Marcela was the subject and I was the object, both grammatically and amorously: she picked me up. It was my tenth reunion at the Massachusetts college where we’d graduated, and although I had only the vaguest recollection of her — with or without a decade of aging — she treated me as a rekindled affair.
I was about to leave the dinner at the first polite opportunity when she tapped me on the shoulder. I looked down and saw a petite dark-haired woman in black turtleneck and slacks. She had a designer-type scarf around her neck, but I didn’t recognize the logo. Marketing money wasted on me, I decided, or else I’d been off the American grid too long to recognize the signals sent up by designers and merchandisers.
“You’re McKibben’s friend, aren’t you?” she asked, and her head nodded to indicate the journalism professor I’d been sitting next to during dinner.
“I’m Kevin Ross,” I answered, “but you know me.”
She tapped the name tag on her chest. “You’re a news reporter now? I wrote for Time Life before I joined Hearst and then Random House and…” She waved her hand to show how time flies. When she burst out, “I had the biggest crush on you in college,” she blew on the coals of a relationship I didn’t know had been banked.
The slacks and sweater had to go. They made this woman in her young thirties look like a ’50s beatnik. She smiled mysteriously under her large nose. Her eyelids and eyebrows hung down at the corners, as though the laws of gravity were battling the forces of her inner enlightenment. Her otherwise even, white teeth had a distracting gap in front. But in spite of this grab-bag mixture of features, the entire package bubbled over, displaying a fusion of excitement and vivacity. Our attraction was magnetic.
I’d noticed others in the room glancing furtively at her, but she seemed unaware of the effect she had. Far from being good-looking, she defined what the French call jolie-laide. In English, pretty ugly. Not very ugly, but a paradox of beauty and homeliness. I’d first heard it applied to an acquaintance in Marseilles who displayed a lyrical, transcendent beauty of nuance, but with a flaw, something off-kilter like the bump on Marcela’s nose or the space between her teeth.
We left the dining room a few minutes later. With Marcela clutching my arm we returned to what had been the men’s dormitory a decade earlier. Curiously, that night marked the first time I’d ever gotten laid in the college’s dorms, and the forbidden quality lent extra excitement.
It was serendipity to discover we both lived in New York City — about ninety blocks away from one another. Ninety city blocks is more than a few miles; it can be worlds apart. New York neighborhoods are pockets of identity. These areas offer color to a person’s address that’s more anecdotal than fact. When I came back to America six weeks earlier, I discovered Little Italy had been taken over by Asian immigrants, Hell’s Kitchen boasted swell theaters, and pieds-à-terre in Greenwich Village were astronomically unaffordable. Shows how long I’d been away.
Marcela lived uptown in Germantown where there were no Germans while I hung my hat in a sublet on Hester Street that was now called SoHo. I leaped our chasm a week later by asking if I could take her to a gallery where a friend had an opening.
I discovered two facts that described Marcela and her place in the cosmos. First, she was an editor for one of the publishing giants that had a couple of works on the best seller list every week. Her work involved signing international authors, managing the logistics that got them visas, getting them to readings at parties and bookstores, and seeing that there was press coverage of both the writer and the event. Second, she displayed an incredible chameleon quality — like many New Yorkers, she had the ability to undergo extreme personality changes when they move from one environment to another. Marcela was perfectly adaptable rather than perfectly adapted. As I ushered her through the gallery and introduced her to friends, her behavior and attitudes melded with whatever social or work atmosphere other guests displayed. It had been this instinctive, natural social confidence that had led her to tap me on the arm and guide me to the dormitory on our first night together.
I recognized her façade immediately, but didn’t know that it was opposed to healthy living. I accepted camouflage because separation of work and personal life was a major tenet in the catechism of my own career. Working as a correspondent required masking my feelings from the subject I was interviewing.
I was also suffering a sorting out due to having quit my job thirty seconds before being fired. Without an employer, business card or paycheck, coming back to America had seemed to make a lot of common sense. I wasn’t ashamed to reveal I no longer knew anything about conventional American thinking. It was simply that I’d been spending a great deal of time in dusty villages and foreign capitals, my possessions could be put into a checked bag and a carry-on rucksack, and I knew a great many people who had hungers that were never satisfied. No designer scarves in their lives. My universe and hers were matter and anti-matter, but Marcela invited me to bridge them.
No, I answered the little voice upstairs in my head, we might both be chameleons, bound up in appearing to be someone we weren’t. In fact, Marcela joked about it one night, “Spider-Man and Superman can carry it off, so why can’t anyone lead double lives?” She burbled with humor. “There’s something literary about it, if you count Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as symbols of our culture.”
