Philautía: a short story

NB: this story is based on my play, Autoerotic, which was produced for the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2015.

OK. Let’s pretend. 

Picture it. A cool, sleek, brushed chrome loft apartment. Sparsely but tastefully furnished. Small but not cramped. Focused. Nothing wasted. A single knick knack here. One framed photo there. One perfectly placed piece of tasteful art on the wall here. Not a loft apartment but the loft apartment. Practically perfect in every way. Do you see it? Good. Now, notice the light. It’s not quite romantic, and it’s not quite mysterious. It hovers somewhere in between — like it could go either way. The light is anticipatory.

In a sophisticated leather arm chair, he sits — our man. He is as cool, sleek, and focused as the apartment. His style of dress is first-date business casual. The kind of outfit a stylish guy would wear to the cool, hip ad agency where he works. He might even run the ad agency. 

Now, look more closely. The scene is still. Perfectly still. He is still. The apartment is still. Everything is still. Of course, the apartment is still, you may be thinking. Apartment’s are inanimate objects. They don’t move. I don’t disagree. They don’t move but rarely are they still. Normally, there is humming. Normally, there is rattling. Pipes gurgle. Appliances buzz. Air ducts hum. Remember what it’s like when you wake up unexpectedly in the dark of night. Remember how much noise and activity there is when the still of night forces you to notice it. Here, in this scene that lies before you now, there is not a jot of it. There is only the still calm of unhurried anticipation. The light doesn’t even twinkle on the fine furniture and appliances. He, it, everything is still, and, around and outside of all this stillness, there is the light steady patter of rain. 

Two knocks at the door. Then, another sharper harder knock. With a soft but precise shift of our man’s eyes to the door, the apartment comes alive. Appliances buzz. Light twinkles. It’s like he and the apartment are one. The sound of the rain is less obvious now, but it’s still there. Don’t overlook the sound of the rain. This is key.

He — our man — he stands and walks to the door. He doesn’t glide. He doesn’t float. He doesn’t hurry. He simply walks unselfconsciously to the door. How does anyone do that? He opens the door, without haste or hesitation. He looks at the person beyond the door — still unseen to us — and he speaks for the first time.

“You’re better looking than your pictures.”

There is a pause that suggests an exclamation point and a question mark have appeared over the head of his soon-to-be interlocutor. With a subtle shift of his weight, he invites the person to enter. She speaks, as she does.

“Thank you. I think.”

She is dressed conservatively sexy. High heels, nylons, a suit that is a little too tight and a little too short to be worn at most offices. She is handsome. She wears plenty of makeup. There is a hint of dress-up about it all.

“I’m sorry. I assumed you’d look better in your pictures than in real life. Do you want something to drink?” He crosses to the liquor cart, pours himself a drink without ice.

She casts her eyes over the apartment, assessing. “No, thank you.” 

She stands with a measure of confidence, but where she stands is uncomfortably located between arriving and going. It strikes a note of uncertainty. He — our man — he, on the other hand, he commands the space, standing confidently and comfortably, exactly where he should be. At all times.

He asks, “So how does this work?”

“How does what work?”

“This. What we’re about to do.” He is now sure of her hesitation. He does not move from his spot, commanding. She stays in hers, between coming and going. “I will be honest with you. I’ve never done this before. I’m not really sure how it works. The process. The rules.”

She stiffens, catches herself stiffening, and, then, eases herself into the character she is dressed to play, slowly. Our man sees it all.

He continues, filling in the space where her words ought to be. “For example, is it just once and that’s it. That is, you leave after the one time. Or can I use the time as I see fit? As I want?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Can I cum more than once?”

She doesn’t flinch  — noticeably — to his supreme satisfaction. 

“The time is yours, to do with as you please.”

“Five hundred dollars for ninety minutes, is that correct?”

She nods, yes. 

Our man walks towards her. He does not glide, float, or hurry. He simply walks. From a comfortable distance, an appropriate distance, neither invading nor avoiding her space, he hands her the money, which is folded neatly. This moment takes time. No, it illuminates time, reminding us of its presence. She reaches for the money and, for one brief but inescapable instant, they are one figure, held together, connected by the money. And there is an understanding, a bargain is struck, a deal is made, and they both decide in that instant — and not a moment before — that they are both really going to go through with it.  

