SHE lived alone, she told me, in an apartment that could house a family of four. To fill the silence, the first thing she did as soon as she had settled in was get a phone.
"Yeah, me too," I said. "I had a second one installed a couple of months ago. Problem is every time it rings it's some asshole looking for a phone pal."
The company was a new one, eager to sign on subscribers. Brand new black wires now webbed the skies across the city. Strangers who had waited decades to get connected suddenly had unlimited access, to me as well as her.
I kept a box of calling cards by my receiver, which was an arm-length from the bed. Each pale rectangle represented someone who'd said they could introduce me to someone else: people who might show me the way to a better job with a fat paycheck and real perks. Those evenings when I was home, itching for something to do, I would dial my collection of numbers relentlessly, banishing the thought of rejection from my mind.
I soon made contacts of a different nature. Night after night, in between my calls, the phone would ring. I'd hear an alien "Haloh?", giggly and juvenile; or sometimes just silence for a heartbeat or two before the line went dead.
"Teenage boys," she laughed when I told her. "They want to make sure it's a girl on the other end. I get calls like that all the time."
She always put the phone down on those cracked, uneducated voices from out of the ether. Like me she was polite only to people she knew. I never counted this as a fault.
THIS was the big city. Unchaperoned, her family tucked away in one of those sleepy, cash-crop provinces, she enjoyed a kind of defiant freedom. Part of it was the license to be anonymous. Another was the right to style herself liberated, to go out to the little bars on Friday nights with guys like me and yet be too nervous to make love when the time came.
For company in the darkness she had her faceless suitors, who never rung her up earlier than half past twelve. I suppose they must have taken note of her number and the light girly voice on the other end, the mysterious woman who refused to talk to them yet never unplugged her phone. What kind of people would be up through the wee hours of the morning? I thought of the security guards at our building sitting slack-jawed beneath spotty fluorescent bars. Those connection fees were cheap, anyone could apply. Driving past squatter enclaves on my way to work, I would marvel at how each ramshackle dwelling, the size of a toilet, was topped with a television antenna. Each shack would hold a new phone. I smiled to myself at what must be taking place nightly in the 2:00 a.m. dark: she in her white, cologne-sprinkled bed, jolted rudely awake by some squatter's bid for contact.
She and I, we were a team, like brother and sister, a most efficient twosome. At the two-bit ad agency where we worked, the projects our bosses assigned us almost always turned out perfect. I hate to brag, but she had a good mind, like a deadly little knife, and so did I. She was as fiercely loyal as I was diplomatic, so none of our supervisors ever got away with stealing our ideas. Of course we were meant for higher things. Overworked and underpaid--that was a given. She spent her salary on clothes and cabfare and accessorized her apartment with books. The money was never enough.
Me, I had the car payments and the baby to deal with.
At least I didn't have to worry about rent. The house belonged to my wife.
"IT'S all here," she would laugh, passing her calling card to those friends of mine we'd run into, in some Malate bar after work. "Trunk lines, direct line, pager, cell phone, home phone but strictly for emergencies and only if it's a pick up and drop off sort of job you wanna talk about; email--"
These men, young fathers like myself, would take the thin scrap of beige from her, pass their eyes over her face and breasts and, imprinting completed, slip the card into some pocket. Then they would turn their inquisitive gaze upon me. I suppose she and I were a unit, even when we sat a chair or two apart--we must have been obvious, even then, before I'd even touched her. But I'd signal the waiter for another beer, my face revealing nothing, and their curiosity would pass.
We had been out for a few drinks, the summer night she showed me her apartment. In the car, she turned her pager over and over between her fingers, as though hoping for rescue. My hand moved to the cell phone at my hip, but if I cut the power my wife would know something was wrong. She noticed my indecision, made a great show of watching the road. We drove through a miasma of invisible waves, through air so thick I found it hard to breathe, my respirations audible over the whump of our wheels on the asphalt. My thoughts spun around in crazy circles until finally, as we neared the end of the journey and the tension between us was so great I thought I would have to crash the car just to relieve it, I ceased altogether to think.
Her place was in a maze of sidestreets off a rundown commercial district. We had never been out so late. As I pulled up, I cut the engine without thinking, and she let her breath out in a sigh. On cat feet, so as not to awaken the neighbors, we found our way to her door. The apartment was a mess, laundry on the couch, crockery in the sink. She was embarassed, and at the same time defiant--so she was no housekeeper, so she was no one's wife.
She offered me something to eat, but there was nothing in the refrigerator but a few shriveled wedges of apple, and some capers and jam. In a recess she found a half-finished bottle of Kahlua, its throat encrusted with sweetness. The kind of treat women keep for an undreamed-of but hoped-for eventuality. We sipped the liquor straight, from plastic ice cream tumblers. The vapors made her sneeze.
