They met on the third day of the Marriage Reconciliation Boot Camp, by the dumpsters where people smoked forbidden cigarettes, and it was love at first sight.
“I hate this place,” he said.
“Travers Houghton. What a miserable prick.”
“And he’s fat. If he wants to convince me he knows the secret of life he should skip a few meals.” She blew out a tight cone of smoke.
“My wife made me come.”
She smiled at that. “Sounds like grounds for divorce, right there. Intolerable cruelty. Irreconcilable differences. Or whatever.”
“She’s having second thoughts, believe me.”
“Does she know you’re smoking?”
“I was going to bring mouthwash but we never kiss anyway.”
“Which is all supposed to change now,” she said.
He looked across the half empty parking lot to the woods. “I wonder what the statistics are, at this place. I mean, does this shit ever help anyone?”
“I don’t know. Now you’ve got me thinking about divorce. That would be a quick fix. Half of what we’ve got would set me up for life.”
“That’s the difference – you’d be getting half. I’d be losing half.”
She shrugged. “So what? You’ve got your share and you’re out.”
They smoked in silence for a few moments. Rain clouds were piling up at the northern edge of the sky. No spousal intimacy bag races today.
“So,” she said, dropping the last of her American spirit and stepping on the butt, “When was the last time you got laid?”
“Do infidelities count?”
“You’re telling me you cheated on your wife?’”
“Don’t you believe it?”
“You’re not the type.”
“Hey -- I take that as an insult.”
“Sorry, but it’s true. You would have made a move already.”
“Because you’re so attractive?”
“Because that’s what you’d do. People like you. Players.”
“Which I’m not.”
“It’s charming. It’s intriguing.”
“My aura of smug virtue doesn’t put you off?”
She laughed. “You’re not virtuous. You’re not even faithful, not really. Except by default. If An attractive woman came on to you that would be it, buddy. You’d be gone. One kiss and out. You’ve been standing on the brink for years.”
He dropped his own cigarette, crushed it with the toe of his shoe. He stared at her.
She took two steps and kissed him, mouth open, arms twined around his back. He fell into the kiss as he remembered falling into swimming pools on hot summer days when he was a kid: the bliss of submission, the thrill of immersion, the soundless splash into enclosing silence.
Finally he had to come up for a breath.
“I want to go somewhere and fuck you,” he said.
She smiled. “Pushover. I knew it.”
They wound up in an empty room on the third floor of an unused dormitory. The college rented out the campus during the summer to organizations like Travers Houghton’s Boot Camp. The bed was just a bare mattress on a plank. They didn’t care. They had no idea how long the Testimonial Assembly was going to last and they didn’t care about that either. As long as couples wanted to stand up and ‘speak their hearts’ to the crowd, they were safe. It could take all day.
Both of them were sure they wouldn’t be missed – especially by their spouses. This place made you glad for a few minutes to yourself – like trying to cure claustrophobia by trapping you in a stalled elevator.
After the first frenzied missionary style slam she rolled over and said “What does your wife refuse to do?”
He laughed. “We just did it.”
“She must have been willing to fuck you at some point. Did she give you blow jobs?”
“Yeah – no, not really. Sort of.”
“How do you sort of give a blow job?”
He propped himself up on an elbow, turned on his side to face her. She was alert, bright-eyed, gorgeous. And impossibly, supernaturally easy to talk to.
“She treated it like Mount Saint Helens. An interesting spot to visit, but make sure you get the hell away it before it goes off.”
“Oh. The blow job that turns into a hand job.”
He took a deep breath and nodded – more with his eye-brows than his chin, which was resting on his palm. “I only had one real blow job – some one night stand just before the girl got married. Those were my favorite one-night stands back in the day. No loose ends, no hurt feelings. You get to be the last fling. Anyway. She kept sucking as I came, harder even. Is this too …”
“No, no, I’m fascinated. Nobody tells us this stuff.”
