Lamb Stewed

Lamb was bleeding, but he had decided to do something about it. There was no point in simply going to the Associated, coming home, cooking and drinking, without talking to another soul for days on end.  He was in between relationships, but the relationships were increasingly becoming few and far between. Trips to see old friends often became dead ends. He’d gone to a reunion of his old crazies on Martha’s  Vineyard during the second week of September, carefully planned to avoid the tourist season, not expecting to find sixty-year-old men chasing after the local waitresses with bags of marijuana—as they’d done forty years before, only this time backing it up with wads of money. He’d made a joke about Chappaquiddick which had fallen flat and had gone off to spend the day in the library in Chilmark while the rest had spent the afternoon getting high on the nude beach. Lamb liked to drink alone, but he’d never enjoyed drinking in social situations, where the loss of inhibition led to a competition in which he generally found himself coming out the loser. He’d been married for many years and had children, but his wife had moved back up to Maine to take care of her aging parents and she’d never returned. They’d had an amicable separation followed by a divorce in which they’d both profited handsomely from the sale of their apartment on lower Fifth Avenue.  The apartment, a one-time rent-controlled unit in a building that had gone co-op, had been purchased at the insider’s price and had appreciated considerably. The whole event was like successful surgery to separate a pair of Siamese twins. Lamb was now well-to-do enough that he didn’t need anyone and didn’t have to put up with the eccentricities of others, but he was also hauntingly alone. If he continued to drink by himself in his lonely apartment on 106th Street, someone might one day discover him drowned in his own vomit. He’d read a story like that in the Post.

He still worked out. Even when he was hung over from the night before, he still managed to go to the gym, and when it was warm enough he jogged on Riverside Drive. He liked to spin. The class was hard, but there was a young instructor named Lily. When he said “Hi Lily” he was reminded of the song from the old movie—“The song of love is a sad song, hi Lily hi Lily hi lo.” She had pigtails and a powerful body. She had once missed class because she was running a marathon in Florida. Most of the instructors talked inspirationally, but the same clichés about pushing harder, about being there to work, about climbing the hill and testing the limits, which he usually discountenanced the way he would an ad on T.V., became real to him when they came out of her mouth. She addressed the whole class through a head set, but when she was talking he began to feel that she knew him and was responding to something in him. She recognized him, and sometimes as he was peddling she would call out his name to urge him on. He felt flattered and special when she did this, though there were others in the class who she also addressed and somewhere inside of him he knew that she was calling out the names to show she knew them rather than because she liked him or someone else better or thought they had more talent and potential than the others. Still he couldn’t help hoping, and he was always particularly excited when he came to class, as if there was something he was going to find out or something new was about to happen. He felt a little like he did back in high school when he was still filled with pre-adolescent romantic sexuality and had not yet experienced the confidence of the male who had conquests. His relationship with Lily was vague and undefined and she literally sat on a pedestal, from which she conducted the class. When he and other students came up, she was always totally accommodating and nice, but Lamb felt like a petitioner in some royal court.

“That’s it Charles, great job.” As she’d come by his stationary bike, she would touch his hand, which was gripping tightly around the bars. He felt blessed and pleased with himself. He was the perennial student now, back in class and receiving praise from a teacher who was somewhere between one-third and one-half his age. She’d said in fact that she was a twenty-something and into Buddhism, and he thought he’d heard her mention lesbianism, but he wasn’t sure and didn’t want to believe his ears. She exuded a mixture of self-assurance and authenticity, which made her different from the other instructors at the gym, who were like gunnery sergeants belting out the usual preformed clichés. It was diarizing and personalizing that made her different from the others. No teacher at the gym had ever given him this kind of attention, and Charles began to have the feeling that maybe he was the possessor of some undiscovered talent, or that perhaps her class was unleashing something in him. Maybe she just liked attention. Some people got it by giving it.

