Excerpted from The Big Dream (Biblioasis, 2011)
by Rebecca Rosenblum
The chief financial officer had something going on with one of the senior marketing managers. The fact that no one knew did not make the situation exactly comfortable for either of them, but it did make it manageable. They managed to smile pleasantly at each other over Styrofoam coffee in meetings, to hand each other brown plastic stir sticks. They managed to keep their public conversations restricted to profitable innovations in kitchen-cabinet refacing. They managed to keep the flirtation so low-key they almost did not notice it themselves. Or so either would’ve claimed, if asked. Neither was ever asked.
They managed to keep the flirtation so low-key they almost did not notice it themselves. Or so either would’ve claimed, if asked. Neither was ever asked.
He did not work in Mississauga, in the Canadian branch office where she engineered pitches, sketched designs, wrote copy, took small uncatered meetings with subordinates who complained bitterly about substandard pens and lack of creative scope. He worked in head office, in a big American high-rise, in a vast and carpeted corner office where he could have had tapestries and sculpture, mounted fishes and trophies, or at least a couch and a minifridge, if he were so inclined. But he was not so inclined. Except for the Starbucks thermos, the photos of his kids, the extra ties and Rolaids, his office was as blank and impersonal as a model kitchen.
The CFO’s duties required him to come to the Canadian office only for quarterly presentations, and for years, so he did; Mississauga was only malls and Marriotts, and his children missed him. But then, one third-quarter close, his winter-chapped hand accidentally, absently, absorbedly brushed a wool-and-nylon thigh, and he began to find more conferences, more general meetings and S&P updates, worthy of his time. He began to accumulate Air Miles, and she stopped answering the smiles on Lavalife. He stopped phoning his ex late at night, and she started buying lingerie in candy colours.
The lingerie was theoretical; they had not even kissed. The silky pink camisole was something she slid into on mornings of ice-pellets and conference calls, something she wore under her sweater and touched sometimes, behind a door, in the restroom, her hand stealthy sliding up her own spine, alone.
Theirs was a flirtation of short emails and patchy cell phone calls. Once, a birthday card curled into a FedEx’d tube. Once—and nervously—lunch alone together in the employee cafeteria. Cheese cannelloni and diet Coke for both. Except for that first surreptitious caress of a thigh, several too-lingering arm-squeezes, and once when he held her coat for her and she, reaching backwards, missed entirely and stroked her palm down the flat expanse of his belly—except for these moments, there had been no physical contact at all.
Privately, they cursed themselves for teenaged fantasies that could, doubtless, lead only down alleys of frustration and masturbation. Desire only increases loneliness.
There had been moments of opportunity unrealized, when they were both perhaps stunned to realize their own limits. Both had attended a two-day trade show, sitting together at particleboard demonstration, at a Kitchen of the Future demonstration, at an Ikea demonstration. They had sat together in the bar, and talked of the pets they had as children, animals now dead. They talked of their parents who were dead now, too, and how lonely it felt to walk the earth knowing their parents were dead. They talked about, or at least each somehow managed to mention, what their hotel room numbers were.
But someone joined them. Slouched towards each other on their barstools, with hands loose on their beer steins, they looked only moderately engaged. A wet-looking sales rep joined them for some industry wisdom from the real actual CFO. This young man looked at the executives with the eyes of one coping with loneliness with a grim fire for professional advancement, warm only for ad sales, networking opportunities, firm handshakes.
The senior marketing manager could only leave gracefully and she did. She went to her room knowing the number of his. It was 10:30 in the evening. He had a drink with the lost corporate soul, and then he went to his room knowing the number of hers. It was 11:09 in the evening.
To be in one’s assigned room and then to go back into the hall felt like a heavy step on an avalanche-freighted mountain. Everyone knew that she was alone, he was alone, but at least they had their key-card doors to hide behind. To go out and wander the halls was an admission of loneliness rather than simply aloneness. Anyone seeing either of them padding down the hall would know this loneliness. Could that be borne?
She slid the chain and flipped back the bedspread and slid her palm at an angle between her thighs. He flipped the channels and sipped his tap water and looked for the porn not quite vivid enough to count as pay-per-view.
