Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Up Front and Loveable



is a chapter from a forthcoming story about

caring and generosity, tenderness,
passion, fidelity and

and, since this is a story about human beings, it is also about the opposite of all of these things.

The story begins when the 'salaryman' becomes bored with wife and life, and has an affair that brings him a measure of joy and makes of him a better person. But his wife doesn't see it that way! Not at all! When discord ensues, he turns to an old pal for advice. 

But Pal Poppy is destined to play a more complex role in the salaryman's already complicated life.

The fling with Poppy had been very brief indeed. Unlike what he now thought of as his interim affair, it happened, he now supposed, because, still dissatisfied, still unforgiven, he was close to despairing about the state of his marriage. Then, in addition, he had fretted about the wellbeing of the extramural student, who rarely appeared on campus these days. He had told Eliza that he had broken off with the student completely. Of course he had told her so. Astounded by the extent of Eliza’s grief over the rupture of their monogamous bond, he felt urgently, if irritably, the need to assuage it. And after the student had gone back to her depressive boyfriend, he truly intended to see her no more.

But late one afternoon the student appeared at his office door, pale, tired-looking, and melancholy, and asked how he had been doing. The two had begun to commiserate: she, complaining about her boyfriend’s uncertainty now, as to whether he even wanted to be with her, questioning, as he did, whether she was good for the long haul; while he unburdened himself about the unexpected, rather serious, consequences of their affair upon his family. It was certainly a far cry from those comic novels one read, in which infidelity, especially of the male of the species, seemed to be the culture’s biggest shared joke. Weren’t the celebrities, politicians and so on, always forgiven? Always after doing their mea culpas of course.

However gloomy all of this may have been, there was yet a kernel of hard-won vestigial glory that remained, some torn corner of the shimmering universal fabric of sex, of the warp and the woof of it, which, escaping perilously through the fast-closing door of Time, he had just managed to hang onto, forcing it through with him into this daylight world: human, sublunary, dull, clutching it in his hand, only just having succeeded in snatching it from the jaws of the beast; a fragment of the most fundamental experience of what is, or can be, sublime: what can be beyond the quotidian: ecstatic, romantic, out-of-body and sexual, between a man and  a woman: he had it in his hand, this shiny token, thus placing them, for a time, on a higher platform, higher than that of their fellow-sufferers, the platform on which they now sat, as on a swing with a velvet rope: tired and wasted, washed-up indeed, expecting every day dethronement, defenestration, but still remaining in their seats, higher than their fellow creatures, higher, closer to the sublime, because of their love.

And there was consolation in sitting opposite this hip forty-something, still attractive after all, if remarkably pale, and ever so slightly pimply on the chinny-chin-chin (ought he to tease her about that?) There was pleasure in sitting crouched opposite her in a café; sitting openly with her, sipping his cappuccino sweetened with dark rich cocoa powder sprinkled atop spirals of honey squeezed from a long tube; the two of them holding their coffees, not touching, not even knees or feet this time, but sharing a day-old pastry, he nodding and listening to her complaints, watching her pick at the pastry, now a mass of crumbs, she talking on and on, not looking directly at him, seeming oddly afraid to look him in the eye.

And most of all there was consolation, bittersweet and poignant, with an insistent presence all its own; and there was even pleasure, in repeating two little words that put the ghost of a smile on his face, and simultaneously, traces of a smile on hers; those two little words that represented, as it were, some remnant, some torn-off piece of what was once a banner of victory unfurled in the wind and streaming before him as he galloped across the greensward, on his way, on his way, on his way to see his lady; those two little words: “Our affair.”

And now with her once again, not wanting her very much, but wanting the memory of her, the confirmation of what she had done and been for him; wanting the affirmation of what she had said: words never to be forgotten, he was quietly grateful. For the student had spoken the words that he, at the time, most wanted––no, needed!–– to hear, spoken them aloud and later written them down too–in an email that he had carelessly left open, his laptop open too, and that Eliza had, most unfortunately, managed to see: so devastating for her, poor girl! to see that  avowal of another woman’s  love for him; and right on cue, she had gasped at the surprise of it, shock and dismay suffusing her face, now pale, now pink; and seeing that avowal, his wife had instantaneously understood that which, for weeks now, she had been blissfully able to ignore; and, again on cue, she had once more exclaimed, holding her hand up to her mouth: “I’m devastated!” For there it was, right in her face, the avowal that had stopped his wife in her tracks and left the other woman strangely naked and defenseless, while his chest swelled with pride: there it was: “You are loveable.” At that moment, with the revealing of these words, he had triumphed over Eliza, now so abject, so abashed, his cosseted wife, who had not made him feel loveable, not for a long time. Thus had he brought her to her knees, and he had shown her, had he not, shown her and, by God, shown the world, with the love of this sad young woman, he had shown them all: he was loveable.

