He is, after all, just a boy.
I’m watching Steffen’s face as I move up and down, watching the
way he inhales sharply through his nose every now and again, taking in quick
stitches of air. He turns his head to one side and moans slightly, then turns
back to watch me. I can see his eyes clearly in the darkness of my bedroom;
they’re the only thing I can see.
“ Good,” he whispers. “Nice and slow.”
I spread my hands across his thin chest, shift my weight to my arms and rest
it against him, and even though I’m paper-thin these days, I worry that
I might crush him, that he’s not as sturdy as the other lovers I’ve
had, that he requires more care and patience than the others.
But I’ve made the mistake of underestimating him before. The first night
we spent together, I thought I might be able to possess this boy, swallow him
like air. Now I’m wondering if he might be the one to possess me and
swallow me whole.
I’m the first one up this morning, as usual. We’re back-to-back,
just barely touching. I slide from beneath the sheets carefully so I won’t
wake him, push Bailey gently to the floor. The remnants of last night’s
wine are heavy on the back of my tongue. I find my teddy tossed at the foot
of the bed and slip back into it, then make my way to the bathroom with the
cat at my heels. Steffen has never seen me naked in the morning, and I’ve
never seen him naked in the morning, either. It has somehow turned into an
unspoken rule between us. We never acknowledge the previous night’s sex,
so in the morning we’re back to our old selves: friends, co-workers.
Even the fact that he is in my apartment in the first place seems happenstance.
He rarely kisses me goodbye. I have never made him breakfast or served him
coffee. We don’t touch. We shared a cup of tea once. I boiled the water
in the kitchen while he brushed his teeth, then I called out to him as he dressed:
“ No thanks.”
“ One lump or two?”
Back in the bedroom--he was dressed--I handed the cup to him with the handle
in his direction, nearly burning my palms in the process. We passed it back
and forth between us with a careful navigation, so that our hands didn’t
graze one another, as though we were playing some children’s game we
had just made up.
Now I stand in the bathroom and splash cold water over my face and shake away
all the residues I don’t want to think about, cup my hand and fill it,
drink deeply, rinse, spit. The morning sun breaks through the clouds that have
been hovering and spills through the blinds in small slants of white, lining
the blue bathroom carpet. I look up at my reflection in the mirror and for
the first time in my life, I think I look old; I can see lines by my mouth.
Once, when my high school boyfriend and I were on our way back from a movie,
I laughed at something he said. We were stuck in traffic beneath a streetlight,
and he looked over at me, ran his index finger near the side of my mouth. I
turned my head and caught his finger, held onto it with my teeth, ran my tongue
around skin and nail. He pulled his finger out and then brought it back to
the side of my mouth. “You’ve got laugh lines here,” he said. “You’re
going to get creases when you get older. They’ll make you look old one
day. Better watch out.”
And I’m watching out now, running my index finger over the same creases
he pointed out. You’re thirty-five, I think. You’re almost fifteen
years older than the boy that’s sleeping in your bed. You’re his
I creep down the hall and peer into the bedroom. He’s rolled over onto
his back, and I eye his torso, smooth and hairless and white with the skin
stretched taut over his ribs. His thick brown hair, shoulder-length and curly,
with wisps that are usually beyond control, fans out against the pillow, one
thick curl draping over his left cheek. He’s lost to sleep and dreams
and time and, I think as my hand caresses the door frame, to me.
“ He’s just a boy,” Jeannette said when I first saw his name
on the work schedule.
What do you mean, ‘A boy’?” I asked.
Jeanette laughed. “He’s
very nice. I recommended him to Pete. Seems very responsible and all that. I
just got a good feeling when he walked in
and asked for an application. But he’s, you know, young, maybe twenty.
You’ll have more in common with him than I will. At least you’re
a student. I could be his mother, for God’s sake.”
A student. At thirty-five. A doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature.
