Michael slipped into the room and kneeled in front of Karen. He traced with the tip of his index finger the trail of wetness upon her cheek. “Baby, don’t cry,” he whispered in her ear. His tenderness provoked an almost imperceptible convulsion underneath the sheet, as Karen released a guttural cry. Her heartfelt suffering flattered and aroused him. He began caressing the curve of her body with the flatness of his palm.
“Please don’t!” she protested. “You’re torturing me.”
“Come on. You know you want it as much as I do,” he said under his breath. With one swift motion, Michael whisked the sheet away, covering her with his voracious gaze. Karen’s body lay helplessly exposed in a fetal position, like an overgrown child in need of comfort and protection. Sensing her vulnerability, he mounted her. She wriggled underneath, struggling to budge him away.
“Stop it. You’re depraved,” Karen managed to say. “Why are you doing this to me? Why now?” Nothing about Michael’s behavior made any sense to her anymore. He hadn’t manifested such desire for her in years. Now that he had broken up with her and replaced her with another woman, here he was, bent over her, devouring her neck, like a vampire.
His arms fought against hers, while his knees pulled her legs apart like a pair of muscular forceps. He wasn’t about to be rejected by his woman. “I want you now,” he hissed.
“You must have me confused with your other girlfriend,” she replied. This statement, right out of a melodrama, burst the tension between them. Michael laughed out loud and Karen smiled the first genuine smile since he had delivered the bad news. “Honestly. What’s come over you?”
“I don’t know,” he gazed fixedly into her questioning eyes, stimulated by the novelty of this chiasmic reversal. In the span of one day, his fiancée turned into his girlfriend while his girlfriend became his legitimate fiancée.
“How do you think she’ll feel about this?” Karen asked him with a nervous yet naughty sparkle in her eye that reminded him of Ana.
“She doesn’t have to know about it,” Michael breathed into her ear. He delved into her, encountering no further resistance.
When it was over, he felt spent and she felt used. “I still don’t understand you,” Karen said, disappointed by her own disappointment.
Michael got up and pulled on his pants. “You think too much about things. It was no big deal.”
“No big deal? I’d be curious to see if your new girlfriend agrees,” she taunted him.
Michael turned and peered straight into Karen’s eyes, with that unblinking gaze which became a focused beam when he meant business. “Ana can’t know about this. Ever,” he emphasized.
“You think she’d be jealous?”
“You bet your ass she would!” He slipped on his periwinkle tee shirt, Ana’s favorite. “In fact, I’m going to see her right now,” he announced. “If she asks me about you, I’ll just tell her the truth.”
“That you slept by yourself in the guest bedroom,” he coolly replied.
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate your honesty as much as I did,” Karen couldn’t resist the sarcasm. She felt deflated. The moment of vengeful elation had been short-lived, like a drop of sweat during dry, hot Arizona weather. No sooner has it reached the surface than it’s already evaporated.
Michael rushed into the car to make his breakfast meeting with Ana at Panera’s. Since he was a few minutes late, he anticipated that his girlfriend would already be there, growing impatient. Let her wait, he told himself. She needs to get used to waiting. I can’t always be at her beck and call. I’ve spoiled her while we were lovers. But things will be different from now on. As soon as he stepped into the restaurant, sure enough, Michael saw Ana sitting at a corner booth. Her elbows were planted on the table, her face rested upon her hands. He could tell from her brooding expression that a difficult morning lay ahead.
“Why so glum?” he asked her in a deliberately cheerful tone. “Rob wasn’t in a good mood last night?”
Ana looked up at him, wondering how Michael could be so chipper in such tense circumstances. “It’s not just about him. It’s about you and Karen too. I couldn’t sleep last night knowing that she’s back at your place again.”
Michael slipped next to his girlfriend on the bench, his thigh pressed up against hers. He placed his arm around her shoulder. “My poor Baby! Nothing’s going right, now is it?” he said in the kind of condescending, indulgent tone one uses to pacify a grumpy child.
Although Ana generally appreciated her lover’s levity, this time his lighthearted attitude bothered her. “You never take anything seriously, do you?” She scrutinized his face for signs of a more normal human reaction.
