Fedora was the handsomest Rhodesian ridgeback outside of Rhodesia and the best guide dog impersonator in Washington. My mom bought Fedora after dad went off hospice care, and got a guide dog bib on the gray market so Fedora could dine out with us in Penn Quarter. Preferring Fedora’s company to mine, mom gave him steak under the table while I got moth beans. And since mom never let me in on the ploy, I grew up thinking Fedora was really trained as a seeing-eye dog. I took him to first grade show-and-tell, but was never found out, postponing my first childhood wound until later that year when mom backed over him with the Land Cruiser.
On the ride home from school, mom broke the news: “Fedora returned to the seeing-eye-dog academy to renew his certifications.”
When I complained after a few days, she explained that he went in for the honors curriculum and to be patient. That weekend, she brought home a Ridgeback puppy. I named the puppy Temporary Fedora, and kept him until I in fact went off to Holy Cross. Temporary Fedora had a stroke during my junior year and I gave up on dogs.
“I like to begin with a name and what she’s like. We’ll get to a full bio later. Pace yourself, but keep in mind that the more truthful you are, the better I can do my job.”
Shin tentatively squeezed the garnish on the drink I’d bought him. He was about to bail out and apologize for wasting my time. He knew what he had to do; he’d come to terms intellectually with the idea; but he had not thought through it rigorously to the very end and was stunned that betrayal was so personal.
Unfortunately, sitting across a lunch table from me made my clients see their lovers at their best moments—the impromptu dance they shared to a Celine Dion song on Valentine’s when no one else dared, blowing off a day of work together to kayak on the Potomac, finishing the 10K, cuddling in front of the reality show each had too much dignity to watch alone. All the same, I had no interest in my clients seeing their lovers at their worst moments either. They had to see the mean, so that I saw the mean.
“Her name is Gwen,” Shin said after some indigestion.
“That’s a start. It’s very human to feel bad. That’s why I bought you the gimlet.”
“When a drink is too tart, a little sugar on the rim makes it go down easier.” I gave him a pack of sugar. “Are you married to Gwen?”
“Let me be clear. Does she think you’re engaged?”
“Why does this matter?”
“There’s a surcharge. Same with live-in relatives, severe allergies, and mental illness. And the surcharge doubles if I find out on my own.”
“I just don’t want to be with her anymore, not everything is Casablanca.”
“Gwen may be very uninteresting. But if it turns out that she’s an arsonist and I don’t know it up front, this all may backfire.”
“Gwen has the idea that we’re getting married this fall.”
“Who gave her that idea?”
“I don’t know.”
“She has hay fever.”
“Controlled or uncontrolled?”
“She uses a Neti pot. And I gave her an engagement ring.”
“So she jumped to conclusions.”
Shin was among the first programmers to develop and popularize first-person shooter games. His software was so innovative that Revolution Games bought out his company, and he found himself jobless. Gwen used her medical school loans to support them both. She deflected questions at parties about what Shin was doing. She preserved his ego, made him feel like a man in a crass world that made a schematic of your life and condemned or idolized you for it. After two years of sweatpants and cereal, Revolution Games rehired Shin to manage an entire division. Gwen had entered the toughest part of her training in surgery, and for the first time in three years he could actually support her.
“I did for awhile,” Shin went on. “I beat her home from work, made dinner, squeezed grapefruit for her daiquiris, massaged her feet. Gave her the Volvo, while I took the Orange Line out to Vienna, even though it made me motion sick. I turned off my ego for Gwen because I was so grateful for her support through my down years.”
“How long did you do that?”
“Including the weekends?”
“Straight through. A mosquito lives its whole life and dies in that amount of time.”
“I never thought of it like that.”
“I started going to happy hour with the people at Revolution to unwind after a day of critiquing videogames. At first I felt guilty not being home to cook meatballs when she was working twelve and fourteen hour days. But gaming is a cutthroat business. As a manager, I had to cultivate my professional relationships. I’d become a predator again, life was fun, and there was no reason to hide from it.
“But when I came home and looked at Gwen, all I saw was the Shin who bought her a set of measuring spoons for Valentine’s because he only had twenty dollars in his checking account. In the whole time I’ve known her, I might’ve done one thing that I can stand behind, one thing that really dazzled her.”
