Fiction: What’s Going On, What’s Coming Off

By Jonathan Baumbach

My wife insists that I am never at a loss for something to write. It is how I sustain my idleness. Her belief in my productivity is almost as good as my actually being productive. It would be even better if she would on occasion write something under my name to give this myth a public presence. It might even serve if I wrote something under her name trying to imagine something I might have written. I ask her what she thinks I’m working on and she gives me this “Don’t you know?” look.

I’m not the one who tells everyone how productive I am, I say. You’re the expert on my alleged productivity.

I believe, she says, that you are writing a novel about a man who is unfaithful to those closest to him. A man who has a reputation in the public world as being thoroughly honorable.

How does he get away with such duplicity?

It is his chronic ingenuousness that promotes the illusion, she says. He has no idea that he is being duplicitous, she says. He is unrelentingly sincere, though temperamentally variable. He also has a conveniently short memory. In fact, he has no long-term memory at all. Consequently, his life is being continuously renewed. He lives each day as if it were the beginning of the world. So he can say one thing one day and the complete opposite the next without ever knowing that he is contradicting himself.

We’ll call this man Henry, I say.

That’s not his name, she says.

How can you be so sure? We’re talking about an imaginary character, aren’t we?

He was only imaginary until I imagined this faithless fellow for you, she says. Once imagined, he is putatively real. You have to accept him as real. Otherwise he is less than nothing.

How can he be less than nothing?

That’s the nature of hyperbole, she says.

Then what’s his name?

Isn’t it enough that I know it’s not Henry? We’re dealing with an unfaithful man who is not named Henry.

What if we call him Peter? I ask.

Call him anything you like but his name isn’t Peter.

If his name isn’t Henry and it isn’t Peter, what do we call him?

We don’t know him well enough at this point to call him anything.

I’d like to give him a name. It would make him easier to refer to. How about Fred?

Certainly not Fred. Almost anything but Fred.

Well, give him a name. I want to know who we’re referring to.

She thinks about it, her chin resting on her palm. We might call him Jimbo, she says, but that’s not his real name either.

No character of mine has ever been called Jimbo.

That’s only because you haven’t written about him yet. His friends and enemies call him Jimbo.

Would his given name then be James?

I don’t think so, but I won’t swear against it. For our purposes he’s named Jimbo.

For your purposes, not mine. I don’t know any Jimbos and my imagination doesn’t know any either.

Helping you compose your novel is a thankless chore. I regret having gotten involved. Call him whatever you like. I apologize for being difficult and relent on my objection to the name Jimbo.

All we know about Jimbo at this point is that he’s unfaithful and ingenuous. What are some of his other qualities?

Well, he’s a good friend until he breaches the relationship with infidelity. He tends to be well-liked until he is well-hated.

Why does Jimbo need to be unfaithful? Is he only unfaithful to women or is he unfaithful in all his relationships?

The question seems to mystify her. Well, all, she says, but mostly or most importantly with women. The why question is harder to navigate. Why does anyone do anything? Jimbo is someone who constantly reappraises and readjusts his needs. The woman he loved yesterday won’t do it for him today. And tomorrow is an open book.

And that’s because he has a short memory?

That’s what he’d like us to believe. I suspect the cause of his behavior or misbehavior is more complicated than that.

This Jimbo is really a devious fellow, isn’t he?

He’s never fooled me. Oh, maybe once or twice. I’d say he was on a power trip, but in fact he almost never feels empowered. If he’s not doing something new, he feels mired in the past.

There’s a novel there somewhere.

Isn’t that what I’ve been telling you?

If I’m going to write a novel about Jimbo, I’m going to have to change the name. Infidelity itself is old hat unless one decorates it with new feathers. I could call the book, An Unfaithful Man or perhaps The Unfaithful Man, which particularizes the character to a greater extent. I suppose I could write the story or novel without naming the character, merely referring to him as He. That’s been done before too. I’d be more comfortable starting out if my unfaithful character had a name. Maybe something like Conrad or Scott or Leo. Well, what about Leo, a familiarizing of the name Leonard.

We’re beginning to get somewhere. We have a subject and a character named Leo, sometimes called Lenny, also known as Leonardo.

Leo has three women friends, only two of which he can remember at the same time. If he has two, he is not so much being unfaithful to one as a man well-prepared for a rainy day. With three it not so much rains as it pours. So his limited memory is something of a blessing disguised as a handicap. And it is not as if he travels back and forth from one to the other. He spends a few months with each woman before moving on to another. So he is something of a short-term serial monogamist. When he is not near the woman he loves— to paraphrase the song—he loves the woman he’s near. Perhaps love is the wrong word here. He tends to like to excess the woman he’s near and these feelings are usually reciprocated unless or until the inamorata discovers that there is more than one of her. At that point all hell breaks loose and Leo has to move on if only for his immediate health.

