That First Time
Bob Kline was sitting at his computer, reading and then deleting a number of old letters from his soon-to-be ex-wife Yvonne, when he received an email from a sender he didn’t know. Its subject line contained a name—Annabeth Cole—he didn’t recognize either. The email read:
Is this the Bobby Kline who went to Westover High in 1988? If so, I’m sorry to tell you that Annabeth Cole died several months ago. She wanted you to know. If you have any questions, call me. Sorry to bring bad news.
At the bottom of the message was a number and a name: Vicky Jeffords.
Bob stared at the email for a long time, not understanding it at all, eyes still damp and blurred from the hour he’d spent reading Yvonne’s old love letters. In the early days of their marriage her job had kept her travelling, and she’d sent him dozens of them, each one impossibly sweet. I’m just looking out over the ocean and missing you. He tried now to pull his thoughts together.
Annabeth Cole? He was the Bob Kline this Vicky wanted, but as far as he could remember, he’d never gone to school with an Annabeth. He dug for a while in his closet, pulled out his yearbook. He didn’t see an Annabeth—or a Vicky, for that matter.
He went to the kitchen of his apartment and opened a can of beer. Then he punched the number from the email into his cell phone. A woman answered after two rings.
This is Bob Kline, he said. You emailed me—?
Bobby! she said. This is Vicky. Thanks for calling.
Her voice was completely unfamiliar.
Sure, he said. Listen—I’m the guy you want, but I have to say I’m a little confused. I don’t remember going to school with an Annabeth.
Annabeth Cole, Vicky said.
Help me out. How did I know her? Did I know you?
After a few seconds of silence, she said, Not as well as you knew Annabeth. You slept with her once. If that narrows it down any.
She and I went to East Oaks. She met you at a—
And then Bob knew. Annie? he said. Holy shit.
He sat down hard on the couch and put a hand over his eyes. Annie. It had been what—eighteen years? He’d forgotten her last name. And if she’d ever told him her full name was Annabeth, he’d forgotten that too. A picture of her came into his mind: a small, slender girl, long sandy-coloured hair, glasses. He’d only known her a week, if that. They had slept together, just once, when he was seventeen.
She’s dead? he asked. How?
Cancer. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Vicky told him the story while he stared at the beer can on his knee. She had been Annabeth’s—Annie’s—best friend since grade school. And Bobby had met Vicky soon after he met Annabeth—did he remember? At the pizza place? He told her he did, but this was mostly a lie. He remembered a girl, sitting across the booth, while he flirted with Annie. A place-holder shape in his memory. Was she tall? Maybe blonde?
Vicky told him she went to stay with Annabeth in Chicago for the month before she’d died. Towards the very end they talked a lot about the old days, and about what to do when Annabeth was gone, and Annabeth had written Bob’s name on a list of people who might want to hear the news. Then Vicky tracked him down on the web.
There are a lot of Bob Klines, she said. You’re a hard man to find…
Vicky then told him about the service, three months past, but he didn’t listen. When she was quiet again he said, Look, I guess I don’t remember Annie and I…ending up on the best of terms. Back then.
I don’t either, Vicky said.
Was she—was she still angry with me?
It was a stupid question, and he knew it the moment the words were in the air.
Vicky said, Well, you were her first time.
Yeah, he said, rubbing a knot at the base of his skull.
And it was kind of intense. I mean the whole thing. She was pretty messed up, after you dumped her.
Yeah, he said again.
Vicky said, Well. She thought you might remember her. And that you’d want to know.
I do, he said. Thank you. Listen, Vicky—
He could barely believe he was saying this.
I’m not like I was then. I mean, I was seventeen. She was such a sweet girl. If I could do it over—
Hey, Vicky said, we were kids.
He couldn’t even picture the outlines of the girl Vicky had been, but he could see her now, on the other end of the phone: a woman with her head in her hand, tired and sad. He wanted to say something else to her, to console her. But while he was thinking of what that might be, she said, I should go. I’m sorry, Bobby.
When she’d hung up Bob went to the patio doors and opened the blinds. He lived in an apartment overlooking downtown Indianapolis, fifteen floors up. The sun was setting, and the city lights were coming on, which was more or less the best thing that happened to him any more. He’d been separated from Yvonne for six months, and hadn’t been doing much since but working and then coming home to sit out on the balcony at night, drinking and watching the lights, telling himself he’d done the right thing.
His head was pounding now. He decided the circumstances called for a switch from beer to bourbon. For a little impromptu wake.
Bob picked up a bottle and glass from the kitchen, and took them both outside on to the balcony. A helicopter darted overhead. Next door he could hear a lot of people talking, the sound of music playing—jazz. He had classy neighbours on that side.
He finished the bourbon in his glass and tried to find grief for poor Annie in his swimming head. He couldn’t. It was somewhere outside of him, but faint, like the music he could just hear through the walls from next door.
