T h e  E i n s t e i n  o f  L o v e

JOE

 

     It was during his fourth year of marriage that Joe had had a brief fling, but had since managed to stay faithful to his wife, Susan.  Now, however, in his thirteenth year of marriage, in spite of all the precautions he had taken and all the little contrivances he had built to protect himself against this eventuality, it had happened again.  Joe was in love.  Being a Man Of Action, he became distraught.  He would have preferred it if his new house had a leaky roof, a bad boiler or burst pipes.  Then he would know what to do. 

     At the top of the list of "What To Do When You Fall In Love With Another Woman" is: "Nothing."  At the bottom is: "Tell Your Wife." 

     "I am in love with someone else," he told his wife as soon as he realized what he was feeling.

     "I don't know what to say," Susan said.  And it was all she said. 

     "I'm sorry," Joe said.  He wasn't sure exactly what he was sorry for, though he was truly, deeply sorry.  Sorry for falling in love and sorry that Susan wasn't offering threats or ultimatums, and sorry for the failure of the marital mechanisms he thought he had so carefully constructed.

     It was uncanny.  One day Carla didn't exist for him and the next she did.  He wasn't aware of why it had happened or even when.  Was there an exact moment?  She had been working at his company almost a month before she sprang into being.  How could this be? he wondered. 

     At first he conjectured that it was her looks.  She was a pretty enough woman in her late thirties whose best feature was her complexion.  But he had known many women more beautiful than Carla.  No, it wasn't her.  It was him.  He was just ready.  Readiness counted for everything in Joe's life.  In fact, readiness was probably why, more than anything, he had married Susan.  It was entirely possible that any attractive, intelligent woman he was dating at the time would have done just as well.

     This thought sometimes upset Joe and gave him a bad feeling about himself.  Mostly because it meant he was not in a position of control when the Great God of Readiness struck.  It wasn't Cupid (or even Eros or Venus) that ruled his romantic life, but Readiness.  And it wasn't an arrow piercing his skin, but the shock of a sudden realization: Carla exists!

     She was in all ways a perfect object of his adoration.  Even though he wasn't looking for such a person, now that he had one, he was aware that he was painfully ready for her.  Not for one moment after Joe understood he was in love, did he consider doing nothing.  Another man could simply love Carla and go about his life with a smile on his face, or even love Carla and tell her, and then simply go about his life with a smile on his face.  Not Joe.

     The first lunch happened naturally.  They were both in a meeting that broke at twelve-thirty and they were scheduled to meet together afterward so they segued into lunch.

     The first lunch discussion was about politics.  Joe deliberately steered it in that direction to keep it on ground he knew well.  Although most people couldn't hold their own in a political discussion, Joe was quite well-read and opinionated.  He liked to put forth his theories of the economy and see if anyone could shoot them down.  This he did because it was fun and because he honestly did hope for an intelligent debate, but also because he knew that most people couldn't hold their own.

 

                          JOE AND CARLA

     "I won't engage in a political discussion with you because you don't know enough," Carla announced.

     Joe was flabbergasted.  And, although he would never be able to pinpoint it, this was the moment that Carla sprang into being for him.

     "How much do I have to know to merit a political discussion with you?" he asked.

     "More than one high school Poly-Sci class," she joked. 

     "Yeah, and how much do you know?  College major type thing?"

     "Nope.  I've done my share of political work and I'll tell you what I've learned: Americans don't know squat about realpolitik.  For example, I know exactly what you're going to say about events in the Soviet Union.  The fact that they are turning to capitalism proves that socialism can't work. "

     "Of course it can't.  How can any right-minded person think anything else?"

     "See?"

     "What?  We disagree. That doesn't mean we can't discuss it."

     "I spent a year in Cuba, Joe, so please spare me the drivel about communist oppression."

     "You're telling me it's a lie?  Anyway, how'd you manage a year a Cuba?"

     "I went with the Venceremos Brigade, back in the early seventies."

     "Oh Jesus, don't tell me you're another ex-radical who decided to change the system by infiltrating the media."

     Carla laughed.  "I refused to join the Brigade because I didn't believe in their politics."

     "But you lied about your beliefs to get to see Cuba."

     "I didn't have to.  They were so hot to convince me that they practically dragged me to Cuba."

     "So, what you're saying is that because you spent a year in Cuba you now know all about socialism and won't discuss it with me because I didn't spend a year in Cuba."

     She smiled.  "Look, Joe, I like you too much to have a full-fledged political argument with you," and she stared down at her plate.

    

                               JOE

     She had said it so easily.  They had only known each other for less than a month, and already she liked him too much.  Riding the train home that evening he kept hearing her words.  That night he told Susan all about her and their argument but he left out the part about how much she liked him:  Too much.

