Sunday, January 26, 2014

Paul and Alice and Eva by Benjamin Finateri

Benjamin Finateri's devilishly caddish character Paul lands a date with a beautiful woman... and her daughter - but he is about to get something seriously unexpected.

I didn't wait until the divorce was final before I started dating again. After the ungrateful bitch Hannah caught me, and everything fell apart with Stephanie because she was so weak she let guilt (over learning she'd cheated with a married man) ruin her, I decided to do what was best for my needs and get right back on the horse.

The ideal way to put the whole sordid mess behind me was to have a little fun. I'd date, but I wasn't looking for a new mate, or any kind of serious relationship. I wanted three things: sex, sex, and more sex. Sure, I could've taken the low road and gone to hookers. I wouldn't have had to worry about judgment, or emotional misunderstandings, but paying for it always seemed like a last resort for desperate losers. I wasn't desperate, or a loser, just horny, and anyway, I wanted women to sleep with me out of desire, not because the price was right. Living in San Francisco would also be to my advantage. With the majority of single men being gay, I'd have a surplus of women to choose from, and I was certain I wouldn't have trouble finding plenty with the same goal as me. I mean, we all need to kick back every now and again and have a good time, am I right?

I took the route that had been successful for me in the past: clubs, bars, the gym, bookstores, and museums. I quickly learned, however, in the dozen years I'd been married, the dating world, like everything else, had moved online.

I'll admit, initially, the Internet dating scene felt a little overwhelming, but I had two choices: accept the twenty-first century or give up, so I held my breath and dove right in. And let me tell you, at the risk of sounding like an old man shouting at you to get off my lawn, young people today don't know how easy they have it. If meeting women had been this simple in my twenties, I don't think I ever would've gotten married. OK, yeah, so people lie online. If you're clever and pay attention, you learn the code. 5'8" is 5'4", athletic is a euphemism for fat, thirty means thirty-something, photos are unreliable. I could go on, but you know what I'm talking about, and listen, I can put up with some half-truths and even outright lies in exchange for the sheer volume of choices.

The best part of online dating is it allows you to basically go on a first date without actually going on a first date. You deal with all that getting-to-know-you stuff you used to only be able to do in person before you ever get together, and you can be putting work in on multiple prospects at the same time. You've also got to love that a site exists for everybody. If you're seeking a soul mate to have your children, there's a site for you. If you want someone 50+, there's a site for you. If you're a militant vegan, yes, there's even a site for you. So many choices abound that if you can't find a match, you might consider looking in the mirror and asking what you're doing wrong with your life.

Sex was my aim, so I stuck to sites that would connect me with willing women, and I had little trouble finding exactly what I wanted. Am I making my experience sound too easy? I hope not. It did take some time and effort, and no, not every woman I met was a winner, and yes, sometimes the fake info they put in their profiles got frustrating. What I'm trying to say is, for me, online dating was a blast, and in a few months, my failed marriage and my failed affair were nothing more than a couple of bad memories I gave little thought to.

I was having such a good time I almost overlooked Ali's profile. She was a long-haired brunette with blue eyes, a combination I've always been attracted to. Her high cheekbones and big smile also helped. I did wonder whether her profile photo might be years old, but I didn't worry too much. She claimed to be twenty-nine, and the picture matched. Plus, she possessed a type of beauty that aged well, so even if she was fudging the years, I figured I'd still be into her.

On many sites, the ones that market their knack for connecting you with that someone special to spend the rest of your life with, such an attractive woman would raise all sorts of red flags. Her inability to find a mate would've been a clear indicator she was as dumb as a post, or batshit crazy, or carrying a ton of baggage. Remember, though, the kind of sites I'd joined. Ali was up front about her desire to have a good time now; commitment and monogamy would come in the future, maybe. All right, so I'd have to be careful that she wasn't trying a bait 'n' switch, snaring me with promises of a fun ride, then revealing she wanted a boyfriend. I could let her down easy though, and one more look at her beautiful face told me I didn't have anything to lose. Sure thing or not, I figured whatever happened, her easiness on the eyes would go a long way in making a date with her a good time for me.

My concern became not her viability, but whether she was getting so many hits from so many other guys that I'd get lost in the shuffle. In order to rise above the masses, I worked hard on my first email to her. I won't give you all my self-marketing secrets, but Ali responded right away. She'd seen my profile and was thrilled I'd contacted her; she'd been considering doing the same. We didn't waste time, setting up a date for the following Friday.

From my preliminaries with Ali, I learned Italian cuisine was her favorite, so I made a reservation for two at a new fancy Italian restaurant around the corner from my apartment. When I let Ali know, she told me she'd read rave reviews online and was excited to try it. Like a gentleman, I offered to pick her up, but she declined and said she'd meet me there. She'd figured out the restaurant was close to my place - I listed my neighborhood in my profile - and she didn't want me going out of my way. I assured her picking her up wasn't a problem, but she insisted, so I relented, agreeing to meet her.

The night of the date, I left my apartment about five minutes before I was due to meet Ali. I walked down my street, hung a left at the corner, and spotted a woman standing out front of the restaurant looking in the opposite direction. I said a silent prayer that it was Ali for even from half a block and angled three-quarters away from me, the woman was obviously totally fuckable. She was tall and curvy and wore a white cardigan over a short blue dress that showed off long tanned legs.

When I was a few steps from her, the woman must have caught me in her peripheral vision because she turned to me and holy fuck, thank you lord, there is a God, it was Ali, and her profile photo had not done her justice.

Her dark hair was pulled back, showing off her eyes, the color of lapis lazuli. She was taller than I would've guessed, almost six feet, a good two inches taller than me. The blue of her dress matched her eyes, and up close her body was even more curvaceous than I'd first realized. Her purse-strap hung diagonally across her breasts, drawing attention to their largeness. Her tanned thighs and calves were perfectly sculpted, and she wore flat-heeled shoes as if she wanted to emphasize that she didn't need high heels to improve the shape of her legs and ass.

I said, "Hello, I'm Paul," and the words came out with a croak. I made it seem as though I was clearing my throat, but I'm sure I sounded like an idiot. Ali was nice enough to pretend not to notice and said hi and introduced herself, and somewhere I found the ability to speak and told her how wonderful it was to meet her. I was about to move to the restaurant entrance when Ali began to apologize. I was taken aback; such a woman had nothing to be sorry for. Then I saw what Ali's tremendous beauty had obscured from me until that moment: the little face, below and behind Ali, the face of a girl, and Ali's words became clear. The sitter had canceled at the last minute, and she wasn't able to find another, and she'd emailed me, though she knew I probably wouldn't get it in time, and here we were, and she understood if I wanted to reschedule, but perhaps it was OK that she'd brought her daughter.

I looked down at the girl, maybe seven or eight, an online deceit taken to a level I had yet to experience. The ruse began to sink in. I was no mere date for Ali. I was being judged as a potential father figure for her daughter, a role she should've known I wasn't ready or willing to play. The sitter had canceled? Sure, whatever you say, Ali. You should've been straight on the dating site. Yet, could I really blame her? Maybe I was judging Ali too harshly. I could see why a woman would want to ease into the subject of her children. Maybe she had scared away too many men too soon. Maybe she hadn't misrepresented herself online. Maybe the sitter had canceled, and if she hadn't, I never would've learned about the daughter. Single mothers had a right to blow off steam, did they not? Maybe Ali had been burned by her daughter's father, and wasn't looking for a long-term relationship, and did just want to have some fun, to forget for a night the difficultly of raising a child by herself.

Many maybes, but... I shrugged. The more the merrier. Ali showed off her big smile, the same one from her online profile, and man, it was much better in person. I wanted to kiss her. If she hadn't have been so stunning, would I have blown her off? Probably, though at the time, I told myself I was a hell of a guy for being accommodating.

Ali introduced me to her daughter, Eva, and began to tell her to say hello, but the girl wasn't shy. She stepped toward me, her little hand extended and I shook it. She said, "Nice to meet you," though she gave me a look, a look that when I was a kid, I would've called the hairy eyeball. I glanced at Ali. She hadn't caught it, or if she had, she didn't let on. Eva announced to the world she was hungry, turned on her heel, and headed for the restaurant. At the door, she glowered at her mother and in a tone like an order, said, "Come on, Alice. Shake a leg."

If I'd ever spoken to my mother that way, I would've gotten a firm slap on the behind, but the bossiness didn't seem to bother Ali. She followed Eva, and I hurried to keep up. I took the door from Ali, held it open for her, and as we entered the restaurant, she said to me, "I've explained to her that children address their parents as Mom and Dad, but she won't listen. I don't like my full name and you know how kids are. Always trying to push buttons, see what they can get away with. I hope it doesn't bother you."

I wanted to say I didn't know anything about kids pushing buttons, didn't really know a thing about children at all. Instead, I told her not to worry; it was no skin off my nose.