I didn’t know how truly she spoke.
Marcela had a number of idiosyncrasies. She had an intense dislike of pet owners for one. “When a person says they admire Fido drooling on them or they invite their cat to sleep on their pillow, they’re simply telling you they prefer animals to people.” She told me this while we were holding each other on her couch. “People disappoint them.” She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t own animals, do you?”
I said no and agreed with her, realizing I was being disloyal to the pets I’d had in my life. No matter. I would have said anything since we’d had dinner and drinks and I knew we were going to get pleasantly tangled in her sheets.
“Since we’re practically old friends as well as lovers, Kevin, I also have to insist that we don’t make love the way we did at the reunion.”
It was my turn to raise circumflex eyebrows.
“Vaginal sex reminds me of too many false expectations and uninvited entries. Arrangements that are too shallow, or selfish, or fast. I want anal sex,” and she used two Anglo Saxon words I’d heard soldiers use when I was embedded with a platoon in Iraq. “My ass is my back door to heaven, the Pearly Gate to my heart.”
That night was a strange experience that she called the ultimate act of confidence. She also expected me to get dressed the next morning and go out to buy the Sunday papers while she continued snoring.
In the period of a month — June and part of July — we found ourselves moving through the modern stages of affection. We became speed dials on each other’s cell phones. We coordinated our schedules and address data. She called me Blitzy — her allusion to Wolf Blitzer in Baghdad; I called her Flack, an occupational reference. She asked me about the book I was writing, the people I was quoting, and about the distinctions between mujahadeen and tribal loyalists. The book, I told her, would reveal the arrangements worked out among the corporate pirates, professional politicians, and opportunists who hunkered down over the roadkill.
“Billions have gone into people’s pockets and all we’ve gotten in return is politics,” I said, with a little bitterness. “War is good for business, but truth suffers. I had friends who paid for it, friends who died.”
She asked for details and called the manuscript a “blockbuster.” “Show me a draft,” she insisted. “It could be worth a half million advance and go even higher at auction.”
I chattered like a child, so happy to be home as Marcela took me on whirlwind tours of bars and out-of-the-way nightspots before we inevitably returned to her apartment. It pleased me to intrigue her with anecdotes about iron men in Afghanistan who owed allegiance only to their tribes, and arms dealers and power brokers who made things happen and people disappear. And about the lies and liars that had me fired.
Before summer’s weekends drained the city of people, Marcela invited me to her apartment for a party. She promised there’d be people I’d want to meet. I thought she’d show me off as the professional who had filed stories from Baghdad before Operation Enduring Freedom and from Sudan before people had dusted off their atlases to look for Darfur. My notoriety was simply due to publishing true — but unverifiable — information, getting canned, and buying my own ticket back to New York. My hidden agenda in agreeing to attend her party was that it would cement our relationship. Meeting more of Marcela’s friends would reveal different aspects of this chameleon woman. It was an unveiling process lovers go through, one that reaches its pinnacle with an invitation to come home, meet the folks, and celebrate holidays. We were nearing that stage, I believed, although I still didn’t know if there was a home or parents.
I was resigned that there would be ten or fifteen or fifty people, and conversations would be shouted out but not listened to. The guests would all be interesting in their own right, given a chance to isolate them as individuals. En masse, they would be a celebratory institution: an indistinguishable number of people chattering, gesticulating and using their wine glasses as semaphores to inform and enlighten. No one listens at cocktail parties. They come to talk, make connections and reinforce the fact that they’re alive.
Her doorman recognized me as I joined two other couples in the small elevator to the fifth floor of her building on York Avenue and East Ninety-Second Street. When we all got to Marcela’s apartment the women air kissed and the men shook hands jovially before heading off in separate directions.
Marcela introduced me perfunctorily, and then moved to greet new arrivals. After lubricating myself with a whiskey, I worked the crowd. I met a publishing associate of hers and pictured these two girls chirping at each other during lunch. I chatted up a vice president of advertising who had motorcycled out to Sturgis, South Dakota. A fascinating woman in her eighties turned out to be a photographer who knew Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White and other greats from the old days of LIFE magazine.
And there was Caspar Allbright, a lobbyist for a defense contractor. The photographer lady introduced Caspar to me and then glided away, dripping pearls and lavender scent.
We chatted amiably as Caspar trotted out his accomplishments through oblique references to his education and possessions. His accent spelled a privileged upbringing. There was a wedding ring on his finger and I wondered if there was a wife or partner somewhere in the room.
“What do they call you around the barbecue grill, Caspar?” I interrupted. He was a little oiled by the whiskey in his hand and I expected this jowly fellow in a double-breasted blazer to say his nickname was Chip or Biff.
