copyright 2005, held by author
Paul met Gloria at a marketing event featuring a day long series of workshops about marketing trends for people in the marketing business. People in the business came to network and bring back fresh ideas to their companies, or to pretend to network and pretend the ideas were fresh. Mainly, it was an excuse to get out of the office.
Paul was seated in the back row of the hotel meeting room at this seminar by an author of a book on the second phase of the post-boom Internet when Gloria, having arrived a few minutes after the speaker began, sat next to him. After the lecture, which included a lame slide show, Paul asked her what she thought and laughed when she replied, “It’s one of the few times a marketing workshop wasn’t better than the marketing book.”
She was pretty. Her hair, a dark brown, was short, appropriate for the white collar world and even though it was only slightly curly, her bangs and the diminutive locks on the sides and back were turning and twisting, as if her hair was fighting to revert back to its natural dense curliness. This less than successful attempt at constraint appealed to him.
Paul introduced himself and she said yes when he asked if she wanted to get a cup of coffee and instead of attending another seminar, they talked for an hour. Two weeks after trading phone messages they met at this dark, French restaurant that was romantic with excellent food yet oddly enough was located in a strip mall between a hardware store and a supermarket.
Conversation came easy. They liked each other. Not only where they able to talk about their similar careers, she was philosophical about work and life and the type of work they did and how most of the people in it were jerks but people who were not in it didn’t understand it. This attitude Paul not only shared, but found pretty rare in marketing circles where most professionals tended to believe their own bullshit.
Paul told her he was divorced and she explained that she was new to her condo because six months ago she had broken up with her live-in boyfriend. “To be good at something, you need confidence and you don’t get that confidence unless you are good at something and you don’t get good at something unless you put in the time. That time away from him he resented.”
“I think with my ex, we just grew in divergent directions. We were college sweethearts, so we had a history but when it came to, the real world, she had a different career and her attitude towards career was different than mine. Could be that the intensity of youth is destined to decline, or maybe it’s the work.”
“Marketing is business, but there has to be another level of satisfaction and creativity and I don’t think everybody can understand that or appreciate the time it takes to be good at it.”
“All these talk shows and magazine articles about relationship may have made us all obsessed on gazing at the navel of the relationship.”
“Then you spend time talking about the relationship, instead of making the most of the time together.”
“He didn’t understand that, but you know, I love living alone, at least for now. I am comfortable alone. The problem is the lack of time, makes it hard, to meet people. To date.”
“I hate that word.”
“Me too. Let’s not use it.” The tiny flames in the small, glass enclosed candles on the table flashed in her bright hazel eyes. They had shared a desert, some fluffy chocolate thing and she poked her pinkie into the icing of the remnants and quickly stuck her pinkie into the corner of her mouth. Then she smiled back at him.
In the parking lot he said I had a really good time and she said she had a really good time too and he said I would like to call you again and she said she hoped he would and she had the kiss me look. Could it have been a deeper kiss? Could it have gone farther then even a deeper kiss? He was pretty sure it could have but that’s what happened last time, last year, when he was more aggressive on a first date and she was very receptive. That relationship ended badly and now, five months later, this was his first date since then and he always associated the bad ending to sleeping together on the first date. So he held back, didn’t want to appear too eager which he equated with appearing desperate. She seemed disappointed when he stopped after one kiss and got into his car. Did he miss an opportunity? Would appearing to be a gentleman not be appreciated, or did she see through the act and interpreted it as an insult? Did he make her feel unattractive? Did he not find her as attractive as he thought?
The next day before work these questions still bothered him, even as he went through his usual morning routine of drinking a protein shake with ginseng and going to work out at his neighborhood gym. Several mornings a week, that’s how he started his day. Today he weight trained with dumbbells when he saw her reflection in the mirror. She was on the stair master on the other side of the gym. The weight area mirror reflected the reflection from the mirror in the cardio area—she came into view in his peripheral vision and when he turned his head for a good look he dropped the weights. Instant awe. Her face enthralled him. Oval yet angular, her cheek bones shaped like swan wings, her nose longish, with a slight upwards curve at the tip. Her eyes glimmered like obsidian almonds, her stout crimson lips were excruciatingly erotic, yet also sublimely bored. Her skin, a golden olive tone, glistened with perspiration from her exercise.
