I stared at those bottles of vodka and tequila and bourbon for what could’ve been ten minutes. The tequila was good, too. Patron Silver. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be drunk for this woman. If getting stoned was cheating for her, then so it was for me, premium cactus spirits included.
Temptation of inebriation held off for the time being, I moved to her studio’s door and stood there for another ten minutes, straining to hear her speaking to her audience. Though I’d paid for that week’s membership, and had seen plenty of photos and videos, I hadn’t tuned in for her weekly live show, which is where she’d earned her reputation and larger than internet-average following. I heard the word ass a few times, gape once or twice. She giggled, but I could tell it was an act. Or was it? Then silence. Unsettling silence. She was concentrating at that moment, I knew she was, taking in one of those elephant dildos or a cucumber the width of a watermelon, or something equally supersized. She was like an X-rated reverse Houdini.
My manhood had returned to life in this voyeuristic state, firm in itself as it hadn’t been for a year, maybe two. But there was no actual woman there, in person, to make me feel inadequate or insecure, and limp. What would happen when I was face to face with her? I lacked the confidence to know the answer. I touched myself for a second to make sure I was actually hard, then stopped in a puritanical fit of shame. What was I going to do, get myself off all over the door? Calm down, you raging perv.
I moved away from the door and sat on the sofa, leaning back and trying to distract myself with thoughts of Star Wars and baseball. I closed my eyes as BeFree had earlier, tried to meditate happily like she had, and Gonzo even jumped on my lap at that moment, snagging a human bed while he could. His Richter-scale purr started up immediately as I stroked him, my eyes still closed and watching the fireworks on the inside of my eyelids. When I scratched his head, it seemed big as a grapefruit. Finally, I felt calm and cool, I had a feline diesel engine rumbling therapeutically on my thighs, and everything seemed good and right.
And then I heard her scream.
I shot bolt upright on the sofa, Gonzo leaping from me with an irritated hiss. Staring at the studio door, I was worried that, in the enthusiasm of her finale, she’d gone too far with one of those rhinoceros shafts and ripped herself open.
I moved to the door and knocked softly.
“BeFree? Are you okay?”
Another scream, but now that I was closer to the door it didn’t sound like a scream as much as, well, a whinny.
“Uh-oh, my houseguest is worried,” I heard her approaching voice say loudly from inside the studio, as if she wanted me to hear it. “Let’s go reassure him, shall we? I think he might be surprised.”
I stepped back as she opened the door, finding myself face to face with a buck naked horse. Or at least a nude BeFree wearing the best horse mask, or helmet really, I’ve ever laid eyes on. Life sized and perfectly constructed, chestnut in color, it could’ve been a real stuffed horse’s head. It sent me for a momentary shock, and I stumbled back. It would be pony-play deluxe for her farewell, and she was filming her philly self, broadcasting live, with a hand-held camera.
“I’m okay, Brad,” she said through the mask in a play pony voice, and then she uncorked an even louder whinny.
“Oh…good,” I replied with a semi-stammer. “I was just…a little worried. Please, continue.”
“Alrighty then, we’ll just get back to the corral now. See you soon, cowpoke.”
As she turned and galloped back into her studio, I saw that her tall tail plumage was plugged snuggly into place. After she closed the door behind her, I collapsed back onto the sofa, nerves abuzz with the amusing shock of it all. And I cheated here. I needed to relax. So I had one shot, one big shot of that good tequila, probably a double shot, maybe a triple at some of your pricier establishments. It went down smoothly and sweetly, and it sent me back to the sofa, where once again Gonzo took to my lap and turbo-purred. It felt like sitting in one of those massage chairs at the novelty store in the mall. The chair everyone sits in, but no ever buys.
I was determined to sit on the sofa for the rest of her show, breathing and calming myself, until she came out of that studio again, this time with her online career over. I even turned off her laptop to keep myself honest.
In the next thirty minutes, I heard a few more loud sounds of pleasure or pain, or both, I could never tell. And I knew better than to worry at that point. The image of her wearing that horse mask lingered, I couldn’t shake it. Thankfully, just when the image was at its most invasive, BeFree poked her unmasked head and shoulders out the door, looking perspired and worked out, and now wearing a robe.