“Well … they always talk about swallowing, as if that was some big deal all by itself, or some Male power trip or something. Turns out swallowing is incidental. If you’re sucking that hard you can’t help swallowing. And for the guy … the whole feeling is so much more intense. It’s insane, it’s like she was pulling my balls out through my dick, just convulsively draining everything and – I don’t know. I never tried to describe this before. It’s like crack, except I never tried crack. It’s what you hope crack would be like, what it ought to be like since people get so fucked up on it all the time. But I only had one time. That girl got married the next day and I never got a real blow job again.”
“Are you serious?”
She slid down the bed. “It’s worth a try.”
“But what can I do for you? What won’t your husband do?”
“Well … you could take me to a Sandra Bullock movie.”
He laughed. “You drive a hard bargain.”
She paused. “But you promise”
“Anything. A double feature.”
“All About Steve? Miss Congeniality?”
“And Miss Congeniality 2 -- a triple feature, Ok? I’m begging you now.”
“You really are. And for some reason I find that incredibly sexy.”
So she slipped the rest of the way down and gave him the totally committed blow job he’d been longing for since he was twenty-two years old and it was everything he remembered and more and when they slipped back into the auditorium each of them stood up and gave heartfelt declarations of love for their spouses and they were so convincing the other couples gave them standing ovations.
The rest of the week was all sex and subterfuge: slipping out of bed when everyone else was asleep and making love on the lawn of the big quadrangle, pleading illness or (best of all) a headache for a secret rendezvous on the bird watching path behind the Chapel.
Once they walked down the steep hill into town and ate an illicit lunch at the bad Mexican restaurant on Main Street, drinking 2-for-1 margaritas and ducking their heads when anyone they knew passed the big picture window.
“So what went wrong?” She asked him, over the second slug of crushed ice lime juice and tequila. He pushed his cooling enchilada across his plate. “I haven’t been able to give her the life she expected. She doesn’t get to live in the manner she wanted to become accustomed to. Like they say in celebrity divorces. When the woman is trying to explain why she needs ten thousand dollars worth of cut flowers every day.”
“So it’s just money?”
“It’s money and couches and new cars and a bigger condo and the freedom to travel, and no stress about her spending habits. I was supposed to take the price tags off the world for her.”
“So all you need to do is win the lottery.”
“Until she spends it all. And believe me, she can spend.”
“It’s just the opposite for me,” she said. “I just wish he could do what he wants. Really paint for a while try to get a gallery. Instead of the crap he does. Story boards. Free-lance art directing for d-list agencies. Drawing dancing teddy bears from some peanut butter account. They’re all going to cgi now, anyway. And he can’t even open his own e-mail.”
“So tell him to bail.”
“I’ve tried. He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t get it.”
“That’s why you’re here. Talk to him.”
“And say what?”
“Say – I don’t know. You want him to be better. Be all that he can be, that’s appropriate for boot camp. An army of one.”
“What a weird ad campaign. I was hoping for an army of two.”
“Whatever. You want him to be happy. Tell him that.”
“Or I could just send a Hallmark card.”
“I like mixing them up – sending a nice condolence card when people get married.”
She laughed. “Or a get well soon when they start a new job.”
“That’s the idea.”
“He never even tries to make love any more.”
“Maybe he’s given up. Seduce him. I know you can do it.”
She smiled. “Maybe all it takes is one good blow job.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
In between their assignations they duly played all the role-playing games and the touching games and the confessional games; they allowed themselves to be video-taped and sleep-deprived. They stripped naked in front of stranger and cried in front of stranger and confessed their sins and everyone forgave everyone else and said the worst thing they could think of and shared their most bitter regrets and most shameful secrets and then everyone got one good night’s sleep and they were on their way back home.
He met her on the steps of Dewey Hall. For a moment they were alone. No one was watching them. He set his suitcase down.
“Well, this is it,” he said.
“You’re my last fling and I’m off to get married?”
“Or vice versa.”
“What a shame.”
“I don’t know. It was a tough week but I think it worked.”
“Did you fall in love with your wife again?”
“Did you fall in love with your husband?”
They both nodded, smiling.
“So the role playing worked,” she said.
“Just like Bev and Marty said it would.”
“—as long as we threw ourselves into it.”
‘”Yeah. That’s what they said.”
“I hate admitting they were right.”
