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YOU DON'T BRING ME FLOWERS ANYMORE

Zone 3, Fall 2009

     It was a late spring morning in New York City with cool breezes and scudding clouds punctuated by brilliant bursts of warm sunshine, the kind of day that makes people restless for new experience. It was the day Sam was to receive an e-mail that would change his life.
     He was sitting that morning in his boss's spacious corner office while she briefed him on his next assignment. The sun was directly behind her and when it emerged from the clouds it burned into Sam's eyes, causing him to squint. The positioning of the furniture, he had come to believe, was not accidental.
     "Ripsid RC rips through heartburn," said Lacy. "That's the message, and they want to go larger-than-life with it, tabloid headlines, clever little fantasy 'news story' ads, 300 words or so, showing their product taking on major heartburn challenges. Over the top stuff. You get the concept."
     Lacy was a tall, slender, stylish young woman whose body appeared to be in constant motion, even in repose. Her eyes were deep blue and her auburn hair had a healthy sheen. She was businesslike and assertive in a beautifully tailored navy suit and crisp white blouse. Sam had been hopelessly in love with her almost from the day, three years ago, that she had joined the agency.
     "Heartburn challenges," he said.
     "That's it. Don't spare the humor. Pie eating contests. Whatever. You're the creative person." Lacy granted him a smile. "Four ideas by four o'clock, Okay?"
     She stood, turned away, and pressed her cell phone to her ear, effectively dismissing him. As he left her office he heard her making dinner reservations for two.
     Sam was reminded of the time he had asked Lacy to dinner about a week after she joined the agency. It turned out to be a brisk, professional encounter, like a bracing dash of cold water in the face. She had smiled and nodded politely while he worked to establish his professional credentials. She was unmoved by his attempts to be charming, and when the check came she insisted on paying half. At her doorstep, desperate with a longing exacerbated by her cool containment, he had made a fumbling attempt to kiss her goodnight which she had firmly repelled. Holding him at arms length, she had laughed at him. "Sam," she said, "Behave your self. We're coworkers."
     Lacy was an astute office politician, quick witted and disarming. She teamed up with good creative people and used her people skills to their mutual advantage. She had been with the agency just under two years when she was promoted to account director and became Sam's boss.
     Sam was easy going and casual and not overly ambitious. His disappointment at being passed over for Director was largely tempered by his unusual admiration for Lacy. He was somewhat in awe of her — she seemed so...perfect, so beautiful and beautifully dressed and street smart and sexy. At age 28, Sam had experienced few deep and sustained emotions in his past relationships with women and certainly nothing approaching awe. His affairs had been casual and pleasant enough, but within a year or so Sam would usually begin to experience a sense of...flatness, of repetition, and the women involved would usually get restive too — they would grow annoyed, it seemed to Sam, about vague unfulfilled needs, unnamed things he was not doing or providing.
     So the strength of his attraction to Lacy confused Sam — it was quite beyond casual. He assumed it would diminish over time, as his previous attractions had, but to his surprise it did not. He saw her almost daily and continued to feel an uncomfortable bittersweet tension in her presence, a reluctance to make eye contact. He had considered asking for a transfer but that would call for explanations and in any case he could not decide if not seeing her at all would be better or worse.
     After a time, he stopped dating other women out of some strange idea of fidelity to the possibility of Lacy, however remote. He didn't consciously decide to do this; it just happened. And though Lacy was unaware of this odd fealty, she was aware of his attraction to her and adept at exploiting it. Sam worked very hard to please her, and routinely allowed her to claim credit for much of his best work.

     Sam sat at his desk, his mind fixed on the smooth creamy curve of Lacy's gracefully turned calve. He reached for his keyboard. "Brain flog time," he muttered. "Goose the cortex to produce some more text."
     Before he left for the day, he placed a list of ideas on Lacy's desk.

     Sam had a compact rent stabilized two bedroom apartment on the third floor of a brownstone with windows overlooking Tompkins Square Park. When he arrived home that evening, he found an e-mail on his computer that deeply excited him.

