The International Writers Magazine: New Fiction

Martin Green

ve been doing a lot of reading lately.  Yeah, I know, my friends, or I should say the people who know me, because I don't really have any friends, would be surprised.  They probably think I spend my nights scheming and drinking or picking up ladies in bars.  Well, maybe they'd be right about the drinking.

Anyway, I notice that even those stories that try to be true to life--with descriptions of real places, clothes, commonplace events--seem artificial, made-up.  Life, real life, is too complex, too disorganized, too messy to make any sense.  It has to be straightened out, put into order, the loose ends snipped off, if it's going to tell any story at all.
     I met Grace in San Francisco, when?  Well, it was a long time ago.  I was a kid then, 24 years old, had come out from New York City, was working at an advertising agency, was spending more money than my miniscule salary and was determined to get ahead.  Compared to my life in New York, I thought I was doing pretty well.  At the agency, I had my own office; I had my own apartment and my own car. 
     But one thing was lacking, and it was pretty crucial; I didn't have a girl.  The attractive girls in the agency were much more knowledgeable and sophisticated than I was; they seemed unapproachable.   I'd dutifully stop into bars after work but I was too shy back then to just start a conversation with a girl and nothing ever happened.   I was convinced that every guy in the city had a girl except myself.
     Then, after I’d made a presentation at the local marketing association, a woman came up to me and introduced herself as Grace Williams; she did sales research for an old-line San Francisco paper company.  While we talked, I studied her.  She had reddish hair, fair skin with a sprinkling of freckles, and blue eyes.  She was wearing a brown suit whose skirt ended just above her knees.  Her legs were nice.  She wasn't bad-looking, I decided, but nothing special.  Besides, she must have been at least 30 years old.
     She had some kind of a twang in her voice which I couldn't quite place but which was explained when she mentioned that she was from Texas.  When I told her I was from New York, she said that she could tell.  We talked a while longer, exchanged business cards and she suggested I call her for lunch sometime.  
     A couple of weeks later, I called Grace and made a date for lunch.  The company she worked for, I'd learned, handled its own advertising but, who knows, it might be a potential client and it wouldn't hurt to find out more about it.  We went to a restaurant of her choosing.  The place seemed to be jammed to overflowing but the waiter knew Grace and led us to a good table.
     Over lunch, she told me she'd been in San Francisco for almost four years.  Although she had a college degree, she'd started with a secretarial job before being promoted to the marketing department.  I remarked that she was doing very well.  "Oh, I'm just a little old Texas gal trying to make it in the big city," she said, exaggerating her twang.
     After talking about her company, she told me a little more about herself.  She had an apartment near Nob Hill.  She didn't mention any roommates and I gathered she lived by herself.  The food was good and I enjoyed the lunch.  When we left each other we agreed that we'd have to do it again.
     If I was writing this as a story, there'd certainly have been some spark of attraction between the two of us by now.  The truth is that under ordinary circumstances the only time I'd have seen Grace again, if at all, would have been at another marketing club meeting.  The lunch had been nice but I'd learned all I needed to know about her company and, when I'd agreed we'd have to do it again, this was just typical advertising talk.
     But then I got sick.  It was the flu that everyone was coming down with that year.  The first day I was miserable and stayed in bed.  The second day I felt a little better and was hungry but realized I didn't have anything in my apartment to eat.  I also needed some medicine.
     I suppose I could have called someone at my agency but I didn't feel right about doing this.  I thought of Grace.  Well, why not, I'd bought her a lunch, hadn't I?  I dialed her office number and she answered.  I told her I was down with the flu and wondered if she'd mind bringing me a few things.  She told me to stay in bed and she'd come by as soon as she got off work.
     She arrived carrying a paper bag which contained some canned soups, milk and bread, aspirin and cold medicine.  "I didn't know exactly what you had," she said, "but these should tide you over."
   "Thanks," I said.  "I'd have gone out myself but every time I got up I started feeling dizzy."
   She put a hand on my forehead. "You have a fever," she said.
  "I do feel kind of warm.  Let me pay you for the things you got."
  "Don't worry about it now.  Just lay back and I'll make some soup for you."
   "Thanks," I replied, doing as she said.  She stayed about an hour, then said she had to go but would come back after work the next day.  She'd made a list of things she said I needed and told me she'd bring them.
  "You don't really have to," I said.  "I'm sure I'll be okay by tomorrow.  I'd like to get back to the office before things pile up too much."
   "With that fever you have," she said, "don't you dare go back to work yet.  What you need is some rest.  Now stay in bed and I'll see you tomorrow."
As it happened, I did feel much better the next day but, following Grace's orders, I spent most of it in bed.  When she arrived, with more supplies, she made an omelet for the two of us.  I found I was hungry and cleaned my plate.
"You must be feeling better," she said.
 "I am.  I never knew eggs could taste that good."
  She stood up, took the dishes to the sink and began to wash them off.
"You don't have to do that," I said.
"I hate to see dirty dishes standing around."
"You know, this is really nice of you, coming over, I mean, and doing everything."
"Why, thank you.  We Texas girls like to take care of our men."
"Does that make me your man then?"
 "I didn't mean it that way."  Her face was slightly flushed and some strands of her hair had come loose.  She looked somehow younger and, I thought, very attractive.
  "Come over here for a minute," I said.  When she did, I put my arms around her.  "I think I'm recovering," I said, kissing her.
"I still think you should be in bed," she said.
