For a time, Veronica was my husband’s secretary. She had a nicotine-stained voice, pumpkin lips, and two different colored eyes—one ocean blue and the other primordial-ooze green. Her nose was like an apex with a bump at the top for jumping into the water. She typed ninety-five words per minute and never needed the spellcheck; everyone in the office came to her for proofreading. They bought her lattes in the afternoon, and someone was always appointed to bake cupcakes on her birthday even though that wasn’t the custom. At first, we met for lunch every few months, just as a formality, then once a month, and soon we were meeting twice a week and drinking gin and tonics, sharing tuna tartare in parchment or grilled salmon with capers over angel hair pasta, trashing the firm’s architects and staff without restraint—excepting my husband, to whom I maintained an obedient loyalty.
Veronica had started out with every advantage: Her divorced parents sent her to a private all-girls’ school, then on to Columbia University, where she earned a degree in journalism. She landed a job with The Village Voice in the copyediting department, and while she was on staff met and married a sports writer who didn’t want children either. “It was perfect,” she told me, while we were lying in her bed.
“And then my life blew a gasket. My boss kept leaning over me, breathing his onion breath down my neck, trying to get a look at my tits. My husband took up with a music writer. I became suicidal. Not the kind where you try it and fail, just the kind where it’s the only thing you can think about. I quit my job and went on disability. Fast-forward three years: He divorced me and I moved out of our apartment in the Village into this one, getting by on disability and alimony. I tried every anti-depressant on the market: I ate all day. I couldn’t eat. I slept all day. I couldn’t sleep. I itched. I ached. I drooled. Then my ex, who felt appropriately guilty, told me about this psychiatrist. ‘A genius,’ he said. ‘A miracle worker!’ So I went. This guy, in his dumpy office, wearing those Timberland boots from the 1980s and the same vintage worn out corduroys, charging $750 a half hour, told me about this drug for people who hear radios in their heads—there are actually people who transmit radio signals. He said that many people who get no relief from anti-depressants find solace in this drug for ‘radioheads.’”
She rolled over onto her side. She’d been lying on her back, facing the ceiling. Now she was facing me. I looked from the blue eye to the green eye and back again. She thumped the mattress with her hand. “And it fucking worked. Within days I went grocery shopping. I paid my bills. It was only the beginning. Eventually I was able to get a job.”
“I can’t believe there are people who hear radios in their heads,” I said, not knowing which part of the story to comment on.
“Can you imagine? And most of them probably don’t even know this drug exists.”
“That’s like having huge tits and not knowing about bras.” We laughed. “Do you still take it?” I asked.
“Hell yeah. I mean, I’ll come off it someday, but not while I’m working as a fucking secretary for Peters & Sons. No offense, Trudy. Not that there’s anything wrong with Peters & Sons or Michael.”
I made a blasé face, letting her know I hadn’t taken it personally.
She’d called in sick. I took the 1 train to the 7 out to Queens from the Upper West Side where I lived. She had a sweet little flat in Sunnyside, right next to a Lebanese market. We picked up tabouli, humus, kalamata olives, and huge floppy pitas for an early lunch. Best Middle Eastern food I’d ever eaten. But food was as compelling as a green lawn in the suburbs. We knew why we’d scheduled a lunch date—dinner was not possible. We were awkward at first, gentle and ginger, until her hand was inside me, I was bent over the bed, and all our inhibitions were forgotten.
“How did you meet Michael?” she asked afterward, reaching for her pack of Camels.
“Oh, who cares? We were set up. We hit it off. We were both ready to get married.”
She nodded. “You know, he has a particular smell.”
“It’s kind of spicy. Like incense or curry.”
“Really? I never noticed. Has he always had it?”
“I’m not sure. But when I walk into his office it hits me hard, you know, like when someone is wearing patchouli or Chanel number five. I think it’s new. I think I remember the first time I smelled it. Does he wear cologne?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Maybe it’s shampoo.”
“You know, that could be it. Because I think he recently switched shampoos.” There was a steep drop from her armpit to her waist and I skied it with my hand.
That night in bed, Michael was reading a book on the architect Frank Gehry. Half his life he spends reading about Frank Gehry. I tried to sniff the air around him.
“Do you have a cold?” he asked.
“Yes. I think so.”
