Ok - here's the conclusion
I don’t hold the leaving against Mom. Even Daddy said she was ripe for the picking, that she was born for bigger things. I guess when you’re looking for a reason to leave, any one will do. When compared to Daddy’s rusted out pick-up and faded gimme caps, Lee’s company car and starched chinos must have looked nothing short of miraculous.
Lee was a die-hard bachelor, but a prosperous one with a house on Lake Conroe, just outside Houston. He had a ski boat, a Honda and a cocker spaniel. A wife and two kids were all he needed to complete the white-bread starter kit.
Suburbia suited Mom. It suited all of us. Royce ran track for the high school. Mom shopped in her minivan. I pierced my belly button and got a part-time job at Hot Dog on a Stick. The dusty oil fields rolled off of us like tumbleweeds outside the Dairy Queen.
It was a good life really, far better than most people get. I think that’s why Mom got so mad when I tried to kill myself. She just couldn’t understand it. But how could she? She had always been the one to do the leaving, not the one being left behind.
I was a sophomore in college when it happened. His name was Trey. Actually it was Truman Wheaton Wallace, III. Trey was just a nickname. We’d only been dating a few months, but he said he loved me after five dates. It was at a frat party; he was drunk, but he said it again two nights later when he was sober. Still, it wasn’t some big romance. He wasn’t the “one”. I think I loved the fact that he loved me more than I ever loved him.
We were sophomores. It was sophomoric.
It shook me though. He said he had outgrown me. He wanted more. They always end up wanting more. Suddenly, I was a speck of lint on Trey’s fraternity sweater, an insignificant nothing to be picked off and cast aside. That’s what my Daddy should have told me. A man’s hands will only hold you for so long, then they’ll push you away.
My head rests in the crook of Arch’s neck. His knees are drawn up in exhaustion; our bodies are covered with a soft sheen of sweat. His fingers move with a light, careless touch up and down my spine. It’s not so different then the absent stroking of favored pet.
The phone rings, and we both stare at the nightstand. I’m not willing to move. The machine beeps loudly, and a brisk, clipped voice garbles over the tape.
“Belinda? Hi, it’s Joel, and it’s Wednesday - I guess it’s getting close to nine. Listen, I was hoping we could get together this weekend. Maybe grab some dinner. There’s this new fondue place on Greenville. It’ll be fun - a big old cheesy, chocolatey mess. You know – fondue because I’m fond of you. Ugh. That sounded a lot funnier in my head. So, uh, yeah, I’m rambling now aren’t I? Anyway - give me a call when you get in. Bye.”
“‘Fondue because I’m fond of you’? Where’d you find this guy?” Arch looks more amused than annoyed. It’s not like he’s in any position to demand monogamy. I’m sure he assumes I see other people, but the truth is I don’t. I try to. That’s where the smitten Joel comes in. We don’t discuss it though. His real wife, my fictitious lovers – topics to be avoided.
“He’s in my yoga class,” I mumble into his clavicle.
“That’s priceless - he yogas and he fondues.”
“Handsome too.” I raise up awkwardly. my hips still straddling his.
“I’ll bet...and what does young Joel do?”
“Like for a job” I brush my hair off my shoulders and let it fall down my back.
Arch nods and places his hands on my hips.
“He designs jewelry.”
“You know he’s gay right?” Arch scoops me up and moves me to his side, then rolls on top of me.
“He’s sweet. And he likes me. What’s so horrible about that?”
“Not a thing - I just can’t see you finding a lifetime of happiness with a jewelry designer who assumes the lotus position on a regular basis. He sounds very in touch with his feminine side.” Arch cups my breast with his hand.
“Can we not talk about this?” the idea of discussing Joel with Arch makes me distinctly uncomfortable, and I squirm underneath the weight of Arch’s questions.
“I’d like to get in touch with your feminine side.”
“Arch - it’s late. You need to get home, and I need to call him back, so maybe you should just go.”
“You’re gonna go out with him?” His slightly shocked tone pleases me.
“Does it matter?”
Arch shrugs with feigned indifference, “Of course it doesn’t matter. I’m just curious. Have the two of you been out before?”
“Yeah.” The first lie between us, other than the ones I tell myself.
“Have you slept with him?”
