Back In Whack Martin J. Ryan
When Frank looked into his mirror he saw a fiftyish, tightass crank with carrot-red hair, and eyes sharp as blue lights which shone from a pale freckled face that caught fire too easily when he was embarrassed or angry; though in gentler, kinder times his ex-wife Anne had more than once declared him to be in possession of a handsome Irish kisser, if a shade too streetwise--his recollection. In actuality her word was "wiseass," though at the time delivered with affection.
By most standards Frank was tough, hardened by his work, a man who was the grown version of the boy who beat himself up when he failed to charge past his father’s expectations, until Frank became the man who had kept his emotions too well in hand; this last fact, according to Anne, being the cause of her departure a year ago. Frank in twenty-three years had never cheated, had always in his Catholic heart felt himself to be securely paired, so when she left he felt strangely out of whack, as if one leg had shortened, shifting his weight and making him feel as if he should seek chiropractic mindwork, which was the way he described it to his therapist. Yes a shrink. Shit. Never could he have imagined himself in this situation, even with his very private arrangement. Not one other cop, never mind the Department, was aware of it, since in Frank’s stony estimation a detective sergeant baring his soul in this way might be courting death to his reputation, if not to his career. But he did it, forced himself to get help because he was—well, looking for—well, maybe for love. "No. Looking for completion," his therapist corrected him.
Frank worked out of Midtown South, homicide. The last time he was at the morgue, when he looked at the upper half of a body revealed by the pulled-back sheet, the fabric appeared so white he thought of old fashioned marriage beds and holy communions, and smiled wanly at this obvious diversion. Lately, he found it difficult to detach himself when observing the recently murdered, with their sometimes gross mutilations. A man out of whack, he decided, had fewer defenses.
He felt a bit queezy as he made himself look down at the blank face. He had seen so many of them this way, flesh that was missing something, that mysterious element like a small spark--it goes out. Goes somewhere. The body of the mobster was calm, the soul agonizing elsewhere, no doubt pissed about being offed, while the M.E.’s voice was a monotonous humming against the tiles in the otherwise hollow silence. Death here was dull, a passive spirit which seeped its way through his nostrils and threatened to flicker and extinguish his own mortal ember. Before Anne left him, when he wasn’t feeling so goddamned much of what wasn’t good for him, he would have told you he hadn’t stopped feeling for the dead; it was just that he had regulated the amount. Pity and anguish, he would have explained, were too expensive for homicide detectives, so he left them to priests. But that was then, about the time
Anne had told him he lived too close to the dead. Great, just great. The other night he dreamed of a morgue orderly standing by a slab like a waiter next to a table, with a napkin over his arm. The man smiled at Frank and smacked the slab several times, with the cloth, as if dusting away crumbs, then extended his hand palm up, an invitation.
"I find myself thinking a lot about women," he said recently to his therapist, who had just told him that he was still too rigid, still a bit rough around the edges; and answered Frank with:
"Well, sex is often a way out of depression."
"Mmm," Frank murmured, depressed by this reply.
"Didn’t mean to be disagreeable. I think it is time you got back into the social swing, gave up on all the celibate shit. No?"
"I guess," he said like a reluctant monk.
"And when you find a nice gal, Frank, don’t act like you’re apprehending her." "Very funny."
Later, on reflection, he agreed that it was time to satisfy his growing urges—complete himself, that is, self-correcting in accordance with this pain-in-the-ass fine-tuning of his apparently uncouth and unbending psyche.
Condoms. Anne had used pills or diaphragms. He looked back nostalgically to the good old days of curable syphilis and gonorrhea, not that he ever had either; then he went to three pharmacies where each had pretty girls behind the counter. At the first two he bought chewing gum, Tums, nail-clippers and aspirin. Finally, at the third, jacking up his courage he purchased three packs of condoms, each pack different from the other since he didn’t know which to choose, and discovered with relief he might as well have bought cough drops, as far as the girl was concerned. He recalled his therapist telling him: "You’re surprisingly nineteen-fiftyish, Frank; and he had responded, "Was married a long time, Doc."
