“So is she coming to the reunion or what?” Clay Lynch asked his only friend. He switched his cell phone to the other ear as he eased his factory-new Lexus up to a red light. He still hadn’t figured out how to sync the phone to the car.
“Yup, sure is.” Chester Miller’s jovial voice made Clay feel alive for the first time in years. “She’s coming down from Boston for the reunion, staying at her parents’ house for the weekend.”
“Do you know if the hubby’s with her?” In the same breath Clay qualified that with “I mean—the invitation did say spouses were welcome.”
“Ex-hubby,” Chester corrected him. “They’re divorced. I didn’t want to tell you before—”
“She’s divorced?” Clay’s heart lurched. Euphoria flooded him. “Oh, thanks, buddy, thanks!” He choked back a sob. “That’s the news I’ve been waiting for. Gotta go, there’s something I need to do.”
“Hey, she’s been going with another guy, Ryan something. She’s not up for grabs. She told me they’re moving in together—”
Clay cut his friend off mid-sentence and made a tire-screeching U-turn. Trembling in anticipation, he flipped open the compartment between the leather seats and retrieved his asthma inhaler. He closed his lips around the mouthpiece and gave it a pump. The asthma always irritated him when he got stressed out, before speaking to a crowded room of investors or trying to snag a billionaire client. Now he faced the fulfillment of his destiny. He kept the asthma under control so history wouldn’t repeat itself. He’d died of respiratory illness in a previous life as a German soldier.
When he got home, he dashed to his closet, yanked out his new Armani suit, Ralph Lauren dress shirt, and Gucci shoes. Paying meticulous attention to detail as he dressed, he searched for any loose threads or wrinkles in his clothing. He checked himself out in the full-length mirror, brushed his teeth for an extra half minute and slicked his hair back with a spritz of his wife’s gel, primping like it was a first date.
Well, it was a first date.
He slipped into the Lexus and found Werah Place without the GPS. He’d memorized the three traffic lights, the stately Tudors and Victorians along the way, the sharp turn down the dark road, the hidden driveway, the wrought iron gates, the NO TRESPASSING warning, the mailbox nameplate ‘Senator & Mrs. H. W. Tyler’, although the old coot got booted out of office during Dubya’s first term. He would’ve spray painted “EX-” before “Senator” but graffiti wasn’t his thing.
He turned down the private road and cut the engine. Then he waited—and waited. To pass the time, he listened to his Everything to Everyone CD by the Barenaked Ladies. Daylight faded and the air turned chilly. He shut the windows. That was April in New Jersey. Spring days and fall nights.
He stared at the front door, his hands clamped around the wheel, his jaw set. Not a muscle generated so much as a twitch. His breathing clear and steady, he waited quietly, tensely…
…for his only love to exit the house and enter his life. Forever this time.
* * * *
Alyssa stood in the doorway to her old bedroom, a shrine to the late ’90s and the start of the new millennium. Her mother refused to disturb one item. She’d probably auction off the contents at Sotheby’s hoping for a haul close to what the Kennedy items brought in. To the manor born, Brooke Vandermark Tyler wanted to leave a legacy as a Senator’s wife, but had nothing from her own life to contribute. Nor would she ever become the forty-sixth First Lady—or the forty-seventh or forty-eighth. Voted out of office, Senator Tyler shattered her dreams of being the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy of the 21st century.
But that never stopped Alyssa’s adoptive mother from pretending to be Jackie—designer clothes, a Virginia estate with show horses, and the ultimate prizes—an adopted boy and girl with the middle names Caroline and John—she didn’t want to be too obvious.
Did Caroline and John suffer like this? Alyssa always wondered as her mother dumped her with abusive nannies before jetting off to her lover in the Greek Islands.
