This story was almost lost! Thanks, J. What a relief.
original drafts 2001-2011
On a Thursday night toward the end of summer, the phone rang. Gwen was sitting right beside it, so she did something that she almost never did; she answered it.
“Hello. It’s Sam,” said the caller. Gwen winced.
“Sam!” She tried to make her voice convey warmth that she didn’t actually feel.
“It’s so good to talk to you. Oh, I miss you so much,” came the reply.
She’s drunk, Gwen thought. But instead she responded mechanically, “I miss you too. I’m glad you called.” She was a bad liar and she knew Sam could probably tell that’s what it was.
“I’m not drinking. Everything is fine. I tried calling you a few times but you weren’t home and I didn’t want to leave a message.” It almost sounded rehearsed. Gwen could imagine Sam crying as she spoke.
Gwen wasn’t sure how to respond so she said, “oh.” She paused. “So what have you been up to?” She pretended it had been five days and not five months since they’d last spoken.
“Everything’s really good!” Sam hid behind a phony Valley Girl accent. “I met a guy! We’ve been together two months. He’s great, he’s really great.” I met a guy too, thought Gwen. We’ve been together 18 years.
But instead she asked, “that’s great, what is his name?” She wanted to ask his occupation too, but chickened out.
“Ken,” said Sam. “He’s really, really cute. He’s like, so funny.” She giggled. Oh brother, thought Gwen. Why did I answer the phone?
“Yah, it is.” More tears. “And I know he really loves me, but sometimes I feel smothered.”
Now it was Gwen’s turn to play Valley Girl. “So...what have you guys been up to?!”
“Oh, not much. I really, really miss you.”
“I miss you too” Gwen said mechanically. The conversation dragged on this way for a while; Sam alternately giggling and crying, Gwen playing with the telephone wire, trying to think of what to say next, and hoping not to seem too fake. She tried to figure out some way to get off the phone. “Why don’t we get together?” Gwen hoped she wouldn’t regret the impulse.
“O.K.” Sam replied quickly. “There’s a free swing concert this Friday.” Gwen was surprised not just by the suggestion, but that Sam had any suggestion at all. Maybe this time things would be different and Sam did have her act together a little?
“That sounds great. We’ll meet you there at 7.” Gwen rubbed her ear after she hung up the phone. It felt hot.
Friday arrived. Gwen strolled through the crowd of mostly senior citizens, wondering if Sam and her latest would show up. Then she spotted them. Sam was wearing a big baggy tee shirt and jeans. For someone with a rough lifestyle, she looked pretty good. Sam let out a little cry when she saw Gwen and Jack, and rushed over. She wrapped her arms around Gwen and sniffled.
“I’m so happy to see you.” Gwen hugged back and managed to say she was glad to see Sam, too. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn't that simple, either. Then she was afraid she’d have to pry herself away, but Sam finally let go and treated Jack to a similar embrace. Gwen knew he shared her discomfort.
It her right hand Sam held a big plastic soda cup from a fast food restaurant. The lid was a Star Wars character’s upper body with a straw sticking out of its head.
“That’s cute,” Gwen said, indicating. Sam had always retained a certain childlikeness.
“Yah. Ken bought it for me,” she said, as if the soda cup was a diamond ring. She swooped the cup around and deepened her voice. “Hi there, Gwen.” Then she turned to a goofy looking guy standing nearby. He also wore a baggy tee shirt and jeans.
“This is Ken. Ken, this is my absolutely best friend in the whole wide world, Gwen, and her husband, Jack. They are like, the best people you can ever, ever imagine and I love them so much. They will tell you to like, get lost if they don’t like you.” Her voice got higher and higher with each word. They all shook hands.
“Nice to meet you.” Sam sucked on the straw that stuck out of the plastic head. They opened folding chairs and prepared to listen to the concert. They were far away and couldn’t see anything but the music was good.
“Shhhhh.” An old woman nearby hissed for the umpteenth time. Others had moved away. Sam continued to speak in a hushed voice punctuated sometimes with giggling, and at other times with tears.
“I”m so happy to see you guys.” Her eyes sparkled. She shook the drink cup. “Shut up old bitch.” Then she exploded with laughter.
“Maybe we should try to be quiet,” suggested Ken. He stroked Sam’s hair.
“Hey mister” said the cup, bobbing up and down near Ken’s face. “What are you doing later?” More laughter, ending with another gulp from the straw.
Gwen had a revelation. That cup was filled with something a lot stronger than Pepsi. Why did I have to answer the phone?, she asked herself again.
“Hey,” whispered Jack, while nodding in apology at the folks sitting nearby, “want to go to one of those coffee shops and talk there?” Sam pulled the straw out of her mouth and assumed a pose that reminded Gwen of the Statue of Liberty, if the torch was transformed into a plastic cup of vodka.
“Are you tired of these geezers, Jack?” The plastic character swayed back and forth. Fortunately, Ken was agreeable, and Sam didn’t object either, so they folded up the lawn chairs and headed for their cars. The walk seemed to calm Sam.
They drove separately to the street with the coffee shop, and then met up again after finding parking spots in the neighborhood. The coffee shop was several blocks from where they were parked, so they strolled along, commenting on the stores as they passed.
“They have great food there,” Sam said when they were in front of a small Mexican restaurant.
“Really?,” said Jack. “We haven’t eaten. Want to get something?” It sounded like a good idea so they went inside. The air was pungent with food aromas. They ordered a round of tacos and three sodas. Although Sam had left the plastic cup in the car, she said she didn’t want anything to drink.
Gwen glanced over at Sam, who had fallen silent since they had placed their order. Her face was even more red than usual. Without a word, she left the counter, wove around the tables and strode into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the food came out, and they found a table for four. Ken, Jack and Gwen sat in the taco joint, making small talk while waiting for Sam to come back from the bathroom. After a long time, she stumbled up to the table, her face glistening with sweat. She sat in the empty chair, took one bite of taco, wrapped it up, and swivelled around, so not to face the others.
“Are you O.K.?,” asked Ken.
“I’m fine,” she snapped. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then, Jack decided to resume their earlier conversation.
He said, “so Ken, how was your trip to New Orleans?”
Ken looked up, seeming relieved by the distraction. “What a great city. A really good place for a vacation.” But he was preoccupied, so he turned in his chair and said gently, “are you sure you don’t want any more taco, Sam?”
“Take that fucking taco and shove it up your Goddamn ass!,” she shouted, in a voice that sent a chill down Gwen’s spine. The couples whispering at the nearby tables looked up in shock, then just as quickly looked away. Gwen stared at the table. What a mistake. When will I learn? I’m finishing my taco, then I’m leaving, she resolved.
“So, I guess this means you don’t want to get cappuccino?,” Jack quipped. He was never at a loss for words. Ken and Gwen burst into laughter, and even Sam smiled. Briefly. Then, she resumed her scowl.
“I’m done,” said Gwen, folding up the foil that once held a taco. “Time to go.” Out on the sidewalk, Sam trailed behind the others.
“I’m so tired I just want to lay down,” she mumbled, stopping at the corner to squat down.
“Our car is right over here.” Gwen lied, pointing. After tonight, she would be a pro. “It was so nice to meet you.”
Ken was distracted, but he managed a polite monosyllable. “Yes.” By now, Sam was half laying on the sidewalk, sobbing. Gwen grabbed Jack’s hand and pulled. She didn’t want Ken to come to his senses and get away before they did.
It was all she could do to not run, run, run.