John P. Plummer II received his M.A. from The Hartke Theatre at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC. He spent a career in business and raised three fantastic daughters. For the past 20 years he has been writing screenplays, short stories, essays and film reviews and taking creative writing courses. He is currently at work on a collection of linked stories: Charlottesville, VA 22094.
THE NEXT MORNING JOHN-PAUL WOKE UP
The next morning John-Paul woke up in his dorm room and found it spinning. Planting one foot on the floor he stabilized the room. Twenty minutes later he took two Excedrin, went next door to the posh student athletic center for a shower, a sauna, a mini-workout, and a swim. Passing a mirror he saw the head of his penis sticking though the hole of a broken condom. That put a hitch in his giddy-up. He stopped and stared for a long time trying to remember last night. What the fuck happened? Rubbing and scrubbing himself in the shower he replayed last night over and over. It was still a tequila haze. But he knew something had happened. The tooth fairy hadn’t planted that rubber. He had to figure things out.
At first John-Paul started walking moderately on the treadmill machine. Inside his head a thunderstorm was brewing. My God, had he gotten her pregnant? How did this thing happen? Why no memory about anything? This is the biggest fuck-up of his life. How could he have done this to himself?
Now his stomach was beginning to churn in a hostile and rebellious fashion. He started to slow the machine down to a leisurely stroll. But what about Beth? What was he going to do about Beth? He couldn’t tell her about this. But then again, she might find out? Or she could never find out. But then what kind of a person would he be in her eyes if she turned up pregnant in two weeks? But hell she might have fucked a couple other dudes between now and then. Jesus, what a thing to think? He felt like a stupid bastard. He knew Beth wasn’t a slut. But there he was trying to take a fraud's way out. He liked Beth. Even if he couldn’t recall what it was like having sex with her. After spending the evening with her he had gotten to know her pretty well. In fact at one point he did remember thinking that her easy conversation style felt more like he was spending time with a dude rather than a chick.
He was getting sicker and got off the treadmill and went to the restroom to throw up. But as soon as he threw up he had to turn around because his bowels were demanding their turn. The problem with feeling this revolting was that he couldn’t tell how much of it was the tequila and how much was panic. He felt he didn’t deserve to be at UVA, the school Thomas Jefferson founded. Instead he should be working for the mob, back in Jersey, driving a garbage truck. Trying to build a life with Kimmy.
KIMMY? Oh God. He had broken his promise. He didn’t last a month. He couldn’t even give her 30 days of faithfulness, let alone the fall semester. It was the one thing she had asked for. He told himself it would be a piece of cake. He could do this. Yeah, right.
He cleaned himself up, cleaned the stall up, and stripped for a shower. He put the same sweaty gym clothes back on and headed toward the Nautilus machines. He paused at the clock and tried to time his heartbeats via the carotid artery and couldn’t it was pounding like a freight train. He climbed on the first machine after lowering it to forty pounds and thought about what he was going to tell Kim. Right then he got his first chest pang.
He sprang off the machine and started pinching his left nipple urgently to make it stop. He was getting scared and started to just walk around the exercise room trying to calm down. He realized he needed to compartmentalize all this shit.
He was almost thinking out loud now. Okay, three major problems, require three separate solutions. He needed to categorize, prioritize, and then act. He’ll do that, now. Kimmy? Definitely put her in pile number three, no action needed at this time. What if Beth’s pregnant? pile number two. No action needed today, cross that bridge if and when. Should I tell Beth about the broken condom? Man-up, grow a pair of balls. This is a super cool girl who deserves to be treated with respect. If he were the one who could get pregnant he’d sure as hell want to know.
That’s it. Thinking clearly now. Clicking on all cylinders. He’ll stick to this plan. Take action now. Text Beth, tell her we need to talk, now. Then take another shower.
