Brian worked all weekend, and other than a few text messages, there was no chance to talk to him until Monday. On his break, he left her a voicemail, and between Psychology and English she walked out of the Liberal Arts building to call him back. Her heart pounded and her mouth was suddenly dry. She still hadn’t figured out what to say. But she was determined to get it over with, so she told him to meet her for lunch. Long John Silver’s was close to the apartment complex where he was working. He wanted to meet there.
On the drive over, she tried to string words together. How to create a string that would efficiently deliver the message? Just, say it, she thought. She needed to be concise and blunt.
But sitting in front of him, she started out hedging.
“Brian, you know I’m not going to school at the junior college for the fun of it right?” she asked after he sat down with their food. Come on, Just say it.
“Yeah, I guess.” He took a drink of his Dr. Pepper.
“Well, I’ve been thinking.” She paused. He didn’t look at her. He was occupied with divvying up their food. Just say it. “When I get as many credits as I can at the junior college, I’m going to transfer to Texas Tech.”
“Uh, how are you going to do that? We can’t afford to move to Lubbock.” He turned his attention to the stray crisps of fried batter on the tray.
She stared at him, amazed. She had finally broken the dreaded news to him and he was unmoved, engrossed in his greasy fast food fish. “I can.”
“You can?” He looked up at her.
“I have money saved, and I’m going.” She watched his face as his eyes widened with understanding.
“So you’ve been thinking? You just thought this up?”
“Sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot. You didn’t think I’d need some time to think about this too?”
“You don’t need to think about it. I’ve already decided.”
“You decided? When exactly did you decide all this?”
“Before we graduated high school.”
“And you decided to wait almost three years later to tell me? And now I’m supposed to move to Lubbock?” he asked. “I don’t know anyone there. How’m I supposed to find a job? Did you decide that?”
She took a deep breath. “I’m going by myself.”
“And what am I supposed to do? Wait for you to come back?”
He searched the room, as if he might find an explanation on the menu board or by the soda fountain. When his eyes rested on her again, he opened his mouth to speak, then stopped, and stared at her.
“You’re going to have to get on with your life without me,” she said. She had to make sure that she was clear, that he wouldn’t walk away with any hope. Her throat tried to close around her words as she continued, “We aren’t going to be together. I don’t want to be with you anymore.” Her last words trailed into a whisper. She looked down at the table, unable to watch his face any longer.
When he managed to find his words she could hear his anger boil up under his disbelief. “You can’t just decide that. You don’t decide something like this and then tell me about it after the fact.” Then he snapped back to his first response, the assumption that she was asking for permission. He tried dismissing the idea again. “It isn’t going to happen,” he said with finality, clearly hoping to put an end to the discussion.
She had a wild thought that the control he tried to wield now was not new. Maybe he always felt like he owned her, and he only wanted to have her properly ensnared before he laid down the law. That thought solidified her resolve. “I can decide that, and I have.”
“But what about our plans, Lauren? We have plans.”
“You’ll have to do it without me.” Her voice was monotone, controlled to hide her frustration.
“But I planned my whole life around you, Lauren.” His anger started to fray, unraveling into distress.
She had been stonily unmoved up this point. But this was the argument that she felt most defensive about. Most guilty. So she snapped her answer without thinking. “Brian, you haven’t planned your life. Around me or otherwise.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? What do you call my savings account? I was planning on buying us a house.”
“And then?” she asked, knowing she sounded childish. Knowing any discussion was pointless.
“And then we were going to get married.”
“And live happily ever after? The end?” She leaned back in her seat and changed her approach. “Brian, you never even asked me if I wanted to get married. You decided. But I don’t want to get married. I don’t want kids. Did you even know that? That I don’t want to have kids?”
“Why?” he asked, sincerely shocked. Maybe a little disgusted.
“Because I don’t want to screw them up. Because it’s hard to raise kids.”
“I’ll help you. We’ll do it together. You won’t have to work when the kids are little.”
“You know…” she paused, and searched for the words to say what she was thinking. “If I don’t work, then I’ll have to answer to you for the money that I would need to take care of those kids.”
“So you want to work while the kids are little?” He looked confused but hopeful. She had to stop this.
“I don’t want kids at all. And I don’t want to be someone’s wife and live out someone else’s dream. I want my own dream. And my own dream doesn’t include living my whole life and dying on the same patch of dirt. This isn’t news. I’ve told you this. ”
“But you can’t be serious. Why wouldn’t you want to be a wife or a mother?” Then he looked sick as an idea occurred to him. “You aren’t a lesbian, are you? Oh God – don’t tell me.”
