Start to End

The Beginning

Rudy was a very sexual man.  He had affairs; he was notoriously shallow, blindingly intelligent and easily distracted.  This combination is the surest way to work the lever of the penis until it hangs by a thread.

He was not without passion, but he was unwise in the ways of the heart.  He was shallow, and so spread his seed wildly; he was a speculator of semen.

Rudy loved to have a beautiful woman on his arm; he loved the glow, the zip of envy, the way his date would toss her hair and stare in the cool and deeply exciting manner of the beautiful.

How do they know that they can manage that stare? he would wonder.  How do they know that they can wear those platform sneakers or those long body-hugging coats?  I never see a plain woman wearing those – is there some store you can’t get into without fitting through a certain silhouette?  (According to one date he asked, there was, and it was called Mendocino.)

Pretty women, he discovered, have one fundamental weakness, which is their desperation to believe that they are interesting for something other than their beauty.  Pretty women face so little intellectual opposition that their opinions grow wild, like unkempt golden weeds.

Another thing Rudy noticed: beautiful women also never, ever admitted to their beauty.  This is an example of one such conversation, which he had at the restaurant ‘North 44’ with a gorgeous Armenian bank teller:

“So, you do realise that you’re very beautiful,” he said, after a lengthy pause.

She smiled, dimples appearing in her cheeks like perfect little sunspots.  “I’m glad you think so.  The light in here is very flattering.”

“No, really.  What do you think about that?”

“This dress gets a lot of compliments.”

“Not on the rack I bet it didn’t.  It’s you.”

She frowned.  “You’re really into looks, right?”

“I like looks, yeah.  But I’m curious about how you deal with your own looks.”

She shrugged and twirled her dark hair.  “Who thinks about that?  It’s what inside that counts.”

“It’s great that you can just – say that.”

“It’s true.”

“Yeah, but do you ever have trouble getting men to see the inside?  The present might be in the box, but it’s so easy to get distracted by the wrapping.”

“Uh – no, I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Do you think you’re attractive?”

“Sometimes – sometimes I look in the mirror and I like what I see.  But it changes, you know…”

“What does that mean?  That’s always confusing.  Good hair day, bad hair day.  It’s not like women mutate overnight.”

“You wouldn’t understand.  Men are like – rocks.  They don’t change.  Maybe every decade.  But women change – monthly, daily.  Sometimes hourly.  I’ve come to the bank hating my hair, and left it loving it.”

“Isn’t that kind of vain?”

She smiled and shrugged.  “It’d be vain if I always loved it.  It’s just the way it is.”

It was not use.  Getting beautiful women to talk honestly about their looks was about as easy as getting rich kids to talk about their advantages, libertarians about their OSAP loans, or socialists about their investments.

One night, Rudy went into a Japanese restaurant to order some takeout.  He glanced around the restaurant – and saw Her.

She had long black hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and was eating alone.  Rudy was not that guy, the guy who confidently swaggers up to unknown women, but he was completely smitten, for the first time in his life.  He grabbed a copy of ‘Eye Weekly’ and sat near her to wait for his food.

Band-Aid, Band-Aid, he repeated over and over – this was his mantra for difficult things – do them instantly, without reflection, like pulling off a Band-Aid.

“Listen,” he said finally, “you’re eating alone, I’m eating alone – do you mind if I join you?”

She looked startled, but he knew she wasn’t.  Rudy had too often heard the following story from women:

So he’s interested – I know that, it’s obvious – but I can’t make it too easy or anything, so I have to wait at the bar waiting for him to get his courage up, and it’s so sad, you know – like what is he waiting for me to do?  Drop a trail of beer nuts to my stool?  Rip off my top and blow a cherry at him?  I swear, it’s like getting a traumatised squirrel to eat out of your hand!  ‘Come on, sonny-boy, you can do it, I won’t bite, have some balls, we’re all adults, come on: walk up to me and say hello!’

She had to look startled, Rudy knew, otherwise she looked vain or – God forbid – eager.  She said nothing for a moment.

“Sure, OK,” she said finally.

“My name is Rudy,” he said, reaching over the glazed bento box to shake her hand.

She glanced at his hand for a moment, then shook it.  “Belinda.”

“And how was your day?”

She smiled.  “Not bad.  I just came back from a flight, an over-nighter.”

“So you’re a…”  Oooh, what is OK these days?  Not stewardesses.  Flight attendants?  In-flight-service-professionals?

