Per Contra

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    "Cold Ocean" by Richard Burgin


He was in search of strange sights, or not so much strange sights as new ones.  His mother had died just over three months ago and even though the illness leading up to it was long, he was still shocked as if his brain couldn’t quite adapt.


There weren’t many people he could talk to about this (there were always only a few people he could talk to), in this case only one.  He was a man a little older than him named Harvey, who worked in a bookstore in the Village, who he sometimes had a drink or dinner with after Harvey got out of work.   He listened to Harvey only because his mother had died too.  It was Harvey who suggested he go someplace new for a few days, to a place that wasn’t “saturated with memories of your mother” as he put it.  Harvey said he had gone to Utah and then to Santa Fe after his mother died and claimed that it helped.  “It’s not as if your grief will disappear, Barry, but it will do some good.”


“I don’t want to go far,” Barry said.  “It would be too hard.”


Harvey nodded.  He was the sympathetic type.  They were eating quietly at a Japanese restaurant in the Village.  There was one other quality of Harvey’s he especially admired – his superior sense of geography.  It was as if while he spoke about a place, he was looking at it on a very reliable map.  It was like that at the Japanese restaurant too, as if he’d placed an elaborate map of the United States on the table cloth that not only had all the states in their correct positions but how long it would take to get to each one from New York.


“There’s a two step process of elimination we need to follow,” Harvey said, tugging at his beard that was prematurely gray.  “First we need to select a place that isn’t too far away.  Second, it needs to be a place you haven’t been to with your mother.”


Barry had told Harvey about all the trips he’d taken with his mother after she got her money, money that was now his.  He’d told Harvey about his missing father as well.  He’d told Harvey quite a lot. but he’d also kept a lot hidden.


“I think we need to add a third condition,” Harvey said.  “I think it needs to be a place that’s not only new and not too far away but also one that has impact.  A place with some real impact sights.”


A number of places were proposed and eliminated: New Orleans, Kansas City, and the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  Finally Harvey brought up Chicago.  He spoke of it with great enthusiasm and precision as if he were making a presentation at a conference.  Barry was unmoved until he began to describe the beach.  “It’s in the middle of the city and it’s startling, surrealistic, like seeing the sand and ocean in the middle of Fifth Avenue.”


There’s no ocean in Chicago, Barry pointed out but Harvey said Lake Michigan was so big it looked just like the ocean.  “Wait till you see the beach surrounded by the tallest buildings of the city, I swear you’ve never seen anything like it.”


…It was the beach Barry was on now.  Oddly, there weren’t many people  though it was a close to perfect beach day in early June.  The sky was a pure light blue with the last little wisps of cloud lifting above the Hancock Observatory and the other huge buildings in the distance looming over the beach like a pack of dinosaurs, just like Harvey said.


A lifeguard directed him to a men’s room in a tunnel at the far edge of the beach and he changed into his suit there.  He thought of how much his mother would have loved it here, how happy the two of them could have been and he nearly doubled over in pain.   But she’d have wanted him to be happy, wouldn’t she, he thought, as he ran out of the vast tunnel.


He was carrying his clothes in one of his traveling bags and was wearing the white towel he took from the hotel over his shoulder.  The towel was as white as the few slowly sailing bits of cloud.  His bathing suit was as black as his hair – he was glad Harvey talked him into buying it just before his trip.  Lake Michigan, however, was a sharper shade of blue than the sky but all the colors of the day were clear and distinct.  That was his last thought before he went in the water.  After he swam for a while he was glad he picked Chicago for his trip.  He was beginning to relax a little and he needed to relax and plot his next move, though with his inheritance he had enough money so he wouldn’t have to work for at least five years (some said ten) and if he invested it well, maybe not ever.  Still, Barry thought he should probably do something about his novel – which he hadn’t begun to actually write down yet—just in case it didn’t work out.


…When he first saw her walking towards him she was wearing dark sunglasses so he couldn’t tell if she meant to talk to him or not.  It was just a body in a one-piece white bathing suit and a walking pair of sunglasses.  It was a good body too and it moved well.  He’d just come in from the water and was toweling off.


“Hi there,” she said in a Mid-western friendly voice.  “How’s the water?”

