23-May-2004 (Major revision 25-05-2004)

We May as Well Do it by Damian Kelleher

James sat in the darkness of his car smoking. Outside, a party was in progress, a celebration of ten years of marriage between friends of his. The house was lined with fairy lights and splashed with the colour of streamers; sounds of merriment could be heard clearly in the night air. Outside, underneath a pagola James had helped build, sat various couples, the red glow of cigarette tips the only way for him to ascertain how many there were. Most seemed to be in clusters, but here and there a person sat alone, or if not alone, their companion did not smoke.
He hadn't been inside to greet the couple just yet. Right now, he did not feel fully capable of smiling and mouthing the mild pleasantries that such a meeting would require, nor did he wish to shake hands and forget the names of their friends. He thought it would be beneficial to both himself and Simon, the host, if he composed himself in the car beforehand.
Stubbing out the cigarette just before it reached the filter, he automatically reached into his breast pocket for another, tapping the soft packet against his palm and knocking out another cigarette. He lit it with even fingers, softly dragging, then opened the door.
It was warm, remnant of a summer hotter than ever recorded. The jacket he was wearing was unnecessary now, but even in May the nights had a way of turning from mildly warm to biting cold in the blink of an eye. He walked around the side of the house to the pagola, right hand in his jacket pocket fingering his keys. The soft tread of his step and the jingle of metal on metal alerted the pagola's occupants of his approach, one man stood and called out.
'Hello, David,' Jason said, shaking the big man's hand. David returned the greeting, his face changing from one of wary curiosity to familiarity. Around the cheap plastic table sat David's wife and a few people he did not know, as he was introduced he inclined his head but did not offer his hand. The names he forgot almost before they were uttered.
'Jason, Jason, good to see you. Can we speak a moment?'
He allowed his arm to be taken, they walked a ways off to stand in front of his car.
'Have you seen Simon yet?'
'Not yet, David.' Jason gestured in the direction of his car, 'I brought a bottle of wine...'
David nodded, hands in his pockets, scuffing the ground with his shoes, shiny black in the moonlight. They were silent for a moment, the only sound was Jason, sucking on his cigarette.
'The wife is at home?'
'Yes, she's, that is we, well, she's very pregnant at the moment, so we thought it best.'
They moved over to the car and sat on the hood, their combined weight making the front of it groan and sink. David asked for a cigarette, a rarity for the man; he had mostly given up smoking when he got married, on his wife's adamant request. Jason blew irregular smoke rings and they watched the stars.
'Everything is ok with you and Melissa?'
'What? Yes. Enough anyway. It's tough with a baby on the way. Sometimes she gets so mad I just...I just don't know what to do.' Jason flicked his butt off into the darkness. 'Was it the same with Sarah?'
'Oh yes.' David smiled and leaned back onto the hood, arms above his head, eyes closed. 'It was very difficult at times. She'd scream and yell over the stupidest things, then I'd get mad, then it'd be worse. Ten minutes later, she'd be cheerful and happy, or hungry for God knows what. Crazy situation to be in.'
'Are you going to have another any time soon?'
'We're not sure. She'd like Donovan to have a little brother or sister, and so would I, but not just yet. Finances don't really support it at the moment, you know how it is.'
David nodded. They sat there together on the top of the car, experiencing the comfortable silence that good friends share. Presently David finished his cigarette and they went back to the pagola. He offered Jason a space at the table, but even with the insistence of his wife, Jason declined. He told them that he really should say hello to the host; he had been here for almost half an hour now.
Inside the house was a haze of cigarette smoke, complimented nicely by the soft chatter of voices and the almost too loud music coming from carefully placed speakers. Jason said hello to the people he knew and nodded agreeably in the direction of those he didn't. He avoided being brought into a group discussion, and twice had to forcibly extricate himself from a well-meaning friend's desire to introduce him to this or that person.
On a table were little white plastic cups filled with beer. Simon stood behind the table, beer in hand, pouring out drinks and exchanging words with whomever came along. He didn't see Jason at first, but his eyes lit up when he realised who it was.
'Jason!' They shook hands. 'How are you?'
'Great, just great.' He looked about and took a sip from his drink. 'Nice party you've got here.'
'Thanks, it's been good so far. Loads of people turned up who I haven't seen in months - years!' He pointed to a lady chatting with a tall black man, 'See her? That's Joanne. Joanne! She's sure changed, hasn't she? I remember when we were in high school, her hair would be all different colours...' Simon trailed off, realising that Jason wasn't sharing his enthusiasm. 'What's the matter, Jace?'
