by David James Poissant
What happened was our marriage was falling apart, the way marriages do, and, in our falling, my wife Delia and I got real honest, because why not, because what did we have to lose? And, in our honesty, what came forward, or one of the things that came forward, was that Delia wanted to fuck Orlando Bloom.
As in, she’d had this fantasy. As in, she’d just seen “Elizabethtown” and had this innocent crush. An innocent crush didn’t involve wanting to fuck someone, I argued, and Delia said, “No, not him, you. But also him. You as him.”
This was one of those nights where you both drink so much you feel closer than you are and safer than you are, and so you speak dangerously, say things that make it hard the next morning to meet eyes.
This was a decade ago, after Orlando Bloom grew elf ears, but before the “Pirates” movies got so bad. Anyhow, it wasn’t elf Bloom Delia wanted, with his weirdo bow and creepy side braid, or swashbuckling Bloom with his muttonchops and creepy half goatee. No, Delia had a thing for Drew Baylor, the suicidal-but-clean-cut lead in what was—and pretty much remains—Cameron Crowe’s worst film. That was the Orlando she wanted.
And because this was a decade ago, my telling you this means I know how things turned out. As in, I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no?
But I’m not going to tell you, not yet, because where’s the fun in that?
And also because read, you lazy motherfucker, read.
And so it came to pass that on Christmas Eve, 2005, I robbed the Tucson El Con Cineplex of its freestanding “Elizabethtown” promotional cardboard cutout. Not the whole thing, just Bloom. Or, not Bloom. Mostly just his head. It didn’t tear cleanly, so I took some torso with me, his collar and the black knot of his tie, but you get the picture.
In my defense, I’d offered to buy the cutout before I stole it.
I’d asked around the week before. Turned out, theater employees had dibs on promotional materials: banners, posters, cutouts and the like. Such perks made a certain kind of sense. How else to lure potential employees? How else to woo teenagers toward the indignity of all night sweeping popcorn kernels picked from teeth and flicked upon the floor?
In half an hour, I’d found the employee to whom Orlando Bloom would soon belong. She was older, forty, maybe fifty, with stringy hair and bright eyes. She was pretty, but in a sad way, in a way that said—that seemed to say—if only she’d gotten her big break, she’d have made it to the silver screen herself, but, instead, here she stood, tearing tickets at a medium-sized theater in a medium-sized city in the middle of a fucking desert.
Life’s like that, sometimes, unrelenting and unfair, or just indifferent—indifferent worst and maybe most of all.
“I’ll give you fifty bucks,” I said, but that only seemed to insult her. The woman with the stringy hair frowned. People crowded through and she tore their tickets, pointed left or right.
Her name tag read Laura.
“Laura,” I said, “are you married?” This was the wrong question to ask. Her hand moved to her side, and I wondered whether I was about to be maced.
“What I mean,” I said, “is that if you’re married, or if you’ve been married, maybe you’d understand. My wife, see—”
But that’s as far as I got before Laura said, “Get the fuck out.” Her bright eyes turned glassy, and from her belt, she pulled not a can of mace but one of those big, wartime-looking walkie-talkies. I left before security was called.
A week later, I was back at the El Con. My plan hinged on the hope that Christmas Eve meant crowds, and this proved true. I bought a ticket to get in, then filed through the herds to a hallway where cardboard Orlando Bloom and cardboard Kirsten Dunst shared pained expressions on a burgundy cardboard couch. In her hand, Dunst cradled a glass of wine. In his lap, Bloom cradled a purple urn.
I could do this. There were people everywhere, hustling and bustling, people hurrying to catch previews or beat the crowds home. People balanced hot dogs atop popcorn tubs atop sweaty, red-striped soda cups. No one would see me. No one was even paying attention to me. I’d cough to cover up the tearing sound. Easy.
I approached. I coughed. I ripped. An usher saw.
He yelled. I ran.
Let me be clear: I am not a stealer. I was then and am now overweight, not fat-fat, but fat enough that sprinting isn’t in my repertoire. I have flat feet and bowed legs, and though I look good in a suit, good enough that when we first got together, not too many people asked Delia, beautiful Delia—green eyes, red hair, my goddess of the moon—what the hell she was doing with a guy like me, I was certainly in no kind of shape to go running the streets of Tucson, Arizona with a misdemeanor tucked under my arm. But that is where I found myself that night, bolting from the El Con and west down Broadway and then up Country Club to where I’d stashed my car beneath a paloverde tree in the parking lot of the Tucson Church of Christ, which, just as I was getting there, happened to be letting out from its Christmas Eve service, and though the men and women on the steps in their Sunday best couldn’t have known what I was up to, still, as I deposited the severed head of Orlando Bloom onto my passenger seat and pulled away, I swear they judged me, and judged me hard.
