Friday, September 30, 2011

Wish You Were Here

I'm writing this as I sit on a hard plastic seat in the Gate 2 lounge at the Palm Springs airport. An old man in a wheelchair and I are the only ones here. He doesn't seem like a passenger – no ticket, no luggage. He's wearing a pink plaid shirt with a checked wool blazer that doesn't match, and that aren't suitable for the desert. There's Muzak drifting down from a speaker in the ceiling just above my head. It's a typical, impossibly sunny Palm Springs day: cloudless, blank sky. It's the weather equivalent of AstroTurf, eternally flawless, satisfaction guaranteed. There's a giant bougainvillea bush, blazing hot-pink flowers, just outside one of the windows. I keep staring at it. I keep thinking of what you said in your last e-mail.

An hour ago, it made me cry. It was the first time I'd cried all week. Conference was a strain; there were only maybe two beautiful moments the whole time, but it's your words, and not any of that, that got me. I'd been staring at the bougainvillea bush: fiery, the color of raspberries. It was simply something beautiful to look at from inside the humdrum airport lounge. I felt tears spike my lashes and dart down my cheeks, one traveling in a wayward path down the side of my nose. I could see the scene like I was in a shoebox diorama: me sitting in a desert airport, geometric mountains rising up like behemoths outside, unreal bright flowers nourished by the water Debbie says is piped in from the Colorado Rockies, crying because it hurts to disagree with you.

Just then, an airport employee, drab gray uniform, peremptory mien (sometimes I try to seduce you with my vocabulary), walked in and unlocked a door near my seat. Embarrassed to be obviously crying, I lugged my carry-on bags up and through the lounge's automatic doors. Outside, a young man with a dreadlock ponytail and kind brown eyes was leaning against a cart of mops and cleaning solutions. The ladies' room is closed, he said, but there's another one upstairs, just past the waterfall. He saw that I was crying, I think, and spoke to me in a soft tone. I nodded. In just one week, I had grown accustomed to the unreality of this desert playground for rich white people, with its verdant golf courses basking improbably amid bone-dry dust, clotty parched desert foliage, flat cloud-free skies... plus, jet lag and stress had me taking everyone at his word – why, of course there's a waterfall in the airport. Why wouldn't there be?

I still had tears in my lashes, like Christmas-tree tinsel, when I found myself accidentally in the background of a retired couple's snapshot as I slowly glided up the escalator. I'll be forever crystallized, crying over you, in a sun-soaked travel photo in these Florida grandparents' album, one of those anonymous passersby who streak through everyone's pictures. Walking to the restroom, I inhaled a cloying-sweet sunscreen smell as cancerous women with overcooked magenta epidermises sipped from Starbucks cups at un-umbrellaed tables in the sun. Coconut-and-grease smell. I walked past a plaster elk, on whom someone had painted desert landscapes in a sort of stacked panorama across his body and head. Airport art, to add local flavor. It's open-air outside the lounges, the weight of the hot sky right on top of you. As I rode up the mechanized staircase, a plane sailed down over my head, unreal, too large, like a painting with screwed-up perspective. I watched it land and thought of what I want to say to you, and how I should word it. Here it is: "I feel that art exists independently of people, and that we must submit to it, humbly. We shouldn't write what we want to write – we should write what needs to be written." I thought I might write it on a postcard, instead of sending this. Maybe I'll do both, or neither. "Greetings from sunny Palm Springs! Now let me bore you with my thoughts about art." I don't know.

I fell in love with your words -- your stories, your poetry, even your e-mail. I shared my stories with you, too, and we wrote to each other about art. Not about paintings, but about the category of things that try to express truths about life. I was worried that something I'd written was merely "emotional pornography," or wish fulfillment, and that something else I wrote was only a sort of exorcism of toxic stuff from my past, and not real art. I worried that I was writing these things for the wrong reasons, self-indulgence. You said no, that it was okay to be self-indulgent. And somehow soon I was writing erotica for you instead of stories and poems, channeling my imagination and descriptive powers into prose crafted only to inspire lust. It's okay, you said, it's not real, and you wrote them for me, too. And you said, in effect, When I pound at my keyboard, typing a scene in which you and I are making love, and we're naked together, and I'm telling you that I love you as I gently touch your face and look into your eyes -- the people in that story are just characters, and none if it is happening, and it's not real. It's harmless.

Everything that I see, I want to tell you about. That's the way I've felt for a while now. On the plane to Phoenix before the connecting flight to here, I was seated slightly behind and diagonally across from an older man holding an unfolded newspaper in front of him. He paused at the obituaries, reading them with interest. There were printed blurbs, plus a few photos -- I remember a photo of an old black man in a Shriners hat that I figure would have been red, were it not a black-and-white photo. As the man read, I thought about how only some animals, like humans, know they're going to die. Is it only primates? Seems like I heard something about elephants, too. It was a Hamlet-holding-a-skull moment, a mortal contemplating mortality, neatly encapsulated before my eyes, and no one else seemed to notice this. I made a mental note to tell you about it, maybe in a poem.

I've been so lonely for you. I feel isolated here. It seems like all the people who came to this conference were these go-getter, hyper-ambitious, Type A personalities. They one-up one another, and give themselves pats on the back for it. They care about getting all the facts, getting it done efficiently, at a bargain. Networking. Once, I was walking across the hotel-resort-convention-complex grounds, from one building (in which motivational speakers were telling you how to communicate more effectively, with PowerPoint slide shows beaming neatly bulleted lists onto projection screens in auditoriums) to another (where the luncheon "social" was taking place). There were people scattered here and there in the splotches of shade along the terra-cotta sidewalk. Most of them were on cell phones, taking care of business back at the office while they were here at the conference in Palm Springs. I remember one woman standing out there, who had blow-dried-straight blond hair and coral-polished toenails and freshly applied lipstick. I'd seen her before -- earlier, some of us had been stocking books in the mobile bookstore we always have at national conferences in different cities, and this woman kept pestering my boss, wanting him to help her with some PR for her company, although it should have been obvious that we were busy, literally with our hands full. He tried to brush her off, but she wouldn't take no for an answer -- she probably says that about herself to other people: "I won't take 'No' for an answer!" and laughs. Now, in the courtyard between buildings, I saw her again, pink business suit, talking into a cell phone. With the phone to the side of her face, she said to a man she'd been (simultaneously, while on the cell) talking with: "Let me get your business card." Everyone at conference was like this, although most to a lesser degree than she, and so I felt alone, and it made me wish you were here.

There was another moment I wanted to tell you about. For a conference newsletter, my boss asked me to be at the vendor exhibit hall for prize drawings (conference-goers walk around the exhibit hall, and they drop their business cards into these goldfish bowls at each vendor's stall, and a few people's cards are drawn each day of conference, and the winners get a $75 gift card to Best Buy, or a ski vacation in Aspen, or a shrink-wrapped gift basket of pink bath gels). I stood there, with my notepad and camera (I'd been instructed to be sure to get photos of the winners for the newsletter), poised to corner the poor winner and ask a few corny questions for the newsletter blurb ("What does it feel like to win a basket of artisanal cheeses?"). I remembered back when I wrote for a newspaper, back when I had my notebook and camera out because I was writing about real things -- a homeless woman's body had just been found in an alley, or a family's home had burned down to rubble. As our company's marketing guy slid Jekyll-and-Hyde-style into his game-show personality with the microphone, and businesspeople posed with their prize booty for non-candid photos, and I stood there in the crowd, tense because my boss had told me to make sure I capture all this for the newsletter... I felt ridiculous. I felt removed from the real world, plonked into this sanitized sunshine-land of bureaucratic acronyms and business jargon and managementspeak, and I longed to write something real, something for you. I wanted you to remind me that I have a soul.

Some of these folks were likeable, though. There was this one doofus who bought a bunch of stuff from Debbie and me at the bookstore. There we all were in our dorky name tags (and I was wearing a form-fitting shirt that did make my breasts look wonderful, I have to tell you), and Debbie and I were ringing up his merchandise. He was loudly joking with Debbie, who has a son my age and is very witty. I was half-there and half-not there, smiling politely at his corny jokes, blushing demurely as he flirted with me, his flattery obvious as hell. He asked what I do, and I told him I work on our newsletters and magazine, mostly writing. And at one point, before he left with his bag and his receipt, he looked at me and said I was "a very attractive young lady who doesn't say much but has great power with the pen." And he gave a sort of guffaw and went off into the world. I have to say, I like how he summed me up -- this random, goofy stranger I'll never see again, and he could basically write my epitaph. Weird.

