The Nothings of Anele
It killed him to see her like that, spread across the bed like a gisant. He was twenty-four, and she, at forty-three, was supposed to be the mature one, the one with her ducks in a row. But he believed she needed him in all of the same ways and for all of the same reasons the twenty-somethings did. But her needing him stung in a unique way. It was the sting of a woman’s need and not a girl’s. You see, young women, they have their whole lives in front of them.
Anele did not. Anele was married, not loved, and never would be. The weight of this realization crushed her like the gravity of an entire galaxy, and it hurt him to watch. But he stayed. He crossed the room yet again, and he placed the tips of his fingers on her delicate shoulder as she wept. It was supposed to be a fuck, a fling on the side, something to make her feel valued, something to get him off. Instead, his temperate care for her feelings and needs, expressed through his ravenous, endless lust, gentle when necessary but filthy and brutal too, let her know just how uncared for she was by every other man who had ever shared her life. These included her old boyfriends, her first husband, and her teenage son, who chose to live with his father. And her second husband, who really was nothing more than a friend, a bar of Zest in the shower, a masculine razor in the medicine cabinet. She had never felt more loved than when she was with Marcus, yet she was aware – because he had expressed it so many times – that he did not love her. What she experienced felt so much like love, what she always thought it would be, but it wasn’t, and it was then that she came to terms with the fact that she was forty-three and had never been loved, and, at forty-three, never would be.
Marcus, at twenty-four, couldn’t feel worse about the fact that he, just a young man, was the only relationship, the only touch or kiss, that separated Anele from absolute nothingness.
It had started just under a year before when Marcus answered an anonymously posted Craig’s List ad. Marcus was on Craig’s list to see if anyone was selling white water kayaks and then, just to scope it out, to see what it was like, he went to the casual encounters section and reviewed the photos posted by women seeking men. He chuckled to himself as he drank a warm Gatorade and perused the extremes of the spectrum. Every picture was either clearly not the woman writing the post because the photo was too perfect, too fake, too not needing of a Craig’s List ad to get laid, or it was too clear from the picture why the woman needed Craig’s List. And the written posts were even funnier. Sometimes the words blended with symbols, likely a result of computers generating posts so that somebody on the other end could phish accounts or get people to pay for memberships to cam sites. The other profiles were riddled with errors and text speak, and sometimes they were written in a kind of code, where women would list what favors they offered and approximate how many roses the favors would cost. Marcus googled the rose allusion and learned those posts were put there by prostitutes, and the roses referred to money, a red rose being worth one hundred dollars.
Marcus laughed as he trolled the images, and when his Gatorade was a quarter of the way empty, he went to the kitchen and topped it off with vodka, capped it, shook it, and resumed his search. There were half a dozen or so fake profiles, women that were exceptionally attractive, filled out in all of the right ways. It’s Friday night, Marcus thought, as the Gatorade bottle inched its way towards empty again, why not? He had read twenty or thirty posts and decided he’d revisit the ones with the exceptional photos while he masturbated. He took a long swig from the bottle and then scrolled to the first page, where he knew there was a series of pictures of a large-breasted milfs. Then, he noticed there was a new post with a title written and punctuated correctly. Marcus clicked on it. There were pictures, and they were… normal. The woman was attractive – fit but not perfect – yet still enticing. Marcus noticed features that he didn’t normally recognize on the girls his age: the way the woman’s blonde hair draped over her shoulders like slender, fair-skinned fingers, how her collar bones were a curved foundation for a long, thin neck like the stem of a fluted glass; the woman’s top lip, just a shade or two darker than her skin color, rolled smoothly like a cursive M when she grinned. Marcus could see just the rounded tops of her breasts, but the picture didn’t show anything too provocative, and that made it so much more alluring.
The ad said the woman was married, happily in fact, but that her husband simply didn’t have sex with her anymore. Her husband, she said, was a great husband and father to their child, who was in college. The woman had no intention of leaving him, but she had a void, she said, a void that she had a right, after all of those years, and after all of the appeals to him, to have filled. That’s what she was there for, she said, to find someone to fill a void that she wished she didn’t have to go to Craig’s List to fill but did. The foundation of the new relationship she wanted would be great sex, she said, but she wanted to start slow: emails, then some phone calls, perhaps, and then, if the interactions felt right, pictures – to really get the thoughts flowing.