Annie Cole. He’d broken her heart. Not on purpose, but all the same he had. He meant what he’d said to Vicky—she had been a sweet girl, and he’d been stupidly cruel. When he’d thought of her these past eighteen years, it was to wish her a happy life, a good husband, a big yard with kids and dogs. Had she told him she wanted those things? Or had he simply given them to her, in his mind? He couldn’t remember.
He lifted his glass, first to the party next door, then to the big glittery mirror-windowed office building across the street, where a few sad souls still worked; in this light he could just see them, ghostlike, through the reflective glass. To Annie, he thought. He wasn’t a religious man, but for her sake he hoped there was a heaven, someplace far away from sickness, from people like him.
A week went by. Bob’s settlement hearing with Yvonne was coming up in another two. As the day pulled closer he grew more and more impatient, more restless.
He ran his own business, a house-painting company. As he worked that week, balanced carefully on his ladder, he found himself thinking more and more about Annie Cole. He’d been so shocked to hear the news that he’d asked Vicky almost nothing about her. In his head she was still the tiny slip of a girl he’d known for a week in high school; he couldn’t picture her as a grown woman, let alone someone pale, bald, suffering. Dying, and then dead.
Then, Bob remembered: he might still have a picture of Annie, packed away in storage. She’d sent one to him, after, and he didn’t think he’d ever had the heart to throw it out. When he came home from work that night he unlocked his basement storage cage and dug out the box labelled HIGH SCHOOL. He lugged it upstairs and emptied it on the living-room floor. He set aside his diploma, and a bunch of old report cards, all relentlessly unexceptional. For the first time in years he looked at his senior prom picture, with Yvonne. In her gown she looked fabulous, proud; he looked confused, maybe even a little scared. But then he’d been stoned that night.
Scattered on the bottom of the box were several loose photos. Sure enough Annie’s was one of them: a wallet-sized picture, well tattered. In it she leaned against a tree, wearing a baby-blue sweater and a tan skirt. She was smiling shyly, and wasn’t wearing her glasses. Her hair fell thick and glossy over her shoulder. On the back of the photo was a girl’s handwriting: To Bobby. I’ll never forget. Love, Annie.
By the time Annie sent him this picture he’d known he’d never speak to her again. He set it down on the carpet, right next to the prom photo. And there they were: the triangle Yvonne had never known about.
Bob had already been in love with Yvonne the summer he and Annie met. That was the whole problem. Yvonne, his first girlfriend, the first person he’d slept with. That summer—1988—they’d briefly broken up, while she prepared to leave Indiana for college in Maryland. Bob’s folks had just split, and for complicated reasons he had to spend the summer in his father’s house in little East Oak, fifty miles from Westover. There Bob had a jumbled basement room with its own bathroom and exterior door. His father was away a lot on business, and Bob was in a town he didn’t know well, and in which he wouldn’t stay past summer’s end. Everything, even the ground under his feet, felt impermanent.
He worked part-time in a restaurant, and met a lot of East Oak kids there. He was a decent-looking guy, and thanks to friends back in Westover he always had pot, so he found himself, that summer, strangely popular. He took advantage. In the month after Yvonne broke things off, he brought three different girls back to his basement room. Why not? He didn’t know then whether what he felt was freedom or despair. When he was in his room, smoking a joint, or stripping off the panties of a girl he’d just met, he was able to believe it was freedom.
He’d met Annie at the East Oak park, while he was waiting with his friend Lew for their turn at a game of pickup hoops. Annie sat in the grass next to them with a friend—it must have been Vicky—watching boys she knew on the other team. Who had talked first? Bob couldn’t remember. But they’d introduced each other, chatted, joked.
He looked down at the picture in his hands. He would have noticed Annie’s hair first. And then—her voice. He remembered it. Deep, a little husky—like she smoked, even though she didn’t, usually. He remembered her long thin legs, her white tennis shoes. He and Lew got up to play their game, and when he came back twenty minutes later Annie had left. But she’d written her number on a slip of paper and tucked it beneath his keys.
Bob called her that afternoon and a couple of nights later they met up at the Pizza King downtown. Annie brought Vicky and he brought Lew. Bob sat next to Annie in the booth. She was wearing a short skirt, and was laughing and wild and flirty, turning in the seat to face him and, once, putting her hand on his knee.
Later that night, down in his basement room, he was shocked when Annie told him it was her first time. Why me? he asked her. You barely know me.
Annie, curled up beside him on the bed, laughed and blushed and said, I feel like I do. Like you’re right for me.
Bob put down the photo. Against whatever judgement he had left, he called Yvonne. She didn’t answer. He left her a message: A friend of mine from high school died. It’s thrown me for a loop. I’d really like to see you before next week—
He realized what he was saying and quickly hung up. Then, without setting down the phone, he dialled Vicky’s number.
