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Perfect fifths, p.10
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       Perfect Fifths, p.10

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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  “You really heard my name?” she asks, though she knows he’s telling the truth. “When?”

  Marcus takes off his glasses, then rubs the lenses with his shirttail—a bit of sprezzatura before answering. “About a minute before you ran me over.”

  Before Jessica can respond, Marcus announces, “There’s Starbucks!” with more enthusiasm than the observation requires. For the first time, he speeds up and passes her. “You get their table,” he says, gesturing toward a departing couple, “and I’ll get some herbal tea for what’s ailing you.”

  Jessica, dazed and disoriented, bumps into several customers as she wends her way toward the just-abandoned bistro table in the corner.

  twenty

  Marcus is stymied by the quotidian task at hand.

  Jessica can’t decide if Marcus is affecting her constitution or if she’s really coming down with something through hypochondriacal power of suggestion.

  Marcus makes his way to the head of the Starbucks queue and orders herbal tea and a muffin for Jessica Darling as if this isn’t the most miraculous thing that has ever happened.

  Jessica shivers as he approaches the table, her teeth chattering with a fever or something else.

  “I got you the healing tea,” he says, handing her a venti. “The barista promises that it has restorative properties, especially when consumed with this vitamin-C-packed cranberry-orange muffin.”

  “Thanks,” Jessica says, remembering to sniffle. Then she clutches her lower stomach and groans. “I hope this combination works for, uh, cramps.”

  “You’re welcome.” Marcus tampers down a tiny lip tic. “I sure hope so, too.”

  He sits. She sits. He sips. She sips. She speaks. “You drink espresso?”

  “I guess I do,” Marcus replies, regarding the cup as if he’d never set eyes on it.

  “Since when?”

  “Around the same time I shaved off The Beard.”

  This will be a treacherous conversation. A simple question about his caffeine intake has already transgressed into dangerous emotional territory. Jessica catches herself nervously sliding the cardboard heat sleeve up and down her paper cup. It’s a gesture that all of a sudden strikes Jessica as accidentally and overtly hand-jobby. She lets go of the cup, reaches for a napkin, and fake-blows her nose. “And when was that?” she asks.

  I can wait, he says to himself. I can wait. “That’s a story I don’t want to tell right now.”

  Jessica relaxes into the cold, hard curve of the plastic seat, relieved that Marcus is as skittish as she is. “You brought up the subject of The Beard.” She is emboldened by his nervousness. “Twice.”

  The corners of his mouth twitch upward again, still resisting the pull of a full smile. She, too, is taking careful note of the words passing between them. “I suppose I did,” he admits without offering an explanation for why he might have done so. “But let’s talk about something else instead.”

  “Okay,” Jessica says, hands shaking slightly as she brings the cup to her lips. “Let’s.”

  And for the next two hours, they do.

  one

  (together vow)

  “You didn’t answer my question.”

  “What question?”

  “Why are you headed to St. Thomas?”

  “Oh! That question.”

  “Was there another question?”

  “[Cough.] There are always other questions, Marcus. [Cough.] But to answer this specific question, Bridget and Percy are getting married!”

  “Married? That’s fantastic!”

  “It is.”

  “You must be so happy for them.”

  “I am! They’re so great together. They always have been so great together.”

  “Please congratulate them for me. Although …”

  “What?”

  “I thought they had decided not to get married. Or am I remembering wrong?”

  “No, you’re remembering it right. They changed their minds. Actually, Bridget changed her mind. Percy was always for marriage, even if he pretended to be against marriage for a while, just to make Bridget happy. But after so many years together, he couldn’t deny the truth anymore, that he was a traditional guy who wanted a traditional wedding with some, if not all, of the traditional trappings. A ceremony on the beach was a middle-ground … uh … uh … ?”

  “Compromise? Or is that too negative?”

  “Compromise. Yes, that’s the word I was searching for, I guess. Compromise. If you think about it and break it down, it’s really not all that negative. ‘Com’ is Latin for ‘co,’ meaning ‘together.’ And ‘promise’ is, of course, ‘promise,’ a vow. Together vow.”

  “Together vow.”

  “That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Actually, that’s pretty damn good. I should add that to tomorrow’s sermon.”

  “Sermon?”

  “Did I forget to mention that I’m performing the ceremony tomorrow? Or I’m supposed to, if I ever get down there.”

  “You? Of all people?”

  “Yes, me. Go ahead and mock, but I’m a woman of the cloth now, ordained over the Internet by the Universal Ministry of Secular Humanity.”

  “You?!”

  “It’s a fake church for atheists, Marcus.”

  “That makes perfect sense.”

  “Then why are you looking at me all smirky like that?”

  “You don’t see any irony in this situation?”

  “Irony? What’s so ironic?”

  “It’s not your lack of faith in a higher power that makes you an unlikely minister for a marriage ceremony. It’s your lack of faith in m—”

  “My public speaking skills?”

  “Er, right. That’s exactly the irony I was referring to.”

