Monica, before Bolivia
About The Writer
Arthur Plotnik is the author of eight books, including "Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style" and two Book-of-the-Month Club selections: "The Elements of Expression" (revised and expanded in 2012) and "The Elements of Editing." Among his many publications are award-winning essays, op-eds, biography, fiction, and poetry. He studied under Philip Roth at the Iowa (Graduate) Writers Workshop and worked as editorial director for the American Library Association. A former columnist for and Board member of "The Writer" magazine, he lives in Chicago.
It took some three weeks for Monica Graf to stop calling me even after I'd gathered my self-respect and begged off the humiliating affair. Her late-night calls had taken on a reliable pattern---opening sweetly, then racing to a crescendo of abuse directed at me and the world in general. It was like listening to some profane "1812 Overture."
At first her silence was a blessing. But soon I found myself missing her strong body and grey-green eyes and alternating ardor and fury. Though I dated other women to support my resolve, for the most part I felt relieved when they would cancel, just as I must have made their day by not calling.
So I was spinning my wheels when Hector Restrepo's letters started arriving from South America. Not e-mails, but old-fashioned, handwritten epistles in par avion envelopes bordered with red and blue bars. I'd met Hector, a Colombian, at graduate school in New York. We shared some literary passions, and I was charmed at the time by his arm-waving enthusiasms and imaginative schemes, including his narratives of liquor-fueled trysts with married women.
These lustful intrigues had an air of invention, considering Hector's large, sloppy frame and cartoonish mug--frog-like with its horn-rimmed glasses. Yet on occasion he would invite me to join him for a drink, and, sure enough, cozied up against him in a booth would be the "evidence"— shy, pretty; amused by his attentions. Hector's predatory approach to women wasn't my style, but his lyric, reckless view of life was something I envied and it helped make the friendship stick.
After New York he had talked his way into a series of assignments for the Organization of American States and was now in the cloud-piercing city of La Paz, Bolivia, to run a librarian-training program at the university. And of course he was already deep into a risky affair.
I'd ended up in Chicago, editing an association magazine. Before Hector's assignment in Bolivia we'd been corresponding maybe twice a year to stay in touch. But now every week another envelope would arrive, its surface pounded by postal rubber stamps and its letter imploring me to visit him in this new-found paradise of "generous virgins." When I said I might come for a few weeks, his handwriting exploded into what looked like fragments of u's and v's flying across the paper and off the edges. Such excitement could not be denied.
What I could deny, apparently, was my own weakness in picking up the phone and ending my ban on seeing Monica. I told myself it was to enlist her research skills, to do some deep backgrounding on Bolivia. Of course, even in these pre-Googling days I was capable of my own research, as if any were needed. But I was leaving in two days, and Monica was reference staff in the city library's History and Social Science Division. Why not use her?
"I don't know what the fuck you wanted," Monica typically blurted when I arrived at the reference desk. "I grabbed whatever we had." She seemed as unfazed by my reappearance as if we'd been in bed all morning. I, on the other hand, broke into a sweat seeing that developed body again and the green fire in the eyes.
She pushed a small pile of books toward me. "There's one on Che Guevara in Bolivia. He had like nine soldiers for a revolution? What an asshole!"
Monica's ample voice—punctuated by sudden horse-laughs—was already on high volume and attracting stares. I was glad we were headed out of the library, although our lunch destination—the decorous courtyard restaurant of the Art Institute—was probably a bad choice on my part. Maybe I owed her a small treat for the so-called research, but not a thing for the games she'd put me through during our dalliance. Okay, she was quick-minded and certainly the hottest of my Chicago friends. But the rage—especially when something reminded her of her husband Brent in California—was as pathological as it was pathetic of me to feed on it.
Mad Hungarian-American Brent, who managed a pier restaurant in Sausalito, had blackened her left eye and kicked her out of his houseboat for—though she denied it—sleeping with the library director where she'd worked. She and Brent called each other once a week to howl obscenities, but they still couldn't get on with the divorce. She had moved to Chicago to put vengeful distance between them, further avenging herself with a series of victims she would entice, then dump cold. I was one such, attracting her attention as guest speaker at a fancy library event.
