EWTF preview series, chapter 1.3: likely to fail
Here’s the third chapter!
Getting down to crunch time now! As long as there are no snags in the formatting (and there shouldn’t be – I’ve practiced it a bit before), the ebook should go live sometime around Friday!
1.3: LIKELY TO FAIL
It had been a long night, a midnight labor bled into an early morning delivery. Jodie reached the parking lot with a blinding sunrise in her eyes, harsh and golden, as she dug through her bag to find her car keys. She was tired, and in the glare, she could barely make out his shape, but she knew that walk anywhere: Gary Berges, striding with force, with purpose, like he owned this whole parking lot.
Or maybe he was just angry. “Jodie,” he bellowed. “What did you do?”
“Oh hell,” she said with a slanted smile, “What did I do?”
“The fucking spot. Your name is on my fucking parking spot.” And then she knew what he was talking about. Their parking lot had been repaved, and Jodie had run into the building’s owner that day. She stood there with the paving crew for a moment as they took notes on how to divide up the assigned parking spaces. She might have mentioned which space she wanted. That spot, the one away from the oak trees, the only spot in the whole lot that didn’t get shat on with sap every fall. She hadn’t even considered anyone else might want it, that anyone else even noticed that it was a good spot at all.
“Dammit, Jodie,” Berges said. “You’re twenty-nine and you drive a piece-of-shit Taurus. I’ve been parking in that spot for ten years. What do you care which spot you have?”
“I hate washing my car just as much as anybody.” She put a finger to his shoulder, a tap. “And besides, I’m not stealing it. It was nobody’s before, and now it’ll be mine. That’s not stealing.”
She began to lean against her car, but stopped before the dewy windows soaked her back. Other cars filed into the parking lot for early appointments, people carrying coffee and rubbing their eyes. Berges folded his arms across his chest. I can’t believe you did that,” he said, pausing. His strong, angry features softened and he laughed. “No, actually, I can believe it.”
She’d known Berges for five years now. She first met him at the hospital, in the cafeteria. She knew him before he was divorced, before he got old. He was old now, or at least older. His eyes had become lined and his hair was starting to speckle with gray, thinning a bit at his temples. Maybe divorce did that to people?
She threw her hands up in the air and felt a smirk spread across her lips. “You don’t have to get your panties in a twist about it. I really didn’t. It just fell in my lap.”
He looked down at her lap, then back up with a doubtful squint in his eyes. “I bet it did.”
“You’re still coming to my brother’s wedding with me?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“What’s the difference?”
His laugh was like a bark.
She smiled. “Free bar,” she said.
Jodie drove home, stumbled up to her bedroom, set her alarm, tossed her scrubs onto the floor not bothering to shower and fell into bed in her underwear and a thin white tank top. Three hours passed in a blink. She closed her eyes and opened them again, that dreamless state of semi-consciousness, and then her phone was ringing. Piper sang downstairs in the kitchen. Jodie put a pillow over her head but that didn’t stop the phone from ringing or Piper from singing. The cracked blinds let in too much bright afternoon sunlight, and outside the window some bird chirped a shrill song. She grabbed her phone. She couldn’t even read the caller ID, but answered anyway. “What?”
“What are you doing?” Her brother. Eric had almost unbelievable timing, that his calls came so early on those mornings she had been up all night. She had her alarm set. She could have slept for thirty more minutes, but he stole that from her. She was awake now. She held the phone to her face, her hands still smelling of surgical soap.
“Doing? I’m sleeping,” she said. “Long night.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “But you’re coming? Right? You know what day this is?”
“Yes I know what day this is.”
“Are you bringing somebody?”
“Oh geeze, yes, don’t you worry. I found some stupid idiot to come to your wedding with me.”
Eric laughed merrily. “Did you have to pay him?”
Jodie wanted to reach through the phone and hit him. She wondered if Ruth was there. Was she laughing too? Jodie hadn’t met her future sister-in-law more than three times, and she didn’t know if she liked her much. Oh, shut up already, Jodie said to her brother.
The wedding was ninety minutes away in Lansing. She and Berges drove together, and it never occurred to her that they had so much to talk about, or that they knew so much about each other. Their acquaintance was formed in the hallways and parking lots of the medical complex they shared, or grabbing lunches in the hospital cafeteria, or meeting for a candy bar from a vending machine. She’d known him when she was still in her residency, since before his daughter was a teenager. She’d known him in the months after the divorce blew up, and she’d seen it turn him disillusioned and jaded. The divorce hadn’t been his idea.
