Bob Kline was a small man, a Celt of the red faced and red haired variety. He was intelligent if reading deeply in history and violently disagreeing with the bias of eminent historians means you are intelligent. But his interest in history was an avocation for him. He made his living teaching grade twelve students art. For him this was a natural thing for he was a practicing artist, a painter.
Bob had managed somehow to reach the age of forty-five without marrying, quite a feat in the small town he lived in where at any time there were dozens of mothers searching out eligible bachelors for their unmarried daughters. He was aging now but for some years he was a favorite topic of conversation in such circles for he had a good job, was educated, socially presentable and good looking. As well he had about him even in his forties, the air of naïve boy which attracted such matchmakers for they saw this as a sign of a pliable, moldable personality, to them the best kind of husband, one who could be taught his duties and place within the marriage structure with little trouble. Matchmakers, of course, find men attractive to themselves as the most eligible to propose to their daughters. Daughters have their own opinions on the matter.
Bob, although outwardly an affable, easygoing man, was in reality anything but. His love of reading and painting had made him a most cynical man when it came to the matter of marrying and the manipulations of those who propose he do so. Most women, he reasoned, wanted a man for their beds who also cut the grass, did home renovations and acted as a social consort. The bed part he didn’t mind for he was a passionately erotic man, but he felt no call to home maintenance and social consorting. He had no desire to have children. For him the world already had enough children, many of whom popped up in his classroom every September. All of these things – wife, children, home renovations, social consorting - would rob him of his interests and pleasures and he became crafty in defending himself against their incursions.
But his was a small town and the social mores strong. Admitting to such opinions would bring no end of trouble. So for most of the town, especially the matchmaking sections, he constructed an affable personality mask projecting a mild benevolence, having no strong opinions on anything, a good listener, a jovial companion at social gatherings. But behind this mask there was a layer of steel which repelled all commitment to the town’s almost universal solution to human loneliness and the need for intimacy – the nuclear family with wife, husband, children, in a stand alone, grass surrounded house.
Bob learned early that sexual desire was the gateway leading to that house. When he was twenty-four there had almost been a marriage. Fortunately the young woman in question decided another man would make a better husband and she was right for Bob would have made the most miserable husband imaginable. After this close brush, Bob decided that his Achilles heel – his need for a sexual relationship with a woman – would have to be dealt with or he would inevitably find himself beached upon the shoals of matrimony. He decided on abstinence as the best solution and threw himself into an iron schedule of work, reading, painting and exercise which would have stripped Don Juan himself of all sexual desire.
It didn’t work. The more he worked, exercised and deprived himself of sleep the more sex obssessed he became. In the middle of an art seminar the sexual attractions of the young women students at the table became so strong he became almost ill. Supervising the late period at the end of the day he began hallucinating the naked torso’s of beautiful movie actors. Although, with an iron will he stopped himself from masturbating, his self control condemned him to long hours of misery and many midnight walks. And even then he woke up frequently in the middle of the night thrusting like a mad dog and ejaculating all over the clean sheets he had put on the bed the night before. He soon learned he had taken on a dragon and the dragon was much more clever and much stronger than he.
Next he decided on pornography and sexual aids. There was nowhere in town to buy such things for it was a church going and morally correct sort of town, so he ordered videos and magazines by mail. From the magazine ads he ordered a life sized sexual doll one filled with warm water to create a simulacrum of the human female. All this went along quite well for a time but it became a little obsessive. At the end he was spending three nights a week watching porno and screwing his plastic doll and afterwards feeling disgusted with himself. After these sessions he found himself lonely and dissatisfied and came to the conclusion that such things could not act as a substitute for reality. With a real woman there was affection and response and something he had not thought of before – conversation, emotional flow. After mono sex he longed to sit in the semi darkness and talk to somebody and for this desire, as strong as the desire for orgasm, maybe even stronger, flickering images and plastic dolls were useless.
