The experts said life would return to normal. They were wrong simply because, for most, a weary stasis had set in. Like pretty much everyone, my job had come to occupy nearly all my waking hours. But on that day, an inexplicable impulse propelled me to take a radical action. I went for a walk.
In the warmth of a summer afternoon, light sweat broke across my forehead and collected in my armpits, despite the shady, tree-lined street. Large, well-kept houses held silent vigil, shielding their unseen occupants from the outside world. After a couple of blocks, a woman walking her dog appeared on the opposite sidewalk. She kept her head down, though her little dog yapped at me. A little farther along, a landscaper snipped diligently at a hedge. He never looked up.
Twenty minutes later, I reached the edge of the neighborhood at a corner where a boarded-up hamburger joint stood. A wide thoroughfare ran past its front door. Not much traffic now. I pushed on past the next intersection where a familiar strip of commercial enterprises lay dormant. The Bangkok had been my favorite restaurant. Great Thai food and so close. It held on longer than most, finally succumbing nearly two years ago. I paused and looked through the glass panels. Tables and chairs still sat in perfect alignment as if waiting for diners to arrive.
I caught the reflection of a lone car crawling along the street. I sensed the driver watching. The vehicle pulled into the lot and parked. I fought the panic of a face-to-face interaction. The car door swung open; a woman got out and approached. She stood near and peered through the glass panels, just as I had done.
“It’s sad,” she said, without looking at me.
“I worked here.”
She faced me—an attractive woman, quite young, with Asian features. I judged her to be in her mid-twenties. Made uneasy by her closeness, I took a step back, but she moved with me.
“Hello,” she said. I nodded in return. “Oh, I think I remember you.”
I felt both attracted and wary. “Uh, I’m not anyone.”
“I waited tables here. You were a regular and a big tipper. I always hoped you’d be seated at one of my tables.”
A memory of her surfaced. “Oh, yes, I recall, whenever the hostess tried to hide me along the wall. Solo diners don’t project a good look. What’s your name?”
“Mei Lien. What’s yours?”
Why had I asked? Now, I had to give mine. “John.”
“Oh, yes. That’s right. John Walker. I remember from your credit card. You dined here a lot. You were the favorite of all the wait staff.”
Dammit. “Uh, I’ve got to go.”
“Wait. Take me home with you.”
What did she mean? Was she propositioning me? She didn’t look like a prostitute. Was she homeless and seeking a place to live? Perhaps she saw suspicions forming in my mind. “I walked here,” I said.
She smiled. “We can take my car.”
Her petite figure and unaffected manner began to obliterate my concerns. What did I have to fear from a slight young woman? I gave a nod of assent.
The short drive passed in silence. What was she thinking? What was I thinking? “Here, just park behind my car in the driveway.”
“Wow. You live by yourself in this big house?”
“Yeah. It’s too large. I should move to a smaller place.”
Inside, I ushered her into the living room. “Glass of wine?”
“Red or white?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
I brought the wine. She took a sip and reclined into the plush comfort of my sofa. The hem of her black dress ended a few inches above her knees. I wanted to see more.
“So, where’s your wife?” she asked.
“Really? That’s hard to believe.”
“I was engaged for a while, but we drifted apart. For the best, I guess. Then the wave of pandemics started coming every couple of years. Like everybody else, I hunkered down, worked from home. Though we’re all vaccinated, everyone kinda got used to it. No way to meet people, now.”
I hadn’t intended on divulging personal information, but it had been so long since I spoke with anyone in person. The encounter produced an odd mix of pleasure and awkwardness. Where was this leading? Would she stay?
“What’s your job?” she asked.
“Accountant. It’s easy to work from home, but you fall into working too many hours since there’s no place to go. And you, what do you do?”
“Customer service. I’m the voice you hear when you call.”
“We support a number of companies. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but our team passes customers around and around until they get tired and hang up. Most callers are impossible to please anyway.”
That confirmed my long-held suspicions. “You do that from home?”
“Yeah. I have an apartment, and we’re furnished with a dedicated phone, so we don’t have
to use our own. It’s not a difficult job.”
“No boyfriends?” Was my question too bold? Had I lost the knack for polite conversation?
“A few. None lately. Like you said, it’s hard to meet anyone.” She took a long sip of wine. “Want to go to bed?” She didn’t have to ask twice.
Afterward, she lay nestled in my arms and spoke softly. “I think I got to know you at the restaurant. You learn a lot about a man by what he eats. You ordered the best dishes. The wines you chose were among our most expensive.”