One of the advantages of living in Charlottesville is the plethora of coffee shops and breakfast joints. Beth suggested The Muffin Hut and he got there first. She entered wearing a pea coat, red-rimmed glasses and a bedhead (she must have been wearing contacts before). She sat across from him, took off her mittens and blew on the mug of coffee he pre-ordered for her.
“Promise me one thing JP, we’ll never match shots of tequila again,” she said.
“Oh that’s easy, agreed,” he said.
“I was still asleep when your text message came. The last thing I remember was my roommate asking you to leave last night,” she said.
“I’m drawing a blank on that.”
“So how are you doing this morning?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Having the worse morning of my life?”
Beth almost laughed with a mouthful of coffee until her eyes met his and she knew that this was a crucial conversation.
“Tell me what’s happened?” she said.
“I looked in the mirror this morning and saw my dick sticking out through a broken condom,” he said.
She dropped her teaspoon. She added some milk to her coffee and stirred it very slowly, watching everything she did. Then she reached across the table and they held hands in silence for a minute.
“What a fucking stand-up guy you are. You could have kept this under your hat and not said a word. God, I just want to fucking hug you. Girls dream of finding a stand-up man but this is a shitty way of discovering the true quality of a dude.”
“So we’re here to discuss what to do?”
“And neither one of us has ever experienced something like this, right?” she asked.
“Right again,” he said.
“Well I suppose the logical thing to do is for me to drive over to Planned Parenthood tomorrow as soon as they open and get the Morning After pill or shot or what ever it is.”
“We,” he said.
“Who are you?” she said. She cocked her head stared at him and considered this alien being as if he just parked his flying saucer at the curb.
After more talking and sharing they each started feeling a little better. They separated their hands in order to eat the muffins with one hand and have more coffee.
“I’m impressed with you,” she said. “I’ve had sex with two guys before you. One junior year, one senior year both relationships were okay, but still high school level maturity.” Outside on the sidewalk it had warmed up and she didn’t need her coat. Beth gave him a tight meaningful hug there in the sunlight.
He held her by the elbows and spoke into her eyes, “I’m sorry about this, I really am.”
“Oh please don’t say that. It takes two to tango. I’m the one who gave you the shitty condom. It was probably a hundred years old. And I’m not some kind of slut with a dozen Trojans in her nightstand either. I wouldn’t worry too much, I’m probably not pregnant.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” he said and kissed her lightly on the forehead. I’ll pick you up at 8:45 tomorrow.”
He turned and walked north back to his dorm and she stood there watching, wondering, and hopeful.
TEXT MESSAGE: “Let’s Skype tonight, 7-ish? SENT from Kim’s iPhone.
Not a lot of studying was done in those next seven hours. It seemed that he was playing whack-a-mole with his piles of problems. No sooner did he brush the muffin crumbs off his sweatshirt than ‘Pile 3’ raised its ugly head.
He didn’t want to talk to Kim tonight. He didn’t want to talk to Kim for a month of Sundays. He considered not replying, or claiming not to have gotten the text but both ideas were lame. Worse was to be a ‘no show.’ He had to Skype with her tonight or else red flags would fly in her face. He was worried about how his nervousness would affect his voice. Would it crack, would she know? He thought of just doing a phone call but concluded that without a visual everything would focus on the voice. No, he had to face the loveliest girl in America, the girl he said he loved, the girl who had told him that she loved him. And then lie his skinny white ass off. OH! He had another chest pang — two in one day — lucky guy.
How does this sound as an opening salutation he thought? ‘Hello Love-of-My-Life, I’ve been faithful this week; have you been faithful too?’ Shoot me now, Lord, just shoot me now. He was agonizing over what to say, what to talk about? But wait, that’s not his job. This is Kim’s call, she wants to talk, let her carry the conversation.
He decided to just put some bullet points down on paper to answer those ‘how-are-things-going-in-Charlottesville’ questions.
Ready or not it was seven o’clock and Kim’s lovely face appeared on the screen. She sat on her bed with a towel wrapped around her freshly shampooed hair. Thank God she put a t-shirt on.
