Are your parents proud of you?"
It is dark and quiet in his bedroom and he takes a minute
to answer. I hear him breathe, feel the mattress give underneath him as
he turns toward me. He says, "Yeah. Sometimes."
I am lying on my side with my back to him, staring straight
ahead into his closet. His shirts hang there in a uniformity that
surprises me here in this apartment, in this life of his that otherwise
seems to languish in disorder.
"They wish I'd get a job more like their jobs,"
I know what he means, though I don't know what his parents
do. He plays the bass, writes music, bags groceries at an organic market
in the West Village and, though this work eats sixteen hours of his day,
it is not enough.
I have an office and a secretary, clients who respect me
and a boss who tells me I make him look good. I make more money than my
mother ever has, take vacations to places she's never been, and this is
not enough, either.
My right arm dangles over the side of his mattress and my
fingers toy with the soft cotton underpants pulled from his body in
moments not long past.
"You are lovely," he whispers now, as he did when
our friend Sophie first left us alone at the table furthest from the
"Lovely?" I'd asked then, smiling down into the
melting ice of my fourth gin and tonic. "Is that all?"
He'd looked away from me as he brought a bottle of beer to
his lips and said, "For some girls, lovely is enough."
It was past closing and there were fewer than a dozen of us
left in the bar. The staff and our friends were winding down all around
us, stripping away their stiff, nighttime personas to relax in the
comfort of their own personalities.
But not us, not yet. He said, "I think I should take
you to dinner sometime."
He seemed braced for whatever small rejection might come
next. And for a moment I thought of all the reasons I might say no: an
inner incompatibility that would not be long assuaged by a mutual liking
of Nina Simone, or by childhood memories set along the same strip of
Maine's coastline; of the moment sure to come at the end of the dinner
he proposed when my credit card would be the obvious choice. But there,
at the end of a not-very-good day, was a man who called me 'lovely'.
I said 'yes' to dinner.
"And what about now?" he asked, emboldened by
early success. He motioned toward the bar and our friends with a flick
of his shaved head. "We could go someplace… quieter."
He was asking me back to his apartment. I knew that
accepting this invitation meant refusing the invitation to dinner. By
going home with him, I agreed that we would not have a relationship full
of walks in the rain and grocery shopping, fraught with expectation and
hard feelings. Going home with him meant we would have a dynamic, an
arrangement, a scenario, at best.
"I don't know," I said. I had not anticipated
this when Sophie invited me out to hear the band play. I'd showered and
left my dark hair curly, slipped into a pair of gray cotton panties and
shapeless jeans, expecting a couple hours of semi-rowdy fun with a crowd
I hardly knew.
He looked over his shoulder at the bar, saw our friends
busy in conversation, and leaned across the table. He touched his lips
to mine in a plush, wet kiss that made my heels dig into the floor,
ing for solid footing. He whispered, "You do know."
I knew that I liked the way he looked, that I liked the way
his faded t-shirt clung to his shoulders and upper arms. I liked the way
he moved and the way he moved in on me.
He went to collect his bass, an upright clothed in a
space-age suit, while I went to kiss Sophie goodnight. I caught his eye
as I headed for the door and watched his pace slow, a silent agreement
that our exits should be staggered by as many minutes as possible.
When I pushed into the cool, late-night air a taxi slowed,
its driver gauging my interest. I considered getting in, naming my own
corner and speeding away. I could go home, get back to my quiet, ordered
life and never blush when Sophie mentioned his name. Instead, I asked
the driver to open the trunk.
"Perfect timing," he said, leaning the bass
against the side of the cab while expertly lifting the amplifier into
the trunk. He nodded toward the backseat and said, "You first. The
bass will sit on our laps."
I moved across the seat and he slid the bass and himself in
after me. He spoke over the instrument to give the driver his address,
then sat back with a loud, dissatisfied groan that I knew had nothing to
do with me.
The cab turned right on Canal, headed for the East Side,
and he maneuvered around the bass to put an arm around my shoulders, to
pull me into the calm inlet of his body.
I let my eyelids flutter closed and was caught, then, in a
place somewhere between memory and dream. I was floating on my back in
tranquil waters on a sunny day. There was a body there, too, on my
right, her eyes shut, her hands supine, spread outward from her body. My
mother exhaled in a melodic, telling sigh, and I felt my face pour into
the widening gap of a guileless, unplanned smile. She and I were
enjoying a rare slice of peace, a moment spent without expectation. My
mother and I drifted in quiet certainty, in ripe acceptance of each
other and whatever the sea might bring.
His lips were moving against the top of my head when he
brought me back. He was saying, "We're almost home."
"Did I sleep?" I asked, though it seemed unlikely
in the back of a taxi with an upright bass pinning me to my seat. Still,
I could not account for the thirty blocks between the bar and East
Twelfth Street, and the soothing lap of waves that still echoed in my
The taxi stopped in front of his building and I fumbled
over the bills we owed the driver while he played out the choreography
of maneuvering his equipment out of the cab and into the building. When
we arrived on the fifth floor he unlocked his door and we were welcomed
by a nightlight that covered the familiar shapes of a kitchen in a soft
He released the bass and amplifier into an alcove behind a
small, scarred table, and asked in a hushed tone, "Can I get you
I shook my head 'no' and he led me through the kitchen and
down the hallway, past his roommates' closed doors to his bedroom at the
far end of the hall.