“Caspar,” he said in surprise. “I told you. It’s my name.”
That was how Caspar came into my life. He was the government affairs officer for an electronics manufacturer across the river in New Jersey. Confidentially, he said with an arm around my neck, “I’m going to set up my own lobbying firm with an assistant director in the Department of Defense. Goddamn government insists he has to wait a year before he can canvass the agency he worked for. Can you believe that?”
I could believe it. Caspar needed no encouragement to keep the accelerator down on his conversation, except for my occasional nod and muttered agreement. He went on and on about threats to our way of life, and an overriding need for Americans to be prepared and to take nothing for granted. I began to look for a way out of the monologue.
“But you know, Marcela’s been keeping a secret,” Caspar said. “I can trust you, old man, since you’re a man of the world, foreign intrigue and all that.” He gulped at his drink.
I muttered an eh, which could be taken as assurance of trust or a confirmation that I knew my way around the world. My news instinct made me very alert.
“Marcela works for the company.”
“As an editor,” I said.
“No. The Company.” He tightened his arm around my neck. “The CIA, old man,” he hissed. “She’s paranoid about the threat of cultural assimilation. That the rag heads will take over our way of life.”
I left Marcela’s party shortly afterwards with the memory of her kiss smudged midway between my mouth and ear. She had others to attend to and I didn’t want to be the obvious last guest. Caspar Allbright’s remark still ricocheted as I walked up to the avenue where I could find a cab. A great many responses crowded each other in my head.
First, so what? I knew people at Central Intelligence, had met them in the Middle East and drunk with them in Washington. They were clerks with a GS-11 or 13 rating.
Second, what could Allbright gain by mentioning this possibly classified information? Camaraderie with someone who could do him no particular benefit? Did he have an ulterior motive to create suspicion of the woman I’d taken to my heart? Why the hell should Caspar care about me? I was a reporter — accredited, but with no immediate assignment while I wrote a book about the international tentacles of power.
Third, what if Marcela truly was moonlighting with the Agency? She had a daytime career in publishing, which meant the CIA rôle had to be clandestine. She traveled widely and was presumably under minimal supervision. Such a discreet occupation wasn’t unheard of; I had a travel writer friend in Kuala Lumpur who the Agency had recruited.
Finally, as I was riding back down Second Avenue, I realized that if I asked Marcela about Allbright’s accusation, she’d deny it as a point of truth, or deny it because she couldn’t reveal the truth, or deny it because a drunken lobbyist had blurted it out.
The party had been out of the ordinary if not entertaining.
The CIA accusation percolated through my mind, but I had no chance to submit any of these queries to Marcela. She called the next day and told me she was flying to Paris to interview an author whose new book sliced and diced American culture.
“He’s a de Tocqueville on adrenaline,” she said. “Gotta run now, darling.”
I wished her bon voyage and went back to my manuscript. One of my sources was a Reuter’s correspondent, Ian Bingham, who suggested we go over his recollections. We agreed to meet at Sparks steakhouse on East Forty-Sixth Street the next day. It was my treat and a small price to pay for the corroboration Ian would provide.
I collected Ian at the maître d’s desk and we were ushered to a table. Halfway through our first tumbler of scotch I looked around and saw Marcela huddled with Caspar Allbright at the opposite side of the room. She looked like a quarterback planning her big play with a team of one. I found it impossible through lunch to keep from staring.
Ian was amused at my distraction. “Who is he?” he asked.
“Guy I met at a party. A lobbyist. He’s my exact opposite. Declarative where I’m a relativist, an artistic philistine where I’m discriminatory, a man of strong opinions about things I don’t give a shit about, an ideologue to my live-and-let-live humanism.”
“Don’t introduce me,” Ian said with a smile.
An hour later, they separated so she could freshen up. When she returned, Caspar rose and took her arm possessively, above the elbow. They were still some distance from me as they walked out of Sparks, but I saw his hand quickly pat her ass. Correction: it was Caspar’s hand on my lover’s butt.
My topic of malfeasance in the Middle East was pushed to the back of my mind. In its place, Caspar and Marcela were a pair of ice cubes floating to the top of the glass. I needed to know more about Marcela’s intimate conversation with Caspar.
Decisively, I looked up Caspar’s company headquarters and called that afternoon. His secretary gave me a mobile number and Caspar answered on the third ring.
“Caspar, you may not remember me from Marcela’s party.”
“Of course I remember,” he said. “Did you think I could forget our fascinating chat?”
