“Hey Baby!” Michael replied warmly.
“I’m free for the next few hours. Do you have time to meet?”
“Don’t I always have time for you?”
It’s true, Ana thought. Every time I call him, no matter when, no matter how often, he always sounds so happy to hear from me. Her lover’s boundless enthusiasm enchanted her. “What would you like to do?” she asked him.
“I was planning to go furniture shopping this afternoon. Let’s just say my old sofa set has seen better days. It would be kind of fun to go there with you.”
“Okay…” she answered with slight hesitation. A furniture store didn’t exactly sound like the optimal venue for a hot date, but then again, Michael’s presence made everything sizzle.
“How about we meet at Artclub in half an hour?” he suggested a local furniture chain.
“Sounds good. I can’t wait to see you!” she said, punctuated her statement with kisses planted on the receiver.
“Me too, hmm, bye.”
Ana went into the walk-in closet to select her clothes, knowing that Michael was very particular about what she wore. She took off her jeans and put on a plaid miniskirt. She then removed her pantyhose and replaced them with the pair of black thigh-highs that Michael had given her the week before. On top, she chose a microfiber tee shirt with no bra, so as not to leave much fabric between her skin and his roving hands. At first she was hesitant about it, preferring regular pantyhose to the thigh-highs that had a tendency to roll down her legs when the elastic wore out or, if it stayed tight, left red marks upon her tender skin. But, as usual, Michael had countered her objections with the sweet cooing that made her melt inside.
“Why refuse me such a little thing? Don’t I always do everything you wish?” Then, the melodious refrain she couldn’t resist, “Come on, Baby, do it for me please.” She did, and not just to please him. Michael’s energy and spontaneity made her feel youthful, happy and alive, as if she had spent the past ten years hibernating in a rule-bound, lackluster life that lacked the energy and excitement of their passion.
Michael was already waiting for her in the parking lot. His back was pressed up against the store window, like a spider weaving its net upon a glass pane. He beckoned to her with his index finger to approach closer and closer as she prudently drove towards him.
After parking the car, Ana ran into his arms. As was his habit, he lifted her off the ground in an eager embrace, his lips plastered upon hers, giving her oxygen from his athletic lungs. He gives literal meaning to the expression “he’s a breath of fresh air,” Ana thought, feeling rejuvenated by her lover’s presence.
“It’s so good to see you again!” he exclaimed.
“I’ve missed you so much,” she breathed into his ear, under his spell.
“Let’s take a little break first,” he suggested, opening the passenger door of the car for her.
In the beginning, Ana recalled, Michael’s predilection for making love in public places had been a source of tension between them.
“Why does it have to be in public?” she had asked him. She couldn’t understand why Michael preferred making love right outside the hotel, even after he had already paid for the room.
“Because it’s more fun that way,” he had replied with a wink.
“But what if other people see us? We could get arrested for public indecency,” she had objected.
“I like living on the edge, Babe. And I don’t give a damn about what other people think.”
“You act like a horny teenager sometimes,” Ana found a ready excuse for Michael’s apparent immaturity. Sometimes, however, her lover’s silly antics seemed more puzzling than entertaining. She recalled how Michael had boasted about the pranks he played on his parents when they visited him and Karen from Utah. He set the alarm for 2:00 a.m. and 4 a.m. nearly every night.
“Why did you do that?” she had asked him.
“I don’t know. To keep them on their toes, I guess,” he had responded with an impish smile.
What was even more difficult to comprehend was the pleasure Michael took in duping those who loved him. “For several years I’ve told my parents that I’m working at an escort service,” he confessed to Ana one afternoon, out of the blue.
“Just for fun.”
“But why would you lie about a thing like that?”
Noticing the concern on Ana’s face, Michael adopted a more serious demeanor. “Look. My mother worships the ground I walk on. Everything I do is perfect in her eyes. But my dad’s just the opposite. Nothing I do is ever good enough for him. He wanted me to finish my Ph. D. and become a professor.” He shrugged. “But that’s not what I want to do with my life. I don’t want to spend the rest of my youth rotting in some dusty library. Besides, being a French teacher’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I completely agree,” Ana took his side. “And that’s precisely why you have no reason to lie to your parents about your chosen profession. In fact, you should be proud of it.”
Michael’s smile was full of mischief. “I am, but my dad’s obviously not. So if I tell my folks I’m the worst thing they can imagine, they’ll never dare judge me again.” He laughed out loud. “Hell, since I told them I’m working at an escort service, they’ve been too embarrassed to even ask me about work.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Ana disagreed. “They probably judge you even more, since they’re ashamed of your job.”
