Sunday Rumpus Fiction: Real Men

By

My husband Joe is someone who turns on the television when he comes into the house and leaves it on as background noise even when he’s not watching it. I am someone who wouldn’t have a TV at all, if I could help it. But Joe is a firefighter and a hard-working man, and I try not to begrudge him whatever he needs to unwind. In return, he’s usually good enough to keep the volume down when I’m home. So as I stood in the kitchen making a salad for dinner, I barely heard Dean’s voice on the tube in the next room. If at that moment I’d been running the Cuisinart instead of peeling an avocado, I would have missed his slight southern twang as he addressed the court.

“My name is Dean Cady,” I heard him say, “and I represent the United States of America.”

I went into the living room, still holding the knife.

*

I’d met Dean at a party given by two friends, Jordan and Anais, a professor and a lawyer who were married to each other. This was ten or eleven years ago. Dean had gone to law school with Anais. They invited him for me, in an effort to get me interested in white-collar men. They said he was a rising legal star, but still a jock: rugged and well-built and devoted to sports. He’d played football in college and he worked out every day.

When I saw him, I was disappointed but not surprised, but which I guess I mean I was bitter. The boxer I had just broken up with was what I considered rugged and well-built. This Dean had long hair and seemed ill at ease in his own skin.

I was writing my second book and had started stripping again to pay the bills. This didn’t help matters. I worked in an arena where desire was based on illusion, and where I myself was elevated on a stage, under lowered lights, washed in neon – a fantasy. This was where I was comfortable and, no matter how empty it might sometimes seem, it was where I wanted to stay.

I liked my significant others to have the same cinematic quality. The men I went out with were reliably impenetrable, with so much built-in distance that I couldn’t hope to truly know them, and there was no danger of them truly knowing me. They were urban cowboys, never to be domesticated or life-sized.

Dean insisted on being real, and that was the most impossible, off-putting and infuriating thing about him.

The conversation at the party wasn’t promising.

“Anais says you played football in school,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” he answered. “I mean, of course, I sucked. It was for Yale. All the Ivy League teams suck, but Yale was just about the worst, as you probably know.”

“I didn’t know,” I said. College football was the last thing I could imagine paying attention to.

“Well, we were. The worst. Just a bunch of white boys who’d never make any other team anywhere. And to be honest, even there it was all I could do to hold my own. I pretty much killed myself just to be able to play.”

“I see,” I said. I couldn’t imagine what Jordan and Anais had been thinking when they’d set this up. We talked for a while and it soon became apparent that he apologized three times for everything he said. That is, he apologized for what he was about to say, then again while he was saying it, and once more for having said it. “This is going to sound really stupid, and I don’t know why I’m boring you with it, but playing for Yale meant a lot to me. You probably find that pathetic.”

When I left the party, he followed me out and down to the street. “Where are you going?” he wanted to know.

“Home,” I said.

“Well, uh – can I see you home, then?”

“That won’t be necessary,” I told him. “I’m getting a cab.”

I was putting my hand out as we spoke and one pulled over right away. I got in it and he climbed in after me. I was faintly and drunkenly amused by this. He thinks he’s coming home with me, I thought. I guess I won’t have to pay for the cab.

He did cover the taxi fare and out of some vague sense of obligation, as well as drunken apathy, I let him come upstairs with me and bore me with more conversation. I gave him about thirty minutes and when I could stand it no longer, I said, “It’s time for you to leave now.”

 *

He started calling me soon after that. When I think back now to how often he called me then, and how irritated I was whenever I heard his voice, it’s almost impossible to believe. He reiterated all his phone numbers – home, cell, and work – in every message he left. I never bothered to respond.

Anais was someone else who called soon after that.

“Well? What did you think of him?”

“Honestly? Not very much. I can’t even get past his hair.”

“That’s something you can change,” she said firmly.

“And he’s so self-denigrating. It’s one thing to have humility. It’s another to put yourself down all the time.”

“Well, that’s something else you can change. You can help him become more confident.”

“I don’t want to help him. I want him to impress me.”

“Well, most women would find his professional accomplishments impressive.” She thought for a moment. “At least you have to admit he’s buff.”

“What, are you joking? Compared to Billy?” Billy was the boxer I’d just broken up with.

Anais spoke with exaggerated patience. “Dean can offer you a lot of things that Billy can’t.”