Now Alyssa glanced around her old room, a mixture of sadness and revulsion churning inside her. The Killers poster stared back at her, glued to the electric-pink wall. The chain of beer can rings she’d worn as a necklace hung in the corner. Fall Out Boy tickets were tacked onto the corkboard along with ticket stubs from Muse, 30 Seconds to Mars, and The Spice Girls, who played Madison Square Garden. The American flag nailed to the ceiling at each corner hung like a beer belly. It had flown over the Capitol for ten minutes on Clinton’s inauguration day. Stuck to the other wall was her first license plate, ALYSSA. Her parents tacked it onto the new Benz they’d bought her for passing her driving test—before they took off for the Swiss slopes.
Her silver peace symbol hung from a wire hanger, along with a Crown Royal bag. A long-evaporated bottle of Joy stood on her nightstand.
One alcove for each phase of that confusing, terrifying, and at times unbearably depressing rite of passage known as coming of age.
She didn’t sleep in here when she visited; she couldn’t stand the sight of this room. Stuffed with memories she tried to forget, it reran her past like a bad 3-D movie without the paper glasses.
But she always stood in the doorway for a few moments on each visit—to gloat. Then she dropped to her knees and thanked God, she’d succeeded in life despite her abandonment at birth and the adoption that led to her traumatic childhood.
She headed downstairs to a part of the house she hadn’t seen in a decade—the basement, finished in mahogany paneling, sporting an antique billiard table and hanging Tiffany lamp with a bar stocked to serve the entire Republican Senate. A door built into the paneling opened to a musty storage area that reminded her of the catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado”.
She pushed the hidden door open, flipped a switch and stepped around boxes from her school days, stuffed with photo albums, report cards, term papers and poems. Next to that mess stood her college storage crate, sealed like a casket.
She lifted the heavy lid. Archived here was her home stretch of adolescence, interred in a time capsule—issues of the college newspaper, essays butchered with the red marks of her Journalism prof, and books she’d studied in Lit courses: Beowulf, Heart of Darkness, To The Lighthouse. Tossing aside term papers and debating team certificates, she found it—the diary. For four years she wrote one continuous confession—every graphic detail of her most intimate thoughts, hopes, fears and passions, what she did and with whom. She’d planned to type it all up and submit it to publishers. Then life got in the way and she scrapped that project. Who would want to read about my sordid past, anyway? she decided after she moved out.
So here it remained, preserved in this sealed tomb. What saved it from cremation was her plan to read it someday—decades from now—with the wisdom of middle-age and enough distance to laugh at the adolescent absurdity.
But the next few days were going to be out of the ordinary, days she’d pluck out of her present and spend with old friends, retrace old steps, and yes, maybe even purposely exhume some of those painful memories.
That changed her mind about waiting decades. She had to re-read that diary and revisit that world now, at this ten-year mark. The scabs were still raw, but the small ones had healed. Maybe she could even get those laughs—well, a few guffaws at least.
She flipped through the pages while walking up the stairs, reading her thin, shaky scrawl: The third millennium is an hour old now. I hope this year won’t suck as much as the last. Please, God, give me a new beginning as you gave me the gift of seeing a new century.
The year 2000, the new century, “my turning point” as she called it. She did more whirling than turning, juggling two heartthrobs at the same time, complete opposites from different worlds: the obsessive Clay Lynch and the gay Jeremy Knight. As she closed her eyes and pictured Jeremy, mixed emotions brought a sad smile to her lips—joy, jealousy, grief. Oh, the lunacy…hopping a plane to London, immersing themselves in the punk rock scene. She even believed she could turn him straight. She sighed. How desperate. How pathetic. How delusional. But oh, how she loved him.
She added the virginal Justin Montgomery to the mix when she fell in love with him. He left her the next day to attend the Naval Academy.
Back then, she didn’t know why she clung to these unavailable, abusive guys. But after a year of therapy, now she knew.
All that analysis and exhuming of painful memories got her on the right track. Her two ex-husbands weren’t unavailable or abusive. But she never believed in ‘cures’ for mental disorders such as codependency. She expected to fall off the wagon any time.
She flipped to 2003—the year she stood up for a cause she believed in. Her worthy cause got her expelled from NJU.
