by David Daniel
“—it’s like Lady X to Helmut to Linda to me,” Buddy recites.
“Sounds like a complicated baseball scoring,” I say.
“It’s no game, Danny, I’m serious. Unless you like scratching your crotch all day.”
“Not as a general rule, no.”
Buddy and I are grad students in the PhD program. We’re having afternoon coffee in the student union. “Who was Lady X?” I ask.
Buddy shakes his head. “Some woman Helmut’s been seeing on the side.”
“The way Linda’s been seeing Helmut on the side? Or are you the side guy?”
“My balls weren’t itchy enough—go ahead and bust them.”
“I’m just trying to keep the players straight.”
“You’re looking for salacious details, a vicarious thrill. Alright then. When I started itching like a bastard, Linda fessed up about Helmut. Who must’ve already copped about Lady X. Anyway, Linda said they shaved each others’ pubic hair. You know, for nits. I’m mean, they live in the same apartment as roommates, but I didn’t need to hear that. That intimacy. I had to shave my own.”
“One is the loneliest number,” I say.
“Look, I love Linda, okay?”
“She’s super hot. And great in the sack. I’m willing to put up with whatever.”
He’s silent a moment. “Look, Danny, romantic relationships are complicated. What can I tell you? Cupid shoots an arrow and you’re off on a chase.”
I hadn’t realized the extent of his feelings. Buddy’s had lots of lady friends in the two years I’ve known him.
“You don’t know,” he goes on, “or you’ve forgotten, because you’ve been with Cyndi for ten years.”
“Eight years,” I say.
“Eight, ten, may as well be fifty. No knock on Cyndi, she’s great. But where’s the excitement in that?”
“There’s warmth,” I say.
I shrug. “Trade-offs.” We drink our coffee.
“It is pretty crazy,” he goes on. “I went to the campus health clinic—sorry, wellness center. It’s like a dress rehearsal for all the small, everyday miseries of adulthood—the politics and overdrawn checking accounts, the knock in the car engine and the twinge in the spine that might mean worse. The nurse on duty there—if she even is a nurse; she looks young enough to be an undergrad, and cute—I tell her the symptoms, the itchiness, feeling a little fevery. She does the exam and doesn’t bat one pretty eyelash. But I know she’s smiling inside, thinking ‘Oh, you naughty boy, I know what you’ve been doing.’”
“Did she snap your dick with a tongue depressor?”
“They’re ready over there, I give them that. She shows me a black and white photo blown up to poster size of the monster crab louse. Wellness center show and tell. And she explains there’s a simple remedy. A trip to the drugstore and get something called Quell. No prescription required. And sends me off, probably thinking, And watch where you dip your wick, Cowboy!”
“Did it work?” I ask.
Buddy sighs. “Cured of one thing, afflicted with another. A broken heart. I don’t think I’m gonna get Linda back. Here’s why.”
As he talks, I find myself thinking of one summer, out on Cape Cod, when I’d first taken Cyndi home to meet my family. Some kids were on a pier, fishing for crabs. They were using hunks of Spam on a string and hauling in crabs. We peeked into their bucket. The must have been a dozen in there in a big tangle, all inter-twined and climbing on each other.
“Crabs?” Cyndi asked. She’s from out here in the heartland, so all things coastal are a mystery to her. But she loved to learn and I was happy to teach her.
And she was smart, too. As we walked away, I said that’s what crabs do—how they are—climbing all over each other in a bucket.
“A lot like people,” she said.
And now I’m thinking, why did I just use past tense—loved to learn, was smart? Hmm. And listening to Buddy, my mind leaps again. To a sign I saw in a men’s room in Georgia one time, passing through: YOU MAY HAS WELL USE THE SEAT: DIXIE CRABS JUMP TEN FEET. As if that was how you got crab lice (or syphilis or AIDS or any of that other nonsense people like to preach). No, you get crabs and pass them around by having sex with many partners, and what is Cupid’s arrow but a little lust dart, and relationships are complicated, and it does no good to blame Lady X because before her was a Mister W and a whole alphabet of people before that, and who’s to say love wasn’t in the mix somewhere?
It’d be nice if all the problems in this world could be solved with a dab of ointment or by lining the toilet seat with paper: no more crabs, no VD, no hatred or war or nuclear annihilation. No more wondering why the thrill fades.
“Take a walk to Walgreens with me,” Buddy says. “I need to get another tube of Quell.”
“One didn’t do it? I thought it was a simple cure.”
He ducks his head. “This one’s for Dorothy,” he says sheepishly.
“Wait—” No. I don’t ask who Dorothy is. He’ll tell me. Crabs in a bucket.
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David Daniel’s novel The Heaven Stone won a Private Eye Writers of America award and was a Shamus Award finalist. Other novels include The Skelly Man, Goofy Foot, White Rabbit, Reunion, The Marble Kite (all St. Martins Press) and two collections of short fiction: Six Off 66 and Coffin Dust. Recent short fiction has appeared in Fungi, Sleet, Zombie Logic Review, and at www.thestoryside.com . He teaches fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.