The child rolled onto her right side and wrapped her hands around the spindles of her crib. Doug pried her pudgy fingers from the spindles and rolled her onto her back again. He grabbed her right leg with one hand to steady her, raised her up half an inch, and slid the clean diaper under her rump. She wiggled free of his grip, flipped over, and began to army crawl to the other end of the crib. He caught her by her left ankle and pulled her back. She began to wail. It was the one thing he couldn’t take—the shattering shrillness of her cry. He released her and pulled his cell phone out of the back pocket of his jeans. The girl stopped screaming when she saw the phone. It was her favorite toy. Already at one, she knew how to unlock the screen and find the show she liked—some cartoon about a boy who could magically transport himself to any time or place by putting on a blue baseball hat.
Doug handed the phone to his daughter, and she smiled, tears still rolling down her blotchy cheeks. She lay back with her legs outstretched and slid her index finger across the phone’s smudged screen. Doug moved the diaper under her again and fastened it about her waist. The theme song for Bobby’s Blue Baseball Cap started. It was a cheerful ditty sung by Bobby himself over the benign tinkling of a ukulele. The little girl cooed.
Stiffly, painfully, Doug straightened up. His back ached almost constantly now—a problem that he attributed primarily to age and to continually lifting and carrying a twenty-pound infant. Marcy, his wife, had back pain, too. They would lay in bed together at night and complain about their bad backs like a couple of geriatrics. After that, they would read for ten minutes, turn off their respective lights, and roll away from each other. They never had sex anymore. Neither of them had the energy—at least not at the same time.
In the bathroom across the hall, he washed the diaper cream and shit stink from his fingers. When he got back into Lucy’s room, he found her standing in her crib, holding his phone out to him, her blue eyes wide. The phone was on speaker, and a woman’s voice was coming out: “Hello? Doug? Hello? Are you there?” Doug snatched the phone from his daughter and looked at the screen. The name Hannah glowed up at him. He was astonished she was still in his contact list. He thought he had erased her ages ago. He hadn’t seen her or talked to her in five years.
He turned off the speaker and held the phone up to his ear. “Hi,” he said. “Hannah?”
“Doug?” she said. “This is unexpected.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry for bothering you.”
“What’s up?” said Hannah.
“Nothing,” he said. “My daughter accidentally dialed your number.”
“Oh,” said Hannah.
“Sometimes I give her my phone when I change her diaper—to distract her. Sorry to bother you.”
“You’re not bothering me,” said Hannah. “It’s nice to hear your voice.”
“It’s nice to hear your voice, too,” said Doug before he could stop himself.
There was a pause. Lucy reached for the phone, and Doug took a step away. She began to whimper. In a few seconds, he knew, she would explode into a full-blown tantrum. “Listen,” he said. “I have to go. My daughter’s about to lose it.”
“Okay,” said Hannah.
“I’ll talk to you later. Hope all is well.”
“Hope all is well with you, too,” said Hannah. “Call me some time because you want to.”
“I will,” said Doug, although he had no intention of doing so.
He ended the call and handed the phone back to Lucy. She stopped whimpering immediately. Doug picked her up and laid her on her back so he could put her pants back on. A floorboard creaked out in the hallway—a long, low whine. Footsteps. Marcy was up. She’d been in bed all day with a migraine, the third really bad one she’d had in three days. Doug had told her to call the doctor, but she refused. The headaches would pass, she said. She’d had migraines like this in high school and college, usually right before her final exams. They were stress-related. There was a rumor swirling around at the university that the administration was planning on cutting a number of faculty positions in the spring. As a new assistant professor without any publications, Marcy realized she was in a precarious position. Doug wanted to tell her that missing three days of work wasn’t making her job any more secure but saying that would only piss her off. She would freeze him out for at least a day. She would be dour and distant. Better to keep his mouth shut.
He snatched the pink pajama pants from the corner of the crib and tugged them on over Lucy’s chubby legs. The pants were already too small for her. She was growing fast. He would have to get her new clothes soon. He made a mental note and hoisted her out of the crib. She farted loudly in his arms and grinned.
By the time he got up to the bedroom that night, Marcy was already snoring, curled up on her right side, the sheet pulled up over her shoulder. He put on sweatpants and a sweatshirt and crawled into bed beside her. His body quaked under the sheets. The radiator had quit working two days before, and neither he nor Marcy had gotten around to calling a repairman. He’d do it tomorrow for sure, he told himself. He wasn’t going to freeze to death in his own bedroom. He turned his pillow sideways and hugged it tightly to him for warmth. He imagined it was a woman’s body, his wife’s body, not cold and rigid as it was now but soft and inviting, as it had been that first year or two they’d been together. He nestled his face into the pillow’s sour-smelling fabric and pressed his crotch into the mattress.