First there was the tall cool serious one with the straight brown hair. When she discovered he was a policeman, she said she liked that—thought it very macho. Because of her choice of eyeglasses and clothes, she came rather close in resemblance to a young Gloria Steinem. After buying her a drink in a midtown bar, then a nice dinner at a Greek restaurant, he accompanied her to her apartment. Upon crossing the threshold she suddenly reached, in what he assumed to be a non-Ms. Steinem mode, and clung to him like a starfish to a clam, kissing his eyes, his ears, his cheeks and lips. She confessed she had always been like this, had had a tendency to frighten men away with her "awful need," and so she had affected "a serious, literary appearance" in order to "kind of balance me a little, if you know what I mean," which he guessed he did since he was a man out of whack. But when he felt more than a little overwhelmed by her zeal, became a tad reluctant—old fashioned man that he was—she declared unkindly, "Policemen are nothing without their guns," thoroughly wilting what remained of his ardor, and causing him to conclude it was not just aids and herpes that made this singles scene a very risky business. That night he dreamed he unrolled a super condom down over his head and shoulders, then woke and mumbled, "You are getting very fucking weird, you crazy mick."
Next there was Marge, the widow from two flights up, who knew a lonely man when she saw one. Marge who early on had accosted him in the elevator, at the rows of mailboxes, in the basement laundry room, in the local grocery, on the street; who had come to his door four weeks after he had moved into his Jackson Heights apartment, and said, "It’d do you good to get out, you know. How about a movie?"And he had said, "Thanks, I mean it, but not right now." And so she said, "I know how it is to be lonely;" to which he replied, "I believe you, it’s just I don’t want to be with a woman right now."He liked her attractive late-forty-something face and for a brief moment was tempted, but he oddly feared the loss of his anger and self-pity, felt he would be abandoned without them, was unable to trust their replacement with what was offered by this neighbor who stood before him licking her fresh lipstick with her pointy tongue, as if testing its luster, its allure, and smelling of just-dabbed-on perfume.
"Knock on my door when you feel like talking," she said as she leaned slowly to her right, trying to follow his disappearing head which was shaking yes-he-will while he continued to close the door to a slit. And she said, "Okay?" And he replied, "Okay," and the slit became the line between the closed door and the frame; until three months later when he yielded, gruff but appreciative, to her plumpness, hot soup and kind words, and the charming way she always apologized for the runs in her pantyhose when she disrobed, her predictability. "Relax," she had said, sounding like his therapist. "I can feel your tension. Let go, Frank. Don’t be so serious. Goodness!" He did. A little. Not enough, he saw much later.
"You’re not cheating, you know," his therapist lectured him. "You’re wife left you, not the reverse."
"Mmmm," was uttered like a low growl.
Unfortunately for Marge, she had an unruly fifteen-year-old daughter who, with the addition of a pierced nostril and lip, copied, he decided, the style of the long-late Janice Joplin; and Marge was looking for man to manage the kid, to help with the bills, to love her and take her to—to somewhere. "Christ, anywhere the least bit exotic, with palm trees. It must have palm trees so I can take pictures and say I’ve been there!" It didn’t work out. Lucky for him, he thought, since several weeks later he spied the daughter sporting spiked electric-blue hair and pink eye shadow, which to Frank was as acceptable as running bare-assed through his precinct.
Then there was the kick-himself-in-the-ass almost. Riding the subway during an evening rush hour, he was forced to hold his narrowly folded newspaper so close he could hardly read it. Believing he felt something delicately brush the layer of fabric shielding his penis from the outside world, he slowly lowered his paper to see who stood before him. He stared at the glossy black hair of a girl facing away from him, engaged in an animated discussion with two other girls.While the two facing him continued to chat, the significant one shifted her shoulders and twisted her head around to look up at him. They stared into each other’s eyes. She was young and beautiful, the age of his son working on his masters at Berkley. Her lips parted into a sweet smile before she turned back to her companions, leaving Frank dazzled and confused. He thought of her bottom brushing his groin. He admired her very black hair for several seconds and then, thinking this mysterious but tantalizing episode had ended, he raised his newspaper and gazed at the blurry print. It happened again. His penis thrilled, stirred to a partial erection. This time he raised the folded paper and glanced down between it and the front of his jacket. His not-quite homophobic eyes arrowed in on a slender white, hairless hand, the hand’s wrist emerging diagonally from between two bodies to Frank’s left, the hand unabashedly clutching the girl’s ass, in fact, kneading it through the slinky dress. The hand’s knuckles rudely brushed him, causing him to pull back several inches and bump his rear into a woman who not so gently retaliated with an elbow in the small of his back. The train swayed. Bodies pressed firmly this way and that, helpless.
