Will Perfection Make You
As Carol and I realized how little we had to say to each other, we began to say less and less. Like so many of my romantic attachments, our relationship began to disappear as if it were a Cheshire cat. In our final weeks together, I knew the remaining image would not be a smile.
During sex, Carol offered the benefits of an expensive watch. She was attractive, reliable, and comfortable on my body. But after several months of being with her once or twice a week, I’d given up hope that one night her dials would spin so wildly we’d lose track of time. I fell into the habit of retreating into fantasies of sexual situations and various unimaginative characters.
On the last night we made love, I was immersed in a fantasy regarding a pirate having his way with a captive, yet willing, princess. Suddenly, Carol did what she’d never done before. She began groaning and thrusting her hips at me. She dug her well-manicured nails into my arms and growled, “Yes, oh yes, that’s it. Yes, do that, do that!”
You would think, having my hopes come true, I’d respond in kind. However, I was more startled than excited. I was willing to “do that.” But when my lover of eleven months found her passion and said, “Yes, do that, do that,” I was paying so little attention to her I had no clue what I’d was doing. Soon she began tick, tick, ticking away again. We weren’t pleasuring each other so much as using each other. However, there’s a time and place for everything. I reentered the cabin of the Somewhat Satisfied Jolly Roger and came with a short and ironic “aarrg.”
After a short silent time, she rose naked and headed towards the dresser for her cigarettes. Our deal was that she could smoke in the bedroom but not in bed. She turned and I admired her breasts. In the beginning, I couldn’t keep my eyes off them. But tonight my attention wandered to her imperfections. She opened a drawer and chose one of my tee shirts to wear. I smiled.
“What?” she said.
“That tee shirt.”
“Berkeley Wine and Cheese,” she read off the front.
“It’s not that.” I hesitated and then decided what the hell. “I hadn’t had a woman in some time before we met. That was my favorite shirt to masturbate into.”
If she’d had the logic to be angry, if she’d laughed, or if she’d shown any reaction at all, I might have kept seeing her.
But she just stood there with a mildly disgusted expression on her face and said, “Well, you washed it, right?”
No sense of humor, no sense of outrage, and too few of the senses that would have made it worthwhile to continue seeing each other. And just like that, I was alone again.
After the end of a relationship, it’s always seductive to stay at home – read, watch television, live in the one-person quiet, and wait for another lover to chance themselves into your life. Seductive, but foolish. Regardless of how frustrating the search might seem, I would never unlock the doors of possibility until I stood before them.
And somewhere was Elena.
I hadn’t met her yet. Elena was not some wild dream of perfection. She was that part of me that was missing. Whenever I felt desolate, I remembered I was waiting for Elena. There were times I abandoned hope, having waited what might be half of my lifetime, but I’d never given up.
On the other hand, I wasn’t planning to take a vow of celibacy until I found her. So, at night, with no real plan, I walked through promising sections of San Francisco, hoping to find possibility’s unbolted back door. My search was limited because I had emerged from Carol’s embrace not only without a great deal of fondness for her but also for a whole collection of women who resembled her.
What I’ve shared with you until now was to help you understand what I felt the night I saw Elena for the first time. She was sitting near the street at one of Enrico’s outdoor tables. As she raised a glass of wine to lips, listening with what seemed to me a bored expression to a man at her table, I stopped for a moment like a hungry cat might fall into a crouch having spotted its potential meal.
Her gaze shifted toward the street and I was certain. She was Elena. I also had the strangest sensation that she had somehow recognized me. She smiled, a friendly smile, quick and complete, and then she turned back to the man, who didn’t appear to notice our exchange.
I felt my chest tighten when she was out of sight. I had to stop and catch my breath. There was nothing to do but walk on and yet I didn’t. This was the woman I’d always wanted. If I continued strolling into the empty night, I’d have to accept once and for all that I would never have her. Cowards do not possess their dreams. I had to put myself within caressing distance of enough humiliation to last a lifetime.
I turned around without the briefest moment to reconsider. Praying for the strength to appear poised, I walked back to their table and, with forced good cheer, said “Elena! Is that you?”
