I didn’t mean to fall asleep as soon as we arrive at my apartment but that’s exactly what happens. Whatever stuff they put in those tetanus vaccines, it’s strong enough to make me feel like shit. But Sarah also told me it’s more likely the adrenaline from this morning’s accident had worn off and my body just needs to rest up.
She could be right, but of course, I wasn’t about to admit it. I don’t need any help, I kept telling her up until I conked out on the couch.
By the time I wake up, it’s dark and I smell the aroma of hominy wafting from the kitchen. My stomach growls and as I sit up, a blanket falls off my body and onto the floor.
“I grabbed that from your bedroom,” Sarah says from the kitchen as I pick up the blanket and set it next to me. “Didn’t want you to get cold.”
“Thanks. What time is it?”
“About seven. You were out like a light after you took the Tylenol. But you should feel even better when you get something in you. The posole’s just about done,” she says, setting a plate and a bowl on the dinner table. “Oh, and I made fry bread, too. I know it’s your favorite.”
What I call hominy Sarah calls posole and normally, I’d correct anyone who can’t make the distinction. But with Sarah, I don’t. Navajo hominy is what I grew up eating, thanks to my grandmother who made sure I learned everything about my culture after my mother and I moved back to the reservation. Back then, all I knew about my Navajo culture amounted to a few sentences—and a whole lot of defensiveness I can only chalk up to a combination of grief from losing my dad and denial that he was really gone.
Yes, I’m a half-breed. No, I don’t know any Navajo. And what’s it to you anyway?
Now, of course, it’s a different story. I speak the language of my people fluently and I’m passionate about my work as an Environmental Protection Specialist responsible for monitoring the condition and air quality on tribal lands. I do, however, live within the city limits instead of on the reservation, a choice prompted by my desire to be close to the life I used to know before Dad died.
“Everything should be ready in a few minutes, Benny,” Sarah says as I get up from the couch. “You look better than you did earlier, that’s for sure. You’ve got some color back.”
“I looked that bad, eh?”
She chuckles. “You’re so vain. You looked fine. Just a little pale”
I head to the bathroom to wash my face, brushing my teeth for good measure. Then I take a good look at my reflection in the mirror. Sarah’s right about one thing. I do look better and I feel better, too. Now I just need to get homemade food inside me.
“How’s the arm feeling?” she asks when I emerge from the bathroom.
“Better. It’s not hurting as much as it was.” It still feels heavy, as if my bone is attached to some weight I can’t see but my brain is too preoccupied with other things to dwell on the discomfort, like how good Sarah looks in my kitchen.
“That’s good to hear. Give it a day or two and the pain will be gone before you know it. It’s only a handful of patients who end up with major problems with the vaccine, like muscle wasting.”
When I worriedly glance down at my arm, opening and closing my fist to flex the muscle, she laughs.
“But not you, Benny. You’ll be fine.” She pulls out one of the chairs. “Alright, sit down.”
“Aren’t you joining me for dinner?” I pull up a chair for her as she returns to the kitchen and wipes down the counter with a paper towel.
“I really just wanted to cook you something and leave.”
“Leave? But where’s the fun in eating alone?” I ask. “It would make me very happy if you can stay for dinner. We don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to.”
She thinks for a few moments. “Alright. But only for dinner and then I’ll leave.”
Grinning, I pull out a table setting for her from the cupboard and set a place on the table for her. It’s a tiny sliver of hope, getting her to stay for dinner but with Sarah, once she’s dead set on something, it feels like pulling teeth to get her to reconsider. But I’ll take what I can get. I’m also feeling too good to let her resistance bother me, not when I know better than to fall asleep when I should have been watching her move around my kitchen, my apartment, my space… my life.
We spend dinner talking about my work. It’s all she wants to talk about, all my attempts at getting her to talk about herself diverted to what I’m doing in Shiprock. So I tell her that after she graduated from UNM, I continued to earn my Doctorate degree and was soon offered a senior specialist position surveying air quality on tribal lands in Northern New Mexico.
“But with our main office in Taos, I drive there a few times a month. In fact, I have to go there tomorrow for a meeting,” I say. “What about you? Do you get to visit your family often?”
“I do, every other week or so. I know it’s a trek but I don’t mind it. Driving can be a hazard sometimes, and not because I’m a terrible driver,” she replies as I nod solemnly, the image of roadside memorials, wooden crosses lining the sides of the road almost a common sight along New Mexico highways.
“I hear you. That’s why you need to be very careful on the road. If you’re planning on heading down there, let me know. We can carpool if you want. The company will be nice.”