'Nothing. I'm good.'
'Really? Where's Melissa, anyway?'
'She's at home. Baby kicks too often these days for her to go anywhere, she tells me.'
Simon nodded wisely. 'I see. Makes sense now. I may not have experienced a pregnant wife myself, but I've had enough friends to know how it works.'
Jason took that as a sympathy statement and drained his cup. He held it out to be filled then wandered off, promising that he would be back soon.
A quick lap of the house showed that the party, while not particularly rambunctious, was a success. He briefly joined the preriphery of a heated conversation about this or that musician, not knowing any of the participants but recognising band names and songs. He nodded or shook his head with each speaker, then left them to it. One of Melissa's friends cornered him in the kitchen, inquiring as to her whereabouts, questions coming thick and fast like machine gun bullets. A full fifteen minutes later she left him, after satisfying herself that he had not in fact abandoned his poor wife at home to go out cavorting. He poured out the last mouthful of alochol into the sink then added a splash of water, admonishing himself thoroughly. She was exactly the reason he had not wanted to come. They all were; the endless questions were hardly worth the few minutes of simple enjoyment and socialising.
Gazing into the stainless steel sink, he admitted to himself that he was feeling overwhelmed. This was not a new revelation at all, at least twice a day he would be struck with the same certainty. Talking it over with Melissa was a difficulty, especially when she was in a state of emotion. It certainly did not help matters that she was a part of the problem, and that there was no way that he could see for her to fix it. He felt enclosed, trapped, like a prisoner in a jail cell or a child locked inside a cupboard. Soon he would be a father, soon his freedom would be gone, irresponsibility would not be an option. He would be an Adult. Sometimes he wanted it, but just as often he didn't. He wondered if Melissa felt the same way; for all he knew, it could be worse for her - the baby was after all growing inside her body.
He threw his head back and swallowed the entire contents of the plastic cup. The water was cool but had an earthy taste. Thoughts such as these were not beneficial in the state he was in. They would serve only to increase his despondancy, not dissipate it.
'I was never very good at shotting beer like that.'
Jason turned around. A vaguely familiar girl was there, an identical cup in hand, though hers was full. She was smiling and had that appraising, slightly predatory look that some women have.
'Oh, no, nothing so grand I am afraid.' He tilted the cup forward. 'See? Only water.'
She laughed. 'So you aren't a tough strong man, is that what you are saying?'
She was flirting with him. He knew it and she certainly knew it. Yet another reason why this party was not such a good idea. He considered blowing her off, maybe rudely announcing the fact of his marriage or some such, but there was a curve to her lips that intruiged him. Perhaps it was the way her eyebrow tilted, or the angle of her chin, slightly pointed in his direction, overtly a challenge but unconsciously a submission.
'Sometimes I am a strong man. Not as often as I'd like, but I try.' He smiled in a self-deprecating manner and looked at his shoes before returning her gaze. 'Why, just the other day I had seven weetbix for breakfast. That's gotta count for something.'
'It certainly does!' She laughed and he joined her. She shifted closer to him, resting her back against the refrigerator, red high-heeled feet only inches from his.
There was a silence then, uncomfortable, and his mind raced to fill it. He did not want to seem uneducated, or uncouth, or too impulsive, but what to say? She appeared to be having the same problem, taking small sips from her cup and smiling hesitantly.
He looked down at his empty cup. 'Oh!' He said, 'I'd better go fill up my drink.'
'Oh, ok...' She trailed off, looking down at her feet and bringing them closer to herself in little shuffles.
He squeezed past her, whispering to be excused, knowing he had said the wrong thing. In his hast to impress, he had thought she would consider his words an invitation to accept a drink, but she hadn't. Now it was too late to go back and straighten things up, but with each step he took he was glad of this. He had no business flirting with young women, no matter how attractive they were.
'Simon.' He accepted another refill. He moved around to the other side of the table and leaned against the wall. They chatted for a while, filling the air with the inconsequential matters of life. For seventeen years they had been friends, these small, useless topics of conversation were more as an affirmation of the connection that had once been stronger but now, with wives and families of their own, had faded into the background. Whole months would pass without a word between them, it was a relief to Jason that they could so easily slip back into casual familiarity.
'Say, Simon, who is that girl over there?'
Simon shielded his eyes with his hand to get a better look at where Jason was pointing. 'Who? Oh, her. She's the sister of a guy I work with. Great girl. Her and Tracey just hit it off one year at a Christmas party. Been friends ever since.' He glanced at Jason. 'Why?'
'Nothing, just curious. We spoke in the kitchen.'
