Tommy met her at a party through a mutual friend, Edgar, who had once almost burned down the fraternity house by spurting a mouthful of vodka at a raised match. Edgar was married now and had a job organizing an annual wine festival, and the parties he threw were lame, the type where everyone sat in the living room, legs crossed, chatting quietly through ambient music. But they were parties, so Tommy went. He stayed in the kitchen with the liquor and offered to mix drinks. When people accepted, he did the whole routine—twirled the glass, raised the bottle to make the pour long and precise, slammed and popped the shaker, garnished the rim. One man he didn’t know reached for his wallet. Tommy had to stop him. After the man left, Tommy opened a fresh beer and carried it to the porch, where he lit a cigarette and watched the Oregon drizzle turn the lawn muddy.
A woman joined him. She wore a black dress that ended just above powerful-looking calves and held a brimming wineglass away from her body, watching it as she moved. She paused to lower her lips to the glass, then looked at him and asked if she could bum a cigarette and smiled. Her name was Penelope. She was a social worker but volunteered at Edgar’s festival to get free wine, she said. Tommy mentioned that he had recently been promoted to manager at his restaurant. Then they talked about a movie they had both found disappointing. When he flicked his butt into the yard, she retrieved it and ran both butts under the tap and tossed them in the trash.
Tommy followed her to the living room. She kept refilling her wine glass and talked exhaustively about her ex-boyfriend. Twice she omitted the “ex” without seeming to notice. Eventually she pointed him out: “The sullen one by the stairs,” she said.
He didn’t look sullen to Tommy. He was a little man, early thirties maybe, dressed in black slacks and a black button-down, holding a martini glass that Tommy had filled several times. He stood with a redhead, smiling and nodding as she talked.
“Looks like he’s doing okay to me,” Tommy said.
He and Penelope went outside to smoke again. They ended up kissing and groping and afterward went to his apartment instead of returning to the party.
The dining room was full, the wait time about an hour, he guessed. The murmur of conversation didn’t quite cover the tinkling piano fed in by speakers. Servers bustled, legs scissoring, upper bodies motionless to make them look calm. Whenever they pushed open the kitchen door they released a burst of clattering plates and shouting. Then the door swung closed and muffled the noise.
In the kitchen Tommy found Rick holding the steel salad fridge like a pinball machine and thrusting his big belly at it. The black stubble grew too high on his cheeks, almost to his eyes. His face was shiny with sweat and grease. He wore a chef’s hat that looked like a white beret, and his apron was streaked brown with meat-juice.
“Keep it down back here,” Tommy yelled over the rumbling dishwasher and industrial ventilation and laughter.
“Get out of my kitchen,” Rick yelled back at Tommy. “Go sniff ass with the customers.” He took off his hat and shooed him with it, revealing a cleanly shorn scalp.
Tommy washed his hands to show he wasn’t obeying Rick before he went to the dining room, where wall sconces glowed against burnished mahogany and votive candles flickered gently on the tables. He approached a white-haired couple hunched over their split order. He clasped his hands and looked at the torn meat. “How are you folks enjoying the rib eye?” he said.
Tommy stood at his bathroom mirror, smiling. Then he dropped the smile and scrutinized the corners of his eyes and was pleased to find the skin smooth. He lifted his chin and among the shaving cream flecks saw a spot of blood on his voicebox. He pressed toilet paper there and with his other hand lifted his bangs to inspect his hairline. His forehead seemed to have sprouted little bulbs of bare skin. He wondered if this was new or something he’d never noticed before, then decided he just hadn’t noticed. He let his eyes drop to the tightly packed muscle of his upper arm, where blue veins traversed the skin. He was proud of his body because it compensated for a face that belonged to some underground creature, beady black eyes too close together, nose long and pointy, lips curled in. He scraped his bangs down and rinsed the shaving cream, then put on his shirt and tie and nametag.
Penelope sat at the kitchen table over the newspaper. Steam tendrils untangled above the mug she gripped. It was Saturday afternoon. They’d stayed in bed until two, as they had the last Saturday and Sunday.
“Time to go,” Tommy said.
Her eyes kept scanning the print. “I just made tea.”
