Drifters

Night of the Drifters

 

Just when I thought it was going to be an easy night, the red light over the ER entrance began to blink. A second later the doors flew open and a gurney carrying a shattered, bleeding body rushed past me.

“Vehicle accident, head-on into a railroad stanchion,” called out the ambulance attendant as he rushed past. “One patient, 35 to 40 year old male, lost at least a pint of blood.”

Our team moved quickly to save this man’s life. We cut away his clothes, looking for bleeders that might have been missed by the ambulance crew. The resident intubated him while I checked his chest and limbs for broken bones. His breathing was shallow. We feared broken ribs, a punctured lung, internal bleeding. I tended to his head wounds, applying pressure compresses to several cuts. I cleared the blood from his face and the matted, long brown hair that reached past his shoulders. When I stood back to evaluate what needed to be done next, I jumped, startled.

I knew this man.

I quickly regained my composure and stopped a bleeder on his temple, then another on his neck. For the next hour I worked furiously, driven instinctively by my medical training but also by fear that I could lose this man, perhaps this time for good; this man who I had met only once three years ago. You see, he was one of the Drifters.

I was still in nurses training at the time, working weekend nights as a hostess in a pretentious, overpriced country inn in western New Jersey. It was early May and the temperature had soared into the 80s in the afternoon, leading us to hope for a warm summer night. But by sunset a chilling rain and plummeting temperatures reminded us that mild evenings, where diners could eat out on our terrace, were still far away.

Around 8:00, a white sports car roared into the parking lot and two figures tumbled into a soaking rain. They raced towards us hand in hand. He pulled a jacket up over his head; she tugged a wide-brimmed fisherman’s hat low on her head. They burst through the door, landing directly in front of my station.

Hi,” I said. “Table for two?” my voice rising cheerfully as I was trained to greet new customers. Water splashed to the floor behind the man as he pulled the jacket back from his face. Then he turned and slowly tipped his companion’s hat to one side. He did it gently but still some water trickled off the rim and down her back.

“0h, that’s freezing,” she squealed, hunching her shoulders. “You did that on purpose,” she laughed, hitting him playfully in the chest. He put his arm across the wet of her back and hugged her affectionately.

“I’ll warm you up,” he said. She smiled and moved closer to him.

That remains my most vivid image of them; soaked to the skin, huddled together, she with a smile of enormous warmth and affection, and he with this protective, loving look on his face.

I watched intently as she shook her hair out and loosened her yellow rain slicker. I guessed their ages to be mid thirties. She was tall, 5’7″ or so, slender, with long jet back hair that fell in soaked ringlets around her face. Her deep set, doe-like eyes sparkled, her beauty exploding in our little inn on this dreary night. He was only slightly taller, sort of unkempt, with long, stringy brown hair. He took her fisherman’s hat and tucked it under his arm, then turned to me.

“Where are we?” he asked, bewildered.

I smiled, sensing that they were not like the sour tempered, complainers I dealt with most nights. “You’re at the Homestead Tavern and Restaurant. We serve … ”

“No, no,” he interrupted. “I mean what town is this? Are we still in Jersey or is this Pennsylvania, maybe, Ohio or what?” His companion smiled, playing along. She opened her rain-slicker, to reveal a white ruffled lace blouse with a high collar. A large diamond and smaller wedding band adorned her left ring finger. He opened his jacket, brushing drops of water from the lapels. Underneath, he wore a long sleeve black jersey with ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, stenciled across the front. He took off his jacket and turned, looking for a place to hang it. On the back of his shirt was a silk-screened picture of a young soldier waving the American flag. When I looked closer, I saw that the boy was in a wheel chair.

“Miss?” he said.

“Oh,” I answered, embarrassed. I hoped they hadn’t caught me inspecting them. “No, you’re not out of Jersey yet,” I said. He sighed dramatically.

“Can we get a drink here?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said, and began to show them to a table near the fireplace.

“And we’d like to get a bite to eat as well,” he said. I stopped in mid-step.

“Well, that’s a little more difficult, I’m afraid. You see, we’re not fully opened for the season yet so we’re not serving food here. You can eat at the main house, though.” I pointed across the street. “They have a buffet tonight. It’s $29.95, all you can eat.” I was about to give them the menu when he dropped the fisherman’s hat.

“Oh, I appear to have dropped our hat,” he said to his companion, again, acting bewildered. He bent to pick it up; she brought her hand to her mouth suppressing a laugh.

