There is a red phone that sits on the countertop in my small kitchen. There are, precisely, three people who have access to the number. When it rings; which is not that often, I generally go into an immediate panic for the loud and rude bell can mean only one thing – an emergency. On this fateful Saturday morning; when I had hoped to lie in for a while; the red phone rings. I cover the space between my bed and the kitchen in a few seconds, all the while imagining the absolute worst. I pick up the phone to hear Mira’s jovial voice.
“Want to go for a jog?”
“Where are you? I have been beside myself.”
“Shut up and get ready. I’ll be by in fifteen.”
I throw on my clothes and notice it is harder than usual to reach my laces. I curse myself for gaining so much weight. Still, I am excited to see my friend. I run down the stairs and burst into a glorious Fall morning. She is there, hair up in a bun and lipstick. Only Mira can look this good, this early in the day. I notice there is a certain lightness to her gait. Something looks different but I can’t tell what it is. I run toward her, give her a bear hug and pinch her cheeks. It’s been over a month.
“You like?” She sticks out her chest.
“His name is Dr. Brandeis. I needed a little help and ta da – Chest meet Solo. Solo meet chest.”
“You dog. I hated you before. Now I hate you more.”
“You can go to him too. You are just too cheap.”
“Yeah – private school tuition eats up my ‘would be’ cleavage, thank you.”
“After a certain age darling, we all could do with a bit of help to keep things ship shape.”
“I know, I know.”
She reaches for my stomach and pinches it.
“What happened here? Planning to become a whale?”
“For who or from whom should I ask?”
“Don’t ask. Let’s move it.”
After a couple of warm up stretches and a short walk; she affixes her iPod ear buds in place. Black Eyed Peas blares into her brain and the street. I, on the other hand am listening to completely different tunes these days. Courtesy of Mr. Steinway – a.k.a bony fingers, I have been introduced to Gershwin and Vaughan – not exactly jogging music; but a change is good.
“Step on it Mama Whale.”
And with that she breaks into a slow jog. A few hundred yards and she takes off ahead of me. I watch her glide across the tarmac with grace. She has slim round shoulders that taper down to a waist, which, while not narrow, is certainly shapely. The feminine curve of her hips leads onto long limber legs that show little hint of cellulite. A lifetime of daily exercise, saying no dessert and skipping childbirth has earned her the right to a taut and toned physique. I watch my friend and marvel at the way she leads her life, with determination, clarity and resolve. Mira has played by the books. She has a brilliant mind, a keen eye and a sharp sense of humor. She is the package – beautiful, clever and wealthy. I am proud of her; but I don’t envy her. For along the way, on the road to the top, I am certain that she has sacrificed much. Her clear vision is admirable; but now that I think of it, I have sometimes wondered about that lost look which creeps up in a moment of weakness, the self seeping through those eyes, the hard line of her jaw hinting at struggle.
Later, we meet at my regular breakfast hangout. It’s my refuge from the world; where I sneak to with a book on my kidless weekends and drink cup after cup. This morning I have company, no book and the beginnings of a story of my own.
“I met a man.”
“Solvang? Where the hell is that? Is it some oom-pa-pa place in the mountains?”
“What’s his name?”
“Matthew. I call him Mr. Steinway.”
“As in the family?”
“No silly – he owns one.”
“Does he own anything else?”
“A Jura. “
“He is a writer.”
“Darling – writers are a dime a dozen in Tinsel Town. Does he make money out of it?”
“He cooks up jingles for the networks.”
“North or South?”
“Does he live North or South of the boulevard?”
“What difference does it make?”
“It makes a hell of a lot of difference. A writer south of the boulevard is worth talking about. “
“He lives in a loft off Coldwater Canyon.”
“How far up the hill?”
“What is this? The Spanish Inquisition?”
“Just pegging him. Age?”
“Have you seen his driver’s license?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“A boy toy? Solo. I am impressed. Have you been spread-eagled on his Steinway yet?”
“ I have to drop 30 lbs and 15 years first.”
“What? More than three dates? He is not gay, is he?”