“I’m a purser.  The head of in-flight crew.”

“And how was the flight?”

“Tough.  Tough.  They’ve just put in defibrillators, and we have to be ready to use them.”

“Did anything happen?”

“No, not tonight.  Just the usual drunks and crazies.”

“I can’t believe how much people drink on flights.  Alcohol, isolation, no boundaries.”

She shrugged.  “I’ve had to arrest people before.  I carry handcuffs.”

Rudy grinned and raised his hands, spreading his fingers wide.  “Wait a moment,” he said, his pupils dilating.  “Stewardess, hand-cuffs…  Mmmm.  OK, go ahead.”

He thought she would laugh, or be offended, but it was like she hadn’t heard it at all.

“My airline has just started flying to India,” she said, “so I’m hoping to go there soon.”

“I’ve never been there.  China, though.”

They talked about places they’d been, and what they were interested in.  Through various calculations, he realised that she was thirty-six, which seemed unimaginably old, but that didn’t matter at all, because his heart seemed filled with a kind of wild helium foam, and he felt each of his forearm hairs waving deliciously, and every piece of food tasted like a rice-wrapped sliver of heaven.

They talked for about an hour, and then went for dessert.  It was getting late, and Rudy found himself almost yawning.

“You’re getting tired,” said Belinda.

“No – yeah, a little, but I’m really enjoying myself.  How did you know?”

“You’re yawning with your nose.”  She imitated him, his nostrils flaring, the underside of his chin expanding like a sleepy toad’s.

Rudy laughed out loud, the first pure delight he had felt for a long time.

“That’s wonderful!”

“You think so?” she asked, her eyes bright.

Finally, he offered to walk her home, and she held his arm and hurried him along with barely-concealed impatience.

“Can we see each other again?” he asked, as they stood under the huge awning of her apartment building.

“I don’t give out my number,” she said.

“I – that’s OK, I have a card,” said Rudy, whipping it out in manner he had practiced after watching Antonio Bandaras in ‘Interview With A Vampire.’

Belinda took it without looking, and gazed at him for a moment.

Rudy didn’t do cheek-kissing.  He wasn’t fastidious, but he had gotten so sick of the pretension of it all, and the awkward dance of one-kiss-two-kisses-how-European-are-we?  But he decided that now would be a good time for an exception.  He wanted to leave no doubt that he was interested.  So he leaned forward, and she turned her cheek nicely, and he lingered for a moment on the firmness of her cheek, and then they parted.

The Start

On their first date, they went to see ‘Billy Eliot’ at a local rep theatre.  Rudy chose the film, because he thought it would be a good chance to show off his movie-crying.

Rudy was quite proud of his ability to cry at movies – it showed, he felt, that he was keepin’ it real, that he was centred, grounded, would be good with kids and great in bed.  ‘Billy Eliot’ was a great choice – sentimental, not soppy.  Rudy’s movie crying was a solid, practised show.  A few slight sniffles, a silent tear or two – the woman would inevitably become curious and glance over and see noble manly suffering.

He got some fairly good tears going – displaying sensitivity, but not instability – and they both enjoyed the movie.

But afterwards, something quite odd happened.

It was a chilly, late September evening.  They went to a Golden Griddle for hot chocolate, and Rudy didn’t have any cash.  He’d paid for movie, drinks and popcorn, so didn’t think it bad form to say, “Do you mind getting this?  I don’t have any bills.”

“Actually, I do,” replied Belinda calmly, leaning back in her chair.

“Umm – excuse me?”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“OK…”  He felt sudden fear, that his new, helium-happy heart might just float out of his grasp and be lost among the clouds.  “Listen, if it’s a problem, I’ll just nip to the bank machine and grab some.”

“I’d really appreciate that.”

He stood up, feeling a little giddy, a little dizzy.  His reflection rose with him, ghostly against the dark street.

“No – that’s OK,” said Belinda.

“Mm?” he asked, not sure whether to go or sit.

She leaned forward.  “It’s fine – listen, the fact that you were willing to go to a bank machine is enough for me.  I’d be happy to get the hot chocolates.”

Rudy sat down slowly, almost expecting to sink through the seat, and wake up in a flashing ambulance.  Sir, you passed out at the movie theatre – salt deprivation.  Everything after that was just a dream…

“I suppose we should get this out of the way,” said Belinda.  “This is what I like in a relationship.  I like to be taken care of.  I like the man to open doors for me – even car doors, even if he’s sitting behind the driver’s seat.  I like the man to plan the evening.  I want to be picked up and dropped off.  That’s romance for me.”