“The Bangkok was a fine restaurant. Lots of great food and wine on the menu. I couldn’t go wrong with almost anything.”
“It made me sad that you so often dined alone. When you did have company, it was always other men. I thought you might be gay. After overhearing snippets of conversation, I realized it was just business talk. That made me even sadder. I wanted to go home with you even then, but I was in a relationship. Besides, I couldn’t exactly bring up the subject at the restaurant. Once, I nearly caught you in the parking lot, but I turned my ankle stepping off the sidewalk, and you got away. At The Bangkok, you didn’t notice me at all.”
“Well, I did. I watched you taking orders and liked the way you moved. But you were … uh, are … so young. I must be twice your age.”
“Yeah, probably. I’m twenty-three. You?”
“Thirty-nine,” I said, shaving away three years.
I lay awake for a spell, my arm around her warm body. The soft rhythm of her breathing eventually lulled me into a contented sleep.
She departed in the morning, leaving me wondering if I’d see her again. When the doorbell rang in the afternoon, I hurried to answer it, but found the weekly delivery from the supermarket. I hauled the boxes to the kitchen and put away the groceries, before returning to work. Mei Lien’s presence lingered and disturbed my focus.
I mulled over her words. She had expressed sadness over my solitude. Did she sleep with me out of sympathy? Or was I simply a convenience? Or could there be some unfathomable reason? Two weeks went by before she appeared at my door.
She came in, went up the stairs, and straight to the bedroom. Whether it was sympathy, convenience, or something else, I didn’t care. She was here, and that was all that mattered.
Later, we descended to make dinner. She scowled at the rather basic stockpiles in my pantry.
“This is very different from what you ordered at The Bangkok.”
She took charge, and we managed a reasonable meal from my modest provisions. Afterward, we settled in the living room with a bottle of wine.
“It’s really good,” she said, swirling her glass. “I’ll make a grocery list for you, so next time we can have a better meal.”
Next time. That sounded promising. But when would it be? I sensed it best not to ask and opted for the next best thing. “Let’s exchange phone numbers.”
“Not yet. Soon, maybe.” She leaned into me with a contented sigh. “What happened with your engagement? Did you call it off or did she?”
“It was kinda mutual. Just faded away. Haven’t been in touch for years. What about you? Why haven’t you settled on a partner?”
“I was with Mario the longest, but like your engagement, it just ended. Not sure why. Still hear from him once in a while. He’s with someone else, now.”
I sipped my wine. “Is Mei Lien a Thai name?”
She laughed. “No, don’t be silly. It’s Chinese. My parents were born here, but they are very traditional and wanted to preserve their culture. They’re back in China. I’m probably a disappointment to them.”
“What do you do when you’re not working? Answering the phone must not consume all your time?”
“I take online classes. Right now, I’m learning about mid-twentieth-century culture. We’ve been listening to the music. In those days, there were so many expressive voices.”
“Yeah. Dylan and Armstrong, for example. Their voices are unique, but not pretty. I had never heard of those guys, but you’re older. Did you?”
“No, I don’t listen to much music.”
“We’ll change that, but enough talk. Come on, let’s go upstairs.”
A pattern developed. Mei Lien came every two weeks or so. Under her direction, I became a better cook and a more adventurous lover. I taught her about wine, and together we listened to music from her class. Much of it sounded strange. Our odd, unique relationship began to feel normal. Then one morning as we lay in bed, what I subconsciously feared came to pass.
“John, I’ve met someone else.”
“Where? Uh, how? I mean, who?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“But … how did you meet him?”
“He’s teaching that online class. He texted me. I think he thought I was sexy.”
“Of course he did.” Damn. Was I losing her to a young, hotshot professor? Insufferably pretentious, no doubt. We lay together for several minutes. “You’ll still come?”
“Yeah. You’re special.”
“I’m not so unique.”
“You are to me.”
“So, I’ll still see you?”
“I told you. It won’t be any different.”
What choice did I have? How could I force her to give up her new lover? Probably a vigorous, good-looking stud. If our relationship continued as usual, how could I object? I accepted the new arrangement, feeling wary of our future.
Summer faded, and I barely noticed. My isolation obliterated seasons. I suppose I could have looked out the window where the leaves had begun to turn.
On a cool autumn afternoon, Mei Lien entered, as usual, without ringing the bell. Instead of going upstairs, she dropped down on the sofa. “I have a favor to ask.”
