We’re driving to visit Leslie for Memorial Day weekend. I consider Leslie a mentor. Over the past five years she’s inspired me to break up with all of my boyfriends. Jerome: eighteen months; Brandon: one month; Elliot: eleven months. Years later, a mutual friend will call her a liar, saying she’d lied about her age, she even lied about her hair. I’d heard her accept dozens of compliments on her curls without ever mentioning a perm, so I consider this to be another deceit.
I talk about Leslie, my “long-lost friend,” throughout the three-hour drive. I am twenty-two, and one year without seeing her feels like an enormous chunk of my life. Shane thinks it’s ridiculous that I’ve purchased a styrofoam cooler and a bag of ice in order to bring Leslie a tub of vegan carrot-flavored ice cream. “Believe me, it’ll be worth it,” I say, laughing to myself about how obsessed we’d been with the bizarre ice cream that one summer. I smile, imagining how touched she’ll be by the gesture, how she’ll bend forward in hysterics and then pull me in for a minute-long soul hug. Shane spends the whole drive with one hand on my knee, which sometimes inches towards my crotch. This is our first trip together. We both have roommates, and sex has been a struggle. One night, after a failed attempt at fucking on my tiny bathroom floor, with only a wall and a sink between us and my roommate’s bed, he said we’d “get a room.” To me, this was merely an expression. But then we were walking the ten blocks to the fancy hotel with the row of flags and the fountain out front. I tried not to make eye contact with the woman at the front desk, while he paid for a room at 12:30 am. When she asked about bags, I blushed as he said we had none. An hour later, after many apologies about how he was just nervous, we gave up and went to sleep. I was grateful, at least, that he didn’t bring up his ex as an excuse this time. I didn’t know what I’d do if he’d cried about her cheating on him again. Still, I was annoyed that we’d let a beautiful hotel room go to waste. There are so many little things I’m bitter about. It’s safer to not think of them.
When we arrive, I hug Leslie. I hug her new boyfriend, Rob, too, even though I’ve never met him before. The excitement overwhelms me and I want to hug everyone in sight. I wrap my arms around Shane’s waist while he holds his hand out to shake Rob’s, then Leslie’s. Leslie uses her grasp to pull him close to her. She kisses him on the cheek.
Inside, I set down the cooler on their kitchen counter. “I got you something,” I say to Leslie. I’m grinning as I unveil the ice cream. I hand it to her.
She looks confused as she reads the label. “Oh, thanks,” she says and puts it in the freezer.
“Don’t you remember?”
She pushes her mouth to one side, then looks at Rob, as if he’d have an answer.
I yammer through the abridged folklore of our friendship, working together over summers at the bed and breakfast. About the guest who left the ice cream in the fridge. How we got stoned and ate the whole thing that night, and then spent weeks trying to find it in different markets. How when we finally found the exact flavor, it wasn’t really that good after all, so we got high again before eating the rest.
“Oh,” she laughs lightly. I can tell she still doesn’t remember. It pisses me off.
We go downtown for dinner and drinks. Alcohol lightens the mood. Shane leaves beer foam on his upper lip and does an impression of the cowboy from The Big Lebowski. I’ve never been with anyone who’s made an effort to impress my friends before. I’ve mostly dated stoners who ignored my friends completely. The word content keeps cycling through my brain. I tell myself, in moments like these, that sex isn’t so important. Most of a relationship is spent outside of the bedroom. We walk to a brewery and split a pitcher. Then another. We walk back to their place, stumbling over the cracks in the sidewalk where tree roots have pulled up the cement. Rob sings a Bob Marley song, and it’s the most words I’ve heard him say at once. Shane trails a few feet behind us to smoke a cigarette. I worry Leslie’s judging me for dating a smoker.
When we go inside, Leslie’s yellow lab is happy to see us, jumping all over each of us as we file through the entryway. We all talk to her in our drunken baby-voices.
Leslie surprises me when she asks to bum one of Shane’s cigarettes.
“Of course,” he says. He joins her on the front porch to smoke another one with her.
Rob sits on the couch and picks up a chew toy to play with the dog. I sit on the arm of the sofa and pet the slope of her back. I watch out the window at Leslie and Shane talking. I see their mouths moving. I hear a bobbing of faint sound, but not what they’re saying. I clench my teeth. I look away and ask Rob about his job, because it’s the easiest thing to ask a stranger about. I nod my head as he speaks. I keep glancing out the window. A tightness is forming in my throat, which spreads to my chest. I pet the dog in a quick, rhythmic succession. After a long explanation, I have no idea what Rob does but I try to ask a somewhat-related follow-up question. I look back at the porch. I don’t know whether I’m more jealous because Leslie is alone with my boyfriend or because I haven’t had a real conversation with my long-lost friend since our arrival. Rob turns on the TV and sets it to one of those radio channels. He gets himself a beer from the fridge. When Leslie and Shane come back inside, Leslie has that self-satisfied look on her face, the one she gets after telling someone how to better care for themselves with the right vitamins or meditation routine. It’s the kind of advice I followed to the letter for years.