“Great,” he said, “cold but great.  You should go in.”

“I’ve been in already.  I was in this morning.”


“Now that’s when the water was really cold.”

Barry laughed.  For some reason he wanted to please this woman, in part because her body was good (nice shapely breasts and legs, although her thighs looked a little slack and fleshy) but also because she seemed so innocent and friendly standing there in front of him in her white suit.  He thought Harvey would approve.

“Do you come here a lot?” he asked, shifting his weight so that one foot dug in a little deeper in the sand.

“Almost every day.  I guess I’m a real beach bum.”

He looked at her face and especially her neck to try to figure out how old she was.  He wished she would take her sunglasses off, but since she was keeping them on he concentrated on her neck because he’d read somewhere that that was the best indicator of age, the hardest place to camouflage.

“Are you from here originally?” Barry said, continuing to interview her.

“Yah, I’m a Chicago girl.  I was out in the suburbs in Winnetka for a time and then I taught for a while in Santa Barbara.”

“Santa Barbara,” he said, thinking of his mother and the times they’d been there.  “Santa Barbara is beautiful.”

“It sure is.  But you know what, it’s beautiful here too.”

“Oh of course.  What were you teaching?”

She told him but it didn’t make sense.  It was some subject in which the words “communication” and “ontology” both occurred.   Then, suddenly, she took off her sunglasses and extended her hand.

“I’m Marianne Brodney,” she said, with the same guileless smile on her face.

He smiled too as he shook hands with her.  She was definitely older than he thought.  Her face had aged more than her body, although it was a pleasant face with gray-blue eyes.  Her hair, which was almost certainly dyed, was a mix of blond and gray and a little on the thin side.

“I’m Bill, Bill Gordon,” he said, giving her a fake name without exactly knowing why.  He was thinking now that she might be anywhere from 45 to her early 50’s, but he tried not to stare too hard at her.  He asked her when she was in Santa Barbara to see if their time there had overlapped.

“Let’s see,” she said, “I’m 56 now and I was 35 then, so it must have been in 1982.”

He told her he was there the year before or maybe the year after.  He was thinking that she was even older than his mother would have been but there she was hand on her hip, apparently flirting with him, although with these friendly Midwesterners it was sometimes hard to tell.  She continued talking affably about her experiences teaching in a community college in Long Island.  There wasn’t a trace of self-consciousness in her.  Everything was said in a straightforward way, although when she told him her age there was more than a little trace of pride in her voice.

He had to admit he wasn’t listening very carefully to what she was saying.  The shock of her age (23 years older than him) and the way she was now clearly flirting with him and then, of course, the issue of what he was going to do about it, were preoccupying him.

“How long are you in town for?” she asked.

“A few days, probably,” he said, seeing a brief look of disappointment on her face.  “Maybe more.  I’m playing it by ear.”

“That’s a good way to play things.”

“It’s always been my way,” he said, pleased with the way that sounded.

“Mine too, when I have the guts to do it,” she said laughing.  “Is this your first time in Chicago?”

“Actually, it is.  I’ve traveled quite a bit but for some reason I never got around to coming here.”

“Is that a slight east coast accent I detect?”

“From Boston originally,” he said.  He always said Boston, never Brookline, the town next to it where he was really born.

“So, are you here on business, pleasure or some combination?”

He knew where this was going.  She wanted to know what his job was just as if she were researching him as a potential date on the Internet.

“Strictly for pleasure.  I’m fortunately in a financial position where I don’t have to work, at least not at any kind of job.  I’m a writer.”

“Really?” she said, not as if she doubted him, but as if he impressed her.  He felt the first stirrings of an erection, nothing overwhelming, but pleasant nonetheless.

“What kind of writing do you do?”

“I’m a novelist and film-script writer, and I also write some on the philosophy of aesthetics.”

She made a sound to show she was impressed.

