When First We Practice to Deceive
Anne Brisk & Susan X Meagher
Copyright © 2014 Anne Brisk & Susan X Meagher
"Pass me a pancake, will you?"
"Here you go." Jean-Claude took the container from the coffee table and held it out to Tracy.
"The moo shu is good tonight, don’t you think?"
"Yes. Very. Oh! Did I tell you what happened with Gretchen? She’s married!
"Married, huh? Bummer."
"What’s wrong with women today? The single ones don’t seem very single, and the married ones don’t seem very married. I cannot believe how Gretchen behaved. In France, affairs are not uncommon, but women are honest about being married." His grumpiness showed clearly in his pout. "I would never consider dating a woman who would lie like that."
Tracy snorted out a laugh. "But it’d be okay that she was lying to her husband?"
"It is different," he sniffed.
"Things have gotten desperate. Your love life needs an intervention."
"I know! How will you get me one of these interventions?"
"I’m kidding, buddy. But you could use some help."
His head dropped to rest on his sofa. "I have begun to hate my life. I work at least twelve hours a day, I’m away from home for business all of the time – how will I ever meet a woman?"
"It’s not hard to meet women, Jean-Claude. You could have a different one every night!"
"I don’t want that," he said, his frown warning her off. "I’m ready for love. For a family. My mother agrees. She is ready to leave Lyon and come here with a French girl under one arm and a decent baguette under the other."
"I think it’s time we took drastic action, Jean-Claude. It’s time to let the Internet do your shopping."
"Oh, no. Stop now. That is not for me."
Tracy got up from the floor and headed for the kitchen. "Want another beer? And have you tried?"
"Yes. And, no, it’s humiliating! I’m a decent-looking guy, I have this wonderful accent, and a good job. Something is wrong. Where’s the American dream?"
"Oh, poor baby." Tracy kissed him on the head on the way past. "You’re more than decent-looking, but the people you work with are mostly men. You don’t have time to meet quality women in the usual ways, so you need to be bold."
"How do you meet women, Tracy? Do you use the Internet?"
"No, but I should. I haven’t met a truly pretty woman in over a year."
He smiled at her indulgently. "A woman’s worth is more than her face, my friend."
"I know that. I need a woman with a great body, too." Tracy watched her joke go winging by. The language barrier often made subtlety a wasted effort.
"Beauty fades. It’s love that lasts." He made a dismissive gesture when he saw the smile on her face. "I waste my words with you, but I will keep trying to change your mind."
"I want you to change yours, too. Come on and take a risk."
"How big is the risk?" he asked, looking at her speculatively.
She held up her hand and moved her thumb and forefinger a short distance apart. "Very, very small. If you don’t like the women who reply to you, you quit the dating service. No one will ever know. You use an alias and everything, buddy. This can be our little secret."
"A secret?" He gave her his sexiest smile. "I love a good secret. When do we begin?"
"Leave it all to me. I’ll figure out which service is the best one, and I’ll even fill out your profile. I know you as well as you know yourself, and I’m not shy about boasting about you – in good taste, of course. You’re too self-effacing."
"Self-effacing? What is this?"
"It means you’re too French," she said, barely able to keep the laughter out of her voice. She was up and running before he could reach her.
* * *
"Oh, no, no, no, no," Jean-Claude said. "You'll have women coming after me with torches. I don't want to – ach – how could you put this down?"
Tracy tried to interject, "Jean-Claude –"
"You make it sound like I have only one focus. I like an attractive woman as well as any man, but that is not my only requirement. I want a woman who loves the same things I do; a woman who's intelligent and well-read. I want a woman who makes me laugh. There's nothing in this form that indicates my wishes!" He was dramatically waving the paper in the air, looking a little like a member of a mob just about to storm the Bastille.
"All right, all right, Robespierre. Take it easy. I haven't submitted anything yet. It's easy to find funny, ugly girls – take my word on this – but much harder to find funny, pretty girls. So why not let the first cut be the hard one?"
Jean-Claude threw himself onto the sofa with ridiculous enthusiasm, then looked up, sweet and boyish, through his long lashes. "Are you sure?”
"Of course I'm sure. We talked about this. Why are you so worried?"
With true and unmistakable anguish in his voice, Jean-Claude said, "What if I'm a Pindexter?"
"That's pinhead and Poindexter, and you won't be either."
"I still don't like the focus," Jean-Claude said. "Why don't we go to the site and work on this together?"
"Oh, all right," Tracy said. "Although I think your profile is just perfect as it is, I'll be nice."
Jean-Claude pulled out his laptop, and the pair sat in front of it, arguing and teasing one another until they had a reasonable compromise.
Jean-Claude sat back, pleased. "Okay – this is one small step for men – no – man. One man, not men, right? I’m talking about me, after all. So … what’s the end –"
"It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. Really. But – Whoa! – don’t hit enter!"
"Why not? We’re finished, no?"
"No." She put her arm around her friend and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank God I’m here for you. You can’t use your real email address. Some of these women are desperate. If they think they have a chance to capture a hottie like you, they’ll hound you for the rest of your days!"
His eyes grew wide with alarm. "What do I do?"
"We’ll open an account for you on Gmail, sweetie. Then, if you want to quit the whole thing, you can just stop checking your mail. It’s painless."
"How do we do this? I don’t know the Gmail."
"Well, as luck would have it, I know the Gmail. First, we have to come up with a dating service screen name for you. Then we can use that name to open the Gmail account." She gave him a narrow-lidded, snake-eyed stare, making him recoil a little bit. "How about … Franco American?"
"Franco American what?" he asked, giving her a very puzzled look.
"I was trying to make a play on words. There’s a company that makes spaghetti in a can, and it’s called Franco American. You’re French, and you’re looking for an American, right?"