When he realized his glance had become a stare he picked up the dumbbells again and performed alternating curls hoping she might notice his biceps and be impressed. Then he felt silly that he was showing off and felt even sillier since she wasn’t even looking at him. She stepped off the stair master, zippered up her sweatshirt, flipped her jet black hair over the hood bunched up around the nape of her neck—her shimmering hair was so long it dangled against the small of her back—then she walked out of the gym.
Paul went over to the gym attendant, Jack, a beefy, muscular guy with a gold tooth that matched the gold N.Y. Jets logo on a gold chain around his neck. Paul whispered, “Do you know anything about her?”
“That One, the girl, the woman, who just left.”
“I didn’t notice her.”
“Her face, you didn’t see her face? It was like, Athena’s.” Paul probably hadn’t thought of that name since he had taken that elective Art History course in college. The teacher showed a slide of this ancient Greek statue and said the face of the sculpture was the archetype of feminine beauty and that anyone could see whatever one was looking for in that face—sensuality, nurture, friendship. Anything. He liked that idea a lot, something pure and ultimate.
Jack just shrugged, didn’t get the reference.
After Paul showered, and dressed, drove the thirty minutes to the office and said good morning to everyone and filled up his coffee mug and turned on his computer did he realize, not only was he still thinking about That One, the woman in the gym, he was no longer worrying about the implications of last night’s kiss.
* * *
He knew he had to call Gloria but was unsure as to when. He could wait a day or two, but any longer would probably be as good as not calling at all. The problem is that engaging in any conversation would probably climax with the making of another date and he just wasn’t in a scheduling mood. Besides, he couldn’t get his mind off That One, the woman at the gym. Her face, its softness, warmth, allure. He searched his memory but found no increment of familiarity. He had never seen her before, never seen a face so beautiful before.
The morning was not as productive as it should have been. For lunch, he walked with John, the other account executive in the firm, to the deli across the street, got sandwiches and beverages which they brought back to the company’s lunch room. John was the same age as Paul, but was married with two kids, lived in the suburbs.
“How did your date go last night?” John was always eager for information about Paul’s single life. He was ten years married, and the love life of others provided vicarious yet necessary thrills. Paul had forgotten he even mentioned Gloria to him.
“Fine.” They chewed their sandwiches during the lull. Maybe by mentioning her Paul could stop thinking about That One. “I saw the most beautiful face on a woman today.”
John was instantly intrigued. “Face?”
“She had just a real pretty face. It was more than just pretty.”
He pondered the word. “I guess I might mean that. I saw her at the gym this morning, never saw her before. Beautiful woman.”
“One of those hot, hard bodies?”
“I don’t think I would describe her as especially hot.”
“Do you know who I think is especially hot? That girl, the secretary with the big boobs and the pierced nostril for that IT company on the third floor? The short green hair.”
Paul rolled his eyes. Of course he knew who John meant, John mentioned this woman nearly every other day. He shook his head. “I’m not talking about stuff like that. I didn’t notice her body. I mean, I did, okay and it was nice, a very nice body. Not the saline endowed brick-shit-houses you drool over on those web-cam sites your wife doesn’t know you’ve joined, but it was nice, in shape, healthy.”
“Enough body, John. The face. I’m talking about her face. Stunning. If you made a face like that smile, that smile might be all a man needs in this life.”
Paul thought for a few seconds, couldn’t identify an image. “I really don’t know Roman Mythology all that well.”
“Not a goddess. Godfather. Godfather two. No, strike that. The Godfather. One. When Michael was in Sicily, after he killed that cop and the Turk in the nice family restaurant, good food, in Brooklyn. The lightening bolt.”
“Oh yeah. One of his Sicilian body guards saw him look at the Peasant Girl and said, The lightening bolt.”
“Love at first sight. Of course, she was killed after the honeymoon by the car bomb.”
“It’s not love at first sight.”
“I don’t believe in love at first sight either. Lust at first sight, happens to me all the time. But I’m married.”
“That explains it then.”
John laughed out loud. “It’s only lust in my heart is what I mean. Okay, it might be a little lower than my heart.”
“I’m not talking about lust or love, John. It’s more like intense appreciation. An admiration of something beautiful. Objective beauty.”
“How long has it been, Paul?” John kidded. “You can tell me. I’m your friend. Besides, it might be affecting your work.”
“Well, since I’m not married, it’s probably not as long as you,” he joked back. “Don’t worry, you are still reaching your standard of incompetence.”
