The Comeback Kid

The Comeback Kid

Issue 26 by Phyliss Merion Shanken

“Who?”

“A jerk from the past.”

“What? Who is this?”

“I woke up this morning. And out loud, I said your name. It just came out! From nowhere! I haven’t spoken your name for sixty-eight years, so —”

“I’m about to hang up the phone. Take me off your list!”

“No, please don’t hang up. I will tell you my name, but all I ask is that you give me a chance to apologize for what I did to you. When you hear my name, you will want to hang up but I need for you to hear me out. I know I don’t deserve it but, please.”

“Guinness? No, it can’t be . . . Guinness?”

“You remembered me? Please don’t hang up.”

“How did you get my number?”

“I ran into Sam, your old next-door neighbor, Samantha, and she told me you never married so I googled you under your real name and found you on Facebook and you know how it is: six degrees of separation, and all that — I can’t believe we are talking. I’m so glad you’re still alive.”

“Barely. I’m in Assisted Living.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that — I mean, not that you are alive but that you are not living independently. You were always so independent. Probably why you were so bossy.”

“Huh? What a thing to say?”

“Oh no. I’m really putting my foot in it. This is not going well. The one thing I didn’t want to do was to be a jerk again. I just meant you had power over me. Can we start over?”

“Start what over?”

“The conversation. The reason I called.”

“Okay, go on, Guinness. Make it quick. What do you want after sixty something years of obscurity? What could you possibly want?”

“So here’s what happened. After you got Sam’s brother and his friend to beat me up, I landed in the hospital with a concussion. I lost four teeth. They broke my jaw so I was wired up. I had to use crutches to get around for months . . . because of the operation on my one leg.”

“So, it’s my fault?”

“Never your fault. I deserved it. I only wanted to tell you because your family moved away right afterward, and I didn’t know if anyone ever told you what happened to me.”

“I knew you were in the hospital but I had no interest in the results.”

“Sure. I didn’t mean . . . Oh, I’ll never get this right.”

“Obviously you have a need to talk about what happened to you, but I’m sure you realize I couldn’t care less.”

“Right. Sure. Of course. But I’m trying to tell you the whole follow-up so you will know why I’m calling you. I know we are both in our eighties, but some things stay with you forever and it’s like it was yesterday.”

“Tell me about it!”

“Okay. So. You do something terrible to someone. And she gets revenge, so maybe she’s all over it and forgets about it. And these kids beat you up because you are a jerk and you deserve it and then life goes on. And maybe you learned your lesson and maybe not, but it’s like it all goes into thin air because everyone involved moved on with their lives and there you are just sitting with the guilt and shame of it. Like all this time goes by. And you spend your life trying to figure it out. Like why. Why did I do it? And you vow to be a better person. And all this time goes by for everyone else. Sam’s brother died ten years ago. Sweeny, his punching partner, was in an auto accident a few years after high school and there are no witnesses left . . . except you . . . and I’m thinking you forgot all about it because you got your revenge so why would you give it a thought. You got your life to live. College. From what I hear — Career. Oh what a career you had! So, what happened, what I did, what’s it to you? But, for me —"

“Guinness, cut the crap. You think what you did to me was forgotten, that it didn’t affect my life, my daily thinking, my daily life? You are still one insensitive, piece of rotten mold, a drag on civilized society.”

“Well, now. I’m sure I deserved that . . . for what I did. But, I mean, I’ve been working on this ever since the day I landed in the hospital. I had hours to think about it. And now, of course, I’ve had years. And, once a shit, doesn’t mean always a shit. I turned myself around. I went to college on an athletic scholarship. I tried but I couldn’t give up being the cool kid on campus. I had worked too hard to come by that reputation but I wasn’t a jerky cool kid. I was a well-earned Big Man on Campus but I became a pretty good guy. I still had a lot to learn but I never ever hurt anyone the way I hurt you. You are the only one I ever hurt like that. So why did I do it? I never figured it out but now I have a granddaughter. Same age as you were. Yep. A seventeen-year-old-granddaughter. And when her mother, my daughter, Stephanie, was seventeen, I tried to reach you then. I kept seeing your sweet innocence in her face, and I was ashamed so I didn’t try real hard to find you. I was too chicken . . . How could I? If anyone tried anything like that with Stephanie, I would have done what Samantha’s brother and Sweeney did to me. I’d do worse. And now, my granddaughter. Just applying to colleges. All soft and sweet. Well, maybe that’s why I had that dream last night and woke up with your name on my lips . . . Are you there, Solly? Are you still there? Oh no, I think she hung up on me. I went on too long. Blubbering old man. Yeh, I was the cool guy all right. That’s why my family’s eyes glaze over when I start like oh no, we’ll have to sit through another Papa story. What should I do? Should I call her back? Maybe I’ll —"

“I’m still here. I didn’t hang up.”