I baited him with a few questions about civilians replacing uniformed soldiers, mentioned acquaintances at Halliburton in Qatar and asked what he thought about Middle Eastern political readiness. I lied in a polished way, telling Caspar I was investigating news pegs for a possible article. Then I segued smoothly into the money question: “How do you know Marcela?”
Caspar seemed surprised at my ignorance. “Why, we’ve been seeing each other for almost a year.” He admitted he’d probably been indiscreet in identifying her as a CIA agent. “She doesn’t know that I know, that I overheard some conversations and put two and two together. Please don’t embarrass me by mentioning it, old man. But,” he laughed, “I can tell you I’ve never before met a woman who liked to be buggered.”
I was speechless. It was a shock to discover Caspar and I had traded places in Marcela’s bed, to believe we both had watched her bathe after making love, to realize we each had nodded to the doorman and gone out for the morning papers. Caspar, the lobbyist working the establishment for all it was worth, and me, the journalist digging at social and political scabs, possessed one thing in common: Marcela’s electric little ass. My analytical side also recognized that Caspar and I were yoked together — once removed from each other as having an unnatural relationship with the same woman. We were incestuous in-laws. Reduced to other terms, it meant the lover of my lover was my enemy.
My emotional outburst arrived like an on-time express: how could Marcela have lain with this white whale of a man on top of her? The chameleon woman had chosen to perjure herself about being in Paris and about our love.
Then I did something impulsive and vindictive. Perhaps I wouldn’t have called Caspar again if I hadn’t seen an impending escape from New York ahead. Ian had asked me to spend two weeks in Cairo interviewing people for a feature story and I’d be leaving the city for awhile.
“Caspar, old man, I had to call back after you confessed you’ve been seeing Marcela. Your references to her were out of line. You’re talking about my fiancée. Marcela and I are planning marriage and I’ll thank you not to get in touch with her again — old man — or I’ll get very personal with you. I will blow up your career plans with a story that you’re in bed with the CIA — literally and figuratively.”
“You can’t mean it,” he said.
“I do. I will break up your little arms deal and then I will break your kneecaps.” I heard a sharp intake of breath and then hung up.
Two days after my calls to Caspar, I was drinking a container of coffee and reading the Times on a park bench when I saw Caspar’s picture. The obituary stated he had died of a heart attack. I knew, however, I had killed this man I’d met just once.
Remorse overwhelmed me as I visualized Caspar dying of humiliation, a broken heart or some mixture of fear and embarrassment. Was it really possible in this cynical age to die from emotion? Of course. An Army corpsman once told me extreme stress causes adrenaline and other hormones to skyrocket. “The heart can’t pump enough blood. Small blood vessels contract. The result is chest pain and shortness of breath — stress cardiopathy.” I imagined Caspar calling out Marcela’s name as he slumped over his desk or steering wheel. There was no medication for a broken heart. Marcela’s unnatural love was a metaphor for betraying the ideals and convictions I believed in.
She was still fictitiously in Paris for the next few days. I took out my cell phone. “Answer me, Marcela. I know you’re there. I know you aren’t in Paris.” She picked up on the third ring.
“Yes, Blitzy, I’m here. I got back early.”
Bullshit, I thought. “Caspar Allbright’s dead. I think I killed him, but you’re the one who’s to blame.”
There was a long pause. “Why don’t we meet and talk? Can you come uptown? Meet me at Fifty-Ninth and Fifth near the entrance to the park.”
When I got out of the cab, I saw Marcela wearing one of her ubiquitous black outfits. She stood in the sun with her back to the stone wall, hands folded primly in front of her.
“Why’d you do it, Marcela?” I asked. “Why did you lie to me about what you felt? And if you lied to me, that meant you also lied to Caspar. Did he die from my phone call threatening him or from something else? Something the CIA learned from a bugged telephone?”
“There are things you’ll never understand, Blitzy. I won’t even try to explain. Just get over it — if you want. Or don’t. It’s your call.”
A reporter’s intuition flashed in me. “Am I also your assignment? Did you pick me up because of something that somebody thinks I did? Am I a fucking threat to the country? I’m just a goddamn journalist scribbling a book!”
A slow smile crawled over her lips and her eyebrows seemed to slide even further down her temples. “If it wasn’t me it would’ve been someone else. That’s just the way the world works now.”
She turned her back to me, but this time her swaying buttocks offered no overture as she walked away up Fifth Avenue.
# # #
About the AuthorWalt moves among writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance, and long-form literary with a little historical non-fiction thrown in for good measure. His work has appeared in print and online in over two dozen publications, including Pif Magazine. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries. He now lives in New Jersey, a nice place that exceeds its reputation.