CheerleaderBy Peter Gordon
February 07, 2022
My brother Eddie called me the next morning to report his head hurt and his wallet was nowhere to be found. He already pinged the hotel but they didn’t have the wallet, or at least claimed they didn’t. Eddie said the woman at the front desk sounded like she was thumbing through his cash and cards even as they spoke, deciding what to toss and what to keep–he could wave goodbye to the emergency Quaalude he kept tucked in there–but how could he ever prove the dark duplicity at work, his small cry in the wilderness versus the obfuscations of a big bad multinational hotel chain? Despite all that he sounded relieved, like he had survived something monumental. “Turns out lots of the people from my class are bald, broke or dead,” he said. “And I’m only half of all those things.”
“You’re a glass half full kind of guy,” I said.
“That’s me,” he said. “Always looking on the bright side.”
In the weeks and days leading up to the reunion, he kept changing his mind. He was going to go, then he wasn’t, then he was. He thought of sitting in his van in the hotel parking lot with a pair of binoculars and deciding, based on who he saw and who he recognized, whether or not to go in. But that afternoon he was jumping around the internet, like always, and saw a popup ad for a brand of dog food called Go! that featured a flash video of a dog running across an amber-colored field, all crazy legs and flying fur. He took it as a sign. It took him an hour, with lots of stops and starts, to get dressed. He decided on a maroon velvet sports coat, high-collared white linen shirt, and a thick silver crucifix around his neck just to completely throw people off and have them think he found religion. He got to the hotel about an hour late, just as he planned, though estimating his arrival for any given time anywhere is no easy feat. As it turned out no one else wanted to be right on time either so there was a little traffic jam of cars, mostly shiny new ones, some obvious rentals, at the entrance to the parking garage at the Marriott Courtyard on Route 9. He parked his big honkin’ van as far away from the others as he could so he would have room to spread out and do his thing.
Twenty minutes later he rolled through the double-wide front door. The lobby was wood-paneled and full of backlit braided Ficus trees. The directional signage was excellent. They had the junior ballroom festooned with red balloons and a giant blue and white sign that read, “Class of 1977 … Still Going Strong,” hung at the rear and was nicely backlit by purple strobes. Maybe seventy-five people showed up, including spouses and significant others, a more than respectable turnout for a fortieth. Debbie Devlin, the woman who’d organized it, was at the front door greeting everybody and directing them to the table where the name tags lay. The people that recognized Eddie had the expected reaction, overreaction, call it what you will. “Holy shit, look at you.” “You look good, man.” Some people turned away, the way you do at a train wreck. He milled around. He circulated. He had a drink. He caught up with people he’d never known anything about to begin with. About forty-five minutes into it the fire alarms went off from what turned out to be a grease fire in the kitchen, a flareup on the grill caused by the whiskey-soaked steak tips. Everybody had to clear out of the hotel. Several people jockeyed for the right to help Eddie get out in the mad rush and almost tipped him over in their eagerness to do good. Once they got outside in the November chill and congregated on the sidewalk under the illuminated overhang there were jokes all around, that giddy feeling they’d been handed a low-hanging anecdote to be told and retold from here on out. “This is classic!” someone shouted. “Where’s Mrs. Driscoll?” someone else yelled out and everybody laughed at the specter of old Mrs. D waving her flabby arms and barking orders and making like General Patton in a plaid dress whenever there was a fire drill. Eddie sat impassively in the middle of it all. After a while he started shivering – once he starts shivering he can’t stop, he’s like a hunched over tuning fork. Stephen Canova – Stephen Canova of all people – threw his expensive topcoat over Eddie’s shoulders proving, Eddie said, even mean-spirited square-jawed dickheads are redeemable. A bunch of the women gathered around him and formed a kind of ad hoc guardian circle, sweet and warm and protective. Fire trucks from three towns arrived on the scene. They were outside for nearly forty minutes. Some people – you could have predicted who – gave up and got in their cars and left. It was there, in the glow of the thinning crowd and madly spinning emergency lights, that Jeannie O’Connell came nonchalantly around the circular walkway that led to the hotel’s front entrance. Not just late but defiantly, belligerently, fuck-you-all late. There she was patting the pockets of her black belted raincoat, like she’d forgotten something and maybe every guy within twenty miles should rush to her aid and help her find it, then, in the middle of it all, tossing her head and correcting the fall of her famous blonde hair in that offhand way that breaks your heart. Some things never change. Right after that they waved off the fire scare and let everyone back inside. Jeannie lucked out, again. No standing outside with the commoners for the once and forever head cheerleader.
