The honeymoon period
[ fiction - april 10 ]
Blue-eyed, well-built and fiercely dimpled when smiling, Jesse Woodruff had been engaged five times in four years. On the occasion of his thirtieth birthday, he delivered an electrifying announcement to the predominantly unmarried guests who had gathered at the Tribeca Grand to help him celebrate. "I've made a decision," he announced. "No matter who I meet or what I feel, I'm going to wait five years before getting engaged again." His words were met with whoops, hollers, cheers, the toasting of champagne glasses and the suspicious expression of longtime pal Adam Proskauer who claimed to know Jesse better than Jesse knew himself.
Six weeks after the birthday soiree, Suzanne Brill appeared in Jesse's field of vision.
The Times Square subway station was crowded with exhausted New Yorkers eager to get home and out of their work clothes. From the moment he spotted her waiting for the 1 train heading uptown, Jesse was mesmerized by the long-legged, wavy-haired brunette. After the train came to a screeching halt, she stepped onto the subway car, Jesse following inches behind.
The metal door closed and both leaned against it, acutely aware of one another. When the train began to move, Jesse broke the ice with a tentative smile. Then they conversed the way complete strangers do when there's a physical attraction: politely, timidly, saying idiotic things that were regretted the moment they were uttered.
It seemed like only seconds had passed when the train arrived at the 57th Street stop, and Jesse realized he had to act quickly before returning to the chaotic world above the underground. By the time the train reached 72nd Street, he and Suzanne Brill had swapped business cards.
"You think I should wait until tomorrow to call?" Jesse asked Adam via
mobile phone as he swiftly walked west on 74th Street. Dusk, in its leisurely pace, was inexorably easing its way into full-fledged night.
"Wait twenty minutes, grab a condom and a cab," Adam advised. Adam Proskauer was the guy in high school who honored the high part and neglected the rest, the one who people assumed wouldn't amount to much in the real, competitive world. He showed them.
"It's not like that," Jesse assured him.
"Sorry, who am I speaking with? I don't recognize the voice."
Over the years, dozens of female hearts had been shattered by the irresistible Jesse Woodruff. At one time, there was a rumor of a secret club consisting of all the women he'd dumped north of 42nd Street. Luckily this turned out to be an urban legend like the Bermuda Triangle or the vanishing hitchhiker, but for a short time, the full-time player went into hiding.
As his frozen dinner heated up in the microwave, Jesse couldn't help wondering if Suzanne had given him a passing thought. Ninety minutes and one Stouffer's lasagna Italiano later, he dialed her number. The conversation flowed with none of the awkwardness they had experienced underground. They learned about one another's careers (he was an attorney, she worked in graphic design), interests (he liked running, she liked reading), and families. Devoted to her Boston terrier Sheba, Suzanne was an animal rights activist though not quite at the PETA level. She also happened to be a strict vegetarian. Testing her sense of humor, Jesse invited her to a steak dinner on Saturday night. After laughing out loud (thus passing the sense of humor test), she accepted the invitation sans the steak.
The date was ideal. Every single thing felt right. The goodnight kiss, delivered near the entrance to her building on West 89th Street (with a healthy portion of groping on the side), lasted a solid thirty seconds and caused knees to buckle.
The following month was a tumultuous rollercoaster ride. Jesse saw Suzanne four nights a week. He saved her voicemail messages and listened to them when he was alone. He had never done this before, for anyone. He considered handcuffing her to his bed and tossing the key down a sewer. He almost didn't care if he held her against her will as long as she was there. He wondered if he was cracking up.
Two months later, Jesse moved out of his one-bedroom apartment into Suzanne's spacious two-bedroom. One month after that, they were planning their nuptials. "May I remind you that the confirmed bachelor recently confirmed his bachelorhood for five more years?" Adam asked.
"May I remind you of something?" Jesse shot back. "You're a douche bag."
This was Jesse Woodruff's first engagement that led to an actual wedding with an actual ceremony and actual guests who spent money on gifts like electric egg poachers and harvest gold fondue sets.
It was a small but memorable affair with a small but memorable cake and several small but memorable mishaps, most notably the arrest of Suzanne's free-spirited mother. Unbeknownst to the newlyweds who were doing their dismal best at the bossanova, Lorraine Brill was in the outdoor parking lot, hosting a little shindig of her own. She
had grabbed a few bottles from the bar and a few guys from the street. Eventually her boisterous behavior (including the accidental baring of her left breast) attracted the attention of a pair of police officers patrolling the Long Island neighborhood.