“They’ll be alright,” Michael brushed off her advice. “Besides, by now, they’re used to my shenanigans. Ever since I was thirteen, I started calling them “Bob and Betsy.” I had had enough of all the ‘Mom and Dad’ crap, all that fake parental authority. Since then, they’ve pretty much realized that I’m my own man and do whatever I damn well please.”
“That may very well be, but you’re not actually doing what you’re saying you are,” Ana pointed out.
“I’m just having a little fun with them, that’s all.”
At the time, Ana felt somewhat uncomfortable with this lie, but chalked it up, once again, to Michael’s juvenile sense of humor. “You’re such a little boy,” she said, assuming the same maternal manner that Karen usually adopted with him. “You play mind games just to amuse yourself.”
Ana didn’t intend the comment as a compliment, but Michael chose to interpret it that way. “I’m just more independent than most people, that’s all. I don’t need anybody’s approval. When I step into an empty room, I tell myself: I’m here. Where the hell’s everybody else? When you step into an empty room, you wonder: Am I in the wrong place? That’s the difference between you and me,” he concluded.
“Has it ever occurred to you that sometimes you may be wrong?” Ana retorted, not exactly appreciating being called a mindless follower.
“Not really. Let the weak follow the herd. I trust my own judgment.”
“You’re so cocky,” she observed, unwittingly attracted to the very quality that she criticized in him.
“In more than one way,” he said with a smile.
Habituated by now to transforming public spaces into their own private love nest, Ana sat on her knees facing the back of the chair. Michael slipped behind her, lifted her skirt and undid his zipper. She felt his moist kisses along the back of her neck, her hair and her cheek. As his tongue traced the inner crevices of her ear, Michael thrust inside her, fast in, slow out, to feel the internal ridges that drove him crazy with desire. He then picked up the pace, pumping faster and faster, until he could no longer contain himself. He burst all over her lower back, in a shower of pleasure and relief. Ana turned around to kiss him. He circularly wiped the grainy, viscous liquid all over the smoothness of her skin, taking great pleasure in this signature gesture, which was simultaneously a demeaning smear and a loving caress that marked her as his.
“I’ve got good news for you,” Michael announced, after they had readjusted their clothes.
“What is it?”
“Karen just left for Phoenix,” he informed her.
Ana hesitated, not knowing how to interpret this fact. “You mean you guys broke up?” It occurred to her that this would create an even greater imbalance in their already lopsided ellipse.
“Nope. She went to Phoenix to set up our apartment. You know, to buy furniture for it and that kind of stuff.”
Ana hoped she hadn’t heard right. “Michael, how can you possibly say that’s good news? How often will we be able to see each other from thousands of miles away?”
“Just because she thinks I’ll join her in Phoenix doesn’t mean I actually will,” Michael responded, nonplussed. “Besides, before you were complaining that she’s always on my back. Just look at it this way: after she’s gone, we’ll have a lot more freedom to see each other. Even on weekends,” he underscored the positive.
Ana, however, looked downright despondent. “Don’t you see what this means? It’s like you’re putting me on probation. If I don’t divorce Rob by this summer, you’ll move to Phoenix and marry your fiancée.”
“Don’t get so defensive, alright?” Michael sharply protested. Then his voice became buttery again: “Baby, it’s me we’re talking about. You know I’m crazy about you. I know what I want. And what I want is you,” he reassured Ana, stroking her hair. His hand moved along her cheek, sliding underneath her jaw, which he gently motioned towards him. He kissed her several times, hoping that his sensual affection would calm her down, as usual.
But she wasn’t pacified. “Why didn’t you at least try to stop her from leaving?”
“I couldn’t. She made the decision unilaterally. By the time I got home, she was all packed, ready to go. Besides, my input wouldn’t have changed anything. I have no control over her whatsoever,” Michael defended himself.
“Now that’s a bunch of baloney!” Ana retorted, pulling away from him. “You’ve got her wrapped up around your little finger,” she indicated with her pinkie.
“You can think what you want,” he shrugged. “But you’re dead ass wrong about that. Ultimately, she does whatever the hell she wants.”
Ana gave him a disapproving glance. “Let’s not play games, alright? We both know that her whole existence revolves around you. She’s moving to Phoenix to get you to join her there. She’s lost weight for you. Whatever she does, she does it for you. Actually, it’s kind of scary.”
