Kell saw him from the back first. Tall, legs apart, at ease, at parade rest, watchful even though he was home.
Buzz cut, clean camos, cap in his pocket, desert boots. Big feet and big hands.
The carousel lurched to life, and everybody else rushed forward to crowd the sides, craning their necks and saying "I don't see it yet.”
A giant army green duffel came down the ramp; he lifted his head but didn’t move. Kell thought she saw a flash of bright red right behind it, maybe the red belt she’d buckled around her black rollie.
Kell kept watching the back of him and he stood still and let her do it like he knew she was. The frenzy subsided as the people from the plane dragged their squealing luggage and scuffed kids toward the exits. She watched him take one long, smooth stride forward to the carousel and grab up the massive duffel like it was filled with nothing but letters from old girlfriends. As he lifted it, Kell spotted her red patent belt, still buckled, lolling on its side like a harlot’s lost garter. No black wheelie in sight. She debated leaving it there but then she trotted over and snatched it up, sparing it and herself from one more loop of shame.
She turned to the boy, because he was watching her, and shrugged.
Something lasered between them, so intense Kell literally broke out in a sweat. She knew he felt it too, even though his expression didn’t change. His gaze just narrowed and sharpened like she was a sheen of water in the sand or a glint in his rifle scope. She would never forget that moment. It was epic.
He walked over to her. “You checked your belt?”
“Ha. No,” and Kell’s face was Fahrenheit five thousand. “It used to be around my rollie. But I guess the rollie didn’t make it.”
He swept the perimeter with his blue-green eyes and pointed. “That it?”
“So,” she said, “are you from here?”
“No, passing through.”
“Ever been to DC?”
“A class trip once? I think seventh grade.”
“Want to come into the city with me? I know a sidewalk bar where you can sightsee the White House and get hammered at the same time.”
“Uh, I would, but I actually gotta make a connection.”
“Maybe you already have.”
A little twitch of a smile in the corner of his mouth. “Maybe I have.”
They walked out into bright sunshine and they both put on sunglasses immediately and god, it was perfect.
He said he had to change out of his OCP’s so she took him to her apartment and they never made it to the bar of course. She had beer and some weed. They sat in opposite chairs pretending to have self-control. It made passing the blunt very inconvenient but that was all part of the dance.
His name was Collum. She called him Collum when she called for him to kill a wasp in the bathroom. She called him Collum all night.
Kell was 21 and he had just turned. As young as he was, he was not coiled tight or roughneck. He waited for her to come to him. It wasn’t cockiness or even confidence. It was something else. He was easy in his body. He didn’t say much or make much noise and he was generous except for the times he was only thinking about himself.
She was sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the bed and he was up against the pillows with the sheet barely covering him.
He said to her, “You are so beautiful.”
“Are you hungry?” she asked him.
“I’ll make something,” Kell said, shocking herself.
She came to the door of the bedroom, “I got eggs, cheese and bread. I’ll make omelets and toast. I even have orange juice. Well, Sunny D. And I remembered I had vodka in the freezer.”
He didn’t care if her hair lay across his neck in a tangle when they held each other. He just wound it around his hand. He didn’t grab at her, or play-slap her behind or say crude shit. He would open his arms and she would move into them because that was all she wanted to do.
They got high on wine or beer and weed. Kell had some random odds and ends of other stuff too. She’d hold up a baggie in each hand and say, “What’ll be, Collum? Head rush or body rush?”
They never watched TV or answered their cells or ever said, “What should we do today?”
They took a daily shower, brushed their teeth and went back to bed. For a week, they stayed mostly wrapped around each other in her twin bed, though sometimes they went out to a bar around the corner, where they drank and ate chicken wings and danced slow to every song and basically stayed right up against each other the same way as at her apartment only standing up with clothes on. They were so obsessed with each other that people noticed, saw two kids drowning in each other and almost felt sad for them.
So it went until Collum said he had to get down to Fort Benning. Without much discussion they decided that she was going with him, and that they would use whatever money she had and he had, rent a car and get married on the way down. When he reported for duty he would fill out the paperwork and they would get base housing, no problem. He knew guys who had done it.
