Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Blue Angel

I'm doubtful when Curt says we should meet at Dunkin' Donuts. When he suggests coffee, I picture Starbucks, with its fireplace and deep velvet couches and expensive coffee. At Dunkin', where the coffee always tastes burnt, the customers appear shamed before their baker's dozen and bottomless refills.

          I'm late for everything but today I'm on time. I don't see his car in the parking lot but I make myself go in anyway. He's at a table in the corner, in a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap. He's 6'4 and Australian and he looks nervous, but he walks right over and extends his hand.

          I am not a beauty, have never been. What does he see when he looks at me that makes him smile that way? Our handshake becomes a spasmodic hug during which my cheek is pressed against his chest. I recognize itthe embarrassed déjà vu I've come to expect with himthe abiding intimacy, as between child and parent, naughty child and grudging parent. The moment passes.

          The morning rush is over and the place is deserted. We order two coffees and decide to share a bagel with cream cheese. He tries to hand a 20 to the girl behind the counter, but I stop him. We start to argue.

          "It's his birthday today," I tell the girl, "so you have to let me pay."

          She takes my 20. The girl has silky black hair that swings when she turns to reach into a bin of glazed donuts. She puts one in a bag and hands it to him.

          "Happy Birthday," she says. Her pink lips part when she smiles. Years ago, I would have been jealous.

           Curt chooses a seat facing both the window and the door, like a bodyguard, and I face him. Before I parked the car I was fighting tears. Because I was meeting him or because I wasn't meeting the other one. But now I smile.

          "So you remembered my birthday." He sounds surprised, though I doubt he is. He hesitates.

          "That was pretty awkward at the doctor's office, wasn't it? I'm sorry about that, really sorry." We hadn't seen each other for years, but we'd met by chance in a doctor's waiting room a couple of weeks ago. I tell him it was fine, that it was nice to meet his girlfriend and I thought she seemed very sweet. She was round and shy with dark brown skin, a Caribbean accent, and a Coach bag he'd given her for her birthday.

          I hadn't known he was seeing anyone; they'd been together for six years. He will tell me later that he pays for her apartment, their joint vacations, but that he won't live with her. He spends a month every year on a tropical island in Southeast Asia, without her. He says she is unhappy about this. When I remark, "Isn't that the world capital for sex tourism?" he replies, "I wouldn't know about that." Then he smiles sweetly.

          "She's very jealous of you, you know."

          When I shook her hand in the doctor's office, the smile had seemed to fall off her face. I thought that she had dropped my hand with a look of recognition.

          "How does she even know who I am? I just told her we were old friends from high school."

          "I told her everything."

Curt is the prototype, with all the kinks and flaws of a first design, in the shape of my original yearning. He wasn't perfect, but he spoiled me for other men. He was my first love. Today he's 50.          

"Do you remember how we met?" He sips his coffee slowly and smirks.  I pull apart some of his bagel. He's patient while I think it over.

           We were 17, at a friend's party, and for me it was love at first sight. He was so tall and I remember I liked the way he looked down at me as if he was amused. I'd never been that close to someone so tall before, or so handsome.

          "We met at a séance. You don't remember? We were sitting around in a circle in the dark trying to contact the spiritworld. I can't believe you don't remember."

          But I don't remember. I ask him, "Did we make contact?" What precious angel had crossed over, barred from us forever, without any hope of reunion? There are surely spirits I would seek out now but, I wonder, what loss did we know then, at 17?

          "We were holding hands. You don't remember?"

Is it wrong to share a bagel when he has a girlfriend? Is it wrong to spend two hours talking and feel I haven't seen enough of him? Is it wrong that, when he shows me some article on his iPhone, when his fingers touch mine I carefully catalogue the sensation. The faintest electrical pulse. His warm, dry hand that I know so well. That knows me so well.

The other one's hands are always cold, and his long fingers seem bony and wrinkled, despite his being 12 years younger. When he touches me by accident, I flush and my heart races.  He doesn't notice.  Or maybe he does, because I remember standing beside him when he's flipping through a stack of papers, searching for something to give me, and for a long time, too long, his bare arm is against mine, just the frizzled reddish hair of his forearm rubbing back and forth against my skin. My eyes actually close for one delicious moment. The moment passes.

          When my emotions break free, I confess everything--more than he can stand--because it's more than I can hold onto for one more second. Everything I've worked so hard to hold back for years, all of it blasts out. I tell him about his fuzzy arms, how my eyes rolled back, I tell him he makes me happy, which is simply the truth, I tell him all of it, I tell him I love him--and then I further clarify, "not the way you love me."