* * *
He worked late. It was about six, when he called Gloria, hoping she would have already left and his hope was fulfilled and he just left a brief message. During the drive home, he thought about That One, her face. He cooked some chicken and broccoli, went through channels, finally settling on an old Star Trek movie. The Enterprise crew had to go back in time to the 20th century to retrieve whales because there was an immense object that, inexplicably, was destroying earth and the only thing that could stop the destruction was the clarion call of the extinct Humpback. He couldn’t resist watching the movie, he had watched Star Trek since he was a kid, watching the series and the movies with his father and brother. There was comfort in it. Maybe if he was from a different generation, or his family had different television habits, it would have been westerns or war movies.
After the movie, he lay in bed reading a novel and listening to blues music on NPR. But his concentration wandered, back to That One, not so much her actual visage, but his reaction to her, the impression she made on him more than what made that impression. She would have been his final thought before drifting off to sleep if the phone on his night stand hadn’t rung.
“It’s Janet.” He didn’t need the introduction, he recognized his ex-wife’s voice. When they were together they blamed each other for what their lives lacked, but with few possessions or investments to bicker over, the divorce was basically a formality. They were friends now, stayed in contact, exchanged Christmas cards, called each other a few times each year. She remarried a year ago. There had been no phone calls since and she included her husband’s name—though Paul had never met him—on the most recent Christmas card.
She hadn’t called to chat. “I just wanted to tell you, my mother died.”
There was a long silence. He stammered, “I’m sorry, Janet. She was always nice to me.”
“She liked you a lot, Paul.”
Then came the details of her death. Her car stalled in an intersection and a driver, who had been drinking, didn’t slow down. The collision caused her car to smack into a telephone pole. The car was undrivable, she went to the hospital, her face covered with bruises and her knee fractured. The injuries while not severe did induce a reoccurrence of a cardio vascular disease and the doctor said it was only his speculation, but if she hadn’t had the accident, she wouldn’t have had the fatal aneurysm. Janet’s voice was calm as she told him the story.
He asked when the wake and funeral were scheduled.
“I would have liked to have gone.”
“I knew that. It just would have been too complicated with you there, not everyone in the family has even met Michael, but they still remember you. I’m sorry.”
* * *
Paul didn’t sleep well, skipped the gym the following morning and hardly thought of That One at all. There was a message from Gloria on his voice mail. He didn’t feel the need to call her back right away.
He left work early and went to the parish office of Saint Agnes. Saint Agnes was a Roman Catholic Church near his apartment building. The building adjacent to the church housed the office and the church’s pre-school. School was letting out, children waited in a lobby area near the entrance for their parents. A few stood with their coats on, others sat in tiny desks near the wall without coats, scraping crayons carefully across pieces of paper. A mother was behind him, shouted at her kids about being late for something and a boy and a girl scurried past Paul and their mother immediately told them to stop running.
Paul walked down a hall following a sign for the Parish office. An elderly Hispanic woman sitting behind a desk asked if she could help him.
“I would like to have a mass said.”
She nodded, got out a large loose leaf notebook. “Do you have a particular mass in mind?”
He shook his head, thought it best not to mention that he no longer attended mass regularly, that he barely remembered the last time he attended mass regularly and could not even recall the last actual mass he did go to. “Whatever is available I guess.”
“Is it for a deceased individual, or is it for some other intention?”
“Sunday or weekday mass?”
“Any service will do.”
“It costs ten dollars.”
He told the woman the name of Janet’s mother and she wrote it down in the book, and on the card, which had a picture of Jesus, arms out stretched in a welcoming gesture and above some Christ-ese: I Am The Resurrection And The Life, He That Believes In Me Will Never Die. On the card, the woman wrote the time and date of the mass. Paul signed the card and slipped it into the envelope.
In the lobby there was a woman wearing a leather blazer and a silk paisley scarf. It was her. That One. The face from the gym. Paul felt stunned. She was smiling. Paul wasn’t sure if she was smiling at him or was smiling before he saw her. He decided to assume the former and was about to say hello when a little boy trotted past him and hugged her legs. She kissed the boy’s forehead and they walked out of the building.
* * *
He thought about her all that night. Her face was even more spectacular than he remembered. Now, she was no longer just a face. He had evidence of a real person, a real life. She had a kid. He could no longer cling to an idealized fantasy. She may still be unattainable to him, but she apparently had been attainable to someone. Instead of being sad, which he was for a while, he realized, that maybe if they could meet somehow, have a conversation, he could attain her.
