Weight Room Title Bar

(c) 1995 by John Cooke

Steve had moved safely through the routine of his work day and entered the evening hours without incident. Returning home to his apartment building, he walked along sidewalk savoring the brisk air of late fall. The lobby of his building was comfortably warm with muted lighting. The mirrors and marble were soothing. He nodded at the doorman with the appropriate mixture of geniality and distance. Reaching into the deep pocket of his coat, Steve withdrew his mail key and pulled out the letters, magazine, and flyers from the box.

One letter protruded from the bound bundle. Barely half of the handwritten address was visible, and there was no return address. Yet even without focusing on the envelope, he knew the sender's identity. The words were strung together like baroque boxcars with gaps within each word that followed an arcane algorithm he had never decoded, like so may other things about Alyson. How long had it been since he has seen her handwriting? At least a decade, but the passage of time did not matter. The day was no longer safe. He closed the mailbox slowly, acutely aware of the sounds of the others moving across the carpet. He raised his head with a cautious scanning movement and walked towards the elevator with the mail under his arm.

Alyson was well-know in their small town long before she arrived at his high school during the sophomore year. The daughter of a rich horse breeder and a former debutante, she was devastatingly lovely. There were, of course, other beautiful girls. But Alyson's character was flavored with a mix of intelligence, histrionics, and sensuality, and the effect was universally intoxicating. So, it was no surprise that she was always surrounded by men staring at her as the ancients must have stared at the first fire. Under her influence, boys--and men--made desperate gestures and reckless decisions to be near her, or away from her, that would haunt them for life

Steve told himself at first that Alyson did not have the predicted effect on him. He had seen her in a dazzling white tennis dress at the country club, pirouetting through a game of singles in a way that seemed to show her undergarments more than necessary. Her statuesque mother sat in a ornate wrought-iron chair on the sidelines, cradling in one hand a frosty and powerful cocktail and in the other a long cigarette with a languid trail of smoke. The spectators attempted to veil their voyeurism with somber comments about the progress of the set, but their attention was too intent for what was in truth no more than a competent game on the courts of a sun-baked country club in a modest Southern hamlet.

He kept his distance from her at school, watching the other boys clamoring for her attention. Yet at the fall dance, he somehow found himself in front of her. With a toss of her hair, she indicated that he should dance with her. He moved as commanded, not without resentment, and for the first time he noticed a vulnerability in her. Her eyes were wide and smiling, but in the corner was an allusion of something close to terror.

When the song came to a stumbling close, he leaned towards her and whispered, "That was nice, but you don't have to be beautiful for everyone." He had meant it in anger, but she looked at him with relief and squeezed his hand. She gushed into his ear, with a voice that was huskier than he had expected, "Thank God someone knows what kind of hell this is." Her breath made him shiver. She kissed him on the cheek. Her lips were moist and glistening, and her hair cascaded around his head. Then she was gone.

After that, they were friends. They confessed, schemed, and gossiped. She had many anxious suitors, but for reasons that he never understood, she would ask him out on dates. Then, by some unseen signal, they were kissing. Their mutual virginity was something they cursed together, and, in the back seat of his car over the Thanksgiving holiday, they became lovers. It was a fleeting and terrifying coupling. Afterwards, she hide on the floor of his Volkswagen with a blanket over her head, sobbing that he had to get a douche to make sure she was not pregnant. He found an all-night drugstore on the edge of town and bought a dusty box from an old man with a stoop and extravagant gray nose hairs. "It don't work after, now, y'hear," the old man said as Steve went out the door.

The elevator opened and Steve went inside. He pushed the button for his floor with precision. He approached the rear of the car and then faced forward. A man and two chattering women also entered the car. The doors closed smoothly, shutting out the noises of the lobby. Now the voices of the women seemed even louder as they careened off the walls of the car. Steve leaned back and looked up, his jaw clenching and relaxing with the rhythm of his thoughts.

