THE THIEF OF TIME
BY MARK H. GLUCKSTERN
The day they met she let him kiss her in the back seat of his car, then told him she could never see him again.
"I can't," she said. "My husband would kill me."
Rogers thought she was being dramatic, and when she ran across the parking lot and out of his life, he was sure of it.
He should have known. The ad she'd posted on the adult website was full of drama. "Be the one," it read. "Save my life." And along with five hundred other guys, Rogers decided he could be the one. What the hell, he'd thought. Why not? He was married. She was married. It would be the perfect relationship. No strings.
He wrote her once ("Hi. Let's steal away some time."), and when she didn't write back, he wrote a second time. "Sift through your men like grains of sand, if you must, but know this, I am the one." He called himself the Thief of Time.
He'd given up hope by the time he'd heard back from her a week later, already moving on to other women who didn't write back. Whether known as Hot Tamale or SindeeLou or Big Barbara, they combined in a decided lack of interest in the Thief of Time.
"I can't write often," the e-mail read. "My husband." That was her idea of a paragraph. "I'd like to meet sometime. I really would. Tell me more about yourself." Though her screen name was Heart of Desire, she signed her name Sue.
So prompted, Rogers did tell her about himself. Not everything, of course. There was a wariness to what he wrote. Eliminated was anything too specific about who he was or what he did. As soon as he sent the e-mail, he knew it hadn't been quite right. He followed it up with a more personal note, a story about the eighth grade and the first girl he'd ever kissed.
"After she dumped me, I used to stand across the street from her house and stare at the front window, hoping to catch a glimpse of her yet knowing it wouldn't matter. What was done was done. I knew that, sure, but I didn't want to let go of my last little bit of hope. How I longed for her, for one more moment, for one last kiss. Even then I wanted to be the Thief of Time. Even then I longed for the stolen moment."
When she wrote back, he knew she was hooked. "I was that girl," she wrote. "I think the Hell I live in now is what I deserve for the boys I hurt." Though she never went into detail about that Hell, Rogers took it as an article of faith that she knew what she was talking about.
That's how they ended up in the back seat of his car, however briefly. They'd met for a cup of coffee at a large mall, a place where they could remain relatively anonymous, while they sized up each other. Rogers liked her immediately. Her shy smile went straight to his heart. She was otherwise unassuming, with no whiff of brimstone, no trace of Hell. Like him, she was about forty. Her mousy brown hair was cut short, with bangs in front. She was maybe five-four, a few inches shorter than he. After coffee, they moved on to his car. Their kiss, long and slow, excited Rogers, as if he could feel it (both the kiss and the excitement) in every hair, in every pore, in every cell.
"What do you think brought us together?" he asked her. "Destiny? Fate? The unseen hand of God?"
"It was just typing," Sue said as she moved her fingers across an imaginary keyboard. "That's all."
"Typing?" he said. "Not a very romantic notion, is it?"
Instead of answering, Sue stared at him vacantly. The light had gone out in her window.
"Sue," he said. "Hey!"
She refocused on him, and when she did, her mouth dropped open and her eyes were bright with terror.
"I can't do this," she said.
Rogers was too stunned to follow her the moment she bolted from his car. By the time he gave chase, he couldn't see her anywhere. He turned around and around in the parking lot, feeling foolish but determined not to lose her. He was a hopeless idiot and a lousy thief. He'd let his stolen moment slip away.
She wouldn't return his e-mails, not the long ones, the three-a-days he sent out the first week, and not the last one, the one word message. "Please," he wrote sometime in week six, and when no answer followed, he finally gave up.
So much for the plan, the mistress, the time outside of time. What's a few weeks in the course of a lifetime? A second? An hour? He'd had his playful moment, when hope got the better of him and he seemed -- he really seemed -- to be on the verge of something. An adventure, maybe. At least a change of pace. All that was gone, replaced by the suffocating feeling of the walls closing in on him. He wore his life like a straitjacket. Ahead of him were years and years and years of the same old thing, followed by nothing more than a cemetery plot, a coffin and a simple headstone. If he stared long enough into his future, he could read his epitaph. CRUSHED BY BOREDOM.
