The difference between the cheap Parmesan and the good stuff is that when you put a knife to the imitation, it’s like cutting tire rubber. That’s why I ended up at Urgent Care at 11 p.m. You’d think a rich girl like Opal, who was my wife then, would know, or care, about real Parmesan.
Opal and I had been playing house in a furnished apartment, owned by a Belgian doctor who travelled overseas a lot. We had only both been out of school for a year when I hosted my boss from the bank, and his wife, who lived upstairs in a bigger apartment with better views.
Opal dressed up the dining table. I bought still-warm bagels and croissants from the bakery. We turned on the classical music station. When the boss’s wife reached for the creamer, her hand froze over the teacup, “Am I pouring milk from…a neti pot?” I looked at Opal. She held my gaze with a puzzled expression. I turned to the boss’s wife, “Um, what’s that?”
“So, that’s why you got divorced? Because you don’t keep sharp knives in the kitchen? Because of a neti pot?” Martina asked.
We were resting on once-crisp sheets in a stylish hotel. The bedroom overlooked the Hudson River. Martina had her requirements.
“No, no, no…” I shook my head and sighed.
“I didn’t mean to make you sad, darling.” She leaned over for a kiss. Her hair spilled over me and smelled like a bouquet.
She drew away from me. I said, “Well, it stuck as a nickname,” I said.
“Neti pot? she laughed. “Neti?”
Her amusement made me bristle. It was a shitty name that stuck for years. How would she know how much it pissed me off?
Martina worked at the same big money-center bank as did, but her title was global head-of-something related to advertising. I was a healthcare banker, spending late nights identifying promising new therapies, burying myself in spreadsheets, trying to prove myself at bonus season. There was no reason for Martina and I to ever cross paths. Advertising at the bank happened behind the scenes, but I started paying attention after we met. I saw her on the company-wide Intranet hosting “intelligence briefings” with business and academic celebrities. I learned that she managed a $100 million agency budget, drew adoration from her team, occasionally spoke to the media.
She pulled her hair back and said, “Your relationship with Opal is worth talking about, Ted. You know what they say: the undiscovered life is not worth living.”
“Who says that?” I said. Being ten years older than me didn’t give her permission to be condescending. “I’d just like to make a living, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m sure you’re doing just fine.”
“You make more than me,” I said.
“Not for long, sweetheart. In marketing, we plateau.”
“Well, you’re smarter than me.”
She smiled, looking into my eyes.
Her expression made me want to please her. “Do you, uh, want me to do it again?” I asked.
She shook her head. I’ll need at least a couple of days.”
“To heal?” I shut my eyes. It sounded so awkward.
“Let’s just say, ‘to be ready for you again.’”
I looked at her. She was fastening her bra.
The word “again” was encouraging.
Phil and I met up the next day at a driving range on the pier. It was unseasonably warm and we thought it would be fun to hit balls into the winter slush.
Recovering from only a few hours of sleep, and hangovers, we said “Hey!” and smacked each other’s shoulders. Phil had been training intensely. It felt like I was smacking a horse, and felt self-conscious about my withering physique, and resentful about being trapped in the office all winter.
“Great party,” I said.
“Thanks, Ted.” He didn’t waste any time, “So…Martina?”
“She seems nice.”
He couldn’t have known that I had waited for her outside his apartment.
“She’s great,” he said. “I love that girl. We used to work together at the agency. Heather loves her too. She thought you two would get along.”
“She’s really great,” I said. “And very cool.”
“Gonna call her?” he asked.
“Sure, but it’ll have to be long distance, I guess.”
She had arrived at Phil’s holiday party on a breakneck schedule: London to New York, Boston and Miami, all on vacation time. The goal was to accumulate airline miles before the end of the year.
Sensing my discouragement, he said, “Look, Ted. She’s in town all the time anyway. I don’t think the bank makes her stay in London, but if you’re a single woman and 39, where else are you gonna live?”
I was embarrassed to say: ‘Cleveland,’ where there was a Great Lake, and golf courses, and where people were polite and easy to understand. Where there were three major sports teams, roomy homes and family member you loved nearby. But NYC’s cost-of-living adjustment spoiled me. The money made it hard to leave.