*

Anais and I clashed on a lot of issues. The fact that I was stripping three nights a week so that I could write the rest of the time struck her as short-sighted. She thought I should get a job in publishing, learn the ropes, make connections and work my way up from the inside. But if I insisted on wasting my time in a dead-end job, she said, I should at least work in an upscale “Gentlemen’s Club” like Scores, where I “just might stand a chance of meeting someone worthwhile.” Instead I was in a semi-dive called The Catwalk.

“If I worked at Scores,” I told her, “I’d never get to dance for any real men.”

“Maybe – God forbid – their biceps wouldn’t be as big,” she said. “but you’d probably make twice as much money. I’d think it would be as easy to dance for a rich man as a poor one.”

“White-collar men make me feel like a commodity,” I told her. “Blue-collar men make me feel like a woman.”

“Well, as usual, there’s no talking to you. But do yourself a favor and give Dean a chance. Is he still asking you out?”

*

Dean was, in fact, asking me out repeatedly, and sometimes I would go. I went because he seemed nice enough and I could see that he was ambitious and driven. But he was a maddening dinner companion. His conversation was laden not just with his constant apologies but with the endless tangential anecdotes he needed to illustrate every piece of information he gave me. As a result, he did nearly all the talking on every date.

“Well?” Anais would ask from time to time. “Are you developing an attraction?”

“Why does he apologize all the time? I can’t stand it.”

“He’s just being modest,” she said, “because, believe me, he has nothing to apologize for. Look at the clerkship he’s doing. You have no idea how impossible it is to get something like that, and this is the second one he’s gotten.”

She was right. I had no idea. The hierarchy of law interested me about as much as Ivy League football. “Well, his father probably helped him get it.” I knew his father was a lawyer too.

“His father? Are you joking? His father’s a sole practitioner in a small town. Dean wants to be a federal prosecutor.” She paused for emphasis. “His father can’t help him with something like that. His father hasn’t helped him get anything.”

*

The trial on Court TV was apparently an extortion case. I studied Dean. He had his game face on: impassive and inscrutable. Maybe football had given him something he could use after all.

“What’s up, honey?” Joe said. He pointed the remote at the TV and changed the channel.

“Wait!” I said a little sharply. “Put it back, please.”

“To this?” The courtroom reappeared.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I think I knew that guy in school. The lawyer in the gray suit.”

“Oh yeah? Cool.”

Although we had exchanged our romantic histories early and repeatedly, I’d never told Joe about Dean. I never talked about him at all. Which wasn’t to say I never thought about him. On the contrary, I thought about him every day.

On television, the defendant was being asked, How do you plead?

*

Anais’s party was in early December. Dean and I had been on two or three dates before he left a message on my machine the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. “Hi, it’s Dean. Listen, the friends I was supposed to go out with tonight are blowing me off.” This was the most amazing thing I had ever heard someone admit. “I know you’re going to a couple of parties. I guess I’m calling to assess whether you’d feel miserable, or indifferent, about the prospect of me tagging along.”

My life was at a dangerous low. The punks living in the apartment above my own were driving me crazy, night and day, with their noise. Earlier in the week, my cat had died. Stripping was becoming unbearable, but I needed the income too much to quit. And New Year’s Eve was my least favorite holiday of the year.

Next to these things, Dean wanting to tag along with me didn’t qualify as misery. In fact, the wry accuracy of his message made me laugh for the first time in days. I called him back and said he could come out with me if he wanted.

The evening was utterly forgettable, except for the fact that I slept at his apartment for the first time. This was not due to any desire on my part, but because the last party we went to was in his neighborhood and cabs were hard to come by. I was savagely drunk and depressed, and in his bed I clung to him, whimpering, “What am I going to do? I’m fucked up… completely fucked up. My life is fucked up, I don’t know what to do…”

He held me without trying for anything more. “You’re going to be all right,” he told me. “You’re… you’re going to be all right.”

In the morning, I would have been mortified if it had been anyone else. But it was only him, so I didn’t care. I was hung over and in no hurry to go home, because my upstairs neighbors were such a source of tension. I sat at his kitchen table and started writing on one of his yellow legal tablets. It was my morning ritual to write three pages before doing anything else.

He went out and brought back coffee and bagels and a single muffin that he broke in two. He gave me the bigger piece. I noticed this and told myself I should learn to like a man who would probably always give me the bigger piece of everything.

