Joyland

New York |

Blackbird

by Sarah Lynn Knowles

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

Dad's old college buddy, Rick Savage of Savage Motor Cars, was there to greet me at the Las Vegas airport, dressed as sleekly as a rotund man of 54 could in a navy blue suit and diamond-patterned tie. "Well, if you aren't the spitting image of your old man," he said with a hand outstretched.

I had spent the summer months following college graduation emailing my resume in response to any job posting I even remotely qualified for. With close to a hundred applications sent, I’d still managed to hear back only twice – first, for a sales position that turned out to be a slyly-advertised phone center scam, and second, for an entry-level marketing job at a Las Vegas-based spa chain. A series of phone interviews with my potential manager went well enough that I’d now been invited for an in-person meeting. I found it promising that they’d offered to cover my plane fare; I just needed a place to stay. I’d asked my parents to cover a cheap hotel room, but instead it’d dawned on Dad that his closest friend from college lived in the area. “A much safer and more comfortable option,” he’d said, and made arrangements with a catch-up phone call that night, before I could think to argue otherwise.

Now I managed a smile despite this man’s airtight grip. "Thanks for having me out here, Mr. Savage," I said.

"Just Rick," he said. "No need for formalities— not from the daughter of a man like a brother to me. You got baggage to claim?"

"Nope,” I said, and gestured behind me. “Just my backpack.”

"That’s really all you’ve got for three whole days?" Rick said.

"I pack pretty light, I guess," I said.

"Well, I guess so, too!" he laughed heartily, so his shoulders bobbed in their sockets. Even in this expansive airport filled with families screeching itineraries back and forth, I caught more than a couple heads turn to see who was responsible for such a lion-sized sound. "Alrighty," Rick said, pointing in the direction of a Celine Dion billboard so obviously airbrushed it looked more like a painting than a photograph. "This way to the car."

At more than six feet tall, Rick’s steps were wide, and I struggled to keep up. He wove swiftly between tight-faced, bedazzled trophy wives, around lost newlyweds squinting towards flight information screens, and past sunglassed men skulking alone. Once we reached the parking lot, it was easy to guess which vehicle we were meant to walk towards. My reflection was visible in the shiny black Mercedes from a dozen yards away. Bordering its license plate was a plastic frame on which was printed, "Savage Motor Cars— Las Vegas's Real Deal on Wheels."

"Hop in, little lady," Rick said, opening the passenger side door and motioning towards the interior. After swinging the door shut, he walked around the front of the car, and I watched his massive body drift headless past the windshield.

When Rick turned his key in the ignition, the radio came on blaring "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones. "Oops," he chuckled, using two fleshy fingers to quickly twist the volume knob to the left. "Had myself a little fun getting down here, I guess."

"Heh," I said, and then flashed an appreciative smile towards him when I realized he'd been staring at me long enough to maybe be waiting for one. He didn't turn away, though, when I did— just kept looking into my eyes and through me, almost. "Is something wrong, Mr. Sav— I mean, Rick?"

"Oh," he realized. "Was I staring? Gosh, I'm sorry. It's just— my goodness— you truly are the spitting image of your old man. Down to eye color and everything. I'm not kidding. Do you get that a lot?"

"Sometimes. Kind of."

"Of course, your mother's a lovely lady herself. Well, she was when I last saw her, what, two decades ago now? And I imagine she’s a woman who’d age pretty well. Both your Mom and Dad won a lot of hearts across campus in those days, and I am not kidding you about that. But good gosh, those eyes of yours? I swear it's like looking straight at your old man... like he's playing a trick on me and is hiding in your own head, peering out."

"Weird." The song on the stereo faded to its end, and a Doors track, one I recognized but didn’t know the name of, started.

"Ha-ha!" Rick laughed. "I guess you're right. That must sound weird. Just give me a few minutes to get used to the sight of you. Spitting image, though, I swear," he said, nosing the Mercedes into traffic, though I hadn't seen him check if it was clear to go.  

