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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

There She Goes
by Daniel H. Debelius, Jr

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I'm lying here in this hospital bed, aching like hell. My head feels like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

The two of them had been friends. Indeed, they had been more than just friends, they had been best friends; more even than just best friends, they had been like sisters.

Neither Connie nor Janet can remember a time when the other was a non-entity. They were born but two weeks apart, grew up within a block of each other. Each is an only child.

They shared the 'oohs' and 'ahs' of the tickled adult world during their first few years; and much warm-hearted debate took place over which of the two was the cuter, more adorable child. There was no clear-cut winner, and even those few who had leanings toward one or the other found themselves incapable of affixing the word 'loser' to the juxtaposed short-comer; for excepting this one comparison, the short-comer ridiculously exceeded in cuteness and adorability any other neighborhood child.

Connie and Janet went to the same schools, were in the same classrooms together. Only once, in their freshman, er, freshwoman, year of high school, did student-placement separate them. Three months into that year, the girls' grades alarmingly tobogganing, school officials, taking the advice of two sets of parents and a junior high counselor, re-united them. Their classroom performance immediately improved.

The girls shared the ups and downs of their teen-age years: the pimples, boyfriends, the mountainous molehills. There were the virginal burials, the alcohol and drug dabblings. They did the naive 'liberalism' thing, got over it with their first sour spoonful of the real world. They developed their tastes and distastes, which, unsurprisingly, are virtually identical. They made up their minds on the courses of their lives, which included, among other things, an absence of confining husbands and children. In short, they graduated high school two decent, determined and independent young ladies.

They bypassed college to study cosmetology. On completing their studies, they took off for 'hire' ground. Employment at last separated them, though they'd spent more than four months trying to avoid the fact. They resigned themselves, but during non-working hours, remained inseparable. They got a apartment together, tried again, as they once had during their high school years, to expand their relationship; but again were unsuccessful: it simply wasn't their thing, 'heter' being naturally better. They lived happily, platonically, envisioning down the road co-owning a beauty shop.

In time, Connie got seriously involved with a guy, and after a week or two of rough times owing to Janet's mishandling of the alteration in their relationship, the two women laughed it out and accepted the fact that their lives would include significant others. Two months later, Janet herself met a guy, yours truly, who now lies here in this hospital bed aching like hell; whose head feels like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

Janet and I hit it off immediately and deeply, and after I'd proven to her that I could go three months without my alcoholic pacifier (probation which had turned into a lifetime promise from me), she agreed to marry me, her high school resolve a thing of the past. We wedded, and of course Connie was the maid of honor.

The thing is, I should have never gone through with it. Imagine dreaming of the maid of honor the first night of connubial sleep! Fortunately, my new wife and I had physically celebrated our marriage twice before falling asleep, so there was no ejaculated proof of my betrayal to worry about the next morning; but, man, at dawn the rooster was ready and raucous!

See, I had gone through with the wedding because of my associative personality. I'd been in the company of Connie many times during the months leading up to the nuptials, and though I find her very compelling, I had suppressed my feelings out of fear: I had found the courage for sobriety through Janet (although I'd denied being an alcoholic, laughed it off in fact, my denial had not been a true symptom of my addiction, for it had been but a surface denial. Within myself, I know the truth. The first few weeks of my abstinence had been the most difficult act of forbearance I'd ever been through in my life), and come to associate it with her. I'd wanted the rest of my life to be alcohol-free, had sincerely wanted it; but desire built on sand is but prayer. Built on rock, desire is realization. Janet had become my rock. Without her in my life, I'd come to believe, recidivism and inevitability had been synonymous.

Janet, who had been an infrequent drinker, had totally given up alcohol with me, for me (any substance-abuser suffers from a persecution-complex, and so her going without, not leaving me with a self-pitying sense of having been singled out for deprivation, had meant a great deal to me). Connie, on the other, bottle-clutching hand, had liked her glasses of wine or mixed drinks with meals or for enjoyment, she of a hearty appetite and hedonistic inclination. Whenever the three of us had gone out together, which had been often, Connie hadn't been the least bit hesitant about imbibing in front of me, and on more than one occasion she'd gotten rather tipsy, a condition which is as a monstrous wave of temptation crashing against an alcoholic's breakwater of resolve. Of course, she hadn't known the depth of my problem, considered me a 'work hard, play hard' boy. I had encouraged her, in fact, to enjoy herself, trying to convince her, Janet and myself that indeed booze had become a part of my past. I had known however that the suppression of my feelings for her had been wise. Consort with a consort of the bottle; sooner or later re-hit the bottle.

