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Perfect fifths, p.20
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       Perfect Fifths, p.20

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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  It was supposed to be just a fling. After she broke it off, he tried to win her back with phone and text sex. Once, after too much wine, he stalked the entrance to her apartment to make a libidinous proposition in person. It was foolish behavior, one that put her reputation in far more jeopardy than his own. But Greta had not, as Natty claimed, lost tenure as a result of the affair. To Marcus’s consternation, however, Greta did take an abrupt leave of absence, from which she has never returned. In the years since, she has contacted him only once—via e-mail—to tell him that she had just sold a nonfiction proposal to a major publishing house. Older Women, Younger Men: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Cougars Through the Ages.

  It turns out that Marcus had been more ingeniously played than he ever could have imagined.

  Firmer, harder, shorter strokes now. Marcus moans in self-pleasure, yes, but also because part of him wants Jessica to be awakened by the sounds of his arousal. He wants her to know. I want you to know …

  In a defenseless postcoital languor, Marcus had almost made the error of telling Greta about Jessica. Jessica was, after all, the answer to the question “Why did you come to my class looking so desperate?” But Marcus had simply replied “A girl” and left the rest to Greta’s imagination. Marcus didn’t want Greta to know about Jessica, because Jessica had really mattered to him, and so the inverse is true about Greta. He wants to tell Jessica everything because Greta didn’t matter to him. The only significant aspect of that relationship was how it ended: She broke up with him after he made the mistake of rebuffing the watch that didn’t tell time. She thought he would love the watch as he had loved the decadent cashmere sweater that matched his eyes. But unlike the indulgent sweater, which at least served a purpose, he hated that watch for its pointlessness and pretentiousness. Later, Marcus couldn’t believe he had sunk so low as to willingly subjugate himself to someone who could think otherwise.

  Marcus wants to shake Jessica awake and explain himself. I wear the dumbass watch to remind me that there will never be another Jessica, but there cannot be another Greta.

  Greta had enjoyed joining Marcus in the shower. In truth, the practice had always made him uncomfortable; the act of being washed by this older woman seemed more than a little ceremonial, even maternal, which reminded Marcus—inappropriately so, especially when he was going down on Greta in the shower—of the son his age whom she never saw. It had once occurred to Marcus—again, when he was on his knees, licking, sucking, servicing—that he had never showered with Jessica. That first thought quickly became an essential aspect of the whole erotic co-showering ritual, during which he would find himself making a list of things he had done with Greta that he had never done with Jessica. The list would start off innocently—I’ve never slow-danced with Jessica, I’ve never shared a bottle of wine with Jessica, I’ve never sipped espresso with Jessica, I’ve never gone to the opera with Jessica—before turning pornographic—I’ve never rubbed a washcloth over Jessica’s breasts, I’ve never tasted soap between Jessica’s legs, I’ve never pressed Jessica up against the tiles and taken her from behind—until the culmination of all these nevers made him come between another woman’s legs (Oh, Jessica) in a passionless, masturbatory way not at all dissimilar to the manner in which Marcus has just—alone in this hotel shower, with Jessica still asleep on the other side of the door—jerked himself into ejaculatory release.

  Marcus shuts off the water, reaches for a towel. He drowsily rubs his head, arms, chest, legs, his shrinking penis, dry. He’s calm for the first time since this morning, when he heard Jessica Darling’s name being called over the Clear Sky public address system. He cracks open the door to take a look at her on the bed. She hasn’t changed positions, but he can see the duvet cover rise and fall with every breath.

  He steps toward the mirror and uses the same towel to wipe off the obfuscating fog. Marcus rolls his right bicep toward the glass. If you look closely enough, and know what to look for, you might notice that the skin is darker in certain spots than it is in others. He gently traces his fingertip along shadowy hatch marks and squiggles that could be mistaken for naturally occurring freckles or accidental bruises but are neither. A shiver runs through him; even the tiniest arm hairs stand up on end. It’s a response to his own touch, the delicate caresses paying respect to the ghostly remains of what was once a badly translated tattoo. Marcus pays more reverence to these near-invisible Chinese characters than he ever did when they were legible. The original needlework never meant as much to Marcus as his decision to have it erased, from his arm if not his memory.