It was then that he thought he might give up his bachelorhood and marry some woman who did not want to have children. Perhaps he could find one who would like the old apartment he lived in where there was no grass to cut and no home renovations allowed. Possibly he might even find one who was socially disinclined and would sit at home evenings sewing or studying Hieroglyphics while he read his books and painted his pictures and thus he would be free of the vacuous conversations which took place at the town’s dinner parties. He decided to make a few discrete investigations but after three months of careful inquiries came up empty. He would have to move to a big city to find such a woman he decided and he hated big cities. He would rather simmer in the stew of his own unsatisfied desires than to pull up stakes and move to one.
It was some months after this that Bob read an ad in the personal section of the regional newspaper published in the big city one hundred kilometers away. A woman was looking for a sexual relationship with a man with no prospects of marriage involved. She did not say why no marriage but stated it as unequivocal and absolute. Bob read this ad several times for it seemed to him that it was a dream answer to his problem but only a dream for the big city was far away. But when he read the ad the third time he noticed that the PO Box was at the Delivery Service in his own town. He became so excited he almost shouted out loud but restrained himself at the last moment. He was sitting in the reading room of the town library. He copied down the particulars and went home to compose an answer. That night, before he went to bed, he dropped the reply in the mailbox outside his apartment.
Two weeks went by, then three. He decided that the woman had received many answers and had chosen one not his own. But who would send all these answers was a mystery to him. The ad stipulated that the man would have to be unmarried. There were plenty of married men in town looking for an affair he was sure, but he couldn’t think of one his own age (the ad said 23 to 30) who was not on the path to town normal marriage. But you never knew. Perhaps there were a few wierdos like himself scattered about here and there and she had chosen from a larger herd than he thought possible. But then, four weeks after he had mailed his reply, he received an answer.
The woman did not give her name. She wrote that until she met him she would rather remain anonymous and she hoped he didn’t mind. Although she lived in the same town to be sure, she proposed a first meeting in a coffee shop in the big city. She realized this would be inconvenient and mean a long trip for him, yet she thought it advisable under the circumstances. She would be at the coffee shop on such and such a date at such and such a time, a weekend of course. If the date was OK, then fine. If not would he please send her a note saying he couldn’t come?
Bob rose very early in the morning on the meeting date. He dressed in his best pair of jeans, ironed, his best white shirt and his most sedate sports coat. He wore hard shoes he had polished to mirrors the night before. He had calculated his time of arrival based on the usual 90 Klics an hour he drove on the highway. Just as he had planned he arrived at the coffee shop fifteen minutes early. He sat in his car in the parking lot looking in the rain splattered windows for any lone females. There were none. He looked about the parking lot for a car likely to be from his town but that was ridiculous for the cars in his town were the same as those here in the big city. After five minutes he climbed out into the steady drizzle of rain and walked into the shop.
There was only a scattering of people in the shop and he had his choice of seats. He sat in the corner farthest from the entrance facing the door. Six minutes after he sat down – he was counting them – a woman walked in the door. Without looking about her at all she strode to the counter and ordered a cup of tea. Then, without the slightest hesitation, she walked over to Bob’s table and sat down.
“Do you recognize me?” she asked.
“No,” Bob answered.
“That’s not surprising. X is a small town but not that small and I live outside the town, actually.” She mentioned the name of a small community ten miles outside. “I knew who you were right away, of course. Teachers are very public people. Everyone knows who they are.”
“I suppose. Well, since you know who I am perhaps you could tell me who you are,” said Bob.
“Lori is my first name but before I tell you my last I would like to talk a bit,” she said.
“OK,” said Bob, “Talk away.”
“I’m loaded. I don’t mean drunk, but rich. I come from a family which owns rather than works. We involve ourselves in philantrophy to keep ourselves busy for otherwise all we would do is clip coupons. I am a photographer but in a very small way. I shoot wildlife in the field and exhibit here in the city on occasion. Mostly I publish the photos on the net and let whoever wants to enjoy them to do so. I tell you this because from your own letter and my investigations I know you paint, so we have something in common there. Although I am rich and have no need of money from my work and have no desire to be famous, I am serious about the photography and work hard at it. I suppose I am telling you this to protest any inclination you might have to see me as a spoilt little rich girl dabbling in photography.”
“Investigations?” asked Bob.