To be perfectly honest, though, I'm painting a picture of my 'con' job with false colors, sort of like the person who brags about losing weight when the refrigerator's been empty. Truth is, Connie and I had never been alone together for any length of time, and such an insular situation is the true measuring stick of such resolve. Janet, of course, had always been with us; and Frank, Connie's boyfriend, often had as well. I'd appreciated this fact, greatly appreciated it, for I had known that Connie has feelings for me not unlike what I feel for her. I'd known this whenever our eyes had met and that secret color had formed; or whenever we had come into physical contact, however subtle or short-lived, and the room temperature and goose acne had risen. On those rare occasions when Janet or Janet and Frank both had left Connie and me briefly alone, awkwardness had joined us, the kind made of a sense of undesired desire. We had danced once, only at Janet and Frank's insistence, and only that one time. The song playing had been a rock and roller, to which a safe-distance dance could have been affixed; but as Connie and I hit the floor, the mischievous juke-box went into a coughing spell and come out of it in a ballad, forcing the two of us into each other's arms. We had joked falsely afterwards to the others of how out of shape we'd been. We had both been breathing heavily. I'd returned to our table with my sports coat removed, holding the jacket in such a way as to conceal the front of my body. This concealment had been necessary, for I could have carried the coat without using my hand, utilizing another part of my anatomy as a coat-peg.

At last, however, old inevitability reared its destined head, and good old booze was involved. The demon beverage, you see, had taken a pernicious hold of Connie, via Frank's sudden jilt of her. Connie had been two weeks into heavy assimilation. She hadn't worked at all in that time, simply sitting around her apartment around the clock around a bottle. It had finally dawned on someone that I might be of assistance, given my intake past; so I went to see her.

I had been a married man now for four months, a sober man for seven. 'Alcoholics Anonymous', to which I had been going occasionally, had even given me two pins: one for having gone three months without, and one for six. I had gotten to the point where even a day now and then had passed by without my thinking about booze. I had been forming associations that had had nothing to do with alcohol. I had been starting to get a little cocky, even annoying some old friends with commentary on their imbibing habits.

At the time of my visit, I hadn't seen Connie in over a month. Janet and I, of course, had gotten our own place; and after four months of conjugality, I had been finding myself not only associating sobriety with my wife but happiness and serenity as well. She had shocked Connie and others by giving up her job, and by extension, the dream she and Connie had shared of owing their own beauty shop. This had hurt Connie greatly, but Janet had seemed almost insouciant toward her friend's burst bubble. Thing is, Janet had totally loved me, loved being my wife, loved being a wife. She had kept our apartment immaculate, had evolved in no time at all from a very good cook to a virtual gourmet, had steered decor to arrive at ambiance. In bed, she had been wonderful. Importantly, she had become sensitive to my mood swings and knowledgeable in counter-balancing them. Due to this sensitivity and the absence of alcohol, my oscillations had been diminishing by great degrees. Janet had been supportive and strong and insistent whenever the dangerous dousing desire had arisen in me, desires which had actually begun to fade to gray. She had been everything, and I had come to care for her very deeply.

If she'd had one fault, it had been that of being too perfect. Though I had changed drastically, there had still been that part of me that distrusted perfection; that, to be totally honest, hated perfection! Oh, how contented and in-control she'd been. Individuals like myself with weaknesses they can't control loathe those who, at least on the surface, seem in total management. Of course, there had been nothing at all superficial about Janet's. She had been in capital C control of her life. There had been no secret confessions or tears from her as she'd wrapped herself around me in the confidential moments before sleep. Indeed, many nights I'd awoken from a dangerous dream to find her in blissful slumber, a contented smile kicking up upon the front porch of her lips. She had rarely moved when I'd watched her, her breathing perfectly rhythmical. So contrasting what I'd slept through, her ripple-less repose had angered me.

Perhaps I should have taken this misplaced emotion on one of the frequent trips I'd escorted her on through the maze of my mind. Perhaps things would have turned out differently, and I wouldn't be lying in this hospital bed aching like hell, my head feeling like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

Anyway, the day of inevitability came, with the indicators that immediately precede such inescapabilities. Looking back, I can see these signs clearly, but at the time I was blind, or drunk; or maybe I just caught Connie with her pants down and my lust not up to avoiding temptation; or maybe inevitability is simply what it is: a governing calendar, an unstoppable clock. Perhaps the day and hour had simply arrived.