'You got a crush or something?'
'Simon! No. No, we just said hello, that's all.'
Simon held up his hand. 'You misunderstand. I'm not accusing you of anything. Hell, we all get crushes, Jason. Life wouldn't be life without random little connections like that. Trick is though...' He tapped his nose and leaned forward conspiratorily, 'The trick is not to do anything about it. Look but don't touch. Simon's tips for a healthy marriage.'
'Thanks, Simon,' Jason said drily. His eyes were watching her, seemingly of their own accord.
'I'm serious. Every now and again, Tracey'll come home and tell me about some guy she saw on a bus that she thought was good looking, or how she had a great conversation with a man during lunch. She knows it is harmless, and just as importantly, I know. I don't begrudge her her little crushes and she doesn't get all worried or bothered when she catches me watching a nice pair of legs.'
'What's her name?'
Simon laughed. 'It is a crush! How cute.' Jason gave him a look. 'Her name is Liz.'
Liz. Jason nodded thoughtfully, still watching her. They stood in silence, then Simon broke it with an innocuous question about work. They went back to casual conversation but now there was a tinge of impatience in Jason's responses, a curtness that was not there before.
'I have to go to the bathroom, Simon,' Jason said. Simon raised his drink in a gesture of farewell and effortlessly began another conversation with a passerby. Such is the ability of the host, Jason reflected. He put his cup down on a small lamp-table and made his way to the toilet. There was a line, four deep; the pressure on his bladder was not so great that he could not hold it in. He shared a smile of mutual discomfort with the person in front of him. They both knew why they were standing there, both wished they could be elsewhere.
Jason was studying a landscape painting on the wall when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and there she was.
He tried to think of something to say. 'You need to go too?'
She smiled. 'Something like that, yes. Alcohol will do that to a girl!'
'Or a man.'
'Yes, or a man.' She smiled again and settled in behind him.
'So, Liz, what do you do?'
'You know my name is Liz?' She cocked her head, curious more than affronted.
'Simon told me.'
'Oh, you asked about me, did you?' The smile on her face suggested that she was pleased.
'I don't know about asked. I saw you and he mentioned your name, that's all.' He held her gaze as he spoke, and just as the last words left his lip he saw her smile flicker uncertainly, a nearly imperceptible indication of doubt. The smile returned, brighter and bigger than before; the only reason he knew the slip had existed at all was because he had been watching for it. He shifted his shoulders against the wooden wall, getting comfortable. There was a palpable sensation that a game had begun and as yet it was not certain who was the hunter and who was the hunted.
They spoke for a while, sparring with words, here he would score a playful jab, there she would let a word or two slip that indicated her interest. In a few minutes their roles had cemented - he was the hunter, she the hunted, but there was no sense of a frightened doe in her carriage. He began to consciously smile, keeping his face friendly and open, hands spread. She would look at her feet often, then lift her head, eyes darting to find his and holding for just an instant too long, then back down to her shoes she would go.
He hadn't felt such a heady rush in years. Here was the case, the thrill of excitement, the mystery of the unknown. With Melissa he knew what her favourite colour was, knew what program she watched on television on a Tuesday night, but with Liz there was surprise, interest, magic. As of yet they had not touched, but his fingers came close to her bare shoulder just once, when he jokingly apologised after a pretend insult.
Jason was next for the bathroom. There was a flush and the door opened. A man Jason didn't know stepped out, casually stuffing his shirt back into brown trousers, nodded perfuctionarily at them both then walked off.
'Here, you go before me,' He said, holding the door open.
'You sure?' Her head was tilted inquisitively.
'Girls have a smaller bladder, I'm told. Go.'
She smiled and nodded, squeezing past him, turning her body so they were face to face, her breasts pushing against his chest. She stopped there, looked up at him, smiled self-consciously, then walked into the toilet.
Jason closed the door, the warmth from her flesh seeming to remain attached to his shirt, pressing against his body but fading fast. While overtly sexual, the contact had been slight, but it was still enough for his body to react. His jeans felt tight, uncomfortable. He could hear the soft trickle of her urination and felt embarassment, not lust.
He left the toilet line, his erection losing its vigour with each step, much to his relief. But he still felt the residual affects of arousal and made his way to Simon who was having trouble standing up straight though still managing to pour drinks with enviable flair.
'Simon, listen, do you have a condom?'
'What?' Simon hushed him and handed a matronly woman a cupfull of beer, then turned to face his friend. 'You want a what?'
'A condom.' Jason held up his head. 'Not now, Simon. Yes or no.'
