Saints and Sinners (full story)




“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

–Oscar Wilde



Beckett’s Pub is hot as hell. Even the state-of-the-art air conditioner and exhaust fans can’t keep up with the crush of frisky, inebriated bodies crowded into the bar. Teetering visitors and locals alike throw arms around each other and toast again and again to St. Patrick’s Day. To the gift of gab. To the luck o’ the Irish.

Póg ma thoin, thinks Brendan, packing up his gear. Go home already.

It would be easy for Brendan to put on a phony accent and pretend otherwise, but he’s only a quarter Irish. His paternal grandfather was born in Tipperary. It’s Grandpa Connelly Brendan takes after: reddish-blonde hair, light blue eyes, and an annoying tendency to freckle like a damned trout. He’s tall and broad-shouldered just like his grandfather, who was a longshoreman back in Baltimore.

 Brendan glances up at the clock. Two in the morning. He rubs his chin; he needs a shave.

He’s folding up his guitar stand when the owner of the pub, Dave, finds him and gives him his portion of the take. For an Irish-looking session musician like Brendan who knows the lyrics to a few drinking songs, St. Patrick’s is a reliable payday, especially at Beckett’s, the only Irish pub in Las Vegas. Grandpa Connelly would laugh outright at the idea of a bit of Ireland in the middle of the desert.

Brendan’s known Dave for years. Dave is a real entrepreneur: charismatic, quick and loud. His belly makes a shadow over the kilt and sporran he’s sporting in honor of the pub’s busiest night, but Dave’s about as Irish as lederhosen. He takes a handkerchief out of his sporran and mops his glistening face as he leans against the back wall to catch his breath.

“Nice set, tonight,” he says. “I think we’ll see a 20%, maybe 25% rise in sales over last year. Think the flyers paid off.”

“Maybe,” Brendan replies. “If you got them for a good price.” Of course. Dave never pays full price for anything. “How’s Mary? The kids?”

“She’s great. They’re all fine,” says Dave. He leans forward to make sure he’s heard above the roar of the crowd. “Say, listen. I know it’s short notice. We’re having a birthday party for the kids on Saturday. You know where I live, right?”

“Yeah. Green Valley.” Brendan folds the envelope of cash into his pocket. “Saturday? What time?”

“Eleven. It’ll probably go ‘til late. Drop by. My wife would love to see you again and give you a good feed. You remind her of me when I was young and handsome.” He laughs, dissolving into a bout of coughing that shakes his jowls back and forth. “What are you now, 26, 27?”

“30.”

“No shit. Well, it all happened when I turned thirty-five. Metabolism slowed down. Way down.” He rubs his belly. “So enjoy the good looks while you can. Because this sexiness is what you have to look forward to.”

“Jesus,” says Brendan. “I should be so lucky.”

Dave gives him a slap on the back. “Yup. And speaking of sexiness, I see a young maneater who wants to reconnect. See you Saturday, boy-o.” He tips his head toward the bar. Before Brendan can stall him, Dave disappears around the corner, and Wendy sees her opening.

She unfolds herself off the barstool and unfurls herself like a flag. As she makes her way toward Brendan, half of the men stare openly at her. The other half stare surreptitiously through the bottoms of their beer mugs.

Wendy is almost always the hottest woman at Beckett’s, even tonight, when the crowd is easily in the hundreds. She is a dancer, impossibly tall and impeccably blonde. She is a regular who visits with her girlfriends, a gaggle of considerably less attractive women who use her like a lighthouse. Men sail in, attracted by the light, but most of them get bushwhacked by Wendy’s friends.

Wendy never paid anyone serious attention until one night, on a whim, Brendan dedicated a song to her on stage. “Black Velvet Band” is not a particularly flattering song, but from the look on her face, Brendan figured she wasn’t paying attention to the lyrics. To his astonishment, she brought him to her apartment and rode him until he nearly passed out from exertion. It wasn’t great sex, but he’d never had such long legs wrapped around him, and he developed a sort of fascination with her body if not with the woman inside it.

She seeks him out every few weeks or so. For exercise.

For a while, he didn’t mind the diversion. Until last month, after a quick roll-around on a rainy night, he lay in her bed and watched her at her dressing table as she brushed her hair. And curiosity got the better of him.

“Are you seeing anyone?” he asked. “Besides me?”

She smirked in the mirror, not at him, but at herself. “Like this? No.”

“So…why don’t you and I get together?” Awkward as hell, but there. He’d said it. “We could…grab breakfast. Have a picnic. I could sing songs for you.”

Wendy said nothing for a moment, leading him to believe she was considering his offer. Then she sighed, the way someone impatient would sigh in exasperation at a small child. She said, “Because I see you for fun.”

“Yes, I’m well aware of that.”

“And because Paul said I could.”

Brendan sat up. “Paul?”

“I have an arrangement with him. He’s…older. My patron.”

Wendy went on to explain the mutual benefits relationship she had with an older man named Paul who owned a pool-cleaning business that serviced all the big resorts. They’d met on an online message board. Paul put her up in her apartment and paid for her salon appointments, dancing lessons, clothes, shoes, purses, and cell phone.

“Is he married or something?” Brendan asked, now genuinely interested in her unique setup.

“No,” she said. “He’s been married three times before. He’s done with being married.”

“And so…he has you.”

“Yup.”

“And he doesn’t mind my…being here?”

“No.” She braided her hair loosely and started to rub moisturizer onto her cheeks. She looked at Brendan once in the mirror. “Are you judging me?”

Brendan snorted. “Judging you? I find this fascinating. I’ve always seen these ads in the paper and online for ‘mutual benefits,’ but I’ve never met anyone who actually lived the life.”

She scowled. “You are totally judging me. I can tell.” She turned around. Her breasts were perfectly round. They felt nowhere near real. Another gift from Paul? Her nipples were supernaturally sensitive; she could come just from his licking them. It was like a party trick that she couldn’t show off at parties. “I don’t know how it’s different from what you do. Going up on stage as drunk people yell song titles at you and you perform like a little monkey.”

She was half-joking, and as a kept woman she had very little authority to castigate him about such things. But what she said still bothered him. And so, as much as he enjoyed exercising with her, he made the decision to tell her no next time she came around.

* * *

Which is tonight. And Wendy is inebriated. There are two dozen strings of green Mardi Gras beads around her neck. One string has a plastic shot glass hanging on it that says, “I’m not as think as you drunk I am.” She slithers over to him and jumps on his back, wrapping her arms around his neck and her long legs around his torso.

“Brendan Connelly, you sexy-ass Irishman. I’ve been waiting for you all night,” she says, making sure the whole room sees whom she’s chosen and how ecstatic that man should be at her blatant display of affection.

When his attempts to disentangle himself fail, he reaches under his own arm and tickles her until she wiggles off, screeching and giggling. “Okay, okay, okay!” she yells. She totters a little bit, then leans on the banister at the stairway leading to the back exit.

“You ready to go?” she says. “You gotta drive. Here.” She reaches into her purse and pulls out a BMW key. Another gift from Paul, no doubt.

He takes her key and puts it in his pocket. He steers her over to another bar stool and sits her down. “Listen, Wendy, I can’t come with you tonight.”

Actual alarm appears on her face. “What? Why?” she asks.

“I don’t feel well,” he says. It’s a lie, but he wasn’t expecting the shocked expression on her face. “I’m feeling really run down, actually. I wouldn’t be fun.”

“What am I supposed to do?” It’s not a rhetorical question when she asks it. She’s never been rejected before. She actually has no idea what to do.

He leans over and kisses her cheek. He flags down a bartender and asks the man to call a taxi for Wendy and to bring some ice water. Wendy begins to whimper in protest, but with her key in Brendan’s pocket, she has no other way of getting home.

“Take the cab home, okay?” he says.

“Asshole,” she mutters as he walks away. She puts her head down on her arms and promptly begins to snore.

* * *

There’s a slight ringing in Brendan’s ears as he humps his gear into the old Bronco. The parking lot’s silence is a shock compared to the roar inside Beckett’s. The cool, dry air is a relief on Brendan’s damp skin. When a breeze kicks up, he takes a deep breath, trying to rid his lungs of the smell of sweat, beer, and cheap whiskey. He shuts the door and leans against his car. The lights in the parking lot create a pattern of blinding-white Venn diagrams on the asphalt. Beyond the illumination is nothing but pitch-black desert.

Weird city, Las Vegas. A pile of glitter on black velvet. A galaxy unto itself.

He reaches into his pocket for the envelope Dave gave him. He opens it and thumbs through the bills. Enough for two months’ rent and groceries. Maybe even a new tire to replace the one that got a nail last week. Enough to send a little home.

“Hey, stranger,” says a voice, and Brendan jumps, his heart in his throat.

Times are hard in Vegas. He’s been mugged before. His car’s been broken into twice. He shoves the money back into his pocket and turns toward the sadist who just scared the love of Jesus out of him.