Whatever, it was a Saturday, and I awoke from a bumpy sleep, strange dreams scurrying off, leaving indistinct foot-prints and fading, though unmistakably sarcastic, laughter in their wake (I guess I should say my wake). I viewed this departure only briefly; such exits had not been uncommon in my life, though it had been some time since I'd so greeted a day. I dismissed my scuttling companions, imputing them to the fifty-hour work-week I'd just put in or the story I'd read last night before turning in. Ironically, or more accurately, bodingly, what I'd read had been the classic short story by Mark Twain: 'The Man That Corrupted Hadley Burg'. It's a tale about how easy it is to avoid temptation, as long as you do just that. The problem with this avoidance, however, as Twain points out, is that when the big T shows up at your door at last, knocking and knocking determinedly, disregarding your pulled shades and 'closed' look, until you are left with no alternative but to answer, you are as a raw minor-league batter facing the best pitcher in the majors, and on the pitcher's best day: your bat of resolve will splinter to pieces.

I rose that Saturday morning to a sitting position. Actually, I stopped on my way to my standing stretch, my vertical line of demarcation between yesterday and today. What stopped me was the digital alarm clock on the night table, its flashing numerals. In the room's dimness (the curtains were drawn), and in the noiselessness of the apartment, I was strangely reminded of a stretch of dark, isolated highway and upcoming, blinking warning-lights; of the uneasiness which accompanies such a warning when the hazard is hidden from sight. This weird thought, however, was short-lived, for the numerals themselves killed it: 7... 2... 4. I didn't rise from the bed until the third of the trio had changed, cursing it as it so altered. One day, two weeks previously, 724 had followed me everywhere. I'd come across those digits in that order at least five times that day. I'd played the state lottery that night. I'd bemoaned my monetary wastefulness when the number hadn't hit, sworn off gambling again. Naturally, 724 had come in ugly as disease the following night!

As I was stretching, it occurred to me that something was amiss. For one thing, the apartment was too quiet. Janet is as quiet as a tiptoeing rodent, but even a mouse makes periodic noises; the silence in the apartment was total, amplifying the lazy extramural sounds. The other thing that was wrong should have hit me immediately upon arising, for it had been the reason that it had been relatively easy for me to sever the monstrous association of Friday night and drinking: it was the Saturday morning breakfast that Janet prepared each week - a mountain of pancakes, flirting sausage-links, sunny-side-up eggs, dousing syrup, melting butter. I loved it; but perhaps even more I loved the redolence of the meal as it greeted me first thing Saturday morning. On this particular Saturday morning, that aromatic amigo was absent, and as I say, it's strange I didn't notice it at once.

'Janet?' I called, moving toward the kitchen, too sleepy still to be alarmed by the abnormality.

After a tour of the apartment, my confusion was eradicated when I took my morning leak. Janet had taped a message to the mirror above the bathroom sink. The message was written on a rectangular piece of note-pad paper. Familiar annoyance suffused my being as I urinated. Janet's fastidiousness extended even to the taping of a message on a mirror. The note-pad paper seemed centered on the glass so perfectly that I was tempted to find a ruler and measure. The four strips of scotch-tape securing each corner of the paper also had mathematical kinship: each was the same length; I'd have bet on it!

At the end of my momma-naturing, a drop or two of errant urine spotted the rim of the toilet-bowl. Almost like a kid in a panic over misbehavior, I grabbed some toilet paper (which was scented nauseatingly) and wiped clean my river's small rebellion. In my haste to do so, I had unevenly torn into the next sheet of paper in the dispenser. I corrected this deformity and flushed all of Janet's maniacal neatness down the drain. I then removed the note from the mirror, not with Janet-influenced patience but with an anger which hadn't washed behind its ears! For whatever reason, annoyance that morning was coming at me with an aggressiveness I hadn't experienced in over half a year.

I made my way to the kitchen, briefly (wearing only my genital-grabbing briefs, that is), reading the note as I went. Engaged thus, I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings and hit my big toe on the leg of a piece of furniture. Anyone who has ever done so knows of the pain this produces. I hurled profanities for some hopping time before I was at last able to make myself some coffee.

Janet's note informed me, in a morning-mocking calligraphic hand, that Connie had called earlier that morning in 'inebriated disarray'. Fearing for her friend's state, my wife had rushed over. She'd be back as soon as possible. She P.S.-ed that she'd run to the corner convenience store and gotten me one of those frozen breakfasts. When I opened the freezer and saw the pathetic, impersonal, surrogate serving, something in me snapped into self-pity; and at that very instant, I caught a glimpse through the kitchen window of a truck passing by. It was a beer truck! How easily one sees the signs when looking back.

I drank my coffee and ate a doughnut, ate two doughnuts. What the hell, if Janet had really been concerned about my food-intake, she would have been there to make sure I had my hearty, nutritious, Saturday morning breakfast. I ate a third doughnut. I was enjoying self-pity inspired rebellion as I hadn't enjoyed that childish act in a long time. Extending the enjoyment, I didn't brush my teeth, didn't comb my hair, didn't shower! I put on some jeans, some hiking boots, a flannel shirt and a tattered leather jacket which Janet abhorred. I tied a headband on and bopped outside into the unusually mild morning.