Suddenly, the body in his arms became Hannah’s. Out of a sense of loyalty, he tried to call back the image of Marcy, but Hannah remained. Her lean back arched against his chest, her full breasts swelled under his forearms, her healthy rump settled into his lap. Their bodies had always fit perfectly together. Their joining had always been seamless. He breathed in the wild grass scent of her hair. He felt the fine-haired flesh of her bicep—always tacky in the aftermath of lovemaking. He felt the slow suck and release of her breath and the steady thump of her heart, never quite in sync with the plodding thump of his own. He ached to feel her against him again, to inhale the sweet vinegary funk of her skin. It had been a long time. He had started a whole new life, forged a whole new identity, become a whole new person in the five years since they’d last seen each other. Had she? Was she the same person she had been? Would they still get along if they met again? Would they have anything in common anymore, any touchstone other than the past, other than their shared memories of loving each other, lying together, intertwined, drunken, and happy as the room whirled around them?
Would she even want to see him again, he wondered. When she said, “Call me some time because you want to,” had she meant it? Could she be lying in her own bed right now, longing for him as he longed for her? It was only nine o’clock. Chances were good she wasn’t in bed yet. When they were together, they never went to bed earlier than midnight. He rolled over and looked at his cell phone on the nightstand. He pictured himself picking it up and dialing her number. Would that be cheating? Just talking to an old friend. There wouldn’t be any harm in that, would there?
He watched his hand reach out and take hold of the phone. Then he was staring at Hannah’s number on the screen. He pivoted out of bed and padded across the hall to the bathroom, careful to avoid the floorboards that creaked. Gently, he closed the bathroom door, tiptoed past the shower, and sat down on the toilet lid.
“It’s just a phone call,” he told himself as he touched the green call button.
The phone rang four times before she picked up.
“I knew you’d call back,” she said. She sounded amused. He could imagine her smirking on the other side of the phone. “Are the wife and kid in bed?”
“They are,” he said. His voice came out thin, reedy, quavering. He was more nervous than he’d thought.
“Do you want to meet up tonight?”
He hadn’t considered the possibility that she was back in Cleveland. Last time he’d talked to her, she was working in a coffee shop in Colorado. “Where do you want to meet?”
“Do you know where The Brew Den is?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Can you be there in half an hour?”
“Sure,” he said. He swallowed down a big lump.
“I’ll see you there,” she said. “Don’t keep me waiting.”
His first thought when he saw her was that she looked thicker, fuller, more ample and vivid, like a woman in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. She was sitting at a two-person table in the back corner of the Brew Den’s single large room, gazing at her phone, fiddling absently with a lock of bronze-colored hair. She was still strikingly beautiful—just in a more mature, womanly sort of way. She was no longer the slender, narrow-faced nymph he remembered. She glanced up at the sound of the door closing, spotted him immediately, and smiled. The room was dim, and her face looked vaguely spectral over the flame of the votive candle in the center of her table. She motioned him over.
“It’s been a while,” he said when he reached her.
“Five years,” she said.
He sat down across from her and folded his hands in his lap. A server approached, a plump, dark-haired girl in black jeans and a black T-shirt. “Can I get you guys something to drink?” she said.
“Dortmunder for me,” said Hannah.
“Whatever light beer you’ve got on tap,” said Doug.
The server nodded and walked away.
“Light beer?” said Hannah, screwing up her face.
“I have to be careful,” said Doug. “With a kid and a full-time job, I don’t get much time to exercise these days.”
“Where do you work?”
“Heights High,” said Doug. “I teach history.”
“So you finally did something with that history degree,” said Hannah.
“I had to,” said Doug. “My wife was out of work for a while. Someone had to pay the bills.”
“What does she do?” asked Hannah.
“She’s a college professor,” said Doug.
“Fancy,” said Hannah.
“It’s not as glamorous as you might think,” said Doug. “Are you still doing music?”
“Still doing music,” said Hannah. “I’m actually leaving in a few days to go back on the road. I’m doing a tour of the Midwest—Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis.”
It surprised Doug a little that someone his own age—thirty-four going on thirty-five—could still be living like that, living like he used to live, flitting from place to place, sleeping in a van, paying for gas and food with gig money and tips. “Are you playing clubs?”
“Coffee shops mostly,” said Hannah. “My new songs are a little softer. I don’t have a band or anything.”
“And you’re making enough doing that to keep yourself going?”
“I don’t need a lot,” said Hannah. “I don’t have a kid.”