  “You know what’s really ironic? After Bridget and Percy booked this out-of-the-way and out-of-pocket destination wedding, I told them that the RSVPs would serve as a barometer of who matters and who doesn’t. They would know for sure who their most devoted friends and family members were, you know, the ones willing to take off from work and go into debt to fly their asses down there, the ones who cared enough to show up.”

  “That is ironic. But I’m sure they know you’re there for them, Jessica, in spirit if not in body.”

  “Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it already. But I’m still pissed off at myself for missing the flight. And if I can’t get on this flight that leaves in a few hours, then I won’t get out of here until late tomorrow morning, which means I’ll miss the wedding altogether, which sucks for me because I obviously really want to see two of my best friends get married.”

  “And to make matters worse, you’re not feeling well.”

  “Right. [Cough. Cough. Sniffle.] These cramps are, uh, hell. Ow.”

  “It looks that way.”

  “Anyway, it’s not like their wedding is a huge affair, just family members and a few select friends. Two dozen guests, tops. So my absence won’t go unnoticed.”

  “I’m sure your absence would be felt even if they had invited five hundred guests.”

  “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

  “What I meant is that you’re not easily missed.”

  “Uh, thanks? I’m so annoying that no one misses me when I’m not around?”

  “No! That’s not what I meant at all! I meant ‘miss’ as in ‘overlook.’ Not ‘miss’ as in ‘regret… the … absence … of.’”

  “Uh, okay.”

  [Pause.]

  “I’m fairly certain that my year of silence permanently affected my ability to talk like a normal person. I approach language almost like a nonnative speaker.”

  “A Lacanian theorist would have a field day with you.”

  “A what?”

  “Forget it. Continue.”

  “Well, I feel like I’m speaking ESL all the time. Or English as a third or fourth language: 2007 LOLcat translated from phonetic Chinese via Babel Fish.”

  “So you sound like … a bad tattoo?”
r />   “Ow. Now I’m the one who’s hurting.”

  “Oh my God. Why did I say that?”

  “Really, it’s okay. I’m not in too much agony over here.”

  “I’m so sorry!”

  “I’m kidding, Jessica. You don’t have to apologize.”

  “I really have no idea what possessed me to say that.”

  “Can I do something?”

  “I guess that depends on what it is you want to do.”

  “I want to get it out there: This is not an easy conversation.”

  “Really? I thought I was the only one having a tough time.”

  “What? Are you kidding me? We’ve only been talking for a few minutes, and I’m already sweating my balls off.”

  “Perhaps you should take off that gorgeous sweater of yours.”

  [Pause.]

  “Feel better now?”

  “My shirt is still sticking to me, but yes.”

  “Look, I appreciate your honesty, Marcus. I’m nervous, too.”

  “You don’t look nervous. You’re not biting your lip.”

  “I’m not what?”

  “You’re not giggling or nibbling the corner of your lip. That’s a dead giveaway that you’re nervous.”

  “That was a dead giveaway. I’ve outgrown the habit. I don’t do that anymore.”

  “Oh.”

  “So I may not be gnawing on my lip, but it doesn’t mean I’m unfazed by how surreal this is. I mean, how is it possible that I’m sitting across the table from you at Starbucks right now? How does a conversation with you even start? There’s so much to say. And so much more we could say but maybe shouldn’t. And discerning the difference is difficult indeed.”

  [Pause.]

  “Uh, that last sentence was unintentionally singsongy.”

  “I noticed.”

  “Thanks for not calling attention to it, Marcus.”

  “I was tempted to, but I refrained. I didn’t want to make you more self-conscious.”

  “Thanks again. I appreciate your altruistic avoidance of acknowledging my annoying alliteration.”

  “Ha.”

  “So.”

  “So let’s just accept that for the duration of our conversation …”

  “The next hour and forty-odd minutes …”

  “No matter how careful we try to be, we will both say things we’ll want to take back immediately. I will most definitely say more regrettable things than you will. But let’s agree not to beat ourselves up about it when it happens, okay? Let’s not get tangled up in regrets this afternoon. Let’s just… talk.”

  “Talk.”

  “Just talk.”

  “I’m sorry, but—”

  “No apologies.”

  “Right. I’m sor—”

  “You’re apologizing again!”

  “Oh my God. I was, wasn’t I? [Cough.] It’s just that, well, I had a lot on my mind today even before I ran into you. My brain is overloaded. I’m having a hard time processing everything that’s happening.”

  “I can relate to that.”

  “It’s like I’m coming down with prosopagnosia, or something.”

  “Proso-what—?”

  “Prosopagnosia. A brain disorder that makes it impossible to recognize objects or people. Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”

  “Interesting. Are you taking meds for the cramps? And your cold?”

  [Cough.] “Sure.”

  “Does it help with the pro-so-pag-no-si-a?”

  “No. [Cough.] The meds are definitely not helping at all.”

  two

  (stranger things)

  “So what’s in New Orleans?”

  “Oh. Just some work that I’m doing.”

  “What kind of work?”

  “I spend my breaks as a volunteer for various long-term restoration projects.”

  “Wow. I’m impressed.”