While her phone rang he stood out on the balcony, 150 feet above the city streets. Off to the east a thunderhead had massed; lightning flickered down over the suburbs. If it rained tomorrow there’d be no painting; he’d have nothing at all to do. The thought filled him with panic.
Vicky, he said when she answered. It’s Bob Kline.
Oh! I thought the number looked familiar.
Is it a bad time? I can let you go.
No. I’m fine, really. How are you?
I don’t know, he said. Leaves blew on to his balcony, from some place in the city that had trees. I guess I’m a little curious, he said.
He listened to the long silence.
Is it all right if I ask about her? he said. I don’t want to put you in a bad spot—
No! Ask. Please.
Her voice was strange. Was she crying? He couldn’t tell.
He said, I forgot to ask whether she was happy. I want to know if she—if she was in a good place.
Yes, Vicky said. Until she got sick, she was very happy.
Was she married?
Yeah. They were good for each other.
No. She wanted them. But no.
Bob stood and leaned against the rough concrete wall of the building. Rain was starting to fall through the glow of the patio light, the drops appearing frozen for an eye-blink.
What did she do? he asked.
She was a lawyer.
Is that funny?
I’m in the middle of a divorce, he said. Or at the end, I guess I mean. I make a lot of lawyer jokes.
She was a prosecutor.
Well, I’ve steered clear of those, he said, taking a sip of his drink. I guess that’s all right.
She was quiet on the other end. He said, Hey, I can let you go. I’m just shooting the shit now.
It’s all right, Vicky said. I’m—I get a little defensive about her.
Can I ask another question? Do you mind?
Was it—He ran a hand through his hair. Did she suffer? Was it bad?
Another long quiet. It was cancer, Vicky said.
You were with her.
Yes. Me and Rick and her folks.
That must have been—
It was hard.
He said the next part quickly, meaning every word of it: I don’t know you, or even her, really. But it sounds to me like she was real lucky in her friends.
The line was so empty that he had to check the screen on his phone to make sure he hadn’t lost the call.
Thanks, Vicky said. A little burble of sound in the machine next to his ear. It’s—it’s been rough. I miss her.
Bob wanted to say, I do too—but that would be stupid. Up until a week ago he hadn’t missed her at all. But he did, now that he thought about her. He missed the girl touching his knee at the Pizza King. That feeling of invitation.
Listen, he said. You said you live in Indy?
You want a drink? I’m just sitting around here thinking about this. If it’ll help—I mean if you want to—I’m glad to meet you someplace.
He hadn’t planned on saying that, but once he had, he hoped dearly Vicky would say yes. But why would she? She didn’t know a thing about him except that he’d screwed over her friend in the eleventh grade. He paced back and forth and wondered at his own stupidity.
But then Vicky said, Sure. Okay.
It turned out she lived not very far from him, out in the neighbourhoods to the east, right underneath the lightning and the smudge of rain. She gave him the name of a bar halfway between them.
Bob spent a few minutes in the bathroom, taking a quick shower, shaving off two days’ worth of stubble, looking with dismay at his jowls, rubbing some gel in his hair. He was thirty-five, but he looked older. He had some grey at his temples. Years working in the sun had done a number on his skin. He was tanned, at least, didn’t look unhealthy. Vicky would be remembering the seventeen-year-old he’d been: long, greasy hair, bloodshot eyes, a wispy goatee. Whatever he was now would have to be an improvement. He put on a nice polo shirt and clean blue jeans and black shoes.
Bob squared himself up in the mirror. After the attention, he still looked just like he felt: lonely, a little drunk, probably on his way to making a mistake.
Just before Bob walked into the bar, he realized he’d forgotten to ask what Vicky looked like. She hadn’t asked him, either.
But it was a Tuesday night and the bar wasn’t busy. After his eyes adjusted to the light he spotted Vicky right away, sitting at a small table against the outer wall. She was the only woman in the place who looked as though someone close to her had just died, her face a white, sad oval in the low, warm light. Whatever he looked like, she spotted him too; she stood the moment he met her eyes, offering a half-wave.
He’d been trying to remember a blonde, but Vicky was a redhead, her hair in a pixie cut, though her face was a little too round for that to work. She’d dressed in a light-green blouse and black slacks. Work clothes, he thought. On the whole she looked nice, but not done up.
Bobby, she said.
Then she smiled at him, crookedly, maybe happy or sad or both at once—and right there, he remembered her, sitting across the table from him at the Pizza King. The smile was the key. While Annie flirted with him, Vicky’s smile had gone more and more lopsided, tipping through sadness and into panic; her laughter had gotten louder and louder. The best friend getting left behind.
He held out a hand to her, but Vicky shrugged and gave him an embrace instead, quick and clumsy. When they pulled apart she said, You haven’t changed a bit.
I remembered you, he said, but I wasn’t sure I’d recognize you.
Vicky laughed a little. Her cheeks were dotted with freckles, and the low neckline of her blouse showed him more. He didn’t remember those, but he liked them.
So, you want a drink? she said. First round’s on me.
