Monday, March 1, 2010

Things Happen (1989)

Mainstream Fiction
2,881 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1989. All rights reserved.

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When Sam and I were in the fifth grade we used to play kickball on our school’s playground. It was the favorite game of us fifth graders, and every recess we would run out to the corner of the playground where the bright yellow lines of the kickball diamond were painted. I remember one game where Sam and I played on opposite teams. I was playing third base and Sam was up to bat. The pitcher rolled the red rubber ball across home plate and Sam gave it a good solid kick. The ball exploded off his foot and hit me square in the face. I fell down with a bloody nose and teary eyes.

Sam was my best friend. He ignored first base and ran over to me. He asked me if I was all right and said he was sorry at least a dozen times. The ball had hurt, and I would feel the pain for a long time, but I knew it wasn’t Sam’s fault. I told him I was all right and that he didn’t have to apologize or feel sorry about it. I think I told him that things happen.

That was a long time ago. Sam and I stayed best friends through middle and high school. But, after graduation, I went to Madison to study astronomy and Sam went to Eau Claire to study criminal justice. We kept in contact with letters and phone calls and we remained close. It was in our sophomore year that I took a bus trip to Eau Claire to visit him.

It was in cold November that I made this trip. I got into town late on Friday night and Sam picked me up at the bus depot. It was really good to see him again. We were laughing before we got back to the dorms.

At the dorms we had a few beers and watched some useless late night television. I met Sam’s roommate, Brian, and Sam’s new girlfriend, Laurie. Sam always had a new girlfriend for me to meet. My relationships with girls were never as frequent, but I used to think that they lasted longer and meant more.

I slept on the couch that night, after the television had been turned off and Laurie had gone home. I wanted to talk to Sam in the dark about girls, like we used to do when we were kids and I was sleeping over at his house. But with Brian sleeping there, it just didn’t seem like the thing to do.

Sam belonged to the karate club up there in Eau Claire and Saturday night they were having a party for members and their friends. Sam was really excited about it, and it seemed to be on his mind the whole day. We went over to the commons and shot some pool and then Sam took me on a tour of the campus. At the bookstore, I bought a UW-Eau Claire Blugolds sweatshirt. I still have it, I think, but it has shrunk and the logo has faded.

Sam and I had a good time that day, but it is not the time I spent with Sam that I want to talk about. Saturday night, at the karate party, I met a girl named Beth, and what happened with her is what I have come here to say.

Of all the people in the karate club, Sam had the nicest stereo, so he volunteered to bring it to the house for the party. We drove over there early with it and set it up behind the bar. We put the speakers in the corners of the living room and covered them with trash bags to keep people from spilling beer on them.

Sam spent most of the time that evening behind the bar, keeping an eye on his stereo. Since I really didn’t know anyone else at the party, I spent the night at the bar talking to Sam. Laurie was one of the first guests to arrive, and with her came Beth, a friend of hers from the dorms. I can’t say that Beth really caught my eye when I first saw her, because she didn’t. She was of medium height, with shoulder-length curly brown hair and brown eyes. Pretty, but certainly no knockout. We were introduced to each other and we said hello. We stood silently by while Laurie and Sam talked to each other, and then we said goodbye when Laurie excused Beth and herself to go mingle. At the time, I really didn’t think much of her. Sam normally pointed all good-looking single girls out to me anyway, and he was quiet about Beth. I figured she was either taken or gay. This was college, after all.

So I sat there at the bar, had a few beers, and helped Sam pick out what song to play next. It must’ve been two hours later when I turned around and saw Beth standing alone in the midst of a crowd of people. She wasn’t talking to anyone and no one was talking to her. She was just standing there. Maybe I was getting beer goggles, but I thought she looked better than I had remembered. She was just wearing a sweater and jeans, but I thought she looked really good in them. I began to fantasize about her.