But instead of reassuring her, Michael confirmed her charge by laughing out loud. “Why should I worry? Life’s good. In just a matter of weeks, you’ll be all mine.”
Ana recoiled slightly, as if she hadn’t heard right. “Why a matter of weeks? I thought I was moving in with you this week.”
Michael’s expression became serious all of a sudden. “Actually, I’m glad you brought this up, since that’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” he asked her in the playful manner a magician might ask the audience which trick they wanted him to perform.
“The good news. Because I need some right about now.”
“That one you’ve already heard. We’ll soon belong to each other.”
“Okay, then the bad news,” she said, not amused by his rhetorical games.
“You’ve heard that one too,” he announced with a grin. “Karen will be staying at my place for a couple of weeks.”
Ana felt butterflies in the pit of her stomach. “Why? Did she convince you to give your relationship another chance?” She held her breath while waiting for his reply.
“God no!” Michael burst out. “Nothing can change my mind about us. You’re the woman of my life. It’s just that Karen’s in a lot of pain right now. She doesn’t understand why I broke up with her.”
“So did you see what she was wearing?” “What would you like to drink?” “When did you get here?” “We still have time” “This bagel seems a bit stale.” The background noise of the restaurant and the bustling movement of people around them assailed Ana’s senses, closing in upon her. She felt overwhelmed, no longer able to distinguish inside from outside. “But I thought you were going to explain to her our situation in a day or two,” she managed to say, attempting to bring into focus her lover’s blurry face.
“I did explain it to her, Baby,” Michael said soothingly. “But that was a lot of information to absorb, all at once. I need to help her through this difficult time. I owe her that much at least. I’m not an ogre, you know!”
Something about this whole arrangement just didn’t sound kosher to Ana. With a quick, nervous motion she placed a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t get it. Why exactly will it take you several weeks to explain to Karen our situation? Telling her in person, I understood. I was kind of nervous about it, since I’m sure her intention is to get you back. But I agree that you owe her discussing the situation face to face. Spending one or two days to comfort her, I understand as well. But a few weeks?” She stared at him. “Is there something else you want to tell me?”
“It’s you I want, I promise,” Michael repeated, wrapping both arms around her and drawing her to him. Ana felt the beat of his heart against her eardrum as she lay curled up against his chest, like a kitten. “Don’t be jealous, okay?” he peered down at her. “There’s no reason to feel jealous. I’m not in love with Karen anymore. I’m only in love with you. In her place, you’d want me to do the same thing. You wouldn’t want to be dropped without explanation, like a hot potato. It’s inhuman.”
His melodious voice sounded caring and sincere. It resonated in her ear, making its way through her chest, down to the butterflies in her stomach, soothing everything along the path of its sound waves. “I know,” Ana replied, momentarily embarrassed by her outburst of jealousy. “It’s just that we’re so close to finally being a couple, like you wanted from the very beginning. I didn’t think it would take you so long to explain to her our situation,” she repeated, beginning to feel unsettled again.
“It won’t be that long, you’ll see. After all, what’s two more weeks when we have the rest of our lives together?” Michael pulled her face up towards him and began kissing her eyelids, which instantly fluttered shut, then moved on to her cheekbones, her forehead and her lips. “Time will fly and soon we’ll have exactly what we wanted.”
What you wanted, Ana silently reformulated his phrase. “Are you trying to compare us?” she peered into his eyes. “To see which one of us you want to marry?”
“Come on!” Michael recoiled. “What do you think I am?”
“Then I don’t understand your behavior.”
“It’s called tacking,” he explained.
“It’s called what?” she grimaced.
“Tacking,” Michael repeated. “It’s a term used in sailing, for when you allow the wind to move your sailboat in the wrong direction from your intended destination. Because sometimes if you go against the wind in the direction you want, the sails will rip and you won’t be able to go anywhere anymore.”
“Why is it that we need to be moving in the wrong direction at this point?” Ana inquired, since his analogy hadn’t clarified much.