Paul now went every day to the gym. What was her schedule? People tend to make exercise a habit. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that she was probably keeping her body in shape for the father of that little boy. With a face like that, she had to be a nice person to be with. Who could divorce her? But, if the father was a creep and she was leaving him, or he was dead, maybe she was exercising as part of the road to recovery. If he could only meet her, talk to her and find out a little bit about her, one thing could lead to another.
He and Gloria finally went from messages to actual conversation, and he was glad to be diverted. They talked a couple of days in a row, then Gloria mentioned a revival theater on the college campus in the town where she lived showing a Truffaut flick Friday night and she was wondering if he was interested in going. She apologized for asking him on such short notice. Yes, he was still interested in Truffaut and no he hadn’t seen this film and yes it was perfectly all right for her to ask him on short notice and to call any time and no he didn’t have any plans and yes he would like to go and yes, it was wonderful to hear from her, to finally talk after days of phone tag.
They grabbed a quick dinner before the movie. Paul told this story about one of his clients, a manufacturer of caffeinated vitamins. Chain drug stores didn’t want to carry the product and it seemed to have as much market share as it could get from health food store retailers. Paul told her about how, he came up with the idea of introducing the product to convenience stores and delis, creating packaging that would be for single dosages and positioned caffeinated vitamins as a healthy pick-me-up for our go-go society. He was even quoted in an article about the success of the marketing program in an issue of Marketing Age published last year. She had read the article, she knew the product, she liked hearing him tell the story.
After the film, they went to a bar and drank martinis and he was captivated by her analysis of the film and she eagerly listened to his thoughts on how despair was depicted through the cinematography. She was impressed. She was even more impressed than he thought she might be. During the second round of martinis, she leaned over and kissed him and whispered an invitation to come over to her apartment. Her hand went from his knee to his thigh and they kissed again, with more mouth and more tongue and lasting much longer. Another round wasn’t ordered.
* * *
You think about sex all the time and you can learn to live without for periods of time, but you can also forget how great sex can be, even if it is mediocre first time sex where the participants are never quite comfortable enough thus unsure of how uninhibited to get. One of the best things about being an adult is being reminded how exciting physical pleasure is—pleasing someone, the presence of another’s warmth, the feel of another’s touch.
He liked talking to Gloria, liked her body. The idea of spending more time with her wasn’t distressing. Still, she didn’t have that goddess face, she wasn’t her. Even after making love with Gloria, he was still thinking of That One and her face continued to be on his mind that morning, as he ate the scrambled eggs and drank the coffee Gloria had made for him.
* * *
He hadn’t seen That One on the weekday mornings he went to the gym, so he figured that maybe her usual work out was at another time. He began to work out in the evenings and weekends too. He even called in sick and went to the gym in the early afternoon. He took some aerobic and yoga classes, knowing that the classes tended to appeal to women. He started going to the gym even earlier, doing longer work outs, using free weights –barbells and dumbbells—as well as machines during the same session, figuring that more time spent in the gym means more chances to meet. She was not to be seen and he was spending all his free time exercising.
Gloria had to leave on a business trip the Monday after they slept together. She called him from the road. They traded phone calls for another week after. Frustrated about not even catching a glimpse of the face, he started to call Gloria with specific invitations, but her schedule was too busy. Another week passed. Gloria left messages with invitations but by then, his schedule didn’t permit a date.
Then it was a Friday night and he knew he could have made plans with Gloria but didn’t because he was more intent on catching a sighting of That One than going on a date. He knew Gloria was home alone and probably had nothing to do. It was about nine o’clock. He was all pumped up from the gym and drinking a thick protein shake he made in his blender when he dialed her number
She was happy to hear from him. He said he missed her as much as she missed him and asked her to come over.
She was there in less than an hour, wore no panties or bra under her jeans and sweater, which he found out before they had finished their first glass of wine. Their bodies wanted a reprisal. Since it was the second time, many inhibitions were gone. In spite of how excited he felt, Paul couldn’t get the face out of his mind. Its radiance when she leaned over and kissed her child kept reverberating. The guilt he felt yearning for somebody else instead of the woman he was with only enhanced his performance.
“Now I know why I’ve been thinking about you,” she smiled, perspiration drying on her skin, her hair erupting in all directions. She brushed curls out of her eyes. “Paul, that was… amazing.”
