Hey, Readers! I wanted to present you all with a little look at my next book I’m working on, Same Time Next Week. It follows a young attorney as she struggles in her marriage, and finding love with someone else. Please give it a read and let me know what you think!
I’m a cliche, sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by dykes, reading stories from The Best Lesbian Romance, still in tattered paperback while I’m immersed in a sea of e-readers and computers. The women here are all cooler than me, each emanating their own sort of hipster vibe, complete with thick rimmed glasses and wool caps that have nothing to do with the warm spring air outside. Cooler, yes. And at almost thirty, they also seem to be about a century younger than I am as well. I haven’t been here since I broke up with Tory– also known as the most insignificant relationship in the history of the lesbian world. And not since Bella and I have been married, either.
Married. What a ridiculous concept. I didn’t feel married. No. I still felt very much the same twenty-three year old bachelor, breaking hearts left and right when I was bored, or ready to move on to the next endeavor. And yet, I’m not breaking hearts anymore. At least not yet.
What I remember most about my wedding to Bella is the heat. Ninety-five degrees on the shores of the gay-mecca of Provincetown, and the sea breeze was doing absolutely nothing to relieve the film of sweat forming under my white dress shirt. I waited with my “groomsmen,” a bunch of butches dressed in black Dockers, trying to keep my heart rate from taking off. And, as I stood in front of Bella, all of my focus went into staying conscious. Your wedding day should be about fantasy and romance and happily-ever-after. Mine was always, has always been, about happily-enough, for as long as I can stand it.
But it’s getting harder and harder to stand it. I’m getting restless, and at a rate much faster than I’d planed. When I proposed, on Christmas Day, Bella and I had only been dating for about eight months. Her mother, who loved me, was thrilled that I’d decided to settle down, and picked her daughter. Her father, a rough and tumble blue collar type, had his share of reservations. But when I broke out the tiny, half carrot ring, and she said yes, and I cried, none of that mattered. I cried big, sloppy tears. Tears that seemed to say “you’re doing the right thing, Alex.” Tears don’t mean shit.
I’m three pages deep into a story about a carpenter who seduces a single mother, when she walks in. She’s tall, with long, flowing chestnut hair that bounces against her back as she makes her way towards the table for two I’m occupying.
“Do you mind?” she asks, plainly, gesturing to the empty seat across from me. “It’s pretty full in here.”
“Of course not,” I reply, and stare at her for at least thirty awkward seconds before she eyes the cover of my open book. “I’m a lawyer,” I say, defensively, as if that should somehow excuse the pleasure reading on my table.
When I interviewed for law school, almost seven years ago now, the Dean of the University asked me to tell him about the moment I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I gave some practiced answer about legal injustice in Syria I’d loosely based on a Dateline episode, but the truth of it was, there was no moment. Life is so rarely defined in single days or events we can pinpoint– those aha moments that are supposed to change everything. But that day… The day I met Michelle… That was one of them.
I found myself back in the town’s dyke-run coffee shop for the second time that week. It was Saturday, and I’d told my wife, Bella, I needed to get some work done on a case involving an old lady who slipped on some Red Bull in a Walmart. If I didn’t, I told her, I’d never make partner. We both knew the only partnership I’d be making anytime soon was the one I formed with the barista at the Starbucks who filled the office coffee orders for me. Besides, this place was full of loud, teenage (well, teenage to me) hipster lesbians who chatted wildly about dates and parties and feminism while they sipped mochaccinos by the pool tables. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing there again. But working on Eleanor Cohen’s Red Bull case certainly wasn’t it.
I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the girl from earlier in the week. It was true, it definitely wasn’t the first time I’d occupied myself by thinking about the way someone else’s hips swung or lips moved. More often than I liked to admit, those were the things that got me through my marriage. But this one, Michelle, she stayed with me, offering more than just a momentary distraction from my blistering relationship.
Michelle walked in at 2:15pm, wearing a flowing purple blouse that I couldn’t help but notice fell just below the top of her breasts. A wool pencil skirt hugged her curvy hips and straight waste, and a pair of black pumps made her even taller than the last time I’d seen her. The last time I’d seen her, which was really also the first time I’d seen her. She must have caught my stare, because she offered a small smile and made her way through the crowd and towards my table for two.
“No book today?” she teased me, pulling out the mismatched red chair across from me.
“Not today,” I said with a smile, hoping to regain just a modicum of the charisma I knew I had only a few years ago. A few years ago, I could charm my way into just about anyone’s pants. I had all the right lines, the right moves. Then again, I was also a complete jackass. I guess I’d traded some of my machismo in for just a hint of chivalry. “I’m working today.”