  “Don’t be. Save it for the locals who have been working all day, every day, since the levees broke.”

  “Is it really that bad down there, even after all this time?”

  “It hasn’t been that long, Jessica. Only four years, which in the grand scheme of things is only a blip. It’s the b in blip, and a lowercase one at that. But we’re so shortsighted here in this country. We’re all about quick fixes, and New Orleans will be anything but.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “No more apologies, Jessica.”

  “Right. I mean, I didn’t mean to sound so ignorant, but I guess I am.”

  “It’s not your fault. I didn’t know how bad it was until I went down there and saw it for myself. How else would you know? There are too many other fucked-up things in the world vying for the public’s attention. New Orleans isn’t newsworthy anymore. The media has lost interest, but the problems haven’t gone away in the absence of attention. The poorest communities aren’t much closer to reconstruction today than they were in the weeks after the hurricane hit. Entire neighborhoods are boarded up and abandoned. Families are still cramped in their FEMA trailers, with limited access to schools, doctors, grocery stores—the basics for survival. It’s devastating to see it all firsthand, to talk to these people face-to-face.”

  “How did you get involved?”

  “Through a class.”

  “Oh, really? So what’s … I mean … uh …”

  “What’s what?”

  “Uh … I was about to ask what your major is.”

  “And you hesitated because?”

  “I’m not sure, exactly. Maybe because it’s been a few years since I’ve asked anyone that question. I mean, in college it’s kind of an icebreaker. You know, ‘Where are you from? What’s your major?’ You don’t have any reason to ask that question when you aren’t in school anymore. It changes to ‘Where do you live? What do you do?’”

  “I see. So you are far too mature to ask me about my major.”

  “I didn’t mean it that way! Only that I was suddenly aware of asking you a very collegiate question, one that I haven’t had any reason to ask anyone since I graduated.”

  “I see.”

  “So?”

  “So … what?”

  “You’re going to make me ask it, just to make me ask it?”

  “Ask what, Jessica?”

  “Your major.”

  “Take a guess.”

  “I really have no idea.”

  “Just guess.”

  “I don’t want to guess, Marcus.”

  “Why not?”

  [Cough.] “I just don’t.”

  “I’m a…”

  “Philosophy. You’re a philosophy major.”

  “Hmmm … philosophy. That’s interesting.”

  “Am I right?”

  “Wasn’t one of your college boyfriends a philosophy major?”

  “Uh, yes. And for the record, I only had one college boyfriend. Not boyfriends, plural.”

  “Two.”

  “One.”

  “Two.”

  “One!”

  “One—him—plus one—me—equals …”

  “Oh! [Cough.] I wasn’t counting you.”

  “You weren’t counting me? Why don’t I count?”

  “You weren’t a college boyfriend, Marcus.”

  “We were together during college.”

  “If together means three thousand miles apart!”

  “A technicality.”

  “And we got together before college.”

  “So?”

  “So that puts you in a different category.”

  “And what category is that?”

  “Marcus, if I knew the answer to that, this conversation would be a whole hell of a lot easier, wouldn’t it?”

  [Pause.]

  “So guess again.”

  “Marcus, this is silly.”

  “Just one more guess.”

  “Why?”

  “I want to hear how you think I’ve spent the past three years.”

  “Women’s studies.”<
br />
  “Now, that’s funny.”

  “Seriously, Marcus, it seems like something you would do, choosing a major that’s ninety-nine-point-nine percent female just for the fun of being the point-one exception.”

  “Tragically, Princeton offers only a minor in women’s and gender studies. Which is why I went with my second choice.”

  “Which is?”

  “Public and international affairs.”

  “Public and international affairs. Duh. I should have known that all along. I mean, it makes sense, considering what you said about your work in New Orleans.”

  “The class I referred to earlier, the one that took me there, was called Disaster, Race, and American Politics. After spending fifteen weeks discussing and debating all the many ways our federal government has screwed our neediest citizens, a bunch of us were inspired to take our lessons beyond the classroom. We needed to see the devastation for ourselves and do something about it.”

  “Good for you.”

  “Some of us were self-conscious about the idea of going down there at first. I know I was. Oh, how nice. A bunch of privileged Princeton students going to New Orleans to help poor black folk and unburden themselves of their liberal guilt. Oh, and won’t it look nice on their grad school applications? Or when they run for public office? But then I decided that anyone who thought that way was an asshole.”

  “So true.”

  “Why should I let some closed-minded asshole stop me from helping?”

  “You remember Cinthia Wallace, right? She used a multimillion-dollar inheritance to start Do Better and has had to face a lot of that kind of cynicism. Like, how dare she start up a philanthropic collective with that money? Isn’t someone with her socialite credentials supposed to, I don’t know, mainline that money?”

  “Someone of her station avoids needles. She’d snort the cash. Or smoke it.”

  “Right. Anyway, people tend to be very suspicious of anyone who supports the greater good. It’s assumed that you’re working some angle.”

  “There might be some truth to that. My motivations aren’t purely altruistic. There’s a lot about New Orleans I identify with.”

  “Like what?”

 
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