The Ring

by Allison Burnett


Stefan Kline lay in bed naked, his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Projected on the wavy and crumbling surface were images of perfection. He was not one to gloat, but he felt he had every right to, because that morning he had decided that his evening would be perfect and it had been. Never before had he felt so secure in the power of his will.

Consider: at five o'clock he had finished his last dance class of the day. Ten minutes after he arrived home, a twenty-year-old blonde spiritualist named Isis came by and for just twenty-five dollars gave him shiatsu: bamboo mat, almond oil, Japanese grunting, the works. Later he rose, his long limbs weightless, his stomach trembling happily, and lowered himself into a scalding ginger bath. He lolled in the tub for nearly an hour, eyes closed, breathing deeply, letting the healing waters lap away the cares of his week. At seven-thirty, he jumped up and prepared dinner to the swirl of a symphony blaring from his kitchen radio. He made it fun, chopping vegetables to the rhythm of the strings, throwing out garbage to the crash of cymbals. A bold menu: flounder in daikon sauce, watercress with turnip, barley with chestnuts, seaweed, tofu soup, squash pie, twig tea. Then at the precise moment he finished setting the table there was a knock at the door.

Ineffably delicious what awaited him on the landing: Mia Mirando, marvelous Mia, small and cherry-cheeked, a winter elf, carrying an icy bicycle wheel in one hand and a bag of contraceptive sponges in the other. She attacked for the first kiss, leaping into his arms, throwing him back against the stove. She lowered the flickering flames, then began the backward walk. Her legs wrapped around him, off the ground, laughing into his neck, she told him not to turn around, not to check for furniture, but to relax, trust. Before they reached the doorway, she twisted one of his legs and they fell to the floor in an avalanche of kisses. They made love right there on the dusty kitchen floor -- she frenzied, astounded; he controlled, fierce. When he pulled away climaxing, gulping for air, she reached out and caught his semen in her hands. Then, eyes closed, smile luxuriant, she wiped his seed into her face and neck and breasts.

The compliment she gave him after her third orgasm was the ideal finale to the evening, because unlike most of his women Mia wasn't given to false flattery. It came out of nowhere as they were gooily entwined under the covers cocooned in a timeless half-sleep. "You have the most beautiful hair," she whispered. "You don't deserve it. It belongs on a woman."

Mia had been gone for an hour, but Stefan found that the memories she had left him were as pleasurable as anything her body had offered. He laughed, rolled over, and glanced at the clock on his bedside table. Ten minutes past midnight. Late. He set to work calculating by the routine that he knew only too well how long it would be before he was asleep. Candice would be home in less than an hour. First, she'd ask him about his day. He'd downplay its magnificence. Then she'd crawl under the covers and tell him how miserable her day had been. They'd kiss a few times, snuggle. He'd be sound asleep by one. Not a moment too soon. He had a yoga class at ten and he was useless without eight hours.

Although he was a modern dancer, Stefan was not illiterate. He had read enough Greek plays to know that pride comes before a fall. So rather than indulge in any further revery, he set to work at once, running down the checklist that had never failed him. First, the kitchen. The trash was taken out, the dishes washed and put away, the floor sponged. The bathroom. Lipstick wiped off the rim of the sink, the smudge of tire tread on Candy's hamper covered with white paint, the ball of crusty tissue flushed away. The dining room? Stefan rolled onto his right side and looked through the archway. If anything about it was suspicious it was its unnatural tidiness. But Candice was self-involved to the point of blindness and would never notice.

Last, the bedroom. Stefan propped himself up on both elbows and turned his head like a periscope. He had been meticulous. A quick raking of the rug had turned up at least a dozen unmistakably Sicilian hairs. He'd burned them. Winter wind snaked through the open window, whisking away the last of Mia's fertile musk. The bed was just right. The tight hospital corners looked just like Candice's. Stefan settled back on the pillow and as he smiled his blue eyes sparkled and deep lines formed at the sides of his mouth. His contentment was grand and substantial. He had left nothing to chance.

At that moment, three miles away in midtown Manhattan, Chris Barton sat in a glass cubicle, reading down the left-hand margin of a Merger Agreement: "This, rights, owner, ees, corporations, so, interest, ployees, put, committee, ness, tute, section, amended, code, stock, fied, may, as...."

His proofreading partner, Donna Woodfork, sat across from him, her eyes following the same margin of the Agreement's latest draft, checking to see that nothing had been dropped by the computer, that the words on the margin were identical to the ones that Chris read.

"I hate this job!" she cried suddenly, cutting off Chris's bland litany, pushing away her document. Donna, a thirty-year-old black woman raised in the projects of Paterson, did not share with her white co-workers an innate emotional dishonesty. Her feelings lived on her tongue. As she spoke now, her eyes grew heavy, as though they she were suddenly on the verge of sleep. "Sometimes driving into work, I think about you and me in this little room, and I want to die, Chris. Literally to die."