We sat for some time while she pointed out spots on the walls where paintings ought to have hung and house plants flourish. Her gestures were small and prim from the tension. I was supposed to compliment her on her independence, I knew, and on how gutsy she was to be living alone, but in truth I wasn't sure what I felt. My voice quavered as we went up to her bedroom--some pretense about listening to a CD or two, at three o'clock in the morning, the two of us mouthing inanities, barely conscious of what we were saying. She clicked on a light. The room was bathed without warning in the warm glow of seduction, and there we stood in the half-darkness, looking inquisitively into each other's faces, until one of us lunged, reaching out too clumsily for the gravity of the moment, and closed the distance between ourselves.
Her flesh was soft and hot, perfumed by the sweat of a day gone by. Her blouse was the thin, fashionable kind that took forever to unbutton, so that ever so often she would stop breathing while I fumbled. An embarrassment that I couldn't help suffused me as zippers opened and garters snapped. Her flesh was so moist and so close, her response so sharp and immediate, and the terrible thing was that I knew her--she was no stranger in a karaoke club. I don't think I once met her eyes. She made just one token gesture of resistance, pressing her thighs together as I pulled her underwear down, the scrap of white cotton slipping unimpeded down her legs. I put my face to her pubis, my lips seeking out her wet folds--like teasing oysters from their weed-encrusted shells. She went rigid, stifled a shout, began to sob. Down in the darkness, gripping her buttocks hard enough to hurt, it was as if I was hoisting her into air, and fleeting images entered my head of my year-old daughter: the dull, half-words she too said whenever I picked her up. Her knees gave way and we fell in a heap, struggled to free ourselves from our clothes. As we moved back and forth, the scent of her sex, our bodies, rose in the air--the scent of sex, on our fingers, on my lips, and then all over my hair as she caressed me. It was an odor of beer and Winstons and sweat and sex and detergent and sun trapped in denim, and the sex was strongest. We were like two children playing pretend--now on the floor, now in a chair, on our knees, in her bed. We grinned stupidly, like wolves, and snuffled at each other.
That first dawn I came twice--the first almost as soon as I had entered her, the second in desperation when it became apparent she had lapsed into a kind of terrified, pained, interminable pre-orgasmic state. "It's not fair," I said afterwards, putting a little humor into my voice as I dabbed at the puddles I'd made on her belly. I was covered in sweat, and a little angry. I had, after all, buried my face down between her thighs. I wanted her to tell me how happy I'd made her. I needed a rating.
Somewhere among my clothes, the cell phone pulsed a couple of times--the battery signalling its temporary death. She stretched out an arm, one breast brushing my lips for a moment while she unplugged her own telephone receiver. Now we were unreachable. Incognito, exiled. I lay against her in the half light, still afraid to look into her eyes, the reality and the uncomfortable intimacy of what we had just done slowly sinking in.
MORNINGS as soon as my wife had left for work we made love, relentlessly, over the phone, her breathing exploding in my eardrum, her voice tiny, taut, almost weeping. In the office we devised little games by which we could do it, in our clothes, without contact, murmuring to each other as we pretended to surf the net. One night we stayed until everyone else had gone home, and as we made our way down a darkened corridor to the exit I pulled her to me, and we stumbled into the meeting room with its glass door and long table and swivel chairs. "This is our secret, ok?" I told her; it would be our private contract. She kissed my lips, slipping me the tongue. "I trust you." The heat was wretched. Her fingers knew nothing about button-flies and it took forever for her to open my jeans. She went for my cock as though trying to inhale it. I propelled her downwards until she knelt before me, then tugged at her hair, hard: "Now look at me. Look up at me." Deep, protesting sounds came from her throat. The darkness whirled. I felt myself coming. I wrenched her to her feet and slung her against the table, slipping into her from behind, one hand strumming the folds of her vulva, the other hard over her mouth. She bucked for a few moments, then turned languid and pliant. Someone entered the outer office then--one of the guards, training his light over the silent computers, the coffee maker, the rubber plant. He looked directly at us through the one-way glass; I met his unseeing eyes over her nape, but never once stopped the gentle movement of my pelvis. I fucked her, from behind, as though in some aquarium, fluid and in total silence. That was the night I found out what it was like to disappear.
Disappear--diffuse into the ether, to emerge in some motel room, falling sideways across the bed, the air crisscrossed with inaudible voices bouncing off our sweat-slicked bodies in waves. That summer I discovered how to live many lives: that you could be a totally different person in secret, that you could have a day face and a night face, a face for your lover, a face for your wife, a face for the fat and aging personnel manager who got you drunk buddy-fashion to hide her desire. I learned you could lie so efficiently as to deceive even yourself: watching my wife get dressed in the morning I would repeat word for word fictitious conversations with drinking buddies I made up then and there. When she had gone I would lie sleepily back in the pillows, staring at the parquet floor, the pink drapes, the shadow of the mango tree against the window--things that were my wife's and were now mine as well--and think with faint disgust of me and my lover lying in each other's arms just hours before.
