It was a night for memories, a night when winds mutter in trees to speak of days forgotten. A night to relive old friendships, and a night to whisper again names unspoken for years. But how strange, thought Martin as examined the interior of the intrafraternity house, to hold a class reunion and to have only one other person show up. Only one lady, and she unremembered from that faded season between childhood and the adult world of petty aggravations.
True, he was early, but. . .
Martin took the bottle of wine handed him. The woman would not have been a bad looking hostess, he thought as he took it, if she had better skin. Hers, though, it was stretched somehow. Tight. As if a smile would rip her face.
“I’m rather clumsy,” she admitted. “Could you open it?”
A homely one, he thought. With an unusual name. ‘Max’ she called herself. Now why did women call themselves by men’s names? Did it make them seem sexier somehow? Martin looked her over again, and decided that it was true.
“It’s a vintage ’71,” Max said. “Remember the year?”
He smiled. “Oh, I remember, all right.”
He wondered how he could forget those dismal classrooms where corpse like professors droned monotonously on about ancient battles and fallen civilizations, and where the blinds always seemed to be shut as if to exclude the real world from view. Long hours of his life had ticked away there, dissolving youth itself. But the lady who sipped wine with him in the empty reception hall began to leaf eagerly through the old yearbook, wanting to remember it just the same.
“Your pictures in here five places,” she said.
“Do we know each other?” Martin asked, wondering: has she counted?
“You never…knew me,” Max replied. “I wasn’t as popular as you.”
“I wasn’t that popular,” Martin said.
“You’re just kidding, of course.”
Martin smiled politely. For there, distinctly, was the time when he’d mapped out the summers and winters of his life, trying to marshal some kind of order amid all the fragments remembered, scratched in old yearbooks, and distilled from the tide pool flotsam of dreams: the several rental homes his father had taken to in his early cabbie days in Minnesota. And later, their novelty shop in Florida when they moved to a house made of coquina shells and pink brick to escape the cold. He remembered the quiet sea at twilight, and the deserted beach, and how at night the hotel palm trees lit up with colored spotlights. He remembered everything but the innocence and magic, which was lost sometime during his late teens after that he’d lost his girlfriend Mary to a car accident. . .and how could he forget eyes that seemed to look right into him and see things no one else could? How could he forget a girl who played Chopin’s Preludes for him on the piano, and promised to be his always? Still, that’s what he’d done. When she died he’d stared into her eyes one last time at the funeral, and had seen nothing there. Nothing in those eyes. Afterward, he’d stranded himself in a flat by the pier, obsessed with only the gulls–the whirling, remorseless gulls, forever circling, forever scavenging. Birds as real to him as Van Gogh’s crows had been to the artist before he committed suicide.
“It’s funny, isn’t it,” he heard himself say in a sudden ironic and mocking tone, as if to wipe clean the odious slate once again. “Funny, thinking about how things might have been, and the many ways things could have been.”
“Yes,” said this woman, nodding. “I find myself doing that a lot.”
Martin propped his feet on the untouched reception table. His head found the cushion, and he closed his eyes. The woman poured out the wine into twin crystal glasses, and placed one in his hand. He sipped, muttering thanks, sightless.
“Ummm. Do you mean to say the old wine cellar is still stocked for the season break, and old dean Andrews didn’t confiscate his stash?”
Max nodded. “Care for a look?”
They followed a circular staircase down to a dim and musty-smelling room directly below the hall, where the dean kept his rack padlocked against the prying hands of minors.
“You have a key, have you?” said Martin, excitedly.
Max nodded. “Let’s just taste some of our old vintages, shall we, and drink the old years away? After all, the old man is away, and it’d be fun to pay him back for his intolerance, wouldn’t it?”
“Praise the fates,” said Martin, “I think it would.”
She selected several bottles at random. Sipping from the brandished glasses, Martin soon felt his other memories grow stronger. He seemed to see the faces of Andrews and the others he’d been swept in with those next years–those who’d probably gone their ways to become accountants like him, or to work in factories, doing time/motion studies in the unreal atmosphere of the graveyard shift. He saw the girls too, the ones he and Eddie and Gerald and others in the fraternity had gone after, rings in their noses, brains far behind. Only he didn’t see her: “Max.” For some reason, he couldn’t remember her. Not even with the help of alcohol.
“Your memory puts mine to shame, evidently.” Martin laughed giddily. “I wonder do you remember that blond most of us went ape over, what was her name?”
“Angela?” Max said, refilling his glass again.
“Yeah, yeah. What a doll.”
“You mean…slut. Don’t you?”
Martin laughed tipsily. He couldn’t stop laughing now. Not even when Max said: “And don’t forget Rosalind, or Rosy, as you called her.”
“How can I?” A tear trickled down Martin’s cheek. He laughed even harder, and then only after an effort at self restraint managed to take in a deep breath and exhale. “Sorry, but what a time we had! Guzzling oceans of beer, sneaking out late, raiding the girl’s dorms. Those were the days!”
“Yes,” Max said. “They certainly were.”
“There’s only one thing,” said Martin, feigning sadness, and then feeling it. “It all had to end. Come graduation, we disbanded. Our fates forged, somehow. It was like some big change of seasons. A dark cloud slid overhead, and what was real seemed over. You know what I mean?”
Max pointed at the empty glass he held. “How was the bouquet?”