She’s standing on the other side of the car. At first all Brendan can see is her dark hair and the harsh shadows that the street lamps cast on the contours of her face. Then she steps into a puddle of light and Brendan’s heart pumps a surge of fresh adrenaline. In the stark illumination, she looks like a ghost. But he’d know her anywhere.

“Cat?” he says. “What the hell?”

Her smile is both brilliant and sinister in the brightness. He meets her halfway and when she raises her arms, he steps into them, receiving her tentative embrace. She’s tiny—her head rests easily under his chin—and she’s cold. In nothing but a purple silk top and black skirt, she is shivering.

Without thinking, he rubs her arms to warm her. Her light brown skin is smooth and cool, but suddenly, his hands feel all wrong on her—massive, clumsy. Even five years ago, when they saw each other every day, they had never shared such casual physical familiarity. So he drops his hands to his sides.

She takes a small step back and looks up at him. She is as he remembers: straight nose, full lips, high cheekbones. And those eyes: enormous, black as onyx, heavy-lidded and fringed with dark lashes. She looks like the love child of a Norwegian expressionist painter and his milkmaid model. 

She’s not wearing any makeup. After all this time in Vegas, he’s almost forgotten what a woman looks like without makeup. At this moment, he decides he doesn’t like makeup. He decides he’s never liked it.

“Are you surprised?” she asks. “I saw your name. And then I got lost. I thought I’d missed you.” She pulls a small folded flyer out of her pocket and hands it to him. One of Dave’s advertising the Sin City St. Patrick’s Day Music Festival. Brendan reads his name in tiny print among the jumble of other musical acts.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, handing the flyer back.

“A convention. Real estate, very boring. I was walking down the Strip when someone handed me this and I just had to try and see you. I just had to,” she says. She puts the flyer back in her pocket.

At the mention of real estate, Brendan realizes she must be in town with Frank. He bristles, but he tries not to show it. “Do you want to grab a cup of coffee or something?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “I wanted to go for a walk with you, but it’s colder than I thought.”

He opens his car door, reaches for his beat-up leather jacket, and drapes it over her shoulders. “First of all, let’s get you warm,” he says. “It’s too cold for a walk. You don’t want coffee. How about a drive?”

“Where to?” she asks, wrapping the big jacket close to her body.

“Doesn’t matter. Let’s just drive.”

“Perfect.” She smiles, then climbs into the passenger seat and clicks on the seatbelt.

* * *

Brendan had been living in Los Angeles for four months when he began working at the café across the street from his tiny, ratty apartment on Hollywood Blvd. His graduation money was starting to run low and he was reluctant to begin burning through the modest sum he had inherited from his grandfather. So far, he had made a total of $64 as a musician, most of which he’d won at an open mike night. He and his empty stomach concluded that he needed a job.

The manager at the café gave Brendan the closing shift five nights a week. He arrived at 3:30 and worked until 11. The cleaning part was tedious but easy. But when it came time for Brendan to learn how to run the cash register and the espresso bar, he had to rely on the only other worker who shared his shift.

Her name was Catherine. She was surly, a grumbling, bespectacled curmudgeon if twenty-four-year-old girls could be called curmudgeons. For the first week, she and Brendan hardly spoke at all. He avoided asking her questions because she would glare at him and answer in nothing but hostile monosyllables.

“What’s the difference between a cappuccino and a latte?” he’d asked.

“Foam,” she said, pouring one and mounding it with milk foam, then pouring another and putting only a small scoop of foam on top. Then she walked away, leaving the two cups on the counter. Problem was, she hadn’t said which was the cappuccino and which was the latte.

“I’m going to get some lunch,” he announced one night. “Want anything?”

“Nope,” she said, stacking cups without glancing at him.

He was standing at the register with a peeved customer trying to work out how to get the drawer to open again. “Hey, Catherine,” he called in desperation, “Can you help me with this refund? I accidentally charged this customer twice.”

She came stomping up from the back room, took a moment to say hi to the customer, then scowled at Brendan and said, simply, “Move.” Her fingers flew over the touch screen, the drawer popped open, she whipped out the exact change, tore off the receipt, and put everything in the customer’s hand in less than ten seconds. Then she banged the register drawer shut and walked away again.

Their relationship may have stayed at that charming plateau forever if not for The Amazing Thing That Happened.

Of course, they didn’t start calling it The Amazing Thing That Happened until after they had become friends and felt comfortable naming things together.

It was about seven o’clock on a Tuesday night. A busload of Canadian tourists had just been disgorged on the sidewalk outside the café and Brendan and Catherine were working hard to get everyone served promptly. There was also a movie premiere down the block, so a steady stream of media people—reporters, assistants, paparazzi—added to the long line and atmosphere of electrified chaos.

Brendan had just gotten the hang of the register. It felt strange going back and forth between polite Canadians who ordered “Just a small coffee, please” to harried assistants with orders of twenty drinks, each with a different permutation of fat, caffeine, dairy, and artificial sweeteners: “One extra-large no-foam decaf soy latte with sugar-free syrup. Wait, two of those. Wait, make one of those with just regular vanilla syrup, not sugar-free. On second thought, make the second one regular, not decaf.”

Some of the Canadian tourists had their children with them, and while most of the kids were well behaved, there was one little girl—perhaps three or four—who was short-tempered and hyperactive, probably from having been on the bus for a long time. No one seemed to be watching her. She ran around the dining area and banged on the big plate glass window that ran across the front of the café.

Brendan was replacing the paper in the receipt printer when he saw something in the corner of his eye: the erratic skip of headlights as a car jumped the curb in front of the boutique next door.

Before he quite knew what he was doing, and almost out of earshot of Catherine’s frantic “Where are you going?!” Brendan had leaped over the counter and roared, “Get against the wall!”

The Canadians immediately did as they were told, running to the back wall of the café. One or two of the assistants looked up from their cell phones long enough to realize something was happening.

Overturning a couple of chairs, Brendan dashed across the room, scooped up the little girl, and stumbled with her to safety just as a ‘91 Chevy Lumina containing one Herbert Marvell, aged 78 and in the throes of his third heart attack, crashed through the café window, spraying everyone and everything with glass.

The car lodged itself quite snugly against the pastry case, shattering that, too.

Catherine allowed herself one second of open-mouthed amazement before she turned off the milk steamer, called 911, and tried not to sucker punch the assistant who leaned over the bar to ask, in a whisper, “Can I still get that Americano?”

One of the Canadian tourists, a cardiologist from Ottawa, yanked open the car door and started administering first aid to Mr. Marvell while Catherine tried to round up anyone else who had been injured.

The little girl, who was red-faced and bawling, clung to Brendan’s neck and showered spit and snot into his hair. He patted her back and tried to sweep the worst of the glass away. She had a small cut on her knee that bled onto his apron, but except for that, she was not hurt.

The paparazzi pounced. Brendan and the little girl appeared on the front page of all the Los Angeles dailies the next day.

The story was a feel-good favorite on the evening news. The girl’s mother, who had been in the restroom during the crash, called Brendan a hero and a savior.

“If he hadn’t been so present minded,” said the cardiologist, “many people could have been hurt or even died.”

One of the assistants, a young man talking on his cell phone, had been standing in line when the car came through the glass, knocking a coffee display case onto him. When paramedics came to assess the scene, they found him sprawled out on the tile under the case. It looked awful. But when they began to dig him out, they discovered that the display case was made of corrugated cardboard, and the unharmed man had merely fainted from surprise.

“Like a baby goat,” said Cat, after she read the newspaper article aloud to Brendan the next day. “I didn’t know people fainted from surprise. Maybe Victorian ladies in whalebone corsets. But that’s it.”

They were smoking Brendan’s tiny fire escape. Repairs on the café wouldn’t be done for another month, at least. They were temporarily out of work.

“I can’t believe I’m in the papers. My mom wants me to buy ten copies and send them to her. But,” he said ruefully, “I don’t know if I can do even that. I need money now just as much as I needed it yesterday. Before—“

“Before the amazing thing that happened.”

He nodded slowly. “Yes. The Amazing Thing That Happened.”

“The Amazing Thing That Happened,” she repeated. “We should call it that.”

He rubbed his chin. “I still need money is what I’m saying.”

“Well, St. Brendan, you and me both,” she said, appraising him through her glasses. “Let’s see what we can find.” She flipped to the classifieds section.

Over the next six weeks, they tried everything. They put in ten hours each at a telemarketing center trying to sell designer knock-off sunglasses. They passed out promo flyers to high school kids coming out of Grad Nite at Disneyland. Brendan tried drying cars at a car wash, but he couldn’t keep up with the other guys, all tough-as-nails immigrants from El Salvador who worked faster and more efficiently than he could even fathom. Catherine bought some office clothes from a thrift store and tried answering phones at a car dealership. She was fired after one day; she accidentally hung up on every single person she had tried to transfer to another line.

She and Brendan began meeting for dinner every night to trade stories and to cheer each other on. They didn’t have much money, so they met at a taco stand down the street from Brendan’s apartment. One super burrito cost four dollars; they would split it and douse both halves in fiery salsa. The spiciness made them feel fuller.

