I thought, One night. Big deal. In and out.
You’ll regret it, I said to myself, but then shuffled that thought to the very back of my brain. It’ll never last between them, I thought. She’ll chase him off, she’ll frighten him, she’ll lose him in a week.
I took the train west to Evanston, to the stop where the mothers get off and wives, where the wrinkled brown man in the newspaper stand winked at me when I climbed down the stairs. Crossing the street, I held my gloves over my ears and my hair jerked in the wind. I walked two blocks to Stephen’s house, reciting the address—Ten Two Twenty, Ten Two Twenty—until I found his large brick townhouse with a gravel driveway of pointed, gray stones.
That first night I said just once, and the next I said just once more. I’ll go back to the ones I’ve known, I said, the ones I loved before. Shaved heads and ropey arms, boys as skinny as girls.
I forgot that’s how it always starts. That you know it’s a lost cause, but still you wait. Even with a man, I thought with a man it would be different. But this place is just the same. You get in and bide your time and tell yourself, He’s falling. He’s falling and just doesn’t know how to say it.
I took him from another. From my boss, actually, Mary Jo. I carry this like a key I worry in my pocket, this news that I’m sleeping with her ex. To pay for it, I go to the bar every Friday with Mary Jo and sometimes our receptionist Maria too. On Fridays, we hike up our skirts and sit at the bar because the bartenders at McGillicutty’s are handsome.
When the men in suits come in the door, we’re waiting. We look nice and smile and move our legs one over the other, but Mary Jo’s the only one buying. Maria and I, we’ll sit with our boss until eight. Until the last train is leaving the city and we’ve all finished crossing our fingers. Last week we waited till eleven, when Mary Jo kept asking, “One more, just stay for one more.” She was chatting up the bartender Troy and he was tossing it right back at her.
We told her, “Play it cool.” But still, she kept us waiting. She wanted something to happen.
We gave her all the money in our purses so she could catch a cab back to her suburb, Wheaton, and all she did was blubber, “You’ll come back with me next week, right? We’ll come back after work and try it one more time?”
Maria and I exchanged glances.
Sometimes she’ll overdo it, but tonight, she looks pretty. When Mary Jo came in the office this morning, I knew that she meant business. She was sporting her favorite red sweater, the one with ratted wool around the collar, glitter dotting the thread.
The bartender Troy comes in the bar with snow up on his collar. He takes off his navy pea coat and puts it on a peg behind the bar. Fiddling with a small black bow tie, he turns and sees us, red lipstick smiles all down the bar, “Girls, I was hoping I’d see you!”
We chat him up fiercely and he gives us drinks for free. Mary Jo swivels in her chair and drops her mouth. She whispers, “I think it’s working!” We don’t tell her this is how bartenders score big tips. We don’t tell her he’s just doing his job.
You’d think she’s been off the market for years, but really, only three months. She’s told me all her stories — twenty years plus of singles bars, blind dates, church socials, personal ads, set-ups, she was even married once, for a year — you’d think she’d know the drill. It doesn’t matter, to Mary Jo, every word is a come-on. A few weeks ago, it was her neighbor, “Nice day,” he dropped while going for his paper.
She’s been over there three times already, “Oops, I’m out of sugar,” she says. “Can you imagine?”
Tonight, it is no different. When Troy moves down the bar to fill peoples’ drinks, she won’t take her eyes off him. When he returns, she says she missed him. Maria and I check our watches. At nine o’clock precisely, we tell her we have to go. She looks like we just killed her, like there’s blood all over our hands.
I take the train to Stephen’s. He gave me a key that I tied with a string. While I walk the two blocks from the train, I loop the string around and around my ring finger.
When I come in the door, he walks into the foyer in his bare feet even though the marble is freezing. He comes to the door in a wrinkled dress shirt with an open collar thrown over faded jeans.
“Hey you,” he says. He touches my face with his warm hands. He pulls me close before I even get my jacket off and puts his face in my hair.
Stephen was born in California. Up in the hills by wine country. He has lived in the Midwest for ten years and still is surprised by the generality of our seasons — our in-between months when everything, the trees and the grass and the sky, is brown.
“How can you stand it?” he asks. “Four months brown. Four months gray.”
“I’m used to it,” I say, but it’s not what I mean. When I’m with him, the words that come out of my mouth sound young and stupid, meaningless. I want to tell him there is beauty in it — if you look hard enough. When the cornfields and the sky are the same color, a bleached blond, you can’t tell the difference between earth and sky, everything blends into one, blank as a sheet of white paper.
