Due to the disaster in New Orleans, levees have gotten a bad rap. But levees have often played a very positive role in the lives of the people who live near them. What follows is an unabashedly romantic story about two old friends who don't realize they've fallen in love.
Hope you enjoy this change-of-pace from all the recent gloom and despair. The story is a work-in-progress, so feel free toss comments my way, whether they be brickbats or bouquets.Bayou Bill
==LOVE ON THE LEVEE
by Bill Fullerton
Abby Rankin, homecoming queen, cheerleader, fraternity sweetheart, sat alone and miserable on the levee of the Mississippi River. A giant oil tanker heading downstream went unnoticed. She was too busy trying not to cry.
The tall redhead felt angry and weepy, and incredibly stupid for not knowing why. Leaning back against a driftwood log, she closed her eyes and tried to come up with an answer.
What has gotten into you, girl? One minute you’re feeling great, joking with Mike and the other guests—though why anyone, even hippies, would want an outdoor wedding in August is still beyond me. Then all of a sudden, it’s like someone turned on all the bad vibes in the world.
Mike was busy lugging wedding stuff back to the cars parked on the other side of the levee. Her job was to wait for Linda and Frank who slipped off during the riverside ceremony and were still in hiding.
“Bullshit not thy own self,” she said, quoting one of Mike’s favorite sayings. And to be honest, there was more to her bad mood than just that shit-eating grin on Melinda’s face when the minister, or whatever you call the Chief Boo-Hoo of the Neo-Anthro Church, said she and Harvey were husband and wife.
The real downer was this spot. It was somewhere around here that Mike kissed her. Okay, make that she kissed him. But he returned the kiss, thank God. Abby wasn’t sure her battered ego could have taken another rejection.
It happened three months ago, May 11, 1968, a Saturday evening. Not that the date was important—it just kind of stuck in her mind. She felt so crappy that week. When the guy you’ve dated for over a year, who you’re pinned to, who’s such a non-demanding gentleman, when he dumps you for another guy, it’s way more than depressing.
“Face it Abby, old girl,” she muttered, “for someone who’s supposed to be so damn good-looking, you’ve got a lousy record with guys.” She tallied her scorecard. There was the brainy track star back in high school, the quarterback her freshman year in college, followed by the South American diplomat’s son, and now the future architect from an old New Orleans family. Each in his own way had been fun, different, even exotic, and each time she thought she was in love. Who knows, maybe she had been.
After the last debacle, she spent hours on the phone talking Mike’s ear off. Near the end he said something about a levee party, but she wasn’t paying attention. That Saturday, three girl friends invaded her room. Saying she’d been in bed all day, which was true, they forced her to get up and come with them.
LSU students have a well-deserved reputation for always being ready to party. It seemed like everyone she knew was there. At first she tried to be a good sport and get into the spirit. But the laughter and good times just annoyed her. A few beers, some cheap wine, even a first taste of marijuana, did nothing but make her feel more miserable than ever. Rather than be a wet blanket, she grabbed a beer and eased out of the crowd.
As the light from the bonfire dimmed, she found a small sanctuary behind some driftwood clustered around a tiny willow near the riverbank. That’s where Mike found her a few minutes later, sitting alone, feeling sorry for herself and trying not to cry.
He said nothing—just sat down beside her. There was a light, cool breeze coming off the river. When she shivered, he put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. That did it. She let out a sob that was a mixture of despair and release, laid her head on his chest, and cried until she ran out of tears.
When her breath began to even out, she noticed the front of his old dress shirt was soaked. Fascinated, she gently ran a fingertip across the damp cloth. He’d come to be with her, to comfort her, and she repaid him by drenching his shirt with tears and probably covering it with mascara.
She looked up at him. Even in the dim moonlight, she could make out his familiar, comforting smile and felt better. All her life Mike had been there, close and caring, whenever she needed a friend, a shoulder to cry on, just like tonight. Because, because he loves me. A new emotion seized her, a sensation that had nothing to do with friendship. She no longer just needed Mike—she wanted him.