“So,” I said. “How did she look? Still the best-looking girl in the class of double seven?”
“I suppose,” Eddie said, “but that’s not saying much anymore, is it? I mean, we’re talking some pretty nasty before and after shit.”
He said that the very best-looking girls were either not there or, more poignantly, not anywhere. He went on to describe this hastily constructed memory wall which was not so much a wall as a foam-backed placard resting uneasily on a tall easel, displaying a list of names of departed classmates next to their cut-out yearbook photos that people spent a long time looking at and gently running their fingertips down, like it was the Vietnam Memorial or something. It was set up high enough so that someone had to read the top row to Eddie and he had to act shocked and sorrowful as each name was sonorously announced like the peal of a church bell.
“Like I’m supposed to care that Phyllis Gallagher and Barbara Welch and Bunky Saunders died? If the thing you’re supposed to feel bad about is the fact they’re the same age as you and you’re now in that phase where instead of people in your class getting married or having babies they’re starting to die off, okay, fine, I get that. It hits home. Whatever. But it’s not like we’re mourning the death of seventeen-year-olds here. I mean, these people got to live. They got out there. They did their shit. They almost reached sixty. What’s the big fucking deal? Is the world really worse off without them? Am I?”
“That’s really touching, big brother. Will you give the eulogy at my funeral?”
“I just did.”
“So tell me,” I said, “what did the great Jeannie O’Connell do when she saw you?”
“You mean what did she make of the unfortunate fact that my legs don’t work?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“That’s exactly what you meant,” he said. “Hey, as it turns out, she was happy for me. She thought it was awesome. Good for you, she said. Why walk when you can ride?”
The silence that followed was contaminated by some crinkling sound in the background, some rustling of paper, the rubbing gears of a lighter being lit. A cap popped off, some liquid was poured.
“You still there, sis?” Eddie said.
“Where else would I be?”
“I thought maybe you’d hung up on me. Why don’t you ever hang up on me? Seriously. Why don’t you ever tell me to go fuck myself and cut me off and just be done with it? Rid yourself of my dead weight once and for all. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought of it. It’s gotta cross your mind every fucking day.”
I did what I always do when he gets like that. I let the moment pass.
“So what did she really do when she saw you, Eddie?” I said, plowing on.
“She actually didn’t see me until the fire drill was over and we were all back inside and everyone was shaking off the cold and rushing the bar. Just as she was getting her bearings and seeing who was there she saw me.”
“And she freaked, okay? She bawled. She broke down like an old fucking bus. Happy now? She knelt in front of me and kept blabbering about how could this happen and what did I do and why hadn’t she heard? Why hadn’t she heard? That’s all she wanted to know. You know how people always bring it back to them like the fact they didn’t get the news somehow trumps the news itself?” Here his voice rose to a falsetto. “Why didn’t you tell me, Eddie? I would have dropped everything. I would have come running. I would have helped you get through it. And then she had like three vodka tonics in fifteen minutes. Probably just to get over the sickening sight of me.”
“Some people can’t handle the fact that their past doesn’t stay frozen in time.”
“Or they can’t handle the fact that the guy they lost their virginity to is now chained to a chair without the use of his lower extremities. For some inexplicable reason it brings them down. Wipes the goofy smile off their face.”
“So she got stupid drunk?”
“You could say that. Then she excused herself and went to the women’s room to throw up, or maybe to scream where no one could hear her. I swear I thought she was going to climb out the bathroom window and not come back.”
“But she didn’t, did she? She came back.”
“See? They always come back to you, don’t they Eddie?”
He didn’t say anything for a while and I heard a tamping sound and the sound of a lighter clicking again, and about fifteen seconds later he said with a great exhale of breath, “She settled down after that. We talked for like an hour straight. It was like no one else was in the room. Then she asked me if I wanted to get out of there. Go off and have a quiet time just the two of us. I said sure, why not.”
