How do unhappy romance writers find romance? In this case, give a reading at a bookstore.
“The same as it always is – the lead character in a story. I’m trying to hold a civil conversation and you’re off with your latest so-called hero.” I was tempted to correct her, that a female would be a heroine, but knew that would only start another fight.
“I’m sorry dear, you know, you have to entertain the muse.” At one time, Jessica thought my romance novels were a cute eccentricity while I pursued my MFA. An MFA that produced one ‘Great American Novel’, some mediocre reviews in obscure journals and a load of returns to the academic press which published it.
“Some muse, all your books have the same plot line and cardboard characters. Poor girl overcomes adversity, defends her honor, gets the man of her dreams and they all live happily ever after.”
“Isn’t that an Austen novel?” As soon as I said it, I knew it I was into a barrage of abuse, after all, her PhD was in feminist literature.
“How dare you compare what you write to an icon of feminist literature! You have become as base as your readers.” I don’t remember what was said after that. It didn’t matter, it was always the same – I didn’t appreciate great writing, that I had learned nothing in my MFA program, etc. Mid-rant, I made my escape to my latest book.
I first came to The Ruins at the invitation of my aunt. A cook at the House, she had convinced my mother that a life in service was better than one married to a farmer. As my prospects in our village were limited, I was pleased for the chance to escape. Having turned sixteen, my father was eager to have me married off. Therefore, I was soon in a carriage to what I later knew only as ‘The Village.’
A piece of toast coming across the table announced the end of the rant and a call for me to return to our 21st-century kitchen.
“That is exactly what I meant. You haven’t heard a word I said. Well, I have to get to the university. At least there, I can talk about real literature.”
Leaving me the dishes, she grabbed her briefcase (stylishly scruffy at purchase) and got into her SUV (paid for by All Honor is Hers, a piece about a young woman spy during Regency England) and left.
Four hours writing yielded the necessary pages for my daily goal. A run and lunch were normally followed by research or editing, except I had agreed to do a meet and greet at “The Corral” a local used bookstore. The reality was that my readership was larger than my sales. Copies of my books were often passed along. Since I lived in town, “The Corral’s” owner thought it would be good marketing to start a book club around my books. I was less concerned about the marketing, but thought it would let me get a sense of my audience as well as test out new material. If nothing else, it got me out of the house at least once a week.
I changed from my normal sports team sweatshirt and worn jeans to the button-down oxford shirt and slacks that my audience would consider more appropriate for an author. They had their expectations and one was that I didn’t look like their husbands on days off. Stuffing the book I had been asked to read and a few pages from my latest work (a ‘treat’ for my fans) into my backpack (a big box store special), I headed out to the store.
“Oh, Gerald, so nice of you to tear yourself away from your work. I hope we’re not inconveniencing you.” As always, Doris greeted me with smiles and loud praise. I think this was both an announcement that we were starting and highlighting the advantage of shopping at her store.
“Never, Doris. You know this is one of my favorite bookstores.” In part, because Doris and I had cut a deal that gave me some of the income from the resale of my novels. It wasn’t much, but every penny counts and over the years, it had resulted in a steady stream of income.
“Ladies, please sit down. We don’t want to keep Gerald from writing those novels that we love.” Doris had set aside one room of the store for groups. Although it meant the loss of shelf space, she made up for it by the sales from the coffee bar that was operated with the help of a local college student. They bought their coffee at a warehouse store, repackaged it in name brand bags, and sold it for three dollars a cup. A pot was paid for after the first four cups. Although Doris looked like a dowdy middle-aged woman, she was one of the sharpest businessmen or women I knew. The proceeds of this bookstore were rolled into other investments and had been enough to put her two children through top-notch colleges, and support her personal collection of literary first editions.
The audience was as expected for a mid-afternoon reading. Middle-aged women for whom this was as much about social interaction as it was the books. Evening readings sometimes brought out husbands (often dragged) and some of my male fans (surprisingly about one-fifth of my readership). The one exception today was a young woman who looked around her mid-twenties. Brownish-blonde hair, and dressed in sweater and jeans, I assumed that she was there with her mother or older relative. Some of the older ladies had to be driven, so it wasn’t that unusual to see a younger woman in the audience, most of them spent their time on their phones or browsing the stacks. However, this young woman was actually paying attention while I conducted the readings.
I opened it up for questions afterward. These were normally the same set of questions and answers – ‘What’s my inspiration?’ (‘Life and what I like to read’); ‘how do I write such strong female characters?’ (‘I was raised by a single mom, all my characters are patterned in some way after her’); or the periodic, ‘when will you write another book about (fill in name of some favorite character)?’ which I either said next year (if true) or that I would consider it if inspired (by sales of the previous book in a series).
Looking out at the audience, I saw that the young woman had raised her hand. I thought of avoiding her as she reminded me of many of the women in my wife’s feminist lit classes. However, hers was the only hand up, so I couldn’t avoid it.
“Yes, Miss?” I figured I get the first jab in.
“Thank you.” No harangue about how I should refer to her as Ms? Maybe I had gauged this young woman incorrectly. “A lot of my college friends read your books as their ‘secret sins’. Why do you think you have an audience with young women, and why do you think they don’t want to admit it?”