“Yes,” I said. “I agree with you. It is an outrageous price. And what’s worse,” I looked around to make sure the manager wasn’t listening, “it’s not even that good,” I whispered.

“We sort of had in mind a place where we could have a few beers… ”

“Perhaps a glass of red wine,” she interrupted.

“Yes,” he smiled at her. “A little red wine, a cheeseburger with loads of Fries.”

“Or perhaps a nice garden salad, maybe a bowl of soup,” she said.

“Uh, yes,” he said. “Soup, soup would be nice. You wouldn’t happen to know a place like that would you?”

”Well, where are you coming from?” I asked.

He hesitated a moment, “East, we’ve come from the East.”

“Yes, East,” she said.

“Oh ” I said, “And where are you headed?” I knew the answer before I got the question out.

“West,” he said. “We’re headed west.” He was deadpan. She tried to hide an embarrassed grin. They stood there for a second. Then I think he felt me getting a little uncomfortable. “You see, we’re just sort of drifters, he said. “You know, just passing through. We haven’t really come from anyplace and we’re not really going anyplace. We just happen to be right here at the moment.”

“I get it. Right,” I said, grinning. “You’re just sort of, you know, drifting.”

“Now you’ve got it,” he said. “I had a feeling about you, that you would understand.”

I led them to the window, “See that road out of the parking lot to the right? Well you just, uh, ‘drift’ down about three miles, make a right at the first intersection and a mile further you’ll see an old building on the left. It looks like a barn. But there’s a small red neon sign over the door. It’s called ‘Desirees’. You can’t miss it. Great cheeseburgers and fries, and a decent salad selection,” I said turning to her. Jerome, the only other staff member on this night, came over and added to my directions.

“They make great mushroom soup, too,” he said.

“By the way, that valet parking guy will try to charge you for your car. He’s there for the buffet diners. Just give him this.” I handed the Drifter a bar receipt. ‘Don’t give him a cent.”

“Oh, well thanks, that’s very nice of you.” He turned to his companion. “Who gets the hat?” he said. She didn’t answer, but took it from him slapped it on her head and pulled it down splaying out her ears. “Let’s go, Clarence,” she said. He laughed, throwing his arm around her shoulder as they crashed out the door with the same exuberance as when they had entered, like they were starting out on a new adventure. Jerome and I watched, as they danced through the parking lot, stepping around puddles, in between raindrops. They were talking madly as they left. Then he stopped, held her at arms length, and came running back towards our bar. He burst through the door and called me over.

“Look,” he said. “My drifter friend and I want to thank you for helping us out and for, well being in tune. If you know what I mean?” I wasn’t sure. “And so that you will never forget us, we want you to have this.” He pushed a crumpled bill into my hand.

I began to object but he started talking again.

“Now, what you are to do is to buy an experience with this, something you’ll never forget and that you will always associate with us, The Drifters. Promise?”

I nodded. He turned and ran to the car. It was a vintage Alpha Romeo.

They disappeared behind the opaque plastic back window of the convertible top and almost immediately the engine was humming. Then the top went down, the rain having stopped minutes earlier. We watched him fidget with the dashboard and then sounds of Springsteen and ‘Thunder Road’ filled our courtyard. The Drifters kissed. Then her hands went up and cupped his face, holding it almost desperately, I remember thinking. He took the wheel, and the car sped off down that dark country road towards ‘Desirees’, her head nestled into his neck. As they pulled away her hair, caught by the wind, streamed out behind her. I had this fleeting image of them not turning towards Desirees, but instead going west. I felt that if they started west they might not stop. When they had disappeared around a curve, I looked in my hand. He had given me a hundred dollar bill.

That was the last I saw of either of them, until tonight. I looked at the monitors. He was stable now, still unconscious, but breathing regularly. Heart rate and blood pressure were in normal range; probably no internal bleeds. We had bandaged his head and his left arm was broken. Two of his ribs were cracked, but his lungs had not been punctured as we had feared. It looked like he would make it. We’d have to see about his brain function once he was conscious.

I watched him through the night and into the next day, volunteering to take the day nurses shift. I told her he was my private patient, an old friend of the family. No change. He had slipped into a coma.

Over the next few days, I left his bedside only to go home, grab a few hours of sleep, shower and change clothes. The whole time he was heavily sedated and not responsive. He had no visitors. No family, no friends. Where was she?

Jerome and I talked about them for weeks after that night three years ago. We were sure they were lovers; we knew she was married from the rings, but probably not to him. Jerome guessed that she was real rich and was keeping him and that he was in it for money and sex. I told him he was crazy.