“Do you mind if I hang out here a while?” I asked. “I don’t have this kind of quiet at home. It would be great if I could stay and write for an hour or so.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Well… okay. That’s fine,” he said after some hesitation.

“Are you sure? You don’t sound too sure. If you have things to do, I can go.”

“Look – I’ll tell you the truth. You could stay all day long for all I care. But the thing is…”

“Yeah?”

“The thing is, I really have to take a crap and I don’t want to do it while you’re here.”

I looked at him with disbelief. What was shocking was not that he felt this way, but that he was telling me about it. There were countless alternatives to this kind of confession. He could have gone to his gym, which was just around the corner. He could have gone to the Starbucks down the street. He could have pretended he was taking a shower – that’s what Billy always did. Billy would go into the bathroom, lock the door, turn on the water, and emerge fifteen or twenty minutes later. He would even step under the jet and get his hair wet to complete the charade. I knew what he was doing, and he probably knew I knew. But we didn’t talk about it.

And if none of these possibilities occurred to Dean, he could have said he had work to do, that he didn’t want company, that he needed his space. If he had drawn a line like that, I probably would have liked him better for it. But no. He had to brandish it at me: his humanity and his shame and his shit.

It worked, anyway. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Later that day, a girl who’d been at one of the parties called and asked me who he was.

“He’s a dream,” she said. “Where’d you meet him?”

“You can have him,” I said. “Want his number? Get a pen.”

*

Dean didn’t want to go out with her, and he never did. And knowing I’d given her his number didn’t stop him from calling me. To this day, I’m not sure why I continued to see him, but we dated off and on for almost five months. During this courtship period, if you could call it that, Dean defied everything I thought I knew about the male mating ritual. All the guys I’d ever known had spread their feathers like peacocks and strutted their stuff on the first several dates. If they’d discovered some fantastic bar off the beaten path, they took me there; if they had special talents or credentials, they displayed them; if they had money, they spent it. Dean was the opposite. He seemed compelled to recount to me every slight he’d ever received. The coach who came to his high school to recruit for Princeton, who told him he had heart but was just too small. The upperclassman at the same high school who’d suddenly said to him while standing at the boys’ room urinals, “You fat fuck. Why don’t you lose some weight?” He reiterated, often, that playing football was so far the best thing his life had offered him. “There’s a concept in real estate law,” he told me, “known as the highest and best use. If you have several beautiful acres of unspoiled wilderness, for instance, its “highest and best use” would be for something like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, instead of a factory. Okay? You follow? Well, it never mattered to me that I had a modicum of intelligence, or access to a great education, or any number of other advantages like that. I always felt that my highest and best use would’ve been as a nose guard.”

He seemed to be without a shred of pride. His soliloquies were a free stream of self-loathing. He never passed up a chance to make a crack at his own expense.

Once, on the street, we saw someone he knew from work. After they’d said hello and goodbye, he remarked, “Well, that just blew his mind.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can just hear him now, saying what the fuck is she doing with him.”

Another time, he volunteered the information that he was “hung like a raisin”.

*

A character witness for the defendant was on the stand. I sank down onto the edge of Joe’s chair as Dean began cross-examining her. She was a beautiful but sullen-looking young woman, probably in her early twenties.

“Ms. Cabrera, how long have you known John Berenger?”

“Long enough.”

The judge glared down at her. “One more answer like that, young lady, and I’ll fine you in contempt of this court.”

Is that really long enough? To truly get to know someone?”

“For me it is.”

“If that’s the case, Ms. Cabrera, you must be an extraordinary judge of character. Are you telling me that no one has ever surprised you?”

My husband was impatient to get to the Giants game. “Are you… are you really involved with this show, honey?”

I jumped up. “No, not at all. And dinner’s almost ready anyway. Are you going to want the game on while we eat?”

He looked at me sheepishly. “Why don’t you watch it with me? We can eat in here. I’ll explain what’s going on.” He flashed his most charming smile. “And we can talk during commercials.”

*

By the spring, I was still occasionally meeting Dean for dinner, and still going home alone afterward. But by then I had come to care for him in a sisterly kind of way. I pleaded with him to stop taking shots at himself all the time. I found myself echoing Anais when I told him he had nothing to apologize for. He was applying for the job he’d always wanted – as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, in the Southern District of New York – and I found myself fervently hoping he would get it. And when he cut his hair for the interview, I saw that he was beautiful.

