Jane Davin lies at AA meetings. Most of what she says after “Hi, my name is Jane and I’m an alcoholic” is a product of her vivid imagination. On the day before her thirtieth birthday she feels particularly inspired:”I met a man yesterday, Fabio.”
She looks down, pauses for dramatic effect.
“His six-year-old and my Ned have swimming lessons together. We were watching our kids through the glass wall and he came on to me with some bullshit talk about how he’s noticed me and what beautiful blue eyes I have.”
She glances at her best friend Adam Burrows and feels his disapproval burning her skin as he shakes his head.
She continues: “I know he has a wife – the woman can’t shut up about him whenever we meet – but I didn’t say anything when he invited me to grab some ‘coffee.'” She makes air quotes. “There was no alcohol in my system when I agreed to go to the boiler room and have ‘coffee’,” more air quotes, “with a married man.”
There are about twenty people in the room and they all avoid making eye contact with her. Jane sits in the back row as usual, her leg touching Adam’s. She breathes in the uncomfortable silence:
“My point is that I miss alcohol. I miss how weightless I used to feel, but, most of all, I miss having alcohol as an excuse. I can’t go to this guy’s wife and say: ‘look, I’m sorry, I was so drunk that I ended up having ‘coffee’ with your husband,’ because I wasn’t drunk. How do I make amends for things I do when I’m not under the influence?”
A lot of people raise their hands.
A stocky man with Elvis sideburns is the first to speak: “Hi, my name is Matt and I’m an alcoholic.” He rambles on about how people should take responsibility for their actions, drunk or sober. He remembers step 10, how they are supposed to continue to take personal inventory and admit when they are wrong.
A black woman in a business suit, Rhonda, adds that some people in AA still think like drunks, that they haven’t given themselves completely to God and still cling to the idea that they are in control. People nod.
Ben, a middle-aged alcoholic with a 49ers cap, stands up to say that he applauds Jane’s honesty, that he himself has had some bad ideas in the “seventeen long, long years” he’s been sober. The trick is to try to be a better person, not to make selfish decisions. “We can’t always succeed, but we have to try.” The room is filled with praise and agreement.
“I don’t see why you keep coming to the meetings if you’re not going to take them seriously,” Adam comments later, while they’re having actual coffee near the AA office in downtown Oakland, California.
“I’ve been sober for five years, haven’t I?”
“So it must be doing me some good,” she says.
Adam and Jane dated in college. They met at orientation at UC Berkeley and clicked immediately – both didn’t like parties, usually drinking in the privacy of home. They drank their way through college together, buying bottles of cheap tequila and drinking them with straws. After graduation, Jane went off to get an MA in Education, while Adam got a DUI and won a trip to rehab. There he met Jesus, quit alcohol, got married, and had kids. They didn’t keep in touch. Jane ran into him years later, a chance encounter at AA. For the last five years they’ve been “AA buddies,” as she calls them. After meetings, they get together to drink coffee and talk.
“Why don’t you write these stories instead of wasting everybody’s time?” Adam suggests. Three years ago, Jane published a collection of short stories, It’s All Downhill From Here. Literary magazines called it “a refreshing look into the lives of suburban teenagers.” But the good reviews didn’t increase sales.
“Yeah, that would make a great book. The Misadventures of Jane Doe, my AA persona. Thanks, but I’m not quitting my day job.” She teaches high school literature. “And, besides, when you find out your student writes better than you, you tend to get discouraged.”
“You keep talking about this boy, what’s his face?”
“Will,” they both say.
“Maybe you could bring that up next time. You know, your students.”
“My audience expects a certain type of story from me. I can’t disappoint them.”
Adam stirs his drink with a straw, rolls his eyes. “Fabio is, what, the fourth imaginary one-night-stand you’ve had in two months?”
“What can I say? I’m still healing from my last imaginary boyfriend. He hurt me bad, you know?” She forces a sniff. “And since I can’t have a drink, I find comfort in the arms of good-looking strangers.”
“I don’t get it,” he says. “People pour their hearts out and you keep feeding them lies. I really don’t get it.”
Jane leans forward, resting her weight on the table. “You used to.”
The cafe seems airless, the people in the other tables distant. Jane realizes there’s background music, some mellow tune from the fifties. There’s an abstract painting, green and white, on the far wall. Has it been there all these years?
Adam takes a long sip of his drink. “I still think it’s inappropriate.”
“We can’t all be perfect like you. Some of us go home to TV dinners and piles of papers that need grading.”
Adam reaches for her arm, but stops. “I’m not perfect, Jane. I just try to follow the steps of the program and be honest. I trust God will take care of the rest.”
“That’s really precious coming from you. Where does your wife think you are, right now? At least I don’t lie to myself. And I’ve never lied to you. Usually.”