She slipped both hands behind his neck, pulled his face to hers, and began kissing her best friend.
Later, much later, their lips parted and they looked at one another. There was an uncertain, questioning expression on Mike’s face. Abby found herself praying he wouldn’t be sensible or cautious or, even worse, make a joke. Damn it, Mike, just kiss me. Please.
Then he leaned forward and began kissing his best friend. At some point, it occurred to her that Mike was a very good kisser. She felt a strange sense of pride knowing her best friend was so talented.
The next time their lips separated, Mike started to say something. It was going to be about how they should stop, she was sure of that, and sure he was right. They’d have to do that, soon. But not now, not just yet. Before he could say anything, she snuggled closer and pulled him back onto her waiting mouth.
The kisses became more intense and the touches more intimate. She felt Mike’s hand slip beneath her sweatshirt and shivered with pleasure when it made contact with bare skin. The smooth, sensuous pressure of his fingers seemed to ease the anguish in her body. When he took possession of her breast, she trembled with pleasure, moaned, and arched her back to meet his touch.
She felt loved and wanted and safe. This was Mike who cared for her, not how she looked, who was always there when she needed him, who she could count on to do what was best. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered if that would include their making love.
He released her throbbing nipple and let his fingers glide down to her jeans. When he started fumbling with them, she was certain they were about to make love. The zipper began to yield and she shivered with anticipation. But then he stopped.
Their tongues continued to dance from mouth-to-mouth, but Mike’s fingers remained motionless. Then his body sagged, and his hand moved up from her waist. He paused to caress first one breast, then the other. It was a gentle, searching motion, as if trying to memorize their texture, shape, and warmth. After a last, soft, parting caress, he slid his hand around to the small of her back.
With an unsettling sense of regret, she understood he had decided their making love wasn’t what was best. Maybe he was right, she didn’t know. But she knew it was an act of love, not rejection.
The kissing continued, but now it was with increasing affection and decreasing passion. He was letting them both ease down from--.
Someone, something, was shaking her. Confused, she opened her eyes. Instead of moonlight, the afternoon sun was shining off the river. And instead of Mike caressing her body, he was kneeling beside her, grinning. “You’ve got to tell me what you were dreaming about, lady.”
“None of your business, mister.” To give her mind time to reenter the here-and-now, she yawned and stretched. “Besides, why do you think I was dreaming? Maybe I was just deep in thought.”
“Very doubtful. Before I started my beast of burden number, you were awake and looking about like you did the day your cat went one-on-one with that truck and lost. Anyway, when I came dragging my weary bones back, your mouth was wide open—always a sure sign you’ve nodded off. The thing is, you had this dumb, happy look on your face. So what were you dreaming about?”
Amy looked at her best friend and gave him a big, I-know-a-secret-and-you-don’t, smile. “You’re right, I did feel rotten. But I had this great dream with lots of hot, steamy stuff. Now I feel all better.”
As Mike begged for details, she reached for his hand and let him help her up. Once on her feet, she mussed his dark, wavy hair. What she hadn’t mentioned was the dream doing a lot more than just getting her out of a bad mood. It reminded her how that night forever changed the way she felt about him. All summer she’d tried to convince herself she hadn’t fallen in love with her life-long best friend. But that dream made it clear she had, big time.
Of course, they hadn’t so much as held hands since then, while he and that slut, Rene Broussard, had started dating. Abby had tried to break them up all summer, but told herself it was because she knew the little tramp would be bad for Mike. This was different. No more alibis or excuses. She wanted Mike for herself.
But getting him wasn’t going to be easy. Abby knew Mike so well she had a good idea just what night Rene first let him “seduce” her. She was the type who’d go down like the Titanic if it was in her interest, and Abby had no doubt Rene was very interested in latching onto Mike. That meant he was probably getting all the action he could handle. If Rene hadn’t been out of town this weekend, he might not have even come to the wedding.
