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Alec Solomita

Old Flame

It's not one of Kubler-Ross's stages-of-loss, I'm sure. I don't think I've seen it mentioned in any of the books or articles my friends gave me. But you can't argue with facts. Here I lay on my conjugal bed, alone and drunk, night after grieving night, the phone in one hand, my prairie home companion in the other, getting one old girlfriend after another to talk dirty to me. It started guilelessly, I mean I was without guile when I first called Paige, half in the bag, and told her about my dad. How we got from "I'm sorry for your loss" to "I love to cup a man's balls in my palm," remains something of a mystery to me.

My shrink, Liz, a prurient and attractive woman in her early fifties, assures me that this behavior is not anomalous. "A friend of mine," she says in one of her less intimate personal revelations, "and her boyfriend found themselves in an upstairs bedroom making passionate love during her mother's funeral reception." She sits back in her ergonomic swivel chair and recrosses her slender legs, twisting her right foot behind her left ankle. "A sense of freedom and exhilaration is not unknown after a parent's death. This sort of sexual flowering seems natural to me — symptomatic of a feeling of liberation."

But I'm not convinced as I watch the amber specks showering around the dilated pupils in Liz's hooded green eyes. I don't feel liberated after these phone calls. Just furtive and compulsive, pathetic and contemptible. And, of course, guilty and afraid. We've been together, Melanie and I, for eight years. We're as bad as married is how I joke about it to my friends. And where’s Mel when I’m making these calls? Visiting her own sick father, trustingly leaving me alone to dial up old flames and fiddle like an adolescent with my thirty-nine year old dick. That's betrayal, isn't it?

After therapy, I drive home with my penis jangling in my pants. Once inside, I masturbate about my shrink. Afterwards, I lie silently, my left hand aloft like I know the answer and I watch the blueing sky, the late dark of summer rising like a slow tide and spilling into the room. After a while, the only light comes from the moon and the blink of the answering machine. As I'm getting up I bring my palm to my face. Who will I call tonight?

I hit the play button and Mel sings to me. The wife has a deep, trilling speaking voice, Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. "Darling," she says, "you're not home. I know you don’t have to grade papers at least for a while. Wherever you are, I hope you're having fun. As much as you can, my sweet heart. I'm afraid I’m going to stay another few days. Until after the Fourth. Dad is much better, completely better in fact, but Mom has come down with some kind of flu. So. That's that. Well, we thought we might have to. Oh! it's Tuesday. A Liz day. Well, I guess that's not so much fun. But I hope it brought you some comfort. You take good care. Mom and Dad send love. Call me."

After the first time with Paige, the thing became much more calculating. I mean the first one you could, I suppose, write off to the sorry tetrarchy, wildness, grief, booze, loneliness. I suppose you'd be almost accurate, too. But how would I explain the next night, spending fifty-five minutes tracking down old Amy's roommate of fifteen years ago. First, nearly three quarters of an hour in the basement with old journals to find the hefty babe's last name. McfuckinManus is what I called her in my journal entries, I discovered. Then another twenty minutes calling information operators all over New England, having decided uncharitably that she never got married, and having decided that even if she had, she'd held onto her name as costively as she'd guarded her Dove soap and Charmin' tissue in the distant past when I strayed on occasion into her bathroom.

I found Diane McManus's phone number; she'd settled in rustic Boxboro, Massachusetts. She had no idea what Amy's number was, where she lived, hadn't spoken to her in years. Her husband's last name, that's all I wanted, the first I never forgot, Wally. Wally the meatcasing account executive.

"Frankly," McManus the anti-Semite says, after all this time continuing to torture me as if it were only yesterday that she wanted to watch The Wizard of Oz with me and Amy one long maddening winter's afternoon in Boston, a record snowstorm holding me captive in their overheated apartment, the heifer sitting at the end of the bed, her big shoulders curved sadly forward. "Frankly," she says, "I'm not sure I should tell you." I don't have to ask why. Obviously odds are I've grown up to be a stalker. Suddenly I realize that the

’90s are McManus's decade. The decade of false accusations, the decade of the bitter spinster's revenge. Repressed memories rising like the smoke at Salem. Parents and teachers and priests running for cover. That's him. He's the one. He's the reason I eat a whole bag of Doritos a night. I keep these tumbling insights to myself. I say, "Why's that, Diane?" and light a cigarette.

