“If you had to choose one of your male friends to have a homosexual relationship with, who would it be?”
Rachel was given to random questions. Her train of thought was not one you could follow even with a trail of breadcrumbs.
“Um, I don't know,” I said, after a time. “What about you?”
“Oh, Nicholas, definitely.”
I stopped breathing for a moment. I stared at her and blinked. “I meant a female friend of yours. A relationship with a male friend of mine would hardly qualify as homosexual.”
“Ohhh. Well,” she said, standing and patting my knee as she went, “I'm not answering that. You get enough masturbation fodder from those magazines you leave in the bathroom.”
I didn't turn to watch her go. I heard her pad, pad, pad into the kitchen before retiring to the bedroom for the evening. She left me there, amid my suspicion and subtle heartbreak.
We didn't live together. Rachel had taken to staying at my place whenever she felt the urge and I wasn't one to argue. If I needed space, I knew I could ask. But my apartment had four rooms and a minimalist décor. I didn't need space.
The gang of us met for drinks the next night. We crammed into that bar on Mass Ave where there's just enough room to stand at the bar and shift to avoid being scraped, shoved and molested by people trying to get to their table, the restroom, or back out into the cold. I loathed the place, but it was close enough to everyone's respective homes or places of employment that our indecisiveness caused a stagnant routine in our dining habits.
Nick (only Rachel calls him Nicholas), Jaime, Karen and Rachel were already crowded into a booth by the time I arrived. Rachel blew me a kiss, but did nothing more to communicate happiness over seeing me. I slid in next to Karen and perused the beer menu I knew verbatim.
“Karen was just telling us about her promotion,” Jaime informed the table, read: me.
“Congratulations,” I told her. I meant it too, but tuned out her explanation of new responsibilities and higher tax brackets. I spent the evening watching Rachel's fingertip skate along the edge of her wine glass. I stewed as her lips and teeth grew more purple and her eyelids more lazy. She was a charming drunk and she knew it. That may well be the reason her imbibing bordered on ritualistic. She smiled and leered at anyone within breathing distance.
That night, she sat between Jaime and Nick. Her laughter seemed like braying. She was in the midst of regaling everyone with a college anecdote when her hand fell on Nick's forearm. If asked, I'm certain she'd say it was a friendly gesture and, come on, weren't we all friends?
I stood and excused myself. I had an early meeting. I was sure to see everyone again soon. Goodnight.
I slept like a log straight through the alarm. I woke twenty minutes before I had to be to work. I cleaned my hair, teeth and genitals before stepping into work clothes and out the door. I blurred from nine to five. I turned on the water for a proper shower as soon as I got home. Before I could get in, a knocking beckoned from the door.
“Expecting someone?” Rachel asked when I answered in a towel.
“Should I be?” I replied, shutting the door behind her. She wore a well-tailored business suit and shoes with a sensible heel. She stood close enough to me that I was reminded of how great my height advantage is. Even without shoes on, I bested her by nearly a foot.
She looked up at me with a business like gaze. “I need to shower,” I told her.
“I'll join you,” she began to disrobe. I walked to the bathroom and removed my towel. I bathed with my eyes closed. Even as she clung to me and sank her nails into my shoulders, I didn't open my eyes to look at her.
She didn't stay the night.
I called her cell phone the next morning and received the cold shoulder of her voicemail. I couldn't even afford the luxury of hearing her voice, just the detached recitation of her phone number in an automated tone. “Hi, it's me,” I said after the beep. “Was just curious what you were doing later. I'll be at work until five. Give me a call.” I hung up just as a knot was forming in my sinuses. I trudged through the morning, worked through lunch and took the afternoon off.
Despite feeling like a raw nerve, I ambled in no specific direction before slowly heading toward Rachel's office.
“Sorry,” the receptionist told me. “It seems she's gone home for the day.” Her apology seemed sincere, so I contorted my mouth into a smile and bid her good afternoon.
I hopped on the T for the long haul into Southie. Well…the outskirts, anyway. Rachel lived a few blocks from the cusp of the financial district. It wasn't Chinatown, but it wasn't “dangerous,” either. I closed my eyes in an attempt to ease the throbbing behind them.
I tumbled up to street level and wound my way to Rachel's. The front door of her building didn't lock, so I let myself in.
Before I attempted knocking, I was confronted with laughter lilting through her door. Definitely Rachel's, she was assuredly home. I assumed she was on the phone and rapped my knuckles thrice before trying the knob.
Locked. The laughing continued. I knocked again, this time louder.
“No,” said her approaching voice. “No one knows we're here.”
The door swung open and there stood Rachel, clad in lingerie, garter belts and pearls. In her right hand, she held a nearly empty scotch glass. In her left hand, she still held the doorknob. I wondered if that was for balance. She squealed upon seeing me. “Oh, it's just you ,” she chortled. “C'mon out,” she yelled to the inside of her apartment.
A woman in similar attire emerged from the next room.
“Rach,” I took her wrist in my hand, “can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” she said, unmoving. “What's up?”
“Out here,” I still stood in the hallway. “I'd like to talk to you out here.”