Our man, he breaks the spell, turning and striding towards the leather chair with the first hint of haste in his steps. Excitement almost. He turns to her and the money is already discretely squirreled away into her purse. A concession to discretion and to the fantasy that is already ticking away at five fifty-five a minute.

“This is how I would like to start,” he says with confidence. “Please stand in front of that mirror and undress. Slowly but not provocatively. It’s not a strip show. It’s a slow undressing after a long day. I’m going to sit on the chair, watching you and masturbating. We’ll see how things go from there.” 

She nods and glides to the mirror. She looks into it. She starts to undress, with a confidence our man does not expect. He unzips and pulls out his cock. 

Darkness falls, the sound of the rain ebbs and flows around us, then, the lights come up, and we are back again at our man’s apartment. Our lady is in our man’s bed, sheets demurely tucked above her breasts, as they once did on prime time TV, and he — our man — is standing in his boxer briefs. 

“I have a proposition for you,” he says. 

She is immediately suspicious. “What kind of proposition?”

Our man, suddenly, unexpectedly, isn’t quite so comfortable anymore, isn’t quite so confident. His confidence slides off of him like a piece of silk, flutters to his feet, and lies there like a broken shadow. He sounds like a school boy asking a girl out for the first time.

“A business proposition. I want something more regular. Consistent. A commitment. From you. To be on call. For me. I imagine. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I imagine this line of work isn’t without risk. For you. Each new client is a new risk. Not violently necessarily but some may be cleaner than others. Kinder. Some may try not to pay. Or avoid using protection. If they can. Even wearing protection, there might be a risk from some of them. Perhaps, they are drunk, deliriously drunk. Wired on drugs. Broken in some way. It’s easy to get caught on a broken person. Cut. Scratched. Torn. Like an old broken fence. When you least expect it, when you think you are away and clear, it can take hold of you and leave a nasty scar. In my experience. My own recent experience. I’ve seen. I’ve discovered. Even as the client, there are certain risks. To me. Risks that I don’t. That I haven’t experienced with you. At least not yet. At least. And I don’t expect to. So, I imagine. I think. It seems to me that it would be beneficial to you to have a regular and consistent stream of income. Risk free. I think it would be as beneficial to me, as to you, to have something regular and consistent. It would be a mutual mitigation of risk. Does that make sense?”

Our lady, she doesn’t hesitate for a second. “You’re still a risk to me.” 

Our man seems almost hurt, as if she has mocked the color of his socks or the part in his hair. He recovers quickly. “Fair enough but I will be a risk that pays very well.”

“How well paying,” she asks with dollar signs in her eyes.

“How much do you want? Name your price.”

She says, almost purring. “I think we might have a deal.”

A flash of light and the sound of rain swells. It fills up the whole space, it ebbs, and they — our man and our lady — are abed. Our man, he rolls off our lady calmly, almost stiffly, having taken his satisfaction. She — our lady — is breathing heavily, squirming a little beneath the sheets. She seems almost lost. Delirious. Are these the fading moments of her ecstasy? Our man stays under the covers, of course, propped up against a pillow, almost grim. He speaks!

“OK. An important stipulation. I think we need to add another rule.”

Our lady is still panting a little and breathless. “Sure. You’re the boss.” 

Our man frowns. He makes an effort to say what he wants to say, stops himself, and tries again. “Please don’t fake an orgasm. Ever. I can tell. I appreciate the effort — the performance — but I can tell that you’re faking it, and it takes me out of it. It distracts me.”

Our lady, she holds her breath for a moment, deciding how she will respond. Then, like an old curtain, she drops the act. She faces him directly. “So, what do you want me to do? How can I make it better?”

He swallows loudly, nervously. “Be active. Participate. Don’t just lie there but don’t fake anything either. If I ever do manage to do anything you like, react appropriately, normally, proportionately. Otherwise, don’t put on a show.”

