On the street he hugged me like he meant it and planted an enthusiastic kiss low on my left cheek, just one, nothing European, and although not in the air -- definitely not in the air -- specifically not on the lips. His cheery good-bye included infuriating details about when he and Tony would be leaving for their week of sailing and lobster and playing around in Maine. A promise to get together soon when they returned, then I was standing there by myself, noticing the doorman and wondering what he had seen. Maybe I should ask him. "Excuse me, Ignacio! Did I miss something here?" Maybe in his watchful slouch he had seen what I hadn't felt.
I fumbled stupidly as I unlocked my bike, struggled to slot the front wheel back in place, fought with the curb. I wanted to race down the street in the direction he had turned, find him in the rush hour crowd, point at him with a hand now bruised with tire grime and ask those knowing New Yorkers, "Why does he do that? How can he kiss me in front of Ignacio the doorman WHEN HE HAS TURNED HIS LIPS FROM MINE INSIDE THAT APARTMENT?!" But they might have had a good explanation, which I could not have borne with grace.
At home later I made an omelet. I listened to noise on the radio. I answered the phone. "He uses me. He calls whenever he needs something," I wanted to tell the long-distance saleswoman. "That's unfair of you," I imagined her admonishing me from Omaha. "He calls only when he wants something, it's true. But who knows how often he wants something and does not call?" She would have had a point, if a dull one.
What had it been that afternoon? Something useful. Shoe trees? An ice bucket? I remember, it was my fish griller, that flat, basket-y trap that holds a whole fish in place over the fire in the manner of the Inquisition. He and Tony were going to be cooking out on the terrace, maybe hoping to extract a confession from a scrod, a recantation from a red snapper.
One expects the borrower to do the traveling, to fetch that thing he "needs." But experience has taught me that expectations are folly. And experience had taught him that I would gladly deliver.
There are four short blocks between our buildings, a five minute walk even if the lights are against you, but I needed half an hour to get there, to put in contact lenses, take a micro shower, try on three shirts. I had made up an excuse, I had lied that I was on my way somewhere on my bike and could easily drop by with the shoelaces, ice tongs, spatula, whatever. (True to my character: subservient, but not obsequious. Yes to Bob Cratchitt, no to Uriah Heep.) Knowing what I know, and in defiance of my other hard-won knowledge of expectations, I did one more necessary thing before I left the house: I spilled my seed. I wanted to see him, not have him. I wanted to behave myself.
Bicycle hoisted over one shoulder, I zigged down the five flights to the ground floor, zagging through the long hallway to the front door. There I passed my cute and dimwitted new neighbor, who couldn't quite figure out how to stand out of the way without letting the door slam shut in front of me. No matter. "On my way to see an ex-boyfriend," I shouted in my mind's voice, like a tourist hoping to make a Portuguese bus driver comprender by upping the English volume.
I was glad to be on the bike, flying along past cabs and delivery vans and amazon lawyerixes in Land Rovers. I arrived in seconds, locked the bicycle, alerted Ignacio -- who alerted apartment 22D -- and rode the elevator with a young woman who muttered expletives the way a hockey player mutters teeth. There was so much I wanted to tell her, for I felt instinctively that she would understand everything. But no. She got out on the fourth floor and would have slammed the elevator door behind her if the goddamn designers had only had the fucking brains to make them work that way, goddammit.
"Hello, darlin'!" he said as he opened the door. How convenient it is to have a sweet li'l ole accent to play like background music. He wore a big smile and smallish black briefs. "Come see the puppy!"
It certainly should be enough to have to see your ex married to someone you end up liking even more than you like the ex, ensconced in a perfect apartment with a big square terrace partially overlooking Riverside Park and working at your dream job with your former favorite magazine. That should be plenty. Then this.
"Puppy? When did you get a puppy?" He took my hand and trailed me behind him through the entrance gallery, past the undeniably grand piano and into the kitchen, where, parked between the FrostBite commercial fridge and the Hellzacookin' commercial stove, was a substantial domestic doggie cage.
"Meet Simba," he said as he handed me the bundle of joy.
"You named him after Patty Hearst?"
"He's the same color as a lion cub, aren't you baby?"
