Clyde Liffey lives near the water.
We were eating our lunch, as we were wont to do, in our company’s modern mailroom. I leaned back, white bread sandwich in hand, closed my eyes in reminiscence. Thirty or forty years ago when I started working, this room or its equivalent would be covered with pin up girls displaying assets so glossy and unreal you’d think sex was impossible as it mostly is for me.
“What do you have?” Don asked.
I opened my eyes, looked at my sandwich as if I didn’t know what I made last night, didn’t already eat a quarter of it. “Tuna.”
“You’re a good Catholic boy.”
“It has nothing to do with being Catholic. I just tend to run out of lunch meat at the end of the week.”
“Why don’t you buy more when you go shopping?”
“I tried that but then I just make thicker sandwiches or snack on it more.” I patted my barely there paunch. “Besides meat isn’t good for you. What do you have in that container?”
“It’s a Mediterranean eggplant dish. It’s good for you. Carrie wants me to be healthy too. She saw the recipe somewhere, figured she’d try it out.”
I of course know what ratatouille is. I just didn’t believe Carrie would ever make anything like that. “Is it any good?”
He lifted his fork. “Try some?”
Something yellow was dripping off the zucchini his fork had speared. “No thanks.”
We were silent a while. I glanced at the clock. It was 12:45. The office manager – we don’t call them mail boys anymore; besides he’s forty-five – would be back in fifteen minutes. We’d have to return to our adjacent cubicles. I finished my sandwich, drank most of my water. “Is she a good cook?”
“Carrie? I don’t think so. Not as good as my mom. I guess every recently unconfirmed bachelor would say that. I give her credit for being adventurous though. Midwesterners like us would never try out recipes like that when we were growing up.”
“We didn’t do that back then in the East either.”
“Times are changing, I guess. Her cooking sure beats mine. It’s nice to have someone cook for you. You should try it.”
“Sorry.” I guess he’d forgotten about my three week failed marriage some twenty-five years ago. Don started working at our company just as my divorce or annulment, I can’t remember what she insisted on, was getting finalized.
The door swung open. We returned to our posts.
Though I never smoked and Don quit years ago, we still take Friday afternoon smoke breaks when we can. Since it was a nice day, at least it wasn’t raining, we decided to stroll around the slowly emptying office park. “Any plans for the weekend?” I ventured, as I nearly always do on these weekly jaunts.
“Not much. We’ll probably go to a movie.”
“I don’t know – either a chick flick or a shoot-'em-up. I forget whose turn it is to pick.”
“How do you stand those movies?”
“They’re not so bad. I just put my arm around Carrie, zone out for a while. It beats doing yard work.”
That justification didn’t resonate with me. I live in an apartment thirty miles away from the office. Don lives twenty or thirty miles away from work in almost the exact opposite direction. I don’t think we’ve ever seen each other away outside the office except for company events. “How is Carrie?”
“She’s fine. She’s excited about her daughter coming back from college.”
“Where does she go?”
“I keep forgetting. Somewhere up north. Bowdoin or Brandeis, something like that.”
“They’re both good schools.” I was losing interest in his talk. These Friday afternoon rambles were beginning to feel like couples time and Don was one of the least likely persons I’d couple with. We strolled dreamily and mostly silently along until a cream-colored convertible’s horn honked. Anya was on her way out of the park. She raised her sunglasses, looked straight at Don. “Care for a ride?”
“I’d love to but I still have to work.”
“Can’t your partner cover for you?” She nodded at me. I guess she still didn’t know my name.
“Sorry, he’s the resentful type.”
“Too bad,” she poutingly said and drove off.
I looked at my watch. It was not yet three. “What was that all about?”
“I guess Carrie let her leave early. Some departments have a heart.” He loosened a high button on his shirt, glanced anxiously to his left and right. “Do you have a lot to do when we get back?”
“Unless an emergency comes up, all I have to do is fill in my timesheet.”
“Good. Let’s extend our walk. I’ll tell you something if you promise not to repeat it.”
We veered into an unaccustomed walkway so Don could tell his tale: “The other day Anya and I had to work late on her project. Carrie, you know how we drive in together, had to leave on time so she could play bridge with her girlfriends. She felt guilty so I told her not to worry, I’d get the company car service to drive me home. The work didn’t take as long as we thought it would (despite what I’ll put down in my timesheet): we finished up a few minutes after six. I told Anya I was in a bind. We can’t use the car service until after eight. She offered to give me a ride. We stopped in a bar. She started talking about her childhood in Guyana.”
