"Hey, don't tell me CisQuent is sending its star coder," a voice said behind me. I turned around and it was Bryan from NavMet, who I'd hung out with for two previous years at the Developer Conference.
He turned to a short, round woman with curly black hair next to him, maybe Mexican or something. "Rick, this is Natalia. Rick's the only guy who knows anything at CisQuent."
"Totally true," I said, and shook her hand. "This your first time at this clusterfrack?"
"She's the newbie," Bryan said. "We'll initiate her into the secret handshakes and all that later."
"Ooh, it's like I'm being allowed in the boys' club!" she said sarcastically.
"First secret of boys' club, there's absolutely nothing exciting about boys' club," I said as I fished out a business card for her, and she laughed. We continued chit-chatting about the conference for a few minutes, but I was preoccupied by thinking how true what I'd just said was.
Fact was, I'd enjoyed the conference in past years but this year's was looking like a tough slog in a lot of ways. First, here I was in a hotel conference center in Cleveland for two weeks straight. In past years I'd managed to get away for only a week, but for some reason my bosses sent me for two weeks this year, which should have been a perk but somehow left me uneasy. And, wondering what the hell you do in Cleveland for two weeks. Day 1, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Day 2 ... wonder what the hell you do in Cleveland for two weeks.
Second was, it just wasn't that good a time to be gone for two weeks from home, either. Melissa and I were not in a good phase of our relationship. I guess you don't think about your relationship being in a "phase" at all except when you're not in a good one, but that's where we were. We couldn't seem to talk to each other without it blowing up. I felt like she was bored with me and there was nothing I could do to change that. Maybe she felt the same way about me when she tried to talk to me.
But I was here and I had to take things as they were. At least Bryan was here, we always had a good time hanging out together. We'd see if that stayed true for two whole weeks.
A presenter from Caramba! was giving a presentation on their end-to-end e-commerce platform development tools. By conference standards, he clearly imagined himself a rock star, dressed flashily and working little double-entendres into his presentation. Suddenly my phone buzzed with a message.
i didn't know elvis was going 2 be at this confab
I didn't recognize the number it came from and as I looked up, trying to think who it might be, I saw Natalia next to Bryan, looking back at me and smiling. I typed back:
yeah, clay is a hunka hunka burnin code
She laughed, and held up a thumb to say, good one.
We met up for lunch and dinner nearly every day, Bryan, Natalia and I. Mostly we just chit-chatted about the programs and the presenters, who tended to fall into two categories-- droners, and wannabe comedians. It got us through the days and evenings, and we became good friends, bonding over our boredom at being held captive in a hotel in Cleveland.
Which was good, because when the evening was over and I returned to my room, it was always a bit glum. Not least because Melissa didn't return my calls. I don't mean that she was avoiding me; just that we never seemed to match up. I'd call her, she wasn't there, she'd send me a text during dinner, then she wouldn't answer when I called late at night. The text was nothing more personal than telling me that my mother called, or that the car needed an emission check when I got back. I'd put on HBO or something, or surf for porn, and then go to sleep alone in a very big, very empty bed. In a hotel, in Cleveland.
"We meeting up tonight?" I asked Bryan on Friday.
"'Fraid not," he said. "I actually have to head back tonight. We have a presentation on Monday and I have to go help them out all weekend."
"That sucks," I said, but I didn't really mean that it sucked for him. The conference would be dead from Saturday afternoon until Monday— Cleveland and me for the whole weekend. Could it get any worse, short of an accident involving farm equipment?
I was glum through the rest of the day. I found a movie at a nearby mall to go to; that was going to be my big Friday night excitement. Maybe dinner at Bob Evans, this being Ohio, a state where by law there had to be a Bob Evans every square mile.
I was heading out the door when I saw Natalia chatting up a couple of other people. It hadn't even occurred to me that she might not be going back with Bryan. "You're still here?" I asked.
"Looks that way," she said. "What are you up to?"
"I was going to walk to the mall and catch a movie," I said.
One of the women she was with kind of gave her a pointed look and she shrugged sheepishly and said "Sorry! This is Rick from CisQuent, and these are my friends Betty and Kaitlin. We were going to go get Thai food, do you want to come with us?"
I sized up the situation. I was pretty sure Betty and Kaitlin, who were kind of punked out, were a couple. That meant they were probably okay with my not being invited along. "Oh, that's okay, I--"
"Oh come on, don't be a dud," Betty said to my surprise. "What else are you going to do in Cleveland?"
"You have a point," I said, and so we all went.
