OK - the writing festival ends on Friday, and I leave on vacation tomorrow morning...I wanted to actually contribute a story that was actually finished. This is long, so don't feel obligated. It also has sex - not graphic or anything - but if that offends you, please don't read it - and I apologize. For the record - this is the story I got my rejection letter on, so I'm rather insecure about it, although I still like it. Anyway, I'll post the second half in a second.
“We need to talk.”
Not an auspicious start. In my experience, the words “we need to talk” have never been the precursor to anything good. Generally, it means you are about to be dumped, fired or taken out of the will.
But considering that “we need to talk” has just come from the mouth of my boss – who I happen to be sleeping with ... well, clearly the implications are not good.
He sits across the desk from me, earnestly clasping and unclasping his hands with his hair falling across his forehead in a boyishly handsome way and his brows furrowed in concentration and concern. I think to myself, “When did his eyebrows become so unruly? He could use a good plucking. We sure do have to talk – about electrolysis, buddy boy.”
“I think people might know about us.” He shifts restlessly in the uncomfortable chair, and I try to focus my attention to the conversation at hand.
I stare back silently and take a drink of the luke warm tea from the mug on my desk. It’s chipped. I’ve never noticed that before. Of course, I’ve never stared at it quite so hard either. “You think?” I do my best to sound doubtful.
He nods subtly. The first subtle thing he’s done since this whole thing started. “We need to talk privately.”
The subterfuge isn’t necessary. He’s right of course. People do know about us. Everyone knows about us. Of course, they don’t talk about it in terms of “us”; they talk about it in terms of me. Arch’s role is brushed off as a mid-life indulgence. I’m just one of the items on the list: less expensive than the sports car, more fun than the new wardrobe.
There’s a catch in my throat and a tightness in my chest. I know I should say something, but there’s no established etiquette for this sort of thing. What’s the proper protocol? Has Miss Manners ever covered how to end an illicit office affair with decorum, dignity and grace? I nod and continue staring at the mug.
“We’ll have dinner. I’ll tell Carla I’ll be home late. Seven?”
More nodding. But I look up this time. We stare at each other for maybe five, ten seconds, and he smiles just a little. Arch has a phenomenal smile.
“You can send those press releases out with my changes. Usual distribution,” His voice booms off the cubicle walls. Then I see his secretary lurking outside.
“No problem Arch. I’ll have them out today. Come on in Sue, we’re just finishing up.”
Plain, bitter old Sue shuffles off, no doubt eager to report that we’re alone again to the other crones.
“I was watching you during your presentation today.” Arch is suddenly himself again. There are little wrinkles around his eyes when he smiles.
“How’d I do?”
“You were good. Excellent really. Well-prepared, convincing. I think you impressed the old man – that’s hard to do. I bet you get your budget. You made me proud today. ”
I blush at that. His other compliments don’t embarrass me. But this kind of praise, it’s different. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”
We share another smile and he cocks his head to the side. His hair falls across his brows again. “God, I want to ##### you.”
So, maybe he doesn’t want to break it off. He’s looking at my breasts so I arch my back a little and let my fingers trace over my nipples while he stares. They stiffen easily under the silk of my blouse. Arch loves it when I do that.
“So Mr. Stafford, I guess we’ll discuss this in depth at seven.”
“I’ll go to great lengths to keep you abreast of any further developments Miss Thorpe.”
With a wink and a smile, Arch is gone. God help me, but sometimes I think I love him.
I’m not sure what he saw in me at first. Sure, ##### and ass played a part in it. But this is Dallas – there’s lots of exceptional racks and rears out there. He could have found a better set of both. I don’t even know what drew me to him. He’s handsome in a bookish, serious kind of way, but he didn’t exactly put the cream in my snack cake.
Maybe I wanted Arch because he wanted me. A lot. He didn’t mince words - he didn’t over analyze. He just wanted me. Plain and simple. Loud and clear. It was overwhelming. And not the flattery of it either – it was the power. Exploiting weakness in a powerful man is an amazing aphrodisiac.
We were quite civilized and restrained in the beginning. He was my boss. I was his assistant. That was that. We flirted. Incessantly. There were simmering glances and accidental touches and double entendres, but nothing compelled us to take it any further.
But then it stopped being so casual all of a sudden. We had danced on the cliff for so long that the first wayward breeze sent us tumbling over the edge. The appreciative glances were more brazen; the casual touches were lingering and no longer played off as accidental; the double entendres were exchanged for detailed expression of desires.
Then he came to my apartment one Wednesday night on the pretense of dropping off some research. It was raining. He was winded from bounding up three flights of stairs; raindrops glistened off his nose. Inviting him in seemed like the polite thing to do. He had a glass of wine, then he had me.
I’ve asked myself over and over why we don’t just stop it. This isn’t a fairy tale - there’s no happy ending. Arch will never leave his wife. I don’t want him to. She’s not so bad – fairly well-preserved in the pinched, pulled, processed and proper way of an aging Highland Park debutante. Leaving her world would be a disaster for him.