Ali smiled again and I forgot everything but her beautiful face, until Eva interrupted. She pointed at her mother and said, "Alice, I'm right here. You talk about me as though I can't hear you." The girl looked at me and added, "I don't call my Dad anything because I don't have one."

I caught anxiety on Ali's face as she said to her daughter, "Eva enough. The three of us are going to have an enjoyable evening."

The girl pouted, but didn't argue.

We stood awkwardly in the entranceway of the restaurant behind a group of half a dozen people waiting to be seated. I wanted to relieve the tension between Ali and Eva, but didn't know how, so I said the first thing that came into my head. I asked Ali why she didn't like her name.

She said, "My name? You mean Alice? Alice is such a boring, old-fashioned name. Nobody's named Alice nowadays. It makes me feel like I should've been born a hundred years ago."

Eva said, "Maybe you were born a hundred years ago." She laughed and in a sing-songy tone, said, "Alice, the hundred-year-old hag."

Ali glared at her daughter. For a moment her beauty disappeared, overtaken by rage. She looked like she was contemplating punching the girl in the face. Then as if nothing had happened, the anger was gone. She asked me whether the reservation was under my name. I nodded and she snaked through the waiting crowd and found the maitre d'.

Watching Ali's hot ass walk away from me helped excise her angry expression from my mind. Though that's not to say I wasn't somewhat bothered. The back and forth between Ali and Eva was strange, and obviously not what I'd signed up for when I'd agreed to the date. But Ali's physical beauty was too intriguing to just give up on her. I decided to roll with it, see where the night took me. With sex with a gorgeous woman as a potential payoff, I could put up with a little mother/daughter bickering. I wouldn't pretend I wanted children, wouldn't pretend I was looking to be part of a family. If Ali showed interest in a having a good time, I'd give it to her. If I felt any pressure to be more than a roll in the hay, I'd bail.

While Ali was talking to the maitre d', I got a better look at Eva. She had a hard little face, thin, almost stringy hair, and she wore a long red coat with big black buttons, the kind you find at vintage stores. She certainly did not take after her mother, not physically anyway. Looks aren't everything, I know, but I found myself hoping Eva was smart, or funny, or kind because if she ever had to rely on her looks, she was in for a difficult life. Maybe it was the coat, but her body seemed dumpy. She had a tiny head, an uneven mouth, and a misshapen nose. It was a nose I hadn't seen the likes of since my grandfather was alive, and his had been broken three times. Maybe Eva was a rough-and-tumble kid. I thought about inquiring discreetly. But what if her nose was naturally like that? I didn't want to be accused of judging the looks of a little girl. You never know, she might be like the ugly duckling and blossom into a swan, but man, she had a long way to go. And the odd body, the crooked mouth and nose, they were weird, though they weren't anything compared to the eyes, and the wrinkle. Eva had these dark, beady eyes, distant eyes, like life had already made her wary, and between those cold eyes was a deep vertical wrinkle, the type you'd normally associate with a lifetime of stress.

Ali returned and asked me if I was sure the reservation was under my name. I told her I was very sure, and she said the maitre d' claimed not to have it. I swore to myself, pushed through the crowd, informed the maitre d' I had a reservation for two, and gave him my name. He raised one dubious eyebrow, scanned the book on the podium in front of him, shook his head, and said, "I'm sorry, sir, it's not here. You're welcome to put yourself on the list."

I let him know I'd called a few days earlier, the reservation had to be there, and he showed me the book and what the fuck, he was right. He repeated his offer to put my name on the list, and I wanted to tell him to fuck his list, and go to hell, and what's the point of making a reservation if the restaurant can't hold it, but I remembered when I called, I spoke to a woman, so the mistake wasn't his fault, and anyway, I didn't want to make a scene in front of Ali, so I swallowed a string of expletives and politely asked how long the wait was.

He told me at least two hours, which wasn't going to work at all. I reached for my wallet and inquired what it'd take to get a table sooner, like now, and he straightened his body as though he were trying to appear official, shook his head and said, "I'm sorry, sir, we are full for the next two hours. Bribing me won't change that."

I started to explain it was hardly a bribe, but Ali was suddenly next to me, asking me what was wrong. I explained the missing reservation and the two-hour wait and I tried to be apologetic. She took it great, saying, "No problem. We can go somewhere else."

Wow, I thought, so laid back. I wanted to fuck her all the more. I apologized again and told her I understood she'd been looking forward to eating there, but she smiled and said, "Don't worry. There'll be other nights." How could I not love that?

Outside, I began to give Ali a few choices of good spots in my neighborhood, and offered to drive if she had any ideas farther afield. We hadn't settled on anything when Eva interrupted with, "Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom."

Ali said, "Soon, honey. Just let Paul and me pick a place to eat."

Eva scrunched up her face and started to shift her weight from one foot to the other. She whined, "Mommy, I need to go really bad."

Ali sighed, looked back at the Italian restaurant, and said, "If you can't hold it, go use their bathroom."

"I can't," said Eva.

"What?" asked Ali. "Why not?"

"The man who wouldn't give us a table, he won't let me," said Eva.

Ali said, "Ignore him. He won't bother a little girl, I promise."

"No, Mommy," said Eva. "He's scary."

Ali's shoulders sank and she said, "Eva, if you have to go so bad, go. You want me to take you?" She offered a hand to her daughter.

Eva shook her head. I thought she might cry, and I hit on the perfect solution, one that would definitely endear me to Ali. I said, "Hey, I live right over there." I pointed in the direction of my apartment, and added, "She can use my bathroom."

Ali said, "Thanks, but she's fine. She's just being difficult."

"Really," I said. "It's not a big deal."

"It's all right," said Ali. "I don't want to impose."

Eva's weight shifting quickened and she squeezed her crotch with both hands. She said, "Please, Mommy."

"It's really not a big deal," I said. I started walking.

Ali took a deep breath, exhaled, and said, "OK, I'm sorry, thank you." She grabbed Eva's hand, and I led them to my place.

I directed Eva to the bathroom, and Ali and I waited in the kitchen. She thanked me again and smiled; I repeated that it was no problem. I wanted to stare at her, drink her in, tell her how beautiful she was. I stayed cool. I didn't know what she was thinking, not exactly, but I've been on enough dates, been with enough women, to know the attraction I was feeling was mutual.

She said, "Um, I was... please tell me if I'm being too forward... It's just an idea... a suggestion..."

"Shoot," I said.

Ali looked at my cabinets and my refrigerator. She asked, "Do you have much food?"

"Some," I said. "Why?"

"Well, if you want, now that we're here, instead of going back out, I could cook for us."

Yes, awesome, I thought. A date wouldn't be willing to cook a meal for you in your home if she wasn't also open to the idea of getting into your bed. I didn't want to seem overly eager though, so I said, "Oh, that's nice of you to offer, but you don't have to. We can go out."

Ali laughed, said, "What? You don't think I'm a good cook?" She flashed her blue eyes at me and I was putty.

I said, "No, it's not -"

Eva came stomping into the room, shaking her wet hands in front of her and announced, "Ready. Let's go."

"Actually, honey," Ali said, "we're staying here."

Disappointment took over Eva. She said, "You told me we were eating out tonight."

"Change of plans," said Ali. "Mommy's going to cook." She put her purse down, and took off her sweater, hanging it on the back of a chair.

"Boring," said Eva, and she trudged out of the kitchen, making her way to the living room.

"Really," I said. "You don't have to cook. We can go out," but Ali was already rooting through the refrigerator.

She said, "Nonsense. It'll be fun," and I gave in, wholeheartedly.

I heard the TV in the living room and I asked Ali if Eva was OK. She said her daughter was good at entertaining herself, as long as I didn't have a problem with it. I assured her, no, it was fine by me.

Ali was checking out the cabinets and wanted to know whether I had any wine. I told her I only had white, but she pulled down a bottle of red, showed it to me, and said, "This'll probably go better with what I'm planning, if that's all right."

"Sure," I said. Ali found the glasses and corkscrew without asking and while she opened the bottle I took a closer look at it. I'd been positive I had only white in the house. The bottle was dark, obscuring the color of the wine, so for a moment I thought Ali and I may have made a mistake, but no, the label said red, which was confirmed as Ali poured. For the life of me, I couldn't remember where or when I'd gotten the bottle. I hadn't bought it, that was for sure. I decided someone must've pawned it off on me after a party.

Ali handed me a glass, raised hers, and said, "To new beginnings." We drank. I didn't expect much from a bottle that had probably been regifted to me. To be honest, I was just hoping it wouldn't be so terrible that Ali would lose her appetite. My worries, well, they were unfounded. I don't know much about wine, but it was so good, I had to be careful or I would've downed the entire glass in a single gulp. Ali took only one sip, and I asked her if she didn't like it. She shook her head and agreed it was tasty; she was driving though, so she needed to take it slow, but that shouldn't stop me from enjoying myself. She poured me more, told me to sit and relax and get ready to be impressed.

