Love Is A Silk Blindfold Ch. 02byangiquesophie©
Friends and Foes.
Time has this well-known quality of going on.
But of course we shouldn't give time credit for that. It isn't time. It is all these modest little things and chores that drag us through our days. Things like getting up, shaving, having coffee. Like getting to work and slaving along. Like phoning, meeting, talking and drinking more coffee.
At work I spend a lot of time on the phone and behind the computer screen. Hours may pass without me returning to palpable reality. It makes the arrival of lunchtime sometimes feel like rising from the depth of a pool, gasping for air. Judy's face was the first living thing I came back to. She is my secretary. We often have a bite together, down at the tiny street-restaurant.
Judy is in her late forties. No need to flatter her by saying she looks ten years younger. She proudly looks her age and is a stunner nevertheless. Beside that, there isn't a week going by that she doesn't save my ass. She remembers what I forget. She irons out what I wrinkle. She jokes away my darker moods.
"You look like shit," she said, picking up the menu.
"Thank you very much," I answered.
"But it's true," she went on sweetly. "Lack of sleep?"
"Worries?' She nipped from her water.
She pouted her immaculate lips.
"Not sure?...I'd say those are the worst."
She smiled, but I knew she was serious. It takes a better man than me to fool her.
We ordered. I took a soup, she a salad. I ruined a bun by crumbling it to a sorry little heap of crumbs. I didn't touch my glass of milk.
"Jules," she said softly. "I won't repeat that you can always talk to me about anything. I sometimes worry about your sloppy memory, but I know you haven't forgotten that."
She made me smile. It felt odd. I realized I hadn't smiled for a while.
Judy went on.
"Your reluctance tells me there might be two reasons for your musing, honey. The first one is that you cheated the firm out of a few million...well, I don't think we should take that one serious."
She grinned and laid her hand on my arm. I admired its youth and aggressive nail-job.
"Which leaves us with Betty."
When she said that, her fingers tightened for just a second.
Our soup and salad came. I made quite a show of unfolding my napkin and spreading it in my lap. Then I took my time to stir the steaming bowl with a tireless spoon.
I looked up and realized that her eyes had never left me through the whole ceremony. They were very green, today.
"I really can't tell you, Judy. Not that I don't want to, but I just don't know why I should worry about her in the first place. I might as well worry that this soup is poisoned. I have no reason, no evidence, nothing."
I heard myself talk. And I knew I gave it all away. The more words I used to deny my worries, the louder they seemed to confirm them. Poison indeed. Judy usually only needs half a word. I gave her half a dictionary.
She was silent. She looked into her salad.
"Tell me all," she said. "Or tell me it is none of my business."
* * * * *
I told her.
Judy doesn't know Paul well. She doesn't know he never lies. That he hasn't lied ever since the early eighties when we first met. But the first thing she asked was when Betty works late.
I stared at her.
"You believe it?" I asked.
"Why would Paul lie?"
"Because he is jealous!" I blurted.
"I don't know much about your friendships, Jules. You always speak highly of Paul, though. I know you have always been very close. Did he ever before seem...jealous?"
I just sat and thought back over a gulf of time. The time I had known Paul. He had never been jealous. I was better at school, I often helped him. He never seemed envious of my ease at what was difficult for him at times. I must admit that if there ever had been jealousies, they had been mine. Paul was very popular with the girls. He was a great sportsman and a successful flirt.
"No," I said. "I don't think he ever was."
Judy looked thoughtful. She had not touched her salad.
"Yet you call him that."
"He never liked Betty. I introduced them and after seeing her a few times he admitted that he did not like her. I was surprised. I could not imagine that there might be people on this earth not liking Betty. Besides, Paul's taste in people and mine never differed much. I was surprised. And not a bit disappointed."
Judy started poking at her little Japanese salad.
"You think that's the reason why he told you, Jules? To blacken Betty?"
The bluntness of her remark made me feel uneasy. How could I accuse Paul of that? On the other hand, how could I not come to the rescue of Betty's reputation?
