After the fifth high-pitched trill, Arthur finally woke from a sound sleep, reached across his snoring wife, and picked up the phone. His best friend’s voice was on the other line. He rubbed the sandy gunk from his eyes and croaked a soft hello.
“Arthur, I’m in love with you.”
Maybe he was dreaming. The phone cradled between his ear and shoulder felt more like putty then hard plastic. He could be dreaming, but he saw the clock on the bedside table and the lime green numbers flashing 11:36. He felt Laura’s arm brush his chest as she rolled towards him with a placid yawn. Lightly touching her warm forehead solidified reality.
“Who is this?” Arthur asked.
He wanted to give Logan a chance to lie, to say he’d changed his mind: he was just screwing around. But Arthur only heard the phlegm-clogged voice choke out an apology.
The phone booth door wouldn’t close all the way, allowing the February air to stream in through the inch-wide gap. On his way back from work Logan had planned out a full explanation. He’d even rehearsed it in the car. When he spotted the black phone booth under a corner streetlight, he immediately pulled over to the curb. The matter had become too urgent to ignore until he got back to his apartment. Logan wanted to mine his heart for courage. He pictured a tiny version of himself, armed with a sluice box, knee-deep in red gunk, eagerly sifting for what he needed. Listening to the familiar pattern of dull beeps, he dialed Arthur’s number. After hearing his hoarse, sleep-soaked voice the fear slipped over him like a glove around a hand. The fear fit so well after two years. He tapped his head once against the wall of the booth and blurted out the essential and damaging fact.
After he’d hung up the phone he stood in the same spot for twenty minutes. He’d checked his watch twice to make sure. Maybe he was waiting for the phone to ring or for good sense to arrive and lift his hand to the receiver again, dial a second time, and beg forgiveness.
“Is everything okay, Arthur?”
Laura spoke into her pillow and he could barely hear her voice.
“Wrong number. Go back to bed, honey.”
He should have known. Maybe he knew all this time about Logan, but just didn’t want things to change. Arthur still longed for his wife at the end of the day. Walking into the foyer of his house, he reveled in the everydayness of hanging up his coat and keys, smelling onions simmering in the kitchen, and hearing the sounds of his daughters from the other rooms. They were, he realized, sprouting up every day like potted herbs on a windowsill. He had two girls who scraped their knees playing in the yard and loved painting at their easels in the den and threw occasional temper tantrums over eating vegetables at dinner. He made good money as an insurance agent and unlike most men his age he had a best friend whose company he genuinely enjoyed.
He’d met Logan almost two years ago at Nassau Country Club. Seated on a white stool at the juice bar, Logan’s racquet and gym bag crowded the space between his feet. When Arthur ordered a spirulina, tangerine, and banana smoothie, Logan noted that they’d both ordered identical post-workout drinks.
“Smart minds think alike,” Arthur replied.
They’d started talking.
Logan had explained that he was scheduled to play racquetball with his buddy Larry, but he’d called at the last minute and canceled.
Arthur had considered trying racquetball again. He liked the fast pace of the game and the cardiovascular benefits, but after one bad game with Laura, which involved several icepacks and an eye patch, he’d called it quits. Maybe now would be a good time to start up again, he’d thought. Eventually they were playing every Tuesday night after work. Throughout the summer they met at the ballpark for Phillies games. They’d become fast friends, and eventually they delved into the real stuff: conflicts at work, financial worries, anxiety about losing hair and gaining weight. Arthur raved about Laura and his girls, and Logan listened intently. Another guy’s perspective in a house full of women was nice.
He’d counted himself a lucky guy.
It took six quick steps to be back inside his car. He knew a sink full of dirty dishes waited for him back at his apartment. It would be a cold and lonely place, and he couldn’t risk passing the hallway mirror and catching sight of his own reflection. Stopped at a red light, he stared across the eastbound lane at a restaurant with big windows glowing with yellow light. The Lobster Shanty had been hand painted across a large wooden sign. When he reached the next block he turned the car around and pulled into the gravel parking lot. He would numb himself in a crowd.
