"Moderation has been created a virtue to limit the ambition
of great men, and to console undistinguished people for
their want of fortune and their lack of merit.
La Rochefoucauld, Maxims (1665) tr, Kenneth Pratt
We worked at our love. We did it slowly, though, in stages. Sheíd find a man was eager to have her and sheíd bring him home, having alerted him to the fact that she was married and that her husband might be home. Most of the time, believing me to be too old to care, or to get involved, theyíd follow her home, escort her home, ready to give her their seed as she seemingly wished. Iíd be there, waiting, pajamaed and slippered, a drink in my hand, the "old gent" or "hale fellow, well met" in the picture. It never seemed to bother any of them, or perhaps just one, that the husband was there, didnít seem to care.
My wife would get cozy, change into something soft and seductive and easy to take off. The man would have a drink that I made for him. They would kiss and I would comment on how lovely a picture they made. It was humiliating and I did it for her because I loved her. It made me seem so ineffectual, so much a shadow on their wall.
At the point where they would begin to heat it up, Susanne would always ask me to light a few candles and I would do it. The room would take on a soft glow, a romantic look and she always thanked me, bringing me back into the picture as her pickup would be nuzzling her, biting her earlobe or lapping at her long neck. Somewhere in this process I would admire the picture, tell them how beautiful they looked together, all of this in the script that Susanne and I had concocted together. Unlike the threesomes of my past, with Tooie and other women, this had an air of artificiality about it that always stuck in my throat. There was less of love here than there was of utilitarianism.
When the man seemed securely seduced by the aspect of final pleasure with her, she would always suggest that I stop watching them, that I join them on the bed. This I always did. She would reach over to me, comment on my firmness, my hardness, my possibility. The man, suddenly aware of my presence would ask what I wanted. He always did. This never failed. I would shrug and say something like Ďmy bit of fun, too," and then the man would smirk and kiss Susanne again.
She would hold his face tight against hers and then, Iíd slip out of my pajama bottoms and do the dirty, as it were. Slowly and carefully so as not to hurt, I would enter my wifeís lover, just as he would enter her. The double sensation usually made the man jump and shudder and her reaction would be to hold hard against him. We would be three joined at the groin. Ultimately we three would make that music that is sexual and the final moments of rapture would be special.
I had to admit that each time it was over and Susanne and I were alone again, our own love-making took on a peculiar intensity and pleasure. It was nothing at all like the lackluster sex she had complained about. It was the youthful experience once more, the initial exploration of a new type of relationship that so inspires the young. It embarrassed me the most when it pleased me much.
Susanne was happy with me after these encounters and loving and sweet. She would extol the virtues of her handsome husband and for days, or even weeks, she would be pleasant about our private selves. But then the urge would come again, the need to have this triple exorcism of ghosts and demons, the demand of the loins for that new mixed grill of partners.
Had it been a year already, I wondered aloud one day. Had we been doing this thing that long already?
"You know it, Vin," she replied.
"And itís good for you?" I asked her.
"Itís better than good, Vin, itís God for me."
"Iím getting a bit long in the tooth, Susanne. I donít know how much longer I can keep doing this."
"A bit longer, Vin, Please. I need it."
"And itís not so bad for you, is it? Itís only one manís ass now and then. Itís not like youíve been converted or anything."
"No, no. Nothing like that."
"Still, you do it so well, Vin. Like you were made for it."
"Iím not. Itís not my favorite thing, you know."
"Do you still think about him when you do it?"
"Him? Max? Yes, I suppose I must."
"Suppose? Youíre not sure?"
"I never put his face on it, Susanne. I never do that. Itís just that his name comes into my head occasionally."
"When? At ecstasy?"
She was always using words like that. "Yes, just then, at that moment."
"Then youíre thinking about him, all right."
"Yes," I sighed. "I guess I am, after all."
Two nights later she decided it was time again. I kissed her for good luck and she went off to wherever sheíd go to find these men and I showered and put on the pajamas, poured myself a drink and sat down to wait. I turned on the television and watched some mindless sitcom that didnít make me laugh and then switched over to the eleven oíclock news. There was the usual trouble in middle east and the usual weather report and the usual sports scores to get through and then, there was an item that finally piqued my interest.
A face on the screen was largely familiar, a youngish man with a brutal look, but not a savage face, not the usual street crime face, but an aristocratic one instead. I wasnít sure at first and the news reader didnít give me much help. But by the time the story was done, I knew Iíd been right. It was that old school chum of Maxís, that foreign boy, Mikhael.
