There are Christmas light strung around Stacy’s tree, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and underneath a gaggle of gifts from friends and far-off relatives. It is Sunday evening, our favorite time of the week, and we are back from a movie, Casablanca on the big screen. She makes blackberry tea, steaming cups of melancholy that I have grown to love.
But it’s the lights I will remember. Insect spots of color, just out of the plane as my eyes come in on her face, and her sweater, a skin of soft white fuzz. She is the picture of an old-time movie, where the men are always sharp and clear, the women dipped in soft-focus gel, as if they could only be beautiful if they were slightly unseen.
And I knew what was coming. Buried in paper mountains of self-delusion, I could not prevent myself from picturing this scene ahead of time. It would in fact be a relief, because it would unlatch me from all the terrible pounding anticipation of bad things to come. It would also help my stomach.
“Michael, I need to tell you something, and it’s not going to be easy… so I’d better just have out with it.”
Hold your breath.
“I need to stop seeing you so much. I need you to release me from this… arrangement we have. I love you, Michael, I really do, but the time just isn’t right for us.”
I could’ve said something hostile, or defensive. I could’ve broken down and not been able to say anything at all. But I knew it was coming, and I was stronger than I expected. I took a sip of tea and swallowed.
“So… you’d like for us to break up?”
Calm, like a lawyer negotiating a settlement.
“I still want to see you,” she answered. “But I need to be my own woman. I don’t want to feel like I’m… answerable to anyone.”
Sometimes the only truth you find in a romance is when it’s ending, and sitting on this lovely woman’s couch in a calm blue ocean of truth, how could I not honor such a reasonable request? She wants to be her own woman. She’s entitled.
“Okay,” I said. “I think I understand.”
“Oh, Michael.” She kissed me, and held my head in her hands. “I’m so glad. I was so scared of hurting you.”
Oh, you have, I thought. But it’ll come later, when I get home, and tomorrow at work, and tomorrow night, lying in my bed, searching the ceiling for little magic checkmarks. And every time I smell a cigarette on someone’s breath.
I got a new temp assignment that week. The job wasn’t much – answering a telephone for a computer maintenance center – but it was a nice place, and the pay was a couple more dollars than what I was getting the week before. I took my breaks on the unreal perfect lawns of the company parking lot, leaning against a white maple dropping perfect yellow leaves, and wrote a letter to Stacy that grew and grew. By the end of the week, I had 23 pages. I saved the letter for two weeks, then I burned it.
And then I met Nancy. Or discovered Nancy, because actually I’d met her long before. She was one of the production workers at the Coastal Times. I would see her on Monday nights when I came to punch in my theater reviews. She’d be in the next room pasting up advertisements, blaring the radio, singing along, laughing, acting generally like a production person, and sparking only the faintest bit of interest from the theater critic in the next room. But the light provided by 23 burning pages had forced aside my blinders, leading me to ask some questions. Where was that smile, those green eyes, that silver satin jacket, two months ago? Not to mention that great ass?
The great ass had something to do with her aerobics class, but the rest had mostly to do with a recent separation from her husband. The only thing left was for me to ask her out. We were in bed by the second date, and Lord was she deprived. She had married at eighteen and not slept with anyone else her entire life. Now, after fourteen years with a man who came to their trailer every night and smoked pot until he passed out on the couch, she was discovering just how much time she had wasted, and, inversely, just how much time was still left.
Nancy and I became a beautiful case of mutual use. I employed her wonderful body and enthusiasm to drown my memories, and from me she desired only desire, and the willingness to answer questions: How does that feel? Have you ever slept with two women? What’s it like when you first enter me? Are you sensitive there? Where should I put my tongue?
We made love in my rented room, old jazz on the turntable, her taking me into her mouth as soon I doffed my pants, searching my eyes for signs of stimulation, testing, probing. We made love in the driver’s seat of my car, parked in front of an elementary school near midnight. Two minutes after I came inside of her, a security guard rapped on the window. He smiled. “Don’t worry. Happens all the time.”
She played her favorite tape one night as we steamed up the windows, parked next to the beach. We drove around the suburbs on Christmas Eve, checking out home lighting displays. Then I drove her back to the house. My housemates were gone to the mountains, skiing. Nancy microwaved some leftovers from a Christmas party, then after dinner I laid a blanket under the tree and unwrapped her.
