Brothers In Arms

man walking by warehouse Philip suffers. Therefore, he is. Philip says he is in love, and I say it’s with the wrong girl. Therefore he may soon wish he never were. Philip is in love with a girl who wants to bed me, therefore, we’re all in for a lot of trouble.

I’m bucking for a troubled conscience.

She’s asking for a troubled year.

He’s in for a rude awakening.

Philip loves a girl who wants me, and I do not intend to turn her down, the next time she propositions me. We’re all three in this together.

* * *

The first time I met her, Philip and I were working late together. Philip doesn’t mind lesbians. He actually likes the idea of dykes. And he’s one of the few guys at the market where we’re cashiers, who doesn’t fear and resent dykey me.

Philip doesn’t care if I sleep with girls. He thinks he’s being modern and open by not shunning women who sleep with each other. I always suspected he did it, so that in this day and age of bisexual experimentation, his choice of dates wouldn’t be narrowed. The night I met his girlfriend, my suspicions were confirmed.

He’s a solid, average-looking guy with a nice personality and even temper — except when he drinks.

She was a soft butch guitar player with a cute haircut, a winning smile, and an overwhelming need to not be prejudged or rejected.

I judged her the minute I saw her. I can never seem to remember her name. Cheri or Shawna or Jane. All I could think was, she’s Philip’s Girlfriend. And she shouldn’t be. Yes, I judged her. But I didn’t reject her. Who could?

Certainly, not Philip. Philip loves, therefore he is. It was plain he was in love with this dark-haired, short-nailed girl in jeans, boots and leather jacket, who fawned over me — and was barely civil to him.

All I could think was, she could just as easily be My Girlfriend — and this time next week, she just might be. The thought of taking Philip’s Girlfriend from him and into my bed, sent a thrill of conquest through me. And I wondered how Philip would feel about lesbians then, when His Girlfriend bedded his best work buddy without second thought or apology.

* * *

She never apologizes. Philip tells me, the day after I meet her and she treats him like shit in front of me, the market owner, and a produce delivery guy who’s picking up some empty pallets. She never apologizes.

She tells him in front of everyone about her female lovers in the past. The graphic accounts make even the produce guy squirm — he leaves without taking the whole shipment. And the market owner asks Philip if he doesn’t have more work to do out front. But the public humiliation gets him hard, Philip confides in me the next day. So he keeps coming back for more. She always has more to give, too, he confides in me. In front of everyone at a restaurant, she told him out loud how her last girlfriend gave better head than him. I almost came in my pants, he admits.

Half the time I feel sorry for Philip. The rest of the time, I think he’s asking for it. He freely admits that he asks for it, and I consider it his blessing on my intention to bed His Girlfriend.

I wonder if he knows what I’m thinking, and if he’ll think he deserves that indignity, when it’s full-blown upon him.

He’ll probably come in his pants.

That’s Philip.

* * *

The second time His Girlfriend crosses my path, she asks if I have a girlfriend. I cringe and shake my head. Then she asks if I have a dildo. I nod and count the cash in my till. Philip is in the restroom. He has the stomach flu.

“I’d like a piece of that,” she says, leaning closer to me as grunts emanate from behind the lavatory door.

“If you want cock so much, why not stick with Phil?” I ask, feeling uncomfortable and aroused. Her breast is pressed against my shoulder.

“Masculinity is wasted on Phil,” she whispers, in my ear. “The only thing he responds to sexually is guilt and humiliation.”

“Catholic boy?” I ask. I never asked Philip.

She leans back as Philip emerges, red-faced and swollen. “Roman Catholic,” she nods. “He wishes they’d still say the Latin Mass.”

I count out my nickels again. I’m aroused. And not uncomfortable. He is asking for this.

As Philip and His Girlfriend leave for the evening, she waves, supporting him by the elbow. He staggers to the car and falls into the passenger seat.

She takes the wheel. I can see her nails are cut short. Still.

* * *

“So. Phil. Tell me…” Philip and I are standing idle at our cash registers, waiting for the Friday afternoon rush. “What’s the attraction? She’s a lesbian. You’re a straight male. How ever will you make it work?”

An elderly lady appears as “lesbian” falls from my lips. She changes course on her way to the registers, and ends up in front of Phil.

“I love her,” says Philip simply, as he scans canned goods and toiletries and places them carefully in a plastic bag.

“So, you think if you love her enough, she’ll change her ways. And that’s gonna make everything alright.” It’s more a statement than a question. I can’t bear to hear the answer he’ll give.

The elderly lady turns to me. “Love does that,” she announces, then pays for her groceries with a credit card.

I shrug and help the lady carry her bags to her car. I wonder if love will seem so powerful this time next week, when Philip finds me with my head between His Girlfriend’s legs. And if his love for her will still be so solid, so sure, so simple.

* * *

The third time I see Philip’s Girlfriend, it’s quitting time again. Philip and I are closing up the store for the night and heading out to our cars, parked side-by-side in the poorly lit parking lot behind the market.

Suddenly, a shadow darts toward us from the murky periphery, and both Philip and I turn, shoulder-to-shoulder, to face our oncoming attacker together.

He instinctively raises his fists.

I instinctively reach for the mace I carry clipped to my belt-loop keychain.