"You still smoke," she says incredulously. I don't tell her the truth because it's too complicated: the truth being that I just took it up again the day before for the first time in seven years.

"Burroughs," she says and hangs up. I say the ‘c’ word quietly to myself and start to look for Wally Burroughs. The meatcasing account executive.

Arlington, Massachusetts. Not Walter, Wallace.

Amy hasn't changed a bit. "It's for me, hon'." she calls out calmly to her husband, and says to me, "He's watching the game." Kids? Two. Both just fell asleep. Now she's in her room, sitting on the edge of her conjugal bed in shorts and a T-shirt, lighting a cigarette. She's sad about big daddy. "I liked him," she says. She doesn't ask why I called. How's Wally? "He's okay."

"Do you cheat on him?"

"No," she says, "AIDS," she adds without bitterness and by way, simply, of explanation.

"I think about you a lot," I begin, trying to ease into it.

"I think about your prick," she answers.

Next session I can tell Liz is trying to hide her excitement. She does this by looking nearly asleep. Her heavy eyelids slip even farther shut than usual and her gestures are a little too casual. But for whole minutes as I tell her about calling Amy, she doesn't shift in her chair. I've got her attention. When I'm done, she again remarks on the unremarkability of the whole thing.

"She was just so . . . amenable," I marvel, "so accommodating."

"She's still a sensual being," says Liz, "even if she has a couple of kids."

I know that, I feel like saying, you dimwit. "I guess, but I'm not attractive. I mean I don’t feel attractive. I mean the whole thing is so pathetic. There was a time when in order to get some action, I had to feel good about myself. You know. Move with confidence. Why is she responding to this sordid helplessness?"

She gives me her "don't say you're not attractive" look. "She likes you. You shared a lot together. How long did you go out with her?"

"A very long time."

That winter's day, the day that Boston took 24 famous inches, was our life together in miniature. I wanted to leave but couldn't. We spent the morning in bed, smoking an old roach we found, putting together a few Bloody Mary’s, running out of things to say before we ran out of things to do, listening to the wind, watching the city disappear under the banking snow. Cozying.

I was a graduate student in Ethics, "because," Amy the sure shot said, "you don't have any." She was a periodontist's secretary (an early flosser) as well as a former child ballerina with the Indiana Ballet Company. She still had the solid haunch of a dancer, the graceful squat stride, the slight upper body, narrow shoulders, slender, rippling back. She also had small dense breasts with surprising, long brown nipples. "Jimmy called them tootsie rolls," she would say grinning shyly and proudly. I didn't really want to know what her ex-boyfriends said about the details of her wonderful body, but she felt impelled to tell me. Worse, she would sometimes tell me about theirs. Ross's "cack" as this midwesterner pronounced it, was very big. "Yippie i oh kaiyay," I would say, feyley pretending to swirl a lasso. She laughed but would never say, "But I like yours better." Sometimes I'd venture, "I'm sorry I don't meet your expectations." And she'd respond, "It had its disadvantages — I never let him buttfuck me. Too scared."

Liz is leaning toward me, holding her white sweaterdress with one hand to keep it from sliding up her blacksheathed thighs. She reads something in my eyes — alarm? — and abruptly leans back, crossing her legs again.

"We had — I guess what you'd call," I pause here, embarrassed, "a 'hot' relationship." I supply the quotes in the air apologetically. This was disturbing, something I'd never done before in my life, the closest to pantomime I ever hope to come. "I still think about her," I admit.

"When you're making love?"

"No. I'm present and accounted for when I'm making love. Other times."

"You fantasize about her?"

"Yes, indeed. Yes, I do."

