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First Place

The Ghost of My Sex Life With K.
by Mark Siegel

 

Love is a consensual hallucination built around a core, perhaps a single crystal of chemical reaction. Thus a pearl grows in the heart, or a cancer, that has your life span.

My table at Essenza, like all the other sidewalk tables, bordered the parking lot. There were cops cooping, and kids with purple hair, erotic in an unpretty way, but I was the only professional spook. I imagined myself as one of those old pier fisherman unconcerned about catching anything, just hoping a beautiful woman would walk by. While scanning the parked cars, my attention was attracted to a red minivan two rows back, or rather to what looked like a smudge in the air next to it. Teenagers smoking something smudgy, I thought, and was depressed to realize I no longer knew what that might be. But it was not smoke. It was a smudge, as if Iíd touched the lens of my soul with dirty hands.

Call it insight, hindsight, or intuition, even then there was a certain K-ness about that smudge. After I did, in fact, inspect my sunglasses and wipe them with my silk tie, it was a little closer, now hovering tentatively on the bumper of a Camry in the nearest row. I tried to sit up casually, but had to wrestle with my too compliant plastic chair. Still, I swear I never took my eyes off it as it edged closer until, suddenly, I heard a familiar "Yoohoo!"

The plastic chair nearly got away from me. I hadnít expected my wife, although she not infrequently wandered away from her office at the medical center around the corner for an ice tea. Grace was still a good looking woman after twenty years of marriage and my eleven infidelities. I felt a combination of embarrassment and relief, as if Iíd nearly been caught. When I glanced surreptitiously back toward the Camry, the smudge was gone. When I glanced back at Grace, I saw she had followed my gaze. "Waiting for someone?" she asked.

"You. I had a premonition youíd show up."

"Me too," she said, because thatís the way consensual hallucinations are supposed to work. And then, "You look a little confused, a little panicked. Like you just realized you should have gotten off this train at the last stop."

Grace is very perceptive about my reactions to her. She is an Expressionist without a brush, a woman whoís every perception of the world is twisted and colored in its conflict with her inner moment. She is an artist of the self, exquisitely attuned to every nuance of her own nervous system. She perceived significant differences in the quality of the iced tea at one McDonalds versus another or the standard take-out cups in one particular Starbucks. A city in which she had changed planes a decade ago was awful and a person with whom she had spoken briefly while both were drunk might be an unmitigated fool, and how could I not see that? And now I wondered, if her senses were so much more acute than mine, whether Grace must not have seen the smudge herself, and had not merely sensed its K-ness (without ever having met K), but instinctively, neurologically knew all about K, knew at that moment that she always had known about K. Ultimately we took our coffee to go and I walked her back to the Medical Center.

When I got back to my office, I pulled K.ís phone number (encoded as "Karlís Plumbing") out of my Rolodex and stared at it for a moment, wondering if it was still good after eight years. K. had been the last of my affairs, after a decade of back-to-back and sometimes over-lapping extramarital lovers. My decision to give fidelity another try, if Iíd ever really made a decision, hadnít been based on any dissatisfaction with K. Quite the opposite. A graduate student half my age, sheíd been a wonderful lover, a good listener, and completely undemanding of my attentions out of the sack. She was beautiful, and, not surprisingly, after several months with me, decided to give one of her more appropriate suitors a try at a real relationship. I hadnít pursued her, not because she wasnít worth pursuing, but because she was and yet I found I didnít want her in any serious way. She had not started out as a habit but as an antidote to J., J. whom I had wanted in a very serious way, with whom Iíd wrecked a half-dozen lives, including my wifeís and our children's. And then, when I was over J., I didnít need K., and told myself I would not need anyone again that would cause pain to the people I loved.

~~~~

Grace and I went to a play at the Herberger that night for my fiftieth birthday. With our children, slightly scarred, fully grown, and gone, Grace and I had a social life again. I sat in my one-size-fits-none theater chair and watched the audience, unconcernedly trolling without bait. I had learned again to enjoy being with Grace, although my love for her was not altogether unaccompanied by the sense of limitation that had troubled me in my thirties and early forties.

The play involved two actors each playing five separate roles, trying to make up for the insignificance of the action with brilliant, lightning character changes. My attention began to wander after about fifteen minutes. Thatís when I saw the smudge, roiling in the shadows of an entry as if waiting for a break in the play to be seated. I tensed, instinctively scanning the rows around me to make sure there were no empty seats. Then I heard from the stage, in what a moment ago had been a comic falsetto, the erotic gruffness of K.ís voice, looked and saw her face behind the actorís three oíclock shadow. As this bizarre concatenation of K. flung out a finger toward me, the other actor spun around. I immediately recognized J.

"Iím bored too," Grace whispered. "How can people be entertained by the same cheap thrill over and over again?" I suspected the seats, which she knew we could not change the way we might at a restaurant when she decided the light was bad or the table subtly unstable. As we retreated through the lobby, she didnít seem to notice that the life-sized pasteboards of each of the ten characters in the play now bore the faces of A. through J. She hadnít known of more than two or three of them, but, where the cardboard bodies were clothed in costumes concealing costumes, their faces were naked, eyes wild, lips parted unmistakably. . . .