Chris understood only too well. He called himself a playwright, but, in fact, he was nothing more than a proofreader. Often trudging home at dawn through the shadows of the 59th Street Bridge, he, too, wished he were dead. Actually, it was not so much death Chris craved, but silence, an end to his mind's ceaseless barrage of words. It used to be that he had enjoyed his purely cerebral brand of life, but now it seemed as bland and suffocating to him as the cubicle in which he and Donna passed their nights. He yearned for the open spaces of the heart. He longed to cry, but had forgotten how.

"Believe me," he said simply, "I know the feeling."

"Oh, baby, I know you do," Donna murmured, leaning forward and touching his hand. "You despise life. You're pale, you're pitiful, and you get skinnier every day."

Chris wanted to defend himself, but she was right. And even if she weren't, she was a born lawyer. Once she got going there was no stopping her. Someday she would be able to vent her volubility on a jury, but for now he was its prime target. He pushed his document away and leaned back in his chair, glancing up at the window that made up one wall of the tiny room. Just outside, an enormous silver building rose defiantly, like a fist, into the dreary night sky.

"Now just the other day," Donna began, "we were talking about you--"

"Who's we?" Chris asked, his dark eyes darting.

Like all born lawyers, Donna was also a born actor. Amused by his urgency, she pursed her lips and bugged her eyes like a sorority girl. "Oh, some of the girls!" She patted her corn rows as though primping a well-sprayed do.

"Well, what did they say?" Chris urged.

Her features brightened and grew mischievous. "Well, one little girl -- what's her name? She's new. She said when she first saw you she thought you were very cute. 'Do you know him?' she asked me, all whiny, the way white girls talk. 'Do you know Chris?' I said no. I lied. Best way to get at the truth. And then she said she thought you were so adorable the first time she met you. So adorable! Until, until, you opened up your mouth and she heard some of the hateful garbage you spew, and child! she said it just turned her stomach. Now she says she can't believe she ever thought you were cute. Now all she sees is an ugly, bitter, little man."

There was a time when no stranger's insult could ever have shaken Chris's confidence, but that was long ago. His feelings hurt, he dropped his head, prepared for the worst, but in some craven quarter of his soul he was perversely excited, actually looking forward to being degraded, to having his worst opinion of himself confirmed by a woman as persuasive as Donna. She sensed this and was not the kind of woman to feed a friend's most self-destructive hungers. She knew that to encourage others in their despair was to encourage it in herself. Perhaps the white middle-class could afford to dally with the devil, but where Donna was raised you so much as wink at him and he's in your lap.

Donna jerked forward indignantly, as though raising an objection to a judge: "But I defend my friends! I under-stand the true nature of friendship. I said, 'Oh, you mean little Chrissy? Chris Barton? Oh, sure I know him! He's my baby. And I disagree with you entirely. He's a very good person. He's just bitter because he lets the whole world walk right over him. Did you know,' I asked her, 'that that poor little man is in mourning? That two years ago his wife up and left him for some other man? And that he never said one bad word to that woman? It's true. And so his resent-ment crawled right inside and it's eating him up like cancer. Now me, I'd have called her all kinds of whores! I'd have picked up a shoe and thrown it right in her damn face! And you can bet I wouldn't be moping two years later.'"

Chris smiled despite himself and his eyes caught the light. "So you stood up for me--"

"I told that little girl that all you needed to do was--"

The phone chirped. Chris snapped down the flashing button and picked up the receiver. He knew who it was. Stefan had entertained one of his girlfriends that night. He enjoyed bragging about sex more than he enjoyed having it, and who sweeter to brag to than his only celibate friend?

Within seconds, Stefan was in mid-story: "Yeah, we did it three times. Only once in bed. She'll never get over it. I'm telling you, pal, there's nothing like this little Mia. I'm serious. I love her. Tiny, tight, sexy body. I threw her around like a rag doll. And don't kid yourself, she loved it. A real sport. You sound funny. You're boring. Is someone there? You're holding back."

"Yeah, there is." Chris stole a fast glance at Donna. "We've got a lot of work."

"Oh, I get it," Stefan said. "Your partner."

"I'll say you've got work." Donna opened a newspaper and at the same time turned her small portable radio up loud. "But I don't care. Ralph walks by and sees you on the phone, he's not going to say it's my fault." She moved her head up and back to the beat of the song. "He's going to say it's yours. All yours."

"What does she look like again?" Stefan asked.

"Forget it, Stef."

"Why?"

"She's not interested, believe me."

"Damn right, I'm not!" she called out above the music. "I would never go to bed with a white man. And you know why? 'Cause I've seen y'all dance." She made a mean face in the reflection of the window. Liking what she saw, she clapped her hands and began to shimmy.

"Look, Chris, the reason I called is because I set some-thing up for you. A date."

"Oh no."

"Oh yeah."

"With whom?"

"Ulla, that's whom. But don't get too excited. She's not Swedish. She's just an outgoing Jewish girl. Ulla Zeigelman."

"Who is she?"

