Friday, the start of the weekend
What a week— the Flyers won the Stanley Cup Tuesday night, and Saigon fell today. The Vietnam War is over at last. Can’t imagine a greater chasm between two events. I blush to confess I was more passionate about the Cup than the end of the War, although more involved in protesting Vietnam— the Flyers come and go in my life, only on TV— in fact, I’ve never seen a hockey game in person. In college, though, I marched, held a bucket filled with burning lighter fluid on the steps of Temple’s admin building while a crowd of guys tossed in their draft cards, and the weekend of November 15, 1969, I convinced my parents I was staying with a girlfriend to work on a history project. In a manner of speaking we did: both of us took a bus with other college students down to Washington for what turned out to be the biggest peace march of all.
Seeing hundreds of thousands of people directing all of their energy to one, great cause— peace— was such a rush, I felt like I’d found a purpose beyond just getting up every morning and going to class, or working at McDonald’s after school shoving hamburgers and fries into paper sacks and wondering how long until my shift ended. The only other times I’ve felt so energized were during sex. The march was like making love to the whole world and being high all in one, the colors and banners, the crowds singing and chanting “Hell, no, we won’t go!” and “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The group we traveled to DC with included all kinds of interesting types, rich kids from Center City and Swarthmore, a guy who’d dropped out of college to register unemployed blacks in North Philly, and two nuns in short habits. One of the coordinators tried to get me into his sleeping bag Saturday night, but I was too focused on doing the right thing— even though part of me wanted to.
I heard the news today, oh boy.
I’m sitting outside our apartment on the steps facing the small parking lot where the landlord lets us park the Mustang. P.’s washing it, even though it’s almost dark now. I’d rather not be alone inside; I guess he’d rather be busy than with his thoughts, too. Tuesday night watching the game was great, we whooped and hollered, and for a little while, I didn’t think about the Spring or S. or feel anything but an animal satisfaction being with my husband and enjoying the distraction. After it was over, most of the good feeling began melting away like ice after they’ve pulled the plug at the rink.
How is it things start out one way and end up another? I wonder what LBJ would answer to that question? I’m sure I don’t know. Vietnam was supposed to be about defending freedom; look at the fucked-up mess we ended up in. Talk about the road to Hell and good intentions. Oh, God! This past Spring, things started out equally innocently.
I met S. at work (can’t get much more ordinary than that, right?). I’m a secretary in Manuscripts & Archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, not because I want to be a secretary, but because that’s all Yale will let me be without a degree. So much for the open mind of the academy. M & A is the place where the Important People deposit their Important Papers so researchers can, well, research the papers for insight— or gossip or whatever researchers want to put in their books and scholarly articles. Most everyone who comes into M & A is writing some kind of book, so usually I take pity on the article writers or students and help them instead. If nothing else, I find it passes my boring days talking to people who don’t normally rate any attention from the rest of the staff. They’re all busy throwing themselves at the book authors, hoping to get a mention in an introduction: “and finally, I want to thank Maureen Busybody at Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts & Archives, without whose magnificent help this exceptionally wonderful tome could not have seen the light of day.” Not that Ms. Busybody had anything really to do with writing the book, it’s just the author knows if he doesn’t kiss up to her, he won’t get her to root through the un-indexed papers and hidden treasures every collection has for the next time he’s got a yen to rummage around in the papers of Important People.
Anyway, S. was researching his Senior thesis— it’s a big paper, really a mini-book Yalies have to write before they graduate— his was about the diplomatic failures leading up to the First World War, so he wanted to work with the papers of Col. Edward House, delegate to the Versailles Peace Conference, and Yale alumnus. The one good thing about Manuscripts is I love history. S. was charming and funny and right off we got talking, chatting on and off for a few days while I made sure he got the papers he needed (sometimes ones he wasn’t supposed to have access to, he was only a student after all).
Hey, it passed the time.