He looked at her like she was a particularly dull-witted child. "I don’t know why anyone would eat spaghetti from a can, I don’t know why such a product would be associated with the French, and I don’t know who will understand this odd name – except you, of course."
"Fine," she sniffed. "Make up your own name. It’s not as easy as it looks."
"I will," he said, his pride obviously on the line. "I want to sound professional and intelligent. Maybe I should sound even more intelligent than I am, just to intimidate my dull competitors."
"That shouldn’t be too hard," Tracy said, trying to get him back for his jibe about her suggestion.
"Ha, ha." He bumped her with his shoulder and smiled at her. "Come on, now. Help me. I want to give a good impression."
"Okay." Tracy put her mind to the issue and thought for a minute. "I guess your name isn’t the most important thing, but it can hurt you if it’s too childish or silly. Let’s try to keep it simple. How about ‘Enlightened Man?’ That hints that you’re a lighting designer, and it also shows how evolved you are."
He sat back, letting the name rumble around in his brain for a few moments. Smiling, he said, "I think that’s a good one. Not that I doubted you’d be able to come up with the perfect name."
"Glad to be of service." She took his laptop and went to the Gmail site, managing to procure ‘Enlightened Man 71.’
"What is the seventy-one?" he asked.
"There are seventy other guys on Gmail who think they’re enlightened," she said. "I bet the real number is about six, but we have to take what we can get."
"Okay. Seventy-one has no significance for me, but I’ll try to remember it. Now what?"
"Now we add your name to your profile and send it." She typed the words into the form and muttered, "I still can't believe you're insisting on not requiring a picture."
"I included all of my favorite physical requirements just to satisfy you," Jean-Claude said. "I trust the women of America to be honest and self-aware."
Tracy snorted in derision. "Okaaaaay."
"You don't think women will tell the truth?" he asked.
"No! How can you be so naïve?"
"Naïve? How can you be so untrusting?"
"Well, my friend, there's only one way to find out. The proof is in the soufflé."
"Why do I never know what you're talking about?"
She ran her hand through his hair, ruffling it. "I was just tweaking a common expression to make it more French."
"Oh, yes, well, that did it for me," he said, sarcasm dripping. He took her chin in his fingers and lifted her head until she was staring into his dark, soulful eyes. "If you truly care about me, you'll stop doing that. It harms both of our languages, and yours is in enough trouble as it is."
* * *
Tracy left her jazz class more energized than she’d been in months. Phil’s class usually left her a bit drained, but today there’d been a buzz in the air about a new Ken Krause show. It was rumored to have a giant chorus – a rarity on Broadway these days. The winter season had been filled with straight plays, and Tracy’d finally had to resort to waitressing and the odd industrial show just to pay the rent. It was the first time in three years that she’d had to wait tables, but she was luckier than most dancers, and she knew it. She was excited when she heard the news about the possible production because she knew Ken Krause, and he knew her work and liked it.
Pamela Lamb came over as Tracy changed. "Split a wheatgrass at the farmer’s market?"
"Pammy, you temptress, how I wish I could. But I’ve got a little project going with my buddy, Jean-Claude."
"How can you stay gay with that gorgeous Parisian around? Do you think he’d be interested in me?"
Tracy turned and gave Pam her full attention. "Now, Pam, really listen. Okay? One. Not all of France is Paris. Jean-Claude is from Lyon. Two. You’re married."
Pam picked up her dance bag, throwing it over her shoulder and laughing. As she headed for the stairs, she looked back at Tracy. "I don’t know when you got to be such a traditionalist."
* * *
Tracy headed over to the Seventh Avenue subway to make the trip to Jean-Claude’s Upper West Side digs.
After walking up the four flights, she lunged for his drink, downing it in two massive gulps. "Yuuuck! You know I hate iced coffee!"
He smiled at her, then gave her a quick kiss on both cheeks. His chin tilted up and he licked his lips. "Mmm … salt. You’ve been in a class, haven’t you?"
"Yes, Mister Taste Bud, I have. Now let’s have something decent to drink and get down to work."
"Ohh … we’re excited, are we? I find this adorable!"
"I want you to experience the bliss of union, my friend."
"I doubt your motive, but I appreciate your enthusiasm anyway. Let’s go."
They took their usual positions on the floor and Jean-Claude logged into his new mail box. "Look! I have mail!"
Tracy smiled at his boyish excitement which was only slightly dimmed by his having to delete the first six messages, all from Gmail, welcoming him and trying to entice him to sign up for more services. "Five replies from women," he said, beaming. "I’m not the Poindexter, after all."
They went to the dating service site and spent a few minutes looking at the profiles of the women. Tracy was impressed with three of the respondents, and she said, "Let’s get busy and reply to the good ones."
He looked at her, aghast. "The good ones? We will reply to all of them."
"They don’t expect that, Jean-Claude. Really."
"Whether they expect it or not is not my concern. Not replying is rude, and I am not a rude man. That’s that."
He was giving her his most insolent look, and she knew she was wasting her time in trying to argue with him. "Fine. Go right ahead."
"Well, I need a little help from you," he said, his expression softening. "Writing your language is so much more difficult than speaking it. I want to appear well-educated, and I’m afraid I won’t if I have mistakes in my grammar. Will you reply for me after I tell you what I want to say?"
"I’ll look at it with you; I’ll correct it as we go along."
"Okay. I will tell you the truth. I don’t like to type."
"How do you plan on talking to these women without typing?"
"Via the telephone. It is much easier, no?"
"No one uses the phone any more. People text."
"I use the phone," he said, his gaze narrowing. "You can tell so much more about a woman when she uses her voice."
"All right. You win. But I’m only going to do this once, so give it your best shot."
After a solid hour of first, second and third drafts, Jean-Claude was satisfied with his replies. "Do you not think it good that I told the woman from Pennsylvania that I was interested in the history of her state?" He beamed a grin.