It was supposed to be a double date: Mary Jo and Stephen, me and this overgrown skater, Kevin, I think his name was, I’d been seeing. We met for margaritas at La Bonita. Stephen was wearing gray flannel dress slacks and a blue cotton shirt the color of robin’s eggs. He sat across from me and smiled, flinched a little when Mary Jo ruffled his hair with her lacquered fingernails.
I’d never seen anyone like that before, a grown man, silver hair, wolf eyes, and felt this desire, this loss of breath, when he said, “Mary Jo, your assistant is lovely. Why didn’t you tell me?”
I crossed and uncrossed my legs.
We touched shoulders in the cramped narrow hallway between the bathrooms, me coming, him going. He reached out and brushed a lock of strawberry-blond hair out of my eyes.
“There,” he said, “now I can see you.” He slipped a piece of paper with his address scrawled across it into the pocket of my suit jacket. My body turned electric with want and worry. “I’m sorry,” he blushed, “I can’t help it.”
After the first week I started riding the train to Stephen’s house, he broke up with Mary Jo. She cried for weeks and bit the insides of her palms. I took her out to lunch and listened to her stories, her complaints. “I can’t believe it, I can’t,” she said and blew her nose. “Shit. I thought he was the one.”
“Did he tell you why?” I asked.
“He just said he didn’t want something serious. He’s seeing somebody else. I know it.”
I gnawed on my tongue until the evenings, when I could ride the train to Stephen’s and get in his bed. Stephen is my first older man. He has white streaks in his hair, threads of silver. Still, when he touches me, I can’t stop shaking. For the first time in my life, I have orgasms during sex, surprising waves of pleasure that leave me breathless and exhausted, naked on his sheets.
When I’m with him, I sleep with no dreams. All I smell are his clean sheets and the lake water from the windows. At night, we fall asleep touching. And if sometime in the middle of the night, I move my hand from underneath his arm to roll away from him, he’ll pull me back again.
In the mornings, I go into Mary Jo’s office and get her desk organized. I open the blinds, dust off the window ledge, open her mail. All this time, I look at her pictures. While I’m slitting envelopes, turning on her computer, shuffling paper, I look at men’s smiles from every angle.
Where most bosses hang diplomas, Mary Jo has pictures all over her walls, of boyfriends she loved, boyfriends she lost. When she gets blue, I tell her, “Take them down. Shred ’em, burn ’em, just get rid of them. They’ll drive you mad.”
I hear her before I see her, high heels clicking down the hall, her two briefcases slamming into the walls. “Weekend from hell,” she says as she breezes into her office and hangs her coat behind the door. “Nothing on Friday with Mr. Bartender, no phone number, no address, no nothing.”
But this is how she tells me stories. This is how she tells me her life. The framed photo of Bill, handsome and broad-shouldered in his Georgia Bulldog uniform, accounts for 20 to 21.
“Everything went downhill as soon as you left McGillicutty’s. That asshole bartender has a girlfriend. Tells me she’s moving in with him. Sweet, right?”
Over her computer, there’s Christopher, swank and skinny, holding a Manhattan loosely between delicate fingers, he explains 30 to 32.
“So I get home kind of loopy, and I figure, what the hell? I’ll go knock on my handsome neighbor’s door.”
Muffin, she calls him, is in a gold frame on the windowsill. He’s a short grey man in golf pants, leaning on a club somewhere sunny. Muffin paraphrases a short period of three weeks when she was 35, when her divorce had just been finalized and her standards were so much smaller. Everything in her past, everything she tells me, is connected to these pictures.
“So knock, knock, my neighbor opens the door looking really sleepy and pissy. But I’m half in the bag, so I say, ‘Hi, it’s me, again. I’m sorry. But you know, I was thinking, do you feel like coming over for a drink?'”
“I did,” Mary Jo laughs and rearranges her black and white striped sweater. “At first, I thought, oh my God, this might just work. But then he lets me have it. Get this, he says he just got out of a sticky engagement. Left the bride two weeks before the wedding. Was in no mood, ‘No mood do you understand?,’ he says, to get involved again. So maybe I should ‘hoof it,’ yes he told me to ‘hoof it’ down the hall and knock on somebody else’s door.”