The list goes on and on. Nancy gave me my first book of erotica, Delta Venus by Anais Nin. She introduced me to the wonders of phone sex. She sent me a card with a drawing of a female tongue about to enter a male ear, with the caption Thinking of you. She would even listen to me when I spoke of Stacy, even went so far as to ask me what she was like in bed.
“You’re so much better, Nancy. So much more eager, much more attentive. But love always gives sex a rare kind of intensity.”
There came a weekend when I made love to both of them – Stacy on Saturday, Nancy on Sunday. I told Nancy about it, and once more she was just interested, and asked more questions. Apparently, I was her postgraduate course.
“Is it confusing that way? Does it make it difficult to focus on the woman you’re with? Do women feel different inside?”
What Nancy didn’t know was, the night before, I had taken a courageous action. Fueled by Nancy’s lovemaking, I told Stacy I couldn’t see her anymore. I needed a complete break, or I would never get my life back together. Stacy was taken by surprise. The news about Nancy had her suffering a strange bout of dumper’s jealousy.
“But can’t we see each other at all? Doesn’t that seem kind of extreme?”
“You have too much of a pull over me. Please, if you do love me, do this for me.”
I wrote that night into a poem.
I retreated for a candle,
passed up the new pearlescent wands for a
wick near death, stale snub slipping its sheet
ready to drop in level darkness
I told you I could love you as a memory but not a fragment.
The flame drowned in its oily waste
scarred love in strands of gray
Later, on a bed of one last night,
you whispered to me in the sighs of a child
of your dream
two ends of a box that would not meet except in our kiss
The poem devastated her. It was meant to. We made desperate love that night, gripping each other, hanging by our fingers from slick walls of granite.
The next night, Nancy took off our clothes and straddled me on the sofa. The television sent murmurs of light across her ivory white hips, working up and down, just for that moment an organism removed from Nancy’s body, or mine, or anything. And how odd, a minute later, that I would find myself watching the television instead.
I hate weeks like that. I had too many things going on, traps at every corner, lion pits holding spiked poles with my name on them. I kept forgetting things. That morning, I forgot I didn’t have clean socks – except for the ones I’d worn the night before, fountain-washed and draped over the heater, crispy like pork rinds.
Fountain-washed. I didn’t know what I was going to do about that. The Mozart was maybe twenty minutes long, and there was no getting around it. I had to look at the woman. I may swim in the scummy shallows on other issues, but no veteran chorister worth his salt would neglect to watch his conductor. Besides, if I didn’t watch her, this time she might drown me.
So I crunched into work on my French toast hosiery and counted the steps to my cubicle, flipping hi’s and howareya’s to anyone nearby. When I got to my desk I was overtaken by the desire to stretch. I leaned forward with both hands on my filing shelf and let the thing draw me out – uuunngh! – opening my eyes on my Van Gogh calendar. A look down and I found a photograph, placed square in the center of my desk like an offering.
She had that dark Mideastern look, bronze skin and big, black eyes. Assyrian, maybe Indian, a strong, thin face, prominent nose, thick black curtains of hair. She stood in a garden, rose bushes with sprays of yellow and white blossoms, smiling shyly.
“What do you think?”
Naomi. She grinned Cheshire-like over the partition.
“Of Joanna! That’s my friend I wanted to introduce you to.”
“Oh,” I said. “Cute.”
“Cute?” (Wardrobe Report: white lace dress, puffy shoulders, red velvet bow in her hair.) “I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t think she’s gorgeous!”
Just what I was afraid of. Accent marks. And you can’t have your cubiclemate mad at you.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re right. She has beautiful…” I re-checked the photo “…eyes. She has beautiful eyes.”
“So do you want to meet her?”
I looked at the picture again, falling a little.
“It’s kind of bad timing.”
“Well! That’s what I get for helping.”
Oh God, now she was going to be miffed.
“See if I try to improve your love life, Mr. M. Michael Moss. Bad enough you can’t see beauty right in front of you, but now you won’t even meet her, I mean, my God…”
“Naomi! Please, please…” Accent marks! “If I agree to meet her, will you stop?”