Rudy stared at her.  A grim waitress brought their drinks, and left without a sound.

Belinda continued.  “See, I work for a living.  I live on my own.  I take care of myself.  I’ve spent my whole life taking care of myself.  I know I can do that.  That’s not new.  That’s not an unknown.  And that’s certainly not romantic.  I need a man to bring something to my life that I can’t do for myself.  And that’s to court me.”

She took a sip of hot chocolate, watching him with calm eyes.

“O – K,” said Rudy slowly.

“Go ahead,” she said, leaning back and raising a hand.  “Cards on the table.”

“Umm – isn’t that a little one-sided?”

“No,” replied Belinda.  “Old-fashioned maybe.  Look, my parents were wonderful people, had a wonderful relationship.  They were so in love that…  When I was a kid, my dad would come home and put his arms around my mother, while she was cooking, and kiss her on the back of the neck, and that was about as safe and good as I have ever felt in my life.  That’s what I want.  Men and woman are different.  I’ve studied biology; I know.  The man woos the woman.  And I’m not alone in this.  All my friends who did the modern thing, where everyone is equal, they all got married and all split up.  ‘Belinda’, they said, ‘I should have done it like you, and found out if he was a generous man before marrying him.  ’Cause afterwards, I was doing everything.’”

“Wow,” whispered Rudy, then cleared his throat.  “Wow.  I’ve never heard that before.”

Belinda smiled sadly.  “No, of course not.  It’s not politically correct these days.  But you ask any woman, and deep down, that’s what she wants.”

“You think so?  Because…”  He paused.

She nodded slowly.  “Go on – you can say it.”

“Well – it seems a bit…  The man gives a lot.  In this view…”

“I know.  But my mom gave my dad a house that ran like clockwork.  Well-behaved kids.  Dinner on the table when he got home.  Ironed shirts.  Respect.”

“Huh.  But – so…”

“It’s OK.  Say it.”

“Well, the man’s generosity…”

“Comes first, yes.  That’s what you were going to say.  Every man does.  Yes, the man’s generosity comes first.  The woman’s comes later.”

“After marriage.”

“Sure, when she gives up her career to take care of the man.  I mean, my father wanted for nothing at home.  I’d watch him, at dinner, and if his water-glass got even half-empty, I’d jump up to refill it.  He could come home, put his feet up and nap before dinner.  Sleep in on the weekends.  Breakfast in bed.  Anything.”  She smiled and lowered her eyes slightly.  “Anything.”

Rudy felt dizzy, almost demonically-seduced.  Mayday, captain, we’re losing testicles one and two!  But – but there was something compelling in the vision.  Lord of a little castle…  But that wasn’t quite it, wasn’t…

“I don’t know,” said Rudy.  “I grew up without a father, and my mom was sort of a serial dater…”

“These days,” continued Belinda, “women pay their own way and everyone goes to work and the kids are raised by strangers.  But how sad is it to think that women don’t trust their men enough to be taken care of.  I mean, you’re a wife and mother, you have to give everything.  What’s the price of a few dates in comparison?”

It was retro, it was Fifties of course (actually, the 1850’s, he thought), but still…  A calm house, a tidy, rested wife.  No fighting over chores.  No panic over late meetings.  Rudy’s inner justifications rallied: maybe the feminists of the Fifties didn’t want to be homemakers in the first place, and had to infect everyone else with their discontent…  Infectious lesbians…  Yeah…

“Yeah, I see what you’re saying,” he said finally.

“I know it looks shallow, or greedy, but I’ve put a lot of thought into it.  All my friends went through the same thing with their husbands, but after they were married, when it was too late.”

“The generosity thing..?”

“Yes!  Women are generous by biology.  We give birth, we breast-feed – don’t go there, not just yet! – we generally stay home – and do more housework even if we don’t.  There’s no question that women are more generous in marriage – that’s why married men live longer, and single women are less depressed.  So to my thinking, because we give so much later, we have a right to ask for something – a little something – up front.  And I think it’s fair because I’d switch places with you in a New York minute.  I’ll buy the hot chocolate, you give birth!”

“So it switches – at marriage?  When you get married?”

Belinda shrugged.  “Depends on the couple.  I’m a generous person.  I know that.  But I know almost nothing about you.  Will you be there for me?”  She shrugged again.

“But – but I don’t know much about you either,” stammered Rudy.  “I give now, you might give later.  It’s not – equal.”

“That’s because men and women are different!  It’s like tonight.  Because you were willing to go out in the cold and look for a bank machine, I’m happy to buy you hot chocolate!  You understand?”  She brushed her hair back and leaned forward.  “I don’t want you to buy me hot chocolate.  I just want you to want to buy me hot chocolate!”

“Huhn.”  Rudy frowned.  “That’ll come to me, in time.”

“It’s not that complicated.”

“Sure, but you’ve thought a lot about this stuff already.”  Rudy took a deep breath.  There’s no walking away from the helium!  “OK – let me tell you how it looks to me.  I’m completely infatuated.  You say: go sumo wrestle, I’m up to my ass in a thong.”  He paused.  “Or some more pleasant metaphor.  So – so this is what…  We’ll try it your way – who knows, maybe black and white sitcoms are right, who knows anymore?  I’ll pay and arrange, for a few months, and we’ll see.”

She looked at him, then shook her head slightly.  “You’re not quite at the seeing point yet.  It’s not that I want you to pay – that’s not what it’s all about.  I just want you to want to pay.”

They circled this point for almost another hour, before reaching a consensus, which was that – for a time at least – Rudy would not focus on paying, but on really, really wanting to.

The Middle

Rudy drove to pick up Belinda; they were going for a walk along the Scarborough Bluffs.  It was one of the first bright Toronto spring days, when all the monochrome muck of winter seems to have been melted by the blue heat of the sky.

On the way, he stopped for gas and, when inside paying, Belinda came in and said: “Are you hungry?”

“A little.”

“Let’s pick up a picnic lunch,” she said, gesturing at the Safeway across the street.

“Sure,” said Rudy, and paid on Interac.  He noticed he had no cash, and turned to look for a bank machine.  There was one in the corner – my bank, bonus! – so he went over.

Ooh, bad…  The machine was out of order.

“OK,” he said.  Don’t panic – there’ll be one at the Safeway…

They went into the supermarket.  Belinda was telling Rudy all about the picnics she went on as a child, how her father drove and her mother sang.  They picked up some French bread, some cheese, and went to the cashier.

“Oh – did you see any olives?” asked Belinda, loading the conveyer.

“I think so,” said Rudy.

Walking back down the aisle, he suddenly broke into a sweat.  Shit – she’s at the cash register!  He shuffled along faster, picturing Belinda explaining things to the cashier: not only does he pay, he wants to pay!  He turned the corner of the cereal aisle.  There!  From a half-cart, half salad-bar thing, he scooped some olives into a thin plastic container, then turned and hurried back to the front.

Belinda had her purse out.  She glanced up.  “I’ve got it,” she said.

Rudy smiled weakly.  “Thanks – thanks a lot, I mean.”

As they walked out of the store, Rudy felt nervous again.  Belinda murmured something.

“What?  Excuse me?”

“I said,” she said sadly, “that you really like it when I pay.  Don’t you?”

“Don’t…  You offered.  Yeah, I guess so.”

“Humh,” she sighed.  They crossed the street and got into the car.  Rudy was so distracted that he got into the driver’s seat without thinking.  Belinda hovered outside the passenger door.  He got out, walked around the car, then opened the door and let her in.  She shot him a look through the window as he closed the door.

They drove in silence for a few minutes.

“Belinda,” said Rudy eventually.  “I had no cash – the ATM at the gas station was out of service, and then – I would have paid through debit – but you wanted me to get the olives.  When I came back…”

“No – it’s not that I mind paying,” said Belinda softly, staring out the window.  “It’s just that – I didn’t think it would give you so much pleasure.”

“So much…  What do you mean?”

“I mean that you really wanted me to pay.”

“Huh.”  He signalled and turned.  “Uhm – I was happy when you did, but I would have been as happy to pay.”  He frowned.  “I mean – it was what, eleven dollars?”

“It doesn’t matter how much it is.  It doesn’t.  It’s like…”  She turned to him, and even while driving, he could feel the intensity of her dark-eyed gaze.  “Look, I don’t care if you take me out for a Happy Meal.  We don’t have to go to a five star restaurant.  It’s not materialistic or anything.  The money doesn’t matter.  It’s the principle.”