The more we talked, though, the more I could see he wasn’t just funny, he was urbane and sophisticated, and we clicked on a level different from anyone else I’d ever met. His one major defect (and I teased him about it all the time): he was dating Ellen Lefrak, the woman who works at the desk next to mine (and whom I despise). Ellen’s my age, yet she looks ten years older and acts twenty years older still. She’s not bad looking, and he must’ve seen something in her. The hilarious part is he also liked gossiping with me about his misadventures with Ellen— especially plans and schemes as part of his fruitless crusade to bed down “Ellen Iron Panties” (his name for her; mine is much worse). We traded gossipy tidbits about Ellen— and the whole stuffy M & A crew. He even asked my advice on improving his chances with her. What girl could resist such fun?
One day S. invites me for a cup of coffee in the library cafeteria. We talked about the usual things— his latest vision to spirit Ellen away to some remote location in the Black Forest where no one could hear her crying for help as he licked honey off her naked body, gently forcing her to submit to his carnal desires. I know that sounds horrible, only she’s been a total bitch to me since the day I started here. I don’t now and didn’t care then what happened to her virginity, it has never been important to me. See, she has a college degree and so that makes her an “archivist-in-training” (still a secretary, really), while I’m worthless “clerical staff” with no prospects for advancement until I come up with a sheepskin.
And sheep haven’t grazed on the New Haven Green since the Civil War, so there aren’t any around for me to skin.
No chance for advancement, no chance for acknowledgements, tsk, tsk. I thought his scheming was a hoot, I encouraged him in the conviction my enemy’s enemy is my friend (and it wasn’t too bad having a friend, either). Right about the time I stood up to return to work, he grabbed my hand.
“Would you do me a huge favor? Since you’re such a good typist—” it’s true: 100 words per minute! “—would you type my Senior thesis for me?”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I can tell you it wasn’t that!
On a whim I’ll never be able to explain, I said “sure.” My dad once told me the most important lesson he’d learned during his time in the Marines was “never volunteer.” Guess I should’ve listened to my dad more!
Looking back, I can see all the obvious “reasons why.” The whole thing wasn’t all that different from my four years at South Philadelphia High: if a girl meets a guy in the hallway, or perhaps he stops by your locker “accidentally on purpose” for a reason you don’t really care about anyway, maybe you flirt with him a little, even if you already have a boyfriend. If he’s interested, maybe he’ll get up the nerve to hang around after school and ask you to grab a slice of pizza at the Stadium Diner across Broad Street or a soda and a Tastykake at one of the corner stores, the kind that used to be on almost every block in South Philly before the supermarkets put them out of business. My whole life drifted along that way: allowing things to drag out slowly so I could enjoy the uncertainty, then let events pull me in this direction or that, never thinking “hmmm, should I?” Sort of the way I eat chocolate-covered raisins: one at a time, slowly, making them last. Since my mom didn’t have a lot of money to buy candy, I could never be sure the next time I’d get a treat like that.
Add to that the fact I was plain-looking and unpopular right up until senior year. I liked it when boys started paying me attention. No one asked me out until my breasts started developing the Summer before. And without money— my dad still comes home from the Post Office, then heads off to a second job—I couldn’t dress the way the popular girls did. I didn’t “put out,” either, like the fast ones. Things have changed, of course. One of the undergraduate women was wearing a t-shirt yesterday that read “nice girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” I was raised differently.
Bottom line: things were hopeless for me until the last year of high school— that meant I was usually pretty lonely, too. I got married young (only 19), and since then, I’ve tried hard to be the good faculty-wife-in-training. Translation: “no flirting.” So a brief few years of attention and then everything seemed like it ended before it had begun. All the short skirts that made my legs look terrific, the tight sweaters emphasizing my breasts, the smiles and whispers and teasing, all left behind.
This wasn’t just an opportunity to relive some of that. S. was catnip on a certain level, 21 years old to my 24, though he didn’t seem younger. Worse, he was sophisticated, with dark, European-rake looks, and a slight German accent that made him seem worldly. Also slightly dangerous. In a word: wicked. Our conversations— banter really— were always peppered with flirting asides and thinly-disguised innuendo, mostly sexual allusions and flat-out tease I never took offense at— or tired of. If I write down a few things I can still remember (God, there’s so much I CAN remember, it’s scary!), I wonder if anyone reading it could tell which of us said what?
— Have you seen the posters around campus that say “Is there life after Yale”?
— Is there life AT Yale?
