Harry is standing on the corner of University
Drive and First Street, just having settled his
youngest son into the dormitory that will be both
mother and father for the year, when it occurs to
him that now might be the time to play his precious
card; that steaming iron of a chip doled out in
a moment of desperation all the way back in 1967.
Harry can see it as clearly as if it were being
played for him in Technicolor and Dolby sound, the
day thirty-two years ago, when he whirled past the
Montrose Avenue Parking lot on his bicycle to find
his new wife Dorothy and her boss Sam sitting alone
together in the old black Toyota, Harry's old black
toyota, locked in something worse than an embrace,
engaged in an act of betrayal larger and more devious
than that evoked by petting and prying; the day
he found them talking, as in talking about whether
or not to pet and pry. And now Harry cannot keep
himself from going over the whole sordid event detail
by excruciating detail, as he waits for the orange
hand of the crossing light to turn to white, thereby
giving him the signal to go ahead.
Harry is remembering stopping his bicycle, peering
into the car, and staring at the two of them in
disbelief. Dorothy was crying. Her face was twisted
and she kept sweeping the sleeve of her navy blue
wool coat across her eyes. Instinctively, Harry
had pedalled over to the car to comfort his wife,
when suddenly it dawned on him that the reason Dorothy
was crying had nothing to do with him, or something
her mother had said to her that day over lunch,
or the way her stylist had cut her hair, or the
assassination of her beloved Jack, but everything
to do with the man seated next to her. The realization
caused Harry to brake so abruptly that the air around
the car must have shifted as Dorothy and Sam interrupted
their conversation and looked up at exactly the
"I'll talk to you at home," Dorothy
shouted through the open window.
Harry was dazed like he had just woken up from
a nap to find himself halfway around the block in
someone else's bed, only he was on his bicycle and
his wife was having some intense verbal heat with
another man in a car and, "I'll talk to you
at home," was supposed to put it all in perspective
enough to enable him to slip his sneakers back into
his toe clips and pedal home. Harry just stared
at Dorothy, unable to use the mouth God gave him
to form what the rest of the world called words.
"We'll talk when I get home," Dorothy
repeated as if it was a hearing problem and not
a problem of total and utter incomprehension that
was the reason for Harry's lack of response. Harry
continued staring into the car.
"She'll meet you at home," Sam said,
always the boss.
In the split second that followed, Harry chose
between walking over to the car, ripping the door
off of its hinges, dragging Sam out by the collar,
and pummeling him into the ground, or simply leaving
this scene, biking around the corner, and finding
Harry chose the latter. He inserted his feet into
his toe clips and biked off in the direction he
had been going, hoping to pedal into existence an
explanation, a way around, or better yet, a way
out of, what he knew awaited him at the apartment
- more of that talking; talking about the talking
Dorothy had done with this man, endless processing
of Harry's hurt and rage, the requisite six or seven
months of marriage counseling to decide whether
or not they should stay together, and if they did,
the sentence to a lifetime of imminent distrust.
Harry pedalled furiously, passed the public library
with the wall to wall windows, passed the convenience
store where the automatic doors never worked and
patrons had to push their way in with more force
than it would have taken to plow through rusting
barn doors. He pedalled faster than the midday traffic
to the bike path at the reservoir where he wove
countless vicious laps between joggers and golden
retrievers and women with strollers. Finally, forty-five
minutes later, Harry declared defeat and biked home.
There he found Dorothy sitting bare-assed on the
toilet, her jeans around her ankles, sobbing, "Harry,
we need to talk."
Harry thought the sound of Dorothy's voice was
more like that of retching than crying and he felt
himself tense at the thought of watching her throw
up. In the two years that they had been married
Dorothy had not once vomited and so was ignorant
to the effect it would have on Harry who gagged
at the sight of phlegm on the sidewalk.
"Talk to me, Harry," she gasped, and
Harry felt the color drain from his face. "Say
But Harry could not speak. It was all he could
do just to lean back against the wall across from
the bathroom, and using it as support, slowly slide
his body into a crouching position; a posture he
assumed somehow would be answer enough.
