It’s ten o’clock on Sunday morning when the thunder of a Harley stops in my driveway. Two slices of raisin bread toast and a mug of Columbian are before me on the table and I’m wearing makeshift pajamas. I have on the glasses I only wear at bedtime— blue wire-rims, fairly trendy, except they make my almond eyes shrink to slivers on my moon face. At one time I cared if anyone saw me that way, but this isn’t anyone.
Nick must have seen me peeking out the window, because he struts towards the back door, then stops, a tic of regret crossing his face. He mumbles to himself, then turns around as if there’s something he forgot to do, or something he recalls from years ago.
I feel the urge to bolt upstairs to the bathroom, at least brush my teeth, but he’d be gone by that time. For whatever reason he stopped by to see me, after all these years, I want to see him, too.
I run to the back door and crack it open a few inches, stick my head out and tip it toward the outside of the house, hiding the rest of my body behind the door frame. Nick is standing in the middle of the driveway. Is he having second thoughts? Now that he’s here,
maybe he’s thinking that it isn’t a good idea popping in without calling me. Maybe I wasn’t alone? I was. I sure was. And I think I know why Nick stopped by.
“Nick. Hey Nick,” I yell. He is just out of sight now, but I know he’s still there. I haven’t heard the dark choke of his Harley start up.
“Yeah?” he says, walking into view wearing blue jeans and a button-down shirt with the tails hanging over his hips. He hasn’t put on weight like some guys his age. His head is covered with one of those funky black helmets like the Germans wore in the army. He always did have his own style. I’m surprised he is even wearing a helmet. I’m also surprised when he takes it off— one white strand of bang parting his forehead. Although his hair is still a little long, it’s turned a dull shade of black with squiggles of grey. Back when we were together it was the color of mahogany. Back then, he was gorgeous.
“I was going to change,” I say, “but—” I finish the sentence with a show of open arms, revealing the sports bra clinging to peach-size breasts and baggy blue shorts sheered off above my knees. Nick shrugs as if it doesn’t matter.
“I’ve seen you in your pajamas before,” he says, walking up the stairs. The comment hits me, as if we are old friends sharing a private joke.
Nick sighs as if exhaling a drag of nicotine that he hasn’t touched in years. At first, neither one of us speaks—I imagine the same thoughts crossing our minds. I backpedal to let him come inside, knowing I won’t get far before he squeezes me to him. His shoulders feel taut, but his lips meet mine with a supple kiss. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in confident moves, impulsive timing, a sensitive soul.
How many others have come between us since we were together? Two marriages for him— his last one fell apart one year ago. His wife filed for divorce when his
carpentry business failed, so he decided to make a new start in Florida. Not quite old enough to fit into a geriatric scene, and not rich enough to fit into one of those gated communities, he rented a home in an obscure city. As for me, I never remarried after my first time, though back then, I’d come close to marrying Nick.
“Do you want something to eat?” I ask, before we sit down at the kitchen table. As I pick at my toast, I notice him glance at my flimsy top and exposed cleavage, and my eyes fall away from his face. It’s a face branded by his thick ledge of brows, fleshy lips that spread easily into a smile.
“I just ate. I went to an A.A. meeting this morning and a bunch of the guys took me to breakfast. Coffee smells good, though.” He’s going. He’s really moving. And unlike a Florida snowbird, he probably won’t be back.
* * *
Before Nick, I’d been married to a quiet man— a cerebral architect who designed our country home with skylights and French patio doors. We decorated it with mauve carpeting, eclectic antiques, and a silk flower arrangement on the coffee table. The harder I tried to fit into his social circle, the more I felt like a moth in a butterfly jar. After seven years, we parted ways.
A few months later, Nick crossed my path and opened the lid of the jar.
It started on Memorial Day weekend at a singles place called the Atlantis Club. I’d stopped there to have a drink with a friend. I remember how I wore my shoulder-length hair that night and how conservatively I’d dressed— a cream-colored silk blouse, beige dress pants,
a gold necklace with a heart-shaped pendant watch. Not one sexy innuendo, except for open-toed wedge Candies that I had owned for years. But I could dance, and so could Nick. He said he lived in a cottage on the beach of Rhode Island. For some reason, I was not feeling drawn to Nick when the music stopped that night. I gave him my number anyway.