“What If you don’t ever do anything I like,” she asks matter-of-factly. 

Our man stiffens. His ego is wounded. “That’s your problem. Not mine. Why the hell do you think I’m paying you?”

*

A flash of light, the sound of rain swells, it ebbs, and our lady is demurely covered, as always, sitting up against a pillow. He — our man — is sitting on the edge of the bed, with one sock in hand. He declares: 

“I want to come up with a safe word.”

Our lady shifts uneasily, sensing the risk before she fully understands it. “Why? We aren’t doing anything rough or risky.”

Our man manages to get a sock on, as he speaks. “Everything we’re doing is risky. There are riskier things in this world than whips and spanking. I want a safe word, just in case.”

Our lady, sensing rather than listening, hears something other than what he has said. She responds with a touch of fear in the calm of her stern teacher’s voice. “Look, I didn’t agree to any rough stuff. I haven’t agreed to any rough stuff. We will have to renegotiate, if you want to do rough stuff.” She makes no sudden movements.

Our man, playing with his other sock, misses the edge in her voice, and presses on — oblivious. “I’m not interested in rough stuff. At least not now. It’s not even really about you. For you. I’ve realized. Now that we’ve been doing this for a while. I need something. It’s for me, OK. I want you to have something you can use, if it — whatever it might be — doesn’t feel right. Gets out of hand. A get-out-of-jail-free card. I want you to have it, so I know you have it. That way, if you don’t use it, I’ll know I’m not crossing any lines. Inadvertently. That it feels right for you or, at least, not wrong. We can renegotiate anything you want, at any time. I’m not trying to shut down that process. I promise. I won’t ever try to do anything rough until we discuss it and you agree. I think we — well, I — need you to have a safe word. In case there’s something we don’t know about. Something we can’t anticipate. Something that needs to be negotiated. That we might overlook in the heat of the moment. I want. I want both of us to have a get-out-of-jail-free card.” 

Our man’s pants are finally on. He has put them on slowly, meticulously, belt and all, in order to have somewhere to look — anywhere — other than our lady during his little speech. He looks up into the gap of silence that has fallen flat and open between them, like a broken cot. Our lady considers what he has said.

“Tapioca,” she says, at long last.

“Tapioca? Why tapioca?”

“I hate tapioca. There’s no way I would mention it or bring it up. Ever. If I mention it, if it crosses my lips, you know — we both know — the reason why. You have crossed the line. Do you understand?” 

“I understand.”

*

A flash of light, the steady sound of rain, and our man and our lady are once more abed, both demurely covered. The mood is light and playful, even if there is a clearly defined no man’s land between them. They do not touch. They do not cuddle. No, not ever.

Our man, smiling, pleads playfully. “Give me a hint. At least, a hint. So I can guess.” 

“I won’t tell you. I won’t ever tell you. Not a chance.”

He pursues, taking heart in the lightness of our lady’s tone. “Yeah but it’s not fair. You know my name. My real name. My full name.”

“You’re the king. It’s your castle. It’s not my fault you leave your mail lying around.” Our lady leaps from the bed — her sudden nudity startles us — heading towards the coffee table. “Or that you always insist on displaying your snobbish magazines, mailing labels and all.”

“My magazines aren’t snobbish.” 

“Oh, really?” Our lady brandishes the evidence playfully, as she speaks. “The Economist. The New York Review of Books. The Time Literary Supplement. Arc Poetry Review? Poetry? Who are you trying to impress? I promise it won’t work. The whores you bring around here aren’t going to be impressed by any of this.”

Our man is almost bashful. “I only bring one sex worker around here. Anymore. ” 

“It doesn’t impress me.” Our lady throws a magazine disdainfully on the coffee table, her playfulness evaporating at the implication of what he has said. “Not in the least.”

Desperate to get the lightness back, our man reverses to happier territory. “Can I at least call you something other than the ridiculous escort name you’re using right now.”

She curtsies. “You, sir, can call me anything you like.”

