Circles: A Romance
Kyle Bradley Cassidy

"That's where my kitten got stuck," says Bernie, pointing up the thick, blank trunk of a limbless tree, which rises straight like a dowel perhaps eighty feet into the air.

"The fire department doesn't get cats out of trees -- that's a myth. Our neighbor finally got him down. He worked for the phone company and he had one of those belts, those climbing belts, and he went up the tree and dropped the kitten down. I was seven or eight and my friend and I were standing at the base of the tree, holding a stretched-out blanket. Prometheus -- the kitten was maybe twelve weeks old -- hit that blanket screaming and going so fast that it tore the corner of the blanket out of my hands. He was on fire, running across the ground and up onto the porch and into this box, this cardboard box that he lived in. He hit the back of the box so hard he knocked it across the porch. He'd been up in that tree, meowing, for three days, and for three days I'd been outside watching him up there and crying.

"My neighbor said it was no problem, but my dad gave him a case of beer for it -- good beer -- and the guy got drunk and ran into our car in the driveway. My dad had to take him to court to finally get him to pay for the damage."

We were walking around his house and into the backyard, where we were barbecuing tofu dogs and corn on the cob in the surprisingly cool June evening. In a few hours it would be dark and the only light would come from the glowing coals and from the illuminated sign at The Hat Trick. To get there you follow the long dirt driveway (or short dirt road) and cross 202 -- it's about 300 yards away.

Bernie had called and said that he'd seen Daphnie in that bar near his house and that she had spoken fondly of me. Remembering only the good things, my thoughts flew instantly back to that time at the beach and the music that she had played over and over again on her stereo, knowing that we were too young to die and too old to ever make a mistake. They came back to me with the catchphrases she always used: "you bet," and "false," meaning "no." I thought of the way her smile curved back from her teeth and the way she trembled when we were together in bed.

He'd begged her to meet us there the following week, then called me. I was thrilled and frightened. I'd been trying to find Daphnie for a year, ever since she had vanished from my life one evening and left no forwarding address, phone number, or reason. And now, to have her suddenly there again, once more with no reason, left me weak and agitated.

We sat on Bernie's porch and watched the sun go down through the trees, drinking the cheapest beer we had been able to find (Igor's Yellow Belly, $4.98 a case) and cooking dinner, waiting for 10:30 -- the time when Daphnie would show up at The Hat Trick. I fretted, chewing my cuticles, and Bernie languished over the woes of his own life, which I couldn't remember as he listed them.

We drank beer.

"Agg. God," says Bernie as it starts to creep into his brain. "I haven't been laid in three months. I lost 120 pounds and I still can't get laid." Bernie used to be huge, though he's looking pretty good these days. I noticed a sign on his fridge that says "nothing tastes as good as thin feels."

"It'll happen," I reassure him, laying low in my seat and belching. "Don't sweat it."

"Easy for you to say," he moans. "You always get laid." He flings his empty bottle into the yard.

From there the evening begins to degenerate into a festival of masculinity, and by beer number seven we're laughing like maniacs and pissing gleefully into the yard from the second story bathroom window.

It's quarter after ten. Bernie is drunk and depressed about his two- week-old leather jacket: it's shiny and new and flawless. He drags it forlornly behind him in the dirt by one sleeve. As we approach the bar, he puts it on and a cloud of dust rises from him like some desert rat out of a Clint Eastwood film.

"You'll have to take the lids off," says the bouncer and I say "Lids?" "Hats," he says, motioning towards my head. "No hats in here." We take our hats off and I shove mine in my back pocket, thinking that it will look better if it's rumpled. Although he doesn't ask, I shove about twelve forms of I.D. at him, managing to drop them on the pavement. He picks them up and hands them back to me without really looking at them.

I notice that my hands are shaking.

Bernie has already walked in and is waiting for me. He says something drunkenly that I don't hear and stumbles a step backwards with a blank look on his face. I follow him up the stairs.

We enter a quiet and brightly lit game room where somebody calls out Bernie's name, rushes over, and pumps his hand. Bernie mumbles something incoherently and slides away.

"High school," he says to me, taking his leather jacket off and dragging it on the floor behind him.

Florid pink-eyed people stand like robots before the video machines, engrossed cyborgs. I can still hear the music from downstairs, though it might just be in my head.

Bernie leads me quickly through a maze of small rooms where people are playing pool or sitting on wooden stools, drinking. There are well-groomed men with surfer haircuts and women in huge shorts with banana clips on their heads. If I was sober I would probably hate this place.

Bernie goes down another flight of stairs, which opens up into a wide and loud room with a very low ceiling. Immediately I see Daphnie sitting at the bar. She's smiling (I have never known her not to), wearing gaudy multicolored shorts/white legs/cowboy boots/sports jacket. And probably nothing on underneath the sports jacket, I think, though I am wrong. Her hair is a little shorter than when I last saw her, but it is still in the same style, admitting and closely framing the oval of her face which, frankly, looks very egg-like when her hair is wet.

