The Riptide was packed for happy hour. Bridges was already there, waving to him from a small table on the window wall. He made his way over and sat opposite his older colleague. Two glasses of ice water stood untouched on the table.
“Just in time, Andrew.” Bridges seemed extremely happy Steele had made it.
The waitress appeared. She looked and Steele and then gave him the tenth-of-a-second double take he often got from women—even from women who were not looking. Sometimes they followed it with the question: Are you an actor? When he said no, he wasn’t an actor, their response—spoken or unspoken--was often, Well, you could be. The waitress was very pretty, probably 21. She wore a tight red V-neck top with a flashing liquor logo button on her collar. Her short skirt was white. Was she outfitted in red and white with a flashing light to look like a nautical buoy? She studied Steele’s face and waited, posing, for his order.
“D-d-d-do you have a decent house red?” Damn that stutter. He watched, but she didn’t flinch. Her eyes were drinking him in.
“We have a merlot from Chile and a cabernet from California. I definitely recommend the cab.” She had a sweet way of pressing her red lips together.
“Give me the cab then.” He smiled his best. She melted. She wrote something on her pad.
“I’d like the pomegranate martini, please,” said Bridges. He explained to Steele that he had developed a fondness for these Bombay gin martinis infused with pomegranate juice.
The waitress came back with a loaded tray. “Two cabernet,” she said, setting down two large stemmed glasses before Steele, “and two pink lady slippers,” arranging the two pomegranate martinis before Bridges while stealing quick glances at Steele.
“Isn’t it cute they call them that?” said Bridges.
“It makes you wonder, though, what’s pink—the slippers or the lady?” Steele smiled at Bridges and raised one of his glasses. Bridges joined the toast.
“Women find you attractive, I can see that.”
“Not always,” said Steele. The fact was that lesbians tended to dislike him. Did they see him as competition. He wasn’t about to discuss this with Kyle Bridges.
As he looked across Lake Michigan, Steele realized he had no more than ninety minutes before he had to pick up Donna for dinner. He was determined to get some hard information from Bridges before he left. Step one was to drink freely. Bridges didn’t need any encouragement in that area. Step two was to change course. Steps three and four, if necessary, he’d improvise.
Bridges seemed to have his own plans. He sparkled as he looked at Steele across the table. He drank his pink lady slippers in small sips, but frequently. The juke box was playing an oldie Bridges drummed his fingers with, “Benny and the Jets.”
“Quite a view from here, isn’t it?” he said to Steele.
“As the sun falls back behind us, the color of the water deepens. In about one minute its color will match your eyes and your shirt. That will be a sight to see.” Bridges was flirting with Steele shamelessly now.
“We’re none of us as young as we were,” said Bridges. “Most of my friends are gone now.” Steele knew he was referring to AIDS. They drank to lovers lost.
“May I ask you a personal question, Kyle?” He forced himself to look steadily into Bridges’ eyes. They were on their second pair of drinks.
“Of course you may, young man,” said Bridges.
“What bothers you more? When your patient collides with the system and sinks? Or when your patient collides with the system and learns how to play it?”
“You mean a former patient?” said Bridges.
“Like Richard Schram?”
“I think it hurt you very much that you lost the youth just when you were making progress. You had a bond.”
“That’s right. You understand, Kyle.”
“He needed you, didn’t he?”
“I thought so.”
“You thought about him being ravished in prison, giving himself to an older man in exchange for protection. Later he himself must have ravished boys younger than himself.”
“He didn’t need me, Kyle.”
“Don’t put it on yourself, Steele. I have been there many times.”
“If I could get some closure….”
“And hear for yourself he doesn’t need you?”
“Even that.” Steele was adopting the role Bridges was giving him.
“Ms. Johnson wouldn’t tell you where he was, would she? That would be against her code.”
“I’m not going to make a fool of myself. I have no hopes.” Steele looked down, fighting hard against the impulse to shout, Has Schram got you buffaloed too, old man? Where the hell is he? I need to stop him.
“He’s flexing his muscles at the Goodwill warehouse. He just started last week. I understand he was all skin and bones when you knew him.”
Steele pretended to ignore the information. He said, “So what is Richard like these days?”
“He’s a very proper young man,” said Bridges. “I can see how he’d get under your skin.”
Richard had to excuse himself. Besides, there was so much more about Schram than Bridges would ever understand. Five years previously the seventeen-year-old Schram had opened up to Steele, gradually revealing facts, sharing feelings, and giving himself half a chance to face down the demons that drove him to set fires. Steele was only 27 himself, fresh Ph.D. in hand, a complete rookie in his first job as clinical psychologist for juvenile offenders. Cook County Mental Health had not been a glamorous placement, but it paid surprisingly well and would serve as a good point of departure for his career. Steele had distinguished himself in his graduate degree program at Northwestern University, and, truth be told, he did not relish a move out of the Chicago area as long as his friend Donna was attending Northwestern.