His bed was unmade, sheet music and coins were scattered on
top of a cheap chest of drawers, and piles of discarded clothes lay
across the hardwood floor. He kicked off his battered Doc Martens and
stood on the mattress in order to raise the blinds over his single
window to let in a nick of moonlight. I let my purse and jacket fall
someplace near my feet, but otherwise stood still, two steps inside the
room, and watched him move around me, pushing piles of clothes away from
me, then closing his door with a hard-worn click.
"What a shitty day," he said, more to himself
than to me. He rubbed a flat palm against the length of my back. He put
his arms around me and drew me into a hug, seemingly heartfelt and
healthy. Without his shoes he was only a few inches taller than I, and
I turned my head into his neck and breathed deeply, taking
in the Mick Jagger smell of him, all residual sweat and cigarette smoke.
He said, "Do you know how sexy you are?"
This was how it would begin. There would be guttural
compliments, rough, impatient kisses, then his hand, unstoppable and
uncaring, in my pants.
"I watched you come in and sit with Sophie," he
said. "I got so hard just watching you take off your jacket."
I pulled my body away from his, uncertain if I'd be able to
listen to all he might say. It was not too late, then. I might have held
him off with fast-spoken apologies before hurrying out of the apartment,
down all five flights of stairs, to feel freedom in the first waft of
the night's air on my face.
He took advantage of the space between us to begin his
assault on my mouth, so coarse, so rash, that I began to kiss him back,
just to slow him down.
He moved us toward the mattress and I fell backward onto
it, my legs angled so my polished oxfords hung politely over the side.
He looked at me in a new way. It was an evaluation, I was
sure, crass and comprehensive now in a way his first glances at me were
not. He was looking at my body sprawled on his bed and certainly
enumerating all the ways he might fuck me.
"Look at you," he said, dropping to his knees at
the side of the mattress to run a flat hand from my thigh up over the
fly of my jeans, past my belt buckle, up the placket of buttons on my
shirt to cup my left breast in his hand.
It was too late to run now. So I propped myself up on one
elbow, moving closer to the kiss I felt sure would crack open a bout of
pounding, of squeezing and taking. I offered myself with a small nod,
sure he would move fast, working clumsy fingers at my belt to push my
jeans down to my ankles, to push himself into me.
But he didn't. He sat at the foot of the bed, brought my
feet into his lap and unlaced first one of my shoes, then the next. His
eyes met mine, his face full of something near tenderness, and while he
pulled off my oxfords and set them on the floor I began working at the
buttons of my own shirt.
The sex came slowly. Bumpy and unfamiliar, but kind.
He is kissing me, now, just underneath my ear, his body
curved around mine. And he asks, "What about your parents?"
"It's just my mom," I say. My father hollered and
hit and has been gone so long that I don't think of him as a parent. He
is a man we once knew. "It shouldn't matter."
"What?" he asks. "Her approval?"
I move my head against his pillow in what I hope he will
take as a 'yes'.
I don't tell him that I have long since given up on
attaining my mother's approval. It is a feat I will never achieve, that
I have half-convinced myself is unnecessary, even irrelevant. And while
I know the totality of my life is unacceptable to her, I continue to
hope she feels an inkling of parental pride in something I am, in just
one thing that I do.
It will not be this, I know; it will not be pride that I am
lying with a man I hardly know on a single mattress tucked into the
corner of a tiny room. It will not be pride that I will face his
roommates in the morning, hungover and swollen, but unblinking. She
wants more for me than this, than him, than a solitary, early morning
taxi ride in last night's clothes. And that is why I feel like less, in
these moments between motion and sleep.
He is moving, tugging at covers, and then I feel him
pressing himself against my backside, pulling the thin sheet over the
curve of my shoulder and touching a scratchy kiss just above my temple.
He has faced disappointment today at the hands of a music
industry executive, has assigned and been assigned blame by the men in
his band. He has checked aisle six for the price of hearts-of-palm,
played two sets for a disinterested crowd packed into a filthy bar, and
he has complimented and cajoled me away from our mutual friends and back
to his bed.
My day was marginally softer, all mislaid files and
misunderstandings among people who now think a little less of me. It was
one more day in a lifetime full of whole-milk yogurt and Egyptian
cotton, of hurried, unhappy phone calls with friends and the gentle
demands of a post-abusive family. It was one day not unlike a hundred
others, cluttered with bright bubbles of self-importance, alight with
the glare of self-pity.
I close my eyes, eager to sink into sleep, to feel my
mother nearby and quiet waters beneath me again. And just as I am set
adrift, I hear him ask, "Pancakes or eggs?"
"Hmm?" I turn my head, away from his closet, away
from the door, to look at him.
And though the first light of morning is already staining
the world outside his window, he says, "In the morning. Do you want
pancakes or eggs?" End