been only into guys since early in their college years. It seemed weirdly out of character for Don to revert back to dating a woman after getting into the whole gay scene out in California. Keith himself would have fallen for Caroline in a heartbeat, had circumstances been different. She was exactly his type. That must have occurred to Don, Keith thought. It almost made him wonder if his friend was marrying someone just to show him how it was done. Keith realized that was a pretty screwed-up idea—as if Don was living his life for Keith’s benefit. They were close, closer than any other friend or girlfriend Keith had ever had, but that didn’t mean Don would marry someone for his sake. Still, Keith thought it strange that Don had had no interest in women, except for this particular one.
“Found it,” she called from the back of the car as she held up a manila envelope. “The marriage license.”
Keith joined her and gathered the dozen roses he’d bought at the airport. He presented them to her without show. Caroline stood on tiptoes and kissed his cold cheek.
Once inside the Silver Bells, the flowers looked limp and bitten by cold, but the wife of the Justice of the Peace complimented Caroline on them anyway. When she offered Caroline a hand mirror and a comb and encouraged her to freshen up, Caroline declined. She shook out her hair and snow flew off and onto the back of Keith’s hand where it quickly melted.
Caroline whispered to him, “My mamma treated me like I was a baby doll when I was little. I had this white-blond hair and dark eyelashes and I think she wanted to make some money off of me. But I put up such a stink, she finally gave up, though I suppose I was pretty cute.”
“I bet,” Keith said.
He wasn’t sure what she was hinting at as she swayed before him. She had to know she was beautiful. But as Keith wondered if she was flirting with him, she turned to Don in his wheelchair and said, “But beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it, my love?” She bent down and kissed the hollow of Don’s cheek.
He chuckled and looked up at Keith. “Caroline has a hell of an imagination. She still thinks I’m handsome.”
Keith tried to see the handsomeness she saw in Don, but he almost hated to look at his old friend, he was so changed.
The Justice of the Peace then called the three in and they lined up before him. His wife played an abbreviated version of Pachelbel’s Canon on an electronic keyboard and the official read a brief version of the ceremony from a card he had long ago memorized. When he pronounced them husband and wife, Don let go of Keith’s coat sleeve and Caroline bent down so he could kiss her on the lips. Keith noticed the wife of the Justice staring at Don. You’d have to be blind not to guess he didn’t have long. Don let out a long, shallow sigh that worried Keith. In this happy moment, he tried not to hear his friend’s labored breathing.
~ ~ ~
Keith stepped out of the 7-Eleven and turned up the collar of his parka before starting the trek back across the parking lot to the motel. In a plastic bag, he carried a six pack of beer, three submarine sandwiches, some chips, a deck of cards, and, as wedding gifts, an I’d Rather Be in Reno cap for Don, and a bottle of bath beads for Caroline. He knew he was getting off cheap and decided to insist on paying for the room.
As he ducked into the wind, he heard a woman’s voice calling out to him. “Hey, don’t forget your change.”
He turned back to see the cashier, a college girl with black lipstick and even blacker hair. She stood shivering at the door of the store.
“Sorry,” Keith said and trotted back to her.
She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. “You just passing through?” she asked.
Keith pointed with a gloveless hand toward the motel. “Home away from home.”
“Good thing you got in before the storm. They shut down the roads an hour ago. State trooper stopped by and said he’d drive me home if I wanted.”
Her black lipstick was cracked at the edges and her cheeks were marked by a sharp runway of rouge, just asking to be smudged off. Keith wanted to lean in and use his tongue to do it, but instead he said, “Lucky guy.”
The girl blushed.
Keith realized he was doing it again, doing that thing that came too easily for him. His arms hung loose at his sides, his head dipped lower, and he looked right at her. The girl tucked her hair again.
“Looks like I’m closing early. We’ve got VHS tapes in the back and an eight track, you know, to dance. You should come by.”
Keith bobbed and stuffed one hand into the front pocket of his jeans. “What about the trooper?”