“Thank you, Solly. Thank you.

***

Cool kids are cool through and through even when they grow up. Or maybe not. And as they taste coolness, they desperately try to bury the original uncool part, camouflaging it in straw huts, always in danger of being blown away by the Big Bad Wolf.

Guinness knew this much from day one, even when he wasn’t a cool kid; even when he was a fat, pimply, awkward nebbish, hungry for even a pittance of attention; even when he awoke from his nightly grandiose royal-exploit dreams: He as a sitting king on a throne imbued with power by his adoring and obedient underlings.

He hadn’t gotten within an inch of any girl’s recognition of his existence, so it was the boys he set out to impress. His father regularly beat Guinness senseless, at least weekly — for being such a loser. Guinness had no one else to silently beseech except the neighborhood boys who had picked up where his father left off. He was so hungry for their acceptance that Guinness often forgot to scrunch up his sweatshirt hood, slump his shoulders forward, and duck behind hedges to avoid the very boys he longed to have as his own. He often got punched down by the guys who were out to get him, and they pummeled him into a nugget of what barely remained after his father had gotten through with him. He might think he had given them the slip, but then he would hear the familiar jeer of, “Hey, GuyAss!” and he would take off like a rocket outa hell.

After all that practice, in spite of himself, Guinness became an amazing runner, although at the time, he had no idea of his prowess! In his own image, he was just a mousey coward, but in reality, he resembled a lightening-speed squirrel grabbing nuts and darting quickly away to hide his stash as fast as his little feet could take him.

His father, the Big Bad Wolf, eventually moved out, or rather Guinness’s mother threw him out, under police and court guidance, of course. Within that same year, as his mom finally grew up to fulfill her protective role, Guinness grew upward by adding nine inches. He was no longer a stubby, squat little boy, but a swanlike, sprawling, lanky, handsome pimple-free Hunk!

Shortly after the overhaul of the family, now consisting of his mother and himself, as well as tenth grader Guinness's physical upgrade, the family moved to a lovely middle-class neighborhood for a fresh start away from the jungle where Guinness had resided as a lowly insect in the survival chain. Prior to the move, and before anyone noticed that he was physically transforming, Guinness spent hours in school as well as privately in his mind replaying his classroom experiences in order to ascertain how cool guys pull off being cool guys. In front of the mirror, he even practiced dancing like those guys did, the ones who played their boom boxes at the dance-a-thons on the school grounds.

Guinness had a remnant of self-respect lurking from somewhere deep down within himself, to assure that he did not become a cruel, conceited, cool guy. He wanted to be a cool guy in the purist sense of the term and not become a bully to new victims who had replaced him in the world of dominance and submission.

As soon as he arrived at his new abode, Guinness committed himself to tamping down the timid, weakling within himself so that no one could discover Guinness’s self-imposed nickname — Paltry Little Sniveling Snail, the shell of which represented the thin camouflage of his longing. The snail threatened to emerge at any time and, accordingly, like so many former wannabes of his kind, regardless of his external good looks, for the rest of his life, he would feel like a fraud.

In his new neighborhood, to Guinness's knowledge, no one perceived the little soft-shelled snail inside him. Generally, even as adults, humans see only the outside covers, not their lifelong, forever hidden, but in plain sight of their owners, "loser" status.

From his metamorphosis onward, Guinness lived in terror of being forced to relinquish all that he had achieved. Despite many years of delicious reverence afforded him by his peers, from both boys and girls, he couldn’t shake the original prophecy, the one his father had reinforced for him. “Guinness, you will never be anything, do anything, or say anything that anyone would give two shits about. Once a loser. Always a loser . . . You ever try to get on your high horse and you will be cut down.” As much as Guinness enjoyed his momentary power and adolescent puffery, he lived in constant fear that his destiny was to be deflated like a punctured balloon.

Gradually, by junior year, he moved into his new persona and etched away his anxiety about being brought down to size from the throne of his own making. Now, to the tune of tittering and whispers of excitement from the trend-setter female portion of the school, he could concentrate on winning over the girls whom he had already ambivalently conquered the minute the new kid set foot in the school.