“Thanks. Do you want something to drink.”
“I’m fine for now.”
He poured wine into his glass and gulped it down. She watched a thin stream of Chardonnay trickle down his chin and neck. “Paul, I swear your arms and chest look and feel even more muscular than when we were… together last.”
He was thinking of the face of his Athena, of how it might look when he was inside her. Where was she now? Lonely, in the dark, her child safely sleeping in the bed in another room?
“Earth to Paul.”
* * *
He made love to Gloria again in the morning. Later, they went to a diner for breakfast. Her eyelids relaxed and her mouth all smiles, she couldn’t resist touching his knee, his knuckles, his arm.
The waitress came with his yolkless omelet and her toasted bagel with cream cheese. Suddenly, the now familiar black hair and sculpted cheek bones drifted across his peripheral vision. He turned his head, tried to focus but like a morning shadow, she just disappeared. There was no way to be sure if it was her, or an apparition or some kind of visual distortion like an hallucination or those flickering spots one sees when dizzy. Suddenly he was positive it was her, that she was hovering at the edges of his life, remaining just out of reach.
Maybe she, like him, knew him by sight and she, like him, was filled with longing, waiting for the moment when fate finally intercedes and they meet and fall in love and live happily ever after. And today, she saw him with somebody else .
“Me?” He sipped his coffee. “Fine. Swear.”
“You seem someplace else. Hostile even.”
“I just have a lot on my mind.”
“I spend so much energy worrying about work, talking to people I don’t want to talk to.” There was a sigh, she picked up the bagel, then put it down again. “Thinking about you is nice, being with you is even nicer. It’s good use of time, and I would like to spend more of it with you … Paul?”
* * *
More than a week passed without a sighting. He was still hoping, doing mornings and evenings at the gym. One night, as he drove home from the gym he passed a Laundromat. The windows were large, brightly lit and inside were rows of dryers on one side, rows of washing machines on the other, and in between long wooden tables on which clothes were folded. That One was standing on the side walk, just watching the night. The light from the Laundromat illuminated one side of her face, shadows concealed the other side. She was wearing Capri jeans and leather sandals. A car honked behind him and he turned the corner and drove around the block. By the time he was again in front of the Laundromat, she was inside, looking at the suds and fabrics swirling behind the transparent ovals on the washing machine doors.
On one foot was a gold ankle bracelet and a gold ring on the toe next to her big toe, her other foot was unadorned in the sandal. She wandered over to another machine. There was no sign of the child.
Since she was looking at a washing machine, he concluded she was washing her clothes and still had to dry them. She had to be there for another hour. At least another hour! He looked at his watch. He drove home above the residential speed limit, got out of his suit and put on jeans and the tight T-shirt whose short sleeves gripped his biceps. He put on sneakers, wearing them with his dress socks. He splashed on a very small amount of cologne, just a hint. He had done his laundry yesterday—in the laundry room in his building—so most everything he needed washed was clean. Nonetheless, he shoved towels and underwear, enough for a single load, into his laundry bag and rushed back outside to his car.
Smile at her, say something like, haven’t I’ve seen you at the gym and if she seemed receptive, introduce himself right away. You don’t want to come on too strong, don’t want to seem like you are hitting on her right off the bat. But you also must exude confidence. Be Smooth. You have to be smooth. Friendly. Polite. Women like nice guys. Just make her smile, make her trust you, make her like you.
He was out of his car and walking towards the Laundromat when he saw her, now on the sidewalk, holding a plastic basket filled with clothes.
He cursed under his breath. His calculation was off. They wouldn’t be in the same place at the same time long enough for an extended conversation. That was out. Still, they could meet. This could be that moment. He could exchange a pleasantry with her. Make himself known to her, and then next time there at least would be recognition.
He swerved towards the end of the sidewalk, moving his path so she would be in it. He would have to stop and she would have to look at him. Haven’t I seen you at the gym? He repeated it in his mind. Slowed his gait a little, calming down. Smooth. Smooth. Ten feet away. Five feet away. No, not haven’t I seen you in the gym. A hello, then apologize, say you look familiar and then say, haven’t I seen you in the gym. Then introduce yourself, make comments about laundry. Weren’t there laundry jokes on that Seinfeild show worth remembering?