“Isn’t it obvious to you how much he loves her, Jerome? I said. “Life has more to it than sex and money, you know.” Jerome shrugged.

A week later, despite Jerome’s cynicism, I invited him to share the $100 experience. We decided to go bar-hopping in New York. It was a big deal for us because neither of us really drank. We roamed Tribeca and played ‘them’. We each bought a Fisherman’s hat and pulled it down almost to our ears. I drank red wine. Jerome drank beer. Around midnight we went to this jet-set hangout on Barrow Street and I had soup and a garden salad; Jerome had a cheeseburger, loaded with fries. That’s when we broke the hundred and felt real hot and important. Of course the waiter couldn’t have been more casual about it.

Later, we drove back to Jersey in Jerome’s VW Beetle – not exactly an Alpha, but it would have to do. When we stopped at a light just outside the Holland tunnel, Jerome leaned over, turned my head towards him and kissed me.

“A Drifter’s kiss,” he said. I laughed. But when he moved towards me again, I turned away. “Hey,” he said. “I bet that’s not what she did, Laurie.”

“No, I bet not,” I said. “But our little play has to have limits, Jerome. And I guess that was mine.” He turned back to the road and pouted for the rest of the drive back. When we got to my apartment building, he pulled into a dark area of the parking lot, turned off the car and draped his arm over my shoulder.

“Le Drifter est Finis,” I said to him, before he could make any moves, imitating the end of a Fellini film we had seen a few nights earlier. His face fell in defeat. I didn’t mean to hurt him, but I didn’t want to end the night on a sour note, him groping, me resisting.

“Laurie, are you always going to push me away,” he said as I gathered my things. Jerome had been pursuing me since I started working at The Inn. I liked him, but it ended there. I wanted the passion that I had seen in the Drifters. A passion I didn’t feel for Jerome.

“Look,” I said somewhat annoyed. “It’s late and remember, in your world it’s sex and money. Right?” He started to defend himself but I stopped him. “I gotta go,” I said.

We hung around some after that but I always kept him at a distance and he never put the moves on me again. At the end of the summer we parted with a rather formal hug and a vague promise to keep in touch.

The Drifter was in a coma for almost two weeks. His real name was not Clarence as I had heard her call him that night, but Jesse Dreier. We went through his personal items but other than a driver’s license found no indication of a next of kin. One day I came in on the four o’clock shift to find him still in bed, but now his eyes were opened. When I saw that he was awake, I burst into the room excited with the possibility that now that he was no longer in a coma, I could talk with him. He looked at me but showed no sign of recognition.

“Mr. Dreier,” I said. “You’re awake!” He was impassive. His eyes stared straight ahead for a moment more, then he turned towards me.

“You’re the night nurse I gather,” he said blandly.

“Yes, but something more.” I moved closer to the bed. “I’m also the waitress you gave a hundred dollars to a few years ago. Don’t you remember?” I smiled hoping that it meant as much to him, as it had to me, hoping that I was not just one of many people he had done that with. He looked at me more closely, then nodded.

“Yes, I remember. ‘The night of the drifters’, that’s what we called it,” he said smiling slightly. “I’m sorry I met you again. I hoped our meeting would always stay anonymous.” He turned away.

“Well I’m not sorry,” I said. “You have no idea how that night has stayed with me. There is so much I want to tell you, so much I want to know.” I pulled a chair next to the bed. “Like who was she. Where is she now? Why isn’t she here? Does she know what happened? Maybe I could call her. She must be terribly worried.” I was talking so fast I didn’t bother to look at him. When I did, I found that blank distant gaze had come back as if he had willed himself back into a coma.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” I said. “I’ve been stupid, Mr. Dreier?” He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. It was clear. He had lost her.

For the next several days his mood was impassive. He smiled briefly when I entered the room. But other times when I looked in from the doorway, his gaze was far off and his face blank.

I decided to take on the task of shaving him every afternoon. It was a way I hoped I could get him to talk. On the third day he began telling me things about his life. He didn’t mention her. He had been making his living as a kind of freelance inventor. When I met him three years ago, he was doing quite well. He had sold a patent for a pool alarm system, and had a contract for developing some sort of bathroom odor eliminator. These ideas had all started when he was in Nam, he said. I remembered the ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ shirt he wore that night. He had been able to cash in on some of his inventions, at least for a while. Lately, he said, he was completely out of ideas.

“I can’t believe that there are no more ideas up there,” I said, tapping lightly on his forehead.