Normally, his first reaction would be to self-righteously slap the cuffs on the thin wrist that was connected to the busy palm and fingers, but he was mesmerized by this brazen hand that squeezed, occasionally released and caressed, then again pressed as if testing ripe fruit, calmly, searchingly, speculatively—the fruit passive, surrendering. Frank stretched unobtrusively, leaned slightly left to see past the two bodies between which the arm slipped through, and his policeman’s eyes discovered the bony shoulder of a teenage white boy, the only shoulder that could be connected to the arm, the wrist, the aggressive fingers. This amazingly daring boy, whose back was turned to Frank, was ostensibly reading a pocketbook (pornographic, no doubt, he decided).
Once again the darling girl turned casually and stared up at him, again smiled so sweetly, and comprehension at last raised itself before his witless mind like the dawning sun in all its day-glow glory—she thought it was his hand! She turned again to her yakking companions who remained innocent of this enormous drama. She approved! God! What to do? He lowered his paper a little more, lest she notice that both his hands were in an upright position, covered with newsprint. The train swayed. Bodies pressed.
He couldn’t help it, he admired this skinny little punk, his pluck, his derring-do, his skill and ingenuity, his precocious understanding of at least one female mind. When Frank was a boy he was so goddamned proper and unimaginative; and where did it get him? Nowhere, that’s where. Think of all he had missed.
The train stopped one station before his, the doors opened. The people surged and their tidal pull swept the girl and her friends away from him. Oh, he was tempted, yet felt sneaky taking credit for what the boy had done. He hesitated; she was so young, she could be his daughter. So what, for christ’s sake? But he moved too late. Damn! As the train moved on, he pressed his brow against the smudgy window and felt like a small child gazing at a glass-enclosed delectable. One last time her head turned in his direction and then she was gone. Gone! He groaned. He banged his brow with some force against the glass, as punishment. A woman stepped away from him—one more crazy riding the New York subways, she didn’t need. He recalled Marge: "Don’t be so serious. Goodness!" Frank about-faced and saw the boy had remained. With fewer people, he could observe the skinny youngster leaning against an opposite door, his skin pale, his dark eyes mournful, secret, actually pretty, maybe Jewish or Spanish, his demeanor deceptively childlike, his graceful hands displaying to the world none of the macho dexterity Frank had been privileged to witness. The pocketbook he read: True Grit by Charles Portis.
The following night he saw the girl, saw her shadowed Mediterranean eyes, reached for her dark plum-colored nipples which had a slightly bruised, sensitive look to them, which caused him to believe he would have to be extremely tender when fondling them; though his oh-so-eager hand failed to arrive at its tantalizing destination since the moment exploded with the clock radio sound of Billy Joel belting out rock and roll. In the shower, he concluded the girl probably would’ve rejected him, anyway, recalling that years ago prior to marriage, there were those girls who were turned off by the fact that he was a cop.
Time has passed. It is Saturday night. Frank has come to a club in Queens with Perez, a young and handsome unattached cop in Frank’s squad who is proud and aggressive and very horny; the kind of muscular kid who gives off testosterone like a mist and turns female heads when he struts down the street. The club named The Devil’s Den, is a mix of Columbians, Cubans and blacks, and a few cool whites; and Frank, with his jacket and tie, his blazing hair and pale skin and officer-of-the-law blue eyes, has little chance of blending in. Perez, allegedly his mentor for the evening, has shamelessly abandoned him after five minutes on the premises for a pretty face and body; though on their way to the club in a taxi, Perez--knowing Frank is newly anxious to "score" (Perez’s word)--had told him (after criticizing Frank’s attire), "I know you’re a pushy, stand-up hardnose, but you gotta look relaxed, man. Relaxin’ don’t make you a fuckin’ chicken, man. You just look more confident, is all. It’s like you’re in balance, man. Thing is, a woman can smell fear a mile away. You gotta be a cool hombre, true, Sarge, but you gotta be all balls, too. With a woman, fear is catching, like a virus, man. She’s afraid of it. And if you spot a wrong guy in the place, man, cool it. Okay? That ain’t why we’re here. No collarin’ bad guys. Right?"