Adam says nothing, his head down. He focuses on his Decaf Nonfat Banana Caramel Frappuccino, drinks it slowly.
“About tomorrow,” he says. “Do you still want to do the same thing for your birthday?”
“Yeah, I just don’t want to be alone. We’re watching Some Like It Hot, right?”
“There’s a lot of booze in it, though,” he says.
“It’s OK, we’ll be together, we’ll help each–“
Adam’s phone interrupts her. Jane knows it’s his wife the moment he turns his back to answer it. Yeah, he’s the poster child of honesty.
Adam turns in Jane’s direction, his eyes squeezed shut. A small smile creeps into her face at the thought of the lies he must be trying to come up with. What is it this time? Is he tied up in traffic, stuck in a meeting, helping an old lady with her groceries?
Jane remembers the stories she told at the meeting today. She doesn’t have a son, and the only man she’s been with ever since she quit drinking was a short college drop-out who smelled like sour milk. But one thing is true: she misses alcohol. Her taste buds crave it. She can practically smell the alcohol, can feel it rolling down her throat, cleaning her insides. When she was drunk, she felt like a passenger in her own life. She just rode in an imaginary roller coaster, her arms up in the air, chilling waves running through her body.
Jane gulps her coffee, which is too hot and burns her throat. She tries to think of why she quit. Hangovers, drunken e-mails, waking up in Los Angeles on a Wednesday afternoon. Drunken phone calls, bad grammar, remembering how she managed to get to LA on a Wednesday afternoon. There were reasons to quit, she tells herself. There were reasons to quit.
She stands up to get pastries and sees Adam scratching his head. His hair is getting thinner at the top and he’s not even thirty. He’s never been an attractive man – no chin – but Jane used to like his wavy blond hair and how it contrasted against hers, always straight and dark brown. She used to think they formed a dramatic couple, her eagle nose complementing his small one, their blues eyes announcing their arrival. They’d have beautiful kids if they got her bone structure, his nose, her full lips, his fast metabolism. They had made plans once.
When Adam hangs up Jane is back in her seat, her legs dangling from the tall stool.
“I got you a Danish,” she says. “What time are you coming over tomorrow?”
“About tomorrow...Looks like I won’t be able to make it. Sorry.”
Jane has nothing to add, so she just stares at him, her face expressionless.
“We can always do it next week,” he says.
“I’m not turning thirty next week.” She presses the bridge of her nose, swallows.
“I said I’m sorry. It’s just that I have responsibilities. Barbara has a play tomorrow and I have to stay with the kids. I mean, she never asks me for anything except this one night off.”
Jane knows he’s repeating what he’s been told. She imagines Adam in a flowery dress and apron – that’s how she pictures his wife-whining these same words in an affected high-pitched voice.
“So, I take it you still haven’t told Barbie about me.” They’ve had this conversation before and it always leads nowhere. Jane hardly ever mentions it anymore, except when she’s angry at him.
“What do you want me to tell Barbara? We have coffee twice a week, that’s all.”
“And yet you keep it a secret. Don’t you find that odd? Why do you keep coming here anyway?”
“It’s just-I just–“
Adam sinks into the stool, his neck buried between his shoulders. He looks so small, not the six-foot tall man that he is.
“You should be careful, though. After all these years of flimsy excuses, she might think you’re having an affair.”
He spins his cup from left to right, then back. “You think you’re so funny.”
“Not really. You, on the other hand, are hilarious. Can you say denial? Step 4, remember? We’re supposed to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. And you come to me with technicalities? You’re worse than Clinton.” Jane’s face is red with anger. “You’re the one who doesn’t take AA seriously, not me.”
“You don’t really mean that,” he speaks in a low voice, looking around at the people at the other tables.
He pats her on the shoulder. She slaps his hand away.
Jane clutches her hands into fists, grinds her teeth so tightly she gets shocks when her fillings touch. “I actually feel sorry for Barbie, cooking you dinner, working part-time at Macy’s, getting all dolled up for you. You’re so full of shit.”
“You’re just upset because tomorrow is your birthday. That’s OK. I forgive you.”
“You forgive me? Are you for real?”
That’s it. She can’t take it anymore. She jumps toward him, grabs his neck, ready to squeeze the life out of him. But once she lays her hands on him, she loses the strength to choke him, his skin warm against her palms.
Jane’s crying now, her vision blurred. She can’t tell if Adam has tears in his eyes, or if he has that condescending look people get when they see an old dog with scabs all over its body. He wraps his arms around her, half to control her, half because she needs him to. She lets go of his neck, hugging his waist instead. Adam pulls her closer. She rests her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeats.
When the cafe’s pimply employees begin to take chairs off the floor, Adam tangles his right hand in her hair, his eyes piercing hers. His mouth gets closer to Jane’s and she tilts her head, waiting to be kissed. Instead, Adam changes the trajectory of his lips, brushing them on her forehead. He steps away. Jane has never felt so cold.
