It was close to dusk when I got home but there were no lights on inside. This was unusual because as soon as the sun began getting low in the sky Julie always turned the lights on. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the darkness of night. Dusk depressed her. When I went in and heard her sobbing from the sofa the warning bells went off in my head along with every horrible scenario I could imagine. “Jules, what is the matter?” I asked, sitting on the coffee table beside of the couch.
“Where the hell have you been? You’ve been gone all afternoon!” She all but shouted at me.
“I was at the beach talking to Brian. Why? What’s wrong?” I asked again, not believing for a moment that her tears had anything to do with my absence.
“Talking to Brian, huh? Well that is just swell, Liz!” She sat up and reached for my purse. I watched her take out my pack of cigarettes and light one up. “I got a call from Lonnie’s mother in Berkeley today. I gave her the number, you know, in case anything happened. Lonnie’s dead. She was served the notice yesterday. Some bastards from the army brought it so they could offer their official condolences. Can you fucking imagine? Telling a mother that her son was blown to pieces in some jungle thousands of miles away, all alone in that horrible place, and they assume that it is easier for her to hear because it is coming from an admiral or whatever they were! If that had been my son I would have punched the bastards in the face!”
I was stunned! This was before the nightly news was full of images of five hundred boys in flag draped boxes every night. This was before the years came when it seemed like every family had someone dead or missing in Vietnam. I honestly thought that Lonnie would go and serve a year and he would come back alright. I always pictured him coming home and I knew Julie would forgive him instantly for going and he would talk her into marriage within a month. I imagined myself at their wedding as Julie’s bridesmaid, dutifully feeding her full of enough Jack Daniels to get her down the aisle. She loved him. Of all the boys back in Ohio who had their hearts broken by Julie, he was really the first to take and break hers. In all of my thoughts of her future I never pictured her weeping with her hand clinched in a fist on her leg in a dark room because her love was dead. That was never part of the dream.
Leaning forward I hugged her tightly. For the first time since kindergarten she seemed small and vulnerable. Because she was the person that I had always secretly relied on for strength, I was alarmed at watching her fall apart. “I’m sorry, Jules. I am sorry that he is gone and I am so sorry that I wasn’t here with you when you heard the news. You have to believe that if I had any idea I would have left Brian at U.C.L.A. and I would have come straight home.”
Laughing, she replied in true Julie fashion, “You should have done that any damned way, Elizabeth Louise! Now get the hell off of me. I need a drink!”
I followed her as she switched on the lights in the living room and made her way into the kitchen. Pulling the half empty bottle from the freezer she held it up and gave me a look like ‘What the hell?’ “You still have your old fake I.D., right?”
“Of course I do! I intend to carry that damned thing around until I turn twenty-one.” I replied with a smile.
She laughed, her eyes still red from crying. “We got any money left over?”
“We have about ten dollars. Why?” I asked, although I knew what she wanted. At the right store we could pick up a gallon of whiskey for nine bucks and fifty two cents.
“Why? Because this,” She held the bottle out. “is never going to do!”
“Well, let’s go.” Grabbing my purse and my car keys, I decided to tell her something that I had been stalling on for a while. I figured with everything else going on, this problem would no longer look as large. “Oh, by the way, you know that little allowance of mine that we use to pay the rent and buy groceries?” I asked, jiggling my handle to get in the car.
“Yeah.” She gave me a sideways glance.
“I’m not going to be receiving it anymore. I talked to my mother the day we came home and she told me to come back to Ohio or live here entirely on my own. Apparently she had already sent out this month’s check but next month…”
Julie gave a laugh that was nearly hysterical. I feared for a moment that she had lost it. Perhaps I had picked a bad time to deliver this news, I thought to myself. My eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw that she was climbing out of the passenger side window. I was going to hit the brakes but I realized just in time that the action would do more harm than good. I was about to ask her what she was doing when, sitting on the car door with her hands on the roof and her legs on the seat, she shouted into the early night, “I hate my goddamned life!” She then laughed so hard that I could almost hear it echoing down the street. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. At moments like those you have but two choices. You can laugh or you can cry and tears mess up your makeup.
Morning came much too soon. Have I ever been this hung over, I wondered, trying to put my face on despite my throbbing head and upset stomach. “Do you think we should have saved some of that gallon for this morning?” Julie asked as we walked out the door.
Feeling my mouth water in disgust at the mere mention of that gallon, I threw up my hands against the very idea. “How, Julie? How can you even think about whiskey right now?” I asked. She only laughed at me and lit up another cigarette.
