So one of the things that will likely forever plague me as a writer is being consistent in the tense used. I am bad at it. Didn't try to fix it since I am putting the original text up here. You are forewarned.
On the other hand, this is probably the best section to serve as a stand alone. I also think it is the last one I included in the version I printed up in 1997. There is one more, very rushed section to come after this one.
"What exactly is your problem, Pudenski?"
Larry Pudenski was as much in Jason MacLeod's face as Jason was in Larry's. This was an unsightly confrontation happening in Vicki Souser's living room. Everyone else was in the basement, at the pool table of watching a movie in the adjoining room. It was a large basement, but Larry was wise enought to bring the fight topside.
"You, you sanctimonious bastard."
"You're already drunk, " Jason quipped. "You came here with some bug up your ass and started drinking right away."
"You know what I'm talking about."
"But do I know what you're talking about? That is, can I apply the knowledge of what I know to that which you are referring? See, I'm still functional."
"She called you."
"Jason stopped smirking. "Okay, you're right. She called me. She asked if she could stay at my place if she came into town." Larry was still glaring at him, so Jason thought he should diffuse the situation. "You called her, then."
"Yes, I did."
"I hadn't told anyone. I hadn't decided if I should say yes. I thought she should wait until you found someone else."
"Fine. Then I'll tell Melissa."
"I'd like tot hink you were joking, Larry. I'd like to dismiss how you try to convince everybody else that Melissa is too good for me. Lynn didn't call me for some devious reason."
"How did you leave things, Pudenski? She didn't think you'd be real receptive to the notion of her visiting."
"What, because I was in love with her?"
"Then talk to Lynn about it."
Larry stepped back a pace. "You didn't tell Melissa that Lynn wants to spend a week at your place?"
"I will, when I can think of a diplomatic was to say it."
Wait here, buddy."
Jason grabbed Larry's arm as the latter was turning to go back to the basement. "Why does everyone want to make this more difficult than it needs to be?" Jason sighed. "Are you able to handle seeing Lynn and not sleeping with her?"
"Who said I wasn't going to sleep with her?"
"Why are you brooding, Sean?"
He had lined up his shot twice, but instead of striking the ball he stepped away from the table and answered Vicki's question. "Because you and Troll were sitting so comfy on the couch watching the movie."
"Dave is just a friend." She added, much softer, "and I'm out here with you. Sean, you have to accept my friends just like I accept yours."
"Yours are so white."
J.B. interrupted the conversation. He and Sean were playing pool, but J.B. had gone over to check out the movie while Vicki talked with Sean. Evidently it hadn't held his attention. "Are you going to take that shot, Sean?"
"Just straightening out my baby. Why don't you go get us two cold ones?"
J.B. nodded, set down his cue, and went off to fetch some beer. That was how it should be, after all Sean did live there. He had to have some authority.
"Damn, Vicki, just get some black friends."
Vicki spun on Sean. "None of my black friends moved to Chicago's suburbs, Sean. Not from Iowa. Not from back East. These are my friends. They don't have a problem with you."
"Bullshit. They're all racists. You know Pudenski employs one black man. One."
"That's his dad, and how many people – black or white – could stand to work with Pudenski?" That got a laugh from Sean. "Don't be riled, baby. There are only two men here I'd even consider sleeping with."
"I had better be one of them. Who else?"
"Not still, not really. I just don't like admitting my mistakes."
"That's why you still have me."
J.B. passed Pudenski on the steps. Larry had a big, goofy smile on his face, one that didn't seem wholly brought on from drinking. J.B. got tot he kitchen and saw Jason standing by the sink.
"An aversion to the less educated, eh?"
Jason offered up a sour expression. "I'm waiting on the lady. There is some news I have to share."
"Dare I ask?"
"I'd prefer that you didn't. A beer?"
"Two. Me and Sean." J.B. paused while Jason fished a pair of bottles out of the refrigerator. "Is it just me or does Sean not like us?"