My guess about Betty and Kaitlin seemed to be correct; they were snuggly enough, next to each other, and shared enough private jokes, that it was clear they must be a couple. Meanwhile, I was together with Natalia just by virtue of the booth we were squeezed into, and the fact that Natalia was big enough that we were pressed together. I don't mean that she was enormous, she was just— there's an old word you see in, say, Robert Heinlein stories that she seemed to bring back. Pneumatic. Inflated, and with the roundedness of a rubber tire. Ballooning breasts. Thighs that curved outward smoothly like fuselages. A rounded, cushy butt. I knew it was cushy because it was smooshed up against me.
We had a pleasant time but at some point I realized they were making the assumption that we were together. And for whatever reason it seemed important to me that I clarify that. Like it would be wronging Melissa to leave that out there, I guess. I finally had a chance to explain that we had just met at the conference and were just friends— and then I realized that no one was waiting for any such explanation, and that by making it, I had needlessly insulted Natalia.
The dinner finished up quickly after that. I tried calling Melissa when I got back and didn't get an answer. The next morning I got a text saying she had gone to bed early and heard the phone, but didn't feel like answering.
I went to the movie I'd planned to see the day before. I walked around downtown. Sunday was incredibly boring and seemed to last forever. I went back to the hotel room and jacked off. I played video games on my phone for three hours.
In the middle of one game the phone buzzed. It took me a minute to remember what it was, then I saw it was Melissa. I fumbled to answer quickly.
"I am so glad you called. It is so boring here, hotels should come up with activities for weekend guests just to keep the suicide rate in the hotel down," I joked.
She didn't laugh.
"How has your week been going," I asked.
"It's been very ... stressful."
"What? Tell me about it."
"No, it's just what happens when you have a lot of responsibility thrust on you," she said. "I still have a lot of work to do this weekend."
"Well, lucky I'm not there, then," I said, a bit pointedly.
She missed the point. "Yeah, that worked out well, actually," she said. "You get back Friday night?"
"Yeah, about 8:00."
"I should be back by then," she said.
I hope so, I thought. Because I don't exactly know where you are right now.
Lonely, restless, my hand in my underwear in the dark. I tried to think of Melissa, but it wasn't working to replay good moments, because I kept realizing that most of them were a long ways back. My thoughts turned to Betty and Kaitlin. I tried to imagine them making out, soft lips mashing together, tongues teasing, sucking at tits, moving down and lustily licking at pussy ... tits, I imagined the softness of breasts, nuzzling against them, but too small, too flat ... I imagined bigger tits, big round boobs, heavy, sweaty, nubby nipples hard and jutting out as I sucked on them and reached between thick legs and felt wetness, slipperiness ... I came, and jumped up to clean up and put such thoughts out of my head.
At least Monday and Tuesday we got into the sessions that mattered most for my work, and I got something out of the conference for a couple of days. I barely saw her. Natalia I mean, not Melissa. Our schedules didn't match up and I had dinner with some sales guys from our company on Monday night. On Tuesday night I went to a reception thrown by MarketStreet, which she was also invited to. I didn't know if the reaction to seeing me was going to be cool, but if what had happened Friday night had pissed her off, by now it seemed forgotten and we fell right back into snarking on everybody and laughing. It felt good after my lousy mopey vampire weekend.
"Hey, what are you doing tomorrow morning?" Natalia asked.
"Uhhh ... sitting in a hotel room meeting room looking at Powerpoint slides, same as you. Unless someone blows it up. Do you have any explosives?"
"I was reading that Cleveland has a market on Wednesday morning. I mean, like a European market with guys selling fish and fruit and jars of weird jam and shit."
"Wow, you really know how to have a good time," I said. "Is there a hardware store somewhere too?"
"Okay, go to Advanced Principles of MySQL Defragging Part 3 if you want. But if you want to walk over there with me, I'll be in the lobby at 9:30."
The market was actually kind of fun. I didn't need a crate of the same oranges you can get anywhere, but it was kind of cool to see guys outside hawking them to ... whoever needed a crate of oranges. Inside the market, which was an amazing building like an old train station, there were meat sellers and cheese sellers and people making touristy stuff like fudge, people selling pierogis (basically, Hungarian ravioli) in a million different flavors and all kinds of stuff. It was interesting, but more than that, it was pleasant being in her company because she was so lively and interested in it all. We wound up getting hot dogs for lunch at a little stand in one of the corner entrances and then sat to eat them outside in the adjacent park.
"This was really fun," I said. "Of course, after ten days here I'd be thrilled to watch a dryer spin at a laundromat."