The day Leo wakes up to discover that there are two other women waiting in the wings for him, he knows he’s in trouble. Fortunately for Leo, that hasn’t happened yet. In any event, each of the women has an inkling that there is someone else without any hard and fast proof. Christine sometimes asks him where he goes the month or two he is not attending to her. Leo seems surprised by the question and usually offers a shrug as his answer. In his mind he is always with Christine, except when memory swallows her name. And then he is likely to be with Lois and sometimes with Poppy. He has a calendar to keep track of his schedule, but he doesn’t always know where said calendar is.

Sometimes Lois or Poppy calls, wanting to know what’s going on. Christine never calls. Christine believes that all men are unreliable so why bother to check up on Leo. She takes or rejects his attentions as they announce themselves. Her questions are of a practical nature.

Christine is the opposite of a romantic, whatever that might be.

Lois is not above nagging him at times. Who are you with when you’re not with me? she asks.

I also have to eat and sleep, shit and shave, he says. I have a life to live, so to speak.

And when you’re with me, you’re not living that life? Is that what you’re telling me?

That’s not what I mean and you know it.

So where do you live your life when you’re not with me?

Leo doesn’t like to lie but he also likes to avoid trouble. So he says, I never claimed that you were the only one in my life. I only said that you were important to me and you are. You’ll notice I don’t ask you where you are when you’re not with me.

That’s because you don’t have to ask, she says. I’m always here when you return.

If his memory was better, he might have denied her claim. He couldn’t remember her not being home when he returned, but he also couldn’t remember being away. And having to return.

What he thought he would do was go away again so he would know and therefore remember what it was to be away. I’m leaving, he said, but I’ll be right back.

If you leave, she said, there’s no point in coming back.

If you don’t want me, I’ll find a woman who does.

I want you enough not to see you go on a fool’s errand.

He swallowed her remark like medicine he didn’t know he needed, let alone wanted. He was free to go wherever he wanted. He opened the front door hesitantly and looked back over his shoulder. She was exactly where he left her and seemed to be watching him with narrowed eyes.

Goodbye, she said.

Goodbye? I’m just going outside to refresh my memory and then I’m coming right back. Close your eyes and count to ten and you won’t even know that I’m gone.

She didn’t follow his prescription, merely locked the door against his return. All she was doing was making good on her word. If one person in a relationship was unfaithful, the other had to go out of her way to keep things in equilibrium.

Less than 10 seconds had passed and he was surprised to discover that the door was locked against him. Perhaps it was a mistake. He knocked to announce his return.

Who’s there? she called through the door.

You know who it is, he said. I was just inside with you. Would you let me in please?

I told you if you left, there was no coming back. Didn’t I say that? I’m someone who can be relied upon to keep her word.

He couldn’t remember if she did or not. In any event, she was not the only woman in his life. His untrustworthy memory told him that he always kept one woman in reserve for just such emergencies. But he couldn’t at the moment remember who she was and where they had lived together. He paced back and forth in front of the house trying to remember. Lois, if that was her name, would take him in and be glad of the opportunity. Nevertheless, he knocked again, unconvinced that Christine was resolute against his return.

Yes? she asked through the door.

He recited his name and asked again to be readmitted.

I’ll think about it, she said grudgingly.

I’ll come back, he said, when you’ve finished thinking about it, and he got into his Ford Fusion and drove two blocks to Lois’s condo.

He didn’t even have to knock. The door was open to his return. He didn’t even have to engage in time-wasting foreplay. She took him by the hand and led him into the bedroom. Before he knew it, her clothes were off and she was in the process of undressing him. It was like a dream, he thought.

And in fact it was. He woke up in bed in the morning next to a sleeping Christine. How did he get back into her apartment? It was most likely because he had never left. The dream had put him in a revved-up state. He had a mad erection but it was for Lois and not Christine, who was lying in bed next to him, still asleep. His hard-on prodded her from behind, which she interpreted in her dream as someone trying to push her off a diving board.

There is a famous maxim about hard-ons—“use it or lose it”—which came appropriately to mind. Even if his hard-on was for Lois, it could, in fact it would, no doubt, work in pursuing the interlude of Christine. Don’t let me fall, she said in her sleep, and so he turned her over on her back. Perhaps he should wait until she had her eyes open. It seemed the courteous thing to do. There was something a bit creepy about doing it with a sleeping woman, but what if when she woke, she wasn’t in the mood to make love.