“I’m afraid such things are necessary if you are in my situation. There are adventurers of all kinds out there and money attracts them like spilt coke attracts wasps.”
“OK,” said Bob, “I don’t mind, really. I have nothing to hide and I can see how someone in your situation, as you call it, has to be cautious but you could tell me, besides being rich, what exactly is your situation.”
Lori laughed at this. “I’m married.”
“But you stipulated in the ad that the man you were looking for couldn’t be married,” said Bob.
“Yes but I am married in a peculiar way.”
“What kind of peculiar way?”
“My husband is gay.”
“Totally gay or bi?”
“Totally gay although when we were first together he managed a few orgasms with me which he later told me were triumphs of the imagination. We married when I was twenty-one. I was very naïve and so was he. We live in a very insular niche of country society. In it you are not permitted to be gay, that is openly gay. Also you are not permitted to divorce. This rule is almost an absolute. As well I do not want to cause my husband who is a very kind, decent man, social grief. To divorce him is to break his cover. It would mean almost for sure that he would be ostrazied and he is very prominent socially, the chair of this and the chair of that. I know that coming from the more liberal world of the town you might find that hard to believe but it’s true nonetheless. We are perhaps forty years behind the time. We exist in a time warp.”
“So you want a sexual relationship outside your social group,” said Bob.
“It has to be outside my social group. It is impossible to have an affair inside; things are too insular; everyone knows everyone. But I would hope not just an affair.”
“The normal thing which goes on between a man and a woman.”
“Love and sex?”
“Love, sex, conversation, closeness.”
Lori did not ask Bob much about his situation for she already knew it. He had typed four pages describing it for his reply to her ad.
After another half hour of talk she asked, “Well, what do you think?”
“We should give it a go,” said Bob. “I would say the fit is pretty close, what about you?”
“Very,” said Lori.
At first they met in hotels at the northern edge of the big city. These were anonymous places where it was unlikely he would meet anyone he knew, impossible she would meet anyone she knew. But hotels are antiseptic places imparting coldness and lack of intimacy. They decided to meet at his place where granted people in the building would know he had a girl, but then they would not know her identity. She arrived in the late evening, half her face covered with a large pair of sunglasses, a dark kerchief over her short black hair. She parked the car two blocks away on a side street. She didn’t leave until two in the morning. He walked her to the car and came back to the apartment on foot. This sequence of events happened every Friday night.
Some people noticed of course. It was a small town and what was going on outside the living room windows was a big draw, not like in the city where the cast of characters changed so often one did not even know who lived two houses down. Bob had a girl. Well, well. A secretive girl, head bound up and sunglassed like a Hollywood star slumming in her old neighborhood. Who could she be? One of the new young women teachers? No, they were all accounted for. An old flame? No, they were accounted for too. Parked the car on Bilby Street. What kind of car? A Beamer, a red Beamer sports car. Hmmmm. Somebody checked out the license number with a brother-in-law in the Police Department but it was registered to a company, a numbered company. Well.
One of his fellow male teachers asked Bob about the mystery woman. Bob fobbed him off with a, “Just an old friend.” Some old friend said the gossips, every Friday night nine till two. A very cozy woozy old friend. When one of Bob’s old girlfriends asked she got the same answer. Bob was sealed up tighter than a vacuum jar.
Eventually everyone gave up but this did not totally extinguish their curiosity. They still looked out their windows and watched the mysterious woman walking by. They guessed at her age. They guessed at where she came from. The city? Most likely. But one thing for sure, she had money. Teachers don’t drive around a Beamer sports car. The self- righteous whispered that a respectable woman doesn’t spend five hours in a man’s apartment. Some thought she was a high priced hooker but then somebody pointed out that five hours a week of a high priced hooker would consume all of Bob’s income. Maybe she was just an old friend as Bob claimed. But no, when he walked her back to the car Bob was far too happy and fluid for her to be just a friend. Some asked “and what do you mean by that?” but received silence for an answer. If you didn’t already know you were the kind to whom no one was willing to supply an explanation.
