At 9:23 a.m.—Michael checked his watch twice since he felt it was way too early to get up—he heard Karen fiddle with her spare key in the front lock, which had a slight imperfection. “Hold on a sec!” he called out groggily and got up to open the door for her.
It’s only when Karen’s eyes moved over him disapprovingly that he realized he was still wearing the previous day’s outfit. “I was wasted last night,” he said by way of explanation.
“You mean this morning? Did you enjoy the stripper?” Karen inquired matter-of-factly, but her lips pursed into a tense smile.
“She was alright,” Michael shrugged, knowing better than to elaborate.
“Was she pretty?” In spite of her best efforts to be cool about it, Karen felt a knot of jealousy constricting her throat.
Michael’s policy had always been to mix a grain of truth with the lies, so that she couldn’t tell the difference. But this time he saw no harm in answering Karen’s question quite honestly: “Actually, as far as strippers go, she wasn’t too shabby,” he replied as he stepped into the bathroom, leaving the door slightly ajar.
Karen heard a light tinkle, followed by a vigorous flush. He can’t even close the door like a civilized human being! she muttered to herself. Although she realized that bachelor parties were a culturally accepted institution, she had little patience with this sleazy ritual right before a man enters into a so-called monogamous marriage. What kind of training for monogamy was that anyway? To distract herself from her mounting indignation, Karen began cleaning Michael’s apartment. She collected the socks and shirts scattered on the floor and lined up his shoes neat and parallel by the front door. “We’re still on the same wavelength about the justice of the peace thing, right?” she double-checked. She certainly didn’t want Michael having another bachelor party with his buddies, all of whom she considered big-time losers and hard-core womanizers. If not having her fiancé fool around with strippers before their wedding day implied foregoing the fairytale wedding she had dreamed about ever since she began collecting Bride Magazine at the age of twelve, then so be it.
“Sure thing!” Michael called out from the bathroom. “Why? Are you having second thoughts about it?” Karen didn’t reply, so he began to wonder if she had gotten it into her head to have the big wedding she originally wanted. He had worked hard to persuade his fiancée that an elaborate reception would be expensive. Worse yet, it would require spending time with each other’s families, something both of them preferred to avoid. “We wouldn’t have much time to plan the wedding anyway,” he said, washing his hands.
When Michael stepped out of the bathroom, Karen had a strange look upon her face. She looks like a deer trapped in front of the headlights, he thought, noticing her frozen expression. “What the hell happened? Did you decide you want a huge wedding after all?” he asked with a chuckle, prepared to fight her tooth and nail.
Karen shook her head.
“Did your mother try to convince you that you’re missing out? You want to have a Catholic ceremony or something?” Michael pursued. What was it with women and big weddings anyways?
Although evidently his fiancée wasn’t too thrilled about their minimalist wedding, Michael relaxed. At least his desires had—for once—triumphed over her mother’s. He approached Karen to embrace her with gratitude, perhaps even a little more, if he felt so inspired.
“Please don’t come near me,” she said, extending her arm out like a stop sign.
“Why are you so upset?” he asked, puzzled by her reaction.
“Who’s Lisa?” she asked him dryly.
“Lisa?” he repeated, buying himself a few moments to formulate a credible answer.
“Who is she?”
“Oh, she’s just a student in my introductory French class.”
“Are you fucking her?” Karen asked him point-blank.
Now where the hell was this random accusation coming from? Michael wondered with indignation, as if it were false. Besides, Karen never used that kind of language. Generally speaking, vulgarity was his domain. His wheels started spinning in place. What do you say to a woman at a time like this? It didn’t happen? It wasn’t serious? I wasn’t in love? Every answer sounded kind of lame. Besides, he had run through all of them before. Now, the second time he got caught cheating by his fiancée, Michael realized that he couldn’t rely upon his usual arsenal of excuses. The absurdity of his predicament amused him. The corners of his mouth twisted into a smile: the shameless, idiotic grin of a mischievous child who’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“You’re laughing in my face, you… you bastard!” Karen lashed out at him. The mixture of indignation and self-pity brought tears to her eyes, which streamed soundlessly down her cheeks. I have to remain strong, she told herself. I can’t let this womanizer see me fall apart.
She cries like a man, Michael observed, remaining silent.
“Why are you screwing around on me? After you promised me that you’d never do it again?” Karen demanded.
The answer was on the tip of his tongue: because I like it. But he couldn’t say that since he didn’t want to sound tactless.
