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Creative Nonfiction Romance Funny

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

Infinite Learning Curve

           My bladder summons me out of a dream. I grumble at the familiar arthritic pain as I limp down the hall to do my business. Gazing out my picture window at another summer morning, I see a young couple, fresh and nimble, strolling hand in hand. I imagine morphing back to my twenties. There were euphoric, magic moments, but oh, so fleeting. My father often quoted the famous words, “Youth is wasted on the young.” So interesting how that truth has finally settled into my aching joints.

           If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I am not eager to revisit the teens or twenties. So much drama and suffering!

           Peter and I met when I was fifteen, started dating when I was nineteen, and endured countless break-ups and reconciliations over the following twelve years. When our son was a year old, we married at Old City Hall. Terrified, we fumbled to do our best. Sixteen years later we separated. After six years of minimal contact, we reconnected to attend our son’s wedding. When my eyes teared, Peter took my hand. The sputtered spark reignited. The two of us were destined for more life lessons.

In the early years of our romance, jealousy was a weapon we both wielded. The passion of rage was intoxicating. Whenever I picked up the sword to swipe, convinced my retaliatory actions were justified, I believed mutual pain was proof of undying love.

I will always recall a Thanksgiving weekend when I was twenty-two. My parents were at the cottage, so I invited the usual friends over to get drunk and toke on hash.

Irene arrived with her boyfriend Dan and her cousin Linda. Linda was trimmer than me, had beautiful blonde hair, and smiled a lot at Peter, who was enjoying her attention. Mannie and her boyfriend Tom brought their friend Steve, a burly, bearded mountain-man wearing hiking boots and a hunting jacket. I assumed the girls were match-making, hoping Steve and Linda would hit it off.

Irene whipped out her instamatic camera, and circulated to take pictures. Linda had settled next to Peter on the couch, and I pretended not to notice as the two of them engaged in a lengthy conversation.

“Smile for the camera!”

Peter put his arm around Linda’s shoulder and the two grinned. Flash! Seconds later, the shot popped out. “What a cute picture,” chirped Irene, and handed it to the posing couple. Peter nodded his approval, and showed it to me with a sneer on his face.

Silently choking on rage, I retreated to the kitchen to get more booze. Steve sauntered in behind me and offered a toke.

After inhaling deeply, I reached into the fridge for a bottle of Baby Duck.

“Join me?”

I waved two stemmed glasses in the air with exaggerated enthusiasm. Within ten minutes, we had consumed the entire bottle. Grabbing a second, I waltzed back into the living room. Steve followed and dominated the conversation. In graphic detail, he boasted about feeding his pet boa constrictor live rats. I disguised my disgust by laughing hysterically. After an awkward silence, Peter again turned toward Linda. Both were lounging cross-legged, their knees touching.

“Want a refill?” I asked Steve. He held out his glass. Peter, still communing with Linda the bitch, ignored my antics.

By 4:00 in the morning, we were all partied out. I was drunk and angry, stewing like a slow-cooker. Irene finally left with Dan and Linda. Peter escorted the three of them to the door with infuriatingly good manners. He hugged Linda good-bye and told her how much he enjoyed getting to know her.      

Steve followed Mannie and Tom out. “Can I call you?”

“Sure. Mannie has my number.” The elation of my smug satisfaction was short-lived.

Peter and I headed upstairs to bed. Fortified by booze, I blasted him. “How could you do that to me? Do you think it’s funny, ignoring me all night and waving around that stupid picture of you and Linda?”

           “Well, you and Steve seemed to be hitting it off, so what’s your problem?” replied Peter with a maddening smile.

           “Steve and I were just talking. He didn’t have his ARM around me!” I wailed. Tears flowed down my cheeks, but failed to elicit the reassurance I craved. Peter rolled away from me. After a long silence, he sighed.

           “Listen. I need some time to think. I’m taking Linda out next weekend. If things don’t work between me and her, I’ll let you know. I still care about you, but I need a break.”