The hostess seated Logan at the bar under a television playing snowy black and white static. He’d wanted a booth, but couldn’t bring himself to tell her. Two seats to his left sat a man wearing a floppy black hat. He gripped a squat glass and sloshed the brown liquid around a single ice cube, muttering to himself about the Jets’ defensive line. To Logan’s right at the end of the bar sat a pretty blond woman whose pocketbook rested on the seat beside her. The rest of the restaurant hummed with dinner conversation and the clanks of silverware against plates.
“What’ll it be for you tonight?”
The bartender had a chiseled jaw peppered with stubble and wore a white collared shirt too big for his small frame. He’d bunched up the fabric above his elbows. Logan wondered how old the bartender was and if they were really that much different.
“I’ll start with the house salad, Russian dressing.”
“Anything to drink?”
He immediately thought maybe he should have ordered something stronger. He felt his eyes well with tears, and he looked down, letting the lobster on the paper napkin absorb two large drops.
Arthur turned on his side to face the wall, but kept his wife close enough so he could feel the smooth fabric of her pajamas on his leg. He wondered if two guys could really become best friends so late in life without effort or consequence. Maybe he’d counted on Logan’s timid nature to suppress any action. What made this night different? Why tell the truth now?
The television displayed Logan’s state of mind perfectly: confusion with no sign of what would be coming next. Twenty minutes ago his life had been content, predictable, and slightly boring. The phone call hadn’t been inspired by any miraculous epiphany, but the long time wearing effect of longing. On the drive home he felt a distinctive sharp pang below his left rib. It felt like he’d pulled a muscle, like the strain of holding back every time he was with Arthur had finally caused something inside of him to snap. Each day with him was more exhausting than the last. He called Arthur because at last he knew he had no other choice.
Arthur kept craning his neck around to check the clock and see if time had miraculously passed. He wanted to fast forward a few weeks. Better yet, he wanted to rewind and let the phone ring and ring until Logan hung up. His voice had sounded like an echo, as if he’d been standing in one of the cavernous racquetball courts at the gym. He knew this wasn’t the case, but he liked the thought of Logan being somewhere he could find comfort and familiarity. How many times had they played in those courts down on Nassau Street? Forty or fifty times? After the game they’d go to the locker room and change into jeans and sweatshirts. Should he have noticed then? He swung his leg out from under the covers and let the burst of cold air coat his skin. Don’t be ridiculous, he thought.
He wouldn’t be falling back asleep. As he rose from bed and put his feet on the floor, he thought how different the days ahead would be. He knew Logan. After this kind of declaration, he’d be too self-conscious to function naturally around him. If only he hadn’t picked up the phone.
The hostess who had seated Logan brushed past him while leading a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughter to a booth by the bay window. It was a cozy setup nestled in the corner, and the parents let their daughter take the lucky middle seat where you could be surrounded by sky.
Arthur and Laura had two daughters of their own who had just started second grade and kindergarten. They were the old-fashioned type of good kids. They had table manners and chirped silly jokes that required multiple replies to get to the punch line. These girls wiped their muddy boots on the nubby porch rug before walking into the house. Anyone could easily pick out which genes had transferred from each parent. Lacey, a miniature Laura, had rosy cheeks and her mother’s ash blond hair. She was so shy you tended to whisper around her. Rachel demonstrated her father’s athletic talent and sported his same brown eyes. He wondered if the girls had ever noticed how much he respected and envied their mother and how much he loved their father. Probably not, Logan thought. He hoped not.
Arthur walked downstairs to the den and found some stationary in his desk that his daughters had made him for father’s day. Tennis racquets, soccer balls, and baseball bats surrounded his name, printed in red balloon letters. He jotted down a few lines, then crumpled the paper in a ball and tossed it in the trash. He pulled out another blank sheet and thought about how to take the first step forward.
Logan’s salad had arrived without him noticing. He lifted a piece of lettuce over the sandy brown dressing. Everything around him seemed overly significant and saturated with importance. The depressing strips of Romaine before him did not inspire much hope for the future. Logan laid a napkin over the plate, which seemed to somehow offend the bartender.
“Is something wrong?”
Logan shook his head and pursed his lips. He needed to avoid saying, “Yes, sir, there certainly is something wrong.”
Making no headway with his first question, the bartender asked another.
“Are you ready to order?”
