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From Chapter 14

Felt as if I were riding a yo-yo when Lesley called at the end of the week. First day of February. "This is Lesley...Jordan," she specified, after I'd raised the phone to my stubble face and said, "Hello." The slight pause following her first name, and the addition of her last, told me that she knew the state—fate?—of our relationship.

Nothing worse than being caught up in ambivalence, pursuing a friendship that's never going to work out. I had, belatedly, decided to cut my losses. At first, I'd said "to heck with her." By this time, I'd crescendoed my tone: TO HECK WITH HER!

"Michael," she said, a nervous vibrato hovering all around her voice, "I'd like to talk with you."

"So...talk." I monitored my voice within milliseconds. Cold.

"I'm a little...mixed up."

"Maybe, but you seem pretty consistent to me...like a straight line."

"There's what I want to be, and what I am...and they're not jibing too well right now."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning...Michael, I don't know what I mean. I mean, you're a very attractive man, you know...and I know you're having your problems, and I said to myself that I had enough of my own, and I didn't need any more, and I should leave my life the way it is...which is pretty good on the whole, compared to...but that's not so easy to do right now..."

Her words trailed off, and there was this long pause. I couldn't think of anything to say, and I didn't know if I wanted to say anything anyway. Non-feeling pulled up over me like a shroud. Keeping the dust away. And the mildew.

"I can't talk about it on the phone," she continued finally, and an actual pleading had entered her voice.

My massive non-feeling persisted. Big league numb. "Okay," I heard myself say.

"Maybe you could come over for dinner again?"

"My turn," I said, for some reason. "When's your next night off?"

"It's Friday, this week."

"Why don't you come on over around seven o'clock?"

"Do you want me to bring anything?"

"Dessert?"

"Okay."

"And some soup to start us off, maybe?"

"Okay."

"And...while you're at it...how about something for in between?"

She started to laugh. "Michael," she said, "I think you're teasing me again."

"Well, why don't you just bring yourself then, and risk it with my cooking?"

She acquiesced, and we ended the conversation. I had no euphoria about the impending date, only an aching tightness through my midsection. Like a reformed alcoholic who's just agreed to meet his old drinking buddy at the Tally Ho Tavern.

* * *

"Tallyho!" I called out, as I met her at the door Friday evening.

My enthusiastic salutation must have puzzled her, on account of she got this funny look on her face. But she recovered fast. "Nice to see you," she said.

Just then, a blast of frigid swung around the corner of my house and hit me flush as I was taking in my next breath. February in Winchendon is not known for its balmy breezes. I shrank into a congested shiver, hustled Lesley inside, and slammed the door against my enemy. One of them. But not the one making motions beside me to take off her coat. Or the ones inside me who had guns and would travel. Wherever I went.

I helped her shed her outer garment. "Thanks," she said.

"You're welcome," I answered. So far, no problems. She stood there waiting, and I immediately sized up the situation.

"Why don't you have a seat?" I suggested. That went smoothly enough—she sat on the nearest kitchen chair—so I became emboldened. "Something to drink?"

"Tequila and soda."

I mean...really bad. I implored heaven with my eyes. But once we got grooved, things worked out well—what with our mugs of warm cider and all—and she observed me as I exercised my culinary expertise. Much of the preparation had already been done: empty tuna fish can discarded, contents warming on the stove in sauce. Campbell's Cream Of Mushroom. (I don't add a container of water, as directed, when I use the stuff for this purpose.)

Turned on the burner underneath my elbow macaroni, and we watched it come to a slow boil. Then seven minutes. (I've always been surprised at how many people overcook their pasta.) Mixed the whole business in a Pyrex pan, laid a couple of slices of Kraft American on top, popped the pan into the oven, and all we had to do is wait. I knew she was going to love it.

"I'll put the buzzer on," I said, "and we can sit in the living room while the casserole is baking."

She smiled as she got up—almost as if something had been amusing her—and asked me to lead the way. Well, I certainly am no klutz, socially, so I knew I should walk behind. Which is not always easy to do, however, when your guest doesn't know where she's going. Might end up in the bedroom. By mistake. So I bowed and said, "After you."

She found the living room on her first try, probably sensing it would be at the front of the house. I recognized that I'd been duped in similar fashion. No reason, theoretically, I couldn't have used the back room as a living room and placed my bedroom in front. That would've been nice, fireplace and all. And all.

