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Authors: Amanda Eyre Ward

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary, #General

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BOOK: Love Stories in This Town
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“Really?”

“He used to love beef Stroganoff. Don't you remember? He'd call from the station and say, ‘Is dinner ready?’ and I'd say, ‘Yes, dear,’ and I'd pack you and your sister in the Oldsmobile and we'd go get your daddy. I'd put you to bed while he had his cocktails and watched the news, and then we'd eat together.” The light coming in the kitchen window made my mother's face glow. “That was a good time,” she said.

“I used to make it for Paul,” I said. “I never knew why.”

She smiled at me. “This is just a bad time, honey,” she said. “But then it will be a good time again.”

“What if it's just going to get worse?” I said.

She looked down at her Gucci pumps. She opened her hands and then pulled them into fists.

That night, after eating three helpings of my beef Stroganoff, Kent asked if he could sleep over, and I said yes. I gave him a pair of Paul's pajamas, and of course Paul's toiletries were all still lined up in the cabinet. Kent was bigger than Paul, so he just wore the pajama shirt and his boxers. He smelled all wrong with the right toothpaste.

My new therapist was not pleased with the news of my budding romance. “What is Kent like?” she asked me.

“He bought me a mirror,” I said.

She pursed her lips. “A mirror,” said Alexa.

“Yes,” I said, “a mirror.”

She stared at me for a while, waiting for me to say something more. “It's kind of big,” I said.

“Kind of big,” said Alexa.

“Yes,” I said. “Kind of big and urn, dusty. Tarnished.”

“Tarnished,” said Alexa.

“But I like it,” I said. “There's nothing wrong with it. I look in the mirror and I feel better.”

“Feeling better does not always mean feeling healthier,” said Alexa. I told her I would keep that in mind.

My sister disagreed. “You need love,” she told me, as we got pedicures at Nails of America. “We all need love,” said Jennifer, and then she began weeping. She was speaking so softly that I had to lean in close to hear her. “It's the hormones,” she whispered.

Kent's apartment was cluttered, filled with books. Wendy, it turned out, had been a software salesperson who wanted to be a poet. I was never much for poetry—I liked diving into long, lusty novels—but Kent handed me Robert Frost, and rested his head on my lap while I read.

Some nights, I paged though Microsoft Word printouts on Kent's couch, hoping to find the next Graham Greene, and Kent made elaborate ethnic meals (Indian, Thai, Ethiopian). Wendy had always made the
injera
bread, and I couldn't get the hang of it, so I found a restaurant on Amsterdam and I just picked it up on my way over. Her shoes fit me, which was a bonus, as Wendy had very good taste in shoes. I began jazzing up my outfits with her Fendi heels and Sigerson Morrison slingbacks.

I was there, at Kent's apartment, that Saturday morning. The plan was to have breakfast at Cafe Con Leche and then head to the Hayden Planetarium, one of Kent's childhood haunts. Kent had once sat through three star shows in a row. He loved the way the sky changed. I was surprised he could still look up.

Wendy had not liked coffee, so I usually brought instant in my purse. I was boiling water when the buzzer rang. I pressed the intercom button. It was the NYPD, said a nice-sounding man. Oh, shit, I thought. What I do not need is Wendy's femur hanging around.

“Kent?” I said. “It's the NYPD.”

Kent came out of the bedroom, pulling on a pair of Paul's sweatpants. “Let them in,” said Kent quietly.

I am not a stupid woman. I know that Paul was at work on September 11th. He kissed me, caught the train on time. He was at his desk, because he was the sort of man who woke each morning and went where he was supposed to go. Paul was dead. Unless he drove his car to the station, took the train to the plane, and flew to Vegas.

Kent appeared to be having trouble breathing. He bent over and put his hands on his knees, then straightened. He rolled his head to one side and then the other. “Oh God,” said Kent, “oh fuck, fuck, fuck.” His face was pale: we both knew what was coming. We had two minutes, maybe three, while the cops rode the elevator up and made their way to the apartment door.

“Kent,” I said. “Kent, I have something very important to tell you.”

“What?” said Kent. “What is it?” Paul's sweatpants were too short for Kent. Half of his shins showed, and his ankles were not elegant, as Paul's had been.

I felt sick. I took Kent's hand. “If anything happens to you,” I said, “I want you to call me. Please, please call me.” “I will,” said Kent, “of course I will, I promise.” “I mean it,” I said. “I was wrong about Kansas.” I was crying, it seemed. Kent pulled me to him. His heart was hammering against his ribs. I heard footsteps in the hallway, coming toward us. “I'll call you,” said Kent. His breaths were short. “I will. But there's something you should know.” There was a knock at the door, a sharp, professional rap. There was shuffling, a clearing of a throat.