Charles had had this thought as he cracked open a can of beer the night before Lily’s nine o’clock class. However, not even the sores on the inside of his mouth or the throbbing above his eye dulled the excitement he felt as he’d trudged over to the gym, and when the class was over he experienced a momentary feeling that there was something to look forward to beyond simply going home alone, cooking meat loaf in his toaster oven and placing a six-pack of beer in the freezer so he could drink it sooner. Maybe he’d underestimated himself. Lily was part of the vast Human Potential movement and perhaps she saw something in him that he himself was not aware of, something that transcended the confines of age and the ways that so-called success can be defined. Lily had said during one of the classes, “You’re not your work.” Was she talking to him? He’d wanted to become well known in a field, but instead had ended up being an overeducated person who drifted from one uninspiring job to the next. The apartment had been his one piece of good fortune, since the sale of it had conferred on him the means to give up trying to pursue the elusive quality of success in jobs where he did little more than push paper around. He hadn’t taken advantage of his freedom and showed no particular inclinations beyond a vague desire to do something creative like write a novel or go take courses in jazz appreciation at the New School, but there were moments, like when he got a quick buzz off his first beer of the evening or when the endorphins shot into him during class, that he began to feel that there was a wide world of possibilities open to him. He had never exhibited one iota of entrepreneurial spirit, and yet at those times he started to think he might dream up an invention, something that would not only make him rich, but also confer on him the desirability and respectability he’d always thought he deserved. Then his dreams about Lily wouldn’t be so far flung.

“What are you thinking?” she said. When he about faced, she kissed him. “You’re so cute. I can’t help myself. You’re really a dreamer aren’t you?” As they walked out of class together, it all felt effortless. He was reminded of the power he’d felt as a young man, discovering that the woman who he would eventually marry saw something in him. They had started to walk aimlessly, eventually stopping in a tea-shop where, in a pause in their conversation, she allowed him to kiss her back. Wake up, he’d thought in disbelief. The only reality his fantasies usually had was his recurrent fear he would one day run someone over while dreaming at the wheel. He had replayed the same nightmare over many times in his head, always relieved to find out it was yet another fantasy. But this was something good that he didn’t want to wake up from, and yet as if to anticipate his own disappointment, he slapped himself. She looked nonplussed and then started to laugh, as if she got it, as if she understood and even liked him better. She seemed to find his insecurity and innocent infatuation charming in a way that he would never have predicted. Hadn’t she been telling him and the others to set their sights higher? Maybe it wasn’t too much to think she could like him, maybe the problem was his self-conception, his lack of self-esteem. Maybe he was having another piece of life changing luck, like the apartment sale, only better.

It was late March and the morning had started off warmly with an intimation of spring, but now, with midday approaching, the sky had darkened. A cold front was obviously beginning to push through the area, bringing with it gusty winds and the beginnings of showers. As they left the tea shop and found themselves back out on the street, Lily commented about the walking itself, about biofeedback, about energy and about leading what she called “the disciplined existence.” She talked about her Buddhism and how she modeled her workouts on meditation. It was a practice. You didn’t meditate when you wanted to, you did it at a set time each day. The same was true of working out, she explained.  He’d heard all this when he was a college student in the 60’s, but now he felt willing to learn the mantra, in a way he’d never had back then.

“Volition has nothing to do with it. Desire isn’t the point. Very few things are accomplished because they are desired.” She stopped in midsentence as they came to a building with 19 painted in gold lettering on the glass above the doorway. “Do you want to come up and see my private studio?” There was a quizzical look in her eyes that was almost challenging, and Lamb felt like his goose was about to be cooked. He was in love, but he’d never thought Lily would become a reality, any more than he’d actually considered the kind of lovemaking that would occur with an athletic woman who was thirty to forty years younger. He had never felt comfortable with his body or confident as a lover, while Lily was plainly someone who was comfortable with her body, perhaps even more so than with her mind. While Charles thought too much, commiserating over every decision, Lily plainly placed greater importance on action. She’d even said it once in class: “You can act yourself into good thinking, but you can’t think yourself into good action.”

