Gregory found Match.com, then Cheryl. He got drunk one night on a sweaty, old bottle of Galliano his mother used to drink mixed with Sprite. His yellow, sticky fingers coated the computer keys as he filled in his application of bullshit and snapped a tough looking black and white grimace of a photo to go with it. When Cheryl’s cherub-like face shot up on the screen, Gregory thought of desolate landscapes. Her fear-ridden eyes and half-smile reeked of dejected empty space. He called her up that night and they talked for over an hour. She actually laughed at his jokes. She had a breathy voice that he fell in love with. They had a mutual reverence for The Flintstones and Nutella for breakfast. It was amazing how much they had to talk about. They met at a Sport’s bar the next night. Cheryl was rounded and spongy like a comfortable couch and they drank and laughed all night. She invited Gregory home and they had fumbling, what-the-hell-are-we-doing kind of sex, but that was enough to hook Gregory.
He became addicted to Match.com. After a week with Cheryl, he met Debbie. She hated sports, loved movies, and sex with her was like a turbulent capsizing. Gregory never came back to his apartment with all his clothes on. Then he found Calista. She spoke Spanish, had two, coiffed poodles, liked Reality TV, shopping at the mall and had a fondness for blowjobs. Myla came a few months later. She loved to swear, suck down beer out of the can and fight. She worked the break-up/make-up motif with gusto. Gregory got slapped around quite a bit and enjoyed it.
The one thing Gregory refused to do was give up any of his girls. He now had a four- woman posse and not one of them knew about the other. Part of the Match.com enchantment was in the lying and juggling act. Gregory followed certain rules that kept the balls in motion. He never answered his cell phone when out with any of the girls. They never stayed over at his apartment; he relayed that he had a roommate who was agoraphobic and hostile especially toward women. They all thought he worked two jobs, when he barely had one. He was given a cut of the money from the sale of his mother’s house after she died which enabled him to buy his condo. He babysat for his sister’s kids twice a week and stole money out of his sister’s stash he’d found in a canister in her kitchen. Until that hellish day of all days arrived. The one day of the year when so much was expected and just one Gregory to go around. Fucking Valentine’s Day!
That night he had dreamt of his mother. It was a dream that he’d have carried to his therapist like a raw, precious egg if he’d had a therapist, and the dream made him wish he had one. In the dream, he sat in the kitchen of his mother’s house at the table in his usual place. He could hear her handling pots and pans, her occasional sigh. Sitting there filled his heart with a sadness and also with a long missed feeling of comfort; until he realized that the chair and the table were much too small for him: it was a child’s chair and he could barely fit his long legs under the table. He was worried that his mother might scold him for being so large and for not wearing pants. Gregory felt his manhood press against his belly while he was crouching uncomfortably, not daring to move.
Then he noticed there were four more chairs at the table. Grownup chairs. His four girlfriends sat in them looking down at him. Each of them wore a large gingerbread heart around her neck. He wondered if they knew that he was naked or if they cared that he had a kid-sized chair. “Hello there, pretty ones,” he said wanting to sound casual, wishing to buy himself some time to think. But his talking sounded as if he were barking. And, worst of all he began to drool like a Doberman. The saliva was flowing from the corners of his mouth onto his thighs and from there down to his balls where it gathered making him feel as if he sat in his own feces. He looked up at the women’s faces but they all looked like his mother, who he could still hear behind him, which was confusing. He wished he could get up and out of this chair, but then he’d stand with his tackle hanging out in the middle of his mother’s kitchen in front of the four women. He was freed from any further thoughts by a scream that quickly turned into the ringing of his alarm clock as he awoke wet from sweat. He first put his hand down his belly to check if he was dry down there. As a boy, he had wet his bed. Something else he wasn’t going to tell any women in this life, like ever.
He turned on his side and closed his eyes again. Valentine’s day was here and he had avoided making any arrangements with any of the four nemeses. He was not looking forward to this day and he was, not for the first time, wondering if there was a way to go back into a dream, stay there for a while and come out the next day. The phone rang and Gregory decided to pick it up. “Hello,” he said, suddenly remembering the tone he’d had in the dream and resenting it instantly. “Hello, darling,” Cheryl said. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Now he could put his finger on that elusive nagging thought that had plagued him for weeks. Cheryl exhaled tentatively, just like his mother, before asking a question that she usually knew was going to be answered with resistance. “I was wondering if you would like to do something,” inhaling while asking, “today?” Just like his mother when she used to ask him if he thought it would be alright if he “could just please pick up your toy Matchbox cars because you know they really just don’t feel good when you step on them and if I fall again the doctor said I could be in bed again for a week with my bone spurs?”
Gregory adopted the persona he had created for Cheryl. “Why sure, sweets.” He enjoyed constantly referring to her as some kind of sugar laced candy or pastry. “What would you like to do, muffin?” She giggled, and began describing her inability to sleep last night. Insomnia that was precipitated by her tail spinning emotions and general sense that “things” were not proceeding the way she knew they could and “can I just come over to your place and talk this through?” Gregory stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, squinting. “No, I’m just walking out the door. I’d be happy to meet you somewhere by your place. Baard’s, say twenty minutes?” Of course, she would pay.
