We had become adventurers.
Before this, we had only been ourselves and kept our families and friends happy by doing exactly what was expected. Then we betrayed them all. We succumbed to the pull of our desire and hauled our measly carcasses into our dreams. Not one of those we loved could understand why.
We had earned the pride of those who in cheating the patterns of their lives achieve what their peers from behind half empty beer steins could only balk at as ridiculous. We held the treasure up to their sneers. It was too bright, too golden to be the lie they hoped it was. In our minds were the memories. We had become characters in a story we were writing. And in our hearts lay the tales of challenge and determination of which strong men dream.
We could hardly believe it ourselves.
A dollop of latte foam blurbed from the edge of my paper cup as we tapped our coffees together in a toast to ourselves.
Kat said, "Can you believe what I did? I mean--I did it. Nobody helped me. I did it all by myself. Why isn't anyone happy for me?" The trees and sky reflected in curvature like miniature worlds in the lenses of her dark glasses. Civilization moved around us as we sat in the suspended animation enjoyed by those of us who had figured out how to push life's pause button and sipped our caffeinated beverages on the veranda instead of pursuing responsibility with the after-burners on, augering straight into hell.
When she turned toward me I saw myself as a fly must seconds before I swat at it.
I toasted the spherical me in her eyes. "I'm happy for you," I said.
"The word 'anyone' explicitly excludes those versed in bovinities and men who can't get enough Oprah," she said.
I said, "As I've recently stopped licking televised breasts you must be suggesting I'm hunting barnyard trophies again. You know I'm over that, don't you? I apologized to those cows. Besides, do you know how big your dick has to be to get one of those suckers to 'moo'? That goddamned farmer--I knew you didn't pay him enough. His banjo playing days are over. After I take care of his hayseed ass I'm going to gag you with duct tape, stuff you in the trunk, and put you back on the Saskatchewan prairie where I found you. I should have known better than to let you loose where you could be seen in public with decent people."
"Made you laugh," I said, sipping my latte, then taking advantage in the gap she left in the air. "You wish you were me. You wish you had the kind of brain that can dazzle people the way I can. I know it. Admit it and we'll all feel better about ourselves. You want to be me."
"No, I just want you," she said, looking over the top of her sunglasses.
I couldn't stop the smile from tearing my head in half. Damn, she was fun. Being with Kat was like being with my best male friends with the added benefit of a virulent, molten sexual tension that plasmafied the air around us. It was like a lap dance from someone with Carmen Electra's body and Marie Curie's brain.
Whenever I was with Kat there was a little voice in my head screaming: be careful. One of these days I was going to clock that tiny bastard and flush him down a urinal. But now he served a useful purpose. He was keeping me from trashing a lot of good people's lives.
Kat filled a dark emptiness in my being I hadn't known how to articulate until we met alone for the first time. She added warmth and colors to my life, and I loved her for it. It wasn't the death-do-us-part love I had for my wife and family, but rather, a love that made me enjoy who I was as if she could hold up a mirror that showed me only the good things about myself. I wanted to be who I was when I was with her so much that I struggled to be that person when we were apart.
But I couldn't figure out how, so I needed to see her. It was as simple as that. Kat was smart, and brave, and deadly gorgeous. We hadn't slept together, and the guilt of imagining how it would hurt Charlene and the children kept that desire in check. Kat had her life, and her fiancee to worry about, and I guessed that kept her platonic with me. Though I could imagine that some day when the conditions were right and we were both weak synchronously, it could happen.
It had been years. It hadn't happened. A big part of me prayed it never would. A small part of me looped endlessly in a fantasy of us in a hotel room at twilight, the sound of the Pacific ocean cresting onto a Tahitian beach flowing through opened patio doors, white curtains fluttering inward on the breeze.
Kat said, "Wadda ya say. You know I've been studying blow jobs. Gotta book. Been watching videos. I need the practice. I gotta be in shape for my honeymoon. You don't want me to disappoint Jarrett on our wedding night, right? Let's go. You'll be doing everyone a favor."
A tickling sizzle ran down my spine and settled in my thighs. It was an old feeling, one I hadn't had since I was in high school and could get tongue tied if one of the cheerleaders teased me. The feeling was almost alien, like it belonged to me, but was given by someone else. I started bouncing my knees, digging my toes onto the concrete patio, tapping my heels against the ground.
"Cut that out. You know, Charlene already thinks we're having an affair," I said. Then, "Is this an affair?"
"It's not an affair if you have to ask, Billy-boy. But look, you're already getting points deducted, you might as well get the upside. Come on. You're a big explorer now. Me love you long time."
She batted her eyelashes and kissed the air in front of her. Then she sat back and sipped at her coffee, seductively tonguing the rim of her cup.
I said, "I know what you want, you perfidious wench. You don't really want to fuck me. You want to fuck me. You want to see Charlene slice me open with a switchblade and feed me to the squirrels."