When we hit the highway, Rick Savage drove aggressively. He cut off sedans without blinking, while mumbling lyrics under his breath. His sausage-fingers gripped the steering wheel with a noticeable clench while his shoulders laid flat and relaxed against the seat back. "So!" Rick's voice blared suddenly over a radio announcer's description of the latest Cirque du Soleil incarnation. "Your father said you’ve never been to Vegas before. Is that right?"

"Yep, it's my first time," I said.

"I’ll have to take you on a drive down the strip once night falls. Obviously the real magic happens when it's dark, when all the lights are really bright and flashing. If you're going to do Vegas, you’ve got to do it right, you know. I can't have your old man hearing anything different.” With a fast jerk of the steering wheel, he jutted the Mercedes into the right lane. My stomach fluttered as a horn blared behind us. "Oh, will you relax?" Rick remarked to the rear view mirror.

After a handful more rights and lefts, we curved along the side of a high, high hill past rows of identical homes that weren't exactly quite. Only minor design variations differentiated between their exteriors’ washed-out rainbow of orangey corals, pale aquamarines, and creamy yellows. The homes looked installed there rather than built, I thought. There was a thin-ness about their structure— like if you mustered a forceful blow of air, every wall might collapse inward, like a tower of propped-up playing cards.

Eventually the Mercedes reached the hill’s top and pulled into a driveway alongside an L-shaped ranch home with two square pillars framing the front entrance, its design identical to all the others we’d passed before it.  "Home again, home again," sang Rick, yanking his key from the ignition. After stepping out of the car, he jogged to the passenger side door to let me out. "Welcome to my humble abode, fair lady," he said.  

When I followed Rick Savage through his front doorway, the interior surroundings felt no less foreign. Most astounding was that, with few exceptions, every bit of decor was white or gold. The wall-to-wall carpet looked like fresh snow patted down. The cushions on the white armless couch and matching chaise appeared too firm for a casual nap, and the gold-legged coffee table’s top was barren except for a glass ashtray placed at its exact center. Above the sofa, a gold-framed oil painting of the Bellagio fountain at full blast covered the wall almost entirely. This picture provided the only splash of color in the room aside from a wide fireplace, which had eerily come to life with a roar of flame the moment we'd entered.

While Rick dropped my backpack elsewhere in the house, I wandered past the couch towards a floor-to-ceiling window. I nudged aside the vertical blinds and discovered the window was actually a sliding glass door that led to a small patio. Its far-spanning view showed a total absence of the leafy trees, grass, and other greenery that I, a native New Englander, had grown up accustomed to. It was as if I’d stepped onto a planet imagined by Dr. Seuss, littered with spiny succulents, frizz-covered cacti, and lanky palm trees leaning high above my head. 

"You checking out the view?” I heard from behind me. “Nice up here, isn't it? Just sky and earth, earth and sky."

"It is," I said. 

Rick's hands landed on his hips, now jacketless. A toothy grin expanded from one side of his face to the other. "Well, let me give you the grand tour."

I followed his bulky body down the hall. “So,” I said. "Is your wife around?  Rhonda, is it?"

"Rhonda, yep. Well," Rick leaned back against the wall so his body faced me. "She's traveling lately, for work, you know. She won't be back for a week or so."

"What does she do?"

Rick shifted weight from his left leg to his right. "Oh, Rhonda's in sales."

"For?"

"Fabrics. Textiles. The new Wynn hotel is covered with her company's line. Real rich, thick fabrics, very luxurious. You know, the sort of thing that makes rich people feel even richer.”

"Did she decorate here?"

"Well, we haven't lived in this house long, actually. Still getting settled. With Rhonda’s traveling, she hasn’t had time to give the place her special Midas touch. Until then we're keeping things simple— or ‘sparse’ as she says. Now, here are the bedrooms," Rick gestured past me. "Master's the one furthest back, and you'll be here in the guest bed. I already tossed your backpack in there. Bathroom's down and to the right. Over here we’ve got a basket of hotel favors, I call 'em. All the little travel-sized shampoos and soaps your heart desires. And towels are there on the shelf." Everything in these rooms, still, was exclusively white or gold.

