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Syrup October 1, 2000
A few months ago I went to a party down in the Mission, a sweaty do in a shoebox that passed for a one-bedroom apartment. Some pessimist called it a firetrap, but to me it was a fleshpot, frothing, about to boil over. Rosemary with the breath of spearmint and vodka cranberry, her hair down to her shoulders in lazy copper coils, was so near to me we should have been kissing. Her nails had just grazed my forearm, right below the elbow (though I also felt it below my belt) - and now it was my turn. Shit, I thought, we're not just playing anymore.
We had been flirting for a couple of hours, from the first offhand glance when she made her slow-motion entry. Though I tried to be discreet she caught me staring several times. I so humbled myself that I gave up on her rather than be discovered again.
I sampled the mixed nuts and looked around for a while. It was a typical yuppie fiesta. We had the inevitable red plastic cups, the keg of limp beer standing in the kitchen, and the four-poster bed layered with Banana Republic jackets and sweaters - not exactly the kind of atmosphere that entices people to loosen their libidos. Still, I decided not to give up so quickly. I always go to parties hoping for a chance to flirt, and even if I only had the slimmest chance, it was too rare to pass up.
Rosemary and I met under the violet water lilies of a faux-Monet, in front of the improvised bar. Glass in hand, I excused myself as I reached around her for the ice bucket. In the innocent path of my arm I pressed the fabric of her blouse and felt the soft contours underneath it.
'I see you've met Rosemary.' Our host wrapped his arms jovially around the two of us. I introduced myself and then listened to Rosemary repeat my name with an English accent.
'Your friend was just fondling me,' she told our host.
'Wonderful,' he praised me, as he disappeared into the wall-to-wall humanity that was his living room.
I almost started to blame our accidental intimacy on her, but instead Rosemary complimented my shirt - which sounded pretty fishy. (I mean, the last person to praise my wardrobe was my mother, back when she did all the purchasing.) She also asked about my choice of automobile, and my preferred travel destinations. I almost dismissed her as a chatty lightweight, willing to say anything to avoid standing by herself.
There was, however, an elusive quality to her conversation that made me curious. It took me a while to pinpoint it - so subtle were the mechanics of her seduction. At first, I had taken her eager comments at face value. Then I understood. She said she liked simple outfits, but she meant 'easy to take off.' She praised the roomy backseat of her Accord LS, but not because it can comfortably seat three. She admired my fondness for beach vacations, remarking on the 'rather stimulating' influence of tropical climates.
I became so excited from her flirting that I nearly forgot to flirt back. She must have been ready to give up on me and my Bambi replies. Flirting really is much more engrossing when both people participate. It is a game, a contest where the winner makes the loser believe in a possibility that is not really there. A possibility, say, of furtive sex on the fire escape... or in the roomy backseat of an Accord LS. Flirting is also pretending to succumb to the other's allure, while secretly reminding yourself it's only a tease, she doesn't mean any of it.
'You must be English,' I told her, as a reminder to myself. Part of my problem in this situation was my innate weakness for foreign women. As soon as I hear a girl's not from the US, I want to sit her on my lap and listen to her life's story. I want to learn all about how she crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande.
My resistance vanished further when Rosemary explained she was not just English, but also French. Double-foreign was too much. I said I spoke some French, hoping she would switch languages. She did, humoring me with a catalog of her Channel-jumping preferences. French food, British politics. French cinema, English music. Pound Sterling over the Franc, and Paris over London.
Now and then she paused to sip her vodka, touching her mouth to the glass and tilting it so the red cocktail would lap against her lips. My senses were starting to fail - hearing, taste and smell were goners; my eyes still worked but were stuck on the place where her neckline tapered into her shoulder. My few remaining operational neurons warned me I was reaching the point where I would do something stupid. It's quite hopeless, they lamented.
At that moment I made an inadvertent goof that looked bad, but turned out to be the thing that saved me from kneeling down and begging her to spank me.
'So, what are you doing in the US?'
'My boyfriend studies here,' she replied.
Her boyfriend studies here, I told myself, fumbling for a comeback. This threw me. Mentioning a boyfriend, or a husband, is like flashing a game over sign. It means, 'Thanks for trying - I will now find someone more amusing to flirt with.' My eyes followed Rosemary's as she scanned the room, looking for a new target. I noticed another graceful woman do a slow-motion entry, black hair, black eyes and the blue sequin dress, and this helped restore my confidence.
I realized Rosemary was still talking, describing the unpredictable effects of chocolate on her moods. If she wanted to keep playing, who was I to stop her? I do respect a person, married or dating, who doesn't flinch at a chance to dally. In flirting, these people have the upper hand. Their conviction that - by virtue of being in a stable relationship - they are unable to actually do anything, lets them be relaxed and assertive, like high-rope acrobats doing head flips with a safety net below.
But a net can fail, and what always felt secure can suddenly get shaky under the sway of alcohol and unprompted desire. Perhaps that is how Rosemary fell for me. I don't know if she really had a boyfriend. Truth is not important in a flirt, what counts is the noble intention to seduce. Maybe she used the boyfriend to test my resolve. Whatever the case, I knew I was on top as she narrowed the distance between us.
'When did you learn French?' she asked.
'I once dated a French woman.'
'She taught you?'
'Yes, though I also took classes -'
'What else did she teach you?'
'Oh, well... dancing for one, rock 'n' roll,' I said, swaying my hips a little more than I wanted to, nearly brushing her thighs. Rosemary came in even closer, so that her breath shot up my nostrils and kick-started my sense of smell.
'I hear French women are wonderful in bed.'
'Really? What about English women?'
'I'd take French over English,' Rosemary said, almost whispering - and that's when I felt her nails on me, egging me to lean in, to kiss her. Her mouth will taste sugary, like syrup, I imagined.
I was about to respond when a pair of hands covered my eyes. I recognized their scent - black eyes and blue sequins.
'Hey!' I turned around. 'You're late,' I said, kissing her lightly on the lips. Then I introduced my girlfriend to Rosemary.
There was a quick glare in my direction, but Rosemary made a perfect recovery. I was so flushed by what I'd almost done that I let the two of them talk. They complimented each other's outfits with Stoic enthusiasm. Sarah dragged it out for my benefit; she doesn't object to my occasional flirts - she trusts me - but watching me squirm a little is fun for her.
When we said good-bye, I got a friendly hug from Rosemary. She whispered 'call me' in my ear. Her words, and the weight of her arms on my shoulders and back lingered as Sarah and I walked to the car.
'Quite a catch,' she said.
'Yeah, thanks, but too chatty,' I said, casually reaching into my coat pocket to retrieve Rosemary's card. I ran a finger over it, tracing the letters of her name, her e-mail. I was beginning to suspect she'd won, and it bothered me. I hate the way a game stops being a game after you begin taking it too seriously. I pulled the card out, I wanted to dump it in the gutter. I dropped my arm to my side, the card nestled in my hand.
Two blocks later, and still I was holding onto the possibility, still waiting for the right moment to let go. There was a syrupy taste in my mouth, only bitter.
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