“Hey!” someone behind me screams.
“Jesus Walks, God show me the way…”
I am lost in the newspaper, headphones in place and walking along the platform at the Damen Blue line stop in Wicker Park.
“Jesus Walks with me, with me, with me…”
“Hey!” they scream again, followed by a playful shove to the back.
I remove my headphones. It’s her and she’s all smiles. I’m still conflicted about whether I think she’s attractive, with her buzz cut, crazy angular features and harsh cheekbones. She could almost pass for a dude, a boy really, but for her breasts which are swelling under an ancient Smoking Popes T-shirt, those hips, just climbing above her baggy jeans, and that ass, that golden ass.
“Where’s your head at, man?” she says smiling, but intense, hungry.
She adjusts her T-shirt. Was I staring at her chest? I need to watch that, but can it really be avoided? I don’t know. I don’t even really know her. I once knew her, sort of, before I was married, though you wouldn’t call it a friendship exactly.
We worked at the same agency and she had been hired to oversee this huge grant, AIDS stuff, before protease inhibitors and before anyone could manage the disease. People died then. That’s all. I don’t even remember what kind of program she was running, what anyone ran back then, hospice and support groups mostly. It was horrible. They called her the Angel of Death. It was meant to be funny, escapist, black humor. But she couldn’t deal.
She also couldn’t deal with her husband Matt, her chronically depressed husband who rarely got out of bed and was never going to finish his Ph.D. much less anything else. Once in awhile we got a cup of coffee at The 3rd Coast.
“I was diagnosed with adult ADHD,” she said one day.
“Yeah, what does that mean?” I asked because no one talked about things like adult ADHD then, no one even diagnosed such things.
“It explains my inability to concentrate at work,” she said, “that’s what.”
“That’s good, right,” I asked warily, “now they can help you get some control over it.”
“I guess,” she said, “if I actually knew what I was doing. Hey, did I tell you about Matt?”
“He’s working on his dissertation again,” she said.
“Yeah,” she said looking out the window for a moment, “so I have to tell you about the fucked-up thing my mom said to me last night.”
So it went, every time we went out, I would try to be empathic and I would try not to picture her naked. Mostly though, I didn’t know what to do. One day I got another job.
We vowed to stay in touch, but I didn’t, couldn’t, something.
And here she was, though to be truthful, this wasn’t the first time I had seen her since then, this was the second. The first time had been at this party I was at with some friends of ours. She hadn’t even been there when I we arrived.
But he had.
We saw him across the room. I had worked with him years ago as well. He had been a case worker at a drop-in center for homeless men who were HIV positive.
“Hey,” I said to my wife pointing across the room, “I used to work with that guy back at the agency.”
“Yeah,” she said mockingly, “is this you pretending you have gay friends because you’re so progressive and cool?”
“Fuck you,” I said punching her in the shoulder.
“Save that for later,” she says, “go talk to your friend.”
“Hey,” I say as I get ready to walk away, “do you really think he’s gay?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think he was when I knew him.”
I walk towards him, but he doesn’t see me at first and I suddenly feel very self-conscious as I think back to work all those years ago. We had been doing something at the center, lugging boxes of donated clothes up the stairs, the dusty, blazing hot, never air-conditioned stairs. He peeled off his shirt when we walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water. For a moment I lost myself in the rivulets of sweat tracing a path along the muscles on his ridiculously ripped back. He turned and caught me, the late afternoon sun briefly dancing in the air around his head.
“You going to make a move or what?” he said.
I pause, attracted, panicked, confused and not interested, right?
“Dude,” he said cracking-up, “I was just fucking with you. You don’t think I’m gay do you?”
“No,” I said, “I knew you were goofing.”
I wave when he notices me weaving through the crowd and walking over to him.
“Yo,” he says smiling, but not so much, welcoming, but not terribly so.
“Hey,” I say walking up to him, “how are you doing?”
“Great, married, awesome chick, kid, the whole thing,” he says quickly, effusively.
“Cool,” I respond, “me too.”
We don’t have much to say after that and I’m not sure where to go with it or how I should get away. Maybe my wife could save me, maybe, but she’s off somewhere.
“Holy shit!” someone says next to me.
I look over. It’s her. The Angel of Death.
“Holy shit!” she says again. “What are you doing here?”
“We’re friends with the hosts,” I say, “our wives went to college together, you?”
“We belong to the same co-op.”
“Yeah,” she says, and then noting I am not by myself, “and who’s this?”
I look at him. He’s smiling, really smiling.
“You guys don’t know each other?” I ask.
“No,” both say, now staring at one another.
“That’s funny, because we all sort of worked at the agency at the same time, and yet you guys never met?”
“No,” they both say again still looking at each other.
It’s amazing how lost they seem in one another. How quickly I’ve become the third wheel. Am I jealous, and if so, of whom?
“So, are you still married to Matt,” I abruptly say to her trying to break the spell.
“Sort of,” she says.
“Sort of, what’s that?” he says.
“He’s sort of shut-in these days, it’s working for him, but I’m not sure if it’s a marriage, you know?”
“I know,” he says, “marriage can definitely feel like a prison some times.”
Didn’t he just say he was married to an awesome chick? What the fuck? At this point the conversation continues along the lines these conversations do.
Do you know so and so?
The difference though is their reaction to one another, hanging on each other’s every word, laughing too hard, her touching her hair, and him constantly leaning in towards her, trying so hard to listen to everything, occasionally touching her shoulder or her arm, looking like he wants to eat her. It’s like I’m not even there, and I’m not, not really.
A little alarm goes off on the iPhone in her purse.
“Oh fuck,” she says, “gotta blow, I need to walk the dog. See you guys around.”
He watches her leave. He stares at her ass, her still stellar ass. And then she’s gone, though not before looking back one more time at him and smiling. He leans over to me conspiratorially.
“I want to fuck her in the ass,” he says grinning like a little kid.
I suppose I am supposed to play along, but I’m too stunned to say anything. I start to retreat and once he can tell I’m not going to respond to him, he becomes more formal, less relaxed, no longer smiling and now looking to get away. Which he does, and so do I, end of story, but not quite, because here she is, coming off of the train, so awesome and so unavoidable and so whatever else she is.
“Hey,” she says, “so what did your friend say about me?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“C’mon,” she says smiling, but anxious, searching, “there was something there, right? He seemed into me, didn’t he? He must have said something.”
“What? You can tell me. Please.”
I look at her crazy cheekbones and short hair, her oddly attractive boyish looking features.
“He said he felt bad for you. That your marriage was so fucked-up. That he was wondering whether maybe you’re actually a lesbian, but don’t know it and that maybe that was the problem. It wasn’t nice. I’m sorry.”
Her shoulders sag and her face crumples as she tries not to cry. And then we just stand there and stare at each other for a moment.