"Thanks," I said.

"No problemo." Rick clapped his hands. "You hungry? Thirsty? Care for a drink before we head to dinner?"

"Okay. Yeah, I'm starting to get a little hungry."

"You good with Italian? I know your family’s Italian, so I figured you must be.”

"Sure."

"Alrighty," Rick clapped again. "Sun's about to set over the patio if you want to settle in and meet me out there."

"Okay," I nodded before heading to the guest room and gently clicking the door shut behind me. I sat on the edge of the bed and took a moment to breathe in the quiet. It was hard to picture living in this city, having thus far only experienced the part of it that was Rick Savage: bulky, booming, a zip code in his own right.

Finally I mustered the will to slide into my dress – basic, tea-length black with spaghetti straps. I dabbed foundation across the tired, purple rings below my eyes and grabbed a thin black cardigan from my backpack to cover my shoulders. I slid into my plain black ballet flats and took a breath before reaching for the doorknob.

From the hall I heard music, and when I turned the corner to the living room, I saw through the sliding glass door that it was Rick strumming an acoustic guitar. Two glasses of red wine sat half-full on a metal endtable. I laughed a little, covering my mouth when I did. On dozens of occasions, I had stumbled upon my father doing the very same thing when I’d sneakily peered from the top of the kitchen steps down to the basement. If Rick’s singing voice was as twangy and strange as my Dad's, I didn't know how I would be able to hold it together without laughing.

I stepped out onto the patio. "Well, I'll be," said Rick, looking up and grabbing his wine glass to take a sip. "Now that you’re all gussied up, I see more of your mother's genetics. Still your old man's eyes, of course, but it's clear the apple didn't fall far from either tree. Anyway, I’ve got a glass of wine for you here. Go ahead and sit. The sky starts to get real pretty about now."

"Thanks," I said, easing onto an empty seat. The chairs’ iron backs curled into an ornate floral design that was lovely but uncomfortable to lean back onto. "Did you and my Dad play music together in college?"

"Oh, you bet we did. How do you think he snagged a lady like your Mom? Not by looks alone, I'll tell you that much. Ha-ha!" Rick laughed. "Your Dad, he had a knack for the guitar, but the vocal range of a dying bird. I always said to him, ‘Boy, you better leave the singing up to me.’" Rick let out a hearty belly laugh. His description was accurate, from what I could remember of my father's basement attempts at Bob Dylan. I picked up my glass and gulped a bit of the wine, which was smokier-tasting, more adult than any I'd had before. I didn't enjoy the flavor much, but tried to appreciate it the best I could, as it certainly tasted expensive.

Rick began strumming a tune I recognized the melody to, though it took me a few seconds to place it as "Blackbird" by the Beatles. His plump fingers were surprisingly adept at plucking and pressing the strings, and when he opened his mouth to sing, I was taken aback by the sweet tone that emerged. By then, the sky was a wide-stretching mash of golds and pinks that only glowed more vibrant as the song progressed. When Rick crooned the last instance of "You were only waiting for this moment to arrive," he looked directly into my eyes. I placed my almost-empty wine glass onto the table a little shamefully; his glass was still half full. 

After the song was over, Rick continued strumming, transitioning into another Beatles tune I recognized quickly as "Dear Prudence." My face felt warm from the alcohol already. When he reached the line about the sky being beautiful, I braced myself for another meaningful glance during the next "And so are you" line that followed. It came as predicted. "You like the Beatles?" he said as he placed his instrument down, so its neck leaned against the patio railing.

"Of course," I said. "Who doesn't?"

Rick laughed. "There's the right answer." He reached for his glass and guzzled enough wine to match the level of my own. Then he reached down and lifted the open bottle to his chest. "More?"

"No thanks," I said. "So, where are we going for dinner?"     

