Keeping Them Happy Ch. 10

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“Where were you?”

Her voice was calm. The phone connection left her sounding distant and tinny but he could not dispel the illusion that she could see him, that she had risen above him, burning away layers of deceit. Her undemanding tone only heightened his discomfort.

“George and I just went out and had a couple drinks.”


It was not enough of an answer.

“We went out to that country place, Ripple Creek, and then to Harry’s Crayfish.” He left out the next stop, the Dabney Hotel, where they met Michele and Clarista. The first two places already sounded bad enough, and he was afraid he would slip up and say something that could lead to questions about the final stop of the evening, Clarista’s apartment.

“Harry’s? What’d you want to go there for? You told me you thought that place was morbid.”

“I still think so. Look, it was George’s idea. I just went along for something to do.” He had launched his manly multi-pronged counter-attack. It didn’t hurt to remind her it was her fault that he didn’t have anything to do. He also wanted to try to shift blame to George, whom she already thought was a bad influence. He let out a breath, trying to settle the feeling that he was being subjected to interrogation.

“Did you have a nice time?”

“It was OK.” He minimized, recognizing that nice times were supposed to occur only when he was with her.

“I bet you got drunk.” She was teasing, but he understood that she was also baiting.

“Just a little.” He tried to make it sound funny, like an admission of childlike misbehavior. “Understand, drunk only to the extent that it was socially acceptable. You know me. I never want to give offense.” He forced a laugh, but he didn’t hear her joining in. It might be a good time to change the subject. “You coming over tonight? There’s a good movie on TV.”

“You gonna fix me dinner?” she asked.

The sun had finally begun to emerge through the clouds.

“Absolutely. What do you want?”

“Steak. Baked potato with sour cream. Spinach salad.”

“Ooooee. Sounds really good. I’ll take care of it. I’ve got some champagne too. What time?”

“I’ll come over about 6:30. What’s George doing tonight?”

He understood her true meaning, that George had better be gone.

“He said something this morning about having a date. I don’t expect to see him until tomorrow afternoon.”

“He just goes out with a lot of different girls, doesn’t he?”

There it was. What he had dreaded. Black clouds rolled back in, bringing darkness and worry.

“He’s trying to find somebody he likes. It’s not easy.”

“Mason, you guys didn’t have dates last night, did you?”

He immediately saw the need to fall back onto his legal skills. To have a date. What did that mean? Technically it meant to have made a prior commitment to meet another person at a certain time. He had not done that. No need to lie. Law is useful in daily life. Be precise. Don’t lie.

“No.” He laughed at such a ridiculous suggestion. “We didn’t have any dates.” Almost slipped. Wanted to say “to meet anyone.” She was smart. She would have seen how he was narrowing the scope of his answer so he wouldn’t need to lie. He suddenly realized his face had become scrunched up like somebody in pain. Good that they were talking on the phone instead of in person.

“I’m glad,” she said. “It would be your decision. I’d never tell you not to. But I’m glad anyway.”

“That’s a nice thought. I appreciate it. Very considerate.”

Survival, a rat wriggling his long hairless tail as he cowers at the treachery he has deposited upon the innocent.

When he went to the store for the steaks and sour cream and fresh spinach, he also bought some frozen lobster tails and a quart of the ice cream flavor she liked.


During Christmas vacation he took her to Hawaii. For the past six years he had made a routine of going to Hawaii at Christmas and staying in a client’s condominium on Maui. The client provided it at no charge in exchange for occasional legal services. It was a lavish place, two bedrooms, large bathroom with covered deck, another open deck off the living room, which also contained a fully stocked bar. In the kitchen there were electric devices to do everything, open cans, shoot microwaves at food, grind up waste, even an electric ice crusher for making daiquiris.

During his first few visits, before he met Gail, Mason had brought his children. The coast at that location was rocky and precipitous; and the children, who were deeply involved in the transition into adolescence, became bored and complained repeatedly about not being able to get to a beach, where they expected to encounter others their age. Mason preferred to swim in the condominium pool and lie in the sun, but the children demanded diversions and he had felt compelled to rent a car and drive them to a place where they could play in the surf. He had enjoyed it but did not like the bother or expense of a car.

The children grew up quickly. After those first few years, Elizabeth suddenly became a fully committed teenager with a young woman’s body, an interest in boys and plans of her own. No time for Hawaii. And Richard just said he didn’t want to go. Mason had offered him a fourth trip, the two of them sharing a male adventure. Richard didn’t explain why he declined and Mason was reluctant to ask, afraid Richard might bring up some failing of Mason’s as a father. That year Mason went alone, even though he sensed in some deep fissure in his psyche a fear of being on his own in a foreign environment. It was something that had plagued him for as long as he could remember, the fear that to be solitary was to be noticed, to be wondered about, to be presumed to be deficient in the ability to relate to others, even to be in some subtle way repugnant. He needed the anonymity he felt when situated indistinguishably within a group. On the flight over he had met two secretaries taking their first vacation in Hawaii and he had gotten them to cancel their hotel reservation in Honolulu and stay at the condo with him. They occupied the second bedroom, which otherwise went unused. Initially all he had wanted was their company, but by the end of the week he had encouraged first one and then the other into dating other residents of the condominiums and, on alternate nights he had bedded whichever one had stayed home. He believed that each thought she was the only one to share his bed.

