NOVEL EXCERPT: from WHO HOPES AND ENDURES AND IS PATIENT

The next next Saturday I rode the bus to Watertown Square and took the trolley to Newton Corner. A few blocks from there I paused on the sidewalk of a tree-lined street with sedans and station wagons parked on both sides and shadows stretching across the small plots of grass and picket fences and asphalt driveways. It was the kind of neighborhood I’d grown up in, generally bland and lacking elegance, normal in the sense that it’d always been a place where wage earners and their families had lived. I stood there with my hands in the pockets of the washed-out olive khakis I’d decided on after a few tries, staring up at the second floor of a well-kept four family home. The apartment I was looking for was to the left, I knew from Dorothy, and as I was checking out the four windows with the white curtains to see if anyone might be in them, a sudden, nauseating anticipation struck me like a punch in the gut, which might otherwise be described as a case of cold feet. It was possible I might have turned tail and got my butt out of there and headed back to the safety of a Greek salad and The Times at Java House, but in the next moment a pretty face presented itself in one of the windows and there was no going back from there.

“You must be Bobby.”

“You must be clairvoyant.”

“Just a sec, I’ll buzz you up. Dorothy’s still getting ready.”

I don’t want to exaggerate my reaction to having to sit with the roommates while Dorothy finished drying herself after a shower and then got dressed. I will say it was unexpected, more than a little annoying to have to answer questions for an age group I thought I’d passed through quite a few years earlier, that shot me back to those Saturday nights in high school when mothers and fathers would meet me at the door like Praetorian guards and we’d have an uncomfortable back and forth about our plans for the night, which would have nothing to do with what I had in mind no matter what their daughter might have in hers or what she’d told her parents our intentions might be.

No matter what I thought of it, I filled a soft chair in the white-walled living room with a few framed landscape photographs and a bookshelf and a corduroy couch the roommates, Ann and Rebecca, sleek and suntanned, sat on with their legs crossed. They were a few years older than Dorothy, a little more worldly, I could tell, and, I also gleaned not long into our discussion, protective of her, as if she were a younger sister not quite ready to be deflowered. All that afternoon I had, of course, expected something different. The roommates might have been out and we might have skipped the usual first date formalities and got right down and dirty, had a wonderful screw in her bedroom before we put our clothes back on and walked a few blocks to The Lucky Garden, where, after our exhaustive workout, we’d devour orders of chicken and shrimp and fried rice and dumplings. But each inquiry from the roommates (“You’ve only known each other a few weeks?” “Dorothy mentioned you wouldn’t be there much longer, is that how you usually work?”), and my subsequent answers (“That’s right, four of them.” “I’m a consultant, yes. I’m sent to companies to put out fires, you might say.”), had me cringing over my rather crude anticipations and led to an immediate deflation of my libido, so much so that, by the time Dorothy appeared in the doorway fifteen minutes later the wild sexual union with her I’d practiced over and over in my mind had morphed into something much more tame, such as a slow walk in the fading sunlight and some benign handholding.

Still, she looked beautiful in tight, faded black jeans and a simple white shirt with two buttons undone. Her hair was down. Unleashed from the professional office appearance I was used to, the flow of light, silken curls fell down her back in so sexy a way that, to hell with her snappy guard dog roommates, I wanted to embrace her right there and let my fingers get caught up in the tangle as I pressed into her. But there’d be no requiting our love at that moment. If the point had been to take control of the situation away from me, the roommates had done their job. Yet the thought of moving in for a kiss continued to enter my thoughts as I ignored them and stared at Dorothy. She hadn’t stopped smiling since she’d entered the room with a look as if surprised to find Ann and Rebecca sitting with me.

To show my good manners I said, “Would you like to sit here? I’ll take the other chair.”