He wondered if he should have added the last part.  She was an academic and might know about Aesthetics.  But he did, too, a little.  He had to remind himself it was just that he didn’t have the degree – and what did degrees have to do with knowledge?  Nothing, nada.  Had there ever been a professor that he couldn’t keep up with who didn’t assume that he was a professor himself, as well as a well-published author?  Degrees meant nothing; book contracts meant nothing either as far as the quality of one’s work was concerned.  He of all people should know that, he reminded himself.  Degrees and book contracts were part of the same disease, the same self-validation complex that obsessed America.  Why did he even bother to debate this in his mind any longer with one foot now dug in fairly firmly in the sand as he faced this 56 year old freak of nature with her 35 year old body, stretching and putting her hand on her hip, patting herself constantly in different places like a used car salesman showing off his latest car.

She was asking him if he had taught anywhere.

“Mostly in France and a little bit in New York.  I actually prefer not to teach unless it’s a special situation.  Not that I don’t have great respect for teachers and the profession, I do,” he added quickly after seeing that fleeting look of disappointment pass over her again.  “It’s just that my writing projects have become increasingly demanding and time consuming.”

“Wow, that’s really exciting.  Where can I get one of your books?”

“I’ll send you one.”

“Oh no…”

“But of course I will.  You just have to give me your address, that’s all.”

“O.K.  Well that’s exciting.  I’ll give you my address and you’ll lend me one of your books.”

“I’ll give you one of my books.”

“That’s really generous of you,” she said.  She seemed to mean it and he felt his erection stiffen another notch.  She stopped talking then, and he stood there without saying anything either.  Then she asked him if he wanted to go in the water with her, something that he once again hadn’t foreseen.  Barry looked at the lake – the water was difficult for him because he and his mother had always taken vacations near the water except for their time in Paris together.  Even then they’d taken a trip to the South of France and went swimming there.

“I don’t know, it’s pretty cold.”

“Come on,” she said, grabbing his hand for a second, “it will be fun.”

She let go of his hand then and ran into the water. He watched her from behind.  Then he ran in after her and soon was swimming next to her.  They were both laughing and talking louder than they needed to.  There were only two or three other people in the water yet Marianne and he were talking as if airplanes were roaring overhead.  For a few seconds they even splashed each other.  She splashed him first (which was surprising) and he splashed her back.

When they separated for a while he sensed that she wanted him to watch her swim so he did.  As he suspected she was very athletic.  She was a better swimmer than him.  It made him smile, but feel strangely challenged at the same time, even angry.  It was somewhat disturbing and he headed back to shore.

They both talked about how great it felt after they came in from the water but they stood apart from each other while they toweled off.  She started chattering again.  For the first time he felt she might be nervous.  She was making a list of places he had to go to in Chicago before he left.  The Art Institute, of course, and The Field Museum and also the Aquarium and Buckingham Fountain and The Hancock Observatory which had a better view of the city than the Sears Tower, though the Sears Tower was taller, and The Jazz Record Mart which had one of the best jazz collections in the world and The Art Museum and then there was always The White Sox and The Cubs.

“Do you like baseball?” she asked.


She looked straight at him for a few seconds, then down at her pocketbook she was holding.  “I’m looking for a piece of paper and a pen so I can give you my address,” she said, “and I can’t seem to find either.”

“Do you live in an apartment or…”

“I live in a condominium, just three blocks away.”

“A condominium on Lake Shore Drive.  Not bad.”

“Near Lake Shore Drive, not exactly on it.  But it’s only about three blocks away.”

“Still not bad.  How about when you’re ready to leave, I’ll walk you home and then I’ll see where you live and get your address that way?” 

This time she looked surprised.

“That’s a good idea,” she said, “let’s do it.”

He smiled too.  He was impressed at how bold he was being and felt pleased with himself again.  “If you have some kind of doorman I could even get it on paper.”

“I’m sure we can manage that,” she said smiling.

It was kind of exciting in a way to think of a 56-year-old woman going down to the beach trying to pick up younger men as he imagined she did, men young enough to be her sons.  Testing her mettle every day on the beach with her body – was it still good enough to attract the young ones and then, later, was it good enough to satisfy them? 

Ten or fifteen minutes later, he decided to leave the beach, and he went back to the tunnel to change into his clothes.

