Somebody Else in Kentucky

I was somebody else in Kentucky. Well, at least I tried to be. But traveling is always messy. I hate sleeping on a hotel bed; it’s like sleeping on an oversized Ritz Crackers box, covered with a paper towel. Yet, when you sign in at the front desk of a hotel you can be anyone, anyone at all, whoever you dream up. So, when my best friend Jackie asked me to tag along to Kentucky, I said yes.
            Jackie is a mechanic at a Chevy dealership here in St. Louis. A job opportunity for Senior Mechanic opened up in Kentucky, so we picked up and headed east for Lllville. “Lllville.” That’s how they say Louisville down there. You want to smack people on the back of the head and help them spit the word out.
            It took me two and half hours to pack while I listened to the Weather Channel. These things require planning, you know. In the end, I packed a rainy, cold, and warm weather option for each day of the trip. Oh, and a lot of shoes. It is better to be safe than sorry, as they say. And I believe it. I calculate everything. I was raised on forewarnings and formulas. Such as the formula for success: go to college, get a job and get married. I followed it perfectly. But the “get-married” thing just didn’t happen. Granted, I’d only been out of college for two years, but my relationships had been as romantic as a wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, yet rarely lasting as long. I began to wonder if it was me. Did I set up impossible expectations for love? I admit I spent most of my evenings with my nose in a book, which probably lent to lofty ideals of love and little opportunity to meet Mr. Right. Then one day, when I was sitting in my little gray cubicle in a big gray building, typing away in the grid of my Excel file, I received yet another office-wide invite to happy hour. This time it came from the newest bride of the twenty-third floor of Property/Casualty, Stacy.
            “Come on. It will be fun. You have to celebrate my engagement.”
            Oh, I do, do I? “Of, course.”
            I knew the fun girls of the floor frequented the nearby bars and clubs. I would listen to their chatter choked with giggles during lunch as they confessed the lurid details of their illicit affairs. I sat at the end of the table chewing my turkey sandwich and devouring articles in Cosmo about the great sex I wasn’t having. Hmmm, One-third of people report that they have better and more frequent sex on vacation, according to the 2004 National Leisure Travel Monitor.
            I decided the happy hour would be an entertaining anthropological study of these fun girls and their slutty behavior. I also decided to check my make-up. That afternoon, I think I wore a path in the gray, commercial-grade carpet between my cubicle and the ladies room. Under the pulsating fluorescent light, I reapplied and reapplied my make-up. I fidgeted with my gray wool suit. I brushed out my hair, clipped it back in my barrette, and then I brushed out my hair again. Any way I arranged me I still looked less than glamorous. I returned to my desk and calculated risk of a flood plain actually flooding in the next 10 years. That’s what I do for a living. I am an actuary for an insurance company. I calculate the odds that some set of circumstance may or may not happen. Like, whether I will have a date for New Year’s Eve.
            Happy hour turned out just like lunch hour with the addition of dried out chicken drummies drowning in hot sauce. The fun girls of the twenty-third floor were perched at the bar flirting with the bartender. I wilted at a wooden table with wax build-up, a Cherry Coke and a small plate of the crappy drummies. I missed my Cosmo and debated how long I would have to sit there before I could make an excuse to leave. Then I wondered if they would even notice.
            That’s when Jackie approached me. Looking to be in his mid 30s, he had hair like hay at harvest time. Dimples punctuated his toothpaste-commercial smile like exclamation points in one of my Spanish romance novels. He rested his strong ruddy hands, with immaculately groomed fingernails, on the back of the wooden chair opposite me and inquired if I was using it. I gaped and waved for him to remove the chair. And do you know what he did? He sat down. He sat down and he talked. I stayed in that bar later than anyone else from the office. They didn’t notice, but I didn’t care.
            The most amazing thing was Jackie just kept talking. We talked everyday. Soon he became my best friend—just friends—and I’m not really sure why. Whenever he was in-between relationships, his interest in me swelled. Believe me, I noticed. Hell, I tingled when his eyes sketched nimbly across my body, and I swooned over his smooth voice when he called me “Katienstead of Kate. Was it me? Had I sent the wrong message?