Travers Houghton strode past and lifted one fist, his signature greeting. They returned the salute.
“Because he really is such a pompous asshole.”
“A rich pompous asshole. Thriving by word of mouth.”
“So we do have to tell them.”
“I guess. But first I want another sublime blow job or two.”
“And we’re going to have the complete oeuvre of Sandra Bullock on our netflicks queue.”
He bowed his head, nodding in mock defeat.
When he looked up she was smiling. “You’ll do some real painting, too, won’t you, Mike? I’ll model for you. Any pose you want.”
He pulled her to him and kissed her.
“I feel like marrying you right here and now. Houghton is an ordained minister.”
She put a finger to his lips, shook her head.
“Been there, done that,” she said.
Then she picked up her bag, took his hand and started lightly down the steps to their car.
Eleanor could see immediately that it was impossible. The box spring was not going to fit up the stairs. It was a queen size and it was just too big. She had an excellent sense of spatial relations, which generally annoyed people. She could fill grocery bags or moving vans with the same gratuitous perfection, fitting an end table or a box of pancake mix into the last little jig saw gap that no one cared about but her. It was the same with parking. She had a trivial genius for it that made David crazy. Whenever she tried to help him, he would turn icy and polite. Finally he’d say, “You do it then” and get out of the car. So she did it, but he never paid attention and he never improved. To learn something from her would be a defeat. Blaming her was better. Anything unpleasant made more sense to David if it was someone’s fault. She thought about those primitive tribes she had read about in Sociology class at college, where the king was celebrated if the crops were good, and killed when the crops were bad. That was David’s kind of world.
“I’m sure we can do this,” he was saying now, squinting up the stairs in the dim hallway light. It was a brilliant, sparkling early November afternoon outside. But not in here. The stuffy, overheated passageway felt like midnight in August. Eleanor yawned. The two moving men shifted from foot to foot awaiting orders.
“It’s not going to fit, David,” she said again.
He stared at her in the gloom. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “All we have to do is get it up to that first landing. Then we can flatten it out so it goes over the banister and just swing it around. What do you say, guys?”
The moving man, who seemed to be in charge, his name was Ted, nodded.
“Worth a try,” he said.
So they tried it. Eleanor could tell the corner of the box spring was going to snag on the bottom edge of the next landing, but she said nothing. Ten minutes later she was wedged against the wall with the plastic corner guard of the box spring pushing into her solar plexus. She could scarcely breathe and she could feel an asthma attack coming on. The hall was very musty.
“Just lift your corner!” David was yelling at the other moving man. ‘It’s gotta go higher!”
“It won’t go any higher, David,” Eleanor said quietly. “It’s stuck.”
He made them try again anyway, but the cumbersome piece of furniture was simply too wide for the gap between the upper landing and the wall.
“David,” she began again.
“Fine! You win. Take it down, guys.”
They eased the box spring down the stairs and stood panting in the corridor.
“If we could just get rid of this banister,” David said. He sounded serious.
“We can’t do that, David. It’s not our house.”
“Obviously. I’m just saying -- wait a second. Okay, I’ve got it. What we have to do is -- we have to take it up vertically. What d’ya say guys? You think that would work? We just walk it straight up the stairs. It should go around that corner no problem.”
Why couldn’t he see that it was too tall? It seemed so obvious.
“Maybe we should measure first,” Eleanor suggested.
“No need to. I can tell it’s gonna work. Just look at it. We’re golden!”
That was one of David’s favorite phrases. He had gotten it from some old movie. It sounded tinny and false, particularly now, when his plan wasn’t going to work and they weren’t golden at all. She tried to think of a mineral depressing enough to describe this moment. Bauxite, perhaps. “We’re bauxite!” had a certain ring to it.
“C’mon,” he was saying to the moving men. Let’s give it a shot.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Driscoll.”
So they tried it. But there wasn’t enough clearance and the bed got stuck on the lower edge of the next landing. They tilted it, but it hit the spindles of the railing and blocked the stairs diagonally. It was jammed there and it took fifteen minutes to get it back down.
Eleanor was exhausted.
