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Risky Business

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"I met him in Puerto Rico," I began, as I plunged my hands into the sink full of hot soapy water and pulled up a dish. "His name was. . . Reynaldo."

"Puerto Rico? What were you doing there?" Cherlyn asked. She was repeatedly thrusting a dishcloth into a Mickey Mouse jelly glass. Both of us were drinking gin, although our glasses were strategically placed amongst the dirty dishes in case the girls came in unexpectedly.

"I was taking a class on 'Communicating across Cultures.' Three days in San Juan."

"Jesus. And how did you get into that?"

"I won it in the Back-to-School raffle at work."

"Oh right, like the one where Billie McKenzie won a PowerPoint course."

"Exactly."

"You must have won grand prize though."

"I did. The grand, grand prize."

From the next room, over the blare of the television, we heard shrieks of laughter. Cherlyn's two daughters and my three girls were watching an old movie, Risky Business. They were all in their early teens, so everything about boys made them laugh, but Tom Cruise in his underpants was a special source of hilarity.

Cherlyn picked up the serrated bread knife and, rubbing it slowly with the dishcloth, sighed. "Do you think we ever laughed like that?"

At thirty-two, she had dark circles under her eyes and a tendency to slouch. I had known her since she was eleven—a sassy girl who was the first in our class to need a bra and proud of it.

"Of course we did," I said, sipping my gin. "Now let me tell you my story."

"All right. Sorry." She drained her glass and lit a cigarette. "Communicating across cultures. . . this oughta be good."

As I gathered my thoughts, I dumped the spaghetti­–sauce-reddened dishwater down the drain, refilled the tub with water, and squirted in fresh soap. Then, plunging my hands back into the frothing bubbles, I began again.

"I was nervous at first. You know some people call Puerto Rico the fifty-first state, but to me, it was a foreign country, and I was surrounded by strangers."

Cherlyn nodded, even though the farthest she'd ever been from home was on a boat trip down the Hudson River that we took with the girls.

"The first night we were assigned a dinner partner—someone from a different culture—and mine was a gorgeous young man from the island. Slim hips, coffee-colored skin, white teeth, smoldering eyes. The works."

From the next room the sound of rock and roll increased, accompanied by shouts of "Take it off! Take it off!" and peals of laughter.

"I'd never even talked with someone like Reynaldo, much less spent the evening with him."

Cherlyn stuck her hands into the pocket of her sweatshirt. "What about Ricky deGaetano?" she said. "He was Italian."

"Cher. Maybe you consider getting groped in the back of a rusted-out Chevy spending the evening together, but I don't."

"That's how you ended up married to Elvis the Pelvis."

I gave her my coldest stare. "Do not mention the name Elvis under this roof."

"Okay, Okay, but I need a refill." She pulled the gin out of the broom closet and filled her Donald Duck jelly glass to the top. Her steps were a little unsteady, but it didn't matter. Friday night was our sleepover night, a slumber party for us and our children. Most of the time, it was the only social life we could afford.

"Let's sit down," I said, moving the last wet dish into the drainer.

I lit the stump of a candle stuck on a plate and turned off the lights. The dingy kitchen disappeared, and in the warm flickering candlelight, I was back at the beachside restaurant, smelling the sea, listening to the rustle of the palms, and looking across a white linen tablecloth at Reynaldo.

"Well," I said, "they gave us these tasks to complete, in order to break the ice, you know. Each of us had two index cards with something on them that we had to communicate. So over these rum drinks with fruit and flowers in them, we got started.

"My first one was 'What is your happiest memory?' and I started to tell him about the day Candy was born and then I thought, Are you crazy? You're going to talk about snow and sweat and labor pains and Elvis cracking his gum until you screamed at him to get out when you're here with this guy? So I could hardly believe it was me talking, but I just looked into his eyes and I said: 'This. This is my happiest moment.'"

"That was a real ice breaker," said Cherlyn.

"It was, because he looked back at me and didn't say a word, but I felt we understood each other perfectly.

"Then he read me his first card and it said: 'Share with your partner a dream you have.' Well, all he did was laugh, but it was the most wonderful laugh. Like having a sponge full of hot water squeezed slowly over your back. And I felt I knew exactly what he meant. Really, it was amazing. I remember thinking 'This course is really good.'

"A waiter in a tuxedo came around and served us a plate of skewered shrimp, so we ate some of them before we went on to the second card. My next one said, 'Describe something you've always wanted to do, but felt you couldn't because your culture didn't support it.' Right away I thought of how I wanted to be an airline pilot when I was a little girl. I made better model airplanes that anyone on my block, with all the detail painting and decals perfect. But could I do that? No. No, no, no! I had to get pregnant and marry Elvis and have three children by the time I was twenty. I had never even been on an airplane until this trip!"

