"Jesus, Muse," I said. "You sound like shit." I was at home in my office, looking out the window. The neighbors across the street were having their roof repaired, and the sound of workers hammering rang in the room.
"I feel like shit," she said, and was wracked with a sudden coughing fit. She held the phone away from her mouth, and it was at least fifteen seconds before she got it under control and put it back. "It tastes like something died in my mouth."
"That's what you get. You should have stayed home last night. I knew you were going to end up like this."
"I wasn't out that long," she said.
"When did you get home, Muse?"
"Not late." She paused and sniffled. "Five-thirty."
I sat on the chaise and got comfortable. "You must have had something good going on. That's an hour and a half past closing time."
"Not really that good," she said. "I was with Charlotte."
Charlotte, I thought. Trouble with a capital C. Last year, Charlotte and the Muse had spent a few months in a very short and very passionate relationship. Muse had fallen hard and fast, but like the proverbial bulb burning twice as bright and half as long, they had imploded as a couple, without warning to those of us on the outside. I never knew the cause; Muse hadn't given the details, and I didn't want to press for them. I didn't need to know them. I just opened the door for her when she showed up in tears on my doorstep and put her on my futon, where she stayed for the next week. I don't believe they had a true love, but they had a fierce one, and the loss of it devastated the Muse.
She coughed again, less forcefully than before. "I wasn't even at the bars. I stopped for some fucking coffee, and there she was. She didn't see me first, and I thought about just turning around and leaving, but I don't know... it just seemed like it was cowardly to do that. I mean, I'm an adult, and I can act like one from time to time. So I went over and said hi."
"Very mature of you," I said, while in my head I was thinking Bad move, Muse. Bad move.
She grunted at me. "I agree with what you're thinking: it was a stupid thing to do. I did it anyway. And we talked. For a long time. We closed the place down, maybe ten-thirty or so, and it was nice, you know?"
"Like old times," I said.
"No, not like that. It could never be like that again. But it was still nice, having a conversation with someone who knows you totally, inside and out. I know you know what I mean."
I nodded, remembered she couldn't see me, and said, "Yes, I do."
"Best thing in the world, being known like that. To be so open." She paused, and I could see her in my mind, in her bed, eyes closed, hand draped over her forehead, looking to me like Ophelia floating at the surface of the water. I waited, not prompting her to continue. No pressure. Finally she said, "It was disarming. I'd thought that when we met up again, we'd be more cruel to one another, but everything came so naturally, so comfortably.
"When the place closed," she continued, "we went back to her apartment. We took our separate cars, and she told me to follow her, but I didn't need to. It was easy to get there, like I'd just done it yesterday. It's the same apartment she was in last year. Same furniture, same everything." She stopped a moment and I heard her sniff. "God, I smell like an ashtray."
The hammering across the street had stopped. I glanced out and saw the workers milling about on the lawn. Lunchtime, apparently.
"We sat on her couch for a long time," the Muse said. "Just talking. I'd forgotten how nice it was to just sit and talk with Charlotte. We had a rapport. We could read each other's minds."
Just like us, I thought.
"I haven't talked about any of this before with you," she said. "I don't know why."
"Of course you do, Muse. You don't do anything without a reason."
She sighed. "Yeah, yeah. You're not supposed to point that out to me, you know."
"It's my job. Someone has to."
"I suppose so," she said. "I think I was just sort of embarrassed about the whole thing. She had me, you know? I was completely under the water. Absolutely sucked under, and she knew it. She could have had anything from me, and I would have given it. That's why I didn't tell you about it. I hate that I was like that."
"You could have told me, you know."
"No, I couldn't have. I needed something a secret from all of this. Something that was just for me. I don't need it anymore, though. Last night broke me of it. See, Charlotte liked... well, she liked to use toys, you know?"
"What?" I asked.
She sighed. "Oh, you delicate flower. Sex toys. You know. Battery operated boyfriends."
"Ah! Right, gotcha."
"Anyway. We'd been talking a while, and drinking, and my bladder is the size of a pea. So I head for the bathroom, and when I get there, her dildo is on the bathroom sink. Which is no big deal, but it was the one she used on me, you know? And seeing it there made me think about how good we had been there for a while, which made me think about how it all fell apart at the end so fast."
She stopped talking, and in the background I heard a metallic snick: her Zippo. I decided not to bitch her out for smoking just now.
"You know what the only clue I had about it was?"
"The sex. We had amazing sex, and a lot of it. It got better every time, too, which sounds sort of weird, I know, but it was true. Up until that last time, anyway, and that's how I knew something was up. The last time we had sex, it was just so... mechanical. There was motion, but no emotion. I could have just been one of her toys, you know? I felt like a fucking fembot or something." She paused again, and I knew she was taking a long puff of her cigarette. She breathed out heavily, smoke and melancholy mixing. "She dumped me the next day. Wouldn't tell me why. Hell, I still don't know why. She gave me a bunch of bullshit excuses, the usual crap you hear about needing space or how it's not you, it's me. I know that wasn't it, though. I can't say how I know, but I do."
There was a crash outside my window. A piece of gutter had broken from the house under repair and fallen to the concrete below. The workers were scuttling over from the lawn to survey the damage, which seemed from where I sat to be limited to the gutter itself.
"Anyway," the Muse said, "seeing that toy on her sink brought all that back to me, and then it made me wonder who she had been using it on after me, which made me wonder if she had been using it on someone at the same time she was with me. Which sort of killed my buzz. So I left. Made some stupid excuse and took off. Drove down to the river and sat there a while. Drank there a while, too. That's why I've got the secret stash in the trunk. Fell asleep eventually, which was a good thing, before I drank too much."
"Yeah," I said. "You shouldn't sleep down by the river, honey. Not the safest of places."
"The door was locked. I think I could have made an escape if I needed to. Besides," she added, "I'm a fucking mean bitch when I have to be."
"Oh, I know, I know."
"No," she said, "you really don't know. Trust me. You don't want to know."
"I believe you."
She grunted as she moved in her bed. "Jesus, I'm sore. I think someone shoved broken glass into my spinal cord while I was asleep. Last time I fall asleep drunk in my car by the river."
"It had better be, Muse. When you're not your usual snarky self, I have a hard time coping."
"Sometimes even the snarkiest of us needs to wallow in her own misery for a while, sweetie. It's my turn today, so whatever coping you need to do, you're going to have to do it with someone else right now."
"The coping goes both ways, Muse," I said. "You get to make a withdrawal from the coping bank with me, too. I can be over in an hour with ice cream and zombie movies. I'll even wear the leopard fez. I know you love that."
"Not today," she said, not a touch of lightness in her voice. "Today, my apartment is off-limits. I cry sanctuary. I'm not going to wallow too much, I promise, but I don't want any company at all. Nothing personal."
"Everything's personal with us, Muse, but I understand. I'm still here if you need me. Or if you need the fez."
"Tomorrow, maybe. You bring the fez, I'll bring the booze, and we'll sit on the lawn and make ourselves blind drunk. Make a party of it."
"You know, normally I'd tell you something funny here, to try and cheer you up. Notice that I'm not doing it."
"Good boy," she said. "I'm going to go wallow now. You get outside and get some sun. I worry about you."
"Right back at you, Muse."
"I know. It's good for your soul."
She hung up.