Mythical, that’s how they looked — when she got up close, she experienced both hormonal lightning flashes and the peculiar sensation of having a trick knee. The famous Gower brothers: high foreheads, broad shoulders, meaty yet sculpted forearms. Granted, for Amy, myth and heroism consisted of “Jason and the Argonauts,” and the Classic Comic Books version of “The Iliad and the Odyssey,” but she was on the right track.
“This is Amy,” said her friend Claudia. She stood with her arm across Amy’s shoulders. “This is my ex-husband, Burnett, and this is Carey — we call him Shorty.”
It was admirable the way Claudia and her ex hadn’t let their divorce get in the way of business. Amy wondered if she were capable of such sophistication — perhaps it was bound up with the Bohemian temperament musicians were supposed to have.
“Nice to meet you,” Amy said. “I’m enjoying your music.”
“Thanks, Amy,” said Shorty. “That’s what we like to hear.”
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
“No, please,” she said.
He chewed his little red straw, stirring his drink with a finger. The gesture was boyish, clumsy.
“How long have you been playing here?” she asked.
“Six months,” said Shorty. “The owner is a jerk, but he’s hardly ever around.”
“Well, I’m glad the band stayed together,” said Amy. “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
He tossed his head, and gave her an aw-shucks-ma’am grin, showing his teeth and squinting his eyes.
“Me too,” he said, touching her arm.
“You’re just as pretty as Claudia said you were,” he said.
“Oh, I bet you say that to all your groupies,” she said, laughing. He laughed too, squeezing her arm. She felt his large fingers against her skin, the calluses on his fingertips.
They had another job tomorrow night, he said, over at Lazy Susan’s. Would she like to come listen?
“A friend of mine is having a party we could go to,” he added. “It won’t get cranking until around two a.m. — you know, a bunch of musicians.”
“Sounds great,” she said.
“Stay for the next set, won’t you?” he asked her, tipping his glass to drain it. The lime wedge fell on his nose, and he laughed, then put it in his mouth and sucked the pulp.
She sipped her wine. A bit drunk, she was relaxed even more by the sound that poured over her, brushing her skin like velvet.
When the music was finished, Shorty walked her out to her car, opening and closing the door of the little Datsun for her. Squatting on his heels, he rested his elbows on the open window, leaning his chin on his hands.
“I don’t do this very often,” he said, his face dusky under the streetlight. “Ask anybody, they’ll tell you. I’m not a flirt. I don’t operate that way.”
He took her hand and held it, shaking his bangs out of his eyes. Staring at her, his eyes were sleepy-looking.
“Yes, ma’am, it’s been a real pleasure,” he said, drawling the words out, going corn-pone, laughing.
Shorty was sweet, honest, Claudia said, a guy who would do anything for you. It was true, he didn’t pick up women.
“But he’s kind of involved with somebody,” she said. “It’s a weird thing: they’re separated right now. I know he’ll tell you himself, so don’t say anything.”
“Separated?” Amy said. Gruesome visions of surgery flashed in her head, the kind used for taking apart Siamese twins.
“Well, he and Bonnie have lived together, off and on, for years,” Claudia said. “Lately, it’s been mostly off, but neither one of them has ended it.”
“Where is she now?” Amy asked.
“Dallas. She manages a restaurant out there. Some relative of hers got her the job. Everybody thinks she’s been bad to Shorty. He needs to get on with his life.” Claudia shrugged.
“I don’t understand how people can live like that,” Amy said.
“I know,” Claudia said, sighing. “So if you get close with Shorty, you better keep Bonnie in mind. They go back a long time.”
“I’m not looking for anything serious,” Amy said, twirling her hair. “I just want to have some fun.”
In fact, whenever she broke up with someone, she’d swear she would never get “involved” again — she would become independent, self-sufficient. Then she’d wake up months later — as if from a trance — realizing that she had somehow ended up in another relationship.
The musicians were taking a break when she walked in, and Shorty was standing in the entryway talking on the phone. He mimed delight, his eyebrows raised, and he beckoned. She stood near him: bending, he put his arm across her shoulder, drawing her to his side. He pulled her tight against his body, curling his arm around her neck and looking down at her curiously from that skewed, clumsy angle. She could smell him; fresh, clean sweat that carried the smell of his aftershave, and underneath that, the blunted tang of alcohol and bar smoke.
“You sure are a sight for sore eyes,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about you all day. I was starting to think you’d forgotten.” His face was mobile, relaxed, expressing shy fascination.
He wanted to stop home and change before the party. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asked.
“Of course not.” She followed him in her car.