***

“Thanks for letting me call you back. When you said you had to leave for physical therapy, I wasn’t sure if you were just putting me off.”

“I would have told you outright if I didn’t want to talk. You said so yourself — how bossy I am.”

“You couldn’t sound bossy now. Your voice sounds so old!”

“I am old. And anyway, old people can still be bossy.”

“I know. Anyway, that was a dumb thing to say. Sorry.”

“It’s true. I’ve always been pretty pushy. It didn't help that you were a wuss!”

“I told you why. You were the only person in this world who I told about when I was a kid, and I still didn’t tell you everything. But, I could always talk to you, Solly. The only one — ever.”

"I think that was part of the attraction."

"I keep imagining the beautiful, petite girl of seventeen. I can’t wrap my head around your being eighty something. Then again, every time I look in the mirror, I’m like shocked at the old man I see.”

“Got it. Same here. My voice sounds like this because I have emphysema. It’s under control but sometimes I get out of breath or sound a bit raspy.”

“Sorry you have to go through that. Every old person around me has something or other. I’m waiting for my turn. So far, pretty lucky. Anyway, I’m getting used to your voice. But I still picture you swirling around in your cheerleader outfit in the middle of the field dancing without a care in the world or a self-conscious bone in your body, even that time when you suddenly noticed me sitting alone in the bleachers watching you — before we even knew each other — you kept on prancing around on the grass. You stopped for a minute, put your hand over your eyes like you were saluting me. So funny you were. So cute. So strong.”

“Believe it or not, that wasn’t a put-on. I’ve always been self-confident. I guess some people saw it as conceited.”

"I don’t think so. Everyone liked you. Remember how the guys used to call you Freckle Dish? Did you mind that?”

"I only minded when that’s all people saw and nothing else. I wanted those kids to see me for who I was, not some cartoon character!”

“It was because of your gorgeous auburn hair. I know everyone called you a redhead but you corrected me so that’s how I got the ‘auburn’ part right. You were the only person with freckles I’ve seen who could pull it off, I mean, those spots actually made you more beautiful.”

“You should see my freckles now. Would you believe they faded to almost nothing? Maybe they receded in between the folds — of my wrinkles!”

“No way.”

“Just like my auburn hair. All gone. All grey. I guess it would look funny to see my red freckles with grey hair, huh? Ha.”

“You always had the most beautiful hair. And the way you made it into ringlets like Little Lulu.”

“Yes, I loved her in the comics.”

“You didn’t care what the other girls thought about your hairstyle. You were your own person. It was that stuff, the reason you had a hold over me. Your gutsiness. You didn’t care what anyone thought.”

“Is that why you did what you did? To put me in my place? To take away my dignity, my power?”

“I don’t know. I —‘

“Yeh, so why did you call me after all these years. You could have called at any time. Why now?”

“It was so automatic. I woke up with your name in my mind and I just had to find you to apologize. But, so much happened just before I went to sleep the night before.”

“Like what?”

“I had just seen my granddaughter that day. She and her mom stopped by on their way home from looking at colleges. They were checking on me because my wife died last week.”

“Last week! Oh my!”

“She had been sick for over two years and I was her chief nurse, cook and bottle washer. She was in a coma for four months before she died so when it finally happened, I had already said good-bye.”

“Did you have a good marriage?”

“Yes, as marriages go.”

“What does that mean? ‘As marriages go.’ Were you married before?”

“Believe it or not, I was married only once — Sixty-two years.”

“Wow. You married so young then.”

“Yes, I was tired of trying to be the ladies’ man. You know it’s hard work. Women think they have it hard, always in search for the man of their dreams and they have to look pretty every minute or they’ll miss their chance, but I felt the burden just as much, always working out in the gym and looking in the mirror preening myself so I wouldn’t lose my reputation. I could’ve had any woman I wanted. I would be the guy in charge of the relationship at all times — not like it was with you. Let them compete for me! Ha! So empty an existence and all I really wanted and needed was to just settle down and have a connection with a woman where I wouldn’t be so alone and on display but just give it all up for a private, quiet relationship. I guess you can tell I’ve thought a lot about this. So much of my childhood either being the loser or being the most popular jock in the school and still feeling empty and lonely inside . . .”

“You sound so much deeper than I remember you.”

“Well, I never told anyone that. Solly, you always were the best to talk to. You never judged me. But I couldn’t completely show you the real me, the whole story, what I started out with, my unwanted self. It was too risky. I was so afraid of losing you . . . Then look what I did and lost you for all time . . . ”

“So, your wife died and you thought of me and how you screwed up the whole thing and lost me forever?”