They had the afternoon to kill before the wedding. Jodie wore jeans and a gray cardigan, and felt too plain for the hair that Piper had done for her before she left, half a French twist with an explosion of curls erupting from the back. Jodie knew she wouldn’t be able to do her hair on her own later. As they sat down for lunch in the hotel restaurant, Jodie noticed Berges had gotten a fresh haircut for the occasion. She felt honored, but she didn’t say anything.
“I’ve never been here before,” Berges said. The room was mostly empty. Nearly two in the afternoon, and most people had eaten lunch already. The waitresses were dressed in black and white. There was a standing wood stove in the middle of the room that wasn’t being used, and stone statues in each of the corners with large, bulging eyes. Berges sat in front of one, and it made her feel like there was another person sitting behind them. But Jodie got the feeling Berges meant that he’d never been to Lansing before, and not just the little hotel restaurant specifically.
“Oh, it’s a hole really,” Jodie said. “Hell if I know why he wanted to move here. Why does everyone move to such holes? I never see Piper anymore. Her fiancι, he lives out in the middle of nowhere. He lives next to a goddamn field of cows.
Berges chuckled. A waitress brought their food. Jodie unrolled a cloth napkin and started in on her salad. She was talking too much. “Shouldn’t you talk about your child or something?”
She was half kidding, but he started anyway. “Hazel, she’s good. She finally got her braces off last week. Braces I paid for, but of course her mother wouldn’t acknowledge that much…” He went on about Hazel, how she placed second at her track meet last weekend, how she was getting a C in algebra, and how her bitch mother didn’t stop yapping the whole meet about how he never kept up with Hazel’s homework when he had her. He went on about their house which, which he had picked out when they bought it, but was granted to her in the end because it was closer to Hazel’s school. He talked about visitation settlements and lawyers and bitterness, going on almost solidly until their food came. And then while they ate, all through the meal, to the point she imagined even the statues sitting behind him had become bored.
After lunch, Jodie slipped on her gown and clumsy heels, and since her hair was already done, she went to find her brother. She rapped lightly on the door of a small conference room before entering, and Eric was inside, standing at a window, already dressed in a black tuxedo. “Okay, let me look at you then,” she said. She turned him around. His tie was neat enough. She inspected for lint there wasn’t any. She squinted at his face. He’d started growing a little goatee and she wasn’t sure what she thought of it. It startled her how much she missed him now that he was so far away.
“You look nice, Jodie.”
“Eh,” she said. It was just a simple black gown, with a wide, scooped neckline that hung lower than she’d imagined it would when it was still on the hanger. Piper had begged to make her something to wear, but Jodie declined. She’d seen some of the strange contraptions Piper had dressed Amelia in before, and Jodie had no intentions of being Piper’s fashion experiment. Jodie went to Kohl’s instead.
“But you should get some sun,” he added. In all that black, Jodie’s pale skin appeared so white it cast a bluish tint.
“Sun gives you cancer,” she said.
Seeing the two of them, all grown up and dressed for his wedding, with their degrees they’d earned and paid for themselves, with their careers, you never would have guessed they came from such a screwed up family. Whatever dysfunction that caused Jodie to swear off marriage and children indefinitely only seemed to make her big brother want it more. Like he had to prove he could make it work. It was going to be a very small wedding neither she nor Eric were close to either side of their mangled family anymore. Their parents would be here with new spouses third for their mother and fourth for their father but none of the half or step siblings had been invited. Hopefully nobody would argue.
Jodie didn’t understand what the fuss was about with all this wedding stuff, but she wasn’t going to stomp on his dreams either. She was proud of him, just as he had always been proud of her. He was the only stability she’d ever known.
“So, your guy seems alright, are you seeing him?” Eric’s voice was entirely too optimistic.
“No,” she said. “Absolutely not. He’s just a friend.” Friend was an odd word for their arrangement. It was more like playful adversaries.
You should bring him over for dinner sometime.
Ehhh, Jodie said.
And you should try to get to know Ruth. She’s nice. You might like her.
He really liked Ruth; Jodie could tell that much. There was a zest about him with Ruth that was never there with Amelia. Ruth was nice and didn’t have much of a sense of humor neither did her brother, really. They suited each other. He’d told Jodie how they met, the very same week he moved away. It must have been only days after he broke up with Amelia. “I’ll know her eventually,” Jodie said. “Give me time, it was fast.”
It wasn’t that fast.
“Fast enough. Did you meet her and propose the next week?”
Jodie chuckled out loud. But he wasn’t laughing. They stared at each other. “I knew her already, when Amelia and I broke up.”