"Could you believe Paul would do that?" she said.
Damn, the woman might as well have read my mind. I shrugged.
"I can't let him do that to Betty, can I?" I said. "He can't make me choose between her and him. I...like him. I love Betty!"
My voice had swollen. The last words were loud. Judy laughed. Her hand was on my wrist again.
"Honey," she said. (She often says that, just like "darling". It is just what she says.) "Honey...I think you are overreacting. Please look at what we have here."
She pointed at the centre of the table, as if there was a piece of evidence lying there.
"Paul has seen her with her boss at the restaurant of the Hilton. How often does Betty go to restaurants with clients or colleagues?"
I knew what she meant.
"But he saw them kiss. Intimately," I said.
"Betty is an easy kisser, Jules. It is how she is. Open, warm. Not a fashionable air-kisser. And maybe Paul exaggerates. Maybe he did not see all of it and made an interpretation. Now what happened next? They left for the elevators. Maybe they had a meeting with a client? Or a presentation to prepare? Did you ask her?"
I felt helpless. And a bit of a fool. Maybe it was indeed all harmless. Was this how much I loved Betty? To suppose the worst after only hearsay? Damn you, Paul! Damn me.
"But Paul said the guy had his hand on her ass."
Now she shrugged.
"How long does she work with him?"
"Almost seven years now. He already was her boss before we met."
"Well..." she said, drawing out the ll's. "Jules, we have been together for over four years now and you never put your hand on my ass. But then again I could be your mom. Imagine me twenty years younger and consider again. Would you mind? Would my bum mind?"
She laughed her easy laugh. I knew she wasn't fishing for a compliment, but I gave it anyway. I fiercely dismissed her "mom" argument and said that it had taken almost superhuman self-restraint to keep my hands to myself.
"I rest my case, honey," she chuckled.
* * * * *
Our little palm tops had allowed us to meet at the gym. Betty had been working out for an hour. She glowed. I had just arrived from work to have a healthy dinner with her at the gym's restaurant. It was in a glass half circle at the tenth floor.
Central Park was at our feet.
"You look gorgeous," I said, kissing her. I felt her body press into mine as she prolonged the kiss. It was a weak, wet, open kiss inside a strong and tight embrace. One that made me feel very welcome.
Slightly out of breath we sat down at the window. The sinking sun haloed her lovely silhouette. I put my hand on hers.
"Libby...what have I done to deserve you?"
A wide grin washed over her face.
"An eye for an eye, honey," she said. "A tooth for a tooth and all the other parts I wont discuss here."
The ease crept in. The wit. And the wonderful lightness that made us buoyant. We were floating on a blue tropical sea. Could I ever broach the subject? I took her hand and kissed her fingers.
"Ah, mon vieux," she crooned. "Mes petits doigts te remercis."
We ordered and sipped our healthy juices. We discussed our days. We laughed and made our little innuendos. And I still had not asked her. It was hard to find a natural way to put the question. It had been four days by now, since Paul had seen them.
"How's Robert?" I asked. It sounded rude and sudden to me, but she didn't seem to notice. Robert Mancini is her boss.
"Oh?" she said. "Fine. He's in Europe right now. Why?"
I had feared the why. So I had prepared for it.
"Nothing special," I said, acting relaxed. "Paul might have a question for him. He may need advice for promoting his next exhibition. I don't know. Paul asked me to ask you."
"Well," she said, chewing on her lettuce. "He'll be back next Monday. But why ask us? We know zilch about the art world, honey. You know that. Besides, we are expensive."
I let the stab pass. Its snobbishness irritated me.
"I guess he got the idea when he saw you and Robert at the Hilton, a few days back," I said. "He didn't want to disturb the two of you. You seemed rather, eh, busy."
I kept my eyes glued to her face. She did not pale, nor blush. She didn't respond at all; her food-filled mouth just mumbled something that sounded affirmative. Then she looked up.