           Walloped, I literally saw red. “If you see her, don’t bother calling me ever again!”

           “If that’s what you want.”

           Peter flung himself off the bed. I heard his footsteps on the stairs, the front door slamming shut. I watched him depart along the street, disappearing into the mist of early morning. After a long and bewildered cry, I drifted into a black void of exhausted sleep.

           The pain of loss was excruciating. Irene called the following weekend.

           “I heard you and Peter broke up.”

           I didn’t trust her sympathetic tone.

           “He wants to date Linda, so I told him to get lost,” I said, feigning indifference.

           “Yeah, they went on a date last night. He bought her a bouquet of roses.”

           I must have been addicted to misery, because I allowed Irene to prattle on in response to my pellet-gun questions. Finally, she finished torturing me and hung up. Peter never bought me flowers!

Every time my phone rang, I hoped it was a repentant Peter. No such luck. When I heard Steve’s voice, I fought back my disappointment and agreed to a date. I planned to leak the information to Irene.

           When Steve showed sexual interest, I immediately reciprocated. Even though I’d packed on several pounds, he wanted me. We became a couple, and I went to weekend parties with a different crowd. Nobody talked. The guys snorted speed, and fed three enormous boa constrictors, whooping and hollering when helpless rats met their fate. I pretended to be cool by wrapping the boas around my neck while soused on booze.

            I kept dreaming an anaconda had invaded my home, and was stalking my beloved, all-white pussycat, Leopold.

            I broke up with Steve a few weeks later. I interpreted the shrug of his shoulders as a sign that he didn’t particularly care. Guilt was eclipsed by relief.

           From time to time, I’d inquire about Peter. Irene was only too happy to answer my masochistic questions. He’d moved on from Linda, was dating someone else. Sadly, I wondered if he’d ever come back to me, now that Steve was gone.

Immersing myself in my studies, I avoided dating. The wound eventually scabbed over, but itched on lonely days.

Irene phoned out of the blue to invite me to a party. She and Dan had spent a lot of time with Mannie and Tom over the past two years. The two couples had married, and I hadn’t been included in their socializing. They were apparently a foursome, practicing “open marriage” and claiming that the sexual variety really spiced up their unions and prevented boredom. I was dubious, but kept my opinions to myself.

           “Vicki, it’s been ages since we talked. Are you still at university?”

           “I’ve got one more year to go. I’m training to be a schoolteacher.”

           “You’re kidding! That’s hilarious!”

 I changed the subject. “Where are you living?”

           “Dan and I just bought a house in Scarborough. We thought we’d invite some old friends over to see the place. I hope you come. You can bring your boyfriend if you have one.”

           “I’m not with anyone,” I admitted.

           “That doesn’t matter. Just come. Guess who’s renting the basement from us? Peter!”

At the sound of his name, my heart did a flip, and I prayed Irene would keep talking. She complied.

           “His rent helps us pay the mortgage. He’s set up a real cozy space for himself. He says hello, by the way.”

           Again, my heart jolted. “Say hi back. I’ll see you soon.” After I hung up, I wondered if Peter was with someone, or alone like me. I hoped for the latter.

           As I made my way by transit out to the suburbs, I worried about being the only guest without a partner. Was Peter going to be at the party? Had I gained weight since I’d last seen him? Excitement and dread battled in my brain as I headed to the front door and rattled the knocker.

           Someone I didn’t know let me in. Nervous, I wandered into the kitchen. A table was laden with bottles of rum, rye, cognac, gin, sherry, mixes and an ice bucket. It reminded me of my mother’s parties. I helped myself to a large splash of rum and cola and looked for familiar faces. I drained the glass and poured another.

