Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 109 in 2004.
The cafe's full - a swarm gathers. It's Saturday, play-time for those of us who work night and day, for nothing. We dress accordingly, all flesh and leather thighs.
I've arrived with a date of sorts, a man. We settle ourselves apart from the buzz, not on the banquette - red velvet crawling with peacocks on the pick up. That was me a week or two ago but now I've been promoted.
My 'man' pulls out a chair, a nice touch for a woman my age, past bearing. He's chosen the situation well - a marble-topped table and a single frail flower, delicate, unusual, a spotted throat with lolling tongue. I'd like a full bunch beside my bed, but I can't take to flowers in my room, not fragrant ones like this, they make me wheeze. But that's another story, not for thinking now. I sit by the window on view to the street and thank him, ostentatiously. Chivalry must be encouraged. I look for signs of an older sensibility.
We were caught in a flash summer shower, en route, dripping wet. He offered his coat for my protection. I didn't take it. Now, outside, there's a strange light, the sky has cleared, the sun is low. A moment of rain has emptied the heavens. We both steam up like damp rotten earth, sodden. The leathers give off a faint whiff of sulphur, not perfume.
He hands me the menu. I have a problem choosing. The food so pretty, so prearranged, is not so friendly. I know from old how it spikes my insides. We want the same thing tonight, a plate for sharing. We are of one mind, optimistic - it's the start of the evening.
The waiter comes, a busy man - distracted. He takes our order, but he's not impressed. 'Will that be all?' he wants to know.
'Thanks, but we'll take our time to choose the wine.' My man is in control - I like that!
There's no delay in this place. Food, piled up behind the counter, is ready for a quick getaway. We are on the conveyor belt. The waiter is back with a flourish. I move my bag to make a space.
Our large slab of wood is spread with antipasti. Like slippery eels the strips of pepper curl and squirm - red and yellow glistening extra virgin. A slice of cheese, pure white 'goat' and wholesome. But look, the crispy bread is bleached.
Oh! I don't know how to behave anymore. I'm at a loss. They like you keen but not so keen. I'm not that subtly balanced.
We need a drink. Come on. I guess he would prefer I had the 'house' but we're still at the impressing stage.
'This is the best part of the evening,' he says.
'What's that?' I ask.
'Choosing the wine.'
He calls the waiter back. 'Chianti Classico please.'
I've had it before, it's the kind that makes my nose itch, but of course I don't say so.
There's one thing that we're together on though, and we know it. He wants sex and so do I, but we go through with this strange preamble. It's perfectly plain...his eyes are wide open, ranging from chest to mouth and back again. I leave my lips open, enticingly, half a centimetre, no more. This is well practiced.
He gets a glimpse of my hot interior while I devour him whole. This is not our first meeting. But, I have a rule, never on the first night - for all the difference it makes.
Here we go!
He says: 'I've been having X-rated dreams about you.'
As if that might turn me on a little faster... What's the rush - am I that desirable? His words disgust me, I'm not sure why. No...wait a minute, that's not so honest, disgust and excite more like...he knows the vital mix. What does he do with my body I want to know? He's not saved himself for me, that's for sure, he's spent his currency too soon - alone. I can't compete with a good imagination!
The Chianti tastes thick and spicy. I smile a little now. He thinks I want his taste, as good as nectar. He thinks he has a never-ending supply.
I laugh at his imagination, so short of the mark. I don't dream of him, his limbs are wrong...not long enough. That's not all. I need a competent man, no femininity please. I'm an old fashioned type, I need an animal inside me, to make me scream. Who am I kidding?
He's speaking now. I've missed the gist. The best stories are written in our heads, not told, not for sharing. His x-rated dreams cannot be elucidated. Not here, not now - the noise from the banquette is too great. Will his dream ignite me? I can't tell yet.
I don't have to go on with this, no one's forcing. Even I know that. But I'm compelled. I feel...unworthy of a better man, so I stay. I take another glass, no, let's get this straight, he pours me one - he's not that bad. We're in for some kind of session, tonight. We both know that. He tries hard to interest me, head bobbing, mouth moving. He talks of literature, but I don't read the stuff.
'Too depressing,' I say.
Why get off the point? Why pretend? It would take too long to learn something of each other. Why start the futile probe? I need to know his skin first.
'Would you like an olive?'