Marcus was strangely tempted not only by the mature demeanor of the message but also by the beauty of the post. The woman was sexy, something the women his age weren’t. The women his age were hot but not sexy. Sexy took experience, an awareness of how others will interpret you, and that takes time, a know-how of compounded years twenty-somethings just didn’t possess. This woman was sexy yet didn’t try; she just was. She wasn’t fake. She didn’t take pictures at angles and in lighting that changed the curves of her body or the shades of her flesh. She didn’t use filters. She showcased the contours of her collar bones, the poutiness of her lips, the ivory of her skin. That was all.
He looked at the post and thought how he might respond until the Gatorade was empty. Again, he thought, it’s Friday night. I’m at my apartment alone and buzzed on spiked, warm Gatorade. I’ll do it. I’ll message her.
Anele answered the message two days later. She asked about his relationship situation. He told her he was single, and then she wanted to know about his time commitments. It was important that he could make time for her, she said. He assured her that he could, that he had a full-time job but no other commitments. The conversation continued in a normal fashion, the two asking about each other’s personal lives, hobbies, and interests. Then, in one message, Anele, who at that time called herself Blue Mélange, said she was going to yoga. Marcus assured her he had a thing for yoga pants, so she sent him a picture of her ass in the pair she wore. Her pants were black, her ass rotund and like an eclipse against the white light of the curtained window that served as a backdrop, the swollen crescents balanced on two thin legs. That picture led to one of him in his briefs and a wife beater, and then one of her in panties and a tank top. As the pictures progressed, they evolved from partial to full nudes, from full nudes to phone conversations, from phone conversations to coffee and from coffee to a fingering and blowjob in a car; this then bloomed into a fuck in a hotel room that led to more hotel rooms that led to that moment right then, when the woman, who identified herself as Blue Mélange but later said her name was Anele, wept.
“What’s wrong?” Marcus asked, tracing his fingers over Anele’s shoulder.
“What do you mean?” Anele asked.
“Oh, Marcus,” she said, as if whispering to a child, “life is just a record of tears.”
“Oh, Anele,” he laughed, placing his free hand on her other shoulder and leaning in to kiss her neck, “it’s not all that bad.”
“Don’t coddle me,” she said, working her shoulders from beneath Marcus’s hands.
Marcus let Anele slip away. “I guess I just don’t understand,” he said.
“Of course you don’t,” she said. “you’re twenty-four. Twenty-four.” There was a tone of disbelief to her voice. She rolled onto her back and stretched her arms and legs. “Twenty-four,” she whispered again.
“Why do you say it like that?” asked Marcus.
“Like I’m a child.”
“Well,” Anele said before turning on her side to face him.
“Well, if the shoe fits…”
“Why do you do this? Sometimes you’re all about it; other times you get all bitchy.”
“Bitchy about what?” asked Anele.
“Like your shit doesn’t stink.”
“Maybe it doesn’t.”
“That’s my point, right there,” Marcus said, snatching his pants from the floor and lifting one leg to slide it in.
“Look, Marcus, you don’t understand. You can’t understand… ”
“Can’t understand at my age, yeah, I get it.” He slammed his free leg into the pants and fastened them. “But I understand you need me.”
“Need is a strong word,” said Anele.
“It looks like need to me,” he said.
“Yeah, it does.”
“And what does that look like?” she asked.
“What does it look like? Like you’re sprawled out on a hotel bed, crying.”
“You’re not why I cry, Marcus.”
She laughed. “Of course you’re not. You stop me from crying sometimes, but you’re not the reason I cry. Why would I go out of my way to bring you into my life just to make me cry?”
“I don’t know. I just thought maybe… ”
“I know you don’t,” she said, sitting up in the bed and peeling her shirt off, her small breasts perky despite her age. “And that’s my point. You don’t know, can’t know.” Anele rose from the bed and slunk towards him. Reaching a hand out, she said, “And that’s what I love about you, Marcus. You just can’t know. You just can’t. Not enough has happened to you.”
Anele cradled Marcus’s face with her fingertips, pressing them one at a time like the keys of a piano. Then, she took Marcus’s jaw in her hands and leaned in for a kiss.
Marcus grabbed her wrists and gently parted them.
With one crisp movement, Anele yanked her right hand free and brought it with a slap across his face and just as quickly used it to seize his jaw, firmly this time, so that his cheeks bunched until his lips parted. “I’m the boss, boy,” she said, inching in until her lips were just beyond his. “If I want a kiss, I get a kiss. Got it?”