“Hey cut it out, that’s a cracked skull you’re playing around with,” he said.

“Well the way you talk it’s useless anyway.” I brushed some stray hair back from his face. “You know that night,” I said quickly, afraid he would stop me. “I had never seen anyone with the enthusiasm of the two or you. Jerome and I talked about you for weeks. We figured you were film writers, or actors, or in the theater, you know, something very special.”

He sneered. “Yeah, we were something special, all right.”

“How long has it been?” I asked, risking talking about her.

“A long time,” he said. I waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. He was moving back into his own world again, the way he had the first time I talked about her. I didn’t want to lose this chance. He would be discharged in a few days and I might not see him again. I had to find out what happened.

“Who was she?” I said.

“You are persistent aren’t you? And annoying, I might add.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to pry into your life.” I looked away.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said rolling onto his stomach. “You give me my massage today and put some real enthusiasm in it, and I’ll tell you what you want to know. Let’s start with this. She was my brother’s wife!”

He looked over his shoulder so that he could see my face. “Still want to give me that backrub?”

I helped him slip his arms out of the dressing gown, and lowered the sheets so I could apply oil to his back. I worked his shoulders and felt the tension, the knots. I pressed my palms firmly onto his back, moving my fingers deep into the tightened muscles, trying to force relaxation into his taut body.

I wasn’t as surprised or as shocked as he seemed to expect. I knew there was something clandestine between them. I moved my hands to his upper arm, then to the nape of his neck. His skin was smooth. I liked the feel of it. I held back; I had to be careful. I knew that there was a not so subtle difference between a therapeutic muscle massage and a caressing touch.

“All you have to do is watch an afternoon soap opera and you’re bound to see the plot,” he said in a self-loathing tone.

“I was in Nam for two years. When I came home my brother had married and already there was a little boy, a beautiful little boy. In the next two years, both my folks died. Dad had a heart attack; that was expected. He had several of them before the last one. But mom, she and dad were so close for almost fifty years, when he died she just couldn’t take it. Less than a year later she had a massive stroke and just like that she was gone too.”

He paused. I waited. I slowed the movements of my hands, more gentle now. I moved from his neck to his head, burying my fingers in his hair, massaging his skull. It wasn’t till I began to massage his back again that he continued.

“I had trouble settling down after that. No steady job, lots of pot, too much wine, and too many women. It got to be a joke with my brother; serial dating, he called it. I was going out with two, sometimes three women at a time. I never really thought that much about Anna.” He turned his head to look at me.

“That’s the other drifter.”

I nodded.

“They had another child, a girl. So their family was growing and I was going nowhere, peddling my inventions, practically door to door, making some money but spending most of it on drinks and dope.”

I dripped some more oil in the middle of his back, and started to work my hands down his spine toward his waist.

“One day I went over to their house late in the afternoon to find Anna in tears; my brother was nowhere in sight. She composed herself quickly when she saw me, then collected the children and brought them out to the front lawn so I could play with them. He still hadn’t come home when I left around 9:00, an hour after the children were in bed.

“That was the first time I realized that everything was not right in Camelot. From then on I watched Anna whenever we were together. Her only joy came from the children. My brother totally ignored her. He worked hours that no one in the family would ever consider working. Worst of all, he wanted little to do with the children. He made a good show when outsiders were around, but if it was just me, he would disappear.

“One night, I had opera tickets, but no one to go with. I called my brother’s house. When Anna answered I suggested that she and my brother might want to use the tickets. She called to him but he said no, making a derisive crack about opera. He suggested that she use the ticket and go with me. It would do her good to get out. She said she would if it was OK with me.

I agreed and we drove into the city talking about the children and mundane issues of suburban life. She loved the opera and all in all, we had a nice time; but nothing special.

About a week later she called and said she felt like she wanted to get out, would I take her into town? I agreed and then chatted briefly with my brother. He thought it would be great for her, that she loved to go into New York. He, on the other hand, hated the filthy place. He insisted though that she get a babysitter. He wouldn’t be able to watch the kids. He was going out too.”

“That was the night I first noticed her smile.”

I continued the massage, and remembered the Drifter smile, the joy on her face when she looked at him. I worked his lower back, moving the sheet further down to the top of his buttocks.

“We were sitting in a restaurant on the West side, just talking,” Jesse continued. “I felt so relaxed with her; she was laughing at everything I said, a laugh I hadn’t seen in all the years I had known her. At one point I just sort of stopped the patter and looked at her. I told her that except for the children I hadn’t seen her smile like that before. ‘Except for the children, I haven’t felt like smiling in a long time,’ she said. Then her eyes fell, embarrassed.