"See, I told Mia all about you. I said you were recently divorced, looking to have a good time. Casual, no strings. So she calls Ulla and sets the whole thing up. Now, listen, I've only met her once. She's an environmental sculptress. Bird's nests shellacked to bicycle wheels, that kind of shit. But she's hot, Chris, incredibly hot. Long, long legs. Cute little kitten face. Big tits."

This was not the first time Stefan had tried to send a woman his way, and every time Chris had insisted that it was not sex he wanted, but intimacy. The distinction was lost on Stefan.

"There's only one thing--" Stefan said, with an edge of caution, "and I want you to promise to be mature about it, okay?"

"All right."

"She has a pacemaker."

"A what?" he cried, a bit too loudly. He glanced at the glimmer of the overhead lights on Donna's perfectly even cornrows. Her head was down and she was reading the newspaper, but he could tell that she had heard him. He watched as her eyes slowly lifted off the page.

"Some old heart trouble," Stefan explained. "Don't worry about it. She's feisty. The other girls I introduced you to were too shy to rape you. But Ulla? When she's not at a junkyard looking for bicycle parts, she's in the sack. Three hours without sex and she goes absolutely berserk. I know because Mia used to live with her."

Chris, anxious, unhappy, lifted a hand to his sweaty brow. "Come on, honestly, you really think I'd like her?" "Sure! You're a man, aren't you? Say yes. You and Ulla, me and Mia. Tomorrow night. We're going to a dance concert called "Sea Shells." It's about the choreographer's summer vacation. It'll stink, but so what? Candy's working late, so I'm free. Afterward we'll hit a Vietnamese joint. Order up a little eel, some bullfrog, whatever the girls want. Before you know it, I'll be over at Mia's place, tossing her around like Raggedy Ann, and you'll be over at Ulla's giving her mouth-to-mouth."

"She really has a pacemaker?"

"Hey, she's cardiologically challenged. Lay off." There was a pause. "That's Candy. She's outside. Tomorrow night. Seven-thirty sharp. St. Mark's and Second, okay?"

Chris sighed dejectedly. "I'll be there."

He hung up, then glanced sheepishly at Donna, wondering how much of the conversation she had followed. His passivity rankled her. He couldn't bear a scolding, not now. But she seemed engrossed in her paper.

He tilted back his chair and looked through the glass to the main office area, where a secretary was busily typing labels. Already he knew how his date would end. Twenty-four hours from now he would be crawling into bed alone, a mystery to his date, an embarrassment to his friend, and, instead of crying his heart out as any human being should, he would stare numbly at the ceiling until dawn, trying to understand how and when his life had become so rotten.

"Says here--" Donna lowered the volume of the radio, her eyes still glued to the newspaper. "That some crazy man, a school teacher, pushed a little girl under a subway car. No reason." She shook her head slowly and fixed him with a cold stare. "Men are such horrible creatures."

There was a tiny commotion of keys in the lock, followed by a hollow thump against the door. Stefan felt gleeful and sneaky suddenly, like a child who's stayed home from school for no good reason. He pumped his legs beneath the covers as though riding a bicycle and called out merrily, welcoming Candice.

Her response came in moans: "I'm so tired! I was going to leave early, but a table of twelve came in just when Tony said I could go. Can you believe it? Twelve! Can you believe it? I couldn't believe it!"

Stefan heard the sound of water running, then teeth being brushed, then Candice talking through the foam. He couldn't make out exactly what she was saying, but it had something to do with a lazy busboy and how he made her job impossible. After she had spit, he said: "Well, sure, Pablo's sluggish! He's brain dead. Ever seen what the guy eats? Nothing but bacon and milkshakes."

Candice didn't answer. A pot clanked in the kitchen. Alarmed, he got up on one arm and asked her what she was doing.

"Cooking! I'm starved!"

If she ate, he wouldn't get to sleep till two. He wouldn't get his eight hours.

"Oh, Candy, forget it! Come to bed."

"I'm starved! All I had was yogurt!"

He made his voice sweet and lilting: "Eating before sleep stagnates the colon!"

Candice laughed. "Stop!"

"Come on, I'm lonely!"

The refrigerator door slammed. Footsteps creaked across the slanting tenement floors. A few seconds later Candice was there. She leaned over the bed, her leather dance bag on her shoulder, and kissed him on the mouth. When they parted, he petted her silky, flat hair and asked how her day had been. Her bag slid to the floor with a thump.

"Terrible."

"Come on. Get in. Tell me all about it." Stefan knew that the sooner she complained the sooner he'd get to sleep. But she didn't respond. Her green eyes were narrowed alertly at something across the room. His heart jumped. Had he missed something? Some trace of Mia? He turned quickly and saw the open window.

"What are you, a snowman?" she asked. "It's freezing in here!" She crossed to the window, shut it, then moved to a stainless steel clothes rack by the door. "I am so dead. Really dead." She pushed her pants to her knees and dropped into a chair to wrestle them off. "Class was bad today. So bad! Everybody says Gus is going to pick for the company this week and it's definitely only one girl. So everybody's going crazy, but I'm the worst. So the worst! Gus sees it, too. I'm shaking. I could be on scholarship for ten years and I swear he still wouldn't hire me. I was so sad today."

