“Dance with me,” she said, looking down at him. Carl pocketed his iPhone and rose from his lonely seat on the couch. He wondered if she’d seen him watching her among the other dancers, dipping and spinning like a manic little hummingbird.
She took his hand. “I’m Gina,” she said. Her eyes were so black he couldn’t see the pupils.
Gina liked the way she felt dancing with him. He was tall and kind of cute in a ruddy-faced Nordic way. She’d never known any Carls, except for a dog in the children’s book one of her nieces owned. She liked the openness of the name, like car or cart, something cozy enough to curl up in.
Carl did his best to keep up with her. Every part of her vibrated, hips swerving one way, head and torso another, her long dark hair whipping his cheeks. She gripped his hand and never stopped smiling. He was astonished. Women like her, cute lively girls, didn’t go for guys like him. He was a plodder, unimaginative, stuck in his own head, frozen. Gina seemed to sizzle. By the end of the party, he was ready to follow her anywhere.
She thought he was fascinating. He was an editor for God’s sake. He worked for a publisher that put out historical books translated from other languages. Gina had fallen in love with her European history teacher, whose class she’d chosen to add depth to her major in textile arts. The professor was young, self-assured, with a mastery of the evolving panoply of history that took her breath away. Carl narrowed his eyes the same way, as if he could see things others couldn’t.
After several dates, he invited her to his apartment. She paid particular attention to the slanting pillar of books beside his bed, tilting her head to study the titles. Her hair slid forward in a dark sheet that he wanted to catch in his hands and raise to his lips.
“Outwitting History,” she read. “What’s it about?”
“A guy who sets out to save half a million books from extinction,” he said.
“Does he succeed?”
“Wow,” she said, gathering her hair to twist into a knot. She stared through the single window at the brick wall across the alley. “Why don’t you move in with me?”
Gina’s apartment was full of light. She needed light for her work designing clothing for a sportswear company. Her fancy sewing machine sat in an east-facing bay, offering a sliver view of Coit Tower. She received fabric swatches from all over the world to sew into prototypes. The shorts and shirts and jackets she made were durable, light, beautiful. She had Carl model for her, asking him to bend and sit and stretch. He was a perfect size medium, she told him, running her hands over his hips.
He loved her legs, the tender, buttery flesh inside her upper thighs. He loved her little shouts of bliss when he kissed her there. When they rode bikes through the Presidio, she found secret places in the woods where they could make love. The sound of voices drifting by made their sex urgent, daring. With her, he felt brave, unconventional. He didn’t ask who else she might have done this with.
She liked the careful way he made love to her, never quite losing himself, holding back for her pleasure. She liked his reserve, his containment, which contrasted with her sloppiness, her constant spilling of thoughts and notions and feelings. He was big and solid enough to absorb her excesses and keep them contained.
When she took him to San Jose to meet her Italian family, he seemed so overwhelmed she sat him outside on the porch to read.
“He’s a strange one, Gina,” her sister Angela said in the kitchen
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Gina said.
Gina’s mother looked up from tasting sauce with a wooden spoon. “Oil and water don’t mix.”
“Tell me about your parents,” she asked him.
He shrugged. “Nothing much to say, really.”
She gazed at him. He could never read anything in her black eyes, but their steadiness pinioned him. What she wanted was talk about feelings, which rendered him dumb. “They’re unremarkable. Quiet.”
She laughed and licked his earlobe. “So tell me quietly.”
“There was never was much overt affection. Not like this,” he said, pushing her down on the couch to kiss her.
“But you call them,” she said, sitting up.
“I try to be dutiful.” He couldn’t remember seeing his parents hug. He thought his conception might have been a rare event, a one-time concession to nature’s imperative.
“What do you talk about?”
“Minutia. The weather in Wisconsin.”
“Do you ever talk about me?”
