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.
Early winter dusk in a cloud-streaked sky was settling over the distant mountain ridges as Brad made the return trip to Santa Fe. Though he'd wanted to start back earlier, he stayed at Elmer's a while longer, as Clark wove a kind of friendly spell around him. Listening to him talk, Brad felt warmed by his smiles and caressed by his laughter, which surely helped account for how three wives had fallen for him one after the other.
While all of Clark's marriages had ended unhappily, he said, he had somehow kept on more or less good terms with each wife. "Guess I just know how to pick 'em," he said. "Most men going through what I went through ain't so lucky."
"Course, you can't hardly blame a woman," he went on. "They don't marry you and have your kids just for the heck of it. They'd like to trust you to keep from foolin' around when they're not lookin'."
He told of one man whose ex-wife had sunk into a bitter resolve to make him truly suffer for his sins. And she'd got her wish. He'd become just a wreck of a man. So depressed some mornings he could hardly get out of bed and go to work.
"And you know how misery loves company. All his friends were just like him. Divorced and singin' the blues." He shook his head at the sadness of it all. He supposed he could have taken that same route himself. But a man, he believed, was about as happy as he chose to be. Anyway, life was too short to waste a minute of it on needless misery.
Still, he missed marriage. There was no substitute for it. Living your life with somebody who wanted to live their life with you. Having a family. Never spending your nights alone.
"Try to find another man willing to do that," he said shaking his head again. "Good luck."
Elmer said nothing, like he'd heard all this before.
"Maybe I'm different," Clark went on. "But I still like a fine lookin', friendly woman. I give one a good hug whenever I get the chance. They just fit so nice and neat in your arms. I tell ya, a cute cowgirl in one of them low-cut halter tops? Honest to God, I catch myself wishing the old peter still worked like it used to."
This made Elmer laugh.
"He don't believe me," Clark said to Brad. "But he never tried playing on the other side of the fence either. He don't know what he's missed."
"And I don't want to know," Elmer said, like it was an old disagreement the two men revived every now and then to amuse themselves.
"The vagina is the sweetest little thing God gave a woman. Fits just like a glove," Clark said. "You know what I'm talkin' about, don't you, Brad?"
"I guess I do." Brad felt his face begin to flush and wondered why this admission should embarrass him.
"All I got to say is I'm glad the good Lord let me have it both ways. It's been a consolation." He polished off the last of the sandwich he was eating and reached for another one.
"And," he added, looking at Elmer. "Thanks to vaginas, I got kids to look after me in my old age."
"I've got Max," Elmer said.
"You know what I think of Max," Clark said, like he didn't have a high opinion of him.
Before Brad left that afternoon, Elmer gave him a slip of paper with a name and phone number. "This is a lawyer I know in Santa Fe," he said. "An old friend. He'll understand and give you good advice. You can count on him."
Brad thanked him and then stood at the door with Wellington, as both men took turns shaking his hand, hugging him, slapping him on the back, and wishing him well.
And he left in a bewilderment of feelings that took many miles on the road to sort out. As he remembered how Elmer held him and said, "Come back again when you can stay longer," he could not forget what had happened between them the night before.
He knew the taste and feel of Elmer's naked body and the pulsing of his thick cock as he came inside Brad. He wanted to think of it as lovemaking and to believe that it had bound the two of them in a way that had not existed before.
But he wondered if it mattered more that they had simply spoken plainly to each other about what they felt and thought. It had taken more trust to do that than to have sex. He saw how honesty with another man was far more difficult and far more full of uncertainties than simply undressing and climbing into the same bed.
And what was Clark to Elmer, he wondered. That kiss and calling him "darlin'" could have meant at least a dozen things. It could have been pure and simple affection between two old friends. Or an invitation to a good fuck as soon as Brad was gone and they had the house to themselves. Would he ever know?
Finally, what mattered more was what Clark had done for Brad. He'd made him wonder whether being married was a mistake after all. Maybe marriage was just the route his life had taken. No worse than any other. Maybe even better in some ways.
Maybe, just maybe, he wasn't a complete fool and failure after all.
He turned on the radio for company, and one of the college stations was playing an old Motown song that made him think of Craig.
There ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.
Nothin' like the real thing. . .
It had been five years ago, not long after they'd first met. They'd skipped an afternoon's conference sessions and prowled around Chicago looking in old bookstores and import shops. They'd heard the song playing inside a little espresso bar where they'd stopped for coffee. There were movie posters on the walls, and the waiter had given them a knowing smile, like he could tell they were lovers.
