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September 2011 Volume 13 , Issue 9 submit to us!

by Susan Breeden -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

Bella walked backward, stayed awake for weekends at a time, and talked about her one-on-one conversations with Jesus as if everybody had them, but these things only happened when her medications were off. During such times, she also maintained a degree of self-control on the surface. I was never certain how much she understood in those moments, or what she'd remember later on.

When her meds were all good, Bella still stood out by being as petite as a pre-teen, yet as tough as any other 30-year-old, big-city attorney. The dichotomy manifested itself in other ways, beginning with the scuffed-up Keds she pranced around in, up to her polished brunette bob.

Then there was James Johansson -- best known by his initials only even though they didn't do justice to his formal good looks. J.J. fell in love with Bella the minute I introduced them during a happy hour at Vincent's Ice House. I fell in love with J.J. simply because he was so taken with a friend that most men dismissed as a liability as soon as the backward walking began. This happened once a year and coincided with the end of daylight-saving time.

J.J. didn't abandon Bella the first time it happened, or the second. Neither did I. Ours was a love triangle where none of the points ever fully connected, yet it maintained a workable symmetry. Then there was Neil, my on-again, off-again boyfriend who didn't figure into our triangle at all.

Bella wasn't as smitten with J.J. as he was with her. She'd faced many challenges throughout her life -- her parents' divorce, a brother's death from AIDS, her own manic-depression -- so only Shakespearian stuff merited her full attention. J.J., with his easy demeanor and aversion to confrontation, offered nothing above comfort and predictability. Still, she allowed him to carry her shopping bags, buy expensive dinners, and have sex with her whenever he wanted. All this kept him happy -- until one evening in August.

Bella was working late so she didn't join us for happy hour. Neil never came to these things. "Boring," he'd say. "Nothing but alcoholics and hard-ups standing around in the heat, jerking off to the sound of their own voice." But this particular evening turned out cool and dry -- an anomaly for Houston. It felt like a whole ‘nother world where men found me beautiful even though my out-of-shape arms, which were pale from lack of sun, goose-bumped against the breeze. Playing on a makeshift stage was a band called The Dancing Cowboys -- five guys who could barely tap their toes to the music, much less dance, but whose deep and twangy voices two-stepped across the clefs as if that's what they were born to do.

J.J. stayed by my side, weathering the attention I was receiving from a light-eyed, dark-haired gentleman who wore a hammered gold wedding band. J.J. didn't say anything as the man tried to seduce me by gliding two fingers down my arm.

No, J.J. waited to make his move until after the guy asked, "Do you want to get out of here?" and I said, "Yes, but not with you."

I looked at J.J. He responded by pressing his hand against the small of my back.

"You look beautiful tonight, Sarah. Did I tell you that already?"

No, he hadn't, although he'd said similar things to Bella. He wasn't going to give her such jewels this night, not after she scolded him the evening before, in front of a group of our friends, for failing to change into a fresh button-down. Even if he happened to still be wearing the same shirt Bella had complained about, I wouldn't have noticed. All I could think about was how good it was going to feel to be with him.


I'm not proud of the fact that I slept with my best friend's boyfriend.

We tried not to wear our guilt on the outside, J.J. and I, even though we both felt so full of the stuff it practically oozed from our pores.

Neil, on the other hand, couldn't care less who I slept with. He'd probably be more surprised than anything, considering his habit of pointing out ways I didn't measure up as his perfect woman. For someone else to want me, they'd have to see something that was no longer visible to Neil. That's what happened with J.J. His eyes opened.

And mine closed.

I fell out of love with J.J. that night. I couldn't respect someone who would cheat on Bella. Myself included. As I shortened my contact with the two of them, J.J. lengthened his. Bella stayed the same, so our triangle remained intact. Yet Bella must have sensed something was different because, even though the end of daylight-saving time was two months away, the backward walking began.

"He told me your secret," Bella said while walking, heels first, down the sidewalk, allowing me to guide her with hand signals.