     And so Joe developed a bad habit.  He relayed the gist of his discussions with Carla to Susan every night.  Susan listened but Joe could tell she was getting tired of hearing Carla's name.  He knew it wasn't a great idea to keep this up but he did it anyway.  Somehow he was compelled. He told himself the discussions themselves were compelling and that explained the compulsion to share them with his wife.

     What Susan shared with him was her therapist's interpretation of their situation.  He had labeled the dynamic between her and Joe as the "Jiminy Cricket" syndrome.  One partner in the relationship consistently confides in the other, especially about things that cause him to feel guilty.  Since knowledge is power, these confessions have the effect of empowering the listening partner, which is exactly what the confessor wants and needs.  Basically, the confessional personality is begging for limits, controls, that he cannot provide for himself.  In effect, he creates an external "conscience," a Jiminy Cricket, as it were, to keep him in line by knowing what he feels and what he's up to. 

     Susan let Joe know that he should not expect her to give him threats or ultimatums this time.  For some reason she couldn't gather the energy to fight for what was hers.  She was just exhausted.  Maybe because she had been Joe's Jiminy Cricket for thirteen years, maybe not.

     "You're on your own this time," she informed him.

     People at the office started to talk.  Eventually Carla and Joe both realized people were talking and they joked about it.  But they never discussed their feelings for each other.  Instead they kept having their lunches and their discussions.  They found themselves stalled on rainy city streets, engaged in discussions so urgent they couldn't even walk.  It was only a matter of time before the discussions couldn't be contained in a lunch hour and started to spill out into other space.  She began to spend time in his office, he in hers.  He wanted to call her at home one night to discuss the Bensen account, but he stopped himself. 

     Alone, Joe kept wondering about her private life.  She too was married but he got the feeling she played around.  He wasn't sure why.  Still, he had to believe his instinct.  His instinct was his religion, an entire atlas of his world, and he had often said that ultimately a bona fide ad man has only his instinct.  He knew he wouldn't know for sure unless he asked.  But what answer did he want, assuming he got an honest one?

     "Have lunch with me," he ordered, sticking his head in her office.  "I want to talk about the Bensen account with you."

     It was so irksome.  Chick Bensen had this damned stupid product he had been selling in the women's mags forever.  Joe had been trying to get him to try testing the product in the free-standing insert market.  But Chick was intransigent. 

 

                          JOE AND CARLA

     They had lunch at their usual Indian restaurant, a place Joe loved because the food was plentiful and cheap.

     "Which product is it?" Carla asked.

     "The 'Cup Of Love.'  You know the coffee mug with the picture of the grandchildren and the saying 'My Cup Runneth Over'?"

     "Oh yeah."  She sipped her tea.  "It's a pretty steady seller."

     "Yeah, but he could sell about thirty thousand more units annually through FSI.  And he won't."

     "How do you figure?"

     "If we rolled it out, maybe in a one page spread, it would increase circulation about sixty per cent.  That translates into about thirty thousand.  But Chick's being so damned stubborn."

     "Hmm."  Carla made a face.

     "What is it?"

     "The tandoori isn't quite right," she said.

     "What do you mean?"

     "Taste it," she said and handed him a forkful.

     "I think it's okay.  You're just finicky.  This place is packed with real Indians -"

     "Look, I don't think Chick's being stubborn, I think he's right.  Can you get the waiter's attention?"

     Joe gave her the look: Whose side are you on?

     "The women's mags are the best place for this thing.  Go to FSI and increase circ by sixty per cent and half of that will be men.  Men do not buy the Cup O'Love.  So, now you're talking about only a thirty percent increase in real circ for the cost of sixty per cent."

     "You're going to order something else?"

     "Yeah, why?"

     "Well, we really don't have time.  Share mine," he offered and started scraping some food from his plate onto hers.  "So you're in Chick's corner."  

     "He's been in this business for a hundred years."

     "It's like I want to seduce him with something and I don't know what.  All he's got is this thermal process that imprints pictures on ceramics."

     "Right. So why limit it to pictures of grandkids on coffee mugs?  We need a new product to sell to an entirely different market.  Something that would not involve much expenditure." 

     "Chick's not that open-minded -"

     "Maybe he doesn't trust you," she offered.

     Joe was silenced.  He and Chick had been doing business together for six years.  The issue of trust had never occurred to him.

     "Maybe Chick doesn't respond to seduction.  Maybe what he needs is a good old honest sales pitch."

     "Well whatever.  I think he needs a product to sell to men," Joe said, still stung by the prospect of Chick's lack of trust.