There wasn’t enough time to get married and still spend 80% of their trip in motel beds but at least they made to Fort Benning on time. Collum had to report to base immediately and so they had to rent another crappy motel room for Kell to stay in until he could figure out where they could live. The only thing that mattered to Kell was it would be days before he could see her again. She missed him so much she couldn’t see straight. Her belly ached. She was doubled over in want of him. They’d talk on the phone but that made it worse.
“I’m dying,” she told him. “Can’t you just knock off for the day? It’s not like you’re in the slammer.”
“It’s not far from it,” he said. “Baby, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just dream of me until I get there.”
“That’s all I do do!”
She didn’t leave the motel because they had no car again and she refused to walk down the highway to the strip mall like some girl named Jolene. She lived off the chips and cheetos and candy bars in the vending machine. She hated the weasel face of the night guy at the front desk but she had no choice but to pay him to buy her wine and weed. She took it from him outside and wouldn’t let him bring it to the room like he was dying to do.
Collum finally came back. It was like 6 am and she heard a noise at the door and he came in and sat down on the bed and she put her head in his lap and her arms around his waist and cried.
He eased away and stood up and took off his camo shirt and hung it on the back of the chair. He lined up his boots underneath. Then he went into the bathroom and ran water in the bathtub.
“Come on, baby. I’m gonna put you in the bathtub. I've been doing nothing but thinking about putting you in a bathtub. Put your arms up. Lift your butt up.” He took everything off her and said, “C’mon.’
“I don’t want to waste time.”
“Trust me your time won’t be wasted.”
“I’m too weak. Carry me.”
He scooped her up and let her hang off his arm when he used his other hand to check the bathwater. Kell wouldn’t stand up and get into the tub. “Seriously?” he said and put her in.
“Stop crying now.”
He knelt down. “Lie back.”
Finally he got up and grabbed towels and sat on the toilet seat. Kell got out and stood between his legs and he dried her off by holding her. “No more crying until after I leave. That’s an order.”
He only had twenty four hours but it didn’t fly by. It rose up and collapsed and rolled over on itself.
“So your megahot ex finally got himself a girlfriend, I heard.”
Kell got into her car and kept calling him. He answered finally and she said “Where are you?”
“I’m home but I’m busy.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Right,” she said and tossed her cell on the seat. Punched the gas out of the parking lot, took lefts and rights and yellow lights and flew down the ramp onto 285.
She kicked his front door. “Let me in, Collum.”
“Let me in, Collum.”
“Go away, Kell. I told you I’d call you tomorrow.”
“Too bad I want to talk to you today.”
“Go home, Kell. Go the fuck home and I will talk to you later.”
She didn’t say anything. He finally said, “I promise.”
Another voice in there said something. She kicked the door again.
“Go home, Kell. Or I swear I’ll call your shitbag boyfriend and tell him to come get you.”
“Collum,” she said into the crack of his front door. “I know who’s in there with you. I’ll go wait in the car until you get rid of that fucking whore. Come get me when she’s gone.”
She started to walk away and then she looked at his parking space. His car was pulled way up and a little red car was right up against his back bumper. She took her keys out of her pocket and sliced a vicious groove in its side from front to tail. Then she got into her car and stared at her phone and at his door. After a few minutes she went back and stood in front of his door again until she had to sink down or fall over.
“Collum. Please.” She was choking with tears so that was all she could say until finally she said, “Okay.”
She got lost on the way back because the signs were too blurry. When she got home it was only sunset and she went to bed.
He came so late. He just walked in because she’d left the door unlocked because she knew he would come. She knew his shape and step and breath in the pitch black.
“Why didn’t you open the door, Collum?”
“She said she would kill herself if I went out to talk to you.”
“I would have gone out to talk to you anyway.”
“Yeah. You probably would.”
She tried to pull him down to her but he wouldn’t bend down. “You come here at zero dark thirty and you won’t lie down with me?”
“You said you wanted to talk to me. So start talking.”
“Where is she? bleeding out, I hope.”
“I told her I had to go.”
“She knows you’re still married to me.”
“And you know you’re still married to me.”
She tried to pull him down again.
“No. I’m not going to touch you, Kell, until I hear you say something that changes my mind.”
“I don’t want you to be with anybody. Simple.”
He laughed a short hard laugh.
“Remember when that street ran both ways?”
“I never cared about him. I don’t want him near me anymore.”
“So tell him.”
“He won’t listen. You have to tell him.”
“You want me to tell him.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll tell him.”
They stared at each other across the dark.