  Forever, he thinks. Whatever.

  eight

  Jessica is walking across a field of green. Under her arm, she carries a laptop. She’s wearing her only suit, the dark, well-tailored, and too expensive one she bought with one of her first Do Better paychecks, the one she wears when she needs to look her most competent and professional, the one she wears when Cinthia has persuaded her to meet with potential big-money donors for the Do Better High School Storytellers project and she gives her passionate, heartfelt PowerPoint presentation about how much the program has forever changed the lives of so many young people all over the country This is her power suit. She feels powerful in it. She’s trying to get somewhere fast. The laptop is getting heavier with every step, weighing one arm down to the point that she’s lurching like a humpback across the field. She’ll never make it if she has to hold on to this laptop. When did she allow herself to be so burdened by technology? When did she stop using black-and-white composition notebooks and start relying on a laptop? Before she realizes what’s she’s doing, she sets the laptop down on the grass and keeps on walking. She feels so much lighter now, but her slingbacks are still sinking into the soft earth, slowing her down. She takes off the heels and flings them aside. Barefoot, she pushes off from her tiptoes and breaks into a run. The sky is cloudless and the sun is hot. Jessica feels the streams of sweat forming at her temples and racing down her torso. She unbuttons her jacket, slips it off her arms, and lets it fall to the ground. Picking up the pace, she tries to find a racing rhyme but gets too distracted by the zzzp-zzzp of fabric rubbing between her legs. She grabs at her thighs and—whoosh!—the tear-away bottoms come off with the professional swiftness of a b-baller or a stripper. Now she can concentrate on her mantra—you yes you—but not for long, because her camisole is chafing her shoulders. She clutches the offending straps and whisks that garment away as well. You yes you. With each item of discarded clothing, she is lighter, fleeter of foot. You yes you. She doesn’t need the suit, she feels powerful without it. You yes you. Finally, in one impressively gymnastic maneuver—you! yes! you!—she leaps out of her panties without breaking stride. She bursts into a full sprint, running faster—youyesyouyouyesyouyouyesyou—than she has ever run in her life when—You! CRASH! You!—she runs right over Marcus Flutie in a red T-shirt, who, up to and including the moment of impact, has been standing perfectly and peacefully still.

  I’m here, she pants, still sprawled on the grass. Naked. Without shame. In paradise.

  He smiles and reaches for her hands.

  nine

  Marcus pokes his head outside the bathroom door to check once more that Jessica is still asleep. All evidence says yes, but he asks out loud anyway. “Jessica? Are you still asleep?”

  Jessica snorts, murmurs something unintelligible, and pulls the duvet over her head.

  Aha! She can hear me, Marcus thinks.

  Deciding there’s no need for modesty, Marcus struts out of the bathroom, across the room, toward the duffel bag propped up against his bed. As he uncinches the top of the canvas sack, he dismally remembers an important detail: There are no clean clothes in this bag. Not only are his clothes unclean, they are surely in violation of several basic health codes. They are caked in toxic demolition dust, outhouse mud, po’boy drippings, a spilled Hurricane Katrina cocktail, and other unidentifiable forms of fluid and filth. Marcus thinks it might be best to torch the whole bag and its contents
and start all over again.

  He debates the condition of the clothes he was wearing before the shower. The corduroys are in okay shape—they shouldn’t spread any communicable diseases. He tugs them on, then stands half dressed, considering the rest of his options. Now that Marcus himself is scented with rosemary and mint, the once endurable if unpleasant stench of the T-shirt, the dress shirt, and yes, even the cashmere sweater strike him as noxious, perhaps even nefarious. He can’t tolerate the thought of putting them on again, and he doubts that Jessica would come within arm’s length if he did. That is, whenever she wakes up.

  Should I try to wake her up? Marcus asks himself.

  “Jessica?”

  His voice is so needy and pathetic, it makes him recoil in shame. He’s so grateful that no one else heard his whimpering. Natty’s right, he thinks, I need a roundhouse kick to the brain.