And impressed I was. Ali had an intuitive sense of my kitchen, like she had been there before, like she belonged there. She found everything easily, which wasn't so strange, I guess. Kitchens are roughly the same, after all, though she never once asked whether I had a specific ingredient. Whatever she needed was in her hand, as if she'd stocked my refrigerator and cabinets herself. Several times, I offered to help, but she refused. She floated among the counters, the stove, and the oven, effortlessly moving through the chopping, mincing, grating, mixing, and stirring. She was making a soup, or stew; the smell filled the room and I knew it would be delicious. Ali was a natural cook, that much was obvious. I imagined her in bed. She'd be a natural there too.

We chatted as she cooked. I didn't delve into my pending divorce, and Ali shared nothing about Eva's father, except that they'd never really been together. I was trying to maintain first date etiquette by avoiding serious topics, and sensed Ali was too, but despite sticking to small talk, I felt comfortable with her. We had a connection. Conversation with her was easy. She listened well and laughed at my jokes. I wanted to sleep with her so bad.

Soon, with dinner almost ready, I set the table. Ali put the finishing touches on the meal, called to Eva to join us, and we sat down to eat. Ali had made minestrone with minimeatballs, topped with grated pecorino. On the side, we had garlic bread, and a tomato and green been salad. I was flabbergasted she'd been able to whip it all up so fast. I hadn't realized I had everything required to make such an elaborate meal. Ali scoffed at me and said the dinner was far from elaborate, but she appreciated my gratefulness.

I dug in, and my God, I wish I were a poet because epic verse is required to describe the meal's awesomeness. Each bite filled me with joy. I told Ali how much I liked it, and she glowed, becoming even more beautiful.

Eva was packing the food in like eating was a job to be done but not enjoyed. I asked her whether her mom always cooked liked this, and the girl shrugged and with a full mouth muttered, "I suppose."

Ali told her daughter to slow down or she'd get sick. Eva shot her a dirty look, but her pace did slacken, a little. She'd taken off her coat, and I noticed she was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz. Printed above it was the quote, "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?"

Trying to get Eva to take a breath, I said, "Your shirt is cool. You know, The Wizard of Oz is a great movie."

Eva kept her eyes on her bowl, but she swallowed and said, "I bet I like it more than you."

"Eva," said Ali.

"It's OK," I said, and to Eva: "Maybe you do. What's your favorite part?"

Eva started to spoon another bite into her mouth, but stopped, and looked up at me. She said, "I don't know, any part when Dorothy isn't whining."

"Come on, Eva," said Ali. "Be nice."

Eva stared at her mother and said, "I am, and you know it's true. Whine, whine, whine. Oh, I didn't mean to kill anyone with my house. No wonder the wicked witch hates her. How'd you like it, Alice, if whiny Dorothy killed your sister?" She went back to stuffing food in her face.

Ali broke into a fine wicked witch impression, saying "You watch yourself, or I'll get you, my pretty," and she smiled at me.

Eva dropped her spoon on the table, wiped her mouth with her forearm, stood, and in a loud voice, said, "Done," and marched out of the kitchen, back to the living room.

Ali watched her go, then said, "Sorry. She gets difficult when I don't pay a hundred percent attention to her, especially if she's losing out to a man. She's tough, but it's hard, you know, being only us two... It's hard."

I can't remember exactly what I said, though I think I did my best to try to comfort Ali and help her not worry about her daughter. I had other things on my mind, like how with the kid in the next room, I'd finesse the prospects of sex. Understand, I was realistic. I knew I might not sleep with Ali that night. Then again, I might. If Eva fell asleep, I'd persuade Ali, and short of that, I could at least lay the groundwork for a second date, one with just the two of us.

We finished eating and continued talking and I worked on the wine. I drank most of the bottle, but surprisingly didn't feel drunk, only happy and calm. I don't know how long Ali and I sat in my kitchen. The time we spent was easy and wonderful, it flew, and whether it was that night or another, I was going to have sex with her and she'd scream my name in ecstasy.

Sometime later Eva came into the kitchen, threw herself into the chair across from me, folded her arms, and scowled. She looked at me like she wanted to gouge my eyes out, turned to her mother and said, "I'm tired and I want to go home." She put her arms on the table, rested her head on them, closed her eyes, and began to make exaggerated snoring noises.

Ali asked me, "Do you hear something?"

I started to say no, but quickly understood what she was getting at and said, "Wait... is it like a buzzing?"

Ali smiled. "That's right. An annoying little buzzing from an annoying little girl."

Eva kept her head down and her eyes closed, but said, "You're the annoying one, keeping me here when I want to go home."

Ali ignored her daughter, returning to whatever topic we'd been talking about. A few minutes later, I noticed Eva's breathing had changed. She'd fallen asleep. Ali noticed too and said, "I think that's my cue to get going."

I told her we could move Eva to the couch, let her sleep while we spent more time together, but Ali said, "No, sorry, I had fun, but no."

I wanted her desperately, though before I could work on her, Ali stood and scooped up her daughter. Eva stirred, rested her head on her mother's shoulder and continued sleeping. Ali began to apologize again for having to bring Eva along, and the girl's bad attitude, but I stopped her, telling her not to worry. I think I said something like girls will be girls. I got Ali's purse and sweater for her and she managed to free an arm from Eva and take them from me.

I walked her to the door; before I opened it, I thanked Ali profusely for the fantastic dinner and added, "We should do this again sometime."

She said, "Yeah, that's probably not the best idea."

I was floored. "Why not?" I asked.

Ali hiked Eva up, adjusting her grip, and said, "I'll always be a package deal."

I knew then my first impression outside the restaurant had been right on the money. No man was going to be able to just fuck Ali. She'd always expect more, and yet, I didn't want to give up so easily. I tried to pretend Eva wasn't a complication, that I was up for Ali and me trying a real relationship. She saw through me and told me no. She said I seemed like a nice enough guy, but she could tell I wasn't ready for an instant family. She thanked me for being understanding about bringing Eva along and apologized if her online profile had given me the wrong impression.

I was a little pissed and a lot confused. She had some nerve saying she wasn't interested in seeing me again. We'd hit it off; the night had been great. So I didn't want an instant family? Why'd we have to make that leap after one date? What was wrong with having some fun and seeing where it took us? Yeah, true, I was looking for someone to fuck, but Christ, she'd presented herself as being on board with that. She was sorry if her online profile had given me the wrong impression? Hell yes it had given me the wrong impression. Fuck her, and fuck Eva too. Of course I didn't actually say any of that. I knew if I got loud and angry, I'd be the asshole, and it wasn't like it'd change anything anyway, so I buried my feelings and came out with, "No, no, I had no preconceived ideas, well, aside from that we might have a lot in common. And, you know, you ever change your mind and want to go out again, you know where to find me."

She locked her blue eyes on me and repeated what she'd said about me being a nice guy, and for at least the third time thanked me for letting her bring Eva, and she wished me good luck finding someone. Then she showed off her smile once more. I wanted her so bad. One night. Just let me inside you. You won't regret it. And I was ready to beg when Eva shifted her weight and murmured, "Mommy," and I said, "OK, well, it was a pleasure meeting you."

I opened the door for Ali and watched her go down the steps. Then I closed the door, turned off the hall light, cleaned up the kitchen, and went to bed. It wasn't until the next morning that I found Eva's red coat, tossed in the corner of the living room.

I hung the coat in my front closet, and I emailed Ali, letting her know I had it. I even offered to bring it to her, just tell me where. As I was composing the email, I thought about Ali's blue eyes, and her perfect legs, and the way her dress showed off her breasts and ass, and her smile. I paused and read what I had written. Ali had made it clear she was looking for more than a fling, I knew that, but I could still try to get her to see things my way. Fucking her would be tremendous, worth any effort on my part, even putting up with her bratty daughter again, so I tacked on a line to my message, telling her she was a phenomenal cook, that I had a great evening, and reminding her I was up for another date, anytime.

A day went by and I got no response. I wondered whether I shouldn't have added the part about a second date. Did Ali think I was coming on too strong? Maybe the coat wasn't that important to her, and losing it wasn't a big deal if it meant not having to see me again.

After another few days without a word from Ali, I went on the dating site to post something about the coat on her profile page. I searched and searched, but I couldn't find it. I guessed she'd taken herself off the site. Why? Who knew? Maybe she realized the site wasn't going to connect her to the kind of men she was looking for. To tell you the truth, I didn't give it much thought. I considered checking other dating sites, Facebook, and even Googling her, but if any of those avenues led me to her, she might think I was being stalkerish. And really, if Ali didn't want to email me back about the damn coat, fine, I could take a hint. Days passed, and to my utter lack of surprise, I heard nothing from her. I left the coat hanging in my closet, just in case, though all in all I forgot about it.