“You could always go to a sperm bank,” Catherine offered one evening. The manager of the café had just pushed reopening back another two weeks. “Don’t they pay? Like, a lot? And all you have to do is splooge into a cup?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Why not? It’s just a couple million sperm. You’ll never even miss them.”

He looked at her as if she were gum on the bottom of his shoe. “Cat, I’m not doing that.”

“I think, Brendan,” she said, eating a pickled jalapeno and waving the stem at him, “that you are something of a prude. A big Irish-Catholic prude.”

“You use words like ‘splooge’ to make people think you’re not a prude, but I’m not fooled. I think you’re just as prudish as I am. A big Mexican-American Catholic prude.”

She snorted. “There is nothing prudish about me. As a matter of fact, I ditched my confirmation classes. To go have premarital sex. Under the bleachers at my very Catholic high school. So there.”

Brendan regarded her for a moment. “You wore the uniform? The little skirt, the whole bit?”

She nodded.

He took a bite of his burrito and chewed it slowly, trying to imagine her as a seventeen-year-old in a school uniform, getting banged under the bleachers. He had to admit to himself that the image was not an unpleasant one. “Your teenage sluttiness aside,” he said, “I am not going to whack off in some clinic and have little versions of me running around just because I happen to be strapped for cash at the moment.”

Catherine shrugged. Then she stood up and went back to the salsa bar and filled her plate with free pickled jalapenos and vegetables, causing the counterman to scowl at her. She winked at Brendan as she returned to the table, munching on a carrot. Brendan smiled, wondering how they had so quickly gone from adversaries to friends who talked casually about sperm. He began to wonder if he really was a prude. Then he began to wonder how she looked in a little skirt and knee socks. It was a hard image to shake.

“I have an idea,” Brendan said as she sat down. “Ever bang a tambourine before?”

* * *

So they went busking.

Sometimes Cat joined him on the tambourine or the egg shaker. But most of the time, Brendan performed alone with only his guitar and every Bob Dylan, U2, and Johnny Cash song he knew. They played the Walk of Fame outside of El Capitan theatre. They played the Santa Monica Promenade and Venice Beach on weekends. They noticed their donations rose slightly if they dressed like hippies. Their donations rose even more if Cat dressed like a slutty hippy, a role that she enthusiastically embraced in the name of economics.

They were too lazy to get permits, so they had to dodge bicycle cops now and then. But they did reasonably well. At the end of the night, sitting in Catherine’s ’82 Ford Bronco, they would count their money. She only wanted one-quarter of the take. “Which is pretty good, considering I do one-tenth of the work.”

“You do much more than that,” he said. “You get me a male audience.”

“Stop making me blush,” she said, untying her ribbon headband.

Over the next few weeks, Brendan began to notice things about Catherine that he hadn’t noticed before. For her slutty hippy getup, she wore long skirts and crochet camisoles that showed off a lot of skin. She was petite but curvaceous with smooth, light brown skin that she slathered liberally with coconut-scented sunscreen. He tried not to stare when she sat on the bumper of the Bronco, spreading sunscreen on her chest and deep into her cleavage. When she worked at the café, she tied her hair up into a tight bun and wore glasses; when they went out to the beach to play, she wore her long black hair loose and left her glasses in the car for driving. She wore sandals; she had pretty feet. On one hot day, she wore denim shorts; she had lovely shapely legs. It was as though everything she had hidden from him was beautiful, made only more so by her revealing it, bit by bit.

And, far from home and living alone, he began to fall in love with her.

It wasn’t hard to pinpoint the moment he realized it. One morning on a day that was expected to break records for heat, Brendan was doing his best to ignore Cat’s sunscreen application when she appeared right next to him, her face in his.

“I’m concerned,” she said, with utter seriousness. She was inches away from him, leaning into his body with hers. “I’m concerned about you.”

“W-Why?” he managed to say.

“Melanoma. You are the whitest freckly white boy I have ever met. We need to put some sunscreen on you, at least for today.” She shook her bottle of SPF 50 and squirted some into her hands. She rubbed her hands together and began to apply it to his face. Slowly, she started with his cheeks, his nose, and his forehead. Working in gentle swirls, she put some on his throat and on the back of his neck. Her hands were smooth and cool. He didn’t move; it was as though he was bolted to the ground where he stood. She applied some to his arms in a slow, sensual massage then moved on to the tops of his hands. She clicked the cap of the sunscreen closed then said, cheerfully and oblivious to his agony, “Now you won’t burn.”

The hell I won’t, he thought.

It had been so long since anyone had touched him. His nerve endings tingled with the memory of her hands. That night, in his sweltering apartment, he masturbated himself into catatonia and writhed sleepless and helpless in the knowledge that he was falling in love.

* * *

The café reopened two months after the crash. Except for a new linoleum floor that would be easier to mop and keep clean, everything looked exactly the same. The old crew returned to business as usual. Cat and Brendan agreed to keep performing every Saturday to keep Brendan sharp. With the money they’d made from busking, they’d been able to make demo CDs to send out to different venues and college radio stations.

Not long after the reopening, he was booked for his first real gig in L.A. Two days before St. Patrick’s Day, he got a call from the manager at Darby O’Gill’s pub in Los Feliz, asking him if he was available; one of the bands had cancelled and they needed to fill the space. They had assumed that his was an Irish act from his name alone; they hadn’t bothered listening to the demo.

Cat came over to his apartment with a six-pack of Guinness and a slew of music for him to hear: the Pogues, the Dubliners, the Young Dubliners, the Irish Rovers, the Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly. He approximated a few songs but worried about flubbing the lyrics.

“It’s St. Paddy’s Day, Brendan,” she said. “People will be too drunk to notice.”

Still, he was nervous. “You’re coming with me, right?” he asked.

She smiled and patted his knee. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Should I put on the accent? Give ‘em a bit of the blarney?” he said, doing a reasonable impression of his grandfather.

She squinted at him in mock confusion. “What was that accent? German? Jamaican?”

“Okay,” he laughed, taking a swig of Guinness. “Maybe not.”

Catherine had been right: the audience was so inebriated that they would have given a standing ovation to a monkey picking its nose. All the same, Brendan was glad she was there with him. And God help him, she had dressed in a white school shirt tied at her midriff and tartan mini-kilt. In two braids, high-heeled mary janes, and thigh-high argyle socks, she commanded attention when she joined him on the one duet they had prepared, “The Orange and the Green.” She shook her tambourine. She was mesmerizing. On stage, with hundreds of drunken eyes on them, he fell completely, irretrievably in love with her. He was a goner.

But he was not the only one.

Brendan put all their gear into the Bronco and came back into the pub to look for her. That’s when he saw Frank for the first time, chatting up Catherine and holding her attention like a glittering lure.

Frank. That bastard.

Cat kindly shared Frank’s story with Brendan the next day. When he was younger, Frank had made a ton of money on real estate investments before moving on to venture capitalism. (Brendan wasn’t even sure what venture capitalism was.) Frank went back and forth between his house in the Hollywood Hills and his family’s ranch near Vail, Colorado. Frank flew a Cessna. Frank loved cars and guns. Frank had paid a mint to go on a big game hunt in Africa. Like Ernest-Fucking-Hemingway, thought Brendan. Rat fucker.

At first, Catherine and Brendan did all their shifts together and performed on Saturdays, just as before. Three weeks passed and she began to cancel on Saturdays; he went on his own, bringing home a donation bucket that was much lighter and a heart that was much heavier without her. Then, to his surprise, she began to call in sick at the café. Whenever she did this, Brendan had to work with the sulky afternoon guy, Xavier, who liked to huff the whipped cream canisters and howl inexplicably at customers who asked him questions.

She tried to be the same old Cat, to joke and make fun of him as usual. But she was changing. She got contact lenses. She stopped smoking and persuaded Brendan to do the same. An inordinate amount of her sentences began with “Frank says” or “Frank thinks.”

And then, in early June, she handed in her notice.

At her going-away party, the crew got her a cake, a bouquet of carnations, and a bottle of tequila. They turned up the volume on the speakers for once and even had a little dancing.

Brendan, tipsy but wound tight, finally got the courage to pull Cat out of the crowd and onto the patio where the early-summer air was still chilly on their skin.

“Cat, what—what are you doing? Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked. He tried to sound serious, but he sounded crazed instead.

“Brendan,” she said. Instead of pulling away from him, she stepped closer and took his hand. She led them to a table and sat down with him. To calm him, she stroked the tense muscle between his thumb and forefinger with the cool pad of her thumb.

“I’m just…worried about you,” he said.

“Why? You don’t intend to stay here forever and neither do I.”

“Is he going to support you? Are you moving in with him?”

“Support me?” she asked. She pursed her lips. “I don’t know about that. But move in with him? Yes. I am.”

“What does your family think?”

“My family doesn’t give two shits about me. Why should I care what they think?”