Leslie shows us to the guest room, where there’s an inflatable mattress covered with flannel sheets and a knitted afghan on the floor.
“What were you talking about out there?” I ask him. His mind seems to be elsewhere since he’s come inside from the porch. He hasn’t looked me in the eye. The problem with Shane is that he’s too honest. When I ask him what he’s thinking, he tells me exactly what I’m asking for without missing a beat. Even if it’ll hurt me, like when it involves his ex.
“Leslie and I were talking about past relationships. She was saying it’s a bad idea to jump into something new too soon.”
I’m already burrowed under the covers. Shane gets in bed beside me and the air in the mattress shifts and lifts me up. I turn to face the wall, where there’s an outlet I stare into.
“What do you think?” I ask.
I hear him exhale. “I don’t know.” And I know he truly doesn’t. But he’s considering her words very carefully. They have stuck inside his head. I know this feeling.
“She broke up an engagement to get with Rob, you know,” I snap. I realize I’ve sounded childish. Like a bratty teenager.
After a while he reaches under the covers and rubs my hips, grabs my breast. “Claire Bear?” he says sweetly. Despite how terribly unoriginal this nickname is, I’ve liked to hear it on his breath. But right now it doesn’t make me feel any better.
“I don’t think we should do anything tonight.” I can feel his expression change, even though I’m not looking at his face. “It seems rude to have sex in someone else’s sheets,” I say.
He doesn’t reply. Eventually, we fall asleep.
The next day Rob packs our styrofoam cooler with beer and pears, and we go to the beach. Leslie insists on driving. Shane and I sit in the back seat. I notice how every time she talks to us she looks at Shane in the rearview mirror. I want to tell her to keep her eyes on the road. Instead, I clutch the handle on the car door with one hand and grab Shane’s hand with the other. His palm is sweaty. He comments on the roadside attractions: the world’s largest agate museum, “The Mystery Spot,” dozens of billboards for ice cream shops. Leslie replies to each of his observations. When she is tired of conversation, she turns up Bruce Springsteen so loud that no one else can talk, even if we wanted to. Rob points out the best place to park to get to the public beach. He’s lived in this area his whole life. Leslie’s only moved here recently, once they bought the house and she agreed to move across the state to be with him. I don’t know what kind of place he lived in before this. I don’t know how they met, either. After telling Leslie and Rob over breakfast how Shane and I met at a free screening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, they quickly changed the subject. It made me think they wanted to get off the topic of meetings.
We carry our towels, umbrella, and cooler to the edge of the lake, finding a spot to claim as our own.
“I think I’m gonna take a run,” Leslie says, dropping her towel and radio in the sand. She kicks off her sandals and runs barefoot towards the lighthouse before any of us can respond.
Shane looks confused, left behind. Rob looks like he’s used to this already. We decide to take a swim. The lake is frigid so we count to three and all dive in at once. When we come back up, it no longer feels so bad. We swim out farther and tread water when it’s up to our necks. Rob is good company, I decide. Shane and I tease each other; Rob laughs at anything we say. It makes me feel like Shane and I are a good pair after all, receiving this affirmation that our banter is entertaining to an outsider. The sound travels on the still surface of the water. A couple of toddlers are fighting over a pail and shovel on the shore. Shane mimics them.
“Stop it, Shane! They can hear you!” I think I see the mother scowl at us, but I can’t really make out her face. Shane claps his hand over his mouth, eyes wide. Rob roars with laughter.
I tire of treading water, so I plant my toes in the sand. Shane scans the edge of the water, looks towards the lighthouse, and then looks in the opposite direction. Rob looks at a freighter in the distance. It blows its horn. One toddler cheers and the other begins to cry. I swim back. Without discussion, Shane and Rob follow.
Now I’m looking for her, too. I wrap myself in my towel and squint down the beach. I put my glasses on, and I look for her bouncing blonde curls, but I can’t spot them. I’m relieved.
I remember Arlo, or at least what I’d heard of him. He was a psychotherapist, Leslie liked to say. The title made me picture him only treating psychos, which made me think he should just call himself a therapist. Leslie had been his patient. Then she was his employee. Arlo and his wife, Peggy, had bought the historic mansion that would become the bed and breakfast in 1991. It was really Peggy’s project. Leslie mentioned one day, in passing, that the B&B was Peggy’s replacement child because she was barren. Leslie began working there when Arlo and Peggy were still together. By the time I arrived for my first summer of full-time housekeeping, Arlo was just a name I heard from time to time, and Peggy was my boss. Leslie never spoke of him while on the clock. As we folded laundry and scrubbed toilets together, she asked me about my love life. She told me to enjoy dating while I could because it got so much harder the closer you got to thirty. She also told me that I needed to stand up to my mother if I wanted to avoid being a timid pushover the rest of my life. She hugged me afterwards and apologized for the “tough love.” Mostly she talked about her training to become a reiki healer. When she started inviting me over for treatments to help her gain certification hours, I heard about him.