Tommy took down a travel mug and set it on her newspaper. “I have to go to work.”
“Go then. I want to drink my tea and take a shower.”
He stood there a moment. Usually his relationships ended at this point, before they could become relationships. He dated infrequently enough to appreciate them a week or two, but he generally didn’t like the women he dated, probably because they didn’t like him. Penelope was different, though. Their conversations were effortless, and he found himself revealing experiences and feelings he had never admitted before—his secret distaste for casual sex, his fear that he would never marry. Also, she had a distanced quality he found irresistible. In public she always brushed his hand away when he touched her elbow or back, and after they had sex she sometimes went home, which he’d wanted from other women, but not from her. He was happy to wake to her groans and grins, her hand reaching between his legs. Plus, he would turn twenty-six soon, just before the new year, and the longest he had been with anyone was two months, the spring he had dropped out of college. It might be time to make a run at that record.
He put the travel mug back in the cupboard. “Make sure to lock the door when you leave,” he told her. “And you can make the bed if you want.”
When he got home at midnight the door was unlocked, the bed unmade. He decided he wouldn’t call, but then started to miss her and called anyway.
The next weekend she gave him a wallet photo, and he looked at it in the restaurant’s bathroom because there was nothing to read. She wore a black bikini top and grinned enormously between silver hoop earrings, the ocean glittering in the background. He thought she looked like a mother who hadn’t borne her children yet, though he wasn’t sure what gave him that impression. She was almost thirty, but fit, built like a gymnast, short and muscular from rock-climbing at the gym. She wore fashionable clothes that revealed her figure. She drank and smoked like he did. But there was something about her—maybe the Irish roundness of her face, or maybe her cautious makeup, or maybe her hair’s natural sandy color; maybe it was her gracious smile, or her occasional unsettling sternness; maybe it was just her sweetness, a natural disposition that made him picture floral aprons and oven mitts. Whatever it was, when he looked at the photo he thought of some stranger saying, “This is what I looked like before the twins,” and smiling nostalgically, maybe with regret. He wasn’t sure if he liked this quality or not. His attraction to her had a small current of disgust running along its edge.
Someone came into the bathroom. “Tommy?” Through the crack in the paneling Tommy saw a server’s long black apron.
“I’m busy,” he said.
“The POS system froze. Nobody can punch in orders.”
Tommy put away the photo and flushed. He washed his hands, then wiped down the sink and mirror with paper towels. All the servers were huddled by the POS terminal, waiting. They watched with jittery, desperate eyes as he looked things over. Finally he flipped the power switch off, then back on, and became a hero.
Penelope’s cell phone buzzed. They were cuddled up in his bed in the late afternoon, looking at each other dreamily, their stomachs sticky with sweat. She fished the phone from her purse, looked at it, smiled, then put it away and draped herself over him again. A few moments later she asked, “How many people have you slept with?”
He breathed through his nose, enjoying her sour musky odor. It was a smell he recognized from the locker room and usually hated. “Let’s not talk about that,” he said, then watched her eyes drift away and worried his response might make him sound promiscuous. “A number you’d like,” he said. “A nice medium number.” He looked at the translucent fuzz along her jaw, the freckles running the slopes of her nose. “How many guys—” he started to ask. “No, don’t tell me.” He traced the contours of her back. The heater clicked off. He closed his eyes and listened to the drumming rain. “Okay, how many?”
“You’re my twentieth.”
He kept his breathing normal, made his hand continue moving. A blackhead grazed his fingertips like a grain of sand, and he resisted the impulse to pick at it.
“That’s a good number, right?” Penelope said. “I know people whose number is a lot higher.”
“It’s a good number.” He scooted away so he could rest on his stomach.
She nuzzled him, stroked his calf with her instep. “What’s your number?”
“About twenty,” he lied. It was seven.
He was running on a treadmill at the gym later that week. A woman asked him, “Are you going to be much longer?” She had a low voice and severe Slavic features, a woman who would look good in bright red lipstick and a fur coat, he thought. She wore running shorts and a ratty tank top. He had noticed her kicking ass on the treadmill before, braid bouncing with her long strides. She intimidated and excited him.
