My friend Jason had just gotten divorced and called me the day it went final, asking me to come hang out in his new apartment. The address he described was downtown, in a strange neighborhood on the East Side, which would be inconvenient. I worked out in the suburbs every day until six, drove home to another suburb on the outskirts of the other side of the city, and if everything proceeded as planned, rolled into bed by ten. My weekends were full, things to fix or clean around the house and yard, plus the exclusive time with my wife. Madison carried the evening shift at the hospital, so Saturday was the only day we saw each other. A weekday night in the city was something I'd have to schedule, something I'd have to plan for. If I knew Jason, he'd want to get rowdy, do some rebachelorizing, drinking, cards, a strip club he'd been frequenting, a place where he already knew the dancers' names and the bartenders knew his drink.
My wife didn't like the idea of Jason. Originally, Jason wasn't our friend; his ex-wife was. She and Madison had been tight since preschool, roomed together in college, and served as each other's maid of honor. They wore the same hairstyle, weighed about the same, and tittered at the same things I didn't think were funny. Jason came along later, entering our little group with a shroud of mystery. Madison and I didn't know where he grew up, where he went to school, and no one from his side, family or friend, attended their wedding—it was all bride. The marriage lasted just three years. During that time, he and I saw each other only on double dates, board games in someone's dining room, a weekend out of town here and there. It can't be denied we hit it off, as much as two guys thrust into that proximity could. Sans our wives, I had my life and he had his.
Madison assumed that after the divorce, we'd never see Jason again. The split was his fault—which we didn't know for sure. For me to not only hang with him, but start hanging with him, would just be odd.
I moved some meetings around on a Thursday and told Jason I'd drive up to his place Wednesday night after I got home from work. I made it clear I had to be back home by midnight, but we could have dinner, catch a game at a bar, undo the top button. I explained things were tough at work that week, how I had to stay sharp, get my winks. Jason replied to my email within seconds, said we'd have a bitchin' time—that's the way he typed it—that he was already counting down. I thought about writing him back, saying something like, "Me, too. See you then," but didn't. That kind of back-and-forth could go on forever.
Jason would want to vent, Madison predicted, tell me his side of the story. During the divorce, we'd been told what a bastard he was, heard his ex swear like we'd never heard, saw her break down in hysterics and break some furniture, mainly Jason's things. But we never got details, the whys and hows. That's why Madison let me go to his place, eventually encouraging me: She wanted the scoop. We didn't see the divorce coming, had no idea what had happened, what he (or she) could have done to end it so quickly. Since her girlfriend wasn't talking, Jason served as second opportunity.
"He cheated," Madison guessed. "The way he looks at me, it's obvious he was keeping his options open."
"Of course he cheated," I said, not knowing that Jason had been staring at my wife. I recalled the weekends in the cabin, the hot tub, my wife's bikini. I remember being conscious of not doing the same, peeking at Jason's wife and having her catch me. It wasn't like I had to, both wives looking so much alike, even in a hot tub, wearing next to nothing. I just stared at Madison because that was okay. They were nearly the same so I took in what was mine.
As I got ready for the big night, Madison prepped me, said she wanted all the details. She'd written down some leading questions and left the note card in my breast pocket of the shirt I was going to wear. She offered a mini-tape recorder, but then withdrew the offer, worrying I'd get caught, that I'd fold under pressure.
"Call me as soon as you get in the car," she said. "I'll be working on my puzzle—it's almost done."
Madison had been stymied by a 1,000-piece jigsaw all summer, the pieces spread across the island counter in the kitchen. No matter how long she kept at it, it looked the same every day, the edges complete with the center needing work. The funny thing was, the puzzle was black—all black—just a big, black oval.
"Can't wait to see what it looks like," I said. Madison kissed me on the cheek.
Jason lived in a neighborhood I'd never been to, not close to any of the expressways, lodged behind some warehouses and a closed-down factory. The area was making a comeback, revamped lofts, some refurbished condos, a unique perspective on the skyline. Jason's complex was tucked into a cul-de-sac, had courtyard in the middle, and the gate made me press a button so I could be buzzed in. Jason's place was on the fourth floor of the corner building, without an elevator, and I sucked wind the last flight-and-a-half. I thought I saw a rat at the top of the stairs, but it might have just been a shadow from the skylight. Or it could have been a rat.
