Love is a Loaded Gun
MARCH 2011, TWO MONTHS LATER
“Why are you wearing that perfume?” Walter asked as he weaved through traffic.
“I like it,” Amber said. “Why? You don’t?”
“No. It reminds me of the smell of rum. I’ve told you that. Why are you wearing it today of all days?”
“Because I like it, okay? I’m sorry. I’ll never wear it again. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is I can’t think straight because the smell is all I can think about. You know how much that smell bothers me—”
“Walter watch out!” she yelled. His Prius jerked to the right, narrowly missing a stopped car.
“Dipshit should learn how a brake pedal works!” he shouted. “Asshole still had a hundred yards in front of him.”
“I should’ve drove,” Amber groaned. “Can you please slow down? They’ll understand if were a little late . . . Maybe we should just cancel. You’re in one of your moods where everything’s wrong with the world and no one can convince you otherwise. I’d rather not have my family meeting that Walter as their first impression.”
“No, I just...” he struggled to explain because he couldn’t tell her exactly how he felt. “I’m just nervous, that’s all. You were only engaged to Greg two months ago and I cost your mother thousands of dollars.”
“To cancel a wedding that would’ve been the biggest mistake of my life. It just took meeting you for me to realize that.”
“Not meeting Amber, cheating. It took getting caught cheating. Let’s not forget that.”
She exhaled loudly. “Yes Walter,” she said, “it took an earthquake to wake me up. But none of that matters now. They’re my family. And if I’m happier to be with you, then they’re happier I’m with you. Besides, they never did like Greg. They could see I was pretending to be somebody I wasn’t for him. But with you, I can truly be myself because you accept all of me: the good, the dark, and the beautiful. And not only that…” she said, playfully caressing Walter’s face, “...everyone agrees I totally upgraded in the looks and intelligence departments too.”
“But not the money department,” he muttered.
Amber closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Please stop,” she said putting a hand on his lap. “I know this isn’t you. You have nothing to worry about. My mother is especially excited to meet you. You’ll have a lot in common with science and all.”
“She’s one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers. I’m a rental car agent. Yeah, we’ll have a lot in common.”
Amber bit her fist, then screamed, “Goddamn it Walter!”, the levee of her patience finally broken. “As kind as I know you can be, you can also be such a selfish prick. Forget what this day is to you and think about what it means to me. I was the one who had to take responsibility for the wedding, not you. I was the one who had to stay silent while his family mercilessly slut-shamed me to my face, not you. Yes, I cheated on him and I’ve had to pay for it every day since. But today, I finally get to move on. I finally get to introduce my family to the man I really love. But I guess he decided to stay home because he’s too much of a coward.”
Walter bent with shame. “I’m sorry,” he said taking her hand. “You’re right. Please forgive me?”
“Of course,” she said, her anger quickly seized by that motherly-lovery smile. “I understand why you’re so nervous,” she continued, “but really this is a happy day, okay? I love you.” And again she reminded him of the real reason he was so uneasy.
“I love you too,” he lied. He hated to do it, but if she needed foma, now was the time.
Amber wasn’t the first woman Walter had prematurely given his heart to. If only his heart kept in mind what a whore it was, it would stop believing anytime a woman gave him affection it was love. But a heart can never be a mind no matter how well it pretends to be. The heart is great at weaponizing love for its own self interests.
Although they shared their depression together, it was becoming clear—clear to Walter at least—there was much on which they differed. While Amber initially said she was also an artist, a novelist, she actually hadn’t written anything since college. Her depression and work were always the excuse. And although he empathized with both, he also tried to show her how he turned his depression into inspiration, but she insisted her depression and writing a book was something different, something he would never understand. But he understood—or he believed he understood.
