“I seem to have perfect timing. Am I interrupting your work again?”
“No, I was just having lunch,” she said, without inviting him in.
He stood there, waiting calmly.
“You have a habit of just dropping by unannounced at people’s houses, don’t you?” she asked him. Once again, she sensed her own ambivalent reaction to his brazenness, feeling simultaneously flattered and repelled by it.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t usually do that. But… I hope you don’t take this the wrong way… for some reason I feel so at ease with you, Ana. I see no point in being formal with each other,” he said warmly.
Neither do I, Ana thought, appeased. “Would you like to join me for lunch?” she invited him in. She led her guest into a modest dining room, furnished with a simple wooden table and chairs. Michael surveyed the meal already set on the table: fresh plum tomatoes, French baguette and bhabha ghanoush, a Greek eggplant dish.
“For some strange reason, I still prefer the foods I had as a child in Romania. My grandmother used to make this amazing eggplant dish. It’s called salata de vinete.”
“That’s some kind of salad, right?”
“Eggplant salad,” she confirmed. “Would you like to try it?”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
Ana went into the kitchen to get him an extra plate, glass and set of silverware.
“Actually, I’ve had this before with pita bread,” Michael said as soon as he saw the dish. As Ana busied herself placing some of the eggplant salad upon his plate, the young man scooted his chair closer to her. “Do you miss Romania?” he asked her, meticulously spreading some of the eggplant salad on a slice of bread.
“I’m kind of ambivalent about it. I’ve had some good experiences there and some very bad ones as well.” She sliced a tomato on his plate.
“You mean because of the Ceausescu regime?”
Ana put the knife down on the table. “That plus the revolution, which led to my parents’ death. But even afterwards, I went through a difficult time.”
He saw she looked uncomfortable. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
To change the subject, Ana suggested a different way of eating the dish. “You can also try putting some of the eggplant on a slice of tomato. Or, better yet, dip the tomato into the eggplant. That’s how peasants used to eat it in my country.”
Michael followed her lead. “Mmm, it’s pretty good like this.” He covered another slice with eggplant dip and offered it to Ana. She closed her eyes to better savor the flavor. Then it was his turn again. Ana slipped a slice of tomato into his mouth. She had almost forgotten how such simple acts could bring so much delight.
“What about the bhaba ghanoush?” he reminded her.
“Oups, I forgot!” But the next time she didn’t. To show him just how attentive she was, she even wiped a few tomato seeds from his chin with a paper napkin. He noticed that she was examining his face with curiosity. “Why are you looking at me like that? Do I still have food on my chin?”
“No, I was just wondering…” she began, but didn’t finish her sentence. Everything about Michael--his forwardness, his sensuality, his gestures, even his good looks--struck her as, somehow, too slick and smooth, which simultaneously repelled and attracted her. In both high school and college, Ana thought with a hint of pride, I managed to avoid men like him.
“About what?” Michael prodded her.
“I’m not sure it’s polite to ask.”
“You can ask me anything you like.”
“Are you a seducer?” Ana asked him point-blank. Polite or not, it’s better to let him know that I’ve got him figured out, she told herself.
Michael couldn’t help but laugh at the bluntness of her question. “What makes you ask me that?”
“I don’t know. The way you look. The way you act. The way you look at me. You strike me as the seducer type.”
Michael shifted in his seat, deciding how much information to disclose. “I was before, but I’m not anymore,” he replied, his tone ambiguously suspended between the repentance Karen expected of him and the boasting manner he assumed with his buddies.
“When was that? Yesterday?” Ana quipped, coming much closer to the truth than she realized.
Michael acted wounded by her comment, as if it were way off mark. “I just went through a period when I had something to prove,” he explained, assuming an introspective demeanor.
“To whom?” she leaned slightly forward, intrigued by his apparent honesty.
“Mostly to myself.” He noticed a blend of sympathy and curiosity in her expression.
“You wanted to prove your virility?”
The way Ana had pronounced the word “virility,” slightly rolling the r, triggered his desire. “I suppose. But mostly, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could get over someone.”
“Who? Your fiancée?”
“No. This girl I dated back in college. Her name is Amy. She was my first love, I guess.”
“You guess? You mean you don’t know?”
Michael looked away, then back at Ana, as if about to reveal something still painful to him. “She left me for another guy.”
After a brief pause, he added, “She’s the one who cheated on me yet she called me a snake. It took me months to get over her. But once I did, I kind of went overboard and started dating dozens of women.”
“Dozens?” Ana repeated with alarm. Then she recalled how many of her acquaintances in college played the field, as people tend to say. If you don’t date a lot during college, when can you enjoy your youth and have some fun? And how are you supposed to know that you found the right person, without comparing? she asked herself, becoming aware once again of her growing dissatisfaction with her marriage. I’ve only dated seriously one man and we got married young. Maybe that was a mistake, she now speculated. But what in the world motivated Michael to go to the opposite extreme? “Was that the only way you could get over the rejection?” She was intrigued by the tension between the young man’s sensitive demeanor and the cavalier behavior he had just described.