If I admitted to Phil that I was homesick, he would’ve understood. He was from Pittsburgh, and a couple years older than me, and also divorced—but no longer as lonely because he had a marriage-minded girlfriend who liked bringing people together.
“You first,” I said.
He teed up, swung stiffly and topped it. The ball cut a narrow trench in the snow only a few feet in front of us.
“Shit shot,” I said, “Take a mulligan,” and tossed him another ball.
He swung again and crushed it, straight and true, about 200 yards.
“Just needed a warm up,” he said. “Your turn.”
I was staring at The Hudson River and the New Jersey cliffs. ‘Warm up’ made me think of Martina.
Having a relationship with a friend of friend is always risky, but her fixation raised the game. Our hook ups had the surprising effect of opening myself up to her. She took interest in my thoughts and feelings, which had seized up inside me like gears in a blown transmission. She also provoked me in ways that made me feel inferior, but also motivated me to keep up. We met once at a stylish hotel that also had apartment residences inhabited by skinny women and shrunken frou-frou dogs. Seeing them in the lobby reminded me of the Havanese that Opal had adopted. The breed is popular because it has long straight hair that reaches the ground. But Fred was a rescue, an older curly haired version, the color of wet asphalt.
Opal was travelling one weekend and asked me if I could look in on him. During his nightly walk, an African-American guy and his girlfriend stooped to pet him. Everyone loved petting Freddy, but when this couple inquired about him, I got tongue-tied.
Martina listened to this story in her hotel suite. Tall sheer curtains filtered the afternoon sun. She had dumped her briefcase on an upholstered chair. A computer tablet was hogging electricity from a wall outlet. Stacked room-service dishes were on the floor. “Tongue tied?” she asked, “How so?”
“I was telling them about the breed’s background, how the Havanese was once the dog of the Cuban royalty.”
“‘Aristocracy,’ I think you mean to say,” said Martina.
“Okay, aristocracy,” I said, “The dark, curly haired ones end up as rescues because everyone wants the fair, straight-haired ones.”
“So you didn’t disclose the whole story because you thought saying dark-haired and light-haired was too close to American racial issues.”
“So what’s the problem? You feel frustrated because you can’t say whatever you want, anytime you want, is that it?”
She was always a few sentences ahead of me, reading my mind, putting words in my mouth. “Let’s talk about something else,” I said.
“Don’t get mad, sweetheart. It was nice of you to care for your ex’s dog, and it was generous that you spared that couple any awkwardness.”
“Yes, but shouldn’t I be able speak freely without hurting someone?”
“In a perfect world, yes.”
“Listen, Rush Limbaugh,” she said, “Do you chat openly about cancer with someone suffering from lymphoma?”
“No. You don’t. But in America, everyone’s supposed to toughen up about their differences. You must flence these social burdens from your conscience. You’ll be better for it.”
I flushed and got silent.
She lifted her skirt and leaned against the dresser. “C’mon, now. Get to it.”
“I don’t like you when you’re bossy,” I said.
“I don’t like you when you’re nice.”
As far as asses go, she had the whole package, plus the delicate underwear that looked like a light-bulb filament. Her cheeks jiggled on the first stroke. She gasped, gripped the dresser and planted her feet. A few more smacks and she went into foreign-movie mode: “Harder, you bastard. Harder!”
We continued this exchange, back and forth until her flesh got warm like a running motor. I stopped to feel our progress. She was crying, worse than last time. “More,” she said. “Just…just more!”
It was easier after we met at Phil’s party. She had coaxed me through it, as if it were a game instead of something she needed. The holiday cocktails helped us loosen up too. But when she wept, I got concerned for her, feared that we went too far. I started to apologize, but she raised her hand to halt me. Music from a speaker on the nightstand had filled the air between us. I contemplated her throbbing ass, and my numb palm. We were half dressed. She leaned heavily on her elbow and inched herself to my side. Cuddling up to me, I could see that her eyes and cheeks were glowing with tears. ‘Teddy,” she whispered in a childish voice, “Now you can do whatever you want to me.”
Reflecting on our relationship, I recall feeling wrong: What we did, what I said, what we felt. So I did some research and found a psychiatric website that said Martina was reliving a childhood trauma that she had probably sexualized. Then I got the idea that I could be kinky too, so I bought her a pacifier and wrapped it in a gift box. She cackled when she saw it, a binky presented on a bed of cotton, “What are you,” she said, “some kind of pervert?”