Without skipping a beat, she said, “David! Oh, my God, I don’t believe it. How long has it been?”
The man at her table, who looked like a manager, managed to look a bit dim-witted. Bless you, I thought.
“Elena was my nickname in college,” she explained to no one in particular. “I’ve known David for ages. David, this is,” and she paused for the briefest instant, as if she wasn’t sure, “Allen.” He and I exchanged greetings. “David also had a great nickname.” She chuckled. “Tell Allen what we called you.”
Try it now. In the comfort of your chair at home, or riding on a train, or perhaps reclining on your bed, wherever you’re hearing my story, put yourself in my situation and – within three seconds – try to come up with a nickname for yourself. The mind becomes flooded with the most inappropriate choices – stinky, spike, shorty – each one denoting a humiliating character trait. Elena tilted her head in response to my blank expression as the seconds crawled by until I raised my eyes to heaven for help. Then the miracle of the restaurant’s neon sign saved me.
“Why, this is a coincidence.” I said. “Everyone called me ‘Rico.’”
Elena loved it. She insisted I join them for a drink. When I ordered a martini, the manager excused himself to “hit the head,” as he nautically put it.
After he was out of earshot, she said, “My knight in armor. You saved me. When you pulled that stunt, he was explaining how he would handle my assets. All the while attempting give it some sexual connotation. Elena! How could you know! Do you like the name I picked for you?”
“David’s always been my favorite name. Did you ever notice people somehow always seem to reflect their names? Arnolds wear glasses, Elizabeths are pretty, and Davids … well, ask ten women about men they’ve loved and six will have a David somewhere.”
“So what are Elenas?”
“Should I tell you my real name?”
“No. No. You and I are Elena and David. We already share a history.”
I watched the idea forming in her eyes.
“In fact,” she continued, “No matter what Allen says, stay with us tonight. We’ll be terribly rude when he comes back. We’ll talk of nothing but old times and our dear remembered friends from our carefree college days. And don’t forget this. It’s very important that we make our stories vapid and mundane.”
“Here he comes,” I said. “That was quick.”
“He didn’t waste any time in there, did he? I’m sure he had an efficient plan for managing his assets.” She smiled a wicked smile. “Ah, revenge feels so good.”
She laughed and said loudly, “Oh my, remember that night with Lizzy and Arnold and the fish?”
Allen reacted to that with a smirk as he settled into his chair.
“So, David, what do you do for a living?” he inserted.
He was sporting a Rolex, a tailored suit, and a sixty-dollar haircut. Elena’s comment about assets was a clue. He had a financial district air. I knew how to dispose of him with one sweeping stroke.
“I’m a neurosurgeon,” I said.
He unconditionally surrendered. His features settled into a subtle, but hungry, expression. He would welcome my presence for the rest of the evening. He would laugh at my jokes, no matter how terrible.
“Oh yes,” Elena said, “David’s always been into people’s heads, even at school.” She laughed. “David, remember that night you shampooed Sissy and she came out all orange like a clown?” Then we both laughed at a phantom memory that only she and I could appreciate. Allen laughed too.
The memory of Sissy’s shampoo was everything I dreamed. Possibility’s doors had swung wide open. I had marched right through them.
No doubt you’ll want a description. It won’t be easy. I could tell you Elena had thick, very light brown hair cut in uneven bangs in front while the sides fell just beyond the symmetry of where her neck joined her shoulders. That she had luminous green eyes, that her nose was patrician and almost, but not quite, straight and her skin was fine-grained and perfect. If I tell you she was slim with round breasts that were a perfect match for her body, you might imagine a lovely woman, but that isn’t enough.
Not enough because her essence had more to do with me than her. While my parents screamed at each other and I hid in my room, I curled into a fetal position on my bed with my back facing the wall, always careful to leave a space for Elena. Her arms around me comforted me. The imaginary warmth of her body gave me peace. Her calm, funny, wise voice told me one day everything would change. I spent hours first inventing and then dreaming of her face.
