Before He Opened His Mouth
by SARI BOTTON
Somehow you wind up on the topic of his wife’s vagina.
“It took Terry three months to even lubricate again after the baby was born,” he says, and you’re shocked.
But more than shocked, you’re buzzed from the two glasses of house Chablis he poured you. And so you notice that as Steve Alessi’s mouth forms the “lu” in “lubricate,” his lips round off into this cushiony, slightly lopsided ring. You want him to say that word again, or anything with an “oo” sound, so you can estimate just how much play there is in the spongy matter beneath that very soft-looking pink skin. You hope he says something “oo” soon, before the wine makes you forget to watch his lips.
“She also suffered post-partum blues,” he informs you. There you go – “blooooos.”
But he’s been talking about how he almost lost his wife during childbirth two years ago – gets this super sad look on his face every time he says “summer of ’90” – so you feel guilty for ever having flirted with him, and you question what the hell you’re doing there. You begin to wonder if you’ve misinterpreted all the looks you’ve received from Steve Alessi across the office over the past six months. You review all the looks you’ve volleyed back, and want to shoot yourself.
Then you consider where you are – a dimly lit midtown bar on a Friday evening – that there’s only a carafe of cheap wine and a small wobbly table between the two of you, and that it was Steve’s invitation.
Of course, you prompted his offer to go for a drink. You were a basket case when you hung up with your ex-boyfriend at the end of the day. Before pulling yourself together in the bathroom, you took a detour to the water fountain near Steve’s cubicle and did a little extra pouting in his line of view.
A few weeks back you wouldn’t have done that. You had gotten to know Steve Alessi better, and you thought you’d lost whatever interest you’d ever had in him – even though you never imagined anything would have happened anyway, him being, like, a real grownup, and you being just out of college. You continued to flirt with him even after you lost interest, because it was the only fun part of your job, and because for some reason it felt important – really important – to keep him liking you.
To your friends from college, Steve Alessi is known as your “flirt partner” at work. Your magazine works on a buddy system. You share your Tandy IBM clone desktop computer with a computer partner. You share the monthly task of filing photographs after they’ve run in the magazine with a photo partner. And you share looks and lines with Steve Alessi, your flirt partner. You have always believed it means absolutely nothing. All you think you’ve ever wanted from him is attention. It’s not like you actually wanted him to touch you.
Tonight at the bar you can’t help but wonder whether it’s more than attention he wants to give you, and more than attention that you want. You wonder if it’s entirely far-fetched to think he thinks something could happen tonight.
He is doing his best flirting. It’s much more effective than his usual office routine, because tonight he’s not clumsy and obvious, and because tonight there is wine numbing your brain, and because tonight you need a big boost – your ex-boyfriend blew off the date you made to talk about maybe working things out after all. You’ve been living out of an old gym bag all week, sleeping on friends’ couches, waiting for the chance to talk, and hopefully go back to your boyfriend's apartment - to go back “home.”
And so tonight you forget that at the office, Steve’s gotten to be nervous and awkward when he has the opportunity to talk to you, that he tries too hard to impress you. He knows you studied dramatic writing in college, and so he drops the names of obscure playwrights he thinks you think are cool. But you’ve never even heard of them. And he actually shakes when he comes close enough to offer you a Breath Saver. In fact once he dropped the roll as soon as your finger touched it. That was when you thought you’d lost interest for good.
“Oopsie daisy!” he said, as he bent over, reminding you of his age. Eesh.
But before he opened his mouth, Steve Alessi was perfect. You felt strangely electrified every time you caught him staring at you from the other side of the office. Sometimes when you were bored, you’d stare off on purpose, making the better side of your profile available to his gaze.
He at first seemed way too attractive and cool to be writing about the insecticide business for a trade magazine called Pest Control Monthly – which is the way you’d like to think of yourself, too. You used to like that he had a whimsical twist to his yuppie style – the too-wide vintage ties, the retro hair cut, short on the sides, long on the top, like Michael Steadman on thirtysomething. You liked that on Fridays he wore his old Levi’s that you imagined he still had from college in the 70s with a sport jacket, and you liked that he wore them with worn out hiking boots instead of Top-Siders or penny loafers like the other grown up men in the office who were too daddyish, especially when they tried to pull off that end-of-the-week relaxed, casual look. Steve Alessi seemed, when you first started writing for Pest Control Monthly, genuinely relaxed and casual. And – just – hot.
This evening he is somehow hot again. At the bar, there are no clumsy Breath Saver offerings, no absurdist or Situationist playwright name-droppings. Steve Alessi’s flirting is subtler than ever before.
