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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Abyss

Category: Issue 9


They’re married, although not to each other. So they have no business being here, in this student-filled bar on an early Wednesday evening after work, exchanging life stories.
“Tell me everything,” Laura says, leaning in closer, drinking in the sight of him. Deep, expressive brown eyes; pale, lightly freckled skin covering a slender, almost frail physique. She wants to hold him, protect him from the evil world. She does not touch him.
Jonathan blushes a little and smiles. “Everything?”
“Everything.” She pushes her hair out of her eyes, a nervous gesture. Sips her Viognier. Doesn’t steal a glance at her watch, although she wants to.
“There isn’t much to tell.” But he tells her anyway, all that the emails couldn’t express.

Later he walks her to her car, before doubling back to the bus stop. She wants to take his hand but doesn’t. He’s so fragile, so skittish. A colt. It took him forever to decide to meet like this, but when he finally did, it couldn’t be soon enough. He’s a few years younger than she is, although that shouldn’t make a difference.
She feels even more tender towards him now that they’ve talked, told secrets. But she knows she cannot tell him this. He’s tentative enough already.
They walk in silence, though she’s still full of things to say. All too soon, there’s her little blue Camry. They have to get back. Back to their real lives.
“Write me,” Laura says, as they part. No touching. No kissing.
“I will.” He gives her that quick, bright smile, and then she watches him disappear down the street before she starts the car.
She checks her email later that evening, but he hasn’t written. She checks again right before bed, but still nothing. Was he regretting their meeting? Did he get home all right? Did his wife suspect he wasn’t going out for a beer with guys from work? Finally, the next morning, she gets a message, time-stamped shortly past midnight. All is well, he just didn’t get a chance to get to his computer before then. What a nice time it was, meeting with her for drinks. Too bad they couldn’t have taken longer.
It’s awful, how relieved she feels.

The emails are wonderful. They write each other four, five, six, seven times a day. Long emails, chatty, friendly, supportive. Perhaps the tiniest bit flirtatious, but not too much. Because they are both married. And not to each other. But they have a lot to say to one another, they have things in common their spouses don’t share. Books, music, movies. It’s so nice to find a friend. Nothing wrong with having a friend.
Sometimes, when the emails don’t come—Jonathan is in a meeting at work, for hours, then busy in the evening, perhaps doing something with his wife—Laura grows gloomy, depressed. She checks and checks and checks. She fears her colt has run off across the pasture, has bolted, fled.
But then she shakes her head and comes back to her senses. He’s not her colt. He doesn’t belong in her stable. She’s fine. She goes home and has a glass of wine with her very good and loving husband, and she’s fine. And then the next day a new email comes, as if nothing was wrong. Because nothing is wrong.

Weeks go by, a month, two months. They do not meet again, not privately anyway. It would be too risky, too much like having an affair. They are not having an affair. They see each other at work events—her company is wooing his, it would be a big sale, a very important client to have—and when this happens they are friendly and happy to see each other. Laura still drinks in the sight of him, still loves his eyes. She imagines falling into those eyes. She tries not to think about it.
The emails have become a little bit more intimate, though. It’s inevitable; it’s a one-way street, a collision course, a slippery slope. Laura knows better, but she cannot stop. Not sexually intimate, not even entirely inappropriate. Just…precious. Precious, is what they are, she thinks. She and Jonathan are good friends, they understand each other. Nothing wrong with having a friend.

Then there is an industry conference, a trade show, in Los Angeles. Jonathan’s company will be there, and he will represent them, along with three of his colleagues. Laura doesn’t generally go to these sorts of things, so she doesn’t really think about it when he mentions it in an email, beyond allowing herself a little fantasy—distant town, hotel room, that sort of thing. But then her boss suggests that she go, to help cement the relationship between their companies. Because she’s been so involved in the project thus far. She says yes without hesitation, then cannot wait to write Jonathan and tell him.
He is pleased at the news. “Let’s have dinner when I get in.” He will arrive a day after she does. It’s not entirely clear from his email whether his colleagues will come to dinner as well, or if it will just be the two of them. She struggles with the phrasing in her email, trying to find out. And then he responds: “I’ll book a table for two at the hotel restaurant.”
Laura smiles as she reads this, her heart warm, all the way down to her toes. “…a table for two…” Fabulous. “…the hotel restaurant…” A little less fabulous, but that’s all right. They won’t want to mess with taxis or rental cars, finding their way around a strange town. Besides, what does it matter if someone sees them? They have every reason to have dinner together, especially at the trade show. She just hopes nobody happens in and asks to join them. Because how could they say no?