Amy was one of the few people not impressed with her looks. She thought of herself as gangly, and having, at best, little more than small-town good looks. Being a homecoming queen, cheerleader, and fraternity sweetheart just sort of happened. The irony was, whatever good looks she might have wouldn’t help win Mike. Tall, skinny redheads weren’t his type. He went for sexy little brunettes, like Rene.
Besides, Mike still seemed to think of her as the scrawny kid he walked with to school. Even going skinny-dipping with him earlier this summer didn’t seem to have changed things.
So if she wanted him, and she did, the next time they kissed there’d be no stopping—she’d make sure of that. This seemed like the logical time and place. The problem was how to get things started.
Amy looked up and down the shoreline. “Where do you think Linda and Frank are?”
“Out of sight.”
“Thanks for the help, Joe Friday.”
Mark grinned. “I think of myself more as the suave, sophisticated private-eye type.”
They sat on a sun-bleached driftwood log. “Well, I think of yourself as nuts. And before you say it, I know, birds of a feather flock together.”
“Takes one to know one, I’ve always heard. Of course, I’ve also heard that opposites attract. So you pays your money, you take your pick.”
“Seriously, do you think they’re all right?”
Mark nodded, lit a cigarette, and handed it over. “They’re in love, remember? If one of ‘em fell in, the other would start raising all kinds of hell.”
“Oh, that’s a real comfort.”
After taking a puff, she studied the cigarette. “Weren’t we going to quit these things?”
“We did. It was our end-of-semester resolution. But it just applies when we’re back home.”
Mark finished lighting his own cigarette and then pointed to a spot a couple hundred yards away near the river. “Now, as for our non-smoking lovebirds, odds are they’re hiding behind that brush pile and doing God knows what sort of disgusting things. You wanna sneak over and take a peek?”
Amy shook her head and laughed. “Of course not.” She hesitated, then gestured in the same direction. “Is that the place, you know, where we…. I mean, is that the place?”
Mike glanced over, and Abby felt herself blush. After what seemed like an eternity, he grinned. “You’re asking if that’s the place where we made out like a couple of wild weasels?”
“Well, no. That happened back in the spring. The water was a lot higher then. We would’ve needed scuba gear to do anything over where those two are, no doubt, carrying on.”
He twisted and pointed north. “The hallowed ground in question, a sacred place forever etched in my memory, is upstream from here. You’ve gotta look back from where dat ‘Old Man River’ is rolling along now. See those logs at the foot of that skinny willow? It was just above the shore back then and made a perfect hideout.”
Amy turned around and studied the spot. When she spoke, it was in a low, hesitant voice. “Mark, this is a little embarrassing, but why didn’t you, well, why did you stop?”
Mike moved to the other side of the log and gazed at the otherwise nondescript pile of wood. “Something just told me it wasn’t the right time, or place, or thing to do. God knows I didn’t want to stop. Believe me, the bends are no fun.” He gave her a rueful grin.
She felt an odd mixture of compassion, embarrassment, and pride. “I’m sorry.”
“No problem. The thing is, you mean a lot to me, a whole lot, and I didn’t want to risk losing my best friend. It would be different if we were in love, you know, hearts and flowers and all that. But we’re not, of course, and I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to still be friends, like we’ve always been, if we, well, did it.”
“I knew that was what you’d say. And you’re right, I suppose. But I still feel guilty. After all, I’m the one who started it. So it’s my fault you got the bends.”
“Sweat it not. You were ripped, bummed out, and very vulnerable. And don’t forget, the party was my dumb idea. I’m just glad I happened to notice you wandering away. Besides, how else would I have ever learned my best friend is such a great kisser?”
“Your saying that is so weird. Because while we were kissing, I swear I was thinking the same thing about you.”
Before he could say anything, Abby continued. “Damn, but life would be so much simpler if we weren’t such good friends. I mean, it’s gotten us so screwed up we can’t even, well, we can’t even screw—and everybody seems to be doing that these days."
