Chapter 3: Jukebox
“How’s this for an ending?” I said, raising my glass. Ramy and Martha both joined in, smiling. “Cheers!” we shouted in unison. For a while we just sat there, picking at the fries we ordered and staring at nothing in particular. Ramy was leaning forward, his forearms resting on the table. His attention seemed focused on something on the far wall. Martha had curled up in the booth beside him, her legs folded under her. She seemed to be struggling not to fall asleep. The place was almost empty; Sam and her friends had already left, and aside from a couple sitting at the bar who spent most of their time talking to the barmaid we were the only ones here. “Check this out — this place has a jukebox!” Ramy exclaimed, pointing past the bar: “Gimme some change, Steve. I wanna see what they’ve got!” So that’s what he’d been staring at. I threw some coins on the table and closed my eyes. A couple of minutes later the catchy, upbeat ballad Rodeo Love flooded my ears. I looked over at Martha; she was smiling. “ I love the Billygoats!” she sighed. The rhythm was contagious; even though I was exhausted, I couldn’t help tapping my feet to the music, and I could hear Martha singing along whenever she remembered the lyrics: “Ain’t gonna be the one…. But I’ll be there when….” “Come on, Mar, let’s dance!” Ramy, who had made his way back to our table, held his hand out to Martha. “Nooooo… I’m so tired. I just want to sit here. You go,” she replied, her eyes half-closed. He looked over at me, shrugged his shoulders, and began dancing solo, pulling the most ridiculous moves I’ve ever seen — even for him. Martha and I broke into giggles. He was hamming it up for us, and the more we laughed the more absurd his gestures became, until we felt compelled to join in. Halfway through the song all three of us were jumping and clapping our hands, swinging around arm in arm, and singing in earnest. We were so worn-out, relieved, but, most of all, happy — the happiest I’ve ever been, I think.
When we left the bar, we decided to spend what was left of the night out under the stars. “After all this we didn’t even get to camp!” Martha had said in a tone of feigned indignation after we’d finished our drinks and got up to leave. “What kind of survival trip is that?” So we made our way back through the alley to the grassy hill and began to climb up, sluggishly, struggling to find a foothold in the muddy soil and loose rocks. Once we were back in the forest, we looked around for a good spot to set up camp. In our haste to find help we hadn’t brought much gear with us, so we were fortunate that it was still balmy in the woods. We opened up the only sleeping bag we had, the one Ramy had attached to his backpack, and stretched it over a soft bed of dry pine leaves. With just enough room for the three of us to lie down, Ramy and I positioned ourselves on either side of Martha, who chose the middle. As I shaped my backpack into a pillow and Ramy moulded the earth beneath his portion of the sleeping bag into a headrest, Martha lay down on her back with her towel rolled up under her head. The faint light of the moon filtered through the sparse canopy, casting a silvery glow over everything around us. It reminded me of the cold nights we’d spent huddled together talking in Martha’s parents’ car, watching the snow fall and drift into random patterns under the dim light of the streetlamps.
In the winter, if we weren’t indoors on account of the cold playing D & D with the gang, Martha would manage to borrow her parents’ car — provided she promised never to go too far with it. Then me, Ramy, and Martha would drive to the park and just sit there, talking until late, turning on the engine when our fingers went numb. I liked those nights best for some reason. Sometimes when we got quiet I’d drift off, from the melancholy buzz that exhaustion brings on, watching the ice crystals form a pattern on the windshield. I remember how we would giggle our asses off and then turn serious all of a sudden, discussing heavy topics like the meaning of life, death, and the like. It was on one of those nights that I first talked about sex with a girl. We must have been 14 or 15 at the time. Ramy, who sat in the backseat while Martha and I were in front, had just confirmed a rumour that Martha was bugging him about — that he’d supposedly messed around with Natalie, TJ’s older sister. “Ewwww! You got to first base with Natalie?” I exclaimed in disbelief. An image of Natalie had flashed in my mind: shaggy blonde bob; glossy lips; black tank top; tight flared jeans, thong underwear sticking out; pointy high-heeled boots. Her room was in the basement. One time when we were over at TJ’s playing video games, I saw her getting ready to go out while she was talking to someone on the landline; she had a flower tattoo on her lower back... it made her look dirty. The worst part of it was, she caught me looking and blew me a kiss from the crack in her bedroom door. After that I never went over to TJ’s anymore. “She’s, like, a complete slut! Supposedly,” I carried on, stuttering like an idiot, “she’s even going out with some college guy — he’d totally kick your ass if he found out!” Martha’s eyes widened, her cheeks flushed; she held her breath and gave Ramy an odd sideways glance. My back tensed up, and I could feel my palms get clammy. A knot formed in my stomach that made it hard for me to swallow. “What’s