Thanks go to "CJMasterson" for proof-reading, and to reader Beth F. and "Drenkara" for proofreading and alteration suggestions.
It all started when Clarence e-mailed his ex-wife again.
Robin brought it up casually, as if it was nothing important, while they were having dinner together: "You know, Clarence e-mailed me the other day." Her company of an evening was becoming more and more common lately; she might come over to his place, or he go to hers. Sometimes this would go somewhere, and sometimes not; Robin's barriers, though lower than before, were still in place, and sex was something she just wasn't willing to broach yet. Nor was staying overnight.
Clarence, though, was. "I take it you're just going to ignore him as usual," Nathan said.
"Actually..." she said, toying with her plate. "I was thinking of writing him back."
Nathan took another bite of food to settle his mind, stifle his panic. "You, umm. You do realize the irony of that statement, right?"
Robin had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Well, I ... As you know, he has been e-mailing me now and then."
"And, as you know, I'd prefer it if you ignored him," Nathan said.
"I know," Robin agreed. "And I have been. It just ... Honey, from what he's writing, it sounds like he's really turned himself around. It sounds like he's changed."
Nathan grumbled, "I'll believe it when I see it."
"I'll show you his message," Robin said, standing up to take her plate over to the sink. "I mean, it's not like it was a big deal. So he didn't let me contact ex-boyfriends when I was married to him. So what?"
"I didn't object for my sake," he said. "I just didn't like that he was being so controlling."
Despite the rush of the faucet, her smirk was audible: "And you don't think it hypocritical to do the same thing in reverse?"
Nathan rolled his eyes. "Look, I just don't think he's any good for you."
"And I agree with you," she said. "But e-mailing him isn't marrying him."
With guys like him, it is, he thought, but he kept it to himself. And, to be fair, the e-mail (when he saw it) did seem to be from a man who was getting his life together. Still the same cocksure self-absorbed asshole who thought he knew everything—Nathan, who ran a small computer business, could spot them from a mile off—but at least he had moved back out of his parents' house.
The part Robin wanted to respond to—so how are u babe?—was innocuous enough, and Nathan couldn't think of any reason to turn her down that wouldn't make him seem like an overcontrolling jerkwad. They had a love-hate relationship with that kind of person: when Robin wasn't chewing him out for it, she was complaining that he wasn't being enough of one. What she wanted from him seemed to change from day to day. Nathan kept patience with it as much as he could; it wasn't like he hadn't known that about her since the first time they dated. But patience was a limited commodity. Robin's penchant for flightiness was not.
"Umm..." he said. "Let me sleep on it."
She shot him a look over her shoulder. "So in other words, 'No'."
"No," he said, "let me sleep on it."
"You know I could just write him anyway," she said.
"I know," he said. "But I hope you won't."
"Maybe I don't care about your feelings," she said with a mock pout.
"Maybe you don't," he agreed. "But then I'd have to ask why you were dating me."
"I'm..." she said. " ... Kinda stupid?"
"No you're not." He slipped an arm around her, drew her in for a kiss.
"Well, I married Clarence," she said, her face halting inches from his, "how smart can I be?"
He shrugged. "Fairly. But learning."
She let her lips seek his. "Yes, I am."
They had met in college, courtesy of one of those boring classes everyone needs to take—Appreciation of Art, Appreciation of History, Appreciation of Mongols, whatever. Nathan was a sophomore, Robin a freshman. He didn't think much of her at first: he liked neat, perky blondes, with preppy names like Claire or Missy or June. Robin was simply built differently: tall, stocky, deep-chested, well-fleshed; a polite man would call her 'statuesque, ' a mean one 'chunky.' But they got stuck in a group project together and started talking, and it wasn't long before he was having second thoughts. True, she was fidgety, and sometimes overcontrolling, but the group project certainly benefited from her perfectionism; and there was a top-flight mind in there, one just at home discussing the impact of the Protestant Reformation world history as it was the latest episode of America's Top Model. She wanted to travel to many of the same countries he did, for many of the same reasons he did; she was just as concerned about the future of the human race (and its penchant for lurching merrily over cliffs) as he was. And every now and then she would smile a particular smile, one that brought out the warmth in her face and in her eyes, and he would have to take a moment and remind himself where he was.