“Hey Baby. How’re you doing?” he spoke first.
“Well I got called to my guidance counselor’s office this week because they had me down as flunking band and that put me in panic mode until I could find my copy of the official ‘withdraw’ notice I turned in weeks ago. Don’t ever get on me about saving shit. I may save stuff but I also purge when it’s not needed. It saved my ass this week.”
“So how’s your week in UVA gone?” she asked. And that gave John-Paul the green light to just start running down the bullet points: winning shot in intramural basketball game (a lie), learned how to film with a 16 mm camera, (partially true — saw a film on it), got an “A” on his Non-Fiction story (true), found out everyone in class must be available as cast and crew for each other’s film projects, (true). They signed off thirty minutes later. Smooth and uneventful; but a word to the wise, start, now, making bullet point lists for next Sunday. A reprieve.
Monday at 9:05 a.m. they showed up at the Planned Parenthood Center. Walking from the car they didn’t hold hands but rather walked side by side like old friends comfortable in their silence, their minds focused on the mission at hand. The offices were located in a one-story long red brick building full of professional medical offices about a block from the University Medical Center. Inside it looked like a regular doctor’s office. After the filling out of forms and waiting 15 minutes they went to an interview room. It was too early to do a pregnancy test so the nurse / counselor, Ronda, explained everything about the so-called ‘morning after pill’ which in this case was a specific product from Teva called Plan B One Step which was just that, one pill. They were counseled that it was not an abortion pill and that it was effective in seven out of eight pregnancies. The sooner the pill is taken the better the odds. He didn’t like those odds.
So Beth took the pill then and there, but wanted to explore birth control pills with the counselor. After more Q&A’s it was decided that Beth needed to come back on the exact first day of her next menstrual cycle that they assumed would be in two weeks.
On the drive back she touched his hand gently and asked: “So are you going to share our little misadventure with you sweetheart back home?”
“I don’t know, I’m wrestling with that, I figure I’ve got a 50% shot at forgiveness.”
“Let me know if you want to talk,” she said.
Over the next two weeks they saw each other infrequently. Once by accident on Friday at the Student Union where she whispered in his ear: ‘still not pregnant’ and they secretly smiled at each other as if they were ships in the night passing each other. Then next week they bumped into each other at The Revival Art House going to vintage films. Beth was there with two African-American girls to see Spike Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever and he was there stag for 1953’s Wages of Fear. He was glad she wasn’t on a date. Beth seemed to pop into his thoughts more often than Kim did these days.
Yesterday he was so sick with worry that he threw-up. He went to the student health center and asked for a prescription. He was sorry and regretful at what had happened. He had let Kim and himself down. In his struggling with the facts he often was searching for an escape hatch of some kind from this box of sorrows he had jailed himself in. How could he be held accountable for something that he didn’t remember? There was no act of free will on his part. He had never chosen to betray her.
There were over 22,000 registered students on campus. What are the odds that she’d ever meet Beth when she moved down here in January? Almost zero. And what if they did meet some day? It was not something that Beth wanted to share with the world; he knew that from talking with her. That did it, he would lie to Kim. He would never tell her about Beth. It was logical, it was safe, and it would calm him down. Maybe even relieve his anxiety attacks somewhat.
Later Kim Skyped him with good news; she had earned an ‘A’ on her last trig exam. The tutor was helping. She was so excited. She told him she could actually visualize them living together in Charlottesville. They planned on Kim coming down Thanksgiving weekend so they could look for housing together.
By the second week marker of Plan B One Step Beth performed a home pregnancy test on a Sunday morning. She called and left John-Paul a voice mail with those two words that strike dread, fear, and nausea into any 18-year-old man’s psyche.
At two o’clock that afternoon they met at The Alpine Outpost. The bar was crowded with Redskins’ fans and Panther fans watching games. It was warm so they sat on a couch with a view of the valley through half open windows. He was drinking Zinfandel and she Pinot Grigio.