On Thursday night, we all had to fend for ourselves for dinner (no awards dinners, or networking between plates of arugula-and-mandarin-orange salad and boeuf bourgogne that night), and I stayed in my hotel room and ordered room service. You know, I'd never done that before. The menu was in my room, in a fancy leather-clad binder, and even my humble-sounding chicken quesadilla was so expensive. Depressed and lonely, I went ahead and ordered the molten-lava chocolate cake for one. I'd been expecting something like the service you get when you order a pizza -- the guy comes to your door, hands you the warm cardboard box, you hand him the money, he splits. So I was already in my pajamas (boxer shorts and a T-shirt; sorry it's not the negligee I wear in our erotica), ready for an evening in alone with whatever was playing on HBO (hoping to find some lite porn), when he arrived. I was surprised to learn that I was expected to let him into the room. On the coffee table, he spread it all out: a black round pot with a lid (that'd be my quesadilla), another warm container (the cake) and a cold ceramic pot (the vanilla ice cream and mixed-berry compote -- surely mademoiselle couldn't possibly eat her molten-chocolate cake in any fashion except a la mode!), and also a linen napkin, non-plastic utensils, even tiny glass salt-and-pepper shakers. Oh, and a goblet of water, slushy with gravels of ice churning inside. And a basket of bread! He left, and I tipped him well (I get comped for travel expenses, after all). I brought over a couple of cushions from the sofa, giddy like a kid, to sit on the floor and eat my fancy hotel meal in front of the TV. I imagined the fun we'd have if you'd been there, sitting on the cushion next to mine, maybe in your pajamas, too (what do you wear, if anything, when you sleep?), trading bites of food, cozy in the glowing hotel room with the curtains drawn closed to the world. (And yes, I also imagined what all we could do in that king-sized bed with the inviting-sin, crisp white sheets... but I'll save that for our erotica).

Before you get too flattered -- I didn't lack charming male company the entire time. My boss (not the Big Boss, but my immediate supervisor, who edits the company magazine and has great taste in films and books) and I had a fun outing to an In-N-Out Burger joint. Have you eaten there? Apparently it has some kind of cult following. He and I took a cab from our hotel-desert-compound to one such franchise, late at night after this cocktail event I had to cover, yes, for the newsletter, taking snapshots of our dear soused conference attendees and asking them, "So whaddaya like best about conference this year?" We consumed our burgers, fries, and chocolate milkshakes, then realized there were no cabs prowling the streets. There weren't many establishments near the In-N-Out -- all we could see, glittering on the horizon like a mirage, was a casino. I could have called the hotel, or 411, with my cell phone, and gotten us a cab that way, but I liked his idea of walking along the desert highway to a neon-sparking casino, where we could catch a cab. The walk was much longer than it looked, and so windy it nearly knocked me down a steep hill and into a ditch at one point, and my boss had to help steady me, the gusts whipping my pant legs so hard you could probably see the outlines of my shin bones from the front (my calves are quite skinny). The wind was sprinkled with sand, and we trudged, along a highway overpass, past a barren moonscape enclosed with barbed wire, until we got to the casino. Having gotten that far, my boss said we had to at least bet a couple bucks, so he put two one-dollar bills in the slots (one for each of us, taking turns pulling the lever and watching the pictures spin and stop in succession), and we both lost. It was a fun, if surreal, night. In my head I heard the Ethiopian jazz from Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers."

Then there was the night of the big awards dinner/dance, when I got the worst ache for you I'd felt all week. It's funny -- I don't have any nice formal clothes, but recently my sister wadded up some of her old clothes from high school into a garbage bag and gave them to me, in case I want anything, because we're both still as slim as we were back then. There was this satiny black halter dress, sheeny brocaded fabric with a chinoiserie print, little gilded Chinese flowers, short but not too short. I think she got it for about 20 bucks at some teenybopper boutique in the mall back in the ‘90s. Well, it looked great on me -- showed some skin, but in a tasteful way, my shoulders and back bare. I got tons of compliments on it -- from my boss, from our CEO, from a lot of other men. But, perhaps more telling, I got catty glares from some of the women – as a female, you know you're looking good what that happens.

Do you know that I save the messages you leave on my cell phone, and sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the warm rumble of your voice, the upbeat lilts and spontaneous shifts in trains of thought, just close my eyes and listen to your voice? I did this in my parked car the other week, as Jake was in Giant buying little cans of Red Bull to wake him up in the morning and toilet paper. We'd just been to my parents' house, and my mom had given me a carton of raspberries to take home. I was popping the plump little berries into my mouth, and closing my eyes, and feeling the warm hormones stirring as you spoke into my ear...

I was sitting alone at a table during the dinner/dance, some of my co-workers drinking mojitos nearby, our company logo beamed onto the wall in a sort of stencilled-light graphic design, men in suits and ladies with pashmina shawls covering their sunburned shoulders. There was an oldies/classic-rock cover band, and the middle-aged, golf-playing conference attendees were loving it. We'd been given printed-out programs with names of award winners that no one read, strewn across tables, a few on the floor. I wasn't drinking, because I never do, but I'd gotten greedy and was devouring three fancy desserts. After my tiramisu, a co-worker (shouting over the band's rendition of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy") said, "Talk to Matt -- you two have a lot in common." She gestured toward a guy in dark clothing, a good ten or more years older than I am, dark wavy hair in a ponytail, glasses. He’s one of the AV guys who help put on these conferences for all sorts of companies. Matt seemed as fish-out-of-water as I was, not talking to anyone, and at my co-worker's urging he scooted into the chair next to mine.

It was awkward at first, like going to prom with your cousin. He said he played guitar in a band, and we chatted. Then he said he's also a writer, and something in me woke up. I interrogated him about what kinds of things he likes to write, whether he's tried to get stuff published, what he likes to read. Finally, I thought, I am having a real, interesting conversation with someone at one of these events! After a few minutes, for some reason, he excused himself, and I realized we'd been sitting at the table alone, talking, for a long time. A group of my co-workers stood nearby, and I think they'd been watching us, and I felt embarrassed, like they'd all seen him reject me. I stood and tottered, in my high heels, to the restroom. I looked in the mirror. I was prettier that night than I'd been in a while, my shoulder-length dark hair sexily brushing my bare white shoulders, the new blond streaks I'd gotten put in at the salon the week before looked wild, my smoky eye make-up ("smoky" is the women's-magazine term for lots of black eyeliner) smudgy, wanton. Did my co-workers think I'd been trying to hook up with Matt? I slipped into the black cardigan I'd brought in case I got cold, covering up my bare back and shoulders, and walked back into the hotel ballroom.

Some co-workers were standing there, watching the spotlit band and the Baby Boomers writhing on the dancefloor, and Matt was with them. I stood off to the side, counting down the minutes until I could go back to my room without my boss (the Big Boss) thinking I'm not being a "team player" for ducking out early. Matt walked over, and we talked some more about writing, and music. I liked his warm chocolate-colored eyes, his deep voice that slurred everything and sounded a little like Bob Dylan. He asked about what I like to read, and I tried to shout that I like to read the short stories in the New Yorker, but I could tell from his expression that he couldn't hear me. I laughed and shouted, "Can you hear a word I'm saying?" No, he said, and suggested we go out to the courtyard. Not caring what my co-workers thought of the two of us leaving together (getting a naughty thrill at what some of their worst assumptions might be, actually), I followed him, and he found us a bench with palm trees flailing in the wind just behind it.

