Tête-à-tête

Carlo C. calls. “Hello?” he says. “Hi,” I say, and explain who I am, in case he forgot. We met once at the supermarket—Carlo C. asked for my number, then gave me his. “Oh, that’s right,” he says. “Sure, sure, I’ll come over.” Carlo C. is a renowned attorney with a firm here in town.

I put on my orange dress and mid-thigh striped stockings. Next I try and fail to clean my apartment. Next I accidentally drink an entire bottle of wine. I call my sister but she doesn’t answer. I hook on hoop earrings that are très hip, take them off, hook them on. Carlo C. is at the door and I’m holding it open, been holding it open—how long? Not sure. I decide no more wine for at least twenty minutes.

“Sorry if there’s bugs,” I say. “The exterminators are coming in the morning.” Carlo C. is unfazed by the prospect of being set upon by creepycrawlies. “Cool sculpture,” he says. “It’s based on my ex-boyfriend,” I say. “If you can’t tell it’s him, that’s okay—it’s abstract.” “I like it,” he says. “Very cool.” Carlo C. is wearing a black button-up and smells like sex. I don’t mean sexy—I mean he smells like he just had sex, very wet and sloppy sex, so recently that it almost surely must have happened somewhere in the stairwell outside of my door. “Anyway,” I say, “I was going to destroy it, but if you want it, it’s yours.”

I tell Carlo C. we should go out to a costume party or ballroom gala but Carlo C. says he loves the ambiance in my apartment (bien sûr!) and wants to stay here. He opens a bottle of wine and washes one of the snifters in my sink and pours himself a drink. I turn on some electronica, which I assume Carlo C. will like, as he’s from somewhere in Eastern Europe.

“Don’t you work at a café here in town?” Carlo C. says. “I think I’ve seen you there.” He’s sitting on my futon, so I sit down next to him. “No, not anymore,” I say. “My manager told me they couldn’t afford to pay someone ten dollars an hour to come in and read magazines, or to chop up an entire box of pears that was supposed to last us the entire month. In other words, we’re not allowed to take breaks—which has to be illegal but we’re not allowed to do extra work either. Work too little, you’re fired! Work too much, you’re fired! So I quit.” “Too bad,” Carlo C. says. “I like that place.” He’s playing with one of my hoop earrings. “It only happened because my ex-boyfriend came in and I got all upset,” I say. “Him?” Carlo C. says, pointing at my sculpture. “Yes, him. Just last night I caught him with another woman,” I say. “They were out ice skating, and from the second you saw her you could tell exactly what sort of woman she was—ugly fur coat, super ugly black jeans, and him already snuggling up all over her. This in front of families—with children! I was supposed to meet my friend, a city-renowned skater—” “Who?” Carlo C. interrupts. “Does he play hockey? I love hockey.” “No,” I say, “he hates hockey. He’s a figure skater. Anyway, as soon as I saw my ex-boyfriend with her out on the ice, I called my ice skating friend and told him not to come—it’s totally platonic, but my ex-boyfriend was always jealous of the skater anyway, because the skater has super huge arms and a super rugged jaw and is an artist, and my ex-boyfriend was not even that cute and had girlish arms and a girlish jaw and was a mere econ major—très boring, am I right? Maybe now I’ll date the skater, now that things are over between me and my ex. Anyway, I ran into the bathroom because I was so upset—and who do you think follows me in but my ex-boyfriend’s new cunt- in-a-fur-coat? I don’t know how she recognized me, but she came in saying shit like, ‘Excuse me,’ and ‘What are you doing here,’ and when I tried to explain that excuse me bitch but you happen to be out on a date with my boyfriend, she said, ‘Prove it,’ as if she’d sooner believe him than yours truly. At which point I was wishing I had let my ice skater friend come, so I could have stood him up next to my ex-boyfriend and said to her, look, who gives a shit about your new cock-in-a-cute-scarf, because he’s pale and bony and thinks cop movies count as favorite films.” Carlo C. pours more into his snifter. “I love skating,” he says. “We should go sometime.” “No, I hate it,” I say. “Anyway, I told her to get fucked. Then I went banging out of the bathroom. But as soon as I did, I realized I had a whole lot more to say to her, so I went banging back in. She was in one of the stalls—apparently she’d had other business to tend to in the bathroom, aside from victimizing me—the handicapped stall, no less, with someone in a wheelchair already waiting in line outside of it. So I knocked on the door and told her what I really thought of her coat and my ex-boyfriend, and told her that if she thought she was getting away with anything by dating a traitor and a cheat, she had a thing or two coming. Then she said, ‘Where do you get off, thinking you’re better than me, just because you’ve got perfect teeth and perfect freckles? You’re just a lonely bitch with no real friends.’ So I went to the sink, pounded on the soap dispenser about a hundred times until I had an entire handful of it, asked the woman in the wheelchair to wheel out of the way, and then kicked open the stall door, and I slapped her with my soapless hand, and then when she screamed I shoved my hand with the soap over her mouth and let her choke some of it down, really taste it. My father used to do this to us when we were younger—rinse our mouths out with soap if we said something bad.” “My mother used a wooden spoon,” Carlo C. says, tipping the rest of the bottle out into his snifter. “Not on our mouths, on our asses. But my brothers and I always had it coming.” “Well so did this bitch,” I say, “and she got it. I left her gagging down the rest of the soap. ‘She’s done now,’ I said to the woman in the wheelchair as I walked out the door. ‘It’s all yours.’ She gave me a thumbs up—she was on my side.”

