Amourang by Matthew Licht

The Sea Empress Motel is right on the beach. Despite maxims concerning the setting of foundations, the architect, whom I pictured as a brush-cut, glasses-wearing fellow in summery attire, wanted his creation to have sand between its toes and breast the waves. He lavished nautical details on the place: a wrap-around tubular railing painted glossy aqua and a prow—a concrete outcropping from which guests could survey the horizon, the gaudy Florida skyscapes and the waves, which slosh directly below at high tide. The salt water and constant low-level battering have done the building some damage.

[private]My wife Zabba heard about the place from someone she works with in the fabulous fashion biz. She and I needed a break, she said; we needed to get out of the city for a while. Always a good idea, as far as I’m concerned. She didn’t spring it on me until we were inspecting our room–our suite, actually–that her old friend Nibs would be joining us on our long-weekend getaway. Would be joining us shortly, in fact.

“What? Why? And why didn’t you tell me?”

“‘Cause you’d have said no, that’s why.”

She was right about that. It’s not that I have anything specific against Nibs. Our problem might be called mutual negative attraction. But Nibs and Zabba were girls together. Their bond spans forty years and seems unbreakable.

They gave each other those crazy names; crazy names which stuck. Something to do with a song by Captain Beefheart, maybe, or a nougaty candy bar, and a fling with calligraphy, but I haven’t inquired too deeply into that, or any other of their girlish mysteries. Suddenly I was up against the wall of girlishness, of female intimacy. I was going to spend the weekend being the invisible man, the bad man who takes the blame for all men, and the guy who goes and gets things.

“And I want you to promise to be nice, too, because Nibs is in a bad place right now.” The way she said it carried heavy implication: be civil or be in the doghouse for a long, long time.

“Sure, I’ll be nice, don’t worry. What’s wrong with her this time?” Always some crisis or other, in Nibs’ chaotic existence.

“Remember Tom? Well, Tom’s dead.”

What I remembered mostly about Tom was I didn’t much care for him, either. Nibs seemed so happy and proud when she introduced him to me as her husband. “See? Got myself a fella. You thought it would never happen. And he compares pretty favorably with the likes of you, I must say.” Or that’s what I imagined was running through Nibs’ head as she watched Tom and me shaking hands.

Here’s this man, Tom: half a head taller than I am, good-looking, a sharp dresser without being flashy, enormously successful in some arcane offshoot of the movie biz, like sound effects editing. Nibs deliriously happy, and, as a consequence, me rather moody and not inclined to like the guy. And now he was dead. Car crash? Coke overdose? I didn’t even ask. Needless to say, Nibs’ grief was cataclysmic. I could only wonder why I hadn’t heard anything about it before our spontaneous little vacation was decided upon.

My wife and I had a couple of hours left as a couple before her best friend, the new widow, was due to arrive at the motel. Zabba hit the beach. I got in the car and went off in search of a liquor store. Piña coladas and Mexican beer with key lime would be crucial, I thought, in making the next few days bearable. I was picturing a sun-bleached fog in which two women talked and shared emotions while I sprawled on the sand, flopped into the milky-blue water and sloshed around in the short but persistent waves.

The lady who ran the liquor store was tall, angular. She asked me, with a note of concern, whether I was planning to drink all that stuff myself. She called me sugar-pants, and slipped a sample bottle of passion fruit hooch into one of the paper bags. I drank it down before I started the car, threw the empty in the back.

I got lost on my way back to the Sea Empress. I saw my first wild alligator, which looked like a spectacular turd on the dry grass above a waterway. After locating the ocean, I parked by a public pier and walked out to where several numerous black families were fishing. Huge cargo ships were a well-spaced line of traffic in and out of the Port of the Everglades, punctuated by vast white cruise ships. Both types of ship looked overburdened, ungainly, grim. From the end of the pier, by dint of her railings the color of sea foam, I spotted the Sea Empress Motel.

By the time I got back, Nibs had arrived. Only she would have rented a hot-pink convertible. She’d left her bags–three large ones, for three days–in the back seat, unattended. To be nice, I carried them up to the room for her. Or perhaps she intended for me to carry them in the first place.