I was on my feet, standing next to her, sniffing a mild lavender aroma that opened the enjoyable revelation we’d indeed be getting close. For what other reason would she scent herself like a well-tended suburban garden if not for delighting her date when he was pleasing her with his hands and tongue? This would be a night; I licked my inner chops at the thought. Not only did I know the acts and scenes of this play, but also the denouement. Still ignoring the roommates, wondering if a quick little peck on the cheek would be appropriate in front of them, I instead decided to be patient and just wait. Why break the tension with so brief a gesture? Why not seduce her over the next few hours and when the time came give her a full smack on the lips and from there move on to the ultimate satisfaction we both sought.

Without too much more small talk the roommates excused themselves and went back to their own business. The vetting was done. Like a baton, I was passed on to Dorothy and the next stage of the evening. There was no clearing of throats or stealthy eye contact to let her know they found me disagreeable or dangerous, or just plain boring so good luck with a few hours of putting up with that.

We turned the corner and headed down Washington Street to The Lucky Garden for a spicy Szechuan dinner. The name of place itself had already rung a meaningful bell for me; lucky I’d be as long as I avoided doing anything stupid. It was a giant room of wood booths and small tables for two or four, the ones that didn’t have customers seated in them were already set up with silverware and chopsticks and napkins. Right away I saw an attempt had been made to make customers feel they’d entered into an authentic restaurant on the Chinese mainland. The backs of the wood chairs were carved and there were large, exotic potted plants in the entryway, pastel-colored paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and traditional oil paintings on the walls of Buddhas, temples, and a busy street scene of what I thought might be Shanghai.

We sat across from each other in a corner booth in the back where the smell of frying and sautéing meat and fish blew out of the kitchen whenever one of the waitresses pushed through the swinging doors carrying a tray of steaming plates. Our waitress, a lean, striking Chinese woman wearing a greasy apron, slapped down two paper menus printed in red ink and took our drink orders, a glass of Chardonnay for Dorothy and a Heineken for me. A few sips loosened our tongues, and as we scanned the menus and discussed the various dishes I mentioned I had sixty-something dollars in my wallet and intended to blow all of it.

“Have whatever you want, those shrimp specials look great to me.”

Dorothy looked up, the light over our table sparkling in the whites of her eyes. “Are you sure? I wasn’t expecting you to pay for me, you know. I brought my own money.”

“I’m positive. It’s on me, all of it.” I spoke with the confidence of a multi-millionaire. “I’ll be out of work soon so spending everything I have will put pressure on me to take another contract right away. And that shouldn’t be more than a day or two after I leave there. So you see, the more you order, the more motivated I’ll be, and thus the more money I’ll make.”

“That’s a brilliant financial strategy,” she said in a mock serious voice.

I wasn’t sure what she really thought, but I played along. “Coming from a future Head of Accounting, I’ll take that as a compliment. The need to eat and keep a roof over one’s head is a rather unyielding motivator.”

“Well I hate to disappoint you, but unfortunately that’s not really the way I meant it.”

That drew a loud laugh from both of us and drew attention from the nearby tables, a group of three middle-aged men with their bowling bags set next to their chairs and a couple not much older than we were who, from the malicious glances they sent our way, seemed to be expecting a low-key atmosphere. It didn’t matter what they thought. We were relaxed and enjoying ourselves, though I inferred from the sudden silence we fell into that neither of us was particularly intent on upsetting our neighbors.

I changed the subject and tone of the conversation by telling her about my grandfather’s eight patents and other inventions and how I might never have needed to make money if a court case he was involved in had been decided differently. I went into detail about the advanced automobile headlight he’d built in the 1920s that had no blurring effect on the eyes and how a New Hampshire newspaper had called it one of the finest inventions of its kind. To support it they’d quoted several industry specialists. I wasn’t exaggerating. I’d read the clippings and seen a few of the legal documents. It’d been an ugly court case against a big Buffalo company that was manufacturing a headlight with similar characteristics for Detroit automakers, though that wasn’t nearly as good. If patented, my grandfather’s headlight would have run them out of business. The long trial had just about bankrupt him, left his headlight without a patent and cut off the development of many of his future projects. It was a classic case of corporate bullying, I added, of big guy versus little guy, and how, in the end, the almighty buck had again clobbered the crap out of individual talent and creativity.

