Thanks to what Joanie considered a stroke of luck, Peter was called away on business that afternoon. He left without saying goodbye. Whether he really did have out-of-town business, Joanie didn’t know, or care. She was just glad he was out of the picture, and for the moment, out of her life, freeing her up to spend quality time with her dad and the rest of the family.
Kevin was waiting in the hospital room when Joanie arrived. He looked older and thinner than she remembered him, and had dark circles under his eyes. At first glance, Joanie barely recognized him, but as soon as he saw her, his face lit-up and the old Kevin that she remembered so well, appeared.
“Hello doll. How’s my favorite sister?” He leapt up from his chair and grabbed her in a full embrace. His smell was as familiar as ever.
“You mean your only sister! I’m good, Kevin. And how are you? God, how long has it been now, five years?”
“Six, but who’s counting, right?” Kevin chimed in, and they laughed.
“I guess it’s really been about ten when you think about it,” he continued. “Besides the two times I was passing through New York, I’ve always been MIA when you’ve come home, and that hasn’t been very often now, has it little sis?”
Joanie blushed, ashamed that she’d been so remiss all these years, feeling like she’d let her family down, all because of some silly drama that took place years ago. But it was more than that, she realized, thinking back. It was because of Peter. It had been all along. She shuddered, the recent incident still too fresh in her mind.
Kevin, Joanie and their mother spent the day together with Walt in his room on Ward C. He was livelier, Joanie felt, joking and laughing almost like he was back to his old self. But by evening he grew tired.
“Well, Dad, we’re going to go out for dinner, and leave you and Mom to some alone time. We’ll be back in the morning.”
Kevin leaned over the bed and gave his father a kiss on the forehead. Joanie started to tear-up. It was such a touching sight for her to see her brother and father, who she hadn’t see together for a long time, share this moment. But she wiped her eyes, not wanting to reveal her emotion to her Father. Clearing her throat, she said.
“I’ve only got a few days here, Dad, but if you keep improving at the rate you are, you’ll get home before I do,” said Joanie encouragingly.
Huang’s Noodle House, one of their old favorite haunts, was open and busy as usual. Joanie and Kevin walked in to see Mr. Huang and his wife still there, taking orders and serving plates heaped with Chow Mein, and steamy bowls of hot and sour soup. Although they seemed much older to Joanie, they still had the same skip in their step as they served their loyal customers. Clearly they enjoyed running the place. Joanie and Kevin ordered a bowl of wonton chicken soup each, along with a side of vegetable spring rolls, and two pints of Tsingtao beer, then settled in. They had some catching-up to do.
“So, where to begin,” Kevin said, trying to open a potentially awkward conversation with ease.
“You start,” replied Joanie. “I’m all ears.”
Kevin explained that he was working as a journeyman carpenter with another old friend of theirs, Johnson Briggs. The two had worked together for six years and had just recently decided to go out on their own, in partnership. They had made a lot of contacts over the past few years, he said, so business was already good, and building up quickly. He explained he lived just across the harbor in Mt Pleasant. It was quieter there, and he liked to go hiking in Yorktown State Park, which was nearby.
“So, do you still hang out with Peter and Clarice?” Joanie asked, baiting the hook.
Kevin took a moment to reply, and seemed to deliberate which way to go with his answer.
“Well,” he mused. “Actually I don’t see much of them anymore. We had a stupid falling out, so to speak. I’m sure it won’t take much for you to guess what that was about.” He waited for her to rip into him, and she did.
“Kevin, that was so long ago now, but what the hell was that about, anyway? I mean, really. That stupid move you made on Clarice broke our whole group apart. You and I haven’t spoken much since then, except at family gatherings. Doesn’t that bother you? It does me.”
She took a long sip from the bottle of cold beer on the table in front of her, which seemed to calm her down.
“Actually, I’m surprised you’re still here in the Charleston area after what happened.” Joanie paused. “What did happen anyway?”
Kevin looked away. Shame, and perhaps guilt was written in the expression on his face. Joanie reached over and took his hand. He squeezed it, but continued to avoid eye contact with her.
“Oh, Joanie, I don’t know what happened. I was young, and she just hypnotized me or something. I mean, we’d never seen the likes of anyone like that here in Charleston, not back in those days anyway. And let’s be honest, she was putting it out there.”
“I don’t care, Kevin. Peter was your best friend, and Clarice was his girlfriend back then. If she was the one instigating it, you should have let it be – you should have walked away. It was really wrong of you to respond to her the way you did. You know that, don’t you?”
Eyes averted, Kevin replied. “You’re right Joan, as always.” He paused. “Why has it taken us so long to talk about this, huh?”
“Because we’ve all avoided it like the plague, that’s why. It’s about time it got out in the open.” Joanie sighed. “Have you tried to talk to Peter, clear the air?”
Now Kevin turned to face Joanie, and replied emphatically. “No way! There is no way on god’s green earth that I can ever talk to him again, ever.”
“Whoa, is there more to this story than what I know?”
There was a long silence before Kevin spoke.
“’Fraid so, Joanie.”
“Okay, Kev, fess-up. What happened?”
Taking a swig of his beer, Kevin continued.
“Well, Joanie, you know that night at Joe’s? That was a long time ago, right? Well…me and Clarice…we started seeing each other, kind of regular-like, shortly after that night. Things got pretty hot and heavy between us. I had no idea it would happen that way, it just did.”
