When Doug tells me Karen is gone, I’m not worried. Karen is the kind of woman who is hard to worry about. I tell Doug as much as he paces up and down on the dingy gray carpet of my brother’s basement.
“No,” he says, “It’s different this time.” He pushes his hair back from his forehead like he always does, a trait I find unattractive and a little feminine, although Doug never has any trouble picking up women.
“Calm down, Doug,” I tell him, “Sit down a minute and tell me what happened.”
He stops pacing but doesn’t sit. He rubs his hands together like he’s cold, even though its August and, although almost dark, still hot. I hand him a beer from the mini-fridge I keep near the washer and dryer, but he doesn’t open it.
“She’s missing?” I ask after I sit down on the futon, thinking how unlikely that sounds. I figure she and Doug have had some sort of falling out, some blow-up argument after one or both of them had too much to drink.
“She didn’t come home from work,” he says, “This time I’m worried.”
I don’t bother telling him that I’m not.
Karen has always been smart. Back in high school Doug and I were always copying her homework or cheating off her during exams. I don’t think it bothered her. We all went to college together in town, but it was wasted on me and Doug and we dropped out our sophomore year. Karen ended up transferring to a nursing school at the hospital. She now works there as an RN. “Not an LPN,” she sometimes vehemently reminds me, as if I’m accusing her of something.
A lot of times Karen talks like that, with an edge of meanness around every word, like she’s had to deal with one too many assholes in her life or smoked too many cigarettes, both of which are probably true. Every once in while, though, she’ll light up about something—a certain patient, maybe, or a conversation she’s had with one of the few doctors she likes—and I can see how she’s the kind of woman who’ll be a good mother someday, or a good wife. She’s pretty, too, but I’d be hard pressed to call her beautiful, what with her stringy hair and skinny legs.
They’re always having these big fights, Doug and Karen. Afterwards Doug will call and tell me to meet him at the bar. He’ll bitch about Karen for the first few drinks, then spend the rest of the night trying to go home with a woman. Sometimes it works. A day or two later, he and Karen will patch things up and all will be forgotten until the next argument.
It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. Of course there have been a few notable break-ups: the summer after eighth grade, most of junior year of high school, two months after Doug and I left college. Mostly, though, its been Doug and Karen together. I’ve been friends with them long enough to feel comfortable as the third wheel and, if I were honest, I’d admit that they need me as much as I need them; what good is an argument without an audience?
Doug sits down on the metal chair by the hot water heater. “It’s just not like Karen to do this,” he says, opening his beer and taking a drink.
“Really?” I ask.
I’ve known Karen to disappear before, just like Doug. It’s something they pull every once in a while. To test each other, maybe? It had been Doug who started it, three or four years ago now. That day, Karen called me up, crying so hard that I’d had trouble understanding her. I had to keep asking her to slow down and repeat herself. Finally she shouted into the phone, between sobs, “Where’s Doug?”
I was in the old apartment where I’d lived back then, the one with the high ceilings and wood floors, and I’d told Karen to come over, “Just to get out of the house and calm down,” I had said.
It turned out Doug had driven up to Kansas City for the afternoon without telling either of us, but we didn’t know that for a couple hours. We spent them on the fire escape, sharing a pack of cigarettes, trying Doug’s cell over and over. I can still picture exactly how Karen looked that afternoon, with her face all tear-stained and puffy, her hair blowing everywhere in the wind.
“Well, she hasn’t left like this in a while,” Doug says. “I thought we were over all that.” He takes another long drink, then crushes the can in his hand and shrugs. “Do you have anything besides beer?”
These days I wouldn’t invite Karen over for anything. I’m uncomfortable enough having Doug over. I moved into my brother’s basement four months ago, and most of my stuff is still packed into boxes on the off-chance I find a place I can afford with my unemployment check. My brother was okay about it at first—I think he felt sorry for me—but my sister-in-law, Alice, has been pissed off almost from the minute I moved in. I don’t blame her, who wants to tell their kids that their deadbeat uncle is moving into the playroom? Still, though, she doesn’t have to be so rude about it. I didn’t mean to park behind her in the driveway or play music too loud so late at night, but it’s hard to tell how loud things are when you’re drunk. She used to invite me upstairs for dinner sometimes, but that ended months ago. Lately she’s started locking the basement door from the kitchen. Not that I care, really, its just that it makes it even stranger in the basement, since I can still hear when the kids came home from school, or when Alice is vacuuming, or when the dog whines by the back door. Two nights ago I woke up to the sound of Alice and my brother’s bed squeaking, and that was the only time I’ve turned the music up too loud while I was sober.
I pour the last of the whiskey into a coffee mug and hand it to Doug. He looks at it for a second, shakes his head, then swallows it in one gulp. “We should walk to the bar,” he says. It’s a statement, not a question. “To put our heads together,” he adds.
It’s hot and crowded when we get there. Right away Doug starts flirting with this girl in a skin-tight black tank top. She’s too young for him, I think, but neither of them seems to agree. Her friend—short with big breasts and dark roots growing in under her blonde hair—keeps trying to make conversation with me, but I can’t think of anything to say. Finally she gives up. I buy her a drink and we sit next to each other in silence, watching Doug push his hair up on his forehead and tease the girl in the black tank top.
Soon we’re all playing pool together. Doug puts his arm around the black tank top girl between shots. Her friend looks up at me expectantly, but I don’t feel like touching her. Doug and his girl win the first round and I say I want to take a break, but Doug puts my next drink on his tab and tells me to lighten up. I guess I do, because before I know it I’m kissing the short girl on the back patio of the bar, leaning into her, touching her all over.