He took a deep breath. “How about me? Do you care what I think?”

“Brendan, just tell me what’s on your mind.”

He’s an asshole. “You don’t know him. Really know him. He’s so different from you.”

“That’s just it,” she said. She smiled, infuriating him. “I can’t always spend my time with people who are exactly like me. That means I’m not growing.”

People like me, thought Brendan. I’m like you. “Did Frank tell you that?”

A furrow appeared between her eyebrows. A cold edge appeared in her voice. “Does it matter?”

“I just don’t think you’re thinking it through. You’re giving up so much of who you are…and for what? Some guy you just met?”

Now she was upset. “I didn’t just meet him. We’ve been going out since March. And why are you acting this way, anyway? What, all of sudden, you’re my boyfriend? Is there something I’m missing here?”

He was speechless. As awareness seemed to dawn in her expression, he struggled for the right thing to say and couldn’t grasp it quite in time.

“What the hell, Brendan?” she said, standing up. She stared at him for an eternity of five seconds. Then she asked, “How long?”

This wasn’t going as he’d planned. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “Months.”

“Months? Why didn’t you say anything?”

That one was easy. “Would you have given me the time of day? I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t want to screw things up between us.”

“But you wanted more.”

He looked up at her. “Much more.”

The expression on her face was that of a woman in a horror movie making her way down the basement steps, unarmed but feigning bravery. She stepped close to where he sat and her proximity seemed to turn down the volume control on the world around them. Traffic seemed to disappear as did the chatter of passing tourists and nightclub-goers flooding the boulevard.

She put both hands on his shoulders and looked down at his face. Her mouth was an inch from his. “Show me,” she whispered.

He had no skill with words, but this he understood. He reached forward and put his hands on her hips. Firmly, he pulled her into his body, wrapped his arms around her, and tipped his head back, rising to meet her halfway.

Then he kissed her.

Her lips were small but lush and yielding; her bottom lip had a slight dip in it that followed the beautiful curve of her upper lip. She tasted of vanilla frosting and tequila. His heart leaped in his chest like a jackrabbit when she closed her eyes and melted against him, opening her mouth to the first tentative push of his tongue.

And then the café disappeared, followed by the boulevard, the lights, the traffic, and the noise. The city of Los Angeles dissolved around them, wiped as if by the hand of God off the smooth curving face of the galaxy, and now there were only the stars, and her, and their bodies pressed up against each other finally feeding the starving vortex of his desire.

She draped her arms around his shoulders and leaned over him. He spread his hands against her back, gathering her to him. The tips of their tongues swirled in a symphony of nerve endings and he began to wonder if all the girls he’d kissed before—and there were dozens of them, back in Baltimore—had all just been practice for this girl. This one. Catherine, his Cat.

The car crash was not The Amazing Thing That Happened. This kiss was.

His body was about to supernova. He pulled away. Breathlessly, he whispered, “Come home with me.”

Her eyes fluttered open, luminous. “Brendan, I—“

“Let’s go,” he said. He stood up and grabbed her hand. But something was in her hand…no, on her hand…sharp and cold…

“I was going to tell you. Tonight, after the party,” he heard her say.

Brendan held her tiny hand up to the pink light from the café’s neon sign. The ring looked like something out of a candy machine. It was all wrong. Huge. Gaudy.

“Since when?” Brendan asked. His throat went dry. How had he not noticed a boulder like this?

“Two days ago,” she said. “But I didn’t wear the ring to the café until tonight.”

Then she was telling him something. He couldn’t hear her. As he examined the ring, he fought the urge to rip it off her finger and throw it into the gutter as though it were a splinter or a stinger she had picked up by being incautious.

“…So, I thought you should have it,” she finished.

“What?” he asked.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back, and I don’t want to sell it. You should have it,” she said.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

She sighed. “Brendan, have you been listening to me at all? We’re leaving for Colorado tomorrow morning—“

It was too much. He let go of her hand and left her on the patio.

On his way out, he stole the bottle of tequila. He drank the rest of it, alone in his apartment, until the spinning darkness took him and he was no longer responsible for what he thought or felt.

* * *

Xavier was waiting for him behind the counter the next day. “Dude. You’re two hours late. I gotta take a piss.”

Brendan took off his sunglasses. His guts felt like a fourth-grade science project—vinegar and baking soda and clay. He felt so wretched that he couldn’t think straight, which was probably just as well.

On his way to the restroom, Xavier put an envelope in Brendan’s hands. “Cat left this for you.”

Brendan looked at the envelope for a moment. Then he took a breath and opened it, ready to be ripped apart anew. On a scrap of receipt paper, she had written, simply,



Brendan,

Take care of her.

Thanks,

Cat



In the envelope were the keys to the Bronco.

He walked out to the back alley. It was parked in her usual space.

He resisted the powerful urge to smash all of its windows in. Instead, he opened the door and sat inside. She had gotten a car wash and filled the tank with gas. On the passenger seat was a manila envelope containing all the DMV documentation she had prepared and signed transferring ownership to him.

Men didn’t cry. He knew that much.

He was semiconscious that his wallet contained about $36 in cash, a debit card, and an emergency credit card. His guitar and amp were still in the back seat; she had put them in there for him the last time they had played the Promenade.

He started the car.

In four hours he was in Vegas.

He parked in the lot of the Peppermill coffee shop and stumbled out into the middle of the Strip. Surrounded by strangers and dazzling, pitiless neon light, he proceeded to celebrate Catherine’s engagement with a weeklong bender from which his heart or liver would never recover.

When he came to, he found another place. He started another life. And he did his best to forget her.

* * *

There are no streetlamps here. The only illumination comes from the waxing moon above and the car’s headlights as they barrel through the desert over black and silent asphalt. Under a sky garish with stars, pale violet moonlight illuminates the outlines of distant mountains. Once over the ridge, they’ll see a valley full of the spectral silhouettes of Joshua trees.

“I’ve never been in the desert at night. It’s so beautiful here.” Lost in his jacket, she cranks the stiff handle of the window and opens it so that a cool, dry wind fills the car. It smells like sagebrush and dry grass.

“It is,” he says. It’s one of the reasons he’s stayed.

“I see you took care of my girl,” she says, petting the dashboard. “How’s she treating you?”

“Good. I never go too far. Sometimes she overheats in the summer, but that’s to be expected,” he says.

A mile unravels under them in silence.

“I can’t believe I found you,” she says.

“I can’t believe you were looking for me.” There is just the shadow of hurt in his voice. He hears it, and it makes him angry; he doesn’t want her to see that he is vulnerable at all.

“I sent letters to your apartment and called you at the café. No one knew where you’d gone. Xavier said you just disappeared into thin air.”

“I left the same day you did,” he said.

“I figured as much. The café had the number to your mom in Baltimore. I called her a couple of times, too. Did she ever mention it?”

“No,” he lied.

“She’d said you were in Las Vegas. I tried to search for you online. Nothing.”

Though he has lots of regular work in Vegas, he hardly ever gets billed. “I fly under the radar, I guess.”

Another silent mile. He feels her looking at his profile in the faint light from the dashboard controls.

“Did you ever try to contact me?” she asks.

He wanted to. Every day for at least a year. Then whenever he thought of her. Whenever he had a burrito, or put on sunscreen, or heard a Dropkick Murphys song. She’s had a lot of influence on him, but he’d never tell her that. “No,” he says again, but this time it is true.

“I don’t blame you,” she says quietly. “One of the things I’ve always regretted was how we said goodbye. That summer we spent together was one of the best times of my life. You have such talent. I wish I could do anything half as well as you make music. I remember going out and watching you play and just being…captivated by you.”

Not captivated enough, he thinks. “How’s Frank?”

She pauses. “He’s fine.” Her voice is neutral.

“Kids?”

“No, Brendan. No kids.” She looks away from him and out the window. The wind blows back her hair and she cranks the window shut again. The quiet is striking. “You know, you never told me.”

“Told you what?”

“How you felt. Until it was too late.”

“It wouldn’t have been too late if you hadn’t gotten yourself engaged so quickly. To that…guy. How could I compete with a ranch and a plane?”

“I’m glad you think so much of me,” she says. She’s smiling, but there’s a bitter flavor to her words. “The truth is, you couldn’t compete. Within five minutes of meeting me, Frank had told me what he wanted.”

“You. In bed.”

She laughs, one short burst like a javelin in his chest. “Well, yes. That’s true. But he also wanted a girlfriend. And a wife. I wanted adventure. Our goals seemed to line up pretty well. So I married him.”

Old bad news is still bad news, and Brendan cringes inside. He couldn’t take care of her then and he can’t take care of her now. It’s useless to wish otherwise. He drives as far as the next turnout, a lonely road that leads to some off-roading dunes. He makes a U-turn and heads back into the city.

“Do you regret marrying him?” he asks.

“No,” she says, and tidily rips Brendan’s heart open again, using the old scar as a guide. “But,” she adds, “I regret never being with you.”