A decision I’d made one afternoon after I came home from work disgruntled
and tired. I had already been accepted to the university, but I never thought
I’d actually go. I uprooted my life one afternoon, phoned and said that
I would take the offer, then typed my resignation letter to State Farm where
I’d worked as a claims representative for seven years. Gave up my two-bedroom
apartment in a Victorian schoolhouse in the Poconos and moved into a cellblock
of a place outside Philadelphia, in Manayunk, complete with hardwood floors,
free heat, cockroach motels, and ants that crawled up through the floorboards
in the summertime. But I told myself it was worth it. You’re pushing
forty, I’d told myself. Do what you’ve always wanted to do. Get
that higher degree and teach, become an academic, read lots of books and live
other people’s lives.
On the day I signed the lease on my little apartment, I walked to Main Street,
which was lined with restaurants and cigar shops and specialty stores, and
saw the “Help Wanted” sign at American Pie, which sold handcrafted
art. I smiled at Jeanette on that day and shook her hand, dutifully filled
out the application form and shook her hand again before I left. She called
two days later and told me I had the job if I wanted it; I’d be on a
two-week trial period and if I worked out, I’d be set. She’d had
a good feeling about me, too. I worked out, and forty-five-year-old Jeanette
and I became friends, or at least, we were friends as long as we were working
together. Aside from Jeanette, the other people who worked at the shop didn’t
stick around long;
I’d be having coffee after work with them one week, and the next week
they’d be gone. The customers who frequent Main Street have money, but
the money isn’t old and the people lack a certain class. They’re
textbook bourgeoisie. Their BMWs and Jaguars line the street, and at night
they holler from their cars to friends they spot casually strolling along after
dinner, and it isn’t just a simple “hello.” These are full-length,
detailed, shouted conversations: “How are you! I haven’t seen you
in so long! Call me next week and we’ll get together, o-kay? We’ve
been so busy with the new house. Take care. You look great. I’ll talk
to you later.” With a twenty-five mile an hour speed limit and bumper-to-bumper
traffic, especially on a Friday night, a lot of catching up can be done. When
they come into the shop, the looks on their faces tell me that I’m somehow
beneath them. After all, they’re spending money that contributes to my
paycheck and they know it, just like they know I’m paid by the hour and
my worn-out clogs aren’t Liz Claiborne. While part of me is immune to
their stares, the other shop girls are more vulnerable. Most of them are at
least ten years younger than I, and use American Pie as a stepping stone until
they can find work in a coffee shop or a bistro on South Street, where they’ll
work with kids their own age who have purple streaks in their hair and nose
rings and wait on customers who are college students. They never last on Main
Street more than three or four months. It occurred to me one day that I was
at the age where I stuck around, that carefree whims and “so whats?” were
over. I was a sure thing.
Steffen is in many ways fascinated by me, appreciative of my existence. He
marvels at the Dead poster on my wall and asks me how many concerts I’ve
been to. He stared for an hour at the huge Waterhouse print of the Lady of
Shalott in the hallway leading to my bathroom. He laughs at the number of decaffeinated
herbal teas alongside my coffee maker because I absolutely refuse to drink
decaffeinated coffee. He looks at the
books on my shelves and shakes his head. “You’ve actually read
My hair is short and dirty blonde with a few grays here and there, but it’s
natural and free of purple streaks, and I have no tattoos. I smoke Marlboro
Reds and wear second-hand clothes, but not because I want to. I dread going
to the King-of-Prussia Mall because I have to walk by stores I once frequented.
Now, I can only finger the smooth polyester and lace of the underwear in Victoria’s
Secret, but not take a pair with me to the register. When I walk into Paul
Harris, I go to the back of the store where the “75% Off” signs
hang from the ceilings. I don’t even bother with Macy’s or Penney’s.
I have my hair cut at beauty training schools because they only charge five
dollars. My Volvo is eleven years old and has started to burn oil. I go for
long walks by myself, and for this, people admire my introspection without
ever suspecting how many times I’ve curled my right hand into a fist,
fleetingly pretending that it’s someone else’s hand I’m holding.