“Working on a Saturday?” Without asking, she grabbed the manilla folder in front of me marked “confidential” and opened it.
“Confidential? Yes, I can read too.” She peaked over the folder at me, her eyes bright and confident, and something inside of me woke up.
I went back on Tuesday, biking the four blocks from the firm in the hopes of running into her again.
Michelle was later than she had been on Saturday, and I looked for her every minute after 2:15, as if her stylish, Banana Republic attire had to mean she was the kind of girl to keep a strict coffee schedule. What made me think she’d even be back? Hell, even I could count the number of times I’d been there on one hand. For all I knew about her, she was an out-of-towner, visiting a sister or cousin, accidentally stumbling on the gayest Northwood establishment in search of a decent cup of coffee. Stupid. And what would I do if she did come back, anyway? The ring on my left hand was the heavy anchor that kept me from going too far to sea. Maybe I was just lonely.
I was already halfway through my designated lunch break, chewing mindlessly at the last bite of my bagel as I stared at the door, when she finally entered. This time, she was draped in hospital scrubs, a purple stethoscope swinging from her neck.
I fought the almost visceral urge to jump out of my seat and wave like an idiot, but she was already making her way to me.
“You aren’t going to pull my chair out for me? Huh. I took you for a gentleman,” she said, sitting down next to me.
“Oh Alex. You know you’re awfully cute when you’re nervous.”
Flirting– for the last few years, I wasn’t even sure I’d have recognized it, never mind known what to do with it. But there it was. As blatant as the dumbfounded grin that took over my face when she said my name. For 28 years, I’d been Alex, or Al, or Allie Wallie (that one was Mom and her Bridge buddies), but never once had I heard my name quite like that. When Michelle used it, especially that first time, it was like hearing a new language. One reserved only for me. One that made my cheeks burn and my palms sweat.
“So, you’re a lawyer?” Okay, let’s see if the third attempt to answer her is a charm.
“Yes. Well… technically.”
“Meaning,” I started, regaining some version of the confidence that usually came readily to me, “I’m sort of a paralegal right now. I passed the bar and everything. But the job market…”
“Don’t worry about it. I have a friend who passed the bar and is selling perfume at Macy’s. You’re young. Plenty of time.”
“How young do you think I am?” I asked.
“Young enough that it’s completely acceptable you’re still doing sandwich runs for middle aged men with comb-overs.” She flashed her beautiful, white teeth at me. Bella’s teeth were always a little crooked. “But old enough to be married.” She ran her thumb across the gold wedding band on my hand. The anchor.
“Debatable,” I mumbled.
My marriage was not something I usually enjoyed discussing with complete strangers. Or at all, actually. Even if they did make a pair of scrub pants look like a patient’s wet dream.
“Oh please. You butch lesbians are all alike. Can’t commit even when there’s a ring on your finger.”
“That’s an awful big generalization to make, seeing as you hardly know me.” But there was nothing cold in my tone.
“Do you love her?” Even her tactlessness was sort of adorable.
“I married her, didn’t I?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Bell? I’m home.” Our dreary apartment was exactly that; dreary. Three days worth of dirty dishes were stacked in and around the kitchen sink, so many you wouldn’t believe it was just the two of us there. The overhead light fixture was too dim, several of the bulbs needing to be replaced. The tiled floor had collected more than a few weeks worth of dirt and dust balls. And a clutter of unopened junk mail and empty cereal boxes took over the counter.
Jed, Bella’s Maine coone, met me at the door like he did every day, purring and rubbing his massive frame against my shins.
“Hey Big Guy.” I reached down to scratch the spot right at the base of his tail he loved so much.
“Hi.” Bella emerged from the bedroom, dressed in the same oversized UCLA sweatshirt, my UCLA sweatshirt, and yoga pants she always wore, looking very much like every day of my life. There were so many nights like this. So many evenings where I came through that same door, into that same dreary kitchen, with the same overweight cat rubbing against my shins, and the same wife, in the same UCLA sweatshirt. Three years into married-life, and everything was the same.
“Hey.” She walked casually to me and put her arms around my neck. I could smell her perfume. It was the same perfume she’d worn for the last four years. It was the same perfume that set me on fire when we first got together. I don’t remember a lot of depth or substance with Bella in the beginning. But there was a lot of heat. More than once, we had to sneak off to a bathroom or a dark corner just to get at each other. But that didn’t last long either. It became the same perfume that, a year in, comforted me, offering me solace and friendship and a rock to rest on when I couldn’t stand on my own. And It was the same perfume, now, that made me cringe, just slightly, a reminder of slowly being crushed under the weight of my own choices.