This time, five miles need to pass before he’s ready to respond. The moon is behind them now, and the starlit landscape ahead is without depth or shape. “Is that why you found me tonight?” he asks. “You want me to sleep with you?”

“I think so,” she says. “Yes.” Her voice has deepened. She’s staring straight ahead and in the dark, he can’t read her face.

He grips the steering wheel hard. He isn’t sure if it’s rage or lust that’s coursing through him, but he doesn’t trust himself to speak until they have crossed back into the glittering borders of Vegas.

“Where are you staying?” he asks.

“The Trump,” she says.

He cruises down the nearly-deserted Strip. The sun will be up in a couple of hours; only the die-hards are awake at this hour, stumbling like zombies from casino to casino. He pulls up to the golden hotel where a clean-cut valet walks absurdly up to the dusty ’82 Bronco and asks with perfect politeness, “Are you checking in, sir?”

“No, I’m just dropping her off.”

“Very good, sir. Pull up here, if you will.” The valet motions him to the curb and opens the door for Cat.

She looks at Brendan. There’s such deep resignation in her eyes that he feels guilty for having been unkind.

“Goodnight, Cat,” he says quietly.

She says nothing. She takes off his jacket and puts her shoes back on. She is about to take the gloved hand of the valet and get out of the car when she changes her mind, slides over to Brendan, and kisses him on the lips.

The kiss surprises him completely. Neither too sweet nor too shameless, it lasts just long enough for him to recognize his own hunger before she pulls away.

He’s speechless.

“Room 442. If you change your mind,” she says. She gets out of the car.

* * *

Goddamn her, he thinks.

He cranks down his window and hopes the wind will blow some sense into his seething brain. He punches the Bronco down the 15 and winds around the airport. In twenty minutes, he’s pulling into his apartment complex in Henderson.

He’s in a foul mood. He opens his refrigerator and pops open a beer. He sits on the sofa but he’s too agitated for even the most mind-numbing late-night T.V. He turns off the T.V. and hurls the remote control across the room for no logical reason except that it feels good to do so.

Goddamn her.

He steps out onto his balcony. He takes a long drink and begins to take stock.

Things that make me better than her.

One. He’s never had to rely on anyone. It’s taken him a long time, but he’s paid off all his debts and he’s got some money in the bank. Sometimes he can even send money home, like this month.

Two. He’s never been desperate for sex. He’s never had to look too hard for companionship. As a point of pride, he makes sure women never leave his bed unsatisfied.

Three. He’s honorable. He’s never cheated on a woman. He’s never…

Well, he’s never been in a long-term relationship.

Because he doesn’t have much to offer a woman looking for a long-term relationship.

Except sex.

He takes another long drink. Stay on track, he admonishes himself.

Four. He’s not materialistic. He’s not dazzled by wealth or property the way she is. A plane. Who needs a plane? What does Frank think he is, the president?

Five. He takes a moment. Then another. He finishes the bottle.

Fuck. He’s coming up short.

He goes inside and opens another beer. It’s the last one in the fridge.

“I regret never being with you.” She’d said the words as though she had been practicing them for years. The phrase is almost poetic; it echoes in his head. He decides to write a song about Cat called “I Regret Never Being With You.” He says the phrase again and again to himself, but it only makes him angrier, the elegance of the words contrasting with his own mass of tangled regrets.

God forbid she have any regrets, he thinks.

What would happen if he called her?

Well, he could screw Frank over.

What was the word? Cuckold.

Frank with his vast tracts of land and his menagerie of taxidermy and his gun racks made of antlers and his vault of gold bullion and his beautiful, brilliant, luscious wife Catherine.

He could cuckold Frank.

 And Cat would enjoy it. The things he would do to her. Brendan would be the first to admit that God has not blessed him with many skills, but one of them is knowing how to make a woman come. For each woman he has ever slept with, Brendan knew by the grace of God where and how to touch her. Brendan exhales. He would make Cat come. Hard. Often. Screaming.

She picks up the phone on the first ring. Her voice is wakeful. “Brendan,” she says. Brendan figures that Frank must not be back yet.

Brendan offers to come get her, but she refuses. She’ll take a cab. He gives her his address.

“Got it?” he asks. His mind is racing. His body is humming.

“Yes,” she says. “I’m leaving now.”

* * *

He does a quick sweep of his apartment. He puts the dirty dishes in the sink. He changes the sheets.

Then he lies motionless in bed. It’s been more than a month since he last slept with Wendy, but this doesn’t feel like the usual restlessness. It is hunger—a hunger deeper than longing. It is a hunger for lost time, a hunger to travel back five years, to capture Catherine and make her his. It is a hunger for five years of lost lovemaking. In that time, he could have learned her body like an apprentice, a journeyman, and finally a master, turning her in his hands, coaxing hundreds of intricate orgasms out of her body. He could have given her his last five years, which all of a sudden feel inconsequential, full of indifferent sex and half-successes.

In the summertime, cicadas hide in the trees outside his bedroom window, droning all hours of the day and night. But now it is early spring, and outside, the night is silent. Between the crack in the drapes, beer-bottle colored light from a streetlamp streams in.

He wishes he could smoke. He needs to calm down. He gave that up five years ago, too, but the desire for nicotine sometimes sneaks up on him and whispers in his ear.

More hunger. Nothing but hunger.

He licks his lips, trying to find traces of Catherine’s kiss. He had opened his eyes in the middle of it. He’d seen the way her eyes moved behind her eyelids, the way her eyelashes made the most delicate shadows on her cheeks. He could smell her hair. He thinks for a moment that women’s shampoo must be formulated by a roomful of horny men smelling test tubes of roses, apricots, and pheromones. He wants to rub his face in her long dark hair, to lose himself in its silk and scent. He imagines it in his hands as he fucks her, hard, from behind, watching his cock disappear between the lush folds of her dark pink pussy.

He curses in the dark, rolls onto his side, and gives his erection a single pump with his hand. Just one. Then he forces himself again to life still.

At half-past four there’s a knock on his door. Quiet, but unhesitating. One-two-three. He gets out of bed and goes immediately to open it. He’s wearing a T-shirt and boxers. He could hang a coat on his hard-on.

She’s standing on his landing, at the top of a flight of stairs that he takes, night after night after night, usually alone. She’s wearing the same purple top and black skirt. She’s still not wearing a sweater, even though the night is now cold enough to have raised goosebumps all over her arms. Her hair is a disheveled mess and there are dark circles under her eyes. Still, she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen.

“Cat,” he says, rather stupidly.

She says nothing and steps into the shadows with him. He shuts the door behind her and at once she is in his arms, pressing her small, cold body against his bed-warm skin. He is so much taller than her that she seems to have to climb him to kiss him. Her lips are cool and delicate against his. Her tongue darts boldly into his mouth. He doesn’t open his teeth. They cage his own tongue, which seems to have curled in its cave like some frightened, feral animal. His senses are flaring in alarm. She’s here, she wants him, she smells good, she tastes so, so good. What’s happening? he thinks. Is this real? Is she real?

She pulls away just enough to whisper, “Please, Brendan. Just fucking kiss me.”

And that does it.

He doesn’t just kiss her. He devours her. He covers her mouth with his, then sucks with abandon at her tiny lower lip before taking it gently between his teeth. She moans in appreciation. He kisses her again and again, pushing the tip of his tongue through her lips and into her sweet, warm mouth. Her own tongue finds his and sweeps against it, once, making his cock jerk against her like a compass finally finding north.

He puts his arms around her torso, crushing her to his chest. She slowly rubs herself against him, making sure he feels every square inch of contact between them, bare skin against clothing, warm against cold. Through the aperture in his boxers, he feels the cold satin of her blouse against his shaft. The feeling is otherworldly, as are her lips against his as she tips her head sideways to deepen their kiss.

He slides his hands down over the satin and over the skirt. Lower and lower over the lovely curve of her buttocks, his hands find the hem of her skirt and slide underneath. He hikes up her skirt, finding smooth, silky skin and panties that feel like lace. Very wet lace.

“Christ,” he murmurs.

“Tonight,” she says, “I am going to make it up to you. All of it.”

Brendan cups her buttocks and begins to massage them slowly. He loves the way they fill his hands; he loves their cool firm sleekness, made up of just the right amount of muscle and flesh. He pushes the cheeks together and pulls them apart just enough to make her squirm a little in his arms. He does this again and again, kneading her with a slow, steady rhythm. She pushes herself harder against him. He reaches down further to her thighs and hooks his hands behind them.

“Up,” he says, once, and with a slight jump, she leaps smoothly into his arms. She kicks off her shoes, wraps her arms around his neck, and crosses her feet at the small of his back. Now that she is above him, her lips at his forehead, he can kiss and suck and lick her long cold neck.

But one part of her is not cold. He can feel her warm pussy through the lace of her panties and the cotton of his boxers. He kisses the place where her jawline and ear meet, then he wiggles the tip of his tongue against the edge of her silky, delicate earlobe. She gives a tiny exasperated gasp and presses even harder against him. Now, on his cock, he can feel the first kiss of her moisture as it seeps through the fabric.