But there are other days when the choices I’ve made don’t bother
me as much. When I was married, in my mid-twenties, my husband and I didn’t
take long walks in the park holding hands because we thought there was a better
way to spend our time. He was a lawyer and I was a manager in the Auto Claims
division at the insurance company, and we did all the things we thought we
should do without asking ourselves why. We bought a lovely brownstone in the
Old Town section of Philly, served Brie and wine at our parties, had two brand-new
Volvos, and after he taught me to ski, we went to Aspen every February. We
talked about things like having kids and sending them to a good Montessori
school, how to invest our money wisely, and whether we’d like to eventually
move out of the city and buy a home somewhere in Bucks County.
That I once lived that way seems incredible now. It’s a secret fear of
mine that one day, I’ll look up and see Bob enter the shop with his new
wife, even though the last time I heard about him, he was with a firm in Albany.
If I were younger, the way I live might be justifiable to others. But I’ve
never been good at explaining the things my subconscious seems to understand
so well. I am not the other shop girls, yet I sometimes wish I were.
“ Why would you want to be like them?” Steffen sometimes asks in our
more comfortable moments together, when I feel I can let my guard down and tell
him I’m not as content with my existence as he thinks.
“If I were younger, I’d be more a part of your world.”
He shakes his head. “No. Then I wouldn’t be here. You’d be
like everyone else. That’s why I’m here in the first place. That’s
part of what attracted me to you. You’re real with your herbal teas and
your sandals and your classical music. You’re not trying to be trendy
or put on a show that won’t last. That’s just who you are. That’s
what I love.”
But he doesn’t say, never says, that’s why I love you.
I was working during Steffen’s first day at the store, and so was Amy,
who was in her late twenties. Amy, with her long black hair and rounded body,
always seemed far more pleasant than I could ever hope to be. She seemed knowing
and worldly for her age, could speak of Europe and the year she spent studying
Hebrew in Israel. When we’d go to the bar after work, I’d watch
her twist men around her fingertips as easily as she twisted the long black
curls of her hair. My gaunt body and short hair could never seem to hold their
attention. “You need to wear tighter clothes,” Amy remarked one
evening. “Show off what you have for as long as you have it.”
Steffen nodded at Amy and smiled at me on that first day. He was a boy. Like
Jeanette, I quickly placed him at nineteen or twenty. His smile was warm. “Hello,” he
said, and I was floored.
We went to a bar one night, the three of us, after we closed the shop. He was
a film student at one of the other universities in Philly. He and I talked
of film, of Fassbinder, of the naturalism of cinema during the sixties and
seventies versus the blasé quality of contemporary film. Amy talked
of Europe and Israel, of the Shakespearean festivals she frequented on her
weekends off. After four pints each, she persuaded him to dance with her, and
as he wrapped his arms around her full waist and buried his face in the flesh
of her shoulder, I thought, “She’s got him.” I watched them
dance, watched the other dancers, until they all seemed to swim into one another.
It was all right until a man in a sharkskin suit walked up to me and said, “You
need someone to dance with, don’t you?” and I nearly burst into
It wasn’t until after Amy left the store for good that Steffen and I
found ourselves at a bar one night after work. We talked until last call, and
by that time I was fairly drunk and listening to an old song on the juke box
that seemed both vaguely familiar and important. I felt his eyes on me, had
felt them during long afternoons when we joked at the shop, felt them when
I said goodnight before I went in one direction and he and Amy walked off in
the other. I want to have you, I’d think to myself, but by then I’d
be under the trestle of the R6 line, and walking down Cresson to Baker Street
and my little apartment, and soon Steffen would be gone and out of my mind.
But that night at the bar I finally looked at him and he gently cupped my face
in his hands and kissed me.
“ I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” he whispered in my
ear, and kissed me again.
I giggled, and the sound of it seemed foreign, too childish for a woman of
thirty-five. “I’ve wanted you to do that for a long time,” I
said, and he kissed me full on the mouth, wrapped his tongue around mine, and
the lights in the bar flickered once, then twice, and we slid off our bar stools
and went outside with our arms wrapped tightly around one another, as though
we might otherwise lose ourselves.
“ I’ve thought about you,” he said.
“ Oh?” I asked teasingly.