“Well it seems fate keeps bringing us together,” Beth said as she put her feet up on the rustic railing.
“I’m like a bad penny that keeps turning up at your door,” he said.
“Oh give me a break, knock off the ‘woe is me’. Remember this is a joint venture. That’s why I called you.”
“You’re right, you’re right, I know,” he said.
“So have you given any thought to our little zygote?” she asked gazing out at the turning leaves of the valley and further mountains.
“All I’ve done for the past two hours is worry and obsess about this and what you’re going to do?”
“Oh, so it’s my baby?” she asked.
“Thank God, I know you well enough to know when you’re kidding. It’s our baby, always has been, always will be no matter what we decide. I was just trying to present my sensitive, modern male side to you. I’m a liberal, or progressive as we’ve now been force to label ourselves. I’m not some redneck legislator trying to police what you do with your body,” he said.
“Alright, Hillary, you passed the test, good job. Now look me in the eyes and tell me what YOU feel, what YOU want,” she said.
He stared back at her without blinking. “You are so easy to talk to. Even discussing such a monumental decision as this is like talking to my close friend with whom I can share anything.”
“Share away, JP, share away.” She said.
“Okay so I’ve got two major — competing — avenues of thought. First I’m a Catholic. I did eight years of elementary school at St. Francis. The nuns beat into us that once the sperm entered the egg human then human life had been created; period end of story. And to terminate that life at any time was murder. They even showed us color photos. I’d never given it much thought, till now. I just swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. It was just part of me, part of my upbringing, part of who I am and until now, I’ve never dwelled on it.”
“Don’t,” she said, pulling his hand away from the couch button he was nervously trying to free.
“But a baby, in my life, now? I’m a fucking freshman in college. I’m so wet behind the ears I don’t know what I’m doing.” A huge cheer went up as someone’s team scored. “I’m so out of touch with reality that at 18, I promised my girlfriend I’d be faithful to her. And now, I hate to say this, but in some way she’s less my true love and more like a landmine I need to be cautious around. I hate myself for thinking that, or saying that, hell I don’t know what’s going inside my head. I’m just sure that I’m in no condition to accept the role of fatherhood,” he said and blinked for the first time.
He looked down and saw that they were holding hands. He didn’t know how that happened or who initiated it. He looked back at her and saw two small tears standing in her eyes, but not falling. She leaned across and kissed him on the lips so gently and non-romantically that her kiss felt to him like a falling leaf brushing by his lips.
A waitress, who had been eyeing them, stooped and placed a handful of napkins in Beth’s lap from the tray of drinks she was carrying.
“I look that bad, huh?” Beth said to her.
“No, you look that happy,” she said and disappeared.
That opened the floodgates for her. John-Paul was aware that he was in a moment the like of which he had never experienced with Kim or anyone. It was something huge and almost sacred. Something only the closest of couples could share. He wasn’t sure what was going on inside Beth, but he could feel it and wanted to be part of it, in the moment with her.
They sat side by side, watching the gold, red, and maroon leaves sway back and forth in some unheard rhapsody.
After a minute, fully composed, she spoke: “You need to tell me how you really feel.” And with that they both cracked up with laughter that lasted a few seconds.
John-Paul uncoupled their hands and put his right arm around her shoulders while she held his thigh up around the knee. They relaxed into each other.
“Well I think every girl or woman my age has thought about what we’d do if we got pregnant. I guess we have that little monthly reminder that does that to us,” she wadded up a used napkin and swished it into the trashcan.
“I’m different from you on the culture of belief. I’ve always had the opinion that the life of a baby doesn’t begin until the mother feels that first kick or stretch. There’s just too much that can go wrong in those first months. Also I’ve always believed that I would know when I was ready, not just to have a baby, but be a good mother. Now, is not the time for me,” she said.
