A Bit of Truth
Jay crunched across the Eastside Tavern’s gravel parking lot to the pub’s shadowed door. He was late, purposefully, had even texted a false excuse from his cubicle at work, and he made himself slow his steps and look over the dusty cars that half-filled the lot, flattened and squat in the heavy humid evening. He wanted to catch Penelope and Justine unaware, in mid-stream, at their most natural—Penelope, his girlfriend of six months and fiancée of two, and Justine, Penelope’s ex.
That morning, over her cornflakes and his orange juice, his chin stubble and her electrified hair, Penelope’s spoon had landed on the table with a clink, and she’d said, “We have plans tonight.”
“Yeah?” Jay asked without looking from his newspaper.
“Justine’s back in town.”
Jay folded the paper and put it aside. He interlaced his fingers on the Formica. He looked at Penelope with expectation, and she rewarded him with the kind of smile brightened by the laughter it concealed.
“Well, you know Justine,” she said.
The thing was, he didn’t know Justine. He knew of her in the same way you know of your buddy’s impossibly hot neighbor and her tiny little dog, knowledge gained through the slow accumulation of light-hearted anecdotes peppered with occasional confessions about more intimate interactions, bits and pieces of a hot girl and a little dog—or maybe a mysterious ex—not informing you of a real person but, rather, impressions of a person, however distinct. Enough of these impressions in the proper ratio of earnest to entertaining, and that impossibly hot neighbor and her tiny little dog could become legend.
Justine was legend.
What Jay knew about Justine: she was alluring, sexy, and fun. She and Penelope had had a “thing” for almost two years that sounded like more than a thing to Jay. To Jay, it sounded like a relationship with a stint of cohabitation. One with all the trimmings. What Penelope didn’t say became whispers in his ear. When Penelope mentioned that they’d fought regularly, Jay heard the banging headboard of makeup sex. When Penelope revealed that Justine had made light of her attraction to men, Jay thanked God he’d managed to avoid a similar mistake. When Penelope said, “Well, you know Justine,” the vast unknown gaped open.
A few years before, Justine had left the country for some ambiguous opportunity on an unspecified continent. Penelope claimed they had broken up by then but provided no details about their demise. Jay speculated. And, now, Justine was back.
The pub was wood-paneled and dim, strident with air conditioning after the warmth outside. Six large TVs suspended over the bar and in the corners provided most of the light. This was a regular place for Jay and Penelope given its location on a bus line home. Besides, the cook knew how to make Penelope’s burger so rare it bled the bun a soggy red. Jay was partial to their “ten-alarm” buffalo chicken salad, felt acceptably macho sweating and sniffling through its consumption.
He scanned the main room, a sea of khaki-cladded men like himself matched with women in smart slacks or straight skirts, all drinking or eating or flirting with obvious and serious intent. Penelope and Justine sat at a square table in a corner. Penelope had her back to him but was instantly recognizable not only by her hair and the idiosyncratic tilt to her head but also by the starched way her blouse caught on her shoulders and back. And Justine … Jay couldn’t conceive of anyone who wouldn’t feel an unsettling wave of desire at the sight of her.
Justine’s face was not cute like Penelope’s, had no comfortable softness to it. Her features were brash and aggressive, but they had a balance that tugged on the eye, a harmony that made gorgeous sense. When he and Penelope had started up, the thing most unforeseen by him were those moments when their eyes tracked after the same woman.
From a distance, his fiancée and her ex acted like old college roommates or sorority sisters, and Penelope might say they were both and a little bit more. They leaned toward each other but didn’t touch, and Jay wondered what that meant.
When he realized with a queasy embarrassment that he could stand and observe them indefinitely, he unstuck his feet and worked his way closer. The thread of Justine’s loud voice wove through the bubbling bar noise, and he watched her watch him skirt tables and ease past wait staff. He’d drawn only a few steps away when her thin right eyebrow raised one arched notch then another, and a sideways smirk appeared around her words.
He stopped behind Penelope, and Justine segued from her last sentence right into, “And you must be Jay. I didn’t expect a blonde.”
