My hand working it. Other hand clicking. Clicking.
Screen shimmers then blanks. I hit the space bar. The mouse. Nothing.
I’m protected. Pop-ups, scanners, scripts, cookies, worms. I’m covered. There’s always something new, though. It’s all the same, but there’s always something new.
My softening organ, greasy with lotion and spit. Alien in the brackish glow. My clean hand tapping: space bar, mouse, space bar.
Hard drive whirring. Finally, the movie player opens. I’m expecting the clip I clicked on just before the system went down.
Thirty seconds of salvation. My crotch twinges. Ready to finish.
It’s the way they look just before it happens. On their knees, mouths open, eyes nothing but slits. It’s the way they jerk back from that first splash, can’t stop themselves.
The clip loads.
I’m almost hard again. Only, it’s not what I’m expecting. A girl in bra and panties. Staring at the camera. Skinny. Not terrified, but maybe afraid. Afraid the way you get when you know what’s coming. There’s no audio. Her gaze. Darting. Who’s she looking for? Leans in. No sound. My hand. Working.
Please, she mouths.
Marie Justins is a big lady, nurse in the geriatric ward, has some difficulties regarding her financing as a result of a recent divorce. I’m a mortgage broker who works from his basement home office. I can find a lender suitable to your needs. A lot of people go to the bank. Don’t go to the bank.
Late afternoon. We sit in her living room. Marie outlines the pertinent details. I take notes, nod encouragingly. Marie’s voice quavers. Clients can become emotional.
Since my husband left us—, she is saying.
Can you, I say, tell me again your average monthly take-home, after taxes?
Marie pulls herself together.
Let me put these numbers in the office computer, I say. Your situation is not unusual, though of course, all clients have their unique needs. But I’m sure, I say, standing up, that we can find a resolution that will be more than satisfactory.
Really? Marie approaches. Her eyes glisten. Her blouse, bursting out. What’s under it?
We both hear the front door open.
Then a girl’s voice: I’m hoooome, followed by her arrival in the living room.
Marie seems flustered. Hi, she says, louder than necessary. This is Mr. Zikowitz. He’s going to help us renegotiate our mortgage.
I’ll bet, the girl says.
I must be going, I say.
We shake hands, palms mutually moist.
Byyyye, Marie’s daughter croons.
I slip out of bed and pad into the basement. I close the door to my office. Lock it.
With my wife, I perform diligently. Weeks pass. I do her from behind. It is not a case of her being unable to satisfy. It is not that she lacks sex appeal or adventurousness. What is it? You tell me.
We work. Earn. Speak of what there is to speak of.
I wake up. It is 2 A.M.
Again, the search.
A physical hardness, which I take care of, catching the mess in tissue.
Something else remains. Some desire unfulfilled. That girl. Not what she said—Please—but the way she said it.
The way she looked when she said it.
I monitor certain chat rooms, on-line forums.
People talk of things.
My wife says, Are you all right?I shrug, sip coffee.
Maybe you should see someone?
About what? I smile.
You haven’t really been sleeping, she says.
Am I waking you up?
The phone ringing in the basement.
This isn’t about me, she says.
Duty calls, I say, hoisting my mug.
Stuart is a fellow mortgage broker I met at a conference. He lives not far from me in a similar home and works in a similar basement office. He has two children, young ones, a boy and a girl. We occasionally socialize, ostensibly to keep each other up-to-date in regards to the latest developments in our trade. There are always schemes, offers, loopholes to be explored and exploited. We talk shop, do something compatible we both enjoy. This weekend, his wife has taken the kids to their grandmother’s, and we have arranged to meet at the auto show, downtown.
We even dress pretty much the same. Polo T-shirts and chinos. Our wives have not met, though there has been talk about a dinner date, the four of us.
We stop to admire next year’s Porsche, its yellow skin shimmering under spotlights.
Wow, Stu says. Can you imagine?
I shake my head ruefully.
Suppose you got your hands on a car like this, Stu says. What would you do with it?
I honestly don’t know, I say.
You’d probably sell it, Stu says.
It’s the opening weekend of the auto show. Very crowded. There are men, like us, wandering through, admiring r.p.m.s and zero-to-sixty. There are young couples, the women tolerantly trailing their boyfriends past an array of souped-up S.U.V.s lurking like dinosaurs in a section of the huge convention centre temporarily dubbed Truck Territory.
We stop to watch a floor show. Customized Honda. Engine bulging out, a radiated wound. Women in bikinis prancing around the car.
There are families, too, in the crowd, middle-aged husbands and wives dolling out twenties to their just-teen offspring so they can play the racing games or the bumper cars. Get yourself a hot dog, meet me back at the entrance in an hour, O.K.? In an hour. Right here. O.K.? O.K.?
The floor show continues.
I peer through the crowd.
Flicker of straight brown hair. Pair of doleful eyes.
Stu’s attention on the bikini-clad spokeswoman, buxom blond whose suggestively amplified remarks about the kind of transmission she likes in her car elicit whoo-whoos and catcalls from the audience.
The back of long twiggy legs. Flash of near-white. Tartan skirt flaring. A hardness like a darkness. Black lump slipping free. Something inside me coming loose.
Excuse me, I say, pushing past. I sidestep into a couple gawking at an R.V. the size of my house. Keep moving. She is graceful. Slips through the crowd like an eel.
At the front entranceway, she stops. Looks for someone. A dad or a boyfriend. Tight pink lips, pale cheeks twisted impatiently. She is slim and petulant.
Nice, huh? a man says to me.
My gaze followed. I put my head down, move in the other direction.
Hey, he says, blocking my way. I can help you.
He tucks his card into my breast pocket.
Charles Willet. Import-Export.
