By Libby Cudmore
According to Suzanne, I was sleeping with Jeff, the new manager from our Arizona branch, during our annual office retreat. She asked David in faux concern if he thought she should contact Jeff’s wife via a series of complicated maneuvers, including cornering him at the Saturday evening cocktail hour, stroking his elbow with a French-tipped finger until he gave up his home phone number and leaving a message for his wife detailing the sex we supposedly had in my rental car.
Suzanne would know all about illicit rendezvous—after all, last Christmas she got tanked on white zinfandel at the office party and dragged Jason into the copyroom. Should the subject ever come up, I’ve got the photocopy to prove it. I keep it hidden in a drawer in case I swallow poison.
The ultimate truth was that while everyone else was learning how to be better team leader, Jeff and I were at an empty bowling alley drinking smuggled mini-bar pinot out of paper cups. His game got better as the night wore on. Mine got worse. Around ten we came giggling back to the hotel, my hair down in dizzy tangles, his tie stuffed in his pocket. It’s hard to bowl with a tie on. Everyone saw us get in the elevator together. We said goodnight without an embrace and went to our separate floors.
My first rumor was a good one. I kept to myself in high school and was only the subject of vague, minor commentary on a slow news day—“I heard Charlotte did it with one of the basketball players in the locker room showers during halftime,” though no one ever fessed up to doing the deed. After one round, something bigger and better—“Tina Beston was sleeping with the music teacher”—inevitably came along, wiping out my traces of paparazzi stardom. Being rumorless was equal to being invisible.
Now I was infamous. Now I was the subject of hushes and whispers over morning coffee. All eyes on me. Was I showing too much skin? Were my eyes tired, my eyeliner smeared? Didn’t I wear that blouse yesterday? The tension of “did they/didn’t they” among our coworkers became almost as sexually-charged as the supposed event itself. I wanted to savor the moment.
“I’m supposed to stay away from you,” Jeff joked, stirring creamer into his coffee.
“Says who?” I said, pulling the red coffee stirrer through my lips with mock suggestiveness.
“Suzanne via Jason, although David was the one that actually told me. The exact words were, “Jeff better stay away from Charlotte.””
“Ooh, I’m trouble,” I purred. “Except I heard from Heather in finance than you told Ben from accounting you wanted to, how did she put this, “Have ravenous sex with her in the shower?””
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m a pretty tall guy, and there’s barely room in that shower for me—we could have sex on the couch, though. Or on the desk.”
It was at that exact moment that Suzanne reached for the creamer. Jeff winked when their eyes met and when she was out of earshot, I said, “She’s spying on us.”
“How can you tell?”
“She only takes her coffee with sugar.” I smiled. “Watch, by the end of this weekend, I’ll be pregnant with your lovechild. Twins, probably.”
“You’ll have to give the kid up for adoption,” he said with a melodramatic sigh. “I can’t have a couple of brats showing up at my door when it’s time to pay for college.”
Todd from editing slunk by, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t keep up the act any longer and broke character with a laugh. Jeff put his hand on my shoulder and shook me playfully. “I’ll catch you at lunch?”
He grinned and winked, ducking through the doorway separating Climbing the Corporate Ladder from Your Manager and You: The Marriage of Business. I took my seat next to Suzanne and smiled. “Pass the creamer?”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to have sex with Jeff in the shower. With that image in my head, it was almost impossible to sit through my two hour seminar without fidgeting away the glassy glaze in my eyes. At least my first rumor involved someone sexy, not like Todd or worse, Jason from marketing. He had pig eyes. Jeff’s eyes were pale blue, bordering on silver in certain lights. He kept them open when he laughed. I wondered if he kept them open when he made love.
Suzanne was probably jealous. She was single, childless and stuck in a career rut in our IT department. She dressed all legs and tits like she was still twenty-three, came in on Mondays still nursing Saturday’s hangover and hit on every new guy that walked through our office doors. I almost felt sorry for her—after all, I was in the same sinking singles boat—but she was just too desperate and too nasty to warrant my sympathies.
I was finally having my moment. I’d faced down every other goon; the psycho ex, the backstabbing best friend who stole my boyfriend in college, the bimbo with the bad tattoo who always managed to get the guy I wanted. Now I was facing the Prom Queen, The
Head Cheerleader, Medusa herself. I had what she wanted and the only way she knew how to get it was to resort to a cat fight. I was ready, nails filed, hair pulled back. Bring it on.
By lunch Jeff was consulting a divorce lawyer. We sat in the back corner with my fellow copy editor David and Jeff briefly took his wife’s call, ending with a sincere, “I love you too, sweetie. See you tomorrow night.”
“So much for a divorce,” I said, taking a sip of my Coke.
He turned to David. “You heard none of that conversation,” he commanded with a grin. “If Suzanne hears that I’m still with my wife, my reputation will be ruined.”