Waiting in his living room, she flipped through his magazines: RollingStone, Time, and Omni. He emerged from the bedroom with a clean shirt on, hair wet, combed down tight, the tooth-mark pattern of the comb pressed into it and a few wet curls on the back of his neck dripping on his shoulders. His skin was fair; a dark mole next to his mouth stood out against the flush of color brought out by the shower.
“Let’s take my car over to the party,” he said.
His back seat was folded down, the space crammed full of guitar cases and scuffed black boxes. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel as if he were trying to remember how to drive. Then he fished a half-smashed pack of cigarettes out of the side pocket on the door. He lit one, dented and pressed flat, inhaling with a sigh, thin lengths of smoke swirling about his face. He offered the crumpled pack to Amy. “No thanks,” she said. “I don’t smoke.”
“Neither do I,” he said. “I like the way it looks sometimes, how your hands feel lighting up.”
Shrugging, he pulled out the ashtray, tucking the smoldering butt into one of the grooves. In one smooth motion, he leaned over the gear shift and kissed her, cradling her head in his hands. Then he let go and took her hand, laying it in his lap, against the rough-sewn corduroy crotch of his jeans, and he whispered.
“See what you do to me?” he said.
Later that night, she discovered the shoes. On the floor of the bathroom, tossed in front of the linen closet, she saw a pair of running shoes, women’s, size five. She held one of them up to her bare foot. Her own size nine looked huge next to the tiny shoe.
Carrying it back to bed with her, she lay down next to him, holding the shoe up with one arm, over her face, the laces dangling down, almost brushing her nose.
“Whose is this?” she asked.
“That’s Bonnie’s,” he said.
Amy let the shoe drop to the floor. The room was still, quiet. She felt a protective third eyelid go down over something vulnerable inside her. “Is she living here?” Amy asked.
“Hell, no,” he said. “I haven’t heard a word from her in at least six months.”
She found herself possessed by quiescent maturity, a vague memory of some letter to the editor she’d read in Playgirl. She would handle it in that abstract way; not a whimper would come out of her. She took the shoe and put it back in the bathroom, coming back to bed, and drawing the comforter up over her bare shoulder. As she had known would happen — her reward for being a good girl — he reached out under the blankets, pulling her to him and curling around her, her head hooked under his chin and her feet pressed against his shins. He was warm and soft-skinned and large and solid, all at once. She was in a masculine sort of womb.
“You’re the only one here with me,” he said.
She could see something that looked like love, the old kiss-me-until-I-die extravaganza. She couldn’t tell him, could she? Her blood swelled and pounded and she imagined saying it, imagined him saying it back, falling asleep next to him at last, her mind flickering through images like the arthritic film projectors she remembered from high school: tiny shoes, and faceless petite women wearing nothing but a mist of blue glitter as they dove into murky tropical lagoons in the dark.
For Shorty’s birthday, they were going to an expensive restaurant. Almost ready to go pick him up, she was slipping into her shoes when the phone rang.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to make it tonight. Bonnie flew in this afternoon.” He paused; Amy said nothing. She didn’t intend the silence to be accusatory, but that was how he seemed to take it. “Amy, I swear,” he said. “I had no idea she was coming. She called from the airport and said she was here to wish me a happy birthday.”
Amy breathed in, her chest stretching until it hurt. For a moment she didn’t know how the air would get out — some sort of one-way valve had shut down — but then her chest was empty. She waited.
“I’m sorry,” he said, whispering now. “She’s in the next room. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Well, have a happy birthday,” she said. She placed the phone in the cradle in slow motion.
Amy drove over to the bar. Burnett was there, of course, and some other guy on bass, filling in for Shorty. She had his birthday present — a gold chain — shoved in her purse. When the band went on break, she and Burnett walked outside. They sat in her car in the darkness.
“He’s with Bonnie,” she said.
She took the small velvet box out of her purse, handing it to Burnett. He held it for a moment, and then put it on the dash.
“My brother doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he said.
“Neither do I,” she said.
He picked the box up and held it, his eyebrows raised, questioning. Shaking her head, she closed his fingers over it. “This is really nice,” he said, when he opened it.
She took the ends of the clasp and put the chain on him — his neck damp, but round and full and hard as a barrel under her fingers. As she worked with the necklace, the tiny lever on the clasp stabbed underneath her thumbnail. She sucked on her finger, tasting blood. The strand of gold glinted against his skin, his long hair sweeping past it and over his shoulders, the pale blonde glow of the hair as pretty as any woman’s.
She drove home with Burnett after the bar closed. In his living room, sitting on a sprung green brocade sofa, they drank beer in silence, the room lit by one enormous rainbow drip candle. Putting his empty bottle down, Burnett stood and held out his hand; she didn’t hesitate, just rose to follow. His bedroom was tiny; the double bed used up all the space. She had to hitch her way around the nightstand and halfway there, she toppled, falling panicked, then sprawled on the bed. Burnett looked down at her, pulling his shirt tail out of his pants.
