“The Beast” by Megan Cummins
I first read an early draft of this story in workshop. I was already in love with Megan Cummins’s writing: she has that ability to burrow down into her character’s psyche; to show us those intimate, unique things that make characters come alive; and every story teaches us, in turn, about ourselves. Her stories almost always travel a route that veers between comic and tragic; you laugh and then, seconds later, you’re not sure if you’ve ever been so sad.
It has been a joy to watch “The Beast,” originally published in Ninth Letter, morph into its current state. With each version of the story, the protagonist, Beverly, has come more into her own. Despite being quite down-and-out, she has a source of strength that allows her to forge on. So much of the development of a great story is the ability to see what needs to be done to make the story better, to always believe that a story can be improved. Here, Megan revised the whole story multiple times, but she paid particular attention to the ending, each new version tying up more of the loose ends and letting Beverly’s strength shine through.
Twenty years had passed since I’d last seen the Beast. We were seventeen and embarrassed of one another back then. I’d asked him to prom. He agreed on the conditions that I would cover expenses, and that we would have sex. I accepted the terms, so we shared one night together, me in a gaudy taffeta dress and him in a cheap tux rental. We both seemed to think we could have done better as we lay together in the motel bed, a foot of space between us.
One Sunday morning at my kitchen table all those years later, I turned a page in the New Plains Record, and there he was. He’d become famous without my knowing it. His real name was Pierre, and it was strange to see it in print. He and his band—a heavy metal group called Beastific—were doing what they called a “Rural Terror Tour.” They played small venues outside of cities, or they rented barns far out in the country.
I know we’ve played much bigger venues, noted Pierre in the article, but we like the intimacy of a small place off the beaten track. Our fans do, too. Beastific is about the people.
“Beast. Ific,” I said. “Be-ah-stific.”
“What are you saying?” my husband asked.
I hadn’t heard him walk into the kitchen. He wore a bathrobe, though it was nearly noon. We slept like teenagers on weekends, throwing off our REM cycles and making Monday mornings hellish. Our jobs at offices eroded the idea that living a long life was a good thing. We just wanted to sleep and never wake up.
The terms of our marriage had included a no-children clause, a stipulation that remained unnegotiated by either of us, even though boredom had come to our hearth like a sleeping dog. I’d assumed one of us would have a change of heart, or that we’d make a mistake: an insurgent zygote would hold us at gunpoint and make us really decide if we meant it.
But that never happened, and I’d told myself I didn’t want children. What if I couldn’t love them? Worse, what if they couldn’t love me?
“Beverly, what are you thinking so hard about?” Robert asked. “Yoo-hoo. You look like you want to kill someone.”
“If you were going to name your band with a pun on the word beatific, by spelling it like this”—I held up the paper and pointed to the name in the headline—“would you expect people to pronounce the first part normally, like beast, or the way you pronounce beatific, like be-ahst…”
“I’m not sure I follow,” he said.
“I just think it’s asking a lot of people.”
“Hm.” Robert sat down across from me and tugged at the financial section until it came loose.
“We should unsubscribe from the paper,” I said.
“Does the beast thing really upset you that much?”
“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s just garbage. They just write garbage. We can’t afford to pay for garbage.”
“We’re actually doing okay right now, money-wise,” Robert said. “So we can buy garbage if we want it. Do you know their music?”
“Do you want to go see them play?” Robert asked.
“Not really,” I said quickly, folding the page and tucking it beneath the Sports section. “I’m making an Eggo. Want one?”
“Two,” Robert said.
I took the box from the freezer, shook out a handful of waffles. Did the band’s name mean Pierre remembered me? The Beast had been my nickname for him. When he’d first transferred to my school in the 11th grade, he had long, chestnut-brown hair and a chiseled-looking face. He looked like the Beast from Beauty and the Beast after he’d turned back into a prince. A trace of rage shimmered around him, but for the most part the Beast was a quiet person.
I’d meant to taunt him with the nickname, because everyone else sought to make his life miserable, but then I grew fond of him. I’d thought of myself then as having one shy foot in the popular circle, so it was important to me that no one find out about my crush. I was mortified, of course, to realize I was in love with him—but this was before I knew I was neither popular nor unpopular, utterly nondescript. No one cared what I did or who I liked.