“Come here to me.” She got up and went to him and she thought he was going to hold her, but instead he turned her around and wrapped his arm across her waist and he was rough when he pulled her into him.
He bent his head and said against her cheek, “From now you’re either all mine, or you’re gone. I don’t give a shit about this pathetic jerk you picked up to punish me, any more than you give a shit about the girl I left crying in my bed to come to you. But stop fucking with people’s lives especially mine. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
He put his hand into the back of her shorts and pushed them down. “Do you understand me, Kell?”
“How did you get up here?”
“I took the elevator. I want to take you to lunch.”
“Collum, it’s like…11:30. I have a shit ton of work to do.”
“Come on.” He spun her chair. “Come on. I haven’t seen you in a while.”
They looked at each other.
“Okay, but like just someplace quick. I am seriously slammed with work right now.”
“Yeah, we’ll just go down the street to 444.”
“444? That dump.”
“Auld lang syne, Kell.”
Two hours later they were both half drunk. She looked at her watch.
“Kell, we both know you’re not going back to work.”
“I’ll be fucked if I don’t.”
“I guarantee it,” he said.
She got home about nine. He was watching tv but he switched it off. “Where have you been? I called you like ten times.”
Kell gave him a guilty smile and kept moving. “Sorry, gotta pee,”
He was waiting in the bedroom.
“So where the fuck were you?”
She took off her dress and kicked off her shoes and lay down on the bed. “I’m sorry, I’m too tired to make up some feasible bullshit right now. Talk tomorrow.” She turned on her side and pretty much passed out.
“I have a son now, Kell.”
“No, I do.”
She couldn’t say anything because all the blood in her body poured into her heart all at once.
“Kell? Kell,” he said, softer. “Shari and I adopted him.”
“Like in real life? Or is he imaginary?”
“No. He was the son of this little druggie girl I knew from back in the day. She told me she had a kid but she couldn’t take care of him. We got a lawyer and we officially got him Monday.”
Kell hated that he sounded happy.
“Collum, admit it, he’s your real son, isn’t he?”
“Why does everybody keep saying that?”
“So you want me to drive four hundred miles to see you when you're marrying some other dude in like a week? Maybe you’d like me to rent a tux and give you away."
"Maybe you can just come in at the last minute and kidnap the bride before she can say I do."
"Do you even want to marry this poor bastard?"
“Please, Collum. We can stay in a fancy hotel and do New Yorky stuff.”
“No, Kell. Not happening.”
“Why? You’re married. I’ll be married. We’ll be even, for a change.”
“No. These 'sex-with-an-ex-don't-count’ shenanigans have to stop. My marriage is on the fucking rocks and I have to do something. I have a son now.”
“Oh right. The son again.”
“Goddamn you are a cold bitch, Kell.”
“You can’t be happy without me.”
“You don’t want me to be happy without you.”
“She doesn’t love you as much as I do.”
“No, Kell, you’re wrong. She does love me as much as you do. More, because she puts up with you in my life. The truth is, he, whoever the fuck he is, will never love you as much as I do.”
Kell thought about hanging up on him.
He said, “I’m not coming, Kell. Go be happy and god bless.”
Kell caught a China bus down on Canal Street just past evening rush hour. It was raining and just rained harder and got windier as they went further south to Delaware and down the Delmarva Peninsula where the tide surged across the road. China buses are famous for tearing up the roads to make up for their cheap tickets, so it felt like they were riding a half-broke stallion through the outer banks of a hurricane.
There was no bus terminal, it just dumped her and a couple other orphans of the storm off in front of a café that was closing any minute. Kell had booked a motel room pretty close to where the bus dropped her off, but with no taxis around she had to stand in front of the café getting soaked to her skin trying to call one. A pickup pulled around in front of her and a guy from the bus leaned out of the passenger side and said, “Need a ride, darlin’?” “Thanks, chief, I’m good,” she told him, just as somebody picked up at the taxi service and said they were on their way.
While the bus was still speeding down south Jersey Kell had texted Collum the name of the motel and an ETA. Who knew whether he would show or not, or call or not, or even read her text. Maybe she could live with whatever happened. This was her one last desperate act of love for him and maybe he would see that even if he didn’t come.
But he was waiting at the motel. When she got out of the taxi he got out of his truck and waggled a room key in the air. He had a paper bag with a six-pack and a bottle of wine. He didn’t hug her or say a word to her.