“First, if I am their ‘secret sin’, they really need to up their ante.” Laughter all about, including the questioner. “But to answer questions – why do I have an audience with college students? Well, I didn’t know that I did, but I would guess it is because my novels offer what they want and can’t get in their lives – romance. Boorish behavior has become the norm for most college men. In the worlds I create, women are told they are special and should be treated as such. Once initial conflicts are resolved, the men in my stories adore and worship the heroines. Look at Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights or Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. These characters are so popular because they provide an idealized version of courtship centered on the woman.”
“Are you saying your work is great art?”
“Never, my books, like all fiction, offer a different view than the reality of people’s lives. In the case of your friends, I offer passion and emotion that they can’t get in their relationships.” Approving nods.
“Then answer the second part, why won’t they admit it?”
“Probably for the same reason men don’t admit they look at porn.” At this, some of the audience feigned shock, but much of the audience just blushed and tried to hide behind their books. The young woman just grinned.
I continued, “We all have images of ourselves that result in what we consider ‘proper behavior.’ Yet, we all have another side and desires that don’t fit that role, so we hide them. Unless there has been a huge change from my time in college, your friends are expected to be serious and feminist. That means paperbacks that extoll women falling for great loves and being treated in a courtly manner are strictly forbidden. Basically, it doesn’t fit the image. But, enough philosophy. Doris has convinced me to read a few pages from my new novel, so friends, fresh from this morning’s session, here are the latest adventures of Esther and the Baroness.”
This got the audience back as I introduced the story. Fortunately, the characters were from a popular series and well known to most listeners. These readings gave them the impression that they were ‘in the know’ and gave me feedback on the story.
I usually stayed after the readings so the shyer women could ask questions and I could sign books (a reading always boosted sales, even of my older books). I noticed my young questioner had not left, but was standing by herself.
Once the crowd had thinned, I went over to get some coffee. As I reached for the cup, I felt a hand on my arm. Looking up, it was the young lady.
“I hope my questions didn’t embarrass you. Oh, that’s too cliché.”
“You must be a writer, only they would say that.”
“No, just a big reader. Claire, by the way. I know your name, obviously.”
“So, Claire, are you here with someone or did you make the trek by yourself?”
“By myself. I’m actually a big fan. I was scouting where to buy some of your older books and found this place.”
“Doris likes to keep local authors in stock. Even if it is used copies. So why does a young college student, … I assume college?”
“Ah, my wife teaches there. Anyway, why does a young college student get hooked on novels that, quite frankly, are pitched to a more mature female audience?” Since I was in earshot of my readers, I wanted to make sure I didn’t offend any of them.
“I’ve waitressed at truck stops or diners since high school. One of the other waitresses got me hooked on them. We used to talk about one of your heroes walking in the door and sweeping us off our feet.”
“A knight of the road rescuing a fair maiden. I like that idea; I may steal it.”
“Sure, but credit me and Ethel.”
“Are you negotiating for payment?” It felt more like flirting, especially as the remark elicited light laughter on Claire’s part.
“No, but let me know if you do write it. I know I’d love to read it.”
“Well I’m on Facebook, Twitter and I have an author’s page on Amazon.”
“All that and writing.”
“Actually, my publisher manages all of that. They usually announce my upcoming books.”
“No, I think I’ll ask when I see you at these readings. And I promise, no more interrogations.”
“My pleasure.” Watching her leave, I realized that it was the best conversation I had had in several years. No restraint on what I said and no recriminations for crossing over an unknown line.
That evening was the norm for me and Jessica. She came home, dropped her briefcase in her office; threw on sweats; changed the radio in the kitchen from pop (my favorite) to classic jazz; and poured herself a glass of wine before going on about her day and the awful faculty meeting she had to attend.
“No, Esther, you are one of the best maids I have ever had. By the end of this adventure, I hope to convince you to join me in London.”
“I am sorry, Ma’am, but I am very happy in my current position as librarian.”
“For a girl who appears to be as intelligent as you, I am sure this is preferable to being a farm wife.” We rode in silence for a while, the Baroness looking out the window and me sitting patiently, assuming that the conversation was not over.
I became aware of the silence which means that Jessica had stopped. Fortunately, she did not notice I had said nothing during her monologue. “You know dear; you don’t have to do all that. I bring in enough for us to live on.”
“I couldn’t live off that crap you write.” I bit my tongue. She was not as resentful when I offered to pay off her student loan or bought her the SUV she had plastered with the ‘correct’ bumper stickers. All paid for by the ‘bodice rippers’ that occupied half of a six-foot-high bookshelf.
“I’m just saying that by getting off the tenure track you could still write and teach, and not have to waste time with meetings.”
“You have no concept of what it is like to be part of an academic community.”
“No dear. Anyway, just a thought. Dinner’s ready.”
As usual, we ate in silence at the kitchen table. The dining room was reserved for Jessica’s regular dinner parties for the members of her department. I usually was ignored during these except by some of the wives who would admit after some cocktails that they were fans. Finishing her dinner, Jessica retreated to her office, leaving me to clean up and head to the media room to watch TV. When I first bought the house, I planned on it being the family room, but children had to wait until Jessica was “an established scholar with tenure.”
