A Bird and a Picture Window
I’m sitting at the bar when my lover walks past me with his wife and sister.
My head jerks around, beer sloshes onto my hand, and I almost blurt out his name. Then I look away and try to act like I’ve never seen him before. But I keep sneaking glances at him in the mirror over the bar.
If I’d been a woman, his wife would have figured it out right then.
The waitress shows them to their table, and he seats himself with his back to me. His sister’s trying not to look in my direction; she touches the wife’s arm and starts some animated discussion. I want Roy to give me a look, a gesture, something. Hell, say something in sign language; he knows how. He spent yesterday afternoon at my apartment, so horny we still had shirts on the first time, and now I’m invisible.
It’s infuriating, and just a little bit sexy. Maybe he’s thinking about yesterday afternoon too. I want him to take a good look at me and remember that I can give him what his wife can’t.
I’m all the way to their table and have no idea what to say. I give my most disarming smile. “Hi.”
Angel, the sister, springs into action. “Jesse! I didn’t see you.” She gives me a hug and starts talking too fast. “This is Jesse, he’s a friend of mine from my musician days.” She makes a show of introducing me to Roy and Julie, and I shake hands. Roy has a handshake that can eat yours alive.
I make him squirm just a little more. “I think Roy and I have met.”
“Right,” Angel improvises, “that time when I was singing at the, uh, Christian rock festival.”
“So what do you play?” Julie asks. She’s a tall brunette with warm hands, and a smile that would do any dentist proud.
“What instrument do you play?”
“He’s a drummer,” Angel answers for me. Roy’s exercising admirable self-control: his only response is a slight bulging around his eyes. Give Roy an hour, and he could come up with a brilliant alibi and a dozen pieces of documentation to back it up, but on the spur of the moment, he’s useless.
“Would you like to join us for lunch?” Julie asks.
“We have some catching up to do,” Angel says quickly. “You guys go ahead. Jesse and I will be talking about people you never heard of. Boring stuff.”
“Okay,” Roy says, before Julie can insist. Angel’s already marching me back toward the bar, her nails digging into my arm.
“I was going to say no,” I tell her. “You can let go.”
“Uh-huh.” She keeps her grip until I dutifully sit down.
If I look at the right angle, I can still see Roy and Julie in the mirror. “I’m a drummer? At a Christian festival? Don’t tell my parents, they’d think I was meshugge.”
“What are you even doing here?” Angel keeps her voice down, but her glare is like an old-world curse. “How did you know we’d be here?”
“What, are you kidding? I didn’t.” I take a gulp of my beer. “Roy doesn’t tell me his schedule. I just stopped in here for a drink. After the day I’ve had, I needed it.” I’m still in my flight attendant’s uniform, not having been home yet.
“The day you’ve had?” Angel sounds incredulous, as if whatever happened to me couldn’t match the inconvenience of running into her brother’s boyfriend at some random restaurant.
I tell her, “I had a passenger freak out and start babbling that there were terrorists on the wings of the plane about to break in. Almost had to get the flight marshal involved. But I told her it was just the NSA doing a training exercise, and she calmed right down.”
“That’s not bad,” she admits. “I’d have been foolishly trying to convince her there was nothing out there.”
“Reason doesn’t work very well with delusional people.” Like her brother, who still thinks he’s straight although he’s been having sex with me once or twice a week for the last few months. “Of course, the rest of the were just mad that they weren’t getting their coffee, tea, or vodka.”
It’s a pretty good story, and I haven’t had the chance to tell it to anyone yet, but I don’t go into the colorful details. I’m not sure why I’m sitting here with the sister of the guy I’m not supposed to be shtupping. I take another look at them in the mirror. Julie’s picking the olives off of Roy’s salad, giving him a coy look. “So that’s his wife, huh? What’s she like?”
“She’s great,” Angel says, which tells me nothing. “She’s been with Roy since I was a kid.”
“And she really has no idea?”
“Why should she? Even I had no clue.”
Until she caught us, nosy girl. I say, “Someone should tell her she’s married to a great big fag.”
“You mean Roy should tell her.” Angel’s giving me that look again.
“Is that why you dragged me over here? You’re afraid I’ll go back and tell her what I’ve been doing with her man? It’s not like you could stop me.”
“I wouldn’t have to. Roy would deny it, Julie would throw her drink in your face, and you’d have to go find somebody else’s husband.”
“She’d throw her drink? She doesn’t seem like a drink thrower.” Or, Roy doesn’t seem like a man who’d marry a drink thrower. He’d go for someone who reads serious literature and attends all the PTA meetings. Somebody very unlike me.
The bartender comes by, and Angel orders iced tea. I upgrade to tequila. Angel doesn’t say anything, but at ten minutes to noon, I feel obliged to defend myself. “It’s been a very stressful day. Besides, airline employees are all drinkers.”
She considers this. “Not the pilots, I hope.”
“Not all of them.” I let the sharp coppery taste of the Cuervo burn the inside of my mouth. “He’s not doing her any favors, you know, letting her think — ”
Angel taps my ankle with her foot. “So how come I never see you on the music circuit anymore?” She looks pointedly up at the mirror. Julie’s heading toward us.