Our suite looked like an orgiastic crime scene. Women’ clothes were strewn all over the place. I pictured the two girlhood friends, girls no longer, applying preliminary coats of sun lotion, trying on various bathing suit and sundress combinations for each other’s approval. I deposited Nibs’ luggage on the bed in the suite’s second bedroom, stacked beer bottles in the fridge, pulled on surfer shorts and knocked up a seriously strong round of piña coladas in paper cups. I went out on the deck-like terrace and, after a minute or two, picked out my two weekend companions in beach chairs under coconut palms, with brilliant-green, round-leaved shrubbery for a backdrop.

The word “forever,” spoken in Nibs’ siren-screech, hit my ear as I approached clumsily with the drinks. The women fell silent, watched me without expression behind their sunglasses as big as movie screens. I was intruding. I handed out paper cups.

“Hi Nibs. I’m terribly sorry about Tom. But I’m glad you could come. I’m glad you’re here. You look beautiful. Both of you do.”

Nibs slowly rose from her beach chair. She’s a tall woman. She put her arms around my shoulders, hugged me in tight. I felt her breasts, wet and cold from a recent swim, against my chest. She went further: her crotch pressed in, with some grind to it. Then I felt piña colada spilling down my back, flowing cold into my shorts.

Nibs pretended to be horrified and apologetic. As badly as I wanted to pour my drink all over her hairdo, I held it out as a peace offering. I was dealing with a woman recently bereaved; they tend, understandably, to erratic behavior. “Bottoms up,” I said. “I’ll go make us some more in a minute. Right now, I’m in the mood for a quick dip. ‘Scuse me, ladies.”

I heard, “Aw, ain’t he a dear?” as I ran down into the surf.

I counted off fifty strokes before diving down, eyes open, to grab sand at the bottom–a childish habit, proof I went all the way down. I came up slowly, surfaced, looked back at the beach, at my wife and her old friend. I was hundreds of feet from the shore, but the women weren’t looking for my head in the water. I swam in an arc and emerged from the waves on the other side of the motel, where there was an outdoor shower.

Up in the room, I turned on the TV and fixed myself another piña colada. I might’ve taken a swig or two from the bottle. I sat on the chair with my tropical cocktail and watched part of a dance program, then I sliced up bitter little limes and went back onto the beach with three cold Mexican beers in paper cups.

“He’s trying to get us drunk,” said Nibs.

I didn’t have to try too hard. Twelve beers, a big can of pineapple juice, a half-pint of pearly, unctuous, heart-stopping coconut cream got together and went down with a quart of rum before you could say yo-ho-ho. At sunset, not trusting ourselves to drive or be driven, we took a stroll and had dinner at a place called Le Beache Combeur. The tables were all outdoors, over the water, under dripping mangroves and banyans. Waitresses and patrons tossed congealed French fries, hamburger scraps, salad remains and saltines overboard to be slurpingly devoured by monstrous tarpon that haunted the bay. I’d never seen a tarpon before, except under a heavy coat of varnish in a bar on Broadway. I thought of them as rare, exotic game fish–tough, elusive adversaries for barrel-chested men straining at dangerously bent fishing rods–but there they were, sliding by like elongated gray ghosts, sucking down garbage like goldfish.

Back at the Sea Empress, the weeping started. Midnight had come and gone; the three of us were slumped in chairs out on the deck, following the lights of ships leaving and entering the harbor. Nibs whispered, “Tom took me to Catalina on our first date. In a seaplane. Wasn’t that special?”

Then came the womanly waterworks, the wailing and choking and sobbing and hugging and patting. I went into the room and got undressed: I unvelcro’ed my shorts and let them fall. Then I fell on the bed. I don’t know how long I got to enjoy unconsciousness. The door opened. One person bounced and rolled on the mattress, then another. I wasn’t, I recall, exactly pleased to be jolted awake to headache, parchedness and nausea, but almost immediately two female bodies overwhelmed me.