She searches for her purse, trying to find her ground again. “See you next meeting, I guess,” she says. “Maybe Ned can be diagnosed with liver cancer. What’s a story without cancer, right?”
When Adam calls her, Jane’s on the BART train to San Francisco. She knows he’s on his way to Barbie and the kids in Berkeley. They have nothing to say to each other, so they listen to each other’s breathing. They take turns, never at the same time, loud puffs of air, the distance between them becoming wider and wider.
Adam hangs up.
Jane arrives home with a brown paper bag in her hands. She didn’t want to come home to TV dinners and piles of papers that needed grading, so she stopped by McDonald’s. There’s nothing she can do about the papers, but she refuses to eat a TV dinner tonight.
She enters her small studio apartment, kicking clothes off the floor as she walks to the kitchen. Used dishes compete with students’ papers for a spot on the table, there are books and empty soda cans everywhere. Cushions, blankets, clothes and her backpack pile up on her bed. She was going to tidy up, but now that Adam is not coming, she doesn’t see the point.
Jane eats her Quarterpounder with Cheese standing up, leaning against the kitchen counter. She looks at her car keys on the floor. She could drive to Safeway, buy beer. She could get light beer, that has never hurt anyone. She sprints towards the keys, but stops before she reaches them and goes back to the counter. No, she’s not going to Safeway. Maybe she could go and get some ice cream. Ice cream, not booze. No, she tells herself. She’s been down this road and it always leads to alcohol.
She thinks about Adam in Berkeley, watching the kids while Barbie re-heats his dinner. The whole place probably smells like pot roast and baked potatoes. Jane has never been to his house, wouldn’t even know how to get there, but she bets they have a white picket fence. And a lawn which they pay some neighborhood kid to mow. And a swing made of an old tire. They probably even have a tree house.
In her mind, Jane can practically hear the microwave beeping in the Burrows’ residence. Barbie takes the plate to Adam in the living room. She probably sees herself as a modern woman, so she microwaves. Shaking her head, Barbie reminds him that if he’d been on time, he wouldn’t be eating microwaved food. Does Adam think of Jane then? Probably not. Or maybe he does, since she’s the reason for his delay. Maybe he does and feels sorry for her; no husband, no kids, no Jesus, nothing.
Jane goes through her purse, looking for her cell phone. She finds it, holds it and then tosses it back in her bag. Who is she going to call? When things get rough and the craving starts scrambling their thoughts, AA members are advised to call their sponsors, but Jane has never gotten around to actually having one. When she fears she’ll fall off the wagon, she usually calls Adam, but she can’t do that now.
Jane opens her fridge and the white light reveals fifty cans of diet soda. Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke with Lime, Diet 7 Up, Sprite Zero, Diet Sunkist. She picks up a can. Every time she craves alcohol, she has a soda.
Jane needs to go to a different meeting, maybe in Marin County. She needs to get away from Adam, find a sponsor, meet new people.
She shakes her head. She can’t even take herself seriously anymore. Whenever she and Adam fight, Jane decides to keep her distance. Once she even went as far as to go online and look up other AA offices in the Bay Area. But next meeting she found herself in the same familiar building in Oakland, checking the door every five seconds, waiting for Adam to walk in.
The deadline for grading midterm papers is tomorrow and Jane is not even halfway done, but she can’t concentrate. She gets a magazine, maybe some easy read will warm her up, get her in a “reading mood.” But Adam’s face appears on every page. Even TV requires more attention than she has at the moment.
Jane digs her laptop out of her laundry basket. With one big swoop, she throws everything that’s on her bed to the floor. Maybe something on the internet will spark her interest. She lies down, her laptop on her stomach. She should write something. Maybe a story about a married man who pretends to be happy but, when the lights go out, cries in the bathroom, wondering what went wrong.
She checks her e-mails: three new messages. Between newsletters from Border’s and The Writer’s Magazine there is an e-mail entitled: “New story: The Boy With Eleven and a Half Fingers,” from Will Sanchez.
Will Sanchez is seventeen years old. He’s her student.
Dear Miss Davin,
I just finished my new story and wanted your opinion. You keep telling me to describe my characters’ physical appearance, but I might have overdone it this time.
Also, I read Frankenstein. How can you identify with the monster? You should identify with fair Elisabeth, of course. Or maybe even Dr. Frankenstein, since he’s so smart and all.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to your comments on my story. Thank you for taking the time.
P.S. I watched Some Like It Hot. I never laughed so hard in my life! The thing about old movies is that, once you get used to the weird background music, they’re really good.