When he asked her out, her first reaction was surprise: she thought of him as a friend, nothing more. True, he was attractive, in a slapdash, unkempt kind of way—the uncombed hair and bristly facial hair spoke to her of contempt for social norm—but dating? But she thought she might as well give it a go, and she said yes. And she found that there were hidden depths to this man: he knew exactly what wine went with which dish; he could translate from French (but not back into it, for no reason they could understand), and he seemed to have a knack for saying exactly the right thing to make her melt. And when she kissed him goodnight that evening ... She had dated before, been kissed before, but nothing had ever quite made her that riled up. She didn't touch herself that night, but it was a near thing.
They dated for two years, and they were happy without ever really realizing it. They spent time in each other's company, practically lived together; they took classes together, developed injokes, laughed over things that made their friends shake their heads in puzzlement. To him, she became ever more lovely as the years passed. She hadn't lost weight and she hadn't dyed her brown hair, but when he looked at her, it was as if he was seeing something far more beautiful than mere flesh, and far more precious.
Nathan had no thought of marriage, but Robin did. She wanted to wait. She had been raised in the church, and while by and large she had moved on from that part of her life (she called herself a recovering Catholic, the way AA members called themselves recovering alcoholics), the desire to wait until marriage had stayed with her. She didn't think sex was inherently sacred; she did think she wanted to make it inherently sacred. She knew that taking a lover was a very intimate thing, that he would get to see parts of her body and soul that no one else would, and to her there was something romantic about the idea of only having one such man, ever. Wouldn't it be nice to look at her husband and know, deep in her heart of hearts, that there were secrets they shared with only each other, and with no one else? Wouldn't it be nice to keep some things completely and utterly private, except for her marriage bed? She even understood why some conservative (that is, fanatical) Christians preferred to refrain from kissing until marriage. Though she had no intention of doing so herself. She'd be disconsolate if Nathan couldn't kiss her anymore. And a little more than kissing. Nothing involving hands going under clothing, of course, but ... Well, maybe a little of that. Nathan was a virgin, but that didn't seem to impair him in the least; she had never known her body could be made to feel so good, and it was hard to know how far she should let him take it.
So they dated, and spent time together, and kissed, and things were good; but not always. There were arguments—about the sex, of course, or lack thereof, but also about other things. Stupid things, sometimes, like whether it was okay for him to cancel a date because one of his guy friends had tickets to a concert, or the new Guitar Hero game. Stupid things, like whether she had the right to tell him she didn't like his favorite pair of tattered, broken-in jeans. Stupid things, but in the end they piled up, and the two of them just drifted apart. Still, they stayed friends, seeing each other on occasion, exchanging e-mails.
Nathan graduated and went straight on to pre-law, as he'd always planned. Within a month he knew he'd have to kill himself if he kept on with it. His big break came when every computer in the Law library went down, all at once. Nathan, a hardcore gamer whose computer had been able to run Crysis at full graphics settings without a flutter, had become experienced in tech support due to the demands of his lifestyle, and he volunteered to try and figure out the problem. He not only isolated the hack into the library network, but was able to make hardware suggestions to lower costs, streamline access and prevent this sort of network-wide damage. The Law school faculty paid him a thousand dollars for his services, and Nathan had a career he could stand.
Robin met Clarence during her last year at college. He was different than Nathan in many respects: he had cultivated that home-down-south air, walked around in cowboy hat and boots. She wouldn't've believed it if she hadn't seen it. After years of Nathan's indie/emo fashion sensibilities, Clarence was a refreshing change. His personality too: where Nathan was cautious, Clarence was bold; where Nathan was sensitive, Clarence careless; what Nathan scoffed at, Clarence valued. They were both pretentious, but in different ways, and something about Clarence's cocksure swagger—looking like an idiot, and not giving a care—drew her in. They married right after she graduated.
