The following year she had a cold in the head and was glad not to have to chair any meetings for the first time in six or seven years. It was just too much work trying to keep forty or fifty people focussed. She couldn’t tell whether she and her boyfriend were about to break up or just keep soldiering on. They never fought but were often rude to one another in minor ways. He took her to the airport but didn’t kiss her goodbye or remind her to call.
El Presidente was up for re-election and Riva and Russell were campaigning against him. Jim opposed him as well and they were all backing a candidate wholly unlike him, or almost wholly unlike him. Mary Flaherty could run a meeting as well as El Presidente, but she never danced either on or off the dance floor. Mary Flaherty was the soul of gravity and decorum and she wore her hair in a bun. One person said she reminded him of H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones, but the remark was not much repeated. Most people viewed her as incorruptible, but a few said she was rigid.
Dan Vannet was back.
She caught sight of him the first evening while walking with a clump of people through the larger crowd in the main lobby where everyone was picking up announcements and resolutions off a series of tables. Their eyes locked as if, again, they were back on the dance floor, but their bodies failed to synchronize so with just a quick smile and a brief wave she kept right on walking past him.
Why not run up and say hi or hug him like anyone else? Excuse: walking and nominally talking with others. Stupid excuse. Blame it on the cold medication. (Still a stupid excuse.)
Well, how could she know how he’d react if she leapt onto him?
She and Russell always hugged, not solely due to past moments in bed. She and El Presidente hugged. No sex there. Lots of others merited a more visible greeting.
Blame it on the cold medication.
The instant she saw him all memories came rushing back in the form of blood rushing to all the capillaries along the front of her body. Not a blush, but a suffusion of memory and of his exact touch from cheek to thigh.
And how did he feel about her? The same? Or was she just another dance partner, or that excessively forward person who confused social dancing with sex?
Well, he had smiled.
And then they became lost in meetings and politics and she almost never saw him. Just occasionally their eyes would meet across the dining room for a strangely long time. Maybe it was that they both had green eyes. Hers were muddy green but his were alarmingly clear. Now if only his thoughts were equally clear to her. She knew so little about him besides that he was divorced, sometimes absent-minded, and extremely allergic to cats; none of which was useful.
Throughout all of this Mark Jensen, who knew her slightly from home, took to sitting next to her, walking with her, getting meals with her; he was interesting company but she wasn’t sure what he wanted either.
And El Presidente wanted her vote, or better yet her presence on his slate of candidates, and Mary Flaherty too wanted her vote although less persistently, and various others wanted her to chair this that or the other committee. She turned everyone down, but her cold became much worse when it should have gone away days earlier. She felt like she was being strangled by mucus; it hung, disgustingly, at the back of her nose and refused to clear out no matter what she did. It made her gag.
The cold medication was of no use whatsoever.
Then one night as caucuses and conversations came to their yawning ends, she saw Dan Vannet standing alone not fifteen feet away; she walked in his direction and they began to talk of El Presidente and Mary Flaherty and all the other events of the day with attention fiercely upon one another, no glancing about the room until a gaggle of people descended upon them and everyone piled into the elevator and each got off at his or her own floor in an entirely sex-segregated fashion.
Her cold was gone the next morning.
Electioneering was picking up and though the candidates kept fairly calm the supporters began to grow frenzied and hurled accusations back and forth like volleyballs that occasionally hit people in the face and left a black eye. Russell wanted to know how she felt about the issues and Mark announced that he was really enjoying getting to know her better and how about having lunch sometime when they got home? Rebecca, still calm and still sensible, took over leadership of an important caucus despite being the youngest person there.
It was Saturday and she wanted to dance with Dan all night. Through reports, motions, points-of-order and points-of-information, ayes-nays-abstains, she felt the memory of his touch suffusing her torso. Heavenly.
Then it was Saturday dinner and a tablemate named George Gould wanted to know “Is it true that a lot of people sleep around at these things?”
She started to laugh, possibly to his and Mark’s mild discomfiture. “Jim Harrison asked me exactly the same question two years ago.”
“Well, what did you tell him?”
“I said I’m sure it’s much more rumor than reality. I mean, I know all these people who didn’t really even though people thought they did.”
“It does happen, though,” said George. “My first year my marriage was breaking up and I was having a mad affair here. I hardly got to any of the meetings.”
“I take it you’re speaking of Lacey,” she said. “Not that I knew about it at the time.”
George proceeded to give the entire history of his doomed early marriage and the equally doomed affair with Lacey, to which everyone at the table listened with a kind of detached interest.
“I was madly in love with Lacey,” said George, “but I could soon see that she was not the woman of my life. She was a real woman-child, and while the woman was a lot of fun, the child was terrible.”
“She said very little to me about you except that you were the lover she expected to marry.”
“Oh, by that time I had definitely put her out of my mind!” said George.
“Well, I knew next to nothing about you, having only met you once or twice, but I had the feeling she was imagining things.”
“What I remember of meeting you before,” said George, “is that you introduced me to a whole roomful of people as ‘Joe Gould’. Naturally I was mildly hurt but I figured you had a lot of names to remember.”
At the mention of the name ‘Joe Gould’ she burst into laughter. “I’m afraid that must have been a Freudian slip,” she said. “In the thirties there was a Greenwich Village character named Joe Gould, who was some sort of bohemian poet and exhibitionist. There’s a famous painting of him by Alice Neel that shows him sitting on a chair with three penises.”
For some reason George took this conflation of himself with the exhibitionist poet Joe Gould as a compliment, which was just as well. When he got up to fetch a second glass of wine, Mark whispered that this was at least the second time in two days he had heard the story of George’s marriage and while he did not especially mind hearing everyone’s personal problems, his wife listened to them daily in her line of work and thus refused to hear them socially.
“This is one reason I’m glad I decided not to go into one of the ‘helping professions,’” she said. “I might lose interest in everyone’s peccadilloes.”
When he returned with his wine, George said, “I’ve concluded that it’s foolish to come to these things expecting to have affairs. If you happen to meet somebody, that’s one thing, but otherwise you miss too much. It’s far better to pay attention to what’s going on. It’s fun to flirt and be flirted with, but we do have business to accomplish.”
Karla Huebner has appeared in such literary and genre venues as Northwest Review, Colorado State Review, Magic Realism, Fantasy Macabre, Ceilidh, Weave, and Opossum. She teaches at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio (where they went on a very long faculty strike last year) and her book Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is now available for pre-order from University of Pittsburgh Press; her novel In Search of the Magic Theater is forthcoming from Regal House and her collection Heartwood was a finalist for the 2020 Raz-Shumaker award. Karla recommends the House Rabbit Society, Doctors Without Borders, and the Nature Conservancy.