“I’d like for you to meet him.”
“Who?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“For what purpose? Is his name really Henry? That’s rather old-fashioned.”
She shrugged. “Yeah, Henry Walters. Will you do it?”
“Why? I can’t imagine a good reason.”
“It would please me. You and he are the men in my life. I want you to get to know one another.”
“Is he up for it? It’d be awkward.”
“He’s uneasy about it, too, but he’ll do it if you agree.”
That put the whole thing on my shoulders. Before her request, I would have done anything she asked. But this … well, some things are beyond the pale. A delaying tactic seemed best. “I’m not sure, Mei Lien. I’ll have to consider it.”
“I’ll call in a few days for your answer. Give me your number.”
“In exchange for yours.”
“I’d rather not. I’m on the phone all the time for my job.”
I didn’t press her. “Let’s go upstairs.”
“I can’t. Got to run.”
Did she intend her abrupt departure as a statement of will? Was she withdrawing from me in favor of that goddamned instructor? Did I have to comply with her request to keep her? Damn, damn, damn.
By the time she called a couple days later, I had decided that simply meeting the guy couldn’t hurt. I agreed to her request but only if they came to my turf. That satisfied her, and we arranged a date. I dreaded the inevitable physical comparison.
When the bell rang, I steeled myself for the appearance of Mei Lien and her young stud. A surprise awaited. Beside Mei Lien stood a heavyset, older man with a full beard. In his sixties, I guessed. I felt better right away.
“Come in, Henry. Nice to meet you.”
“Thank you, John. Likewise. Call me Hank.”
He projected a genial air. Perhaps things were going to be okay. We moved to the living room, and I provided wine for everyone. Mei Lien sat apart from us in an easy chair, forcing the “men in her life” to share the sofa.
After a slow, careful sip, Hank raised his glass. “My compliments. An excellent vintage.”
I wondered what else we had in common, besides wine and Mei Lien. He asked about my job. I related the boring basics, then glanced at Mei Lien and back to Hank.
“What about you? What do you do in addition to online classes?” Besides seducing your students, I thought.
“I’m at the university. Classes are virtual, of course. I also belong to an educational non-profit, which offers free classes to interested persons. That’s where I met Mei Lien.” He droned on about twentieth-century culture. “We need to know the past to understand the present,” he said and quoted some guy, who he referred to as a Southern writer and suggested a few books for me. I wasn’t much of a reader, and what the hell was a “Southern writer?”
I sensed Mei Lien evaluating our interaction. Was I meeting her expectations? Was Hank? Were we both on trial? As we conversed, Mei Lien slipped into the kitchen and prepared dinner. Polite talk circled the table as we dined. However, no one broached the subject of the relationships at stake.
Afterward, we chatted for a few brief moments before Hank said, “Really nice to meet you, but I’ll take my leave now.”
Mei Lien gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon.”
They had arrived together, so I expected her to leave with him. Her continued presence surprised and delighted me.
“How did you like him?” She sounded hopeful.
“He’s okay. Pleasant enough. I expected him to be younger.”
She smiled. “Let’s go upstairs.”
I answered the door, and Hank stood there. “Come in. Mei Lien’s not here, yet.” The three of us had spent a few awkward evenings together at my place. Hank did not appear to threaten my relationship with Mei Lien, but he occasionally lapsed into academic lecturing about one thing or another—a small price to pay for pleasing Mei Lien.
We settled uncomfortably in the living room. To fill the uneasy silence, I started the conversation. “Her job might be delaying her. You can never tell how long it’ll take to get rid of angry customers. I’ll bet doing customer service has a high burnout rate.”
“Customer service? Is that what she told you?”
“Yeah. What did she tell you?”
“She works for a phone sex company. I guess that’s customer service, of a sort.”
“Sorry to disillusion you.”
“So, she’s a hooker?”
“No, no. Just on the phone.”
“How do you know?”
“When she’s at my place, she’s working while I’m working. I hear her.”
“But she told me—”
“John, she doesn’t always tell the truth.”
“Of course, no one …”
Hank’s phone buzzed. He stepped out of the room to answer, leaving me with my thoughts. I desired to confront Mei Lien immediately. Anger, resentment, confusion vied for supremacy. Why did she lie to me and not to Hank? Was he telling the truth? I could hardly wait for her to arrive.
“She’s not coming.” Hank had reentered the room.
“Dammit. I need to talk to her.”