Cheryl was unaware that the Danish pastry shop was also in Gregory’s neighborhood. This fact allowed Gregory to arrive early, choose the low couch against the red painted brick wall with the stone topped coffee table adorned with eclectic books on windmills and barns. He used the extra time to check his cell messages. Debbie was in a frenzy, frantic to pry information out of him like she pried open buttons. Calista smacked her smegma lips, accenting vowels in exotic tones. Myla was cussing at him about something he hadn’t done, as usual, when Cheryl arrived. She pretended business was booming and walked right past him to a table across the room, when Gregory was practically the only one in there. Gregory waved to get her attention and mimed for her to order two of whatever she was getting. He chose a new hand sign to imply he thought of her as his little crusty torte. He grabbed his cell on the slate table top and hit the can for a quick piss. He could feel Cheryl’s eyes on him.
He remembered that the toilet stall at the end had a high window. Not large, but large enough if a man was feeling desperate. He stood on the bowl and lifted it. It slid easily and he squeezed out landing firmly on his feet in the alley. That felt good. Some cats were slinking about on a line of garbage cans. He stood watching them. They got their food-garbage then found a cubbyhole to sleep for the night. Not a bad life. Sure, sure, he started this whole gig himself. But now it was turning pesky. The women (A, B, C, D as he started to regard them) were annoying; the way his mother used to be. This sudden need for escape came up like an unexpected storm. He brushed his hands together saying, “Well that’s done.”
A block south of the pastry shop he took a bus to the harbor. His cell phone kept belting out his Led Zeppelin ring tone. He knew it was one or all of them trying to get in his pants and his business. Well, fuck them! He turned his phone off and slammed it against the bus window. People started to look nervously at him, so he stuck it in his jeans. It was blustery once he got off the bus. There was a metallic clanging against the masts of the boats like a death knell. There were some big yachts docked with exotic names like Madagascar. A woman stood out on Madagascar’s deck. Gregory watched her for a while. She had on a white sweatshirt and white cropped pants and a pink scarf around her hair. Big silver loops swung from her ears. Classy, he thought. She was fooling with some ropes. He called out saying, “Hey give you a hand with that rope?” The woman frowned a bit and then smiled slowly looking up at him saying, “You mean this line?” OK, line, he thought, so break my balls. He leapt onto the deck.
After a while they went below and had a few beers in a leather lounge area. Some guy she called Claude served them in bottles off a silver tray. Gregory wanted to know if Claude was her servant and she said, “sometimes,” rolling her eyes. He didn’t know what that meant and didn’t care. The boat, the lounge and the woman were far beyond his expectations for the evening. A, B, C and D were now dead and buried. He could always change his cell number and none of them knew his address. He’d been smart enough to keep that under wraps. After some hot hors d’oeuvres (served by Claude off the silver tray) the woman led him down a hall to the master suite. Larger than any bedroom he’d ever seen on land, with a round bed and a red bedcover. “Tonight is Valentines Day,” he told her. She pulled off her sweat shirt as Claude came in and pulled down her pants. Gregory didn’t care if he ever found out her name. Then the two of them pushed Gregory onto the round bed. He could feel them on him like water. He could feel the boat moving. He shut his eyes and let them take him away to Madagascar.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are:
Marcus Speh, who lives in Berlin, Germany, blogs at Nothing To Flawnt, curates the One Thousand Shipwrecked Penguins project, serves as maitre d’ of the kaffe in katmandu and generally never runs out of literary projects. His last publications were in > kill author 11 and inmad hatters’ review 12.
Susan Tepper, author of the novel “What May Have Been” (with Gary Percesepe) just published by Cervena Barva Press. Additional books include “Deer & Other Stories” (Wilderness House Press 2009) and the poetry chapbook “Blue Edge.” She writes MONDAY CHAT on the Fictionaut blog and Madame Tishka Advises on Love & Furniture here at UFR.
Matt Rafferty, who lives in Aurora, Mo., a quiet country town of 7,000 cowboy booted and fumanchu dip lipped country boys; on the northern edge of the Ozark Mountains. He enjoys kayaking flood-staged rivers and backpacking the Buffalo River Trails; he plays the guitar and wears fish scales for festive wear and conversation starters. He spent seven years working the west coast as a commercial fisherman on nearly thirty different boats; from Bristol Bay to Kodiak Island, through Prince William Sound and down the inside passage to crab fish the Colombia River. He is diligently working to complete his first novel, a tale of a young crab fisherman coming to terms with death on the high seas.
Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 magazines, journals and presses including 34th Parallel, One, the Journal, Hawaii Review and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Her fiction collection “Domestic Apparition” is forthcoming in March 2011 through San Francisco Bay Press.