By: Lee Oleson
Sylvia had a face too thin, eyes sunk deep, shoulders and body uncomfortably narrow, dark hair, and a neck a little too long, jumbled into what’s sometimes called unconventional beauty. She had made her way through life aware how easy it is to slip up, to assume things were settled forever when nothing was. She was in her mid-forties and in good spirits, and there was her husband Brad, whom she loved and would always love, but these days there were bouts of boredom – strange and new to her life. The boredom was why, she guessed, she was talking to this young man. Why else would she be talking to him? He sat across from her at the table in the garden café, glancing at a book on the table in front of him.
“I wonder why you gave me that poem,” she said.
“It was just a poem,” he said, looking up.
“A poem, but you gave it to me with the frozen yogurt and I read it. What did you mean by that?”
“I write poems sometimes,” he said. He had a narrow, angular face, a hooked nose, small eyes, and chin scraggle, a goatee. He was no more than twenty five, short and slight, with a distracted manner. It wasn’t clear he was interested in talking to her. “I don’t mean anything by my poems,” he said. “The poems just come. I don’t even write them, I wake up and they’re there, or I’m walking along and I pick them out of the air, floating around.”
“I see,” she said, unconvinced. Was he making all this up? Poems waiting to be picked out of the air? Fantastic, yet he seemed to believe it. The garden café where they sat was in the back of the restaurant, with weak sunshine from a hazed sky filtered through high bushes and sycamores. Inside, in the main restaurant, tables were full and noisy. Outside in the garden café it was chilly with a breeze and mostly empty tables. She was cold and ill at ease. When the young man had handed her the slip of paper in the yogurt shop the day before – he had been serving frozen yogurt cones – she had taken it without thinking and only later had read it, assuming it was a promotion – buy one and get one free, or something. Instead it was a poem:
Love, a caterpillar
“It’s different,” she said. “I mean, I liked the poem, sort of. But you slipped it to me with my cone in a way that seemed surreptitious – as if it was a love note. Does the manager of your shop know you do things of this kind with customers, with female customers? It could get you in trouble.”
The young man smiled, not taking what she said seriously. “I don’t give poems to many customers. Not to women in particular. Someone who might appreciate a poem. They don’t mean anything. They’re just – different.”
“Yes, but you were at work when you gave it to me.”
“I didn’t think it would bother you,” he said. “I didn’t think about it much at all, to tell the truth.”
“You should be more careful, don’t you think?”
With that she stopped. She was upset, she realized, though she wasn’t sure why. They were both drinking coffee and she took a sip of hers, to warm herself, no, to calm down. The breeze in the garden café was cooler, now, more uncomfortable. She shivered, pulled a cardigan around her shoulders, and glanced over at the youth. He seemed pre-occupied, as if she, the woman across from him, was not there. It was the same pre-occupation she’d noticed when she first saw him at the table. He had nodded, recognizing her from the yogurt shop, but with no smile or expression suggesting he wanted to resume their “acquaintance” or whatever it was. He wasn’t going to pursue her – that was clear. The book he was reading, she saw, was a book of poems, but what poems, or whose, she couldn’t tell.
“I’m careful,” he explained. “If I concentrate on not doing anything wrong, things can go wrong anyway, you know, so I have to be careful. I have three jobs, two of them part time. One is at the frozen yogurt place, another putting up magazines at Wal-Mart, and the third is my “full-time” job and it’s not really full time. I can’t afford to lose a job.”
“Well, I’m not going to bring it up with your boss, if that’s what you mean,” she said.
“I wasn’t thinking of that. I was explaining my situation. Things are falling apart, I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“You mean with the economy – the recession, or whatever. That’s an exaggeration, ‘falling apart,’ don’t you think?”
“It’s no exaggeration,” he said. “You have a job?”
“I’m a Realtor.”
“These days you sell a lot of real estate?”
“Not now. I did.”
“You were making good money?”
“I was. I was supporting myself. My husband works too. Together we get by.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s an M.D.”
“It took him a long time, years of study.”
“I tried school,” the youth said. “I didn’t like it.”
“What were you studying?”
“Nothing practical. Nothing that would lead to a career.”
“So, as a consequence,” she said. “You have no career.”