He cracked a beer, took a long swallow and set it down on the night table and then he sat on the edge of the bed and took off his boots and his pants and his tee shirt and his boxers and he still didn’t say anything, he just looked at her until she took off everything too. She went over to him and climbed onto his lap and wrapped her legs and arms around him. They stayed that way half of what was left of the night, moving against each other and sometimes just holding on to each other in despair.
She had a ticket to go back at noon, and he didn’t try to make her stay. They sat in his truck and waited for the bus to show up. As strange as it was between them, they couldn’t not touch. His hand was in her lap and she had her hand on his thigh.
He had that thousand-yard stare he’d had since last night. The blue-green in his eyes looked like bruises.
He turned his head to look at her.
“I’m not going to get married.”
“No, I’m not.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “What are we playing at now, Kell? Poker? You want me to call your bluff, see you and raise you my divorce papers?”
“No. I don’t want you to do anything. I’m not getting married because I will never love him the way I love you and I don’t want to waste my life with him if I can’t. I can do other stuff to be happy. Get a good job, maybe, hopefully. Travel, have beautiful clothes and live in a house on the beach.”
She gave him a little smile. “Also reverse global warming, eradicate disease…”
Collum looked at her. “Wow. Really, really good one, Kell. Gotta hand it to you.”
“I know you think it’s all bullshit. So I might as well just add one more impossible thing for you to believe: I love you more than anybody has ever loved you or ever will love you. You are everything to me.”
They both sat there, tears falling out of their eyes, until the bus came.
Kell was on the bed in a towel combing out her wet hair when he walked in. “Hey, baby.” He sat down next to her. “Gimme,” and he started combing out her tangles.
“Sorry. Okay, I’ll comb your other hair,” and he eased her down onto her back and opened the towel.
“Hmm, I think you might need a little trim, ma’am. Something regulation; a buzz or a fade or a high and tight.”
Kell crossed her legs. “No way.”
He smiled at her, “I need those tiny scissors you have, what are they?”
“Yeah. Where are they?”
Kell sighed. “In my makeup case.”
He went over to the sink and dumped her makeup case out.
“Relax, baby. You’re in good hands.”
They were at a Cracker Barrel and the little inbred blonde waitress would not stop coming on to Collum. She took their order staring into his face and acted like Kell wasn’t there. Kell slid her menu over with her finger until it fell on the floor. She made no move to pick it up so the waitress had to.
“Kell,” he said to her when the girl walked away. “Don’t start.”
“Collum, these girls are like greenheads I have to keep swatting away from you.”
“Nasty unkillable devil flies that infest the Jersey Shore.”
“I don’t even see these girls, Kell.”
“Well that’s a lie.” She leaned forward and said, “The way it works, is when one woman sees another woman happy with her man, she makes it her mission to fuck it up. For just a minute, or a night, forever if possible. I ought to know, I’ve done it myself. You guys, you have no idea.”
She thought: he is everything every woman wants. She hoped to god he never found that out.
“Col-LUM! Is that you? What are you doing here, man?”
“Nothing much, Deet.”
“Shit, boy, we got a table, come on back, we’re just throwing darts and acting stupid.”
“No, man, I’m with somebody.”
“Ohhhh, well go for it, then. Somebody local?”
“No, a girl I met up in DC.”
“Dee Cee. City girl. I bet she’s hot. Good for you, bro.” He bumped his beer can against Collum’s and cocked his head. “Not as hot as that one over there, though, right? Look at her. She wouldn’t stoop to one of us boots, would she?”
“That’s my city girl.”
“What? No. Fuuuck. You better introduce me.”
Collum had a hard cold place in his heart that he'd made Kell live in ever since the night she'd caught him in a car with a girl and he'd caught her later that same night in a bedroom at a party. But what was done was now done. In the waning days Collum would put his hand over her womb, and it was his way of saying, why wouldn’t you have my baby? When she put her hand over his she was telling him, Collum, I still want to.
It was Friday night, and they were going to go out, have a nice dinner, maybe go to the movies like regular people for a change. But when he got home, he said, “Kell, I feel like shit.” He lay sat down on the couch and just kind of fell sideways.
“Are you drunk?”
“No,” he said. “I just feel dizzy and everything hurts like hell.”
