The three of us meet at Starbucks on Main: me, her and her husband. The minute I see them perching on bar stools at the end of the counter I know it’s them. He’s tall with that air of wealth and hurry that comes with success in business, but his hair is grey. Next to him she looks like a tiny aerobics instructor with a lot of glossy hair, and smooth skin. She’s wearing a tight jersey dress that holds her like a negligee. Her sandals show me she has long toes and a shiny pink pedicure. Her husband’s knee is juddering; it’s hard to tell why except they’re often uptight like this.
I order my coffee first. I can see they have drunk theirs already. David, that’s what the husband is called, has slugged a double espresso, to judge by the empty cup on the table and the last of Beth’s latte is visible in her mug. I get the usual; a double shot cappuccino with caramel and low foam. Low foam. I almost laugh. Guess that’s why we’re here.
It’s not that I do this for a living or anything. Beating off into a cup every day is the pastime of cash-strapped and embarrassed college kids. I drive an Escalade, dress in Hugo Boss and wear Tod’s loafers. I’m not the polystyrene type. I’m a professional man. I’m married. I run my town’s chapter of the Insurer’s Guild, I hold down a tough job and everyone thinks I’m a pretty great guy. My wife’s got nothing to complain about. She works part-time on reception at the firm, and the rest of the time she steams her face and walks the dogs and keeps herself in shape. We’re not the kind of people you worry about. We’re the kind you ask over for dinner.
It was at one of the dinner parties that this first came up. A good couple, Deidre and Frank, friends of ours for years now, hosted us for Thanksgiving. We’d got to the part of the meal where people, maybe a little drunk on the old Californian, raise a glass and tell people that know anyway what it is that they’re grateful for. We’d had the predictable enough starters from others around the table. Mark Hanson said he was grateful for the holiday bonus that had bought his new Chevy—who wanted to walk to work? There was a bit of laughter at that, mostly at his expense but no one said so. His wife Charlotte was grateful for their family and home; they have two daughters and one of them suffers with Down’s Syndrome. It’s a struggle for them; they get tearful late at night if someone asks them how it’s going. Tears of tenderness Charlotte calls them, though it’s clear she spends her life striving to stay on the level.
Anyway, Frank gets to his feet a little unsteady, grips the edge of the table and says how grateful he is that he’s firing blanks because he gets to sleep in on a Sunday morning instead of changing diapers and driving the older ones to Little League while his gut circumference grows by a couple of inches a year. It’s almost worth, he says, having to sit with Deidre on the edge of the tub once a month while she weeps about it. He slops wine out of his glass onto his shirt and sits down with a thump. Next thing you know, Deidre’s up and thanking God that this website she’s just found lists people who’ll give her a good fuck without worrying about the consequences of a baby. That shut him up.
We talked about it in the car on the way home, my wife and I, as you might expect. This was a couple we’d known for years. Chances were it’d be days or at most weeks before I’d be unwinding their insurance policies so Frank could make his alimony payments. Judy, my wife, was very shocked. She kept saying that she couldn’t believe it, and just when you thought you knew people. She seemed a little misty eyed which was puzzling because we were solid and it’d been a long time since we’d put the idea of kids behind us. It was something, we agreed, that God just didn’t intend for our partnership. As Judy and I talked, I kept thinking about the look on Deidre’s face: satisfaction and hunger all at once, and something else that I couldn’t quite name.
So when she came into the office two weeks later, I did the insurance business for her and asked her as casually as I could about the website she’d been frequenting. She gave me what I wanted and I gave her what she wanted against the filing cabinet, the whole thing shaking and clanging, mostly so she wouldn’t tell my wife what I’d asked her about, but also owing to that ripe as a plum look she’d had, shining with lust right there at her Thanksgiving party.
And so it went on. There was something a little unsavoury about the anticipation of a hook up but the fucking was worth it and I got to leave afterwards, no questions. The women just waved me on my way. After a while it got so it was like having a good workout at the gym, and I’ve always kind of thought that the fucking is a bodily need like any other, why get worked up about it, if you know what I mean. Deidre was pretty focused on the act while it was underway, and all business afterwards. She’d set up my profile on the site but never talked about the other women. We just zipped up and got on with our days. It might’ve been the times with her that made me do the same with the others. Maybe I set the tone and they fell in with it. Frankly, why dwell on it when everyone’s happy.
So I’d walked into Starbucks, and they were both there. It wasn’t the first time a husband had got in on the act. It wasn’t my favourite thing, but I figure I’m going to bang his lady, so whatever he feels he’s got to do. The few times I’d met the husbands, they disappeared at the critical moment, which suited me, because who’d want a dude in the room at a time like that? And it left their wives free to enjoy what they were getting. Pretty soon it’d be all logistics for them, pregnancy tests and a note from the site administrator to close up the association, as they called it. Job done, time to move on. Suits me fine.
But there he was, and historically the husbands have had a few questions. They are using the site to avoid the legalities, the hold ups, the medical insurance, the what have you. And on your side you want minimum fuss. You don’t want to bring a child into the world, have nothing to do with it, and then have it turn up when it’s eighteen asking about what you’ve amounted to and what this means about who they really are and why you don’t care about any of it. I’m comfortable with where I am. I’ve talked you through that already. Wife, house, a little money, some fucking and being left to enjoy your liberty. But anyway, the husbands want no strings. They’re the ones who want to be the daddy. Another one would get in the way. But they still have questions, so you humour them. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can get to the point. And Beth, without wishing to offend, is a point I’m pretty keen to get to.
