PICNIC (short story)






copyright 1998, held by author

I pull into the K-Mart parking lot and see her glance at her watch as she paces by her white Saturn. She’s brought the mutt, who is looking up at her with his tongue dangling out his snout, ears erect and tail swaying rapidly back and forth. I apologize for being late. She gets in, carrying a wicker picnic basket and a plaid blanket. The mutt hops in the back seat, yaps at me but quiets down after she utters a few harsh syllables.

            We kiss for a long time—whenever we greet each other with no one else around, our passion is instantaneous—we’re interrupted by the mutt barking at something of interest only to canines. Maybe he was excited just being in a new car. I’m not angry at the dog. Only teenagers can simply kiss for extended periods; adults soon reach a point where they must either stop entirely or get other parts of their bodies involved.

            It isn’t that I want to avoid sex in the car—we’ve done that, we’ve done practically everything—it’s just that today we’ve decided would be different. The plan is to spend the afternoon having a romantic lunch without sex.

Her boyfriend is staying with her this week, and expects her home for dinner. I promised my wife I would take our son to a cub scout meeting tonight. We can both skip a day of work, but we can’t ignore other responsibilities.

We live over an hour away from each other—I’m an account executive for a computer and office equipment supplier. I’m constantly on the road. My territory includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey,  and Delaware. She’s the office and information systems manager for a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Princeton, one of my biggest accounts. She is in charge of all the information equipment. We also attend a lot of the same conferences and seminars. We get to see each other more than once a month, usually at a hotel, sometimes at her place.

            It’s not that I’m not guilty. I often feel very bad about my deception. But I don’t neglect my home—my son, or my wife—I’m there for all the holidays, and give them presents that make their eyes shine with delight. She too, has her life, which I completely respect.

Our relationship is not entirely based on sex. It’s actually based on poetry. Before either of us had to get some kind of career that paid enough to sustain a middle class existence, we studied poetry in college. We like a lot of the same modern and contemporary writers, like David Ignatow, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Robert Bly, and Charles Simic. This mutual interest is what extended our friendship beyond the buyer/seller relationship. There have been several nights in some Sheraton or Holiday Inn or Marriot when after rigorous fornication, we listen to each other read out loud from a slim paper back volume. For those moments, we’re incredibly happy just being together.      All guilt is gone. We’re the center of the universe and nothing else matters.

            Maybe things had gotten too complicated, between the uninhibited sex and the lying to other people in our lives and her company’s recent installation of a new billing system that required heated price negotiations for a bank of PC’s and printers.

We decided to get together for what she described as a quiet, placid afternoon, like in an Impressionist painting, where we would eat lunch and just talk. She knew just the spot; a place she remembered from her college days. It’s a small park in Tuckerton, New Jersey, a secluded, grassy glade near the Mullica River. When we’re close to our destination,  we see a small motel, but we don’t remark on it, both determined not to have sex, just a pure picnic.

            There are no other cars in the unpaved parking lot. We carry a blanket and basket to the field near the water way. There are trees in the background, and the river has a sweet, brackish odor. The air is fragrant, filled with nature. Two men pass by in a canoe. They wave and we wave back. There are some teenagers smoking cigarettes near the river, but by the time we have the blanket spread out and the Chardonnay uncorked, they leave.

            She’s brought fruit and sandwiches: smoked turkey with dried tomato on French bread. The mutt is having a great time. He scampers to the river and barks at a pair of Mallards, then darts over to the trees. She calls him back, and he sits by her with his front paws up and she feeds him a scrap of expensive poultry.

I tell her how beautiful she is—and she indeed can take my breath away—with her dark hair and dark eyes glistening and the way she laughs at what I say. It’s always new between us. We talk about the weather or some random memory related to rivers or picnics and it is more intelligent and interesting than any conversation I’ve had with my wife in ten years. My wife doesn’t understand poetry anymore.

We kiss, embrace, caress—I touch her breasts—but it goes only so far. This is a pure picnic and we’re enjoying it as such. I feel a surge of happiness when I look at my watch and see that it is not even two o’clock and realize several hours of romantic togetherness remain.

            She’s a little giddier than I. She’s drank more wine. I’m on my back skimming through Hotel Insomnia by Charles Simic. She grabs a banana from the basket, lays perpendicular to me and plops the back of her head on my stomach.