Will caught Jane’s attention the moment she first laid eyes on him – he’s the most good-looking person she’s ever met. You can’t ignore his symmetrical face. Yet he’s not very popular at school. Most girls his age can’t see beyond the glasses that hide his hazel eyes and straight nose. Teenagers...
While Jane prints his story, she types:
You know you don’t have to thank me for anything. It’s so rare to find a student who actually likes to write!
As for Frankenstein, if you read closely, you’ll see that the similarities between the monster and me are uncanny. At least that’s what I thought when I was in high school and read the book. But enough about me. I’m going to read your story and give you my comments as soon as I can.
P.S. I’m glad you liked Some Like It Hot, it’s probably my favorite movie of all time. I think you are ready for Splendor in the Grass now. But I must warn you, it will break your heart.
Jane grabs another soda and starts to read his story, immediately drawn to it by its first paragraph: “Ask anybody in the Mission District who Diego Delgado is, and they will tell you he is ‘el niño con once y medio dedos.’ The boy with eleven and a half fingers used to be the boy with twelve fingers. He lost half a digit when he was nine.”
She finds a pen in the kitchen sink and writes on the margins: “Great opening! Introduces the character, the setting and tells us a little about his cultural background. Great suspense: how did he lose half a finger?”
She can’t put the story down. As for the papers that need grading, she’ll just tell her boss she needs more time. Deadlines are meant to be broken anyway.
The next day, after school, Jane is unlocking her car. She scratches the paint with the key, not paying attention to what she’s doing. She checks her cell phone again: no new messages or missed calls. Maybe she should call Adam. She starts dialing, but stops. What would she say to him?
She is startled by a rasping voice behind her:
“Happy birthday, Miss Davin!”
Will Sanchez swings a plastic bag against his thigh.
“Hey, Will. You scared the... the heck out of me!”
He shrugs, runs his hand through his dark brown hair. “Here.” He gives her the bag. “For you.”
There is a yellow package inside. She rips the wrapping open and sees a small notebook and a card. “In high school, fitting in is like the American Dream. It seems within every student’s reach, but only a few actually get it. You make high school easier. Will.”
She recognizes that line. It’s from one of her stories, The Lunch Line.
“I didn’t know you’d read my book,” she says.
He leans against her car, smiles without showing teeth. Jane takes mental pictures of his every pose, of the angles his face forms against the white surface of her car.
“I read it three times,” he says. “The Lunch Line is my favorite story. I thought I’d told you that.”
“It’s a great book. That’s why I showed you my stories. I figured you’d get them. A lot of teachers don’t, but you do.”
“Wow, thank you, Will.” She holds her present and the card against her chest. “The funny thing is that I actually needed a new notebook.”
“I know, you told us a couple of weeks ago. I figured it was fitting, you know? Since we both write.”
Will remembers what she said a couple of weeks ago. And he bought her a present.
Jane thinks of Will when they met, almost a year earlier, and how monosyllabic he was, always adjusting his glasses. His e-mails used to be short and to the point. In time, he became more at ease, his e-mails became longer.
She puts the notebook and card in her purse. “Thank you,” she moves to hug him, but stops.
“Cool,” he says and then goes quiet. He sweeps the ground with his left foot, adjusts his glasses. He doesn’t have to say a word, she knows what is bothering him.
“I loved your story, by the way,” she says. His face brightens. “It’s a very powerful piece. You did a great job showing Diego’s feeling of isolation through his physical deformity.” She steps closer. “Of course, there’s still work to be done...”
“Of course.” He repeats, matter-of-factly.
She laughs. “I’m sorry, but the only reason there’s still work to be done is that you write so well. If I didn’t think you have potential, I’d just correct your grammar.”
“Yeah, sure,” he says mockingly.
“I’m serious! I think you should send your stories to competitions and literary magazines. You’re way better than I was at your age.”
He rolls his eyes. “No way. I bet you were a literary genius.”
She laughs, her hand on her stomach. “Are you kidding me? I could show you some of the stuff I wrote when I was seventeen, but then you’d lose all respect for me. When I was a teenager, all I could write were suicide notes.” He is serious. She forgets people hardly ever find humor in suicide notes. “Well, seeing as I’m here, it’s safe to say I did not kill myself.” He smiles a little. “I just liked writing the notes, that’s all. It was therapeutic.” Pause. “Not that you should write suicide notes. No, you shouldn’t even think about suicide. You have so much to live for. Forget I said anything. Please don’t sue me.”
“You’re weird. I like that about you.”
Her face goes red. “Thanks, I guess.”
Silence. Jane realizes she has been standing by her car for twenty minutes. Time has this way of escaping her whenever she talks to Will. She looks around, afraid someone from work might see them. She isn’t parked that close to the school, but you never know. They’re not doing anything, but she doesn’t want anybody to see what they’re not doing.