"Its Burke. But I don't think he's too happy with the rest of us."
Jason shrugged. "I don't think he's petty enough to be a racist. I just think we're his type of people. Face it, J.B., not a one of us is really industrious or productive, and we certainly don't present ourselves that way."
"Pudenski would argue that he is mighty damn productive."
"But he doesn't come off the same when we're all together. I guess that is my point. We look like a collective of unambitious suburbanites."
"So we're just not good enough for him?"
"And Vicki. I wonder how he feels about you still being so close with her."
J.B. finally reached out for the beers. "We're still friends, but it isn't the same. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that with responsibilities we don't have time to spend together."
"I don't know. You have to develop friends along the way, and we're not in school any more. And it was hard when we were in school because we were all over the place in different institutions. Friendships break down. They don't have to die, but they don't flourish. Its a huge sacrifice for me to be here instead of home working on a paper or studying."
"Melissa said something about that."
"She wants you to go back to Med School. She wants us in the same type of environment so we can stay close friends."
"She thinks you're a good influence on me."
"Jeffery, as she will call you, she doesn't think you're as evil as you want her to think you are. On some levels, you're more loyal and self-sacrificing than almost everyone I've ever met or read about. She can see that. She said she offered an olive branch. I hope you accepted it."
J.B. was slightly stunned. "I just came up for the beer." He started back toward the basement. "Jason," he said from the top of the stairs, "I have some vacation time coming and I have some money. Why don't we take a trip and do some golf at a real course?"
"I'd like that, J.B., but I always have to balance things with school and Melissa."
As J.B. walked down the stairs, the "always" echoed in his mind.
From his point of view, Dave Burke just like being with his friends. It wasn't a movie that interested him, and he wasn't bantering back and forth. He just sat there and watched the movie. Occasionally, one of the women would lean against him to talk to him, and he didn't object to that but politely participated while being respectful to those who were still watching the film. Vicki had done it. Nancy had done it. And now Melissa had done it. This time Burke spoke first.
"I'd wager he doesn't like me."
"Sean?" Melissa immediately regretted asking such an obvious question.
"I can't explain my relationship with Vicki, or Nancy, or you. You're friends, for the most part. Sometimes I think people don't understand that. I keep my attempts at a love life elsewhere."
"So what if Sean," and Larry, she thought, "think you're here to get into Vicki's pants. That doesn't need to affect your enjoyment here. It probably will, but it doesn't have to."
"Jason doesn't worry I'm lusting after you?"
She slapped him on the shoulder as she laughed. "I'd never even consider sleeping with you."
"Sentences like that are supposed to start with 'no offense'."
"I'm sure most are. Come on, Dave, you could probably get Vicki if you wanted to put any effort into it, and that's what scares Sean. He's right not to like you if you are after his woman. So he thinks you are a threat, not only to his sex life but to his life. He lives here, too."
"Either you're smart and have given this some thought or you're brilliant and this doesn't take any time for you. Tell me, Melissa, how do I convince the man I'm not after her? Stop coming over here? That would look like I have something to hide. Do I avoid her altogether? What happens with out friendship and all of our friends we have in common? And then it looks even more like I have feelings for Vicki and I can't stand to see her with someone else. Sean thinks he was right all along."
Melissa couldn't even find a reason to look reassuring. "You've thought about this, huh? Then I don't know, Dave. Short of letting him watch you have sex with someone else and enjoy it, I think he's going to think what he thinks."
"Knock it off. We're remnants, you and I. That's why it's easy for everyone else to think in terms of you sacrificing or leaving. It isn't fair, but it holds true for you especially because you keep so much of your life separate from the rest of the group. You have your work, your band, your life, and it goes on without the group.
"Most of the others," Melissa continued, "haven't grown out of the isolated little world they created. In this environment, the self-sufficient are the first ones ousted. If you're not good for the group and the group only, out you go."