“What do you want for dinner?” I obliged her by putting my hands on her hips, but the fact was, it had been a long time since touching Bella had felt good.
“I’ll put together some tacos.” I was no cook. That was for sure. All throughout college, I’d survived on the University dining hall, the late-night frozen yogurt stand down the street, and whatever girl I was dating that was somehow able, and willing, to feed me. My wife, however, was not one of those girls. Her culinary expertise fell somewhere between boxed macaroni and cheese and scrambled eggs, and more often than not, we found ourselves eating whatever leftovers she brought back from the bar the night before.
Three years ago, when I slipped that chintzy wedding band on Bella’s left hand, I didn’t know what married life would look like. I knew there would be a lot to learn. What I never imagined, though, was feeling so much like a couple of kids playing house.
On Saturday, I biked down Lincoln, the spring thaw biting my nose. Michelle was already inside, sitting at the counter this time. A pair of black reading glasses, not altogether different from the cafe hipsters around us, rested on her nose as she typed furiously on a laptop in front of her.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked quietly, edging closer to her, but never touching.
“You’re so cheesy.” Michelle looked up from her work, her perfect cheek bones just slightly more pink than I’d seen before. She pulled out the stool next to her and I sat down.
“If you’re busy, I can…”
“No,” she said, jumping and grabbing my arm. “Stay. Please.”
I ordered a small, black coffee, and a bagel with jam from the blonde, spiky-haired girl behind the counter, and took out Eleanor’s case file.
“Still working on that Red Bull case?” Michelle asked.
“Yeah. Right now I’m going through all the slip and fall data from every Walmart in the county in the last three years. Invigorating.” I liked that she asked about my work. Bella never seemed to take much interest in what happened during my day. Of course, I guess now, that could be seen as some sort of sick advantage. “What about you? What are you working on?”
Michelle silently turned her laptop screen, revealing a beautiful image of a park with the words “Save Our Green Space” scrawled on top.
“But on Tuesday you were here in scrubs…” I said, the confusion surely evident on my face.
“This is my part time gig. I work for the county parks department, saving the world one tree at a time.”
“And your other gig?” She smiled with her full lips that wore red when she wasn’t coming from whatever her day job was.
“Nurse. I work over at Northwood Hospital. In the Emergency Room.”
“So you’re like… some kind of superhero then?” She chuckled, and I swore I saw the red rise across her smooth, white skin.
“Something like that.”
“Impressive,” I said, meaning it.
Bella was younger than me, which, I guess, in some obscure way, made it acceptable for her to be a bartender with little to no ambition to be more. For almost four years, I’d told myself this was fine. She was just figuring out what she wanted. Anyway, who was I to judge, besides a pencil pusher and latte retriever for Watson, Johnson and Smith? But as Michelle talked about her work– her passion for saving her patients, or saving the planet– it became harder to deny that these things that I once told myself didn’t matter…well, they did.
Michelle and I met like this twice a week for a month, eventually giving up the facade of just “bumping into one another.” It had become intentional. Incredibly intentional, really. At least on my end. I lay awake at night next to Bella’s ignorant snoring, imagining what Michelle’s lips would feel like against mine. I fantasized about faint lip gloss and light musky perfume and handfuls of her silky blouses in my hands. A month of over-caffeinated conversation, and I still didn’t even know if Michelle had a girlfriend. Or worse, a boyfriend, maybe? But the way she looked at me told me she probably didn’t.
These coffee dates (which I could neither reasonably nor morally call “dates”), with this girl, this stranger, were breathing life into something I didn’t know was dead. They were breathing life into me. Until I was waking up in the morning thinking about her, and going to bed counting down the days until Tuesday, or Saturday, when I would walk into the cafe and not-so-accidentally find her sitting at the counter, reading a weathered copy of JD Salinger, or a borrowed Michael Crichton novel, depending on the mood she was in. I quickly found myself, only somewhat inadvertently, memorizing her routine; Tuesdays meant scrubs from the end of an early morning shift, and an extra large Columbian roast with one Splenda. Saturdays always brought out those Coke bottle reading glasses and an earl gray tea.
Bella and I had been married for three years, and I still couldn’t tell you how she took her coffee.
“Tell me about your wife,” Michelle asked on another long Tuesday lunch break.
“My wife? But why?”