"There's nothing wrong with that," says Liz, adding, "thoughts aren't deeds."

"No," I say, "they're not. But deeds are."

"Do you fantasize about other women??

"Certainly, I do."

"That's all right."

"Thank you."

She smiles, "I'm not trying to give you absolution."

"Why not?"

The day of the snowstorm went downhill after the morning. Bored, bovine Diane wandered into the room in the early p.m.

"Want to watch the boob tube?" she said, her jowly face gray with depression, her hands on her hips.

"Sure," I said, despite the fact that when Amy had said to her after we met, "Isn't he good looking," she’d replied, "He looks Jewish."

I'll show her Jewish was my m.o. after that. I'll show her generous. "Sure. What do you want to watch?"

She sat at the edge of the bed, her shoulders slumped. Somewhere over the rainbow.

The snow piled up and I couldn't get out.

But it was the night that was stupendous. After Diane went back into her burrow, and after we got drunk and did everything all over again, the heat started up. The radiators were steaming and the windows wouldn't open. I couldn't sleep. My mouth was parched. So, we sat up, sipping on beer. Amy started talking about marriage. This had never happened before. But I couldn't get out, was the thing.

I was clear on the subject, the only subject I was clear on, but on this subject I knew my mind. Amy started crying. The radiators burned, clanging. Amy was saying, "I'll never get married, I know it." I was saying, "Can't we call your landlord?" Amy cried, her black eyes shining, her pug nose running. She punched the mattress. After three hours, the radiators quieted down. After four, Amy did. When we kissed, her mouth was soft, her face swollen and briny. She turned onto her stomach as the sun began to lift above the white city, and raised her ass up in the air, looking over her shoulder with a slyness, a wanton defeat I couldn't fathom.

After that night, I explain to Liz, though the relationship continued, it was in its death throes. Amy displayed, except in bed, a dismaying "‘flatness of affect’ I think you would call it." I had disappointed her. She was looking for a husband. So the other evening, when I told her I'd call her again after her words and my own familiar fingers had given me the most intense orgasm I'd had in a half-dozen years, her sardonic "sure" didn't surprise me. She'd already gone back, back to cooking for Wallace, renting videos, cathecting the little ones.

I wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning with a dry mouth, anxiety whirring through me like birds, dreams lingering like ground fog. My breathing as I rest in this physical fear is shallow, my stomach is heavy and swollen. What if Mel finds out? My eyes open with a click and I can hear my big heart beating. Even with the windows open wide, the air is motionless.

I must be insane, I think, folding up into myself. My shallow breathing breaks to my surprise into a niggardly series of sobs. She'd leave me is what she'd do. I sit up in our big bed, the hair on my arms prickling.

In the bathroom I suck the cold water out of the tap, the warm tiles stick to my feet. Then I make my way downstairs in the sullen pre-dawn. Three or four fingers of Scotch. That should do it, I whisper and take a gulp. Nothing immediate, but I feel the potential as I climb the stairs.

At the far end of the bedroom is a low window facing the woods. It's open but the lacy curtain is drawn. I kneel down, leaning on the sill, and gently pull the curtain back, startling an owl who is sitting on the outside ledge. Disoriented or surprised into attack, the bird, rather than flying off, smashes himself repeatedly into the screen, his large wings beating bursts of hot air into my face. I feel the ferociousness, the screen straining, and I see something small dancing furiously on the hook of a talon and I see a wild yellow eye. In my retreat I bang my head and drop my glass of whiskey, which shatters on the floor. I'm making for the closet to grab that great domestic weapon, the broom, when the owl finally finds his bearings and is gone.

I turn on the light and sweep up the glass, fine-tuning the story for Melanie, who whispers to me at night when we hear a shriek from the crowded trees, "there's our owl." On the sill I see a spray of red and a new shiver of fear passes through me. I look at my hands, my bare arms, my legs and feet but can't find any cuts. When I see a darker patch beyond the screen, I fetch the flashlight from beside the bed and train its beam on the little pool of bright red blood glistening on the white sill. By the time I get another drink, dawn is stirring. I sit up in bed, sipping, as the weak light steeps into the room.