Burke let her words sink in for a second. "So that's your agenda with Jason? Just going to get him interested enough in himself that he doesn't come running whenever someone asks for him?"
She shook her head. "That's his nature. Besides, once he gets the Ph.D., can you think of anyone else better to recommend a shrink who will offer a group rate for the rest of us?"
But she didn't mean "us". She probably didn't even mean Burke.
"In the meantime, he complicates everything by helping with just a little bit of knowledge. They have to have some sort of rule against treating close friends. And how the hell did he fall in love with a business major?"
"I'd like to believe he sees me as a woman, not just a degree."
"Then I wonder what those of us with no definitive direction look like. I mean, if he looks at people as they exist in terms of their education."
"We were talking about Sean not liking you. Maybe we should just get out of this rut. We can take everyone we want with us. Then we wouldn't have to worry about things like how Sean feels."
Burke grabbed her arm, somewhat strongly. "You tug too hard at those strings and you'll unravel the whole tapestry. That will hurt some of us more than others. Besides, what happens when everyone flocks to Jason for help?"
"Won't happen, Dave."
"Maybe not. Where is the man? He has to be lonely without you."
"Are you sending me away?"
"I just thought you bring him back to the rest of us."
"We'll see, won't we." Melissa excused herself and began the journey to the kitchen.
"Here's your beer. Sunk anything since I've been gone?"
Sean still had Vicki in his arms. "No."
"Even taken a shot yet?"
J.B. handed Sean a beer. It was Sean's shot, and J.B. would have to be happy enough to just sit back and wait until Sean was ready to play again. Vicki was whispering something in Sean's ear and J.B. could only hope that it was an urging to get on with the game. If J.B. wanted to sit around and accomplish nothing, he could just stayed upstairs talking to Jason.
"Why don't we quit this game?"
"I'll take my shot, white boy, when I'm ready."
J.B. waved the comment off, set his cue down – again – and started toward the movie but saw Melissa emerging and moved to encounter he before she made it upstairs.
"He's stalling?" Melissa asked.
"How'd you know?"
"I've played with Sean before."
"That I should ask about. Why would you be over here shooting pool with a good friend's boyfriend, and while your own boyfriend is off so diligently studying?"
"Because I was over here and Sean was willing to play. Why does everything have to be about sex with you guys?"
"I didn't say anything about sex."
"You were thinking it, Jeffery." She half turned to walk past him. "Do you think I'd sleep with Sean, or is it that Sean wants to sleep with me?"
"I thought it was Larry who wanted to sleep with you, Brooks."
"He's just upset he doesn't have Lynn anymore, and that's it. Larry is a friend, Jason's best friend, and he doesn't want to sleep with me."
"If you say so. Going to see Jason, then?"
"We're here together, we might as well be together, don't you think? Oh, I don't know. Sometimes I just get sick of the group. I like everybody in it; we're like a family. But..."
"You don't like family get-togethers, then. Okay. How often would you like to see this family, then? Once a year, more or less?"
Melissa blushed out of shame. "It's not you, Jeffery. It's a high school clique that just grew out, slightly. And look at us. Larry is going to get his father's business. Jason is going for a doctorate. You'll be in Med School again. I'm going for an MBA. Then there's the other side. Nancy is still living off her parents. Burke has a crappy job for almost no money. Vicki doesn't fit it, not now. She is in the middle ground. I just don't see it any more. Jason works twenty hours a week, goes to school, has the project to work on, has his practicals coming up, and he has this for his free time. It's just more work. At least I still have my folks chipping in with some money, but I have work to do, and I think that this is getting really old."
"That was a bit of a diatribe."
"I don't think so, but you had some steam to blow off, huh? Are you okay to go see Jason now without blasting the group? And Brooks," he added as he began to walk away, "just remember that Jason is the guy who made sure this all came together. Think about that before you take that away from him."
"Two questions before you go, Jeffery. Does this group survive with Jason and why don't you ever bring Sarah to these get-togethers?"