A declaration or confession begged to be made, lest energy that was as brilliant as single candle in a dark room go dead and dull as a flashlight. It is difficult to discern who finally took the point. Her, in lightly suggesting, into her flimsy silver phone, that he might attend the Canadian office’s Holiday Soiree? She risked his awkward demurral, his too-loud laugh of apology. Or was the risk more his, for arranging the trip when his fellow executives thought it pointless and his children had hoped to ski? She said the entire company would like to see him there, plus he could see the social committee’s accomplishment. He said it would be good for Canadian morale in these troubled economic times; his eldest son could be responsible for the car keys and grocery money.
Almost as strange as his RSVP was hers. To colleagues she said, why shouldn’t she attend, though she hadn’t in the seven years of employment? To herself she said, why shouldn’t she wear a dress that plunged and glittered, though normally she shunned dresses that indulged in verbs?
Why shouldn’t she sit next to him in the fir-strewn ballroom? There was no executive table; this was a free-thinking company, though generally executives liked to sit with executives, designers with designers, marketing staff with… But she sat with him, uninvited, except his wide-eyed glance across the ballroom, midconversation about real estate. Her colleagues and nearly-enough friends saw her drift past and sit far beyond the holiday tree. They said to each other that she would soon be promoted. She would be missed both in the office and at that dinner table, her arch chatter and penchant for drinking less than her share of the wine.
The CFO felt shame that the conversation he invited her into was only about housing prices, and would be for the entire evening, and there was nothing he could offer her, besides a compliment, and his napkin when hers fell to the floor. Only this.
He said to her, out the corner of his mouth, “You look great,” and she, without eye contact, having no real concept of what he was wearing, said, “You, too.” The pink twist of his mouth, a touch of black-grey bristle missed by the razor, was all she watched.
There was a Portobello mushroom stack, a speech, supreme of chicken, speech, mango flan, speech and then the dj took the podium and put on Bruce Springsteen. She whispered towards his shoulder, “Heaven help us—dancing.”
They had to stay, since he at least had ostensibly crossed time zones for this celebration. But after having watched each other’s mouths opening—parted lips, flash of teeth, slip of sautéed mushroom iridescent with butter—and closing—press of lips, the circular chew, slow clench of swallow—it was hard to sit quietly through the “Jingle Bell Rock” and the Macarena.
But he was from head-office and she had her admirers and all would talk. So they talked, too, only occasionally with each other, and allowed wine, and then coffee, to be refilled. Their complicity was only that they did not allow themselves to be separated, drawn to distant tables, though several times they had to speak over each other.
So the evening went, as their lives as they had gone, colleagues, impressive wit, laughter, wine, but lurking at of the end of the evening, this one evening, perhaps something other than loneliness. Perhaps.
When she left, she smiled at him over her right shoulder (bare). He raised his mug (decaf, and he was embarrassed by it) and let someone who was no one in particular finish a sentence, and another two besides, before he followed her out.
She got her coat from the coat check and sat on a bench in the foyer that was secluded enough that she would not need to wave anyone goodbye. She thought she had probably made a mistake, imagined an opportunity where none existed or a protocol she could never know. She thought she would sit on the grey vinyl bench until she wilted, the spray-sheen evaporating from her hair, the perfect shade of blue from her dress, and the glow from her face. She would turn nothinger and nothinger, until there was eventually no need to drive herself home, because she could float, or fly, or not care where she was.
She was thinking about zooming through the brownish night sky over Toronto when the foyer doors swung open and he loomed grey-suited, coming towards her without seeing her. He had his right arm in his coat, the other sleeve trailing behind. This moment of imperfect communication—the anxious skitter of his gaze made clear he thought she’d left or was leaving—made her sad, for they really knew no more of each other than chatter and résumés and coffee cream. He didn’t know if she’d issued the invitation or would want to, anymore than, until that moment, she knew if he’d seen it or cared.
And still in that crowded ballroom, she had tried to toss a flirtatious glance, despite her shelves full of Russian novels and closets full of orthodic shoes. And he had tried to accept it, despite his monochrome ties and fear of car mechanics. So she stood, and he saw her, and his gaze went smooth on her face, and he put on his other sleeve so he could offer her his arm.
