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Knowing Good and Evil
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Genesis 3:4-6
I crossed my legs and pulled a pillow up against my stomach as I settled down on Sam’s bed. He handed me a glass of wine as he reentered the room.
“So?” he said expectantly as I took a sip. The bittersweet liquid burned its way down my throat, warming me. I watched the burgundy droplets slide back down, joining the rest of the wine.
“So,” I echoed, cocking my head as I looked at him. His warm brown eyes were filled with a concern so genuine it made my chest ache. He sat down next to me, the bedsprings squeaking in protest.
“I know you, Jen,” he said, “you don’t just ‘drop in’ anymore unless you have a good reason. If you have something to get off your chest, you know I’m listening.” I just stared into my wine, studying the light that bounced off its surface.
“Spill, Jen,” he commanded as I refused to respond.
“What, a girl can’t just come and visit her old friend, her best friend?” I challenged. He smiled, flashing me a set of perfect, white teeth. I ran my tongue over my own, insecurely feeling the way one of my teeth overlapped the other, as if they were locked in either a vicious struggle or a loving embrace.
“You haven’t come all the way out here just to see me in about six years, Jen,” he reminded me, “you only come around to see me in person when you have something on your mind, when something’s wrong.”
“You caught me,” I admitted with a sigh. I took another sip of my wine for courage and a deep breath to steady myself.
“It’s Michael. You remember how happy we were together, right after we moved in together? Well, it’s kind of gone south. Not kind of, really; it’s gone really, really, south. We had been fighting a little more than normal, but that’s nothing some good talks and romantic evenings can’t fix, right? Well, Michael thought the best way to apologize to me was to propose. We had just fought, and he just got down on his knee and popped the question, like asking me to marry him would make everything rainbows and daffodils. Needless to say, I said no, that we needed to work out the problems we had before we go to the next step. I mean, I shouldn’t marry someone that I can’t even live with. Well, he didn’t take it well. He stared yelling about how he tried so hard and did everything for me but it wasn’t good enough, that I was ungrateful and greedy. He said that I’m the person that only wants what she can’t have, that once I get something I lose interest, and that I shouldn’t take him for granted. He was sort of losing it. I told him that if he didn’t stop yelling and talk to me calmly and adult-like about this, I would leave. And here I am,” I finished, laying everything bare before Sam. I nursed my wine as he appraised my story in the brilliant mind I knew lay beneath his soft, brown curls.
“Jen,” he said quietly, “Jennifer Rae Benedict,” he savored my name, tasting it. “you’re worth more than that. I told you all along that Michael was dumb, right?” I nodded, not meeting his eyes. I knew the look he would be giving me. I knew that his eyes would look like melting toffee, brown and warm and soft. I knew that those eyes would make me tear up, make me feel wanted and undeserving at the same time. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them.
“You’re worth so much more than him. C’mon, Jen. Have you forgotten who you are? How much you’re worth? You’re incredibly beautiful, you’re intelligent, funny-”
“Sam, stop it,” I pleaded, finally meeting his gaze, “you’re not helping anymore. I didn’t come here to have you hit on me again. I came here to talk to my friend,”
“Let me finish, Jen,” he said calmly, “you deserve more than him. You’re beautiful, intelligent, charming, and funny. You could have any man you want.”
“Than why haven’t I been able to keep any of the men that I’ve wanted?” I challenged. A wave of pain swept across his face, awash in memories. I looked at him, studying the face that had become so familiar to me over the past twenty-five years. Sam’s face had always struck me as unnatural, almost angelic. His features were soft and beautiful, and radiated warmth from every pore. I had known this face my entire life, since before I could remember. I remembered how his face had looked when we had fallen into something like love, the light that had seemed to pour out of it shining bright in my mind. I remembered finding a small, black velvet box in one of his drawers after he had moved out, and how his face looked when I gave it back to him. It was like the softly glowing candle inside him had been snuffed, a greedy hand stealing the warmth and light from his angelic features. I shook my head, closing my eyes in an attempt to shut the image of this unfamiliar, grief-ridden Sam out of my mind.
“Let’s not do this again, okay?” I said.
“Where are you staying, now that you’ve left him?” Sam asked, wiping his face clean of the pain that had marred it.
“That’s the twenty-three hundred dollar question,”
“You know you’re always welcome here, Jen.”
I shook my head, “No, Sam, it’s fine, really. I can fend for myself. I can get a hotel room for a few days, until I find an apartment.”
“Just think about it. That’s all I’m asking. I want you to know that it’s always an option.” He sipped his wine, and I followed suit. The once deep burgundy was turning pale as I gradually emptied the glass. I turned over what Sam had said, letting the idea ferment in my head. It would be cheaper for me to stay with him instead of renting something, and at this point every cent I was earning was like a jewel to me, my scrawny paycheck a treasure chest. I would have the support of my oldest and closest friend, a support system that I had tried to do without in the past few years and had found myself missing.