Bob’s nights with Lori meant a change in his social life. He never accepted invitations for a Friday night. He had season’s hockey tickets but missed all the Friday night games. He gave the tickets away to his pals on staff. When he did occasionally accept an invitation to a dinner party he was sometimes teased by the hostess – “A good thing it isn’t a Friday night, Bob.” The young, unmarried women on staff no longer looked upon him as a possibility even if a somewhat remote one. They became easier, more friendly and relaxed with him. If he came into the staff room when there were only women present they would even include him in the telling of a risqué joke. Before they saw him as rejecting women, a rebel against the natural order, but now they saw him as a rather peculiar member of the confraternity of men who love women, even if it was only on Friday night for five hours.
Lori had no problem arranging her Friday nights. She claimed she had a standing date for supper in the city with an old girlfriend which was true. But after the early supper she drove out to Bob’s. Her husband asked no questions and neither did anyone else. If a social occasion came up – one of her husband’s project dinners for instance – she refused to go. Her Friday nights with Bob were too important for her to give up. Whatever people thought about it, too bad. Let them think what they like. Let them go fuck themselves in fact.
This is what happened on Friday night. Lori entered the building with the extra key Bob gave her. She walked up the flight of stairs to the second floor and along the corridor to the very back. There she knocked on the door – it was always between nine and nine o five for Lori was the punctual type. Bob opened the door right away for he was waiting. Bob was naked under a terrycloth bathrobe. As soon as the door was closed behind her Lori dropped to her knees and, separating the sections of robe, took Bob, fully erected like a Pavlovian dog, into her mouth. She took her pleasure there for some time while Bob moaned and groaned so loudly the old woman who lived upstairs could hear him. When she did she was always tempted to bang on the floor with the handle of the broom but settled for a wry snigger and then continued watching her soap opera.
Bob was a disciplined lover and there was no question of him coming early yet by the time Lori had finished sucking and kissing his penis he was bulging like a stallion. Lori got up and they went into the bedroom. Here Bob sat on the edge of the bed while Lori undressed. This she did slowly and alluringly while Bob pleaded with her to hurry. The more he pleaded the more she slowed down. If he grabbed his penis she stepped forward and moved his hand away. Finally she was dressed only in a bra with cut outs for the nipples, crotchless panties, garter belt, silk stockings and high heels. Everything was black – Bob’s preference.
She then had him remove his robe and sit on his hands. She stepped forward, straddling his knees but taking care not to touch him. She took the extra black silk stocking she held in her hand and tied it as a blindfold around his head. But first she had him close his eyes while she rubbed it over his penis.
And there you go - anyone who has read porno will be able to fill in the rest. They orgasmed together some half hour later.
Afterward they showered, had coffee and talked a while. Then they watched a movie. One week Lori chose, the other Bob. They sat on the sofa, arms around one another’s shoulders and watched. When it was over they sat at the kitchen table, ate a sandwich made by Bob, who was a superb sandwich maker, and talked about the movie. The movies were mostly American and European classics. Sometimes they disagreed, one passionately liking a character for instance, the other hating them, one thinking an art film pretentious, the other thinking it profound. Sometimes this made them angry but neither were the kind to bear grudges. Sometimes Lori brought over photos from the series she was working on. Sometimes Bob showed her a painting or two. Twelve-thirty they were in bed again. At five to two Bob walked Lori to the car.
This went on for eighteen years while Bob aged from 27 to 45, Lori from 24 to 42. Although the hours they spent together – four hours a week and three days at a vacation spot twice during the summer – were short, nevertheless each was the emotional center for the other. They thought of one another almost every hour of the day and dreamed of having sex together at least once a week. Then a catastrophic thing happened. Lori’s husband died of a stroke while watching a hockey game. He had leaped up from his chair to cheer a goal and when he sat back down he slumped over to one side. By the time his pals got the paramedics to his side he was gone.
This was on a Saturday night. Lori came the next Friday but she was withdrawn. Her husband was not her lover but her dear friend. After all she shared with him a lifetime of social and family connections. It was as if a very close brother had died. With Bob, on the other hand, she had no such connections. She felt as if she were coming to the apartment of a stranger and although she came out of a blind loyalty to the man who was her lover, her sexual companion, her mind was full of doubts and self consciousness.