She granted me a Sunday school smile. “Certainly.”
I laughed. “Okay, okay. But not until next week, all right? I’m having a hellacious week right now.”
“Oh,” she said. “Um, okay.”
Naomi had something up her lace sleeve, but I didn’t have time to investigate. Roxy and her assistant, Maria, were zipping up and down the rows, herding accounting department types toward the lunchroom. “Meeting!” Roxy called. “We’ve got doughnuts!”
‘Nuff said! I managed to get there first and make off with the prize, a humongous bear claw. I retreated to the back table and placed it in the center of my napkin.
The accounting department was mostly female, especially with Mark and Vijay out sick. Larry Coulter and I were the only males to be found. He came to sit with me – a survival strategy, no doubt – escorting a luscious piece of cherry cake doughnut.
“Ostentatious display of culinary finery,” he said, waving toward my bear claw.
“Indubitably,” I answered.
Larry and I had this running joke. He was about the only other specimen in that moron shop who could match my vocabulary, so we spent our conversations bartering twenty-dollar words.
“Quite an awe-inspiring plurality of feminine representation this morning,” I said, stuffing a bear-toe in my mouth.
“Just on happenstance,” he answered, “and on testimony of the present visual evidence, I would seem to have no alternative but to concur with you, lest my perceptual capabilities be drawn into censure.”
“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled around my mouthful. Larry sat back and watched me try to swallow in my haste to answer. Naturally, I got a piece stuck in my windpipe and started to cough. Larry pounded me on the back, perhaps more forcefully than necessary.
“Michael? Are you all right?” Roxy, perched up front, showing her fifty-but-not-finished legs under a mid-length blue skirt.
“Yes! Mm-HEM! Yeh, I’m okay.”
She smiled. “You don’t have to rush, there are plenty of doughnuts.”
The feminine plurality certainly enjoyed that. I’m apparently only here for their entertainment. Larry smiled. I sipped some coffee to soothe my throat, and Roxy proceeded.
“This morning, we have a company video. Now, I know most of this is geared toward the sales department, but I would like you to pay attention, anyway. As employees, you should know what direction the company is headed. Lucille, could you push the play button? Thank you.”
Maria flicked off the lights and pulled the blinds, cutting out the glare on the television.
It always amused me how our company refused to hire professional speakers for their videos. Their little faux newscasts began with all these slick graphics – the kind you might see on a national football broadcast – then proceeded to ill-suited vice presidents with ten-dollar Nebraska haircuts who read each line as if it had nothing to do with the line previous.
Larry leaned over and whispered, “Brazenly amateurish hokum.”
I readied a return salvo but caught Roxy’s eyes across the room. She wasn’t watching the video; she was watching me. Not in a scolding way. Just watching.
Another guy came on-screen, bald, overweight, thick eyeglasses, company blazer, looking like a refugee from the corner hardware store, but at least he was more natural in front of the camera. I checked out Roxy, still watching. Oh, the hell with it. I leaned over to whisper to Larry.
“Mr. Amos’s capacity for oratorical verisimilitude is vastly superior to that of his colleagues.”
“I concur,” said Larry. “A detectable improvement.”
Roxy, still watching. I stared back and winked. She smiled, just a little, and crossed her devil legs. The credits came on. Maria switched on the lights. The accounting department lifted its hands as one to shade its eyes.
“Umm, I don’t actually have a lot of business this morning,” said Roxy. “Remember, we’re changing to new credit slips next week. Be sure and throw out all those A-7s by tomorrow. Carolyn, did you have anything?”
Carolyn was the matron of the collections department, schoolmarm type, cotton print dresses with high collars, plain white stockings. Rumor had it she was only a year older than me, but I’d want to see that birth certificate.
“Just come to me if you have any audit questions. Oh, and double-check on bankruptcies. We’ve had a few go through the cracks in section five.”
Roxy waited to make sure Carolyn was done.
“Okay,” she said. “One last thing. I know everyone’s busy, and I don’t want to cut into your social lives too much, but please do come to Fred’s party at Sneaker’s tonight.”
A silent unison groan spread through the room like an oil spill.
