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Stuck in the Middle

Phil Strohminger had just hit fifty, and he didn’t know if it was a midlife crisis or his good karma, or just plain dumb luck, but he’d become involved in an internet romance; it made him feel young. To call it a romance was an exaggeration, of course. A confidential correspondence with a woman, a writer like he was, a woman he’d “met” by the sheer coincidence of their having stories posted on the same internet site (“Unlikely Literature” it was called, no less, as if to underscore the serendipitous nature of their “meeting”) that had flowered into a warm, intimate exchange. Sure, there was flirting but mainly it was the genuine affection in their exchanges that made him wonder at it. Ellen was funny and full of life, and he found himself shrinking from corny-sounding phrases about how well they seemed to hit it off, how nice it would be to take it another step further….

She was also twenty years younger than he, technically young enough to be his daughter, though she was mother to two small children, which made them, as parents, contemporary if not coeval. Adults. Grownups. Unless she was just humoring him, she took him seriously as a player in the sexual arena, too; not that she was suggesting they have an affair. Not yet, anyway. Or was he missing the signals?

It was when he thought things like this that Strohminger caught himself. The affair. The possibility of an affair. Strohminger had been married twenty years and had four wonderful children with his wife, Liz, and though their ardor for one another had cooled over the years, there was still a bond of warmth and faithfulness between them. But did that mean he was morally bound to forego sexual pleasure for the rest of his life? That was it, at fifty, “the rest of his life” was no longer a simple expression. Of course, he’d thought the same thing at other milestones like thirty and forty, but not with the same sense that his days were numbered.

But then, what was this about “foregoing” sexual pleasure? He still took pleasure from sex, didn’t he? The examination and re-examination continued in this way, confusing and frustrating him. The fact was that Ellen lived in Pennsylvania, and he lived in Maryland, so an actual physical romance was unlikely. Besides, Ellen was likewise married – to a man several years older than Strohminger, a fact that fed his fantasy. Perhaps she did find him attractive, an aspect of the whole thing that was important to him, at fifty. All that exercise at the gym wasn’t for nothing. They’d never actually met, but their photographs had been posted to the contributors’ page at the fiction website. She made him think of the German girls he’d met in the army when he’d been stationed overseas, blond curls ringing her face, pouty full lips, a bold directness in her gaze. His own looked like a driver’s license mugshot, but she said she found him attractive, and when she confided she’d dreamed about them having sex and that she’d had an orgasm in her sleep, he’d thought this was either too good to be true, or the makings of a Hollywood sensation flick about erotic obsession.


“Marlene’s son discovered his father was having e-mail sex with a woman in Florida,” Liz told him that evening. Marlene was a woman she worked with in the school administration.

“E-mail sex? How do you mean?” Like a character in a Poe story plagued by a guilty conscience, Strohminger looked at his wife with the full attention of a man whose fate is going to be decided in the next minute. This was not just the usual office gossip. But Liz did not seem to notice her husband’s anxiety.

“Their son Toby found these explicit e-mails he’s evidently been exchanging with an old girlfriend. They write their fantasies.”

“Do you think there’s something wrong with that?”

“Don’t you?”

“I mean, he’s not really being unfaithful, is he? It’s probably just sentimental tripe, don’t you think?”

“Do you think it’s healthy for his fourteen-year old son to be reading about how he wants to ‘ram one up her so far she won’t be able to see straight’?”

Liz and Phil both collapsed in a fit of laughter. Liz’s caught her by surprise, when she heard herself and watched Phil crumble into body-quaking laughter like a detonated building imploding. Suddenly the lines around her eyes lengthened with her affection for her husband.

“Well, I guess he’s certainly guilty of indiscretion,” Phil conceded and then started to giggle again. Ram one up her so far she won’t be able to see straight.


A zoid. Philip Strohminger sized up the situation at once, a familiar one. Ahead of him, double-parked in the middle of Keswick Road, with space at the curb available a mere twenty feet ahead, a big black pickup truck with the words FEAR THIS spraypainted in the cab’s rear windows idled like a big range animal pausing in its mindless ambulation to chew a mouthful of grass. Late for work, Strohminger stopped, impatiently gave the truck the benefit of the doubt that it would soon be off. The truck muttered, the deep rumble of a powerful engine, belched a steady blue stream of exhaust. A beefy young man with a mullet sat heedlessly at the wheel, smoking a cigarette, while traffic stacked up behind him like water behind a dam. Who did he think he was, a rock star?

Finally, Strohminger tapped once on his horn, suffused with the futility of the polite gesture, and behind him a tentative chorus of beeps and blats echoed his sentiment. The honking had no effect, of course, and finally Strohminger leaned on his horn, holding down for a rude extra fifteen seconds, arousing the lumbering giant from his seat. The zoid shoved his door open and swaggered like a sailor across a rolling deck on high seas over to Strohminger. Meanwhile, traffic temporarily ceased coming from the opposite direction, and the cars behind Strohminger started moving past him and FEAR THIS.

“You got a fuckin’ problem?” the man with the sandy-colored mullet bellowed like a farm animal himself, stomping over to Strohminger’s car. He must have been in his mid-twenties. He strode with the confidence of a comic book superhero on thick-soled work boots made of brown leather, laced with cowhide. His barrel chest swelled the fabric of his Baltimore Ravens t-shirt. Sporting a Fu Manchu mustache, the rest of his face stubbly with two days’ growth, he leaned into Strohminger’s car, and Strohminger caught the sour smells of arm sweat and beer. It was just after nine o’clock in the morning.

“You’re blocking traffic.” Trying to control his facial expression and his tone of voice so as not to seem overly afraid, Castleman nevertheless feared the man might do something violent, his anger having been ratcheted up to the level of self-righteousness.

