Damon said his love was panoramic. A boundless canyon of warmth. An affection that was promised and trustworthy. Yet it didn’t keep him from sleeping with nameless men in beachfront motels, on lunch breaks and daylight-saved evenings. He told Sofia that she was incomparable, that the others were like mannequins, and sometimes he felt the urge to window shop. Whenever he returned from his dalliances, his hair was freshly combed and parted, often damp and glistening from showering with complimentary shampoo. He gave her a guilt-ridden embrace upon his arrival every time. His arms reached around her waist without meeting, a clasp that never closed. Details of his rendezvous’ never surfaced. She wasn’t able to see the symptoms of his cravings, blind to his itinerant longings.
When they moved in together, Damon and Sofia made an agreement. They wouldn’t talk about weddings or nurseries or the weight of permanence. Neither wanted to think about their thirties, or so they hinted with rolled eyes as they sat across the table from betrothed couples at five-course dinner parties and picked the leftover gifts in identical registries. When Sofia’s friends asked her about settling down, she told them she already was settled, satisfied. She used the word content again and again, heedless of its true meaning. Her friends stirred their Bloody Marys and clicked their tongues like hoary yentas. She pretended to ignore them, but she wasn’t able to drown them out. Sometimes she ground her teeth. Sometimes she was secretly jealous.
Damon came home at six and slipped out of his loafers, pulling them off at the heel. He placed a manuscript on the pew and loosened his paisley necktie. Sofia was expecting him, and called from the kitchen.
“Is that you?” she asked, as per their routine.
“Who else would it be?”
Sofia grinned as she tasted the soup—pureed summer squash with a touch of tarragon. A roast of pork tenderloin was broiling in the oven.
Damon kissed her on the cheek and fingered the knot of her well-worn apron.
“What’s the occasion?” he asked.
“I told you yesterday. We’re having dinner with my friend, Kenneth. The temp. You know, the one filling in for Marta.”
“That’s right. Sorry. It slipped my mind.” He let her go and washed his hands, smelling the peach soap and rubbing the beads of whatever it was the soap people put in their plastic bottles.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” He checked his palms as if they had been dirtied in the salt mines. But he was immaculate as usual, with a dapper, professorial mien: early graying hair, horn-rimmed glasses and pressed shirts from Brooks Brothers. When they went out in the fall he wore cardigans and corduroy.
“You can set the table. I want to use my grandmother’s china. The set with the blue trim.”
“Why so fancy?”
“I don’t know. I just want it to look nice. What’s the point of having all those plates if we never use them?”
“Beats me,” he said, repairing to the china cabinet.
“Anything new to report? How was class?”
“Tedious and forgettable. We spent an hour reading a tome about a boy and his pet duck. Alfred. That was the name of the duck.”
“Who wrote it?”
“I gathered that. Which student?
“Oh. I can’t even remember. George? Jean? Jorge?”
“They all sort of run together. There’s one girl who knows what she’s doing, but she doesn’t really need my help.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I have a theory,” he stated with an air of certainty.
“Of course you do,” she laughed. “Tell me about your so-called theory.”
“I haven’t told you this before?”
“Not that I recall.
“Well then.” He cleared his throat. “There are outspoken students and there are quiet ones. The haughty write like it’s still the Nineteenth Century and tend to use words plucked right out of the thesaurus. They’re usually quite verbose and dominate the conversation. Most of them major in rhetoric or join the debate team. The real writers raise their hands or keep their works to themselves until they’re called on. For some reason they don’t have as much confidence and I have to pull them aside after class and tell them how great they could be. They get discouraged easily.”
“What do you say to the students who aren’t as talented?”
“I don’t say anything to them. They bother me.”
“I should audit your class one of these days. Maybe I’ll register as a continuing student. I can see myself as the token latecomer. I’ll come up with a whole back-story about how I dropped out of college to become a flight attendant.”
“You should. Though there may be an issue with their nepotism policy.”
“So I shouldn’t tell the admissions director that I sleep with my teacher?”
“I would advise against it. They’re not big on preferential treatment.”