We could see the band and the attendees dancing (to "Brick House" now), but from far away, quieter. He said that he and his band could make a lot of money playing this kind of music at conferences like this, but that if he always had to play these drunk-on-margaritas-during-work-conventions crowd-pleasing songs all the time, he'd have to blow his brains out. He laughed, and I decided that I liked him. There was something vividly romantic about the scene, and I made an effort to memorize it all at the time, knowing I would write it up later for you, but I've forgotten some of it, so I may be making some of this up now. I remember a soft glow, like from a fireplace, I guess from amber-colored lights outside, glinting on his glasses lenses. I was close enough to him, sitting on the bench, to see that his cheeks and nose were sunburned, and his small mouth made a pleasant little crescent-moon shape when he smiled with his lips closed. I think I remember a fountain splashing nearby. He was warm, real, and I opened up to him with a sense of relief: I told him about my writing, about how I've been afraid to send it anywhere, paranoid that someone will tell me it isn't good. He told me about a short story he's working on, about a guy who decides to shred all the paper artifacts that document his life (birth certificate, drawings from childhood, high school yearbooks, diploma, marriage certificate and so on). He laughed and said he wasn't sure the ending was realistic -- the guy winds up surrounded by shredded paper, and he sets it on fire and dies in the blaze. I told him I loved it, that it didn't matter if it wasn't realistic -- it's symbolic, I told him. He asked for my business card so he could e-mail the story to me. It was the only business card I gave to anyone during the entire conference.

We agreed to exchange stories. I liked his zany curly hair, his impassioned-eccentric personality, the way he talked about crazy projects -- some website for unknown writers like us to get our work read, about how tomorrow he and his band are doing a photo shoot for their new album out in the desert as the sun rises. He talked about reading Rolling Stone back when Hunter S. Thompson wrote for it and then joked about how that was "showing his age," but he looked and seemed young to me. He had this boyish, mischievous quality that reminded me (with a pang) of you. I noticed with a little dismay that he didn't say anything flirtatious or inappropriate, or ask where my room was. He was a gentleman, and I was grateful but I also hated him for it. Finally I left, saying I had to talk to my boss. I lingered in the ballroom alone for a few minutes before walking back to my hotel room.

Did I tell you about the hotel room balcony? There are palm trees just outside my room, and at night they rustle fiercely. There's a little breakfast table and two chairs out there. I took photos for you with my disposable camera. I tried to take photos of myself in the black satiny dress, but you know they never come out right when you take them yourself.

There was a funny moment during the dinner/dance, at the beginning, that I wanted to tell you about. The CEO was at the podium, rattling off awards winners (highest sales in the Pacific Northwest region, blah blah blah), the candles glowing on tabletops, everyone dressed up and prettier in the soft light, tuxedoed waiters poised to lift the silver lids from food on the buffet tables. Then someone, a waiter or hotel employee I think, accidentally turned on the ballroom lights -- the bright lights that are on when the ballroom's used as an auditorium for motivational speakers. Instantly, the sweet soft light was drowned out by the stark everyday kind of light you see in offices and stores. You could actually sense people shrinking back into their clothes, you could see the coarse skin on the middle-aged women's sun-cooked cleavage, the lint on this man's suit, the cakey texture of women's make-up. I, who had gotten a few compliments from men already on my way to the table, felt my magic vanish, too. I hunched, and cast my face down. It was just a minute or two, and people grumbled until the lights were dimmed down again -- and the tension was gone. To think how different people are in different lighting, how ill-at-ease they are when the illusion is doused with the cold water of reality... it was just amazing.

As I walked back to my hotel room that night, I indulged in this irrational daydream: You had driven to Palm Springs, maybe in a rented car from the airport, and somehow you pulled right up to the curb as I was walking to the squat little building, No. 10 "Joshua Tree," that houses my room. You saw me walking, beautiful and lonely that night, and you put the car in park (maybe you left the engine on in your haste to get to me) and you rushed up to me, seized me passionately by my shoulders, and kissed me. "You don't have to go back to your room alone," you told me.

But of course I did go back to my room alone, in real life. It wasn't that I wanted Matt to be there with me (come to think of it, he had kind of a hippie-pothead demeanor... maybe it wasn't that I was unattractive, but that pot had diluted his testosterone?). In my room, I was too fired up to go to sleep, so I listened to beautiful music on my Discman and stalked and twirled around the room, restless, posing in front of the mirror and wishing you could see how good I looked. I know that sounds silly, but that's what I did. You know by now that I'm a little bit crazy, and a little bit louche.

The next day it was more work, non-stop, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., running around writing stuff up for the newsletter, ringing up sales at the bookstore, acquiescing to my boss's (Big Boss) urgings to go network at the cocktail socials. By this morning I was bleary, exhausted from being around so many people, being "on" and polite all the time, even during mealtimes, ready to run to a quiet dark corner and say nothing, think nothing for a while. Before sharing the cab with some co-workers to the airport this morning, I saw Matt, with some of the AV guys, packing up stuff into the back of a moving truck. He wasn't the zany artist spouting out a dozen different ideas for short stories and album photography, talking about Hunter S. Thompson and meeting his idol Keith Richards and the story of a man who wants to incinerate all of the paper artifacts from his existence into a tower of flames that consumes him. He was just a sleepy guy with a ponytail humbly packing boxes into a truck. I didn't say anything to him.

I've taken up most of the pages I had left in this spiral notebook. The first pages are filled with my shorthand notes from conference, quotes from people about what it's like to win a basket of artisanal cheeses. I think I should burn those pages up in flames, don't you? Maybe I'll burn this, too, and everything we've ever written to each other. But much of what we've written to each other has been sent through e-mail, and it's just not as poetic, is it, burning a computer? There's something aesthetically lacking in that image, I think. The man in the wheelchair is still here. Maybe he spends all day here, every day. Other people have trickled into the lounge. I wonder which of them I'll be sitting next to on the plane?

I lied to you. I told you, in my response to your last e-mail, that when our writing turned lascivious, I wasn't foolish enough to think it was "real." I let you think it was just playtime to me, that I could write heated stories about the two of us (well, about two characters based on us with different names, but who am I kidding?), and that I could then go on about my day, disconnecting from it like logging off from a computer. I know this is how you feel. But I never could keep my heart out of it. Instead of sending this, would it be corny to write the following two sentences on a postcard and send it to you?--because I'm considering it: It was never fiction to me. It was always love.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mary

“Let’s go live in a cave.” The girl looked down the street in Northeast DC. It was past 1 a.m. on a work night. Homeless guys and hustlers passed in preoccupied silence. Generosity or gullibility could be right around the next corner. A hand-out or a sucker. The night was ripe.

“But there’s no Internet in a cave.” The guy sitting next to her on the bench was sober and amused. He was only teasing her, because in reality he would have gone and lived with her anywhere.

The girl’s eyes looked down the street but she was thinking beyond that. She pointed. “Let’s go West.” This was something she said sometimes. She said it more when she was drunk. A couple of years ago she had driven to California to start a new life, and now she would not stop talking about it. The West was symbolic of a new start for her.

He knew this. He knew her well. “Why don’t we just stay here.” Here on this bench, in a bubble frozen in time.

“No. We have to go somewhere else. That’s the whole point.” Earlier she had stumbled down the street to the Catholic church with the African-American Mary statue in a small fenced-off garden out in front. The Mary statue was symbolic to her, too, even though the girl wasn’t Catholic or even religious. When they came to this nightclub with their friends, the one they sat outside of now, the girl often came to Mary after a few drinks. Tonight she had spent a long time staring at Mary’s hands – there was a heart on each palm. He had stood beside the girl and watched her.

He was a friend and he was trying to help the girl on her spiritual journey. She went along with it even though she was skeptical about such things. She went along with it because she liked the idea of a journey. All she knew was she couldn’t stay where she was. That was unthinkable.

Next to her on the bench, the guy said, “I would go live in a cave with you even though you like Cheez Doodles.” She had been eating some earlier in the club.

She gasped. “You don’t like Cheez Doodles? You think I’m trashy because I like Cheez Doodles.” But she was laughing.

He assured her that no, he did not think she was trashy for liking Cheez Doodles. He assured her of many things. The last time they had talked at his apartment, he had assured her that she would make a good mom someday. He had said this and they had talked some more and then it was time for her to go home to her boyfriend. He had watched from his balcony window as she walked to her car. He watched her go. He assured her of many things but it didn't matter.

Cold front

I.

In my psychology class at community college, the professor talked about an experiment in which a baby monkey was tricked into believing a device was its mother. I forget how the scientist tricked it, but somehow he got the baby monkey to cuddle up, again and again, to this cold metal object. Worse, the object would occasionally emit electric shocks to the baby monkey -- but despite the shocks, the baby monkey would keep coming back. The scientific community was horrified by the cruelty of the man's experiment, my psychology professor said. But the experiment showed that the baby kept returning, even when it meant getting shocks instead of love.