About an hour later, Jessica came in to join me on the couch. Whatever burr that had been under her saddle must have passed as she curled up next to me.
“What are you watching?”
She sat up and started again, “God, it’s bad enough you write that stuff, do you have to watch it too?”
I sat in silence for a while. “My mom and I used to watch it when she had an evening off. This was one of her favorites.”
“Sorry.” Mom had died a few months after Jessica and I had started dating. Although always polite, she never understood Mom or the world we lived in. Jessica’s dad was the CEO of a large investment house and her mom was head of one of the major charities in the city. As their only daughter, Jessica had never gone without. This was a far cry from my own life living above the diner that my mom worked in as a waitress and then manager.
We sat there together for a while, until it was clear that Jessica was bored.
“You’re free to change it, I’ve seen it about a million times.” Handing her the remote, she channel-surfed until she settled on some documentary about English history. This was better than most and at least provided background for some of my historical novels.
The rest of the week passed as normal, but I found myself looking forward to my weekly reading at The Corral. Would the Claire be there? My fascination with her was something out of one of my novels – mid 30s writer fixated on a young woman he sees at a reading. Although in my novels, the writer would have some tragic background, would write great novels of significance and have a flowing mane and steely blue eyes (instead of being slightly balding and needing glasses).
The morning of the next reading was unproductive as I kept thinking about the afternoon. Coming into the bookstore, I scanned the crowd and was distracted during Doris’ ritual start to the reading. It wasn’t until Doris poked me that I noticed she was finished.
“Poor Gerald. He has so lost in his lovely stories, that he has to be reminded sometimes where he is.” Unlike Jessica’s reminders, this was a nudge and not a reproach. I had chosen to read from my most recent book along with talking about how I created a character history. Nothing highbrow, just how I was inspired by someone and then built a story around them. “As an example, aspects of Esther Adams are based on a brilliant fellow grad student who worked as a motel maid where she was ignored.”
A hand shot up. “Yes, in the back?”
“Then why set her story 200 years ago. Why not now?” It was Claire.
“Because it is more believable.”
“As we discussed last week, passion and romance are not part of modern life.”
“So, there is no hope for a modern-day setting? Say, a waitress?” Was she flirting in front of all these people?
“Actually, my agent and I have talked about me starting a new series of what she called ‘working class romances’.”
“Thank you. Can’t wait.” She had a strange smile when she sat down.
At that point, Doris stepped up. “Thank you Gerald for the reading and the possibilities of a whole new series of stories. Now, ladies, as he always does, Gerald has kindly agreed to stay for coffee if you would like to talk.”
I wanted to go head straight to where Claire had been sitting, but was hijacked by some of the other attendees. I tried to be polite, but it was evident my head was elsewhere. “I’m sorry ladies, when I start a new project, my head tends to be in creating the story world.” It was a good excuse and the type of response that they wanted to hear.
Behind me, I heard, “So, what does the new world look like?” There was Claire. She was wearing a coat to hide what I knew from my Mom’s experience was a waitress’s uniform. “Going to work, or coming from?”
“From. I almost didn’t make it. So, the new world?”
“Right now it is the diner my Mom worked in.”
“Is this going to be autobiographical?”
“No, there was never a knight to rescue her or me. She never married and died of cancer a few years ago.”
“We managed.” Silence resulted until Claire broke it.
“Well, I need to get going, but thanks.”
“I don’t know, maybe because of your books and how you talk. You make me believe that there is something more out there.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, but you're welcome.” I didn’t have time to pursue this line since I was surrounded by some of my more ardent fans hoping to get a hint about the new series.
The next few days were terrible. My agent and editor wanted the last chapter of the latest Esther Adams stories and the last thing I could think of was espionage during Regency England. I obsessed over Claire’s remarks. What was the ‘something more’ and did it involve me? The only way would be to see her away from the bookstore, but the only place I knew she might be is the diner where she worked, so I decided to take an afternoon to see if I could continue the conversation.
Walking into the diner reminded me of coming home from school. My mom would be working and I would do my homework in a corner booth. Pulling my cap off and taking a place on a stool, I was greeted by Claire’s “Oh My God!”
“Hi, I’ve never been a deity before.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I fancied a piece of pie and it always seems best in a diner. I noticed the name of where you worked the other day.”
“Wait a minute. Ethel, come here.” A past middle-aged woman came over. She had that same look of tired hospitality my mom had at the end of a shift.
“Ethel, I’d like you to meet Gerald Dobbs.” There wasn’t any recognition in Ethel’s face.
“You might also know me as Henry Savage or Doris Rains.” For various reasons, I had written under all those names and a few others. The light went on.
“Oh, Jeez. You’re the writer.”
“Guilty. Claire told me you’re a fan.”
“A fan, oh my God, I love your books. They’re the only thing I read. Claire said she met you at a reading, but I can never make it to those things. Oh, my God, and now here you are. I gotta get a picture.” Coming around the counter, Ethel gave her phone to Claire to take the picture. Just as Claire announced ‘Smile’ I turned and gave Ethel a peck on the cheek. When she turned to me, I smiled and said. “There, now you can say it wasn’t just at a fan meet and greet.”
