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Perfect fifths, p.22
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       Perfect Fifths, p.22

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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  Marcus is disappointed by this anticlimactic surrendering of arms. Once he had accepted the idea of being Tased, he had embraced it as enthusiastically as he had other experiments in extremity, including a yearlong silence, a monthlong abstention from soap and water, a week-long liquid (i.e., alcoholic) fast, a weekend-long priapic bender with a perimenopausal lover, and a daylong marathon of “My Song Will Never Mean as Much (As the One He Once Sang for You)” on MP3 repeat. He already suspects the truth, however, that this seconds-long shock to his system would have been equally ineffective in making him feel any worthier of the woman who is still asleep in room 2010.

  “That’s the most fun I’ve had all week,” Nick says, still wheezing with amusement. “I hate this job. I hope I get fired. My mom forced me to get this job because it works with her schedule at the airport. What about my schedule, huh? What about what’s important to me? I hate my life.”

  Marcus isn’t listening to Nick’s rant. He stumbles backward and out of the gift shop, so dizzy and disoriented that it’s as if he wasn’t merely threatened but was actually Tased by the hungover saleclerk bored with life. If Marcus had been listening, he might have suggested that Nick try using the third-person-turning point of view to figure out where his life went so wrong.

  fourteen

  “WHAT?!” shouts Jessica as she is yanked out of sleep and into wide-awakeness.

  I can’t laugh and I can’t sing …

  It takes a few eye-rubbing, head-shaking moments for Jessica to realize that she isn’t with Sunny in a bleach-bright hospital room being serenaded by Marcus Manilow (or Barry Flutie), but alone in a pitch-black hotel room being awakened by her cell phone. Jessica knocks over a small lamp in the scramble to grab it off the bedside table before Barry starts finding it hard to do anything. So sure of the caller, she answers it without even checking the ID.

  “Sunny?!”

  “Of course it’s sunny,” replies someone who is definitely not Sunny. “You’re in the Virgin Islands, aren’t you? But that’s a strange way to answer the phone.”

  “Oh, hi, Bethany.” Jessica tries her best not to sound crushed. “Thanks for calling. And I wasn’t providing you with a spontaneous weather report. I thought you were someone else. And I’m not in the Virgin Islands. Yet.”

  “What happened? Where are you? Are you going to miss the wedding?”

  Jessica replies to the questions in the order they were asked. “I missed my flight. I’m at the Here EWR until tomorrow. And yes, I’ll probably arrive too late for the wedding.”

  “Oh, that’s just awful!” Bethany tutt-tutt-tutts. “Horrendously, hideously awful.”

  Jessica judiciously refrains from explaining to Bethany that the sympathetic overtures are making her feel worse than she already does. “It’s not that bad, really.”

  “Oh, to be alone in a hotel room, and on today of all days.”

  Jessica rights the knocked-over lamp and switches it on. There is no long Marcus-shaped lump under the covers. The bathroom door is open, and the light is turned off. Unless he’s meditating in the dark on the floor of the closet, he’s not in the room. She appears to be alone on today of all days.

  “Speaking of your day of days, there’s someone here who has something she wants to wish you.”

  There’s a slight pause before Bethany begins singing along to a thin string accompaniment.

  Happy birthday to you!

  Happy birthday to you!

  Happy birthday, Aunt J.!

  Happy birthday to you!

  Annnnd maaannnyyyy mooore!

  Today, the nineteenth of January, is Jessica Darling’s birthday. However, this year the date has taken on new meaning: Today is three days after Sunny’s accident. Today is one day before Bridget and Percy’s wedding. Jessica knew it would be childish of her to insist on celebrating this nothing of a birthday when there were far more significant turning points clamoring for her attention on opposing sides of the emotional spectrum. Besides, after sweet sixteen and drunken twenty-one, the only landmark birthdays are those ending in zero or five, and this year doesn’t qualify. And yet she has to admit that hearing the cheesy little ditty sung in her honor makes her feel grateful that there are at least two people (okay, plus her parents—that’s four—oh, and Hope, who tried to wish her happy birthday before Jessica cut her off) who made note of her arrival into this world twenty-six winters ago. The emotions come at her all at once, tackling her like a too-tight hug.