Penelope swung around and lit up their corner of the bar with ten megawatts of facial joy. Jay put a hand on her shoulder and shifted some of her kinky hair to plant a kiss on her neck, a gesture just this side of typical. Penelope’s hair—the only remnant of her one black grandparent—was a soft, undomesticated nimbus around her sunny face. Justine’s, on the other hand, was long and straight and thick, the kind of hair getting tossed around at the end of a commercial for a deep conditioner, the kind of hair a guy could lose himself in with absolutely no problem at all. An array of clips and bands kept it from flying off her head in all its healthy abundance. Even in the darkness of the bar, it gleamed.
“Jay, this is Justine. Justine, Jay. Sorry we started without you. Justine wanted to wait, but I was famished.” Penelope delivered this rapid-fire while Jay shook Justine’s hand. She was eating the salad, he noticed.
Before Jay’s ass even landed in the chair between them, Justine resumed her long-winded story. As far as Jay could tell, it was nothing more than personal anecdote, but she was passing it off as an anthropologic study of cows in India. He ordered a burger and beer and let his gaze drift below Justine’s neckline. Her tits, glimpsed in part via the scooped neck of her tank top, were plenty nice, but Jay was partial to Penelope’s, whose heft and coloration defined how he had always imagined the perfect breasts to be. Justine’s endless forearms held thin silver bangles, and they tinkled audibly among the surrounding chatter with her every dramatic gesture. With that wingspan of hers, Jay judged she might match his six feet. Or maybe be even taller.
“Jay.” Penelope’s voice and the touch of her fingers on his wrist brought him out of his observational reverie. “I’d mentioned your flag football league before you got here,” she said then turned back to Justine. “These guys are cutthroat. Someone goes to the hospital almost every game—or at least treats the crowd to a nice ass shot when their shorts get ripped off with the flag.”
Jay was second-guessing his take-them-unawares tactic. Clearly he’d needed to be around from the beginning to set the right tone. The one where he ate the salad.
“Pen, that sounds right up your alley. Has Jay discovered your voyeuristic tendencies? Jay, has your girlfriend, oh wait, fiancée filled you in on her many delinquencies?”
Penelope launched a sugar packet at Justine. “Don’t even pretend I’m any more demented than you are.”
“God, no. But we certainly had that in common.”
That this commonality did not extend to Jay was obvious. Penelope’s responsible exterior—her success as a manager, her independence, her desire to co-parent two children in the near future—rode over waves of squealing unconventionality. Jay’s responsible exterior was mounted firmly to his responsible interior. He was even an accountant.
He hovered just to the better side of average in the common measures of attractiveness—looks, brains, money—and so had had the opportunity to break the hearts of a string of perfectly acceptable women before finding the one in Penelope. The reasons he divulged to others for her neon-lit place in his chest were true but not honest. It was true that Penelope made him feel just enough wildness to appreciate how settled he was. It was true that, in Penelope, certain drowsy hours brought forward a calmness that snapped his heart into place.
But he also loved that she had a past, a murky one in which she’d sometimes had sex with women. Like Justine.
Somehow he was holding up his twisted left index finger so Justine could examine his flag-football-related injury. A hooked waistband could wreak havoc on a knuckle, but Justine’s smirk told him this was doing no good. He took his finger from her hot grasp, picked up his dwindling beer, and remembered India and cows. “So, Justine. Sorry if I’m asking you to repeat yourself, but where have you been travelling?”
This bought him enough time to finish his burger, start another drink, and remind himself of the contours of Penelope’s knee under the table. Justine went on and on, laying down country names like she was in the finals of a geography bee, all the while gesticulating in a way Jay became convinced was calculated to draw the most jangle from her bangles.
Then, hands suddenly still and gaze fixed on Jay, she said, “Give me one good reason why you deserve Pen.” She shifted her hair from one side to the other.
“Jesus, Justine,” Penelope said. “Don’t be a bitch.”
“Me? I’m not being a bitch. I just know how you are.”
“So you say.” Penelope flagged down the nearest waiter and demanded a double shot of tequila. What Justine thought she knew about Penelope was something Jay wanted to learn, especially since it made Penelope frown in a way he loathed to induce.
“Come on. She already buttered me up with what a great guy you are, but we both know her requirements aren’t real stringent. Out with it. One reason.”