“ Yes, I’ve thought about you for a long time. You’re not like
the other girls at the store. You’re not like Amy, and you’re not
as old as Jeanette, and you’re not like the girls I’ve met other
places. You’re natural, you’re you.”
The beer at the bar had made its way to my head. “Kiss me,” I said,
and he did.
“ I’d ask you back to my place, but I think that’d be a bad
idea,” I said.
“Why? You could ask me to your place tonight. We wouldn’t have to
do anything. And then you could ask me back to your place tomorrow night.”
Not do anything? I thought. Oh, you really are young. Do you honestly think
you have the upper hand with a line like that, or haven’t you tried it
out before? But then I looked at him standing beneath the streetlight, his
glassy eyes--eyes that I knew would be bloodshot beyond recognition in the
morning--looking at me hopefully. I smiled, more to myself than at him. Why
not? a voice inside my head whispered. Why the hell not? How many times over
these past years have you gone to bed alone with the cat curled up beside you?
What do you have to lose? He’ll never figure it out.
He kept watching me with a slightly lopsided grin on his face, and I suddenly
felt guilty as I stared at him in his second-hand pea coat, his brown hair
just grazing the collar. He didn’t have a wrinkle on his face. Don’t
do that, the voice whispered. Don’t play mother. You’re older,
but you’re not that old.
I asked him to my place. And I asked him back every night after that.
At work we waited on customers. Since he was still new, he asked me questions.
I answered them. If it were just he and I working, we’d tease each other.
When it was just the two of us, I often felt restless and aggressive, and sometimes,
if there weren’t any customers lurking nearby, I’d sneak up from
behind and tickle him. I’d mention that I could cook for him and we could
watch a movie. He always accepted. We left the store every night together and
went to my place. In the morning, or the next day at work, everything would
be back to normal. No one suspected a thing. I didn’t suspect anything
“ You like fucking?” he asked one night after he rolled from on top
of me, and I couldn’t respond. It was too dangerous a question. I was afraid
that if I did answer him, I would lose control. Yes, I wanted to say. Yes, I
like fucking. But not if the person keeps coming back for more. Not when I want
more. And certainly not when I start to want more than fucking. Then it isn’t
so easy. And, my mind whispered, you were going to swallow him whole. You were
going to keep this in control.
But he didn’t wait for me to answer. “I like fucking you,” he
continued, as though that said it all.
I couldn’t curl up next to him and slide my hands across his chest like
I usually did. That’s how he sees you, I thought. You’re his fuck.
For my thirty-sixth birthday, he gives me an expensive bottle
of merlot and treats me to beer at the Angler Street Pub. We leave long before
last call; when we get outside, it’s pouring. Neither of us has an umbrella,
and I have to hold my long dress up as we run through the puddles. I’m
feeling young and lighthearted and festive, buoyed up by beer and music. The
driver’s side door of his car doesn’t open, so he opens up the
passenger side door and slides in. I try to slide in next to him, but he doesn’t
move over, so I straddle him, trap his legs between my knees and kiss him on
the neck. He pulls my dress up to my waist and runs his hands across my stomach,
moves them up to my breasts.
“ How long’s it been since you screwed
in the front seat of a car?” he asks.
“ Not since high school,” I whisper.
As he slips himself inside me, I think, If only I was in high school. What
I would do to you then.
Back at my apartment, I shower the rain and sex away while he opens the bottle
of merlot and cooks spaghetti. Afterwards, I stand in the kitchen and spy on
him as he cooks. He’s wearing his little white BVDs which are soaked
from the rain and stuck to the crack of his ass. It’s comical, and I
giggle, but he doesn’t hear me. I watch him as he chops garlic and moves
swiftly between the cutting board and the saucepan.
His long hair brushes the
back of his neck as he moves; his body has become lightly tanned from the sun.
He seems boyish and vulnerable. I move into the light of the kitchen and slip
my arms around
his waist, kiss the back of his neck, and he turns and kisses my cheek.
“ This can simmer awhile,” he says, and draws me toward the bedroom.
“ When do you work again?” he asks the next morning.
