Burke didn't let that dampen his smile. "You're never too old." Then he looked at Motown. Motown shook his head. "Why go to school to learn what I already know? Sorry Burkie. Besides, when I get back from leave I'm transferring to the laundry."
Burke then turned to me. "What do you say, Carroll? Want to go to barber school for a month?" This peaked my interest. "When?" I asked him.
"I can get you in for February. It's right here on base. Thirty days of shore duty. We're offering anyone who wants to go a chance to go while we're in dry docks."
This idea, I fancied for some reason. "Just barber school?" I dug deeper.
"No, we have laundry school that also lasts for a month, fire fighting training that lasts 2 weeks and 3-M training for 2 weeks. Take your pick."
I went for the clean sweep. "Can I attend all of them?"
Burke shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I'll have to ask Mr. Booty about it. I don't see why not though. So, you want all of them?"
"Yeah, sure, let's go the extra mile. Sign me up for all of them."
Burke jumped up out of the chair. "Okay, I'll get the ball rolling. I'll let you know what's going on in a couple of weeks, okay?" And out the door he went. Motown stood there next to his customer staring at me. "Now why you go do a fool thing like that for?"
"Oh, on the contrary," I explained, "this could be three months of shore duty we're talking here. Shore duty Motown!"
"Man, we already have shore duty for the next six months." He debated.
"Yeah," I agreed, "but this way, I don't have to report to the ship. Just go to my classes, then go straight home."
"So basically, you just want three months away from the ship?"
"That about sums it up." I noted.
He went back attending to his customer. "That's cool."
"You do realize," Shorty added to the conversation, "every time Burke gets people to participate in that stuff, it goes to his credit for future promotions. Same with reenlistment, and charity donations."
"That's his job." I reasoned.
Shorty shrugged his shoulders this time. "No wonder Burke treats you like his first born."
Motown concluded with, "Ole Brainiac here just wants to spend more quality time with that fine, fine lady of his. Ain't that right, Brain?"
I just smiled. But he was accurate. I was going to use those schools for exactly that purpose. The days were flying by and before I knew it, New Years Eve had arrived. Lori spent much of the day getting ready. I had taken Bernie to Tiffany's mothers house as Tiff made plans for New Years Eve, so her mother agreed to babysit him for us. When I returned, Lori was finally ready. Man, did she look super hot too. She went all out.
Things were still awkward between us, or so it felt that way to me, then again, I got to thinking that maybe she was expecting me to ask her to get married, and maybe she thought I would ask her on Christmas day. When I didn't, maybe that was a bit of disappointment to her. Well, that was my thinking then. In hindsight, it looks a lot different. I guess it's always easy to look back ten, twenty years later and think that if I had asked her on Christmas day instead of waiting until New Years Eve, that maybe things would have gone differently. The truth is, things go they way they go because it's just the way things are. That's the way things were meant to be.
We arrived at the restaurant around 8:00 PM or so. I had her drive because she knew where the place was which meant, she would have my keys all night. This would play a role in how the events of the evening would unfold. I couldn't wait to meet some of her classmates and friends. She rarely spoke of them. They had a whole back section reserved however, everyone was still expected to pay for their own drinks and meals. Oddly enough, Lori never did take me on an introductions tour. I found that strange. During the course of the next few hours, I had to go from one to the other introducing myself. That didn't seem to be a problem seeing how Lori often disappeared for minutes at a time without warning. Some of her classmates even came up to me to ask who I was and who I was with and what not. One girl in particular kept popping up to talk with me. Her name was Leah. She was a short petite long haired blonde around Lori's age. She was very friendly.
As is the case with just about anything, once you get a bunch of people together for any kind of event and fill them with alcohol, the drama can tend to get a bit out of control. This time was no different. By 11:30, the place was filled to capacity and the music was blaring. People mingling and otherwise, enjoying themselves. Lori hardly touched her meal. She had just gotten back from one of her disappearance acts and sat down for like five minutes before disappearing again. At least she took a few of those minutes to ask how I was doing. "I feel stupid because you keep darting off to who knows where." I said.
She just simply rolled it off her shoulders. "What? Everyone likes you. Mingle more."
"It would be a lot easier to mingle with you by my side." I tried to tell her. She just kept up with the mysterious behavior she's been displaying all evening. "Nonsense. You're a people person. I'll be right back." And then poof, off she went again.
I simply sighed and would take a drink of my Seven and Seven. Once, I even reached into my coat pocket to take out the ring I had in waiting and looked at it. Maybe things will pick up when I whip this out on her, I thought. before I knew it, it was 15 minutes before midnight. Leah found her way to me as I was standing at the bar ordering another drink, and trying to seek out Lori at the same time.
"She's out back talking to her friend." Leah came right out to tell me as she approached from behind.
"What?" I stammered.
"Lori." She repeated. "She was out back again talking to her friend last I saw. That is who you're looking around for, right?"
"Her friend?" I questioned. "What friend?"
Leah glanced off to the side and pointed. "That friend over there. His name is Van. He's standing next to his wife. They must be done talking."
Suddenly, my heart dropped into my stomach. Did she just say Van? And sure enough, moments later, Lori showed up. "There you are. You keep moving around on me." Leah silently excused herself.
My drink finally arrived and I handed the bartender her money. I took the drink in my hand and finished it off. I slammed the glass down hard. "What the hell is Van doing here?" I came right out and asked her. Her face turned pale. "What?" She stuttered.
