What the hell. Email them both. But let's err on the side of caution and only do Amber once this afternoon. He clicked Receive just to warm up.
Oh God. No. Not Kristin.
Today when you get home I want to do for you what you did for me last week. And I know how you like it. First I'm going to put that massage oil in the microwave—
He couldn't read any further. A year ago he would have cracked the underside of his desk with the force of his response. Now he just felt guilty and a little bit embarrassed. She really was trying, wasn't she? Maybe he hadn't been fair. Maybe he should give Amber a miss the afternoon.
Speaking of which, she'd been a busy little beaver herself.
What's happenin? Three o clock thats what! Thats when the Fman gives his Amber
Oh God. What was he thinking about? For twelve solid months he'd been jeopardizing his marriage and betraying someone who loved, trusted, and respected him—for what? For some fly girl who couldn't spellcheck. But who could make him whimper like a puppy with a few flicks of her tongue in the right places.
He sat at his curvilinear workstation, hunched in his Aeron chair, head in his hands. As he ran his fingers through one of Bumble and Bumble's more sensitive cuts, Raleigh's words echoed. We want what we want.
Well, he thought. Here I am. Frobisher, lab rat. Chasing that food pellet. Battering himself bloody as he bounces off the walls of the maze. Wanting what he wanted.
He straightened up and stared at the screen. Which now displayed only his wallpaper. Piero della Francesco's "Ideal City." A fifteenth century vision of the Platonic absolutes in stone and mortar. Buildings stately as Euclidean wedding cakes bordering a piazza. An empty piazza. Empty. Empty, Frobisher knew, because only the good, the just, and the beautiful could have lived in the presence of such austere splendor. People made the best they could be by the buildings in which they lived. Perfect people in a perfect city. Not one of them cheating on his wife.
After a while he made up his mind. Fuck Raleigh. What the hell did he know? He'd been hanging off his every word like some kind of retarded teenager listening to war stories at a gas station. Raleigh was just an aging roué teetering on the precipice of absurdity. And how great could his life be anyway? He was never anyplace but the courthouse, his office, the gym, or a restaurant. His apartment was a closet for fifty suits. And the three successive dirty weekends that Raleigh called a relationship only impressed the retards at the gas station.
So don't listen to him, said Frobisher to himself. Trust your instincts. Do the right thing. Live up to the best rather than down to the worst.
He squared his shoulders. First Amber.
His ears were still ringing when he got onto the four oh seven. He also had what could well have been the beginnings of a black eye. Probably not. But just maybe. She hadn't caught him square.
It had been much, much worse than he feared. What he expected was a sad parting of the ways. Okay, maybe some recriminations, half-spoken but clear enough to hurt. Well, he was man enough to take it. Or as he actually put it to himself, a big enough person to accept responsibility.
That's how he had begun. Grave and sorrowful. It was wrong of him to get involved with her while he was still married. He owed it to her to leave her alone as long as he was still with his wife. Thus he broke it off while artfully leaving open the possibility of a reunion down the road. Down deep he thought that if Kristin's new leaf turned out to be anything short of the whole tree he could drop back into the old life. But at least he'd be able to say he'd given it his best shot.
Amber hadn't taken it well. No, not well at all. Unfortunately he'd been a little less scrupulous about raising expectations than he'd led Raleigh to believe, even if Raleigh hadn't believed him. It had never really occurred to him that the things he said in the postcoital afterglow could be held against him. Anyway he didn't remember those things all that well.
Amber did. At first she sat there looking a lot like Thumper in the highbeams of a Peterbilt. Her mouth tightened. Here it comes, he thought. She's going to cry.
"Motherfucker. Mo-ther-fucker. You were gonna kick that cold bitch's ass out to the curb? Right. Motherfucker. You loved me. Right. You loved my pussy, motherfucker.
You think about it up there in Westport. You remember it. And remember this. Motherfucker."
It was clumsy and he saw it coming. But Frobisher hadn't been in a fight since Watergate and he'd never been hit by a woman. So he just kept his hands in his pockets and barely turned his head. It hurt more than he thought it would. For an instant he thought that after this terrible catharsis she'd really finally start crying and he could leave on the moral high ground.
No such luck. After the first swing connected she overbalanced a little bit and almost fell. That didn't help her temper. "Motherfucker." Frobisher backed up two paces. Those nail extensions looked dangerous all of a sudden. His jacket was on the couch. Let it stay there. He could always get another. He thought he'd heard her breathing hard before. Not like this.
She was standing there with nostrils flared and eyes like swordpoints. Don't take your eyes off her. And whatever you do don't turn your back.
Doorknob. Doorknob. Right here. Thank you God.
He slammed it shut behind him and stood there with both hands in a death grip on the knob. Please please please don't let it turn. He had a horrified mental image of her pursuing him down West Broadway. Then he had an even worse image of her cornering him in the stairwell. He wasn't sure who'd win a fair fight.