The shadow pulls up short and steps into the orange glow of the one floodlight in the lot. It’s His Girlfriend. She laughs at our reflexes, makes light of our defensiveness on such a beautiful night.

Phil and I both exhale and lower our guard. We trade agitated, helpless glances. She may be the end of us yet. She walks up to us, wedges between us, taking both our arms. Still laughing, still mocking us, I feel her slip something into my back pocket and pat my ass.

We reach Philip’s car, and she gets in first. As she pulls the door shut, I mutter, Yeah, Phil — just love her enough, and it’ll all be okay. As I get in my car, out of the corner of my eye, I see his box swelling. He climbs in beside His Girlfriend, slowly, deliberately. When I pull out of the lot and look back, they’re still parked — locked in a fierce embrace.

This time next week, I think, that will be me.

* * *

Today is the day Philip begins to hate me, I think to myself, as I slice open cartons of canned soup with my battered orange utility knife. The weekend has passed, I called the number on the piece of paper she slipped in my back pocket, and tonight Philip’s Girlfriend and I are going out dancing. The blade slices through cardboard with certitude, as I think of the coming evening. On the last box, the knife slips and I almost nick my thigh in the downward slice. I retract the blade quickly, but when I reach for the cans in the carton, I gouge open the side of my hand on the razor-thin cardboard corner.

Dripping blood, I dash to the lavatory and almost bowl over Philip’s Girlfriend. She’s early. She takes one look at my hand and hurries me to the bathroom. She rinses my cut clean under a scalding stream of water, then leads me out to the stockroom, where bandages are kept. As she closes the cut with butterfly bandages, she kisses my hand — butterfly kisses. Her lips travel up my arm…

I want to say, Philip is my friend, and I won’t betray him. I want to be high-minded and fair and adult and resist the touch of her lips. I want to hold her accountable for the hurt she is doing to my friend. I want to cry out with the voice of reason and not participate in this betrayal. I want to thrust her away from me and swear I’ll not have another thing got do with her. Traitor. Tramp. Whore. Bisexual.

But I can’t. I can only watch her full lips travel up the line of my tingling flesh, bringing each nerve, each hair, each capillary to brisk attention.

Philip appears in the doorway. He takes in the scene without a word, then turns and leaves.

I turn to His Girlfriend, a question on my face.

He’ll probably come in his pants, she shrugs. Her kisses continue up my arm — to shoulder — to neck — to lips.

Out front, I am being paged.

* * *

This is the day I’m sure Philip hates me. He says nothing about her getting home late last night. He says nothing about her smelling of me. He’s quiet and grim — but professional as ever. He doesn’t have the look of an angry, injured party — more a submissive martyr.

That night and the next morning are the same. She comes to me at night, and the next day I share work and space with him. I’m sure he despises me, and secretly wishes me dead. But again, he is only quiet, steeled. And he walks with me to the parking lot again. He talks about baseball. As though nothing has changed.

When I see her the next night, she says he’s said nothing to her about us. She says she makes excuses and stories to throw him off. I say he knows. She says he doesn’t. I say it’s too easy. And she agrees. It’s almost pathetic. Philip is silent and tight-lipped for days. She tells me she’s stopped sleeping with him. I don’t believe her. She smells like him. Still.

But I don’t break it off with her, either. I tell myself Philip has it coming to him. So does she. This is what he gets when he dates a dyke. And this is what she gets when she seduces one. The thought of Philip finding out about us no longer bothers me. If he does, it’ll teach him a much-needed lesson: Only heartache comes from straight men barking up the wrong queer tree. I’m doing him a favor. Besides, if he does find out, he’ll get off like never before, on this consummate humiliation.

She gets off, too, as we meet each night for our trysts. She teases me about strapping on my cock, but she never turns it down. She says she likes it better on top, but she never stops me from lying above her or taking her from behind. She resents that I’m not as easily shamed and controlled as Philip, but she always comes back to me for more.

* * *

Philip loves and suffers. Therefore, he is. It takes months for His Girlfriend to get me out of her system. For the duration, she says he never openly mentions suspicions about her. About me. But I know he knows. He sees the love bites, the circles under my eyes — and hers — the nervous energy I have around him at the market at night, the sexed-out relief of each morning.

He knows.

Still, he loves. Silent, he suffers. Till she just can’t take it anymore. Till she hates him and takes it out on me with indignant, self-righteous browbeating that goads me to slap her once. Okay, maybe twice. She leaves us both, without warning. Or apology.

We don’t hear from her again, after she takes off. We gather rumors from neighbors about her almost-successful musical career, odd bits of news from relocating lesbians who remember seeing her drinking too much in a bar or trying too hard on-stage at a festival out West.

Philip was in love with the wrong girl. I bedded the wrong girl, too. My troubled conscience plagues me still, but Philip’s silence never once betrayed his rude awakening. Philip loved a girl who wanted — and had — me. Philip says he’s through with dating lesbians, but he doesn’t bring his new girlfriends to the market anymore. Neither do I. We compare notes on love, lust, dismal failure and what presents and flowers to buy them to make up for it all. But we never introduce our girlfriends to each other.

Each night we walk across the dim parking lot to our cars, an ear cocked, an eye turned to the shadows on the periphery.

Philip and I share interest in the wrong women. Therefore, we are.


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