“Right,” he said. “No career. I read a lot, but with no purpose. I read what interests me.”
“Poetry and politics.”
She didn’t want to pursue this discussion. He seemed reluctant, as if he was doing her a favor. She was more interested in him than he was in her. He had her pegged: her husband was a doctor so she was moneyed, a category, she sensed, which had no interest for him. She decided it was a mistake to have started this conversation and it was a mistake to continue.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Sure,” the youth said, nodding politely. “Nice to talk to you.”
She got up then sat down again. “I have thoughts, ideas, about things,” she said.
“How do you mean?”
“About what you said. You think I don’t know things are falling apart? How could I not know? The housing market is a fraction of what it was.”
“The jobs market is screwed up,” he said. “Wages down. There are temp jobs, not many real jobs. It’s called a Depression.”
“Who calls it a Depression?”
“I do,” he said.
She shrugged. “What can we do?”
“I know what I want.”
She smiled. “Oh, you’re going to have a revolution.” She hadn’t heard about a revolution for a long time. “Here?” She was unable to keep the sense of the incredible out of her voice.
“The best place,” he said.
She almost laughed but stopped herself. “Well, there’s the elections,” she said.
He smiled. “They’re going to make a difference?”
That stopped her for a second. Such cynicism! “What is your name?” she asked. Now she was curious. “Mine’s Sylvia.”
“Keith. I’m Keith.”
She paused. She wondered if their conversation was over. No, she wanted something more – what? He was impossible. Why did he think he knew so much? He was arrogant, it was no more than that.
“You have big ideas,” she said vaguely. Then she decided she didn’t want to talk to him any more about politics. There were other thoughts that had been bouncing around in her head – about – what? She wanted to do something daring, no, she just wanted to consider different ideas, new ideas.
“Keith,” she said. “Before I go, just in case I don’t bump into you again, let’s exchange phone numbers.”
“You don’t give out your phone number?”
“I don’t like giving out my number.”
“I don’t like people calling me up.”
“Is there any particular reason I shouldn’t call you?”
“I don’t know…” He stopped.
“There are things you’ve brought up that I want to think about and after I’ve thought about them, I want to talk to you about them.” He frowned. She continued, “I’m interested in poetry. I know so little about it. But the poem you gave me opened things up. So I want to ask you about it – later.” She was aware as she said this was a lie – though it could have been true. She knew she’d get his phone number out of him.
He looked away, still frowning. “I don’t know…”
“Don’t be silly!”
“Okay,” he said after a moment. He wrote down his number and handed it to her on a slip of paper and accepted hers on another slip. “I’m not going to call you,” he said. “And I don’t expect you to call me – and if you do, when I get a call I don’t always answer, and if I get a message, sometimes I don’t respond.”
“You sound anti-social.”
“These days I am.”
“Most likely I won’t call,” she said. “But I want your number in case I might, and I might, I warn you. You’d better answer. I’m going. I’ll pay for you inside, for the coffee. You don’t mind?”
“Not at all. Thanks.”
She got up, gestured a goodbye, and he nodded to her. She wouldn’t call and he knew it – that’s what she assumed. And he wouldn’t call her. She was not the type of person who interested him. She was too – too much out of his world, too prosperous. She lived social circles higher than his, and undoubted he thought she had limited experiences, a sheltered life. People with money – money enough to pay their way out of all sorts of difficulties – had a limited view of life, that’s what he thought. She had met young people who looked at things that way.
As she walked into the main restaurant and paid at the register she was thinking she had not done anything wrong, sitting down and talking to the young man. What she’d done – getting his phone number – meant nothing. He held no attraction for her. He wasn’t pretty. He was unpleasant, hard-edged, skinny.
Sylvia drove home and once in her apartment discovered she was exhausted. It was having free time, time that was not accounted for, and it made her feel unbalanced. Not having a real estate career was the problem. She could pretend to be in real estate. She could go to an office and go through the motions. She went to bed when she got home, with the idea of taking a nap, and she slept soundly for two hours and woke past four o’clock – refreshed. She had done this before, she realized – approached a man on an excuse and had a conversation with him, had, in fact, flirted with him, with various men. Usually she didn’t admit this to herself and certainly to no one else.