“I think I’m signed up until noon,” Tommy said through labored breath. His pecs bounced beneath his T-shirt, which made him feel both sexy and silly, like David Hasselhoff.
“On this treadmill?” she asked.
He paused the machine. They went to check the sheet. She put a finger on the slot and said, “I guess I signed up for the wrong time.”
He looked at the name she was pointing to, then at her nubby fingernail. “Tell you what, Savannah. You let me take you for coffee, and I’ll let you have the treadmill.”
Her harsh features softened, and Tommy shed the feeling of inadequacy he’d been carrying all week.
It was late, but he couldn’t do the books until the last customer had cashed out. When the knock came, he paused the computer game and opened the office door. Rebecca stood there untying her apron, her face incredulous. She handed him a tab. “The guy at twenty-three won’t pay.”
The man was alone, the only customer left. He was slender, maybe forty, dressed in jeans and a grubby sweater, clean shaven, hair slicked into a ducktail. He put on an expression of warmth and challenge as Tommy approached.
“Hi, there.” Tommy offered his hand, and the man took it. “How was your dinner tonight?”
“Top-notch,” the man said.
“And how was the service?”
“No complaints in that department.”
“Was there some trouble with the check?”
The trouble was, he couldn’t pay. Didn’t have a dime on him. Didn’t have a credit card or check, didn’t even have a driver’s license to offer as collateral. “Payment is impossible,” he said, and gave a smirk.
Tommy understood it was a scam, but he didn’t know what to do except kick the man out. He considered having him work off the debt washing dishes, but it would take an entire shift, and you didn’t want someone like this in the kitchen. He looked toward the hostess stand and saw Rebecca slumped in a booth, tugging her ponytail loose, and he thought about this man accepting her service and kindness, making Rick keep the grill on, and here he was smirking, proud that he was a thief.
“Sir,” Tommy said, straightening his spine, “if you can’t arrange payment, I’ll have to call the police.” He felt emboldened by his responsibility, the way he could recognize a problem and tackle it. “Would you like to use our phone?”
The man put on a look of dignity. “No thank you.”
He had a busboy keep an eye on the man until blue and red lights pulsed outside, but the man sat there calmly, back straight, hands in his lap, as though nothing was out of the ordinary. A woman officer came in looking burdened by her gun belt. Tommy explained the situation. She led the man to the car, then came back to ask Tommy some questions.
Afterward he stood at the window watching the taillights recede.
“The fucker,” Rick said. “Probably pulled that scam all over town.”
But it had occurred to Tommy that maybe the guy really couldn’t pay. Maybe he was desperate. Maybe he hadn’t eaten in days and decided to eat. He mentioned these possibilities to Rick.
“That guy’s no bum,” Rick said.
Tommy stood there looking out the window. He knew he was being naïve but couldn’t help feeling guilty. The rain made diagonal zags under the streetlamp and textured the parking lot puddles.
“Okay, so let’s say you’re right,” Rick said. “Let’s say he needed to eat. Fine. He ate. Now he has to pay the price. You had a decision to make. If that disappoints him, sorry, he can deal with it. That’s what adults do, Tommy.”
Tommy didn’t know if he was talking about making decisions or dealing with disappointments. When he glanced over, Rick was rubbing his eyes with meaty, grease-stained fingers.
In a dream that night, he glanced in the bathroom mirror and saw that his hairline had receded halfway across his skull. The remaining hair was patchy like crabgrass and came loose when he touched it. He tried to remain calm. Oh well, he told himself. At least it hadn’t happened sooner.
He felt a rush of panic when he woke, then relief. He knew he’d been lying to himself about his hairline and resolved to look into treatments. Penelope was way across the bed. He crossed the cool space and entered her warm hollow beneath the covers and huddled against her backside. At his touch she murmured affectionately. Her body softened. He slipped a knee between her thighs, not to open them but to become entangled with her. He was lucky to have met her while he still had hair, he thought, and resolved to tear up Savannah’s phone number.
By morning he had forgotten this resolution, but he had forgotten Savannah, too.