  At least hearing the sound of his own needy, pathetic voice has helped him realize that he doesn’t really want to wake her up. If he really wanted to wake her up, he could easily do so by jumping up and down on her bed or shouting her name at full volume. He wants her to be awake, true, but he doesn’t want to be the one responsible for waking her up. He also doesn’t want to wait around for her to wake up. That, too, seems needy and pathetic and the ideal justification for a roundhouse kick to the brain.

  Besides, he’s got a plan.

  On a hunch, Marcus strides over to the closet, opens the door, and—aha!—finds what he was looking for: a Here hotel–brand bathrobe. He presses his face into the plush, velvety cotton and inhales. It smells fresh, like fabric softener. He slips the bathrobe over his corduroys, ties the belt into a knot, and poses in front of the full-length double mirror on the back of the closet door. It’s an unconventional outfit, yes, but less risqué than going shirtless. If asked by perplexed guests or wary employees, he could always claim that he’d gotten lost coming back from the spa or pool, or imply that his strange attire had something to do with the airline losing his luggage, which would inspire most listeners to join in with their own lost-luggage horror stories and forget about him in the bathrobe. Most people believe whatever you tell them because they want to believe.

  He takes a Here hotel pad and pen to leave a note for Jessica. He pauses for a few minutes, mouthing words as he tries to come up with the right message with the right number of syllables for her to read upon waking. Once satisfied, he slides his cell phone into one pocket of the bathrobe, his key card and wallet into the other, and heads out the door.

  ten

  Jessica is walking through the corridors of a hospital. Under her arm, she carries her teardrop carry-on bag. She is wearing a black sweater, black jeans, and black sneakers that contrast sharply with the bright fluorescent lights and bleached-white hallway. She is looking for Sunny’s room but isn’t in a rush to get there. Most of the doors are closed, but she notices there is an open door farther down the hall. She thinks it’s the room she’s looking for, but she’s not sure, because there don’t seem to be any numbers differentiating one room from the next. As she approaches this room, she hears music coming out of it. It’s a familiar song, but she can’t place it because no one is singing the words, and she needs the words. What are the words? She starts humming along with the music, but it doesn’t help her with the words. Why can’t I find the words? She decides to ask the room’s occupant for the words to the song, and when she pokes her head through the doorway, she is surprised to see that this is indeed Sunny’s room, but the music isn’t a recording, it’s being played by a band of musicians who have set up all around Sunny’s hospital bed for a live performance starring none other than Barry Manilow himself. Sunny is still comatose, purple, and bald, attached to a tangle of wires, including a machine that is monitoring her brain activity and projecting the multicolored images onto the wall like a lava lamp at a rave. Barry Manilow is wearing the electric-blue bedazzled jumpsuit but isn’t singing—he’s frozen, mouth open, microphone in hand, in the iconic pose from the decoupage toilet seat cover. Jessica wonders why Barry Manilow isn’t singing and is just about to ask him to stop posing and start singing already when he suddenly breaks the pose and silences the band with a commanding wave of his sparkly arms. Then Barry Manilow says ruefully to Sunny, I can’t smile without you. I can’t laugh. And I can’t sing. Barry Manilow turns away from Sunny and faces Jessica, and that’s when she discovers that Barry Manilow isn’t Barry Manilow but Marcus Flutie dressed as Barry Manilow.

  You! Jessica shouts.

  Yes? Marcus asks.

  You, Sunny says, sitting upright in her bed, curiously removed from all life-support accoutrements. Her hair has grown back into the style she had before the accident, crooked self-cut bangs and all.

  Sunny! Jessica cries out, dashing to her bedside.

  You, Sunny repeats, this time in a scoffing so-over-it tone.

  Me, what? Jessica asks.

  Sunny flicks her irises just so. It’s a gesture indicative of the weariest strain of teen disdain, when she can’t even muster sufficient ugh to execute a full-circle eye roll.

  You suck.

  eleven

  Marcus struts over to the elevator bank, presses G, and waits. A second or two later, he is joined by a young girl in a pink tracksuit. She is pouting in petulance but also because her mouth is overcrowded with orthodontia.

  He looks down at her and smiles. “Hey,” he says.

