Every month, Joe tells me a different story, and every month, I listen. He doesn’t know that I imagine myself the star of his every one-night stand, and how could I tell him? I’m a married woman, after all. All Joe and I will ever have is imagination. All we will ever be is fiction. I know this is wrong. I know I should stop before it goes too far… but what I have learned from love is that while you can’t always fix what is broken, sometimes, you can survive it.
I’m just not sure I can possibly survive knowing Joe.
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“That’s a nice story,” I said. “I like the part about how you made her a woman.”
Joe reached for his paper cup of soda and took a long drink, as though talking had made him thirsty. “Didn’t I?”
“What I find interesting is the idea that a woman has to have sex to become a woman.”
He shrugged and tore open the paper of his sandwich. He always waits until after he’s told me the month’s tale before he eats, then falls to with gusto as though the telling has given him an appetite. He had turkey on wheat, the usual, but this time with tomatoes. I watched him pick them off, one by one. Joe hates tomatoes.
I said nothing, content to sit and watch him eat. I needed time for my body to ease back to the real world, for my heartbeat to slow and my breath to follow. I pulled my sweater closed around me, feigning a chill, to hide the fact my nipples had gone stiff. Later, at home, I would recall his story, the small details of it, and I’d touch myself until I came. For now, I played at being the cool observer, the same as I did every month when we met on this bench in the atrium or the one outside in the garden.
“I don’t know what her problem was.” Joe chewed and swallowed. A pearl of mayonnaise clung to the corner of his mouth, and I pushed a napkin toward him.
“She’d just lost her virginity to a stranger. Maybe she felt awkward.”
Of course, I had no idea what Mary felt, any more than I knew what any of Joe’s women thought or felt. My imagination filled in the details of their coupling, taking what he told me and painting a picture from the feminine point of view.
“She was on me like butter on a biscuit. How was I supposed to know she was a virgin? She didn’t act like one.”
“How’s a virgin supposed to act?”
He shrugged again. “I don’t know. But she acted like she knew exactly what she wanted. So…why was she so upset when she got it?”
I didn’t answer for a moment, thinking. “Maybe she was disappointed.”
He gave me the grin, the bad boy smile. “Sadie. I did not disappoint her.”
“Oh, that’s right. You made her a woman.”
Joe frowned. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“No. Losing my virginity didn’t make me a woman. Did it make you a man?”
His one-eyed squint shouldn’t have been as enchanting as it was. “I lost my virginity to Marcia Adams, my mother’s best friend. It made me a man pretty fast. I wouldn’t have survived it, otherwise.”
This is a story I’d never heard, and my face must have shown it. Joe laughed, one eye still squinted, face tipped up toward the atrium’s glass ceiling.
“Are you going to tell me about it?”
He looked, for one strange moment, shy. I hadn’t thought him capable of it. He shifted on the bench, and I was sure he was for once not going to tell me.
“I was seventeen. She asked me to take care of her garden. Money for college. She told me I could use their pool every day, when I was done mowing the lawn.”
“Sounds like you did more than mow her lawn.”
He rubbed a hand along the back of his neck. “Yeah.”
“And you really think that’s what made you a man?”
I watched him curiously. He turned to look at me, his face solemn and nodded slowly.
“Yeah. I think it showed me what to expect, anyway.”
“I’m not sure that’s the same thing.”
“Well, if losing your virginity didn’t make you a woman,” he said, “what did?”
I say nothing to that, a topic into which I didn’t wish to delve. After a moment, he shrugged. “Mary acted like I was handing her a twenty and kicking her out.”
“Maybe she assumed you were the sort of guy who picks up women in bars and sleeps with them, then expects them to leave.”
“I’d have let her shower first!” He cried, indignant. “Jeeze, I’m not a total asshole.”
Yet he didn’t deny he was, indeed, the sort of man who picks up women in bars and sleeps with them, perfectly satisfied with one night.
I didn’t respond, just sipped my own drink. Joe set his sandwich down. The sun shining through the glass overhead cut through the giant Boston ferns hanging above us and striped shadows in his dark blond hair. His frown pulled his full mouth into thinness.