O.K. handsome, i'm choosing you... you had better be up for this, and i mean that literally. my original thought was to have you go right to my room, but you wouldn't get past the front desk without my electronic key card or all your info waiting there and besides i want to check you out first so we'll do it this way instead. tomorrow night, thurs. June 10th at 7.p.m. i'll be at the Starbucks on 41st and Broadway. you stop somewhere and buy a single carnation, any color. that's so i can make sure you look like the picture you sent. if you look like you should, i'll take you back to my room, but you must understand that we're not hanging out all night. i will ask you leave sometime before 11p.m, i have a phone call coming that i will need privacy for. photo attached, as promised. can't see my face (i said I have a boyfriend) but you won't be disappointed. i don't want a million questions or a hassle, but do e-mail me back with a yes i'll see you there if you can make it...if i don't hear from you by tomorrow at noon, i will make other plans. ciao, Theresa

     Sam read the message through again, then double clicked on the attachment and watched as a slender athletic blond was revealed wearing cut off blue jeans and a white halter top that accentuated her glowing tan. Her face was turned away from the camera.
     He couldn't quite believe a woman had actually written him back.
     Four months ago, a friend had introduced Sam to the "Casual Encounters" personal ads on the Craigslist website. "The fact that you won't date anyone because of this Lacy person is crazy enough," his friend had said, "but why deny yourself a little no-strings-attached sex once in a while?"
     Sam began reading the "Women Seeking Men" ads, initially out of curiosity. The candor and range of the raw explicit needs amazed him. Some ads turned out to be links to erotic services or porn websites, but a good percentage appeared to be sincere, and to his surprise, Sam found himself drawn to certain ads posted by women who were passing through New York on business or vacation and wanted to enliven their visits with a little casual sex. These women, he reasoned, might present opportunities for passionate transitory encounters without posing a threat to his primary obsession with Lacy (he had conceded some time ago that obsession was the correct term). These encounters, if they occurred, would be isolated acts of compassion, instances of being selected to help a woman in need. They would also, he hoped, present opportunities to break through the constraints of ritualistic masturbation to images of Lacy that had been his sole sexual activity for almost three years.
     After a period of procrastination, he had begun to answer these "passing through" ads selectively, with letters he hoped were both sexy and non-threatening. He also sent a picture with his responses since these were out-of-town women with little chance of recognizing him. It was a particularly flattering picture of him in his running gear, a lanky 5'10" with wind blown dark hair and a sweet smile which he considered his best feature. He looked boyish and innocent, younger than his 28 years.
     He usually found three or four ads a week to answer. At first he had been excited when he came upon the kind of ad he was looking for, but as the weeks and months passed without responses his mailings had become dispassionate, almost mechanical. Hundreds of men must answer each ad, he concluded. It was like playing the lottery, though the tickets cost nothing.
     Then, today, amazingly, this message from Theresa.
     Sam scrolled through the ads he had recently downloaded till he found Theresa's. It had been posted a week earlier.

HANDSOME ONLY FOR THURS. EVE JUNE 10...one time — w4m - 27 (manhattan) i'm tall 5 foot8, (you must be taller than me) blonde hair (not a dumb blonde), very slim and sexy. you must be very good looking and in shape... no freaks or weirdos, safe sex means you will wear a condom.... i will be in nyc thru fri. AM, staying at a midtown manhattan hotel, and looking for a one time encounter thurs. eve 6/10. i'm from L.A. here on business and yes i am horny but i have someone back home, so i'm not looking for anything more than this, there will be no hey, let me have your private e-mail address or phone # crap.... i will only respond to those who send a photo.... if you are a cutie and sane, i may just let you come over and make me cum.... send a few thoughts about what you'd like to do when we get to my room.... if i pick you i'll send a photo — Theresa

     He particularly liked the no nonsense, take charge attitude Theresa conveyed in her ad, an attitude that was also apparent in her response.
     An attitude, it occurred to Sam, not unlike Lacy's. In fact, a girl much like Lacy — tall, slender, imperious, beautiful (he hoped), but also available, eager, even trashy.
     Sam was grateful that he was tall enough for her, grateful that she wanted safe sex, grateful that the encounter would only last a few hours. He had truly not known how he would feel and what he would do if a woman actually responded. Now, he knew. He was beyond excitement. He typed out a quick acceptance, his fingers trembling.

Yes, I'll see you there. Thanks for choosing me. I am really looking forward to this. Can you confirm that you got this response? Thanks...Sam

     The return e-mail came two hours later.

Till 7:00 tomorrow. Try to be on time. Theresa.

     Directly thereafter, while considering in some detail the prospects for the following evening, Sam experienced one of the strongest self induced orgasms in memory.