The husband’s jittery from his espresso. The knee jigging keeps up. He lets me know up front, he’s doing this for Beth. She’s desperate for a child. I enjoy my coffee and wait for the talk to be over. I glance at her at this point and it’s true she looks a little haunted. But the wives, in my experience, might be thinking of a child before I get there, but then I arrive and they get focused pretty quickly on the next hour and a half. They get into it with a reliability that is gratifying. There are a few things that gratify that way. There’s not a whole lot in the insurance world that’s new to me, and I’ve been at the game for a while now. But there’s a quality in a pile of completed and filed applications at the end of the week that makes me feel pretty satisfied, since you ask. There’s a commission coming and everyone’s content, and I appreciate that the way I feel good about there being a little give in my waistband even after a long lunch. It’s like being one of the few at your high school reunion that still has his hair and a wife you wouldn’t turn away on a cold night. You know what I mean.
So when this guy starts with the questioning, I’m clear that it’ll be over soon and Beth and I can move on to the hotel upstairs for the business end of the deal. She’s sitting cross legged on the bar stool examining her manicure and I’m confident she’s waiting for this bit to be over too.
“You don’t look much like you went to Harvard,” David says. “What was your year?”
I’m wearing a good suit and I’ve got good posture and I’m pretty pissed by this, so I say, “Class of ’95, buddy. Didn’t see you there.”
“I was at Yale,” he says, like I give a shit. And he says it in this kind of way that makes you feel you’re already judged and found wanting. But I’m about to fuck his wife so I give him the benefit for a minute. Meanwhile I store away the Harvard thing. I don’t know what else Deidre wrote on that site. Who cares, right? It gets me in the door. But it’s handy to know from time to time, particularly when the husbands come out fighting.
“And you have no children of your own?” he says.
“No, ironic—isn’t that what you Yale grads say?” I give him a smile. “The wife’s not able,” I say. Not that it’s his business but he should know it’s not me or else Beth and I won’t get to the money shot.
“And your IQ is…?”
“Listen, buddy,” I say to him. I’m getting impatient now and Beth’s started to stare across the coffee shop like this isn’t anything to do with her. She’s looking far away and a little upset and it’s an effort getting past that later. I reach into my jacket. I know how to hold it so the label shows, and the lining flashes to its best advantage. Cerise satin, this one, on grey flannel. Boss makes them just so. And I hand him a business card. It gives him the low down on my business and the good neighbourhood I live in. Give him some comfort, I think. I’m all about transparency. The Harvard thing and whatever IQ Deidre’s stuffed out into cyberworld just don’t have anything to do with success, at the end of the day.
“I get results,” I say to him. “Never had an unsatisfied customer.” And I smile the way you do when you just know it’ll go your way.
Just then he gets all courteous. He looks closely at my card and raises his eyebrows. He’s impressed. He files it in his breast pocket and pats it through his jacket.
“Gabe,” he says, “thank you.” Very earnest he is, and I enjoy that. So when he says he needs just a little more time, that he and Beth have to talk—at this, she looks at him and squeezes his hand—I think well, what’s the hurry? They’ll be back soon enough. He gives me one of those crushing Yalean handshakes and she puts a perfumed kiss on my cheek and we agree to meet up again once they’ve had that talk.
The next week I’m in the office. I’m pretty relaxed after a decent hook up, and there’s a knock on the door. There’s a bailiff there, a squat man that smells like a row of sneakers in the locker room at the Y and he starts barking about fraud and Chapter 7. He hands over one of those business cards that’s like a high class wedding invitation. I have just enough time to reflect that the only person I’ve met lately who’d wield a card like that is David before the bailiff’s crew start confiscating filing cabinets and the breakfront Judy bought me for our fifteenth anniversary. I can see that out in the reception area—it’s not Judy’s day today—the secretary’s already reaching for her handbag and jacket.
I’m feeling a lot of rage and humiliation so that I can hardly drive, but somehow I’ve got to get home. On I-95 it feels like if I go fast enough I can stop the asteroid that’s about to fall on my house, but as soon as I pull into the driveway and turn off the engine, I know. Not much is different, but there’s one blind drawn in the window of the den and when I get to the front door I can hear the clink of the chain out back where Snowflake must be sniffing around. If she’s not in her basket while Judy’s doing the washing up and singing, if Snowflake’s not sitting on my wife’s knee while she watches Oprah, if she isn’t inside there’ll be no comfort for her. For Judy, my Judy, who stood up on Thanksgiving and gave God thanks that if she couldn’t have the family of her dreams, she had Gabe, the man of her dreams, and a happy, happy home.
Kathryn Pallant is a fiction and poetry writer studying for a Creative Writing PhD at Manchester University, England. Her first novel, For Sea or Air, is represented by the Lucas Alexander Whitely agency and her poems have recently appeared in Cake and Antiphon magazines. Email: kpallant[at]hotmail.com