“Oh, Mr. Dobbs, I mean Savage.”
“Let’s go with Gerry.”
“Oh, Gerry, you don’t know what this means.”
“If people like you didn’t love my books, I’d have to work for a living.”
“Speaking of work. Can I get some coffee down here?” One of the other patrons was not as thrilled about my presence in the diner.
“Hold your horses.” Turning back to me, “Gerry, whatever you want is on the house. You take care of him Claire.” Ethel went off to take care of her other customers.
“I think you made her year. Now, what can I get you?”
“Apple pie and coffee.”
“Coming right up.”
Claire went over to the glass covered pie plates that seem to be part of every diner and cut what I knew from days in Mom’s diner was an extra-large wedge. She served it and a large coffee.
“For neither. Thanks.” A call from the kitchen took Claire away to serve another customer, but she came back as I was about halfway through the pie.
“So, how’s the pie?”
“As good as any madeleine.”
“A madeleine. It’s a type of French pastry. A writer named Proust spends way too much time talking about them.”
“Sorry, I probably shouldn’t admit it to you but the only non-school reading I do is romance novels like yours.”
“Well, I never read it either. I’d have described it in a paragraph and had it served by a dashing servant to a breathless lady.” Claire’s laughter told me she liked the image.
“So Claire, what are studying? Hopefully not writing.”
“No, I’m going for a business degree so I don’t have to waitress all my life.”
“Smart idea, my Mom suffered from bad feet and varicose veins from being on her feet. I used to rub her feet when she got off work. She would be so tired; she fell asleep and I’d just cover her.”
“Now. Not so much back then.”
“That’s okay. We were dirt poor. Mom started waitressing in exchange for leftover food and tips. Some people remember their mom’s recipes. For me, it’s my favorite diner plate.”
“What is it?”
“Open face turkey sandwich and fries. Hold the green beans.” Looking up, Claire was smiling.
“Our Thursday special. Come by and I’ll save you a plate. Absent the beans.”
Finishing my pie and coffee, I got up to go. “I think I’ll do that.” Paying at the register. I put a $20 in the jar for Claire and Ethel.
I could not wait for Thursday. While the prospect of my favorite childhood meal was appealing, I knew it was about seeing Claire. Knowing how diners operate, I planned on showing up around 2 PM after the lunch rush was over. It would give me a chance to talk to Claire.
A little before 2, I walked in and was greeted by Ethel.
“Gerry, I don’t believe it, twice in one week.”
“Well, Claire promised me my favorite meal.”
“Open faced turkey and fries, no green beans.”
“Perfect. Is Claire around?” My heart had sunk when I did not see her. Was she sick or was this not a work day for her?
“She’s just in the back.” Poking her head into the pass through, Ethel shouted. “Claire, you’ve got a customer.”
Claire came out with her order pad in hand. “Yeah, what can I … Oh. I was thinking you forgot. Hector, that special please.” A voice from the back answered, “2 minutes.”
“Call me when it’s up.” Turning to Ethel. “Taking lunch.” And to me, “Let’s sit over here” pointing to the corner booth.
“You didn’t need to wait lunch.”
“You looked like a guy that eats a lot of meals alone. I thought you might like some company.” She didn’t know how true that was. Jessica got up later than me, was never home for lunch and had at least one seminar or talk in the evenings. The cook called out ‘special up’ and Claire went to get our lunch.
“Here you go. Let me guess, coffee to drink?” A nod was all that was needed before she went to get coffee for me and water for herself.
I’ll give Proust this, smelling the turkey and gravy did take me back to eating at the diner with my Mom.
“So, Claire. You have the advantage on me. My publisher has told you all about me.” Or at least the amount I wanted the public to know. “What’s your story?”
“Research for the new romance?”
“No, you have the advantage. I’d like to know more about my lunch partner.”
“Not much to tell. Both my folks worked. Dad was a truck driver until he got hurt. Mom cleaned offices. I helped out by waitressing. After high school, I looked around and decided I didn’t want this to be my life, so I started college. Community college, then Midvale.”
“What do you mean?”
“Relationships? You’re pretty and friendly. I would expect someone besides family in your life.”
“There was, but it ended ugly.”
“And now you get your romance from my books.”
“True. Turns out my prince was not only the man of my dreams, but my best friend’s also.”
“Yeah, but in my case, my best friend was also his sister.”
“Oh. That sounds more like a porn novel than one of mine.”
“She had moved in with us and a month later, I caught them fucking in our bed.”
“That must have hurt.”
“Yeah. I moved back to my folk’s house and buried myself in my bed with gallons of ice cream and a stack of your books. By the end of the week, I’d gained five pounds, lost a husband and a friend, and realized that if someone can write about romance like you do, it must exist. I just have to look for it.”
“There I have to apologize. My novels are pure fiction.”
Claire looked out the window for a bit. “No, no one can write like you do unless in their heart, they believed in something. Anyway, I became a bit of a fangirl at that point.”