“I’m just curious.”
“What difference does it make? Go home. Go ##### your wife.”
“If I promise not to ##### my wife, will you promise not to ##### Joel the Fon-Dude?”
“Since when are there promises between us?”
“You’re right. I should go.” He rolls off and reaches over to the nightstand to retrieve his watch. His movements are slow and false.
“Lock up on your way out.”
“You let yourself in – you can let yourself out too. I’m not getting up.”
“The food’s not even here yet.” Arch’s tone mixes incredulity at my dismissal and anger at my defiance.
“So you were pretending to leave just then? Should I beg you to stay?”
He looks slowly around the room, taking in every aspect except me. “Look - I’m sorry I made fun of your little boyfriend. I don’t want to argue with you. You’re the one person I never have to argue with. And I don’t want to leave yet either. I like being here. I like being with you...” His voice trails off into awkward silence.
The silences comfort me – as long as the words remain unsaid you don’t have to worry about how to take them back. But not Arch, to him, silences are chasms to be filled. “Belinda...”
“I’m not sleeping with him you know.”
“I know. I’d deal with it if you were. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d deal with it, OK?”
We stand together next to my bed. Our foreheads touching lightly, our fingers intertwined at our midsections. “You really are beautiful Belinda.” Arch kisses my mouth softly, his praise a whisper. I can feel my anger and indignation ebb away with his touch.
The doorbell rings, and Arch smiles as he goes to pay the delivery boy.
No one was very impressed with my half-hearted suicide attempt. I bought three bottles of Tickle Pink wine from an Arab liquor store and ten Quaaludes from an Asian grad student and set out to make a statement on the devastation and doom of our tortured, tragic star- crossed affair. (We had just finished Madame Bovary in my lit. class – I was a little melodramatic back then.)
Mom was mortified. Puking my guts out in my princess pink bedroom in the ’burbs just didn’t adhere to her definition of domestic bliss. Suicide isn’t done in our neighborhood. And
the few people who attempt it, don’t ##### it up. The upwardly mobile frown on all forms of failure.
Lee and Mom urged me to seek greener pastures. I needed a fresh start – a chance to wipe the slate clean and put all this nonsense behind me – that’s what they said. A one-way ticket out of their sight is what it actually was.
That’s how I ended up in Dallas. Lee called in a few favors and landed me an administrative job at the investor and public relations firm of Painter, Preston, Collumbi & Stafford. Arch is the Stafford. Carla’s dad is the Painter. Lee deep-sea fishes on the Gulf with the Preston. We’re quite an incestuous little bunch.
All of our clients are oil and gas companies – a bunch of back-slapping, ass-pinching cowboys. I started out answering phones, but I had been a journalism major before my “unfortunate personal crisis.” Eventually, they let me write a press release or two. and from there I moved into account management on Arch’s team in under two years.
P.R. is really all about making things look better than they actually are. It’s not surprising that I’m good at it; I’ve got a lifetime of experience to draw from. No one here knows about what happened in Houston. When I first came on board, there were lots rumors about me being forced to leave college because of some vague improprieties.
The office consensus is that I screwed an unstable Statistics professor for a passing grade, although a vocal minority is convinced I freaked out on Ecstasy and ran naked through the Quad. The rumors are preferable to the truth. I’d rather be a reckless, slutty hell-cat with a history of scandalous indiscretions than a sad, pathetic little girl who tried to kill herself over some guy named Truman Wheaton Wallace, III.
Styrofoam containers holding remnants of soup and sandwiches litter the throw rug by the bed. Arch is propped up on pillows, steeling himself for his forthcoming hasty retreat. He turns his head this way and that, then lifts up the comforter, finally recovering an errant sock. He swings his legs to the floor and slips on his shoes. There’s been no mention of whatever is bothering him since he got here. I should let it go; if I’ve been given a reprieve, I should gladly take it. But I can’t.
“You said we have to talk.”
“Huh?” Arch shrugs his leather jacket over his shoulders. His taste in clothes has improved markedly since we met. He’s replaced the wrinkled khakis and sloppy, too-wide ties with open-necked monochromatic shirts and crisply tailored slacks. His hair is longer now, his goofy mustache gone. He’s confident, sexy. I wish I didn’t want him, but I still do.
