On Friday, a delivery guy comes to my office with roses in a terra-cotta bowl. Everyone is dying of curiosity, which, of course, so am I. It’s not that there aren’t men who would send me flowers. There just aren’t any men right now.
The card says, “Looking forward to meeting you, Maureen—B.B. Chow.”
Marco, my Chief Gay Underling, appears on the other side of my desk. He glances questioningly at the flowers.
“A friend,” I say.
“Does this friend have a name?”
I hand him the card.
Marco runs his fingernail along the rim of the bowl. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but we don’t know any B.B. Chows. Do we?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t believe we do.”
“Sounds like the villain in a Bruce Lee picture.” Marco squints. “Like, the Evil B.B. Chow.” He does this lame little chop-socky sequence that culminates in him banging his shin against my glass coffee table.
I sit there for a puzzled little moment, listening to Marco yelp and watching the sun bling off this ridiculous desk they gave me when I became creative director of Woman’s Work. It’s covered with transparencies of young mothers paring ink stamps from potatoes and oven-roasting their own potpourri. There’s always some kid close at hand, gazing at the proceedings in that eerie modulated child-model fashion. The moms exude a wholesome yet edgy energy that’s almost (but not quite) lascivious.
Then it hits me: “B” stands for Brock. Brock Chow. The man my dear Aunt Bev has assured me is an extremely handsome doctor. Did I make a date with this man? I check my daily calendar. There, in non-photo blue, are the words Bev date.
“Wait a sec,” Marco says suddenly. “You didn’t send yourself these flowers. We’re not there yet, are we, boss?”
“Be gone,” I tell him. “Go forth and spread malicious gossip.”
This is what authority has granted me.
B.B. Chow does not mention the flowers. When I thank him, he blushes, says he hopes they weren’t too elaborate. He’s about my height, five-seven. A couple of inches shorter, given these absurd mules I tromp around in. A slim guy, narrow through the shoulders and hips. He’s got these big, trustworthy features and black hair that falls across his brow like a crow’s wing. I can’t quite tell if I’m attracted to him or not.
We do one of these new Belgian bistros for dinner and it’s clear right away that he’s not too familiar with the protocol. When the sommelier comes by, he gets confused and orders an appetizer. The whole dual-fork scenario spooks him. I seem to be a slob magnet. In most cases it’s these guys who came from money and can’t find a more productive way to express self-loathing. But there’s nothing practiced to B.B.’s dishevelment. He looks genuinely befuddled, sitting there with his napkin jammed into his sweater collar like a bib.
B.B. is unlike most of the guys I end up dating in one other way: he’s not a loudmouth. He speaks so softly I have to lean forward to catch what he’s saying. It turns out he’s a resident, training to become a pediatric surgeon.
“That must be pretty intense,” I say.
“I guess. You know, most of the cases aren’t that serious. It maybe sounds more dramatic than it is.”
B.B. is obviously more comfortable asking questions, so I lead him through the little tap dance of my life: the condo I just bought in the South End, my new job, my fierce and inexplicable crush on Pedro Martinez. I also tell him that I’m divorced. I’ve learned not to hold that in reserve, because it generally freaks the single guys out. They either relegate me to this suspect category of fallen woman (Hester Prynne, Ivana Trump) or they assume I was somehow abused, and it’s now upon them to rescue me. I’m not sure which is worse.
“You look pretty young to be divorced,” B.B. says.
“I was only married four years,” I say.
I pause for a moment. “It was kind of a complicated situation.”
B.B. nods in such a way that he might actually be bowing. “I’m sorry,” he says. “That’s probably none of my business, huh? I only meant that it must have been a real disappointment.”
I’m not sure what to say. We’re lodged in one of those moments of intimacy that’s come a bit too quick. B.B. peers at me, in an effort to convey that he understands my disappointment. The problem is, I don’t feel especially disappointed. I was married to a man who couldn’t operate a washing machine. I got out. The end. “I’ll tell you what,” I say, “I could go for some dessert. Something involving chocolate.”
