Surface tension, that’s what it is.

We were both past 30, we’d both been around, there were no nerves or awkward moments, we were broken in and knew the paces.

SURFACE TENSION BY RICHARD RISEMBERG 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 69


When Emily Minton was introduced around by the Big Boss, I looked up, rose from my desk, made polite noises. She was another pretty woman of average height, slim, dark-haired, well-dressed in the way of the office. Maybe more tastefully than most: she certainly had the quality, rare even in the city of show-offs that’s Los Angeles, of not being generic. 

But we were a media-oriented business, albeit a behind-the-scenes one, providing support services to the image-builders. Attractive and well-dressed people of any and all genders were not rare. I turned back to my computer and forgot about her. At one point I had to ask a colleague to remind me of her name. So it was definitely not love at first sight, nor second, nor third. 

Then we worked together shepherding a minor client out of his decline. She was still new then, a bit of a golden girl, but not quite done proving herself. 

We met with the Big Boss of that time. He leaned back in his chair, expressed formulaic confidence in our abilities, and handed over the troublesome but not very profitable client, a small-time producer with a reputation for alcoholic excess that was notable even in our industry.

I should explain that we went through a number of Big Bosses. The company was family-owned and they were more interested in spending the money than in helping to make it. While they had real offices for themselves, the kind with doors that closed, they brought in a line of Big Bosses to run things. The BBs kept proving themselves unsatisfactory, in one case by dying of a heart attack while trying to close a deal, but the family just brought someone else in. 

So Emily and I were given temporary use of a bland gray cubicle with an outdated workstation in it, where a couple of faded photos still hung off thumbtacks on the wall, legacy of a former colleague who had quit rather noisily and gone off to Northern California to tend a marijuana patch. Such was the shape of fate in our little corner of the world. Fortunately we dealt mostly with underlings, being underlings ourselves, and knotted together a network of machers and moneymen and, most important but also most ignored, the wielders of lenses and lights and digital geekery that could make it all happen. 

If you saw the resulting ad, you may have felt a sense of peace and comfort that it was hoped you would associate with a certain brand of tampon, though the breezy skirts and rolling landscapes had little to do with menstruation. 

Of course it was all bullshit, and Emily and I mocked the client, the ad, and the product mercilessly—as long as we were out of earshot of anyone else involved. 

It wasn’t her brand anyway, she remarked once, with what seemed to me a bit of an artificial nonchalance. She’d tried them, and they were no good. 

“I defer to your expertise on the matter,” I’d said. “The closest I’ve gotten to them was picking up a box now and then for my ex. Not these, she didn’t like them either.”

“It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?” she said. “Helping a drunk sell junk with elegant bunk.”

“It could be worse,” I said.

“Of course it could. Things could always be worse. We could be in a concentration camp. We could be on fire. We could be the fucking client.” 

She leaned back in her chair and settled her big brown eyes on me. I had never noticed how well-shaped her eyes were before. “I’m impressed,” she said, “that you would stand in line at the drugstore with a box of tampons. Most men wouldn’t.”

“I have no shame,” I said.

“In this business, that’s a plus,” she said, and then smiled. It looked like a real smile, though I hadn’t seen one in so long that I couldn’t be sure. “Let’s go to lunch and bond over tampons.”

It sounded ridiculous, so we went.

Our office was in a part of town where immigrants got their start by opening tiny diners and importing their grandmas to boss the kitchen. You could eat well on the cheap, and in fact eating out every day would never break the bank. Armenian, Thai, Indian—little hole-in-the-wall places whose owners learned your name by the second visit, even if they could never quite pronounce it. 

We became regular lunch partners, sitting across from each other over iridescent curries or vast mounds of rice that smelled like old socks but were still somehow delicious. Sometimes we went so far as to sneak in a midday beer. Shadowy rooms with elaborate tapestries and paintings of discount holy men coddled us as we explored each other’s interests and histories, the stern fathers and eccentric mothers we’d both grown up with, the landscapes and sunsets that lingered in our dreams from childhood wanderings. Books and movies that we liked, bosses we had hated or even, now and then, admired. 

We had a rule that Emily imposed on us from early on: whoever said “lunch” first was privileged to pay for it. Then it became a game: each of us wanted to treat the other. “It’s a power play, of course,” she said. “I don’t like being put into a situation of dependency.”

“It’s a gift,” I said. “I’m not buying you, I’m buying your lunch.”

“We’re made of lunch. Let’s keep it fair, and build an equity in each other’s bones and cells, okay?”

It was a funny way to put it, but I understood her right away. We were too much alike. That’s not always a blessing. Maybe not ever. When you go head to head, the battle lasts ten rounds, every time. 

But it took us a while to fight: three months, to be exact. And stupid though it seems, it was over the then-current Big Boss.

This particular BB was a little man who lived in a far suburb and had a towering wife who drove across town to drop in on him now and then. Maybe she was really sweet on her miniature swain, or maybe she was checking to make sure he wasn’t getting too involved in negotiations with some Hollywood-bound Blowjob Betty looking for a delusion of influence in the business. 