Nathan dated when he had the time, but he didn't have much of it. His business was booming: in addition to growth by word of mouth, the university was outsourcing much of its IT to him, and on a campus of 15,000 there was always something going wrong. Soon he had hired his first employee, and then his first three, and more until eventually ten people answered to him. One of them was an accountant, to keep track of all the money going in and out. He was single, yes, and often overworked, but he didn't notice; he was having fun, and making a difference.
Robin first started to think that marrying Clarence was a mistake the night he came home drunk and beat her. Unfortunately, it took three more years before she could get up the gumption to tell him where to stuff it. In retrospect, it was easy to reconstruct the justifications she'd built up in her mind. True, he wasn't the most sensitive of lovers; true, he was working a dead-end job at McDonald's, the only thing his bachelor's in Communications had been able to gain him; true, he rarely came home without reeking of drink, and spent most of the time in front of the TV once he arrived—watching the NASCAR, most of the time, but occasionally she would catch him jerking off to videos of nubile vixens—neat, perky blondes with sensuous names like Lolita or Pearl or Butter. (Once, Lolita and Butter at the same time, goodness-gracious-me.) But he was trying. She couldn't deny that. He was trying, and heaven only knew how much pressure the establishment put on men to be breadwinners, to be masculine, to be confident and good in bed and everything a man should be. He was trying, and every now and then when he came home, his eyes would light up, and he would be tender to her, caring, kind, everything she'd hoped. And besides, my dad hit my mom. And I turned out okay.
She did not, though, always turn out okay where Clarence was concerned. To hear him talk, she was the worst wife he could've found for himself—and he freely admitted that he had passed up some real desperate ones. There was nothing she did that he couldn't find something to be critical about—her cooking was bad, she didn't keep the house clean, she hadn't provided him with an heir, she should forget this nonsense about having a job and become a housewife ... It just went on. Robin tried to pacify him as best she could, using some of the negotiating skills she'd learned from Nathan; but even that was a slippery slope. Clarence had a way of starting small. For instance, this thing about not contacting ex-boyfriends. She had invited Nathan to the wedding, and Clarence let her, with ill grace; but the next time he called (a few months after the honeymoon) Clarence asked her to hang up. It seemd reasonable at the time, but within a year she was out of touch with Nathan completely. Within a year after that, he had—very reasonably, very tactfully—gotten her to abort just about every friendship she had; her coworkers ignored her, her college friends never called, even her parents had learned to keep a wide berth.
Perhaps she should've known the day she found herself giving up her virginity. It wasn't her wedding night. As a matter of fact, it was a couple months before he proposed. Protest all she might, Clarence was not the sort of man who took 'no' for an answer, and over the eight-or-so months of their courtship he had slowly weathered his way onto her body. On their six-month anniversary he saw her naked for the first time—something no man had ever seen before—and took the opportunity to introduce her to the world of cunnilingus. Not that he was particularly good at it. Robin was much more sensitive, much more orgasmic, than most women, a fact Clarence took to his advantage; eventually would get into the habit of diddling her up just enough to make her wet, and then climbing aboard and going to town. Sex might last five minutes. The first time he fucked her, it lasted less. He had been going down on her, "introducing" her to oral sex, when suddenly his mouth disappeared and he moved up. And, without so much as a if-you-don't-mind, she was not a virgin anymore.
She got a Depo-Provera shot the next day—and a morning-after pill, something she had always sworn she would never use, because it was too similar to abortion, too similar to murder. And yet what could she do? She believed in a woman's right to choose ... But had she chosen? Could she have stopped him? And what should she do now? Should she admit defeat? No; that was not in her nature. She would make the best of it. She would do what she could with what she had. She was delighted when he proposed.
It was, quite possibly, the last time she felt happy. At least, until Nathan.