The server came back and placed a bottle in front of Hannah and a pint glass full of beer in front of Doug. She wiped her hands on her pants and departed again. Hannah picked up her bottle and took a quick swig. Doug sipped at the rim of his glass.
“Are you still playing guitar?” asked Hannah, setting her bottle back on the table.
“Not much,” said Doug. “Just to entertain my daughter. I play her old Beatles songs—‘Here Comes the Sun,’ ‘Eight Days a Week,’ stuff like that.”
“You don’t play her any of your songs?”
“I don’t remember many of my songs,” admitted Doug.
Hannah frowned. “That’s a shame,” she said. “Your songs were so good.”
“I’m glad you thought so,” said Doug.
“I wasn’t the only one,” said Hannah. “Lots of people came to those open mics at The Outpost just to hear you play.”
“I think they were there for you,” said Doug.
“I’m not so sure,” said Hannah. “You were always more talented than me. I just kept at it.”
“Those were good times at The Outpost,” he said, ignoring the hint of reproof in her voice.
“They were,” she said. “I still can’t believe anybody thought it was a good idea to have a bar that close to a lake.”
Doug shrugged. “Nobody ever drowned as far as I know.”
“We got close a few times,” said Hannah.
The candle flame between them shuddered for a moment then regained its strength.
“Remember the night we paddled across the lake to The Outpost in your canoe?” said Doug.
“Of course,” said Hannah. “The night of your twenty-first birthday.”
“We must have played twenty games of pool that night.”
“And we put ‘Suspicious Minds’ on the jukebox on repeat,” said Hannah. “I remember the bartender, Sal, said after about the tenth play that if he heard that goddam song one more time, he was kicking us out.”
They both laughed at the memory. It had been a long time since Doug had laughed deeply and freely. It felt good if a little awkward, like riding a beloved old bicycle for the first time in years.
“I think we finally stumbled out of there at about two-thirty,” said Hannah.
“And we slept the whole next day,” said Doug.
“We didn’t just sleep,” said Hannah.
Doug blushed. It had been the first time he’d ever had sex. He hadn’t really known what he was doing—where to touch her, how to hold her. But she’d been patient, and they’d gotten the job done in the end.
Hannah closed her lean, callused, guitar player’s fingers around the neck of her beer bottle and sighed. Her misty green eyes drifted away for a moment then found him again. “I miss you,” she said.
“I miss you, too,” he said.
She began to speak, stopped herself, and then began again. “Would you like to come home with me tonight?” She said. She said it tentatively, experimentally. The confidence had gone out of her voice.
Doug’s head buzzed. His muscles tightened. He thought of his frigid wife, his cold sepulchral bed. He saw himself embracing Hannah, enveloping her, pressing his body into her warm voluptuous figure—the glorious delight of it. Marcy would never find out. He could easily get away with it. Nobody would be hurt. He and Hannah would have their night, and then she would go on with her life, and he would go on with his. No damage done. It would just be one last fling—for old time’s sake. He took another drink from his glass and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Hannah’s apartment was about a mile from the Brew Den—above a café on a street lined with specialty boutiques, antique stores, and bookshops. The apartment was small, just a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom all in a row, shotgun-shack style, with thin, particle board partitions dividing each room. When they entered, she dropped her purse on the kitchen counter, slipped off her shoes, and led Doug through the living room to the bedroom.
“I rent this place for a hundred a month,” she said, turning on the bedroom light.
“That’s a steal,” said Doug.
“I know the owner,” said Hannah. “She cut me a break. She owns the café downstairs, too. I used to play gigs there.”
Hannah took off her herringbone tweed jacket and hung it in the closet. She had a white sleeveless dress on underneath, a dress that was just a little too tight for her. Doug wondered if she had bought it back when she was thinner and just refused to let it go. If that was the case, he was glad she’d kept it. It looked good on her. She reached out a hand to him. “Can I take your coat?” she said.
“Yeah,” said Doug. He unzipped his coat and handed it to her. She hung it up and closed the closet doors.
“Mind if I use the bathroom real quick?” she said. “You’re not in a rush, are you?”
“No rush,” said Doug.
“Don’t steal anything while I’m gone.”
“I’ll try to resist,” said Doug.
She went back through the living room, and Doug sat on the bed—a twin-sized mattress on a box spring with one dingy sheet and one flattened pillow without a case. He folded his hands in his lap and surveyed the room. There was a beige vanity with two drawers and a circular mirror against one wall and a short bureau with four drawers against the other. Beside the bureau was a tall wooden bookcase filled with vinyl records. Hannah had always been into records. It was the one thing he remembered her collecting. It was the one thing he remembered her taking pride in—her killer record collection. Her interest in music was scholarly. She knew everything there was to know about folk and blues and rock and roll. It was what had first attracted him to her when he met her at The Outpost way back in the summer of 2001. She was the only person he’d ever met who knew more about rock music than he did. And his knowledge of rock was considerable. His brain was a rock and roll encyclopedia.
