I bring her to my club. When I pick her up at work she’s dressed in black. Black turtleneck dress, leggings, boots. Her scent is literally androgynous; she mixes a men’s fragrance and a women’s fragrance to create her own. I figure that’s why my wife never questions what I smell like. I think.
She doesn’t walk as much as strides. She doesn’t notice the men looking. She heads towards the bar and walks a few paces ahead. When we sit down, I joke about how much I enjoyed walking behind her. She laughs and says she’s teased about her walk often, but she doesn’t get why. There’s a lot she doesn’t see about herself.
The bartender comes over to take our orders. She studies the bottles. She bites her lip in concentration. I trace my bottom lip with my forefinger. It’s the signal we created…I’m telling her I want to kiss her. She catches my signal and smiles. She looks at the bartender and says with a grin, “I don’t drink that much. Surprise me.” He asks her if she’s ever had a Manhattan. She hasn’t. He makes two and brings them over. He explains the drink and her eyes light up when she sees the maraschino cherry; she loves them. She takes a tentative sip and coughs. The bartender brings her water. She takes another sip. The bartender offers cigars and provides her with a cigarillo.
She looks at me over the rim of the glass. She studies me while I light my cigar. My hands are shaking. It’s been over a month and I’m still nervous. Not nervous. Guilty. She notices…she notices everything. She asks where my wife thinks I am tonight. She never says “your wife”, she always says her name…it bothers me for some reason. I take a sip of my drink. I said I told my wife that I was “out with a friend”. She gives me a hard look.
“No, we’re not.”
I ask if anyone knows where she is. No one knows. In her world, I don’t exist. I’m her “secret”. I find it odd that she’s confided in no one. She tells me she can’t. The words get stuck. She tells me that she keeps me in her head. I occupy her thoughts…even at 4 a.m.
We talk about our days. She asks if we’ve found someone for the job. We haven’t. I tell her that my partner and I are “fighting” about her. My partner thinks I don’t like her. She laughs. We talk about our plans for the weekend. She has plans with friends, and she stumbles over the answer. A friend is setting her up…she’s not looking forward to it. I say nothing.
“That bothers you.”
It’s not a question. She’s right. She changes the subject and asks about my marriage. I tell her the story of how we met. How we got married on Valentine’s Day…not for romance, but because it was the only day an officiant was available. I tell her about my son being born. She listens. Absorbs. Asks questions. Nothing is malicious. She’s interested in the story. She doesn’t avert her gaze when talking to me. I joke that I feel like I’m being interviewed.
We order another round.
She relaxes. Takes in her surroundings. Tells me more about herself.
She gets up to go to the ladies room and bumps into a member of the club on the way back. I watch as he tries to flirt with her and see her face harden. She’s saying something with a blank smile…the one she gives clients…the one she used to give to me. The other guy laughs as she tries to move past him, I get up but she glances over in my direction and shakes her head slightly. When she sits down, I tell her I would’ve done something. She tells me I can’t.
“That’s not your role. You can’t defend me, can you?”
She gulps her drink and eats the cherry. I make a joke about tying the cherry stem. She arches her brow and says nothing. We continue talking. When the bill arrives, she reaches into her mouth and pulls out the tied cherry stem and places it on the bill. I look at her and she’s smirking.
“Fuck. Let’s go.”
I’m getting reckless. I call her twice a day from the office…sometimes from the car on my way home. I call her before I call my wife. She never calls me, even though she has all my numbers. I break the rules and I go back to her work. For business purposes of course. She traces her lower lip with her forefinger as she contemplates the request. I call her from the car and tell her that wasn’t fair. She laughs. Points out that I do it every time I go in. It’s true.
I have to stop.
I call her cellphone one Saturday night when I’m working at the office. She’s out with friends. I’m surprised that I’m surprised at this. She tells me she has to go…
We have a date.
It’s been nearly three months.
My wife tells me I look tired.
That evening, I’m even more reckless. Later, we head back to my office and fight for the first time. We don’t yell, but every word is harsh. We both hate what we’re doing. Neither of us wants to stop. She says she’s not stupid…she’ll never ask for something that’s not hers.
I drive her home and take the long way while she stares out the window. I tell her that it has to end. She agrees. I tell her how I feel and she says nothing. I ask her if she realizes how dangerous she is and she looks at me confused. She says she would never tell anyone; she would never go to my wife. She’s not like that. I tell her that’s part of the reason she’s dangerous. She doesn’t understand. She’s too young.
I drop her off at her friend’s house…a guy. I ask if he’s just a friend. She turns to face me. Her eyes narrow to slits. “You don’t get to ask.” She turns to open the door and I pull her back. Just one more kiss. She cradles my face and traces my lower lip with her finger.
I stop. A week later, my partner has made the executive decision to hire her.
(Please don’t accept.)
She accepts. We meet in my office after her final interview.
Are you okay with this?
I’m okay with this. Are YOU okay with this?
We are. (?)
She fits right in. Her supervisor thinks she’s great. The guys in the warehouse call her Linda. We work together at trade shows by the airport. We grab Burger King from the drive through and watch the planes land. She’s never been. I explain it’s a popular make out spot for teens. She looks at me and laughs. We just talk and laugh. I tell her I’ve missed her laugh.
“Start the car.”
Eight months later, she gives notice. We’re changing systems and offices. She’s decided to apply to school. We meet in my office.
“No one wants you to go.”
“I know. But there’s no point investing time in training me in a brand new system, only to retrain someone else 4 months from now.”
I tell her she can stay until she gets accepted. She says it’s best to make a “clean break”.
“Is it because of us?”
Four years later, I’m shopping for holiday presents with my wife, our son, and our new daughter. She’s working in the store we walk into. My wife kind of remembers her. She gives my wife a blank smile. My son stays by my side. She calls him by the special nickname I gave him and his eyes widen in surprise. She tells me she works here while she’s in university, but not for much longer. We talk. I notice her manager staring at us and ask if she’s in trouble, she glances over and says no. I trace my lips with my finger and her eyes widen; it’s how I realize I’m doing it. My wife is finished shopping. She’s ready to go.
I’m sweating. My throat’s dry. She looks at me, and gives me that blank smile.
“Be well.” I say softly. She gives me a real smile.
I haven’t seen her since.