Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns
"I love you."
It was our second date—way too early for this. We were lying face to face on that lumpy mattress in her apartment. In the next second I had been planning my roll, the insertion, but now I had to respond. I had a vested interest in maintaining the momentum but, under the circumstances, what could I do? Lie? Stall? Mumble something unintelligible? I was still mulling the possibilities when I saw my delay was being taken as statement. Brandy was already turning away. There was an exasperated hiss, a tugging of sheets, and soon she was presenting only her back.
"Should we talk about this?" I asked, propped up on the pillow, hating the thinness of my voice, which badly missed the textured sincerity I had aimed for.
I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I simply stared through the darkness, filling with a low-grade despair. It was essentially self-pity. I had been looking forward to this all week—now my weekend was hosed.
Brandy and I had met on Match.com. Our first date was in a bar on College Avenue just south of Berkeley. I'd been on nine of these, and they had all come to bad ends, usually evident in the first 20 seconds. But upon sight of Brandy I felt a note of hope. I recognized her by the jeans jacket she said she would be wearing. She walked briskly with a willowy frame. Her face was cameo-shaped, dominated by long cheeks and busy dark eyes scanning the tables in herky-jerk sweeps before fixing upon me with a gleam of connection.
"You must be Howard," she said, taking a seat and sliding out of her jacket. As she looked for a place to station her purse, I noticed the twinkling space posts in her ears; they had an efficient, unpretentious look, which I took as a positive sign.
It didn't take long to exhaust our biographies: she grew up in Brisbane, had once dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, but was now a trainer for Fit Family Gymworld. Her parents were former hippies.
I was a divorced father of none, currently teaching fifth grade in the Oakland school system.
"Teaching must be weird these days."
"It has its moments."
"Do you like it?"
"Frankly, the kids terrify me."
She sniffed out a laugh. "That's interesting."
"I mean it's honest. This one guy I met was also a teacher and he went on and on about the streets, the kids, their vibes, how they were practically his soul mates..." She concluded by sticking her finger in her mouth in a manner suggesting induced vomiting, and we both laughed.
I told a joke about teachers—the difference between a teacher and a prostitute, the prostitute gets money from Congress—and we laughed again.
After an hour in this vein, it did not seem beyond the pale when she asked me to walk her back to her apartment. But it did surprise me when she asked me up. It was a modern two-storey which did not quite blend with the more stately frame houses occupying most of the block. Her clumsy struggle with the security gate struck me as vaguely touching. She repeatedly kept reentering the code, on the final attempt blurting it out in an exasperated whisper, a terse "1-2-3-4."
"You shouldn't let a strange man know your code."
"I just did that, didn't I? But you know what? I'm a total technophobe. That's the way I rebel."
Her apartment was a large studio, with a kitchen area in the front and a quilt-covered mattress on the floor defining the bedroom. The furnishings were strictly IKEA. And she had a cat, a shaggy gray female named Likky who kept pacing the perimeter, occasionally stopping to rub her back on the walls.
Brandy put on a CD, a group called The Incredible String Band, which she referred to as "the kind of thing my father used to listen to before running off to the hippie farm."
By the time the album finished we were in bed. This was new behavior for me, but I was still smarting from my divorce and it seemed like the perfect elixir. Even its ill advised aspect—some might have seen red flags in this first inning score—only made it more alluring. Who needed difficult? Who needed twenty dinner dates to prove we were neither lecher nor slut? For the moment it all seemed perfect. And before I left I even wrote down the name of the album.
On the morning after the I-love-you debacle, shortly after I woke up, I reached over and planted my palm squarely on Brandy's ass. She was still presenting her back, but in the haze of sleep I had temporarily forgotten our spat. Apparently Brandy had too, because she rolled over, hooked her arms around my neck, and pulled me toward her like a carnivorous flower. I was hard in a second. And soon enough, the previous night's interruptus was consummated.
"I'm not usually like what you saw last night," she said. "You're getting a skewed first impression."
She was standing at the stove in her nightie, making our morning pancakes while I stared at her legs.