That first year they met, they would sit out on the front steps of The Outpost after the place closed down and hurl rock trivia back and forth, trying to stump each other. “Who introduced Yoko Ono to John Lennon?” she would ask him. “John Dunbar,” he would reply. “What was the name of the first Flying Burrito Brothers album?” he would fire back. “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” she would say, without pausing even half a second to think about it. “I have it on vinyl.” When they finally burned out on this game, they would take out their guitars and teach each other licks, share new songs they had in the works, show each other alternate tunings. She was his best friend back then. That was before they became lovers. It took a while, a year or two, for them to realize that they loved each other. It snuck up on them like a cold. First a tickle in the throat, then a cough, then they were both laid out.
He went over to the bookcase, knelt down, and began flipping through her records. The records were in alphabetical order. He found the R’s and pulled out The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. It was the one he remembered them listening to the most when they were together. Hannah used to get a big kick out of the cover—a close-up shot of Mick Jagger’s crotch, the outline of his semi-erect penis clearly visible through the fabric of his jeans. There was a zipper on the record cover right over Jagger’s fly, and you could actually zip it down and pull the cardboard back to reveal his underwear—a pair of decidedly unhip white briefs. Doug held the record up to his nose to see if it still smelled like Hannah’s old house by the lake, like her old bedroom. It didn’t. It just smelled like musty paper, like the brittle, yellowed pages of the Farmer’s Almanacs he used to look through in his grandmother’s attic when he was a kid.
“How was it?” Doug asked Hannah when she got back. It was one of the little jokes they used to share—asking each other how it went in the bathroom.
“Marvelous as always,” said Hannah. “Do you want the blow-by-blow?”
“I’ll skip it,” said Doug.
“I see you got into my record collection,” she said pointing down at the record in his left hand. “What you got there?”
He held it up. “Sticky Fingers,” he said. “Our favorite.”
“Best album the Stones ever did,” said Hannah. “Anybody who says otherwise is wrong.”
“Almost every song is good,” said Doug.
“Almost every song,” said Hannah. “What song isn’t good?”
Doug shrugged. “I’m not nuts about Sister Morphine.”
Hannah gasped. “That’s heresy, mister,” she said. “Sister Morphine is a classic. Marianne Faithfull helped write that one.”
“I know,” said Doug. “Doesn’t make the song any better.”
“How dare you!” said Hannah, grinning. “Give me that record. You don’t deserve to hold it.”
She snatched for the record, and he drew away from her. She lunged at him and knocked him onto the bed. He tried to keep the record away, but she crawled on top of him and grabbed it out of his hands before he could wriggle free. She hugged the record to her chest and sat back on him. He felt himself begin to swell and harden under her. Could she feel it, he wondered? Did she know he was ready? Was he ready? Suddenly, on the brink of the act, he wasn’t so sure. He needed a minute to think about it, to remember why it was okay for him to do this. But he didn’t have a minute. In a few seconds, he knew, she would put that record down, lean over him, and kiss him on the lips. And then it would be too late. There would be no retreat after that. He had to say something that would buy him some time. He had to distract her somehow, to keep her at bay. His eyes went to the record cover, to the outline of Mick Jagger’s penis.
“You know,” he said. “I always thought it was strange that Mick Jagger was so well-endowed. I mean he’s such a skinny, little guy. You wouldn’t expect him to be hung like that.” He knew it was a stupid thing to say, but it was all he could think of.
Hannah wrinkled her brow. “That’s not Mick Jagger on the cover,” she said.
“Sure it is,” said Doug. “Everybody knows that.”
“No it isn’t,” said Hannah. “It’s some model who worked for Andy Warhol. Joe something. I forgot his last name. Something Italian-sounding.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s Jagger,” said Doug.
“I’m pretty sure you’re wrong,” said Hannah.
“You want to look it up?” said Doug.
“I’d love to look it up,” said Hannah. She moved off of him. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, unlocked the screen, and tapped the Internet icon. The first thing that popped up on the screen was the last thing that had been on it—Bobby’s Blue Baseball Cap. The ukulele intro began playing. He instantly saw Lucy in her crib, his pink-cheeked cherub, beaming into the phone, cooing contentedly. He felt a need to be near her, beside her, watching over her. He wished he could put on Bobby’s blue baseball cap right now and transport himself home. That’s where he had to be right now. Not here. The part of his life that Hannah belonged to was over. It had been for a long time. It had been foolish of him to think he could somehow reenter it. He knew that now. He saw that life was a bridge that crumbled and fell away behind you as you walked across it. You couldn’t go back the way you came. All you could do was move forward. If you tried to go back, you would fall into the abyss.