~~~~

Iíd hired Lillith because I thought it would be more fun to come to work every day with Cleopatra at the front desk. As it turned out, she was a lot brighter than my last receptionist, so I joked with her some, and her boyfriend was an asshole, and somehow the morning after the play I ended up holding her hand when she cried and not letting it go when she stopped. She squeezed my fingers and pressed her lips into a grateful smile. Seduction is like riding a bicycle, I thought, you just hop on when the momentum is with you and keep pumping. Et cetera. Et cetera? When had sex with a strange and beautiful woman become et cetera? Sure, it had been years now, but wasnít that the point? She was telling me I wasnít too old, that Ė

The telephone rang and I released her fingers to pick it up. Lillith wiped her eyes and fixed her makeup while I gallantly showed her I cared by answering my own call for a change. At first there was only breathing on the other end, but it was familiar breathing. "K.?" I said finally. Lillith gave me a quizzical look at the unfamiliar name.

There was a certain smudginess to the low, guttural laugh. "Just making love to the ghost in your machine. Ha ha."

"I feel like the murder victim in the Mystery of the Haunted Cunt," I said nastily. What I wanted to ask her was if she drove a red minivan now and about how she had materialized at Essenza. But the phone static was dulled, blurred somehow, and I heard nothing more than the click of my office door closing as Lillith went back to her desk.

~~~~

We know all life is but an electron dance. The odd thing is that electrons have chosen us as their consensual hallucination.

In my dreams, K. materialized poorly, but always in the recognizable shape of one of my other lovers, each physicalization remaining frozen like an image on a bed sheet movie screen as the sheet furled and drifted in the wind. A stared at me always as if across a table, B posed naked, hands on hips, C was turning away with a guilty look. I had thirteen dreams that night, and woke exhausted from eight hours hard work. Grace was still out cold, as were all three cats and one of the standard poodles who had managed to hoist his aged hips up onto the bed. I pried myself out from under this crowd and went to the kitchen to make coffee. The truly ancient, missing poodle, Bo, was staring into a corner of the room like an electric bumper toy without a reverse gear. He was breathing heavily, and his eyes bespoke the anguished knowledge of his own imminent death. Dogs are supposed to be able to live their short lives in tranquility because they are too stupid to recognize the inevitability of demise, but Bo was a little too smart for his own good. I had tried to console him by pointing out that doggie eternity was only one-seventh as long as human eternity, but he continued to wait for me every morning, staring into the corner, while I got the paper and drank my coffee and read him the obituaries of famous pets and their owners. We counted Lassie XXXII as one for me, and Wilt Chamberlin as one for him. We debated the death of a veterinarian killed while performing an autopsy on a circus elephant. Wearing full scuba gear, he had climbed inside the dead beast, which exploded when its stomach gases ignited. Bo accepted half a biscotti and we called that one a draw.

Many of the dead were younger than I was.

Placing her coffee mug on the table next to the bed, I ran enough hot water in the bathroom sink to wake Grace. When I looked up, with my razor in hand, I was staring into the smudge on the mirror, at my own aged face cowled by the ghost of my sex life with K. Jowls were beginning to droop over a chin undermined from within by half-assed orthodontia and eroding bone. My eyes were light from the back of the cave, no longer the naked warrior brandishing a flaming torch. You have to control the hallucination or it controls you, I thought, but could not move. The smudge darkened, and I felt my chest beginning to collapse.

"Tsk, tsk," sighed Grace, suddenly at my side, crumpled newspaper in one hand and a bottle of Windex in the other. "Staring into that mess while you shave, youíre lucky you didnít cut your throat." And before I could shout a warning Ė to her? To me? To K? Ė she sprayed blue chemical into the smudge and began to wipe it clean with the obituary page.

I stared as she mopped up the last of the smudge. There was no yowling into the vortex, no thunderclap, no whining, wetted witch. It had been, after all, just a hallucination.

"I love you, Grace."

"Keep telling me that," she said. "Maybe youíll get us both to believe it."