“How did Gwen take the new Shin?”
“She never notices anything. Work is too absorbing. She puts herself above me, assumes that all I do is play videogames and go to happy hour.”
“That’s what you do, though.”
“But she assumes it. It’s arrogant. I need to be relevant again. I want to be a threat.”
“A threat to what?”
“Egos … and virgins.”
“In that order?”
“I think so … no switch them.”
I took notes in shorthand—“Virgins and egos, respectively.”
“But she’ll never see me that way. If a man can’t be respected for his potential to do good, he should at least be respected for his potential to do bad.” Shin leaned over the table to see my notepad. “What now? What will you do?”
“In this business, you want me to know everything, while you know nothing. Your only job is to be prepared to throw her over when and how I tell you to.”
“Sleep with her?” I finished the common question for him.
He nodded, but it was more of a flinch than a nod.
“Two of the thirteen female personality types require me to leverage my manhood, but those two types are rare, like AB blood.”
“Gwen has AB blood.”
“Is that a fact?”
“You can’t leverage your manhood.”
“No surcharge for it.”
“I’m not worried about the surcharge.”
“If you want to break up with her on your terms, then go be a man and do it. If you sign a contract with me, then you’re breaking up with her on my terms.”
“You can leverage anything else, but not your manhood.”
“If it’s a deal breaker, then I’m willing to sign a waiver and have it notarized—do realize it voids my guarantee.”
“I need to think about it.”
“Complete her full bio online in the meantime. If we don’t have an agreement in three days, I’ll have to open up my calendar." I work with one client at a time, and spring is known for three things in DC—taxes, break-ups, and cherry blossoms.
“One other thing,” I added as we got up, “you mentioned that you once dazzled her.”
“You looking for inspiration?”
“Inspiration comes after you jump into something. Just curious.”
“I built her a sailboat.”
“Now I’m inspired.”
Shin would call me in twenty-eight hours on average. Men who pandered to sugarcoats were terminal romantics, conflicted to their marrow. A peculiar sensitivity—part egoism, part empathy—made them unable to break off their relationships. Yet, they were equally unable to tolerate their lovers any longer. Terminal romantics would remain trammeled in their Gordian knots, unless they called me in a moment of clarity.
A deacon once threw a drink in my face—I was a scourge to women, enabling my clients to act on reality-bending selfishness. I reminded him that men did not hire sugarcoats in malice, but in mercy. Known as nurseboys on the West coast and in the Caribbean, sugarcoats were a sophisticated manifestation of civilized society, untrue, but truly humane. The deacon never saw my side of it, but he hired me anyway.
* * *
In my first year of practice at Georgetown, a young woman named Ingrid came in with clinical depression and wanted to talk things out in my chair. I persuaded her to try a medication instead. Escitalopram was neat, even elegant—take this for twelve weeks, get some sunlight, then come back. Psychoanalysis was open-ended, unsterile, sloppy, and much too poignant—patients got into things you didn’t want to know about, and those things got you dredging your own psyche. Before long, you had learned things about yourself. Psychoanalysis was as human as you could get.
But when the pills were ineffective alone, I had to see more of Ingrid in my office. And the more rapport we developed, the more attention I was willing to give her. And the more concentrated this attention, the better she did. She returned to work as a piano teacher, she reconnected with her parents, and then she invited me for drinks and a recital at the Norwegian Embassy. A rejection would have set her back six months. I never knew when or if she would psychologically flame out, and the suspense made her attractive enough that a romance of lesser or greater dysfunction was inevitable if I wasn’t deliberate. A week after the recital, I told her she was cured and I couldn’t see her in my office anymore. A week after that, the cops arrested Ingrid for loitering at my building. With the unenthusiastic support of the Norwegian ambassador, I insisted they release her.
I remembered our old psychotherapy sessions with a feeling of futility—hours of secret passions, conflicts, and resentments; empty lectures on exercise, diet, ultraviolet light, passing on the second nightcap. I had taken pride in my lacy conjectures about her recurring dreams. I excavated repressed memories of the meal her dog had made of her cat in third grade, and the dead baby she and her brother once found in the woods behind the house. But in truth, my breakthroughs had not been breakthroughs. My intellectual satisfaction had been nothing but my own dressed up vanity. As a psychiatrist, it hurt me to admit that dreams meant nothing, childhood wounds healed spontaneously, and the benefit of psychoanalysis was much more simple than I had supposed.
