“You’re doing it all wrong,” Max said. “The perfect mix tape blends fast and slow–and you need to think more about Jamie, her favorite songs.”
Sam nodded. He wanted to get this right. In a few hours, if everything worked out, he would be in the middle of losing his virginity to his girlfriend in room 219 of the EconoLodge. His brother, Max, had reserved the room, paid for it, everything. Max was thirty-two, twice as old as Sam. He lived in a garage apartment down the street. He only had one arm; he called it his good arm.
Sam pulled his hair back into a loose ponytail, and bummed a cigarette from his brother.
“You need to paint this place,” he said, exhaling. The previous renter, an acidhead, had painted the walls a raspberry color.
“It’s got character,” said Max. “Plus, are you offering?”
Someone knocked on the door, and Sam stubbed out his cigarette, but it was only Jamie in her orange flip-flops and a Pittsburgh Penguins T-shirt over her bathing suit. Her hair was still damp from swim team practice.
“Hi, boys,” she said. “What are we doing?”
“Sam’s making a mix tape,” said Max. “For tonight’s deflowering.”
“Oh, good,” Jamie said. “Let’s talk about this, by all means. This makes me very comfortable.”
“Sorry,” Sam said, but Jamie was smiling. She sat beside him on the floor and kissed his cheek.
“I wrote a song,” Max said. He picked up a miniature keyboard and draped it over his lap. He plunked a few chords and began to sing the blues in his raspy way.
I said come here Sugar Mama
Let me throw my arm around you
I said come here Sugar Mama
Let me throw my arm around you
Jamie applauded in a not-quite sincere way.
“Lovely, Max. Very…bluesy.”
“It’s called ‘Come Here, Sugar Mama, Let Me Throw My Arm Around You” said Max. He closed his eyes and returned to his song.
“We gotta roll,” Sam said. “Bye, Max. I love your song.”
“I’ll drive,” said Jamie.
“Take your time,” Max called out. “Tonight. When you do it. Take your time. That’s important. And don’t think about it, the sex itself, when you do it. Think of war movies or submarine sandwiches.”
“OK, thanks,” said Sam.
“Listen to your brother,” Jamie said.
In the hotel room, they undressed without looking at each other. They had seen each other naked many times. They had done everything together except for this.
It didn’t last long, and Sam forgot to play the mix tape. He regretted that, afterwards, his body twined with Jamie’s. She tugged at the downy tuft of hair under his belly button.
Earlier, with Max’s help, Sam had decorated the room with four lava lamps, and eight scented candles arranged in strategic places. But Sam forgot to light the candles. He forgot everything. It was a miracle he remembered to put on his rubber–although, in truth, Jamie had done most of the work there since his hands were shaking so much.
“This was supposed to be different,” said Sam. “In my mind, I could see us—it was going to be amazing.”
Jamie nuzzled his neck.
“It was fast, but fun,” she said. “It hurt, but not so bad.”
“It didn’t hurt me,” Sam said, and Jamie nudged him in the side. He was staring at her face now. He stood and wrapped the sheet around him like a toga. He still wanted to improve the atmosphere, so he lighted each candle, and turned on the lava lamps. The candles looked good, but the blended smell of the candles was like eating fruit-scented soap. Jamie stood, naked, and blew out seven candles. She left one burning on the bedside table, beside the phone. She put her arms around Sam and nibbled his lower lip. Through a part in the curtains, they could see a carnival across the street. A fly by night carnival set up in a vacant lot. Three rides: a dinky Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and a giant sliding board. There were exactly six kids on the Ferris wheel, but the lights looked pretty and stark in the darkening sky.
Jamie looped her arms around Sam and pulled him outside to the terrace, pausing only long enough to let Sam gather some underpants and his boombox. Outside, they sat on folding chairs and covered their bodies with the thin cotton sheet.
The mix tape played. Lou Reed sang “Satellite of Love.”
“This was supposed to be the part where we’d undress each other,” Sam said.
“He has a weird voice,” said Jamie.
Now, Al Green sang “Let’s Stay Together” because Jamie loved Al Green’s voice more than air, and they had made out to this song at least three hundred times.
“Max told me to put that song on the tape,” Sam said. “For you.”
A slight breeze fluttered over the sheet, and Jamie cupped her hand on Sam’s thigh. He clenched the muscle there, to impress her. They moved closer, under the sheet, and watched the carnival close down for the night. It was late. A blue Pepsi machine glowed beside the kidney-shaped pool. The street was mostly fast food restaurants—ugly in daylight but pretty at night, on this night, with a few cars ambling by, and someone’s radio echoing in the parking lot.