            But I also wondered if Jackie was a gentleman or a coward. He was not a gambler. He’d lived in the same house all his life. He bought his parents’ house when they retired and moved to Lake of the Ozarks, so his dad could fish while his mother spent her days shopping at the outlet malls. He didn’t even change the décor. He never changed a thing except girlfriends. He had never even been outside of St. Louis until I directed him to Kentucky.
            “Indiana?” Jackie blurted as we crossed the state lines.
            “Indiana, we named the dog Indiana,” he grimaced in his best Sean Connery. I giggled in amusement. It was a game we played. He quoted movies. I named them. He’d seen more movies than Ebert and Roper. Jackie lived through TV and film.
            We were rolling east down Interstate 64, orange Kodak flashes of lightning snapped in the night sky to the south of us.
            “Glad I packed that jacket.”
            I started calculating our chances of being in a tornado. There had been 59 killer tornadoes, resulting in 405 fatalities in Kentucky. The deadliest was on March 27, 1890, when 76 people were killed in and around Louisville. Those figures didn’t seem too bad, but I kept my eye out for ditches on the side of the road.
            Jackie drove the first stretch. I drove the second stretch, exhausted. I’d been up all night finishing reports for work. Sitting behind the wheel, I debated just how good an idea cruise control was; it just makes it too easy to fall asleep. Plus, I had taken Dramamine. More than two hours in a car and I’m off-road retching. In addition to my increasing sleepiness, streaks across the windshield created a glare in my line of vision.
            “God, I’m tired. I keep hallucinating. I keep thinking I see bridges and overpasses,” I yawned with watery eyes.
            “You, too?” Jackie asked amused. “I thought it was just me. Scary how we can talk about seeing things that aren’t there and not be afraid of each other’s driving.”
            “Yeah, did you see the train? I thought I saw a locomotive coming down the left lane straight at us. I knew it wasn’t there, but I thought I saw it anyway,” I babbled.
            “Aaah, no. I only saw bridges,” Jackie laughed.
            We rolled through the night. Jackie rolled down his window a crack, reclined, took casual drags off his Camels and ashed out the window. The thin whistle of the wind through the window warned me to stay awake. Its cool brush upon my arms reinforced the stiffness in my back. We rolled on, listening to a Guns N’ Roses CD, Appetite for Destruction, Jackie’s favorite.
            He is all about nostalgia. The way he holds on to the past is part of his charm. The wheels raced with every whine of Slash’s guitar, with every sing along, and with every beat of my heart. We rolled away from St. Louis, my head humming, slipping. I wondered who I would be in Kentucky, and when I returned to St. Louis if I could return as that somebody else.
            The night became a blur once we arrived, first nights in a different state always do. I think it’s part of the magic of checking into a strange hotel in the wee hours of the morning. The sky was still wrapped in a blanket of deep blue in the west, but the chirp and whistle of birds broke with the light from the east. My internal clock was grinding at a sluggish pace as we signed in at the front desk. I suggested it would be fun to sign in under assumed names. He grumbled writing, Jackie Corwin and Katie Moore.
            When we got to our room, he claimed the double bed by the desk. I got the double closest to the bathroom. Plenty of nights, Jackie, drunk, had slept on my couch, but this was our first time in a hotel. I thought it might be different, feel different. It didn’t. I slept most of the day, waking only long enough to eat breakfast in bed.
            “I got orange juice, coffee—I don’t know how you like it—and donuts,” Jackie announced striding across the room. He loomed above me, a blur in my sleepy blindness. I blinked and rubbed the sleep in my eyes as he unloaded a tray wafting with breakfast aromas. Sleepy speech nearly slipped my tongue. I could marry this man, I thought. Thankfully, I’m practiced at editing the pulse of my heart. I sat up in bed, all Morphean mumbles.
            “I’ve never eaten breakfast in bed before,” I smiled. Happily, I broke off a sticky piece of chocolate donut. I don’t actually like donuts or drink coffee, but I guess he didn’t know that.
            “What?” he said with a frown as he added sugar to his coffee.