Now, while she spun out silly stories of “Buffies” and “Pinkies,” I stared as much as I could at that vibrant face, glowing with intelligence and an unstoppable joy.
When Allen took her away, she scrawled her phone number on a cocktail napkin and insisted I call her the next day. I didn’t have a card for Allen, but I told him to reach me to discuss my portfolio at the “Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows” Neurosurgical Ward. If there isn’t an “Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows” somewhere in San Francisco, there really should be. God knows there are enough ladies there who meet the criteria.
The next day I tried to regain my equilibrium, warning myself not to fantasize. But the memory of Elena made the day without her seem colorless and void. I spent hours pondering the best time to call her.
I decided on six-thirty. As six-ten approached, I began to shake. Ten minutes later, I decided the best thing was to forget I’d met her. I dialed the number on the napkin precisely at six-thirty. The line was busy. I kept re-dialing for the next forty-five minutes only to hear a grating busy signal again and again.
Finally, a man answered.
“Yeah,” he said.
Hearing his voice, I realized my predicament. I didn’t know Elena’s real name. Perhaps my luck would continue and she’d have told people to expect a call from me.
“Hi. May I speak with Elena, please?”
“Wrong number.” Click.
It was so clear. She had given me a phone number but withheld her identity. Had she wanted me to call, she would have written her real name on the napkin. It was obvious the number she gave me was as much a fiction as the stories she had invented the night before.
Greater than my anger, my disappointment, or my satisfaction knowing that I was right in knowing something would go wrong, was a flooding rush of relief. I had bet everything on one throw of the dice. I wouldn’t have to endure the torture of placing my self-worth in her hands again. Then I remembered the way her head tilted when she laughed, how her eyes shone as Allen had to force his good humor more and more. I was her knight. I dialed the number again.
“Elena? Is that you? Remember me? It’s David, from last night.”
“What? Oh, last night. Sure, I remember. Hi.”
“I just called a minute ago, but a man said I had the wrong number.”
“I’m staying with some friends.” Her voice was flat, disinterested.
“Is anything wrong?”
“No. Why? Do I sound like something’s wrong?”
“No, you sound fine. Listen, I was just wondering if you’d like to have a drink, or maybe dinner, Friday night.”
“Well, this is a busy time for me. How about in a week or two?”
I was losing her, watching her sail away like a child watches an escaped balloon float out of reach.
“Elena, what’s wrong?”
“Hey, I already said nothing’s wrong.”
Great. Continue annoying her. Desperate, I tried another tactic.
“Elena, this is David to whom you’re talking. Notice the ‘whom.’ Remember college? Sissy and I could always tell when something was bugging you.”
A small laugh like a miraculous breeze brought the balloon closer.
“That was fun.” She paused, and then she spoke as if she were confessing a minor crime. “I can’t stay here any longer. I have to move, but San Francisco’s impossible. The last apartment I looked at today was a dingy little studio with an absurd rent. Not only that, but there were ten other people in front of me putting their names on a waiting list. Then, this greasy rental agent hands me a form asking for three references, presumably from a nun, a doctor, and a CEO.”
“Believe me, I know what you’re talking about. I was saved from a similar situation not six months ago.”
“What? You mean you found a place?”
“Not a place,” I said. “The place. The most incredible house I’ve ever lived in. It’s on Russian Hill. It’s owned by a professor from San Francisco State. He bought it about twenty years ago. It has fireplaces and a view. And it’s filled with African art. That’s the professor’s field. He got a huge grant to research art in Africa. He’ll be there for at least five years. But, with any luck, he’ll disappear like Livingston, and Stanley will never find him.”
“My God, how did you ever find it?”
I made counterfeit love to a rental agent named Carol before I found you.
“I have a good friend in real estate,” I said.
“Shit, now I’m ready to jump off a roof.”
“Listen, I promise I’ll will the lease to you if you come back on Friday. Perhaps next week I’ll get hit by a truck. Your luck could change.”
“I think that’s the only way I’ll ever find a place.”
“Friday night, then? I’ll pick you up.”