Jodie mulled over the information. “Wait, what? Back up the train. You mean, knew her, knew her?”
Eric didn’t answer.
“Holy shit! Jodie slapped her brother’s arm. You cheated on Amelia?” Jodie waited for some clarification, some gesture from him that she’d misunderstood.
“Cheated? I don’t know.” He stalled, shuffling in his place. “That sounds worse than what it was. We were falling apart already. It was just a matter of saying it out loud at that point. Don’t tell her though. You know how she is.”
Jodie wasn’t sure what he meant by that how was she? Unlucky? The wrong one? Jodie shook her head. She wouldn’t tell his secret.
“But that doesn’t matter,” he added. “She’s happy now, right? With that poet? Does he wear a beret and carry around little quill pens?” Eric’s hearty laugh filled the room, which caused a little ball of offense to rile inside Jodie.
It’s not like that. He’s Drew, he’s okay.
Eric was still laughing. Are you part of his fan club or something?
She huffed at him. Fuck you, nobody’s talking about your scrapbooking hobby.
I don’t scrapbook, little sis. I’m a historian. Eric slung his arm around her shoulders and led them out of the room. No worries they’re happy, I’m sure. We’re happy. Everybody’s happy.
Jodie nodded, full of truth. Drew and Amelia, yes, they were indeed happy.
So Eric got married. Jodie knew it was something her brother had wanted for a long time. He held his new bride’s hands on the cobblestone patio of the hotel, with fountains sputtering nearby and the hot September sun setting in their eyes. It was more foreign than Jodie could even imagine. She hadn’t ever wanted to get married, never really had the patience for a long-term boyfriend, she never even had a date to the prom.
After the ceremony, she sat with Berges on the patio drinking free wine. The sun had set and the heat dispersed, moist fabric along her back turning cold and sending a chill through her body. She clutched her arms.
“You cold?” Berges said. “I’m not wearing mine.” She didn’t answer him, but he moved behind her to slide his suit jacket over her shoulders, hanging loose around her. He took a deep look at her breasts as he stood over her for that moment. She didn’t care; it made her laugh more than anything. She hardly felt like they were even her breasts at all, in that dress, with her hair all wound up on top of her head and curls that were starting to lose their spring. Jodie could hardly walk in the heels she wore, and she wasn’t in the habit of being gawked at by her dates what few dates she had.
She always found it uncomfortable knowing a cosmetic surgeon. When Berges looked at her, did he wonder what he would fix? Would he soften her nose or lipo some jiggle out of her thighs? He was someone who quite literally fixed broken people, misshapen people, and because it paid his bills better, a lot of people who just weren’t as perfect as they wished they were. What did he think when he saw her, a gold mine of work? Or was she beyond repair?
His smile was more eager than it had any right to be. “Jodie, you have tits, who knew?”
Bullshit he didn’t know she had tits. He’d been sizing up her chest for five years.
“You’re starting to bald a little,” she told him.
His hand shot up to his forehead. “I am not.”
“Here.” She pointed.
“I am not,” he said again.
“Do you use hair product?”
“No. And this is my hair.”
“Does it work? The hair product? Can it really grow new hair?” His rusty brown hair was short, but he wore the inch-long tufts combed forward to cover the receding parts. She ran her fingers underneath one tuft of hair. His scalp was warm.
“Get your hands out of my hair,” he said. He leaned back away from her in his chair. He scowled, distinguished lines creasing over his brow, and she just took them in. There was something admirable about this point in a man’s life, the point he first started to show his age, the point he was indisputably no longer a boy. Those lines were new on him too; she couldn’t remember them there when they first met. He must have been in his early thirties then. “Scientifically, no,” he said. “It just strengthens the living follicles to slow loss.”
“Okay then,” she said. “Shut up and let’s get this dance out of the way already.” He’d insisted the whole drive that since she brought him all this way, she at least owed him one dance. Berges loved to dance; it was ridiculous. He danced to grocery store muzak while picking up frozen meals for dinner. He danced through hospital corridors in his surgery scrubs. She’d never asked him, but she was quite sure he imagined himself John Travolta while he did it. So she led him through the guests, trying to find a spot not too near where her brother was dancing with his new bride. It was a slower song, and for that, Jodie was grateful he wouldn’t have a chance to whip out any of his more elaborate moves.