"My first impression is still forming."
She turned and flashed a sly smile, seeming wise to my evasive response.
When the pancakes were ready I came to the table. I had barely taken my first bite when she asked, "So was your ex-wife ever as inappropriate as me?" I must have looked a little abashed as she quickly added, "I'm kidding, Howard, I'm kidding. But, you know what? I do get a little invasive sometimes. It's a boundary thing. So just tell me to shut up."
"No, it's fine. Really."
"It is? Because then I'm curious. Why'd you get a divorce?"
I didn't really want to get into it, but now felt backed into a corner. Besides, she, too, was forming first impressions, and I didn't want to come off as Mr. Tight Lipped.
"Let's just say she developed a side interest."
"Did you see it coming?"
"There were signs."
"Oh, the phone ringing five times a week and getting a hang-up as soon as I said 'Hello.' Then there were those evenings she was suddenly working late, and my personal favorite, the new tricks she was learning in bed."
"Howard, that's awful."
She reached over and squeezed my hand, which I liked and didn't like. A part of me gobbled up the solidarity, not to mention the hint of future sex, but it also felt like a claim.
We ate for awhile in silence until Brandy asked, "Do you think I look like her?"
It seemed audacious, exactly the invasiveness she had warned of, but then I realized she didn't mean my ex-wife. She was looking directly at the Incredible String Band CD which sat in the corner of the table. There were two women in the group and I truly did not know which she meant. She wasn't as pretty as either of them, but this hardly seemed a productive point, nor would another pregnant pause play well, so I simply blurted out, "Yes, I see a resemblance." The answer seemed to please her, just as I was pleased to preserve the erotic momentum, which left its wake in the air.
"Listen, there's something I have to tell you."
Her hand was on my knee as I drove South on 101 after a day in the wine country.
"One of my early Match Dot Com dates called and said he wanted to see me. But I told him no, I was seeing someone."
I let the statement settle. I was not displeased by her declaration of fidelity, it actually made me a little hard, but I wasn't sure what I was prepared to promise in turn. I also sensed the ticking clock. Our last dustup over verbal pauses was two weeks behind us, but once in your head, it was impossible to shake.
"So who was this guy?" Very good. Stall. Deflect. Maybe I wouldn't have to declare anything at all.
"Jerrod. He was some kind of computer geek." She issued a short laugh. "An obvious mismatch, right? A computer geek and the biggest technophobe on the planet?"
"Well, sometimes opposites attract."
We drove for awhile in silence, but a little later she picked up the thread.
"It was too soon to say that, wasn't it?"
"Come on, Howard."
"No, it was fine. I appreciate you told him that."
She lowered her voice to a male octave. "And of course I'd do the same for you, Brandy."
Now I did pause.
"Jesus," said Brandy. "I do this. I like someone, I do this. I'm sorry, Howard. Maybe I'm too fucked up."
Her speech was getting a little teary and I cupped the back of her hand.
"Was it really so horrible? I mean the guy called, right? Should I have kept it a secret?"
"Of course not."
"Then what? My reaction? I was snarky, wasn't I? Shit. I do this. Maybe it's because my dad left when I was ten. He was a roaring drunk, half the time shit-faced, and I was actually glad when he was gone. But dammit, Howard. He was my dad."
She was openly crying now. I squeezed her hand a little more tightly and she responded by grapevining my arm, which necessitated an adjustment in my steering.
I continued to ask questions about her dad. I'd like to believe this came from the purest of places, but if the truth be known, the part of me that tracked one thing only was already eyeing her emotionally raw state from the perspective of how it might play out in bed.
I pretty much got my wish. Our clothes were off within minutes of entering her apartment. But at the last second Brandy threw me a curve. She went to her CD collection and started rifling the stacks. "Wait just a moment," she said. "There's something I'd like you to hear."
