My mother comes to stay with us once a week because for the last eight months she’s been having an affair with Eddie Royce, our city councilman. Wednesdays she drives to Mandeville from Lumberton in time to have an early dinner with my husband Howard and me. Howard’s reserved, or tries to be, because he’s fond of my father and not comfortable harboring my mother under these circumstances. She’s all charm with him, flirty and interested in what he’s doing, and when she’s like this she’s hard to resist. She’s lost ten pounds, and tonight at dinner she asks Howard if he notices, and when he says, yes, she explains that’s why she’s picking at her food, not because it isn’t delicious. “There is room for one bite of dessert,” she says, reaching for his plate with her fork, and he pushes his pie over to share. She’s meeting Eddie at 6:30 and I ask Howard if he’ll do the dishes so we can get across the Causeway a little early, and he says, “Sure,” but doesn’t look too happy about it.
My mother and I get into the car and drive across the lake to New Orleans where for the last year and a half we’ve been working toward apprenticeship degrees in Culinary Arts at Delgado Community College. My mother is a wonderful cook and our dream is to open a restaurant; she’s in the kitchen, and I’m out front running the room. We’ve found a tiny cottage on the edge of the warehouse district, and the act of sale is in a couple of weeks. My dad’s an accountant and he’s found the financing, and Howard’s going to help out with some of the renovation. It’s a family project, but I’ve been trying to slow things down because I don’t know where this affair is going. Right now Mom couldn’t crack an egg. Last week I suggested that maybe we should look around a little more, but my dad had already made the down payment. Everything’s sailing through without a hitch. Dad doesn’t know about Eddie and he’s happy “his girls” are doing this restaurant together.
Tell your boss you enjoy what he has you doing, about how you wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. You’d like more to do; you have time. He’ll laugh when you joke that you’re developing a loyalty habit that’s like a twitch. Stop before you admit you don’t want to go home.
Remember the details he’ll soon forget he mentioned. So when you say something he’s forgotten he told you, he’ll tap his forehead with a pen, and say, “Here you are again, Carly, inside my head.”
Be subtle, just a bit inappropriate. This requires balance. The world’s full of blatant need and honesty. All those handshakes that run a beat too long, footsie under the table. Avoid skin. Think of whispers, and how, when you want to hear one, you only adjust your head.
Elevator rides are great opportunities for intimacy. They’re like bed standing up. You step in front of the boss, lean back a little, and hope someone else gets on.
Stay late to help him put together his power point presentation.
Always know how you look. Lips slightly parted, hands alive as you talk. Know what your legs are doing, if they’re crossed or you’re bouncing your heel.
These things also work: Tuberose perfume. Nipples through black shirts. Hair in your eyes he’ll watch you brush away, wanting to do this.
Offer him one of the long neck beers you’ve stashed in the fridge in a grocery bag.
Walk slowly in and out of his office with corrections. Don’t be deferential anymore. Call him Albert often. Albert. Albert. Albert. Put the papers in front of Albert, who will take your wrist and pull you close to him. Kiss him back.
The desk is high and too hard.
Move to the rug. You don’t want this to be just one time, so set up a reason for the next time. Tell Albert how very close you are, just a minute away, when you know he can’t last seven more seconds. Tell Albert you’ve never had an orgasm fucking. “Watch me,” you say. He promises he’ll be the one who pushes you through the next time, who gets on your map.
After sex, tell him something pretty. How you were the kid who always stayed after school to erase the blackboard because it was so lovely to run through the day’s work. Forget that you don’t mean any of it, and that you stayed late not to help your teacher, but because you didn’t want to go home to your drunk parents, and that all you felt after you’d clapped the chalk out was dread.
The next day at work, stand beside his chair so he runs his fingers up your bare calf.
Bring him chocolate covered almonds. Spike his coffee with Amaretto.
After the security guard shows Albert’s boss the tape of the two of you fucking in the middle of the floor and you both get called up to the executive office to watch it, hesitate. Take a closer look. Say: “How do you know it’s me?” The guard will say you were signed in until 11 p.m. Have the guard rewind and replay, rewind and replay. It may look like you, or it may be the woman from the third floor you saw Albert talking to in the parking lot after he left you with a few more corrections to make, both of them in the open V of the door on the passenger side of her car, because he was considering the drink she’d offered. Say it isn’t you. You don’t have shoes with 4″ heels because your knee was screwed up in a car wreck. Point to a scar under your skirt and threaten to show your boss’s boss. He’ll shake his head and say that’s not necessary.
Leave the room.
Clean out your desk. Pitch all of your Albert’s notes and corrections and the power point zip disk into the trash. Pour what’s left of your Coke in there, too. Try not to look down at your sensible shoes.
Go into your Albert’s office. He’ll beg you to keep your voice down. Raise your voice. Fill every cubicle of the office with your voice. Rattle the windows. Make coffee jump out of mugs. Ask him this: “You fucked her after me?”
If you have to think of yourself as a trophy, don’t let it be the brassy thing you win at swim meets. Be the five-point deer head in the lodge. That’s funnier, don’t you think? The kill he made without his wife? The proof he hangs in his den — next to the smaller deer in heels — that she’ll put in the trash if he dies first.