A couple weeks later, I went on a first date with Vania. She was a treat: twenty-five, petite but strong, and exotic - half Mexican, half Thai - a unique beauty. I met her on a Saturday night in a bar in Hayes Valley, and from the get-go she was outgoing and enthusiastic. She knew what she wanted. We had a few drinks and got down to talking. I think she was simply making sure I wasn't a psycho because soon she suggested we "blow this joint," and she took me to her place. We started fooling around and Vania was not shy in the least. Tigress would be the best way to describe her, and it turned me on. Her breasts were totally grabbable and her body was tight. So, I was ready to roll, then... I wasn't so ready. Now, I wouldn't say I'm the biggest stud in the world, but until that night, I'd never, not ever, had difficulty getting it up. If you're thinking I had whiskey dick, forget it. I'd fucked with much more alcohol in me enough times to know that wasn't the problem.

Anyway, long story short, Vania got upset. She was way too confident to think she was doing anything wrong, and let's face it, she was right. She tried, man, working my dick with her hands and her mouth and talking dirty and showing me how she liked to be touched and saying how bad she wanted me. None of it worked and finally, she swore at me, rolled onto her back, and started to take care of herself. I retreated to the bathroom and stood staring at my limp dick. I rubbed it, but it just lay soft in my hand. When I heard Vania finish, I went back to the bedroom and put my clothes on. I think I mumbled some good-byes. I don't really remember; I was too focused on getting out of there.

On the way home, I decided it had been a bad night, nothing more. I'd been working a lot, not eating great, not sleeping enough, and I'd had a few drinks. But that was my life. I thought about Vania. She'd been so aggressive, which was cool, though not exactly what I was used to, and maybe somehow, subconsciously, I couldn't handle it. I settled on all of it, everything together, being the perfect storm of circumstance to keep me from getting hard. At home I'd be able to clear my head and relax in the comfort of the familiar. I'd jerk off and forget the entire Vania experience.

In my apartment, I closed the curtains, dimmed the lights, and lay in bed with my laptop. I started surfing porn and got down to business. Well, I tried, but it wasn't working. The fake tits were so perfectly round they were scary. The real breasts sagged or were too uneven. The shaved pussies looked silly, as did the tattoos, especially the ones on the lower back. The girls wore way too much makeup, most of it covering up bad skin. They seemed distressed; the fierce piston-like ramming, the bodily contortions obviously meant to provide an unobstructed shot of the penetration - it had to hurt. The "oohs" and "ahhs," the so-called exhortations of pleasure, began to sound more like cries of pain and discomfort.

Frustrated, I cued up some old-standby clips that had never failed to make me pop. My dick started getting hard, but jerking off remained difficult, and as I struggled, I found my eyes wandering from the girls to the guys. I tried to turn my attention back on the girls, but my concentration kept drifting to the dicks. I didn't understand why. I felt weird, like I was myself, but outside my head. I'd always remained indifferent to the men in porn. They were necessary props if you wanted to watch straight sex. The turn-on was seeing a hot girl convince you she loved nothing more than fucking. At that moment, though, all I could see was the men: their muscular arms and legs, their broad shoulders and round asses. And their penises, hard, engorged, fulfilling their biological imperative. I began to imagine my cock was not my own. I was pleasuring another man. I rubbed the smooth head and veiny shaft, stroked it from base to tip, up and down, slow, fast, slow, fast, teasing it, letting it get erect in my hand. I cupped and massaged the balls. I pictured a penis in my mouth, gagging on it. I wanted a dick inside me. I wanted to beg the man for his load.

The orgasm hit me out of nowhere and I was spraying cum on my stomach and chest. Some landed below my bottom lip and I stuck out my tongue to lick it up. It tasted salty and bitter. On my laptop, the video was still playing, and I caught the money shot, the girl receiving it in her mouth. I laughed, struck by the realization I had created my own version of that particular porn trope, and for the first time, I saw how ridiculous it was.

I cleaned myself up, got back in bed, and lay there, worn out but wide awake, trying to wrap my head around what had happened. Look, I'm a modern man; I understand sexuality is often not black or white. A single fantasy about men didn't mean I was gay. Right? Between jerking off and having sex, I'd had thousands of orgasms and it had never taken thoughts of dick to get me there. The experience was a one-off. My inability to perform with Vania had caused a misfire, or something, in my brain, and I overcompensated. Yeah, that was it. Everything would be back to normal in the morning.

Except it wasn't. I woke up still thinking about the previous night. Actually, let me clarify. If I had been thinking of it as a strange confluence of events that would likely never happen again, I would've been OK. But my thoughts were different. My fantasy had been thrilling, mind opening, and I wanted to explore it further. I felt an undeniable sexual attraction to men.

I told myself my feelings couldn't possibly be legit, that if I could just clear my head, everything would be normal again, so I went for a walk, heading down to the Mission: Valencia Street.

The stores, the outdoor cafés, and the people gave me something to concentrate on, but soon I realized eyes were on me too. I examined myself in the reflection of a shopwindow. I looked haggard and strung out and understood the stress I was feeling was so pervasive people couldn't help but see it on me.

I became aware of gazes following me. I met them and I knew, they were not seeing a stressed person. They were looking me up and down, undressing me with their eyes, the stares of men, leering, suggestive, sexual.

My God, I thought, gaydar is real. But I'm not gay. I mean, sleep with whomever you want, what do I care, but I'm straight. Though clearly these men sensed something. Somehow they could read my thoughts, the new feelings I was wrestling with and it turned them on, and the weirdest thing was I didn't know how to mentally process their attraction to me. On the one hand, I felt like a piece of meat. On the other hand, I kind of liked it.

I had to get off the street. I walked quickly. The eyes on me persisted, and when I was still half a dozen blocks from my place, I broke into a run and sprinted the rest of the way.

I swung my door open hard and fast and almost slipped on something on the floor. I picked it up, a flyer that had been pushed through the mail slot. I barely looked at it, the content hardly registering, before I crumpled it up and threw it back where I'd found it.

I hustled inside, pulled all the curtains and sat in my darkened apartment. What was happening to me? My date with Vania and its aftermath had been the beginning of something, something incomprehensible, but legit, and more than a mere shift in sexual attraction. I was changing, deep, in my mind, experiencing a mental transformation. A breakdown? Is this what it felt like to go crazy, to lose connection with reality? Why? What was causing this? I spent the rest of the day going in circles, trying in vain to decipher my new emotions. Finally, my brain exhausted, I gave up and went to bed.

I woke up Monday morning still off, still different, but convinced I could make a better go of it. I ate breakfast, got dressed, and drove to work, telling myself a productive day would be the remedy to everything that had happened over the weekend.

I entered the office determined to put the weirdness behind me. I waved to Christine, our receptionist and a super cute redhead, but she was on the phone, so I didn't pause as I passed her.

I was already halfway down the hall when I heard her calling, "Excuse me. Can I help you?"

I didn't stop. I didn't think she was talking to me. But as I was about to enter my office, she was rushing toward me. She said, "Uh, miss, you can't go in there. If you have an appointment, you can wait out in the reception area."

I turned to her and asked whether she was talking to me.

"I'm sorry, miss," she said. "You'll have to wait in the reception area."

"Did you call me miss?" I asked.

Christine sputtered some before collecting herself and asking, "How would you prefer that I address you?"

I didn't understand. My synapses were not firing properly, so I opened up on the nearest target. I said, "Christine, did you get hit on the head? Are you brain damaged? It's me, Paul."

Christine lurched back a step. "I'm sorry, miss," she said. "I don't know who you are, but it's obvious you're not Paul."

Let's just say my anger got the better of me. I'd prefer not to go over all the details, so I'll summarize. There was a profound insistence by Christine that she was talking to a woman followed by an attempt on her part to help me to relax, which failed and led to yelling, by me, and crying, by her, and security got called, and words to the effect of "we don't want to get forceful with a woman, but we will if you don't calm down" were levied, which led to more freaking out by me, and threats to call the police were made and I said something like, "go ahead, call the police," though I had zero intention of getting arrested, so I hightailed it as quickly as I could.

I staggered out of the building, forgoing my car, and walked fast, zigzagging through the streets. My phone rang. Christine. When I picked up, she immediately started to tell me about the strange occurrence that had just happened, and I think she was hoping I'd be able to shed some light on it, though I'm not sure because I interrupted her.

I said, "Christine, what do I sound like?"

"What?" she asked.

"My voice. Does it sound normal?" I said. "I mean, it's me you're talking to, right?"

She asked whether I was feeling OK.

"No." I said. "I'm sick. I'm not coming in today."

She said, "Paul, what's wrong? Where are you? A woman was here insisting she was you. She wouldn't... she wouldn't back down, and now... do you know what's going on?"