I’ve invited B.B. to a play out in Jamaica Plain, at this collective art space full of collective-art-space people. My date looks like a total square. He seems to be making people nervous, which I somewhat enjoy. You can see them squirming in their torn batik. B.B. is oblivious. He thinks the whole thing is aces. Loves the play, which is a version of Endgame done in the soap-opera medium. Loves the party afterward, which is in the condemned loft next door. He asks the cast members all sorts of sweet, dorky questions. (Example: “Did Beckett have all that nudity in the original version?”)
What I like about B.B. is this unchecked enthusiasm. It’s a relief, frankly, to hang out with someone who plunges through life without the almighty force field of irony. Who doesn’t mind expressing his desires, even if he looks a bit goofy.
“I mean, he asked permission to kiss me on the cheek. I’ve been involved with men who don’t ask permission to come in my mouth.”
“Tell me about it,” Marco says.
The latest crop of candidates for our “Mad About Mom” section lies between us. There’s Sharon Stone (and bodyguard) walking little Roan through Piccadilly Circus; Catherine Zeta-Jones looking lumpy and blissed out with her diaper bag. “Demi Moore is so over,” Marco says. “Everything she touches is over.”
The truth is she looks radiant. They all look radiant, as if they’ve drifted into this universe for a single incandescent moment, only long enough to be captured on film. This is what we sell our readers, this illusion of you-can-have-it-all-ness. And we’re successful precisely because, beyond all the aspirational blather, back in the drab universe of the day to day, you can’t have it all. Not if you want sleep.
The phone rings and Marco snatches it. “Maureen Fleming’s office. May I ask who’s calling? I’m sorry. She’s in a meeting. Yes, I’ll let her know. No. No. Goodbye.” He shrugs. “Do we know a Mr. Bok Choy?”
As gay underlings go, Marco is unacceptably cheeky. But he’s also a decent listener when he wants to be, and he’s nursed me through the entire history of my recent romantic pratfalls. Behind-the-Music Man (who quoted from the program verbatim). The Incredible Rowing Man (he seemed to confuse my body with an oar). The Sperminator (let’s just not discuss this one). Marco coins these sobriquets to keep the lineup straight, and I adopt them to remind myself that these men are only temporary decisions, which can be rescinded.
The phone rings again. “She’s busy at the moment, Mr. Choy,” Marco says.
“Give me that,” I tell him. “Try to remember that I rule you.”
B.B. sounds flustered. “I thought you were in a meeting.”
“It’s over,” I say, and motion for Marco to scram.
“I just wanted to say what a nice time I had Friday.”
“Yeah. It was nice.”
“Can I see you again?”
“Well,” I say. “I’m kind of booked this weekend.”
“Yeah, I am too. This weekend, I mean. I didn’t mean this weekend or anything. I meant, like...” I can hear him breathing, this sort of wounded rasp.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” he says. “A little nervous, I guess. Not sure, you know, if you like me.”
“I’m still getting to know you.”
“Yeah,” B.B. says. “Yeah. Right. I’m sorry. No big deal. Maybe next week. I’m pretty busy anyway, you know, at the hospital. Maybe next week.” He’s speaking too quickly, too loud. It’s always been a weakness of mine: I can’t stand to see others in pain. You want an executive summary of the last two years of my marriage? Ta-da.
“Wait a sec,” I say. “What about an early dinner on Sunday?”
So there I am, at the Au Bon Pain in Cambridge, on Sunday at five, face-to-face with a focaccia that looks like a giant, cancerous crouton. B.B. is wearing a Harvard Medical School polo shirt, his skinny arms poking out, the same shirt he wore under his sweater last time. It strikes me as odd that this eager beaver is wearing the same shirt. (I know he went to Harvard.) So I sort of make a joke: “Hey, I’ve seen that shirt somewhere before.”
B.B. looks like I just punched him in the mouth. “Sorry,” he says. “These shirts come from the vending machines in the lobby. Sometimes, when you’ve been on the same rotation for a while, you need a fresh shirt.”
And now I see the situation: he’s come straight from the hospital, probably left right in the middle of his shift, which would explain why his fingers are stained the color of earwax (betadyne), why he looks frazzled and drawn, why he keeps glancing at his pager.
“You shouldn’t be apologizing,” I say. “I’m the one who was just an asshole.”
“I must look like shit,” he says.
“You don’t look like shit.”
He plucks at his shirt and forces out a laugh. “You should see my closet.”
“Look,” I say, “you didn’t have to cut out on work to see me.”