The next day he decided to surprise Penelope at work. He was sitting on the couch in sweatpants and slippers, his hair going all directions. He hadn’t done anything all day but watch TV and drink Dr. Pepper. He put on sneakers and a baseball cap but didn’t shower or shave, and at the social services office the fat black woman behind the desk asked if Penelope was his caseworker. Tommy pointed his bouquet of roses at her and asked, “What does it look like?”
She told him that during business hours Penelope could meet only with cases. It was five minutes till five. Tommy scowled and called Penelope with his cell phone, watching the expanse of cubicles behind the front desk. Her head rose above a partition near the back. She smiled and took the phone from her ear and came over. She wore gray slacks, a black button-down shirt, her hair in a bun. She looked like she belonged on Wall Street.
“I tried,” the fat woman told Penelope.
“It’s okay. This one’s current.”
Tommy didn’t know what to make of that, but he didn’t like it. When he gave her the flowers, she sloped her eyebrows like when she saw cute puppies. They kissed, and Tommy saw the fat woman watching and felt a tingle of happiness and pride.
His family was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, the air thick with food smells, tall candlesticks burning above the china and crystal and steaming dishes. Tommy displayed the wine label for his mother and father, then moved around the table and displayed it for his younger brother Trevor, who had brought a stunning blonde girlfriend from Arizona, where he studied architecture.
“Are you twenty-one?” Tommy asked the girlfriend.
“I practically am.”
Trevor tugged his tie loose. “Just pour already.”
Tommy opened the bottle and poured a taste for the girlfriend. She frowned at the puddle of wine. “Can I have more?”
“You’re supposed to taste it,” Tommy said.
“Would you just pour the goddamn wine?” Trevor said.
“Easy,” their father said. “I’m sure it’s fine, Tommy. Go ahead and pour.”
Tommy moved around the table, sloshing wine casually into each glass, embarrassment and anger vibrating in his chest. Purple droplets leapt over the rims and stained the white tablecloth. No one said anything. He poured for himself last, then sat, and they began to serve themselves.
“You don’t have to open bottles at work anymore, I hope,” his mother said, scooping sweet potatoes.
“Never. But it’s one of those things you miss doing. Cutting lemons, too. I always liked cutting lemons.”
“And how’s the manager job?” his father asked.
“Oh it’s great.” Tommy swirled his wine and sniffed it, detected chocolate and oak, maybe a hint of asparagus. “Lots of problem-solving, lots of responsibility. But I enjoy that.”
“My boy,” his father said. He had white hair, a red round face, a fleshy neck that sagged over his tightened collar. His expression was different than when Tommy had been in high school, earning C’s and getting suspended for going to dances drunk or high. Tommy had been telling himself for years that he didn’t care what his parents thought, but he liked this new expression.
“I have a new girlfriend, too,” he said. “We’re getting pretty serious.”
Penelope showed up two hours late. “Let’s take your car,” she said.
She buckled her seatbelt while he backed down the driveway. She still wore her work clothes, which made her look professional and made Tommy feel like a bum in his jeans and T-shirt. They were going to eat sushi. Tommy didn’t like sushi, but he liked the idea of making a sacrifice for Penelope.
“Why’d you have your phone turned off?” he asked.
“It’s out of batteries.”
“What were you doing?”
She looked out the window. She ran her hands through her hair and sighed. “So did I tell you I’m getting sued?”
“Sued? By who?”
“This woman whose son we took into care, based on my decision. I had to explain to her that it’s dangerous to leave a six-year-old alone in the house for an extended period of time. How long, we don’t know, I said, because you won’t be straight with us. But long enough for him to get scared and call nine-one-one. So the woman says she’s going to talk to a lawyer. This is fucked up, she says. And I tell her, yeah, it is fucked up to leave a six-year-old all alone.”
He could tell by her voice that she was on the verge of tears, so he pulled into a gravel parking lot and turned off the engine. It was dark. He put his arms around her, kissed her temple, smelled lavender shampoo. “Sounds like you were doing your job.”
“We’re trying to help people.” Her breathing went choppy. Her chest twitched. “We don’t want to break up families,” she said, her voice an octave higher.
Tommy tried to comfort her, but it felt significant to have her in his arms, crying. Her vulnerability touched him.
“Is that why you were late?”