There are gaps in her history, of times she went without — like when she left the one in Florida, the one who broke her nose with a clean, sucker punch. She left him screaming on a dark street and drove to Chicago, where she moved into her aunt’s house for two years and was terrified of men in general. She’ll talk about the man in Florida, she’s even got a picture of them in swimsuits tucked behind the potted fern I bought her for Boss’s Day. She’ll tell me stories about dinner dates in Miami, she’ll tell me things he said in his sleep, the way he fit his body into hers. But she’s never told me anything of those two dateless years in Chicago. Dry stretches like comas.
“Honey, it was the pits. I almost called Stephen, but I remembered what you said, I told myself, ‘Be strong.’ So!” her eyes pop open and she gets that look, expectant. “I heard about this bar, out by my apartment, gorgeous single men everywhere.” And I already know what’s coming. “Let’s go this Friday, after work.”
Just barely cutting off my head is the latest, Mary Jo and Stephen, my Stephen, posed before a baby grand at Pops for Champagne. His fine, cotton dress shirt open at the collar. The hollow at his throat where I put my tongue. That picture I try to avoid. He’s got his arm around her and in the picture, he’s smiling.
“Sure,” I tell her, “Friday’s fine. We’ll throw down.”
I thought, maybe, I’d tell her. But I never even tried. I thought, I’ll get a new job. I’ll leave and she’ll never know.
On interviews, I make a big impression. My eyes shift to the side when I say, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t call my present employer. We’re having a falling-out.”
Most of them, the ladies I interview with, are really nice about it. They tell me to stick it out, that I’ve only been with the magazine a year. “You need to prove you’re trustworthy,” they say. “You need to prove you’re worth the investment.”
So I pack up my portfolio and ride the train back to the office. Mary Jo cooes over me and brings tea. She says, “Are you feeling better? You could have stayed home. You don’t have to come in when you’re sick.” I cough in my hands and my eyes, they’re watering. I just smile when she says, “Isn’t that a pretty suit you’re wearing?”
When I’m with Stephen, I tell myself that he loves me. Sometimes, he’ll take me in his arms and pulls me so close I can’t breathe and this is when my brain leaves me. Sometimes, I’ll wake to his fingers in my hair and with his skin so close that smells so clean, I’ll think, This time, this way, this man, this makes everything okay. This one is worth the mess. Sometimes, when he’s in the shower, I step in his closet and touch his suits. I count his shoes and press my hands where his feet should go.
When I’m not with him, I tell myself it’s over. I tell myself I won’t call him anymore, I won’t see him anymore, it’s not worth it. Someone in this world, I say, someone must know how to give me an orgasm. Somebody else will figure it out.
We hit jackpot at the bar in the suburbs. Within minutes, a man who jumps out of airplanes for a living buys Mary Jo a drink and gets a captive audience all night.
“We strap first aid packs to our backs,” he says and sneaks his arm around her. “They drop us into ‘Areas of Crisis,’ like forest fires and that kind of thing.”
“You rescue people,” I say.
“Not all of them,” he answers and gives Mary Jo a smile. “But we certainly try.”
His name is Bernard and he tells us all kinds of things. How to hold a wound when you dress it. How you put pressure where it hurts most. How to staunch the bleeding. While he’s telling us what you do when a bone breaks, when it’s sticking out of the skin, I excuse myself and go to the pay phone to call Stephen.
“I’d like to see you,” I tell him. “Should I come over after?”
“Maybe, I don’t know,” he says, distracted. This is his new thing, to not care. Simple as that. I can hear his fingers typing at the computer. “I’ve got all this work,” he says.
“Sure,” I say, “right.”
A boy playing pool with his friends turns and stares at me, watching me wind the phone cord around and around one finger. He has spiked hair and dirty jeans, a chain hanging out of his pocket. I don’t know what I’m thinking, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but when I hang up the phone, I walk over to the table. I touch the green felt with my fingers and just stand there till he starts talking to me.
When Mary Jo was seeing Stephen, she told me he’d never been married. “Forty-three and never been hitched,” I said. “You know you’ve got a problem.”
Stephen sells ads for Swedish furniture and our magazine buys them. We print them on glossy paper in our magazine. “He loves money,” Mary Jo told me once, fingering the sharp edges of one of his ads. “More than anything, more than anyone.”