"Cut the shit, Lori, I know that's him over there with his wife." Pointing him out directly for her. "You know what? I don't even care. I'm out of here." And I headed for the exit. No sooner did I hit the cold air outside, she ran up in front of me from behind. "Carroll, just stop it!" She shouted.
I came to a near halt, and started to pace around erratically. "Is this why you got all dressed up? For him?"
"I didn't know he was going to be here." She defended.
"Bullshit." I threw back at her. I took another hard look at her. "You been sleeping with him while I was away, haven't you?"
It got quiet for a moment as we stared into each others eyes. This is when I discovered why she had been acting so strange lately. "And you haven't been cheating on me?" More silence. More staring. "Yes, I know about Sevina."
I never felt so ... so ... I threw up my arms and headed for the car. "Fuck this." But when I got closer to it, I realized I didn't have the keys. I turned to walk back up to her. "My keys." I brought my hand out.
Tears were forming in her eyes. "Take a cab you son of a bitch." And she headed to the car, got in, started it and squealed out of the parking lot.
I stood there for a few minutes like I was expecting her to turn around and come back to get me. She never did. Only when I heard the people counting down the last ten seconds to New Years did I start my long walk to the nearest bus stop, or pay phone. This restaurant was closer to Virginia Beach than it was to Norfolk. Good thing I wore my coat. "Damn it." I muttered.
I guess the cat was out of the bag. We both had cheated on one another. But how did she know about .... son of a bitch! Hammy! I'll have to deal with him later.
I didn't walk too far before a car pulled along in front of me. A kind soul taking pity on some poor bastard walking alone in the cold on New Years Eve? (Or New Years day now) I hurried to get in. "Thanks. I appreciate the ...." But I didn't finish my sentence. I now saw who it was.
"I watched from inside." She said. It was Leah.
I guess I needed someone to talk to at that moment. I began explaining the situation. We ended up having a long conversation about it all. Before I knew it, we were parked in a parking lot. We sat there for probably another 15 minutes or more talking. By the time we were done, I figured I had bored her long enough. I reached to open the door to get out. "Anytime." She smiled, reaching for my arm. I had one leg out as I looked at her hand on my arm. I then looked at her and smiled. "Thanks for the ride. I can call a cab from here. Happy New Year."
I got out and shut the door. I took a few steps before she got out and called to me. "Do you have to go?" I stopped and turned around to look at her. "I mean, it's New Years." She continued. "You're more than welcome to come up and hang out for a while. If you like. We can toast with some champagne. Or something."
I fumbled with my thoughts momentarily. "Do you really have champagne?" I sought. She shook her head. "No. Not really." We stood there a few moments more, looking at each other, looking all around, and back at each other again. I glanced up at the night sky. In my mind, I was asking the universe why it was doing this to me. Again! Leah pleaded one last time. "Please? It New Years. No one should be alone on New Years."
This baffled me. How could it be that this very attractive girl was alone on New Years to begin with? It just didn't make much sense. Not to me anyway. Maybe it was the sad look in her eyes. I don't know. I didn't really know very much at this point. In fact, I don't think I even really cared anymore either. I started walking towards her. "I guess one glass of champagne won't hurt, will it?"
Another option, another bad choice?
I got up early. The truth is, I didn't even fall asleep. I carefully got dressed, trying not to disturb Leah. I just wanted to sneak out of there quietly. Mission accomplished.
I walked a block or two to the nearest pay phone and called for a cab. I took a seat nearby on a bus stop bench. New Years day, yippie.
The cab dropped me off at the house. Both her and my cars were in the parking lot. I knew she was home. I was dreading this moment. I slowly walked to the door and turned the knob. It was unlocked. Lori was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. We stared at each other for a minute in silence. I headed for the stairs. "Don't wake Bernie." She requested. "I picked him up last night and brought him home. I didn't want to be by myself today."
I disregarded her and continued. Once upstairs, I went straight into our bedroom and got my athletic bag, and began packing. It was over.
When I was finished, I gingerly walked into Bernie's room. I stood there to watch him sleep for a few minutes. I took a deep breath before bending over and giving him a kiss on his head. Then I went back downstairs and dropped my bag on the living room floor and headed to the coffee pot to pour a cup and take a seat across from Lori at the table. We simple stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Finally, I broke the silence. "It's not working out."
Lori hesitated before responding. Tears forming again in her eyes. "I do love you." She whimpered.
"Why isn't that enough?" I asked. No answer was given. "We went too fast." I presumed. "We should have been friends first."
Without any provocation, she reached for a smoke and asked me. "How many, Carroll? How many girls were there?" I fidgeted in my chair without answering. For Lori, that was all the answer she needed. "Jesus Christ, that many?"
I lifted my shameful head. "At least I wasn't in love with any of them." I noted. "You're still in love with Van, aren't you?"
She turned away. I reached for my own cigarette.
It was like the universe was taking a massive dump right on my head.
"I think we need to take a break." I suggested. As if my packing wasn't explanatory enough. "Just a nice long break, and maybe we can try to be friends and then see where ... what happens from there."
"Yeah." She agreed. "A break. Friends."
I got back to my feet slowly. I walked into the living room and grabbed my bag off the floor. I saw my car keys on the coffee table. I picked them up. I got to the door. "Will you still come by sometime and see Bernie?" She asked me. "You're the only thing to a father he has ever known."
I turned around. "Of course I will." I promised. "He's my boy, right?"
She smiled through the tears. So did I.
It was time.
I walked out.
I sat in my car for about five minutes. Why was it so hard to turn the engine over for Christ's sake? I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the container that held the ring. I leaned over and placed it in my glove box. Now I started the car.