She next met Nathan at her graduating class' five-year reunion. He shouldn't have been there, but the temporary patch allowing the alumni to use their Stag Cards to buy food, just like they had back in the old days, had gone down, and the president of the university realized it was a weekend, but they were willing to pay him overtime and there was no one else they could turn to and could he please ... When he first saw her he barely recognized her. She was heavier than she had been before, but there was a bleakness of heart, of spirit, that hung around her. The innocence—what little had been there to begin with; she was never one to remain ignorant when she had the choice—was blanketed over now by stoop-shouldered defeatism. He asked his assistant to ask that lady over there—no, that one—yes, the fat one, Jesus, is that all you think about—if she could come over and he could test her Stag Card. It still didn't work—the system still wasn't acknowledging the ad-hoc $50 every account number from her school year should have attached to it—but that wasn't why he'd called for her anyway.
It was hard to get her to talk. She was tired. She was living on her own in a seedy part of town, at the end of a messy and contentious divorce that had left her and her ex-husband quite a lot poorer than they started (but their lawyers much richer), and working two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. Ends weren't meeting. She might have to move home. Her parents assured her she would be welcome, but, well ... He knew how it was, didn't he? Yes he did. And what he saw he wasn't pleased with. The fearless willingness to face the truth, to not flinch in the face of reality, that he had loved so, was now replaced with bitterness and bone-deep weariness. She didn't even soften why she had come to this reunion: it wasn't to meet old friends or renew business connections. What did she have to offer, except her body? No; she was here for her MRS degree.
Nathan made some calls. As it just so happened, his company was looking for a part-time, ad-hoc secretary/receptionist. He could offer better hours than her current jobs, and much better wages. It was flattering to think that maybe she had come here looking for him; but no, he wasn't from the same graduating class, he shouldn't have been here at all. He wasn't the type to lie to himself. But now she was here, and he was too, and he had to do something.
He asked her out in the most outrageous way possible: by firing her. After eight months of better conditions and much more sleep, she had some of her old fire back. She was passionate, challenging what she thought was wrong, fighting for what she thought was right. But that youthful fire had been tempered by the rigid winds of pain; she was more willing to admit she was wrong, more understanding of compromise, a better peacekeeper. He was with her through all of it—helping her buy furniture, treating her to lunch, helping her make or re-make friends. He was at her side through all of it, as she slowly woke up from her nightmare, and he burned for her; she had never been more lovely to him. But he and she both knew how stupid it was to date her boss. So he told her he had a friend in the publishing industry who needed someone like her, and that he had set up an interview for her tomorrow, and then gave her a pink slip with the dinner reservations and that age-old question scribbled across the bottom. Once she understood what was going on, she slapped him, while everyone in the office laughed.
But she did agree to go out with him.
He would be thirty soon, and they had been going out for a year and a half. He felt confident that she was the one, but at her insistence they didn't rush things, giving it a lengthy courtship. Of course, sex was on hold, the way it had been the first time, and for a while quite a lot of the emotional and physical intimacies of love were belayed as well. Robin needed distance. Robin needed to delay. She had gone to the altar with one man already, and it had been a horrendous mistake. True, Nathan was about as opposite from Clarence as it was possible to get; but opposite didn't mean better, just different. Robin had been burned. She was wary now. She saw how much her flightiness wore on Nathan, saw how much patience he had to muster to stay with her, and wished she could do something about it; but she needed to know, for herself, in herself, that she wouldn't be making a mistake this time.
But they were together again. She was the head of the editing department at her publisher's; he ran his business. They cooked together, did the dishes together, argued over the television together, went to the gym together (more for his sake than hers, now that her weight had stabilized), grumbled together, laughed together. They had started to talk a little bit about what it might be like to be married; then the conversations stopped being "if" and started being "when". She was comfortable with him, relaxed in a way she had never been able to be, not even the first time; she knew he had seen her at her worst, and not turned away, and that she could be herself with him and still be loved. She could kiss him, or feel his arm around her, or even just call him up and hear his voice, and know (deep in that place below conscious thought) that she was in the right place.
