Tim and I were at the Cherry Blossom Festival. This was the spring after the WTC attacks, and tourists unloaded from buses as big as Kentucky, groaning and clutching bags of souvenir goodies purchased in the name of patriotism. Ruby red visors shielded midwestern eyes from an anemic sun; miniature American flags flapped a lukewarm breeze in whichever hand happened to be free. That year visitors to the capitol were down, and so were Tim and I. He wasn't leaving his wife, and I was leaving him. "I love you," he told me, looking appropriately forlorn as he tossed petals, one-by-one, into the tidal basin. A duck swam up and nibbled daintily at the downy blossoms. "You know that, don't you?"
"Hey, Princess-of-the-Pond," I called to the newcomer, hands cupped around my mouth. "Did you hear that? The toad wants a kiss."
"All right, all right. Fine. You want to be this way? You don't want to talk about anything serious? Well, I am out of here," grumped Tim, pushing his already-high sunglasses up his nose before shoving off for greener pastures, a sloped hill rising street level to Constitution where his banged-up Civic sat dwarfed between two tour buses. "Call me when you're ready to talk."
Tim took the hill in wheezes, doubled-over against the wind like a turtle sprung into a sprint, like a thirty-five year old smoker accustomed to chasing women and toddlers. At the top he pushed up his sunglasses—they were blue, like mine, and like everything else between us there was a story there, too—and then stood with his hands on his hips. In his back pocket, I knew, there was a grass-stained golf towel from a game played only that morning, and behind the red and green viney tangle of a rose embroidered on his front shirt pocket was tucked a mechanical pencil. That first afternoon when he'd written my phone number on a sheet of university stationery he'd broken the tip, twice. Laughing, I'd taken over, filled in the remaining digits and then checked for sweaty palms, charmed to discover pools of moisture clinging to his smooth-lined skin. I pretended to read his fortune. I gave him a long, happy life and then I gave him me. That was almost a year ago.
"Hope this one blows over," huffed my lover, king of the hill and of my heart, this man-turned-three year old, trumpeting his tantrum from up high like a wimped-out Solomon. "We could try landing on our feet for once!"
Tires squealed into traffic; the duck plunged under water. I sat contemplating my hands in my lap. I'd like to say I had a wild epiphany in that moment, that I felt relief, not anger, that I would no longer have to play life as someone's lover. But I didn't. Instead, I sat on the grass and felt the heat of the sun through my shirt, taking off my sweater when it got too hot and putting it back on a few hours later, when it cooled down.
Then I went home to wait for Tim to call.
On the phone Anna is far from sympathetic. "You only love him because he's wounded," she says. "You can't fix his problems."
"Correction," I say, inking Tim's eyes demon red with the same pen I use to mark papers so that students think they've gotten things at least half right. The picture I snapped myself, one terrific morning when everything in the world felt perfect. In it, Tim's gaze lingers left where, just off the frame, his wife's navy-blue suit hangs on a hook. After the camera clicked he got up and returned the suit to the closet, carefully zipping the plastic case Stella keeps it in, safeguarding against mites and moths and her husband's dirty hands. "I like him because of his wounds," I tell Anna. "I love him because he lets me lick them."
The other day Anna and I stopped into our favorite bookstore to hear a politician talk about the need for transparency in government. We made it halfway through before Anna muttered bullshit under her breath. The politician stopped his speech and stared straight at us. "Excuse me, did you have a comment?" he asked. Anna's face went white before she recovered herself. Giggling, we stumbled past feet and knees and floor-dropped purses, sprinting downstairs to the basement café. Anna collapsed against me, chest heaving, tears in her eyes. "Did you see that?" she asked. "Did you?"
Later, hunkered over mint mochas and cheesecake, I told her the news: Tim and I were through. As proof I told her about my nightmares, the priest who follows me into alleys and churches and occasionally, through the metro's sliding doors. I duck into doorways as he hurries past, hunting me down with his inflatable-doll sized rosary. We never meet.
"Is he handsome?" she asked. Anna teaches history at the college where we both work. She tells her students they must concern themselves only with verifiable truth. I teach ESL, English for folks new to the country. Since the attacks, enrollments are down. I have my students write essays on whether the truth has ever really set anyone free. So far opinions are mixed but I have my own ideas. "Are his eyes haunted?"