The thought came to him unbidden: whenever anyone says “it’s not the money, it’s the principle,” it’s the money…  “But – Belinda – if you want me to pay and be happy for it, why can’t you be happy for it too?  It wasn’t a lot.  I mean I’ve…”  He tallied it up –dinners, theatre, concerts – probably over five hundred dollars in six weeks.  Ugh – don’t go there…

“Yes, you’ve been very kind,” she said.  “And I really appreciate it.  But is it because you want to, or because I want you to?  It’s not something I can explain, probably.  It’s something emotional.  Something hopeful…”

Rudy parked the car and got out.  Belinda sat still inside, the little bag of groceries on her lap.  He tapped his forehead once, then went round and opened her door.

“Thank you,” she said, getting out.

They walked along the beach for a while, and Rudy was constantly aware of the amount of silent distance they were putting between themselves and the car.  Every step we take is a step we have to take back, he thought over and over, like a bass beat to their sandy steps.

Finally they sat down and ate a little.  Rudy felt dismal.

“Look,” he said.  “I’m trying…  You know you’ve got me by the heart – all the way, the first time I saw you.  I respect your views.  But Christ Belinda – it’s a little stressful to have the happiness of a day vanish because an ATM was out of service!”

“But it’s not that,” she said.  “I really, really don’t know how to explain it to you anymore.  And how do you think I feel, you imagining that I care about eleven dollars.  That I’m so…”

“OK – OK.  My question is: how do we get on track again?  I mean, money keeps derailing us, and I keep working to put us back on track, and…  I need you to come up with some solutions.”

She paused.  “I knew it would be a risk.  I knew it in the Golden Griddle, when I told you what I wanted from a relationship, what I wanted from a man, that it was risky.  You could have got up and walked away.  But I’ve been in relationships before where the man is stingy, and I know what that does to me.  So I clearly said what I wanted.  And you said OK.”

“But – that’s not solving anything.”  Rudy squinted at her.  Man, I wish I’d remembered my sunglasses…

“But I’ve lived on my own my whole life,” said Belinda.  “I’ve had plenty of men ask me to marry them.  I can take care of myself.  I can pay my own way.  I do that every day!  I could take you out for dinner, the theatre.  But that’s not what I want.”

“I know, I know.  You want what your parents had.”

“When my father was at dinner…”

“Yes – you would jump up and get him water.  But I’m not your father.”

“It’s not about you being my father…” said Belinda wearily – and that weariness of tone sort of emptied his mind, and he felt all the energy of his body fall away, and sat like a broken puppet on the empty beach.

The End

The first half of the trip to Majorca was wonderful.  Leaning back on his elbows, watching Belinda walk topless into the sea, Rudy could scarcely imagine wanting more.  There were good things, of course.  She made him wonderful meals on occasion, brought him great insight into himself.  She had the most amazing intuition, and a wicked sense of humour.

That night, neither of them could sleep, so they got up at four a.m. and walked.  The air was cool, pre-dawn sweet, and the dark palm fronds spread over them like ashen fingers.  They entered a little café and mixed with the ugly, misshapen horde of pre-dawn workers.  Belinda was in very high spirits.  She imitated Rudy’s face when he had to pass gas, then reproduced his ‘orgasm’ face, asking him to note the similarities.

Then, Rudy made a great error.  He raised his hand to scratch the back of his head.  Belinda’s face froze in mid-giggle, her smile fluttering down like a ribbon cut from the opening of Hell’s Gates.

Rudy blinked.  “What?  What?”

“How old is that T-shirt?”

“Don’t know – couple years?  I don’t clothes shop unless I have a very persistent girlfriend…”

“Because it has a hole.”

“In the armpit?”  Rudy craned his head to look.  “Yeah, I know.”

“So why do you keep it?”

“It’s comfortable.”

“Hunh.”  Belinda looked away, and Rudy could swear she was just about to cry.

“Are you OK?  Belinda?”

“Yuh, I’m fine…”  She turned back to him.

“My dad used to sit with his ankle on his knee,” she said, demonstrating.  “And he used to gesture slow, like he was certain of everything.  He had a kind of weight, a presence, a solidity…  After he died, people used to say he could have been a movie star.  He had that kind of presence.  He’d come into a room, and every conversation would cease…”

Rudy frowned, nodding.