Ingrid needed the absolute best psychiatry money could buy, or attention—either was fine. Ingrid and I should have started with the Norwegian recital, we would have ended up in the same place, and I would have had the ambassador’s autograph that much sooner. I happened to be a psychiatrist, but first I was a man, capable of affecting women on a more personal level than Prozac or inkblots. It wasn’t in the textbook, but a good lay made up for a lot of absentee parenting, and I had known for years that I was better in bed than in the chair.
If I had accepted Ingrid as a patient after her arrest, listened to her a few hours every week, led her on by petting her ego and my intellect, I might have cured her. But some resonant part of the Hippocratic oath that stuck with me pooh-poohed this kind of humanism, even though I knew she was at risk. For weeks, my receptionist delivered Ingrid’s phone messages. I held onto them, ruminated over them, but never returned the calls.
“Do what you feel is appropriate,” Shin told me the following evening. We sat in the back bar of the sushi restaurant where I finalized contracts, sharing the counter with a steely panoply of fish with still quivering gills. The tall chef not only served the only soft shell snapping turtle in town, but also witnessed the signatures.
I passed Shin the papers for review. “Make sure you read the two bottom paragraphs in fine print.”
Shin flinchingly looked the fine print over. “You won’t be held liable for suicide or self-inflicted bodily harm? Has that happened?”
“Depends on your definition of happened.”
“I need to know your process.”
“I’ll build Gwen up to the point where she’ll be relieved that you dumped her and set her free. That’s it. Remember the intoxication of your early romance? I’ll create that diversion all over again. Gwen will feel she’s leaving the relationship from a position of strength.”
The chef presented thirteen types of fish in a wooden display box. He sliced us three different kinds of mackerel for our first bite.
“The deceit still bothers me,” said Shin.
“The humidity still bothers me. Yet I always end up dining once or twice on the patio every summer.”
“How much time do you need?”
“I can’t give NASA time, but three weeks is the average—about the lifespan of a mosquito.”
“Three weeks might as well be forever,” Shin complained.
“Sometimes twenty-four hours. Either way, it’s a flat fee.”
“And I see here that either party can walk away before the first meeting.”
“After that, I’ll process your check, unless it’s on the weekend, which means it’ll be the next business day.”
“But what if I’m not satisfied with how the break up goes?”
“If people weren’t satisfied, I wouldn’t be the busiest sugarcoat in the District.”
“I don’t like the term sugarcoat.”
“It’s the oldest profession.”
“I thought prostitution was the oldest profession.”
“Men had to break up with their girlfriends before they could go to the prostitutes, right?”
“Are there female sugarcoats?”
“Hardly any. Women who end relationships tend to be more up front. They may be very coy at the beginning, but they make up for it with their frankness on the back end. That said, if you fall in love with an amazing girl and then one evening a Korean in Gucci boots pays you too much attention, don’t assume it’s your new Creed scent. Before final signatures, let’s go over the online bio you finished.”
* * *
Amid protests from third grade teachers, Gwen Sessions skipped second grade. That year, she dressed as Scarlett O’Hara for her Halloween party, but arrived at school one Friday too soon. Convinced Gwen had done it for more attention, the teacher took her into the bathroom by her arm and scrubbed off her makeup. The teacher clenched her by her shoulders. She forced her to look in the mirror, Gwen’s face swollen from the scrubbing and tears.
“You have the face of a whore,” the teacher said.
Unfamiliar with the word, yet afraid it was true, Gwen never told her parents. They split just as she entered high school. She militantly took her mother’s side and testified in divorce court on her behalf. The judge charged Gwen with contempt, compromising her mother’s settlement. With the family split up, her mother distracted Gwen with activities in the hope that one of them would give the girl a passion and the luck that came with it. Tennis, chess, piano, and a late crack at ballet gave her a strong opinion about almost everything in life, but no passion. Late in her sophomore year, she joined a friend in Newport on a sailing trip. She was a natural on the deck, the three weeks the most peaceful she had known. Only when she returned did she realize that unencumbered feeling was probably happiness. Until she started her surgical training, she never had a summer without the sea.