“Why am I crying?” she said suddenly. “What the hell is wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” he said happily. “Shh.”
He called Edgar early that Saturday and said he had tickets to the Ducks game, then bought tickets from a scalper outside the stadium. They were expensive because it was last game of the season. Edgar wore a yellow jersey over a yellow sweater and had a yellow rain poncho folded on his arm. He asked, “Why’d you tell me you had tickets?”
“So Penelope would let me go.” Penelope didn’t care if he went, but he wanted Edgar to understand the level of domesticity they had reached.
The stadium tunnels were made of thick concrete slabs, and there was an overwhelming smell of popcorn. Tommy took a flask from his sock, uncapped it, swigged, then offered it to Edgar. It was ten o’clock in the morning. Edgar frowned.
“I knew this would happen after you got married,” Tommy said. “Remember when we dumped beer on our heads during the barn dance photo?”
“Just let me get some coffee first.”
They bought coffee and carried it to their seats and dumped in the whiskey. Tommy had another flask in his left sock and another in his coat pocket. He didn’t understand football or care about the game. Edgar kept telling him about players and rankings. It was cold. The sky looked low and dark and deeply textured.
“You and Carol,” Tommy said after kickoff, “you fart around each other, right?”
Edgar kept his eyes on the game but grinned. “Sometimes I hold her head under the covers.”
“How do you go from not-farting to farting? How’s that happen?”
“You forget you’re not supposed to, then one day you just fart.”
“How long does that take?”
Edgar stood suddenly and cheered. So did the rest of the crowd. Tommy was trapped in a cave of yellow torsos. When it was over, Edgar sat down and said, “Carol farted first, actually. She let one rip while I was tickling her, and she got so embarrassed she almost cried. This was pretty early on. After that I felt like I had to start farting.”
Tommy kept drinking and at halftime called the restaurant to say he was sick. A prep cook answered the phone, and Tommy realized he didn’t know who to ask for, because he himself was the manager.
When he received the Rogaine package in the mail he felt foolish and skeptical but took it to the bathroom immediately and massaged the foam into his scalp like the instructions said.
Penelope came over a few hours later and pressed him against the wall before he could close the door. Outside the rain came down in sheets and made a roaring noise. She gyrated her hips and flicked her tongue into his mouth and lifted his T-shirt over his head.
“Will you still like me if I go bald?” Tommy asked.
She ran her hand over his stomach and chest. “I like this body.”
He decided not to feel belittled. He was glad she liked his body because it made all that time in the gym worthwhile. He thought about how all these years, without even knowing it, he’d been going to the gym for her.
At first he was startled to see Savannah come into the restaurant, she and her friend both wearing high-heels with pointed toes, wool overcoats, the shoulders matted with sleet. Then he decided there was no reason to feel uncomfortable. They stowed sodden Christmas shopping bags under the table and looked at their menus with serious faces. He waited until they had ordered, then brought over an expensive shiraz.
“On the house,” he said, cutting the foil with a borrowed wine key. “Robust blackberry profile, hint of vanilla. Goes great with everything but salmon.”
Savannah’s smile went cold with recognition. “You’re that guy from the treadmill.”
“Tom,” he said, offering his hand, which she didn’t take.
“When you ask a girl out, Tom—” she spit his name like a cherry pit—“you should take her out afterwards.”
“I meant to, but things started getting serious with my girlfriend.”
Savannah stood, gathered her bags, and walked out.
“She can get kind of intense,” the friend said. She had a chubby face she tried to modify with strategic makeup. She gave him a meek smile and stood. “She’d probably go out with you still.”
“That stuff about the girlfriend is true,” Tommy said. “I think I love her.”
“Can we still have the wine?”
He handed it over.
The rice-cooker bubbled and hissed while Tommy sautéed chicken in white wine, butter, lemon juice, garlic and capers—a recipe Rick had detailed for him. It smelled tangy and successful. He jostled the pan to make it sizzle. The gray windows were steamy.
“My parents want to take us to dinner next week for my birthday,” he said.
Penelope was cutting carrots. The knife made a tearing sound, then a thwack.
