From the Archives: Too Many Secrets
This is the first installment of "From The Archives," where I will dust off some of my unpublished past works. Some are complete stories while others are bits and pieces of chapters and ideas. In some instances, I plan to engage my readers with questions and surveys about whether or not to pursue a particular piece, and hope to get input into what you'd like to see! I plan to make "From the Archives" an interactive space for us to communicate. For now, enjoy this piece I wrote in college. It's definitely different in tone from most of my recent works!
Terry called at five a.m. How did she know I was thinking about her at that very moment, almost willing her to call? I needed her. I needed to hear her voice. It seemed her sixth sense to scout me out after so much time had passed.
As I lifted the phone to my ear, I tried to remember the night we met. I had been staggeringly drunk and half-leaning, half-falling into a dumpster behind The Cricket to rid my stomach of its contents. And that's how she found me. The click of her high-heeled shoes finally overpowered the sound of my retching as she drew closer. At last, I looked up to see her standing before me, scantily dressed, a look of motherly concern on her soft, round face.
"Jesus, man, you sound terrible," she said in a sweet, high voice. "Need a hand?"
She tentatively reached toward me.
My head was splitting in two. Clumsily, I wiped my arm across my mouth, recoiling from the foulness of my own breath, and said in a slurred voice, "You always so kind to strangers? Especially in dark alleys like this?"
She lowered her arm and took a step back, her hands clutching at the strap of her purse. I eyed her from head to toe. She wore a tight dress of red, cleavage clearly visible and inviting, her pale arms freckled and shivering, perhaps from cold, perhaps from fear. Hanging from her slim neck was a gold chain that glistened every time she moved, and large gold hoops hung from her earlobes. She wore too much make-up; her eyes were swimming in a sea of powdered blue and purple, her lips an unnatural and seductive red, the same color as her dress. Her legs were covered in thin black fish-net stockings, and the heels of her black leather boots seemed impossibly high. All in all, she was beautiful. But it was her huge blue eyes that did it to me. I smiled and said reassuringly, "Hey, I ain't like that. I ain't gonna hurt you."
She regarded me again with those eyes then glanced at the opening of the alley a few yards behind me. The neon of The Cricket sign cast a puddle of pink on the dirty sidewalk, but in this alley, it was dark and smelled of garbage. Cornered, she looked like a skittish puppy and took another step away from me. To prove I wasn't going to hurt her, I stepped to the side to allow her access to the street. "Trust me," I said. "The name's Joe."
After a moment, she said quietly, "I'm Terry."
"Terry, huh? Well, Terry, it's a pleasure to meet you. I just wish it was under different circumstances."
"You feeling any better?" She asked.
I laughed. "Yeah," I admitted. "The Cricket always does this to me."
I later found out that's where she'd been as well. I later found out that the guy she was with thought she was flirting too much, got drunk, slapped her around a little, and took off with all her cash, leaving her at the club with nothing. All this came out after she drove me back to my place in my car and we made love on my bed. Even as she was telling me this, her thin arms draped over my naked chest, the sweaty strands of her hair tickling my chin, I was marveling at the fact that I did not want her to leave, that I was actually interested in what she was saying, and that I still found her positively alluring in the hazy light thrown from the naked bulb above us.
Her purse was lying atop the night stand. I rolled over and searched through it for a cigarette. My hand fell on something I recognized immediately, something crisp and cool, like paper, only slightly thicker. Cash.
"I thought you said you were broke," I said, holding out the fifty-dollar-bill to her. She rolled over so her back was to me and I thought I heard her whisper, "I did what I had to." When I crouched over her, she was asleep.
What I had imagined would be a one-night-stand turned into something more. I couldn't get enough of her. "It was fate," she whispered one evening after we'd smoked a few joints and were reclining on my old, stained sofa. I watched a cockroach scutter across the floor, crawling into a crack in the wall. "What was?" I asked, brushing a strand of hair from her forehead. "The way we met," she said, "both of us at The Cricket that night. Both of us in that alley."
Now I glanced at her. "Just what were you doing there?" I asked. She turned her gaze aside and grew silent. I didn't push her. In fact, I had the sudden urge to protect her.