We had dinner plans that night with many of the same people from Phil’s holiday party, and she removed it from her pocket and sucked it at the table. “It’s my appetizer,” she said. “Teddy, gave it to me. He thinks I need comforting when he’s not around.”
Everyone knew her jokes. The whole episode passed without additional comment, or embarrassment. But I couldn’t help but feel outclassed by a complicated woman who found a way to change her loneliness into fortitude, and her needy feelings into demands.
She had said to me, “You don’t have to tell me why I like it.” She opened her hand and indicated the tears running down her face. “When you fuck me, it’s extra.”
Opal and I had married at 23 and divorced at 27. I told everyone that the breakup didn’t involve adultery, alcoholism or kids. The only problem was that we weren’t getting along: like roommates who are tired of each other, who fight and vow to never live together again. Except we never fought.
I shared this with Martina. She had shown up at my apartment while taking a hasty side trip from Boston to get a head start on her airline miles. My apartment seemed dull and practical compared to the hotels she liked. I had golf clubs leaning against the wall, but also good, unopened California wine and farmer’s market cheese. She had tossed her bag, kicked off her shoes and reclined on my couch. “You brag about your amicable divorce. What’s with that?”
Her directness irked me. “It’s just how it was,” I said, offering her the cabernet.
“What attracted you to her in the first place? She was skinny? Blond?”
“We were together in college. And were close.”
She gave me an impatient look. I felt silly for being vague. “The college library had a separate study area where you could go after closing. Students were filing in and I saw her smile at me. Everyone was studying at tables or in cubes, reading books, but only Opal had an abacus. I could see her moving colored beads back and forth in a way that didn’t make sense. So I went over and showed her how to make calculations. She was really patient with me. By the time I got to doing multiplication, she politely told me that she was using it as an architectural feature. The plan was to use it as a room divider.”
Martina laughed, “Male-answer syndrome?”
The memory made me smile and I forgot about feeling self-conscious. “I ended up walking her out of the library because it was late. But she had more work to do so I escorted her to the 3D design studio. I had never seen anything like it: a room packed with foam core cut in different geometric shapes, miniaturized furniture, mock ups that looked like spaceships, and every kind of material you could think of. She was designing a transparent sports car. Light could shine through it, and you could see some of the structural parts, like the drive train and wheel rods. She called it the ‘Man O’ War 5000.’”
Martina was sitting up, reaching for a refill of my good wine.
“It wasn’t until she came to my fraternity for a spring party that some numbnut told me about her pedigree.”
“This numbnut…changed your feelings about her?”
“Not really, but her mother pushed hard for the marriage. She thought Opal was too ditzy to ever find someone. For God’s sake, she had an Ivy League education.”
“That’s not ditzy,” said Martina.
I swished the wine in the glass. It felt good not hearing a challenge, but I didn’t share that my now ex-wife was having trouble dating, so much trouble that she even confided to me about it. Maybe that’s why I admitted something else: “Her father being a big shot had something to do with it.”
“Who is your ex-father-in-law?”
I said his name. Martina raised her eyebrows.
“Yup, Lamar the Great. Australia’s national treasure, the smooth international financier, bigger than life, just like everyone says. Remember the FirstAmerica Bank merger?”
“He was running the whole enterprise. Any employee that had company stock got a small fortune, even the bank tellers. It was a success, but he had to take mandatory retirement at 65. That was right after our wedding. I was a telecom banker back then and had a client in Dallas that was starting up a new business. So I arranged to have Lamar on the board. It made me look great in Dallas, and in New York too.”
“I guess nobody called you ‘Neti’ after that.”
“Well, yeah, but it didn’t protect me from losing my job during the financial crisis. Opal and I were having problems too. She went home to her mother in Connecticut one weekend after a big fight.”
“The dishwasher. It was stupid. And I remember, Lamar calling me about it, opining on marriage. His spoke sympathetic words: Women were hard. Marriage was hard. Opal’s mother was his second wife.”
“There’s some irony,” said Martina.
“Right? The conversation cooled me off. I felt flattered too. But imagine my surprise when I heard that he arranged the sale of my former client’s business in Dallas—and netted $3 million.”
