While Amanda heads off for a spa weekend, Trout decides to join Carlos in Fort Dix.
On principle, I believe that having an affair while you're in a committed relationship is wrong, that honesty is the cornerstone to any successful partnership, and that once invested you should see something through to the end regardless of the outcome.
I've also come to believe that principles are like New York drains. They work great when the sun is shining, but don't step off the sidewalk when the deluge hits because they simply don't hold water.
And what defines a committed relationship, anyway? Somehow, the expression conjures smug, clean-cut couples wearing his and hers matching smiles, much favored by advertising companies selling wholesome family products. Some might argue that a committed relationship can only ever really exist between two psychiatric patients.
And as far as honesty is concerned, where do the parameters lie? Are we talking absolute, including total disclosure about a partner's weight gain, approximate dress sense, bubbling cellulite, and anthropoidal family members? Or are there acceptable lies, or 'white lies' as Grandma Beth likes to call them? And what about past indiscretions? If something is not verbalized, does that constitute a lie?
As for being invested to the end, you only have to ask Uncle Willy about his cannot-possibly-fail pyramid scheme that swallowed up a good half of his life savings and meant that, well beyond retirement age, he still has to work for my father to earn a living to survive.
No, principles are guidelines, and guidelines should be flexible. Or so I am trying to convince myself since my encounter with Carlos.
The problem is that once my resolve finally hardens, as I stick out my chin, fold my arms and imagine the roar from the stadium, I sense my grandmother's disapproving stare from the bench.
Nevertheless, with this newfound determination, I wake to an unusually pleasant Saturday morning. Amanda is rushing out to meet her cousin in someplace upstate called Mystic, giving me a peck on the cheek and an uncustomary warm hug in the street, public familiarity never really being our thing.
“Got anything planned?” she asks, tilting her head to one side.
“Not much. Probably catch up with the Doug. Maybe the rest of the gang.” Ever since she landed me with Carlos for the evening, still unaware of what transpired, she has been falling over herself to be nice. And each little gesture makes my stomach curdle with guilt. And because adding a little more guilt to an already gut full always works, I’ve avoided checking my texts or calling Doug for coffee tomorrow, because I am feeling the call of the wild, otherwise known as Fort Dix.
"Give my love to Clara," I say because it's the first sane thing that springs to mind. "Is that all you're taking?"
She carries a small sports bag today. It's not the usual LV affair, a semi-permanent fixture big enough to hold her laptop and a mound of paperwork that droops artfully from her shoulder, making her body tilt to one side to compensate. I call the sack her work-life imbalance.
She sighs dramatically before explaining.
"Pampering weekend, Trout. No distractions, no work. Facials, manicure, pedicure, with body massages. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? But I'm so tired right now, I’d sooner stay home curled up on the sofa with a good book."
“But I can’t, can I?" she says, with a long-suffering smile. "A break from the baby is exactly what Clara needs. I'll just have to console myself with essential oils, champagne, and herbal baths. And we've got next weekend, remember?"
"Montauk? Anything I need to do?"
“Just get us there safely. Donald's bringing someone, but says it's not Bryan. Still not sure how I feel about that,” she says, before looking a little sheepish, brushing her fingers down her cheek. "Roger and Beatrix have confirmed, and they’re bringing Carlos, but I promise you won’t be left to babysit this time. Better dash. See you Sunday night around eight.”
"Sure," I respond, with a shrug. "Drive safe. Especially in this beast.”
Donald lent her his Porsche—she refuses to drive my Hyundai—and as the car growls off down the road, I stand and wave her off. For the next two hours, I anguish over the pros and cons of contacting Carlos.
Eventually, temptation gets the better of me.
"Who is this?" Although familiar, the voice is curt and cool. A loud burst of mechanical whirring rattles down the phone and I hear him shout out something in what I guess to be Portuguese.
"Trout who?" For a moment, I wonder if I've called the wrong number, but the unusual way he pronounces my name also sounds familiar.
"Trout. Remember? Soccer and beer at my place? Night of Me'lon the fruit's gallery opening?" I laugh, a little over-exuberantly. He doesn't.
"Oh.” Even though he sounds distracted, a dry feeling begins to clump in my throat.