As they moved through the hallway off of which were a succession of rooms to Lily’s living space, he noticed another woman in a blue work shirt bent over a drafting board with a dramatic red architect’s light.

“Hi Sherry.”

“Hi Lil.”

“Is that your roommate?” Lamb asked.

“She’s just been promoted to partner.” Lily had a twinkle in her eye. If Lily was a lesbian, was Lamb being demoted? His mind raced to this conclusion. He wasn’t a real man, more a helpless child whose wet kisses were like those of a dog or infant. Maybe she would let him lick her.

“Do you want to take a shower with me?” she said, starting to undress in her bedroom. “You must be smelly and wet. I am.” Lamb had never liked taking his clothes off in front of anyone. He always came to the gym dressed in riding pants, using the locker room as a place to simply hang his coat. He always marveled at how other men pranced around naked and seemed to enjoy it. It had been such a long time since he was with a woman. He could barely remember when he and his wife cohabited, undressing in front of each other, with practically no reaction to the fact that they were separate people with aging bodies.

Lily, totally naked, sat down on the toilet seat, letting out a sigh as she began to piss. “Whew, better! Coming?” As she got up and turned on the shower, she curled her finger at Lamb, who was sitting on the edge of her tub trying to take off his socks. The beauty of her in her nakedness was so overpowering and it had been so long since he had seen a naked woman, or for that matter a young, fetching naked woman, he could barely look. He pretended to be matter-of-fact, as if nothing were happening, while taking in the sight of her small breasts with their large, soft convex nipples that looked like the tops of baby bottles, her vagina with its old fashioned natural bush that was so unlike the shaving and Brazilian waxing he had seen when he peeked at Playboy centerfolds when he went to the barber and read was popular with young women these days, and the beautifully formed muscles of her hamstrings that were the foundation for her buttocks. These last were remarkably free from the hanging skin and cellulite that had covered his wife’s aging body. He felt like someone coming in and out of a blackout. At one moment he was standing paralyzed in his boxers and the next he was in the shower with her washing his penis, balls and pubic hair with liquid soap, which she also squirted provocatively on her breasts while laughing. Later he would remember her saying to him, “Eat me you fool,” after which he had gotten on his knees, running his palms along the soft down on her coccyx as he grabbed her from behind in order to bring her closer to his tongue. He had never performed cunnilingus on his wife and it had been decades since his mouth had touched the lips of a woman’s sex. There’d been foreplay with a young woman who performed 69, but it had actually occurred before he’d ever had intercourse, and then once he started having sex with girlfriends and finally his wife, the sexuality had been mechanical and controlled by the civilized repression that was often practiced by otherwise liberal spirits. It had always been easier to mask the blatantly animal aspects of desire.

Then Lamb stood up and started to kiss her. She grabbed him by the back of the head and let her tongue swim in his mouth. The hot water from the shower head offered a blanket of permission. Everything would be cleaned away, even an old man’s belching breath and the beery smell that seemed to ooze from his pores. Then he noticed that the pressure of Lily’s strong hands was pushing him down. It was as if he had to be reminded, and for a moment he actually felt silly, as if he were being reprimanded for missing his calling. In spite of the warmth and the steam, his muscles were still slow to respond. If it were Lily getting down on her knees, the act would have been more easily accomplished, but he literally had to hold on to her as he got back down on his knees. His hands had touched her breasts, but the sensuality had been lost because of his need to balance himself. He was worried about falling in the shower and breaking a bone. Once he was down, he stared at her crotch, thinking to himself that it was just folds of skin and hair as he closed his eyes and hesitated before allowing his mouth to take in her salty taste once again. She was very strong and he actually found himself having trouble breathing as his chest cavity crunched into her thigh. She started to cry out, moving his head up and down against her. Then she looked down at him with an expression of triumph that verged on contempt. For a moment he felt the social anxiety he had often felt at parties where he didn’t know what to do with his hands. She started to laugh, pulling his head up to her face. He felt like a submarine being brought back up to the surface. He couldn’t help thinking “down periscope,” and he started to laugh too, realizing that his laughter had nothing to do with hers.

