Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Monkey Tribe, Chapter O: Chinese Puzzle Box

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“Look. I realize I have no right to ask this, but could you…? Could…? Shit! Would you take me on a romantic date?”
“Hi Audrey.” Jack is feeling grateful for caller ID. “Any specifics on that?”
“You don’t know? I wanted you to just know.”
Jack takes a second to analyze this request, but his brain is not getting far.
“Look. Audrey. I am always delighted to hear from you, but you gotta admit, this is a little outside your usual behavior. So rather than expecting me to read your mind, could you just… tell me what you want?”
            “Just tell you? Just like that? Just ask for what I want? That’s insane! Dinner, in a real restaurant. I’d like you to dress up nice – no tie, no suit, just nice. And then, most of all, I’d really love it if you would dance with me.”
That last one seems highly unlikely. But Jack knows that he is never, ever going to say no to Audrey LaBrea.
“So when would you like to…”
“Two hours?”
“Really? I mean… really?”
“Um… yes?” Audrey’s voice sounds like the voice of someone who is chewing her fingernails.
“Will you have any respect for me if I admit that I, in fact, am doing nothing on a Saturday night?”
“Will it get me a date?”
“I will respect your brains out, honey.”
“Well then!”
“But until I give the word, let’s pretend that I am a lady.”
“Of course.”
Ill-informed about Monterey restaurants, Jack negotiates a rendezvous at the Sanderlings. The drive down is foggy and chill, so he rules out any ideas of patio seating. He’s waiting next to a gas fireplace outside the entrance, enjoying a salted hot chocolate, when Audrey makes her appearance, wearing a long purple coat with a fake fur collar that frames her face in the manner of a czarina. Jack greets her with a half-dozen white roses. Audrey responds with a smile she’s been saving since high school.
“The lady requested romance?”
“Yes. But I didn’t expect the gentleman to go for extra credit.”
“Get used to it, honey.”
He kisses her and takes her inside, where they’re seated across from the fishtank. The orange clownfish seem like old friends.
“Red or white?” he asks.
Audrey sniffs at her roses. “Unless I miss my guess, they’re white.”
“The wine.”
“Oh! How about red? I want to feel toasty.”
Audrey removes her coat to reveal a little black dress, with the emphasis on “little.” Jack finds the oxygen getting a little thin. When the waiter arrives – a Japanese man named Jun – Jack orders a Stag’s Leap cabernet.
“Very good!” says Jun. “I’ll be right back.”
“You know wine, too?”
“I am entirely faking it, honey. But Thompson has a lot of Stag’s Leap around the house, and it seems to be good stuff.”
“Okay,” says Audrey, laughing. “I’ll stop peeking behind the curtain.”
“Thank you. And speaking of peeking, that dress… Well, if I was gay, I’d say it was fabulous!”
“If you are gay, you’ve been doing a tremendous job of faking it.”
“During sex, I just imagine that you’re Ben Affleck.”
Audrey laughs for a long, long time. It almost seems like she’s using it for therapy. The barometer ticks on.
“So how did you find this place? It’s lovely.”
“Had a meeting here with a heartstricken friend.”
“My compliments. I love the ultrasuede shirt, by the way. It goes so well with your eyes! Oh Jack, I don’t know if I tell you enough, but… I know I’m undependable, but I like you so much that I don’t want to see you too much, because I’ve seen the terrible things that familiarity does to people. Isn’t that awful?”
More puzzle pieces. But he has his instructions, and psychoanalysis is anything but romantic. He sees the word swordfish and decides that he would like to eat exactly that.