"Honey," she said. "Will you please get the pepper from the other table?"
I reached out and got it for her. She smiled and crunched some black pepper over her salad.
"C'est delicieux!" she said. "I'm really hungry."
I had no way to go on questioning her without giving myself away. I had not prepared for non-response. I guess I should be happy. There obviously was nothing that bothered her.
So why should I feel worried?
* * * * *
But I did.
The little nagging phrase had retired to an even less scratchable niche of my mind. It stayed there, though; it never left. It was like a hair on the back of my tongue. Like the tiny fragment of a splinter buried too deep to see. But you still feel it at every touch.
I had to see Paul.
It made me feel like a traitor, but I had to. Betty obviously had done nothing that would make her a suspect, not even in the slightest way. There was only hearsay, gossip. It could be easily explained away. Just as easily as Betty had taken it. It was nothing. It not even provoked the slightest response with her.
Damn Paul. What game are you playing with me? Who are you? Why now?
I had to see Paul.
He was in his studio. It is a giant white space on the top floor of an old building close to 32nd and Third Avenue. He had rented it from a firm that had used it for storage. It had huge windows on the north side. It was perfect for his giant paintings. I had helped him get the money to rent and restyle it.
I loved to go there. It had a serene atmosphere. There was the smell of fresh paint. Fountains of color bloomed all around. It was a place where my black and white world of numbers seemed far away.
Paul threw me a beer. Even his hair was caked with paint. Yellow, I saw. And red. We sat on the gigantic ancient couch he had found at a garage sale. It groaned under his massive weight.
"I talked to Betty," I said, after gulping the beer.
"I sure hope you do," he chuckled.
"You know what I mean."
"Sorry, yes," he said. "What did she say?"
He looked up, surprised. I went on.
"I told her you wanted to see her boss for some PR advice. Utter bullshit, but I had to find a way. I hope you don't mind."
He threw up his hands to reassure me.
"Then I said you had seen them at the Hilton, but did not want to disturb, as they were busy."
"Clever," he said. "What did she say?"
"Nothing. Nada. Not a word. No paling, no blushing. No hesitation. She just ate on, then asked me to pass the pepper."
He stared at me, his beer can halfway up.
"And now you think it was nothing," he said.
I rose and walked over to the window. The street was busy, downstairs. The cabs crawled around like yellow beetles. I turned back to him.
"Why do you want me to believe she is cheating on me, Paul? You have no proof. She has a zillion meetings with her boss. They work together for over seven years. Why not believe they had to meet a client there? Why presume the worst and tell me, Paul?"
He stayed calm.
"I saw, Jules. I have good eyes, I am a painter. I see the little things. I know people. I recognize their motions, the language of their bodies. What I saw wasn't business."
"Bullshit!" I said.
"Whatever you call it, Jules. I never had reason to doubt my eyes. Betty is running around on you."
I took a step in his direction. I seethed with anger. He raised his hand, but didn't budge.
"You have no proof, dammit," I hissed.
"No, I don't," he said. "That is why I told you: go see what I did not see. Get proof."
For a minute I could not find words. All kinds of bitter comments rose up like bile in my throat. My wide eyes were locked with his calm, blue ones.
"I...I need no proof. I won't confront her. I...I love her, Paul. She is my life. How can you even ask me to spy on her?"
He shook his head. Then he rose and put a hand on my shoulder.
"Listen, Jules. I am your friend. I have been as long as I remember. I wonder why I have to even say this. Why can't you trust me? I saw what I saw. My heart bled, but I had to tell you. I can't look away when my best friend is being shit on."
His eyes were steady. I suddenly hated them. I hated his calm reasoning. I despised what I saw as patronizing. I pushed him away.
"You are not a friend, Paul," I said.
Part of me was appalled by what I said. My voice seemed far away.
"You are a jealous schemer. Ever since I found Betty you wanted her gone. You never gave her a chance. I should have known. You are such a despicable little man, Paul!"