And then Clarence e-mailed her again.
"Explain to me again how we got here," Nathan said, tugging at the lapel of his suit. The thing was starched to razor's edges. He felt like it was made of plaster.
"It's what he does," Robin sighed. "He asks for a small thing, and we say yes. And then he asks for a bigger one in the same vein, and because we already said yes to the first one, we feel like we should say yes to this one too."
"Why?" said Nathan. "Why do we say yes?"
"I dunno," Robin said. "I had years to study it and I still don't understand. I think it's because we, as human beings, try to keep our word. So we said yes to the first one, and then we figure, 'Oh, that makes me the kind of person who does stuff like this.'"
"Like, meeting your ex-husband for lunch at the swankiest place in town?" Nathan said. "Do you have any idea how much of my gross operating budget this afternoon will cost?"
"I'm certain that, once I look at a menu, I will," Robin said.
He sent her a mock glower. "How do you know what my company's operating budget is?"
"Well, besides being friends with your accountant?" Robin said. Stacy was one of the first friends she made after Clarence. It was funny how her whole life could divide so neatly into those two categories: Before Clarence, and After. "I can just ask her, and she'll probably tell me. Or I could check the spreadsheets on your computer. Or..."
"All right, all right," said Nathan.
"Clarence didn't keep spreadsheets," Robin remarked, reflecting. "Not for finances anyway."
"Did you ever have enough money to need them?" Nathan asked.
Now it was her turn to glare.
Nathan said: "Look, hon, I ... When I first met you..."
"The first time or the second time?"
"The second time."
" ... Oh."
"Yeah, you see? It wasn't a good time for you. And, Robin, everyone could see that."
"Not everyone. Nobody did anything except you."
"Nobody cared enough," he agreed. "But I did. I saw you and I just ... I mean, you were gone. You were like a walking dead man. —Woman. Whatever. You just ... You were on your feet, you were still shuffling around, but you were dead inside. And I just thought ... No, I can't let that happen. If there is any spark of life in there, I need ... I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't."
She gave a cynical smile and gestured to her body: "You just wanted a piece of this."
"No, I ... Well, yes, fine, that was part of it. But Robin, you know by now I didn't marry you to get into your pants. Or, at least, you should."
She shrugged assent. He hated when she got cynical like this.
"Robin, I ... Look, the point is ... That's who I saw. I saw someone who had been beaten; and I saw someone who had been defeated. And ... You can't ask me to be positive about the guy who did that to you."
"But I can ask you to go to lunch with him," she said.
An impatient sigh: "Yes, you can. And because I love you, I will. But not because I have anything for him. It's you I love. It's you I care about. And I'm willing to do this only because it makes you happy."
She gave him a smirk. "So I better enjoy it, is that what you're saying?"
He turned away. "God, I'm not explaining this at all, am I." Frustration roiled through him. Why was it so hard to say what he felt?
Her finger under his chin drew him back to her. "Nathan, I get it." She smiled, her face inches from his. "And believe me, I really appreciate it. I couldn't have come if you didn't want to."
"Oh, great: so you mean I could've aborted this whole thing by saying I had a meeting?"
She gave him a smile, and then a kiss—sweet, gentle, the uncomplicated girl he had once known. She kissed him, and it was like the first time again.
A hearty voice said: "Hey, that's my ex-wife you got yer paws on!"
They turned, almost bumping heads. Yep, it was Clarence all right. He had grown out his mustache into a bushy horseshoe, and he had traded in the rodeo wear for motorcycle gear—a plain white helmet in hand, and a leather jacket that hung on him awkardly—but, by and large, it was the same Clarence. Robin gave him a hug, and then, after a bit of hesitation, a kiss on the cheek. What was the etiquette for meeting an ex-husband? With your new boyfriend beside you? An ex-husband you didn't really care for anymore, didn't plan to befriend, didn't plan to have in your life anymore? Not for the first time, she thanked God or fate or whatever celestial power ruled her life that she and Clarence had not had children together.