Outside Jason's, a man called to me from the apartment across the hall. His door was open, and when I looked inside, the man was shirtless, pulling his pants up, fastening his belt. I saw everything, my timing just that bad.
"You're here for Jason," the man said. He had a cigar in his mouth but it wasn't lit.
"I am," I said. I was about to ask the man something, to be nice, but Jason opened his door and gave me a huge hug, pulling me inside. When I turned back toward the neighbor to nod good-bye, he was gone, but I could still see inside his apartment, dirty laundry covering a yellow linoleum floor, the same hue as the man's skin and hair.
Jason gave me the two-cent tour, starting with the kitchen, barely containing the refrigerator and toaster oven. The small window in the corner revealed nothing but the brick wall from an apartment next door. The bathroom was even smaller, just a shower stall, sink, and toilet, no tub, no closet. A stack of non-matching towels rested on the tank, along with a toothbrush, a stick of deodorant, and a puffy tube of paste.
The bedroom sat off the main hall, but Jason steered me away, claiming I wouldn't want to witness that scene, that he hadn't cleaned since he'd moved in.
"I eat in there, too, so you can imagine," Jason said.
Jason himself looked the opposite of unkempt. He had lost a few pounds, his face thinner and less pale, highlighted by a thin black goatee. He was dressed differently, too, donning a shiny gray dress shirt, the first shirt with buttons I'd seen him in since his wedding. Gel slicked back his hair, his nails were short and neat, and unless I was mistaken, he'd bathed in cologne just before I arrived.
When we broke the threshold to the living room, I was introduced to another man, whom I didn't know, whom I didn't know was going to be there. The man was drinking something from a champagne flute, champagne I presumed, though it was possible those were the only glasses Jason had, what his wife let him take.
"This is Jerry," Jason said, pushing me into Jerry. "He's my work partner."
Jason was an ad man, and from what Madison and I had inferred, he earned sweet coin. Some of the commercials he'd created I'd seen a hundred times, the one for spearmint gum a favorite that I'd hummed in the shower, in elevators, while driving alone in my car. Jerry wrote the lyrics, I guessed, because Jason was the pianist. I saw no piano anywhere in the apartment—Jason had had a black baby grand—but maybe it was in the bedroom. I then wondered if his wife had taken that in the divorce just to spite him, unable to play herself, wanting something that meant so much to him.
Jerry asked that I call him "Jer." He was taller than Jason, and his voice was deep, like the baritone in a barbershop quartet, but otherwise, he looked a lot like Jason. They sported the same thin goatee and the same overwrought cologne, only Jerry's sideburns were a little longer and his shirt was a darker gray. Jason offered me some champagne, which I accepted but didn't plan to drink. While Jason was in the kitchen, I sat down next to Jerry, who was watching a basketball game and talking on his phone.
"Plenty of time to come back," he said to whomever he was speaking with. It sounded like he believed it.
And that's when I saw it. Or noticed it, really. It was there, so obvious if I'd only been looking. In the center of the room, between the sofa and a flatscreen larger than my car, sat a fountain. It was the same kind and size of fountain you'd see in a bank lobby, a bit smaller than one you'd see in a mall or city square, but definitely larger than it should have been for the living room of a one-bedroom apartment. Without realizing what the fountain was, I'd had to walk sideways just to keep from tripping over it, and sitting on the couch, I had to pigeon my toes, just so my feet would fit on the floor. It took up the entire room, save the furniture that surrounded it, so big it was difficult to take in, so hard to notice, like someone would ignore a support beam or wall.
Water flowed out the top of the fountain, sprayed a foot or so in the air, the occasional drop splashing the high ceiling. Most of the water arced down in even streams, bubbling into a basin. Water also gushed down the sides through little holes, highlighted by lights, lights that changed color every thirty seconds (I timed it). The whole thing was carved out of black marble, maybe some sort of granite, or maybe both, if that were possible. From a whirring noise I detected behind the splashing, I guessed it operated on a pump, something to keep the water cycling.
The only thing that separated this fountain from any other fountain I'd ever seen was that Jason's fountain, his living room centerpiece that blocked the TV and commandeered the entire room, was that it was shaped like an erect penis. A shiny, black, eight-foot-tall erect penis.