So we sat and conversed about nothing. My guess was that she'd decided to wait until later to take up whatever—so we wouldn't ruin a perfectly good dinner with indigestion. Got a fire crackling, and she complimented me on the bookcases which I'd finished painting. And was proud of.

I was about to ask if she'd like to see my insulation, but the buzzer rang, so we went in and ate. And had coffee. She didn't want dessert, which was just as well, because I've found the new cake mixes sometimes fail to rise the way they're supposed to.

"Michael," she said finally, "I don't know how to start."

I gave a noncommittal nod.

"I haven't been very encouraging...to you."

I leaned back on the kitchen chair, balancing my body between the pair of wooden legs at the rear and my own legs in front (which were suddenly starting to feel sort of wooden, too).

"I had decided," she said, "to spend my life with my family...and my work. That wasn't hard because you know everybody in a small town, and nobody here really interested me."

Couldn't think of what to say. I had so many questions that no one of them rose clearly like cream to the top.

"I know," she continued, "you think I was too attached to my father, but I don't think that's the answer. Except...when you've had the best, you know what it can be like, and you know you don't want to put up with any old relationship just so you can say you have one. Folks sometimes claim that something's better than nothing, but that's not always true. Often enough, nothing is better than something."

I nodded understanding.

She fixed my eyes with her own, and the pattern on her reindeer sweater seemed to scintillate streaks of light into the periphery of my vision. "I'm not saying it right," she said unhappily. "I don't mean...at all...that you're just something. I mean...you are something else! But I'm talking about the way I was in the habit of thinking..."

Her words trailed off, and she looked at me helplessly. I was tongue tied though—couldn't think of anything useful to say—so I just kept rocking back and forth on the two rear legs of my chair. Must have been a little nervous though, because one of my rocks went too far back, and I had to catch myself before I tipped over. Brought an instinctive surge forward on her part to save me, but that was unnecessary because I'd caught hold of the kitchen table. "Lost my balance," I commented.

"So have I," she responded, and Mona Lisa retouched the corners of her mouth.

"Did you really think there was no man out there for you...who could replace your father?" I held up my hand—now that my chair was safely down on all fours again—so she wouldn't answer till I had time to make an amendment. "That's not right. A husband can never take the place of a father...and he shouldn't even try. He supersedes the father, and he adds something. At least...barring incest...I hope he does."

She winced at the word—conditioned reflex or innate program?—and ignored the subject. "I have met a lot of losers," she said, "plus some nice guys...but we just weren't on each other's wavelengths. And I've seen a lot of women who thought the best thing that could happen in their lives was a divorce. In fact, other than Alice and my brother...and Karen and David...I'm not sure I know any couples who are really happily married."

"Well, David, of course...You can't count that. He's one in a million!"

"I'm sorry you two didn't get along. But he is a very caring husband. Hard working and dependable."

"You don't have to convince me," I said, veering away from the subject of a certain obnoxious jerk, "that marriage is for the birds. I've got the scars to show it. I wouldn't get married again for all the apples in Maine. But there seems to be something you're leaving out."

She looked puzzled, and I looked at her—that is, I ran my eyes up and down her neat body. Salaciously.

"Now who's being obnoxious?" she asked.

"Me."

"Why do you do things like that, Michael?"

"Why don't you?" I shot back.

"I'm not interested in sex," she answered.

What could I say? Nothing. Instead, I rocked back on my chair again, tilting to the danger point a couple of times with excessive swings of the pendulum.

"Maybe I am undersexed," she said—showing full mastery of the art of understatement—"but I'm not interested in being looked at as a side of beef. The most I would ever want is to be loved."

"Well...thank God your requirements are modest."

Maybe she missed the humor, because she didn't smile. Seemed too intent on something else. "Michael," she implored, "there's another thing that happened...that you should understand..."

Unfortunately, my orchidal lobes were preempting my cerebral ones, so my empathic capacity had gotten short-circuited. She made a couple of abortive efforts to speak, but the words kept sputtering on her lips like a failing lawnmower with crusted spark plugs. No argument. No unpleasantness. None that was tangible enough to grab hold of, in any case. The evening just died away. Not with a bang but a whimper...

Held her coat when she got ready to leave. I thought she looked awfully sad; but that feeling was so heavy inside me, I might have been broadcasting it. Onto Lesley. And the kitchen table. And the dirty dishes still in the sink. She gave me a noisy little peck on the cheek as she walked out the door. First time, but a last sort of noise. The sound of Goodbye.

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