He is handsome: black wavy hair, fair olive skin, eyes the color of a melted milk-chocolate bar. I stare at him as we talk and watch his full lips form the shapes of letters, open and close. I notice the grayish stubble spread across his chin and cheeks as if it had been painted on, a thin coating of watercolor. His eyelashes are ink-black and thick, like a baby doll. We are driving to the beach listening to Puccini. He is wearing navy blue cotton shorts and when he’s looking ahead at the road, I glance down at his legs. They are nice legs: muscular but not bulging, well-defined thighs. He gets lost on the way to Nahant, so we end up in Marblehead instead at nightfall. We were supposed to watch the sunset. Born and bred in Boston, he has to ask directions at a gas station three times.
We lounge in metal folding-chairs on the sidewalk at a lookout point in Marblehead. There are large pointy rocks in the water, sharp and bulky, and the city across the bay is lit up by tiny white lights like a miniature Disneyland village. The air smells of fish and salt. We found this spot by asking a local fireman who was sitting outside alone, enjoying the clammy evening. Roger made me roll down my window and ask him. It’s very romantic, he told us, with a nice view. As we sit stiffly in the metal chairs he has brought, I listen to Roger telling me about his friend Jeff who is obsessed with Brazilian women. They are more sensual than American women, his friend claims. To them, sex is not an issue. He tells me that this is Jeff’s new mantra: Sex is not an Issue. During the summer they would go to the beach together (one stop before Wonderland on the red line), and Roger would watch him approach the Brazilian women. You have a nice body, he’d say. They would smile, unlike American women. Jeff is unemployed by choice. He doesn’t want to be part of the system, like a gerbil running on the treadmill. He thinks he can become a millionaire by some get-rich-quick scheme. He’s usually working on a new project, holed up with a woman, not returning any phone calls. One time he didn’t leave his apartment for two weeks. Two whole weeks! Can you believe it? I shake my head.
Roger asks me nothing of myself, and I offer no information. Most of my life should not be discussed on a first date. It is eight o’clock and we are both hungry, so we drive back to the city.
“Where do you want to eat?” he asks me.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you like Chinese?”
“I love Chinese.”
He takes me to a Chinese restaurant in almost-suburban Brookline where the food is mediocre. My shrimp and snow peas seem fresh, there is no detectable deviant odor, but it tastes bland. It is sitting in clear-colored sauce that has the consistency of mucous, thick and custardy. Roger orders beef with broccoli. I watch him eat; a friend once told me that a man’s eating habits are an accurate reflection of his personality. He eats with his shoulders hunched forward, his face inches away from the plate. I can see the crown of his head, but his features are cast downwards. He smacks and chews loudly and doesn’t use his knife; he pushes the food onto his fork with his left thumb.
After dinner it is late, so he takes me home. He gets lost but I don’t say anything, I am patient. I look at the large wooden houses, straining to see if anyone is sitting on their porch. They remind me of gingerbread homes, roofs trimmed in white lattice molding, so placid on their miniature plots of land. We finally arrive at my apartment. Before I get out of the car we face each other to say goodnight, and he asks me if I have any plans tomorrow evening. I barely hesitate before saying no. Loneliness is becoming unbearable. Besides, it has been too long since I have dated anyone. Maybe it would feel good to be in someone’s arms again? To be touched?
“Do you want to do something?” he asks.
“How about a movie?”
He calls me the next afternoon and we discuss which movie to see. We go to the two-fifty theater out near Somerville and watch a film about a pregnant teenager who kidnaps a woman. The theater is old and crumbling, and the shimmering baroque-patterned lobby wallpaper is peeling off at the corners. I can smell water damage and mildew. The icy air conditioning feels good; my skin is still damp from the night humidity. While I try to watch the film, Roger guffaws and talks loudly during the dialogue. The woman behind us kicks his seat and tells him to be quiet. He scowls and mumbles that it’s none of her business, he can talk if he wants to, it’s a free country. That’s the beauty of being in America, he adds. He is quiet for the rest of the movie. His knees are bent, long legs dangling over the seat in front of him, tennis shoes firmly planted on the red cushion. It is a self-imposed, comfortable slump. After the movie is over, while the credits are still rolling, he looks behind to see if the angry woman is still there. She has left already.