Paige, as I explain to Liz who perches in her large, padded swivel chair with both feet tucked neatly under her body, Paige is different. We've been keeping up some, mostly her calling me every three years or so from one atavistic encampment or another — places like Ann Arbor, Yellow Springs, Madison, and more recently Mendocino, Eureka, Santa Cruz, and now Venice Beach. I enjoy her calls, her good mood as she describes latest highs. It's nice to be updated — ketamine intravenously a few years back. "What the fuck is ketamine?" I asked and she said there's an article on it in GQ, "the recent one with Kevin Costner on the cover." Paige is forty-three and still has her outgoing, matter-of-fact voice, her prairie hardiness, her pioneer optimism.

Now I’m calling her again and again. She seems to be redeveloping an old crush. I allow this. I encourage it. I'm sure that's wrong. If someone with a doctorate in Ethics doesn't know the difference between right and wrong, who does? I pose this and equally provocative questions to my petite truncated therapist and she gets impatient. "It's not that I'm unaware of the existence of a moral dimension to a lot of these issues," she says, "but it's not in our purview." No, what's in our dirty little purview is something else. Now, you might think that someone who was proud enough of her presence at the '68 "rebellion" in Paris to mention it not twice but three times in six months of therapy to at least one client might have some interest in the difference between right and wrong. Not to mention her alleged affair with Imamu Amiri Baraka. Not to mention that. Or her attraction to her teenage daughter's boyfriend whom she hires to mow the lawn when it hardly needs mowing, shirtless in the warmth of his labor. I'm beginning to think Liz has an issue with boundaries.

Which, interestingly enough, is what she says I have as she leans so close to me I smell the coffee on her breath. Boundaries? Boundaries? We don' nee' no stinkin' boundaries.

Boundaries, of course, is what Paige doesn't have, something that slips my mind as we talk blowjobs and handjobs, scents and sights. I continue to forget it on our fourth or fifth session when I'm trying to swing the subject around to sodomy (Liz seems to be noting a pattern). I'm a little tipsier than usual and a little annoyed that Paige is trying to countersteer the conversation to my relationship with Mel. Ah the age old conflict, I think: sodomy/relationships, relationships/sodomy.

What I do is indulge her. I let on that Melanie doesn't understand me. I don't actually say the words, "Melanie doesn't understand me," but I open the door to the notion. I sigh, I hint at depths of forbearance kept to myself so as not to betray the wife, I hint at exhausted pairs like vague dissatisfaction, stoic suffering, sexual boredom. What I should say, the truth for must of us philanderers is precisely the opposite — the problem is, of course, that my wife does understand me. That's what those dickheads should be saying in those tiny bars and coffee bars tucked into Manhattan and Sausalito, Lawrence, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, heaving a big sigh, "You see, my wife . . .my wife . . . understands me." That's the fucking problem.

And Amy came to understand me in that little inferno of a bedroom. Oh, those radiators! Now Paige's room was in a beautiful old house in Cambridge, a long, high-ceilinged room with a tall, wide window along its length which looked out onto a messy, bright garden with a cobbled path and a couple of redtwigged dwarf apple trees. When I knew Paige, it was a zephyr, if I'm not mistaken, which made soft billows of the white cotton curtains until we pulled them back as the night came.

Paige is an old soul. She's connected. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives her red blood. That's Paige. She loved her period. I met her in a grad school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, an alien environment for me. I tried out for the play because my roommate was worried that I was working too hard, taking my work home with me (hi honey, I'm Hume). That's what graduates students do, I argued. But he prevailed. A place to meet girls, he said.

Liz, looking a little sleepy like a child listening to a story, asked, "Was this after or before Amy?" I paused for a moment, remembering. "During," I answered, showing the hint of a rakish smile for which I burn with shame. "She was my liberator."

