“Where are you?” The voice was little more than a hiss, abrupt and violent, equal parts impatience, irritation, and fear.
“Looked outside lately?” Bill realized before he finished that this was not the intelligent way to go. He should have shut his phone off earlier, before sitting down with Joey at the bar and ordering that first beer, before thinking that the music throbbing through the restroom walls would be inaudible over the phone. He should certainly not have answered it. To punctuate his defeat, another patron opened the restroom door, letting in a blast of noise, both musical and not.
“Where the hell are you?” Tonya demanded again, the question now freighted with meanings and implications the first iteration had not contained. “Weather my ass.”
Before Bill could answer, she had guessed the next step in his betrayal.
“You and Joey are together, right?”
“Look, Tonya, I just stopped in for a quick beer. He doesn’t know anything.
But now, like I said, have you looked outside?”
Looking out the plate glass window of the bar as he drank that first beer, Bill had watched the day fade into premature darkness, the rain that had been falling all morning turning without pity or notice to sleet. Even so, he could hear the weakness, the absurdity of his own defense. When her only reply was a weary but still bitter “Asshole,” he was neither surprised nor offended. The sudden knowledge of the frailty of it all, their twenty-year friendship and one night of indiscretion, lodged in his mind like the grit that could never become a pearl. Silence sat awkwardly in the space between them. Bill felt more than heard Tonya take a deep breath, neither exasperated huff nor audible shrug of resignation.
“So why even keep it?” she asked. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Her questions were silly, Bill realized, a reaction to her own impotence in the face of previous choices, an attempt to absolve herself, to assign responsibility and agency where none existed anymore. He retained enough sense at this hour to refrain from telling her she was being childish. Admittedly, he had called her first to let her know what he had found, but the entire venture had been her idea. She had enlisted his aid, knowing his loyalty to Joey. It was certainly not his fault that Tonya was a woman of simple and straightforward passions. Whatever her emotional complexity, the channels through which it was expressed tended to the direct. He understood that her flirtations over the years were her way, the only way she seemed to know, of expressing her affection for him. And she did like him. He was Joey’s oldest and dearest friend from the college days, someone who stood outside the circle of what Tonya referred to as Joey’s “forgetaboutit and howyadoin” buddies. For his part, Bill had been drawn to her immediately, not least because she was Joey’s wife, unavailable and unattainable. She became his ideal, the sexually alluring wife and mother always beyond his reach. Until the one time she wasn’t.
“Listen, Tonya,” he said, hoping like hell his voice, the only tool he had to deal with someone else’s rage and shame, did not reveal him as condescending and dissembling, “Joey and I came in separate cars. We didn’t even walk in together. I just happened to run into him. He doesn’t know anything, and he won’t.”
Bill thought he could perhaps hear the faintest trace of a sniffle on the other end of the line, but the slightest possibility of vulnerability suddenly shattered.
Why had he even bothered calling her in the first place? The box had been in the bottom of his closet, for how long now? Who was ever going to stumble across it? Certainly not Joey. And when she had insisted he bring it to her, why had he not simply refused, told her that he would throw it out and be done with it? Had she not just asked why he had not done that? And then there was the weather, an unseasonal storm that seemed to be telling him (or was he just imagining it?) that he should hold on to it, the only evidence that he had once touched that which he most desired, however unsatisfactory the fact may have been compared to the dream. He could not fathom why she had insisted he bring it to her right away. But in the damning light of her final judgment he suddenly saw and understood her guilt, resented it, the extravagance of it, the way it demeaned the depth of his care for her. It was a depth in which he could imagine his own shame submerged and forgotten, but only on condition that she acknowledge and accept their shared culpability. The truth of his situation finally struck him, stinging without mercy like the ice falling outside: this entire errand on her behalf was nothing less than her denial and rebuke.
Bill pressed the ‘end call’ button on his phone. He made his way back to the bar where Joey was talking to a waitress in a manner far too removed from nuance to call flirting. Walking out to a full beer newly opened and paid for, he looked out the window in support of his argument. Instead, all he saw was his own reflection on an empty black background.
(c) Bob Carlton