"Yeah," Stefan said flatly, "you look sad."

She turned and stared at him blankly as though he had just accused her of stealing.

Stefan shrugged uneasily. "Well, you do."

"You know--" Her voice grew thin and unsteady and her hands rose. "If you had any idea what my day was like...if you had any idea--"

"I'm sorry. I just noticed something. I noticed that you were sad and--"

"You'd shut up!" She threw her pants at him. They hit the wall near his head and slid onto his shoulder. She turned away, stuck a hand in her mouth, and began to cry.

During their first months together, Candice's tears had broken his heart. He would hold her in his arms for hours as she wept, caressing her tenderly. Now he was as used to her crying jags as he was to her lovely body, and neither meant a thing to him. No longer his treasure, only rarely his lover, she had become everything else -- part mother, part sister, part daughter, part friend, part roommate, as familiar as the furniture and just as essential. Yes, essential; Candice was the woman he stepped out on. Without her the pleasure of his sexual adventures would be halved.

When her crying had turned to sniffles, Stefan handed her a box of tissues. She snatched one, then finished undressing. As she stripped off her leotard, goosebumps rose on her slim biceps and the lean muscles of her thighs. Her nipples curdled plumply in the cold air. When she got in bed, she wriggled toward him and kissed his chest just once with a small smack. He pulled her up to his mouth and they kissed for few minutes, then he suggested, without a hint of eagerness, that she turn off her light -- a good night's sleep would do them both a world of good.

She didn't reply or move, which surprised him. Five minutes passed. She simply lay there on his chest, eyes closed, her brow tense and forlorn, her head rising and falling on the steady swell and break of his breath. He thought of reaching across and turning off the light himself, but he decided to wait until he was sure she was asleep. He couldn't risk jarring her into speech. Finally she whispered: "I went to the clinic again."

Stefan's throat closed. He pulled his chin in. Folds formed at his jaw. He looked down at her uncertainly.

"Why? Why did you do that?"

"I didn't think they were right."

"What made you think that? They're doctors."

"I know my body, Steffie."

"Yeah, so? What did they say?"

Candice heaved a deep, worried breath and Stefan's heart began to race.

"Well, they was a she. I really liked her, too. She was Spanish. Dr. Martinez. She looked kind of familiar. I think she might have been the lady I saw when I thought I had warts."

Candice had a knack for making a short story long, but he had learned long ago that even the slightest sign of impatience from him was enough to hurl her into an orgy of retaliatory elaboration. So he eased back and said nothing.

Sensing this generous effort, Candice rubbed her cheek on the small patch of hair in the middle of his chest. "It's not the end of the world, Steffie."

He couldn't bear it a moment longer.

"What?" he demanded, lifting his head off the pillow. "What isn't?"

She rolled over on his chest and looked up at him, her chin on her crossed forearms. "She said maybe I drank something that screwed up the last test. Maybe tea. But I'm definitely pregnant."

"Jesus Christ!" Stefan erupted, sitting up, jerking her chin onto his lap, banging his back against the headboard. "You're the only woman I know stupid enough to flunk a pregnancy test! Now what are we supposed to do? I mean, maybe in a few years, maybe later, some time, this would be okay--" He stopped himself. This was not a good strategy. "How bad is it, anyway?" he asked, exhaling calmly. "How pregnant are you?"

"It doesn't matter," she said softly, sitting up. "I made an appointment for the day after tomorrow."

It was too good to be true.

"What kind of appointment?"

Her pained stare gave him his answer. He wanted to cry out with happiness. His eyes bounced from a potted plant to the window to a framed photograph of an Indian guru address-ing a group of followers in an exotic garden. A cocky smile twitched across his lips. A close call, but he had been spared.

"I guess you know what you're doing," he muttered distantly, with an edge of regret. He slid under the covers onto the flat of his back and bundled Candice toward him. She resisted for a moment, but then settled in as before, her head rising and falling with his breath. After a long silence, she said: "I want you to know something. That if you wanted to keep it, really wanted to, we would."

"Are you kidding?" he replied. "You know I want a family."

"But not now."

"Sure, I do. But it's impossible. We don't even have money for a crib. Or a place to put it. We'd have to move. Candy, we'd have to get married. We're not ready for that, are we? A child is a responsibility. I don't think you realize--"

"Stop," she snapped. "Stop talking."

"But you asked me a question."

"No, I didn't. I just wanted you to know."

"What?"

"What I said. That if you wanted to keep it, we would. That's all. Just forget it."

She rolled away from him, so far that her nose touched the oak table by her bed.

It was then that Stefan noticed it, lying just inches from Candice's face at the frail edge of the table.

He ran the words of the margin together now as though they were a single sentence: "The caused time with substi-tute selected hold deem shall in meeting a conduct shall tion liable faith granted four also incentive directors--" But no matter how fast Chris read, there was no escaping the awful anxiety that had settled on his brow.