“Good afternoon, Miss Sanders! Rough night last night?” Brian asked as I walked into his class. Why did he have to pick today to be on time? Because I was something like ten minutes early and there were only three other people in the room he apparently felt it would be alright to chat like old pals. “I told you to stay away from the Strip.” He said with a laugh.
“I was nowhere near the Strip, Mr. Professor.” I replied as I dropped my head into my hands. Why did it have to be so bright in the room and so damned sunny outside? I wished I were in San Francisco. I imagined it was raining there or, at the least, overcast. It so often was.
“A seedy little joint, then?” He was grinning from ear to ear. I didn’t even have to look up to know that he was enjoying himself immensely.
“No. If you must know I got wasted last night in the comfort of my own home. Half a gallon for me and half a gallon for Julie. We each had a quarter of a bottle of Jack Daniels as well, in case you are counting. She had a bad night. Because I am her pal that meant I had a bad night. We share everything, you know.” I replied, trying to look at him without pain assaulting my eyes.
Brian only continued to smile, saying softly, “Not everything.” What the hell was that supposed to mean?
By that time more people had come into the room and Brian was preparing for the day’s lesson. After class I did not volunteer to stick around and Brian didn’t ask me to. Apparently he realized I was too miserable to be good company. As soon as Julie and I walked through the door with the intentions of going back to bed the phone began to ring off the hook. Julie, who loved phones as much as possible, rushed to answer it. For about twenty minutes she talked while I tried to find something I thought I could eat without my stomach tossing it back up. Just as I decided on toast Jules came in with eyes that swam with tears. “That was Lon’s mom. I am going to miss classes on Friday. His sister, the one that lives outside of Hollywood, is going to come and get me and we’re staying the weekend with his mom in Berkeley to talk about the funeral and…” She paused to swallow the lump in her throat. “his will. His sister is going to drop me off Sunday night.” I watched her sigh as she sat down on the kitchen counter. “Lonnie’s mom feels that since I was his fiancé I should be involved in everything. It’s the same as being his wife. That’s what she just told me.”
“But you were not his fiancé.” I protested.
Her smile was laced with sorrow when she said with a nod, “Yeah, I was. He proposed to me right after he enlisted. I had a ring and everything but I told him to keep it until he came home. It’s being returned to his mother along with the rest of his personal possessions. All the letters we wrote and he never told me that he took it with him. He never told me that he had talked to his mom about the engagement either.”
“But why didn’t you tell me you two were engaged?” I asked. I was suddenly angry that she had kept something so important from me.
“I didn’t want you to feel like I was going to leave you because I wasn’t. I had already explained that to Lonnie. He was going to move in with us after the wedding but I was afraid that you might still feel abandoned so I was just going to wait until he came home to tell you. It’s not like you have anyone else out here, Lizzy. I was afraid you might go back to Ohio and leave me here I guess. Even if I had married him I wouldn’t have been happy here without you. You’re my best friend…my sister.” She smiled that sad smile again.
“That’s insane! I would never be mad at you or feel abandoned because you married the man you love! I sure as hell wouldn’t go back to Ohio and leave you! I always figured the two of you would end up hitched.”
“Well, none of it really matters now, does it?” She jumped off the counter suddenly and went into her bedroom. I knew she was going in there to cry herself to sleep. Sleep itself did not sound like a terrible idea.
Classes the next day were easier to get through without the burden of a hangover. Professor Blackwell treated me more like his assistant than his student which both annoyed and amused me. Professor Ross was just great and that day I sat watching him talk about writing with such passion that I soon found myself thinking of Brian. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two were friends really. They were both young, brilliant, passionate. I couldn’t help but wonder how many girls sat and thought of him the way I used to think of Brian. Used to… “You look more alive today, Elizabeth!” Brian quipped as I walked through the door.
“Early to class two days in a row? My god, what happened to my professor McVie from Berkeley? I think I liked him better.” I smiled in a sickly-sweet sort of way but the smile became real enough when I saw the look of shock on his face. The giggles from the two girls also in the room only heightened my amusement.
Our relationship in class had changed. I realized that as he hurled little sarcasms at me throughout the hour and I tossed them right back at him. The intimidation I once felt, the awe he once inspired in me especially in the classroom, were gone. He wasn’t the amazing professor anymore. He was just Brian. I wasn’t big on the transformation. Just before the end of class as I finished copying down my notes for the day he came over to me, stooping down so we were eye level. “Are you going to stick around a while after class?” He asked in a whisper. Anyone around us would have thought we were talking about psychology instead of after school meetings.
