Five minutes late for Geoff’s reading at Fowey River U., you stride your black
suede heels into Lostwithiel Library past the chevron-bricked lobby to the sunny
Arbor Room, where you spot him up front, chatting with three perky young female
students. His hair glints more silver than a year ago. He’s rolled up the
sleeves of his black shirt with teal pinstripes in a rugged, sexy way. You do not
Unable to manage eye contact yet, you thank the gods that his back is to you. But
his back is to you, which sends up a red flag; he usually faces the door to gauge
the scene. Your cheeks flame scarlet over his for-fun-only flirtatious emails and
your liquor-soaked responses—keystrokes with no sense of propriety: “Let
me drink from you; be my sustenance.” Your clothes and dignity turn to glass.
If he turns, his baby blues will see you nude.
You hide in the back row, and your sexy black pencil skirt rides too short up your
thighs. You cross your legs and shift your bottom. Better—although a blue-haired
lady in polyester stares up your muscled calves to your fitted silk blouse to your
feathered hair, meets your eyes, looks away.
During the eloquent introduction, which you know by heart, your eyes drift from the faux
marble tile floor to soundproofing tiles in the ceiling—twelve across by twenty
deep—to young potted yews casting shadows on a mural of firs. Strange—no
dust motes in this late afternoon sun. Geoff strides on applause to the podium.
You center yourself on the back of a broad navy blazer, study the frayed end of
a scarf casually slung over the shoulder. Geoff’s voice, quavering—a
first—washes through the room. You send him lapis blue light to calm his nerves.
Clutched on your lap is his book, which you’ve read twice already. You float,
cradled, on the rhythmic waves of his words.
He cannot be reading the scene about the conference five years ago. Your
torso twitches. From twenty feet away, he reaches right through that massive woman
you’re hiding behind and pokes you square in the chest. Reaches through time
itself to that very conference, when you won a raffle to meet with a famous author.
A singular conference during which, on the penultimate day, you sat, hands in your
lap, at an antique table in a room with books shelved from floor to ceiling. The
hypnotizing aromas of old paper, the glue in case bindings, Geoff’s wool overcoat,
his nasty chest cold. His hands paging through your short story manuscript, his
right index finger pausing here and there, touching your words. As you listened
to his mesmerizing voice, his kind comments and astute proposed changes, something
unworldly, psychic, possessed you, forced you to feel an invisible cord binding
your sternum to his, which ruffled your passions, flustered your senses. Observing
your sudden fidgeting, he finished quickly, asked if you had questions. You said
no, thanked him, and fled. Pondered the strange feeling for days. Wondered if you
were lovers in a previous life. Dismissed it entirely as a strange symptom of jet
lag or an eruption from the Muse of creative joie de vivre. Joined a master’s
program, were astonished to find him on the faculty there. As if it were all meant
to be. But what all, what be? All too silly for credibility, you think. And yet—
synchronicity.” Geoff’s voice lingers on the word to signal
the end of the passage, which is clearly the end of the passage, but he is an experienced
reader and empathizes with his audience, with humanity. Applause ends your reverie.
As you join the long, languid flow toward his thick black autograph, someone behind
you shrieks “Mekka!” It’s Dona, a former classmate, a petite poet
with jet-black hair in a stylish wedge, whom you haven’t seen since you both
graduated last year, the oldest two in a class of intergenerational students.
“Look at you!” Dona says.
“There are fringe benefits to divorce,” you respond, stooping to hug
her, remembering with pleasure her earth-mother embrace.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“I’m not,” you say.
“Which explains your relieved and happy glow,” Dona says. Her smiling
eyes roam your face, pleased for you.
With lowered voice, you tell her that last year was a year from hell, the year you
divorced your lying husband and suffered anorexia, inordinate fear, night after
month of little sleep, and the suicidal rock bottom of the Betrayal Trench, a regular
Bermuda Triangle where you longed for oblivion. Instead, into that maelstrom of
agita and angst, up popped Geoff’s email in your lonely inbox. You don’t
tell Dona about him but wish that you could. That he lived too far away, Vancouver,
for in-person get-togethers, but he drank merlot and chatted online with you throughout
the day, many nights, and you found self-preservation and the courage to rise, exercise,
lift weights, three pounds to five pounds to eight, dream of springtime and sex.
He was a good and kind friend to hold your hand figuratively through the typhoon
of emotions, which he was weathering himself, still devastated by his partner-split.