A deep ache begins to pulsate at the base of his spine. “I am this close to taking you against my front door,” he whispers.

She runs her fingers through his hair. “So do it,” she murmurs.

He pushes her against the door and grinds his hips into hers, making sure she knows the effect she is having on his body. She gasps and closes her eyes, squeezing him with her legs. He does it again, moving in slow, languorous circles as he feeds on her neck and lips. Soon his boxers are soaking wet with her. He can smell the earthy sweetness of her arousal. It would be so easy to remove the last barriers between them and just bury himself in her. It would be so easy to become the rutting animal he wants to be.

Instead, he takes a deep breath and puts her down on the ground. His cock throbs against the separation. “You’re not that lucky, Cat,” he says, panting. He kisses her smooth cheek as if in consolation then gently runs his thumb over that beautiful curve of her upper lip. “I’ve waited five years to have you in my bed. I am not going to rush this.”

Her skirt is hiked up high over her hips. Her chest rises and falls with deep breaths of anticipation. She takes his hand and leads him into his own bedroom.

* * *

On Wednesday afternoons before their shift, Catherine and Brendan liked to wander through the farmers’ market two blocks from the café. They ate all the samples of fruit they could find, oranges in the winter and strawberries in the spring. One such afternoon, they stopped at a book reseller’s booth to browse.

An old religion textbook from the 1960’s caught Catherine’s eye. Its gilded cover was warped by water damage. “Look at this,” she said, popping the last bite of a juicy apricot into her mouth. “The Lives of Saints. I’m going to look yours up. Who’s your patron saint?”

“Um, St. Brendan,” he smiled.

“No shit, there’s a St. Brendan? Let’s see. ‘St. Brendan the Voyager.’” She opened the book wider so that he could see the illustration, an illumination from an old manuscript showing a man in a boat with a huge fish wrapped around the hull. “The caption says, ‘St. Brendan and the whale.’ Oh, he’s a sexy saint. He’s wearing a cloak and he’s in a boat.”

“Yes,” he said sarcastically. “Because a cloak and a boat equal sexy.”

“Shush. Listen. He’s Irish. No surprise there. ‘Also called Brendan the Navigator. Led a legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed searching for the Garden of Eden.’ Damn, your story has sea monsters and whales in it. The fish listen to him as he gives Mass. Then he founds a whole bunch of monasteries. And he’s the patron saint of sailors and travelers. He sounds like Odysseus. What a badass.”

“Who’s yours?”

“St. Catherine of Genoa.”

“Let me see.” Brendan took the book from her hands and flipped through it. “There are multiple Catherines. Catherine of Genoa. Here she is.” He read aloud: “‘Born 1447, worked with the sick and poor during the plague. She wanted to become a nun but was refused because she was too young. Her parents married her off at 16 in an attempt to make peace with a rival family. Her husband was a violent, unfaithful spendthrift.’”

“Does spendthrift mean that you don’t spend money or that you do?” Cat asked.

“That you do. You spend it too much.” Brendan tried to ignore the way Catherine stood up against him, the side of her breast against his bicep as she leaned over to look at the book. She smelled like summertime, like the apricot she just ate. She rolled the apricot pit in her mouth. He could see it tucked in her cheek. He wanted to kiss her. Hard. He wanted to dig the pit out of her mouth with his tongue.

After steadying himself, he continued reading: “‘She is the patron saint of difficult marriages and victims of adultery. She wrote about purgatory as a place where humans delight in suffering, knowing that the pain is cleansing them and freeing their souls from the guilt of sin.”

Catherine raised her eyebrows. “She sounds like she was into BDSM.”

He looked at her in mock shock. “Blasphemy!”

“Let me see the picture.”

“Here.” He pointed to the picture of a woman in the white veil, her hands outstretched as she appeared to speak to a statue of Jesus on the crucifix.

“Pale. Crazed, even,” said Catherine, taking the book. “She looks like she’s asking Jesus for something impossible.”

“Her husband was a jerk. She’s asking for a divorce,” said Brendan.

“What, Catholic divorce? Blasphemy!” Catherine laughed. She clapped the book shut and placed it back on the pile. “I bet she’s just praying for a good spanking.”

* * *

Once over the threshold of his bedroom, Brendan picks her up again and lays her on the bed. She weighs almost nothing, and he feels, somewhere in the furnace of his lust, a stab of protectiveness. I should have never let her go, he thinks.

He drops down above her and kisses her, feeling the smooth glide of her lips against his as he fits his body into the curve of her hips. She slides her cool hands underneath his T-shirt and murmurs something against his mouth.

He pulls away a little. “What was that?”

“Muscles?” she says. “What’s with all the muscles?” Her voice has deepened. Her lips are swollen and glistening from his kisses. “Turn on the lamp. Take off your shirt. I want to see.”

He does as she tells him, pulling his T-shirt over his head and tossing it into the corner.

“Brendan Connelly, where did that body come from?” she says, leaning up on her elbows and ogling him as though he were the only apple tree in Eden.

He feels flushed. He fears he might be blushing—an unfortunate consequence of his complexion. Women usually like how he looks, but having Cat look at him makes him feel naked a couple of times over. “I took up swimming,” he says sheepishly, “when I moved here.”

“Suits you. Very much,” she says. “Take those off, too.” She points at his boxers, then bites her lower lip. In the lamplight, he can see just the edges of her white teeth. There’s a miniscule gap in between her two front teeth that, for some inexplicable reason, has always driven him to distraction.

But he’s not distracted enough to give her the upper hand. Instead of doing as she says, he leans over her again, smiles, and pulls another long, languorous kiss from her open lips. Then he starts to open her blouse. She watches him under her long lashes. His enormous hands undo the tiny buttons with the dexterity of a musician and soon he has slipped the purple silk shirt from her body. She’s wearing a black lace bra; her breasts are round and full, spilling over the tops of the bra cups. With a groan, he rains kisses on her neck and throat. He runs his tongue across her collarbone and strokes the flat, smooth plane of her stomach with his fingers.

She gasps when he strokes the undercurve of her breasts, tracing the hard metal wire of her bra and slipping his fingertips underneath. There, her skin is smooth and very hot to the touch.

She sits up. His nerves hum as he reaches behind her and unhooks her bra. She shimmies out of it and wraps her arms around his shoulders. Now there is nothing between them. The contact of so much skin makes him lose his breath for a moment, as though he has just jumped into a cold lake or stepped into a hot Jacuzzi. She feels feverish; her body seems to scorch him.

“You,” she whispers, kissing his earlobe. “I want to feel all of you.”

He tips her back slightly, dipping her like a tango dancer in his arms. He stares at her breasts. They are enormous and round and real. Her nipples are pale brown with tiny pink tips. He dips his head and runs his tongue hungrily around one areola, then sucks the entire nipple gently into his mouth. She whimpers, running her hands through his hair. He takes his time, sucking and nibbling until she is writhing in his lap, then he moves on to the second nipple.

“Jesus Christ,” she says through her clenched teeth.

After a long time, he releases her with a smack of his lips. “I’ve always wanted to do that.” Both of her nipples are hard as pebbles. Her cheeks are flushed.

“If I had known you were so good at it, I would have let you,” she says breathlessly. There’s laughter in her eyes, and the joy of it wraps itself around his heart and squeezes.

“I’m pretty good at other things, too,” he says, smiling.

He carries her further up the bed, nestling her head on his pillows. He finds and undoes the tiny zipper on the side of her skirt, easing it down over her wide, shapely hips. She is wearing black lace panties. If his need were not so great, he would spend time looking at her in them, admiring the aesthetics of a beautiful, curvy woman in sexy lingerie. But the urgency in the pit of his stomach is too great. He peels off her panties and bends her legs at the knee. Gently but firmly, he spreads her legs apart. She’s not shy; she stares back at him as he stares at her.

His senses are on overload. His face is inches away from her as she reaches down and begins to touch herself. She parts her sparse, soft hair and shows him her pussy. It is perfect, pinkish-brown like her nipples; its delicate petals are swollen with arousal. A drop of clear liquid seeps from the tiny opening and falls down on the sheets like a single tear. With her fingertips, she begins to rub her clitoris until it, too, is swollen, bright pink like an unripe cherry and glossy with liquid. He breathes her in; the smell of her taps into the deep recesses of his brain and makes his balls tighten in response.

He grabs her wrist and pulls her hand away.

“Is it true what they say about musicians?” she whispers, smiling.

Instead of answering, he licks her: one long lick from the base of her pussy to the hard tip of her clit. He dips his tongue into her, then sucks her labia into his mouth completely, drinking her in. She tastes like honey, apricots, salt, and tannic wine—sweet, bitter, salty. She tastes like every craving his body has ever had.

Her fists ball at her sides. “Good God, Brendan,” she gasps.