“Wow, you made it,” she said
“I’m still here,” I declared.
“After I came out with the horse head on, and that jumbo tail, I thought sure you’d be gone.”
“Was it a test?”
“Kind of. But not really.”
“And that means what?”
“It means I just have to shower and clean up, and then we can talk. But how about that horse head, pretty real isn’t it?”
“Very. You have a friend who’s a taxidermist?”
“No, I got it from the big Shakespeare festival in town, it was an old prop. I think it’s from that Summer Nights play, is that what it’s called? Do you know Shakespeare?”
“Like the back of my head. To be or not to be. That is the extent of it, Hamlet.”
“Well, some character wears a horse’s head in one of his plays, and that’s how I got it. They had a big sale in their costume shop, of old stuff. And I had to have it.”
“I can see why. Takes the pony stuff to a whole new level, doesn’t it?”
“Totally.” Here she took a brief pause, the importance of the moment finally hitting her. “Wow, that’s it, it’s over. My last show. I’m really done.”
“Are you happy?”
“I am. It was just, I don’t know, kind of, and no pun intended, or I guess it is, but the whole thing was sort of anti-climatic. Literally.”
“I hope you don’t think I kept you from going all out like you wanted to.”
“I don’t think I wanted to, that’s the thing. Not as much as I used to. And that’s how you know it’s time to hang them up.”
“Definitely,” I encouraged her.
“Okay, lemme take a shower, I’m all slippery here, then we can talk.”
She exited back into the studio, and in a few minutes I heard the sink and shower water running in her bathroom.
“…and then we can talk.” She’d said it twice. Something about the line bothered me. It reminded me of the several times I had been dumped like the trash by girlfriends. That line, or something similar, always preceded the romantic disposal.
Stop fretting, you idiot. Stop. She’s happy. So are you. Just enjoy it. Mortality demands it.
* * *
As she showered, I imagined walking in and joining her. I fantasized too long, however, as the water shut off before I could act. I was sure it was for the best. I heard the shower door open and close, and I wondered what she looked like all wet and clean and toweling herself off. Then the phone rang, rudely disturbing my heavenly visions of her. After three rings, it stopped, and I could hear her answering it and speaking in her studio. I couldn’t make out the words, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but I could certainly pick up on the tense tone of her voice. At the end of the conversation, she desperately uttered the only words I could hear, obviously upset.
“I told you I will!" she exclaimed. "Why don’t you believe me?!”
When she emerged from the studio ten minutes later, once again in her sweats and Bob Marley hoodie, I could sense her altered mood. She settled on the couch next to me, her legs touching mine. Gonzo wasted no time finding her lap.
“You survived it,” she said, her mind obviously distracted. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be here.”
“You didn’t think I’d burst through the door and ravish you on camera?”
“Honestly…no. You don’t seem the type.”
“That’s why I like you.”
She snuggled up closer to me, throwing her legs over my lap. I began to rub her feet and those spectacularly painted toes.
“Sounded like a bad phone call,” I said. “Not like I was listening, it was just hard not to hear.”
“It’s okay,” she replied, spent by the mere thought of him. “I didn’t think he’d call me again.”
He. Inside my chest, my organs slouched.
“Your ex-husband?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“What did he want?”
“He wanted to make sure I was going to see him tomorrow.”
My heart stopped. She was seeing him tomorrow. I felt like a complete fool. I was an even bigger loser than I had previously suspected.
“Then I should probably leave you alone,” I told her. “I can stay over at the Holiday Inn off the freeway, and you can just see him now and get it over with.”
She sighed, her mind more full than it ever needed to be. “Stop, please. He can’t come here. It’s not what you think it is.”
I was about to ask her to clarify when something overcame me, and I just grabbed her and kissed her. Gonzo hissed and leapt from her lap, as my lips and tongue made love to BeFree’s. We were grasping at each other’s faces like we were grasping at straws in our lives. Then she took my hand and lifted my arm, stroking the lipoma on the back of my forearm, the biggest one I had, and the one I was most insecure about. I started to pull away, but she held tight. And then she kissed it, sucked on it, flicking it with her tongue.