There is a wildly wooded, heavily evergreened area behind our apartment complex, complete with foot-fed paths and a stream. In years gone by, I had loved disappearing with a six-pack into such a peaceful, protecting, private place. On that destined day, as I was walking past the apartments which had everything but individuality, going nowhere in particular, love-thoughts returned, making me green with ennui toward the life I'd been living. Thus colored, there was little hesitation on my part, little vacillation between guilt and desire, little paying of mind to that negative solitary-drinking theory. I was the raw minor league batter rushing to the plate. I went straight to the convenience store, got a half-dozen aluminum friends, a newspaper and some beer-nuts. I became Mother Nature's son. I sang with the birds, skipped a few stones, recited some John Fogerty poetry on a poorly postured, stream-bridging tree and had one hell of a good time. Of course my friends eventually departed; but I had money on me, and as everybody knows, where there is money, there are friends in waiting. I headed back to the convenience store.

I felt like Fred Astaire walking back, very light of foot. I got to thinking of how long it had been since I'd so danced, which led my imagination to the bi-featured face of Ginger Rogers and Janet. The voice, however, which emanated from this face was, unfortunately, all Janet's. The words were irate and disparaging, hurting my ears to the point of guilt-screech.

This time I vacillated at the store. I stood for some time in the parking lot, fettered by my inner debate, until at last a car's park-purposeful horn got me moving again. I decided to call home, to see if Janet had yet returned. It seemed the right thing to do while I decided what to do.

Janet picked up on the third ring. She was as upset as I had ever heard her. If my alcoholically altered voice was betraying me, her dither was a good thing, for she mentioned no change in me.

Connie was in serious deterioration, my wife informed me. No one, it seemed, could get through to her. I expressed my incredulity that Connie was taking Frank's departure so painfully, that it had always seemed to me that Connie hadn't been all that taken by him. A lot of that perception, which I of course kept to myself, was based on my belief that, even at the height of their relationship, I could have gotten Connie a motel room and supplied my own bed-hop service without even being obsequious. This might have been a little cocky, but it was indeed my honest belief. Even if I had come out and insanely said this, Janet probably wouldn't have registered it, as monomaniacally concerned as she was for her friend's state. Ignoring my expressed incredulity, my wife said the only hope for the self-destructing young lady, just this side of forcible institutionalization, at least in the opinion of a hastily formed, Janet-chaired committee on Connie, which had seated itself earlier that morning, was yours truly, the one-time heavy imbiber. However, once is not enough in these impoverished times; but the committee had no way of knowing, at the moment it was so opining, that I was in the relapse of self-deluding luxury.

Janet wanted me to go right over and be of any assistance I could. Naturally, I at first argued against this. I was hearing once again the call of the less than wild stream. My wife, however, in the end, wouldn't take 'yes' for an answer; she insisted on an oath to God. Perhaps my resigned 'yes' had sounded too flimsy, coming as it had on the heels of my prolonged and whiny 'no'. Whatever, Janet's plaintive pleadings had me hitching myself to supremacy; and whatever else I may be, I am not one who deals in mendacity with the main man. I got myself some heavily flavored chewing gum and a coffee, doubting though that Connie would smell my relapse. I looked wistfully at the beer cooler while paying the oriental doll who works at the store. Cursing, I headed for Connie's, some fifteen minutes away.

The area in which Janet and Connie and I reside is a burgeoning suburb just north of the city. Many apartment complexes have been built in it. Connie's residence isn't worth a car-drive from us. Fifteen minutes, by sobriety's watch, is probably ambulatorily stretching it; but given my condition of self-induced indolence and the two healthy leaks I sneaked in along the way, it took me nearly half an hour to cover the distance. It should have taken me forever. I wouldn't be lying here in this hospital bed aching like hell, my head feeling like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

Connie didn't answer my initial knocks, whose volume had increased to neighbor-disturbing levels by my fifth fist. As alarmed as I could get, I called out her name two or three times. Then, I tried the doorknob, which laughed as I turned it against no resistance.

As I say, true Connie-solicitude on my part was earthed beneath my surprising inebriation (keep in mind I hadn't had a beer in a good while); but as the door swung open, concern roared up like some cemetery demon, suffusing my being; yet the concern was not for Connie. It was for myself!

