To Love and To Fall

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THREE

When I get inside, the place is packed wall to wall. Confused, I look at my watch. It is past eight. I wonder what the attraction is here tonight. In tired frustration, I almost walk out when a host touched my arm and guided me to the bar. “Sorry,” she conceded. “Can’t give you a booth. Have to save them for two or more. Boss’ orders.”

“Is it always this crowded on Monday night?” I ask.

She nods, a bit perplexed. “Football.” I forgot. The host looks at me in disbelief, an enigma of a man who doesn’t know that the Buffalo Bills are playing tonight, Monday Night Football of all things, albeit preseason. I don’t care. I am too tired to feel embarrassed.

I am seated between an obese man’s back and an attractive woman who appears at first glance to be too young to be at a bar. She is sipping a beer. There is no food in front of her. A menu is placed in front of me.

“I wouldn’t eat the food here if I were you,” she volunteers, giving me an excuse to focus my full attention on her.

She is casually dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, sufficiently tight enough to show off her curves, which were round in the right places despite her petite frame. She was probably as tall as I was, which was five-ten, but she was slender, like a model. She has attentive blue eyes that were too wise to be that of a young adult’s. Only they gave her age away as being somewhere in her thirties. Otherwise she had the appearance of a girl.

“Do you come here a lot?” Even though it was the world’s most common pickup line, I seems like the natural extension to the conversation.

She nods in reply. “Every Monday night. to watch the football. I’ve never seen you here before.”

“I haven’t. I’m from Binghamton.”

“Just passing through, huh?” She grabs some peanuts from the bar and gestures to the bartender. “Hey, Dave. Give me a refill. And this guy wants–what do you want?”

“I’ll have a Coors,” I inform Dave.

“One of them,” my companion says as she lays out the money for the drinks. She gestures with her hand to stop me as I go for my wallet. Despite her androgynous appearance and tastes, she moves with the grace of a dancer. I am intrigued, and I move a little closer to her. Our drinks arrive, and she pushes my beer towards me. “On me. A welcome drink for you.” She raises her glass. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” I reply as I accept her toast.

Dave gives us a knowing smile.

“Oh,” she indicates, sticking out her hand. “Carla Madison.”

“Tom Hauser.” I take her hand, which is soft and warm. Her grip is hesitant at first but is firm in an instant. If I hadn’t been paying so much attention to her I wouldn’t have noticed these details about her.

We spend the time talking, and as the beers pour down I seem to forget what is being said. I gather that she is a painter and is having her work exhibited in New York next week. I tell her I am a professor. I am sick of saying I am a college student. And technically I do teach, except I am only Arbuckle’s assistant. I do not feel guilty about exaggerating. And I do not feel guilty that the woman next to me is not Serena. I am mesmerized by her eyes. Lust at first sight.

After what seems like days but are probably hours, she asks where I am staying. I tell her that I am staying at the Marriott right behind the bar. She is drunk. I ask if she needs a ride home. She says she can manage. I ask if she would like something to eat in my room. She accepts. I feel as though I am on a train ready to crash and I cannot get off. I am excited at the prospect.

She stays the night, and she never has anything to eat in my room, and I have not eaten the meal that I set out to get. We settle for each other instead. I take her in my arms, ready to forget all that has passed in my life, ready to begin again. Carla is the first woman I have slept with since I began seeing Serena. I think about this as I caress her to pleasure. I wonder why men are always thought to be the cheating ones. Then I think of a tan Maxima. I think of how many times I have called and no answer. I think of Andrew, of Paul, of Mario, names that were thrown in my face in the dark times. Then I take Carla in my arms once again.

When I wake up in the morning, Carla is gone. I search the hotel room for a note but there is none. If not for the rising bile in my throat, I would wonder if last night ever happened. As groggy sobriety descends, I think of AIDs and wonder what had happened; that after eleven years of monogamy I have resorted to picking up strange women at bars, but despite the fleetingness of the time together, Carla does not seem a stranger to me. I try to dismiss the incident as a fluke, and half-heartedly bring up the rationalizations that justify my fall last night. They do not seem to have as much weight this morning, the morning after. I wonder who the hell Carla Madison really is. I am wondering the same of myself.

Nausea rising, I turn to the alarm clock to see the time. It reads eight thirty-seven in bright red numbers. I try to hold onto myself. I want to leave this room with its weird memories that I would rather forget. My mind vacillates between the woman I have loved all these years and the woman of last night, and I am struck how similar they are; both blonde, intelligent, strong on the exterior yet somehow truly fragile. I call my house again, maybe to take away the visions of the one so I can remember the other, but still receive no answer. I go to the bathroom where my guts outdo my willpower. I try to ignore the stench that surrounds me.

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