“Don’t pick me up. I’m not even sure where I’ll be. Just give me the address. Getting around this city has become my specialty.”
As soon as she hung up, a battle began between reality and the fantasies I couldn’t help but create during the next three days. I envisioned our lives together, our house, our children, the incredible happiness that comes when you find the right person. These foolish dreams spread over my rational mind like oil spilled on water.
I tried to immerse myself in overdue work and wound up writing her name over and over on my client’s reports. I knew what I was doing but I couldn’t stop, not even when I stared into a mirror at the thirty-three-year-old child awaiting Christmas morning, believing that Santa Claus and his reindeer would join him for cookies and hot chocolate.
“Asshole,” I said to my image. “You’re six feet tall, in good shape, though maybe carrying about five extra pounds. Blue eyes, still a respectable amount of hair, good teeth. You’re not rich, but you’re doing all right. Decent car, great house, but none of that is important to a woman like her. Face it. It’s the house she’s coming to see. What in the world would a woman like Elena want with you?”
I answered she would want me because no other man could love her as I would.
“Idiot,” I replied. “A woman can forgive almost anything, but if you ever hope to be close to her, she must never suspect that you’re desperate for her to like you. Sharks sense blood. Women sense desperation, except with women, the scent evokes a frenzy to run in the other direction. Control yourself.”
However, knowing the wrong thing to do and not doing it is impossible unless you can control your emotions.
I’d seen little or no love between my parents. They gave precious little to me. My only knowledge of love came from the idealized relationships of television. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop myself from dreaming of Elena as the perfect wife who smoothes out all the troubles of the cheerful, yet perplexed, husband by the show’s end.
I spoke to my reflection in the mirror. “Don’t you realize you don’t even know this woman’s name?”
I spent Friday in a frenzy of activity. I shopped for liquor and any item of food she might request. I cleaned the house. Cleaned the car in case she wanted to take a drive. Then I cleaned the garden in case she wanted to venture out in the middle of a chilly, drizzly San Francisco night.
Several minutes before she was due to arrive, I attacked the living room with a final spray of air freshener. Cursing the sweat on my hands, I began pacing between the couch and the window next to the front door. Finally, the doorbell rang. I realized I’d made a noticeable trail in the carpet.
During the past three days, I’d wondered if I’d feel differently when I saw her again. I did not. She entered my home like brash bold colors some genius had splashed on a blank canvas.
“I can’t believe it. I’m in love,” she said. “Perfection. I love this house.”
She wore tight, faded jeans and a white silk blouse beneath a long coat. A clean scent lingered around her. The lines of her body were almost too perfect. I tried to find flaws so I could console myself if she didn’t want me the way I wanted her.
Perhaps later I could say, “Oh, it’s okay it didn’t work out. Her shoulders were too broad anyway.” I studied her shoulders as we walked into the living room. It would have to be something else.
I offered a tour. Expecting to be nervous, I’d rehearsed the first twenty clever things I planned to say. Cleverness, however, is all about timing, and as we walked from room to room, I heard my carefully prepared witticisms fall out of time, turning them from casual to forced. But after a few minutes I realized I could reuse the cleverest phrases when I had her attention.
The house bewitched her. Her eyes shone as she stood in front of the plate-glass window that framed a picture-postcard view of the city. She stood in awed silence before the huge fireplace in the living room. When she entered the master bedroom at the top of the circular stairs, she was incredulous: “You’ve got a fireplace in the bedroom?”
The kitchen was large enough, the bathrooms bright and clean, and the furniture soft and tasteful. Exotic African masks and weapons hung on the walls. Tall graceful sculptures completed the rooms. I loved the house, but I sensed that Elena felt something deeper.
As the world becomes more dangerous and unreliable, we all need a place where we feel safe and comfortable. Even the legions of San Francisco’s homeless choose a particular doorway or box. Without the anchor of our own space, life is formless. We’re vulnerable to the whims and moods of others. When my tour began, her restlessness was clear, but the simple act of exploring the house calmed her.