"Oh, yes. That’s all most Pennsylvanians will talk about. It’s William Penn this and Ben Franklin that. Yadda, yadda, yadda."
"What is this ya-da?"
She stopped and looked at him, unable to think of a proper explanation. "It means … etcetera."
"Hmm … why don’t you just say etcetera? It would be more clear, no?"
"Yes. I should have. One day I’ll learn. Idioms are not my friends."
"Now what do we do?" Jean-Claude asked.
"We order in some Indian food and wait for replies."
"We will get replies tonight?"
"Maybe. But whether we do or not, I want some Indian food – and you’re buying."
* * *
They didn’t get any immediate replies, and when Tracy got ready to leave, Jean-Claude said, "Remember, I have to leave for Singapore tomorrow."
"What are you working on there?"
"We have to work on the dimmer system installation in a new theatre. It is a very impressive venue. You would love to perform there."
"I’d love to perform anywhere," she smirked.
"You will, ma petite chou. I know you will be working soon. Now, what do we do if I start to get replies? I cannot call these women from Singapore. My expense account is only so big."
"I’ll reply for you, Jean-Claude. I’ll pretend that I’m you, say that I’m going away for two weeks, and that I’ll phone when I return."
"Excellent idea! Frightening, but excellent."
"Thank you, my friend, and don’t worry, I’ll represent you well. I hope you have a good trip." She kissed both of his cheeks and hugged him. "I’ll miss you."
"I will miss you, too. See you soon."
* * *
Chloe sat at the desk in her office, looking at the profile of "Enlightened Man 71." This guy looks great on paper, and his profile is very well thought out. He seems remarkably polite, and God knows that’s a plus. So why am I so frightened to give this a try?
She picked up the phone and dialed her sister. "Hi, Grace. Chloe."
"Hi, sis, what’s up?"
"Well, I’m having second and third and fourth thoughts about this dating service. I need some encouragement or I’m gonna chuck the whole thing."
"Where are you?"
"At home. In my office."
"Sweetie. Your so-called office is the corner of your studio apartment."
"It’s my office," Chloe maintained. "I don’t do anything in this corner except office kinda things, and that counts."
"You should move out here to Jersey, little sister. It’s only twenty minutes to Manhattan, and you could have a house for what you’re paying. We have great restaurants, and the shopping is so much better. You don’t have to walk for miles and miles to go to a department store."
Chloe had been hearing this same refrain ever since her sister and brother-in-law had given up their perfectly charming one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side and decamped to New Jersey. She knew that part of her sister’s inveigling was to have some company in her misery, but she wasn’t swayed. "I know it’s lovely in Paramus, Grace, but I’m a New Yorker. Always will be. I don’t care if I have to live in a fifth floor walk-up with a bathroom down the hall."
"Well, maybe the man you meet will have a bigger place," Grace said. "Now tell me why you want to back out. We’ve been through this at least five times."
"I know, but I’m still ambivalent."
"Don’t tell him that right off," Grace laughed.
"Funny. But I will tell him that I’m bisexual right off. I’m not ashamed of it, and if a guy is put off by it I’d rather know that up front."
Grace sighed, something she did often when they spoke. "You have to play it cool, Chloe, don’t scare the men off right away."
"I’m not even sure I’m doing this for the right reasons," she said. "Maybe I should try to find another girlfriend."
"After your last breakup? You’ve got to be kidding! You swore you would never be in another relationship with a woman."
"I know I did, but I was really hurt, Grace. I say a lot of things when I’m hurt. You can’t take me too literally."
"Look, Chloe, I know you find men attractive, why not give one a try? How much worse could it be? For God’s sake, you threw her clothes out the window!"
"She’s lucky I didn’t throw her cello out, too. I swear I would have done it if she’d played the piccolo. I just didn’t want to kill a pedestrian."
"You’ve had some very unsatisfying relationships, sis. You might as well give the other side a fair chance. You’ve never had a serious boyfriend."
"Obviously not," Chloe said dryly. "Since I’m twenty years past the boyfriend stage."
"Come on, give it a chance. Then, if it doesn’t work out, you can give women another try. Come on, it’ll make Mom and Daddy so happy if you get married."
"I could always marry a woman…"
"You know what I mean. It’s easier to be with a guy. Do it for convenience, if nothing else."
"Your arguments are making me want to head for Brooklyn," Chloe said. "There’s a bar that has a wet T-shirt contest on Friday nights, and I’m not talking about hairy chests."
"Too much information, Chloe. And I’m sorry if I’m nagging you. It’s the older sister’s prerogative."
"I shouldn’t reward you like this, but I’ll let you talk me into it. I have a profile from a guy who seems really nice, and I’m gonna reply to it."
"Ooo … tell me all about him!"
"Nope. I’ll tell you after I find out more about him. I’m playing this cool, Gracie, and safe. I’m not gonna get my hopes up before I know this guy isn’t a serial killer…or a cello player."
* * *
Tracy hit "send" on the last of the five notes she’d written for Jean-Claude and mentally crossed her fingers.
* * *
The next day, she bounded into her apartment, her excitement overflowing. I can’t wait to see if Jean-Claude got any responses. She logged into his Gmail account and was elated to see that he had a reply from each of the five women he’d written to. Cool! She opened each in turn, saying, "Great … No problem … Can’t wait to talk to you when you return … I’d be happy to call you anywhere in the world …" Ooo, boy. There’s the stalker. She opened the last note and read it.
Tracy stared at the screen for a minute, the reply taking her by surprise. Huh. I didn’t plan for this. I guess I could just say that I’m gonna be too far away to sync up time zones…but she sounds kinda cool. I’d hate for Jean-Claude to miss out on this one. She could get snapped up pretty darned fast if she’s not heinous.
