Mike and Danny: Brad's Story
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
At the first light of dawn, Craig was up and dressed and standing on his front step with a cup of coffee, as Wellington chased around the house sniffing out traces of animal intruders from the night before. The morning newspaper lay in the driveway in a blue plastic sleeve, and Brad walked out to retrieve it.
He unfolded the paper and looked at the headlines. The bombing of North Vietnam was still going on, and there had been a 7.5 earthquake in Nicaragua. His own problems shrank to nothing compared to those of people elsewhere.
But during the night, wakeful on the thin mattress of his son's bed, Brad had felt the full weight of his dilemma. The prospect of recovering some semblance of a normal life, without Craig, had been hard enough, but the effort required to patch up his marriage seemed monumental. It was like trying to put a genie back into a bottle.
And what kind of life would he have if he managed to achieve that? He could go through the motions of breadwinner, marriage partner and father. But as much as he wanted to be that man, would his heart ever be truly in it? He'd come to think of marriage as no more than a shell game. You could believe you'd kept your eye on the one with the pea under it, but it was never there. You couldn't win.
There's a price you pay for every choice you make, he thought. He understood that much. And it was beginning to feel like he would never pay off all the debts he'd accumulated. He also knew that before he met Craig, he was slowly but surely dying inside. Where and when did you decide that a sacrifice was no longer worth the price?
Something in him rebelled at the thought of living year after year without the touch of another man. And for a while last night, he'd simply yielded to the need to be free of what he owed to everybody else. Staring at the ceiling just above him, he let himself imagine for a while the comfortable intimacy of life with someone who filled his heart with affection and happily surrendered to the same sexual desires.
But without Craig, imagination was a cold comfort. Could he ever find someone else to take Craig's place, or was he just someone you found once in a lifetime? Like first love, the sweetest, the most memorable, but finally unattainable again after it was lost.
Wellington came bounding toward him, then caught a fresh scent and was off and running again. Brad whistled for him to come back. He was getting cold standing there in his sweatpants and slippers.
A neighbor, out on his bicycle, waved as he went by on the road. He was a young Indian man, who worked in the pharmacy where Brad had picked up prescriptions for his kids' infections. They'd met once at the grocery store, standing in line at the checkout. He remembered his first name, Rahul, and his deep brown eyes behind tinted glasses. Afterward, Brad realized he'd often seen him, pedaling his bike in all weather.
The house slowly came to life as one by one the kids appeared in the kitchen wanting breakfast. He'd let them pour bowls of cereal, and he offered sugar and cinnamon toast, which only his youngest daughter seemed to take an interest in. He looked at them sitting around the table, still half-asleep and staring into space, except for his ten-year-old Kathleen, who was reading a Nancy Drew novel while she ate.
Finally his wife came in, a housecoat pulled on over her nightgown. She poured a cup of coffee and said nothing to him except to ask if he'd turned up the heat. It felt cold in the house. Then without waiting for him to answer, she left the room. After a moment he could hear the furnace start up, and he guessed she had changed the thermostat when she walked by it.
For a moment, it could have been an ordinary Christmas vacation morning. The girls would drift back to their room. Chris would turn on the TV and curl up on the couch with Wellington. If Travis was here, he would be dressed and leaving the house to spend the day with his friends. Coretta would be doing laundry and going out to the store for something. And after another coffee, he would be reading a book until some job around the house called him into actionthere was grout that needed to be replaced in the bathroom.
He recalled Travis' remark that they'd never been a family. He wondered if this predictable routine of theirs was what he meant.
After the first two pages of a book on European history, he put it down, realizing that he couldn't remember a word of what he'd just read. He went to the bathroom, stared at the grout job and felt only a growing impatience. It was a familiar feeling that came over him often in this house, a feeling of being trapped like an animal in a cage.
He decided to take Wellington for a run in the park and ask Chris if he wanted to come along. Then he remembered Clayton in Buffalo and wondered if the postcard had arrived for his friend, the ranch foreman. How long would it wait there to be picked up, and how long would it take for him to read Brad's phone number and call it?
He realized that until Clayton's friend knew how to find him, he was obliged to stay at home and wait near the phone. He reconsidered the book on European history and the grout job and tried to think of something else to occupy his time. He found Chris in his room and asked if he'd like to play chess.
When he heard the phone ring two hours later, he couldn't recall how many matches he'd lost to his son.
"You're not even trying, Dad," Chris had complained more than once.