***

I'm determined to not let you know how much I'm hurting.

***

On Christmas Eve, in the afternoon, I was walking out of my apartment to wait on the sidewalk for Rita to pick me up. I was wearing my bulky winter coat with the faux-fur-lined hood, about to walk out the door, when I saw there was a message on my cell phone. It was from you. I stopped to listen to it.

You sounded upbeat, even though we had decided to end our affair just a few days earlier. You and your wife were visiting your relatives in Omaha. I pictured the whole Norman Rockwell scene as your voice described it: Everyone lying around patting their bellies, full of your mom's home cooking; going down to the Old Market part of town to buy last-minute gifts; Monopoly and a Sudoku contest. I imagined strings of multi-colored lights, the tree, the contrast of snowy outside with overheated inside, everyone with hot cocoa. In snowflake sweaters.

You ended the message saying you were going to see if your son, who's my age, wanted to join you in a pool game, that your dad has a nice big pool table in the basement. Your son was the first person you taught to play pool, and I'm the second. In a quick, visceral impression, I felt rather than remembered the way you lean down and squint, your glasses sliding down the bridge of your nose, the sure, rapid stroke of your pool cue.

"Doreen's taking a walk, so I got a chance to call you," you said.

I hit "7" to delete your message. I walked to the bathroom and lay back on the cold white-tiled floor. I undid the fly of my jeans and got off because I missed you. In my furry-lined coat, lying on the white floor like that, I was like some Eskimo or Russian fallen back onto the snow, shot accidentally by a reindeer hunter or frozen to death. After, I got up, cleaned up my wetness with toilet paper, and zipped up my fly. Then a funny thing happened. A teardrop fell from my cheek and made an audible splash on the bathroom tile. I mean, it was so quiet in my apartment that I actually heard it, a little pat sound. I stood staring at the dime-sized puddle, self-pity outweighing the urge to laugh. Rita honked out front, and I hustled out to meet her.

***

I took that psychology class last semester, the same time I was in your English class. Remember when you were teaching us about Dante's "Inferno," and you got to the part where Dante and Virgil go down to the second circle, smaller than the first one, a dark place filled with the lamentations of souls doomed by their carnal lust? Cleopatra, Dido, and Helen are down there in this, the true beginning of hell, where the beast Minos judges each soul. The day our class talked about this section of hell, your face burned and you avoided looking at me. We had, of course, begun our affair by then.

In my Sociology of Death class, taught by a morbid little old man who was always dressed in safari khakis and told us stories about working for his family's small-town funeral parlor during the Depression, we learned about the stages of grief. Denial, bargaining, all of those. I'm not sure what stage I was in the night after you broke up with me, when I met up with Rita and her boyfriend at Red Lobster and drank three "Lobsteritas." "Lobsterita" is Red Lobster's cutesy name for a regular margarita, and when you order one it comes draped in these red Mardi-Gras-style beads with a gaudy lobster charm dangling from them. Rita and Aaron cheered me on, and I got a necklace with each drink I ordered, piling them around my neck. They drove me home. It was only eight, and I was feeling restless. So I got in my car and drove to Richmond to see Bob.

I must have sped, because I got to his place before ten. It was a Thursday. His roommate, Head, answered the door. I've never asked Bob why his roommate's called that, but I assume there's a dirty story behind it. Head grinned at me, condescending, lascivious. "Hey man, look who's here." Bob emerged from somewhere, appearing behind Head. My "liquid courage" had long since run out, so I said, "Do you have anything to drink?" As if I'd announced that I'd wanted to play a familiar game, Bob took my hand and led me to the fridge, and Head said he was going for a walk. It's exactly what they used to do before, back when I lived in Richmond and went to VCU with them, back when I had a crush on Bob and he invited me over and felt me up a few times when he was bored and horny, and I was drunk. This was before I dropped out and moved back up to Maryland.

"Screwdrivers, right?" They happened to have orange juice and vodka in the fridge. Bob seemed excited, like someone who's been watching a fly circle the room, and now the fly has finally landed, and he's going stealthily for the fly swatter. I waited in Bob's room for him while he made me the drink. It had been more than a year. Nothing had changed. The dark-green futon instead of a bed, the Winona Ryder screen-saver on Bob's computer. The garlic-and-musk boy smell of the apartment.

Bob played a CD of a group he'd just discovered called Saint Etienne as I downed my drink. As always, he'd deliberately put in too much vodka. By Track 4 I was swaying. When Track 6 started, I slammed my glass down on Bob's dresser and started talking in this breathy, husky voice like some cartoon vamp. I said: "Sit down. I've got something to show you." I laughed, like it was the most hilarious thing uttered ever. He flopped down on his futon. I started to undress.
***
The first of my secret dates with you was at the Baltimore aquarium. Shimmering aquamarine light everywhere. Mythical creatures floating in and out of view in glass panels. You read the placards that told you the creatures' Latin names, their natural habitats, other facts. I watched the hypnotic shimmers play on the lenses of your glasses, on your face.
***
Bob kissed my naked body.
***
Another time, you took me to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. It was a gray, drizzly day, so we spent all our time at the carnival rides and games they have set up there by the boardwalk in the summer months. You spent hours throwing basketballs and darts, trying to win me a giant stuffed animal. We laughed at the cheesiness of the "Tunnel of Love" ride, and you slipped your hand up my skirt as we drifted through the darkness in our little boat. At the end of the ride, there was a man taking pictures of the couples as they stood in front of a huge heart beneath a Cupid with bow and arrows. "Sir, if you and your wife could just take one step closer to me--perfect!" the photographer said. We didn't correct him.
***
I tossed my hair and struck a catlike pose, smiling up at Bob coquettishly. I slithered down his body and took him into my mouth.
***
The best time was the poetry conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas. You'd invited me to come along and share your hotel room. You even bought my plane ticket. During the day, I sat in on the discussions, and at night, we made love. To be cautious, I went by an alias -- "Sophie" -- at the conference. We laughed about how it was my "spy name." You taught me sexual positions, ordered us hardcore porn from the hotel's pay-per-view, even brought me a pair of handcuffs lined with faux leopard fur, and a small pink vibrator. You liked me in black thigh-high stockings, stilettos, and red lipstick, said I looked like a 1940s pin-up in them. We made love in the mornings with the curtain pulled all the way to the side of the sliding-glass door that led to the balcony, yellow autumn leaves outside and sunlight pouring in on us. It was the first time I had ever made love. When we made love, you filled me up to a fullness I never before thought was possible.
***
Bob fumbled with a Trojan wrapper. I went loose-limbed and let him enter my body.
***
You and I didn't just have sex in Hot Springs. We hiked along the trail on a nearby mountain, marveling at the hot springs steaming up from the earth in mystical tendrils, wandering for hours in those yellow leaves, yellow leaves above us, all around us, strewn along our path, the light made golden by them. There were times when neither of us said anything, and we walked, me at your side or slightly behind you, each of us immersed in our own thoughts but definitely, unquestionably, together.
***
I puked in some bushes outside Bob's apartment, then made the two-hour drive home.

II.

Lately what helps is to imagine all that happened between you and me covered over with a thick pelt of snow. Quieting, soft snow. It covers footprints, roads, houses, and cars. It erases all traces that we existed and returns the landscape to a primeval state. Snow falling in my heart, chilling me to numbness.

***

In my purse, I still have that crystal you got for me at that art gallery in Hot Springs. A group of conference attendees went to dinner and gallery-hopping downtown. At some point during the gallery walk, my confidence slipped, and I worried about not being fun enough for you. I broke off from the group to get a drink at the bar across the street. When I came back, you all had moved on to another gallery. One artist had been giving out little pieces of crystal, and you got me one. I put it in my purse, where it still is, and for the next hour I laughed loudly at nothing, and I'm sure I embarrassed you.

I wonder if you still have the junky little gifts I gave you: the baggie of green sea glass, the little Mexican couple in a box that says "Amor Eterno" on it, the carved wooden frog, always in boxes spilling with confetti. The print-out that says you're sponsoring a school of jellyfish at the aquarium for one year, the miniature black-velvet Elvis painting I thought was funny, a chicken figurine wearing a sombrero. Junk, all of it, none of it practical.