“Nothing about you is ugly,” she said, and I believed her for that moment.
But it was too much, too sensitive, and I had to pull my arm away, tickled in all ways. When I pulled the arm back, however, our lips pushed back toward each other and we devoured our mouths like frosting. My hand moved down to her glorious hips, those curves, those inimitable curves! Her fingers were digging into my hair, I had never in my life had a woman pull me to her like BeFree did. As our tongues swirled, as the new flavors mingled, she slowly moved her hand down between my legs. I wanted to tell her it was a waste of time, that I was a walking dead man, that she should go back into her studio and close the door and pretend to be putting on her show, that was the only way I could get there, but then it happened. BeFree had freed me, or at least my blood vessels. Could I free her, though? I wanted so badly to.
We staggered into her dark bedroom and ripped each other’s garments from our flesh. Our eyes, even in darkness, remained locked for the entirety of our lovemaking.
“I don’t want your ass,” I whispered.
“I don’t want it either. But I don’t know if I can do the other. I’m scared.”
“I don’t know. I just closed up one day.”
“Like a flower,” I added softly. “And flowers can bloom again.”
Slowly, our bodies adapted to each other’s forms, and I gently pulled her on top of me. Even without light, her jeweled green eyes shone through.
“Easy,” she told me. “Easy, slow, it’s been so long….”
“Why though? What happened?”
“Life happened,” she confessed. “Just my life. But maybe it’s for you. Maybe I was waiting for you.”
Normally that pressure would’ve wilted me, but BeFree made me feel more like a man than any woman had, because I knew she accepted me entirely as I was, fatty tumors and bloated emotions and unemployment and all of it.
When I had eased my way inside of her, we both moaned and she grabbed me more tightly than I have ever been grabbed. Everything with this staggering woman was a first for me. I never wanted her to let me go.
“I love you,” she blurted out.
I hesitated, but I couldn’t hold back. “I love you, too.”
The climax that followed was mutual and overpowering. In the aftermath, we both lay there, quivering and nervous. On cue, Gonzo jumped onto the bed and licked my sweaty forehead, offering some humor. And thankfully, he licked nothing else as he settled between us.
“I understand if you don’t want to give me a ride tomorrow,” BeFree said.
“A ride where?”
“Up to Salem. That’s where Trey is. Oregon State Prison.”
A long silence ensued. I had originally thought Trey looked like an ex-con. All I'd gotten wrong was the ex part. Strangely, however, I didn't flinch. Inside or out.
“You’re mad, aren’t you?” she asked
I thought for a few seconds more. “No. I don’t know why, I should be pissed off, or terrified, or something, but…I’m not. And there’s no way you’re going up there alone.”
BeFree wrapped around me again, braided her legs around mine. We held each other silently all night, neither of us sleeping.
* * *
The next morning, both of us exhausted, while she made me some eggs, BeFree tossed me a newspaper from two months earlier. The headline read: Iraq War Vet Sentenced for Shooting at Bar: Ashland Resident Gets 30 Years.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should’ve told you before.”
Why I replied the way I did, I had no idea. But out it came. “This isn’t gonna be like a conjugal visit or anything, is it?”
Her face registered the disappointment. “Because I am just a slut after all, right?”
“You know I don’t think that.”
“I don’t know anything.”
I heaved a heavy breath of regret and apologized. “It’s just a lot happening, and I’m an insecure as-hole. I have no excuse.”
“Neither do I. I should’ve told you. “ She turned to me here. “I completely understand if you don’t want to give me a ride anymore. You got to f-ck me. You can go. You probably just want to leave anyway.”
I thought about it as I watched her continue to scramble eggs.
“The last thing I want,” I told her, “is to leave you.”
Spatula in hand, she embraced me. Holding her made me feel properly aligned, like the puzzle piece finally placed. I had never felt that when I’d hugged my ex-wife, or my mother, and certainly not my father or my nutjob ex-con brother, not even when he and I were younger and close as twins. BeFree released me, leaned against the counter, and told me the rest of the story about Trey.
