“Are you cold? I’m cold.” Jennifer always answered her own questions like that. She pulled on a pink cardigan that was hanging on the back of her chair. Sitting behind her, I couldn’t help but stare at her toned, even arms and back as she shrugged on the sweater. She carried an air of superiority, even if she didn’t intend to- her marriage was perfect, her kids were perfect, her work was going perfectly.
Without another word, she got up and left our little office. Typically, she would prelude her trip with a little salutation- “I’m going to get a candy bar” or “I’m going to go get some paper clips”, or even just, “I’ll be right back.” As she left, her stride was firm, almost aggressive.
Was she mad? I couldn’t help that her husband spent more time looking down my dress than at the decorations during the Christmas party. I couldn’t help that he laughed loudest at the story I told about my brother’s first year at college. I couldn’t help that I thought I could convince him to follow me into an empty office if I had wanted to, and I couldn’t help that she knew it.
She came back in, her stride strong on her modestly heeled shoes.
“You OK?,” I said uncertainly.
“I’m just cold,” she said, snapping the words off like a candy cane to be divided between squabbling kids.
Category Archives: Michael Webb
“So, do you want to know my number?”
Her brown eyes flashed eagerly at me. Her bracelet shone in the dim light of the restaurant. I felt like she almost wanted to tell me. I hadn’t really thought about it, but now that she had asked me, I wanted to know. Some questions you knew could never be answered- what if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? But others you didn’t know could be asked, until they were. And once they were asked, the possibility existed they could be answered. I had told her my number. I thought about inflating the total before telling her, but I didn’t. My number seemed a little low. I didn’t expect her number to be zero- that seemed impossible. I didn’t know what number I wanted hers to be, either. Was 5 too many? 10? How many should she have? Would the thought of others who had come before make what we had different? Would knowing I wasn’t the only one imbue the act with some sense of corruption, some taint of ill repute? Would I compare? Wonder if I was better? Was there any difference between assuming the number wasn’t zero and knowing what the number was? It was stupid, but now that I knew I could know, I wanted to know.
“No,” I told her.
“Good,” she said. “I would have lied anyway.”
“Didn’t you see how she was looking at you?”
I drove on, the road nearly empty, my brain processing friction, velocity, angles, momentum, speed. The calculus of a body, moving through space. Leaving point A, heading for point B. “52nd Street” blared from the stereo.
“Who?” That seemed safe.
“That woman. Jessica.” My wife spat the words out.
Nick’s assistant, Jessica. Jessica with the doe eyes and low cut top and too high heels.
“How was she looking at me?” There was only one place conversations like this ended.
“She wants you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m married, for one thing. ”
“Oh, she does. She wants you. You don’t know. You don’t understand how women are. You don’t know what we’re capable of.” That was true.
“I don’t think she’s like that.”
“We’re all like that,” my wife said firmly.
“I doubt it. Not her, ” I said softly. I accelerated a little bit more.
“You never think women do anything wrong,” she told me. “Never. I wouldn’t trust her with you for one second. I’ll slit her throat if she touches you.”
I thought she was wrong, but I had been married too long to say that.
“Would you?” she said, rubbing her nyloned foot. Her heels were high, too.
“No. Of course not.” I pulled through a stoplight, glancing around for cops.
“You know you love the knife,” Billy Joel told us.
I liked to watch Annie when she didn’t know I was there. We had hiked all morning, finally stopping for water and fruit along a rock strewn break in the tree cover. I had wandered off, finally coming back to her from behind her right shoulder.
Her University of Michigan baseball cap was tilted back, her face, red with exertion, now blanketed by the spring sun. I could see the sweat on her back where her dark braid hung down. Her legs were open, her long cotton skirt forming a canopy over her hiking boots and thick socks. She was taking enormous bites of one of the huge pears we had brought, wiping her face with her forearm like a teenager, sitting on a flat rock, looking at the sky.
She was consuming. It was exhausting and futile to try and keep up with her. She was smarter than anyone I had ever met, stronger, emotionally tougher, and could beat me in one on one. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to be with her anymore, it was more that I couldn’t measure up. She wanted a partner, and I knew, no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t man enough- at the center of me, there was nothing left.
She turned when she heard me approach.
“You ready to go on?,” she said with pear stained lips.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.
I squinted as I stepped inside. The faux gold fixtures looked shiny as my eyes adjusted to the light and I felt the waves of steamy heat from the bodies packed in to my old place.
“Hey, girl,” Mike said behind the bar. He was a bald, rosy cheeked Irishman. “Haven’t seen you in a piece. Get you something?”
“Diet Coke, Mike,” I said, my own voice sounding strange in my ears.
“Sure thing,” he said. He didn’t react, which I appreciated.
I looked around the place. I had spent so many hours here, so many long nights and indistinct early mornings. It should look familiar, but it didn’t, the edges too sharp, the wood too imperfectly gouged with scratches where I remembered it as being smooth. Everything was smoother when you remembered it than it was in real life.
I used to tell myself that coming here let me relax, let me be who I really was, let me stop keeping my real self hidden away. What I didn’t realize until recently was that it wasn’t that at all. This was the real me, like I was right now, with the snow melting on the tip of my boot, insecurities and vanities and regrets all mixed up into one.
Mike brought me my drink. It was cold, and he had added a slice of lemon.
“How you been,” he asked me.
“Good,” I said. “Real good, Mike. Thanks.”
She stepped back from the white board, where she had written “COINCIDENT” in her firm hand. It wasn’t a girlish, bubbly handwriting, but it definitely wasn’t a man’s either. The letters were in a bright green ink, standing out clearly against the smooth glassy surface. “So if the lines are completely coincident, class, that means…anyone?”
She looked at them hopefully. She looked like one of the actresses on Law and Order, one of the assistant DAs that worked with Jack McCoy- the one who had been married to a football player. He watched everything she did, enraptured. She made him think of a line from a story he read: “her name was like a summons to all his foolish blood”.
He heard the catty little remarks the girls made behind her back- that she was stuck up. She wasn’t- she was as open and friendly as an authority figure could afford to be. The girls in his classes couldn’t be less interested in their fellow students as paramours- except when someone diverted the boys’ attentions.
He knew it was sheer luck he was placed in this math class, the pure happenstance of needing to have fifth period free, and he knew it was a few more short weeks before Mrs. Reynolds was back from maternity leave. He knew she wasn’t really a TV star. He knew this and watched her eyes flit around the room, looking for someone who knew the answer.
Amy had come up on her bike, jean shorts over a bathing suit, early on that hot morning. Her sister had given her 20 bucks to clear out, so riding bikes with me, the only kid nearby who was in her school, became her plan for the day. I agreed and we took off, finally retreating back to her pool hours later, broke, sweaty and sugared up, once the money was spent on Italian subs, Cokes, and video games downtown. There was a Camaro parked in front of the house. “That’s Eric’s,” was all Amy would say as we pedalled past.
We compromised by listening to her station on the boom box, the one that played all the hits. I would have preferred the rock station out of Worcester at the other end of the dial, but I let her decide, her black hair and dark eyes enough to squelch my complaints.
“Do you think Daryl likes me?,” she asked.
I was silent. I was sure he did.
“I hope he does. I really like him. Does anyone else like me?”
The answer burned in my chest like the salami we ate. I was sitting on the steps by the shallow end, only my face above the water, looking at her from the side. She was sitting on the opposite side, her legs pointed straight at me like a gymnast, her hair spread out like tangled seaweed on the water.
“I don’t know,” I lied.