Lamb had never been with a woman who was so unselfconscious about nudity. It was as if clothes were an imposition. Once she had taken her clothes off, she didn’t seem to see any need to put them back on. He had always been with women who covered themselves when they came out of the shower, and his former wife always wore wool pajamas, which made him itch if he even tried to come close to her. In the end they were practically living in separate rooms. After they got out of the shower Lamb felt tired and asked Lily if she minded if he lay down for a few moments.

“I’ll tuck you in,” she said, leading him over to her bed. He wondered if he would be laying in the bed that Lily and her partner made love in. “Go head. I just have to ask Sherry something.” As he finished drying himself off, he threw the towel to the floor and found Sherry and Lily standing in the middle of the bedroom. They were talking in hushed tones, but not arguing. Lamb instinctively cupped his hands around his crotch and ran back into the bathroom like a child who had been shamed.

“You’re too funny,” Lily said. Her words betrayed a critical undertone. She was still buck naked and, after all this, he still wasn’t getting with the program. He was still insisting on the old ways. If you don’t push yourself to go a little further, you’ll simply end up in the same place. Lily often intoned these words as she tried to get her students to work harder. There seemed to be no end to progress and no resting on laurels. Nothing was ever enough.

Lamb was dizzy. Once he no longer heard them talking, he came back in and laying down could barely keep his eyes open. It reminded him of anesthesia. He wanted to be awake to experience what was happening as Lily climbed into bed next to him, pressing her naked body next to his so that he could feel her breasts against his back and the bristly hair of her pubis against his buttocks.  As he nodded off, his joy was mixed with a feeling that almost verged on discomfort. Lily was very nice, but she’d been content to let him give her pleasure and plainly felt no compunction to reciprocate. Maybe when he awakened he would be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps it would even happen in his sleep. That would be the best. He wouldn’t even have to think. It would be like a dream in which he could fulfill his lust for her in his sleep.

When he awakened, he reached out to find an empty space in the bed next to him. The unwelcome surprise caused a rumbling in his stomach. He ran to the bathroom thinking that he might have a diarrhetic fart, which would soil her bed and create disgust even in someone who was so open about bodily functions. After the fog of his deep sleep cleared, he felt an almost immediate case of jealousy. Had he been dreaming that they were holding each other? And where was she now? She would come and go as she pleased, undressing and going to the bathroom in front of another of her students as easily as she’d done with him, and he had to admire how her selflessness had led so cozily to the gratification of her own desires. He was perplexed. When it came down to it she had conquered him, just like an old-fashioned pick-up artist. She was like the captain of the football team who fucks all the cheerleaders. What rights did he have? She’d used him and now was finished. Still, despite all the rationalizing, he was filled with a feeling of injustice, anticipating the rejection he would feel when she was no more nice or attentive to him than she was to anyone else in class. For all he knew, she could be fucking the whole class, men and women. Maybe she was just working her way down the list and had come to the L’s. It had been his turn, the bleating Lamb.

He got out of bed and wandered towards the entrance of the loft, standing naked in the doorway to the space in which Sherry was still working.

“Lily had a client.” Sherry had a long, severe nose and short-cropped hair.  She didn’t seem to notice that he was naked. She cracked a smile and looked like she was about to laugh. It had nothing to do with him. She was plainly amused by something she was drawing, and for a moment Lamb marveled at her self-sufficiency. She probably had to learn to entertain herself in more ways than one, Lamb thought, imagining Sherry down on her knees in the shower, attending to Lily’s needs as he had done. He could never be so un-possessive. No, if he and Lily were ever to make a go out of it, he would have to straighten her out on how he was. She would have to be faithful. He caught himself up before he went on in this vein. What was he thinking?

“There’s coffee in the kitchen,” Sherry said, her polite way of saying she didn’t need him to continue exhibiting himself to her. He felt like a trespasser who might be asked for his ID by someone patrolling the premises. But he’d been invited by Lily, hadn’t he? He began to doubt himself. What if he walked out and found that the loft was suddenly off-limits? Lily was a forceful woman who went after what she wanted and, Lamb imagined, dispensed readily with what she didn’t want. She wasn’t the type to experience guilt.