     "Like a beer mug with someone's face on it, a famous sports person -"

     "Or even their kid -"

     "Oh God, we could call it the 'The Mug Mug'!" Carla nearly shouted and broke into laughter. 

     "He'll love it!"

     "I was joking," she insisted.

     "I know.  But you're talking about the man whose 'Cup Runneth Over' campaign has lasted almost a decade.  I'm telling you, he'll love it."

     "And if he doesn't?"

     "I'll say it was your idea."

     Carla slapped his hand, and stood up.  She had to wipe her eyes with her napkin from laughing so hard.

     "The Mug Mug," Joe kept repeating and stifling his laughter.  "Carla, you were cut out for this."

     "We were cut out for this," she corrected, and picked up the check.  "But you owe me."

     "For the check?"

     "For everything."

 

                                JOE

     We.  She saw them as a "we." 

     At first his fantasies had them both in all kinds of places, always talking, even in bed.  He told her things he would never tell anyone else and he got an unexpected jolt of pure pleasure imagining her attentive face. But, after telling her everything he possibly could, he began to fantasize differently.  He imagined life with her, the early morning hours, groggy, and her body warm and soft under the blankets.  But he stopped himself.  Fantasies of flesh were forbidden.  Eventually, Joe knew, they would make him crazy and he might do something unwise.  Over dinner he asked Susan if she ever fantasized about other men.  He was vaguely aware that he might be tipping her off but he did it anyway.

     "Fantasies are distractions from other things in life.  I think people fantasize when their own lives aren't going well.  It's a way of escaping."  Susan made a lot of sense.  Joe decided it was probably time to examine his life for signs of what Susan described. 

     But, back at work, Joe's feeling of helpless readiness was soon joined by a passionate curiosity more powerful than his need to examine his life.  Sometimes Carla seemed completely taken with him, smiling, actually beaming, her face flushed, her manner even a bit girlish.  Other times she scolded him, spoke to him in a tone no one else would dare.  Sometimes she was hurried and preoccupied and he didn't exist for her.  And once, only once, she openly flirted.  She had buzzed him from her office and asked if he was ready to discuss a particular strategy for an account, or if he wanted her to "sit on it." 

     Joe: "I'd feel better if you sat on it awhile."

     Carla: Pauses, then, "I'll bet you would."

     Joe: "Oh, I didn't mean it that way."

     Carla: "Joe, you're blushing so loud I can hear it over the phone." 

     Joe: Blushes.

     He spent the entire Thanksgiving weekend thinking of her.  Even at Susan's favorite restaurant, enjoying their favorite wine, toasting their thirteen years of marriage, he got a secret thrill planning to do something he hadn't done since he was a teen-ager.  Even when he gave Susan the white lace chemise, (lace being the traditional gift of the thirteenth year of marriage) even then he was thinking about Carla. 

     When he got home, he phoned her and hung up when she answered.  He had to hear her voice and it was four days until Monday.

     "This means only one thing,"  he told himself. "I am in love with her." And as soon as he made this admission two things happened.  First he felt terrible guilt, especially on his thirteenth anniversary.  And then he felt a gush of relief like breathing after being underwater.  

     He realized too that his feeling of readiness had come over him only after he was in love with her, so that it was she and she alone he was actually ready for, which meant he really wasn't out of control.  With this new insight he replayed the last six months of their friendship, remembering their very first luncheon and the latest, recalling all the things she told him about her marriage and her ideas and how monogamy was outdated.  He'd been such a jerk!  When a married woman tells you she doesn't believe in monogamy she isn't talking academically.  Then on the Saturday of

Thanksgiving weekend, someone phoned and hung up when he answered.

     Can the world really be divided into any two equal parts?  Carla told Joe, when she was in Cuba, school children learned about "the socialist camp and capitalist camp."  Joe had divided his world into The Men Of Action and The Men Of Words and he marveled often at how well his two-camp theory worked.  While his co-workers were always arguing for more market research, more polls and more study, Joe was always the one to argue for simply running the ad as a way to learn about it.  And no matter how much sense The Men Of Words made, and they often did make sense, Joe couldn't abide them.  His instinct told him they should advise their client to test a new product and so he told them just that.  With the power of his conviction he would also give a passing nod to The Men Of Words: "Of course, we could spend more time and money on market research, and to be honest, we do have some people here who would prefer that.  Who knows, maybe that is the way to go…"  No client ever chose The Men Of Words after listening to Joe.

     Carla was not a casual person yet she seemed unusually casual about sex.  Maybe all she wanted from him was casual sex?  Joe wouldn't believe that.  Already they had more.  They were friends and a great business team. Everything they worked on together was brilliant and successful.  In fact, Joe wondered if sex between them could ever be as good as their verbal parlays and business strategies.  And, it was now, now that he knew he was in love, and was even thinking about sex, that he felt obligated to tell Susan he was in love.  And she looked instantly deflated, like a balloon that suddenly ricochets around the room and plops to the floor. 