“In time I will find out, I am sure.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“You are mocking me. I am serious. If he is such a great catch; how come he has not been caught already?”
“I don’t know how good a catch he is. I guess he was waiting for moi to make his life worth living.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I don’t understand.”
“What? You want to fall for him first so that you can’t you get yourself out when you find out he is penniless and has no ambition? You already know that. I told you. A romantic. I see disaster already.”
“You get taken in when you least expect it. What is it about you and softies? He is not a suit I bet.”
“Far from it. Jeans and a T-shirt; my favorite.”
“This is going from bad to worse.”
“Listen to you. I am supposed to be the prissy one. “ I smile “Plus, he is introducing me to new things.”
“What new things? What could a second rate writer in a loft teach you? He is just reeling you in. How much does he know about you?”
“Mira – this is not a business contract. And I don’t mind being reeled in either. ”
“Before you know it, you’ll be bankrolling his existence.”
“Men like to spend money on women. It gives them a high. You rob a man of that and you rob yourself of being appreciated.”
“OK – interesting logic. I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. I haven’t even kissed the guy. It will be a while before I see his bills.”
“You know the stats, you know the probabilities, you know what you can and can’t do and deliver. So why waste time? Why not bed him and lose him?
“Listen Mira. It takes more than a couple of dimples, a smoky voice and trills on a keyboard for me to hop on this guy.”
“Oh, you and your middle class morality. You can’t shake off that Victorian code, can you?”
“No argument there. He is not your type – I guess. I am not sure he is mine either. I like him though. Is that so wrong?”
“Listen Solo – while I know that the spoon in your mouth may not have been 24 silver, it certainly wasn’t made of wood either. You can afford these escapades into romance with the poor artsy types. Love was given to you freely, so you freely give it back; especially to an off-the-wall type. Where I come from there is nothing free. Everything has a price. Even people; especially people.”
“You think I have a price? I don’t see any offers.”
“You are not advertising. So what do you expect?”
I laugh. “I don’t have the looks, I am too old and frumpy and I’d like to think what I have, can be called scruples.”
“So you let your feelings – the most precious part of you move first, before your flesh?”
“Who said anything about feelings?”
“Are you worried what he’d think of you afterwards?”
I laugh heartily. “Honey – what he thinks of me is none of my business. It’s what I think of myself. I am not exactly a spring chicken – far from it.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“I know who I am. I don’t need a man to validate me with his opinion. Plus, I don’t look at people as merchandise. “
She looks at me with skepticism. “I ain’t buying it.”
“Enough about me though. What about you? I haven’t been able to shake off what you and I talked about last time we met. It’s part of the reason for my weight gain.”
“What? You gain weight because a friend of yours is happily engaged in a love affair with a total winner?”
“Winner?” When did your man become the winner? You cried last time. Didn’t sound to me like much winning.”
“He’d been in town. I had a weak moment. It passed.”
“What are you saying?”
Suddenly the mood changes. Mira becomes silent and less animated. She picks up her cup and sips it. She looks out the window and I see the beginnings of a tear at the tip of her eye lids.
“I need to come clean with you, don’t I?”
“If you like.”
“You wouldn’t let me tell it all. You just charged ahead and took me along with it –right into your boarding school chapel, with its psalms and prayers. You could not fathom my world. As much as you have known me, the thought of me sleeping with a married man freaked you out more than if I had said I’d turned gay.
“I am sorry.”
She reaches for both my hands with hers and interlocks her fingers with mine. My friend – my tactile friend. We are sitting in a café full of gays; so I don’t feel odd that she does not let go and instead starts playing with the ring on my right hand. She loves that ring.
I lift her left hand to my lips and kiss the palm. I look at her.
“It’s OK. Nothing you can say will change anything between us.”
“Try me.” I smile at her. “I thought you’d never call again. But now I come to find out you are over my outburst. You are back. That’s enough.”
“I told you I was over what had happened. You just didn’t listen.”
“There is a lot more to it than just he and I meeting and having ‘unusual’ relations. I’d have to take you back to my world; my childhood, my life and then his and maybe then it will become clear.