***

A few details from the night I drove to Bob's apartment:

As he kissed my naked body, he accidentally left a hickey on my hip. "I'm sorry," he said, but I told him: "Go ahead, mark me. I'm yours." It was a stab at your memory. (Remember how you told me to put on my red lipstick and mark you?)

In order to have an orgasm, I thought of things you and I have done together. It's become my habit to do that when I'm getting off, and I had to do it with Bob, too. I squeezed my eyes shut and blotted out Bob, his apartment, the swirling glow of his Winona Ryder screen-saver. I saw the honey-colored light of our Hot Springs hotel room at night when we had all the lamps off except one.

Instinctively, as I was about to climax, I licked my fingertips and reached for your phantom nipples the way you used to ask me to right before you came. When I realized I was doing this, I began to cry uncontrollably. The headlights of other cars on the drive home were bright white smears in my vision. I cried for two hours.

***

The day after Christmas, you called me again on my cell phone. I was sitting in my car outside Barnes & Noble. You were in Houston, where your wife was visiting her relatives. You were sitting on your hotel bed, watching Harry Potter on HBO and drinking beers. We talked for a long time, our first conversation as "just friends." The most fascinating tidbits from your life spill out when you're drinking. You told me about one time in high school when you cut a hole in a grapefruit and fucked it, because you'd heard something about the suction feeling good. And you mentioned that you'd hitchhiked to Kansas City when you were 17 to stay at a monastery, or some religious place. I meant to ask more about that, but the conversation went in another direction. I want to write your biography. I will never look at a grapefruit the same again.

Part of your allure, for me, is your past. Did I ever tell you that? When we made love, I would think about the things you've told me, about the girls you yearned for in high school and in college who broke your heart, about the year you went without looking in a mirror once as an existential experiment. About that period of your life when you were single and so lonely that you filled your blow-up doll with teddy-bear guts to make it more huggable. I would think about your books and poetry and the songs you wrote on your guitar. The Buddhist juzu beads you strung together yourself and carry on you. The seedy hotel room with its heart-shaped hot tub that you rented by yourself when you visited Japan. I would think about the way you do funny voices for your brother who has cerebral palsy. I would even think about how you string up Christmas lights over the bed you share with your wife, how you two pretend the lights were put there by fairies.

I took you into me, and I took all of you into me.

***

The other day I looked good, and I wished you could see me. I was wearing a short dress I'd gotten for Christmas. It's the same color as my eyes. I wore my hot-pink lace bra underneath, the one that pushes my breasts together so I almost have cleavage. I thought about taking a picture and e-mailing it to you, under the pretext of just wanting to show you the dress I'd gotten for Christmas. But now that we're just friends, I don't think we do things like that.

I e-mailed you too many pictures before we broke up. That semester, you were always busy. I know now that it wasn't just schoolwork; you were taking a step back from me, rethinking our affair. That's when I got lonely and started sending you erotic photos of myself, trying to stay on your mind. That's when I started drinking too much and clogging your voicemail box. The last picture I sent was of me with my jeans pulled down, using that pink vibrator you bought me. In your e-mail reply, you said that "the worst thing that can happen to lovers is to become boring to each other; let's not let it get to that point." So I left a message on your cell phone saying I knew you needed us to break up. It was a bluff; I was hoping you would disagree. You said yes, we needed to break up. The next night, I had sex with Bob.

"Do you think my pussy is 'boring'?" I asked Bob after I'd stripped down to nothing. "God, no!" was his lust-clouded reply. Stab, stab, stab at you.

***

Sometimes I wonder if I'm an emotional masochist. I find myself daydreaming about visiting you, now that we've broken up, and begging you to take me back. I think of giving you a blow job as hardcore porn is playing on a TV over my shoulder, feeling you grow hard while you're looking at the porn actress's body, and swallowing it all. I think of going to a strip club with you, buying you a lap dance, and forcing myself to watch unflinchingly. I even think of watching you make love to another girl, while I'm sitting naked and neglected off to the side. Why, why, why do I think of these things?

I think I know why. I think it's to heighten it so that, in the daydreams, you can't possibly not see how much you're hurting me, and then you have to take me into your arms and love me. I'll have earned your love because I'll have suffered for you. You were an altar boy, and you still have an ascetic streak, something in you that believes you must suffer before you get to be rewarded. I had an affair with you, and I knew you were married the whole time. I must be punished for that. I want you to pick me up, broken and sobbing, and tell me that now I deserve you.

III.

My plan is to stay away from you. Once I'm gone, and you're no longer deleting tipsy voicemails, or getting long-winded e-mails and silly pics of me in your inbox, you'll miss me. If you call me, I'll be mysterious. You'll be dying to know what's going on with me, what my life is like without you, how I'm feeling about it all, but I'll be a sphinx. When I feel myself weaken, I'll think of snow.

I got a quick, friendly call from you today. You weren't drunk like last time. The conversation was normal; you asked whether I have any New Year's resolutions. I'm no good at normal conversation. I like it better when you talk about fucking grapefruits.

***

When we were in Hot Springs, I was conscious of how lucky I was to get you all to myself for four days in a row. I kept thinking of the word "now" and of how greasy it is -- as soon as you try to pin it down, it slips away into the past or slides ahead as you anticipate the next moment. On our last day together, we sat in a diner as the sun set, and I watched it turn the hairs on your arm golden.

***

For New Year's Eve, I went to a nightclub in DC with Rita and Aaron. There were four levels of people dancing, bouncers outside the VIP lounges, girls in dresses so short that their ass cheeks showed. Rita and Aaron made out brazenly on a chaise longue in front of me. I drank Moet & Chandon and sat on a black leather couch. I spotted an aquarium built into a wall across the room from me. Fish, turquoise shimmering light. A busty Asian girl with heavy eye make-up plopped beside me as someone placed a birthday cake on the kidney-shaped coffee table in front of the couch. Someone else took a snapshot. In the picture, there will be a party girl cutting huge wedges of cake with a plastic knife, and, to her left, a girl in a short blue-gray dress she got for Christmas, holding a glass of champagne, black mascara tears running down her face.

By then I hadn't called or e-mailed you for weeks. It felt like a hunger strike, but it also felt good. It made me think of pristine snow with no tracks in it. I didn't want to disrupt the scene.

I tried to not call you on New Year's Eve. I was afraid I'd say something stupid, like, "I can't do this. I need you. I'm so in love with you, so in love with you..." I sent a text message instead: "Can u get text messages if so happy 2007 from sophie." I don't know how to punctuate on my phone. I made myself smile when Rita asked if I was having a good time. I put on one of the stupid cardboard Moet & Chandon promotional top hats that were lying all over the club, and danced with Rita when she beckoned for me to join her on the dancefloor.

***

Last night everyone thought we were going to get snow in the DC area. School closings were scrolling across the bottom of the evening news. I felt as if I'd summoned the snow myself, that it would be appropriate to see everything covered over with frozen white blankness. It didn't snow; it rained instead. The weather man said, "There was precipitation, and if it'd been just a little colder it would have turned into snow. But there was too much warmth."

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bart Stories: 2 of 2

The Girl in Prague

You tell me there was a girl in Prague, a "memorable hook-up" at a legendary bar mentioned in a Nick Cave song; it was there in your "expat days" in the early 1990s but is gone now.
I ask you to tell me about the girl in Prague and you say it's a long story, and you tell me about the kinky things you've done, litany of orifices, bodily fluids, roles you've played, but you don't tell me about the girl in Prague.

I.

I asked Bart about her the second time we met. We were in the anonymous restaurant in the Hilton near where I work. The restaurant, like the Starbucks, is inside the hotel, just off the lobby where you check in. The restaurant must have a name, but I've never known it, and Bart and I have never called it anything.

Bart demurred, said he had to be in the appropriate mood to tell the tale.
"It requires me to conjure up old ghosts," he said.
"Sure, don't worry about it; no problem," I chirped. In every exchange between us, you can see our differences. There's Bart: mysterious, worldly, cherishes his idea of himself as a libertine. There's me: over-polite and eager-to-please, ingenuous. I think he likes to imagine that he's living in a black-and-white movie, maybe one that takes place in Weimar Republic-era Germany. That was a louche and nihilistic era, I've read. Sometimes I'll say or do something that drags us back into reality, and I can tell that this irritates him. For example: One time online, before we met up in person, he said he'd like to see me in garter belt and thigh-high stockings, "a la Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour." But when we met in person, I was wearing fishnet tights, with an unromantic elastic waistband that leaves a thin mauve groove in my skin. Modern, bourgeois, dorky tights.