It was late, it was dark, not many had stayed to the bitter battered end; perhaps no one saw them as they went through the parking lot to his rental car. She thought it best not to mention as they passed her snow-swaddled Prius. Perhaps they were seen and, in other cars, commented upon, laughed at for their prim middle-aged debauchery, their weak defenses against loneliness. She felt only the inside of his forearm over the inside of her forearm. But for two coats, his suit jacket and dress shirt and her moisturizer—but for all that, touch.
It was only when the engine was warming and seatbelts were buckled that he said, “I will drive you home,” and she said, “Yes.”
Her home was a condo on the southern hem of the city and she had wanted it desperately until she first slept there, high and expensive, drifting over the lake, dreaming of mortgage payments.
He didn’t really know the city, didn’t know onramps, exit signs, and had no internal compass to know west, east, lake, city. She had to direct him, and thought briefly that the dull maritalness of “You’re going to want to get over, it’s a left merge,” would dim the thing that had been sharp and glittering in the air between them all evening, all year, always.
But her voice seemed to him bellish and clearish and dimmed nothing. He wished he didn’t need directions, he wished he had somehow practiced this beforehand, but to indicate turns she touched the inside of the elbow, warm through all those layers of cloth.
Idling outside the condo tower when she said, “Here, right here,” he suddenly felt a whirl of inexperienced years, marriage and before, always. What did he say, what did he assume and deliberately not say? Exhaust fumed into the gutter and the eyes of cats. He said, one thousand years old, feeling like a child, “I hate to— Would you…could I come up for a while?”
She might have, just might have, rolled her eyes, but he caught it only in the rearview and couldn’t be sure. That hand on his arm again, eyes full of…something less ironic. She handed him a blank plastic card. She said the magic words, “Visitor parking is underground.”
When he parked badly and babbled on, when she couldn’t find her key and babbled on, when there was nothing in the world to say in the elevator, they were both embarrassed, and united in this.
It was a relief to be inside her modest white condo, their chilled feet curling into the modest pile of the living room carpet. It was a relief to do something, at last, that was wordless, was only themselves.
It wasn’t only, nor wordless. Even as they walked sock-footed towards each other on the carpet, each remembered that night in words, in the language of a self-told story that each would tell silently against the cold loneliness of future nights, all the nights that might ever come. Their memories were words.
Even as she rocked against him she was remembering how he tucked her weight into him. She remembered. Even at his first shock at how cold her lips were—how could they have chilled inside his warm rental car?—he remembered the warm-cool, the pressure, her hand on his arm.
But she did warm up and he pulled her in tighter and it became a moment where they wondered what came next. He wondered how to ask where her bedroom was. He wondered if that was to ask too much, to imply he’d spend the night when the living room floor seemed much more one-night stand-ish. His hand cupped the outside of her left breast almost unsuccessfully, so thoroughly was that breast cupped by her strapless padded underwire bra, which was almost all he felt. But still he felt her a little, too, soft and thrilling. He had never had a one-night stand; the protocol could have been anything.
She didn’t want to make love on the carpet, under the ceiling light from Restoration Hardware, their limbs tangled and cold, backs twisting and spasming. She didn’t know if he’d ever looked closely at her eyes or her waist or her job description, but she was a senior marketing manager, and it showed in all the ways she bent gently in yoga class, sat down to take off her boots off, made love in the dark.
And so she tugged his tie and took his hand on down the condo-sized hallway. The bed was perfectly made, for she had expected, hoped, something. And then there they were.
He unzipped her dress. He knew how to do it in a long graceful sweep; he had been married for something. He’d always admired the silvery sound of a gown splitting open.
The fabric fell away from her fast, too fast, she hadn’t realized she would be bared so quickly and the duvet still tucked in. She felt the whoosh at her knees and, before he could look down, she pressed herself tightly to him, her nylon hips a jolt, bra cups crumpling, ripples of stomach invisible.