I woke up before the women did. I slid from the tangle and went outside for a walk on the beach. Before setting off, though, I took a swim. I felt unpleasantly sticky and smelt alien to myself. The water was warm, the dawn rosy-red behind purple-gray clouds. It looked as though I were flowing into a huge papaya-colored sea-shell, a conch. The tide was at lowest ebb; the white sand was littered with detritus from the sea. I started picking up shells and found a pretty little red, dead fish with bulging black eyes. The fish’s pink belly was grotesquely distended. Leaning over for a closer inspection brought on a dizzy spell and the urge to vomit. I saw a pair of fine, whiskery antennae protruding from the dead fish’s mouth: the little greedy-guts had fatally engulfed a shrimp almost as big as he was.

Back at the motel, barely glancing through the bedroom door at the two nude women, I got a sharp knife from a drawer in the kitchenette. On a table out on the terrace, I performed an autopsy on the little red fish. My diagnosis was confirmed: an entire shrimp, dead, bleached by gastric juices, practically sprang from his belly on the first incision. I considered leaving this scientific dissection diorama for the ladies to inspect and evaluate, but wound up hurling both creatures back into the water. I arranged the shells I gathered in what I thought was a female-pleasing manner, went back in to set the coffee-maker in motion and took off on another, much longer, swim.

After what had happened the night before, I thought our next group encounter–I mean me, my wife and her oldest friend–would be hushed and awkward, tinged with shame and guilt. What happened, though undeniable, was something to be forgotten, best left unspoken–alcohol involved, a peculiar set of circumstances and atmospheric conditions. I found the two women sitting at the glass table. They’d unfolded the rainbow umbrella and were musing over mugs of coffee. They’d put on kimonos, which must have sprung from one of Nibs’ big bags. These robes, unfastened, fluttered in the breeze. I muttered good morning on my way into the room for a hot shower. Nibs stopped me by wrapping her arm around my leg. She patted my ass in a proprietary manner. She said thanks, without any of the usual sarcasm, mockery and implicit criticism. Suddenly I felt ten feet tall. Surveying the sea, the horizon, the beach, I was a man with two wives: a tribal chieftain, a god. But I knew I’d better keep the feeling strictly to myself. With a stone face, I kissed my wife and then her friend.

We made plans for the day: we’d go for a drive, in Nibs’ rental car, because it was splashier. The ladies wanted to visit a castle near the Everglades. The castle was built by a runty Eastern European man who thought it would be a good idea to quarry immense blocks of coral by hand in a hot, humid climate and build himself a fortress home in the middle of nowhere, among alligators and snapping turtles. Nibs said he did it to soothe the pain of thwarted love; she read the story in a magazine.

I drove; my wife and her oldest friend sat in back, as though I were their chauffeur and not the husband of one, lover of the other. I had on loose, thin, cream-colored pants and a worn T-shirt. I drove and stole glances at my women in the rear-view mirror. Nibs’ husband had died. She was feeling empty, crushed, cast adrift in the unpredictable ocean of life, but her friend was beside her, holding her hand, brushing the hair out of her eyes.

Two girls, eleven or twelve years old, sitting on grass, away from the rest of the world in a clump of bushes or trees, in a park on the edge of a Midwestern town. Two girls making plans for the future, which for them is concrete, definite and subject to certain iron rules they are just then devising. We’ll both get married when we’re twenty-four, in June. Our wedding-dresses will be white with pearls sewn on. We’ll each have three children–two girls and a boy apiece. The names for these six children are a matter for much discussion, then the intimate conversation turns solemn. A blue jay sends a screech downward. The trees around the girls bend slightly in a breeze; the leaves show both their shades. “If one of us dies…” The two girls swear they’ll raise the other’s children to adulthood, should the need arise. What about the husband, then? Should the widower be turned loose to marry again? Married, perhaps, to somebody hated and unthinkable like the big bossy blond girl in Mrs. Archer’s class who thinks she knows everything? The girls agree that this must not be allowed to happen. “What if one of our husbands dies?”