I was vulnerable enough at the time to be flattered and taken in. Soon I was hooked. For a week or so it was paradise: I had this smart, sexy girlfriend on my arm and in bed. Then came the alternating current: One minute she'd be holding on tight and cooing in my ear, the next, bursting into a rage against Brent, me, all men, Chicago, her apartment.
"You're useless!" she screamed at me one February night as I struggled to keep it hard. We'd drunk a lot and she was pulsing with hostility. "You think you're such a hotshot. You're all shits—all of you. Why don't you just fuck each other and leave me out of it?”
“Look,” I said, “if you’re pissed at Brent, don’t—”
“Don't what? That prick? He's basking in the sun and I'm freezing in a Windy City roach motel. He's loaded and I can't even pay my goddamn dentist and you can't get it up—"
Other times she'd direct the rage at her job, which I happened to know she liked and performed with manic diligence. Often when I praised her skills or called upon them at work, she'd tell me, "I gotta get the hell out of there. Winos, degenerates, demented brats. The hours stink. It's boring. There's nothing left in the paycheck." I would let her go on, figuring that Brent must have called that day.
He had a way of calling those rare times when her guard was down—and just when she seemed to be glimpsing me as something more than a tool of vengeance. At such moments she would surprise me by covering my face with kisses or taking my arm and hauling me to bed. And the call would come, blocking what inroads I was making so they could pull each other's grenade pins for another hour.
Inevitably, waiting on edge for the phone to ring, I had trouble making love to her. Not since my year of post-divorce adjustment had I been so nervous in bed, my hands sweating, mouth dry, and dick somewhere off in the Maritime Provinces. Still, as deflating as the affair had become, I didn't stop clutching at it until the evening she cursed me out and threw her racquet at me (it hurt!) for getting too far ahead in our one and only game at her racquet club. Maybe she needed the self-esteem of winning, but enough was enough. For a while.
She called a week later to apologize. I told her I was finished, couldn't take this crap. But a month or so passed, and I found myself calling her from work for help on some government statistics. She immediately hit me up for a loan, pleading that she needed it for prolonged dental work, that she was broke.
I mailed her some money, which I never got back, but she did send a card thanking me—almost sweetly—and saying she'd like to see me again. I swore I wouldn't get suckered in. But once the Bolivian trip had been scheduled and I had my ostensible reason to take her to lunch, I called.
A perfect June sun filtered through the elms of the museum courtyard restaurant—whose sanctity Monica immediately shattered with a booming, "So how the fuck are ya?"
I had to laugh, and then she did, the new gold on a front molar catching the sun. I was pleased to have contributed something to her physical well-being. In the dappled light with a wine goblet in her hand, she had something in common with the Renoir portraits upstairs in the museum. Inside her head, of course—and apparently of equal appeal to me—was the splatter of a Jackson Pollack.
"I'm good," I told her. "Well, I'm experiencing pre-travel doubts and depression. Normal. They'll pass once I'm on the way."
"To Bolivia? Shit, I'd be depressed, too."
"The beautiful gringa would have no worries. They'd treat you like a goddess."
"Yeah, no thanks. Enough spics run after me in this town. The place is crawling with them. I think I’m the only goddamn Anglo in my building. I'm afraid to come home at night."
"Christ, Monica. When did you become such a bigot?"
"You go live next door to them."
"I have. I do. How can you not love the whole Hispanic thing? The music. The soul. Me encanta."
"Me encanta my ass. You don't have to deal with shit like rape. But maybe" —she guffawed at the idea—"you will, in some fucking Bolivian prison!"
I looked around. As much as her profanity amused me, it made me nervous in settings like this one. The other diners nibbled at their salads and harkened to the piddle of the fountains.
"What makes you think I'll be prison?"
"Because you'll be a wiseass. You'll ask questions about Guevara. They no gustan that shit."
"Hey, buen Spanish," I said, raising my wine glass to her. "But I'm not especially into Guevara. It'll just be fun seeing my old cohort. I think. Anyway, it's a break from work, though Hector wants me to visit some libraries. Do an article to make him look good."
"I wouldn't go near a library on my vacation."
"Yeah. Well, it'll be okay. Libraries turn me on."
