4.05 / May 2009

They Hover Over Us

I married my best friend’s girlfriend. But he doesn’t know it. His name was Bud Metzger, and he’s been dead five years. He drank too much Jack Daniels and Coke, passed out, and dropped a cigarette that torched his apartment. I may have been the last person to see him alive, but I never saw it coming.

When Susan and I had celebrated our six-month anniversary, I learned something new about her—she’d meet Bud’s mom for lunch every now and then. They hadn’t met since we got married, but Susan told me that Mrs. M. had called and they agreed to a noon lunch on Saturday at the City View Bar & Grille.

“You should come along,” Susan said. She said it casually, like it wasn’t weird at all.

“Um—”

“Really, you should come. She’s so nice.”

Susan has two labels for people: nice and not nice. Susan herself is nice—by anyone’s standards—and I can’t argue with her after she uses the nice label.

“Okay.”

Susan is a real catch. She’s just plain pretty—in that low-maintenance way. She never wears makeup and doesn’t even own a pair of high heels. She has a dainty nose, straight brown hair and smooth skin. Great skin, really, and she’s just as great inside. She works with messed-up kids at the county youth services agency, and it’s the perfect job for her. She has her wild side too—she likes to have sex in different rooms. She’ll drag me onto the kitchen floor, the living room carpet, or, if it’s warm outside, underneath the bistro table on the patio. I really love it under the bistro table—doing it outside gives me an extra rush. We still live in Susan’s one-bedroom apartment, but we’re looking for our first house.

We live in Johnstown, an old steel city surrounded by miles of mills, mostly empty. They’re charcoal-brown buildings in tight rows at the edge of downtown, and sometimes it feels like they hover over us, like ghosts that haunt us daily. The chamber-of-commerce types are always blathering about a New Johnstown, but it never seems much different from the old. Still, I don’t mind it here. I’ve heard some people say that everyday here is like winter, but it’s my hometown, so I’m probably used to it.

I had a hangover when we got to the City View. We scanned the restaurant, but didn’t see Mrs. M., so I suggested we sit at the bar.

“Let’s not,” Susan said sharply.

“Just while we wait for her,” I said.

“Fine. But just while we wait.”

The City View is New Johnstown. It has lime-green walls and a martini menu, and it’s at the top of the hill overlooking the city. The windows are huge, but as vast as the view is, the mills are right there, lurking.

I ordered a Bloody Mary and Susan ordered iced tea. Mrs. M. came in five minutes later, and she looked bad. Her eyes sagged and she had gained weight. We grabbed our drinks and met her near the hostess stand. She gave us each a little hug and we immediately agreed to get a table.

“Tell me, how are you two?” Mrs. M. asked in a perky tone. “You’re house hunters, huh?”

“We’re seeing our first houses this afternoon,” Susan said.

“Exciting,” Mrs. M. said.

The waiter came, and Mrs. M. shot us a devilish look and said, “Let’s have martinis!”

“Sure,” Susan said.

I pointed to my half-full Bloody Mary and said, “I’m fine.”

“So how are you?” Susan asked in that same perky voice, which sounded fake coming from her. “How is Mr. M.?”

“Oh, why not cut right to the chase,” Mrs. M. said. She turned her eyes downward and rearranged her silverware. “We’ve separated. He’s renting an apartment, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with us. We had another one of those long talks the other night, but I just don’t know.”

“I’m so sorry,” Susan said. She was being genuine now.

Mrs. M. glanced toward the bar and said, “That’s why they make the meds, I suppose.”

There was awkward silence for a moment. Susan fidgeted. I could tell she wanted to break the silence, but couldn’t think of what to say. Mrs. M. took a sip of water. I felt even worse—the Bloody Mary was no help—and I had fresh carpet burns on my knees to top if off.

Their martinis came, and when Mrs. M. hoisted hers, I spotted a bandage around her right wrist. It was otherwise hidden underneath the long sleeve of her purple turtleneck sweater. The sleeves were so long, they covered half her palm when her elbow wasn’t bent.

“So tell me more about those houses you’re going to see,” Mrs. M. said.

Susan went into all the details that we knew—prices, square footage, you name it. The conversation soon veered to our families—they were fine, we said. The food came and we chatted some more as we ate. When the bill came, Mrs. M. insisted on paying, and Susan put up a little argument but soon gave in.