“This isn’t going to work,” she said.
“Yes it is. We’re going to make it work and I’m counting on you to help.”
“But, David – “
“I’m so goddamn sick of your constant negativity! All you see is the problem. That’s the difference between us, Ellie. I see solutions. I solve problems. You just make them worse.”
Ted glanced at her – a small, sympathetic shrug. She would have thanked him but she despised the way David said “Thank you!” when someone agreed with him, as if he had finally found an ally in a world of idiots.
“So it’s my fault that the bed is too big for the stairs?”
“That’s not the point. The point is that winners keep looking for a solution when the losers give up.”
“David. It’s not a question of attitude or opinion. The bed won’t fit. It’s a fact. Don’t take my word for it. Measure it yourself.”
She recalled the day last spring when they had gone to see Dr. Abromowitz -- standing on the street outside his office, arguing. David had wanted a second opinion; this was it. Medical evidence proved the problem had nothing to do with her. He couldn’t believe it. He wanted a third opinion. “These guys are all friends, they all went to medical school together, they’re not going to make themselves look bad. They’re in cahoots with each other!”
She couldn’t help it – she’d started laughing. “Cahoots? What are you talking about? No one uses that word. No one knows what it means. What is a cahoot, anyway?”
He had turned sulky. He never liked her jokes. “I don’t know,” he had muttered. “But they’re in on it. All of them.”
It was just like architecture school. She had taken two jobs so that he could give up contracting and do his graduate work. But she had never much liked the buildings he designed. So she was ‘unsupportive’ and ‘cold’. He had abruptly decided to study engineering instead but he eventually dropped out of that program. Now she was still working two jobs and he was writing a book on twentieth century urban planning. “The big picture of how a complex, heterogeneous city fits together,” was the way he’d described the project to her.
Urban planning. She had to laugh -- he couldn’t even organize a box spring on a stairway.
“What’s so funny?,” he said.
She glanced up at him, red-faced and sweaty in his Red Sox t-shirt, leaning against the jammed box spring.
“I’m going outside for a few minutes,” she told him. “I need some air.”
“Don’t take too long. We’re gonna try to bring it in through the basement and up the back stairs.”
The back stairs were even tighter than the front ones. It was as if he was suggesting they put a piano into his Volkswagen bug. She didn’t say anything. She was tired of ruining his day.
Outside it was bright and windy and cold. There was a tang of wood smoke on the air. There was traffic. People were busy. She walked toward the corner enjoying the captured moment of solitude. It was the way she felt sitting on the toilet seat sometimes, taking five minutes off from her life; the sad sanctuary of a closed door. David never followed her into the bathroom.
She stuck her hands in her pockets and wished she’d grabbed her coat. She winced in the sunlight. The frigid glare was merciless. It was noon and there were no shadows anywhere.
A line of cars was waiting at the red light. When she got to the corner she heard the woman and her elderly father in the first car arguing.
“ -- I’ve made the appointment and you have to go,” the woman was saying.
“It’s out of the question.”
“You’re sick. You need medicine. You need a doctor to write the prescription. I don’t see why you –- “
“They’re all quacks! I’ve never trusted any of ‘em. When I was discharged from the United States army in 1965 some pill pusher told me to stop smoking.”
“He was right.”
“The hell with him.”
“Doctor Braden thinks you should stop smoking, too, Dad. He’s told you over and over that you –- “
“I’m seventy-two years old and he can kiss my ass.”
“Dad – “
“You’re on his side, Debs. You’re all in cahoots with each other. You and that doctor and those bastards at the VA hospital and that insurance vulture, and that bastard from Mass Health and all the rest of em. Why can’t you just leave an old man alone?”
Eleanor smiled. She had an urge to walk over and interrupt their argument. Maybe this old guy knew what a cahoot was. And she really wanted to know.
The old man finished his cigarette, flicked it into the street and rolled up his window. Eleanor couldn’t hear them anymore but the light had changed anyway. The car stalled and the woman couldn’t get it started again. People started honking. It revved and revved and shuddered to silence; then again. Eleanor thought – she’s going to flood it. Then it happened. The car wouldn’t turn over. It just wheezed into silence. There was more honking now. Someone tried to cut around the line of cars and almost had a head-on collision.