“Here’s your last chance to leave,” Barry said, laughing, although he didn’t think he’d said it loud enough for her to hear.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do – he had contradictory impulses, which were upsetting him so he was surprised that while he was changing he was hurrying as if he was afraid she’d leave.  When he finally finished and left the tunnel he looked out and waved at her and she immediately waved back.  Strange, he thought, the little dance of manners that preceded sex, especially sex with someone for the first time, as if people had to reassure themselves that even at their most animalistic they retained their essential human identity.

He began walking next to her, she in her white terry cloth robe, he back in his green shirt and black pants.  She continued to supply the conversation in her even keeled way although it was more sporadic now and more quiet.

“There’s my building,” she said, pointing to it when they were less than a block away.

“Very spiffy,” he said.  He considered himself a quick study and was now pretty good at midwestern affability himself.  He decided he wouldn’t say no to her but that she would have to make the first move.  There was a small possibility that he’d misread the situation and he didn’t want to embarrass himself, not in the fragile state he was in.

“Would you like to see it?” she said, looking directly at him with only a trace of a smile.

“Sure, I’d like that.”  He passed the doorman, a guy about his age in an uncomfortable looking uniform.  He wondered how many times he’d seen men going upstairs with Marianne before, and even looked to his face as if for an answer, though his face gave away nothing.

In the elevator they stood a polite distance apart.

“I live on the top floor,” she said, with an expression that was part proud, part embarrassed, as if she knew he was wondering how a divorced teacher could afford such a place.

Barry nodded to show he was impressed, and when he first saw her condo, white and airy and spacious with a panoramic view from her picture window of Lake Michigan and the very beach he’d been on a few minutes ago, he said, “It’s beautiful.”  She put her pocket book on a glass table in the living room.  She had a lot of glass furniture.  He considered making a joke about The Glass Menagerie, but thought better of it.  Instead he pointed to a dark wooden sculpture that looked to be African and asked her about it.

“Don’t you love it?  I got that on a trip to Kenya.  I had a wonderful time in Africa, went on a safari, went in the jungle, did everything, the works.”

“I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m very lucky to have met you in Chicago since you travel more than anyone I know.”

“Really?  I feel like I’m home a lot.  Anyway, I’ve never lived in any place as glamorous as you when you were in Paris all those years.  And all the famous people you met – Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Beckett, didn’t you say Beckett?”

“Yes.  I knew him when I was very young.”

“God, what was he like?  I used to teach ‘Godot’ to my students in Winnetka.”

“Beckett is…sui generis,” he said with a strong but not overly grand gesture, hoping the phrase and the gesture would put a halt to too many more questions about Beckett whom he’d never met.  Though he could have, he thought, he should have.  He knew someone in Paris who had met him.  Actually he should have had a father like Beckett, someone wise and ethical and brilliant and … sui generis.  He would have known how to handle his mother, known how to give him some space from her when she got hysterical and was all over him, which was at least half the time.

“That’s the difference between you and me,” Marianne was saying with a smile. “I teach the writers to my class and you know them and are one yourself.”

He laughed along with her.  They were standing at opposite sides of the living room.  He beside the wooden sculpture and the glass table and she in front of the large pink sofa underneath her picture window.  He wondered vaguely what Harvey would think of her apartment and of this situation in general.  It would be nice in a way if Harvey was also in the apartment, for a few minutes anyway.

He moved a few steps closer, and she said, “Do you think it’s too early in the day for a drink?”

“Not for me it isn’t,” he said, and she laughed as if he’d said something brilliant and witty.

“I’ll go get them,” she said, still smiling at him, not quite blushing, but something close to it.  She promptly walked into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of champagne and two glasses.  She set everything down on the low rectangular glass table in front of the pink sofa.

“Would you like to open?” she said, gesturing towards him with the bottle and opener in her hand.

“I’m afraid I’m completely inept at that.  You’ll have a much better chance of success if you do it.”

She smiled, she was amenable to everything.  He liked that.  He thought one glass might be enough.  She poured well too, just a little overflowed.

“To us,” she said, as their glasses clinked.

“Gee, champagne.  I feel like a king,” he said, as they both put down their glasses.

“You are a king to me.”

Their hands touched.  He was feeling strangely happy like his soul was made of champagne.  He reached back for his glass and swallowed the rest of it.