Jesse and Suzanne had asked Lorraine to house sit for them while they were on their honeymoon. Despite the woman's unorthodox wedding behavior, she was a sensible choice. She adored dogs, and in her eyes Manhattan was much more exciting than Brooklyn, no matter how chic Brooklyn had become.
Running along the Honolulu shore, Jesse became lost in the sheer beauty of the island. A little more than an hour later, he returned to the hotel, high on nature. The first thing he noticed when he opened the door to the suite was the reflection of a strange man sitting on the sofa. As he was about to rush over and tackle the guy, a bikini-clad redhead emerged from the kitchen with a colorful cocktail. "You must be Jesse," she said with a toothy smile.
Before he had a chance to react, Suzanne appeared with a tropical drink of her own. "Honey, come meet our new friends." Jesse could tell his elegant wife was inebriated.
"I'm Agna, like in lasagna," the sun-baked beauty said before planting a kiss on Jesse's cheek.
"And I'm Roger," the rugged, ruddy-faced guy on the sofa announced.
"Sit with us," Agna said, taking Jesse's hand. "Bookend me."
"I'll get you a Mai Tai," Suzanne offered, rushing out of the room.
Jesse allowed himself to be led to the sofa. Now sandwiched by the guys just the way she liked, Agna spoke conspiratorially. "We adore your wife. And you're even hotter than Suzanne said you were. Isn't he, sweetheart?"
"Sure is," Roger agreed.
Suzanne entered with a drink for Jesse, placing it on the coffee table. Then she carefully descended to the carpet and flung her arms around his bare calves. "I thought these two were on their honeymoon," Suzanne said. "They were so affectionate."
"We're always affectionate," Agna explained. Roger leaned over to kiss his wife. Ten seconds into it, Suzanne lifted her lithe body from the floor and sensually planted herself on Jesse's lap, snuggling close.
"What's going on here?" Jesse whispered.
"Take a sip," Suzanne whispered back. "You'll get in the mood."
"I don't need a Mai Tai to get in the mood. What I'd like is a little privacy."
"Are you sure about that?" Agna asked, removing her mouth from her husband's and bringing it to Jesse's.
"Hey!" he abruptly shouted. "What's going on?"
"We're just having a little fun," Suzanne explained.
"Well, trying to," Agna chuckled. "But it doesn't look like you're into it, so we'll take off."
"Oh please stay," Suzanne begged.
"It takes four and we've only got three," Roger told her. "Hey, it's all good. Maybe we'll see you guys around the hotel." Hand in hand, the couple abruptly left the suite.
"How many drinks did you have?" Jesse asked.
"We're on our honeymoon, honey. Why are you making such a big deal? It's only sex."
Like water seeping into soil, it took a few moments for Suzanne's words to sink in. Suddenly Jesse's life was a movie in which the soundtrack was all wrong. He stood up, mechanically. "I need a nap."
When he woke up, he found his wife in a deep sleep on the sofa, so he returned to the bedroom. Hours passed, darkness fell, and Jesse wondered where the wild part of Suzanne's persona had been hidden. She was a season ticketholder to the New York City ballet; how could she possibly entertain such perverse desires? And how could he not have seen it?
"Why didn't you tell me about this peccadillo of yours before we got married?" he asked later that night.
"Because no one I ever dated had a problem with it," she matter-of-factly said. "Male or female. And none of them called it a peccadillo."
"You dated females?" he asked with incredulity.
"Just a few."
The return flight was tense, turbulent and thoroughly unpleasant. When the aircraft reached its cruising altitude, the deep-voiced pilot made an announcement:
"I'd like everyone to know that the couple seated in 12A and B are on their honeymoon. Let's wish the newlyweds a lifetime of happiness." The passengers burst into enthusiastic applause as a male flight attendant literally pointed to Jesse and Suzanne.
The second Jesse and Suzanne entered their Manhattan apartment they heard voices coming from the kitchen. "Mom!" Suzanne shouted. "We're back!"
"Oh, for fuck sake," Lorraine cackled as she entered the room in a tight white sweater dress festooned with clanking beads and gold bangle bracelets. "I didn't think you'd be home till late tonight. Sheldon Hunsucker, this is Suzanne and Jesse."