     On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Joe, the man of action, made a lunch date with Carla at the Indian restaurant.

 

                          JOE AND CARLA

     "I wonder if the tandoori has improved," she said after the waiter filled their glasses and walked away.

     "Carla, I'm in love with you," Joe stated.

     Carla exploded into laughter.

     "What's so funny?

     "It's your tone.  Like a death sentence."

     "I'm being serious, Carla."

     "So am I!"

     "So why are you so casual about it?" Joe asked.

     "It's only emotions."

     "Everything great or terrible that happens in the world is caused by emotions."

     "So, is this great or terrible?" she teased.

     "You tell me."

     "Joe,"  She touched his hand.  "I adore you."

     "So where do we go from here?" he asked.

     "To another restaurant if someone doesn't take our order right away. Why do we always come here anyway?"

     He felt pushed away.  Was she being deliberately coy, hard to get?  She adored him.  She admitted it.  So what was holding her back? 

     They ordered.  They ate.  Carla talked about everything else.  About her weekend and her family and Thanksgiving dinner.  About an idea for marketing. 

     They walked back to the office.  A block away he stopped dead and turned to her. 

     "Look, I just took a big risk, and you're acting like it doesn't matter."

     "Joseph," she said, looking directly at him.  "I can't believe being emotionally honest is a big risk for you.  Talk is just talk.  It's what you do about it that causes trouble, so calm down."  She smiled and walked on ahead. 

 

                              CARLA

     Adored him.  Was obsessed.  Fantasized nightly.  Enjoyed it all thoroughly.  But wasn't sure what to expect and didn't want to set herself up for disappointment.  She scrutinized Joe at work and concluded that although he was decisive and opinionated there was another part of him that struck her as actually cautious.  Others considered him impulsive.  They often said he "shot from the hip."  But she knew how much thinking he did before he said anything.  Often he shared those thoughts with her.  And so it didn't surprise her that his approach to their situation was like a condemned man.  She knew he would expect her to make the moves.  But she couldn't.  She needed, wanted him to be the aggressor.  She had never in her life been turned on by a man who couldn't make the first move.  It was like her appetite for food.  Something she couldn't understand and couldn't change.  She and her husband even saw a marriage counselor.  Her husband complained about having to be "the hunter" every time.  She had to learn to make the first moves.  She did it as a gesture of love, but the nights she was the aggressor she never had an orgasm. 

     Was the problem with Joe only his monogamy?  She and her husband were different.  They had an understanding.  They saw other people.  It had worked just fine for them for over five years now and probably always would because they were very clear on their priorities.  But a man like Joe, well, he was almost old-world about it.  He was the only ad man she ever met with any principles.  Maybe that cautious streak was something else.  Maybe he really had some code of ethics.  She was stunned when he introduced her to Chick Bensen as "The woman behind the entire Mug Mug concept," and Chick immediately made a lunch date with her.  Instead of worrying about Chick requesting her as his A.E. and leaving Joe out entirely, he just stood there, beaming.  What else, if not ethics?

     Somehow she was sure that a man who could easily have claimed all the credit for The Mug Mug and didn't, (and Joe was right, Chick actually did love it) if she let that kind of man know about her arrangement with her husband, she would lose him.  She had tried to discuss the subject of open marriage, only hypothetically, a few times.  But it was like pressing a button: each time he would say only one thing, one word: "Impossible." 

     She wanted him.  She watched him.  She sat in meetings with him and stared like a schoolgirl.  Many times she had to sit on her hands to stop herself from reaching for him, grabbing him, or worse, climbing on his lap and wrapping herself around him.  All the talk at the office was absolutely on target.  They were lovers.  Only, they didn't make love.

     Now he was talking about it.  Only talking.  But for Joe that was big time.  And she knew it.  And knew also that it wasn't enough.  If he thought his confession would magically turn things around, get her to pounce, he was mistaken.  If he wanted her, he would need more than words.  Words were easy.  Did he think he could just say "Okay, baby, I'm ready now," and she would come running?  She needed to feel his passion.  And until she did, Joe could risk his emotions all he wanted, they would have to remain just friends.

 

                               JOE

     She was being cagey.  Who would have expected it?  This was insane.  He wanted to go back to how it was before.  But, shit, she was acting like it was like it was before.  In fact, she acted like his admission was a bunch of crap.  Maybe she didn't believe him?  What could he do to make her believe him?  He had come this far, should he continue or pull back?  He wanted her.  He really wanted her.  He thought of nothing else.  She adored him.  Adored.  Shit, only mothers and aunts used that word.  He had told her he was "in love" with her and she "adored" him.  Only pale-complected poets used that word.  Adore, like in adorable.