— Yale is like a mother with too many children who refuses to let any of them grow up so long as they live at home.
— That’s not so bad, personally I think independence is overrated, you have to take care of yourself, cook your own meals, pay the rent, shop, what a bore! A warm, enveloping bed is definitely a preferable choice.
— Yale is like always coming back to your own bed!
— Bed? Why is it the bed is the symbol of sexual submission and gratification when sex occurs in a large variety of locations, some of which I’ve tried and others I’m looking forward to trying in the right circumstances.
— Tell me about your first love?
— When I lost my virginity?
— No, your first love. Love and sex aren’t always the same.
Well, love without sex certainly isn’t as good as love WITH sex.
Is sex without love better than love without sex?
— Tell me about your first love?
— Do I have to tell the truth?
— No, but at least make up an entertaining lie. If it’s one thing I can’t stand it’s boring lies, they should be colorful stories, and most of all, complex.
— You certainly are an opinionated person.
— Yes, well, what point is there to living with blandness? Life is too short to put up with mediocrity. Or worse just going along to get along.
— Ah, but what about society? What about offending others?
— Well, I don’t think you have to hurt other people to be yourself, and that includes lying. I try never to lie in a way that will hurt another person. I don’t always reveal all the details, especially if it will do any real harm.
— To them or to you? Why don’t you give me an example.
— I don’t tell Ellen that I think she’s an obnoxious bitch. I doubt it’s going to change her character if I did. And it won’t do anything to improve my situation at work.
— You don’t believe in redemption?
— The only redemption I can imagine for Ellen is a ball peen hammer to the head!
— Oh, you ARE wicked.
— Am I? Besides, it my turn, tell me about YOUR first love.
— Ah, but you see, I’m still waiting to find her.
OK, maybe it’s NOT so hard to figure out which is me and which is him, but the ideas we kicked around were ones we shared, not necessarily in the conventional boy/girl thing-- we thought along parallel lines, had similar interests, were in the same astral plane at the same exact moment in time. It was all safe, too: both of us knew I was married, my being married was like armor plating keeping any real danger away. I figured I could flirt and play as much as I wanted and nothing bad would ever happen, right? He didn’t seem on the make, we were perfectly attuned in our attitudes and our interests, but most of all, I was in control. I remembered my mother’s warnings:
“Keep your legs closed. Don’t give boys the idea they can get anything for free.”
Ah, Child, the whole mess seems so fucking middle class and pathetic now! Maybe I even knew it was at the time, I just can’t separate the threads of the yarn any longer. I mean, why do these things happen? Couldn’t he have gone to some other college? Did it have to be Manuscripts he walked in to? Couldn’t his Senior thesis have been on something besides history, my passion? It doesn’t make sense my looking for some deep-seated dissatisfaction with P. Yes, we had been married for nearly five years, yes, I’ve heard about the “seven year itch,” the difference is, we were happily-married, we were! Our sex life was fantastic! I don’t want to leave the wrong impression for posterity— if there is such a thing. Or that anyone but me will ever care about this story. He’s the kind of man a girl wants to be married to— loving, considerate, gentle— we’re good together, he’s always telling me we’re “two halves of the same whole.” He’s smart— even if his favorite songs are The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” (everyone in Philly knows the Four Seasons are TWICE as good as the Beach Boys, and can dance, too), and the Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare.”
“Cassie, that song reminds me of you.”
“And how you’ve struggled to tame me?”
We’ve got plenty in common— old movies or driving in our 1965 Mustang, reading at night, listening to music, cuddling for hours in bed (even after making love) and talking. Talking with P. is almost like opening my heart to a best girlfriend. Plus I just plain feel at peace when he’s with me. He’s older, and I confess I sometimes feel intimidated by his brains, yet we’re kinda like Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” He’s a wonderful teacher and mentor, as well as a good husband. He wrote a cycle of love sonnets for me after we got married, and had them printed up and bound in book form! All in all, I’m lucky to be married to him— and he tells me the same thing.