“Because otherwise I’ll look like an asshole, that’s why!” Michael exploded, losing his cool. He decided to confide further, since Ana was obviously acting paranoid. “Karen’s in touch with my parents and complained to them about our break-up. She’s also told her parents that our engagement’s off. Nobody really understands what the hell happened. Needless to say, they all blame you and me for it. I need some time to smooth things over with Karen.”
“Why couldn’t you have done this stalking, or whatever the heck you call it, during all those months when you were pressuring me to divorce my husband? Why are you stalling now that I’ve already told Rob about us and we’re supposed to be moving in together?” Ana demanded.
Michael sighed, as if he were about to disclose something against his better judgment. “Alright, I didn’t want to tell you this, to protect your feelings, but you’re forcing it out of me.” He paused for a moment, to generate suspense. “Karen apparently talked to my folks on the phone several times already. She blamed the whole fiasco on you. She told them you’re a heartless seductress and a slut. She said our engagement fell apart because of you.”
“And did you set the record straight? Did you tell your parents how much we love each other and how committed we are to making our relationship work?” Ana inquired with a note of alarm. Michael laughed out loud. “What’s so funny?” she asked him with dismay.
“The first thing my mom asked me after her little chat with Karen was if you were one of the call girls from work! Cause remember, I’ve been telling my parents for several years now that I work at an escort service,” he managed to say, attempting to contain his amusement.
A wave of prideful indignation rose into Ana’s throat, constricting her breathing. Her body stiffened. “And you didn’t defend me? You didn’t explain that I’m an artist and tell her how much you love and respect me?”
“Frankly, I didn’t get the chance to talk much about you,” Michael said. “My mom was on a roll, as hysterical as you can get sometimes. Besides, all she cared about was the break up with Karen. She thinks Karen’s the only woman who can ‘tame’ me, as she puts it.”
Ana stared at her lover with a sense of stupefaction. Couldn’t Michael see how his mother, how any mother, would feel when told that her only son is leaving a stable relationship with a decent woman for what’s presented to her as a temporary fling with a slut? And how could he possibly allow Karen to present her and their love affair in such a negative light, without at least trying to undo some of the damage? “What in the world is wrong with you, Michael?” she exploded, pushing him away from her with both hands. “I can understand Karen criticizing me, even if what she said is petty and mean-spirited. But I thought you and I were on the same side here. Any man who respects his girlfriend and plans to marry her does everything possible to defend her to his parents, to create a positive impression.” Ana gazed at her lover, who looked so boyish in his preppy outfit and it occurred to her that the clean-cut image Michael projected might be only a mask. Maybe it was a way to hide from others his real self and his actual desires, which seeped out only in his fantasies and lies. You’re the one who slept around with dozens of women. You’re the real slut, not I, Ana thought. These words vibrated on the tip of her tongue as she saw her lover with new eyes.
Michael’s air of levity vanished once confronted with his girlfriend’s indignation. “Hey, I can’t control what Karen tells my folks.”
“Right. But you can control your response.”
“Just like I’m sure you defend me to Rob every time he criticizes me,” he volleyed back.
“At this point, I don’t really care what Karen thinks about me or Rob about you. But you should have defended me to your parents. Their opinion matters to us,” Ana insisted.
Michael shrugged. “It doesn’t to me. But I must admit, I’m a little surprised by my mother’s reaction. My dad’s a jerk, so I kind of expected he wouldn’t approve of us. He said our relationship shows that I’m thinking with my dick.”
“Excuse me?” Ana hoped that she hadn’t heard right.
“Yeah, he thinks it’s all about the sex between us. But I really thought my mom would take my side. Especially since she’s been suffering at the hands of that cold-blooded bastard all her life. I thought she’d value real love by now, since she never got any from him. Even as a kid, I hoped she’d wake up and divorce his sorry ass.”
