te-cowell

T. E. Cowell currently lives on the island in Washington State he happened to grow up on. In his twenties he did some extensive traveling along the West Coast in particular.

A Short Story

By T. E. Cowell

 

They meet while traveling.

And find that they’re both from Seattle.

This geographic coincidence bonds them more than attraction, at first, at least for one of them.

 

It’s at one of the Venice Beach hostels that they meet.

That evening, before sunset, they wander into a corner store together to buy wine.

When they return to the hostel they go straight up to the third-floor balcony where, between glimpses of the setting sun, they return to the subject of Seattle, naming bars and restaurants, cafes, public parks.

Then she tells him that after high school she moved to Texas to go to college, and that she’s been in Texas almost two years now.

“Why Texas?” he asks, picturing parched lizards and prickly cactuses.

He also pictures deserts bleeding into horizons, and cowboys toting silver revolvers.

She shrugs and says simply, “I heard good things about Austin.”

“Were they true?”

“For the most part, yes.”

He believes her unconditionally.

She’s the sort of young woman one gets the feeling has seen and done some things.

She wears a stylish brown scarf that matches her hair with zero remorse.

The rest of her get-up looks as if it’s been stripped off a Buffalo Exchange mannequin.

He guesses without asking that she’s majoring in something unapologetically artsy.

 

She takes a swig from her wine bottle, and he does the same.

She asks him why he chose Venice Beach for his travel destination, and he answers that he doesn’t really know why, that it just seemed like a cool place to check out.

She nods and sips her wine again, looking thoughtful, wise beyond her years in the shadowed light.

He tells her about how he hadn’t left Seattle after high school, that he’s been attending The University of Washington for the past three years now.

Without knowing why he tells her that he’s majoring in macroeconomics.

He thinks he sees the muscles behind her face twitch, but decides it could just be a trick of the dim lighting.

There are lots of things he doesn’t tell her.

He doesn’t tell her that apart from two other virgins, a guy and a girl, his grades are at the top in all his classes.

He doesn’t tell her that his parents paid for the entirety of this trip for him, from the flight to the hostel to food to toothpaste.

He doesn’t tell her that he has his dad’s platinum rewards car stashed securely in his wallet, courtesy of his dad.

He doesn’t tell her that he still lives with his parents, or that he’s never not lived with his parents.

He doesn’t tell her he’s never held a real job.

Or that he’d gone on this trip alone despite his parent’s concerns in order to prove something to himself, or to find or learn something.

The thought of losing his virginity hardly crosses his mind.

He’s given up on the idea.

 

She takes another swig from her wine bottle, and he does the same.

He doesn’t tell her that he’s developed a bit of a complex over the last few years thanks to feeling like an invalid both on campus and off.

Or about how he deeply regrets not having partaken in the normal high school shenanigans that consist of drugs, alcohol, and girls when he had the chance.

Naturally, a lot of the aforementioned things he dreads telling her.

Naturally, he does his best to hide these things from her.

Naturally, he assumes she’ll see through him before the night’s over.

Naturally, his assumption is partially wrong and partially right.

 

She takes another swig from her wine bottle, and he does the same.

He doesn’t tell her about Jeopardy, which his parents watch religiously.

He doesn’t tell her that he watches Jeopardy religiously with his parents.

He doesn’t tell her that he has a three-year subscription to The Economist.

He tells her about Green Lake.

He doesn’t tell her about the poems he’s written about Green Lake.

 

She takes another swig from her wine bottle, and he does the same.

Then she fixes him with a look.

It’s a look that turns his world upside down.

It’s a look he’s never before been the recipient of except for maybe in dreams.

He knows he’ll leave everything for her now.

He knows he’ll do anything she asks of him now.

He knows he’ll go anywhere with her now if only she’d ask.

Which leads to what she does ask, not thirty minutes later, once both bottles of wine are finished.

“Want to go to Vegas with me? I’ve got a car.”