Then he found out about the nickname. I’d told too many people, thought myself too clever. One day he came to school with a close-cropped haircut, and the sudden transformation made me love him even more. I wondered if I’d had an effect on him, if he cared what I thought. The next day, I asked him to prom, jumping at his stipulations because I didn’t know enough then to know I was acting cowardly. I told my friends I was doing it as a joke.
The ringing phone brought me back to our kitchen in New Plains, Nebraska. I answered.
“I’m calling about an overdue balance on an American Express card,” said the voice on the other end after she’d asked for me. A pleasant voice, but cool and firm.
“I know this is a scam,” I said. “I’ve never had an American Express card in my life. Goodbye.”
“Again?” Robert asked.
“Again. On a Sunday, too. I looked it up on the Internet. Apparently these scammers convince people to mail checks to them.”
“I just checked your credit score last week,” Robert said. “You’re looking good.” He put down the paper and grinned. “Definitely looking good from here.”
From here was about as close as we came to each other these days.
I worked at an insurance brokerage firm as a Marketing Specialist, but I mostly answered phones and forwarded e-mails and acted as a personal assistant and, sometimes, partner-in-crime to my boss, Cal Nevins.
Once, without discomfort, Cal handed me a pair of women’s glasses and a disc of birth control pills along with an address written on a scrap of paper. I wrapped the glasses in a paper towel from the bathroom and slipped everything into a manila envelope, sticking a generic return label to its corner. I thought about adding a note, warning the woman she could get pregnant on the pill if she chronically missed days, but no one needs a stranger to patronize her.
One time I walked to the liquor store on my lunch break and bought him a fifth of Grey Goose with the company card. I didn’t mind, I told him. I needed to buy a lottery ticket anyway, and a tube of Pringles for my lunch. I used my own cash for the lottery ticket, not his card, and I saved the receipt. I didn’t want any trouble if I won, but I didn’t end up winning.
Cal often went out to long lunches at the bar in the hotel next door to our building, then called me from the parking lot and asked me to bring him his car keys. I always did, no matter how strongly he smelled of booze or how red his eyes were.
I commuted forty-five minutes from New Plains to Omaha each day to do these things. Taking care of Cal’s twin daughters, I liked best. They could be spoiled, grumbling girls, but they were sweethearts more than anything.
I found them both sitting in my desk chair when I arrived at work on Monday morning. The office was empty except for them. They’d taken ice cream from the freezer and were sucking chocolate off flimsy plastic spoons. The lights were off, and grainy cartoons playing on my computer blew moonlight over the girls’ faces.
“Dad told us to wait here for you, Bevie.” Caroline looked up at me.
“Is that so?” I leaned over them and nudged down the volume on the computer. “Are these cartoons pirated?”
“No.” Maggie giggled.
“Let’s go. I’ll take you to school.”
Maggie cried in the car, while Caroline stared pensively out of the window.
“I’ve just about had enough of the second grade.” Maggie hiccupped.
“I know,” I said. “It’s a hard life. Here’s a wet wipe. Clean that chocolate off your face.”
“I didn’t do my homework,” Caroline said. “I was supposed to make bookmarks.”
I sighed. Caroline’s poor performance in school meant Cal had to go to conferences with his loathed ex-wife. “Tell your teacher you left them at home, but that someone’s bringing them later. OK?”
“Which home?” Caroline asked. “Mom’s or Dad’s?”
“Well, that’s up to you. Actually, say it was your dad’s.”
“I did my homework,” mumbled Maggie.
I finished Caroline’s book project when I returned to the office, which was now alive with ringing phones and the rushing sound of the copier. The lights were on in Cal’s office, but the blinds were drawn and the door closed. Caroline’s smile, reflected in the rear-view mirror, had harpooned me. I felt elated for having spent a little time with them. Sometimes I wondered what I wouldn’t do for those girls.