“I have to take Julie home. She’s going through a hard time right now. In fact, I’m not sure that I should leave her alone.” I answered just as quietly. He mouthed the word ‘why’ with raised eyebrows. “I’ll tell you later.”
On top of my page he wrote, ‘So you’ll stay then? I’ll come with.’
Wanting only to be finished with the discussion I wrote in response, ‘FINE!’ and he smiled broadly.
I would have rather done anything besides meet up with Julie outside of the school with Brian dragging behind. I knew she was going to be pissed. He had broken my heart and even if I forgave him for it Julie would not. However, when I explained everything to her and she acted fine, actually indifferent, it made me worry. Her silence from the passenger seat all the way home was more deafening than a blast. When she got out of the car Brian jumped up front declaring merrily, “Let’s go get tacos!” I wanted to hit him.
“I don’t have any money.” I replied dully as I pulled away.
“It’s ok. I do and I know a great place to go. So now that Julie is out of the car are you going to tell me what’s wrong with her?” Brian switched easily from one subject to the next.
“You remember her old man Lonnie?” He nodded. “He was killed in Vietnam. That’s why we got drunk the other night and that is why she didn’t say one mean thing to you the whole ride home.”
“Wow, that’s horrible.” For some reason I was surprised by how genuine that statement sounded.
“Yeah. She’s meeting his mom this weekend about the funeral.” I replied, changing lanes so I could pull into the only taco place I knew of. I didn’t care if it was the one he had wanted to go.
“This isn’t the place I was thinking of but it’ll do. So you are going up to Frisco alone this weekend?” He asked as we got out of the car. I wanted to giggle when he held the restaurant door open for me.
“It looks that way.” I said, following him to a table. We were the only people in the whole place besides a teenaged couple holding hands a couple of tables over. For some reason I thought suddenly of a boy I dated back in high school…Bobby Green…
“Well, let me come with you.”
“Huh?” I asked, snapping back into reality with a jolt.
“To Frisco. Let me come with you.” Just as he said that a pretty young waitress came over to take our order. Brian looked up at her and smiled. “Hey, Lynette. How’s it going?” He asked her, taking her note pad out of her hand and writing his order down before looking at me. “Get what you want, Liz, but make it quick, will you? Can’t you see how busy our waitress is?” My god, he was insane but I smiled brightly. This was the Brian that I had loved.
“Did our lonely professor bring a date today?” The girl asked as she batted her eyelashes flirtatiously. To say he was a regular at the place seemed like an understatement. And he did like them young…
“Nope, she’s just a hungry friend.” He replied before turning once more to me and demanding impatiently, “Well, Elizabeth?”
“Give me two tacos I guess.”
“Bad choice. You’ll leave as hungry as when you came in.” Then he wrote something down and handed the order back to the waitress. “Thanks so much. You really are the best.” He declared and the girl giggled as she walked away.
“What did you just order me?” I questioned. It had been a long time since I had seen this side of Brian and inside I loved it.
“A Coca-Cola. So do you want me to come with you tomorrow to Frisco?”
“Saturday morning actually and why would you want to make a six hour trip to San Francisco? I have to go otherwise I would spend my day at home listening to records and sitting on my ass.” That was such a great idea that I felt I had my plan for Friday night.
“If you let me drive it will only take four hours. We’ll take my car because I don’t think yours could handle the abuse. I have to go to the shop anyway. There are some records I want to check out and they just got their new shipment of acid in yesterday. The shit only comes in once a month, your friend’s shop is the only place that carries it, and by this time next week it will be sold out.” His words sounded like excuses to me. I was fairly certain that he wanted to meet Jack and see how close the two of us really were. “Besides, you know you’ll be bored as hell if you make the whole trip alone.”
With that he had a point. It did seem like a long way to go alone. Just as the waitress returned with our Cokes and the food I replied with a sigh, “I suppose, McVie.” The cocky smile he flashed at getting his way was hardly welcomed.
“So are you still staying over at that motel?” The girl asked Brian as he tore into his burrito. For me he had ordered a taco salad and a Quesada. I hated to admit it, but he did well.
“Yep, I am.” He got out with a mouth full of food.
Patting him on the back, the girl laughed out, “You are a stubborn man, Brian!” before walking away.
“Why are you staying at a motel?” I asked, assuming he had a place of his own.
“Because I can’t afford to stay anywhere else.” His tone had a hint of bitterness in it.