Beth saw me staring at her and came over to the bar. When she got close enough I saw that her eyes were watering. But I also saw that she was drunk. I’d had four maybe five beers since the party started, and she looked like she had been matching me two for one. Before I could say anything, Sam asked her what was the matter. She never broke out into tears, but all the while she spoke, her eyes were red and wet, and she sniffled like she had a cold. She said that ten minutes ago she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and that he had left the party without her. She wanted to go home, but she lived in the dorms, and in November that was a long way away. Sam offered to drive her home after the party, but she said she didn’t want to hang around waiting for the beer to run out.

So I offered to walk her home. I’d like to think I did this just to be nice, just to lend a hand where one was needed. But after what I was thinking when I saw her in the middle of the living room, it’s hard for me to imagine I was ignorant of what might happen. But regardless, we got our coats and left the party together. I remember stepping outside and feeling the cold wind blow in my face. I was drunker than I thought, but that wind sobered me up some. I asked Beth if she was all right and she said she was cold. I put an arm around her and we started for the dorms.

To get there, we had to walk over a pedestrian bridge that spanned the Chippewa River. Sam had told me that, in the winter, the wind coming off the river caused some of the lowest wind chills in Wisconsin on that very bridge, and that night I could believe him. As I walked across that bridge with my arm around Beth’s shoulders and with her arm around my waist, I remember thinking about the fish who lived in the river. I began to wonder if they could feel the cold, and if they could, how they could stand to be in that freezing water. I wondered if they got scared each year when the surface froze over. If they were afraid because part of their liquid world had turned solid on them and they didn’t know why or what had caused it. I remember wondering if they thought it was somehow their fault the river had frozen. If they blamed themselves and felt sorry about it. I remember wondering if the fish down there could see Beth and me hurrying across the bridge and if they wondered where we were going.

After crossing the bridge we started up the hill that led to the dorms. I can’t say we talked about anything while we were out that night. I think we were both too cold and just wanted to get inside a heated building. When we finally got to her dorm, there was a moment when I paused before following her inside. She didn’t exactly invite me in, but I really didn’t think she would make me walk all the way back to the party without at least letting me warm up first. But the pause wasn’t long, and soon I found myself walking up the stairs and down the hall to her room.

We went inside, took off our coats, and sat down on her bed. She had a fairly typical dorm room, but without lofts. I thought that was really strange. Nearly every dorm room I’ve ever been in has had lofted beds, but the beds in her room sat squarely on the floor, against opposite walls, and made the room seem really cramped. I was feeling uncomfortable. Here I was, alone and drunk, in the room of a girl I barely knew, late at night. She told me her roommate had gone home for the weekend and then she asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no. There was an awkward moment when we just looked at each other and the silence in the room got really loud.

I leaned over and kissed her on the lips. I don’t think I even thought about it, or had the usual worries about whether she really wanted me to do it. I just did it. She kissed me back, and it was not a thank-you-for-walking-me-home-hope-to-see-you-sometime kiss. It was a spend-the-night-with-me kiss. I’ve gotten a few of them in my life and they are not hard to mistake. She moaned in the back of her throat and began to move a hand up my thigh. I slipped my hands up under her sweater and unhooked her bra. I started to squeeze her breasts. Her nipples were hard, and I don’t think it was because she was still cold. She had placed her hand in my lap and she was rubbing it back and forth. She whispered in my ear what she wanted me to do and I began to do it.

Since that night, I’ve often thought about what happened between us, and even now, I am not sure what it meant. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood what it means to have sex with someone. It could mean so many different things. You see it represented in so many ways that I don’t think you can ever really be sure what sex is supposed to be. Sex could be the purest physical manifestation of love two people can share. Sex could be the swelling abdomen of the expectant mother and the smiling cheeks of the proud father. Sex could be painted thick on the television screen every twelve to fifteen minutes when the programming stops and the commercial begins. Sex could be the worm at the bottom of a six-dollar bottle of tequila. Sex could be in the adult bookstore, patiently waiting amongst the walls of glossy magazines and the racks of rubber toys. Sex could be the bar of soap, your left hand, and your imagination when you are alone and in the shower. Sex could be the fuck the coke-whore parcels out to the pusher to secure some of her candy. Sex could be the lollipop that is promised to the preschooler if she will only get into the blue sedan. Sex could be the fist of the rapist that beats the victim into bloody unconsciousness so she won’t scream or bite. Sex could be any one or all of these things. Or sex could be something else entirely. When you think about it, sex could be locked up in your parents’ bedroom, under the bed and afraid of the light.