"I was thinking we'd head to Bartolotta at the Wynn. Snazzy new Italian place. Great seafood, too, if you're up for it."

"That sounds nice."

"Are you ready to head out?"

"Sure," I said, and with that, Rick grabbed his guitar and the bottle of wine and ambled off. I fetched my small patent leather pocketbook from the guest room and met Rick at the front door, where the scent of freshly-applied old man cologne stung my nostrils. "Alrighty," he said, and led us out.

Our drive was fairly absent of conversation until we hit the strip, at which point Rick's mouth bubbled forth with trivia. "Now, here's where the Stardust used to be. You ever heard of it? Real historic — in a lot of classic movies, too — but it couldn't keep up with the new-fangled resorts setting up shop. At the end, that place only attracted gray-haired fogeys looking for a half-assed magic show and a deal on a sub-par buffet dinner. It’s a little sad, how it all went down. End of an era, really. I saved one of their 20 dollar chips the last time I played roulette there, as a souvenir. Maybe it'll be worth something someday."

Rick continued on, rattling off factoids, gesturing towards landmarks, and muttering obscenities when vehicles attempted to merge into our lane. We passed Treasure Island in time to see the resort’s animatronic show on its outdoor ship conclude in a smoky eruption. When we rolled past the Bellagio fountain, I leaned far enough out the window to make out the national anthem playing over synchronized jets of spray. Across from the Paris Casino’s trademark air balloon, a billboard advertised Carrot Top's approaching stand-up appearances. "You know him?" Rick Savage pointed. "This carrot guy is on that billboard more often than he isn't. I hope you don't mind me saying I think he's a real idiot, and I can't imagine who's paying upwards of fifty bucks to watch him clown around." When I chuckled, Rick smiled proudly.

Eventually Rick parked the car in a "secret spot" he knew of a short walk away from the Wynn. We made our way down the sidewalk between couples clutching tall, plastic contraptions filled with syrupy neon booze, and past stout Hispanic men whistling through their teeth. The latter handed out calling cards for escorts whose photographed nipples were covered with cartoon stars and moons. I snatched a few, noting names like Candy, Jenni, and Sweets, and wondered how these ladies spent their down time waiting for potential johns to call. Did they perch upon barstools in smoke-filled nightclubs, exchanging stories, making pacts? Or did they maybe page through novels by lamplight alone at home, hoping to finish a few chapters before the telephone beckoned them away?

In the Wynn lobby, layers upon layers of colorful lanterns were strung across the ceiling. On our way to the restaurant we passed rooms of dinging slot machines and the entrance to a spa so obviously blissful I felt calmer simply walking past its doorway. Maybe it wasn’t so insane to fathom working in a place like this, I thought as I breathed in the fresh eucalyptus and lavender scent that emanated from the spa’s open doorway. Even if the job itself was hard, I supposed the discounted treatments I might receive as perks would offer a bit of serenity away from the chaos of the strip. Las Vegas was a whole different planet for me – a huge leap outside my born-and-raised New England comfort zone – but perhaps a strange adventure would prove exactly what I needed to get out of my aimless, post-college rut, I considered.

When we reached Bartolotta’s entrance, my 54 year-old date called out "James" to a man whispering to the hostess.

"Ah," said James. The man looked absolutely made of money – the very definition of that age-old cliché with his fresh-pressed, perfectly-fitted suit and clean-shaven face — and when he smiled, his teeth looked close to artificial, the white enamel gleamed so bright. "How are you this evening, Mr. Savage? It’s very good to see you again."

"I'm here with my best friend's daughter. It's her first trip to Vegas, so we’d like the best table for two you have available."

"Of course, Mr. Savage,” James nodded. “Let me see what's available and have Sheri bring you ‘round. And welcome to Las Vegas, madame," he added. I felt my face flush warm under his gaze.

Tall, pant-suited Sheri approached within seconds, clicking a button on her discreet one-ear headset. "Mr. Savage," she said in a hushed lullaby of a voice. "We have a table for you just this way."

