novels

Love, Sex & the Wrong Bride

Chapter One

Love, Sex & the Wrong Bride

Super Lover of my Dreams

It was two months ago to the day that she came home and found the note. What a coward he was! But smart, sharp as a blade, the way he severed the bond before she realized he wanted to.

Dear Dawn,
I don't know how to tell you this, so I'll just say it: I'm leaving. I love you. I also love her. I may not be brave, but I like to think I'm honest, and I cannot continue living a double lie life. I will always love you. I think I will miss you. Please do not blame yourself. Here is a check for $636.82 to cover my share of next month's rent and utilities (projected) for the balance of this month.
Love,
Hank

Dawn folds the letter—typed neatly on Hank's company letterhead—slips it back into her wallet and stashes her purse in the bottom file drawer. She sits back in her swivel chair, behind her desk piled with papers and manuscripts and phone messages, and does not even contemplate work. Why does she still love him? The jerk! But the point is, she does, and she wants him back, and today she feels inspired. It could be the toasty late May morning. Or maybe it was last night's dream: there is Hank, on his knee, in front of an arbor covered with white lilies and pink roses, begging her back; and there she is, in a flowing white dress, knowing in her heart that she can't refuse him; a crowd of people cheer and clap; and a bridal bouquet comes sailing right to her. Sometimes dreams tell you messages, sometimes they give you hope, sometimes they totally mislead you. In this case, Dawn takes the hope and the message and disregards the chance that it could be her mind playing a hoax. She decides to shed the anguish of the past two months and—woman, seize the day—call him.

Hank marches into his office and drops his briefcase on the desk with a thlunk. His furious green eyes go cloudy and confused. He grabs the phone and presses it to his ear. 'No,' he says to himself, 'don't.' He slams the receiver back in its cradle, and freezes. Indecision. Fury. Humiliation. He can't move. He sits stiffly in his burgundy leather chair, his hands flat on the desk, his glazed eyes staring blankly into the middle of the room.

There is a brisk knock on the door and Carla, his secretary, pokes her head through. Why doesn't she just leave him alone? Especially this morning, after. . . . No, he refuses to think about it. What is she staring at?

'Coffee, Hank?' she says. A smile animates her plain, wise face. She is an intuitive caretaker, experienced in support, with a native though somewhat inarticulate intelligence. With some education and encouragement, she could have been running neck-and-neck with him for the partnership he's after.

'Bring me two,' he says.

Her eyebrows arch.

Ignoring her, he snaps open the latches on his briefcase. Carla departs with a slight, but detectable, slam of the door. The moment she has gone, his hand reaches for the receiver. And again he stops himself. Instead, he lifts the top of his briefcase and peers inside at the neat stack of papers, which he had brought home to work on last night. Did he work? No, no way, not with Chris prancing around distracting him. How is he supposed to defend his client if he can't concentrate on his work? After, after . . . he can't stand to think about it. About her. He holds his hands to his head, as if it's about to blow off, and remembers that he left the apartment without brushing his hair. He can feel the kinky mess of how it dried, unbrushed, on his way to work.

He has always known that someday, somehow, Chris would undermine him. And this, he is sure, is just the beginning. Or maybe it started a long time ago, when she came between him and Dawn. Why did he ever leave Dawn? He can't remember a single incident of anger between them, not the solid kind of frustration he gets with Chris. The snitty, sexy, lewd . . . his neck relaxes and he shakes his head and takes a deep breath. Chris is never boring and that was what attracted him in the first place. But now she has begun to exhaust him. She is draining the energy he used to put into his work, and he is beginning to feel the pull of a slow downward curve, an incremental arch, barely noticeable as it's happening but leading ulti- mately to failure. Some mornings now, when he wakes, he is surprised to find that his first thought is that he is a doomed man.

Doomed. This morning, that damned hairspray misfiring over her shoulder, shooting him right in the face. All so she could get her hair to wave and lilt in the right directions. He barely knows what her hair looks like without being encased in all that goop. Is it blonde, naturally? Who knows.

Hank can still see her face in the mirror when she screamed. Her bright fuchsia lips stretched into a big O and her blue eyes bulged. She looked ridiculous, really laughable, and he told her so. He said, 'Woah, you look like some kind of clown,' and then he had the nerve to laugh at her.

That was when she turned around and gave him another squirt in the face.

'That's it,' he said angrily. 'You're nuts!'

'Go to hell, Hank, just go right to hell!' She grabbed her jacket and her bag and stalked past him towards the door.

'Where are you going?'

'To the magazine. Where do you think?'

'Damn it, Christine, you could have blinded me.'

'So sue me.'