Thanks, he said. Bourbon?
Vicky walked over to the bar and Bob sat at her table. An empty margarita glass stood next to her car keys. Beside her keychain was a small photo album, closed with a clasp. She’d brought pictures of Annie along. Bob wished he had the bourbon in him already.
Vicky came back with their drinks. She sat and sighed, and said, Bobby Kline.
You know, he said, I go by Bob these days.
Oh, right. I don’t know if I can do that. You’ve been Bobby for eighteen years.
Fair enough. You mind if I keep calling Annabeth Annie?
Her eyes flickered up. I guess not.
And you’re Vicky.
And Vicky I shall remain.
He liked her. Had he expected not to? He lifted his glass, and she followed suit; they clinked rims. Thanks for this, he said.
Well, you’re buying the next one.
I will. But I mean meeting me.
She shrugged, smiled her half smile. I’ve been spending a lot of time in my head, you know? It’s good to be out.
This your bar?
One of them.
She nodded and took a sip of her drink. Oh, Bobby, she said. I don’t know if I can do small talk.
She levelled her eyes at him, which were very green.
He said, I guess now that I’ve got you here, I don’t know what to ask.
Vicky said, You can’t figure out why she wanted me to call you.
He laughed, surprised—that was it all right. Yeah, he said.
You weren’t the only person I called. The only ex-boyfriend.
I’d be real sorry if I was.
Vicky kept her eyes on him. She was very good at that.
He said, I guess for my sake I was kind of hoping I wasn’t…still important.
Vicky said, You were the first guy she ever slept with. You never forget your first, right?
Bob remembered Yvonne, in the back seat of his old Impala, grinning, unbuttoning his jeans, guiding his hand underneath her skirt. You better be sure, she’d told him. This is the big time.
He’d felt the warm inside of her thigh with wonder and said, I am absolutely, positively sure.
Yeah, he told Vicky. You never do.
Annabeth was obsessed with you, Vicky said. Right from the start, when she talked to you in the park. She was crushed for months, after you dumped her.
It hurt him to hear, but he had no place to hide from it.
I was an asshole, he said. I admit it.
You were a total fucking prick, is what you were.
He kept his eyes on his drink.
I’m sorry, Vicky. I wish I could have apologized to her.
So why didn’t you?
I don’t know. I always thought about looking her up, but at a certain point I figured the past is the past, you know?
He was lying. It had never occurred to him to call Annie, or any of the other women he’d slept with that summer, before Yvonne showed up at his doorstep and said she wanted him back. Sure, he’d treated Annie badly, but Yvonne had come back for him, and once that happened, he couldn’t turn around and stare for even a second at where he’d been. Or what he’d done.
A furrow was deepening between Vicky’s eyebrows.
He said, I don’t want to excuse myself, okay? I feel like shit. It’s why I called you. I can’t stop thinking about how terrible it is that this happened.
You can’t, huh.
Do you need to tell me off? he asked. Would that make it better?
No, Vicky said. Her face was clouding. It wouldn’t.
Bob wished he hadn’t called her, that he hadn’t come. He took another drink and turned to look over his shoulder. It had gotten dark, and the rain was coming down hard.
He asked, Did she hate me?
Vicky might have been gearing up to it for a while, but after that question, out of nowhere, she dropped her head and began to cry. Not noisily; she ducked her head and tears rolled out of her eyes, and she fumbled for a napkin.
After a while she shook her head and said, She wasn’t like that.
She had to. At least a little.
Vicky jerked her head up. She wanted you to remember! Is that so fucking hard to figure out? She was dying! She shared something really special with you. Maybe she thought you might still have a heart in there, huh?
Over Vicky’s shoulder the bartender was giving them both the eye. Other people were looking, too.
Vicky’s voice quavered. She was the one who told me not to hate you—
Bob stood up. Vicky had started to sound too much like Yvonne, like every phone call he’d taken from her late at night, when she’d had to accuse him of anything and everything, and he had to agree.
Look, he said. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’ll go.
Vicky buried her face in her hands. You don’t have to go, she said. I’m sorry.
Annie was a good girl. Better than me. I’ll always remember her. Okay?
Vicky didn’t say anything, or lift her eyes from behind her fingers. Her shoulders shook. Bob stood at her side for a few seconds, unsure whether to say anything more, or squeeze her shoulder, or what. She still didn’t move. Finally he figured he’d done enough damage and he walked out the front door. The heavy rain gave him an excuse to jog the half block to his car, to pile in and drive away as fast as he could.
Inside his parking garage he didn’t get out of the car. He couldn’t bring himself to go home yet. What had Vicky said? She’d been in her head too much. That was about right—so had he. If he went inside he’d call Yvonne, he knew it. Better to keep both of his hands on the wheel and manoeuvre the downtown streets. He had a little too much drink in him, so he stopped at a drive-through for black coffee and sipped it carefully while he drove.