“I want to know what kind of woman it took to lock you down.” She reached out and touched my wedding band again.
I didn’t know her well. After all, how much can you know about somebody you only share a latte with twice a week? But something told me Michelle was not shy. Ambitious, warm-hearted, yes. Shy? Not a chance in hell. And when she touched me like that, offered me little tokens of affection that really couldn’t be taken as much more than that, I had to wonder if she was like this with others– if a particularly outgoing persona was often mistaken for purposeful flirtation– or if she was really interested in me. Then I’d quietly remind myself it didn’t matter how interested Michelle was. I was married. Maybe if I kept repeating it, it’d mean something.
“She’s 25. She tends bar at the Applebees down the street. She’s…” I froze. Was I that incapable of finding a few nice things to say about Bella?
“Glowing review,” Michelle teased me. “How long have you been married?”
“About three years now.”
“Three blissful years, I see?” She loved poking fun at me. I was almost certain she was getting some kind of thrill from the color draining out of my face.
“Marriage is hard,” I replied matter-of-factly.
It was hard. Much fucking harder than anyone ever tells you. When I told my parents that I was getting married, my mother’s words to me were “divorce is expensive, Alex.” Pearls of wisdom coming from the woman with four husbands. I’ll never make your mistakes, I’d grumble to myself. But I was about to marry someone for mostly the wrong reasons. I was already making her mistakes.
“Do you regret it?” She asked. I thought about staying the course of denial. But something in the candid way Michelle looked at me told me I didn’t have to.
“Sometimes.” I thought about Bella– about my wife.
I thought about how, when I was 25 myself, she was going to be enough for me. Our life was going to be enough for me. We were best friends for years before we got together. Or, rather, she was my best friend. I was the object of her undying affection.
We were introduced through my cousin without any real intent, on a weekend at the end of the summer I graduated from law school. She was young (although, so was I back then), and full of that adventurous breath that made you feel like you were absolutely missing out on something she was in on. Bella was down for anything, and never up before noon. She long boarded down Main Street in her bra and panties, with only a little help from a few Coors, still hung out with the kids who would have made fun of me in high school, and never, for a second, seemed to doubt she could do anything. I was a magna cum laude UCLA graduate, living in her parents’ attic for the summer, studying for the Bar and going to bed after Letterman. In a matter of a weekend, Bella made me feel the way 23 year olds were supposed to feel. And, by the end of the weekend, when she hurled herself at me for a dorm-room-hookup-worthy kiss, she made me feel wanted, too. Bella took no mind to the fact I was still in a year long relationship with a girl back in California. But that was college. And everything was changing, anyway.
A month of talking about the theatre, and the most recent exhibit at the city museum, and the rose garden in the park she took care of, and Michelle had morphed into everything I’d ever known I wanted in a girl, but was too afraid to ask for. She felt it too. I knew it when she’d lightly touch my arm or brush by me to get to her seat at the counter. I knew it when she started getting to the cafe early, with my bagel and jam and black coffee waiting for me. I knew it when she stopped asking about Bella.
It was just coffee, though. A little detour from the drudgery of my marriage. Somehow, it had become enough to sustain me.
“It’s getting late. I should head out,” I said, and sighed. It was Saturday. Spring was in full bloom in Rhode Island and everything felt a little easier. I brought my dirty plate to the buckets in the front of the cafe, and returned back to grab my coat.
“Me too.” Michelle got up from her chair, carefully wrapped a purple, silk scarf around her neck, and leaned in as if to hug me. I did the same, though much faster, bumping her forehead with mine in a freakishly middle-school snafu. “Sorry I…”
“No, that one’s on me.” We smiled shyly and walked out the door, together, into the warm afternoon.
It normally took seventeen minutes to bike home, but I took my time riding down the winding streets, reveling in the feeling of the breeze against my skin. The light rain pelted my face as I rode.
“Have you been at the coffee shop this whole time?” Bella quietly questioned as I opened the front door to our apartment and attempted to brush the wet from my denim coat. I pulled the Red Sox cap off my head, never bothering to look at her.
“You know what. I was working,” I replied simply.
“The whole time?”
“Yes, Bell. The whole time.”
She came in to kiss me, and I returned the motion. “Well, I’m glad you’re home. I have to leave for the bar in an hour. I’ve missed you.”
“I’m going to order a pizza for dinner. Sound okay?”
Bella ran off to shower and get ready for work, and I was alone again, relieved by the reprieve. I called in for delivery, searching my coat pockets for my credit card with the phone wedged between my chin and my shoulder. I didn’t find the credit card. But I did find a fresh piece of stiff paper tucked in next to my keys.