He plays her, trying to find the resonance of her body. He attends immediately to her clitoris, licking the rigid bud with a quick, steady rhythm and applying just enough pressure to keep her pinned, motionless, to the mattress. He touches the opening of her pussy with the tips of his fingers, massaging the delicate folds until they open to him, revealing her bright pink center. Then he slides one finger in, a quarter inch at a time, marveling at the warmth and strength of the smooth walls inside her. She moans, long and deep. With his other hand, he forms a V with his index and middle fingers. He gently spreads her sensitive lips open; as he does so, her body weeps until the sheets under her ass are soaked.

“Don’t stop,” she whispers. “Please, don’t stop.”

He doesn’t even stop to answer her. Back and forth in constant rhythm, his tongue strums her as though she were a string pulled taut. Slowly, he slips a second finger into her; her body grips his fingers like a fist. The pink lips of her pussy swell and open like a night-blooming flower. He is captivated by her responsiveness; with each stroke of his tongue on her clit, he feels the tension gathering in her like a hurricane swirling around its eye.

He takes his time. The minutes slide by. Building slowly toward a crescendo, he feels a tremor just above her pubic bone. Another. There. A tiny ripple of muscle. And he knows he has her.

His tongue still working and his fingers still deeply entrenched, he begins the final movement. With the back of his ring finger, he presses gently against the taut flesh of her perineum. With the tip of his pinkie, he touches, as gently as possible, the tight, tiny aperture of her asshole.

She comes at once. She is screaming his name. Her hips buck violently against him; the muscles of her pussy convulse, crushing his fingers with the force of her orgasm. Liquid pours out of her, soaking his chin and forearm. He keeps licking her until he is sure she has reached the absolute apex of pleasure. Then he licks harder and begins to slide his fingers back and forth. She screams again, her orgasm cresting and receding. He presses hard on her clit with the flat of his tongue; the aftershocks of her climax pass into his mouth. He feels like he is learning a new language. Slowly, easing up on the pressure, he calms her down and brings her back from the edge by giving her tiny, gentle licks up and down her labia. Little by little, he withdraws his hand, kissing her inner thighs to reassure her as she begins to inhabit her own breathing again.

Her voice is hoarse from screaming. “I’ve never…felt that way before,” she says.

“I didn’t know a woman could come that hard,” he replies. He wonders if his neighbors are going to complain about the noise.

“Have a lot of experience?” she smiles.

“Actually,” he says, sheepishly, “I didn’t know a woman could come at all.”

She grabs a pillow and gives him a good thwack on the side of the head. He is laughing as he grabs hold of her, rolling until he is under her and she is lying, panting, on his chest. He holds her, stroking her hair, until she closes her eyes and exhales.

“Match your breathing to mine,” he whispers. And she does it.

They lie in silence for a few minutes until the hardening of his body causes her to shift her weight in curiosity. She opens her eyes and slides up, pressing her lips to his in a bottomless kiss that makes his mind go completely blank. She probes him with her tiny, delicate tongue. No doubt she can taste herself in his mouth. The raw, sensual flavor arouses them both.

Still locked in his kiss, she tugs at his boxers and manages to drag the waistband over his enormous erection. He kicks the underwear off and bends his knees, pushing her body up into his arms where he can rearrange her. She breaks the kiss and allows him to ease her knees apart until she is straddling him. Her warm pussy is pressed against his abs; his hot, throbbing cock is nestled in the snug cleft of her ass.

“I have…some condoms. In the nightstand,” he murmurs.

She shakes her head. “I can’t get pregnant,” she whispers.

She sits up and rocks against him. He groans. His mind goes utterly blank. She gasps. Again he sees the tiny gap in between her front teeth. Again it turns him on. He reaches forward and brushes the silken hood of her clit with his thumb. Moisture begins to drip from her pussy into his navel.

With a growl, he grabs her once more and rolls on top of her. He kisses her mouth and neck, then sucks hard on each breast again, delighting in the tiny nipples that harden like cherry stones between his lips. He raises himself above her and looks down at her face. Her eyes are dilated with arousal. She is stroking the hard muscles of his arms and staring, enthralled, at the wall of his chest. She’s pliant and eager as she opens her legs for him. She reaches down to touch him; her hand cannot span his shaft.

She feels the size of him. Her eyes widen.

He looks at her, once, as if to ask, Are you sure?

She nods.

Together, they position his cock at her opening. She is drenched but tight as a keyhole. She purses her lips and closes her eyes as he pushes himself into her in one agonizingly slow, firm thrust. He does not stop until the head of his cock meets the deepest core of her body. With the smooth muscles of her pussy, she grips the length of him, hard, and the sensation is torturous and exquisite. He holds himself there for a moment, then begins thrusting hard, back and forth a scant couple of inches, digging his glans against her cervix. She begins to whimper in pleasure and pain. To ease her suffering, he places the pad of his thumb softly against her clit and begins to stroke her in delicate circles. The contrast is not lost on her; he touches her gently at the same time he fucks her hard.

He bends down and kisses her again, mimicking the thrusts of his cock with the thrusts of his tongue. She meets his tongue eagerly with hers. His mouth waters.

The friction he creates within her generates an incredible amount of heat. Her body starts to give way; even though she is still devastatingly tight, he feels her open up, little by little. He begins to pull out further and plunge deeper, reveling in the absolute sensation of her taut, dripping pussy.

He feels a jolt in his balls and at the base of his spine. No matter how much he tries to command himself, he knows that he won’t be able to hold back much longer. It’s been so long since he’s had this little control over his body.

He breaks their kiss and touches her cheek with his hand. “Cat,” he whispers. “Are you there?”

She opens her eyes and takes a moment to focus. She is so beautiful, he feels his heart breaking all over again.

“I’ve wanted you for five years,” he says.

“You have me now.”

He’s not in his right mind. He speaks the words unfiltered from his soul. “I loved you then. I…don’t think I ever stopped.”

She looks up at him and smiles. “I never stopped. I love you now.”

Before he can respond, she closes her eyes and grabs him as though she were falling off a cliff. He feels her begin to come again, the hard tremors rising from deep within her and enveloping him with a blast of heat. Her body is a pulsating hellfire. She is trembling and weeping, and tears roll down her temples from the corners of her closed eyes. She opens her mouth to scream or moan, but no sound comes out; he looks into her mouth and sees the tip of her tiny pink tongue curl into an unsaid word.

At once he senses the approach of his own release. He takes a deep breath.

The orgasm rises up like a tsunami. When it crests, he grinds his cock deep inside her and holds himself there, letting wave after wave of powerful convulsions slam into him and drag him under. He is drowning in sensation. He feels the come rush out of him in long, hot pulses all along the length of his shaft; pure pleasure slides down his spine and runs seamlessly from his cock into her body.

He’s forgotten everything. How he got here. How she ended up in his bed. His own name.

She reminds him. “Brendan,” says Cat, her beautiful dark eyes fluttering open. “Yes. Yes.”

He empties himself into her until there is nothing left.

* * *

“Are you for real?” she asks. A small, incredulous smile trembles on the corner of her lips.

He does not move. Still buried deep inside her, he doesn’t want to break the connection. “I am. For real,” he says.

“Where did you learn how to do that?” There is the crackle of laughter in her voice.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs. He kisses her chin, her cheeks, and the lids of her closed eyes. He gathers a handful of her silky black hair and kisses that, too, even though he knows she can’t feel it. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”

She shifts under him, then rests her lips against his neck. She sucks gently on his skin as though he were a piece of ripe fruit. She strokes his back in big, languid circles; she reaches down and grasps his buttocks in each of her small, cool hands.

“Do it again,” she whispers like a child asking to see a magic trick a second time.

She wraps her legs around his lower back and squeezes, undulating her hips slightly. Incredibly, the friction rekindles his fire and he feels himself getting hard, again, inside her. This has never happened to him before.

The sun comes up outside, illuminating their bodies as they lie together in a tangle of sheets and pillows. She opens her legs wide for him, and he, the keen edge taken off his hunger, explores the parameters of her body with his cock. Varying the angle of his thrusts, he rubs the head of his cock hard against a small natural abrasion in the front wall of her smooth, tight pussy. She gasps and he does it again, kissing her neck until he feels her go completely liquid around him.

“That’s amazing,” she says. “What are you doing to me?”

“Massaging your G-spot,” he whispers.

She smiles. “Is that it? I didn’t think I had one.”

“I assure you that you do. Here it is.” He shoves down hard, making her writhe and shudder with pleasure.

He loves watching her face as he churns at her, giving her the attention her body needs. When he senses she is close, he pulls out of her slowly. He positions her on her hands and knees on the edge of the bed. She tips her hips back and offers her perfect, glistening pussy to him. He grabs the base of his shaft and rubs the head of his cock against her sweet, slick opening. When he is coated with her, he angles his hips forward and slides himself into her. Her body resists him from this angle, so he prods her, inch by inch, until he is buried inside her to the hilt.