     Sam woke Thursday morning in a state of nervous exhilaration. As he shaved, he considered his clothes for the evening. New York basic black was safest, he decided. The possibility of a hoax or worse had occurred to him more than once. What if a high school kid placed the ad just to pull somebody's chain? What if a gay guy showed up? What if this woman ran some kind of robbery scam with a partner at the hotel? A man was pretty vulnerable with his pants off.
     But her ad and letter were so specific about her situation and limits. L.A., the boyfriend, safe sex, out the door by eleven, no further contact — why would a hoaxer bother with so much quirky detail? And why send a picture hiding her face?
     He studied Theresa's photo — how many times had he done this since last night? He wondered about her face, her smile. She signed her letter Ciao. Surely an affectation. Still, her name was Italian. Or was Theresa a Spanish name? What would she be wearing? A business suit? Would they have a coffee at Starbucks before heading for her hotel? Her letter seemed so...focused. She might not want to get to know him at all.
     That was okay with him. He was ready to use and be used.
     "Stud muffin," he said aloud, and giggled. It was an unaccustomed role. In his prior relationships, sex had never been the sole reason for the connection, and sex had never been demanded of him. In his experience, sex was something you had to work for by keeping a woman happy.
     Sam left for work wondering if they should undress themselves, or each other, or maybe he should be assertive and start by undressing her...

     Lacy ducked her head into his office at nine o'clock. She had on her serious look which meant she wasn't really angry (icy contemptuous look) or really happy (grudging smile). She was holding the list of ideas Sam had left her yesterday.

     IDAHO JONES BRAVES DIET OF FRIED TOADS AND SNAKES — Famous explorer packs Ripsid RC in watertight bags.

     ALIENS FIND EARTH FOOD ROUGH GOING — Ripsid RC found to sooth intergalactic indigestion.

     'TALKING' CHIMP SIGNALS FOR RELIEF — Bobo signed 'heart' and then 'burn' over and over till his trainer understood. Now he gets Ripsid RC directly after his Bananas Flambé.

     EXTINCTION OF DINOSAURS LINKED TO HEARTBURN — Primordial soup evolved over time into cream based curry. Dinosaur diet became too rich. Scientists agree Ripsid RC could have saved many species.

     Lacy sighed. "The client isn't comfortable. They think you're making fun of the product."
     "But I understood you to say..."
     "Yes, yes. Over the top. But it's a question of balance.
     Sam noticed, not for the first time, how firm and perky Lacy's breasts looked nestled in her pale pink silk blouse. Yet, for the first time in recent memory, he found he was unmoved by them. They had lost their evocative power. They had become attractive breasts, nothing more.
     He was delighted with his indifference.
     "Balance," he said.
     "That's the concept," said Lacy. "They shot down three out of four. But they do want to see a draft of the space alien idea."
     "Aliens, but balanced."
     "That's it. Got a meeting. Gotta run. Have a draft by four. Be a good boy and nail it this time and I just might take you to the meeting."
      "You be a good girl, too," he piped, surprising himself. Where did that come from?
     Lacy, too, seemed surprised. She turned and looked at him. Her mouth opened. She started to say something, then stopped.
     "Have a draft by four," she repeated, and stepped out of his office.
     Sam was feeling spirited, even reckless. He had suddenly and completely realized something rather large and obvious: Lacy needed him. She needed his creativity and his discretion — or would subservience be a better term? Who else would allow her to consistently represent his best work as her own?
     He sat at his computer, opened up a new WORD document. He felt giddy, weirdly liberated. Let's have fun, he said to himself. He began to type.

ALIENS FIND EARTH FOOD ROUGH GOING

Intergalactic Famine
After the recent rash of UFO landings, our government was concerned about the intentions of our first extra terrestrial visitors. But fears were allayed when communications were established and a message from the aliens was delivered which read 'We come in hunger.' Apparently these bizarre yet oddly appealing blob like creatures set down on Earth simply because they ran out of food while roaming the universe.

Unprecedented Indigestion
When tested for their preferences in Earth foods, the aliens clearly craved hot spicy dishes though, tragically, the only earth foods found to be safe for their delicate digestive systems were boiled white rice, tofu, and unsweetened Chamomile tea, a diet that clearly bored our alien visitors to intergalactic tears. Repeated test diets with the spicy foods they loved always produced violent cases of heartburn typically accompanied by copious discharges of alien vomit, gas, and diarrhea, reeking and vile beyond all imagining. The problem baffled the best doctors, veterinarians, dietitians, and biochemists the government could muster.