If theater workers gave chase, I outran them. And, as it seems unlikely I outran anyone, my guess is no one really followed me. The whole drive home, I watched the rearview mirror, waiting for police lights, but, of course, there were none, because, of course, it was Christmas Eve, and who calls the cops on Christmas Eve to go after a vandal when that vandal’s in possession of nothing more than a few cents’ worth of cardboard in the shape of some guy’s face?
Imagine police on the bandwidth:
“Oh-four-niner, oh-four-niner. We’ve got a three-eight-two-code-blue headed west on Speedway. Should we pursue, over?”
“Copy, oh-four-niner. This is oh-seven-eight. What’s that code again, over?”
“Copy, oh-seven-eight. That’s a three-eight-two-code-blue, over.”
“Copy, oh-seven-eight. That’d be a white male in possession of the cardboard head of Orlando Bloom, over.”
“Oh! Copy, oh-four-niner. Ha ha. Been a while since we had one of those, over.”
And so, of course, I got away with it.
I came home sweaty, shaken. Delia waited for me in bed, scissors in hand, a stapler waiting on her bedside table. She’d trimmed an elastic band from a pair of my tighty-whities. The plan was to cut around Bloom’s face, make holes for mouth and eyes, and then staple the band to the back to make a mask.
Let me be frank: Delia and I had always enjoyed novelty sex, from the night we met through two years of vigorous courtship. But that year, year three, our sex, in marriage, had moved from adventurous to acrobatic to downright strange, with Delia at the helm. She’d bring anything to bed—edible panties, sex toys, food, porn, food-porn, once the lubed length of a Harry Potter wand (Florida theme park souvenir), which was hard to make myself insert and harder still to watch—anything, that is, but other people, which, giving in to this, this thing Delia called innocent, called role play, called harmless fun, I worried portended a nod in that direction: the slow erosion of exclusivity’s shore that, before you know it, leaves you knee-deep in open marriage surf.
Kink I could handle. Sharing Delia was where I drew the line.
I hadn’t wanted it to come to this, any of it—my marriage, thievery, unsavory sex. But our marriage was a year old, too young to fail. I sought to save us by any means necessary. And if any means necessary meant snapping my underwear’s elastic band to the back of my head and giving my wife a ride on the “Elizabethtown” express, so be it.
Still, I didn’t get Delia’s obsession with the film.
“It’s just so good,” she’d said the month before as we left the theater, having seen “Elizabethtown” for the second time. She’d go on to see it four more times over the course of the next four weeks, with girlfriends, with her sister, twice (that I know of) by herself.
She’d never had a thing for Cameron Crowe, not even “Jerry Maguire,” a movie that made lesser women tremble for Tom Cruise. She’d never even had a thing for Bloom.
It was something about this movie, the heartstrings pulled by the suicide attempt, or else the way Dunst’s character, Claire, saves Drew from himself and gives him all he needs. Maybe Delia wanted to be that person for me. Maybe she hoped to save me from a middling life in midlevel cellphone sales or from the risk-averse nature bestowed on me at birth. Maybe, in Claire, she saw the Manic Pixie Dream Girl she’d always wanted to be, and, in me, the young man she’d transform. I had the potential to be exceptional—she believed that. But I was what I was, and am: a man content to bundle cellphone plans and field corporate accounts for a large network provider; a man who sells minutes to companies so that they can better sell the things they sell; a man who’ll work the same job forty years, praying, at the end of those years, that some loophole doesn’t get his pension cut. I am part and parcel of the grinding, metronomic heartbeat of American free enterprise. I am, in short, American, and to be American is to be, by definition, unexceptional.
Or maybe it was just that Claire and Delia were both flight attendants, and like Dunst and Bloom in the movie, that’s how we met.
Once a year, my company flies me and a bunch of other guys (and gals, though, if I’m being honest, it’s mostly guys) to Vegas. The days are filled with meetings. Nights are free. The idea is to pump us up to sell more phones! Really, though, the trip, for most guys, is about getting laid. I’d gone before, gotten laid before, drunk and gambled more than was good for me.