“How about Alice? I once had a deadly unrequited and unconsummated crush on a girl named Alice. With a black wig, you could almost pass for her. Come to think of it, I might have to give you more than one name. I’ve had far too many unrequited and unconsummated crushes. Wigs, too. Yes, lots of wigs. This might be a fun way for me to even the score. Are you cool with that, Alice?”

“I’m every woman. It’s all in me.” 

*

What’s this? A domestic scene! How sweet. Our lady sits at the table, eating a baguette, dipping it into her cafe au lait. Rain tip-taps against the window pane. Is that the smell of eggs and bacon? Is she wearing what appears to be one of our man’s T-shirts? What has happened here?

“Thanks for breakfast,” our lady blurts with gusto, as she fiddles with her cup. 

“No problem, Mary.” Our man scrambles some eggs. Some whole grain toast pops, as if on cue, in a perfect stainless steel toaster. “You’re here, I’m hungry, and it’s as easy to make for two as it is for one. I’m glad you were able to stay.”

“It’s not something I would normally do, but that glass of wine last night went right to my head, and I didn’t feel like getting dressed and dealing with a cab. So, thanks.”

“You are always welcome to stay.” Our man glides from the kitchen, a perfectly proportioned plate of breakfast in hand: eggs, bacon and sausage, real potato hash browns on the side. A faint paternalistic smile illuminates his lips. “I’m glad you could stay.” He places the plate in front of our lady, and, as he does, he instinctively — or is it self-consciously — strokes her back. 

Our lady stiffens immediately and twists away from his touch.

“Yeah, I don’t do affection. Not with you. We can play house, if it makes you happy, if it’s worth your while, but I draw the line at affection. OK?”

Our man, safely out of sight behind our lady, lets his true feelings be known only to himself. “Gotcha. I will remember that.” He forces himself to be light. “You want some juice?” 

*

Our lady is dressing, putting on the finishing touches of a rather elegant outfit. Earrings, necklace, belt, etcetera. Our man is still in bed, arms crossed. There is a look of defiance in his eye, as if he has a point to make, something to settle. The rain, as always, continues to fall.

He tosses a ball in the air and serves, “You play your cards pretty close to your chest.”

“What do you mean?” A weak return from our lady. Does she even know that a point is being contested? Is she even playing? In her defence, she does seem distracted. It might be that belt she’s fiddling with. Or, perhaps, she is lying in wait, for the time being.

Our man, who seems intent on playing out the point, takes a different tack for his return. He lobs her a nice easy one. “We’ve been doing this for a while now, and I don’t really know anything about you. Sometimes, I think I do, but then I realize I’m putting my own story together from the dribs and drabs of the nothing you give me. What’s the deal?” 

“That’s how I prefer it. My sex is for sale, nothing else. My clients only get what they pay for. ” Pow! She returned that one with a bit of pepper, didn’t she?

Our man, however, is not cowed. He has come to play. It is his point to make, after all. So, he hits one right back at her. “Clients. You’re still seeing other people?” 

“Of course. It’s my work.” Pow! A smash across the court. Really, our man should have seen that one coming.

He chases it down, but he barely gets a racket on it. It floats feebly over the net. “You’ve always been on call. Available. Like I asked. You’ve never not come when I wanted you to. So, I thought maybe — ”

She doesn’t even look at that return. She smashes it effortlessly. “Work has been slow. The recession has been hurting everyone.” 

Hitting from his back foot, our man lifts another high floater over the net. “Yeah but. I thought maybe with all the money I’ve been giving you — paying, I mean.”

Our lady receives it perfectly. Her form is impeccable. Smash. “You don’t pay for loyalty. You pay for prompt, friendly, and regular service. That’s it. That’s all. Don’t ever forget it.” 

Our man, he knows when he’s beat. He doesn’t even try to play the ball. “OK. I won’t.”

*

Now, our star-crossed lovers are playing Scrabble. A bottle of wine is close at hand. It seems our man’s domestic fetish runs deep.

“Question, Marla.” Our man pours the wine, as our lady plays with her tiles. “Was I your first client? Like ever?”