“Yep. That about sums it up.”

“Well, Guinness, suppose I make a confession now?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t think you deserved what Mick and Sweeney did to you.”

“No? Why not?”

“Because I didn’t tell them the truth. Well, I did, but I sure poured it on thick. I made them believe you were really a monster. They felt justified in beating you up. They never told anyone they did it. They said you told them you weren’t going to press charges or tell anybody because you didn’t want people making up bad stories about me. And anyway, if word got out, then everyone else would know why I took revenge on you and find out what you did. So you weren’t so completely noble. You were also protecting yourself, too.”

“True. Other than those guys, and Samantha, of course, no one ever knew anything. I told everyone I was in a car accident. It was a good cover. And it only gave me more attention, like I was a hero or something. Ugh. Hero? I was anything but . . . ”

“Well, I had to make up a story too, why I looked so bad. My parents didn’t buy it but what could they do? I wouldn’t talk about it. They made me go to a therapist because they thought I had done it to myself . . . ”

“They wouldn’t think that. It would be crazy!”

“Well, that’s what other people thought . . . ” Then I told a few kids that I was in treatment for cancer but not to tell anyone. Of course they whispered the cancer story to their friends and swore them to secrecy. Ha. That’s all you have to do is tell one girl and tell them not to tell anyone. I figured they would believe me more if I made like it was a secret . . . ”

“Thank goodness they didn’t know the real story.”

“To think — we both have kept this secret all these years and now we’re so old. Who would really care?”

“So, what did you tell Mick and Sweeney about what happened?”

“Oh, I can’t reveal that now. Maybe someday — before either of us dies, because no one else other than you will ever know.”

“Mick and Sweeney were really mad and kept yelling in my face, ‘You son-of-a-bitch, bastard bully.’ I didn’t get why they called me a bully because I wasn't really violent. Was I? . . . That was dumb. Sure I took advantage.”

“You know, G, I think we are well beyond discussing it. I just wanted you to know that you got more than you deserved because I made it seem worse than it was and I acted like I was an innocent victim. I guess that’s why they called you a bully.”

“I gotta say, your calling me G like in the old days does my heart good. Brings back all the old feelings. Man, did I screw up my life the day I went too far. The day I got too big for my little britches — wanting to feel some kind of power over you. What the hell came over me? I’ve never done anything like that since.”

“Well, maybe it’s time to forgive yourself.”

“Do you forgive me?”

“Uh . . . ”

“Do you? Will you?”

“If you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course. There’s nothing to forgive you for.”

“Well, yes, I set those boys on you under false pretenses.”

“I deserved it.”

“Enough already —”

“I’ll never forgive myself . . . Is that why you never got married? I hate to think that I —"

“Don't give yourself so much credit, Guinness! You don't have all that much influence."

"I wasn't making like I —"

"You know, Guinness, I’ve been in this Assisted Living for ten years. Well, not the whole ten years. Before this nursing part, I was in the independent living. Anyway, I met a lot of old people and you know what? Everyone’s got something. Something they did or didn’t do or tried to do or wish they hadn’t done and will never forgive themselves for. Even though they may have had a temporary insanity moment or a period of rage or resentment or felt justified in hurting someone or thinking they could get away with it and it would make their own pain go away or get the attention off themselves and let someone else take the fall or lie against their better judgment or refuse to help someone or whatever. It almost always happened when they were little, especially when they were teenagers, omnipotent, grandiose teenagers just trying to get people to like them and not reject them. What were these horrible things these grown-up people did as kids? What you did is what we all did as teens. Feeding our impulses which we thought we couldn't control. We still feel shame or embarrassment. We were just trying to be cool; we hurt other kids along the way and never lived it down. I’m glad you apologized, G. I’m glad for your sake because since that day, you couldn’t rid yourself of the poison in your veins with no way to release it. But you just did, Guinness. You have overcome.”

“I apologized to relieve myself. It wasn’t as altruistic as you say.”

“True. But it was also to help me feel not as injured maybe, to see that it wasn’t personal to me. That I’m a good person and didn’t deserve what you did to me (or maybe I did), since I was such an egotistical beauty queen acting superior to everyone else — or not, I don’t think so. At least, I tried not to be. But maybe what you did to me wasn’t my fault in either case. You have helped me, G. Really. By relieving yourself, you have filled me up. Now, I’ll have to ask your forgiveness for using the boys to seek my revenge. I don’t feel too pretty right now.”