Robin made the introductions: "Clarence, this is Nathan. Nathan, Clarence." As if any were needed!
Clarence displaced a hand to be shaken. "Now, I think I met you at my wedding. Weren't you one of those in attendance?"
"As I recall," Nathan said. He confined himself to the handshake. He had always envied Clarence his easy confidence, his way of assuming he could just charm his way through any situation. He caught Robin's hand in his own and held it fast, and then cursed himself for possessiveness.
Nathan was right about the operating budget.
For a while it was just small talk: nice weather we've been having, did you catch the game last night. Then there was a lot of catching up to do. Nathan gave the condensed version of his life story—it had been boring, by and large, if pleasant so far—and Robin the sanitized version of hers. She knew fully what Nathan had sensed: that Clarence was quick to attack weakness. She did not intend to show any. She held Nathan's hand over the table.
Clarence did most of the talking for this section of the conversation; he was, Nathan thought, the kind of man who loved the sound of his own voice. From the way he said it, he had indeed gotten his life in turnaround: evidently, being left by his wife had shaken him up some, and he'd taken the chance to sit down and really think about who he'd become. "I never thought ... I mean, I never expected to be that kind of man, you know? The kind of man that a woman would have to leave."
That seemed silly to Nathan—had he never been broken up with over the course of his life?—but he went with it. "We always figure this sort of thing will happen to somebody else. We always figure we're too... normal for it to happen to us."
Clarence mimed firing a gun at him. "Bullseye. That's exactly it, man. That's exactly it." As a salute, it left something to be desired, but Nathan kept his face impassive. "I just ... It wasn't where I expected to be, you know? So I really sat back and figured out how I'd got there, and ... Excuse me." A buzzing noise interrupted him. He glanced down, pulled out his cellphone, frowned at it for a moment, silenced the call. "Where was I?"
Robin had taken the moment to glance at her boyfriend. Clarence was playing the charm full force, and she could see that Nathan wasn't particularly impressed by it—and, probably, was a little resentful that he wasn't fully able to resist it. But it would keep him on his guard, and that was all she could ask for right now. "I had just left you," she said helpfully. "You wanted to figure out what went wrong."
To hear Clarence tell it, he had embarked on a massive self-improvement campaign from then on out. He'd started searching the job market, started hitting the gym, started eating healthier. He'd even (he confessed) canceled his cable subscription to channels of an ... adult nature—now, now, he knew this would shock her, because she'd never suspected, but, even while they were married, well ... He played the shame well. It might even be genuine.
Robin had her doubts. Clarence had a pretty thorough metabolism; he didn't seem to have gained, or lost, much weight since she'd last seen him, and she knew that he might not have actually changed his lifestyle. But as a decoration, it was mostly harmless, and how would she prove it? Besides, he was in the police force now. Clearly, he'd made good on some level; the cops weren't stupid enough to take on a total screw-up. She hoped. Nonetheless, she decided to obey the speed limit exactly for the rest of her life.
Several times during the recitation, Clarence's phone rang. Each time, he muted it. "Don't you want to get that," Nathan asked, "maybe there's a big accident on the freeway," but Clarence shook his head. Finally he made some adjustment and tossed it down on the table. "Damn these new gizmos. I could never understand them. I'm too old for them. Remember when phones had a dial?"
"I try not to," Nathan said.
"So," said Clarence. "Yeah. I done my best to turn myself around. I'm not proud of what I once was. But, I've done what I can, and now I can put that behind me."
"Good," said Robin, "good. Clarence, that will help you. A man who can face his mistakes ... Women like that."
Clarence looked at her. "Do you like that?"
"O-Of course," said Robin, startled. Nathan had a moment of upswelling fear, remembering everything she had said about Clarence's ability to get an inch and take a foot. But she smiled and added: "Why do you think I'm with Nathan?"
"Mmm," said Clarence, nodding. "Good of you. So, Nathan, what is it that you do again? Some computing stuff?"