     Oh sweet Jesus, this was ridiculous.  And poor Susan.  She hardly spoke to him.  Didn't even ask about his affair.  But why should she?  There was no affair!  Nothing had changed.  They were only words.  Carla was right.  How had he mistaken words for action?  When had he ever fallen into this trap?  The trap of The Men Of Words!  He always thought their M.O. was fear. But now, now that he was de facto in their camp, he was forced to examine it again.  And he concluded that his words were brave words!  That was the difference.  His words had the power to provoke action, passion, divorce, and God knows what else. 

     And, for Christ's sakes, why didn't she do something?  She had the green light.  She could just as easily take action as he could.  Maybe she “adored” him platonically.  She never even implied it was sexual.  He was making a fool of himself.  A woman who tells you she adores you is telling you she wants to stay friends.

 

                              CARLA

     He was retreating.  All it took was a little silence on her part, a refusal to run headlong into his arms, to make things easy for him, and he retreated.  All her experience with men told her they weren't emotional risk takers, but she was disappointed anyway.  She wanted him to be different.  He wanted her to make his moral dilemma easier.  Then he could share the blame.  But it wasn't good enough.  In fact, it actually sapped her desire for him.  She wanted him to act like the man she worked with every day: decisive, bull-headed, passionate about his ideas.  She wanted that part of him, not the nervous, guilt-ridden adolescent coming to her like she was mommy to solve his problem.   

     Stranded at the intersection of desire and disappointment, recognizing all the landmarks, Carla had to make a decision.  Either she made the first move or she gave it all up.  Neither one appealed to her.  Neither one had the potential for the passion she wanted from Joe.  Her fantasy of him, the one

she replayed often, was, naturally, a sexual one.  But now, she could just as easily summon up an image that looked like this: she and Joe would have lunch in that horrible Indian restaurant he liked and they would both agree they should be “just friends."  And what good friends they would always be, in fact, already were.  This image made her sick to her stomach.  Once that friendship developed, Carla knew a love affair would be impossible forever. Once she knew him well it would be too well.  Soon enough they would be like an old married couple complete with bickering, finishing each other's sentences, and boredom.  All this without ever making love.  It had happened to her before. That's why the nausea when she pictured Joe's disappointed but resolute expression during their “just friends" lunch.  That's why she knew she had to ignore the fact that he mistook his vow of love for actually loving, and seize the moment.  Grab Joe now, while he was ready.   Then if he backed off, then if he kept up this guilty teen-aged crap, then she would bow out.  But not yet.  The time for retreat was near, but it wasn't here yet.  There was still a small hopeful voice inside that egged her on.  And, as long as there was even a scintilla of hope, Carla plodded ahead.

 

                              JOE

     He turned on the shower and made it hot enough to be stimulating, slightly stinging his skin.  This was a conundrum.  Susan was obviously angry at him for stating his feelings and Carla found his stating his feelings not quite bold enough.  The root of this problem, he concluded, was not his feelings, but in the assumption that somehow he should state them at all.  Even though he thought women, as a general rule, liked that stuff, liked knowing men's feelings, the truth was they didn't.  No matter how much they squawked about men never saying what they felt, when men really said what they felt, especially when they were honest, it all went to hell. 

     He made the shower hotter and let it run on and on. 

     He had an image of "His Feelings," like a hot air balloon that he had untethered, and of "His Feelings" floating above his life like a slow moving target.  And now "His Feelings", having a life of their own, were impossible to control.  Not even his anymore.  What the hell was he feeling when this whole thing started?  His feelings were for Carla.  He had wanted her.  Truthfully, he still wanted her.  Even though she was probably fed up with him and he was embarrassed by the whole thing.  Still, the mischief in her eyes when she had a great idea, her hand touching his whenever she wanted his attention and couldn't wait for him to stop talking.  They had already developed the signals and gestures of lovers.  But they weren't.  And that was all he had had after all; the look in her eye, the touch of her hand.  But it wasn't enough.  And it wasn't fair. 

     A goddamned affair.  That's all he wanted.  Uncomplicated and passionate.  But somehow putting these two words together gave him an immediate and unmistakable feeling of hopelessness.  An equation that could never balance.  A scale tilting crazily.  The only other time in his life Joe had felt passion, absolute, uncompromising passion, he had made a mistake.  He couldn't solve that equation because he thought there had to be a common denominator.  Something like a magic number that would allow him, his wife and his lover to fit neatly inside.  Only it hadn't worked.