When you wake at 4 a.m. and your brain’s on fire, pretend you’re swimming in a lake alone and the water’s cool. Slow down. Go easy now. The feeling that love’s a kind of home — well, it won’t go away, but you can put it away. Just dam it and trust the banks will hold once the water stills.
Read the newspaper the minute it hits your door. Notice bad days also happen to other people. Be grateful for that.
Find your next job in the want ads because you want to be seamless. Then you have a highway with no red lights. Just high speeds and miles of road. A place where you can drive all night. Texas. Those people in Texas care so much about their trucks that the roads are black velvet.
At our lunch this week, I talk to my father about teaching to keep him at arm’s length. He’s a music professor. I’m in graduate school. The college is across the street from IHOP. I say I’m worried my knowledge is a mile wide and an inch thick. How will I answer their questions. He’s staying on track, paternal, encouraging, says I won’t begin learning until I get in front of a class.
Daniel left ten days ago. When I told my father at last week’s lunch, his hug goodbye in the parking lot was too long. “Welcome back,” he’d said. He’s so easy to encourage. When I was young, I would break up with boyfriends, sometimes, just for him. It was my gift. He dropped what he was doing to give me help. He’d tell me love was easy to get over, and there was more of it, even better, around the bend. He was happy like that, swooping in like some falcon, to sit on my leather-aproned arm. He’d take me out for Baskin-Robbins, or we’d sit in the kitchen and play gin rummy until late.
I thought IHOP had a peaked roof, like a Bavarian cottage. I’m sure it used to. Seventeen years ago, when Daniel and I were in college, we’d come here to study. You could drink coffee all night, fool yourself into thinking you’d slept by eating Belgian waffles. There were menu items from the countries we dreamed we’d visit. Booth travel. I loved that. The seats were turquoise vinyl. Now they’re upholstered. The ceiling’s flat and floated low with water-stained tiles.
My father looks at me over the shiny menu, says, “The best question I ever got was from a woman in my counterpoint class – Didn’t I think music written by men imitated male coitus?”
The waitress has walked up and wants us to order. He gets grilled chicken on a bun and I just want coffee.
“The next day I told her, well, yes –.” He’s making orgasm spikes with his hands, diagramming Brahms, Prokofiev, rising action, climax, falling action, talking loud. For the life of me I can’t decide if this okay.
I thought IHOP played music from around the world. Polkas and yodel songs, pretty Irish tunes. Now it’s just the radio through fuzzy speakers. My father asks our waitress to turn the volume down, but she points at the other diners, says, “Can’t.”
There’s a guy in the next booth wearing a flannel shirt over a faded T-shirt, staring. He thinks this older guy is with his girlfriend. I wish I could tell him different, but I’m not so sure.
Orgasms aren’t some abstraction anymore, like when my father brought me in his study twenty years ago to explain this inexplicable thing between men and women. Now, I know. I could argue Satie and Debussy, show him how their music moves like a woman’s orgasms, like mine, but there’s not enough room in the booth for me to spread wide my arms. I’d like a wind gust to lift me out of here into the apartment where Daniel’s living. I miss him. I wish we could meet for sex, tonight, so everything doesn’t have to stop at once.
I’m wearing dark lipstick I put on at the red light. When the food comes I’m wiping it off.
The tabletops in here used to be sticky. The waitresses wore orange dirndl skirts.
This summer Daniel and I traveled to Austria, France, and Belgium. We ate our weight in blintzes, crepes, waffles, drank coffee eight times a day. We should have gone to fewer cities and taken trains. There were vicious fights that felt like someone else’s, in rental cars, over wrong turns, near collisions, going too slow on the Autobahn. The elegant navy sedans that blew by us made things worse. In France, Daniel went down a too-narrow street and the rear view mirror on my side hit a big green recycling dumpster. I screamed, covered my face. He got out of the car and checked. He pushed the mirror back into place, said no damage done. He got back in and drove and let me cry without once touching my arm.
The people in the corner by the cash register are talking about something comfortable. After my father’s gone, I want to come back into IHOP, sit at their table and order silver dollar pancakes.
I tell my father I’ve screwed things up with Daniel good; I want to work this out. He looks down at his plate and picks out broken ends of French fries. I feel bad for him so I give him a job. I talk about quiet music. I’ve been listening to Arvo Part’s choral pieces. The surface is so still. He leans in, employed, and says, “Try Palestrina! Lovely!” His eyes are light blue. I believe him like I hope some kid will believe me. Medieval music. Wandering modality. Sacred texts.
My cell phone is on silent ring and it buzzes in my lap. Be Daniel. I left a message for him this morning, some fake concern so we will talk.
Lunch has to be over in fifteen minutes because my father has class and he’s checking his watch often because he’s never late.
I thought this place had strawberry syrup. And boysenberry. I remember half a dozen syrups on a lazy Susan, and you could buy miniatures of them for the pancakes you meant to make at home.
He walks me out and puts his arm around my shoulder. I grab one finger on his hand. I realize what I’ve done. I’ve confused him with just a father, but it feels nice, and embarrassing, this mistake, to touch this man by accident.