That Old Black Magic
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” – Albert Einstein
Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood had been Roy’s home for years. He still lived in the same apartment he and Gretchen once shared. A working class area of Brooklyn, gentrification had made few inroads. The neighborhood remained run-down: tacky storefronts, dirty and decaying building facades, cracked sidewalks, and poorly maintained streets. Roy liked the gritty feel of it. His apartment, however, was another matter. At fifteen hundred square feet, it was a spacious loft with huge windows, a skylight, two working fireplaces, hardwood floors and art everywhere. Art Gretchen had purchased and graciously left behind. Since the apartment was far from the subway and the neighborhood dangerous at night, the rent was reasonable. Roy could almost afford it.
When not burdened by clients, Roy often sequestered himself in his top floor retreat, reading, listening to music, and, infrequently, writing. With only a handful of good friends in New York, and another dozen scattered around the country, Roy was still very much a loner. While he occasionally frequented neighborhood bars, hanging out with other late-night drinkers, he found fewer and fewer reasons to be involved in a world he believed seriously on the decline. If only half jokingly, Roy had recently begun to predict the end of civilization. Although he respected his activist friends—even envied their optimism—he’d already concluded a tipping point had been reached. He wondered if Malcolm Gladwell would concur.
With Alison still in bed, Roy sat alone in his light-flooded kitchen, remembering how staunchly he had objected to her staying at his place.
“Alison, are you crazy?” Roy remembered saying, not quite sure what he meant by “crazy”—a word with enough subjective definitions to fill a dictionary.
“No. Why would it be such a problem?”
“Because, for openers, I barely know you.”
“That didn’t bother you last night. That should count for something.”
“It does count for something. It counts for a lot. But Christ, it was one night.”
“And you said you were a risk taker,” Alison taunted, poking him hard in the chest with her finger.
“I am, sort of,” Roy said, stumbling over his response. He believed he was a risk taker, but he wasn’t foolhardy and he plain didn’t trust Alison. But he couldn’t say that.
“It would only be for a couple of nights, three at most. I just need time to set something else up.”
“Sure. Right. Can I get that in writing?” Roy joked.
“Roy, I promise I won’t be a problem. I’ll help out. I can cook.”
“So can I,” Roy added quickly. “But let me ask you something, what do you really do for a living?”
“I told you. I’m a graphic designer—a good one. It’s on my rental application, if you remember.”
“And that’s on the up and up?”
“If you don’t believe me, Roy, you can check,” Alison said curtly, obviously annoyed.
“I don’t need to check, thank you. I believe you.” But he wasn’t sure he did.
With an impromptu cross-examination already underway, Roy figured he might as well inquire as to Alison’s motives in the first place. After struggling to carefully phrase his next question, he gave up and asked it straight out.
“Did you really invite me over last night just to get laid?
“A bit crude, Roy, don’t you think?” But Alison didn’t appear particularly offended. “I was lonely. I thought you might be good company. You seemed smart, reasonable. Nice enough. Certainly not the serial killer type.”
“What type is that? Ted Bundy seemed well-adjusted.”
“And he was cute, too,” Alison was quick to add. “Just like you.”
“At sixty? I don’t think so.”
“Screw you, Roy. I was attracted to you. I invited you over because I wanted something to happen. I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t, and you would have too. We had a good time—and not just in bed.”
“Fair enough. But tell me, are you usually attracted to shy, older guys or should I feel special?” Roy asked.
“Get off it, Roy. You’re not shy in the least. Cautious maybe, but certainly not shy. Besides, you don’t look sixty, and you’re attractive and you know it.”
Roy smiled. He was shy and he wasn’t at all sure he was attractive.
“So last night wasn’t a fluke. You weren’t just satisfying some perverse impulse.”
“Christ. Leave it alone. Why do you have such a hard time believing I like you?” Alison asked, her irritation building. “That’s your problem, Roy, not mine.”
She was right; it was his problem—a long-standing one. Now he felt bad. He genuinely liked Alison. She was smart and considerate and endlessly entertaining. And he was more than a little intrigued. Alison seemed to sense Roy’s contrition.