Unprecedented Relief — RIPSID RC With alien hearts burning and alien bowels disgorging unearthly amounts of malodorous fecal matter and pungent carcinogenic flatulence, an intergalactic diplomatic impasse was at hand, not to mention an environmental disaster — until that fateful moment when an alien named Gorb fell into idle computer simulated conversation with one of the guards at his compound. As Gorb described his acute discomfort after a dinner of Five Alarm Chile followed by Shrimp Creole tamped down with several pounds of barbecue, the guard recognized the symptoms and slipped him a bottle of RIPSID RC tablets even though, due to some FDA mishap, this exemplary remedy had not yet been approved for alien consumption. The result is writ large in the history of interplanetary good will. The aliens found they could ingest any Earth dish without fear of massive toxic emissions from their unsightly oral and anal orifices if that dish was preceded by a liberal dose of RIPSID RC. For the journey home, they stocked their ships with hot salsa & tortilla chips, jalapeno peppers, pork rinds, pepperoni sausages, green mustard, fried donuts, and RIPSID RC, all donated by American companies as a gesture of inter galactic, and indeed intestinal, solidarity.

     Lacy looked up from scanning Sam's copy. "Are you crazy?" she screamed. "Copious discharges of alien vomit and diarrhea?"
     Sam smiled.
     "...fecal matter and carcinogenic flatulence? Are you fucking nuts? Oh God, there's more..."
     "That's pungent carcinogenic flatulence," Sam offered.
     Lacy's face was blanched white.
     "Balance problem?" Sam inquired.
     "We have to present this thing in five minutes! I told them I'd seen the copy. I will fucking kill you. I will..."
     "Hey, I was just messing with your head." Sam's tone was conversational. He removed a sheet of paper from his folder. "Here's the real copy. All cleaned up."
     "Messing with my head?" Lacy seemed disoriented. "You were...you were...may I see that please?" Sam passed her the new copy. It was basically the same, except that all references to vomiting, bowels, fecal matter, carcinogenic farts, and unsightly orifices had been excised. Lacy scanned the copy; she looked up at Sam.
     "You're coming with me," she said in a choking voice, "You can defend this. And take the notes."
     "Are you okay?" Sam murmured. "Would you like some water?" Sam suddenly felt an odd dislocation, a division into two distinct people. One person loved Lacy and was genuinely concerned about her discomfort and a little ashamed of the trick he had played on her. The other person was really enjoying the effect of this schoolboy joke.

     The client guys were reading Sam's copy. Their names were Tim and Ted, they were about the same height, and they both wore loose fitting casually elegant clothes in muted shades of gray. Sam had met them before but he couldn't remember which was which. He glanced at his watch. It was ten past five. Lacy was watching the client guys like a hawk, ready to spring either way; Sam could see the tension in her posture.
     "Good," said Tim or Ted at last.
     "Agreed," said Ted or Tim.
     Lacy expelled her breath and came up with a radiant smile.
     "It took some doing but I was pretty confident we had nailed this one!" she gushed.
     "Of course, it needs work," said Tim or Ted.
     "Agreed," said Ted or Tim.
     "It's just a draft," said Lacy. "We need your input."
     "There's a negative reference to the FDA," said Tim or Ted. "Can't have that. They're our friends."
     "Sam, take a note on that," said Lacy.
     "How about substituting FEMA for the FDA?" Ted or Tim asked.
     The discussion dragged on. Eventually, 'bureaucratic blunder' was selected to replace 'FDA mishap.' Sam looked at his watch. It was five- thirty. He wondered how long Theresa would wait if he was late.
     "The word 'intestinal' has to go," said Tim or Ted.
     "Don't you think 'exemplary' is a strange word?" mused Ted or Tim. "It sounds so... formal."
     "Right," said Tim or Ted. "And 'ingest' is just a fancy word for 'eat.' We're trying to reach Joe Sixpack here. That's our demographic."
     Tim and Ted were enjoying themselves. They were creative guys making their creative contribution.
     At six o'clock, Sam rose from his seat. "I'm sorry, but I have to leave. I have a prior commitment."
     Lacy shot him a look. "Sam, I really think that what we're doing here is more important than...than...
     "Pressing family matter," said Sam. "Lacy, I mentioned this to you last week. Sloan Kettering? Remember?" He smiled at Tim and Ted. "She's a very busy gal. She sometimes forgets stuff."
     "Of course," said Lacy, "I do remember now." Sam sensed both rage and fear behind her tight smile.
     "You can fill me in tomorrow morning, Lacy. I'm really sorry I can't stay. Tim, Ted, good to see you, as always." He was out the door before they could respond.