Donna threw down her pencil.

"Not now," Chris said sharply. "Come on, we'll take a break when we're finished."

"Don't start with me, okay?" Donna pulled a burgundy leather briefcase onto her lap.

"Look, I don't care. It's just that it's taking us forever to get through this."

"So what?" She pulled a tube of lipstick from her briefcase and used the window as her mirror. Her words were slurred: "I mean, what on earth do they expect? Damn thing's single spaced, three hundred pages."

"Two hundred and forty."

"Whatever."

"And the attorney's waiting around for it."

"I'm sure this lawyer is very intelligent and knows that people are not machines and that we're working just as fast as we can." She popped her mouth open and shut a few times, spreading red across her lips.

"Donna--"

"Don't you Donna me! I didn't hear you going off about making this man's life easier when you were blabbing on the phone all night, but you seem to care an awful lot now, just when I'm trying to do something so I won't look as bad as I feel." She snapped shut the briefcase. "I don't know what's the matter with you, Chrissy. You were as miserable as I was when you came here and now you're slugging this job at me like someone's got a gun to your damn head. You don't want to talk, you don't want to gossip, you don't want to do any-thing! Except make some bald lawyer happy, make it so he can drive his big sloppy body back to his house in Westchester and get in bed with his big sloppy old wife who hates him anyway, and get himself a few extra hours' sleep before he comes right back in here to work us to death all over again."

"He's thin," Chris said, with a feeble smile.

"But I know he's bald! Don't tell me the man that wrote this has a hair on his head!"

He smiled and gave Donna her little victory.

"I tell you, I am so smart! I swear, sometimes I even amaze myself. Like for instance--" She pointed a finger, narrowing her eyes like a suspicious parent. "That white boy who called you tonight? He made you agree to something you don't want to do. What was it?"

"Nothing." Chris scraped the cuticle of his thumb on the ridge of his bottom teeth. "He set me up on a date, that's all."

Donna hurled herself back in her chair, aghast. "A date? A date? How dare you tell me a date is nothing?"

"Because it is! She's some sculptress. Her name is Ulla and--"

"Ulla?"

"Yeah, he says she's some kind of nymphomaniac or something." Chris couldn't bear to see her reaction. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them with the heels of his hands. "I don't know. The whole thing's a little depress-ing but maybe it'll be good for me."

There was an implied tsk, tsk, tsk in the slow way she shook her head. "Chrissy, you insult my intelligence."

"I could make it good. Why not?"

"Well, if you really believe that then tell me why ever since you got that call you've just gotten darker and darker?"

Chris smiled crookedly. "Maybe you're going blind."

Donna, unamused, reached across and swatted his hand. "You do not want a date with no damn Ulla! Now don't you lie to me!"

Stefan had asked Mia to take it off because it had scratched his scrotum. Smiling archly, she said of course, no way she wanted any scratches, not there. And so she wormed it off and laid it on Candice's night table. He warned her not to forget it. She said that she wouldn't, she never went anywhere without it, and even if she did forget it that only meant that she wanted an excuse to come back, which wasn't such a bad thing, was it? He laughed heartily, all teeth, then kissed one of her brown nipples and said no, it wasn't a bad thing at all.

Now it lay exactly where Mia had left it. An antique wedding band. Rose gold. A gift from her grandmother.

Every mentor of Stefan's short spiritual life had warned him that his arrogance was his greatest single obstacle to enlightenment. It was a stubborn nemesis, ready to rise up to subvert him at every turn. Vigilance and courage would be required to defeat it. He had nodded gravely as those wise men spoke, letting them know with reverent eyes that when the day came he would be ready. Now the day had come. A humbler man, less certain of his power to orchestrate deception, would have insisted that Mia stash the ring in her purse. But he had entrusted his destiny to a woman's memory. Now he knew that without drastic action he would pay dearly for that mistake.

Candice was the jealous type. Once at a party, when she noticed Stefan flirting with a pretty young actress, she responded by kicking a folding chair across the room and screaming, "Asshole! You sickening asshole!" It had taken him weeks to win back her trust and only after promising that he would sooner cut his own throat than betray her like that again. Stefan knew that if she saw the ring now, she would recognize it at once. Women always noticed each other's jewelry, especially that of their rivals, and since for the past two months she and Mia had been in the midst of intense competition for the same spot in the same dance company, they were more than rivals -- they were enemies. In the instant that she saw it, she would know not only that Stefan had made love to Mia but that the act had taken place in their very bed.

She would kick him out of the apartment; her right, because it was her lease. Then she would spread the word of his treachery from Houston Street to Washington Square. Disgraced, no longer emboldened by the knowledge that he had a woman at home who loved him, he would once again join the dismal ranks of single men in pursuit of sex. His reputation would precede him. He would have to work to overcome it. Desperation would etch itself into every line of his face. Women would sense it and back away. The ones who didn't would be those who were equally desperate, but not for sex; they would be stalking love. After the first night together, they would start making demands on his time and freedom. Eventually he would have to give in and he would find himself back where he was today -- living with a woman. But, worse, already aware of his base nature, she would be far more watchful than Candice. His philandering curtailed, he would begin what he had avoided thus far with Candice: the slow, imperceptible sink into the bog of monogamous lethargy.