The jilted inebriate was sitting on her sofa, her head turned from the door, eyes closed, sexy and sloshed. She was wearing some diaphanous thing. Through it, her askew bra revealed the virtual totality of her left breast. Out of shape panties gave a generous jack-off of a very healthy vagina. Her big, beautiful legs were tucked under her, splaying her thighs in that eye-enslaving way. Her long hair was disheveled, snake-bangs meandering down one side of her forehead, rakishly covering an eye. Her naturally large lips were even larger from how she'd been living of late. She had the over-all look of a good-looking prostitute at dawn, a look disparaged by most (Janet hates such an appearance); a look I find as alluring as a fish finds a lure, especially a fish a little out of sobriety's water.

The reason Connie hadn't heard me at the door was that she was wearing earphones, listening to something on the radio. She still hadn't realized that I'd entered. I was this close to semi-circling out of there. This was trouble with a capital T women of booze and vulnerability are not man-made, made-up stories. They're erections of unzippered truth! This truth may not set you free, but you can't escape the fact while you're on wife-release. Of course, some connubial convicts are content with their conditions in life. I decided I was. I closed the door and moved to the sofa.

Such was the length of Connie's binge, so out of it she was, that she didn't even jump when I touched her shoulder. Indeed, it took her a few seconds to even acknowledge the act. She at last turned her head slowly to me, lifting her eyelids with a like lack of speed. The two orbs were surprisingly clear, though focusing required obvious effort. She smiled at me lazily, producing hyperactivity in a certain part of my anatomy. I again thought of exiting; but at that moment, I don't think I would have been able.

'Johnny,' she said, her voice a loud intonation beyond syllabic belief. She then removed the earphones and tossed them absently. She patted the cushion next to her, indicating that I sit.

I sat delicately, no contiguity involved. It took two minutes before such took place: arm contact. Five revolutions of the minute needle produced my manual empathy on her thigh. Within ten turns, against what will I had left, my fingers were massaging the thigh. Slightly above the knee I kneaded at first; then the heat in the room had me heading inexorably north. The inevitable commiserating kiss took place: first on her soft, sodden cheek, then on closed, trembling lips. We stopped ourselves for a while, during which, goaded by the smell of her breath, I poured myself some of her whiskey. She expressed nominal opposition to my doing so, but I laughed her off with a wagon joke, which got her laughing as well. She hadn't laughed in a long time, she said. We proceeded to get drunk as hell, physical as hell; and now I'm lying here in this hospital bed aching like that same hell. My head feels like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

Of course, Janet and others called or knocked throughout the day, but Connie and I, having foreseen such solicitous interruption, had made contingency plans. Connie had recorded a message on her answering machine and taped a note (a refreshingly sloppy attachment) on her front door. Both informed whomever that I had taken her to a remote place, to a professional friend of mine who works with substance abusers. Connie conveyed an uncertainty as to the length of time she'd be gone, but felt it might be a prolonged visitation. We thus gigglingly refused admittance to anyone.

Regarding another type of admittance, however, there were no giggles. Connie and I were penetrably perfect. It is a beautiful experience, when two people are so compatible. Sizes, rhythms and moistures mesh to such a pleasurable degree that a heartless love can immediately develop. If each person finds the other visually attractive, as do Connie and I; and if neither overly annoys in non-bedroom areas, this type of love can outlast the one which the poets laud. It may not be the purest form of love, but never bet against it! Anyway, the purest form is heavily diluted by many factors absurdly dismissed when some poetic twosome is extolled as exemplary. Take Janet and me, and my associative personality. If, that Saturday at Connie's, my sobriety now guzzled into history, Janet had my heart, I sure wasn't missing a beat of it in her friend's bed.

Of course, I did think of Janet. Connie and I decided that I would spend the night in sobering sleep and return home tomorrow afternoon. I would have to call my wife somewhere along the line, give her some bogus reason why Connie and I wouldn't be 'returning' until the following day. The problem would be my voice. Would Janet pick up the bottle?

Being the saint she is, Janet suspected nothing. I had climbed from delicious bed to a hot shower, had then gargled with some mouthwash to ease a developing scratchy throat (neither Connie nor I gave a spit or an inhalation about mouth odor, which we both no doubt had). I spoke slowly that spurious Saturday, to better present myself, which saint Janet attributed with love to the exhaustive effort I was putting forth on Connie's behalf. Despite my pace, though, I was still eliding on occasion; but such, of course, can be the effect of inanition.