With S., I just enjoyed hanging around him. I could never imagine the two of us having anything serious— much less leaving P. for him, running off and eloping, God, no! For one thing, he’s terrifically unreliable— also messy, he smokes, he’s selfish in countless small ways and, worst of all, afraid of offending anyone he perceives as “above” him. He’s always deferring to the three scions of industry who share his dorm suite at Stiles because they come from money and he doesn’t have a cent. It made me furious sometimes the way they intimidated him. One afternoon, we’d stopped by Durfee Sweet Shop, it’s a grungy basement space in Durfee Hall where they sell candy and ice cream and there’s a big juke box with great tunes. As we sat shooting the shit, two of the suite mates walked in and began eyeing me.
“Who’s the skirt?” Asshole One asked S.
“She’s typing my thesis.”
You’d think he’d been caught naked with a minor. What was it he was worried about? I’m just a typist in that world? I wanted to scratch all three of them bloody, but especially the two moneyed jerks who think the world fucking revolves around them. Sigh! As much as I love Yale, sometimes the gap between where I come from and what most of the Yalies have as a birthright leaves me with mixed feelings at best. Still, my dad always taught me you can’t let other people determine who you are or limit what you do.
The next day I called S. to see when those two would be around Stiles. 2 PM? Great. At 1:30, I told Ellen I had to go out for awhile, then slipped into the library bathroom to change, heading for Stiles all bundled up in my coat. When I got there, S. was working in his room with the door open, while the Deux Jerques were drinking beers on a sofa one of them had bought for the common area. Walking in the front door, I took off my coat— underneath was a micro-mini I haven’t worn since high school. It ended just south of my ass, and I tugged at the edges “absent-mindedly” a little bit to make sure they didn’t miss my blunt humor, while pulling back my shoulders and swishing my silk blouse with no bra from side to side in a textbook demonstration of the word “jiggle.”
“And that, boys, is why they call them knockers! See ya!”
I slammed the door to S.’s room behind me and left them to their low-grade imaginations. I didn’t stay long— just enough to let them sweat about what they thought they were missing.
Incidents like that taught me that so much of what I thought was a suave bon vivant in S. was really a put-on. He’s Catholic in the worst sense, occasionally going on and on about “redemption” and “suffering,” and most of all, the forgiveness of sin. Of course, the more he worries about sin, the more irresistible it is to him. My father’s Catholic, but my mom and her relatives snuck me out to be baptized Protestant while he was at work (and before her in-laws could bring the priest by the house). There’s no redemption in the DiMarco house: you bring your suffering on yourself through the choices you make and it’s your responsibility to clean up any mess.
So he had shortcomings, don’t we all? I enjoyed the verbal sparring— so much that I would fidget in the morning waiting for S. to walk in the door of M & A. Keeping things lively and risky, without actually crossing any real line, was a delightful challenge to my bored brain; my terribly unchallenged life found an outlet for my pent-up dreams and ambitions to be more than a mental door stop.
“What do you think the nature of attraction between men and women is?”
I had to stay on my toes with him, his questions were thought-provoking and he acted like my answers mattered.
“Sex, of course! No seriously, it has to be a meeting of souls.”
“Souls and a good figure,” he looked me up and down with the same comic broadness I’d always laughed at with Art Carney and Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners.”
“You’ve never been attracted to someone that wasn’t good-looking?”
“Well, the French do have an expression: laide mais merveilleuse, it means “ugly but marvelous.” It’s meant for women who aren’t good-looking, yet have style and sexual animal magnetism.”
“Ah, yes, S.A.M. That should be your name.”
“Ah, flattery will get you many places, Mis-sus Campbell.” He always divided the “Mrs.” that way for emphasis, it was one of the little German things I found adorable about him.
“But let me ask you this? Would you choose to be alone on a deserted island, or with someone you actually disliked?”
“I don’t know, would you prefer to be on that island with somebody who was good looking and obnoxious, or unattractive yet pleasant and compatible?”
“I would have to be with someone who turned me on physically. There is, after all, a mechanical difference between men and women: my equipment has a mind of its own when it comes to performance.”
“Is that why it leads you around by your nose? I’ve always suspected a man’s mind dangles between his legs.”
“Hmm, I don’t recall a woman ever giving me mind! Come on, women are different from men, they look at the face first and through the eyes, into the soul.”
“That’s bullshit! A woman will just as likely respond to a hunk in tight jeans as an intellectual with a bouquet of flowers.”