Nathan nodded. "They're getting pretty complex these days. Really, it's not too hard—I think that, if the average person were brave enough to open up their computer, they could figure a lot of it out by themselves. But most people think their computers are these magic boxes that they don't have a chance of understanding. Which means that, if it breaks, they're in trouble. My company exists to fix those problems."
"So, basically," said Clarence, with just enough delay to indicate skepticism. "People pay you to do something they could probably do for themselves ... For free."
Nathan gave a shrug. "Well, you could say that about most services. Car washes? Hair dressers? Restaurants? People are willing to pay for peace of mind, for confidence that the job's being done well." It was a low blow—and besides, he believed in gun control—but he threw it anyway: "Even your job would be like that, if everyone had guns."
Robin gave him a cross look, but Clarence took it up in an unexpected way: he slapped the table and guffawed. "Lord, ain't that the truth! Why have a police force, anyway? It's right there in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers always felt that the people should have the right to overthrow the government if necessary—why else would they put the Second Amendment in? But, I tell ya, man—" He slapped the table again. "If we got rid of the cops, who'd be between us and the idiots with guns? Ha!" Oh, he got a big laugh out of that one. Robin and Nathan traded glances, not entirely sure what to make of it.
"So, what," said Clarence, once he had his composure back, "you gotta ... Run around all day, fixing up people's broken computers?"
"More or less," said Nathan.
"Ever get, like, crazy stuff? Like, somebody stick an apple in it?"
Nathan shrugged. "More or less." It had been noodles. Mrs. Brakowski was now sternly admonished not to let her toddler wander into the computer room.
"Must not be a lot of money in that kind of work," Clarence said.
"You'd be surprised," said Nathan, shrugging again. "It pays the bills, and that's all that matters."
"Sure enough, sure enough," said Clarence. "Still, don't you got a future to think about? I mean, what about your children?"
"What about our children?" Robin said sharply.
Clarence seemed taken aback for the first time that day. "Well, I mean ... Don't you gotta provide for them? That's a lot of money. What's the statistic now? Half a million to raise one child to adulthood?"
Put that way, it did seem kind of worrisome. Robin spoke as much to allay her own fears as to answer the question: "Then, before we have them, we'll make sure we're ready."
Clarence blinked. "... 'Before'?"
"Clarence, I don't know where you got the idea that Nathan and I have children. I've certainly never said anything to that effect." And if we did, I probably wouldn't have told you. "Perhaps we will some day. But not yet."
"Oh," said Clarence, "oh. Well. Well!" He laughed. "I just ... I just figured ... Well, you must excuse me. When you get to be our age, after all ... Biological clock starts ticking and all that." He seemed curiously lightened by the resolution.
"Well, we'd have to get married first," Nathan said. "Unless we wanted to do it the other way around. Which I don't think we do. We figure, let's get some money under our feet, get done with our jobs ... You know. Take our time."
"What, you're gonna make her have a job even if you marry her?" Clarence said. He turned to his ex-wife. "Wouldn't you rather get to stay home and relax all day?"
The last time I did that, my husband criticized me for it. "I find it better to be productive," she said smoothly.
Clarence looked between them for a long time. "Robin," he said finally, "darlin, I ... Hold on." His phone was shrilling again, hopping up and down on the white tablecloth. "Darlin, I ... I hate to be the one to have to say this, but ... Are you sure he's the right one for you?"
Robin felt her eyes narrow. "What?"
"I'm just ... I'm just saying that a, a woman of your ... Of your worth, and talents, and breeding ... Ought to be treated better than you are."
Nathan gave a single snort of derision. "This is what you made me order a fifty-dollar appetizer for?"
"Clarence, I have no idea what is going through your head, but whatever it is, you can just stop it right now."
"Now, darlin," he said, a picture of wide-eyed innocence, "don't go over-reacting on me—"
"Don't patronize me, Clarence," she said.