The memory of that autumn afternoon was like a blow to his chest. He could not bear to think that he might never see Craig again or hear his voice. Never touch him, hold him in the night as they made love, wake up next to him the following morning. His whole body ached with a surge of yearning and sorrow, and he pulled over in a rest stop until his eyes stopped blurring with tears.
He got out of the car and stood for a while, watching a sliver of a moon hover in the western sky, almost transparent in the last light of day. The cold night air was sharp on his face, and he breathed in deeply to calm himself before driving on.
It was dark when he pulled off the street into his driveway, and lights were on in the windows of his house. He let Wellington out of the car, and the dog ran around through the shrubs and bushes, while Brad waited for him to finish lifting his leg against a favorite spot somewhere out in the darkness. Then the two of them went to the front door.
When he stepped inside, he found his youngest daughter Lisa on the sofa watching TV. "Mommy," she shouted. "Daddy's home." And she came across the room to jump into his arms. "Look, I'm wearing my necklace you gave me," she said after he hugged her, and she touched her fingers to it for him to see.
He found his wife in the kitchen, standing by a counter where she'd just poured herself a glass of Scotch. She emptied it down the sink when she saw him and said simply, "I shouldn't be drinking. Not with the pills I'm taking."
"Pills?" he said.
"The doctor gave me something." She didn't say what for. It may have been painkillers for her back or pills to distance her from the anguish and fury that had overwhelmed her days ago when Brad had told her he wanted a divorce.
"Lisa, go back and watch TV," she said to their daughter. "And take Wellington with you." The two had followed Brad in from the living room.
"Can Daddy watch with me?" she wanted to know.
He touched his hand to her shoulder as he went with her back to the living room. "I promise I'll come back soon as Mommy and I finish talking," he told her.
"Where are the rest of the kids?" he said when he returned to the kitchen.
"My sister's. I needed some time for myself. Lisa wouldn't stay there without me."
She took a cigarette from a pack on the counter behind her and lighted it. She'd been trying to give up cigarettes for years, and the last time they'd spoken of it, she'd told him proudly that she'd gone six months without one. He had celebrated with her by getting a babysitter and taking her out to dinner at an expensive restaurant they liked.
Neither of them offered to comment about it now. And he stood across the room from her, not knowing what to say or what was left to say.
"I really hate you for what you've done," she said.
He could grant her that. Hatred was no less than what he expected or deserved.
"How long has this been going on?" she said. "How long have you known this about yourself?"
Forever, he wanted to say, but he knew it only seemed that way now looking back. He'd known but hadn't wanted to know.
"Who is it?" she said. "Who's this other person?"
Nobody, he thought. It had been someone once, but it was no one now. And he worried that anything they might say could be heard from the living room. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure Lisa was still on the couch watching the TV.
"Forget it. It doesn't matter," she said, stubbing out the cigarette. "We've been over all this already."
"It does matter," he heard himself saying. "He was a fine man. Somebody I loved. I still love him. But he's a better man than I am. He's decided to stay with his wife and his family. I won't be seeing him anymore."
She studied him from across the room, like she didn't know what to believe.
"Besides you and the kids," he said. "There's nobody."
"So you want me to feel sorry for you?" she said, her voice quavering. "How about feeling a little sorry for me. I haven't got anyone either. I thought I did, but boy was I wrong." She wiped a tear from the corner of one eye.
Anything he could think of to say now sounded empty and pathetic.
"You have no idea how much you've hurt me," she said and looked away, her face contorting as she tried to hold back the tears.
There was a long silence then as she cried softly. It hurt him to the quick to see her like this and know that he could not take her in his arms and be what he'd been in the past. Someone who'd always be there for her, no matter what.
She reached for a tissue in a box of Kleenex on the counter and dabbed at her eyes. Then she looked at him and said, "I look ahead trying to see the rest of my life without you, and all I see is a blank wall. I don't know how I'll be able to do it."
He wanted to tell her it was a question he couldn't answer for himself either. The idea of living the rest of his life happily with Craig had been only a foolish pipedream. Without that, he had nowhere else to go.
"I've thought and thought about what you've done, and it's hopeless I know," she said and laughed bitterly. "But I still don't want to lose you."