She put her hand on his forehead. “You’re hot, you’re really hot. I think you should go to the emergency room.”
“Jesus, Kell, I don’t have to go to the emergency room. I just need to lie down for a while.”
“Come on then, let’s put you to bed.”
She pulled his boots off, and his pants, and put the covers over him. “Where does it hurt? Does your stomach hurt? Does your head hurt?”
“My head and my arms and my legs and my back kill.”
“I’ll get you a water and some Advil. Do you want a Vicodin?”
“Just Advil, Pharma Girl.”
When she got back, he was shivering. “Here, three Advil.” She got the throw from the couch and put it over the comforter. “I’m gonna Google your symptoms.”
“Kell, it’s just a 24 hour thing probably. Stop jumping up and down and just sit with me.”
“I’ve never seen you sick. Are you hungry?”
“Fuck no. Just sit with me.”
“Do you want me to read to you?
“No. And please turn off the lamp it’s boring into my eyeballs.”
She switched off the lamp and felt his forehead. He started to shiver again and she went around to the other side of the bed and got in next to him.
“I’ll share my body heat with you.”
“Kell, let me try to sleep.”
She fell asleep with him for a couple of hours. The heat from his fever woke her up.
“Jesus,” she said after she felt his face. She put her hand on his chest. “Collum, wake up a little. You have to take more Advil, you’re burning up. I’m gonna put the light on for a minute. God, why don’t we have a thermometer?”
His cheeks were bright red. “No. No. I can’t. Leave me alone.”
“No, you gotta take them, lift your head up a little, no higher, you’ll choke on them, come on,” and he opened his mouth for the pills and she fed him water until he swallowed them.
Kell sat in a chair next to the bed and held his hand. After about forty minutes his fever hadn’t dropped. She filled a tupperware bowl with coolish water and put a washcloth in it.
“Okay, we’re going old-school now, Collum. You’re too big for me to put in the bathtub, so we’ll go straight to Plan B.”
She opened the bedcovers and started to undress him. He groaned and said, “Jesus, Kell, what are you doing? Stop, I’m freezing.”
She got his tee shirt and boxers and socks off and began to wipe him down with the wet washcloth. When it got warm from the heat of his body she dunked it in the water and wrung it out and kept sponging him down until she felt his skin cooling.
“Was it really necessary to strip me naked, Kell?” he said to her after a while, and he sounded almost like himself again. “You’re like a porn movie nurse.”
“Then lucky for you I’m still on duty.”
"Is this Deet?”
“Yeah. Who are you, sweetheart?”
“Kell. Collum’s Kell? Do you know where he is? He’s not answering his phone and I’ve called him about a hundred times.”
“Uh, no, Kell,” he said, “haven’t seen him,” even though Collum was about ten feet away. “Everything OK?”
“He was supposed to be here like four hours ago. I’m worried something happened to him.” And she burst into tears.
“Jeeze, Kell, jeeze, I’m sure he’s fine. Maybe ya’ll got your wires crossed or something. I’ll ask around though, okay? Don’t worry, honey. I bet he’ll walk through the door any minute now.”
“Yeah, okay, thanks, Deet. Sorry to bother,” and her voice broke down and she hung up.
“I just got a call from your city girl. She said you were supposed to come home. What the fuck, man?”
“Oh, christ. I was just grabbing a couple of beers, she must’ve thought I said a time to her…she called you?”
“She’s crying her eyes out because she’s so innocent she thinks you’re lying dead in a ditch.”
“You don’t treat a lady like that. What the fuck is the matter with you? If you can’t help being a low-life dick then give her to me. I’ll treat her like a goddamned queen.”
“Yup. Got it.”
“You like women, Collum, don’t you?”
“Uh-uh, that is one of your trick Kell questions.”
“No, no. I meant like appreciate women. In general. Because a lot of guys want women but they don’t really like them.”
“What brought this on?”
“I don’t know, I was just thinking about it.”
“Then, yeah. I do. I like women. In general.”
“Like what about them.”
“I like how they’re so trusting and have babies and just try to figure out how to get along in a shitty man’s world. I like how they don’t know how naturally hot they are and that we don’t really care what they wear because our goal is to take it off anyway.”