She hadn’t had a chance to say much to either of them after the ceremony besides a quick congratulations as the wedding photographer corralled them in and out of groupings for the photos. As they danced now, she noticed Eric was significantly taller than Ruth, so that when they stood together, her head fit right underneath his chin. It was still strange for Jodie to see him with a new woman. She always thought Amelia, tall and delicate as she was, seemed a more natural fit with her gangly brother. Ruth was so different a mousy woman, small and sturdy with wispy hair and breeding hips. How long had her brother known that Amelia wasn’t what he wanted?
As she and Berges settled into an empty space on the patio, Berges took her into his hands. One hand held hers and the other snuck underneath the large jacket to hold her at the small of her back. She held her breath for a moment. She didn’t expect to be so stunned by his touch confident yet gentle, so sure and so precise. Of course it was; he was a surgeon after all a surgeon who danced. They kept just a little bit of space between them, so that when they moved, from time to time, her chest would brush up against his. Among so many foreign things, there was this closeness, this invitation into her personal space. It set her nerves on edge. The music burned her ears, some crooner, a whiny voice like he had a clothespin on his nose. “What is this?”
“It’s Rufus Wainwright,” Berges said.
“Oh God, it’s awful.” She sneered, shaking her head. “I have to hate you just for knowing who he is. And for knowing it so surely.”
“Heh,” he chuckled. “I only know because Kate liked him.”
Jodie tilted her head. “She would, wouldn’t she?”
He wasn’t looking at her then, his gaze falling somewhere in the background, unfixed. “I never actually cheated on her, you know?”
As he returned to her, Jodie was caught in his muddy brown eyes, stunned for a moment. There was a small twinkle left there sometimes, as if he hadn’t been completely destroyed yet. Jodie nodded. She knew, to some degree. Or at least she knew he’d never crossed that line on her behalf. Sometimes he seemed saddened by it all, and other times he seemed not to care. She wondered, when Berges saw people getting married, did he think they were making a mistake? She tilted her head toward her brother. “So you think they’re doomed then?”
“Nah,” he said. “You have to hope not, right? I’d do it again, I think. Some day.”
“Get married? Don’t you know they say the second is more likely to fail than the first?”
He laughed, bold, like a bark. “You’re a ball of sunshine, Ms. Jodie Larsen, you know that?”
She grinned at him. “Well, we can’t all walk around with our heads in the clouds.”
They drank some more. They danced again. She only owed him one dance, but she gave him a few. After four glasses of wine, Jodie’s head was spinning in the clouds. She sometimes forgot how handsome he was, despite the obvious mess he’d made of his life, and despite the abrasive exterior he maintained. It was easy to forget, but he could be lovely sometimes, in the right light. He had strong features and wide, soulful eyes. She always took him for granted, all their play flirting, their verbal sparring. It was never meant to be any more than a game. But she wasn’t an eager young med-student anymore. And he wasn’t married anymore either.
Jodie was never the type to assume things especially romantic kinds of things. First, because any time they’d blurred those lines before had only been in fun. Second, because he was a pathetic, wreck of a man, even if a handsome one. And third, because she hadn’t been wanted for a very long time. So she stayed up late with him, sitting long after most of the other guests had retired to their rooms or gone home, after her brother and his new bride took off to start their new life together. Jodie and Berges stayed out drinking more wine just to avoid that awkward walk back to their separate rooms. She wanted him to say he was tired, or that he’d see her in the morning.
Last call, the bartender said.
It was even later than she’d realized. Berges tipped up what was left of his wine and swallowed. Looks like they’re kicking us out, Sunshine.
So they got up, and she followed him into the elevator, stood beside him, not quite touching in the quiet space as they traveled up three floors. She felt like she was assuming way too much. She knew she didn’t owe him anything, but she hadn’t yet decided if she was going to give it anyway. Her nerves were on fire. As they stood in front of her door, across the hallway from his, she fumbled to speak. “Thank you, you know, for coming,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing you want to come alone to.”
“Coming alone is never as much fun,” he said.
She hardly had time to roll her eyes at him before he was kissing her, pressing his mouth to hers, then as she relaxed, gently slipping his tongue inside. It had been so long since she kissed someone that she was sure she’d become rusty. He was thankfully too drunk to notice it. Or maybe they were both too deprived of it to care, two romantic outcasts, fumbling around in the bright lights of the hotel hallway until they finally stumbled backwards into her darkened room.
She fumbled with a light switch, which bathed the room in too much light, so she turned it off and left the bathroom light on instead. He slid a hand up her back as he continued to kiss her, tracing the long zipper to the top, then paused there as his fingertips met her skin. “Your skin,” he said, barely pulling his lips away from hers to speak. “It’s freezing.” He didn’t seem appalled by it, just surprised.
