I was sitting at a small table outside White House Sub shop's location in the upstairs section of the Taj Mahal Casino, about to take a second bite of my favorite sandwich; a turkey and provolone sub with mayo, onions, hot peppers and spinach in place of lettuce, when JS walked up.
"He's back." he said. The 'he' in question was the ex-boyfriend of a woman whose eyes dotted all of the punctuation in my poems.
"Yeah, I know" I responded. I had known for a while, over a week actually. I hadn't wanted to believe or accept it, but I had known. There had been an extra bounce in her step for more than a few days now. And for all the time I had known her, only one person had put that much extra wattage in her smile. And it wasn't me. And the beaming smile was back, had been back for maybe almost two weeks.
"You know what this means?" JS asked, somewhat rhetorically smiling like a man who just hit a lucky card on the River.
"Of course I do." I replied. It meant that I had just lost any desire to finish my sandwich, but more importantly it meant that I had lost yet another bet to JS. That for the first time in my life I had lost a prop bet twice to the same person. The bet was simple, JS had told me before she had even broken up with the guy, that if she did, she'd take him back. It was just after JS had collected from our first bet. He wanted to go Double or Nothing, but I declined that option. I couldn't see any way that she would figure this guy out, dump him and then take him back though. She seemed too smart for that. But as JS had pointed out to me, I seemed too smart to have taken the first bet, not to mention the second one. Which I had, in fact accepted. And now apparently, lost.
"Just like you believed in her better nature, she believes in his." he explained.
"But there's no evidence or anything yet." JS said, "So if you want to wait a few weeks for more proof, that's cool, I understand." The truth was that I already had all the proof I needed. If the return of the smile and the bounce hadn't been enough, the day before I had spoken to her and although she had responded, she had avoided my eyes momentarily when she did so. She had done a similar thing when I saw her a week earlier, turning her head so I couldn't see her face. I read people for a living, so this was a no brainer for me-she was hiding something, something she didn't want me to know, the rest of her expression told me it was because she was ashamed of it. She had put on a good face when she spoke back, but it was too late, the Gummi Bears were out of the bag and scattered across the floor.
If you know me, you know that I'm a guy who knows things.
The odds a flush will hit with two cards to come (35%).
The original name of the R+B group Tavares (Chubby and the Turnpikes).
The cloudiest city in the country outside of Washington State (Morgantown, WV).
And so on.
But knowing a lot of things means that sometimes you know stuff you don't want to know, like when I was six years old and realized that those long crooked scars on my Dad's arms were track marks from a needle. A needle that wasn't given to him by a doctor or a nurse. Or knowing that what she was hiding from me was the fact that she was again seeing a dude who had previously played her for her money and broken her heart. Realizing this, wrestling my disappointment down enough to accept it, I had decided later to go and apologize to her. For something I had said that was childish and wrong, but also for ever being in her business in the first place. Loving somebody aint no real reason to meddle, and besides, as the son of an addict I know full well that you can save people from everyone, but themselves.
But when I got there, she hadn't even wanted to look at me, let alone speak to me. I made the mistake of asking her if she had a minute. Of course she didn't.
"What do you want?" she'd asked.
"I wanted to apologize." I said. She cut me off.
"Why do you keep trying to talk to me? Why don't you just leave me alone?"
Her first question sliced through the distance between us with a sharp edge, but the second one trembled out like a desperate plea from a little girl. It fluttered up bright red as an autumn leaf and slowly floated in the air until it landed softy on the counter between us. As it floated down, it seemed to echo, like the clang of a prison door rolling shut. But this door wasn't shutting me in, it was shutting me out. I was standing on top of a submarine, watching the hatch seal and turn shut, before submerging beneath the sea and disappearing forever.
Indeed. Why didn't I leave her alone? It wasn't because I was stubborn. Although I am. It wasn't because I'm obsessed with her. Although that's true too. The real answer, which was obvious to anyone who has ever listened to Aretha sing, was because I'm a fool. I'm not the first one, and maybe not the biggest one, and I certainly won't be the last in the chain, but at that moment I was definitely wearing Ye Olde Dunce Cap.