“And he was always perfectly groomed.  Never a hair out of place.  And everyone would come to him for advice; young men, old…  He never tried for anything, not for respect, or power, or status.  He just – had it.  A friend of my mother’s said once: your dad, that’s a man’s man.  And if he disagreed with someone, with what they were saying, he wouldn’t say anything, but his – his whole attitude would change, and he would turn away with such disgust.”  She imitated her father doing this.  “It was like: ‘I have no time for you, but I’m too dignified to fight.’  That was true, all the way up to when he died.”

“Wow,” said Rudy.  “I wish I’d could have met him.  He died – what, twenty years ago?”

“Yeah, but – he’s been in my mind a lot lately.  He’s very different from you.”

“How so?”

“The way you sit, how you walk.  Your hands sort of flutter when you talk…”

Rudy laughed.  “Yeah, the perils of an arts degree!”  He imitated a gay man.  “I’m weaving abstracts, dahling!”

“Very different,” said Belinda, without smiling.  “He would never have gone out with a hole in his shirt.  I mean, it wouldn’t have even crossed his mind.  He said that a real man was always perfectly groomed.”

Because your mother fixed all his shirts…  Despite the devil whispering in his ear, Rudy decided to use his ‘inside voice.’  “Hm,” he said.

Belinda stared at him.  “I’ve known a lot of gay men.  At the airline.  There’s something – funny about them.  It’s like they’re not men, not women.  They’re like caricatures of women.  One man I knew came out when he was – what, thirty five?” said Belinda.  “Married, kids, the whole lot.”

Rudy frowned.  “That would be bad.”

“Imagine that for his wife.  Imagine.”  Belinda shuddered and looked away.  “It’s a terrible risk.”

Some part of Rudy picked up a subtle thread from her conversation, and he scowled suddenly.  “Now, you know I grew up without a father, right?”

“Yeah…”

“So, do you think it is terribly sensitive to talk about how manly your father was?  And how my hands flutter when I talk?”

Alarmed at his rising tone, Belinda looked down.  “Shh.”

“Do you think it’s very sensitive?”

“I was just talking…”

“Oh come on!  ‘My father was John Wayne.  You flutter.  Some men come out later in life…’”

“Look, I’ve only known you for a few months…  I don’t understand this – fluttering.  It’s like you’re British or something.”

“That’s – I find that aspect of things funny.  The gay thing.”

“But why?  Why?  From the outside, from where I sit…”

Rudy stared at her, and for the first time felt the ugly rush of anger which usually signals the beginning of the end.  “So, now we have a day ruined because I have a hole in my T-shirt.”

Belinda stared back, unapologetic.

They managed to find some kind of détente about that one, but another came up, when they were sitting on a high wall in town.  Ahh, the wedding ring…

Rudy knew that Belinda had refused a man’s proposal because the ring wasn’t big enough.  The following morning, they were looking at jewellery, and Rudy’s honest taste ran to the cheaper stuff.  So then, from Belinda: ‘A friend of mine loves older men because they can afford decent rings.’

“I don’t really know about the ring thing,” said Rudy, leaning back into the sunlight.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve been to Africa.  Do you know that they search the bowels of the miners as they come out?  It’s horrible.  The mines are a mile deep.  Not enough ventilation.  The die like dogs.  And the weird thing – I did some research, and blew my mind.  I thought diamond rings were some Anglo-Saxon thing going back to the dawn of time, but they’re not.  De Boers had an excess of diamonds in the 1940’s.  So they created a marketing campaign.  ‘A diamond is forever.’  It’s no grand tradition.  It’s advertising, sixty years old!  And De Boers is a pretty ugly monopoly.  It’s like the Mafia of the jewellery world…”

“Yes, but that ad, tradition, whatever – it caught on for a reason.”

“Yeah, people like it, but…  But it’s kind of like vanity, you know?  All those women clustered around the photocopier.  ‘Flash me!’  ‘What were you worth?’  It’s like being bought on the block.”

“But it serves an important purpose.  Male generosity.  Modern women can fend for themselves.  They don’t need men to support them – how are they going to know how generous men are?”

“Christ, Belinda!” Rudy cried.  “I think I’m going to go insane if I have to hear that argument one more time!  I have no problem buying a ring, but why not make a trip out of it?  Fly to Morocco, stay a week, rummage through the souk, haggle, get one made by an eighty-year-old craftsman.  Then, every time you look at the ring, you have the story.”