“What makes you ask?” Our lady does not look up.

“A hunch, I guess.” Our man sniffs at the wine and sips it thoughtfully, trying desperately to seem casual. “When we met, you seemed hesitant, at first. Almost uncertain.”

Our lady’s eyes flick up from her tiles to our man — cat-like “Was it that obvious?”

Our man tries to hide his delight. “It wasn’t that obvious. I had to ask to be sure but obvious enough that I suspected.”

“The sex was good though, right?” Our lady demurely drops her eyes to her Scrabble tiles, batting her eyelashes. “You couldn’t tell you were dealing with a novice, could you?”

“No, not all. The sex was fine. Great even.” Our man hesitates in his delight. “You never forget the first time, Marla. We’re bound now. Together. You and me. There’s a bond.”

“I’m not sure it works like that for sex work.”

“Money can’t protect us from every intimacy.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. I need to stop you right there.You weren’t my first client. Don’t be ridiculous.” Our lady returns her gaze to her tiles to make it a little easier for our man.  

“What do you mean?” Our man is hurt, cut deep, bleeding from the fantasy he has been banking on for so long — right up until this very moment. “Why did you say you were?”

“It’s what you wanted to hear. It’s what every man wants to hear.” She continues to play with her tiles. “What a typical fantasy. Virgin whore with a heart of gold.”

“No. I wanted to hear the truth.”

“Then, you should stop trying to fall in love with a hooker.” She realizes something and shifts one last tile. “Aha. Bingo!”

*

Wait a minute. What’s happening here? There is an energy in the air, and it is dangerous! Look, our man is beside himself. His face is ugly with barely swallowed rage. Our lady is at the door. Her back is against it. She still has her coat on. She has the look of someone who has been ambushed. Her head is bent, uncharacteristically submissive, but her eyes are clear and focused. She is ready for anything. Ah, yes, of course. Some wounds, even those of our own making, leave scars that demand a reckoning.

“How dare you leave me waiting. Without a call. Without a text. We have a deal. I call, you come. We have a deal.”

Our lady’s voice is calm and measured, like she is talking someone off the ledge. “Taylor, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. Yes, I should have acknowledged your call. It was not thoughtful of me. I apologize.”

“You didn’t even pick up. You make me leave a message. After that fucking tone. I’m not just another client.”

She responds instinctively, rather than carefully. “Yes, you are, Taylor. Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not. We have a relationship, Chloe. Yes, it’s a business relationship, as you’re so fond of pointing out, as you seem to take pleasure in pointing out, but it is a relationship, nevertheless. It should be respected. It should be treated with care.” 

“Taylor, please, calm down. I’m happy to discuss this with you in a calm and reasoned fashion, to take whatever steps necessary to make sure your — our business relationship is appropriately respectful, but you need to get some perspective, Taylor. Calm down.” 

“I don’t need to calm down. I’m perfectly calm.” He, or some part of him, some wounded pathetic little animal, finds the reason he has been looking for to grow angrier. “Where the fuck do you get off telling me what to do? Who do you think I am?”

“A client, Taylor. A very good client. One of my favorites. Normally.” Sensing the danger, she bares her teeth. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. “A client who is very close to losing his regular fuck.”

“Are you threatening me? Who the fuck do you think you are? You fucking bitch.” There is contempt and violence in his shoulders, as he steps toward her.

“Tapioca.” 

There is real fear in her voice now. Some part of her has seen what her conscious mind couldn’t or didn’t want to see: the full danger of the situation. The hate. The aggression. The hunger for revenge. “Tapioca. You heard me, Taylor. Calm down. Please calm down. Tapioca.”

The word pierces the blinding mask of his fury, stoking his conscious mind into a slow recovery, his body continues forward, hungry for its prey, and he finally sees her — consciously. He sees the fear in her eyes, the submissiveness of her posture, and, over her shoulder, in the mirror on the back of the door, he sees himself. He does not like what he sees: in her, in their little tableau, and, most of all, what he sees in himself. He recognizes something for the first time. His conscious mind finally recognizes what it could not or did not want to see. He is not so different after all. 