So off they went, he said. She wasn’t sure whether to push him or let him do it himself, and when he said it was okay if she lent a hand she tried doing it from the side forcing him to point out that while trying to walk side by side sounds egalitarian and maybe even a tad romantic it isn’t very practical. She ended up in what Eddie calls the baby mama stroller position, pushing him from behind, while Eddie looked left and right as the tables flashed by. But the good and bad news was, no one noticed. Their classmates were all caught up pushing their own heavy loads down memory lane. No one caught him breezing by under the blinding blonde wattage power of Jeannie fucking O’Connell.
“Where did you go?”
“We found an empty coat check room. Handicapped-accessible, of course.”
There was a sudden flapping noise, like a bird was loose in the room and he was swatting at it each time it flew by. I asked him if everything was okay but he ignored the question and kept going.
“She asked if it would hurt if she sat on my lap. I told her it would hurt like hell just not in the old-fashioned physiological way. So she scooted on up and flung herself across me like I was a hammock or something.”
“Jeannie O’Connell sat on your lap?”
“Uh huh. And we made out like virgins. Like kids at camp. For like ten minutes.”
“God is good.”
“God has no end of comic material,” he said.
“So how was she?”
“The same. Still a slurpy kisser. Doesn’t tighten her lips enough. She tasted exactly the way I remember too. Minty and cigaretty. The only difference was she wasn’t wearing Love Baby Soft and I wasn’t doused in English Leather.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said. “You and J.O. Together again.”
It almost didn’t happen. He told me when he saw her outside the hotel his first impulse was to release the wheel lock, rumble down the slick sidewalk and not look back. He didn’t have the heart to face her. The only thing that stopped him was hearing our late mother’s voice telling him: Edward, at what point in your life are you going to stop running away from your problems?
“If she only knew how funny that line’s become,” he said to me.
He lit another cigarette.
“Picture this,” he said to me. There they were. In the dark. Jeannie O’Connell fiddling with the garish onyx buttons of his velvet sports coat while clutching a bottle of cheap Chardonnay she’d pilfered from the reunion bar.
“She asked me if I remembered the first time she kissed me. Of course I remembered.
Kenny Matson’s party. In the backyard. Behind the toolshed. She said my lips were shaking, and I said it was cold, it was like forty degrees, and she was like, you can’t just admit you were nervous, can you? And I said, fine, maybe a little. And she said she liked me so much back then it hurt.”
He said he captured a piece of her hair between his thumb and forefinger and it was like he pulled out the last thread of her resistance – she started crying again, this time in big heaving gulps that made it seem as though she couldn’t breathe. Her mascara ran in two perfect little streams down either side of her nose. He thought she might pass out.
She drank some more. She took a swig that lasted for like twenty seconds; Eddie said he’d never seen anything like it. When she came up for air she started emoting. Spilling her guts. Her life was a fucking mess, she said. Everything she touched turned to shit. Everyone she loved turned out to be the exact opposite of who she thought they were. She’d chosen the wrong guy, she said. Not once but three times. And it turned out to be always the same guy, just wearing a different disguise. She was like a game show contestant who keeps picking the wrong door and getting the same booby prize with the audience howling like they can’t believe how fucking clueless she is. Theme of her life. Her current therapist – she always chose the wrong therapist too – was having her work on identifying trends and patterns her life repeated over and over. Like leaping before she looked. Blaming herself for shit that happened when she wasn’t even there. Forgiving shit that any fool can see is unforgivable. “It’s like I keep stepping into the same hole in the floor and falling through. I’m working on walking around the hole. I’m trying to create new themes. I know how stupid that sounds. But I am.”
Eddie told her that was a crazy coincidence, that he was just cleaning out his themes closet the other day. Got rid of all the old ones that didn’t fit him anymore. Now he was down to one theme. Does he kill himself today or wait until tomorrow?
“You didn’t say that,” I said.
“Sure I did,” he said. “I wanted her to know the truth.”