A few days later she went into the same garden café and from a distance saw him again, sitting at the same table. She turned quickly and went back into the main restaurant. Another conversation with him – no matter for what reason – would be wrong. She didn’t want to know him too well. Though she did want to know more about his poetry – it was not his poetry, for he had explained it wasn’t really his, it was just floating around, to be picked out of the air. That’s what he had said, something like that.
It was a reckless time. Her husband would be back on Monday. She hadn’t talked to him for two days. She didn’t look at the messages on her phone – anyway, it was turned off. She didn’t want to get messages and she was sure there would be a message from her husband, inquiring, perhaps with a slightly anxious tone.
There was a picture of Sophia Loren from some movie. A friend had sent it to her over the Internet and said that she, Sylvia, looked like Sophia Loren in the picture, in a loose, wet blouse outlining her breasts. She imagined his reaction if the young man saw her in something like that. A few days before she had bought a see-through blouse, transparent, or almost, and she had imagined wearing it in front of him, or some man, for the reaction. It was a foolish idea. It appealed to her.
In her bedroom she took off her blouse and bra and put her on her a new blouse she’d bought a few days before. It was transparent and something she’d never wear even with a bra, and wearing it that way she looked at herself in the mirror in her bedroom. Her breasts, which were small, showed through clearly, the blouse highlighting them. She took off her panties from under her skirt and put them in a drawer.
Should she be daring and crazy and go out like this? She put a bulky sweater over the blouse and returned to her dining room table, sat down, and sipped a cup of tea. A few minutes later she had decided to go out. Once on the street she was thinking she didn’t know where she was going. She got to her car and drove downtown. It was turning colder and she shivered, putting the car heat on. She would visit the young man. That’s what she’d do. She had his number which she never expected to call. She called him from her cellphone. He answered, unexpectedly. “Yes,” his voice said. She recognized it.
“It’s Sylvia,” she said. “Remember me?”
“I think so.”
It wasn’t clear that he recognized her, though it had been only a few days since they had talked. “Come on, you remember,” she said. “You gave me a poem in the yogurt shop and we talked in the café.”
“I didn’t think you would call.”
She thought, ‘He means he wishes I hadn’t called,’ but she said, “I didn’t think you’d answer the phone.”
“It doesn’t always happen,” he said.
“So I’d like to visit.”
“To continue our conversation…” she said.
“I don’t remember what we were talking about.”
“We were talking about poetry. You remember.”
“I guess. Is it important, because I have things to do?”
“You don’t know where I live.”
“Tell me,” she said.
He gave his address. “I know where that is,” she said. “Usually I don’t go to that neighborhood.”
“If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t come,” he said. “To talk about poetry we can get together some other time – in the café.”
“I’ll visit you where you are,” she said. “Now. You don’t mind?”
“If it’s short,” he said. “I have to sleep. I go to work at five am tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there soon,” she said. “We can talk a few minutes. About poetry. And I’m in the neighborhood, so it’s no big deal to go there. Give me a few minutes. You live in an apartment – I can ring a bell?”
“Yes, downstairs.” He gave her the apartment number. “I’ll let you in. You have to walk up three flights.”
She didn’t know if he had a girlfriend – or even if he was gay. Did it make any difference? She parked, found the building, and he let her in the downstairs door with a buzzer. She climbed sets of stairs, found his room number along a corridor, and knocked on the door. He opened it a crack, as if afraid, then seeing her he opened it all the way and invited her in. His expression was somber.
They sat in his tiny studio. There was a table, a bed, a sofa, and an armchair, almost next to each other. He sat in the sofa and invited her to sit in the armchair, and she did, putting down her handbag. Between chair and sofa was a small wooden table.
“I’m surprised,” he said. “I never expected you to visit.”
“I’m surprised too, I guess,” she said, settling herself in the chair. “I just wanted to have a word with you. We talked in the café, and I was thinking of …a follow up.”
“Here are some of the books of poetry I read,” he said. He indicated a small stack of paperbacks on the table. “Between jobs what I do most is read. The poems help me, fill my head for an hour or so, and then I make a meal, or go out to my next job. The poetry helps. I can tell you pay attention to poetry.”