  “That was me on the violin and Mom on vocals,” chirps Marin when she gets on the line.

  “Thanks, Marin,” Jessica says, trying to breathe normally. “It sounded awesome.” She walks over to the minibar, opens it up to see that it is well stocked, and grabs a regular Coke and a Baby Ruth bar.

  “Eh, I’ve heard better,” Marin says dismissively “So how old are you today, anyway?”

  Jessica pops open the soda can and takes a long slug before answering. “Twenty-six.”

  Marin unleashes a loud, long whistle. “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew. That’s getting up there, huh?”

  Jessica can’t help but laugh at Marin’s candor. To her, any Disney Channel starlet who has aged out of her self-named sitcom qualifies as old. “I guess it is.” Jessica tears into the candy bar, noting that if not for the vitamin-packed muffin purchased by Marcus, she’d be running on a nutritive deficit for the day.

  “Wasn’t my mom, like, married by twenty-six?”

  Jessica can hear Bethany in the background, shushing loudly before correcting her. “I was twenty-seven, Marimba.”

  “Mooooom,” Marin growls through her teeth. “Stop calling me that! I’m a person! Not a musical instrument!”

  This combination comeback/takedown makes Jessica laugh but also reminds her of an earlier version of the same mother/daughter dynamic.

  “Oh, Marin, tell your mom I saw a mother/daughter pair wearing matching BU! tracksuits.”

  “Ack,” Marin gags. “Those tracksuits are fugly.”

  “Right. The ones made out of hemp? With the conflict-free rhinestones?”

  “Hemp! That’s right!” Marin repeats with an audible lip curl. “With conflict-free rhinestones!”

  Jessica hears Bethany straining for information in the background. “What tracksuits? I hope you’re not referring to the affordable and earth-friendly line of Be You merchandise.”

  “This is E-Car Jerry’s influence, huh?”

  “Totally E-Car Jerry.”

  Jessica can’t quite make out what Bethany is saying in the background, but that’s the point.

  “Fine, Mom.” Marin sighs. “Can you please leave the room so I can talk to Aunt J. in private?”

  Bethany mumbles something else, and Marin whines, “Okay! I got it!”

  “Is everything okay?” Jessica asks before trying to dislodge a chunk of caramel from her back molars with her tongue.

  “She hates it when I call him E-Car Jerry,” Marin says. “And when you say it, too. She says we should know better.”

  “We should.”

  “But it’s funny.”

  “And you like E-Car Jerry, right?” Jessica discards the empty soda can and candy bar wrapper. Hands now free, she heads straight for the closet and flings open the doors. There’s nothing inside but empty hangers, a dry-cleaning bag, a folding ironing board, and a safe. Jessica sheepishly closes the doors, feeling silly for thinking that Marcus could possibly be sitting there on the floor. Hadn’t he told her that he doesn’t do that anymore?

  “Sure. He’s nice. He makes Mom happy,” Marin says.

  Jessica walks toward his duffel bag, cinched tight, slouching against his unslept-in bed. Jessica furtively looks over her shoulder, as if Marcus could have stealthily reentered the room without her noticing.

  “I like E-Car Jerry, but I hate those tracksuits. I refuse to wear mine,” Marin says in a very prim and professional tone that cracks Jessica up. “Why are you laughing?” Marin is deeply offended.

  “Nothing,” J
essica replies before adding, “Just you. You’re funny.”

  “I’m not being funny. I’m being serious. I hate those tracksuits. They are itchy aaaaaand fugly.”

  Jessica can’t take her eyes off the duffel bag. “Those tracksuits put the FU in fuuuuuuuuuuugly.”

  Now Marin bursts into laughter.

  “That’s it!” Jessica cries out, egged on by her niece’s enjoyment. “Tell your mom we just came up with the next conflict-free rhinestones-on-the-butt slogan. Not BU! FU!”

  The joke isn’t so funny, but that doesn’t matter. It isn’t really about the joke itself, but the idea of the joke and how Jessica can get away with joking—even lamely—about the fugly tracksuits, but Marin cannot because those fugly tracksuits could revive her mother’s business and represent the first creative collaboration between her mother and her any-day-now fiancé. Jessica has always felt a special kinship with her niece. Marin looks exactly like Bethany (“a knockout,” just how Marcus described her), but even the Darling grand-matriarch has noted that Marin comports herself far more like the younger and moodier of her two daughters, a comment that was delivered to the elder daughter with a resounding “Good luck.”