I told my trusting wife that, following extensive conversation of a thinly veiled therapeutic nature with my remotely suburbed, professional friend (meaning: one associated with a profession; not one who is remunerated for faking fondness), Connie had been given a sedative to assist with the thaw of withdraw. Another sedative, I said, had been necessary. This second one had knocked her out. Needing sleep as badly as she had, my remotely suburbed, professional friend and I had decided to let her sleep for as long as she would, which would no doubt be overnight (I was calling a little after six). My remotely suburbed, professional friend and his wife had ample sleeping accommodations, their home serving as sort of a mini-clinic, so I'd sleep there as well. I'd bring Connie home in the morning. Janet thanked me effusively, told me how much she loved me, how good a person I was. I said goodbye generously gripped by guilt, and hung up just before a horde of hiccups hit.

I left Connie at noon on Sunday, quite hung-over. Working to overpower my alcoholically strong breath, I had brushed my teeth two times, gargled thrice, eaten some eggs, had started on gum. I had flooded my eyes with anti-red drops (which had been the secret of Connie's clear orbs when I'd entered). I'd feasted on aspirin, swallowed some stomach stuff. Ironically, paradoxically, homeopathically, whateverly, I left having accomplished what Janet had sent me there to do: I had gotten Connie's promise to cap her bottle for a while, to return to work (there was more than one component to her decision to so promise; it was anything but a facile vow); and I also left semi-confident that I would get away with my infidelity. Of course, in between wet, passionate, departing lip-locks, Connie and I swore to never again betray Janet, the two of us kissing cousins of compunction.

Back home, I couldn't believe Janet. She was praising me ridiculously, showering me with hugs and kisses. The 'lips' part of this rain I umbrella-ed by turning this and the other cheek, not risking my big-mouthed mouth. Janet made me breakfast (the Saturday morning special that I'd missed), knowing how hungry I had to be. Not really so, I nonetheless ate as if I was, for the sake of appearances. She had a lot of questions, which I answered skillfully. I kept her from visiting Connie, a restraint Connie had begged me to impose. I said that Connie was very weak, very sleepy still from the sedatives, and that the best thing any friend could do for her would be to allow her rest. Connie was indeed tired, but it was the eyes of Janet that she wanted to avoid. She had never lied to Janet, by commission or omission; wasn't sure she could handle it. That I was having no such trouble didn't make me feel particularly good about myself.

One question Janet asked could have been disastrous. Fortunately, when she brought it up, her back was to me. Had such not been the case, I'm sure my face would have given me away. It was also fortuitous that at the moment of her inquiry, I had just stuffed pancakes into my mouth. When Janet briefly looked over her shoulder at my delay in answering, I indicated my bulging orifice. She apologized for her fusillade of questions, for not allowing me time to swallow, for forcing me to eat so quickly in order to reply to all she was asking that I had a stricken look to me. She then gave me a little time, which gave me a little time to construct.

She wanted to know what transportation Connie and I had used to visit my remotely suburbed, professional friend, pointing out that I'd not disturbed my own car yesterday and that Connie's had been sitting for two weeks in her parking space at work (right on top of Frank's jilt, Connie's car battery had walked out on her as well; she'd left the car where it had been). This part of the fabrication had never driven across my mind, Connie's neither (she'd forgotten about her car, a loss of memory which owed itself to, first, her preoccupation with Frank's departure and, then, I guess, to me. she had had no reason to leave her apartment, had had provisions delivered, which had resulted in no vehicular necessity. I didn't know of any of this at the time of Janet's question). When stitching a story, the unexpected tear, however small, can cause visible, betraying anxiety. It's known as seam-stress. However, as I point out, luck was with me. I had time to remember Connie's mentioning a friend from work who had called, someone named Debbie; someone, Connie had said in passing, that Janet had met once or twice.

I suppose that my knowing Debbie's name helped pass my explanation so uneventfully through the ingress-gate's guards of my wife's credulity. As I chewed my mouthful, Debbie, in her own car, had driven Connie and me to the beauty shop to hotshot Connie's car (Janet had certitude, she'd modified during my slow-motion mastication, of her friend's car's location only through Friday, two days previous). Why hadn't we simply called Janet? Well, Debbie had just happened to come over shortly after I'd persuaded Connie to visit my remotely suburbed, professional friend; and anyway, Connie, having burdened Janet so much that very morning, had wanted to give my wife a rest. Why hadn't I called my wife before departing? Again, Connie; she hadn't wanted to worry Janet.

By the time I climbed into bed to take a nap, Janet, who was neatly tucking me in, was nearly in tears over how wonderful her husband and best friend were. Behind closed eyes, I was making mental note to call Connie as soon as possible to tell her about Debbie's contribution to our liaison. As soon as possible came a short time later, when Janet took a shower. Connie then made her own call, to a cousin of hers, an auto mechanic. He met her a short time later at the salon's lot, with a new battery. Connie then drove back to her apartment, thus covering all our bases, thus safe at home.