But the zoid gruffly apologized. “I’ll be outa your way soon’s my buddy comes out,” he said, striding back to FEAR THIS and hoisting himself into the cab.

Strohminger fumed but pulled around the truck, traffic still not having picked up. “Asshole,” he muttered, driving past. He was relieved that there had been no violence, but he felt a kind of humiliation. He’d seen the look of recognition that had passed across the zoid’s face when he’d taken Strohminger’s measure. The look said, “I could kick this old guy’s ass, but why bother?”


By the time he got to work, however, life seemed to have resumed its usual rhythm, and everything was about normal. Strohminger got his cup of coffee from the cafeteria, his newspaper and a package of sugarless gum from the blind man’s kiosk, made his way to his desk, passing Greenleaf’s cubicle on his way. Greenleaf was contemplating a game of solitaire on his computer screen, as usual.

Strohminger turned on the computer, logged onto his e-mail account. It was always the first thing he did when he got to work. Strohminger worked on the twelfth floor of a twenty-story building in a complex of several similar buildings.

As he’d hoped, there was an e-mail from Ellen. He swooned to see it, eagerly popped it open and read. Phil – Ah, your finger, your tongue….


If this were a story, Strohminger figured he must be the indecisive man caught between two women. If it was a triangle, somebody had to be the bad guy. Unless Liz was a killjoy, an assassin of passion against whom the wildly passionate heroes rebelled, she was not the bad guy. Liz was more a victim in the story than anything – victim of the unfaithful husband. But how was he being unfaithful?

And Ellen? Was she the femme fatale of the piece? The evil heartless creature come to disrupt the harmonious marriage? Or was she really Strohminger’s soul buddy? Was she here to rescue Strohminger? Vamp or heroine? Which was it?

So it had to be Strohminger who was the bad guy. The real problem was that he was indecisive, wishy-washy, unable to do the right thing, unable to determine what “the right thing” even was. Could it be he wanted to have his cake and eat it too? Enjoy the best of both worlds? And why not? Where was the harm it that? But if he could not take a moral stand, he was leaving everybody’s life awash in confusion. In the story, anyway. If this were a story.


“Doug refuses to stop e-mailing his Florida slut,” Liz commented. They lay in bed, reviewing the day.

“Oh yeah? Can’t he at least keep it private? Do it at work, maybe? The problem is his son’s reading it, right?”

“Marlene’s been fed up with him for years. She’s wanted out of that marriage for a long time.”

“So it’s just an excuse, then, this e-mail fantasy he’s got going with his ex-girlfriend?”

“What do you mean, an excuse?”

“Or however you want to put it. The straw that broke the camel’s back, maybe. It’s not the ‘infidelity’ that’s bothering her.”

“It’s a symptom.”

“It’s not even ‘infidelity,’ is it?”

“It’s disgusting.”

“It’s private.”

“Are you defending him?”

“Playing Devil’s advocate, maybe. I’m just trying to understand what the crime is.”


Greenleaf was winning his solitaire game, Strohminger noted, going past Greenleaf’s cubicle on his way to his own. The stacks of spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds all showed royals. If he played his cards right, Greenleaf ought to win this one.

Setting his belongings down on his desk, Strohminger accessed his e-mail account, feverish as a safecracker unlocking the combination to the vault. And there it was, a message from Ellen, the voice so familiar now as to be in his head, and if his body reacted to the things she wrote – and the things he wrote back – the words she said, the imaginary acts to which she referred, should he be ashamed? Was there a violation implied by the bodily changes and reactions? Wasn’t it just harmless fun?


Are you OK with the things we wrote yesterday to each other? I had fun. Finger. Tongue.

Dear Ellen -- Actually, I’m kind of ambivalent. Betrayal and secrecy issues, you know what I mean? How about you? I’m still sniffing my finger, though. Phil

I know what you mean. Nothing’s ever going to happen, though, so why should we feel guilty and ashamed? I wish we could just forget that stuff.

Dear Ellen – I wish we could, too. I really enjoyed it too. My finger and tongue, too. Do you think we should cool it, though? Phil

Whatever you say. I don’t want to make you feel bad, and I certainly don’t want to harm your marriage in any way. Liz sounds so nice from what you say about her. Big Platonic hug,

Dear Ellen – How does that line go in Casablanca? Rick says, “We’ll always have Paris” or something? You and I will always have the finger. The tongue. Thanks for being so understanding. Phil


Strohminger felt a great load lift from his conscience. He passed Greenleaf’s cube on his way down to the parking lot and home. A new game was on the screen. He thought to ask Greenleaf if he’d won the earlier game, but he figured by this late date, Greenleaf wouldn’t remember one game of solitaire from another. Only the latest would be a point of reference.

Driving up Keswick Road Strohminger ran into another double-parked truck. This one had an American flag bumpersticker on the fender, and where there used to be Baltimore Ravens flags on standards in the back window, Old Glory waved in their place now.

“Hey, baby,” a beefy guy with a greasy mullet called out the window at a woman who was walking by. “I’d like to eat your pussy!”

The woman hunched her shoulders and walked away in a hurry while the zoid continued to hoot and whistle and tell her what he wanted to do to her.


In the story, Strohminger was the hero, after all. No dramatic gestures, no grand savior behavior, no risking his life, but a hero nonetheless. He’d help put some sense back into the world, so it was a familiar and comforting place once again. He’d reaffirmed his marriage and re-established his friendship. Strohminger was indeed the no-doubt-about-it good guy of the story. He went to bed with a sense of his own efficaciousness, sank into pleasant dreams.

“Oh, Ellen,” he said, looking up past her belly, into her eyes, “this is the fulfillment of a fantasy, a dream come true, having your smell and wetness all over my face and hands, the taste of you on my lips and tongue.”

“Did you call me ‘Ellen’?”

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