He had to retrieve the ring. Immediately. Right now her eyes were closed, but soon they would be open.

Stefan moved through possible plans of action as though rifling through index cards.

But nothing seemed right.

He wanted something simple.

All the best plots were simple.

He decided, finally, on this: he would move in, kiss her neck, and pull in close behind her. At the same time he would drop a hand across her waist and mutter something gruff and lusty in her ear. She would wag her tail and smile. Then, offering no hint of what was to come, he would yank her shoulder back, pin her to the bed, mount her, kiss her neck, and stretch for the ring. If she rejected him, he would pull away, but he would have the ring. If she accepted him, he had only to hide the ring in the box spring during their lovemaking. Later when she was asleep he could retrieve it.

Success required perfect execution. He drew a deep, sustaining breath. The cells in his chest vibrated. He flexed the muscles in his legs and pointed his toes. Turning onto his left side, he took one last breath, then laid his right hand on Candice's hip. She didn't move. He released a little moan and let his hand fall across her soft stomach. She coughed. He waited, then nudged his crotch into her tailbone.

"Don't," she mumbled sleepily.

"Why not?" he whispered.

"Just don't."

For a moment he felt hurt, but then he reminded himself that he didn't really want her, and even if he did her rejection had nothing to do with him; she was obviously still thinking about the baby. He moved in more forcefully this time, drawing her toward him by the hip.

"Okay," he said. "We won't make love. We'll snuggle. Can we snuggle?"

Silence.

He moved his hand from her stomach to the undercurve of her breast. The moment he lifted his hand to her nipple, her elbow jerked back.

"Stop!"

It was now or never.

She cried out as he yanked her, pinned her, mounted her, kissed her, and stretched for the ring.

He touched it.

But then she screamed out his name and punched him in the side. He grabbed his ribs and his outstretched hand fell away, dragging the ring off the table. He groped for it stupidly as she wrestled him away.

She swore at him, shouted, slapped his arm, then turned away, straining for the cord of her lamp. Stefan looked down and there was the lost ring, two feet away, pressed like a raisin into the soft dough of Candice's right buttock.

The room went black.

His head spun, his throat was raw, and the muscles at either side of his neck throbbed as though knives were embedded there. When he stopped to catch his breath and reposition himself, Donna pushed aside her document and resumed their conversation as though a minute not an hour had passed since it ended.

"A nymphomaniac? What are you going to do with one of those?"

Chris was glad to be back on the subject of Ulla. Since Donna's first assault, he had found himself more and more curious as to why she objected to his going out with her. He had his own reasons, but he suspected that hers were better.

He pushed away the document and answered disingenuously, hoping to provoke her.

"I don't know, maybe I'll reform her."

"Turn her off skinny men is all you'll do."

Donna laughed, stood up, and walked around the table. Chris groaned as she began to massage his neck in tight circles.

"Poor baby. Must be so hard trying to be a man when you've got absolutely no body."

"I've got a mind," he said feebly.

"Sure, but your real gift is that big, big heart of yours. But these little nymphos, you think they know anything about hearts?" Chris lowered his head and groaned louder as Donna's thumbs sank into a knot of pain. "Now what on earth would you do with her, anyway?"

"Talk, I guess." "But don't you sleep with her."

Chris decided to try out Stefan's position: "Why not?" Maybe it would be good for me. Pull me back to the land of the living."

"Listen, like it or not, you're in too much pain to be going to bed with some nympho, or anybody else for that matter."

"But--"

"No buts!" She pounded his back with karate chops. "And just like me, you've got a bad job. It makes you good money, but you want to die every time you come in. Now, I'm getting out of here. But you, you're here forever unless you write your way out." She lowered her hands to the small of his back. "Now don't you think it would be smarter for you to buy a typewriter than to waste even one minute with some Swedish--"

"She's not Swedish. She's Jewish. Ulla Zeigelman."

"Whatever."

"Anyway, what's wrong with one night?"

Donna, her face twisted, stormed around the table to face him, ready to attack, but then she dropped her hands to her hips and smiled down at him with moist, loving eyes, as though he were an adorable, sad child, as though the mere sight of him were enough to break all but the coldest of hearts.

"Chrissy, you are so sweet. But so afraid to feel. Lying in bed with a woman and not feeling a bit of love is going to hurt you so badly. You might not even know it. Soon one date becomes two and the next thing you know you won't even remember what love is. You'll be just one more white man who only knows lies, screwing, and hatred."

Chris looked down, then slowly began to collect his unruly document. Tears welled in his eyes. Blood filled his cheeks. He bobbed the papers in the air, shaping them into a neater pile. But he couldn't hide.

"Put that down," Donna ordered.

He did as he was told.

She sat in her chair and reached out her hands to him, laying them flat on the table.

"You know I'm right, don't you?"