Still covering himself, Lamb poked his head back in to Sherry’s studio. She was on the phone, talking animatedly and laughing loudly. This time he was sure she was laughing about him, about Lily’s latest escapade: getting an older man to pleasure her in the shower. Even though she could see him, she didn’t acknowledge him or make any attempt to stop talking even for a moment. If she simply covered the speaker with her hand, she could have asked him what he wanted in a whisper. She was smug in her insistence on going about her business. He imagined walking over to her, wresting her cell phone from her hand and smashing it to the floor.

Finally she hung up, but instead of turning to him and apologizing, she simply got up from her work-table, filling her antique ink well with water from a wall spigot.

“Would you have Lily’s cell phone number by any chance?” He knew she had it. What he was really asking was, would she be willing to relinquish it. The fact that she didn’t answer would normally have made someone like Lamb repeat his question. His notions of fairness had always flown in the face of the brute transactions of desire. That’s why he’d often preferred to be a loner rather than a player, but now, with Lily gone, he felt there was no recourse. It was Sherry’s house. She could either talk to him or not. She had no obligation to entertain or be forthcoming with the older men that her rambunctious partner invited to the apartment. She also had no power to stop her.  There was no justice anywhere when you thought about it.

Lamb climbed back into Lily’s bed.  Was it like a hotel with a checkout time? He had awoken from a deep sleep. There was the notion of grandfathering in contracts and agreements—he was an older man who would grandfather his previous arrangement, claiming the right to stay in Lily’s bed because he’d previously been sound asleep. The bed didn’t exactly exude an aroma, but there was something already familiar and comforting in sleeping where Lily’s naked body lay each night. He could just fall off and then leave when she returned. Maybe she’d even take another shower before she threw him out for good. This idea was unbearable, and he began to wish that nothing had happened with Lily. If he hadn’t started up with her, there’d have been nothing to lose. Now he was in a no-win situation. But anything was better than trying fruitlessly to get in touch with her or having to wait to see her in class, where she demonstrated the same faux intimacy to everyone. He was afraid of losing control of himself, of creating a scene of some sort, when he couldn’t get more from her.

Lily’s bedroom was cheery and safe and he couldn’t bear the thought of going back to his lonely apartment and waiting to get drunk on beer while he cooked another meal in the toaster, though it was probably what he would end up doing. He’d already thought of getting himself a six-pack of tallboys. Lily’s life was helpful and hopeful and he would have accepted a lesser position, even that of second-in-line after Sherry, if he could simply be a permanent house-guest. He smiled to himself as he thought about the scene in the shower. As he dozed off again, he almost started to laugh in spite of the dread he felt about what would happen when he awakened and Lily came home to find him sleeping in her bed. He was a human vibrator. If Lily hadn’t bothered to satisfy him, she had a least given him a sense of purpose.

The room was dark and he was awakened by the sound of Brazilian bossa nova music coming from what was obviously a high-powered sound system. He could make out Lily’s silhouette in the dark. She was changing her clothes, pulling down her spandex leotard and pulling her tank top over her head. Either she didn’t notice him or she didn’t care. It was plain she was in a rush and he felt timid about making his presence felt more definitely. He could just hear her say, “I know that,” sternly when he said “I’m still here.” He had to think out some better way to say it. She was busy. She didn’t care. Maybe he could buy a little time before being expelled from Eden. If you do what you always do, you get what you always get. Her words, which now came with the adrenalin rush of anxiety that her response, or lack of response, elicited, were counterbalanced by the imagination of breathless caveats that were often uttered on radio and television along with promotions for financial instruments or pharmaceuticals. Never fall in love with a motivational speaker. They are just doing their job. Their encouragement is not love.