The assignment was to illustrate bookmarks with depictions from The Trumpet of the Swan. I wasn’t a good artist, and my thoughts wandered from the girls to Pierre. A fantasy of the two of us together, and young, had burgeoned in my mind last night. I imagined we’d done things we hadn’t, normal things like driving around in his car or eating at a restaurant. As quickly as the fantasy brought joy, it brought unhappiness, a reminder I was no longer very young. Our old selves, or what could have been our old selves, filled me with sadness, the striking type of sadness that demands to be remedied someway, somehow. I put Caroline’s bookmarks aside and clicked through the Internet until I had two tickets to the Beastific show in my basket. Luckily they were cheap; my credit card was nearly maxed out. I paid for the tickets before I could change my mind.
I’d bought two tickets because one seemed desperate. I didn’t want to take Robert with me, but who else was there? The show was tomorrow, a Tuesday night in New Plains, when everything was so dead we sometimes wondered if the sun would overlook us in the morning.
The phone rang. I answered.
“How did you get this number?” I said. “Stop harassing me.”
The caller was a man this time, from the same collection agency, and he recited with confidence my full name and my social security number. He gave the balance on the credit card, an astronomical amount I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“I’ve told you that I believe this is a scam. If you were a real collection agency you’d send me something in the mail.”
“We have. Several times.”
I listened to his breathing as he waited for me to respond. Then I hung up. I’d pulled up the number for AMEX’s customer service and was ready to call them—to complain, to ease my worries—when Cal emerged from his office, wearing a white shirt with thin silky pinstripes running up and down the fabric. Someone who didn’t know him might say he looked bleary-eyed, some combination of tired and high, but to me he always looked this way. Sometimes I thought he was the wrong sort of person to have money; other times I believed the money had made him the way he was. I often felt protective of him, or maybe I was only protective of myself: I helped him with so many of the things he did wrong.
“Beautiful,” he said, picking up a bookmark. “You made it look like a child drew these.”
I wanted to ask him for gas money for this morning and for the trip I would be making later to drop off the bookmarks. The girls went to a private school thirty minutes away. But I felt too ashamed. Asking for money reminded me I had no real claim to their love.
But Cal would pay anything to show his daughters he loved them, especially after he and his wife had dragged each other through a nasty divorce. I sent the girls presents to her house using his credit card. I made their lunches in the office kitchen before I left on the afternoons Cal had the girls. I spread mayonnaise on turkey sandwiches, peeled carrots and filled tiny containers with ranch dressing, and tied baggies of chocolate with ribbon.
Other people would quit, or find the work demeaning. I hadn’t gotten a promotion in the five years I’d worked for Cal, and I could be making more money somewhere else—money Robert and I could put toward a down payment. But this job made me comfortable, as though I’d found a knot of people who understood and appreciated me. Their dilemmas were mine to solve, and I solved them better than I did my own.
Robert and I met ten years ago when we both worked for a labor union, he the bookkeeper and I the office manager. We worked for activists, which we felt good about, but didn’t have to be activists ourselves, which made us feel even better.
Then a new president and financial secretary were elected. The financial secretary would keep the books and do the taxes herself, so Robert lost his job. I was let go because the new administration was suspicious of the old. The former president had been ousted for using union funds to visit, repeatedly, a psychic who charged $100/hour. He’d gone crazy, but he was my friend.
Why hadn’t anything concerned me back then? Even when the president was charged with embezzlement, the idea I might face my own consequences for my choices some day never seemed real to me.
Robert and I fell in love in our waning days at the union. We whispered in the break room about our futures and complained that it wasn’t fair that we’d been suspected of complicity. Integrity, trust, honor: those things had been important to us back then. Robert said he hadn’t known about the president’s secret debit card until it was too late, and as soon as he found out he’d told a trustee. I believed him at the time, and now I didn’t care.
We were less in love now but we were still friends. There wasn’t ill will between us, only boredom, and, on my part, occasional weeping in the shower. All that life, six years of marriage plus two years of dating, had passed serenely, without excitement or tragedy. We could have done with more money, but we always made rent, even if it meant putting groceries on credit. If only one of us had been mentally ill, or an alcoholic. If only I’d won the lottery one of those times I put a five-dollar bill down on the counter and asked for five easy picks.
I stood over the stove that night, stirring ramen noodles for our dinner. The collection calls distracted me. I’d looked through Robert’s spreadsheets of our finances when I got home, but nothing seemed unusual.
“Robert?” I called. “I need the computer. I want to look at my credit score.”