She stood there like a prima donna, sexy and mad in her billowing white silk blouse tucked into a tight white miniskirt, with her hands on her hips and her fuchsia nails pressing into her waist.

'Forget it,' he said, his anger dispersed in a cloud of lust. He closed his eyes and leaned forward to kiss her; but instead of her lips, he felt the sharp slap of her palm on his cheek. The door slammed shut. He opened the door and lunged into the hallway. There she was, waiting for the elevator, her blue plastic bookbag slung over her shoulder.

'That's it.' he said. 'No more.'

She pursed her lips and stepped into the elevator, leaving him with a sassy look that said ohyeah?

Thinking about it now makes his heart race. He comes to the office to work, not run the endless loop of his conflicts with Christine. Why, when it comes to this woman, does his intelligence become so dangerously obscured? He knows that what he needs now is distance and time to think, evaluate and decide the course of his future, with or more likely without her. He decides, in that moment, not to go home tonight. He'll call Andy and see if he can stay there.

Carla brings two cups of coffee with milk and carefully sets them down next to his briefcase. Then she digs into her skirt pocket, pulls out a red plastic comb, lays it next to the cups and leaves.

She's right, of course; his hair is a mess. But he doesn't need Carla to tell him so. He doesn't need any woman to tell him anything. They should all just leave him alone, he's a man with work to do. Jabbing the intercom button three times, he demands not to be disturbed for any reason other than a call from upper management or his new client. Thus cut off from the world, reality, and particularly the women who rule his life, Hank drinks his coffee, combs his hair and plunges into his new case.

At one o'clock, Carla brings in his messages and announces, 'I'm going to lunch.' She's mad at him, he can tell; and now that he has calmed down, he feels guilty. He takes the pile of message slips and smiles with attempted warmth. 'Thanks,' he says.

'Uh huh.'

'Sorry about before, Garla, I—'

'Dawn called,' she says.

Obviously she thinks he was a real jerk about Dawn. He clearly remembers Carla's reaction when he called her into his office to dictate the letter announcing his departure. She slapped down her pen and said, 'Wait a minute, Hank. Are you serious?' He remained poised, and continued. After a few moments, her shorthand resumed. She did not speak to him for the rest of the day.

He says, 'Take a long lunch.'

'I will.'

He looks at Dawn's name spelled out in Carla's neat script. She checked the box for call, which he normally takes as an unquestioned directive to pick up the phone and dial. Certainly, he knows both Dawn's numbers by heart. But to dial Dawn would be to summon the combination to a locked Pandora's box full of unfinished love and unre- deemed guilt. He had walked away not knowing how to handle it, figuring actions spoke louder than words, even though these actions were driven by confusion and words may have healed him and saved them. Why is she calling now? Is she finally going to blow her stack about the cowardly way he left her two months ago, packing a suitcase when she was working late one night and leaving the letter for her to find when she got home?

He cannot bring himself to call her. Work, he thinks, concentrate on work. He has a new client, a tough case which could earn him the coveted partnership if he does well. He has got to prepare before meeting Mike Blitsky for the first time tomorrow.

Hank is intently scrawling notes on a yellow legal pad when his phone rings. Carla's still out to lunch, and his phone keeps ringing and ringing. Finally, he answers it: 'Henry Lowe.'

'Hank.'

'Dawn?'

'Hanky!'

'Dawny!'

'How are you, Hank?' She sounds civil.

'Great, everything's fine. You?'

'Oh, terrific'

Now he hears the distance in her voice. No confidence.

Something is wrong.

'Are you sure?'

'Of course.'

'Work okay?' he asks.

'It's fine. In fact, I just got a new assignment, my first major book.' Dawn is an Associate Editor at Weatherhoff.

'How about you?'

'Great. Work's great. I'm getting closer to making a partnership, I think.'

'So, is there any chance you could meet me for a drink after work? I guess we can't do dinner.'

Chris. But he is not going home tonight, maybe not even tomorrow night. He can do dinner if wants to. But does he?

He says, 'A drink would be nice.'

They meet at a bar in midtown, with a pink neon sign shining PLANET EARTH into the dark street. Dawn spots him immediately, standing by the sizzling neon, peering in. She can see the tension in his face. His evening stubble accentuates the squarish jaw and hides the dimple in his right cheek, camouflaging him as a tough guy, when she knows he is soft. His auburn hair has a kink she does not recall. He looks sexy, large, powerful, a good-looking man obsessed and burdened. He takes work too seriously to realize that he could be happy if only he allowed himself to disengage from the phantom pressures of responsibility that gird him.

