The Other Man
by Dawn Corrigan
In Beth's life, there is another man. There is the one man, the one she lives with and has a dog with and whom it's speculated she might marry, though it's beginning to be clear she will not. Then there is the other man.
The other man calls when she is at work, since obviously he can't call her at home. Beth is Manager of the General Books Department at a bookstore. General Books is the smallest of the bookstore's five departments; Text Books is largest. The other man is a professor at the university where the textbooks are used. This is the sort of fact the other man can make much of, when he has a mind to.
The one man, the first man, whose name is Tom, is a graduate student in the department where the professor teaches. For a while Beth was a student there too. Then she got sick of it and took the bookstore job. At first she was just a clerk. Her job when the floor was clear of customers was to alphabetize the books and turn the ones with the most interesting covers out so they could be seen. Beth wandered for weeks among the shelves of General Books, until, she felt, the display was nearly perfect. Then one day the storeowner came into the department while she was fussing with the books and offered her the manager job.
When the other man calls, he always says the same thing. "Hey, You." Beth giggles. Then she feels embarrassed, seeing her coworker Anna eyeing her from the desk in the corner. The other man suggests a drink after her shift. Beth agrees. Everything he says sounds sly and therefore clever. Beth laughs and laughs. When she turns to hang up the phone Anna is looking right at her. Anna smiles sweetly. "You're so beautiful when you're happy," she says.
* * *
At first, Beth was happy with Tom. Well, perhaps happy isn't the word. It was one of those secretive, sex-heavy beginnings. The problem was that Beth had befriended Tom's ex-girlfriend, Barb, just a few weeks before Beth and Tom hooked up. Though Beth's friendship with Barb didn't overlap Barb's relationship with Tom, and Barb had been the one to break things off, still Beth felt guilty. As a result, she and Tom spent the first weeks of their relationship sneaking around. Then, as often happens, secrecy became a habit. By the time they were ready to go public, they didn't know how to behave like a couple in front of other people.
When they finally did come out, Barb was hurt and mad, and no one else seemed very pleased about the situation, either. Not Beth's best friend, Joy, a candid, merry lesbian, nor Bob, Tom's best friend, a married man with whom Beth had been having an affair before she fell in with Tom.
Beth has lots of experience being an other woman; it's only having an other man in her life that's new.
Actually, after his initial surprise, Bob seemed quite relieved about Beth and Tom's announcement. It was clear he felt he was getting off lightly, having Beth's affections transferred so easily to Tom without any disruption to his marriage.
Beth was insulted. She'd never intended any harm to his marriage. If she wanted a guy she could call any time, she would've chosen a single man.
As, evidently, she did want all of a sudden, or why would she find herself with Tom?
Once they confessed to their friends, Beth and Tom effectively moved in together. Tom was housesitting for a professor that summer, so he had amenities unknown to most of the grad students at their southern university--central air, a laundry room. Beth still kept a separate apartment, but they rarely went there. She'd taken the place just before she and Tom got together, but she never really settled in. The second story of a pretty clapboard house, it had good wooden floors and a roof that slanted at charming angles, but it was cursed with a perpetual odd odor and an unsettling air.
The previous tenant, she was informed by the landlords, was a strange young man who kept snakes as pets. One rare night when she and Tom wound up there instead of at the professor's house, Beth was awakened by a scream. She followed the sound into the bathroom, where Tom--tall, lanky and naked--stood pointing into the toilet. There a huge white rat did a determined doggie-paddle, an expression of exhausted concentration on its face. The ice cream wrapper that had tempted it to its doom floated beside it, tossed in by Tom earlier in the evening.
"What do we do?" Tom cried, hysteria in his voice.
"I don't know!" Beth replied, though she did know, and evidently Tom did too, for after a moment he reached a shaky hand out and flushed.
Exhausted, they fell back into bed, but both slept badly for the rest of the night, the ghostly scrabbling of claws on floorboards punctuating their terrible dreams. In the morning they speculated that the strange young man had purchased the rat as fodder for his snakes, which must have been set loose periodically on hunting sprees. Thereafter, they always spent the night at the professor's house.
The house was larger than any place Beth had lived in before. It dwarfed the cramped rancher where she'd spent her childhood. She took up residence in a separate section of the house from Tom, with her own bathroom and sitting room. He spent most of his time in the study, ostensibly working on his dissertation, but more frequently writing long feverish entries in his computer journal. Beth sprawled on the sitting room's chaise lounge--she'd never lived in a place with a chaise lounge before--or wandered around the house, examining the bad oil paintings that covered virtually every inch of wall space.
When the housesitting stint was over, Beth and Tom decided to take an apartment together. This may have been a mistake. They couldn't afford anything so large as the professor's house, so in the new place they were constantly bumping up against each other. They had bickered at the professor's house; now they fought. Beth took to reading Tom's computer journal, which detailed her steady decline from fascinating companion to boring housemate.
Tom's behavior puzzled Beth. Early on, he'd listened to her stories with rapt attention. He told her that her touch "awakened something in him." Within a few months, though, his capacity for ignoring her had become immense. He made it clear that in some way, undefined yet absolute, she was not up to muster. Beth wondered if they were breaking up. Yet despite the journal complaints, Tom showed no signs of leaving.