“I thought she was Indian.”
“She is, from Guyana. Anyway one drink led to another, she told me some more stories, and –” We were back on the main road. Our building, gleaming in the late afternoon part cloudiness, was only a few blocks away.
“A gentleman always elides.”
We didn’t speak the rest of the way – Don I suppose because he felt he’d already said too much, me because I was roiling in jealousy. Anya, nearly thirty or not much past it, a little gawky, short, both thin and round, was hired eight or nine months ago. I wanted her from day one but, office politics and my poor navigation of them being what they are, I couldn’t think of a way in. Don, already married, seduced her without even trying or wanting to.
A few minutes before five, Carrie came to our area, jangling her car keys above eye level and my plans coalesced.
I lost my first Anya when she left me twenty days after our city hall wedding. What friends I had at the time scoffed at me for seeking a mail order bride. I was young, I was lonely, she had a nice soft focus smile, I figured I’d do what I could to end the cold war. Her English was better than the letters we’d exchanged led me to believe, she was affectionate, inventive, fun-loving, in short, much more than I thought I’d bargained for – until her Russian fiancé arrived.
Newcomer Don was one of the few who didn’t mock me. Most of my antagonists from those days are gone now – moved on to better or at least different jobs or dead. Don and I don’t share many interests but since he was nice enough not to needle me about my romantic failings and I have an occasional need to turn a good deed, I remained loyal to him.
A few weeks passed. Don and Anya dallied on their project, varied the days they stayed late. I tried to cultivate Carrie.
“I hear your daughter’s back from college.”
“Yes, Anne did very well her first year.”
“Odd – Don can never remember the name of her school.”
She told me. All I remember is that it wasn’t in New Jersey. That ruled out reminiscing about my childhood. I returned to my desk muddled about my next line of attack.
My plans simmered while I worked on my assignment and ignored Don’s jabbering about the minor league game he was going to that night. Just as I was putting the finishing touches – pretty green and yellow highlights – on my spreadsheet, Carrie stopped by. “Where’s Don?”
I looked up. “Jeez, he must have let for his game tonight. Weren’t you going with him?”
“No. That’s a boy’s night out. I came over to tell him that the shop called. They have to keep our car overnight. I’d ask Anya for a ride but she just left.”
“Can your daughter pick you up?”
“She’s waitressing. She won’t get off till midnight. I’ll think of something.” She started to walk away.
“Carrie, wait. I can give you a ride in about fifteen minutes. I just need to clean up a few things.”
“Thanks. If it’s not out of your way, I’d appreciate it. I’ll wait in my office.”
I shut down my computer and hurried to the wash room as soon as she was out of sight. Either Don never talks about me at home or Carrie never listens, I thought. Otherwise she’d know I live more than fifty miles away from her.
We stopped for gas soon after leaving the office park. Carrie primped herself while I filled the tank. She was plump, had a musty smell and porcine features yet looked more like a middle aged prude than a pig or some other caricature. I wasn’t sure what Don saw in her but I kept myself aroused.
Traffic was light or at least not stressful. We’d made it to her well-cut lawn and driveway around six o’clock.
“If you have time, I can fix you a drink before you hit the road again.”
“That would be great.”
We sat next to each other on her small white couch, sipping strong martinis. “I was always a good girl,” Carrie said, “and yet I had Anne my senior year in college. He was a prefect – I went to a Catholic school. I told my parents the father must be a graduate student who got me drunk at a party, that I didn’t remember. Of course we didn’t – don’t – believe in abortion. I was nearly abstinent from then until I got this job and met Don eighteen months ago. You probably know him much better than I do. I guess he’s a little strange and set in his ways from being a bachelor so long but he’s a decent companion especially now that Anne’s going to college. We have a lot in common, both of us coming from the Midwest and all. Still, seeing Anne preparing to leave the nest for good, I feel like it’s time for me to spread my wings too. Would you care for another drink?”
I looked at the coffee table in front of us. Carrie finished her drink, I’d had about a third of mine. “I still have to drive, but you can freshen it.”
Carrie rose, drew the curtains closed. She returned a few minutes later with the drinks on a tray wearing just a bra and panties, overflowing her imposed restraints. She sat much closer to me this time. “I hope you’re not offended. It gets so hot around here.” The air conditioning was on. She smelled mustier than before. She put her pale arm around me, puckered her lips, soon she was sitting on my lap. I thought of Don, my erstwhile confidante, what the office gossips would say, sweat more profusely. She unbuttoned me and I groaned.