After considering every possible option, Tracy decided to send the woman a quick email to keep her interested. But first, she sent one to Jean-Claude:
Then she composed a message on the Gmail account:
* * *
Once more, Tracy felt her heart beating a little quicker when she got home the following evening. She’d been out with friends, and they’d lingered over after-dinner drinks until it was near midnight. She had a pleasant buzz on, but she had enough of her faculties to log onto Jean-Claude’s Gmail account. Cool! Stringy replied!
Heart beating rapidly, Tracy stood up and looked around the room breathlessly. "My God, what have I done? I can’t meet this chick in a chat room! It’s too dangerous! It’s too revealing! What is wrong with me? Why do I lead the life of Lucy Ricardo? Why am I talking to myself out loud?" Maybe it’s because you’re in a world of hurt here, Tracy! Think of something! She paced. "Okay, okay, okay."
Suddenly, she stopped and stood stock-still – stunned. "Wait a minute. Why am I so freaked about this? All I have to do is talk her out of chatting. I have to be able to come up with an acceptable lie. How about…three of my fingers are broken, and I type very slowly? No, too dramatic. I’m in meetings all day long. I won’t have a minute to spare? That might work unless she’s willing to make herself available when I am. I have to have some spare time. Aw, screw it! What am I so worried about? I’ll chat with her a couple of times and be done with it. I can wing it if it doesn’t get too involved."
She sat back down, her fingers poised over the keys of her laptop. She took a breath and went to the dating service, then logged into the chat area. There she is. Now, remember, it’s 1:30 p.m. – tomorrow. You can tell her you’re just taking a quick lunch break.
Tracy clicked on the icon next to String Theory and waited for a response.
Shit! I knew I’d screw up! Think, Tracy, think!
Tracy was leaning back from the computer screen, as though it were going to explode in her face.
Fuck me! I can’t say shit in French! Merde!
Not bad, not bad at all! Jean-Claude might even say something like that!
Go easy on the man thing, okay? That’s a tiny little insignificant lie that you won’t ever know about.
* * *
Two nights later, Tracy realized she’d made a critical tactical error in her arrangement with String.
It had been a brutish day. She’d had an audition for a national commercial spot that morning, and had thoroughly psyched herself up for it. She got to the studio primed, positive and wanting the spot – and the money and exposure it would bring.
An assistant director introduced her to the choreographer, who taught her the routine in no time. She continued to rehearse in her own corner of the studio, and asked a cameraman who walked by, "Hey, what’s this spot for? The choreographer didn’t say."
"Some kinda women’s bladder thing, honey," he said, not bothering to stop.
Great. Another cure for urinary tract infections. Damn, it’s hard to be perky for pee problems.
Nonetheless, she gave it her all, and felt pretty good about it by the time she left. She had two classes that day, modern and jazz, and she was wrung out by the time she was done. She was so tired that she skipped going to the gym for weight training, something she rarely allowed herself to do.
Now, as she sat drooping on her couch, she realized she had at least two more hours to go before she could collapse onto the bed that ever-so-softly called to her. I know. I’ll take a two-hour nap, set my alarm to get up at 12:30, and I’ll be fresh and ready to lie.
When the alarm went off, Tracy felt like the fire bell had rung, and she was the Dalmatian. Her head swiveled around, her eyes unfocused. She didn’t know why she was up, but her heart was racing and her adrenaline was pumping. She found the alarm and shut it off by gently banging it on the coffee table, then remembered why she’d set it. Wake up, Jean-Claude. Time to perform.
She went to her computer and sat down, rubbing her eyes. She’d left it up and running so she could be ready, and when she touched a key, the brightness of her screen nearly knocked her over. Squinting, she found the site and logged in. String Theory was already there, and she smiled, knowing that Jean-Claude loved a woman who was prompt.
What? Is she fucking kidding? Tracy put her head back and closed her eyes, conscious that time was passing. I don’t think I want this for my Jean-Claude. She could break his heart as easy as look at him. God knows that straight girls will break your heart, and I assume that the straight part of bisexuals is just as evil.
Tracy logged off, then sat and stared at her screen saver for a few minutes. She was too tired to let everything sink in, but she knew she…or Jean-Claude had some serious decisions to make before she spoke with String again.
* * *
At 9:00 a.m., the ringing phone jolted Tracy out of a sound sleep. You’d better be my agent calling, or you’re gonna hear an immediate dial tone. "Hello?" She waited a bit. "Aww…come on. Hello?"
"Tracy? Bon jour!"
Despite the hour, Tracy brightened immediately. "Hi, buddy! How’s everything going? Where are you? What time is it? Are you having fun?"
Laughing, her friend replied, "Alors! I’ll never keep track of all of those questions. Well, I am in Singapore, of course, and it’s going pretty well. Let me tell you, I could never work here. I wouldn’t say it’s fun, but it’s not hell – yet. I called to find out how all of my women are doing."
Tracy sat up, ordering her hair and the blankets around her. "Oh, fine. We’re right on plan, right on course, right, uh…right, uh…everything’s fine."
Jean-Claude laughed a little and said, "I know it’s early, but you sound like I’ve taken you by surprise. Is everything all right?"
"Oh, yes. Absolutely. Three of the women sound perfectly darling. They’re willing to wait until you return to talk to you on the phone. One was a little desperate. She either has a free international calling card, or she’s a stalker. She said she’d call you anywhere in the world – any time."
Jean-Claude was gleeful. "My own stalker! What about number five?"
"Well, er…phfffft…number five…is uh…"
"Out with it, Tracy! This is expensive."
"Oh. Right. Sorry. She’s the one I wrote to you about. We chatted – the minimum amount, and I found out she’s bisexual."
Jean-Claude’s voice dropped, and he let out a playful little growl. "Ohhh…that sounds interesting."
"Yeah, it could be, but in this case, I think it’s a bad sign."
"Why? Think of all we’d have in common. We’d both love women! We could watch the DVD’s and both get aroused by the same things!"