The brothers were like two sides of the same coin. When she closed her eyes, they had the same feel, the same weight; they even smelled the same; except she knew it wasn’t Shorty because of the way the long hair trailed over her skin when he bent over her. It tickled her skin like a spider’s web, it was so silky.
When Amy phoned Shorty, a woman answered on the second ring. She didn’t hang up the way she had planned. She asked for him.
“Hello?” he said. He sounded tense.
“Hi. It’s me. Was that Bonnie?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. She could hear him breathing and Bonnie talking in the background. “Who is it?” Amy heard. The sound got muffled; she tried but she couldn’t make out his answer.
“Listen, I’m sorry,” she said when he came back on the line, her voice low and even. Her stomach rolled with a peculiar heaviness, making everything seem vague and faraway. “I know you can’t talk now. Call me when you can, okay?”
“I will,” he said. “You take care of yourself.” His voice was slower, his drawl back to its normal rhythm. He sounded relieved — she was being so civilized, so unlike what he had probably expected. Although it wasn’t Shorty’s fault — he hadn’t lied to her — somehow, she was being too nice.
Amy had a New Year’s Eve vision: a slow-motion perfume ad, a fuzzy dream of sensual retribution. Oh, how she’d make him regret what he’d passed by on the way to his dry banquet! Her heart — the childish construct of it, the big red valentine — was beginning to resemble a checkerboard. Amy loved New Year’s — for an hour at least, everything seemed limitless.
Claudia was equally superstitious, always serving a big Southern breakfast — beans, greens, ham hocks, cornbread — at midnight. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know about eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s?” Claudia asked.
“Honestly,” said Amy, “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, you need some luck then, girl,” said Claudia.
“Yeah,” said Amy. “I guess I do.”
The very first person she saw at Claudia’s party was Shorty. His back was to her, but she knew even that angle; no plane of his body was unfamiliar, and she realized that was about as close as she — as close as anybody — could get to a person. Shorty was standing next to Burnett; the boundary between their bodies seemed arbitrary.
Burnett spotted her first. Smiling and nodding, he tapped his brother and waved. Shorty turned toward her: both men stood, grinning in her direction. She didn’t care; all her pretenses flamed out in one big burn. She shocked herself and then knew — with the thigh-weakening flush of any decent sort of compulsion — it still wasn’t enough.
Shorty pressed through the crowd toward her. When he put his arm across her shoulders, she understood; either Burnett hadn’t told him or — more likely — it didn’t matter. Perhaps this way was better; now they were of a piece.
“I’ve missed you,” he said. It was the truth, she knew, not just a line. He wasn’t a flirt, he didn’t operate that way.
“I’ve missed you, too,” she said. “How’ve you been?”
“Okay,” he said. “Bonnie went off to Mexico for the holidays.” Shaking his head, he frowned — as if to say, isn’t that woman a mess? “I’m just glad to see you.” She knew he was glad; he was as honest as they came.
Claudia floated up with Burnett, her arm around him, her thumb hooked in one of his belt loops.
“Hey, you two,” she said, smiling. “I wanted to tell you the good news–we’re getting remarried. Isn’t that wild? We’re going to do it at 11:59, kind of romantic, huh?”
“That’s great,” Shorty said, pleasure warming his voice, deepening his drawl. “I always knew you two would get back together.”
I guess I did too, Amy thought. Burnett’s not a flirt, either.
But she said, laughing, “This way you’ll never forget when your anniversary is, right?”
“That’s right,” Burnett said. Amy cocked her head, winking at him, so small a motion that anyone watching would have seen only her eyes flicker as she bared her teeth. She thought she saw him wink back the same way, flinging his hair out of his face and over his shoulder with a toss of his head.
A few minutes before midnight, Claudia and Burnett exchanged their vows. The bride’s eyes glistened, her lips red, her skin pale underneath her freckles. As the groom kissed her she put both her hands on his buttocks and squeezed them. Everybody hooted and laughed. “Going to be one hell of a wedding night!” somebody shouted.
Yeah, Amy thought. One hell of a wedding night.
“Let’s go,” Shorty said, leaning down to whisper in her ear, his breath tickling and smelling of beer. “I’d like to get out of this crowd.” Putting his arm around her, he slid his fingers under the waistband of her jeans, rucking up her blouse and brushing the bare skin of her hips.
Her head felt swollen, too large for the rest of her. Who was she, now? She felt dizzy but she didn’t stop: she couldn’t stop. She had known all along, hadn’t she? Shorty was — the kind of guy who would do anything for you.
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s go.”