I BROKE UP WITH SHEILA after her toddler’s terrible twos persisted well into its threes and my possessions became targets for the child’s magic markers and bodily functions. “She’s still angry,” Sheila explained, “because her father treated me so badly. And he wasn’t even her father, but I’m not going to tell her that until I’m ready to tell him that.” Him being the faux dad who ducked his weekend visits, claiming that my presence in his old (her old, according to the lease) apartment inhibited his parenting.
With my few unblemished books and a badly scarred computer in hand, I moved into a studio out in Redwood City, putting me farther from my downtown office and San Francisco’s social opportunities, and with a new freedom that seemed sterile. It was self-pity that initially drove me to rush home as quickly as possible after eight hours of computer-hypnosis at work and stare at a screen for another eight, compounding the misery by scrolling through the too-cheerful pickings on dating sites. Self-pity waned – it has to, or you hang yourself – and left force of habit in its wake.
“Why aren’t you dating?” my mother asked when I joined her for Thanksgiving dinner. She and my father lived in Berkeley; like the city itself, they considered themselves superior to San Francisco and its residents and she insisted that I’d find no romantic success until I returned to the correct side of the Oakland Bay Bridge. “There are plenty of single women around here,” she said, “who never go into that city! Have you seen anyone lately? Isn’t there someone at your office you could go out with?”
My parents were never ironic people, so it was merely due course that even as I went through this grilling my father was outside doing the same to a turkey. “You want to think about starting a family soon,” my mother went on. “That was very important to your father. And it took us a long time to get you started because I was already in my thirties by then.” She sighed. “You’re just like him.”
Not really. Not for me his history of almost-affairs – did she know about them? – in which he’d fall victim to a quick, riotous passion, pursue the woman to the brink of sex and then scotch the act itself, thus signifying his desirability without any betrayal attached. Or so he believed. “So what you’re doing,” I told him when he boasted of this to me, “is cheating on your girlfriends with your wife.”
Diane flirted with me at the laundromat near my apartment, her bundle of clothing revealing at least two small but differently sized children. “Ronnie turned forty and took off,” she confessed over coffee after our dryers were sufficiently quartered one day. I went out with her anyway, culminating in a Christmas Eve date at my apartment (kids at a grandparents’ house) during which I cooked her dinner and we settled for some snuggling onto the musty couch. I felt her energy drain as I held her and by kiss number three she was drooping towards unconsciousness.
She woke after a couple of hours and gave me a pained look and said, “I’m so sorry! This is the first chance I’ve had to relax in weeks!” Then she erupted into sobs. “I can’t do this to them! I need to tuck them in before Santa Claus comes!” At the doorway, anger got the better of her guilt. “How would you have felt when you were seven on a night like this?” and I have to confess I was unable to comprehend the question, let alone answer it.
Fearing that all available women my age came with children attached, I went alone to my office New Year’s party, determined to drink quickly and be friendly to no-one. That’s when I met Pam. Sloe-eyed, single, three years my junior. A lithe body, stylish clothes, handling PR for a nervous but well-capitalized software company. Thin lips she constantly wet with a tongue tip as if contemplating the impulse kiss I finally won when the clock struck twelve.
“My father was a son of a bitch,” she told me during our first date, dinner at a North Beach restaurant where she was enough of a regular customer to rate a hug from the owner. “Always cheating on my mom.”
“Mine too!” I described the old man’s technique.
“At least he wasn’t messy,” she decided. “Mine left his used condoms in the car ... ugh.”
Pam herself was a neat freak. She owned two vacuum cleaners, upright and canister, so that the right model was always was available for the job. Her possessions were databased in the tablet computer that was always at hand. “It’s another way that I stay on top of things,” she explained, the pun being that she was on top of me as she said that.
She certainly brought a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other sensibility to the relationship, and relationship it became, before I had a chance to reject her or otherwise sabotage the situation. “What makes you so sure we’re such an item?” I asked her as she set up a weekend trip to a resort in Monterey. “Vacationing together is serious stuff.”
“Number one. We’ve been seeing each other for two months. Number two.” She ticked this off on her fingers, but she might as well have been entering it in Excel. “We’re pretty much done with the humping-like-bunnies phase. That means it’s time to get serious. Number three.”
“I get it!” I went back to packing, briefly fantasizing that I was packing to leave her. Her sex appeal was turning into a death grip. She thought we were going at it less often; truth was, she was wearing me out.
After our pleasant time away with each other, she more or less moved in. Actually, we spread ourselves across each other’s spaces, and nights were together more often than not. The relationship wasn’t discussed, leaving plans for our future subjugated to the happy now. And soon enough I understood why: She wants me to marry her. She’s easing me into domestic constraints. Were I to be allowed to look ahead, I’d see how long and dark is the looming tunnel. Just keep glancing from side to side. And looking back would be cheating: I’d see that there’s no way out.
But it’s impossible for me to keep my agita to myself. “Do you worry about what’s ahead?” I asked her, innocently as possible.