“I’m so glad things are working out for you two,” Mrs. M. muttered. “Bud would be happy to see you together like this.”

We got up to leave, and as Mrs. M. put her coat on, I noticed another bandage on her left wrist. It was hidden just like the other one.

“Oh, man,” I said to Susan when we got in the car.

“What?”

“Did you see her wrists?”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re bandaged,” I said. “Both of them. She has the bandages covered by those long sleeves.”

“You’re not saying—”

“I’m saying both her wrists are bandaged. What else can that mean?”

“That can’t be,” Susan said.

She let out a deep breath as I drove out of the parking lot, and a moment later she said, “She seemed all right, though considering everything she’s been through. Didn’t she?”

***

I was a skinny, zit-faced teenager, but you wouldn’t know it now because my folks pumped a ton of money into dermatologists and I eventually filled out physically. I believe in the theory that some people blossom later in life while others burn out early, and that I’m one of the late bloomers. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have snagged Susan. When we finally hooked up, I’d just gotten my job at the wireless store and bought my Spyder convertible. I was getting my shit together, and Susan must have known it.

Susan and Bud had started dating our last year of high school. They broke up for a while when she was away at Penn State, but they got back together when she came home with her degree in social work. Of all our friends, Susan was the only one who graduated from college. Bud dropped out after one year at Slippery Rock, and I lasted two years at Pitt-Johnstown. Back then, Susan gave us little lectures about how we were screwing up our lives by quitting college, but we blew her off.

The night Bud died, he and Susan got into a big fight at Scott’s Tavern. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember Bud blowing out the door and me following. Bud was a couple inches taller than me, and not quite as skinny. He had thick, wavy hair and kind of a baby face. We drove in my old Subaru to The Corral, where he started slamming the Jack Daniels and Cokes, and we flirted with a couple of bleached blondes. At last call, Bud rolled down his zipper, whipped it out and said, “How about some of this next?” The blondes freaked, and we got kicked out. When I dropped him off at his apartment, he seemed more ticked about the blondes than about Susan.

“Fucking dingbats,” he said before I pulled up at his place. And then before he got out, he said, “Oh, well, life goes on. Later.” And he slammed the door of my Subaru behind him, and that was it. I’ve never told Susan about the blondes—only that I was the one who drove him home that night. She never asked for details, maybe because she’s smart enough to know when it’s time to move on.

When we started dating, Susan and I didn’t talk much about Bud. But we used to. When he died, a bunch of us erected a memorial at the tree in front of his apartment. There was a cross with Bud’s name—and not his real name, Ernest, which he hated—and a ton of flowers. After two days, the apartment manager said we had to tear it down. So we moved it to the road outside the apartment complex. I don’t know what eventually happened to it. I guess the flowers blew away.

The same half-dozen of us—all friends since high school—talked regularly about Bud when we met at Scott’s to drink Rolling Rocks and shoot darts. The fire marshal’s report had said a Stevie Ray Vaughan CD was playing on Bud’s stereo when the blaze started, and sometimes we’d try to guess which song it was. Time passed, and we talked less about Bud, Stevie Ray, or the jerk-off apartment manager.

One winter night, Susan and I were at a table by the front window while our friends sat at the bar. A hockey game had just let out at the War Memorial, and the sidewalks were crowded with people in heavy coats or oversized black hockey jerseys and ski caps. Some of them poured into the bar, but we were having what seemed to be the coolest conversation in the world, and we ignored the crowd. The general theme of our talk was adulthood, and Susan seemed flattered when I said, “You are so together.” We made out at the window, and it all seemed so natural. That’s how we got together. That’s all there was to it.

Sometimes I wonder if Susan compares me to Bud, and sometimes I wonder if Susan ever had sex with Bud under the bistro table, or any other odd spot in her apartment. It’s possible, isn’t it, that she developed her urge for other rooms later in her 20s, when she started dating me? That’s what I try to convince myself.

Sometimes I also wonder how Bud would react if he were still alive and found out about us. I might imagine a surprised look, eyebrows raised. Or I might imagine a tense look, eyebrows scrunched. Sometimes I think about broaching the issue with Susan in those tender moments after sex, but then I decide it’s not worth risking a nice moment. One night at Scott’s, we had a buzz on and I took a stab at it. We were sitting at the bar, just the two of us.

