Could you be loved?
No one is ever completely satisfied.
It's what we all want.
Bill and I had been talking for months. He was married, 47, living in Los Angeles. I was 22, living in New York City, in a long distance relationship with Stuart, who was finishing law school 1,000 miles away in his native Scotland. Though madly in love with him in our first year together in college, something had shifted for me, and I was not sorry to have some distance between us.
"What are you wearing?"
Bill had a deep, husky voice that somehow made me feel safe.
"Black underwear. It's new. I bet you're wondering what I look like in it."
"Now you're torturing me," he said with a laugh.
This was the game we played, lobbing flirtatious comments back and forth across the country. We'd been talking about meeting, and I'd not so subtly been suggesting that he come to New York. The more we talked, the sexier that idea, and the conversations had become.
"Well," I said. "You don't need to be tortured. You know what you can do."
"Have you forgotten? I'm married."
I turned the telephone wire in my fingers. Of course I knew he was married, but his wife didn't feel like a real person to me. If anything, she was just part of our game.
"Well," I said. "If you're completely satisfied, stay where you are."
"Darling," he said. "No one is ever completely satisfied."
I worked in the literary department of a large, prestigious talent agency. It was a competitive atmosphere, but I was a competitive young woman, and I'd just gotten myself promoted to agent. I still sat in a small, windowless office of an assistant, which afforded little privacy, and I was always paranoid during these flirt fests that someone was going to hear me. But not too paranoid to stop.
My desk was covered with piles and piles of paper. The floor was also coved with paper --- manuscripts, contracts, royalty statements, submission requests. This was the day before the internet where everything that happened involved some kind of paper trail. That little box of mind looked a mess, but I knew where everything was, including the rejection letter I'd ostensibly called Bill about.
"But, let me tell you why I really called," I said, holding the letter in my hands.
We both laughed. We obviously knew why I'd really called. Over the past few months, as our conversations had gotten longer and longer, and much more personal, I'd miss not talking to him. I felt I knew everything about him, and more importantly, I had started to enjoy being able to play the part of the sexy seductress. I'd never considered myself desirable. Objectively speaking, I knew I was attractive, but boys in high school, and in college, never pursued me the way I wanted to be pursued. And when they did, well, I always thought something was wrong with them, and I'd run in the other direction. I had no memory of my alcoholic father, who'd left to go back to California when I was three. My mother used to tell me that when I was born, he'd come to her bedside and said, "She's not very pretty."
"He was joking, of course," my mother would say. "Newborns are never pretty."
The comment plagued me like the dull ache of a broken bone that hasn't fully healed. I never did feel pretty enough.
But, now, Bill's voice on the other end of the phone was making me feel very pretty indeed, and it was intoxicating. I fantasized about him throughout the day --- all the time, really. He was my boss' client. It was my job to sell magazine rights for her author's books and stories. While going through her book shelf one day, I came across Bill's photo on the back of his first novel. I was attracted to the rough looking face, dark eyes, and dark wavy hair. I read the book right away.
"I love this," I told my boss.
"He's got a lot of stories," she said. "Give him a call and see what you can do. He'll be delighted that someone is paying attention to him."
"He's a good looking guy," I said.
She laughed. "It's an old picture. He's my age!"
Talking to him at that moment, that age seemed very appealing.
"Look," I said. "The New Yorker rejected the last story."
"Awwww! Damn it! When am I going to get in there?" he whined.
"I know," I said. "I can't believe they didn't go for it, but the good news is that I sent it to Esquire yesterday, and, the editor called today to say he loves it. I should hear back by the end of the week.
I could hear him let a sigh of relief.
"You are fantastic. Your boss never worked this hard for my stories."
"Well, that's what she has me for. And, she loves your work. I'm sure she'll want to sell a collection for you at some point."
"You think? Aren't those really hard to sell?"
"Not when the stories are as good as yours," I said. I paused, before going in for the kill. "What did your wife think of this one?"
"Ah, she doesn't have time to read my stories. She has her own work, and the kids, and everything."
Kids, work, running a house? I had no appreciation for how difficult it was to juggle all of those things. Not making time to read your husband's story? It was a very easy target.
"Well, I guess it's true when they say writing is a solitary endeavor," I said, swinging my legs off my desk. "I have to get back to work. Talk to you soon."
"But I'll be thinking about your sooner," he replied.
I found out that Friday that Esquire did, indeed, want to talk Bill's story, but I decided to wait until Monday to call him. I knew he'd be expecting to hear from me, and I liked the idea of keeping him waiting.
"I thought I was going to hear from you last week," he said, when I finally called.
"Oh, Bill. I do have other clients to service. But don't complain, or I won't give you the good news."
I looked over at the TriQuarterly poster on my wall. I only had room for one poster, and I'd found this one on the floor in someone's office. It was a naked woman's torso in one square, with a quill and ink bottle in another overlapping square, and an open book in a third square.
"What's the news, you little flirt?"
My boyfriend never talked to me like that, with authority. I felt a rush of blood pulse through my body.
"Esquire wants the story. They'll pay $2,000 and they want to run it in April."
I imagined his mouth, so close to the receiver. God, I wanted this man.
"It would more than cover an airfare to New York," he continued.
My heart stopped. "It would, indeed," I managed to reply.
"Look," he said. "If we're really going to do this thing I want you to understand that I'm not going to leave my wife. We have a family and I'm never going to leave them."
"Nobody is talking about leaving anyone. I have serious boyfriend, Bill. And I don't want to break up with him. It's just a weekend."
"And you're positive about this?" he asked. "I don't want to get to New York to find out that you don't want to go through with it."
I assured him I knew exactly what I wanted.