“Now you know, Fred made a tough decision in transferring to Fresno. He’s been at this branch almost twenty years, and this is quite a stressful time for him.”
What she couldn’t say was that Fred’s wife ran off last year with her lesbian lover, an overnight flight to Denver while Fred was at a car show in Reno. Not that Fred didn’t deserve it. You could find mitochondria with more highly developed social skills.
“Anyway,” said Roxy, “please come by, if only for a few minutes, just to at least say goodbye. I would personally appreciate it very much.”
Roxy targeted the word “personally” in my direction. I was surrounded.
All social needs at National Auto Credit are fulfilled at Sneakers, a mile away on Wolfe Road. Hanging onto the corner of a supermarket shopping mall, the club nonetheless maintained a wholly separate identity once you were inside. The active current was a sports-bar rowdismo reminiscent of your average halftime beer commercial. It was also dark enough to make everyone vastly more attractive, with walls cluttered up like a yard sale: dog-eared pennants, team photos, ancient baseball gloves, wood-shaft golf clubs with rusty heads – and a Day-Glo sailboard hanging from the ceiling.
The furniture was comfortable faux-wood, chairs with big cushions and booths with red upholstery, tall round stools and tall round tables gathered around a rectangular dance floor they called the pit. Legendary sports figures romped across the walls in acrylic paint – footballers making fingertip grabs, baseball heroes winding themselves out of home run swings. When the music came on – a gorpish slab of Top 40 old and new – the folks danced while the big screen flashed a loop of extreme action idols: skateboarders in swimming pools, cliff skiers, bungee-cord divers.
I went to the bar and ordered a long-neck, even though I knew they’d all be drinking from pitchers by now, managers and small-time execs throwing down twenties just to show how big and magnanimous they were. But I wanted my own bottle, all to myself. That’s how desperate I was getting. The first person I encountered was Brad, a tall, wiry cuss from Oregon who chewed tobacco and played a decent brand of softball when he wasn’t drunk. Brad’s welcoming horse laugh seemed like a good first step. He was playing bar basketball, and was up to 54 points with five seconds left, which is pretty impressive.
“Shit!” He missed the last shot off the rim. The timer hit goose eggs and let out an electronic raspberry: HUUNNNN!
“Goddamn piece a… Hey, Mikey! You ever try this thing?”
“No. But why’re you so mad? That’s a great score.”
“Yeah, but if I sank that last one I woulda gotten ten bonus seconds.”
“Ah. So how’s the party goin’?”
He wasn’t buying my change of subject. “Here, go ahead. I’ll put in the quarters.”
He popped them in the slot and spat some reddish brown ooze into a cup. I wasn’t ready for competition, but once Brad hit the flashing button, the mini-basketballs came at me like marauding huns and I was right back out on the schoolyard. Brad stood next to me and coached.
“Off the backboard, yeah, like that, try one-handed. Hot damn!”
I was in a rhythm. I hit twelve in a row, striking that perfect impact point six inches above the rim. Just before zero, I hit one last shot and reached the bonus round. Brad was going nuts.
“All right, Mikey. Do it, do it!”
The adrenaline surged, spilling over the rim of my tanks. I overshot a couple, then paused to recalibrate. Baroque. Metronome. I sank the last five, swishing one at the buzzer.
“Holy shit!” Brad shouted. “Seventy-six! You hustler! Here, let’s do another.”
“Nah, rather quit while I’m ahead.”
“Hey, but let me buy you a beer. Shit, man – score like that’ll get you laid!”
Brad hopped off to the bar. I scooped up the two remaining balls and hook-shot them dead through the rim. This could be all right, I thought. This could turn into a decent party.
“Here you go, buddy,” said Brad. “Let’s take off.”
We quick-stepped to the far corner over the dance pit. We think of it as our own little office annex. The head table was manned by Michael Cunningham, Fred Glynn (headed for Fresno) and the femme fatale of accounting, Miz Roxanne Cater. Roxy was licking her lips, first sign of impending drunkishness. Mr. Cunningham and Fred were into some glorious repo saga from days of yore.
“…and that ratty little sucker tailed me for half a mile,” said Cunningham. “On foot, screaming like a banshee. I had to run a red light to lose him.”
