by Pat Nolan || Author's Links
He swallowed hard. The restaurant teemed with delegates, all with little plastic encased name tags pinned to their lapels or corsage--like just above the mound of breast, proclaiming their unspoken introductions. He had been slowly masticating the bland fare and indulging himself with people watching, an occupation of the smug and ultimately insecure. The mix of attendees at the three-day convention was skewed toward the fair sex as his was a field that appealed to women and one that offered many opportunities for upward mobility. He didn't begrudge them their choice, women were good at computer sales, better than men in many instances. The field was expanding and they were riding the bubble. More power to them.
His gaze had strayed to a table of four women, two of whom were young, animated, and energetic. They barely stopped talking long enough to eat their salads. Of the other two, one was an older Asian woman who kept pace with what was being said by nodding her head even as she carefully and methodically put away bite after bite of her meal. The fourth woman was a large, older white woman with sloped shoulders, a splattering of wiry gray curls on top of a mousy brown perm that had long since grown out, and attired in a pastel polyester pantsuit outfit that was as tired and limp as her coif. This unexceptional vision accompanied a rear end that was three feet wide if it was an inch. He had noticed this particular klatch of ladies earlier in the auditorium--during the orientation and announcement of agendas and workshops, and he had been startled of the assembly. Seated a few rows ahead of him, the woman's slender drooping shoulders had given no indication of her pear shape. Now, in the open bay of the restaurant, her pendulous rear hung over the sides of the chair she occupied in a way that only a caricaturist could render. What had taken him aback however was not her near satirical proportions, but that he had actually visualized her naked. Not only naked, because that could have been merely curiosity, but in a seductive pose on a bed similar to the one in his hotel room. And then, as if in porno film, a close up of her vagina.
Bewilderment caused him to blink his eyes, swallow, and shake his head as if that would rid him of the images of this poor woman. Then he was filled with sadness, slowly but surely, as if he were an empty vessel, and a realization of his baseness, and ultimately his loneliness and desperation.
He found his way to the cocktail lounge after the evening meet-and-greet social in the main ballroom, slipping his name tag into his suit coat pocket as he walked into the dimly lit room. He usually enjoyed the socials, a chance to renew acquaintances, meet the faces that belonged to the voices on the other end of the phones, talk numbers with distributors and company reps. More and more though, it was a younger crowd who thronged these affairs and who talked mortgages and flashed baby pictures. He could flash baby pictures of his grand children, if he had any. He didn't, pictures or grand children.
The lounge was a refuge of sorts. At the far end of the bar, a young man he recognized as a buyer for a computer store chain and a young woman he assumed to be in a related field were engaged in the getting-to-know-each-other ritual that would eventually lead them to bed; they were at the intense eye-language stage. He ordered a beer, lite, and stared at the glass as the bartender poured it for him. He waited for the head to settle a little and then quaffed a taste, catching sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar doing so. A slight smile settled below the hint of foam on his upper lip. My drinking buddy, he teased himself, so I never have to drink alone. He thought of toasting his image but didn't know if he could bear the self-parody. Lately he'd been experiencing pangs, a kind of yearning for some unknown state of being. Consequently, at times such as these, he would be faced with a vague sense of disappointment or dissatisfaction. He took a long draught, finishing half the glass, as if he were quenching a thirst, though he was not particularly parched, having had a cocktail at the gathering. He poured the rest of the beer into the glass, catching a glimpse of himself doing so, and a shadow at the entrance to the lounge. He watched the mirror as the woman with the enormous behind and her Asian companion from the restaurant earlier that day approached the bar. He sat very still, holding his breath, as if that would make him invisible. They paid no attention to him, a few barstools separating them. He listened as the Asian woman ordered a glass of white wine and inquired after her companion's choice, which was simply stated as "Bud. 11 The intonation of that monosyllable caught his ear. He spent a lot of time on the telephone in his line of work and had developed an accurate sensitivity to voices. He could distinguish them as clearly as any sales clerk could recognize faces of regular customers. He never forgot a voice or the name that went with it.
The white woman's voice was familiar. Her companion wondered if they should perch at the bar or take a table. Without hesitation, the woman indicated the table. "Do you remember that old Bob Dylan song," he heard her say in a flash of recognition, "where he says, 'it sits on your head like a mattress sits on a bottle of wine'? Well, that's what I look like sitting on a bar stool, a mattress sitting on a bottle of wine." She added a low rolling chuckle.
There was no mistaking that sassy, hoarse voice, that laugh. Rikki, with Allied Tech. How many times had he flirted with her over the telephone, imagining a well-proportioned, country girl with golden ringlets in her mid-thirties? And she had flirted back with him as well. He had even contemplated arranging a rendezvous, so salty had their phone repartee become. And here she was, only a few steps away.
The bartender questioned him with the empty bottle, but he shook his head, gathered his change from the bar, minus tip, and slipped out of the lounge, avoiding eye contact with the two women seated at the table by the door, and numbly made his way to the elevator and back to his room.
He showered the evening before he was to return home. He had an early flight out. The three days had gone by rather quickly. He had renewed old contacts and had made new ones. In addition, he had made mental notes of the rumors that always circulated at these functions. Who was hiring, who would be cutting back. Not that he was shopping around. He was past his prime and would never be considered by any company, but the information could prove useful to some of the younger Turks and Turkettes back at the office. He had even introduced himself to Rikki. She was happy to meet him though he thought he detected a hint of disappointment in her demeanor. Her usual raucous self didn't bubble up as readily as it usually did over the telephone. She was much more reserved than he imagined she would be. They had chatted amiably over lunch the second day, in the company of the Asian woman whose name was May. Any of the chemistry he had presumed from their phone flirting had gone flat.
That's that, he reflected, toweling off, relieved in a sense, but still oddly disturbed. Some unnamable nagging bothered him. It caused him to sigh and sag. He sat on the commode cover preoccupied by a feeling of emptiness, a large emptiness. He would be returning to the familiarity of his home the next day but he would be returning to no one. His kids had all grown up and moved out and, he supposed, he could probably say the same thing for his wife.
He glanced at the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door and his still blurred reflection. The condensation from the steam of his shower had cleared enough to give him a startling image of himself. He looked like nothing less than a pregnant woman, a really ugly pregnant woman. He swallowed hard.
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