The time after a party when she and Roger lay together on the rug in his living room, under the picture window, near the ficus, when they stared into each other’s eyes with longing and throat-kissed, was long ago. The world has changed entirely and HIV-AIDS is common enough to be expected. Since that party, Marlene has married and moved more than once. Roger has moved on to another-after-another man, the last one older.
Years ago, Marlene and Roger had their last margaritas together in their old hangout. Her drink was so strong her eyes felt crossed.
“What did you tell him to put in this?” She liked to feel drunk, but one more this strong and she’d be sick. The bartender looked her way, amused. She realized she couldn’t drive anywhere; she’d have to phone her husband. “I have to phone John to come and get me,” she said. She might have already spoken those words, because Roger had smiled, lifted his chin in a laugh. His smile was generous, and he had lovely long lips. She’d known he was gay, though he’d been married and had a child before he realized, and then he was divorced, and all the rest.
The night they lay together on his living room floor after the party was out of character for both of them. Their act as a couple was so convincing that perhaps they, slightly drunk and certainly stoned, were also convinced.
At the party, Marlene was the beard for Roger’s boyfriend’s parents. His boyfriend was a kid from Kansas. The parents were farmers, the mother had a twist of white hair atop her head, the father sat silent in a stiff brown suit, pudgy hands cupped in his lap. Marlene and Roger deliberately touched each other in front of the parents and Roger kissed her cheek. Roger had painted the living room chocolate brown, and used brass lights for accents and placed a black leather couch in the centre of the room. The couple from Kansas sat on it all evening, nodding and looking discreetly around. They accepted hors d’oeuvres and slices of pizza with pesto, which the mother admitted to Marlene she had never tasted.
“I hadn’t tasted pesto, either, until I met Roger. He’s such a good cook for a man.” She smiled and may have coaxed a blush to bloom; she’d been an actress in community theatre in high school. She didn’t bother with high school plays. She’d had bigger game in mind and older men. Roger was an older man.
Marlene saw Roger kiss the kid, the boyfriend, in the kitchen, in a place the parents wouldn’t see but might have, had they turned their heads. She thought it careless of him, or daring, and she wondered about the daughter, Roger’s daughter, who was eighteen at the time of the party, seeing her father kiss a kid two years older than she herself was. And it was no peck on the lips, it was a deep kiss, exactly what she and Roger would share later.
Loving someone — Marlene thinks proximity is part of it. On one end of the second floor of the old school, three classrooms. In one classroom Marlene, with her third grade, in another Ann, with her fourth grade, and across the hall, Roger, with sixth grade. The halls were wide, the floors polished, the building constructed of wood. The stairs were wood also, but one time Marlene managed while running up to break her big toe against a riser. Nothing hurts so much, the nurse in emergency told her, except kidney stones and childbirth.
The three teachers — Ann, Roger, and Marlene — became friends. The school was small, they happened to be the only single teachers, and they occasionally met at the Mexican restaurant on Oliveras for something to eat and margaritas. Marlene, who was petite and blond, and Ann, who was tall and wore chunky gold jewellery, flirted with Roger. They couldn’t help it. He was attractive to women, and while they teased him, he let his hands and fingers fly in the exaggerated fashion of the queen he would become, those motions he kept in check all day at school.
The principal, a woman with eyeglasses perched on her nose, called Marlene into the office one day and said, “You and Mr. Matthews should get together. He’s such a catch,” and Marlene said, “Yes, he is,” and the principal excused herself for interfering and Marlene said, “That’s all right. I’m afraid he’s interested in someone else.” Roger had got himself the kid from Kansas by then.
The three of them, Ann and Roger and Marlene, laughed at their restaurant over the naivety of middle-aged people. “I knew right away,” Marlene said, and Ann said, “I asked him out on a date,” and Roger said, “And I accepted and took her to a gay bar.” They laughed hysterically and ordered margaritas.
Ann had been in the Peace Corps. She reconnected with a Colombian she’d worked with who looked her up when he was in town. She told Marlene, “I fell into sex,” and then on Easter break Ann flew to Bogotá to see him and was shot, killed on a freeway. Her boyfriend’s sports car spun out of control. When news of Ann’s death reached the school, the janitor draped her classroom door in black crepe and the principal called an assembly. Marlene spoke and said how much Miss Blackwell had loved her children. Some of the children, the boys particularly, cried.
Marlene and Roger drove over to Ann’s apartment before her parents arrived, to clean up any traces of Ann as a grown-up woman. They collected her vibrator (Marlene had never seen one) and the K-Y Jelly, and even the black push-up bra. They washed the dishes, folded everything in her drawers, changed the sheets on the bed. Then they went to the restaurant on Oliveras and had a farewell dinner and margaritas and talked about Ann, her liveliness, her desire for children of her own, her irrepressible sexuality (she had apparently confided in each of them), her humour. Ann had loved to dress up. They laughed about her Tinker Bell costume at a Halloween party, a character Ann had chosen because she was big-boned and tall.
Loving someone — Marlene thinks absence is part of it. Not to realize that you’re someone’s best friend until after the person is gone, guilt and sadness alternating like a terrible dance that stumbles, after a while, to gasps and sobs. She inherited Ann’s set of Wedgwood bone china she’d once admired: at the news Marlene was thrown into a dither and Roger let her cry on his shoulder. They toked together at his house, in the living room, their backs against the black leather couch. They talked about life and love and Roger was cavalier, he said it was a game, not be taken seriously, he twisted his wrists, he made gestures. Marlene fell into his mood, lightened up, laughed.
Then he asked her if she would mind being a beard. He had to explain what he meant.
Loving someone — Marlene thinks a vulnerable stage in life is part of it. The part of your life that’s etched deeper than anything after. Maybe because it’s new. Minus one or two events you will never get over, in every life there’s a golden time — you won’t know when it’s happening— the value of the friends you’re with, the reasons you’re together, the laughter shared, the haunting after: these times mark you, identify you, like a knot in a red thread placed on your wrist by a rinpoche during an initiation. How long has it been since Marlene has thought of Roger and Ann? Half a lifetime since, and she the only survivor of their trio. AIDS made Roger nearly silent. The last time she saw him he said her name and wouldn’t say more. He was in a wheelchair. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes more almond-shaped. Turning Zen as he died.
Loving someone — Marlene thinks the forbidden is part of it. After the living room floor, she and Roger in his bedroom, on the floor again for some reason, between the bed and a mirror, the rug cream-colored, silky, and inviting to naked skin. And they, flailing in that cramped position, were flummoxed when it came to consummation: Roger couldn’t bring himself to enter her vagina and she could not bring herself to do it the other way. There they writhed, stymied, in love and getting over it. Always getting over it.