As she dips a piece of fry bread into the stew, memories of our road trips come back to me. A day trip along Turquoise Trail where we stopped by the city of Madrid, another to the Petroglyph National Monument where we checked out rock etchings carved into lava rocks, and then that one weekend where I took her to Chaco Canyon to view the stars. It was platonic—or as platonic as I could manage without her knowing I’d wanted her from the moment we first met.
But from the beginning, Sarah wanted only a friendship with me. It didn’t help that my reputation wasn’t exactly spotless. There was a rumor going around the university that I banged a lot of women, sometimes a new one each week, and it wouldn’t have been far from the truth. I didn’t necessarily sleep with a different woman each week but it was damn close.
Then I met Sarah Drexel and everything changed. Alright, maybe not overnight. I still played the field—after all, it wasn’t like we were dating—but like an addict realizing he had to cut down on his addiction, I slowed down. I lifted weights more, worked on my dissertation more. And whenever she was available, I hung out with her as a friend. If there was something good that came out of it, I learned how to be a friend to a woman. A real friend. It probably helped that Sarah didn’t date anyone although I’m sure if she had, I’d probably have bailed.
“So what’s this about Dax?” I ask, needing to change the subject. I met her younger brother a few times when he’d travel down to Albuquerque to ‘see’ his sister, his favorite alibi when he really wanted to hang out with friends or get into clubs. At least, in Albuquerque, no one knew who he was unlike in Taos where the poor kid couldn’t get a break. Everyone knew what he was up to. “He’s eighteen, isn’t he?”
“Yup. Eighteen and about to finish high school.” She pauses. “If he finishes high school. He just might end up flunking.”
“Does he have any college plans?”
Sarah almost chokes on her food. “College? No, he has no plans to go to college at all. Never even submitted a single application. He says he’ll enroll when he’s ready.”
I chuckle. “What did you expect?”
“That he have some sort of direction in life.” She pauses, shrugging. “Mom and Nana make sure to keep him in line but they can only do so much, you know?”
“He’s eighteen, Sarah,” I say, chuckling. “Legally, you can’t even say he ran away from home if he decides to stay overnight somewhere else.”
She pouts. “Don’t tell my mother and Nana that.”
“So do you although you loathe to admit it.” Although my statement earns a glare from her, Sarah doesn’t disagree. I saw the way Sarah and her younger brother picked on each other the three times I met him in Albuquerque years ago, but underneath all the teasing, the love between them was evident. My relationship with my half-sister Marjorie is nothing like it though. She sees me as her shinaaí, her older brother and that’s that.
“I think he really needs a male father figure in his life,” she says, taking a sip of water. “With Dad spending more time in New York, he’s surrounded by women who dote on him like he’s still five years old or something.”
“Why does he do that?”
“Dax? Because like you said, he’s eighteen–”
“I mean your dad,” I say. “Why does he live in New York when his family is in New Mexico? I get that New York is where it’s at but surely he knows his son is acting up.” Surely he’d make an effort, I almost say but I don’t. Ever since I’ve known her, Sarah has always been prickly when it comes to her father. She loves him but she also doesn’t get along with him.
“Dax can do no wrong in his eyes,” Sarah says, her gaze distant. “He always wanted a boy, you know, and between me and Dax, they went through two or three miscarriages. So when Dax came along, well, you can imagine how my dad must have felt.”
“And how was that?”
“At last! A boy!” She exclaims, laughing wryly. “But by that time, Mom decided to move back to Taos because she couldn’t stand living in Manhattan another day. Dad’s business had just taken off and he couldn’t leave, not if he wanted his company to keep growing. And so he’s been commuting ever since. It’s not like he doesn’t want to move out here full time. It’s just that his work is back there.”
“Can’t he telecommute?”
She chuckles as I take a sip of water. “And miss out on all the business lunches and dinners and golf with billionaire clients? No, not Dad. He probably does more work during those times than in his office. I’m sure part of it is him needing to feel important, who knows?”
“You can’t fault a man for doing what he needs to do to provide for his family.”
Sarah gets up to get the pitcher of water from my fridge and refills my glass. “Dax even got to go to this secret club Dad goes to every week… but it’s only for men. No women allowed.”
“I’ve heard of those clubs. Very exclusive.” Hell, even the likes of me probably can’t get in.
She sets the pitcher on the table and sits down. “You’d think Dax would be impressed but no. He could have been talking to some future presidential candidate, for all I know… or a billionaire. Nope. All he wanted was to check out Central Park and head home.”
“I can talk to him if you want,” I say. “Pick his brains about college or what he wants to do with his life or something. Not everyone needs to go to college. He can always check out trade schools.”
“Try telling that to my dad. He’d go ballistic.,” Sarah says, her eyes narrowing as she studies me. “But why would you do that? Talk to Dax, I mean?”
“Because I want to,” I reply. “But only if he’s okay with it.”