            There I was with breakfast in bed; I never would have thought this moment was possible. I never was a breakfast person. It made me queasy. I found myself erecting ivory towers; hoping Jackie would bestow upon me long awaited affections. We conversed casually the rest of the morning. He set off to his interview. I stayed in bed and watched the Weather Channel before dozing off.
            Heavy and sweaty from too much sleep, I awoke mid-afternoon and peeled back the scratchy floral print coverlet. I showered, dressed, and began to write in my journal. I recorded the morning breakfast with the eagerness of a schoolgirl in love. The lock clicked, and I smiled at the shiny, scratched brass knob. He was back, animated and full of news. Jackie slung two newspapers on my bed and talked about his interview, the possibilities of the job, the apartment listings in the paper, and the people he met.
            “The receptionist was really cute. She invited me out this evening. I told her you’d have to come along.”
            My heart, still in mid-leap from his return, crashed upon the cheap carpet under my feet. I hoped my face hadn’t fallen with the same force of gravity. The plans were made and there was no turning back. I had to meet this competition, as I saw it, and competition was not how I wanted to see it. Angry with myself, I was confounded about how to deal with my emotions. I wanted things to be different from St. Louis. I wanted to be different.
            Jackie napped as I quietly cried into my journal. My eyes watched his slumbering face. I wondered what his dreams were as my dreams faltered. He rolled away from the caress of my eyes. In time, he grew restless, awoke, and took an interest in my lengthy journal entry. Torn away from self-pity, I felt my heart thawing. I felt him watching me. I wondered how I had gotten this far into falling for him, and I wondered if I was in an abusive relationship with myself.
            Getting ready for dinner, I looked into my make-up bag and surveyed the mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, powder, and blush, wishing there was a magic wand in my arsenal as well.
            Taking one final look at myself in the mirror, I went to my suitcase to pick out something that would translate as “hot.” A black v-neck cashmere sweater was all I had that translated to anything remotely “hot.”   But whom was I dressing up for? I wasn’t dressing up for Jackie. I was dressing up for that girl I was to meet. It was only natural for me to feel jealous about a possible future co-worker of his. Someone that would have him everyday, all to herself, while I would be alone in St. Louis.
            We arrived at the pool hall first. Like a hunter, I recognized her the moment she walked in, this girl I had never met. I recognized her before Jackie did. She wore a black Alice Cooper concert t-shirt, a pair of acid-wash jeans, and black boots. Her bleached hair was pulled back in a ponytail that accentuated her roots. She looked cheap, just like all of Jackie’s girls. She walked straight up to Jackie and slugged him in the arm while giving me a sidelong glance.
            “Let’s shoot some pool. I’ll get the table. You get a bucket of beers,” she said to Jackie.
            “Okay,” he said and hoisted himself off his stool.
            The night played out with Pat Benatar and Garth Brooks dominating the jukebox. Jackie lost interest in our female companion every time she leaned over to take a shot and revealed her love handles. I was relieved. I calculated every shot, and let Jackie win. And I didn’t have love handles. Jackie became focused on giving me pointers on all my shots. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at a Kroger. Jackie wanted a six-pack. The digital clock on the dash read 12:00 midnight: time was running out. We were heading back to St. Louis in the morning. I had to move this relationship into a romance. I had to do something and I had to do it now.
            “Let me go in and get it,” I chirped, unbuckling my seatbelt.
            “Okay,” he said handing me a crumpled twenty from the front pocket of his tight-fitting jeans.
            Once inside, I walked the entire grocery store looking for what I wanted. I walked up and down aisles, past cornflakes and baby formula. I didn’t know where I was or how far was I willing to go. I paced past frozen pizza, ice cream, bagels, milk, and chips, searching. In front of a refrigerator case, I stared at cans of Busch Beer, chewed my lip, and rubbed my arms to keep warm.
            I made a choice. I was a girl. No. I was a woman. I was someone I wouldn’t have to be tomorrow if I didn’t want to be.
