MISS TAIKE, fiction by James Ross

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I once asked a group of people how many had ever dated two people at the same time.  By show of hands, the women outnumbered the men by three to one.  A grad student in need of a PhD topic might have some fun with that asymmetry— Gender Differences In Polygamous Dating Experience: Opportunity vs. Consequences. But the show of hands confirmed what I already knew from a painful experience. A man who gets involved with more than one woman at a time is in for a heap of trouble.

My own lesson in hubris took place the summer between my junior and senior years in high school.  My parents had rented a cabin on the shores of Lake Ontario in an enclave of about a dozen, spread around a grassy meadow across from a white sand beach.  During the day, the young mothers watched the smaller children at play in the shallow waters of the lake, and at night, the teenagers took over the shoreline where they did what teenagers do at night, unsupervised on moonlit beaches.

My plan for the summer was simply to take advantage of whatever opportunities came my way.  Happily, the second weekend there, one did.  Her name was Lia.  And at the risk of hopelessly dating myself by this comparison, Lia looked much like a young Elizabeth Taylor—midsized and curvy with plenty of possibility. She was a year younger than me, only a sophomore, but aptly named: Lia Taike.  Lia was less into giving than taking those first weeks.  She had me take her for pizza, to the movies, sailing, et. al. ad infinitum. But I was patient. We had all summer and there was definitely gold in them thar hills.

But about two weeks into my go slow program, she came to me and said, “My dad’s taking us away.”

I was dumbstruck.  “What are you talking about?”

“Some airline price war.  He’s taking us to Europe.  I’ve got to go.”

And the next morning, she was gone. Since I had picked the cream of the crop, numbers two, three and four were long since taken.  What remained of the summer stretched forlorn and empty.

But then luck arrived in the form of a woody station wagon that pulled up in front of the Taike family’s empty cabin three days later. A new family had arrived.  Lia’s cousins.  I went over to introduce myself.  Evelyn Taike was easily as attractive as her cousin Lia, but in that older girl, California girl style—tall, tanned and slim with straight, shoulder—length blond hair. She looked me straight in the eye and smiled, as if to say, “I’ve got my program for the summer, too, and you could be part of it.”

Evelyn was older.  She had a car.  She could buy booze.  She was going off to college in a few weeks and her summer program was apparently to practice her charms on whoever was available—to hone her skills for the Big Show.  College.

I was up for it.

What followed was a hedonistic summer of mutual skill honing on lazy sail boat rides, picnics on nearby islands and moonlit evenings down at the beach. Evelyn preferred wine to beer, and with her car and license, we were never in short supply.  Things could not have gone better, which a wiser man might have recognized as a warning, because on the final weekend of the summer, it all fell spectacularly apart.

Walking down the gravel path toward a scheduled rendezvous, I spotted a familiar car entering the gates of the enclave.  It was Lia’s family Oldsmobile.  The car drove up to the cabin where the Taike cousins were now staying, and I knew in that moment that I was screwed.  Because as soon as Lia and Evelyn started to compare summer notes, all hell was going to break loose.

I took one of those bottles of wine that Evelyn had stockpiled and I went down to the beach and I drank it.  I figured my time was coming. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. But it wasn’t going to be good and I wasn’t going to be sober.

I sat there drinking until it started to get dark. Then in the fading light two figures came walking down the path toward me. They’re not coming together, are they? They weren’t. It was worse.

The first figure was Lia’s little brother, Billy. Billy was about thirteen and nothing to worry about.  But the man at his side stood about six foot five and weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds—a mid-twenties, Ohio State linebacker type.  “This is my cousin, Savage,” said Billy.  Savage looked at me with a sneer that promised that what came next was going to be fun.  For him.

From my crossed legged position beside an open pit fire, it was easy to see what Savage had in mind. I reached for a rock.  I wasn’t going to go easy.  Savage snarled, “Put that down, punk.”

Billy piped up, “No Jim, it’s not going to be like that.”

I kept my hand around the rock. “Alright, Billy.  What’s it going to be like?”

“They just want you to choose.”

I glanced sideways at Savage. “What? That’s it?”

“But you better pick the right one,” Savage snarled.

I couldn’t believe my luck. No broken bones and a choice that was really a no brainer.  Evelyn was the stuff of a teenage boy’s dreams.  But she was going off to college next week and I would never see her again. Lia was the future, and there was gold in them thar hills.

“You put me in a tough spot, Billy” I said, as if giving it careful thought. “But if I have to choose, then I pick Lia.”

Savage snarled at me.  “You’re shittin’ me.”

“No.”  And I explained my thinking. The rational decision was to go with the future.

He looked poleaxed. “You want me to tell her that?”

I spread my hands.  “Look, it’s not the kind of decision you can make with your head and your heart.  It’s one or the other.  And the head says…” I shrugged, “what it says.”

His voice lowered an octave, which hardly seemed possible.  “You want me to tell her that?”

I shook my head.  “No need.  She’ll know the truth without being told.  In my heart, if not my head, she’ll always be my favorite Miss Taike.”

James Ross has had works appear in various print and online publications including: The South Dakota Review, Santa Clara Review, Whiskey Island, Phantasmagoria, The Distillery, Lost River Lit Mag, and Embark. His debut novel, HUNTING TEDDY ROOSEVELT, will be out in the spring of 2020.

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