“I’ve never heard you speak so negatively about your father,” Ana remarked. She was taken aback by the contempt she heard in Michael’s voice. Not only towards his father, whom he openly criticized the way you wouldn’t even speak about an enemy, but also towards his mother, whom he seemed to praise in a back-handed manner, which combined flattery and disdain. It’s as if Michael felt betrayed by her; as if he suspected that his mother had turned against him by momentarily siding with Karen. Ana wished she could persuade her lover that his sense of betrayal was misplaced. In fact, neither parent had turned against him. Given the kind of information Karen had relayed, they reacted as any normal parents would: with deep concern, warning their only son for his own good. Why couldn’t he put himself in their shoes?
“He’s never been such an ass with me. This time he really outdid himself,” Michael added.
“But you said it’s your mother who disapproved of our relationship,” Ana reminded him.
“Yeah, but he’s the one who told Karen, ‘My son’s a person who’s always disappointed everyone around him.’ My mom, on the other hand, thinks I’m perfect. She only blames you for the fiasco.”
Ana was about to say something, but Michael interrupted her. “Babe, don’t worry about it. She’s a bit of a gossip, but she’ll get over it. I know how to handle her. I’ll have a little chat with her to explain why Karen wasn’t right for me,” he declared with confidence. But the truth of the matter was that his mother’s negative reaction got to him. Initially, it stunned him that she disapproved. Later, however, he reinterpreted her response not as a negative reflection on himself, but as a bad reflection on Ana. Which was kind of disappointing. After all, Michael had been quite confident that a more attractive and cultivated woman would make him look better, like he finally had a partner worthy of him. When confronted with his mother’s disapproval, however, Michael began to sense that his new girlfriend was not such a good catch after all. Instead of making him look better in the eyes of others, Ana’s volatile temperament and tarnished reputation made him look worse. He was downgrading rather than upgrading his partner, as he had originally intended. And if Michael adhered to one principle in life, it was to always upgrade.
It struck Ana that the only time her boyfriend said anything positive about anyone other than himself was when he commented on how much that person worshipped him. His mother was all right because no matter what he did, she adored him. His father was a bastard because he occasionally saw a small fraction of Michael’s flaws and dared criticize him. Karen was fine too. Although she couldn’t always do everything Michael wanted, at least she idolized him. The students who fell under his spell were his favorites. He never even mentioned the rest. When will he stop seeing himself as the center of the universe and realize that if we’re going to have any chance at a happy life together, he’ll have to start thinking in terms of us, as a couple? Ana wondered. “I also want you to tell your mom why I’m right for you,” she told him. “I don’t want Karen’s negative description of me to stick.”
Michael peered at her coldly. Who the hell does she think she is telling me what to do? “You’re so selfish,” he sneered, returning like a boomerang Ana’s own thoughts about him. “You always think only of your image, don’t you?”
“This isn’t just about me, Michael,” she protested. “We’ve traumatized everyone in our lives. Now we’re all in limbo. I’m talking about my family too.”
“And I about mine.”
Ana felt too upset to reply.
“We both need to handle this difficult situation in the most diplomatic way possible,” Michael continued more calmly, interpreting her silence as consent. “Through tacking, not attacking,” he found a convenient play on words. “Don’t turn against me, Powderpuff. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Ana winced at the word “Powderpuff,” which had been one of his terms of endearment for her. Now she took it as an insult, as if Michael considered her a lightweight in general. She then thought about his analogy. This tacking, or whatever he calls it, doesn’t make any sense. I’m sure that Karen’s manipulating him, to weaken his love for me so that he’ll return to her. She’s poisoning our relationship and sabotaging my future rapport with his parents. Nonetheless, what bothered Ana most was the fact that Michael allowed that to happen. That’s his choice, not Karen’s, she told herself. “I understand what Karen’s doing and why. She’s doing everything within her powers to turn us against each other in order to get you back.”
“And can you really blame her?”
“I don’t blame her,” Ana struggled to remain calm. “Because it’s clear to me that she’s a desperate woman. No matter how badly you treat her, she still clings to you. It’s as if her whole world has become this box of your relationship. She can’t even imagine life outside the box anymore.”
“Just because she’s less vain than you doesn’t make her more desperate,” Michael said. Pretty soon I’ll have you spinning in my box too, he thought to himself, casting a territorial glance over his girlfriend.