“Screw him,” she said and tried to laugh. “So see you later?”
“Later,” he said and turned into the driving snow as he headed across the parking lot again.
If Don had been there with him and it was back in college, they’d have stayed around just to see what might happened next. Don didn’t care about the girls. He’d fool around with them, but he was mostly there to keep an eye on Keith, both egging him on, and making sure he didn’t get into too much trouble. Keith had an uncanny way with women, which Don didn’t seem to mind one bit. If anything, what bothered Don was that Keith, while drowning in the possibility of love, stayed afloat. Don hated how Keith kept his heart in reserve. But Keith was sure he’d open up eventually. He just hadn’t met the right girl yet. But now, more than a decade later, he had to wonder. He’d had only a string of short relationships to show for all his good luck. He was at Don’s wedding after all and not the other way around.
He made it back to the motel and slumped against the door to the room before opening it, the exhaustion from his travels getting to him. He shut his eyes and an image of Caroline with her head tipped back, her tongue catching snow, appeared under his eyelids. She was so young and vibrant, Keith could feel the blood coursing through the vein at his temple where it pressed against the doorjamb. In that moment, he felt he had too much blood—too much good, healthy blood. The image of his best friend’s bride swirled before him, her arms outstretched, teasing him with her grace. Keith opened his eyes with a start, straightened up, and fumbled for the room key.
~ ~ ~
In the darkened room, Don curled under a mountain of covers on the far bed. Caroline rose from where she’d been sitting beside him as he slept. Keith wondered if she had been watching over Don the whole time he was gone—just bent there, stroking his head, as gentle as that.
She patted Keith’s chest to welcome him back and said, “All right, let’s eat. I’m starved.”
“You think he’s hungry?” Keith asked.
“No, we’ll let him rest.”
Keith tossed his wet coat onto the carpet by the door and took off his boots. Caroline unpacked the food and tore the Reno tourist magazine in two for plates. They sat by the window while the snow outside came down like snow in a globe—persistent, fake, and yet perfect. Keith opened two beers and brought them over.
“I ought to propose a toast to you guys.” He raised his bottle, but only half-heartedly. How could you celebrate a wedding like this one?
Caroline lifted her beer but then set it down again, clearly exhausted. “Not exactly the wedding a girl pictures growing up,” she said. “My mamma always wanted the whole shebang for me.”
Keith drank his beer and didn’t know what to say.
“She knows we’re doing this,” Caroline continued. “Since meeting Don, she hasn’t complained, not even once. He can be such a charmer. I think she’s just happy I’m with a guy.”
The beer burned the back of Keith’s throat, as he tried to guess what she meant.
“What, Don didn’t tell you?” Caroline asked, leaning toward him.
“Don’s funny about things like that. He likes to keep secrets. He really doesn’t have to, but he does anyway. Everything’s so obvious.”
Nothing seemed obvious to Keith, and he wanted to ask more.
Caroline got up and went to the thermostat. She turned it up all the way and hot air blasted out of the vents. “Sorry about the heat. He’s like a hothouse flower now.”
She unzipped her jeans and shimmied out of them, then stood without embarrassment in a pair of boxer shorts that probably belonged to Don. She next pulled off her sweater and t-shirt, leaving only a tank top. Keith felt his breastbone ache.
Caroline went over to Don, who remained unmoving under the pile of blankets. She pulled them higher to his chin and he shifted in his sleep. She bent over and kissed his pale forehead, then settled down opposite Keith at the small table again.
“He’s this sick and still so sweet,” she said.
Keith had never thought of Don as sweet. He wasn’t sweet. That was one of the things Keith liked about him.
“I guess we’re still in the honeymoon phase,” Caroline said, and took a bite of her sandwich. “You must think I don’t know him very well.”
Keith set down his beer and leaned back. “No, you know him.” He liked how she assumed he knew Don better, which was true. With Don’s previous relationships—the dramatic in-love times and the heartbreak times—Keith had seen his friend through it all.
