"Whoa," he said, giving her the once-over. "Who are you all dressed up for tonight?"
"I could ask you the same question," she said, feeling her inner temperature rise without reddening her skin outwardly. "I mean, it's a special night, right?"
"Let's fucking hope so," he said, letting himself in. "I like your digs, not bad at all. I don't know what your problem is with this place." She had a habit of complaining about some aspect of their apartment -- the mess or the location or the neighbors -- whenever conversational fuel was running low.
"We don't have too many guests," she said. Monte had unloaded the laptop and switched it on, then placed the wine on the kitchen counter. "My usual problem is being alone. Were your kids okay?"
"They just want to hear the same ghost stories every night. I don't even need to be there, I just pop in a recording of me reading to them. Where's Katie Couric and Mr. Wonderful?"
"He just called me," she said. "Wanna sit down?" She remained on her feet as well, but without tilting in any particular direction, rather like a weather vane in low winds. Monte had already taken off his jacket -- it was obviously way too hot of a night for him to be wearing that, which made his effort all the sweeter -- and laid it neatly across the top of the couch before setting himself down on the cushions, still carrying the open laptop as it booted up. She hesitated for a moment before joining him on the couch.
"You ready for this?" he said without turning toward her. "How does it feel? What did he call you for?"
She decided to address the latter question. "To warn me about you. I heard you zinged him pretty good about his hair falling out."
"Which time? There were a couple of zingers."
"I don't know, something about how it's good he cut it all off because it's all falling out anyway."
"Yeah, that one was okay. He should've told you about the one where I said even the cancer patient we were operating on had more hair than him." Monte couldn't finish the sentence without breaking into a fit of the giggles.
"That's so mean! See, so he thinks this business is going to your head or something." She took the opportunity to look into him, while he was staring at the screen. His eyes normally went unnoticed behind their spectacles, but tonight with the new intensity and fire (yes, it was fire) behind them they positively popped. Deep-set, a chocolatey shade of brown, they seemed to plead and beckon to her for the first time, and she realized that she was indeed inching closer to him on the couch, as he continued to look away. Maybe he was becoming belligerent, and maybe she was starting to like that. "Is it true?" she asked.
"Yeah, the guy still had more hair than him."
"No, I mean, is it true you're being a total dick to everyone because of what we've got going together?"
He just said, "What we've got is too good to excuse any of my behavior."
She didn't understand. "Can you do something for me?" she asked. "Can you try to keep from lashing out at him when he's over here tonight? Not because I care about his feelings, but because I don't want to be put in the position of having to defend you to him?"
He turned his head to look at her for a moment, as if trying to decide if she was serious, then turned back to the laptop. "I wouldn't ask you to defend me to anybody."
She got up and walked toward the kitchen counter, too exasperated to pursue this point any further. She picked up the wine bottle he had brought over, got a corkscrew out of one of the drawers and popped it.
"Hey, don't pop the Cristal just yet," he said halfheartedly.
She held up the bottle and examined it. "This isn't Cristal, you cheap ass." She poured some into a coffee mug because it was one of the only clean cups they had. Monte had his back turned toward her, sunk into the couch, absorbed in whatever it was he was doing.
She took a gulp. "What are you doing?"
"Guess the party's starting early. I'll take one, hostess."
She made a noise that told him of her annoyance but obeyed. Bringing his mug over, she looked over his shoulder at a web page showing a bunch of numbers and percentages. He took this mug as she said "What is this shit?"
"Fantasy basketball," he said. Already she was groaning as he attempted to follow up with, "I'm logged into Skype and my guy is gonna give us a call when we're ready to go live. Til then, let me focus on something actually important."
"It's sooooo boring," she said, and she went to her own computer to fire up Pandora. She realized she had no idea what, if anything, Monte listened to. "What music do you like?" she asked him.
"The same shit everybody else likes."
She went through her playlists, "I've got Drake, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Pitbull, Taylor Swift, fun., Broadway stuff, Mumford & Sons, Disney songs, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga.... a lot of this stuff is from when I was younger. I don't really listen to most of it anymore."
"I really don't care." She felt uncertain about proceeding with this, but put on Taylor Swift anyway. When were Naomi and Eric going to get here? It was getting past 9:00 and she had already started drinking, pouring out her next round as the small computer speakers blasted a thin female voice saying the words "Trouble, trouble, trouble." Her thoughts went to Eric's words earlier about Monte having a thing for her. If he did, he sure betrayed no indication of it tonight, obsessing over his little box scores, demanding she serve him like she was some kind of barmaid, and not acting like he cared about what they were even supposed to be celebrating. Even the extra effort he had put into his appearance was striking a false note. It was probably more to impress her roommates (Eric was an honorary roommate) than her.