“Never mind, Roy. Now I’m getting a funny feeling. Sorry I asked. I’ll figure something else out.”
“I didn’t say no,” Roy was quick to interject. “But I’m not good at sharing and I have a history of selfishness. Besides, I’m used to my privacy.”
“Hell, Roy. It’s only for a few nights. I promise I won’t disturb you. What do you do when you’re alone that’s so secret anyway?”
“Nothing. It’s the principle of it,” Roy said, declining to enumerate.
“Well, Roy, just decide. Because if the answer’s ‘no’ I have to scramble to find other accommodations. I’m not staying here one more night. So, what’s it going to be? Exceptional sex for a few more days or back to your usual tricks, whatever they are?”
“A tough choice,” Roy joked, but he was conflicted. He knew he might well be on the verge of making a big mistake. The smart Roy wanted to say no. The needy Roy couldn’t.
“Fine. You can stay for a few nights, but only a few nights. Just please don’t play up to me. It isn’t necessary and it’s condescending. Let’s agree that letting you stay at my place even for a short period of time is a bad idea and then let’s do it and not discuss it. Okay?”
Alison took Roy’s face in her hands and kissed him. She appeared genuinely relieved and happy. Roy, on the other hand, looked worried.
“Thanks, Roy. You won’t be sorry.”
Roy wasn’t so sure.
By the time Alison’s two-night stay had morphed into two months—with no end in sight—Roy had grown used to having her around. He enjoyed their relationship and thought Alison did too. It was a very laissez-faire affair. They came and went as they pleased. And once ensconced at Roy’s, Alison lost all interest in finding a place of her own—if, in fact, she ever had an interest. Roy was just happy to have her there and didn’t much care anymore how it had come about. But he was already afraid he liked Alison too much for his own good. Especially since he still knew practically nothing about her.
Alison’s past—and, to a large extent, her present—remained a mystery to Roy. He’d grown tired of asking questions that went unanswered. Alison left the apartment most mornings after he was gone and often didn’t return until early evening or later. Freelance work was demanding, she would insist, but offered little elaboration. Roy chose to accept her story at face value. It was easier that way.
He cared little that Alison wasn’t conventionally attractive. As far as he was concerned, her unique personal style more than made up for it. He even welcomed the challenge presented by her unrelenting sexual appetite. Alison had, indeed, revived a dormant side of Roy, but that didn’t make him blind to her more erratic behavior. Prone to arguing over the slightest breach of social norms, Alison indulged in unnecessary, and dangerous, street confrontations with total strangers. She also engaged in long and intense tirades about the hypocrisy of Christian values with anyone polite enough to listen. Afterwards, she would often withdraw into herself for days, leaving little doubt she was a troubled soul. Surprisingly, her neuroses only contributed to Roy’s attraction. Despite his reservations, life with Alison was a welcome respite from the daily grind he endured at Three Partners Realty.
Eventually Alison joined Roy in the kitchen and made omelets for breakfast. Running late, Roy ate quickly, but still found time to complain about his work. In spite of himself, he’d managed to become a good agent although the ethical compromises he made, and watched others make, bothered him. Manufacturing non-existent offers to alter the bidding process, glossing over potential problems in rental units, or providing buyers with inside information made him particularly uncomfortable. The fact that most agents employed the same techniques didn’t make him feel any better. Of greater concern, however, was his lack of large commissions. He’d expected them by now. Hadn’t TPR’s partners assured him he’d see six figures before he knew it? Hell, he wasn’t even close. Seeing Alison roll her eyes—accustomed already to Roy’s morning rants—he decided to change the subject.
What did she think about the stories he’d written that he had asked her to read? She liked them, she said, but didn’t appear especially enthusiastic. Roy was disappointed. He thought they were good. Didn’t she realize he’d gotten an extremely late start, say forty years, and had had to work extra hard just to produce credible work? She could, at least, cut him a little slack.
As Roy brooded about Alison’s limited endorsement of his writing the phone rang, breaking the silence that had overtaken the kitchen. It was Bruce Watanabe. Roy was rushing to be on time for their morning meeting. But from the minute he heard Bruce’s voice, he knew he was calling—at the last minute—to cancel. Offering only a perfunctory apology, Bruce wanted to know if they could reschedule. Typical, Roy thought. At least he was still at home. Now he could stop wolfing down his food and relax—something that didn’t come easy for Roy.