“Hey, that’s her choice, not mine. In fact, it kind of bothers me that she’s so damn clingy. I wish she’d lay off a bit and find herself another hobby.”
“That’s a chicken and egg sort of question,” Ana didn’t lose track of her main point. “I don’t know if Karen was always this way, or if you encouraged her to be so dependent on you. All I can say for sure is that she’s really desperate right now. She wouldn’t be moving away from you otherwise, since she can hardly spend a few hours without you by her side. It’s obvious that she’s putting pressure on you to pull you away from me.”
“She doesn’t even know you exist, the poor woman! Listen to me, Baby,” he drew his girlfriend towards him again. “The only thing that matters at this point is what you and I do. Judge me by my own actions, not hers, alright?”
Ana remained silent for awhile, contemplating this misfortunate turn of events. “The last thing I needed now was more pressure,” she said quietly.
“You take it as you wish,” Michael retorted, growing tired of the debate. “Want to help me pick out a new sofa set?” he changed the subject, leading Ana by the hand into the furniture store and periodically planting kisses upon her cheek and hair, to distract her from her worries.
As soon as they stepped inside, a middle-aged saleslady wearing gold-rimmed glasses approached them. “Newlyweds?” she hazarded a guess, noting their public display of affection.
“Yes,” Ana answered reflexively.
Michael directed her a look of bemused surprise. “We’re looking for a new sofa set. Nothing too expensive. We’re just getting started,” he addressed the saleslady.
“We have this nice leather set,” the saleslady led the way to a dark brown leather sofa and love chair.
“It looks too much like office furniture,” Ana commented. “Plus the leather seems wrinkled and worn.”
“Lots of young couples prefer this more traditional look for the living room nowadays,” the saleslady retorted.
Michael took a peek at the price tag. It cost $4000, which was more than enough to persuade him to take Ana’s side. “I don’t think leather’s for us,” he said firmly.
“Alright,” the saleslady changed tactics, seeing solidarity. “How about that new micro fiber set? We just got it in stock last week,” she pointed to a tan sofa and love seat that, Michael could see from afar, cost a more modest $1000 dollars.
“I love it!” Ana exclaimed, frustrating his intention to haggle. She then plopped herself down on the love chair. Her face beamed with happiness. She rubbed with both hands the micro fiber skin, which left darker and lighter tracks as one does when petting soft animal fur with and against the grain.
Let’s compare prices first, Michael was about to suggest. But the image of his girlfriend perched happily upon the love chair momentarily distracted him. He pictured Ana as he’d have liked her to wait for him at home when he came back from school, once they got married. She was bent over the chair stark naked except for a pair of black thigh-highs and lace gloves. Her light flesh and rosy lips beckoned to quench his desire. Simultaneously, Ana was indulging in her own fantasy of domestic bliss. She imagined herself sitting on Michael’s lap in that very chair, watching a romantic comedy together. They no longer cared about the passage of time since they were already married, miraculously, without her even having to get a divorce or hurt her family. In her fantasy, Michael clarified the ambiguities of the movie plot as they periodically fed each other popcorn. Seeing the faraway gaze in each other’s eyes, the two lovers exchanged a look of complicity, as if telepathically aware that they were sharing the same dream.
“I’m interested in this sofa set, in dark red,” Michael said, thinking that color would go with Ana’s pale skin.
“Red? That’s a bit bordello, don’t you think?” his girlfriend objected.
“That’s the whole point,” Michael grinned.
“When did you get married?” the saleslady inquired, attributing the young couple’s behavior to newlywed syndrome, which a few months of marriage would undoubtedly cure.
“We don’t know yet,” Ana responded in all honesty. She glanced at her watch and realized that she’d have to return home soon. Her dreamy look and carefree smile were effaced by the awareness that they lived on borrowed time.
“Would you like to purchase it?” the saleslady inquired.
“Not today. But we’ll come back for it soon,” Michael responded, looking at Ana.
“It will be on sale for the rest of the week,” the saleslady informed them. “I wish you a very happy life together.”
“Thank you,” Ana replied, taking one last breath in the world of make-believe. “Will we ever be that happy couple?” she turned to her lover once they stepped out of the furniture store.
Michael was surprised by the pleading look in her eyes. “It’s up to you,” he shrugged, feeling like it was a great pity that their future still hung in the balance of her ambivalence. Life would be so much simpler, he thought, if all the major decisions were left entirely up to me.
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