In fact, you’re not even sure he’s flirting. After all, he’s talking about his wife, his marriage. He’s giving you advice on how to get your boyfriend back, how to convey to him that commitment is not such a difficult thing, even in your early twenties, take it from a guy. He blushes every time he says his wife’s name, Terry. And every time “Terry” passes through those plush lips, you hate yourself for thinking he might have ever been flirting with you. He becomes more appealing with every soft utterance.
Then, somehow you get on the topic of childbirth, and somehow that leads to the climate in Terry’s vagina, and there’s something about the way he’s telling you that makes you wonder whether this means he’s thinking at all about yours, and whether you’d even want him to be. You try hard not to think of that TV movie about a burn victim whose lips are repaired with grafts of her vaginal tissue. Trying to not think about it makes you laugh out loud.
“Are you feeling better?” he asks. “You seemed so sad earlier. Like a little girl with a broken heart.”
You tell him that this breakup is the hardest thing you’ve ever gone through, harder than your parents’ divorce when you were ten.
“Some days, getting out of bed, or even doing the smallest tasks, seems impossible,” you say, a throat-lump forming, your voice cracking, your eyes filling. “You know what I mean?” You’re afraid if you say more, you’ll cry.
Oh, fuck it.
“Like, the other morning? I found getting dressed a major challenge,” you add, one tear escaping from your left eye, “and I was just putting on this one-piece jumper thingy.”
He hands you a tissue, and tells you he knows that jumper thingy. And he likes it.
“Does my flirting help or hurt?” he asks.
You think he’s just admitted to his half of your flirting partnership. But you’re a bit drowsy from the third glass of wine he poured for you, which killed the carafe. He is studying you, smiling at you in this warm way.
“Um…I mean, it’s flattering, the flirting. You know? It’s fun.” You hear yourself giggling, but you don’t feel as if you have anything to do with that. It’s just happening; it’s something you’re hearing. The laughter stops when you see Steve Alessi’s hand reach across the table. It is aimed directly at your face, head on, and you can’t imagine where it’s going to land…until two of his knuckles gently clip your nose in that got-your-nose way your dad used to grab it.
“You’re a good kid,” he’s saying – not really what you want to hear right now, but it doesn’t matter, because he looks like he wants to be saying, “I love you.” You don’t want to like that. But you do. So you’re just sitting there, smiling this relentless smile and not moving.
You and Steve are staring at each other, dead on. If you weren’t drunk, you would be uncomfortable right now. The waiter seems uncomfortable. He drops the check and you and Steve reach for it simultaneously. His hand lands on yours and you both laugh and say, “No, I’ll get this,” at the same time, and then Steve picks up your hand and the next thing you know, he is kissing the back of it. Those lips are pressed against your skin and they’re as warm and as spongy as they seemed.
It’s not just one of those, like, courtesy kisses, either. Steve’s eyes are closed. He is not letting go. And you are not pulling your hand away. You wonder whether you should be. You know you should be. But this kiss is warm, and, well, warming. You wonder what this hand-kiss could possibly mean to Steve Alessi.
“Why don’t you let me make you dinner,” he says to you with your hand still in his. And before you can even think of dry-crotched Terry, Steve adds, “My wife stays in Sag Harbor for the summer,” which puts a look of shock on your face, even though you are trying very hard not to look that way. And so Steve places your hand gently but purposefully back on your side of the table and begins to nervously laugh and explain away. No, he didn’t mean it that way, and of course nothing would happen between the two of you, blah blah, blah blah, blah blah.
“I’ll tell you what – you can even stay over if you want,” he says. “I’ve got a two-bedroom, and so you’d have your own room. You know, then you won’t have to go all the way downtown later. It would just be better for you since you seemed so lost earlier. I don’t think you should be alone tonight…”
You want him to stop talking. You wish he weren’t trying so hard to cover up and seem so unmistakably platonic, because he’s making a fool of himself and confusing you all at once. Wasn’t he just kissing your hand with his eyes closed? Wasn’t he stunning just a minute ago? You can’t imagine how the same man can seem alternately so attractive and so repulsive from one minute to the next. You wish he would just pick one and stick with it.
In the subway on the way to his apartment, you and Steve bitch about your jobs at Pest Control Monthly and generally concur on which geeky reporters remind you of certain insects. It would be funny if you hadn’t had this exact conversation with him three times already. Even with a heavy buzz, you don’t need to think in order to feed him your lines on cue, and so you use your time between responses to wonder…Is it at all possible that you will sleep with Steve Alessi tonight? Do you even want to sleep with Steve Alessi? Will you go to work Monday knowing what Steve Alessi, your flirt partner, looks like naked?