He’d lied to Vicky. He’d said he’d always remember Annie. But he couldn’t remember everything that happened, at least not in the way Annie had always believed. He remembered meeting her, remembered flirting with her. Remembered taking her to his room.
But the sex, the actual first time Annie had chosen him for—he couldn’t remember any of it.
He remembered pulling a handful of beers for the two of them out of his father’s refrigerator. He remembered Annie asking him if he had any pot—she said she’d heard that if you got high before you did it, it wouldn’t hurt as much. He told her he did have pot, but that it might hurt anyway. It’s okay, she said. I’m ready.
He remembered her body; she undressed in front of him, blushing, smiling through the thick curtain of her hair. Without her clothes she seemed even smaller, her arms and legs too thin, her chest barely bigger than a boy’s. He undressed for her, feeling strangely shy.
When he took off his underwear she reached over and curled her hand around his penis, then withdrew her fingers, as though she’d done something she shouldn’t have. Even then that just about broke his heart.
They hadn’t rushed. But why? He’d been plenty excited. For a long time they sat side by side, naked hips touching. He put on music and they talked and shared a joint and drank the beer. Relaxing. It was hot, even after the sun went down, and they opened a window to let in a breeze.
But all the beer and the pot did its work; he remembered the two of them listening to Pink Floyd for a while, and after that the night went blank.
Then it was morning. He woke with Annie’s head tucked against his shoulder, one of her legs flung across him. He nudged her awake. They were both hungover, and he took her to a diner on the interstate for coffee, which he found she’d never tried before. She made a face and joked about how sex was easier, the first time. They both joked about how much trouble she’d be in, for staying out all night without permission. It was worth it, she said. You sure? he asked. I’m sure. He dropped her off down the block from her house. When he got back home he saw the blood on his sheets, and that was really the last thing he remembered: sitting hungover out behind the house, wadding up his sheets into a five-gallon bucket full of bleach and stirring them around with a stick.
Annie called him that night, in tears, to tell him she was grounded for two weeks. She told him she missed him. He told her he missed her too. He was sure he meant it.
And then a week later Yvonne called him, for the first time in a month. He remembered that call with great clarity; he’d been hoping for it all summer, jumping to his feet whenever the phone rang. I can’t do this, she told him, crying, while he listened in disbelief. She said, I can’t live without you. He told her to come over, and she did. They lay together on his clean sheets, and she said, Bobby, make love to me, and if he thought about Annie Cole, or any of the other girls, it was only to hope he hadn’t missed cleaning any trace of them out of the room. Yvonne took off his clothes and he took off hers and they cried together, and made love, and in the early morning he said, I think we ought to get married, as soon as we can. And she said, Of course we should. We’re meant for each other. He remembered, and would always remember, kissing her then, his hands cupping her cheeks, while she pressed her entire length against him; afterward she stared into him with her big unblinking eyes.
Annie called again two days later, and that was when he’d begun to hurt her. She’d left a message on the machine: how she wanted to see him, how she was thinking about him all the time, how she was worried because he hadn’t called. Yvonne was in the shower when he listened, and he was afraid she’d hear too. He hit the Erase button before the message was over.
Annie left two more messages, her voice growing sadder and sadder. The last time she cried. I can’t understand this, she said, over and over. He erased it. He came home two days later and found a letter taped to his door.
No getting around it. He’d been a kid, sure, but an asshole was an asshole. He tore up the letter without opening it. After that he never heard from her again. And if he felt bad, there was Yvonne, talking about their wedding, the kids they’d have, the names they’d give them.
Yvonne used to like to say to him, I feel safe with you.
As Bob drove through the city, he imagined what it would have been like, if he’d chosen differently. If whatever had happened with Annie had made him love her, instead of Yvonne. Annie with her tiny body and her gravelly laugh. Her long silky hair. He imagined the two of them going off to school together. Marrying their sophomore year. Maybe they would have been able to have kids. Maybe they would have had something to talk about, these last five years.
But whatever they would have been, Annie would still have gotten sick and died, and he would have had to watch.
Maybe, he thought, it would be better that way—maybe it was better to love someone who died than it was to fall out of love with someone living.
Here was a first time for Vicky, one he’d never forget: the first time he cheated on Yvonne. This was three years ago. Yvonne was out of town, at her sister’s. He’d started a fight just before she got on the plane, and she’d left tight-lipped, furious. He sat at home thinking about what she was saying to her sister until he couldn’t stand it any more. He walked to a bar downtown and traded drinks with a woman ten years younger than him, who was only weeks away from going off to grad school. At the end of the night they shared a taxi home. While they were parked at the kerb she said, Why don’t you come in? He gave her a look, and she gave it back. She said, It’s what you think.
I’m married, he said.
She was twenty-two, blonde, impossible. One of the straps of her dress had fallen off her shoulder. I won’t tell, she said. Come on in.
He had. And he remembered damn near everything.