“I wonder what her problem was,” he says.
I am glad she is gone. On the way home, he asks me if I know what kind of a watch Che Guevara wore.
“No, I have no idea.”
“He wore a Rolex. A steel Rolex. Castro wears a GMT Rolex Master One. Those commies sure like their material things, don’t they?”
That night, while in bed together, I discover that he has no idea what foreplay is. There is no stroking, no caressing, he does not kiss my breasts, he does not kiss my stomach. He seems to view the body as a corporeal receptacle. He finds my mouth with his and I practically choke on his tongue, which is filling the entire cavity, reaching almost to the very back of my throat. I could bite it off if I wanted to. I think about errands I need to run, whether I have groceries or not. Is Roger this cold and clumsy with all the women he sleeps with? How many have there been before me? It is as if he has no experience. Afterward, while he sleeps, I realize I am at the very edge of the bed, almost falling off. There is no fear, however, as the floor is not far. The mattress has no support underneath; it is placed firmly on the floor. He is sprawled across it, hairy legs in an upside down L. The scratchy maroon sheets are tangled around us and I pull the flimsy comforter over my head. It smells of stale crayons. Every now and then I hear him snore but it doesn’t bother me. It’s not loud and it doesn’t last. In the morning he presses up against me and rests his hand on my lower abdomen. His curly chest hair tickles, and even though I can’t sleep in this position it feels nice, almost reassuring, as if he might feel something for me, so I leave his hand. When I get up to brush my teeth, he follows me into the bathroom.
“Are you letting the water run?” he asks.
I look at him, puzzled, and ignore his question. He walks over to the sink and shuts off both faucets.
“Don’t you know there’s a water shortage?” He has an irritated edge to his voice, like one sometimes gets when talking to a disobedient child.
“In New England?”
“Everywhere. Are you a spoiled little Jewess?”
“What does that mean?”
On the way to Dave’s bar he talks about hubcaps. He is missing two.
“Would you steal some hubcaps for me, Lily? You would do that, wouldn’t you?”
“Are you crazy? Why don’t you just buy some?”
“I don’t feel like spending the money, they’re too expensive. The guy at the auto body shop where I took my car to get fixed told me I should just steal some. I think I should take his advice.”
“You’re not serious.”
He smiles that half-crooked way that he does, part of his mouth curled upward, the rest of it straight and flat.
Roger has been unemployed for the past four months but doesn’t appear to be concerned. Lately he has been telling me about the occasional job interview he’s gone on and I’ll ask him how it went, more out of obligation than anything else. He’ll complain that the person interviewing him didn’t know what they were talking about. Idiots, he mumbles.
“They said I lacked enthusiasm and that I’m too reserved. Lacked enthusiasm? Fuck them.”
At the stoplight he looks down at his belly and grabs it with both hands. He squeezes the excess flesh and shakes it up and down.
“God I’m so fat, he says.”
“What are you talking about? You’re not fat.”
We arrive at the bar, which is small, minimally decorated and empty. Dimmed, of course, and a bit hollow feeling, maybe because it’s a Sunday night. There are a few police officers huddled in the corner wearing only blue windbreakers despite the cold outside, and a young blonde couple behind us. Everything is either wood or brass but the atmosphere is dull, and the air is smoky-stale, stagnant. I can see patches of old spilled liquor staining the scuffed wood floor. It is the sort of place where a tourist might pop in, or a housewife on a night out with her girlfriends.