He sensed that she felt comfortable with everything too.  She’d told him her age, or something close to it, and about her divorce (her husband had stopped being interested in her, which Barry translated as he stopped having sex with her) and about her travels and her life of teaching school – he could tell she was one of those devoted type school teachers.  She’d been so candid about everything and obviously felt very good about it.  She exuded self-respect, and merely hoped he liked what she said. 

“No reason to let the rest of the bottle go to waste,” she said, pouring them both another glass.

“No reason at all,” he said, laughing.

So she wanted a little help, she wasn’t quite as sturdy as she appeared, or else she just liked getting high.  Either way, he liked it.  As soon as he finished the next glass his hands went straight to her breasts and she put up no resistance at all.  She moaned a little and said, “That feels nice.”
When he went to unhook her bra he thought she’d help him right away but she didn’t.  She was old school.  She gave him a shot at doing it first and eventually he succeeded. They were good-sized breasts, too, quite firm for her age.  She was proud of them and deserved to be.  He kissed her and she kissed him back, a little too eagerly for his taste, making him think briefly of a squirrel chewing a nut.  The next ones were better, though.  His hand went down and locked with hers and they walked to her room. 

Her bedroom was like a continuation of her living room, as if it were the living room’s daughter.  There was a wall length picture window looking out over Chicago.  In the distance he could see the blue of the lake.  There were glass tables and a thick off-white carpet on the floor.  The only other color in the room was her pink bedspread.  He expected to see some photographs of her family, then remembered that she’d said she had no children.

He lay down on the bed and kissed her but kept his eyes open.  She had a kind of self-satisfied smile on her face which he found exciting but also aggravating, almost as if she was having an adventure at his expense. He shut his eyes and tried not to think about it.  Soon he began to enjoy himself again and even wished she lived near him in New York.  Not too near in the city, but maybe somewhere in a suburb.  It would help him during this time when he was trying to get over his mother, which was like trying to forget about the sun or the ocean – impossible of course.

“I wish you lived in New York, near me,” he said.

“I’m here now, let’s enjoy our now together.”

Her remark, so typical, like something smuggled out of EST or Zen Buddism for Midwesterners irritated him.  He slid down on the bed and decided to concentrate on pleasing her so he wouldn’t have to think of her or his mother either.

That worked out well, and for a while made things better.  It was comforting in a way and oddly enjoyable too as he braced himself for her moment of release.  But it didn’t happen.  Soon he began to feel as if he were in a tunnel whose walls were slowly closing in.  He wanted to get out, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to breathe but he stayed on task imagining he was in a medical situation where he had to do this to save her life.   Finally her muscles started to contract, like a twitching fish in the ocean, and she moaned and it was over.

He let her rest for a while before he penetrated her.  But almost as soon as he began he was staggered by images of his mother.  There were even pictures of her on the beach with him – the beach a combination of one in Cape Cod and one in Santa Barbara that he’d been to with her.  Those were beaches where he’d laughed and held her hand, when the two of them were away at last from everything that could ruin it in a place where they’d embraced and she’d looked at him with real love in her eyes while she said “Barry, my beautiful son.”

To distract himself from these memories he had to do it hard but Mariane didn’t say anything and squeezed his hand when it was over.

Now he was alone, as if on an island far out in the ocean.  He might have stayed there, but he had just enough social conditioning, he figured, to lie down beside her, even to look at her face.  He wasn’t surprised to see her smiling as if to say, “I won.”  She’d gotten her orgasm the way she wanted without even having to ask for it, and then withstood his strongest thrusts without even once asking him to ease up a bit.

There was no question it was a smile of tremendous self-satisfaction.  A smile that exuded pride in her body which was good enough to attract a man young enough to be her son, and strong enough to not be hurt by him either.  Pride also in so effortlessly pulling the whole thing off that began with the easy way she approached him on the beach to its ending just a minute ago. 

Like her body in general, the smile had extraordinary staying power.  He found that he couldn’t stop looking at it.  It was both repulsive and fascinating as if a beautiful spider, mounted on some kind of platform, had joined the two of them in bed.  Finally he had to close his eyes because he couldn’t stand to see that spider smile anymore so he pretended that he needed to rest (which must have made her feel still stronger) even at the risk of seeing his mother again once he closed his eyes.