 

He offers to help drive, but she says she can’t stand being docile in a car.

The word “docile” makes him think of kittens playing with yarn.

She calls herself a control freak as though stating a fact.

Loud music plays from the car speakers, and with the windows down the muggy desert air parachutes their clothes and tickles their forearms.

He tries stealing glances at her thighs from time to time.

Tries, because she notices each time.

The stretch of tanned flesh below her jean cutoffs keeps giving him the start of a hard-on.

Not a hard hard-on, just the start of one.

To keep it from reaching lift-off, he stares out the window at the scenery and pretends that what he sees is more interesting than it really is.

 

He doesn’t know what to expect once they get to Vegas, except the standard bright lights and endless casinos.

He guesses they’ll find another hostel for the night.

That is if they have hostels in Vegas.

He doesn’t know.

He hopes they don’t.

The thought of sharing a hotel room, a bed with this stranger sitting next to him makes him dizzy.

 

They stop near the California/Nevada border, at a gas station on the Nevada side.

He volunteers to pump the gas.

He takes some money from his pocket and hands her a twenty.

“Thanks,” she says, and then goes inside the store.

She comes back out with a bottle of vodka and a bottle of Squirt and a bottle of water.

Also two Styrofoam coffee cups.

“Play bartender?” she says, grinning, and hands him the bag.

 

Back in the car, back on the road, as he pours the first set of drinks he thinks of his parents.

He thinks about what they’d think if they knew what he was up to.

He thinks briefly of the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf before handing her one of the cups.

“Gracias,” she says, taking the cup without turning her head.

She sips her coffee cup and he does the same.

He thinks he should feel bad, guilty or something.

He thinks he feels a little bad, a little guilty, but he mostly just feels other things.

 

It’s late when he spots the first lights of Vegas.

It’s been dark for hours now in every direction.

He’s tired.

She’s tired.

Even the music sounds tired.

They don’t talk.

This fact gives him the repeated thought that this tag-along to Vegas might’ve been a mistake, that she might be having second thoughts about inviting him.

He can feel the three cups of vodka/Squirt he’d ingested sloshing around in his gut as he imagines a quiet room with a comfortable bed with the both of them in it.

His heart quickens at the thought.

What would he do?

What wouldn’t he do?

Would she find out?

What would she do if she found out?

Laugh?

Heckle?

Scold?

Advise?

 

“I booked a hotel room for the night,” she says before exiting the freeway.

A whirlwind of feelings suddenly interrogate his body.

“A cool thing about Vegas is that the hotels are dirt-cheap,” she says.

“Really?” he says.

“A lot of them are as cheap as hostels, because they expect you to blow your dough gambling.”

Last night, at the Venice hostel, she’d asked him if he’d ever been to Vegas before, and he’d said no.

“You don’t look like the Vegas type,” she’d said, and all he could do was nod in agreement.

“What about you?” he’d asked.

“Never been either,” she’d said.

He’d nodded again, and she’d said, “There’s a first time for everything,” and soon they got up from their seats on the third-floor balcony to go back inside.

 

The hotel is a few miles from the strip.

It’s fifteen stories tall, with a row of magenta-colored lights spanning the top and both sides.

“How much is this place?” he asks as she veers into the parking lot.

“I got it for twenty-four a night,” she says.

“How many nights did you get it for?”

He’s amazed with himself for not having asked such questions sooner, like before he’d hopped in the car with her in California.

“Four,” she says, squeezing into a parking spot.

“And then what?” he asks.

She puts the car in park, turns off the ignition and looks at him.

“And then I’m driving back to Austin.”

He nods his head stupidly.

“Didn’t I tell you all this?” she says.

“No,” he says, “I think I forgot to ask.”

She laughs, says, “What have you gotten yourself into?”

He doesn’t have an answer.

 

Their room is on the ninth floor.

Through the window there’s a view of the pool below.

In the distance there’s a surprisingly small number of lights scattered about.

The dark loneliness of the desert seems to speak to him in a language that chills his bones.