While she underwent that transformation, I experienced another. In every room, she completed the picture of how I wanted to live. Elena admiring the view. Cutting vegetables in the kitchen, claiming to be an “inventive cook.” In the bedroom with a look of longing and acceptance. If she were watching me at all, she’d be sure she’d found her home. All she had to do was allow me to live there.
“You’re not a neurosurgeon, are you?” she said, settling in front of the fireplace, the requisite glass of white wine in her hand.
“How did you guess?”
“Well, you don’t talk about status and money enough. And the only car in the driveway is a Toyota.”
“You sound like you’ve known a lot of neurosurgeons,” I said.
“No. But it’s strange. I imagine things to be a certain way and they often turn out to be just like that.”
“Have you imagined anything for you and me?” I said, sounding like a bad actor saying a bad line.
“Oh God, please don’t try to phony charm me into having sex with you tonight. That’s so boring.”
She said it so casually I had to laugh. Rather than deny it, I said, “You’re right. Involuntary masculine motor response to a woman who looks like you.”
“Hey, you don’t have to shut your motor off. Just don’t burn your oil the first night. How about telling me what you like to do?”
“That’s a great question. Thank God you still haven’t asked me what I do for a living.”
“I hate that question. Why is it the first question everyone asks?”
“Well, I think men believe it’s important to quickly point out how many more toys they own. Men with lousy jobs don’t usually ask other men who look like they’re doing better. Notice that men with great jobs or lots of money always ask right away. When a woman asks a man, it means, are you serious material? Are you intelligent? Interesting? Can you afford to take me to good restaurants? On expensive vacations? Do you have a nice car? A comfortable home? Will you buy me presents? What can you offer? When women ask women I think it means they’re interested in what the other woman’s doing. And we know what it means when men ask strange women anything.”
“So, uh, David,” she said, with a straight face, “What do you do for a living?”
I smiled. “I’m a software consultant who long ago was once a writer who collected enough rejection slips to consider them all testimonials to persistence. I gave up on the idea that one day they’d be testimonials to bad judgment.”
“I don’t know. I imagine you’re a good writer.”
“Please don’t try to phony charm me into having sex with you tonight. It’s so boring.”
Finally, a remark fell in time. We both laughed.
“What about you? You’re not very generous with the information, Elena.” I placed an obvious emphasis on her name.
She shrugged. “Einstein once said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing were a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’ If you substitute the word ‘adventure’ for ‘miracle’, I guess you have my basic philosophy. People spend their time moaning about what they did or didn’t do in the past. Then they worry what’ll happen if they do something in the present.”
We continued to chat for about two hours. She revealed nothing of herself in that time except the places, the music, and the movies she enjoyed. We both marveled how Woody Allen had created “Annie Hall.”
“It’s such a brilliant screenplay,” she said. “He made something so complex appear so casual. Once, I remember reading that creativity is doing without thinking. Woody must have blacked out when he wrote that one.”
She shook her head. “God, it’s getting late if I’m getting philosophical. I’d better go. Big day tomorrow. I’ve got to start looking for something like this.”
I hesitated an instant too long.
“Why not this?” echoed through my brain but remained unspoken.
“Can I take you home?”
“No, that’s okay. I borrowed a friend’s car.”
She put on her coat in the hallway.
“So how do I get in touch with you? I still don’t know your name. It’s hard to get ‘Elena’ on the phone where you’re living now.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’m moving out of there after tomorrow.”
“Then how will I reach you?”
“I have your number.”
“Come on. At least, tell me your name.”
She smiled. “Believe it or not, sir, my name is Elena. Elena Conover. Spanish-Irish.” She stuck out her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Why didn’t Allen know that?” I asked, forgetting for a moment how most women hate men to be logical about them.
“You won’t believe this but sometimes I use other names. Especially if I’m not sure I like somebody.”
She leaned toward me and kissed me quickly, fully, and tenderly on the lips. It affected me like a hard blow to the head. I felt dizzy for a moment.
“My name isn’t David,” I said.
“I know,” she said, smiling.