*

I called him one Tuesday evening in late April because the next day, I had to go to a hearing in the courthouse where he worked. I asked him if he wanted to meet afterward for lunch. It was arranged that I would come by his office at noon, and somehow, before we got off the phone, our conversation turned to his work ethic. He told me that in order to have peace of mind, he needed to work hard every single day.

“Even when I’m on vacation,” he said. “I like to feel that I’m getting things done. I actually like to clean the garage, and wash the car, and mow the lawn. Do you know what I mean?”

If I have a weakness for anything, it’s a hard-working man. I don’t even care what kind of work it is; it’s the passion that’s important. I imagined Dean pushing a lawn mower and passing a rag over his ’67 Chevy. It made me see him, suddenly, as the kind of man I liked. And it wasn’t such a stretch anymore. The picture had a sudden and startling appeal.

After we hung up, I spent about a minute staring at the phone. I like him, I thought. And the words that came into my head next were from a pop song there was no escaping at the time.

How bizarre; how bizarre.

*

When I got to his office the next day, he was fielding a phone call.

“This isn’t the best place to call with that kind of inquiry,” he was saying. “You’d be better off calling the Manhattan D.A.’s office.” He listened for another moment, and when he spoke again, there was an edge in his tone that I’d never heard. “That,” he said into the phone, “is a perfect question” – an emphatic pause – “to ask the Manhattan D.A.’s office.”

I found myself gazing at him with delight.

I’d wondered on the way here whether my feeling of the night before would survive the morning. It had. I was glad to see him. He looked good.

 *

But at lunch, Dean seemed tense and preoccupied. He kept looking around the room, instead of looking at me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked him.

“Nothing. What do you mean?”

“You seem stressed out.”

“You’ve never seen me in the middle of a work day. I am stressed out. It’s a stressful job.”

“Is everything all right?”

“Other than that, yeah.”

He stared into his near-empty water glass, as if there might be a prize somewhere in the ice.

I thought, what if he’s the kind of guy who only likes the chase?

But afterward, walking home along Mott Street, I told myself it was true that I’d never seen him at work. That of course the middle of a weekday would make for a different and stressful date.

It was early spring. The sun was shining on the Chinatown streets. Everything looked beautiful in this light.

 *

About an hour after I got home, my phone rang.

“Listen,” Dean said. “You kept saying I was tense at lunch, and that was true. I want to talk to you about that and I was wondering if I could come over after work.”

“Sure,” I said, surprised and pleased. “I’ll see you later.”

I couldn’t imagine what he wanted to talk about, but I was excited that he was coming by. When he arrived, I offered him a beer, and we took opposite corners of the living room sofa.

“Look,” he said. “I have a proposal. We’ve been going out for a few months now, and it’s not going much of anywhere. And since I don’t really see that changing, I think we should make an official decision to just be friends.”

I looked at him, incredulous. “Are you serious?” I asked. “My feelings for you were just starting to turn into something beyond friendship.”

“Yeah, well, see, that’s what I thought,” he said uncomfortably. “And that’s why I think it would be better not to go there. Because, let’s face it, we probably aren’t compatible, and if we don’t let things go any further, we can avoid the risk of real pain.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, suddenly dizzy. “How do you know we wouldn’t be compatible?”

“Because it’s been no secret that up till now you haven’t really liked me. So how authentic could this sudden change of heart be? I think you’ve just decided that you should like me, or at any rate, that you’ll settle for me until something better comes along.”

“No!” I said. “No. I would never do that. I really do feel differently about you. And I don’t know if it can work, but I can’t believe you don’t want to find out.”

“It’s like I said,” he told me stubbornly. “It’s a very long shot. And if we call it off now, neither of us will really get hurt.”

“No?” I said. “What about me? You don’t think I’ll be hurt?”

“You? Come on. You’ll be annoyed, maybe. Or pissed off. But you’re not going to be hurt.”

“That’s not true,” I said. This admission surprised even me. I wasn’t one to admit to anyone, especially men, that they could hurt me. “And besides, what about you? You’ve put in all this time going out with someone who wasn’t attracted to you. Don’t you now want to go out, at least a few times, with someone who is?” I had gone cold all over and I clasped a sofa cushion against my chest to keep from trembling.

“The point is, I don’t trust it. And I think that first impressions should be respected. If you didn’t like me to begin with, it’s hard to see how you could really make that leap.”