I was the middle child in a crowded family; lost in the noise and the commotion. For all I know I was an afterthought. I don’t remember wearing anything but hand-me-downs until I was in my teens. Older sisters, cruel brothers, absent parents; small house and smaller budget. I had to compete for everything; room in the closet, food at the table, cuddles. Everything in the home I grew up had a price. The only time I got any attention was when I brought home the good grades and even then, I got no more than a pat on the back and a half-hearted smile.”
“Mira – we all have tough childhoods; those of us in big houses with doting parents; the ones in crowded small ones. To a great extent we become who we are because of our childhood; but then we all grow up. We have a choice in how we lead our lives. We need not let childhood dictate it all.”
“Yes – but the values are different. My mother always used to say Mira can take care of herself. I read in between the lines that she didn’t want me around. I remember going to bed crying, wishing they wouldn’t rely so much on my resourcefulness. She was a handful – my mother. I had to care for her. So, I learnt not to rely on anyone at any time. I buried my needs and my disappointments. I denied myself the tears and instead built an imaginary world.
“Look at you now – top of the food chain. You have the drive, the focus. You put your smarts to good use. People who know you, admire you.
“He was from a completely different home. Now HE was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He hadn’t had to work ever – for love, attention, things. All he had to do was reach.”
“And you said he had been a political activist and went to jail.”
“Well – back then a lot of the kids would be taken in. It was a badge of honor. Trust me- he got a 5-star treatment in the slammer.”
I chuckle. “So all this thought I had about him being tortured – wow – such imagination and so wrong.”
“Tortured? Honey – he had money. Torture is for the poor, inside or outside prison.”
“Isn’t that the truth.”
“He had a nanny who lived on the family compound. He was close to her – very close; close enough that he’d go over to the servants’ quarters to visit. The nanny’s daughter took a liking to him. She gave him his first blow job at the ripe old age of 12.”
“That is what his obsession was about. His introduction to the world of sex; courtesy of a nubile maid; the daughter of a sweet lovely doting nanny.”
“And he never told?”
“Told who? He was enjoying it. In time the maid offered more and he got hooked on sex from the behind.
“That’s child abuse. That’s sick.”
She lets out a laughter. “We are talking 60’s Iran here – not 21st century Geneva.”
“Still – it IS abuse.”
“As for my household; my folks were not around but we had no nanny. We just had to duke it out amongst ourselves.”
“ And the wife?”
“Society girl. A notch or two above him. It was arranged. She was ugly and frigid.”
“I thought those two traits are mutually exclusive.” I laugh; desperately trying to inject some humor into this sober subject.
“I looked up to him. He gave me something nobody ever had – attention. That was the norm in your household I bet alongside love, food, gifts, books, chatter. But they were luxuries to me. So when he offered, I took to him like a bee to honey. He was an armchair socialist – talked about all the philosophies, politics and beliefs. But you see he didn’t have to ever live it. He merely had to preach it. And to someone like me – it was like; yeah – there is a chance for my type. He didn’t lead me on. I walked right into his world – eyes wide open.”
“You said you felt guilty.”
“ It came to a point when I didn’t feel guilty at all. I befriended the wife. That way I got to see him more often. It made me feel powerful. I was giving him something she wouldn’t. I hated the acts –but I liked the control. He’d beg for it. It made it worthwhile to watch him beg. Me – little old me – could bring a man like him to his knees.”
“But you left.”
“He cried the day I left. A grown up man, collapsed on the floor in a heap of tears. Leaving was my revenge. I knew he’d never be over me.”
“And the abortion? You got over that too?”
“He did me a huge favor. What? You think if I’d had that child, I’d have this life now?”
“Who knows what life you’d have had? It’s all in the past anyway, so why bother speculate? And then what happened? Did you get over him?”
“I ran into him a few years later. I was doing well. So was he; he’d started his own business making loads of money. He had valid excuses to be away from home – often. So, the second chapter opened. By then I’d gotten used to the idea of him having a wife and a kid. It really didn’t matter. I didn’t want him full time anyway. I was too busy climbing the ladder. One thing was different though. This time around I used him – I made him do everything for me; holding over his head the threat of leaving.“
“So you have been having this affair for what? Decades?”