It was. Dorothy winced. "I think I should
Not only was his wife of two years talking with
another man and threatening to vomit, now she was
"Why?" Harry muttered, and once he managed
to pass that one word through his lips, others slowly
inched forth. "Why do you think you should
Dorothy simply shook her head and sighed deeply.
She wasn't going to heave. Words suddenly flowed
from Harry like aged wine from a bottle.
"And why are you sitting on the toilet?"
"I don't know."
"Are you in love with him?"
"Did you sleep with him?"
"Did anything happen?"
Harry felt his stomach tense. The last drops of
wine spilled forth. "What...What did you do?"
Harry didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He
was crouched there thinking about kisses and how
vast and varied they are, like snowflakes and daisies,
each individual and unique; how some involved the
thrusting of tongues and passion, others just the
dry brush of lip across lip. His mind raced between
the myriad of options. He wanted to know which,
but not badly enough to ask.
"Now you'll want me to leave." Dorothy
was train-wrecked, ambushed, undone.
"I don't want you to leave."
It was true. Harry didn't want her to leave. He
didn't want to watch her throw up or to sit in the
bathroom crying. He didn't want to call his friends
and relatives and tell them he and Dorothy were
getting divorced. He didn't want anything but for
all of this to go away, back into the dark hole
from which it sprang, and to be sitting across from
Dorothy at their new mahogany dining room table
eating dinner and planning for the week to come.
But most of all Harry didn't want to talk. He went
over and took his broken wife into his arms.
"Oh, Harry, I don't deserve you. You don't
deserve this. I feel so bad," Dorothy said,
and then lifted her tear-stained face to his, took
his face in her hands, and pleaded, "Go kiss
someone too, Harry, so we'll be even. And then whenever
I see your sweet face I won't have to feel so ashamed."
It is this opportunity that Harry has kept in
the back of his heart for thirty-two years, despite
Dorothy's conversion to lifelong fidelity. It is
this glistening coin that Harry has brought out
on scattered occasions to fondle and caress and
then slip gently back into the recesses of his mind,
to save and to squander and then unexpectedly blow
on a sunny afternoon just like today.
Today the girl in question is Cindy Matthews,
resident counselor of Bryant House on the east side
of his son David's campus. There have been others,
sirens calling him to play his hand. There was Margaret,
the woman he had left for Dorothy, who called him
one night in drunken libidinous languor and slurred
into the phone, "Harry, is it too late?"
There was Diane the therapist he secretly had lusted
after whom he once ran into by the telephones in
the back of the dimly lit Four Point Restaurant,
alcohol on her breath, a familiar twinkle in her
eyes. There was the carpool mother, the den mother,
the waitress at his favorite cafe, the first woman
Rabbi at Temple B'Nai Olam, at least ten of his
children's teachers, not to mention Kurt, David's
football coach, whose sculpted abs and biceps came
out of nowhere to strike Harry, at the time knee-deep
in mid-life crisis, right between the eyes. But
always Harry refrained, slipped the coin back inside
his pocket and waited to see whom else life would
bring his way; savoring the chance like a piece
of chocolate torte, a day in the sun, water to a
And then one day Harry was fifty-six and sliding
down the other side of dreaming. It was now or never
if he wanted the object of his affection to be able
to run her fingers through his hair, to fondle muscle
instead of sagging flesh, to feel the hard pressure
of his desire and therefore the vastness of his
integrity when he stopped her at a kiss because
that, after all, would be all he was allowed.
This is why Harry is standing now on the corner
of University and First even considering cashing
it in for Cindy the resident counselor with the
dyed hair and the small flower tattoo on her right
shoulder - simply because she is here and time is
Harry waits for his signal and then crosses the
street and heads for the Save-More where he buys
himself a pack of peppermint gum. Earlier, he and
David had shared a pitcher of beer and a large garlic
pizza - the father and son pre-semester equivalent
of the mother and daughter trip to Bed N' Bath -
and he doesn't want that to spoil the moment with
Cindy whom he assumes smells of candles and rain
Cindy's free room and board consists of a three
room apartment in the basement of the freshman dormitory.