“If you’re a stalker, I never had one. I think I’m supposed to be fearful, or at least I would be in one of my books.” Claire laughed.
“No, don’t have time to be a stalker, I just check your media to see what you’re doing.”
“Boring, isn’t it.”
“Yeah, but in a nice way. Anyway, I saw you did readings at ‘The Corral’ and decided to make time. I’m glad I did.”
“I’m glad also.”
“You know, after you said your wife taught at Midvale, I looked her up. There are no teachers with your last name.”
“She kept her maiden name of Gage.”
“It’s not unusual for female academics. They want to keep a separate identity.”
“I’ll have to look her up.”
“She teaches feminist and revolutionary literature in the English department.”
“Oh.” Claire’s distaste was evident.
“Why the note of disgust?”
“I’m tired of hearing about the life of the poor from rich academics who always knew where their food was coming from.”
“There’s something we agree on. I had to read all this ‘working class’ literature in grad school, but when I looked up the authors they had all taken blue collar jobs after an ivy league education.”
“So nice of them to take a job from someone that needs it.”
“Really. I had a memorable rant on the subject one day. Some guy with two last names was going on about the indignity of having to clean up an office after hours and that this was indicative of the way in which the capitalist elite had established a new feudal hierarchy. That it was symbolic of the soul-crushing aspects of the class dominance of American culture.”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“Neither did I. I think that’s what started it. The professor asked my opinion and I said it was a load of crap. That cleaning offices is good work. It’s light lifting and indoors. I said if he really wanted some fucked up clean-up he should do an all-night diner or a construction site.”
“High school. Had to do the morning clean-up at Mom’s diner before school, a shift after and then around 10 PM. I think I never got a date because I always smelled of stale coffee and grease. Anyway, I went off for about 5 minutes about how when you have those jobs, you don’t care about class or the rest of that Marxist bullshit because you are too worried about just paying bills and having a little left over.”
“That must have gone over well.”
“Actually, it did. My wife came up after the seminar and said she had never heard anyone speak with such passion about poverty. I told her that was because she didn’t know one who was actually poor.”
“You dog, you played the class card.”
“I guess, anyway, she asked me for coffee after that and we started dating a week later.”
“She proposed about six months later.”
“Very forward. Sure she’s not a heroine in your novels?”
“Not likely, she doesn’t even read them, thinks they’re trash. No, very feminist and progressive. She thought she was marrying a working-class Hemingway. Instead she got Bill Spence.”
“A writer, mostly western stuff. But he publishes romance under the name ‘Jessica Blair’.”
“Yep, a lot of male romance writers publish under a woman’s name. Especially, if like Bill, you had a life that included being in the RAF during World War II. Anyway, that’s my story. Nothing spectacular.”
“I don’t know, from busboy to popular author seems pretty good. And I don’t care what your wife thinks, a lot of us look forward to sitting down with one of your books.” Reaching across to take my hand. “It’s even better sitting down with the author.”
Looking at her hand on mine, I realized that Claire was flirting again. I had written thousands of words for these scenes, but faced with the reality, I was dumbstruck. “Uhm, thank you. I enjoyed lunch. Maybe we can do this again.”
Claire let go of my hand and stood up. “Looking forward to it. But, got to get back to work.”
I stood up to leave. “Me, too. I have to send in a proposal for that working class romance I promised you.”
Claire smiled and gave me a hug. “Feel free to come back anytime for research.”
I kept replaying the scene all afternoon and after Jessica came home from the university. She went through her usual routine, including a rant about the day’s activities, while I made dinner. Unlike most nights when I retreated into one of my novels, I was thinking about that hug. It must have been noticeable because as soon as we sat down for dinner, Jessica’s tirade changed course.
After eating a few bites, she put down her fork and looked across the table. “What’s going on?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t know that was a problem. But, I’m almost done with this book and already have an idea for my next one.”
“That wouldn’t make you happy. You’re too pedestrian about writing. You’re an accountant. So many pages and so many hours per day. So what’s going on?”
I couldn’t tell Jessica that I had found someone that I was comfortable with. Someone who understood what I came from and enjoyed what I enjoyed. The worst part of it was that afternoon I had also realized that Jessica and I were all wrong for each other. Whatever attraction we might have had at one time wasn’t there. I couldn’t even say we were friends. At best, we had become roommates.
“Just a bit of dialogue I was playing with. It had a comic twist.”
“Can’t you leave it for a second?” There was her standard sneer.
“No more than you can spend an evening away from your work.”
“At least, what I work on has some significance.” With that the conversation ended. I wasn’t going to point out that one of her courses was freshman English which was a remedial course. It would only have continued a painful evening and I was looking forward to checking if Claire had e-mailed me (I had given her my personal e-mail address).
Settling in the media room, I flipped on the TV and opened my computer. There in my personal account was what I had hoped. “Hey, hope this is really you or this is going to be really embarrassing. Anyway, we need to do lunch again, but this time not where I work. Maybe after next reading? Coffee? My treat! I know about you poor starving artists. :), Claire.”
Rereading it, I realized Claire had asked me out on a date. Or at least it looked like it. Not having had much of a dating life before getting married, I didn’t know.