The next year, the last before he met Gail, had been a minor disaster. He had taken a woman he had been seeing for about six weeks, a small redhead named Suzanne who owned three rental houses in the city and drank coffee almost constantly. She was 24 years old and had achieved more financial success than most men would realize in a lifetime. Mason was impressed, but that was before she tried to kill him.

By the time they began their Hawaiian vacation they were getting along almost too well. They could anticipate each other – she would say things in answer to something he had been thinking about but had not yet spoken. He could recognize when he was irritating her and would back off. There was, in fact, almost no guess work with her. It was she who had asked him if he wanted sex and she had engaged in it with totally unabashed lust that left no doubt that she enjoyed it. She declared early in their relationship that while they were seeing each other she would not tolerate him being with any other woman. Like a business deal, they were a couple defined by a kind of contract. She set the terms and would not abide changes or additions he might suggest.

He remembered it was a Thursday during that Hawaiian trip when the difficulties had erupted. The week had been glorious until then and there were only two days left until the weekend, when they planned to go to a luau.

On Thursday Suzanne went out walking alone along the cliffs over the sea. He told her that he was tired and wanted to doze beside the pool. He had not been there five minutes before he heard the familiar sound of an aluminum lounge chair scraping on the concrete. He opened his eyes and saw an attractive blonde. He had noticed her at the pool on previous days, her age probably a little younger than his own, slim, tan, face beginning to line with too many seasons of the sun’s rays. As she settled onto her own aluminum lounge she looked over at him, smiled, and said hello.

A year later, crammed into his Jumbo Jet seat next to Gail, he couldn’t remember anything distinctive about the blonde in the lounge chair. If he had ever heard her name he had forgotten it. He was sure he wouldn’t be able to recognize her. He confused her face with someone in a TV commercial. And those few private moments with her in her room had been only sex, without conversation. The sex was not bad, not memorable, just essential. He wasn’t sure why they’d had sex, except that the usual unspoken signals had passed between them out there beside the pool. Maybe he projected indifference. He thought that some women mistook that for self-confidence, which permitted them to regard themselves as followers rather than instigators. It didn’t matter why it had happened, just that it had.

He had returned to the pool and swam several laps to rinse off the woman’s scent. Even years later when he recalled that encounter he did not know why he had let things progress, encouraged them even, to the point that he had gone with her to her room. In retrospect it seemed like a particularly self-destructive act.

When he got back to his own room, Suzanne was waiting. She had returned while he was in the other woman’s room, and had been there waiting and watching from the balcony. She had seen him walk out to the pool to cleanse himself. He hadn’t noticed her and was surprised to find her there when he entered the room. He had assumed she would not have returned yet from her walk.

He attempted an excuse for his observed absence from both the pool and the room. It did not work. He said he might have gone to get a can of pop out of one of the machines. It was so lame that Suzanne only became more suspicious. She pressed like a police interrogator.

“I want to know!” she kept insisting, until she was shouting it.

The turmoil exhausted him, even though he did not argue back or raise his own voice. Finally he told her he had met a woman at the pool and that she had asked him to her room for a drink.

“Did you fuck her?!”

He could not answer. He just looked down because he could not bare to see the rage in her face.

“Did you fuck her?! I want to know!”

He sighed, shrugged his shoulders. It was too late now.

“Yes.” He tried to add something about how it didn’t mean anything, but she wouldn’t let him speak.

“You sonuvabitch!”

They had been standing in the kitchen. The frying pan from breakfast still sat on the counter, caked with puddles of congealed grease. Her hand shot out and fastened onto the handle of the pan and she swung it at him so fast he barely saw it coming. He ducked and was able to get his head going in the same direction as the pan, so the blow was lessened. Still he was dazed and staggered back against the cupboards. He struggled to hold off the encroaching envelope of darkness at the corners of his vision. She was still yelling something, poking him in the stomach with the pan and backing him up, until he got to the door, reached behind himself to open it, and slipped out into the hallway. Not yet satisfied, she threw the pan through the open doorway. It bounced off the door of the opposing condo and left a lopsided smile in the wood. He grabbed it up and ran before she found something else. By telephone he arranged for her to pick up her ticket at the airport for an early return. He had not seen her since that incident. It had been nearly one year. As recently as two months earlier, late at night, Gail out of town, he had dialed her number but had hung up before anyone answered.