When she checks into her hotel room, she luxuriates in the school’s-out feeling of it. She travels frequently, but almost never without her husband. She unpacks and lays her clothes out on the bed, before refolding them neatly and putting them away, taking all the drawers in the little dresser under the TV. She spreads her bathroom stuff all over the vanity. It’s kind of fun, not having to make room for someone else.
The first night, the night before Jonathan arrives, Laura phones her husband, and then reads late into the night. Eventually she sprawls out in the middle of the bed, using all the pillows, but she cannot fall asleep until she summons another fantasy. This time, she can picture the actual hotel room, the one she is in. Much more realistic than her imagination.

They haven’t exactly arranged how to meet up, the next day. She just knows he’s made dinner reservations for six-thirty that evening. She assumes she will run into him at the trade show, but it’s a huge conference, and most of the day goes by before she spots him.
“Hey,” she says, catching up to him in the giant auditorium. A session has just ended, and hundreds of people are milling about.
His quick bright smile makes her heart melt. “Hi!” He introduces her to his coworker, Gerald. Gerald smiles, shakes her hand, asks her about her company, how she’s enjoying the conference so far. Laura smiles back, makes small talk, wishes Gerald would just go away.
Finally the day is ended. She’s back in her room, dressing for dinner. She chooses an attractive but fairly un-sexy pale green dress: professional, mature. But reasonably flattering. Well, she chose the dress weeks ago, of course, but tonight she spends a long time deliberating between this dress and the little black one that she threw into her suitcase on a whim.
Green dress it is. She brushes her hair, applies fresh lipstick at the bathroom mirror, and glances around her room one last time before heading downstairs. Yes, the room is tidy.
Not that anyone’s going to see it!

Dinner is wonderful. After an initial awkwardness, they talk like the old friends that they are—that they will be some day, she corrects herself. When this inconvenient attraction stage is finished. Because they have so much in common, really. It’s wonderful to talk to him. And if she finds herself tempted to reach out, to touch his arm, well, that’s just too bad. Just a measure of how much she likes him. It’s the natural way for a man and a woman to want to show their affection for each other. Fortunately, it’s okay for them to be friends. She repeats this in her mind, like a mantra: It’s okay to be friends. Friends.
They share a bottle of wine. And is he being a bit flirtatious? She doesn’t mind, it’s fabulous. She laughs and then, oops, does touch him on the arm, as she’s been wanting to all evening. For months, really.
He doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he touches her, a few minutes later, also on the arm. And when the meal is over and they’re leaving the restaurant, he puts a hand gently at the small of her back, as if guiding her, escorting her.
She feels his hand there with an electric jolt of intense pleasure. She wants to lean into it, but that’s too bold, too forward. He’s just being polite, thoughtful. Maybe he’s not even aware he’s doing it. She wants the sensation never to stop, but all too soon, they’re at the elevators.
She pushes “6” for her floor, and he pushes “7.” The elevator flies up to six, and she feels her heart sinking, even as she tries to regain the “friends” mantra. Of course he’s not coming to her room. Why would he come to her room? He’s married. She’s married. There will be no coming to rooms, either of them.
The elevator door opens on six. “Well, thank you for dinner,” she says, although she paid for it, on her company credit card. After all, he’s the potential new client.
“Thank you,” he smiles, and she feels stupid. He holds the door open for her. Out she goes, and the door whispers closed again, and he is gone.
She reads for hours, but still has to bring him into her bed, in her mind, before she can sleep.

There are two more days of the conference. Which means two more nights. They only had plans for the first night. Again, on the second day, she does not see him all day.
She puts on the black dress and goes to have a drink in the hotel bar. Just one drink.
She sips her Cosmopolitan, drawing it out, making it last. Keeping an eye on the bar door. But she doesn’t spot Jonathan going by.
“Another?” The bartender is standing before her, looking at her empty glass.
Laura thinks about it. “Sure.”
But he doesn’t appear after the second one. She goes back to her room, hangs up the black dress, orders room service, and again reads (and fantasizes) herself to sleep.