He turns around and sees she’s disappeared into the bathroom.

Her backpack, probably the same one she uses for school, he imagines, sits open at the foot of one of the beds, while his rests against the side of the wooden television stand.

The two beds seem to pose a problem–one would’ve made things simpler, he thinks.

He goes over to the bed opposite the one she’s claimed with her backpack, and lies flat on his back.

He cups his head in his hands and waits.

He hears the toilet flush.

Soon she emerges with a toothbrush in her mouth, the side-to-side movement of her hand almost ferocious.

He notices her notice him.

The notice is meant to be subtle and unassuming, except nothing feels subtle and unassuming when you find yourself in a hotel room with a stranger.

She’s still wearing her jean cutoffs and faded flower print chiffon, but now, lying there, he imagines her naked and quickly feels another hard-on coming on.

She disappears back into the bathroom, and he envisions flying sheep or cows or both in an effort to reduce the first stages of his hard-on.

It works, and when she comes back out of the bathroom he gets out of bed and goes over to his backpack to find his toiletry things.

He walks into the bathroom, trying to act very natural about everything.

 

When he comes out of the bathroom, maybe five minutes later, the lights are off and she’s in bed.

Only she’s in the one he’d claimed by lying down on.

His heart suddenly quickens.

What should he do?

Is this some sort of test?

Does this mean she wants him to join her?

Or did she unthinkingly choose this bed to sleep on?

He starts, slowly, towards the empty bed.

He sits on the side of it and looks at her.

Already under the sheets, she’s got her back to him.

He sees her clothes, her jean cutoffs and the flower print chiffon, draped across an arm of the chair in the corner by the window.

He pulls his khaki shorts from his waist down to his feet, steps out of them.

He stands back up and moves over to the window, pulling the curtains together until only a narrow gap separates the two.

He moves back over to the empty bed, sits, then pulls back the covers and lies down.

It feels good to lie down, he’s tired, it’s after midnight, but knowing that she’s in the bed next to him, so close, so silent, he can’t keep his eyes shut.

Is she asleep?

Maybe ten seconds later he gets an answer in the form of words.

“Won’t you join me?” he hears.

Her voice is soft, inviting.

“Alright,” he says, trying to sound manly, like he doesn’t much care either way, like he’s been with hundreds of women as hot as the sun.

He pulls the covers away and sits back up.

He starts forward with his hands, cautiously feeling the surface of the other bed.

Finding the covers, he slips under them.

She’s still on her side, her back to him.

Then she turns onto her back, and he can feel her looking at him, in the dark.

Their bodies are so close they can feel the warmth coming off them.

She’s the first to touch him, and after that, the rest seems to follow rather naturally.

 

He wakes to an empty bed, and the soft sound of a shower running.

I can’t believe it, he thinks to himself.

I’m no longer a virgin, he thinks.

My life begins today, he thinks.

She comes out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped snug around her.

“Good morning,” she says, smiling.

“Morning,” he says.

With one hand holding her towel tight she picks up her backpack with the other and takes it with her back into the bathroom.

He gets out of bed and takes his phone out of his backpack.

Sitting back on the edge of the bed, he finds a couple of texts from his mom, also a missed phone call with a voice message.

He checks the texts.

How r u liking California? the first one reads.

Please text me back so I know ur ok, the second one reads.

Sam, dad and I r getting worried, the third one reads.

He shuts his eyes and lowers his head.

For the first time in his life he feels a surge of warm resentment directed at his parents.

For the first time in his life he feels a similar surge of resentment directed at himself, for never having retaliated in the slightest against his parents.

For the first time in his life he sees his parents as people rather than parents.

All the living he’ll have to make up looks improbably impossible.

Instead of looking bright, his future suddenly looks desolate, like the desert hills outside the window.

When she comes back out of the bathroom she says, “Penny slots and cocktails?”

Looking at her, he smiles and nods his head.

“You read my mind,” he says.