“But that’s in general. If you want me to get specific, which you do,” and he pulled her legs onto his lap, “I love how you, as my personal specific woman, put your hair up for me and put on dangly earrings when I ask you to even though we're not going anywhere, or put it in a braid just so I can unbraid it. I love how you take your bra off as soon as you get home and how you wear my tee shirts to bed.”
He ran his hand up her leg. “I love how you kiss me. I love how your body kinda vibrates when you get up next to me and the way it gets as hot as a furnace.
“What have you done.”
“Nothing you didn’t do, Collum.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“Did you think you could walk in here, well yeah you did cause here you are, and get on your knees and make me forgive you?”
“I’m not on my knees.”
“But I bet you would get on your knees if I told you to, wouldn’t you Kell?”
She walked further into the room. It was so dark she could barely see him.
“I’m going to sleep. Do what you want but I do not want to see your face when I wake up.”
Kell sat on the couch and waited as long as she could. Everything was different and she was scared.
There was a streak in Collum. When she first met him he seemed like the most chill, sweet guy she’d ever met. But he had a switch, and you could see it go click in his eyes. Kell saw it when he was with other guys, especially his military buds. Not that they tried to go up against him physically. Instead they pushed him and tested him with their crazy relentless shit talk and she saw before they did when he’d had enough. A dangerous flare in his eyes that turned into a cold blue stare.
If the lights had been on she might have seen him looking at her that way. A look that would have struck pure terror in her heart that she’d gone too far this time and there was no fixing it.
She thought about what she’d done, and she flushed with shame.
But was she supposed to have said, oh, okay, just promise not to do it again, Collum. There was no future in that, in any relationship she wanted to be in.
So she made a tactical decision to hit back. Show him how it felt.
She walked into the bedroom and he was lying on his back on the bed but she knew he wasn’t fucking sleeping. She got undressed but left her bikini bottoms on. He made her lie there and lie there and he didn’t speak to her or touch her because that was Collum’s MO, mentally torture her until she broke. Finally he let her touch him but after he rolled over and went to sleep. In the morning he was gone and she knew he wasn’t coming back.
In the last week of October they got married in city hall in Columbus. For a honeymoon they rented a little log cabin for the weekend at the Uchee Creek Army Campgrounds on the Alabama side of Benning. On Saturday they made an effort to get their few bucks’ worth; walked some trails and went swimming in the still warm Chattahoochee. They grilled steaks and drank margueritas and played poker on the little porch until it was too dark outside to see the cards. They talked about how Collum would go reserve so he could get a degree in civil engineering and go work for USACE.
On Sunday they gave up any pretense of caring about their surroundings and just slept and drank and laughed and teased and made love.
“Collum, I want to show you something.” Kell got up from their bed and got something out of her suitcase. A shiny bundle of fabric.
“What is it?” he asked her, and she shook it and it floated out into a bolero of pale silk.
“It’s my veil. I bought it a long time ago.”
Collum held up an edge of it and ran it through his fingers.
“You wanted a real wedding, Kell,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Her eyes filled with tears but she shook her head.
“Put it on.”
“No, I’ll feel stupid. You’ll laugh at me.”
“Never. Put it on,” and she did, and he drew her onto his lap and they put their faces together, and looked at each other through its pure translucence.
When they got back they told some people they got married, so when they hit up the Halloween party at the bar the next night, everybody was waiting for them. Kell was dressed up as a hillbilly bride, in white satin cut-offs she made from pants she had, a tight white tee shirt that spelled out bride in rhinestones that she found at Wal-Mart, ditto the bling flip flops. White cowboy hat she already had. Collum wore a thrift shop black tux jacket over a black wife-beater. When they walked in the band started to play “She’s With Me.” His buddies kept shoving him around and putting him in headlocks and the girls were sweet to Kell even though they didn’t know her.
The girls fell into two categories: civilian girlfriends and military girls, and these particular military girls fell into two subsets, a couple of straight-up lesbians and a girl who obviously joined the army so the male/female ratio would give her the edge she couldn’t get on the outside. She was the one Kell was keeping an eye on.
She lost count of how many shots she did. Everybody was drunk as skunks and the band was good and everybody was dancing. Deet two-stepped with her like an old southern gentleman but another guy took her away from Deet and pulled her close. He spooled her out and pulled her back and made her spin around under his arm but it was cute how he did it so it made her laugh. The guys were rowdy with the other girls but they treated her like Collum’s lady, his princess bride. Because everybody loved Collum.