“Yeah Brian, I’m a lesbian.” She slammed her palms down on the table so hard the plastic tray bounced. “Look, all you need to understand about me is that I don’t want to be with you. Okay? Does that make sense? Because if it does, then you pass the test and we can move on.”
“You know what? No, I don’t understand that. I have never been anything but good to you. I have always taken your side. Always. When you fight with your brother — your mom — I’m always there for you. You don’t know how good you have it,” He took a breath and his eyes were suddenly wet and red. “You don’t want to be with me?” He got up and pushed the tray across the table. “Fuck it. Don’t be with me.” And he walked out.
She sat alone for a while, feeling empty and sick. There was no way she could eat the greasy food in front of her. When her heart quit pounding, she felt some tears of her own springing up. She couldn’t believe it was done. The adrenaline wore off, reality set in, and she was wiped out.
She made it to her next class and didn’t hear anything the professor said. When class was over she looked down and realized that she had been staring into space instead of taking notes. Blank. Her mind and the paper. On the way out, she asked to borrow notes from a girl in front of her. The girl smiled happily, clearly open to making friends, but Lauren could barely muster a smile in return.
By the time she went to work that night, she already started to feel relieved at having the deed finally done. She even felt lighthearted and optimistic when she told Maricella. She had to work at not smiling. It’s not okay to be happy about this, is it?
“Girl! What happened? Why?” Maricella was shocked. “Did you get into a fight? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” She couldn’t help it — she smiled. “Great actually. I needed to break up with him. We just… I didn’t have those feelings for him anymore.”
She wasn’t about to discuss life plans with Maricella. Maricella might have had life plans of her own. But then Maricella’s first boyfriend shot a convenience store clerk who tried to stop him from stealing gas. Her oldest daughter’s father was in prison and would probably never get out. So Maricella faced her parents, had the baby alone, and dropped out of school when she couldn’t stand to be away from her little girl long enough to graduate. Two kids later, she was managing Thunder Burger and wondering what her husband was up to while she was at work.
From what Lauren could see by watching people she knew, having kids looked like a sure path to a life of dependency and barely getting by.
“Well, you can’t help how you feel. The heart loves who it wants, right?” She shook her head and said, “But still, it kinda sucks. He is a nice guy,” then went back to the grill to put on some patties.
Even in the daily grind of working and raising kids with a husband she couldn’t count on, Maricella talked about true love like it was the only thing worth living for. But all Lauren knew of true love was Brian, and that kind of love felt like a trap. Having been in that trap for most of her life, freedom was the thing Lauren wanted most out of life. This first taste was almost intoxicating.
When Lauren went home that night, Brian’s truck was parked in front of their trailer. She thought about driving past the house without stopping. Then she saw him sitting on the steps. He must have seen her. She parked and got out of the truck, walking to the front door. Heavy with dread, she hugged her book bag against her chest, shielding herself.
“Brian — ” She spoke first, hoping to stop him before he could start, “it’s late and I’m tired. I have class tomorrow and I really need to go to bed.” She had learned her lesson at lunch. She was not about to say anything that could start a discussion.
“Please Lauren. What did I do wrong?” He was crying — probably had been since lunch. “I’ll fix it. Whatever it is. I’ll fix it.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” She resisted the urge to sit down beside him. “Brian, there’s nothing you can do to fix it. I don’t want to be with you.” Oh God. This was so hard. She was afraid she would be sick.
“I just don’t understand. We’ve been together forever. I know everything about you.” He held out his hands and turned them over, empty palms showing. “I’ve thought about it all day, Lauren, and I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do without you. Like, how do I go to sleep at night not thinking about you? How do I go to work every day if I’m not working to buy us a house? The whole thing was built around you. So now, what’s the point?”
“I shouldn’t be your reason to live, Brian. You don’t even know who I am. You’ve been around me so long you don’t see me anymore. If you did, I’m not sure you would even like me. If you did, you wouldn’t be so surprised by this.” She moved past him to the door, and rested her hand on the knob as she tried to wrap up the conversation. “But it doesn’t matter now, Brian. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. If there was a way to fix it I would have. I would never hurt you like this if I didn’t have to.”
“You don’t have to do this Lauren. You didn’t give me a chance. You never talked to me.” He twisted around to look at her. “I would have done anything. I will do anything. I’ll wait for you to come back. We can figure it out.”
“No we can’t. The best thing you can do is get over us and move on,” she said, trying to be firm, even though he was making her doubt herself. He was right, she hadn’t sincerely tried to make it work. She had thought a lot about it. About how to get free. She hadn’t exactly considered what it would take to stay with him while she finished school. But what was she going to say, “You’re right! I hadn’t thought of that. I take it all back.” That was an unbearable thought.