And that would mean we were serious. Involved. That this was an AFFAIR. I’m not ready for the complications or implications of that either. As long as he stays in his world and I stay in mine, there’s a sort of enforced but comfortable casualness between us.
I keep thinking one of us is going to summon up enough energy to end it. But so far, we haven’t. It’s been over a year. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. The sex is good. The conversation is better.
Every now and then I’ll look at him or catch him looking at me, and I’ll realize that I really am crazy about him. I didn’t expect that to happen. He makes me laugh. He pretends to be interested in the bands I like. I feign a fascination with golf. We both love college basketball and “The Antiques Roadshow.” I’ve slept with guys for less. It’s enough. It’s enough for now. I don’t want to let it go.
Arch was early. I was lingering in the shower when he showed up. He likes to do that – show up before I expect him – always eager to get a jump on things. I used to find it flattering that he couldn’t wait to be with me. Now I’ve come to recognize it for what it is – a simple foot race against the ever-ticking clock of other commitments.
I hear him rumbling around in the kitchen as I sluice the water from my hair. I gave him an extra key as a show of good faith, never expecting him to actually use it. He’s singing to himself in the other room. Styx. Grand Illusion. Arch is a fossil.
“Is that my ‘Renegade’?” I holler out to the kitchen as he revs up into the chorus of the song of the same name.
“You know it baby.”
“Are you ready for some ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?” I yell out again wrapping my damp body in a short robe.
“That’s a different band honey.” Arch startles me in the doorway of the small bath. He watches as I massage lotion into my calves. He makes no discernable motion or gesture to me, and I continue with my small vanities.
He leans against the edge of the counter while I brush my teeth. “Bohemian Rhapsody is by Queen, Belinda. That’s an entirely different band.”
I smile a toothpastey grin. “I’m sorry. I get them confused.”
“How in the world can you get Queen confused with Styx? They couldn’t be more dissimilar.”
His exasperation makes him seem old, and I feel a soft spot well in my stomach for him, “I dunno sweetie ... they both have dead gay singers.”
“No one in Styx is gay. No one in Styx is dead.”
I roll my eyes and instantly regret it. He’s 42; the memories of his glory days are still too vivid to mock. “You’re right Arch. They’re both good bands though.”
It’s his turn to roll his eyes.
The pregnant pauses between us are growing in their length and frequency.
I press forward with the most obvious distraction, “Let’s not talk about this anyway. There’s lots of other things I would rather do with you.” Still nude under the robe, I lean into him. My body this close to his terminates any further discussion of dinosaur rock.
“You smell so good.” He mumbles into my damp hair, and his hand runs the length of back, resting in the small hollow below my waist. The prickly stubble of day-old beard and the soft heat of his breath nuzzle against my neck. We sway gently on the pale blue rag rug on the tile floor. If I close my eyes, I can almost believe the warmth of his embrace. I can almost trust the sincerity of his touch.
“You taste minty fresh.” His tone is light, his kiss soft and tentative.
I kiss him eagerly. Too much so, and I force myself to break away. The weight of “we need to talk” blanketing the room like a thick cloud of smog.
Words are not the best weapons to level at Arch. I undo the thin strap of fabric holding my robe together and let the material fall off my shoulders and down to the floor.
“Honey, people are starting to talk.”
I make no move toward him. No protest or complaint. I don’t have to. Conversation has been bumped off his agenda. The seriousness and worry have left his eyes. Now only the sweet
familiar want, the sweet familiar need remains.
“So let them talk Arch.” I take him by the hand and lead him to my bed.
The last time I saw my father was at the Dairy Queen in Jericho, Texas. It’s a rough stretch of blacktop stuck about halfway between Abilene and Midland. Oil country: dirty, grimy, dead. The main drag consists of the Dairy Queen and a boarded-up Texaco. I was eleven. Mom was leaving him. She’d traded up to an engineer, and the two of them were moving my big brother Royce and me to Houston.
I doubt Daddy could have stopped them. I doubt he had the energy to try. He was a simple man – a roughneck, really. He liked ice-cold Shiner Boch longnecks and Chevy trucks and Hank Williams, Jr. There wasn’t much else that held his attention. So he let us go, convinced it was for the best.
Royce and I sat across from him. We shared a banana split while Daddy said his goodbyes. Royce was crying. He was fourteen; it embarrassed him. He wouldn’t look at Daddy or me; he just kept fiddling with a rip in the cracked vinyl seat of our booth and sniffling.
Daddy talked a lot that afternoon – more than I had ever heard in one stretch before. He told me I was beautiful and that sooner or later boys would be coming around. I was as clumsy as a newborn foal – a jumble of gangly, awkward limbs. A light dusting of freckles bridged my nose, and the slight overbite that seems sexy now was still just a buck-tooth grin.