Around oh two hundred hours things started settling down because the band was done and nobody could hardly drink anymore anyway. There were little clumps of people here and there, just sitting around, talking, laughing. The coupled up were practically having sex in the wide open.
Kell came back from the ladies room and looked around for Collum. She saw him over by the pool tables. That girl she knew was trouble from jump street was sitting on his lap. But not sitting sideways like oops, Collum, I got dizzy and accidently fell into your lap. She was actually straddling him.
Kell walked behind her and yanked her off him and the girl fell on her ass and looked up at Kell in utter disbelief.
That woke up the room. “Oh, shit,” some guy said.
The girl scrambled up from the floor and came towards Kell like okay, bitch.
“My money’s on the bride,” somebody said.
Collum stood up and said “Time to go home” and picked Kell up and put her over his shoulder. Everybody started whooping and whistling.
Where can I go from here, Kell asked herself. She cried on the inside now which meant her tears never dried up. What can I do if I can't have Collum?
She went on a job interview the next day, and HR sent her up to talk to a skinny little dude in a stupid tight-pants suit, who would apparently be her boss if she got the job.
“You went to GW? Yeah, my sister did, too. Look, the truth is we already got somebody for this particular position.”
“Okay,” Kell said. “So why am I here then?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. HR makes us at least pretend we’ll hire externally, but I don’t want to string you along. Not a G-Dub sister alum. And you really don’t have any experience, to be fair.”
Kell stood up. “Yeah, okay, well, thanks for your time.”
“Wait, wait, sit down. I know it’s really hard out there when you have the talent but not the creds. Look, totally between you and me, I know somebody who needs help with his advertising. Giant car dealer in Atlanta. You will know the name. You’d be freelancing but this would be a helluva opportunity for you, multi-media work. He doesn’t use an agency, and he’s always looking for new talent. Who knows, maybe if it worked out, you could convince him to throw some work our way. If you want, I’ll call him.”
He, whose name did sound familiar for some reason, texted her that afternoon to see if she could meet him at the St. Regis in Peachtree. It made her wonder if that ad agency skeeze thought he could pimp her out or something.
But the meeting didn’t turn out the way anybody thought it would. The car magnate liked her and she kinda liked him. It turned out to be her chance to earn some money writing for the first time, and his chance to possess a girl thirty years younger than his wife.
He rented her an apartment and gave a succession of demos to drive. He bought her clothes and curated her look for every occasion. “You are meeting media people, Kell. My media people,” and dressed her up in money honey suits with short skirts and silk tanks to wear underneath them. When they went out just the two of them, he preferred her still posh, but on the slutty side. He would make her stand in front of him and turn around, and he would make adjustments to her as he deemed fit---undo a button, adjust her breasts in her bra, flip the part in her hair from right to left until he decided which way looked hotter.
Kell had never had a sexual relationship before with a man she had zero attraction to. She had to shut herself off. Sometimes she felt ashamed. Sick to her stomach. She couldn't let herself think of Collum.
But she liked the car czar, as he was known around Atlanta, on a person-to-person kind of level. They made each other laugh. He told her stuff nobody else could know. She was so naïve she thought that elevated their arrangement. At first he was almost reverential with her in bed. But as the months went by he got greedy, like they were on a perpetual cruise and she was his midnight dessert buffet.
They were out slumming incognito in downtown Atlanta on a weekday night, as per usual. He was always afraid he’d be recognized from his cheesy cable tv ads, which was fucking ridiculous. Kell was wearing a drapey silver top and black skin tight jeans; according to his preference her hair was more blonde now than brown. As they sat drinking martinis at a high top near the bar, a shiver raced down her bare back. She turned in her chair for her jacket and as her eyes brushed past the bar, she saw Collum. He was leaning against the far side of the bar, talking to somebody she couldn’t see. Then he turned his head and looked straight at her.
For a split second Collum didn’t recognize her. Just locked eyes on a really beautiful girl. Then he realized it was Kell. Then he saw the guy she was with, some old dude. And he flashed on what exactly she'd been up to since he saw her last. He wanted to despise her for it, but all he could think about was which version of her he had to have tonight. Did he want to put her in the shower until her hair turned dark again and her makeup ran down her face, or did he want this silver changeling in black jeans that barely rode her hips?
Kell said, “Excuse me, ladies room,” and she went around the bar to the hall in the back where the rest rooms were.
