She looped around my arm like a snake. If I moved, she constricted. If I relaxed, she bit into my earlobe. We wrestled in Lance’s bed—I was trying to leave, she was pinning me there.
I could hear the players on the other side of the bedroom door, laughing, ice clinking and shifting in their glasses, cards shuffling: “Do you really not know what you have in your hand?!” I heard my friend yell. “It’s called a fucking flush!” The players at the table ripped with laughter. And then, I felt her hot breath in my ear and, like a spirit leaping from the body, Mave whispered, “Do you love me?”
We were in total darkness, a darkness in which one could lose one’s head, a blackness in which a miracle could occur or a crime could be committed. My fingers and toes stiff, rigid as nails, as if venom splashed about in my veins, passing through my heart, wearing down my body. It was important for me to think of the mission. What would Lance have me do? Would he ask me to complete it or to adapt to the situation? Lance’s mission statement: Just sincerity.
“You know when I woke up this morning,” she continued. But I refused to listen. We’d both smoked quite a lot of the white pot Lance had, so strong it can make you retch your essence—intricate, passionate, full of contradictions like the nee-nee laughter of a lunatic—and I’d smoked this stuff before, so I knew that while on it you might eat up another person’s soul if it looked the least bit appetizing. Mave was expert, though: she rode her high as a child runs away with the circus, impulsive and remorseless.
It had been Lance’s idea that I come in here with her. He charged me with telling Mave that he loved her, that she was special, “or any kind of sentimental horseshit you might think of.” He said, “Just sincerity. That just gets her every time.” I was supposed to get her out of the room, back to playing hold ‘em with the rest of the party. “She doesn’t even have to sit at my table,” Lance said.
I told him I wanted nothing to do with it. That I was on a winning streak. That I was unwashed. That I had a toothache. That I was going blind. That I had stomach cancer. That I had a broken heart and a chipped tibia. That I was too warm-blooded for the gory work of patching up wounded relationships. That I was stuck somewhere between was and had. That it was nothing personal. And had I mentioned I was on a winning streak? That I wished for nothing to come between me and the chips—a glowing (in my eyes) stack of discs that proved I’d already doubled my money. That my head brimmed with his special, soul-devouring white weed as thick and hairy as a cat’s tail!
But Lance jerked me up from the table. “Do me this one favor,” he moaned. The rest of the players at the table gazed on us with mirthful eyes. A bunch of soulless hicks and techs—they’d be holding their dicks if they weren’t holding cards. We were all in our late twenties, early thirties at the time—too young to be serious, too old not to know we would have to be, eventually.
I didn’t want to go because I wanted Mave. That’s the most honest way to put it. I wanted Mave. Lance knew it—I knew he knew it, because I’d told him—but he wagered I would come out with Mave’s forgiveness, not tumble into his bed with her, because I was the honest type, because I was his friend.
Lance escorted me to the bedroom door. A door that was closed. It had the air of a door that didn’t want to be or shouldn’t be opened. I said as much to Lance. Lance pushed me face first into it and whispered in my ear to tell Mave it was me—“She’ll let you in.”
“Mave? It’s me.” Time (how much doesn’t matter much) passed.
Alakazam—the little lock unlatched. Lance wrenched the handle, shoved me in like a sacrifice. The winning hand—the one Lance had folded for me—was announced, and my loss wafted in as the door clapped shut behind me. And then there I was, in darkness, the utter kind, the kind that eats you alive.
I turned, wandered forward, my hands searching out the murk in front of me. Why didn’t I turn and push back through the door? It would have done no good. Lance would be there, his unpocked face smiling, his teeth bleached white communicating unnatural earnestness. Whatever I did in this room would be feebly accomplished. Yet I moved forward. Second step. Wait. Third step. I felt brittle; I felt nothing but the floor beneath my feet and the clothes wrapping my body. Forth step. Fifth step.
Out of the loam, a lotioned hand gripped my arm.
Now Mave clutched me, her thumb piercing my arm. “And I didn’t want the box of cereal any longer,” she said. “I didn’t. I wanted something else for breakfast. I no longer wanted sugary cereal. Do you understand?” My god, she was still talking and I wasn’t listening! She was gibbering while I mentally queried the roster of my friends who might care if I ran from this room, carrying fistfuls of my hair, Mave’s name caught in my throat like a fiery quinsy. “When I thought about suicide, Jake, Lance was the one who came in and took the poison away. But I’m all better now.” Jesus Christ! She licked the inside of my ear while she confessed. Her grip was going to leave bruises.