Walter believed the root of Amber’s depression was the same as his: perfectionism. Her perfectionism, however, just fed upon itself in much less productive and time-consuming matters than art, such as her constant need for new designer clothes; her hours craned over her phone perfecting photos for her social media feeds and compulsive checking for assurance of this perfection; her applying and reapplying of makeup even though he told her he preferred her without it. Being valued no more than one of Greg’s over fifty Rolexes for the last two years had taken a toll on her psyche Walter was beginning to see. So out of “love”, he told her he loved her even though he was unsure because that’s what he believed she needed for the time being. He also said it in the belief that one day he would actually mean it. He just had to help her find the person he believed she could be.
“Amber tells me you’re the singer of a pretty popular rock band,” Amber’s mother, Doctor Catherine Evans said. Walter felt shaky under the blade of her steel blue eyes and the brilliance contained beneath. Almost every advancement in cancer research over the past twenty years she’d had a hand in in some way.
“Just in the L.A. area and only because we’re also an even more popular Guns N’ Roses tribute band,” he said, still trying to comprehend his surroundings and company. A greasy Irish pub called McCool’s wasn’t what he expected when Amber said she wanted him to meet her family for the first time for dinner. And her family, just as unexpected. Sharing the large pub booth with them and her mother was a longhaired and bearded uncle, “Uncle John”, and Catherine’s best friend whom Amber referred to as “Aunt Tilly”, both of whom worked in the same lab as Catherine. This was Amber’s entire family. The rest of her relatives were either dead, arrested, or estranged, including her alcoholic father who moved to Oregon when she was six and became a nonentity she never liked to talk about.
“But you’re also getting label attention and have a two-week tour coming up I hear,” Catherine said to Walter.
“Yes,” he said with a flattered smile, “but no serious offers yet. That’s why we’re touring the West Coast to build up a following outside of L.A. The tour’s taking up all of my savings and vacation time, but I think a dream is a worthy investment.”
“It certainly is…” Catherine glanced at Amber. There was an awkward silence.
“Guns N’ Roses, eh?” Uncle John then said, topping off Walter’s half-empty glass with one of their two pitchers of beer. “Are we going to hear some Axl Rose then?”
“I’m sure you will if I keep drinking like this,” Walter said. “Remember, I have to drive later.”
“No you don’t,” Amber said. “Especially not after the way you drove here. I’ll drive. You just drink and relax.” She kissed him on the cheek and patted his back.
“What’s your band’s name?” Aunt Tilly asked Walter.
“Perfect Crime. It was the name of the band when we were only doing covers, but we couldn’t think of another name, so we just kept it.”
“Yeah, but tell them about your stage name,” Amber prodded.
“No, it’s so embarrassing. I wouldn’t even go by it if it wasn’t what everyone knows me as. But I’m kind of stuck with it now.”
“Come on, they’ll get a kick out of it.”
“All right.” Walter sighed. “Quinn Quark. No, not a dorky super hero, but my winning choice of stage names that only a twenty-two-year-old physics undergrad would think to dub himself.”
Everyone began laughing but Catherine. Instead she locked dead-eye onto him with a smirk that felt like an autopsy. A thick, silver ribbon of gray hair played with her cheek from a jet-black mane of waterfalling curls. She was definitely the source from which Amber’s good looks sprang; looks that were so captivating, it drove Walter to commit adultery against his better judgement.
“So is Quinn Quark an up, down, top, bottom, strange, or charm quark?” Catherine asked.
Walter delighted with a smile. It’d been a long time since he’d heard someone crack a physics joke.
“I guess he can be all six flavors at times,” he replied.
“Sounds like Quinn Quark is a little full of himself, like he fancies himself a Higgs Boson or something.”
Everyone laughed now but Amber.
“What?—oh forget it,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“It’s not that difficult,” Walter said. “Quarks are elementary particles, which just means you can’t get any smaller than them. However, their mass has to come from somewhere and it’s believed that the Higgs Boson gives it to them. Each quark has a unique behavior profile called flavors, and depending upon these behaviors and the interactions of the quarks, some of the most essential components of matter are birthed. It’s how we get existence from nothing in a sense.”