“I’m sorry.” He steps back. Once, twice, thrice. Now his tail is down between his legs. “I am sorry. Very sorry. You’re right. I’m way out of line. Way, way out of line. There’s no excuse. No excuse. I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK. Taylor. It’s OK.”

“No, it’s not OK. It’s not OK.” The fury, although abated, is still in him. “Sorry. I just. Can we maybe come up with some kind of signal that you add to your voicemail, so I know I shouldn’t wait. When you have other plans. So, I won’t wait around all night wondering if you are going to come, call back, or whatever.” 

“Sure. We can do that. That should be doable.” Our lady looks at him — our man. She sees him cowering in the face of what he has discovered — of himself. In the harsh fluorescent glare of his discovery, she recognizes something in him for the first time too. He is not so different after all. “How about we do this another night, Taylor. I’m not sure the mood is really right anymore.”

“Yeah. That makes sense but here. This was my fault. I screwed it up. It shouldn’t come out of your paycheck. I’m sorry.” 

There is a moment of uncertainty, as she lingers over the money in his outstretched hand. There is hesitation. A wavering between a coming and a going, a this and a that, a here and a there, an either and an or. Neither of them can fully articulate what almost happened here tonight. They sensed it. They know it. Neither of them seems able or willing to name it. Our lady takes hold of the money in our man’s outstretched hand and once more they are joined together. Once more, the money keeps them together. 

“You’ll call,” she asks. 

Our man nods, too ashamed to look up. “Yeah, I’ll call.”

She takes the money, like a promise, and tucks it away carefully. 

*

Our lady is in bed, with a glass of wine. A bottle is on the side table. Our man sits in his chair, staring off into space, reflecting on some undigested piece of wisdom.

“Taylor, why do you do this? Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Paying for sex? You’re a decent looking guy. You have a job. A good one. Why aren’t you married and starting a family? Dating, at least? You know, fucking for the future. Instead of doing this. With me.” 

“You sound like my sister. She’s always trying to get me to date and get serious. She’s always bringing me a steady stream of bachelorettes to choose from. Showing me off. Her successful brother. Oh, the dinner parties! Like a job interview and dog show rolled into one. What we’re doing — you and me — there’s an honesty that makes sense to me. There’s nothing hypocritical about it. I get it. ”

“A romantic! I should have guessed.”

“That’s the problem. I am a romantic. That’s way more interesting to me than baby making. The whole dating process is so mercenary. There’s a checklist of criteria. There is a system of hoops to jump through. Coffee date, wine date, dinner date. Do we fuck now or only kiss later? Is it time to put it on Facebook? When should I tell my parents? Is it too soon for you to meet them? What about siblings? And on and on and on. At the end of it, at the end of the relationship assembly line, everyone tries to wrap it up in a bow of romance, with a ring, a wedding, and a reading from Psalms. Everyone pays lip service to love, but, in the end, it’s really one long extended commercial transaction, punctuated with an open bar if you’re lucky.”

“A jaded romantic. Even better. Maybe I should grow a heart of gold to match you stereotype for stereotype.”

“Hey, easy, Matilda. Tapioca. I thought we were talking here.”

“Sorry, Taylor. I couldn’t resist. OK, I’ll bite. If dating in modern life is a big hypocritical fraud, what should it be like? How would you prefer it, Taylor? What do you want instead?” 

“Romeo and Juliet. I want it to be like Romeo and Juliet.”

“OK, I did not see that one coming. Tell me more.”

“One look. That’s all it took. With one honest naked look, two strangers were electrified, entranced, drawn to each other with a force impossible to resist. One conversation, one kiss, and they were both ready to throw away everything for each other. Not in the name of capital L love but their own unique and special love. That’s what I want. Something special. Something exceptional. Something outside the narrative of the species.” 

“It sounds like you want the goodies, without any of the work.”

“What?”

“You do realize that the play is written by a man, right, and originally performed by men. Even Juliet. All the women were played by men. I’d bet there wasn’t a single woman anywhere near the writing and production of that play.” 

“Why is that important?”