"Is this a bad time?"
From somewhere in our apartment comes a muffled ringing. I walk over and shut the living room door to mute the sound.
"No, well…" Again, he shouts something angrily, an emotion not evident in his telephone voice. "We’re opening the new restaurant tonight and I have last-minute problems these idiot workmen seem incapable of fixing. What do you want?"
"Well, you asked me to phone you about Sunday, so…"
"Sunday? Ah, yes. Okay, please come along. Fort Dix Park. Ten o'clock." As the whirring starts up again, he hollers this time without covering the receiver and I have to hold the phone away from my ear. "You think you can find the way?"
"Yeah, I'm sure—"
"Good. And bring six large oranges with you, for the kids in the half-time break. Bye." He hangs up before I can say goodbye and just as my phone beeps twice, indicating an incoming call.
"Trout. Is that you?" This voice is different, female and familiar, but softer. In the background, there's the horrific sound of a baby screaming.
"Is Mandy with you?" Her voice sounds tense.
"She left already. Why? Is there a problem?"
Once again, I hear the muffled ringing tone coming from the hallway. This time I walk over to the door but almost as soon as I yank it open, the ringing stops.
"No, I… Hang on a moment." She sounds distracted and calls away from the phone, "Steve, can you get her."
"Is everything okay? Sounds like you're still at home."
"No. Yes," she says, then takes a breath, her voice calming instantly. "Sorry, I'm all over the place at the moment. Nobody warned me that motherhood is infinitely more stressful than childbirth. No, I—thought I might catch her before she left."
"Call her on the road. You know Amanda. She'll have that work smartphone glued to her ear. And she's in Donald's Porsche, so if the traffic's good she'll be there before ten."
"Right. Sure. Thanks, Trout." The line goes quiet for a moment. I hear her breathing at the end of the line but she says nothing.
"Everything okay, Clara?" I ask again.
She recovers quickly. "Sure. I'm fine. And you go have fun this weekend, too, Trout. Get out there and play. You have my permission."
* * *
Which goes part way to explain why I've spent the best part of Sunday morning beneath a golf umbrella, on the sidelines of a soccer pitch somewhere in Fort Dix, watching six-year-old kids kick a piece of inflated leather across the muddy ground. Even though the rain has stopped, I can feel warm grittiness, rainwater that has managed to seep into my guaranteed waterproof trainers, squishing between the shriveled skin of my toes.
Right at this moment, the one thing I know for sure is I enjoyed this sport much better from the comfort of the leather sofa in our living room. At the same time, I have never been to this neck of the woods before so I am fairly secure about my anonymity.
I've been yo-yoing between flinging in the towel and heading home or staying until the end of the game to speak to Carlos. As soon as I arrived, one of the mothers spotted the heavy bag of oranges dangling from my hand and came over to thank me briefly before scooping them up and heading off into a small tent set up on one side of the pitch. With the match already started, I noted Carlos at the far end of the pitch, in the middle of the gameplay.
What my head doesn’t tell me is what I want from him. Another quick hook up? Or do I want more? I’ve almost convinced myself our age difference means nothing because that’s what we gay men do when we’re feeling the years slipping by. That is until I see some old guy behind the left goalpost with his arm around someone I assumed to be his punk daughter, lean in and give her a frenchie that lasted far too long. Or maybe his false teeth got caught on her tongue stud. Either way, the spectacle, which at first made my wrinkled toes curl, has left me feeling sleazy and more than a little disgusted at myself.
But then, Carlos the supermodel swings into view. Decked out in perfectly fitting black Puma tracksuit and soccer boots, he is the referee and sprints up and down the pitch, whistling and waving his arms like a professional. He rocks the sporty look. Even with his hair tied back by what appears to be a couple of elastic bands, and mud smeared artfully across one cheek like war paint, he still has my blood pounding. I notice he is assisted by a couple of linesmen—or linespersons, I should say—a fair bit older and probably mothers of the players, who are taking the match equally seriously. On the rare occasion play has brought Carlos close enough, he waves a hand and affords me a sexy smile and a wink—a million miles from the telephone iceman—which so far has kept my spirits up throughout the morning.