“What’s that look?” Shin asked me as I looked over his bio.
“This has never happened before.” I took back the agreement. “I’m not sure you need a sugarcoat.”
“I need a nurseboy?”
“Just tell her.”
“You’re rejecting me because of the bio?”
“What am I missing here? I hated English in school.”
“Divorce, skipping grades, contempt of court, and sail boats—it points to a certain personality type. The last time I sugarcoated this type of woman, it ended with two missing passports and a flipped Porsche on Ninety-five.”
“Divorce says what about Gwen’s personality?”
“Divorce is almost always the child’s fault. Her behavior will be too nuanced and unpredictable for my kind of service. You need a specialist.”
“I’d go to a shrink if I wanted her psychoanalyzed. You offered me a contract already, that’s not how one does business.”
“This isn’t business, just a personal rejection and dismissal, nothing more.”
“The thought of disrupting her life without something to sweeten it up is unbearable for me.”
“Other sugarcoats in Washington might feel differently. They’re cheaper, and some give discounts if you’re a resident of Maryland. Tell them I referred you.”
“I know your reputation. She’d like you. I know her best.”
Shin took the contract and crossed out the fee and initialed beside it. “If you won’t do it for money, do it for the challenge, do it for personal reasons, consider it pro bono work.”
I mistakenly looked at the sushi chef, a former client who I knew to be sentimental. Accordingly, he had taken Shin’s side.
“I should give back, I suppose.”
“Should we take this to a notary?”
“No need for that.” I examined the contract. “I’m commissioned as a notary.”
* * *
By the following week, I had memorized Gwen’s curriculum vitae, and compiled my own curriculum spiritualis and curriculum corporis. Gwen’s synopsis ran about five pages, and it was a compelling document.
For years, her adolescent concept of the world was limited by what she apprehended as the daughter of a Brown philosophy professor, corralled by the campuses of the university and her private school, the words of her third grade teacher resounding as laughter and whisper, as melody and harmony. Gwen grew into her beauty and became suspicious of it, learning quickly that it was the first quality people envied, yet the least useful and most ephemeral. She unconsciously toiled in school to ensure that she honed qualities that would forever sustain her. It was no surprise that she had chosen and excelled at a rigorous profession.
Despite my predatory circles in Georgetown, I found Gwen elusive, near impossible to pin down and approach. The fashionable distractions of the city that lured others made no impression on her. Her days and nights consisted of angular trajectories to and from work, her daily routine as companionable as rock climbing.
I first spotted Gwen on a corner not far from my office. I realized immediately that my presumptuous synopsis had not captured her at all. A celebrity of my making, she clenched her fists in the pockets of her lab coat, which flapped with the wind coming up Reservoir Road. The draft blew up the street dust, and stung her bare ankles, teasingly revealed under her billowing scrubs. A fine mist of blood from someone’s sick viscera stained the cuffs of her pants—a work tattoo, like boxers’ bruises or a mechanics’ oil stains. Her energy was adversarial, picking a righteous fight with the prevailing conditions in the world, drawn not only from her own experience, but from the shared joys and agonies of that world, which she had somehow managed to know and assimilate. She was angry, embattled, dignified—qualities her beauty reconciled to striking effect, and casually picking her up was impossible. Unprepared and foolish, I returned to my office and put away my digitized pictures and abstracted data, never to look at it again. Since there was no opportunity for a chance encounter, I’d have to be more deliberate. I’d have to enter her cathedral and kick over her votives.
Though I’d had an umbilical hernia since a sucker punch at the arcade, I had never been in a doctor’s exam room as a patient. I appreciated the closure that came with finally getting something back for that week of loose stool in the fifth grade. But getting before Gwen under these pretenses created its own obstacle, because if she had any professionalism at all, she would forbid any kind of nonprofessional contact. Again, a casual pickup was impossible. I challenged myself to become her single exception.
After a long wait in an empty exam room, Gwen came in and sat across from me. I had made impressions in my briefs before, but never the first impression. She asked me how I was doing. Her question felt authentic, nothing like a business transaction, a trick I knew to be difficult when you saw fifty patients a day. Reclined on the exam table, I let her confident hands press over my abdomen. I followed her hands to her wrists, noticed the shine of her engagement ring, then up her long arms, and to the lapel of her lab coat where she had affixed a small Lego pin—I immediately recognized my opportunity to flank her.