'A crush is a crush is a crush. That's it. Weren't you listening?' Simon's voice was thick with alcohol but concerned. Jason was listening for a hint of disapproval but there was none. Not yet.
'It's not for that. I'm out, is all.'
'Jason we are friends.' Jason nodded and turned away but Simon gripped his arm tight as a vice. 'Jason, listen. We are friends. Yes? Yes. What I'm hearing is that you need a condom. Is that what you are saying?'
'That's what I'm saying.'
'And that's what I'm hearing. What I'm hearing is that you need a condom, and you know what is wrong with that? Last I was aware, you don't need a condom when having sex with your wife. No. Condoms are for girlfriends and one night stands. Wouldn't you agree?'
'Not now, Simon. Not now, alright?'
Simon's voice might have been a little slurred but his gaze was clear. They looked at one another for a full minute, not saying anything, and gradually Simon's grip on Jason's arm became limp, then fell away. 'Fine, do what you want. Check the bathroom upstairs.' Jason turned to go. 'Wait, Jason?'
'Yes, Simon?'
'You just...No. Go, have fun.' He turned away, fumbled about on the table for a drink, realised that there were none available, and took a mouthful from the bottle in his other hand. He didn't look at Jason again.
Jason trudged up the stairs, counting them as he went. By twelve he was at the top. For some reason, he found himself unable to raise his gaze much higher than foot-level and there was a lump in his throat. Downstairs there was silence while the CD was changed.
He opened three drawers before finding what he was looking for. The blue serrated plastic was familiar to the touch, but familiar in the way that something unused for years is familiar. The body remembers the touch, the feel, but the memories are remote, as though from another time. So it was with this condom. As cliché as it seemed to Jason, the brand was the same that he had used. At least he knew what he was getting himself into.
There was music coming from downstairs. The song was familiar, but he couldn't place it. He studied himself in the mirror, pushing his hair about until it was the way he wanted, splashing water on his face to freshen himself up. He felt jittery inside, like a schoolboy almost and his excitement was very great. The mystery of the unknown had him firmly in its grip, the worst thing was - and he could admit to himself that it was, in fact, a bad thing he was about to do - was that he wanted it.
He felt ready. In the mirror, he looked ready. His heart seemed to be beating twice as fast as normal, and his pupils were dilated, but these weren't necessarily problems. He imagined that Liz was walking about downstairs, drink in hand, asking for him and looking over people's shoulders to catch a glimpse. Her belly was flat and athletic, he wanted to touch it, wanted to touch her.
With only the slightest warning, he found himself throwing up in the toilet. He hadn't eaten dinner that night so most of what he expelled was bile and alcohol. After that there was dry heaving, he could feel cramps coming on and stopped himself from continuing with great effort. Back in the mirror, his face was a wreck: pale, spit-flecked and his eyes had lost that nervous spark. He spent a few minutes running water over his face, wetting his hair, hands, and dampening the cuffs on his shirt.
Drying his hands on a towel he reached into his pocket and brought out his mobile phone. Keying in the number, he closed his eyes and leaned back against the cold tiled wall. The phone rang four times before being answered.
'Are you coming home?'
'I'm on my way, sweetie. How's the baby?'
'It keeps kicking, Jace. It hurts, but I'll be fine. I've missed you.'
'Me too, Mel. I'll be home soon. Do you want me to pick something up for you?'
'I'm fine. Just say hello to Simon and Tracey, would you?'
'Sure, honey.'
The phone clicked. He sighed heavily and let the mobile fall to the ground with a clatter. He breathed deeply, in and out, his body growing more tired with each breath; he felt as though he had just climbed a mountain. But his head was clear, to the point of crystalisation, and he didn't feel like he was going to throw up again. Occasionally his fingers would tremble, but he ascribed that to the potency of the sense of relief flooding through him.
Steeling himself for the trip downstairs, he carefully padded down the steps, looking about for Liz. She was talking to Simon, who didn't look very happy to see her. Watching them but trying not to catch Simon's gaze, he sneaked through the party, returning a hello or goodbye when they were thrown his way but otherwise ignoring the guests.
'Jason, hey Jason!' Simon had spotted him. He ignored his friend and ducked out the front door, pulling his jacket tight around his chest, hugging himself. To his eyes, his fingers were very pale as he reached for a cigarette. The flame quivered in the air as he lifted it to his mouth. Inhaling deeply, he stepped into the car and put the key into the ignition, twisting it slowly.
He backed out of the driveway, drove fifty or sixty metres down the road and parked out of reach of the lamp posts. He killed the engine, switched off the lights and burst into tears.