"I didn’t know you’d take it so well," Tracy deadpanned.
"What is the big deal? I don’t mind if the woman I see has loved women. It just shows that she is open-minded."
"What if she’s never loved a man?" Tracy asked.
"What? How can that be? You said she was bisexual, not lesbian."
"That’s the problem, Jean-Claude. She sounds like a lesbian who’s had her heart broken, and now she wants to date a man, just to avoid being hurt again. I like her, and I think you would, too, but I’d hate to have you get involved with someone whose bisexuality was just a theory. Especially if – as I suspect – she’s never really been intimate with a man. She didn’t say that specifically, but I got that impression."
"How much did you talk to her? That is very much information from a quick email!"
"We didn’t talk much, Jean-Claude. I’m just very good at pulling information out of people. She sounds like a great woman, and I’ve really enjoyed our talks."
Jean-Claude was quiet for a moment, then he asked, "Are you interested in this woman, Tracy?"
"I’m certain I could be, but I’d never step on your toes."
"What do you think? Can you give me your unbiased opinion, or is it too late for that?"
"No, I think I can." She composed her thoughts, then said, "Even if I didn’t like her, I wouldn’t want you to risk it. The woman’s over thirty, and she’s never been seriously into a man. That’s not a good sign in terms of heterosexuality."
"I suppose I should think about this a little bit. Can I call you back?"
"Sure. I’m supposed to talk to her tomorrow morning at 11:00 a.m. Could you call me by then?"
"You really like her, don’t you?" he asked, a warm, concerned tone in his voice.
"As much as anyone I haven’t met." She waited a beat, then admitted, "Yeah, I do like her. There’s something about her that intrigues me."
"I do not need to think about this, Tracy. If you like her, she is yours."
"Thanks, buddy," she said. "I hope it’s that easy."
* * *
Oh, great. That’s a first strike. How can you not prefer musicals – over everything?
I’m saved! First strike is officially erased!
Okay. It’s time to go all-in. From here on, only the truth. Your truth.
Tracy groaned and slapped herself on the forehead. What is wrong with me? I’m gonna fuck this up, given half a chance. I might as well start to back away from Jean-Claude’s profile.
Tracy slept in a bit that morning. When she got up she peed, tied on a robe, shuffled past her stove, turning on the flame under the tea kettle, and went to her door to bring in The Times. Once she settled on the couch, mug of tea in hand and the Arts section ready to be perused, she found herself just sitting there for quite a while. There was a strong shaft of light coming through the apartment, and she stared at the dust motes and bits floating through it. The thought that she should begin her day went round and round in her head, but she couldn’t seem to make a start. When the realization that she was feeling melancholy hit her, she was surprised. But she let herself begin to think about it and she slowly realized that she wasn’t melancholy as much as lonely. Very lonely. And just like that, her thoughts turned to String. She got up and went to her computer. But instead of turning it on, she turned away in frustration, wondering once again if she was doing the right thing.
She sat on the edge of her bed, her head dropping into her hands. A sliver of fear lodged in her gut as she considered that she had never been in this position before. The unassailable truth was that she was lying to someone she was certain she was falling for. And she was doing it for entirely selfish reasons. A dreadful unease crept into her mood. She hated this. Yet, she couldn’t find a way out. Tracy lay down, then gripped the edge of her old, soft quilt and hugged it to herself like a life preserver. She was almost in a fetal position by the time she felt a little comfort, and she drifted off to sleep, unable to wrestle with her demons for another minute.
Not surprisingly, she didn’t sleep for long, and when she woke she wasn’t feeling any better. The situation was clear, but the solution seemed so elusive. If she told String the truth, the odds were that she would be angry – and refuse to speak to her again. But if she didn’t tell her, only three possibilities existed. Either String was falling for her, too, and would be able to see past the lie; or she was falling for her, too, and would not be able to see past the lie and would never speak to her again. The third possibility was equally noxious. String wasn’t falling for her and wouldn’t care if she was a woman.
Why can’t I just get a fucking dog?
Groaning under the weight of all her thoughts, Tracy got up to take a shower and try to start her day again. She stood in the spray for a long time, simply allowing herself to feel the water beat against her skin. She lathered and rinsed everything that needed lathering and rinsing, and by that time she had decided. There was a small, but undeniable feeling of optimism growing in her consciousness. She knew now that the risk was worth it. Tracy couldn’t tell String that she was a woman – not yet – not now. Their connection was still too tenuous. But she felt confident that String cared for her and that she could make those feelings grow. By the time they met, her sex wouldn’t matter.
Tracy sat at her desk and started to log onto her computer. As it hummed quietly she was hit with a mildly terrifying thought. What if String looks like the back end of a horse? I’m falling for this woman!
* * *
For the rest of the week, the pair talked daily and began to delve into the deep recesses of each other’s pasts. Tracy was being her full, authentic self, telling String everything about growing up, her family, her interests and her fears. The only thing she had to work around was the fact that she’d grown up in Lima, Ohio and not Lyon, France. But she deftly stepped around that land-mine when she told String that her parents had been in France on vacation when she was born – and that she had no more association with the French than liking their fries and their mustard. She had one window open telling String about having taken French language classes in college and another window showing the registration form for the beginners’ program at l’Alliance Française.
String was equally forthcoming, while still fervently preserving her anonymity. She told E about her musical training, her years at Juilliard, her long struggle to reach a very good degree of success in her career. E was more than empathetic, having faced some of the same struggles, and this bond served to bring them even closer together.
* * *
On Saturday night, Chloe spent a long time getting ready for work. She owned only four acceptable ensembles, which she considered her uniforms. Her hand went into the closet and grabbed the closest one; a tasteful, floor-length black skirt and a black beaded top. She spent more time than usual accessorizing her ensemble, unaccountably feeling like she was going on a date. Holding up a pair of pearl earrings, she thought, I hope E likes a woman who dresses fairly simply. I’m afraid I’ll never be the girl in tight jeans, cowboy boots or five inch heels. That’s the one thing I’m worried about. I just can’t compete with a flashy woman who feels comfortable driving a Corvette. I’m more of a bicycle person myself. Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Corvette in Manhattan, but there must be one…or two.