Six songs into the mix tape, the key song began to play. A ballad by U2 called “One.”
“This was the song,” Sam said, whispering to Jamie. “We were supposed to have our orgasms to this song, at the same time, in the third chorus.”
“You’re pretty optimistic,” Jamie said.
“Sort of,” said Sam. “Not always.”
Jamie kissed him on his shoulder, and left her mouth there for a moment, and when she spoke again her voice was muffled against his skin.
“Orgasm is the dumbest word,” Jamie said.
“I had a plan,” Sam said. ”It didn’t work out.”
“That happens sometimes,” said Jamie. She stood before him now, and turned the sheet into a cape–something to block the naked view of her from the people driving out on the street. He put his hands on her hips. His hands were still shaking
At the graduation picnic, as soon as it got dark enough, Jamie pulled Sam away from the keg and his friends. She grabbed his hand and they walked along a pathway edged with mercury-vapor lamps, lamps that reminded Sam of black-and-white movies on TV, a time when men wore hats and smoked in the living room after hearty meals.
Jamie wore a summer dress, blue cotton. It swayed in the breeze that she made with her pace. She was leaving in the morning, going out west to College, all the way to Arizona.
“I’ve been crying all week,” she said. “Partly because I’m sort of sad, and partly because I can’t wait to get away.”
“Jamie,” Sam said. “I think that’s one of those things that you’re supposed to think but not say.”
“I know,” Jamie said. She pretended to bonk her forehead with her palm. “As soon as I said it, I knew.”
They kept walking, holding hands.
“What about meatloaf night?” Sam said. He wasn’t kidding. It was a tradition, something worth missing. They ate the meatloaf special every Thursday night at Bailey’s Cafeteria. On Saturday mornings, they ate at Max’s Pancake House. Max liked to cook, but his restaurant was rarely crowded, so most of the time he just smoked and worked the crossword puzzles. He’d take a deep drag, place the cigarette in his fish-shaped ashtray, and then write down the new word. Sometimes people would freak out about the missing arm, but it didn’t bother Max. Oh Halloween, he always dressed up as a pirate or a shop teacher, and he always seemed to have a girlfriend, but he always wanted something or someone else.
Jamie smacked her lips, which were smudged with the red lipstick she wore for special occasions. Sam reached up to touch her hair, and she stopped him. She pushed him away, her hand flat on his chest.
“Don’t,” she said. “Not yet.”
They walked up the pathway and across the golf course. The greens had been watered down. Sam turned back to look at their footprints.
“I like your shoes,” Jamie said. “You’re a dandy.”
Sam nodded a thank you. He knew his shoes were amazing.
“Where’re we going?”
“We’re walking,” Jamie said. “A walking tour of our town.”
Jamie looped her arm around his and they hiked up the hill that opened to a radio tower behind a big white house. They couldn’t hear the party anymore. Sam was having a hard time catching his breath, but he lit a cigarette anyway. The sky looked low and hazy, and the air was sticky and thick. They kept walking. They passed churches dark under wooden crosses and under a stretch of jet stream. Sam tried to imagine his future self, looking at the future sky, missing Jamie and missing this night, and all the other nights and days—but he didn’t want to think about getting older and uglier so he imagined Jamie naked because, really, he spent almost every free hour of his life thinking about Jamie naked, but now he’d have to find something else to fill his dream life because Jamie was flying to Arizona, and he knew she’d find someone else out there because she was amazing, and amazing people get noticed. They stood, now, in an empty parking lot in front of a boarded-up department store, and Jamie looped her arms around Sam’s waist and put her head on his shoulder, and he whiffed her perfume merged with smoke from the bonfire, and they didn’t move, under the Roanoke sky, which seemed big and full and star-filled tonight, a going away present, a promise and a lie, and Sam wanted to say something great—he wanted to thank her and he didn’t want to be an asshole because he didn’t want her to look back and think, oh, Sam? He was just this asshole I used to know.
“I wish there was no Arizona,” he said.
“I know,” said Jamie.
“But then you’d just go to Alaska or something.”
“It’s not personal,” Jamie said.
“It’s always warm there.”
“You’re lucky,” he said.
Sam kissed the top of her head—the place where she parted her hair slightly off-center.
“Meatloaf night, Jamie,” he said, his words low and mournful, a blues song bending and floating; rising and fading under this improbably perfect sky.
Jeff Landon has published stories in Crazyhorse, Another Chicago Magazine, Quick Fiction, Other Voices, Phoebe, Mississippi Review, and online in Hobart, Smokelong, FRiGG, Twelve Stories, and other places.