Robert didn’t seem to hear me. His office popped with the sound of music and gunfire. He was playing his computer game in which he was a spy on the Titanic. The objective wasn’t to stop the ship from sinking, but rather to stop WWI and the Russian Revolution from happening. I didn’t get the connection but trusted it was there.
I turned the burner off, poured the ramen and their packets of salty powder into bowls.
“What’s this?” I set his bowl down on a pile of papers, picking up a book that lay open, pages down, on the desk.
Robert snatched it away. “Don’t,” he said.
But I’d read the title anyway. “Cheater’s Guide to Titanic: Adventure Out of Time!” I exclaimed. “You’re cheating at the game?”
“Oh come on, Beverly,” he said. “It’s a game.”
“But you’ve been telling me about it as though you’d figured it all out yourself.”
Robert turned the computer off in the way you weren’t supposed to, with one push of one button, and left the room. The little book, with its answers and shortcuts, was small and depressing. We didn’t even have anything interesting to hide. Better not to fight at all.
“You didn’t save your game,” I said quietly.
He didn’t hear me.
“I don’t care how you play the game!” I said loudly.
Steam spiraled from the bowl of noodles, but even the steam looked pitiful, as though it could barely bring itself to rise.
Robert returned, a sheepish smile on his face. Our fights never lasted long. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He took the pair of chopsticks I’d set on his desk and clacked them together, then used them to pick up a strand of my hair and put it in his mouth. I smiled; he smiled. I put the book down on the desk, but picked it up again. It had been covering an American Express bill with my name on it, addressed to Robert’s office.
“Bev, don’t. That’s a mistake.”
The bill unfurled in my hands, revealing a long list of charges. Gas, groceries, but also large amounts spent at Best Buy and on Amazon, and other websites I didn’t recognize.
“I was going to pay it all off. I just needed more time.” Robert’s face looked alien: his small mouth was open wide and red splotches appeared on his neck and cheeks, as though he’d been hexed.
Until he had spoken a part of me—a desperate, hopeful part—believed this to be part of the scam. Then it was as though I’d been sleeping on a plane, and I was thrown awake by the thump of wheels on the tarmac.
Robert hesitated. I stared him down.
“Twenty thousand,” he said.
A voice came back to me, the one belonging to one of the debt collectors on the phone. His number had been higher, thousands of dollars higher—so high it had made me completely sure it was a scam. But now that Robert stood there with his lie breaking apart between us, I could hear myself snapping at the man on the phone, and in my own memory I now sounded like the one who was wrong.
I let the bill fall to the floor and sat heavily in the office chair. It twirled vaguely beneath my weight. Robert stood before me, admitting to what he’d done, but I felt guilty, like a criminal surprised at having been caught. There was the crumpled bill with my name on it. It said I spent that money; it said those numbers belonged to me. I asked Robert what he’d spent the money on, but he didn’t answer me, and I didn’t really want to know. Not tonight at least. I was just dumbstruck, and tired, and wanted to eat my pathetic dinner alone. I told Robert so, and he went into the bedroom and closed the door.
The noodles had gone gummy. Moonlight shifted through the curtains and I listened to the night birds making a cacophony outside. To soothe myself, I thought of the motel room where the Beast and I had spent our night. I remembered the stained red carpeting and an electrical outlet dangling from the wall by its wires. I’d stood on the balcony in my ridiculous dress, watching a girl—my age, or a little older—swim the length of the pool in slow strokes. I could see her whole body: long legs shimmering in the pool lights, the wavy white of her bathing suit, hair moving like a jellyfish as she swam.
I’d turned to see Pierre, his jacket removed, his tie undone and hanging from his neck. Had I gone to him, or waited for him to come to me? Did he tear my dress off with the curtains wide open? No. I went inside and closed the door and the blinds. I think I might have tried to talk about poetry with him. I liked to write poetry back then, but mostly my poems were full of questions that made no sense, questions only a deranged person would ask. Oh, and didn’t we love to go into the river?
I was glad to find Cal full of anxious energy the next day at work. I needed a distraction. Robert and I had woken to our alarms, readied ourselves without speaking. Why hadn’t I thrown him out? Because I didn’t want him to put a hotel on credit? Because I didn’t want to be alone? I thought the two of us had been bearing our boredom silently, bravely, but Robert had been buying things to make himself happy. And what had he been buying? Only a strange habit could require that amount of money. I wondered if it was gambling or pornography, or something worse. Hookers. Drugs. I almost missed my exit, so caught up was I in Robert’s imagined transgressions.