            I opened the cooler and grabbed a six-pack, turned on my heel, and tramped off to the pharmacy. Annoyed to find the condoms were kept under lock and key in a glass case, I lingered, making my decision about brand, style, and quantity. I went in search of a Kroger employee. I found one, but it took a total of three people to discuss, locate the key, then escort me to the case for my selection. I would have felt awkward at home, but here I felt my purchasing power and my anonymity from them and myself. I had never walked so straight, so tall in all my life. My head high, I was a beautiful, independent woman, a stranger. I carried my six-pack of beer and blue pack of Trojan lubricated condoms to the cashier. I paid with cash and a smile. I handed the crumpled twenty, damp with the sweat of my hand, to the teenage checkout girl. She had one of those silver baby-feet pins on the breast of her uniform—and a blush on her face.
            Walking out, I heard the giggling over my purchase and I felt empowered.
            I got into the car and put the bag by my feet. The drive back to the hotel was silent. No music. No talking. I guess Jackie was tired. Whereas I was busy getting acquainted with this woman in the car, this woman with the condoms. Back at the hotel room, Jackie tossed his keys onto the desk. He paused when he grabbed a beer out of the bag, then flopped down on the bed, grabbing the remote and flicking on the TV. He stopped on a Dukes of Hazard rerun. I cracked open a beer for myself, still standing. I choked down a sip. Eventually, I hung up my jacket, kicked off my black leather loafers, and took another slug of beer. I bounced onto the bed next to Jackie. He was propped up on pillows and he turned to watch me in amusement. I handed him my beer and began jumping up and down on the bed. I laughed at myself. I felt like I was playing the part of a white-trash girl in somebody else’s life. I took out my barrette. My hair fell loose and playful in my face with every bounce.
            “It’s getting hot.”
            “Why don’t you take your clothes off if you’re hot?” Jackie questioned devilishly.
            Why don’t I? Throughout the episode of the Dukes of Hazard I shed clothing. The General Lee spun its tires; I whipped off a black alligator belt and yanked off my charcoal gray socks. My toenails were painted Rocket Fire Red and lit up against my fair skin and the thin, graying sheets. A few bounces later and I was taking a trip to the bathroom. Jackie and I were barreling through the six-pack. Daisy Duke was gagged and bound to a chair; I was stripping off my jeans and slipping under the covers. After another beer, and Daisy’s release, I was hopping on the bed in my sweater and pink satin panties. Jackie continued to lie propped up on the flat pillows beneath me. He flashed his teeth, bared his smile.
            The Dukes saved the day, and I slinked out of my bra without removing my sweater. The pink bra with a little red rose sailed across the room and landed with the rest of my wasted clothing. I wanted to do something, but what? I wanted to be a sexpot, but the moves were awkward and clumsy. Jackie clicked the TV off.
            “Turn out the light,” he said, suddenly quite serious. He had not moved an inch, and lay in bed fully clothed. Lying next to me in the dark, Jackie began to strip. Then taking my hand, he pressed it into the growing rise in his boxers. Slowly I rubbed and fondled. Groping through the darkness like a drowning voyager grappling for a lifesaver, I reached out.
            The rough skin of his hands slipped under my sweater, caressing my breasts with a firm and gentle pressure. The weight of him pressed into me, and with wet gulps his mouth swallowed me bit by bit. Grinding in a long forgotten rhythm, I let go. Jackie collapsed on top of me, sweaty.
            “I need to smoke,” he said.
            A cotton-mouthed I love you weighed upon my tongue. My lips brushed against his ear. Jackie reached out to the bedside table and lit-up.
            He exhaled, “I didn’t know we could be those kinds of friends, Katie.”
            Another drag burned a hole in the night. I felt about for my panties with my feet, kicking the twisted sheets to the bottom of the bed, and wrangled them back on. I rolled away; ran my hands through my hair. Jackie stubbed out his cigarette. I had tried to be somebody else, but he was still Jackie. And there we were, the three of us in bed, and all of us in our underwear.
            “I had you figured all wrong,” he mused.
            I could not and cared not to hear anymore of what Jackie would say at long intervals. That night, we slept a dance that moved us closer together out of a need for body heat and a desire to avoid the wet spot, but we never touched.
Leah Holbrook is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where she also earned her M.F.A. Her short story, The Point of Departure, was published with Connotation Press. Before this time, she worked in advertising as a copywriter.
Photography by Julie van der Wekken.