Roger asks for a white Russian. Like me, he says. A fellow Ashkenazi. When we first met I had thought he might be Israeli, maybe even Sephardic, judging from the dark features. My alacrity towards categorizing other Jews was proved wrong. I order a ginger ale. Marcus, the bartender, is a close friend of Roger’s from childhood. They have known each other since the age of eight. I try to picture Roger as a little boy running around the playground with this strange man who is drying glasses. He is short and plump, with gold-framed glasses and a blonde crew cut. A Republican, like Roger.
While we’re sipping our drinks, Roger asks what I think of Marcus.
“He seems nice.” I shrug.
“Do you have any friends for him?”
“I don’t think so.”
I don’t want to tell him the truth, which is that I don’t have any friends but even if I did I wouldn’t introduce any of them to Marcus.
“Why not? Marcus is a charming guy.”
“How do I know that? This is the first time I’ve ever met him.”
“Are your friends too good for him or something?”
“I didn’t say that.”
I take a sip of ginger ale and then walk over to the jukebox. One can purchase three songs for a dollar. Maybe some music will liven things up, deflate the uneasiness. We talk about Yiddish and what Switzerland was like. Roger lived there until he was five; his father is a French professor. He claims not to remember any of it and his French is no longer fluent, although he still speaks it fairly well.
“Do you know that there’s a word that means to throw somebody out of a window?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “What’s the word?”
“Defenestration. It comes from fenêtre, which means window in French.”
“Huh. That’s interesting.”
“You know,” he says, “I could go for a pizza. How does a pizza sound? Are you hungry?”
“I’m a little hungry,” I say. “But I can’t eat now—it’s too late.”
“Yeah, I shouldn’t be eating either. I’m fat.”
He looks down at his stomach again and grabs it. I say nothing and shake my head. Since when do men say things like that? I thought only women were obsessed with their weight. He talks about it more than I do. I am not used to this male kind of vanity. It is boring, and intrusive. It reminds me of my father’s obsession with women’s bodies. Varying shapes were not acceptable. You’re getting fat, Lily, he used to tell me. Men don’t like fat women. I believed him, and stopped eating. Starving myself became an accomplishment, something to enjoy. I relished the hunger pains that struck nightly. It took me many, many years to be able to eat normally. He finishes his last drink and then we go. I drive home since after three white Russians he’s tipsy. I get into the driver’s seat, adjust the rearview mirror, buckle my seat belt and put the car into drive.
“Hey!” he yells. “You did that too fast. Slowly. Gently. She’s delicate.”
“It wasn’t that fast. I didn’t hurt anything.”
I don’t know my way around Boston, so I have to ask him directions every few minutes. He is nervous, and tells me to slow down.
“I’m only going forty,” I say defensively.
“But the speed limit is thirty-five, and my insurance doesn’t cover other drivers.”
“All right, all right. Just relax.”
“You know,” he says, “my mother bought me dishwashing liquid the other day. What does she think, that I don’t wash my dishes? She buys me the weirdest stuff.”
“Oh yeah?” My curiosity is piqued. I wonder what the mother of this man is like. Is her face as pretty and polished as his? “Like what else?”
“Kleenex and raisins, pretzels, razors that were on sale. The razors I can use, but raisins? I like them, but they mess with my stomach.”
“I used to eat raisins in kindergarten.”
“The other day she bought me a toaster oven. It’s still sitting in the box, I’m too lazy to take it out and plug it in.”
“Your mother bought you a toaster oven? That’s pretty nice.”
“I think she’s worried about me. She tries to give me money, but I don’t take it. I can’t take money from my mother. I should, though. I should just take it. Whenever somebody offers you money, Lily, take it.”
“I think it’s sweet that you won’t take money from your mother.” I glance over at him and smile. Maybe there is a human being inside there after all. He looks empty.
We are over at Roger’s place watching a movie. It took us nearly two hours in the video store to choose something. He likes adventures and gratuitous violence while I prefer foreign films.