Harry already has knocked on its door to ask for
keys to David's cramped triple. He already has had
a glimpse of the hanging plants and bookcases and
beanbag chair and Cindy herself, caught off-guard,
winking at him from behind a thirsty bathrobe. He
already has made up his mind.
Harry knocks softly, hoping that David doesn't
hear, though his triple is seven flights up with
music blaring through three pairs of speakers. When
there is no answer, Harry allows himself one swift,
"Hi, Mr. Lawson." Cindy this time is
prepared. Her platinum hair is combed and parted.
Her green eyes are outlined in coal black by Revlon.
Her sweatpants and t-shirt have been replaced by
a short cotton dress.
"Hi," Harry says as casually as possible.
He assumes she knows why he's here, maybe even all
about Dorothy and Sam and that fateful day when
he became heir to the kingdom of fantasy. But then
Cindy offers a wink so quick and nervous that Harry
worries he may have mistook a tick for a ticket
"Did you guys lock yourselves out again?"
she asks. Wink, wink.
"Uh, no. David's all set," Harry says.
"I just came by to say thank you for your help."
"Sure, no problem." Cindy smiles broadly
enough to convince Harry of a hint of mischief,
the faint aroma of mutual attraction.
"Can I come in for a second?" He takes
"Sure. I was just making some tea. Would
you like some?"
"Sure," he says trying her word on for
size and, liking its fit, saying it again, "Sure.
I'd love some."
Cindy leads Harry to a patio off the living room.
She holds a small wicker basket filled with teabags
in one hand, a steaming kettle in the other.
Suddenly nervous, Harry points to a small table
by the window. "Why not here?" Indoors,
he presumes, is safer than outdoors, what with David's
propensity for impromptu frisbee and skateboarding.
Harry squeezes his six foot frame into one of
two small chairs and waits. He is used to this waiting,
after all, and thinks what's another twenty minutes;
from the look in Cindy's eyes it could be less.
He pushes his hair back and removes his glasses.
He is sixteen standing on the precipice of passion.
He braces himself for the familiar wave of sex and
heat and the urge to touch every surface of the
body before him, to breathe in every inch of its
scent. He will steady himself by remembering that
he is only here to even out the jagged edges; that
what is about to happen is simply the tangible exchange
necessary for the restoration of order and balance
in an otherwise intangible world.
Cindy removes two gauze squares from a box and
points to swami somebody or other painted on the
side, "How about Indian Spice? They say it
cleanses the soul." She slips one bag into
the mug nearest her. The other she dangles coyly
like a hypnotist, as she slowly and deliberately
reaches toward Harry and the cow-shaped mug on the
table before him.
Harry tries not to notice Cindy's breasts suddenly
revealed by a two inch gap in her dress, but notices
anyway and instantly wonders if that tips the scales.
When Dorothy kissed Sam they both were wearing heavy
autumn coats; at least that's what Harry always
presumed, that the kiss happened in the car that
day and not...
"Do you take sugar, Mr. Lawson?" Cindy's
smiling as if she knows the whole story and could
as easily fill him in on all of its sordid details
as pour them two mugs of tea.
"Harry," he asserts. And then, "Uh,
yes, no, yes," like it's a trick question,
"Maybe just a little."
Cindy pushes the sugar bowl his way, careful to
brush his hand with hers and winks, again, this
time hard and slow, so there can be no mistake.
"Here you go, Harry. Help yourself."
The drive home is four and a half hours of fast
food and toll booths. Harry can't believe how quick
it was, like losing your virginity or putting down
the deposit on your first home. Poof! And it's gone.
Thirty-five years of planning and scheming, down
the tubes; traded in for salvation granted in the
second it took to gently lift the young woman's
hand from his thigh and place it back on the small
"I should be going," Harry had told
"But you haven't even touched your tea, Harry."
Back home Dorothy waits anxiously to hear of the
dormitory and the afternoon pizza, the events of
her youngest child's departure into manhood; assured
he was delivered there safely and soundly by her
husband of thirty-four years.
The South Carolina Review, 2001.