Her skin seemed to glow and her eyes gleamed darker than the night. She was an exotic. An absolute exotic. Her ancestors must have come from some tropical paradise and he could be her American dream.
The car horn was shrill and sudden. Startled, he looked in the direction of the sound. The car was waiting in the no parking zone by a fire hydrant. The engine was running. It happened so fast he couldn’t even tell what model car it was. He couldn’t see the driver, couldn’t tell if it was male or female. Just as Paul was close enough to say something, close enough to be seen, she was already moving out of his path and towards the car. The trunk opened and she placed the basket inside. He stopped in his tracks.
After she closed the trunk and walked over to the passenger side, she paused. Did she see him, recognize him? Then she opened the car door and entered the vehicle. Did she kiss the driver? Maybe like people from Europe and South America, she kissed everybody hello. He dropped his laundry bag by his feet. The car drove away. He felt extremely dizzy, his stomach now gurgling. He had spent forty five minutes on the treadmill after work, didn’t realize how hungry he was until now. It was getting too late to cook something healthy.
Bile seemed to wash up in the back of his throat. He slung the laundry bag over his shoulder, walked across the street to a pizzeria, the only other place opened on the block. He ordered two slices which he ate way too fast sitting on a stool looking out the window onto the street knowing that she was home somewhere, putting freshly cleaned clothes away in drawers and closets he would never see.
* * *
The next day, when he and John came back to the office building with their lunches, waiting for the elevator was the IT secretary, her hair now day-glo orange. John inhaled so his belly didn’t flop over his belt, cleared his throat. “Seems like a nice day.”
His words thudded like useless lumber. The elevator doors opened, they went inside.
“They expect a storm this weekend,” he continued, after the doors closed. “Wouldn’t know it by today though, but we could certainly use the rain.”
She raised an eyebrow, quietly chortled. The elevator shuddered to a halt, the doors chimed, she walked out, didn’t respond to John’s “have a nice day.”
When the ascension resumed, John murmured, “what a hot chick.”
“Friendly and talkative. Maybe by the time you’re ready for your mid-life crisis, she’ll be willing to acknowledge you exist.”
“You have to give it a shot. You should know, you’re single.”
“But you’re not. You don’t strike me as an affair type.”
“I like the diversion of thinking that I could be. The mortgage and the kids and I’ve been with my wife forever… it’s good, don’t get me wrong. I need the diversion though, I like it more because, well, it’s only in my mind. The illusion is more preferable than making it reality.”
“You never know though.”
The elevator stopped at their floor. John said, “Thus the motto the grass is always greener. Let’s go over the report after we eat, I got a feeling half the numbers in the projection section are more of an illusion than my sex fantasies.”
* * *
“It’s Janet. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, I was at the gym and got home a little while ago. I just finished eating.”
“I should have called when we got your card. It was so thoughtful, Paul. I really appreciate it and I am sure my mother does too.”
“I wanted to show respect.”
“I called you about the mass. The one you’re having said, for my mother. The mass is this weekend. I’m thinking of going. It’s this Saturday, the five o’clock mass. I was wondering, if you would like to come with me.”
“I remember going with you and your mom on Easter morning.”
“I would like to see you again and I do want to go to this mass. I only know I’m going because I’m grieving, but I’m supposed to be grieving, right? Why not go, and why not go with you, if you want to, that is.”
* * *
He told Gloria he couldn’t see her on Saturday. She was disappointed. “It’s just so hard to get time together, Paul.”
“I know. I haven’t been in a relationship for a while either, Gloria. I like being with you, even if it doesn’t seem easy to make time for it.”
“So, we’re in a relationship.” The silence lasted nearly a minute. She laughed. “I’m kidding. Just kidding. Joke. Call me, okay.”
Saturday, it rained, a steady drizzle in the morning evolving into thick sheets by afternoon. He spent most of the day in the gym. He was focused on the physical, because the physical took his mind off anxiety about spending time with his ex-wife. It wasn’t anxiety exactly. He wanted Janet to acknowledge his sadness about her mother’s death but he was also angry about being left out, told well after the fact, so all he could do was send a card, something he would have done for a coworker or just an acquaintance. Shouldn’t one’s past be more important than that?
He waited in the lobby to the church. The rain percolated relentlessly outside. The usher looked at him suspiciously. On the other side of the large wooden doors that opened to the church, the priest was ready to march to the altar and begin mass. The usher frowned when Paul said he was waiting for someone.