As this is not something I would ever do, I try to relax and enjoy the spectacle. Other adults, many my age or younger, seem to find huge enjoyment in the game, some running up and down the side of the pitch, egging their offspring on.
One guy, tipping the scales at three hundred pounds, has lumbered past me for the fifth time and is currently a dangerous shade of beet.
On the opposite sideline, a family cluster around a pushchair, decked out in their team’s blue and orange strip, bouncing in unison every time the ball nears the goal. They hold aloft a hand-knitted scarf with the name of the team—spelled incorrectly—running through it.
I reflect for a moment on what kind of husband and father I would make if I ever decided to take the plunge. And, of course, if my partner wanted to share the responsibility. Big mistake, of course. The mere thought sends a cold trail of panic trickling through me and, once again, my resolve begins to crack.
"Nice butt, huh?"
As I zip my jacket preparing to leave, the three-hundred-pounder comes to a halt next to me, followed shortly by the sickly burger-like smell of his perspiration.
He nods at the pitch.
“Linesman. Miss Slinky Pants. I see you looking at her, pal. Some killer butt, huh?"
Although I had been ogling, I didn’t tell him he’d picked the wrong butt.
"Uh. Yeah. Killer."
"I tell ya. My wife's ass looks like a sack of pumpkins since our kid came along. But that little peach sure managed to keep her figure. That’s her brother refereeing.”
As I’m watching Carlos running backward, a whistle in his mouth, the man’s comment almost slips past.
“Uh, sorry. That’s Carlos’s sister?”
“And she's got a kid?"
"Two." He indicates the far end of the field, to the dark-haired boy in the goalmouth. "Goalkeeper's her eldest. Goes to the same school as my little princess." This time I follow his gaze to a brutal looking six-year-old girl stood frowning over a fallen boy, her hands on her hips. "Her youngest usually comes but he's home with the father."
"Sometimes comes to the games. They're divorced. She's got a new fella by the sound of things. But he don't much go in for soccer. You got kids?"
"No, I—no. But I love watching them.” Burger man raises an eyebrow, and I’m suddenly paranoid, fretting about what this guy might think about a grown man alone watching a kid’s soccer match.
“Love watching them playing soccer, I mean. I’m a friend of Carlos, the referee. He asked me to bring oranges for the half time break.” He nods and then gives me another sideways glance. Does he know Carlos well? That he’s gay? He seems to know a lot about the whole family. In which case, by association, would he think I’m gay, too? Although I feel a complete traitor, not usually one to shun my fabulousness, I attempt to sew up the confusion, by leaning in conspiratorially and explain. Only to get a full-face whiff of his delightful onion-scented odor.
“And, between you and me, I’m getting married soon. Fiancee’s already pregnant. So I came along to see what delights I've got to look forward to.”
Okay. Theoretically, nothing I’ve just spouted is a lie. But my spirits having slipped to my ankles, so I look down, and perform a fake wrist twist.
"Wow, almost midday, I should be heading back. Nice to talk to you."
Beet-face gives me a nod and says, "You too. See you again."
In my head, I'm already forming excuses for not staying. I smell far too many complications in my simple act of indiscretion like pulling the face off a simple watch and being confronted by a myriad of cogs and wheels. One night stands are the way to go, I decide, no mess, no complexities, no trail of breadcrumbs. I pick up my umbrella and march down the field behind the backs of the spectators. At the corner of the pitch, an all-too-familiar voice calls out.
“Trout, honey. How'd you know I’d be here? D’you phone Mel?”
"Doug." I suddenly wish the rains hadn't stopped and I could remain anonymous beneath the umbrella. "No. Amanda went upstate to see her sister. Thought I'd drive out and get some fresh air."
"In Fort Dix?” says Doug, his confused stare narrowing. "Okay, lover boy. What are you up to?"
"No, really. Amanda's ex told me about the place. His new girlfriend is one of the line judges. More to the point, what are you doing here?"
We know each other well enough to recognize he doesn't buy the story but he lets it slide. “Jimbo—my nephew—was picked to play for the Bulldogs this season. He's the one on the wing."
