The Fake Boyfriend of my Crazy August
by Margaret Holmes
Margaret Holmes graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in English and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Confrontation, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Quiddity, roger, The Talon Magazine, and Zone 3. She was nominated for Best New American Voices 2007. She lives outside of Boston with her family.
It was late summer, and I'd been alone, and the result was that boys, all boys, all men, made me frisky. So I was mixed up with John Kakwa and Hank Featherstone.
"John," Dr. Linklater said the third week in August. The doctor led the therapy group I'd been persuaded to join that winter, after I'd worn snagged mauve tights to work a few too many times. I'd been lonely, and I'd lost track of things.
"We haven't seen you in a while, John," the doctor said. "Tell us what's been going on."
Kakwa was a massive Kenyan who didn't come to group much, and he didn't usually pay attention to me. That had seemed like pointed neglect and had thus piqued my interest.
"I'm programming at BU now, at night, Doctor," John said. "You got me to stay away from the crack house, and I have been clean for two years. But I'm having trouble with my wife. I have told her that I will deny her sex until she chooses to obey me. Of course, this is difficult for me, as well as for her."
"Is that a fact?" I said, my hand on my thigh, wedged between my crossed legs. "No sex?"
He whipped his head around and looked at me.
John was hungering for sex. John Kakwa. Candy and confection. Though his head was small, his chest was lovely and large. My body was taut from not eating, and I was oozing, so I thought, raw sensuality.
"Don't hold your breath, John," said Edith, a distinctly unpleasant group veteran who had alienated everyone there.
"John has nothing to worry about," I said.
John busied himself with a Coke and orange-colored chips, but still he watched me.
"Not that I'm offering," I said. I was all over the map.
"Aren't you?" asked Edith.
"Are you?" John said. "You're an educated, intelligent woman." He licked orange flakes off each finger individually.
There was no piece of flattery, however transparent, that I wouldn't absorb.
"This isn't really appropriate talk," Dr. Linklater said.
Neither John nor I cared about what was appropriate. We leaned in at each other, and I believed John felt the heat that I felt, and it made me feel good.
Dwight, a mostly catatonic nineteen-year-old, said, "Women who look like Edith shouldn't show cleavage," surprising us all.
"I'm a married woman, you schmuck retard," Edith said. She held that over people, that and her Bryn Mawr degree.
John said, "And you wonder, Edith, why everyone in here hates you."
But this was off the topic of my concern. I stared out the window at the trees, which were still laden and green.
Dr. Linklater spoke to Kakwa again. "How are things between you and your daughter, John?"
"I am afraid," Kakwa began in his deep tones, "that she has inherited my depressive disease. Also the high school says she is skipping classes. I do not know what she is doing all day. I am beating her to try and control her behavior."
"You also need to control your own behavior," said Dr. Linklater. "We're hospitalizing your daughter for her bipolar disorder. You're having a hard time, aren't you, John?"
"Don't take it out on her physically," I said.
"I do not have sex with her," John said. "My niece was a separate situation." His elbows were propped on the table, and he hid his small head in stubby hands.
"What?" asked Edith.
"My wife and sister-in-law said I was like Woody Allen," John said.
"He didn't do anything wrong," I said.
John straightened up and put one of the stubby hands on my arm. I felt a frisson, the kind I liked.
"How are you, Carolyn?" the doctor asked me. He had a bland way of talking that masked how sharp he was. Even at the healthiest of times, I kind of thought he could read my mind. Did he know I'd stopped taking those antidepressants that dulled what therapists called "feelings"?
He told me, "I see you privately next week."
Usually I craved those individual sessions. The doctor himself was handsome. But now I was kickin'. Now I was showin' him.
"Whatever," I said.
"Right," he said. "Whatever."
I'd told the doctor stories of past escapades, so he was aware of my penchant for older, "interesting" men, men who would mess with my head, and he would surely disapprove of any dalliance with John.
There was general conversation of hurt and failure, confusion and fear.
"Well, people," the doctor said, "we have to stop."
Patients stood up and milled. Young Dwight shuffled toward me.
"Come over and listen to Howard Stern tonight?"
"Go away. No. Are you kidding me?" I grimaced at him, despite the fact that I'd listened to the show with him three times already that month. As we filed out of the group room past the vending machines in the hallway, I looked at the Fritos and M&Ms and felt pangs of hunger and longing.
"Please," said Dwight.
