The room fell silent. Jack and Erin were at one side of the family library, holding their wine glasses nervously, and Erin's parents looked intensely at each other, communicating through a wordless rapport. Jack reached for Erin's hand and held it tightly. He took a drink of wine and waited for someone to speak.
Erin's mother finally let her face crack a smile, hesitantly, and said, "So when is the baby due?" Her husband shook his head.
Jack and Erin started to talk at the same time. Erin's voice was stronger. "There's no baby, mother. We just want to move in together."
"Because you're in love?" she said, using a sharp, accusing tone.
"Yes," Jack said.
"I'd prefer a baby," Erin's mother said, and reached for a slice of cheese from a silver tray on a finely polished sideboard.
Erin's parents lived in a majestic brownstone in the old-money part of the city. Jack had no affection for the neighborhood, and hated to park there. As far as he could tell, residents never used their cars and only bought them to take up parking spaces. Erin said that was true; her parents only used the car when they took a road trip, and that was only three or four times a year. So whenever the time came to visit her parents, Jack and Erin would drive to a parking garage at the end of the subway line and leave his car there. Taking the subway was more expensive than parking in the city, but it was easier on the nerves. Besides, Jack and Erin liked riding the subway together.
Within a few minutes of receiving the big news, Erin's parents announced that they were tired and needed to go to bed. Jack and Erin were only too eager to get out of there and said their goodnights quickly.
As they stepped out of the foyer and into the street, Erin's father closed the heavy wooden door behind them and locked it, noisily. The young couple started walking toward the subway station, which was a few blocks away.
"You know," Jack said, "I've made a point to kiss your mother on the cheek whenever we say goodbye to them, but this time she didn't give me a chance."
"That's just as well," Erin said. "It's strange to see you kiss my mother, Jack."
"I do it for you," he said. "It's all politics."
They enjoyed the night sounds of the city for a few steps. Erin put out her hand for Jack to hold, and they walked together in silence.
She spoke up. "You were great in there, you know."
He stifled a laugh. "I have my moments."
"No, really. My parents were completely out of line, and you were an angel. Give yourself some credit."
After a moment, she continued. "They mean well. I think it's just one of those generational things. They think that a relationship has to be validated by marriage. It's just a generational thing."
"Do you have any cash?" he asked. "I spent the last of my money on that bottle of wine."
"I don't have my purse," she said.
"We'll have to stop for cash."
"Do you have enough for the subway?"
He jingled the change in his pocket and thought about it. "Just enough. But we need to get my car out of the parking garage."
"There's a cash machine there. Don't stress about it, darling."
Jack and Erin never watched much television together, but they did enjoy watching the other people on the subway. They noted the reading preferences of their fellow passengers and whispered words of approval or disdain. They looked at the crazies with pity, or with amusement, depending on the situation. They passed judgement on all the other couples on the train -- guessed how long they had been dating, whether they were married, which would be the first to have an affair, and so on. It passed the time, and it made them feel like superhumans, so highly evolved that they could sit above the teeming millions and comment with authority on the state of society. They were happy on the subway.
"You know how they say half the fun is getting there?" Jack said.
"Yes," Erin said, resting her head on his shoulder.
"When we visit your parents, I think all the fun is getting there."
She giggled. "What about getting home? Let's not forget that."
"Getting home is good, too."
"They're not bad people, you know. My parents are smart, and they like you."
He laughed out loud. "Sure they do."
"Do you think I'm kidding? They have always been impressed that you paid your own way through college, and that you don't get any help from your parents..."
"They have nothing but pity for me. They know I was brought up by white-trash alcoholics, and they pity me. I can see it in their eyes."
"They like you, Jack. I promise."
At the next stop, a man got on the subway with a lawnmower.
"We're in the heart of the city," Jack whispered. "What's he going to mow?"
They reached the end of the subway line. Stepping off the train, there were two sets of escalators to carry passengers to the surface: one led to the street and the other took them to the parking garage where they had left the car. It was getting quite late, and the station was nearly deserted. A big black fellow swept the floor with a huge dust broom. There were two bored employees at the snack counter. A skinny guy with a goatee was just closing up the newsstand.
"Where's that cash machine?" Jack asked.
"Over by the restrooms," Erin said.
"They have restrooms here?"
"Of course, silly."
She yawned a big yawn as she led him to the ATM. "I'm exhausted," she announced.
"Having your parents call you a slut will do that to you."
She glared at him. "They didn't say that exactly."
"Okay, so the phrase 'living on sin' didn't come up. But it was strongly implied."
"Let's not talk about this."
He slid his card into the ATM slot and started punching buttons. "My balance is kind of low. Ten bucks should do it, right?"
"That's fine," she yawned.
As the transaction was completed, the cash drawer clacked open. The ATM made grinding sounds and the money started to come out. As they watched, the ten-dollar bill crumpled and twisted in the machinery. The gears stopped moving and left the bill clutched in their grasp.
"That's interesting," Jack said. He reached for the bill and tugged. "It's stuck."
"Just pull it out carefully," she said. "Let's go."
Jack got a hold of the bill and pulled with even pressure. He could hear the paper tearing. "It's starting to come," he said.
"Hurry up," Erin said, looking at her watch.
He yanked the bill one last time and it ripped apart. The rest of the bill was stuck in the machine. "Damn it!" he yelled.
The ATM remained calm. It printed the receipt and displayed an emotionless message saying that all the requested funds may not have been released and that the financial institution should be contacted if there had been a problem.
"Look at this! Half of it got stuck in there! Can you believe it?"
"Let me see." Erin took the crisp bill in her hand and smoothed it out. "It's not so bad. We have about three-fourths of the bill here. We can still use it."
