Six weeks in, Eliot told Joanna he loved her. He didn’t say it the way she’d imagined a man would when he finally did. He said it with a regretful laugh, at his own foolishness, perhaps, or the absurdity of the situation he had found himself in. Joanna counted three breaths, in and out, before she responded. She had been told on more than one occasion that it was better to make a man wait.
They were on their office telephones, and soon Eliot had to hang up and head to a meeting. It was the middle of the workday. This is when and where they spoke when Eliot was away, for purposes of discretion. Whenever Joanna heard the drone of the phone hanging up, she regretted not hanging up first. Yet, every time, she stayed on the line, just in case he had one more thing to say.
When Eliot was in New York, they met at hotels. They fucked. Joanna knew the sex was exceptionally good, despite having little previous experience (a few fumbled encounters with men, each of whose eagerness was paralleled only by the speed with which he came, falling onto Joanna’s body like a dead bird from the sky). She believed that exceptionally good sex was worth something, as most rare things are. Once they were done, they ate in the hotel restaurant and drank cocktails. Joanna had learned to like the drinks Eliot ordered—smoky drinks, like a fire stoked in the mouth. She couldn’t believe she had ever preferred her cocktails sweet.
Susie, Joanna’s main office confidante, was going to California with her fiancé. She knew all about Eliot and the entanglements he was unfairly bound by in San Francisco. Joanna had chosen Susie as secret keeper because Susie had no friends around the office and received all information with a comforting lack of enthusiasm. Susie knew Eliot—everyone at the company did. He ran West Coast Operations, a glamorous job description that evoked Hollywood, palm trees, and men driving convertibles with the tops down, their sunglasses glinting luxuriously. Susie and her fiancé were, in fact, invited to Eliot’s house for dinner.
“You have to do something for me while you’re there,” Joanna said to Susie. She stared into the dull woman’s eyes, hoping to communicate what she needed without the indignity of saying it out loud.
“Sure.” Susie seemed uncomfortable with Joanna’s unblinking focus. “What do you need?”
Joanna kept her voice level. “At the dinner, I’d like you to take careful note of everything you see and experience.”
“You want me to take notes?” asked Susie. As a secretary, note-taking was perhaps, Joanna thought, her natural state.
“Not literally, Susie, no. Just mentally—with your mind.” Joanna wasn’t sure how well she was being understood.
Joanna waited with the phone late into the night, due to the three-hour time difference that acted as the greatest chaperone to her affair with Eliot. She dozed off waiting, and she was dreaming of the illicit pressure of Eliot’s hands on her body when the phone finally rang.
“Are you alone?” Joanna asked.
“No,” Susie whispered. “It’s getting very late, and I was worried I’d forget something, so I pulled the phone into the closet.”
“You’re still at the house?” Joanna was impressed.
“Yeah. It’s a big place in this ritzy area up on a hill. Everything’s brand new and modern and shining—white marble, steel, glass. They have a pool.”
“And…they have four bathrooms and four bedrooms including the guest room. The master bathroom has one of those showers with a bench inside, to sit on in case you get tired in the middle of washing yourself, I guess.”
“I meant and…what about the wife?” Joanna tried to conceal her impatience. Susie didn’t mean to be obtuse.
“Oh. She’s nice. Fair. Tall. Around his age. She broke a wine glass, and it shattered all over the floor. Her face turned pink, and somehow, it made her prettier.” Susie giggled. “The boys look more like him, which is a shame, to be honest.”
“Have you been drinking, Susie?”
“Yes, we all have. It’s a party, Jo.”
Joanna tried to keep her sigh inaudible. “It’s Joanna,” she said. “Anything else?”
“No, Joanna,” said Susie.
“No need to be petulant, Susie. I would have thought this assignment would excite you as an opportunity for adventure you don’t often receive.” Joanna waited for Susie to reply, but the line was disconnected.
“Fair and tall,” she said to no one. “Interesting.” Joanna herself was dark and tiny. She wondered if the wife wore heels.