Ana decided to go ahead and tell him exactly what she thought of Karen all along since, she safely surmised, the gloves were coming off on both sides. “This isn’t about vanity or even love. It’s about dependency. Karen needs you for her self-esteem. I’ve overheard enough of your phone conversations and you’ve shown me enough of your email exchanges to see how she functions. If you praise her, she feels good about herself. If you’re indifferent, she worries and doesn’t know what to think. If you’re brief, she’s anxious and suspicious—and for good reason, mind you. If you disapprove, she tries to change to please you. Even in those emails you showed me, remember?”
“Which ones?” Michael perked up at the intrigue.
“Well, like the one where she wrote you a chatty note about everything she did on a given day and whom she talked to. Then, when you wrote her back a brief, disinterested comment, she shot back another email, with the heading, ‘email: Michael style,’ and five succinct bullet points of her daily activities.”
Michael smiled, simultaneously flattered and amused. “Oh, yeah, I remember now. You’ve got a pretty good memory.”
“I paid attention to everything you said about Karen.”
“Why? Because she’s your competition?” he arched an eyebrow.
“Not only that,” Ana looked straight into his eyes. “Because she’s my precursor. I want to avoid being treated by you the same way that she was. Whatever she did, it didn’t work. And I think that’s because she showed you how vulnerable she is. How much she needs you. You saw that as a weakness and took advantage of her.”
“So now you’re saying she’s weak?” Michael asked, entertained by this indirect catfight. Up to recently, Ana had refrained from overtly criticizing Karen while Karen didn’t even know of Ana’s existence. Now that both women were identifying each other’s faults and fighting over him, all he had to do was sit back and enjoy the show.
“I’m saying that she acts like your puppet,” Ana pursued. “She’s an egoless egocentric, if you will.”
“I won’t, since I have no clue what that means,” Michael said dismissively.
“It means that pretty much all she thinks about is herself. She needs your approval to have a sense of identity,” Ana clarified, not backing down.
“Dang! We’re feeling feisty today, aren’t we?”
Indeed, I am! How dare that woman call me a slut to people I hope to impress? Ana thought, indignant. She was going to give Michael a piece of her mind, quite confident that he’d go back and relay her kind compliments to Karen. “I think in some ways, though, she feels superior to all the other women you’ve been with. Superior by association,” she continued her analysis.
“Well, it’s pretty clear to me that Karen worships the ground you walk on and thinks you’re the most special man on Earth. The fact you stuck with her longer than with any other woman must make her feel special too. Like, somehow, she’s better than the rest of us just because you, God’s gift to womankind, loved her longer and, she assumes, deeper than you’ve loved anybody else,” she concluded her statement in a mocking tone.
“Great observation, Dr. Ana. But how’s that so different from how you feel?” Michael served her criticism back to her. He felt like he had both women right where they belonged, wriggling in the palm of his hand. Pitted against one another, each saw only the other’s faults and predicament. Which was all right with him. After all, the more they focused on criticizing each other, the less they noticed his maneuvers.
Ana smiled, being fully prepared with an answer that, she hoped, would keep Michael on his toes. “I can tell you this much: if you ever cheated on me, I definitely wouldn’t grovel to get you back.”
“What would you do?” he asked, titillated by the knowledge that he had already cheated on her.
Ana gazed at him coolly. “If I found out about it, I’d kick you to the curb.”
Michael’s mouth curled into an ironic smile. “And if you didn’t find out?” he brazenly carried the game a move further.
“It would soon become apparent,” she replied with confidence. “You’re not that good at faking interest.”
“But how would you know for sure that it’s because I cheated? What would you do? Spy on me?”
“I doubt it. Because if it came down to that, there’d be nothing worth saving.” She placed one hand upon her stomach. “My gut instinct would tell me that you don’t really love me anymore. And then I’d stop loving you too.”
“That’s what we always tell ourselves before the fact,” Michael replied, unphased. “But when it comes right down to it, when we love someone, we love them for life, no matter what they do.”