wrong, Steve? You never kiss a girl or something?” Ramy taunted. “What? No. I mean, whatever! I’d rather not have than swap spit with a girl like Natalie!” I enjoined defensively. Barely able to speak between giggles, Martha lay into me too: “So, Stevie, what kinda girl would y’a French, then?” I felt cold sweat drip down my back and a shiver run up my spine. I stammered. “Well, eh, I dunno, I guess.” “Ha! Ha! Maybe he’s gay!” Ramy yelled out as he nudged Martha. I didn’t respond. Instead, I just sat there, in the front passenger seat across from Martha, eyes downcast, arms crossed, pouting. “Come on, dude. Relax. I’m just kidding,” Ramy offered in apology. I eyed him crossly. Sometimes he could be such a prick. But then at least he’d tease us both more or less the same, so it evened out in the end. “So, Mar, what about you?” Ramy asked innocently. “Me? What?” Martha replied, feigning ignorance: “What are we talking about?” With a sly grin, he kept pressing her: “Come on. You ever make out before?” Her almond eyes narrowed; she flashed him a mysterious smile. “Maybe,” she replied, tilting her head coyly, “maybe not.” A big grin spread over her face. Overwhelmed with curiosity, Ramy leaned forward, edging closer to Martha: “Oh yeah, who was the guy?” He asked. I held my breath in anxious anticipation. “Ha! Like I would tell you!” she answered stubbornly. The air between us was charged — I felt uneasy, like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. Then Ramy spoke up. He just couldn’t leave it alone: “Mar, come on, what’s the big deal? We won’t tell anyone — right, Steve?” Martha shook her head; she refused to talk. We sat there, in silence, for some time before one of us was able to muster the courage to speak again. Although we never discussed it, that night I realized something had changed. Something hidden in our interaction — a lining of sorts — had become visible. Whenever I became aware of it after that it always made me feel self-conscious.
“Do you think this is our last adventure?” Martha asked softly, breaking the spell of nostalgia I’d fallen under. “No, of course not,” I answered, but my tone lacked conviction. Ramy didn’t say anything at first; he just lay there, his arms folded behind his head, staring at the patches of sky that broke through the thin cover of pine trees. After a while he asked, in a contemplative tone as he turned towards Martha, “Why should it be?” “But we’re all going to different schools….” she replied, “With new people….” “Why should that stop us?” Ramy asked quietly. “Yeah,” I enjoined, “We’ll always be friends.” Martha yawned and nodded lethargically. Her eyes were closed. When she spoke again, her half-articulated words made me think that she was talking in her sleep. “K,” she mumbled, “Let’s swear a pact then.” She paused to catch her breath and then continued. “Once a year. One adventure. Right after school ends.” “Count me in,” I answered happily. “Let’s do it,” Ramy added with enthusiasm. Martha was smiling peacefully when she fell asleep shortly thereafter, her pale face framed by a tangle of soft brown curls.
Ramy, too, had passed out not long after Martha. Ensconced in his portion of the sleeping bag, he snored lightly, his hands close to his chest. Although exhausted, I was too restless to keep my eyes closed. A nervous energy stirred inside me that I could barely contain. I turned over and edged in closer to Martha. We lay side by side, our faces inches apart. I was near enough to hear her breathing. For a long time I just lay there, immobile, staring at her, tracing the contours of her face in my mind. The almond outline of her eyes… the smoothness of her freckled, suntanned skin… the fullness of her bruised lips…. “Martha….” I whispered. She didn’t respond. “Martha…” I continued emphatically, “I….” Her eyelids fluttered. “Mmmm….”she mumbled, eyes half-open. “Hi,” I said softly. She smiled. “I can’t sleep, Mar.” She sighed. “Mmm… why not?” I hesitated. “I dunno… I guess I’m going to miss this.” “But we’re gonna do this again, Steve….” “Yeah… I mean…” I stuttered, my voice cracking, “I’m going to miss… you.” Martha’s eyes opened alertly. “You wanna know a secret?” She held my gaze without blinking. “Sure.” “Remember that night in eighth grade? It was freezing out — we parked and —” “Yeah, I think I remember….” I cut in nervously before she could finish. How could I forget? That conversation had become one of those founding moments of personal history that will haunt me forever. “Well…” she paused. Too anxious to speak, I held my breath and bit my lower lip. She was slow to reply. “I’ve never actually, you know, kissed someone before….” I sighed loudly, overcome by a deep sense of relief. Thank the stars it was too dark for her to see clearly the look of joy that must have spread over my face. I was genuinely startled by her revelation. Now she looked at me intently, eyes wide, as if she waited for something. “Maybe I should,” she said quietly, in a strange, resolute tone I’d never heard before. I was speechless. Her words poured over me like a wave of cold water — I shivered, closing my eyes, and then… we kissed. Or, rather, Martha kissed me, and I kissed her back. I’ll never forget the softness of her lips or the sweet taste of her mouth, how I hesitated, remembering how she’d been hurt… the warmth I felt, the sense of peace… of an endless horizon…. We fell asleep holding hands.