“I hope that didn’t tickle.”
I shook my head.
“It’s a small hernia, and I’d ignore it unless it hurts or gets bigger.” She shook my hand. It would be over in a moment.
“Nice pin.” I realized at once that she was accustomed to people remarking on it. I’d have to go further and fast.
“Got to love the Legos,” she said summarily.
“Reminds me of something I saw in Chantilly last summer.”
“You went to Brickfair last year?” She stopped her transition maneuver out of the room; it was genuine interest.
“Last year, I built ‘contempt’ for the Brickfair.”
“I specialize in creating emotions.”
“That’s original. I never thought of abstract work in Legos. But I’m afraid I don’t remember that one—“
“It was only displayed in the avant-garde exhibit, too innovative. You had to be twelve or older to even get in the room. And I’ve got plans for next year.”
“Depends on how things turn out this spring, I tend to make things up as I go along.”
“So you have to feel the emotion to create it?”
“The opposite. Abstract work gets a little muddy if you feel it too much.”
“You’ve already got an exhibitors pass for next year?”
“Sure. Have you ever wanted to exhibit?”
“I’ve never had time to apply.” Her speech was halting, completely changed.
“You have any ideas?”
“I’ve got a basement full of ideas, but your blueprint has to pass the board.”
“Send me some pictures of your work, and I might be able to put in a good word.”
“You’ll be frank?” she asked.
“I’m only frank about things I don’t mean. Besides, truth’s a tall order when you could have me asleep on your table one day.”
The nurse came to the door. Her next patient was ready.
Gwen offered me her card. “Email me.”
I pulled at the elastic of my underwear. “I will put ‘Lego’ in the subject line.”
The sugarcoat was a member of an execution team. The sugarcoat lit the cigarette at the wall for dead-women-walking, women who together with their sweethearts had blindfolded themselves. Euthanasia was humane.
Yet, Gwen was alive. Unblind, and striving despite whatever it was she saw. Hard to reconcile Shin’s Gwen with the surgeon I saw at Georgetown. It was true that a person never looked better than when they displayed their mastery over their art, a sheen of sweat born of work worth doing. Yet I could not imagine Gwen very far displaced from the aplomb I saw in that room.
I worked with zest and sharp curiosity as I forged out the choreography of our critical first rendezvous. For a week, Gwen and I exchanged emails about Legos. It was apparent, no matter how I played it, that I would have to master Legos if I was to master Gwen. Fortunately, in grade school, I had been considered a savant in making Bavarian figurines so my crash course in Legos was a simple matter.
My contract stipulated a five percent surcharge for this extra labor, but I found the work strangely pleasurable. With each new facet of Lego art, I was closer to understanding her, and placing her fairly within one of my categories. I expected Gwen to make sense to me sooner or later, at which point I would master her, cease to find her compelling, and be a little disappointed as I reached the dead-end of fascination. Yet, as I learned about her through Legos, rather than allaying my suspense, my feelings were sharpened, and my anticipation of seeing her even more acute. Her emails became the vital epilogue to my day, as if my days were not life, but bridges to her next message.
Her next email mentioned Shin. This deliberate, honorable, yet necessary peek into her personal life meant that I was close enough to threaten their relationship, however minor that threat. Not mentioning Shin would have been a growing liability for her. Throwing up her engagement to him was nothing more than knocking over an alley trashcan in retreat as a pursuer closed in. It was her last passive defense—not an obstacle, but an affirmation.
Gwen invited me to her house in Arlington on a Sunday afternoon to have lunch and look at what she had built. With Shin out running errands, intentional or not, the house was empty. She fixed me a highball and took me downstairs.
Stacked from floor to ceiling were modular bins filled with Lego pieces. On the back wall were shelves of Lego creations. She had built a meticulous rendition of the Russian’s Kursk submarine and the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. Her landscape creations astounded me—Easter Island, with Moai statues staring out into blue water, and her take on the ruin that befell the first European settlement on Hispaniola, the site of the first New World small pox epidemic.