“You came over here because you said we had to talk.”
“Yeah. That.” I respond flatly.
I sit down on the bed with my arms folded across my midsection in a mixture of defiance and self-preservation.
Arch’s arms swing nervously from side to side. He tensely gathers his thoughts and arguments. Finally, he blows out a long breath and stares intently at the ceiling fan. “Everyone in the office is talking about us. They think we’re having an affair.”
I look at him blankly, a thousand biting comments rising in my throat.
“You know how dangerous it would be if the old man found out about us...” His eyes find mine.
“Dangerous for both of us, Belinda. I mean, you’d lose your job. No telling what he’d do to me.”
“It’s a little late in the game to be worrying about that Arch. Honestly, what did you expect? It’s not a big firm, discretion is not your middle name...”
“I know. I know.” He cups his mouth with his hand in a familiar gesture of frustration. “Has anyone said anything to you?”
My laughter has a tinge of bitterness, “No one even talks to me, Arch.”
A look of startled sadness crosses over his face. “Because they think we’re having an affair?”
“Because they know we’re having an affair and because they think I got promoted because of it.”
“I didn’t promote you because I’m sleeping with you.”
Even I don’t believe him. I shrug dejectedly and look away.
“I promoted you because you deserved it.”
His earnest, angst-ridden declaration only makes me doubt him more. I can’t feel confident about saying anything, so I say nothing.
“I’m just thinking that maybe we shouldn’t...”
I interrupt, refusing to make it easy for him. “Shouldn’t what?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t go to New York together.”
We’d taken on a new client – a regional drilling outfit getting read to go public. This trip was a big deal for me. I’d done the bulk of the work, and it was the first time I felt like more than a glorified assistant on an account. Arch and I were the only ones slated to go from the firm. Technically. we were going for work, but pleasure definitely played a part in our plans.
“I can’t go to New York?”
“Honey...I’d love for you to go. The clients love you and you’ve definitely earned it. But baby, I HAVE to go - they expect me to. And with all the rumors, us going alone is just asking for trouble.”
“I’ve never been to New York before. I’ve never been anywhere.”
Arch moves toward me and cups my face in his soft hands, “I know Belinda - and I really wanted to take you. But we can’t give them ammunition, can we? They’ll be other trips baby, I promise.”
“I really wanted to go the Exchange Arch, and if I wasn’t ##### you, you know I’d get to go. I know that company better than anyone. Better than you. It’s not fair.”
For once, the silence is Arch’s. A light kiss into my hair is his only reply.
I push him away roughly. “And dammit Arch, I wanted to go away with you. I’m sick of whispering. I’m sick of worrying. I’m sick of sneaking around. I wanted to be with you where we didn’t have to hide every ##### minute.”
“Some day Belinda, I promise.”
“I wanted to go out to dinner.”
“I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”
“I wanted to hold your hand.”
“We’ll be able to do that honey. Soon. We’ll manage a weekend or something this summer. I promise.”
“I bought this amazing red dress. And shoes. I really wanted to be with you. I really wanted to go.”
“We can’t baby. I don’t know what else to say.”
“You know what I thought you wanted to talk about?” Anger has enveloped me and I begin to pace around the big iron bed.
Arch leans against my old dresser and waits, unsure of an appropriate response.
“I thought you wanted to talk because you wanted to break it off.”
Genuine incredulousness spread across his face. “Why?”
“Why?” My pacing intensifies. I look frantically for something to do with my hands and begin to purposefully rearrange the pillows on the bed. “Why? Because of all the things you just said. Because it’s dangerous. Because this is just some stupid, throw-away fling. I was scared to death you were going to break this off. I knew you were done with me.”
“You’re not a fling.”
I give an embroidered throw pillow a knock-out punch.
“Belinda, you’re not a fling.” He grabs my shoulders and turns me around to face him. “And I’m nowhere near done with you. I’ll still be sleeping with you when we’re both on Social Security.”
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re in this for the long haul - I’m not going anywhere.”
“What about Carla?”
“What about her?”
“Are you going to leave her?”
“Then, what? You’re just going to keep this up indefinitely?”
Arch shrugs, “Yeah...why not?”
“I just assumed that at some point, this would be over.”