“Why didn’t he just make a lot of them himself? Or find someone to back him. Couldn’t he do that?”

“They stole it from him. The trial exposed his ideas and specifications. The company not only stifled the patent, but it went on to make his headlight or something very close to it.”

“He could have kept fighting it, couldn’t he? He might have won eventually.”

“He wanted to, but he lost one trial and I don’t think he had the money to go through an appeal. I think he felt there wasn’t anything else he could do. He had a business to run. A machine shop. Not a big one, but he had to keep it going. It went bankrupt anyway. ”

“Do you also invent? Is that what you do too, and you haven’t told me?”

“I want to invent with my mind instead of my hands. Just how I’m going to do that, or what exactly I’m going to do, I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it. Whatever it is, I hope I have better luck with it than my grandfather and father had.”

“I hope so too. That sucked so much for them. Your family could have been incredibly wealthy. Think about it. You wouldn’t have to do what you are now, that’s for sure.”

I was inwardly surprised how much this little story had moved Dorothy. I’d assumed control of the conversation and held her attention. It was satisfying to see that in ten or so minutes I’d proven to her I wasn’t just another boring date without anything interesting to talk about, whose pathetically undisguised goal was to get into her pants anyway he could, though I had every intention of doing that too, but I wouldn’t make my move until the time was right, until I developed a strategy that would lead me to a definite checkmate. To get to that point was a process, I’d implied by telling her about my grandfather. A process, I thought I observed in her eyes, that was well underway.

In another few minutes our waitress came around again and we decided on our dishes, Stir Fried Prawns with chili and minced pork and asparagus, Sliced Chicken with baby eggplant, Braised Spare Ribs with napa and roasted chilis, Poached String Beans with a ginger vinegar dressing, and Steamed Vegetables Dumplings. That was enough spicy firepower to level a military battalion, and surely more than two rather small-sized people could eat at one sitting. I made the comment the doggie bag we’d take away with us would be a good lunch for her the next day, though my expectations and imagination saw us with chopsticks between our fingers picking in the white to-go cartons in the privacy of my apartment after an invigorating go-at-it on my futon.

The dishes and bowls and drinks filled every inch of our table so much so that our efficient waitress had to take away the sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers to fit all of it on it. The warm smell of garlic and hot pepper had us mmm mmm-ing as we spooned the warm food onto our plates. “I suppose you eat here a lot. I would if I lived as close as you do.”

“Most of the time we get takeout. But we also like to sit here and take our time.”

Should I have inferred the possibility there might have been more in her response that a deeper reading into her word choice would have revealed? Perhaps, but in that moment, after all the flirting at the insurance company and her responsiveness to my suggestion we have dinner wherever she wanted to, and my unwavering assumption she’d agree to continue the night’s festivities once we left there, I don’t recall questioning the use of the first person plural pronoun. It included, I must have assumed without thinking any more about it, her and her roommates. It would be a fine way to bond with them and them with her. A recurring Friday evening get-together where they’d talk about how their week went and what they had planned for the next one and from there go right into detail about the pros and cons of the men calling them up who they were thinking of dating; one of them would walk down the street to get the food, one would set the table, the other would provide the libations. For a few hours they’d eat and drink and laugh. Nothing, and I mean nothing had tipped me off to what was about to happen.