He's the master/sadist to my submissive/masochist, but there's always an aloof part of me that's getting a kick out of him. There's a part of me that's smirking, tongue in cheek, pitying his need for illusion. There's a part of me that feels superior to him because I have no such need.

I asked about her because it's unlike Bart to be sentimental, to single out any one of his many lovers as special. He's married, but the sex is vanilla, so he frequently meets up with girls like me. If it weren't for his mention of the girl in Prague, and his reluctance to talk about her, I'd think he had no emotions. He seems to imply: Emotions are for the weak, philistines; I'm above them. And so, in order to be his playmate, his worthy opponent, I try to be above them, too. I try to get on that stoic plane of being with him, if only to prove that I can.

***

I have to be in the appropriate mood to talk about the first time with Bart. I've only told one person about it.

The second time, and all the times after that, we've rented a room in that Hilton near where I work. Bart is not above going Dutch on the room. We're only there for an hour or two in the afternoons--workdays, lunch break, a few times a month--but we always pay for the whole night. At night, Bart goes home to his wife, and I go home to an empty apartment. It's occurred to me that I could use the hotel room on the nights we've paid for it, but I've never done this. It would feel like sitting in a theater hours after the curtain has gone down.

He hunted me, his gleeful prey. It began with flirtatious remarks he made online after seeing snapshots I'd posted to an online profile. There was one of me lounging demurely on my unmade bed, wearing a tight top, a knee-length skirt, and high-heeled Mary Janes, my legs crossed. "I love the ankle straps," he'd typed in an IM. "So submissive." I picked up on the cue, and told him that I would love to be dominated in bed. We talked every day after that, and he told me I "intrigued" him. He said he fantasized about taking a younger, inexperienced girl and guiding her through all sorts of kinky lessons. "Like in Les Liaisons Dangereuse," he said. How Bart loves to show he's cultured, especially when he gets to do so in a European tongue.

Online, and then in person at our unnamed restaurant, he shared his stories. There was a former nun in San Francisco who loved mock rape (she would consent to him beforehand, and only pretend to resist). An orgy in Vienna. The girl he fingered for an hour while riding in a seat next to her on the Metro (they'd agreed to the plan before either of them set foot on the train). The girl he instructed to bend over and grip a cold radiator as he whipped her with his riding crop. The girl he pissed on.

It was the audacity and detail of his stories, as well as his way of seeming to not want to brag while doing exactly that, that convinced me he wasn't making any of this up. When I met him, I had no stories of my own. I was inexperienced. It was what he most wanted to hear.

***

In the rooms we rent at the Hilton, it's lite S&M play followed by sex. It's been this way for months, although he keeps hinting for something more. He instructs me, he insults me. He hurts me--he pulls my hair, he pinches my nipples until I wince and cry out, he bites me--but he always tests my limits beforehand. Bart's S&M etiquette is unimpeachable.

A secret I keep from him is that I'm not as masochistic as he is sadistic. We're unevenly matched. I get no physical pleasure from pain. For me, it's more like accepting a dare, or proving to him that I'm not a wimp. He'll whip me to the edge of my endurance, and my legs will shake and I'll squeeze my eyes shut and bite my lip, not wanting to have to ask him to stop, not wanting him to win.

He has used the riding crop on me. He likes to leave lashes on me, licks of pain that burn for days afterward. Before he used the crop, he e-mailed me a picture of it. In the picture, it was next to a pair of boots. I asked about the boots, and it turned out they went with a uniform, a vintage German military uniform he'd acquired (he didn't say how). I asked to see a picture of the uniform, fearing it might be a Nazi one. After all, Bart had told me that he liked extreme role-playing--master and slave, German soldier and Jewish prisoner. When he first told me about the role-playing, he said, "I've never done 'Daddy and daughter,' but oh, so filthy." I guess one kind of person would have been shocked. I almost laughed. Again with the pity: Poor Bart, trying so hard to push to the extreme. Poor Bart, needing to push to the extreme. Why? Were lovemaking and sensuality and affection not enough for him--or repugnant to him? Was he desensitized to anything that wasn't shocking? But then, who was I to ask these questions?--I was here with him, too.

He sent the picture, and the uniform wasn't a Nazi one; it was only one from the former East Germany.

He tells me his fantasies when we meet for a quick drink at the restaurant before getting a room; this talk is almost as good, for us, as the sex itself. We sit at our usual table, he in the comfy seat against the wall, me in the hard-backed chair. Here are some things Bart wants to do to me: Drug me with amyl nitrite so my body will be relaxed enough for him to enter me anally. Piss on my naked body, and have me drink it. He wants me to piss on him, too--he suggested the hotel-room shower stall as venue--and to drink it. He hinted, in an online conversation along these lines, "I hear Diet Pepsi makes it taste sweeter." He was not above typing a winking emoticon after the statement. I was at my computer at work when I read this, and I laughed. I couldn't help it; for a while after that, I couldn't see a can of Diet Pepsi without laughing.

Lately he's been obsessed with fantasies that involve humiliating me, which necessitates the presence of other people. I don't like this idea. I like the neat symmetry of two people, dominant and submissive, yin and yang. I like the intimacy of sharing a secret world with one other person. With Bart, the addition of other people is escalation, heightened sensation. He wants to take me to a "sex party" or a "sex club," a place where everyone present is game, everyone is potential audience and participants. He wants me to take on two men, or three men, at once, one in each hole. He likes that word, "hole"--"You're nothing but a hole," he'll say to me sometimes when he fucks me. He says it matter-of-factly, not with anger (anger being an emotion). He's talked about fucking me while I'm wearing a mask, negating my individuality, my soul. So far, this hasn't happened.

Although he spins fantasies about watching me with other men, what he really keeps hinting for lately is another woman. "It's too bad you don't know any women who could play with us..." he said to me one time in the restaurant, minutes before we would take the elevator up for the customary whipping and fucking. I grew apprehensive when he mentioned that he'd met a couple of girls who were "interested" in "playing" with us. (Were they hotter than me? Better in bed than me? Bottom line: Would he like one or both of them more than me?) When I didn't jump at his announcement, when I didn't get excited and try to pin down a day and time to meet them, he cooled off, and we returned it to the realm of fantasy, where it was safely abstract. In his criminally sexual purr, he suggested ways of humiliating me with another woman--such as having me watch as he fucks her--and I took up the game. It became one-upmanship, brinkmanship. Who could think up the meanest thing? He thought of fucking the other woman as I lick his asshole, and afterward having me lick his cock clean and tasting her juices, then having me lick her clean, too. In other words, he won.

***

I'd been thinking about my old friend Bridget. More of an old acquaintance than a friend, really, from high school. She was overweight and had flunked a year or two and wore Renaissance-style clothing to school. My friends and I never invited her to sit with us at lunch, but one day she did, and we were all too polite to say anything, so she continued to sit with us, every day. She would stand in our little group in the halls, walk to classes with us—I don’t think she had anywhere else to go. We were nice but a little ashamed of her. She was a theater dork, one of those kids who were so earnest and enthusiastic about drama class and school plays that you were embarrassed for them. She spoke in loud, vaguely British, clearly enunciated, from-the-diaphragm tones even offstage. You'd have to explain jokes to her, and she'd rip you off--appropriating a saying, a band or book you liked--without acknowledging it was you she'd ripped off. She did this to me most of all, and I was both flattered and annoyed.

I had run into Bridget recently, a few months after our ten-year reunion, which neither of us attended. She had lost a lot of weight. I found an online profile. She had posted pictures of herself in corsets displaying her deep cleavage, provocative poses. She was listening to industrial and death-metal music and was trying to present herself as shocking and dark. It seemed like a pose, like her latest ploy for love, and it struck me as pitiful. In one of the photos, she was kneeling, her wrists handcuffed behind her back. I remembered the power I'd had over her in high school. I sent her a message asking if she'd like to meet Bart.