'No, not for me thanks,' I say. 'Too much acid.'
What's that I see? Some dribbles on his trendy t-shirt. He acts out a charming story to the smoky noise, gesticulating. The life pours out of him, but not on me. He has spent his day with two young daughters...playful. He smiles with the telling. It's a two edged sword this fatherhood. But is a man complete without? I wonder. There is another question. Am I complete without?
I don't want to be reminded of that other time.
I don't want to deal with some other woman's children.
I want my own child back.
I help myself to some wine, just to top up the glass, nothing more. I do it without thinking, and deprive him of his job. He's busy though. He talks about his girls as if that might soften me.
But I know when there's no competing. So what if he treats his babies well? Does he fantasise while they dribble all over him? Tell me that.
I'm too old to be a mother now, no energy for it.
'Have some salami,' he says, 'you're eating nothing.'
'I only drink, when out with men. No food - I can't stomach it.' I raise an eyebrow and smile. He laughs and rubs his thigh. How long more of this charade?
My limbs tingle. His hands are not so bad.
I know that sad look he wears in his eyes. It's the one I wear on Saturdays, early, when the flat is empty, cleaned for the week and the next unsuspecting visitor.
Sometimes, I sense a lasting interest. They dare to hope, they like the flat, the comfort of it all. It's taken me time to get things right, but no, I'm not ready for sharing, not with this one. I have two bedrooms, one for me and one for the dreaded act of negation. I know, sex is meant to be life enhancing. I live in hope. But, I'm sensible - no one enters my inner sanctum, the other room is there for that. The soiled sheets are ripped off, washed, and back by Monday.
He pulls me back with another offering.
'No, I don't want a cappuccino. Thanks.'
'Go on, have one. They draw a heart in the froth here. It's very romantic.'
'I wish I could,' I say, 'but coffee keeps me up. I need my sleep.'
Doesn't he know that I can't bear to lay awake, mind spinning, needle stuck, watching them snore...emptied?
I always bring them back to my flat. It's because I read a story once: there was a woman chained to the bedpost, captured willingly by a smart pick-up in a city bar, no one knew her fate. I take my risks, calculated. It's I who can turf them out and lock the door. It saves me. I don't want to like their lives and sticky nights. The smell of man wrapped round is too strong...keeps me wanting.
It's easy to smile through the Chianti, easier than talking.
'I love your t-shirt,' I say.
He smiles. He's not hard to please. I can relax a bit now, I'm wine-numbingly happy. His hand reaches out. My leg is still alive - the tingle proves it.
'Let's go back to my place,' he says quickly.
He's agitated now. He calls for the bill - a mock scribble on the hand.
Every waiter knows the sign for money. It's time to go to the ladies and powder my nose.
I stand up. 'Come back with me instead. The flat isn't far.'
'I can't,' he says. 'My girls are with me this weekend. I have to let the babysitter go. It's OK, they won't disturb us.' I don't reply. I want to run away but go to the ladies instead. This is not my scene. I open my dainty purse. No money for a taxi, not even a phone-call, what the fuck? I remember: my money is in the other bag. I pull out my lipstick and apply the 'burnt sienna' - it always gives me courage. The smell of urine whacks my senses. Someone's missed the seat. Who says women can't be filthy? I tiptoe round the puddle - eyes wide open.
I return to the table, cleaned out of trite ideas. He sits in the window, sky-darkened, leather jacket on, ready for lift off. I'm flattened, not strong enough for this.
A broken heart, too smashed to mend - abandoned by another man. He left me and I left our baby...our beautiful baby. It was a simple equation. They had me convinced, 'an act of charity all round.' But now...I think of her...more and more. She interferes with every move - last seen, a curled up mess filling my arms, sticky with afterbirth, not love. I want to cry but can't. All that has dried up long ago.
I stand beside him and look straight into the dark dim dream of a lost child. No man can touch me - I'm not a woman anymore. My fixed stare beats on the window, the heavens are empty.
'I can't come back with you,' I say. 'Nothing personal, you understand, I gave my baby away. I was too young. A bad mistake, and now I'm fucked. Sorry. I've no money for a taxi. Left it in my other bag.'
He stands up, taller than I remember.
Here in the buzz of the smart city pick-up joint he pulls me close.
I want to cry with the warmth of it.