Ana examined his tranquil features. “Funny. This is the first time I’ve heard you speak of unconditional love.” She then thought for a moment and changed her mind. “But then again, it’s not that surprising after all.”
“Because you said it in the context of expecting it from me. When it comes to you, everything’s conditional. I bet if I cheated on you, you’d drop me in an instant.”
“You’re damn right about that!” he replied. “But I’d still love you and cherish our memories together, the way I do those with Amy and Karen. I just wouldn’t be your partner anymore.”
“Spoken like a man who thinks he’ll be the cheater, not the cheated,” Ana remarked.
Michael didn’t like this formulation. “I don’t trust you either, if that’s what you mean,” he responded, put on the defensive. “But it doesn’t really matter. If you cheat, I leave. It’s as simple as that.”
“So much for cherishing our memories!” she pounced on the contradiction.
“Hey, you know me. I prefer to enjoy life rather than dwell on what could of, would of, or should have been,” he boasted, confident that he could rebound from any failed relationship with great ease.
Ana thought about her past. “Unfortunately, my memories aren’t so easy to erase. When I fall in love, I love with all my heart. And when I’m mistreated, I hate for life, the way I do Nicu. I’ll never cherish a shred of memory with him for as long as I live. We probably had some happy moments together. But for me, the bad always erases the good.”
“That’s because you’re a pessimist while I’m an optimist. You see the glass as half empty when I see it as half full,” Michael pointed out.
Ana shook her head. “It’s not a matter of optimism or pessimism. When people abuse you physically or emotionally, like Nicu did me, it erases everything good they ever did. It makes all the positive seem phony,” she delivered a warning with her gaze as well as her words. “At any rate, what I’m trying to tell you is that if you ever cheat on me, I’ll never act like Karen.”
“She just loves me.”
“You have way too much power over her, Michael!” Ana gestured with both hands, becoming heated once again against her rival. “She needs you so much that she’s giving you the reins to her life. All you have to do is tug at her strings,” she mimicked the motion, “and she reacts in whatever way she thinks will please you. You’re walking all over her.”
“And you’re caricaturizing her,” Michael retorted.
“I’m afraid you’re the one who has turned her into a caricature,” Ana countered.
“It’s not my fault. Karen is who she is. That’s her personality. She’s clingy and dependent. We’ve known this for a long time,” Michael exculpated himself.
“Sure, but you encourage her dependency. So, somewhere in there, you must enjoy it. Otherwise you’d have broken up with her once we fell in love.”
“Let’s not go over that again,” he said in a tired voice, growing weary of the whole conversation. “We’re going round and round in circles. We’ve already covered the argument of symmetry.”
“Alright then,” Ana conceded, eager to get a satisfactory answer for her more pressing concern. “Now we have symmetry. I’m divorcing Rob to marry you. So then why are you still encouraging Karen to spend a few more weeks at your house, in our current circumstances?”
Michael fidgeted with impatience, feeling backed into a corner. “I already told you. I’m trying to minimize the damage. For your sake and ours. I don’t want Karen to freak out and criticize us to my parents.”
“Even though she’s done that already.”
“I’ve hurt her enough, alright? I’m not going to be even more of an asshole to her just to please you!” Michael lost his cool.
Ana gazed at him. She noticed that his regular features were distorted by anger. “Whatever you say…” she responded, unwilling to pursue their altercation any further. She saw no point in it. Whenever Michael had made up his mind about something, nobody could dissuade him. Ana gazed at his small, fragile hands with unusually rough nails, which had dingy brown crescents underneath: peasant nails, her grandmother would have said. It occurred to her that Michael never really showed his hand. The only thing you could do is play the game to the very end, like Karen did, and risk losing everything or cut your losses and fold. Lately, Ana had been often tempted to fold. But she didn’t have the heart to go through with it. She recalled her father explaining to her, a long time ago, Newton’s first law of motion. A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless an external force is applied to it. By now, inertia was the main force that still kept her moving, within her lover’s orbit. The unbridled attraction that had them gravitating around each other for almost a year had all but disappeared. Yet after having gone so far already, Ana felt like she had to pursue with courage the path she had chosen.
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