“Damn,” Carlo C. says. “So what’d you do to the ex-boyfriend?” “Nothing yet,” I say. “What do you think I should do?” “As an attorney, I’m not going to say anything,” Carlo C. says, twisting the corkscrew into another bottle of wine. “But as Carlo, I say that soap trick is pretty funny—maybe hit him with that.” “No, he’ll get something a whole lot worse than that,” I say. “Well, if you do anything naughty, like naughty in the illegal sense, I’ll defend you pro bono,” Carlo C. says. “I’ll only do something I can get away with,” I say. “Well, if you want pro bono, I’m yours,” Carlo C. says. “The past couple months I’ve been defending a murderer—it’d be a nice change of pace.” I kiss Carlo C. We kiss for a while. Then we take a break and drink more wine. “I mean I don’t really give a shit about him or anyone,” I say, “but still it hurts to get passed up for someone else. Even if she’s not better, it makes you think she must be.” I swing my legs up onto the futon. “Who?” Carlo C. says. I kiss him again. “You have nice hair,” he says. Then we kiss again, for so long that I’m not sure if we’ve ever been not kissing or will ever be not kissing ever again. Carlo C. kisses my cheekbones and my eyebrows and my forehead and my cheeks, and he says, “You deserve someone better,” and I say, “I know,” and he says, “I’ll take good care of you,” and I keep kissing Carlo C., but as I’m doing it, I know how my ex-boyfriend must have felt when he was holding that bimbo’s hand through their mittens—how you can touch someone, and be thinking of someone else the entire time—I kiss Carlo C.’s dimples, and I’m thinking of the tiny gap between my ex-boyfriend’s teeth, and Carlo C. kisses my shoulders and I unbutton his button-up, and I’m thinking of the way my ex-boyfriend used to stir his coffee with a spoon even though he never took any milk or sugar, no sweetener, no agave nectar or honey, raw or otherwise, and Carlo C. shoves my dress up over my hips and spits into his hand and makes what isn’t wet wet, and I touch Carlo C.’s ears and his jaw, and the more I touch them the more I love the way my ex-boyfriend could talk to a complete stranger about economics and not be embarrassed or shy about loving such a nerdy nerdy thing, back when I was a complete stranger, when we first met, and as I tongue Carlo C.’s tongue the more of Carlo C. that I taste the more it makes me forget him, and I think, is this how my ex-boyfriend felt, holding the hand of that button-nose, but thinking only of me? And what now, now that I know this, know how he truly felt? When I have sent Carlo C. away again, will I have any choice but to gather my shoes and my half finished sculpture, and to trek through the night, by subway or by bus, to the apartment of my boyfriend, to end this silly quarrel? To tell him he’s forgiven? To tell him that my love is a love that will not be beaten? To tell him that I want nothing more than to buy drapes with him, and eat ice rink pretzels, and read books to him under the covers of a bed we’ll someday buy? How else could it ever have happened? I will buzz his door, and run up his stairs, and when he sees me he will be so happy—très happy—so happy now to not be alone.

Matthew Baker’s stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, and Best Of The Net, among others. He is the primary translator for the interlinked novel The Numberless, the randomized novella Kaleidoscope, and the intentionally posthumous Afterthought. He lives in Ireland.