I come home with girls from the bar pretty often, the two of us fucking sloppily in the basement while my niece and nephew sleep upstairs. And sometimes, yes, Karen’s face swims up before me as I grope the girl with my eyes closed. Sometimes it’s not the thick lips or pierced tongue of the bar girl, but instead Karen’s mean hard mouth on me.
The short girl pushes me away on the dark patio. “Can you get me anotherrrum and coke?” she slurs, “I have to goes to th’bathroom.” The motion sensor light comes on as she gets up, and I can see that her makeup is smudged under her eyes and that her face is pale.
“Sure thing,” I say, following her into the bar. I find Doug passed out at a booth near the pool table, the girl in the black tank top nowhere in sight. I shake him awake.
“Karen?” he says, thickly.
“It’s me, you asshole. Get up, it’s time to go home.”
“Where’s Karen?” Doug sits up slowly, “She was just here.”
“Come on, get up,” I say. He stands unsteadily.
The girl in the black tank top appears with her friend, who looks even paler in the relative lightness of the bar.
“Is he okay?” black tank top girl asks, “I think he passed out.”
“He’s fine,” I say, “But we have to go.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” the short girl asks.
“No,” I say, as Doug throws up on the floor.
A month ago Karen and I broke into an apartment complex swimming pool together. Doug was supposed to meet us after work, but he called to say some guy hadn’t shown up for his shift and he was going to have to stay late.
Karen ordered a pizza to the swimming pool and the deliveryman brought it right up to the chain-link fence. I walked to the gas station down the block for a six-pack. We ate slices in the water. I floated a beer over to Karen like a buoy.
When it started to get dark we got out and laid our towels next to each other on the concrete. Karen said she was cold and I handed her my t-shirt.
“You know,” she said, pulling it over her head, “You’d make a good boyfriend.” She lay down on her back and crossed her skinny legs. “When are you going to start dating someone for real?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Maybe it was the three beers in my stomach, or the way the light in the parking lot came through the fence and cast patterns on Karen’s hair and face, but I felt like, if I kissed her, it would all right. “When are you going to start dating someone for real?” I said.
Karen raised her eyebrow. I remembered when she first learned how to do that, one summer vacation back in junior high, and how Doug and I had made fun of her for it, even though, now, it seemed like the perfect response to so many things.
I wanted to tell her Doug was no good for her. I wanted to say that he’d cheated on her lots of times, times she knew about and times she didn’t. I wanted to tell her that she had known me back when I still looked good in a swimsuit and how that meant something, that I remembered her ten pounds thinner but no more beautiful. I wanted to tell her I could do better, that I could get a job or drink less, and that I would do that, for her.
I didn’t say anything and she didn’t either. I stood up and got us both another beer. Doug showed up ten minutes later, complaining about his boss and swearing, again, that he was going to quit tomorrow.
I haven’t really been alone with Karen since. I tell myself it’s just a coincidence, but I don’t know, maybe she’s avoiding me.
Now, walking home from the bar with Doug, I notice the streetlights on his face, too. They cast dark shadows, making him look older than he is, or older than I like to think he is, or I am. He’s sobered up a little, enough to walk okay, but we make slow progress regardless. Twice I have to actually pull him forward after he stops in the middle of the road to light a cigarette. The second time he tries to light it ten times before I give up and do it for him, cupping the flame with my hand to block the wind.
We make it back to my brother’s house around 3 a.m. The walk home has left me energized. I get Doug a bottle of Gatorade from the mini-fridge and help him onto the futon. I brush my teeth in the utility sink as he tosses and turns. I go outside and sit down on the dewy grass, feel antsy looking at the stars. I pick up my niece’s bike and put it into the shed. I walk around the house and look at it from the street. In the dim light I don’t notice the vinyl siding or the cracked sidewalk, and it looks dark and quiet and peaceful. I imagine it’s my house and that I live there, not in the basement but upstairs.
I feel like calling Karen, but to say what? That Doug’s an asshole? That my brother is disappointed in me? That I don’t know what I need but that maybe she’s it?
I go inside and dial her number on my cell phone. It rings three times before she picks up, sounding groggy. I hang up and wait nervously, thinking she’ll call back. She doesn’t.
I take off my shirt. I lie down in bed. I check my phone a couple times. I call her again but hang up before the first ring. I fall asleep to Doug’s snores.
I wake up the next morning earlier than I have in months. I can hear Alice upstairs making coffee and packing the kids’ school lunches. Doug is asleep on the futon with his mouth open. The sunlight coming in from the small window near the ceiling has back lit his face so that all the stubble stands out on it like flecks of dust. I can see, for the first time, how his hair, now mussed across his forehead, is sort of handsome.
I sit up and think about going upstairs, telling Alice that I’ll move out by next week for sure. But I don’t.
Instead I just watch Doug sleep for the next hour, my hangover feeling like sadness deep in my bones. I watch him sleep and then I watch him wake up when his cell phone rings, watch him tell Karen he’s glad she’s okay, that he doesn’t care where she’s been he’s just glad she’s okay. I watch him push that pretty hair back with his palm. Then I watch him get up to leave.
I just sit there, and watch him.
For anyone who made it through all of that, I commend you. You are unstoppable, etc. I have a few questions for you: I know I need to make this better, but how? Is it a lost cause? Also, how can I quickly convey someone’s gender so that the reader knows the main character is a man, even though I am a lady?