“I don’t understand why you two are doing this,” David said.
“Have you ever had a rumor spread about you?” I asked. “I mean a real rumor, not like a generic, “David’s gay” or something like that. Something with erroneous details and quotes and sources?” He shook his head. “Me neither. Suzanne cares enough about my pathetic life that she is reading into everything I do and churning it back out like a bad gossip rag. She’s obsessed with me. No one’s ever been obsessed with me before.”
“What about me?” Jeff asked. “Does this mean you’re just using me to forward your career?”
“You know I love you, baby,” I cooed.
He reached over and squeezed my hand. My heart stopped and it took all my focus to
get it started again. Suzanne was staring at us. I winked and he released me.
I spent extra time on my hair and makeup for the office party, not just to look the part of the other woman, but because I wanted Jeff to notice me beyond the joke. It was silly, he was married, but still I needed to feel some sort of connection, anything to let me know he wasn’t just using me as a joke. The whole affair put me in high school mode. What if Suzanne was in on the whole thing and they were laughing at me, stupid me, thinking the Captain of the Football Team wanted to take me to Prom? I took out my diamond earrings and reapplied a more conservative lipstick. How could I even consider flirting with a married man, gorgeous as he was? The cocktail dress came off and on went the knee-length skirt. Lower heels, a simple pendant. I looked in the mirror and felt like I was going to church.
He waved and excused himself from the conversation by the Red Sox game on TV to meet me at the entrance of the bar. “You look lovely,” he said.
“Thank you,” I murmured, tilting my head to the floor.
“What do you want to drink?”
“A gin and tonic,” I said without thinking. The immediate choice would have been something airy, something light, something not too noticeable. I wanted to stay under the radar and downing a hefty drink was not a good way to do it. A good way to blurt that he should come back to my place, maybe, but not for keeping myself in check.
“A woman who drinks gin—I like that.” He gestured for the waiter and repeated my drink order. A few minutes later I had a drink in my hand. I hadn’t taken a sip, but I still felt dizzy.
“Cheers,” he said, tapping his pint against my tumbler. “C’mon, let’s dance. It’s been fifteen minutes since I’ve heard anything—we’re becoming yesterday’s news a day early.”
He took my free hand and led me over to the dance floor. The DJ was spinning Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and Jeff twirled me once before releasing my hand. I rocked back and forth on my hips while he grooved conservatively. If this was a prank, he was taking it to extreme limits.
Suzanne made her way through the crowd and slipped behind him, gliding her hips against his in a move that could only be described as the prison bop. He took a step towards me, putting his hands on my waist. She sidled up on my side, did two hula hoops and dumped her white zinfandel all over my blouse.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she purred.
She might has well have poured pig’s blood on me. I’ve given presentations with spinach in my teeth, I tore my blouse in homeroom once and had to go around the rest of the day wearing a lime green Surf Bum tee-shirt from the bin in the nurses’ office, but not even the time I fainted during our eighth-grade rendition of “I Will Follow Him” was as humiliating as that moment. She’d taken it too far.
My drink was still nearly full. I lifted it with the full intent to throw it in her face. All the energy in the room was still. Jeff tightened me in close to him. My wet blouse, my drenched pride, it was all worth it for that one moment, breathing in his cologne, the warmth of his hand on my hipbone. I never wanted him to let go.
I took a sip of my own drink and flagged down the waiter. “She spilled her wine,” I said. “Could you please bring her another glass?”
There was a collective silent sigh of relief. Suzanne whirled on her wedge heels and stormed off without ordering another glass. Turning back to Jeff, I said, “Thanks for the dance,” and turned to leave, letting my face get hot.
Glaring over his shoulder at Suzanne, he made sure she was watching when he took my arm. “I’ll walk you up.”
We didn’t speak until we got in the elevator. “That was just sad,” he said. “Starting a rumor is one thing, but spilling her drink all over you? You handled that a lot better than I would have.”
“I’m glad you think so,” I said, mopping off my blouse with a stack of cocktail napkins I swiped on the way out. I walked ahead of him when we got off the elevator and stopped at my door. “Look, it’s been fun, but I think I’m just going to go to bed.”
He put his hand on the doorframe. “If I go back down there without you, Suzanne will eat me alive. You’re the only hope I have of getting back to my wife.” He got down on his knees and clasped his hands together, eyes lifted and pleading. “Come on, get changed and we’ll go anywhere you want. Drinks, dinner, dancing, bowling, we’ll run circles around my Mastercard. Let’s just get out of here.”
I laughed. I couldn’t fault his logic and I wasn’t really ready for bed. I slid my room key and invited him inside my hotel room. If only Suzanne was there to see him slip inside my door.
“Where to next?” Jeff asked, swallowing the last of his wine and accepting his receipt from the waitress.
