It Can’t Be Helped

The Exciting Conclusion of …THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

The good news was, I got finally the interview with Jack Lagattuta. The bad news was, I was in the hotel room when his bassist tried to throw the nightstand out the window. Since we were on the thirty-first floor, the glass was pretty much shatterproof, and the resulting carnage broke the piece of furniture, her nose, and two ribs. Jack Lagattuta and his rhythm guitarist had heard the commotion and fled, leaving behind several rails of cocaine. The lead guitarist had long ago left the building to find more tequila, but not before vomiting inside every drawer in the room.

That left me, the injured bassist, the illegal drugs, the newspaper-wrapped red snapper I’d purchased on Canal Street in exchange for said interview, and the drummer, who was standing on the bed, trying to work the TV remote.

I was actually relieved to see the police. They took the bassist to the hospital, the cocaine and the fish to an evidence locker, and the drummer and me to a holding cell.

My photographer, Gretchen, showed up to bail me out the next morning at eleven thirty, because it was Sunday, and she didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I didn’t even bother to put on my belt and tie as I checked out, nor did I even bother to acknowledge her. All the energy I could muster up went into riding the subway home and walking up the seemingly infinite number of steps to my fourth-floor apartment.

The keys fell out of my hand as I tried to unlock the door, and my clumsy attempt to retrieve them masked the sound of someone coming up the stairs behind me.

Dude,” my neighbor’s voice said.

My name’s not Dude,” I replied, forcing myself back to my feet. As the key slid over the tumblers in the deadbolt, I glanced at her and wished I hadn’t.

It started with her hair, which ordinarily bounced in cinnamon curls about her face and neck, but was now restrained with minimal success by a ponytail. This exposed her collarbone, which was glazed with sweat. The sweat made her T-shirt, already formfitting, cling even more to her glorious torso. The curve of her back dipped into the waistband of her track pants, which is where I forced my eyes to stop what they were doing.

Oh,” I muttered, “no.”

“What’s up, d…” she started to ask until she caught sight of my tie and belt, still slung over my shoulder. “You went to jail,” she breathed. “This is very not good.”

I pointed to my door. “I’m going to…”

“Right,” she replied, “because…”

And…”

“Right…”

“Going,” I announced, thrusting myself into my apartment, wherein I braced myself against the closest wall. I inhaled and exhaled carefully in an attempt to bring my heart rate down.

When my id noticed that the rest of me was occupied, though, it steered my body out my door and right up to hers. I didn’t even have to knock before she yanked it open and dragged me inside.

Historically, Emma and I have had a lot of sex with each other, and we were pretty good at it. This was different. Before, there was a playfulness that permeated even the most eager of our encounters, complete with dexterous, appetizing foreplay.

None of this was there today. This time, we didn’t speak at all; we kissed hard and stripped ourselves desperately and efficiently, until we wore absolutely nothing–not even jewelry or hair ties. The only exception to this was a condom, but at this point in our histories, neither Emma nor I knew how to function without one.

I watched her stare at me, and she watched me stare at her, forever, until it was over.

Her head thudded on my chest, and she moaned, “Oh, my God.”

Oh, my God was right. What just happened? How did it happen? How did I let it happen?

“Dude,” she panted. When I didn’t answer, she prompted me, “Your name’s not Dude, remember?”

I let the silence stand.

“Max!”

I whispered, “You and me… this is a terrible idea.”

She giggled, “You and me, dude, is the best idea.”

I stared at the pattern on the ceiling I’d long ago memorized.

“Max?” She shifted herself so her ear rested on my heart. “Max, where did you go?”

“For the first time since February,” I answered, despite myself, “I’m thinking about what it would be like to be with someone exclusively.”

“Are you really thinking that?”

“Yes.”

She rolled off of me and onto her back. “About me?”

I didn’t have to respond.

“Holy shit,” she said. “Holy fucking shit.”

“Should I have kept that to myself?”

This time she was quiet.

“Em…” I licked my lips. “I just said some stuff I can’t take back.” This wasn’t the first time I had taken something this fun too seriously. But back then I was just a dumb-as-shit-teenager. I should have learned by now. “And now that I did, I’m terrified.”

“I’m terrified too, dude.”

“Should I go?”

“Please don’t go.”

“I…” My tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, ready to spit out a word that began with L, but nobody in the room was ready for it. “I want us to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Like actual boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“When you say that out loud…”

“If not, then this is the last time. For real. No matter how much I want to.” And God I wanted to.

She breathed for what could have been days. “You’re not worried about being my rebound?”

Yes. “Are you?”

“A little.” She swallowed. “This won’t be easy.”

“No kidding.”

“If we go through with this, things are going to change, whether we like it or not,” she said. “Like, you’re probably going to tone your lifestyle down a bit.”

“Honestly,” I told her, “I won’t miss it that much.”

“And you can’t just keep disappearing like you do.”

“What if I get arrested?”

“Then your one phone call will have to be to me.” She propped herself up onto her elbow and looked at me with an earnestness I’d never seen before. “Because I worry, dude. I worry so much, even when I was with Tyler.” After letting that sink in, she concluded, “And you have to sit through the movies I like without complaining.”

I groaned. “Fine. But if I agree to your terms, I have a few of my own.”

“Keep talking.”

“You’re going to have to get a real job at some point,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be a permanent career–just something with a little security and some benefits.”

“That’s a pretty big demand.”

“Not this instant,” I clarified. “But if this somehow lasts, it’s something we should talk about.”

“That’s fair.”

“And you should probably tidy up in here a little,” I added. “I’m tired of tripping over your shit all the time. And finally, I want to read one of those comics you’re always working on.”

“Not a chance,” she replied.

“Oh, come on!”

“You’ll hate it!”

“Even if I do,” I told her, “I’ll lie about it, because I…” Again, I caught myself just in time before I said that word. “I’m intrigued by you.”

“Maybe we should wait until after we get married,” she said. “And have kids. And retire. And one of us dies.”

“No deal.”

“Okay, dude,” she conceded, “you win.”

The End


… But first, an epilogue …

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