She should go home, she thinks, and grade papers. But she can’t bring herself to get in the car and away from Will. “My old legs are getting tired. We could go to Starbucks or something, talk about your story if you want to.”
His eyes open widely, a kid getting a new toy. “Really?”
“Yeah. If you want to.”
He smirks, a new idea boiling inside. “I know a place we can go. It’s not Starbucks, though.”
Jane takes a step back: “OK, I guess... What’s wrong with Starbucks?”
Will steps forward: “Nothing. It’s just that I know this other place. It might help you understand my character’s background.”
“Like a field trip,” she adds, warming up to the idea.
They look at each other sideways.
“I guess we could try that.”
They both buckle up at the same time and the back of their hands touch. She repositions the rear veiw mirror, opens the window, and starts the car.
Will gives directions.
They end up in a bar called El Perro. At first Jane thinks they’re going to the small restaurant next to it, but Will leads her through the wooden door to the bar. “My uncle owns it,” he says, as if that makes it all okay.
Jane can’t see how this place is going to help her understand Will’s story. There’s no mention of a bar in The Boy With Eleven and a Half Fingers. She walks in anyway.
The place is dark and damp, with neon signs on the walls. As she smells the familiar scent of mold, dust and spilled liquor, Jane wonders if she’s been here before. No, she doesn’t think so. She would remember the stupid smiling cartoon bulldog that greeted her at the door. She would remember the orange jukebox between the counter and the tables.
El Perro isn’t very crowded, which isn’t odd for a Wednesday afternoon. A couple of motorcycle types hang around the counter, half-empty beer bottles in front of them. At a table near the entrance, five executives drink beer, probably straight from work.
Jane rushes ahead of Will and asks for two Cokes before he can order anything else. She reaches for her money, but he is faster and pays for their drinks.
He takes her to a far-end table, hidden by a concrete column. If she stretches her neck a little, she can see the rest of the bar, but people can’t see them. Is that why Will sits here, so that the other customers can’t see him? He wouldn’t pass for twenty-one to save his life.
Her concerns about age are pushed aside when he puts a lock of her hair behind her ear: “Did you really like my story?”
“I did. It’s amazing how fast you’re maturing as a writer. I’m very proud.” She talks fast to even her voice, which becomes slightly trembling when he touches her.
“Thanks. It’s all the feedback you’ve given me.”
Will wipes his glasses in his T-shirt, and his hazel eyes turn greenish yellow as he moves closer to the light. He moistens his lips, runs his hand through his hair, rests his naked arm on the back of her chair. Jane might not learn about Will’s writing in this “field trip,” but she’s certainly learning something about Will. The bar is his natural habitat.
Jane combs her hair with her fingers, moves it from left to right. She’s always had beautiful shiny hair and hopes he notices. “It’s funny that we both write about the same thing, isn’t it?”
Will strokes his hairless chin, head tilted to the left, his strong jaw line and high cheekbones cutting the air. “True. We both write about the odd one out.”
She sips her Coke. “But that’s only because people who fit in are boring.”
Will laughs, his metallic smile blinding her for a second. He wears braces. At first, he’d always bring his hand to his mouth when he laughed, but he doesn’t try to hide his teeth from her anymore.
They talk about his story, about Frankenstein, about old movies. Jane explains that she likes teaching, but the pay sucks. Will tells her his parents moved to the US when they were in their twenties – his mother is from Venezuela, his father is from Spain – and that Spanish was the first language he ever spoke. He tells her he’s going to go to South America after college, or maybe Europe. She says he can do both.
They talk about writing. Will says he thinks a lot about writing, but can’t discuss it with anyone. Most of his friends are older than him – like the bouncer and the bartender of El Perro – but they aren’t into writing. Jane offers to talk to him about the craft any time he wants to.
“Do you mean that?” He asks.
His hand brushes her arm, sending electricity through her bones. Every time Will moves his arms, his veins emerge from underneath his skin, one at a time like waves that soon disappear. He must have just gone through his growth spurt, for he hasn’t gained the weight needed to fill his new frame. He’s so thin she wonders if she’d be able to watch his internal organs working were he not wearing a T-shirt.
Jane realizes she’s staring. She’s not sure about what to do, where to fix her gaze, how to look at him again. Finally she focuses on their empty glasses and stands up. She thinks about buying him beer, but the thought dies before she reaches the counter. She considers buying herself a drink, maybe a shot of Jack, but that would be a bad idea. She orders two more Cokes, regular for him and diet for her.
When she turns around, he’s watching her, his right foot on the leg of the chair, his left hand grabbing the edge of the table. He can’t wait for her to return. She slows down, enjoying the moment, for she doubts anybody will ever look at her like that again. Such respect and admiration. He wants to hear every single word she has to say, wants to tell her everything.
“So, where were we?”