“That’s crazy,” I told him. “That’s why people date. To find out whether or not they truly like each other. If the first impression is the defining one, then why go out with me all the other times?”

“Well…” he said. “There was a certain fascination in being around you. I never knew anybody like you before. And I knew no one could mistake me for someone who was actually with you. So it was kind of a voyeuristic thrill, and in a way I was going along for the ride.”

I started to cry.

He stared at me in alarm. “I can’t believe you feel this way,” he said. “I never thought you would react like this. I thought you wouldn’t care, or that you’d be irritated, if anything. I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to think that I could hurt you.”

“Well. Surprise,” I said.

“What if I had said this two weeks ago? How would you have felt?”

I thought about this and tried to answer truthfully. “I probably would have been relieved.”

“You see? How could you feel so differently so fast?”

“Just tell me one thing,” I said. “Is this still up for discussion? Are negotiations still open here? Or is this just a formality, and meanwhile your decision is really set in stone?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s set in stone,” he said. “But I really don’t think I’m going to change my mind.”

I was trembling visibly by now. He put a steadying hand on my leg.

“Look at me, I’m shaking,” I said. I felt a wave of grief that was stronger than pride.

“I see that,” he said. “I just can’t believe it.”

“Dean.” I reached out and gripped his arm. “Please don’t do this. What do you have to lose by waiting? You don’t know how it could be. You don’t really know me at all. It’s going to be different from now on… look, I’m sorry about the last five months. I am. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh, Christ. Come on. You don’t have to apologize.”

“I want to apologize.”

“Well, it’s not necessary.”

“It’s important to me. No matter what. Even if I never see you again, I want you to forgive me.”

“I forgive you. There’s nothing to forgive.”

“Listen,” I said. I had no idea what I was going to say, no idea how to show him how I felt. “You just have to give me a chance. I want a chance to be good to you.” I searched for the words. “I want to be on your side.”

He exhaled sharply and put his head in his hands.

“What?” I asked him.

“That’s probably one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

“Well, it’s true.” But it was still inadequate. “Look,” I said. “Can I touch you? I need to touch you.”

“You can touch me.”

I moved over to him and took his face in my hands, touching it gently all over with my fingertips. I brought my lips to his forehead, temples, eyelids with a desperate tenderness, almost reverence, and then I got on my knees on the floor and brought his mouth down to mine because I couldn’t help myself. Kissing him was like drinking from another’s canteen in the desert, an act of need and sustenance and agonized supplication.

We stayed like this for long minutes before he got to his feet and pulled me up with him, and then we were standing face to face with nothing between us, eye to eye like drill sergeant and recruit, and he was gripping me by the hair, pulling my head back, tilting my face up to meet his gaze. I opened my eyes as wide as they would go and stared into his as deeply as I could. Tears were still coming intermittently but that seemed all right and just then I thought of the phrase the naked eye, because despite having taken my clothes off for the city of New York night after night for three years in a strip bar, despite the fact that I was fully dressed at this moment, despite the fact that he was looking at me only from the neck up, I had never in my life felt more naked than I did now. His irises were all I could see; they were taking up my whole view and I was swimming along the green, in between the gold flecks of eyes that were the same shade of hazel as mine. We were hanging there together in some balance beyond gravity, a kind of swaying trance, a suspension of cynicism and self-protection and artifice, and not only was it all right, but it was hot, hotter than being with a Marlboro Man or an action hero, hotter than anything I could remember. And it seemed the same was true for him, because pressed up against him as I was, there was no mistaking his state of arousal.

You know what this is? he said to me, his voice low and disbelieving. This is me and you.

I know.

I mean… there’s no one here… but me… and you.

Yes. I know that. I know.

*

He left that night no longer sure of what he wanted. He told me he needed to think about it. I was so grateful his resolve had been shaken that I didn’t even press him to stay. It was as if I’d built my case like a house of cards and if I tried to add anything more – if I even disturbed the air – it all might collapse just like that.

*

I woke up the next morning and went out for a run. I was training for the New York Marathon then, and my regular route was fourteen miles long. Usually this mileage was a hurdle to be gotten over so I could get on with the rest of my day. Today I was grateful, so grateful, to have it in front of me. I could not imagine what I would have done with myself otherwise, while waiting for Dean to reach a verdict. I was sick with fear and wild with hope. I was running with my Walkman, and when the long, boring songs I usually avoided came on the radio, I let them play all the way through, desperate to be lulled. Hotel California, Miss American Pie. The longer, the better. I wished the run itself were longer. I wished I could run all afternoon, go deep into the valley of suffering and endurance then somehow emerge on the other side, rarefied and weightless.