He was startled, pleased by her ardency and also by the pressure of her lingerie’d body against him. She kissed his mouth, to keep up the show of passion that was becoming fact, slowly, nearly, anyway. She slid her palms up his dress shirt, past the droplet of red wine beside the navel, the smear of butter beneath his left nipple. She slid her hands under the silky (not silk) lining of his jacket and up over his rounded, unmuscled shoulders.
He let his arms go slack, and heard his dry-clean-only jacket crumple to the floor. Immediately fingertips to bra-clasp. As if to make up for every high-school fumble in the dark, the hooks uncoupled easy as breath, and in another instant the tip of her clay-dark nipple brushed the butter stain. He thought of the bun he’d dropped then eaten anyway. Soft, white and sweet.
Both were aching, damp and hot, tangled in her bra strap and his tie, waiting. Finally, he pulled back impatiently, yanking his tie and toeing off his socks simultaneously. She, bereft, underwire-less and 7 pounds above her ideal BMI, dove underneath the fluffy white duvet.
She watched his chest appear (the tie was on the floor by the time she was covered) from the stained shirt. He regretted the white hairs sprigging through the chestnut, the paunch of ice cream in front of the TV; she didn’t. He unbuckled his belt. It didn’t make that rattling sound that she thought all male belts made.
While he undid the button hidden cleverly in the fabric at the top of his fly, she squirmed a hand under her pantyhose at the centre of her belly, more imitation than self-stimulation. She rolled down the waistband as he slid his slacks to the floor. She was writhing under the covers to free her feet as he rounded the bed, eager now without the chaste pale cotton boxers. He was also raw with visibility, though, wanting to touch her partly so she’d stop watching him.
She doubled underneath the duvet to remove her flesh-toned, fleshshaping, unerotic panties, kicking them out the far side of the bed. When she emerged, he was beside her and she reached up and the duvet slid down and he saw her breasts and they were beautiful, and then he pressed on top of her and she flattened out beneath him and her beautiful breasts gritted on his perfect grey-and-chestnut chest hair. He pressed his mouth to the curve below her ear, and his penis to the curve below her stomach, and she kissed his hair and rubbed against his hip, and they were like that for a long time. His tongue in her mouth in hers in his. His palm at her ribcage, his fingers on her shoulder blades.
Suddenly, perfectly, in nearly a single movement, they both drew back, rolled apart, her reaching for the box in the bedside drawer, him scrambling into the chill of the room for his wallet twisted in his pants. Both thought warmly, dreamily, of the naïve and hopeful fools they’d been that afternoon, averting their eyes while setting down condom packets in front of jaded cashiers in two Shoppers Drug Marts miles apart. They’d both bought the same brand, though they would never know.
They used hers. She kissed his throat, belly, hip, foreskin, before all the steps of squeezing out air and rolling rubber gently down. They would never know each other’s dead parents, he would never meet her estranged sister, she would never befriend his rebellious furious children; they could only have so much and even then they knew it.
Slicked, sheathed, safe, he looked at her eyes and didn’t feel safe. He felt a spiral of vertigo, because her eyes could’ve been hazel or navy in that dim room, and he didn’t know but wanted to be inside her with a longing that covered any colour her eyes could possibly be, all the flavours of yoghurt and religious practices and arguments with her sister and work-life imbalances and ugly bathing suits she could ever consider. He was scared he knew nothing about her and would want her under any circumstances.
She lay on the sheets where she had been with men she didn’t take her bra off for, or even her blouse, once, and she had been meek and casual as they left in the dark. It was a bland pale room and he improved it, his crumbled charcoal pants and hairy unsmooth chest and the clinkless belt and the unjoined earlobes swinging free, her genetic opposite. She wanted to absorb it all, hair and finance and suavity at parties and awkwardness in cars. She wanted to devour his driver’s license.
He slipped inside her, she slipped inside him, their stomachs tight and slick together. Together.
It could never be put into words, what they desired.
She said his name, loudly, an almost-wail as they began to move, together. He clutched her and said her name.
These were the words they said, all they could say to cover each other that night and the nights that would come after, if any ever could. This was all they could do to be enough for each other against all the loneliness in the world.
Excerpted from The Big Dream (Biblioasis, 2011), Emeryville, Canada.
Read The Story Behind “Loneliness” on our blog.