She watches him drink his Coke, follows the liquid as it swims around his mouth and down his throat. His thin lips and square jaw give his face geometric precision.
“Talking about writing,” he answers promptly.
Will’s manuscript lies on the table next to Jane. Spilled Coke has given it a vintage look, but you can still read what’s in it.
“One of my favorite things about fiction is that you can write about your life without writing about your life. You can twist your experiences, turn them into whatever you want.”
His eyes are wide open and she can picture little men in his brain taking notes of everything she says.
He asks. “How so?”
“When I turned twenty-five, I started thinking about my future, that I’d die alone, poor, drunk, and that I couldn’t even be the crazy cat lady because I’m allergic to cats. And that was how I came up with It’s All Downhill From Here.” He forces a laugh. She realizes he hasn’t the slightest idea of what she is talking about. “I know, I know, what does that have to do with an obese teenager who has to get rid of the corpse of her hugely obese mother? It’s about facing your grim future, does that make sense?”
“I think so,” he says. Since he manages to keep eye contact, Jane feels that at least he believes it does.
“You’ll understand it better when you’re older.”
She has committed a cardinal sin when dealing with teenagers. You can never tell them they are too young to understand something, there’s no worse insult. Ever since she can remember, Jane has never thought she was too young for anything and hated when people belittled her.
Will looks down, clearly affected by her words.
It’s time to get the conversation back on track. “What do you think about the role of reality in fiction, Will?”
Jane sees his self-esteem has been restored the moment he adjusts his posture and glasses, inhales deeply and starts: “I think...”
Someone puts money in the jukebox and they are silenced by tunes of the 80s. Maybe Duran Duran, or Depeche Mode, she is not sure. She considers asking Will, but doubts he’ll know.
Will moves his chair closer to her and she follows suit. He is mere inches from her now, batting his long eyelashes, looking like someone out of a dream or a magazine. He says something she doesn’t hear, so she moves even closer: “What?” He smells like soap, like he’s just taken a shower, which she knows for a fact isn’t so – they came straight from school. Their legs are touching now, she feels his bony knee under his jeans. He speaks in her ear: “Nothing.” The word travels through her body down her toes. She is warm all of a sudden as adrenaline floods her blood. She wants to caress his face and find out if he is as hot as she is. She extends her hand, but can’t bring herself to touch him.
Instead, she takes off her jacket, uses a napkin as fan.
Jane closes her eyes, afraid of what she might do if she keeps looking at him. She takes a sip of Coke, swings her head a little, enjoys the music. All I ever wanted / All I ever needed / Is here in my arms.
“I like this song,” she tells him.
Jane’s shoulders follow her head, swinging to the beat.
“Would you like to dance?”
“Here?” she looks around the bar. There isn’t a lot of space to dance.
“Yeah, we should dance.” He shrugs and adjusts his glasses.
“I haven’t had nearly enough diet Coke for that,” she winks.
He chuckles. “I bet you’d feel like dancing if you had a beer or two.”
Is he trying to get her drunk? Nobody has ever tried to get her drunk before.
“I’m sure I would. But I don’t drink,” she says.
“Really? I don’t like beer, either. I mean, I drink it sometimes, but it tastes like cat piss.”
“That’s not my problem. I like beer actually. Too much. That’s why I can’t have any.” She can’t believe she just said that. Is she insane?
“Oh,” is all he comes up with as the implications of her words sink in. “Now we have to dance,” he continues. “You know? So things won’t be awkward.”
He even sounds like her. She is inside his skull.
He takes her hand and is about to lead her to the dance floor – an empty space near the jukebox – when the music ends. They stand there, holding hands, children caught misbehaving. She stares at the contrast between his tanned skin and her pale complexion. Will’s fingers move to the back of her hand and trace the patterns formed by her veins.
He steps forward, his other hand on her chin, forcing her to face him. She does. She runs her fingers up and down his back.
The air becomes heavy, charged, and they have to open their mouths to breathe. She catches a glimpse of his braces. He wears braces.
She pulls back: “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“It’s after school hours, Will. You can call me Jane,” she says before running to the toilet.
Jane has never been so thankful there are no mirrors in a place. The bar’s bathroom smells like cheap detergent, nauseatingly sweet. There are two toilet seats, one next to the other, no booth between them. The toilet paper is pink and rough as she wipes her forehead with it.
Staring at the wall where the mirror was supposed to be, Jane traces the two lines near her mouth. She can’t feel them, but knows they are there, wrinkles in the making, reminders that she is not a teenager any more. She sees herself in fifteen years. She’ll have saggy cheeks. The little bags that appeared under her eyes when she turned twenty-eight will have become “suitcases” of skin and fat, dragging her eyes down with them. Her hair will be blonder, she’ll have highlights to cover her grey strands. It’s all downhill from here, she thinks.