  Jessica grips both ends of the rope that ties (and unties) the mouth of the duffel. Why is she tempted to do this? What is she looking for inside? What hasn’t Marcus already told her that she needs to know?

  “Hey, Aunt J.?”

  Jessica drops the ropes as if she’s been caught. “Yes?!”

  “I hope you didn’t get mad before when I said that thing about not being married. Because I didn’t say it because I’m still, you know, mad about not being a flower girl. I—”

  Jessica doesn’t wait to hear the rest. “Oh, no! I didn’t get mad. In fact, it’s kind of strange that you should bring it up, because …” She pauses, knowing that she probably shouldn’t do this, and yet that grownup appreciation of discretion can’t quite overcome her childish impulse to tell all. All day she has kept this secret to herself, and now she really wants to share it with someone. And who better than Marin?

  “Can you keep a secret?” Jessica is still looking at this duffel bag, which, upon closer inspection, appears to be coated in a thick layer of… nastiness. If this is what his bag looks like before he spends a week in a tent pitched in outhouse mud, what will it look like afterward?

  “Sometimes,” Marin replies. “It depends on the situation. And the secret.”

  “I appreciate your honesty.” Jessica hums in thought. She’s feeling oddly unsettled by Marcus’s luggage, and she’s not sure why.

  “What is it?! Aunt J.? What?! Don’t leave me hanging here!”

  Jessica is still trying to decide whether to tell Marin the real secret or to make one up when she spots Marcus’s handwritten note on the desk. Jessica picks up the paper and is about to read the message when Marin breaks the silence.

  “Did you see Marcus?” She says this as if she has just been tipped off via text: c markiss?

  Jessica fumbles the note in shock. “What?!” The paper wafts gently to the floor.

  “Woo! You did! You saw Marcus! That’s the secret! Woo! Where did you see him? When? Does he look the same? Did he ask about me? Wooooo!” Marin has run out of breath and inhales long and loud before finishing up with the kicker. “Are you still in looooooooooove?”

  Usually, Marin’s uncensored inquisitions are attributed to the guilelessness of youth. But in this case, she’s just asking the questions—the question—that anyone who knows Jessica and Marcus would have asked, which is exactly why Jessica kept the news to herself all afternoon. Until now.

  “Say something!!!” Marin begs.

  Jessica replies to the questions in the order in which they were asked.

  “Yes, I saw Marcus. I ran over him at the airport, then we spent the whole afternoon talking to each other over coffee. He looks the same but even better than the same. He did ask about you.”

  Jessica stops here, squats down, and looks for the dropped slip of paper.

  “Aunt J.?! You haven’t answered the most important question of all!!!”

  “I haven’t,” Jessica says, crawling on her hands and knees. “Have I?”

  “I’ll answer it for you,” Marin announces in the same all-business tone that declared she couldn’t wear the fugly tracksuits.

  “Oh, really?” Jessica spots the paper underneath the desk, reaches for it.

  “And the answer is …” Marin takes a dramatic breath and delivers a speech that draws upon everything she has ever learned about love from watching too much reality television with her nanny. “YES! You and Marcus still LOVE LOVE LOVE each other because you and Marcus are TRUE SOUL MATES even though you haven’t seen each other in, like, FOREVER, but it’s just like MOM and E-CAR JERRY, who didn’t see each other after, like, FOREVER, and it was, like, WHAMMO! BLAMMO! Cupid’s ARROW with, like, MANY INTIMATE MOMENTS, and they knew it was FATE and DESTINY that had brought them back together …” Marin pauses just long enough to suck in a lungful of air.

  “YES! You and Marcus are still in LOVE and you’re totally going to get MARRIED and have ME as a FLOWER GIRL in the ceremony and MAYBE you’ll even get married at twenty-seven like my mom did the first time which is ONLY A YEAR AWAY only YOU AND MARCUS won’t ever ever ever split up because you are SOUL MATES with MANY INTIMATE MOMENTS you are DESTINED to live HAPPLILY HAPPILY HAPPILY ever AFTER …”

  Marin is hyperventilating. Jessica, too, is having trouble breathing. She shakily stands up, then backs herself onto Marcus’s untouched bed.