"Right," said Cherlyn, refilling my glass. She'd begun eating the leftover garlic bread, pulling out the soft wet centers and dropping the crusts on the breadboard. "Stick with Reynaldo. I'm breathless."

"I didn't know what to say, really. I was eating shrimp, sliding them off the sticks one by one with my teeth and just thinking, you know, trying to come up with an answer, when he reached out and touched my hand. I swear to God, Cher, it was like an electric shock—the feel of his fingers and the sight of his beautiful long brown hand touching mine. I put down the shrimp stick and looked at his second card, which he'd thrown down on the table. It said: 'See how much you can communicate without language.' And at that exact same moment, we both stood up."

"You left without eating? I thought all the meals were included in those deals."

"Cherlyn, we didn't eat another meal for the rest of the weekend, and I was never hungry. Not for a minute."

"Oh, I see. Well, it sounds like you passed the course."

"Ha, ha," I said, but I was hurt. If I took the trouble to tell her a story, she ought to take the trouble to believe it. "You know if you want romantic things to happen in your life, you have to be open."

I turned on the kitchen light to hunt down the gin bottle. In the fluorescent glare Cherlyn looked sallow, and she definitely needed to do something about her hair. The henna experiment we'd tried a month ago made her look like she'd dipped the ends of her hair in barbeque sauce. She seemed to know what I was thinking, because she pulled a strand into her mouth and began to chew on it.

"Yeah, well. It just hasn't been a great day," she said. "My landlord refused to fix the plumbing again. He says the girls must be putting things—you know, things he says, like he'd choke if he ever said the word Tampax—down the toilet, which is utterly ridiculous. They may not know much, but they know better than that. "

"So is that what you want to talk about? On Friday night? It couldn't at least wait until tomorrow?"

"You're right. Tell me what happened next."

"What do you think? We went to his room." Somehow the flow of my ideas had dried up.

"Of course. That's how it always ends, isn't it? Happy ever after for at least as long as it takes them to come." She poured herself some more gin and gulped half of it down.

"You'll make yourself sick, drinking like that."

"It's almost time for bed. I want to pass out. That way you don't even dream." She stood up and stretched, exposing the Caesarean scar on her belly. "You know, I keep forgetting to tell you about my Elvis sighting. He was grocery shopping, if you can believe it. At the P&C. Boy, that girl he's with has really ballooned up. The baby's cute though. She looks a lot like Candy did at that age."

"Cherlyn," I said, topping up my own glass. "Are you deliberately trying to ruin a perfectly good Friday night?"

"No. I just thought you'd want to know. She looks terrible."

"She's really fat?"

"A blimp. She could roll over and crush Elvis without even noticing."

"That would be fine with me."

"Right. I mean, who'd want a creep like Elvis when you could have Reynaldo?"

"Who indeed?" I said in my best Bette Davis voice. I got up from the table and began putting dishes away for something to do. I hated waking up to the remains of yesterday.

Through the kitchen window I could see that the Wilsons' house next door was dark except for the blue flickering light of the television in Harvey and Ellen's room. Cher and I used to joke that if they didn't have TV in the bedroom, they might have had kids, but that was only because there was nothing in our bedrooms except beds.

"So how'd you come up with Reynaldo?" Cherlyn asked after a long rolling belch.

This was breaking another of our rules—that stories should never be questioned—but there was no point in arguing about it now.

"Guy I saw at Target," I said. "He was buying party supplies. You know those really expensive paper plates, plastic champagne glasses, stuff like that. And he was gorgeous. I got to thinking, you know. How would you ever meet a person like that?"

Cherlyn nodded. "You wouldn't."

We both fell silent, thinking, I suppose, of the men of yesteryear.

Cherlyn's husband at least had had the decency to disappear. No one, not even his own mother, seemed to know where he'd gone or with whom.

"We should check on the girls," I said, jerking my mind back to the present when I realized they had become quiet too.

I crossed the hall to the living room with Cherlyn trailing unsteadily behind me.

There we found the five girls huddled on the couch, wrapped around each other like a litter of puppies, their smooth young faces lit by the television. They didn't stir as Tom Cruise and Rebecca deMornay moved slowly toward each together. Began to kiss. To caress. The only sound was the shush, shush, shush of the El train they rode across Chicago.

Cherlyn leaned her back against the wall and closed her eyes. Her cheeks went slack. At that moment, only someone who'd known her as long as I had would still see traces of the girl she'd been. Truth be told, I suppose I looked no better.

But our daughters didn't notice. Their future glowed in their eyes as Tom and Rebecca slid to the floor, out of sight, and the El raced on through the night. Shush, shush, shush. They were certain their lives would be nothing like ours.

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