One of my favorite trivia questions to ask at a poker table involves Cuba Gooding Jr., or more precisely his father Cuba Gooding Sr. His father is world famous for singing a song that almost everyone knows the lyrics to. It stumps them every time. His dad was lead singer for "The Main Ingredient" who had two huge worldwide hits, one called "Just Don't want to be Lonely" and one called "Everybody Plays the Fool." If that song was so successful it's in part because I've got plenty of company in that regard. Not that that made me feel any better. But loving someone who doesn't know how to be loved, is most definitely a fool's errand. One that I was on. Even though I knew better. The tundra cold truth was that my money was counterfeit in her country. And yet, I kept trying to spend it. Which is exactly what was so foolish. I know the types of men she's attracted to, what they do, how they treat her and I know how to do those things. But I refuse on principle to do them and instead suffer without her. Which I suppose makes me doubly a fool.
When she said "Why don't you just leave me alone?" I immediately put my hand up. There was no need for her to go any further. There are some things that even a rented mule doesn't need to be told twice. I just backed up and walked away. That exchange was all the proof I needed, had I needed any, which I didn't.
I looked up at JS, "I don't need to wait." I said, "I just don't have the money to spare right now."
"That's OK." he smiled, "Take your time, I know you're good for it."
"So, how long is she gonna be with him?" I asked. In my bones, I already knew the answer, but just wanted to hear it out in the open air.
"As long as he wants to keep her around." JS said.
"I'm sure she read him the Riot Act and set up all kinds of rule and parameters for taking him back." he said, "And for now he's going to say and do all the right things, hell, he might even mean them. But eventually he'll tire of the restrictions and his true nature will come out." He paused, "When that happens, he'll move on."
"But for right now, she's All-In with him and she's going to do everything in her power to make the relationship work. She knows how things will look if it fails, she's going to avoid that at all cost."
"Look, I did this to women for the last thirty years." JS said "I know exactly how this game works, it doesn't matter how bad he treated her, she was going to take him back. He not only makes her feel incredibly good, he makes her feel good about herself, and that makes her happy in a way no one else has. Even though she knows his history, she believes that she's the one who can tame him. They all believe that." he said, "That's what hooks them."
He looked at me in a much more serious way.
"You know what this means, don't you?"
I nodded my head yes. I recalled another, entirely different situation. Once years ago, the guy who roomed next to me was outside in the hallway fighting with his girlfriend. I was in my room listening to new records, but could hear them shouting over the music. I turned the music down so I could yell through the door and ask them to quiet down, when I heard the sound of a fist hitting a face. I rushed into the hallway just as he cocked back for a second lick. I grabbed him from behind and pinned his arms to his sides so he couldn't hit her any more. We wrestled for a minute and then suddenly I felt a sharp pain through my left arm. I looked down and there was a pen knife sticking out like an exclamation point. When I looked up, her face was feral, her teeth bared, "Take your fucking hands off my man." she hissed. I released him in surprise. he stepped over and slapped her head sideways, "You stupid ass bitch." he said.
"Fuck you" she said to both of us "Nobody puts their hands on my man. Not if I can do something about it." I had meant well, but the person I was trying to save resented me most. Even though this situation didn't involve domestic violence, the outcome would be similar. I looked back at JS.
"Somebody has to be the bad guy, and right now you're wearing the black hat. It's over for you, that's it, you're finished. I don't know if you ever had a shot, but you're drawing dead now." he said.
He didn't need to go any further, I knew the math. There were only two things that could happen, one was that somehow they stayed together forever, the other most likely scenario, was that eventually it would end. And at that moment, I would become the man she hated most, partly for being right all along. It was time for me to move on.
"If they break up, when they break up" he corrected himself, "You'll be the one guy on the planet who will know just how foolish what she did was. So, she's never going to even want to see your face again, let alone have anything to do with you."
"Yeah", I said glumly "I know."
"I'll tell you something though," he continued "I used to think that guys like you were stupid, but at least you have something you believe in." He ran his hand over his face, "I had so many women, fine women, smart women, women with good jobs who loved me, who really, truly loved me. And I fucked it all up, time and time again. I had a bunch of shots at making things right and never did. They all left me, some of them wised up and got a good man and some of them kept repeating the pattern, but they all left. And now, I'm sitting here empty handed just like you. I dont even have anything to believe in. I thought I was getting over, getting the best of it, but really I was just conning myself."
"Dude probably thinks he's slick too, he is slick, and very good at what he does, but in the end he's just hopping sideways from chick to chick going nowhere."
We both stared out the window at the shadows creeping up the side of the building across the street.
"Well, at least you learned something from the first bet." he said "You were smart enough not to take Double or Nothing."
"Yeah," I said "Once again, you were right and I was wrong. You win."
He shook his head from side to side,
"Let me tell you something, in this game, nobody wins."
And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)