"Well, you sure know how to make a girl feel appreciated," she said.
"Okay, seriously, thank you, it was great to get out and do something. I really do appreciate it. And you for getting me out of my rut."
"You don't seem the happiest camper at the Conference," she said.
"Oh, it's just ... okay, no, I'm not. I call my girlfriend back in Colorado Springs and— I don't know. One of us is doing just fine with being separated for two weeks, let's put it that way."
We sat there for a moment, glumly nibbling on fudge. Has anyone ever written that phrase before? "Glumly nibbling on fudge"? It seems a fundamental failure on fudge's part.
"Do you think she's seeing somebody?" Natalia asked.
"I don't know. Do I think she's distracted from me? Do I think there are more exciting people to her than me at her work right now? Maybe. Who knows? Define seeing."
"Do you think she's fucking somebody?" Natalia asked.
That jolted me a little. But I guess my self-pitying non-answer deserved bluntness. "I think that would represent more interest in fucking than I've observed lately," I finally answered.
"Okay," she said. We didn't look at each other for a minute.
"So how's your love life?" I blurted out. "Sorry, you don't have to answer that. Do you have a boyfriend? Or a girlfriend? Fuck, I don't know anything about you. I've been too busy with the fascinating story of me to ask, I guess."
"Neither one," she said. "Not for over a year. It's kind of hard meeting somebody with my background."
I looked at her. "What's your background?"
"Half Mexican, half Lebanese and fat-positive computer geek. Something for every guy to be culturally alienated from! I'm too smart for the guys I grew up with and tech guys get freaked out that I come from a family full of guys who drive low riders. Like, you know, make one move on me and there'll be some guy named Ramon with a hairnet in your face with a switchblade. Or Al-Qaeda."
"That is so totally what I was thinking when I met you," I said. "No, that's like an entire novel, it would have taken me weeks to think all that about you."
We sat for a minute, still nibbling, and I said, "Aren't you ever lonely?"
"That's why man invented electronics," she said. "Well, probably woman."
"I've done plenty of that this last week without technology," I said.
"And that's all I need to know," she said. "Do I wish there was a guy around to kill spiders and tell me I'm beautiful and shit sometimes? Yeah, of course I do."
"Right. I don't want Melissa to go. But maybe that's why she wants to, I just want it to be comfortable with her hanging around and that's not enough. But it's lonely without her. It's lonely being here for two weeks without knowing if she's there to come home to."
"Or knowing there's nobody to come home to," she said.
"I'm sorry, listen to me and you've got it worse—"
"Oh, that makes me feel better!"
"I don't mean it like that," I said. "Look, I don't know how to say it without putting my foot in it."
"It's okay, I know what you mean," she said. She seemed to know what I meant a lot of the time, frankly. That was a new feeling, or an old one coming back after a long absence. "It is lonely," she said tenderly. "And sometimes you get so horny."
"Yes," was all I could say to that.
"Listen, your mom called, you should talk to her some time."
"The person I wanted to talk to some time was you, honey," I said.
There was silence.
"Oh, it's— look, I think we need to talk when you get back."
"We are talking."
"I mean, we should have a talk."
Uh-oh. You never want to have a talk with someone you're still planning on sleeping with in the future. "What does that mean?"
"Look— uggghhhh," she exhaled in disgust. "I didn't want to do this. But I think we need to cool things a little. I think we need to think about what we want."
I thought of several snappy answers to this (a girlfriend, a blowjob, Melissa from a year ago to come back) and none of them seemed like they would do anything but bury me deeper in the shit. The only sensible response to a question like that from a woman is to shut up and listen. "What do you want?"
"I just think we need to step back. And think about what we want."
Yeah, it seems pretty clear what that is for her, I thought.
It's called "Not you any more."
I tossed and turned. I looked at tits on the internet (there are several places offering them these days) but nothing seemed to turn me on. I debated and told myself no and finally I just did it. I texted Natalia:
are u awake
A couple of minutes passed and then:
yes 2) uh-oh here it comes
That seemed worrisome. I texted back
It came back a moment later:
you are in a relationship. maybe not for long but still. don't want to do something to that just bec were both lonely and horny
Okay, I'm not going to say the idea hadn't occurred to me. Not that short round Latino was exactly my type, especially judging by Melissa who was taller than me and certainly blonder. But that really wasn't the idea.
not what i'm looking for. i want to use you for something much more selfish: sympathy
She sent back:
did something happen?
just a phone call that left me feeling low. really, i'd love to talk with you. that was talk, not other four letter word ending in k. will you join me in a raid on my minibar, my company will treat