December 1, 2001
We lay together, not touching
by Steve McNeill
ody was popping out of her slip; I remained modest in my rented tux. I had hung the jacket carefully over the armchair in the corner, and we lay on the bed, on top of the covers, together but not touching. I tried to pour another glass of champagne for myself from the bottle on the nightstand, but it was dry and I let it slip from my fingers onto the floor, next to the first one.
'We could do it, Craig. You know that, don't you?'
'You know what.' Of course I did - I was playing dumb.
'No, I don't. What?' Maybe I just wanted to hear her say it.
'Date... run away together... other stuff.'
'You're just saying that because of today. If it weren't for that damn wedding, we wouldn't even be here, and we sure wouldn't be talking about this.'
'It's not about the wedding, Craig. It's been more than that for a long time. Come on, we could do it.' Jody was smart about a lot of things; with some things she just didn't use her head.
'Yeah, our families would get a real kick out of it. I'm calling for more booze.' As I reached across her for the phone on her nightstand she slapped my hand away, giggling.
'You don't need any more to drink, honey.'
I shrugged and rolled back to my side of the bed, careful not to touch her. 'Don't call me 'honey,' okay?' I was pretty sure I did need more to drink.
I lay quietly, hands folded across my stomach, hoping Jody wouldn't talk anymore, but of course she did. 'So who cares what our families think? We're adults, right?'
'It just wouldn't be right. You know it wouldn't be right.'
She groaned. 'Come on! I'm attracted to you. I know you're attracted to me. And we've always had so much fun together! What wouldn't be right?'
'Do you think that would satisfy my dad? My mom would roll over in her grave! And do you think your folks would take that lying down? 'Sure, Craig and I are tabloid freaks, but it's okay, because we have so much fun together!' That'll go over well.'
'They all supported Eric, right? They couldn't not support this.'
'This is a little different.'
'How do you mean?' Now she was playing dumb.
I considered sitting up for emphasis, then thought better of it at the last second. 'We're cousins, Jody!'
'By marriage! We aren't even really related! We're like step-cousins or something!'
'Keep saying that. You'll have to be pretty convincing to keep Uncle Lou from breaking my neck.' I shook my head and wished I had more champagne.
It was Jody's stepbrother's wedding. Eric married some girl most of the family didn't know, a Pakistani he had met on a roofing job in Rye Brook. Of course Jody slid in as a bridesmaid, and I got pegged as a groomsman right away because I was one of the only men in the family who was still talking to Eric.
I went to the wedding with this chubby brunette named Jamie who Jody had set me up with. We had been sort of dating off and on for maybe six months, but it wasn't much more than just so-so sex at convenient moments. She was intelligent but still managed to be dull, and pushy about a lot of things.
The tux was hot, and I squirmed through the vanilla secular ceremony. At the 'man and wife' part, I caught Jody eyeballing me from across the aisle and grinned at her. I performed obediently at the photo session that followed, going from one end of the wedding party to the other, from front to back, as directed by the photographer. I hoped somebody was in the next room hitting on Jamie.
At the reception, I sat on the dais at a round table with Eric and Denise and the rest of the wedding party. Our dates were interspersed in the crowd below us, left to fend for themselves until dinner ended. Jody, sitting across the table from me, looked stunning - even in her hideous, yellow bridesmaid dress. She was tanned gold, the same color as her hair - which she had up in a French braid - and she smiled and winked when she caught me staring at her. Jody was there with an ex-boyfriend I didn't know, a fidgety guy with acne scars who looked like he knew his place with her pretty well. He spent most of the night eating shrimp.
After the steak and the toasts, but before I was really trashed, I danced a couple of slow songs with Jamie. My dad, swaying beside us with Denise's aunt, shot me a drunken smile. I felt one meaty hand on my ass and Jamie slobbered on my neck.
'Did you get a room?' she whispered.
I thought about the keycard in my wallet, struggled to make some space between us, and shook my head. I spotted Jody dancing with Pockmark near the bar. 'No,' I said. 'We'll go to your place.' I hadn't yet figured out what I was doing.
Jamie purred into my ear. Over her shoulder, I watched Jody with Pockmark, laughing and chattering. I lifted my arm from Jamie's back long enough to wave, but Jody didn't see; Jamie grunted and squeezed me in a bear hug until I replaced my hand.
Pockmark, whose real name was Anthony, moved well with Jody, leading gently and never getting too close. I think I might have been jealous if I hadn't had some inkling of what was going to happen later. He also seemed unaware of her left arm, and I almost wanted to walk over and thank him for that.