I don’t know what it all means, or even what it meant that night with Beth. All I do know is that I had the best sex of my life that night, and that when it was over, with Beth lying in my arms, sleep has never come so gently or so peacefully.

In the morning, she crawled out of bed and I lay there and watched her move around the room. She put on a pink terrycloth bathrobe, grabbed a small blue basket filled with soap and shower stuff, and threw a towel over her shoulder just before she left. She shut the door and locked it. I folded my hands behind my head and looked at the crumpled pile of our clothes on the floor, where we’d thrown them the night before. I looked around at the rest of the room. Beth had half a dozen posters of unicorns on the walls. I hadn’t noticed them the night before. Her roommate had a couple of dopey-looking stuffed animals on her bed. The curtains were pink and frilly, definitely not dorm issue, and Beth had a small framed picture of what I took to be her family beside her alarm clock. Just looking around the room like that, I began to feel really uncomfortable lying naked under her blankets as I was. I felt exposed, as if someone was watching me, and did not like what they saw.

I got out of bed and started to put my clothes on. I was buttoning my jeans when the phone rang. I stopped and looked at it. On the second ring I answered it. Like the first kiss with Beth, it wasn’t something I thought about doing. It just happened. There was a man’s voice on the line and he wanted to talk to Beth. His voice was scratchy and he sounded as if someone had just shot his dog. I was about to tell him that she was in the shower when a little voice in my head sang out.

This is her boyfriend. This is the guy she had the fight with last night. This is the guy who probably loves her and who would wring your neck if he knew who you were and what you’ve done.

And then, before I could say anything, this little voice in my head said three little words into the phone. I know it was the voice and not me because I did not think of these words and I did not say them. I only heard them.

“Sorry, wrong number.”

There was a pause on the line and then the guy hung up. I put the receiver back in the cradle and quickly finished dressing. I was tying my shoelaces when Beth came back into the room. She was still wearing her bathrobe but now her hair was all wet. She smiled at me as she put her small blue basket away and hung up her towel. I told her I had to be going and she gave me a confused look. I told her I’d really enjoyed the night and she said she had, too. She asked me when I was leaving and I said as soon as possible because I had some things to do in Madison before class on Monday. I was beginning to feel like a heel just standing there and I think she began to sense that. I kissed her goodbye, but it wasn’t a real kiss. It wasn’t the kind of kiss I should have given her. It was just that she smelled so clean and I felt so dirty. I just couldn’t bring myself to really kiss her.

I went back to Sam’s dorm room, but he was still out at Laurie’s. Brian let me in and I went back to sleep on the couch. I woke up in the afternoon when Sam came back and I told him everything that had happened. I didn’t tell him everything I thought about it, or that it troubled me for a reason I wasn’t sure of, but I didn’t leave out much else. I think Sam could tell things weren’t quite right, though, because he didn’t joke about it or give me a hard time. He was my best friend. He only asked me if I had a good time. I said I thought I had. I’m not sure, but I think he also told me that things happen.

And now, I guess that that is all there is to say about it. I’ve never heard from nor seen Beth since that night, but I’ve come to grips with what happened between us. It was really nobody’s fault, it was just something that happened. For a long time I felt guilty about what I had done with her, but after a while I realized that I felt worse about lying to her boyfriend than I felt about sleeping with her. But even that, like getting hit in the face with a red rubber ball, or the Chippewa freezing over in the winter, was just something that happened.

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