“No subtitles,” he told me. “I want fluff!”
We don’t get to bed until three a.m. After sex he revels in telling me about his Rolex Chronograph named Henry.
“Henry? You named your watch?”
“Well, my mother did. She was so excited when I got it I thought she was going to pee in her pants.”
“I don’t know, it just came to her. Watches are works of art,” he says. “I’ve been collecting them since 1982.”
I am rubbing his chest, circling his perfectly round puce-colored nipples with my index finger, but it does not seem to have any effect on him. There is no visible expression of pleasure.
When he’s not looking, I open the window, just a crack. Even though it is brittle outside, I am sweating. The old coiled radiators in all the Boston buildings work extremely well. I can hear the heat clanging inside the coils, desperate to escape. It feels heavy and small in his bedroom, like the inside of someone’s mouth.
On my way home the next morning he tells me about another one of his friends, more of an acquaintance, really. They worked together and spent a week in Minneapolis receiving job training for financial advising positions. Roger had to translate for him because no one else could understand a word he was saying in his very heavy Boston accent.
“You know,” I said, “you have a Boston accent.”
“No I don’t!”
“Yes, you do.”
“I do not have a Boston accent. Working class people have Boston accents and I don’t want to be associated with the working class. I sound like you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with having a Boston accent. And they don’t all sound the same, some are stronger than others. You couldn’t possibly sound like me; I’m from the Midwest.”
“Maybe I have a slight Eastern inflection, but I don’t have a Boston accent. I don’t say fohk instead of fork.”
A couple of days later he calls and asks me if I want to do something. I tell him I don’t know, I’m grading papers. If I want to, I could probably put them off another day, but I doubt if I can tolerate spending more time with him. He is reminding me more and more of my father, who I am estranged from. Do I really want to see him? I ask myself. It seems futile, but I think of his thick baby-doll eyelashes, his full lips. There is no one else to spend time with. Maybe I’ll get to meet his parents? I think I would like his mother. She sounds much more caring and attentive then mine. We end up talking on the phone for about half an hour. He likes to talk on the phone.
He tells me that women like men who wear light blue.
“Really?” I say, the monotony thickening.
“They find it soothing.”
“It does have a calming effect.”
“I read that in Newsweek a couple of years ago. Some scientists did a survey about dating. They said that men who wear light blue get a lot of dates.”
“Hmm,” I say. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in light blue.”
“Nah. It’s too feminine. Besides, I don’t need help getting dates. I’m a multi-talented kind of guy. What am I not good at? Besides sex.”
I chortle, and am careful not to agree with him. Such a display of insecurity, or is it a hint that he is able to laugh at himself?
“Well Roger, I need to get going. I’ll call you later on in the week. Maybe we can get together this weekend.”
“Sounds good Lily. Take care.”
Saturday night we go to the Kendal Square Cinema. They show more movies than the Somerville Theater, but it’s three times more expensive. Roger said he didn’t mind but when we step up to the glass booth to buy tickets and the teenage boy says seven-fifty please, he groans.
“Seven fifty? Jee-sus.” He grudgingly digs out his wallet from his back pocket.
“Thanks. I’ll buy the popcorn.”
After the movie, we wander around the huge cement parking structure, walking towards his car. He is eyeing a new Geo with all four shiny hubcaps in place. He bends over and stares at the hubcaps, then touches them lovingly, like a mother rubbing her baby’s soft and unformed skull.
“Look at these,” he says. “Wouldn’t they look great on my car?”
“They would.” I start to walk away, but he is still admiring the brand-new hubcaps.
“Come on, Roger. I’m cold.”
“Lily. Should I steal these? I mean, no one would know, would they? They would look so good on Veronica.”
“Yeah, that’s my car’s name.”
“No, you should not. Come on, let’s go.”
”Would you steal them for me?” He smiles that half-crooked smile.
