It was the kind of headache you get when you've been out in the sun all day... the heat emanating off your skull and the dull throbbing of drums that causes your stomach to go all queasy. I could hear the buzzer for my apartment going off, then my phone started ringing. I could barely focus my eyes as I poked my head out from under the covers to see it was my friend Lonny trying to video chat with me. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, so I ignored it. Then the buzzing from outside and my phone ringing started all over again. I decided that whoever was buzzing my apartment could only be bad news, so I answered my phone instead.
“Hey Rooster,” Lonny said with his crooked toothed smile, his eyes hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses.
“Lonny,” I groaned, barely opening my eyes. “What time is it?”
I wanted to strangle him. He rarely woke up before nine in the morning… why was he calling me at seven?
I could hear the buzzing to my apartment door continuing in the background and knew it was bad news. Everything was bad news lately.
“Come on Rooster, wake up. I have a surprise for you.”
I opened one eye to look at Lonny smiling at me from my phone. “Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“I’m standing outside your door. Don’t you hear me buzzing to get in?”
I jumped out of bed and grabbed my head, the throbbing so intense it was as if someone hit me with a hammer. I stumbled to the door and buzzed Lonny into the building, then began searching blindly for some clothes. I managed to throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt before he tapped on my apartment door.
I opened the door to see my best friend standing in front of me, wondering how he managed to get to New York from California without telling me. I put on a smile and pulled him into my arms, hugging him as tightly as I could.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as I finally pulled away.
“I’m picking up a car for my daughter,” he chuckled, sitting on a kitchen chair. “And driving it back to Vegas for her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I wanted to surprise you. Surprise!”
I searched in the cabinet over the kitchen sink for a bottle of aspirin, dumping four into my hand and swallowing them down with water from the tap. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to explain things to Lonny, and I could already see he was quickly figuring out that I hadn’t been completely honest with him the last couple months.
“What’s going on, Roo? The shop downstairs is closed up, your apartment is nearly empty—”
“Lonny please,” I begged. “I can’t do this right now.”
“You look like shit,” he said, standing. He opened the door to the refrigerator, but made no comment about seeing that it was practically empty. Instead he smiled and said, “Let’s get some breakfast. I’m starving.”
I met Lonny Winter when we were both fourteen and just starting high school. We seemed to be shoved together at every opportunity, not only having the same last name, but the same birthdate as well. Our names were bound together, attached at the hip, from the day we met, standing in line to get our yearbook photos taken. I giggled as his name was called when it was his turn… Leonard Winter!
He turned and glared at me; I was so painfully shy I immediately regretted it. I could feel my face burning as the redness took over.
He was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.
Lonny was still in the room when they called my name… Ruby Winter!
I could hear him cackling like a kid who just heard the funniest joke of his lifetime. I deserved it, I knew, but it was hard to ignore him. I was so embarrassed, I wanted to run home and crawl into my bed. Instead I joined my friend Molly and some of her girlfriends, and we walked uptown to get something to eat when we were finished.
When we walked into McDonald’s, Lonny was already there with a group of his friends. I wanted to die. I told my friends I needed to head home and walked out. They were used to my odd, shy disappearances so never questioned me. I didn’t realize Lonny was right behind me on his bicycle.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“I have to.”
I was so embarrassed by this cute boy that I just wanted him to go away. I almost started to cry. My heart thundered in my chest as I wondered if that’s what it felt like to be in love. I was fourteen… what did I know about love?
“Ruby.” He continued to speak as he rode his bicycle slowly beside me. “Sounds like an old lady name.”
I stopped walking and glared at him with my eyes burning. “Leonard!
” I hissed. “That’s my grandpa’s name!”
He stopped riding his bike and put his feet on the sidewalk. We stared at each other silently for what seemed like hours to me. All of a sudden we both started giggling, which turned into hysterical laughter. It was that moment the spirits aligned to bring us together. The moment we became the Winter twins; looking nothing alike but having everyone convinced we were siblings living in different houses. The very moment I became Roo… but only to him. He was the only one I ever allowed to call me that; the only one who would ever get away with it. When he was feeling particularly funny he called me Rooster, which he knew I hated. He claimed it was a combination of my name and my auburn hair, and it became a term of endearment between us.
I plopped myself into the booth across from Lonny in the diner a couple blocks away from my apartment. I never understood why he loved it so much; to me it was just another greasy spoon, but I obliged him whenever he was in town. He smiled as the waitress came to our table, ordering coffee for both of us. I stared at my menu, not really reading anything, all the words just a jumble of letters taunting me.
The waitress brought our coffee and I was still staring blankly at my menu. I could hear Lonny speaking; he knew me better than anyone and ordered my breakfast for me — two eggs sunny side up, english muffin, a side of bacon, hash browns, and a small orange juice. He gave the menus back to the waitress and after she walked away, I finally looked up at him. He was grinning at me. I couldn’t help but smile back.
“Come on, Roo,” he said, poking my hand with his finger. “What’s going on?”
“Billy left me,” I managed to croak.
“Two months ago. The divorce was final yesterday.”
I could tell he wanted to scold me for not telling him, but he didn’t. “We talk twice a week… why wouldn’t you tell me?”
The throbbing in my head continued as I tried to answer my friend without bursting into tears. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples, hoping for some relief, but none came.
“I was too ashamed.”
“Rooster,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
I went on to explain how my husband of nearly 30 years was having an affair with one of the young tattoo artists in our shop, right under my nose. Eight weeks earlier he closed up the shop, left me, and took her to Arizona to start a new life.