That year, the year I met Delia, I’d made a vow I wouldn’t get too nuts. Maybe porn, a quick jerk-off in bed, but that was it. And then came Delia.
I saw her before I set foot on the plane. There, in the little cubby where flight attendants stand and wave and welcome you on board, she stood and waved and welcomed me on board. She was perfect, a goddess, as I’ve said. Even owing to the subjectivity of standards, to the fact that different things get us all off, she was objectively beautiful. Nine out of ten dentists would agree.
Tucson to Vegas, you only spend an hour in the air, and in that hour, I found four reasons to call Delia to my seat. She helped me with my seat belt, then my tray. She brought me extra creamer for my coffee, though I’ve always taken it black. When I asked if I could get a second copy of the in-flight magazine because the crossword puzzle in mine had already been filled in, she leaned in, close, breath in my ear, the tendrils of her hair uncoiling like copper-colored snakes to lick my cheek, and she said, “It’s not really the crossword that you want.”
Off the plane, instead of heading for the Avis rental desk, I followed Delia to her room at the McCarran airport hotel.
She was based out of Phoenix. A year of long distance later, she’d transfer to Tucson. This too was why I had to make us work. She’d moved for me.
Back to the big night, then. Christmas Eve.
Sweaty, shaken, I took a shower, then toweled off. Delia was waiting for me in our room.
“Don’t get dressed,” she said.
From our bedroom, I could survey the whole apartment, what Delia jokingly called our “bed, bath, and beyond.” The beyond was a kitchen/main room combo no bigger than the bed and bath. We were approaching our thirties, but we lived like twenty-year-olds. We were saving for a house, something grand, and between the two of us, we had enough for a down payment, more than enough. But we’d been hesitant to house hunt, bound, almost, by a silent pact not to buy before we were sure this whole marriage thing was working out.
I dropped my towel and joined Delia on the bed. The night was cold, not totally uncharacteristic of Tucson in December, but colder than usual. The heat kicked on, prickling my skin. Delia was topless. She wore pink sweatpants, the drawstring tied in invitation.
I have to admit: I was excited, kind of. Freaked out, yes, but even weird sex, sex with which you aren’t one-hundred-percent on board, is sex. And I’d be having it. And this was good, wasn’t it? I’d be making my wife happy. How much harm could there be in that?
Delia had asked what she could do for me. She’d offered masks and costumes, Princess Leia’s buns, but none of those were what I wanted.
I wanted her.
I wanted her exclusively. She’d found me the way an arrow finds the heart, and I was hers and hers alone.
I told her this. “No costumes,” I’d said. “Please. Just be yourself.”
She believed me, or she didn’t. Or else she thought I meant to make her feel bad for what she wanted, which wasn’t the case. The game of fucking others just wasn’t in me. I could no more pretend at that fantasy than Delia could pretend hers away.
Which was a pickle. What were the ethics here, the sexual politics of give and take? As Delia measured my head for a mask I didn’t want, I wondered about this thing I was doing—this thing I was about to do—whether it was a degradation or whether it was another word for love. I didn’t have an answer for this. I still don’t.
What I know is, that night, we fucked four times, the most ever for us, which was all the answer I needed. I wasn’t enough for Delia. Without a mask, I never would be.
A year later, we’d be separated. A year after that, divorced. It doesn’t matter how or who said what or what went down. What matters is that a face couldn’t save us. Because of course, once you reach that point, nothing can save you. Times like that, unless you’re both on board, unless the face is a thing you’re sure each of you wants, one of you will look up and shake your head and look around and see that the person you’re with is not the person you married, or else the person you’re with is the person you married and you married wrong.
I saw her again, Delia, today.
Tucson isn’t so big, and I shouldn’t have expected I’d never see her again. Still, it had been eight years, eight years almost to the day since the afternoon we signed the final papers and were pronounced officially no longer man and wife. We even had a house by then, a little ranch house in the foothills with a red brick walkway and enough room—in time, and Arizona water rights willing—to sink a backyard, inground swimming pool. (Never underestimate the American capacity for denial.) The house, as you might expect, turned out to be a monster of complication to unload. If you’re keeping track and doing math, you know, by now, this puts us at December, 2007, when the housing market was in a nosedive, passengers reaching for their oxygen masks. The house would take another year to sell, and we’d lose a lot. But this was only money. And this happened to everyone back then. We weren’t special. The only thing exceptional about our story, beyond money, beyond the house, is what else we lost.