“Bad circulation,” she said. But he had already resumed kissing her neck and unzipping the dress. She went on anyway. “It’s not an uncommon condition. I’m taking medication for it.”
He breathed near her ear. “Hmmm.” He let go of the gown and it fell to the floor. He looked into her eyes. “Relax, will you?”
They moved to the bed, stripping off layers as they went. She tried to recall the last time she’d had actual sex. Two years? Really? Had it been that long? She didn’t know where to put her hands, while his hands were fearless, full of her flesh, her breasts, her butt cheeks. He grabbed a handful of thigh and raised her leg around his hip as he leaned her back over the bed.
Berges had taken off all of her clothes as well as most of his own, apart from cotton boxers which she guessed he was waiting for her to do. He held her in his arms. She clung to him out of modesty more than the desire to be intimate. Stripped down to nothing. Her skin might have been cold, but her blood was warm, and her heart still pumped, and she hadn’t been touched in so long she might have forgotten she was still a woman at all. But she was, and not just a strange approximation of a woman, but a real, actual woman, who hadn’t been made to feel like a woman for a really, really long time.
“Okay,” she said out loud. An answer to his long-past question. A green light. Game on.
“Alright then,” he said.
She lay on her back with her eyes closed, so not to see what faces he made, if he made them. He took her legs and held them in his hands. It reminded her of how he always asked, So tell me, any of you girls ever do it in those stirrups? Which she thought might have turned her off, but instead, with her eyes closed, she imagined them in an examination room on the crackling exam bed paper, her knees spread wide and feet in stirrups. The sex was foggy and rather fast, but not unpleasant. He rolled off of her when he finished with a deep groan.
She turned her head to him. He had a victorious grin on his face. It looked good on him; it reminded her of the spirit he used to have. “Don’t look like you’ve won me over or anything. You just want me to give you that parking spot back.”
“That’s not why I did this.”
“Because I was wondering what your tits looked like naked.”
Jodie threw her head back laughing.
He rolled onto his side, perched on one elbow. “But why do you care so much? With that thing you drive.”
“What, like you don’t care so much about your stupid car?”
“My stupid Mercedes costs four times as much as your Taurus.”
“That’s very compelling,” she said. “My heart is breaking for you.” She held her hand over her heart. “But if you’d have kept even half of your spine when Kate left you, it wouldn’t be all you had.”
The grin on his face fell, slowly, like it was melting. “You’re serious?” He sat up, cross-legged, not hiding a thing. He wasn’t shy, and had no reason to be. It made her blush. He just looked at her, desperate, reminding her of the wreck of a man he really was. It was almost enough to make her feel bad for him.
“Oh come on, really?” She propped herself up on her elbows. “You didn’t do anything. We didn’t do anything.”
“That wasn’t the point.”
It was Jodie that Kate caught Berges flirting with, that day, that final straw before the separation. Jodie refused to take any responsibility for that, for their flirting, if that was what did him in. Jodie wasn’t the only woman his wife caught him flirting with. Not by far. But that didn’t count, and they never did anything. It wasn’t an affair, and Jodie knew what real affairs looked like. Kate should have met Jodie’s parents and all the broken relationships that followed, the mess that they made, the sneaking around and suspicions, the lies, the accusations, the throwing bottles and domestic dispute visits from the cops. Those were affairs; those were fights. She and Berges with their silly angsty play-flirting in the hallways that was a joke. “She needs to lighten the hell up if she thought that was an affair. It was a joke. She’s a joke! And you’re still taking it from her. She gave you custody of that damn car and not your daughter.”
His face flushed clean of emotion, his mouth hung agape. It was true and he knew it, didn’t he? Ten seconds he stared at her like that. Then he moved across the bed. He got up, shaking his head, his voice resolved and emotionless. “You know, you’re a real fucking bitch sometimes, Jodie.”
“Oh come on,” she said. He didn’t turn, he just dressed himself quickly, not even bothering to button his shirt. “Where are you going?”
“My room.” He had his shoes in his hands.
She sat up on the bed, naked still, pulling a sheet up to cover her chest. “Not like I was going to let you sleep in here.”
His movement in the room stirred the chilly air, leaving her skin to rise in goosebumps, but her blood pumped with fury and adrenaline. He wouldn’t respond to her. They’d been drunk that’s all it was. They’d said things they shouldn’t have said, and did things they shouldn’t have done. As he went for the door, she searched for something inside her, some venom to spew before he reached it. Something harder, something cutting. But there was nothing sharp enough. As he opened the door, as he walked through, as it closed behind him, all she found was disappointment.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more soon, or learn more about the book here.