“Pull over here,” says Alice, nodding to a drab, one-story motel surrounded by short, somewhat withered palm trees. “I’m tired.”
Coop nods, his knuckles white on the grooved steering wheel. He pulls the Mercedes-Benz into the motel’s parking lot. He goes to pay at the front desk while Alice waits in the car.
“That’ll be forty dollars,” the clerk says.
“That’s cheap,” says Coop, looking in his wallet. He sees several hundred dollar bills there and frowns. Something doesn’t feel right, but Coop isn’t sure what it is. He removes a hundred and hands it to the clerk. “For two nights. Keep the change.”
The clerk grins widely and nods, miming tipping his hat. “Thank you, kind sir.”
“Don’t mention it.”
When they’ve settled into the motel room, Alice begins to unbutton Coop’s shirt. Coop is uncertain what to do. A confusing mix of feelings begins to overwhelm him. Alice removes her coat and blouse, stripping down to her undergarments. When she reaches to undo her bra, Coop shakes his head and closes his fingers over Alice’s hand.
“No,” Coop says. “This has happened before, and I let it happen. I don’t know why…but not now. This is not right.”
Alice pushes his hand off her shoulder. Her voice takes on a resentful tone. Her right eye twitches. “God, Fred! How many times have we fucked? Why are you so hesitant now?”
Coop winces at her careless language. “Who did this to you? Why do you feel the need to experience intimacy this way?”
The look on Alice’s face shows confusion. Then a look of anger emerges, but it passes quickly as she stares—disconcerted—into Coop’s eyes. “You don’t sound like the Fred I know. What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” says Coop. “Except I’m not Fred.”
Alice shakes her head and laughs bitterly. “Let’s just go,” she says. “This was obviously a bad idea.”
Coop nods quietly and buttons up his collared shirt. He slips into his suit coat and fastens his tie neatly. Alice dresses quickly herself, unable to look at Coop.
Back in the car, Coop and Alice remain silent. The lights of gas stations and warehouses form a kind of continuous audience while Coop drives the Mercedes-Benz mechanically toward the seemingly endless dark horizon. Coop’s attention is caught by the cherry-red neon lighting of a diner. He pulls into the diner’s parking lot and opens the door for Alice.
“Maybe what we need is some good old-fashioned coffee and pie,” Coop says.
Alice says nothing but follows Coop into the diner.
The waiter—wearing a name tag that reads Steve—brings Coop and Alice the asked-for coffee.
“I’m sorry,” the waiter—Steve—says. “We’re all out of cherry pie. Will blueberry be alright?”
Coop sips the coffee, tastes the pie. “Not cherry but still damn fine,” he says.
The waiter smiles, gives Coop a little wave.
“I think he’s attracted to you,” says Alice. She tries her coffee and wrinkles her nose. “Damn fine? It tastes like shit.”
Coop shakes his head sorrowfully. “That’s hardly a helpful perspective, Alice.”
Alice frowns at Coop. “I don’t get it, Fred. Or whatever you want to be called now. Why are you acting this way?”
Coop shakes his head. “I can’t answer that. But tell me more about yourself. Never mind. I get the sense what I need to ask you is: what are your hopes and dreams?”
Alice gazes up at the ceiling. She begins to converse in a way that Coop feels is much healthier, for both of them. Coop can’t help but notice Alice no longer objects to the pie or the coffee but eagerly—if absentmindedly—devours both. As she talks, Coop listens attentively, prompting at the right moments, affirming others. In the course of an hour, Coop uncovers the life Alice wished she had lived before she met Fred.
“In high school, I had always wanted to study journalism,” Alice says, now on her third mug of coffee.
“That’s wonderful,” says Coop. “Alice, the world needs talented journalists, now more than ever. Surely there’s a local paper here. Here, take the rest of the money I have in Fred’s wallet and try to get yourself a place.”
Alice stares at Coop in disbelief. She accepts the cash with trembling fingers. Coop suspects it’s not just the caffeine making her fingers shake. He puts his hand on hers. “Don’t be afraid, Alice. I believe in you, whether or not this Fred you speak of ever did. You have a lot to offer the world. Don’t hide yourself from it.”
Coop wipes the tears that begin to form from Alice’s eyes. He gets up, leaving a tip from the small bills he kept from Fred’s wallet for Steve. As he drives off in the Mercedes-Benz a storm begins to gather. Coop turns on the windshield wipers, makes sure the headlights are on full. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning strikes the vehicle, and Coop feels as if the world has caught fire all around him.
Everything goes black for an instant. Then, Coop sits up in bed. For a moment, he fears he is back in the same motel room with Alice. But this room is more lavish, the sheets plush and elegant. Beside him, a familiar-seeming woman with ear-length hair and blonde highlights smiles at him.
“Janey-E?” says Coop.
The blonde-haired woman shakes her head, frowning. “No. It’s Diane. Are you okay, Camilla?”
Coop looks in the mirror beside the bed. He sees himself as usual but notices that his voice sounded a little different when he spoke.
“What do I look like to you?” he asks.
The woman—Diane—sits up, a look of concern crossing her face. “Like you. What do you mean?” She begins to massage Coop’s shoulders. “I think you’re beautiful. Or voluptuous? What do you want me to say? I’ve already told you I love you.”
“You have?” Coop feels another wave of disorientation cloud his thinking.
Diane grabs his hands in hers. “You really don’t remember?”
Coop shakes his head slowly. “The hell I can’t.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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