I pretended not to know what he meant.
“Say it,” he repeated. “You want to. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Say what?” I relented. “That you are the sort of man who does that?”
“Keep going.” He sat back against the bench, his arms crossed.
I smiled. “That you’re a cheater? A rogue? That you don’t know the meaning of fidelity? That you go through women like wind through lace?”
“Don’t forget that I’m a silver-tongued devil who’ll say anything necessary to get into a woman’s pants. That my holy grail is pussy. That I’ve split more peaches than a porn star.”
I laughed. “Split more peaches? That’s a new one.”
Joe wasn’t laughing. “Go on and say it, Sadie. I’m a manwhore. You think I’m a slut.”
I studied him before I answered. “Joe…”
He wrapped up his food and stood, then tossed it in the pail next to me. He moved like a marionette dancing under the hand of an uncertain puppeteer, all jerks and twitches. He was angry. Really angry, and I stood, too.
He turned to me. His suit today was black, his shirt bright blue, his tie black with tiny blue dots scattered on the fabric. He put his hands on his hips, ruining the cut of his suit, which probably cost as much as my car payment.
More shadows speckled his blue-green eyes, the high cheekbones, the slope of his nose. No sign of a smile. His glare wrinkled the corners of his eyes, and it wasn’t fair they only made him better looking instead of haggard.
“I know you think it, so you might as well say it.”
“But Joe,” I said gently. “It’s true.”
“It won’t always be true!” His words rang out, echoing.
The plants seemed to recoil, startled at this shout interrupting their usual peace.
I shouldn’t have scoffed, but his anger had made me angry, too. “Oh, please.”
Joe stalked toward me. I didn’t move away. He stood only a few inches taller but he seemed bigger in his anger. I refused to flinch even when he leaned in so close he could have kissed me, if he’d wanted. This was my role, disinterested observer, as his was playful rogue. I acted like I wasn’t intimidated, though the truth was, being so close I could count his eyelashes, smelling him, feeling the heat of his breath on my face, I was. Underneath, I always was. Intimidated and turned on.
“It’s true,” he said through gritted teeth.
“I’ve heard that before. But every month you come back here and tell me a new story about some new woman. Or more than one. So you’ll have to forgive me if the idea of you suddenly becoming Mr. Faithful sounds a little funny.”
He jerked away from me, his finger pointing. “And every month, you listen.”
I lifted my chin. “Is it my fault you have stories to tell?”
He made a disgusted noise and gestured with his hands like he was throwing something away. Maybe me. I wasn’t sure.
“I don’t have to prove myself to you.”
“No,” I agreed. “So why are you trying so hard?”
We’d never argued. Arguments were for people more intimate than I’d ever have admitted we were. Now my heart thumped and heat rose in my cheeks. My stomach churned, and a sharp sting in my palms made me realize I’d clenched my fists. So much for the cool demeanor. I relaxed them with conscious effort, and the motion drew Joe’s gaze. He looked at my hands, then back at my face.
“What about you? What are you trying to prove?”
“Me?” The question surprised me. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Why do you listen?”
Now it was my turn to gather up my garbage and toss it in the trashcan. I gave him my back, intensely aware I didn’t have to see him to know he was looking at me.
“Not so nice when it’s turned around on you, is it?” I could hear his smirk.
I looked at him again. “I’ve been listening to your stories for over a year now, Joe. I guess it’s just become a bad habit.”
His body didn’t flinch, but his eyes did. “Bad habits should be broken, though, right?”
He turned on his heel and stalked away. Panic flared in me. He was messing up the parts we’d been playing for the past two years. What did that mean? That he wouldn’t be back? Or just that he wouldn’t have another story?
He didn’t turn, and I had too much pride to call after him again. I waited until he’d disappeared beneath the hanging greens and I was alone in the quiet before I sat on the bench again, my mutilated fists in my lap.
The flowers reproached me, but since they had no voice, I didn’t have to listen.