It was true that Brad had found it hard to keep his mind on the board, and when he won once to prove he was making an effort, he wondered if Chris had let him win.
"How did you get so good anyway?" he said when he got up to go to the phone.
"Travis," the boy said simply. "I learned all his moves, and then a few more."
When he got to the phone, it was Clayton again. He said he was hanging out at the post office, waiting for his friend Len to show up and get his mail.
"Don't get picked up for loitering," Brad said.
"It's not that kind of post office," Clayton said, laughing, and explained that he'd got a room at the Y where he had enough money to stay for two more nights.
"I can wire you more," Brad reminded him.
"I got ways of making a few bucks when I need it."
Brad didn't like the way this sounded. "I don't want you doing anybody any favors for money, OK?"
Clayton laughed again. "You worry too much about me."
Brad rang off when his daughter Lisa came into the room, wanting to show him her new Malibu Barbie. He sat with her on the floor as she described the doll's clothes and asked him to make up a story about her.
She loved his stories, even more than the rest of his children, who when they were young all readily believed in the far-fetched adventures he made up for them about their dolls, the Barbies and Raggedy Anns, the GI Joes, the toy dinosaurs, and teddy bears. He'd always been in demand at bedtime for this, and in earlier times, Coretta had even asked him once for a story of her own as they got into bed.
It had been a teasing joke, but he'd told her one anyway, about a handsome, horny prince who dreamed each night of a roll in the hay with a milk maid of certain proportionswho resembled Coretta herself in many ways, which he went on to enumerate, kissing each part of her body as he described it, from her nose, to her knees, to her breasts.
"And then he touched her right here," he said, his fingers slipping between her legs, "with a special part of his own body, which was all warm and hard." She'd laughed then, unable to contain her delight at his wonderful foolishness. And the story had ended there as they began what was always referred to later as their night of fairytale lovemaking.
But it had never happened again. Once was enough, she would say, whenever he brought up the memory of it. There was something a little too silly about it and maybe a little too strange for two grownups. And silliness or strangeness had a way of making her uncomfortable. That was a difference between them.
"Anyway, the walls in this house are thin," she would say. A raunchy bedtime story wasn't something she wanted any of the kids to overhear.
Today Coretta had stayed late behind the closed door of theirnow herbedroom. Maybe lying in bed and going over the story of her own life, far from any fairytale.
As he sat with Lisa, following Barbie from her trendy apartment in Hollywood to the beach, to swim and play with her friends, he thought of how life had disappointed his wife, burdened as she was with the responsibilities of motherhood and finding herself married to someone who was not the man she thought he was.
It got to be noon, and one after the other his children arrived in the kitchen again, hungry and puzzled by their mother's absence. Kathleen came first, still carrying her Nancy Drew book. He stood and asked her to help him make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"We can pretend we're at school having lunch," he said, trying to get a smile out of her.
"Very funny, Dad," she said.
She already had something of Travis' temperament, and he wondered how each of them took after their motherintelligent, questioning, always wanting more than life seemed willing to grant them.
He wished he'd had what it took to be more of a breadwinner and less intent on pursuing this poorly paid desire to be a college teacher. Money couldn't buy everything, but that's what you told yourself when there wasn't enough of it.
"Put them in a bowl," he told Kathleen when she set the bag of potato chips in the middle of the table. She rolled her eyes but did what he said.
"I want fried chicken," Chris said, coming into the room.
"We'll get a bucket from Colonel Sanders tonight if nobody feels like cooking," he said.
He heard the front door open and close, and Travis joined them.
"Look what the dog didn't eat," Kathleen said. It was a snappy phrase she'd picked up at school and started using to express disdain for her siblings.
"How would you like a knuckle sandwich?" Travis retorted.
"No threats of violence before we eat," Brad said, always the referee.
Lisa, trying to help, was asking Brad to hand her glasses from the cupboard to set around the table. Chris was putting a paper napkin at each place.
"I don't eat peanut butter and jelly," Travis announced.
"We've got bologna," Brad said, refusing to be intimidated by this boy who was already almost as tall as he was.
"Yuck. You know what they make that stuff out of?" Travis said.
"Chicken lips, chicken lips," Chris was chanting.
"It's no better than cat food," Travis said.
"And you know because you've actually eaten cat food," Kathleen said. She lifted a jug of milk from the refrigerator and gave it to him. "Here, do something useful," she told him.