“What’s down the road, say, two years from now.”
She shook her head. “I don’t buy lottery tickets, I don’t visit fortune tellers, and I don’t worry about tomorrow.”
Nothing she ever said or did appeared premeditated. Yet I felt the pincers of possessiveness snapping shut, trapping me with all this good feeling. Because I truly enjoyed her company, and the threat wasn’t powerful enough to overwhelm that feeling.
Still, I tested my limits. “I want to go out by myself tonight,” I said one evening in April.
“Should I wait up?”
She shrugged. “Thought it might be nice. Never mind. I don’t want to intrude.”
“I’m meeting some of the guys from my office,” I said.
She nodded and said nothing.
“We’re going to a strip club.”
“That should be fun. Maybe I’d better wait up. You might be rarin’ to go when you get back.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
She frowned. “You have to live your own life. How can we get along if I’m telling you what you can and can’t do?”
“A-ha!” I shouted, pointing at her like a melodrama villain. “Then you are trying to snare me!”
“What do you mean?”
“This passive-aggressive stuff. This ‘Do whatever you like’ stuff. You’re trying to get me to marry you. I knew it all along.”
“Marry you?” She giggled in surprise. “Oh my god.”
Oh my god. I’d just forfeited the game. Game, set, and match. Call in the caterers, hire the hall.
“Marry you?” she repeated. “Oh, I wish I could. I can’t. It’s sweet of you to think that, but I’m promised to somebody else.”
Let’s talk about me for a moment. I breezed through a well-regarded business college already tasting my inevitable success. When I graduated, and this was over ten years ago, I discovered that what I really was good at was college. Too broke to go back, I embarked on a series of dreadful positions in various state government offices, building myself a reputation as a pretty good office manager. That is, I wasn’t good enough to specialize in something profitable like caseload administration, but I could always get a job.
A decade of Nobody work had turned me into a Nothing, an unremarkable fellow carrying a little too much weight and little too little hair, always meaning to get to the gym but ashamed to strip in the locker room. But I found some emotional equilibrium in the dullness of it all, happy to sacrifice the potential for emotional ecstasy for the reliability of avoiding the wicked sucker punch fate invariably sends you as a balance. And here I was. Sucker punched.
I avoided Pam for a while, hiding in my apartment with the phone silent and email unchecked. My resolve crumbled after a mere three days – nights, really – and even the flurry of anger I felt after discovering she’d left no messages melted away one night later. Even so, my return to her place was to allow me to pick up clothing, to pick up clothing, nothing more, but “Hey there!” she cried cheerfully as I let myself in. “It’s about time!” We fell into bed, I nuzzled her neck, our passion re-painted the room with bright, sun-kissed colors. We subsided.
“Who is he?” I said.
Pam is terrific at fielding questions. She’d be great on a witness stand: detailed and honest, rarely wasting a word. Trouble is, when what she’s saying is a total shock, those words still seem to be too many. Stuart and she were partners running the PR company’s short-lived New York office; when it closed, a year ago, she moved to the firm’s Bay Area headquarters while he stayed in Manhattan and found other work. And, wow, he was everything you’d want in a man, thanks a lot, except that he was big into commitment and only would keep on having sex with her if she agreed to make wedding plans.
“I told him it would be good for me to move out here to see if we’re really meant to be together. He wasn’t happy, but he went along with it. I mean, he could have moved, too, but he got a great job and he’s insecure and greedy. We decided to spend a year completely apart. No contact, no phone calls.”
“So you’re going to dump me and marry him?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re so self-absorbed. The point is, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to marry him. But he’s just crazy enough to hold out for that year.”
Which ends when?
“Next month. He’s supposed to fly out here and see me then.”
“So I’m just — left hanging?”
“Oh, stop! Aren’t you enjoying yourself right now?” She set to nibbling on my shoulder and neck, an effective way of changing the subject. Still: I knew I was being used.
Stuart was one of those tall, sallow, wavy-haired guys you expect to affect an English accent. Actually, his voice was neutral but friendly. I called him from the airport — easy enough to find his number before I left — and met him after work at a midtown bar. I’ve never owned a made-to-measure suit, but I’m savvy enough to recognize what money looks like when it’s got lapels and a pocket square.
“Are you sleeping with her?” he parried after I asked about his intentions. It took me by surprise, but two can play the evasion game. “What I’d like to do,” I said, and this was true enough, “is go out with her. But she doesn’t feel that would be honorable if you’re still in the picture.”
“So you want . . . what?” he said, studying me along his long beak with a condor’s glare. “To get me out of the picture?”
Sometimes you can’t see futility until you’re mired in it. I’d hoped that my unannounced visit – that the very fact that I was motivated to do a thing like this – would scare him off. But even though I might be a big part of Pam’s life, to this full-of-himself bastard – how dare he pay for my drinks! – I was an inconvenience. A curiosity. Or, worse, nothing. And that’s the thought that inspired my reply. “To find out where I am. Whether I should be in this picture at all.”