     Sam hailed a cab and entered rush hour traffic. He realized that he had crossed some line with Lacy, but really, what could she do? He was buoyed by the recent realization of his true power, his leverage. She couldn't fire him. She needed him. He was not going to miss this evening with Theresa, and certainly not at the behest of the woman who had made it necessary in the first place.
     He arrived home at six thirty-five. He knew this because he had checked his watch every minute or so as the cab crawled downtown. He fired off a one line e-mail saying he would be a few minutes late though he had no reason to believe that Theresa would get it before seven. He was showered, changed, out the door and in a cab uptown with three condoms in his pocket by six fifty-six. Traffic had eased up a little but it was still bad. Surely, he thought, she would wait at least fifteen minutes. He was a block from the designated Starbucks when he remembered the carnation. He saw a small market on the corner with flowers displayed out front. "Stop here!" he cried. He stuffed a twenty dollar bill in the cabbie's hand and bolted from the cab. It was twelve minutes past seven.
     "I need a carnation," he said to the wrinkled Asian man behind the counter.
     "No one carnation. Only bunch."
     "Okay, give me a bunch."
     "Only pink left. Last bunch."
     "Okay. Whatever."
     It was sixteen past seven. Sam plucked one carnation from the bunch, threw the rest in a trash bin on the corner, and ran the last block to Starbucks.
     As Sam came through the door clutching his flower, this is what he saw: a group of perhaps thirty men milling around, each holding a carnation. There were carnations of all colors, pink, white, yellow, red — they glowed softly like little colored stars against the men's dark clothing. The group seemed to cover the social spectrum, from Wall Street types in suits and ties to bearded downtown guys in jeans and everything in between. There were young men and old, fat and skinny, long haired and bald, black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Some of the men were talking to each other. While he stood transfixed, men brushed by him discarding their flowers as they exited even as others pressed in behind him, carnations in hand.

     Sam took it pretty well. Annoyance quickly gave way to amusement. It was an arresting visual, all those men holding flowers, almost an art form. He wondered if Theresa had been present to observe her handiwork. He wondered if Theresa existed. He decided he was through answering Craigslist ads.

     When Lacy gave Sam her notes on the Ripsid RC copy changes the next day she seemed oddly deferential, almost subdued. She asked him when he could complete a new draft, rather than telling him when she wanted one. She seemed almost...sweet, a word Sam had never associated with her before.
     This change of attitude persisted and it puzzled Sam. Though he liked this softer, gentler Lacy well enough, at the same time he found he missed the edge, the aura of complete self assurance that the old Lacy had projected.
     Two weeks after what he called 'the night of a thousand flowers,' acting on impulse and surprising himself, Sam asked Lacy to dinner and she quickly accepted. At the restaurant, she seemed flushed and vibrant and genuinely interested in everything he had to say. She smiled much more readily than the old Lacy, and Sam was struck by how pretty her smile was, how it softened her face. Outside her door, they lingered and kissed for several minutes. Three days later she spent the night with him.
     After three months, Sam broke up with Lacy as gently as he could. Beneath her remarkably thin veneer of hard edge charisma he had discovered a nice Midwestern girl with deep insecurities, bright enough and undeniably pretty, but not very responsive in bed and not really interested in much of anything beyond the confines of her job and career objectives.
     As it turned out, Lacy's career objectives started sliding toward a major setback a month or so after she started dating Sam, when, at his gentle insistence, she reluctantly began to credit him directly for his work. It was not Sam's intention to hurt Lacy; he simply wanted the recognition for his work that all creative people crave. But, over time, his work stood out so boldly when contrasted with Lacy's other sponsored projects that she was eventually fired and Sam was given her job.
     Sam felt a little guilty about first rejecting Lacy romantically and then replacing her professionally, but the truth was he had neither planned nor anticipated either event. He had been ...disappointed that his erotic fantasies of Lacy as an imperious, demanding, in control beauty could not be sustained by his fleshly encounters with the real Lacy who turned out to be a modest and somewhat passive sex partner. And his promotion, he truly felt, indicated a growing recognition and validation of his work. The firm's judgment regarding Lacy's projects and her value had nothing to do with him.
     Still, he worried about Lacy. He used his contacts in the business to help find her another position, where she had agreed to take a step down in both title and compensation for the chance to prove her worth.

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