A Storyby Josip Novakovich
When Rose hugged her husband one early evening, she smelled Obsession perfume in his beard. She slid out of his embrace.
“You look out of sorts,” David said. “Would seeing The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the Pacific Arts Theater cheer you up?”
After the scene in which a wife discovers her husband’s infidelity by the perfidious perfume in his hair, David cleared his throat. Searching for his hand, hers bumped against his hard-on—after a sultry scene—proving to Rose that he lusted for other women. Now it was certain: one plus one. From a seat next to hers, a young man’s knee protruded, touching hers, first lightly and then firmly and warmly. She withdrew her knee but felt the neighbor’s knee inching toward her as a threat, a threat the man seemed to hide from her, and she from the man and from her husband.
The following morning, however, she could not concentrate on her therapy clients. A young man, a philosophy student, told her he would kill himself because nothingness was the source of being. The philosophical solution to the problem of existence was nonexistence—to the problem of life, death. And what is the psychological solution? he asked. Love, she answered. What a cliché! he responded.
That evening her husband remarked that since she seemed melancholy again, they should go out. A friend of his from college, a Cuban exile and painter, had just called from Saratoga and invited them out for an evening.
Ricardo welcomed them at the door in a bright-yellow shirt with red and purple canaries. He cooked brook trout, seasoned with garlic and butter. Rose relished the garlic while David tried to extract bits of it from the fish. “Aren’t WASPs terrible—scared of garlic!” Rose exclaimed.
David had brought along some French red wines that made your tongue and gums contract as if you were chewing coca leaves somewhere in the Andes. Once all three blushed from the wine, they had no fear of blushing from conversation, so they told bawdy jokes. What did the elephant say when he saw Adam? I wonder how the poor thing feeds himself, was the mildest.
When night came, beyond glass sliding doors orange light bulbs turned the patio into a stage, announcing a feast to a tribe of raccoons. Rose put half of her fish through the door, though she had just praised the fish’s succulence. Ricardo moaned that his culinary masterpiece should go to the vile band of robbers. Raccoons snarled at each other like large and selfish felines.
Ricardo asked the Thompsons how they’d met. In college, David was attracted to Rose’s ballet-trained grace. David borrowed from friends, relatives, and banks. He drove Rose in a Jaguar to attend string quartets at the symphony hall. In his room he played CDs, which hardly anybody had heard of yet. Her parents were impressed by him until they realized that he neither had nor would have serious money. David soon made good money as a car dealer and then better as a real estate broker. Rose liked him—his style, his ambition, his speedy driving, his humor. She thought she loved him.
Now David was bragging about his moneymaking schemes and elegant vacations. “Rose, we must revisit Venice, the most wonderful city on earth.”
“I love how artfully gaudy it is,” Rose said. “Ricardo, have you been to Venice?”
“The whole city is a colossal antique,” said David.
“Venice is the asshole of Italy, riding on rotting wood,” Ricardo said. “Why does half of Italy look like a desert? Because Venetians cut down most of the trees.”
“The city is unbelievable,” David said. “I’m going to take tons of photographs there. Would you like to write a book on Venice with me?” David asked Rose, playing with her hair, pulling it behind her ear.
“Why don’t you go to Venice with us?” Rose suggested, looking only at Ricardo. “It’s nice to be with friends. We’re less than a nuclear family, only a certified couple.”
Luxuriously tipsy, Ricardo leaned back in his chair and said, “David, you are incredibly lucky to be married to such a beautiful woman.” He drew smoke out of his aromatic pipe. “You wouldn’t mind posing for me as a female magician?”
The following Wednesday, Rose’s day off, before they were again to meet up for dinner, David dropped Rose off so she could take a swim in Ricardo’s pool while David went back to work for a couple of hours. Some time ago Rose had been injured in a car accident—a car had smashed into her Toyota, breaking her arm—and swimming was beneficial for her. Ricardo came out and swam too. Later Rose lay supine, offering herself to the sun, whose rays licked her so that her bronze body glistened, seal-tight; her skin’s fuzz of miniature sensors, she felt, could receive touch without her skin being touched. The sensors felt Ricardo’s gaze. She arched her lower back a little; her muscles tightened so that the cast of light shifted, dancing on her skin. She opened her blue eyes suddenly, startling Ricardo.
Flirting is a wonderful thing, she thought. It sharpens your senses.
Ricardo invited her to watch a documentary about India: wives cremating themselves alive after their husbands died. Just as she walked out of the house, David, out of breath, ran into the garden, although it was before five.
“You rush as though you don’t trust us. And yet several days ago you reeked of perfume!”
Ricardo came out too, and David said to him, “Let’s move the party to our place. Some friends of mine are in town just for the evening.”
Back at their duplex, David informed the party of ten what a bad year it had been for the French vineyards; fortunately, David had wines from the good old days. Rose sat next to Ricardo, while David sat at the opposite end of the table. Somebody mentioned massage, and Ricardo said he could give the best back rubs.
“Really?” said Rose. “I wish David would give me a back rub, but he just doesn’t care for it. Can you really give good back rubs?”
“The best in the county.”
“I don’t believe it! Prove it!”
She nudged him with her elbow and pulled her blonde hair in front of her, baring her neck and upper back, her shoulder blades. The music of Muddy Waters was loud, and so was the party’s laughter. Ricardo’s thumbs worked close to her spine, his fingertips on her pulsating back. Ricardo squeezed her muscles, trying to follow their contours, roll them, press between them. His cool fingers made her shiver. “You’re right, I’ve never had a better one! . . . Ahh . . . so good!”
The conversations ceased. From the corner of her eye, through her eyelashes, Rose saw that David was trying to look nonchalant, and that people looked at her, David, and Ricardo, as if to figure out who was married to whom.
Ricardo’s fingers stiffened and she felt a slight tremor. He stopped.
Flushed, she openly stared into Ricardo’s eyes. She gulped wine.
Someone proposed an ice cream run. Rose stood up, wishing to go, and asked Ricardo, “Are you going?”
“Then I’m not going either.”
“Actually, I think I’ll go,” Ricardo said.
“Then I’ll go too.”