“I'll call you, but it won't make any difference,” said Kent. “It's all the fucking same, in the end.”

He let me go abruptly, and then he unlocked the door and opened it. “Mr. Kent Hornbeck?” said the cop. He was an older man, with lines in his face. His eyes were sympathetic and tired.

“Yes,” said Kent.

“May we come in?” said the cop.

Kent looked at me. I closed my eyes. Paul, a Vegas showgirl on his lap. Wendy, writing poetry, snacking on
injera
bread. I opened my eyes, and Kent was looking into them. We both knew it was time to find out what remained.

Miss Montana's Wedding Day

The man Lola loved wasn't marrying her, and she didn't know what to wear to the wedding. For one thing, it was cold in Montana. That ruled out the scorned redhead in a silk dress idea. Also, she would have to wear boots; it had been snowing for weeks. The sun was up, but it was still dark, a gray day. They called it “the inversion,” the way wood smoke, soot, and fog hovered over the Missoula valley. You could escape it if you climbed Jumbo or Mount Sentinel— from above, the inversion was a luxuriant cloud.

Lola's windowsill was lined with empty wine bottles. Past the bottles, the tops of the mountains were white with new snow. A darkness filled Lola, and she tried to focus on small, good things. She could eat pizza for breakfast, if she wanted. It was warm in her bed. Chocolate. Her heart was broken, and she honestly felt that way—broken. Her stomach, her head, her arms hurt. It was awful, and worse, it was futile.

What did it say about Lola that she had fallen in love with a man who would leave her for Miss Montana? That she had spent almost a year visiting his cheap Rattlesnake rental, pretending to enjoy baked beans dumped on spaghetti, kissing him even when he forgot (in the throes of academic inspiration) to brush his teeth?

It had happened so fast. Lola went home to New York for Christmas vacation, and when she returned, Iain had already met Miss Montana at a Tuesday night showing of
The Blair Witch Project
, shared a few pitchers of beer with her afterward, and ended up in her bed. “It was as if I was possessed. It was, in a word, inevitable,” Iain told Lola, with a pained-but-smug expression.

“True love, I guess,” Lola said, starting to cry.

Iain said nothing, but nodded. A wedding invitation arrived a few weeks later, with a scribbled note in an unfamiliar hand:
We sincerely hope you can attend
.

Jeans were out. Lola would look as if she were trying to look as if she didn't care. And all she had for fancy was her Rye High School prom dress in salmon pink. (“Wonderful Tonight”? Not for Lola, who spent the whole evening looking for her date, Josh, eventually located passed out in a janitor's closet.) Every item of clothing made Lola think of Iain: the green teddy he had bought her for St. Patrick's Day, the tight Carhartts he liked her in, the skirts he'd whistle at when he saw her across the quad. What use were they? He was marrying Miss Montana.

Iain. The fine arc of his nose, the ticklish beard, blue eyes almost disconcertingly light. His hands on Lola's hips, his mouth on her mouth. Iain's dissertation in progress was called “Tragedy in Shakespeare's
Othello:
Fate or Feckless-ness?” He seemed to relish correcting people about the extra “I” in his name.

Lola brushed her long, red hair. In the mirror above her bureau, she looked tired. She was twenty-one, and knew that she should feel her life beginning to flower. Instead, she felt wilted, a Walgreens bouquet. On the other hand, Miss Montana was blooming with Iain's child. He had told Lola, and then dropped her off at her dorm. “I'll never forget you,” he added, before pulling away.

In the spring, Lola would finish her junior year at the University of Montana. She was a communications major, which was ironic, because she spoke primarily to a bartender named Cal and her mother. She was a straight-A student, and had won a student internship at the local paper, the
Missoulian
, covering the crime beat.

When she got the letter from Win Johnson, the Lifestyles Editor and Intern Coordinator, Lola had run to Iain's office on campus, interrupting a conference with a freshman by throwing open Iain's door, holding the letter out with both hands, and shaking it, singing, “I got the in-tern-ship, I got the in-tern-ship …,” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

Lola thought she would never return to her mother's house in New York, but as it turned out, she was not going to spend the summer in blissful cohabitation. She would not be putting her books next to Iain's on the shelves, her mayonnaise alongside his ketchup in the refrigerator. The two-week backcountry trip? The advance tickets for the Barry Lopez reading in August? The early-morning yoga class, the kayak for two, the favorite table at Food for Thought, the champagne saved for their one-year anniversary? All of it was worthless.

