Authors: Kate Kendal
They don’t have speed dial anymore but if they did, Paul would be number one.
The highway was bumper to bumper as it always was this time of day. It looked like a tedious half hour of stop-and-go was in my future, so I turned on my cell phone. It vibrated in my hand, emitting a cheerful tone.
Eleven unread texts. The sender was no mystery. My boyfriend was mad again.
Curtis wasn’t without his charms. He had a decent amount of money, dressed alright, and was a lot of fun to go out with. The problem lay in his Type A personality - he spent more time worrying about what people thought of him rather than just being himself. He could be smiling, talkative, and laughing with his friends in a bar, but as soon as we hit the car, he would be brooding, frustrated, and anxious.
“Do you think I offended him?” he’d ask. “Did I look sloppy? Were they looking at me weird? Were they looking at you weird? Were they looking at us weird?”
There isn’t a “chill pill” big enough to calm him down, I’m sure.
My text messages went ignored as I placed a call.
“Hello?” Paul answered, as if he didn’t know it was me.
“Hey hey, how are you?” I asked. I tried my best to sound conversational.
“Great. I got out of work early,” he bragged.
“Nice? So, what’re you going to do?” I asked.
A horn blared behind me. I turned my head and saw a white SUV flashing its brights. The car in front of me had moved up a couple feet. I rolled forward to close the cap, hoping I satisfied the prick behind me.
“Sorry, what did you say?” I said.
“Oh,” Paul stuttered. “I said it was an unexpected half day, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”
“Lucky you,” I muttered. “I worked over and I’m caught on 79 again.”
“Wow, that sucks,” he consoled.
“Yeah, usually I get out fast enough to avoid all of this, but here I am,” I said.
“Yeah. That sucks,” Paul said. “Why did you have to work over?”
“End of the month,” I stated. “Crunch time. You’ve heard me bitch about it enough.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Well, a job’s a job, right?”
“I guess,” I answered. “But sometimes, salary just seems like a raw deal.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I can see how that would be frustrating.”
“Damn right,” I said, crawling forward once again. I saw a car blazing past me down the shoulder lane.
“People are idiots,” I added.
“At work?” Paul asked.
“No, some guy just got out of the jam and is speeding down the side of the highway like it is going to get him somewhere,” I said.
“We’re better than that, right?” he said.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I suppose so. But. Still.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know what you mean.”
“So, guess what happened today?” I said. “Curtis starts texting me, just blowing up my phone while I am at work.”
“Oh?” Paul said. “What did he want?”
“The usual,” I answered. “He’s freaking out about something. He introduced me to some client the other day. We happened to run into him while we were at the store and now he’s convinced that I made a bad impression.”
“Bad impression?” Paul questioned. “How would you do that?”
“I don’t know,” I whined. “Something about me blowing him off. The client, I mean.”
“How would you blow a client off?” Paul asked.
“I went back to grocery shopping after I introduced myself,” I explained. “They were talking so long. They only stopped because I’d made a lap around the store and the cart was full.”
“So what did he want you to do?” Paul said.
The white SUV quickly merged to the left. Tires screeched as he sped into the gap in the traffic.
“God dammit,” I yelled. “Another idiot just pulled out in front of someone to get ahead by a couple cars. People are ridiculous.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “People are ridiculous.”
“Wow. Sorry,” I said. “Anyway, I guess Curtis expected me to stick around and listen to a bunch of shit I don’t know about or care about.”
“Understandable,” Paul said. “You’ve got your own job to worry about.”
“Right?” I said. “I wish he could see that.”
“Maybe he’s not the right one,” Paul offered.
“You think so?” I asked. I looked at the digital display on the radio. I’d been on the same ramp for 12 minutes.
“I didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” Paul quickly stammered.
“No,” I said. “You’re fine. I don’t mean to always dump my problems on you.”
“It’s okay,” he said weakly.
“We’ve been having all kinds problems,” I said. “You don’t even know.”
“Sounds rough,” Paul said.
“I don’t know how comfortable you are with this sort of thing. Maybe this is TMI,” I warned. “We’re having some issues in the bedroom.”
“Oh?” Paul said. He seemed a little startled.
“He spends the entire time thinking of himself. It’s always planned and perfect. He’s so high strung. Like, he can’t give in to the moment,” I said. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Truthfully,” Paul said, chuckling quietly. “Not really.”
“You’ve had girlfriends, though,” I said.
“Yes, but things never got… there,” he said.
“Wait, what?” I questioned.
“I don’t know. I don’t really want to lay it all on you,” he said.
“No, tell me,” I said curiously. “What happened?”
“With which one?” Paul asked.
“Well,” I said. “I only know about two.”
“Right,” he confirmed. “But which one of those two do you want to know about?”
“Wait,” I said. “You’ve only had two girlfriends, like, ever?”
“That is correct,” Paul said. I could hear him blushing through the receiver.
“So, you’re saying you had bad sexual experiences with them?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Not at all. I’m saying I had no sexual experiences with them.”
If I had been driving I probably would have had to pull over. Sitting in my car on the same on-ramp for twenty minutes does not count as driving.
“Wow,” I said. “Really?” I nearly covered my mouth as I realized how insulting I sounded.
“Yeah,” Paul said feebly. “But it’s not a big deal. It’ll happen someday, I guess.”
“Paul, you’d be so good!” I started giggling as I realized what I had said. “I mean as a boyfriend!” I added.
“Thanks,” he said. He didn’t seem as amused as I was.
“Really, I mean it,” I assured. “You seem like you’d be so caring.”
“Thanks,” he said again. “I guess I’d like to think so.” Paul sounded restrained, as if he were fighting to keep himself composed.
“You know what? I’m going to come over tonight,” I stated. “You said you’re not busy, right?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “You know you can come over whenever.”