He turned off the phone and slid it back into his pocket. “I have to go,” he said.
Hannah flinched. “What’s wrong?”
“I shouldn’t have come here,” he said. He got to his feet and went to the closet to get his coat.
“I thought you wanted to come here,” said Hannah.
“I did,” he said, putting on his coat. “I just can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t.”
Hannah stood and dropped the record on the mattress. “Why can’t you?” she said. There was an edge of panic in her voice. “What’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I just can’t do this. I’m sorry I didn’t realize it until now.” He zipped up his coat.
“So you’re just going to go?” she said.
“I have to,” he said.
For a moment, she stared at him. Then she started sobbing, softly at first, then more fitfully, her shoulders jerking up and down with each yelping intake of breath. Instinctively, he walked over to her and put his arms around her. She buried her face in his shoulder and continued her hiccupping sobs. He felt her heart beating through his coat, a disconcertingly rapid drubbing. He couldn’t feel his own heart. He couldn’t tell if they were in sync or not. He guessed not. He felt weirdly calm. “I have a family now,” he said.
“Oh don’t get all self-righteous on me,” she said brokenly into his shoulder. “You were the one who called me. Twice.”
“I made a mistake,” he said.
“Do you care about me at all anymore?” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I care about you very much. I always have.”
“Then don’t leave me here,” she said. “We don’t have to have sex. I couldn’t care less about sex. Just stay.”
“I can’t stay,” he said. He rested his mouth on the top of her head. Her hair smelled the same way it had all those years ago. A lot changed—most things, in fact—but not everything.
For what seemed to Doug like a long time, they stood there holding each other, not saying anything. Gradually Hannah’s sobbing died down and then ceased altogether. Her heartbeat slowed. Her breathing slowed. The tension went out of her body. Doug relaxed his hold on her but didn’t let go. Outside a car honked and tires skidded. A teapot whistled downstairs.
“I’m sorry,” said Hannah. She sniffled a little and lifted her face from his shoulder. “I’ve just been so lonely.”
“I’m sorry you’re lonely,” said Doug.
“It’s my own fault,” said Hannah. “I have a knack for getting involved with the wrong kinds of men.”
“You’ll find a good man,” said Doug. “A better man than me, I’m sure.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” said Hannah. She smiled—the unguarded toothy smile she flashed when she was genuinely tickled by something.
“Well fuck you, too,” said Doug, smiling back at her.
She wiped her eyes with her fingers and stepped away from him. Her cheeks were pale and mascara-streaked. Her bright red lipstick was smudged just above her upper lip. He hadn’t realized until now that she was wearing makeup. She never used to wear makeup. She always got down on women who wore too much. Painted whores, she called them. Man-pleasers.
She took a breath and patted him on the shoulder. “Go back to your family and your white picket fence, Ward,” she said.
“Are you going to be okay?” he said.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “You know me. I’ll find my way.”
He nodded. “Let me know the next time you’re playing around here.”
“I will,” said Hannah. “Maybe you can bring your wife and daughter.”
“I’m sure they would love it,” said Doug.
They hugged again, lightly and quickly, and then he turned and walked out of her apartment. When he got down to the street, he looked up at her window, half-expecting to see her waving at him, but all he saw was an empty rectangle of light. He wasn’t sad that she wasn’t there. It wouldn’t have been like her to be up there, waving him off. That wasn’t her style. She wasn’t sentimental. If he had to guess, he would say she was probably up there right now, lying on her mattress, smoking a Marlboro Red and listening to side one of Sticky Fingers. That was Hannah. She was no damsel on a balcony.
Back home, he did his best to slip into bed without waking Marcy, but he woke her up anyway. She rolled over and reached out to touch him. Her icy fingers found his left bicep. “Hey, honey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said. “Sorry to wake you.”
“It’s okay,” she said. She inched a little closer. He could smell the peppermint toothpaste on her breath. “I had a bad dream.”
“What about?” he said.
She hesitated. “I dreamed you died.”
JACK SOMERS’ work has appeared in Litro, Midwestern Gothic, Prick of the Spindle, The Atticus Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fewer Than 500. He has a piece forthcoming in decomP. You can find him on Twitter @jsomers530 or www.jacksomerswriter.com.