“What are you thinking?” Gail asked. She had the window seat on another flight to Hawaii, her first with him. It was the week before Christmas.

“Nothing. Just one of my cases,” he lied. He played out the truthful answer in his head. I am thinking that maybe I do crave the stability represented by a girl who sells shock absorbers. I like her being available. I like her being a bit dependent. And I think that it might be healthy to try to satisfy the expectations she seems to have for me. Moreover, she is not what most of the others have been: in a wholesome way, she is not embarrassed or inhibited when it comes to sex, and not sexually demanding; she is not determined to live a pre-configured life of her own, parallel to mine, but instead she seems to want to be part of mine; she is impressed with my work and I am pleased with that. She wants me, that’s the biggest part of it – with more strength and consistency and uncompromised determination than I can remember in any other woman I’ve known. She makes me feel important. But – it is a full commitment.

Considering the other side of that – I think I might become bored; and I know I am afraid of failure, and don’t want the accompanying hurt. Relationships that are kept limited and in some way constrained presumably reduce the risk of consequent pain.

Mason asked the stewardess to bring them a carafe of red wine. It made him drowsy, so he napped until the plane landed in Honolulu. They had a two-hour wait for the connecting flight to Maui. Mason bought a magazine to read while Gail prowled the airport gift shops.

When they arrived at the island the weather there was cloudy, threatening an afternoon shower. The swimming pool was deserted. A seagull stood on the end of the diving board and cried forlornly. To Mason, the frying pan dimple in the neighbor’s door still looked fresh. He unlocked their own door and sent Gail in ahead of him.

“This is really neat,” she said, and walked through the apartment, expressing pleasure with each room. She had never been to Hawaii. He was exposing her to it as though it were a part of himself. She seemed to understand that and asked to see all of his favorite places. He realized that he didn’t have any, other than the swimming pool. Still, he could show her places where he had been. It had never before occurred to him that some of them could have other significance beyond being nice places to visit in a world that he assumed had many other such places.

Altogether it was the best week he had spent there. He drank too much beer and they ate locally caught fish that he prepared himself. They rented surfboards at a nearby beach and he tried to teach her to stand up, which he could barely manage himself. After a few spills she was content to paddle on her stomach, so he did the same alongside her. And when they weren’t occupied with swimming or sightseeing or surfing, they lay in the sun next to each other, time registering as trickles of sweat, their skin darkening in proof that they’d been there.

On Christmas day, at her insistence, he paid thirty dollars for a small fir tree that must have been shipped along the same route they had traveled from the West Coast. They decorated it with balls of aluminum foil and pull tabs from beer cans.

At the end of the week he felt like a man who had been drowning and had managed to grab a breath of air; it was a resuscitating respite from what he was coming to regard as the turmoil of his life and work at the university.


Winter term began in the week after the New Year holiday. During that first week he stayed at the office until about nine each night, except for the night he had traffic court at Acton. One evening he spent over an hour on the telephone talking to a stenographer’s recorder, dictating about ten letters and two complaints that he had roughed out. It cost him, and for that reason he usually did his own typing, but he was tired of always being behind. He worked all day Saturday in the office and fell asleep on the floor at home that night while he and Gail were watching a movie on TV. He continued the press to catch up into the first few days of the following week. He had experienced these surges of energy before, but this time he intended to make it last and become policy. He was convinced that he was going to make himself a better person.

On Wednesday of the second week of winter term, at an early evening time when most instructors had already left the building for home or to teach night classes, he answered a knock on his door and discovered Elaine Bettendorff standing in the hallway. One look at her and he realized he was likely to fall back upon his former habits. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about her appearance – she had drawn her hair back into an elaborate bun, exposing earrings that dangled at least three inches. She wore a black turtleneck that emphasized her breasts, and skin tight jeans which were tucked into fur-topped boots that resembled something made by Eskimos. She was a student, and students sometimes dressed oddly. It was not her appearance that overwhelmed his resolution. It was the memory of her hand on his testicles when she had visited him in the spring, allegedly to discuss a late term paper. He had not had her in another class until this term. When she had handed in her computerized registration card during class the preceding week, he had deliberately acted as though he did not remember her. But now she walked into his office with the hip sliding motion of someone who knew she had not been forgotten. He shut the door. The lock automatically snapped into place.

“I noticed you in my contracts class,” he said, having to start somewhere. Before her, he had never encountered a female who felt him up, and he was not sure how to react now, even though months had passed since the prior incident.

“I was just going to leave a note on your door. But then I saw the light shining underneath and decided to knock.”

“A note. That’s good. Anything significant to report, anything mysterious?”