She set her jaw in that way he remembered when she was determined to do something or see that something was done. Then slowly, haltingly, she said that if there was some way to go back and put it all together, she was willing to try. If not for the two of them, then for the children. It was the least they both owed them.
But it would take a long time for him to win back her trust. Possibly forever. She didn't know now, and wasn't willing to promise anything either.
He thought of everything that had happened to him in the last days and nights, of the man he'd allowed himself to be, living almost as someone else, and he wondered if it was possible after that to go back to being the old Brad who'd never had those experiences. A man who hadn't learned what he'd learned.
"I can't make any promises tonight either," he said. "But as long as we're both willing to try, I want to believe we can work something out."
She gave him a steady look from across the room. It wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear, but for now it would be enough.
"You can sleep in the boys' room tonight," she said, reaching for her cigarettes again and walking by him to leave the kitchen. "Unless you've got someplace else."
"I'll stay here," he said.
He went to the living room and sat on the couch with Lisa, who cuddled up beside him.
"You're watching Bonanza?" he said.
"I like Hoss. He's funny."
In his thoughts, he kept going over what each of them had said in the kitchen, feeling his heart beating in his chest, like he'd just swum ashore from a sinking ship. Then he was hearing Coretta telling Lisa it was her bedtime. And in a few minutes the house was quiet, the TV off and his wife and daughter disappearing into a bedroom, the door closing behind them.
He found himself sitting alone on the couch. A wave of fatigue swept over him, and he felt the strangeness of being a stranger in his own home.
After a while, he switched off the lights and went to the bedroom that his two boys shared. There were bunk beds in one corner and their study desks on opposite walls. On a shelf over his younger son Chris' desk, there were model airplanes and a spelling contest trophy. On his older son Travis' side of the room, the wall was covered with posters of rock bands and singers: Elton John, David Bowie, The Who.
He had seldom been in this room without either of the two of them. He realized how much they'd grown in the few short years since they were preschoolers. Their personalities had always been different, Chris the one with the always sunny disposition, Travis more guarded and thoughtful.
Turning out the last light, he lay down on the lower bunk. He tried to imagine what it must be like for them, coming to this room at the end of the day with the small triumphs and cares of someone old enough to know something of the world and still too young to understand the meaning of it.
His thoughts kept him wakeful, though his body ached with tiredness, and he felt a nameless sorrow for his sons that would not leave him. Finally, he pushed away the feelings by retreating to a memory he'd often recalled lying sleepless in his own bed. In the memory, Craig lay there beside him, the two of them not talking but simply holding each other, warm and secure in each other's embrace.
— § —
The next day he went looking for Travis and found him playing basketball in a neighbor's driveway. He parked along the curb and honked the horn until Travis turned and saw him.
Travis stood with the ball in his hands, looking at his father, and then bounced it to one of the other boys before walking slowly to the car. He didn't want to get in at first, just leaned down, scowling, and talked through the open window.
"Get in," Brad said.
"What do you want, dad?" The boy was being every bit of his prickly fourteen-year-old self.
"I want to talk."
"Just get in."
Travis straightened up, like he might walk away, but after a moment he opened the door and sat down on the front seat. He held his hands together between his legs as if to warm them and wouldn't look at Brad.
"I want you to know what's going on," Brad said.
"You're leaving. I know already."
"I'm not leaving. Whatever happens between your mom and me, I'm not leaving you." If nothing else, he wanted Travis to understand this part. "You'll always be my son. That will never change."
Travis still wouldn't look at him. "You know, dad," he said. "We've never been much of a family."
"Of course, we have. Where did you get an idea like that?"
"We've all been living at the same address. But that doesn't make us a family."
And in a speech that sounded well practiced, he counted off all Brad's shortcomings as a father. To hear Travis tell it, he'd raised himself, learning early in life not to depend on either of his parents for anything. Always too busy with their own lives to notice what their kids were going through. He'd tried over and over to get Brad to pay more attention to him, but he'd finally given up trying.
It was a speech that had the same ring of bitterness as Coretta's complaints when she had a grievance against any of them. And he realized it was there, too, in the almost never-ending disputes between his two daughters.
"You leaving us, that's just more of the same bullshit," Travis said, tempting his father to object to his language. "You left a long time ago."
Brad, who had never heard his son talk like this, let the choice of words go. What most irked him was the complete untruth of what the boy was saying.
"I understand you're angry with me," he said, trying to suppress his own anger. "But I've loved you from the day you were born, and I've never stopped loving you." And he knew in his heart that what he was saying was the absolute truth.
