Note: This is the full version of Aftertaste, located in the Flash menu
Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mid-May, 1977
Harper woke up like he had almost every morning for the last two weeks. In his underwear, under a plain white hospital sheet on top of the bumpy fabric of a twenty-year-old rectangular couch that was just short enough to make him bend his knees. After he’d made a cup of instant coffee, dealt with all the morning issues, brushed his teeth, pulled on his jeans and stuck his feet in some old canvas deck shoes, he sorted through the nasty gold-tone aluminum ashtray on the coffee table searching for a roach from the previous night.
Late every evening on the mostly perfect spring nights the small house hidden across the creek and behind the hedges was filled with people. Musicians, artists, writers. UFO chasers, incense burners and crystal gazers. A doctor, a lawyer or two, a promoter, small business owners, men and women who worked with them, knew them all or wanted to know them all.
He found what he was looking for in the ashtray and took the short walk to the gazebo at the back of the art museum grounds, said “good morning” to the goldfish as he passed. They followed him down the side of their terraced ponds as always like he might have, or be, food.
He’d gotten the divorce that he’d blown off for two and a half years, finally. Hadn’t seen her for months except when he’d asked her if she wanted her maiden name back. Every morning for the last week, since he’d found out it was final, he’d sat in the copy of Marie Antoinette’s gazebo, hit the roach, sipped his instant coffee and thought about how now that anything that had anchored him to anything else was gone and he should be getting gone himself. Today was getting gone day. One of those women from the late night Bohemian rhapsodies was coming to pick him up later this morning to get them both gone.
This morning was different in another way. Aside from being his last in Marie’s gazebo, he had a letter in his hand from someone else he hadn’t seen for a while. In years, not months, except when he’d tripped over her in a store a week ago. After checking her watch she’d said, “You can come over, but you can’t stay very long.” He stopped by that afternoon, coincidental to the day he’d found out the divorce was final. She’d had on a plain, gray suit, an apprehensive girl cloaked in a woman’s demeanor. She told him that she’d graduated, was maybe headed for a master’s, was getting married whenever whoever he was graduated doing whatever he was going to do. And intimated, by way of half-asked questions, that whoever he was might be a couple of light shades of jerk. But the man had a plan, got things done and she was on board.
They talked about very little of substance, forced a laugh about the divorce he’d drug his feet on. She didn’t care. Neither did he, really. Telling her was a simple touchstone to a kind of life he’d turned his back on, just as she’d turned hers on him. Before he left he’d looked her in the eyes, told her how special she was, in so many words, and not to worry. She could handle the demands of a possibly lightweight jerk and run his plan like she was born for it.
He hoped the letter he was holding contained what he’d always wished had just been a short conversation between them, years ago when it needed to happen. Two kids standing under a tree in a park somewhere, hands in their pockets. They’d say words that would hit the ground between them and wobble off like a drunken Frisbee and they’d walk away. For some reason, she wouldn’t give him that one, not even now. Put the stray dog back on the porch, “See ya around, dog,” don’t leave food out, hope it gets the message. Sad.
The letter was handwritten on light blue notepaper. Two pages, but they were small and she wrote like a Seventies girl, large and loopy. He read it twice before he tore it into small pieces. Not methodically, or geometrically, just into pieces that came off between his finger and thumb when he pulled.
She rolled to a stop on the grass and gravel next to the greenhouse at the end of the service lot, saw him standing on the bridge between the public grounds and the groundskeeper’s house hidden behind the shrub wall to his left. The house where they’d met and laughed and eaten and partied like a wayward Methodist potluck supper among loosely knit friends with casseroles, leftovers, bags of deli sandwiches, and burnt, grilled whatever that got thrown on the rusty grate over the brick fire pit. They’d stand around, talk until midnight or after then go out on the grounds somewhere and make gentle or crazy or wild love. Grass stains, mosquitos, and all.
She’d been collecting men for a while, in short spurts one after another, looking for someone “worth it.” She knew worth, the way she measured it, and after a week-and-a-half she knew it was worth splitting a U-Haul trailer with him, loading what was left of her life after selling her antiques and going wherever they ended up. She walked the thirty feet to the bridge and continued to watch as he dropped bits of paper the size of dimes that fluttered out of sight. She knew they would find the creek at the end of their flight and continue to float and flutter on the water until they disappeared, which looked to her like what he was after.
When he squinted, the morning sun that forced its way through the oak tree canopy wove a blanket of diamonds on the ripples of the creek. He thought of the refracting sunglasses someone had given him as a gift, and how they would have made the creek diamonds explode into color, then made him lose his balance and fall off the bridge like he’d fallen off a median and into traffic the first time he wore them. There was some irony in almost being wannabe-hippie roadkill in “rush” hour traffic.