“What? Oh. . .great! I mean. . .you know what I mean. ’72 was a good year, wasn’t it? Hell–we won the championship that year, didn’t we? I remember getting a motorcycle and some of us cutting classes to celebrate. There was that hayride party too, when I–“
“–Scored with Sally Ashland?”
Martin fidgeted as Max refilled his glass this time. When had she stopped drinking? he thought. Tossing back his head to down the sweet liquid, he realized dimly that he hadn’t noticed.
“You knew Sally?” he said.
Max nodded, fixing him with that sober gaze of hers.
“Of course,” Martin continued, looking away, “the next year we steered within a hair of the title again, and ruddered through it all with some damn smooth sailing.”
“So there weren’t any mishaps?”
“Not for us. Noooo, I’ve gotta say lady luck favored us then. It’s like we were drunk with laughter, and chasing the sun, and thinkin’ it’d never end, with us alive, ya know? Alive! Never askin’ the whys of anything, just feelin’ in control.” He paused, reflectively, aware of his own voice sounding drunk. “Mishaps? Oh no, not unless ya count a few sentimental types who took things too seriously.”
“How do you mean?” said Max, touching his arm lightly.
“Well, you know, just that a few went out on a too fragile limb. One in particular. Ohhh yeah, a real sorry case, yeah. I think her name was. . .”
“Margaret? Margaret Maxine Delany?”
Martin had dropped his glass, and it had shattered on the tile floor.
Now he smiled, weakly.
“Max” smiled back.
Ohmygod, he thought, smiling half drunkenly in return. Could it be? Had something twisted her features enough that he hadn’t put that name with that face? Could time alone have done this?
Was it really HER?
A sudden numbing sensation ebbed into his knees, spreading.
“I. . .don’t know what to say,” he muttered, which was true.
“Oh, there’s nothing to say,” the woman who called herself only ‘Max’ replied, dryly. “You used me like you used the others, and then you discarded me. I was your fool because of love, and so now I’m no one’s fool.”
Martin lifted a hand toward her. “But your face. . .”
“I had the abortion you suggested,” Max said. “But the hack I went to left me sterile. I was in an auto wreck soon after that, and had to have reconstructive surgery. Tried to kill myself by driving off a cliff, actually. But the car was caught and got held in a tree.” She looked at him impatiently. “Does that about cover it?”
Martin looked around at the walls, as if looking for clues. The cellar seemed suddenly cramped because she was in it–not Margaret, but MAXINE now. He knew he had to get past the drunkenness, but it only grew.
“What have you been up to?” he asked, his vision of her slightly blurred now.
Her smile was round and somehow calculated. “Hating myself, mostly,” she said. “Trying to put aside the pain you gave me once and for all. The pain that made me feel abandoned and worthless. The pain that had me staring out of my apartment window for weeks until. . . until something snapped.”
“Something?” said Martin.
“I eventually became a registered nurse, although it took twice as long as it should have. Then I realized my life wouldn’t truly begin until I could drink to my own health. Until, shall we say, a kind of exchange took place. My life for yours? So I had this idea, to invite you here alone, Martin–a night before the real reunion–and with us toasting the old years, to slip a lethal drug in your drink.”
Martin clenched his now empty hand on itself as Maxine’s gaze circled the room.
“A cold, perhaps, but simple revenge,” she admitted. “We reap what we sow. While your life was full and happy then, mine was empty and unbearable. While you try to remember what was, it is I who must try to forget. And what better way than this, to break clean of it? How amusing, too, to speculate which of your buddies will find you here tomorrow night, dead of a. . .presumed. . .heart attack.”
Martin felt his forehead. It was hot. Why was it so damn hot?
“But that’s insane!” he said, his voice cracking. “Why wait until now? Because it’s taken twenty years to. . .to turn self hatred inside out?”
“Payday isn’t always on Friday, Martin.”
Martin felt his chest. His heart was beating faster for sure. His knees did feel weak. He let himself slip to the floor.
OH MY GOD, he realized. SHE’S GOING TO LET ME DIE IN THIS CELLAR. But when he looked up he saw that Maxine stared down at him strangely. . .almost. . .no, could it be. . .
“Don’t worry,” she said at last. “I couldn’t go through with it in the end. And besides, just look at yourself. Balding and aging before my eyes. There’s an awareness of sickness in your eyes, too. Of being locked in a sunless room these past twenty years with only your memories, Martin, just your memories to keep you company.”
“My. . .”
“And so I asked myself, just moments ago, why should I put you out of your misery? Wouldn’t it be better to let you wallow in it. To come back here ten or twenty years from now, tortured by those same brief years of happiness? That way I could drink to my own health from your misery, which was once your habit with me, Martin. That way, your despairing heart would be my wine cellar.”
The woman who was once Margaret Delany smiled a smile of secret consummation. Then she moved quietly up the staircase.
In a moment she was gone.
For a long time Martin sat motionless. He looked at his hands–at the red wine stain there. He looked up at the years proclaimed on wine labels–those years corked in brown and red and blue glass, waiting to be put against lips, assimilated, savored.
He wondered how long would it take before he would feel like getting up, like driving. Or leaving.
But there was no telling, as along the rows his gaze moved, and in the dimness the bottles began to resemble the brooding shapes of a flock of gulls.
© Buffalo City Magazine, by Jonathan Lowe