“But I can’t do this without hearing those words from your lips. I don’t want to go through life remembering your baby, my abortion. I need you John-Paul, I really need your commitment,” she said.
“Beth, I don’t want us to have our baby now,” he placed his left hand over her womb, “not at this time, but if I was ready, there is no one on God’s green earth with whom I’d rather build a family than you.” He meant it from his heart even though he was a bit taken aback by the words full impact. JP knew from experience that some times he don’t know how he really felt about some one or some thing until he wrote the words down or said them out loud.
So the next day, Monday, again found them in Ronda’s office at Planned Parenthood who confirmed the pregnancy with their own lab equipment. Next began the long line of hoops that far right legislators put in front of women seeking an abortion in Virginia. Mandatory counseling, all options explained, 24 hour waiting period, and an ultrasound 24 hours in advance at which time the provider must offer the woman the option of seeing the ultrasound image.
His phone buzzed and he glanced down. It was Kim, perfect timing. Oh hi honey. Oh nothing much, Beth and I are just sitting here at Planned Parenthood scheduling our abortion for, what is it again, Wednesday? Yes, it’s Wednesday. Oh, and you know that promise about abstinence and celibacy? Well you can file that promise in the same file folder as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
Wednesday he drove Beth to the facility. They were both sky-high on adrenaline and apprehension. He made two wrong turns. Nothing was supposed to go wrong in this straightforward early term abortion. But that didn’t keep him from praying for her. He stroked her hair, held her hands and looked deep into her eyes as he kissed her on the lips and said “I love you, everything’s going to be fine. I’ll be right here,” just as they started to wheel her back. A nurse saw this and winked him approval.
He need not have worried. An hour later he was sitting beside her bed in the recovery area holding her hand. He thought she looked wasted, as if she had just run a marathon. Neither said much. He hoped that she wouldn’t be too depressed. He felt relieved, terrible, thankful, and guilty. Karma had now linked them together forever in the cosmos. He just wanted to take good care of her and see to her every need.
He brought her to her dorm room, tucked her in bed with a hot water bottle and went out to get her prescription filled. Upon his return he napped beside her bed most of the afternoon on the floor. Upon waking and feeling 50% better she was hungry for some egg drop soup from her favorite Charlottesville restaurant, The Great Wall. He was almost out the door when she called him back for the coupon on her desk. That’s when his life changed forever. On her desk was the happy family photo. Left to right: Beth, her mother and step-father and then Kim. His Kim.
Heart palpitations are sometimes depicted comically; as something Margaret Dumont would suffer after a remark by Groucho Marx. What John-Paul was experiencing was a major angst attack. But he had to speak. He had to verify.
“Who’s this?” he asked holding up the framed glossy photo.
“That’s our family Christmas photo from last year: me, my mom, my stepdad, and my stepsister, Kim. We love to confuse people and sign them ‘Merry Christmas from the Mancinis and the DeCarlos’ because we all kept our names from before.”
“Kim,” he repeated.
“We became a blended family second grade or so. Kim and I are only a month apart by age but she was held back in second grade. It was my mother, a Special Ed teacher, who diagnosed her Dyslexia and got her on track. Changed her life.”
“Changed her life,” he repeated.
Walking home that night he was so lost in thought that he walked right past his dorm, then off campus and kept going. He knew he wasn’t a kid any more. He was a man with man-sized problems and man-sized responsibilities. He was involved with two women, sisters. He had strong feelings for both of them. He had placed himself in a situation where he knew he was going to devastate one or maybe both. And he hated himself for that. He wanted this tragedy of errors to end with one of the sisters willing to forgive him, preserve their friendship, and continue seeing each other.
All his life he had been an honest, straight arrow Boy Scout. But now he realized that he was going to have to actively manipulate this process to his favor. Kind of like the bumpers rails for kids at bowling allies. For that to happen he needed to grab one sister by the hand and let the other walk away.