I woke up the next morning cheered by the sunshine streaming through the cover of trees. I looked over at Martha and Ramy. Both were still asleep. I stretched my arms and yawned lazily, trying to shake the stiffness from my body. “Hey Mar,” I whispered as I leaned in close to her. She looked so peaceful…. I kissed her cheek lightly, in fear that last night had only happened in my imagination. She did not stir. Might as well let her rest — we still had a few hours to go before heading over to the diner. I reached over for my pack and grabbed some nuts and my water bottle. I was starving. Staying up late always made me hungry. “You still eating those nuts?” I heard Ramy mutter in a groggy voice. He was smiling. “Why?” I answered jokingly, “You want some?” “Are they salted?” “Oh, don’t get me started….” I warned, chuckling. He grumbled and laughed in response. He then got up, stretched, and made his way towards the forest. “Hey? Where you going?” He looked back, raising an eyebrow. “You really wanna know?” “No. I’m good,” I replied, trying to hide my embarrassment, “Go for it.”
“Hum…” I thought to myself after Ramy had disappeared into the bush, “maybe Martha won’t mind if I sneak one of her chocolate bars….” Still feeling too lethargic to get up, I leaned over, twisting my body awkwardly, and tried to grab the backpack at her feet. I almost reached it. What did happen was that I lost my balance and fell right into her. “Crap! Now I’ll get in trouble for stealing chocolate and waking her up!” I chided myself. To my surprise, Martha didn’t move or flinch. Something was wasn’t right. “Martha?” I said nervously, shaking her shoulders with both hands. Her face remained placid. “Ramy!!!!! Something’s wrong with Martha!” I called out frantically. Ramy made his way back in a hurry, buckling his belt while he ran. “She won’t wake up,” I continued shrilly as he approached. Brows furrowed in concern, he crouched down near Martha. Holding one side of her face, he slapped the opposite cheek with his free hand. “What the —” I protested, shocked by the violence of his gesture. “Wait,” Ramy cut me off. He opened her eyelids one at a time. Oddly, her pupils didn’t contract. “Steve,” he said decisively as he looked straight at me, “I’ll stay here to make sure she doesn’t stop breathing. You run into town and get help.”
The weight of Ramy’s words, coupled with the expression on his face, made me feel as though a hole had just been torn up beneath my feet. I struggled to hold onto whatever I could not to fall in. Panic-stricken, I raced madly down the hill towards the town. Thanks to the adrenaline coursing through my veins I barely noticed the pain when I tripped on a rock in the alleyway and twisted my knee. What happened next is all jumbled together in my memory — I recall feeling divided, like a part of me was talking to the waitress at Stan’s Diner while the other half stood by, watching by the sidelines. A local police officer who happened to be having breakfast was kind enough to call the ambulance. He drove me back to the campsite. The two of us hurried up the hill to find Ramy holding Martha’s head in his lap, his face a dull, ashen colour….
…. By the time we got Martha to the county hospital it was too late. She died within a few hours, never having recovered from the coma. Slow internal haemorrhage caused by acute head trauma…. At least I think that’s what the doctor said. I can’t remember the details…. All I know is that we could have saved her, had we gotten help in time. We never realized how bad she got hurt….
* * *
…. I’m back here, now, almost two years later…. Where we camped that night, the place where it all ended…. On this hillside park that was once the edge of a forest…. Talking to the grass and the flowers, wishing that somehow you could hear me….
…. I saw Ramy again at the funeral…. We sort of lost touch not long afterwards…. It wasn’t easy…. You looked so peaceful, lying there, in your blue summer dress… hands clasped below your chest, sheltered by the billowy white satin…. I didn’t come back much after that… what with going away to school and all, and then the co-op program….
…. Standing here, it all comes rushing back to me: your laughter, your smile… our kiss…. I’m so sorry…. I leave this story in a bottle, like we had planned such a long time ago, to tell you something I never had the courage to say while you were alive… I love you, Mar. I always have. I always will.