As Rick and I stepped forward, I was startled to feel his hand fall onto the small of my back, leading my body before him like a romantic date might. Throughout the dining room, I saw diamond earrings glimmering in candlelight and bare necks draped heavy with rubies and emeralds. My fingers touched the sterling silver locket dangling from the thin chain around my neck – so flimsy and dull in comparison.

When we reached our table in the center of the dining room, Rick pulled out a chair and waited for me to take it. "Thank you," I said, and then watched him lower his large body onto the other one across from me. I knew my napkin belonged on my lap, so I flattened the fan-folded linen before doing anything else. Rick picked up the wine list and squinted towards it, scratching at his chin. "Hmm," he said. "Shall we continue on with red?"

"Okay," I agreed, feeling wholly unqualified to argue otherwise. I slid my cardigan off my shoulders and laid it across the back of my chair. A waitress approached, her auburn hair tucked tidily into a bun at the nape of her neck. Rick ordered a bottle of pinot noir with a name I never would've been able to pronounce. Once our waitress finished listing the day’s specials, Rick asked to hear the featured appetizer once more – a soft shell crab, fried in lemon pepper breading and garnished with green tomato bruschetta. "That sounds fantastic,” he said. “Let’s start with that and the wine.”

Nothing on the page cost less than 15 dollars, and that was just glancing over the column of sides. I found it exhilarating to consider a plate of broccoli prepared expertly enough to warrant an 18-dollar price tag. The seafood didn't include a marked cost, but I imagined it had to at least be in the 50 or 60-dollar range gauging by the simpler dishes, like a ziti entree with prosciutto and vodka sauce priced at $34.  "What's the best thing to order here, Rick?" I asked.

"Nothing on this menu isn't good. Order whatever you’d most like to brag to your parents about later, I'd say," Rick laughed.

I decided on a veal Oskar dish with homemade fettuccini, and was ready to order when the waitress returned with our appetizer and bottle of wine. She twisted the cork with such sophistication that she made it look like a casual party trick. When she poured a small amount into Rick's glass, I had to stifle a laugh watching him dip his nostrils across the rim to first inhale the wine’s scent, then swish a gulp noisily through his teeth and nod approval.

This wine was more easily drinkable than the one on the patio. I sipped while Rick regaled me with tales of campus pranks he and my father had organized, taking breaks to devour hunks of breaded crab, which were so tender they nearly melted in my mouth. I became looser with my conversation as the alcohol warmed me from inside. Later, once I gathered the strength to destroy my entree’s picture-perfect plating, I got rather emotional about the quality of the freshly made fettuccini that came alongside my artichoke-stuffed veal. I felt drugged by the scents alone as I shoveled forkfuls to my lips. When the waitress slid away our plates and replaced them with dessert menus, saliva pooled around my tongue just reading the descriptions, despite my stomach feeling stuffed to capacity.

"Alrighty," said Rick, leaning back in his chair and patting his belly with a cupped palm.

"What'll it be for you?"

"I don't know if I can eat another bite." I heard my drunkenness trip a little on the syllables.

"Now," said Rick, pounding the table with a fist, causing nearby silverware to hop and clang. "You can't tell me you're prepared to leave this table without a slice of tiramisu. Or gelato, even. That's not filling. But I must say, their tiramisu?" He brought fingers to his lips and kissed their ends before flinging his hand towards the ceiling grandly. "Delicioso."

"Okay," I smiled.

When our auburn-haired waitress returned with two square slices of tiramisu, James accompanied her to check on how our dinner had been. "Delicioso!" Rick exclaimed, repeating the finger-kissing motion. "Bravo, bravo indeed, James." I nodded happy agreement with my mouth stuffed full of custard and ladyfingers.

As the two men carried on talking, I excused myself to head to the ladies room. In the mirror, I scanned for embarrassing smudges of food between my teeth or on my face. Though there weren't any, my lips and tongue were stained so purple it was hard not to laugh. I cupped water in my hands to swish through my teeth. A bored-looking bathroom attendant observed from across the oversized powder room. "Mint?" she offered. "Warm towel?" I accepted both, and concentrated hard on remembering the way back to the table, and also on managing a straight line towards it.