I was chagrinned to see it was the Incredible String Band again as this was starting to seem like an obsession. Thankfully, she didn't mean stand there and listen to it; she meant listen to it in bed. She pulled me on top of her before I was properly positioned and my chest met her breasts in an awkward flop. If tears had been the outlet for her emotions on the freeway, her entire body was the conduit now. She wriggled under me with hard-breathing urgency, while her fingers tugged clumps of my hair. The fingers started to descend, as her palms flattened my ears and clamped my head in place through the duration of a soulful kiss. I absorbed it eagerly, and the CD she had selected proved an enhancing backdrop. I didn't like it as much as the one she had played previously, but there was one song in particular—even in the midst of our thrashing—worming its way into my attention. The title was Job's Tears. One of the women in the group (I later learned her name was Licorice) wailed a refrain in such high register, it could have been taken as parody. But it did not come off as parody. It was the sound of someone deeply, spiritually moved. Below her, one of the males (Robin) chimed in. His voice was low, granular, plodding—a monk who had popped out of the Thirteenth Century. He completed the rhyme Licorice had started, and the interplay between these voices, each stating a case from different extremes of the aural universe, so thoroughly commandeered the dance of my senses, I briefly forgot I was screwing. When I remembered, I was still as hard as a surf board. I came during the next refrain.
"So are you a breast man or an ass man?'
We were in her apartment and she was standing at the stove preparing our dinner, stirring prawns in an over-sized wok.
"Can't one be both?"
"Don't go political on me, Howard. You're sliding off the question."
"What do you like about asses?"
"I don't know. The shape. The movement. What are you getting at?"
"I want to know specifically where your mind goes when you look at an ass. You must be trying to take it somewhere, right? So I'm asking where."
These half-baked intellectual goose chases were a regular feature of hers. It was not without a self-congratulatory aspect: aren't I wacky? Doesn't my mind go to unusual places? It even seemed to stake a claim about us as a duo: don't we go unusual places? But I was still drinking it up. A few weeks ago I was Divorced Guy—teaching by day, watching ballgames by night. Now here I was in a bare-bones apartment having edgy conversations with this intense woman with a nymph-like sexual appetite, and a tendency to fly into pieces at my slightest distancing. In my marriage, it had been me on the needy end of the equation, and flipping that sorry dynamic was exactly the tonic I needed.
After dinner Brandy took a shower, which was usually a sign she was ready for the mattress. Sex was coming. Sex was coming. I was so stoked with anticipation, passing through time seemed an impossible task. I pulled books off her shelves and read random sentences. I went to her computer and Googled The Incredible String Band. According to Wikipedia, they were a Scottish group, formed in the late 1960's. The term "hippie mysticism" was mentioned, along with "Celtic fusion" and "psychedelic folk." I actually had been to this entry before, but this was the first time I read far enough to learn the member named Licorice was often denoted in the album credits as Likky. It took a second to make the connection: Likky-the-singer, Likky-the-cat. I looked over at the feline version, who seemed unnerved by my sudden visual attention as she emitted a petulant meow. A moment later, Brandy emerged from the shower and dragged me off toward her mattress. If she had arrived a minute earlier, I would still have possessed my erection, and I realized an agile mental flip would be required if I was quickly going to get it back. Don't get creeped out. Forget the cat. Forget the cat. My mantra had no effect. "Is something wrong, Howard?" After asking this she kissed me on the breastbone several times, lips as delicate as butterflies, and blissfully, that broke the spell.
We became comfortable in each other's apartments. We grew expert in each other's routines. When I was at her place and she answered the phone, I could tell exactly who it was simply by her tone of voice.
Her mother: clipped, emotionally flat, not wanting to volunteer one syllable more than necessary.
Work: a tad manic, lots of uh-huhs, names of exercise machines sounding like wrestling holds.
A friend named Jenny: hoots of laughter, commiserating groans, a certain brand of pushy, therapy-style advice: "You can't be run by that, Jen."