Once Dr. Linklater had asked me what I had in common with Dwight, who was, after all, so limited.
"Popular culture," I'd said. With luck he couldn't look inside me and learn that by the vast term popular culture I meant only Howard Stern.
I ignored Dwight now.
John Kakwa followed me to the staircase, but lost in my hungry fugue I didn't know it until he hugged me from behind. It was an assault, but it was also exciting. He smelled of sweat and tobacco. I sagged into his arms, then turned around and pressed my chest into his. He lifted my chin until our eyes met.
"You are not only intelligent, you are also pretty," he said.
"Thank you, yes," I said. I was feeling very pretty.
"I mean, you're not Princess Diana," he said.
I was wounded and pulled away. "But I want to be," I said.
"Okay, okay, you are as pretty as Princess Diana," he said, putting his foot on top of mine and pulling me back to him.
There was a second when I felt protected. Then I thought of something and backed away. I asked him how he could beat his daughter.
"My father was secretary to an English colonel. He learned English customs. Strict standards, strict discipline. He disciplined us with sticks. That is how I became educated, and that is how I was able to leave my country. That is how I discipline my daughter."
What more could I do? I gave him my phone number when he asked for it.
"I have to go home now," I said.
My thoughts had turned to Hank Featherstone.
Hank was waiting for me back in my apartment. That same day, and the night before, I had been messing around with him, and I wanted to go back to him and his earring, his slim body. Hank!
I checked my reflection in the handicapped bathroom mirror, which was tilted such that the me I saw was distorted. After nodding good-bye to the people at the front desk, who knew me because I was a regular at the clinic, I left the air-conditioning for the close August air.
# # #
Hank was a Vietnam vet poetry teacher who lived on my street. I'd been awed by and afraid of him until we'd bumped into each other at a reading the weekend before. I'd flirted and hadn't been able to turn down his subsequent offer. Finally. Hank. He'd had lots of women. I knew he'd walk sooner rather than later, but I couldn't care.
His summer semester of teaching was over, and he had all the time in the world. Come to think of it, Hank always acted as though he had all the time in the world. Did he act that way because at forty he was wise, or was it the perspective Vietnam had given him, or was it all the drugs he had taken over the years, or was it just because he was from California?
"My sorry ass," he'd said, but I didn't see it that way, and I knew he didn't really, either.
Hank and I ordered pizza late that night. I didn't eat. He didn't seem to notice, or if he noticed, it didn't bother him.
"You know, Carolyn," he said, stretching out and placing his toes on my abdomen, "I'm very fond of you." He read me a Kenneth Koch poem. Billie Holiday was playing on my stereo, which wasn't a good one.
Hank had made the last few days happy ones for me, and I dared to feel sorry that it wouldn't last.
# # #
The next day, Hank asked me to go hear him read with a group of other Vietnam vets. He showed up at my door that night wearing a blue blazer. He had slicked his hair back. That set off his earring, and I thought he looked cool.
"Dang," he said, "I forgot my manuscript."
So we stopped back at his place, where I'd never been. His walls were covered with photographs of women he'd known, including a Polaroid he'd snapped of me a few days before, naked from the waist up. I wasn't happy with that. But whereas with anyone else the pictures would seem like a weird fetish, with Hank it was just Hank taking pleasure in his life. Also his diplomas were prominently displayed. So strong and pure was Hank's pride that it almost made you think it was warranted.
On the T, I could tell other people thought he looked cool, too, and then as soon as we got to the reading, women surrounded Hank, a fan club.
One of the women said to him, "We haven't, you know, in a long time." He didn't push her away. But then, after I slid off and sat by myself in the back row, Hank came and sat beside me.
He read in a fake voice, purportedly the dialect of a Tijuana street person. The accent was embarrassing. Most of the audience, however, reacted as though he were a rock star.
The other writers read poems about the war.
"We were on the wrong side," one of them said. With him was the tired-looking helpmate he had married before the war. I got the sense that his sticking with her had been an issue. Her clothes weren't right for this group.
A tough little woman offered Hank and me a ride home, so we piled into her ancient car, which was filled with vets and hangers-on and featured a fur-covered steering wheel.
"I've been a Vietnam junkie for a long time," the woman said, capturing the tenor of the evening.
"Any plans for tonight?" Hank said when we got to my door.
This would be our fourth night together, a record for me, that year. Was he kidding? Surely it had been clear that pre-Hank I'd been celibate a good long time.