When I got there, Rick was signing the check. "Alrighty," he said. "All squared away. Want to try your hand at a few slot machines on our way out?"

"Alrighty," I heard myself say. When Rick offered his arm for me to link my own through, I took it, appreciative of the support to steady my walk. The hall decor appeared brighter and swirlier than it had on my first trip through, particularly the layers of colored lanterns across the ceiling. But I refrained from staring at them; it threw off my equilibrium to angle my head so high.

"Now here's where we want to be," said Rick, directing us towards two open seats amidst a bustling room of slot machines. "These here are progressive games, which are the only way — aside from an outright miracle – that you're going to win big on one of these bad boys." He slid a 20 dollar bill into my machine's cash slot before feeding the mouth of his own.

I pressed the button alongside the screen, spawning a flurry of fruit graphics to twitch and spin. Rick explained I was working my way towards a cherry-filled pie, one berry per turn, whose progress I could monitor in the screen above. I wasn't sure I understood, but I relished the thrill each time a cheerful-sounding bell rang. Rick became engrossed in another themed game to my right that relied on party hats and favors to complete a row of confetti-speckled birthday gifts. When a cocktail waitress passed through our row, Rick ordered two bottles of Rolling Rock.

The repetitive actions absorbed us. My brain blurred along with the spinning fruit. More drinks came; more bills got inserted. "What time is it?" I finally thought to ask. It took several seconds for Rick to tear his focus away from the whirring and register my question.

"Ah," he said. "You tired? I almost forgot you’ve got your big interview tomorrow afternoon. How're you doing with the cherry pie? Winning big yet?"

"No," I said, leaning back away from the machine and gulping down the last of my beer.

"I'm no closer to hitting the jackpot myself," he slurred. "It's quarter past one. Should we hit the road? " Rick eased his body from the stool and held out his arm for me to grab and stand.

The crisp air outside refreshed me to a more alert state. With some concentration, discussion and downright luck, we managed our way back to the Mercedes. It was only in hindsight the next day that I considered Rick might not have been alright to drive. When we pulled back into the Savages’ driveway, I found I'd nodded off partway through our journey home. A line of drool snaked down my cheek and pooled onto the seatbelt I rested my face against.

"Hey, let's finish that bottle of wine from before," Rick shouted as we stumbled through the doorway. Clanging came from the kitchen as I changed into pajama pants and a t-shirt. He entered the guest room as I finished pulling the shirt over my head, with the assistance of a bedpost I'd leaned against to stay upright. "Your nightcap, m’lady," he announced, placing two glasses of red wine beneath the nightstand lamp’s yellow glow. 

"I don't know, Rick. I'm scared I'll spill. Everything in your house is so white," I said.

"You're on vacation," Rick's voice boomed. " Rhonda's going to re-do everything anyway. Spill as much as your little heart desires. But... Oh! Let me get something."

As Rick stumbled off, I climbed onto the bed and laid flat on the white comforter. I heard muffled banging from down the hall, followed by thumping steps. When Rick reappeared, he looked thrilled to be clutching his acoustic guitar. "Alrighty," he smiled, backing onto the bottom corner of the mattress. Clumsy strumming started. "Blackbird singing in the dead of niiiiight," he began. I laughed. "What?" he said, turning towards me.

"Now you sound like my Dad," I grinned.

"Ha-ha! I know what that means. And you're wrong. This is what your old man sounds like." Rick Savage began the song again, only this time with an off-key twang, intentionally horrible. We both erupted in laughter.

Rick began again, this time more seriously. His tongue poked from between his lips as he concentrated. I let my eyelids drift shut as he meandered through verses. Although he was clearly slurring— although the chords were stumbled through and sometimes wrong— I appreciated his rendition. Its awkwardness added a certain beauty of its own.

