Everyone has a reputation. On rare occasions it’s positive, the friend with the catalog knowledge of wine for example; one delicate sip and they know it’s not the 2008 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir they ordered, to everyone’s awe. But for the most part reputations are unflattering. They focus on flaws, lapses in judgment, defects. Think about it: the slut, the frugal tipper, the skirt-chaser, the pot-head, the investment wanker, the look-at-me theater major. And yours? Always late. Your excuse tonight’s a jagged ladder the size of Ethiopia. It stretches down your thigh like a hideous birth mark exposing intimate flashes of wintry white flesh beneath stockings that desperately need replacing. And it transpires you’re in the only patch of Manhattan that doesn’t contain a Duane Reade within a five block radius. You swear with irritation as you approach the venue, preparing to slip in quietly through the back door, noiseless against the pleasant hum of genteel chatter and the smooth melodies of a jazz quintet in full swing. Wrong. The door creaks open heavily like stiff joints and interrupts a speech. Three dozen distracted heads swivel in your direction. A bugle may as well have announced you. *
You met at a similar party last year: champagne, canapés, speeches nobody for. Your boss introduced you and, on cue, business cards were exchanged and tucked into pockets with practiced ease. He was handsome but older, betrayed by deep creases circling his caramel eyes and flecks of gray hair gathering by his temples. He wore a navy suit, no tie, and a pale blue shirt unbuttoned lower than necessary. Not your type. You dated tortured artists, Peter Pan types whose lives hadn’t altered since college because they were drummers or bass players or poets and rent a mere annoyance dealt with by indulgent parents. His comment about an exhibition threw you. You mean you’re not…? He laughed. You thought I stared at spreadsheets for a living? Ouch. And then he was inviting you outside. Do you smoke? Pot I mean. You glanced around making sure your boss was out of earshot. Sold. He grinned, leading you away, his hand lingering on your back as you stepped into a black cloak of damp humidity. A joint nestled itself between his lips with the speed and familiarity of an old lover, its flickering glow illuminating his handsome features. It’s only a matter of time, you thought hazily, sipping from your champagne flute, neither of you surprised when he leaned in with nonchalant ease. He tasted of smoke and bourbon and a parmesan h’ors doeuvre you vaguely recalled being passed round. It was chaste initially, deepening with time into a savage motion that pulsed with urgency. And that’s when you broke off, running towards the safety of a yellow enclave and away from his charming laugh, his crooked smile and his very gold wedding band.
You edge in slowly, as though easing into a steaming hot bath, and breathe in the view: you’re swimming in suits. Another generic white guy in a pinstripe suit begins speaking. A tray passes by and you pop a spring roll into your mouth. It’s the only benefit of these corporate parties: a ubiquity of seared baby scallops and skewered shrimp, wines and liquors, placed into your mouth and onto someone else’s tab. You scan the room until you find her. We faced struggles, but we worked hard and fast. She’s in a mustard-yellow knee length dress. Her matching patent leather heels are barely an inch high. She’s so darn sensible. We’ve achieved so much and yet we have further to go. Her face is nude of make-up, her eyebrows are arched high, her lips pursed together as she listens to her boss with seamless concentration. And we will continue to succeed because failure isn’t an option. She’s pretty rather than sexy. She exudes a respectable parents-always-love-me demeanor. No wonder he married her.
You found his business card wedged beneath a packet of gum and barely glanced at it, more concerned by a thudding hangover. But when his email floated in -- Can I take you for lunch? Bring Brian! — your stomach stirred with curiosity and the mention of your boss added a layer of innocence that was difficult to refuse, except you never invited Brian. He caught you at a dull moment: between boyfriends, bored of a routine. It should have been a one-off, maybe a twice-off, lust has an expiry date after all. But you almost preferred those treasured post-coital moments to the act itself. Lying for hours, limbs curled tightly beneath sheets that stank of fucking, talking as he stroked your hair and peppered your face with kisses. Gradually you realized you held the upper hand in the relationship, you possessed something he didn’t. You were his cultural barometer, the access code to a more frivolous generation, an umbilical cord to eternal youth. I’m closer to forty than twenty, he’d say in a dull tone after too many scotches. Make me feel young again. And you did, over and over. He was like the others: perpetually immature, incapable of responsibility, prone to depression. So he was your type after all.
