Monday, May 25, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 37 (DRAFT)

“Is everything all right?”

Shit, I was thinking. An in-person interview. That means I’ll have to find time to fly to Boston. Unless they were planning to send someone out to meet me. That would be more convenient, but what are the odds of that? Will they at least pay my plane fare?

“Alan,” Bethany said. “Is everything all right?”


“You look like you just got some bad news. Is everything all right at home?”

“Yeah,” I said quickly. “It’s fine. It’s nothing.”

“Is it Jacob?” she said, clearly not believing me. “Is he sick?”

I forced myself into the moment, thrusting my wayward thoughts aside. “No, he’s fine,” I said reassuringly. “It’s nothing, really. Just some everyday bullshit. I’m sorry it interrupted our conversation. Where were we?”

Bethany looked at me searchingly, perhaps wanting to move on, perhaps not. Then she looked down. “I was embarrassing myself in front of you,” she said. “Telling you all kinds of things I shouldn’t have.”

“Like what?” I said, genuinely surprised.

“Like all that business with Mary. I shouldn’t have told you that. She’s your boss.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked, sensing a change, and wanting to rekindle the connection that had evidently been lost. “She treated you like shit. She treats everyone like shit. It’s okay. You can say it. It’s just you, me and the ocean out here.”

She smiled and then gave me a look, a look like I hadn’t seen in a long time, something that took me back to a time when Jenny and I were dating. It was nice, but awkward, and we both had to look away.

“And then I cried in front of you,” she said with gentle annoyance. “Of all the monumentally stupid things to do, a woman crying in front of her male boss has got to be at the top of the list. I can only imagine what you think of me.”

I felt the whirlpool of my worldly thoughts draining away as I realized she was doing that thing women do when they want you to reassure them, to come to their rescue. Sometimes that meant they were flirting with you, and the realization that Bethany might be flirting with me—that she had recognized my half-hearted overtures and had decided to respond in kind—it seemed to transport me. It was tantalizing, the idea that here, amidst the reminders of all the roles we were forced and we forced ourselves to play—husbands and wives, supervisors and employees—it was tantalizing that she still wanted me to think about playing one more, tantalizing and frightening at the same time. I wondered wildly how to respond, suddenly unsure if I wanted things to progress or not. In such situations, I knew, there were things you could say to shut it down, to clearly communicate that you weren’t interested, and there were other things you could say to unequivocally drive it forward, and still other things that were coy and playful, not undeniably leading anywhere, but keeping the door open and both players in the game.

“I don’t think any less of you,” I said, meaning every word but at the same time conscious of how scripted I sounded.

“You’re just saying that.”

“No,” I said. “Really,” feeling the indignation as if it was real. “You didn’t know what she was. You needed some advice and went there in good faith.”

She nodded her head ruefully, as if knowing I was right, but unable to accept it. “But I haven’t told you the worst of it. The part that makes me really upset.”

I waited the requisite number of seconds. “I’m listening.”

She settled back on her hands, her strong calves and bare feet dangling off the ledge and her white blouse glowing in the moonlight. Was she arching her back? Or just stretching?

“How does Jenny like staying at home with Jacob?”

I remembered the phone call from earlier that evening and the way it had made me feel isolated and impotent, and I realized that this conversation, this script no one had written but everyone knew by heart, would probably end at the same destination. I suddenly wanted to derail it. I wanted something, but not this. Maybe it was the sea air. Maybe it was the kind of day I had had, starting in one time and place and ending in another. Maybe I was just sick of pretending, of play-acting, of trouble-shooting other people’s problems as if I knew how to fix everything.

“She hates it,” I said. “She can’t handle it. I called home earlier tonight and caught the two of them in the middle of a battle royal. I had to talk them both in off the ledge. If I hadn’t called, I think Jenny would have wound up hurting him.”

It was a stark confession, but it fell effortlessly off my lips, and felt good doing so. These things were true, weren’t they? Sometimes you had to say them out loud to really be sure.

“Maybe Jenny and I should change places.”

She said it flippantly, giving me enough latitude to take whichever meaning I preferred. I looked at her and our eyes locked. Are you still flirting with me? I sent silently. I’ve dropped my façade. Will you?

Slowly she nodded, lowering her eyes as if unsure of her footing in this new territory.

“What I mean is I’m thinking about quitting and staying home with Parker.”

“You are?”

“I am,” she said, her words starting to flow more easily. “It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally beginning to realize that Mary wasn’t just rude, she was manipulating me. She manipulates everyone. She gets you to do what she wants by making you second-guess your own instincts. I was struggling, and she knew it. God was telling me to stay home with my baby, but I didn’t want to listen.”

Oh, fuck. God.

“Don’t look at me that way, Alan. He’s real, you know, and sometimes He tries to tell you things. But you have to listen, and I wasn’t. I was so focused on trying to be something I’m not, something I thought I wanted to be, that I couldn’t hear Him even though he was talking directly to me.”

I held my tongue. Bethany and I didn’t see eye to eye on God, but we didn’t have to. He was part of who she was, and if we were going to walk together on this beach, I was going to have to accept that and not judge her.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. What matters is Mary played me, and I came back to work after Parker was born just like she wanted. By reacting the way she did, by treating my pregnancy with so much disgust, she made me think that’s how all professional women felt, that all successful women dumped their kids in daycare and got back to work as soon as they could. If that’s what I wanted to be, that was what I was going to have to do. She didn’t even have to convince me. Just looking at me the way she did, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

As I listened, letting go of my expectations of her, it became clear that all our scripts truly had been left behind, and I found a new exhilaration absent the fear that had accompanied the previous one. Boss and employee, husband and wife, father and mother—we had not only dropped all of our existing roles, importantly we had failed to pick up the new one we had been toying with, not wanting it, not even for the frivolous thrill play-acting it would bring. Out here, alone and in the presence of infinity, we had become just two people talking honestly with each other, all of our pretense left at the foot of the wooden hotel stairs with our shoes.

“And now you feel differently,” I said.

“God, yes,” Bethany said, her eyes tearing up again.

I held out my arm. It felt honest and natural. And Bethany accepted it in the same spirit, scooting over to nestle in next to me, her head in the crook of my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I said, squeezing her warmly. “You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be. Not for David, not for Mary, not even for me.”

She touched my thigh, but there was nothing provocative about it, and it did not arouse me. It was just a human touch, her inner need silently matching mine, desperate for the non-judgmental connection it seemed only we could offer each other. On our beach that night there was no history and no presumptions, just two people who had found each other lost in the same maze. In a few minutes, I knew, we’d get up and resume our independent searches for the way out, but for that moment, for that endless and fleeting now, we blissfully shared the simple understanding that neither one of us had built the damn thing—at least not intentionally.

She sighed heavily. “Why are things so difficult?”

I shook my head, my chin brushing through her hair, the fresh smell of it filling my nostrils. “I don’t know, Bethany.” I said soothingly, almost adding, I wish I did, but holding it back. The waves came crashing in, and I felt comfortably lost in the limitless possibilities of life.

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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