I’d parked my car and was waiting for the weather report to come on the radio station—my signal that it was time to walk the two minute walk from the car to the office so I could clock in by 8:00—when Robert called. I ignored it. He texted me a photo of the AMEX cut in half, a gesture that annoyed me because it seemed as though he’d done most of his shopping online, where he probably had the number saved.
The morning brought a problem with one of the clients, a parking service called Safely Park. Cal had brokered the policy but now the carrier had canceled the general liability insurance because, when the policy was initially signed, Cal had forged the loss runs to make it appear as though Safely Park had never had an accident or filed a claim. But Safely Park crashed cars all the time.
Cal was furious when the Notice of Cancellation was faxed over. He snapped at the sales staff and the customer service reps. The general liability specialist emerged from Cal’s office with her head hung. I caught her blotting tears in the kitchen. Somehow, this was everyone’s fault but Cal’s and mine, though I’d used Photoshop to make the loss runs look clean. “I’ll end up in the slammer right next to Cal,” I’d joked back then, but I grew nervous as the day went on. What if the carrier reported the fraudulent loss runs to the Department of Insurance? What if I did go to prison?
Cal was on the phone all afternoon, calling in favors, saying he didn’t know how the mistake happened. At the end of the afternoon, he slapped the phone into its cradle, took the bottle of Grey Goose from his desk, and called out, “All clear! Get out of here, you scoundrels.”
Everyone in the office clapped. I did, too. We hated Cal when he yelled and we loved him when he let us leave at 3 PM, even if we’d almost gotten arrested earlier that day.
I lingered, and when everyone was gone I checked my credit rating. There was the American Express card, the true balance glowering at me, and beneath it another Visa I didn’t recognize. I began weeping. I’d gotten pregnant on prom night, the night I spent with Pierre. I stayed pregnant for six weeks, until I turned eighteen and didn’t need my parents’ permission. Getting rid of the baby then had been the right choice, but now, with my straits laid bare in front of me, having a baby would never be an option, would never be feasible. I wondered if I could sue Robert, or put him in jail. But the truth was I was either bound to Robert, bound to the debt, or free of it but on my own.
I put my head down, though Cal was still in his office.
“Beverly? You okay?”
I swiped tears from my eyes and slowly gathered my things. Cal stood in his doorway, clutching the bottle of Grey Goose by his side. I avoided his eyes as I slipped my arms in my jacket. “Yeah. Yup. Just worried about today. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Everything’s really okay?” I said.
“Oh Bevie,” he said. “I would never throw you under the bus. If the DoI came for you they’d have to go through me first.”
“Of course,” I said.
“I need to have some fun,” he said abruptly. He swung the bottle of vodka to his mouth.
I looked at him closely and saw tears brimming in his eyes.
“I’m going to a concert tonight.” I didn’t know why I was telling him but I knew I didn’t want to see him cry. I hadn’t told Robert about the show, and as I spoke to Cal I knew I wasn’t going to.
“Someone that I knew a long time ago. I don’t think the music will be very good.”
“I have an extra ticket. It’s all the way in New Plains, though.”
Sunlight pierced the window behind Cal’s head. He appeared to be thinking. We didn’t want each other. If we did, something would have happened by now. We just wanted to be a little less lonely; we wanted something different than what we had.
Cal and I ate dinner at the hotel bar, Cal guzzling vodka sodas, and then I drove us to the venue, a barn just outside of New Plains. I parked in the grass lot next door. Clusters of wild violets sprouted in the unkempt lawn. Teenagers in heavy black boots stomped over them. Cal had fallen asleep on the way, and I sat in the car with the engine pinging, privately embarrassed that I’d cried, and surprised that I’d felt so strongly that I’d lost someone upon seeing my ruined credit, the rating persistently red on the screen. In a life of blind, vague longings, I’d seen clearly something I’d wanted, only to have it taken away.
I nudged Cal awake. “Ready, or would you rather stay here?”
