by Todd McKie
Cindy and I always spend our summer vacation the same way--two weeks on the Cape with our best friends, Howie and Meg.
This year, the weather was lousy. One evening, after we’d been trapped inside the cottage all day, Howie said, “Hey, guys, what say we go someplace different next year?”
Meg said, “Like where, Mister World Traveller?”
Howie looked uncertain for a moment, but then suddenly his head seemed to glow and pulsate. He had an idea.
“Let’s all go to outer space!”
Meg started laughing and I did too. We were on our third bottle of red wine and we’d smoked some weed earlier. I looked over at Cindy. She wasn’t laughing.
“What,” she said, “and give up our option on the last two weeks of August? Anyway, how would we get to outer space?”
I was going to chime in with, what about New Hampshire, something on a lake, but before I could, Howie said, “I’ll build us a spaceship.”
Nobody said anything for a while. I guess we were thinking about how serious Howie sounded, as if he’d never been more serious about anything in his whole life.
Then Meg said, “Howie, I hope your spaceship comes out better than that bookcase you made.”
Cindy rolled her eyes at me.
Howie got up and went to the window. We turned to watch him looking out at the rain.
Meg said, “C’mon, Howie, don’t be a downer.”
We listened to the rain drumming on the roof. Cindy switched on a lamp with a lighthouse on its yellowed shade. Howie spun away from the window. “It doesn’t rain in outer space,” he said. “Not for eleven goddamn days in a row. And I could build a spaceship.”
“Sit down, honey,” said Meg. “Nobody’s saying you couldn’t build a spaceship.”
“Like hell you’re not! I was in the Air Force, remember?”
“Yes, but you were a podiatrist then, too.”
“So, a podiatrist can’t build a spaceship? Jesus, what a bunch of doubters.”
Howie walked into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
Meg poured herself another glass of wine. “He gets like this sometimes,” she whispered. “It’s the lawsuit.”
A former patient of Howie’s was suing him. He’d examined her and told her she had nail fungus. Turns out it was some rare, flesh-eating bacterial thing. She ended up losing her foot.
“Howie’s freaked out. He says if the trial gets in the paper, or on TV, he’s finished. Seriously, don’t bring it up, okay?”
“We won’t,” said Cindy.
“He’s been talking about moving to Arizona. I think I’d kill myself if I had to live out there--all those ridiculous golf courses and drunken Indians. God.”
Cindy squinted at Meg.
“I know, I should talk, right?” Meg raised her glass in a sloppy toast.
The bathroom door swung open and Howie stumbled into the living room. His eyes were red and wet.
“Howie,” said Meg, “are you okay? Sit next to me.” She slid over on the sofa and patted its cushion, but Howie plopped down in a chair next to Cindy.
Meg went into the kitchen and came back with another bottle of wine and a bowl of potato chips.
Howie said, “Eighty-nine minutes.”
“What, sweetheart?” said Meg.
“Eighty-nine minutes. That’s how long it takes to orbit the earth.”
“Christ, can you please just drop this whole outer space thing?”
Howie checked his watch. “We could orbit the earth in less time than it takes to drive back to Boston.”
“Hey, what’re we going to do about dinner?” said Cindy, brightly. “I’m starved.”
Meg said, “It’s the boys’ turn to cook.” She looked from Howie to me. “You guys promised to do mussels, remember? And grilled corn.”
I gestured feebly toward the window, the rain.
“Let’s go to the Lobster Shack,” said Howie. “Tonight’s Twin Lobster Night.”
Meg groaned. “I’m sick of lobster. It’s so much work! And how do you think a lobster feels getting boiled up alive?”
“Well, get a lobster roll, then,” said Howie.
We changed our clothes. Meg put on makeup and messed with her hair. Cindy put on a turtleneck and a rain hat. I was thinking maybe I’d get the twin lobsters too. Everything was okay until we reached the car.
Meg held out her hand. “Howie, give me the keys, I’m driving.”
“Like hell you are,” said Howie.
Cindy said, “I’ll drive. I’m the only one who’s sober.”
Howie handed Cindy the keys. We got in the car and Cindy drove us to the Lobster Shack.
We pigged out: nachos, clams, lobsters, corn, bluefish, potato salad, blueberry pie, peach ice cream. We talked about the book Meg was reading, a book about why French women don’t get fat.
Cindy said, “Maybe they’re all bulimic. Or is it anorexic? I can never remember which is which.”
Howie made a loud noise like he was throwing up. People turned to look.
“God, Howie.” said Meg.
“I’m so full my clothes feel tight,” said Cindy.
We walked outside to the car. The rain had quit and the stars were out. Cindy climbed behind the wheel. I got in next to her. Meg collapsed into the backseat. Howie stood outside for a while, gazing up at the sky. Then he slid in beside Meg and shut the door.
Howie said, “We’re prisoners of gravity.” He chuckled softly.
I don’t think Meg heard him, and Cindy was busy fitting the key into the ignition, turning on the headlights, fiddling with the gearshift.
Once we were out on the highway I rolled down the window, stuck out my head, and looked up. Trees, telephone poles, and houses flew past, but the stars didn’t move at all. To me, the stars were pretty lights, nothing more. I knew Howie saw something different up there, something deeper, something finer, maybe, but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what it was.
published 25 December 2013