"Hey," she says, taking her feet down from the stool next to her so that I can sit down.

"I was saving a seat for you," she says to Bernie, "but somebody took it." He's pretty hammered. His mouth is open and he is looking right through her head like a bullet. Daphnie is drinking something pink from a plastic cup. In the cup there is also a coffee stirrer and a lot of crushed ice.

I straddle the stool and look at her -- aware that I am so nervous that I'm liable to do something stupid, like knock her drink over, and aware that after all this time, I can't think of what to say to her.

"You look great," I end up saying, and it's the truth. The words come out of my mouth with a surprising calmness and clarity and this makes me feel at least a little confident.

"Oh, your hair," she says, leaning over to me and stroking it. "I love your hair."

"I just got it cut," I interject. "It was down to my navel, but it kept getting under my arm when I tried to sleep. I couldn't sleep."

"You took all the blond out," she remarks, still petting it. I swivel on the stool to give her a better look.

"Yeah, well, I can't stand being the same person for too long at a stretch. Hey, look, is there someplace we can go to talk? Someplace quiet? There's a lot..." Things have been weighing on me for a long time.

"Sure," she says. "We can go to the game room." Bernie has vanished to somewhere, like bigfoot into the trees. Daphnie tosses back the last of her drink, straining it through the ice, and then sets the cup back down on the bar. I follow her back up the stairs, but all the stools are taken. My vision is narrowing.

"We can go outside," she says, and I notice that there is a door leading out side on the far wall. It's open, and two bouncers are leaning back up against the outer wall. We walk past them and into the parking lot, sitting down on the curb. I lay down my jacket so that she can sit on it.

"It's been a long time," I say. "I've... It's good to see you, really good. I've been looking for you."

"Yeah, that's what Bernie said."

"You just vanished and I didn't know what happened to you. You stopped returning my calls."

"I did?" she asks.

"Yeah, you don't remember?"

"I don't know. I don't remember why."

"Oh, God, Daphnie... There's things I wanna tell you. I've been trying to find you. Every second I spent with you was magic -- you're the best. I've never had more fun with anybody else. That time at the beach was so, I don't know, so real. Larger than life. Everything we did, the way you'd melt almost when I held you--"

"That's my weakness."

"I have pictures of you hanging up all over my room."

"From the beach?"

"I don't know if anyone's ever told you this, but you're beautiful."

I'm drunk and the words flow quickly and easily now. I'm worried that I'm coming on too strong, that I'll scare her away, but either I can't control myself or I no longer care. I just need for her to know how I feel about her. She looks first down at the ground and then into my eyes.

"No one has."

I lean down and start flicking pebbles with my finger. They skitter across the parking lot. I want very much to reach over with both my hands and lay my palms against her cheeks and feel their smooth warmth and say over and over again. "You're beautiful," until she believes it and believes that I believe it.

"I think about you all the time. There's nothing that I've been able to do which has given me one-tenth of the magic that I felt with you, just that short time that we were together. You're fun to be with, there's so much to you, and you were my best friend, too.

"I mean, it wasn't always sexual -- really. I thought you were a lesbian the first time that I met you, but I just wanted to be around you because... Daphnie, I think I may be in love with you."

There is a derailed silence between us and, stumbling, I continue, lost now somewhere in the past. "I'm so nervous right now. I had to drink ten beers before we came here. We split a case, Bernie and I. Do you want to come over to his house with me and just talk or something? It's right across the street. I don't want to sleep with you. I mean, I do, but I don't. I want to have something with you that lasts." I haven't touched her and I want to reach out and take her hand, but I don't, purposefully leaning further away from her, making the space between us real.

"Sure, I'll come," she says. "I'd like to have a beer."

Walking back through the bar we see Bernie, beer in hand. He leers at me, eyes like pencil-points, sweat pasting hair to his forehead.

"If only my students could see me now!"

Bernie teaches history at Millard Fillmore High School. Often he causes me to reevaluate my own teachers and my conceptions of them.

"We're going back, okay?" I say.

"The two of you? Hot damn!" he replies bawdily, slapping me one the back. A cloud of dust dislodges itself from his jacket and wafts around us. Then to Daphnie he says: "He really likes you."

"I really like him," she says and takes hold of my arm, pulling herself close. It is the first time we have touched in a year.

We walk back to Bernie's house. On the way, I hold her hand and we talk about incidentals: where she's living, working, people she sees. She's graduated from the university; her degree is in engineering.

When we get back to the house I put the Pearl Jam tape in the player and we go out on the porch.

"Dance," she commands, taking my hand. We dance on the soft wet boards. I am drunken and graceless; she thrashes without abandon like Siva and things are born out of her and I am so glad to be with her. My hair tangles and sticks to my face.