One afternoon, facing the prospect of another four hours of uneventful drudgery, he told his boss he wasn't feeling well and left for the day. As he walked out of the building and into the fresh air, he felt a buzz of excitement, proud of himself for having pulled off a minor scam. Then he stopped, took a look around and realized he had no idea of how to spend his afternoon.
He walked into a sports memorabilia store, where he spent a few minutes examining baseballs signed by famous ballplayers. He eventually bought a few packs of baseball cards, tokens of forgotten youth. There was a potency to the first pack, as if vapors of eternal youth escaped the packet as soon as he ripped the foil. He fingered the individual cards, fanning them out, inspecting them front and back. Yes, he thought. Yes. It was a holy moment. Greedily, he ripped open a second pack and a third, but the thrill was already gone and with it the potency. He didn't even bother to open the fourth pack.
So he went to a movie, where he allowed himself to be captivated for a hundred minutes by the story of a modern-day Midas who couldn't love and consequently grew bored with life. His one moment of delight was the rush he felt as he fell to earth after throwing himself off a cliff. A bit extreme, Rogers thought, though he empathized with the hero's weariness.
When the lights went up at the end of the show, Rogers saw something that made him blink in disbelief. It was her, Sue. He was sure of it. He raced up the opposite aisle and was waiting in the lobby before she emerged from the theater.
Her first reaction was to pretend she didn't see him. With hurried steps and her eyes glued to the carpet, she tried to sneak past him. The transparency of the act made Rogers want her all the more.
"Sue!" he cried, not exactly in a loud voice, but sharp, insistent. "Don't."
It surprised him when she did stop and looked at him through sorrowful eyes. She shook her head and said, "It won't work."
"Come with me," Rogers said, as he held his hand out for her to take. "Let's get a cup of coffee." Another surprise. She did take his hand and let him lead her to the coffee house next door to the theater.
The conversation was one-sided, mostly Rogers fumbling for a surefire conversation starter, fumbling and fumbling and fumbling. Then he just looked at her, deep into her sad brown eyes, and hours seemed to pass.
The thing was, she didn't look away. Even as the same response -- "I can't" -- formed and unformed on her lips, her eyes, at least, had surrendered to him. Finally, her eyes broke away from his, and when she spoke, she spoke in the direction of the wall.
"You're very nice," she said, a promising start. "But I can't. I really can't. It was all a big mistake."
Rogers took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry," she said, taking his hand and holding it for a solemn minute.
When she left the coffee house, Rogers followed.
Impulsively, he asked her to stop. "A hug?" he said and she allowed him one. In fact, as he held her and looked into her eyes again, she didn't stop him from leaning in for a kiss. Rogers watched her walk away. Oh well, he thought. The finality of the act was clear to him and he accepted it as closure. The way the asphalt muffled her steps as she fled from him, what else could it be? Drifting off into silence, the last image she left Rogers was the sight of the rear end of her old blue Toyota fading into nothingness.
But a week later, closure was the last thing on his mind.
"OK," her e-mail read. "It's now or never." She gave him instructions on where to meet her. "It's my girlfriend's apartment. She won't be there. We'll be SAFE."
His response was to the point. "I'll be there."
Rogers parked on the street a half-block from the apartment house, his heart pounding, his mouth dry, his sense of adventure stalled for a moment. He hadn't eaten much or slept well since receiving Sue's e-mail, and every moment he spent in the company of his wife was filled with overwhelming guilt. "I'm sorry," he wanted to confess. "I'm so sorry."
He knocked on the apartment door, and when nothing happened, he knocked a second time. When the door opened so slowly, Rogers half-expected to find a frightened child hiding behind it. He wasn't far from wrong. With her sad eyes, Sue looked the part of the waif, scared all the time yet determined to survive. She stepped back to let Rogers enter the apartment. She took another step back when he tried to kiss her.
