“Michael’s an ass,” Caroline finally decided, informing Annie of her verdict in a disinterested sigh before slumping back into her wicker chair.
Annie’s green eyes blazed. She wanted to reach across the sidewalk table and slap the smug condescension off of Caroline’s orange face, slap the fake tan right off her, but she was accustomed to her coworker’s unsolicited intrusions and it was far too nice a day to spoil with catty schoolyard nonsense. Besides, Caroline was partially right.
“And this is news?” Annie questioned as she brushed a wisp of strawberry curl from her brow. She took a drag from her cigarette and leaned back to expel the smoke into an otherwise clear sky.
Caroline grunted at Annie’s retort and washed her cud down with an ungraceful tug on her bottled water. “I don’t know why you put up with him,” Caroline continued. “Any man who drinks the way he does isn’t going to make any kind of husband.”
Annie watched as Caroline used the back of her hand to wipe away the trickle of water running down her chin.
“What do I want with a husband?” Annie asked. “Boyfriends are bad enough.” She tried to play it cool, tried to match Caroline’s nonchalant attitude with her own, but wasn’t entirely sure she was pulling it off. As ignorant as Caroline was, she was right again. Michael’s drinking had taken a turn for the worst, and Annie knew the end was near. “Three years…” she thought as she stared vacantly down Fifth Avenue to the spot where the parallel lines of the skyscrapers seemed to converge, “Three years wasted.”
“Well, you may not want a husband,” Caroline said, “but I don’t plan on working the rest of my life. I wanna be pampered, let somebody else pay the bills for a change, ya know?”
“I can pay my own bills, thank you.” Annie wondered what kind of a husband someone like Caroline would snag. The little tramp was pretty enough, no way to deny it, but she lacked any modicum of social grace. She was also cold, spiteful and mean spirited. Caroline was stupid, selfish and self-involved, vain, needy and immature. As far as Annie could see, the only thing she really had going for her was her looks, and with a chest as big as hers she was sure to get fat in a few years, it just wouldn’t be fair if she didn’t.
“Suit yourself,” Caroline said as she tore a fresh bite from her bagel and crammed it into her gaping maw. “You know he cheats on you.”
“All men cheat,” Annie said in an offhanded manner, attempting to hide her growing irritation. “But as long as he puts in the effort to keep his infidelities a secret, I’ll keep putting in the effort to pretend that they are.”
“I could see it if he had any kind of drive, the hope for any kind of a future or even a promotion,” Caroline continued unabashed. “But what does Michael have? Nothing. I’ve tried to be nice to him, ya know, on account `a you, but he’s impossible to get along with. He either ignores me completely or spouts off with some brainiac nonsense about God knows what, thinks he’s some kind of genius or some damned thing just `cause he won some artsy-fartsy poetry competition, thinks I don’t know what he’s saying so I’ll just go away and leave him alone.”
“You probably don’t get half of what he’s saying,” Annie thought, “And I’m sure he does want you to leave him alone.” Annie turned away in silent revulsion as Caroline continued to dismantle her bagel with immaculately groomed nails, nails that probably cost her well over one hundred dollars and never saw a day of work. Caroline was always at work, but she never really did anything. Annie had to give her that much, she had a real knack for looking busy and contributing nothing.
“Well,” Caroline asked.
“Well does he hate me or what?”
“It’s never really come up,” Annie lied. “We never talk about you.”
Caroline’s dark eyes darted up over the top of her overpriced sunglasses. Annie could see that she had wounded her and wanted to leave it at that, but she hated to hurt anyone’s feelings, even someone like Caroline.
“Look, Caroline,” Annie said, “Michael and I just don’t talk about people from work. Hell, we hardly talk at all. He likes his space and I give it to him.”
“What kind of screwed up relationship is that?”
“Actually, it works out well for both of us. I’ve had my share of needy, insecure men who want to know where I am and what I’m doing twenty-four hours a day; men who want me by their side so they can ignore me the whole time I‘m there. Michael doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body, and I like the freedom. It makes the time we do spend together that much more special.”
“Jesus. You know how cliché that sounds?”
“I knew what I was getting into when I asked him out.” Annie had just about had enough, but she thought she would try one last time to defend herself, and to her chagrin, her lover. “You have a dog when you were growing up?”
“What? What does that have to do with anything?”
“Yes or no?”
“No. We lived in a small apartment, and I was allergic.”
“Well I had dogs,” Annie confided. “Plenty of them. Grew up on a farm. So I can tell you first hand that being nice to Michael is like glaring at a dog while it’s eating.”
“Huh? What the hell does that mean? Now you’re starting to sound like him.”
“Just hear me out. He doesn’t like it, and if you do it long enough he’ll try to bite.”
“Are we talking about Michael or the dog?”
“Both. Dogs don’t like you coming near them when they’re eating, it makes them
uncomfortable. First they shy away a little, but if you keep on they get nervous and start to fidget. Reach out your hand and they begin to feel challenged, maybe growl a little warning. Feeling challenged turns to feeling threatened and they get defensive. They might bark, snarl, show their teeth, but get closer and defense turns to aggression. That’s when they attack.”
“What are you saying?” Caroline asked with genuine concern. “Has Michael attacked you? Did he…did he hit you?”
“Wouldn’t that just make your day,” Annie thought. “Of course not,” she said. “That’s not his style. Michael attacks with silence or with words, not with violence. He hates attention from other people the way a dog hates being glared at. He doesn’t want it and he won’t put up with it.”
“What’s his damage?”
“Wish I knew.”
“Is that true…about dogs, I mean? Even if the’re tame?”
“Try it some time.” Annie stood and snubbed out her cigarette. She donned her cheap sunglasses and slung her tattered purse over her shoulder. She had had her fill of Caroline for the moment and wanted to enjoy the rest of her morning in peace and quiet.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Annie said from behind a fake smile. “I’ll see you at work on
“Yeah, see ya.”
Annie didn’t enjoy the rest of her day the way she had planned, and come Monday morning she was in no mood to run into Caroline at work. Michael met her at her desk.
“Did you hear about your buddy?” Michael asked.
“You smell like whiskey.”
“You smell like heaven,” Michael said as he made a show of taking in her fragrance.
“Which buddy would that be?”
“The stuck-up one. What’s her name, Carol-Ann?”
“Caroline. What about her?”
“She was attacked over the weekend, up in the city.”
“Oh, my God! Is she alright? Was she mugged?”
“Not unless the dog had a gun. That loud mouthed secretary, the one with the big Eighties hair, she was going on about it in the break room over coffee this morning. Guess Caroline was at some friend’s apartment and the woman’s dog attacked her out of nowhere. Tore up her face pretty good and bit off her pinky finger. ‘A hunert stitches’, the way she tells it.”
Annie felt no remorse about the part she may have played in Caroline’s misfortune, and that made her feel a little guilty. But not too much. Not enough go to the hospital instead of sending a “Get Well” balloon. Besides, if she went to the hospital she would probably rip out Caroline’s stitches for having slept with Michael a month ago, and that wouldn’t be good. That just wouldn’t be good at all.