     Maybe there was a different equation.  An equation he had never thought of.  Christ!  You had to be a goddamned Einstein to have an affair these days!

     Going for the soap, he noticed his fingers turning into prunes.  He had been under the shower a long time.  Not sure how long.  Passion was for Einsteins and he was no Einstein.  He may as well face it and give up.  There was a point in this equation with Carla where he simply performed the wrong operation.  He wished he could ask her where, and watch her eager, intelligent face tackle the problem as if it were the Bensen account.  But now she was on the other side of the equation and if it was to be solved at all, he would have to do it himself.  Or leave it as one of the great unsolved equations of his life and admit defeat.  Admit he would never have her.  Not the mischief-making Carla or the hand-touching Carla, because to back off now meant all those signals and gestures of the lovers they were becoming, all of those would be renounced.  And he wanted them.  And he wanted to know all the other idioms of her body and its ways of signaling to him.

     “Somehow I have been reduced to A Man Of Words in trying to solve this equation with Carla," Joe realized.  It was his second great admission.  The first was that he was in love with her.  But, unlike the shame and excitement of the first admission, this admission brought only shame.  Even if his words were brave, and he still insisted they were, they were still only words and words were the baby brothers of action.  They were the sniveling little brats who tagged along. 

 

                              CARLA

     She decided to set it up so that at first Joe wouldn't realize what was going on.  If she was going to do it, she was at least going to have some fun with it.  She had never seduced anyone but now that she had made up her mind she began to fantasize.  Where?  Someplace where he wouldn't, at first, catch on.  The office.  After hours.  They were often the last people out so it wouldn't strike him as unusual.  When?  That was tricky.  She had to pick an evening when no one else planned to be around.  Before the cleaning staff arrived.  And an evening when Joe wouldn't need to be home for anything special. 

     What would she wear?  She lingered on this one for quite some time.  He seemed to prefer things that weren't too revealing.  Things that allowed for some mystery.  Also, she noticed him noticing her more the days she wore things that were more cute than classy.  Latent infantilism?  Could be.  Before she was married she dated a man who was heavily into it, to the point of suggesting she wear a diaper.  That was where she drew the line.  It didn't disgust her but it was just so silly it couldn't turn her on.  But if Joe enjoyed it, she could too.  She would have to be careful.  If she was wrong about his proclivity it could be embarrassing or worse, a real dick shrinker.

    

                               JOE

     Susan was due at her therapist's at six and planned to have dinner with a friend afterwards.  Joe told her not to worry about his dinner plans.  He'd probably grab a bite with his team and stay late.  Carla had asked him the day before if he could work a little later one night and put some time in on the Bensen account with her.  Joe was relieved that she was still willing to spend time alone with him after their embarrassment.  It made his decision easier. 

     Getting dressed that morning he found himself thinking of the phrase

"The Einstein of Love."  If it took an Einstein to get what he wanted, so be it.  He got a laugh imagining himself in a frizzy wig making a pass at Carla.  Tonight.  Wigless.  No more man of words.  He changed his shirt twice.  The first one felt a bit snug.  The second one was fine until he remembered Carla's comment about his rust-colored plaid matching his eyes.     He had no idea what kind of help Carla needed on the Bensen stuff.  Chick was entirely satisfied with her and she seemed to be handling it all without a hitch.  But, what the hell.  It was the opportunity he was hoping for and it had happened at just the right time. 

     When Susan had asked him if he had slept with Carla, he had said no, and he had told the truth.  He knew she wouldn't ask again and all he had to do was not confess.  That's where he screwed up all those years ago.  And, he had come close again.  This realization startled Joe when it hit.   The fact that he had discovered the obvious didn't lessen the impact one bit.  All he had to do was renounce his original belief that his affair with another woman could somehow be made "alright" by Susan.  He still harbored a secret wish that it could, but he was too afraid to risk it.  If he told Susan he was actually going to pursue this thing, he had no idea what would happen.  If there were to be no threats or ultimatums, what would there be? Certainly not acquiescence.  But he didn't want to think about it.  He just wanted to do it.

     Carla looked especially appealing to him today.  Was it because of what he had planned?  Because his libido was in high gear?  Or because of her?  She was wearing something he didn't think he had ever seen on her before.  Something like what used to be called "baby-dolls."  A more or less shapeless dress that hung in a tent-like way from the shoulders, ending above the knee.  The last time that was popular had to be when he was in college.  All those coeds bouncing around in those little dresses used to drive him crazy.  Carla's dress wasn't as short, and the print wasn't as cute, but the shape was the same.  And she wore it well.  He knew the shape of her body well enough to imagine it under that tent.