The barn teemed with teenagers wearing black. They’d painted their faces to look like skulls, and some wore devil’s horns like I’d seen Pierre wear in the paper. I trudged in my pumps and nylons toward the door. Cal trailed behind, looking ill. The last of the sun fell on a boy selling t-shirts with the band’s name. The “t” in Beastific was an upside down gothic cross.
“Twenty bucks,” the kid said. He looked thin and tired but his teeth had been straightened with braces.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“These kids are fucked up,” Cal said. He pointed to a group of girls staring ghoulishly with the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled tightly closed. “Whose parents would let their kids dress like this?”
I thought of Cal’s girls and wondered what their futures would bring. Now they wore matching sapphire rings, Christmas gifts from Cal. What would they trade those rings for, when the time came?
“They probably think we’re parents who wouldn’t let our kids go alone,” I said. I felt a brief elation at the thought that one of these kids could be my own. I’d noticed a few dozing women in parked cars, piles of coats in the backseat. I wanted to be one of them.
“I’m going to find the bar,” Cal said.
One long note resounded from inside the barn. The show had begun.
I stood in the back and watched Pierre sing into a microphone swinging from the ceiling. His face was the same face: strong chin and sunken eyes, high cheekbones. He wore his hair long again. He still looked boyish. I became, once again, the girl who wanted him, the girl who had teased him out of love, but standing there I also felt the presence of all the time we’d been apart. We’d never even known each other in the first place. I’d had nothing to do with his angst; I was not the wicked bitch he sang about. Our lives had briefly overlapped, and that was it. These two feelings—I loved him, and we meant nothing to each other—combined to make me brazen.
The crowd of teenagers moved chaotically, but I tried to shoulder my way into the mosh pit. I lost my breath quickly; my jostled bones felt like rattling tin cans. I was knocked to my knees, and a group of hands pulled me up and pushed me toward the back wall—the safe haven of the few adults who had chosen to come inside. I felt stupid, but no one seemed to notice me.
Pierre sang one song, then another. They all sounded the same. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I wanted to talk to him, touch him. Above me the packed beams of the barn roof seemed to clasp their hands in prayer.
The show ended and I queued outside with the teenagers waiting in line to talk to Pierre. I wanted to see if he’d recognize me. I thought of Robert as I waited. He was at home nosing around the Titanic, flipping through his book for clues.
I reached the front of the line. “After party here,” Pierre said, thrusting a flyer into my hands. “Eighteen and up. T-shirts twenty dollars.”
His teeth were yellower than when I’d seen him last. I remembered thinking his teeth were very white on prom night.
He looked at me more closely. “You’re not our typical fan.”
“I’m here to get something signed for my daughter,” I said. The lie came out like a ball of light: enthusiastic and with a trueness of spirit that even my truths didn’t always possess. I thought he might recognize my voice, but he didn’t seem to.
“Is she eighteen?”
“Bring her to the party. We’ll take a photo.”
A family photo. I almost said the words aloud.
I was elated, my heart punched my chest, but as I walked away the elation grew damp with dread. I looked for Cal, hoping he needed me for something; I wanted to go to the party but hoped to have a reason not to. I was afraid of what I would do, and I was afraid I wouldn’t do anything at all.
I found Cal making out with a woman. She looked like someone’s mother, and a businesswoman. I wondered what I’d be mailing back to her the next day. I called Cal’s name, and he broke away from his partner.
“Bevie!” He sounded delighted. “Look, you go home. I’ve got a ride.”
“Do you need me to pick up the girls? I could stay with them.”
The girls. As though they were mine, too.
“No,” Cal said. “No. The bitch on wheels has them tonight.”
I walked away, but slowly. What if, earlier, when we were walking from the car, I’d reached out and held his hand? What if we’d played the role of parents, even if only for one night?
But one thing in my life I was realistic about was this: I couldn’t make a move on Cal. I would have to quit the job I badly needed. I knew, too, that Cal was a terrible lover, had been a bad husband, and wasn’t that good of a father. And, as dysfunctional as our relationship was, neither of us had anything else that was stable.
So I left Cal with the woman, and went to the after party.