He whispers in her ear all the endearments and perversions he’s wanted to tell her for the past five years. He calls her his beautiful angel, his dream, his lover; he calls her his beautiful whore, his gorgeous slut; he says he loves to fuck her sweet, tight cunt. When he says the hard words, she clenches around him. He wraps her dark hair in his right fist and pulls her head back. With his left hand, he twirls her tender nipples until they are aching and hard as gems. Unable to hold back, he begins to fuck her ferociously, pulling out three or four shining inches at a time and shoving himself back in with loud, depraved smacks against her ass. Her tits bounce along with the force of his thrusts; he decides he has never seen a more beautiful sight in his entire life.

Somewhere in the haze of his lust, he worries that he is being too rough with her. Then she says the word that sets him free.

“Harder. Oh, God,” she rasps. “Oh, God, Brendan. Harder, harder…I-I’m going to…”

He reaches around her hip and with the pad of his middle finger, strums her rigid clit as though it were a string on his guitar. She becomes impossibly wetter, sliding along his shaft and smearing her sweet dew across the front of his thighs. With a few deft strokes of his hand, she begins to come a third time, crying out and arching into him like a cat.

His Cat. His Catherine.

On the final surges of her climax, he begins to come in what feels like slow, sweet immolation. Overcome with lust, he puts both hands on her buttocks and pulls them gently apart to watch himself sliding in and out of her, her flesh stretched skin-tight around his pulsating cock. The petals of her sex cling and cleave to his flesh with each thrust. On his shaft, he sees the clear liquid of her arousal streaked with the white opacity of his come.

He closes his eyes. He feels himself within her. And he feels her within him, where she has always been.

* * *

Brendan sleeps like a rock on the bottom of the ocean.

When he wakes up it is almost sunset again. He rolls over and realizes that he’s in bed alone. He closes his eyes and tries to prepare for the pain he knows he’ll feel when he realizes she’s gone, back to her life, back to her husband. He tries to sleep for five more minutes, but even that eludes him.

He opens his eyes and sits up, dragging a hand through his hair. He rubs his chin. It’s a full-on ginger beard by now. He can’t remember if he bought new razors.

The sheets and pillows smell like her, sweet and musky. He’ll have to wash them as soon as possible. He knows himself. He’ll turn into a depressed bastard in a few hours. He might try to roll in the dirty sheets like a forlorn dog whose owner has abandoned it. And then he’d really hate himself.

He sighs and stands up. He looks around the room. She hasn’t left a trace of herself behind—not a scrap of clothing, an earring, anything. She might not have even come to him last night at all. Maybe if he thought of Cat as a dream, he would be able to recover faster from the pain of missing her.

He stumbles to the bathroom, takes a long piss and a long shower, then brushes his teeth and gives himself a shave. He feels almost normal when he wanders out into the living room.

He freezes. She’s still there.

She’s lying on the couch in his T-shirt and boxers. Her arm is thrown over her eyes. She’s tied up her hair with a piece of string he’d pulled from the newspaper the day before. It’s the most adorable thing he’s seen in his life.

She feels him approach. She uncovers her eyes and looks up at him. Her smile is radiant, worth a million smiles from anyone else.

“Hey, baby,” she says.

He sits down on the armrest of the sofa, still not entirely convinced she’s real. “I thought you’d left.”

“I’ve got nowhere I need to be,” she says. A furrow appears between her eyebrows. “Wait, are you kicking me out?”

He leans over and gives her a long kiss, then kisses her cheeks and her forehead for good measure. “I’d never kick you out,” he says. He slides down onto the couch and gathers her onto his lap. She leans her head against his shoulder and plays with his hands, which is amusing considering hers are so tiny in his.

Everything feels so right. So real. He’s reluctant to ask, but for his own sanity, he has to. “What are you going to do?”

“Tonight?” she asks.

“No. About everything. About…my being in love with you.”

She smiles and kisses his temple. “I was hoping to stick around and enjoy that aspect of you.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“What about your life?” He looks her straight in the eye. “What about your husband?”

“My husband?” she asks.

He doesn’t want to play games, not now, not with her. “What about Frank? What are you going to tell him?”

She looks at him with genuine confusion. “Didn’t you know?”

“Know what?”

“Brendan, I’ve been divorced for three years.”

“What?” he asks again. He looks at her stupidly.

“I thought you knew.”

“How could I have known?”

She stares at him. “Maybe I assumed your mom had told you.”

Had she? He had gotten into the habit of tuning his mom out whenever she brought up Catherine, “that nice young girl who keeps calling after you.”

The realization strikes him dumb for a moment. Then he says, “Fuck. Fuck, I’m a fool.”

“It’s one of the qualities that has endeared you to me after all this time,” she quips. She kisses his cheek. “If you had bothered to keep in touch at all, Brendan Connelly, I would have been happy to tell you that you were correct: Frank was not the right man for me. He wasn’t a bad man, but…he was not the right man.”

“What happened?” he asks, more out of a selfish desire to hear Frank slandered than out of concern for Cat.

“When he found out I couldn’t have kids,” she says flatly, “he kind of…lost interest in me.”

“Jesus,” Brendan says. He wraps his arms around her. “My poor Cat. I’m sorry.”

She smiles a sad smile. “Good thing is, he’d taught me a lot before we parted ways. He taught me to protect myself legally, so the prenuptial agreement we’d drawn up together in the sunrise of our marriage took care of me when it went south. Also, he helped me to get my real estate license and as it turns out, I’m pretty good at selling commercial properties.” Her smile falters a little, then returns. “Not residential properties, though. Too emotional. Mommies and daddies wanting to build lives together. It’s too much.”

So she, too, is wounded. He says nothing for a while, but rocks her slowly back and forth, giving her rhythm and rest. She wraps her arms around his shoulders and leans her forehead against his, glad to take comfort in his strength.

“Brendan?” she asks.

“Cat?”

“Could I…stay here? With you? For a little while? I have a place in New York that I don’t really want to go back to just yet.”

He looks at her sleepy, lovely face. He would give her the world, the galaxy, the universe, the whole pantheon of pagan gods and Jesus Christ’s own host of holy angels and saints if she asked.

“Stay as long as you want,” he says.

She snuggles against him, tucking the top of her head against his jaw; he can feel her soft, deep breaths across his throat. Gently, he caresses the smooth skin of her arms and legs; she is warm and lovely. Soon she falls into a deep sleep in his arms. Her tiny, girlish snores make his heart ache with wonder and protectiveness.

He remembers how cold she was when she came to him last night; the heat radiating from her now makes him feel profound contentment, as though by sleeping together they had finally brought each other back to life.

* * *

It had been a 45-minute set: “Seven Drunken Nights,” “Whiskey in the Jar,” “The Irish Rover,” “Molly Malone,” “Up Among the Heather,” “Delirium Tremens,” “Rocky Road to Dublin,” “The Orange and the Green,” and “Danny Boy.”

Brendan had decided their encore would be “Wild Rover,” a good choice since all the patrons joined in for the last chorus, banging on the bar and tables in rollicking faux-Irish debauchery. Another successful Sin City St. Patrick’s Day Festival at Beckett’s Pub.

“Why do the Irish ‘rove’ so much? Why can’t they just stay home?” Cat asks. The new condo has an alarm system; she punches in the code and follows Brendan up the stairs to the bedroom.

“Harpy wives, I think,” he replies.

“Not a wife like me, surely,” she says.

“No, most definitely not a wife like you. Especially not one who can bang a tambourine like you can.”

“I can bang much more than a tambourine, boy-o,” she says.

He turns and takes her hand. At the landing, he has her do a pivot. “Good God, you make me crazy when you wear this.”

A tartan mini-kilt. A white school-girl shirt. Knee socks and high heels. All in honor of St. Paddy’s Day. Her body is as taut and fit as it was when he first fell in love with her.

“That’s because you’re a dirty pervert who likes school girls,” she says. But she glows like a star under his gaze.

“Guilty as charged,” he replies. “Bleachers or bedroom?”

“Bedroom. Fewer broken beer bottles there.”

“Good call,” he says, caressing her cheek.

She smiles. “I love you, Brendan.”

Brendan leans over and kisses her, deeply and relentlessly. She slides her body slowly against his, pulling pleasure from the friction between them. She wraps her arms around his shoulders and he presses one knee between hers, separating her legs.

His skilled hands rove under her skirt. With one hand, he moves aside the thin cotton triangle of her thong; with the other hand, he caresses her smooth, firm ass. When her tongue slides into his mouth, he gives her a firm slap across one of her butt cheeks. She smiles against his lips and squeezes him tighter. He reaches down further and with the pad of his middle finger grazes the tender outer folds of her sex. He loves that she always gets so wet for him. When he finds her slick, tight opening and slides his fingertip into her, her breath catches in her throat. A bright red flush rises in her cheeks.

She moans and breaks their kiss. “How about another encore?” she asks.

“You’re already getting a standing ovation,” he whispers and pulls her, smiling, into the shadows of their bedroom.

 ***
Copyright ©2013 by Mia Hopkins



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