“Bullshit! If I can afford…”
“Here’s the difference, Liz. I don’t have a rich mommy and daddy sending me cash once a month!” He practically spat out.
His words didn’t get to me nearly as much as the contempt with which he said them. “Fuck you, Brian!” I was about to get up and leave him when he covered my hand with his own sending that familiar shock through me.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just that when I came to U.C.L.A. I had to take a pay cut. I make about half of what I made at Berkeley. It’s sort of a sore subject for me. I really didn’t mean what I said.” He tried to apologize.
“Yes, you did.” I mumbled, followed by, “And for your information, my parents won’t be sending me money anymore. I wouldn’t come home so my mother cut me off.”
“What are you going to do?” Now he was concerned.
Deciding to see what sort of reaction I would get, I said innocently enough, “Talk around town is that there is a place on the Strip called The Whisky A-Go-Go and they are hiring new girls as dancers. I thought maybe I would check it out.” I tried not to laugh as I casually sipped my coke. The look on his face was priceless!
“Like hell!” He replied before thinking. Although the place, from what I heard, was great for music and drinking, the dancers had reputations that were on the same level as strippers. Of course I knew that when I said it. “We’ll think of something way before it comes to that.”
By the time I dropped him off that night at his motel room I had agreed to stay away from the Strip and to not do anything “rash” just yet. He claimed he had the start of a plan in his mind but he refused to share it until it was all worked out. When I went home Julie was stoned, though where or how she scored the weed, I had no clue and my records were strung all over the living room floor. The house smelled like a mixture of dope and incense. But Julie was acting less upset and that made me feel good. “So where did you and Brian go?”
Producing the two burritos I talked Brian into buying her from my bag I handed them over. “A taco place where the waitress knows the professor by name. No surprise in that. He burns toast and looks at anything in a mini-skirt!” Julie laughed, devouring her food as only someone with the munchies can.
That night I woke up out of a dead sleep with the topic for my creative writing assignment. My fears. Fifteen pages I wrote on my three biggest fears: Loneliness, rejection, and change. Yes, even after all of the change I had gone through I still feared the word but only certain changes. I didn’t fear the changes I could make for myself. I only feared the changes I could not control. It was the fear that actions of others might change my life until I didn’t recognize it anymore. I never could have guessed that night as I poured my heart onto the page how many times I would face those fears in one lifetime.
Because Julie wasn’t going to classes the next morning there was nothing but silence through the house as I got ready. I didn’t want to wake her up to tell her goodbye but I didn’t want to send her off with nothing so I wrote her a note telling her that I loved her and I’d see her Sunday. Even though it was a day early I turned my creative writing piece into Professor Ross. He acted thrilled at the length and the fact that it was early but I figured he would change his mind once he read it. Considering the hour and the feeling I put into it, I probably sounded like a lunatic. In my journalism class we were given our first major assignment. “I want a story or an interview on or with someone you know. It can be someone you love, someone you hate, as long as it isn’t someone you are indifferent to. I want you to see how much you can get them to reveal to you. It’s due on Monday.” Everyone in the class looked at him like he had lost it. I was pissed.
When I walked into Brian’s classroom three hours later I was mildly amused to see he wasn’t there yet. One of the two girls that were always there before me moved over so that she sat beside of me. Through her chewing gum, she said, “Hi. My name’s Ginger.”
“Liz.” I said, trying to be nice to her. The truth is there was something about her that I disliked immediately.
“Yeah, I’ve heard your name before.” She replied with a laugh. “So this professor, Brian, you were in his class at Berkeley?” She asked. I didn’t like where this was going. “Why’d you transfer here?”
“I was bored in Berkeley.” I wanted to glare at her but I couldn’t afford to appear defensive.
“Oh. So what’s Brian’s deal? He’s so unconventional and he never teaches by the book. Was he like that last year?”
“Yep.” I had opened my notebook to the next clean page to get ready for class only to see Brian’s untidy script at the top. It was his plea for me to stay. I knew Ginger saw it as well and I tried to cover it casually with my hand hoping she wouldn’t put it together. She didn’t seem incredibly intelligent.
“I think it’s funny.” She commented, blowing a bubble with her damned gum.
“What’s that?” I asked dryly.
“Yesterday you mentioned him being on time like you didn’t like it.”
“Yeah?” I wasn’t getting her point. Or, rather, I thought I was and it was pissing me off.
Standing up to walk away, she gestured toward his empty desk and chair. “Today he’s late.”