I sat down at the cafe table, a four-topper, and planned to eat lunch by myself.
A quiet nighttime walk through the cow pasture next to my parents’ neighbourhood the evening before had cleared a space in my thoughts, a hint to myself I had a blank slate on which I could compose a poem.
Usually, I drove back and forth to class writing little rhyming ditties outloud to keep me awake and avoid the chaotic wellspring of thoughts that flowed from the unexplored abyss somewhere within the inner universe I created to map myself onto the real universe for protection against losing myself in full-fledged mental fantasies.
The abyss was like the ebbing and flowing springs near my girlfriend’s childhood home, flowing in greater quantities at times, but like something else altogether, for it sometimes sucked the life out of me, leaving me mentally gasping for air.
The cycles were mostly small enough that I functioned normally, none the wiser amongst those who knew me.
I opened a notebook, pulled a pencil out of my daypack and started scribbling squiggly lines, my meditative way to focus my thoughts on nothing in particular to clear the morning’s class lectures from my readily-accessible conscious pool of words and phrases for poetic practice.
Finished doodling, I ripped out the page and wadded it up.
I pulled out a pen and had four or five lines I composed in my thoughts ready for transcription…
“Oh, hey. How you doing, Frances?”
“Great. I hear Sarah’s going out of town.”
“Yeah, she’ll be gone for all of spring break, I think.”
“You two are quite the pair. Bet you’ll miss her.”
I looked down at the notebook paper, my poetic thoughts erased. Rats! “Uh, yep. Sure thing.”
Frances gave me a curious look and stood there with a lunch tray in her hands. “You got room for me?”
“What? Oh, yeah.” I closed my notebook and pulled the daypack off the table.
Sarah walked up behind me, kissed me on top of my head and joined us. “Frances says she’ll keep you company while I’m gone next week.”
Frances nodded. “If you want, we can go skiing. I hear Ober Gatlinburg still has a couple of slopes open.”
We ate our lunch and took turns exchanging funny smiles between the three of us.
Frances was Sarah’s best friend. They had met earlier in life and renewed their friendship at Walters State. Sarah trusted Frances with everything, including details about our relationship I had shared with no one, not even my father, who had quizzed me about why I was hanging out with an older, married woman (“if you live in this community, son, you’ll have a reputation to keep…people have long memories when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary friendships like this…rumours get out of hand…just something to keep in mind).
Sarah gave me a level of confidence I wish I had recognised was too high for my pers0nality.
The confidence she gave me…hmm…I haven’t thought about it very often but I can still picture my set of thoughts from that time.
Sarah made me believe I was a good writer, I was a good lover, a good listener, a good father if I wanted to be. She had already talked about her post-divorce life, wanting to take me to Europe with the surplus money Mike had offered her and then…well, she hinted she was up to starting a new life with me.
It was all so new.
Sarah had to get to class so she left me alone with Frances again.
“Sarah says you still talk about your old girlfriend.”
“Yeah. She won’t tell you because she’s afraid she’s up against a rival she hasn’t seen or met. It gives your old girlfriend an unfair advantage.”
I shook my head. “She said that?”
“No. But I know it’s what she’s thinking. It’s what any woman would think in a situation like this.”
I finished the last sip of my carton of milk and pushed against the table to scoot myself out from the table.
Frances reached out and grabbed my hand gripping the table. “Do you love Sarah?”
We looked each other in the eyes and couldn’t help laughing all of a sudden.
“No, seriously, you’ve got to tell me. Sarah needs to hear you say it.”
Frances laughed again and stood up. “You philosophical poets. Love is just a game to you, isn’t it?”
“You ARE going skiing with me. You can’t say no. And you’re going to tell me all about your feelings for Sarah AND your old girlfriend. You know that, don’t you?”
We both laughed as she left.
The next few days Sarah was desperate to spend every minute with me she could, taking me with her to interiour decorating shops, and to clients’ houses, paying me as her assistant so there were no questions asked.
Of course, we played it cool on those visits, no PDA.
But as soon as we got back to the car or van and out of the driveway, she would wrap around me and do everything I thought she could to try to get us to wreck.
The day she left, an early Saturday morning, she gave me Frances’ phone number and made me promise to call her to make sure Frances kept me from getting lonely.