“I wanted to,” B.B. says.
There’s his face, propped up on his palms like an eager little display.
“I’m flattered,” I say. “But there are other times. I mean, I’m not going anywhere.”
B.B. takes a deep breath. “I should chill out a little, huh?”
“Maybe a little,” I say, and smile. “Hey, I’ve got a question. What’s the second “B.” stand for?”
“Blaine,” he says.
“Brock Blaine Chow?”
“Yeah, you know, that was my parents. They wanted to find these super-American-sounding names. The Brock part comes from Lou Brock. My dad was a baseball fan. That was his big thing, you know, the American pastime.”
“What about Blaine?”
“Yeah, I think the idea there was Paine. Like Thomas Paine. Give me liberty and all. That was kind of like a spelling error.”
And now for some reason this annoying little Post-it comes tearing out of my wonkbrain and it says: Common Sense. Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense.” Patrick Henry is the guy who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But I’m not about to correct B.B. because he’s already blushing so fiercely his cheeks look maroon.
“Would you like to get an ice cream?” he asks.
I know I should be scooting along. I’ve got my own rounds to make, the event schedule I keep overbooked to stamp out any late-weekend embers of anguish. And here’s this guy who’s obviously, at the very least, neurotic. At the same time, I’m touched by his candor, his overwrought confessions.
It’s the first day of spring and the streets finally smell again: tar and garbage, sweet sesame oil, old perfume. Everywhere, the righteous folk of Cambridge are strolling the polleny avenues, letting the breeze sift their hair. Not even the punks around the T can muster a decent rage, just bits of loud theater, and Harvard Yard seems almost bearable in this mood, rid of its suicide. Students are draped across one another, unbearably young, auditioning for sex in chunky shoes. “Ice cream,” I say, taking his arm. “Yes. I’d like that.”
B.B. comes over to my place for the next date. I’ve decided to revive an old recipe (baked salmon drizzled in gorgonzola, on a bed of orzo) and sconced the lights with colored paper and done all the other inane shit my own magazine recommends in its “Kindling the Flame” column. B.B. buzzes and all I can think is: I hope he doesn’t wear the same shirt.
He’s wearing the same shirt.
He’s also wearing surgical pajamas and paper slippers, and carrying a medical bag. In he breezes, calm as you please, kisses me on the cheek, says he’s sorry he’s late, asks if he can use the bathroom. Sure. No problem. I’m thinking: enough already. What is this guy’s deal?
B.B. emerges five minutes later in a full tuxedo. With tails. There are some men who can’t carry off a tux. My ex, for instance, always looked hopelessly overmatched, tugging at his cummerbund like a spoiled kid. But B.B. looks smashing. His hair is slicked back. His pleats are razors. The black lapels sharpen his features.
We finish off the second bottle of wine and sort of stumble to the couch and now we’re really quite close and his skin smells like plums and clay and his eyelashes are so delicate—I’ve never seen eyelashes so delicate—and I can feel my face get warm and fuzzy as his lips come toward mine.
Sadly, B.B. is not much of a kisser. He presses too hard, and he doesn’t know how to modulate the whole mouth-opening-tongue-moving-forward thing. All effort and no technique, which is a marked difference from the guys I usually date, who generally seem to be auditioning for the well-hung/feckless love interest on Sex and the City. And yet, I can’t help being flattered by his bungling persistence. If push came to shove, I could hog-tie B.B. Chow (I’ve got at least ten pounds on him). But there he is, groping away at my muslin culottes, smashing his mouth against my bra-cup, whispering you’re so sexy, how can you be so sexy?
It’s gotten late by this time, or early, and I already know I’m going to be a wreck tomorrow, that my gay underlings will watch me in their strange, protective, perversely unjealous manner, and fret amongst themselves.
“We should probably call it a night,” I say.
B.B. checks his watch. “I’ve got to be at the hospital in a couple of hours,” he says. “Maybe I could just stay here.”
“That’s not such a good idea.”
B.B. leans forward and looks directly into my eyes. “I want my body next to yours. We can just sleep, but I want to be next to your body. You have such a beautiful body.” He’s managed to control his voice, but his legs are trembling. It’s excruciating. Like watching Oliver Twist ask for more porridge.