Considering the younger cop’s success rate, Frank the crank graciously accepts his expert advice, especially since he’s already decided on his own, he is quite prepared to risk not doing it right; this new heroic state of mind attributable to the daring boy on the subway. He wonders if the kid is clutching another ass? If he has ever gotten caught? Slapped or worse? Wonders if he will ever follow up and consummate his work, or will he be forever trapped in sexual limbo? Frank genuinely hopes not, for he thinks he will be eternally grateful to the teenager for his eye-popping example of reckless macho dexterity.
The women on the dance floor appear to Frank to be wearing underwear for outerwear, or outer-ware without underwear; each of them, in his opinion, delivering virtuoso performances to a pounding disco rap, raising their arms high and gyrating along with the men, with slithery bodies in a wash of swirling multicolored lights, all in unison, exuding a primal sexual sweat with hormones to spare. Frank decides he will not be surprised if he is witnessing the prelude to a human sacrifice in tribute to some drooling god in charge of fertility. He orders a scotch and leans against the bar. There are no windows in the place and he imagines the black walls bulging to the point of cracking from the pressure of the earth-shaking music. Ten or twelve feet from him he watches a woman in a red dress doing her thing opposite a younger woman. Though he can’t see her face she appears more mature because of her slightly thicker build, but she is good, smoothly serpentine, and because her dress is close-fitting he can tell she wears underwear. When she turns she seems familiar to him.
Frank is thinking he is feeling every one of his fifty-one years when he sees the familiar face coming toward him. Their eyes widen in recognition, surprise. "An incredible coincidence." (Her words). She lives in his apartment building on his floor, just across the hall. They have to shout to hear one another. She says she’s here with a younger friend from her job. He tells her he recalls seeing her moving in about a month ago, being helped by a man. He doesn’t tell her he was immediately attracted to her but had figured the presence of the guy was like a stop sign, though Frank mentions he’d seen them together. In less than two minutes she lets him know the helper was her brother. Yeah, maybe, he thinks, paranoid cop that he is. Her name is Alice. She is older than Marge, but her style is youthful, sexier in Frank’s opinion. Probably not the hot soup kind. Her clingy red dress is brief, held up by two insubstantial strings--and public opinion, his corny jokester side tells him. Alice had been living in Manhattan, but she had gotten tired of a "closet with a toilet and a stove." Plus she had changed jobs, and she is now somebody’s secretary in Queens. She calls Frank "Red," and he tells her he doesn’t like the name. Bad start. Next he’ll put the cuffs on her. Jerk! When she suggests they dance, he tells her he knows the two-step, and he sees she can’t decide if he’s putting her on.
He buys her a white wine with an ice cube, and in order not to shout they take their drinks to a small lounge near the entrance and chat. First they talk about what a small world it is, and how truth is stranger than fiction; and then they talk about old movies they’ve rented—whew, common ground; they both like them. With Alice leading, they discuss Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as opposed to his Manhattan; and then Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon as opposed to DeNiro in Taxi; and finally Wertmuller’s Swept Away, a movie Frank never would have gone to, wouldn’t have seen if it weren’t for rentals filling up his monk’s life.
Regarding Swept Away, Alice adored Giancarlo Giannini, says he was a craggy little boy with animal magnetism, an idea Frank nods at uncertainly while remembering that Gianinni was at least very funny. "Of course," she tells Frank, "all the sexual politics in the movie was a bunch of baloney. The way the heroine, Mariangela Melato, turns into a servile bedmate. A combination housewife and Playboy centerfold. A woman director giving us a masculine daydream. All that D.H. Lawrence crap." He hasn’t read Lawrence, so he just nods again, vaguely, hoping to please and wondering if this discussion is some kind of omen. He smiles politely.
"Are you trying to placate me?’ she says.
"Naw, certainly not."
Her tone tentative: "You’re kind of nice."
"So are you."
"Tough finding people, you know?"
"Tell me about it."
"Since I’m living in Queens," she says, "when I’m in Manhattan the guys are blown away when I tell ‘em I live out here.
"They say, ‘Queens.’ I say, yeah, Queens. They say, ‘God, who lives in Queens?’
So I’ve given up Manhattan."
"I can see how that’d be a problem," he says, making sure his tone is entirely sympathetic, while figuring her age might be running against her, as well.
Appraising him, she says, "We oughta get together sometime."
"We should," he answers with an outward calm that surprises him, considering if he were any more excited he’d be panting.
She tells him: "You’re very attractive."