Earlier that awful night in question, he and BeFree had gotten into a terrible fight, after he’d been way too rough with her during her webcast. “He almost tore me apart. He was high as a kite. Meth. That was the first time I realized it was a problem. He’d hidden it very well, for the first few months anyway, but then, literally, he almost killed me right there on camera. I kicked my laptop over to stop the show while I was fighting him off. He left that night, took my car, and said he never wanted to see me again, but I was sure he’d be back in a few hours. Or I hoped he would be, but mostly I was worried he was in no condition to drive, and I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. I even called the police to report him, told them what car he was driving and the plate. Then I stayed up all night, looking out the window down the street, waiting to see those headlights. Instead, about five the next morning, I got a call from the police up in Eugene. He’d shot up a bar, after some guy insulted the military, or Trey thought he did, or something. And then he tried to flee, but he crashed the Rabbit into a parked car. He’s lucky he didn’t kill anyone, or himself, even though I know he kind of wanted to. That’s why the Rabbit’s wrecked. They towed it back here after he was convicted.”
I held her close to me, and we let the eggs burn.
“Are you sure you’re comfortable doing this?” she asked. “I can easily take the bus.”
“I’d let you skydive before I’d let you on a Greyhound alone. And I’ll never let you skydive.”
She leaned her head against my chest.
“This is the last visit I’m making, you have my word. I just can’t do it anymore. He knows that.”
I kissed the top of her head. “Good.”
* * *
Just before we left, BeFree decided she wanted to take Gonzo with us.
“He’s been cooped up too long, he needs a little vacation.”
The cat climbed into the Sentra and curled up in the back seat. The drive north to Salem, the state capitol, would take about four hours. When we started out, BeFree told me she was going to try to sleep for most of the drive.
“I took a Tylenol PM, and it’s already kicking in. If I don’t get some sleep on the way, and just stay up stressing about it, I will drive you literally mad, and you’d probably kick me out of the car before we got to Eugene.”
“I’d end up hitchhiking, then I’d get murdered and dismembered.”
“I don’t want that on my conscience.”
“Then you better let me sleep.”
I started singing Rock-a-bye Baby.
“Keep singing that, it’s working,” she said, leaning the seat back.
Rock-a-bye Baby on the treetop, when the wind blows…
Within a few minutes, she had fallen dead asleep
We “sped” (a relative term with the Sentra) through the Rogue Valley, winding for miles with the Rogue River, BeFree snoring lightly, a tiny bit of drool on the corner of her lips. North of Grants Pass, a thick cold fog made everything damp, and I had to turn on the defroster, BeFree rustling but never waking. Every once in awhile, Gonzo would get up on his hind legs and look out the window for a few minutes, just like a dog would have. Then he’d curl back up and snooze along with his owner. I cruised the I-5 Oregon green through Wolf Creek, Canyonville, Myrtle Creek, past old barns and new cows, past a timber mill with white smoking stacks and walls of piled logs that seemed to stretch for half a mile. When I drove through the small town of Green, I noticed, strangely, that things were much less green than they had been, with lower hills and drier grass, and another one of those truckstops called Love’s. I looked at BeFree, still sound asleep, and I wanted to stroke her soft cheek, but didn’t want to wake her up, so I settled for glances as I drove. And I saw those signs for the rest of the drive, popping up all along the highway: Love’s, Love’s, Love’s. I could not escape the emotion. But the thought of arriving at the prison, and BeFree having to deal with that mess, it made me loathe thoughts entirely. Would this kinky fairy-tale come to an end at the conclusion of this drive? Had I been living in fantasyland and foolishly searching for a lease to sign? Maybe there was more she hadn’t told me, and I was just being used for this drive.
I would not believe it. Could not.
BeFree stirred, and I thought she might wake, but her eyes merely opened for a few seconds, and she smiled drowsily at me as she shifted in her seat and leaned her head against the window.
“How much longer?” she asked quietly, barely.
“I think about an hour.”
“Mmm…” And that was all she said, continuing her slumber.
We were passing through Eugene at this point, the heart of Duck country. More than those Love’s signs, the one constant everywhere I had been in this state, except maybe closer to Corvallis, plastered on every house and business, staked in every yard and playground, stuck to every car and truck, University of Oregon Ducks banners and flags and logos and football helmets adorned the landscape like religious icons.