So when a call came out of the norm, it definitely caught my attention. One such call arrived on a night we were watching American Idol, something we rarely did. She took it on her cordless and immediately darted into the foyer, where I could still hear her voice, even if I couldn't make out the words. The tone was rushed, semi whispered, with a choppy and rattled cadence. It was only a minute before she returned, and by then I had already worked out the perfect way of asking "Who was that?" while maintaining an indifferent air. Even if she saw through this, it would hardly matter. Brandy would be tickled to death at the slightest display of insecurity on my part and, in the end, that's what stopped me—I didn't want to surrender power.
So I put the call entirely out of my mind. And thankfully, it stayed that way, except for a brief relapse two nights later, when I noticed a new mouse on her computer. It was the fancy kind, with flashing lights flowing through a range of colors, hardly the sort of thing a technophobe like Brandy would ever be inclined to purchase. My inner Sherlock connected the dots: phone call... computer guy who wanted to see her again... mouse upgrade. I was still watching the changing colors when Brandy stepped up and grabbed me from behind. When I turned to face her, she was smiling sagaciously, as if in full possession of my thoughts. Then she asked a question that floored me.
"Is it still too early to say, "I love you?"
Before I could speak, she raised a finger to shush me, then leaned in for a lingering kiss; we were just gathering steam when the phone rang. This time it was clearly her mother.
On the following Saturday the plan was to order a pizza, watch a DVD, and afterwards fuck our brains out. Brandy went down to get some wine while I used her computer to order the pizza. So galvanizing was the specter of sex I could do nothing right on the computer. At some point I realized this was not entirely my fault. Something had changed. The go button on her browser was no longer where I expected it to be, and the main search bar was also different: narrower, shorter, not so easy to type in. After some poking around, I realized Microsoft Explorer was no longer her default browser. Now it was something called Mozilla Firefox. I bit hard on my back teeth and, once again, Sherlock was stirring: Okay, maybe a mouse, but a browser change?—from a woman whose idea of a tricky password was 1-2-3-4? No way!
I glanced about the apartment, fully expecting a cavalcade of clues: cigars, piles of Trojans, polo shirts embossed with "Computer Guy," but the only male accoutrements I saw were my own. I returned to the computer and opened Outlook. I wasn't quite prepared to invade Brandy's messages, but who would know if I scanned the subject lines?
Michelle Obama says thanks
Why you need Angie's List
Your kind assistance appreciated
Five were from me. One still unopened. Hmmm, why would that be? Before I could carry the thought much further I heard a key in the door and I dispatched Outlook to cyber heaven.
During the dinner I kept looking for a wedge in which to bring up the browser, but Brandy continually rolled the ball in other directions.
"Listen, there's something I've been wanting to ask you."
"My mother's having her sixty-fifth birthday next Saturday. There'll be a small gathering at her house in Vallejo and I'd like you to come. It would mean a lot to me."
I had every intention of accepting, but one small matter had to be taken care of first. I had just taken a rather large bite of the pizza and a chunk of sausage was still sliding past my glottis. I paused to let gravity have its way, followed by a swallow of wine. So, the delay was purely digestive—but it soon became clear Brandy was not taking it that way. Before I could speak she slammed down her fork—that was how she ate pizza—and walked over to the window. When she turned around, her eyes were brimming with tears.
"You know, Howard, if you can't commit to this thing, why don't you just say it. You want to make this just a fuck thing, that's fine. Come over once a week and we'll fuck. How about Tuesday?"
"What? You're going to tell me I'm being crazy again?"
"Actually, yes. You have to stop this. You can't flip out every time I pause for a millisecond. And, besides, there was a reason."
She was waiting for me to continue, but, by this point, the sausage argument simply seemed too ridiculous. Then a better idea popped to mind, fully formed and ready to execute. "It's going to sound stupid," I warned.
She sat on the mattress and looked up suspiciously. "I'm listening."
I took a quick breath then, one by one, listed my paranoias: the mouse, the browser, the computer geek, the way it re-stimulated all that dismal old stuff with my wife. At first she listened with a dubious air, like a cop being told, "I had a perfectly valid reason for speeding." But by the time I got into the more humiliating confessions—my reluctance to admit insecurity being prime—her face softened and a compression eased in her jaw. Her eyes were still moist, but it no longer seemed connected to anger. Eventually, she cut me off, vehemently shaking her head.