“No, I don’t, as a matter of fact,” she said, surprised – so much was surprising – that they had entered into a discussion of poetry so quickly. That was almost all she had talked about with the young man. She was determined to find out if he had a girlfriend. It wasn’t so important but it had to be gotten out of the way – to clear the air.
“You have a girlfriend?”
“No,” he said. “No girlfriends. I’m going through a time of no girlfriends, and for a while. I had bad experiences, very bad experiences, so I’m taking time off. They might not have been so bad for anyone else; they were for me. There’s only so much I can handle. I’m a limited person.”
“I don’t have intentions about you,” she said. She had decided to be uncomfortably frank – the only way she could think of. “I just needed to know. Things like this are important.”
“I told you,” she said. She was aware she was talking more quickly than usual. It was because there was so little time and so much needed to be done, a lot had to happen. “I don’t remember if I told you I’m married and I believe I told you my husband has been out of town.”
“I don’t remember if you mentioned it.”
“He’ll be back on Monday, tomorrow, and my life will resume as normal. Right now it isn’t normal, at all. I need something different. Talking to you is different.”
He said nothing.
‘This is different,” she went on. “I could sense something about you from the first, from the note you handed me, it was – you have to admit – a romantic note. A love note.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. It wasn’t a love note.”
“That’s the way I took it.”
“Then you took it wrong,” he said. “It wasn’t that way.”
“What way was it?” she asked. “I’m an attractive woman, so often in the presence of men I have to go out of my way to shut them down, I have to be forbidding, or the offers start coming. So I have a forbidding manner.”
“I don’t pay attention to stuff like that,” he said. “I’m not on the lookout for a woman.”
She felt impatient. She wasn’t sure what she expected out of him – she had expected something, she realized, and this was not what it was.
“Anyway,” she said. “I just stopped in for a moment.”
“You don’t have to leave right away,” he said. “I’m not kicking you out.”
“I have something to tell you – before I leave. What I need to say,” she continued, aware that she did not want to stop, that she wanted to go through to the end. “Is that I bought this new blouse and …I was thinking of showing it to you but I don’t know, because the kind of blouse it is.”
“What kind of blouse..?”
“It’s see-through. I was thinking you wouldn’t take it the wrong way.”
“The wrong way?”
“Yes, some men might think I’d wear it to be seductive.”
“What other way is there to take it?”
“Is that the way you would take it?” she asked. “Or could you be normal about it. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“I think most men take it as something seductive,” he said. “It’s hard to take it any other way.”
“What about you?”
“It would make me uncomfortable.”
“You’d object to it.”
“Yes, I don’t understand why you’d want to do it.”
“To do something I’ve never done before.”
“Why here – with me?”
“So you can look at me in it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I want to do something arresting. I have this need. I’ve had it for a while.”
“I don’t want to see you in it.”
“You think I’m ugly?”
“That has nothing to do with it. You’re not ugly.”
“You don’t like women?”
“I can’t get involved with any woman who happens to come along. I have to know the woman, and even if I knew you, I wouldn’t want to get involved. ”
“Women often approach you?”
“They can tell I don’t want anything to do with them,” he said. “So they feel safe. So sometimes they …approach me.”
“I feel safe,” she said. She took off her sweater, put it aside, and in the transparent blouse, looked over toward him.
“Please,” he said. “Put your sweater back on.”
“Not yet.” She pulled back her skirt and showed that she was naked underneath. She started massaging herself.
“You’re masturbating,’ he said.
“Why in front of me?”
“I’ve always wanted to –so a man could see,” she said, concentrating. Her speech was slow and deliberate.
“I don’t like it. Stop.”
“Do you want me to say what I’m thinking?”
“I’m thinking,” she said. “That you can touch me. But I don’t know if I’ll let you.”
“I won’t touch you, don’t worry” he said. “I don’t want to get involved with you or anyone like you. I want you to stop. ”
“You’re sure you want me to stop?”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re playing with me,” he said. “Women have played with me before, and I don’t like it, I don’t trust them, they’re not serious.”
“You feel attraction.”
“No. Look, it’s not that simple. You might think it’s simple, it isn’t.”