As soon as Lily left the bedroom, Lamb dressed, sneaking out of the loft, passing the room from which the loud music was emanating and where Lily, her legs spread apart, a mirror in one hand, a speculum in the other, seemed to be demonstrating some form of self-examination to a group of naked women.

Lamb didn’t need a land-line—he had a cell phone—but he kept it and a dusty old answering machine for nostalgic reasons. He noticed the light on the machine uncharacteristically blinking in the dark the moment he opened the door to his apartment. There was one message. He ran over and pushed the play button, thinking it might be a message from Lily. Perhaps she’d called him to whisper sweet nothings into his ear. She would have had to go to some trouble to get his home number, which he’d perversely (for someone who had no callers) refused to list, but Lily was resourceful and she could have gotten it from the health club. At first there was silence, then he could hear sobbing and finally some low, muffled words. Right away he knew it was his former wife. Helplessness and hysteria were not part of Lily’s repertoire, Lamb was sure, but they were the basic mode by which Helen had always related to him. Even though they were long divorced, she still called him with complaints and problems, which she was at the same time loathe for him to solve. Lamb had learned to remain silent in the face of her intermittent cries for help. If he did say something or try to make a suggestion, her tone immediately turned from distress to anger at him for providing what she called “shoes that didn’t fit her feet.” This last was one of her favorite and most annoying expressions. “Charles you are again providing shoes that don’t fit my feet. Why don’t you measure them before you attempt to provide a new style. That’s what any good salesman does.” His response was that he wasn’t trying to sell her shoes or anything else, but to respond to her criticisms would up the ante, when his objective was to be civil and respectful enough so as not to provoke an outburst which usually ended in accusations of callousness and insensitivity. He’d been chastened by past experience to be extra careful with her when she was upset enough to call him. He felt guilty enough about her as it was; these phone conflagrations added insult to injury and ended up leaving him even more miserable than he already was.

This time her beloved cat had cancer. Listening to her, it was almost funny. People lost their limbs to diabetes.  They lost their children.  He and Helen had just been sloppy in becoming unraveled.  It wasn’t even a real loss, since they had devalued each other from the beginning, since they were so alike in their misery and self-hatred. Perhaps they should have valued the commonality of their discomfort in life, but it had never gone that far, and eventually he’d come to hate the reality of her, the medicinal beige bras  hanging in the bathroom, the cramps that came with her periods, her hypochondria. But he knew she had loved that cat and had feelings for it that she was never able to have for him. He wanted to tell her something to lessen the loss, like “I know how much Sport meant to you, but you can get another cat.” But that was a good example of the kind of lecturing that would produce indignation and extend the call. What he really wanted to say was “the cat isn’t real, you’ve just projected your own feelings onto him.” And he was afraid that’s exactly what he would say if he called her and she started to stick pins into him with her interrogations. Why was he saying this? What did he mean by that? One day he was going to lose his temper entirely and that would be it. But then there would be absolutely nobody in his life, except of course if he and Lily became an item. As he proceeded to dial Helen’s number, he decided right then and there to get rid of the stupid old land-line and answering machine. There was no need for it. If Helen needed him she could leave messages on his cell. He’d told her to use the cell a thousand times. Now she would have to listen.

There had been two other calls from Helen recently, one about not having mold insurance and the other about bed bugs. She’d been waking up with bloody bites on her skin and there’d also been some staining on her sheets, but Lamb hadn’t heard anything more about it so he figured it was one of Helen’s exaggerations. Maybe she’d just thought she saw blood, maybe she was so anxious that she had started scratching herself. The bloody bites could have just been nervous itching. It wouldn’t have been the first time that her catastrophic thinking had brought about baleful results.

He grit his teeth and dialed her number, hoping she wouldn’t be in and he could just pay his condolences to her machine. Her answering machine messages were always perfectly enunciated, sane and even hopeful sounding. No one hearing them would have suspected the level of hysteria she was capable of creating in both herself and others.