“Y’sure run into lottassholes in repo,” said Fred, raising a finger toward some notable spot in the ceiling. “I sshure miss it.”
“I’m gonna miss you, Fred. Hey! Look who’s here, my young compadres Brad and Mikhail. How’re you doing, fellas?”
Cunningham shook my hand, almost squeezing my fingers out of alignment, but I was ready for him, deep into the palm. These auto guys were dangerous with their handshakes.
“Mikey here just skunked me in bar-sketball,” said Brad. “He’s got hidden talents.”
“I know, I know,” said Cunningham. He turned to Fred. “I was trying to get young Mr. Moss for your department, Fred, but he would prefer to chase all those tender young skirts in accounting.”
“Issashame,” Fred drooled. “Dirty shame. Coulda used ya.”
Roxy gave me a look of pure candle glow. “Mr. Michael Moss is a hundred-watt bulb in a room of night lights,” she said. “He is a bona… fide… sweetheart.”
“Oh-hoh!” said Cunningham, who, I’m sure, had designs on Roxy himself. “No wonder I can’t pry you from Roxy’s iron grip.”
Brad spat some tobacco and leaned in. “Did I tell you about that psycho case last week, Freddy? Told the guy I was gonna come get his old heap, came around the next morning to find it penned in by ten other cars!”
“Nooohh!” Fred blurted. He picked up a napkin and wiped his drool. “How dee doo it?”
“Just called all his friends and had them drive on over. But he didn’t count on me towing every single car in the lot!”
“Oh God!” said Cunningham. “That must have been a sight.”
“Lov’t see th’look on… guy’s face when gotbek,” said Fred.
“Oh Brad!” said Roxy. “You’re ee-vil!”
All during Brad’s story I had the feeling my name was being called. I finally located the source: Naomi, leaning over the railing. “Yoo-hoo! Mii-chael!”
Wardrobe Report: gold lamé blouse, white matador jacket studded with red and orange rhinestones, and a black leather mini with fishnet stockings. I waved back, hoping she would disappear. Instead she yelled at me, like a mother scolding her three-year-old.
“Michael! Get over here!”
“Sounds like you’ve got a fan, Mikey!” said Brad. “I’d get over there quick before she cools off. I told you, man – seventy-six points, man.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said, flashing my best phony smile.
“Save me a dance, Mikey,” said Roxy.
I picked my way through the mob like a running back, finally reaching Naomi, seated next to her friend with the deadly onyx eyes. Oh shit.
“Michael, this is my friend Joanna. Joanna, this is Michael Moss. He’s friendlier than he seems.”
Not having any recourse, I faced the enemy and took her hand.
Joanna’s lips quivered into that shy smile from the photo. Oh God.
“Naomi’s told me a lot about you.”
“Naomi, I thought I…” I stopped when Joanna brushed her hair back. It settled onto her shoulders in slow motion.
“Let’s all dance!” said Naomi. The word spread and our co-workers massed toward the pit. “Joanna’s a great dancer,” Naomi whispered.
Joanna unleashed a blinding smile. “Well. I can keep a beat.”
Oh God. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a face falling into a Manhattan.
“I’m sorry, Joanna, but I promised to dance with my boss.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”
“Nice meeting you.” I dodged my way back to the Round Table and found Roxy wearing a dazed expression.
“Roxanne. Would you care to dance?”
Roxy set herself into the oh-I’m-too-old, I-need-to-be-coaxed posture. “Oh, I shouldn’t, I really…”
“Nonsense, Cater!” Mr. Cunningham growled. “Get out there and show those young punks how it’s done!”
“Oh… Okay.” Roxy hopped off her stool and grabbed my hand, dragging me down to the pit where the office’s younger members were moshing it up.
The song was some heavy funk tune, metal guitar, wicked downbeats – not anything Roxy was probably used to. But she was good! She ground her hips while drawing out a circle in the air, then moved forward and ground her hips against me. Cunningham and Fred leaned over the railing, cheering her on.
“Get him, girl! Yow!”
The music switched to a retro rockabilly number. I thought about bowing out, but Roxy had a full head of steam and besides, out here at least I was safe from any further Assyrian hookups. She went into a classic twist, then slid forward, her blouse dangerously unbuttoned.