Sofia glanced at the bar and noticed the local weekly pinned beneath a stack of bills. Damon brought the paper home every Wednesday. She was browsing the classifieds one morning before dawn—searching for a rolltop desk—when she saw the personals. A dating profile was lightly underlined in pencil: HANDSOME YOUNG PROFESSIONAL SEEKING DISCREET FRIEND FOR A NEON EVENING. She remembered how she quivered when she read it. Her lips went numb. She went straight down to the garage and smoked a pack of Marlboros in the passenger seat of her hatchback. She didn’t say anything to him at the time, and she regretted it afterward.
As she stared at the weekly she felt naked and vulnerable, and gently brushed his hand away from her waist.
“Can I ask you a question, Damon?” Whenever she wanted to be taken seriously, she added his name.
“Now you’re being redundant.”
“Stop being pompous. And be honest.” She glowered at him, then turned to the range. “Have you ever been tempted by your students? I mean, they must admire you. I’m sure they’ve read your books and come on to you after class.”
“I don’t think tempted is the right word,” he said without hesitating.
“Okay. Have you ever thought about screwing any of your students? Maybe at their squalid apartment after taking them to a cheap Italian dinner where you said you wanted to discuss their work?”
“I can’t deny that I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t thought about acting upon it. Every teacher thinks about it. And we think about the moral and ethical implications, as well.” It sounded arrogantly pre-meditated.
“I wasn’t asking about other teachers.” Sofia scrubbed a saucepan with steel-wool to drown out the tone of his voice. She wasn’t inviting commentary. She only wanted the answer.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“What?” she replied, pretending not to hear him.
“Is there anything else you would like to know?” He was over-articulating, as if speaking to an insolent child.
“No. But you should know that I don’t think I would be able to handle that.” Right then, she felt like shriveling up and abandoning their whole charade.
“You have nothing to worry about. It’s nearly an impossibility.”
Sofia closed her eyes and bowed her head, then untied her apron. She held it out to him without saying anything and he took it. Wrenching open the sliding glass door, she stepped out on the balcony. There was a crisp breeze, and she had trouble keeping the match lit, her hands trembling. With the cigarette in her mouth, a wave of relief washed over her. She had said she would quit—thousands of times, a mantra—but she never meant it. Empty words, only to humor the critics. They couldn’t fathom how comforting the high was. The little flip-top box was her cellophane-wrapped refuge. She wouldn’t want to give that up.
She looked at the street below. Drivers had turned on their headlights. Dogs and their owners paced the sidewalks. Some of the houses still had Christmas lights on their eaves, months after the holidays. The neighbor’s lawn was patched with tufts of amber. Even the weeds were wilting. She sat on the sagging lawn chair and ashed her cigarette on a porcelain saucer. A therapist had once given her an exercise to ease her stress in these situations. The shrink was her age, so it was difficult for Sofia to respect her assessment. She was supposed to talk to herself out loud and state what she wanted and needed—in the next five minutes, and in the next five years. She was told to be firm and clear. The therapist repeated the words Unconditional Positive Regard, which sounded amateurish to Sofia, like something that would be coined for an infomercial. She rarely resorted to such trite gestures, but occasionally she wrote simple phrases on scrap paper and stuffed them in a dresser drawer. Blowing out a halo of smoke, she relented.
“Right now, I want to relax and clear my mind. Five years from now, I want to be living in San Francisco. Or Portland. I’d like to adopt a Corgi. I want to laugh more. I need to be appreciated. That’s all.”
She was holding out an iota of hope that this refrain would magically erase her memories of the recent past, or at least send them to the clouds. She could imagine such fantasies only because they made her days more tolerable. When nothing happened, she took one last puff, pinched the filter, and squashed the butt.
She came back inside and tried to collect herself. Damon was still in the kitchen, idly stirring the soup. The wooden spoon rapped in the chamber of the stock pot. Sofia touched his shoulder and took the spoon out of his hand.
“You don’t need to keep doing that. The soup will be fine on its own.” She put the lid on the pot and checked the oven. The roast was browning nicely.
“Smells divine,” Damon said.
“As it should.”