* * *
I set black coffee in front of Nick, hand him a spoon for the sugar as he pours milk into his cup. He smiles at me as he stirs the coffee and his eyes don’t leave mine when he takes his first sip.
“When are you leaving?” I ask. His avocado green eyes change. They are so tender now that I want to forget why I’d walled off old memories of us. I finish my toast and brush crumbs from my thigh, looking away before the walls crumble.
“The closing on my house was supposed to take place last Thursday, but the lawyer postponed until next week.” He tilts his head back, down-shifting his mood. “So I
ended up with some time on my hands since I’d already finished up at work.”
I can tell there is more on his mind. Nick wasn’t a low-gear kind of guy. I loved him for that the minute he showed up for our first date on his bike.
That night he’d taken me to dinner at friendly, family-style diner, and after that for a barefoot beach walk alongside the breaking waves. Our feet sank into the cold sand while he held my hand as if it were a pretty seashell that he wanted to keep. He told me about his childhood— a brutal alcoholic father, an affectionate mother. Nick turned out to be a lot of both.
Before I’d met Nick, I’d never dated men with a history that included being a runaway teen and rehab. I’d grown up boringly safe thanks to years of parochial school and strict parents. Listening to Nick’s dangerous stories made me feel alive, as if I’d been there with him on that cold-sweat speed chase in the California desert, or had camped out all week at a three-day rock concert. I had never done anything remotely risky, until I fell in love with Nick.
“I found an old photo album in the attic when I was packing,” he says in a voice that lets me know there’s something between us that he can’t bear to leave behind. “There I was balling my eyes out looking at photos of us on the bike trip to Vermont, lying on the beach in Rhode Island playing my harmonica, and here.” His eyes scan the room.
When he says this, I feel weak, like we’re sharing a bloodline between us. Yet I sit frozen to my chair as if his words sailed past me too quickly. My eyes drift towards pink lily petals in the foyer that I re-wallpapered, as if their tranquil tone could induce amnesia over the terror that preceded them. He glances up and down the walls I’ve repainted after he left and his silence makes my breath stop as my mind peeks behind the layers.
But Nick’s been clean of drugs and alcohol for fifteen years. We’ve become different people now.
“Hold on,” I say, pushing back from the kitchen table. The moment I do so, I feel a furnace of shame on my face— my shabby morning outfit. I didn’t want Nick’s last visual memory of me to be this.
I walk into the living room to the art deco vanity and open the oak drawer. I pull out a fake-leather photo album and return to the kitchen. Setting it down on the table between us, I refill our coffee cups and angle the pages so we can both see them.
“Remember this?” I say, pointing to Fourth of July pig roast at the amusement park in Middlebury. My smile was as wide as a five-year-old child standing knee-deep in birthday presents. Nick’s laugh resonates with a voluptuous longing that make my eyes fill. I’d forgotten how good-looking we were then.
Throughout the years that we hardly saw each other, I knew he was only a twenty-minute drive up the highway. I’d stopped by his place several years ago. My edge for adventure had disappeared like points of glass ground smooth from years of tumbling in tides. I was alone again, between relationships, and between-times lasted longer than they once had. I had no idea Nick was married at the time.
Nick’s wife wasn’t home, so I didn’t stay long. When he walked me to my car, we kissed good-bye, but I let the spongy touch of his lips linger on the ride home. I almost called him back that night— nothing more comforting than two people who know each other inside and out. Those vibes were playing with me again today, just once before he leaves.
Our hands turn the pages of the photo album and Nick sighs a lot like he used to do. Can you ever go back to being lovers again for one night? Would it feel cheap, or worse, would we fool ourselves into thinking this time it could be better?
I’m standing at the kitchen sink rinsing the coffee pot when Nick’s cell phone rings. It draws my attention to his hands. Which memory do I choose? The one of his fingers entwined in my long hair as time disappeared into the night, or moments that passed like hours the night
he clenched his hands into fists and snapped the neck of his guitar. I adjust the faucet so the water doesn’t make too much noise.