All the feelings I had at the start of our relationship resurfaced, except instead of thinking Mike was setting up a trap, I wondered if Sarah was trying to trap me with Frances (she wasn’t).
I called Frances that evening, hoping she would be out with friends and not at home.
I also knew Frances worked as a waitress in Gatlinburg and Saturday nights would be a pretty busy night, increasing the odds that she’d be away from her house.
I was wrong (or lucky (or unlucky?)). One of her kids was sick and it wasn’t her ex-husband’s weekend to take their two boys.
Frances gave me verbal instructions to her apartment outside Cosby and told me to come on over. She could use the company.
I threw together a couple of changes of clothes, told my parents I be away for a day or two and left for parts unknown.
After her divorce, which was adversarial, not amicable, Frances was left with little in the way to support herself. Her ex-husband had fallen in love with a wealthy, ambitious woman and wanted to ‘trade up,’ as he said, from a local gal with no ambition.
Frances found a subsidised housing complex that only charged her $78 per month for a two-bedroom flat, as long as she was working and going to school. The deal was only for two years, so Frances pulled herself together and decided to get a two-year associate’s degree as an LPN, sort of an assistant nurse, with jobs available in the area at nursing homes — she figured she had seen enough poop and vomit in her kids’ lives and wasn’t getting paid for it that she could put up with the same body fluids from old people for a salary.
When I got to her flat, she welcomed me with a warm hug. She was thrilled to have a man in the house and treated me royally, giving me a late-night dinner of leftovers (actually, her TV dinner that she hadn’t eaten) and a tall glass of Jack Daniels whiskey from a bottle the bartender at work had given her in place of a tip for helping him at the bar.
Three or four candles lit the small living room. Her boys were both sick by then and she had put them to bed early.
I sat on a wornout high wingback chair and she spread out on the sofa, which was covered with a bedsheet because she decided to put her youngest son in her bed for the night.
“What kind of music do you like?” She pointed toward the crate of LP records on which a turntable sat.
“Just about anything.”
“Do you and Sarah listen to music together?”
“Sometimes. Not very often.”
“And why not? I thought you two were lovebirds.”
“Her taste in music is not the same as mine. How about that?”
“Yeah? Like what do you mean?”
“She likes the Dave Clark Five.” I slid off the chair and squatted in front of the crate, which divided the chair from the sofa.
“I can see that. A little square for me, but I could dance to it, if I had to. You don’t like it?”
“Umm…I’m more into punk.”
She coughed and spewed a little whiskey. “Punk? You? Mr. All-American? I figured you for the Bing Crosby and Carpenters type.”
I twisted my head around and stuck my tongue out at her, pulling a random album cover. “Moody Blues.”
“Yeah. You wanna put that on, go ahead.”
I pulled the LP from its sleeve and carefully placed it on the turntable. Even in the dim candlelight, I could see the surface was dusty and scratched up. “You got something to clean this with?”
“You serious. Man, you are a little square, aren’t you? Just play it. I don’t care. Besides, these speakers are crap. You’re not going to hear audiophile equipment on my budget!”
I set the needle down and started to the music play. Frances coughed. “Before you play that, see if there’s anything else you want to play first.”
I kept looking through her albums, curious about her tastes versus Sarah’s. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin…
She bent over and held my arm. “You like Joplin?”
Carole King… Frances started swaying. “I feel the earth move under my feet…you like her?”
“Okay. Boy, you sure are talkative. Just play the Moody Blues and sit back. You’re going to trip out.”
I started the turntable and sat back up in the chair.
“No, over here. Sit next to me.”
She crossed her legs underneath her and sat upright against an arm of the sofa, nodding her head for me to do the same.
I sat down.
“Close your eyes and listen.”
I closed my eyes, a tingling sensation in my nose telling me I drank half a glass of whiskey a little too fast.
“Now, keep your eyes closed and tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I drank too fast.”
“No, not that. What are you thinking about us, right now?”
I opened my eyes a little.
Frances had her head held back, her hands folded in her lap. She was completely relaxed.
“I’m…I’m wondering if your kids…what they think of their mother if they could see her right now.”
“Uh-huh. Deeper. Go deeper. Can you feel my energy?”
I closed my eyes and tried to relax but was feeling a little dizzy. I took a deep breath. “I feel warmth ahead of me and cold behind me.”
“Good. What am I thinking?”
I almost laughed but felt she really wanted to take this seriously.