Over the next few weeks, we met for coffee or lunch. She would e-mail me about her day, I would send her drafts of chapters (I swore her and Ethel to secrecy), and she would send me her papers to edit. I even learned to tolerate Jessica’s rants. I would pay attention, offer a comment or two and then tell her things will get better. I kept telling myself that Claire and I were just friends, but that illusion ended the weekend that Jessica went to an academic conference in Boston. I had offered to go. “It will be fun. You could go to your meetings during the day while and I prowl bookstores or write. And then we can go out in the evening. It’s been a while since we had nights out. It could be a second honeymoon.” Jessica quickly shut that idea down. “No, there are meetings in the evening and it will be a good time for me to network with publishers. You’d just be bored.” and an embarrassment.
So, the first night that Jessica was gone, I was all set for watching some basketball and eating junk food when I got a text from Claire.
“New chick flick at Regal 6. Want to go?” This was a new level. This was a real date.
“Sounds good. When?”
“Burger place next door at 7. Movie 8:15.”
“See you then.”
I kept telling myself this was just friends getting together. Nothing more. But I still took a second shower of the day and changed into nice slacks and an oxford shirt.
After parking, I went into the restaurant that Claire had said she’d meet me. Part of a national chain of casual eateries, it was better than the diner, but not fancy enough for a date. I was just getting used to the darker interior when I heard, “Hey Stranger!” and there was Claire was wearing make-up, and dressed in tight jeans and a blouse opened just enough to reveal the lace of her bra. I had always thought she was pretty, but now she was beautiful.
“Hello? Gerry? You okay?”
Shaking my head, I apologized. “I’m sorry, but you look beautiful.”
“Thanks, I do clean up pretty well, if I do say so. It’s been a while since I had an occasion or person to do it for.”
“Is this a special occasion?”
“Not especially, just felt like looking nice. Now, let’s grab a place and some food. It will be nice to be served by someone else.”
We were seated in a booth which at least gave us some relief from the din and let us talk which was often punctuated by Claire’s laughs when I told her about some of the stranger stories I had started and abandoned. We both laughed when she talked about some of the weirder customers she’d had. I realized that Jessica and I didn’t laugh. For Jessica, life was all very serious. While for Claire it seemed to be one great time.
When we were done, I offered to pay for dinner. As we were leaving she threw an arm around me. “Thanks, but just because you bought me a burger doesn’t mean you’re going to get lucky. I’m not that cheap a date. I’m paying for the movies.”
Despite my protest that I could afford it, Claire paid for the movies, a big tub of popcorn and an extra-large soda. “You got to have popcorn and soda when you go to the movies. We can split it, if you don’t mind sharing.” Nodding I agreed. We found our seats and settled in for the previews. Once the movie started, Claire scooted over in her seat ‘so we could share’ and ended up leaning on my arm. The movie was a little bit better than the Hallmark Channel, but not by much. Claire got weepy at one of the sadder parts and I instinctively put an arm around her to comfort her. She tucked her head in and held my arm close to her, letting go only when I told her it was falling asleep (‘Sorry’).
The movie was finally over and we headed out.
As soon as we were in the lobby, Claire said. “Too much soda, got to pee.” And headed over to the restrooms just when I heard someone call my name. Turning, I recognized a few of the women that were regulars at the readings at ‘The Corral.’ They encircled me and started on how nice it was to see me, what did I think of the movie, how would I have written it. I tried to answer my questions while I looked for Claire. I finally spotted her leaning against a poster making faces at me.
I escaped my fans, so Claire and I decided to go for some coffee. I was still telling myself this was not a date, just two friends going out, until Claire suggested we get coffee at her place. “It’s cheaper and I have some pie from the diner.” I knew I shouldn’t, but right then, coffee, pie and Claire’s company was all I wanted.
Her apartment was about what I expected, a two-room, semi-efficiency with one big room that was a combination living room, dining area, kitchen; and a bedroom. She showed me where the coffee cups were and asked me to get them down while she got the pie out. After reaching up and putting the cups on the counter, I turned around to face Claire who was standing right in front of me. She gave me a kiss. No, didn’t just give me a kiss, she assaulted me with one. She pressed her lips against mine and grabbed my shirt so I couldn’t stop her. And I answered by embracing her with my arms and pulling her into me. Her response was to wrap her legs around me so that I was soon supporting both us until I turned so she would be on the kitchen counter. Eventually our need for air caused us to stop. Catching our breath, Claire wrapped her arms around my neck and put her head on my chest.
“My God, I don’t know … I just needed to kiss you. I know that sounds like something from one of your books.”
Placing a hand under her chin, I pulled her head up so I could look at her.
“Claire, if you hadn’t done it, I would have.”
We stayed that way for a while, until Claire kissed me again, but more gently and then I took the initiative by moving down her neck. I could feel her breathing quicken.
Finally, she whispered, “My bedroom’s right there.”
This was one of those moments that could have been in one of my books, except it was real. I knew it was wrong. I was married. But, all I wanted to do was get lost in Claire’s embrace.
