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Tumbleweeds, p.14
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       Tumbleweeds, p.14

           Leila Meacham

  At the Miami airport, waiting for their flight to be called for the return home, Trey sat slumped forward with his head between his hands like a man who’s just heard the worst news of his life. John sat beside him, coldly unsympathetic to his pain. Trey spoke between the clamp of his hands.

  “I know what you’re thinking, Tiger.”

  “How could you do it, TD?”

  “I guess I’m just a sorry piece of shit.”

  John’s silence confirmed his opinion.

  “There are things you don’t know,” Trey said.

  John combed his fingers through his hair. “Then tell me, Trey. What in hell got into you? You get off the reservation and you go wild. Did you ever once think of Cathy back home?”

  Trey unclasped his head and turned to him, his eyes rived with anguish. “Of course I did! Otherwise, I wouldn’t be so miserable. I’m… I’m ashamed of myself, but I… didn’t know what else to do—”

  “What do you mean you didn’t know what else to do?”

  “John, these last few days have got me to thinking….”

  “Don’t exaggerate.”

  “That… that maybe Cathy and I ought to cool it for a while—until I’m sure enough about myself to know I can stay faithful to her. Distance makes the heart grow fonder… isn’t that what they say? I’ve got to give myself time—space—to understand how I could… go off the reservation, as you say, after only five days of being away from her.”

  John listened, sickened. But he shouldn’t be surprised at what he was hearing. From the moment they’d stepped on campus, they’d been in the tow of the unbelievably gorgeous Hurricane Honeys, the school’s official hosts to show recruits the school and facilities, sort of like the Bobettes, but skyboxes above them. He’d caught Trey’s wandering eye, heard his admiration of the girls with legs “up to here,” listened to him say that it was nice for a change to be around girls who were interested in football. There were other coeds, too, who’d thrown themselves at him—at both of them—sexy, stylish, sophisticated beauties, dozens of them, like roses ready to pick, worlds different from the pretty but, with the exception of Cathy, yokel girls back home. Assaulted by all that beauty and willingness on the Miami campus, Trey had gamboled about like a stallion released into a field of clover.

  “I’ve got to find out if I’m the jerk I think I am, John—for Catherine Ann’s sake. She deserves the best, and what if I’m not it? How do I find out without… freedom to do so? I’m not so much a bastard that I could fool around while I’m still going with Cathy.”

  Flabbergasted, John said, “How can you have a change of heart about the girl you’ve loved since you were eleven years old, the girl you’ve declared was your heart and soul—your whole life—after only five days away from her?”

  Trey turned the shade of a Louisiana yam. “It’s been a shock to me, too, Tiger—believe me. But I haven’t had a change of heart. I love Cathy. That’s what this is all about. I want to marry her, but is it fair to her when… Well, I’m not like you, John. I yield to temptation.” His struggle for a grin collapsed, and his face fell. “I’m going to tell her I was unfaithful to her.”

  John felt as if a concrete block had landed on his chest. Trey’s confession would kill Cathy.

  “I’ll… tell her how it is with me, how it’s got to be with me until I’m sure that I can be the person she deserves,” Trey said. “I hope like hell she’ll understand and give me this break. We’ll both be at Miami—apart but together. In sight of each other, but… distant enough to put some ground between us.”

  John’s lip twisted. “So that when you feel an itch for her, she’ll be accessible. Is that the idea?”

  “No, that is not the idea! If you think Cathy would pull off her panties for me just because I came around, you don’t know her. I’m saying that when I know I can trust myself, she’ll be reachable. For chrissakes, John. We’re only eighteen. There’s a whole lifetime for the kind of commitment Cathy wants. Look at the high school sweethearts we know who married and are now divorced. They committed themselves too early, before they’d had a chance to look around and see what else was out there.”

  “There’s nobody out there more wonderful than Cathy, TD, and you know that. When do you plan to tell her?”