“He’s the most sensual man I’ve ever met,” she said as she hit a metal singing bowl. I was lying face down on a massage table, and I could feel the vibration in the air around me. I was starting to understand what she meant when she used the word energy. I felt more relaxed than I’d ever been before. I wasn’t sure how much of it was the reiki and how much had been the bowl of weed she’d lit up to share upon my arrival. Leslie described Arlo’s body, how he could make her cum three times in a single night, and all I could think about was Peggy describing his shoddy electrical work. Before I left, she made me swear I wouldn’t speak of their relationship at work. I was flattered that Leslie trusted me with this secret. The next summer, they were engaged and everyone knew. I’d been surprised Peggy didn’t fire Leslie. Peggy had a button with the word Feminist on her purse. I thought that might have something to do with it.
“She’s still not back, huh?” Shane takes the towel off my shoulders and rubs down his legs and chest.
I shake my head and pick the radio up, brush the sand from the speakers.
For some reason, Rob wants us to bury him in the sand. We dig a hole, he lie inside. We cover him up and work on sculpting a mermaid body.
“Incoming!” We hear Leslie before we notice her running towards us. She flops on top of Rob, smashing our sand mermaid. She kisses his face all over, and he laughs.
After Rob brushes the sand off his body, he and Leslie jump in the water. While they’re swimming, Shane and I watch them without speaking. When they return, they raid the cooler. Rob, Shane, and I each take a beer. Leslie eats a pear. When she’s done she throws the core behind her to decompose in the sand.
“Let me read your palm, Shane,” Leslie says.
He picks up the towel he’s sitting on and moves it next to her, takes a seat. She holds his hand in her palm and traces the lines. She says he has a true love out there, whom he will meet in five years.
Shane shoots me a look and then looks back at his palm. I would feel better had he laughed, made a dismissive joke. “How long will I live?” he asks.
I roll my eyes, put my towel over my head, and lean back into the hot sand.
That night, Shane goes to bed early. Rob excuses himself to take a shower. Leslie and I sit at the kitchen table. The only light in the room is coming from the bulb above the stove. She gets out two bowls and labors to scoop the carrot ice cream that’s not really ice cream.
“How did you and Rob meet?” I ask as she puts a bowl in front of me.
“We met when he was visiting a mutual friend in Detroit. We were on the same team at trivia night.” Leslie takes a tiny bite.
“Did he know you were engaged at the time?” I put both hands around my bowl of ice cream and look at the new creases in her forehead.
“I wasn’t engaged at the time,” she says, making a face like I’m a lunatic.
“Yes you were,” I say. “Don’t you remember that time you called me crying, saying how you didn’t know how to tell Arlo it was over, that you’d met someone else?”
She snorts. “Arlo broke up with me.”
I don’t know how she expects me to have such a terrible memory. Or if she thinks she can convince me to change my memories altogether.
“If anything, I was crying because he dumped me. I was heartbroken, Claire.”
We sit silently. I hear the shower turn off, the bathroom door open, and Rob’s footsteps overhead.
Leslie takes another, bigger bite. “Not bad. Pretty tasty, actually.”
“It’s really not good. Tastes fake,” I say. I put my bowl in the sink and say goodnight.
On the drive back, both of Shane’s hands are on the steering wheel. His car is an old Cadillac. Something people would call a “boat car,” and the steering wheel is similarly oversized. When we get back to Detroit, I know that we will not spend the night together. That last night, our backs to each other, may have been the last. I find an ant crawling over my bare knees. I’m navigating, with our printed directions in my hands. I hold the paper in front of the ant and it crawls over the words “Return Route.” I roll down the window and hold the paper outside, waiting for the ant to fly off of it. The wind pulls the directions out of my hands. I gasp. I turn around and watch the paper, with the ant presumably still attached, float down the freeway.
Shannon McLeod is the author of the essay chapbook PATHETIC (Etchings Press). Her novella, WHIMSY, won the 2018 Wild Onion Novella Contest and is looking for a home for publication. Her writing has appeared in Tin House Online, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Joyland, Cheap Pop, and Wigleaf, among other publications. She teaches high school English in Virginia. You can find Shannon on twitter @OcqueocSAM or on her website at www.shannon-mcleod.com.