            “Read to me,” she says.

            I get through some lines, but keep looking down at her as she peels the banana. She does it slowly, with a deep introspection. I’m fascinated. Everything she does is fascinating. The way she blinks before she smiles, or tilts her head to the side when she listens, or the way her breasts shiver when she breathes. I’m in love with her and right now, I’m not filled with dread of how our relationship could damage my life or the painful contemplation of whether or not she means more to me than the mother of my son. She rips narrow strips of thick yellow skin and gently tugs each one down the curve of the fruit until the naked banana is sticking out from a nest of moist ribbons in her fist.     

            “What happened to the words,” she squeals.

            “The way you handle a banana is distracting.”

            She laughs, looks at me, then at the tip of the banana, then back at me. She winks, fails to suppress a snicker. “It’s a nice one, isn’t it?”

            “Oh yes.”

            “Want me to get you one?”

            “No. I’m fine.”

            “Want a bite?”

            “I’ll just watch.” I close the book and lean the side of my head against my palm.

            She blushes slightly as she pushes strands of  hair away from her mouth. She lowers her head, curls her tongue against the banana, then puts the banana far into her mouth, slowly pulls it out and nibbles off the end. I feel my eyes staring and my lips grinning and I hear myself sigh.

            She puts her mouth on it again, then pushes the banana in and out of her face before taking a bigger bite. The mutt is bored, asleep. The river’s currents purr. The wind in the leaves make a joyful hiss. She wears very little makeup and I do not know if she actually has any lipstick on or not now, but I realize, as she bites the banana again, that I’ve never seen lips so red.

            She gets up, turns around and kneels by my side. She waves the jagged end of the banana at me. She whispers, “sure you don’t want some.”

            I stammer something, take the banana then pitch it over the sleeping dog’s head and into the river. Less than a second later, she’s in my arms and my tongue is tasting banana residue in her mouth. My hands unbutton her chambray shirt and undo her bra. I kiss her breasts and listen to her softly moan. Her hand is on my zipper. She squeezes, licks my ear, then whispers, “do you want me get rid of that for you.”

            I’m nodding, and just as she begins to unbuckle my belt, the sound of radial tires scattering gravel thunders as a Chevy Mini Van pulls into the nearby lot. The mutt is on all fours, barking. She yells at him to be still. We fix our clothes as a  family of Hassidic Jews—three pre-teen children, mother, and father, and a grandparent—march into the field carrying paper bags filled with kosher food and a small tape player blaring Vivaldi—and begin to set up their own picnic. They wave to us, and we wave back, trying to smile.

            “Let’s go to that motel we passed,” she says, glancing at her watch. “We have time.”

            I agree. We’ve acknowledged that we’ve had enough picnic.

            More than a half hour passes before we have everything cleaned up and are back in the car and parked at the Tuckerton Motor Lodge. I walk into the lobby. The walls and front desk are made out of chipped plywood. The blue linoleum floor is covered with a layer of grime. The old man behind the desk stares at me and I say, “I’d like a room. I’ll take an afternoon rate if you got it.”

            He looks at my car through the window, and replies, “I’m sorry sir, we have rules against dogs.”

            “The dog’s a good dog. Won’t hurt anything.”

            “It’s an insurance situation. Hate to have to say this, but the dog will have to stay in the car.”

            She loves the mutt and there is no way she’ll keep him locked in a car for five minutes, let alone how long it would take for us to make love. We can usually go for quite a while. I waste nearly a half hour trying to reason with the guy, even flashing an extra twenty, but he’s a stubborn, South Jersey bastard who hates to see anyone enjoy themselves, especially strangers.

            When I get      back in the car and tell her, she rolls the window down, gives the guy the finger and curses up a streak. We see him grin. I tear out of the parking lot. The mutt barks at me.

We scream in unison, “shut up!”

 We both know that Parkway rush hour traffic will begin in a little while, and that we’re at least an hour away from the K-Mart, which is about 90 minutes from our respective homes.

            I turn on the radio, flip through some stations—music, talk, news—the same old annoying crap. She’s staring at her watch. “Let’s just go back,” she says. “Maybe there’s another place we can stop at along the way, if there’s time.”