II.

"Tell me about yourself, Bridget."

Bart's voice is so low, so soft, that sometimes you have to lean in to hear him. I've often wondered whether this is deliberate. Can everything about him be deliberate? Is it possible that he merely enjoys being an encyclopedia of the arts, that it's not a pose? There are elements of his seductiveness that are too natural; they can't be affectations. The way he moves like liquid, like dark syrup. That baritone purr, the perfect voice for instructing a girl to remove her clothes for him. No, the voice is not a put-on.

I could tell that it disarmed Bridget. Poor Bridget, who was expecting someone more like us. He doesn't look older than we are--he's ten years older--but there's that languor, the way he cocks his head and says witty things to which Bridget had no response except a goofy laugh at how she had no response. I was embarrassed that I'd brought her, embarrassed to be associated with her--until Bart looked at me once. It was after Bridget had said something about some old ‘80s toys of hers she’d found in the attic (she still lives with her mom). She'd looked away for a second, and Bart had given me a grin. It was a grin that said, You and I are in this together. I used to take up for Bridget when people excluded her in high school, but I liked this, being in a two-person club with Bart. I grinned back at him.

Bart grew quiet and got a faraway look. Preternaturally calm, he doesn't explain it when he does this; he's not one to chatter to fill in awkward silences. Bridget looked from him to me, her eyes wide. Bart and I had ordered our usuals: gin and tonic for him, punch with vodka for me. These drinks are right for us. His is clear, astringent, with a sour lime that he squeezes with his long, nimble fingers into the drink, and mine is pink, with a panic of vodka, a quick remedy for the nerves I always have around Bart. Bridget had gotten here early and ordered a caramel frappuccino with whipped cream at the Starbucks, not knowing we'd end up in the restaurant. It looked pathetically kiddie next to our drinks.

I was proud to know what he was thinking. It made me feel like his accomplice, like some sister-wife of a pharaoh, that much in sync with him at times like this. I translated for Bridget. "He's thinking of where we should go."

Finally, Bart spoke: "I'm thinking into the woods." Bridget gushed--as I could have predicted she would--about how "Into the Woods" is actually the title of a play she loved in high school. I cringed at her mention of high-school theater; the things Bart could tell her about the history of theater, about avant-garde theater, about theater around the world. Then I thought about where we were going, and I could swear I saw Bart grin at the fear in my eyes.

III.

One day, after the first time with Bart and before the second time, I checked my e-mail and saw this message from him:

"Fucking slut, you're just a dirty little whore. Nothing."

It was the "nothing" at the end that got me.

***

Sometimes I feel this hole where my heart should be, a hole with cold wind howling through it. "You're just a hole," Bart says as he fucks me.

***

Once, on a balmy Friday night when I was a teenager, I put on a tight top and a miniskirt and went walking downtown by the river. I was alone, and burning for male attention. I walked to the edge of the pier by the seafood restaurant that's shaped like a lighthouse. An old man stood beside me. He asked if he could hold my hand. I let him, feeling his dry, crepe-like skin against my palm. He asked if he could hold my body. I let him, and he pressed me up against him hard. He groaned in desire. "Can we go back to my place?" he asked. At this point, I pulled back and dropped the act. It had felt like a prank until then, like playing the role of a naive, slutty young girl, just to see what that role felt like. I could see him following me to my car, in the shadows of phone poles and trees. I checked my rear-view mirror compulsively as I drove home.

***

When I met Bart online, he seemed like a guide into an underworld, one that I wouldn't have been able to enter without him. It was like I needed him to get me there--I didn't know the secret knock or password, I didn't know anyone else like him. He would say things like, "Do you have a safeword chosen for your foray into the depths of sadomasochistic sex?" He was confident, darkly alluring, yet he tested my boundaries with the quality of attention of a scientist in a lab. I thought it was almost generous of me to share him with Bridget.

But the real reason I invited Bridget was because she was no threat to me. That grin at the restaurant guaranteed it.

***

Sometimes I have this hazy, appealing notion of Bart somehow destroying me through sex. It's as if I think that suffering will purge me of my sins. As if the lashes are punishment for being the kind of person who would be here with a married man, even if the punishment and the sin are the same thing. But do I really think that -- or do I just like that it sounds dramatic? Maybe I want what most women want: a strong man who desires me feverishly, who will take me, caveman-like. But what about the desire for him to be cruel to me? Deep down, do I want him to feel bad? Do I want him to see that he's hurt me, and to take me in his arms and love me? How darkly Bart would laugh at this.

***

Here is what I wrote once in response to a message from Bart, who had imagined me into a scenario in which I had to hitch-hike back from somewhere, sucking off men to earn a ride. He was going to drop me in the middle of nothing, without any money.

"Yes, don't leave me any money. That way I have to let them fuck me in my pussy and my ass, because I'm nothing but a hole to them. I'll suck off man after man until I make it back home."

IV.

It was an unseasonably warm day but the trees were barren. Bart drove us to the park, me in the passenger seat, Bridget in back. Bart and I were quiet, and Bridget babbled--about how she had modeled in a goth photo shoot in the fort ruins along this parkway, how she has an uncle who lives down that street, blah blah blah. As he drove, without looking at me once, Bart slipped his fingers up my skirt, inside my panties and inside me. I didn't make a sound, not wanting Bridget to know what we were doing, not wanting her to feel left out but not wanting to include her either. We were almost at the park, the one with the lot where we could leave the car before going into the woods, when I realized that Bridget was blabbing so much because she was nervous.

We had discussed the details at the restaurant, Bart instructing, me listening, Bridget giggling. Each of us knew what role to play. Bridget was to be both guest star and initiate; we would go easy on her. There was nothing in the car to give away Bart's personality or the fact that his wife or anyone else ever rode in it; it might as well have been a rented car. No CDs, no air freshener or bumper stickers. The only thing was a small bottle of antibacterial hand gel in the glove compartment, which he always uses on the drive home, to get the incriminating smell of me off his fingers.

We parked in the farthest-back lot, away from the joggers with dogs and families at picnic tables. Sun sparkled irreverently. We waited for a gang of Rollerbladers to vanish over the horizon before crossing to the edge of the woods. Puppy-like, Bridget tramped through dead brown leaves behind Bart. I hung back, a force repelling me. I took a step. I couldn't.

Bridget stopped and turned, then Bart. "What's wrong?" Bridget said. She looked from me to him, him to me. I was glaring at him. "What?" Bridget kept saying. Bart held my gaze. He said, "Maybe we should do this some other time." He drove us back to the Hilton in silence, both hands on the wheel. After he had let us out, Bridget pestered me for an explanation before sulking off to her parents' Taurus that she'd parallel-parked by the hotel. She'd probably worn her best black lingerie. That's what I'd done, too, the first time, when Bart took me into the woods.

***

Bart never told me about the girl in Prague. But I eventually told Bridget about that first time with Bart.

It was my first time.

Beforehand, I'd played the game, told myself how it was going to be, just as I do now when I meet up with him at the hotel. I'd girded myself: I would have a heart of steel. It would be dirty, playful sex, just sex. That first time, in the woods, he broke a switch off a tree, told me to lift my skirt, bend over and grab onto my ankles, and he whipped me. "Dirty slut," Bart said. On the lichen-coated log of a tree that had fallen to the ground, he fucked me. He slammed so deep into me, me on his lap, fucking me through a gaping hole he'd torn in the crotch of my disappointing fishnet tights, my breath hiccuppy from the rough motion. I'd felt a strong urge to hold him, but I'd held back. He pulled out, peeled off the condom, and came in my mouth, ordering me to swallow. I apologized each time I gagged. Afterward, in the car as he drove me back to work, I'd searched his eyes, his voice, for some hint of tenderness. I went back into the woods alone a week later. There was an about-to-snow sky, I had a cold, I was wearing a puffy winter coat. I found the log. The condom wrapper flapped in the nearby creek, caked with mud. I lay sideways on the log for a long time, the duration of my lunch break, listening to birds, looking up at a blank godless sky.

The Bart Stories: 1 of 2

On a bed of pine needles

B. is 37, married, and good-looking.
Two of these things I knew from his online profile.
The third is a pleasant surprise.

