by John L. Campbell
I nudge Lois, my wife, and try to form words between my clenched and smiling teeth, “Don’t look now, but here comes Harriet Erwin.”We’re standing, trapped in a dead-end reception area the length of the bar. It’s an open bar staffed by a lone barmaid, which explains the crunch to get a drink. I watch as Harriet edges through the crowd like a weathered tugboat moving against the current in heavy barge traffic. She’s gained a few pounds since I saw her last. Charley, her husband, follows, sliding this way and that, like a dingy being towed in her wake.
“Do I look as old and wrinkled as she does?” Lois whispers. I have no time to comment, anticipating Harriet’s immediate arrival.
We’ve known each other since kindergarten. In third grade Harriet sat in the next row several seats behind me. When I’d drop my pencil and look back, she’d spread her legs to show me the color of her panties. They were color-coded by days. Fridays were red and Mondays, yellow. As long as I’ve known her, she’s been shameless, always ready to do the unexpected.
We hug. “Harriet, you haven’t changed a bit,” I say. Little white lies are acceptable for these special occasions. “What a beautiful tan. Where have you been?”
She and Charley spend winters in Florida. Palm Beach, I think. He’s a retired cardiologist, one who can rearrange your plumbing, add ten years to your life and never remember your name. Both of them have money, hers old, his new, a convenient combination. Charley stands along side her, giving us his beaver-tooth grin. In his expression I can read his thoughts. He’s thinking: I know my wife; and I’m not sure I like to see you two together again.
Harriet and I give each other the obligatory kiss like old friends are allowed to do, especially former sweethearts. After all, we’re both over seventy. Age cures jealousy. After fifty years, Lois is desensitized to Harriet’s effusive attention and accepts her with the alacrity of flies at a cookout.
“I knew you’d be here,” Harriet says, a lipstick smear on one of her front teeth. Her eyes, azure blue, are ageless; but if I were her dermatologist, I’d be furious with the age-spots on her face. In another time and place we might have married, Harriet and I. Her folks were Missouri Synod Lutherans and I was the Catholic kid from a blue-collar family across the tracks. My folks raised five kids living rent and tax-free on a tarpapered houseboat rotting on the smelly shores of the Allegheny River, a polluted waterway running parallel to a railroad switchyard northeast of Pittsburgh.
Despite her parents’ disapproval, we dated our junior and senior years. Harriet and I lived in different worlds, but the economic disparity never seemed to bother her. On her eighteenth birthday she invited me to the country club for dinner with her parents. I had never ordered from a menu before. My confidence melted trying to sort out the array of silver hardware on each side of my plate. Seeing my plight, her father ordered for me. I doubt my mother had that many forks in our entire galley.
I recall once going to a real restaurant with my folks. We were in Canada, where Dad took us to an Italian restaurant. Before the meal I upset my water glass on the white tablecloth. Minutes later, my mother spilled hers, too. The whole family broke out laughing, except for my father, who was embarrassed at the bunch of us. For the rest of the trip we ate in roadside diners and places like Woolworth’s 5 and 10 or drug store lunch counters.
Harriet and I don’t see each other often anymore. We meet like this on anniversaries. When we were younger and our kids were growing up, we’d see each other at weddings and class reunions. Now, it’s funerals and anniversaries.
After the usual chit-chat, Harriet says, “Give me your e-mail address and we’ll get together this summer.” Lois squeezes my arm. She’s heard these empty promises before. For fifty years we’ve been promising to get together, but never have. Charley doesn’t like me, and Lois nurses the same ambivalent feelings about Harriet.
I give her my business card that has everything except my social security number on it. I really don’t expect to hear from her, but it’s the polite thing to do.
Harriet’s father owned the local pharmacy. He had a good business on the main street of our small borough. For years he ran the only drug store in town. By law his pharmacy had to stay open seven days a week to make medicines available to local doctors. There had to be a pharmacist on duty at all times.