What Michael couldn’t quite figure out was why Karen felt so confident in her charge. Did he forget to toss away Lisa’s note? “How did you find out?” he asked her.
“Didn’t I give you enough chances already?” she ignored his question. Her eyes were full of reproach. “When I found out you cheated on me with that sleazy French girl, didn’t I give you a second chance? How many women would have done that?”
At this point, Michael did his best to appear genuinely contrite. He looked away, to muster a somber expression. He recalled how only a few months earlier, Karen had arrived home early from work with a splitting headache. She caught him in the midst of a heated phone conversation with Mireille, who was pressing upon him the importance of committing to her. She was ready to dump her fiancé and marry him instead. At first, Michael had tried to remain diplomatic in dissuading his overzealous colleague. He cautioned her to be prudent and not leave her fiancé, who, he reminded her, loved her and was a good man. But, as it turns out, his strategy backfired.
“What are you talking about? It’s you I love. Je suis folle amoureuse de toi,” Mireille protested.
Why couldn’t side dishes remain side dishes? Why did they insist on becoming the main course? Michael wondered. He tried to persuade Mireille that, in point of fact, the most fulfilling relationship between a man and a woman entailed hooking up several times a week with no strings attached, especially for the man.
“Non!” Mireille vehemently disagreed. “Merde. This is bullshit! If you can’t commit to our relationship, c’est fini entre nous.” At which point Michael realized that Mireille meant business, since whenever she got upset—or ecstatic, depending upon the circumstances--she slipped into French.
But rejection was not something Michael liked to hear from his women. If anybody were going to do the dumping, it would have to be him. So by the time Karen slipped quietly into the living room, he was too absorbed in the discussion with his girlfriend to hear his fiancée come in.
“Tu me prends pour une conne?” Mireille was shouting into the receiver loudly enough for Karen, who understood French, to overhear. Michael opted not to answer her question, which he interpreted as rhetorical anyway. “How long did you think you could pull the wool over my eyes? You said you loved me!” Mireille switched back to English.
“But you’re engaged to another man,” Michael weakly protested.
“Et alors?” Mireille challenged him. “It’s not like you give a damn about fidelity!”
She had a point, or, more precisely, half of one. Because Michael cared a great deal about fidelity when it came to the women he dated. He was just willing to overlook such minor indiscretions when they arose from his side, that’s all.
Consequently, even if he could manage to get over her alarming thinness, Mireille could never be marriage material given that she was cheating with him on her fiancé. After all, he had his standards.
“Am I your girlfriend or just a friend with benefits?” Mireille asked with an uncharacteristic lucidity that made Michael feel somewhat uncomfortable.
“What kind of a stupid question is that? Of course you’re my girlfriend!” he blurted out. But before Mireille could find out what level of commitment such an elastic concept entailed, Karen had heard enough. She slammed her purse loudly upon the glass coffee table. Michael turned around to watch with some trepidation the glass quiver upon its metal frame. What the hell does she carry in that purse anyway? Rocks? “I’ve got to go,” he whispered into the receiver, then hastily hung up the phone.
Karen assailed him with a plethora of questions. “Who is she?” “A fellow teaching assistant in our department,” he said.
“How long have you been hooking up with her?” “We started the Master’s program together,” “How long have you been her lover?” “Since before we met,” he replied, hoping this fact would exonerate him. Apparently, it didn’t, since Karen pursued, “Why didn’t you break up with her once the two of us became serious?” That question proved to be somewhat trickier. Thinking quickly on his feet, Michael did his best to address it. “You’re freaking’ unbelievable!” Karen exploded after he had calmly informed her that he’d been trying to break up with Mireille for the past year and ten months. “The whole time we’ve been together you’ve been screwing around with another woman,” she concluded, though not entirely correctly. Technically speaking, he had been consorting with dozens of women, if one counted Lisa plus all the one night, one day and few minutes stands. “This was my wake-up call,” Michael solemnly declared. “I promise I’ll break up with her. In fact, that’s exactly what I was trying to do just now. You witnessed it yourself.”
“Do you love her?” Karen asked, her anger subsiding and starting to turn into self-doubt.
“Not really. I’m just a little infatuated with her.”
Instead of appeasing his fiancée, however, this seemingly harmless comment only infuriated her more: “I don’t want to hear about your… abominable infatuations!” she exploded.