She found a matching pearl necklace and nodded in satisfaction when she’d fastened it. Not bad for a simple girl from the Upper East Side. She decided to wear her hair in a French braid, and after she’d finished she adorned it with a pearl pin. A whiff of perfume, and she was ready to go. But she stared at herself in the mirror, looking over every detail. He’s not going to be there tonight, Chloe. Calm down.
She wheeled her instrument down the street, drawing the usual puzzled glances from passers-by. Her bus arrived quickly, and the driver kindly lowered the lift so she didn’t have to drag her case up the steps. She was able to snare one of the single seats, and as she began her trip she started to think. I feel like I know E better than I know some of my friends. We’ve gotten so close so fast! This has never happened to me before, but I think the Internet could be the cause. Without the physical reality of him getting in the way I’m getting to know his mind and his heart before I start picking on the fact that his ears are too big or his chin is too weak. She laughed at the fact that she’d done just that to the poor people she’d dated recently. But I don’t think I’ll be like that with E. I feel like we’re already past that part. I’m falling for him, and I don’t even know what color his hair is, or how tall he is. I’m not even sure what his skin color is, or whether he’s religious. But I feel that I know everything that’s important to him – and that’s what’s important to me, too.
She arrived at work and started to set up, absently gazing at her co-workers as they did the same. She gave a quick wave to Alan, a piccolo player, and was again struck with the thought that she didn’t have any idea of what E looked like. She’d always been attracted to men who were a little hyper-masculine, appreciating the huge difference between a man and a woman. But what if E were more like Alan? She knew that Alan was straight, but he was the gayest straight man she’d ever met in her life. Could she love E if he was effete, lithe, even effeminate?
Her mind roamed while she tried to tune her instrument. Now that I think about it, I’ve never gotten such feminine vibes from a man. He’s so intuitive about my feelings and thoughts. He senses my moods – over the Internet! My God, how sensitive will he be in person? She put her bow down and rested her hands on her knees. Okay, Chloe. Take a breath. How can you come up with a list of things to worry about when you haven’t even met the man? You know so much about his heart! Forget about his biceps! You’re a mature adult. At some point you have to realize that the most important things in a person can’t be seen with the naked eye. Use this opportunity to grow up!
* * *
As the weeks passed, the pair fell into a comfortable rhythm, chatting two or three times a day. They usually logged on for a few minutes first thing in the morning, then checked in around dinner time. The bulk of their daily conversation was after work, when they were both physically tired, but energized from performing. Tracy had been cast in the new Ken Krause production, which was scheduled to open in the fall season, and her luck continued when she was made dance captain on the latest Encores! series production at City Center. She was working harder than she had in two years, but loving every moment of it, and her ebullient mood continued long into the night.
Both women were happier than they’d been since they could remember. They were living one of those stolen seasons that could never be repeated. Everything seemed to go right, and of course, each of them felt on the verge of a wonderful romance. And…each harbored the thought that this could be "the one."
Tracy’s heart was beating like a drum. The day she’d dreamed of had finally arrived, and now she was so frightened that she was afraid she’d faint. Her hands shook violently and she had to concentrate to type a few words.
I’ll do the same, but my dreams will be nightmares. I have to come up with a way to save this relationship! It’s the only one I’ve ever had that I can’t bear the thought of losing.
* * *
Tracy woke with a start, sick to her stomach from a night with little sleep. She had tossed and turned and sweated and cried, knowing in her heart that her impending revelation would not go well. She dragged herself out of bed, filled with dread and a feeling of loss. She felt every regret that she now knew she should have been feeling the entire time. She’d been so adept at keeping herself in a state of intense denial that the reality of what she’d done hit her like a boulder flying down a steep hill.
She was an optimist by nature, and she longed to feel a glimmer of hope that things would work out. After all, String had fallen in love with her, not some anonymous man. She hadn’t been impersonating someone else. She’d been authentic – more authentic than she could ever remember being. She and String were in love with each other, and there was a chance that she could be forgiven. It wasn’t a big chance, but it was a chance, and it was the only thing that gave her the courage to log onto the website.
By the time Tracy started to type a response, String Theory was gone.
* * *
Tracy logged into the site at least a dozen times a day for the next week. It took nearly a month until she finally got up the nerve to send a note to the email address she had first replied to, but String had closed the account. She had no way to contact her and no hope of ever finding her again.
But, to her own surprise, Tracy didn’t give up. She spent every free night going to every symphonic and orchestral program in the tri-state area, looking for her, studying every woman who played a string instrument. But without the simplest description, all she managed to do was hear some wonderful music. Most of the time, she spent the entire performance crying quietly, knowing that she’d made the greatest mistake of her life.
Jean-Claude had been very supportive during her emotional meltdown, but even his good cheer couldn’t penetrate her depression. She kept studying at l’Alliance Française, managing to graduate to an intermediate class. She knew that it was a waste of time and money, but it was important that she speak French because she’d told String that she did. She found that being honest and forthright was becoming an obsession with her, and the change had been beneficial in most of her relationships. Lot of good it does me now. The one person who honesty most mattered to is lost forever.
* * *
Chloe spend the spring and summer in a similar funk. She’d told no one of the deception, even lying to her sister, who had known all about EM. She told Grace that EM met someone else, and they’d stopped corresponding. Grace encouraged her to try again, but she didn’t have the stomach for that.