“Maybe so. Some people drown out their sorrow with drink. I drowned out mine with women.”
Ana considered for a moment the comparison. “This sounds like some kind of addiction,” she observed. Do people ever overcome those? she wondered, recalling the popular saying that once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. “When did you stop doing that?” She hoped he’d reply years ago.
“When I met you,” Michael said instead, thinking that she’d feel flattered.
Ana, however, focused on a different angle. “So you’ve been cheating on your fiancée all along?” she leaned back in her seat, repelled by his confession.
“I had a lot of pent-up anger inside,” he tried to explain.
“You mean because of what your first girlfriend did to you?” she asked, puzzled.
“At first, I cheated partly out of vengeance. And maybe also to overcome the rejection. But then I started having fun with it,” he replied, knowing from experience that sporadic admissions of misbehavior were often confused with total honesty.
“But why couldn’t you be faithful to Karen? After all, she wasn’t the one who cheated on you. Or was she?” Ana pursued, feeling that Michael’s behavior didn’t speak well of his character yet also hoping that his explanation would resolve all the apparent contradictions in his story.
“No, she wasn’t.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I don’t know. I mean, clearly I’m to blame. I’ve been a jerk to her,” Michael sounded genuinely contrite. “The truth of the matter is that Karen was never the right woman for me,” he added, gazing steadily into Ana’s eyes, as if to hint that she, herself, might be the one he had been looking for all along. “It’s tough to explain,” he went on. “Karen’s nice, don’t get me wrong. But she’s very cold in temperament. I tried for almost two years to get her to warm up to me. I did everything I could to make her be affectionate. Unfortunately, it was a thankless task. For the longest time, she didn’t even want to live with me, even though we were already engaged. She decided to live with her parents.”
Ana didn’t say anything, but looked unsympathetic. So what? she asked herself. Some people prefer to move in with their partners after getting married. That doesn’t warrant cheating on them. It occurred to her that Michael was offering intimate details about his relationship with Karen to impress her and awaken her sympathy. I sure wouldn’t want to be in his fiancée’s shoes! she said to herself. What woman would appreciate being used as a pick-up line for another woman?
Reading disapproval in her expression, Michael continued his narrative. “Plus Karen’s often in a bad mood. Come to think of it, I’ve rarely seen that woman happy. Her own nephew prefers me to her,” he boasted with an obvious sense of satisfaction. “Whenever I show up at her sister’s house, he lights up. Even though I tend to play rough with him. You know, to make him into a more manly man. I toss him up into the air and catch him, then throw him over my shoulder. We like to horse around, the way dads do with their sons,” he added with a faraway look in his eyes, to hint that he was secretly yearning for a family of his own.
In spite of her reservations, Ana had a quick mental image of Michael tossing her own son into the air, playfully as he had just described. Then she came back to Earth again. “But then, why didn’t you break up with Karen? I mean, once you figured out that the two of you aren’t compatible?”
“I guess because I always hoped, and still do, that by being nice and warm and loving to her, I can get her to reciprocate.”
“One of the first things we’re told as adolescents is that you shouldn’t go into a relationship hoping to change the person you love. It’s a futile task,” Ana pointed out.
Michael peered into her eyes: “Did you remember that advice when you married your husband?”
Ana felt his gaze drill straight through her, exposing her insecurities and dissatisfactions. “I suppose not,” she conceded.
“What makes you say that?” he probed further.
“Rob’s very busy with his work,” she replied, wanting to open up to him without getting too personal. “It doesn’t leave him much free time for our family.”
“Sometimes I wish I had that problem!” Michael exclaimed. “Karen’s just the opposite. Always on my back. Very clingy. Without me, she’s a lost soul.”
“Maybe that’s because you cheated on her, so she doesn’t trust you anymore,” Ana speculated.
“No doubt that’s got something to do with it,” he sheepishly agreed. “Although she doesn’t even know the full extent of it. She’s only caught me twice.” He tried to repress a mischievous grin, but it twitched at the corners of his mouth.
I knew he was a player! Ana told herself. Yet she remained intrigued by the titillating possibility of a life of pleasure, with no responsibilities and moral boundaries; the very opposite of the life she led. “Just how many other women have there been?” she asked him.
“Too many,” Michael replied with deliberate vagueness. “But I assure you that if Karen had been warm and loving to me, there would have been zero,” he emphasized. “I did my best to improve our relationship. As they say, a tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”
What about your stripes? Ana thought looking at him. Could you ever be faithful if you fell in love? But she couldn’t really ask him such a question, since he might interpret it as an overture. “How come none of your efforts to improve your relationship helped the situation?” she inquired instead.