This weekend of deception took place in late February. I didn't see Connie again until the first week of April. Over this period of blindness, my relationship with Janet deteriorated sharply. It was a period of sobriety for me, (not) picking up where I'd left off prior to that infamous Saturday. The only thing was, the irritability of going without, which, before my recidivism, I had greatly tamed, was now back in feral force. An alcoholic should never take that first step backwards. I had, which had resulted in sobriety's staggering march. I was also missing the physical pleasure of Connie. I now associated Janet with this carnal deprivation. In fact, I now considered my wife synonymous with deprivation, period! Acrimony naturally developed between us; I, of course, the continual cultivator.

There was also the compunction from what I'd done, what I'd gotten away with. Such a sweet, loving woman was Janet that I somehow came to hold her responsible for my damn guilt! Her punishment was the withholding of my body, which only increased my longing for Connie's, which only led to more acrimony.

Most of all, there was the crazy insecurity of the alcoholic. In my warped mind, in the substance abuser's craving for acceptance, Janet (even though I thought of Connie now much more than her) didn't love me anymore. Why? Ready for this? She hadn't confronted me on my infidelity, hadn't manifested the anger and pain that perfidy produces! Even though I was certain she knew nothing of what had happened between Connie and me, my insecurity screamed like mustard-seeded faith against that mountain of certainty, until I was certain no more! Then, of course, my insecurity enumerated the reasons why she didn't love me anymore, and every reason had a different man tied to it (the pot calling the kettle unfaithful). It's a miracle I didn't give myself away through this pathetic jealousy. My mind at this point in time should have shacked up with some shrink, spread itself wide open and allowed deepest penetration. Maybe I wouldn't be lying here in this hospital bed, aching like hell, my head feeling like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

Connie, meanwhile, as Janet kept me informed of during our less turbulent times, hadn't touched a drop of booze since I'd left her. She was working again. My wife was somewhat concerned about her best friend's distant ways, but thought that time would return normalcy. Frank must have meant the world and then some to her, Janet thought out loudly on more than one occasion (I wanted to laugh 'out loudly' at such absurdity, but kept zippered), to cause such aloofness in one who'd been so close. This abnormal distance on Connie's part kept me going at times, giving me carnal hope at physically forlorn times.

In early April, something occurred which did wonders for Janet's and my marriage; and it was the same thing that I had employed to get Connie out of her alcohol-heavy funk about Frank: hopes realized, I again slept with the best friend!

I had taken up jogging to alleviate my anxieties and desires; also to allow destiny, if it was coming to Connie's and my door, easy access. I timed my running and routed it to coincide with Connie's getting home from work. It didn't take destiny long with such guidance.

With sobriety, the pleasure that both Connie (who had been craving me as much as I had been her) and I had enjoyed was even enhanced. We agreed after our third tryst that surreptitious sex would forever be unmarked on our calendars, however long our calendars would hang, however great our guilt. Such was the thrill of our sex. We so pacted on April fifteenth.

'April the fifteenth,' Janet said when I got home that night. There were romantic tears in her eyes. 'We first met on this date last year.'

I had a six-pack under my arm. Janet had noticed it, had said nothing. 'I love you, Janet,' I said, feeling that emotion for everyone and everything. These words were the A of an alphabetic evening of caring, if on my part somewhat selective, conversation.

So you see, I had it all. I would come home from work to a loving wife, go jog (invariably extending myself), return home, shower, have a great meal, drink a few beers to relax (I'd graduated to a twelve-pack). Janet had found my relaxation preferable to the peevishness alcohol-deprivation had come to promise her (she held it solely responsible). She herself had even resumed infrequent sips. Every third night or so I'd lick my wife's new addiction, on which I'd gotten her hooked, to my tool-tender relief. I'd sleep each night like the baby I was. Even my insecurity, my jealousy, came to lessen greatly, for Connie's friend, Debbie, had run into my wife in some supermarket and confirmed (collusion which had cost Connie a couple of beauty-shop curlies) her participation in Connie's re-emergence. Now my mountain of certainty concerning my wife's ignorance stood imperviously, or as close thereto as I could get. Therefore, I couldn't easily project my own infidelity on Janet.

Yeah, I had it all; and now I'm lying here in this hospital bed aching like hell. My head feels like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

I owe it all to Madame Barzak.

Somewhere between mid-February and Halloween, Janet, against my knowing a thing about it, had become nutso about the paranormal. Having always been a proponent of pragmatism, she had probably kept me in the dark about her interest in this spurious sunlight out of fear of ridicule. I've also learned that through some psychic avenue or other she had heeded advice as to pregnancy, as to the absolute avoidance of it. No wonder she had so easily altered her means of sexual gratification. I've learned as well, the baseball way, that somewhere she had been informed that Halloween would be an illuminating day for her. She had been awaiting its eye-opening arrival eagerly.