“When I took her home that night it was different than the night we had gone to the opera. We hardly talked. It was awkward at the door and I left quickly. No, I wouldn’t stop in to see my brother, not tonight, I told her.

“I didn’t see or talk to her for several weeks. Then there was a family birthday party. I had been depressed and feeling very lonely since our last time together. Against my will, I couldn’t get Anna out of my mind.

“At the party, she greeted me with a warm smile and a hug that I didn’t want to end. She asked if I had been in to the city lately and if so why hadn’t I called her. I laughed and said something stupid. She said that she had heard of a club on the Westside where out of work opera singers performed and would I like to go sometime?”

I was working on the rhomboids along the center of his back, carefully avoiding the damaged ribs, moving down towards his waist. He was lying flat with one arm extended over his head.

“Well,” he continued. “We went into the city the following Friday. There were two young singers in the club that night, and their voices were terrific. The room was so small that the sound surrounded us unlike any large hall I had ever been in. At one point I glanced at Anna. She was staring at me. She turned away, embarrassed. We left a few minutes later.

“As we went up the stairs side by side, my arm casually draped around her waist, a young couple in their early twenties hurried down the stairs, squeezing us together.

‘Sorry,’ the girl said. ‘We don’t want to miss the last set. Were they great?’ ‘They are going to be the next superstars at the Met,’ said the boy.

‘Yes. They were great. You two are very lucky,’ I said as they hurried past us.

“We stood face to face our bodies pushed together. I made no effort to separate us after the jubilant young couple had passed. Instead, I brought my hand to Anna’s face and stroked her hair. She reached up and took my hand. I didn’t know what she would do; whether she would scold me, push my hand away. She held it for a moment without looking at me, then turned her face into my palm and kissed it. I caressed her cheek, and ran my hand across her lips, her eyes. I held the side of her face and she pressed into my hand, moving her head like a grateful kitten.

“When she looked up at me. There was fear in her eyes, a look I saw often after that night. Then I cupped her face in both of my hands and I kissed her. The first kiss was light, barely touching. But the next was passionate, desperate. I’m sure that had we not been in that club, we would have made love.”

I listened to him describing those moments as if they had been happening to me. As if I were Anna. I sat on a stool next to the bed, but let my hands pass lightly over the skin of his lower back, now more a caress than massage.

“We drove home without taking our hands off each other,” he continued. When we were about a mile from her house, I stopped the car on a dark side street and we made love, right there in the front seat of the Alpha. “Remember that car?” He said looking up at me.

I nodded.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said.

“No, no it’s all right,” I said, quickly. “I asked you, remember?”

“It was the way we were from then on,” he continued. “We saw each other once, sometimes twice a week and each time we forgot about who we were hurting, deceiving, lying to. We forgot about my brother. Somehow, we managed not to hate ourselves. I was astonished how easy it was. I used to ridicule people like us, but now I rationalized that what we were doing was justifiable.

“And we made love everywhere. In the Alfa, in parks, we brought pizza and Chianti to a sleazy motel. We had sex on the beach, and in parking lots. You know that time we met you?” He said, lifting his head slightly. I nodded. “We had made love on the road next to the bar just before coming in.” He smiled mischievously.

“By the way, aren’t you spending a little too much time in here with me? Won’t the other patients feel neglected?”

“I went off duty 20 minutes ago,” I said. “Now, let me do your legs.” I switched the sheets around so that his butt was covered but his thighs were exposed. I began to work my hands high on his legs, barely below the sheets. “Moan if you like it,” I said rather brazenly. He laughed, but then didn’t say anything more.

“And?” I said prodding.

“It went on for about a year and then it was over. We both had to leave our fantasy and get on with our lives.”

“And do you see her at all now?” I asked.

“No,” he answered abruptly. I was working on the muscles in his calf now, then his feet.

“Do you still love her?” I asked. He didn’t answer.

“You know the night you saw us,” he continued a moment later. “We started off just driving west. Most of the time we’d go into the city. That night we decided on a western excursion. We joked about just continuing to drive, not going back.” I had switched to his other leg. He didn’t seem to notice.

“We both tried to stop seeing each other several times. But, each time one of us called and it would start all over again.”

“What finally ended it?” I asked. I had finished the massage and gently pulled the sheet down across his legs. He rolled onto his back and looked to the side, past me.