          He says, "I know."

          I know. I realize he's always known. He says, "I'm glad I make you happy. I want you to be happy--hell, I want to be happy, too!" He tells me it's a phase I'm going through, it will pass. We make jokes. I text him that I'm off to the gym, to have sex with the treadmill, which I call by his name.

          "Be careful," he says. "Don't set the treadmill too fast."

          I write him bizarre love letters and poems, which he says are shocking, but he says he enjoys reading them. I suppose later that he was being polite.

          Eventually, he ignores my calls, my texts, my emails. He's been a good sport. I've been begging him to tell me to fuck off, begging him to be an asshole, and I finally realize that I'm the one. I have to perform the mercy killing.

          I apologize and tell him I am going to fuck off now. Ever the gentleman, he says, "When this passes, you will still be my friend." But we both know it will never pass and I will never see him again. I run into someone we both know and she avoids me before I can avoid her. I try to suppress my shame but I can't suppress the interior monologue, "You told, you told! 'Gentlemen' don't tell, and you told!"

I tell Curt my ex-husband was very jealous of him.

          He says, "Good!" The word comes out of his mouth with unexpected fury, like a curse or a growl, and he sips his coffee.

          I don't tell him how my ex found a box of photos I'd kept, how he made me light a match and burn every picture, one by one, even the negatives.

The other one texted me a poem he'd written. It's the first time I'd heard from him in three months and the poem took up four messages. He wrote that the sun and Earth are married, yet night and day they play a peculiar game of hide-and-seek. He cast himself as Earth, admiring the extraordinary female warmth and beauty of the sun. Rather than questioning their game, he revels in it. He declares the Earth indecisive and noncommittal, always turning his back on the sun. But he doesn't worry because he knows the sun is loyal and forgiving and all he needs to do is wait till dawn when they resume their game, over and over, day after day.

          That's when the emotions broke; I broke. I had thought he was writing to me when he was just musing about one or all of his Russian supermodels.  In some ways, of course, we're interchangeable, me and the supermodels, except I'm older and fatter and he doesn't fuck me.

          "You know I love you," he said. "Come on, you're my friend."

          I heard only I love you, I love you, I love you.

Their specs are surprisingly similar, Curt and the other one: both 6'4, both athletes, in the same profession, both exceedingly handsome, charming, unwilling to commit to one woman, to marry or cohabit. One loves you, you imagine the other understands you. One worships you, praises you; you imagine the other challenges you; one is supportive, the other seems to let you get away with nothing. One desires you, unconditionally. The other says, "I'm flattered."

Long before the other one texted me the poem, when we still worked together, we went to Happy Hour after work. He'd been doing shots but he seemed completely normal, except his eyes were red.

          "I told you I'd buy you a beer, remember?" He handed it to me and I felt our co-workers turning away, squeamish. His look was challenging, like he was waiting for something.

          "Thanks," I said. "I'll buy next time." He didn't sit down, maybe there was no room at the table, and I didn't follow him. But before he left the bar, on his way out, he sat down beside me on a couch, leaning into me, and showed me photos on his cell phone.

          "My feet!" he laughed. We contemplated a picture of his huge, clownish, bare feet, crossed at the ankles, behind which the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. If I had only tilted my head a little, just let the muscles of my neck go slack, another inch and my head would have rested against his shoulder.

           Then he left.

Instead of coffee, I think to myself, I should have bought Curt a whip for his birthday. He could follow me into the bathroom, lock the door and tell me, very politely, to take off my clothes. There is a smell of disinfectant, and that awful fluorescent glare, that way the blue light bounces off the tiles and porcelain and stainless steel. 

          He could say, conversationally, "Don't make a sound."

          He could, for example, push me over the sink and yank my head back by the hair, with his warm, sensitive hand, so I can watch my contorted face in the mirror. Through the sound of rushing water, I hear it all distinctly, the whip, my own stupid whimpering, the sound of his breathing, and when my hair falls over my face like a curtain, the sound of his belt buckle coming undone.

          Even with my eyes closed I can see that blue fluorescent light--as if my eyes have been forced open: I'm glowing with it. Even his hands will leave bruises, lingering imprints. His cold light fills my throat, burns my eyes, makes all of me radiant, and I wait for it. How long, how long have I waited for this blessing--this reunion?

We say goodbye in the parking lot.  He says, "We'll have to do this again."

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