“Maybe I did it to punish myself. Because I have been beating on myself ever since.”

“Could be.”

“Solly . . . ”

“Yes.”

“I really loved you. I still do.”

“Oh, that’s sweet, G. If you saw me now, forget it.”

“I bet I would see you and swoon.”

“A true romantic, huh? You haven’t changed in that way, have you, G?

“No. Never. Not when it comes to you.”

***

Yes, Freckle-Dish, that’s what they called Solly. When, as a self-conscious kid, she complained that people were always showcasing her “redheadedness” (which had more of a burnt orange hue), her parents assured her these features would make her exotic, especially as she matured. And it did come to pass just as her elders had predicted when her hair turned closer to a copper shade which she insisted was auburn. No matter. And she grew into her god-given beauty. But, the early unwanted focus somehow hardened her.

Girls weren’t always ready to befriend her, but they didn’t cross her either. They actually looked up to her because she seemed so self-assured.

Instead of hiding her freckles and her “red” hair, Solly played up her features. She had naturally curly, but not frizzy, hair. Even though her waves were prominent, to tame the strands, each night, she slept in cardboard toilet paper rollers because these replaceable aids were comfortably pliable. In the morning, she heartily brushed her hair and formed ringlets, a style not really fashionable, but she didn’t care and people turned their heads to get a second look because her shiny, curvy bunches seemed so uniquely natural. No one else could have gotten away with adorning the retrograde style. You had to walk with your head high and defy your underlying fear of rejection. How many girls her age possessed that kind of hutzpah?

The aftermath of Solly’s and Guinness’s last day as a couple caused quite a stir and lots of conjecture. The kids at school believed what they chose to believe, and no one ever knew for sure why her family moved away so soon afterward. The majority had no reason to doubt her story about being in chemotherapy, and that’s why she looked so bad. As to why she broke up with Guinness, the outsiders resolved the mystery by deciding that Solly had probably planned to dump him sooner rather than later. And, anyway, since she moved away, she wouldn’t be able to sustain a long-distance relationship. Those kids developed many theories to occupy themselves as they lay around at boring after-school gatherings.

Actually, Solly was in love with Guinness. She enjoyed his tender and vulnerable adoration. She saw herself as his savior, nurturing him as he leaned against her chest listening to her calming yet powerful heartbeats. He took in her wisdom like a lost person who hadn’t eaten for days . . . On the other hand, she sometimes felt a bit uncomfortable about the power she had over him.

***

“Just like I promised, I’m calling to tell you I got back safely. I’m so glad you said I should take a room at the Marriott. I had planned to do the round trip in one day. It could have been a disaster! I haven’t driven at night for a couple years, I figured it was worth the risk to see you. Three hours each way. That would really be pushing it. I could have slept in the car if the road got too rough. I can’t believe we had almost two whole days together. Taking you out to breakfast this morning was a real treat.”

“Even with my oxygen tank?”

“Sure. It made it more romantic!”

“At our age, romantic is good, huh?”

“Almost as romantic as sitting together on your sofa bundled in blankets like two old cronies. I will cherish that vision forever.”

“As will the nurse who walked in on us!”

“Freaked her out, I bet. Two old people cuddling. That kind of stuff grosses young people out.”

“Yes, those Millennials certainly have a lot to learn.”

“I hope when they finally learn it, they aren’t eighty something years old.”

“Don’t worry. History repeats itself. They have to go through the same kind of stuff we did to get to this wisdom.”

“And when they do, it’s time to die!”

“Oh no. You and I have some living yet to do. May I drive back next week sometime? This time I’ll pack a suitcase so I can change my underwear before we go out to breakfast the next day.”

"Yes, G, I’m glad you made the trip, I really am.”

"I'm so happy to hear that, Solly. I thought you might have second thoughts."

***

Her parents were away for the weekend and guaranteed not to return early because they had train tickets and wouldn’t have any way of getting back otherwise. Thank goodness. Not that Solly and Guinness were planning to do anything bad. They just wanted time to get comfortable with each other without Mom and Dad giving them the evil eye, or as they called it — The Eagle Eye.

Yes, later that night, they did hang out in her pink and purple bedroom but they had no plans to become intimate. She had already admonished him just in case he had other ideas. She was going to wait until she got married. Not that Guinness pressured her or anything. He had only just become a stud so he had no practice nor inclination at the time. He worried a little about that. Maybe something was wrong with him. With his guy friends, he put on perfect pretenses as did they. He never spoke about any of his personal exploits, of which there were none, but when they elaborated on their own true-or-false wild times with girls, he nodded like a man about town as if he knew exactly what they were talking about.