I don't know how long it went on this way. With my eyes closed, I only saw darkness, leaving my drunkenness to drift up in waves that beckoned me to sink down, down, down into the mattress. "Blackbird singing in the dead of niiiiight," Rick Savage crooned for the tenth or twentieth time.

Suddenly I felt my brain twist in a quick circle, like the flicked arrow on a board game’s spinner wheel. I inhaled a breath of dizzying air. Was I going to be sick? Was I going to? I cradled palms over my stomach, which helped a little, but not a lot. I considered the bright, bleached decor that surrounded me. If I'm going to be sick, I thought, please, oh god, please do not let me puke on something perfect and white.

"Take these broken wings and learn to fly..." Rick continued. I sprung to sit upright. My eyes blinked wide. It was going to happen. I leaped from the bed and covered my mouth with a hand. As I raced down the hall to the bathroom, my shoulders bumped walls like the silver ball in a pinball game.

I made it to the toilet just in time. I crouched down before it as a waterfall of drink came pouring onto porcelain. Pink liquid mostly, with bready reminders of dinner mixed in. I flushed the toilet and immediately got to coughing again.

As I leaned forward, I spied Rick enter my peripheral view in the bathroom’s doorway. "Are you OK?" he asked, his voice quaking. I couldn't break from the purging long enough to answer, but when I looked back in a pause he was gone.

I flushed the toilet again and watched the pink and tan mess swirl away. I leaned back and rested my shoulder blades against the gold-legged antique bathtub behind me. Rick shuffled in, his eyes wide and frightened. "I brought you water," he said, moving so hurriedly that liquid spilled over the side of the glass and onto the white tile floor. "Did you drink too much?"

"Yeah," I managed. "I don't feel good."

"Here. Drink some," he said, handing me the glass.

I gulped down half of it. My arms and hands were shaking. "I don't feel good, Rick," I repeated.

"I'm so sorry," he said.

"It’s okay,” I whispered. “I'm the one who's sorry."

"What? How come?"

"I threw up your expensive food," I said. I was surprised then to find out I was crying.

"Oh no! Don't cry," Rick pleaded. He crouched down onto the fluffy white bath mat beside me. Awkwardly, he brought his hand up to my face and dabbed a tear from my cheek. Then the same hand returned to gently swipe strands of hair away from where they stuck to sweat on my forehead. "Gosh," he said.  

"What," I whimpered.

"You look so much like your mother. Like how she looked in college. I haven't seen her in so long, of course. But you look exactly like her now, how she looked back then, when she was... about your age, I guess."

I hiccupped small sobs and gulped air between them. I pulled toilet paper from the roll to wipe away the tears, sick, and sweat.

Rick continued. "I loved her, you know. Did you know I did? That I loved her? It's true."

"What?" I said, blinking towards the out-of-focus globe that was Rick.

"She was the most gorgeous creature I'd ever seen. But your father, you know, he was always the lucky one. He could talk to girls. He knew what they wanted to hear. And he knew what your Mom wanted to hear, I guess."

"Wait. You dated my mother?"

"Well, no. We never dated, per se." Rick's voice swung higher on the last syllable. "But we would've, I think, if it weren't for your Dad. He’s a good guy, your old man, a really good guy. But for me, he ruined everything."

"I don't understand, Rick."

"Well, that's how they met. Through me. She lived in my dormitory, one floor below. We'd pass in the stairway. I saw that woman everywhere. She looked just like you, at your age now. So beautiful, goddamn. Goddamn. I could barely keep my head attached some days, she threw me for such a loop. If she so much as glanced at me, I’d lose it." Rick emphasized this point by slamming his fist against the tile. The water in my glass jumped and plopped back onto itself.

Rick continued. 

"Your Dad, though. Oh, your Dad. He was always really something, that guy. We started palling around pretty regularly freshman year. He'd come by with his guitar, and we'd have ourselves a little jam session. And I told him about this girl I’d seen — your Mom, you know. I thought she'd turn out to be my girl. That's what I thought would happen, by telling him. That he would help me out – not get in the way.”

