Thursday

FISH STORY

It was the first time Stella had made fish as a married woman, and she was excited. She had phoned Alex at the office around 6:30, and he’d said he’d be home at eight. Like a dog who learns its masters every move and habit, Stella, in their four months of marriage, had become well versed in her new husband’s routines.
He was punctual. When he said eight, he almost always arrived home at eight. At which point, he’d kiss her perfunctorily on the cheek, head into their lone bedroom, hang up his suit jacket, take off his tie, then step around the corner into the bathroom, where he’d wash his hands and face.
Next he’d come back into the combination dinette/living room and pour himself a large Cutty on the rocks. He would then pick up the putter leaning against the recessed radiator and, while Stella moved about in the kitchen readying their meal, begin stroking putts toward the empty Skippy jar at the far end of the Oriental rug that the Posnicks, Alex’s parents, had given them for a wedding present.
This particular evening, however, upon stepping into the apartment and before he kissed her cheek, Alex stopped and sniffed the air. “Is that fish?”
Stella was disappointed. She had hoped to make it a surprise and had opened the windows, put the fan over the stove on full blast, and spritzed unscented air freshener about the modest one bedroom apartment until she could no longer smell the flounder. “Maybe,” she said.
“You made fish?”
“I want it to be a surprise.”
“Where do you get fish around here?”
“I didn’t say it was fish.”
In the kitchen, Stella opened the bottle of Sancerre the Puerto Rican clerk at the liquor store said went well with fish. She put it in the Tiffany ice bucket Alex’s Aunt Rita had given them as a wedding present. She heard the unmistakable sound of a golf ball rolling into a glass jar.
“How was your day, Honey?” she called in from the kitchen. There was no answer.
“I said how was your day?” she called a little louder.
“Shitty – as usual.”
“What?”
“What’re you, deaf? How was your fuckin’ day?”
“It was okay,” she shouted back as nonchalantly as she was able. In truth, it was far better than okay. Rich Axton, the handsome new guy in accounting whom all the secretaries were buzzing about, had stopped at her desk to introduce himself, and she could see his eyes constantly darting toward her thighs as he kidded her about the outrageous skimpiness of her skirt.
Stella had always been embarrassed at the thickness of her thighs, but one of the nice things about Alex, and she was discovering they were far and few between, was how he was always encouraging her to wear sexier clothes. She was learning that, although not as plentiful as the regular Joes, there was a whole breed of men out there to whom thick thighs weren’t a drawback at all.
Stella got the feeling Rich would have stuck around for hours had her boss, Graham Harrison, the manager of the department, not buzzed her on the intercom. “Come on in,” he said. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Gotta go,” she told the young accountant, grabbing her steno pad.
“Shut the door,” Graham said even before she was fully into his office. And, as soon as the door closed behind her, “You’ve got a twenty-five hundred dollar raise, retroactive to May One.”
“You’re kidding!”
He shook his head.
“Graham, that’s ridiculous. I haven’t been here six months.”
“I told you when I hired you: Do a good job and everything else’ll take care of itself.” He stood with outstretched arms. “Hug.”
Stella extended her arms and, as in imitation of the lovers in a Clairol commercial, the two moved toward each other in slow motion. Stella lay her cheek on her boss’ chest – at six feet he was half a foot taller than Alex – and he rested his chin on the top of her head.
This had become a ritual, which began upon Stella’s third day of employment at Bear, Stearns. Harrison had been dictating a letter to her when he was summoned to his boss’s office. He stood and took a deep breath, as if trying to calm himself. “Hug,” he said to Stella, stretching out his arms. Then, as if in answer to the curious look on her face. “I always get terribly anxious when I have to present to Kroll.”
Slowly, Stella had risen from her chair, and before she had reached full height, Harrison was pinioning her arms to her side, rotating her back and forth. “Thank you,” he was saying, “I really needed this.”
She came to realize that, heartfelt or not, her new boss used his anxiety like a poor man’s Woody Allen, gaining physical intimacy by exploiting her sympathy. It was working. And, as it was becoming more and more apparent that the anger and aloofness of her new husband wasn’t just a passing phase, she began looking forward to the hugs, even, when feeling unusually blue, initiating one herself.
At first, the hugs were somewhat wooden and asexual. But in the past few weeks, they had developed an erotic component. With his jacket off, Harrison emitted a very light case of body odor that Stella, with her cheek pressed to his chest, breathed in with a curious mixture of mild repugnance and raging excitement. She had to resist an impulse to press her pelvis against him.
And now, these past few days, there were actual kisses, Harrison pecking her lightly on the top of the head, she pursing her lips against his neck. And this afternoon, giddy from her raise, Stella reached her head up and before she knew it she and Harrison were kissing, mouths open, tongues probing, bodies pressing feverishly against each other.
Harrison pulled away first. “Wow,” he said. “Wow.”
“Oh, my God,” said Stella. “That got out of hand.”