I took in the penis fountain's shape, its size, and the intricate detail that some artisan must have spent hours getting just right. Everything was there, everything that made a penis a penis. Every curve, every nook, and at the bottom, as if floating in the basin, the balls. It was a complete penis. I noted that it didn't look at all like my penis—aside from the obvious—but instead appeared to be the ideal penis, one you'd see on a sculpture in a museum, or on a stud in a pornographic movie, proportioned as if Jason's apartment was well endowed and sporting impressive wood. The colored lights and the water might have taken away, made it silly, but on the contrary, they only enhanced the penis, made it majestic, like an offering at the feet of a god, in soft-focus to befit a Hollywood legend. The motor that made the water flow sounded more like a hymn in that light, a low-pitched chorus singing the penis' praise.
"I don't know how he knows him," Jerry said into his phone. "He just sat down."
Jason came back and handed me the drink, which I took down my throat in one gulp. Jason and Jerry sat on either side of me, bullshitting about work, humming bars of songs they'd written, cheering plays in a game I was missing, the giant, spouting phallus in my way but not theirs. Every once in a while, when someone hit a big shot, when Jerry said something funny, or when one of them farted, Jason and Jerry, in synchronized motion, reached into a cup on their respective end tables, pulled out a penny or nickel or some other coin, and tossed it in the fountain's base with a kerplunk. For particularly hard tosses, splashes of water drizzled my pant legs and shoes. Then they'd reach above my head and high-five. At the rate they were throwing in money, there could have been a month's mortgage in that basin. After one bathroom and champagne run, Jason brought me back a cup of coins, shiny, brand-new pennies, but I never got their rhythm down, never threw a coin in when he and Jerry did. I wasn't quite at their level.
"I make a wish every time," Jason said.
"I hope they all come true," I said, and Jason patted me on the knee.
Over the course of the evening, I asked Jason and Jerry several times if they wanted to go out to a bar, but they said no, that Jason had all the booze we'd need. Even though I loathed them, I asked if there were any strip clubs nearby, and both Jason and Jerry said they were burned out, that they were a waste of money and were insulting to both us and the women on stage. Jason suggested something softcore on Pay Per View, if that as something I really needed. I declined the movie, noting that I'd probably have to leave soon, anyway, adding that girls on TV weren't the same as live ones.
"Hear hear," Jerry said. "Coming from the only man here sleeping with a woman tonight."
At 11:35, I stood and thanked the men for the evening, telling Jason I liked his place, that he seemed happy and I was glad for him. Jer stood, too. I shook his hand, and he slipped his card in my shirt pocket, right on top of Madison's list of questions, which I never began to ask. Jer asked me to call him, explained how he lived with his wife and kids in the suburbs, not far from me, but had a place near Jason's so he didn't have to make the commute to work every day. He was in the city Sunday night through Friday. I had no idea why he wanted me to call or how he could spend five nights away from his family, but I thanked him for the card and said I'd see him around. I took one more look at the gigantic black penis fountain, just to make sure I could do it justice when describing it to Madison, then left with Jason tailing behind.
At the door, Jason asked if I was thinking what he was thinking: Do you want to make this a regular thing? Wednesday night could be my night with the boys, up in the city, our time to raise hell. "Fathers, lock up your daughters," he said. He and Jer, whom he'd sometimes called "Jer-Bear," played racquetball, and they could always use a third, or if I wanted, we could join a team league, basketball, maybe even wallyball. I told him I'd check my schedule, give him a call, set something up. He shook my hand, then pulled me in for another hug.
"I miss her," Jason whispered into my ear, squeezing me harder. "I know you'll see her soon, and when you do, tell her I said hello."
That was the only reference to his wife he'd made all evening. In my mission to dig in deep, find out anything at all, I'd failed.
On my way home, I decided I should stop for gas. I probably could have made it, but I was cutting through the rough side of town. I imagined calling Madison, her having to find me along the Interstate and drive me to a station, or worse, someone else coming on me first, beating, shooting, or stabbing me for the forty-three dollars I had in my wallet. Or just because. It was easier to stop for gas, to take charge of the situation.
I found a BP on the corner of an exit ramp, well lit and clean and new. I would pick the pump closest to the building, put in five bucks with my debit card, be back in my car in less than three minutes, before anyone knew I was there, decided I was an easy target.