Still bothered by Alison’s lukewarm reaction to his writing, Roy childishly felt the need to annoy her in return. He wanted to know how—precisely—she’d managed to get by before moving in with him. The question was as old as their relationship. Alison artfully dodged it, as always. But today it seemed to anger her more than usual. Frustrated, Roy dispensed with their usual parting intimacies, downed his third cup of coffee, and headed to the office.
In a lousy mood as he stepped off the elevator, Wanda only added to it by telling Roy that Gretchen had called to confirm their noon meeting. Roy had completely forgotten. After having abruptly cancelled the appointment they’d made two months earlier (shortly after Roy had met Alison)—without offering a reason—Roy had hoped that would be the end of it. But Gretchen had called again yesterday, asking to see him. While not overjoyed, he had again acquiesced. Mismatched as they were, it was odd they remained in contact at all.
Although passionate, Gretchen and Roy’s relationship had also been contentious—each highly critical of the other. The vast difference in their backgrounds didn’t help. Gretchen had been born into east coast wealth and entitlement and Roy—save for a few years spent in an upscale suburb—hailed from a strongly middle-class existence in provincial Ohio. But they shared a critical trait in common. Gretchen hid deep-seated insecurities with a surprisingly convincing veneer of self-confidence while Roy presented a self-assured image to the world, masking serious feelings of inadequacy. Honest communication was neither’s strong suit. They willingly bought into each other’s storylines. Continuing a long-term relationship was probably always out of the question, or so they liked to tell each other when it proved convenient. And yet they clearly shared a bond.
Roy’s morning was filled with irritating phone calls from clients expecting the impossible. One buyer insisted that a large, livable two-bedroom in Greenwich Village for less than eight hundred thousand had to exist. Roy asked if she was visiting from Pluto. His joke cost him a client. He was relieved when Wanda buzzed at noon, even if he wasn’t looking forward to seeing Gretchen. When he did, he was shocked. Despite a deep tan, Gretchen looked awful. She was disheveled, wore no make-up, and looked distressed. Usually dressed to display the maximum amount of skin, Gretchen showed none. It worried Roy.
He gave her a generic welcoming kiss, pulled out a chair for her, walked behind his desk, and sat down. He intended to keep the small talk short. He was anxious to know why she’d come.
“Nice tan. Been on vacation?” Roy asked, ignoring the rest of her appearance.
“Tommy was inspecting property he owns in North Carolina. I wouldn’t really call it a vacation.”
“Right, I forgot you told me his family was originally from the Carolinas. So Tommy still owns property there?”
“Yeah, some. He apparently has a problem he’s trying to resolve. Don’t ask me what it is. He makes a point of not discussing his business with me. I know he sold some oceanfront property a long time ago and I think he regrets it now, but I’m not sure.”
“Still making a lot of money, that Tommy?”
“Don’t you even know that?”
“Not really. Like I said, he keeps his business affairs to himself. He doesn’t seem to lack for cash, though.”
And that was the end of Roy’s patience. He pushed his chair back, grabbed a bottle of expensive scotch and two glasses from a desk drawer, poured himself a generous amount, and offered to do the same for Gretchen. She declined.
“Too early for me.”
“Never too early,” Roy responded, tipping his glass toward Gretchen.
She was obviously hurting, but Roy had no intention of playing guessing games. She needed to tell him why she’d come. He was apprehensive. It’d been well over a year since they’d had a serious discussion. Did she still think he was obliged to be a safe port in her personal storm? He hadn’t volunteered to be on her rescue team. She’d married Tommy; he hadn’t. And Roy was betting heavily that Tommy was the source of her troubles.
“So?” Roy asked, expecting Gretchen to launch into her story. Instead, she sat quietly, her hands folded in her lap. She looked forlorn, but said nothing. Roy didn’t plan to wait her out.
“Gretchen, it’s been a while. Out of the blue you call? You got problems?”
…to be continued…
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