I hadn't therefore, being ignorant at the time, understood her excited reaction when, a week or so prior to that masked holiday, placards had appeared in our neighborhood mall announcing the forthcoming arrival and readings of Madame Barzak. Madame Barzak is a kook of chiromancy; at least, I guess she's a kook. I'm sure, though, that Janet's hands had started sweating in anticipation of that October thirty-first appearance.

By the destined day, seven triangular months had passed, and all concerned had gotten, if not comfortable with the arrangement, at least inured. Of course, the hypotenuse, Janet, didn't know the other two sides had formed an angle. By degrees, Connie and I had gotten to the point where we could be with my wife without sweating and stammering nervously, without hurting so badly within. I'd told Connie of the change that had disconnected my connubial bed, and this change had assuaged our remorse a good deal (all alleviation-activists aggressively assimilate any avenue offering absolution!). It had also resulted in my sore tongue every now and then, Connie, so told, no longer hesitant, regarding request, to use hers.

Anyway, Madame Barzak was to appear at noon, so Janet insisted on our being at the mall by ten. The three of us ended up arriving at nine-thirty. I bought the girls breakfast, our seating arranged in such a way that Connie and I could rub feet beneath our eggs. My yokes broke vivaciously.

Janet spoke incessantly, and to Connie's and my surprise, knowledgeably, about Madame (she'd kept her friend, as she'd kept me, in the dark about her developing interest in the paranormal), both over our meal and afterwards, when we visited a toy store. My wife absently bought a baseball bat for a young cousin of hers. Usually, Janet was a pain in the ass when buying a gift for someone, exceedingly fastidious. That day, however, she paid the bat, and the cashier, little mind, berserk over Barzak.

At noon, Madame appeared. Like many of these ladies, she was huge, weighing maybe two hundred pounds, on perhaps five and a half vertical feet. She had long, jet-black hair which hung, at least in my opinion, evilly. Her eyes were painted in like color, and she had the large, proverbial black mole on one cheek. She was wearing a full-length, wrap-around thing and all manner of exotic jewelry. She seated herself at a table covered by a mystically symboled cloth. A large painting of a hand, palm-up of course, had been hung behind the table.

Despite our early arrival, we had yet four or five people ahead of us; many, many more were soon behind. Connie and I seemed to be the only ones not taking Madame seriously. One sarcastic remark of mine, made a little too loudly, produced angry eyes, the angriest of which belonged to Janet.

By the time we got to our turn with Madame, four or five expressions of incredulity had been manually generated. Madame was hitting the nail on the hand. The fool was able to logically add to any information put to her: everyday extrapolation. She predicted with the predictable ease of one who cannot be presently proven wrong. She was a con artist; but who am I to talk of fraud? Deception is why I'm lying here in this hospital bed aching like hell, my head feeling like a baseball that Mark McGwire has mashed to the moon.

Janet immediately wanted to know about the advisability of her having a child. Given what our sexual life had become, this question surprised me. It also got me an accusatory look from Connie (it came so out of the blue that it didn't have time to get my warped mind's 'pot calling the kettle unfaithful' gears started up).

Barzak's face clouded; she boggled (Connie and I disparagingly rolled our eyes at this appropriately 'pregnant' pause). Up to then, she'd had nothing particularly negative to say to anyone. Now she obviously did.

'Not with the man you're with, darling,' she said reluctantly.

'What do you mean?' asked Janet, nose-plainly hurt, looking at me with such oddball eyeball that all there knew immediately that I was the man she was 'with'.

'He's no good, darling,' Madame said, not very pleased to have to pass on such information 'with' me right there.

Here I made a big mistake, because Madame didn't appear eager to pursue the matter. My error was in not taking this bloated hand-kisser seriously, or in not allowing her a lightning stroke of incredible luck. 'Come on, Janet,' I snapped. 'This hairy, mole and burly doesn't know what she's talking about!'

Connie grabbed my arm to calm me, to warn me, to brace herself, having her own psychic experience, foreseeing what was coming down the crowded aisle.

'Give her your hand!' Janet blurted, sounding panicked, as if desperate to correct a misreading. She was losing Madame's grip on herself, though getting, I noticed uneasily, a rather firm hold of one end of her toy-store purchase.

'I'm not giving this phony anything!' I angrily objected.

'What are you afraid of, darling?' Madame asked, now more than willing to pursue the matter, goaded, I suppose, by my disrespect toward her.

I gave her my hand, or more accurately put, Janet gave her my hand.

Madame wound up and pitched the facts of a certain infidelity.

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