They first met when Eliot came to New York for meetings. He was friends with Joanna’s officemate, Phillip, a dorky, smug man who didn’t even need to tell Joanna that he’d gone to Harvard.
After Phillip introduced Joanna to Eliot, whom she hadn’t taken much notice of, the two men spoke about uninteresting developments among their various mutual acquaintances. Soon, Phillip had to leave for a conference call.
Joanna assumed that Eliot had left, too, until he cleared his throat. He still lingered in the doorway. When Joanna looked up at him, he grinned.
“You’re not a secretary?” he asked.
“I do the same thing as Phillip.” Joanna aligned a stack of papers with a sharp, efficient tap.
“You don’t look old enough to have graduated college.” His voice dripped with something—not desperation, exactly, but its cousin. Later, Joanna would learn it was lust.
“Well, I did.” She absentmindedly arranged the bouquet of pens in a cup on her desk. “Smith College. Top of my class.”
It was true that Joanna was younger than everyone else in the office, which was an advantage. She had no family responsibilities, no existential angst. She just showed up and did her work well.
Joanna wasn’t near Eliot’s hotel on purpose the night after they first met. She’d been escorted to a bar on the same block as the hotel by a man from the Accounting department who had turned out to be irredeemably enthusiastic about the dullest things. She escaped while he was in the restroom, bursting out into the street with the hunted air of a refugee. As she buttoned and belted her coat, someone took her by the elbow and pulled her along the sidewalk. Instinctively, she followed for a few steps, used to trusting such acts of authority, but when she came back to herself, she stopped and pulled her arm away. The man was ahead of her, and when he turned, she saw that it was Eliot. She held her elbow out to be taken once more. Sometimes, remembering this moment, Joanna felt as though she were stranded at sea her whole life until Eliot, in that moment, had scooped her out of the water.
Three weeks after Eliot told Joanna he loved her, he called her at home in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. This was a rare occurrence, and she met it breathlessly.
“Eliot,” she said.
“Joanna,” he replied, in an entirely different tone of voice.
He told her she needed to come to the hotel immediately. She obliged. She came, though not immediately. She needed to prepare her body for intimacy, which takes time. She ignored his frantic tone, knowing he would rather wait if it meant she would be perfect.
When she arrived at the hotel, the concierge waved her in. She took the elevator up, the usual nerves building. She stared into her own eyes in the mirrored wall—a patch was black, smudged or chipped, just where one iris should have been. She looked damaged. But she wasn’t, she was sexy. She blew herself a kiss and smiled.
Eliot seemed to be standing just behind the door, waiting for her to knock. He opened it immediately, with his shirt half unbuttoned, and his tie draped over his shoulders.
“Thank God,” he said, pulling her into the room.
Two little boys with red hair were perched on the foot of the bed, watching the television. Their eyes flickered towards her when she entered, but immediately returned to the screen. Their mouths hung open, slack. Susie was right, they did look like Eliot.
“There’s an emergency at work, and Helen sent the boys with me this trip.” Eliot was hopping on one foot, trying to get into a shoe. Joanna hated when Eliot used his wife’s name, as though she were an acquaintance they shared. “You can watch them for a few hours, right?”
Joanna stood near the door, still in her coat, and beneath it, her body still carefully prepared.
Eliot hopped over and grabbed her shoulder. “Please, Joanna?”
She nodded and took a few more steps into the room. She had never seen a man so lacking in composure. She watched him prance about, gathering his scattered wardrobe. He licked his fingers and combed them through his hair, threw on a jacket, and kissed Joanna on the forehead. She glanced at the boys. They continued to stare at the TV.
“Thank you, dear,” he said.
His tie still swung, untied. Was an untied tie still a tie, or did it only become a tie when it had fulfilled its intended purpose? She meant to remind him to fix it in the elevator, but he was gone before she could.
Joanna wasn’t a big fan of children and vice versa. She watched the boys warily from a chair in the corner. Their posture remained unchanged by their father’s departure. Who did they think she was? She wasn’t certain they were thinking about her at all.