"I am not patronizing you," he insisted. "I am merely concerned—as someone who was once a member of your life, a fairly important member— Oh, for God's sake!" It was the phone again.
"Yes, you were an important member," Robin said as he fumbled for it. "And, as I recall, you've done some thinking as to why you're not anymore. Want to talk about what you learned?"
"Yeah, I did some thinking," Clarence said. "And what I see in your fellow right now is a lot of what I was back then! You can't blame me for—"
"What you see?" Robin said, her voice icy. "Or what you want to see?"
She saw Clarence's eyes harden—the same rage that had once meant she was in for another painful night. It still had some power over her, even now, and she turned to Nathan. "Wanna help out a bit, hon?"
Nathan gave a single mirthless laugh. "Why? You're doing fine on your own." And he squeezed her hand, and when she turned back to her ex-husband she could face him without flinching.
"For your information, Nathan is not a workman clipping wires together in the back of some garage. He is the president of a company that fixes most of the computers in this city. I keep my job because I like it—because, believe it or not, sitting at home eating bon-bons is not my idea of an ideal lifestyle. And Nathan is perfect for me. Perfect."
"Oh really?" said Clarence, with an audible sneer.
"Yes," said Robin. "Because he understands me. Who would you prefer to set me up with? What's your counter-offer?"
Nathan said, "Himself."
Now it was her husband Clarence was frowning death at; but Nathan had been affecting a bored nonchalance this entire time, gazing out over the restaurant; and now, even with the heat-ray glare of Clarence's anger on him, he didn't flinch or even twitch. She hadn't known he had that much steel in him.
The impasse was broken by the cell phone again. Clarence made to mute it, but Robin—possessed by something, a devil maybe—was faster. The little display on the front said "Home", which could mean anything. She flicked it open, ignoring Clarence's protests, and said, "Hello?"
There was a long silence from the other end of the phone, punctuated finally by a bluster of noise: "What the fucking Jesus?"
"I believe fucking Jesus is against several religions, ma'am," said Robin. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Nathan smirk.
"Who the fuck is this! What are you doing answering this phone, slut?"
"Well, I beg your pardon, ma'am," Robin said, struggling to keep a straight expression. Clarence could probably not hear the other party over the din of the restaurant—then again, this woman was yelling so loud he could probably hear the tone of the words, if not the words themselves. His expression—twisting from anger to dread to triumph in equal amounts—was something to behold. "Perhaps you have a wrong number. Whom were you trying to reach?"
"Is this or is this not Mr. Cluth's cellphone?!"
"Umm, as a matter of fact it is, ma'am." Glibness seized her: "Clarence Cluth's cellphone speaking. How may I help you."
"You tell that motherfucking son of a bitch to get his ass back here right now! His son has been screaming its little ass off all morning! And you, my dear little hussy—the moment I find out what your name is, I will circulate it and my friends on the force will have you locked up! That is a married man you have sunk your pathetic little claws into! Prostitution is illegal in this state, as you damn well know seeing as you are one, and—"
Robin leaned the cellphone away from her ear, unable to keep the smile off her face now. "It's your wife!" she said. "Here, she wants to talk to you."
Nathan gave a single guffaw. What little color remained in Clarence's face subsided into pale fear. He shook his head.
The missus was still going. "—what he would want with a pathetic woman like you, probably a scrawny little bitch with tits like thimbles, what's your name, anyway, Butter??"
"Well, if you insist..." said Robin, and closed the phone and tossed it to the table.
Nathan sprang to his feet. "Darling? Shall we?" He bowed to Clarence. "It's been a pleasure."
"It has indeed," Robin said, beaming. "It's good to catch up with old friends, isn't it? Ciao."
Clarence remained sitting, staring at the table. As they left, the phone started ringing again.
They laughed all the way home.
In the days following, she spent more time with him than ever before: talking with him, laughing with him, touching him. There was little they didn't share in those couple of weeks. She felt more comfortable with him than she had with anyone, felt as though there need be no limits between them, no boundaries. But there was one. Just one.