He didn’t look at Marianne but he talked with her a little longer; etiquette too, of course, socialization - as strong a force as Niagara Falls.  It went all right at first until she said “What a nice day this has been.”  It was her way of complimenting him without making herself too vulnerable – he knew all that - expressing her pleasure without directly attributing it to him.  Meanwhile he knew she hoped for something more definitive back from him and that made him angry though he didn’t say anything about it and solved the immediate problem by simply agreeing with her. 

That’s when he got the idea, and as soon as he got it he knew he would do it, because he was still angry at her miserly compliment after all the time he spent on her - not to mention the reassurances and compliments he gave her earlier in the day about her job and condominium.  Yet, she couldn’t even bring herself to say that his mouth was wonderful much less that he was.  How could he defile the memory of his mother, who really loved him and told him so all the time, with the likes of this aging, narcissistic school teacher?  How repellent she was in her smug self-satisfaction, this woman who had undeservedly lived longer than his mother and now was basking in the pleasure of having enjoyed her son.

These were the things he thought about while he pictured the layout of her living room like a photograph he couldn’t stop looking at.  It made it virtually impossible to talk.

“Are you tired?  Would you like to take a nap?” she offered, realizing, of course, that he had stopped talking.

“Will you take a nap too?” he forced himself to say.

“Sure,” she said, giving his hand a little squeeze.  “I can always sleep after making love.”  He felt another jolt of pain.  He didn’t like how she lumped him in with all her other lovers with whom she also liked to nap after they were through.  Yes, there was even more reason to do it now. 

He waited.  It wasn’t long.  In less than five minutes she turned on her side, perhaps to stifle her snoring, and fell sound asleep.

He crept out of the bed as quietly as he could, stepping as lightly as possible with his bare toes on her carpet.  He was grateful to the carpet and to her large well made bed that made a minimum of noise when he got up.  Odd to be grateful to things, as if they had souls like people, he thought as he picked up his clothes from the floor.  He carried them into the living room, thinking that he would change there.

But once in the living room he decided to take one more precaution. He went back to the room and slowly closed the door.  That way if she got up suddenly he’d be warned and could even come up with a story of some sort.

He changed into his clothes then in front of the picture window in her living room, then went directly to the circular glass table and looked at the inside of her pocketbook.  In the middle of it was a wallet, fat and red, as he knew it would be.  There was cash in it too, several hundred dollars at least which he withdrew and put in his pockets.  He didn’t want to mess with her credit cards.  That would be far too risky and besides he’d made his point.  Next time when someone did yeoman’s work on her she wouldn’t be so stingy with her compliments.  She’d learn it would be a lot less expensive that way.

The most dangerous part would be closing her door and leaving her apartment.  He opened and shut the door in one continuous motion.  It made very little noise.  He walked down the hall to the elevator, pushed the elevator button and waited, wondering if he should run downstairs.  A moment later he realized that she could call out to him and not hearing anything walk out into the hall and see him by the elevator.  What would he say then?  What could he say?

He began to run down the stairs then.  It was like running down ice.  He couldn’t think – could only concentrate on moving as fast as possible as if he were a kind of giant centipede racing for its life.

He couldn’t see a side exit.  When he reached the lobby he looked up and saw the doorman reading the sports page of the Chicago Tribune.  The paper rustled while he looked at him.  They exchanged nods and then he went out to the street.  Once he turned the corner he felt her money in his pockets and began to run.  He was scared but also strangely happy.

Harvey was right, I’ll have to come to Chicago more often, he said to himself.  It was one of the lines he’d said to her in bed that had made her laugh.  He tried to laugh out loud then, to make audible the sound he heard in his head but it sounded hollow and shriveled like a muffled cough.

Then he thought of his mother and wanted to scream but didn’t, instead dug his nails as hard as he could into the palms of his hands.

“But I did it to vindicate you,” he said to her over and over.  “Don’t you know that?  I vindicated you, didn’t I?”

He shook his head and started running, wondering if the dead understood about vindication.