Returning to her room, she sat in the doorway to her past and turned to Page One. She began to read with a detached eye, as if observing someone else’s life.
Because now she was someone else.
* * * *
At six-thirty, as Clay’s throat constricted with thirst, he saw a figure in a denim jacket and jeans walking down the gravel driveway. Straight dark hair pulled back. Elegant designer glasses. He swallowed hard. Oh, God, it’s her, and so close. That rhythmic cadence in the walk, the fragile swing of the hips, the bop in each step had once been so attuned to his own bodily rhythms. His heart slammed against his ribs. Taking another hit from the inhaler, he expelled a ragged breath as he calmed himself. He knew she’d return to him. It was their destiny. Just yesterday the Two of Cups card predicted long-awaited fulfillment. The spirit guides concurred at the séance that followed. His gaze followed her down the driveway as she turned onto the street.
With his eyes fixed on his car’s digital clock, he counted the seconds out loud. After two minutes, he started the engine and nosed down the road, engine humming. He caught up with her at the traffic light. She looked both ways and crossed, then headed into the Wawa grocery store.
Parking at the far end of the lot, he cut the engine and tore into a pack of Tums, chomping down on three at a time.
Scrutinizing his face in the rearview mirror, a segment at a time, he liked what he saw. No more sagging eyelids after last year’s Blepharoplasty, his forehead smooth as a baby’s bottom after last week’s Botox injections. He slid out of the car and straightened his pants legs.
This is it, Lynch, don’t blow it.
He entered the store but didn’t see her right away. Grabbing a red plastic basket, he wove through the aisles, selecting items he thought would impress her.
He maneuvered a 6-pack of Yoplait out of the refrigerated section. Healthy Choice dinners. Kefir. He had to show her his taste in foods reflected that quantum leap into maturity. Back then his cuisine had consisted of Starkist out of the cans and Yoo-Hoo. Breakfast, lunch, and after sex, it had to be tuna and a Yoo-Hoo. Followed by two or three Marlboros.
He picked up a package of Vanish Drop-Ins and tossed it into his basket. He had to show he was a clean freak now, too. Contrary to the familiar saying, he was getting a second chance to make his first impression.
Then he spotted her. As she approached the checkout line, he dashed forward so he could step back and let her go ahead.
She looked up and their eyes met for the first time in 3,757 days.
Yikes, it’s him. She gasped and dropped a package of tofu on her foot.
She sized him up. Streaks of silver shot through the jet black hair. The jagged scar across his left cheek seemed lighter now. A jolt halted her breath as she traced the events leading to that scar. Maybe he thought of her every time he looked in the mirror—or maybe he just didn’t see it anymore.
A pin-striped suit jacket replaced the Nirvana T-shirt. Gleaming leather shoes instead of scuffed-up sneakers.
Surprise gave way to apprehension. She stepped back a bit.
“Alyssa! How the hell are you?” His voice cracked in its attempt at surprise. “What are you doing around here? You don’t live here anymore, do you?”
“Of course not, I’m just here for the reunion.”
He pretended to fish in his pocket to pay for his groceries. “Damn, all I have is a few singles. I forgot my credit card. Can you help out a poor old flame?”
She tossed a twenty on the counter.
“You’re so generous, so considerate—” he gushed.
“Forget it, Clay.” She turned to leave.
“Come over to my car, I’ll pay you back.” He followed her as she opened the door. A blast of chill air hit him.
“No need. So long,” she called over her shoulder, the door flapping shut in his face. He pushed his way through.
“Hey, you feel like going to Putney’s for a drink?” he half-shouted now that she’d already dashed out towards the street. He had to catch her!
“No, Clay, I have to get going—”
“Come on, that was our favorite place. The place I first kissed you. We should go there, just for old times sake—”
“I don’t want anyone to see me until tomorrow night, all dressed up.”