Once we were in the bedroom, Claire grabbed the sheet and pulled it back scattering clothes, pillows, and books that had been piled on top. She turned to me and I pulled her in for another kiss during while we began to take off each other’s clothing. Easing her on the bed let me remove her jeans, after which I went back to kissing her neck, gradually working my way down her body until I reached her legs. Removing her panties, I continued my kissing while her breathing picked up its pace and eventually I felt her body shudder. Standing up I finished removing my clothes before lying down next to her. We took a moment while I looked at her, knowing that she was waiting for me. I rolled over onto her and our bodies merged.
Funny how when it is for one of my books I could be detailed and romantic, but now that it was me, I don’t know what to say. It was as primitive as we could get. Bodies crashing together. Claire holding on, her legs wrapped around me, ramming me into her every time that I started to withdraw. Me, pinning her hands back, nipping at her breasts, eventually lightly clamping on her nipple. Eventually I felt her legs tighten, holding me in place as her body trembled and she gave a small whimper. When she was done, it was my turn as I sank myself in as far as possible and let loose a river. Both sated, we panted for a minute, staring at each other, until I rolled off and laid on my back. Claire rolled over so that one leg was draped over mine and I could feel our combined fluids drip on my thigh. Lying there I was hit by the mixed emotion of guilt for violating my vows and ecstasy over the passion that we had shared.
We lay there with Claire resting her head on my chest and my arms around her. She must have been content because she started to softly snore. For my part, all I could think of is I was married and I had just cheated on my wife with a woman that I loved more than her. Shifting my arm (which was falling asleep) I woke Claire.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
“Don’t apologize, I like it.”
“If that’s what you want, I can sleep like this for a while.”
“So this is what you want?”
“Yeah. You’re a nice guy, fun to be with and not bad in bed.
“Thank you.” My flat answer must have made Claire wonder what I was thinking.
“What do you want Gerald?”
“I want you.”
Claire chuckled and said, “You just had me.” Leaning back on the bed so that I could look directly at her, I said, “No, I mean for the long term.”
“Wait, are you talking marriage?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. It would mean divorce…” my voice faded out as the situation became even more cluttered in my mind
Claire kissed me gently. “Gerald, this was good and if this is all that we ever have. I can live with it.”
“What, being my piece on the side?”
“Better that than not having anyone. It gets lonely.”
“No. It wouldn’t be fair. Not to you and not to Jessica.”
“What about you Gerald?”
“I gave up any sense of fairness after watching my mom trying to survive when other people had it easy.”
“No, what would make you happy?”
I lay there while Claire was curled up next to me and stroking my chest hair. “Knowing you has made me happier than I have been in years. Even before tonight. I looked forward to getting your e-mails and texts, and seeing you at the readings.”
“Even with my embarrassing questions?”
I kissed her head. “Especially for your questions. It always seemed like you were flirting in public.”
“I was. For a while, I was wondering if you would ever realize it. And if you would ever do anything.” We lay there for a while. Claire tracing her finger on my chest. Me wondering what I would do. Finally, she spoke up. “Listen if you want time to figure things out. I’m willing. I won’t like it, but I understand.”
“Now who’s acting like a character from one of my books. This is the noble ‘I love you enough to give you up’ scene followed in the next chapter where the man comes running in and realizes his mistake.”
“Hopefully.” Claire pushed herself up and wrapped the sheets around herself. “Gerry, you need to figure things out. I love what we have, but if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for me. You need to leave and think about it. I’m going to change the sheets, shower, and go to bed. When you decide, you know where to find me. Okay.”
“Okay.” I got dressed while Claire sat there. When I was done, I bent over and kissed the top of her head. She was silent.
The next few weeks were hell. I kept telling myself that marriage was a commitment to Jessica. No matter how things were, I felt obligated to work at it. But, not seeing Claire was hell on me. Readings at “The Corral” had become painful experiences as I kept hoping to see her hand raised and another embarrassing question. Although Claire and I agreed to not see each other, we still e-mailed each other about our day and I sent her bits of what I was writing.
For her part, every time I asked Jessica about going away when she was on break, she would say she would be prepping courses or had to do research to get tenure. When she came home each day, I would ask how things went. I even suggested going to one of the evening lectures with her. That’s when it all came out.
“There are no talks.”
“Then where do you go?”
“The Library. My office.”
“Oh. You could have just told me you were working on a paper.”
“That’s just it. I haven’t been working on a paper. Not really. I’ve been avoiding you.”
“I haven’t been happy. This wasn’t what I thought being married to you would be like.”
“Well, what did you think it would be like?”
“More intellectual. You would write your great novels and stories of the working class and I would be giving seminars on feminist literature. We’d take off to the city whenever.”
“Instead you got a homebody that writes like an accountant.”
“Yes. Anyway, I’ve taken a postdoc with a possible job after.”
“Vassar. I’ll leave at the end of the semester.” That was two weeks away.
“When did you know? Why didn’t you say something?”
“I applied at the beginning of the Fall semester. I was accepted at the beginning of this semester. And I never told you was I didn’t want a scene.” I let that sit there. Jessica had some more wine. “Gerald, you’re not a bad husband. You never complain or make demands. I come home to a clean house and homecooked meals. You listen to my rants and never say anything. You never did anything wrong.”