Despite himself, Chris met her gaze, swallowed hard, and nodded.

Donna studied his broken, frightened face. "So ashamed to feel. How are you ever, ever going to become a man?"

In the end it was a growl from Candice's stomach that suggested the plan -- this one not so simple. Stefan swept the covers back with a wide flourish. He walked as loudly as he could to the doorway. Each heavy step was answered by a whining creak from the old pine floors.

Candice's head turned in the shadows.

"Where're you going?" she murmured sleepily.

"Nowhere," he whispered, the shadows concealing his sly grin. "Go back to sleep."

At the doorway, he waited. She hated mystery. She would have to question him again. But she didn't. Her heavy breathing turned into a snore.

"I'm going to heat up some rice," he announced crisply. "Want some?"

Her head turned in the shadows. She was grumpy and disoriented: "You're what?"

"Gonna heat up some barley, maybe some gravy."

"It's bad for your colon."

"So? Want some? Just a snack?"

"No."

"But all you had was yogurt."

Candice rolled away and said nothing.

Undeterred, Stefan grabbed Candice's kimono from the back of a chair. The floral robe fluttered ridiculously above his penis as he strode to the kitchen.

He laid out what he needed as clamorously as possible. Dishes clattered, stainless steel crashed, forks and spoons tinkled to the floor, cupboards slapped. He whistled as he worked, too, as loudly and merrily as possible. First came the gravy. Oil sizzled. Garlic, sesame, ginger, and miso crackled. Within two minutes the air was laden with an overpowering pungency. A ball of cold barley hissed as it hit the pan. Soon the smell of the gravy was enriched by the irresistible nuttiness of the grain.

"Dinner!" Stefan yelled at the top of his lungs.

Nothing.

He trooped through the dining room until he was just a few steps from the bedroom door.

"Dinner!"

"What are you doing?" Candice moaned. "I'm sleeping!"

He hurried back to the kitchen, his steps small and quick. If he couldn't lure her from the bedroom, then he would have to drive her out. He'd eat right in bed, right next to her. The smell of food so nearby would certainly do the trick. But if it didn't, then he would wake her with a spoonful of barley forced down her mouth like medicine. Once she swallowed it, her stomach would swarm with a million ravenous enzymes. She'd beg for another taste, but he'd tell her that he wasn't her butler and she'd have to get it herself. Get some, honey, he'd suggest, with a be-my-guest sweep of the arm. Go on. Go ahead. Get it. It's on the stove. Go ahead. Go. The moment she rose, the ring would fall from her ass and he'd catch it before it hit the floor.

Stefan flinched when he heard the phone ring in the bedroom. Of all the moments to be interrupted. He couldn't believe his rotten luck. He waited, hoping whoever it was would check the clock and realize that it was an unforgivable time to call.

It rang again.

Stefan had dashed halfway to the bedroom before he realized his mistake. It came to him in a whisper: the caller was not an intruder, but a friend. He stood frozen in the gloom of the dining room.

The phone rang again.

He imagined the phone where he had left it. To answer it, Candice would have to crawl all the way across the bed and stretch to the floor. He laughed silently and smacked a jubilant fist into his open palm. She'd look adorable like that!

The phone rang again.

A strangled cry came from the bedroom. Candice was pleading with him to answer it.

He didn't move.

Another ring!

He heard a groan, then the scraping of sheets, then a clumsy plastic jostling.

He hurried back to the kitchen. Now that she was awake, all he had to do was get her out of bed. Some of the gravy had stuck to the side of the frying pan. He banged the wooden spoon, which was caked with barley, onto the rim.

Within seconds, he had it. A plan -- ugly, primitive, perfect. He turned a knob and stepped away. Blue and orange licks rose in an infernal ring all around the pan's copper bottom. Shadows danced along the kitchen's cracked, dingy walls.

Candice lay on her stomach, dangling off the bed, just as Stefan had imagined her. She pushed against the rug, rolled back to her pillow, and closed her eyes.

"Sorry, I sounded so bitchy when I answered," she said into the receiver. "I'm just pissed because Stefan's in the kitchen and he was too lazy to get it. Yeah. He's cooking. I know. Suddenly he doesn't care about his colon. Hold on." She covered the phone. "Steffie, it's Chris! He wants to talk to you! It's important!"

Stefan's answer was cheery: "One minute, hon! Be right there!"

"He'll be in in a minute," she said. "I don't know, maybe he's in the bathroom. So...are you all right? It's so late. Who's that? Oh. You work all the time, don't you? All the time. I bet. Sure. God, you must get so tired. Have you spoken to the slut? How's she doing? Is she still with that creep? Is she really? Things like that never work out, Chris. You have to-- I know, that's true. You never know."

"I know, it must be so weird!" she agreed, rubbing her eyes. "Stefan and I have known each for like four and a half, but we haven't lived together very long at all and living together is really what counts; I mean all the rest is like a sort of practice. I know. I know. I know, really, it brings up everything. It's so worth it. Sometimes I get these moments when I'm just watching TV or something...do you know what I mean?...and I look over and I see Stefan and I'm living with him and I know him so well and I can't believe how much I love him." She shook her head at the ceiling. "I know! Isn't it intense? It is."