Justine’s vehemence made her correlation between Penelope’s standards and his position in her life more fact than implication. Jay wondered if she were commenting on his physical attributes or something less tangible. This was not how he had imagined tonight going down. Something wasn’t right about this woman. The way she perched there, staring without even blinking. Penelope was looking at him. Was this peek into Penelope’s past possibly worth these four eyes glued to his internal junk?
Was there a reason he could produce that would satisfy both Penelope and Justine? Justine called for something wild and impressive, something unexpected and out of character and, so, completely untrue. Penelope required something heartfelt and rock solid, something so essentially him she could have answered the question herself.
Balancing these accounts was impossible and yet they were waiting for his answer. He voiced his very next thought. “I’ve been told I’m excellent at giving oral sex.”
Justine gave two lifted eyebrows to Penelope, who looked at Jay with a smile that didn’t quite eclipse her surprise then said, “Not that it’s any of your business, but that is one-hundred-percent true.” She finished her drink and nibbled on a lemon wedge.
“Lucky you! Isn’t that something to look forward to: a lifetime of being eaten out expertly. I mean, really, how many women can say that?”
Penelope grabbed Jay’s hand under the table. Now she gets defensive? After hanging him out to dry on that question? He was perfectly capable of fending Justine off by himself, and this sub-table bristle of Penelope’s prompted him to plant both feet in the game.
He asked, “How long after you two met did you sleep together?”
“Pen was the chronologer of our relationship.”
They both turned to Penelope.
She huffed. “Like you don’t know. You two are just … fine. Not that it means anything, because it doesn’t, but it was approximately forty-five minutes between hello and very nice to meet you.”
Justine said, “I take it she made you wait a tad longer.” Then she grinned widely, an expression Jay could tell usually increased her attractiveness.
Jay thought of thirty-seven excruciating but charged days. “Good things come to those who wait.”
“Sometimes they even come to those who don’t.”
Penelope pointed at Justine with the full bottle she’d swiped from him, slopping a sudsy splash of beer on the table. “Oh, that was deep. No one cares that you plied me with liquor so you could get in my pants. I mean, does anyone really give a shit that I’m ‘a woman with a past?’”
“Honey dear, of course we give a shit,” Justine said. “With me in it, your past is one of your best features.”
“May I remind you—” Penelope relinquished the bottle and raised two fingers. “Two to tango, babe.”
“Of course. The only difference is I’m not ashamed of it.”
The idea of Penelope ashamed made Jay sway. He cared deeply about Penelope’s past that, for the first time, was being carved open and displayed right in front of him, but the magnitude of what he didn’t know about his fiancée, but might now find out, made him swear off any more beer. He watched Penelope pound another shot. Tequila was her only weakness, never failed to light her up, twirl her around, then dump her like a cheap date. She usually avoided the stuff.
Justine said, “Speaking of embarrassment …”
“I thought we were talking about shame,” Jay said.
“Mmm. I take it this engagement isn’t based on full disclosure.”
“Justine, like you’d know anything about it. You lie even when the truth is easier.” Penelope swiveled to Jay. “Don’t believe a word she says.”
“Yeah, well this one has court records to back it up.”
“You’re irredeemable. What did I ever see in you? I plead the idiocy of youth.”
Then Jay watched Penelope and Justine share a long look, saw one of Penelope’s fingertips come to rest between bracelets on Justine’s arm. For a moment, he pretended that he wasn’t seeing this, that he couldn’t feel the closeness between them that put him squarely on the sidelines. Who was the fiancée at this table and who the ex? Then, with an internal squirm, he wondered if there were a single woman he had dated who he could have a moment like this with. Who he could have had a moment like this with even while they’d been dating. No one until Penelope. He said, “Court records?”
Penelope blew a gush of dismissive air. “It was a fifty-dollar fine. I gotta pee,” she said then disentangled herself from her chair with some difficulty. She hovered, eyeing them each in turn then sighed her way into the bar’s sticky roar.
Justine said, “She used to be able to drink me under the table, and now look at her.”
