Sam’s a balancing act. Too much makeup and he’ll think I’m a hussy, too little and he’ll think I’m not interested in doing the things hussies do when a man’s wife is out of town. Lip gloss and a little mascara, hair down and curled, black nylon pin-up panties and a matching bra. I’ll keep on my glasses. He likes girls with glasses.
He’s picking me up at eight. On the phone he made very sure to mention that his wife was away on business, she’s away until tomorrow, did I mention Michelle was out town tonight? Not sure where we’re going or what we’re doing, but I let him do all the planning.
I met Sam when he was my professor, senior year, Arthurian Literature. I liked his faint lisp and his wild hand gestures and the way he connected Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to The Empire Strikes Back. I got to know him when the department hired me to sit at the desk and occasionally run off a photocopy of a test or a packet of reading. My days were long enough already, so I brought in a French press to make the afternoon speed by in a caffeinated haze. He came in to get his mail and I offered him a cup of coffee. He asked how I liked the class and I told him how much I enjoyed reading The Long Goodbye. We talked about Phillip Marlowe until I almost made him late.
We had a standing coffee date every Tuesday and Thursday. He once said, “I’m going to be a private detective and you’re going to be my Effie Perine and make me coffee every morning.” From then on he called me Effie, even once in class before tripping over his tongue and righting himself again. At 8am, no one noticed. Even after I graduated, the coffee dates continued, only with less frequency. Once or twice a month we’d meet on a Saturday morning at the diner, stuff ourselves with pancakes and bad black coffee, then hide out at the Paperback Exchange, reading passages from old erotic novels and chortling out of sight of the knitting, frowning clerk. One of his wife’s students waited on us, gave the two of us a dirty look and prompted him to say, “Oh, this isn’t what it looks like.” When the student was gone, he winked at me.
His wife Michelle is the head of the psychology department, my friend Liz had her junior year and said she is insufferably boring, a dull blonde woman in plain blue skirts and duckish pumps. I learn from him that she brought her child into their marriage and expects him to drive Emily around the corner to her father’s on weekends. She hides upstairs when he watches old noir films on VHS and won’t dust the 50’s leather lesbian novels on his bookcase. She doesn’t understand black coffee and detective stories, British heist films or diner pancakes at two in the afternoon, and in marrying her, the man who danced, chain-smoked, puked his guts out with anxiety and hangovers in graduate school gave way to a man who drinks fair-trade coffee and eats bran muffins every morning while doing crosswords puzzles.
He knocks on my door at ten after eight. He’s early, I expected him to be at least fifteen minutes late the way he always was to class. I’m glad I decided on casual dress, he didn’t even bother to shave. His eyes look tired, but his pupils are jittery; he’s either nervous or he spent the afternoon shotgunning black coffee. Maybe both.
“Hello Effie,” he says with chapped lips.
We’re silent in the doorway for one second before he says, “Do you want to go to the St. Jude for a drink before the movie?”
He’s clever. “What are we seeing?” I ask.
“Whatever you want.” He shrugs. “The art theater downtown is showing Casablanca at nine thirty, or we could go over to the multiplex and see what they’re playing.”
“Let’s get that drink and then we can decide.”
I don’t spend a lot of time at the St. Jude, I don’t like to drink alone and this is the alone type of drinking establishment; dim, cramped, dingy. We’re the only couple in the place. I suspect he picked this bar because we’re sure not to run into anyone we know, everyone here is twice his age and three times mine. It’s also the only bar with a decent jukebox; we’ve played through five dollars worth of Elvis Costello, two gin and tonics each and a pack of cigarettes from the pull-knob machine. She’s out of town for two days; he can always blame the smoke on his shirts to a room full of barflies. He’ll have to find his own excuse as to what he was doing in a bar.
He lights one off the other as the clock strikes ten. So much for Casablanca. If he’s trying to get me liquored up and easy, I’d like to get to the easy part. I’m not big on foreplay. I watch his long fingers drum on the table and open my legs underneath the table, sliding my feet so they’re lined up and barely touching his.
“There’s no such thing as love,” he’s saying, stirring his drink absentmindedly. “It’s all valentines and social obligations, there’s nothing concrete to it. You find someone you can more or less stand to be around, someone physically attractive enough for you to reproduce with and you sign a piece of paper. The rest is just for show.”
I’m not sure where all this is coming from. Is he breaking up with me or is he trying to hint that his marriage is over and he’s looking for a little fun on the side? I wish he’d stop being so damn cryptic, our whole relationship is coded and I’d like him to spell something out for once. Love is apparently out of the picture, but if he wants to fuck me, I’d rather he just say, “Let’s go back to my place.” I’ve dreamed twice that we have sex and both times, his wife catches us. No chance of that tonight.
He lights his last cigarette and tells me there’s no such thing as sex after thirty. He’s thirty-six. This wasn’t the same Sam who ate a record ten pancakes and sent me pulp-novel postcards across town just because he thought I’d like the picture and he couldn’t wait another week to see me. I don’t like this new bitterness, I can’t identify with his frustration. He’s falsely vulnerable and in this state, any other girl might fuck him. I just feel sorry for him, not because he’s trapped himself in a dead-end job and the loveless suburb of a dying town, but because he’s forgotten how to feel anything but self-pity. He bores me. He’s convinced himself that love isn’t real because if it was, he’d have to admit that he loves me and upheave his miserably comfortable world.
The awful part is that I know we’re not going to run off together. We’re not going to have an epic romance. At best we’d have one night of mediocre sex, a black-coffee morning of awkward regret and after all that, he’d still wake up next to his wife on Sunday morning, do another crossword puzzle, eat another bran muffin and teach another freshman comp class. At worst I’d break up his marriage with no consolation prize to offer him. I can’t remake the man he might have been—gin and lime and tonic water may bring who he used to be to the surface, but that part of him died at the altar and no amount of coffee or gin can ever resurrect that man. He grew up. He sold out. He gave in and one day, I’ll do the same.
Sam looks at me over the rim of his glass, the taste of gin hovering between us. “Effie,” he begins with the thick tongue that has more to do with a lisp left over from childhood and less to do with his drink. I change the subject before he can finish his sentence.