BUT the thing was she simply didn't understand the dynamics of fucking. She began to demand favors as a matter of course, and how could I make her understand that these were things I couldn't even give the woman I was married to? She wanted kisses, on the lips and then on and on, over her breasts. She wanted pillow talk, her fingers moving over my chest in the familiar fashion of people you've grown up with. We swapped stories about losing our virginity, but she didn't much care about the women I'd bedded; she wanted to know how she measured up next to them, was she good, was she thin, did I like what I saw?
And she had this hang-up about love, a word she tried to slip in every now and then--"I love your body; I love saying your name"--to see how far she could go.
But it's not about love, it's never about love; it always starts with the clinical act of looking: at some girl, at her red-black hair and skin that's so pale it's literally white, the cute way she enunciates the t's at the ends of her words, the straps of her sandals alien to the accidental touch of lumpy jeepney-riding feet. It's in the looking and the chatting and the choosing, the incomparable thrill of finding a soul as horny as yours. Of finding out which one is attached but will come across, which one will ride in your car with you, direct you in the night to her little apartment with, invariably, a sports bra in the bathroom and a teddy bear on the bed.
It's discovering infinitesimal variations in a multitude, a paradox of flavors and textures, like the salmon and capers in that sandwich I once had at the Pen, at once tart and yielding, oozing pleasure onto your tongue.
There were moments when, listening to her respirations coming slower and deeper from within her chest, the corners of her mouth fluttering, I lost track of my own flesh. Was it the movement of her fingers, or mine, that caused that liquid warmth to spread unnervingly throughout my body; was that her tongue, were these my hands--
When, for a change, she touched herself as I watched, she did so with such sublime confidence, proud of her awakened cunt, offering it up to my gaze like a peeled fruit or a vulnerable and self-inflicted wound. It was unsettling to hear her calling my name. In orgasm she sounded like a child that had been whipped. She came so intensely after a while, and so often, that I found myself rising too soon afterwards to stumble to the bathroom, flagellating myself with cold droplets from the shower. One morning I discovered that a scrap antenna on the garbage truck had knocked our wires down; it was her time of the day to call and, longing acutely for her voice, I jerked off twice before I even got out of bed. After that I found myself putting in extra work not to be involved, and when that time came the sex was no longer fun.
I don't know how the people at work found out. She must have told; I am pretty sure I didn't. A casual mention, over beers, that I was fucking someone at the agency--that doesn't constitute telling, and the folks I was talking to were probably too drunk to hear. But it got around. In record time the usual morality posse in any office, the ones with an axe to grind against the pretty, were giving her the cold shoulder. It didn't help that she had alienated herself from them . Of course those had been my instructions: "to avert suspicion make sure we're never seen together." That put her in an invisible cell, for everyone was my buddy; I'm simply that sort of guy. If she'd been Machiavellian enough to fit into a corporate office she would have ignored my instructions, brazenly kept up our old flirtation. Hiding in plain sight. Instead, she'd sit miserably in her cubicle, occasionally chirping a question to one of her girlfriends, puzzling over the inevitable monosyllabic response.
Then someone took her off the cookie company account. The personnel manager wrote her a memo, but this one was about performance--she hadn't produced anything worthwhile in months--so it didn't have anything to do with me, nothing at all.
The strange thing about it was that everyone loved me; the guys flipped me knowing grins; the girls were extra nice, extra supportive, made it a point to start up private conversations with me whenever she was in the room. They plied me in shrill voices for stories about my wife, my little girl. The boss called me to his office, where to my surprise he poured me a beer. What's between you and her, he said, but he was a man who already knew the answer to that one and I bonded to him instantly. I told him as far as I was concerned, we were just friends; I didn't know what her problem was. We had a good laugh. He shook his head, and as I let myself out of his office, my face warm and my cheek twitching happily from the attention, I saw her, just coming out of the pantry, a styro cup of coffee in one hand. There was something different about her face, a tautness beneath the freshly-applied layer of makeup, and her jacket was something I hadn't seen before, too new, too radical; something a more exciting woman would wear. She looked into my eyes; I saw the panic there.
We encumber ourselves with the internet and phones and pagers, all the modern means of transmitting the word, but in the final analysis, despite the wonderful clarity of voice and image, we have nothing substantial to say. I turned from her and headed for my cubicle.