“I’ve never brought a girl home before,” he said. “They’re going to love you. They’ll shower you with affection.”
The cutting noise continued a moment, then stopped, and the knife clattered on the counter. He turned and saw Penelope contemplating him, her arms folded. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that,” she said.
She shrugged and looked down. “It could put a lot of pressure on us.”
Tommy crossed the kitchen to hug her. “We can handle pressure.” He rested his chin on her forehead, ran his hands down her long back. “You’re important in my life, Penelope. I think I’m falling in love with you.”
Penelope kept her hands at her sides.
“I said I think I’m—”
She pulled away. Her neck and cheeks were splotchy like when his beard stubble irritated her skin. She gripped his biceps. “Don’t be ridiculous, Tommy. It’s been—what? Three months?”
“Three and a half. Doesn’t it seem longer?”
“You don’t fall in love in three months.” She looked down. Her eyelashes were suddenly wet. “That’s not love.”
“Hey.” He embraced her, kissed her forehead. “Don’t cry. I’m sorry. You don’t have to meet my parents.”
But he knew what he felt. He’d never been in love before, and now he was.
His fingers were frantic on the keyboard. He had already beaten a long-standing high score, and now the Tetris pieces came rocketing down. He reacted instinctively. He was serene, unthinking, Zen-like. Someone knocked on the door. He maneuvered several pieces more, then paused the game.
“There’s a guy here who wants to see you,” the hostess told him.
“Is it a vendor?”
“He just said he needed to see you.”
Tommy rubbed the digital haze from his eyes. He stood, waited for the head rush to subside, then made his way through the bar. The clamor was pleasant and refreshing—the jumble of voices, the tinkling piano, the sound of forks touching porcelain. He smelled a blend of special-occasion aftershaves and perfumes and the sweet scent of liquor. The man beside the hostess stand looked delicate in his slacks and dress shirt. He had slight shoulders and was several inches shorter than Tommy. “Mr. Upshaw?” he asked, looking Tommy in the eye.
Tommy shook his hand. “Call me Tom. What can I do for you?”
The man glanced at the crowd waiting for tables. “Can we talk in private?”
“About what? I’ve got a busy restaurant here, sir.”
“I’m Penelope’s boyfriend.”
Tommy felt his smile go stiff. He recognized him now—the tanned face that didn’t seem to need a razor except at the chin, flaxen hair disheveled meticulously above a confident square forehead.
They were still shaking hands. “Her ex-boyfriend?”
“Her boyfriend,” the man insisted.
“I think you’re confused.”
The man shook his head in a disappointed way that made Tommy believe him. He released Tommy’s hand. “Listen, Penelope’s been going through some difficulties lately, but we’re going to try to move past it now, if we can. I know she’s kept you in the dark about all this. But she can’t see you anymore.”
Tommy puffed out his chest. “Says who?”
Tommy heard himself yelling. He didn’t know what he was saying, but the little man looked frightened, his eyes like nickels beneath the trendy hairdo, which pleased Tommy. He noticed customers turning, understood that the restaurant had gone silent except for the elegant piano music, but he couldn’t stop himself, not until Rick came charging from the kitchen and bear-hugged him. Tommy was grateful for the restraint because it suggested he was about to do something crazy. He pretended to struggle. He didn’t really want to fight; he just felt confused, and deceived. Rick lifted him off his feet and carried him to the office and put him in the desk chair. He whistled and made a gesture, and a moment later there was a beer on the desk. Tommy felt too nervous to drink, but Rick kept standing there, so he took up the beer and sipped it. It was cold and tasted good.
“We’ll bring more,” Rick said. He tapped the computer screen. “Look at some porn or something.” He left, closing the door gently.
Tommy drank the beer, stunned by the scene he had made and a little amused. He worked his mind over the new information carefully, like a prep cook thumbing a blade, and each time it snagged on the way the little man had shaken his head, as if in resignation. He was angry about so many things he didn’t know where to begin, except with the possibility that it wasn’t true, and he tried making that argument, though he saw all the evidence against it now. Then he tried to inflate his injury, imagining the ways he’d been used, but he couldn’t quite believe in them. He wanted to call Penelope but was afraid to. He gulped the beer and waited for Rick to bring another, which Rick did. Wordlessly, breathing heavily, he set down a fresh pint and removed the empty one. Tommy felt great tenderness for him.