At least she didn’t refuse because she didn’t want to be with him. He’d fix that. But “That means you don’t care if you’re dressed up for me,” fell out of his mouth. He instantly regretted it, knowing he sounded too much like his ‘old’ self.
She didn’t reply, but a mischievous smile lit up her face. “You want to go to my parents’ place? We can sit and talk there, and you can take back the CDs I borrowed from you and never returned.”
“They’re not home, are they? I’m not going to put up with that inquisition again.”
“There’s no one home, Clay. Besides, that was then and this is now. You’re—” She gestured at him, up and down.
“Not a slob anymore? A member of the elite establishment? A capitalist pig like your old man? Well, I’ve got news for him—I’m still a Democrat. But maybe he’ll like me now that I own a pair of shoes.”
She winced. A familiar stab of pain accompanied a residual trace of anger at her parents and their needless cruelty. Something else to thank God for—she hadn’t turned out like them, always grateful she didn’t share their DNA. “Those days are over, Clay. They’re not home anyway. And if you met my father today, you’d be very surprised. He’s really mellowed out since the heart attack.”
“I guess that’s what it took.”
He led her to his Lexus and swung the passenger door open, gesturing her in with a sweep of his arm. Its leathery new-car scent wafted outside. He slid behind the wheel, gunned the engine and pressed a button, activating the MP3 player. The Beatles singing ‘Help,’ an oldie but goodie.
“Quick, what album is this from?” He guided the car out of the lot.
“Duuuh, ‘Help’, of course.” One of their favorite games had been music trivia. During college they played it with vintage songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. She probably wouldn’t remember any of them now. She knew she was old when her little brother picked up her ‘Like a Virgin’ and asked who the skank on the cover was.
He headed back to Werah Place. He deliberately made a wrong turn so it wouldn’t be obvious he could still find it blindfolded. They pulled up behind her Acura and walked over the cobblestones. Branches of the gangly maples above blocked out all but patches of purple sky.
They finally reached the entrance of the graceful Tudor. “You sure nobody’s in there?” His voice carried stark apprehension as she leaned on the mahogany door inlaid with diamond panes. “Any butlers or bottle washers or other exploited proletariat born into lives of indentured servitude?”
“No, the staff’s off for the night, and my parents are in D.C. Adam-John is here for the weekend, but he’s out on the prowl somewhere.”
“He’s catching up in years, isn’t he?”
“Just got a Masters in chemistry.” She pulled the key from the door and ushered him in.
“Smart kid. Does your old lady still own that horse farm?” he asked.
“No, she sold it to an Arab sheik.”
“I rode past there one night and I wondered…” He didn’t admit he drove to the end of this driveway every six weeks to see if she was visiting.
She flipped on the entry hall switch and he walked ahead of her, heels clicking on the marble floor, shaking his head. “Everything’s exactly the same, the concert grand with the gaudy candelabra…that same old chandelier is hanging there, and the Queen Anne couch…is the stain still there?” He whispered as if the walls were listening, those same walls that had absorbed so many sounds of passion and anger and jealousy…
“No, it was reupholstered.”
“Unreal. This place reminds me of Neuschwanstein Castle of Mad King Ludwig.”
The slamming door echoed through the two-story entry hall. He followed her through the library into the kitchen where she deposited their perishables. Glancing at his groceries, she grinned, thinking who’s he trying to impress here? “Kefir? So you finally graduated from Yoo-Hoo?” The Vanish Drop-Ins made her laugh out loud. “Now this is too much.”
She opened the fridge and offered him a beer.
“Yeah, whatever you got. I mean whatever they got.”
She twisted the top off and handed him the bottle.
He didn’t take it. “How about a glass?”
She gave him a cocked brow and a twisted grin. “So you drink out of glasses now. Well la-di-da. You really have become a one percenter,” she remarked as she got out two mugs.
“In more ways than one.” He poured his own beer.
She led him to her old room and flipped the switch. “Next time you see this stuff it’ll be on Sotheby’s auction block or in the Smithsonian.”