“No. I want to keep you for myself.” It was true. Sometimes, he felt himself holding his breath around her, afraid that if he said the wrong thing, made the wrong move it would all come crashing down. She would see him for the hapless fraud he was, socially inept, disengaged, unambitious. With her, he had embarked on a grand adventure of her creation. She was on a quest to see and do things he would never have done on his own. She was happy to be his guide, drawing him out and away from his old self. He’d been rescued to run rampant through the jungle of life.
She loved his mind, the store of information it contained, his longer view of time and the march of history. She quizzed him constantly about the things he knew. What she longed for in a fierce and ineffable way were answers to life’s ultimate questions. Why her friend Jennifer had to die in a car accident at age 25, why her grandmother suffered so much from cancer, why war seemed to be a permanent fact of life. With Carl, she thought she might be edging closer to some basic truths.
“Will we always be at war?” she asked.
He peered at the fog outside the bay window. “Kind of looks like it, doesn’t it?”
“To decide who’s boss.” He touched a dark curl at her temple. “Over and over.”
She grabbed his hand. “You’re brilliant. You’re my google. Better than google because I can cuddle with you.”
Taking a cue from Gina, her friends Gary and Gary grilled him with questions. He referred them to Wikipedia when he grew tired of answering. He didn’t know if they were really both named Gary or whether one of them had changed his name. People were liable to do anything for love.
“Sure, she’s kind of hot,” Carl’s buddy Jason said. “But I mean she’s a seamstress, dude. In the long run, what does she have for you?”
“Everything,” Carl said.
“I don’t know how you’ve stuck with him this long,” Gina’s friend Kristen said. “Reads all the time, even when he’s eating.”
“Only at breakfast,” Gina said.
“He’s like a cave man. He hardly talks. What do you see in him?”
“The world,” Gina said.
“What did you and your girlfriend do together?” she asked Carl.
“The one you dumped for me. The one you still work with. Laura?”
“She wasn’t really a girlfriend.”
“But you dated. What did you do together?”
He had to be careful, give the right answers. “We drank a lot of tea.”
She stared at him. “And talked endlessly?”
“What did you talk about?”
“I don’t remember. Why does it matter?”
“Humor me, okay?”
“Work. We almost always discussed work. Whatever we were working on. Sometimes politics. Or books.”
She crossed the room to look out the window. “I’m not keeping up my end, am I?”
She began to see that his brilliance was wasted on her, that she might actually be stunting him in some way. He needed a woman he felt comfortable having long, smart, tea-drinking conversations with. Her selfishness was depriving him of the intellectual stimulation that made him who he was. He still read, of course, but it was human interaction that counted, the mind-rubbing of equals. They were a mismatched couple. She watched him for signs of boredom.
He caught her staring at him while he read. When she stopped planning their weekends, it dawned on him that she was getting tired of him. She seemed preoccupied, a little morose. He was dimming her fire. He was a drogue, slowing her down, killing her joy, the effervescence he loved so much. He tried to be less intrusive, carrying his book into another room, making his own coffee.
She saw him shrinking away from her. He was quieter, more watchful, more critical, she thought. He seemed to think a long time before speaking, as if he spoke only to humor her. It made her unbelievably sad that he made love to her with such steadfast patience. He needed to be free of her, her constant stream of suggestions, directions, demands, so he could grow, expand, be happy.
He saw that she had finally seen through the thin wall of his intellectual pretentions. She had discovered his indescribable dullness; he had nothing to offer her. He had no business taking up valuable space in her life, her home. His presence was only making her sad.
Months after he’d moved out, he saw her in a café, seated across from a smiling, curly-haired man. He watched her, looking for the dazzle she’d always worn like an aura, but couldn’t find it. When she saw Carl, her smile seemed forced as if the memory of him embarrassed her. She touched the man’s hand and laughed. He understood that she had found her match, a partner who was more like her.
She thought his beautiful high-colored Scandinavian skin looked gray, as if he spent too much time in dark rooms. He was with the woman from work, and they both carried books. She saw at once their rightness for each other, equals in every way.