Bob tried and tried to avoid it, but after an hour of driving aimlessly he found himself in Yvonne’s neighbourhood, up in Carmel. She lived in a nice apartment complex, behind a gate, and at eight o’clock, after circling her block five times, he gave up and turned the wheel into the entrance. He hadn’t seen her in two months. He punched her number into the security box. She answered right away.
It’s me, he said.
What do you want?
To talk to you.
I don’t think so. Are you drunk?
No, he said. Five minutes, that’s all.
Five minutes, he said. I don’t even have to come in. We can even do it like this, if you want.
She didn’t say anything. But after several seconds the gate buzzed open, and he drove slowly through. He parked in one of the Visitor slots, which, for a moment, made him want to cry.
Yvonne answered the door in a little black dress and heels. Immediately he smelled her perfume; it made him want to reach for her. She’d dyed her hair a dark maroon; the last time he saw her it was long, but she’d had it cut short. It showed off her neck. He thought she might have lost a little weight, too. Her mouth was pursed, and she didn’t look at him, beyond an initial once-over.
You are drunk, she said. You shouldn’t be driving.
I’m all right, he said. You look great, by the way.
I’m about to go out.
She laughed and crossed her arms. Like I’d tell you?
He figured that meant no; these days she would tell him.
So what do you want? she asked. Four minutes, and I’ve got to go.
Bob peered at her again, trying to see the girl she’d been, the one he’d taken to prom. He could feel her anger swelling while he did.
I’ve just been thinking about us, he said. Trying to make sense out of it.
She laughed, without any humour. Join the club.
He said, How did this happen?
You told me you didn’t love me any more, is what happened.
He ran a hand through his hair. What if it wasn’t true? What if I got it wrong?
Well, it’s too late for that now, she said, and glanced theatrically at her watch. That was a favourite line of hers, right up there with Maybe you should have thought of that before you fucked all those girls.
I did love you, he said. I know that, and you do too.
And you felt the need to drive over here and tell me?
Can I ask you something?
Would you have done things differently? If you’d known?
What—if I knew we’d end up like this?
She laughed again. Of course I would have, she said. I married you; I didn’t think I was taking out a fucking lease. Seriously, Bob. Would you have?
I don’t know if I could have stopped myself, he said. That’s how in love I was.
I’m leaving, she said. Right after you.
Yvonne grabbed her purse off the kitchen table and gestured towards the door. She was still beautiful, still smarter and better than him. And Bob was everything she said he was, believed him to be. It was better for them to be apart. Better for her. He knew that.
But Yvonne was so beautiful—spectacular, really, in her dress and good shoes, smelling of flowers, her new hair shimmering around her neck. He couldn’t help it.
Von, are you really going to hate me the rest of your life?
She stared at him.
He said, If I died tomorrow, would you still hate me?
Yvonne pressed her lips together and pointed at the door.
Come on, he said. Next week it’s permanent. Answer me.
For a second he saw something else in her eyes, a moment of—of what? Sadness? Remorse? She still didn’t answer him.
His next words surprised him. Let me kiss you again, he said. Once more, while I’m still your husband.
Uh-uh. Absolutely not.
I don’t remember the last time we kissed, he said.
This was true; it had been bothering him. The last one had probably been nothing but a meaningless kiss goodbye, some morning as they left for work. His closed lips against her turning cheek.
She opened the door for him. Her voice still shaking, she said, Well I do.
Bob drove home quickly, with only one stop, at the liquor store for a bottle of Maker’s Mark. There was nothing more to do tonight but get blind drunk, and if that was the case he might as well go down in style.
Inside his apartment he sat on the couch with a drink in one hand and the old pictures—Annie, he and Yvonne at prom—in the other. Both women looking up at the camera, happy, expectant. And him looking dull, stoned. Maybe a little scared. How had that skinny kid in the tux managed to cause so much pain? He looked at Yvonne, eighteen, thrilled to be alive and holding his hands. He turned over Annie’s picture and read the inscription again. Why had they trusted him with anything?
His phone buzzed then against his hip; he dug it out. Yvonne, he thought. She’d probably thought up some good lines, or was going to give him the AA speech again.
But instead he saw Vicky’s number on the screen. He told himself, Don’t answer. Do her a favour and never speak to her again.
But he couldn’t help it.
Bobby, she said. Thanks for picking up.
Did you think I wouldn’t?
She sighed. I wouldn’t blame you. Listen. I’m sorry. I went off on you and I shouldn’t have.
Vicky, he said, touched. Come on. It was my fault, too.
This is really hard on me, she said. But I wouldn’t want someone calling me on shit I did when I was seventeen, either.
It’s okay, he said. My wife does all the time.
He thought he heard her lighting a cigarette. She said, It’s just that I feel like I have to honour her, you know? But I’m too unstable to do it right. She wouldn’t have wanted me to yell at you.
He swirled the bourbon in his glass and looked at the pictures in front of him. He said, Tell me something I don’t know about her. What would she have wanted me to know?
Vicky was quiet for a while. Then she said, She would have wanted you to know she was strong.
She seemed plenty strong to me. Sure of herself.
Yeah, but as an adult. A woman. She’d want you to know she was tough. She grew up and put bad guys in jail. She was proud of that.
Another silence, and he knew they were coming to the end of things. After they hung up there’d be no reason for either of them to call again. But he didn’t want to hang up. Vicky might be crazy, but he liked her voice on the other end of the phone. He thought again of the freckles on her chest, and wondered what kind of a man that made him.
She surprised him. Hey, Bobby, she said, do you still get high?
That was your rep, she said. You were the Westover guy with the good pot. Annie was all nuts about you, and the first thing I said was, The pot guy?
Jesus, he said, leaning his head back on the couch. Yeah, he said, Sure I do. But I don’t exactly have the supply I used to.
Listen, she said. I’ve got some. You want to come by? If we’re going to talk about Annie—let’s talk about Annie.
He sat up and looked at the clock. Was she really inviting him over?
Vicky, it’s almost midnight.
I know. I don’t sleep much. Not these days.
Half an hour later, showered, in a change of clothes and wearing aftershave, Bob knocked at Vicky’s door. She lived in a nice new brownstone town house, not two miles from his apartment building. While he waited for her to open the door, he saw a tiger-striped cat watching him from the windowsill, its tail lashing. He tapped a finger against the glass; it fled instantly.
Vicky answered the door. Her eyes were red, a little glassy; she might not have waited for him to light up. Bobby, she said, with her crooked smile. Come on in.
She was dressed in a pyjama top and cut-off shorts, and was barefoot. One of her ankles was ringed with some kind of tribal tattoo. Her thighs were freckled too.
He followed her into the town house. Nice place, he said, even though it was a mess. Her living room was full of books, and every surface was dusty. Through an arched doorway he could see a kitchen counter piled with dishes. The air smelled like incense and weed and maybe some kind of Mediterranean food.
Thanks for calling, he said, trying for some kind of charm.
Thanks for coming, she said. Then she stopped and leaned forward and hugged him, as awkwardly as she had at the bar. She sniffled in his ear. She might be high, but she was still sad, too.
You want a drink? she asked. I’ve only got wine. Red.
I’ll take some, sure.
Wine and bourbon. He might not survive the morning. From the couch, he heard the kitchen faucet come on, water splashing. Music was playing softly from speakers he couldn’t see—a woman and an acoustic guitar; he couldn’t make out the words. He looked over the walls. Even the spaces that weren’t covered by bookshelves had books stacked against them, as high as his chest.
On the end table, next to his elbow, was a photograph in a wooden frame. He turned it to get a better look. It showed Vicky—in college, he guessed—and another woman, standing together in bikinis, on a dock someplace blue and tropical.
He’d stared a few seconds before he recognized the other woman as Annie.
He picked up the photo and peered closely. Annie hadn’t remained a skinny little girl. She’d grown up and out—she’d become a knockout, in fact, tanned and curvy. The Vicky next to her—tall, angular, sunburnt across her forehead—seemed to know it, too; she was shrinking into herself, her smile as uncertain as it had been back in East Oak. She knew she was completely outmatched.
This was the picture Vicky kept out for herself to see.
She came back from the kitchen and handed him a generous glassful of wine. That’s my favourite picture of her, she said.
Yeah. She always was. Vicky took the photo from him and held it against her chest. You want to see more pictures?
Did he? Vicky wanted him to, at least, and he didn’t want to disappoint her. Sure, he said.
Vicky disappeared for a few seconds, then returned with the little photo album he’d seen earlier that evening, on the table at the bar.
She sat next to him on the couch and put the album between them, balanced on their knees. He resisted the impulse to put his arm around her shoulders. He hadn’t picked up anything from her, that way, since arriving, and he felt a little sheepish. He wished he hadn’t put on aftershave, but if she noticed it, she gave no sign.
She opened the album. That’s us in elementary school, she said.
Looking at the pictures was the strangest thing he’d done in a long time. He turned the pages and watched Annie slowly age, from a little kid with braces into a tomboy, and from there into the skinny long-haired girl he remembered.
In college Annie suddenly blossomed, and not just her body; there was something in her face that hadn’t been there, before. She and Vicky toasted the camera with martini glasses. Was it that she seemed calmer? A sudden intuition told him: there was someone on the other side of the camera she liked.
Then on to adulthood. Annie and Vicky sitting at a New Year’s party, wearing hats. A man sat next to Annie, smiling at the camera, his hand over hers. An average-looking guy, thin, with a full beard.
Rick? he said.
Only two pictures in the album didn’t have Vicky in them. The first was a wedding picture, in black and white: Annie in her gown, caught in a swirl of activity, at the reception probably—she looked to be on a dance floor, surrounded by blurred bodies. Annie was grinning, eyes and teeth shining, her face turning back to look at the camera over her shoulder. Bob thought of the pictures he had of Yvonne, looking like that, and had to pinch the bridge of his nose.
