“Whoa! Let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse,” he reminded himself. Once he arrived at his apartment, he flung the keys on the kitchen counter. By association, he fell back upon a play on words, “Let’s not put the heart ahead of the whore,” to take the edge off his euphoria. No point in taking a little crush too seriously, he made a second attempt to bring himself back down to earth.
Yet the ruse of cynicism proved ineffective. That night, he couldn’t fall asleep. He lay with his head propped up upon two pillows, contemplating his recent encounter with Ana. He went over their conversation, her glances, each gesture she made, his own overtures and reactions. He recalled how when he looked into her eyes, he felt like for the first time he saw a woman in Technicolor, as it were. Everything else he had experienced, every other woman he had met before, now seemed like a faded black and white photograph compared to the kaleidoscope of emotions that had burst within him the instant he saw her.
She’s the one, Michael told himself. Then, once again, he tried to find a joke or at the very least a pun in his own observation, embarrassed by his premature sense of conviction. This time, however, the joke was on him. There was a freshness and fire about this woman that disarmed him of the artillery of hackneyed phrases he usually deployed in his encounters with women. A vision of Ana appeared before his eyes. He imagined caressing the curves of her breasts over her modestly buttoned-up blouse, incapable of resisting their soft invitation. She had told him about the death of her parents, about her difficult childhood as an orphan. But was she happy now, with her own family? Was her husband good to her? Above all, he wondered, has this woman ever tasted the pleasure of falling madly in love?
In his hubris, Michael felt quite certain that she hadn’t. His heart skipped a beat when he sensed that he could be the first to give Ana that experience. What about her husband? it occurred to him, but then he quickly dismissed the idea. In his own mind, the real litmus test would be Ana’s response. If she welcomed his advances, then they’d have a real chance. The children, however, were a different story. In some respects, Michael calculated, they could be viewed as a bonus. For nearly two years he had longed to be with a more affectionate woman than Karen. He dreamt of becoming a father one day. Granted, he had envisioned achieving that goal in the traditional, biological manner rather than robbing another man’s nest. But, then again, there would be time for that as well. After all, Ana seemed to be in her early twenties. Surely, if they fell in love and married, she wouldn’t deny him their own child together.
A sobering thought then occurred to him. Have I completely lost my mind? Why the hell am I thinking about marriage? For Christ’s sake, I just met the woman, who, incidentally, happens to already have a husband and kids. I must be in dire need of some heavy-duty therapy, or at the very least a decent blowjob. Better take it easy, get some apparently much-needed sleep and allow myself to calm down, he advised himself. This woman’s trouble, Michael concluded. If I pursue her and she goes along, shit! It risks becoming serious. And what would be the point of that? he debated with his own self. Nothing, that’s what, he answered his own rhetorical question. After all, I’ve just gotten out of a serious relationship. Which, technically speaking, means I’m on the rebound. Better give myself some time to heal, he decided, but without any real conviction. Obviously, something’s wrong with my head, otherwise I wouldn’t have fallen for Ana so easily, he concluded. And yet, another part of him rebutted, it’s so exciting to finally feel so excited!
Michael glanced at the alarm clock. Holy crap! It was past 3:00 a.m. and he had to teach in the morning. As he removed one of the pillows and changed position in bed to make himself more comfortable, he heard a hesitant rap on the door. He listened carefully. Hearing nothing more, he thought that he must have imagined the noise. It was confirmed, however, only a few seconds later by an even louder knock. Could it be Ana? Michael wondered with the irrationality of a man woken up from a dream that he couldn’t yet distinguish from reality. Feeling rather than seeing his way down the hallway, he turned on the light and opened the front door.
“Karen?” She was the last person Michael expected to see.
“Sorry to come by so late,” she excused herself. Even in the dim hallway light, Michael noticed that Karen looked different. For one thing, she wasn’t wearing glasses. She also seemed to have lost some weight. Uncharacteristically, she was wearing a skirt that fell well above the knees, practically a miniskirt. He stared at her, trying to adjust her new image to his former recollections. “Where are your glasses?” was all he could think of saying.
Karen smiled with a visible sense of satisfaction. “I got contacts,” she replied, hoping that he’d also notice that she had lost seven pounds, her biggest achievement during their separation.
“Where are my manners? Please come in,” he invited her with an air of formality that he generally reserved for older acquaintances.
Karen walked in with a deliberate sway of her hips. Has she been taking walking lessons? Michael wondered, following her movements. In the past, he had teased her that she walked in a flatfooted swaggering manner, like a man. His attention was diverted by the colorful package Karen was carrying in her right hand. “Gone Christmas shopping in September?”
“Not exactly,” she turned to him and handed him the bag. “It’s my birthday present for you.”
“But my birthday’s not ‘till December.”
“It’s an early gift.”
Michael peered inside, then looked up at her blankly: “A cactus?”
“It’s for our new apartment,” Karen clarified. This response left him even more baffled.
“The one we’ll move into this summer in Phoenix,” she said with a complicit smile that dissolved into slight quivers of emotion at the corners of her mouth. He tried to focus upon the meaning of her words. What in the world is she trying to tell me?
Michael must have looked as puzzled as he felt, since Karen felt compelled to add, “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching lately and have found the strength to forgive you,” she delivered the line that she had been rehearsing in her own mind during the past few weeks.
He didn’t react.
“To prove to you my commitment to making our relationship work, I quit my job. I’m ready to move with you to Phoenix, like you asked me earlier,” she elaborated.
“You quit your job? Just like that?”
Karen nodded. “I gave them three weeks’ notice. Starting this Monday will be my last week.”
Michael felt unprepared for this news. “What about your family? Did you tell them you want to move to Arizona?”
“Not yet. I thought you might want to be informed first,” Karen replied with a smile.
“And you still want to marry me? After everything I did to you?” Michael looked incredulous.
By way of response, Karen reached over to kiss him on the mouth: little pecks with puckered closed lips that, it occurred to him, she mistook for sensual abandon, punctuated by tearful, ecstatic affirmations: “Yes… yes… yes!” Then, fearing that Michael might not be as enthusiastic as she had hoped, she pulled back to examine his reaction. His perplexed look didn’t say enough. “Don’t you want to marry me?” she asked him, suddenly overcome by self-doubt.
“I’m just a little surprised, that’s all,” Michael struggled to regain his composure.
This ambiguous reply sufficed to reassure Karen. He was obviously as moved as she was by her generosity, willingness to improve herself and self-sacrifice for the sake of their relationship. Whatever was left of her emotional barriers crumbled. “If you only knew how much I missed you. These past few weeks without you have been such,” Karen wanted to say “hell,” but thought it might sound too dramatic and, at any rate, she preferred to avoid using sacrilegious language, “so difficult,” she said instead, wrapping her arms around her fiancé. Michael reciprocated her embrace, crossing his arms around her back, still slightly dazed by the impact of her unexpected visit.