“You can stay on the couch,” I say. “I’ll fix you a place.”
“Oh, spare me,” Marco says. “Spare me.”
“I don’t have time for this.” I clap my hands unconvincingly. “Go fetch me Evian.”
But Marco just sits there, rolling a gummy bear between his fingers. He’s not going anywhere until he’s secured a full admission.
Which of course he does, how B.B. managed to prolong negotiations, how I managed to relent, blouse by bra by panties, my outfit wrung into colored bulbs on the floor, knowing I shouldn’t, knowing the sort of message it sends, but also somewhat relishing throwing off the shackle, ceding to the reckless volition of my sexual adulthood, the old drama of desire stirred against self-protection.
“What’s his dick like?” Marco says.
“Stop it,” I say. “Don’t ask me that kind of shit.”
“It’s small, isn’t it? How small? Uncooked hot-dog small?”
“What it is, the thing that really freaked me out, he’s got no hair on his body. Not even under his arms. Just this smooth little, like, pelt. And he doesn’t know how to caress. I thought, you know, he’s a surgeon. He’ll have these delicate fingers. But he’s more of a groper. Like being groped by a twelve-year-old.”
Marco makes a despicable yum-yum noise.
There’s a note on my desk informing me that Phil, the publisher, wants to meet at four to grill me about the Summer of Fun issue (“Not fun enough!”), our new sex columnist (“She looks like a terrier!”), and occasions for synergy, a phrase he acquired recently and now chants through the long cappuccino afternoons. When he’s done with me, he’ll shtup his personal assistant, Mandy, perhaps in his actual office.
Here’s what has me baffled: the sex was good. I can’t quite explain this to Marco. But somehow, the fact that B.B. Chow can’t really kiss or fuck or even fondle, the fact that he makes me feel like Xena the Warrior Princess, these things turn me on. It’s like the bar is set so low with this guy, we can’t help but get over. Which we do. We get over. Twice. Despite all the flubs, the sighing misfires, what comes through is how enraptured the guy is, enraptured by me.
And how, just before he left in the morning, stripped of his tux, back in medical scrubs and swaying in the door frame like a eucalyptus leaf, he says this thing to me: “Will you be my girlfriend?” without a lick of irony—with, instead, a look of utmost and moist vulnerability, as if his life depended on the answer.
I don’t know what to say. I mean, we’ve spent the night together, had sex, orgasmed more or less simultaneously. What does that make us? Steadies? I’m not saying I don’t understand what he’s asking for. It’s just such a weird feeling to be on the receiving end of this kind of need. I feel like I should be able to turn to some impartial referee and say: Flag him, flag him, that’s gender preemption!
We’ve both got these intense schedules. But somehow, rather than slowing the tempo, everything speeds up, launches us into that delirious, two-gear existence, work to bed, bed to work, the narrowing of the social field, the cultivation of babytalk, the entire goopy works. B.B. calls me from the hospital to tell me how much he misses me. He ends every conversation with the same question: “When can I see you?”
This is not to say that I don’t have my moments of doubt. The first time I visit B.B. at his apartment, for instance, I spot a photo on his bookcase. A petite blonde, her hair gathered into a ponytail where the roots turn dark. She’s wearing a leotard top and cradling a white puppy in her arms.
“Who’s this pretty lady?” I call out.
B.B. comes rushing out of the kitchen with a bottle of wine in one hand and a corkscrew in the other. He sees me examining the photo and looks stricken. “That was a mistake. I apologize.” He marches right over and shoves the photo behind his bound copy of Prenatal Renal Failure.
“You don’t have to do that,” I say. “That woman is a part of your life.”
“Not anymore. She’s my ex.”
“OK. She’s your ex,” I say. “Does that mean you’re not allowed to tell me anything about her?”
“She was an awful cook.”
“Where does she live?”
“I don’t know,” he says brusquely. “Prince Street, I think.”
“In the North End? That’s right near my friend Marco. He’s on Salem.”
B.B. shakes his head vehemently. “She means nothing to me. Nothing. You’re my girlfriend now.” He drops the corkscrew and puts this big move on me, backing me against the bookshelf. The whole thing feels so...staged. As if I’m playing the role of B.B. Chow’s New Girlfriend and he needs scenes like this to keep the action rolling.
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