She’s told me everything about every man she’s ever been on one date with. I’ve had three months with Stephen and there’s all these things I can’t tell her. I can’t tell her I’m in love with the man who dumped her. I can’t tell her I can’t let him go. How do I tell her I’ve started to think like her? I’ve got these weird ideas, engagement rings and white dresses. I’m thinking somehow he’ll save me, he’ll get me out of this mess. I can’t tell her it’s just like she told me, that there’s less and less of him there. No matter how close he pulls me, there’s miles between our bodies. I tell myself, It’s the years. The age difference. But that doesn’t change the fact that his eyes glaze over, distracted, when he looks at me over dinner at the cold, swanky restaurants he admires.
When we’re not together, I have to talk myself to sleep. I’ll find the one who loved me, I say, the one I never should have lost. I start thinking about a boy who never existed, whose arms and legs and hair and breath are pieced together from boys strewn over the years. I’ll get him back, I say, the boy I knew who knew me. I’ll put this man to rest.
In the bar, in the bathroom, with this kid, I kiss him so hard he’s knocked back against the wall. He grabs my face and rakes one hand up the back of my head. Inside his mouth, it’s just darkness there. Mary Jo said, “No, girl, come on, no. That guy looks creepy.” But I followed when he took my hand. These boys, they break my heart. These are the boys I understand.
In the bathroom, over his shoulder, my fingers crawl across the tile wall, searching for a light switch. This isn’t something I want to see. The boy puts a hand over each of my biceps and flips me so my shoulder blades smack the wall.
Outside, I hear Mary Jo knocking, “Hon, it’s me. Hon, I’m sorry to do this. I just want to know you’re okay. Can you open the door for a minute?”
I kiss this skinny, awful guy and he pulls down my jeans. I say to myself, Close your eyes now.
Knock, knock, knock.
I say to myself, Put your hands here, where his bones meet his throat. Touch his mouth, here, with your mouth. This can be nice.
I tell Mary Jo I didn’t mean it. I tell her I’m so sorry. She puts me in her car and drives me to her apartment, a cramped tiny place reeking of potpourri. I sit on a chair and listen to my ears hum while she puts sheets on the couch, smoothes them with her palms. I tell her I do things I don’t understand.
I ask her if she got his number, that search and rescue man. She says, “No, he bolted. Somewhere in that mess.”
“Next week will be different.” I rub at my eyes so I don’t have to look at her. “We’ll go to the movies and out for Italian food. Just us girls, MJ. Just us, okay?”
“You always say stuff like that,” she tells me, “and then you bail.” She pulls a blanket over the makeshift bed she’s made for me. The lumpy, uncomfortable bed single girls sleep in.
Mary Jo straightens up. She sighs.
“I know you think you’re better than me,” Mary Jo says. She picks at the gold, glittered thread in her sweater collar. I sit down on the couch and try to hold my hands steady, to hide that I’m shaking. I lick the corners of my mouth where the boy bit me and taste something blacker than blood.
“I know you think I’m too dependent on men, too needy,” she says. “But look at you. Look at me. Here we are.”
The fluorescent light from her kitchen buzzes, flickering on and off against the flowered wallpaper. The lukewarm heat hums in the vents. Mary Jo stands in the center of the living room, staring at me. I think about Stephen, sleeping easy in his cold, post-modern townhouse on the other side of town. I imagine him rolling over, pulling another woman into the nest of his legs.
“I just wish you’d save yourself,” I tell her.
“Yeah?” Mary Jo asks. “Why don’t you tell me how to do that if you’re so smart?”
While I pick at the crack in my lip, Mary Jo walks down the hall to the bathroom. She flicks on the light and runs water for her shower. I slide my legs between the cool, cotton sheets. The ceiling in the hall fills with steam from the shower.
The phone sits next to the couch on its white cradle. I think about calling Stephen, just one last time, just to listen to him breathe. This man who turned into one of Mary Jo’s stories, one of those men who take over your life and then suddenly fall out of love with you, meet somebody else, get married, evaporate clean into air, leaving you stunned and blinking, sitting on your boss’s couch.
I can breathe through my mouth and my nose. I can breathe.
Mary Jo opens the door to the bathroom a crack and an envelope of steam unfurls like smoke.
The boy in the bathroom says, You can open your eyes now. It’s over.
The search and rescue man lifts a green bottle to his lips. Here’s how you dress a wound, he says. Here’s how you sew back the edges.
Mary Jo flicks off the light. She closes the door to her bedroom. I can hear the springs in her bed shift under her weight. Both of us turn over on our sides, waiting, watching in the dark.
Originally published on Blackbird. Read the full story there.