Will she still be going to AA in fifteen years? Will she still have coffee with Adam? She’s not supposed to think about that, “one day at a time” and all, but she can’t help it. She wonders what is worse: a 45-year-old woman, unemployed, with cirrhosis, drinking herself to an early grave; or a 45-year-old woman who comes home sober to TV dinners and piles of papers that need grading.
The pictures of her bleak future fade away and are replaced by the sensation of Will’s fingers on her skin. He has cold hands, not like she imagined. She’s invaded by little balls of happiness that pop inside her heart and stomach, making her whole body shake with anticipation.
Jane splashes cold water on her face. She thinks about escaping through the window – that’s mature – but metal bars stop her. Will’s probably waiting for her, trying to make sense out of what happened. She can sneak through a back door, this place is bound to have one, and run until her legs fall off. How can she face him again? Her student. She thinks about joining the circus, changing her name, moving to Brazil.
She should just go ahead and kiss him, one little kiss, to get it out of her system. Maybe kissing a teenager is one of those things people have to do when they turn thirty, a rite of passage. Then she’ll be able to find a nice stable guy her own age and move on with her life. Just one kiss, just this once.
Who is she trying to fool? This is like one of those arrangements she used to make with herself to justify having a drink, and they never work. Just one shot and then never again. It’s just because I’m depressed; when I’m feeling better, I’ll stop. It’s New Year’s, it doesn’t count. I’ll take one sip and that’s it. It’s never just one drink, one kiss.
Her cell phone rings. It’s Adam. She lets it ring until the voice mail picks it up. After a few moments of silence, the phone starts again. She wants to turn it off, but her fingers refuse to push the button. She can’t push Adam away.
“I told my wife about you,” is the first thing he says. “It looks like I’m coming over later. Do you want me to bring popcorn?”
“You told your wife?” After nagging for so long, Jane had lost hope he would actually do it.
“I thought a lot about what you said yesterday, about the step 4 and being honest, and you were right.”
Is she hearing things? Has he just admitted that she was right? All these years of talking and having coffee, he finally says everything she needs to hear. He picks her. Jane wants to smile, but holds it back. She can’t help thinking there is a catch.
“But I have to be home before one,” he informs her.
“Huh?” She knew it was too good to be true.
His question seems so obvious she has a hard time answering it. “You just said you told your wife.”
“I did. But I have to be home by one.”
Jane shakes her head. Maybe things will start to make sense after a good shove, like electric appliances. “But you just told me you told your wife.” Maybe if she says it again and again, Adam will see the contradiction. Jane sees it so clearly, how can he not?
“Yes. She understands there are some things in my life as a recovered alcoholic she’s just not a part of.”
There’s always a catch. Always. “So she was completely fine with you lying to her all this time?”
Pause. She hears him clearing his throat. “Actually, that didn’t come up.”
She sits on the toilet with her slacks still on. “Oh... What about the fact that you’ve been having coffee with your ex-girlfriend for the last five years? Did that come up?”
“No, that wasn’t the focus of our conversation.”
Jane is beginning to understand. “What did come up, then?”
“Why is that important? We can celebrate your birthday tonight, isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Sure, but just out of curiosity, what did you tell Barbie about me?”
“The truth: That I have a friend from AA who is turning thirty today and needs my help.”
“Yes, that’s the truth.”
“I can see that. You know, Adam? As thrilled as I am that you finally told your wife about me, as much as I appreciate–“
“Don’t be like that,” Adam interrupts, catching up with her sarcasm.
“No, no, no, let me finish. As much as I appreciate your honesty and devotion to the Twelve Steps, I’m on a date right now, and I don’t know when I’m going home.”
“You’re on a date?”
“I know, hard to believe it, right? Especially after all the stories I make up. I wouldn’t believe me either if I were you.”
Jane hangs up. She turns her cell phone off.
The word date echoes in her head, silencing all thoughts she could entertain about Adam and Barbie. She’s on a date. It seems so obvious, but only when the sentence leaves her mouth can she see that that’s what she’s doing. Will is her date.
At AA, they talk about relinquishing power, trusting God will take care of things. Maybe she should relinquish some power, let God do some of the work for a change. So if she goes out there and dances with Will, it’ll just be dancing, no law against that. If that leads to anything else, that’s up to God, she’s not going to pine over it.
Behind the column, Will rests his elbows on the table, his hands holding his head, his eye-glasses next to him. There are two glasses in front of him, one empty, the other half full. Jane can smell the whiskey. For a moment, she’s appalled the place sells alcohol to a teenager, but then she remembers she’s in no position to judge.
She doesn’t sit, but comes near him and pets his hair, ignoring the greasy sensation of hair-gel on her fingers. “I’ll be right back,” she half whispers. She walks towards the jukebox. Will doesn’t follow her. Out of the corner of her eye she sees him downing his drink.