“So, tell me about our guest. Did you say his name is Ken?”
“Kenneth. I don’t think he likes to be called Ken. He said kids in school used to tease him about being named after the doll. They went as far as asking him if he should have been named after Barbie, because he’s a bit effeminate.” Sofia rinsed out three wine balloons, shook them dry, and poured Syrah in two of them. She handed one to Damon and sniffed her glass. Then she swirled the wine and watched it eddy.
“Effeminate in what way?” he asked, holding his glass up to the light.
“He’s gay,” she said, taking a deep drink and gazing out the window.
“I see,” he said, closing the circle.
Sofia only asked Damon where he stood on that line once. He said he was straight, and didn’t believe in bisexuality. At the time, he said it was a phase, and that his curiosity was piqued by his idols, Cheever and Dean. She called bull shit, but didn’t want to hear his rationalizations. When she asked herself about it, she never came to a decisive conclusion. She couldn’t convince him that he was foolish. She wanted to wait it out.
– – –
The oven timer buzzed, startling her even when she knew it was imminent. She slipped on her burnt mitts and set the roasting dish on the stove. After spooning out the fat, she turned on a burner, buttered the pan she had just cleaned and dolloped a heap of flour for the gravy. The simmering usually kept her thoughts at bay, but she couldn’t calm her mind. Damon was lounging on the living room sofa with his hands folded in agnostic prayer. She wondered if he was stewing over the irresolvable or sedately resting. Probably the latter, she thought. She was envious of his ability to shut down and clear out, to appear unruffled by everyday nuisances and their occasional skirmishes. She also hated him for it. When he distanced himself from the problem, offering not excuses but measured arguments, she was suddenly beneath him. Incapable of holding her own without raising her voice to an embarrassing screech, the kind she shuddered at when she heard parents arguing over their children at the mall. She was a door slammer, though an apologetic one. That was how she often ended disagreements with him, either waiting for him to find her in bed or conceding and sitting at the far end of the couch while they both read novels in solitude.
Sofia moved the meat from the grease-flooded pan to a casserole dish, her hands like claws with the tongs. The doorbell rang as she was fortifying the dish with green beans and almonds. She heard Damon stir and said, “I’ll get it,” wiping her calloused fingers on the apron. She blew her bangs away from her eyes and stepped into her flats so her guest wouldn’t see her toes. Turning the brass handle, she saw Damon over her shoulder, standing in the sitting room with his hands wedged in his pockets. She shook off the lingering sense of desolation and put on a welcoming mask for her friend Kenneth, who was waiting a few long strides from the doorstep with a wine bottle jutting out of a paper bag. In a salmon polo shirt, turquoise pants and Topsiders, he looked like he had just arrived from the country club. His hair was neatly parted, he smelled of citrus and dryer sheets.
“Come in, come in,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
He patted her on the shoulder as he leaned in, then straightened up when he saw Damon behind her. He seemed flustered, checking to see if his shirt was tucked before shaking hands with Damon. Stepping back, Damon adjusted his glasses and squinted with a glimmer of recognition.
“Good evening. I’m Damon. Sofia’s partner,” he managed, too formally.
Sofia raised an eyebrow. “My partner?”
“Would you have preferred if I had called you my girlfriend?”
“That would have sounded normal.”
Sofia and Kenneth looked at each other knowingly.
“Shall we have a glass before dinner?” she asked.
Kenneth’s eyes skipped between them and he slowly said, “Sure.”
Sofia placed the bottle in the refrigerator as Damon loped in behind Kenneth. She uncorked a Zinfandel and handed them clean glasses. Kenneth gingerly sipped his wine and nodded in approval.
“I like this. It tastes like blackberry and cayenne.”
“The label says there are notes of thyme and courant. Goes well with steak, lamb and venison, or a hearty barbecue,” read Sofia.
“Those suggestions are for dilettantes. And they’re probably cut and pasted by interns. You could pair this with anything and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Damon remarked, sounding more smug than usual.
“You think the winemakers are just trying to increase their sales?” Kenneth asked.
“Obviously. So are sommeliers. They just memorize what’s written on the bottle.”