I ignored the comment in favor of the more obvious problem. Her meds were off again. She insisted that she was "in control," which meant she wasn't.

As tempting as it was to believe the problem wasn't bigger than her will to control it, the mania couldn't go untreated. I'd seen that version before. She'd stay up all night, roam the streets, talk to strangers, invite them in. Even if anything sexual happened, she wouldn't be culpable. Her sickness would be her defense. For the rest of us, such crimes of indiscretion were indefensible, regardless of the situations that fueled them.


The following afternoon, J.J. got Bella admitted to Lake Comfort. I waited until Saturday to visit. I brought a pack of menthol lights. A nurse seized the contraband, its contents to be rationed out to Bella over the course of the week.

Like every year, interns had stripped the shoelaces from Bella's Keds. Still, she managed to move around at the lioness pace that marked her illness.

We settled into some plastic chairs positioned near the window. Bella crossed and uncrossed her legs. Her hands trembled as she raised the cigarette to her lips and inhaled as if the remnants of her sanity depended on it. I looked in the direction of her gaze. Nothing but some willow trees and an empty sidewalk beyond the glass and bars. After several minutes, she spoke.

"I'll never tell," she said.

"Tell what?"

"Secrets. No such thing."

"But you told me you knew about mine," I said. She sounded coherent enough, as if treading along the slippery cusp of reality; the inevitable nosedive being one misstep away.

She nodded. In fact, her entire body rocked back and forth as she said, "Uh huh. Well I have one too."

Then came that anxious-looking grin from the drugs being deleted from her system. This drying-out came across in her voice, too. It cracked when she spoke; each syllable barely clung to the next. She leaned in so close I could smell the fresh-bleached crispness of her white t-shirt, along with breathy wisps of menthol. Without blinking, she said, "Your boyfriend Neil fucked me."

I hadn't noticed, until then, the flimsiness of the plastic chair. Sure, Neil had it in him to be unfaithful. But Bella?

Come to think of it, Neil had always paid a little too much attention to Bella, teasing her about how she must have some huge balls to prosecute criminals and how that impressed the hell out of him, exchanging verbal barbs until they'd both be bleeding from the cores of their egos and then laughing about it moments later, getting into bare-fisted boxing matches that ended with pats on the back and congratulations on each other's fancy footwork. I assumed she absorbed the punches on my behalf, knowing I didn't enjoy Neil's penchant for teasing and roughhousing. I do remember thinking it was strange, although not suspicious at the time, how Bella avoided both of us for a while and when I finally tracked her down, she couldn't stop crying but wouldn't tell me why except to say her life was shit. She was shit. Then, later, her saying how she didn't trust Neil and how I shouldn't either but giving no reasons why. But could I believe her now?

Then she continued. Her voice was as shaky as her hands, but I understood her well enough when she said, "He's got a mole on his upper thigh. You know the one."

No, I don't.

Although she was sick, I needed to say something in return, suspecting that anything I threw her way wouldn't stick. I leaned in close, holding the words in my throat until I could no longer tolerate the scratch.

"Wanna hear my secret now? I slept with J.J."

There it was. My guilt had been unloaded. A moment later, the nurse announced that visitors must finish saying their good-byes. The timing couldn't have been more merciful.

Bella looked at me with a disconnected stare as I stood to leave. I wondered if this was how I'd have to remember her.


That evening, I sat in bed beside Neil. I'd spent the day talking myself out of everything I'd heard but doing a crappy job of it, feathering out the image of Neil and Bella together even though I couldn't help but picture its sharp edges, and trying to forget about J.J. and how good it felt to be pulled in instead of pushed away.

Neil sat up reading a book. His classic profile was seriously intent, his dark hair fell forward over the top of his wire frame glasses, and an unlit Dunhill Superior Mild rested between his lips. How did I keep ending up with this particular man -- one who could be sexy-tender one day then hideous-mean the next, and who never seemed to be jolted by the shifts? So different than me. All week, guilt washed over me like dirty water, so much so I prayed Neil would continue to not touch me because, after what I had done, I really didn't deserve anyone's affection. Not even his. Now this thing with Bella crawled into bed with us, confusing the matter even more.