“I’m behind on the rent. I’ve been selling everything he left behind, everything I own, hoping to go back home.” I spoke just above a whisper. “I have nothing left.”
The waitress deposited our food plates in front of us and I dug in, unable to remember the last time I had a decent meal. I tried not to look like a homeless person Lonny had pulled in off the street, but I was so hungry.
Lonny was on the short side for a teenage boy when I met him, but had a growth spurt between sophomore and junior year that brought him to about five foot eight. I always seemed to be two inches shorter than Lonny at any given time. He was always skinny, always funny, always pretty quiet and shy. Most of the girls at school thought he was a silly twerp, but he wasn’t too keen on high school girls anyway. He despised their giggling and screeching, and he really hated the way they seemed to stab each other in the back at the flip of a coin.
Lonny preferred music over anything. He was a genius on the guitar and would rather spend his time away from school playing or writing music. He was never comfortable playing in front of anyone, so he never joined a band or played for an audience. He was perfectly happy playing in his room or for his friends and mother, but that was it.
Until senior year, when Billy Downey transferred to our school. Billy and I hit it off immediately when we met in English class his first day, and started dating that weekend. Lonny let me know right away that there was something about Billy he didn’t trust. I knew Billy loved to embellish the truth a bit, but didn’t see that as a reason not to date him.
Right before graduation there was a student talent show put on by the seniors, and Billy, who claimed to be the greatest guitar player our school would ever see, signed up to perform. Lonny and I snuck into the theater after school one day when they were having rehearsals and Billy’s guitar playing was abysmal at best.
As we tried to sneak back out of the theater, Ms. Cooke, the choir director, caught us and threatened to assign us detention the following day. Lonny stared at the ground, kicking at imaginary rocks with his foot as I tried to think of something to say. He finally looked up at her and asked, “Got any open spots for the talent show?”
Ms. Cooke’s face lit up like a neon sign, a smile spreading over her face so large it was almost clownish. “I’ll see you at rehearsal tomorrow, Mr. Winter,” she replied.
“Nope. Tell me what time I’m going on. I’ll be there.”
Ms. Cooke wrinkled her nose, but for some reason, chose not to argue with him.
Word spread quickly that Lonny was going to be doing something in the talent show. Rumors ranged from magic to gymnastics to juggling bowling pins set on fire. I sat in the theater’s front row watching the different talent acts perform, impressed by what our student body could do. Even Billy sounded better during his actual performance than he did at rehearsal, but he had no idea what was to come. Ms. Cooke added Lonny at the very end of the show, and introduced him as the last act of the evening. I held my breath.
Lonny walked onstage carrying his electric guitar and a small amp. He looked directly at me and winked, then closed his eyes and let his fingers do the talking. He played that guitar like a man who had been doing it for three lifetimes. He played a medley of genres covering blues, pop and rock. The intensity on his face as he played brought tears to my eyes. I could hear the gasps all around me as people were realizing what a talent goofy Lonny really was.
It was because of his unexpected performance that evening I eventually lost him.
I looked up at Lonny when I finished eating every morsel on my plate, and he was holding a piece of toast with butter and grape jelly close to his lips. He hadn’t even taken a bite of his breakfast, but I was already finished with mine. He grinned, the mischievous grin I knew so well. His grin quickly turned into his famous crooked-toothed smile that I adored our entire existence together. I wiped my mouth with a napkin and leaned back, crossing my arms in front of me.
It had been almost a year since I saw him last, on our forty-ninth birthday. Even though we talked at least twice a week, we only saw each other once a year on our birthday. It was something we had always promised we would continue, no matter what the circumstances were in our lives.
Even though he hated people gawking at him, Lonny was good at the staring game. I watched his face intently as he ate his breakfast, not a word spoken between us. He never broke eye contact; it was a game he always liked to play with me, ever since we met. Whoever laughed first, lost.
Lonny had beautiful brown eyes that were more copper than anything else, but when the sun hit them, they almost looked gold. He had the kind of eyes that drooped on the outside edges and when he laughed, his eyes almost completely disappeared. I loved it when he laughed. He had dimples in both cheeks and his teeth were far from perfect, but they were perfect for him. The day I met Lonny, he had short brown hair with awesomely crooked bangs that rested about an inch above his eyebrows — something he blamed on his mother, who insisted on cutting his hair. She agreed, however, once he got into high school she would leave his hair alone and I don’t think he had it cut once while we were there. He was one of those guys who grew into his look when he let his hair grow; he fancied the shaggy look with the feathered layers that went off to the side, his bangs long enough that he could have them or not, depending on his mood.
I sat staring at Lonny and he stared right back at me, never flinching. At that moment I just wanted to see his eyes light up the way they did when he was about to laugh. For a guy so close to his fiftieth birthday, he didn’t look a day over thirty. The only telltale signs were a few laugh lines by his eyes and a few strands of gray hair, but even that was barely noticeable. People had said the same about me, but I never believed them. And this day, sitting in the diner playing the staring game with Lonny, I felt about eighty.
I opened my mouth to speak but Lonny wagged his finger at me. I had forgotten the staring game rules… no talking. He winked, continuing to eat his breakfast. I knew I would win this round, as I was so depressed and without hope that I couldn’t imagine breaking into laughter. I was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of dread, my chest getting tight and my head about to explode. I don’t know what I looked like, but it was severe enough to get Lonny to break his own staring game rules.
“Hey,” he whispered, “it’s going to be all right.”
He put down his fork and wiped his hands, then slid into the booth next to me, pulling me into his arms and letting me sob against his chest.