He laughed and turned back to see her disappointed with his reaction. "Yes, minus the two of you the group could survive. I doubt it would for long, but it could. And, to answer the other question, it's obvious. Look at you, and Nancy, and Vicki. Hell, I'll even throw in Lynn and Stacy. Do you think that's what Sarah's like? I don't need for her to see me happier with better people. She would stop sleeping with me."
"You wouldn't fall for an unworthy girl, J.B."
"Didn't anyone tell you, Brooks? I'm an asshole. I'm the bad guy. I do use girls for sex. This has nothing to do with love." Jeffery Binghampton's face grew hard, his eyes narrowing. "I don't bring Sarah along so she doesn't realize that all I want from her is sex, that I get my emotional fulfillment from the likes of you and Nancy and Vicki."
It was all Melissa could do to keep her composure. "You should have this conversation with Jason."
"Oh, I don't want to get better, Brooks. I have everything I want, it just isn't in one convenient package." J.B. ended the conversation with that and made his way back to the pool table.
"Oh, Jeffery," Melissa whispered. "Oh my God, Jeffery."
She quickly made her way up to Jason.
"Are you crying? Melissa? What's wrong?" Jason asked with questionable sincerity.
"You're leaving me for him?" He meant to ask that jokingly, but he couldn't get the tone right. He never even saw the slap coming and barely managed brace himself to keep his head from smacking against the kitchen floor as he fell. There was a great deal of anger in that slap.
"Please don't hit me again." Jason could taste blood in his mouth and hoped it was just a bloody lip. "All I'm going to do is stand up." His head was spinning and his vision fuzzy. That wouldn't last long, but he knew that he was in trouble. Melissa had never slapped him, even when he knew he deserved it.
She was just glaring at him.
Shit. "J.B. told you his philosophy on women. He didn't include you in it, did he?" Jason searched Melissa's face for any sign of remorse, or even tolerance. "Okay, I won't know why you hit hit me, specifically, until you tell me."
"Haven't we outgrown the group?"
"Of course we have, but that's no reason to abandon it. You're upset because I'm not downstairs with you, right?" Jason paused, hoping that Melissa would do something other than stand there seething. "Well, I have some interesting news."
"What?" she said in a much softer tone.
"You remember Lynn?"
"I think so. She used to spend time at Larry's? Oh course I remember her!"
"She's coming back to town. She asked if I would put her up." There was a long pause.
"I'm waiting for you to hit me again."
"I feel justified in hitting you the first time, now. So, help me with this. Larry Pudenski's old girlfriend calls you up and asks if she can come spend some time with you. Based upon the fact that you're reluctant to tell me, I'd guess that you said she could. Were you fucking her, Jason? Is that why she called you?"
"No." He met her accusatory glare but he wasn't trying to fight. "I am not now, nor have I ever slept with Lynn. Or any of my friend's girlfriends. Melissa, you know that there have only been two other women I've ever had serious feeling for, and that I'd never betray you."
Because I'm in love with you, I want to marry you, you're my entire world...except for school. "Because I don't betray people. It's always about beautiful things."
The riddle again. "So what are you going to do about Lynn?"
"You want to house her, Melissa? I seriously think she asked me because my place has the best access to public transportation."
She pulled him close. "I'm going to have to apologize for slapping you. And for something else." Melissa breathed a few breaths through her nose. "Jason, I almost slept with Lynn, once."
"That wouldn't have been nice."
"Well, I don't even know why. I don't even like women, sexually." She saw Jason had a glint in his eye. "I can appreciate them, and you know that I even suffered through one of your lesbian pornos and didn't get sicj or anything like that. Jason, I just only want to be with you now."
"I don't know, Melissa," Jason said as he pull her to him. "I like the idea of thinking about the two of you." His eyes said that he was joking. "I want to be with you, too. Think they'll notice if we leave?"
"There is enough happening here without us."