"Funny way of showing it," the boy said. He looked over at his friends, who every now and then were glancing over to the car, unable to disguise their curiosity.
"And I'm going to go on loving you," Brad said. "No matter what you want to believe." He could hear his impatience creeping into his voice.
"Yeah, right," Travis said, like he was used to being lied to.
Brad took the boy by the arm and felt him flinch then quickly recover himself.
"Look at me," Brad said. "Will you look at me?"
Travis waited, silent, and then slowly turned his face to his father, his expression cold and sullen.
"I was your age once, too. And I know all about putting on an act when I wanted to hurt someone's feelings. Like what you're doing right now. So you've hurt my feelings, and maybe you're satisfied. But it doesn't change the fact that I'm your father and I'll always love you, no matter how hard it is to convince you."
The words had come flooding out of him. He wasn't sure where they'd come from. He hadn't been thinking them, and he hadn't expected to need them, but he was sure of one thing, that not one word of it was untrue.
The boy's look did not waver, but he didn't have a response either. Brad expected another challenge, but Travis simply sat there, waiting for his father to let go of his arm.
"Go," Brad finally said. "Go back to your friends." He put his hand now on Travis' shoulder, and after a moment the boy reached for the door handle. He'd said what he had to say, and his father had apparently run out of words. He was leaving.
"Think about what I said," Brad said as Travis pushed open the door and began to get out of the car. "I'll see you at home tonight."
"Maybe," Travis said, his back turned. But the fight had gone out of him. He closed the door without slamming it and was gone.
Later that afternoon, when Brad got back to his house, he found a note on the kitchen table. It read, "Call from Clayton? Arrived in Buffalo OK." It was Coretta's handwriting. Her question mark may have sounded a note of skepticism, as if to say, "Who the hell is this?" Or it may only have meant she wasn't sure she'd got the name right.
But when she returned from her sister's with the rest of the kids, she showed no cold feelings and simply said, "You got a call. Did you see the note?"
He told her there might be another call and explained that Clayton was trying to find someone in Wyoming who'd offered him a job.
"I don't need to know about it," she said, stopping him. "I just wish your friends wouldn't use our phone to communicate with each other."
He wanted to tell her it wasn't anything like she was probably thinking, but he knew it wouldn't make a difference. If she said she didn't want to know, she meant it.
Travis remained absent from the house until nightfall, but the other three children were acting unconcerned that Brad had been gone for several days. Life was resuming, there were groceries from the supermarket to put away, dinner to prepare, trash to be taken out.
Each of the kids did their chores without complaining, like the tension they surely felt between Brad and Coretta wouldn't worsen if they made an effort to be on their best behavior. It was Christmas vacation, so there was no debate about doing homework, and there were not the usual disputes over what was going to be watched on TV.
Brad knew, though, that in one big way life would not be returning to normal. Either he would sleep on the couch tonight, or he'd have to find a motel. He didn't know which would be harder to explain to his kids.
When Travis called at dinnertime to say that he was staying at a friend's house, a third possibility presented itself. He could sleep in the upper bunk in the boys' room. This seemed the likeliest option, and when he suggested it to Coretta, she simply shrugged, like she couldn't care less what he did.
He stayed up late watching TV after the children went to bed, which they'd done even though it was not a school night, trying once again to keep the peace, as if the fate of the family depended on them.
When he was sure he was the only one still awake, he switched off the TV and stole quietly to the boys' room, and in the dim light of Chris' desk lamp, he studied his son's face, heavy with sleep. Tacked to the wall above his head was a picture of Reggie Jackson cut from a sports magazine. Both of his sons had played on junior baseball teams, and he remembered the many afternoons he'd spent behind the dugout rooting for each of them.
Though Travis had given up the sport and talked of being a rock musician, Chris would still play catch with Brad for hours at a time. It was often a game of keeping the ball away from Wellington, who would happily chase it into weeds and shrubs to retrieve it, gradually converting it into a spit ball with his drool.
Brad bent and kissed the boy lightly on his forehead, tucking his blanket around him, and then climbed into Travis' bed on the top bunk, which creaked under his weight.
"Dad?" he heard from below him.
"Yes?" he whispered.
But there was no answer. Chris had been talking in his sleep, he decided, and he wished that his own sleep could be as untroubled as a boy with a picture of Reggie Jackson over his head.
Continued . . .
© 2010 Rock Lane Cooper