Jay and Justine were alone, and who knew what she’d say now—not that she seemed to have many reservations with Penelope around. Though Jay was at least a little concerned that he, more than Penelope’s history, would end up scattered across the table at the end of the night along with lemon rinds and grains of salt, he waited for what Justine would say next. No matter how outrageous she seemed, and despite Penelope’s admonishment, Jay couldn’t help but believe what she said. Besides, every lie held a bit of truth.
She said, “Has Penelope given you her whole bisexuality briefing? You know, the ‘I’m not dating a man I’m dating you’ line?”
Love the person, not the gender, Jay had called it. A perversion of love the sinner hate the sin. He watched Justine swallow gulps from her long-ignored scotch and soda then said, “I take it you know this from personal experience?”
“Oh, yes. I think it’s code. I think it means ‘don’t be surprised if I dump you for someone with a dick.’ Or without, in your case. Or it could mean that Penelope can’t stand the thought of picking a damn side.”
“Or that she thinks sides are irrelevant.”
Justine’s laugh was a lurid complement to her features. “You’re one whipped dude. Best of luck, my friend,” she said and stole the last languishing fry from his plate.
What Jay didn’t disclose was that Penelope had given him that Justine-quoted line on the thirty-eighth day of their courtship, laid it down to end a discussion begun with the disclosure of her meandering sexual proclivities. In the thirty-seven preceding days, Jay had sometimes sensed something weighty and unsaid in Penelope’s gaze. Even though his conscious mind denied it, he was certain that this unsaid thing was love. How could it not be when this was the fuel behind the pounding in his own chest at the sight-sound-thought of her?
Then came the aftermath of their first sex. Pillows migrated to the bed corners, sheets tangled around Jay’s ankles, the box fan in the window buzzing a breeze against the small of his back. Penelope slid her lips across his cheek and sighed. “My sexuality is fluid,” she said, “but it’s really running away from me this time.”
So had begun the bisexuality briefing. Her disclosure was informational rather than emotional, which dug into him. But only so far. This unforeseen facet to Penelope, the unchanneled nature of her desires, made his own ardor expand. He became fifteen again, his dick growing hard at the merest hint of even the most innocent female-female affection, the hugs and kisses between women obviously married, obviously mothers, obviously not about to launch into the hot lesbian sex scene that had taken up residence in his fevered, unruly brain.
More than once in the weeks that followed, he’d been unable, due to a raging hard-on, to walk from his cube to the printer down the hall. The whole thing was uncomfortable on so many levels that his embarrassment turned first to frustration then to anger. Here he’d been considering himself enlightened, mature, with brain, heart, and dick in the appropriate hierarchy. But he was nothing more than a normal guy. Sub-normal, even.
But then, one day, he found his internal pornographic loop worn thin enough that he could finally see past it to a lurking admiration for Penelope. And not only Penelope but himself. Sure, this atypical gender blindness of hers was great, ultra evolved, but how inexplicably awesome that he had managed to snag her given her enumerable other options.
Penelope’s bisexuality was now as familiar as the rank smell of her running clothes and the way her nostrils twitched when she detected someone barbequing, but she had a nasty habit of personal non-disclosure. Jay knew the names of her exes, not all of which neatly tied to gender. Alex? Jessie? He had divulged a few too many details of his past relationships trying to induce Penelope to do the same, but the meat of her previous escapades remained mysterious.
Penelope was even faster than he was in the bathroom and could return at any moment, so Jay seized the opportunity. “What’s her ratio?”
“You know.” He faltered. “Men to women?”
“You’re too much.” Justine finished her drink with a swallow as long as her neck and corralled an unruly chunk of hair behind an ear. “What makes you think I know?”
He stared at her.
“What, do you think we had some extra girl bond? You do, don’t you.” Her laughter warred with her bracelets.
“What’d I miss?” Penelope’s hand was warm on his shoulder. “Are you two playing nice?”
“It’s been most enlightening. Did you know, for example, that your Jay believes in a transcendental bond between women?”
“Well, that’s why I love him.” Penelope gave him a boozy smack on the cheek and slid into her seat. The tendrils of hair around her face were wet.
“But not as much as you could potentially love, say, me. Given my girlish nature and all,” Justine said.
“Girlish nature my ass. Wolfish is more like it.”
Now that Penelope mentioned it, Jay realized Justine did look rather lupine. Predatory.