“Do you ever wonder what Bud would have thought about us?” I asked.

“He would have kicked your butt,” she said.

I grinned and nodded. “Seriously,” I said.

She sipped her Rolling Rock and took in the question.

“I don’t think Bud and I would have lasted forever,” she said. “I don’t think it was that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved him, and it breaks my heart that he’s gone, but we were young.”

Sometimes she knows exactly what to say.

***

After our lunch with Mrs. M., we met our realtor and looked at a dumpy townhouse with cheesy yellow siding in a development built in the ’70s. We went to the second house, which was near the top of our price range but much nicer. It was in the suburb of Richland, and empty because the owner had already moved. It was only three years old. New Johnstown.

“I really like this neighborhood,” Susan said. “It’s cheery. You can’t even see those ugly mills from up here.”

It had airy rooms, pink carpet, and ceiling fans in the living room and master bedroom. We trudged up and down the steps several times, eventually splitting up and wandering into various rooms for a second look. Susan and I finally met up in the living room.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I really like it,” she said.

“Me too. What do you think about Mrs. M.?”

‘”I think you’re seeing things.”

“I know what I saw.”

“I don’t know what you saw, but I can’t imagine you’re right.”

“I’ve heard of people who freak out after losing a kid,” I said. “And they never get over it.”

“Don’t be so sure of yourself,” she said curtly.

Our realtor, a feminine guy wearing well-pressed khakis, popped into the room. He must have sensed some tension, because he backed right out and pulled his cellular from his jacket. “I need to make a call. Take your time,” he said.

“Let’s just worry about the house for now,” I said to Susan.

She nodded. We poked around the downstairs for another minute and left without saying another word. Over the next few days, we talked more about the second house and decided to make an offer. Our realtor said to expect a reply by the weekend.

I was in bed Saturday morning when the phone rang. Susan was in the kitchen and she answered it. I rolled out of bed, anxious for word from the realtor. The call was from a friend who had seen the bad news in the paper that morning: Mrs. M. had gotten her wish. Susan sat down on the kitchen floor, on the exact spot where we had sex 12 hours earlier, and wept into the phone.

Mrs. Metzger died in a violent crash just west of town on Route 56. Her little Neon crossed the middle lines and collided head-on with a tractor-trailer. She was alone in the car, which was crushed like a ball of foil. The truck sustained heavy front-end damage, but the driver suffered only minor injuries. She was pronounced dead on the scene. There was no mention in the paper of a suicide swerve, but state police said alcohol was not a factor, so Susan and I read between the lines.

I wasn’t surprised that something happened to Mrs. M., but I was surprised by how Susan took it. For a few days she had uncontrollable sobbing fits, and was too upset to go with the gang for our impromptu wake at Scott’s. Soon she had trouble sleeping and started calling off from work. When I got out of bed to check on her the other night, she was sitting in the kitchen playing with a small pile of salt. She had dumped it on the table and was running her finger through it, drawing little circles.

“Do you know the difference between guilt and shame?” she asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“We feel shame for what we are—you know, the cards that are dealt us.

We feel guilty for something we do—you know, consciously.”

“I see.”

“I think I feel both’”if that’s possible.”

The next day, Susan decided to start therapy, and I promised to do whatever I could to help. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and besides, I know that life brings extra baggage when you marry your best friend’s girlfriend.

I’ve had a few of my own ideas about why she was so wigged out, but it’s hard to know which one was right. Maybe it was because Mrs. M. was her last real connection with Bud, and maybe people can only take so much bad news, and eventually it breaks you, especially when you’re only 30.

Maybe Susan had always felt guilty about the big fight that sent Bud into a hard-drinking tailspin that night, and now she was overwhelmed with shame for the cards we were dealt next: the cigarette slipping from Bud’s fingers, Mrs. M.’s car slamming into the rig.

I’ve thought long and hard about this. There are many late nights now when I’m the one playing with salt at the kitchen table, thinking about Bud and his girlfriend and shame and guilt. His girlfriend, my wife. And that’s part of my baggage now.


4.05 / May 2009

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