Our clouds of smoke mingled. Another round of drinks came. Hours had passed, night had fallen outside the plate-glass windows, and with no dinners we should have been ravenous, but food wasn’t on the list of things that mattered to us. I could put it off no longer. “Wendy, I have to tell you something.”
“I have a crush on you.”
I waited for the tin ceiling to fall. Wendy’s face lit up with happiness. “Really? You’ve made my day!”
This was not the reaction I had expected. I had expected laughter, as at one of our other jokes. But Wendy didn’t take it as a joke.“You’re not mad?” I asked.
“No. Of course not.”As if to prove it, she stretched out her hands on the white tablecloth and I took them. They were more leathery than mine, with faint spots.
“Well, good,” I said, “because it’s more than a crush. I love you.”
“Yes. You’re beautiful and exciting. I desire you,I want to have you, I want to sleep with you.”
Wendy teared up. “I feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie.”
The room spun with alcohol. The waiter brought us more drinks. We kept holding hands and Wendy looked into my eyes and asked, “What are we going to do?”
Years later, I know what my answer to her question should have been. I lived alone in a studio apartment on the Lower East Side. It wasn’t much compared to Wendy’s apartment on the Upper East Side or even Margaret’s apartment in Brooklyn, but it had the virtue of being uninhabited by spouses or fiancées. Wendy was drunk and dizzy with the surprise of being loved. Had I been thinking like a man, I would have said, “Let’s go to my place.”
But it didn’t even occur to me. Wendy liked to say I was an angel, and whether I am or not I was thinking like one that night. I believed Wendy when she said we were soulmates. There must be a way for our souls to keep commingling, rejoicing in spiritual union even though our bodies could never unite. She would stay true to Waldo, I would stay true to Margaret, but deep down Wendy and I would belong to each other.Even if we didn’t stay true to our spouses—even if we ended up succumbing to our mutual desire and sleeping together—there was no need to take a step in that direction now. We knew we loved each other; love was enough. There would be time enough for love to tell its own story, unfold like a flower.
I said something like this to Wendy. She stared at me with rapt affection and sadness. “Okay,” she said. “Or maybe we’ll win the lottery and run off to Brazil together.”
The pack of cigarettes was empty. Wendy sent for the check, which was lower than she’d planned since we never actually ate. She pulled one of the pink carnations from the bud vase and handed it to me, and put the other in her purse. “Let’s keep these,” she said. “So we never forget tonight.”
It was midnight. She hailed a cab and we rode crosstown to her Upper East Side apartment. All the way we sat close in the dark back seat, holding hands. “Your hands are cold,” I said.
“Cold hands, warm heart.”
“Cold feet, no sweetheart.”
She laughed, not a guffaw, but a gentle lover’s laugh. The air seemed to have been replaced with her perfume. When we reached her building she kissed me, and I parted my lips only slightly, because I thought it would be only a peck. But she opened her comedian’s mouth fully wide, and I opened mine back. She dug her tongue into my mouth so it pushed against my teeth, rude but welcome. Our mouths seemed to have formed a new animal, warm, wet, nocturnal.We wrapped our arms around each other and her breasts squeezed into me. The whole world was Wendy.
She disengaged from the kiss and opened the taxi door. “Good night, Joe,” she said.
“Good night, Wendy.”
Her long legs walked into the lobby where a doorman waited, and I gave the driver my Lower East Side address. The driver must have seen the kiss, because he looked at me curiously in the rearview mirror. “Uptown girl and a downtown guy, huh?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it exactly.”
As soon as I got home Margaret called. Knowing I had gone to dinner with Wendy and intuiting what that meant, she had been calling for hours, wondering how long one dinner could take. I didn’t tell her what had happened and we talked tensely about other problems, flower arrangements and the organist and whether my best man Tod would wear the right suit, matters in which I had no interest. I was relieved to get her off the phone.
Overnight I reconsidered being an angel. Lying alone, tormented by the heat, I flippedon the damp sheets of my foam mattress, reeling with visions of Wendy naked with me. The dome of the church across the street, shadowy in the window, was my only company, except for the occasional car roaring up Third Street. Wendy loved me! She wanted me! It was madness to think we should confine ourselves to soulmating, not bedmating, out of fidelity to this or that person. Anyway, I wasn’t married yet—I had two nights of freedom left—so the time to have her was now.