As if on cue, when the bell rang signaling the parishioners to stand, Janet came through the door, opening it with one hand while closing her umbrella with the other. As the Entrance Hymn began, they trailed the priest heading towards the altar. Water dripped off the tip of her umbrella and the bottom of her rain coat. They both remembered to genuflect before going into a pew, a few rows from the back, behind a couple with a young child, a little boy.
Paul helped his ex-wife off with her coat, noticing she seemed more voluptuous than he recalled. She was always pretty. He was stricken with a quick flurry of memories of their life together, the vast degree of desire he felt for her way back when.
The priest said this mass is for the repose of the soul of and announced her mother’s name. Paul felt Janet squeeze his hand.
The Priest began the liturgy and Paul was surprised at how much of it he remembered. As he recited the words along with the parishioners, he gradually realized why the kid seemed familiar. It was her’s. That One . There she was, in front of him, her shiny black hair draped over her shoulders. Paul caught a glance of her profile when she leaned over to whisper something in the boy’s ear. She smiled and he saw her smile and wondered if it was some kind of recognition, but she was smiling at Janet, who had smiled at her. Their exchange of smiles had everything to do with maternal approval, and nothing to do with him. She had no idea who he was.
Her husband was not as tall as Paul, not in as good shape, probably didn’t make as much money. Paul went through the list, and as he got to the sexual criteria, the stranger was especially lacking in size, technique, sensitivity, generosity—Paul was confident in his speculations—but as he followed the gestures of the mass—the when to stand, sit or kneel and the recitation of responses—his speculative judgment of the husband gave way to just fantasizing about her. He was barely aware of Janet rubbing her arm up against his.
The mass progressed, the kiss of peace arrived. This comes after the consecration, when the priest holds up the host and the chalice and Catholics believe the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Then the congregation rises and recites the Our Father, followed by the kiss of peace, where those congregated shake the hands of people near them. He turned to Janet who hugged him as they whispered peace be with you to each other and then Janet was going to kiss him and he thought that it would be on the cheek and slightly turned his mouth so their cheeks would brush each other and their lips would pucker in the air but Janet went to kiss him on the lips. Their chins bumped, but the corners of their lips made contact.
Then the trio in front of them turned, hands extended and the hands touched and smiles and the peace be with you words were reciprocated, and That One, she did not even meet his eyes! Nothing. How could it be? How could someone so present in another’s mind be so utterly and completely absent from the mind of the object of that obsession?
During communion—when you leave the pew and walk up to the altar to receive the consecrated host—the little boy walked in front of her, and her husband. Janet walked between Paul and the woman. He saw her face after she received, when she turned to walk back to the pew. The flesh on her cheeks contracted, saliva dissolving the host in her mouth. Still breath taking, still beautiful in a way both archtypical and ethereal.
After they received and he and Janet were kneeling in the pew, he noticed Janet was quietly crying, her forehead leaning against her folded hands. The mass ended. That One and her family left. Not even a glance goodbye.
Janet’s eyes were red, she still sniffled as he helped her on with her rain coat.
“I get a little emotional these days.”
He put his arm around her. “I loved your mom, Janet. No matter what happened between us, that always held.”
The rain was still steady and thick, the wind wet and gelid against their faces.
As she opened the umbrella, a gust blew the umbrella inside out, its spokes sticking up like killing field bones. Paul pulled down the top of the umbrella, adjusting it back to functioning form and they both stood under it, their heads touching, each holding the umbrella with one hand and the other was around their waists and they walked down the steps, headed towards her car.
“She would have liked it. It was a nice mass. She liked practicing her faith.”
“Makes me wish I had more of it. I don’t even know if I have some of it.”
“You seemed to be very focused on the Mass, like you were watching every move and hearing every word. Very admirable.”
Her voice was breaking and he tried to console her, asked her if she wanted to get a drink somewhere. She started sobbing He said, “why don’t you come over to my place and I can make you a drink or, how about a cup of coffee.”
“I can’t drink coffee or alcohol. I’m pregnant.”
The thick drops of rain pelting the roof of the car sounded like dozens of individual explosions.
“Oh,” Paul finally said. “Congratulations.”
She buried her face in his shoulder until she was calm enough to drive.
* * *
In his apartment, she sat on his couch, drying her hair with a towel. He brought out a cup of green tea with honey.
“I’m sorry I’m such a mess.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Michael, well, I love him. It isn’t like with you and that makes me sad.”