“One night, my brother caught her coming in and confronted her, accusing her of seeing someone else. She denied it but said she couldn’t stand living with him any longer, that she felt like she was suffocating, that she wanted a divorce, that she couldn’t take this life any longer. He refused. How would it look at the firm, he said to her; the embarrassment. That’s how he is. He would be thought a fool, he told her. No, under no circumstances would he let her go.

He threatened that if she went ahead with it, he would demand full custody of the children. He would get the best lawyer in New Jersey and make sure she was shown to be an unfit whore of a mother. We both knew he was capable of this. It wasn’t that he wanted the children. It was just his trump card, the way he could control her. We talked endlessly about what she could do, what her options were, but gradually it became clear. There was nothing she could do. If she tried to divorce him, he would make her and more importantly, the children, suffer.

“Finally, one night I told her I was leaving, that I couldn’t keep up the affair. There seemed no way out and that it would be best for her and the children if I were out of the picture. Maybe she and my brother could work things out. He had not always been like this, I told her. Maybe he could change. Maybe he could be better for her, for the children. We talked. She cried. She said that she had tried so many times to make things better and always it was the same. He would go back to being a person she could love for a while, but then quickly reverted to being the husband and father she despised. She said she could lose the children if she forced the divorce and that would kill her. I told her I understood. She said that it wasn’t the right time, maybe in a few years when the children were older. She wanted it to go on between us. Why couldn’t things just stay the same?”

He pulled the sheets up to his chin, looking at me now as he spoke. I sat next to the bed, my hands continued the sham of a massage kneading gently at his forearm. I nodded to show him that I understood. I thought I did, but I also thought that the love between them should win out. I so desperately wanted it to. But it hadn’t. He was here, alone. In nearly three weeks, no one had been to visit. Not her, not his brother. I could see the end of this story coming and I was finding it difficult to accept.

“Our last night together we held each other without making love. I’m sure Anna thought it would be another of those times where a week after we split I’d call and we’d be back together. But not this time, I made sure of that.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

“I left. The next morning before I lost my resolve, I took what I absolutely needed, stored my books and records at an army buddy’s house and headed west. I drove past the place where you worked, then got on route 80 and only stopped for gas and food. Two days later I pulled over to the side of the road somewhere in North Dakota, I think, and slept. But a few hours later I was back on the road. In Montana I wrote my brother a letter. I told him that the pressure of not working steady and the Viet Nam ‘baggage’ were just too heavy. I had to go. I told him that I hoped he understood. I told him to say goodbye to Anna and the children for me.”

“You didn’t write to her?” I asked.

“No, I wanted it to be as clean as possible and it was. I went to Seattle. I’m not sure why but that’s where I ended up.”

“But you’re back. Why did you return? To see her?”

“No, nothing like that. I was running out of money. I was a few hundred dollars away from living on the street when I heard from this army buddy who lives in Jersey. He had some good paying construction jobs that I fit the bill for and he offered to let me stay at his place for as long as I needed it. His house is 50 miles from my brother’s, so, I figured it was unlikely I’d run into either of them. I’ve been here for two months and now I’m done. I’m leaving as soon as I get out of here. L.A. maybe.”

“Jesse,” I said. I took his hand. “Call her. Tell her you’re here. Talk with her.”

“No,” he said abruptly, his voice rising, angry. I was taken back. I was afraid that he’d be heard in the hall. He sat up and held my arm firmly. I felt tears well up. He dropped back into the bed. “You better go,” he said.

“Jesse, listen to me,” I pleaded. “For the rest of the summer after we met, people would come in for drinks and when they left Jerome and I would classify them.” I was speaking quickly, wringing my hands in my lap, fighting to hold back the tears.

“There were older couples who would come in for a drink before dinner. They just sat opposite each other without speaking or perhaps we’d overhear an argument, then after he paid the tab and tossed an overused flirtatious remark at me, they’d walk silently into dinner. Or, there were younger couples, always in fours or sixes and always the women walked with the women, the men with the men. They were loud and raucous and then they too would head to dinner, with the same gender segregation as when they walked in.”

‘Don’t they have anything to say to each other?’ I said to Jerome one night. ‘Why is it we see so few of them talking with each other, showing some affection for each other?’

‘Because that’s the way it is,’ Jerome said. ‘If they’re not arguing about the kids, or money, they got nothing to say. After being together for a while, couples just tolerate each other. You know, stick it out for the kids, that kind of stuff. ‘

‘No!’ I said. ‘I don’t believe that. People fall in love because they can talk to each other. That never goes away. They may not talk as much after a while, but still there is a connection. There is love between men and women, you know, Jerome.’