And the conversation of the man and the other woman, as full now of problems as if they had been an old married couple; this conversation about sorrow and loss, this talk about a chronically depressive boyfriend and a wounded wife, talk full of the hurt and pain they had inflicted on others, simply by loving one another; this talk burbled along as he sipped his frothy sweet cappuccino; this talk coursed through them like their hot drinks, and circled back from the sharing of pain to shared comfort; for together, like damned souls trapped in  a whirlwind, spinning past one another in their nakedness, desire all but forgotten, they sighed, and together they savored their sweet drinks, their precious time together, and the bittersweet pleasure of the two little words they spoke again and again, words that reassured, that belonged to them alone: “Our affair.”

There had been, after this meeting, just a few minor lapses. They needed a detox. She was still in his bloodstream, he in hers. It was not that easy to go cold turkey, after all. He needed closure. She needed closure.

Things kept getting lost. The student lost her ID card at one café, a pen at another. She lost her watch at one of their assignations. His cell phone fell out of his pocket and was retrieved by a stranger who called the home number and reached Eliza. Eliza asked where the woman had picked up the phone? and the woman obligingly informed her, placing its owner suspiciously far from campus. In one and the same day, the lovers had to explain to their respective partners a missing piece of jewelry and a phone lost in the Berkeley Hills.

Their love began to feel ever-so-slightly tacky, uncomfortable to the touch, even a bit grimy. And that shiny remnant of glory, what was it but a peau de chagrin, a magic pelt that shrank every time their wish was granted, turning more ratty with every consummation.

He stopped desiring her, she him. And suddenly, never knowing quite why they had found disfavor with the gods, in a world that had so recently championed them, enthroned them, suddenly, they were on the ground, terre-à-terre, deposed.

And then it was January again, a crazy-busy time for the CPA that she was, and she suddenly disappeared from campus: poof! Sightings of her kept the rumor mill going:  said to be now here, now there, she was essentially MIA: no one had seen her for weeks; she was lost not only to view, but to recent memory: he was beginning to forget her face; now she seemed like an old hulk–heavy with treasure, to be sure, but loaded down with the treasures of the past, a past that one might not necessarily want to bring up––an old hulk sunk beneath the waves of the ocean, its journeys forgotten, its exact location unknown.

 In the meantime, crisis on the home front! Lucas, his firstborn, Lucas of the sunny disposition, always so confident, far more so than he had ever been as a child, beautiful, athletic Lucas, who had compensated him in so many ways for the childhood he had never had–was compensating him still––Lucas, who by simply existing, had redeemed him: Lucas had made an outcry greater–if that was possible–than Eliza’s, an outcry against him; for his son, so inexperienced, so young and pure, considered his sexual betrayal of Eliza to be, of all the ludicrous notions, a family betrayal! Lucas had sided completely with his mother, and refused to speak to his father.

His wife––the student had asked at their last meeting, had she put this into his head?

But no, he could not blame her.

Eliza had been nothing if not admirable. Time and again, she had told their firstborn that this was a matter between the two of them, the parents. It was not for him, their child, to take sides. They, both of them, were still his parents, were they not? They both loved him, now and forever, no matter what had taken place.

But Lucas had made up his mind. He would be his mother’s champion. He would be his father’s nemesis as well, for father deserved to be punished. There was right and there was wrong, and father had done wrong. Laws, rules, were there for a reason. This law, he could tell, this law was a particularly important one. This law had been made by man. For an important reason: to keep families together. Lucas and his sister still very much needed their father’s loving care. Lucas was too young, he knew, to go out and earn his daily bread. And his sister, with her dolls and her lace headbands and her ringlets, was little more than a charming idiot. God, too, had made this law. He had had it carven in stone. “Thou shall not commit a dupery.” To dupe people was wrong. How, exactly, his father had duped his mother, Lucas did not know. But he knew it was wrong. Lucas, who had never been taken to church by his parents, perhaps for that very reason thought often and deeply about these matters. Lucas did not know if his father was going to go to Hell. He knew that father did not believe in the existence of God. His mother did not believe in God either, but she would not commit a dupery. He had heard her say so. And mother was so truthful, that she even told Gran about polishing off the box of chocolates Gran had sent.  His father deserved a sharp reprimand, and he, Lucas would deliver the reprimand. As the firstborn, the son, he was leader:  he would bring along his younger sister to their mother’s side, to his own way of thinking. Thus spake Lucas! But he spoke these words of consequence only to himself. Towards his father he was merely surly and morose.

Nor did the salaryman, as Eliza liked to call him, suspect that his son might be thinking and feeling so deeply about the sins of the fathers, of himself. He only knew of Lucas’s partisanship, of his choice against his father. So now he–their father after all!– was isolated from the family, which for so  long had been his refuge, the ultimate emotional resource, the greatest solace and comfort, of his life. Now he was a pariah. After all he had done for them!