He looked hurt. He reached out for me, but I turned and fled.
"Jules!" he called after me. "Don't..."
I looked back from the huge elevator.
"Drop dead, Paul. Go to hell. You are a scheming, jealous asshole."
I walked into the open elevator and sank out of his view. The last thing I saw was his frozen, incredulous face.
* * * * *
When the elevator reached street level I already knew how deeply I'd regret this day. How wrong it was what I just had done. And yet I knew I had to. There was no way I could choose between Betty and Paul and not lose. But there also was no way I could betray Betty. Yes, I felt it would be betrayal if I'd believe Paul over Betty.
I went into a cafe and just sat there waiting for my coffee to get cold.
"Go see what I didn't see..."
The people in the street hurried by, indifferently. How could they care for this little man with his silly dilemmas? Why would they? They sure had enough of them in their own busy lives.
I felt lonely.
Judy had said that it might all have been harmless. She always knows what is going on. Paul had been adamant about the graveness of what he saw. He surely must feel he is right; he has a sharp painter's eye for people. And Betty? She had acted so natural and carefree. How could I not trust her? Could she love me so obviously and yet cheat on me with such ease?
I felt lost.
Funny. How could I believe that my love was secure and still feel lost? Shouldn't the nagging goddamn suspicion have gone away by now? And most importantly: shouldn't I just ask Betty? Why couldn't I just sit her down and ask if she cheated on me?
I knew why.
It would shake up our marriage for sure, either way. If I were wrong, she'd be hurt deeply. If I were right, the hurt would be mine. And the marriage would be over.
Would it? Oh yes.
I left the cold coffee and headed for home.
* * * * *
"Est-ce que c'est, mon amour? What is wrong?"
Her voice was sweet, her lips pouted. Her soft fingers brushed a strand of hair from my brow. We had made love. That is: I had just pulled my spent cock out of her, taking a string of our juices with it.
It may have been lovemaking. It felt different.
Of course she had noticed. Her eyes carried question marks. I had made her come twice, once with my mouth, once with my pumping cock. She had helped with busy fingers on her clit. She hadn't offered to suck me. I hadn't asked.
"You are different, lately, Jules," she went on.
Her finger made lazy circles on my chest. The skin was slippery with my sweat. And with the juices that still clung to her fingertips. I did not know what to say and not lie. I slid up until my back was against the headboard. I pulled her into the hollow of my arm and chest. Her soft hair tickled my armpit.
"I have a problem, Libby. A serious one."
I felt her stiffen in my embrace.
"Work?" she said.
"No. Not work."
Her head turned up to me in the silence that followed.
"What is wrong, honey?" she said. Her hand went up to my face.
"That's the problem, Libby," I said, shifting uneasily. "You see, I don't know if anything is wrong at all, really. Maybe I should ask you."
"Yes. Would you think there is a problem? With us, I mean?"
By now she sat up and turned to me. Both her hands were cupping my face. Her eyes were very close.
"Jules, my sweet. I don't know what you mean. With us, you say? Oh God, please don't tell me it is something serious..."
I couldn't smile.
"What would be serious? Tell me, Libby. What would you consider serious?"
"Are you leaving me, Jules? Is that what you say? Say it isn't so! Please, please hold me and say it isn't so. I'll die when you leave me."
I looked down on her. Her eyes had the sparkle of imminent tears.
"Why would I leave you, honey? Would I have a reason?"
I trembled from the weight of the question. She started crying. Through her sobs she cried that she loved me. That I should know that. That I should never ever leave her. Never! She leant into me and I felt her heart race. I was stunned. Why would she think that I would leave her? This was crazy. Did she assume I was cheating on her? Me on her?
"Oh no, Libby! Never. Never ever!"
I closed her in my arms and held her tightly. I found her mouth and kissed her. The moment passed. And once more I had found nothing, did I? Should I bother that she hadn't answered my question? Or did I find out yet again that there was nothing to be found?
More to the point: was I a pathetic fool?