“A hunk in tight jeans with a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other should have offspring wherever he goes. You’re a sage, Mis-sus Campbell!” and he winked with the a leer and a knowing nod, then we both laughed to the point of tears.
The flirting didn’t seem anything serious for him, it wasn’t like he was trying hard to get me into bed— 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: 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— Italian-Italian, as in from the old country. Most of them were greasy hicks dressed in clothes that looked like they came from the closet in the basement where my father still kept the suits he bought after 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.
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.
No one with any sophistication besides P. had ever made a play for me, even a playful play. Nobody flirts with graduate student wives, and nobody at all had ever flirted in the same self-mocking way he did. It reminded 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 and so he was always thinking about sex. 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 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, all the time keeping my foot on the brake. What I never counted on was there were two other human beings in this besides me. And my own emotions.
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 after I was married, all because I didn’t want anyone “taking advantage of me.” Sure some of that was my mother’s preaching, 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. Calculating? Maybe. 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 be 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 when 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 this time, 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. Well, I thought I was in control of the game S. and I had dreamed up—I didn’t know there were wild cards in the deck.
Part of the excitement was this unpredictability. I could never be sure if he’d show up outside M & A after work wanting to walk me home, or ring my doorbell at any hour with a sheaf of papers for me to type. He’d tell me he was coming over early to avoid finding P. at home, then spend the evening bullshitting with him over Scotch. There was a good deal of uncertainty about his life story, too, the hookers he’d slept with living in New York before starting at Yale, or the Arab girls in Beirut before that. His emotions were mercurial, one day he’d insist he was mad for Ellen and was devastated because she’d stood him up, then say the next he was dating her only as an excuse to be near me. Was it all teasing, or was there a shred of fact to it? All lies about his past, or a kernel of reality? Of course I was flattered by the idea he might really be interested in me, what woman feels nothing having a man smitten with her like a little puppy dog, even if she is married? It pumped helium into my ego when he confessed he’d been scouting me before he asked me to type his paper.
“You realize that I had my eye on you even before I started doing research here?”
“You’re not going to start with that bullshit about ‘kindred souls’ again, are you?”
“No, really, I’m utter-ly serious. I picked you out as a fellow seeker of pleasure weeks before I knew it was you in that photo.”
I already had a reputation around the department as a flirt after posing for a photo of me in the Yale Daily News sitting on the lap of the statue of Theodore Dwight Woolsey, Yale’s 11th president, over on Old Campus. All I was wearing in the picture were large gold hoop earrings and a healthy dose of attitude. Fortunately for me, the editor picked a shot that didn’t show my face. Why’d I take such a chance of losing my job by posing nude for the Yale paper, on campus no less? I don’t know, I didn’t go looking for trouble, it sorta found me— see what I mean about just letting things happen? I fell into it answering an ad for a photographer’s model on a card posted down in Cross Campus Library’s snack bar offering $50. I almost missed the card, too, it was nearly covered over by a flurry of notices selling stereos or used bikes, in search of roommates for apartments off campus, or offers to type papers, tutor math or earn money in your spare time as a subject for an experiment over in the Pysch Lab (no violence or pain, promise).
Of course, P. was angry with me for taking the risk and (worse) letting other guys ogle my flabby ass. The $50 got spent on some outrageous flats I saw at Macy’s, but the money didn’t mean a thing to me in comparison to the gas I got from tweaking the campus scolds— or seeing my photo tacked up in the dorms next to the usual Playboy pin-ups. I don’t have a body like those women, so, sure, I was flattered, yeah. I don’t know why I told S. it was me kissing Woolsey’s iron face, but he immediately started pressuring me to autograph the copy he had tacked up on a cork bulletin board over his desk.
“No chance, Stefan Retter, not even in your dreams!”
“Why not?” He looked sincerely hurt by my refusal.
“Because Robert will immediately tell Ellen.” The third of his suite mates at Ezra Stiles College hung out in M & A even more than he did— to the point we called him “Miss Robert” because he seemed so comfortable around that pack of female jackals. Good thing for me he wasn’t around that time I went over in my micro-mini! “Besides, you don’t need to look at naked pictures of me, it will only fuel your already overheated imagination.”