Logan hadn’t even looked at the menu and he felt panic setting in. The bartender certainly had other pathetic saps to wait on, ones who would have their orders ready. Logan flipped through the plastic pages until he landed on the centerfold. His eyes fixed on the first entrée and he pointed to the top of the Specials list.
“I’ll have the crimson oysters with Parmesan dipping sauce.”
The waiter scratched the order on his pad of paper and slid a saucer of lemon wedges beside Logan’s glass.
“Daddy, what are you doing?”
Rachel stood in the doorway wearing socks three times too big for her small feet. She liked wearing them because of the funny padding in the toes.
“Nothing really, I couldn’t sleep.”
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“You want some spaghetti?” he suggested. “I could go for some spaghetti.”
When they got to the kitchen, Rachel let her dad pull her across the black and white tiles. He took two plastic containers from the fridge. They ate the spaghetti cold straight from the Tupperware, a tradition Arthur practiced with both his daughters.
“Look what Logan taught me!”
She twirled a strand of spaghetti neatly around the tines of her fork. When the pasta looked like a fat spool of red and white thread she placed it carefully into her mouth. Not a fleck of sauce splattered onto the table or around her lips. He nodded at her, smiling with approval.
As the bartender disappeared to the kitchen again, Logan wondered just what he had ordered. Weren’t oysters supposed to be an aphrodisiac? And what about the color, crimson? He’d had oysters only once before as a child at a family picnic. In an embarrassing display, he struggled to crack even one of the shells. Why had he chosen a meal that took so much work? He should have picked something effortless like ham on rye, a meal with no secret surprises.
Arthur would have liked this restaurant. It had something for everyone and a sizable kids menu. He would order the crab cakes and whatever beer they had on tap. The two of them would talk about their day and complain about the bitter cold front sweeping through the state. They’d joke and groan about the inevitable backbreaking drudgery of shoveling snow. Why couldn’t that be enough?
“Here you go. Enjoy.”
The bartender balanced two identical steaming plates on his arm, placing the first one carefully in front of Logan and then ushering the other over to the lady at the end of the bar. A collection of brick-red oysters gathered around a small cup of creamy sauce.
Logan glanced over to see if the blond lady was giving her oysters a chance. She examined one shell with a pair of lanky fingers. Prying it open gracefully, she fished out the meat inside the ruby shell with a slender silver fork and casually dipped it in the sauce. She made it look so easy.
Rachel was trying to hide her yawns behind two cupped hands.
“Time for bed, missy.”
Arthur took her hand and led her up the stairs. He lifted her up, making soft swishing airplane noises as she landed on the top bunk. Below Lacey slept soundly, faintly snoring like her mother. He watched her for a moment, remembering how scared he was a few months ago when Lacey had woken up in the middle of the night, blue as a robin’s egg, gasping for breath. She was having her first asthma attack. At three in the morning he hadn’t hesitated to call Logan, who sped to the house to stay with Rachel while they drove Lacey to the hospital. Before leaving the house Arthur had hugged Logan, and they’d clapped each other hard on the back with reassurance.
He closed the door and walked back to his bedroom, knowing that in the morning he’d make a call. He’d reassure Logan this time.
Logan quickly looked towards the lady at the end of the bar. He didn’t want her feeling suspicious, like she couldn’t enjoy her oysters without a man bothering her with glances. He could see, however, that her narrow lips were smiling. She seemed content sitting alone at the bar with her dinner. She probably didn’t even want a booth. Logan wondered if she had impulsively ordered the dish, or if she had deliberately chosen the romantic mollusks. Logan prodded the oysters with his fork, trying to mimic what the lady had done, and managed to pluck the soft middle out. He let himself enjoy the meal, consciously putting aside the events of the night. He worked to mirror the woman’s satisfied expression, believing for a moment that the little shells could revive him.
Sarah Kendall is a graduate student enrolled in the Master of Arts in Fiction program at Johns Hopkins University. Her short story “Nicholas the Great” was featured in an anthology published by Writer’s Lair Books in 2007. She was a 2006 intern at The Writer’s Center and the Assistant Editor for Volume 101 Number 3/4, Fall/Winter 2006 edition of Poet Lore. She wears red shoes exclusively.
© 2011, Sarah Kendall