I wanted to tell the truth, but what was the truth, so I said, "I don't know anything about that. Sounds like a crazy person. I'm sorry, I really need -"

"She didn't look crazy," said Christine. "She was actually quite together, very attractive."

That last bit made me wonder, sparked an idea somewhere in my mind, but I wasn't ready to admit that I understood what was happening, not to Christine, or myself. It was all so impossible. I said, "Well, I don't know a thing about it. Anyway, I need to get some rest."

Christine started to tell me she hoped I felt better, but I was hanging up, not wanting to risk the conversation going any further.

I noticed I was passing a bar and was surprised to see it was already open. I wanted a drink. I needed a drink. It'd settle my nerves, let me relax, give me time to think, to make sense of what was going on.

I went inside. A small room, dim, nearly empty, unpretentious with little flair. A drinking hole. I sat at the bar, ordered a shot of whiskey, drained it, ordered another, downed it, had the bartender pour me a third and told him to leave the bottle. I let the warm glow of alcohol seep into my body, hoping it would wash away whatever the hell was happening to me.

I was well on my way to getting good and drunk when I inadvertently caught the attention of a gray-haired guy at the other end of the bar. He slid off his stool, ambled over, and sat next to me. He slurred something about not getting many pretty ladies in the place.

I felt that spark in my brain again and I was pretty sure I understood what he meant, but I couldn't bring myself to face it. Without looking up from my drink, I told him if I saw a pretty lady, I'd let him know.

He grunted. I realized it was his version of laugh when he said, "That's a good one. You're funny."

I instructed him to leave me alone.

"I'm just making conversation," he said, stressing each syllable of conversation as though it took effort not to stumble over the word.

I repeated my desire to be left alone.

He grunted again and said, "How can I leave such a pretty lady alone?"

No, no, no, no, no. I shot my head up and glared at him. His skin was sallow, his eyes bloodshot, and his chin covered in stubble as if he'd missed it shaving. I almost shouted. "What did you say?"

The man said, "Lady, you're much too pretty to leave alone."

Fuck him, and fuck Christine, and fuck the world. I ordered the man to get lost.

He made a sputtering sound like a horse, sat up straight and said, "Ooh, she's even prettier when she's angry."

This had to stop. Now. I wanted to punch the man, knock him out. I took a deep breath instead. There was a better way. I called to the bartender that he should probably cut my new acquaintance off. The bartender asked why.

I said, "It's still morning and he's already so drunk he thinks I'm a woman."

The bartender gave me a quizzical look and said, "Maybe you're the one who needs to cool it."

The man snorted and said to the bartender, "She's too hot to cool it." He leaned close to me, put his hand on my knee and slid it up my thigh as he whispered in my ear, "How abouts we go somewhere more private?"

The stench of alcohol on his breath was so strong I reflexively pulled my head away. I knocked his hand from my leg and hopped off the stool. I pointed at the man, said, "You," waved my finger to the bartender, "and you. Listen. I am not a woman. I am a man."

The drunk held his arms out like he wanted a hug and said, "Come on, honey, I'm being friendly is all -"

I shoved my finger at him. "No," I yelled. "Shut up. I'm a man. Got it?"

The bartender said, "For serious?"

"Yes, for serious," I said. "Look at me, you idiots."

They stared as if they were trying to read a secret code they couldn't decipher. After a moment, the drunk rubbed his forehead and said, "Well color me fooled. These drag queens get more convincing all the time."

"No," I said, "I'm not -" I gave up. Trying to reason with losers was worthless. I threw some money on the bar, turned, and left.

I backtracked to my car. I sat in the parking garage for a long time, waiting for the alcohol to wear off and wondering what to do. I studied myself in the rearview mirror, ran my hands over my head, arms, chest, and legs, checked my dick and balls - still there - everything as it always had been, yet I could not deny something had changed. I racked my brain and I knew. I didn't understand the how or why, but I knew. I continued to see my physical self as a man, though my perceptions, my interactions, the manner in which I experienced the world were different. I was becoming a woman. Or was I losing my mind?

When I was sober enough, I drove straight home. On the way, I tried hard to come up with a solution. Did I need a therapist? A medical doctor? Both? Who would believe me? My ex-wife? My ex-girlfriend? I'd be lucky if I got them to answer my phone calls. My friends? At best, they'd laugh at me. More likely, it'd be a replay of my experiences with Christine and the drunk.

A solution eluded me. I was adrift, fated to live out my days being treated like a woman. I didn't go back to work. I avoided my friends. I couldn't leave my house without being stared at and flirted with. Men addressed me as dear, or darling, or sweetheart. The older ones, those who could've been my father, were especially creepy. Worse though, was the tone of condescension. Men spoke to me like I was a ditz, their eyes an added insult, ogling my body as they talked down to me.

I began to feel vulnerable. One evening, despite the fraught possibilities of the outside world, I decided a walk would be cathartic. I didn't expect to be struck with a way to make the world see me as a man again, though I'd always loved the cool, crisp San Francisco nights. I thought the fresh air might do me some good.

I was close to my house, in a neighborhood I'd been to a million times, perfectly safe, yet quickly my anxiety spiked. I couldn't stomach being out alone. I became frightened. I was a target, easy pickings. I saw a group of boisterous young guys headed in my direction, and I went on the defensive. There was no time to cross to the other side of the street and as I got close to the guys, I felt them checking me out. The fight-or-flight mechanism in my brain fired up. I was ready (for what?) in case they tried to accost me. The guys passed me, leering. One whistled and I thought I heard an "ooh, baby," but they continued on and were gone. I relaxed, but the sense of helplessness did not go away. I wondered whether I should start carrying pepper spray.

During this time my one consolation was that physically I remained a man. The changes besieging me were mental and experiential, not anatomical. Then a week into the transformation, a new problem arrived.

I woke up that Sunday feeling like shit. I had an awful stomachache, I was bloated, and my chest hurt. I got out of bed to pee and in the bathroom, I discovered real trouble. Blood in my urine. I stood staring at the piss in the bowl trying to will the redness away. All I could think was that in addition to everything, I was now suffering from kidney failure.

An Internet search told me it could be anything from a bladder infection to a reaction to medication for kidney stones, but every website I looked at also recommended I go to the emergency room. I had no desire to be examined by nurses and doctors. What would they see when I took off my clothes? How could they even treat me? At the same time, my bloating, stomachache and the pains in my chest were increasing. I pissed again, a deep brownish red. I started to rationalize. Whatever was wrong with me, whatever was making me experience the world as though I were a woman was connected to a physical problem causing me to piss blood. I wondered whether I had contracted some new disease, one with mental and physical manifestations. I might be a bizarre kind of patient zero, the first victim of a medical discovery. Yeah, it didn't make much sense to me either, but I was desperate and my rationalization helped me talk myself into going to the hospital.

My emergency room experience was typical, an interminable wait, a quick cataloguing of my symptoms, a list of questions about family history and my recent behavior, and tests ordered in an attempt to discover what was wrong. My one saving grace was the doctor and staff experienced me as a man, and again, I took it as evidence that because I was treating the physical ailments, the mental problems were also being alleviated.

Did I say my emergency room visit was typical? That's not completely honest. Yes, everything was normal, until the end.

The doctor had ordered a urinalysis, and when I handed in my sample to the nurse, she told me that although I was stable, the doctor preferred I wait for the results, so I returned to the triage room. By the time the nurse finally came to get me, the waiting, the stress, the other injured patients, everything was starting to overwhelm me, so I immediately asked about my test. The nurse responded curtly with, "Dr. Park wants to see you," and started off back to the examination area.

I followed and asked, "Did he figure out what's wrong?"

Without stopping, without even looking at me, and in a harsh tone, she said, "The doctor wants to speak with you."

So, it was bad, and when I saw the serious expression on the doctor's face, I knew it was real bad. He asked, "Is any left?"

I didn't understand the question, but the doctor wasn't waiting for an answer. He said, "Do you think we're here to play games, to waste time? You are aware this is an ER? We deal with life and death." He stuck out his hand and barked, "Give it to me. If you still have any."

I was lost. I turned to the nurse, maybe she could help, but she was gone. I looked back at the doctor. His face was red with anger. I noticed a vein popping on his forehead. I said, "I'm sorry, give you what?"

"Seriously?" he said. I got the impression he was working hard not to yell. He continued, "You expect me to carry on with this charade. Are you on drugs? I know it was menstrual blood. The lab found endometrial lining in your sample. You had to have known they would."

Things began to get hazy. Maybe I spoke, I don't really know, though I do remember thinking, No, please, no. I can't be changing into a woman. This has to be a dream.

The doctor's voice came to me, ". . . have whatever you brought the blood in, or do I need to dig through every garbage can in this building?"

I think I tried to reason with him, told him the lab made a mistake, they needed to run the analysis again.

The doctor cut me off. He said, "Fine, I don't have time for this, we'll let the psychiatrist sort it out. I ordered a mental eval for you."