Hank feels a clamp on his forehead and a thousand butterflies in his stomach. When did he last see Dawn? It had to be when he went back to their apartment to pick up his things. He sees her waiting for him at the end of the bar, punctual as ever. He's ten minutes late. Squeezing by a man seated next to her, he kisses her cheek. 'You look great,' he says. And she does. He forgot how pretty she was: big hazel eyes, curly golden hair, peachy skin and that smile—sad and friendly at once. She is wearing the five- strand choker of freshwater pearls he gave her on her twenty-eighth birthday, three years ago. He had just landed his job and was feeling prosperous and lucky.

'You look terrific, Hanky,' she says. The smile broadens, she shakes her head. 'Really good.'

Hanky. That's what she used to call him. He feels like her brother, and for now, after this morning with Chris, it feels good.

'I ordered a beer for you,' she says.

'You were sure I'd be here.'

'I didn't think you'd stand me up.' She takes a sip of her red wine.

How could she be so sure, after what he did to her? He knows they're both thinking the same thing: about two months ago, about now, and about how for the first time in years they don't know what's happened in each other's lives in between. They have lost the strand of their ongoing dialogue. He notices the faint white line around her ring finger; not enough time has passed for that memory to disappear. Last March, in a warm burst of pre-spring sunshine, they spent an afternoon on a windy beach. Both were sunburned by evening. He had given her the diamond and emerald ring that morning, and she returned it by mail just a few weeks later. Why hadn't he been able to go through with it? He had found a good and beautiful woman, fallen in love with her, proposed. Then Chris. What was wrong with him? Chris had broken right through his barrier and made him raw with need. He wonders if Dawn knows he slept with Chris five times before they broke up, instead of the admitted once. Even then he was aware that Chris knew her hand, knew that with each bout of passion she strengthened herself by weakening him. Poor Dawn, she didn't deserve it.

'What's going on?' he asks.

She forces a smile. 'Nothing. I just thought it was time to see you.'

'Tell me about your new project,' he says.

'I don't want to talk about work, really. Do you?'

'I guess not.' And he doesn't. He really wants to talk about her, to find out if she has someone new. Should he tell her he is still with Chris, that she's driving him crazy but he's too cowardly to do anything about it? No, he can't tell Dawn any of that.

So what do they talk about, Hank and Dawn, with so much between them and so much they could be discussing? They plunge into a lengthy survey of current movies. Meanwhile, they consume quite a bit of alcohol. And before they realize the significance of it—or the danger—they are gushing over each other. Hank has an arm around Dawn's waist, and she is leaning against him and even, from time to time, rubbing her soft white shoe against his grey suit leg.

'Let's go have some dinner,' he says.

'Dinner? Really? Can you?'

'I can do anything I want. I just have to make one phone call.'

It doesn't occur to him that Dawn must assume he's off to call Chris, when in fact he is calling Andy about using his sofabed that night.

Back at the bar, he says 'No luck. I'll try later.'

And she says, 'Listen, Hank, maybe you better not have dinner with me.'

'Why?'

'You know.'

'I was going to crash at a friend's tonight. He isn't home, I got his machine, so I have to kill some time. Come on, kill it with me.' He gives her that gloriously confident smile that won her vote years ago. She had always relied on his appearance of strength and direction, and now—that smile—she is just as moved as ever. And so, instead of probing the obvious—why is he free tonight; and is he really free!—she accepts his surface offer of the next few hours, totally hers, without complication, without explanation.

They taxi uptown for Chinese food, since she lives on the upper west side and he has to head in that direction eventually, to Andy's. They huddle together in the back seat, without speaking or acknowledging the rising tide of mutual feeling. When they reach Hunan Palace, they reluctantly disengage their hands.

As they walk through the Oriental arch leading into the restaurant, Hu, the maitre d', rushes toward them with enthusiasm. 'So good to see you,' he says. 'Haven't seen you in so long.' He ushers them to their old table, in a back corner, and stands before them, smiling. After some time of coming here together, they had stopped consulting the menu since they knew it so well. They look at each other now and smile. Hu says, 'Okay, cold noodles? Fried dumplings? General Tso's Chicken, okay? Crispy Beef?' They nod at each suggestion and he hurries off to fill their order. Surreptitiously brushing their knees together under the table, they discuss the savings and loan crisis, avoiding any mention of what is most on their minds—that old, magical entity, us.

Until after dinner.

'So,' she says. They are standing outside the restaurant, stuffed and sleepy and happy. 'It really was so nice to see you again, Hanky.' She smiles.

'Listen, Dawny, would you like to, you know, come up to Andy's with me now for, you know, a nightcap?'

'A nightcap?'

He smiles.

She looks right into him, and says, 'I'd love to.'