A table in the center of the room commanded all of my attention. The piece was painstakingly constructed—thousands of Lego pieces, both standard and custom-made. The detail implied exhaustive knowledge of its subject, and an extreme type of fastidiousness typically explained by imprisonment or lunacy. It conveyed pathos in a way that could not be broken down to its components.
“Is that Chicago O’Hare?”
“You got it.”
I walked the circumference of the table sipping my highball. Then I realized the table was itself made of Legos. I sipped my highball some more and looked at it from every angle.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“I was thrown out of O’Hare once for refusing to check my vermouth sprayer. You remember how it was right after the TSA crackdown.”
At the end of one of the runways, a plane was in mid-takeoff. I peered inside of the plane. “There are people in there.”
“One hundred and thirty two. Outbound to Pittsburgh.”
“That’s the Pittsburgh crash?”
Gwen nodded, meditating over the scene as if she were seeing it for the first time. She gave me a magnifying glass—each person in the aircraft was hand-painted.
“People who play are usually looking to escape,” Gwen said. “But I need a tonic to remind me to feel. Knowing all those plastic people are going to die makes the airport come alive. If you understood that, you’d be the first.”
“I knew a girl who died.”
“But that’s not the same as knowing before.”
“I knew before.”
“Did it make you feel more alive?”
“For a while.”
Gwen noticed my glass was empty. She took it from me and touched my arm. “Come up to the kitchen, I’ll make you another and tell you about my plans for the Lusitania.”
We smiled at one another and saw each other for the first time. We walked upstairs bashfully, as if we had both been let in on a truth denied the rest of the world. From the kitchen, I noticed a Lego creation on the mantle in her living room. It was less ambitious than her other projects, but elegant enough that I was drawn to it.
“What do you think?”
“It is dazzling,” she said. “But I didn’t make it. Shin did, and I don’t think I tell him that enough.”
She took me back to the kitchen and cut a lemon. “The same?”
“Not this time.”
I walked out and drove around the city all afternoon on muscle memory. I couldn’t recall the places I went or the nature of the traffic. In my psychiatry practice, I had seen as deeply into the human mind as one could see, and though complex, it wasn’t particularly mystifying—so many neurons, yet the same emotional swamps, the same patterns. I had seen everyone, known everyone, from every perspective, every facet of the human psyche laid out before me like a color-by-number. Man didn’t know everything about man’s brain, but if we did, we’d have been disappointed.
But that day, in her basement, I’d become fascinated again. The look in her face, its breadth and depth, and the natural melancholy that came with the lack of light in that depth, made a world-view that had once been simple, complex again and full of possibility.
I met Shin that evening in Bethesda.
“I thought this part was over a land line,” Shin said.
“It’s best that we meet.”
“What’s the matter?”
I passed an envelope to him. “I’ve voided our agreement.”
“We had a deal.”
“I’m putting this on Yelp.”
“Go and break up with her,” I said.
“What’s it to you, now that you’ve reneged?”
I swallowed, reluctant to say anything more. “Did she ever step out on you?”
“Gwen lacks the creativity to cheat on me. You were supposed to be the first. I trusted you.”
“You don’t know her.” I couldn’t bear to be around him. I got up.
“You dare tell me I don’t know her?”
“You dare tell me she lacks creativity? Have you ever been in your own basement? Chicago O’Hare with fifty airlines mapped out, the luggage, the passengers in clothes with brand names?”
“You noticed all that, yet completely missed the point. Her mother was on that airplane. If you knew Gwen, you’d know that.”
“If you knew Gwen, you’d love her.”
* * *
I returned to psychiatry with a somber determination known only to those who were grieving. I saw my patients with renewed lucidity. I traded in the same depressions, manias, and anxieties, but the anguish was more immediate to me. I turned down every sugarcoat contract, and for a while, the city’s terminal romantics stopped dumping their lovers. By July, people had stopped calling for me and the break-up rate self-corrected.
Without the balance of sugarcoating, without its mock-intimacy and narcotizing distractions, I keenly felt the voids in my own life. I had nothing to fill my nights. No intellectual, no emotional, no physical outlet. Sentimental relapses had sent me splinting both left and right over the months since I’d been in that basement. Each spell had been a little less severe, but only because the memories were fading. One evening, I thought I saw Gwen at a cheese shop in Penn Quarter, and the cycle began again.