  “So?” Marin asks.

  Jessica squints, trying to focus on the shaking paper.

  Gone for a while

  Hoping, always, to return

  If you will let me

  “Aunt J.! Helllloooooooo? Are you there?”

  Am I here? Jessica asks herself. Am I really here? Is any of this really happening? Or is this really a long, vivid-coma dream?

  Jessica clears her throat. “I gotta go, Marin,” she says, trying to steady her voice. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

  “But you didn’t answer the most important question of all!!!”

  “I didn’t need to,” Jessica replies matter-of-factly. “You answered it for me.”

  She shuts off the phone. Sloppily folds the note and stores it in her back pocket. She calls out to him.

  “Marcus Flutie.”

  fifteen

  Marcus doesn’t know how long he’s been leaning against this wall with his eyes closed, recuperating from the strange encounter with the salesclerk. It’s been long enough to get noticed.

  “Aren’t you a tall drink of water.”

  Marcus opens his eyes and looks down to see a woman whose complicated yellow feathered hat is half as tall as she is. From her vantage point, even Natty would qualify as a tall drink of water.

  “My name is Lola.”

  “Er, hi, Lola.”

  “I am a showgirl.”

  “A showgirl?”

  She flounces her wrists. “With painted feathers in my hair.” Then risks another hip replacement surgery with a shimmy. “And a dress cut down to there …”

  “Oh,” Marcus says, slow on the uptake. “I get it. ‘Copacabana.’”

  “I knew you were good people!” She tries to punch him in the arm but doesn’t come close enough to connect. “What are you up to?”

  “Loitering,” Marcus replies, smiling slightly, wishing Jessica were here to hear him say it.

  “That’s nice,” says Lola, clearly not listening. “Listen, I’ve got sort of a wager going.”

  “A wager?”

  “Yeah, a wager. And it involves you.”

  “Me?”

  Lola has already taken him by the elbow and is leading him toward the sign at the entrance of a room that encourages guests to PLAY HERE. “Can ya sing?”

  And before Marcus can answer, he is muted by the sight and sound of a blue-haired granny appropriately attired in a blue-sequined TRUE
BLUE SPECTACLE T-shirt.

  “Somewhere down the road … Our roads are gonna cross again …”

  “We took over the place!” shouts Lola. “We turned Karaoke Tuesday into Barry-oke Tuesday!”

  The stranded members of the Tristate Chapter of the Barry Manilow International Fan Club have indeed taken over the bar and the interactive gameplay arena. They have pooled their resources and have paid off the DJ, who for the under-the-table price of $250 was bribed into letting the BMIFC use their own backing tracks.

  “What does this have to do with me?” Marcus asks.

  “I bet Adele that I could turn anyone into a Can’t Smile girl—or boy, in your case!”

  “A what?”

  “It’s a Barry tradition dating back to the early eighties, when he would bring a girl up onstage to—”

  “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” hisses the crowd, eager to hear True Blue Spectacle bring her song to its dramatic close.

  “Look,” Lola says, sticking a knotty finger into Marcus’s chest. “All ya gotta do is get up on that stage and sing a few bars of ‘Can’t Smile Without You,’ and I win the bet.”

  This strikes Marcus as a fair request. At Princeton, always at Natty’s prodding, usually as a diversion during stressful midterm or final exam weeks, Marcus has participated in wagers that were far more complicated and possibly injurious to one’s health. The Fall of ′08 Bet You Can’t Drink a Blenderized Taco Bell Cheesy Double Beef Burrito, Caramel Apple Empanada, and Mango Strawberry Frutista Freeze While Arguing Why George W. Bush Is the Greatest American President in History comes to mind. (Marcus won … barely. And it wasn’t the value-menu smoothie that posed the biggest challenge to his regurgitative reflexes.) Though he’s anxious to return to Jessica, he knows this will be one hell of a story, one that would totally justify waking her up.

  “Look, Lola …”

  “SHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

  Marcus shuts up to give the song the reverence it deserves.

  “You be-e-e-loooooong.” True Blue stretches out the word, looking heavenward, before completing the line in a lilting, surprisingly plaintive alto. “To-o meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

 
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