"Jim plays soccer?" I stare across the field to see scrawny Jim in his mud streaked soccer kit hurtling down the wing with the ball underfoot. I know as adults we shouldn't make snap judgments about kids but Doug’s sister Gwen's six-year-old boy, the one who loves nothing more than playing with Doug’s Barbie house, is so timid he jumps every time a car door slams on the street. The last time I saw them all together, a few years ago, he'd been crying for two days after figuring out from the third viewing that Bambi's mother gets shot. Since then Gwen has to vet each family restaurant they visit to make sure the menu doesn't include venison.
"Yeah, how about that." The irony is not lost on Doug. "He's already scored." As we stand there, Jim races into action towards the goal, barging a couple of larger kids out of the way. He stops and blasts the ball straight at one of the cowering defenders. The ball deflects off the poor kid, leaving a clear print of the muddy ball on his back, and bounces across the line for a corner. Jimbo puts a muddy hand to his mouth and giggles. Ten minutes later, the whistle blows for full-time and Carlos trots across the pitch towards us.
"Trout?" He stands there, hands on his hips, puffing hard, an apology on his face. "Thanks for bringing the oranges. Listen, I can’t manage drinks today. Problems at the restaurant. Another time, yeah?"
"Sure, no problem," I reply, with a shrug, trying to be as indifferent as possible. For the benefit of them both, I provide introductions. "This is Carlos. Roger's fiancée’s brother. He’s a soccer fan, too. Carlos, meet my best pal, Doug, who’s going to be the best man at my wedding."
He turns to face me, then. "I am? Since when?"
Behind his back, I notice Carlos lift a fist to his ear, wiggle his thumb and pinky finger, and mouth the words 'call me'. Answering both, I nod my head.
“Yes, you. Who else would I ask? Tommy?" I shrug and then glance towards the retreating, nicely firm butt of Carlos. Doug turns and stares, too.
"I see," he says, following my gaze. As though sensing my appraisal, Carlos twists around while running backward, flashes a brilliant smile and waves at us. After taking a couple of seconds to admire the way he bounces, Doug turns back and studies me, before speaking with heavy sarcasm. "I see."
"We're friends, Doug. It's no big deal."
He leans in close and says, “Mandy’s rules, honey child, remember? No indiscretions."
"I know the rules, Doug. Get off my case.”
Right then my cell goes off. I yank it out and check the display. Unknown Caller. Turning my back on Doug, I step away and take the call, grateful for the diversion.
"Hello?" I say, plugging a finger in my other ear as a cheer sounds from the winning team of soccer kids, which includes Jim, having their awards ceremony and team pictures.
"Trout?" says Amanda.
“Amanda? How're you doing?" I reply, a brightly as possible, turning to mug at Doug. "Having a good weekend?"
Another cheer bursts out from across the field. This time I observe Doug more closely.
"Trout, did I leave my phone—where are you?"
Her question yanks at my attention.
"Fort Dix. Watching kid's soccer."
"What? Why? What happened to catching up with the gang?”
"Doug's here, too. His nephew Jimbo made the kid's team, the Bullfrogs—Bulldogs—so Doug had to come along to support him in the finals. So come on, how's the pampering going?"
When I look back, I notice Doug has taken out his cell phone. If he is calling June and says anything, I can only imagine the lectures I’m going to have to sit through.
"Fine," she says, disinterested. "Listen, have you seen my work phone?”
"Nope," I reply, barely listening. Doug is laughing, so that’s a good sign, isn’t it? Have I seen them laugh together? I don’t think so. Maybe he hasn’t called June. Maybe I’m in the clear. “You didn't take it with you?"
"No. At least, I don’t think so. Shit! I don’t remember having it in the car. Must have left the damn thing in my work bag,” she says, before adding quickly. "Okay, got to go."
Before I get a chance to confirm what time she'll be back, she rings off. I push the mobile phone into my back pocket and feel something sharp touch my fingers. When I pull out the paper object, I see it's Carlos’s business card.
"You want to come back for lunch at my sister’s place?” shouts Doug, from across the field. He and Jim stand together, Doug’s hand on Jim’s head, Jim’s mud-splattered hand holding up a medal. “Mel just called, says he just got there. And Gwen always cooks way too much."