  “As soon as we get home. It wouldn’t be fair not to let her know right away. You and I will be leaving for fall practice first of August. The summer will give her a few months to get used to the idea that we won’t be seeing each other until we’re… ready.”

  Until you’re ready, you mean, John thought, revolted. He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation with Trey. “Telling her right away wouldn’t have anything to do with those phone numbers in your pocket, would it?” he asked.

  Trey flushed again. “Maybe.”

  “What if during this hiatus you’re proposing, Cathy falls in love with someone else? What if she learns she can live without you?”

  For a second, despair—soul deep—glimmered in Trey’s eyes. “That’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

  You’re taking no chance at all because you’re confident Cathy will wait for you, you arrogant sonofabitch, John thought. “You’ll break her heart,” he said.

  Trey slumped again. “I know. God forgive me—I know.”

  “I hope He does, because Cathy may not. She could have gone to USC, you know.”

  “I know.”

  They barely spoke on the plane ride home.

  CATHY THOUGHT FOR A MOMENT she was mired in a bad dream. This couldn’t be Trey telling her that he thought it would be best if they gave each other “some breathing space” when they got to Miami. The list of logical arguments he’d compiled for their “chilling-out period” could not be coming out of his mouth.

  “We’ve never given ourselves the opportunity to know other people, Cathy, and—and I believe we should so that we’ll be certain we were meant to be together…. And—and I got to thinking: What if—what if your feelings about football interfere with… with our happiness? What if we can’t weave your career—a doctor!—with mine, a dumb old football player? Those are concerns to think about, Cathy. I—I wish I’d thought of them earlier, but I’ve been so crazy about you…. We’ll still see each other. We’ll be on the same campus… within arm’s reach. Not really apart…”

  Several things she noted: Not once had he called her Catherine Ann, and he’d spoken in the past tense. She could not speak. Disbelief had frozen her tongue, and her throat stung as if she’d swallowed a hive of bees.

  “Say something… please,” Trey said. “Or… or have you gone mute again?”

  She stood. They were sitting in the front porch swing on her grandmother’s porch, Rufus lying at their feet. Reluctantly he clambered up on his legs and gazed at her with an uncertain wag of his tail. Trey wore the same tentative expression. “Come, Rufus,” she said, and opened the door and held it for the dog to enter. Then she followed and closed it softly behind her.

  Chapter Twenty-One

  She put her wheel of yellow pills away. She’d taken the last one on the twenty-first day of her cycle and did not resume them as prescribed. Why should she? Listless, apathetic, she reported for work at Dr. Graves’s clinic, this summer hired only for half a day because the economy had taken a tumble. Her free afternoons gave her time to organize her wardrobe for college. There was little money for additions. The money she’d planned to spend on a few new things was now reserved for her plane fare to Miami, since she’d no longer be driving with Trey and John to the campus. The arrangement would have been ideal. Her new roommate lived in Miami, and she’d invited Cathy to be her guest for a week before classes began, the same week as Trey and John had been instructed to report. She could have ridden with John in his pickup, but he and Trey were caravanning, and sharing meals and stops and an overnight stay in a motel would have been awkward.

  The little money she could spare afforded her a decent selection of college wear from a thrift shop in Amarillo
, and she welcomed the drive through the brown, empty prairie on the deserted highway. Trey had been out of her life a whole week when one afternoon she left the clinic and turned her grandmother’s car toward John’s house.

  LYING ON HIS BED in his room, John thumbed restlessly through the admissions catalog of Loyola University he’d rescued from the trash where his father had thrown it after Signing Day. If he had read it, John could understand what had incensed him. The college had abandoned its football program in 1972. It now excelled in intercollegiate sports. John had a good idea who had arranged for the catalog to be mailed to him and felt the reoccurrence of a buried sickness every time he looked at it.

  The phone had rung every thirty minutes, but John had ignored it, forcing the caller to leave an impatient message on the answering machine. “John, come on!” Trey pleaded. “I know you’re there. Pick up, dammit!”