I'm not sure, but I may have admitted that I might be crazy, though not in the way the doctor thought and if he'd listen, maybe I could explain, but he wasn't listening, just yelling at me to be quiet, and I knew no one at the hospital could help me. Then, thank God, I caught a break. The nurse reappeared; the doctor's assistance was needed with a patient. He was plainly torn about leaving me alone, but decided to go with the nurse. As he left, he pointed at me and said, "I'm sending someone to escort you upstairs. Do not move. Understand?"

I lowered my eyes to the ground and nodded. Once the doctor was gone, I counted to ten to give him time to get far enough away so he wouldn't spot me, and I fled.

I was out of the hospital and to my car in less than two minutes. As I sped home, my thoughts were jumbled and malformed. Then an idea came to me. Actually, it was more a memory. Something I'd seen that could help me. It felt right. I wasn't sure how I knew, but it was like a sixth sense, what many people call... no, I won't use that term.

I took the steps to my apartment two at a time, threw open the door, and there, right where I tossed it on the floor was the flyer I'd almost slipped on a week earlier. I picked it up, uncrumpled it and saw a picture of a hand with an eye printed on the palm. Next to the hand, in bold, were the words, "Haunted, cursed, possessed? Ms. Roma can help," with a phone number under the text. The flyer had been slipped through my mail slot for a reason. Ms. Roma would explain what was happening to me. I had that sixth sense feeling again. Fine, I'll say it. It was women's intuition.

I took out my phone and called the number on the flyer. It rang and rang, six, seven, eight times, and I was ready to hang up when I heard it answered and a moment later a woman's voice said a creaky, "Hello."

I asked for Ms. Roma and the woman asked, "Who's this?"

I told her and she creaked, "Ah, yes, Paul. I've been waiting for your call. Please, though, my name is Josephine. Ms. Roma is merely a marketing technique. Now, you've been experiencing some strange goings-on, no?"

"Yes," I said. "Can you help me?"

A second of silence, then, "We'll see. Tell me about these strange goings-on."

I hesitated. How did I know I could trust this woman? How had she found me? Maybe she was responsible for what was happening. But we were just talking. What harm could it do? I'd be careful. I sighed and gave her the details of everything I'd gone through over the previous week.

Josephine didn't interrupt and I couldn't be sure whether she was listening, but as soon as I finished, she said, "Ah, yes, good. You need to meet with me right away," and she gave me her address.

A little voice inside my head reminded me to be cautious, so I said, "Hold on. How do I know you're not the one doing this shit to me? How do I know I can trust you?"

"You don't," she said. The creakiness was gone from her voice, and she added, "Ask yourself, though, did I make you sexually attracted to men, or plant people on the street and in a bar? Did I slip menstrual blood into your urine, or recruit your receptionist to join my humbug? Is that my game, and if so, to what end?"

She had a point; it would've been an elaborate scam, but I'd heard of some complicated cons. Still, I believed her. She could and would help me. Fucking women's intuition. "OK," I said, "I'm on my way."

Josephine repeated where she lived and hung up. The address was north of the panhandle, so I drove over. When I got there, I had a little trouble. The street numbers skipped over Josephine's. I was on my third pass by the spot where her place should have been before I noticed a narrow walkway crammed between two houses. I headed down it and at the end found a plain black door in the side of the house on the left.

I knocked hard. I waited a long time, but I heard the voice from the phone telling me to hold on. When she opened the door, I saw what had taken her so long. Josephine was old, tiny and frail, pale and hunched, which added to her tininess. She was bald, and with no makeup or jewelry, she resembled a shriveled baby. She wore silver track pants with a yellow stripe down each leg, and a T-shirt, much too big, celebrating the Giants 2010 World Series Championship. She raised her wrinkled eyes to me, exclaimed how excited she was I'd come, and invited me in.

Caution rose up in me again. Josephine and I might not be alone. I peered over her shoulder. Despite a patch of light coming from her left, the apartment was too dark for me to make out much detail, other than to discern that the place was small and sparse.

I asked her how she'd found me and she said something about it being her life to find people like me, but don't fret, it was easy because humans never could keep their mouths shut. I asked what she meant. She either ignored the question or didn't hear me. With some effort, she began to turn into her apartment. Her legs shook and she clutched the door, letting it support her weight as though she'd fall if she let go.

I reached out and gently grabbed her arm. She blessed me and before I could do anything she was guiding me slowly inside. I could've resisted but I didn't. A much bigger and stronger accomplice could've been lying in wait, though I doubted it.

Josephine led me to a desk with a padded office chair pushed close to it. She moved my hand off her, pulled the chair out, and lowered herself into it. I took the moment to try to check out the apartment. The light I'd seen was coming from above the stove; the tacked-on kitchen was only big enough for a round table for two. Josephine told me if I wanted a better look I should close the front door and flick the light switch next to it and when I did, I knew unless someone was waiting to spring from the bathroom, we were alone. The apartment was just the kitchen and the one room, with a bed and dresser in the corner, a short bookshelf, the desk and chair, and an old tube TV on a cart.

Josephine had sunk into her seat and tucked her feet under her. In the light she appeared almost translucent. She smiled, several teeth missing, and she told me to grab a chair from the kitchen, to sit across from her, and relax; she would explain everything. She offered me a drink, said I could eat whatever I wanted as long as I didn't mind helping myself. I asked her how she'd found me and she said we'd already been over that.

I didn't move. She kept smiling, nodded toward the kitchen table and let me know she didn't appreciate waiting for me, but she would if I made her. So, I grabbed a chair and sat across from her. My back was to the apartment. I didn't care. I wasn't afraid. I said, "OK, so, what is -"

Josephine shushed me and said, "Patience, Paul. Or might I call you Paula?" She smiled her nearly toothless grin.

"It's Paul," I said. "Most definitely Paul. Got it?" The instant the words were out of my mouth, I realized I'd been too harsh.

Josephine's upper lip twitched. "I'm sorry," she said. "I will be more sensitive."

I shook my head. "It's all right," I said. "I guess I was hoping that because you know I'm a man, you'd see me as a man."

Josephine chuckled and said, "I see everything, dear. Inside and out. Inside and out. If I suggest a woman's name for you, it is merely because your feminine side is kind, considerate, whereas..." She raised a crooked index finger and added, "Enough. Work to be done." She sat up, leaned forward, and lowered her finger, tapping a thick ratty black plastic binder sitting on the desk. "You're going to look through this," she said, "and tell me whom you recognize."

"What is it?" I asked.

She pushed the binder toward me. "Look," she said.

I picked up the binder and opened it. In a plastic sheet protector was an 8x10 black-and-white photo of a middle-aged white woman, a shot of her face. Her tired eyes were looking directly at the camera and her mouth was a grim line as if she were pissed to be getting her picture taken. It reminded me of a mug shot, except without the placard police use to identify the perp.

I asked Josephine, "Who is she?"

"Keep looking," she said.

I turned the sheet protector. On the other side was another similar photo, and after it, many more just the same. I started flipping. The binder was full of dozens of photos, all of women I'd never seen before. I began flipping more quickly, and asked, "Who are they and what do they have to do with me?"

"Slowly, slowly," Josephine said. "Take your time. Look carefully."

As if on cue, I flipped the next sheet protector and there on the left was a face I knew. She was haggard, diminishing her beauty, and her eyes weren't bright like I remembered, and the way she held her mouth, tough and mean, made me think maybe I'd never actually seen her smile, but I had no doubt who it was. My eyes swept over to the photo on the right, and before I even registered the hard little face, I was sure who I'd find looking back at me.

I placed the binder on the desk and spun it so Josephine could look at it right-side up. I tapped the first photo and said, "Her, I know her. Her name is Ali, Alice." I shifted my finger to the next photo. "And that's Eva," I said. "She's Ali's daughter."

Josephine pulled the binder to her and brought her face close to the photos. She said, "Yes, yes, Alice," shook her head, made a clucking sound with her tongue, and added, "You should know, however, the other is not Alice's daughter."

I checked out the photo again. Even with it upside down I was positive it was Eva. I said, "That's definitely her. Eva, Ali's daughter."

Josephine looked at me, sighed, and said, "Yes, you are correct. That is Eva, though she is not Alice's daughter. These two, they are sisters. Eva, the older, Alice, the baby."

I almost fell off the chair. If I were a cartoon, my jaw would have stretched long to the floor. I gathered myself and said, "Uh, no. No way. She's a little girl. I met her, talked to her. She's a kid."

"Yes, they like that game," said Josephine, "but I promise you, Eva is a woman, and very old at that, one hundred thirty-two, and Alice is her younger sister, one hundred twenty-five. They are what you would call, for lack of a better term, witches."

"Witches?" I said. "Uh, witches don't exist."