As he talks on the phone, Nick thumps his leather boot on the floor, like a musician who’s lost his place in a song and is trying to pick up the rhythm again. He ends the call after a few tense sentences. “Yeah. Later, man.”
When he looks up at me, Nick’s face dissolves into an apologetic grin. Maybe he thinks I’ve forgotten how hard it was for him to be easy-going. I used to think Nick’s fidgeting was from nerves. By the time I realized rage was not an emotion he could control, it was too late.I was crazy about him.
We didn’t have cell phones back when we were together, and it had driven Nick into a furious high that he didn’t know where I was the night I’d left him standing in this kitchen. I’d stood at the door for almost an hour, one hand on the knob while we screamed insults and accusations at each other. I’d waited for the right moment to escape, even though the trauma never quite did.
Inside my head, I’m standing on the street corner, waiting until it’s safe to cross. The weekend at a beach-side hotel in Newport that started out with me dressed in a satin mini-skirt, but ended with torn fishnet stockings, limping away from Nick in three inch heels. He didn’t want me out of his sight, not even when the cops showed up.
After two years with him, I knew I had to escape the madness. In desperation, I resorted to sneaky independence, because freedom is a one-way street. It drove Nick mad. It drove us apart.
* * *
The kitchen where we now sit has been remodeled, but the cabinets, the windows, the door I ran to, are the same. Only knowing that he’s moving a thousand miles away makes that less significant.
I study Nick’s face, rugged as tree bark, a weathered dignified texture. He always had a good heart, I think cautiously. He wears the symbol of a red heart with dove’s wings on the wrist of his left arm. He rolls back his sleeve and extends his fist to show me. The tattoo along his other forearm is a bird. I remember the night at the tattoo parlor when his skin bled into red, green, yellow, blue-black ink. I know where there are other marks on his body, too— the pock on his thigh, the surgery scar on his ankle from a teenage brawl.
Before we get to that part of the photo album where there are no more photos of Nick, I close the cover. My mind fast-forwards through the years since then. I’d left my low-paying job and secured a position at a university, dated a man twelve years younger and spent the week with him in the Bahamas, traveled to France with a stock broker for Valentine’s dinner, dated a classical jazz musician who broke my heart.
We are different people now.
When Nick and I had first split, even those glossy photos weren’t enough to make me go back to him. They were merely swooping images that returned me every once and again, like a summer bird to the same warm place. Only as Nick sits close and it feels as if he’s connected to a part of me do I consider doing something I’ve never done before.
“I’d better get going, Baby. I love you.”
My mouth goes dry. Love no longer came in the face of those strangers. Love was staring me in the face.
Nick collects his motorcycle helmet from the counter, and then pauses at the door.
“Come visit me in Florida sometime,” he says, fortifying his voice. His gaze is on the door handle. I know he can’t bear to look at me and still leave.
My vision blurs as if I’m looking through a glass jar. Then I manage a weak smile and my voice quivers back at Nick. “Okay, maybe I will.” I say. There would be one reason I’d fly on a plane for three hours, except a man like Nick likes to have a cozy woman around the house, and I wasn’t like that anymore.
But when he opens the door and never looks back as he walks toward the bike, I know he is not that bad guy anymore.
Patti Cavaliere: “The Last Good Bad Guy” is mostly true. I have been fortunate to have several short stories and essays published. These have appeared in the Tall Grass Writer’s Black and White Anthology, Yankee Magazine, Listen Magazine, and online contests since 2003. In 2012, I attended Joyce Maynard’s workshop, Write By The Sea, on Star Island, which changed my writing. Joyce had edited this piece for me back then when it seemed to resonate with her. However, I never pursued finding a home for this story. After reconnecting again this summer with the man who inspired it, I hoped this was now the time. Although I self-published a novel in 2017, to me, my biggest accomplishment was winning a Writer’s Digest contest in 2012. “Anonymous” was published in the March 2012 issue, and was noticed by a filmmaker who recently produced this story for a short film. One of my stories was also chosen as a finalist in the Iowa Review.