The side door opened and the old man climbed out, slamming it behind him. He was heavy set in a blue suit. He had a full head of hair but it was silver. His nose looked like it had been broken and his face had the lop-sided look of a recovered stroke victim. He stumbled at the curb and someone tried to help him. He slapped the woman away just as his daughter climbed out of the car. She was overweight also, in unflattering slacks and a gray cardigan.
“Dad -- !”
“But you can’t -- the Doctor said -- Dad -- !”
He turned away. She shut her door came around the front of the car to follow him. The light was still green. The blaring of horns was continuous now. The noise stopped her. She was poised for a moment between her father’s vanishing back and her empty car. She took a few more steps.
“Dad -- ?”
But he was out of ear shot.
She walked back to the car. She tried both doors but she had locked herself out. It was an older model Buick. You couldn’t lock the driver side door without the key on the newer models. But that didn’t do her much good. She yanked on the door and screamed “Shit shit shit shit SHIT.” She started pounding on the roof of the car, and finally she just put her head in her arms across it. The light turned red.
Eleanor stared at the scene. She had to wonder -- how many times had this woman’s Dad done this to her? Browbeating her in some argument when she was trying to help him and then leaving her to fend for herself. The locked car, the traffic -- it was a perfect little metaphor. But of course she couldn’t see it. People just didn’t.
Eleanor glanced at her watch. She had been gone almost ten minutes. David would assume she’d been smoking, though she hadn’t. If there was ever a perfect time for a cigarette, she thought ruefully. She considered going back, but the thought of starting another round of that same insane argument, one she was bound to lose even with the laws of physics on her side, made her stop in the middle of the sidewalk, as if she’d forgotten something.
Maybe it was something trivial, like an address scribbled on an envelope; maybe it was something huge, like some basic concept of human volition, or the simple proprietorship of her own life. Maybe it was something as small as the wind-snap appreciation for the force of found metaphors. The breeze stiffened, blowing the hair off her face, beating her shirt like a flag.
She took a step off the curb, walked around the car, touched the woman’s shoulder as another round of honking started up.
“Ma’m? Excuse me?”
She woman twisted around, looked up at Eleanor, wild-eyed. “What?”
“Do you belong the Automobile Club? Because – I mean …I have a card. We could call them. They could get your door open.”
More cars were pulling around them. The stalled Buick was becoming part of the landscape now.
“I don’t – I can’t –“
“It’s okay, I’ll call them. I’ll write the identification number down and you just give it to them when they come. All right?”
“Yes, okay …I --that would be … thank you …”
Eleanor called, set up the appointment and impulsively gave the woman her card, in case the AAA guy wanted to see it, along with her business card, so the woman could have the address, to send it back. It was smart nice trusting thing to do but most of all, best of all, it was something David would never have done, not in a million years. She could just hear his snide stupid comment: “Kiss that card goodbye,” something like that.
Eleanor felt a quick surge affection for the woman’s stubborn old dad, stumping away down the street, ignoring everyone. She could do the same. She could just walk away. Would it look weak? Would it look like quitting? Did she really care how it looked, what David would say, the little dismissive cough David’s father would make when he heard the news, the sigh of vindicated contempt from David’s mother? It wasn’t like she was ever going to win them over anyway. Maybe with a grandson. She shuddered at the thought: David barking instructions during the labor, maneuvering the baby down the birth canal.
She thought about his apartment – their apartment. What did she have there? Clothes, but she could come back for them, Books, but he could keep them. Those lovely Calphalon sauce pans. Her files were at her office, and so was her laptop; she’d been working late the last few weeks. There was her Lexmark printer; and she’d paid for the Ikea couch in the living room. But that was all: nothing she really cared about, nothing essential, just a lot of junk, just – accumulation.
She took out a cigarette, lit it and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. Then she turned and started walking, away from the cramped stairwell and the jammed box-spring and her waiting fiancée, into the sharp autumn morning and the bright conspiratorial streets of Boston, never once looking back.