We had no scenes together. I was a sort of all-purpose lord used to swell out a scene here and there, and Paige was Bottom. A female Bottom, lots of laughs over that. I hardly noticed her, my attention being mostly commanded by a short, power-built, dark-haired junior in pink leotards with an infinite chest, padding around bow-legged in bare feet, a thumping sort of fairy.

But after a rehearsal one spring morning as I sat by the gym entry on a folding chair lacing up my sneakers, she settled beside me, nudging me with her elbow. "Hey, good scene," she said. She had a Raggedy Ann look, or Raggedy Andy, this long redhead with a big off-center smile. In her roomy long-john shirt and loose jeans, her knuckly red fingers on her knees, elbows splayed, grinning, she looked like a lanky farm boy just brought up from the minors to pitch.

"Thanks," I said, "I had one line."

"Yes, but you looked so regal." I had, as it turns out, been trying to look regal, or at least noble, so I was a bit captivated. She held her look a second longer, a grin so full of interest it leant her face an almost pained expression. Liz might be dozing. She wants me to get to the good part. This is the good part.

Then she bent over to tie her work boots showing me a sprig of pale freckles beginning at her collarbone and fading into her white breasts, which I could see suspended and untrussed, shuddering slightly with the movement of her lace-tying. I remember, pierced as I was with desire, an almost simultaneous proprietary sensation. I remember thinking, "they're yours." Meaning mine. Which was, now that I think of it, pretty regal of me.

I saw the room she rented at the Harvard professor's house a few days later. On the closet door was a poster of some Baba, a fat man in a robe with an impishly deranged, blissful smile, and his 60 point font admonition: Don't just do something, stand there. I, who had started prepping for the SAT's when I was twelve, a national merit scholar at fifteen, whose trajectory shot from Choate to Harvard to Harvard, was stunned. You could have knocked me over with one of the peacock feathers standing in a vase on Paige's dresser. Don't just do something, stand there.

As I stood there, Paige dropped her blue jean jacket on the large, free-standing bed in the center of the long, high room, and slipped around it to open a window. Right away a breeze brought the garden inside. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Paige rolled a joint. She glanced up at me, brushing a few strands of her sunfringed reddish hair out of her eyes, and said in her strong, pally, prairie voice, "There's a full moon tonight." She lit the joint and added, squinting at me through the smoke, "You know, you have a nice ass."

I quit school the next day. To my stunned adviser, I offered a disjointed improvised litany of reasons, none of which had anything to do with the crystal hanging by a string of yarn under my shirt. Or the moon coming into Paige's room as I lay between her pale lean thighs and nuzzled the sprig of strawberry curls, grazing with an ancient contentment, her heels resting on the small of my back, until both of us came, she with a sad cry and I surprised by the hard thread of sweetness drawing through me.

Telling Liz this old story, I've developed a languid erection. She's still tucked into her chair but listing a bit, striking a diagonal sort of pose in her small office, luminous right now with lowering sunlight. There are the Monet and Renoir prints, the shrink's painters, on the wall, the only Impressionists without a serotonin deficiency. And there are the real flowers on the round, glass-topped table, the dozy penetrating scent of ruffled peonies. It's a comfortably erotic scene, fraught but lazy, and I feel secure remembering the moon-blanched room, my mouth full of this wet aromatic woman, the surprise of my own orgasm as I bucked into the sheet. The scenes mingle and my therapist and I seem to be approaching something like true transference.

"It’s romantic," she says. "Sounds a little like it’s in soft focus."

I was impressed and annoyed enough with her suggestion to ignore the mangled metaphor.

"I’m a reliable narrator," I said.

"I’m not suggesting you’re not. I just said there’s feeling attached to your story."

"Yeah? So?"

"I’m just saying."

"Saying what?"

"What I said."

Ninety dollars an hour.

I stop by the department after therapy. Between Commencement and summer school the campus is green and quiet. From my office I call the machine at home. Paige’s cheerful, down-home voice follows the long series of beeps. Her tone is hearty and full of good news as she shouts, "Hey! I masturbated about having anal sex with you three times today." There’s some more but I’ve gone deaf. The next message — from Mel — is over before I’ve taken in a word. I’m a glacier — gelid, slowed, helpless.