Luckily, she was able to spend much of the summer in Europe, playing with the Dresden Staatskapelle during the Salzburg Festival. After the festival was over, her parents met her in Italy, and they rented a villa in Tuscany for the month of August. It was a lovely time in many ways, but she still cried herself to sleep most nights. She’d never felt so foolish, so gullible. She wasn’t the type to be so easily duped, and it was as big a blow to her self-image as it was to her heart. But her heart bore the scars. She couldn’t stand to see lovers kissing in the piazza in town, turning her head away lest she start to cry. And the worst part was, she still missed E more than she could bear.
When Chloe returned home, she forced herself to adopt a new attitude. She couldn’t let E ruin her life, and she would never welcome him…her back into it. So, she signed up with the dating service again, and went on a number of dates. This time, she changed her strategy entirely. Now she’d meet someone and arrange to have coffee with him immediately. This made the process of elimination quick, if nothing else. She didn’t have much luck with any of the men, and by Christmas she had finally come to face some truths about herself. While she might be bisexual in theory, in practice, she was a lesbian. The things that had most appealed to her about E were her feminine qualities. The men she met just didn’t give her the sexual or emotional spark that she’d felt with her. Men were out. It was time to make a commitment to lesbianism.
* * *
Tracy let the new show and the first brisk winds of autumn buoy her spirits. She decided that if she’d met a woman like String on her first try, she might meet someone great in the future. So, she signed up with the service and jumped in. She had a couple of dozen dates in five months, and some of them were nice women, but no one filled the void.
On a clear, cold February day Tracy got a response to her listing that made her smile. She’d chosen the screen name "Not So Tiny Dancer," and the note said,
Tracy immediately composed a reply.
* * *
A few hours later, Music Woman agreed, and they settled on meeting at City Bakery the next afternoon. Tracy promised that she’d be the blonde with shoulder-length hair. She might look tired and would definitely be drinking an industrial-sized coffee. Just to be sure, she also said she’d be wearing her favorite red sweater.
* * *
Tracy was sitting at a table for two the next afternoon. The restaurant wasn’t as crowded as it normally was, since it was snowing. She was reading The Times and had only been awake for half an hour. Nonetheless, she didn’t look tired, since she’d had twelve hours sleep, and – a true cause for delight – she was having a surprisingly good hair day.
A woman walked in and shook her shoulder-length black hair, dislodging a crown of snowflakes. Her eyes traveled the length of the room, and Tracy brightened, feeling like a child in school who finally knows the right answer. Pick me! Pick me! To her astonishment, the woman walked directly toward her, her bright, clear eyes never leaving Tracy’s.
"Whew! I was afraid ‘Not So Tiny’ meant really, really huge!" she said, laughing.
Tracy stood and extended a hand. "Hi, I’m Tracy. Good to meet you. And thanks for not calling me huge."
"I’m Chloe," the woman said. "And you look like a dancer."
"I am," she said. She pointed to the chair opposite hers in invitation and then took her seat. "I’m even in a show for a change."
"Really?" Chloe ran her long, elegant fingers through her hair, brushing a few drops of melted snow away. "Which one?"
"The revival of Anything Goes. It’s at the Richard Rodgers."
"Ooo…I wanted to get tickets to that. I love musical theatre."
"Really?" Now Tracy sat up even taller. "I can comp you. Have you seen much recently?"
"No, but it’s not for lack of desire. I work at night, so it’s hard for me to get to the theatre."
"We’ve been chatting away and you don’t even have a drink. What would you like? They have delicious cocoa."
Chloe started to get up. "That sounds good."
Tracy got up and put her hand on Chloe’s shoulder as she passed by. "I’ll get it. Be right back."
As Tracy stood at the counter, she snuck a quick look, catching Chloe checking her out. She didn’t look unhappy. Maybe my membership fee is finally paying off!
When Tracy returned, she watched Chloe take a sip of the hot, rich drink. "Good, isn’t it?" she asked, gauging her reaction. Damn! Look at those lips! Is it too early to ask for a kiss?
"It’s decadent," Chloe said. "Good thing I like decadence." She took another sip and asked, "You wrote that you hadn’t had much luck with Internet dating."
Tracy took a sip of her coffee, nodding. "I had a very bad experience. I can’t blame anyone but myself, and it’s still painful to talk about it, but I will if you want to know."
Chloe gazed at her for a moment, then tentatively said, "I’m interested, if you want to tell me. But if it’s too much…I wouldn’t dream of asking."
"Thanks. That’s very polite of you."
"I try to be polite…but I’m kinda nosy too. So…" She rested her head on her hand and looked at Tracy expectantly.
With a slight smile curling her lips, Tracy said, "I should talk about it. I’ve made some mistakes in the past, and I’m only gonna get past them if I’m honest." Her smile grew thin, and she added, "One of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned, but I learned it well."
"Tell me," Chloe said. "I’m always interested in hearing about growth experiences."
"It’s embarrassing," Tracy said. "Very embarrassing. But here goes. I posed as a friend on a dating service."
Chloe’s sympathetic expression vanished, leaving her face a blank mask.
Tracy saw the change, but she kept going, figuring she had nothing to lose. "I didn’t do it for a bad reason. As a matter of fact, I did it to help my friend. But it was a horrible thing to do."
"Why was it so horrible?" Chloe asked in a voice that had taken on a sharp edge.
"Because I hurt someone badly. I’d grown to love the woman I met, and I think she loved me, too. But I had to eventually tell her the truth. I still don’t know what I thought was going to happen. I don’t know how I thought it would all work out. It didn’t, of course. She never spoke to me again."
"How’d you take it?"
Tracy let out a short, bitter laugh. "If I weren’t an acrophobic I would have jumped off the Empire State Building. I’ve never been so depressed in my life. And as bad as I felt, I knew that I’d hurt her even worse. That was the horrible part. I couldn’t find her to apologize."
"Did you try?"