The missing arm was noticeable, but didn't mean much to most of us, especially Jody, who took everything with a cheerful laugh. Jody's left arm was really only half an arm; it ended abruptly just above where her elbow should have been. It wasn't anything too traumatic, just a hard-luck birth defect that had started and ended in the womb. At the end of the half-arm was a little nub that reminded me of an incomplete finger. I always thought that's what the nub was, a little finger that had struggled to grow while the rest of the arm just gave up the ghost. It was eerie, but I was kind of fond of the nub.
Eventually Jody gave in on the alcohol and I called down to a weary-voiced desk clerk for a bottle of whiskey. We waited, still side-by-side on the bed, still not touching. In the hall, I heard a door slam, then that idiot Bregoli, from my dad's church, arguing with his girlfriend in ferocious whispers. I made a move towards the TV remote next to the phone, but Jody beat me to it and tossed it onto the chair where I had hung my coat.
When the room service guy knocked, I gathered my strength and lurched to the door. The balding waiter flashed me a creepy smile and handed me a receipt to sign. His eyes danced around the room and settled on the foot of the bed, just visible from the door, where Jody was kicking her bare feet in rhythm to some unheard music. The waiter tried to step past me with the bottle but I intercepted him, took my whiskey, stuffed a five in his hand and shoved him back towards the threshold. He showed me his disturbing smile again, then slammed the door on his way out.
I filled the little bathroom glasses with ice from the champagne bucket, poured three fingers in each, and set one on the nightstand next to Jody. She beamed at me, still kicking her little feet, and shook her head; I shrugged, drank hers in a swallow, and took my place next to her again.
I sipped at my drink. It wasn't good whiskey, but at that point it didn't matter.
'So...' I was quiet, and she went on. 'I guess I don't see what's so bad about this. I mean, outside of the trouble with our families.'
I propped myself up on my elbow and raised an eyebrow at Jody. 'Well, Jo, putting aside our families for a minute, what about Jamie?'
Jody swiveled her head towards me. 'What about her?'
'We've been dating for almost six months. Have you thought about how this would hurt her?'
'You haven't been dating,' Jody laughed, 'you've been screwing!' I slumped back onto the bed and closed my eyes. 'And hurting her didn't seem to bother you tonight.'
'What do you mean?' I didn't hear Bregoli anymore. I wondered if he had made up with his girlfriend or was passed out in the lobby.
'Come on, honey. What did you end up doing with her?'
'I said don't call me that!'
'Okay, calm down. What did you do with her?'
'What did you do with Anthony?'
Jody clicked her tongue. 'He ate free shrimp, drank free beer, then fell asleep at his table while I was dancing with your dad. Lou gave him ten bucks and put him in a cab.'
'Not a bad deal for the guy, huh?'
'Not bad at all. What about Jamie?'
'We went to her apartment. We snuck out in the confusion when the band started the Hokey-Pokey.'
Jody's voice was softer and suddenly sounded as if it were coming from far away. 'What did you do at her apartment?' I wasn't sure if I had just scored a point or lost a point, or if it mattered either way.
I rolled it around in my head and finally sighed. 'Nothing. I put her to bed and came back here.'
'Why didn't you stay there?' I could hear a lilt in her voice as her confidence crept back.
'For the same reason I didn't bring her up here.'
'Which is what?'
I didn't say anything for a long time. Instead, I finished my drink, poured another, and finished it as well.
'You know why.'
'I know.' Supreme confidence. She slid her leg towards mine, but I rolled up onto the edge of the bed and refilled my glass once more. The ice was beginning to melt in the bucket. In a stage whisper, she said, 'It's the same reason I let Anthony go home alone.'
'It still isn't fair to Jamie.'
'Stop using her name, okay? At least for tonight?'
'You don't even like her.'
'I like her fine.' My back was still to Jody, but I could hear her moving around, her silk slip rustling against the bedspread.
'Stop being childish. You don't like her one bit because she's bossy, and dull, and too smart for her own good. She's not real fond of you, either, to be honest.' I stiffened, sipped, relaxed. 'You're both just sort of there for each other. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that...'
'Hey, Jo. I know. I'm not kidding myself about that relationship, if that's what you want to call it. She means nothing. Well, not nothing... you know what I mean. And with us...'
I settled back on the bed.
It was easy getting rid of Jamie; for a big girl, she didn't have much tolerance. I waited for the Hokey-Pokey, although the Chicken Dance would have been just as good, and hustled Jamie through the throng and out to my truck.
She passed out while we were driving, but woke up a couple minutes away from her apartment. 'Where we going, sweetie?' Drunken fatigue dripped from her voice and I patted her thigh.
'Don't worry. We're going back to your place.'
She grabbed my hand and leered into the night. 'That's good, baby.' When she passed out again I jerked my hand back.