“Nooo. Come on.” Finally he gets up, and I reach for his hand. I pull him towards the car and me.
The next morning he pops out of bed at seven thirty, an hour and a half before I usually do. He immediately starts chattering on, even though I am still trying to sleep. He eyes the open window and shuts it. Defenestration, I think.
“You’re sneaky, aren’t you?” he says. “I’m going to run over to the store. Do you want anything? A Danish, maybe? Some chocolate cake?”
“No, I’m fine,” I answer from beneath the comforter.
When I hear the door shut I get up, still naked, and slink around his apartment. Curiosity trumps sleep. How does such a man live? Might I find clues that will help me understand him? Newspapers and books are stacked haphazardly in the corners, and around the edges of the room: Jewish Gangsters in America, The Joy of Sex, Secrets of Successful Trading. A dirty hubcap is sitting on top of some newspaper next to the stereo. You can barely see the linoleum in the kitchen because of the plastic and paper bags lying about, along with empty orange juice cartons and milk jugs scattered across the tiny floor. Suddenly I spot a green pocket-sized notebook next to the phone and open it. The bright green catches my eye. In small, neat print, perfect like a schoolteacher’s, he has recorded rows of quotes from books he has read, useless facts. I read a couple pages and then place it back down, careful to return it to exactly the same spot. I wander back over to the bed and rifle through the crumpled receipts, newspaper articles and phone numbers piled on top of his bureau. I come across another miniature notebook, but this one is red. Are they color-coded? It too is filled with odd facts and quotes: The average commute to work is 22.4 minutes, would you please shut up and sit down! George Bush to a group of POW-MIA families protesting his campaign speech. Suddenly I hear keys jangling around in the lock and before I have a chance to put down the notebook and slide back into bed, there he is, standing in the doorway, holding grocery bags in each hand, staring at me.
“What are you doing?” He doesn’t move or put the groceries down.
I close the open notebook and set it back down on top of his dresser. A toy car and some receipts fall to the floor. I hunch over, covering my pubic hair with my hands while I search for my clothes.
“What do you mean nothing? It looked like you were reading my notebook.”
“No, not really.”
I shake my head after uttering the lie, as if this pedestrian gesture will convince him of something different from what he is seeing. Finally I find my t-shirt on the bed and hurriedly put it on. Where is the rest of my clothing? Oh God. I don’t see it anywhere.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m really embarrassed.”
He still has not moved.
“I can’t believe you were reading my notebook. What else did you read? Did you go through the rest of my stuff too?”
“No, no, of course not.”
“I don’t believe you.” He sets down the groceries, still watching me as if I am a stranger who has broken in.
“Look, Roger, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I was wrong. What I did was wrong.”
“It was worse than that. I can’t believe you. You invaded my privacy. I can’t fucking believe you. You were looking through my notebook. I have some private things in there.”
His voice is still a Boston monotone, but there is a hint of sadness in it now. I am surprised at the slight display of emotion.
“Like what? All I saw were quotes mostly—from books—and trivia. What’s private about that?”
He shakes his head. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“You’re right, I don’t. What’s there to understand?”
My shame is almost diminished, evaporated. I read his collection of minutiae, nothing more.
He sighs, low and hard, and shakes his head again.
“Maybe I should just go.”
“Maybe you should.”
He puts the groceries down on the crowded kitchen counter and then pours himself a bowl of cereal. He sits on the brown-stained, nearly beige sofa and slowly eats his cereal. I turn around and continue searching for the rest of my clothes, along with my watch and gold bracelet. The plaid wool miniskirt that looked so good last night is crumpled at the foot of the bed, next to his broken bicycle. I gather the rest of my clothes, walk over to the bathroom and shut the door. Sitting on the toilet, I unroll my tights over my legs slowly, careful not to pull them and cause them to run, then I fasten the hook and eye on my skirt. While brushing my teeth, I let the water run.
“Turn off the water,” he shouts from the other room.