"Hunsaker," the muscular sixty-year-old said. "Did you call her Mom?" he asked Suzanne.
"Suzanne's mom was my older sister," Lorraine immediately interjected, "may she rest in peace. We were so much alike." Suzanne stared at her mother with astonishment.
"So I told a tiny white lie," Lorraine snapped immediately after Sheldon left the premises. "It matches my dress. How was Hawaii?"
"Lovely," Suzanne said.
"Thanks for taking care of the place, Lorraine," Jesse said. "When are you going back to Brooklyn?"
"First thing in the morning," she replied, "unless you want me to stay longer."
"No!" Jesse and Suzanne shouted in unison.
The following Friday night, Jesse arrived home to find Suzanne sitting in semi-darkness on the right side of the sofa with a blonde woman on the left end. Stretched out horizontally was a strapping six-foot tall man, his feet in Suzanne's hands and his head in the blonde's lap. Jesse froze as mild shock set in.
"Jesse," Suzanne said. "Meet Daisy and Roy."
"Hello Jesse," Daisy chirped.
"Nice to meet you, man," Roy groaned.
"Don't get up," Jesse managed to say, clearly shaken.
"Fix yourself a drink," Suzanne said. "They brought over the most magnificent Merlot."
Stupefied, Jesse had to get out of there; he didn't want to discover any other people in other rooms of the apartment.
Stumbling outside into the chilly night air, he got his bearings and trudged south. At 85th Street he began to feel nauseated. At 83rd Street he threw up. At 81st Street he was feeling faint, so he leaned against the apartment building, then slid to the sidewalk and sat.
After checking into a hotel, Jesse spent the next day in a fuzzy haze, as if he'd taken an entire bottle of tranquilizers. The final nail in the coffin of his marriage had been hammered into place.
Ironically, Jesse wanted to talk to one person only.
"Where are you?" Lorraine asked.
Eyes puffy and pink, Jesse didn't want to be seen in public, so Lorraine grabbed a taxi and came to the hotel. They stayed in the room, and the little mini-bar bottles of booze began to flow. There was no beating around any bush. "Didn't you ever teach her that when you get married you're supposed to stop fooling around with other people?"
Lorraine cackled like an exotic bird. "She always had a wild streak, but I thought she outgrew it."
"I feel like this is all a horrifying dream."
"Honey," Lorraine said. "You deserve better. I deserved better too, being left alone with a six-year-old. You hurt so much that you drown the pain in whatever you can get your hands on."
"Your husband died. That's different."
"That's the story we tell," Lorraine said, "but he just picked up and left the day I gave birth to a dead baby boy."
Stunned, Jesse was momentarily silent. "Lorraine, I'm so sorry. Why did you make up a story?"
"Easier to explain. A father who leaves a young daughter and a wife, maybe we didn't do such a good job being a daughter and a wife."
"I know that now," she explained. "In a sicko way, Suzanne might be afraid you'll abandon her, so she invited these people for your entertainment."
"I hardly think that's the reason," he said.
"Whatever it is, it's sick and sad. Sad and sick."
"I haven't been very nice to women," Jesse admitted, reflecting on his past. "You believe in karma?"
"I don't believe in anything, honey," Lorraine said, stretching her shapely legs.
"I still love her," Jesse admitted.
"Think you can turn your feelings off like a faucet?" she asked. "It evaporates gradually, like water. One day you look at the bowl and it's empty. Do yourself a favor and get an annulment."
Lorraine took Jesse in her arms. He rested his head against her ample breasts. "Hey," she softly said, "for what it's worth, I enjoyed having you in the family for five minutes."
Jesse Woodruff learned, rather quickly, that it isn't difficult to drop someone from your life. He merely avoided the places they enjoyed together. Then he moved into a new apartment down on 19th Street.
Jesse racked up more hours than he had ever before at the law firm. Social life took a distant back seat; he had no desire even though the Suzanne phase was firmly in the past. At the end of his life, it would be nothing more than a blip on the radar. Still, he felt like an amputee getting used to life without a limb.
Sitting on a bench in the village on a cloudy Sunday, Jesse decided not to despise all women. He understood that Suzanne was the aberrant one, the exception to the relationship rule. She was the one to despise. She was the one who made him act from the heart, completely ignoring the head he had spent three decades developing.
As if awakening from a trance, Jesse stood up and shook his arms vigorously, ridding himself of the last drops of Suzanne. Then he put one foot in front of the other.