Jamie's apartment was in the back of one of those big developments that cater to families of six on a budget. In the parking lot a group of teenagers passing a joint around snickered as I hauled Jody up the flight of stairs. I set her on the floor and was rifling through her pocketbook looking for her keys when Paula, Jamie's roommate, opened the door.
I smiled, said hello, and asked her to help me put Jamie to bed. Jamie had an enormous bed with a stained oak headboard and a cushy mattress. There was a fluffy, pink down comforter and a pink dust ruffle for the box spring. Sleeping in that bed was one of life's guilty pleasures, like watching a Pauly Shore movie.
I covered her up with the spread, pecked her on her forehead for Paula's benefit, then headed for the front door. Paula stopped me in my tracks with an icy glare. 'You're not staying?'
I glanced back at the bedroom where Jamie lay snoring. 'Well, it wouldn't make a lot of sense tonight, would it?' I wondered what she thought my relationship with Jamie was based on.
'She's going to be sick as a dog tomorrow, Craig. You should really be here.' Paula's arms were crossed in determination, but I had other plans.
I bobbed my head. 'I know, Paula, I know. Maybe I'll just stop by tomorrow morning?'
'Craig, I'm sure Jamie will want you to be here when she wakes up!' I couldn't imagine why she would.
I nodded again and gave her my sincerest look. 'Paula, I have to get back to Eric's wedding. But I promise - one hour and I'll be right back. Swear to God.'
Paula softened and I knew I had her, but she rolled her eyes for effect. 'Fine. But you better be here when she wakes up! I don't know what you were thinking, letting her drink so much.' I was glad that she didn't know what I had been thinking.
'Fine,' I said. I had a distinct feeling of something ending as I stepped out into the warm night. The group of kids had thinned out and now there were only three, two boys and a girl. One of the boys, wearing a Yankees hat backwards, stood off to the side, almost in the bushes, and looked at me sadly when I came down the stairs. The girl and the other boy sat close to each other on the bottom step, whispering and giggling.
It was humid out, even after midnight, and I drove back to the hotel with my windows down. I hadn't thought about what I was doing on my way to Jamie's place; I had only wanted to get back to the reception before Jody knew I was gone. Now though, I had time to think, to see what I was about to get into from different angles, and the drive seemed to take a year.
I parked my truck as Eric and Denise were climbing into their limo and I slipped into the hotel through a side door. Jody, still red-eyed and sniffling from the goodbyes, saw me coming down the hall and met me halfway. When she tilted her head towards the elevators, I looked at the floor and scratched my neck. She took me by the wrist and steered me to the elevators.
Jody pushed the button and grasped my wrist again. 'What about your mom and Lou?' I asked.
She was watching the elevator descend through the glass shaft. 'Gone. Lou's got a job tomorrow morning.'
Jody gave my arm a squeeze. 'Went upstairs with Denise's aunt. I haven't seen him since the Hokey-Pokey.' I continued to stare at the floor.
That moron Bregoli and some woman who was not his girlfriend caught the elevator with us. It was a long, awkward ride, but none of us made any excuses to the others, or tried to hide anything; maybe shame is dependent on the company you keep.
In my room, Jody excused herself to the bathroom. I called down for champagne, sat in the uncomfortable armchair, then moved to the bed after the waiter left. When Jody stepped out of the bathroom, makeup gone, freed from that awful dress, I decided she was about the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. But all I could do was lie on the bed, swilling champagne and thinking bad things about myself.
My whiskey was gone. In the end, Jody had asked me to make her a drink, then another, which I had almost resented, and now it was all gone. I had a sense that Jody was finally talked out, and I wasn't sure if I should feel victorious. Whether I should have or not, I didn't. I wanted her to keep talking. To keep trying.
'It's hard, isn't it?'
She started, as if I had pulled her from a dream. 'What? You and me?'
'You and me,' I agreed. 'Eric and Denise. Even me and Jamie.'
Jody sighed and covered her eyes with her forearm. 'Sure it's hard. For everyone.'
'I guess none of this was easy for you to start.'
She shrugged. 'Things are tough all over.'
'I'm probably not helping much.'
She shrugged again, and it looked like it took all the energy in the world to do it. 'It's nothing, Craig. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and all that, right? Maybe it was stupid to get into it at all.'
'Yes. What now?' In the hall, I heard that jackass Bregoli cursing loudly at somebody. Maybe at nobody. We both laughed a little.
'It's hard, isn't it?' I inched towards Jody, moved my arm. I rested it in the void where her left hand should have been and clutched a handful of the spread tight in my fist.
Beside me, Jody smiled a sad, beautiful smile. 'It's hard.'
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