He debated the issue in his head, but as one might expect, his prick had a mind of its own. It rubbed against her legs like the tail of a cat. She stirred, opened one eye. He lifted her nightgown and kissed her thigh, gradually working his way up to the port of entry, waiting for a response from headquarters. What’s going on? she asked.

There was more than one answer to that question so he withheld response. His prick, of course, had ideas of its own and moved its way up her no-longer sleeping form. He was not, he realized, in complete control of its actions. She repeated her question and he answered it by kissing her neck, a tacit ally to the wandering prick. Who told you to do that? she asked.

He liked her better, he told himself, while she was asleep. Christine, he remembered, was someone who liked to be in charge. He was not in the mood for a fight so he went through the motions of backing off.

Where are you going? she asked, grabbing hold of a random arm. Would you believe me if I told you?

I believe everything you tell me and nothing. She turned on her side and faced him, a forgiving smile on her face. She continued to hold onto his arm as if it were the only thing in the room that kept her from drowning. No one enters me without my say so, she said.

He tried to release his arm, but her grip was resolute.

So what do you want? he asked.

I want to be on top, she said.

He saw no point in arguing as it didn’t matter one way or another to him so long as he found a good home for his prick to at least silence its nagging persistence. If that’s what you want, he said, turning onto his back. After a moment of in-head discussion, Christine rolled on top of him, and despite some awkwardness they managed an accommodation. That is, his prick found the shelter it was looking for, a temporary home away from home. He couldn’t imagine now why he had been in such an all-fire hurry to be on his way.

This was as good a stopover as he might have hoped. He slept afterward and woke later in the day in a strange bed, a woman he barely knew lying next to him. He dressed briskly, thinking it was time to make an alternative move. He had Poppy on his mind—it was her turn—and Lois off it, lost in the slough of forgetting.

As he pulled on his pants, Christine asked him what he was doing, which wasn’t exactly what she meant. It was where he was going and why that concerned her.

He dredged up an answer. Going to work, he said, a rehearsed answer, always at his fingertips.

She accepted the lie without actually believing it, a woman with a highly developed sense of discretion. Don’t work too hard, she said.

I never work too hard, he said with unfelt bravado. We’ll get together again soon.

Maybe we will and maybe we won’t, she said.

I’ll call you soon, he said, the unspecificity allowing him to believe he wasn’t lying. At the moment he was obsessed with visiting the more docile Poppy.

Christine may have said something else but he was out the door—the door closed between them. Muffling her remark.

He called Poppy from the cell phone in his car, announcing that he was on his way. Give me an hour, she said. I want to straighten up.

I’m not into neatness, he said. Besides, your messes have always been charming.

Then make it a half hour, she said.

So he sat in the car for twenty minutes, staring through the windshield at the lightly falling snow before heading toward Poppy’s place. He hoped to be politely late so as not to show his eagerness. Poppy was his favorite among his inamorati, but he tended to get tired of her after living together for two months or so. But since he hadn’t seen her for a while, he was hugely looking forward to this visit. He owned a key, but he preferred to knock on the door and be admitted like visiting royalty. The “visiting royalty” was his own private myth and never spoken out loud. In any event, Poppy had a way of making him feel royally welcomed.

So we find Leo, thirty-five minutes after his call, knocking on the door to Poppy’s house, which also had his name on the mortgage. To visit Poppy was to come home. Poppy never asked him where he had been, tended to accept his visits in their course.

She lets him in, giving him a welcoming hug at the door. At the moment of his arrival, he can’t imagine why he ever leaves her. As usual, he is exhilarated to see her as she him. They never go into the bedroom right away, which is the case in his other liaisons. Poppy makes him a meal first—there are other appetites beyond sex that require his attention. It is not that she is a wonderful cook but that she makes exactly what he wants, which is her special gift. She makes him eggplant lasagna, which is his favorite, and she gives him an affectingly large portion, which he feels honor-bound to finish. And as soon as he polishes off the dish, he feels constrained to lie down until the digestive process relieves him of his burden. At the same time, Poppy likes a man with a healthy appetite, particularly when she is offering the food. Leo gets off on pleasing her, which is not to say he doesn’t like to eat her lasagna for its own sake. On the other hand, he doesn’t like it when his stomach bulges. He is no stranger to restraint—the two impulses, eating and restraint at war with one another.

When he is finished eating, he is too full to do anything else, which includes making love, the ostensible reason for his moving in with Poppy. There will be plenty of time for that if he hangs around for a while.