‘What there is, is guys wanting to score and girls like you who are incurable romantics. That’s what there is,’ said Jerome.

“Jesse, when you left that night even Jerome said, ‘that was one together couple.’ “After that we’d talk about our customers with reference to the two of you. You were the standard, the 10. We went to -10 for couples who clearly hated each other. One couple started shouting before the first drink was even served and when it came, she threw it in his face and stomped out of the bar. They were the -10s.” Jesse smiled briefly.

“We’d get a loving couple, and Jerome would say, ‘they were good, but they weren’t the Drifters. I’m giving them a six.’

No one ever got higher than a seven. For the rest of the time I worked there we must have rated a hundred couples. One slow night Jerome calculated the average. It was a dismal 3.8.

“So you see, Jesse,” I sat beside him on the bed. “You see why this is so important to me. It gives me hope. Hope that someday I can love someone the way the two of you loved each other that night.”

“That was three years ago,” he said, “and, I think you’re a little old to be in this fantasy world. That’s 19th century women’s novels and 1940s movies. It’s not real life.”

“But you still love her.”

“It makes no difference,” he said. “You don’t understand. Now I think you should go. Let me be with this.” He turned away.

“But Jesse, you can’t see it. You’ve lost yourself. There is nothing left to you. The exuberance the, the zest, the excitement that was there that night. It’s all gone now, there’s nothing. Please, please call her. Let me call her.” I was crying. I wanted it so desperately. He turned back towards me and I fell against him, burying my face in his chest. He put his arms around me, holding me gently.

“Don’t be so hurt by the mess we created,” he said. “Pretend that you didn’t meet me again, then make up a happy ending. Anything you like and let that be the end of the Drifters.” He spoke soothingly. I felt calmer in his arms. I lifted my head from his chest and held his face in my hands, the way I had seen her hold him in the car that night. Without thinking, I bent down and kissed him on the lips. When I pulled back, I couldn’t look at him; I was too embarrassed, ashamed that I had broken this cardinal rule of my profession. I was afraid that he would tell me I was a foolish young girl. Laugh at me. He didn’t move, and having lost all inhibitions, having thrown every rule to the wind, I leaned down and kissed him again. He didn’t respond at first, but then I felt his mouth open and he was kissing me back. They were gentle kisses, and I became lost in him. I lay next to him on the bed, and he pulled me into him. Then he stopped and moved away.

“Listen Laurie,” he said. It was the first time he had said my name. “Maybe…”

“Yes,” I said to him. “I better go.” I moved back from his arms and looked around, suddenly nervous at the prospect of being caught. I stood next to the bed, too embarrassed to look directly at him.

“Thanks for talking with me,” he said rather sadly. “No one else knows about this. You’ll keep this between us?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. I spent a moment more with him, then brushed the hair back from his face. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ve got the overnight,” I said. “Is everything OK now?”

“Everything’s OK,” he said, nodding, “thanks.” I smiled but I knew everything wasn’t OK. I turned and quickly left the room.

Half an hour later I was driving down the ramp of the parking deck out into the traffic on Main Street. Before I reached home I had decided. I would make love to him the next night.

I spent the morning doing odd jobs around the apartment, anything to keep my mind off the coming evening. I showered early in the afternoon, then lounged around my apartment reading till three. I dressed carefully. I decided not to wear underwear. I didn’t want the awkward struggling undoing my bra, or my panties getting stuck on my feet as I tried to remove them in the midst of passion. I was feeling terribly sensual and sexual, but at the same time I felt great tenderness for this man. It was a rare combination of emotions for me. Seducing him, I told myself, would be a mission of mercy. It would save him. But I knew too that I had really fallen for him. Maybe, I was in love with The Drifter.

I was at work for no more than twenty minutes when I ran into the head nurse coming down the hall.

“Excuse me, Laurie”, she said, her eyes moving from my face down over my uniform. “Why aren’t you wearing a bra?”

I know it’s against regulations, Margaret,” I said. “But we’ve been so busy the last few days. I didn’t get a chance to do a wash. When I looked in my drawer this afternoon I realized that I didn’t have a clean bra. I have a sweater in my locker that I can wear over my uniform. I hope that’s OK.” She bought the story and told me in the future I should plan better. Before there were any further comments, I put on the sweater.

When I looked in on him around six, his dinner tray was in front of him, but hadn’t been touched. He was staring into space the way he had when he had first come out of the coma. What had I done? Had I been the cause of this? Did my thoughtless questions cause all of this to surface again? I didn’t go in. One of the other nurses told me that he had not eaten lunch either. Yes, he had been like that most of the day.