Michael shrugged. “How do you reinvest value in a relationship that has pretty much lost its value?”
“By working on it,” Ana fell back upon common wisdom.
“Yeah, but you need to have something to work with.”
“And you didn’t?”
Michael shook his head. “I guess not enough. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole experience with Karen is that if a relationship requires work, it’s not worth saving.”
Thinking of her own marriage, Ana identified with Michael’s sentiment. But then another explanation occurred to her. “Are you afraid of being alone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Without a girlfriend.”
“I can have any woman I want!” he boasted defensively. “I haven’t been single since the age of fifteen.”
“Which kind of confirms what I said,” Ana insisted, looking into his eyes with gentleness. “Solitude must frighten you.”
“It’s hard to tell,” Michael decided to go with the flow of her sympathetic explanation. “Because, like I said, I’ve never been alone. I’ve had so many women that I lost count,” he said in a neutral tone, this time not bragging, just making a factual observation.
“But you still seem to want to hold on to Karen,” Ana emphasized, thinking to herself, why would a man need a steady girlfriend, if all he wants to do is cheat on her? The answer to this question seemed obvious to her. “Which means that you need a level of intimacy in your life that isn’t possible with one night stands. Otherwise, casual relationships would suffice, wouldn’t they? You wouldn’t need to work so hard on your relationship with Karen.”
Michael saw her observation as a perfect opening. “To tell you the truth, Ana, for so many years I’ve been waiting for the real deal. I want the whole package. Love, lust and friendship, all rolled up into one.”
“Then how come you didn’t get attached to any of the other women you dated?”
He smiled at her naiveté. “It’s just like a woman to ask such a question. For men, sexual intimacy doesn’t imply emotional attachment.”
“I know that, of course,” Ana agreed, embarrassed to show her inexperience. “But still, what I find a bit unusual, is that out of so many women you were dating, none of them attracted you in particular. I mean as human beings, not just physically.”
“It’s not what I wanted at the time. I wasn’t looking for love. For that, I already had Karen.”
Ana contemplated his answer in silence, attempting to grasp his curious mix of detachment and attachment to his fiancée.
“What women don’t realize,” Michael pursued, moving away from the domain of ethics and emotion, which made him viscerally uncomfortable, to that of erotic pleasure, with which he was completely at ease, “is that for men, each woman’s body is different. They all have the same basic parts, or at least one hopes they do. But each woman has a unique shape and feel and ways of touching and kissing and all that’s very exciting.” Ana stared fixedly at him, entranced. “I mean, this may seem trivial because it’s so obviously true, but in a way it’s not, because it’s part of why men fool around. You see,” Michael continued in a confidential manner, “each woman has different kinds of breasts, some pear shaped, some round, some very small like little peaches, others elongated and ripe like bananas,” he said, making light of his own hedonistic sensuality. “The same thing applies to other parts of the body. The hips, the legs,” he suggestively lowered his gaze to her knees, since Ana’s legs were covered by her skirt.
Realizing that their conversation was becoming too intimate, Ana shifted away from him, as if his glance had physically touched her. “I don’t see the appeal of having sex with lots of people,” she said.
“How do you know if you like it or not? Have you ever tried it?”
“No, because I never wanted to. You don’t have to bang your head against the wall to know it hurts.”
“So you’ve only been with your husband?”
“Basically, so far, I’ve only had two boyfriends. Well, the first one wasn’t really my boyfriend. And then, once I came to America, I met Rob. In my country, we used to take virginity seriously,” Ana said with a sense of national pride that made Michael smile.
“Why do you use the past tense?”
“Because after the fall of communism, everything changed in Romania. Now people are just as dissolute there as they are here,” she replied wistfully.
“I’m glad you don’t believe in cultural stereotypes.”
“I just tell it like it is.”
There was something about Ana’s earlier statement, however, that aroused Michael’s curiosity. “What did you mean when you said that your first boyfriend wasn’t one?”
She fluttered her hand, to wave off the unpleasant memory. “I had a pretty bad experience.”
“A neighbor did something to me against my will.”
Michael’s eyes flickered, but his tone remained calm. “He raped you?”
“When I was twelve,” Ana said quietly, averting her gaze. When she turned towards Michael again, he saw tears glimmering in her eyes. “If you don’t mind, I prefer not to talk about this. If I could take a magic pill to forget that part of my past forever, I’d do it in an instant,” she declared heatedly.
“Would you like strawberries for desert?” Ana once again relied on food to change the subject. “We also have apples and blueberries.”
“I’d love some strawberries, thanks.”
“I could never be seduced,” she announced seemingly out of the blue, returning to the table with a bowl of fruit. It struck her that her statement must have sounded absurd, given that she must have seemed pretty receptive to his overtures. But that was precisely why she felt the need to articulate some clear boundaries.