Mark nodded and flipped away his cigarette. “Right as usual, superstar Abby. Not that a guy like me would ever have a chance with a drop-dead gorgeous female like you.”
He waved off her protests. “Our problem is we’re the last of the unrepentant, unreconstructed, hopeless southern romantics. We belong in 1858, not 1968. Someone should have kept us from reading, Ivanhoe, when we were kids, and we’ve read and seen, Gone With the Wind, way too many times.”
“How’s that a problem?”
“I’ve got a hunch it’s a big part of the reason we both want a great romance, like Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo. Instead, what we got that night was two old friends so smashed they started making out. And while it was a helluva lot of fun, at least for me, something tells me that doesn’t qualify as great romance.”
“So what do we have?”
“We like each other. That’s what we have. At least, it’s what I have. Because I do like you, Abigail Nicole Rankin. You’re very special to me, maybe even more now that we’ve kissed. And you, that feeling, it’s something I don’t ever want to lose.”
They gazed at one another. Abby noticed he was biting his lower lip. Surprised, she looked out at the river and tried to think. Mike didn’t bite his lip like that unless he was nervous and unsure what to do or say. And he’s that way now because, Abby stopped breathing, because he loves me, and not just like a friend does, but the way a man loves a woman, the way I love him.
Abby tried to act calm and think. If I’m right, the real problem isn’t Rene, but Mike and I being life-long friends. Because of that, he’ll never make the first move. So it’s up to me.
After taking her first breath in some time, Abby stood and moved in between Mike’s outstretched legs. She put her hands around the back of his neck and leaned close. “You’re right, Michael Henry Wilkins, we do like each other, a whole lot. You’re very special to me. But since that night we kissed, I haven’t been able to think of you as just a friend. You mean a lot more to me now—a whole lot more. So what I want to know, what I need you to tell me, is whether I’ve become more to you than just your skinny old friend.”
A startled look flashed across Mike’s features. Then he slipped his arms around Abby’s slender waist. “You always did have more guts than me. I’ve been sick in love with you ever since that night we kissed. But I couldn't believe you felt the same way about me, and I didn't want to lose my best friend by doing something hopeless. I tried to get over you, but no way. Even dating Rene didn't help, especially after we went skinny-dipping. That almost killed me. And now, Abby, I love you so much.”
A single tear trickled past the dusting of freckles on her cheek. “I love you, too, Mike. Oh God, but I love you.”
Their lips met in a kiss that marked the change in their love. When it ended, Abby stared into Mike’s eyes. What happened next surprised them both. With trembling fingers, Abby unbuttoned her blouse and pulled it open. She took his hands in hers and pressed them against her breasts. “You know me, Mike, I never do anything half-way. So if you want me, I’m yours, completely, now-and-forever. But I’m greedy. I want all of you, all the time, for all time.”
Mark nodded. The deal had been struck. He was hers, she was his, and Rene was history. Abby tilted her head toward the spot where they first kissed. “Let’s go over there and pick-up where we left off. Only this time, if you love me, if you want me, don’t you dare stop.”
A smile spread across his face. “Best idea I’ve heard in this lifetime.” His fingers gently rolled her hard nipples and for a moment, Abby forgot how to breathe. Mike’s voice seemed to come from a fog. “Just one thing. I do want you, completely, now-and-forever. Maybe I always have. So before you come to your senses, will you marry me?”
“Oh, God, yes!” She threw herself back into his arms. They hugged until she leaned back and shouted with joy. “Where’d that stupid preacher, the Boo-Hoo, where’d he go?”
“We don’t need him or anyone else. In every way that counts, we’re already married. Now please hush so I can kiss my bride.”
Abby hushed and Mike cradled her smiling face in his hands. Out on the Mississippi, a tugboat herded a long string of barges upstream. No one on the levee noticed. They were too busy being in love.