 *

He called at 4:47.

“How are you?” he began.

“Okay,” I said. I was afraid to speak.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about last night,” he told me. “But I’d rather talk to you about it in person. I’m playing in a softball game near your apartment after work. Are you going to be home tonight?”

I wasn’t. I was modeling some clothing for a catalogue shoot as a favor to the designer, who was a friend of mine. It killed me to have to say this, to hold him off in any way.

“Oh. Well,” he said. “The guys usually go out for something to eat after the game. Maybe by the time that’s over, you’ll be done.”

“Maybe,” I said. But I knew I wouldn’t be. These shoots always dragged on late into the night.

“Well, look, I’ll give you a call just in case.” He was quiet for a moment, then said, “You know, I have to tell you – what happened last night was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with another person.”

“For me, too,” I said.

“And, well, I didn’t want to say this over the phone, but I think we should give it a shot.”

 *

I wish the story could end here.

 *

The next evening – Friday evening – I had a date with someone else, a guy named Jack, so Dean and I agreed to get together again on Saturday night. Jack was someone I’d gone out with several times, and I felt I owed it to him to break things off face to face. Meanwhile Dean left a message on my machine that afternoon.

“I was wondering if you could help me with this problem,” he said. “You see, there was this girl, and I was pretty much convinced she didn’t give a flying fuck about me, and I figured I would tell her that and it would be no big deal, but she did not want to receive this information. So further discussions ensued… and apparently, something has changed… because now I quite frankly can’t get this girl out of my mind. No, much to my consternation, I can’t stop thinking about her, and it’s impacting – although that’s not really a verb – my productivity at work. So I would like to discuss this development with you… I think that further discussions are in order, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but I would really like to see you tonight.”

I wanted nothing more myself and I told him that when I called him back. “Listen,” I said, “I wouldn’t feel right canceling this date on such short notice. But I’m going to tell him I’m with you now, and that I won’t be able to see him again.”

That was what I did, and he – Jack – was so bitter and hostile that I ended up leaving in the middle of dinner. Rain was coming down hard, soaking me to the skin, and I walked on water all the way home.

*

Finally it was Saturday. Dean had plans with his older sister that afternoon. She was coming in from New Jersey to visit him. Over the phone that morning, we agreed that I’d come over as soon as she left.

“I hope the message I left yesterday didn’t annoy you,” he said.

“Oh, not at all,” I told him. “I listened to it a lot of times.”

“You did?”

“Well, sure. I mean, it was nice to hear that you were thinking of me.”

“Actually,” he said, “that’s kind of an understatement. I don’t know what you did to me on Wednesday night, but I have had an erection for the past forty-eight hours. It’s been unreal. I mean, and painful. I’ve gotten next to nothing done at work for two days straight.”

*

Dean’s sister hit traffic on her way into the city and arrived hours later than planned, pushing the time of our meeting back until almost ten. When I got to his place, I was surprised to see that she was still there. She had decided to stay and meet me. After interminable three-way conversation at his apartment, we went to the bar down the block and had a few interminable rounds.

“So,” she said after a drink or two. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you for a few months now. You’re a stripper?”

I looked at Dean, who looked away. I reminded myself that until now, Dean’s feelings for me had been unrequited and he’d had no reason to sell me to his family. I turned back to her. “I’m a writer,” I said.

“And the strip bar is a source of some interesting material,” Dean put in. This was a stretch, but I didn’t say anything.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “So you write… pornography?”

“I’m sorry,” Dean said repeatedly after she left. “That was bad. I know it was bad. I’m sorry she was like that.” But it also seemed he had taken some of her chagrin to heart.

I tried not to notice this. At any rate, I didn’t want to dwell on it. Fuck her; forget her. After waiting three days to see Dean, and several more hours to be alone with him, not to mention all his talk about round-the-clock erections, I was ready to get it on. But he wanted to talk some more first.

“What do you see as the terms here?” he wanted to know. “I mean, do you want to be able to see other people?”

I thought he was asking for reassurance.