"Not yet," she said. She led him to the bedroom.
Taking his cue from her, Rogers went around to the far side of the bed. He removed his shoes and sat on the bed, his back propped up by the headboard. The room was full of muted colors -- taupe, beige, olive. Not much to stir the passions. Rogers patted the bed, an invitation for Sue to join him. Instead, after taking off her shoes, she sat on the far corner of the bed, facing him but coming no closer.
"I'm taking a chance," she said.
"I don't think you do. It's bigger than you think. It's--"
"OK. It's a big chance," Rogers said. "I understand." Again he patted the bed next to him. "Come up here and sit next to me."
What followed was more or less predictable, the progression from kissing to fondling to nakedness, with Sue remaining eerily silent throughout that progression, as if the slightest moan would bring her husband crashing through the door. And maybe she had reason to be afraid. Rogers noticed a bruise on the inside of her upper arm. Sue flinched when he touched it, so he muttered an apology and said nothing about it.
Even though Sue threw herself into their lovemaking with a certain physical intensity, no sound escaped her lips. And when a few tremors of ecstasy passed through her body at the end of the act, her eyes locked fiercely on his yet she made no sound.
"You'll have to go," she said, as soon as they finished. No warm afterglow for her.
"OK," Rogers said, trying not to sound petulant.
"I liked that," Sue said, a slow smile traveling across her face.
"I liked it, too."
She allowed him one more kiss before he left, dry-lipped and without passion. He heard her turn on the shower before he walked out the door.
Rogers went home to his wife, his guilt eating away at him, gnawing at his every vital organ. He forced a smile and wondered if she noticed, wondered if she had the sensors of a polygraph, subjecting everything he said to the ultimate test, true or false. Bravely, Rogers offered to take her out to dinner, where he managed to smile when appropriate, speak when necessary and gaze into her eyes when all else failed. It was OK, he told himself. He'd get used to it. Everybody did.
So he stole some time and he led two lives, each with its own set of rules. Life with Jan was a time of sugar-coated paranoia, when he tried hard to be at his best, while always expecting a turn for the worst. His affair with Sue was like riding a bicycle. He just let it happen, accepting the gift of her presence whenever she was near. Despite her perpetual oddness, Rogers found in Sue a time outside of time, a place beyond the schedules, the chores, the mundane details of everyday life. Their time together was the one splash of color in a world otherwise defined in various shades of gray. Even when Rogers thought he was beyond surprise, she surprised him, laughing, throwing her arms around him and kissing him wetly on the lips.
"You are so special to me," she said and she'd never looked more alive to him.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he wrote her that night. "Do you?"
"I can't wait to see you again," she wrote back.
The next Wednesday, Roger's hurried up the block to the girlfriend's apartment house. He couldn't remember a time when he'd felt as light, when he could bound up a flight of stairs two at a time and not run short of breath.
Sensing she was behind the door awaiting his knock, Rogers tapped lightly, but when the door swung open and the lightness left him, he felt he could sink through the floor and the floor beneath it and the one after that, and to keep on sinking until he reached the earth's core. Behind the door stood a stranger, a man both large and fierce.
"You him?" the man demanded, expecting Rogers to fill in the details of the question. When Rogers didn't answer, the man's big hand grabbed him by the shirt. There was a ripping sound as the man pulled Rogers into the apartment. "Are you him? The boyfriend?"
"I guess," Rogers managed to answer.
The man pulled Rogers closer, putting them nose to nose, a move calculated to intimidate Rogers by depriving him of his personal space. He was in Hell, plain and simple. Satan's breath singed his face.
"You guess!" the man bellowed.
"I -- "
"Don't you even know?"
"I -- "
The man lifted Rogers off the floor, and let him dangle for a moment before dropping him back down.