Then, she left. I began to understand how much my life had changed in only a few hours. It was as if someone had stepped into my dreams, plucked her out, and deposited her before me. The way she smelled. The small, soft freckles at the bottom of her throat. I smiled when I remembered her full-out laugh. Perhaps she’ll change her mind and come back tonight? No, that’s absurd. But what if she comes back and the front door is locked? Will she ring the bell? I unlocked the front door.
I got into bed. One thought ran through my mind as I stared blindly at the ceiling. I had found her. I’d waited such a long time but it was worth it. She was perfect. But what if it didn’t work out? All I’d have left was the rest of my life to wonder why. What did I really know about her? I knew all about infatuation, but what about love? Was this love? If I couldn’t love Elena, how could I ever love any woman? Was it possible her name was Elena? But if that were true, why did the man who answered the phone where she was staying tell me I had the wrong number? So, at the very least, she was a liar. I climbed out of bed and locked the front door.
The harsh ringing of my bedside telephone woke me. I stared at the digital bedside clock. It was seven-fifteen the next morning. I steeled myself to sound pleasant and wide-awake in case it was a client.
A cheerful male voice said, “Good morning! I have good news for you!”
“All I need is a moment of your time … ”
I interrupted him.
“Do you want money from me or are you going to give me money?”
That always stops them for a moment. “Actually I’m going to save … ”
I hung up. The pillow welcomed me. I joined it.
The phone rang again.
“You know, it’s not very nice to hang up on someone.”
And there you have many San Francisco personalities summed up in this annoying nut’s thin shell.
“You wake me up at seven-fifteen to sell me something and I should give a shit what you think is nice? Hey, buddy, either develop thicker skin or stop making half your life a bad series of choices.”
I hung up again. I knew I wouldn’t fall back asleep, but I made an effort. The phone rang again. I grabbed it.
“Hey, fuck you, asshole,” I said.
“Hmm, an original greeting. It has power and sincerity, but I doubt it will replace ‘hello.’”
“Elena, is that you? God, I’m sorry. This heavy breather keeps calling me and it just happened again a minute ago.”
I lied without even thinking about it. The truth might have shown me in a bad light. Perhaps her brother was a phone salesman somewhere. She didn’t need to know how easily my veneer of charm had cracked.
“Oh,” she said, without interest. “Listen, I know you’ll think I’m crazy but I was wondering … oh, hell, forget it. It was a crazy idea. It’s just that you seemed so nice and I’m in kind of a situation … ”
“Elena, whatever it is, just ask.”
There was a long silence.
“Well, I was wondering if you’d mind if I stayed with you for just a little bit, maybe a week. Your place is so big you won’t even know I’m there. I’m gone most of the time house-hunting and you do have that spare bedroom. I have to move today and I just don’t have anywhere else to go.”
She continued to make her case while I stared at the telephone as if it were the instrument responsible for all the incomprehensible acts of a chaotic universe.
“ … and I’ll help buy groceries and make dinner sometime. David, are you still there?”
“I’ll be here all day. Bring your things by. I’ll get the room ready.”
“Really? Are you sure? This is great. I felt so strange about asking. I know we only met a few days ago but last night I had the strangest feeling. As if we’ve known each other a long, long time. I hope you don’t think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“You sure about this?”
“I couldn’t be more sure.”
“You’re terrific. I’ll be there this afternoon, okay?”
She arrived early that evening with two suitcases and a small bag. She seemed exhausted. After a quick drink and some conversation, she disappeared into the spare bedroom. I didn’t mind because the intoxicating knowledge that I would have my chance was all that mattered. While presenting the facade of a friendly, non-threatening host, I would gently seduce her. After we’d slept together, she wouldn’t be just my houseguest. She’d be my lover. There’d be no need for her to look for another place.
Why do we believe people will follow our plans and forget they have plans of their own?
I didn’t see much of Elena the next three days. She left very early and returned late in the evening, too tired to talk very much. I never saw her eat. Despite my assurances to the contrary, she kept asking if she was imposing. She did her best to prove to me she was working hard to find her own home. If her desperate searching was meant to comfort me, to reassure me she would soon leave, it had the opposite effect.
