Monday, May 16, 2005

Chapter 4 (Part V)

The flirting didn’t seem any more serious for S. than with me. It wasn’t like he was trying hard to get me into bed— OK, maybe just hard enough to make me push back and put him in his place, sorta like verbal arm-wrestling. It was exciting and maybe a little dangerous only because mom always taught me men are men and can’t really control their urges. As long as I was on guard, it was dangerous without being too dangerous. Plus I was convinced (or convinced myself?) I didn’t have any worry, I could handle it all. S. and I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our friendship, either, we were creatures of the moment, making the whole thing up as we caromed along down a road neither of us had ever traveled.

It’s easy to see why I found him attractive, too. On the simplest, most basic level, I’d never met anyone like him before. Not a lot of European men hang out in South Philly. There were a few real Italian guys growing up— Italian-Italian, as in from the old country, but most of them were greasy hicks dressed in clothes that looked like they came from the closet in my father’s basement where he kept the suits he bought after he came home from World War II. I never met anyone with “Old World charm,” he was Maximilian in “Cabaret,” right down to the moustache and sleek black hair.

That's so ironic— and I never thought about it until now— but “Cabaret” was the first film P. and I saw after we moved to New Haven!

Not since getting married had anyone with any sophistication made a play for me, even a playful play. Nobody flirts with graduate student wives. And nobody at all had flirted in the same self-mocking way he did, reminding me of the bobbing and weaving Muhammad Ali used to lull his opponents before delivering the knockout punch. S. would complement my looks or intimate he’d like us to be more than “just friends,” never really putting the make on me in a direct, unambiguous way, then back away and tell me how Ellen distracted him from his studies because she wouldn’t give in. If I scolded him— or worse, if I played along and stared intently into his eyes, putting my hand on his knee and moving it slowly up his thigh an inch or two— he would always, I mean always retreat, as if it shocked him my being so forward.

— It was nothing more than friendly teasing.

— Nothing serious, I mean, who’s kidding whom?

— You’re married, there’s no pos-sibility!

If I flirted with him, he would dissolve in a puddle, his façade of jokes, put-downs and flippant denials transformed into a hollow, empty laugh.

“Ah, but you’re married, Mis-sus Campbell,” he would purr in that throaty accent and oily grin, implying it was I who had a dirty mind for even thinking he meant our conversation had an erotic component. Flirting, after all, is what Europeans excel at, right? I’ve read all the magazine articles, seen all the movies with dashing Frenchmen armed with charm and the attentive ways women can’t resist. No, things with S. just stumbled ahead the same way my relations with boys had when I was growing up: I let them lead me, all the time keeping my foot on the brake. What I never counted on was my inability control events— and the others who were part of them. There were two other human beings in this besides me, along with my own emotions— which became uncontrollable by the end.

Funny, I always thought of myself as the girl who could be in command of any situation. When I was dating, I never drank alcohol, never smoked a joint until I got married, all because I didn’t want anyone “taking advantage of me.” Sure some of that was my mother’s preaching all those years, but I’m no prude when it comes to sex. I didn’t “lose” my virginity in 12th grade, I chose the time and place, I wasn’t about to be “swept away” like other girls I knew, there was no way I’d let any man get me pregnant and wreck all the plans I had to become a doctor or save the world. Unlike most of the other women I know, I didn’t even mind oral sex with whatever guy I was seeing at the time. Sex in any form is natural if I’m in love. I can let down my guard if I’m comfortable; I can’t give up control of a situation, can’t bear the thought of a guy getting me to do anything unless it’s what I want.

What I didn’t realize is that with S., I couldn’t dictate the course of events the way I’m writing them down now— they were writing me— still are. My dad taught me to play cards when I was only nine; my favorite game is still blackjack. He says I’m pretty good, though way too aggressive. He’s right, I take chances. He always cautions me not to overplay my hand: you don’t want to go over the magic number of 21. Well, I thought I was in control of the game S. and I had dreamed up— remember it was nothing but a game at first. It’s just I didn’t know there were wild cards in the deck.

to be continued