by Keith Buie
All four reflections judge me in silence. Mirrors cover all four walls and show four reflections of my white boxer shorts, bunched up on the floor, my inside-out jeans and boots. Worse, they also reveal high heels, and a red and black-checkered skirt. They are all in a line from the door to the bed. Cherry-red panties lie in a ball on the pillow next to me. The matching bra hangs over a lampshade, covering up the Jack on a bottle that now only reads Daniel’s. A half-empty pack of smokes sits on the nightstand, next to a spilled prescription bottle. Pink pills are scattered across a laminated list of cable channels.
This is a motel room I’ve never seen before, though it might as well be home.
Sitting up in bed, I rub my bloodshot eyes. Cradling the phone between my shoulder and ear, I listen to my wife, Laura, on the other end. She drags on her cigarette and exhales, in place of any actual words.
“How’s Baxter?” She finishes the cigarette, and I hear a flicking lighter as she lights another. “He miss me yet?”
This is Saturday morning, the day we check in with each other. We’re nothing if not sentimental to that singular stipulation.
The bathroom door opens, and a woman walks out, wearing only blonde hair and a big smile. Water dribbles down her naked body, in no rush to fall off. Red splotches grace both her cheeks, and more cover her creamy-white chest.
Foggy pieces of the night come back to me. Apple martinis sandwiched between endless rounds of tequila shots. I think her name’s something exotic, like Simone or Chloe.
Staring at a brown mole just below her left nipple, I say into the phone, “Baxter’s humping the neighbor’s dog again. I got another angry call last week at six in the morning.”
“Trixie again?” Laura asks.
“No,” I say, “a new neighbor moved in across the street. Their dog’s name is Chi-Chi.”
“What a ridiculous name for a dog.” Laura blows smoke into the phone. “Baxter truly has no shame—does he?”
In no position to judge, I stay silent.
The blonde girl walks toward the bed, singing under her breath. “You never close your eyes…” She leans over me, her damp breasts hanging just over my cheeks. “…anymore when I kiss your lips,” she sings louder. Her voice is raspy, as if a thick cloud of cigarette smoke had abandoned all hope of escape and settled inside her windpipe.
She hums, presumably waiting for me to join in this morning karaoke session.
I cover my hand over the phone. “What?”
She stands upright, thrusting her hands on her bare hips. “Righteous Brothers. The song you played on the jukebox last night. And I thought I was the only one who still liked the classics.”
I remember the cigarette machine tucked in the corner of the bar. Lots of apple martinis and tequila, but no jukebox comes to mind.
Crossing her leg over my waist, she straddles me. Only the thin bedsheet separates our naked bodies. “You’re trying hard not to show it…” she rasps out again.
I stare at her blindly, frozen.
“…but baby,” she sings, “baby, I know it…”
I drop the phone on the bed, cover it with a pillow and push my free hand against her lips, mouthing the word, “Quiet.”
She leans back, exhaling.
Pointing at the empty spot in bed next to me, I mouth, “Please.”
She grunts before she slides off me and props her head on the pillow.
I pick the phone back up, hearing Laura puffing away, whistling out a thin strand of smoke. I hadn’t missed any conversation.
Fumbling across the nightstand, the blonde girl grabs a cigarette and lighter. At the first sign of an orange tip, she inhales, holding the smoke in its new home. She watches me as she blows out clouds of smoke and hums the song’s chorus to herself.
She almost looks like my wife. Even down to the way she lets the long strand of gray ash dangle at the end of the cigarette before she flicks it off. If I stare long enough, I can picture Laura lying here in bed next to me. Only something’s missing. It’s her lips. They’re soft and pink, almost perfect.
But they’re not green.
I hear Laura say, “We have to get him neutered.”
“Baxter,” she says. “We should get him neutered. He won’t stop on his own. We have to make him stop.” Laura pauses. “Right?”
* * *
When I first met Laura back in college, she was hiding in a circle of her friends in a bar. The tall, curly-haired guy, standing dangerously close to her, kept refilling her plastic cup with green beer. She tilted her head back and swallowed as if she feared the beer might expire before she could drink it. Ignoring the black Magic Marker X’s on her underage hands, she licked a green-stained tongue over her lips and drank some more. When she laughed, her wintry-pale face flashed cheeks the color of raspberry jelly.
