Steve steered the wheel of his pickup with his knee while reaching into a diminishing 12-pack of Bud Light and popping opening another. Even though he seemed quite committed to drunk-driving me someplace, I trusted Steve. The person I didn’t trust was myself. I flew into his life to mitigate disaster, but even when that job was done, I wasn’t. I lingered. I made small talk and touched my hair a little too much. And, in this way, it was really me who asked that he take me someplace in his pickup, not him.
My day started with pure intentions. I looked under Steve’s bed, touched his cowboy boots, documented the remains of his underwear, then his girlfriend’s underwear. At some point, Steve stepped through what would’ve been his bedroom wall and asked if I wanted to accompany him to the pasture. For the next half hour I watched Steve whistle and whoop at his border collie. I saw sheep run through the green grass, then stop and go a different direction for no reason other than to impress me. I snuck peeks at Steve’s Civil War mustache, how his ropey veins swelled in his neck—which was certainly my father’s age—and I thought that Steve was everything that I wanted in a man, except that I don’t want a man. Still, at the end of the day, I got into his pickup and accepted his cans of beer.
Steve said we were going some place I’d like. The ride smelled of beer and border collie breath, wet rock and sweet grass. It snaked along a river and almost veered into it once. The sun was setting behind the Cascade Mountains, turning the snarled oak trunks gold then purple. By the time Steve slammed his truck into park and tossed the empties in the back, I’d already married him. We built an eco-friendly ranch house made from recycled materials, and I painted deer and cow skulls on our walls. Steve raised sheep. I made gourmet sheep’s milk spreads and sold them at the local farmer’s market. I was about to publish my own literary magazine, Corrugated Tin House, when Steve opened my door and said to get out and come meet his girlfriend.
Dale’s Pub ‘N Grub was a post-fishing kind of place with dusty beer selections and errant rooster figurines. In the moments before my eyes adjusted to the utter darkness of entering a bar before the sun has officially gone down, I walked in as Steve’s wife, or maybe as his hot young thing. I felt it from Steve, too—some kind of pride in sauntering into his watering hole with arm candy, which was fine by me. This was all temporary.
As my pupils enlarged, I saw half a dozen figures slumped in barstools—one of them a woman who straightened as she saw me, then spread her hands across the bar, wiping clean an invisible mess.
“Linda, Stef. Stef, Linda,” Steve hollered above Willie Nelson crooning about crying in the rain, then ordered a round for all of us. I walked over to a woman with permed hair and a cotton scrunchie on her wrist. She looked anxious, like she needed another beer so she could peel its label. I extended my hand and said, “Hi, we spoke on the phone before.”
I was referring to our week-old conversation in which I had informed her that the clothing she had at Steve’s would not be covered under his insurance. Still, I had inventoried her underwear earlier: “Hanes cotton panties with lace border, fourteen of them, Victoria’s Secret satin thongs, five.” Perhaps I’d done so out of some kind of premonition about my questionable role in Steve’s life tonight. But now, as Steve walked towards us with beers and the smug smile of having everything he wanted despite having lost it all, I felt tugged into a kind of sisterhood with Linda. I had seen her stains. I knew she was still menstrual. I stank of her boyfriend’s truck, his dog, of the fire that brought down the home she’d just moved into and had yet to mark with angels or dried flower bunches—whatever she was about. She knew nothing about me.
I thought about assuaging her fear by leaning over and whispering that I’m a homo. I decided not to for obvious reasons, and also because most of us know that women tend to slip and slide on that Kinsey scale—depending on circumstances and proximity to an emotional connection—and I had slid. No beer breathy assurance of how much time I’ve clocked on the Isle of Lesbos could make up for the fact that I was into Steve. Deeper analysis, like parsing whether I wanted a cowboy or just wanted to be a cowboy, was also not important at the moment. All that mattered was that Linda’s stare was now boring a hole into me.
“Those are great earrings!” I lied.
“Thanks,” she lied.
Steve sat down where the bar curved so he could look at us both and said, “Here’s to new beginnings!” He was the only one who raised his bottle.
Two beers later, things got looser. Linda and I exchanged truer statements, like how we both loved horses and hated the bartender’s tramp stamp. Five beers later, things got positively watery. Linda started falling into Steve for wet kisses that never landed in the intended spot. Steve began ending every point he made by slapping my thigh and leaving his hand there a little too long. There might have been some nachos. At some point, Linda began dancing toward people who weren’t even dancing. The song was Sammy Kershaw’s, and I knew it so I got up, grabbed her hand and swung her around. Like all drunken dances, it seemed to be music video quality: memorable, poignant, slowed-down.