He began to spend more time on campus, more time at his office in Student Services, where the ghost of the affair with the extramural student would not continue to haunt him. But wherever he went, whatever he did, he felt cast adrift and sore at heart.

Into this bleak emotional landscape sailed Poppy Chang: young, unattached, unencumbered, and so much more solid-seeming than the student, whose continued presence in the salaryman’s life had begun to feel burdensome.

Up the coast Poppy traveled; blithely she progressed, her bright sails catching the wind, her red-painted hull reflecting the sun as she hove into view: a plucky small craft bumping merrily along atop the white spume of the choppy waves of early spring.

He had not expected to see Poppy at the picnic. The event had originally been planned for senior staff only: a bit of light socializing and a game of softball  up in Tilden 
Park on a Saturday, followed by some eats.

The Department of Student Services had been riven with conflict of late, and it was thought by someone with no particular animus towards anyone else in the department– but also with no comprehension of the depth of the jealousies and rivalries within this little family of university workers––that a little light socializing among peers might loosen things up, and mediate the intense power struggles, and the fierce animosities, that had plagued the office of late.

As a Ph.D. playing a consultant’s role, one already had a higher rank than the other members of staff. One thus possessed everything that came along with that rank: a small office, to be sure, a small window, and small perks like coffee brought to one at times (but only if one didn’t ask, only if one was liked, and above all, only if one didn’t in any way abuse the fact that junior staff, consisting primarily of young females, many of them ethnically non-white, would be lined up outside his door, if one allowed them to follow their inclinations, for the simple privilege of serving “the consultant” his morning cuppa).

For his own part, the salaryman tried to be circumspect, never letting on that he was aware of all of the sighs and blushes cast in his direction. One tried not to let it go to one’s head. At home too, he made no reference to his curious status, amusing as it was. Noooo…for if Eliza were to discover that her husband was, quite simply, the heart throb of Student Services, she would go quite mad with jealousy and make herself sick with worry.

The salaryman also had, due to his rank, the unquestioned right to speak first (and to speak longer) at meetings, the right to represent the department at meetings of officials still higher up, the unquestioned deference of younger employees, and, again, of the majority of female employees therefore; and finally, lamentably, as a newly minted Ph.D., male, and possessing the other traits that one possessed, one became, willy nilly, a kind of symbol of all that was desirable and valuable in the male sex. And while this led to greater popularity and esteem among the majority of females, it might mean trouble and friction between himself and the lower-ranking males, gay males, older females, and lesbians in the office tribe.

To make matters worse, this particular salaryman was English, and helplessly so, at a time when almost the entire female contingent of the office was religiously engrossed in the watching of the BBC television series “Upstairs/Downstairs.” Thus as the plot of the television series thickened, and various story lines elevated certain young female characters in terms of their social and, more importantly, romantic status, the salaryman’s standing in office popularity, already absurdly and, he could not help but acknowledge, undeservedly high, fairly shot through the roof.

Into this mad swirl of female passions, projections, and hormones, came Poppy Chang, a new employee holding up, as it were, the very lowest tier of the office bureaucracy, having to vie with other young females, and a few males, for chairs, office supplies, and attention: Poppy, young and emotionally vulnerable and almost inevitably predisposed to find the salaryman alluringly masculine, and almost painfully desirable. And this was to be so despite the presence, in the office and in her life, of males younger, more fit, objectively speaking a good deal more attractive, and certainly more Chinese, than this Ph.D. in Behavioral Psychology, this consultant, this salaryman.

Into his life, then, came Poppy: feminine, rebellious, and somewhat mysterious (he would not say ‘inscrutable’). A girl from another world, she was Chinese-American, the eldest of four sisters all similarly named–that is to say, Poppy was the eldest, and close upon her heels, in the order of their births, had come three sisters spaced exactly two years apart, the girls Peony, Petunia, and Pansy, and finally, after a much longer interval full of tense expectation, disappointment, and hope, during which there were many shouting matches between the Chang parents, followed by an equal number of passionate, and noisy, reconciliations, and just as Poppy had begun to menstruate, the birth of the long-desired baby, little Paul.

 Into the salaryman’s life, then, a life already riven by contradictions and overlaid with irony, a life made problematic by his sharp resentment of his wife, and what had once been her power over him, by the desire he still felt for her, however fiercely he might try to suppress it, and by his wish to enjoy the comforts provided by his wife, and, in exchange, to keep her near him, safe and sound; all of which was made ever more complicated by that other desire, of which he had only recently allowed himself to become aware–– namely, the desire to explore the world of women, of sex, and pleasure––into the life of such a man came Poppy, armed with an undergraduate degree in psychology, the wisdom of her ancestors, her native wit, and little else.

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