In addition, the cop beat was depressing—domestic violence, DUIs, marijuana grow labs. When Lola rushed to the scene of a woman stabbed outside the Desperado Sports Tavern, her new notebook in hand, the cop took one look at her and said, “Are you fucking kidding me? They're letting high school kids cover this shit?”

Lola had packed Iain's things (shirts, books, casserole dish) and mailed them to the house Miss Montana had bought with her winnings. The house was a half-minute walk away, but Lola felt a sense of closure about taping shut a box. She had even sent it first class, telling the man at Mail Boxes Etc. that it was her ex-lover's belongings. The man was Native American, and a long braid hung over his maroon Mail Boxes Etc. smock.

“You could have burned these things,” said the man. “He is lucky.” The man reminded Lola of Paulson, the dark-haired bartender at Ye Olde Maple Tree Inn, where Lola had gone to find her father on the nights he didn't come home in time for dinner.

“He's a jerk,” said Lola. The man looked at her sympathetically. “He's marrying Miss Montana,” said Lola. She raised her eyebrows.

“Miss Montana?” said the man who resembled Paulson. “Come around here.” He led Lola to the employee bathroom. Above the sink was a poster of Jenni Hansen, Miss Montana, in a red-white-and-blue-spangled bikini waving a lasso. “She signed it for me,” said the man. He couldn't take his eyes off Jenni, and her winged-out hair. And there it was, in curlicue script:
TO GEORGE
.

For Iain's wedding, Lola decided on a flowered skirt and an oatmeal-colored sweater. She poured food in a bowl for her cat, Sue, locked her room, and rang for the dorm elevator. After a minute, the door next to the elevator banged open. A guy in a backwards baseball cap and boxer shorts stood in the hall for a moment, smelling of beer. His name was Willy. “Whazzup?” said Willy. The elevator arrived, and Lola stepped inside.

“Oh hey, Lola,” said Bea, a vivacious cheerleader for the Grizzlies. In the elevator, next to Bea, was an enormous basket of laundry.

“Hey,” said Lola.

“What's shaking?” said Bea.

“You don't want to know,” said Lola. She pressed LOBBY, though the button already glowed.

“Sure I do,” said Bea.

“Remember my boyfriend?” Lola said. “The tall guy, with the beard and the glasses?”

Bea nodded, examining her fingernails. “The old guy?” she said.

“He's getting married,” said Lola. “Not to me,” she added.

“I need Lee Press-On Nails,” said Bea, holding out her hand. The elevator stopped with a jolt and Bea picked up her basket and exited the sliding doors. “You know who else is getting married today?” said Bea, over her shoulder, “is Miss Montana.”

In Pat's Hiway Café, Lola ordered coffee and toast. She was surrounded by men drinking. Pat's was connected to a bar, and patrons passed back and forth between the two. What the hell? Lola ordered a beer.

Her toast dripped with butter. She spread jam over it, chewing slowly. Except for the wedding, she had absolutely nothing to do until Monday, when she would return to work, sitting at a desk that belonged to Michelle Lowry, an Arts reporter on maternity leave. Michelle had left a cable-knit cardigan on the back of the chair, two pictures of her husband (fly-fishing and wearing a cheap tux) on the desk, and three Slim-Fast bars in her drawer.

The snow turned to rain, and Lola considered it blearily. She would have to walk to Iain's wedding, ten blocks or so away. Her coffee was weak, and she was happy when the waitress brought a glass of Alaskan Amber. But even the beer made her think of Iain. He loved beer.

The church was completely full. Lola wedged her way between two girls with cameras, and found a seat next to Juli Lewis, the martini-drinking piano player from the Holiday Inn Lounge.

“Oh, honey,” Juli said to Lola, patting her knee. Juli wore a red muumuu.

“Oh, well,” said Lola. Television cameras were set up along the aisle, and people held cardboard signs: WE LOVE YOU JENNI! MONTANA FOREVER! MARRY ME INSTEAD!

Iain and Lola had attended Easter Mass at this same church the year before. They were still a bit drunk from the previous night, and had fought so hard for so long that they couldn't remember what was wrong anymore. The fight had started with Lola's assertion that Clinton was a disappointment. Iain agreed, but thought Lola let her emotions get the best of her—feeling betrayed by a philandering President was absurd, he said. Lola didn't like his tone—it was condescending—and on it went. While the choir sang like angels, Iain took Lola's hand, held it tenderly. “We are going to make it,” he had said.

