Do Not Touch

From the author’s new collection, Greedy Little Eyes
You are never as lonely as when you are lonely in the company of your lover. I know I’m not the first to say that. Thomas used to say, “Another duckbilled platitude from my funny valentine.” On the other hand, Thomas said I could synthesize information quicker than anyone he’d ever encountered. They made me assistant manager at the music store where I work when Thomas told them that. Thomas has clout in the music world.

The first time we met was when he walked into the store one week before a big interview he had to do. He asked me for everything we had from Diana Krall. He was chewing a stir stick. His hands dashed around, pushing his glasses up with one hand while he yanked on that stir stick with the other.

I walked up and down the jazz section, pulling from here and there and the next thing Thomas knew he was standing in the aisle with an armload of Diana Krall solos, duets, and the miscellaneous liner notes of other artists who had worked with her.

“God, you’re, uh, you know your stuff.” As he spoke, the stir stick fell out of his mouth and hit the floor. Staring down at it between his feet, he looked devastated.

I wanted to pet the scant hair on his oddly round head. The thing with me is nervousness — other people’s nervousness, that is — I find it very calming. A stutterer slows my pulse down to about thirty, I swear to god. Perhaps it’s a maternal instinct of some sort.

I wrote him a list of other related notables we didn’t have. He could download them from iTunes, I suggested. Thomas shook his head. Like a smoker, he said, he enjoyed the ritual: it was like unwrapping a little gift — the sight of that fresh, shining CD. I printed my name on one of the store’s business cards. “Call me if I can help.” And I gave him a new stir stick from our coffee station.

He came back looking for me the next day.

Thomas interviewed highfalutin people for the arts section of the biggest magazine in the country. I was so impressed in the beginning — a big-brained guy like Thomas taking a shine to nobody-me. I had just cut off all my hair to about an inch from my skull. I used to have crazy curly long hair. For years I had been the girl with the hair, and I decided that that was getting me nowhere. I wanted to be wanted for something harder to come by and harder to lose. Be careful what you wish for.

I should have known something was wrong whenThomas sucked back the better part of a twenty-sixer of Glenlivet before he could kiss me the first time.

I met the watchmaker when my Timex broke; I was embarrassed to take it in because it was just a cheap old drugstore thing. But the watchmaker took it all very seriously, opening up the back, turning its face to his own, his hands brushing its. Seeing him touch my watch there on the glass display counter lulled me, as though he were brushing my hair or whispering fingertips along the inside of my elbow. Eyelids thickening, jawbone slack, I thought I might fall across the glass into his arms.

When he was done, I smiled, relaxed and dreamy. It was just a simple thing, he told me. Handing him ten dollars, I felt slightly desolate, anxious about there being no coins in the transaction, nothing that might bring our hands closer.

I went home and knocked on Thomas’s office door.

“Working,” he grunted.

Thomas had asked me to move into his house three months after we first touched. Yes! I said. I thought he was crazy about me, that I was turning him into a mad, impetuous lover.

“I’m thinking of having a bath,” I told him now. “Do you want to join me? I could add some bubble bath and make us a couple of mojitos.”

“Working!” It wasn’t quite a shout, more like a cry from between gritted teeth.

I put my hand on the door, let my fingertips trace the grain.

In the bathroom I turned on the hot water in the tub. I fingered my hair in the mirror and wondered if I should let it grow wild and tangled again.

I opened the cupboard over the sink. Picking up Thomas’s prescription, I rattled the few little blue pills on the bottom. They had worked at first. Perked him right up down there. At first. Then nothing worked. I added in some sexy showers and lingerie, hot oil massages.

He was embarrassed, apologetic. “It’s just stress,” he said.

I tried to talk to him about it. He doesn’t like to discuss sex. “It’s prurient,” he said.

“Is that bad?” I asked and laughed.

He threw me a look of distaste, sucked back the rest of his seventh can of Coke that day and chewed on what was left of his plastic straw.

They say there are ways to tell if a situation like ours is emotional or physiological. I woke in the night once and reached for him, ran my fingertips along his hip, the inside of his thigh. It was only a few moments before he was raring to go. He woke to find himself in my hands, my mouth, to see me sliding back up the length of him, and as his mind cleared, he shrunk back and pushed me away.

“What if I did that to you?” he asked, as though I had crossed some obvious line. It was a violation, he said, a kind of rape.

It wasn’t until Thomas stopped touching me that I looked up the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine.” They aren’t kind.

I closed the cupboard door now, opened a drawer and rummaged for more dead watches. I found two.

After waiting three days, I brought in another. “Maybe it’s time I resuscitated this poor orphan too,” I told the watchmaker, “while I have the money.”

He asked if I could leave it with him and pick it up in the morning. I glanced around at the other people in the store, told him I could wait, that I’d really like — and I lowered my voice — to watch. His cheeks pinkened a little and he set my watch behind him on the shelf.

I offered to go and get him a coffee while he took care of his other customers. He nodded and did this thing where he averted his eyes, lowered them and then cast his dark pupils straight into mine for a full-on eyelock. It just killed me.

Slinking into his shop with the last of my watches, I explained that I’d found this one last summer at the park; I had put ads in the paper but no one had claimed it. With this third broken body, I had become obvious.

He read the engraving, jeweller’s loupe cuddled by his eye socket. “Madge from Jim 1940. Wow. That’s a lot of time.” He shook his head, the tarnished strap looped across the fingers of his right hand, while my eye hooked on the polished gold band on a single digit of his left.

“Do you think it’s worth hanging on to? Fixing, I mean?”

“Well” — he peered more closely — “it’s gold fill. If it were karat, I’d say definitely. On the other hand, it is a good solid Swiss watch.”

He looked up at me and set his mouth a moment as though he had something serious to say. “I cannot fix it today.”

I nodded, looked down at the glass counter and imagined the closed door of Thomas’s office.

The watchmaker called me a couple of days later to tell me that Madge and Jim’s lost watch was breathing again: fixed. His voice sounded funny. He said he would be in for another hour and then he would be nipping out for a coffee.

“I’ll come by,” I said and hung up.

I stared at the phone. My skin felt ticklish for a few seconds, itchy with guilt bugs, and I scratched my arms hard before I walked past Thomas’s office. He was out but his door was open. Thomas isn’t fussy about privacy so long as he isn’t working.

I paused and looked in. Walking to the middle of his room I stared at the walls, his framed National Magazine Awards, his signed Chet Baker album cover, his signed Blossom Dearie. I breathed in the air, wishing for some answer to come out of its thinness.

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