Perez should see him. This is going very well. "Don’t know about that," he
replies a shade too humble, he thinks, figuring Perez and the subway kid wouldn’t approve, "But you are a very pretty lady."
Unexpectedly, with a measure of suspicion, he believes, she says, "I suppose you’d like to come up to my place, sometime…. Or yours."
Is there a minefield here? An experienced flatfoot knows when to tread carefully: "Aah…mmm…." Then he plunges ahead with, "Well, that would be—"
"This gets a little complicated," she interrupts him. "I mean since we live across the hall from each other. I mean if it doesn’t work out. Or on the other hand if it works out for awhile and then falls apart, it might become awkward. Know what I mean?"
"I do," he replies, praying this conflicted lady isn’t gonna ruin it.
"And then there’s aids."
"Right, there’s aids," he agrees, trying not to appear insulted, since he’s mister clean.
"Don’t you worry about it?"
"I admit, I do."
"So what do you do?"
"Well, I don’t do it much," he tells her while not for a second confessing to his monk’s life. Women, he remembers, can smell fear a mile away. If he were alone he’d probably sniff his jacket. "But when I do," he adds manfully, "I use protection."
In the space of ten days they have two dates comprised of movies and dinners out; and after the movie of the second night they go to his place. Alice is about two inches shorter than he is. He decides she is exceptionally pretty, admires her black hair, her very white skin and straight teeth. Both of them are self-conscious, but Frank feels downright clumsy after he trips on the leg of his own coffee table and mumbles, "Need a seeing eye."
Neither of them really wants a drink, but he pours two scotches with mostly water so they have something to sip. "I can see you’re not an interior decorator," she says, to lighten the mood; adding, "Looks like a dentist’s waiting room." He is so focused he forgets to laugh, and when he takes off his jacket he hears her intake of air. Her eyes have grown large as she gazes at the nine-millimeter gun at his waist, her dark irises floating in white. Damn, he’d forgotten. Fearing rejection, he’d told her he was in the security business, remained vague.
"I’m a cop," he reassures her right away as he enters his bedroom and places the tarnished leather belt-holster on the bedroom dresser. He shows her his gold shield to ease her fear.
"You lied to me?"
"Sorry . Some women don’t like cops."
"Gee…I never thought about it," she tells him.
After hesitating, she follows him into the room; then reaches out and gingerly touches the black handgrip with the red-polished nail of her index, as if this contact pays homage, as if the homage tames the weapon’s dangerous potential. "Really, the truth? A cop?"
"Really," he says.
"Like this is the first time with a cop; like if I don’t do it right I’ll get a ticket. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, ‘cause when you showed up at the club with a jacket and tie I thought the place was being raided."
"You’re funny," he says before kissing her lightly, experimentally, tasting, testing the tilt of their heads; and then more seriously until she backs away as if for breath and asks him several questions about his work, which he responds to evasively as he often did with Anne. Finally, she begins to undress, saying to him as she does so, "This is very Seventies, isn’t it; practically two strangers—only the third night, and all."
This is true, they hardly even know each other. "Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way." The adventure of it shivers him delicately as he disrobes with deliberate slowness, as though it were a ritual to be savored, as though he worries that whatever is to follow will be over too quickly, the way the end of life, from the perspective of middle age, appears to rush up at him from time to time. He watches her lying on the bed as he lowers his briefs. He feels extremely sensitive, feels the fabric slipping along his thighs, prickling as if electric sparks snap silently between cotton and flesh. Though he had been carrying one just in case, he never thought he’d be using a condom tonight. He reaches into the pocket of his discarded trousers and retrieves a warm packet. He tears the foil and hates the noise, thinking he lacks finesse, is not cool like Perez.
The wan-pink, tender-looking lines from the elastic of Alice’s panties and bra remain faintly indented, making it seem as though they are still being worn but have miraculously become invisible. Her generous white belly shows silvery stretch marks which at a glance have the pale gloss of cellophane zippers. "You’re so white," he says to her admiringly, while wondering if she ever had a baby.
"I don’t take the sun well," she confesses, obviously complimented, "so I stay out of it."