My wife is ready to have a baby. We’ve discussed her going off the pill. We’ve waited longer than most couples in our situation. Stable, upstanding. Capable of providing the right kind of nurturing atmosphere.
We are relatively young. Just barely into our thirties. There’s no hurry, I tell her. I know, she says. She understands that I do not want us to be one of those couples that has a baby as a way of marking the passage of time. Why does one have a baby?
Still, she says, fitting her head on my shoulder. What do you think? Boy or girl?
Weeks pass. I plug Marie Justins into a great deal offered just under the radar. She is ever so thankful. Wants me to come to the house for a “little celebration,” as she puts it.
I courier over the paperwork.
I need a hobby. Something physical yet mentally taxing. Squash. Chess. Pole vault.
I lock the door of my office. A shadow over my heart. This reluctant creeping doom.
The hours pass. Phone rings. I mute the player. Answer it. My hand still stroking. Flesh numb. Waiting. Pleasure deferred. Tomorrow. The next day.
The next day my wife comes home early. I hear: knob turning. Hello? she says, puzzled at the locked office door. Are you in there?
Coming, I call, as if I have to travel down several flights of stairs and halls to get the door, instead of three steps across a messy office. I scramble with underwear, pants, belt. Hit the Power button.
Computer dies with a reverse whine.
I open the door.
My wife wears a puzzled smile.
I am sweating, red-faced. My nonchalant grin turning hard at the edges, like old cheese.
What are you doing? she asks.
Working, I say.
She stares at me.
I didn’t realize the door was locked, I say. Sweat beading my upper lip. Sometimes it does that, I say.
She peers past me into the dark office.
What’s going on with you?
I step forward, forcing her to back up. Close the door behind me.
I’m done for the day, I say.
Upstairs, I pour myself a drink. Scotch. From the single dusty bottle.
My wife watches me, eyes narrowing.
Neither of us is much of a drinker.
Home early? I say.
Things were quiet at the bank.
Great, I nod. My face, drying. I sip, feel the burn slip through me.
What do you want to do for dinner? I say.
She turns away from me.
Weeks pass. No one notices. A call from my aging mother, resident of a city some thousand miles south. Dad had chest pains, she reports, checked himself into emergency. False alarm, Mom says. Dad’s heart, an accident waiting to happen.
The economy slips into a long-promised downturn. People tighten their belts. Hoard cash. Put their plans for a first home off till next year. My card in a drawer filled with takeout menus, pre-approved credit cards, and broken corkscrews.
Cold outside, then suddenly hot and muggy. Is it spring or fall? Time expands to fill itself. Variations on a theme. My options narrowing, becoming inevitable.
Mr. Willet? I say.
My voice loud in the claustrophobic dark of my office.
We met at the...auto show.
Of course, he purrs calmly.
He gives me an address, a day, a time. For our little informational session. There is a fee, he says sadly. I trust that six hundred dollars won’t be an inconvenience?
We offer the best sessions, he tells me. Premium sessions.
I love my wife, I say.
Spurt. Dribble. I clean myself up. Tap into the central bank. Interests rates rising.
Look, I tell my wife. I know I’ve been—we’ve been—lately. But I think I’m, I mean, I haven’t wanted to say it, because, well, it’s—this isn’t—
What is it? she says.
I think I’m...depressed, I say.
Depressed? she says.
There is a stain on the linoleum. Shape of a starfish.
It’s O.K., she says. We can talk about this. You can tell me anything. You know that, don’t you?
I know, I say. I just...
It’s O.K., she says. There are lots of people who...These things happen. We’ll figure it out. We’ll get you help. We’ll figure it out together.
I don’t know, I say.
We’ll figure it out, she says.
It’s a combination of things. It’s not one thing. A sense of slippage. One thing happens, then another. And so on. And on and on and on. Until you are no longer really in control. But if not you, then who is to blame? Whose fault is it?
I drive into the city. A weekday evening. The streets all but empty. What people there are seem like travellers, waiting impatiently for their plane to board. Buildings looming over us, our shared legacy, these empty office towers and darkened arenas. Sky glowing purple, it could be dawn or dusk, midnight or morning. I keep looking in my rear-view mirror. The path behind me. The way I came.
I drive west, through a ramshackle neighbourhood, houses adorned with crumbling wood porches. Then blocks of warehouses, hipster clubs, strange art galleries, the kind of restaurants my wife calls rip-offs because it’s five bucks for a Coke and you always leave hungry.
So...my wife says. She sits in the kitchen over a cup of tea. She is wearing her blue robe. The lines around her eyes, wedged grooves shadowed by fading light.
So what? I say.
So...she says, how are you feeling?
Better, I say.
Days later, I retrace the route. I take the elevator up. Knock on the door. Charles Willet. Import-Export. He greets me, shakes my hand. Leads me past the reception area and into his office. We are two men having a drink in an office.
Heating up, Willet says. They say it’s gonna be a hot summer.
Nodding, I withdraw the envelope, place it on his desk. Without looking down, Willet makes it disappear.
So tell me, he says. What kind of experience can we offer you today?
I take a drink. My hand is calm, cool.
Brown hair. I say. Long, straight brown hair.
And brown eyes.
And slim. Very slim.
He waits for me to go on. I finish my drink.
And, he says gently. Beyond that?
If you asked me tomorrow to describe Charles Willet, I would be at a loss.
Follow me, please. Willet leads me down the a corridor. Past the closed doors of other offices.
I can smell perfume. Her body.
Is there, I say...I’d like to...a bathroom?
Oh sure, Willet says. Right here. He opens an adjoining door.
I close the door behind me.
The bathroom is small, pink. On the counter, a hair brush, lip gloss, pink barrettes.
I stand over the sink.
My face in the mirror.