“All the better to eat you with. Though that appears to be Jay’s department these days. Do you still have the cape and basket?”
Penelope drained a tequila shot before answering. “I lost interest after the woods became too tame to bother.”
“Do you remember?” Justine asked. “Forget the teeth.”
“Those eyes were as big as pancakes,” Penelope said.
“And not the silver dollar kind, either.” They broke into raucous laughter that brought their half of the bar to a standstill. After a high-five and more chuckles, they seemed to remember Jay. He had no idea what his face looked like, but it couldn’t be good.
“Inside joke.” Penelope covered his hand with hers then dissolved into giggles.
Jay smiled and laughed along before asking, “Justine, ever been with a man?”
Penelope’s delight choked off.
“Sexually?” Justine asked.
“Even I was young and stupid once.”
“What about romantically?”
Justine barked a laugh and motioned for the waiter.
“Never? Not once?”
“No offense, but I’ve never found a man worth the effort.”
They all ordered drinks—Jay just a tonic. Justine did something complicated with her hair involving a knot and a band and a dangerous-looking clip. She appeared about to launch into something unrelated, but Jay snuck in before she could.
“So, basically, you’re saying that you believe in a transcendent bond between women, too. Otherwise why cut the pool of possible mates in half?”
“Believe me, that ‘pool of possible mates’ is cut in way less than half because of things other than what’s in your pants.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Justine glanced at Penelope, but Jay kept his gaze steady.
“Who said I signed up for a debate? What happened to idle chit-chat? Friendly conversation?”
Jay felt a hard squeeze on his leg, and the only thing that stopped him from shaking off Penelope’s grasp and going to take a leak was the fear of what might happen while he was gone. Maybe this thing between them was due to their long past intimacy. Or maybe it was because they were women and he was a man. Or both. Or neither. But it was there, and he wasn’t letting it out of his sight.
Penelope started a remember-when thread that gave Jay time to nurse his tonic and pick the tender bits of pulp from Penelope’s discarded lemons. Justine’s attractiveness was fading with the evening, but her understanding of a Penelope not his Penelope was both disquieting and tantalizing.
That morning, when Jay had deposited his dripping bowl in the dish drainer, Penelope had said the most conclusive thing to date about Justine: “She’s true blue.” Then she’d brushed his shoulder with her lips.
But he wasn’t to believe a word she said?
They’d had their engagement party at this bar a month before. It had been loud, drunken fun, and Jay had spent much of the long evening watching Penelope wade through the crowd of friends and colleagues that had not yet coalesced from his and hers into theirs. Penelope was becoming more solid to him, her preferences and opinions predictable. Even so, Jay knew her huge crackling unknown was what had necessitated his grab for ever after.
Really knowing another person down to the dark corners of their being was impossible, and his marriage proposal had been based on the merest gist of the whole and assumed a laughable consistency. But that didn’t bother him. What bothered him was that Penelope’s acceptance, her reply of “most definitely,” was, to him, as unsubstantiated as the proposal itself.
After the party, even though invitations had been ordered and a venue booked, Jay stopped Penelope on the sidewalk, looked into her bleary, happy face, and asked, “Why are you marrying me?”
She laughed. “How many shots did you have?”
More than he could count. For a block, he let the question be derailed, but then he took Penelope’s arm too roughly and turned her to attention. “I’m serious. Why did you say yes?”
Penelope examined each of his eyes in turn. He wasn’t sure what she could see of his baby blues in this gap between street lights, but hers were dark and unreadable.
“I love you and choose you, and if that’s not enough reason, I can’t help,” she said with finality but didn’t move.
“But how much do we even know each other?” The echo of his mother in his voice made his spleen hurt.
“I know enough to want to spend my life learning more.” She smiled and took his hand, gently pulled him back into motion. “Besides, that’s overrated. You make me want to try. Hard.”
With Penelope tucked into his chest that night, breathing in soft inebriated whistles, Jay wanted to believe her. When she said things like that, unequivocal and simple, how could he not? But in the nighttime quiet, he knew she’d left out a lot. He thought about all the untold and even unacknowledged things in him and was certain something had the power to drive Penelope away. And though he couldn’t admit it was possible, he wondered what in Penelope could do the same to him.