“Oh, you know. Day job keeping me busy.” Musicians call them day jobs, right?
Julie’s reached us by now. “How’s it going?” she asks. I resist the temptation to turn and look at Roy.
“Just great. Catching up on people we used to know.” Angel grabs her bag. “Were you headed for the ladies’ room?” I’ve never understood this thing about women going to the restroom in packs. Lesbians do it too. I asked my straight roommate about it once, and he didn’t know the reason either.
As soon as they’re gone, I check Roy out again. He’s reaching for his cell phone. I switch mine from ring to vibrate, and stuff it in my back pocket in time to feel it shiver against my hip. I enjoy the sensation for a moment before I answer.
“I want you,” I say. If it’s my airline calling, I just made the dispatcher’s day.
“Sorry about all this mess,” Roy whispers.
“I know. Can I see you tomorrow?”
“I don’t have a lot of time,” he says, which seems to be his favorite phrase these days.
It’s tantalizing, talking with his wife so close. I can see him, but I can’t touch him, and my mouth’s watering. “I’ll be gone on a layover after that, so it’s the only time we can see each other. I’ll get rid of my roommate.”
“Please, this isn’t the time.”
I’m a little slow to digest that a sexy situation to me is a terrifying one to him. I keep pushing. “Around eleven?”
They’re coming back. Roy hangs up without answering. My hand shakes as I gulp down my drink. “You should go have lunch with your brother,” I tell Angel. “I’m leaving now.” Before I start scribbling notes on napkins and thinking of excuses to walk past their table.
Roy’s standing in the doorway to my apartment, and I forget to breathe. Roy has this way of looking at me like I was some kind of Grecian god rising naked out of the ocean, instead of a short, semi-cute, hairy guy who’s turning thirty next month. I could live off that look.
My roommate Gabe breaks the spell. “Damn, you actually showed. That means I’m out twenty bucks.”
“Shut up,” I tell him. Gabe and I have been friends since forever, so I put up with a certain amount of crap from him, but not today. “You were about to leave.”
“I was?” Gabe makes an attempt at an innocent look. “The movie’s just getting good.” He turns up the sound on the TV.
“The cop’s partner turns out to be the killer,” Roy says with considerable self-control. “Goodbye, Gabe.”
“Forget it,” I tell Roy, “let’s just go somewhere else.”
Gabe says, “Lover boy doesn’t have time. He has to get back to his wife and kid. So he’s really hoping I’ll just get lost.” Gabe clicks off the TV and offers Roy a smile that would be cute on any other day. “Say please.”
Roy gives him a look that’s full of knives and rusty nails. Roy’s a big guy, athletic, and he could choke Gabe unconscious and toss him off the fire escape with one hand.
After Gabe makes a show of putting his jacket on, after he saunters out the door, after Roy and I are finally alone, I’m not much in the mood anymore. Roy puts his arms around me from behind, while I stare out the window at some crows on the telephone wires. Roy smells good, an outdoorsy scent with a hint of spicy aftershave.
Maybe I should tell him that Gabe was just being protective, but that would lead to admitting that my best friend thinks I’m making a huge mistake with Roy, and I don’t want to go there. I try to think of something conversational to say. I can’t very well ask about Roy’s wife and son. “How’s that crazy sister of yours?”
“Fine, other than her breakup-of-the-week. Why?”
“No reason.” I’ll bet Angel is a drink thrower. From what I hear about her taste in men, she gets plenty of chances to practice. I know bits and pieces about Roy’s real life: that he more or less raised Angel, that he built his translation business up from a one-man operation, that he goes to a church where the word sin is still used on a regular basis.
Roy kisses my temple. “So where are you going this time?”
“The only place on earth where I get called a gentile.”
“Salt Lake City. Mormons call all non-Mormons ‘gentiles,’ even Jews. Unoriginal of them, if you ask me.”
Roy’s kisses are moving down the side of my face, and now I’m more in the mood than I thought I was. I wonder if Roy would look this good to me if he was available. Sometimes I feel like a bird looking in a picture window, trying to get into the house. Maybe there’s nothing inside that would interest a bird, but from the outside, everything glitters.
Then Roy has his tongue down my throat and I forget where I was going with this.
I wake to the sound of a phone ringing. Roy’s still in bed, curled around me. It’s well into the afternoon. “I have to take this,” he says.
He picks up his cell phone, says hello, then switches to German. After a couple of minutes, his call waiting must have gone off, because he hits a button and says hello again, and now it’s Hindi, I think. He alternates back and forth before he gets off the phone. Two different conversations, two different languages, and he can move between them like switching channels. The same way he switches back and forth between his two lives, on separate lines.
“Sorry about that,” he says after hanging up. “I was supposed to be back at my office by now.”
“Did you fall asleep?”
“No, I was just watching you.” His hand tangles my curls. “You’re so gorgeous.”
“What if someone was looking for you?”
“I’ll think of something.”