Near the end of the summer, Gwen came to my office.
“I assume you know why I’m here.” She sat down on my therapy couch.
I nodded gravely, the bill finally coming due. My fancy degrees smirked at me from the wall. “I retired six months ago. Seems there were ten men waiting to fill my shoes. And I don’t miss it.”
“You retired after meeting me?”
“If you’ve come to scold me, make me feel ashamed, I have nothing left to give you. But if there’s something else you’ve come for, I’m willing to give you everything.”
“Would that include an introduction to the judge you knew for the convention this October? I need a contact within the community. You left so suddenly, and never came back. Were my drinks that tart?”
“Pardon?” I said breathlessly, then having to reset. “No, your drinks were not tart.”
“I never saw any of your creations,” she went on, “but I think you’re on to something with abstract Legos. I really hope you didn’t retire on account of me. And if you did, then lie to me.”
“I’m no good at that. How’s Shin?”
“He moved out. It’s just me and my Legos now.”
“You finished the Lusitania?”
“I needed something more complicated after Shin left. Something to distract me, challenge me, something for the exhibit. You kind of inspired me.”
“The firebombing of Tokyo,” she said.
“I’ve set my sights on the Prague Exhibition. Impress them there, and you’re in the running for the Madame Lego title.”
“Or Sir Lego title. We could both compete this year.”
We met that evening for dinner. There was never a good time for the whole truth. And if one part of the truth could not be told, then none of it could be told. I had to take up Legos again. I flew in a five-man team from Belgium for a Lego think tank. We drank chartreuse drinks, and on the verge of nausea got inspired.
Gwen and I attended the Lego convention together. We walked the aisles holding hands. We toured the avant-garde exhibit, where they served champagne cocktails with Lego garnishes and Gwen remarked how odd it was that no one remembered me.
In a controversial decision, Gwen’s Tokyo project finished second in the national contest. My Belgium team’s project, named ‘Joy’, took first place in the existential competition. And the panel did invite us to show our work in Prague over Christmas. We wouldn’t have one shot at the Lego title, but two.
Prague was impossible in winter, but we overcame it. We held hands as lovers and rivals, our work highly regarded at the exhibition. Afterward, we walked the cobbled streets half-drunk, blathering Lego rhetoric and accusing each other of having the best shot at winning. We drank hot mulled wine in the Jewish quarter, mouth-kissed on old bridges, and shivered as we explored cemeteries. Surrounded by history, I remained obsessed with the present, the moment and its unreality, my next belly breath with Gwen.
We ran out of cash one night, and she ran over to an ATM at the edge of Old Town Square. I stood with a cup of mead warming my hands through my gloves, my face cold, the light of the fifty-foot Christmas tree casting a gold light on everything. She shivered, but as she waited for the money to spit out, she bobbed her shoulders and tapped her feet to the sound of carolers singing Three Wise Kings. In a fit of idolatry, in disbelief that I had really found her, I watched her, all wrapped up in her coat, scarf choking her, hair wild and iced. I’d jettison everything else. I wanted only her.
I bought the ring the day we returned to Washington. Gwen suspected nothing, so preoccupied with receiving word on the title. I kept it in my office for weeks as I planned dinner and an evening at the Kennedy Center. Outside of the restaurant, a footpath led to a small garden. I never rehearsed my words. What I felt needed no curriculum vitae, no synopsis, no notary.
I kept the ring in the pocket of my coat that night, which happened to be the same night Gwen had received an email from the board. She printed the email without reading it. She brought it with her to the opera, but we did not open it.
We sat through Il trovatore, her hand in my lap. At the restaurant, we opened a bottle of Burgundy to enjoy while waiting for our table, but the wine had no taste.
Gwen traced the seal of the envelope with her finger. “I hope you win.”
“I’ve already won, Gwen.”
She smiled and left me alone with the envelope to freshen up.
I fondled the ring box in my coat pocket to settle my nerves.
“You smell good,” a Korean woman said as she sidled to the bar.
She sat down, the gold horse bit on her boot jingling as she propped it against the leg of my stool. I searched the room for Gwen. But she had not returned. I felt cold all over.
“I’ve heard that spring is famous for three things in DC,” she said.