When he resumed the Tetris game, the pieces fell like lightning. They stacked up before he could react.
The next morning he passed the fat black woman and marched down the aisle. He looked into several cubicles but couldn’t find Penelope’s, so he returned to the front desk for directions, which the fat woman happily provided.
Penelope was on the phone. She held a finger at him and continued the conversation for several minutes, cradling the phone against her shoulder and scribbling notes. Tommy sat and watched her. He smiled. He couldn’t help it. When she finally hung up, he said, “Guess who came into the restaurant last night.” She kept her hand on the phone and stared at it and didn’t say anything, and Tommy felt his heart tumbling from a great height. “Penelope?”
Her face twisted. She covered it with her hands. “I’m sorry.”
He watched her cry. He wanted to put a hand on her shoulder, but he just sat there and watched her battle the tears. He didn’t know if he was allowed to touch her.
“Can we still see each other?” he asked.
She looked at him from puffy red sockets.
“We don’t have to be exclusive.” He knew he was embarrassing himself; that he would regret saying these things, but he couldn’t stop. “I don’t want to lose you. I want you in my life, Penelope. I’m in love with you.”
“Stop saying that. It’s not true.”
It was true. But it wasn’t something he could argue.
Penelope stood when he did and embraced him, but her touch was mechanical, detached, and it saddened him that he couldn’t have one last moment of affection. She was crying again, so he held her, which was difficult. He let his eyes roam the grid of cubicles, the people working in them. Finally Penelope pulled away. She sniffled and kept her eyes down. “Tommy, I’m so sorry.”
“I go by Tom now,” was all he could say.
Edgar’s answering machine said they were at the coast for New Year’s weekend, but Tommy kept calling and leaving messages. When it got dark he poured a shot of Johnny Walker. He tried to watch TV but couldn’t care about anything happening on the screen. He searched his CD collection for lovesick songs and listened to a few, but they wouldn’t break him open, so he poured more Scotch and went through his old photos and found the one of Edgar and him dumping beer on their heads. It was the group photo from the fraternity barn dance. All the brothers wore cowboy outfits, lined up on hay bales, looking with surprise and laughter and admiration at the crazy ones kneeling in the foreground, showering themselves with Hamm’s.
He looked at the photo a long time. Then he drove to the old fraternity house. It was a big wooden mansion with brown-edged panels that gave the impression of a Swiss cottage. On a lower panel someone had written DOUCHEBAGS in ketchup and mustard. The letters sagged wetly, saturated by a moisture that seemed half mist, half rain. As Tommy walked from the car it tickled his face like fog but soaked his hair and jacket.
The kid who answered the door had bug eyes and a skinny neck and a few long blond whiskers on his chin. He wasn’t the type of kid they would’ve let in when Tommy was there. Still, Tommy recited the necessary proofs of membership and the kid invited him to the basement, where they were having a darts tournament. There was no party because almost everyone was gone for winter break. Tommy followed him down the staircase, which contained the familiar smells of dried beer and cold cement. Enormous party speakers in the basement played hip-hop at low volume. The carpet had been torn away to reveal slick concrete but the smells of accumulated sweat and vomit persisted, tinged by disinfectant. Half a dozen boys holding cheap beer turned to stare at him. They looked like children, smooth-cheeked, spindly, sullen. He tried to call back the old easy feeling, the state where nothing mattered except how much beer was left, but these boys depressed him, and all he could feel was the big building’s emptiness and dilapidation.
Someone tossed him a beer, and he decided to carry out his plan anyway—he dumped it over his head and yahooed. The boys only looked at him, then turned to look at each other. A couple laughed, but it wasn’t the same. He felt cold, silly. “When I was here,” he told them, but something finally collapsed in him, and he was relieved to feel tears in his eyes. They were warm and satisfying, like the sun.
The kid with bug eyes walked across the room and offered him a crusty towel.
“When I was here,” Tommy said to the kid, his voice tight, “none of you would’ve even gotten in.”
“Guess it’s different now,” the kid said.