Belinda’s eyes flashed.  “So you’d want to get a cheaper ring!”

He groaned.  “The ring would be as nice as any one here – it’d just be less expensive in Morocco!  You can get a ring and a trip, or just a ring.  Same price.”

“But it wouldn’t be just for the woman, right?  To do it, you’d have to get something for yourself.  A trip.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  Old ogre me.  Come on – let’s get some lunch.”

Rudy dropped off the wall.  The second nail was in the coffin.  Disagreements were becoming less and less interesting.

The rest of the day was quite pleasant.  They took a bus out to the Caves Of Drak, and watched a floating quartet perform classical pieces in a boat.  They had a nice dinner as well, over-eating at an Indian restaurant in the manner so common to Indian meals.

But that night, there was no sex.

Hitherto, the sex had been fantastic – they had made love two, three times a day.  That night, nothing.  Nor the next morning.  And then, none at all for the rest of the holiday.

There was no conflict about it.  In his late teens, Rudy had made a promise to himself to never pressure a woman for sex.  So he kissed her gently before sleep and did not pout and did not pressure, even subtly, with random discontent or generalised beach leering.

Of course, he was trapped with her, and that didn’t make things any easier.  If you disagree on a holiday – and are not rich – there are very few options.  Can’t fly home, can’t take another room, can’t break up now…

So they had a disconnected but not horrible last few days in Spain.  On the flight back, he asked Belinda what had happened to her during the last half of the trip.  She had no real clear idea.  She understood the question, but said that she would have to think about it.  Then she went back to reading her book.

About ten days after they returned – their phone contact had been sporadic and listless – she came over.

They talked for a little while, getting caught up, then she said that she was exhausted.  Rudy suggested that she nap on the futon, and she did.  He read a textbook, cradling her feet in his lap.  He imagined the following scenarios:

1.      After about two hours, he would glance up and see that she had been watching him.  ‘How long have you been awake?’  ‘A while…  I was just thinking about how much I love you.’

2.      She would wake up crying, and come over and just hold him, as her thwarted passions unfolded.

3.      She would stretch, turn to him, smile and say: ‘OK, here’s what I think happened…’

4.      He would fall asleep, and awake to find his penis in her mouth.

However, what did happen was that Belinda awoke after about an hour, saying that she had only dozed.  She got up, then said she had to get to her sister’s, because it was her nephew’s first Easter.

Rudy was stunned.  He asked her to repeat her statement.  When she did – with no idea that their entire relationship hung by a thread – he ordered her to leave his apartment.

She stood in sudden terror.  He felt an ugly eruption from his innards, and strained to scrub his words before they left his mouth.

“You know,” he said thickly, “on the plane, when you were reading that novel, I have to understand…  How important was that novel to you?  I mean, you bought it at a beach vendor’s.  You know?  I mean, we could have had something great here.  What is that novel going to do for you, over the years to come?  Is it going to care for you?  Father your children?  Nurse you when you’re sick?  Hold your hand when you die?  It’s gonna rot in a box, or be given away or thrown out.  But that afternoon, on the plane, that novel was more important than our whole relationship, than me.  Than you, if you care for me at all.  I mean, you want me, right?”

Belinda said nothing.  She stood on the ugly green carpet of his living room, like a lost dryad in a treeless waste.

Rudy shook his head slightly.  “And what was more important?  We hung by a thread, until tonight.  And nothing was more important than that book, on the plane, or this nap, right now.  Or your nephew’s first Easter.  He’s a year old!  Is he going to care for you when you get old?  Because you went to something he’ll never even remember?  Do you know how maddening this is?  You say you love me, but I can’t find it anywhere, on your person or in your actions or your words…”

Rudy had to stop, because uglier words were coming, and he didn’t want to stain either of them.  He expected her to say something, but she just stood there, seeming to shrink physically, and he fought mightily against a sudden rush of pity.  I will not take care of her, I will not take care of her…

Finally, he walked past her, opened the door, and asked Belinda to leave.  Silently, she turned and walked out into the hallway.  He closed the door, then sat heavily on his futon, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes.

And when the soft knocking came, Rudy did not rise.  He sat in the growing dark, thinking of the Armenian woman, and Belinda, and all the beautiful women he had trailed, and suddenly saw himself as a slave, a begging courtier – and a man who had laid himself down before all the glittering beasts that walk the earth, and then praised their sharp hooves as they passed over him.

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