He rolled the dead roach between his thumb and forefinger and she saw that drop away with the other bits of paper. He’d waited long after it was useful before he walked down to the bridge and gave it to the creek every morning. He thought it unfair to drop it on the unsuspecting fish. At least any fish he considered neighbors.
He turned to greet her when she arrived at his point of reverie in the center of the bridge and received a big, warm, cheerful kiss for his effort. She was still wearing her sunglasses, squeezed his butt with both hands, pulled him to her, kissed him again before she let him go.
“Hey babe. What was that?”
“Arrogance.” He gazed at the creek where the paper bits had landed, floated away.
She raised the sunglasses, let her eyes ask the next question.
“Nice to see you but not really, beat it, don’t ever call, come by or anything ever again. Forget you know me, get lost, stay that way.”
“Yeah?” She stood beside him now, put her hand in his back pocket, grabbed his butt again one-handed. “Anyone I know?”
“No, you wouldn’t. Grown up sorority girl from the City I knew a long time gone. Getting married sometime. It’s cool. I should have expected it.” He sent the butt of a Marlboro menthol spinning toward the creek in pursuit of the pieces of arrogance.
“You’re nothing but a long, hard weekend a sorority girl couldn’t talk about, buddy. You should know that by now.” She turned him, draped her arms on top of his shoulders, kissed him again. She’d been to the lake already this spring, had the dusting of freckles to prove it. “You know the lady could just be protecting herself.” She grinned with a hint of girlish blush behind the freckle dust. “You look a lot like a serial fornicator I know.”
He grinned back. She was a take-charge girl who left the feeling of a thrown party in her wake, would initiate sex often and enthusiastically, anything deeper than the surface was too deep. She asked for little emotional investment, only mutual gratification, and someone willing to split the check and live in right now. It was nowhere near a forever deal, but it was going to get them both out from under some recent, claustrophobic anchored-to-a-futureless-past baggage.
She smiled, kept her eyes on his face. “Just like that, beat it?”
“She dressed it up. Wrote it by hand.”
“That was a nice touch. Personalized stationery?”
“Pretty and blue, no initials. Lipstick on a pig. Only one of those I’ve ever gotten.” He decided he liked the light freckles. Not usually, but on her they worked. “Have you ever been the most embarrassing thing that happened to someone?”
Her eyes got wide and quickly filled with humor before her voice dropped into a theatric “Noooo-ooo.”
Her? Of course not. Attractive, sexually predatory women in their mid-twenties who had been married, divorced, walked like they owned the pavement and were born to wear clothes embarrassed no one. Him? There was a good chance that he had been. He wanted to look off down the creek but kept her face in focus.
“Looks like I have.”
“That’s hard to believe.” She shook her hair back, her smile wouldn’t go away. “Were you a butt-ugly baby, or what?”
“A lot of stupid high school guy shit. Maybe a virginity thief.”
“You all do that to one of us, at least. You might have been a repeat offender. And you were all stupid and horny. So what? That’s the arrogance part? I’m different now, beat it, if I never knew you I’m a slightly used, unembarrassed arrogant virgin again?”
“In that pocket somewhere. Like I’m some lovesick puppy whining and peeing on her door to get let back in, needed to be reminded where I don’t belong. I thought about sending her an ‘I’m not an idiot’ note back. You know, ‘Excuse me, it was hard to miss the first time I ate some ego in your driveway. I’m on my way the hell out of Dodge with a long-legged sex-machine.’ The ‘last word’ is always a shitty gig, you know, so I’ll let it ride. It is what it is.”
She held the trunk open, her make up case in the other hand, waited for him to lift his soft-sided suitcase. “Long-legged I liked. Machine might grow on me. This one stays on top. Drop yours, I’ll drop mine and we’ll blow this high-rent cab stand.”
“Drop yours, drop mine and blow I liked.” He checked the U-Haul chain. Checked her eyes as he stood.
“Done is done, babe. Now is now.” She let that land, wanted to be sure he heard it. “Understood?”
“Yeah. Six years done. It was about time.”
“Six years?” She dropped the trunk lid, stepped over the hitch and into him. “Okay, after that long, she’s not married yet, right, you’re not interrupting dinner or anything? You’re invited to drop by, say ‘Hi,’ and you get a ‘beat it’ letter? Like there’s nothing going on in your world, and what, she thinks you’re all ‘Lucy, I’m home’ again? Some sisters… I didn’t want to before, you’re assholes when you get the word sometimes, but six years to drop ‘We’re done, beat it’ in the mail? I’ll give you that arrogance call now.” She didn’t light the cigarette in her hand, instead she set it on the trunk and tried to suck his tongue out. They were eye to eye. “Done is done. Done stays done.” Her free hand was in his back pocket again.
“I know. Like licking a penny, though. It’s the aftertaste.”
She was still right up in his face. The other hand she’d gotten trapped between them tugged on his shirt. It pulled them even closer and she whispered, right on his lips.
“I have a cure for that.”