“Oh yeah?” he responded to her comment as if it were a dare.
“I don’t put myself in those situations. For one thing, I don’t like promiscuity. I never go out to bars.”
“Not all seduction takes place in bars. And not all of it leads to sleeping around,” Michael objected. “Sometimes you focus on just one person,” he fixed her with his glance, which was warm and reassuring.
“Even so, I don’t fall for men’s fake pickup lines,” Ana held her ground.
“But seduction isn’t always fake,” Michael countered.
“Yeah, well, seducers tend to be transparent in their purposes,” she maintained.
“And what are those, might I ask?” he asked with a bemused smile, finding her frankness girlish and cute.
“To get as many women as possible into their beds.” Now he’ll back off, since I’ve called him on his moves, Ana thought with satisfaction.
She obviously didn’t lie about not having much experience with men, Michael observed with satisfaction. She doesn’t even realize that it’s rarely in their beds. More often than not, it’s in the back alley behind the bar or restaurant; in the backseat of a car; at the movie theater; in a train; in the Men’s Room, even in a freaking’ church, he recalled just a few of his favorite venues. We’ll see if she’s as immune to seduction as she claims, he told himself. “It doesn’t have to be about scoring. Sometimes it’s about something much more special and magical. Like falling in love,” he said out loud.
“Perhaps, but that’s entirely out of anyone’s hands. You can’t command love,” she expressed this truism with an air of wisdom.
“I can’t argue with that,” he concurred.
Ana realized that she had opened up to Michael about aspects of her life that she hadn’t even shared with some of her closest friends. I can’t explain why I’m so at ease with this man, she searched for an explanation. In the past, I’ve avoided such “cool dudes” like the plague. But something’s different about him, she told herself, without being able to identify the reasons behind her inexplicable attraction. “You know, I’m pretty surprised by how easily I can communicate with you,” she avowed. “Usually, I don’t open up that easily to people I don’t know well.”
“I feel exactly the same way about you,” Michael reciprocated, taking her words of encouragement as his cue to take the next step. He leaned over to offer her a strawberry, placing it close to her mouth. Once her lips wrapped around the red fruit, he felt a wave of warmth ripple through him.
Are you going to run away from pleasure all your life? A voice inside of Ana’s head urged her to stop watching on the sidelines and finally taste life again. With a trembling hand, she returned the favor, slipping a strawberry into his mouth.
Michael was so distracted by other agreeable sensations that he could barely taste its tart sweetness. “It tastes even better when you close your eyes. That way you can focus all your attention on just one sense,” he suggested.
“Come on!” he urged her. “Consider this an experiment. I promise it will taste better.”
This time the young woman obediently closed her eyes and parted her lips as Michael gently placed the tip of the strawberry into the oval of her mouth. She consumed it gradually, in little bites, then reopened her eyes.
“Don’t cheat! Keep your eyes closed,” he whispered playfully into her ear, pressing the lower lobe between his lips, to warm her up with the heat of his breath. She quivered slightly. Encouraged, he gently caressed her waist and hip with his free hand, then fed her the strawberry with the other. He placed his lips upon hers and instead of a strawberry, he fed her the softness of his tongue, which she devoured with the same eagerness with which she had consumed the delicious fruit. As they were kissing, his fingers grazed the slightly humid fabric of her underwear, stroking it gently, until the wetness of her mouth became one with the moistness of her desire. Just as he was about to probe the situation further, however, Ana shifted away, obliging him to change focus. He brushed her long hair aside as his lips traveled down to explore the delicate curve of her neck, which made her twitch and protest that she was ticklish. Heeding her objection, Michael skillfully unbuttoned the young woman’s shirt to reveal the voluptuous softness of her breasts, which he cupped into both hands. He began kissing them, taking each nipple into his mouth to taste it until it hardened to perfection.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, Ana thought, feeling like she had become two different people through this sensual experience. It’s as if part of her remained a prudent woman, a mother and wife, and another part, which she had struggled to repress for so long, completely overtook her senses and imagination. Only an external intervention could resolve this inner conflict. “Michael, please! We can’t be doing this. My husband could come in any minute. He sometimes eats lunch at home,” Ana pushed his head away, her face flushed with a mixture of arousal and alarm.
“We’ll hear the front door if anybody comes in.”
“We can’t be doing this,” she repeated more firmly.
“Okay,” Michael gave in to her wishes, as before. His gaze passed with a territorial pride over her warm brown eyes, the soft lips he had just tasted, the pale breasts that seemed made for the hollow of his hands. In Ana’s presence, Michael felt like he had just awakened from a long period of sedation. In one fell swoop, she had managed to reignite his senses as if, somehow, he hadn’t fully tasted food, or felt pleasure or truly loved a woman before they met.
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