“I am very sorry to hear about Sport. I know he meant a great deal to you.” He was about to say, “I know how important this is to you. I want to talk to you about it. I will call you back later,” but he couldn’t bring himself to lie. He had no intention of calling back, not in the midst of his grieving about what he anticipated would be a big letdown with Lily. He was suffering too. Life wasn’t fair. You had to roll with the punches. That was something that Helen had never understood. If she had, then she wouldn’t protest so much. When they’d been together, he’d always tried to get her to take a few drinks, but she’d never allowed him or anyone to alter her moods. She was full of resentment, rage and discomfort, and it defined her. What would she be without these things? Maybe she was afraid she would disappear.

Lamb found himself wandering down the aisles at the Associated, which was right around the corner from his building. He imagined himself Saran-wrapped and packed, just another piece of meat. That was how Lily must look at him and the others as she stood before the class. They were like the bleeding parts that the butcher had cut and which she would mold into a newer and greater being—not a bleating lamb, but someone strong and territorial. What does not kill me makes me stronger. Lamb never liked it when Nietzsche was quoted in the gym, but “no pain, no gain” didn’t really address his issues either, since right now it seemed as if Lily possessed the portal to his happiness and without her he would perish. He was at the Associated to shop, but he wasn’t hungry, and the very notion of eating alone and getting drunk as he watched life passing by on the evening news made even less sense. It felt like an accident, like what happens when someone goes out for an innocent drive and gets blindsided by a drunken driver. He’d gotten too much of a taste of life to want to continue in a reduced state. He couldn’t go backwards, and yet there was nothing that he could imagine to take the place of the life he was living. Lily had teased him away from his quiet desperation, but she offered nothing, no new hope in its place. Nevertheless, he purchased a shank. He could always freeze it.

Lily was always teaching. He usually went to her 9:00 o’clock as a way of making sure he didn’t sleep all day. There was nothing worse than having a hangover and waking up at dusk with the apartment just beginning to become enfolded in shadows. He only slept that way when he was in really bad shape, but now the class itself, which gave him something to look forward to, filled him with dread. He could just see Lily’s fake smile as she pretended nothing had happened. Of course, she would have to be professional. She couldn’t openly play favorites, but he was afraid she would use her role of instructor to elude him. He started to hate her before he even had a chance to see what her reaction to him would be—though he was sure if the news were good he would have somehow heard from her by now. He made a commitment to himself not to fall apart and do something crazy like start calling her, telling her how desperate he was or even threatening that he might do something to himself if she didn’t allow him to come back over and at least take a shower with her. He wanted very little and was willing to take even less. He could almost smell the failure emanating from his pores. His solar plexus and the collar of his shirt were damp with sweat.

He stuck his head in the oven the minute he got back into the house, and then he cracked a cold can of beer, which momentarily emboldened him. He’d have a few more and then give her a call. Maybe he was just being insecure. She might actually be waiting for him, wondering why he hadn’t shown up or at least bothered to call. Maybe she didn’t realize he didn’t have her number.

He flipped on the television. A CNN reporter embedded with a Marine unit in Kabul was coming under fire from the local Taliban. As the reporter ran, he was still trying to narrate his story. Lamb took a swig of beer and imagined himself appearing on the screen of Lily’s TV wearing a flak jacket. He didn’t look or sound anything like the reporter, who had a rugged chiseled face and blond hair and spoke with an English accent, but somehow the transposition seemed totally real. He would allow himself to come under enemy fire if it was a matter of winning Lily’s respect. He saw himself living in one of the safe houses used to harbor reporters in Kabul, and Lily visiting him and taking the Afghans by a storm.  Maybe she would even run her spin class for the high-level military types and their Afghan counterparts. If you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always get. His mind was racing and smoke was coming from the kitchen. The fat on the lamb had begun to sizzle. There was machine gun fire and then a silence as the camera continued to capture the reporter lying wounded on the ground. The anchor on the news program described how the footage that had just been shown was the tragic final act in the life of one of their most prized correspondents.


Francis Levy is the author of the novels Seven Days in Rio and Erotomania: A Romance and of the blog, The Screaming Pope.