I savored the last bite of lava cake before answering. “Let’s just walk around,” I said. “I’m not really ready to go back to the hotel.”
“Me neither,” he agreed. “Let’s walk in that direction and see what we find.”
We got our coats and began back towards our hotel. The wine and chocolate cake washed away any lingering thoughts that he was using me for bitter ends, but now the problem was that I was anxious to make all those rumors true. He’s a married man, I reminded myself. You cannot seduce a married man. Nothing good will come of being the other woman.
He pointed towards a playground. “Let’s go sit there for awhile. I’ll push you on the swingset.”
I followed him across the street to an expansive wooden playground. “When I was a kid we just had a rusty swingset and a teeter-totter. Remember how dangerous those
He laughed. “Let’s just say I’m surprised my tailbone is still intact. If a guy named Rusty Thompson ever asks you to go on the teeter-totter with him, say no.” He took my hand and guided me up into an alcove lined with benches, probably where parents sat watching their children play. “How about we sit here?”
“Fine by me.”
We sat close. I studied his face in the mandrin streetlight, his enormous eyes, the silhouette of his nose, the curve of his lips. I’ve never wanted a man so badly,
this whole weekend the rumors piled up in my head until the tension was like Christmas. My defenses were down. My breath came in trembles. I hope he didn’t notice.
“I really want to kiss you,” he blurted, turning to face me.
“You’re married,” I said, hating my words. “And drunk.”
“A little drunk, sure, very married, yes, but damn, that doesn’t stop me from wanting to kiss you.” He smiled, but his eyes weren’t joking around.
I sucked in a deep breath, wishing I didn’t have to say what I was about to say. “I want to kiss you too.” I began. “But I can’t. You’re married and I’d feel terrible.”
“I know, I know.” He rolled his eyes. “And I do love my wife, very much, but hasn’t this been fun? I haven’t felt this kind of tension in years. It makes me feel like I’m in college again.” He grinned and nudged me.
He was right. Anticipation was the best part of anything fun: sex, Christmas, dessert. As badly as I wanted him, any move we made would shatter this perfect illusion
we’d created. When I looked back on this night, he could be as good or bad as I allowed him to be. I had control because I had no real event to compare him to.
“I didn’t want you to think I was messing with you,” he added. “I really do enjoy your company. This wasn’t just a joke for me, and if we’d stayed for one more drink, I probably would kiss you right now.”
His lips were tempting. What was stopping me from kissing him? I was a liberated woman, I didn’t have to wait until the third date. More than likely, he wouldn’t resist. His wedding band glittered in the streetlight. I slumped my shoulders and inched away.
“We should probably get back to the hotel,” I said, the words like glass on my tongue.
“Yeah,” he sighed, standing and offering his hand. “I should call my wife.”
I drove him to the airport the next morning, my heart fluttering and my stomach sinking. I didn’t want to say goodbye. It had been so long since anyone had made me feel as giddy and glamorous as I felt when he was beside me, and once he walked through that gate, the rumors would die down and I’d just become another dull office drone.
At the security checkpoint, he put down his briefcase and gave me a long hug. “It was really great to meet you,” he murmured. “I’ll e-mail you as soon as I get to my gate.”
I laughed a little, trying to hold back tears that seemed too sentimental for the moment. After all, I’d only known him for three days; I didn’t want to turn into that woman who assumes one date entitles her to call a man her husband. “Let me know when you’ll be in town again.”
He started to walk away and I saw Suzanne out of the corner of my eye. He must have noticed her too, because he turned around, took three wide steps towards me, grabbed my arms and mashed his mouth onto mine. He tasted like coffee and vanilla creamer and the last wisps of mint toothpaste. Might as well play along, I thought, sliding my hand down his back.
Suzanne wasn’t there when we came up for air. He grinned at me and said, “Why not, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, savoring the warmth he left on my lips. “Now go on, before she catches us having sex in a phone booth.”
He laughed and I waved a second goodbye, turning around and walking away before I could go back for another kiss. Suzanne was standing in line at the coffee shop, texting furiously. I smiled at her and said, “See you on Monday.”
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My stories and essays have appeared in The MacGuffin, The Yalobusha Review, The Chaffey Review, The Southern Women’s Review, Nefarious Muse, Sunsets and Silencers, Red Fez, Inertia, Xenith, Pulp Pusher, The Midnight Diner (where I also serve as an editor) and the anthology Relationships and Other Stuff. I am a regular contributor to Celebrities in Disgrace, Crime Factory, Hardboiled, Shaking Like a Mountain, Battered Suitcase, a Twist of Noir and Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers, where my story “Unplanned” won a Bullet award in 2009 and was nominated for the 2010 Derringer award in flash fiction. My work will also be featured in upcoming issues of Connotation Press, Needle, and the anthology We’ll Always Have Chicago.