“You know how to touch dance, Moss?”
“Umm, yeah, sure.”
“Then spin me.”
I took Roxy’s hand and motioned her around, then she yelled for another. I whirled her around and caught her by the waist, passed her side and let go, sliding off a hand then reaching behind my back to take the other, spring back, a step forward, release, slide into a spin, rolling along her arm till she was about to fall, then I stopped her with a hand, worked her into a double spin, and finished by pulling her in close and walking us around in a tight circle.
“Whew!” she exhaled, eyes lit up. “You’re good, Michael. Can you do that shoulder slide thing?”
“Sure.” I let her back and pulled her forward, curling a hand over the back of her neck and sliding it along her arm, catching her hand and spinning her back my way.
“Where did you learn all this?” she asked.
“Mom and Pop. Best jitterbuggers in the state of Indiana.”
The tune was about to end, so I dropped her into a dip, touching her hair to the floor. Our two-man peanut gallery went nuts. Roxy covered her face in triumphant embarrassment. A sexy Motown thing started up. I looked along the railing and saw no Persian girls.
“Well, thanks, Roxy, I’d better…”
“Come on, Michael. Let’s slow dance. It’s been so long.”
“No, I really have to…”
Roxy leaned toward my ear. “Dance with me, Michael.” (CC: Board of Trustees, National Auto Credit)
What could I say? I did need to pay the rent. I took hold of Roxy around her sexy little former nun waist and took an extended hand. Roxy closed her eyes and swayed. Her legs were inside mine. She pushed her breasts into me and spoke in a trance.
“I used to dance to this song in college, with my beau.” She giggled. “Boy, is that an old expression! He was a tall man, and boy could he dance. You’re like him, Michael, you’ve got that bloodflow.”
Now was the time for panic. Had I not been placed into enough terror-filled situations for one week? In movement three of my laments, Roxy Cater cuddled up against me, craned her neck over my shoulder and inserted her tongue in my ear.
“I think we should go to my place for a little after-party.”
Holy shit! I tried to keep dancing, maybe lull the idea back out of her head, send her back to her Long Island iced teas.
“Now Roxy, I…”
Her next step was to take her hand off my shoulder and move it to my crotch.
“I know you’re not ever going to give me your mind, Michael, but can I at least have your cock?”
“Roxy, come on now, stop that.”
I tried to take her hand back, but she eluded my grasp and slid her fingers into my pants.
“Anyone who dances like you must be a terrific fuck.”
Now I was pissed. If I had no way out of this, I would damn well take the worst way out of this.
“Roxy, get your hands off my dick!”
Funny what adrenaline will do to your volume control. At that moment, the population of Sneakers did two things: sat frozen at their tables, staring at Roxy and Michael on the dance floor. And two: realizing what they had just heard, broke into gales of laughter. Roxy flushed so badly I thought she was going to stroke out right there. She turned and stormed up the steps, followed by me, walking bow-legged around my erection, blurting out the beginnings of apologies.
“Roxy. I’m sorry, I… I didn’t… Please…”
As we re-entered the lounge area, a waitress walked past with a pitcher of ice water. Roxy grabbed it, pivoted with the smooth coordination of a point guard, and deposited the contents over my head.
I lost my erection. I couldn’t breathe. Chunks of ice clattered to the floor. I was snapped back by the roar of the crowd, fifty-some co-workers standing and whooping and slapping their knees. Brad would tell the story and have Roxy dumping five pitchers of mai-tais over my head. “And then she stuffed three jars of maraschino cherries down his pants!”
It took me one long second to decide what to do. I surveyed a path between myself and the door and I took it, like a baserunner breaking for second. I sped forward, churning my legs, dodging tables, and burst out the doors, narrowly missing three girls standing outside, then skidded down the sidewalk to my car. I thrust out my key, hopped in and revved the engine, ready to go, when someone rapped on the window.
Cheese it! The cops! It was Larry, giving me a quizzical look. I rolled down the window.
“Michael! What the…”
“Larry!” I said, smiling deliriously. “It’s been a pleasure working with you.”
I waved and burnt out of my spot, zipping across the lot and onto Wolfe. I saw Larry in the rearview mirror, invisible question marks dancing over his head.
Photo by MJV