Charlie only liked it when it was easy. Lukewarm bourbon whiskey out of a water bottle in the backseat of a Chevy easy. Pink panties around his throat like a badge of honor easy. Slow-motion, one-step-forward-and-two-back, meaningless kind of easy.
Becky used to feel easy. She sat beside him now in the backseat of an ’‘85 Impala, waist-down naked and skin burned from seat fabric in the weighted heat of early August. Dusk was no reprieve from the stale-air static. When he’d pulled the car over and put his hand on her thigh, he felt her warmth pulling him in, blending with the relentless sun sinking behind the cornfield hills of home. She looked damn good too; plaid shirt still undone because he’d torn one of the buttons in the heat of the moment, still hadn’t had time to apologize (he wasn’t big on apologies anyway). She was a tousled wave of blonde atop a soft frame, lips smeared and sullen, clamped now around a cigarette while she toyed with her lighter. “Get that shit off your neck!”
Charlie had been pretending to search for her missing button awash in the beige sea of the car’s interior, watching her closely out of the corner of his eye. He flicked the lace waistband of her panties her direction. “Why? Not my color?”
Becky blew a smoke ring out the window and smiled. “Out of your price range.” She used her free hand to pull them from his neck and tossed them on the seat. “You look like a damn fool.”
Charlie had grown up along the interstate in a town dotted with heifer farms and trailer parks. His dad had run a walk-through lane out their back door selling whatever substance the neighborhood demanded, but if you asked him, he’d tell you he was in the business of freedom. No one asked though; he was a loud man with a quick temper. Charlie’s mom was gone before he knew her, waist-length blonde braid and an old-school apron, backing down the driveway silent and wide-eyed, a child herself running from a monster. He didn’t remember much about her, but he liked her, liked knowing what he could expect from her. She kept it easy.
Charlie uncapped the water-bottle bourbon he was still a year too young to buy. He had stolen it from his job at Jaycee’s Diner in hopes of impressing Becky, forgetting she was never impressed. A swig went down hot and fierce; he grimaced, offering the bottle to her. She waved him off. “I’m good. I’ve got stuff to do later.”
A second swig burned worse than the first. “Yeah? What do fancy college girls do in their hometown after dark?”
Becky narrowed her eyes but didn’t look at him. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll climb some trees.”
They had climbed trees together in their neighborhood until they were about 9. She was sweet and simple then, two pigtails and a voice rarely raised above a whisper, asking no questions and offering no answers. A knotted, gnarled pine was always their favorite, covered in knuckles like a punch frozen in time, cocked and ready but more bluster than bite. He’d race her up the trunk, beat her every time, and use his position above the rest of the world to coax her up a few branches higher than she was comfortable with. He’d extend his hand; she’d take it reverently. But pine is weak and prone to splinter, and one day the branch broke underneath her, sending two pigtails to a bed of needles nearly fifteen feet below. A couple that lived nearby came to clean up the mess, a busted shoulder and some bloodied knees. It wasn’t easy. Charlie looked away and it took years for him to look her direction again.
He leaned his head back on the seat, watching the road for cops with nothing better to do than harass them. There was hardly any traffic on this old road, and he’d see it coming if there was. “Well, you should know they took that old pine down a couple years back.”
“Did they? Good. It was cursed.” Becky exhaled and a puff of smoke filled the cab, lingering in the stillness like a whitewashed swarm of bees. “So what does that leave you to do with all of your time now?”
Charlie raised his hands as if some evidence were on display. “Little of this, little of that. You’d know if you came back from the city more often. Sorority girl, right?” The words tasted a little bitter, so he followed them up with a smile, resting the plastic bottle on his bare knee.
Becky fixed her eyes on him before rolling them. They were almond-shaped and large enough to show Charlie his reflection, even in the dimming light. She was a beautiful, somber ghost in the hollow hallways of his past—the places he still lived in secret, the rooms he almost felt her pulling him from. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything. It took you away from this shithole where you should be.”
“And away from you.” Her voice was hard, wise, pouring from a place he’d only wondered if she had in her. “I’m guessing that’s also where you think I should be.” The bitter taste was now shared between them like the sickly sweet flavor of her lipgloss circling the rim of his mouth; still sticky, unconcealed. He caught the jarring pale of his nudity and adjusted his boxer shorts.
“You really wanna talk about all of that now?”
“I want to talk about something now!” There it was: some fire burned inside of her that he both sensed and ignored, wanted and loathed.
The night after they graduated from high school, Charlie’s dad split his lip. Something about missing money escalated into something about a missing childhood, and he paid the price for observation with a closed-fisted punch to the mouth. His dad told him to take it like a man and passed out in his recliner. Charlie found Becky under the still-standing pine, all of its fists useless in the blackness, and she pressed her fingers to his lip to stop the bleeding. She had asked no questions and offered no answers, and he let his hand run up her thigh then too. Then pink lace, then his half-swollen mouth on her neck, then the thunderbolt reality that he probably loved her a little bit. It wasn’t easy.
Charlie smirked at her now, his mouth twisted into something ugly. “I don’t.”
Becky stubbed out her cigarette and reached into the pack for another, a habit he thought she’d picked up lounging around the university green with the intellectual types. He pictured writers and painters packing her bedroom, a constant rotation of bare chests and arched backs that felt like something, meant something, would mean more to her than him. “That’s not a surprise, but I do. You barely spoke after-”
“Stop.” Charlie was startled by his own seriousness. The whiskey had burned a tunnel straight to his belly, and he felt like he was overheating. He wanted to do something, anything to break the tension, so he grabbed his tee shirt and threw it on over his head.
Becky sighed and he knew she knew him but it didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, mattered too much to matter. “You do what you want, but you’re not going to be cruel to me.”
Charlie buried his father two weeks before. It was a small memorial service played out in a cold, fluorescent-lit room, a too-tight rented suit and a sick stomach. They’d asked him to speak and he declined, said he didn’t know the man that well, hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. It wasn’t true, but the truth was irrelevant. Becky’s folks offered gentle platitudes - “He was just Dave, man, he did everything his own way!” - but she watched him, almond-eyed and silent, asking no questions and offering no answers. He made it easy, the casket closed just like his mouth. But pine is weak and prone to splinter, and maybe it wasn’t all buried away, dirt-caked and devoured by worms.
Two more silent swigs. He felt low now, knowing he’d hurt her, knowing he would probably do it again. He softened his tone, reaching for a glimmering button just under the right shoe he still had on. He tossed it to her. “Found it. Sorry about that.”
Becky ignored him for a while and traced the path of a lightning bug in the weeds with her forefinger. “You’ll figure it out someday. Probably when it’s too late.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She swung the rear door open, the antique handle clicking on release, and emerged from the car bare-assed and barefoot on the gravel. Every curve of her body was ignited by the sun’s last stand, having dropped just low enough in the sky to meet her. She leaned in, left her panties but grabbed her jeans, and slipped them over her legs in the comfort of a brazen upright. Her cigarette still clamped firm and burning, she avoided his gaze and fought with her zipper. When she spoke, her voice was muffled and edgy, like a live wire in plastic casing. “That you’re an actor in your own life.”