Even though Guinness worried about his sexuality, he knew one thing: He loved Solly beyond anything and anyone he had ever loved — even his mom. Or, maybe this sweetheart of a girl was almost like his mom. Or, maybe she was his mom — of sorts.

So, that night, he was in a heightened state of anticipation. Not like a sexy excitement. He just wanted to be with her.

And, she with him.

They started out in the living room on the cushy sofa, body slammed against body, as close as you can get without literally suffocating each other. He had his arm around her and the blanket they shared surrounded them as if they were hiding under one baby-soft bunting. They sat by the fire, which flickered over their Adonis faces: His large, round, sparkling eyes were framed by the longest lashes ever seen on a guy, accompanied by his penetrable deep dimples. She liked to press her pinky finger into the caverns and swirl as if she were scooping out a perfect clay vessel. His flawless, recently unbraced teeth were punctuated by curvaceous creases around the corners of his mouth.

And what about Solly? What about how her freckles transformed into varying deep crimson hues depending on how the fire shone on her? Flames from the crackling hearth in the otherwise darkened room highlighted her clear blue eyes.

Neither one of them uprooted themselves off their cushioned sanctuary so as to refuel the hearth with much needed twigs. They could hardly unglue themselves. Of course, they held hands and periodically traded chests for the other to rest his or her head, mainly he on her soft bosom as she allowed her fingers to entwine his thick, black curly hair. They sat like that for hours — and didn’t mind it.

Finally, they called out for hoagie delivery. They laughed conspiratorially, joking about starving to death unless they provided more distance between themselves so they could lift the sandwiches to their mouths and take a bite or two. But they were consoled that this physical space gave them more opportunity to study each other’s faces from afar — or, from twelve inches away. They sipped their soda pop through flexible straws and bit into their sandwiches, eyeballing each other and fixating as if they were marble statues.

Now they chattered away: about their growing up, his having been bullied and beaten senseless by boys trying to get one up on their own puny but budding manhood. She talked about being marked by others early on as something weird but beautiful and how she was coming to terms with her inner self — never mind about how she looked, or wore her hair, and the more she unwaveringly eyed them and stood tall with shoulders back and head held high, the more they were coming to adore her for stuff like being tough and having her own mind. Did her admirers revere her for what was hers or for what they wished they themselves possessed? In either case, she admitted that their plaudits provided for her a kind of high.

As shadows swept over the formerly luminous living room which maintained a smokey aroma from the dwindling fire, simultaneously, they arose off the couch and moved upstairs toward her bedroom.

They ceremoniously, and giddily, brushed their teeth in front of the mirror, periodically smirking as they caught each other’s eye. Solly and Guinness undressed and slid into their pajamas, her doing so in the bathroom and he quickly donning his uniform before she might return. He even had a chance to fold his clothes and put them on her pink, cushioned chair, just as his mother had always insisted he do.

As they worked together to remove the lavender bedspread, Guinness took in the scent in the frilly room: a bouquet of spray-net, perfume and deodorant.

They were ready for their sleepover.

***

“I’m thinking of moving closer, maybe even rent a place near you. When I left yesterday, I started feeling hopeful like the old feelings, when we were in your living room by the fire. I’ve never felt so miserable after that night. Now I know we still have something. I won’t ever redeem myself, but the fact that you will have me in your life, maybe even love me again, well . . . So, I checked at the Marriott to see if they have weekly rentals.”

“Right. Better make it weekly or maybe even daily. You never know. You certainly would be crazy to go for yearly!”

“Don’t worry, Solly. We are going to live a long time. Especially now that we found each other again. We should have been together all along . . . If I didn’t screw it up.”

“Enough already with the screwups!”

“Okay. Okay . . . Anyway, I didn’t show you the selfie I took of us on the couch yesterday. Next time I’ll instruct the nurse how to do it so we can get a fuller view.”

“That little girl? She was born with a phone in her hand! Old man, you don’t have to instruct her. She can do it.”

“I’ll print out the photo when she takes it. I keep replaying yesterday. You look so beautiful and I’m resting on your chest like that day and you are stroking my hair just like my mom used to do — the way you did that day . . . What a fool I was —”

“You promised. Don’t start in on that again. The only way I stopped you yesterday was to kiss you, take your breath away. I can’t do that on the phone!”