Marcus stared hard into her eyes, the color of a crocodile except where slivers the shade of basil stretched like thin wires. He put two fingers just above her navel, sliding them up until they parted her breasts. She breathed warm breath onto his lips and closed her eyes. He stopped his finger at the base of her neck. His fingers bloomed, and his hand came to rest on her throat. Then he pushed.
Anele grunted and flew onto her back on the bed. She laughed. “You want it like that?” she asked.
“I don’t want it at all. Take the hint.”
“Not man enough?” she asked, parting her legs. “Not man enough for all this?”
“Is that a promise or just tough talk?” Anele asked, unsnapping her pants and shimmying them over her hips, along her thighs, the thin-strapped panties trailing behind. She yanked the legs of the pants over her knees down to her ankles but did not remove them. She touched herself and laughed and said, “You’re all talk. Fuck me? Fuck you, Marcus, all talk. Fuck you,” she taunted, parting herself for him as he watched.
Marcus, hard, stepped out of his pants and closed the distance between them.
“Oh, here it comes,” Anele laughed. “Get ready!”
Marcus left the pants around her ankles like shackles and bear hugged her legs, pulling her to him.
Laughing, Anele asked, “You going to give it to me hard now? You goi—” Anele lost her breath as Marcus hoisted her bound feet over one shoulder and buried himself into her. She locked onto his forearms. Her nails drew blood, and this spurred Marcus to go faster, harder, until the only sounds in the hotel room were their bodies slamming together, Marcus’s growls and grunts, and Anele’s taunting questions: “Is that it, boy? Is that what you have planned for me?” and on and on until Marcus collapsed to his side, sweaty and panting, and Anele rolled to hers, where she lay silent for several moments until she wept.
“Every time,” Marcus said piteously, more to himself than to Anele.
“You don’t understand,” she whispered.
After that, Marcus didn’t hear from Anele for a week. For the first couple of days, he didn’t care. He was tired of the emotional roller coaster of being involved with her; of feeling sorry for her situation just to have it thrown back in his face so that he was angry, and of the anger turning into sex which turned into tears and him feeling sorry all over again. What was supposed to be a fun fling with a mature woman who could control her emotions had become a relationship every bit as complicated as those with women Marcus’s age; young women who he thought were too young to handle physical contact without a title or promise or future. Maybe it was all women, Marcus thought; maybe no woman could handle it.
After a few days more, the anger Marcus had for Anele turned to guilt. He was sorry. He felt bad because she hurt, and he wanted to help. He texted her, just once that first day, but, when she didn’t answer, he sent several texts the following day, and again the next. Then, he stopped. When Anele didn’t respond, Marcus was surprised at how upset he was, how guilty he felt for not handling things differently, for being angry or hostile, for not trusting Anele and accepting it when she said, “You don’t understand. You can’t.”
“Maybe I can’t,” he said to himself, alone in his apartment, holding his phone.
Marcus fell asleep on the couch that night. He woke in the morning, holding his phone in the same hand, his palm sweaty. He looked, and there was a message from Anele, a message that asked him to come to a late lunch at a bistro where they had drinks once before. Marcus showed up at 3 pm, as requested. There was a large outdoor patio. He spotted Anele at a small table, set at the back of the patio and positioned against a wall. Marcus smiled at Anele when he saw her and moved in her direction but stopped when she shook her head. Marcus cocked his head, questioningly, and Anele shook her head a second time in response. He stood there a moment but then pressed forward. When Anele realized Marcus was going to come to her anyway, she dropped her head in laughter.
“Anele, wh—” Marcus said with a smile as he closed the distance between them.
“Marcus,” she interrupted, looking up from her laugh. “Take a different seat,” she ordered.
“I said, take a different seat.”
“Why would I do that?” he asked. “Why can’t I sit with you?”
“It’s not that you can’t,” she confirmed. “It’s that I don’t want you to.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Take that seat over there,” said Anele, pointing at an empty table across the patio but still within plain sight of Anele’s table.
Marcus stared down at Anele.
“Go,” she ordered, nodding at the empty table, “before somebody takes it.”
Marcus paused a moment longer and then made his way across the patio and sat at the table. He watched Anele, who laughed at the waitress who came by to take her order. A few moments later, a man came by Marcus’s table to take his order as well. Marcus ordered a coffee and watched Anele as he waited. She sat at the table, her finger swiping across her phone screen. Occasionally, she’d stop swiping to type something or drink from her water but never to acknowledge Marcus. Marcus’s coffee came and then, a few minutes later, Anele’s half sandwich and soup. She ate and drank and played with her phone. Marcus drank his coffee. One moment he thought about leaving and the next about staying, and then about going up and talking to her, his anger, curiosity, and concern roiling. In the end, he sat and watched her eat and drink and text.