Steve steers you into an Upper West Side liquor store a block from the Alessi residence and grabs a bottle of some special Chardonnay he likes, on which he then delivers an entire dissertation. In the elevator, though, he’s back to the business of bugs, expounding on his fascination with the mating habits of the Kalotermitidae termites.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “The king will work and work to get the queen’s attention, but in the end, it’s all about his scent. After a while, based strictly on that, she’ll either kiss him or diss him.”
You think he’s just used the word “diss” to show he can relate to people your age, and you hate that. If you weren’t right at his door, and deeply intoxicated, you’d probably find a way to escape. But here you are.
His apartment is filled with a cozy mix of garage sale antiques, functional Formica and pseudo-country natural wood Door Store furniture. In a corner of the living room sits a Pack-N-Play, littered with colorful toys. You sink into an over-stuffed, pseudo-shabby, vintage-looking sofa while Steve opens the wine bottle in the kitchen. You try sitting all the way back, with your butt in the crevice between the couch’s back and seat, but your feet don’t reach the floor, so you lean forward. You search for some object to get involved in so that when Steve comes back into the living room, you won’t look like you’ve just been sitting there, wondering what he thinks you think your being there actually means. You choose the big coffee-table book about Florence.
“GREAT city,” says a smiling Steve Alessi as he returns to you with two very full wine glasses. He has removed his sport jacket and his oxford shirt, so he’s down to a Hanes on top, old Levi’s on bottom. “Ever been to Firenze?” he asks, rolling the R, in case you forgot he was Italian.
You take a huge swallow of wine and then tell him you were there two summers ago, with your boyfriend. You mean your ex-boyfriend.
The word “ex-boyfriend” has a hard time making it out of your mouth. You’ve said it, but it feels like it’s still in your throat, and then it goes down into your stomach, which starts to ache, and then it goes back and forth. It’s like one of those vomit burps. The word “ex-boyfriend” is like one of those awful vomit burps.
“It’s his loss,” Steve Alessi says as he puts his wine down and moves a little closer to you on the shabby-chic couch. “He doesn’t know what a great girl he’s giving up.”
Now he starts to rub your back with one hand. He begins in big, consoling circles around your frame, then wide stripes up and down your spine, and then he concentrates on your neck, opening and closing his palm around it. At first you resist but then you let your shoulders down and lean your head forward. You close your eyes and Steve brings in his other hand. He lifts your shirt a little and starts making tiny circles with his thumb in the small of your back. This makes you a little nervous, and reminds you of junior high over-the-shirt/under-the-shirt distinctions.
You realize you should put your wine down. You are holding your glass with both hands between your knees, and every time Steve Alessi kneads your body forward, something gets splashed – your tights, the pastel Dhurrie rug, the Florence book.
Steve takes one hand away and you look up to see what other task he’s found for it. He is dabbing splattered wine off a full-page photo of a Botticelli in the Florence book. He looks concerned. But that doesn’t stop his other hand from massaging your neck.
“Which gallery did you like better,” he asks, “the Uffizi, or the Pitti Palace?”
You take another swallow of wine and ask him to repeat the question. It’s not that you didn’t hear it – you just want to watch his mouth maneuver the “U” in Uffizi one more time.
“Did you do both, the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi?” Yes, you tell him, while noting that that the “oo” view is even better in profile. “They’re both overwhelming,” he continues, “but I prefer the Uffizi because it’s curated more categorically.” Here we go again – he’s trying to impress you, and you wish he would just kiss you instead, before his charm wears off once more.
More wine. You’re so mellow. Almost numb. (What was that about him making you dinner?) You are staring at those lips with eyes that are way out of focus. Steve’s hand has stopped moving. It’s just holding the back of your neck, warmly.
He moves in.
You move in.
The kiss begins.
It is so soft and warm.
And it is cut off by the fucking phone.
Steve jumps up abruptly to grab the extension by the window, which throws you off balance, and so you drop your wine glass. It hits the edge of the blonde wood Door Store coffee table and shatters all over the parquet floor and Dhurrie rug. The Botticelli is soaked and so are you.
“Hi, Baby!” Steve Alessi exclaims over-enthusiastically into the receiver, and then mouths, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll get it,” to you, about the spill.
Steve is dabbing your kiss off those spongy lips with a pink paper napkin, and he’s pacing and talking fast. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you until tomorrow, but what does that matter? How’s my beauty?”
The word “beauty” sticks you in the gut. Then the throat. Then the gut. You run in search of a bathroom. You make it just in time to throw up neatly, without making a bigger mess than you already have in the Alessi household.
As you’re leaving, Steve actually begins to try and convince you that it would still be a good idea for you to stay, but he stops himself just when you need him to.
You ask him to put you in a cab. He offers you a Breath Saver. You could use one. But you decline.
Paintings by Fiona Ackerman.
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