“There’s a lot going around. We had three secretaries out today. It’s murder on the budget because I have to hire temps. I hate temps,” he said. “They’re like leeches.”
“I used to be a temp.”
“Well, I’m sure you were a very conscientious temp. There are a few of those.” He patted my knee.
On my way to the bathroom, I loitered at his bureau and saw that, sure enough, there was a bottle of Armani cologne. I suppose I hadn’t seen it because Rosa cleaned the house once a week, so I never had any reason to linger at Michael’s bureau. Then, while I sat on the toilet, I couldn’t remember whether he had shaved his goatee. He shaved it and grew it so often. I could remember every detail of Veronica’s body, down to the flat pink polish on her toenails and the small elephant-on-a-pedestal tattoo on her shin, but I could not remember details about my husband that I would need to give the police if anything happened to him.
I cracked the bathroom door. “Do you find Veronica attractive?” I asked. I just felt like talking about her.
“Veronica? You’re not going to get jealous of my secretary, are you?”
I flushed the toilet and stepped out of the bathroom. He still had the goatee.
“Who wouldn’t find Veronica attractive?” he said without looking up.
“I suppose that’s true.” I climbed under the covers.
“Unfortunately, she has an attitude problem. I may have to let her go.”
“What kind of attitude problem?”
“Well, it could be exacerbated by the fact that she works for the head partner. So maybe she feels superior.”
“What has she done to indicate that?”
He folded the corner of the page and closed the book. He considered. “Well, she proofreads the other secretaries’ work for one thing, marks it up in red pen.”
“Don’t they ask her to?”
“Of course not. Why would they?”
“Well, because she worked for the Voice.”
“For five minutes,” he said.
I slathered body lotion on my legs and arms and thought of wetness and her hands and how they’d been on my skin a few hours before.
“She takes long lunches, too. And sometimes in the afternoon she smells like gin.”
“Does she get her work done?” I tried not to sound defensive.
“I’d rather not talk about it. I like to keep work at work and when I’m home,” he looked at me, “I just want to be home. Okay?” He opened his book, letting me know that was the end of it.
The next day was Saturday. Michael and I had coffee and set out for our weekly trek through Central Park. We walked to the East Side. There was a little Boulangerie where we liked to pick up croissants or brioche or both. We always commented on how we could taste the butter, as if we’d never noticed before, and how we really should have skipped the pastry and opted for egg whites and dry whole-wheat toast. And yet we never veered from our ritual unless one of us was sick or called away due to crisis.
At two, I met Veronica at the Angelica Theatre to see the new Mike Leigh film. The accents made it so I couldn’t understand what they were saying until about halfway through the film and by then I’d missed so much of the story there was no catching up. We held hands and I thought about things I wanted to do to her, things I’d never done before, things I wasn’t even sure were the province of people. I felt out of control for the first time in many years, and I preferred it to my usual detached experience of human existence.
The train was arctic from the constant onslaught of air conditioning. “Either they make us sweat bullets or all our pores stand up,” I commented to her as we took our seats. The car was pretty empty. She draped her arm across the back of my neck and I tucked my hand under her thigh. My nipples were hard; I could see them poking out from behind my tee-shirt every time I looked down. A man sat across from us, watching, so I folded my arms over my chest. I wondered if we looked like two lesbians, and for the first time it occurred to me that what we were doing was the same thing two lesbians would do. Neither of us, from what I understood, was a lesbian.
We walked from the subway toward her apartment. “Do you consider yourself a lesbian?” I asked.
“What? No. Do you?”
“Me? I’m married,” I shot back. We walked a few blocks in silence. She turned her key in the lock and opened the lobby door.
“We are acting like lesbians. You realize that,” she said.
“Should I go home?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Fine. Then who cares? Why talk about it?”
She was wearing Capri pants with crazy paisley tights under them and a black button down shirt. Her pulpy lips were painted thick with a plum shade.
“Do you ever think about getting a different job?” I asked.
“Yeah. Pretty much every day.”
“Why don’t you get a job as a copy editor?”
“My degree is in journalism. I don’t want to be a copy editor.” She sounded imperious and a little insulted.
As soon as we got inside her apartment, we were on the floor in the foyer, fumbling with our clothes. And then, when we’d finished there, we had a glass of water and got naked on her bed. That was equally, differently exciting. Then we passed a joint back and forth.