Josephine considered me for a moment, then asked whether I believed in ghosts, or quarks, or unicorns, or extraterrestrial life. I answered, I don't know, yes, no, maybe, and she said the time had come for me to admit I lived in a world containing realities I didn't have a clue about.

"OK," I said, "So, Alice and Eva are witches. Does that mean the rest of the women in this binder are witches too?" Josephine nodded, and I asked, "How'd you get all these pictures?"

She seemed surprised by the question and said, "There are rules. They have to register with the guild."

"The guild?" I said. "A witches' guild?"

"Correct," said Josephine. "It helps keep them from getting too carried away with their shenanigans."

"Right," I said. "And... you are also a witch?"

She tossed her head back and laughed hard. When she was through, she said, "Goddess no. Me, like them, oh, it'd be awful. No, I simply have a talent for keeping my eyes and ears open and connecting this with that in a manner which enables me to see what is invisible to others."

I said, "Alright, assuming I bel -"

"If you don't believe me, you're welcome to leave," said Josephine.

"No, no," I said. "I'm not going anywhere, not yet. So, Alice and Eva are witches, immortal witches, and I'm -"

"Old, yes," she said. "Immortal, no."

"Right," I said. "Old. Anyway, I'm guessing the next thing you're going to tell me is they cast a spell that's changing me into a woman."

Josephine tilted her head to the side and said, "No, it's not a spell per se. More a curse."

"OK, a curse," I said. "But I'm becoming a woman. That's what's happening to me, right?"

She said, "Understand, Alice and Eva are extraordinarily skilled at what they do. Had they wanted to transform you into a woman, a woman you would be. No, this curse is giving you... insight, insight into the life of one of the many different varieties of women. You are lucky. Alice and Eva chose not bring the full scope of their powers onto you." She pointed at me and said, "They showed you mercy. Very unlike them. These two, they are every bit wicked. You got off easy."

I wanted to laugh. I said, "Are you kidding? Everything I described to you. That's lucky? That's getting off easy? And what about the menstrual blood? Are you telling me that's not the first stage or whatever of a physical transformation?"

"I believe you are simply experiencing another insight," said Josephine. She rubbed her nose before adding, "I may be wrong. I have been wrong before, I will be wrong again. Your shoulders may narrow, your hips may widen, your breasts may plumpen, your penis and testicles may shrivel, your voice may rise, and one day you may awaken and not recognize the face looking back at you from the mirror. In the present, though, your one and only concern should be ending this curse."

"Yes, ending the curse," I said. "Please, tell me you know how to do that."

Josephine raised one hand, slowly lowered it to the desk, and said, "Don't worry, we'll get there. First, how did you meet Alice and Eva?"

I said, "I went out on a date with Alice and she brought Eva along."

"Typical," said Josephine. "Now, did either of them give you a gift: cuff links, a tie clip, a watch, a piece of jewelry perhaps, something old or unique."

I said, "A gift? No. Why?"

"It's a totem," said Josephine, "an object imbued with magic. It has to be in your possession for the curse to have any effect."

I almost jumped up from the chair. "Holy shit," I said. "The coat."

"What coat?" she asked.

I said, "Eva wore this vintage red coat. She had to go to the bathroom and we were close to my apartment, so we swung by. Later, I discovered she'd forgotten the coat. I emailed Ali about it, but never heard back. The damn thing is still hanging in my closet."

Josephine snapped her fingers and said, "That's your totem. Get rid of it, remove the coat from your home, and the curse will be lifted."

"Really?" I said. "That seems too simple."

Josephine said, "Simple, yes. Too simple, no. Put the coat in the street. Let a stranger find it. Don't worry, the curse cannot transfer to them."

I sat there, silent, trying to process everything Josephine had told me. A part of me felt like a fool for even considering any of it might be true. Witches, curses, totems: what a crock. Another part of me knew I was being stupid. The curse was real.

I thanked Josephine for all her help, offered to pay her something, but she refused, claiming she had no use for money. With some strain, she stood and stated we were done. It was her bedtime. She'd see me to the door.

I got up and again helped her cross the room, and as she put a hand on the doorknob, I said, "Josephine, one more question."

"Always," she said.

"Uh, why me?" I asked. " I mean, I'm not perfect, but I'm not a bad person."

Josephine nodded and said, "You may be a saint, you may be a sinner. It's not my place to judge. Look within yourself and you may discover why you. Remember, though, Alice and Eva toil in evil. It's all they do. They don't require reasons."

She opened the front door and reminded me to get rid of the coat (as if I needed to be told again). I thanked her once more, left the apartment, hurried to my car, and raced home as fast as I could without breaking any laws.

I grabbed the coat from my closet and went out again. I wanted the totem long gone, so I drove to the other side of the city. I found a bus stop with a bench nearby and draped the coat over the back. I scanned the area. Nobody was around to see what I'd done.

I felt instant relief, but needed to know whether anything had changed, so I decided to conduct a test. I walked for blocks, moving toward men whenever I saw them. None paid me any attention, not even so much as a glance, and I gained a little extra spring in my step. I made the rounds of some bars, cased packs of men until I was fairly certain they were straight, and then tried to make eye contact. Again, no one took an interest.

I was euphoric as I returned to my car. I sang the entire way home. In my bedroom, I stripped naked and examined myself in the mirror. Physically, everything was accounted for, and mentally, I was clear. My thoughts were my own. I pissed, and hallelujah, not a trace of red. I was starving, so I ate a huge meal. Then there was just one more test before I went to sleep.

I got in bed with my laptop and watched the hottest, filthiest girls you'd ever want to see beg for it in every hole and take it with pleasure. It made my dick explode. I was back and never better.

I slept like a baby and woke the next morning more refreshed than I'd been for days. I showered, drank some coffee, ate breakfast, got dressed, and headed off to work.

As I entered the office, I waved to Christine and said hello.

Her expression became a mix of fear and anger and when she spoke, her voice matched. She said one word: "You."

It was all I needed. I didn't want to believe it, but I knew. I couldn't handle it. I said, "Christine, please. It's me, Paul."

She began to shake her head. "I don't know who you are," she said, "or why you say you're Paul, but you -"

I didn't hear the rest. I was already out the door.

On the way to my car, I called Josephine. She picked up before the second ring, and I didn't waste time on pleasantries. I said, "It's Paul. I ditched the coat, and it seemed like it worked, but it didn't. I'm still cursed." I was met with silence, so I tried again, saying, "Hello? Josephine, are you there?"

Her creaky voice responded, "Did you remove the totem from your home?"

"Yes," I answered. "I just told you that. Are you listening? I got rid of it last night, left it on a bench."

Josephine asked, "You are certain the curse has not been lifted?"

I started to explain what had happened at work, but she interrupted with, "Interesting. Very interesting. Tell me again about your date with Alice."

I said, "My date? Jesus, why?"

"Jesus has nothing to do with this," said Josephine. "Tell me about the date."

"Fine," I said. "We were supposed to go out, but we ended up at my place because Eva had to use the bathroom. Ali cooked dinner, we had a little wine and ate and talked, and -"

"Slow down," she said. "You ate something Alice had prepared?"

I said, "Yeah, why? Is that bad?"

"I'm so sorry," said Josephine.

I said, "Wait. What? Why are you sorry?"

"I apologize," she said. "I should have asked you about this sooner. The totem was, how do you say it... a red herring. To hide that the curse was carried through the food. This is much more serious than I'd thought."

Josephine's words sank in. I reached my car and I wanted to smash my phone against the hood, tear the vehicle apart with my bare hands, get in and go pedal to the metal straight into a cement wall. Before I let my anger take over, Josephine spoke. She said, "There is a solution."

I took a few deep breaths and asked, "What is it?"

She answered, "It will be difficult, and you may not be willing to -"

"Just tell me what it is," I said.

Josephine sighed and said, "You must kill Alice and Eva."

My anger began to boil again, but I controlled it. "How is that possible?" I asked. "I don't know where the hell they are, and so what if I did, I'm supposed to be able to kill them even though they've lived to be a hundred and whatever?"

Josephine laughed. "I told you," she said, "their ages do not equal immortality. True, they make themselves immune to the diseases you must worry about. Knives, guns, blunt instruments though, they will do the job. As far as finding them, leave that to me. I'll be in touch."

I started to ask when I could expect to hear from her, but she had already hung up.

Two minutes after I'd gotten home, she called back. Before I could say hello, Josephine said, "They're in Reno."

"That was fast," I said.

She responded, "It is my job to see connections."

Josephine gave me the information. They had checked in to a hotel the day before and Alice had been seen trolling the casino floor, presumably looking for a mark.

Six hours later I was driving into Reno. I chose a hotel two blocks from where Josephine had told me Alice and Eva were staying. I thought I might have trouble getting a room since my credit card had a man's name on it, but the front desk guy accepted it without any questions. Then he flirted with me, curious why I was traveling alone, and he offered to show me the town after he got off work. I smiled and declined. He persisted so I told him my boyfriend was due to join me. He looked very disappointed.