He was going to have to choose between Kim and Beth. When did God die and leave in him charge? He felt so empty and alone. He had made love to both of these girls and had spent a lot of time with them. He knew them intimately. Kim was so free with her body and so willing that he smiled with the memories. Although he remembered little of the actual sex with Beth on the night in question, he had gotten to know her better because of their baptism of fire together. She gave of herself; her heart, her mind, and her soul; especially when the chips were down. He could talk to her like no one ever before. She was wise, levelheaded, and forgiving. He wished he could share this dilemma with her now. But he couldn’t. She had a heart as big as Alaska and she would want to fix this. He could not allow that to happen.
As he returned and passed through the university’s main gate, he thought about how lively and cute Kim was, and how she had tons of friends. But Kim was also volatile and impulsive and in her own words: “I have a problem forgiving people.” That made it an open and shut case — she was lost to him forever. Trying to apologize, explain or make amends with her was tantamount to pouring gasoline on her anger. He knew she could not and would not forgive him. There was no future for them. He feared telling her the truth. It was going to be best to have that conversation in a public space. He knew it was impossible for her to forgive infidelity. She had made that very clear.
And as for Beth he realized he was taking the biggest gamble of his life. He was choosing to forego short-term confidentiality for long–term intimacy and honesty. He hoped. He prayed. It would pain him (and her) not to talk with her about this but he had to do whatever was necessary to safeguard and preserve his relationship with her. He just had to make sure these two sisters didn’t run into each other when Kim was down here next week.
By the time he had concluded the round trip he wanted nothing more than to lie down beside her and tell Beth everything. He thought back to the afternoon at The Alpine Outpost. It felt so good talking to Beth about significant things and not have to worry about anything — from his heart to her heart and back again. — It was a cycle he could blissfully spend in eternity.
The regularly scheduled Sunday evening SKYPE with Kimmy started off like this.
“What’s the matter, you don’t look well,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m feeling wiped out. I can’t wait for this semester to be over,” he said.
“Are you sick?” she asked.
“More like stressed out. I never realized how difficult college was going to be.”
“But you’re passing all your courses aren’t you?” she asked.
He managed to sit up straight and smile. “Right.”
“Did you get a chance to look at any of those apartments on Craig’s List I emailed you?”
“Sorry, Babe, I’ve really been swamped,” he said.
“Well don’t worry, I’ll be there soon for the Thanksgiving break and the big Virginia—Virginia Tech game. I’m so happy your roommate is going back to Richmond. I can’t wait to hold you in my arms again,” she said. The closer the time got to her visit the more excited she became and the more fearful he became.
Every afternoon for the first week after the abortion he found himself in her dorm room checking on her recovery. He learned that it wasn’t all flowers and sunshine. He had picked-up some Ibuprofen for her for pain and they were both pleased there was no post surgical bleeding to speak of. But then, slowly, so slowly and naturally that it was almost imperceptible to either of them he ended up using her room every afternoon as study hall. Each anticipated it; Beth always had the most beautiful smile to great him. She gave him his space to read his screenplays and work on papers on his laptop. Then they would walk together down to the Graham Building’s dinning hall for supper.
Then he’d walk her back, give her a good-bye hug and return to his dorm. But one night, right before Thanksgiving, on the way back up the hill she spoke about the unspoken.
“Are you going to tell her? No. I’m sorry. I’m prying, you don’t have to answer that.”
“Well she’s practically my fiancée, I think I have to,” he said.
“Interesting. That’s going to be tricky. How do you think it will go?”
“I rate my chances for forgiveness at less than 4%,” he said.
“4%? What happened to 50%?” Beth’s face had a look on it he could not interpret.
He just looked away and shrugged his shoulders.
“What? What are you keeping from me?” Beth looked at him hard; she peered deep into his brown eyes and was not able to read him. She thumped him hard on his chest, twice. “God damn it, let me in. What’s going on? You were there for me? Why won’t you confide in me now? Look, I know you are struggling with this and you’ve always been so open and honest with me. I don’t like that you are hurting and turning into this silent Ryan Gosling-type. It’s wrong.”