Brad fully expected the boy to refuse and tell her to do it herself, but Travis took the milk and began pouring it into the glasses. Despite their usual exchange of insults, he knew that Travis and Kathleen were each other's strongest allies in the family. Neither was about to spoil that by letting their differences go too far.
Brad marveled at the complexities of the alliances and political maneuvers among his children and wondered how much of that they'd learned from watching Coretta and himself. He wished he'd been more aware of that as the two of them had unthinkingly brought children into the world. But it was too late now to reconsider or start over.
Travis had grabbed a sandwich before Kathleen had put them on the table, and Brad had to say, "Nobody eats until we're all sitting down." Travis scowled at him, but put it back. He was less difficult, Brad thought, when there weren't his buddies watching from the sidelines.
They sat down around the table, and when Chris, who was the religious one, said grace, they realized that Coretta had appeared in the doorway and was watching them. She was dressed in the same housecoat she'd been wearing in the morning.
"Look at you all," she said. "You can do fine without me." It wasn't a complaint, just a statement of fact.
"Travis won't eat bologna," Lisa announced.
Coretta was looking directly at Brad now. "Like I've always told you," she said. "You'd make someone a wonderful wife some day."
This was not a statement of fact or meant to be one. True, she had said it before, but this time it carried an uncertain weight he wasn't sure how to take. It was a reminder that they were not what they had beenfor better or for worse. They were something elseto be determined.
The children fell silent, almost as if they wished they could disappear. It troubled Brad how much the last weeks, maybe months, had surely affected them. They knew something was going on between Brad and their mother, but it was like they'd all agreed not to bring it up.
Coretta poured herself more coffee, and left again. The silence continued for a long minute, and then Travis said, "Is Mom OK?"
This was not the same Travis who had challenged Brad in the car the day before. The look on his face was hard to read. It was a grown-up question, expecting an honest answer, but spoken with the trusting innocence of the boy he once was.
"I think she needs some time for herself," Brad said.
"Is she sick?" Lisa wanted to know. "She takes pills."
"She's not sick," Chris insisted. "Just a little tired. That's what she said."
He waited for them to ask him why he hadn't been at home and why he had not been with them for Christmas. But if those questions had been in their thoughts, they said nothing. Even Travis, who seemed to understand more than the others, said not a word.
The afternoon darkened as the sky filled with wintry clouds, and eventually there were snow flurries swirling by the windows. Someone switched on the Christmas tree lights, and Brad wished there was a fireplace so they could have a fire, with the sweet smell and crackling of burning wood.
By four o'clock it was growing dark, and Brad did something he had not done in a long time. He made a pot of tea, warmed a pitcher of milk and put it all on a tray with teacups and a plate of Christmas cookies. He went to the bedroom where Coretta had been all day and tapped on the door.
"Room service," he said and waited for her reply.
In better times, she would have replied with a cheerful "Yes, come in." But her response was more of a grumble, and he carefully balanced the tray on one arm as he opened the door to go in. He found her in bed lifting a sleep mask from her face.
"Got some tea," he said and set down the tray on an upholstered seat they'd found once at a garage sale. She sat up and smiled at him faintly, then took the cup of tea he'd poured.
He raised the window blind to show her the snow falling. She'd always been happy to see snow. There was too little of it for her in Santa Fe, coming from Colorado and growing up on skis. He sat on the opposite side of the bed with his cup of tea and waited for her to say something.
"The kids love you," she finally said. "You go away for days at a time and they don't complain. You leave presents for them, and those are the ones that count. Not the ones from me."
He was sure it wasn't this way, but he didn't want to contradict her.
"In their eyes, you can do no wrong," she said. "It's so unfair."
And it went on like this. He finally set the teacup down because he felt stupid drinking from it. He didn't want it anyway and had only made the tea for her. The cookies lay untouched on the plate.
"This may not be what you want to hear," she said, "but I'm going to say it anyway. I can forgive you for what happened. Not today, but give me some time."
He hated that this was what had to be resolved between them, this infidelity. It reduced everything else to nothing, because nothing else mattered as long as this single ugly fact stood between them.
"Forgiveness I know how to do," she said. "But I can't imagine how I can ever forget."
She had to be honest with him, she said. She knew herself well enough that once someone had betrayed her trust, there was no going back. It was a wound that might heal, but there would always be a scar.
"I'm not saying I can't live with that," she said. "But I don't know if you can."
She reached for a cigarette and discovered the pack was empty.