  She glares up at him skeptically. “Why are you wearing a bathrobe? You look ridiculuth.”

  Marcus bursts out laughing, too disarmed by her candor to be the least bit offended. After all, he does look ridiculous, but only a kid would come out and say it. He decides to tease her a bit. “Don’t you know? It’s the latest style,” he says. “I can’t believe you left the room without wearing your bathrobe.”

  “It ith not,” the girl replies in total confidence. “You look like a pervert.” She beams as she says this, pleased with the rejoinder and herself. Her mother comes Ugging toward them.

  “Amber! What have I told you about talking to strangers?” Her eyes crawl all over Marcus, taking in every detail of his appearance: height, weight, build, hair color, tattoos, scars, and/or other distinguishing physical characteristics.

  “To not to,” Amber says sullenly.

  “It’s not her fault,” Marcus says. “In her defense, you can’t blame her for asking why I’m wearing a bathrobe, can you?”

  “No,” Amber’s mother says curtly. “But I can blame you for wearing one in the first place. What are you? Some kind of pervert?”

  “I told him he lookth like a pervert,” Amber singsongs.

  The pervert comment makes Mommy proud. She throws an arm around her daughter and brings her in for a hug that says, That’s my girl! As the pair embraces, Marcus catches a look at himself in a nearby mirror and instantly sees the truth in their assessment. He does look like some kind of a pervert. What is a bathrobe but a cozier version of a flasher’s trench coat?

  “I’m wearing pants,” Marcus explains, idiotically lifting up the hem of the bathrobe to reveal a corduroyed leg. Judging from the horrified expression on both mother’s and daughter’s faces, this fact only seems to further implicate Marcus in perversion.

  Determined to clear his name, Marcus is relieved when Amber removes a pot of Mixed Berries and Clotted Cream Lip Plumping Balm from her pocket. Aha!

  “Be You Tea Shoppe,” he says as Amber pinkie-applies the translucent red gloss to her puckered lips. “I know the woman who founded it.”

  Now Marcus is a bathrobe-flashing perv with an unseemly knowledge of pretween beauty products. When Amber and her mother step back to keep their distance, Marcus realizes too late that such a comment won’t help undo pedophiliac aspersions. Thankfully, before he can say or do anything else to sully his image, the elevator arrives on the twentieth floor. The doors open, revealing a single passenger, a middle-aged woman dressed like lunch on the African savannah, who, thankfully, seems too preoccupied with
her cell phone to take much notice of him. Marcus is relieved that he won’t be left alone with the appalled mother-daughter pair. He makes a sweeping ladies-first gesture with his arms.

  “Oh, no,” Amber’s mother says in a tone that is as derisive as it is decisive. “You can go alone, dressed like that. We’ll take the next one.”

  Marcus slinks inside the elevator. Seeing the anger in Amber’s mother’s face, he feels compelled to offer an explanation. “The airline lost my luggage!” he lies.

  “Did they altho looth your mind?” Amber retorts.

  The girl earns a high five from her mom just before the doors slide shut. Marcus straightens his spine, lifts his chin. He tries to assume a dignified air, like a man of leisure who thinks nothing of going about his business in a borrowed bathrobe.

  “They lost my luggage, too,” confides the elevator’s only other passenger. “I’m on hold with Clear Sky Airlines right now. Wait—I think I’ve got someone—nope. Still on hold.”

  Marcus smiles genially, turns his back on her, and watches the numbers light up in descending order.

  The women finger-jabs him in the shoulder, clearly looking for someone to commiserate with. “We just want to be where we’re supposed to be,” she says. “We just want to be with the people we want to be with. I don’t think that’s asking too much, ya know what I’m saying?”

  The elevator arrives at the ground floor with a jolt.

  “Yes,” Marcus says. “I know just what you’re saying.”

  twelve

  You suck, suckity, suck suck suck.

  That’s the thanks I get after how much I’ve worried about you?

  You should be happy that the trauma to my brain didn’t permanently change my personality. You should be relieved that I’m not mistaking you for a hat. And for the record, you missed your flight this morning because you overslept and didn’t take your dad’s ride or your mom’s advice about the car service and got on the wrong security line.

 
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