Finally we sit down on a long, white, plastic sun chair. The barbecue grill is still glowing faintly in the yard. Daphnie has an ounce and a half of marijuana in her purse, which she pulls out and begins meticulously picking through, rolling a joint. It's the dope she got in Ecuador while working for the Peace Corps and smuggled back in a tin of tea bags. It is wrapped in an old sock.

I hold the bag in my hands, amazed -- I've never seen this much at one time before and I've never known anyone with the audacity to carry so much of it on her person. Daphnie's father though is a state trooper, and I've always suspected that she is trying to attract some modicum of lost attention from him. Daphnie proceeds to get stoned and I comb her hair softly with a brush I find in her purse. She sighs while I do this. I rub her neck and slowly lean forward and kiss her shoulder where it meets her neck. She leans back against me the way she did at the shore, and I know that everything will be all right. I feel warm and very happy and acutely aware. I think all my sensory neurons are firing at once.

"How were things after you left?" I ask.

"Left where? Ecuador or here?"

"After you left here, last summer."

"Okay, I guess." I can tell by the tone of her voice that they were not. "I got fired from my job, the one I had last summer, and I just went away to Ecuador."

"That was the best way to leave that job." I mean this as a joke; it wasn't a very good job. Suddenly I realize that there is a good deal more to her than I had ever thought. There was so much that I didn't know about her.

"Seeing anybody? I mean, do you have a boyfriend?"

"No." She says this quietly. "Not since January."

"Oh. Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," she says again, than adds, "I always get damaged."

"Even with me?" I ask.

"Even with you," she whispers, and I am ashamed. We are silent for a long time and I am thinking about how I could have hurt her and wondering why she stopped calling me. What nameless, unseen thing had taken place between us at the height of my happiness? In my euphoria, was I blind to her pain? And what had she suffered in January?

"Are you tired?" I ask, kissing the tips of her fingers.

"You bet," she says, shaking the gloom, reaching down and putting a hand on my leg. "Wanna lie down?"

"Yeah, I do."

We go upstairs, into the spare bedroom and undress, lying down on top of the sheets. The window is open and we can still hear the tape playing quietly downstairs. She lies frail and trusting in my arms and I hold her tightly. We are silent and I am stroking her hair and later I feel her tears on my chest.

I roll over and hold her fragile face between my hands and feel that she is breaking apart and that I have to hold her together, tenaciously, lest all things abandon her. I kiss the tears on her cheeks and they are salty on my lips.

"I want to hold you forever," I say, "and kiss your tears away. I don't want to be apart from you again. It took me a year to find you and I want to make you stop hurting." She kisses me hard on the mouth and I tangle my fingers in her smooth hair.

Before I close my eyes, I see the red LED of the clock. It says 1:35.

Bernie has somehow, and somewhere, during the course of the night, met and brought home the Beast From 40,000 Fathoms, who jiggles lugubriously around the house the next morning in her gruesome underwear, chanting the mantra "Bernie-Bernie-Bernie-food." She is as white as a sheet of erasable bond, alternately scowling and laughing shrilly at everybody in the house like one of Perseus' blind hags. In a deep pan of sputtering lard she prepares and consumes -- to the stupefaction of all -- a dozen runny eggs. Bernie in the corner holds his head, looking miserable and hung-over.

I kiss Daphnie on the mouth and her lips fit mine in a hermetic seal and there are things that have passed between us in the night which we will not mention again -- words spoken on the loose fortune of wine -- yet we are closer for them.

I put my arms around her and kiss her again, this time on the forehead. I let go of her, knowing that now it will work for us, at least for a time, and that nothing is important but today. She promises that she will call me and she goes out the door, taking with her the corpulent glob of chins she'll drop off at home, or work, or the swamp, or whatever. Cthulhu blows multitudinous kisses at Bernie before oozing into the front seat of Daphnie's tiny car.

The windows are tinted black, so I cannot tell if Daphnie looks back as the car drives down the road, past the mailbox, past the lawn gnome, and past the tree that Bernie's kitten was stranded in for three long days and two frigid nights.

Kyle Bradley Cassidy ( lives in Philadelphia with his lovely wife Linda and her 28-pound cat Thunderbelly. He has been a frequent contributor to InterText. He also has a great collection of fountain pens. (Bio last updated in 1996.)

InterText stories written by Kyle Bradley Cassidy: "Circles: A Romance" (v2n6), "What Are You Looking For, China White?" (v3n2), "The Nihilist" (v3n3), "The True Story of the Gypsy's Wedding" (v3n5), "Bread Basket" (v3n5), "The Monkey Trap" (v4n5), "This is the Optative of Unfulfillable Wish" (v6n1).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Kyle Bradley Cassidy.