"Terribly," I said, feeling ever the more sorry for myself. I stirred my coffee half-heartedly. "Why do you think I can't leave?"
"Not Tim, " said Anna. "The priest."
Right then I spotted him: over by the bulletin board, grinning like a dope as he read a post, left arm looped tight through a woman's. She was tall and dark and possessed green eyes that flashed with merry or menace, I imagined, depending on mood or moon phase. On this evening they looked clear and wide, ready for anything except meeting her husband's mistress in the most sacred of spaces. "Don't look now," I said, my voice low, full of drama. "But Tim and his wife just walked in."
"That's him?" squealed Anna. "The man of your dreams? I would've imagined he had hair, at least."
There was a time when I never would've thought myself capable of sleeping—much less falling in love—with a married man. But those days are over. Now I know better than anyone that I'm as much of a bozo as the next rubber-nosed clown. Lucky for me—unlucky for Tim and Stella—self-awareness has never led me down the road of redemption.
"Tim! Christina! So nice to see you," I exclaimed, pumping Tim's hand while Stella looked on. To her I turned, offered my hand, barely blinking when she refused to shake.
"Christina!" I said, warmer-than-warm. "I've heard so much about you! Nice to meet you finally. Tim—oh how that guy talks about you! Must be nice to be married to a man like that. I take it you two have married by now, haven't you? After all those steamy nights at the Radisson? Or was it the Hilton? Tim loves to tell those stories, how each of you dress in disguise and meet each other as if you were lovers having an affair . . . "
Tim stared me down to a trail-off—I'd never seen him look so hard and mean; usually he came across as spineless as a puff pastry—while Stella looked merely quizzical, almost amused. Almost. After Tim bombed out, refusing to offer up a correction she gave a wan smile, gently explaining her name was Stella, not Christina. "But of course you wouldn't remember my name," she added, a funny half-smile twisting her lips. "We've never met."
Oh, Stella. We've met. Once, when Tim was raiding the fridge for olives and cheese after we'd finished fucking, I made it my business to find out all about you. I opened drawers and pulled out your perfect 32-B bras; I held your lavender-colored thongs up to my own ass and imagined how tiny it would have to be to fit in something that small. I ducked my head into your closet and inhaled your sweet perfume, slipped my foot into your narrow-arched pumps and imagined myself as Mrs. Timothy G. Miller, a setback to the feminist movement, sure, but fantasies seldom conform to the politics of the time, isn't that right? I'm allowed. That's what I told myself, anyway, that morning when you were at work and I stood in front of your full-length mirror, checking out my new and improved calf-lift. That's when Tim came in. You'll be happy to know he took no time at all to freak out, leaping across the room and snatching the underwear from my hand, the Wilma-sized pearls choking my neck. What the hell are you doing? he shouted. Those were her mother's!
It made for a nice round of sex, afterwards.
"Stella," I said, shaking my head. "That's right. How could I forget?"
When we started seeing each other Tim was as attentive as my old poodle Charlie. He extracted gifts from under the bed with a magician's grace, the sweetest smile you ever saw lighting his face. "For you," he'd say, handing over a recorded tape of a Tchaikovsky concerto or homemade chocolate croissant. "My sweet Justine."
But then things took a tumble. Stella stopped traveling so much for work and our hot-and-steamy affair dropped in temp. We saw each other only on Wednesdays at noon, during Tim's lunch break. Daylight has a way of magnifying a relationship's cracks and dents. After a while, having a willing woman always available made Tim lazy. No more inspired surprises. I started receiving gifts that were more a reflection of my lover's tastes than mine. There was the framed print of Paris—Tim's favorite city; I'm a country gal myself. On back he'd gone to the trouble to write, Bright Lights, Big City! I hope one day to take you there. Another time it was peanut brittle. My allergy held me sidelined as Tim stuffed himself silly, shaking his head and repeating incredulously, "Are you sure? When's the last time you tried one?" Hard bits of candy stuck to the corners of his lips, his chin. "I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"
I used to think the fact that you can see the National Cathedral from Tim and Stella's bedroom granted some sort of divine pardon to our affair. Once Tim and I walked the five blocks to Massachusetts, sat for a while in the meditation garden there. We talked for hours before we kissed. When we finally did a group of high school kids up in the bell tower whistled and clapped. Before we left, Tim—dapper in government-issue black trench—bowed at the waist, but by then the kids had left. A mother stood there instead with her young daughter. Ocean blue feathers once donned by an exotic bird dangled from the girl's ears, imbuing her in mystery and heartache. Her head was shaved. The mother's eyes were red. Tim and I went back to his place and slammed into each other like war-thirsty gods.