“I’m going to bed Brian. I don’t want you to wait for me, and I don’t want to drag this out. You need to go home.” She went inside and closed the door on him. Junior glared at her as she passed him on her way to her room. She wanted to cry but she wouldn’t let Junior have the satisfaction of seeing that.
She expected Brian to come back and try to talk to her again, but he didn’t. He didn’t even call. And she guessed she had Junior to thank for that relief. After that night, when Brian spent time with Junior, it wasn’t on the orange couch in front of the TV anymore. Several nights a week, Brian picked Junior up from work and Big Jim came home alone. She could just imagine Junior’s remedy for Brian’s heartache involved long discussions about what a selfish bitch she was.
Lauren still went to the job-site on Fridays, and Junior ate the lunch she brought, but he didn’t spare an unnecessary word on her. He talked to Big Jim as usual and acted like she wasn’t there. Big Jim obviously felt the rift between them, and tried to encourage a truce by being even more cheerful than usual.
She didn’t talk to Junior either, about Brian, or anything else. She wasn’t about to ask him to forgive her for the decisions she made about her own life. He could kiss her ass.
Junior was out with Brian that Saturday, when Dan and Sharla had a cook-out to celebrate moving in together. So it was Big Jim and Lauren who drove over to the east side of Curt to congratulate the couple of two-weeks. Clay’s truck was parked in the driveway of the tiny house and Big Jim parked on the street out front.
Inside the house, the living room was dark and paneled. But she saw Clay, behind the bar in the kitchen, where sunlight streamed through the window over the sink. The room was thinly furnished with a wagon-wheel couch and a shelf made of gray cinderblocks and unfinished lumber. Two carnival prize mirrors, one with a rose and one with a unicorn, hung over the bar. And on the far wall, over the couch, two eight-by-ten portraits hung from thumbtacks that split the paneling in long cracks to the ceiling.
“Where’s Junior?” Dan asked as he followed them to the bar. Lauren winced. Even Lauren had to admit Junior was more fun at a party.
“Oh, he’s over at his mom’s,” Big Jim answered, and if he thought it was Lauren’s fault that Junior wasn’t there, he didn’t let it show. “She needed some help with the yard.”
Sharla looked at Lauren, “Isn’t that your mom too?”
“Yeah,” Lauren answered. Then she turned to Clay and changed the subject before Sharla could stumble into that mine-field. “You sure have been spending a lot of time around the O’ Hair crew. Does your mother know what kind of company you’re keeping?” she asked. It was odd the way he kept showing up to their get-togethers. Beyond polite.
“I’m a long way from worrying about what my mother would think,” he said, with a grin. Then he bent down to get a beer from the cooler, and she felt his hand on the small of her back as he slid past her to follow her dad outside.
“Do you know his mom?” Sharla asked when they were gone.
“Oh, no,” she answered, grateful to Sharla for being so literal. “I was just joking.” Um, no, Sharla, that was flirting. What the hell is wrong with me?
“Oh. I thought y’all knew him from before the hospital job, or something.”
Lauren was grateful to Sharla again. At least Lauren wasn’t the only one who thought Clay seemed out of place.
Her dad came back inside and held up two grocery bags. “Hey Sharla, we brought some beer and steaks. Where do you want ‘em?” He sat the bags on the counter, not waiting for her answer. “Is here okay?”
Lauren smiled, knowing he was anxious to get outside to the concrete patio where Clay and Roy sat in lawn chairs. She wanted to be outside with her dad too, but if she went with him he would only send her back inside. It would be rude to leave Sharla alone in the kitchen while she cooked their food. So Lauren situated herself on a barstool to peel potatoes over the trash can while she tried to make conversation.
“Are those your little girls?” she asked, pointing her knife at the pictures on the wall.
“Yeah, those are my babies. Twila and Starla. They’re seven and nine now. Those are old pictures.” Sharla looked up from the box of beer she was unloading into the cooler and smiled at the pictures.
Lauren searched Sharla’s face for signs of sincerity, some clue about this woman living without her children. Sharla’s thin lips disappeared around her tobacco stained teeth, too large for her mouth. Her hardened skin was still white in the crevices around her eyes. But there was still something missing, something dead there, and her smile faded too fast.
“Where are they now?” Lauren asked.
“They’re with my parents in Indiana. Dan says once we get settled they can come stay with us. I’m gonna set up the other bedroom for ‘em. Then if they come and visit they’ll have their own room. I can’t wait.”