“I don’t want to see anyone else,” I told him. “That’s why I broke it off with Jack. I mean, I fell in love with you on Wednesday night.”

“Oh man,” he said.

I wasn’t sure how to interpret this. “Is that all right?”

“Well, the thing is – I’m not there yet.”

“Oh,” I said after a moment. “Well, that’s okay. I hope that didn’t scare you. I was trying to accomplish the opposite.”

“So, wait,” he said. “Does that mean you want to be, like… boyfriend and girlfriend?”

I wondered if I’d been missing something over the last few days. “That was what I had in mind, yes,” I said. “What did you want the terms to be?”

“Well – I just thought we’d be going out.”

I blinked in bewilderment. “Right… so… is there a difference? What’s the difference?”

“I don’t know,” he said. He looked anxious.

“Are you upset that I told Jack I wouldn’t see him again?”

“No,” he said. “I’m glad you did that.”

“Well, then… is there someone else you want to date?”

“Not now,” he said. “But what if, say, Colleen wants me to meet someone from her firm?” Colleen was one of his closest friends.

“Does she?”

“No. It’s a hypothetical question. What if she did?”

“Well, if you wanted to, how could I stop you? Look, if you want to keep things open for a while, maybe that makes sense. I’m just telling you how I feel. I don’t happen to want to see anyone else.”

“Okay,” he said. “Well, listen, it’s not like I’d sleep with you and also be sleeping with someone else. I wouldn’t do that.”

I thought maybe this meant he didn’t want to sleep together yet. If he wanted to keep his options open, and sleeping with me meant not sleeping with anyone else…

“I don’t have to sleep here tonight, if you don’t feel ready for that,” I ventured.

“What? Of course I want you to sleep here.”

I was past confusion. “Look, whatever you want to do is fine. Could you come over here and kiss me now?”

*

He’d said he was hung like a raisin. That was just a lie.

 *

We went separate ways in the morning, and he didn’t call that night, and he didn’t call the next day. By the middle of the day after that, my heart was already broken.

*

After dinner, and the game, and the happy, rowdy sex we tended to have whenever the Giants won, I lay in bed beside my sleeping husband and thought about trust. I’d never cheated on Joe and never lied to him. Yet I was guilty – if that was the word – of the deepest kind of duplicity, and I wondered if the same were true for him. Was there someone he thought about every day, someone whose name I’d never heard? It was an idle curiosity. The idea wasn’t really a painful one.

I trusted Joe to walk through a fire to get me out, and I trusted him to shoot anyone who tried to break into our house. That was good enough for me.

*

But after Dean and I went separate ways forever, I kept wondering about that transcendent Wednesday night. What happened to us then? We showed each other something that, for a long time afterward, I desperately insisted was the truth. I said it to him and to myself, said it out loud and inside my own head. I said it up and down and around and around. That what surfaced that night was the real me and the real Dean – as if it could ever be possible, even on the most extraordinary evening, to truly know another person. As if there was a wall, always between us, in which a window had opened and then closed again. But now I don’t know. Maybe that insistence was nothing more than a dangerous confusion on my part – the confusion of someone’s daily capabilities with his finest, most impossible hour.

 *

There’s only one aspect of the whole thing that I do know for sure:

That night, the night we met in the air, Dean asked me, “What if I had said all this two weeks ago? How would you have felt?”

And I imagine that scenario sometimes. I imagine myself saying goodbye, I imagine myself thinking good riddance. He was right when he said that if we went further and deeper, one of us was going to really get hurt. So in light of what happened afterward, do I wish it had gone that way? Do I wish he’d made his proposal – the proposal to just be friends – two weeks earlier?

I’ve asked myself that question so many times since, and if I were sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the only honest answer I could offer is no. No, because the memory and mystery of that night are still worth everything to me – everything that came afterward, everything I carry around now. And all I know for sure is that my answer will stay the same, even if it always stays as heavy as it is, even if I never get to put it down, even if I will always carry it alone.

 


Elissa Wald is the author of "Meeting The Master: Stories of Mastery, Slavery and the Darker Side of Desire" (Grove Press), and a novel, "Holding Fire: A Love Story" (Context Books). Her work has also been published in several journals and anthologies, including Beacon Best of 2001, Creative Nonfiction, The Barcelona Review, The Mammoth Book of Erotica, Nerve: Literate Smut, The Ex-Files: New Stories about Old Flames, and Brain, Child Magazine. More from this author →