“Were you surprised when he told you he was getting hitched to a woman? Come on, tell me the truth.”
Keith let out a quick laugh. “Well, yeah. He used to say he never wanted to tie another person down, especially not himself. And girls never were his thing.”
She gazed out the window for a long moment, then shrugged and took a bite. Through the chewing, she started talking. “He sort of regrets all that now. Not being gay, but he wishes he’d been more honest, you know, in showing who he really loved. He hid it too much of the time. But then he decided he didn’t want us to stay secret anymore, because I’d been like that, too, never really committing myself to anyone. It was time for me, and for Don, and for you, too, I gather. At least that’s what Don thinks.”
Keith stared at her hard, her lovely profile burning into him. What was she saying to him, about Don, and himself, and her? He noticed his heart had started beating faster. Too much blood coursed through him again, as he felt his pulse throb in his neck. Who had Don loved? Keith wanted to ask outright, but was afraid of the answer she might give, or even of the fact that she might have an answer at all.
Keith sat up and crumpled the greasy deli paper. She had no business knowing about him and Don. That was their private business, their friendship that went back to when they were not yet men. But if she did know things about him, Keith realized that meant Don had told her recently. Don had been thinking of Keith right when Keith was all the way across the country and thinking of Don. The whole thing felt like a tangle, one Keith needed urgently to understand before it was too late and Don was gone.
“They say getting sick can change a person,” Caroline added, taking a swig of beer.
She seemed so casual, as if talking this way were just the easiest thing in the world. Keith tried to frame a question that might reveal what he wanted to know, but the words didn’t come and he wondered if words were the wrong thing anyway.
Don rolled onto his side just then and his eyelashes flickered open. Keith rose and went and sat on the edge of the second bed. He leaned across the space toward his old friend.
“Hey, man, how you feeling?” he asked.
Don smiled faintly.
Keith looked down at the peeling skin on Don’s forehead and lips. His cheekbones protruded, his eyes far too deep, as if a face could be melted down to the skull and still be called a face. Keith wanted to reach out and touch the dry, cracking surface of him. Don was turning to ashes already. Soon Keith and their friends would scatter him over the ocean.
Keith’s eyes stung and he dabbed at them with pinched fingers that came up damp. He knew he’d cry. He already had, standing at his kitchen sink in Brooklyn, on the subway one time, then on the plane, and now here. It didn’t matter to him that people saw, especially not Caroline, who seemed to know how much he and Don had gone through together. Still, he didn’t move closer. He didn’t reach out to touch his friend, rub his shoulders, or touch his hand. Then Don shut his eyes again.
Caroline slipped in beside Keith on the second bed and they both watched as Don’s breath grew steady and he drifted off to sleep again.
“He was scared he wouldn’t get to see you,” she whispered. “It’s so amazing you’re here,” she squeezed Keith’s knee. “Now he can finally relax. He used to wake up in the night with panic attacks and call out your name. The meds can do that.”
Caroline bent down and unloaded prescription bottles from a medical bag, lining them up on the bedside table. Then she crouched on the carpet, looking for an outlet for the oxygen machine. Keith knew he should help her. He should do or say something, but he couldn’t take his eyes off her breasts as they jiggled under her thin undershirt, and his mind was stuck on one burning thought: Don had called out his name in the night?
Caroline got the machine working and turned up the dials, expertly placing the mask over Don’s face without waking him. She sat beside Keith again and whispered, “That’s pretty typical, by the way. The night sweats and delusions. I’ve had to pretend I was you more than once just to get him to calm down. Then it passes and the old Don comes back.”
Keith looked from her to Don. His friend’s eyelids were red and riddled with thin, blue veins. The old Don? What did she know of the old Don? Keith suddenly couldn’t stand the thought of her pretending to be him, as if his friendship with Don could be faked by someone else. He knew that wasn’t what she meant, but somehow it still bothered him that she had held Don when he had called out his name. He should have been there.