He hadn’t really investigated the dancing part, but it turns up right on schedule, nonetheless, adding to the growing veneer of his romantic competence. A three-piece jazz combo kicks up in the lounge, not thirty feet from their table, and Jack notices Audrey’s attentions drifting that way all during dessert. After signing the credit slip (feeling grateful for the per-diems he’s been getting from Thompson), he stands and says, “Would the lady care to dance?”
“The lady would,” says Audrey, and they stroll to the lounge, a tasteful cubbyhole of blonde woods and pastel paintings of tropical birds. Audrey deposits her purse at a table and proceeds to a broad square of hardwood next to the piano.
Jack doesn’t know much of dancing. He went to a few dances in high school, and did manage to find the occasional female to join him in the sea of couples. But they never did anything terribly creative. It was largely an excuse to wrap your arms around a member of the opposite sex, to feel their breathing, smell their hair, touch their limbs, and to sway in a nondescript clockwise drift, careful not to bump into the other couples. A few of his schoolmates – largely the music geeks and cheerleaders – were into the retro swing craze then sweeping the teen population. Their kicks and whirls seemed to Jack like a foreign language, and he envied their grace and rhythm.
With Audrey, doing not much is really not a bad alternative. He’ll stand there and stare at her if she wants him to. But he suspects she’ll want more. He does know enough to at least strike the right posture: left hand holding hers, right hand resting on her waist. He has never actually done this before, but he’s pretty sure he saw it in a movie. It does make a certain sense – it gives him the feeling of steering them forward, like a small ship. Predictably, things with Audrey are never going to be that simple.
“Will you spin me?”
“I’m not sure I know how.”
“First, lift my hand to about six inches higher than my head. Then, draw it forward, away from us, and follow my spin. You might also give a little push on my waist to give me a little momentum. One, two, now!”
Jack feels more like follower than leader, but the trick seems to work. Audrey completes the spin and returns, his right hand settles back on her waist. She smiles.
“Good boy! I think you might be trainable.”
After a few more spins, she introduces a second move. They separate, facing each other, and join hands. Jack pulls her into a spin to his right, holding his left hand over her head, and pulls it back down to wrap her in his arms. After a pause, she spins back out to the starting position.
This is when the barometer ticks forward and Jack begins to get ideas. Wrapping, then unwrapping. Audrey is a Chinese puzzle box; it is Jack’s job to tie her into knots, and then to undo those knots. On their next foray, they wind their linked hands around each other’s necks, then release and run their hands along each other’s arms, until their fingers catch together. The barometer recognizes immediately that this has led them away from the starting position: he is holding her right hand in his right hand. He solves this imbalance by pulling her into a spin along his front, releasing his hand so he can receive her arrival – left hand to right, right hand to left. Two times later, Audrey changes it up. They repeat the neck-wrap, but they hold the position, walking a half-circle, tango-like until he stops and she continues, walking around his back, accepting his left hand with her right and returning again to the starting position.
Each time Jack accomplishes a move, he is greeted by a wider smile. The band keeps playing, the blood moves quicker, and Jack begins to create. At the starting position, he crosses hands with Audrey (enjoying her look of surprise) and spins her around, creating a whirl of arms over her head like the spokes of an umbrella. Then he steps to one side and walks her around, ending with an accelerated spin that leaves Audrey breathless. Next, he places her right hand behind her back, reaches around to take it with his right and unwinds her like a top. Then he realizes that he can turn a spin into a double or a triple just by speaking the number to his partner. Losing himself in the flurry, he begins to do things that he can’t explain. In the midst of a spin, he passes her hand to himself, behind his back. A little later, he decides that he should spin at the same time that Audrey is spinning, and somehow the geometry works, contrasting orbits that cancel each out.
After that, he begins to discover the nuances. His leads become more forceful, assured. He reels her further out and brings her in faster, catching her waist and letting the gravity carry her around. He begins to understand the position of his feet, squaring them to the task. He learns to savor the time between spins, holding Audrey closer, pressing the back of her hand to his chest, changing up the pattern of his steps and feeling Audrey match them, as if she, too, has a barometer. To smile, to laugh, to steal a kiss. As the band plays the final, tinkling stretches of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” he tells her that she must have faith, then braces his knee and lowers her into a dip that touches her hair to the floor. Her expression is half panic, half ecstasy as he holds her there a full three seconds.
“Absolute trust,” he says. She relaxes and smiles. He kisses her and pulls her back to her feet, acknowledging the ache in his legs. They return to their neglected table, where their Irish coffees have gone completely cold. Audrey refuses to let go of his hand.
“How did you do those things?”
“I had no idea I could do any of that.”
“Give me a tender, tender kiss.”
Which he does, their lips barely touching, then pressing together for a lovely second. When he pulls away, she opens her eyes.
“Now I want you to come to Monterey with me.”
An hour later, they are pushing into the familiar animal territories of intercourse when she places a hand on his chest. “Slowly, gently. Not always, honey. Just tonight.”

In the morning, Jack comes downstairs to find a humble living room with cream-colored carpets and walls of Tuscan orange. A pile of photography books, neatly fanned out on a coffee table made from a slice of redwood burl. A wreath of seashells over the fireplace. Pastel posters from art and wine festivals. And the best thing of all, a fresh pot of coffee and a coal-black mug from the Monterey Aquarium, holding down the corner of a neatly written letter.

Dearest handsomest Jack:
I want to thank you so much for last night. You are a phenomenal man, and the way you learned to dance so quickly – unless you’re taking secret lessons at Arthur Murray, I think it’s some kind of miracle.
I must now admit, I was using you for a bit of therapy. My rather colorful last name comes from Tiger LaBrea, my third husband – the last man to court me before I lost my belief in romance. He was a newspaper reporter in Las Vegas. Last week, I learned that he had been shot and killed, apparently for a story he wrote on gambling-industry corruption. I was devastated, and I suppose I wanted to revisit some of that romance. Tiger loved to dance.
I am amazed at your humanity, your warmth and elegance, and I believe that once I come out from this cloud of grief, I will have to acknowledge the idea that I am falling in love with you. Give me a call in a few days, and this time the dinner’s on me.

PS I’m running late. Could you feed the pigeons? (Gray container next to coop.)

            Jack reads the letter a second time, then fills his coffee mug and carries it onto the small backyard deck. Against the fence he finds what looks like a dresser with all the drawers taken out, covered in chicken wire. A dozen stout-looking pigeons in various combinations of blue stand stock-still in the foggy air. Jack finds a large metal scoop in a covered wastebasket full of grain, fills it up and tips it into a metal feeder hanging on the chicken wire. The grain spills into a trough-like device inside the coop, and the pigeons scramble for position, grunting and flapping. Ah, thinks Jack. Now I am their god. Now they love me as much as Audrey LaBrea.
            The word “love” strikes a membrane in his forehead and rings out like a drumhead, sending a chill across his shoulders and down through his thumbs. He digs the scoop back into the grain and presses the lid back into place.

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