“Im-possible,” he grinned, splitting the word for that extra ounce of precision that only made sense because I knew he was thinking in German— or thinking like a German. “I assure you, Mis-sus Campbell, my imagination could not be more overheated when I’m around you. It is like a car laboring up an impossibly steep hill with a monstrously heavy load on a scorching Summer afternoon! Which by the way, you look positively scorching in the photo, it is just one more nail in the coffin of my undoing. No, our paths had already crossed on a Winter’s day, as that lovely Simon & Garfunkel song goes—
“Ah, yes, ‘If I never loved I never would have cried.’ You ARE a serious young man!”
“Hmm, yes, ‘I have my books/And my poetry to protect me’—“
“—’I touch no one and no one touches me’—”
”—‘And a rock feels no pain’—”
”—‘And an island never cries’.”
“Now if only I could carry a tune in the proverbial wooden bucket, we could tell the world Simon & Garfunkel is back together again, only one of them is now a girl.”
“Art was always a bit on the prissy side anyway,” I was laughing so hard now I wanted to pee, “if he isn’t gay, he should be.”
“In any case, I was checking you out before I started researching my bloody thesis. It was, as I have already indicated, a Winter’s day, and I was on my way to Sterling. I was walking along the sidewalk above that underground monstrosity known as Cross Campus Library, wondering if I could eventually tease Ellen’s panties off before I reach middle age. Given the weather and the position of Yale men in the sexual pecking order on campus— professors first, followed by graduate students and only then, if nothing else remains, Yale undergrads— I was paying no particular attention at that moment to the female fauna scampering by. However, I should have picked up on the fact that you were older and more experienced than even the sexually-promiscuous women I meet nowadays.”
“Stefan Retter, should I take that as flattery or a put-down?” We were having coffee in the library cafeteria every day by then, and it annoyed me and pleased me when he said those kinds of things. “Besides, I find it hard to believe you’ve been celibate during your four years here.”
“Hmmm, well, I never kiss and tell, at least not usually. Not unless I think it will unlock other chastities.”
“Don’t get any ideas. I’ve been keeping professors and instructors at bay since I started at Temple. You academics are as amoral as cats in heat.”
“Well, you can’t impute my character, my dear Cassie, since you’re hardly the younger woman, you’re 24 and married since five years. Though I do find at times you seem so much more youthful and vivacious than any 18 year-old.”
“I’m just immature, for God’s sake. Don’t make me out to be anything extraordinary. It’s more pressure than I can handle!”
“Ah, you never let me compliment you. No, I’m quite serious. You are both experienced and yet still fresh and innocent. It is one of the conundrums that make you utter-ly fascinating. However, at the instant I first saw you, you did not precisely stand out, and I would never have noticed you in that stodgy old pea coat covering everything but your legs— and I will tell you your legs are quite wonderful.” I’m sure he punctuated that thought with a leering smile and probably a sly peek under the table at the body parts in discussion. My father had always frowned on flattery, and only once before the day I got married had he ever told me I looked “pretty.”
“I’m positive it was your walk that made me look more carefully.”
“There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about it, something between a bounce and a skipping sensation. Most of the time, you seem to be almost running on the balls of your feet. On that particular Winter’s day, you were careening toward the main entrance of Sterling as if you were either going to take wing and fly— or fall ingloriously on your face. It so happened my own path was taking me inside; naturally I followed. Cherchez la femme.”
“You’re such a liar, Retter!”
“Not at all! Your figure was nothing special under that God-awful coat, though body types, large or small, never deter me. I wanted to see what your ass looked like with such a walk—
“—bouncing up the stone steps of this ridiculous American Gothic portal. No, I’m sure it was your breasts I wanted to see as well. They bounce so saucily when you walk that way.”
“You stare at my breasts?” I asked with mock shock and displeasure.
“All the time. There’s no harm in observing the beauty of the world.” He paused for a split-second to wait for my “Harrumph!”, then continued as if he hadn’t said anything lewd or suggestive. “I was hanging back enough so that you wouldn’t hold the door— or notice me lurking behind you. Once in the building your shoes, low and sensible of course, probably penny loafers or something equally dull and school-girlish, yet charming in their innocence, clicked along the tiles in a stammering rhythm that I found brave or a perhaps even a little forward. In any case my interest level increased a notch, then several notches as you disrobed out of the coat. Don’t roll your eyes! I’m being serious! I couldn’t be sure, I asked myself, what was it about you that pricked my curiosity so?”