“You have a man on the couch with you. He’s your best friend’s boyfriend.”
“More. Keep going.”
“You know you’re older than he his but you want something from him.”
She tapped me knee. “Open your eyes.”
She was smiling at me. “That was cool, wasn’t it? Did you feel the vibes I was sending you?”
I nodded. I also knew I was playing the odds, expressing what was most likely to have passed through her thoughts.
I lifted my eyebrows. I knew Frances was Sarah’s best friend but I was always aware that we carry more than one role with us. She could be an informant I hadn’t sniffed out yet.
“Oh, don’t act shocked. I know you are.”
She stood up and lifted the sofa cushion on her side, sticking her hand into a small tear in the seat of the sofa and pulled out a bag.
“Sarah ever talk to you about the tree?”
“You know, the one that you both see but isn’t there?”
“Yeah. It’s a philosophical question.”
“Well, I presented her with my own idea that she thinks is crazy. You up for it?”
What did I have to lose. “Okay.”
She lit up, inhaled deeply and handed the pipe to me, holding her breath for a few seconds.
As I breathed in, she exhaled. “I think if two people sit and face each other and concentrate their thoughts enough, they can line up their wavelengths.”
I nodded as I held my breath.
“Well, what if they both thought about making out together?”
I exhaled and coughed.
“Yeah, crazy, huh?”
I handed the pipe back to her. The record had stopped playing.
After she exhaled, she set the pipe down. “Flip it over and play ‘Nights in White Satin.’ Before you do, I want us to get ready. I believe if we let this song pull us together as one, we can orgasm without touching each other. Whatdya think?”
I accept that reality is not real. Most of the time, the tree we see is there if we walk up to it and touch it. But didn’t we as kids believe the movies we saw? Didn’t the first people to see a moving train on film flinch when it headed toward them? Therefore…
I set the needle down on the LP and quickly got back into my lotus position facing Frances.
She swayed slightly, making me woozy.
I let my thoughts bounce around randomly, my vision erasing everything around Frances, then erasing her body, all but her eyes.
We found ourselves swaying gently in the same back-and-forth motion.
Happiness crept up my back and flowed over the top of my head.
The room starting going white.
Frances turned into a Cheshire cat smile with a fully clothed female human body but broadcasting the image of complete nudity.
The song ended and my vision slowly returned.
Sarah uncrossed her legs and bent forward, half-expecting me to do the same. When I didn’t, she closed the distance between us and kissed me lightly on the lips.
“Heavy, huh? Did you feel it? You must have because you are radiating love.”
She stood up and took our glasses to the kitchen, refilling them.
“How much longer can you stay?”
“I don’t know. You want to go skiing tomorrow?”
“Well…bad news. I don’t have the money to go skiing. My kid getting sick means no tip money for tonight.”
She handed me my glass. “To love!”
We clinked our glasses together and took a gulp.
My father had given me some extra spending money, for gas or other emergency.
“I can pay for you.”
“Naw. You don’t have to do that. We can take a raincheck.”
“Well, if you say so.”
“Are you spending the night?”
“You can, if you want.”
“What about your son?”
“Oh, I can carry him back to his bed. Besides, they’re so zonked out on cold medicine, they’re going to sleep late tomorrow.”
“Okay, then I can sleep on the sofa…”
Frances blew air through pursed lips. “What? No! You’re going to sleep in my room.”
Over the next few days, I would discover that Frances was what I wished Amy had been but wasn’t. She always told the truth and she cared for other people. Like Amy, she had been a child raised on free love but Frances’ parents had been beatniks, not flower children. Frances would probably have been Amy’s older sister, wiser and more to the point, trained to be a caretaker.
I tried to sleep on one side of the bed, as close to the edge as I could, breathing in and out regularly.
Frances reached over and tickled me. “Oh no, you don’t. You aren’t going to crawl into bed with me and pretend to be asleep.”
We tickle fought for a long time. It was great fun.
After an hour of wrestling around like children, I pinned her hands on the mattress up above her head and locked my legs around hers.
“Uncle? No way. You are not my uncle.”
“You?” She laughed.
I could barely see her face in the ribbon of dim light that trailed from the hallway — she kept the door open to her boys’ room and her room so she could hear in case one of them starting a coughing fit (her youngest son had asthma).
The look on her face told me who had triumphed.