What song to pick, she wonders, staring at the names of artists all lined up alphabetically. She decides to stick with the eighties and is surprised when she sees “Reel Around the Fountain,” by The Smiths. She can’t think of anything more appropriate and puts quarters in the machine.
Morrissey has barely begun to sing when Will appears behind her, looking puzzled.
“I decided to take you up on that offer,” she says.
He hesitates, but eventually puts his arms over her shoulders. Jane has her arms around his waist. She can feel his body humming. Fifteen minutes with you / I wouldn’t say no.
Will’s hands are not cold anymore, they’re warm against the back of her neck, but still she has goosebumps. She trembles and turns her head, catching a glimpse of the bikers at the counter. They’re staring at Will and her. The whole bar is still. The bartender, the bikers, the executives, even the bouncer is watching them dance, glued to edge of their seats, a captive audience in a freak show.
What am I doing, Jane thinks. Before she has time to pull away, Will places his hand in the small of her back and guides her to the area near their table, the column sheltering them from curious eyes. There isn’t a lot of room for dancing there, but, the way they are dancing, they don’t need much room.
Jane feels much better now that she can’t see anybody. She wonders if she should say something, but really, what is there to say? She pulls him closer. He’s smelling her hair, his face buried in it.
Let go, she tells herself. Relinquish control, trust God will take care of the rest. Jane can’t shake the feeling that’s not what the AA people mean when they say that, but if other people can bend the rules to their liking, why not her?
She looks up at Will, glad she needs to actually look up to see his face. She can smell the alcohol in his breath, the scent luring her towards his mouth, inviting her to taste it. So she does. She kisses him. He kisses her back.
Jane searches for traces of whiskey on his tongue and teeth, secretly celebrating every time she finds it.
Will pulls back a little, gasping for air. She spreads butterfly kisses on his face, gives him time to recover. He looks at her. “You’re so beautiful,” he says and kisses her again.
Jane can’t remember the last time anybody told her that and she actually thought they meant it. Maybe it’s because he’s not wearing his glasses, but Will means it. She wants to tell him that he’s the beautiful one, but it will sound too corny.
He deepens the kiss, presses her against the column. Her knees weaken. She’s the one out of breath now, slowly moving her mouth to his shoulder, inhaling loudly. Her limbs seem almost foreign to her, she can’t quite control them, keep them steady.
Will leans against her, combing her hair with his fingers, “I love you, ” he murmurs, so softly it takes Jane a couple of seconds to piece the sounds together and form meaning. By that time, he’s already kissing her again. She doesn’t interrupt him, doesn’t want him to think he did something wrong, but the words fall in her head like an atomic bomb, silencing everything. She doesn’t feel his lips against hers anymore, doesn’t feel his weight against her body.
He loves her. Of course he does. He probably didn’t mean to tell her, the words must have snuck out through some secret passage in his brain. She remembers that kind of love that needs to speak out, to confess its existence. This is the real deal, he actually believes he loves her; she’s sure of it.
Her head feels heavy and she realizes she stopped kissing him. She doesn’t want to cry – she’s supposed to be the adult in the situation – but tears keep coming against her will. What the hell is she doing to this kid who loves her?
“Will,” she says while he brushes her tears away.
“What’s wrong? What did I do? I’m so sorry.”
She buries her face on his shoulder and is sobbing now. “No, you’re wonderful.” She wipes her runny nose with her sleeve.
She has to clean up the mess she made. “I mean, I feel so lucky. I don’t even know where to begin. There’s something seriously wrong with me.”
Will has watery eyes. She caused it. She should kick herself. She searches for the right words, but can only think of the wrong ones. I love you too, that’s why I can’t go through with it. Too abstract and leads to too many questions. We can’t do it, I’m too old for you. Too flimsy an excuse. I have a boyfriend. That can actually work, thinks the writer inside her. It’s plausable for someone to think about cheating on her boyfriend and get cold feet.
“Will,” she begins, but this is real life, not AA, and she can’t bring herself to lie to him. She has an idea: “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Pause. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Will takes a step back, but there is an abyss between them now. “Okay,” he tries to act cool and detached. “I understand.”
They stand still for a while, avoiding eye contact, not sure what the next move is. Jane feels dizzy, as if she has been spinning around for a few hours. She worries she might be sick or fall flat on the ground.
“Let me drive you home,” she says.
Will takes another step back. “No, that’s okay, I live around the corner.”
“Okay.” She can see that he’s trying to salvage his dignity, so she doesn’t insist.
“See you in class, Miss Davin.”
Jane nods. There’s nothing left to say, so Will turns and leaves. Will he understand it when he’s older? She thinks so.
Her knees weak, her body sore, Jane leans on a bar counter for the first time in five years.