  His room was at the front of the house, and he heard before he saw Miss Emma’s Ford drive up. It had a peculiar twang under the hood that he and Trey could never find the source of, a protestation of age, probably. What would Cathy do without a car on campus at Miami? She’d planned to have access to Trey’s Mustang when transportation was needed, and of course she could always borrow John’s truck.

  He hadn’t seen Trey since their return from Miami and had talked to him only once after he’d laid the ax to Cathy. Trey had not confessed his infidelity. “I couldn’t,” he’d said. “I just couldn’t. It was hard enough to get out the idea that we should split up for a while and see other people. I know I can trust you not to tell her about the girls, John.”

  “Only because I don’t want her hurt more deeply, TD.”

  “There’s that, but I know you’d never betray me, Tiger. You might slug me, but you’d never betray me.”

  News of their breakup was all over town, and a glimpse of Cathy’s stoic face betrayed who had dumped whom. She was now the object of snide gossip—most of it from Cissie Jane and her pea-brained followers—so for John to hang out with Trey somehow condoned what he had done.

  “How did she take it?” he’d asked Trey.

  “Like… Cathy. She simply listened without a word, and when I finished she got up and called Rufus and went inside the house. She didn’t even look back. She closed the door and that was that.”

  “What did you expect her to say?”

  “Well, how she felt, at least.”

  “You didn’t know how she felt?”

  “God, yes, I knew, but I expected her to express it—cry some, try to talk me out of my decision. She didn’t even shed a tear.”

  Trey was so dense sometimes. Cathy would never demean herself by trying to talk Trey out of his decision to dump her.

  “I thought for a minute that I’d made her go mute—that her old condition had kicked in,” Trey said, and John heard worry and regret in his voice, “but then I realized she’d simply gone silent, like she does when…”

  “… she has nothing to say,” John said.

  “Oh, God, John.”

  “Yeah,” he’d said, and hung up.

  He and Cathy had talked every night. He’d made a point to be home, knowing she’d call. “You’re my bedtime cup of cocoa, John,” she’d said. “I can’t go to sleep without hearing your voice.”

  Not that she’d sleep anyway, he’d thought, or eat. He’d gone by the clinic twice to check on her and each time found her a little thinner.

  He laid the book down on his bed and went to the door, his heart beating a little faster. “Hi,” he said, shocked at her wan complexion.

  “I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said.

  “You could never disturb me, Cathy. It’s good to see you. Come on in.”

  The instant he closed the door, she put her hands to her face and began to cry, loud, body-racking sobs, and John felt a kind of relief. The dam had broken. Without a word, he folded her into his arms and held her while she gave way to her first hysterical outpouring of grief.

  “How could he do this?” She sobbed. “What did he discover in Miami that he couldn’t find here?”

  “Fool’s gold—that’s what he discovered, Cathy. He was blinded by it, mistook it for the real thing, and bought it. It won’t take him long to realize he was duped.”

  She stepped out of his arms, and they felt suddenly empty, as if something he was used to holding had been snatched away. He smiled to hide the stab of an almost intolerable pain and asked, “What can I get you? I think we’ve got some Cokes in the fridge.”

  She blew her nose on a tissue, leaving the delicate rims of her nostrils pink. “Your father—does he still have any liquor around?”

  “Uh, well, yes, I think there’s some whiskey….”

  “I’d like some of that.”

  Their eyes held, hers ruined with loss. “Cathy… are you sure? You don’t drink enough to say you do.”

  “I feel like it, John; I really do.”

  It was the one credit he could give the man under whose roof he lived: Bert had kept the whiskey to prove to himself he could stay away from it—or, more likely, to be available when he fell off the wagon. There was nearly a full bottle offering temptation or salvation. John poured a jigger for Cathy and one for himself. It was only one o’clock in the afternoon.