“People go to school for that. Some of my closest friends are in the restaurant industry.”
“It’s a smart racket. But like most, it’s a crock.”
Kenneth sipped his wine and rolled his eyes. They drank quietly as the neighborhood dogs barked. Sofia’s arms began to tingle—a cautious sense of entropy. She glanced at Damon, who was stroking his dimpled chin in distraction.
“I’m going to put on some music. I’ll be right back.”
Sofia scanned the tower of albums, pulling out cases and perusing the song titles. Many were devoid of meaning without the music; just a mess of odes disguised with clumsy metaphors. She rarely read the lyrics inside the booklets and slip sleeves of Damon’s record collection. She preferred to let what she misheard sink in and devastate at will. Carried in a warble, “Know you can make me yours” became “No, you can’t make me yours.” When the songwriters crooned about the ones they adored, she often pictured a door, a way out of their clichéd and sanctimonious romance.
She was searching for something that wasn’t too cloying or abrasive. Damon was particularly fond of the new vanguard of baroque artists. She could only withstand their sly vaudevillian acts in small doses, but 69 Love Songs always amused her, so she went with that. When she walked back into the kitchen, expecting to see the two men politely chatting about nothing, she flinched. They were gone, and she was surprised that they had disappeared without her. But as soon as she put her glass down on the counter she heard Damon call from the dining room. Composing herself once again, she began ladling the soup into her priceless bowls and cleaned the streaks off the rims with a hand towel. She set the bowls on a tray and curried them into the dining room, momentarily feeling like she was catering a private dinner party or a fundraiser for the arts. She wouldn’t want to be a servant to the petty bourgeoisie, but she could see herself in that line of work, toiling away in the kitchen while the honorees congratulated themselves with hot-winded toasts and annual award ceremonies. She figured that a less glamorous occupation would keep her busy, and she wouldn’t be bothered with the trifles of her fellow coworkers or the admonition of a school-bred sous chef. At least it was an idea, she thought.
Damon and Kenneth sat across from each other at the silk-lined table. Both of their legs were tied, as if they were closed for business, and Damon was waxing about drug reform—the tax benefits, the medicinal uses, the existing hypocrisy of it all. He wasn’t a smoker, but he liked to champion the cause and rile conservatives. Kenneth didn’t seem to disagree, and drank as Damon went on grandstanding. Sofia carefully placed the bowls on the plates and joined them, pouring the rest of the bottle in her glass.
“Thanks for cooking dinner, Sofia.”
“My pleasure.” She forced a smile and turned to Damon.
“Ditto,” he said.
“And great choice of music. I absolutely adore the Magnetic Fields.”
“Damon is obsessed with them.” She could barely make out the words, which made it even easier to transpose the letters in her imagination.
“Well, Stephen Merritt certainly is a genius. And this is definitely his opus.”
Damon nodded knowingly, then cleared his throat.
“So, Kenneth, what were you doing before you started temping at Parabola?”
“I was working with a human rights advocacy group. Arm in Arm. Do you know them? I was there for a few years: organizing rallies, handing out petitions, holding a bullhorn, that sort of thing. They lost one of their major funding sources and had to make severe cuts.”
“That’s a far cry from portfolio management. How has the adjustment been?”
“Well, the money’s a hell of a lot better, that’s for sure. I don’t know much about the market and don’t really care either. It’s a short-term solution. I’m only on contract for the month. We’ll see what happens next.”
“I’m going to see if I can pull some strings and get them to keep him on longer,” Sofia added.
“There you go. You’re already making headway. Next thing you know, you’ll be a fixture. On your way to becoming the face of Parabola. You don’t really want to go back to recruiting college kids and trumpeting welfare reform, do you?”
“You make it sound like corporal punishment. It’s actually quite empowering. But there’s not much out there right now, so I’ll probably stay as long as they’ll keep me.”
“We’ll find a way,” Sofia encouraged. “May I take your bowl, Kenneth, Damon? I’ll bring out the mains.”