I turn away from him and idly fidget with a pillow’s tasseled fringe. “Because you’re married. I just thought sooner or later, you’d want out.”
“Look, I’m not leaving Carla. I can’t - her dad’s my boss for Christ’s sake, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to quit seeing you. We just have to be more careful. Belinda, what we have, is is...it’s perfect.”
He comes up behind me and encircles my waist, then slides his hands down to my hips and whispers, his breath hot against my ear, “And the sex...you know we make each other very happy.” He spins me around and looks into my eyes. “But it’s more than that - you understand me - you make me feel like a goddam superhero.”
“And you don’t feel the least bit guilty about cheating on your wife?”
“No! Why should I? You make me happy. Belinda – I’ve got a ridiculously high mortgage, a job I hate. I’ve got a wife that I haven’t had a meaningful, relevant conversation with in five years. I’ve got a kid that starts college next fall. Me! I’ve got all these things that I swore I would never have and all these things make me crazy. And then there’s you. You make me feel so goddam alive. Why in the world would I ever give that up. No one else looks at me and sees Superman Belinda. No one but you. Why would I walk away from that?”
“I don’t want you to be Superman Arch. I just want you to be here.”
“I am here.”
“No. I want someone who’ll just be my Superman. Lois Lane never had to share.”
“Isn’t what we have good? Isn’t what we have special?"
“Yes - and we’re lucky if we have it two times a week.”
“What is it I’m supposed to say Belinda? What do you want me to do? You thought I wanted out - I’m telling you I don’t. You thought you were just a fling - I’m telling you you’re not...”
“You’re so selfish Arch! Even if you don’t feel guilty about Carla, don’t you feel guilty about me?”
“I’ve been very honest with you Belinda. There are no lies between us. None.”
“But did you ever think that maybe all that stuff you’re running from is the stuff I should be running to? Have you ever thought about that? Maybe I want the mortgage and the kids and the minivan. Maybe I want the trip to Disney World every couple of years and the burnt steak on the barbeque. Maybe I want those ##### PTA meetings and the white goddam picket fence.”
“Belinda. if that’s what you want, maybe you need to go get some fondue this weekend.”
“Arch, I want that with you.” It’s the first time I’ve admitted that to anyone, especially myself.
“Babe, I can’t give you that. Not now. Not ever. But I’m not leaving you. I’m not walking away unless you make me.”
I want so much to tell him to leave. I can feel the words in my throat. I can form the speech in my brain, but it’s all just an illusion. I don’t want him to go. I want desperately for him to stay. For once, someone is willing to stay. No one has ever been willing to stay. It may not be much - but it’s more than I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s enough.
“Who needs to eat with Fon-dude when you can ##### Superman?”
“That’s my girl!” Dimples frame Arch’s smile, and he kisses my cheek.
I pull away, look at him and smile. I may not be happy, but at least I’m not alone. And that’s something.
Another silence, but this one doesn’t feel awkward. He kisses me again, a lingering kiss that forces my eyes to well up with tears. I can’t tell if my tears are from joy or regret. I can’t tell what I feel.
Finally Arch breaks away; his discomfort has gone, his confidence has returned. “So, we’re good right? You’re not mad? You understand?”
“Yes. I understand.” And the thing is I do. I really do. I understand that take-out containers and tangled sheets are all he can offer - all I can hope for. I don’t understand why I’m OK with that. But I am.
“OK. Good. And don’t be mad about New York. I’ll make it up to you I promise. Kiss me – I’ve got to get out of here. Carla’s going to be pissed enough as it is.”
I try again to say something – something that will make him understand how much he means to me. Something that will show him how much I care. But in his mind, Arch is already gone – his thoughts consumed by the other side of his coin. His lips brush across my cheek. I bite my lower lip and look down at the floor.
“So, listen, I was thinking I could maybe come over Sunday afternoon. Carla’s got some church thing and the kids will be gone. So we can, uh..spend some time together.”
He flashes that smile, and I nod in the affirmative.
“Great! We’ll get dinner or something. Bye baby.”
He closes the door and I hear his heavy footsteps as they move down the stairs. I turn the deadbolt and let my forehead rest against the door. I walk to my room, straighten the sheets and lie down on my iron bed with the sweet familiar loneliness. Sunday is only four days away.