Streets of Pittsburgh
When I was twenty-two, a small design firm in Pittsburgh hired me to make maps. That I had landed such excellent employment despite being a college dropout with no discernible skills—other than an ability to type sixty words a minute—seemed heartening. My long-range goal was to be a famous actor, or a famous writer, but in the meantime I had to make a living somehow, and this type of living was obviously far better than working in a restaurant. So that summer, I spent my days in a swivel chair in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office, trying to bring some sense of order to a city that was infamously difficult to navigate—especially the suburban shopping centers and malls where we were able to sell advertising—while I dreamed of good things to come.
I also spent my days dreaming of Charlotte. She was the only woman in the office and she had long blond hair and a sophisticated face and a great sense of style that was rare for Pittsburgh. She was twelve years older than I and unhappily married. I knew that she was unhappily married because she had no problem making disparaging comments to me about a man whose successful medical practice had given her material comfort, but who was emotionally indifferent, overwhelmingly humorless, and frequently absent. The fact that she would confide in me implied a certain amount of intimacy and trust between us, and, at least to my way of thinking, a sure indication that if she had it to do all over again she would have chosen me instead. Her beauty, her style, and the allure of the forbidden made me quickly become obsessed with her.
She was unhappy and I was unhappy. I was also lonely and isolated. In the evening, with images of her running in an endless loop through my brain, I would catch the bus to my apartment in a neighborhood that, though situated on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, was the opposite of the suburbs—which is to say, it was mainly black and mostly poor. One summer morning I stood on the corner with a group of neighbors while we observed a man hurl a garbage can through the windshield of a car. On another occasion I made the mistake of glancing out my window at the moment three kids went riding by on their bicycles. “What are you looking at, white man?” one of them asked. And every night, after masturbating while thinking about Charlotte, I would fall asleep, only to be awakened shortly thereafter by the sound of a recorded human voice on a car alarm crying out in dismay, “Someone’s trying to break into my ride!”
Back at the air-conditioned office the next morning, sitting in my swivel chair with my maps, I would eagerly look forward to Charlotte’s grand arrival, which, because she worked part-time, usually occurred late morning or early afternoon, or sometimes, due to a propensity for tardiness, late afternoon. This unpredictability, of course, added to the excitement, the almost unbearable excitement, and it helped to disguise, or at least make tolerable, the fact that I was a bored and lonely college dropout living in Pittsburgh. At least once every day I would hear her footsteps coming up the stairs and the office door would swing open, only to reveal my boss, bearded and overweight in a tweed jacket. But when Charlotte finally did walk through the door, all would instantly be made well. Her entrance was always glamorous, her outfits sensational, her body adorned with bows and ribbons and bracelets that jingled like sleigh bells, and I’d spend the rest of my day feverishly making maps while trying to look at her breasts and ass and legs.
Then one afternoon, while standing at the photocopier by my desk, Charlotte made a seemingly innocuous comment that gave me pause. She described how the previous evening at dinner she had begun to laugh at the recollection of something I’d said that day at work.
“What’s so funny?” her humorless husband demanded.
“Nothing,” she replied.
That she had been thinking of me was one thing. That she had been thinking of me but chose not to disclose this to her husband was a whole other thing.
A few days later my boss asked if I would show Charlotte how to use a computer program I’d mastered. I agreed immediately, and at the first opportunity I wheeled my chair very close to hers. Our knees were almost touching and I could smell her perfume. Ten minutes into the lesson, in order to better instruct her, I gently placed my hand on top of hers as I guided her mouse around. She offered no resistance.
“You click here,” I counseled. “You drag there.”
When we were done with the lesson I went into the bathroom and masturbated.
And not too long after that, we happened, one evening, to be leaving work at the same time. She had been dressed that day in a particularly tight black outfit that had distracted me a great deal, an outfit which would have been entirely inappropriate for the office if not for the jacket that came down just an inch past her hips, concealing all the good parts. At the bottom of the stairwell, we stopped for a moment before going our separate ways. We were standing very close because the stairwell was small, and we were talking about something. I was making her laugh and, not really thinking about what I was doing, I pulled her close to me, kissed her on the mouth, slipped my hand underneath her jacket, and squeezed her ass.
In the beginning, it felt like the greatest accomplishment to be sleeping with her. It didn’t matter that she was married, or that she had a daughter, or that I was a guy who made maps. Everything was thrilling and everything would work out in the end. Days in the office became exquisitely charged with possibilities for whispering and touching. During a meeting, I boldly felt her up underneath the conference table. Facing a deadline, we stayed late and nearly had sex in a swivel chair before panicking at what we thought were our boss’s footsteps on the stairs.
One day after work she drove me home and went down on me in her SUV. Another time, she drove me home and I went down on her on the floor of my apartment. Holding each other afterward, with the minutes ticking away before she had to get back home, she suddenly announced in astonishment, “When I’m forty, you will still be in your twenties!” We lay there together, marveling at this strange mathematical truth. How young I was. How young I would always be.
It was more than just sex. We went to the movies. We ate dinner out. She drove me to a doctor’s appointment when I broke my finger. She gave me an old couch. She gave me leftover steak salad. She told me about her own aspirations to be an artist, how she had married too young, had her daughter too young.
She wasn’t my girlfriend, of course, but she felt like my girlfriend even though we couldn’t hold hands in public and I couldn’t call her at home. “What would happen,” she said to me once in my apartment, “if I spent the night here?” But we were both too terrified to even consider the outcome, and after much embracing she went downstairs and drove off in her SUV. Not long afterward my sleep was interrupted by that anguished voice screaming into the night, “Someone’s trying to break into my ride!”
One weekend that fall she invited me over when her husband was out of town. She lived in a big house on a wealthy cul-de-sac in the center of Pittsburgh. Her daughter was home. Charlotte introduced me as “Mommy’s friend from work” and the girl seemed to accept. She was seven, as blond and pretty as her mom. I pitched some balls to her in the backyard. She wasn’t very good, which made me think that her dad had never done this with her because he was never home. Charlotte kept telling her that she couldn’t be mad about missing the ball, but this only made her madder, until she grew so angry that she pounded the bat into the ground and cried.
We ordered pizza for dinner and sat around the kitchen, where there was a disconcerting photograph on the wall of Charlotte and her husband standing together on the beach. Charlotte looked young and her husband was bald. Later, we went for a walk—me, her, her daughter, and their dog—through their beautiful, tranquil neighborhood at the end of an October day. The trees were changing and everything was gold and red and getting dark. I would turn twenty-three soon. At one point, her daughter, without any warning, stuck her hand in mine, a sudden shocking gesture that frightened me. I wanted to pull my hand away, but this seemed indefensible and so I let her hold it. And for a while that’s how we walked, Charlotte on one side, her daughter on the other, her daughter’s hand in mine, the three of us walking through those winding streets, as if there was any hope for us.