The bond Steve had hoped to establish on that confusing night did not develop. In fact, they never had sex again during high school. They necked awkwardly a few times after that, but Alyson's ardor waned with each encounter, and she soon took other lovers who were close friends of his. She treated him as if he were a priapistic troll who had ravaged her and thus doomed her to a wanton life. His name circulated in harsh whispers among her friends, and he was shunned by the other girls. Alyson would write long notes to him in class relating her sex life in painful detail. Steve stared at the baroque handwriting with a sense of helpless loathing. Yet, he read them, as if this were the punishment he merited for some unwritten transgression.

After making two stops, the elevator opened at Steve's floor. He walked out with deliberate steps. The hallway was quiet and the carpeting muffled the sound of his shoes. He went into his apartment and turned on the lights. Without removing his coat, he sat in a chair by the window and held the letter in his hands. He ran his fingers across the handwritten address, hoping for guidance.

High school ended. Much to the dismay of Steve and his classmates, life moved on, and they passed unceremoniously into their twenties and thirties. Alyson went to an Ivy League school and continued to devastate the men around her. But neither Steve nor his classmates became the celebrated artists or flamboyant suicides they claimed as their destiny. Instead, they settled into the agony of anonymity and marked out the passage of their lives with tiny desperate gestures. There were marriages, children, and divorces. A few died without glory in the occasional auto accident. One classmate Steve barely knew died of an overdose, but his timing was poor and he was only pitied as a careless user.

News of Alyson reached Steve from time to time as he went through college and professional school. She graduated from college and moved to New York to live in a condominium her parents had purchased for her. She tried her hand at acting. Then, she became to personal assistant to a well-known eccentric who published a literary review. This allowed her to move in the elite circles of Manhattan, where she made her mark briefly as a charming dinner diversion. There was even a cryptic paragraph in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town referring to her lavish thirtieth birthday party. Her reign of glory came to an end, however, when she imbibed too much champagne at a formal affair and retched copiously into the lap of a prominent German diplomat. From there she went to law school, where she met and married a rich boy. She never practiced law, but settled down to have a son, whom she named Beau, which Steve always considered a vulgar antebellum synonym for Adonis.

Steve's life was marked by similar failures and indiscretions, but they remained only office gossip. His marriage ended after five years, and there were no children. He got a business degree from a respectable Eastern school. The last time he and Alyson were together came when he went to New York for a job interview. Alyson met him in the lobby of his hotel, and they had a sumptuous meal on his expense account. They drank desperately in an attempt to capture some approximation of intimacy. As mysteriously as that Thanksgiving night, she went back to his room, and they went to bed together after mechanically removing each other's clothes. Steve was shocked by her boyish figure. In high school, he had always thought of her hips as the epitome of fecundity. They stumbled through sex and fell asleep with what seemed like a cavernous distance between them. She was gone when he awoke. He later learned that the week before their meeting she had discovered that her husband was having an affair.

No illumination came from touching the envelope. He flirted briefly with the delicious idea of throwing out the letter unread. Maybe he would even burn it. But, he knew that they had entered into this pathological pas de deux long ago and that it was now his turn to follow her lead.

"Dearest Steve,

"Can you believe that I am on the alumni funding raising committee? Well, they tell me that you have never given any money to the school. I told them I thought you would certainly give something if I wrote you. Please don't let me down. Even $20 would be enough. Alyson."

The chair tilted for a moment and Steve put an arm out to steady himself. The thoughts formed in his head of a long venomous letter in reply detailing her sadism over the years, but when he realized what that implied about his own behavior, the idea collapsed into a vague wave of disgust. He paused for a moment and looked out over the city.

"Here is a check for twenty dollars," he wrote to her. "Give my regards to the appropriate parties. Steve." That was as much anger as he would let her see. Character, he thought as he sealed the envelope, is a burden he and Alyson would have to bear for life. Perhaps he would never be prepared for the unmoored vertigo he would feel if he broke off their dance. He placed his right foot forward and held his hands expectantly in the air. A nervous smile of dreaded expectation broke across his face, but at least he knew what would follow. A distant and halting waltz echoed through his apartment.