In any case he was a snappish little terrier of a fellow, ready with a wisecrack and happy to say “No” to your good idea—so he could pretend it was his three weeks later when he somehow imagined you would have forgotten you came up with it. 

This affronted Emily no end: “How can you let him get away with that? It’s just wrong!” She was beautiful when indignation raged in her chest and made her pace like a leopard in a cage, but if you were in the cage with the leopard it could have its tense moments.

“The truth is,” I told her, “I’m not that invested in this job. But I do want to get things done, it’s kind of a habit with me, and if it means letting him think he pulled a fast one and stole my idea, I don’t care. He knows what he’s doing, he needs people like me, because he has no ideas of his own. It keeps me in raises, and that’s all I want from this place. I mean, a lust for making idiots famous is not what made me go to college. When I go home I don’t think about this dump—” 

“Well, I do, damn it! What he does, it’s just not fair.”

“Wasn’t it Reagan who once said life is not fair?”

“Since when did you become a Republican?”

“Since never. And since when did you become a saint?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Unlike the Big Boss, Emily never forgot who owned what. 

She didn’t go to lunch with me for two weeks. Then I guess she got hungry, and said “lunch” first.

That was our pattern, really for too damn long. Nevertheless, we ended up in bed, which we both knew was coming. Even though neither said a word about nookie, we knew: we both dressed up nicer than usual that night. 

We’d been meeting for dinner now and then anyway, and taking walks along the quiet streets behind the nightlife boulevards after a good meal with wine. Commenting on the people around us, looking in the windows of darkened stores, cutting through the fragrant shadows of a good clean park, the kind where no one shoots or stabs a rival—hey, it was LA, you had to keep that in mind. Studying classic neon signs, the fortune-teller’s brash red glow or the blink of an old bar’s name over a hipster coffeehouse, drifting into the late-night bookstore where we browsed the shelves while the shop cat wound round our ankles. 

That was the way it went on our big night, and when we came back to my place she just went up the stairs with me, her hand in mine, and we found the only warmth there is in this cold world for critters that know they’re going to die. 

We were both past 30, we’d both been around, there were no nerves or awkward moments, we were broken in and knew the paces.

Of course that didn’t mean we never fought again. It only meant the stakes were higher now. And we were both still bullheaded and a bit full of ourselves. The negotiations continued. So did the nights of warmth. I was surprised that sometimes the good sex followed closely on a tiff, but I guess that heightening one emotion spikes them all, I don’t know. All I know was that I felt at home with her even when she drove me nuts with crazy statements. I didn’t mind losing the argument when she was right. But it took her a while to return the favor.

The breaking point was when she was mad at me, again, for daring to defend my statement against one of her wilder speculations. “Don’t bring logic into this; you just don’t give a damn about my feelings, do you?” Then she snarled: “You mangy cur.”

I was too often the wise guy, but this time it worked: “If I’m a cur, that makes us a perfect match—bitch.” It was a bold move; it hadn’t been my practice to insult her directly, her or anybody else.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know—cur, bitch, they go together. We should get married and raise some pups.”

“Are you out of your mind? What are you talking about?”

“Yes, I’m out of my mind. But you know, I can’t resist a pun.”

“What pun? Are you nuts?”

“You know, cur and bitch. You get it, don’t you?”

She looked at me without saying anything for a moment. The anger seemed to drain out of her face. “Well...okay, no, I don’t get it. Explain.” She crossed her arms and waited.

“Cur, bitch, they’re both types of dogs.”

“A cur is a dog?”

I couldn’t believe it: “Yes. Specifically, a mongrel, especially if it’s a bit nasty. And a bitch, of course—”

“I know what a bitch is. I mean in the literal sense.” She uncrossed her arms. “I didn’t know what cur meant. I’d just read it somewhere, and it sounded like a good insult.”

“It is a good insult. It was perfect for us. I am a cur, a mongrel human with a mixed-up background, and you’re—”

“Yes, I am, so you’d better shut up now.” She ambled over and put her arms around me. 

“You win this round.”

“It’s not a contest,” I said. She smothered my face with a kiss. That shut me up.

So we kept on. Surface tension, I’ve decided, that’s what it is. Like a glass that’s a little too full, and the water bulges impossibly over the top. It trembles, it wobbles, sometimes it breaks and runs down the side of the glass. But the thing is, the glass is still full. 

Or maybe like the sea when the waves break, it looks like it’s shattered in white foam, it’s messy, it can even be dangerous. Then the waves pull back, the storm subsides, and you look out at the horizon. The sea is still the sea. The storms haven’t broken it.

RICHARD RISEMBERG

I was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime. I have lived in LA since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. I attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in my last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, a design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods. All has become source material for my writing. I have published stories, poems, and essays in Snowy Egret, Juxta, Terrain, Empty Mirror, Switchblade, Mystery Tribune, Ginosko Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Front Porch Review, Ornery Quarterly, Fiction on the Web UK, American Writers Review, Bangalore Review, Short Edition, and The Thieving Magpie etcetera.