  John wondered if they should move to another part of the house, but his bedroom was the only picked-up spot in the house. He turned on his radio and dialed to a station for music to fill the silence between their desultory talk. Each took a corner of the twin beds, and John watched the whiskey work its sorcery on the girl he’d loved since his first sight of her in Miss Whitby’s class. There was not a single thing about Cathy’s person, personality, or character he did not admire. The alcohol went to work right away in his own brain and bloodstream, and he was thinking how intimate and cozy it was to have Cathy all to himself in his bedroom when the one song came on the air that shattered the moment and destroyed any fantasy of the two of them. It was Sarah Brightman and Cliff Richard’s rendition of “All I Ask of You,” whose lyrics of promise and everlasting love Cathy and Trey had believed were written just for them.

  Hurriedly John got up from the bed. “I’ll change the station,” he said.

  “No, no!” she slurred, reaching for his hand. “It’s all right. I have to learn… to live… with the reminders….”

  He sat back down while Cathy added her own voice to Sarah Brightman and Cliff Richard’s profoundly beautiful duet, hers threaded with flat notes and heartbreak. Her body swayed to the music, the whiskey glass in her hand, and John got up from the bed and took it from her. She stood up. “Dance with me, John,” she said, slipping her arms around his neck, their weight featherlight, the touch of her flesh as intoxicating as any liquor. She was wearing a white T-shirt and shorts, and the feminine smell of her wafted through the whiskey fumes and filled him with an agony so intense he could no more have avoided what happened next than he could have raised his mother from the dead.

  Closing her eyes, she crooned woozily to the vocalists’ pure, clear notes against a background of glorious orchestral sound while his and Cathy’s steps and bodies moved in slow rhythm to the music, her body brushing his, her head snuggled against his chest.

  “Cathy… maybe you’d better sit down.”

  She reached for the whiskey glass and finished it off, still moving in his arms to her humming. “We were going to share a lifetime, John, just like in the song. We were going to share every day and night….”

  He slipped the glass from her hand. “Maybe you still will,” he said, hoping he was wrong.

  She nuzzled his chin. “I want to wake up to a morning with no more night, John.”

  She stumbled, and he caught her before she fell and lifted her up in his arms. Oh, God. Her eyes were closed. His groin was on fire. He laid her on the bed and made to move away, but she clutched his arm, her eyelids fluttering in a failed attempt to open. “Don’t go.”

  “Are you sure, Cathy? We’re drunk, very

  “Say you love me,” she whispered.

  Were those her words, or the song’s?

  He answered with his own words, from his own heart, his throat raw from desire. “You know I do,” he said. She continued crooning, her head moving from side to side on the pillow, as he slipped off his jeans and briefs and her shorts and panties, the blood pumping in his head, the music resounding, blinding him to all but her beauty and his need of her. “Cathy… Cathy, open your eyes and tell me this is what you want,” he said as he straddled her, his erection hard.

  She spread her legs, and the tip of his penis had barely touched the soft cleavage between her thighs when she murmured dreamily, “Trey…”

  John was off the bed faster than if a rattlesnake had dropped from the ceiling onto her pillow. Cathy’s mouth had sagged open in a deep, alcoholic sleep, and she did not stir when he slipped on her panties and shorts and covered her with the blue blanket he kept in his closet. He turned off the music and went into his bathroom to take a cold shower, noticing the whiskey bottle was almost empty. Five hours later, he woke her. She was still groggy.

  “Oh, my God, John,” she moaned, holding her head. “What happened?”

  “You got a little drunk—a lot drunk, actually.” He forced a grin.

  “What time is it?”

  “Six o’clock.”

  “Oh, my God. Grandmother’s still at the library.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “John, I think I’m going to be sick.”

  “Right this way. Excuse the mess.”

  “If you’ll excuse mine.”

  He wished he’d cleaned the toilet. He wished today had never happened. He wished for a lot of things. She returned, her face blanched the color of the dirty white bathroom tile. “I feel terrible,” she groaned.

  “Me, too.”

  He was standing, and with a sigh she wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head tiredly against his chest. His hands stayed in his pockets. “I must have completely blacked out,” she murmured. “The last few hours are like… gone. Did I say or do something stupid?”

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