You held his hand in return, and he somehow surged into your heart like “you’ve
got male” along with a flood of libido in your nether regions—hardly
part of any rational plan, but your heart and hormones didn’t ask your brain
The autograph line moves up. You greet the man joining Dona, the always-smiling
poetry professor, his beard and tweed jacket of complementary silvers and grays.
A student interrupts, and you can’t focus on his multisyllabics over snippets
of Dona’s conversation now behind you: “never seen such a transformation
looks like Marilyn Monroe.” Gross hyperbole, but you smile and stand
straighter, gut and butt tucked in—shades of Miss Georgianna’s charm
class way back in sixth grade.
“Should I address this to you or someone else?” Geoff asks, not smiling,
reaching for his book in your hands.
Too late to run. You swallow your tongue and point to your chest, are not sure then
if he recognizes your more-svelte self. He’s flushed as he writes “To
Mekka” with great flourish. Is he ill? Your eyes trace the familiar G as he
signs: Geoffrey. Not his customary autograph. Formal, far away. Your breast touches
his bicep. You jump back, regain proper territorial distance. As distant in time
as Chaucer, for whom Geoff’s parents had named him.
“Did you miss the reading?” he asks, still not smiling. Which is when
you realize, You Screwed Up—maybe he wanted, needed, to see you, greet you,
before he read. Or maybe you’ve spun an intricate web of self-lies to trick
your mind into playing masochistic games. Your explanation of rush-hour traffic
sinks into mumble, and you step aside. So that’s that. Dream dreamt. Reality
sucks. What could you have been thinking?
Outside in oddly warm March air, you fish for your keys, too confused to cry.
“Mekka.” It’s Dona. “The department will go out after—want
Back inside—you resist looking at Geoff—Dona updates you on her chapbook
prep, then segues into the phenomenon of conversing with lesbians about the beauty
of women, which is not a discussion, she says, men can have with men. You venture
it’s socio-cultural and don’t ask if she’s suddenly switched sides
of the fence. Then she’s on to other tip-of-the-iceberg comments until Geoff
and stragglers meander toward the door. Geoff doesn’t look at you.
Outside in front of the gang, he says, “Mekka, I like your blouse.”
You could have intrigued with the name of its color, Aegean Sea Blue, been glib
and gay, but no, your eyes drop involuntarily as you whisper thanks and blush. You
look up to see Geoff crimson but beaming. Too big a smile? Is he laughing at your
awkwardness? He wouldn’t do such a thing—would he? Would you? Has anyone
noticed your adolescent exchange?
At Rendezvous, a restaurant/bar in a converted railway station, complete with three-ton
chandelier and stained-glass windows, you set your purse on a stool at Geoff’s
high table, chat with his friend, the smiling bearded professor, and drink a vodka
on the rocks like it’s iced tea in August because Geoff, king of the mixed
message, once again won’t look at you. You float to another table and, with
Dona, stroke current students suffering lack of confidence. Share their fried calamari
and memories of summer residencies in Rome. Promise to attend their graduation.
Write their names on a napkin because you won’t remember. Back at Geoff’s
table, you order another vod. It tastes weaker than the first, so you drink it fast,
too. You can’t look at Geoff. You watch the piano player, who checks you out
to and from the restroom. Nice, to be acknowledged, even like that.
“Mekka.” Your questioning eyes, swimming in molecules of music pooled
and reflected on the glossy black piano, catch up with your turning head, and you
are looking into Geoff, who is looking into you and smiling in shadow. Who turned
out the light over the table? Where did everyone go? He smiles so big, his eyes
squeeze closed. You smile back in kind. Two people smiling at each other, blind.
You ease up on your smile so you can see. So has he. He raises his glass to toast.
You have only ice in your glass. Does a toast count if there’s nothing to
drink? You clink glasses in silence. You try to drink melt from the bottom of your
glass. There is none. Your mouth says, “I tried,” your shoulders shrug,
and your head turns back to the piano. You tried? Tried to what? Tried to let your
sabotaging other-self scare him away? You’re so shit-faced you’re lost between
psychological observer and participant, between twit and “intelligent person
with advanced degree.” What, now you’re schizo? You’re too old
for this crap.
The light returns. You help the smiling, bearded professor count the gang’s
collected currency, which is cracked because you’re crocked and he’s
been drinking Perrier. People rise. Stool legs scrape.