I told him no, no plans, though maybe I should have lied. We went inside and took a shower together, me feeling a little shy about making the best of what he was doing. Then we lit candles. Hank offered a massage. I thought he was being nice because he wanted me to praise his reading, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. He started telling a story.
"My sister used to work selling bathroom fixtures and she traveled all the time," he said as he kneaded my shoulders.
"She had an apartment in Miami, where she worked a lot. She's a Buddhist, but she kept a gun for protection."
Apparently Hank knew about the chakras, because he was hitting mine perfectly. That always did wonders for me, even though I doubted they existed. How could that be?
"She started an affair with a woman," he said. "They went to butch dances and played butch softball. But then the woman told her she wanted to break it off. My sister pulled the gun out of the drawer and shot her lover dead. She's in prison now in Florida. I might visit her."
I was silent. Hank drew his fingers up and down my arms and legs and went to sleep in the small hours of the morning. I lay awake for a long time, thinking about Hank's sister and John Kakwa, and trying to decide how I could better decorate my bedroom.
Then, half-dozing, I saw myself standing on a scale. It said that I weighed 245 pounds.
"That's not right," I screamed at my mother, and she said solemnly, "Yes, it is."
But then I saw a young man, and then the boy was Johnny Depp, and he was the sexiest boy, with the nicest voice, and I had to have him. It hurt, he was so sexy. I had to have him.
# # #
The next afternoon Hank and I lay on my bed with the shades drawn, filtering out the sunlight.
"This feels decadent," he said, running his pretty hand over my hip bone.
"Aren't you used to that?"
He said, "I'm extending my stay for you." I couldn't take him seriously. Blond surfer vet poet Lotharios didn't like me.
The phone rang.
When I said "Hello," he said, "It's John Kakwa from group. I want to see you."
I stared at a print I had on the wall, a Matisse picture that made life look beautiful. Did I want to see John?
Hank asked, "But when are you coming back to me?"
I told him half an hour.
"We'll just walk around the Yard," I said.
"Don't go," Hank said, but he let me.
# # #
John and I had agreed to meet at the corner. I didn't want the two men meeting each other. My apartment constituted the small addition of a lavender Victorian house. I resented the owners because they seemed so happy, with their kids and sweaters and Volvos and guests, their dogs and professorships.
It was hot, even under the shelter of the landlords' copper beech. I went out back to look at their vegetable garden. Flourishing.
When I came around front again, John Kakwa was standing at the door, talking to a naked Hank through the screen. I didn't want to know what they were saying because I might have had to make some decision.
"I thought we were meeting at the corner," I said to John.
"Is that a suitor?"
"He is rather formidable," John said. I ignored the content of what he said but found his stiff way of speaking reassuring.
We walked to Harvard Yard and in through the gates. Because summer school had let out, there were only a few people in the Yard with us. John nodded pompously to a campus policeman and took two German tourists' picture for them.
"You look good again today," he said.
After a few mute, hot turns around the perimeter, we approached Sever Hall, with its massive brick front, its arch, and its wide, beckoning steps. We ascended and came to the first-floor hall. From that cool height, only a dim strip of outside light was visible in the doorway.
"A famous American architect designed this building," I said. I sounded like a schoolgirl. Given the way John was sweating, I wished I were one.
"You are very cultured," he said. "Moreover, I will tell you that I notice that you are always well dressed. This indicates pride in your person and care to please the opposite sex."
It was a fact that I liked clothes. Just then it was cut-off blue jean shorts and a nubbly pink halter top. I was certain that I looked like a fox. But the hallway was a shadowy cavern, and the topic of clothes and its cousin, the topic of pleasing the opposite sex, were ones I wanted, for once, to avoid. But there I was.
John put his arm around me. The arm was heavy on my shoulders and hurt my neck. The sweaty pit smothered me. The huge body now too close to mine was not reassuring at all.
I realized that I'd come out without so much as a phone or a quarter or a piece of identification. With Hank in my place, I'd come without keys. Hank: how sweet he seemed now. But I hadn't told Hank I had no keys. What if he left my place and went back home, down the street to his apartment, or off where I'd never find him again? He wasn't bound to me. God, he wasn't bound to me. From this vast, dark hallway, my place with Hank in it seemed like a distant oasis.
Two flights up, ten years before, I'd taken a Milton class with a Texan professor in a three-piece suit. We'd loved the twang he'd put on Latinate words. Something about dubiety.