“Don’t you like playing poker?” I said brightly.
“Yes, yes, I enjoy it very much, Jake. But you’re not listening to me.”
“I’m not here to listen to you.”
“Then leave.” She sliced her hand through the air and cut me with her nails.
“You cut me.”
“You were leaving.”
“Would you like for me to stay?”
She tackled me. We trembled.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Were you losing?” I asked
“Then don’t play.”
“What is that? Metaphor?”
“No. Advice, maybe?”
“Lance is a creep.”
“Is that what you’re doing in here?” I pondered the darkness.
“Not really. I just needed to cool off, or warm up. I don’t know which.”
“And now that I’m here?”
On the other side of the door, the boys hooted at the card table—“It’s not a real game until there’s cash on the table!” I heard one say.
“Pony up your wedding ring, if you’ve got a pair.”
“Who’s big blind?”
“You know who.”
“Jake Agonistes!” Lance stormed above all the other voices. And then the players passed me over.
What did that mean? A reminder. It was a reminder that I shouldn’t be attracted to Mave’s emotional honesty, or her chocolate hair, her morsel-sized breasts, her staggeringly appetizing hips. It was a reminder of lots of things—friendship. That I had entered the room semi-besotted. That I shouldn’t be tallying the cost of friendship against the taxing outcome of confessing my own desire for Mave to Mave. I should remember above all else that Lance and I had been friends since elementary school, when he took up for me that day when I had been sucker-punched in the belly by a kid twice held back. Ever since then, however, I’d had been repaying Lance.
I tried to smear her off on the sheets, but she stuck to me like a hot whelp. Then I began to toss and turn, flinging her this way and that, she caught some air, and I thought we’d both end up on the floor, but her grip was profound, her legs jolted out from under her skirt and lassoed my waist, the muzzle of her pubis nuzzled my thigh. She squeeeezzzed me. “But I love you. Do you love me?”
Would I give up Lance for Mave, switch allegiances in Lance’s own bed? Breathless from the struggle I felt savage, equal to Mave’s savageness. Cards were shuffled beyond the door, drinks refilled.
I adored Mave. She made me happy, but she was with Lance. (My friend at the closest table to the bedroom door barked about the new rims on his car. And then another player yapped about how “badass” he’d tricked out his Civic. There was lots of talk: talk that filled mental parentheses and made systematic doubt come back into my head like a white-hot light. What was my purpose here again?)
Something turned, poked, evolved, caved.
Then came a knock at the door.
“Hey, is everything okay in there?” Lance asked from the other side, the quotidian side, where everything was lighted and made sense. Where things had yet to change.
“The devil speaks,” Mave said.
“Do I need to come in there?” Lance said.
“We’re working it out,” Mave said.
I heard the slap and hiss of shuffling cards.
“I like you,” I said, honestly.
“Don’t come in here, Lance. We’re finally getting somewhere.”
“We’re working things out,” I said.
I started smelling her. Compulsively.
“Why don’t you come play cards?” Lance said.
“We will, we will.”
“Just sincerity, Jake.”
“What does that mean?” Mave asked.
“What I’m supposed to use to convince you to come back to play cards,” I sniffed.
“Do you love me?” The question clouded the already darkened room.
Lance said something else, faint and unintelligible, as if he was starting to sense that what had been was no longer what was, and then another player call him back to the table because he was big blind. I heard the player say he should have sent in a woman instead of a man. The only other woman at the poker party was chipped-tooth Mandy who was already wasted when she arrived, a decidedly inessential part of anything, merely another presence, along with Jimmy, George, Billy, Cee Cee, Tommy, Kyle, Kevin, Mitch, Jeremy, and Clyde. A bluster of the local assholes, passing the time with hold ‘em, losing money, winning money, nothing but friendly play, waiting with Lance to see what might emerge from behind the bedroom door.
Mave clenched my throat now in her mouth and unzippered my pants.
I know all this is unfashionable: to talk about desire and describe Mave this way. But when has desire ever been fashionable? When has it ever said I shall do without so that I might ensure elegance? Lance doesn’t love her. She wouldn’t let him enter this fantastic darkness to meet her on these terms.
I gave Mave what I could: the moment’s resolution.
Later, while the players slowly left the party, while Lance slumped outside the door, while my mouth is pressed to Mave’s, a mouth meant to charm her into playing cards, I summoned the excuses I would make to Lance, I tallied them and readied their order, and perhaps we would still be friends afterward, friends who had exchanged places. Lance couldn’t be the villain every time.