“Next time, I’m going to take a video of you dancing. You were so cute yesterday like the way you looked the first day I saw you on the field, a seventeen-year-old Madonna, turned cheerleader.”

“Yesterday, I was like Gene Kelly dancing around a flagpole. Only I was flapping my wings holding onto an oxygen tank!”

“I loved you then. I love you now.”

“Oh, you old man, you. Such a flirt.”

“Solly, why didn’t you ever marry? Dare I ask?”

“I was engaged two times and the deal fell through, once my fiancé, who I lived with for five years, died suddenly…Two months before our wedding day… And the other guy I called it off.”

“Why did you call it off with the other guy?”

“Because I realized I had been trying to talk myself into loving him. But, the real reason was because he looked like my Archie, the love of my life. It was like Archie reincarnated but I was fooling myself.”

“So it wasn’t because of what I did?”

“The next time you give yourself that much power or start beating on yourself, I’m going to beat up on you. Stop it. It’s turning me off!”

“Okay, Solly, that was the last time. I’ll be good.”

“Thank you, Guinness. I never liked playing the maternal role with you. It was a turn-off then and still is.”

“One last thing. Solly, do you think you can love me now?”

“ . . . Yes, G, I can . . . I will . . . I do.”

***

She looked so adorable in her pj’s. The pink and purple polka dots matched the ones on her wallpaper. So cute. Her sprawling reddish-orange curls bouncing as she frolicked back into the room one second after he had finished buttoning the fly on his pajamas.

Noticing the football pattern on his flannels, Solly wiggled her pointed finger toward his little boy uniform, slapped her hand over her mouth and giggled. Large tears of delight ran down her cheeks.

Guinness’s mood didn’t match hers. He slumped. Was she ridiculing him? She noted his dejection and immediately stopped. No, I’m not making fun of you, Guinness. I just love how uncool you are. You’re right out there, like no coverup. You know what I mean! Don’t you?

But it hurt him, nonetheless. He had enough trouble seeing himself as a bona fide man with all the right equipment . . .

“I try to be everything for you. I want to be your man. I want to take care of you for all time. But everything you do and say affects me too much; I can’t shake it.”

“I know, Guinness. And I have to say, I don’t like how sensitive you are with me, so vulnerable, so sweet, yes, but I don’t want what I do or not do to affect you so much.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You see, there it is again. Don’t be so sorry. Don’t shrivel up. Stand up to me. I like that better.”

They each slipped under the covers and she put a stop to his crippling self-effacement by reshaping the subject. He wasn’t going to change. He couldn’t change. He imbued her with too much power over him and it was a daunting responsibility. Sometimes, she wanted to shout, “Knock it off already! I’m just a person!”

He took his cue and kissed her good night. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, just a peck, which suited her just fine. Anyway, it was going to be up to her to take this any further. He was so tentative.

They left her night table light on which she had never learned to sleep without. They lay there, regarding each other, transfixed and fighting sleep the way an infant does who won’t close her eyes and just when the parents take a sigh of relief that she finally succumbs, she pops them open again as if on cue.

Solly’s lids finally surrendered without a flurry. He then relinquished his guard and joined her in sweet slumber.

Since he didn’t check the clock, Guinness had no idea what time he woke up. He was quite groggy and felt a little drugged, the same drunkenness he had experienced the other night when someone had snuck the whisky bottle into his buddy’s house for their over-consumption. How much rum had Solly poured into their coke cans?

On his way to the bathroom, Guinness glanced over at Solly who was cuddled within herself on her side. One ringlet kind of drooped onto the pillow but the rest of the collection was hidden. On his return from the bathroom, he made his way to her full-length mirror. Guinness marveled over her enchanting reflection. How could anyone be so magnificent?

The night table lampshade remained tilted from when Solly had flopped into bed like a little girl ready to test how high she could jump. Guinness’s face glowed from the yellow rays of the partially naked lightbulb. His smile took on a triumphant upturn as if he were about to discover something big, something Really Big.

Then he noticed his own face: Guinness the GuyAss, the Loser. What was he doing in this spectacular young woman’s bedroom? And she had invited him! He advanced closer to his reflection. In order to stabilize his breathing, he sucked in some much-needed air as if it were his last breath. He noted his five o’clock shadow. Why hadn’t he brought his shaver? His head quivered as if to shake off his self-flagellation. And there it was: the interloping pimple just above his lip. He began to squeeze.