It offered a brief distraction from the panic that suddenly filled him. "I can go to the store and buy you some more," he said.
"You want to give me cancer, too?"
The cold humor in her voice was a jolt that pushed him closer to the edge of the free-fall he was beginning to feel in his gut.
"No, I don't." He said the words as calmly as he was able.
She put down her teacup and looked at him across this bed where they had been married partners for so many years. "I don't want you to stay here tonight," she said. "I think you should move out until you've decided what you really want to do."
She lay back on the pillow and turned away from him. She had no more to say.
Neither did he. She knew him well enough to speak the truth. He did not know what he wantedor whether he would ever know.
He got a gym bag out of his closet and filled it with socks and underwear, clean shirts, a sweater, his running shoes, a pair of jeans. In the bathroom, he emptied his shelf of the medicine cabinet.
He'd promised fried chicken for dinner, and when he went to the car to drive to the Colonel Sanders, he tossed the bag into the trunk. Chris and Wellington came along for the ride, and the boy helped him brush the afternoon's snowfall from the front and back windows before they left.
Chris was absorbed in describing to his father a chess maneuver he had learned, and all the way there and back, the car filling with the smell of the fried chicken as they returned, it could have been any night for Brad as a father and husband. But he had to keep reminding himself that it wasn't just any night. He was leaving the comfort of who and what he'd been, and from here he had no idea what was coming next.
Arriving back at the house, he found Kathleen by the phone, holding the receiver out to him as he and Chris came through the door. "Call for you, Daddy," she said and took the bucket of chicken from him.
"Would this be Brad?" a deep, unfamiliar voice came from the other end of the line. "I want you to know there's a young man here claims you know him." It was Clayton's friend Len, calling from Wyoming.
Then he heard Clayton's voice, too. "I found him, I found him," he kept saying, more than a little excited. They'd had a couple beers and apparently squeezed together into a phone booth to make the call.
Len seemed fairly happy himself. He thanked Brad for his help and told him he'd always be welcome if he ever came anywhere near Buffalo. "Clayton here says you're as good a man as they come, and he wants us to meet some day."
For a moment, Brad let himself share their noisy delight in being reunited. Fortune had smiled and let them have what they wanted. Then he hung up and wondered if there was any way he'd ever find something like that for himself.
The minutes ticked away as he spent the rest of the evening with his children, maybe for the last time in a long time, and he broke it to them that he'd be leaving shortly, and they'd have to put themselves to bed, remembering to look after their mother and do anything for her she needed. Chris would have his usual job of taking care of Wellington.
Then he hugged each of them, promised to see them again soon, put on his coat, and left.
He'd decided to drive out to the highway and see if there was a room at the Motel 6. But somewhere on the way there, he took a turn toward the college, and drove one more time past the house where Del lived. This time there were lights on inside, and he stopped.
An impulse had come over him that had lingered at the edge of awareness all day. He had felt it again as he'd reached the end of the talk he'd had with Coretta. While everything around him seemed to be coming undone, there was one person he knew he wanted to be with.
Entering the house, he found a couple of students, a boy and a girl, sitting close together on a couch in front of a fire, their backs to him.
"Excuse me," Brad said, apologizing. "Is Del here?"
The boy turned to look at him. "Yeah, he's in his room," he said, and Brad could see that his shirt was unbuttoned. The girl only lifted her head from where it had been on his shoulder.
Brad went down the hall and knocked on Del's door. He could hear loud music coming from inside and recognized what sounded like a Rolling Stones song.
Baby, I can't
stay, you got to roll me
And call me the tumblin' dice. . .
The door opened, and there stood Del in his underwear, the smoky-sweet smell of grass wafting around him. "Hey, professor," he said.
"Is this a bad time?" Brad said, thinking Del may have had someone else with him.
"Nope," he said, swinging open the door to show he was alone.
"You want to take a ride with me?"
"Sure, where we going?"
Del grinned and said, "Why Nebraska?"
"There's a friend I want to see," Brad said. "I figure it shouldn't take more than twelve hours. If we trade off driving we can be there," he looked at his watch, "by ten o'clock tomorrow morning."
"OK. Thing is, I gotta be back by Saturday."
"I'm catching a plane for Hawaii."
"No problem. Why Hawaii?"
"I'm gettin' married."
Brad looked at him, like it was a joke he didn't get. "You're kidding."
"Nope," Del said. "A man don't kid about a thing like that."
Continued . . .
© 2010 Rock Lane Cooper