“That’s really kind. But can I take a rain check?” I call back, pocketing the card in my jacket. "I said I’d cook a late dinner for Amanda, and I’ve got a few chores to run this afternoon before she gets back."
Which is almost entirely true. I'd planned on making her a baked Sicilian cod dish, a recipe she showed me in a magazine, a simple dish with anchovies, olives and the obligatory glugs of olive oil. But I also realize I need closure with Carlos, especially if we're going to be spending a weekend under the same roof at Montauk next weekend.
* * *
Mid-afternoon, after picking up everything I need for dinner, I park up my ancient Hyundai at the back of the high street in Brownsville, somewhere straight out of a fifties gangster movie where sunlight barely touches the streets and scabby resident cats are as numerous as security cameras. If someone chooses to steal my old wreck, they will be doing everyone except the insurance company a favor. Once on the main drag, I melt into the crowd of Sunday strollers. After only a minute or two, I spot the glossy, lime and mustard sign for the new Casa Brasilia restaurant in the distance on the other side of the street.
For a moment I hesitate, impulse never having been my thing. What if he's busy again and doesn't have time to speak? What if he gives me the same cold-shoulder treatment he dished out on the phone? What the hell am I doing here? But I know why. I need to make sure our whatever-it-was is done, and we can both move on. Bumping into Doug was a close call. Imagine that had been someone else, someone less amicable. Moreover, we’ll all be sharing a house next weekend, so I need to know if we’re okay. After standing frozen to the spot in thought and having a couple of passers-by eyeing me up suspiciously, I shove my hands into my pockets and head down the sidewalk.
On the opposite side of the restaurant, I stand at the edge of the road next to a sidewalk billboard, waiting for a break in the traffic. As I stare across into the main window, to the left of the entrance, my initial feeling of hesitation is replaced by a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.
Sitting at a window table is the unmistakable profile of Roger Greenwell, facing out to the street. Another man sits opposite him, his back to the window, his head nodding into a menu. Carlos stands at two o’clock, readying to take their orders. He wears an olive green apron over a short-sleeved, white polo shirt and still has his hair tied back in a ponytail. With a smile I remember well, he stands over the table, his thick tanned forearms folded over his chest, maintaining professional eye-contact with each of the men. Even in a plain restaurant uniform, he is radiant. As he stands there, a woman appears from the shadows at the back of the restaurant, Beatrix, and leans over to give Roger a peck on the lips, before taking her seat to his right.
It's all I really need to see. I feel a sudden rush of stupidity hit me, standing and ogling like an old pervert. Beatrix and Roger are clearly there to support Carlos’s restaurant opening. Now is not the time to disturb him with a heart to heart. Carlos has better things to worry about.
Even though I tell myself to head back to the car, to put all this behind me, some voyeuristic instinct goads me to stop for a while longer. Arms folded and leaning against the billboard, I watch as Greenwell pulls something I recognize from his lap, a blue plastic bag with a familiar logo of a shop I visited only that morning. I watch confused as he removes an orange, pulls the orb to his nose and sniffs. After a quick comment, he tosses the fruit to the man opposite, which makes everyone laugh.
A cold shiver runs through me. Has Carlos told Roger and Beatrix about us? Or are the oranges simply ones left over, and is my imagination racing ahead of itself? I don’t know what to think, but feel sick now, and want to leave the scene of the crime.
But as I am stirring myself to retreat back to the car and lick my wounds, Carlos indicates something outside in the sky. Everyone looks, and it's the face of the other guest that sends a chill through me, the one sitting with his back to me, the face of my cousin, Garrison.
Even though it would be impossible to spot me through the busy stream of traffic, I take a step sideways half-hiding myself behind the street billboard. The whole scene is too surreal and I feel oddly disconnected. For one moment I dismiss the improbability as pure coincidence—maybe Stinky is Greenwell’s tax attorney—and am about to head back to the car when all heads turn back into the restaurant as another figure emerges from the shadow of the restaurant and approaches the table.
The figure puts a hand on Carlos’s shoulder before stepping forward into the light and revealing the unmistakable face of my fiancée, Amanda Crowley.
I like to think the plot is not so much thickening as curdling. What the heck should Trout do now?
As always, please leave any comments, suggestions, and/or reactions.