Poor Stella. That afternoon at the bookstore, she didn't know what hit her. Oh, she was poised, no doubt—women like her always are—but I knew there'd be trouble back at home. I was right. Tim called the minute he had a chance, chewing me out for trying to 'sabotage' his marriage in such a sneaky and underhanded way. Whatever. I'm not sneaky, I'm deliberate. But after that day at the bookstore, I did start to think it might be time to dump Stella's husband after all.
But then I'd find myself seated on the red line the minute my last class let out. Tim would be there to greet me when I came off the escalator at Cleveland Park. He would take off the blue sunglasses he bought a week after seeing mine. He'd wrap his arms around my middle, give my ribs a squeeze. "Hey, babe," he'd croon. "Am I glad to see you." And I would forget in less time than it took to kiss that spot on his cheek I love so much—that place where the wiry silver-black mesh of goatee gives way to smooth, clean skin—everything I hated about being a mistress: the deceit, the shame. The fact that I love a man who loves a woman who isn't me.
Sometimes I beat Tim to his apartment and stand outside the building, sharing a smoke and small talk with Rae-Rae, the neighborhood sleepwalker. I must've told him a thousand times I was through with Tim; in turn I learned about the family he once had, the grown daughter he lost to the streets. Rae-Rae spent his time spearing the shadows with his bullhorn shouts, stabbing at dark spaces where light has failed to make safe what his heart couldn't hold.
"Don't you worry about them spies up there," he told me, squinting the full moon down to a mean sliver. "Old Rae-Rae's got it under control."
I let Anna talk me into dinner at her place, cocktails on the couch with someone whose claim to fame is that he's not my bad-for-me-boyfriend: Mr. Seth Witherspoon, a taciturn and shy creature who spends his days shoveling elephant shit at the National Zoo. Actually, that's not true. His job is much more complicated than that, Anna would argue, but the details are lost on me. I'm too busy paying attention to how little Seth drinks and how much he talks—about himself. As for me, I divide my time between sullen and chatty, witty and dumb. In short, I act like Tim, seeing what it's like: here's Tim, mesmerizing the mesmerized. Here's Tim, stringing along an erstwhile heart. After my third martini I excuse myself, pleading it's time to help Anna in the kitchen. Seth smiles obligingly as I wobble to standing; vodka he'll never drink sloshes the rim of his glass, a criminal offense that seals our fate. For safety reasons, the drinking age should stay at twenty-one, one of my students once wrote in a term paper. Teenagers aren't trustable enough.
Trustworthy is what you're after, I corrected, underlining my comment three times in red. Trustable is not a wordable.
In the kitchen Anna offers up saran-wrapped salmon for inspection. "What do you think?" she asks. "Dumpster or dinner?" I take a whiff, proclaim sourly, "All bones and no meat. I need a man I can sink my teeth into—and I have a hell of an overbite."
"You can find a man on your own time," grouses Anna. "I resign as your helpmeet."
"After only one try?" I try for cute and sheepish and fail at both. Anna frowns. At my feet one of her tabbies—there are thirty in all, thirty-one of you count Roan, who stays at a neighbor's most of the time, courting a Pekingese—tickles my ankles. I pat her fat oily rump. Anna's one extravagance in life is her cats, she's big on rescue and now she's waiting for me to rescue her from rescuing me—better for me to do it. "I know, I'm hopeless," I shrug, not feeling hopeless at all. "As for the fish, it says it expired a week ago. Who knows when it actually died."