The after party was at a Holiday Inn off I-80. Beastific had booked the whole top floor. People wound their way in and out of rooms with doors propped open. Music blared from some of the rooms; in others there were couples, or threesomes, on their way to being undressed. I picked my way through plastic cups and cigarette butts, looking for Pierre. I was curious how much the hotel would charge their credit card, or at what point the police would show up.
I went out on one of the balconies and watched cars stream by, their headlights straining painfully and painting the road white. I swayed against the railing, suddenly dizzy from the height and from the beer I’d been handed upon entry, and I tried to feel grounded by taking the night and tying it into a knot of possibility. Every fantasy I’d had over the years, every time I’d imagined making love to someone who wasn’t Robert, had found its home in this hotel.
I felt a gust of air behind me. Someone had slid open the glass door. I turned to see Pierre, who was flanked by two girls who looked barely twenty. I looked at the blonde one with her lips near Pierre’s ear lobe and saw Caroline. The sulking one behind her could be Maggie in ten years. What I felt when looking at them wasn’t rivalry, but a hope that Pierre wouldn’t use them—and in that sense I wanted to take him from them, because I’d already been used.
“Hey,” Pierre said, unsnaking his arm from the brunette’s waist so he could snap a lighter beneath the cigarette that dangled from his lips. “Did your daughter make it?”
“She isn’t coming.” I looked away as I said it, into the distance, as though I might recognize her in a car speeding by on the highway.
I turned back toward him. Beyond his shoulder I could see my coat on the bed where I’d left it. I could grab it and flee. My eyes lingered on it: a camel jacket, made from a nice buttery fabric, and I recalled now that it was a Christmas gift from Cal last year. I’d found it tucked under my desk in a ribbon-tied box while the rest of the office had received a bottle of cheap wine.
I’d come here for something. For Pierre. I couldn’t leave without talking to him, without bringing him to recognize me. I wanted to stop thinking of each day as something to be gotten out of the way, and this night was one of the most important of my life so far, a night I would remember forever, and I didn’t want to have to revise the memory later on, scratch out the silence and write in words I hadn’t said.
“We need to talk,” and in a moment of boldness I looked pointedly at the girls, who raised their eyebrows but complied because I was old enough to be their mother. They slid the door behind them, muffling the sounds of the party.
Pierre was uncomfortable, I could tell, because he didn’t know what to expect and had only come out here to look for a younger version of me, my daughter. He flicked ash from his cigarette. “So,” he said, “what’s up?”
I didn’t say anything more, not right away. I put my hand on his arm, though, to keep him from going inside. What if I hadn’t asked him to prom, hadn’t gotten pregnant? Before me, swarming me, seemed to be not all the people I could’ve been, but simply all the people I hadn’t been. Pierre probably wasn’t worth my obsession—as I hadn’t been worth it to him—but I wanted to be sure so I backed him against the railing and kissed him.
His lips didn’t feel familiar. I didn’t recall their shape from years ago, but I wanted more of them all the same. My nerves leapt, fiery, when he returned the kiss and touched my neck. He dropped his beer on the floor—I felt it splash my leg—so he could grab my ass.
He put his mouth on my neck. “You might be older than those two other girls combined,” he said, laughing.
I pulled away. “We’re the same age, you fucker,” I said.
The surprise in his eyes told me that, maybe, he thought he looked younger than he really was, that perhaps his image depended on it. The shows, the parties, the angst of his music. I laughed at him. He laughed, too, except he had no clue why we were laughing.
He took my hand. I was so close to getting what I’d come for. I had to tell him who I was. If I didn’t, the story would never be complete. I’d never be satisfied. I searched for the words, stared off into the parking lot to give myself some space. I caught sight of a red windbreaker I recognized. A man was wandering the lot with his phone open-faced in his palm, its rectangle screen glowing in the dark.
It was Robert. Robert had found me.
My stare seemed to draw his attention. He looked up at me and waved.
I could turn my back on him, pull Pierre into the party and through the crowd until we found an empty room, but the sight of my husband pulled me, just by an inch, back to the reality of my life. The uncertainty of it. There were decisions that needed to be made—and an urge to confront Robert, as I hadn’t the night before, swelled in me. Maybe the timing was perfect. Pierre had made me feel bold and aroused and I wanted to take control of something.
“Do you know him?” Pierre asked.
“I do,” I said. “I have to go talk to him.”
“Come with me.”