He sipped his tonic and watched Penelope smile while she and Justine reminisced. She was flirting and not flirting, exactly the warm, inclusive woman he’d just had to get to know when they’d first met.
Then Justine said, “I’m not much on straight etiquette—”
“Any etiquette,” Penelope said.
“Whatever, but I guess I should ask about the proposal.”
“I proposed,” Jay said.
“On the bus,” Penelope said.
“Yeah, the driver said, ‘Mayfair, next,’ and Jay said, ‘Will you please marry me?’”
Actually, Jay had asked twice, not having realized that Penelope had fallen asleep before choking out the first proposal. Penelope had an impulse for instant slumber when in motion, but it was to his advantage since that initial attempt had been garbled and feverish.
“But, on a bus?”
“When you gotta ask, you gotta ask.” Jay shrugged. The question had been irrepressible, had felt more inevitable than impulsive.
“I never would have gotten away with that. Pen and romance, you know?” Justine winked at Jay.
“Things change,” Penelope said.
“No one ever really changes.”
“Change is the only constant, woman.” Penelope reached across the table and poked Justine in the hollow under her collarbone. “When you get down to it, it’s the only thing you really have to know.”
“Only’s pretty strong.”
“Fine, but it’s in the top two. Or maybe one and a half.” Penelope laughed. Jay could hear again the earnestness in Penelope’s voice when she’d put her faith in trying over the importance of knowing. That and his sobriety made him confident for the first time this evening.
With the water, beer, and tequila, Jay could have predicted to the minute Penelope’s next need for the restroom. Although he had his own urge to find the closest urinal, he stayed rooted to his chair and was thankful for Justine’s cast-iron bladder. When Penelope left them, he made himself give Justine an opening to speak first, but her attention followed Penelope’s receding back.
“Did you break up with her or did she break up with you?” Feeling Justine’s sudden gaze, he waited with a calm he didn’t quite feel.
“I’m going to be a good girl for once and do what Penelope wants. She would say that it doesn’t matter, and she’s right. But it matters to you because you think I still want Pen, and you really like the idea.” Her long fingers walked through her bracelets, making each tick against the next. “You know, Jay darling, Penelope marrying you won’t make her straight. Don’t ask me why. Would you be more pissed if she cheated on you with a man or a woman?”
“Penelope won’t say it, but she thinks you left the country because of her.” He folded his arms and chewed an ice cube.
“Whatever. Who cares, right? But you’ve got to get her off that pedestal. She’s awfully good at disappointing.” Justine’s tone faded to quiet and personal and made Jay feel a sort of kinship. What she said was probably both true and not and besides the point. He wasn’t marrying Justine’s Penelope, he was marrying his own.
“No!” Penelope said when she approached. “Too serious. Whatever you’re talking about, knock it off.” She placed both hands with their bitten nails on the back of her chair. “I’m drunk and tired and may soon become crabby.”
“Now that I don’t miss,” Justine said then turned her face away. Jay felt puffed up, gladly paid their bill, and finally, desperately, hit the john.
They were in the parking lot when he emerged. Night had done nothing to dissipate the wet heat, and Penelope’s face was shiny with it. Justine stood close to Penelope, towering over her, her liberated hair soft and alive in the lot’s orange light. Their hands mingled between them, pinkie fingers linked. Then Penelope snorted, Justine laughed, and they separated far enough that Jay could walk closer.
Justine said, “Good luck with her tomorrow.”
He shook her offered hand, savoring the shared knowledge that it was his bed Penelope would be waking up in.
“Pen.” She nodded at Penelope.
“Jay-Jay,” Penelope said.
On the bus, with Penelope already folded against the darkened window, Jay knew he had only a moment before she succumbed to slumber. The fact that his name was a mere half of someone else’s term of endearment made him unable to repress this irrelevant question.
“Did you dump Justine?”
“There was no dumping.”
“Then what happened?”
“It was just one of those things.”
“What, a girl thing?”
She laughed sleepily. “No, a person thing.” She turned away.
Over Penelope’s still head, Jay watched streets tick by. Humidity gathered in the glow of the streetlamps, making the air appear unusually substantial. Jay could tell Penelope wasn’t sleeping, but he knew enough to pretend that she was.