Don’s eyes slowly opened again. It seemed to take him a moment to remember where he was. He stared at Keith with great intensity and Keith wondered if perhaps his friend was still dreaming. Was that possible? Or was he confusing it with how people looked when they died and their eyes remained open? It took Don forever to blink and Keith felt the panic rising in him as he worried that he was losing him in that long moment.
“You’re here,” Don said, his voice muffled behind the rubber mask.
“You hear I got married?”
“Sure enough,” Keith said. “I’m your best man.”
“Always were,” Don said.
Keith felt the tears rise up fast. Neither Don nor Caroline seemed to notice them rolling down his cheeks, or if they did, it must have seemed so natural to them and routine, they didn’t comment.
“I don’t deserve her, you know,” Don said, “You of all people know that I don’t.”
Keith wanted Don to keep talking about how he of all people knew Don best, but he realized he was supposed to be polite and say something nice about Caroline. Instead, all he could muster was, “Of course you do.”
He reached across and squeezed the blankets, barely finding the thin rail of Don’s arm beneath. He thought he saw in Don’s eyes a flicker of his former mischief, a roughness and playfulness that no longer suited him and was snuffed out quickly by a passing jolt of pain. But for a moment, the old Don was back, flirting, making light of something as complex and unspeakable as love.
“How you feeling, darling?” Caroline asked and shifted closer.
Don’s face and body relaxed at the sound of her voice. With effort, he pulled his arm out from under the blanket and reached for her hand. Keith moved aside to let her slip in and as he did so, he let himself realize that, for whatever reasons that made sense only to the bride and groom, it was right. She smoothed Don’s brow and little flecks of skin fell onto the pillow. Keith stood and turned to the window. It was too hot in the room, too close. He realized he couldn’t stand to stay much longer.
Caroline opened the prescription bottles and poured pills onto her open palm. “Keith brought us some cards for poker,” she said in that loud voice she used with Don. His friend’s hearing must be shot, too, Keith realized. And hadn’t Don said something about his eyesight going as well? There was hardly anything left of him.
Don’s voice came out soft, but clear, “Deal me in. I’m going clean you both out. Tonight’s my honeymoon.”
Keith went back to the bed where the couple huddled. He wanted to make a joke of it, or be jovial, offering lightness and life to the occasion, but his head ached and he needed air and he thought he might start crying again if he said anything to Don. He decided he would play a few hands. Drink the rest of the beer. Then, when his old friend had fallen asleep again, he’d head over to the 7-Eleven to see what kind of trouble he could get himself into.
~ ~ ~
The door to the convenience store was locked and the lights turned off. Keith pressed his nose to the glass. He thought he saw movement from under the door of a back room, so he started pounding the glass with his fist. It made a muffled, ineffectual thud as the snow fell thicker, subduing everything. He and the college girl would watch a flick, drink some beer, screw around, and soon, Keith hoped, he would remember who he was.
Being around Don had always been confusing. Near the end of college, when Don came out, Keith had gotten nervous and tried to keep his distance. He didn’t want Don getting the wrong idea about him, although they’d been best friends for years by then. It seemed silly now, but at the time, he thought maybe Don’s roving eye would land on him. It hadn’t, and Don had been nothing but patient with Keith until he relaxed and they went back to being friends.
Keith finally stopped pounding and leaned his back against the store window. He watched the snow fall into the triangles of streetlight. The sky was white although it was night and the streetlight was white, too, the same as the sky. It would have torn him up to be with the college girl, although it pained him not to be with her, too.
He pushed off from the glass, dug his chafed hands into the pockets of his jeans and pressed into the wind. Snow rose to the tops of his work boots as he headed up the road, past strip malls with darkened beauty parlors and pizza joints with their neon signs shut off. He stopped under a traffic light that swung back and forth roughly in the wind. He noticed the tears only when they slipped down his collar.