“I don’t have her number. When she calls, I get the ‘unknown caller’ display. Do you have it?”
“Yeah, but if she didn’t give it to you, I can’t either.”
Goddammit. I had become her secondary lover. How could she prefer Hank?
“John, I’d better go. You’ve got things to think about.”
“Yeah, yeah. See you later. Thanks for the info.”
I spent the next two days staring at my phone, but she didn’t call. Probably at Hank’s or talking dirty to strangers. How did she speak to Hank when they made love? She never used explicit language with me. I banished those concerns and forced my work to consume the days.
I had been expecting a grocery delivery, but Mei Lien stood there, shivering despite being enveloped in a winter coat. It had been more than a month since Hank had enlightened me. My anger had dissipated, replaced by resignation. I paused for a few seconds before allowing her to enter.
She shed her coat and flopped down in the living room. “I’m sorry, John.”
For what? I wondered. The lies? Her silence? Her disappearance from my life?
“I don’t want to lose you.” She sounded sincere.
I forced a skeptical response. “All evidence to the contrary.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s hard for me, because I want both of you.”
My voice rose. “Then don’t lie.”
“It wasn’t really a lie.”
I softened my volume. “You said it was customer service.”
“What’s the difference? I actually help my customers. They feel better after talking to me. It’s kinda like therapy.”
“I suppose you have a sexy alias.”
“Yeah … Roxy.”
“Men find that sexy?”
“Some men. Women, too. But they can call me whatever they want.”
“I don’t discriminate.”
“So, you do it for the money and just over the phone?”
“Yeah. There are so few jobs these days. The pay’s good. Better than regular customer service. I can easily afford my apartment.”
“Who exactly do you work for?”
“Sue Generous’s Den of Pleasure.”
It took a moment to grasp. “Ah, that’s clever.”
“Yeah, I think so, too, but nobody gets it.”
“Well, Mei Lien, what’s your plan? I mean, are you going to choose Hank or me? He must be three times your age.”
“Yeah, he’s sixty-six. Hank’s thoughtful. He asked me about birth control. You didn’t.”
“Uh … I guess I assumed …”
“I don’t hold it against you. I kinda forced myself on you that day. Didn’t give you time to think. Anyway, I want both of you,” she repeated.
“I figured you had given up on me. You haven’t been here in so long.”
“I’ve been keeping to myself, trying to sort out how I feel. Let’s go back to how it was.”
“You mean showing up unannounced every couple of weeks?”
“Yeah. That worked in the past. It’ll work again. Hank’s on board with the same schedule.”
Once more, I had to agree to her terms or lose her. We locked eyes, and my choice was clear.
She flashed that irresistible smile. “Let’s go upstairs.”
It lasted for a while, but after the first of the year, her visits became less frequent. And by spring, they ceased altogether. I can’t say it caught me by surprise. Each visit had been intoxicating, sensual, and all the other adjectives of pleasure. Now that she had disappeared, I sometimes treasured those memories. At others, I angrily thought, “good riddance.”
I found the number for Sue Generous’s Den of Pleasure. Should I call? Phone sex seemed a pale imitation of the real thing. Its allure eluded me. It took a week to summon the resolve to make the call.
A sultry voice intoned, “Sue Generous’s Den of Pleasure. How may we please you?”
I hung up, then called back. “May I request Roxy?”
“Absolutely. She will anticipate your every desire. One moment.” Silence stretched for a half minute or so. “Please hold, she’ll be right with you.”
A few moments later, her familiar voice oozed, “My name is Roxy, and I await your pleasure.”
“Mei Lien, it’s John.”
“I’ll answer to Mei Lien if you like. Do you find Chinese girls hot? I’m not wearing any clothes. What are you wearing, John?”
“I’ll do anything you want. Please instruct me. I serve your will.”
“Dammit. Talk about your class. Tell me what you’re learning.”
She paused, took a deep breath and said, “I learned about a composer that thought silence was music.”
“Yes. Let’s be silent for one minute and just listen to sounds you never notice.”
I complied but heard nothing. Then a tree branch, stirred by the breeze, scraped the kitchen window. Other sounds emerged. The refrigerator hummed a monotone. A distant dog yapped. The house emitted a few faint groans.
“Time’s up. What did you hear?”
I related my perceptions and said, “Tell me more …” I sat back in my easy chair, appreciating the soothing quality of her voice—the sound I most desired. After about twenty minutes of listening, I thanked her and asked if I could request her again.