The young Schram had been referred to him for assessment and on-going therapy before and after his conviction in juvenile court for battery against 75-year-old Viola Whittaker. She testified that Schram had become angry when she handed him four dollar bills for his work pulling dandelions out of her front yard. She tried to shut the door on him. He pushed it open furiously, knocked her on her back, kicked her once in the stomach, and then shoved the four bills into her mouth. Closing her mouth and her eyes, Mrs. Whittaker lay perfectly still until he left. Schram did not deny any of it, except to claim he had worked over an hour—as if that justified his attack. He was sentenced to probation and one-year of state-funded therapy with a clinical psychologist.
At first Steele’s sessions with the morose, tight-lipped Schram seemed a waste of time. Steele recalled Schram as a frog-belly-fleshed creature out of a fantasy tale. He seemed to crouch in the chair more than sit in it. His knees and elbows were more prominent than his hands and feet as he squatted there fidgeting, twitching. How do you talk to someone like this? How do you get him to talk to you? He tried asking him.
“How do I get you to talk to me, Richard? I would like to get to know you.”
“Liar,” snapped Schram. “I don’t talk to pretty boys. I know your type.”
“What’s my type?”
“Silver spoon, mansion in Hyde Park, pretty blonde wife, fine wine at dinner, kids in the gifted school at the University of Chicago.”
“I wish. I am an orphan, raised by a grandmother who resented me. My “sisters” were my aunts, both as wide as they are tall, dancing queens, all kinds of dancing styles.”
“You are kidding?” Schram looked amused. “My mother should play her music for them. She lives on soft rock—and cheap wine.”
“Your sisters dance?”
“They used to. Now they go to work and to college. Connie’s 24. Petula 23.”
“My ‘sisters’ are really my mother’s sisters. Millicent is 16 years older than I, and Marsha 117. They go out dancing in local bars. Missy—Millicent—cannot refuse alcohol.”
“Your sisters must by in their forties, Steele. My own sisters are almost your age. How old is your mother—grandmother?”
“Let’s see. She must be almost 70 now.”
“You ever see her?”
“As little as I can. She never liked me. I was supposed to be grateful every day of my life that she didn’t turn me out into the street with the other orphans.”
“Bitch,” said Schram.
“Yeah,” said Steele.
“My old lady grew up in the 70’s mostly, smoking pot, drinking rotgut, and fucking everything in pants. She married once. Peter Schram….he ran off when I was a baby. I don’t give a shit about him.”
“Did your mother tell you about her growing up?”
“Hell, yes. Molly gets drunk on wine and stoned on weed, and she’ll tell you all the fucking details of every fucking romance she ever had before my father came along and after he disappeared. She’s always talking about the ones who got away.”
“She calls them ‘romances’?”
“I used to feel sorry for her. My father left before I knew him. Haven’t heard from him since. Molly says she caught him diddling my sister. Connie won’t talk about it.”
“How old was Connie?”
“I guess about thirteen…if it’s true.”
“If it’s true?”
“Molly always changes the story. She acts so terribly shocked. Hypocrite.” Schram’s voice has become a growl.
“Hypocrite?” Steele felt the deepening intensity. It was like waiting for a big fish to strike.
“Hypocrite?” Steele repeated.
“She wanted me in her bed.”
“She touched you?”
“How old were you?”
“Molly cries, she’s drunk, she says she wants to be put to bed—like a little girl.”
“She cries?” Steele noticed that Schram’s verbs had shifted to the present tense.
“She wants to get laid.”
“What else could you do?” Steele played it safe by staying in the past tense. He didn’t want to scare him back into silence.
“She cries and says she’s lonely.” Schram looked up at Steele, eyes watering.
“What else could you do?” Steele repeated.
“It shouldn’t bother me so much.”
“It should bother you, Richard.. What do your sisters know of this?”
“They don’t know anything.”
“What does Molly say about it?”
“She acts like she’s not doing it. She always comes to me. Every time is like a first time. She pretends I’m somebody else—never me. Later she hates me.”
“Have you tried to stop her?”
“I don’t know how to start stopping her.”
“Do you drink with her?”
“Is that when it happens?”
“Did you ever worry about getting her pregnant?”
“No, she said she had an operation after I was born.”
“You’d be surprised what people do, Richard. How does your mother—Molly--feel about it?”
“She used to beat me with a broom. Now she calls me names and tells me I’m sick. She’s mean with a hangover. She’s the sick one, right?”
“Yeah,” Steele agreed.
“What am I supposed to do?” asked Schram.
“Come see me again next week,” said Steele. After that, their sessions had become very productive. Schram was interested in gaining control of himself, and Steele was showing him that understanding himself was the first step.