I tugged awkwardly on a braid and looked away as Daddy offered up his words of wisdom. “Always look at a man’s hands Belinda Jo. A man’s hands ought to look like they’ve done some work in their life. You don’t want the kind of man who can’t even change your tire or fix the washing machine. A man with soft hands is no good, sweetheart.”
He turned his attention to Royce then. I didn’t listen that closely. He talked about sports, reminding Royce of a rodeo they had been to and the stock car races they had seen. I watched his hands as he pointed out the window or tapped the edge of the table nervously. They were calloused and almost black from the oil fields. Dirt and grease settled in the wrinkles. His nails were broad and tough – his fingers thick and short. They were clumsy, crude hands. Honest, hard-working hands. Hands that failed.
Royce, my one true confidante, says that Arch sucks the joy right out of me – not a ringing endorsement. Still, he’s good. Arch is good. Good to me. Good for me. Not in ways I can articulate, but ways I can feel. Or maybe just imagine.
He’s sleeping now – a misguided extravagance of time. His wrinkles and worries are softened by a slight, restful smile, and his hand sits lightly on the curve of my hip. It’s a proprietary gesture – one I enjoy more than I care to admit. I resist the urge to lift his hand and ease out of the frenzied tangle of sheets and clothing we’ve left in our wake, choosing instead to revel in his absent touch. I glance down at Arch’s smooth, unlined hand. It’s probably too refined for Daddy’s taste, but it’s good enough for me.
We need to talk. Thee words take up more space in the room than the big iron bed I’ve made the focal point of my decor. I know what he’s going to say. I’ve known he’s been ready to say it for awhile. It’ll happen sooner or later – sooner is what scares me. I’m not ready yet.
The lure of sex will wane eventually. Arch says this is the one and only affair he’s had. It may be naive, but I believe him. Eventually, his basic decency will win out over his baser debauchery. Then I’ll be nothing but a cheap reminder of his weakness and indiscretion. Part of me knows this. The part I bury under lingerie and innuendo and all the other trappings of seduction I’ve amassed.
I prop myself up on one elbow, and gently run a free hand through his hair. “Arch, baby, you need to wake up.”
He stretches lazily and then rolls over to face me, “What time is it” he asks, stifling a yawn.
“It’s almost eight thirty.”
“Jesus. I must be getting old, falling asleep like that.”
“It was quite a workout.”
He smiles and kisses my forehead, “Yes it was.” Arch cradles my cheek in his hand and kisses me again. “That was incredible. You were incredible.”
The silence between us lengthens, and eventually Arch grows uncomfortable, “I’m sorry we don’t have time to go to dinner.”
I shrug. We never do. It’s a pretense anyway. We both know that. Arch’s tone is hopeful, “We could order in.”
“That’d be nice.”
He reaches over to the nightstand and pulls out a stack of take-out flyers, testaments to our ritual. He thumbs through them absently, and his focus falls on a wrinkled white menu dotted with tomato sauce stains. “What about Guido’s?” he asks.
“Pasta’s too heavy to eat this late.”
I shake my head.
“Chicken? Bar-B-Que? Thai?” He fans out the remaining menus looking for a suitable option. I crinkle my nose in distaste at each suggestion. Finally, Arch wises up and asks what I want. We settle on the deli around the corner. Arch places the order and leans back against the pillow, closing his eyes.
Arch’s shirt lays in a wrinkled lump on the floor; I reluctantly roll out of bed to pick it up. He opens his eyes at the creaking of the bed, “Hey, where are you going?”
I retrieve the button-down from the floor and slip it around me. “I’m gonna go press your shirt.”
“Sweetie, it’s bad enough you’re going home so late. Now your shirt’s all wrinkled – you can’t go home smelling like sex and looking like sin. Carla’s not stupid.”
He doesn’t like it when I mention her. He hardly ever brings her up except in passing. And now he tenses at the mention of her name. I look down and start to button up the front of his shirt self-consciously. Nothing kills a romantic mood quicker than the wife.
“Come here.” Arch pats the space next to him on the bed, and I sit down obediently. “So, I look like sin, do I?” His fingers stealthily trace lines up my thigh, and I can feel the butterflies instinctively take flight in my stomach. “I think you look like sin in my shirt.” His fingers purposefully undo the few buttons I’ve fastened.
“Arch...” It’s my turn to be reluctant.
“Sshhhh....” Arch slides his hands inside the shirt and encircles my waist. My body is compliant even if my conveniently guilty conscious isn’t, and he lifts me on top of him. I can feel the need in him and it melts away any resolve I have left. I feel a change in my breath and bite softly on my lower lip as he presses me tighter against him. I look down at him, absorbed in the easy pleasure between us, and I want desperately to say something meaningful, important, loving. Something that matters.
“Belinda, do you want me to ##### you.”
“Yes.” There’s nothing else to say.