Michael felt obliged to switch tactics: “It’s you I love, Baby. You’re the woman of my life,” he said, walking towards Karen to give her a hug. She bristled under his touch. “I promise it will never happen again,” he added, hoping to soften her up. But Karen averted her eyes, with disgust. He pulled up her chin gently, obliging her to look him in the eyes. “Listen to me,” he said soothingly. “I mean it. This will never happen again, all right? It’s you I care about.”
Karen hesitated. She felt too wounded to forgive him yet too proud to give up on their relationship. Because, for her, Michael was the only one. She didn’t want any other man. The only glitch in their relationship was that he obviously wanted other women.
In all fairness, Michael tried to keep his promise to Karen. After their fight over Mireille, he went cold turkey on sex for three whole days, since, needless to say, his fiancée wasn’t in the mood anymore. During this period of time, Michael recalled, he felt like a monk whose vows of chastity are mocked by the stubborn resilience of frequent erections.
At work, more of the same. Wounded to the core, Mireille made it a point of leaving the office in a huff every time he entered it. Women are so hypersensitive, Michael observed. But after three days of Cold War on both fronts, he couldn’t take the tension anymore. He dropped by Mireille’s apartment when he knew that her fiancé would be at work. At first, she didn’t want to let him in. She carried their negotiations via the intercom, for everyone’s listening pleasure. A few nosy neighbors strained their ears to hear the heated exchange between the former lovers.
“Can’t we discuss this in private?” Michael pleaded over the loudspeaker.
“There’s nothing to say. You’re a jerk,” Mireille denied his request.
“Isn’t she already engaged?” one of the neighbors, a homemaker with kids asked another.
“Yes, but she’s French,” a more open-minded neighbor graciously undertook her defense.
“I can explain everything,” Michael persisted.
“What’s there to explain? That you treated me like a piece of ass?”
“I love you and came here to ask for your forgiveness,” he announced to everyone’s delight, including Mireille’s.
Now that’s more like it, the young woman thought to herself, pressing the button to let in her penitent lover. Michael observed that Mireille wore a tee shirt with no bra underneath and a pair of pink shorts.
He was about to celebrate their reconciliation, when she spoiled the mood with superfluous emotions. “Michael, I love you so much. I was so unhappy when I thought it was all over between us.”
His arms folded tenderly around her. “You silly little thing. You worried yourself for nothing,” he cooed reassuringly into her ear. Since it was a sunny, beautiful day, the lovers went on the balcony for some fresh air. Michael sat across from Mireille. His gaze couldn’t help but wonder up the openings of her shorts to determine if she was wearing any panties. He concluded with sufficient confidence that she wasn’t. To test his hypothesis, he began stroking her knees, hoping to gradually inch his way up her leg to her crotch, like a tiny, harmless spider.
Mireille, however, was still in the mood for a serious conversation concerning his level of commitment, his level of arousal having never been called into question. “If you love me, then why do you treat me so badly?” his girlfriend inquired, strangely echoing his fiancée. “Why is it that Karen’s always your priority?” she pursued. “You’re always like, I can’t see you because Karen’s dropping by soon. Why does she always have to trump me? What does she have that I don’t?”
Hips, tits and ass, Michael wanted to say. “Because you’re already taken, my love,” he replied with a note of regret, allowing his roaming fingers to graze the soft folds of her skin.
With one swift gesture, Mireille removed his brazen hand. “I’m not in the mood for fooling around!” she announced, still visibly upset.
Great! Nobody’s in the mood anymore, Michael thought, feeling rejected by all of his women, or at least the two that counted most. “Listen,” he tried to reason with his girlfriend. “When you and I got involved, you were already engaged. Since you weren’t available, I began dating other women.”
“I wasn’t aware that you had ever stopped.”
“If you wish,” Michael graciously conceded that insignificant point. “But the fact remains that you were seeing someone else, so I had to find a partner of my own,” he reinforced his main point. “After a few months, Karen and I became pretty serious. And just like you have to hide the fact that you’re still seeing me from your fiancé, I have to hide the fact I’m seeing you from her,” he revealed the perfect symmetry of their relationship.
“The only difference is that I’m prepared to leave my fiancé for you. But you don’t seem even remotely willing to leave Karen for me,” Mireille pulverized his otherwise elegant theory.
“Yeah, well, I don’t think that either of us are prepared to leave our partners just yet. That would be a bit rash, don’t you think? Maybe some day though.” Michael’s general policy with women was: to keep them hopelessly attached, you always have to leave them hope.
“Like when hell freezes over?”