I STILL think about her sometimes, in the mornings when my wife has left the house and I'm drowsy and erect, my mind reaching for the phone even before I'm fully awake. This is the only time of the day that I have for myself--my nights are spent in bars now, usually with company, and on weekends we take the baby to the mall. My daughter is taller and a whole lot heavier, she talks in a perfect American accent too; I don't know where she gets it, Nickelodeon maybe.
So, taking myself in hand, I think of the woman who was once my lover. I still hear the words she used to murmur, more for their sake than to get any meaning across: You are so good, why is this good, I love this part of you. I remember the curve of her buttocks and how satisfying it was to smack her there, lightly, just hard enough to hear the rich report. I remember the intensity of her gaze, rolling up to meet mine; how close she would come to asphyxiation; how fear and pleasure were indistinguishable in her eyes. All right, I'll say it; I miss her. Maybe I should have changed offices when it started; that would have been a whole lot more convenient. Now my memories are spoiled with a heavy dose of guilt at not once coming to her defense when they fired her, me who knew her work best.
I know it could be disastrous--my wife has been uncharacteristically curious about how I spend my evenings nowadays--but I wish she would call, just once, just to ask how I'm doing, preferably when I'm alone. Is she sleeping with someone now; is he married, too; does she have a new job? I knew her favorite radio station but never heard her speak the dialect she had used as a child. Nor found out what her hometown was called, whether her brother had once touched her breasts long ago the way I'd once explored my sister's, what would have gone into that children's book she was always saying she would write.
Sometimes scents, textures, entire blocks of memory will surface. I know enough about the human subconscious to understand that much of this is censored, broken and reassembled, to form something which, like a well-written advertorial, stops just short of the truth. When I see her again that secret shared pleasure will be gone, that trust, that certainty I had those nights when we were the last to leave the office and I needed to wait only a few seconds before I felt the pressure of her fingertips against my fly. I suppose all the people you ever knew amount to nothing more than impulses in your brain, chains of chemicals with lengthy names. After a while the substances in your system rearrange themselves and then you're all right.
One Saturday we came home later than usual, and as I loaded the week's groceries into the refrigerator, I caught my wife staring in puzzlement at the caller I.D. Someone had tried to contact us for three hours straight that evening, 67 times all told. I went cold. But the number was something I had never seen before.
The phone rang for the 68th time. I picked it up gingerly. It was a man on the other end, sounding drunk, disoriented and more than a little desperate--could he talk to Sheila?
It was a young voice, comfortable with his English, but a public school accent. Intrigued, I found myself being polite, for the first time in my life, to a stranger. I told him he had the wrong number, could perhaps check his address book instead of wasting his time. But the fellow didn't seem to understand. "I just want to talk to Sheila," he repeated; growing more and more blustery the longer he talked, trying to fathom the relationship between his Sheila and this unknown man about his age on the other end. Finally I slammed the phone down. I thought of this phantom Sheila, if that was her name, and wondered where she lived and if she was at home right now, doing stretches on the floor of the bedroom she shared with a friend, after a dinner of Dulcinea carrot cake that she worried would wind up on her bony ass. I saw her laughing goodbye in the first light of morning, girl in platforms, girl with Bellady red hair, slipping this moron a number randomly scrawled before disappearing into a taxi, never wanting to see him again but too charitable to spoil the afterglow. I've taken to dialing pager numbers now, sort of for my own amusement. I punch in the autopage suffixes, and then the other five or so numbers at random. I listen to the greeting messages. It's mostly boring, uninvolved, unemotional stuff. Hi. This is Dr. Enriquez. Please leave your message so I can get back to you.
Some folks, though, they will play their favorite song. Once I even got a blast of synthesized sound. Funny what elaborate forms of camouflage people will erect. Professional tones or electronic noise, it's all the same thing: a bid to keep distance, over a system designed to thwart it.
But one night I got this girl, with a light, scratchy teenage-slut sort of voice. I paged her via the operator and left her my cell phone number, but she didn't return my call. It was a relief to have something else occupy my mind, and the more I dialled her number, the more her message grew on me. A teasing salutation, then a phone number rattled off in some elusive language, too low and rapid to decipher, and then gasping little kissy-kissy sounds as the tape ran out. She was too young, I figured, to have any notion of soul. A clean slate, nascent; no talent, no career and no ripened sexuality to juggle.
I jerked off to the sound of her voice through the receiver. But it wasn't any good. I would have gladly traded in the past six months for a shot at the rest of her. Puppy-ear breasts, dimples, and her hands in particular, pale, perfectly-oval fingernails with cuticles calcified from too much pruning. Hands of which she would be vain.
The touch of a stranger is hot and exotic, a world apart from your own.
Tentative at first, it turns forceful right when you least expect it,
a foolhardy bid for intimacy, flooding you all the way to your heels with
triumph and joy. That's all we look for basically, a little joy.
This story has previously appeared in print.