Michelle M Masters
Rhode Island Parks Commission
Fundraising Director- 555-2495
“Hello? Ma’am? What can I get you?”
“Your pizza? What would you like?”
“Oh God, I’m sorry. Uh, just a pepperoni please.”
I turned the card over, the phone still crammed against my ear, not sure what I was looking for.
Six weeks of coffees, I think you owe me a phone call- M
My heart caught in my throat.
“The delivery address, ma’am. We have to have to address to bring you your pizza.”
“Oh, right. Of course you do. 132 Brooks Ave. Northwood. Thanks.”
I hung up the phone, still holding the business card in a trembling hand.
Thirty minutes later, Marco’s dropped off our pizza, and Bella and I ate in front of the TV, like we did every night. We’d never once had dinner at our dining room table, without the distraction of a Bruins game, or a Simpson’s rerun. Never once. The conversation was always easy. Surface stuff that never delved into politics or philosophy or our dreams or failures. I already felt connected to Michelle on a level I never did to Bella. And that terrified the hell out of me.
“Okay, baby, I have to take off.” Relief swam through me as Bella stood from the couch and moved to the door, leaving her empty plate and half-cup of Pepsi on the table.
“Have a good shift.” I rose, offered her a quick embrace about as heart felt as the pizza crust on her plate, and she left.
I held Michelle’s card for a long time, rubbing it between my thumb and index fingers so long some of the ink began to smudge. My knee bounced up and down, and I stared worthlessly at my cell phone sitting in front of me. Jed, who was perched on the arm of the sofa, looked up at me from his tenth nap that day and glared.
“What? It’s just a phone call!” In disbelief, Jed blinked his eyes, and went back to sleep.
I picked up the phone, slowly and deliberately punching in each of Michelle’s numbers until I reached the last one. I hit the final digit like I was crossing over a land mine that threatened to blow me to tiny pieces at any sign of adultery.
It was ringing.
“Took you longer than I thought.” Her smooth, warm voice came through almost as clear over the phone as it did over coffee.
“It’s only been like,” I glanced at my watch, “three hours.”
“That’s two hours and forty-five minutes more than I’d given you credit for. And that’s taking into account the time it would take you to get home and find my number.”
“What can I say? I’m unpredictable.” There was silence on the other end of the line.
“Oh, I’d be willing to bet against that.” I could hear her smiling.
“And why is that?”
“I’m willing to bet you don’t have the unpredictable balls to come over here and pick me up.” I was pretty sure my heart had stopped. “Alex?”
“Come get me. Let’s do something.” No. My heart hadn’t stopped. If it had, I wouldn’t have been able to hear it pounding in my ears.
“So? Bella doesn’t let you have friends?” But Bella didn’t let me have friends. At least not attractive female friends who showed any remote interest in me. Forget interest. They just had to be attractive to set off her radar. The second I mentioned a girl’s name she didn’t recognize, her face narrowed to a scowl and she went into a sort of attack mode. It didn’t matter if it was the girl bagging my groceries who asked for paper of plastic, or Liddy, my very beautiful, but very straight, cubicle buddy. Bella was a force to be reckoned with, and I knew she’d have more than a few things to say if she even knew Michelle existed.
“What? Of course she does. Of course I can have friends.”
“Then come pick me up.” This girl was nothing, if not persistent. And I wanted to get in my car and go get her, no matter where she was, no matter what we were doing, more than anything. “My car’s in the shop. I’ve been walking to work. I live about a mile from Northwood Hospital. You do have a car… don’t you?”
I laughed at her, realizing how ridiculous I must seem leaving the cafe on my little vintage road bike every day.
“Yes I have a car.”
“So then what?”
“Do you, or don’t you, have the balls to come see me?”
I paused for what felt like days. And as I did, I thought about all the ways I’d felt confined over the last three years, maybe even longer than that. I thought about all of the times I’d met a gorgeous woman, who, in some unimaginable way, appeared to want me too. And I had to turn around and go home to our dreary one bedroom with Bella, bitter and resentful. I thought about all of the times Bella had told me “no”– “no, Al, you can’t get drinks with the office after work.” “No, Al, I don’t want to meet your friends.” “No, Al, just no.” I thought about what it meant when I took those vows and put on that ring three years back, what it was supposed to mean. I thought about never sleeping with another woman ever again. Never kissing another woman again. And I felt trapped, chained by some words and a piece of paper and some hunks of metal we wore on our left hands.
“I’ll be there.”