“She don’t know she’s beautiful…” I sang along with the lyrics, while thinking that Linda was sort of beautiful, in a 1985-kind-of-way.
Linda swung me around and sang the next part, “though time and time I’ve told her so…”
I twirled her, and she let herself be twirled and slid.
The bar spun behind us, but I pictured a whir of green meadows and fiddle bows, people clapping and stamping their feet. Was I doing this for Steve or for me or for Linda? I decided it was a three-way tie, that we were all happy. It seemed that no one’s house had burned down, that this moment was ablaze only with kismet. When the song ended I led Linda to Steve and waltzed into the bathroom where I maybe threw up a little.
I tried sobering up by looking into the mirror and making faces at myself. It seemed very important that I walk out of the bathroom with the right face. I fluffed my damp hair until I felt professional enough to be someone Steve hired, and then I swung some of my bangs over my left eye so I felt sexy. Then I scrunched my face and shook my head hoping whichever way my hair fell would be the real me and walked out without looking.
Time passed, I’m not sure how much of it, and then I was in Steve’s truck again. It seemed he was taking me someplace that involved going in concentric circles. The truck made one hard left turn after another, the rear tires thudding across the washboard. I began to feel sick but covered it up by sticking my head out the window and pretending I was feeling free.
When the thudding stopped, we were in a driveway of a big house. Next, we were on a wood deck under a gazebo, and I was shaking hands with half a dozen people twice my age while being introduced as “the nice young woman helping me with my claim.” I began to worry we’d left Linda at the Pub ’N Grub. I pictured her crying alone on a stool, her permed hair stuck to her wet cheeks, her cotton scrunchie in a puddle of beer. Then she appeared, smiling and holding a pitcher of margaritas. This seemed impossible, a miracle. Linda had superpowers, or I was missing some information.
Linda introduced me to the man who seemed to own the place, and that man asked me questions about homeowner’s insurance that I couldn’t really answer but somehow did. Pretty soon, all conversation became white noise punctuated with fragments of sentences, some of which I responded to, even making people laugh. And this is my superpower. In the way that some people jerk awake from a coma and tell you who’s president, I can emerge from alcohol-induced unconsciousness with keen observations, then slip back into to a wakeful slumber. I’m the only one who knows when Captain Sloshed has capsized. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
At some point, it was declared that it was time for us to go home. “Home” now had a tri-fold meaning. It was where my car was parked, where Steve and Linda’s temporary RV was rigged, and where, quite possibly, the “slide-out” button on the RV would be pushed and a bed would come into view, beckoning an awkward three-way between a middle-aged couple and a young woman (who was technically still on the job). As we made our tipsy way down the driveway, an unexpected gust of sobriety hit me, and I offered to ride with Linda. I figured I was assuring her that I was not a threat. For reasons I don’t remember, and possibly because of muffled conversations to which I was not privy, I found myself in Steve’s pickup again.
I laid my head against the side of the truck door and fell into a fuzzy blackness. Steve talked, but his points were unintelligible. I finally came to in the middle of a conversation Steve and I were having. Apparently, it was about rape.
“Don’t you think rape is the worst crime a man can commit?” Steve asked.
This required my full attention. “Yes, totally,” I said, although I’d read about people being skinned alive and thought that was far worse. Why was Steve talking about rape while driving me down a rural country road? Was he trying to say he was safe, or was this a sick, clichéd prelude to my new home in a pine-needlely grave?
“But really, think about the worst possible thing you could do to another human being,” I said, hoping that by being the first to confront the cruel nature of humanity I could prevent it.
“Okay…” he said, taking his hand, which I noticed was perfectly veined and calloused, and rubbing it on the back of his neck.
“Are you thinking of the worst possible thing?” I asked while picturing the worst possible thing.
“Yes.” Steve said after some silence.
“Well,” I said, “It’s been done. Every horrific thing you can think of doing to someone else has already been done.”
Without warning, Steve slammed on the brakes, and my mind thought of door handles and directions to run. Steve looked into the rearview mirror.
“God damnit, Linda! She keeps pulling over. Why can’t she follow us?”
I turned around and saw her parked car and dim headlights hundreds of yards back. I knew why Linda kept pulling over. She was putting the brakes on things the only way she could. Steve threw the gear into park, got out without shutting his door and jogged in the dark toward his girlfriend.
Steve was doing what he should do. I decided to do what I should do: sit there in the dark, wondering about what it was that I really wanted, and then tell Steve to take me back to my car so I could sleep it off.