“They’re beautiful,” Lauren told Sharla, politely getting up to give the portraits a closer look. “They’re going to be drop dead gorgeous when they grow up. I can’t wait to see them,” she said, knowing she was playing pretend. Let’s pretend you and Dan will be together long enough for me to meet them. Let’s pretend that a new man is the solution to their problems, when it was probably a sting of men who caused those problems in the first place.
“Oh you’re gonna love ‘em,” Sharla said.
When the steaks were ready the men were back in the house, filling their plates from the stove, and finally, Lauren made it out to the patio, where no one would expect her to hold up her end of a conversation. Roy hung a trash bag from a nail on the side of the house. Dan propped one of the speakers up on the back of the couch so that KCRT played through an open window. And Lauren settled into her folding lawn chair to eat her steak and mashed potatoes from a paper plate balanced on her knees.
With the warm sun on her face in the dry spring air, she drank her beer and watched the scene playing out around her like a movie. She slipped into that generous frame of mind that she admired so much in her father, seeing these friends as the colorful characters they were, acting out their parts in their own life story.
Big Jim lit a cigarette and waved it around while he told his stories, like cursive writing in the fading light. The ember glowed with every drag he took, bold punctuation for added effect. He held court with his friends, telling war-stories from his marriage, only loosely based on the truth. It was his own form of art to package these events up into funny snips, distilled of any pain and bitterness.
“You know, I bet she still thinks I dumped my ashtray on her toothbrush on purpose,” he said, his eyebrows drawn down in a mockery of regret as he dropped his cigarette butt into his empty beer bottle.
“Ahhh man…. You know she does!” said Roy, the only one of the O’ Hair crew who knew Big Jim while he was married.
Lauren’s sundress had been a good idea in the light of day, perfect to celebrate a warm afternoon off of work. But it was still winter in the long shadows of the setting sun. When the light finally disappeared, there was a tint of purple under the goose-pimpled skin of her bare legs. She crossed and re-crossed them, trying to keep warm.
Lauren waited for a break in the story telling, leaned forward in her chair, ready to ask her dad for a ride home. But before she found her chance, Brian’s Nissan came down the street, vibrating Toby Keith through rolled-up windows. Lauren looked at her dad’s face, saw his eyes brighten when Junior got out of the passenger side, and she settled back into her chair. She could tough it out a little longer.
Sharla got up to look for more chairs, but Clay stopped her.
“Take mine,” he said to Junior, “I gotta get back to my room and take care of some scheduling problems.”
“Uh, Clay?” Lauren saw the opportunity and took it so quickly she surprised herself. “Do you mind giving me a ride to my house? I’m freezing and I need to get home. I have to work tomorrow.”
“Oh hey!” Big Jim said, starting to get up. “I can take you home. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I don’t mind,” Clay said, “It’s on the way.”
“Cool.” Lauren stood up, satisfied with how neatly the whole mess resolved itself. She wouldn’t have to freeze, or suffer the cold shoulder from Junior and Brian. And she wouldn’t feel guilty for making her dad leave. “Junior just got here, Dad. Stay.”
The relief of her escape faded quickly as she followed Clay to his truck. By the time she opened the passenger door, and arranged her skirt on the seat, the memory of that other party seized her. Oh how grateful she was to have kept her mouth shut that night. As it was, this short ride home would be uncomfortable as hell. But anything was better than being stuck with Brian and Junior.
She buckled her seat belt and stared at her hands. Not even going to make small talk. Just going to count down the minutes until it’s over.
“You and Sharla seemed to hit it off,” he said as he started the truck. “You two have a lot in common?”
It was a hot flash of indignation she had to smooth off her face before she could look at him. But when she did, he was grinning at her. And something caught in her chest at the sight of his crooked smile. She laughed. Damn it.
“Don’t judge me!” she said. “You were right there with me, hanging out with everyone. And you don’t even have to.”
She was relieved that he was joking, flattered in spite of herself, not to be lumped into the same class as Sharla by someone like Clay.
“And you do have to be nice?”
“Uh, yeah! My dad was there.”
“That’s funny. I didn’t take your dad as a stickler for etiquette.”
He put the truck in reverse, and with his foot on the brake, he turned and studied her face. Under his gaze, something bold rose up inside of her, and she lifted her chin and smirked at him. He laughed again, and put his hand on the seat behind her shoulder as he looked out the rear window to back out of the driveway.
“It’s not like I wanted to be rude. I just would’ve had more fun if I hadn’t been stuck inside. But Dad would be disappointed if I left her in the kitchen by herself,” she said. “You’d have to know my dad. He isn’t worried about etiquette. He’s worried about other people’s feelings.”