It was paranoia to think like this, I knew. It wasn't like ghetto residents were waiting with pipes and chains in the car wash for people like me. Most inner-city crime happened among gang members, one gang shooting the other, then retribution, sometimes a kid getting caught in crossfire. I wasn't entering some enemy frontline, a target painted on my back. People of all sorts pulled into these all-night, highway-side stations, locals, passersby, even travelers, cars from out of town that had no idea which neighborhoods were good and which were bad. It was okay. My fear was just me having lived in the suburbs too long—my whole life. I was getting gas, not buying crack.
The pump took my card and I got to five dollars in less than a minute. I couldn't see a soul except the woman inside the mini-mart and she was watching TV. I kept pumping, figuring I'd fill up, the price per gallon two cents cheaper than in my neighborhood. It was the middle of summer, but it was early in the morning so it was cool, a little windy. I started whistling Jason's spearmint gum jingle and looked around, taking hold of my surroundings. A Dunkin' Donuts/31 Flavors was across the street and was busier than the BP. An A&W/Long John Silver's was next to that, sharing the back parking lot. That made me think of getting a long john at Dunkin' Donuts, some coffee, of breezing the drive-thru. I felt stupid about having been afraid. This was my city, the one I'd lived outside of my whole life. Being terrified of it was sillier than anything that had happened at Jason's, I thought. At least close to it.
"Excuse me, sir," a voice, deep and direct, said from behind me.
I stopped whistling Jason's tune. A very tall woman stood right on top of me, within touching distance. She was, with heels, at least six inches taller than me, maybe more. She could have been black or white, probably a mix of those two at least, with a large, bushy blonde afro, probably a wig, but maybe not. She was dressed in a short yellow dress with plunging necklaces and a bevy of bracelets, and with the pumps, looked like a hooker, a large, racially ambiguous hooker. The only thing between us was the gas hose, its nozzle parked firmly in my tank.
"I was wondering, sir, if you could give me a ride," the woman said to me. "I'm just going a few exits up the highway and would hate to walk by myself in these shoes at this hour."
The woman said her name was Cherry and that someone had stolen her purse at a club, that she had no phone or money to call a cab.
I looked at Cherry and didn't answer. She waited. The silence broke when the tank was full and the pump stopped with a violent clang.
"I'm in a hurry tonight," I told Cherry. In truth, I was, already an hour late.
"It's on your way," Cherry said. "I can pay you back when I get to my place. I just really need a ride and you seem nice."
I took the nozzle out of my tank and screwed on my cap. I had to say Excuse me because Cherry was blocking the way. I guessed this was intentional.
"Sorry, but I don't give rides to strangers."
I was thinking the worst again. Cherry, at best, was a hooker looking for a late-night score. More likely, she'd get in my car, pull out a weapon, and roll me. Or maybe she was working with someone, an even larger person a few blocks from the highway who paid her fifty bucks for every yahoo she led into their lair. Needless to say, I wasn't giving her a ride, letting her into my car. The long john was also looking to be out of the question.
"Please, mister," Cherry said. When I tried to open my door, she stepped in front of it, blocking me from entering.
"Please let me get into my car," I said.
Cherry slammed the door with her hip. "You're giving me a ride," she said.
Just as things were hitting their head, a police cruiser sped past, sirens deafening, and pulled into the donut/ice cream shop. The sirens went off, but the cops got out and headed inside. I looked to see what was going on, but couldn't tell if it was a robbery, assault, or something worse. I assumed it was all three. I was shaking. I thought about those crossfire bullets and ducked behind the gas pump, then imagined the explosion, a stray piercing the tank and sending me, my car, and Cherry straight into the night sky, all of us burning into nothing.
Whatever was going on, Cherry didn't like it, either. "Fuck you," she said. "I just needed a ride." Then she was gone, walking with intention down the dark side street. I pulled my receipt out of the pump and got in my car, checked for my debit card in my wallet, and raced back onto the expressway, running the red light at the interchange. I couldn't tell if I'd avoided disaster or had turned down a desperate person in need. Whichever the case, I was glad to be going home.
When I got into the bedroom, Madison was still awake and wanted to know the details. It was nearly two, but she didn't seem mad I was so late. Just curious. She had just finished brushing her teeth and I could smell her pleasant mouth from the doorway. I undressed and laid out my clothes for the next day, telling her what I could about Jason's apartment, about Jer-Bear, about the game. I didn't mention the fountain, the coins, or Jason's invite to come back. I also skipped everything about my run-in with Cherry. Reporting those details might cast the wrong aspersions, something different than I wanted her to think before I had time to process it for myself.