           “Vicki! You made it!” called Irene, appearing from another room. She gave me a hug and led me into the living room where Tom, Mannie, and Dan were talking. They acknowledged my presence and continued their animated conversations with a group of people I’d never met. I scanned the crowd, hoping to see Peter. He stood across the room. Our eyes met. We smiled at each other and I noticed how handsome he looked. I waited for him to come over, but he didn’t.

            I stole glances as he conversed with a girl I assumed was his date. His gleaming blond hair still fell in waves to his shoulders. He wore a denim vest and matching blue jeans. His companion, I noted with relief, wasn’t all that pretty. She had a large nose and jutting chin.

           Peter suddenly glanced in my direction. I quickly averted my eyes and laughed loudly at a joke that Tom was telling. 

           The dining room table was set with platters of scrumptious food. I admired a stunning, ceiling-high Christmas tree, twinkling with arrays of white and blue lights. After telling Irene how beautiful her new house was, I lapsed into an awkward silence. Periodically, I wandered out to the kitchen for a refill. The raucous laughter accentuated my loneliness.

            Irene abruptly rose from her seat, stood on a wobbly chair, and bellowed from the center of the living room. “Listen, everybody! Time to liven things up! I know a great party game.”

           Dan rushed over to steady her.

           The room hushed.

           “Okay. This is how it goes. The girls go first. One at a time, you put on this blindfold and try to guess who each guy is. Touching is allowed, but no talking.”

           As she waved a scarf around, subdued laughter circulated the room. I averted my eyes. “Who’s first?”

           “Me!” yelled Helen, Irene’s sister. Bravado fueled by straight whiskey, she tied the scarf around her head. Better her than me. Please, not me.

The men formed a circle around her. As she fondled each of them in private places and attempted to guess their identities, onlookers hooted, cheered and applauded.

           Mannie went next. Blindfolded and boisterous, she performed with gusto. When she got to Dan, she massaged his hair, ran her fingers over his face, then patted him down thoroughly. He was clearly enjoying himself, and grinned like the Cheshire Cat. I noticed he had a hard-on.

Suddenly, a voice bellowed above the laughter.

           “You bitch!” roared Irene. “You’re after my man!”

           The clamorous audience was stunned into silence. Mannie tore off her blindfold and lunged at Irene, who scrambled into the kitchen. Mannie pursued, yanked open a drawer, and seized a butcher knife. Irene fled back to the living room. Mannie followed, brandishing her weapon. I stood in front of her in an attempt to block her.

           She glared at me, knife raised, with black eyes from hell. “Get out of my way, or I’ll kill you!” I stumbled aside and watched in horror as they caterwauled and crashed into the tree. It toppled. Ornaments splintered across the polished, hardwood floor. Peter grabbed Mannie from behind and pinned her arms at her sides. Irene’s sister, Helen, sucker-punched her in the face. The knife clattered to the floor.

 “Merry FUCKING Christmas!” hollered an onlooker.

           Shaken and horrified, I called a cab. Nobody noticed me leave. Cowering in the back seat, I tried not to retch. The cabby kept peering at me in his rear view mirror.

           Months went by. I heard that both Mannie and Irene’s marriages had ended. No shit!

           Peter and I reconnected when he moved back to my neighborhood. We met by chance on the street.

           “Want to get a coffee?”

            Both single and available, we circled and sniffed like curious dogs, bonded by agreeing that the fated Christmas party had been traumatic.

           Another chapter of our relationship began that day. The elation and newness carried us high above the clouds, only to hurl us back to earth when persistent bouts with jealousy and retaliation ripped through our lives.

           Years into our marriage, Peter and I had distanced. I resented that he spent every Saturday night with his buddy John and his girlfriend, Vera. I wasn’t included.

           One Saturday, as Peter was getting ready to visit them, the phone rang. Peter saw the call display and scooped up the receiver. Suspicious, I huddled in the hallway to eavesdrop

           “I know Vera. John’s drinking a lot of vodka. It’s not you. You’re a beautiful woman. I’ll talk to him. You’re not fat. You look much younger than your age.”