“No, no. I was going to write that I had stopped by but you weren’t here. But you see, you were.” She got out a cigarette and used a book match to light it.

“No clues,” he said. “I like that. Leave me wondering. But look…” He gestured toward his desk, covered with papers. “I’m really busy. That’s why I’m working late.”

“It was nothing important. More personal really.”

“Oh? Pregnancy advice? Wart removal? Electrolysis? How to avoid probate?”

She tilted her head coyly. “Do I look like I need any of those things?”

“No, no,” he said. “You look quite self-sufficient.”

“You haven’t called me.”

“Maybe I tried.”

“Did you?” She blew cigarette smoke toward the ceiling.

“I think so. I’m not sure.”

She crushed out the cigarette in the ash tray on his desk. “That doesn’t taste good. You wouldn’t have any dope, would you?”

He assumed she was talking about marijuana, which had not yet been legalized and which could cost him his academic job. He had a small amount in one of his desk drawers, but he would not even consider disclosing that to her.

He exclaimed, “Dope. Narcotic abuse. I never possess the stuff, although I can’t deny that I did try it once, but only in the interests of attempting to understand other people’s life programs.”

“Life programs?”

“Motivation and experience.” He was winging it, not quite sure of what he was saying, and still trying to decide what to do with Elaine Bettendorff.

“And did you understand?” she asked.

“No. Not completely.”

“Then maybe you should try again.” She pulled a baggie and some Zigzag papers out of her purse and rolled a fat joint. She lit the end, let it flare for a moment, then blew it out and sucked smoke and air deeply into her lungs. Holding her breath, she held the joint out for him to take. Against his better judgment, Mason accepted the joint and put it to his lips.

It was good dope. After two lungfuls he noticed the first fragmentations of time, the emphatic immediate moments that flipped ahead like the hand-held frames of a strip of movie film. Soon after that, physical space assumed new qualities. The corner of his desk became the essence of corner, but it was mutually isolated from the other parts of the room, which existed only for those few moments when his gaze happened to settle on them. He and Elaine passed the joint back and forth until only the roach was left. She got a clip from her purse and fastened it onto the remaining roach, which provided them with a few more puffs. She tapped the remnants into his ashtray and put the clip, the Zigzags, and the bag of remaining pot back into her purse. A professional, Mason thought. She’s done this before.

As usual when he smoked dope, he got horny.

“How do you feel?” he asked her.

“I feel fine,” she said, drawing out the last word.

He couldn’t help laughing, not at anything in particular but only because he felt like laughing. And when he did not stop, she joined him. They stood up, slightly doubled over with their laughter. He put his finger to his lips and indicated that they should be quieter, which made both of the laugh harder, holding onto each other. Finally the silliness passed. They breathed deeper, at first from exertion and then from the lingering contact, which advanced to tongues meeting secretly in a small dark place, a tunnel of tooth enamel and tissue and saliva, hands groping backs, first over clothes and then under, nerve endings aflame, skin tense with fresh surges of blood, the perfect breast, bra-less, mutual unfastening of each other’s pants, a mouth leeching onto his sex as soon as it was exposed, surprise at watching the top of her head, the rest of their clothes falling like leaves.

At times he drifted away, distracted by some tiny neuron’s vitality or by the texture of flesh or the way it curved. He was impatient with any single way of having sex. He imagined he was Everyman, having sex with all women in all the possible ways. He bent her over the desk and pounded from behind while massaging her most sexually sensitive spot with his finger, then flipped her over and used his tongue. He sat in the visitor’s chair and staked her to his lap, facing him. He nailed her to the wall. And finally he rolled with her on the floor, rebounding so high on each thrust that he was sure his ass was going to hit the ceiling. In his mind he thought this might be the last sexual encounter of his life and he had to make it count. When she had apparently experienced several sexual climaxes, he began to wonder what had happened to his own response. Why was he lagging? But she reached between them and touched him in a special way and place that sent chills up his spine, until they shuttered together, ground into a single being, spent.

“That was the best lay I’ve ever had,” she said weakly, looking up at the ceiling. He had rolled off and laid next to her.

He silently agreed with her opinion. Sedated by dope and sex, he closed his eyes and slept naked on the floor, a burden lifted from him.

When he awoke, she was gone and it was almost three in the morning. The room smelled heavily of marijuana and sex. He sat up and put his hand in a damp spot on the carpet. He had never had sex in his office before. It occurred to him that the place had defaulted into something uniquely dedicated to work, which was sensible but uninspired. Now it would never again be the same. He was glad he had upset conventional standards. He felt he had achieved something beyond the reach of most other men.

He got up and raised the window to try to introduce fresh air. He picked up the ashtray with its remnants of pot and started to dump it into the waste basket.

No point in taking any risks. Too much at stake.

He reached the ashtray out the window and shook the contents into the night air.

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