A few weeks went by. I couldn't wait to see Bill, and thought of little else except our impending passionate encounter. I pictured the multiple orgasms I would have in his experienced hands. Next to Bill, my boyfriend seemed like a child. I still played the part of a good girlfriend in our weekly phone calls across an ocean, telling him I could wait to see him again when his exams were over. It was so easy to say "I love you," when I didn't have to look him in the eye. What had happened to us? How had indifference replaced the desire I once felt for him? And how could I behave in such a deceitful way? I was plagued by guilt, but, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't stop this train.
The moment of Bill's arrival grew closer, but, suddenly, I had the unnerving sensation of going down a rollercoaster whenever I thought of him. Our continuing phone courtship was becoming tinged with a growing sense of dread. Whereas before, I'd been willing to say anything, I'd now started to hold back a bit.
"What are you wearing?" he asked.
"Just jeans," I answered, adding "but, they look good."
Bill called me when he landed and told me to meet him at his hotel, in the bar. I got ready, putting on sexy underwear, a short skirt, high heels. But then, I actually started feeling sick to my stomach. As the cab sped down Fifth Avenue, I couldn't believe I was really going to be with this man that night. The idea had suddenly become terrifying. I kept checking my lipstick while feeling the perspiration pool under my arms, down my back, and, more disturbingly, in my crotch.
The bar was dimly lit, with dark red faux leather banquets. The was actually carpeting on the walls, completely the crypt-like feel. I knew who he was the minute I saw him. It had been an old picture. A man with mostly grey hair and thick glasses stood up from one of the banquets and looked at me with a smile as if to say Is it you? As he stepped towards me, he opened his arms. He was wearing black sneaker shoes and grey trousers --- classic old man look. Game over. My face must have said it all, because his face fell a mile down.
"Well," he said. "This isn't the greeting I'd been expecting."
And this was not the man I'd been fantasizing about for months. Or was it? I just could not wrap my mind around this person laying one finger on me.
We sat down awkwardly across from each other. His eyes looked enormous from behind those glasses. The waitress came for our order.
"Call me perverse," Bill said. "But I'll have a glass of champagne to celebrate my stupidity."
The waitress looked confused.
"I'll just have a glass of white wine," I said.
As she walked away, I thought, One drink. Just let me get through one drink.
I had to say something to break the silence that was laying like lead between us.
"I don't know what you're so upset about. I mean, you're married."
The amazement on Bill's face was amplified by his coke-bottle lenses, and I could actually feel the anger rising in him from across the table.
"Something you were aware of before you told me to get on a plane and come here.
"But," I went on, absurdly. "Now it's clear just how married you are."
He looked up at the ceiling and downed his champagne in one sip.
"Another drink?" The waitress was back.
"Just the check," he answered. "Let's take a little walk," he said to me.
It was fall and the air was just turning cold enough to need a sweater. I was so hot when I'd left my apartment that I only had on a thin silk blouse, and now I regretted it. We started to walk away from the hotel when I felt his hands on my shoulders. He grabbed me and pulled me towards him. When his lips met mine, he shoved his tongue in my mouth.
"I'm not doing this now," I said, pulling away.
"When do you think you're going to do it?"
"I don't know, but I need to go home. I feel sick."
I really wasn't lying. I thought I was going to throw up right that. I must have looked pretty bad because Bill said, "Well, kid. I hope you feel better. I'll be here through the weekend. Call me if you change your mind. I'm calling my analyst to discuss all of this, and, I suggest you do the same."
I felt a weight lift off of me as I walked away. By the time I got home, I was completely at ease. I felt free. That was, until Bill called me the next day. Now, I wished he would just die. What the hell was wrong with me?
"I'm going back home," he said. "I never should have done this."
"Probably now. But, I hope we can still be friends."
"Whatever," he said. "But, let me give you some free advice. Don't pull this kind of thing again. Next time, the guy might not be as understanding as I was."
I went back to work. Life went on. My boyfriend came to New York from Scotland, and then returned again to complete his last year. There was another man, older, again, but divorced this time. And, this time, I went through with it. Sex, and more sex. I decided to break up with Stuart, over the phone, on Valentine's Day, no less.
"It's just not going to work out with us. Let's face it."
"But," he said. "I still love you."
"Why? Why do you love me? What's to love? Don't."
Two months later, I broke up with the other man. He asked why. "It's not like we're in love, or anything," I said.
I was always superstitious about good luck; wishing on falling stars, blowing out all my birthday candles with one breath, getting the bigger half of the wish bone. And fortune cookies. I always held on to them, tucked safely in a little pile in a wooden box next to my bed. There was one fortune I carried around with me, in my wallet. "Our first and last love, is self love." A hokey Christian Nestell Bovee quote. The words spoke to me, even though, simple as they are, I didn't really understand them. Loving myself was not something I would learn to do for many years. Back then, love was thing I always wished for. I wanted to be in love, with someone who loved me. Or at least, I thought that's what I wanted. I hated the idea of being single. Being single meant being undesirable, and that was unbearable. So, when I broke it off with the older, divorced man, I turned to Stuart again. The far-away double ring of the transatlantic call sounded a few times before he picked up.
"It's me," I said. "I'm so sorry."
I told him I wanted to see him again. Unbelievably, he agreed. He came for my birthday, in December. I was turning 24. We agreed to have a quiet dinner with my mom. She was delighted he was coming. She loved him like a son.
"He's a good man, Lillian. He's the type who will always stand by you."
My mother bought my favorite chocolate cake from Greenburg's bakery, the same cake I'd had each year since I was four. She managed to get 25 candles on the cake, one for each year, and one for good luck.
"You're getting a little old for the candle thing," said Stuart, with a smile.
I looked at the flaming circle below my face, and, as he and my mom sang the last lines of Happy Birthday, I closed my eyes, and blew.