“I don’t know. It’s pretty hot in here.” Michael decided it was time to cut out the useless chatter, especially since he was losing the debate. He leaned over to kiss Mireille on the mouth. There was nothing bilingual about that kiss; it was most definitely French. The couple celebrated their romantic reconciliation by making love à plein air, on the balcony.
Once the floodgates were opened again, Michael began to justify other indiscretions. After all, he told himself, the promise to Karen had already been broken. The women began streaming into his life at the same steady rate as before.
Now that he had been caught red-handed for the second time by his fiancée, however, Michael realized that the consequences of his actions could be more serious. “Who told you such a thing?” he repeated, prepared to deny the allegations unless the evidence was incontestable.
Karen walked to the phone and pushed “play” on the answering machine, with the same heavy-hearted sense of resolve that a president must feel when he presses the button to launch a nuclear missile.
“Hi Michael,” Lisa’s voice greeted him in a suggestive tone. “I miss you! My pink parts are missing you! Hope to see you this weekend, if you manage to get away from the Dragon Lady. Bisous!” Click. That was all the message said. It wasn’t much, but even Michael was obliged to admit that it was as incriminating as it gets.
“She makes it a point of pride to screw her instructors,” he innocently explained.
“Why did you let her do it with you?”
“She seduced me with her humongous boobs,” Michael continued in the same vein.
His comment made Karen feel exceedingly inadequate. She gazed at her fiancé with sadness, the way one looks at a person one has already lost. “Why must you cheat on me?” she asked him. “If I cheated on you, how would you feel?”
“Like shit,” he readily admitted, realizing that a show of remorse was expected of him at this point in the game.
“Then why do you do that to me?”
Michael contemplated her question for a moment. Quite frankly, he didn’t see any compelling reason not to.
Since he didn’t reply, Karen continued venting her spleen. “Even after I gave you a second chance? What have I done to deserve this?”
The self-doubt implied by her question gave him an opening. Perhaps if Michael had said nothing and acted duly contrite he might have averted disaster. But he chose instead to tempt fate. “You won’t even have the guts to live with me that’s what!” he shouted, a wave of self-righteous indignation washing over him. “I’m lonely. I go to sleep all by myself and wake up all alone,” he said, nearly stating the truth, since he frequently consoled himself with temporary female companionship. “I asked you for almost two years to move in with me,” he pursued. “But you refused to listen. After awhile, I finally got the message. Your parents’ screwed-up morality is far more important to you than I am.”
Although this flash of anger dissipated as quickly as it appeared, his own vehemence took him by surprise. Michael had never realized that he was filled with so much pent-up resentment. Whenever he stepped into his empty apartment, he was overcome by a mixture of loneliness and dread. Dread of an inconsolable emptiness that he couldn’t displace no matter how many women he slept with. Dread of being lost and not even knowing where to look for meaning. Dread of slipping underneath the cold sheets without a warm body lying next to him. And, all too often, he’d go back out on the prowl, hunting for pleasure, hoping that the fleeting excitement of the flesh could make him forget the emptiness that haunted him within.
Karen looked at him, appalled. “You coward! So now your cheating’s all my fault?” She paused for a moment, then reached a decision. “You know what? Enough’s enough! I’m tired of all your lame excuses. I’m tired of the way you make me feel like crap. I’m tired of the way you make me feel like every damn floozy with big tits matters more to you than I do. You can take back your ring,” she yanked the engagement ring off her finger and flung it at him. It bounced off his chest and fell soundlessly unto the carpet. Michael was too surprised by her reaction to pick it up immediately (although he did remember to retrieve it shortly afterwards, since after all, he had paid over a thousand bucks for it).
“You bitterly disappoint me,” Karen added more quietly. “I can’t go on like this. I don’t deserve this mistreatment. One day you’ll regret how you treated me. You’ll be left all alone in the world with nobody but those whores who don’t give a damn about you!” she punctuated her statement by slamming the door behind her.
Michael gazed coolly after her, defiant and unmoved. It’s better this way, he said to himself. If she can’t keep up, she should get out of my way. Besides, I give her at most a week. She loves me way too much to have the strength to leave me, he calmly predicted. Either way, I can’t lose. If she leaves me, then I’m free to do whatever the hell I wish. If she changes her mind, then things will pick up exactly where they left off. Except that I’ll have much more leeway, since, after all, the elastic’s already been stretched twice and by now it’s pretty darn loose, he calculated with a smile.
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