Romeo and Juliet is a male fantasy. Romantic love, the kind of love you want, the kind memorialized in Romeo and Juliet, it’s a low cost way to get into a girl’s pants. That’s all. It’s the currency that allows an otherwise unsuitable suitor to bypass the scrutiny of friends and family. Romantic love, it’s not so different from what you and I have. Only in our case, when this relationship ends, I will have something to show for it.” 

“Grad student!”

“What?”

“Better still, underpaid and underappreciated associate professor of gender studies. Prostitution, for you, isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a blow against patriarchy. Was that a flicker of recognition in your eye? I’m right! Or close enough, anyway. I shall call you Judith or Luce! Really, it could go either way. Am I right, Judith? Luce?

“You’re a dirt bag, Taylor.” She laughs and her smile is broad. “Truly. I mean it. Truly.”

“My dear, Judith, you get what you pay for, and, the last time I checked, you haven’t paid one thin dime.”

*

“How do you think you will remember me?” 

“What do you mean?”

“This can’t go on forever. It has to end.”

“Maybe not. So long as I have money. My job is secure. I have a good pension. Technically, our little arrangement could go on forever. I could be your retirement fund.”

“It has to end. It will end.”

“OK. Images. Scenes. That sort of thing.”

“What?”

“That’s how I will remember you. Images. Scenes. Tableau vivant. I can’t really remember any of the conversations I’ve had with any of my ex-girlfriends, which is weird, when you think about it, because so much of any relationship is the talking, the fights, the bids for attention, the blocks, but I don’t remember any of that. I remember a lot of the conversations I should have had, that I would have liked to have had. I rehearse those all the time. Over and over again. But the actual conversations. Almost nothing. Except for some of the hurtful stuff. Instead, I have images. Moments. Scenes. Sexy scenes mostly but tableaus of affection as well. It’s like a highlight reel. I play it over and over again.”

“You should have plenty of sexy memories to add to the highlight reel now.”

“There’ve been a few tableaus as well.” 

“I’m not your girlfriend, Taylor.”

“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry. You’ve been very disciplined, very professional. You’ve pulled back in all the right places, but it’s impossible for you to know all the places where they might happen. The tableaus. You don’t know me. Like, for example, there was this one time, when I met you on the street downstairs because I was running late. I think I caught you by surprise, before you were completely into character. You hadn’t put your game face on yet and, then, the real you — or as close to the real you as I will ever see — saw me, recognized me, and smiled in a way that I knew — I really believed — you were happy to see me. For one moment, we were real people happy to see each other. It probably meant nothing to you. You probably didn’t even notice it, but it meant everything to me. I will remember that moment to the day I die, whatever else happens to us. There are other moments like that. Lots of them. Between us. You can’t guard against all of them. You can’t avoid them all. You don’t know me well enough to do that.”

“I’m not your girlfriend, Taylor. I will never be your girlfriend. I can’t be.”   

“I get it, I got it, but you don’t get to control my highlight reel. That’s mine and mine alone. When this is over, I get to tell myself whatever story I want to tell.” 

*

“Hey, T, can you do me a favor? I’m going to wear that business outfit that you like on Thursday. I dropped it off at the cleaners downstairs on the way here yesterday. Could you pick it up for me? I’m going to be in a rush on Thursday, and it will really really really help me get here on time, if you can pick it up for me.”

“Sure thing, leave the receipt or tag or whatever by the door. Hey, don’t forget your money.” 