Their faces were loose, their attention elsewhere absorbed. She couldn’t stop seeing their father in their features, their sloping backs, their ungainly hands and feet. She wasn’t stupid; she knew that Eliot had called her over because he was in a bind and felt he had nowhere else to turn. Still, it felt like an audition. His sons knew her name.
“Well, boys!” she said cheerily. She stood and clapped her hands. “What would you like to do this evening?”
They looked at her, back at the TV. “Just be quiet,” one of them said.
“Well, all right then.” She sat back down. You should heed me, she thought. Someday I might be your mother. Though she knew it was true, she didn’t have the heart to say it.
Joanna woke some time later. Her head had lolled in her sleep, and drool darkened her right shoulder. The boys were staring at her, as though she’d done something unseemly.
“We want dinner,” one boy said. When he spoke, both boys’ noses wrinkled with disdain.
Joanna sat up, straightening herself. “What would you like?”
“He wants a burger and fries, and I want a grilled cheese with tomato.”
“Should we go out for it?” Joanna was still waking up.
“Just order room service.”
Joanna was having difficulty keeping track of which boy was speaking. “Let me check the menu to make sure they have what you want.” She stood, swaying a little on her feet, scanning the room for the hotel guide.
“They have it. It’s what we always order when we come here with Daddy.”
When the food came, the boys set upon it, wild animals. Their small, ragged child-teeth tore at it like a fresh kill. Joanna hadn’t ordered anything out of grogginess and a misplaced sense of decorum. She regretted this now.
“You said you come here with your dad a lot?” she asked. She was still gathering her thoughts, as though she had spilled them all over the floor, scattering them like marbles.
One boy turned to her. “Yeah, all the time.” The wad of food churned in his wet mouth.
“You don’t look like you have any parents at all,” said the other boy matter-of-factly. He licked a wide daub of ketchup from the side of his hand.
It was true, Joanna had never had any parents, and this was something many people had guessed over the years. She wondered often what about her gave this impression, but she was always too afraid of the answer to ask. Instead, she asked when the boys were last in the city.
“I dunno, a month ago?” The boy slurped a Coke.
She asked how long they’d been here now.
“Five days or so. Why?” The boys, having dispatched their food, turned back to the TV, so Joanna didn’t need to answer.
A few weeks later, Eliot told his wife everything, and she threatened to move away with the children if he and Joanna didn’t stop seeing one another. He called to tell Joanna they couldn’t speak on the phone anymore. He seemed so surprised by the imminent dissolution of his family that Joanna didn’t have the stomach to remind him that this was all very natural. Heart, stomach, she thought. One by one, her organs deserted her.
“Hearing your voice is just too hard, my darling.”
“Eliot,” she sighed. “Don’t call anymore. It’s fine.”
Joanna had her own problems with Eliot, namely, the fact that he’d been in New York a number of times without calling to tell her, apparently only bothering when her company was convenient to him—for sex, and then, on the final night, childcare.
When Eliot had returned that evening, he had thanked her profusely, and then had actually dared to press a warm clump of twenties into her palm. She let them drop to the floor and left. She hadn’t seen him once in the days since, but she had spoken to him on the phone several times each day, discussing Eliot’s family, his wife, and his many mistakes, though he certainly didn’t refer to them as such. His disintegration had rendered him completely undesirable. She pictured his insides as cooked white fish: soft, over abundant, and flavorless.
She thought of all the sex they’d had, how she had assumed the transfer of desire from wife to mistress was all that was necessary to make a new marriage. He wanted her, therefore he needed her. Now she listened to him blubber about losing his house, his car, his children, and in that order. These were what made a marriage, she realized. How boring it all was; how tedious the true needs of men.
Even after all that, Eliot hung up first. Joanna stayed on the line, listening to the drone of the dial tone. On the line, she thought. There she dangled, a fish herself, hooked without a struggle, only to be released. She wished she’d just been eaten.