             I imagined yanking the phone from Peter’s grasp and wrapping the cord around his neck.        

He hung up and headed into the shower. He whistled. He never whistled! When he left, I decided, since our son was at a sleepover, to stay overnight at Nadine’s.

            “Where were you last night?” asked Peter.

           “At a friend’s” I answered, deliberately vague.

The following Saturday, Peter shocked me with an unexpected invitation.

“Why don’t you come tonight? Vera wants to meet you. The four of us can have a few drinks, shoot the shit.”

           I accepted the offer. I wanted to see for myself. When we got to their apartment building, Peter pressed the intercom and a female answered.

 “Hello Darling. Come on up!”

We hoisted our contribution of beer and wine onto an elevator, and lugged it down a long hallway.

Vera flung the door open before Peter even knocked. She wore a T-shirt, but no shorts or slacks. She threw her arms around him in an exuberant embrace.

“Darling, it’s wonderful to see you!” I surveyed her skimpy outfit, curvaceous build, long, tanned legs. Her toenails were painted orange.

“Pardon me. It’s SO hot,” she purred, pulling on her shirt to air out her midriff. I suspected she was bra-less, too.

Peter introduced us, and I received a perfunctory nod. John reclined on a sofa watching football. He told us to grab a couple of beers. I could tell Peter felt right at home as he pulled out two bottles and loaded the fridge with our contribution.

The guys talked about sports while Vera busied herself in the kitchen.

“The meat’s marinated, John. Start the BBQ. Peter, Darling, would you open some wine?”

We moved outside to the porch. John flipped the steaks. A cooler full of ice cubes and bottled beer sat near my feet.

Their laughter got louder and louder. Seemed they had a lot of shared and humorous memories of getting drunk together.

I offered to help with dishes. “Sure. Go for it,” Vera said, dismissing me with a wave of her hand. Their merriment irked as I scrubbed vigorously.

An abrupt silence was followed by a slamming screen door as Vera entered and stomped into the bedroom. Moments later, she catapulted down the hall in blue jeans and sneakers, and stormed out of the apartment.

 The two men entered from outside. John collapsed on the couch. “Geez, I was just kidding!”

 “She’s sensitive, John. That was over the top.”

Next thing I knew, Peter was heading for the door. “I’m going after her.”

Stunned, I sat across from John. He had no interest in conversation, and glowered at the TV screen. Without bothering to use a glass, he lifted a bottle of vodka to his lips and took a deep swallow.

Mute, I too stared at the screen.

Forty tense minutes later, Peter returned with a tearful Vera. 

“John, come for a walk, buddy. Let’s talk,” Peter suggested. The two stumbled out the door.

For the first time that evening, Vera acknowledged my presence by making conversation. I sat and listened to her lament.

“John’s a nasty drunk. When we first met, he said I was sexy, couldn’t keep his hands off me. He was always so romantic. Now he insults everything I do.”

“I know how you feel…” I offered, hoping to bridge a connection. She cut me off to continue.

“He used to take me on trips to the Dominican and we’d make love on the beach under the stars. Now he acts like he hates me. You’re so lucky to have a man like Peter.”

I didn’t like what I was hearing. Not one bit.

Without another word, she disappeared into her bedroom.

The two men returned. “Where’s Vera?” Peter asked with infuriating concern.

“She went to bed.” My icy tone went unnoticed.

 John offered Peter another beer, and to my relief, he declined. I punished him with silence all the way home.

It was inevitable that Peter and I would separate two years later.

While single, I came to terms with my own demons, joined AA, quit drinking.

When we reconnected for our son’s wedding, both of us had finally done some growing up.

By the time we reached our early sixties, we’d finally learned to replace drama and suffering with acceptance and appreciation. Why did it have to take so damned long?

           Peter passed from cancer in April, 2012. We’d saved the best for last.

       

August 02, 2022 20:45

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