"Shit!" she said, slamming her paper cup onto the metal cafe table. "How did you know? And I've already got Malaysian buyers for the kidneys and liver. Do you know how much a white man's gall bladder will fetch on the Bengalese black market? It's an aphrodisiac to tigers. They get the tigers to mate and then they sell their gall bladders to the Japanese as aphrodisiacs who mate and sell us electronic toys. The toys get all the anal-retentive white boys hot. Then we harvest their gall bladders. It's a cycle of gall bladders that spans the Pacific. It's called the 'Ring of Bile'. I'm doing a feature on it for 'The Economist' next month. They gave me a five-thousand dollar advance."
"Which you've already spent on narcotics and male prostitutes, no doubt," I quipped.
"Drugs yes. Male prostitutes? Who needs them. The women are much better around here," she said.
"Oooh. Don't you tempt me. You know how much I love women who love women," I said, drooling.
Two white haired ladies carrying ceramic coffee cups tiptoed toward the table next to us while Kat delivered her soliloquy. They gingerly set their cups down and then started whispering behind their hands, staring at Kat and me.
"You girls must recognize her," I said, embarrassing them to the best of my ability. "You know who she is, don't you? She's almost an astronaut. She just got back from three weeks of flight training at NASA in Houston. Look at her. She's been weightless. Doesn't she glow? It's the radiation. Does wonders for the complexion."
Kat took off her sunglasses, smiled, and held her hands to her face like a skin cream model.
The women stared at us as if we were threatening to cut their throats. To break the tension I suggested, "You must want to see the pictures. Katlin, my dear. The photos, please."
I held out my hand and Kat handed me the pictures. I held up the first one.
"You didn't believe me," I said to the women. They leaned forward and squinted to see the picture of Kat, floating in midair. She wore a flight suit and her hair flayed out like the white fur on a dandelion. Next to her, a space shuttle astronaut smiled and dabbed a finger at a protoplasmic glob of weightless water.
I said, "This is on a NASA plane called the vomit comet, because everyone tosses their cookies on the damn thing. But not our little astrogirl, here. She went twenty-two parabolas without so much as a burp. Strong men had to be lashed to the gunwales to keep them from jumping out of the aircraft without parachutes. Not this lady. She doesn't have the right stuff. She IS the right stuff." I flashed the pictures one by one, and the women stared at them as if only because I'd commanded them to do so.
When I was done the old girls took their steaming coffee mugs and hobbled off.
As soon as we were alone again Kat asked, "But seriously, Billy, why don't you think anyone is proud of me?"
I shrugged. "Jealous, I guess. You beat out a couple of thousand applicants and got the single writer's slot on the tour. You're in line for that spot on the fricking space shuttle--damn, I can't believe it myself. You might be going up into space."
I couldn't help myself. I had to get my hands on her somehow so I stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders. "I'm proud of you. I don't give a shit about anyone else. Damn, I'm so happy for you." And for a moment I felt like a father congratulating one of his kids. What Kat had done was nearly impossible. Instead of accolades, her friends were pretending it hadn't happened.
"Something like that happened when you went to Antarctica," she said. "Was it because everyone was jealous?"
"Of going somewhere where the weather can kill you and the lobster tails are always overcooked? I doubt it," I said.
"Do you think they're scared?" she said.
"Of what..." she repeated, mocking me. "Of what you've become."
"I'm still me," I said. And I had to say it twice to convince myself. "I don't think I'm that different." I went back to my steel patio chair and finished my coffee.
Kat said, "I think this is it. You don't have to act different or look different. But you are different now. You're different because of what you've done. You've done something mysterious and nearly impossible and everyone who knew you before you went to the ice is going to look at you and know what you're capable of. You're not one of them anymore. You punched out. As far as they're concerned, they don't know what you'll do next. A man who just up and says one day, 'I think I'll go to the south pole,' and then does it, is capable of anything. They're all wondering what the hell you're going to do next."
She put on her sunglasses, pursed her lips, and nodded to herself. "That's fucking it. The bastards think we're capable of anything. Goddamn. I bet we are. We can do anything, Billy-boy. We're practically gods."
"I don't feel like a god," I said, looking down my shirt to see if my nipples were leaking ectoplasm. They weren't.
I said, "And I love all those people I'm scaring. I spent my whole life making the world safe for them. Putting roofs over their head and feeding them. I want them to sleep happy. I don't want them to worry I'm going to do something to hurt them. I wish they weren't scared."
Kat stood up and held out her hand. "Come with me, ice boy," she said.
And I took her hand. We walked through the coffee shop parking lot, through the trees and onto the trail by the park.
As we walked Kat said, "You know we're going to have to start a justice league. Superheroes like us need to get together in leagues to fight villians. Astrogirl and IceBob. Has a nice ring to it."
We had gone about a mile before I realized I was still holding her hand.
the next episode is in Why things burn
the last episode is in The baby sees a man worth saving