My one-bedroom apartment was in a plain white brick building just off Dupont Circle. Its only charm was the way my bedroom filled with early-morning light. It had been the perfect size for me when I took it after Jim and I separated, and I’d held on to it even while I lived with Michael, for the extra income from the sublet, I’d told him. For the feeling of knowing it’s there if I ever need it, I said. But now, after ten years, it was starting to seem crowded, a little dismal. The walls needed paint, the floors had to be sanded.
I threw out the old flowers and put the new ones in their place. I took off my boots and ate my sandwich standing up in front of the television while I caught the end of the news. Then I called Billy.
Every Friday night we checked in with each other. Billy and I were each looking for something, but in all our Friday night talks we’d yet to figure out what it was. Billy had switched cities, changed jobs, run through roommates and hadn’t come across it, while I’d stayed in one place to search for years, and still it eluded me.
Now, if we weren’t visiting our parents for the weekend, we needed reassurance it was all right. If we were living alone, we needed company. Billy lived part time with Cheryl; it was his longest and most serious romance since he’d fallen in love with his piano teacher when he was thirteen, but he was resolutely committed to no commitment. For himself. For me, he wanted something more permanent. He was always trying to talk me into getting back with Michael. Billy’d been the one to find Michael for me; he couldn’t forgive me for losing him.
Four years ago Billy moved in with me while he was trying to decide where he’d live next. Every night that summer we spent hours trying to get a handle on his future while we sat at one of the sidewalk tables in the bookstore café near my apartment. The tables were placed so close to each other, we usually ended up talking to the people on either side. Billy was always less shy with strangers than he was with people who knew him well. One warm July night, Billy was halfway into his brownie with ice cream and hot fudge when the waiter brought a slice of carrot cake to the man sitting next to us.
Excuse me, Billy said, but if God wanted us to have carrots for dessert, He wouldn’t have invented chocolate. I lowered my head; the man laughed. Chicago, Billy said, or some place in the Midwest. That’s the only area where they teach you to laugh like that.
Chicago, the man said. My name’s Michael, he said, then he looked over at me. If Billy hadn’t been watching me so closely, I might have thought of something to say. The man was clearly good-looking; he had nice eyes, a great laugh, no wedding ring. But all I could do was smile and nod. I let Billy do the talking, never expecting he’d ask this Michael person over for dinner the next night.
Then it’s set, Billy said. Tomorrow. He gave him my address.
I turned in my seat and stepped on Billy’s foot. Sorry, I said, these tables are so small.
Fine, Michael said to Billy. I’m looking forward to it, he said to me.
If you’d like to bring someone, I said.
No, he said, I live alone.
It’s one thing, I said to Billy, when you bring someone you don’t know back to your place. It’s something else when you ask someone over to mine. I only have two chairs.
We’ll sit on the floor, Billy said.
What if he wears a suit?
He won’t, Billy said. Trust me.
But Michael did wear a suit and spent the first five minutes apologizing that he didn’t have time to go home after work to change. Billy told Michael to have a seat, make himself comfortable. Then he left us together, while he ran out to pick up a pizza. An hour later he called to say he’d run into a couple of new friends and wouldn’t be back; he was having the pizza delivered. Someday you’ll thank me, he said. You’re perfect for each other.
He’d left me no choice, I had to be friendly. When Michael was still there for breakfast, Billy went to Conran’s and bought another chair.
You’d probably have more room, Billy said after a month, if you’d live at his apartment.
It’s too soon, I said. I’ve got this feeling there’s still someone in the background. I found a blue eyeliner pencil in his medicine cabinet and a cream silk scarf in his closet. She must have been blond, I said. He’s probably going to go back to her.
If he is, Billy said, he’s got a funny way of doing it.
By the time Billy decided he’d head for New York, I was spending six days out of seven at Michael’s. I’d already moved my winter clothes over to his apartment when we went to his law firm’s Christmas party; I’d even filled out a change of address for my Newsweek subscription. And then I met Cynthia, the youngest associate in the firm. A tall, thin blonde in a pink suede skirt and white satin blouse. All cheekbones and hipbones, she was wearing diamond earrings that I overheard her tell one of the partners she’d bought for herself with her Christmas bonus.
She’s lovely to look at, I said to Michael at that first law firm party, biting hard on the swizzle stick in my third drink.
Whatever Michael said, his arm around me the whole time, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
You make a handsome couple, I said.
Cynthia watched Michael, I watched Cynthia. The pain in my chest wouldn’t go away, so I kept talking. She’s probably very intelligent, I said. She looks like she’s very successful for someone so young.
Michael took my hand in both of his. When you’re done, he said, let’s go someplace where we can both have fun.
I promised I’d never mention her again. Though I did comment once how sorry I was when I heard she didn’t make partner and had to leave the firm. I didn’t ask where she went, but I was always afraid it wasn’t far enough away.
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