"Me, too," he says. He lies down next to her, doesn’t touch her whiteness, teases himself. Suddenly, in contrast, he remembers Anne’s suntanned body when they were in Bermuda for their tenth anniversary, how she was a beach freak. He recalls the smell of suntan lotion, the smell of the sea and the caves, the screech of gulls. He reaches and touches Alice, her thigh, and breaks away from remembering; doesn’t want to be in two places, with two women, at once. He pulls himself close to her, half covers her body with his. They kiss and caress each other for a long while, his cock in the meantime coming wonderfully alive, the strain of its downward slant prompting him to lift himself slightly to allow it to spring up into its erection.
"It still works, I see," she says.
He smiles and says, "Indeed it does," and then moves his face down along her body, kissing each nipple, the breasts themselves, down the center of the ribs, each full hip, and finally the belly where up close the stretch marks change and become the pulls on the skin of a pudding. "Mmm," he murmurs into her flesh. "Vanilla pudding."
"That’s a new one," she quips. "I’ve had all kinds of reactions, but I’ve never before felt like the last part of a menu."
"It was a compliment," he says into her belly, muffling his words. As he lifts himself and glides lower, he hopes she isn’t going to be a talker; not that he doesn’t like women who talk—Anne had yakked with the best of them—but he likes to separate the two activities. The odor of the thick black patch pleasantly reminds him of the sea, of Bermuda with Anne. He presses his cheek against the gritty-looking mass and is amazed at its softness—a dense, gentle, protective growth at the opening of an ocean cave. He pauses—safe sex. Snorkeling is out. Lower down, he licks her inner thigh.
"That tickles," she warns, her body tensing.
He hesitates, pulls back slightly and says, "I thought you’d like that," then lifts his head and looks up at her across a milky dunescape.
She raises her head a bit, stares down at him as if at an intruder, perhaps a crab, and says, reasonably, "You don’t even know me. How d’you know what I like and don’t like?"
He sighs inaudibly, carefully, to hide his irritability. Good cops know how to manifest patience. And then, too, with strangers you have to be polite. He wants to say, he thought all women would like men with impetuous mouths, but he doesn’t, telling her instead, "Sorry," wondering if he’s inept; wondering what Perez would do; doesn’t wonder about the kid, since he figures he’s still working the subways.
"That’s all right," she says, straining her neck awkwardly to look at him. "I’m not angry." She rests her head back and waits for him to try something else.
Her passivity suddenly seems very elaborate to him. What now? He needs the teenager’s derring-do. He resents her, lying back that way, waiting for him to be inventive. He’s only clever in his work. He tries again. She tenses. His tongue, poised, waits for instructions.
She props herself on her elbow and studies this overgrown suckling and asks, "Are you married?"
"Are you kiddin’? he says. "Now you wanna know?" With her looking down at him this way, he feels exposed and guilty as a cornered thief. "What difference does it make?"
"I just want to know, that’s all. I’m curious."
He gives up ever accomplishing anything down here and crawls up over her again, rests on her softness, his face inches from hers, hoping this eyeball to eyeball intimacy will make such inquiries seem ridiculous. "Yes," he tells her. "But separated and about to be divorced."
"I thought so."
"What?" he asks her as he sneakily presses his groin against hers.
"That you just look married. Some men are married fifty years and still look like bachelors." Her voice is rather loud considering their closeness, as if encouraging him to back off a little. He does. "But guys like you are practically born with faces with marriage written all over them."
"Damn! If you’re tryin’ to put me off, you’re succeeding." He is still on top her but slightly to the side, his weight on one elbow.
"I’m not putting you off. I’m here with you, right?"
"Well…yeah. But I like to talk later."
"Well, I like to talk first."
He sighs: "So talk."
"Okay," she says. "Look, don’t get me wrong, ah…."
"Oh God, I know your name, truly, I just went blank and panicked. Anyway, don’t get me wrong, Frank. I mean I like you. You’re not one of these brash types always trying to make it for the sake of making it. I mean I like the way you take your time and everything…. On the other hand maybe you’re too serious, like you’re looking for something—I don’t know—that I don’t have enough of."
"Are you crazy? All I’ve done is nibble around a little."
"It’s hard to explain. Like it’s the way you nibble," she says. "I have this feeling, you know, like you’ve got this insatiable appetite…and there’s not gonna be anything left of me but scraps."
"The way you go on. Jesus! You’d think I were gonna possess you or something."
"No, that’s not it…." She hesitates. "And, too, it’s like you’ve got that gun, you know, and turns out you’re a cop, authority and all that stuff. And you cops like your women either in the kitchen or bed. Right?"
