“How do we know?” – Sammy Braun in Saul Bellow’s s.s. “The Old System”
Andy, a few years older than I, was a tubby neighborhood kid with a bunch of chutzpah. He had a habit of trying to impress me with tales of his sexual interests and his toughness. We would hang out in my yard or his, toss a pink rubber “Spaldeen” ball, and chat about life.
His voice would take on a persuasive urgency, as if he were on stage in a play commanding the audience’s attention, instead of just loafing around Long Island’s suburb of all suburbs, Levittown. He beat off a lot in the shower at home with soap, he reported, and he claimed to beat up kids at school.
Once he asserted that his parents still “did it,” mostly on the weekends. I asked how he knew? He said that he could hear them moaning from his room and that he would show me some stuff as proof. They were out grocery shopping, so Andy let me into his house and took me down the shadowy hallway to their bedroom.
It felt weird being in their private place, sitting on the edge of their bed. A tangy smell of adult bodies, mixed with hints of deodorant and perfume and old cigarette smoke, hovered in the stale air. He opened the drawer of the side table on his father’s side of the bed: glossy gold foil packages, about an inch square, intimate, winked in the light!
Andy said that was not all and lifted up a corner of the mattress. A busty naked woman beamed from the cover of Playboy, her tits like ample little ski jumps straining against thin cloth, her smile suggesting mysterious delights. He flipped the magazine open to the centerfold, and there she was, everything showing, even her bush. Andy asked if I wanted to jerk off but, disoriented, red-faced, I declined.
Outside again, we stood on his front lawn, shifting from foot to foot, avoiding each other. Andy seemed to have run out of chatter; nor did I have any conversation to share. Suddenly he looked up and cried, “Looka the butterfly!” I looked up, trusting, searching for some relief.
Andy punched me square in the stomache then, and I buckled over. I could barely gasp: “You bastard… you freakin’ bastard!”
One late night in early December in New York, after studying for finals at Butler Library, staying at the university until closing for four nights straight, I took the subway dozingly downtown to 66th Street, got off, mounted the steps to the street from the miasmic IRT, and hurried across Amsterdam Avenue toward my apartment. The chilly drizzle mixed with a stinging breeze.
I shook the haze from my brain, cautious and alert for muggers, and pulled my cap down around my ears. I walked quickly, leaning into the cold blast. Still a few blocks from W. 69th Street, I paused wearily and adjusted my book bag.
Out of nowhere a black dog leapt up from the sidewalk, ten steps ahead of me, ready to pounce and bite! The cold wind fell and for a moment all was silent. There was no barking, no sign of an owner.
The beast, a small Cerberus, still strangely quiet, seemed to open its maw, slavering, and then it melted abruptly into the pavement. I slanted away, across the sidewalk, paused, and finally edged forward, a step at a time. I could see the shaggy dark shadow panting, off to the side, waiting.
Then it flapped up again with a SNAP, twisted, discarded, ruined by the wind… a black umbrella.
Post-divorce, I used to sit around my new house over dinner and afterward watching TV, avoiding loneliness. The “Felicity” show drew my freshly solo heart to actress Keri Russell’s delicate blue-eyed beauty, sometimes wet my eyes from the painful screw-ups of young friendship and romance. The drama of it all held me, although I was middle-aged, like sweets for a 6th-grader on Halloween.
Then, on a Friday evening in August, I found myself antsy, angry with my stay-at-home self, eager for more than eye candy, for real life. I would not let myself grow a night older stuck in my cushy chair in front of the tube, watching the artificial flickering images.
So I met Coral, saying “Hey” to her and her friends that night, at an outdoor concert in downtown Greensboro. She was blonde, wild-eyed, quirky, artistic, beautiful, crazily attractive. We went out for drinks, danced, exchanged phone numbers, and began to hang out, usually in Winston-Salem at her place.
We both loved things French: the food, the wine, the language. At dinner we held parts of the conversation “en francais.” Later we made out on the living room couch, tongue-kissing, teasing each other under our clothes almost to orgasm, finally going together to bed.
We had a steamy weekend in a motel room at Wrightsville Beach. There Coral asked me “What would you most like?” and then gave it to me, her warm tongue leaving moist tracks down my belly. She was big-time hot fun.
I discovered, too, that she was unbalanced, off her meds. Coral told me she’d been feeling manic, but I hadn’t realized exactly how she’d meant that.
Now, in mid-October, the depressive part of the cycle set in. She was hard to reach on the phone. I’d show up, and she hadn’t showered. Her eyes looked dead. She wasn’t eating. I took her out for soup and salad – but she barely touched her food. She said she couldn’t handle a relationship, that it wasn’t working. We argued, but I gave in to her request, finally, not to call.
A few weeks later Coral rang me and announced she’d be in Greensboro that evening. Could she come by and visit? “Of course,” I replied. I started thinking she’d changed her mind, dreaming about what that meant.
We sat on my couch, sipping white wine and talking. “I’m feeling better,” she said. She leaned back comfortably, stretching herself like a contented cat. She smiled as she spoke. She looked relaxed and gorgeous and friendly. She smelled good: hints of shampoo and patchouli. I played with her blonde curls; she didn’t move away. I turned to her and kissed around her lips and tasted her wine-laced tongue.
Coral froze, pulled away. Her eyes blazed wildly. Her mouth frowned. She snarled,”You sunnuva bitch! You promised we’d be just friends… just friends.” As it turned out, not even that.