The next morning, Thursday, I waved brightly to the receptionist and security guard in the art deco lobby of ALL, shouting, “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?” They looked at me as if I were drunk, but the Scotch had long since passed out of my system. My throat was raw from the cigarettes, my head cloudy from poor sleep, but it wasn’t alcohol that made me drunk. It was love.
I sat at my desk and did some desultory typing, expecting a light day since Ned was out of town on business. It was my last day in the office before I took time off to get married and go on my honeymoon, though I was just about ready to ditch all that for Wendy. She came in late, after ten. I beamed at her as she walked by, but she avoided eye contact. I was too deliriously happy to pick up this cue.
Shortly afterward, she called me into Ned’s office, where she was taking advantage of the boss’s absence to work by herself. When I closed the door behind me in Ned’s narrow, book-lined office, I felt sure we were about to make out, maybe even have sex on his desk. But her demeanor didn’t look promising. She sat upright and stiff behind the desk, her hands tightly gripping Ned’s leather armrests. A scarf around her neck hid its long beauty. Thick hairspray sealed her hair into place so the blonde waves wouldn’t toss loosely the way they had last night.
“We have to get a few things straight,” she said in a hard voice. There was no comedian’s smile on her face, which for the first time looked old.
“Okay,” I said, sitting down across the big adult desk from her.
“I’m married and you’re getting married, and that’s that,” she said in a flat dictatorial voice. “There isn’t going to be anything more between us.”
I was stunned. The only thing that mattered in the world to me was the thing between us. I wasn’t sure what this thing was—whether or not it would result in sex—but my whole future had come to depend on it. “Darling, you don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I know exactly what I’m saying. And don’t call me darling.”
I searched her face for contrapuntal longing, a hint that she wanted me more than she let on. But her face was murky, backlit by Ned’s bright window with its view of the tall buildings on Columbus Avenue. “I love you,” I said.
I leaned forward. “You love me.”
“I never said that.”
“You said maybe we’d run off to Brazil together.”
She waved her hand. “Joe, you’re very young and someday you have to grow up.” Her eyes were green adamant. “Welcome to someday.”
I sat back in my chair. “You kissed me. Did you not mean that?”
“You’re embarrassing me.”
“You said we’re soulmates.”
“We have a certain rapport.”
“And that carnation—you gave me one and you kept one. What was that supposed to mean?”
She looked irritated. “I’m forty-three years old. I’m always opening books and having flowers fall out of them. They’re all crushed and dried up. They all meant something when I put them in the books, and now I can’t even remember what it was. This one’ll be like that.”
“But why does it have to be like that? You don’t love your husband.”
“I never said that.”
“But do you?”
She glared at me. “That’s none of your business. This whole argument is pointless. I’m telling you we’re not having an affair and that’s final. Actually, I don’t even think this is about me at all. I think it’s about you and Margaret. You seem to be having trouble making up your mind to get married. You can’t have it both ways, Joe.”
If she had punched me, she could not have hurt me more. The idea that my passion for Wendy wasn’t real—that this, the most important thing in the world to me, was a figment of a much more trivial problem, whether I should get married—wounded me like an arrow to the heart. I stood up shaking. “That’s it then,” I said.
The air held no trace of her perfume. Maybe she wasn’t wearing any. The contrast between last night at Domenico’s with its excited, drunken avowals and today’s frigid exchange almost brought me to tears. I stepped out of Ned’s office and went back to work. She slipped out for the day early while my back was turned.
For my bachelor party that night, my male friends took me on a boat ride that launched from the South Street Seaport. In a crowded restaurant on the main deck, with a bad rock band playing and the wind over the Hudson River whipping by, they feted me with drinks and steakand joked about how I still had time to back out of marriage. They didn’t know I was seriously considering doing just that. Wendy was right. I hadn’t made up my mind to get married. I had proposed, I had chipped in for the hall, but always I wondered if there was someone better than Margaret, someone I was waiting to meet. When I became friends with Wendy, the cloud of possible someones had collapsed into her.
I told none of this to my friends. They didn’t know about Wendy; what I felt for her had seemed too high and pure to divulge to idiots like them. After the boat ride they took me to a strip club in Lower Manhattan, where we watched topless women gyrate around a pole. The sight of their bare breasts made me pity them and the sleazy patrons gaping at them in the gloom. The idea that the relations between men and women could be reduced to this—flashing skin, heat in the groin—made a mockery of the soulmating I had felt with Wendy.
“This is depressing,” I finally told my best man Tod, who had organized the party. “Let’s go.”