The Hot Mess by Frances Madeson
His kisses made promises he had no intention of fulfilling. I knew that early on. But the overlapping oval of our Venn diagram—the space containing our shared spheres of interest and sensibility—though not large, glowed red chile hot.
His linguistic defenses (or were they offenses?)—anyhoo, jeepers, excuuuuse me—were curious to me. What to make of them?A kind of camp, certainly. And what is camp but a defensive aesthetic strategy? Pre-emptive self-mockage.
He said he didn't take himself that seriously, but that was either a self-deception from lack of self-knowledge or an outright lie. He's even a bit precious in that regard. He told me his middle name with a good bit of pride, I had asked him lying beside him under clean flannel sheets. “Waldo,” he said, “my uncle's name. He was a good man.” His voice grew deeper, fell quieter, remembering that connection with that good man from long ago.
His breath was sour the first time we made love, post-nasal drip, and I'm not proud of this, but every time he tried to kiss me I turned my head away, until he stopped trying. But the next time, at his place, he laid a kiss on me that made the world stop turning. His tongue, slow and thick, took possession (no other way to say it) of my open (no other way to say this, either) yearning mouth. He termed them “perfect” kisses.For me they were suggestive of a depth worth probing, though I never found it—buried too deeply under all his many rituals.
Set in his ways. His ways kept him safe. Safe from what? From the likes of me.
I kept him at a healthy distance. “You don't text! Wow,” he said. Our first date he made a stark comment. “You think very highly of yourself.” I couldn't deny it. Having exceeded my own limitations so many times, having conquered so many fears, I can practically grow on demand, in real time. Another morning, he said, “You're a central figure.” Which is a little different from putting me on a pedestal.
He made me feel very beautiful in bed, served me there like a queen. He held me close, tight as we shuddered together. He laced his fingers in mine and twisted and turned my hands making me feel his considerable strength. Pushing into me, away from me, pulling, then resisting. His signature gesture, this push-pull, and how I loved it. I rubbed his chest, feeling his heartbeat. “You've found my nipples,” he said. Grateful. He placed his fingers over mine on them and applied pressure, my professor, instructing me. “You don't have to be so gentle.”
He invited me to balloon fiesta and then canceled at the last minute, ruining everything just as he intended.
There was another man, hovering in the wings. Bearded, long still-dark hair tied back in a coated rubber band, Samurai style. Too young, but I sampled him, more than that. I couldn't help it, he had thrown himself in my arms. Another heat seeker. He did things with his tongue on my ear to make me forget Romulus's perfect kisses. Almost.
Romulus introduced me to his former student, now a professor like him, but in a college back east. A lovely girl, a lesbian as it happens. “She's the daughter I would have wanted,” he confided, really meaning it. I peeked at a picture of them together on his Facebook, her graduation day, his arm was around her shoulder, paternally. I was happy for them both. I wondered who had taken the picture.
The last time we were at his house, he turned on the television. Football, so much more brutal then I ever remembered it. Gladitorial, we agreed on this. Then hockey. “They're so speedy,” I said about the players. “Yep,” he said, “those guys can stop on a dime.”
Romulus of myth was raised by a she-wolf. Mine too, though a different kind (speaking plainly, his mother was a drunk). He's careful with alcohol, my Romulus, but reckless with aspertame. His poor, poor brain I thought, caressing his shaved head, my fingers floating over the little skin tags here and there.
His house in Nob Hill—a long-term rental, empty walls, TVs in every room, a meditation on beige. It's a trap I thought when I saw no art on the walls, a tar baby to a commonplace domesticity. He wants a woman to want to envision herself complementing his environment, but only in the abstract. He speaks of correlates, however, the correlation calculation only works well for relationships that follow a straight line, and he'll never allow that; his herky-jerky scheduling will insure non-linearity. One of his cats (I couldn't tell you which one) chased a starling inside the house. I slammed the door to his office, the cat on one side of the door, the wounded bird trapped inside the relentless beigeness.
When he came home from teaching his graduate seminar, I told him about it. Matter of factly, he unlatched the window screen from the outside and released the wounded bird, watching it fly off. He swept the pile of feathers, some of them bloodied, into his backyard where the breeze took them. You can see the Sandias from his patio. Sunset turns them to coral, beautiful even with the sagging power lines in view.
So many ruffled feathers undone from such a small bird.
Still sweeping, he said: “It comes with the territory.”