He thought about Don after college, when he acted wild and free and was screwing around with anyone he liked. After he’d left for the West Coast, Don would call Keith in the middle of the night to tell him about the guy he’d become infatuated with that week. The man who had made his heart sing, but then quickly broke it. Every time, Keith had offered the same hard-boiled advice: Don needed to put up his guard and protect himself better. Keith let out a sad grunt at the irony of that phrase now. Don had not heeded his advice even once, and yet never seemed to regret it, although look where that had gotten him.
Keith swiped the tears with his jacket sleeve, but that only made his face wetter and colder with the melted snow. He had tried to convince himself that he was like Don, too—screwing around with girls just for the hell of it. But the truth was, although he sometimes acted the same as his friend, he remained aloof. He waited—though for what or whom he didn’t know. He hid his heart far more than ever revealing it, even to himself. Keith was the one with secrets and look where that had gotten him, too.
He turned back and pressed through the falling snow. When he finally reached the motel room door, his fingers were so cold he could barely hold the key. This time it wasn’t jet lag that made him weak. Keith couldn’t stop thinking about the moment Caroline and Don had kissed at the end of the marriage service. Don had let out a sigh as he and his new wife pulled away from one another. It worried Keith at the time, but now he realized it had been a sigh of contentment. Don had found love, with Caroline and any number of other times before that in his life.
~ ~ ~
The blast of warm air made Keith’s eyes sting. He shut the door softly and stood shivering, his teeth chattering, hands and feet so cold they burned. On the far bed, Don lay under the mound of blankets. Caroline, in her thin tank top and shorts, lay on top of the covers and spooned against him. Her eyes were shut. Don’s breathing was noisy and labored, but steady.
It took Keith’s icy fingers a while to work the buttons of his coat and unlace his boots. His jeans folded stiffly where he dropped them. He stripped out of his clothes and tiptoed to his pack, crouched down, and fumbled for dry clothing. When Caroline shifted on the bed and opened her eyes, Keith went still and stopped breathing. He sensed he was waiting for something, only he didn’t know what.
With a long, graceful arm, Caroline patted the bed behind her back. It took Keith a moment to understand. Then he let his shirt fall to the carpet and walked over. He slipped onto the bed as gently as he could and lay down beside her. Caroline didn’t turn to see him, but adjusted her hips so he would scoot forward and spoon against her back.
A moment later, she startled him even more. She stretched her top leg, pointing her toes, and draped it over his, laughing a little under her breath and shifting closer. She snuggled her back against his cold chest and it made his whole body shiver. The tips of her hair brushed against his dry lips and tickled his wind-slapped cheeks.
As she shifted and shimmied, getting comfortable before going still again, Keith thought his chest might explode with the beating of his heart. He could barely keep himself from grabbing her, kissing her, pressing himself against her, even screwing her, as wild and unlikely and plain wrong as that seemed. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Don, too. How could he not, with his friend so close and breathing in such a difficult way?
Poor, brittle Don, who had nothing left to give after all those years of giving to everyone. Then Caroline interrupted Keith’s thoughts by reaching behind her back and taking his wrist. He wanted so badly for her to bring his hand up and across her body to caress her breast. He wanted her to lean back into him so he could kiss the hot place under her hair. Instead, she lifted his arm and draped it across her ribs, placing Keith’s palm not on her own breast, but under the covers and onto Don’s bare, narrow chest. She rested it there carefully, as if not to bruise either man.
Keith’s breath caught and he thought he had never felt anything so tender as his sleeping friend’s skin. Don’s chest rose and fell and Keith tried to focus on each intake and exhale. He tried to forget about Caroline, her body humming with life as it pressed up against him. But there was no escaping her, and Keith couldn’t, didn’t want to. She finally turned her head toward him, whispered something, and then leaned her face even closer and kissed him on the lips.
In his hot brain and cold body, Keith felt everything at once. He couldn’t stand the thought of waiting any longer. They kissed and kissed again and didn’t stop. Then Caroline pulled back and smiled and did something that really frightened him. She shifted away and turned to her new husband and kissed him hard enough on the lips to wake him. As Don’s eyes opened, Keith prepared to slip off the bed and stand. He would put on his clothes and get going again, grab his bag and head out the door, though to where he wasn’t sure. He just knew he couldn’t stay a moment longer if he had ruined everything with his old friend.