     He avoided her all morning, not allowing for the possibility of them lunching together and she was so busy she didn't seem likely to notice.  In fact, she barely made eye contact with him.  Maybe she had forgotten their plans for working late.  That was ridiculous.  It was her suggestion and it was only yesterday!  Maybe she was making herself scarce on purpose.

     Joe put down his pen and gave up outlining the agenda for the next meeting.  He was seized with doubt.  How could he pounce on Carla?  She barely spoke to him.  He had embarrassed himself once with her, why do it again?  Just looking at his shirt embarrassed him now.  Maybe he should come up with an excuse to back out.  Say his in-laws were dropping in unexpectedly.  Susan wasn't feeling well.  He wasn't feeling well.

 

                              CARLA

     He looked gorgeous.  She heard him in the corridor, speaking with Sandy, the secretary, and angled herself at her desk so that she could see him.  He was wearing that shirt she loved and had obviously cut his hair recently.  With his hair cut like that his eyes and forehead gave him a little-boy look that was irresistible.  As usual, Sandy was blushing as she spoke with him.  Did Joe notice?  He didn't seem to.  But to Carla it always seemed that Sandy was ready to drop to her knees and give Joe an instant blow job if he ever even flashed her a smile.  Shit, she wanted him so much but what if she had pegged him wrong?  What if she made her move and he turned her down?  And the dress felt ridiculous, too.  Even though she knew it wasn't too short or too silly.  Even though plenty of women her age were wearing them.  She should have stuck with a suit.  Then she could have taken off the jacket, loosened the blouse.  Better for a seduction.  This way all she had on was the damned dress and a full slip!  

     “Anything for you, Joe," she heard Sandy say as Joe thanked her and walked away.  For a moment it seemed he might stop in to speak with her.  Her heart raced as he passed by.  Then she stood up and gently closed her door. 

     She wished she had a full-length mirror in her office.  Instead, she tried to catch her reflection in the window.  Christ, this wasn't working.  The dress was absurd.  How could she ever have imagined seducing anybody in this thing?  She had to change.  Could never go through with this otherwise. If she caught a cab quick and there wasn't too much traffic she could get home and back in an hour. 

     Back at her apartment Carla tugged off the dress and pulled on her tailored black and white checked suit with the white chiffon blouse.  Better.  She slipped into plain black pumps, and grabbed an apple from the fridge.  Then she checked her answering machine, raced out the door and headed for stairwell.  Just as she bumped into Mr. Warshaw, it hit her.

     "Oh, I forgot something," she said, and turned to go back.

     The older man smiled in sympathy.

     What would she tell people?  Why had she changed?  She was so panicked at this oversight that she could barely stand up.  Back in the apartment, plopped in a chair by the kitchen table, Carla was ready to burst into tears. 

     There's nothing, she thought.  No rational reason to explain why I changed.  I can't say I have an afternoon meeting because Joe scheduled me to do my monthly reports today.  I can't say I'm having a dinner meeting because Joe knows I'm supposed to meet with him.  She was trapped.  Maybe a stain?  She had spilled something on herself at lunch and had to change.  Marginal.  Certainly not worth going all the way home for.  She got her period.  Too embarrassing, especially considering her seduction plans.  Shit.  All she could do was change back into that stupid dress.  But she knew she could never pull of a seduction in that thing!  Just picturing herself changing back into it brought her over the edge and she cried.

 

                               JOE

     “That's all she said," Sandy explained.

     Joe took the written message and went back to his desk.  He studied it for a clue, though he knew it meant exactly what it said.  Carla just didn't feel well and had to leave early.  His disappointment rose slowly, coupled with a sense of helplessness.  And disbelief.  Now that he had finally gotten the nerve…He would call her.  Just to check in and see if she was okay.  Maybe reschedule the meeting.  But it didn't seem like enough.  He was looking forward to an evening with her and had barely seen her at all that day.  He felt cheated, his disappointment turning to annoyance.  It was one thing to have doubts and another to have the whole thing snatched away. He would have to do something. 

 

                           JOE & CARLA 

     The warm bath had soothed her.  Slowly removing her make-up and climbing into her soft old terrycloth robe, Carla started to calm down and regain her sense of humor.  She remembered going through episodes like this one when she was a teen-ager.  Between then and now she had only fallen for one man as hard as she fell for Joe.  Thank God he had been the aggressor.

     The doorman rang.  It was Joe.  She couldn't very well tell the doorman to tell him she wasn't home because she had called in sick!  And she didn’t think she could convince him she was too sick to see him.  So she had him come up, her mind a whirlwind of confusion.  He should have called.  What could be so urgent that he had to come by?