He was just inside the turn, leaning against the wall.
“Do I know you?”
"Gabe, I swear to god I just saw the guy from Cable One at the bar. I'm sure it was him." "What? Oh fuck. Listen, Kell," "Yeah no, I know. I'll go outside and grab a taxi." "Yeah, that's, yeah. I'll make it up to you, I swear, but you know, me in the public eye and all." "It's cool. We'll talk tomorrow. Better go." Kell threaded her way through the crowd around the bar and out the entrance. Her heart was singing.
She didn't dare bring him back to her apartment. Not because she thought Gabe would try to come over, but because Collum would see how nice it was.
As they passed through his hotel lobby, Collum thought about grabbing a drink in the lounge, but why act all cool and civilized when he felt the exact opposite. So they went up to his room.
Kell stood pressed up against the mirrored back of the elevator, like she was nervous or shy. "Hey," he said, and he leaned over and touched her face. "It's me, baby."
He pulled out some bottles from the minibar and poured some Hennessey in her water glass and Jack Daniels in his.
She sat down in one of the chairs at the round table and crossed her legs. She was wearing heels higher than he had ever seen her wear. Her nails were short and red and shiny. Her hair was long and stick straight and thick with blonde streaks. She had a silver thread around one finger and pinpoint diamond studs in her ears. Her skin when he brushed against her arm was the moist velvet of flower petals. Collum had expected she'd flaunt her fuck-you beauty in his face but instead she wouldn't look in his eyes.
"So how are you, Kell, are you working?" "I am. Writing, actually. Advertising stuff." "Your dream." "Yup. Livin' the dream. What about you, how's school?"
"Good, good, almost done." "Nice."
He threw back the rest of his Jack. "So, who was that old dude you were with tonight?" "Oh. That was my boss."
"Yeah? Your boss?" "Yeah. My boss." "Is he a good boss, Kell?"
She started to get up but Collum sat her down again and pulled her chair between his legs. "Who are you now? Just curious." "This was a bad idea." She tried to push her chair back. He stood up and pulled her up with him.
"You don’t want to leave," he said softly. He started kissing her. Wrapping her hair around his hand.
It was this new version of her he wanted right now.
Her silvery top slid down her like water and he couldn't stop himself from wondering who had paid for it. He pulled at her jeans and found a ribbon of black lace underneath and wondered why she'd put it on for that combed-over old piece of shit she'd been with.
Out of a jealousy that almost felt good, and guilt that he maybe he was the reason she was what she was now---bought and paid for---he managed to pervert the Kell he loved, standing right in front of him, into some nameless girl he'd paid for online and had sent to his room. He held her arms down so she couldn't hold him, and turned away from her mouth. He was more callous and demeaning to her in that next hour than he ever thought he was capable of being with any woman.
Later, in the early hours, he woke up sick to his soul. He kept remembering the look on her face as she got dressed and walked out the door.
He texted her and called her a million times that day and a million more in the weeks afterwards, wanting to say sorry, sorry, sorry but knowing that word didn't remotely have the weight to cover it.
She never answered him. Finally she changed her number. Collum tracked her down and found out where she lived. He came back up to Atlanta again and again when he should have been working, or home studying or just home. He'd sit in his car outside her building for hours. Then he'd drive back to Columbus.
He saw the perv sleaze out of her building late one night and get into a fucking black Tesla. All Collum wanted to do at that moment was pull his ass out of it and beat him to death. After which, he would go up and kick down her door.
But he just sat there. He took out the bottle of Jack he always kept stashed in his car these days, and drank until he passed out.
When he woke up, it was light out, and he saw the black Tesla pull into the parking lot and stop in front of the entrance like it was Groundhog Day. Ten seconds later, Kell walked out of the building, in a green wrap dress, black heels, and a black jacket over her shoulders. Her hair was up in some kind of shiny twist. She was carrying some huge unwieldly thing that looked like an art portfolio. The old perv popped the trunk and jumped out of the car and took it from her. He said something and she laughed.
And her laugh, her ordinary, genuine laugh he'd heard countless times, floated on the spring morning air into his rolled-down window and made him bury his head in his arms over his steering wheel.
"Let her go, brother. Walk away," is what Deet would have said to him. "Go home to your wife and your life and figure it the fuck out like the rest of us."