Everybody likes puppies, and I wanted to tell little Simba this. "ALL puppies," I would have said. "And although you may be the cutest thing living here this week, your days are numbered, little fella, and in those dog years they will fly. Before you know it everyone will remember that Tony and what's his name here are the cute ones. They'll even have you believing it."
What's his name took Simba from me and draped him over his bare shoulder. In that easy, friendly way he has always had, he let me lean against the counter while he leaned against me, bracing himself by resting his hands on the granite slab. "I like your haircut," I said with a pleasantly straight face, not mentioning all the other things he knew I liked, most of which were in full frontal view. I wanted him to put the dog down, which he must have sensed (grown suddenly perceptive?!), as he bounced against me one more time and then turned away, blazing a trail through the dining room to the great out-of-French-doors, where the dear little cocker was set free to roam the wide open space.
"You like the tree?" They had hauled up a new one, a kind of Japanesey thing that laid itself over the cement cap of the terrace wall in a pose that was weirdly seductive, the tips of branches curled like beckoning fingertips.
"Hmm, yes. Great! And the pot ... just great." I smiled at the tree, the pot, him. "Been workin' on the tan?"
"But no tan line," he said. He took a tough swat at a little bug. "The closest people with a view of us are over a block away. And in this corner even they can't see."
"Nothing overlooked," I thought or said to myself. He plopped onto a chaise, sort of spread-eagled across the green canvas pad.
"C'm'ere'n'see," he said in a very specific, careless tone.
I crossed to him with a measured lack of urgency, sat on the end of the cushion and saw that, yes, we were completely out of view of the world. The wall, a bushy fir, flowering baskets hanging from the striped canvas awning, the new tree with its insinuating posture ... all conspired to create a few square feet of privacy in the open air of the greatest city in the world. Even an upstairs neighbor hanging by his heels from a window would be denied a peek.
He sat up and slid forward, then stood, straddling the chaise, with his knees under my arms, his pelvis cradling my cranium.
Across the terrace little Simba lolled in the shade under a chair, hot or bored or tired. His eyes looked about to close and I thought I heard him whisper to his master, "Oh, yes, what's-your-name, you like to play with your friends over there, but not with me." Then he sighed a little sigh and was dreaming.
I reached behind me and found a runner's swollen calves. He leaned forward and let my hair brush his flat tummy. I craned my head backward and he responded, arching to make a present of his chin, the hollow of his neck, his chest. The perfect guest, I sampled everything, that sweet-and-sour plate of coconut oil and sweat. I chewed on a breast and squeezed a bun. His own hands were on himself.
After a delicious little minute I reached behind his head and guided his face to mine, then kissed his chin again, and his straight jaw, and his golden earlobe.
He kept his lips away from me ... I didn't make some dormitory attempt to force a kiss, but I did everything I could to will one. He would not let me have it. He touched me only incidentally, a grasp of my shoulder, a hand pressed against my leg as he balanced himself. He tugged down the front of his briefs to let out what must honestly be described as one of the most beautiful of its kind in the western world, but thirty seconds later he was abruptly putting it back, holstering the unfired weapon. Move along folks, nothing to see here, that's it, show's over.
Our scene had been foreshortened only by the futility of it all. I could almost hear myself giving him what would surely one day be recognized as a treasured piece of my mind: "Look, I've seen it and it's lovely. But if you won't kiss me, that's it. You want me to worship at your shrine but you won't heal me where it hurts. You are some kinda useless deity, Mister!"
I stood up and complimented the tree and dog and terrace again, leaned over the wall to take a deep breath, waved at New Jersey, then went in to use the bathroom and check myself out before reentering the world. No cold sores, no apparent breath problem, no spinach in the teeth. So what's th problem? Is he an asshole or is it his own version of fidelity?
He was dressed then, so I quickly demonstrated the on-loan buffing machine, ice crusher, fly rod, whatever.
While we rode the elevator down to the lobby he talked about Tony's latest project, and I said, "Interesting," although it was old news to me and what I wanted to say was, "No, it's not being built in New Haven, you adorable little jerk, it's in Hartford!"
And that was it. He left me there on the street with a big kiss on the cheek and a hug for show and, you know, now that it's out of my system I don't feel so bad about it? And of course I shouldn't. Because when you come right down to it, Tony kisses enough for both of them.
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