“And you didn’t see a penny of it?”
My eyes drifted from her furrowed brow to my unlit ceiling lamp. I finished my wine and set it on the side table.
“No ‘thank you?’” she said, “No quid pro quo?”
I shrugged, “He’s that entitled that he just like expected to be handed a wad of money. Opal and I split after that, but by then she had started a design firm with two employees on the payroll. And there I was, paying alimony to keep the lights on.” I downed my wine and started filling my glass. “I’m still paying to keep the lights on.”
The story seemed to frustrate Martina on my behalf. She shook her head with disgust. I thought about Lamar and said. “There are people who are good at what they do. They get promotions. People beg them to sit on boards. All I want is to be one of those people.”
She looked into my eyes, “You’re freighted with anger, Ted.”
“Quit analyzing me!”
The irritation was starting to feel familiar. I was starting to catch on.
“Sad little telecom banker!“ she said, “Let your in-law break up your marriage?” She shifted on the couch and lifted her skirt.
Displaying her fine ass, she said “Is Lamar’s little fluffer sad? Give it to me, little fluffer!”
I threw my wine glass and raised my hand. No hesitation this time. Punishing her made me feel powerful. The rage was clarifying. And she cried like never before. Her wailing even drew my neighbor’s attention who called to ask if everything was okay.
“Tell him we’re fine!” she said.
“It’s fine,” I said, “We’re just, um…horsing around.”
“HANG UP!” she said.
We were lying together, staring at ceiling cobwebs and smoke marks from last March’s unattended frozen pizza.
I kissed her shoulder, “Your skin is gorgeous, like marble.”
“Steaks are marbled,” she said, “You mean alabaster? Please say, alabaster.”
She was correcting me again. She was a correcter. And what was I?
We looked at each other. She was waiting for an answer.
“Well,” I said, “Does alabaster turn red?”
The Vet’s office was crowded. Opal was wearing a designy-looking print skirt and a creased, fitted Oxford top. Her knees were pressed together and palms flattened on her thighs, her eyes facing forward.
“Hey, I’m here,” I said.
She got up. “Ted,” she said, “Thank you for coming.” It sounded like we were in a business meeting. The formal tone was probably what turned off prospective men, made first dates turn into last dates. I knew Opal’s mind and heart. She was more insightful than anyone gave her credit for. Not her mother or Lamar. She kept her intellect in reserve. It made her seem dumb or cold or formal. But all Opal wanted was to be loved. And all I wanted was to conquer the world. I remember thinking ‘you must flence those stupid ambitions from you agenda,’ as I embraced Opal, feeling her warm shoulders and wet tears against my cheek.
The receptionist said, “Sir?”
“I’m with her,” I said, tossing my chin in Opal’s direction.
“Yes,” she said, “Fred, the Havanese. We’ve been waiting.”
Opal and I held and stroked Fred until his last breath. When it was over, his lifeless tongue oozed out of his muzzle like cheese on toast. Opal tucked it back into his mouth with an index finger. I reached forward to close his jaw but it wouldn’t stay shut.
The vet, a stylish woman with a nose earring, allowed us a few minutes alone in the room.
Opal said, “The arthritis got so bad, I couldn’t get him up from his bed. He slipped on wood floors, and then hit his head when I took him to the office…” Her words stopped and I could see blood gradually rising in her cheeks. “He’d yelp at every step.”
“Don’t talk,” I said. Tears filled my eyes and I choked, “Let’s not talk.”
Opal’s body shook as she wept. We held each other beside Fred’s stiffening carcass.
The following December, Phil got fired, but was coasting on a generous buyout that came his way when a small, but rich, tech-marketing company bought the small, less rich, tech-marketing company that employed him. Heather held a dinner at a restaurant on Spring Street near the river. Opal and I declined the invitation, blaming the weather. I had heard that Martina had a new gentleman friend, an account man from one of the agencies. Heather sent us a video of their gathering: there was the dining room with wintry floral arrangements, shiny white linen, sparkling wine glasses and a glazed table setting. Phil with snow still in his hair, was guiding his guests to their places at the table. I noticed the account man, sitting down, gingerly. And then Martina too.
By ho visto nina volare – Flickr: Napoli, museo archeologico, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23773616