"All right.  Let's."
"I meant resting."
"I've been resting."
"You might still have a fever."
"I've felt cool all day, until now."
At about ten o'clock, she said she'd better be going home if she was going into work tomorrow.  "Thanks for everything," I said.
"That's all right.  But I still think you should stay off another day or two.   I'll call to see how you are."
I saw Grace regularly over the next few months.  We were both busy with our jobs so I usually didn't see her during the week.  But we'd meet for drinks and dinner on Friday night, after which we'd go to her apartment, which was much nicer than mine.  On the weekends we'd do something relaxing: walk in Golden Gate Park, watch the sailboats in the Bay from the Marina, sometimes drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and stroll around Sausalito. 
 From the beginning, I knew that my affair with Grace wasn't going to last forever.  I think I saw it as part of my sexual education, my affair with an older woman.  Grace was fun to be with; she knew the ad game and I could tell her anything about my job.  The job of course was by far the most important thing in my life.  I was striving for a promotion and I knew that I was being looked upon as one of the up-and-coming young men.  One indication of my improved status was that the attractive women in the agency were starting to show some interest in me. 
As for Grace, I didn't really wonder at the time how she viewed our affair.  I assumed that she'd had others before I'd come along and would have others after I was gone.  That was the way things went in San Francisco.  Then I was put on a crash project with a girl I'd always admired, from afar, one of the agency's brightest copywriters, young (about my age), hard-driving and sexy as hell.  It was time, I saw, for my affair with Grace to draw to an end.
I tried as gently as I could to disengage.  I made excuses that I was busy at work, which was partially true.  Several times, I told her I had to go out of town on business.  I would have thought she'd start to get the message but she clung on as if nothing had changed.
Finally, after I'd spent one Friday night at her place, the first time in several weeks, I told her at breakfast on Saturday morning that I had to get back to the office as soon as I'd finished eating.
"But I thought we'd have the weekend together," she said.
 "I'm sorry.  It's another rush job, a presentation for a new client."
  "You seem to be having one rush job after another."
  "Yeah, I guess so.  We're really trying to expand.  And you know I'm bucking for a promotion."
  "I know.  We don't seem to be spending much time together lately."
 I wasn't sure how to respond to her statement, which was certainly true.  "Well, you can plan to do other things, you know, get together with some of your other friends."
  "You're not saying you don't want to see me any more?" she asked.
 This was the time I should have told her.   "No," I quickly replied.  "I'm only saying it's hard for me to see you all the time."  I could see this was going to be difficult.
  "It didn't used to be so hard," she said.
  "I can't help it.  The job has really gotten to be something.  And that reminds me, I should be going now."
 She came over and put her arms around me.  "You still like me, don't you?"
  "Sure, I like you.  "It just doesn't seem fair to you to be waiting around for me all the time.  And then you cook dinner for me while I sack out on your couch."
  "I don't mind   I told you, we Texas gals like to take care of our men."
 Still holding me, she kissed me.  "You'll call me next week, won't you?" .
  "Sure," I said, drawing away.  "But now I have to run."  This was going to be very difficult.
 If this was a story I'd have to put in a big scene about now in which I told Grace I was breaking off with her and describe her reaction.  Would she cry and beg me to stay?  Would she coolly tell me to go to hell?  Would she be so distraught she might even try suicide?  I must admit that all of these scenarios crossed my mind.
But at this point real life stepped in and I was spared any of these scenes.  I did get my promotion and it was a big one; I was being sent as second-in-command to the agency's Los Angeles office.  I had to leave immediately and my good-byes were of necessity hurried.  Grace asked if I thought I might be getting up to San Francisco soon.  I told her I didn't think so.  I’d be up to my neck in work.   She then asked about coming down to Los Angeles for a weekend.  I told her to give me some time in the new job and I'd call her.  This was the same thing I told my copywriter when she saw me off at the airport.
 I was right about being up to my neck in work; the agency was seeing to it that I earned the big pay raise they'd given me.  Grace called me several times and each time I told her, truthfully, that I didn't have time to see her.  My copywriter did come down once and I made the time to see her, a memorable last encounter.  By that time, I was deep into an affair with my administrative assistant, a girl who could easily have been one of our advertising models.  After a few months, Grace stopped calling and I felt relieved; that was over.
Five years later I was transferred back to the agency's San Francisco office, another promotion; I was now a vice-president.  When John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, I was reminded of Grace.  On an impulse, I called her old firm.  No, she was no longer employed there.  They weren't sure where she'd gone.  They thought that maybe she'd gone back to Texas.  Well, Texas was a big state.   I made no further effort to find her. 
Looking back, I'd say that Grace was lucky that I got that transfer at that particular time.  She'd said she was ready to take care of me.  Who knows, after the thing with my assistant had run its course, I might have been tempted to take her up on it.  It wouldn't have turned out well for Grace.  As I've come to find out, I'm not well-suited for long-term emotional relationships.  So I spend my nights alone, reading and drinking.  And sometimes remembering.

Grace deserved someone better than me and maybe in Texas she found him.  I like to think that she did.  If this was a story, that's how I'd end it.

© Martin Green Aug 2006
The Decision
Martin Green on life choices

The Summer Job
Martin Green on the best of times

Last Meeting
Martin Green closes the books

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