I walked downtown and found a pawnshop where I bought a pistol small enough to fit in my pants' pocket. The salesclerk was happy to sell it to me, saying it was a dangerous world and an attractive woman like me was smart to protect herself. He asked me whether I knew how to shoot. I lied and said my father had taught me. He told me if I ever wanted to brush up, his cousin owned a range outside of town. We could go together. I nodded, paid cash, and left.

I returned to my hotel and went to the casino bar to plan my next move. I considered several ideas. None stuck. A steady stream of single men offering to buy me a drink didn't help my concentration, nor did the eyes of the ones who kept their distance. Did they lack confidence, or were they trying to decide whether I was the house prostitute? I should've planned better during the drive from San Francisco, but I had been thinking about something else then. I hadn't been able to help myself. The long car ride had gotten my mind going and I'd begun analyzing choices I'd made in my life, trying to understand how they'd led me to the current situation. A few times, I'd almost turned around. I'd started to consider that hunting down Alice and Eva might be a mistake, a distraction keeping me from a more important journey. Was I heading down the wrong path in life? Had I allowed myself to go astray long before I'd met the two witches? In the car, I had not let the doubt persuade me; I'd pushed the thoughts away, and sitting in the casino bar, I resisted the urge to revisit them. I focused on the task at hand, soon settling on the direct approach. I paid my tab and walked to Alice and Eva's hotel.

A man and woman were working the front desk. I approached the man and pulled out some of my newly acquired feminine wiles. I gave him a sob story about how my friend was staying there and I was supposed to meet her, but I'd forgotten which room, and my cell phone had died, and I'd lost the charger. The man started to push back, slightly, so I laid on the damsel-in-distress voice and the smile and the doe eyes extra thick, and he relented, asking me for my friend's name, and a few seconds later, he whispered the room number to me, 237, and said if anyone asked, we never spoke.

I thanked him profusely, then took the stairs to the second floor. I walked slowly down the hall, my right hand in my pants' pocket, wrapped around the pistol. I stopped in front of 237 and got ready: knock, push myself into the room, start shooting.

But the door was opening and I wasn't ready, not at all, and there was Alice's face, even more beautiful than the night of our date. She said, "Well, hello Paul. We discussed whether you'd show up... Don't look so surprised. Our powers are diverse."

She opened the door wide, moved to her right, and gestured me inside with a wave of her arm. The gun felt good in my hand, but I didn't budge.

Alice said, "Paul, you came all the way from San Francisco. It's only another few steps."

I tightened my grip on the gun and entered the room, slightly turning my body toward Alice, so as not to let her get behind me. I noticed Eva too, sitting cross-legged in an armchair in the far corner. She looked angry and as ugly as ever. Her eyes were smaller and darker than I remembered, and the wrinkle on her forehead was red, inflamed.

I stopped in the middle of the room, between the TV and the foot of the bed, positioning myself so I could keep an eye on both witches. Alice closed the door and said, "It's rather impolite to have your hand in your pocket."

I whipped out the gun, aimed it at Alice, and moved to the side of the bed, creating a barrier between Eva and me. I pointed to her with my free hand and told her to stay put. To Alice I said, "Move," and directed her to the corner opposite Eva where there was a small desk with a chair. "Sit," I said.

She did what she was told, but as she sat down, she said, "Paul, please, we can help you. Violence is never the answer."

I kept the gun aimed at Alice's heart. "No," I said. "You're wrong. I have all the answers I need. I know what you are, and I know what you did to me."

A frail voice floated to me, the voice of an old woman, a voice I did not recognize. Eva. She said, "So then, go ahead, do what you came to do."

Fear struck Alice. She raised her hands and said, "Wait, Paul, please. The spell won't be lifted if you kill us."

"You're lying," I said. I steadied my hand, and began to squeeze the trigger.

"The liar is the hag. She manipulated you," said Eva, and something in her tone, a strength, a confidence, gave me pause.

I relaxed my finger and said, "You mean Josephine?"

"If that is the name she is using now, yes," said Eva. "The hag. She claimed we cursed you, told you my coat was a totem, did she not? Then when excising it from your life did not help, she conveniently found another reason for this so-called curse. The meal Alice cooked. And lo and behold, our deaths became the remedy. She suckered you into doing her dirty work."

I kept the gun on Ali, but looked at Eva. "What dirty work?" I asked. "And why?"

Eva answered, "An old feud between our families. The history need not concern you."

"No, not good enough," I said.

"Tell me, Paul," said Eva. "How long did it take for the hag to locate us? Not long, was it? And I imagine she described us as evil. Please, she knows full well we are merely... natural."

I said, "Shut up. Stop. You cursed me, not Josephine, and now you're the one trying to manipulate me."

"So be it," said Eva. "We will be dead by your hand and before our bodies are cold, you'll realize your mistake. My sister and I enchanted you with magic, we did, but killing us will not reverse it. What's more, when you are caught, you will be treated no differently than any other coldblooded killer whose victims were a mother and child."

I tried to respond to Eva, but Ali took control of the moment. She spoke, her voice full of hate. She said, "I told you, Eva. I told you. We should have changed him into a pig when we had the chance." I turned to her, and despite her words, she looked radiant. In her face, I saw all the women I had ever lusted after. Her eyes bore into mine and she spewed venom. She hissed, "I wanted to give you what you deserved, you miserable scum. I wanted my sister to cook that meal with me, bring a lasting power to the spell, but she refused. All she'd do was contribute the coat. She saw something in you. Possibility, she said. Can you believe it? A hint of possibility. She said we should help you learn a lesson, without causing anything permanent." I glanced at Eva and she nodded. Alice continued to rave. "You loser. We're doing you a favor, giving you a gift. You should be thanking us. Instead you come here to kill us. You're weak. You're a selfish little boy."

My head was spinning. I was sweating. Alice would not take her gaze off me and I thought I heard a low growling coming from her. Then I realized she'd given me something to latch on to. I said, "Wait. What did you say?"

Alice snarled and said, "You're a loser, weak, selfish, and you deserve so much worse than you've received for the misery you've created."

"No," I said. "You mentioned teaching me a lesson. Without causing anything permanent." I looked at Eva, and said, "And you nodded. Are you telling me the curse will end?"

"Is that what you want?" asked Eva. "To revert to being a man?"

I said, "Yes. Of course. I am a man. Why else would I come here?"

"Do not fret," said Eva. "The enchantment will end in due time, and sooner than you think."

I started to lower the gun, but quickly raised it again, holding it steady on Alice. "No," I said. "Still not good enough. You're playing me. Tricking me into leaving. I need proof you'll really end the curse, the spell, whatever it is."

Eva let out a high-pitched laugh, almost a cackle. "Paul, Paul," she said, "you are misguided. We cannot reverse the magic. Only you have that power."

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "How?"

Eva said, "Think of yourself like Dorothy Gale. She always had the power to go home, as you have always had the power to reverse the magic. And think of my sister and I like Glinda. Rather than tell you how to reverse the magic, we knew you would benefit from a journey."

Was she serious? I thought she might be mocking me. I said, "So, what, next you're going to tell me to click my heels together?"

Eva smiled. Her eyes were no longer dark. The wrinkle had faded. She looked happy, kind. For the first time since I'd met her, childlike. She said, "Not quite. Life is not as simple as the movies, and your journey is not yet over. First, it requires you to do some self-examination. Though you've started already, have you not?"

I hesitated, unsure what Eva meant, trying to figure her scam. Then I understood. The thoughts occupying my mind on the drive from San Francisco came rushing back. Women. Hannah, my ex-wife. I'd hurt her, broken her heart and ruined our marriage. For what? A little action on the side. Stephanie, my ex-girlfriend. I'd used her for sex, and lied to her, because I couldn't be a man and keep it in my pants. I couldn't be a man. I thought of the other women too, the ones I treated like dirt over the years before my marriage, and during, and after.

You may be thinking the spell continued to affect me, or that Alice and Eva were casting additional magic to lull me into sparing them, and I'll admit part of me had that concern as well. But in my soul, I knew the journey they had started me on was true and good, and in that moment in that hotel room in Reno, I made a choice. To be a better man. The decision was mine. I owned it. I didn't know whether I'd be able to make amends for my past mistakes, but I did control my future. I was a new person and I vowed to go forward in my life with honesty, empathy, and compassion.

I lowered the gun, turned my back on Alice and Eva, and moved toward the door. When I reached it, Alice said, "Eva, we're making a mistake. Again. Pigs like him never learn."

My hand was on the knob. I opened the door, and as I left the witches behind, I heard Eva say, "Perhaps. But give the man a chance."

2 comments:

  1. Cool story. I didn't know where it was going, but it was completely satisfying. Creepy and funny at the same time.

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  2. I agree. And I like the protagonist, he's got some great lines!

    ReplyDelete