Bony kneecaps peeked out through holes in her ripped jeans. Her hunter-green shirt showed a picture of a lemon underneath the words SUCK ON THIS. Every hair on her head had been tongue-kissed blonde by the summer sun. She could be your little sister’s best friend, the one who tagged along on your family vacations. The one who didn’t lock the bathroom door, so when you walked in on her, she stood there naked and calmly said, “I’m changing,” without grabbing a towel.’
I watched her all night, waiting until she left the confines of her pack of friends. “Corner and conquer,” my former roommate Trevor once told me. Halfway through our freshman year, he’d slept with half the dormitory. He was as close to an expert as I knew.
She walked up and inserted money in the cigarette machine. She invented new curse words when nothing came out. When she turned around, I offered a spare cigarette while quickly running through my opening-line options. Do you have a map?—because I’m getting lost in your eyes. Or, Do I know you?—because you look a lot like my next girlfriend.
Trevor said the line doesn’t matter. If the girl wants it to work, she’ll make it work.
“Your face is green and red,” I finally said, stating the obvious. “It looks like Christmas.”
At least it wasn’t another tired cliché.
“Today’s Saint Patrick’s Day. You’re a little late for Christmas.” She eyeballed the spare cigarette in my hand. “Unless Santa has a present for me.” She opened her mouth and stared at me, waiting until I slid the cigarette between her green lips.
“I choked through a cloud of conflicting colognes on my way here,” she said. “Guys think they have to give a girl asthma to get her attention. But your move is more subtle. Break the cigarette machine. Then you flaunt your stash.”
“Control the supply,” I said, holding up the full pack in my hand, “and you’ll get what’s on demand.”
With that second line, I’d used up my allotted smoothness for the evening.
“Name’s Laura.” She snatched the entire pack of smokes out of my hand. “It’s not my brand. Lucky for you, I’ll smoke anything.”
She smiled—those soft green lips fully stretched to reveal a subtle dimple planted in her right cheek—and before she finished the last drag of her cigarette, I already had the space cleared in our future apartment’s closet for her clothes.
* * *
“How’s work?” Laura asks me.
“Fine,” I say. “How’s your sister?”
“Fine. She kicked me out. She said I talk about you too much.”
“Sorry,” I tell her.
We’ve mastered the art of small talk these past few months.
Laura says, “I’m staying with a friend from work.”
“No, this is a new girl. Yvette.”
“Oh,” I say. “She nice?”
She exhales smoke into the phone. “She’s the perfect roommate—she’s never home. Every night she comes by just long enough to change from a short work skirt into an even shorter bar skirt. She always tells me, ‘God gave women legs for a reason—for men to stare at.’”
I stop myself before I ask what color hair does her roommate have, what color are her eyes and just how short are her skirts, really?
In bed next to me, the blonde girl points up to the ceiling. “I forgot there’s a mirror up there too.”
I forgot myself and look up at the fifth judgmental reflection staring back at me.
“Normally,” she says, “I wouldn’t let a guy bring me to a place like this for a first date.”
We met less than twelve hours ago. I can’t remember her name and I’m paying for this room by the hour. No way can this technically be considered a date.
“But when you asked if my father was a thief,” she says, “it was so sweet.”
Your father must have been a thief, because he stole the stars from the sky and put them in your eyes—that’s the lame line I used. I had been tossing out softballs last night, apparently.
“You’re not alone?” Laura asks in the phone. “Who’s there with you?”
“No one,” I say.
“What’s her name?”
I take a deep breath, pausing. “I don’t remember.”
“Is she—pretty?” Laura trails off.
I study the girl’s face like a quiz will be handed out afterward, staring at rosy cheeks surrounding two soft, pink lips suffocating a dangling cigarette.
I tell Laura, “A little—sure, I guess.”
Lie. This girl is gorgeous. Still don’t know how that stupid line worked on her.
“Oh,” Laura says. “Great. I mean—good. For sure, that’s great.” On the other end of the phone, I hear Laura violently flicking a lighter, lighting up another cigarette.
The girl next to me rolls over, facing me. “Who have you been talking to all morning?”
“My wife,” I blurt out, not stopping to think what she’ll think. Say. Do.
“You’re married?” She stumps out her cigarette on the laminated list of cable channels. “Then what was last night about?”