“It can be simple,” she said.
“You mean, like a fling. I tell you, I ‘m not interested.”
“You don’t have flings.”
“I don’t get involved with married women. You’re married – you told me.”
She put her skirt down, covering herself. “Okay, so, you won’t do anything.” She pulled on her sweater. “Okay, I give up. Okay.”
“I don’t want to get involved.”
“Maybe we can talk,” she said. “We can talk? First I have to calm down.” She waited almost a minute, then said, “You think my coming here is all a ruse. It isn’t. What I want to know is,” she plunged on. “Where does the poetry come from? I was wondering so much. You said it came out of nowhere, from the air. What do you mean by that? You were serious?”
“I was serious. There is this domination…” He stopped. ‘Do you really want to talk about this?”
“What do you mean – domination?”
“I mean – everything we think, just about everything we do, is controlled. There’s a ruling class, the capitalist class, big business, it manipulates, controls. It controls big things and little things. It controls the media, art and politics, education, everything.”
“Am I controlled?” she asked. “What do you mean controlled? What are you talking about? Everything I do is controlled?”
“Well, not everything,” he said. “Most everything. Sometimes you can step out of the control. A revolution, a strike, that’s stepping out of the control. A revolution is a massive event. In our everyday life …” he stopped.
She asked, “I’m controlled? What I just did, showing myself to you, was controlled?”
“That wasn’t controlled. It was out of the control.”
“What I did was out of control?”
“That it was out of control – that was a good thing?”
“Not for me,” he said. “Maybe it was for you.”
“It was for me,” she said. “I liked it, but that doesn’t matter, because you didn’t. You were nervous about the effect it was having on you, I could tell. I should have known, from the beginning – you didn’t respond. You were indifferent. In the café you were almost rude to me.
“I don’t have much time,” she continued, speaking quickly. Suddenly she had to leave. “I wanted to be here for a moment, to talk, to see you, to see what would happen, that’s all. I’m finished now. I don’t want any more to do with you.”
She stood up, picked up her handbag and looked toward the door. “I have to go. Perhaps we’ll see each other in the café, no, I don’t think so,” she said, her voice clipped, angry. She felt rage building. For a moment she hated him. “I have to leave. We’ll talk later sometime, I suppose.” She was at the door quickly, avoiding looking at him, her face tight. He stepped in front of her and opened the door for her, to let her pass as she stepped out.
Moments later she was on the street and an hour later she was home, consumed with rage. The next day she’d pick her husband up at the airport, and she and her husband could go on as before and she could too. She could go on easily. A pressure had been released. No, it hadn’t been. She felt the pressure building.
If she tried again with the young man he would not be co-operative next time, no more than the last. She could do nothing more with him. No, perhaps he could be persuaded, if she said the right thing. What was that?
She liked thinking of the moment she had taken off her sweater and masturbated in front of a man she didn’t know. Then she didn’t like thinking about it. She felt sick about what she had done. She’d never do anything like that again, it didn’t matter if she’d enjoyed it. Anyway, she had been rejected. And if he had gone along with her, she would have refused him, she would have stopped him short, she was certain.
She hadn’t been especially attracted to him. It had been a silly experiment, that’s all, but it had increased her desire, it hadn’t relieved it. The desire was stronger and growing, and she was thinking more about him. When she picked up her husband at the airport the next day, it was the young man she thought about.
Several times after that she went to the garden café but never saw him there. She wanted to tell him that she that what she did was a mistake and now she was different and he could trust her. What she had done was not in character. She would never do that again. She was trustworthy, that was her real character. He didn’t know – how could he know? – and so she had to explain this to him. He would understand if only she had a chance to explain.
When she went to the yogurt shop she was told he wasn’t working there anymore. He had quit. When she called his number, he didn’t answer. She went to the apartment house and buzzed his apartment, with no response. Every few days she left phone messages, increasingly insistent, for weeks and then months. When she masturbated she thought of him. She wanted to talk to him, to arrange something. She was convinced she should see him again soon. She tried to find him on the Internet and couldn’t. She wrote him letters and mailed them to his address, with what she was thinking, how he had the wrong impression of her, how important it was that they talk. There was no response to her letters or messages.