She draped her pea coat about her shoulders and joined me in the hallway.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
She snickered a bit and looked down at herself. “Do I really have to explain this to you?”
“No. I mean, of course not. But I thought that we were…” Wrong direction. I didn't want to have that conversation. “Okay, I get it. But can you at least explain why?”
“Because I had sick time that I was going to lose if I didn't take it before the end of the month?” she half-smiled. She became somber when she saw I wasn't laughing. “Listen…we never said what was off limits, right?”
“Christ, this isn't a guilt thing, okay?” I snapped at her. “And I trust you, but are you even being safe? I mean, who the hell is that woman?”
“I own a pair of gloves if that's what you're asking.”
“That's more than enough,” I told her. “I have to go.” I walked away from her and spoke as I moved, “I'll see you… I don't know. Whenever.”
I took my time getting home. Nick called, wanting to know if I'd meet him at a bar. I changed into casual clothes and beat feet toward alcohol.
Nick asked who wanted shots and I dutifully raised my hand. We'd been at it for an hour and a half before Rachel showed up. I greeted her with my mouth turned down halfway.
“Well, you're in high spirits,” she barely glanced at me.
“It's the spirits that've done it,” I said, shaking my empty glass toward Nick.
“Rachel, you want one?” he asked.
She grinned at him through a haze of misplaced charm. “You know how I hate to be excluded.”
Shortly thereafter, we moved to tequila and that secured my memory losing its grip on the remainder of the evening.
Rachel's hair took up most of my pillow when I woke the following morning. “Hello,” she cooed. “You're sexy when you're mad.”
My mouth tasted bitter and it matched my mood. “What time is it?” I squinted toward the clock.
“A little after six,” she replied.
“Great. I still have time to shower.”
Rachel swung her legs out of bed. “You'll have to wait until Nicholas is done.”
“I didn't know he stayed over,” I yawned.
“That's a word for it,” she laughed.
Her tone spoke volumes. I spun to face her. “What do you mean?”
“Shut up,” she mussed my hair.
“I'm serious, Rach. What are you talking about?”
“Hey guys,” Nick walked out the bathroom, nude. “You're out of shampoo.”
Rachel raised her eyebrows and gestured toward Nick as if to say, “Exhibit A.”
I fell back in bed. I pulled the covers up under my chin. I shut my eyes and tried to will my stomach to stop aching. I didn't realize I was muttering to myself until Rachel came over and knelt next to me on the floor.
“I have to go. Are you going to be all right?”
I looked at her the way spiteful children look at each other. “No. No, I'm not. I hate you and I don't want to see you again.”
“Okay, I'll call you after work.” She kissed my forehead and walked out. I didn't get up until I heard the front door click behind her.
“Nick?” I called out through a nausea that came from both anxiety and alcohol. “Are you still here?”
“Yeah,” he yelled from the kitchen. “What's up?”
“You're not making food, are you?”
“No, just coffee.”
I dragged myself to the kitchen. He was still nude.
“Fuck's sake, don't do that like that!” I ushered him out of the kitchen. “Go put a towel on or something.”
“The towels are wet,” he said.
“I have a robe. It's in the closet in my room. Do not come back here until I don't have to look at your nudity. I mean it.”
“All right. Christ.” He poked his head back in a moment later.
“What?” I yelled.
“Can you put cream and sugar in the mug before pouring the coffee? It's better that way.”
“Yes. Go robe now. You robe now.”
He was clothed when he returned. We sat at my meager table in my tiny kitchen and we did not talk.
I could barely stand it.
“Yeah?” he said innocuously.
I paused for so long, I almost lost my train of thought. “What did we do? What happened? Was it a gay thing? If it was, how gay?”
“It was uber-gay. You wore a dress.”
“We all had sex, if I remember it correctly,” he said this in the same manner he had said, ‘Yeah?'
“All, who? Just the three of us?” I winced. “As if three weren't enough.”
“No one else was there. It was you, me and Rachel.”
“And that was it, right? It wasn't videotaped or anything? No pictures? I'll never have to relive it?”
“That's fucked up,” he told me.
“Oh, but fucking two people at once is okay. Are there levels of debauchery that you're fine with?”
“There is no way to answer that question that would appease you,” he said.
“Meaning that nothing is okay with you. You date Rachel, who is a fucking freak, and expect life to be normal. If you want to get married and settle down with a normal girl, go ahead. You can have missionary position sex for the rest of your life—”
“There is nothing wrong with the missionary position.”
He ignored me. “–and you'll never have to feel dirty over a night spent with two friends ever again,” he said. I harrumphed. “Don't like that suggestion, huh?”
“What is wrong with the missionary position?” I demanded.
“Absolutely nothing. Except the fact that you don't want it. If you did, you wouldn't be dating Rachel. You'd be dating Safe Girl. She'd iron your clothes and count the days until you could practice making babies three times per year.”
He drained his mug of coffee and said, “I have to go to work.”
After he left, I called in sick. The tequila hangover is also known as “a 24 hour bug” in most states.
And now I'm sitting in my room, trying to piece together my life and how I got here. I want Safe Girl. I can live without the Rachels of the world. I'm going to find Safe Girl. And, as soon as I do, I'm going to marry her.