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Love is a Loaded Gun
“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, and you know how much that smell bothers me—”
“Walter watch out!” she yelled. His Prius jerked to the right, narrowly missing a stopped car.
“Fucker 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.”
“Yes, it took an earthquake to shake me up, but who gives a fuck? They’re my family Walter. If I’m happier to be with you, than they’re happier I’m with you. Besides, they never did like Greg. They could see I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. But he never really loved me. But you, you love me; accept me for all I am: the good, the dark, the beautiful—I can truly be myself with you. And not only that…” she said, playfully caressing his face, “I totally upgraded in the looks and intelligence departments too.”
“But not the money department.”
Amber sighed loudly, then took Walter’s hand. “Please stop,” she said. “I know this isn’t you. You have nothing to worry about. My mother is especially excited to meet you. And you know you two will have a lot in common with science and all.”
“Yeah, she’s one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers and I’m a failed physics major who’s working as a rental car agent. We’ll have a lot in common.”
“Okay, I’m just going to call and cancel . . . Fuck Walter!” she screamed, the levee of her patience finally broken and now flooding with anger and tears. “As kind as I know you can be, you can also be such a selfish asshole. Forget what this day is to you, and think of 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 to my family 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 so sorry,” he said. “You’re right. Please forgive me?” She squeezed his hand tighter.
“Of course,” she said, her anger quickly seized by those gentle eyes and that motherly-lovery smile. “I understand why you’re so nervous, but this really 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 Amber needed foma, now was the time.
Amber wasn’t the first woman he’d prematurely given his heart to. As with all things new, once the shine dulls is when you see truth. And it wasn’t necessarily her fault, it was his. It was always his. He had convinced himself this was the woman he loved, but himself like to change his mind a lot and became easily bored whether it be his friends, his lovers, his art, his interests, his life. The prospect of something lasting forever was what ultimately always scared him out of any sort of committed relationship. 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 can convince you differently. The heart is great at weaponizing love for its own self interests.
Although Amber and he shared their depression together, there was a growing list of things on which they differed. While she initially told him she was also an artist, a novelist, she hadn’t actually written since college, and her depression or work was always her excuse for not continuing. While he empathized greatly with her depression—and her work for that matter, but as someone who knew depression well, he knew the difference between it and just plain procrastination. He tried to encourage her by showing her how he turned his depression into art, but she said writing a book was different and something he would never understand. But he saw it for what it really was: the root of her depression and procrastination was her perfectionism, the same perfectionism inside him, however, hers expressed itself in much less productive and time-consuming matters. Her constant need for designer clothes; her hours craned over her phone, perfecting photos for her social media feeds and compulsive checking for assurance of this perfection; her hours of applying and reapplying her makeup even though Walter told her he preferred her face makeup free. He could see that being no more valued than one of Greg’s over fifty Rolexes for the last two years had taken its toll on her psyche. But how do you start faulting someone when it’s your fault they’re in need? And how do you leave someone in a time when love is desperately what they need? So out of guilt, he did his best to love her, and convinced himself through this love someday she’d see, but it was starting to become evident it might be a pipe dream.
So he pretended to love her although his heart was really with his band. They were beginning to get label attention and had a two-week tour planned. It was all his vacation time for the year, vacation time that took nearly a year of no vacation to accumulate, but something told him it would be the last time he’d have to take vacation, something told him he would soon be something great.
“So Amber tells me you’re the singer of a pretty popular rock band?” Amber’s mother, Doctor Karen Evans said to him. 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 this woman had had a hand in in some way.
“Just in the L.A. area, but only because we’re also an even more popular Guns N’ Roses tribute band,” Walter replied, still trying to comprehend his surroundings and company. The dining arrangements were very modest for someone of her echelon of accomplishment: some greasy Irish pub named McCool’s, and Amber’s family, just as unassuming: a longhaired and bearded uncle, “Uncle John”, and Karen’s best friend whom Amber just referred to as “Aunt Tilly”. This was not what Walter had in mind when Amber said she wanted him to meet her family for dinner, but then he remembered the family members she actually loved were in the vast minority. However, she only revealed how casual the dinner would be after his miniature meltdown almost killed them on the road.
Amber’s parents divorced when she was very young, her mother remaining only wedded to the lab thereafter. But in her limited leisure time outside it, she, Uncle John, and Aunt Tilly—who were also in cancer research—went to McCool’s every Thursday for corned beef and karaoke, and for the most part, these three people were what Amber called her family. The rest were either dead, arrested, or estranged, including her father, who after remarrying and establishing a new family, had moved to Oregon when she was six and became a nonentity.
“Guns N’ Roses, eh?” Uncle John 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.”
“Fine. 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 Karen. 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?” Karen 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—meaning you can’t get any smaller than them. However, their mass has to come from somewhere, and it is 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, 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 engrossing 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. 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,” Karen said to Amber.
“So does Walter,” Amber said.
“No, not like you,” he said. “You were a creative writing major and wrote novels in college; I write lyrics and poetry.”
“I wrote really bad novels in college. The only decent one I never finished.”
“I really wish you would finish it,” Karen said. “Writing was good for you. You need an outlet from all 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? Please.”
“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?” Karen 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, you mind having a shot with me at the bar?” Karen asked. “Karaoke’s starting soon and we’ll need them before we put our songs in, right?”
“Uh… sure,” he said.
“You don’t mind Amber?”
“No, not at all,” Amber said. “I’ve been wanting to get you guys together for some time now. I know you’ll have a lot in common.”
“So what kind of shot do you want?” Karen 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.”
“Cheers,” Walter tensely clanked his glass against hers. “So what did we come over here for then?”
“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 not with him anymore. I won’t get into it, but the guy was a piece of work, and so often I tried to tell her he wasn’t good for her, but you know Amber, she always sees the best in everyone, and you’ve ultimately got to support your daughter. But then you came along, and thank God she saw the light. You’re a blessing for her and us. She’s an artist at heart and should be with another artist. But you’re kind of a jack of many trades, aren’t you?”
“Not really. Music’s the only thing I could say I’m exceptional at, but I’ve still yet to prove it.”
“Well, 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. It’s a unique sound too. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but it was like an amalgam of Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, and The Clash, sprinkled with some Queen and Pink Floyd. But it also reminded me of something even more heavy metal at times, like Metallica.” Walter began laughing.
“You’re good,” he said. “You pretty much nailed all my influences.”
“Okay I’ll admit, I might’ve saw that somewhere online, but it’s true. So you write all the songs?”
“The other guys have a part in fleshing them out, but yes.” Walter was 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, I was just expecting something else tonight and I’m still adjusting. While I’m pleasantly surprised, I’m still very surprised. I wasn’t ready for karaoke and corned beef.”
“What were you expecting?”
“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 Karen Evans, one of the forerunners in cancer immunotherapy. It’s hard for me to imagine you anywhere outside a lab.” Karen 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. What you were saying back there, that didn’t sound like a failed physics student. How could someone who has such a visceral enthusiasm for science have done so poorly in it?”
“Because at heart I’m just a simple boy from Arizona 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.”
“I see . . . So Arizona, what brought you to California? School?”
“You got it. I went to your alma mater too, UCLA. But my maternal grandmother, who I live with now, has always lived in Torrance and I spent many summers in California. It’s always been a second home to me.”
“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,” Karen 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. 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.”
“Must be the whiskey,” she said, “because a moment ago you were having trouble even looking at me . . . About time to put our karaoke songs in. Will Axl be making an appearance?”
“Perhaps if Dolly Parton does.”
Karen shook her head grinning.
“I knew I’d like you.”