"Howie, no. That call was a sales call. I left the room because I wanted to give him some shit about the fact I was on the No-Call list."
She wiped her eyes, then dabbed her fingers on the bedspread. "And you want to know about the mouse? The browser?" She looked up with a reserved laugh, a dewiness still present on her lashes. "You're freaking out about Ralph."
"My downstairs neighbor. He's a travel agent, about fifty years old, sixty pounds overweight, and gayer than Boy George. We water each other's plants. He keeps telling me I should do this, do that, with the computer. Half the time I don't even know what he's talking about. Oh, Howie, honey, no, no, no..." She stood up, put her arms around my neck, then pulled so tightly we both tumbled back to the mattress. We never did finish the pizza.
In the morning I awoke from a dream in which the word mandolin was etched into the center of my thoughts. Then I realized the thing in the dream that had been the mandolin was actually the speaker of Brandy's answering machine. The voice booming out was male. I only heard half a syllable before Brandy jolted up from the covers, flung herself across the bed, and silenced the machine with a slap of her palm. Then, without the slightest explanation, she pulled the covers back, rolled on her side, full-fetal, and resumed her posture of sleep. Was that it? Really? She wasn't going to say a word? Did she actually believe I had slept through the whole cacophony? So there I was again—trying to conjure a noncommittal way of asking who was on the phone. Unfortunately, there seemed no way of doing so without undermining the very premise of the previous night's catharsis and make-up sex. (Not to mention the prospect of future sex.) So I elected to say nothing, at least for the moment.
That night, doing dishes alone in my apartment, my wheels were still spinning. I was seeing it two ways: might there be a statement in the fact I was apparently incapable of feeling secure, even with someone as emotionally over the top as Brandy? On the other hand, what male on earth would fail to note the equivalence between her bolting the room during the American Idol call, and the way she had slammed off the answering machine?
I revisited the American Idol walk. It was quick, worried, urgent—if really examined, hardly the walk of someone whose only concern was a violation of the No-Call list. Had I been too quick to accept her explanation? Was I being had in some bizarre, emotionally twisted way?
What I needed was evidence, facts, bullet-proof clues. Here was a plan: knock on the door of the downstairs neighbor: "Oh, sorry—heh heh—I must be on the wrong floor. By the way, is that Mozilla Firefox I see on your computer?" Here was another plan: wait until she was out, then have another go at her email. I realized, of course, were I really the sort of person who would violate her email, I needn't be at Brandy's computer. In this cyber age, I could do just as well from the comfort of my own apartment. All I would need was her email address (which I had) and her password (of which I could make a reasonable guess). I poured myself a glass of wine, hoping it would calm me, and escort my thoughts to a sunnier realm. By the end of that glass I was still toying with email scenarios. Would it really be so bad? As a point of honor, I could limit my reading to subject lines, unless I found something truly compelling.
I decided to try a test. My first stop was Yahoo, which I knew to be her email host. When I encountered a password prompt, I keyed in the same 1 2 3 4 Brandy had used for the security gate. Remarkably, it didn't work. Perhaps she was more password-savvy than I had thought. I ventured some new attempts, sticking with the obvious: first name, last name, birthday, name of her cat. None worked. After a few more failures, I was close to surrender when it occurred to me L-I-K-K-Y was actually a nickname; it was definitely the case for the singer, and possibly even the cat. What if I typed in "L—I—C—O—R—I—C—E"?
The messages sprawled before me:
What's new at Tuff Shed
Half off Okabash shoes
Chase Card expiration alert
Your kind assistance appreciated. Second notice.
It all screamed out SPAM, actually something of a relief. Since nothing was compelling enough to open, I could not be accused of violating her email. Possibly she had already deleted anything personal, but having come this far, I went to the top and scanned again, at some point pausing at Liquid A. It still had that junk look. (A new kind of miracle cleaner?) I really had no idea why it drew me, but, after dwelling a little bit longer, my heart started to pound. The very first String Band album Brandy ever played for me went by the mouthful of a title: Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air. I glanced at the sender line. jwitall@CoreSystem$.com. Well, that certainly had the trappings of a computer guy. I clicked.
