I learned three things last summer.
The first thing I learned was: don’t get drunk on margaritas with your best friend’s wife when it’s just the two of you alone on the deck looking out at a once-in-a-lifetime drop-dead perfect June sunset and the air is warm and clean with a caressing wind coming in off the desert with the scent of spice and the promise of your heart’s desire.
It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been drunk together before. Or alone together. Or even drunk together all alone. When it’s your best friend’s wife, and she’s been married to him eight years, you wind up doing most things together at one time or another. The four of us had gotten hammered together with fair regularity, and to say we were comfortable with one another is like saying Keanu Reeves can’t act. We’d gone to college together. We’d gone to Europe together. We’d dressed and undressed together in a rain-soaked mass in the same cramped Subaru hatchback. My wife kissed her husband long on the mouth every New Year’s Eve, and I swatted my friend’s partner’s butt on her birthday. If it had been my wife and her husband getting warmly impaired alone together out on that deck, neither of us would have given it a second thought.
But it wasn’t the two of them. It was the two of us, and life is just that way now, isn’t it? At the least, it all comes to a drawn-out series of ifs and if onlys and could have beens. I could have gone to Yale. What if I’d met her three years earlier? If only we’d known he was suicidal. What if I’d taken that other job after graduation?
If we’d each had one less drink, we never would have done it. One more and we’d the both of us been too droopy to get out of our deck chairs. But life dealt us just exactly enough booze that evening, and just like it was a good idea or something I was there fumbling with her bra catch and she was being careful not to scratch hard enough to leave any marks. We broke a sweat in that caressing sirocco wind and ten minutes later I was picking splinters out of the copper-tan cheeks of her aerobicized butt. Her husband and I hadn’t gotten around to sanding the deck yet that year.
Things would have turned out differently without the splinters. If we’d just slapped and tickled out there in the afternoon sun, then slipped back into our clothes in time for a last margarita, the moment would have passed from the time our spouses got back from the movie neither of us had been interested in seeing. We would have pretended it never happened, and in a shorter time than you’d expect, it would be like it hadn’t.
But the splinters were what closed the deal. I’ve been in love three times in my life. Once in high school. Once with my wife. Every time, I can point to a remembered moment and say to myself that’s when I fell for her. That’s when I knew. Without exception, those moments center on laughing together. Can you imagine how funny two drunks would find picking out the sex-induced splinters from one lover’s butt cheeks? We laughed like a pair of stoned hyenas, and yeah, we fell in love.
Her husband loved the movie. My wife liked it okay. Neither of them suspected a thing.
* * *
The second thing I learned that summer was this: planning a murder is much more difficult than the movies make it seem. I mean, cutting a brake line is no big thing. You just buy a Chilton’s guide, find the thing, and cut it in half with something handy and sharp. But deciding to do it, deciding when to do it, making sure your wife and your best friend just happen to take that car on that night to go down the mountain…that’s a different proposition altogether.
We were only in love for a month before we saw that our spouses had to go. They wouldn’t understand what there was between us, and by July we’d twisted it around so it seemed we were doing a kindness to them both. Since freshman year, in the dorms, life had been us four against the world. We were best friends, all around. Went everywhere, did everything. You know the story. Our wedding pictures were practically interchangeable—two black tuxes, two green dresses, two days apart. Only the parents were different. We were like brothers and sisters without the bickering. We knew it would kill my best friend to find out we were betraying him, and my wife would never get over me having an affair.
So we worked it out, bit by post-coital bit, what to do. We talked through our plan over long lunches in the sleazeball motels lining south Amazon Boulevard. We reassured ourselves that we were doing it for love as we jumped into our clothes at the sound of them coming back to our campsite in the Jackowill Mountains. Not just our love for each other, now, but our love for them, too. We didn’t want to see them suffer. We memorized our lines and our stories while I lapped red wine from her belly button lying in the back of my pickup truck, out in the flats west of Mouse Ridge.
When we sent them out together for pizza and beer from Johnny’s at the bottom of the hill, we had convinced ourselves it was a mercy killing. The road from our house is steep, with two hairpin turns without guardrails and soft shoulders covered with unforgiving pea gravel. Even with our four-by-four Chevy, my wife and I would get stuck at home a few days every winter when the ice hit. In July, even with 4WD and good brakes, sliding out could be problem. I made sure they took the Chevy.
* * *
Our jobs gave us bereavement leave. We stayed in a lot, went out to Denver or Tucson for sweaty weekends in resort hotels. We were always together, and almost always undressed or working rapidly towards it. We ate well. We drank often. We screwed like newlyweds. It was a great, sunny, passionate summer like something out of a bad paperback with cleavage and a sweaty pirate on the cover, and it lasted nearly a month.
On the first day of August, two police officers in sharp linen suits came to my office and asked me to go with them to their office. They were polite, but also they were insistent. In a little room marked Interview 3, they told me about an anonymous tip somebody had called in. They said they had to check everything out, no matter how ridiculous, that their job was basically asking questions and putting all the pieces in order as best they could. The t-crossers and i-dotters of society, they said they were, and they really appreciated my coming in to help them jot this particular tittle.
The thing was, they told me, they needed to know the nature of my relationship with my best friend’s widow. I told them a romance had grown out of our mutual consolation. Then they asked if I was certain there was nothing between us before the tragedy with our spouses. I told them if they meant were we fooling around behind their backs, that yes, I was certain there was nothing between us, and yes, I was absolutely certain that I resented the question.
And that’s when they showed me the pruning shears they’d found in my garage and asked how I thought they might have come to have DOT-3 brake fluid all over them. They asked me that question several times.
Much later, they asked me if I’d done it on my own. I told them yes. When they said I should put in down in writing, I wrote that I had acted alone, that I’d fallen in love with my best friend’s wife and had killed both him and my own spouse in the hope of taking advantage of her grief. I signed my name under a line that insisted my paramour had known nothing.
Of course I went to prison. I live on Rook Island now, and I work making blue jeans the junior high kids buy three sizes too big. I go to eat and shower and work and sleep on a schedule, and I wear a lot of orange. So far, I’ve been able to avoid falling in love with anyone, but then this place is kind of short on real laughter.
They gave me seven years in exchange for my confession, and I was on the inside before the end of the week. She was with me every possible minute until I got on the bus, and she visited me exactly twice in August. The first time she said she’d love me forever for what I was doing. The second time, she gave me a photograph and a kiss on the cheek.
James M. Cain would have seen it coming. William Shakespeare, too. Bill Clinton. I’m sure you saw it. I can say I should have, and you can too, but “I should have…” is just another way of saying “I didn’t,” which is the truth. The photo was a complete, one-hundred-percent surprise to me.
It was of her on the deck of that restaurant at the top of the mountain north of town, the one you have to ride a cable car to get to. In it, she’s leaning her butt against the rail, with the whole city laid out behind and below her in a once-in-a-lifetime, drop-dead perfect city skyline. You can tell the wind is in her hair, and she’s kissing a man on the lips.
The man was not her late husband, my murdered best friend, and it wasn’t me either. It was some guy I’d never seen before, an accountant-looking dude with a tight little ponytail and a bald spot and gold-rimmed glasses too small for his face. He was kissing her back, and they both looked like they really meant it. There was one of those little time stamps in the picture, in red digits down in the corner by the kissing dude’s knee. It said the thing had been taken the previous May.
* * *
The third thing I learned last summer was that a guy who will kill two of his best friends for a woman isn’t anywhere near as smart as he thinks he is.
Jason Brick is a Barista at the Fictional Cafe. His most recent novel is Coming Home (Book 1 of The Bushido Chronicles, published by Bree Noa Publishing.