We are meeting for coffee. Seems urbane, the proper thing to do for two young professionals toying with the notion of cheating on their significant others. A casual daylight place unlike a bar, more discreet than a hotel room.

I knew he liked opera. And Ute Lemper, a German cabaret singer. We both like to put it that way, "cabaret singer," because it makes us sound cultured, although I only read the phrase applied to her in a magazine article and don't really know what it means.
Here's a key difference between B. and me: He likes Ute's theatrical stylings, and that she's German, so she seems to have a certain coldness, an austerity to her sexuality. As for me, I like her version of "Little Water Song," about a woman drowned by her lover, a metaphor for being slayed by love, in which her voice is so heartbreaking, so heartbroken.
"It's my favorite song in the world," I effuse. "You must hear it."
"I'll put it on my Amazon.com wish list," he says coolly. So devastatingly urbane. His crisp cotton shirt is tucked into his khakis. His brown leather shoes look expensive. Short dark brown hair that's spiky through the bangs. Evidence of testosterone in his big hands that have some hair on them. His eyes are small and dark and bright, his grin is satanic.

In the cafe, we are sitting in pretentious armchairs. The place is one of a chain of identical cafes, four in this city alone, but meant to look bohemian, one-off. B. is drinking black coffee --"no sugar." A personality profile in a drink. I'm sipping frozen mocha coffee with whipped cream on top. It looks like a kid's drink.
He likes that I'm ten years his junior.
It's not much, but it excites him.
"Oh, you innocent young thing," he laughs when I don't seem to understand what he's talking about.
And what he's talking about is almost always sex.

This started online. He liked the pictures of me in strappy black high-heeled Mary Janes.
"I love the ankle straps," he typed to me then. "So submissive."
He had asked me if I was into BDSM. I told him B, D, and M. I told him I'm no sadist.
"Perfect," he typed. Picture the wolf from "Little Red Riding Hood," licking his sharp chops. That's what I thought of.

From perfunctory talk about our favorite books (I recommended the new Amy Hempel one), to movies (he wants to see me in garter belt and thigh-high stockings, "a la Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour," he typed, so cultured, even the French bit at the beginning), to sex.
"When you masturbate, do you touch your clit?" he typed to me.
I had coyly withheld my response.
And I'm withholding it again now. He's telling me about an ex-lover who had a strict Christian upbringing and almost became a nun. She's living in San Francisco now, an artist. He rims his oversized coffee mug with his pinky finger. So worldly, so many stories to tell. Like the one about the orgy in Vienna. And the girl he pissed on, who got off on being humiliated.
"I have a sadistic streak in my make-up, but I am aware of it and keep it carefully controlled," he says.
"That's good," I respond. So trite, so predictable. I have no heroic tales of my own. I am shy and inexperienced.
He loves this about me.
When I told him that online, he typed, "There's something very erotic about you being so libidinous but never having been fucked. I wonder if your hymen is still intact..."
I have no clue, and let him wonder.

Now he's talking about the onetime aspiring nun again, about how her ultimate fantasy was to be raped, but consensually.
Say what?
"She spent the better part of an hour telling me that, for her, it was about transferring the guilt to someone else--'It wasn't my fault; he did it; I didn't do anything wrong,'" B. explains. "She wanted me to break into her apartment--she was going to leave tools outside the window--and force her, and she was going to pretend to resist."
"Was there a safeword?" I ask, proud of my knowledge of this scrap of BDSM lingo.
He looks at me for a moment, then laughs.

I try to picture this scene, and am not entirely sure I believe him. The girl, what did she look like? When she told him about this awful fantasy, were they sitting on a bed in a motel room? At a café like this? And the night he was coming to her apartment--what was going on in her mind, lying there in her bed? Was she excited, apprehensive? What was going on in his?
"For me, it's about the arousal of the woman--or women--and not so much merely having someone submit to my whims," he says.
Soon he cuts to the chase.
"When you masturbate, and you picture yourself somewhere, and you're submitting to someone... where do you see yourself? A hotel room, bar bathroom, parking garage?"
I tell him all three sound good to me.
"Or I could kidnap you..." B. says.
"Yeah..." I think about this. A scene appears in my mind. "I'm walking at night, like I like to do. Somewhere secluded, woodsy... maybe the bike trail by where my parents live, near Mount Vernon." I make sure to drop in an actual landmark, tantalizing him, making him think he can find me. "You pull up in a dark-colored car. It's summer, so I'm wearing a little cotton skirt and T-shirt. And those red brocade Mary Janes I bought in Chinatown." I like to personalize my smut with little details like that.
He's liking this, the storytelling.
"Go on," he says. His dark eyes flash and I think of fire and brimstone.

I look out the window and ignore him. It's easier to picture the scene this way. A nondescript car--Toyota Corolla? Honda Accord? what do I know?--glides by slowly along the curb. A few facts I know about B.: he works in public affairs, and drives a used Mercedes. He knows about cars.
Now the scene in my mind is one from a real story you'd read in a book, not a smut story. "You get out and put a knife to my throat and tell me not to scream."
He lowers his head, as if sinking chin-deep into a reverie. I continue.
I tell him what he wants to hear.
"You bind my hands with rope, or twine." Twine? Would that even be strong enough? Whatever. "You push me into the car, and drive me to an even more secluded area, and park the car. You pull me out and march me into the woods."
I'm still seeing it like something in a book or a movie. The ground is dirty, dry dusty kind of dirt, with pine needles strewn around, so there's that Christmas-tree smell. This area of the country has mostly deciduous trees and not coniferous, but in my mind there are pine needles everywhere.

His voice nudges me partway back into the reality of the cafe, the reality of him sitting there in the pretentious armchair, hands laced together under his chin like a cartoon villain, waiting to hear me tell him what he wants to hear.
"Yes...?"
"You push me up against a tree..." Now I know it's time to make the story dirty. It's what he expects.
"And?"
"And you walk up to me from behind, and you put your hand inside my panties and put your finger in me."
He closes his eyes, and his eyeballs flutter under the lids. It looks like some slithering underwater creature, a manta ray skimming the ocean floor at night. He likes this.
"Then you push me to the ground. I get some dirt and scratches on my knees, maybe a bruise." I add that bit for him, because he likes to inflict pain, like the welts he gave the aspiring nun, using a riding crop, her hands on the cold radiator, her skirt up. I bring myself back to the fantasy at hand.

My voice is low and its tone is strangely conversational; someone eavesdropping and not hearing distinct words would have no clue. No one is sitting near us. The barista is wiping the countertop with a wet rag, no customers in line.
B. asked for this. He likes dirty things in public places. He'd typed, "I once fingered a girl for an hour on the Orange Line of the Metro." Gotta love that he specified which line it was on.
I go on.
"You yank up my skirt and pull down my panties, and you fuck my pussy from behind."
Whoa, two triple-X words in the same sentence all of a sudden. He laughs. He's looking at me, his head cocked approvingly.

Online, after our first typed conversations "intrigued" him, he told me that he fantasized about taking a younger, inexperienced girl and being her teacher, instructing her in all sorts of dirty, kinky acts. "Like in Les Liaisons Dangereuse," he said, using the French title. I've only heard of the title, never read the book or seen the movie, but I acted as if I had.

"I have a rather large hunting knife that would be perfect for holding at your throat or cutting your panties off and stuffing them in your mouth while I tie you up, little slut."This was in an e-mail from B.

Why am I here?
I'll tell you.
I'm here because I force myself to keep my eyes open when I accidentally flip to an operation on the medical channel.
I'm here because when I go walking at night, I dare myself to take the darkest, scariest route, the one through the woods, the one down that road with no houses or lights.
I'm here because I fell in love once, and when it ended I could no longer think about sex unless I made it impersonal, hard-edged, kinky, anonymous.

B. shifts in his seat. "I'm getting so hard," he says. B. doesn't intend to leave his wife, and I don't intend to leave my boyfriend. He places his well-shod foot on the opposite knee. He leans back and gazes at me. He says, "And then what?"

I look at B. He's holding his coffee mug, his thumb fondling the inside of the C-shaped handle. An unidentified car passes by outside.

I will tell you that I'm wearing the turquoise earrings that I bought in Albuquerque, because I like to personalize my smut with little details like that.

I take a deep breath. "And then you stand up, you zip up your pants, you button the top button, you turn toward your car, and you leave."