“I’m in love with you,” she said matter-of-factly, as though she was stating the correct time. She was lying on her back, facing the ceiling. “I think about you the minute I open my eyes in the morning, and some piece of your person is the last image I see before I fall asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever been in love—more like intense simpatico aggravated by sexual starvation.” She lit a cigarette. “Do you think we’ll ever be together?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I’m married.”
“I realize that. But is your marriage fulfilling?”
I thought about this for a quick moment even though I knew it was the sort of question that demanded at least a week of close consideration. “Well,” I lifted my head like I had the answer and was about to utter it, then I dropped my head back down. “I don’t know. I don’t think about whether I’m fulfilled. I can get out of bed in the morning. I don’t find Michael offensive or repulsive ninety-nine percent of the time. He doesn’t abuse me. I love him, you know, the way you love someone you’ve lived with for years. I love our apartment. It’s quite beautiful.”
“You love your apartment? Are you kidding me?! You know, Michael’s kind of a prick. I mean, I haven’t said anything until now because I didn’t want to be divisive, but everyone at the firm hates him.”
“That’s what he said about you.”
“About me? Are you kidding? Do you know how often those women take me out to lunch? And I’m not talking Applebee’s or the Olive Garden. I’m talking three-star restaurants. Sushi places where they give you a hot wash cloth. Italian cafes where they put homemade bread and dark green extra virgin olive oil on the table. Do you know how many Valentine’s Day cards I get at the office? Practically every secretary gives me a Valentine’s Day card. And only me. And one of the architects sends me red roses and a white teddy bear every year. Just because I fucked him once.”
“Which one did you fuck?” I tried not to sound jealous.
She continued, sitting up now. “Michael’s a tyrant. He won’t make anyone partner. There’s only one female architect out of sixteen and all the secretaries are women even though plenty of men have applied. This year he’s going to hold the Christmas party in the office with a CASH BAR. Who ever heard of such a thing? Making the employees pay for their own drinks??? Peters Sr. always hired a boat with an open bar and live band or took everyone to Keene’s, that swank Ivy League place on 33rd where the steaks are this thick and cost thirty-five bucks a piece.” She got up and crossed the room to where her shirt lay in a pile on the floor. She put it on. I went to her and put my arms around her from behind. My head reached her shoulder blades.
“So contrary to what your deluded husband says, I’m like a celebrity at the office,” she proclaimed in a shaky voice.
“I know. I’ve seen it myself. I think he probably wants to justify hiring someone cheaper.”
“What?” she turned. “He’s going to fire me?”
“That motherfucker. He told you he was going to fire me?”
“He says things. He doesn’t mean them.”
“Great. I guess it’ll be back to unemployment and looking for another job, just like every other secretary whose boss is a misogynist, insecure, egomaniac with low self-esteem.”
She had him figured.
We sat on the edge of the bed. I was still naked, which no longer seemed appropriate, so I gathered up my clothes and put them on, even my shoes. Veronica wore her black top. It ended midway down her thighs and her long legs were crossed, with the toes of her left foot spread out on the hardwood floor. Heaviness settled over the room. The sun was low—pink with an orange eye in the middle—sinking onto the Empire State Building. It was beautiful, but I didn’t bother pointing it out. A vise was tightening. I could feel it, and she felt it too.
“For what it’s worth, I’m in love with you too,” I said.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“So are we lesbians?”
“I don’t think so. I think this is aberrant.”
“Good. Because that’s the last thing I need. But I think if you leave Michael and you live with me and we keep fucking, then we will at some point, be lesbians. Though from what I understand, lesbians always stop fucking eventually at which point we’d become something more like companions.”
She had no idea she was articulating what I’d already dismissed—the possibility of life spent as an outcast, a pariah, doing the dead man’s float in the margins of society. I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a lesbian. Who would bring home the bacon? Who would provide the health insurance? Could either of us learn to change a flat tire? Or, more accurately, would we want to? I stayed a while. We had a couple of drinks. The conversation lulled to long spaces between paperweight paragraphs. She smoked a cigarette. We had quiet, almost married sex. It grew dark. I stumbled out of her apartment, ruined for men, guilty and ashamed because I knew I’d never be back.