Then one evening he went to a grad student party without her. In the wee hours of the morning, he shook her awake. "Listen, Beth," he said, "get up. I have something to tell you." Here we go, thought Beth. Truth be told, she was relieved. She sat up and planned her righteous indignation as Tom told his story.
Yet somehow it never led to the conclusion she expected. It concerned a girl at the party, a young woman with dyed red hair whom Beth already regarded with the resentful suspicion that women in relationships save for attractive unattached women--those dangling modifiers, those loose ends.
Tom and the redhead struck up a conversation. They talked for hours. The party began to break up. Redhead mentioned she was hungry. She wanted to grab a bite at an all-night breakfast place on Main Street. She invited Tom along. He went. They had breakfast and talked some more. Tom enjoyed the conversation very much. Then Redhead dropped him off at home.
The End. Tom regarded Beth anxiously from the edge of the bed. She sat up and rumpled her hair. "Well," she said, trying to adjust to the disappointment of expectation unfulfilled, "did you kiss her when you got out of the car?"
"No," Tom said quickly. "Nothing like that."
"Did you have sex with her?" Beth asked, her voice rising.
"No!" Tom said. "I swear, it was nothing like that."
"So you woke me up at 5 in the morning to tell me you had breakfast with another woman?" Beth slammed her hand down hard on Tom's mattress. "Just for future reference, you're allowed to have breakfast with other women! Any time you like! You don't need my permission! I suppose you lusted in your heart for this woman, right? I don't care about that either! I don't need to know about every little lapse that happens in your heart--just the ones that happen in your pants!"
Tom regarded Beth gravely after this outburst. As she watched him, she sensed that somehow she'd let him down again.
Maybe she was supposed to be more worried about the lust in his heart. Tom had a deep attraction to Roman Catholicism, which he saw as more authentic than the pinched Protestantism in which he'd been raised. His two most serious exes had both been practicing Catholics. Beth had begun to suspect that part of her initial appeal had been her Irish-Italian heritage, normally a sure recipe for Catholicism, and that one of Tom's many disappointments was her refusal to behave like a nice Catholic girl.
But she couldn't do it. It wasn't that she was crazy about the idea of Tom lusting after someone else. But she liked even less the manipulative way in which he'd presented the story to her. Besides, in her own heart she had to admit she herself had begun lusting after another--the professor who'd been mooning around the bookstore. Therefore, she let the breakfast incident go without further comment.
She and Tom continued to live together in semi-peaceful discontentment. He showed no signs of going anywhere. She made no plans to leave. They even got a dog. But gradually she began accepting the attentions of the other man.
* * *
The first thing Beth does after ordering her vodka tonic is to tell the other man what Anna said when Beth got off the phone with him. She offers this to him like a gift, and he accepts it in kind. "So you're happy, huh?" he says, chuckling with pleasure, a twinkle in his eye.
"So it would seem," Beth mumbles, looking quickly up at the waitress, who has arrived with her drink. The other man is already well into his.
It's always like this when they meet. Beth looks forward to seeing him, but then when the moment comes and she's sitting opposite him, it's too much. His adoration, his gratitude that she's there, are absurd even to Beth, though she's sought him out precisely for this kind of devotion, an antidote to Tom's indifference.
Beth knows she should stop seeing him. For that matter, she should stop seeing Tom, too. She should call up Joy, who recently packed all her things into a U-Haul trailer and moved to Louisiana, and beg for help. Joy would come, too, speeding back east on I-10 in her little red Volvo to rescue poor Beth. She would be efficient, and tough yet not unkind to Tom, and would completely take charge of the situation, finding Beth a new apartment and moving her in. Beth could just shuffle along dumbly, packing boxes and setting them wherever Joy pointed. Joy would stay a few days after the move, too, and as long as she was in town, Beth would be all right. They would go out for dinner and linger at the table for hours, or sprawl out on Beth's bed with the TV propped on a milk crate in front of them.
But as soon as Joy left, it would be no good. Beth knows she would drift back into seeing Tom, who would manage a burst of attention if she were to move out. Hell, she'd probably start seeing the other man again too. Beth doesn't feel she should take advantage of Joy's friendship unless she intends to follow through.
Therefore, she continues living with Tom and meeting the other man, who has just launched into a story.
"Have I told you about my secret fascination with tornadoes? I've had it since I was a kid. Well, last night I had a tornado dream. I was lying in a field and a tornado appeared in the sky. It formed above me and then it moved down, very close to me, and then it moved away again. This kept happening for a long time.
"I wasn't afraid at all. I was totally happy. Also, I had some butterscotch candies and I was eating them. I just lay there, eating candy and watching tornadoes. And then I woke up, and I realized the dream was about you."
The other man smiles bashfully at Beth. This is the gift he's offering her in return for the story about Anna.
What can she do? She smiles back.
Rejected by Dogzplot, Freight Stories, Damselfly Press, Chiron Review, and Our Stories.