We don’t work together again until the middle of the week, and after
I tell him this, he kisses me lightly on the lips and leaves. I roll over and
rub my eyes, wonder why our evenings together are scheduled by someone else
rather than by ourselves.
It’s a long week, and our work schedules play off one another rather
than bring us together.
“ You can come over for dinner,” I say one afternoon before I leave.
“ I’d love to,” he says, “but I have some editing to do.
It’s tempting, though.”
“Well,” I say as casually as I can, “just call me and let me
know either way.”
It’s a test and he fails. He doesn’t call that night, just as he
hasn’t ever called.
There is a new girl at work, eighteen, with long blonde hair and large breasts
and clothes that hug every angle. I watch him watch her, hate myself for noticing.
Hate myself for caring. Hate the desperate feeling that seems to rise from
my ankles to wind its way up and around my neck, choking me. When I’m
alone in the evenings and I know he’s at work with the new girl, thoughts
of them together interfere with my studies. Will he ask her to stop at the
pub with him for a drink? And then I remember that she’s only eighteen
and there isn’t
a bar on the main strip that wouldn’t card her, even though she looks
old enough. She could easily pass for mid or late twenties, whereas Steffen
could pass for seventeen. And you’re thirty-six, I remind myself. You’re
thirty-six, acting like seventeen. Acting like a lovesick teenager. Acting
like someone in love.
I try to reason with myself. What’s there to be in love with? You’ve
never gone anywhere but this apartment. You’ve watched rented movies
on television, cooked dinner, made love. Correction: fucked. He isn’t
making love to you, he’s fucking you and you’re letting him. You
were going to swallow him whole.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I convince myself that this is okay,
that sooner or later it had to happen. Now that the summer break has started,
I can spend time getting myself back together. I’ve had my fun. Steffen
is taking summer classes; his hours have been cut back, and now he only works
a few hours in the evenings. Jeanette wants me with her during the morning
to help with inventory and to get the store looking more respectable. “All
the kids want to do during the day is stand around, and the place ends up looking
like hell, and I’m getting flack from Pete about it. You actually work.
Don’t ever leave.”
So in the mornings, I open the store and sweep the entranceway. At a little
after ten, Jeanette comes in armed with two cups of coffee and two bagels from
Bucks County Coffeehouse. We change the display windows, make sure the place
is perfectly organized, wait on customers--usually mothers with small children--and
make small talk. One evening, we go to Platiolli’s for dinner, and after
our second glass of wine, Jeanette says, “ So what’s eating you?”
“What do you mean?”
She shakes her head and smiles. We’re both divorced, neither of us has
any children, and the lives we lead and what we are willing to reveal about
them are carefully orchestrated. I have the feeling that I could get closer
to her if I wanted, and she’s made some small attempts. She’s tried
to get me to volunteer at the public radio station one day a week with her,
and she often calls me at home to see if I’d like to go to concerts with
her. But if I get too close, I’ll only find a mirror of myself, and I
wouldn’t want that kind of companionship. I don’t need another
person like me in my life.
“ What I mean is that I sometimes see you moping around like suicide on
a stick. You haven’t been yourself. For a while there, you were all bloom
and glory. Are you seeing someone?”
I trace the condensation on the outside of the wine glass with my finger. What
should I say? Yes, Jeanette, as I matter of fact I was seeing someone. Someone
was nearly fifteen years younger than me. Someone was Steffen, and now I feel
like hell. How’s that for someone?
“ No,” I say. “No. I’m not seeing anyone. I’m just
out of sorts.”
She touches my hand. “Are you going to be all right? You can talk to
me, you know.”
I look at her sitting across the table from me, so close, very close, and the
thought of how far away she actually is makes me smile for the first time that
When I get home in the early evenings, just after five, I have a glass of wine
and sit in the kitchen to watch the sun set. It used to be a peaceful time
for me, a chance to unwind, a chance to be with my thoughts. But lately, I
can’t remember what those thoughts were, or why they mattered. I love
sitting in the kitchen because the bay window takes in a panorama of golden
light. If someone were sitting in the living room, I would be hidden
from view. How pathetic, I think one afternoon as I squint and stare at the
tracks of the El. As long as the trains aren’t going through, I can see
the traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, and above the long line of cars,
the pink and red sky with the setting sun hovering over everything. How pathetic
is it that the one thing you look forward to is looking out your window?