“What am I thinking?”
“You got me to bed with you without even trying.”
“Bingo.” She tickled my left palm with her right index finger and my arm buckled. I tried to turn my head and smacked my right ear into her nose.
She bit on my earlobe and whispered. “You can’t say you don’t like me.”
“No, I can’t.”
“What are you thinking right now?”
“That…” that I realised I trusted her in ways I didn’t trust others. “That I might have multipersonality disorder.”
She kissed me on the neck. “I know. What do you think I am?”
I rubbed my cheek along her nose until we were nose-to-nose.
My friend, Monica, and I had tripped together many times a few years before and agreed we had made love to each other in a much more meaningful, “forever” way than two physical lovers.
Frances and I looked at each other.
Once, after drinking mushroom tea by myself at the flat on Laurel Avenue, I stood and stared at myself in a full-length mirror for two whole hours, watching image after image, personality after personality, flip through my thoughts.
Frances and I did the same thing together. She would become a man and I would become a woman, then we’d kiss. She would become a damsel in distress and I would become the cowboy to rescue her, then we’d kiss.
I don’t know how long this went on.
[I have experienced moments like this with my wife, but she essentially stays the same character while I shapeshift in her presence.]
We were content to play this game forever, it seemed.
Until a hacking sound echoed down the hall.
I let go of Frances as she leapt out of bed and headed to the other bedroom.
I got up and rearranged the bedsheet and quilt that had been tossed around while we tickled each other.
A few minutes later, just as I was coming down off an adrenaline high, Frances walked in with her son in her arms, his head draped over her shoulders as she gently patted him on his back.
She handed him to me and I, for the first time, held a child in my arms, completely asleep and unaware at my awkwardness trying to figure out how to cradle a living being while Frances grabbed a couple of pillow off the floor and added them to the headboard for her to lean back against.
After she sat back in bed, she motioned me to get in bed with her.
I crab-walked across the quilt and tried to turn without waking her son as Frances held her hands up to steady me joining her in an upright sitting position.
She put her lips to my ear. “You don’t know what this means to me.”
Pour in compliment, stir in a tone of comforting love, create instant father.
Again, a sensation I haven’t experienced before or after.
I had turned her son so that his head was cradled against my shoulder — he automatically wrapped his arms around my neck.
Frances leaned her head against her son’s head and my shoulder.
We fell asleep.
Sometime in the night, Frances returned her son to the bedroom with his brother.
She crawled back into bed with me and said we made out while I was half-asleep — she was right when she told the half-asleep me I wouldn’t remember anything in the morning.
I woke up with Frances draped across me.
We were fully clothed, with the bedsheet covering the lower half of our bodies.
Sensing another presence in the room, I lifted my head high enough to look over the back of Frances’ head to see a young boy sucking his thumb, a big smile on his face.
Frances drooled on my chest in her sleep, her face glued to my chest hairs like pine tar (it’s funny now but then it felt gross).
I fought off my desire to break down the situation into an infinitely-expanding series of “what if” statements, all designed to explain to unknown people a rational purpose for the situation from multiple angles.
A taller boy walked up behind his brother.
“Are you supposed to be our uncle?”
I nudged Frances.
“Oh, hey boys. This is Lee. You guys hungry?”
We both sat up and stretched.
The little boy ran over and grabbed my hand, pulling on me to stand up.
For one brief, wonderful moment, I was a father with a son who loved me unconditionally.
The rest of the week we stayed there, the younger son followed me around. He even called me Daddy a few times. He was younger than eight, old enough to know better than to suck his thumb, which his mother gently reminded him to stop.
The older boy was always a little distrustful. Once, when we were standing alone in the kitchen, the wise 12-year old told me, “I’m not going to call you ‘uncle.’ I know what’s going to happen. You’re going to leave my mother and us and never see us again and I’ll have to tell my brother why his new daddy doesn’t love him anymore.”
“I’m not your uncle, I promise. I’m just a friend of your mother’s.”
“Well, why are staying with us?”
“Because your mother asked me to.”
“I’ve had other uncles, you know. And they gave me things. You gonna give me anything?”
Smart kid. Probably head of Mergers and Acquisitions for a small corporation by now.
“Come on. I’ll show you.”
We went to his room where he showed me a new football, a pair of basketball shoes, some baseball cards, and a couple of Transformer toys.