“Huh?” Amber said mockingly. “I told you I wouldn’t understand. Definitely wasn’t blessed with my mother’s scientific aptitude.”
“Science doesn’t require an aptitude,” Walter said, “just an interest. Anyone can learn it. It just takes some time to warm up to because it can seem enigmatic and unfeeling at first. But the more familiarity you gain with its characters, the more comfortable these universes within our own become opening up to you. Science can be just as endearing as a good novel.”
“I’ll just stick to my novels thank you,” Amber said. “Don’t need science mucking up the only thing I find pleasure in. And you know me, I’m just more on the artistic side anyway.”
“You do write exceptionally well,” Catherine said to Amber.
“So does Walter,” she said patting his back again.
“No, not like you,” Walter said. “You were a creative writing major and wrote novels in college; I just write lyrics and poetry.”
“I wrote really bad novels in college,” Amber said. “The only decent one I never finished.”
“I really wish you would finish it,” Catherine said. “Writing was good for you. You need an outlet from the stress of work.”
“When Mom? During my day and a half I get off from my sixty-hour work week? I don’t have time to sleep, let alone write.”
“Walter has the same schedule and still manages to play in a band. I know that can’t be easy.”
“Walter doesn’t work at the airport anymore. They moved him to a branch that’s only open five days a week after—actually, can we just stop talking about this? For once can we not talk about my writing Mom?”
“Okay, but you know if you ever wanted to quit and finish your novel, I would support you.”
“Thank you, but I don’t need your support just like I didn’t need Greg’s. I’m a grown woman fully capable of surviving on her own. Yes, rental car agent wasn’t what I had in mind when I graduated college, but in these times I’m lucky I even have a job. For now, I’m just going to support Walter while we both wait for the job market to recover, or he hits it big with the band. I just have this feeling he’s so close...”
“So, you also had a hard time finding work after college?” Catherine asked Walter after a brief silence.
“Yes, but I can’t blame it all on the economy. I graduated with a physics degree, but barely. And if you can’t get into grad school, well, a physics degree’s kind of pointless.”
“That’s not true—well, maybe in this economy it is, but not normally.”
“Yes, talk about 2009 being a shitty time to graduate. But I had to start paying off my student loans somehow and luckily Endeavor hires anyone with a degree. So yes, it’s not ideal, but hey, I never would’ve met Amber otherwise.”
Again the elephant in the room plunged them into an uncomfortable silence.
“Um, hey Walter,” Catherine said, “want to take a shot with me at the bar? Karaoke’s starting soon and we’ll need them before we put our songs in, right?”
“Uh… sure,” he said looking to Amber.
“You don’t mind?” her mother asked her.
“No, not at all,” Amber said smiling. “I’ve been wanting to get you two together for some time now.”
“What kind of shot do you want?” Catherine asked once at the bar.
“Truthfully, I’m not much of a shot person,” Walter said, “but how about Jameson on the rocks?”
“Good answer,” she said and ordered two. “It’s not like the purpose of coming over here was shots anyhow . . . Cheers,” she said after the drinks arrived.
“Cheers,” Walter said, tensely clanking his glass against hers then took a sip. “So, what did we come over here for then?” he asked.
“To tell you you can relax. Don’t worry, we already like you so much more than Greg—in fact, we’re elated she’s no longer with that asshole. I won’t get into it, but the guy was a piece of work. So often I tried to tell Amber he wasn’t good for her, but you know Amber; she always sees the best in everyone, and you ultimately have to support your daughter. But thank God you helped her see the light. She’s an artist at heart and should be with another artist.”
Catherine took a long sip of her drink and Walter did the same. “But you’re kind of a jack of many trades, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not really,” Walter said. “Music’s the only thing I can say I’m somewhat exceptional at, but I’ve still yet to prove that.”