And, I sometimes realize, I’m angry, not peaceful. Steffen has taken
even this. I’m thinking of him. I can’t even get him out of my
day. He’s with me when I go to work, he’s with me as I walk home,
he’s with me in my kitchen. As I pour another glass of wine, I want him
in my living room, but I want him as an observer, and I would want to ask him
what he thinks of my life now. How admiring of my existence would he be if
he really had the chance to see it? This is my life, I think as I slump down
in a chair and put my feet up. This is my life. There has to be more.
We’re working together one night a few weeks later, just Steffen and
I. It’s been a slow night with very few customers, and I windex the glass
in the back of the store while he sweeps.
“ We can get out of here early,” I tell him. “In fact, if you
want, I can let you leave and I’ll just balance out the register. You don’t
have to stick around and watch me.”
“But I don’t want to leave,” he says. “I want to be with
I lower my head slightly, then look into his hazel eyes.
“ Please,” I say. “Enough. Just go.”
At the end of the night, I lock the door behind me, then give it a push just
to make sure.
Classes are over for me; it’s a Friday night, and it’s warm and
humid. I walk past the couples that are sitting outside the restaurants, sipping
their wine and nibbling on salads or cutting steak. They seem wholly happy,
filled and content with one another; I ignore them and the faces that pass
by me, turn the corner at Cotton Street and head for Cresson, which is lonely
and black and shrouded by the El.
As I cross the street, Steffen stands up from one of the tables outside of
the Cotton Street Cafe and moves toward me.
“ Let me come with you.”
The next morning, for the first time, I feel his hands surround me, pull me
closer to him. I lift my left leg and lightly cross it over his, raise myself
just a bit, and let him slide himself into me from behind. His breath is hot
on my neck, and I pull his arms up to my breasts and sigh.
“ Morning,” he whispers.
Afterwards, he falls back to sleep, and I slip into a robe and go to the kitchen.
I make scrambled eggs and cinnamon rolls and coffee, and the aroma pulls him
from the bedroom. He smiles sleepily and slides into one of the chairs at the
table, and I grin at the sight of his BVDs.
“ You made breakfast,” he says with sleepy surprise.
“ Coffee?” I ask.
When we’re finished, we sit sipping second cups and listen to the rain,
which is gently falling outside. He looks distracted for a minute, then rests
his hand on top of mine. “We could spend the afternoon together. I could
cook dinner for you this evening or we could catch a movie.”
I stare at him.
He shakes his head and smiles. “I don’t want to leave, today. I
just want to be here with you.”
After a moment, he gets up and walks away, and soon I hear the rushing water
of the shower. I think of him standing there with the water pouring down over
his body, washing him clean, washing everything away, of how pure he’ll
look when he emerges with his baggy jeans hanging from his hip bones. Maybe
he will stay today. Maybe he’ll walk out the door and never come back.
Maybe I’ll walk into the store one day and he’ll be gone without
telling me or anyone else where we can find him.
My thoughts are invaded by the roar of the R6 line, and as the train goes rushing
by, I strain to make out the people in the crowded cars. It’s a train
I used to ride before I learned the roads. It was a sure, dependable conveyor,
no speed bumps, no traffic jams, no detours. I used to wonder at the way no
one on the train looked at anyone else, at the way they stared straight ahead,
as if they were absolutely sure of where they were going, where they’d
Steffen shuts the water off just as the train pulls away and streams out of
sight, and I strain to hear him, think that maybe he’ll call for a clean
towel, or just say my name. Instead, I hear the distant whine as the train
brakes and slows its way into the next station. When I finally turn around,
he’s standing in the doorway to the kitchen, looking at me as though
he can’t believe I’m still here, looking grateful, and looking
just a little bit like a lost boy.
But not quite, and I reach for him.