Pierre shrugged—already he was losing interest, but he hadn’t quite lost it completely. I would tell Robert to go home. I would show him that I’d found a man to be unfaithful with, and with my eyes I’d dare him to do something about it. He wouldn’t. He’d go home shamed, I’d return to the party victorious. Pierre would be a good lay and in the morning I’d return to my life—but not until morning.
Pierre followed me through the party, and in the elevator we kissed, and I was drunk on the idea that I might have entranced him—that the sex this time would be good—and I shooed his hands from my waist as we stumbled out into the parking lot. “Hold on, hold on,” I said.
Robert’s face was stricken as we approached. I closed the distance and stopped before him. I hoped my gaze was fierce but I couldn’t be sure.
“How’d you find me?” I asked angrily.
Robert looked from me to Pierre. Pierre smoked calmly, but looked confused. Slowly, Robert turned his phone around to show me the screen. A map with a pulsing blue dot stared back at me. I looked closer. The dot was in the parking lot of the hotel.
I was the dot.
“I installed this app on our phones,” Robert said. “GPS tracker. You can track me too—here, I’ll show you…”
Robert was getting eager. He reached for my phone, which was in my hand, but I pivoted away from him.
My person, my money, my privacy: my husband had manipulated all of it. Perhaps Robert thought the app was harmless, but he hadn’t bothered to tell me. As with the credit card, he held the strings and I did the dance. Every day of my life was a struggle to express myself, to decide how I felt amid a flood of problems and contradictions, but right then, with Pierre behind me and Robert before me, I was waking up.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. I laughed. In the full moonlight these two men looked at me, puzzled, but I wasn’t going to explain myself to them. I wasn’t going to waste the words.
Using Pierre wouldn’t make me feel less used myself. It wouldn’t make me any younger. Still, I would have liked to sleep with him again. But part of being an adult was letting passing fantasies blow away, wasn’t it, even if I’d already taken the first step toward making a mistake?
I stepped toward Pierre. I reached up and cupped his cheek in my palm. “Goodbye, Beast,” I said. “Do you remember prom night?”
Pierre stepped away from me, leaving my hand to cup the air. His eyes searched my face, and I smiled. I was leaving a piece of myself with him; maybe now he would remember me. The baby, though—my baby was my secret, mine alone. I would never tell anyone.
I turned to Robert.
“I can’t trust you anymore,” I said.
My car was parked in the back of the lot, and I said nothing more as I walked away. My heels clacked on the concrete, I fished for my keys, and when I was in the car with the engine roaring I opened the window and flung my phone from it so Robert couldn’t track me. I cherished the feeling of being free.
I was surprised to find Cal at the hotel bar, where hours earlier we’d shared a meal. I’d planned to go to the bar alone and then sleep on the couch by the receptionist’s desk. I thought Cal would be with the woman from the show, but he sat hunched over a vodka on the rocks. The TV stared down at him, beaming a basketball game over the bar, to which Cal paid no attention.
I’d lost my beautiful camel jacket, and there wouldn’t be another one.
“Your night didn’t work out the way you hoped, either?” I said.
He looked up at me and I saw relief seep into his face, as though it were a spill he’d sopped up with a napkin. “Oh, Bev,” he said. “I’m happy to see you.”
He hugged me, still holding his glass, which sweated on my back. I ordered a drink over his shoulders and we sat on the high stools, embracing, surrounded by empty tables and plastic plants. Cal began to shake with silent sobs, and this time, instead of pulling him away from his tears, I ran my hands in circles on his back and let him cry.
“Starting tomorrow,” he said, “things will change. No more forged loss runs, no more lies.”
“Okay,” I said.
“No more close calls. We’ll do things right going forward.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” I said. “Or I’m leaving.”
I meant it, too. I didn’t want to commit fraud anymore. I wanted to be proud of what I did for a living.
“The Beast” was originally published in Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2016-17 – Vol. 13, no. 2. The story won Ninth Letter’s 2016 Literary Award for Fiction. This version has been modified and revised from the original.
MEGAN CUMMINS lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Guernica, Okey-Panky, One Teen Story, Joyland and elsewhere. She has an MA from UC Davis and an MFA from Rutgers-Newark. She is the managing editor of A Public Space.