     “I was having lunch a few blocks away when I called Sandy for my messages so I figured I'd just stop by and see if you were okay and if you felt well enough I thought we could discuss the Bensen plan now instead of later,"  he blurted out almost breathlessly.  And as he did, it occurred to her in a flash that the whole thing sounded rehearsed.  He would never have lunch so far downtown!

     Joe didn't expect this.  He had never seen her so unkempt.  At first he wasn't sure how he felt.  Without make-up she looked almost frail, vulnerable, and even younger.  Her eyes were softer.  Her lips paler.  Her hair was slightly damp and the robe was awful.  Susan had a robe like that.

     “You had lunch down here?" she asked, feeling suddenly mischievous amid the adrenaline rush.

     He only paused a moment.  Then somehow the decision made itself.  “Pretty lame, huh?"

     “Sit down and tell me what's going on.  Want some coffee?  It's instant."

     But he didn't want to sit down.  It was almost involuntary.  As she turned to walk into the kitchen he walked up behind her, wrapped his arms around her, and buried his nose in her hair.

     “I came here to seduce you," he whispered.  

     “And I left work early to avoid seducing you," she said.

     Joe was astonished.  “Seducing me?  You were planning something?"

     “Chick Bensen was my lame excuse."

     “Whoa.  You mean you were planning to seduce me tonight?"

     She couldn't say it, so she nodded.  She felt his body change.  His touch loosen.  He lifted his face from her hair.  Carla felt as if anything could happen in this one moment.  And yet she had no idea what to do about it.  She hoped for a full embrace.      

     “Well, here I am.  Ready, willing and able to be seduced."

     He pulled away from her and sat down on her sofa.  He loosened his tie, kicked off his shoes.  Made a silly deliberate gesture of brushing back his hair. 

     But she couldn't.  She just stood in the middle of the room watching.

     And, as he sat there watching Carla's obvious indecision, Joe finally realized she had said she was trying to avoid seducing him.  He flushed.  She didn't want to seduce him.  That's why she ran away.  So why was he sitting there waiting to be seduced?  He jumped up.

     “I've got to go after all," he said, struggling with his shoes.  “People will wonder." 

     “I'm already wondering," she began, “why you really came here."

     “I told you, I had some crazy idea about seducing you."

     “Then why are you leaving?"

     “Because you - " he stopped.  He was about to say she obviously didn't want to be seduced, but it was not so.  What was obvious was that she had no intention of seducing him.  There was still an opportunity here and he knew it.  But the fact that she wouldn't make that move after all, that she had chickened out and had actually run home to avoid it, turned him off.   Looking at her now, bare-footed in that old worn robe, her limp hair, she seemed frightened and small. 

     “Let me get you a coffee, she said."

     This time Joe let her go.  He tied his shoes, tightened his tie and then walked into the kitchen and took a seat at the table.

     “Actually, I'm glad you're here.  I do have some questions about Bensen I wanted to bounce off you," she said as she moved around the kitchen preparing the coffee.  “And some interesting personal stuff."

     “You're kidding.  He actually got personal with you?"

     “Sure.  I got the entire life story."

     “How'd you finagle that?  I couldn't even figure out if he had any children."

     “Are you kidding?  He was like a dam breaking.  I couldn't stop him if I tried."  Carla placed a cup of coffee in front of him.  “Just a drop of milk and half a sugar."

     “You got it," Joe smiled and noticed his breathing had begun to return to normal.  He looked around her kitchen.  Not like he pictured it.  More formal.  Then he noticed the time.  Two o'clock.  He was due in a meeting in half an hour.  People would wonder.  But screw it.  He was the boss.  He'd cancel the meeting.  The prospect of spending the afternoon at Carla's kitchen table, drinking coffee and bullshitting, pleased him.       

     Carla pulled the remains of a drippy cheesecake from the fridge, complete with a fork that had been left stuck to the side.  Joe could picture Carla and her husband going at the first half of the cake, then leaving the fork in it as if anticipating his arrival.  She put a piece of cake in front of him.

     “I notice you didn't ask if I wanted any first," he joked.

     “I knew if I put it in front of you you'd take it.  But if I asked, you'd have doubts," she teased.

     Joe smiled and picked up the fork.  There was something almost intimate in its cold readiness.  Carla brought a clean one to the table and handed it to him.

     “I'll use this one," he said. 

     “Suit yourself," she shrugged and sat down. 

     “Delicious," Joe mumbled with his mouth full.

     “Sorry there isn't more," she said.  “I might have something in the freezer, but it won't be as good," and she started to get up.

     Joe reached for her hand.  “No, no, don't bother, really." he said, and gently tugged at her wrist to get her to sit down with him.  “This is just enough."

Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine