|Jul/Aug 2011 Fiction|
Photo by Dorianne Laux
"If you could take any drug right now, what would it be?" Richard asked his wife and the other couple sitting around the dining table scattered with the remains of pad Thai, spring rolls, and curry.
They had been friends since they were freshmen at Stanford. Nobody remembers exactly how they met or when they paired off, but they paired off in the obvious way: Tony and Nancy were the jocks. Richard and Kim were the smart ones, not in an intellectual way, but in a student achievement way. The friendship endured through graduation and jobs in San Francisco, to weddings, first babies, second babies, then the reluctant, inevitable move to the suburbs with better schools, bigger yards, and good parks and recreation departments.
"Legal or illegal?" asked Nancy, his friend's wife. Nancy winked at Richard. She liked to flirt with him when she'd had a little wine. They were arranged around Nancy's steel and glass dining table. She'd seated Richard next to her.
"Quaaludes," she said. "I loved Quaaludes. I took one in high school and fell down a flight of stairs at a party but didn't even get a bruise."
"Lovely," her husband replied. He thought she could be so low-class.
Tony was a successful contractor, and although he sat in his truck or behind a desk most of the day, his short frame was well-muscled because he spent a considerable amount of time at the gym. He had a cleft in his chin where he liked to put his thumb and hold on. It reminded Nancy of the way her little boy held his penis while watching Scooby-Doo! cartoons.
Nancy was an account rep in an ad agency and skinny as a whippet from running as if her life depended on it. Her hair was blonde and straight, cut into a bob that swung around her face when she talked.
"Don't tell me you didn't do any drugs," said Nancy. She thought Tony could be so judgmental.
"I didn't. I couldn't afford cocaine, and I hated marijuana. It just made me so fucking paranoid."
They all looked toward the TV room to be sure the kids hadn't heard him use the f-word.
"Remember that Irish bar we used to go to in the city?" Richard asked. "The one out in the Avenues? People were always doing cocaine in the men's room." He looked at the three of them. "The worst thing I do now is a hit of Johnny Walker Black on a Monday night." Richard stretched his arms. He liked to take up a lot of space in a room.
Richard was tall and thin. He'd lost most of his hair and shaved off what was left. He was a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, the top of the financial food chain. He earned enough money to live in a renovated mini mansion in old Palo Alto that was professionally decorated. His wife Kim had quit her job in marketing research for a pharmaceutical company after their second child was born, and she had grown plump finishing the food her picky children left on their plates.
"Yeah, those were the good old days," Tony said. "Pre-babies, pre-mortgages, pre-burbs."
"Pre-adolescents," Kim added. Of the group, she was the quietest, or rather, the only one who thought before she spoke.
They all nodded, remembering some drunken night, smoking cigarettes, understanding Rilke, and loving every word that came out of their mouths.
"I could get cocaine," Nancy said.
They all stopped, wine glasses halfway to their mouths, and looked at her.
"Do people still do cocaine? I thought crack was all the rage," Tony said.
"I work with people whose parents were conceived at Woodstock." Most of her co-workers, the creative types who weren't married, stayed awake until the bars closed, then went to clubs and danced up until the morning sun—the same time Nancy was pouring milk on her children's Cheerios.
"Aren't we too old?" Kim asked, setting down her wine glass and rubbing her enormous engagement diamond as if it were a magic lamp.
"We can afford it now. Unless it costs more than it used to," Richard said.
"I read in Newsweek that it's cheaper," Nancy said. "How much should I get?"
Two weeks later they were back at Tony and Nancy's dining table, but this time the kids were at their respective grandparent's houses, and there was a mirror, razor blade, and a small, white packet in front of each adult. Nancy had set out a plate of expensive cold cuts—thinly sliced Italian ham and cheeses and crackers, plus cornichons and shriveled black olives. There was French champagne and red wine.
"Let's do it together," Tony said. They had Googled what to do, and each set to their task, concentrating as if they were calculating their taxes. No talking, just the tick, tick, tick of the blade on each mirror.
"Don't we need a straw or something?" Kim asked.
"Hold on," Nancy went to the kitchen and rummaged through the junk drawer, coming up with a couple of discarded straws from juice boxes, which she sawed in two.
They all snorted.
"Wow." Richard tipped backward in his chair, something Nancy didn't allow anybody else to do.
Tony opened the champagne. They did another round.
"Gosh, I feel so naughty," Kim giggled.
"You did good, Nancy." Richard leaned over and puckered up, indicating that she should do the same. She pursed her lips and kissed him.
"You're such a flirt," she said.
"Takes one to know one." Richard jumped out of his chair. "I can't imagine getting drugs from anybody I work with; they're more conservative, like Tony."
"I'm not that conservative."
"You number your socks, honey." Nancy patted him on the shoulder.
"That's not conservative, that's efficient. So they'll wear out at the same time." Tony finished his champagne and poured himself another glass as if to make a point.
"Don't worry, I find it more endearing than annoying. Tell us something weird that Richard does," Nancy turned to Kim.
"Stop lying. Do some more coke and tell us the truth; you're among friends."
Kim snorted another line. "Well, he works too much…"
"Who doesn't?" Nancy laughed and punched Richard, who'd sat back down and was doing more coke, too. Nancy looked at Kim, who was blushing, "Oh, sorry. You used to work too much, too."
"Right." Kim looked into her mirror. "When did I get these lines around my eyes?"
"About the time we moved to this godforsaken hellhole of normalcy," Richard said. He wanted to stay in Pacific Heights, but Kim wanted the kids to have a suburban upbringing.
"I think we should have some music." Nancy jumped up, turned on a U2 CD, and started bumping her hips from side to side in the living room. Tony thought it made her look old; nobody danced like that anymore.
"Turn it down. You'll wake up the neighbors."
"Oh, you're such a fuddy duddy. When was the last time you did something just because it felt good?"
Tony stood up. "I think it would feel good to smoke."
"Mr. Athlete wants a cigarette?" Nancy had gone back to her mirror and was mowing down another row. She had sweat on her forehead.
"I'm not that square." Tony wished he wasn't so defensive all the time.
"I want to smoke, too," Kim said, surprising herself.
"A guy I work with left a pack in my car." Tony motioned to his truck in the driveway.
"Brush your teeth before you come back in," Nancy called after him, but he'd already shut the door.
They walked out to the truck, and Tony pulled a pack of Marlboros out of the glove box.
"Let's smoke in the garage so the neighbors don't see us."
They sat on the hood of Nancy's Volvo and lit up. Kim had the same car, and it made her wonder how her children were doing. The twelve-year-old would be fine, but the eight-year-old had a cold that sometimes turned into asthma. She hoped she wouldn't have to go get him. She wasn't sure she could face her mother like this, worried that, like in high school, her mom would look into her eyes and see that her pupils were dilated or point out that she was slurring her words. If she had to get her son, she'd chew on a handful of breath mints and dowse herself in perfume. She wished she could stop thinking about her kids for a single night.
Tony turned to look at her. She was so pretty in a soft way: all round, full-cheeked, and curly haired, haloed in cigarette smoke. He knew he wouldn't be this content sitting here with Nancy. She'd yell at him for knocking his ashes on the garage floor, then tell him he stunk.
"Do you think we'd have been happy together?" Tony asked Kim, touching her elbow.
"I'm too busy wiping up after kids to think about stuff like that."
"Sometimes I think I should have married you instead of Nancy. Remember when we were all friends in college? What was it that made us choose one over the other?"
"You'd never be happy with a couch potato like me."
"But Nancy doesn't seem to like me anymore." Tony couldn't remember the last time she'd been intimate with him. Not sex, it was the touching he missed. Nancy didn't hold his hand or play with his hair. And he had hair, unlike Richard. But now it was Richard whose biceps she rubbed, whose thighs she grabbed.
Tony squashed his cigarette on the floor and knocked two more out of the pack.
"Relationships change. You can't keep up that kind of passion anyway. You'd burn out," Kim said, taking the new cigarette.
Tony leaned over the car hood to kiss her. Her mouth felt numb from the drugs, but she could taste a metallic tang on his tongue. Tony reached out for her breast. He'd always wondered what Kim's felt like; they were shaped so differently from Nancy's, more mogul than ski jump. He put his hand under her blouse, pushed aside the bra that cupped her tit to reach his prize, a taut nipple. She gasped.
"Your skin is so soft," he said.
"No, it's not that. You're not all bony like Nancy. I just love your curves."
"Richard wants me to lose weight."
"Don't talk about Richard."
"Okay." She dropped his hand and held her arms out in defeat. He buried his head in her breasts. Smothered in her softness, he felt like he'd come home. She played with his hair the way she did with her boys when they were sick.
"I'm lonely," Tony said.
"I know," she said.
"Would you spank me?" he asked.
Back inside Nancy and Richard were still sitting at the dining table, snorting, sweating, and talking at the same time. Richard stopped mid-line, holding his half of the straw in front of his face like a cigar. "I've always thought you were one of the most exciting women I've ever known."
"You're fucking high, dawg."
"It's true," he slurred. He'd finished the champagne and was working on the wine.
"You want truth? I hate that I can leave my recycling out without somebody stealing it. I hate that I don't have to lock my fucking front door. I hate that I have nothing to be afraid of."
"Be afraid of me." Richard stood up and waved his crotch in front of Nancy, who laughed.
"Oh, please. You're not scary. I know you like the back of my hand." She held up her hand and began studying it. "My hands are beautiful, aren't they? I mean, I like my body, but I think my hands are my best feature. My fingers are so long and graceful."
"Is it that I'm too skinny? I know I've lost weight, but I work out, too, you know? I've been lifting and running."
"What?" Nancy looked up at him.
"I'm talking about me, my body. Do you think I'm too skinny?"
"You look the same as you always have." Nancy thought Richard had a problem with listening. He could be so one-track.
"No, I think I might be bigger." He flexed his arms.
"Let's weigh you." Nancy got up from the table and walked down the hallway. Although she was smaller, Richard had to jog to keep up. She led him into the master bedroom closet and with her foot pulled the scale from under a row of clothes.
"Okay. Get on."
Richard stepped onto the scale.
"185 pounds? No way."
"Take off your jeans. When I was pregnant and my doctor weighed me, I never wore jeans. They're too heavy." Nancy reached for Richard's zipper and pulled it down.
Richard grabbed her hand. "But I want to be heavier. I should be at least 190 pounds."
"Wow. I can't even imagine wanting to weigh more."
"That's what's wrong with women. Why can't you be happy with the way you are?"
"You're the one who's complaining."
Richard stepped forward and his pants fell to his ankles. He was wearing boxers with dice on them.
"Oooh, nice undies," Nancy said.
"Do they turn you on?"
"I don't find men's underwear all that sexy. Look at that," she reached out and pulled on the fabric flapping around Richard's leg. "I could make a dress out of this."
"I suppose you have on a thong?"
"None of your business."
"Come on. I showed you mine."
"Oh, fine." Nancy pulled up her skirt and twirled; showing off a pink thong, then dropped her skirt and spit at Richard's face. He pushed her back into the bathroom, lifted her onto the marble counter, and kissed her. She tried to push him back, then bit his tongue. Her resistance excited him even more. He thought, I need a woman who fights me, a woman with a mind of her own. She wants me.
"This is what you've always wanted, isn't it?" he asked. She thought, Do I? No, what I really want is to be left alone, a week on an island. That's not too much to ask, is it?
At the same time Richard was grinding against Nancy, Kim was smacking Tony's bare ass, leaving red handprints on his white skin like the finger paintings that hung on her refrigerator. Tony was feeling more and more like one of her sons. She thought, I'm tired of taking care of boys.
"We should go in now," she said. She pushed Tony off of her and slid off the hood of the car.
"Is there something wrong with me? Am I unattractive?" Tony asked.
"No. You're married."
Tony thought, I love my wife.
Kim helped him pull up his pants and patted him on his arm. "You'll feel better in the morning."
Tony and Kim left the garage and walked up the dark driveway.
Tony stopped, "It's so quiet you can practically hear people sleeping."
"In the city, it was never this quiet; somebody was always awake, watching TV, driving a bus. Right now, we're the only ones awake. We're special." She thought of a cartoon she'd seen in The New Yorker: Two women were standing in a living room, and one was saying, "We thought a soulless, desolate community would be good for the kids." But actually, it wasn't like that; people were the same there as they were anywhere. "If I'd let you, would you have had sex with me tonight?"
"Of course," Tony lied. Kim smiled. It made her feel better to know that he would lie to her.
Inside the house, Nancy and Richard became aware of a side effect of cocaine they hadn't read about: What the mind willed, the body couldn't produce. Richard apologized and tucked his limp penis back into its resting place. Secretly, he was relieved to have an out; he was becoming afraid of Nancy. Nancy also breathed a sigh of relief, a gust of air that warmed her cheeks. She never wanted to have sex with Richard.
They returned to the living room, and Nancy sank into the sofa, "When did this stop being fun?"
"About five years ago," Richard said.
"I'm tired." Nancy closed her eyes and leaned back onto a pillow. "I have to pick up the kids before ten tomorrow."
"Don't remind me about kids. My big one has a baseball game at eight. Hey, did I tell you he's on the all-stars? I think he could go pro." This thought made Richard feel better. He was searching for something to improve himself in Nancy's eyes. He glanced at Nancy, who was picking at a spot on the sofa. He realized she wasn't listening to him and that it didn't matter. The only people who listened to him were the people he paid.
"That's nice." Nancy wished he'd just shut the fuck up. She wondered where his wife and her husband were.
Just then, Tony and Kim came in through the front door. The room was bright, and they stood blinking into the lights, waiting for their eyes to adjust.
"There you are." A rush of fresh, night air blew over Nancy. She was glad Tony didn't have a freshly fucked look about him.
The two couples stood looking at each other, wondering what to do now. Drink more? Eat? Go to bed? How did their nights used to end?
"We'd better go," Kim picked up her purse. "The kids have early games." She realized that she would always feel like the only adult in the room.
"Are you guys going to be okay to drive?" Tony asked. He felt closer to Kim than ever before. He didn't want her to leave.
"Yeah, we're okay," Richard answered. He couldn't wait to get out of there.
"So we're on for dinner next Friday?" Nancy asked.
"Wouldn't miss it," Tony replied.