They head even farther uptown, beyond Columbia Uni- versity and Barnard, to upper Claremont Avenue. There's a church nearby, and just as they get out of the cab the midnight bells start ringing. Walking arm-in-arm across the street, Dawn asks, 'Who is this Andy?'

'I met him a couple months ago,' he says, deliberately not adding that he met Andy through Chris. 'He's an investment banker.'

'It seems unusual that he would live away up here. He must have some money.'

'He's got a white guy complex, thinks it makes him seem socially aware to live on the edge of Harlem, not just another grey suit.'

They stand in the delapidated foyer of Andy's building, waiting for the elevator which finally scrapes its way down. There is graffiti on the elevator walls. Andy lives on the ninth floor where the hallway is dark and drab, lined with brown bags full of bottles and stacks of newspapers for recycling.

Andy—short, chubby and darkly hairy—answers the door wearing a bright red bathrobe that stops just below his buttocks. His thighs bulge out like sausages.

'Hey, guy.' Hank greets Andy. 'Didn't I mention I was bringing a friend?'

'Woman friend, you said.'

Hank turns to Dawn. 'Sorry.'

Dawn makes a quick secret face, ridiculing Andy.

Andy says, 'Never apologize' and leads them down a narrow hallway into the small living room. The walls are lined with prints of abstract paintings and bookshelves crammed with paperbacks. A formidable collection of records, tapes and CDs takes up two whole shelves. On a small table next to the couch is a framed photograph of a man surrounded by three small, pudgy boys.

'Andy Shoemaker,' he says to Dawn, extending a hand.

'Sorry,' says Hank.

'Dawn Waterston,' she introduces herself. Andy looks from Dawn to Hank, who can see that the information—Dawn—is registering in Andy's ticker-tape mind. Please, Hank wishes, please don't say anything about Chris. Why did he bring Dawn here? Stupid! But Andy seems like a man's man. He won't mention it to Chris. Will he?

They share the couch and Andy sits opposite in an armchair, his knees spread wide. He is not wearing under- pants. 'Wanna drink?' He smiles.

'I'll have one,' Hank says.

Andy gets up and goes to a low wooden cabinet. He slides open a door revealing a prolific collection of bottles. 'Glasses are under here,' he says, pointing to the lower shelf. 'Help yourselves. I'm going to bed. I have to leave at five to catch the six o'clock shuttle to D.C. Sheets are in the hall closet. Blankets, pillows, everything you need. Pull hard on the sofabed when you unfold it, it gets stuck.' He disappears down the hall and into his bedroom.

Hank pours himself a half-inch of Scotch. 'I need to unwind,' he says. 'What a day!'

'Me too. I'm nervous too. I mean, I feel tense. Work is so demanding.'

He sits next to her on the couch and balances the glass on his knee.

'Let's trade backrubs, Hanky, like we used to.'

Suddenly, the fact that he loves her looms up from his subconscious, like a monster rising from depths he'd rather leave buried. He has always been a man of action; intro- spection disturbs him. Loving Dawn, now, disturbs him. Yet here she is, in the flesh, indisputable.

'Backrubs?' he mutters.

'Never mind. We don't have to. It's just that I thought—

'No, you're right. I thought the same thing.' Meaning that they both thought coming here together meant they would be making love.

She takes the glass off his knee and sets it on the coffee table. 'Hank, I have to tell you, I still have feelings for you. I do. It's the truth. I just had to say it.' She sighs. 'That was hard.'

'It's okay, Dawny,' he admits, 'I feel the same way about you.'

'I love you, Hanky.'

They melt against the back of the couch into a luxurious kiss. The warmth and familiarity are deeply, surprisingly exciting. 'Dawn,' he whispers between kisses, 'I love you.'

They're out of their clothes in minutes. Blink. Then Dawn abruptly says, 'Wait a second.' She gets up and forages through her purse. She holds up a flat foil package.

'Condoms? But Dawny, it's me.' How could she? They lived together for years. They were sleeping together long before the world worried about AIDS.

'Hank, please. When I became single I made it a policy: no rubber, no sex. Not that I've had . . . never mind that. The point is, how do I know who you've been with? Sorry, but that's my rule.' She looks serious about it, too, sitting there stark naked, her face concerned and intelligent, nipples erect, stomach still wet from his licks.

'Okay,' he says, 'you're right.'

'Thanks, sweetheart. Don't worry, it won't hurt.' As she rolls the condom down his wilting erection, she says, 'It's only psychological, Hank. Relax. We'll get you back in action. You'll be the same old Super Lover of my Dreams.'

That's what she used to say to him. And it always worked. And it works now. Here he comes, up up up, and fully condomized they proceed. She feels like heaven to him despite the barriers of rubber and unasked, unanswered questions. He can't imagine why he ever left her.

© Katia Lief