At that point, my only religion was hope and fear
“I don’t know if I want to come back to Ashland right away,” she’d said before we departed. “Maybe we could just take a driving trip afterwards, for a few days.”
“As long as you want,” I replied.
Even though we hadn’t packed for a longer trip, her saying it revived my optimism, and I let myself think that we might be able to ride off into the sunset in the end. But I still feared the man behind bars. And his impact on her. Trey and BeFree had been together for eleven years. I could tell he would forever occupy an incomparable emotional place within her. Something I could not match for some time.
For the last half hour of the drive, I was in a very doubtful state.
Flatter farmland lead into Salem, fertile ground ushering us into town. The last sign I noticed before exiting the highway wasn’t for Love’s, nor was it an Oregon Ducks football shrine, it was a small church marquee. Its message normally would have made me laugh, but now it just made me uneasy:
Try Jesus Free for a Week. If You’re Not Satisfied, Satan Will Gladly Take You Back
For the first time in three days, I thought about my ex-wife and Lectric Shave Man, and how I would be more than glad if Satan took both of them right then, forget any free trials. I hated thinking about her. Staring at the road, I almost missed the sign that let me know my exit for Salem was only a mile ahead. I remember thinking that I wished I would have missed it, and that we would’ve just kept driving, as far as we could.
* * *
BeFree awoke for good as I exited the freeway.
“Hey there, Rita Van Winkle,” I welcomed her. “You have a nice nap?”
“Are we there yet?” she asked groggily.
“Couple of minutes.”
She slowly sat up, moving Gonzo off her lap and into the back seat again. Then she put down the sun visor, looking into the little mirror on the back of it. She put her hair in order, wiped away a bit of smudged mascara.
“You look beautiful,” I told her.
“I don’t really care about that. I just want to look innocent.”
The line confused me. As we rolled along the city streets, she adjusted her seatback, as they say, into the full and upright position.
“Two questions for you,” she announced.
“How long were you married? You never said.”
“You won’t believe it, but, since we’re not officially divorced yet, and using the day she moved out as the end, we were married for exactly six years, six months, and six days.”
“666? Come on.”
“Alright, I admit, I figured it when I was at the height of depression and drama, and to make it fit I pretended I lived in Singapore that day, otherwise it’s 665, but still, somewhere on the planet it was 666.”
“You crack me up.”
But she wasn’t laughing.
“I’d hate to see you really busting a gut.”
“And your mother,” she continued. “You said she died a hoarder?”
“Major league. There were toadstools growing on what little you could see of the carpet. Whole place smelled like ferret shit.”
“That’s where the ferret joke came from.”
“I guess it is, but I never harmed her little rodents, or whatever they are. I almost harmed my brother, though, when we were cleaning out my mother's place. It’s funny, it was the first time, and hopefully the only time, that I saw him since he got out of prison. So I guess we have the pen in common, too.”
“What did he go to prison for?”
“He defrauded a bunch of old people out of their retirement money in a timeshare scam.”
“What a worthless piece of shit.”
“He’s always been one. Just a tyrant like my father, thinks he can do anything. They ruled the house when I was a kid. Me and my mother mostly cowered in the corner.”
She looked over at me sympathetically. “Sounds like a few foster homes I lived in.”
“Fortunately, I have absolutely no doubt he’ll go to prison again. Hopefully he’ll die there. And I assure you, I won’t be visiting him.”
She reached across and took hold of my right hand, caressing it softly. We were getting close.
* * *
“This is it, turn left.”
When we pulled into the nondescript prison parking lot, BeFree turned to me, her expression markedly different, showing no emotion at all, only a certain resignation. I parked the car and shut it off.
“I’m sneaking something in for him,” she confessed. “I didn’t know if I was going to go through with it until now, but I am. Don’t hate me, you won’t get in trouble, I swear.”
I was dumbstruck for a few seconds. “Sneak something in? How?”
“Come on, what do I do for a living again?”
Silly me, I should have known. It seemed that superstar ass of hers had one final outlaw encore. Obviously I didn’t want her to do it, and told her so, that it was stupid.