The anchorman had called him Michael, or rather Miguel, as though he was Spanish instead of Scandinavian. In truth, his dark hair and eyebrows, his unshaven face with its scrabbly stubble, did make him look Hispanic. He had been prone to that darkness, I remembered, even when he and Max were still friends. He had been caught in some federal sting operation over drugs, it seemed, and that too gave him a more Hispanic, street-culture drug involvement than anything more appropriate to his background. I wasnít clear about the details, probably because his face and the name hadnít made sense to me and Iíd ignored a few facts while trying to piece together my own reality here.
I switched to another channel hoping to find out more details, but it was too late. The news was ending. I switched back to the first station, only to find that the late night talk show music was blaring away. I switched off the set and wondered what I should do, if there was someone I could call. It was 11:30 already and I knew it would be too late to start a phone trail for some news. Iíd have to wait until the morning, hope that the daily papers had something about all this, or that a morning news recap would bring me the details Iíd missed.
Of course, I thought about Max almost instantly. He was still in England somewhere with that man heíd met. His letter to me, almost a year old, had given me some details about his break up with Paul Donner and about this strange Mamaís boy he had become attached to in Donnerís absence. I still wasnít quite clear about all of that either. I took a sip of my drink and wondered if, perhaps, I was getting too old to keep up with the world around me. I was missing out on the details - everywhere. I didnít even bother to get the names of the men I was screwing for my wifeís pleasure. I wasnít even doing that!
I heard the elevator door opening and heard Susanneís laughter in the hallway. I hurried back to my seat and switched the set back on so it wouldnít seem as though Iíd ben waiting for them. When Susanne opened the door and led the man in I was back in the usual nonchalant pose, acting surprised and delighted at having her home and meeting her guest.
She and I went through the ordinary charade we played for the benefit of the "guest." He had given me an odd look when we were introduced, but that had been the only thing that separated him from the other men weíd been through in the past year. Separated him, I thought. Made him different. Perhaps they had all, really, given me that look or something like it. Perhaps Iíd not been paying attention for a lot longer than I realized, was missing the details that should have stood out in my mind. I wasnít young. I could admit that to myself without much pain. I wasnít the eager lad who had fallen in love with an older woman, a prostitute, and never realized that I was with a professional. But even then, it was now certain, I hadnít been paying attention to the details, the clues. This wasnít something new, then, this missing a look, a tidbit of news. I had always been like this. It wasnít advanced age. It was simply me, who I was, how I was with others.
Thinking this, and much more to boot, I was physically playing the game that my wife and I had rehearsed and played out over and over again. We were in bed, now, all three of us and it was my moment, but just as I took my position and began my awkward thrust, the man, this latest Ďtrickí spoke to me. That hadnít happened before.
"Youíre Compton, arenít you?" said the man I was about to impale with my prick.
"I beg your pardon?" I said, swallowing the words even as I said them.
"Youíre Mr. Compton. I thought it was you."
"Whatís happening here?" Susanne asked from what sounded like a mile away.
My ears were ringing and the veins in my forehead were throbbing. This stranger knew my name. The man stretched out naked between my naked wife and the naked me knew my name.
"Who are you?" I demanded far too loudly.
"You know me," he said. "You know me."
"What is all this?" Susanne demanded. I could hear the frustration in her voice.
"I donít know him," I said.
"Yeah, you do. Sure you do." He was nodding and I was staring into his face trying to understand what was happening, who he was, how this had happened.
"Who are you?" I repeated.
He extricated himself from between Susanne and me and sat upright, his back against the wall, his knees pulled up under his chin. He stared at me, waiting for me to remember him, it seemed. Nothing came to me.
"Do you know him, Vin?" Susanne asked me. I shook my head slowly, but I wasnít sure now. I couldnít be sure. He had known me, certainly, but I couldnít name him or recall him at all.
"Who are you?" I asked a third time.
"Iím Cass. Remember? Cassius Finnerty, from St. Jasonís School."
Of course I knew him. Of course I knew him. Of course I did.
"You stole my wallet," I said, choking out the words. "You knocked me down."
He laughed. "Yeah, I did. That was me."
"You changed my life," I said, a bit louder, stronger.
"Yeah. And it looks like Iím doing it again, Mr. Compton."
"Donít say that, donít use my name."
"Itís just a name, Mr. Compton."
"Donít say it. Donít say my name."
I could feel an odd clutch in my chest. It was as though a long, hard metal rod had suddenly been inserted somewhere in my side and it was poking its way up into my lungs. I gagged, tried to breathe hard and, without another thought, I fell over onto my side, grabbed the bed sheets for support and fell to the floor.
I could hear my wife screaming and I thought I heard the man say something else, but his words were quiet, indistinct. I remembered very little else except that the candles in the room seemed to be going out, one after the other. One after the other.
Then it was dark and I wasnít hearing much of anything other than my own anguished deep breaths.