She raised her eyes skyward.
"Last stronghold of civilization. Bulwark of freedom."
Now she was laughing.
"Information is power!"
"You're fucking weird," she said, signaling a passing waiter. "Let's eat."
We ordered more wine and two pricey crabmeat salads. I felt a little pinched myself after the outlay for Bolivia, and wondered what I was up to here.
"Where was I?" I asked.
"Gaga over libraries."
"Yeah, all right, enough. Tell me how you're doing these days, speaking of love."
"I'm doing great."
"Oh? How so?"
She shrugged. "I'm seeing a Jewboy named Mark who is a genuine hotshot trader on LaSalle Street. This is no loser. We're talking commodities, condos on the North side. Everything Mark touches turns to gold."
"He should have touched your molar, saved us a buck."
"Hey, don't worry, for Christ's sake, I'm going to pay you back. I just didn't want to screw up a good thing. He's got this incredible showplace overlooking the lake."
"So you go to his place?"
"Can I let him see my goddamn outhouse?"
I took a breath. It was all killing me, naturally. "What about Brent? You dare miss one of his calls?"
"I hope Brent is rotting in shit at the bottom of the Bay. We haven't talked since he was out here."
"When was that? You didn't tell me."
"Why should I tell you? We haven't talked either. But sure enough the prick showed up one weekend. We balled our brains out. We talked for twelve hours straight. He was sorry. He wanted me back. I was his angel. His this, his that. He would take care of me. Monday I go to work dreaming of California. Can't wait to go back. Except I forgot who I was dealing with."
Monica picked up steam as she unloaded on me. "He left me a note in his illiterate scrawl. 'Dear Whore.' Dear Whore? How do you like that?"
'''Dear Whore' what?"
He was on about me and Mark. He said it made him sick. That he didn't want me, quote, polluting the houseboat. Stay the fuck where you are, he said. Polluting. Can you fucking believe it?"
"What did he find out?"
"He was scrounging in my desk and found a pile of Mark's notes to me."
"What kind of notes?"
"What do you think? Mark's a pervert. Anyway, Brent threw them in the crapper."
I had to laugh. "Bad sport!"
She wagged her head. Wine refills came and we each took a slug.
"You know what?" she said. "To be honest, Mark is as full of shit as the rest of you. Sure, he writes me hot letters. But when he goes to visit his parents in Morton Grove on the weekends, guess who isn't invited? Imagine that scumbag thinking I'm not good enough to meet mamala. He even calls from mommy's to tell me how bored I'd be there. Who does he think he's kidding? Fuck!"
This time Monica did stop the show in the courtyard. People glared. I was relieved when our salads came a few minutes later with wine refills and we set about destroying the pretty avocado boatloads of crabmeat. Between bites, Monica vowed to avenge herself against Brent if she had to blow everyone in Marin County in front of him. She then demanded an account of my love life since I'd stopped seeing her.
"Zilch, really," I said. "I haven't had the energy."
"Bullshit. You have more energy than anyone."
"It's abnormal. You used to drive me nuts in the morning. Out of bed, dressed, gotta start achieving. Working on weekends. Running off to conferences—jumping on your little fans, no doubt."
“Yeah, right. First you have to have fans."
"You were jumping somebody, admit it."
"Not true. Not for ages. Not into quickies."
"Hard to believe. What the hell are you looking for, another marriage?"
"I don't know. Some feelings?"
"Feelings!" She laughed. "What feelings? Like the song?"
I paused to think, such as one thinks after three midday wines. I looked at my watch. "Hey, don't you have to get back?"
"Fuck them. They owe me time."
"Okay, fine with me. What was I saying?"
"You want feelings."
"Yeah. Well, I don't know. I'm tired of toe-dipping or whatever dipping. I want the plunge."
"Into a maelstrom." I whirlpooled a finger. "Spinning, drowning in love."
That drew a horse laugh. Then a grimace. "You're such a cockeyed romantic. No wonder I wasn't good enough for you."
"What?" I said. "What are you talking about? You were as good as they come—not always to me, sadly. Don't forget you belonged to Brent--- and don't go off on him again. You know what I mean."