"Simple question, stud. Are you or are you not the boyfriend?"
"Yes," Rogers said at last.
Fight or flight? Neither seemed possible. Flight would have involved a conscious effort to move, that Rogers regain some control over his limbs, and fight, fight was well beyond the possible. It was madness.
"Don't move," the man said.
He returned moments later pushing Sue in front of him. She was bruised and naked, a portrait of shame. A garish ring of reddish purple surrounded her right eye, her lip was split, and Rogers was certain the bruise on her left side indicated a couple of broken ribs.
Fight or flight? Was vomit a weapon?
The man eyed the puddle at Rogers' feet. "Jesus, stud. Aren't you pathetic?"
Rogers stood dumbly. Of course, he was pathetic. Why state the obvious?
"I said, 'Aren't you?'" The man began to push Rogers back toward the front door, as if pushing had become a new form of punctuation. "Aren't you? Aren't you? Aren't you?" One last push sandwiched Rogers between the door and the man's right hand, which seemed to him to be as massive as the door.
"You are pathetic," the man said before backing off. "Get out now, stud. Now! But don't you ever let me catch you near my woman again." He leaned I forward for one last growl. "Ever!"
Rogers turned and clawed at the door until it opened. "I'll kill you," he heard the man shout as he ran down the hall. "I'll kill you both."
He tripped as he burst through the front door of the building and took a headlong dive into the grass. After staggering to his feet, he half-stumbled, half-ran to his car. Leaning against the hood of his car to try to catch his breath, he noticed his reflection in the windshield. He was barely able to identify the wreck he saw there, the sweating, gasping, disheveled, pasty-faced wreck.
As he sat in his car, still too shaky to drive away, the options open to him tumbled through his mind like a pair of dice. Fight or flight? The possibilities for revenge were endless. Flight now did not preclude a fight later, one where he'd be better prepared to take on his tormentor.
His first impulse was to buy a gun. If he were fast enough, he could buy it, race back to the apartment and blast his way through the door, gloating as he pulled the trigger again and again and again. He and Sue could run away, establish new identities. The freedom they would gain would be enough to counter the difficulties they'd have to overcome.
He even parked on the street outside a pawn shop, fighting hard to break free from the shackles of reason. The hell with it. The hell with everything. He could do it. The gun. The bullets. The big man falling, his blood everywhere. But try though he might, he could never break free. His brain won out over his heart, preventing him from buying a gun right then and there. Better to wait for a moment of calm, when he was less a lava-spewing volcano and more of a cold scalpel resting in a steady hand. Better he should track down the big son of a bitch, stalk him until he knew his routines, his habits, his every move. One day he'd spring out from the shadows, stick the gun in the big man's ear and pull the trigger. Justice would be served.
So instead of a gun, Rogers drove to another store where he bought a new shirt. The cashier didn't blink when she rang up the sale. Probably didn't even notice Rogers or the state of his clothing. He changed in the car, stepping out to throw the ripped shirt in the dumpster behind the store before he drove away. Farewell to bad memories! He'd let the shirt serve as a scapegoat for his shame. What was left to him as he returned home was not shame, just a hard stone of hate lodged in his heart.
Fight or flight? From that moment on, he'd control the situation. He'd be judge, jury and executioner. The afternoon's ordeal had changed him, like a few hours in a kiln transforms ropes of clay into something useful. Fight or flight? He'd take up the fight now. He was in control.
Once inside the house, he strode across the living room to where Jan was sitting at her computer. He kissed her on the forehead, wondering if she were in tune with the new Rogers, if she could tell the difference between the original and the improved version.
When the phone rang, Rogers went to answer it. "I'll get it," he told his wife. Everything was different. Life crackled with possibility. Even the receiver felt different as it rested in his hand and he held it to his ear.
"Remember," the voice said. "I'll kill you both."
Rogers dropped the phone the first time he tried to set it in its cradle. Then he walked over to the bar to pour himself a drink.