The second picture—the last one—showed Annie sick. She was sitting on a deep couch, looking up at the camera, a blanket on her lap and a mug in her hands. She was wearing a bulky sweatshirt, but her face and her wrists were shockingly thin, and he was sure the hair on her head was a wig. Her skin was as white as paper.
Vicky said, I thought she’d be mad at me for taking that one. I don’t even know why I keep it in here.
He didn’t know either. He wished, looking at it, that he’d seen only the pictures of Annie happy.
Vicky said, I still think she’s beautiful. Even then.
She put a hand over her mouth and began to shiver, staring down at the picture.
Bob closed the album.
It’s okay, she said. You can keep looking. But tears were rolling down her cheeks.
He put his arm around her shoulders, and she collapsed—he could feel her tumbling into herself, inside, even as she leaned into him.
It’s okay, he said. It’s all right.
No, it’s not.
You did what you could, he said, hoping it was what she needed.
She groaned, and then said, I loved her, Bobby. I loved her for years, and I never told her. I never told anybody.
She was your best friend, he said. She knew you loved her—
Vicky lifted her head and fixed her wet eyes on him.
That’s not what I mean.
He had to turn the words over for a few seconds before he understood.
Oh, he said.
Vicky sat up and reached for a tissue from the end table, her lips trembling. Yeah.
Did she know? I mean, that you were—
That I’m what? A lesbian?
He was the stupidest man on earth. Yeah, he said.
Vicky shook her head. Annabeth knew, but I didn’t—I didn’t bring it up much.
Bob thought of the wedding picture: Annie twirling, with no groom in sight.
How long did you know? he asked. About Annie.
Vicky shook her head. For ever. When I got jealous of her boyfriends in high school, I figured it was just because she was more popular than me. For sure in college. After I came out.
Vicky sniffled and kneaded the pillow.
That was right when Annabeth met Rick, and after she told me she was in love with him I went to my room and threw up and was in this panic—
She looked off to the side, like she was seeing Annie, there in the corner of the room.
And then she got married, and she was happy, so I tried to keep my distance, and had my own things going on, but then when she got sick, she called me and said Rick needed help—
And you went.
He tried to imagine what she must have gone through. What it would have been like to be close to Yvonne all those years—loving her, but never having it returned, never being able even to say it. Look at tonight. Even now that things were over, he’d been unable to keep his mouth shut when it counted. Vicky had been quiet for twenty years.
Vicky whispered then, I’m jealous of you.
Bob’s stomach sank. Don’t be, he said. There’s nothing to be jealous of.
She was staring at him. Sure there is, she said.
We were kids, he said. We were stoned and drunk. We didn’t take home any medals, okay?
Vicky took a breath and held it. He braced himself for her anger.
But she said, Tell me about her.
You know her so much better—
Vicky’s cheeks were scarlet.
No, she said. I mean—I mean during. When you were…together.
I can’t, he said, his mouth dry.
It’s the only way I’ll ever know, she said. Who else could I ask? Rick?
He thought of Vicky, across the table at the Pizza King, her face just a blur in the background, while Annie touched his knee. He thought of erasing Annie’s message, her voice cutting off mid-word.
Please, Vicky said.
So he took a deep breath and told her what he could. Vicky leaned closer. He told her all the details he could remember: Annie touching his knee. Twining her fingers in his as he drove to his apartment. Murmuring while he kissed her. Taking off her clothes.
Was she beautiful? Vicky asked. Like that?
He told her about the way Annie’s hair looked, falling across her shoulders. The shape of her body. How, when Annie was naked, she’d asked, Is this all right? The two of them lying back against a pile of pillows, smoking a joint, Annie warm and smiling against his chest.
Vicky took a drink, her fingers white around her glass. She whispered the next question: Tell me what it was like.
Bob wanted to tell her, but he’d reached the limit of his memories.
It was great, he said.
Vicky had closed her eyes, was waiting.
He couldn’t remember. He really couldn’t. But Vicky needed more.
Then the solution came to him.
Carefully, without using her name, he told Vicky instead about Yvonne—about that first time, right after Yvonne came back to him. He told Vicky about a beautiful girl naked beneath the blankets, laughing; about the silky feel of her body; about how she never stopped moving against him, almost like water. About the surprising strength of her kisses. He told her about the sweet taste of her skin and lips. How, when they were done, she took his hand and kissed his palm, right in the centre. How she said, This is special.
Vicky’s eyes were still closed. She spoke so softly he could barely hear the words: She really tasted sweet?
He thought of Yvonne’s clean wet hair, smelling of apples; of the vanilla gloss she used to put on her lips.
Yeah, he said. She really did.
I knew it, Vicky said, and smiled. I just knew it.