"That’s just another bullshit stereotype," he says, scrutinizing her face. "You sound like you’ve been into women’s lib. Have you?" He watches with suspicion as her eyes become inscrutable.
Her mouth opens slightly and she pauses as if considering beforehand the effects of what she is about to say. "Well…" she goes on, sounding like a reformed drug addict, "I’ve been there and back."
"Which means what?" already sorry he’s asked. He feels her upper body move a little, as if trying to straighten her pale, narrow shoulders—a small self-assertive shifting.
"You sure you wanna hear this?"
She launches into: "Well…way back. I was just a kid. I married a guy--divorced him a year later—who thought he owned me. He was a throw-back."
"Like me, no doubt."
"No, much worse than you."
"Terrific. What a relief."
"No, you know what I mean. Anyway, you’re old enough to remember.
It was a tough world for a woman who didn’t want to just settle for, you know, ring-around-the-collar. Magazines and boob-tube commercials scared the hell outa me. Like I kept looking for ads depicting married women that didn’t have something to do with detergents. When I finally came across one that told me, you’ve come a long way, baby—I discovered they were trying to sell me cancer."
She pushes upward onto her elbows as he rolls to his side, completely off her.
"Back then I wanted to have been old enough to have been part of the liberation rallies, you know. Hair under the arms, bisexuality. Everything. But I missed it. Everything's timing. But I still like men. Some of them very much. But like I don’t wanna be a household drudge; though admittedly that’s easier to manage these days.
"Back then, my first therapist told me I was avoiding commitment and that I didn’t want responsibility. He also said I was afraid of giving myself up to the sexual experience, and made a pass at me to loosen me up. The second one, a woman, said most men are assholes and always have to win. The third, also a woman, and the sanest, said most psychologists are crazy and I should relax and be myself. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Being myself."
He steals a downward glance and sees he is less hard. He smiles feebly and says, "Well, I understand. I agree. Women have a right to be themselves, to be equal and all that," meaning it but hoping she’ll be finished soon, only wanting her to love him.
She examines his face a moment and says, "That didn’t seem to bother you too much. You are different. I always found that men looked for the nearest exit after my freedom now speech."
What she says seems more like an accusation than a question, so he doesn’t respond. In certain instances a smart policeman manages a situation by holding back on aggression. He smiles, working at it, showing teeth.
Grinning, she goes on with: "It isn’t that you have nothin’ to lose in this conversation, is it? I mean you weren’t wounded in a war or anything like that, were you?"
He looks down again and sees he has gone completely limp, as if dead. "I think so," he replies. "I think I’m permanently damaged."
"Ohhh, poor little thing," she says sympathetically, as though to a ten-month-old baby, which Frank thoroughly enjoys. "Let mommy help-ums." She reaches and takes it in her hand and massages it, says, "I’m magic. I’ll raise it like Lazarus…. All better?"
"Definitely," he sighs while mastering his desire to call her mommy, knowing "help-ums" would’ve made Anne puke, then hands her the latex ring and watches her unroll it onto him. This Alice is a bunch of surprises. Thank God it took all kinds of women to make a world.
She tugs him over her and tells him, "You’re very nice, very patient." He slips into her. Quietly, she says, "You understand, I just want a man to really look at me, to see me; all of me; not just my private parts."
"I understand," he says.
"So when a guy comes along as hungry as you, I kinda get scared he’s gonna like hit and run. You know? Like I want him to stop a minute, and think, hey, she’s a person."
He nods and says, "I don’t blame you," with sincerity, seeing the whole of her: Alice, the remarkable person, giving succor to Frank the hardnosed cop.
She is so soft now, the steel of resistance liquefying beneath him. How does a woman do that? He presses into her, the length of him against her; he thinks of the sea and squirms deliciously and asks her, "You ever in Bermuda?"
Alice’s eyes, which have grown progresively narrow, widen a fraction: "Bermuda? No. Why?"
"Oh…" he murmurs, "no reason."
She opens her mouth to speak but he silences her with a kiss; then he presses and squirms and concentrates on the broth of the briny deep, remembering Anne for seconds before pushing her aside, spinning downward now with Alice, downward in a vortex of bubbles and light; thinking when he comes up for air, it would be nice to go with Alice to some other island in the sun, realizing at this moment that he, Frank the crank, is back in whack.