My stomach flipped like a wave. I slumped down a little so my torso curled over itself, which felt more comfortable.

"I told your Dad— I said, man, there's this girl. This goddess. Help me serenade her, will you? We'll go to her room and sing one song – “Blackbird,” you know, by the Beatles — me in the lead and you on backup. You’ve got to be there to make sure I don't chicken out, I told him." Rick laughed a little maniacally. He shook his head. "But your Dad, oh no, he couldn't leave well enough alone. Even on backup he had to outdo me, had to upstage me from behind. He’s not even a good singer!"

Rick shook his head again. I still felt too lightheaded to focus, but it looked to me like he was mashing his teeth. My shaky hand reached for the glass of water to take another sip.

"When we were finished, she just laughed. I turned around, and your old man, he was taking a bow. They both were smiling like goofballs. Turns out I'd blown it by bringing him with me. Even though I sang my heart out for that woman, even though I hit every note like my life depended on it. I had been practicing, you know? I had planned this out for weeks. But, your Dad. Oh boy. That guy,” he said through a clenched jaw. Then Rick lifted his head towards me, seeming to suddenly remember my presence. “You think I sound like a fool, don’t you? You think I sound ridiculous, telling you all of this. You think I'm some kind of stupid fool."

"I don't think you're stupid, Rick."

"Yes you do."

"No."

"You’re just saying that. You feel like you have to." Rick's face was close to mine. His pupils were huge, dark discs, dilated and blank. 

"Rick," I said, raising my hand and resting it on his bulky shoulder. "Don't worry. It's okay. I mean, you’ve got Rhonda now. Right?"

In that instant, Rick erupted with sobs, his ribs heaving. I watched him from an imagined distance, as if on a television screen. "Oh god," he wailed. "Rhonda. I don’t know if she’s even coming back."

I wasn’t sure what to say or do. I sat there watching Rick’s wide chest shaking, ballooning in and out. I'd never seen a grown man cry before. "Rick," I said softly. "I promise it's okay."

His eyes grew very wide and focused then. "You're beautiful, you know. I hope you do know it. If there's one thing you get out of this conversation, I hope it's that. That you are beautiful, just like she was. So beautiful." With this, Rick brought his hand to my face and dragged fingertips across my still-sweaty cheek. I watched his features turn to impressionistic blobs as he leaned towards me. His warm breath reeked of alcohol. I wondered if my own smelled like vomit.

Suddenly I felt fat, wet lips press against my own. It took me a minute to comprehend what was happening. Instinctively, my mouth kissed back before I realized. A thick tongue pushed against my teeth, trying to shove its way past. His plump slug lips clamped around my own and held them like a slurping fist.

I don't know how many seconds passed before my flash of clarity came. The realization was like a wave breaking. My stomach gurgled, and I pulled away just in time to lunge towards the rim of the toilet. Out it all came, all that was left inside me – the last bits of dinner mixed with foamy white bile. "Oh god," I heard Rick say. "Oh god," he repeated. He stood up slowly, shakily, peering into the medicine cabinet mirror as he rose. “If you think you'll be alright, I think I’ll be heading to bed now," he said. A hand against the door frame steadied his quiet pivot into the hall.

I did feel better. I could breathe. I flushed the toilet, and grabbed the edge of the sink to help me stand. I splashed my face with handfuls of cool, crisp water. When I glanced up at my reflection, I barely recognized the hollow, sunken face I saw.

I needed sleep. That was all I needed. Forget any decision making now, about jobs, cities, or anything else. In the morning, I thought, but not tonight. I grabbed a towel to dry my face. When I slid it back onto the rack, two black crescent shapes remained where my mascara had smeared across the bright white terrycloth. I switched off the light and shuffled to the guest room. I pulled back the covers and crawled between the stiff white sheets. "Stop spinning," I said to the room around me. "Stop spinning," I said, and it eventually did.