Poppy is pleased that he relishes her food, but not that he disables himself by eating too much. Poppy is a partisan of moderation in all things. He is concerned that she will think he ate too much to avoid making love to her. He is quick to tell her that his eating too much hadn’t any intentionality behind it. He was seduced by her cooking and the childhood injunction that he should not leave food over, that it was his job to clean his plate. That was so deeply ingrained, he couldn’t get around it even when he knew he had eaten his fill.

He tried to explain the problem to Poppy, who was in any event willing to believe whatever lie he told her. I’ll need a few minutes, he said.

Take as much time as you like, she said.

Sometimes it disturbed him that she was so accommodating. He would have preferred her to be more assertive at times, as long as it didn’t include her rejecting of him.

It’s your own fault, he said, for being such a good cook.

I could take it in my mouth while you digest, she said.

Why not, he thought, though in his present state of satiety, he was not predisposed to be aroused. His penis slumbered while his stomach vibrated.

She licked him for a few minutes, but quickly determined that there was nothing doing.

Don’t give up, he said.

I’m not, she insisted, just catching my breath, sweetheart.

The “sweetheart” did the trick. He felt a subterranean stirring, digestion be damned. He got off on endearments. He was all but ready to give it his best. He manufactured a belch to ease the weight on his stomach. He withheld the exuding of gas that tended to follow the belch like the night the day. He had a reputation in certain quarters for unexpected delicacy.

Poppy reclined on her back, her hands folded under her head, waiting for his next move.

His next move was a second belch, commemorating the first.

Poppy wondered idly what was taking him so long to get to her. He was usually in a hurry from beginning to end as if he had a fire engine to catch.

He could have used a follow up “sweetheart” to get him going.

Coming, sweetheart, he said, hoping his use of the endearment would return in course to him like a delayed echo.

He thought that undressing her might enable his cause. She was already wearing a nightgown, but she had panties underneath, which equipped him with an activity. He was always looking for ways of escaping the spaces of idleness. He liked to keep his hands in play if only to know he was alive. So he slid her panties down her thighs to her ankles. All that remained was for Poppy to kick them off. You won’t need those, sweetheart, he said to her.

I feel protected when they’re on, she said.

You don’t need protection from me, he said. Do you think you do?

I need protection from cold drafts and ill winds, she said. Oh, take them off, if it makes you happy.

Digestion was proceeding apace. He needed an activity to kill the requisite time necessary for the dinner he had eaten to go the way of all former meals. He removed her panties as if displacing a sacred object. He placed the panties on the bed next to her so she would know they hadn’t gone too far, that, if it mattered, they were still in the picture.

Do you still feel the need to be on top? he asked her.

He could see that she was mulling over his question. Well, she said, all things being equal . . .

Uh huh, he said, wanting to support her position, whatever it was, and rolled over on to his back and unbuckled his belt. His sleeping penis was stretching and preening, was on the cusp of reemerging. As soon as she noticed, she lowered her eyes.

May I have this dance? he asked.

It wasn’t a question that needed answering. She tumbled over on top of him and joined the fray. I’ve come home, he thought, despite myself. Home is where the hard-on finds its groove.

Poppy was happy to have him back in his niche. After all, isn’t that what family life is about, more or less? She gave him his dance while singing a few notes of her own in her own personal key. Though always impatient, he wanted this go to last for a while.

The expectation is somehow always more exciting than the fulfillment. Was that the sum of his earned wisdom? He thought of himself as Macbeth, in that when it was done, it was done. The assignation trammeled up the consequences. He had moved back in after a month’s absence and he planned to stay awhile. He had no better place to go and so hung up his coat in the closet among her coats and dresses. His coat felt at home just like its former wearer. Well, maybe this time he’d stay forever. But then that’s what he always thought the first day of his return.

He’d just have to sit back and see how things played out.


Born in Brooklyn, son of a painter, father of a filmmaker, Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 18 books, including the much-heralded YOU, B, On the Way to My Father’s Funeral, D-Tours, Separate Hours, Reruns, Babble, The Life and Times of Major Fiction, and A Man to Conjure With. A book of stories, “The Pavilion of Former Wives,” and a collection of film criticism, “Shots in the Dark,” will be out this fall. His short stories have been widely anthologized, including O. Henry Prize Stories, All our Secrets Are the Same and Best American Short Stories. He has written extensively on film and is a former chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. In 1973, Baumbach cofounded (with Peter Spielberg) Fiction Collective, the first national fiction writers cooperative in America (reinvented as FC2). He has had cameo roles in all of his son Noah’s films.

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