She looked down. "Well. I always liked you. You and your long eyelashes."
"Well, thank God for those, I guess. Would you like a lock of them?"
She laughed. "Save 'em for the Bolivian chicas."
On impulse I touched her hand. "I'm glad we're still friends," I said. "Really."
She was quiet. Then, with a reckless gleam: "You want to go to your place?"
I looked at the madwoman. "Us? Now?"
"I'll go home from there. I don't feel like going back to work."
I did a head-clearing shake, like after a punch. "Wait a minute. Are you suggesting we go to my apartment and make love?"
"Whatever. Is that a problem?"
It was out of the question, of course, Unless it wasn't. I rubbed my temples. Was I to be the new revenge against Mark, or more of the old against Brent? And why should I give a damn, as long as I could savor that marvelous body once again with a vengeance of my own?
"Hey," she said, "if it takes you so long to decide— "
"No—of course I want to. But I'm confused. This isn't really about me, is it?"
"Jesus, why do you have to analyze everything? That's your trouble. Are you going to be all nervous about it?"
"Maybe even useless. That could happen," I said, immediately picturing it happening. All I needed was to fail with her again and go off to Bolivia as the official representative of American impotence.
"I told you I wasn't good enough for you," she said.
"Then let's go."
I stalled, played with my empty wine glass. "Monica—I can't get my head around this. I don't want to set myself up for more insanity. Not before I leave."
"Mine. You do know you make me crazy. Bad crazy."
She shrugged. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Look, how about when I come back? We'll get together then. When I'm more relaxed. When your life is a little more resolved."
She let out a breath. Tapped the table. "I don't know. Maybe. If I'm still here."
"I'll call right after the trip."
"What if you meet someone there? What if you get the clap?"
"I'll still call, so you can curse me out."
I paid the bill and we left the restaurant. In front of the museum, I took her hand and kissed her cheek, lingering a few seconds as I recalled the scent of her in bed. "Maybe I'm making a mistake here," I murmured. "What time is it?"
"Too late," she said, pushing me away. "You're right. Better to call me when you get back."
"Okay. I will do so."
"Thanks for the lunch, anyway. Have a great trip. Stay out of fucking jail."
When I got back to my apartment, the empty bed saddened me as I imagined what might have been going on there. Still, it could have been disastrous, and right now I had some two dozen things to do before leaving for the airport. Each item, with a box next to it, appeared on a list I'd made. Such lists were one of my habits, not unusual for an editor. I took it to extremes, though, and made lists for the weekends, vacations, practically every minute of my life. One of the women I called now and then would say, "Don't tell me my box came up!"
I added one now to the list.
* After Bolivia, call Monica.
Bolivia should have transformed me. All that magical setting, Hector's orchestrations, and an affair with a woman named Cecilia—at its most intense the very maelstrom I thought I'd been seeking. No games, no calculations, no ulterior motives; just the drowning in love.
No, as my plane took off and the mountain-ringed bowl of La Paz disappeared beneath the clouds, my thoughts sprang back to Monica, bang, like the gate of a rat trap. After I got home and had checked off the boxes of the most urgent tasks, I got to Monica's box and called her. I didn't think why or wherefore, I just called.
Another reference librarian told me that Monica no longer worked there. She'd left about ten days ago. For where? The librarian wouldn't say. I tried the home number. Disconnected, no forwarding. And that was that for Monica until about two years later when I got a call at 3 a.m. from a hysterical woman ranting that she was being held under psychiatric observation and that I had to get her out. She said her name was Monica. I said I was sorry, and hung up to a profane tirade that reinforced her identity. In the years following, after I'd found my way to a happy marriage, my wife and I each received a few "breather" calls. Once or twice I asked, "Monica?" No reply. Caller ID helped put an end to all that.
One day I learned that Hector, out of a job and drinking heavily, had been pushed from or jumped off a ninth-floor high-rise balcony in a Colombian city not his home. His ghastly ending made it almost too sad for me to recall those weeks we lived together in a seedy La Paz apartment, where he brewed our morning coffee through a sock while hatching intrigues for the day's amorous events. I'd have liked to tell Monica about that time, just to know how she'd have mocked it between her horse laughs.