The speeches end and you mingle until you’re introduced. You search for a flicker of recognition as you shake hands but she smiles blandly. The disappointment’s fleeting yet sharp. As you engage in a series of insipid remarks her eyes flicker to your inappropriately bare legs. Laddered stockings, you smile thinly. Oh we’ve all been there, she says bursting into laughter. Except you know she hasn’t. He says she’s a control freak. He says a lot of things, her seafood allergy for example. When the waiter hovers with a tray of Cajun shrimp you know she’ll decline before she does. He’s told you too much in fact. You know her father died last Fall from cancer. You know she’s had three miscarriages. And you know she almost made it through the first trimester recently. Almost. It’s put a strain on their marriage. Now that’s ironic, he could have done with that excuse when you met but they weren’t even trying then.
When the cancer entered his bloodstream she flew home to be with him. She spent three weeks clutching his hand, murmuring reassurances, saving her tears, waiting for the devastating moment when he’d no longer feel pain and she’d be allowed to reveal hers and grieve her father’s eternal departure. Moments after she hailed a cab for JFK you arrived on the scene like a crime squad, shedding your own identity for hers: sleeping in her bed, washing in her power shower, cooking with her Le Creuset pans. Their home was a dream to inhabit; tastefully decorated, complete with clutter that long-term couples acquire, clutter that transcends gender because Catch 22 sits alongside cookery books and the squash racquet’s trapped beneath the yoga mat. Before then she was simply his wife, a mere possession without personality or dimensions, lumped in the same category as his bike and denim jacket and record collection. But when you stayed there each room became a library of evidence pointing to her wholesome, organized persona, her glaring innocence. She had to-do lists and budgets and spreadsheets tracking bills and cash outflow. She could never have an affair, her every meeting and movement was planned, announced in neat handwritten ink on a calendar hanging beside the fridge. She didn’t sleep around, or snort K, or spend Sundays eating Doritos and watching re-runs of South Park. He watched you examine her belongings and knew what you were thinking. He volunteered it before you asked, his eyes growing steadily more sorrowful as he spoke. There was no reason to be unfaithful, but then I met you and wanted you in my life too. He paused for a moment. In a very different way, he added. He took your hand, wanting to lead you into their sun-drenched bedroom. Now it was your turn to pause. But you followed, you moved away from the calendar, the stacks of mail addressed to her, the Williams-Sonoma wedding gifts. You followed him, past messy canvases of obscure art hanging like homework a parent proudly pins to the fridge. You followed the sound of his bare feet touching the wooden floor. You followed the weakening glimmer of late afternoon sun caressing his skin.
You tell him your theory that everyone has a reputation. What’s mine, he asks immediately. You can’t say the truth: that he’s scared of commitment, of being caught in bed with you, of growing old, of his father’s disapproval, of everything he does and wants to do. You’re good with your hands you say, winking and he erupts into a deep laugh that echoes with relief. You don’t know why, but you blurt it out. And her thing is she’s perfect. He points out you can’t possibly say that without meeting her and in a low voice you admit attending her corporate party. He looks at you blankly and then with fury. I didn’t say anything. I left after two drinks. He’s silent for a moment. He sits down and smiles ruefully, shaking his head: I wish she’d done that. She came home wrecked and spent half the night puking. He laughs at your expression. Yes, she gets drunk. No-one’s perfect, least of all us. He’s already unzipping your skirt and pushing you back against the sofa. For the briefest of moments you consider stopping him, but it’s a fleeting thought, already discarded, because he’s distracting you, reducing you to ragged guttural breaths. She flashes through your mind again, the way she always does, and you allow her to linger while you shudder and explode. After all she’s what makes this time, every time, so deliciously intense.
About the Author: Hannah Sloane lives in New York and has been published in Defenestration, Freerange Nonfiction, Monkeybicycle, Mr Beller's Neighborhood, Nerve, The Big Jewel, The Gloss, The Good Men Project, and Unreality House. She's currently working on her first novel. You can follow her: @hansloane
Story Song: "Foreground" by Grizzly Bear