It was when Anele finished eating and the waitress took her empty dishes that he began to understand as she parted her legs just a little so that he could see up her skirt. After she parted her legs, she looked at him for the first time, just long enough to make certain he noticed. Then she turned her attention back to her phone.
Marcus could see just enough to know Anele wasn’t wearing panties. He looked around the patio, everybody involved in their conversations, waiters and waitresses entangled in their jobs. It was shocking, Marcus thought, that Anele was there, exposing herself and nobody knew. The thought became all of the more shocking when the finger she swiped across the phone found its way beneath the table top and up the inside of her thigh. She began touching herself, her movements furtive but deliberate. Marcus scanned the patio again. Nobody had noticed.
Anele slowly and carefully moved her hand up from beneath the table and closed her legs when her waitress approached to give her the check; as soon as the waitress turned, Anele found herself beneath the table again. She stopped when the waitress returned with her card. She signed the merchant receipt, stood, and made her way towards Marcus, who sat hard but uncertain just what to do. Anele glared down at him, powered by the linear path of her high-heeled stride and swinging hips. Marcus thought she’d stop and say something, but she didn’t. She simply passed by, reached her right arm out, and brushed a wet finger across Marcus’s mouth. Marcus, loose-jawed in disbelief, turned his head and watched Anele slipping away down the sidewalk, the click of her heels growing fainter with each stride.
“Anele,” Marcus said, just above a whisper. Then, he yelled, “Anele!”
Marcus stood. “Anele!” he screamed, wiping his face and looking at the back of his hand. He didn’t notice the patrons on the patio staring at him. “Anele!” he tried one last time as she vanished around the corner of a building. Once Anele was gone, Marcus became uncomfortably aware of everyone’s piercing eyes. He snatched his wallet from his pocket, pulled out a five, and dropped it on the table before turning and walking away.
Marcus texted Anele a few times, but she never responded, so he stopped. He didn’t hear from her for three days. Then, she texted him, told him to return to the bistro that Wednesday and to proceed the same way he had before. Find a table, she ordered, but leave her alone. He texted her back, asking why he couldn’t talk to her, why she didn’t want to talk to him, if he had done something wrong. She ignored every question.
Marcus showed up that Wednesday as instructed and took an empty table facing where Anele had sat before. Marcus checked his watch repeatedly. She was three minutes late and then five. He texted her. No reply. She was ten minutes late and then fifteen. Just as Marcus was about to leave, a waitress approached.
“Marcus Tinley?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Marcus said.
“This was left for you,” said the girl, extending an envelope to him. “A woman said she was to meet you here, but plans changed. She described you, said you’d be sitting alone, and asked that I make certain you get this.” The girl smiled, encouraging Marcus to take the envelope.
“Thanks,” he said, gingerly taking what she offered.
The girl, holding her smile, asked, “Did you need anything?”
Marcus looked at the envelope in his hand. “Um, I don’t know yet. Can I see what this is first?”
“Of course,” said the girl. “I’ll be back by in a moment.” She gave a smile and left.
Marcus turned the envelope over in his hands a few times. It was sealed, a lipsticked kiss over the flap. He opened it. It was a Christmas card filled with Anele’s rolling cursive. She apologized for the out of season card, promising him it was all she had and that she didn’t have time for a trip to the store. She said she knew he’d understand, and she imagined he had bigger concerns than a card from an older woman he was sleeping with. She assured him that she really just wanted him to know that their experience together had been wonderful, that it was just what she needed, that he had provided everything he had promised and then some. She wanted him to know she took comfort in his level of maturity, comfort in her knowing that he would handle her absence with ease because, as he’d promised, he wouldn’t be attached, which, she assured him, she didn’t want because she, herself, was not attached.
At the very the bottom of the card, Anele wrote the word love. Wrote her name. Wrote Xs and Os. Penned a crooked heart.
Marcus didn’t understand. He wished he wasn’t holding a Christmas card, wished it so much he wanted to hit something and hurt it. He wished the table where Anele had sat wasn’t empty. It seemed so distant just then. He heard the purr of her voice. “Life is just a record of tears,” it said. “You just can’t understand,” it said.
He stared at the card and at the table where a woman he didn’t know took a seat, her smile infuriating him. He was getting it. He was beginning to understand.