“Thank you,” Kenneth said. He handed his bowl to her and Damon followed suit
Sofia felt the pangs of tipsiness and remorse as she cut through the tenderloin. It came out as she had hoped, but she still wasn’t very satisfied. Damon was acting like a patriarch and playing his pseudo-intellectual cards—glib and tiresome. She couldn’t get a word in edgewise when he postured for company. It was the same when they were at cocktail parties with his colleagues—and he insisted upon calling them colleagues—when she hovered in his vicinity with a topped-off burgundy and the musings she kept to herself. He held his comments in check until whoever was speaking took a breath long enough for a counterpoint, and then he railed in long-winded screeds, decrying their ignorance. He made them seem feeble and clueless. The lashings were like retribution for offenses that he had dwelt upon and reserved for such genteel occasions. She didn’t intervene, tuning him out instead. The lack of propriety made her cringe.
She carried the china on her arm, the way she did when she was working ungodly hours at a resurrected diner. The tips were pocket change and the traders and truckers spoke to her as if she were a chamber maid—someone disposable—anonymous even with a name tag. Eventually she left, but without the blasphemous tirade she had been plotting. She rarely dropped a dish back then, and wasn’t going to now. When she smoothed out the tablecloth and placed the course in front of them, the flashback vanished. Damon was still dominating the conversation. She could hear his high timbre and sharp reproval.
“Sofia. You’re just in time. You can weigh in on a debate we’re having.” He speared a green bean and held it up for a second before taking it down.
“What’s that?” she asked, tilting a ewer.
“We were discussing the whole late termination issue.”
“He brought it up,” Kenneth stated, wanting no part of this.
“Do you really think that’s appropriate, Damon? Can’t we talk about our hobbies or something? Let’s stay away from politics and religion for once.”
“Hobbies? What hobbies do you have?”
“What does it look like I’m doing? Asshole.”
“Watch the coarse language, young lady.”
“Please,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry about this, Kenneth.”
“I think it’s relevant, and we’re adults. Anyone could be in that situation.”
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean either of us want to go there.”
“I’ve been thinking about it lately, that’s all.”
“And do you have to voice every thought that comes into your head? That’s borderline inconsiderate,” she scolded.
“Let me ask Kenneth. Kenneth, do you want to have children?”
“You don’t have to answer that.”
“It’s fine. To tell you the truth, yes, I want to have children. If I find the right man, that is.”
“Pardon me for speculating, but I’m assuming you would adopt. Unless you find someone to carry your child, that is.”
“I don’t like where this is going, but you’re probably right.”
“Exactly. And consider yourself lucky. You don’t have to worry about the deadlines. Women in their thirties really freak out about the risk factors. As if the rise in cases of autism and Fragile X has anything to do with that. Do we really believe that? Of course not. We’ve just learned to identify it. And now everyone is screening and aborting when they find out their child is going to be retarded.”
“What? I’m just calling it like it is. We’re among friends here. A friend. He’s not going to take offense to what the rest of the world is thinking.”
“How do you know?” she asked, defensive.
“I know what kind of man he is.”
“You’re so full of shit, Damon. You’re deceitful and pompous, and Sofia doesn’t deserve that.”
“Relax, Ken,” Damon said, putting up his hands like a base coach.
“Don’t call me Ken, Damon. It’s Kenneth. You know I hate that.”
“Damon, what is he…how?”
“Kenneth, this has nothing to do with you.”
“It has everything to do with me.”
“What are you implying?” Sofia looked from Damon to Kenneth and then back to Damon. Everything became clear. “Oh my god.” She held on to the table for support and leapt out of her chair.
“Wait, Sofia, let me explain.” Damon reached out, but she was already dashing to the bathroom.
The lights in the bathroom were off, and she left them that way as she locked the door behind her. She fumbled for a towel and sat on the toilet in the darkness, then wrapped her head in a terry cocoon. As she sucked the cloth she thought about suffocating, wanted to know how it would feel. Would her throat constrict and close? Would it be like frantically breathing into a paper bag or a loss of cabin pressure, the sensation of plummeting? And how fast would she drop? Not fast enough.