"So?" Madison said.
"So," I said.
"Was it his fault or wasn't it? Did he say anything mean about her? About that thing on her chin?"
My wife shut the light and crawled into bed before I had a chance to finish my routine. In the dark, I fluffed one of my pillows, then the other. I settled with my back to the center, facing the dressing mirror on the wall. It was my position.
"I should have given you the recorder," Madison said.
"He might have had an affair," I said.
"Might? Did he or didn't he?"
"I'd say no."
"Do you think he's gay?" she asked. "I thought of that after we talked, that this was all an elaborate scheme to get you on a date."
"I don't think he's gay," I said.
"No kissing?" she asked.
I waited for her to laugh, indicate she was kidding. She waited for my response.
"No," I said. "Let's talk about it when I get home tomorrow. I'll remember more then."
Madison turned away. One of her feet grazed mine under the covers and she apologized. Then she turned around and offered up sex, said she missed me, wasn't used to me being gone when she got off.
We faced each other, inched toward the middle, to the cool part of the sheets.
After, Madison asleep, I stared at the mirror, able to make out just the black lump of myself on the bed. I'd fallen asleep many nights trying to pinpoint details, to see my own eyes looking back at me. That, plus a long day, would usually do me in. But I couldn't fall asleep. Maybe it was the champagne. Maybe it was what had happened at Jason's, with Cherry at the BP. Or maybe it was the nature of the sex with Madison, rowdier than usual, my wife extending her repertoire beyond the basics. She even changed positions a couple of times, and not because her legs were falling asleep—she just felt like some different angles. I'm usually happy with anything, so I always let her take charge, hoping I can look at her breasts at least, and that she can get hers before I get mine. That night she did, which should have helped me sleep better.
After twenty minutes, I reached over to my wife with my foot, ran my toes up the back of her calf, but she pulled away.
I tried dozing off for another half an hour, watching the minutes click by on the digital clock. In my head, I ran down the next day's meetings, tried to remember if I'd plugged in my phone, its charge just about fizzled. I sat on the side of the bed and considered fetching a drink of water, maybe something to eat. I could watch television, find out who won that game at Jason's. The combination of the three made me stand.
On my way out of the room, I stopped at the mirror and looked at myself. I started blinking over and over, trying to catch an image of myself with my eyes closed. All I saw was me closing my eyes, then nothing, over and over again. It became hard to focus on anything.
I began masturbating. I pulled my penis through the fly of my pajama bottoms and tugged on it. I was not used to the standing position, so it was difficult, but I was able to make myself hard. Per the usual, thoughts of women I knew from work, girls I'd gone to school with, and images of my wife flashed through my head, mixed in with some fresh thoughts of Cherry, in my car, splayed across the backseat. In one image she had a knife. In another, a banana. But I didn't want any of that. I concentrated on clearing my slate, focused on looking straight ahead. I didn't want this to be about any of them. That was too easy and it was getting old. I was doing this myself, just to see if I could.
"What are you doing there in the mirror?" I heard Madison say behind me, making me jump. I'd been at it a few minutes at that point and had a good rhythm going, feeling like I was alone in the room, isolated from the world.
"Nothing," I said.
"Is there something wrong with your face?"
Madison's voice seemed half-hearted, like she might have been asleep still. I did not answer, quieting my strokes but not slowing. I soon heard Madison's breathing even out. She couldn't see me, my body blocking her line of vision. If she'd caught me, I couldn't imagine what she'd say, what she'd do. She'd walked in on me once before, when she was supposed to be in the tub and I was supposed to be doing my taxes, instead looking at a website and going at it. That made for a couple of tough days. But on this night, her in bed and me in the mirror, she didn't see me or hear me. There was no reason to borrow trouble.
"I finished my puzzle," Madison said from the bed five or so minutes later. "We'll glue it down tomorrow and hang it in the den."
I worked at myself, not having any particular goal, not even the usual. I pulled my pants all the way down, just to make things easier, and eventually took off my shirt. I didn't want to go to bed, I didn't want to get a drink of water or watch television, and I didn't care that I had to get up for work in just four hours.
"Madison," I said after a while, using a louder voice than I had been.
Madison sat up, looked straight ahead.
"I just remembered something that I wanted to tell you."