Everything had been worked out in advance. There were no children to raise. Sad, perhaps, but that’s the way it worked out. Having children must be more frightening for women, I thought, than it is for men. Have children, however, is what women are supposed to do. Women expect to have children; it’s expected of them. What’s the equivalent for men? Go to war? Get a job? Get married? I couldn’t remember making any binding deals with my friends in junior high. When we looked at our first girlie magazines, our thoughts were not of tuxedos or jobs or children.

Because of a discussion held by two little girls, if only in my imagination, and because another man was dead, I was doing what a man’s supposed to do with a woman with two women.

There was a billboard for an alligator farm, then a hamburger stand, then the Coral Castle. Tickets were expensive. The coral blocks, though massive as advertised, looked like cement. The coral furniture the little Latvian had laboriously hewn and carved was uncomfortable. His sculptures of heavenly bodies were crude and childish. On the other hand, just outside the coral outer wall were a mango tree with unripe fruit dangling from the branches and a pineapple plant with its tiny, perfectly formed product offered up on a spray of green as though to heaven.

People stared at us in the restaurant that night. The waiters and waitresses took turns approaching our table to ask if everything was all right. It felt like everyone in the joint knew what we’d been up to the night before, and what we’d be doing later on. I drank more wine than was good for me, or my wallet. I recall flirting crudely with Nibs. I might have indulged in an under-the-table grope. I think I even asked a perky blond waitress if she’d care to join us swingers at the motel on the beach when she knocked off. We had liquor there, I told her. We could order adult entertainment to be beamed into our suite. The manager of the restaurant, a big ex-Captain of the Football Team kind of guy, came over to ask if there were any problems. He said they’d run out of wine for the evening.

There was no adult action at the motel that night, except for me throwing up as soon as we were safely back in our suite. After I got the bathroom back in order, feeling much better, I announced to my two ladies that I was up for a revitalizing moonlight swim. I’m sure I appeared buffoonish as I stripped and exited the suite to face the black, briny deep gloriously nude and alone. Neither of them said, “Take care you don’t drown, honey.”

The water was warm, lovely, a mother’s embrace. I swam towards the never-ending stream of overloaded cargo ships. I thought I could reach one before the hammerhead sharks got me. The Chinese sailors would toss me a rope, haul me aboard, and I’d be in Kowloon or Sydney in a few weeks, all embarrassment left behind.

Sober, shivering, shriveled, I found the door to the suite’s other bedroom locked from inside. My two wives were in there, sleeping–wrapped, perhaps, in the safety of each other’s arms. I didn’t knock or make a fuss or bellow to be admitted to the harem. I showered and fell asleep in the other bed, with the TV on.

Strange, muffled screams awoke me. It sounded like a cat, or a small ape, drowning nearby. The screams weren’t coming from the TV, which was on mute, or from the orgy chamber from which I’d been excluded. They were coming through the wall, from the room or suite next door. The door to the other bedroom clicked open; out popped two well-rested women in bathrobes.

“Well? Put on your pants and go see what’s the matter.”

Out on the deck, I heard whimpers, snorts, disbelieving yelps. I rapped with two knuckles, then knocked, pounded. The door opened a crack. I looked down into a pale, wrinkled face; fine white matted hair; a nightgown from an earlier age clutched at the bosom by a crabbed, liver-spotted hand. The old woman didn’t, or couldn’t, speak. She moved away from the door. I went in and saw a robust bald man lying face-up on the double bed, his eyes and mouth agape, staring at nothing, shouting silence.

The old woman–his wife, now his widow–took my hand. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said. “We came down here because of me. The doctor said only a month or two. I have cancer. We just wanted to take one last trip together.”

She didn’t let go of my hand until the ambulance came. Even then, she didn’t let go.[/private]

Matthew Licht grew up in Italy and, when he was eighteen, moved to New York, where he attended Columbia University to study Comparative Literature. He has held many jobs: from driving the delivery truck for a VIP liquor store in Beverly Hills to being the world’s oldest copy boy (save one) at the New York Times. He is an underground filmmaker and writer. He is the author of The Crazy House Gag and the detective trilogy World Without Cops, and his latest book of short stories is The Moose Show (Salt Publishing). He has lived in Rome, Berlin, Madrid, Florence, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Tangier, and Poggibonsi; he currently lives in Italy.