Through the mirror, he spied something on the bureau in the cosmetic tray. The light from the night table lamp made the object glimmer and he was intrigued by how shiny it was in the dim light. Like a sleepwalker, he strolled over to the small instrument and put it in the palm of his right hand, placing his thumb and forefinger through the loops. He was now holding a pair of cuticle scissors.

Struck with overwhelming adoration for his princess, Guinness sat down on her side of the bed within inches of Solly’s body. He stroked her hair. Could anything be so soft? As if he were in a fairy tale, the prince felt an urge to retain a lock of her hair so she would always be with him.

In his altered condition, without hesitation, he snipped the cylindrical splotch of red. To obtain the full extent, he clipped closest to her scalp. Even though many hairs made up the ringlet, the entire bunch fell into his left hand totally intact. It rested cooperatively as if his palm were its home. For at least ten minutes, he played with his souvenir by folding and unfolding the springy hair as if it were a slinky toy, pausing only to regard Solly’s exquisite, untroubled face.

He remained beside her. She stirred and turned toward him so that the place where the now absent curl had resided disappeared and the rest of her collection loomed large within Guinness’s view.

Her eyes opened slightly. She dreamily smiled and reached out her hand to touch his forearm, which moments ago, when he had rolled up his football pajama sleeves to wash his hands, had become bare.

Guinness couldn't shake the enslavement her grandeur generated in him. He knew he had no repository within him to preserve her affection. He needed more of her — in the moment — in every moment when she wasn’t with him. When could he call her his own?

A compulsion emerged that once achieved was destined to uplift his down-trodden mood. He needed more of her. Right Now.

To free up his range of motion, he gingerly placed the ringlet on the nightstand. With a tender touch, he removed her hand off his right forearm. He placed the scissors on the table and caressed the ringlet on her head that presently covered her left eye. Between his thumb and middle finger, he rolled the bouncy hairs as he bent lower from where he was sitting on the edge of the bed and kissed her lips ever so gently. He was the Prince and she the Sleeping Beauty. But in this scenario, Guinness’s kiss did not awaken her.

She stirred slightly, licked her lips and gestured toward the glass of water on her table but, instead, perhaps being too drugged herself, she rolled over slightly. Her reversal unleashed more of her curls.

Sighing deeply, but with deliberation, he went for the scissors he had placed on the same table just moments ago. Having completed the shearing of the last of his treasure, Guinness suddenly came to his senses. In his panic, he actually forgot to take the ringlets with him, not even one. He gathered his neatly piled clothing into a ball. Still dressed in his football pajamas, he sprinted down the stairs and out the swinging front door, which was about to slam. For sure, she would wake up before he even got into his car.

But Solly slept soundly. It must have been the rum she had added to the coke cans, or maybe it was her dreamy bliss at being in love and having the most popular boy in the class as her own.

When Solly fully awoke, to rub out the nighttime sand, she swiveled her clenched hands about her eyes like an innocent toddler. She stretched toward Guinness’s side of the bed, managing to move without disrupting the procession of unattached ruddy swirls on her pillow.

Guinness was gone.

She put her hand to her sleep-worn hair, challenging her fingers to tidy what should have been the loyal strands. The contorted expression on her face sent back a message to her brain. Something is amiss.

Not yet ready to desert the safety of her warm bed and not wanting to confirm her hunch, she rewrapped herself in her blanket but inadvertently came in contact with her pillow which continued to house the undisturbed carousel of uncommitted ringlets.

A slight whimper escaped from her throat.

Solly readjusted herself, repeating her hand-combing ritual. With desperate fingers, she scavenged her bumpy scalp.

Convinced she was no longer in a nightmare but actually in real life, Solly, all at once, lunged out of bed, falling forward and slightly shattering her head into the mirror, which now formed a small, elongating crack, creating a jagged pattern that nearly mimicked the rivulets of blood oozing down the side of her face.

Clamping her eyes shut, she slightly opened one eye but not enough to see the totality of her imagined predicament — hoping against hope that her absent curls had not been reduced to nubbins.

The time had come.

She opened the other eye.

About the Author

Phyliss Merion Shanken

Phyliss Merion Shanken is a retired psychologist, who has been published in psychological journals as well as in literary publications, and weekly newspaper and magazine columns. In addition to her literary and poetry awards, she is author of SILHOUETTES OF WOMAN, PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH and The Joys and Frustrations of Parenting, as well as a number of screenplays. She has two novels, EYE OF IRENE, and THE HEART OF BOYNTON BEACH CLUB. CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFECT STRANGERS: Memoirs of a Psychologist is the culmination of her life’s work.