I told him I’d do what I could but he didn’t have to call me uncle, no matter what.
We found a neighbour who kept the boys while Frances and I went skiing.
At the ski resort, we ran into a friend of Sarah who figured out what was going on — I knew this was too good to be true but hey, it was all new to me — I wasn’t seasoned enough to give a reasonable explanation except to say Sarah knew that Frances was going to take care of me while she was gone.
I spent the rest of the week with Frances, so wrapped up in the moment that I forgot to call my parents.
In that week, I acted the role of husband/boyfriend to Frances, who really wanted a little stability in her life, if only for a week, and father to the boys. By the end of the week, both boys had grown used to me, the older one still distrustful but accepting of my genuine friendliness toward all of them, especially his mother, for whom he felt a big brother’s protectedness.
One evening, when I expected Frances home from work, she was late.
When she arrived at the flat, her face was flushed.
I noticed but didn’t say anything while she motioned me back into the bedroom with her.
She sat us down on the bed.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. If you have to work late, I don’t mind.”
“No, it’s not that. My car wouldn’t start…” She pressed her hand on top of mine. “…and one of the guys from the kitchen offered me a ride home for gas money.”
“It was a slow night. I split my tip with a busboy and didn’t have anything after I paid for a drink at the bar after my shift.”
“Do I need to loan you money to pay him back?”
“Naw. I’m sure you won’t mind but we had sex in his car just now.”
I knew there was something she wanted me to say but I couldn’t quite visualise it. “Hey, we are…I mean, we aren’t, uh…you know…”
“Yeah, I thought so. I just wanted to let you know. I’ll try not to let it happen again while we’re together. I think it’s only fair. Besides, you’ve got two girlfriends yourself…” She winked at me.
The uneasiness passed quickly.
I think that was a Wednesday.
On Friday, her ex-husband and his wife showed up to get the kids.
His wife was definitely high maintenance. Plastic surgery had done her well — boob jobs, face lift, maybe even a tummy tuck and butt cheek implants. She wore three big rocks on her fingers — big, fat, shiny diamonds.
The whole time they were there, he belittled Frances and her loose lifestyle. The wife kept asking the kids in front of me if I had ever been mean to them.
I admit I was a little heartbroken when the little boy ran up to me to hug me goodbye and wouldn’t let go until his father told him to.
The wife huffed. “Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen THAT!”
Frances smiled. “See. I do have friends who are good to my kids despite what you think about me.”
After they left, she explained that the wife wanted to get her husband to change the divorce agreement and make the kids hers. She constantly bribed them with new clothes and trips to amusement parks and tried to get the kids to believe hateful things about their mother but they wouldn’t. She also tried to convince Frances’ ex-husband that Frances abused the kids with her open relationships and was always looking for one guy in Frances’ life to have whipped or hurt the boys in any way.
Frances had long shifts on the weekend so she thought it best that I leave so she could get back to her life.
She wanted one more day with me so after she put on her work clothes we drove our separate cars to Gatlinburg where she introduced me to her coworkers, one of whom was Barry with whom I’d tripped when I camped with Sarah’s philosophy class.
He was more than impressed that I was dating Frances (not knowing about Sarah) and introduced me to his supplier who was the kitchen manager. Small world and just one more node in the network for me to map out, handed to me for free.
I drove home that night.
My parents were upset that I’d been gone all week without telling them (oh, the freedom of those pre-mobile phone days!) but reconciled themselves to the fact I was an adult after all, asking me to call them collect next time just to let them know I was okay.
Lying in bed, alone for the first time in a week, I examined my thought patterns and saw scar tissue from mental wounds I didn’t know were there, a tear in the fabric of my being, ripping apart the layers of subcultural training that had been stretched over my inner self.
In less than two months, I had given myself over to the people pleaser in me with authentic rather than feigned pleasure.
Who was I?
I thought I was a writer seeking new material.
Is a writer a murderer? A polyamourous lover? A cafeteria plan religious adherent?
Yes, no, all of the above, none of the above?
The luxury of a few short hours before I fell asleep!
Sarah returned the next day and would want to see me right away so I knew I had to face her.
I had to talk to Karen, too, because I had unresolved feeling about her.
I began to think that maybe I wouldn’t survive myself, just the tiniest hint of an idea in the back of my thoughts as my consciousness melted away into peaceful dreams…
For one last night…