No cheesy pick-up lines apply for the morning after, so I don’t answer.
She hops out of bed, slides on a wrinkled white shirt and her red and black-checkered skirt. She picks up her purse and shoes. “Do you even remember my name?”
“Let me guess,” Laura says. “She sounds like a Veronica. Is that it? Try Veronica.”
I say to the blonde, “Veronica.”
“It’s Abby, asshole,” she yells as she walks out the door, slamming it behind her.
“You were wrong,” I say.
“I know,” Laura yells. “I was wrong. You don’t have to remind me again.”
* * *
Our first date was at the zoo. Laura was a zoology major, and since she worked there during the summers, we got in free.
Walking for three hours, Laura gave me the guided tour. She pointed out that flamingos are pink because of the color of the shrimp they eat, giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as humans, and that no two zebras look exactly alike—they all have different stripe patterns.
Finally, we stopped to watch the gibbons. They looked like small monkeys, plucked fresh from Indonesia. They were Laura’s favorite animals.
“That one’s the female.” Laura pointed to one sitting on a rock.
She had a black nose and mouth and a white face with a black stripe on her head. Yellow hair covered the rest of her body. She was sitting on a rock with her mouth open, singing—loud. Some kind of whopping sound, over and over.
“She can reach up to 100 decibels, audible over a two-mile range,” Laura said. “Gibbons have enlarged throat sacs that inflate, serving as a resonating chamber. Gibbons are more powerful singers than humans.”
I was fascinated by every zoological morsel Laura offered me.
At the other end of the pit, another gibbon swung across the tree branches. This one had black hair, except for its white cheeks. With long hands and feet, the gibbon clutched at the branches, swinging from tree to tree, singing the entire way.
“The male,” Laura said.
His singing sounded different than the female’s. More of a grunting—half squealing and half whistling.
He kept swinging across the trees until he finally dropped to the rock where the female was sitting. He walked over then sat down behind her. Draping his long arms around her, he started stroking and grooming her hair.
“I came here at the beginning of summer,” Laura said. “When they first brought these two gibbons here. I watched the female sitting on the rock. I watched the male swing across the trees, then come over to her. I watched their courtship begin. It started with both of them singing.”
Gibbons sing to guard their territory and to attract mates, Laura told me.
“And the best part,” Laura said, “is that gibbons mate for life. They’re monogamous and extremely territorial. These two, they will be together, forever. How romantic is that?”
There were no push-up bras, tight jeans, or flexing of biceps. It was simpler and sweeter.
Laura giggled, pointing to a tree in the back of the cage, next to a group of rocks. “Last time I was here, I saw them lying back there. They were doing it—you know, humping. Back there, under the tree.”
Not sure of the response she was looking for, I said, “I’m glad I wasn’t here to see that.”
“It only counts as a mating ritual if it leads to actual mating.” Laura nudged her elbow into my waist. “All animals do it.”
“Not all of us,” I blurted out, unsure what sparked my sudden honesty.
Laura’s jaw dropped. “You mean, you haven’t—? Like, ever?”
She said it like I was some middle-aged hermit. Not the eighteen-year-old college freshman who slept in a dorm-room bunk bed.
I put my head down, too embarrassed to even respond.
She leaned into me, whispering, “Me either.”
“Really,” I said, lifting my head. “Don’t lie just to spare my feelings.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Promised myself I’d wait until college. Why take your pick from a school with two hundred boys, when the college buffet offers ten thousand. High school’s just a trap. Married with a mortgage before I’m even twenty-five? No, thank you. At the very least, I wanted to get out there and meet someone from a different area code before that happened.”
How could anyone argue with that kind of logic? And her sweet perfume, a mix of peaches and raspberries, only made her argument stronger. I smelled it every time she leaned in.
“That’s my reason,” she said. “What’s your reason for waiting?”
“You can ask all the girls from my high school,” I said. “But I think my combination of teenage acne and orthodontic headgear gives a better answer.”
“Your braces are off. And your skin looks as clear as the Pacific. What’s stopping you now?”
I paused, not saying what I wanted to say. Then I said it anyway. “Is that an invitation?”
“I do need dinner first.” She bit her bottom lip. “A girl’s still got to eat.”
We went to the bar next to campus. Ten-cent wings every Wednesday. It was all my college budget could afford.