Jack looked closer. "Yeah, you're right. They'll take it."
They took the elevator to the third level and found the car. Jack took great pride in his ability to find convenient parking spaces in the garage. Nobody ever thought to park on the exit ramps, so he could always find an open space right near the elevator. It took no time at all for them to get in the car, buckle up, and roll down the exit ramp toward the cashier. While Jack adjusted his mirrors, Erin leaned the car seat back and closed her eyes.
"Are we staying at my place tonight?" she asked, sleepily.
"Yeah, I was hoping so. Is that okay?"
"Sure." She smiled sexily. "It's going to be great when we have our own place. Our own bed! I can't wait."
"You're still willing to go through with it?"
"What? Why would I change my mind?"
"After what your parents said -- you don't want to be cut off, do you?"
She shook her head. "Can't you tell when they're being dramatic? Nothing has changed. I want to live with you. It makes sense."
"But . . ."
"Why are you being so strange about this?"
"I want to do this the right way, sweetheart. I want to do this the right way, and I don't know what it is." They were at the exit now, idling behind a big wide Lincoln. Jack could see an old man with a shiny bald spot paying the lady in the little glass booth. The cashier lady, fat and plain with unflattering glasses, drowsily counted out his change and handed it to him, and he in turn handed it to someone in the passenger seat. Jack couldn't see the passenger, but felt certain that it was an elderly wife, a shrunken woman too small to be seen over the car seat. The gate went up slowly, and the Lincoln sailed out of the parking garage and into the distance.
Jack pulled up to the cashier booth and felt his heart beating faster. With tangible nonchalance, he handed the lady the ripped-up ten-dollar bill and the time-stamp ticket. The cashier lady stared blankly at the bill for a few seconds before Jack spoke up.
"We had a disagreement with the cash machine," he said, and choked out a small laugh.
"I can't take this," she said, handing it back. "You owe four dollars."
"That's all I have," Jack said, waving it away.
"I can't take this," she repeated, shaking the bill in his face.
Erin woke up. "It's perfectly good money," she said.
"I've never taken torn-up money before, and I'm not going to start now. Do you have another ten? Or a five?"
"I just told you . . ." Jack felt himself getting angry, and didn't want that to happen. "Do you take credit cards?"
"No. Just cash." She sighed. "Look . . . I'm not letting you out for free, if that's your scam."
"There's no scam -- " Jack started.
"Pull over to the side there," she pointed to a space in front of the gate, "go back to the ATM and get more cash."
"Just do it, Jack." Erin put her hand on his shoulder. She was wide awake now. Gritting his teeth, Jack did as she said and turned off the car.
"This is nuts," he said. "Like you said, it's perfectly good money."
"She's doesn't know any better. All you need is fifty-one percent of the dollar, and it's still good money. Everybody knows that."
"Fifty-one percent? I thought it was seventy-five percent, or something like that."
"No, it's fifty-one. They have machines at the bank to calculate how much is there."
"When did you get so smart?" he asked.
She shrugged, and they got out of the car.
"One thing's for sure . . . I'm not getting any more money out of that cash machine. Then I'll have two ripped-up tens." They were walking down the stairs to the subway station.
"Maybe not," she said.
"One of those vendors will have some sense. I'll buy something at the snack bar." When they reached the doors, Jack made a point of holding it open and letting her go through first.
"What a gentleman," she said, smiling.
"I have my moments."
Walking into the station, nearly abandoned by now, they noticed how every step echoed across the room and back again. Two sets of footsteps sounded like an army marching on the grimy tile floor. Across the station, the guys at the snack bar were still standing idle. A kid with a crewcut leaned on his elbows, reading the sports page, while the other one chewed on a straw. They looked up as Jack and Erin approached.
"Hi there," Jack said. "Can you break this ten for us? I'll buy something if I need to. The lady up there is giving us trouble -- " He could see that the snack bar guys were eyeballing the torn bill suspiciously, so he held it up in the open. "It's perfectly good money. Fifty-one percent and it's good money."
The straw chewer looked at his partner and shrugged. "What do you think?" he said.
The sports page guy shook his head. "I really can't do that. I know it's good money -- you can take it to the bank and all -- but my manager would kill me if I took it."
"What's the big deal?" Jack blurted. He was still holding the bill out for all to see, and his hand started shaking.
"Well . . . you know how it is." The sports page guy looked at the straw chewer and they shrugged at each other.
"Thanks for nothing. Thanks for nothing." He crammed the bill in his pocket and swung around, taking Erin with him. His voice echoed eerily in the cavernous station. The open architecture was like a cathedral, a sacred place being profaned by these words, by their very presence. Erin looked at him, a little frightened by the change in his mood and completely lost for words. Her lips parted, but nothing came out. He stopped fuming and looked into her eyes.
"Okay, we're stuck. What now?"
She thought for a second, looking at the fire in his eyes. Her voice was a small, pitiful thing when it came out: "We could ask the man who sells subway tokens. Or that man over there, sweeping the floor."
"That won't work. No one will take it." His voice had devolved into a low growl. He pulled the bill from his pocket and held it up in a bold, dramatic gesture. "No one will accept that this is real!"
That statement echoed around them. She had her eyes squinted shut, her arms held tight against her chest. When she opened her eyes again, she saw something she could not have expected.
Jack was shuddering, using one hand to shield his eyes from view while he grasped the defiled dollar in a white-knuckled fist. She came closer to him, put her hands around his waist, and rolled on her tip-toes to give him a kiss. She could feel the wetness on his cheek.
"Why," he stammered, "does it have to be all or nothing?"