“Fair enough.” He drained his drink. “Let’s get out of here. Got a party to visit. Are you up for a look at my social life?”
Down the hatch. “Let’s go.”
He nodded and led me to the sidewalk, where a cab glided to a stop without, as far as I could see, being hailed. “I think I’m going to like you,” he said as he settled in the seat beside me. “We have something in common.”
I woke up alone in an unfamiliar bed surrounded by afternoon noise and light. I was in my underwear. It was drenched with what I hoped was sweat. My head hurt. As the mental fuzziness misted away, I remembered strobe lights. Dancing. Miniskirts and lace-edged brassieres. Tequila. Rum. Someone named Holly with a pin through her tongue.
I’d planned this trip as not even an overnight and had made no mention of it to Pam. A bedside clock-radio indicated 2:15. My flight had taken off three hours ago. I punched into my wad of clothes — everything was moist — and emerged into a tidy, well-appointed apartment. I was in its only bedroom, although a stack of blankets sat on top of the living-room couch. A note by the coffee machine read, “Help yourself to the fridge. Call Stuart. Door locks behind you.”
“You sure know how to party,” he said when I phoned him. “You impressed the hell out of Holly.”
Was he putting me on? “Speaking of which, I need a change of clothes. Mind if I borrow – ”
“That’s not my apartment you’re in. Doubt if anything there’s your size. Listen. I’m going to take you dinner tonight, introduce you to someone. I made a reservation at Les Embonpoint, West 58th Street, eight o’clock. See you there.” He hung up.
In the dresser I found only women’s garments. In the medicine chest was a prescription bottle for someone named Rachel, which made the Holly thing even weirder. After a long shower I eased back into my clammy clothes. I finished a container of orange juice and was about to leave when I noticed a laptop computer on the small kitchen counter. Which, I decided, entitled me to check my e-mail.
There was none. So I checked Rachel’s. Lots of boring business stuff, some let’s-meet-here notes from Stuart, and a torrid correspondence with someone named Peter, who liked to recall every slap and tickle from the night before. By the twentieth or so message of his I read he had compared her breasts to so many different fruits and vegetables that I was growing more hungry than horny and decided to get some breakfast before dinnertime crept closer.
I was on a street called Bedford, which turned out to be in Greenwich Village. On Bleecker Street I found a clothing store and outfitted myself at impressive expense. By the time it was time to start heading uptown – return flight sorted out and a glass of wine already working within me – I felt almost human. Les Embonpoint was in a fancy hotel, and I arrived early enough to shave in the men’s room. I found Stuart in the lobby, a stunning brunette on his arm.
“This is Rachel,” he said.
She smiled and extended her hand. She might as well have delivered a haymaker, so intense was the shock of her beauty. Her body had been melted into a shimmering cerulean dress, her brown eyes fountains of happiness. I have never desired a woman so intensely and never felt so punished for feeling like that. I fibrillated. I collapsed. The air shot out of me as if I were a party balloon collapsing as it sizzled across the room. I shook her hand and murmured, “Nice to meet you.”
“Hope the bed was okay,” she said, and I assured her I’d never known such comfort. I was a smirking, babbling idiot, suffering the intensity of the now even as a rational part of me tried to remind the rest of me that Stuart was offering me this woman as compensation for his soon-to-be-reclaimed Pam.
I would move to New York. Hell, I might just have what little I own shipped out here so as not to waste a second apart from this woman. There comes a moment after every portentous meeting when you get the signal that it’s time for a kiss. For the kiss that kickstarts the romance. Rachel signaled something far beyond that kissing jazz, and I was ready to give her my life to enjoy it.
“The thing is,” said Stuart, after we ordered our meals, “about Rachel and me ... ”
I nodded. They smiled at one another.
“I haven’t had the courage to tell Pam,” he continued. “So I’m going to ask you to help me.
“Pam doesn’t know I’m here,” I said lamely.
“Oh, well,” he laughed. “That means you don’t know her. She knows. She’s very impressed. I congratulate you.”
And all of a sudden my heart went out to the bastard. Poor guy thinks he’s cheating on Pam with Rachel, and all the while Rachel’s got this Peter on the side. I tried and failed to hate her for that.
“Look,” said Stuart. “I’m supposed to head out there next month. You think I could crash with you for a couple of days while we straighten things out?”
Dinner ran longer than we expected – the two turned out to be pleasant, intelligent company – so Stuart hired a limo and we rode to the airport together. Rachel sat between us and slipped her hand into mine as we bumped through Queens, guaranteeing I’d get no sleep on the long flight back.
As the airplane lifted off I rehearsed what I’d say to Pam, who’d promised to be at SFO to meet me. No matter what angle I imagined trying to take, someone came off looking lousy, so I decided simply to deal with it when I got there and avoid, when possible, the truth. It’s the only way I’ll be sure to end up in bed with Pam tonight.
* * *