“This is embarrassing,” said Harrison, nodding at the obvious bulge in his pants. “I am so attracted to you.” He pulled her back to him, and she felt his erection against her belly. “Listen, let’s have lunch tomorrow. My buddy Charlie is in Chicago and he’s got this amazing apartment on York Avenue on the twentieth floor and you can see LaGuardia and all.” He held her at arm’s length and stared in her eyes. “We’ll get sandwiches at Slotsky’s and a bottle of wine.”
Stella put the broccoli, bread and potatoes on the table first, then the ice bucket with the Sancerre. “White wine,” said Alex. “I don’t drink white wine.”
“But we’re having fish.”
“Oh. So we are having fish.”
“The man at the liquor store said you never have red wine with fish.”
“The man in the liquor store, huh. The Spanish guy? You think he knows more about wine than I do?”
“He said it’s a very nice wine, Alex. It’ll be fine.” She headed back into the kitchen and took the aluminum foil off the flounder. An hour ago, as she had laid the fish upon the cooking pan, she had been pleased with the look of the smooth, white flesh. Now, after just a few minutes of grilling, it looked oddly gray and wrinkled. She placed it on the table in front of Alex. “It’s lemon sole,” she said. “I know how much you love lemon sole.”
Alex picked up the tray and sniffed at the fish disapprovingly. “Yuck, it smells awful.”
“No, it doesn’t. It smells like fish.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Sweetie, you said you wanted to start eating healthier – less steak, more fish.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“The Gristede’s at the corner,” she said, swallowing her words.
“Gristede’s. You bought fish at the fucking Gristede’s. Jesus Christ, Stella, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. I can’t believe it. White wine and bad fish. What a disgusting way to end the day.”
“But you haven’t even tried it yet. You might like it.”
“Jesus! Sears cancels an order for twelve thousand blouses, and now I’ve got to eat this.”
“Please, Alex, please. For me. Just try it.” She felt herself about to sniffle. “I wanted so badly to make you a good meal.”
He winced, as if afraid she was going to cry. “Alright, I’ll try it.” He picked up his fork, cut off a small piece, and put it in his mouth. “Ugh. Disgusting.” He opened his mouth and let the partially chewed fish fall to the plate.
“It can’t be that bad. The man said it just came in today.”
“And you believed him? And the Spanish guy in the liquor store? How about the homeless guy at the corner? Look, Stella, this isn’t really a penis I’m sticking up your ass. Jesus Christ, you don’t buy fucking fish at a supermarket. Get it?”
“I was just trying to please you, sweetie.”
“Unfuckingbelievable, fish from a supermarket. It’s like taking my money and flushing it straight down the toilet. How much was it?”
“What difference does it make?”
“How much was it?” His voice was sterner, more foreboding.
“Seven dollars.”
“Seven dollars. You took seven dollars out of my pocket and flushed it down the toilet. Seven dollars down the fucking drain.” He got up from the table. “You make me sick,” he said and picked up his putter.
Stella had been staring at him, as if rooted to the floor. Suddenly she swept over to the table, picked up the plate, and headed back into the kitchen.
“What’re you doing?”
She didn’t answer. “Stella, what’re you doing.” He heard banging and slamming. A moment later she reappeared carrying a paper package. She grabbed her coat out of the front closet.
“Where are you going?”
“The fish is no good, I’m going to return it.”
“They’re not going to take it back. You already cooked it.”
She started the process of unlatching the three big locks on the door.
“Alright,” he said, “Stop. I’ll eat it.”
“You said it was disgusting.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“No, you said it was disgusting. It’s going back.” She pulled open the heavy metal door and let it slam hard behind her.
The cashier called over the manager who said that store policy prohibited him from issuing a refund once something had already been cooked, and Stella was surprised to hear herself replying, “The fish was rancid. Putrid! If you don’t give me my money back I’m going to report you to the board of health.”
“Give her the money back,” said the manager.
Alex had sat back down at the table and was reading Golfer’s Monthly when Stella stepped back into the apartment. He looked up at her expectantly.
“Did they – did they give you the money back.”
Stella stood just inside the door. “Yep.” She took both clenched hands out of her pockets and threw handful after handful of pennies at him, seven hundred and seven in all. They bounced and scattered like hail stones across the uncarpeted parquet floor. “There’s your seven dollars back. Every fucking penny of it.” She tried not to but laughed despite herself.
Alex was looking at her with a sort of awe. He, too, began to laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just, you don’t buy fish – ”
“Uh uh uh uh.” She held up her forefinger in warning.
They drank the bottle of Sancerre, which, on an empty stomach, went straight to their heads. They fell asleep early. At twenty minutes after three, she heard Alex get up to pee. As was his habit when they went to bed without making love, she knew upon his return he would burrow his head between her legs. She resisted his advances, for she did not want to go to work with her diaphragm inside her. It would mean having to duck into the ladies room just before lunch, wash it and herself, and then reinsert it.
But Alex was ardent, kissing and then licking her mons until she rolled over onto her back and lifted her legs in the air. As she felt him push himself inside her, she realized, with more than a little excitement, that this would be the first time she’d be making love with two men in the very same day.

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