During the day, I’d wander into her room. I never touched anything. At night, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if she might also be awake thinking about me. I slept very little.
After three nights I couldn’t control myself any longer. I opened her door. If she was asleep I could quietly leave. If I woke her, I’d tell her I’d heard a noise and felt I should check on her.
I opened her door a crack, but my caution was unnecessary. Although the bed was unmade, she wasn’t in the room. I checked the entire house. It was empty. Her things were still in her room so I returned to back to bed and waited.
I heard the front door open at four-fifteen in the morning.
I poked my head out as she walked past and tried to sound sleepy and cheerful.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Sure, I’m fine. Did I wake you?”
That was a silly question and a tough one to answer. So I ignored it.
“No problem. Why are you up so early?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m feeling a little antsy. I thought I’d take a walk.”
“Listen, I don’t want you to worry about staying here. You’re no trouble at all. I enjoy the company. But you’re wearing yourself out by not taking advantage of the house and relaxing a little. I’ve got an idea. Why not come home early tonight? I’ll make something to eat and we’ll build a fire. No problems allowed.”
“Sounds great, but I don’t want to put you out.”
“I’m making dinner anyway. I always make enough for two. It’ll be ready around seven.”
“Okay, I’ll try. But now I have to get some sleep. Good night.”
I got up early but, once again, she had left. I spent the entire day preparing for the evening. She said she’d come. Her promise was as casual as everything had been between us.
She didn’t keep her promise. At ten-thirty, she came in excited and laughing. Allen came in excited and laughing behind her.
“Look who I ran into this afternoon,” she said.
“Hey, David, how’s it going? Inside people’s heads, I mean.”
And with that pathetic attempt at humor, I knew she had told him. She had shared our joke and now it was their joke.
“Is anybody hungry?” I said harshly.
They exchanged a glance.
“Not me,” said Elena. “We had something a little while ago. Maybe we could all have a drink.”
“Actually, I’m tired,” I said. “I was thinking about going to bed.”
I swear they looked at each other and calculated whether or not Allen could stay for a while after I’d left. I hoped that even to someone as thick as Allen, the message on my face was plain. If you stay here, I will hunt you down and kill you.
Fortunately, Allen’s ability to take a subtle hint was not to be tested. Elena said it was getting late and we should call it a night. I waited for her to return from showing him the door like some demented principal about to discipline a student.
“I thought you didn’t like him.”
“He’s okay once he loosens up a little. Would you believe it? We ran into each other in a novelty store in Chinatown.”
“Decided to live in Chinatown, have you?”
“What’s the problem?” she said. “So we had a drink together. It was nothing.”
“Maybe I’m hungry. I’ve been waiting for you since seven o’clock.”
“I didn’t think you’d wait. I thought once you realized I wasn’t coming back, you’d go ahead without me.”
“The idea was to go ahead with you.”
“Has it escaped your notice I care about you? Are you so thick that you can’t see how much I was looking forward to spending an evening with you? Or are you just pretending to be that way? Because somehow I imagined that you might want to spend some time with me. That, in some small way, you felt something for me. Instead, you come waltzing in here with that asshole like a dense unfeeling …”
I stopped. My voice had become loud and harsh. I was almost shouting the last few words. Suddenly, I had the strongest vision that somewhere in the house a frightened child was listening. I didn’t care about Allen anymore. I didn’t want that child to hear me. It wasn’t his fault that things hadn’t worked out.
Elena was staring at me.
“It’s not important,” I said, “forget it.”
I retreated into my bedroom and lay down with my back to the open door.
“Congratulations,” I said to the wall. “Jealous and obnoxious. A perfect imitation of dear old dad.”
A few minutes later I felt Elena’s weight on the bed. I turned over and we held each other. I kissed her. She tasted like a Pina Colada.