He stood in the doorway, leaning in. the same way Alyssa did every time she visited here, hesitant to enter that world.
“Go ahead, Clay, you won’t fall into a vortex.” She gave him a nudge
He took a tentative step inside, and for an instant she pictured him vanishing along with the entire scene, her past gone in the blink of an eye, like something out of a time-travel movie. He looked so out of place among the surroundings, an adult executive in the teenage girl’s bedroom, but it was still Clay. He paced around, smoothed down the poster, picked up her perfume bottle, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. She didn’t interrupt him; she knew he was reliving his own memories here. Maybe he needed this.
“Auction nothing. Don’t ever get rid of them.” He pointed to the closet dripping with the ‘90s fashions, dresses and jackets in jewel tones with big shoulder pads, signs of the long-gone times. “They’ll come back. Mark my word, as long as Eastern Europe keeps growing capitalists, they’ll be priceless commodities. You can sell it all on Ebay now, but they’ll be trading stuff like this on the frigging stock exchange, mark my words.”
“Okay, enough of the tour.” She made a move to shut the light. But instead of exiting the room, he picked up her acoustic guitar and began strumming the opening chords of All the Small Things by Blink One Eighty-Two. “Do you play this thing anymore?”
“Not this one, I have a newer one at home, and I bought a vintage Les Paul that I play all the time. I wrote a few decent ballads. My friend Hal recorded one of them on his latest indie CD. I sang lead and he sang backup.”
He looked up, hope brightening his eyes. “Was it about us?”
“No, Clay, it wasn’t.” But he was half right. It was about him. It was also about someone else—the same song about two different men, during her double life—one above board, one very underground.
“Can you sing it?” He held the guitar out to her.
“No, I’ve forgotten the chords, and the lyrics were kinda hokey, but I’ve forgotten them, too.” Actually, she knew every hokey syllable. The wailing melody and haunting minor chord progressions still loitered in her memory. She wouldn’t be able to hear it without breaking down. “You enjoy these trips down memory lane, don’t you?” she scoffed. “Well, I don’t. I need to look forward. Looking backward is a waste of energy. We can’t rewrite history.”
“The lady doth protest too much,” he stated and she opened her mouth to protest that, but stopped herself.
“We’re all part of history,” he philosophized as he sat on the bed. When she realized they weren’t going anywhere, she snapped on the Aiwa and set it to WQXR, the classical music station. A Mozart Sonata for Piano and Violin floated from the speakers.
“Since when are you into classical?” he asked.
“My parents always had string quartets play concerts here. It just grew on me.”
He began flipping through her CDs. “Do you ever listen to these or have you moved on to Lady Gaga?”
“I haven’t touched them since the day I walked out of here. Some of those are yours. You can have them back if you want, since you enjoy reliving the past.”
He kept flipping, smiling as he recognized their favorites. “Keep ’em, Alyssa. Listen to them and think of me.”
“I’ll never listen to those things again.” Especially to think of him.
He ran down the second row of CDs and slid out Alice in Chains. “Well now, this is a priceless collector’s item.”
“I haven’t listened to that kind of stuff in ages and I never will again, so don’t bring up anything to do with punk rock.”
“Whatever happened to that so-called companion of yours?” His tone turned condescending, a verbal sneer. “The one who got you started listening to all that dreck?”
“Yeah, what’s he up to these days?” He half smiled, half sneered. “How many times did he audition for Idol?”
“He passed away.”
“Oh. Sorry.” His voice softened, but not much.
“Thank you. I’ve learned to deal with it.” She glanced at her cork board at a few items from her days with Jeremy, a plane ticket to London, a wrapper from a Yorkie bar he’d given her at Victoria Station.
He slid the CD back into place and it hit the shelf with a whack. Clay’s way of expressing negative emotion. “Somebody else in our class died. Remember Zorro the Gay Blade?”
She nodded. “What did he die from?”
His eyes scanned the room again, as if he was searching out something connected with him. “What your friend Jeremy probably died from. We were lucky none of us ever got HIV.”