It had been a full minute without attempted movement from the knob. Good. Or without sound from within. Maybe not so good. Maybe she was just waiting to spring. As quietly as possible he made his way down the stairs.
For a little while he considered the possibility of reforming his life in stages. This afternoon hadn't been easy. But some stirring of self-knowledge assured him that if he didn't maintain confessional momentum he'd slump back into his moral torpor.
When he got to Grand Central he stopped at the florist. Another guy was just ahead of him. They eyed each other with the kind of curious disquietude usually reserved for adjoining urinals. Flower shops do that to men. Each is there for a reason. If it's not a birthday or an anniversary, it's trouble. And any man who's there for trouble admits to every other that he is about to return home a beaten whimpering apologizing blame assuming disgrace to his gender. In the presence of an audience he might find the spirit to drop the flowers in the trash, loudly announce "Ah, fuck her anyway," and strut boldly out. Waddling, actually, to accommodate newly elephantine gonads.
Never happened. Never will. If you're there, you're whipped, and you know it. So do the other guys. Even the twink behind the counter. It's like a prison exercise yard; the guys want to know your rap. No different for Frobisher. In fact, a little worse.
The other guy looked at Frobisher and then looked back fast. "Holy shit."
Still stunned, Frobisher didn't respond immediately. "Uh. . . pardon?"
"Jesus," said the other guy. "She should be getting you flowers." He laughed and shook his head. "Try ice." He picked his parcel off the counter and stuck it under his arm. "I thought I had it tough."
Christ, thought Frobisher as he gingerly felt his face. It was swollen. And hot. He took his dozen longstemmed reds and bought a cup of ice at Zaro's.
There was a smell in the air that he couldn't place at first. Oleaginous and warm.
He knew he'd smelled it before but hadn't smelled it in a while. Then it struck him in the brainstem with the kind of short-circuit force that comes only with visceral memories, those that connect the senses to instinct without the intervention of those parts of the brain devoted to calculus and morality.
Hot baby oil. Oh boy oh boy. During the few seconds he hovered in the doorway blood began to pump through face and hands and groin, momentarily dissolving guilt.
But only momentarily. He was a man on a mission. Kristin was wearing a different robe this time. His.
She saw the roses. She smiled. Not the way Amber would smile, all childlike glee and giggles and wet kisses dissolving into sweaty nakedness. A slow smile. Surprised. If you paid attention to the curve of lip and sudden damp glitter of the eyes you could see the symphonic interaction of sentiment and thought. It was as though Frobisher was seeing it for the first time. It was. But it had happened before. He just hadn't noticed.
So he put the roses on the table. He told her. It didn't take long. Two minutes, tops. As he spoke he realized that he'd dived off the high board and was going to hit the water whether he wanted to or not. He wanted to stop in midair and take it all back, to reverse his trajectory and make everything run backwards like a home movie until he was standing on the board again, grinning and secure, flexing muscles for the camera. But words once released are gravity's victims and fall whether or not there's water in the pool.
Her da Vinci smile faded as slowly as it appeared. It didn't disappear altogether until his last lame line—"I love you, I'm sorry"— had hung in the air for a full thirty seconds. The combination sounded adolescent even to him. And he had just that instant realized that he was in a very adult situation.
Kristin nodded slowly. "So." Her mouth tightened just a little. Frobisher hoped she was struggling to control tears and that she would lose the fight. He knew that once she cried he'd be okay. Not immediately perhaps. Not by Monday morning. But eventually.
"So." She looked him straight in the eye. Hers were alarmingly free of moisture. How is it that he'd chosen the purge himself on the one day in recorded history when no woman cried. "Interesting. Very interesting. I had no idea. How stupid am I."
"You know you're not stupid. You're the smartest woman I know. Smartest person," he added immediately.
She sniffed, not as a precursor to a sob, but dismissively. "Right. That's why we're having this conversation. Because I'm so smart. And because I was smart enough to marry a smart guy like you. Speaking of smart. How smart were you? I mean, with her."
"Kristin, I know it was stupid—"
She cut him off with a quick karate chop of one hand. "That's not what I mean. I mean, were you safe?" His confusion evident, she explained: "Did you use condoms?"
For a moment he was relieved. If she was this clinical maybe she wouldn't be that mad. Then the anxiety balled up in his stomach again, the same fear that had been driving him the previous twelve months. Lies, the truth, or somewhere in between? He decided to stick to the new policy. "No. I mean, when it first happened, it was kind of a surprise, so I didn't, you know, I wasn't, uh, prepared—"
"Shut up." Funny, she'd never said that to him before. Her mouth was a small straight line. "Great. You broke up our marriage and then tell me that maybe you've killed me. Nice work." She picked up the phone and hit a speed dial number. "Hi. This is Doctor Frobisher. I need some stat blood work. Two samples. One I'll run in. The other you pick up at the hospital. ER in an hour. Yeah. HIV. I'll fax you the permissions on Monday. Thanks." She turned to him. Still no emotion. "I'll do my own sample here. You go to the hospital. I'll call in the order when you leave."