But Anna has already snapped open the styrofoam package and the ruckus sends the tabby bee-lining for the laundry room just off the kitchen. The mammoth-sized house Anna and her husband Bill built three years ago remains a mostly-unfurnished den of echoes. From the living room I can hear glasses clinking, the low, hollow murmur of serious stuff being discussed between the men. "I left him," I say, keeping my eyes on the pat of butter sizzling in Anna's gargantuan black-bottomed pan. "I really did it."
"What—?" asks Anna, feigning distraction. The little black curls perpetually bunched at her forehead are damp, kinked tightly. She runs a butter-smeared hand over them, patting them in place but they bounce back, resilient; stubborn. "I'm sorry, what was that? What did you say?"
"Anna! You've got to come here—" thunders Bill, his voice bouncing off the walls, careening into the kitchen like a fireball. I'm confused for a second until I realize he's using an intercom. Anna's face crimps pink. She's already setting down the dishcloth when he adds, voice catching in the squawk of an overly-amped speaker, "Darling, you must come see this! Seth's got us all in his stitches with his Janet Reno impersonation—!"
"Janet Reno?" clucks Anna, rolling her eyes my way, a multitude of meanings intended—watch the salmon, will you, I'll only be a second; don't think I don't know his sleeves don't reach his wrists and he's a dweeb who says 'in stitches' but he's my dweeb and he loves me or I love him, what's the difference, anyway?—without her having to mouth a word, moving, already, towards the hall in one summoned stride. "That was at least a decade back . . . can't he do something more current, for crying out loud . . . ?"
Left alone, I give the salmon a flip but my heart isn't in it. Silver scales cast a mischievous wink from deep waters remembered. I snatch the phone and say, "You didn't need to leave."
"I did leave, didn't I?" says Tim.
"It was unnecessary."
"It was unnecessary, wasn't it?"
"Quit agreeing with me? Quit answering in questions?"
"Justine," says Tim, tired, impatient. "Do you have more to say?"
"Yes." I tighten the cord around my wrist, marveling at how quick my skin is to give way, mold itself to whatever presses against it. "I do." I hold the phone over the frying pan, so close the receiver turns grease-stricken, speckled with butter-smears. "I'm melting," I croak.
"I think it's time we met," sighs Tim. "X and Os sound all right? Tomorrow? One o'clock?"
"I still think it's Xandos—like the song." I hum a few notes.
"It's poetic. X and Os sounds cutsie, kitsch-y. We are not cutsie."
"What are we?"
"Diseased," I say, and then I hang up, a hundred and one times, but who's counting? I stand over the stove, breathless, a strange marvelous odor rising that I at first think is the smell of rotted flesh dreamt back to life. But when Slinky or Minnie or Snow White—whichever rusty cat had made my acquaintance and then abandoned me—comes creeping back, rubbing my leg with a courteous mew I suddenly realize the smell: the old girl has relieved herself on a pile of Bill's freshly-laundered, wicker-casketed shirts.
"Don't worry," I tell her, stroking that perfect spot between the cat's stiffened ears. Her throat throttles a low sweet hum. "Sometimes we just can't help ourselves, can we?"
"Oh-oh!" Anna, running in the kitchen, skidding on tiled floor, sour-apple martini splashing a glassy rim. Anna's the sort whose sensible in public but flighty at home, when the only person to impress is her mirror-reflected self and a few invited guests. "It's burning, isn't it? The fish. Oh, oh—!" She cuts the flame, dashes the pan bare-handed to the sink where its sizzle backgrounds the intercom's staccato rattle-and-hum, Bill's thunder breaking through, Anna—? Anna, what is going on—while in the kitchen, surveying the smoldering carcass of dinner ruined, his wife's nose wrinkles as her eyes momentarily lose their trademark glimmer in a plume of black smoke.
"Eeeeeeeewwwwwww," she exclaims, pinching tight her nostrils. "What is that smell?"
The next day I skip the coffee and head down to see the cherry blossoms. They're mostly gone now, but teary eyes and blue shades make the world look somewhat promising. Princess-of-the-Pond greets me fine but when I ask why men are such liars, she hasn't any answer. She shakes water from her ears, blows bubbles beneath the water's mudpie surface. Breeze-snapped petals float off and so does my friend, gentle ripples pleating behind as she heads for waters less murky, for the flag-waving tourists whose eyes have snapped open, wide and haunted and brave, like children making believe they're only this close to home.