We were on our second helpings when Dorothy agreed to another round and I ordered more wine for her and beer for me. My intention was to spend everything in my wallet and by then I’d privately calculated we were thirty-five or so dollars into it without tax or tip. She wasn’t refusing my generosity in The Lucky Garden and that, I reasoned, was a sure sign she wouldn’t refuse it later on either. While I was cleaning one of the ribs as efficiently as a vulture she moved on to a topic I’d avoided bringing up only because it might’ve been a sensitive area to delve into and I saw no reason to ruin the fine mood we were in or lessen my chances to swing for the fences later on. “Did my roommates really grill you? They can be like that, I know. They play pretty rough when it comes to guys. Don’t worry, you can be honest with me. If they pissed you off, it’s okay. When I saw them with you and the way you were sitting there, I knew that’s what was going on. I don’t know why they were worrying so much about me. They like William a lot and they don’t want to see me do anything that would break us up, so I guess that’s why they were concerned about me having dinner with you. I told them they were crazy to think anything like that. That’s not what this is about.”

By the end of that I almost choked on the few strands of beef I was grinding up in my mouth, that took two extra gulps to get down my throat. Something had been missed by one or both of us. “Not what this is about.” The words floated back into my brain like a phrase from a Magic Eight Ball. I was so flabbergasted I went mute on her for several moments. It came to me we were in a public space and I had to remain calm. There was a rational explanation, one I’d neglected to think through, or admit to, since that first day at the unnamed insurance company when Dorothy handed an armful of folders to me and I saw us co-starring in a movie that’d be illegal to show to anyone under the age of eighteen. Then, in a sort of controlled fury, I got the name out. “William,” I uttered with such revulsion that I think it shocked her. “Is William your boyfriend? You have a steady boyfriend?”

“Um, well, yes, I do. But I thought you knew that, Robert. Or I thought you assumed I did. That’s why I didn’t mention him until now. But I see you didn’t think that at all. Or you weren’t sure. If you thought this was a date we’re on, that it was something like that, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to lead you on. I wouldn’t do that. I’m not that way. But if I did without knowing it, it was a mistake. I apologize. I hope that’s okay.”

By the end her voice had speeded up. The expression on her face was that of a cornered cat looking around for the safest way to escape.

“So how long have you been together, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“It’s okay, you can ask that. We’ve been together almost two years. It will be two years the first week of September. September 4th. We’re going to drive to Montreal to celebrate. Have you been there? Do you know any good places to go to?”

“Where is he tonight?”

“He had to take his grandmother somewhere. He can’t meet me until around ten, so that’s why I thought it was alright for us to have dinner and talk like this.”

I was livid, and yet, at what? Did I have a right to object? And if I did that, what would it be I was objecting to? That she had a boyfriend? That seemed only natural for a pretty young woman who enjoyed flirting and taking up men’s offers of dinner and whatever other suggestions they might have for her. I realized I should just give in and pretend nothing unusual had happened, to talk about something else, to make the best of the rest of the night that would end when I walked her back to her apartment and she went upstairs to tell her roommates what had gone on, and the roommates, who’d read my intentions so well, shook their heads and laughed. “I knew he had other things on his mind. How could you not?” “He’s male, isn’t he? Which of those four letters don’t you understand.”

Dorothy’s manner and tone were still remorseful. “So you’re sure you’re not angry with me. I don’t want to spoil your night. We can go now if you have other things to do.”

“No, it’s cool. I’m not angry with you. I’ll meet some of my friends later. I’m glad we got together. This food’s awesome.”

We stayed at The Lucky Garden a while longer. Difficult as the words were to find at first, we loosened to something that resembled an understanding between two people who had totally opposite intentions. When it came time to leave I was content with it, if still a little deflated. At my request the waitress brought our check and four fortune cookies with it. I already knew mine so I told Dorothy to take them home for Ann and Rebecca to enjoy. As for the bill, I paid it off, all $48 of it even though Dorothy took a twenty out of her purse to cover her half, or almost that. I walked her back to her house, and after she insisted I take the doggie bag with me, “In case you get hungry later on,” we told each other to have a good night and said goodbye. I saw her at the unnamed insurance company over the next weeks, it was impossible to avoid her, and in fact we had several civil exchanges. But they were brief and that was it. There was no more flirting, and when my project there was over I never saw her again.

(2010)

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