Her husband’s death also introduced a new note into their secret life together. It no longer had to be secret. She was a widow now and, after a respectable period for mourning, there was no reason why they could not see one another openly and even marry eventually. The realization that this was true was a little jarring for both. They had enjoyed their secret life together. That it had clear perimeters and was insulated from the outside world had become normal, comforting. After living so long in a warm, dark, secret place they were now about to be thrust out into the larger world and neither knew what they would find there or if they would like what they found there. For six months after her husband’s death, this made them anxious and wary with one another. They avoided certain topics like they were the plague. Their conversations often became rigidly formal as if to guarantee they did not stray into forbidden areas. Actually this unconscious strategy on their part made sense. It gave them time to think and adjust so that when the obvious leaped upon the table between them and could no longer be avoided, each had settled in their own minds what it was they wanted to say.
It happened one Friday night when they were eating sandwiches at the kitchen table.
“I suppose we could have supper in the city now on occasion if we wanted,” Lori said.
“Yes,” said Bob. “I suppose we could.”
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”
“Well, it’s such a strange idea in a way. I mean, excepting for the vacations when we go where no one knows us, we have never been in public together.”
“Do you want to have supper together?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Where shall we go then?” asked Lori.
“Where should we go?”
“Why should it be up to me?”
“Lori, don’t be so touchy. It’s just that you go into the city at least once a week. I haven’t been there in three years. The occasional time I did go to the city in the last ten years I ate fast food. I swoop in, get what I want, grab a bite and swoop out. I haven’t been to a decent restaurant there since I was in my twenties.”
“Well,” said Lori, “I suppose we could go to Tomos.”
Tomos was very upscale. It would be unlikely that a meal with wine, deserts and tip would be much less than a week of Bob’s salary. Even he knew this. Tomos had been around since before he was born. Even when he was in the city to study he had never been there. To him and his fellow students Tomos was a foreign country. They ate at fast food joints or hole in the wall places in the ethnic areas but mostly they ate peanut butter sandwiches at home.
Lori noticed his embarrassed hesitation and said, “I could host the first time. After that you can choose a place and host. What do you say?”
“OK,” said Bob.
Bob wore his polished cowboy boots, jeans, white shirt, tie and sports coat. He wasn’t out of place. Many of the businessmen at the surrounding tables were dressed in similar fashion. Lori wore a simple black dress with spaghetti straps. Although she was forty-three, tennis kept her muscles toned and she looked fabulous. In comparison, Bob thought, he looked aging and somewhat frumpy. At his request Lori did the ordering. When the bill came he read it upside down. It was larger than his week’s salary and that didn’t include the tip for the waiter and the Maitre de. The food was passable but only. You were paying for cache and exclusivity, not quality.
On the way back in the car Lori said, “The food wasn’t very good, was it?”
“No,” Bob replied.
“I haven’t been there for years,” she said. “William hated the place. Whenever we went to town together we ate hamburgers and chips. William was a people watcher. We would sit in the corner of the hamburger joint drinking coffee and speculating about the people who came in the doors. He would guess at what they did for a living, etcetera. I don’t think he was very accurate. He had a leaning toward convoluted tragedy and usually much simpler explanations are closer to the truth. Where are we going next week?”
“You’ll see,” said Bob.
“Oh, a mystery. I love mysteries.”
Vietnamese. The bill, including tip and wine, was twice what you would pay in a hamburger joint. A bargain for the food was delicious. Bob got the name and address from a fellow teacher. His pal told him the grandmother did the cooking.
“My friends,” said Bob, “tell me that the cook is the point. The décor is all very interesting but it’s the cook who makes the meal.”
And the décor wasn’t bad either. There were original paintings on the wall done in the ancient Chinese style, ink paintings of mountains, trees and wilderness huts. Very Taoist. Floating paintings with Chinese characters running down one side (or Vietnamese - he didn’t know the difference or even if there was one).