“That I wore a skirt?”
“Ha-ha, you’re always so penetrating with your insights. In any case, I didn’t have to think about it very long. My heart beat a little faster as I saw you turning down the corridor to the right towards M & A and then into its doors. You turned around when I called out “hello!”, though only briefly I’m glad to say, tossing your hair, unconsciously I suspect, you never, ever are outwardly the coquette.”
“Well, I’m glad I meet up to your standards, then….”
“Ah, but tossing of the hair is one of the ways women signal a man they’re interested, you do realize that? Another is pulling on their hair, or arranging it as they talk to someone else, it’s a sort of deferring of their interest to some object. Odd that a sex object would rely on another object.” I reached over and smacked his arm elaborately. “And as I have gotten to know you bet-ter, I have come to realize you are not without a certain charming vanity. Who is it lists her hair color as ‘dark ash blond’ on her driver’s license?”
“How do you know that? Have you been in my purse?”
“Alas, it’s the only private part of you I have been in.” He patted his own hair with an elaborately feminine gesture. “But I also know you enhance those lovely tresses— that is the term, isn’t it? Tresses?— with a bottle of chemicals you keep in your bathroom cabinet labeled so fetchingly with the brand name of ‘Summer Blond.’ In Germany, our blonds are blond more than just in Summer.”
“That’s the absolute last time you’re taking a leak at my apartment! From now on you have to pee outside in the street.”
“Ah, Beirut! I pissed in the streets so many times there. Getting back to that first time— we met, that is— I only caught a brief glance at your face before you turned away— your gaze was more guileless than the incoming freshmen women. Have I told you all of the ones I meet at mixers or in classes are either pre-med or pre-law and definitely post-coital? Of course, I couldn’t study you then in any detail, these were all first impressions. It was only later that I came to know that face better. I learned it’s no school girl’s face, no innocent at heart.”
“You’re such a hopeless flirt, Retter.”
“Cor-rect, yes, I’m afraid you’re right. I shall rush to confession tonight to regale the Monsignor with my misdeeds. You see, I had to be careful, lest Ellen saw me looking at anyone except her. We had only been going out for a few weeks, and strange to say, she’d never alluded to you as her M & A roommate. I understood immediately why not.”
“We’re hardly roommates.”
“And she’s hardly in the same league as you are. But that’s the mark of Cain on my head, Mis-sus Campbell. In any case, I smiled my crispest German smile for you both, though I positioned myself in front of Ellen’s desk in such a manner that she would think I was smiling solely at her. What was I thinking taking such a chance for someone I hadn’t met? I hoped you might see my smile, but alas, you did not look back again, instead disappearing behind the doors to the research room. Freed from that stodgy pea coat, which you flung into your chair in one motion, the bounce in your step carried all the way up your body. How I wished at that very moment I could see you shed more than the coat!”
“Always the Lothario,” and I playfully slapped his face, though not hard at all, more the palm of my hand glancing across his cheek. His skin felt cool and rough even though he’d shaved, then he grabbed for my hand, which I pulled away with a laugh.
“Ah, but what else would account for my sudden craving to see what you looked like underneath the knit dress which clung to your figure in both the right and some of the wrong places?”
“You cad! Are you alluding to my fat?”
“I told you body types are an American obsession. I like a woman with some substance. Besides, you’re hardly fat my dear.”
“Well, tell that to Patrick, he’s always hinting how I’d look so much better if I could just lose 5 or 10 pounds.”
“It is not for me to comment on your husband’s perception— or lack of same.” He was serious for a moment, and it made me extremely uncomfortable I’d revealed that about P. Or worse, that he’d commented on it. “But I digress. You were the ‘older woman,’ and Laclos had whetted my appetite for that. I remember telling myself how very interesting things in M & A were likely to become over the next few months.”
If only we’d both known how right he was.
Would it have changed anything if I’d known?
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