She realized she had been smothered all along—beneath the wheel—and had to plan her escape. It was her fault. It was Damon’s fault. The fault was shared. It didn’t matter whose fault it was. Trying to place the blame was a futile enterprise. She loosened the towel and wiped sweat from her brow. She wished she could slip away unnoticed with a packed suitcase, or even start over with Damon, go back to their first date at the swanky cocktail bar dressed to look like a speakeasy. She should have known that it was all a ruse—the velvet wallpaper and sparkling chandeliers, the expertly tailored menu and salon-coiffed waiters. That wasn’t her scene, and it wasn’t Damon’s either. He was aiming to impress her, and had probably discovered the scarlet-lamped décor in the same newspaper he found his dandies. They never went back, graduated to critically praised eateries frequented by people who referred to themselves as foodies. Then they moved on, downgrading to a trattoria where they were served what they could have prepared at home. How long did she expect the charade to last? Was there ever even a climax? She mouthed this to the wall and the disquiet reverberated.
The knocks began, followed by the faint call of her name, but she had no intention of answering. She pictured Damon on the other side, his hand pressed against the door and his ears twitching the way they did when he was nervous. He had undoubtedly envisioned this moment, recited what he would say, mimed the expression he would wear in front of the mirror she was presently considering. She wanted to see her face in the afterglow as a partial—as a portrait in progress. Damon’s chrome safety razor was resting on the edge of the basin. He insisted on using the straight blades, and scoffed when she bought him an electric Remington. His reaction was typical, and she was infuriated that she had conditioned herself to deal with such relentlessly shallow criticism. He kept the refill blades in a drawer with Band-Aids, cotton swabs and slender shears. The implements were there—she could see them through the wood. She asked herself if it would make her a martyr, if she could be a martyr. What set them apart from the rest of the cases? She was only strangled by self pity, a victim of complacence. That wasn’t enough to justify anything so rash.
Damon’s rapping quickened; his pleas low but urgent. If he would go away she could slink out to the car and drive through the night. But he was there, would sleep on the mottled carpet and block the doorway if he had to. His defense would become his offense. As she reached for the lock, she thought about the nights when he came home late and said he had been playing tennis. He was high on the ladder and constantly challenged, or so he claimed. Why hadn’t she doubted him? Why didn’t she ever call the club and check on him like a Stepford wife? Because she thought that would be beyond her jurisdiction. And she believed in honesty. It was a fallacy, but at least she knew the reason.
She was shivering when she came out, her arms covered in a paddy of goose bumps. Kenneth was gone, or so it appeared. Damon was there, his knuckles flaring and mouth drawn flat. The house was drafty, and the warm fragrance of olive oil and rubbed spice had worn off, replaced by the stale fumes of the ashen mantle. The furnace bellowed and echoed through her, its thunderous gong as haunting as ever. She buried her chin in her collarbone and began stringing together lines of a Frost poem she thought she had forgotten. They swam in her head until she could register her bearing. The pit in her stomach swelled, pushing walls and stretching her skin. When she had gathered her spinning thread, she began to pick apart the knot.
“Are you ever going to change?” she asked, her cheeks blackened with ink.
Damon let out a telling sigh and said “I can’t,” choking on his weakness.
They didn’t need to look at each other to know the magnitude of denial.
She stared at her toenails, the cracks in the polish.
“Then you’re…” She shook her head. He would never know what she was going to say. “This is what they warned me about—falling into this trap. And now here we are, where we never imagined we would be. Everything’s gone. Ruined. Like it never existed. I should have listened when they said I could do better. I guess they were right.”
“No, they’re not. Whoever they are, they don’t understand us.”
“That’s easy to say, Damon. But I don’t understand us either.”
Though it was riddled with ambiguity, Sofia had said enough. She didn’t want a drawn out sermon this time. She was too exhausted, and crumbled to the carpet instead, pushing her back against the wall and folding her arms. Damon asked if he could hold her and she said no. But he reached for her anyway, ever so insistent. She saw his hands grasping her waist, but she couldn’t feel them. She was numb to the touch. She quaked and cried uncontrollably. She wanted to stop, but it was impossible.