“Off and on.” She nods.
“But what about all those other men?
“A lot of them were married.”
“I couldn’t believe your luck, landing one prize after another.”
“I developed a liking for the game. Let’s face it, there are no decent unmarried men left.”
“It depends on your definition of decent.”
“ I like powerful men who control their world. There is something extremely enticing to land an alpha male and control him in the bedroom; have him fall in love with me and then dump him when he least expects it. It gives me a kick.”
“From whom or for who should I ask?”
“My childhood. my useless father; my stupid brothers.
Those men! Well – they would never marry me. I don’t have the pedigree, you see. But I could bring them to their knees and I did.”
“But it seems to me you have taken the biggest revenge against yourself. You are valuable, wonderful; you mean a lot to so many. Why sell yourself so short? You lied to me. Why?”
“You wouldn’t have befriended me otherwise, would you?”
“What makes you so sure? Which is better? To lie and have to fess up, or to tell the truth and face the consequences up front?”
“Look at you? I told you about one and you almost bit my head off and gained 20 lbs. You can’t handle my truths.”
I see her break into tears amidst laughter. I watch her and wonder how much more I have missed because I had projected so much of myself on her and in so doing, hadn’t stopped to see the fragile in her.”
“I am a whore.”
“You simply have a voracious appetite. So what?”
“Sex for you is so clear isn’t it? I bet you have never had meaningless sex.”
I chuckle: “Darling – meaningless sex has its own meaning.”
“You don’t sell out do you?”
“Nice try. But I don’t kiss and tell.”
“ You claim to know men.”
“Not each one, not in a biblical sense. I fancy that I can read them like a book without laying a single finger on them.”
“Don’t flatter yourself darling. I doubt you have the scope.”
“Why, thank you dear, for that vote of confidence.”
“Sex is childhood unraveled on a bed. Disrobed and vulnerable – the man becomes a boy. Sex is about control; the woman’s control. He is helpless you see. He can’t see straight; so you lead, you dictate, you gain power over him.”
“But surely the woman also becomes a little girl – disrobed and vulnerable; in no place more so than the moment of surrender.”
“For some women that may be true. It all depends why she is on that bed. For a woman it is never only about pleasure. “
“Isn’t it? So it is about pain? Inflicting it or enduring it – physically and emotionally?”
“I am saying I fuck. And I prefer to graze.
“I guess that makes me a diner. And that’s why you are so slim and I am so fat.”
“You and your weight, silly.”
“And what now?”
“Why should anything change? What would be the reason? I have back-burnered Mr. Seattle for now – makes him miss me.”
“You said you loved him.”
“I love him because of all the men he is the one I cannot just fuck. There is something there – a history, a connection – sick as it may be. I tried to escape it; but now I am resigned to it. I am not getting any younger and there are no eligible men lining up at my door.”
“You can meet plenty of nice men if you widen your horizons a bit. Stop being so picky.”
“Solo darling – YOU can pick. I GET picked.”
“And what about old age?”
“What about it?”
“Don’t you want a person to sit on the porch with?”
“What? All your friends who married out of college; put in their mandatory 25 years, can look forward to matching rockers? That’s a fantasy. And you know it.
“Well, as fantasies go; I’d say it’s a good one. Plus, they have lived life their way, just as you have lived yours in your way.”
I look at my watch; it is almost noon. I gesture to the waitress for the bill. I place a long loving look at her; reach for her hands, squeeze and smile.
“Listen, I need to get going.”
She looks distraught. “What? Why do you have to go?”
“I am meeting Matthew.”
“For a trill on his keyboard?”
“I highly doubt it. We are going for a walk.”
“Oh – brother. What? You are a college kid again? Don’t tell me you hold hands.”
“It works like this. We get together; go to the woods, pick a path and follow it for as long as we both want to, putting one foot in front of the other.
She watches me as I grab my stuff, place a $20 bill on the table and get up to leave.
I bend over and place a kiss at the tip of her nose.
“No and. Just one day at a time.”