He waited for Joanie to say something, but she remained silent, so he kept talking.
“When Peter proposed to her, and she said yes, I backed-off, even though she wanted to continue. That’s when I moved outside of town into the Mount Pleasant area. I was trying to put distance between me and the whole affair, no pun intended. But after the wedding, she started coming around the house – my house – inviting herself over around suppertime, or sometimes she’d stop by early in the morning on her way to work. I didn’t exactly invite it, but I guess I didn’t exactly say no either. She’s pretty tempting, Joanie, and obviously I’m not one to resist temptation.”
“What do you mean, ‘she’s pretty tempting’? Geez, Kev, how long did this go on for?”
Kevin knocked-back the rest of his beer in one gulp and flagged down Mrs. Huang.
“Two more please, Mrs. Huang.”
When she was gone, Kevin turned to look at Joanie with full eye contact.
“It’s still going on, Joan.”
Joanie just sat there, looking at her older brother in total disbelief. She didn’t know what to say. For what seemed eternity, words were left unspoken as the reality of the situation sunk in. Two cold beers were placed in front of them by Mrs. Huang, along with their spring rolls. The beer was all they touched.
“Does Peter know?” Joanie finally blurted out.
“I’m sure he does, but he says nothing to Clarice about it. And like I say, I don’t see him anymore, or should I say, he doesn’t see me. That’s pretty telling, wouldn’t you say?”
“But Kevin, why – why do something like this that you know is so wrong? And why Clarice? I mean, maybe you know more about her than she lets on to the rest of us, but I don’t have the time of day for that woman.”
“Which question do you want me to answer first?”
Joanie just glared at her brother.
“Okay, okay. I know it’s wrong, but what’s also wrong is that they got married when they didn’t love each other. I don’t know why they ever went through with it. Even at the time, it was clear there was no chemistry, no connection between them. Peter just felt obligated, or something.”
Kevin took a deep breath, relieved to finally be unloading this secret he’d been carrying around like a monkey on his back for far too long. Opening up to his baby sister after all these years made him want to talk and talk, to finally clear the air once and for all. He knew this day would eventually come, and now it was finally upon them. Kevin realized he’d missed the relationship he and Joanie shared more than ever.
“What about Clarice?” Joanie asked, still prodding.
“She knows she never should have gone through with it – the marriage that is. She was young, and acted spontaneously – and foolishly, an insecure, young, frightened girl. You remember what she was like. But Joanie, she’s not like that at all, at least not anymore. Like all of us, she’s grown up. She’s smart and funny and very sweet and caring. She’s just never been able to show who she really is to other people because no one wants to get to know her. The Clarice they remember from back then is not the Clarice she is now. That was so long ago, but everybody hangs onto those memories.”
“Okay, Joanie, I’ll admit, Clarice is not the easiest person for people to get along with. She doesn’t put a lot of effort into changing the way people perceive her. Kevin sighed. “She just doesn’t care what other people think of her, and I admire her for that. All I can say is she’s not like that with me.”
“Right, ‘cause you’re special. You see an angel, while everyone else sees a devil.” Joanie kept on him, wanting to make her point, although she wasn’t even sure anymore what that point was.
“Oh no, don’t start with me. I have my own guilt about that night, but what’s funny is I don’t have guilt about what we have now. I don’t know why. Maybe because I feel our relationship has stood the test of time. I know we are meant to be together, Joanie, and whatever we have to do to have that, we’ll do.”
“What about Peter? Doesn’t he get a say?”
“He should have a say. Trouble is he ignores anything that points to trouble. Joanie, Clarice has tried so many times to talk to him about their relationship, has asked him if he’s happy, if they should seek help or get a divorce so they can both move on with their lives. You know what he says? He says he’s the happiest man on earth and doesn’t want a thing to change. Go figure that one out. Frankly, I think he’s messing with us. I think he’s getting his sweet revenge.”
Steaming hot bowls of soup, laden with noodles, Bok Choy, broccoli, chicken, and bean sprouts, were placed before each of them, while the spring rolls still sat untouched in the middle of the table. Their beer glasses were drained.
“Everything goes awright here, Mr. Kevin?” Mr. Huang asked, looking at the untouched spring rolls in the middle of the table.
“Sure, Mr. Huang, everything’s just fine. We’ll eat them, don’t worry. We love your spring rolls, don’t we Joan?”
Joanie nodded. Mr. Huang smiled. She stared at the soup that had been placed in front of her, as if waiting for something to happen. This was a landmark moment. Joanie felt what Kevin and Clarice were doing – had been doing all these years, was morally wrong, yet after hearing Kevin’s heartfelt confession, and being fully aware of Peter’s odd behavior, Joanie had to agree that no matter how poorly they had all handled things from the start, Kevin and Clarice were in love.
“So now what, Kevin? How is this situation going to play-out? I mean, you can’t just keep living a lie. Eventually someone is going to find out – someone has to find out if you ever want to move on, have a family, or lead a normal life. Geez, Kev, how do you sleep at night?”
“Not so great, but when I’m with her, like a baby.”
Stay tuned...Chapter 9 will be posted on May 17th. To read 'Just Friends' from the beginning, go to the tabs at the top of the blog site and start at Chapter 1.