“Well, you did a good job being considerate of her feelings. He should be proud,” Clay said as he turned off of Elm Street and onto Sanger. “So does he have some kind of threat over your head to make you behave so well?”
She scrambled for a generic answer to keep the conversation superficial, afraid he might decide she wasn’t that different from Sharla after all if she said too much. “Something like that.”
“Something like that? What is it?” he pressed. “Does he beat you? Ground you? You seem a little old for that.”
“Um well… he pays the bills for starters. I am a little old for that,” she said. “I’m a grown woman and I don’t make enough money to pay my own way. I’m not going to intentionally make him mad. I mean, if I can help it.”
“If you can help it?”
Lauren looked at Clay for a long moment, trying to imagine what she could say that would discourage his questions. She was not interested in giving a Jerry Springer-style rendition of her personal problems to this stranger. “You know, the usual stuff. People that live together don’t always get along.”
“Well everyone knows you and Junior aren’t getting along. I just didn’t think it was serious until now. Is that why you beat a path out of there?”
“Yeah,” she said, surprised that he cared. It was a little distracting to know her dad’s friends were talking about her squabble with Junior. What has Junior told them?
“And Brian is taking his side?” he kept asking. The conversation was moving faster than the drive home.
“Um… well, that’s not exactly how it’s going down, but Brian and Junior are definitely on the anti-Lauren team, to say the least,” she answered vaguely. How many minutes left?
“What did you do? You seem like such a nice girl.”
She couldn’t imagine that someone so interested in the details hadn’t already heard them. But he was grinning at her again, and something in the creases around his eyes told her that he was not on the anti-Lauren team.
“I guess I’m not that nice. I broke up with Brian, and they’re all taking it hard.” There I said it.
“So what did Brian do?”
“What do you mean what did he do? You mean when I broke up with him?”
“No, I mean, what did he do that made you break up with him?”
And just like that, she was defensive again. “Nothing. He’s perfect. Apparently I’m the one who’s defective.”
“I was only asking. You two looked happy sitting on your dad’s tailgate.”
“It’s just a sticky situation. I need to hurry and get through school. I don’t know how much longer my dad’s patience will hold.” She danced around his question and found herself rambling. “Especially now that Junior is so pissed… uh… I mean mad at me about Brian.” She stopped, feeling exposed and uncertain. “Listen, I’m really not in the habit of pouring out all of my personal business to strangers.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be pushy,” he said and seemed willing to relent. Then when the silence had become almost comfortable, he started again. “But, I would think your dad would want you to go to college.”
She looked at him, and he kept his eyes on the road. Her initial opinion of him had changed from their first meeting on the job-site, but only slightly. His accomplishments were admirable. He was polite and considerate. Quiet. She took him for a nice country boy from a good family — the kind of person who is good with no effort, unaware of any other option. Considering his job, his money, his status —he didn’t have much to overcome to get to his moral high ground.
“Well, that’s how they make it look on TV, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I don’t know what it’s like where you come from, but it isn’t that way for me. I mean, I’m sure my family doesn’t mind if I go to college, but it’s kind of like getting a makeover. It might make me feel good about myself, but it’s not necessary for being a wife and mother."
“I think it’s a little more than a makeover, no matter where you’re from.”
“Well, to me it is. But is it fair for me to waste time and money on school at my dad’s expense? Especially when all I have to do is marry Brian and my dad would be free.”
He nodded slowly, as if explaining the obvious to a thick-headed child. “Most parents would rather see their daughters get through college before they get married. And most parents help their kids with college, whether they’re getting married or not,” he said.
Finally, he stopped the truck in front of her house. It was dark, and he angled into the driveway, shining the lights on the front door.
“Yeah? In what universe?” She was irritated, but she tried to pass it off as a joke. “Let’s take a survey. Let’s start here in this trailer park. Let’s ask how many people’s parents paid for their college.”
For someone who was so smart, he was pretty dense about the realities of life. She got out of the truck and looked at him a little longer before closing the door. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t imagine life from her perspective. She certainly would have a hard time imagining it from his.
“Hey, thanks for bringing me home,” she said, and closed the door. “You saved me.”
She noticed again how much she liked his deep voice.
Lauren went into the house and didn’t bother with the lights. She turned on the TV and lay down on the couch to watch the news. She had to concentrate, refusing to replay her conversation with Clay over in her mind. She would not waste time guessing what he must think of her. It didn’t matter. And there were plenty of other, more relevant, things to worry about, like the solar thermals that were unique to the area. According to the local newscaster, they were drawing gliding enthusiasts from all over the world to the annual area glider races.