I was a big man, a rough man with large, awkward hands. I often got too drunk and flew into a terrible rage and did things I was not proud of, and I had found myself in more than one fist fight. But with Terry I was gentle. I loved to run my hand down her smooth dark hair. I loved to trace circles in the small of her back. I knew I could crush her fragile body in my arms when we slept together, so I made sure to be tender and slow as a result.
We fell in love.
And then I had to run.
Terry called me at 5:00 a.m. It was dark in the motel room; I had been sleeping fitfully, dreaming of her, and the phone jolted me awake. I listened to the shrill rings, praying that they'd stop, but when they kept going, I grabbed the phone. My heart raced. After a pause, she whispered, "It's me." The sound of those two words filled me with such longing I gripped the phone in my sweaty hands, sitting upright in bed.
She asked no questions, and neither did I, except, of course, the usual. "What are you wearing? What position are you lying in? Where are your hands?" And Terry never failed to provide stimulating answers.
Finally, there was silence. I stood up and began pacing the room, listening to her breathe on the other end. I grabbed for the pack of Marlboros lying on the yellow felt bedspread and emptied a cigarette into my hand. Sitting at the cheap desk, I raised it to my mouth and lit the tip, taking a deep drag off the end. Cradling the phone against my shoulder, I traced carvings done in the wood by past occupants. I imagined carving our names there as well, . . . Joe loves Terry.
"What's wrong, Babe?" I finally asked. I watched the smoke spiral out of my mouth with the words, rising in white puffs to the lamp overhead. I knew what she'd ask, and I felt my stomach grow tight with anticipation. I didn't want to hear the words.
There was a small gasp from the other end and then Terry's voice, small and timid. "I just miss you so much, Joe!" She cried, and I could imagine her curled on her bed, her dark hair spread around her, mascara staining her cheeks. "Can't I come be with you? Huh, Joey? Can't I?"
"No." I heard my voice, firm and resolute, from a great distance. "No, Terry, baby, you can't."
"It's just too dangerous. You know that."
"What are you doing now?"
"And where are you sitting?"
"At this beat up desk. In a grimy chair."
"Where will you be tomorrow?"
"Wherever I'll be, you know how to reach me."
"But you don't want me to come to you?"
"No, Babe. I love you too much."
"I love you too, Joey. God, I love you."
Now I pictured her body, naked, flushed, after our lovemaking. How I wanted to hold her in my arms at that moment. How I wanted to tell her everything would be okay, that we hadn't screwed up our lives and could live like normal, decent people. I envisioned a house somewhere with a sprawling lawn, a dog in the yard, and Terry, pregnant, sitting beside me as I flipped burgers on the grill. But our lives were not meant for that. We had too many secrets.
I stood and walked to the window. The seedy curtains were drawn against the frost-encrusted glass. Carefully, slowly, I drew back the drapery and peered out into the night. Blackness. Gravel drive. A truck purring on the side of the road. Edna's Roadside Diner across the street. I turned to stare back at the room. Typical room. Tomorrow I'd be at another motel miles from here, but the room would be the same as this one, just as this was the same room as the one I'd been in the night before.
"I'm thinkin' about you, Babe," I said.
Terry sighed on the other end. "You too, Joey."
"How's the stash holdin' up?" I asked.
"It's fine," she said softly. She had a bird's voice, smooth and dulcet, but now it quivered on the verge of something else. Fear, perhaps.
"Do you need me to send you any?"
"No, Joey. I got it covered."
Now I asked the question I knew she didn't want to hear, but I couldn't stop myself. "Just how are you makin' money, Babe?"
A pause. A whispered breath.
"I do what I have to do."
And then the hush that always falls. Was she waiting for my judgement? Is that why she sounded so scared?
"I do what I have to, too," I said, hoping that she'd know, that she'd understand. After all, who was I to be critical of how people led their lives? Mine wasn't exactly . . . legit.
"Gotta go." I finally said.
"I know." The tone in her voice was one of pure relief. "Will I see you soon?"
"Yes," I lied.
There was a click and silence. I sat back down, the cigarette dangling form my lips, undershirt clinging to my chest, the underarms yellow with new and old sweat. Who knew when I'd see Terry again? Who knew if I'd see her at all? What I did know was that the distance between us seemed vast and lonely.
I crushed the cigarette against the desk and left a darkened pile of ash. Crawling back into bed, I turned off the light. In that semi-darkness that comes just before dawn, I closed my eyes and though of Terry, safe, in my arms.