Wow. You were right about Liquid Acrobat. Can't believe I never heard of this group.
Of course, my impressions may have been biased by the way you introduced me to them.
BTW—No, it wasn't too early for you to say that. Caution is boring.
I love you too.
Looking forward to Thursday.
I stood from my desk and walked in a tight little circle. My breath was shallow and my head felt close to implosion. My primary emotion was fury, not just at Brandy, but also myself: how could I have descended this rabbit hole? How could I have bought the whole hyper-insecure act, as if she were some kind of emotionally raw rescue pet? By the sound of things, she and Jerrod might actually be denizens of the same planet. Or maybe Jerrod was just a guy enjoying some surprisingly easy action, who, unlike me, knew exactly what he was doing. Screw Jerrod. I returned to the keyboard, determined to register a response while the rage still coursed in my blood. Reply all:
YOU SHOULD REALLY BE MORE CAREFUL ABOUT YOUR PASSWORDS.
HAVE A GREAT TIME THURSDAY.
LOVE YOU BOTH,
Five minutes later the phone rang.
"What the hell are you doing hacking into my email?" Her voice was tight, fight ready and just a little bit shaky.
"That was very wrong of me, wasn't it? Good thing I didn't do something really egregious like screw someone behind your back."
"Don't put this on me."
"So you're not denying it?"
"I don't have to deny anything, Howard. You were never totally committed. I could sense it. Anyway, I never told you anything that wasn't true."
"Right. Like all that crap you were putting out, 'Meet my mother, it would mean a lot to me.' 'Oh, I told this guy I was already seeing someone. Gee, I hope it wasn't too soon.'"
"Stop turning this around."
"I'm not. It's relevant."
"What's relevant is you invading my email. Do you know how fucked that is? It's so fucked it proves I did exactly the right thing. So get on with your stupid life."
There is a point of view that the true measure of a relationship is how much it sticks with you after it's over. (I have also heard the same thing about movies.)
By this standard, my fling with Brandy would not have fared very well. For the first couple of months, it stung. But by the third month, I was already seeing someone else and the memory began to recede. After a few more relationships came and went, she rarely came to mind at all.
She certainly was not on my mind that day, five years later, as I sat scrunched in the middle seat of a Hawaiian Airlines jet, bound for Maui. Due to the vagaries of airline seating, my daughter and second wife were sitting together, several rows ahead. My seatmates were a scraggly male teenager by the window, and, on the aisle, a heavyset guy wearing a loose shirt covered with palm leaves. I had sized up Aisle-Guy as a potential talk risk, and did everything possible with body language to set up an unwelcoming wall. As it turned out, his singular preoccupation was the portable CD player, which was balanced on his lap through most of the flight. At some point, I glanced at one of his CDs and lo and behold if it wasn't The Incredible String Band. There was Licorice, gazing out from the corner of the jacket, looking much more like Brandy than I ever thought at the time. A specific moment came back to me: Brandy, standing in front of her window, eyes streaming with tears, looking for all the world like someone in the grip of feelings that had everything to do with me. The proposition was debatable; by this time she would have been cheating. But I still didn't want to let the memory go. My focus was on the me in that moment—the way I believed myself to be staring directly into her need. I knew that need. I knew its edges and sinews. I particularly knew the bubble of hope that arises when you start to believe, even for a heartbeat, that the void is about to be filled. There was an eros to that thought. It followed me back to the hotel, and into bed with my wife, where I must have been more passionate than usual, as afterwards she grew suspicious. "What got into you?"
"Must have been the Mai Tai on the plane," I replied, warning myself to be more cautious.
Despite this admonition, first thing in the morning, I downloaded Job's Tears onto the laptop and dragged it over to my wife.
"Listen to this with the earphones on," I told her. "There's something I want you to hear.