“That will look great on a divorce decree. ‘I divorced him because he didn’t do anything wrong’.”
“I’m not asking for a divorce. Well, maybe I am. I don’t know. I just know I’m not happy with being married.”
We sat there. Dinner getting cold on our plates. Jessica playing with her wine glass. Finally, I folded my napkin and put it on the table and got up. “I guess I should pack. I’ll find a place for tonight and then an apartment until you leave.”
“No, I already made arrangements to move into Becky Summerall’s spare room. You’ll take much better care of the house than I would and I’ll be moving my things into storage anyway.” Jessica finished her wine. Her napkin fell off her lap when she left. I just stood there.
If she had applied last Fall, it was well before I met Claire. In a strange way, I no longer felt guilty. Jessica had already decided to leave when Claire and I first met. If she had told me then, I would have been free to date. While I was absorbing this, I heard the door close and Jessica’s car leave. No goodbye. I poured myself some more wine. And some more. And when that bottle was finished, I found another. The whole time I kept thinking about the months of unhappiness and guilt.
The next morning found me on the couch and a large stain on the rug flowing from an overturned bottle. My first thought was that merlot makes for an incredibly painful hangover. After an incredibly long, hot shower and a shave, I realized that I was starving. Dinner was still on the table and I saw that I hadn’t eaten any of it. A big breakfast was called for and I knew where to go.
Entering the diner, I was met by a waitress I didn’t know. She tried to seat me in a booth, but I opted for the end of the counter. Sitting there looking at the menu (like I needed to know what a breakfast special contained), I was going to wait for Claire. I knew she was working the morning shift. If I had written this scene, I would have been prepared with some romantic line, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.
Claire came out of the kitchen and was busy with her order pad when she saw me. Even after a shower and shave, I must have looked rough. “Let me guess, breakfast special?”
“No, yes, I mean…”
“Gerry, I’ve been on since 6 AM and its almost 11. I don’t have time for …”
“Jessica left me.”
“Jessica left me. She’s taking a postdoc and job at Vassar.”
“Did she find out about us?”
“No, she’s been planning on leaving since last fall.” Claire looked shocked and then chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
“Why do you say that?”
“She’s been planning on leaving you for almost a year and never said a thing. Meanwhile, we’ve been dancing around how we feel for each other because you were married. That’s why she’s a bitch. I mean, I’m sorry if you still have feelings for her, but you were pretty clear when we slept together how you felt.”
I couldn’t argue. We had only resisted our growing attraction because I was married.
Letting that settle, Claire continued. “So, Gerry, you still feel the same? Do you still want something long term?”
“What do you want, Claire?”
“Quit being so noble, Gerry. You’re not one of your characters. It should be obvious that I like you, maybe even love you. I don’t have a great track record on that. I mean I tracked you down, and made time to see you and spend time with you. I damn near dragged you into my bed.” Leaning on the counter, she took my right hand in hers. “For a guy that writes about romances, you really don’t know how to see one.”
“I guess not. Or I was fighting it.”
“So, back to the question, what do you want Gerry? You in on this?”
Standing up, Claire gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good, me too. Now, I’ll get you a special, then meet me at my apartment. I should be getting off around one.”
“Why don’t I wait here till one?”
Claire took on a smirk. “Oh, I’m done with work at noon. I plan on getting off by one. Are you up for it?” And then the laugh that I had learned to love.
Book signings have a rhythm. You grab a book, ask for an inscription, scribble it and your signature and then hand it (with a smile) to the recipient. The focus is on time and efficiency. Conversations are kept to a minimum. There is the occasional exception.
“Who should I make it out to?”
“How about ‘To Jessica, sorry it didn’t work out.” Looking up, there was my now ex-wife.
“Very erudite for a writer. I’m well, thank you. How are you doing?”
“Okay, book sales are good and the Hallmark Channel has optioned for a movie.”
“I’m glad. Are you happy?” This was dangerous. Luckily, Jessica jumped in with the response. “Gerald, neither of us were happy. You would always be town and I would be gown. I finally understood that. It’s why I left. But, I don’t regret being married. No matter what, you were always kind and supportive.”
“Thank you. Congratulations, by the way. I see you made tenure.”
“Thanks. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“It was nothing. I could afford it.”
“Not just that. It was everything. But, it was also your books.”
“My books? You hated my books.”
“Until I actually read one. And then another. I became hooked. I ended up writing my own book about them. It’s what got me tenure.”
“I’ll have to read it. What’s it called?”
“Take Me Away: Contemporary Feminist Escapist Literature in Working Class America. The stories you told me about you and your mom are in the first chapter. I wish I had added the new series of working-class romances.”
The line was getting impatient. Doris came over to move things along. “I’m sorry Miss, there are lots of fans that would like to talk to Gerald and he is too nice to say no, but you need to move along.”
“Certainly. Well, nice seeing you again Gerald.”
As she turned to leave, I handed her the signed copy and a note saying it was a complimentary review copy (so she wouldn’t have to pay). “Let me know if you enjoy the book.”
She said, “I will,” and left.