On the last day, she sees Jonathan at lunchtime, finally. He’s with a group at a round table in the hotel restaurant, and he breaks into a big grin when he sees her. He waves his hand, she should join them. She does. He scoots his chair over and makes room for her. She orders a chef’s salad and iced tea, then notices everyone else is drinking beer. Too late to change.
The group is happy, laughing, in a celebratory mood. Laura doesn’t really understand why but gets into the mood of it anyway. Fairly soon she realizes that they mean to skip out on the afternoon sessions. Well, it’s the last day of the conference anyway; the final sessions are usually poorly attended. At least this is what they seem to be saying. She’s not really paying attention to what’s going on with the group. She doesn’t know them, doesn’t care about them. She’s only happy to be near Jonathan.
He talks to her, though he’s also paying some attention to the group. “Have you been enjoying the conference?” He asks her what sessions she’s gone to, what she’s learned. She tries to remember, to come up with something intelligent to say. She misses the ease of their emails, or even of their dinner the other night. It’s odd to be so close to him and yet feel so far away.
Lunch is over, and the group is all heading out, to go to some famous museum or something. Laura has no interest in going, unless Jonathan’s going…but he’s not. He’s tired, he’s going to crash in his room for a while. Early flight out tomorrow.
At the elevators, she screws up her courage and asks, “What are you doing for dinner?”
He shrugs and grins. “I don’t have any plans.”
“Shall we…?”
“I’d love to.”

Six o’clock. Black dress? Jeans? She can’t wear the green dress again. Why didn’t she bring more dinner outfits! The black dress is too sexy, wrong message. Plus, she wore it last night. For nobody to see.
She puts on jeans and a black sweater, and boots with a bit of a heel. It’ll have to do.
They meet in the lobby and go to the hotel restaurant. But there is an event going on which has taken up all the tables. “You can order food from the bar menu,” the hostess says, listlessly, glancing behind her as she talks.
Laura is ready to bolt, to find some other restaurant, to run back to her room and order room service by herself, but Jonathan says, “The bar will be fine, thanks.” And then he puts his hand at the small of her back once more and she’s undone.

They have a wonderful meal, again, talking and laughing like old friends. They are so comfortable together. And he begins to confide in her, he tells her secrets, like he did months ago, when they first met for drinks after work.
He’s happy in his marriage, but he met his wife very young. Sometimes he wonders if that’s all there is to life.
She’s happy in her marriage too, and she tells him so, but allows a note of wistfulness to enter her voice. He understands.
All too soon, the meal is done. Again, they are at the elevators. Again, he presses “7” to her “6”. But this time, he gets off at six and walks her to her door.
This is it, she thinks, her heart pounding. She pauses at her doorway, looks at his deep brown eyes a moment, then quickly works the keycard, and they are in.
As the door slams shut behind him, he takes her into his arms. She leans forward and they kiss, quickly, passionately. His kiss is hard and eager; his teeth touch hers for a moment. She’s thrilled at the intensity of it, the unfamiliarity of his lips, tongue, mouth. He’s delicious.
He holds her against the wall just inside the door, pressing against her body in her tight jeans. She presses back just as hard, eager for him. Her hands wander down his back, beginning their exploration.
And just as quickly as it started, he pulls away. “No—I can’t do this, I’m sorry.” He lets her go, leaning against the wall, breathless. He runs his hands through his dark hair, looks down at the floor. “I have to go.”
The door slams shut behind him, and he’s gone.

A week and a half after the conference, they see each other again. There has been no email other than the occasional work-related message. Now Jonathan has come by her office to deliver the counter-proposal. She takes it, unseeing, and drops it on her desk. After some small talk, Laura walks him out.
They have a moment of privacy at the front door. “I’m so sorry about the other night,” he says, quickly, quietly.
“Don’t apologize—don’t say anything,” she says, just as fast. “Everything’s fine.”
“I should never have done that, I don’t know what came over me…probably the wine.”
“Really, it’s fine.” Her heart is beating fast, just like it was that night.
He smiles, and blushes. “I’m so—I don’t know, relieved doesn’t sound very right, but—you know what I mean, don’t you?” He looks at her earnestly. “I mean—it was like we were standing over the edge of a cliff, an abyss—we almost got lost, we almost jumped in, but we resisted, we pulled back! I think that’s good. Don’t you?” Now his smile is eager.
“Yes, of course,” she says, smiling back at him. “Of course.”
“So everything’s fine—just like you say. Friends?”
“Friends. Absolutely.”
A huge, relieved grin. “Great!” Then he glances at his watch. “I gotta run…I’ll email soon.”
“Great.”
The door closes behind him. Laura watches through the small window as he walks away, then leans her forehead against it gently.
“Jump,” she whispers.

 

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