Stefan entered, carrying the wooden spoon, and lay down on his side of the bed.

"You're on the cord, stupid," Candice said.

He planted his feet and arched his back.

"Here he is, Chris. Bye. Take care." She passed the receiver beneath the archway of his uplifted back into his wriggling fingers.

"Hey, pretty late," Stefan said. "Good thing I was up fixing a little snack. What's going on?" He listened for a moment. His brow rose into furrows.

"Are you nuts? I don't believe you!"

"Don't believe what?" Candice whispered. When she got no answer, she poked his leg. "Don't believe what?"

He covered the phone. "Oh, I was going to take him to a dance concert tomorrow. Now he's chickening out. I'm telling you he's so provincial." Then back into the phone: "Know what happens to people like you, Chris, people who ignore postmodern art? Let me tell you. They end up on the caboose of the avant-garde."

He turned casually to Candice. "Honey, do you smell something?"

She looked curiously at the door, but before she could decide if she did, she heard something. An eerie whistling. It was thin but shrill and seemed to ride on the air just below the ceiling. She glanced curiously at Stefan, but he didn't seem to notice it.

Suddenly the whistling erupted into a horrible metallic squeal.

Candice leapt to her feet.

"Oh, no!" Stefan shouted, stretching out and handing her the wooden spoon. "The smoke alarm! Quick! Quick! Get it, Candy, get it!"

She looked at the spoon, faltered, froze. The alarm was piercing and seemed to be getting louder.

"Hurry!" Stefan commanded. "Fire! Hurry!"

Her eyes wild with fear, Candice grabbed the spoon and dashed from the room. Stefan watched her shapely buttocks flail as she ran.

"Hold on, buddy," he said, smiling proudly.

He leaned over to Candice's side of the bed and pinched the top of the covers. Then, after pausing for effect, he yanked them back.

There on the pale blue flannel sheet was Mia's golden ring. He picked it up with two fingers, his pinky cocked decorously to the side, and deposited it into the drawer of his bedside table.

In the distance, he heard Candice struggling with the back window. There was a slam, a scream, a splash, then a crackle and hiss as water rolled across the scorched pan. The alarm began to sputter.

"You know, Chris," Stefan said, glancing up at the cloud of smoke that drifted across the ceiling, "Ulla is hot and wants nothing from you but sex. Let that in. I mean, your mind just flies off and creates these worries. She's exactly what you need right now. The only thing."

Stefan listened for a moment, his face growing stern, his small eyes incredulous.

"Love? What's that got to do with anything?"

Candice appeared at the door, clutching a blackened, twisted, sopping towel. Her face looked thin and white.

"Are you trying to get us killed?" she screamed.

He was in no mood for theatrics. He covered the mouthpiece and spoke patiently: "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"

Candice's eyes rounded with horror. She lifted the towel and flung it at him with all her strength.

A fast forearm deflected it to the floor.

"Sorry," Stefan said, grinning into the phone, "Candy's hysterical. What were you saying?"

Rage flashed darkly in her eyes and she leapt at him, slapping at his face. One of her hands got through his defenses and scratched his cheek. He fell back, still protecting the phone. Candice, crying now, tugged at the cord. He lifted a leg and kicked her in the stomach. When she fell away, he reached out and slapped her hard across the face. She fell off the bed, got up, then tripped and landed hard against the base of the clothes rack.

Stefan, snarling, scooped up the filthy, wet towel and flung it down at her face. She clawed it away as though it were something live.

"You idiot," he growled. "Look what you did."

He touched the trickle of blood that ran down his cheek.

She looked up at him piteously, a teary, baffled child.

Stefan turned back to the phone. "Sorry, Chris. She's premenstrual."

He heard Candice gasp.

He had forgotten about the pregnancy. Before he could cover his face, she was on top of him again, screaming, punching. He had never ever inspired so much anger in anyone. Rather than mutely succumb to it as he would have expected himself to, he exploded.

He dropped the phone, grabbed Candice by the hair, and wrenched her to the floor. In an instant he was standing above her. Her hands flew up, but seconds late. He cracked her hard across her mouth.

After a moment, he hit her again in exactly the same way. The force of it threw her back against the rack and into a row of shoes.

When Stefan found the phone, his body was shaking. His voice was cruel and his hands were clenched into fists.

"Hey, forget tomorrow! Find true love! See if I care. But let me tell you something, pal. Fucking is all there is. That's it! There's nothing out there. Nothing!"

Candice crawled toward Stefan with great labor, sobbing, swaying from side to side, begging him to tell her what she had done wrong.

Allison Burnett, a Los Angeles-based writer and film director, can be reached at www.AllisonBurnett.com. His debut novel, "Christopher", reviewed at J LHLS, was a finalist for the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction. His second novel, "The House Beautiful," will be published this September, by Carroll & Graf.

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