After dinner, Kenny and Morris retire to the living room to discuss theology or the Red Sox – I’m not sure which ─ while Laura and I clear the dishes, although by this time, Laura is clearly finding it difficult to walk in a straight line. Instead of washing and drying, which would have been a serious challenge for her, she fumbles in a drawer for a hidden pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Then she grabs my hand and leads me outside to the backyard, where we sit in adjacent rattan rocking chairs on the back porch and quietly gaze up at the heavens while she smokes, forming a series of smoke rings between hiccups. The sky is perfectly clear and I point out a few constellations just to fill up the silence. After she stubs out her cigarette and expertly flings the butt into a hedge, she pulls her knees up to her chest and hugs them, just as she did the night we first met at the bus stop bench near her father’s church. Suddenly, I’m overcome by a warm rush of fond memories.

“Kenny doesn’t like it when I smoke,” she explains. "He's very strict about it."

Then she shpritzes Binaca in her mouth, grimacing at the sharp taste. “Hey, you want to see the tree house Kenny and a friend built for the kids?” she volunteers, slurring her words a bit. “It’s very cool.”

Before I have a chance to respond, she snatches my hand, pulls me out of my seat and leads me unsteadily across the yard to a majestic old oak, under which a makeshift ladder stands. I follow close behind her as she wobbles upwards toward the plywood house, missing the occasional rung, and I can’t help but notice her still shapely, but somewhat wider, posterior at it sways rhythmically above me, though the possibility that she could easily fall on me keeps me alert. In a moment, we’re standing in the center of an elaborate wooden structure nestled in a cradle formed by four thick, leafy, branches. The place is littered from wall to wall with all manner of camping equipment, including two sleeping bags, a fishing rod and incongruously, a soccer ball. Laura promptly trips over a Coleman stove, pitches forward, and falls into my arms.

“Oops,” I say. “Gotta watch your step in─"

“Kiss me,” she demands with a goofy, alcohol-induced grin.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

I try to take a short step to the right, but she doesn’t release me from the embrace. “Is that really a good idea?” I ask, glancing toward the back of the house to make sure no one’s there. To my relief, I can see through the living room window that Kenny and Morris are still involved in their discussion “What about Kenny?” I ask her.

“He’ll never know.”

“Yes but─”

“Just one little kiss, Jimmy,” she insists, looking up at me with plaintive eyes. “That’s all. I just want to feel what it was like back then, just for a second. Come on.”

I hesitate for a moment, staring at her constellation of freckles, but before I can decide, she throws her arms around my neck and kisses me. Her breath smells of wine, cigarettes and Binaca, a little rancid, but not unpleasant. The kiss lasts about thirty seconds and when we separate, her eyes are still closed, while mine are glued to the living room window.

“Mmmmm, that was soooo nice,” she coos, smiling dreamily. “It feels like I just took a step back into the past.”

I smile and Laura finds a tissue and wipes her lipstick from my mouth.

And then we climb back down.

 

* * *

When it’s time for us to go, Kenny and Laura both implore me to keep in touch and I promise that I will. On the front porch of their house, Laura gives me a quick, innocent peck on the cheek. Apparently still giddy, she offers me yet another sly wink and an odd crooked smile. I begin to fear the possibility that, in her drunken state, she might blab something to Kenny about our past relationship or our recent moment in the tree house.

“Gimme a hug, big guy,” I say to Kenny and we embrace, which I now regret for fear that he might pick up a whiff of Laura’s perfume on me, but he doesn’t.

Twenty minutes later, Morris and I find a Motel Six with twin beds. While I unpack my overnight kit, Morris takes a hot shower. Twenty minutes later he’s stretched out on top of his bedspread in his boxer shorts, idly thumbing through the Gideon Bible from his nightstand, as if he was looking through the Yellow Pages for a plumber.

“So,” Morris says, sounding like a therapist. “Did you learn anything from this experience?”

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “Maybe I wasn’t that big of an asshole after all.”

“We still have two to go,” he says, placing the Bible back on the nightstand. “Turn off the light, will you? I need some shut eye.”

I have a hard time falling asleep because I can’t stop thinking about Laura and our strange moment of intimacy in the tree house. I begin to wonder what my life would have been like had I married her instead of Deirdre. Chances are we’d still be happily married, living contentedly on a sunny, tree-lined street in the suburbs. Maybe we’d have a couple of kids. She’d be a member of the PTA; I’d be assistant Little League coach. I’d teach our kids how to ride bikes and swim. We’d vacation at Disney World, maybe buy a timeshare in a house on a lake somewhere. It’s an intriguing, but thoroughly unrealistic dream and it eventually lulls me into a deep coma. By the next morning, reality hits me in the eye like the harsh ray of sunlight that filters through the motel window, and I realize that trying to choreograph what might have been, although tantalizing enough, doesn’t amount to much more than a good way to get to sleep.