“She had a horrible experience with her mother’s infidelity when she was very young and that’s what this is all tied into. She has zero tolerance for infidelity.”
“But she may never find out. You know I’d never say anything,” she said.
“Thanks, but for reasons I don’t want to go to I’m pretty sure she’ll find out,” he said.
“What the fuck does that mean? Damn you John-Paul. What the fuck does that mean?”
“Once this is over I will spill my guts, totally open up,” he said.
“I hope it’s not too late by then. Remember Henry the IV Part I ‘The better part of valor is discretion.’ Be careful and make sure damn sure you tell her we were both fucking drunk and none of it was planned.” They stood there in dark November evening just holding hands. “Give me a hug. If you weren’t betrothed, believe me we’d be doing more than texting and studying. You don’t know how hard it’s been to keep my hands off you these past couple of weeks.”
With that complication he kept his suddenly filled eyes from her.
They hugged very hard and then she kissed him on the lips. “I hope everything works out for you and this girl. You’re a keeper.”
Sometimes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, when the leaves are at their colorful peak, a nighttime thunder storm will ferociously blow through and knock down every single remaining leaf, and leave behind a carpet of yellow, orange, red and naked black trees. It was that kind of night on Thanksgiving Eve. Kim called from her car in the parking lot outside Hamilton Hall.
“I’m here! Bring down your letterman’s jacket I’m freezing. I told you I wanted you to give it to me,” she said.
“It’s too big,” he said.
“It’s toasty and cozy,” she said.
“I’m on my way down.”
“And then I need dinner. After 4 ½ hours on the road in that holiday traffic I’m starving.”
She didn’t want to come up right away! Thank God. Another bullet dodged. He had had two dreams the past few nights about performance issues with Kim. He kept seeing Beth’s smile.
More students were staying over for the game the next day evidenced by the crowd at The Great Wall. They took a booth against the wall at the far end. They ordered their respective favorites. Kim pulled her iPhone out to share pictures of some apartments she found on Craig’s List, but she also pulled out some business cards from his jacket pocket that she was wearing. “What do we have here?” she asked.
He took the cards and started laying them out in front of her like he was an Atlantic City blackjack dealer.
“Dr. Jackson, he’s a Internist who wrote the Xanax script. Dr. Patel, she gave me Librax for the I.B.S.”
“There’s a story there,” she said with a dead voice.
“And you are going to hear it now,” he said.
“Did you bring our ring?” he asked.
She fished the small diamond ring from under her shirt on the delicate gold necklace and fingered it. The room got a tad bit quieter when Mr. Lu, the owner, turned off his small television in his booth up front. The waitress arrived with their food.
“I could have passed a lie detector test to prove my faithfulness to you but that wouldn’t be true.”
“It wouldn’t be true?” she asked in a worried tone.
“I had opportunities. Believe me this is not high school down here. I walked away and removed myself from temptation, for you, for me, for us. But one time, and honest to God I don’t remember much about that night, but I met this girl from one of my classes at a bar and we got smashed on tequila shots. We were both hammered but I was able to walk her back to her dorm room.”
“You were in her dorm room?”
“And that’s all I remember until I woke up the next morning in my own bed, with a broken condom on. I don’t remember having sex with her, I don’t remember how I got home; I don’t even have any rubbers. There was no decision made on my part to cheat on you.”
“But you did.”
“Until I saw that rubber the next morning, I thought I was still faithful.”
At that moment, Beth walked into The Great Wall with two girl friends.
He saw Beth in the distance.
“Well this explains the Xanax and Librax,” Kim said.
Beth made eye contact with John-Paul. She separated herself from her friends because she recognized the troubled look on his face. She walked toward his booth.
Finally she said: “Is that it?”
“It gets worse,” he said.
