It occurred to me during our second date that Mike didn’t exist in real time.
When we first met, he was friendly—cruelty-free, like a human-sized rabbit. We ate at a sub shop, but first, he drove us backwards through the drive-thru of a shuttered restaurant. Big, white truck built for long hauls and first impressions. The perfect way to convey unspecified wants.
Waiting in line, I told him I used to work there—was once a struggling sandwich artist. Now I was good—better than good.
Couldn’t he tell?
“Order like you used to work here,” he said. Requested. Demanded.
I was too polite. He asked me to cover him at the register, promising to pay the next one forward.
In the booth, he took neat bites of his sandwich to make me jealous. I unwrapped mine, promising myself to savor it.
“You were pretty easy on that guy behind the counter,” he said.
“Working here wasn’t that bad.”
Post-meal, I offered him a wet wipe, which he accepted, running it over his hands.
“This is pretty moist,” he said, tossing it onto the wrapper.
I stared at the table.
“It is a wet wipe,” I said.
This was flirting. Flirting with a mean edge. It couldn’t go any farther. Not since we were co-workers.
The Saturday we spent in the park brought out his inconsistent character.
Ambling along the sidewalk where people fed the pigeons, we stopped beneath a grove of trees. I studied him in the crew-cut sweater, hands tucked neatly into his pockets, face sewn into a blissful expression.
Moments later, voices rose across the quad. I turned my head and when I looked back, he was gone. Poof. Vanished.
I watched and waited as birds pilfered hunks of bread. They cast me wistful looks, dropping bits that bounced across the concrete.
Maybe Mike was a time traveler. Time travel didn’t seem like distant technology anymore. Flying cars would come soon, I sensed. That he could teleport wasn’t that difficult to fathom. Or perhaps he was a simulation or hologram. He did work in software development.
I began perusing the whole area, expecting to find him hiding behind a tree or somewhere obvious. But he was still missing a half-hour later. Finally, he reappeared over my shoulder, wearing a grin like he’d been there the whole time.
“Where were you?” I asked. “I looked everywhere.”
“The sidewalk winds into a trail leading up to the road,” he said, tracing the route with his finger, not averting his eyes. “I was over there.”
Seeing him around the office, it was difficult to concentrate on anything else. Before, he seemed cute and innocent. Now, I noticed his muscles flexing beneath his shirts. I pictured him blown up to the size of a highway sign—a swaggering cowboy outlined in neon.
At his desk, his eyes stayed glued to the computer. I studied his fine, blond locks while he wasn’t looking. Admired how he always seemed to know what he was doing. When I glanced away and back, his cubicle was empty, headphones lying in the chair. It was as if he’d vaporized.
Maybe Mike was telling the truth and he was quick on his feet. Still, it didn’t quite seem to add up. No one was that quick.
It happened multiple times. The office wasn’t that big. I always ran into him on the way to the bathroom or parking lot. I wanted to tell him he was good at disappearing, but that would have been too obvious, so I just smiled and kept walking.
We wouldn’t have sex, I decided. I’d known guys like him, where coming on too strong spelled sudden death. I had to pace myself—to refrain—if I were going to hold his interest.
Besides, he still needed to pay it forward.
So I lost myself in diversions—flickering light bulbs, tears of wine on tablecloth, and water drops suspended on faucets. Light-induced distractions.
In bed, I stared up at the ceiling and remembered how when I first opened my eyes, the world had only wind-blown features. Later came form and feeling: a boy’s lips pressed against mine as we sprawled in the grass, the sensation of deer watching from the woods, their eyes glinting in the moonlit dusk.
As much as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. My most innocent daydreams became tinged with desire, slip-sliding into fantasies of us making out in the break room when no one was around.
More than that, I was getting kind of peeved he hadn’t repaid me. What was taking so long? Though I found him attractive, our relationship was platonic. We were two co-workers who ate lunch together. One owed the other money. It was that simple.
I weighed whether to ask him about it, deciding to hold off a little longer.
One day, I heard him laughing with a male co-worker about the money he owed me. My temper flared and I went to his desk to confront him.
“I couldn’t help overhearing your discussion,” I said. “When do you plan to pay it forward?”
Mike eyed me up and down, looking unfazed.
“It’ll be a little while longer,” he said unctuously.
“I want to make sure you’re as good as you let on.”
Steam began rising out of my ears. The nerve. The arrogance. Now I wanted him more than ever, though I couldn’t reveal that he’d gotten to me, let a six-dollar sandwich go to my head. I thought of a smart-assed remark.
“Enjoy your bro-mance,” I huffed before stalking off.
The more time that passed, the more it occurred to me that Mike was not going to pay me back. I began asking other co-workers out to lunch instead. A year later, I’d almost forgotten about the incident.
Then one night, I awakened to find something between my legs.
Looking past my belly and breasts, I saw Mike’s head poke up from my thighs.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, there,” he replied nonchalantly. I blinked several times to confirm he was actually down there eating me out.
“Don’t be nervous,” he murmured into the curve where my leg joined my hip.
“You have a very nice body.”
How did he get there?
My mind spiraled back to several hours earlier.
We went to the park again, where I was very anxious. Not about us, but random things, like the sight of heavy machinery and forklifts and XXX signs and belching factories cresting over the hill. The same panic I’d experienced since I was little and random things made me upset. I knew what triggered it: The fear that my body would never be good enough because it was female.
In the park, birds were profuse—dirty white and black things that flapped their wings in my face. I brushed them off. One couldn’t be afraid to get dirty in parks. Plus I had to remain alert, knowing that he slipped away before while I was distracted.
Maybe that was why I so enjoyed having his face buried in my lap later: I knew he wasn’t going anywhere at that moment.
Turning my head to the side, I glimpsed the ribbon of highway, smelled the acrid-sweet mix of exhaust and tobacco and something like maple syrup, thinking I might puke.
But while the highway was austere, the room was intimate. Mike was good, caught up in the moment. He knew how to work his tongue.
My head arched back as I came, picturing us scaling mountains, exploring starry canyons, staying in a tipi, a flying saucer, or an Airstream out in the desert.
My orgasm was the size of the West.
Once finished, I fell back against the mattress and lay there for several seconds, lifting my head to find the space between the V of my legs was empty.
I wasn’t surprised.
Not until I saw the six dollars tucked into the sheet’s peaks and valleys.
While most of the events surrounding Mike left me mystified, there was one thing I was certain about: I’d be paying it forward from now on.
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