“Sure, John. Anytime. You’re special.”
Probably tells that to all her customers. But I did feel special, and she was right about one thing. I found the experience therapeutic. I called two or three times a week. She relayed her online lessons, and I began to appreciate her desire to learn. Once, I asked her if our sessions were the most unusual. She said others were more bizarre but refused to divulge the details.
Months passed. On a day in late summer, I called and asked for Roxy.
“Hello, big boy,” a deep, sensual voice purred.
“I got connected to the wrong number. I requested Roxy.”
“I’m Roxy but you may call me whatever you desire.”
“I want to speak with the other Roxy.”
“I’m the only one for you, big fella.”
I hung up and called back. “You connected me to the wrong Roxy.”
“Roxy will service all your needs.”
“But I want the other Roxy.”
“We have only one Roxy. Our girls are all unique.”
Goddammit, she had been replaced by a crude surrogate—probably ugly, fat, and stupid. Had an accident befallen her? Was she sick? No way to reach her. Then it came to me. I found Hank’s email address at the university. He might know something.
I suppressed my anxiety and sent a polite inquiry. His reply provided both relief and despair. She had moved in with him. I wrote again and asked if she’d call me. He agreed to pass along my request but responding would be up to her.
She didn’t call. I had suffered breakups before, but none hurt like this one. Even my engagement had fallen victim to an indifferent inertia.
I returned to the music she had exposed me to. I even read a couple of books Hank recommended. That was my new rhythm—fewer hours working and more time reading and listening.
I answered the doorbell. She wore the familiar black dress and looked weary. It had been more than two years since we last spoke.
“May I come in?”
Words failed me, but I nodded.
In the living room, she sank into the sofa with a deep sigh. “Hank died.” Her voice was little more than a whisper.
“Uh, I’m sorry. What happened?”
“Heart attack. Only sixty-eight.”
“Are you alright? What’s your plan?”
“Hank’s children will get the house. I’ll have to move out. I need a place to stay for a while.” She gave me a hopeful look. “I have money in the bank, and I can go back to work. I’ll find an apartment soon, but I can’t handle being alone right now.”
How could I refuse? “Okay.” I rubbed my forehead. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”
“Well, I never said goodbye.”
She had me there. I had never known such an unpredictable person. “I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
“We can share the bed. It’ll be okay.”
I held her in my arms on nights when sadness overtook her, which was often. On other nights, she turned away from my touch. Two weeks elapsed before we made love, slower now, less passionate perhaps, and with a tinge of melancholy.
When I worked, so did she. I couldn’t bear overhearing the vulgar and often degrading conversations. I insisted that she seclude herself in the bedroom and close the door, while I labored through an endless series of spreadsheets in my little office.
I kept expecting her to move out, but she didn’t. Since her return, she had been a constant presence, never leaving the house. Her moods were more somber, less outgoing. I wanted the playful, spontaneous Mei Lien. Did that person still exist within her? Was I suppressing her personality? I felt guilty, but of what crime I couldn’t say. Clearly, she continued to grieve for Hank. What would help her? Time? A change of some sort?
“Mei Lien, you should try to see some younger folks.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Of course not. It’ll be good for you to mix with people your own age.”
“I’m not interested in them.”
“Take another class. Maybe you’ll make some friends.”
“Hush, John. I don’t want to think about it.”
But she did think about it and soon enrolled in an online class. The old Mei Lien slowly resurfaced. Six months later, she found a new lover only a couple of years older than her.
“Go to him,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I’m taking a class, too. Perhaps I’ll meet someone nearer my age.”
She nodded. “I’m going, but I love you, John.”
I loved her, too. I suppose I always knew she’d leave one day. Despite the void lingering in my life, the memories were good. Though the future was uncertain, I had no regrets.
Ken Wetherington lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife and two dogs. His stories have appeared in Ginosko Literary Journal, The Fable Online, Borrowed Solace: A Journal of Literary Ramblings, The Remington Review, Waymark Literary Magazine,and others. His story “Singapura” will appear in the Spring issue of Lowestoft Chronicle. His first collection, Santa Abella and Other Stories was awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion from the Book Readers Appreciation Group in the literary fiction category. When not writing, he is an avid film buff and has taught film courses for the OLLI program at Duke University. He may be reached through his website: kenwetherington.com or on Twitter: @KenWetherington
Amazon: Santa Abella and Other Stories
Writer of the Month: Ken Wetherington