He said she started crying, told him not to talk like that. Then she asked him if he was going to tell her what happened to him. There wasn’t much to tell, he said. Pretty simple actually. Not very dramatic. He went out for a midnight ride. He saw the pickup but it didn’t see him. And motorcycles, it turns out, have no side impact bars and no air bags. The guy who sold him the bike didn’t tell him that.
She said he was still the same old crazy Eddie.
Her fingertips trailed slowly down the front of his shirt, coming to rest on his big silver belt buckle where her long red nails thrummed a beat on the metal crest. She got off him, knelt in front of him and slowly unzipped him.
“You can skip this part,” I said.
“This is the best part,” my brother said.
It all happened so suddenly, so inevitably, he couldn’t stop it. Her head moved above his lap. It was a lovely sight, and it was like a goddamn miracle, because somehow he felt something, he was alive down there, and he got right into it, and it happened. Just like that. It was like he was flung back in time, like he got one moment to slip back inside his old body, but it was a one-shot deal, a one-off between him and God. Right after he was back to not feeling a fucking thing.
“Eddie–,” I said.
“There’s more,” he said.
She stroked the side of his face, got back on his lap, and wrapped her arms around his neck. She said she always wondered what they would have been like. If they’d stayed together, she meant. Maybe he wouldn’t have ended up like that and she wouldn’t have ended up like this.
Before he could answer there was a light shining on them. It was coming from a cell phone held by a man – it was definitely a man, and a tall, big-shouldered one at that – standing in the entry to the coat closet. Eddie couldn’t see his face, only his outline, and thought it might be one of their wayward classmates. Except it wasn’t. It was Jeannie’s husband. He took a step forward and jabbed a finger in Eddie’s direction and said being stuck in a chair was no excuse to mess with his wife. He called Eddie a fucking paralogic – he couldn’t even say the word right–homewrecker. Before Eddie could say something the guy lowered his shoulder and lunged at them. The chair lifted up, balanced in the air for a split second like a buggy doing a wheelie, and tipped over on its side as Jeannie slid off Eddie’s lap to the floor. The guy squatted over the wreckage and as Jeannie scrambled away he grabbed hold of the front of Eddie’s shirt and yanked him forward, then reared back and hit Eddie in the face. It wasn’t the worst punch Eddie ever took, but it was effective. He tasted the blood streaming from his nose. As the guy prepped for a second blow Eddie somehow managed to bellycrawl forward enough to wrap his arms around the guy’s knees and rose up to headbutt him in the groin. The guy fell backwards giving Eddie the opening to wriggle on top and press his thumbs against the guy’s windpipe. He had the guy’s life in his hands and then he heard Jeannie screaming his name. Eddie, Eddie Eddie. So he let go.
Soon there were tons of people milling around. Hotel security. Bellboys. Bartenders. Hotel guests. Their classmates, the hardy few who were still there. Someone helped Eddie back into his chair. Two guys stood over Jeannie’s husband and put their feet on his chest so he couldn’t move until the police came, which they did soon enough, cuffing him and hauling him off for assault and battery. Somebody from their class yelled out “Eddie, you’re still the man!” and the place erupted with applause. The last thing, the last detail, was Jeannie walking over, kissing Eddie hard on the mouth, really hard, and stuffing a scrap of paper with her phone number in his torn, blood-stained shirt pocket. Then she headed down the corridor, blonde hair flapping, and was gone.
I heard Eddie’s raspy breathing through the phone. A full minute went by before I thought of something to say.
“That’s some story,” I said.
“Yeah, pretty incredible,” he said.
“Jeannie fucking O’Connell,” I said.
“And here I was wondering if she’d even show up.”
“Hey,” I said. “With all the excitement, did you remember to take your venlafaxine?”
“Who the fuck knows?” he said. “That was the last thing on my mind.”
“Let’s count the pills in the vial, shall we?”
“I took it,” he said. “I did. I’m just fucking with you, ‘sis. Gotta give you something to get all worked up about.”
There was a click and the sound of music. The song was familiar, rock and roll from way back when, but I couldn’t pinpoint it.
“All right, loverboy,” I said. “I’ll be over later, okay? Now maybe you can get some rest. Get some sleep.”
“Okay,” Eddie said, his voice fading to nothing. “Sleep sounds good.”
And he hung up.
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