"You know what I think?" she said out loud without having actually thought anything at all. Her mood was turning playful, she was swaying back and forth to the pop songs, and waving her drink above her head. "You wouldn't really be needling Eric so much if you hated him, you would just be ignoring him or talking behind his back. The fact that you care enough to say these things to his face shows that you think more highly of him than you say. I think your little barbs come from a place of real affection."
"He's a douchey cunt," said Monte, still refusing to look up. "How's that for affection."
"You LIKE him," she giggled. "Anyway, that could be taken as a compliment. He's not just a cunt, he's a douchey one. Which means he's at least a little cleaner than a regular cunt." God, what was wrong with her? Was all it took a little alcohol and teenybopper music to turn her into one of those flirtatious airheads she so despised from her younger years?
"This hate-equals-love theory is bullshit," he said, without emotion. "Not everything means the opposite of what it means."
"All I'm saying is, you're going to the trouble of trying to come up with creative insults for him. Doesn't that mean you're going to some effort?"
"I do this in my sleep," he said. She just could not engage him tonight. You'd think somebody with a real crush on her would at least be taking the hint. Despite her efforts, she could not raise so much as a spark between them. It was too bad, because as a man Monte had a lot going for him. He listened to her, he was able to make her believe that he cared what happened to her, and he hadn't asked her to be anything but a smoking buddy and business partner to her. Compared to Dominic, in whose presence she felt like a live wire, his company only brought a mood of benign friendliness out of her. Of course, she had got the same charge out of James, who had managed to be both the worst and the best man she'd had. It was as of her heart was out to sabotage her head, or vice versa.
Thinking of these past and potential lovers was making her lightheaded. She thought about something James had told her after they had spent a night together, that time he said "You love like a hurricane." She remembered his bedroom that morning, clothes strewn across the floor of a prissily neat apartment, bedclothes rumpled and bunched up at the foot of the bed, exposing the blank mattress, as if even the bed itself had to be naked for this. She recalled the sweet sourness of the stifling air they breathed in afterward, the sudden silence which took over even as the discordant harmony of their final cries still reverberated off the walls, and how right it all felt.
She was going to get herself in trouble. The rhythms of the music were getting bumpier, and unconsciously she found herself gyrating right along. Under the skirt her thighs were rubbing together as she bent one knee, then the other. The wine was loosening her tongue and her hips, and she could sense that nothing good was going to come of this. She felt like a cat in need of a scratching post. She knew that Monte would probably not turn her down if she went up to him and began pushing her tongue past his teeth, but that this wouldn't be fair to him and would just lead to a lot of regret and guilt afterwards, and anyway, Naomi and Eric were expected anytime now, and they were supposed to be launching a business together, and this would only complicate things, she wasn't even into him, Jesus, he just happened to be there, she'd done plenty of making out and sleeping with boys she didn't really like and had resolved never to do so again.
So she put down her drink and said "I have to go to the bathroom."
She closed the door behind her and thought. Had it been so long since she was alone in a room with a man? Had she forgotten what this felt like, and therefore no longer knew how to conduct herself in this situation? The boy in the other room was oblivious, and when confronted with the obliviousness of a man it had been her custom to turn on the forwardness.
"Not tonight," she said quietly. "Not tonight."
She pulled down her skirt, as if she was really going to use the facilities just then. She felt herself up, and found that she was primed. God. There was only one thing to do.
The music had switched to a sparse, grinding drum track with laid-back female vocals singing something about "You can call me Queen Bee..." and gradually the music swelled and throbbed until it seemed to gain some sense of purpose. Calisto went at it furiously at first, hoping the sounds drowned her ragged breath, and finding no carrot at the end of the stick, made herself slow down, envying boys their simple onanistic methods. Just grab and go, essentially. If only she could have helped herself to Naomi's vibrator, which never got used, she was sure, unless one of them wasn't home. It was the sense of impending shame that eventually drove her over the edge. Not that she was any stranger to masturbating while somebody was in the next, or even the same, room -- she remembered getting herself off at age 11 while sitting in front of the TV with her mom, her favorite blanket bunched around her -- but of all the times, even in her wildest days, with a boy who allegedly liked her just a thin wall away, this had to have been unprecedented. She used to tell boys there was nothing she wouldn't try, and wondered now whether she had ever meant it. Certainly, for the right man, there was no debauchery too sick to lower herself to, and what if that man had been James? She came to the memory of his chin scruff chafing her collarbone, her lungs compressed beneath his weight, her heels dug into the small of his back. The Heavens parted and she felt herself borne up into them, a brief moment where the living and the dead shared communion.