“I know you must be in pain right now,” Sam said, running his finger across the rim of his glass. A hollow ringing sound emitted from it, high-pitched, grating and sweet at the same time. “I just want to make sure you know that I’m here for you. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
I gave him a small, close-lipped smile and a muttered “thanks.” An awkward silence invaded the air between us; I leaned against the wall, its peeling, dingy white paint rough against my back, and pulled my legs up against my chest, resting my wine glass precariously on my knees. A tinny ringing told me that Sam was still circling the rim of his glass with his forefinger, completing laps in and endless, one-man race. He stood up, the bedsprings squeaking with relief.
“Do you want any more?” he said, raising his glass aloft. I shook my head.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I tilted my wine glass, the few dregs left in it collecting in a blood-colored pool at the bottom.
“Want me to take that to kitchen for you, then?” He offered, arm outstretched. I let him take my almost-empty glass, and he turned and left the room through the peeling archway that led into the kitchen. I heard the pop of air being released and the steadily increasing pitch of liquid being poured. I studied my fingernails, pushing on my cuticles in vain and pulling at hangnails. My fingertips were always covered in hangnails; no matter how much lotion I used or how diligent I was about keeping my nails healthy, the thin, white flaps of skin would always appear and surround my nails. I began to dutifully chew them off, gently, making sure to not pinch my skin in between my teeth. Clinking glass and the warm, fruity smell of the wine greeted me as Sam made his way back into the bedroom, bringing with him the entire bottle of wine and our two glasses, now full.
“I said I didn’t want any more.”
“I know you. I can tell when you lie.”
“I really didn’t want any, Sam. Seriously.”
“Humor me,” he said, pushing the glass towards me with such force that the wine threatened to escape from its confines, splashing up against the sides, droplets jumping into the air. I rolled my eyes at him as I removed my hand from where I had been chewing off my hangnails and took the wine. He filled his glass and touched it to mine.
“Cheers,” he said quietly. I took a drink and let the wine’s warmth fill me.
“What are we celebrating?” I asked as he brought the rim of his glass to his lips.
“You,” he announced before taking a long drink.
“Me?” I was incredulous, a single laugh escaping me, “why are we celebrating me?”
“Why not?” he countered, sitting down next to me.
“Maybe we could celebrate you for a change,” I said, taking another sip of my unwanted wine, feeling the warm sting of alcohol cut through my throat and flush my cheeks. It seemed that with every sip, the bitter liquid got sweeter, with a lingering, gentle sweetness in the aftertaste.
“And why would we celebrate me?”
“Why not?” I echoed.
“Seriously, Jen, why celebrate me? You’ve got me curious now.”
I leaned my head on Sam’s shoulder. “Well, for starters, you’re my best friend. You’ve always been my best friend, for as long as I can remember. We’ve had so much fun together, we have so many good memories. You go along with me when I want to raise h***, and you’re fine with just sitting here, listening to me moan about my life. You’ve always been there for me, and you’ve saved my a** at least fifty-eight times.”
“Sixty-six times. I’ve been counting,” He corrected with a warm laugh. I smiled and looked up at him.
“So I say, here’s to you,” I lifted my glass. I could feel the alcohol running through my veins like courage.
“And I say, here’s to you,” he protested, raising his glass. “Here’s to Jen, the most incredible person I know.” I took another sip of my wine, savoring the resonating sweetness on my tongue.
“Is this a different wine than before?” I asked curiously, turning my glass in my hand, as if I was a sommelier and could tell the difference just by examining the nuances of the deep burgundy color long enough.
“Nope, same one,” he said, handing me the bottle. An angel decorated the blank white background of the label. The angel’s robes and golden hair were being blown haphazardly by an imagined wind, and he held a sword aloft, pointed downwards, as if to strike the pitiful people below.
“It’s a ’99 Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino,” Sam said, the Italian flowing effortlessly from his lips. I laughed.
“You know that that means nothing to me, right?” I said, “I know nothing about wine, except that I like it. Valedictorian Brunello di Montawhatever just sounds like a bunch of gibberish to me.” He laughed, the sound warm and full.
“Just know that it’s a really good wine and a really good vintage.”
“Well, I don’t want you to waste such a good wine on me. I don’t appreciate it like someone else would.” I raised my stemware to my lips and took a long drink, the draught getting sweeter with every taste. Warmth spread through my body, and I could feel the alcohol taking effect on my brain.
“I can’t think of a better person to share this with,” Sam said, taking the bottle out of my hand and setting it down next to him, turned so that the label faced the dingy white wall, the vindictive angel pointing his sword towards the mattress. I snorted, refusing to acknowledge his compliment.