One time, when her father wasn’t looking, Harriet stole a pack of Trojans. Rubbers we called them. They sold three-for-a-dollar back then. I knew what they were; but I had never seen one before. Harriet thought it was a big joke. She even unrolled one on two fingers, giggled and asked me if I thought it was big enough? She could make me blush some times, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
The worst part was when my mother found them in my jacket. Harriet smoked, and my clothes picked up the smell when we were out. Mother was looking to see if I was carrying cigarettes.
“What are you doing with these?” she shouted.
I told her they were for the protection against disease like the label said. “I’ve never used them, Mom!” The pack was open, but the three condoms were still there. She never asked how I got them, but I’m sure she knew. Funny, too, she always liked Harriet. To this day I often wonder what Mom did with those rubbers? She took them, and I never saw them again. When I told Harriet what happened, she laughed. “I bet she rolled one on her finger, too.”
If Mom ever told Dad, he never brought it up. In retrospect, he might have tried to use them himself. Mother was a strict Catholic, reared in an Irish household. Although not religious, my father went along with her on church matters. That’s one reason I have four siblings.
During dinner Harriet and Charley sit across the dining room with the town’s professional elite, a few doctors, lawyers and business people. Our host is our dentist, who loves listening to music from the big band era.
For their 50th wedding anniversary, he has engaged a Glenn Miller band. I count fourteen musicians, plus a pianist and two soloists, a male and female. I can’t imagine what that cost. Appreciating the expense, everyone dances. I intentionally avoid asking Harriet. She’s a terrible tease. Her warm thigh between my legs isn’t worth the cold, silent ride home, not to mention the frigid bedtime reception.
On my way to the bar, I pass Harriet’s table. She reaches out. We clasp hands, warm with tenderness. I have to admit she’s still on my mind. Occasions like this renew old memories.
On the dance floor Harriet and Charley glide by. She smiles, then leans into us. “Let’s switch partners…. come on! We haven’t danced together in years.”
She leads. Rather than fight her, I follow. While we’re dancing, she pushes something into my suit coat pocket.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Some pills for special occasions… one of the perks Charley gets from his friends.”
Later, cloistered in a stall of the men’s room and filled with curiosity, I pull Harriet’s plastic packet from my pocket. It’s a circle of four pills. The label reads Cialis™, Samples, not for sale. Not until I read the likely side affects do I recognize the trade name.
Harriet hasn’t changed. She’s the same nymphet, the same free spirit who hit me with the bottom half of her swimsuit, throwing it out of the pool the night of our senior prom.
At home in the bathroom, before going to bed, I look at the four beige pills bubble-packed in a small circle on cardboard. I read the possible side affects. I’m not taking any nitro meds and don’t suffer from high blood pressure. One caution worries me: If an erection persists for more than four hours, seek medical assistance.
Staring at my cowardly reflection in the mirror, I imagine going to the hospital emergency room, hoping it’s a slow night. I sidle up to the outpatient desk, whispering to the on-duty nurse, Excuse me please! I’ve got a problem here… stepping back from the desk so she can see the distended protuberance emanating like a tent pole from my pajamas.
In a soft clinical voice, this is probably a common problem on night shift, especially with these new ED medications, the nurse asks, Have you tried a cold shower?
I flip the packet into my toilet kit, zip it closed and hide it in the lower drawer under the sink; then, shuffle back to our bedroom. I ease into my side of the bed and lean far over our king-size mattress to kiss Lois goodnight. She’s either asleep or feigning sleep. At my age it doesn’t matter. I turn over, curl up, and try to conjure a few dreams about that devilish young girl I once knew.
John L. Campbell, a Wisconsin resident, was self-employed for 26 years as a manufacturers’ agent in the metal industry. Following his retirement in 1995, he began as a writer-photographer for technical and trade publications. After chasing bylines for ten years, he started practicing poetry and writing short stories. He currently facilitates a senior writer’s workshop in Milwaukee. His short stories have been published in Pearl, Rosebud, and the now defunct Timber Creek Review. His poetry has appeared in Verse-Wisconsin, Clark Street Review, Backstreet Quarterly, Chiron Review, Plainsongs, Goose River Anthology and on-line zines like Word Riot and Centrifugal Eye.