Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In what furnace

Dinner went well. She half-expected it wouldn’t. And that was so her: half-expecting, quarter-knowing, sixth-sure. That statistical training of hers was a dangerous match to her pessimism.

Admittedly, though, there were good reasons to expect a total failure that night. These men, these upper management types who used MBA programs as nude camping sites, they always had a way of hitting on her that she found, at the very least, tiring. Perhaps it was her youth, perhaps the confidence she showed in class, perhaps the tight black pants. But there were always two or three who asked her out when her classes were over. Some were subtle about it, some were not. Some at least faked an interest in the challenge of leadership in horizontal and interconnected organizations, some did not. For years she shooed them away because of Mark, and later because she was hurt beyond her means by all those horrid things Mark did. And taping her, too, Lord, taping her. She was somewhat recovered when this man, Lee, asked her to join him for dinner. He was suave about it, par for the course with such men. And he was gorgeous, also par for the course. She said yes.

Dinner was served in a room with glass walls at the end of a pier in Lee’s lake house. She had expected other people: a dinner party. But it was just her and Lee. They smalltalked through a first bottle of wine, and spoke of business over the second bottle. He protested against theory, which she defended halfheartedly by putting data before anecdotes. She said first-hand knowledge was too iffy, and he showed a real obsession with instinct.

She felt on familiar territory with this subject, but at the same time nauseous and light-headed. The wine, the food, the rippling lake, sure, but his looks kept growing increasingly possessive, staking her out. Was it all in her head? Was this bossy attitude of his all in her head? True leadership persuades, she told herself. This talk of horizontal organizations may have been driving her a bit over the edge after all.

She had an urge to run, but it was kept in check because she knew she’d fall off the pier after a few yards. She looked for water and drank the whole glass to the point of dripping it down the sides of her mouth. Lee filled her glass, and then did the same with her wine glass. Again.

“Well, the dinner went well,” she said, and got up. A faux pas, she knew.

Lee took a sip of wine, put the glass down, placed his cloth napkin on the table, got up. He gazed down at her. “It did go well,” he said, unmoved.

She started toward the door, and waited for him on the pier. He caught up sullenly.

“Before you go,” Lee said, “let me show you something.”

He led her up the pier, into the house, and out a side door that produced a big patio. The light was dim, but she sensed motion around them. Her sight adjusted, and she found the distinctive wet glimmer of eyes, which she quickly recognized as animal eyes, moving at a distance, circling her. Then she made out thin bars that added up to Plexiglas cages embedded in foliage. A zoo? She felt confused enough to ask this aloud.

“Sort of,” Lee answered. “But that’s not what I wanted to show you. Come.”

They walked a few yards toward the lake. Lee held her hand. Was that a jaguar? They marched on, then stopped, and Lee stretched out his left hand toward the last cage. She approached, and covered her mouth with a gasp.

“Dear Lord!” she said.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Lee asked. “It’s my latest acquisition. Finding it was difficult enough, and then all the paperwork. A nightmare. But it’s here now.”

“He looks…”

“It,” Lee corrected her. “It looks.”

“Oh. Well, he does have that… huge penis down there.”

Lee belched a single peal of laughter. “It certainly looks a like a human penis,” he said. “But you’re missing the point. It’s a male of its species.”

“It is…” she said absently. “I’m sorry, he looks so…”

“Majestic?”

“Human. So human.”

“Well, those great apes do look a whole lot like us. Or well,” chuckling, “it is us who look like them. They’re a window to our past.”

“But the expression on his face,” she insisted. Lee glared at her, annoyed. “Is he a tribesman from somewhere? He knows we’re watching. He knows this isn’t just that his universe, well, shrunk. No. He knows this is a spectacle. And, oh my God, hear that. He is saying something.”

“Laura,” Lee said as he wedged his body between hers and the cage, “it is not saying things. It is just grunting. It’s got vocal capacity, like other great apes.”

“I hadn’t seen any ape like him, Lee.”

“I know. It’s a terribly underreported species. This is actually part of a rescue effort. I may be getting a female of the species soon.”

She tried to snatch another look, but Lee’s body covered everything.

“Come,” he said, clearly disappointed, “it is getting late.”

They marched out of the patio, and made their way to the front door. Lee walked her to her car. She thanked him for dinner, and he said his doors were open anytime. She realized the phrase was mere politeness. Lee shook her hand, and pecked her lips goodbye. Then he climbed the steps into the house. She sat a full minute with her windows rolled up, staring blankly at the night. Had she left something behind? Then she noticed the red sparkle of a security camera, aimed at her. She started the car at once, and the engine roared.

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