“Well…” Catherine said raising her eyebrows at him, “I saw some of Perfect Crime’s videos online—sorry I was curious, and I have to say, you have some serious stage presence and talent.”
He smiled bashfully, then put his face to his glass again.
“It’s a unique sound too,” Catherine continued. “I can’t put a finger on it, but it’s like an amalgam of Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, and The Clash, sprinkled with some Queen and Pink Floyd. But it reminded me of something even more heavy metal at times too, like Metallica.”
Walter laughed. “You’re good,” he said. “You pretty much nailed all my influences.”
“Okay I’ll admit,” Catherine smirked, “I might’ve saw that somewhere online. But it’s true. I also read you write all the songs?”
“The other guys have a part in fleshing them out, but yes.”
Walter then began fidgeting with his paper coaster, unable to look her in the eye for more than a few seconds.
“You still seem anxious,” she noticed.
“Sorry,” he took another drink. “I was just expecting… expecting something else tonight and I guess I’m still adjusting. While I’m pleasantly surprised, I’m still very surprised. I just wasn’t ready for karaoke and corned beef.”
“What were you ready for then?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, but not this. It’s just so hard for me to imagine someone like you at an Irish pub, taking shots, drinking beer, singing karaoke. I mean don’t get me wrong, this is right up my alley, but you’re Doctor Catherine Evans, one of the forerunners in cancer immunotherapy. It’s hard for me to imagine you anywhere outside a lab.”
Catherine chuckled. “So you’ve done some homework also,” she said. “And most of the time I am in a lab, but when I’m not, I’m still a small-town girl from Tennessee, fond of her dive bars, whiskey, and admittedly country music—but real country, not that shit Nashville’s been churning out lately. Knowing Amber, though, you probably never knew she had a rednecky mother.”
“Never. I mean, Amber’s nothing like that, and on paper you—well, I guess no one’s ever just what they are on paper, are they?”
“Speak for yourself,” Catherine said tipping her glass at him. “What you said earlier, that didn’t sound like someone who barely graduated with their physics degree. How could someone who has such a visceral enthusiasm for science have done so poorly in it?”
“There are many reasons. But mostly because at heart I’m just a simple Arizona boy with foolish dreams of becoming a rock star and I’ve never let anything take priority over that, including school.”
“But what if being a rock star doesn’t work out? Will you regret not taking school more seriously?”
“I’m not thinking about that for the moment,” Walter said and took another drink.
“I see…” Catherine said and mimicked. “What brought you to California then, school?” she asked.
“You could say that. I went to your alma mater too, UCLA. But my maternal grandmother, who I live with now, has always lived in Torrance. So I’ve always considered California just as much my home.”
“Are your parents still in Arizona?”
“My dad. My mother passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear. When?”
“Um...” Walter cleared his throat. “She died giving birth to me.”
“Oh,” Catherine said caught off guard. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, something I’ve obviously dealt with my entire life . . . My parents, it was just a one-night stand. My father was working as an IT consultant at the time and was traveling in L.A. when he met my mother while she was performing at an open mic night. She was a songwriter like me. Anyway, they hit it off, and she got pregnant after. She told him she was going to have an abortion since he had a wife back home, but she couldn’t do it in the end. My father only found out after I was born and she was already dead, so he did what he thought was right and took me in . . . I’m sorry.”
Walter shook his head suddenly aware of what he was saying. “I didn’t mean to tell you all that,” he said. “I haven’t even told Amber all that . . . I don’t know if it’s the whiskey, or if it’s just easy to talk to you.”
Catherine grinned. “Must be the whiskey,” she said and finished her drink, “because a moment ago you were having trouble even looking at me.”
“Must be…” he said grinning back at her, then finished his drink.
“About time to put our karaoke songs in,” she said standing from her seat. “Will Axl be making an appearance?”
“Perhaps if Dolly Parton does.”
Catherine laughed and shook her head. “I knew I’d like you.”