I wanted to taste and test every part of her. I moved my lips over her soft skin and each region gave me something new to appreciate and then devour. Holding her in different positions brought new facets of her body to my attention. When we lay on our sides, I slid my hand down her body. Her slim firm legs thrilled me. I moved over her, putting my leg between hers, and she moaned when the top of my thigh touched her center. She was the featured player of both my romantic and sexual fantasies in a softly lit room on a comfortable bed. I could take my time and enjoy every second.
Instead I helped her undress, entered her, and came in a few minutes. My excitement wasn’t fatal. I’d be ready again soon and the next time would be better for her. Except it was clear the next time wouldn’t be better. Elena was beautiful, accepting, and pleasant, but that was all she was. She was willing to make love with me, but there was no hunger. Her lack of passion unnerved me.
It was hopeless. We began again but she claimed exhaustion and was soon asleep beside me. I stared at the ceiling while a firestorm of recrimination and self-doubt raged over me. It wasn’t possible she enjoyed what we’d done. Some of my poorest encounters with Carol had generated more heat. I had failed, done something terribly wrong. I consoled myself with the thought that, although the beginning was not monumental, at least it was a beginning.
I fell asleep weaving a scenario about how, over the next few days, we would talk and explore each other until I awakened the long-dormant sexuality that she’d never known until she met me. I never stopped to consider that I was weaving a fantasy about my fantasy.
I don’t know what woke me, but the room was still dark. Elena was sitting on the side of the bed staring out the window.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’re awake. I thought you were sleeping. I was just thinking how much I’ll miss this house.”
“You don’t have to miss anything. I want you to stay here with me.”
“Should I live with someone crazy enough to ask a stranger to share this house?” she said, turning away.
I reached for her shoulders.
“I’ve known you since I was twelve years old,” I said, as gently as I could.
She turned and smiled. “Let me show you something,” she said.
She left the room and came back with her bag. She sat on the side of the bed with her back to me.
“Now you’ll know the truth,” she said, slowly turning to face me.
A shadow in the room accented the face of a monster. Her eyes were wide. Her lips pulled back to reveal pointed red-tipped fangs. I gasped and, moving away from her, tumbled off the bed. The irons from the fireplace fell over and my hand closed around the end of a poker. I would have raised it but any further motion was unnecessary.
The only danger was if she died laughing. She took the novelty shop fangs out of her mouth and held them up with one hand while clutching her middle with the other. I let go of my weapon. My heart was trying to leap out of my chest. I climbed back on the bed again.
“You think that’s funny?” I said through deep breaths.
“No, course not,” she answered. That started her on a new explosion of mirth. “You should have seen your face.”
“You should have seen yours.”
The laughter began in my chest like an involuntary muscle spasm. I fought against it but lost.
“Don’t ever do anything like that to me again,” I said.
“Why not?” she said. “It was fun, it was exciting, something you’ll remember.”
I stared at her a moment.
“You like it when people get excited, don’t you? Even if they get angry and raise their voices.”
“Well, if someone’s yelling at you, at least you know they’re passionate about you.”
I turned away.
“Just because someone’s screaming at you doesn’t mean they care about you,” I said, with more bitterness than I intended.
She touched my shoulder.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Are you saying you don’t like me now?”
“I might have killed you,” I said, weakly.
She reached over and grabbed my hand.
“Yeah, show me. Kill me now,” she said, pulling me towards her.
I did kill her and she killed me. When our sweat-soaked corpses finally came apart, sunlight was illuminating the windows. She leaned over, kissed my bruised lips, and said, “Good night, my David.”
I turned over on my side and listened to her breathing change as she fell asleep between my back and the wall. But I couldn’t rest. I turned again and watched her as she slept.
This was no safe and adoring presence warming the other side of the bed, accepting and giving a love so precise the imperfect core of my personality would never surface. No soft giant bandage for my wounds. She was a unique and willful creation, her arm thrown over her head, breathing rather loudly through her mouth. She twitched and I realized that, in her dreams, she was weaving her own fantasies and facing her own demons.
As tired as I was, I couldn’t close my eyes. A vague and powerful anxiety covered me like a scratchy blanket. I wondered if she already had plans for the next surprise she would spring on me and felt compelled to keep checking if she was sleeping or only pretending.