"She's back in Lake Comfort," I said.

"I don't understand why they keep letting her out," Neil said, removing the prop from his lips but not bothering to look up from his hardcover copy of The World is Flat.

"That's not nice. You used to like her."

"Still do, but she's a nutcase. Like that time she came over when you weren't here? She acted pretty fucked up although I have to admit, I didn't catch on ‘til she started that backward-walking bullshit."

"You were alone with her when she was sick? When? What happened?"

"Nothing happened. Oh, except I told her your secret, about how you like to jump up and down on the bed and that you do it naked for me sometimes, but only because she was jumping around on the floor. What a freak."

"Did you sleep with her?"

Neil closed the book at looked at me. "I think I deserve more credit than that."

Not exactly an answer, but I didn't force the issue. Instead, I reached beneath the top sheet. As usual, he wore flannel pajama bottoms and nothing else. He shifted his hips heavenward as I loosened the drawstring and pulled the pants down to his knees. Neil placed his hand on the back of my head, pushing it south as he eagerly does at such moments even when he's expressed no interest in having sex otherwise, and said, "Oh yeah, baby, apology accepted," as if any form of an apology was forthcoming. Not after what I found. How come I never noticed that mole before? Then again, I had always kept my eyes shut.

Not anymore.

I left without offering an explanation, grateful that this particular relationship, with all its shifts, was finally over.

Outside, it was raining -- the cool, slick kind that washes away the remains of summer and brings with it air that is breathable and clean. I didn't know where I was going but it didn't matter. Anywhere was preferable to the places I'd been.


Three weeks passed, which marked the end of Bella's hospital retreat. J.J. had visited her a couple of times, but she must not have mentioned anything about what I'd said.

I went to Vincent's Ice House that evening, half-hoping she'd make an appearance so I could get the confrontation over with, and half-praying she wouldn't be there. My half-hope ended up being the more powerful of the two.

Bella ran over and gave me the biggest hug her arms were capable of giving. Already tiny to begin with, she had dwindled down to little more than the clothes on her back.

"I'm celebrating my release from prison," she said, taking a lengthy swig off her Corona. When I didn't respond, she asked, "Is everything alright?"

"Don't you remember our visit?"

"I hardly ever recall anything. Why, did I say something wrong? You know that's never ‘me' in the hospital."

"Was it ‘you' who slept with Neil?"

She looked at me, and then to her tennis shoes. They were all laced up again as if no violation ever occurred. I had my answer.

"I have to go," I said, realizing I wasn't prepared for this discussion after all.

"I bet you'd stay for J.J.," she said, looking up again.

Oh, shit. "What does that mean?"

"It means, after what ya'll did, I'd say we're even."

"So you remember me telling you..."

Bella tilted her head and blinked away some moisture collecting in her eyes. "No. But looks like you've told me now. Besides, you both act enormously guilty about something."

"Okay, you got me, counselor. But what about you?"

"I was sick. Neil took advantage."

"Yeah, I'm sure he did," I said, and I meant it.

After a few moments of awkward silence, I continued. "Oh Bella, what have we done?"

She took another sip of beer and looked out over the crowd of alcoholics, and hard-ups, and ordinary people just trying to escape reality for an hour. And there we stood, neck deep in it.

"We screwed up. That's what we did," she said after a respectable pause.

With those few words, she summed the whole thing up perfectly. It was a fair and oddly forgiving closing argument. Yes, we screwed up, but maybe we needed to.

Bella remained serious as she took a step backward. Then another. And yet another until she was on a collision course with the bar. I feared, for a moment, she might be getting sick again, and it would be my fault for pulling the emotional trigger.

I thrust my palms forward in a bold signal for her to stop. She turned around instead, just in time to land her elbows on the polished wood and order two more beers: one for her, one for me.

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Features -- September 2011 -- Mid Month Issue

Susan Breeden
-- Additional Work --