Sometimes they came into the city for early supper and after went to watch opera. Not live opera but a series put on every Friday night at a movie house of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Bob had never been to an opera but he fell in love with it right away. Lori knew all the plots, the composers, the history of performances and she whispered into his ear a steady stream of information during the film. Bob especially liked the warm, liquid voices of the contraltos. He noticed that after watching an opera their lovemaking was especially passionate. Lori said that the original function of opera, when you came to think of it, was a kind of stylized aphrodisiac for aristocrats and wealthy merchants. You could even call it a form of porno she said. But they keep their clothes on said Bob. Yes, said Lori but good porno is always about clothes. “You should know that,” she said.
A year and a half after William’s death they were sitting in a downtown café eating omelettes when Lori asked,
“If you lived in a house, what would it be like?”
“You want the truth?”
“It would have a big oak staircase going up the middle. At the top of the staircase would be an attic, one big room with eight dormers. At one end there would be a long counter for painting, at the other bookcases and a Lazy Boy. In the middle would be a fireplace, a real wood burning fireplace, with comfortable chairs in a semi circle around it. The floor would be oak with a Turkish carpet at each end, bare in the middle. There would be lots of empty space. One bank of dormers would face northeast, the other southwest. No curtains. The windows would be high up enough there would be no need for curtains. It would smell of lemon furniture polish with a slight underlay of pipe tobacco.”
“A strange house - bachelor quarters suspended in the middle of the air with a staircase coming down,” said Lori. “Sounds like your apartment, blown up, with the walls removed.”
“Well,” said Bob. “I described my part of a house. Naturally it would be underpinned and surrounded by other parts which, being the person I am, I would be incompetent to describe. What do I know of kitchens, parlors and dining rooms? Or even bedrooms for that matter. My bedroom is a closet.”
“I know about kitchens, parlors, dining rooms and bedrooms,” said Lori. “I also know about plant rooms, libraries and even ballrooms for lack of a better word. Large rooms where you have parties I mean. I was brought up learning about such things.”
Bob didn’t reply to this. Instead he looked out the window where a great river of students was passing by.
“There is one in town for sale,” said Lori. “But the attic you were talking about has only six dormers and the oak staircase is at the front of the house, not in the middle.”
Bob took his eyes away from the passing students and looked at her. She was looking back with a queer expression on her face. Her eyebrows were raised and she had rounded her mouth until it was a pouting circle. This was her expression when she was being forceful but vulnerable. Bob felt for her. He was so inward, so self involved that he had made her force the issue. He grew suddenly ashamed of himself. But then what did he know of these things? How was he to know if he was the sort of man who could stand around in ballrooms as if he belonged there? He didn’t even know if he wanted to stand around in ballrooms.
“You think we should marry then?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Lori.
Bob thought about this for a minute. Then he said, “OK. Even if we didn’t marry we would be married, wouldn’t we?”
“Yes,” said Lori.
Every one in town was very surprised when the Banns were issued. Bob was almost fifty and he had his secret lady and they had thought that was that. When he died she would show up at the service wearing sunglasses and kerchief like the woman who use to put a rose on the grave of Rudolph Valentino on the anniversary of his death. Now he was having a church wedding with tuxes and gowns and the reception at the pavilion with just about everyone invited. And, very sensitively, the couple hired all three Ladies Church Auxiliaries to cater instead of bringing in a city company. Local seamstresses were given designs and they did up the gowns. It was early summer and they say the order from the local greenhouse, given three months in advance, was for more flowers and arrangements than they usually sold in an entire year. There were a lot of strangers from the hoity-toity community to the north but not so many that people didn’t enjoy themselves. There were kegs of beer, cases of liquor, a local country band and a fiddler.
The couple didn’t bother with a honeymoon. Neither were travelers and they went right from the reception to the old Victorian they bought a few months before, he in his tux, she in her gown lifted up to avoid the puddles, walking the few blocks from the hall just after midnight.
Bob still teaches but only half time. In the mornings, if you walk by the house you can see him through the uncurtained windows of the third floor, with a paint brush in his hand, looking down at some piece of work lying flat upon his table. If you walk down to the beach you will see Lori photographing seagulls or farther down on the breakwater, camera poised, waiting patiently until one of the young boys pulls a fish wiggling from the water.