“That was only one moment. A figment of youth.”
“I love him with my head more than I do with my heart. Seeing you today, brings back memories. They aren’t bad memories. Most of them anyway.”
“Good to hear. We were pretty hot and heavy, back there in college. We were just too young to make it work long term.”
“You know what I’m proud of though, that we were true to each other in College, for those first two, or three years. After college, the affairs we had didn’t matter. But then, everybody else, having those one night stands and hooking up. We didn’t fool around on each other when it would have been easier to. We explored what we had. I don’t even think we knew what commitment meant, really meant, yet we were committed emotionally, and that made everything better.”
“We’ll always be friends.”
“It’s good to see you.” The way she looked at him combined with the sultry softness in her voice, made him think for a moment that she might lean over and kiss him. She sipped her tea. “I miss you.”
“I know you wanted to be a mother. Was it easy for you, to get pregnant, I mean.”
“Once I stopped the birth control. I’m not really showing yet…” she smiled, slurped some more tea. “My breasts are bigger. I had to buy a C bra size.”
When he saw that she noticed him looking at her breasts he laughed. She said. “I always wanted to be a C.”
“Are they sore… I remember, a lot of times, before your period. They got sore.”
“No, not really. It’s just, being pregnant, makes you really aware of your body. My hormones are raping my feelings. I think that’s why I was emotional at mass.”
“You always had great breasts, Janet.”
“I’ll be all fat and stuff in a few weeks, so I guess I should be happy having a huge rack for now.” She laughed, then unbuttoned her blouse down to her navel, pushed her shirt over her shoulders. She pulled her arms out of the sleeves. “Don’t look so appalled, Paul. You are one of the few people I can show them to.”
She reached behind her back and unsnapped the bra, the straps fell to her elbows. “Touch them, Paul. I want you to.”
Why not? Full. No, plump. That’s the word that came to him. Wonderfully, robustly, sensuously, plump. They seemed to bounce into his hands, her nipples stiff. Her sigh echoed through the rippling memories and suddenly her tongue was in his mouth and the kiss lasted and lasted and after, he kissed and licked and sucked her breasts as she unbuckled his pants.
“I remember so much about you sometimes,” she whispered. “My doctor said, I would feel like this.”
He was out of breath for a moment, lifting his head away from her. As she caressed him, he whispered, “Feel like what?”
“Intense desire. It’s the hormones. He said it’s healthy to yield to them..” Her grasp tightened. “I want this.”
He was about to say, okay. They shared a history. Nature remembered, and wasn’t that the force with the most power over our lives?
Suddenly though, he couldn’t. He wasn’t thinking of That One. He wasn’t thinking of Janet’s husband or her marriage or even her fetus. Gloria, he was thinking of Gloria.
He pushed her hands away, stood up and fixed his pants. “Why make this memory? Let’s keep the memory of today on your mother. I don’t want to mess up like I messed up what we had then.”
“Paul, it wasn’t just you that messed up.” She hooked her bra into place and buttoned her blouse. “You were the first boyfriend my mom liked, and that made you more attractive to me. I was always sorry that she saw us divorce, but I am glad she saw us marry.”
* * *
Janet wanted to indulge nostalgia. The woman, That One from the gym, he could never know her world. The only difference between a memory and a dream is that once, one existed. Neither exist now.
That One. Her face embodied an ideal. He didn’t want to make it subjective, like John’s fascination with the IT secretary. Maybe That One left the cap off the toothpaste tube or put ketchup on her eggs or had some high-pitched accent, used double negatives. Anything more he found out about her would only taint the ideal.
Gloria. Gloria was honest and interesting, nice to make love to, nice to be with. It was not intense with her, like it was when he and Janet were young and like he imagined it would be with That One. Could he be with Gloria all the time, make children with her, start a family? Possibly. There was a possibly there. He knew if he called her, he would tell her that, well something like that.
The beauty of That One was reflected in Gloria like it was reflected in everyone and everything in God’s creation and that was enough. Better to know only the reflection than to know what was making that reflection and by knowing it, make it unable to reflect at all.
He’ll tell Gloria I love you. Apologize for canceling out on her at the last minute. Ask to come over. Would she say yes or no? The thrill was in not knowing, the thrill was in finding out. There was the dial tone, the beeps of her number being dialed, the sound of the ring, the anticipation of her voice.