Plus, the bartender never checked for ID.
We sat in the back corner of the bar, a pitcher of beer and a plate full of chicken wings between us. After three orders in just over two hours, we talked about everything from the number of our siblings to apple versus pumpkin pie and whether either of us had any hidden tattoos—none for me—though she admitted to having a butterfly tattoo on her lower back. Even at eighteen, she knew it was the definition of cliché. A lesson, she said, she only learned after the ink had dried.
After we polished off two more orders of wings and another pitcher of beer, I hinted that my roommate had moved into his fraternity house. The school hadn’t assigned me a new one yet. The room was empty, inviting.
We had both made it eighteen years as virgins. Any other night, maybe we could have waited longer. But that night, we only had to wait for one thing.
* * *
“I can’t do this anymore,” Laura says.
I say, “It was your idea.”
Laura told me since she was the one who started it, I should be the one to end it. It was only fair.
“I know it was my idea,” Laura says. “I’m a girl. Girls change their minds. Now I want it to stop.”
When she first confessed six months ago, I kept asking her what was so special about him? Was he tall? Handsome? Rich?
She said she didn’t remember. It didn’t matter. He was just a guy, a guy in a bar.
“What did he say?” I asked her again. “What made him get your attention? How did it even start?”
She would never look me in the eyes when I asked her these questions. Finally, one night, she caved and offered up an answer.
“He asked, ‘Do you come here often?’ That’s how it all started.”
That was it. The oldest, dullest line in the book. He hadn’t even been trying. It told me everything about him.
“You proposed to me when we were eighteen,” Laura says, picking up her explanation from six months ago.
I reach over to the nightstand and grab the last cigarette from the pack. Flicking the lighter, I lean back onto the pillow and breathe in, blowing out a thick cloud of smoke.
“I was in love,” I say.
“We lived in the dorms,” she said. “How could either of us think we were ready for anything more than just sharing a pizza on Friday nights? It wasn’t love.”
This was her segue back to, this was bound to happen, and then, maybe it needed to happen. Often finishing with: better now than after we have kids to traumatize.
All true. And yet, he used a line. That lousy line.
Is it really that simple? Are we all just animals in the wild, waiting for our next mate to come along? Is our carnal compass guided not by our heart, but by simple geography?
A few weeks ago, I went back to the zoo. The site of our first date. I guess I was hoping to find some of the magic we had left behind. I stood at the cage, hoping to see the gibbons again. But I only saw the blonde female. Alone, she was sitting on her rock, singing her half of the duet, waiting for her mate to swing across the tree branches to her, singing the other half. But he never showed up.
Laura says, “Francesco’s tonight at eight? We’ll sit in the back booth, just like old times. I need this to be over. What do you say?”
When a zoo worker walked by, I asked her what had happened to the male gibbon. Had he died? Was that why the female was singing alone? I told her I knew gibbons mated for life. Was she singing to remind the world that she was still taken—singing her solo duet?
The zoo worker smiled at me and shook her head. “The male didn’t die. He’s over there.”
She pointed to a tree in the far corner, next to a group of rocks. Underneath, two gibbons slept in the shade. One black and one yellow.
“We got another female in last month,” she told me. “He’s been with her ever since.”
I broke down crying, right there, in the middle of a children’s field trip. Then I turned around and left.
* * *
“You were my first,” Laura says. “Will you please be my last?”
I notice my cigarette had almost completely burned out. A long strand of gray ash dangles off the end. That vulnerable, used-up nicotine, ready to fall at the slightest movement. I hold completely still, not flinching, trying to give that ash a chance of remaining whole.
But the ash breaks off, crumbling during its fall onto my chest, the hot pieces singeing each of my chest hairs. I clench my teeth as I wipe my chest clean. “I can’t make it to dinner,” I tell Laura. “That girl from your work, Yvette, which bar is she going to tonight?”
Keith Buie’s work has appeared in Burnt Tongues, the award-winning (This is Horror) and Bram Stoker-nominated anthology edited by best-selling author Chuck Palahniuk. His work has also appeared in Eleven Eleven, The MacGuffin, Natural Bridge, Pisgah Review, Crack the Spine, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Rio Grande Review, Willard & Maple, and Metal Scratches. Keith is currently writing his first novel and is represented by Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. Literary Agency.