“I know I shouldn’t do it,” she said. “I know it’s dumb, but I told him I’d help him one more time before I left. I promised him. He survived that goddamn war, I can survive this one more time.”
I frowned. “Is it meth?”
“God no. Just some pot. And I’ve done it before. It’s so horrible in there for him. He’s dying, I know he is.”
“You had it up there the entire drive?” I marveled.
“It’s not exactly an accomplishment for me.”
I shook my head. “What if they catch you?”
“They’ve never even come close. But if they do, I guess you’re relieved of your duties. Just drive away in that case.”
“You think I could drive away from you? Really?”
“I know you can if you have to.”
“Please, don’t. We’ll just drive away together, right now, we’ll go to Canada, and you can call him later and tell him you just couldn’t do it. Tell him you’re in love, that life has changed, and you just can’t do it anymore.”
She kissed me. “I’m sorry. I have to keep my promise. I’ll see you in awhile, and we’ll never have to do this again.”
With that, she exited the car and headed for the drab gray visitor’s entrance to the prison. When she disappeared into the concrete and razor-wire complex, it felt like an ice cold stone had been dropped into my chest. Gonzo climbed onto my lap, purring like a puma and doing his best to warm me up. But I remained cold, I was worried ill, my eyes were fixed on the door she’d entered, waiting with hindered breath for BeFree to emerge and return to me.
* * *
I’m still waiting here. It’s been almost two hours.
It’ll be fine, I say to myself, these things take time, prisons are chaos for everyone. My stomach, however, is wrenched into knots.
She’s done it before, I remind myself, she’s a veteran, settle down.
But then my cell phone jangles with an incoming text message. It’s from a number I don’t recognize. When I start to read the long message, I understand why:
“They f-cking caught me, I cant believe it. Sending this on a contraband phone. Im going to county lockup, arraigned 2morrow. If u feel like bailing me out, Id appreciate it, if not, I completely understand. I had a wonderful time being with u either way. When u take Gonzo back, and if u want to crash, theres a key 2 my house in the back yard, under the garden gnome with the big fat booty. U cant miss him, hes like JLo out there. But like I said, if u decide 2 go on your way, I wont hold it against u. Id probably do the same thing. Just fill the big bowls of water and food 4 Gonzo, I may be gone a week. If u can clean the litterbox also I would be 4ever thankful. And be good to yourself. UR more than worth it. All my love, BeFree.”
I am stunned, and angry, and undecided. Though the wise thing to do is to drive away immediately – before the prison authorities find me, the accomplice, and charge me as such – instead I get out of the car, with Gonzo on his leash, and stroll the colossal cat around the perimeter of the blacktop. I imagine we are quite the sight.
I should just leave her, I think, and go back to Sacramento. She keeps springing all this new shit on me, never being entirely honest about it, so forget about her. That’s the smart thing to do. I’ll just go back to my lonely normal life, get my divorce finalized, find a shitty job, and just take it slowly. Then, when the time is right, and I’ll know exactly when that is, of course, I’ll meet another unhappy divorcee on Match or E-Harmony or one of those typical sites. I’ll get remarried, inherit some stepchildren, and everything will be nauseatingly ordinary. I can practically feel myself fitting the noose around my own neck, while at the other end of the leash Gonzo is giving himself a dirt bath on a patch of gravel. I wish I could do that.
I picture BeFree’s beautiful face, those incomparable curves, and I can hear the sound of her sarcastic voice. The reality of her existence eases my racing pulse; it leads me to safety like a native guide. She isn’t dead, after all, she’s merely…delayed.
As Gonzo continues his gravel bath, I wonder how much BeFree’s bail will be, and whether I can post it with a credit card, or if I’ll need cash. And where the hell is county lockup anyway?
Here we go, Gonzo, come on boy, let’s keep moving.
The giant cat gets back on his feet and pulls me along, as I call for information on my phone, searching for the jail BeFree is being taken to. Damn this cat is strong, I think. Wild strong. And fate is like that, I suppose. Like walking a dwarf mountain lion on a leash around a prison parking lot. Even when you think fate’s mostly a crock.