The reptile brain was in control again, this time with fear instead of lust. His palms and soles were wet. He always trusted Amber. What if he was wrong? "Why can't you do my sample?"
"Because I don't want to touch you." Here eyes were still dry. "I'm not going to touch you. Ever. You're not going to sleep here again. Ever." She blinked hard. Tears at last?
No. Just thinking. "I've changed my mind. I'm drawing my blood at the office. Get what you need for the next week or so and take it with you. Go to the hospital. They'll know what to do at the desk. Don't come back here until your lawyer has talked to my lawyer. I'm not going to see you again without a judge in front of us."
She picked up the roses. They were still in plastic. She wound up to swing them across his face. Once burned that morning, Frobisher recoiled and hid behind a sheltering forearm.
Kristin stayed frozen like DiMaggio at the plate. After a moment she relaxed and one-handed extended the flowers. "Take these back. You know I thought that these were the cruelest thing you could do. But I just realized you're too stupid for cruelty. Now go. Call my office for the results."
He hesitated. She headed for the stairs. Suddenly she turned. "By the way. Your eye. I guess your girlfriend—Tiffany?"
"Amber. Amber didn't like getting dumped very much. Ice and Ibuprofen. Now I mean it. Go."
Raleigh didn't find himself alone very often. That's why he liked his Saturday mornings in the office. Secretary and paralegal gone, no clients or witnesses, Dizzy Gillespie on the stereo, French roast from the shop downstairs—a moment of peace. Also a time at which he could use his reading glasses without fear of discovery.
He was getting ready to go. First read the email. Well, what do you know. Frobisher. He hadn't heard from him since that brutal day judicial imprimatur was given to the capsizing of the marital ship. Ugh.
He had warned Frobisher going in that spilling to Kristin had put him in such a position that he needed a proctologist more than a lawyer. Worse, the judge they drew was notorious for thinking that Hester Prynne got what she deserved. Not that there was much the court could have done if it wanted. Kristin earned about five times as much as her ex-spouse-elect and had ponied up the down payment for the baroque space station they called home. Raleigh argued for alimony and half the equity as compensation for the value of his architectural services. Compelling as these claims might have been, they wilted in the face of his opponent's rather expressive readings from Amber's deposition testimony. Issuing judgment from the bench the court had managed to work in the line, "You play, you pay." Through it all Kristin had sat there looking like Madame Defarge. Frobisher, on the other hand, trembled noticeably. Particularly when it became clear that he had to buy Kristin out of the house he had built.
The handwriting was then well and truly on the wall. Frobisher tried. Grant him that. Unfortunately, the market valued an architectural bauble differently from its architect. Lots differently. Frobisher defaulted on the brand new jumbo mortgage after a few months. His nonexistent equity presently became the property of the bankruptcy trustee. Shortly thereafter he stopped calling and Raleigh was not surprised to learn through an announcement that he'd relocated. Big time.
Well, hell. Let's see what the kid has to say for himself. Raleigh pointed and clicked.
I'm sorry I dropped off the face of the earth like that. Maybe Fort Wayne isn't completely off the face of the earth, but it's sure a long way from Nolita. I'm sure you understand I just had to get out of town after what happened. The house was bad enough. The bankruptcy was worse. I'm sure you heard about what happened with me and the firm. I guess I got sloppy because I was so distracted. I guess that shouldn't surprise me. Maybe I've beat myself up enough. But what did surprise me was Stephanie and the others. I always thought we were friends. I really counted on them. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the hospital wasn't going to want us on that addition after what happened . I should have known that they wouldn't be all that interested in my side of the story. So anyway, Fort Wayne isn't so bad. And it's a lot cheaper than the City. Which is good because draftsmen don't make all that much. I'm renting a condo with a guy who works at the Post Office. It's actually not bad, but he has his kids on weekends, which I don't really enjoy. Is Amber still at the Apogee? I called her and emailed her but she never got in touch.
Anyway, I have to get back to work. Take care.
Raleigh read it through twice and then sat quite still. At length he stirred. He pulled an Upmann from the Edwardian humidor on his Deco desk and clipped it with practiced grace. He fired up and swiveled to look down two stories to Greenwich and Duane. A nice day. Lots of nice looking people out.
He squinted through smoke at the screen. He had always known that the kid wasn't smart enough to figure it out on his own. But he had hoped that he was smart enough to listen. But he wasn't. And there he was in a Midwestern trailer park. Kristin was on a Prozac drip somewhere. And the bank had got soaked on the house.
Oh well. He dropped his reading glasses into a drawer. The same one that held the vial with the blue pills. Which he tossed it into the gym bag beside his chair.
Amber would be waiting.
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