Considering who she could’ve caught that from, she changed the subject. “So tell me about your job.” She took two rapid sips of beer after he toasted “the good old days.”
“Oh, the hell with work. I don’t want to talk about that right now. I have enough of that aggravation during the day. At night I want to forget it’s there.”
“Is it that bad?” She wanted to keep the conversation going and away from “the good old days.”
“The usual high-powered broker bullshit. I got an ulcer last year and found out my cholesterol was two-eighty, so I took a few weeks off alone, got a Florida fishing license, went to Lake Panasoffkee and caught some great largemouth bass and speckled perch. That got my numbers down.”
“You need to fish more often,” she said. “How’s your wife?”
“She, uh…she’s okay, I guess.” He gulped some more beer.
“Just okay, you guess?” A signal the honeymoon was over. “It’s the second time around for you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, well. You know what they say. Third time’s the charm.” He swallowed his beer and looked straight at her. “There’s always time for a third.”
She was sorry she’d brought up the wife. She resolved to keep the chatter superficial.
But he went on, “I knew my first marriage was doomed, the Freshman course, I always called it. But with Rainbow I’m in the Sophomore course.”
“Wait, hang on…Rainbow? That’s her real name?”
“Nah, she was a manager in the Rainbow Diner in Brick. And she went on hikes and always managed to get pictures of rainbows. And she dyed her hair in different color streaks,” he gestured, combing through his hair, “with that streaking stuff. So what happened to you and your insignificant other? Chester told me you split.”
“Brandon and I couldn’t handle the long distance marriage. We were perfect for each other at that stage of our lives. Our careers just took over. We didn’t have any problems. We’re still close friends. He stayed in Houston, I settled in Boston, taking what’s mine while he took what’s his and that’s the end of it.”
She took another sip of beer. “It’s been ages since I drank beer. These days it’s cosmos when I social drink.” She gazed into the suds and sighed. “Here we are, like we’re talking baseball scores, and it’s divorces. It’s just too easy to get a divorce these days.”
“What the hell are we talking about this for anyway?” His tone rang out loud and sharp.
She shrugged. “You’re the one who started talking about Freshman and Sophomore marriages and your high cholesterol—”
“Yeah, when you asked me about my frigging job and my wife.” As their voices gained volume their bodies moved closer. Her heart began to leap and twirl. She inhaled that same spicy cologne that always drove her wild. The mug shook in her hand. He was still Clay but he was her age now.
“Well, don’t blame me if your job blows.” She took two more rapid gulps.
“Everything blows, don’t you know that yet? This whole life blows. Until we make the transition.”
“You’ve still got the same cheery outlook as always,” she shot back.
“Remember how I used to shut you up?” He set the beer mug on her nightstand, in that same circle he’d made all those years ago, the night he was so stoned he had no depth perception and overfilled the mug…
He leaned over and removed her glasses. “How about a kiss? For old time’s sake?”
“You’re married, in case it slipped your mind.”
His lips curled. “We don’t live like man and wife. I don’t get any conjugal visits. Come on, just one short, innocent dry kiss?” His voice purred like a Maserati engine.
She pulled back and snatched up her glasses, sliding them back on. “You’re going to have to settle for a handshake.”
“Never mind. I’ll shake my own.” He went back to his beer.
The two adults sat in the teenage girl’s bedroom and clasped hands comfortably.
* * * *
When Clay got back to his cell phone, he checked his email. Nothing but spam. Not even anything resembling a hot stock tip.
He made his next appointment with Madame Callisto, his psychic.
Back home, he settled into his favorite chair and opened the scrapbook he’d created in 1999 when they’d first met, freshman year at NJU on September 15, 1999 at 10:30 a.m. in the cafeteria. He’d stuffed the scrapbook with photos of Alyssa, letters and poems he’d written but never sent. He inhaled the fragrance of the perfume bottle he’d swiped off her dresser. Once again, he counted the days until their new life together.