“I’ll think about it and let you know,” she says. “So what about you. How come you’re not dating anyone? I still can’t believe it.”
“What’s not to believe?”
“You always had someone.”
“You’re going by news that’s at least two years old, Sarah,” I say. “Things change.”
Her eyes narrow. “You mean you’ve changed?”
“Don’t we all?” I laugh. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve taken a vow of celibacy or anything. Let’s say I’ve just been more… picky.” I pause, not wanting the discussion to touch on my sex life. “Alright, my turn. Where were you assigned before Shiprock?”
“I worked for a few months in Alaska, and then Minnesota,” she replies, looking away. “Too cold for my taste and so I figured maybe it was time to start finding something closer to home.”
“It’s still cold here.”
“Not as cold as Minnesota, believe me,” she says. “But the pay was good so I took it.”
“So why Shiprock, of all places?” I persist. “This isn’t exactly the first place most people think of if they want better pay. It’s out in the middle of nowhere.”
She doesn’t answer right away. She takes a spoonful of stew and bites into a piece of bread. I let her take her time.
“I dated the wrong guy,” she says as soon as she finishes chewing her food and takes a sip of water. “A doctor.”
“Was he married?”
I breathe a sigh of relief. When I first met Sarah, she’d just transferred to the University of New Mexico from out of state. People used to wonder how someone from an exclusive college in New York’s Upper East Side would end up in Albuquerque, of all places. It didn’t help that Sarah was distant, almost aloof if she didn’t know you.
I can never forget the moment when someone found out exactly why she left New York. I beat the shit out of him and warned him if he’d say anything to anyone about it, I’d beat the living crap out of him again. Word got around anyway especially after Sara started turning down every guy who asked her out.
Later, during one of our late-night study sessions, Sarah would tell me that she’d been kicked out because she had an affair with her professor. The asshole had told her he was separated from his wife when he wasn’t. He was forty and she was nineteen.
“At least, he wasn’t married,” I say as Sarah bites her lip.
“He was my boss.”
“That’s why you had to leave? Because he was your boss?”
“Well, he wasn’t exactly my boss. He was the head of the department. A doctor.” Sarah starts picking at the table cloth. “After I broke up with him, he… he uploaded naked pictures of me online.”
I stare at her. “He what?”
“He sent them to porn sites, forums. That kind of thing.”
It takes me a few moments to understand what I just heard, my jaw clenching. “Why the hell did he have to do that?” When Sarah doesn’t say anything, I reach across the table to hold her hand. “I’m sorry some guys are assholes, Sarah.”
“You don’t have to apologize for the assholes of the world, Benny. It’s not your job,” she says, smiling wryly.
“God knows I can be an asshole, but not that kind of asshole,” I mutter. “That’s just cruel. What a fucking coward.”
“Anyway, that’s why I canceled plans to go home.” She pulls her hand from my grasp and sets it on her lap. “The last time I did was when the first set of pictures were posted and Dad was livid. He said I should have known better than to have pictures taken of me. Videos, too. He worried what his business associates might say.”
I can feel my anger ratcheting up another notch. I don’t care if this guy is a fucking doctor or her boss, but you got to be one insecure son of a bitch to do something like that.“I hope to God your dad understands that it’s not your fault, Sarah.”
“When you’ve established a record for having the worst taste in men, Benny, that stuff’s easier said than done. As far as Dad’s concerned, that’s two strikes.” She takes a deep breath.
“So you have terrible taste in men,” I scoff. “So what? Doesn’t make it your fault.”
Sarah clears her throat. “Anyway, that’s enough catching up for one night. As your nurse, I’d say you’ll survive the night.”
As Sarah gets up, the chair legs scraping against the floor, I grab her hand. She’s what… twenty-three? Twenty-four? People make mistakes, true, and maybe she has terrible taste in men. But Sarah’s not the one who set out to ruin someone else’s life by posting their nude pictures online. What her ex-boyfriend did is harassment—sexual harassment.
“Sarah, listen to me. It’s not your fault.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Benny,” she says, her voice cracking. “I should have known better. How could I be so stupid?”
Suddenly I don’t want to say another word. We’ve said enough words for one night as it is. As Sarah steps away from the table, I pull her toward me, feeling her body melt against mine. Holding her in my arms brings everything back—the times spent together laughing and being ourselves, doing our best to remain friends until the night we ended up in my bed and she told me things she regretted hours later. But if Sarah believes her confession ruined everything she and I once had, she’s wrong.
For it didn’t ruin us, certainly not for me. It made me realize the lie I’d told myself the whole time I was “just” her friend. I wanted her to be so much more. I wanted her to be my everything. But I never got to tell her. When I woke up the next morning, she was gone.
And now she’s broken.