And what we lost is something for which I don’t have words. What I have, instead, is what’s left. This day—today—and a night ten years ago.
Today—Delia at the airport. I was on my way to Vegas when I saw her. She stood with her family outside an airport terminal shop, the kind that sells magazines and snacks and earbuds, anything you might have left at home for sale at twice the price you’d pay anywhere else. I’d heard she remarried. I hadn’t heard about the kids.
Seeing her, I stopped. I couldn’t be sure whether they’d just returned from a trip or were off somewhere, travel being the movie poster perk equivalent of Delia’s job. I thought of ducking into a men’s room. Instead, I straightened my tie and walked right up to her. I’d lost some weight, but by and large, I was still the same old me. I had nothing to be ashamed of, or if I did, I had little more to be ashamed of than I did the day we met.
When Delia said my name, her husband’s eyebrows rose. She introduced us, and I saw that he knew who I was. He was fortyish, a few years older than Delia, but nothing scandalous. He was balding. He had kind eyes. Three girls, so close in height they might have been triplets, made figure eights around their parents’ legs, all three with porcelain skin, with hair as red as Delia’s. They were—I can say this, I need to say this—a beautiful family.
Her husband led the girls into the shop. He wanted to give us a minute, I suppose, though, every few seconds, from the store, he threw a glance our way.
“How have you been?” Delia asked.
“Good,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. I’d had a string of bad luck trying to get out from under the housing debt, and then a string of bad relationships. A few years in a row, I’d behaved badly in Vegas, drinking too much, once almost getting in a fight. But, the past few years, I’d leveled out. I was seeing a woman whom I liked, though passion, in this case, seemed unlikely, much less love. But late thirties was hard. People were off the market in good marriages or else on the market damaged from bad ones, myself included. Divorced, back in the same apartment complex in which Delia and I had first lived, I was no more desirable to women my age than most women my age were to me.
“You look good,” Delia said, a lie, but a sweet one. I am still fat, though somewhat less so.
Delia did look good, healthy and sexy—and luminous—as ever.
I wanted to ask her what was up. A family? Husband? Kids? What had become of untamed Delia, of Delia who didn’t want all that, of Delia who, yes, not long past the evening of Orlando Bloom, had asked, at last, whether she could bring another person to our bed?
I watched her husband in the airport shop, watched him watch their girls. He didn’t look like the kind of man who fucked other women, who watched Delia fuck men in their bed. This could have been us, I wanted to say, you and him, it could have been you and me, though it couldn’t have been, could never have been me beside her in that airport, daughters doing figure eights around our legs.
There was something fucked up between Delia and me, something that got more fucked up the night we fucked four times, something broken and something sad and something from which there was no coming back.
We could have made each other happy, I wanted to say and didn’t say, and knew better, even in my wanting, than to believe.
Instead, I said, “I’ve got a plane to catch.” I didn’t look back, and I don’t flatter myself thinking Delia’s eyes followed me. Some things, they end just this way.
And that’s what I have. That and a night ten years ago.
That night—Delia in bed beside me. It’s early in the morning. The sun will soon be up. The sheets are strewn beneath us, bed wet with lube. The mask’s already in bad shape, bent, greasy with Astroglide. Round three is past, and we’re considering round four, when Delia opens her mouth to speak, and, instead of speaking, cries.
She shakes, sobs, quiets down. Her face is wet. Her breathing slows.
“You hate me,” she says.
“I don’t,” I say. “I love you.”
“You love me,” she says. “But you hate me too.”
“I don’t,” I say, though I know what she means. The words are wrong, but the thing for which we have no words is there in what she’s said.
“Let’s buy a house,” she says.
“What are we waiting for?”
I kiss her. I kiss her again. In that moment, I think we’ve won. I believe we’ll be happy forever.
“No more of this?” I say. I hold up the mask. Poor Orlando. His eyes, his mouth, where have they gone?
“No more of that,” Delia says.
I drop the mask.
“You,” she says. “Make love to me.”
And I do.
And we buy the house.
And we live that way, happy, or wanting to be, at least for a little while.
David James Poissant is the author of “The Heaven of Animals: Stories,” winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a Florida Book Award, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Poissant’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Central Florida.