Our lady stops, almost frozen. She is stunned. She almost left without taking the money. It’s the first time in months that they have mentioned the cash at the heart of their transaction. Normally, our man leaves it somewhere where she can easily find it. Normally, she squirrels it away without fuss or acknowledgement. It’s a habit they developed almost unconsciously, by silent and unspoken agreement. And, now, she has broken that agreement. She forgot the money, the security blanket, the raison d’être, the fundamental element of their relationship. The grounds, the being, the everything. All of what they are. Our lady turns to our man, and he is holding the money out to her. It seems, at first, like a thoughtful gesture, but the illusion of courtesy wavers like a curtain, revealing in glimpses what it hides. There is, in his outstretched arm, a sense of pleading. Almost a demand. It is a courtesy that pleads. Our lady, she answers both calls, instinctively, almost out of habit, and reaches for the money. Once more, we are reminded of time. How fleeting it is. How everlasting. How encompassing. We are awash in time, as it disappears into its own sluggish heart refusing to birth its pregnant beat. As she is about to take the money, as she and he are about to become one figure once more, held together by the money, she stops, and everything stops with her — time and all. Instead of hitting and birthing the pregnant beat, the heart of time skips and fractures its tectonic plates, which had been slowly and unknowingly and unwittingly fusing into one continental crash. 

She revolts. She refuses to complete the figure. 

Our lady steps back from the blessed unity of their oneness under money, and she turns to go, but she stops at the threshold of the door. She turns back to look at our man, in a new light, a first light, and a final light. He has already discretely squirreled away the money, a concession to discretion and the ceremony that is already underway. 

Our man seems smaller now that the preconceptions of their transaction have been stripped away. Boyish almost. Shy. Like he might bolt at any moment. Perhaps, if there was room to bolt in this tiny studio condo, which now seems small, cramped, cluttered, he might have already done so. Not a word is spoken. She motions and he scurries like a child into her embrace, which is fiercely and palpably gentle. It radiates. It glows. It fills the whole condo. The whole space. Everywhere. We can almost feel our man’s ache, his throbbing need, his misspent love.

Our lady turns swiftly, dropping words behind her as she goes. “See ya when I see ya.”

There is a moment of stillness. 

The rain! Remember the rain? The light steady patter of rain? Pattering away throughout, in the background of our little story. Now the rain, it fucking pours. And pours. And pours. And pours. And it pours some more. When you think it can’t pour any more, it pours some fucking more. Thunderously. Cacophonously. Invisibly. All you can hear and feel is the rain. And even though we have agreed only to pretend, all of a sudden, you get the feeling that you are getting wet. It’s getting into your socks. Your underwear. You’re sitting in a pool of warm rising water. It’s lapping at your chest. It’s everywhere you can imagine. And, now, it is only in this moment, when you feel inexplicably drenched, soaked to your core, that you realize our lady never once appeared to be wet, never once had a drop of rain on her coat or ever had her hair frizzled from the humidity. Through all these days and nights of endless rain, if we are to suspend our disbelief, it’s as if not a single drop ever reached her. Not a one. Not a single one. 

*

Our man sits in his chair. He has a letter in his hand and a hastily torn envelope in his lap. The rain has finally stopped. We imagine our lady in the nowhere land of a spotlight.

“Do you remember that game we used to play, Taylor, when you’d try to guess who I was? I think now I was all those things you imagined — not women but things — because I was always and only a figment of your imagination, a black box for the theater of your mind. Our entire transaction, Taylor, was a one-man show. Your one-man show. I played the part, happily and safely, sure that you could never reach me through the thick warm protection of my performance. I don’t want to play that part anymore, Taylor. I don’t need to hide behind a performance anymore. And neither do you. If we ever do run into each other again, Taylor, please know that I won’t recognize you or even remember your name. It may seem cruel, but it’s only right. I was never any of those things you saw me as. I was never any of the women you named. I was all of them and none of them. I was nothing. An illusion. And, if I was an illusion, Taylor, then so were you. So were you. All the best —”

And she — now our former lady — writes her name, which our man articulates quietly to himself, letting it whisper across his lips. Only the first name, of course, but it is a name real enough that our man feels that it is not one more part of his fantasy. She — and I won’t be so crass as to share her true name — has let this tiny bit of her reality, this tiny drop of light into his walled world. And, like mustard seeds everywhere, it might yet bloom. 

We leave it to our man — still our man — to deliver one more and final line. To him, we will give the final line of our story because you, dear reader, probably still think he is the person with whom we are most concerned. You are wrong. The bounds of this story have been — and always will be — the theater of your own mind. 

“I need to move,” he says. “It’s time for me to find a new home.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.