But when Don’s eyes finally focused on Keith’s face, he didn’t look angry or even surprised that his best man lay pressed up against his bride’s back, his arm draped over her naked side. Instead, Don nodded ever so slightly, and the edges of his gray, dry lips started to rise. Yes, Don’s eyes were shining and that mischievous look had returned, the one that Keith had tried so long to dismiss or correct. But now, he wondered if he had misunderstood their meaning all along: Don wasn’t conveying something as slight as mischief, but instead, a larger thing, like love.
Caroline had seen the look in Don’s eyes, too, and she, being more like Don than Keith would ever be, knew what to do. She leaned toward Keith and kissed him again, a long, slow kiss that Keith became lost inside. He didn’t know what she was thinking and worried for a moment that he was now meant to be the groom. Would he take Don’s place? Could it be that simple? Keith wished it was, but that had always been his mistake, thinking love was a straightforward transaction, when really it was as complicated and mysterious as the workings of a living body.
Then Caroline pulled away and gazed at him fondly, patiently, making it clear that her kisses were not what he had thought, but were meant to turn him inside out nonetheless. His heart in all its confusion lay open there before his friends in the hotel room in Reno and he wasn’t sure what to make of things anymore.
He then dared to take a glimpse at Don and let out a puff of surprised air. His friend was smiling quite broadly now, his head tipped back, and his eyes bright. Don was reveling in Keith’s confusion, just as he always had. This was the old Don, the one Keith had known all along, blessing him with his happiness. What had Keith been waiting for? Don seemed to ask. Why hold back any longer?
Keith felt a tangle of electric currents that ran through him and reached out to the others. He wanted to show how grateful he was to his old friend, and how foolish he had been not to realize there was no time left. But Caroline simply stretched her fingers over Keith’s hand as it rested on Don’s chest, binding them together in that gentle grip. She relaxed into him, and to Keith’s amazement, she shut her eyes. A moment later, Don’s eyes closed again, too. The newlyweds rested together that way, perfectly still and quiet.
Keith remained alert and stunned, though exhausted now, too. For a long while, he lay awake with the awareness that he was alive, revived by the touch of Caroline’s skin and the pulse of Don’s heart beneath his palm. Although their eyes were shut, Keith had the strangest sensation that his friends were keeping watch over him, too, just as he was keeping watch over them, this magical pair. He studied Don’s face and tried to burn it into memory. Then, as the hours wore on and the snowstorm tapered off outside, Keith finally let himself rest peacefully.
In the early morning dawn, he awoke with a start to hear Caroline crying softly beside him. Keith listened to the hiss of the oxygen machine and wanted it to be Don’s breathing. He moved closer and leaned his ear to his friend’s chest, but it already was as hard as a shell, cavernous and hollow with his absence. Keith lifted the sheet over Don’s face and took Caroline’s hand.
They moved together to the second bed where Keith lay on his back with Caroline curled against his side. She cried and Keith let the tears come, too, ignoring the wetness that pooled on his collarbone. They would call an ambulance when daylight came, because that was what you did, but there was no rush. He and Caroline didn’t speak, and after a while, Keith sensed that she might have fallen asleep again, or perhaps she lay awake as he did, watching the gray morning slowly infuse the room’s darkness.
In full daylight, Keith pulled back the window curtains to see the sun climbing into a cloudless blue sky. The brightness outside was almost unbearable as drifts of brilliant white snow covered every surface. Keith parted the curtains all the way so the glare would find them with its painful rays. He opened the motel room door and let the crisp, chilly air rush in. Caroline came to stand beside him on the threshold and Keith put his arm around her shoulder. Together they studied the unspoiled parking lot and the world beyond it. They listened for the distant snowplow as it approached from up the road, clearing paths so they might move forward into that day and all the days to come.