In moments the temperature swings wildly the other way. My blood simmers; poaching my skin. I pick up the receiver and hang it up. I pick it up again and start to punch out Paige’s number, stopping again and slamming the receiver down hard. She wants to destroy me, I mutter, my eyes contracting, my small jaw clenched. With a wicked pellucidity, I see myself breaking the woman’s long, freckled neck. The limpid scene repeats compulsively, circling like a film loop, until it calms me some.

The murderer gone, I’m left with a strategist, a tactician. "I’d love to cup a man’s balls in my hand," she said. My balls are in her pocket. I rest my hands on the phone and my chin on my hands and watch a wavy sunspot undulating on the grain of the office door. Idly, I glance around, looking for its source until on the windowsill I see the oilslicked surface of yesterday’s coffee bouncing sunlight into a swimming dapple on dark wood. Anger would be stupid. Anger would be wrong. Firmness, ultimatums, threats, all wrong. Appeal to her sympathy. I remember that my father’s dead. I think of him alone, toppling to his knees and hands on his own suburban sidewalk, waking in the ambulance, EMT’s blundering above him.

Against all odds, as I again punch in her number, I begin to miss Paige ("Did you come a lot?" "I wish you could taste my fingers.") But when her machine clicks on way over there in Venice Beach and I hear her recorded voice, the murder scene begins to replay. After the beep I speak, pleased at my tone — supplicating, weak, wounded — "Paige, hi this -" Another click. "Hi! You just got me. I was just going out blading."

Blading! I’m aware of my stomach overflowing my belt, touching the desk, the desk on which I’m very nearly sprawled, very nearly prostrate. Blading.

Slyly but affably, she adds, "Did you get my message?"

"Paige," I say, resorting to reason, "Why did you leave that message on my machine?" There’s quite a pause. "I don’t live alone, you know."

"She’s out of town," she finally says.

"Well, yes, she is. But, first of all, she could come back any time. And second of all, she can call in for messages."

"I thought of that," she says and it’s my turn to pause.

"You thought of that?"

"Well, yes. I mean I didn’t think she’d -. But I did think of it."

I sputter only a little before I say, "Then why did you leave that message?"

"I wanted to see where you were at."

"What does that mean? I’m sorry, I don’t have my 1960s dictionary with me."

"Oh, don’t be such a dink. You know what ‘dink’ means, don’t you?"

"I can figure it out from the context," I say.

"The context. That’s the thing. That’s what I wanted to know. The context."

"I’m as bad as married is the context," I say.

"Another joke. I think the truth is that you’re as good as married."

"I’m getting confused again."

"Come on," she says, "I’m the one who’s confused. Help me out. Are you guys together?"

I clear my throat but end up whispering anyway, "Yeah."

"To the grave?"

I shivered. "To the grave."

"Okay, then," she says.

"Okay, then."

I’m aware that I myself don’t feel like blading at all as I unlock and open the front door. Dropping my accoutrements like a bather heading into the sea, I make for the liquor cabinet. As I pour the Scotch I think of my blustering Dad and his one enormous cocktail before every dinner of his life, his corny, "Give me four fingers and I’ll give you a hand," or something like that. Now there was a dink, I say aloud, settling into our old sofa.

The phone rings and I let it until the machine upstairs picks up. I want to turn the TV on but the remote’s not in sight. I take a sip and think about Liz’s sweaterdress, her ripe fiftyish breasts. My body doesn’t respond. "Ah, my poor, poor Da’," I pretend an Irish sentimental slather. "Ah, shite, shite, shite, my poor, poor Da’," I say burrowing deeper into our old sofa.

Alec Solomita lives in Somerville, Mass. He writes critical pieces for the Boston Book Review (where a short story of his also appeared), The Boston Phoenix, and other publications. He is currently working on a novel.

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