Geoff opens his arms for a hug and says, motioning to your blouse, “To a silk
day. It is silk, isn’t it?” WTF? Your brain can’t form the words
that your mouth can’t produce. His smile crinkles his eyes closed again. Good
thing—you’ll lose yourself in them this close. You lean in to hug, barely
touch, no mixed message there. You can’t look back—a year must pass
before you’ll see him next—and you manage not to tumble down the steps
when your right heel slips. The car drives itself home—guardian angels at
work. You won’t test them like that again. You try to look ahead, but the
future yawns with boredom.
Four days later, he emails from Paris. You look fantastic, he writes. You perk up,
but you won’t hear from him for three weeks now while he’s on tour in
Europe, a different city or country every day or two. You brace for Geoff withdrawal.
Plan A: Set your sights on the year-long horizon and roll with the waves, one day
at a time. Plan B: Don’t ever email him again; it’s just an infatuation,
or infantile desire, and it’s over—or should be. Plan C: Try navigating
the “land-ho,” lounge-lizard route. Plan D: You’re not a whore,
so scratch Plan C and instead seek a shrink, one who’s expert on hypomania,
transference, and rebound relationships. Plan E: Scratch Plan D, and instead Google
postmenopausal testosterone + intense sexual desire. Which it turns out is rare,
but you’ve got it, per the blood test, but only for Geoff, who’s older
than you, so you’re not a cougar, but that’s no consolation.
The best is yet to come, Geoff always says. To pass time between work, the gym,
you drink absinthe at home, surf BsideU.com, and study self-help manuals, which
define infatuation as three months long. Odd—you’ve been infatuated
with Geoff for a year. Maybe three—if you were in denial the first two. Why
do the emails feel so real, the fleeting moments of real him, in person, a dream
shimmering in mist? Is it the L word, wrapped in a perky bow of delusion? You shiver,
sip more absinthe, recall his flushed smile, wear it like dew. Wear it like the
mirrored last image adrift in his eyes: fitted blouse—silk—Aegean Sea
blue. Patient blue. True blue. More like hungry-loins you or “fifty-five going
on sixteen” you. This is not normal. You weren’t always shallow, not
to diminish Geoff’s virtues. Have you always been hormonally challenged? No.
So how can you teach your heart that desire isn’t love? Is it even possible
now—old dogs, new tricks, and such? Back to square one.
With legs up on the sofa, new dog at your feet, and Augustine Pinot Noir in a crystal
goblet this season, you’re still exchanging emails but less frequently and
with no hint of flirtation. Your emotions have calmed. Stable is nice. And then
he sends a summer photo, you can’t take your eyes off his bulging biceps,
and you send a photo back, a low-cut tank with skirtini, which you always wear around
the house. He messages three times, commenting on your “worthy cleavage.”
And up pops your libido—creaming your panties like you’re a teenager
again every time his name pops up bold in your inbox.
The Pinot Noir is smooth, no tannins. You pour another glass. You reflect on the relationship, how the titillating highs of your roller-coaster emotions gave you vertigo,
how his mood swings sent you around the bend, how your mood swings flummoxed him—all
via email. You decide, calmly and maturely, that someone must close this amusement-park
ride: either care for him enough to spare him you, or care for yourself enough
to spare you him. No other options sail into view, other than keep loving this man
however he wishes, so you choose to sleep on it but second-guess yourself and suspect
procrastination. Then you third-guess yourself and wonder if he, perhaps infatuated
with you but still shy, is thinking the same thing.
“Mekka,” you say to yourself, “you’re fifty-six—grow
You raise your goblet in the direction of Vancouver, toast this mesmerizing man
who’s been lighting your world, and bid a silent and caring adieu to what
surely must be lunacy. You take another sip, drain the goblet, and cry until tears
drip off your chin, tickle down your cleavage, your sternum. Which is when you start
laughing. Sure, adieu, for six hours until you change your mind again—could
be six minutes this time. Or six seconds even, which, in fact, is how long it takes
you to start daydreaming about seeing him in March at Fowey River U., when you
will probably again wear that fitted silk blouse, Aegean Sea blue, with an extra
button, maybe two, undone. What’s wrong, really, with a little cleavage between
has published fiction in Perigee: Publication for the Arts and
Fiction Week Literary Review. Her essay in the anthology, Winter
Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging, will soon be available from
Serving House Books.
She is working toward her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, at Fairleigh Dickinson
University, has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, and is currently
working on a short story and novella collection.