“Great,” I said joyfully. “Whenever I get off of this damn ramp I’ll be there. Thirty minutes?”
“Sounds fine,” he said. “See you soon.”
I got to Paul’s apartment ten minutes later than I had intended to. Our plans were informal, so I didn’t feel particularly rushed.
The smell of mothballs fumigated into my sinuses, nearly choking me. Paul didn’t live in the nicest complex. His place was one hundred dollars less than mine but only half as inviting. He saw the discount worthy of whatever headache or nightmarish wallpaper he was subjected to.
He answered the door as I swung my arm back for the third knock.
“Hey,” I said. “Why does it smell weird out there?”
“Oh,” he said, sniffing at the air in the hall. “I think they’re doing carpet cleaning.”
“Hopefully that’s the smell they’re cleaning out,” I said. “I can’t imagine that nasty odor covering up something worse.”
“At least it’s out there,” he noted, inviting me in.
“Your scruff looks good,” I observed.
“Unintentional, but thanks,” he said quietly as he stroked his stubbly chin.
I set my bag down on the kitchen counter next to the bowl of fruit. Paul was the only person in my entire life I had met with a real bowl of fruit that he actually ate. My mom always threw the bowl of fruit out when it inevitably went rotten from neglect.
“Did you eat?” he said. “I ordered Chinese but I’m sure I won’t eat it all.”
“I’m fine,” I answered. “It’s been a hectic day. I can’t imagine stuffing myself.”
“Alright,” he said. He stood across from me, holding a hand towel, folding it and refolding it. “So, what’s up?”
“I just figured we’d talk in the flesh, you know?” I clarified. “I never really heard your whole story.”
“There’s not much to hear,” he said, turning away to pack his leftovers into the fridge. “That’s actually the whole point.”
“Well, I mean, you seem to be taking it well,” I noted. “Right?”
He turned and paced toward the living room. I followed.
“Right?” I asked again.
“I’m afraid I’ll never lose my virginity,” he admitted quietly, staring toward the wall.
“Hey, it will happen,” I said, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You’re amazing. You’re so caring. Young girls, they just want some asshole. The bad boy. It doesn’t work. They’ll all figure it out one day and come running to you.”
“Why is that?” Paul asked, turning back toward me.
“What? Why do girls want the bad boy?” I asked.
“Well, I mean, why do you like Curtis?” he said. His front teeth were grabbing his bottom lip.
“Curtis is hardly a bad boy,” I answered. I let out a burst oflaughter. “Curtis isn’t a bad boy at all. He’s a total baby.”
“He doesn’t seem to be very nice,” Paul said. “I mean, from like, what you tell me. I think?”
“No,” I concurred. “He’s not nice but he’s trying.”
“What about the uh…” Paul said, wringing his hands instead of a dish towel. “What about the bedroom stuff?”
“That’s just how guys are,” I explained. “They’re all like that.”
“Why? I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
“Well, you’re a rare breed,” I commented, having a seat.
“So, if he’s not nice to you and you’re having um… marital problems,” he said.
“Not marital. Oh no, not marital,” I objected, cutting him off.
“Well. Uh, whatever. You know what I mean,” he continued awkwardly. “If you’re having these issues, why do you keep going out with him?”
I chewed on my tongue. The mothball smell still lingered.
“I don’t know,” I said absentmindedly. “He’s really attractive and has a great career.”
“That part sounds good,” Paul said, careful not to be condescending. “Where does that leave a guy like me?”
“You’ll find the right girl,” I said decidedly. “It will happen.”
“Maybe when I’m really old,” Paul murmured. “It just kind of hurts to, you know, not have had… that… or know anything about it.”
“Well, maybe you’ll lead a generation of men who actually care about their partners in bed,” I said.
“What does he do wrong?” he asked. “Like, what does Curtis do? I guess I could learn from his mistakes or whatever if I ever get the chance to…”
“It is what Curtis doesn’t do that counts,” I said cheekily. “He never gives me head-“
Paul cut me off this time. “Tara, wow!”
“Okay, okay,” I apologized. “I just don’t find this to be a touchy topic like some people. Besides, I can tell you anything.”
“Right, I’ve just never heard stuff like this before,” Paul said.
“Well, do you even know how to give head?” I asked.
He put his hands on the table as if he were bracing for an earthquake or something.
“Obviously the answer is no,” he said, exasperated.
“You have to watch porn or something?” I asked.
His fingers dug into the table a little more.
“Right?” I repeated.
“Not really,” he stammered. “I mean, no.”
“Really?” I asked.
He swallowed hard and nodded.
I pulled my bottom lip between my thumb and forefinger. My tongue pressed the back of my teeth.
“What if I could teach you?” I asked. I made sure to look him straight in the eye; a technique they taught us in sales training.
Paul seemed to be trying to look at his own nose. “Um. Teach me how?” he asked.
“Have you ever actually been down there?” I asked. I noticed his wrists seemed to be shaking. “Paul, you’re fine. That’s why we’re best friends. We can talk like this.”
“Right,” he said unsurely.
“You know, you’re the exact opposite of Curtis,” I stated, examining him. “Look how worried you are right now!”
“I just,” he stuttered. “I just don’t want to upset you.”
“How would you upset me?” I asked, pushing his hands gently off of the table. As they fell off the side, I grabbed them.
“I don’t know,” he said, avoiding my gaze. “Guys just seem like pigs or whatever and I don’t want to be seen like that.”
“You’ll never have to worry about that,” I said, standing from the chair, his hands still in mine. “You’re nice. You’re too nice.”
“Thanks,” he said limply.
“I know I can trust you,” I said. “I know I can trust you and I think we can solve both of our problems.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.