"Oh, yeah. I tried everything I knew of. She told me that she played a stringed instrument, and I knew she played in an orchestra. I spent the whole spring and summer going to concerts from New Haven to Philadelphia. I don’t know how I thought I’d know her, but somehow I believed I would. I just thought that I’d see her and it would be obvious. But it never happened. I finally gave up, mainly because I ran out of orchestras."
"Did you try the opera?"
Tracy nodded her head. "Yeah, I went to one at BAM, and another in the East Village. But it was hard to see the orchestra. I lurked outside the performers’ entrance, but…nothing."
"How about the Met?"
"No, they were –"
"Dark for the summer. The last opera of the year was in mid-May, and this year’s season began the last week of September."
Tracy’s head shot up, and she stared at Chloe, wide-eyed. "How…how…"
"Because I’m in the orchestra." Chloe’s face was still expressionless, but she was staring back at Tracy with an intensity that made her sweat.
"Wh…what do you play?" Tracy asked, feeling her palms moisten.
"Double bass. That’s a stringed instrument, in case you didn’t know."
The woman slowly nodded her head, still staring at Tracy as if she were the devil.
Everything in Tracy’s peripheral vision went white. All she could see was the woman across the table. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she felt the first trickle of blood run down her upper lip. She swiped at it with a napkin, and her eyes locked on Chloe. Without waiting another second, Tracy dropped to her knees on the floor and bowed her head. As every diner’s attention turned in her direction, she said in a strong voice, "I’ve never done anything in my life that I’ve regretted more. I know you can’t forget what happened, but I’ll do anything to make up for the pain I’ve caused you."
She felt a gentle hand on her head, and when she looked up Chloe was crying. "You hurt me so badly," she whimpered. "I thought I’d die. I trusted you so much…told you so much…revealed so much of myself."
"I can’t imagine. I honestly can’t. I betrayed you, Chloe, and that’s the one thing you told me you could never forgive. You told me that from the very beginning, and I did it anyway."
"Why? Why did you do it? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?"
"Because I’d fallen in love with you. I…I couldn’t stand to lose you, and I knew that I would. I know that’s a horrible, selfish reason, but it’s the truth." She wiped at her eyes, and tried to stop her voice from shaking. "Chloe, losing you burned through me like a flame. It taught me a painful lesson, and I’ll never be the same again."
Chloe’s hand was still on her head, and it slid down to cup her cheek. She stared into her eyes again, and Tracy felt her heart skip a beat. "How have you changed?"
Tracy sniffled, trying to stop the trickle of blood. A napkin was pressed into her hand and she held it as steady as her shaking hands would cooperate. The blood finally staunched, she tried to speak. But despite her best attempt at control, she sobbed one more time. "I’m not sure I’ll explain this as well as I want to, but if I could turn back time, I’d ignore my own needs to make sure I didn’t hurt you. I would have told you immediately that I was writing for my friend. That would have been the end of it. You would have been spared any suffering. And, Chloe, I swear, I would tell the truth, even though it meant I’d never get to know you."
"Do you mean that, Tracy? Do you swear you mean everything you said?"
"I swear I do," she said, her eyes fixed on Chloe's.
They stared at each other for a full minute, unblinking. Then Chloe put her hand on Tracy's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "Let's get out of here. I think we've given everyone a pretty good matinee."
Tracy slowly became aware of her surroundings, and she felt a flush rising to her cheeks. "Oh, my God, I can never show my face in Chelsea again." She got up and took her coat, a little surprised when Chloe helped her into it. "Thanks. I thought you'd be kicking my butt down the street by now, not helping me with my coat."
Chloe didn't say anything in reply. It was snowing much harder, and 18th Street was deserted, giving it a strange, otherworldly silence. Chloe put her hand on Tracy's back and guided her a few feet toward 6th Avenue. When they were away from the plate glass windows of City Bakery, she stopped and put her hands on Tracy's shoulders. "Look. Everyone screws up at least once in a relationship. Let's just agree that you got your screw-up out of the way really, really early."
Tracy looked at her as though she were mad. "You…you forgive me?"
"Yes. I forgive you. That part of our lives is over, and I don't ever want to talk about it again. We need a fresh start, Tracy. So take off the sackcloth and ashes, and kiss me." Her expression gentled, and a wistful smile turned the corners of her mouth up. "It’s Valentine’s Day, you know."
"Uh-huh. And I’ve never wanted a Valentine’s kiss more than I do right now."
"Oh, God, Chloe." Her eyes closed, and her tears started to flow again. "I've never missed anyone like I’ve missed you. I've never been in such pain."
Chloe took off her glove and tenderly wiped at the icy tears. "Shh. We're starting over, remember?"
Chin quivering, Tracy nodded. "I remember."
"Do you remember that I asked for a kiss?" As Chloe spoke, she moved toward Tracy, finally pinning her to the red brick wall behind her. "Don't you want to kiss me?"
Her lips were mere inches from Tracy’s, and she found herself nearly overcome by the sensation of having her so close. "More than anything in the world." She wrapped her arms around Chloe's shoulders, rejoicing in the solid warmth of the body she was finally holding. Her chin lifted, and Chloe's lips met hers for the first time. The sensation took Tracy's breath away, and she pulled back, gasping for air. "My God," she murmured. "That's never happened to me before."
"Maybe you weren't kissing the right woman," Chloe said. She smiled at Tracy, a full, rich smile. "You are now."
Tracy looked up into the sky, cold snowflakes stinging her eyes. "Thank God for second chances," she whispered, tightening her hold on the woman she’d grown to love – for all of the right reasons.
This story was written in 2002 with my great, good friend Anne. She died in 2003, and remains a great influence in my life. I suspect the story would have been more fleshed out if we’d been able to work on it longer, but her illness prevented that. I considered expanding it on my own, but that didn’t seem right.
Working with Anne was one of the great joys of my life, and reading this story again brought her back in a very real way. I could hear her voice in so many sentences. Her words live on. Thankfully.