“How did it get worse? You kept seeing her? You fell in love with her? What?”
Kim, irritated and impatient now, struck the table with her small fist: “How does it get worse?”
Now Beth is at the booth and finally able to see Kim. “Kim!” she said startled.
“It was your sister. The girl was Beth. I had no idea until weeks later that you two were stepsisters.”
Beth and Kim both grasped what’s going down.
“Kim is the girlfriend?” Beth asked.
Kim stood, grabbed the jacket, ripped the ring and chain from her neck and threw it into his Egg Foo Young. In a sneering hard whisper Kim spluttered out: “I loved you, I trusted you, I was going to marry you. Maybe in time I could have forgiven you. But you did it with her? Her? You fucked my stepsister? The last person in the world I’d — this is truly unforgivable.”
Then she turned to Beth: “You are and always have been the wicked stepsister. I hope you burn in hell,” and ran out the door sobbing.
“Kim, wait,” Beth called out running after her sister. She stopped and turned and with eyebrows and arms raised high and gave John-Paul a look that said, “Aren’t you coming?”
He shook his head no then dropped his head and looked straight down at the engagement ring and chain half submerged in brown gravy. He was drained dry of all emotions except for relief. All the secrets and lies were out now. He had never felt this wiped out. He had been so lonely with all this held inside him the past few weeks. How he had ached to share this with Beth.
After a few minutes Beth walked back in and sat down in Kim’s spot. “Let’s just hope for both of our sakes she cannot lay her hands on a gun tonight. She’s off the charts crazy.”
Nothing was said for a couple minutes.
“Well here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” she said. She picked up a dried noodle and threw it at him. “You should have told me as soon as you saw that family Christmas photo that Kim was your girlfriend.”
He knew he must let her vent.
“Don’t be angry.”
“I’m angry because all of this could have been avoided, a different ending crafted if you would have just been the same man I know you are, and trusted me. You came to me and confided in me and treated me as a partner when you found the broken condom. You were so supportive, honorable, and yes, even magnificent during the entire abortion experience and aftermath,” she said.
“But for three weeks you could study in my room, have supper with me, and every day say nothing. Jesus, John-Paul I thought we were more than that,” she said.
“Did you really think that I’d ring her up and say ‘hi Kim, guess what, I fucked your boyfriend’?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. I was scared. I was lying to the two women who meant the most to me. I was trying to contain everything and manage it so no one got hurt,” he said.
You don’t manage life, JP, you gird yourself with a belief system and then live your life accordingly.”
“It wasn’t valorous of you to come clean with Kim about everything, although I’m sure that’s what you were thinking. Remember when we talked about this and I said ‘The better part of valor is discretion’? — This is what I was talking about.”
“You know damn well I would never tell her about us. Even if you two ended up getting married and having fifteen kids, it would have been our life-long secret. And do you know why? Because it was a freaking accident and I care so much for you. No one planned anything. It just happened. It was between us,” she said. “I would have convinced you not to confess.” She concluded.
She took Kim’s fork and fished the necklace and ring from his dinner plate and dropped it into a glass of ice water.
“Is something else going on here?” she asked him cocking her head.
She stirred the necklace vigorously and when she was satisfied she laid them on the cloth napkin and started to blot them dry. “A 4% chance at forgiveness,” she said.
Beth removed the ring and placed it beside his plate. Then she put the broken chain in her pocket. “She steals all my jewelry.”
He covered his mouth with his hand and tried not to smile.
She stood to go. “You’re not mortally wounded. You can learn from this. You can pick up the pieces and try not to make the same mistake.
“And you, Beth, what about you?”
“I’ll get over this. I tend to move on pretty quickly. Holding a grudge is so unhealthy,” she said. “And as for you, there is something else going on here. We’re not finished. I need to keep an eye on you, make sure you get back on the straight and narrow. Next semester, after the holiday break, I expect you back in my dorm room each afternoon for study hall.”