Alice picked desultorily at her salad, moving pieces of shrimp under the romaine as if they embarrassed her. She only ordered it because having already had one date with Ron, she knew she would need a distraction, something to fiddle with while he droned on.. She also, not yet in a comfort zone with Ron or Ronnie-Carole referred to him both ways, she had gone with the Arnold Palmer instead of her desired and probably necessary double Blue Sapphire Martini with three olives.
He had surprised her, she’d give him that. She said nothing right off, just kept that quizzical smile that she thought was equal parts cute and perturbed. She cut her eyes left and right to assure he hadn’t been overheard. And that she had heard correctly. Her thoughts were split between, “What the actual fuck?” and “Was Carole pranking her with this guy?”
She used to think it was her, but not anymore. She had learned from a tender age to assume that men were broken beings. She imagined that there were all manner of maladies and catastrophes that befell men and assumed that it was inevitable-the nature of things-and happened at an early age. More than that she was unhappily certain she would find out on her life’s journey.
She had just turned fourteen when her friend Chrissie’s step dad was driving her home after she’d had dinner with them. It was not uncommon as that was the year of the sleepover when it seemed nobody could spend a whole week at home without breaking it up with a night or two at a friend’s house. There to read magazines, listen to music, sometimes sneak liquor and play spin the bottle which she wasn’t sure she would have enjoyed as much had there been boys. Kissing games had led to other games that had winnowed the numbers of girls who would come to the sleepovers.
But this one time, when Jim, which is what Chrissie’s step dad insisted all the kids call him-”Mr. Cooper was my father”-he’d say, had pulled off into the parking lot of Beto’s Lounge which had burned to the ground years before and only existed in memories and as a weathered sign on a rusty pole in a broken asphalt parking lot. It was dark back here and people would swing in to pee in the tall grass if they couldn’t make it home. Alice had assumed that was why they stopped. But Jim didn’t get out, didn’t even move, just stared straight ahead so intently that Alice followed his gaze to see if there was anything in the scrub woods that had overtaken the collapsed foundation. Then Alice noticed how he was squeezing and rubbing his hands on the steering wheel. Not exactly nervous, but something.
She knew that older kids with cars would also pull in here to neck. Suddenly she had a thought that he might kiss her. She wouldn’t have minded that probably. He was cool and she’d kissed boys of course, but not men. That would be new. Then, just when she was getting ready to feel his arm across the back of her shoulders to pull her close he said, “I’d like you to do me a favor.”
“Sure.” she said. She had spent enough time with him and his family to have no qualms.
“Don’t do it if you don’t want to and-this is important-it has to be a secret, just between us.”
Only then did she feel a little flutter in her stomach. A tightening in her chest. “Sure,” she repeated. “What should I do?” He told her to get in the back seat. She’d been in the back seat with a boy before and hadn’t liked it much but she trusted Jim. She got out and opened the back door and slid in. He stayed in the front seat behind the wheel. He was looking at her in the rear view mirror. “Lay on the seat”, he told her. She did. “On your belly”, he said. She flipped over.
When she looked back over her shoulder he was adjusting the mirror downward.
“Now Alice”, he said slowly, as though he was having trouble speaking. “I don’t want you to be afraid.”
“I’m not”, she said, not lying.
“And don’t do anything you don’t want to.”
“OK”, she said. “What do you want me to do?”she asked, already knowing.
“Push down your jeans” By the time he said it she already had her hands at work, unsnapping and unzipping. He was watching in the mirror. Maybe she would have felt more uncomfortable if she hadn’t done this once already this evening.
Those are cute panties”, he said as if talking to a child. “Are those hearts?” he asked.
“Roses”, she answered.
“Oh. I couldn’t make them out in the mirror.”
“You can turn around and look. I don’t mind.” She certainly wouldn’t tell him that she wore these panties tonight because Chrissie liked them. “Would you push them down for me?” She hesitated for a moment as if considering, but could not imagine why she would not. Though the air in the car was thick and seemed to press, it was calm. There was no movement, no sound except the stray car hissing by out of sight, the only illumination from the rear dome light shining directly down on her. There was no way she wasn’t going to do what he asked. So he wanted to see her butt. So what? She lifted and wriggled until her panties were down her thighs with her jeans.
It must have gotten very quiet then, because she could hear Jim’s breathing. “Roll up on your side,” he said, “facing the back.” She took a moment to translate for herself what he was wanting. Simple enough. She rolled her face into the backseat, her bottom facing the front. Again, silence filled the car, broken only by his breathing. Alice brought her arm up under her head, making herself a little more comfortable. Then she heard a quickening and a rustling as if mice were running loose up front. Then a cough and moan and the air filled with the spunky smell of warm bread dough. Which is the only way she could describe it-but she knew what it was. He groaned a bit more, then there was more rustling and Alice remembered the wadded paper bag on the front seat, left over from a burger and fries.
“You can pull your pants up.” His voice was thick and phlegmy. He had started to weep as she pulled her panties up. By the time she was sitting and snapping her jeans, he was full on sobbing. Jesus, Alice thought. Not this. Her own father was a crier and she found it highly disturbing. As she saw it, it was her job, as a young woman, to cry her way through things she didn’t like or understand. She didn’t, of course but it was her prerogative. He should be the steady one, hand on the wheel, helping her to navigate. That was the only fair division of labor in adult-child relationships. And he wasn’t stopping, nor even slowing. He apologized again and again and tried to explain himself. There was something about his wife in there and sleeping in different rooms. Jesus! Enough, already. Alice would have happily gotten naked and sat in his lap if he would stop blubbering.
Finally, he ebbed, then subsided altogether as this time she was the one watching in the rear view. He said, “Well”, matter of factly then wiped his eyes roughly with the heels of his hands in a way she thought manly. Then he rolled the window part way down and killed the dome light. “You want a cigarette?” He asked.
“I don’t smoke”, she said.
“Good”, he answered. “I think Chrissie is starting.”
She was, but Alice said nothing.
She heard the scratch and pop of a match then saw the flare as he inhaled deeply and blew a stream of smoke out of the window.
“You can come back up front”, he said.
Thinking of the sad stained burger bag wadded somewhere up there, she said she was fine where she was. “That’s cool, too”, he said and started the car. He adjusted the mirror yet again and she saw his red wet eyes in the glow of the dash. “Our secret, right?”
“Our secret”, she repeated.”
“Seriously,” he said, “this is my life, we’re talking about.”
“Mine too Mr. Cooper.. You think I would want to tell anyone about this?”
“Right”, he said. “Sorry, I just…”
“Enough”, she said, suddenly tired and opting to get angry instead of sad. “Just take me home.”
They drove in silence for the fifteen minutes it took to pull up in front of Alice’s house. Before he could say anything, she yelped a quick “g’night” and was out the door and up the walk. Like a responsible Dad he waited there until she opened the door then, like a good girl, waved before stepping through and closing it behind her.