Not much of a plan for a guy who doesn’t know how to improvise. But each time we’re together, he stays a little longer.
I spend the next evening in a hotel room in Salt Lake City. Usually when I’m on layover, I go out and explore the town, but I feel weird in a place where the drugstores all have racks full of cards saying, “Congratulations on starting your missionary work.” I put on my rainbow triangle earring and buy a pack of condoms in one of those drugstores, just to see if it gets a reaction (it doesn’t). After the obligatory dinner with the rest of the flight crew, I retreat to my hotel room and flip channels on the TV. Salt Lake does have a gay bar, but it’s too early.
There’s a knock, which I assume is one of my co-workers coming by to suggest we all go out. But when I open the door, it’s an old guy with an armload of red roses.
“Delivery for Jesse Zung?”
“That’s me,” I say. He looks like he doesn’t believe me — he was expecting a Chinese woman and got a Jewish guy instead — but I tip him and send him on his way. The fragrance is thick enough to walk on.
The card says nothing, just Roy’s initials. I can picture him at the florist, paying cash, worrying that the cashier might see past my androgynous name. Gabe would sneer at the image, but I find it endearing that Roy stepped out of his comfort zone for me. I clear a space on the coffee table and set the vase down, burying my face in the scent. No one’s ever sent me flowers before.
I call the only person I can. “What do you think it means?”
“It’s his way of saying the sex was great last night,” Gabe retorts long distance. “Oh, sorry, it wouldn’t be last night, it would be yesterday at lunchtime for an hour.”
“Oh, stop.” My fingers worry the petals on one bud. Roy sent two dozen long-stemmed, interspersed with little white flowers. I think they’re called baby’s breath, something silly like that. “Guys who think they’re straight don’t send flowers. Maybe he’s sticking his nose out of the closet.”
“That’s not what he’s sticking, and it’s not outside the closet,” Gabe says patiently. “Why don’t you just call him and ask what it means?”
I’m so enthralled by the roses that I actually say, “I can’t call him,” before I realize that was Gabe’s point.
Roy finally phones at ten. “Did you get them?”
“I can’t believe you sent roses.” I’m gushing and I don’t care. “They’re spectacular.”
“I can’t stop thinking about you. I miss you.”
“So come here,” I say, gesturing him closer as if he could see me. “Call it a business trip. We could actually spend a whole night together.”
The silence goes on too long. “You know I can’t do that.”
He could. He goes on business trips now and then; she’d never suspect a thing. I say, “Of course you can’t. Thanks for the roses, anyway. I’m going out now.”
I hang up, but instead of leaving, I call Gabe again. “Remind me,” I say. “Which of us was the one in denial? Was it Roy?”
“Did you call for a reality check? Here it is,” Gabe says. “If a man is your master, what would that make you?”
“I’m not a slave.”
“No,” he says. “You’re a mistress.”
I’ve gotten really good at hanging up on people. I could probably do it with my toes.
The bar turns out to be pretty crowded, with guys of all ages and sizes. It takes me a few minutes to zero in on the one I want. He’s a thirtyish blond with rimless glasses, sipping a drink and watching the dance floor. He’s probably a school teacher or something. At least he doesn’t have the ridge around his finger, like Roy does when he takes off his wedding ring.
I slip in next to him. “What are you having?” I ask, and flash him a smile.
“Sprite,” he admits. Good Mormons don’t do alcohol or caffeine, even while committing sins of the flesh.
I order a beer and give it a long suck. He’s paying attention. We go through the usual chatter: his name is Ed (I’m betting it’s not), and he’s local. He seems pleased by the fact that I’m just passing through town.
“Would you like to — ”
“Only if you promise to stay the whole night,” I interrupt.
He’d been about to say dance, but what the hell.
We get back to my hotel room, and when I open the door, the scent of roses nearly turns the air red. “Wow,” he says, “who sent the flowers?”
“Just some guy.”
Ed turns out to be one of those boys who says “I love you” during sex, no matter who he’s with. I’m not normally like that, but it’s feeling pretty good, his arms around me from behind, lips on my neck and shoulder, and I hear myself say, “I love you, Roy.”
Ed gives a snorting laugh, and the moment is thoroughly killed. I start to apologize, but he waves it away and reaches for his pants. “Why don’t you just call whoever Roy is and tell him you miss him?” he says amiably.
“Wait.” I grab at him. “You promised you’d stay the whole night.”
“We didn’t say anything about having to play somebody named Roy.”
“So you can call me whatever you want, and we’ll be even.” I slide a hand down his leg. He doesn’t respond right away, but he lets the clothes slip back to the floor and pretty soon we’re kissing. We’re just about back to where we were when my phone rings.
“Don’t answer it,” he says.
It’s Roy’s ring, the only time my phone plays Brazilian music. I can always call back tomorrow and tell Roy I had the phone off. I could even tell him the truth; it’s not like he’d dump me over another guy. I know that Ed really will leave if I answer, but my hand lunges for the phone, like a bird crashing into a picture window.
|© Laura Loomis, 2016