“Can I tell you something?”
“You should know by now that you can tell me anything.”
“Jen…I never stopped loving you.”
I looked down, studying how my hands curled around the stemware they held, doing my best to avoid looking at Sam’s face. I saw a rogue hangnail that I had missed and pulled at it, but it refused to come off, instead pulling more skin away from my finger. I gave up on it.
“Jen,” Sam’s whisper was barely audible, “Jennifer,” I could feel the light pressure of his fingertips running down my hair.
“I don’t know what to say,”
“Say you’ll give us another shot,”
“I don’t know,”
As another silence passed between us, I could begin to feel his intentions, as if they were being channeled through the fingertips that he had been gently massaging my shoulder with.
“God, I thought I was safe here. You seriously want to guilt me into this? I thought our friendship meant more than that. You’re my closest friend. I can’t go down that road with you again. It’ll be messy and complicated and one or both of us’ll end up getting hurt. Is that what you want, Sam?”
“You know that the last thing I want is to hurt you, Jen.”
I relaxed my body again, but I couldn’t seem to find the same comfort in his words that I normally could.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Jen. I’ve never wanted to hurt you. I just want you to be happy. And we were so happy together, Jen. You were happy then. Don’t you remember?”
“I want you to be happy. I want what’s best for you, what’ll make you the happiest.”
There was an edge to his voice, a tenseness that I rarely heard. It was still the smooth, warm voice that I had always known, but had something darker in it. It was a darkness that I hadn’t heard in years, since the night I told him to leave. I knew this undertone.
“Sam, don’t. Don’t go there again. This isn’t what either of us wants.”
“I only want you to be happy.”
I laughed incredulously, nervously, “You think that’ll make me happy?”
Sam raised his arm, pressing his palm against the wall. He shifted his body, knocking the wine bottle off the bed, where it shattered against the uneven floorboards. The dark red liquid flowed freely across the ground, and the angel that had glared at me from the label was broken, his angry face separated from his body.
“Now listen, Jen,” Sam said, ignoring the broken glass that adorned his floor, “I know you. I know you better than anyone else, right?”
“Right,” I said softly, looking down, studying my hands. Hangnails decorated the edges of my fingernails. Didn’t I just pull these off?
“So don’t you think I know what’s best for you? Don’t you think I know what you need? Because listen Jen, I do. I know what you need. I know what’s best for you. How long have we known each other? Twenty-five years, your entire life, Jennifer. I’ve known your entire life, and you don’t think I know what’s good for you?”
The peeling wallpaper scratched against my back and my feet slipped across the cheap cotton sheets. I pressed myself up against the wall, pulling my extremities into myself. Make yourself smaller. It seems like the opposite of what an animal should do when cornered. Don’t other animals try and make themselves look bigger, more threatening, and try to scare the predator off? Are people really that stupid, that we try and make ourselves appear smaller when cornered, as if we think that we can somehow disappear into ourselves? These thoughts raced across my mind as sweat collected on the back of my neck, the insides of my knees and elbows, the space between my breasts. I could feel my heart beating, racing, its frantic pounding resonating throughout my entire body. He leaned into me, his eyes soft like melting caramel, and his breath warm against my cheek.
“Now, Jen,” he said quietly, tenderly, “I’ve been your best friend your entire life. Why do you think I would hurt you?”
I wanted look somewhere else, to look at anything except his angelic face, but I couldn’t bring my eyes away. His fingernails scraped noisily against the wall, littering his bed with flakes of dirty white paint.
“I’ve been your friend for so long, Jen. I’ve done so much for you. I’ve always been there for you. Haven’t I?”
I nodded silently.
“Now, what I want to know is, when have you been there for me? When have you been there for me, Jen? I’ve never let you down. Whenever you needed me, I was there, at your beck and call. I’ve been your beck-and-call-guy for your entire life. When have you done the same for me? Isn’t it about time you did something for me? Isn’t it time you were there for me, instead of the other way around?”
More paint chips littered the sheets, his arms, my legs, as he curled his fingers against the wall. His face had that same glow that I had seen on it countless times before, as if something, some hidden star, was illuminating him from within, and the light was gently emanating from his pores. He looked at me with his molten caramel colored eyes, a look that wasn’t threatening, but was still far from comforting.
“Are you going to help me for once, Jen? Are you going to be there for me, like I’ve always been there for you?”
His eyes bored into me. Slowly, gradually, I began to relax my body. I released the tension that had stiffened my spine, drew my knees away from my chest, and took deep breaths to slow my frenzied heart. Light and warmth seemed to pour from Sam, leaking out of ever pore in his angelic face.
“”Atta girl,” he whispered, his breath warm and sweet against my cheek.