Lola saw Iain's mother and father, whom she recognized from photographs. In the back of the church, reporters crouched next to the life-size figure of Mary. Pale shadows from the stained-glass windows made the chaos into a kaleidoscope, and in the middle was Iain. He was freshly showered (Lola could not help but think of his wet nipples, the feel of him, his strong hands on her body) and wore a gray suit. Lola had never seen him dressed up; he had always worn frayed shirts and jeans.

There was a hush, and the music began. Lola looked around the church, trying not to make eye contact with any of Iain's friends. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Although Jenni could be seen around Missoula a few days a week, at ribbon-cutting ceremonies or auto shows, attending her wedding was something people would talk about for years to come. The paper had been analyzing her dress and profiling honeymoon possibilities (Jenni and Iain had opted for a Caribbean cruise and to hell with Montana, but people still loved her).

“This is ridiculous,” Robert, an NYU School of Journalism grad, had complained. Robert later got the front page for his exclusive interview with Jenni, in which she described her “summer fairy” wedding dress.

“On the most important and loving day of my life,” said Jenni, in the interview, “I want to look like a summer fairy, to show my beloved that we will have days of summer always. In our hearts, I mean.” When Lola read the piece, she laughed, but then felt tears sting at the corners of her eyes. After a few minutes, she sighed and began typing her latest article, “Bonner Meth Lab Busted!”

(At the lab, housed in a trailer, Lola had found a black cat among the methamphetamine ingredients. It purred as soon as she picked it up, and she took it back to her room and named it Sue, short for Sudafed.)

The bridesmaids entered slowly, in powder blue dresses with hoop skirts. They held bouquets of blue-colored carnations. Carnations were Jenni's favorite flower, she had said in the exclusive interview, because they “could be dyed any color of the rainbow.”

Iain made his way to the front of the church. His loping gait was the same, and he looked down at the petal-strewn aisle. Lola felt a scream inside her, and as if on cue, trumpets blared. In came Miss Montana.

How she had gotten permission to bring a horse into the church Lola did not know. But there it was: a white steed, its saddle trimmed with carnations. Atop the horse, sidesaddle, was Jenni. Her dress was a marshmallow confection, swirls of taffeta and tulle like a Dairy Queen soft serve. Jenni's skin, in January, was a triumphant orange. Her teeth glowed, and she wore eye shadow the color of antifreeze coolant. A fountain of filmy veil was attached to her curls. In one hand she held a bouquet of multicolored carnations, in the other a lasso. As the band struck up the University of Montana Grizzlies fight song, she spun the lasso high above her head and aimed. The crowd grew silent.

And what do you know, the toast of Montana lassoed herself a man. Lola's man: Iain. Lola put her hands to her face, feeling his shame. Iain, his melancholy voice. His hair falling in front of his eyes as he graded papers. She remembered the night they had stayed up until dawn, reading
Antony and Cleopatra
aloud, making funny voices for all the characters but growing serious during the dramatic scenes. She turned to look at him, her love.

In a lasso of gold, he was beaming. His chin was lifted high, and his eyes, usually heavy-lidded, were wide open. He looked at Jenni with all the joy Lola had never thought was in him.

•  •  •

Cal shrugged and poured the whiskey. “What?” said Lola.

“Isn't dark yet,” said Cal.

“It's dark in here, that's for sure,” said Lola. Cal shrugged again. The neon beer signs made his face shine, and he ran a palm over his forehead. On either side of Lola, men with sunken faces drank and stared ahead, at the dusty bottles, at nothing. There was one woman with a glass of white wine. She wore a violet-colored blouse with white buttons. At night, the bar was filled with students playing pool, but for the afternoon crowd, there was only the hum of the heater and the scent of peanuts and wet wool.

“He did it,” Lola said. “He tied the knot, all right.” Cal nodded. He knew everyone's secrets. In fact, he had probably been there the night that Iain went home with Miss Montana instead of Lola.

“Do you watch people, Cal?”

“What's that?”

“Do you watch people, I said. What they do, how much they drink, et cetera.” A man with a large, wet gash in his cheek glanced at Lola sideways, and moved over a stool. The white wine woman looked up.

“What choice do I have?” said Cal.

Lola felt the same way. She didn't think it was right to ignore the sadness around her—alcoholics like her father, lonely women like her mother, who told Lola, “Maybe he would have stayed if I had done my sit-ups. Then again, maybe it was just a mistake from the start.”

Lola thought there was something to be proud of in this—in seeing the painful truth—but Iain had jumped on the first cruise ship that passed by, leaving Lola stuck on Misery Island. She had to admit the essential difference between Iain and herself: he believed in the possibility of a carnation-strewn, uncomplicated life, and Lola did not. Perhaps Iain had thought he could convince her, but grew weary of the endeavor.

BOOK: Love Stories in This Town
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