"I had a class in this building," I said to John Kakwa, thinking to distract him.
What protection was that to me now?
"Carolyn," John said, as though I were a misbehaving child. He stood facing me.
"I would like you to kiss me now," he said.
"I don't want to do that." What I'd felt in group was gone.
"You came here with me, Carolyn," John said. "I expect something from you."
"No." That was all I could say, and I said it faintly. I could see the stairs, the distant pale strip of the outdoors, but I couldn't move.
"Carolyn," he said. "Please remove your shirt."
"Not a chance."
"In that case," he said, and began to unzip his pants, "I want you to bend over and take care of my sex."
I felt lucid now, but I couldn't run.
"I'm not going to do that," I said. Never had my man-craziness seemed stupider. Now I remembered my Texan professor clearly, speaking of Eve's fall.
John took a step closer to me, drew one hand far in back of him, and brought it forward in a hard slap to my cheek.
"You son of a bitch," I said. In all my drunk, drugged, and crazy times, no one had ever hit me.
He tried to grab me. When, summoning a frightened, crazy person's strength, I pushed his huge body away, he drew his hand back to the opposite side and slapped me on the other cheek.
John took my shoulders. "Now the time of warning is over," he said.
"All right," I said. "Listen, John. We're friends."
I wasn't sure what I was getting at.
But he was sure. He smiled. "I knew you were a woman who understands men," he said.
The only thing that came to me was the truth.
"I don't understand men," I said. "I long for them." Speaking to some ideal interlocutor, the one I had never found.
He stood tall, regal, and at ease.
"Therefore, Carolyn," he said. He moved toward me.
Though it was hot, I shivered. I heard cicadas and, somewhere distant, the buzz of an electric mower.
I resigned myself to a bad time.
Then, just as John bent to untie my ridiculously suggestive halter top, Hank and two campus policemen came up the stairs. The police pulled John away from me, and Hank deftly caught and retied my shirt.
"Carolyn, tell them that nothing bad happened here," John said.
Even though I did believe, at that moment, that he and I were in some way friends, I didn't try to defend him.
While the policemen radioed their station, Hank kept his eyes on me. He had pulled on blue jeans for the first time in two days, but his feet and chest were bare. Even at a time like this, or maybe especially at this time, his good looks were striking. Then he asked me whether I was all right, and we undertook our most tender embrace.
# # #
John was arrested on assault and narcotics charges—he'd been carrying a gram of cocaine—and I was sent to the hospital for two weeks. There they got me back on my medication, and I caught up on eating and sleeping. Hank visited me in the hospital every day, charming the nurses, but not so much as touching me. He must have sensed that I wanted to remain chaste after my run-in with John. I wished that Dr. Linklater would visit me, but he didn't do it.
I had a roommate who called herself Dr. Dusty. Her long, dark hair was tangled.
"That man likes you," she said of Hank. Dusty's credibility was low, but then my favorite nurse, named Phyllis, said exactly the same thing.
"That man likes you," she said.
Still, I didn't believe it.
# # #
On the day I was discharged, my mother wanted to pick me up. Hank didn't object. That would be it for him, I was sure. My mother took me to The Harvest for lunch. She ordered a martini, which, sadly, I could no longer do.
"You must learn self-preservation," she said.
Suddenly smarting from my Johnny Depp dream, I told her, "I don't even weigh one hundred and forty-five."
She speared her olive and looked at me oddly.
"No," she said.
I stirred in my chair. "There was a guy I liked, Hank," I said.
"Do you trust your judgment?"
I had to think about it. "Anyway, he's out of the picture now," I said.
# # #
Back at home, my first night, I felt too much space around me. I didn't have a real boyfriend, and certainly I would no longer have Hank, the fake boyfriend of my crazy August. Soon cold weather would come, forcing me inside. I remembered how, the winter before, the cold had sent warmth-seeking mice into my apartment. I had been afraid of them. The mice had been the only living things joining me there that whole month. They were afraid of me, too, of course. We were shivering out gray lives in our opposite corners.
As I entertained that thought, my buzzer rang.
A human being? I walked to the door and looked through the peephole. And opened the door.
Hank held daisies—picked, not bought—and a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream.
"I'm not leaving," he said. "And I know what you think of me."
I didn't bother to protest.
"It's only partly true," he said. "Can I stay?"
And while it lasted, which was longer than I would have dreamed, it was good, really good.
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