I did my afternoon chores, trying to keep my mind off him and what I had planned for later that night.

I decided to wait till nine, when all of the visitors would be gone. My plan was to approach him cheerfully, telling him that since he would be leaving in a few days I would give him a final massage if he would agree to talk to me some more. No, I’d say he didn’t have to talk if he didn’t want to. He could just enjoy the massage. I would start professionally, working his back and shoulder muscles. Then I would spread more oil on his back and touch him more gently, working down to that sensitive region, those fine hairs just below his beltline. I pictured him moving in response to my touch and then turning over so he could reach up to kiss me. I imagined his passion rising and his excitement at finding first that I wore no bra and then no panties. I pictured him between my legs. I was kissing him, kissing him all over. I would consume his body and he would consume mine.

Afterwards, I’d say to him, ‘I’m so unhappy with this job, and this part of the country. I want to see more of the world.’

‘Then come with me. We’ll take California by storm. We’ll have an adventure the likes of which you’ve never dreamed,’ he’d say. I’d hug him around the neck and whisper tearfully, ‘Yes, Oh yes, my dear, my sweet. I will, I will go with you.’

“Laurie, what’s that ridiculous grin on your face,” said Margaret as we passed in the hall.

I went back to my chores; if Margaret only knew.

A little before nine, I took off my sweater and smoothed my uniform over my bare body. I walked quietly up the back stairs and exited the stairwell by the fire-door next to his room. I approached cautiously, looking both ways down the hall; it was empty, safe. I opened the door a crack and saw him across the room, lying in the dim light of his bedside lamp. I undid the two top buttons of my uniform and pushed my breasts together so that they bulged slightly out of my uniform. Carefully, I made my way into the room. Then I began to feel that something was wrong. He was awake and what? He was talking in a whisper. Then I realized someone else was in the room.

I only saw her from behind, but I didn’t need to see any more. Her black hair fell over her slender shoulders. I watched her bring his hand up to her face and kiss the palm, then let it rest against her cheek.

I moved back from the open doorway and crept silently into the corridor. I slipped back into the stairwell, hoping no one had seen me. I pressed my body against the cool stone of the stairway wall and felt it chill my thinly clad body. What a fool I was. My hands went up to my face. I thought I would retch. I shuddered. How stupid. How stupid. I went down one flight of stairs then sat on the top step, wrapped my arms around my knees and cried.

After a while, I composed myself, buttoned up my uniform and put my sweater back on. I returned to the front desk and busied myself with paper work trying not to think about what happened, but the lack of underwear, wouldn’t let me forget. I wished I had thought to put an extra pair of panties in my locker.

After an hour or so, when I knew I hadn’t been caught, I began to see the comedy in it all. I was laughing to myself when I heard Margaret’s voice, “Hey, where did you come from?” I looked up to see Anna striding purposefully down the hall, a grin covered her face, her eyes sparkled. She stopped by the desk.

Margaret was about to speak, but before she could, Anna said, “I understand that your patient in 302 has not been eating much. Well,” she said, “I just don’t think that’s going to be a problem anymore.” She smiled, the Drifter smile, then turned to me on the other side of the corridor.

“Nice to see you again, Laurie,” she came over and hugged me. “Thanks,” she whispered. “Thanks so much for taking care of Jesse. It took me a long time to find him. But I did and now I promise you, I promise you, I won’t lose him again.” She continued toward the door, then turned to Margaret. “Sorry I have to hurry, babysitter, you know. I’ll be back in the morning.”

“Hey,” said Margaret, turning to me, “how did she know your name? And who was she? I thought at first it was his wife, but then I noticed, she didn’t have a ring on.”

I didn’t answer Margaret but stared after the figure hurrying down the hall to relieve the babysitter. It hadn’t really registered with me, but Margaret was right, she wasn’t wearing a ring.

I couldn’t suppress a smile that began with a grin and spread so that it felt as if it encompassed my whole body. I clasped my hands over my head and shot to my feet.

“Yes, Yes,I called out.

Margaret looked at me bewildered. It was a night of surprises for Margaret.

“What’s wrong with you?” she said.

I was exuberant. I wanted to scream, to go wild, to dance, to sing, anything. Instead, I ran to the front desk, picked up the phone and dialed frantically.

“Jerome,” I said. “Remember the Drifters?”

Nick Ingoglia

October 2011

About 8,200 words