When your husband leaves town on business, you take a long hot soak in the tub. You put on a pair of old sweats, make yourself a Brie omelette and open the bottle of wine he’s been saving for your anniversary. You watch a video he would not care to see, a foreign film shot half in London and half in Paris.
The wine is well-balanced and dry. The film starts out slow but the cinematography compensates for a weak plot. When the heroine, Elizabeth, sells all her possessions and moves to Paris, it gets better. She sees a tall man in a cafe wearing a tight, white tee-shirt and black boots. A sexy, James Dean-esque American. When he saunters to her table, you cough up a chunk of Brie. You stare incredulously as he introduces himself to her. His voice is as familiar to you as the breath you’re trying to catch.
“You’re English?” he says.
“Yes,” Elizabeth answers.
“Here on business--or pleasure?”
“I live here,” Elizabeth says. “And you?”
He continues speaking as the camera moves in for a close up. Your pulse pounds in your ears as you grab the remote control and push pause. The image blurs. His mouth is wide open, mid-sentence and his eyes are in mid-blink. You let the film play and watch him act a scene he first acted with you. Smirking, he shakes a cigarette from a pack, lowers his jean-clad ass onto the bistro chair. He runs a hand through his hair-- you notice it’s past his shoulders now--and, delivering a witticism, looks up through his lashes at Elizabeth. His voice is in your ear all over again. You stare at the vein that divides his forehead, the circular scar on his cheek from when he fell off a rope swing in sixth grade, the wide lower lip that curls under and quivers when he lies.
You forward to the credits. Though there is no doubt that it’s really him, you need to be sure, like viewing an open casket at a funeral. When you see his name you rewind the tape, take a swig of wine and think about the ugly, mottled carpet in the one bedroom apartment you shared with him in Echo Park. You feel bitter remembering how you bought all the furniture yourself with your tip money, how he wouldn’t even commit to owning a lamp together. He was not the first man you’d slept with, but the first that mattered. He was the first to play the right games, the first not to need you.
“You’re nothing but trouble,” Elizabeth says to him, voice lilting. She leans forward. The camera has a clear shot of her decolletage and so does he.
“I’ll make you happy like you’ve never been,” he says.
“I’m already happy.”
“Then you don’t know what happiness is.”
You remember that, like a lot of people who move to LA, he had talked about getting into the movies. He could dimple on queue. He could make an entire room full of people laugh and never notice his grammar was atrocious. You could tell that people pitied or even liked him because of it, that they could hear the hope of a disadvantaged boy in his rough words. You wish he still fixed cars for a living. You try to make yourself feel superior by thinking about the college degree you’ve earned since then, your intelligent and sensitive friends. The pristine Berber carpet under your feet.
You notice a gold stud he wears in his earlobe. You remember how he used to disappear for days, then come home with cash, clothes, nice watches, explanations that only someone who wanted to could find even remotely palpable. You knew better even then, but you felt reduced to the sum total of your hormones. He could make you shiver with a glance, weak with lust by whispering in your ear. Other women were the enemy. Jealous and primitive, you threw telephones and shoes in white hot rages you can’t even imagine feeling now. You tell yourself you are relieved you’ve had your consciousness raised since then, glad you’re married to a nice man. Glad that you have come to appreciate things like the Brie omelette that sits on the low Mission table in front of you, cold and congealed on a Wedgewood plate. Sometimes, but less and less often, you still feel a deep sense of shame for having been the sort of weak, masochistic girl over whom other women sit around shaking their heads.
“I’ve been waiting since half-past,” Elizabeth says to him, breeze off the Seine whipping the shawl about her shoulders. Her eyes are at once accusing and tragic.
“I ran into a friend,” he says.
‘Take me home,” she tells him, “Now.”
He laughs. “Get a cab.”
You continue to watch, pausing once to linger over his hands. You feel especially sad looking at his hands. He told you that once, when he misbehaved as a little boy, his mother made him stand perfectly still while she slammed his fingers in the back door. Consider that this, at least, is probably true.
“Please,” Elizabeth says, sitting in a tangle of pillows and sheets. When she clutches at his sleeve you feel a stab of humiliation. “Don’t go. Don’t leave.”
“I’ve got a friend waiting,” he says.
“But I love you,” she says, as if it should matter.
You will remember the night long ago when you knew it was over. He came home late and shrugged when you asked where he’d been. You never got enough of him, no matter how desperately angry you were, so after a long interval of silence, you changed into one of his shirts from Hansen’s Auto Repair. You sidled up beside him on the sofa. While he stared at the TV and smoked, you slipped your hands up under his shirt, grazing his skin with your nails. He blinked, brought his cigarette to his lips, eyes still fixed on the screen. You leaned over and pressed your ear to his chest, listening. You wondered who else had listened to his pulse that night. What other woman had pressed close to his body, wanted to climb through hair and skin and muscle and blood to nestle inside his heart or tear it out? You could hear its smug, steady thumping along with the faint, canned laughter from the flickering shadows on the television.
You slid your tongue down to his flat, brown belly. He tasted like sweat and sunshine and motor oil. His abdomen contracted, flinched. He moved his hand down to pull open the buttons of his Levis, but you needed him inside you. You raised up and took his cigarette, put it in the ashtray, smoke curling in a blue haze in front of the screen. Easing up over him, you straddled him. You were trembling, already on the edge. You felt his erection straining between your legs and you shuddered, reveling in the temporary triumph of your flesh over his.
He lifted your body off his lap in one swift movement, flipped you over on your hands and knees. It was dizzying, wanting him and hating him so much all at the same time. He slipped into you and began to move. You glanced into a mirror that hung in front of you and watched him. Your eyes met his for an instant and then, as if some ghostly director only he could see had yelled, “cut!” he looked away. He reached over to the ashtray, picked up the cigarette and took a long drag, never breaking rhythm.
“It’s you,” Elizabeth says. She stands silhouetted in front of the door, warmth and light from her flat rushing outside into the evening.
He leans with one hand above the doorbell, thumb of the other hand hooked loosely in his pocket.
“What more could you possibly want?” she says.
“I’m here for the rest of my things.”
He’s in front of you, still out of reach. You take the remote and push stop, press the button so hard your finger hurts. He can’t move now, unless you let him. You clutch at this feeling, this sense of having that always eluded you. Then you look at the remote in your hand, a piece of plastic, and the feeling slips away. You wonder who he’s with now. You know with a profound certainty that she is younger and prettier than you. You wonder if he loves her. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter.