The Couple Undercover

I GRABBED ALL THE papers and stuffed them in the glossy navy blue folder they gave me at the orientation an hour earlier. My hotel room was spacious in the color of cream but nothing I’d brag about. I had a great view of 7th Avenue. New York was misty that day. I scrambled to the restroom, fixed my hair and picked up the small bottle of Burberry cologne I bought just for the occasion. I sprayed it a few inches in front of me and forced my way right into the floating fragrance, feeling the small particles land on my blazer and on my lime green tie. The tie matched my Kenneth Cole watch. While admiring my watch, I caught a glimpse of the time. I was already late for the first meeting. I rushed out my room and down to the lobby to the main conference room.

The room was crowded with college boys all wearing black blazers. I walked in with confidence, a trait I was certain we all shared. Minutes before anyone ascended to the podium, I took a seat towards the back, the perfect location for scoping out the entire room. I opened my folder. The first thing on the itinerary of this two-day networking conference in the heart of New York for overachieving, Ivy League-educated gay undergrads was welcoming remarks from some hotshot at Lehman Brothers.

Like most of my misadventures, it all began with innocent flirtation. I first heard of the conference two months earlier from a handsome, raven-haired Columbia boy I met at a dive bar in the East Village. He bragged that the conference was a great opportunity to meet recruiters, network around and hopefully land that golden ticket of an internship at one of the big banks. While he had intentions of becoming a high rolling banker, I had intentions of marrying one. That night, drunk and with smeared in ambitions, I crafted a new resume, highlighting my short-lived gig at a business magazine and exaggerating my desire to enroll in an MBA program. I lied, applied and got in.

Dozens of well put-together young gay men vying to be one step ahead in the competitive world of finance and then there was me, overcrowded public school, waitlisted at Princeton, dismal G.P.A., creative writing major me. A guy with dirty blond hair raised his hand to ask the first question. Initiative, I liked that. Two minutes later, he raised it again to ask another question. Then another. Eagerness was not so flattering. My eyes met those of an intelligent-looking boy off to my right. He had tied his tie in an Onassis knot, so he didn’t retain my interest for long. The guy sitting right in front of me was wearing pounds of hair product. This was going to take longer than I thought.

Next item on the itinerary, we are asked to break up into small groups, and we’re given a business problem. We’re expected to work together and come up with a profitable solution to a hypothetical dilemma involving the merging of two fast food chains. Bottom line: who gives a shit? Instead I volunteered to be the note-taker in my group and silently agreed to absolutely everything this Yale undergrad, who imposed his leadership on the rest of us, had to say. The best way to deal with an Ivy Leaguer was to pretend he was always correct.

The post-dinner plan that first night was a casual cocktail hour. Basically, another excuse for more handshakes and more smiles, just as self-congratulatory as courtesy blowjobs sans an orgasm. The real enticing thing was the bite of hot gossip I had swallowed during dinner. According to a petite pretty boy from Stanford, the year before all of the guys at the conference had gotten utterly wasted and somehow ended up at one of the organizer’s West Village townhouse engaging in questionable behavior. To evade further controversy this year, you had to wear a special red sticker on your name tag in order to get alcoholic beverages. Only the organizers had them.

After my second Diet Coke, I couldn’t bear the dry spell any longer. The only thing worse than being forced to make small talk with men in J. Crew was doing it completely sober. In the restroom, I noticed that one of the organizers had forgotten his name tag next to the sink, the name tag with the red sticker! Cautious not to get caught, I grabbed the tag and dashed inside a stall. I slowly peeled the red sticker from the organizer’s tag and stuck it right on mine. After smoothing it out a bit, I left the restroom and headed towards the bar to order a glass with ice and gin. Waiting behind me in line, the pretty kid from Stanford did a quick double take, noticed my red sticker and asked, “How did you get that?”

“I stole it,” I responded without guilt.

“Well, someone is getting started early,” he said.

“Aren’t you?” I questioned, raising my eyebrow down at him, just a few inches shorter than me.

“I’m saving myself,” he said, slipping a small piece of paper the size of a Chinese fortune into my fingers.

“What is this?”

“An address in the West Village. Do you want to come? The guy who lives there, he works for Boston Consulting, and I heard he is looking for guys to accompany him to Paris later this month. Can you believe it?”

From the foyer of the West Village townhouse, I could see two chandeliers and listen to the crackling of a gentle fireplace. Men in suits paced around, mingling while balancing bubbly champagne glasses filled halfway to the rim. The living room bathed in amber. Across the hall, I ran into the Columbia student who had originally told me about the conference.

“You made it!” He gave me a hug, and I could smell the whiskey.

“I did,” I smiled.

“Isn’t it grand? I can see myself finding a hookup here.”

“Oh, are there a lot of single guys here?” I sounded way too enthused.

“No, I meant, offers. But if you’re interested I hear some guys are playing strip poker upstairs.”

“Really?”

“No,” Columbia laughed grossly. “Fire Island is that way!” He snapped his finger to my left.

“Actually, it’s behind you.” I excused myself to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of Dom. I strolled into the piano room where an unknown pianist played a harmless, “Oh, I’m sorry. You don’t look Mexican.”

I squinted my eyes, offended.

“Please, I don’t subscribe to identity politics, we all know that,” he motioned towards his two compatriots who nodded briefly and looked back towards me for my response.

“To answer your question melody in the background. There I overheard the guy from Yale discussing the economy with two other students. He seemed to think that the decibel level of his voice somehow played into the effectiveness of his argument.

“You’re from Spain,” he said as soon as I got near. “How do you think you should we fix Europe?”

“I’m Mexican,” my words came out like buzzkill.

“Oh, I’m sorry. You don’t look Mexican.” I squinted my eyes, offended.

“Please, I don’t subscribe to identity politics. We all know that,” he motioned towards his two compatriots who nodded briefly and looked back towards me for my response.

“To answer your question, about Europe,” I reverted, for I did have an opinion on the matter, “we have to recognize the limits of capitalism.”

“Not this crap again!” Yale interrupted.

“He’s right,” your soothing voice trailed in from behind me. “We were too optimistic about the Euro,” you said.

“Yeah, but blaming capitalism? How passé,” Yale blurted. “People need incentives.”

“In the form of million dollar bonuses?” You asked.

“Whatever. Got any more coke?” Yale asked his friend, as they began to walk away. But then Yale, desperate to have the final word, stopped and turned back at us. “I’d just be careful about your dissidence. Your drink was probably paid for by a bonus.”

We didn’t respond back. I was just excited to be in your company.

“Thanks so much for that,” I smiled at you. “I felt like I walked right into the lion’s den.”

“Don’t worry about it,” you said. “They’re harmless. And you had a point. As socialist as it might have been.”

“There’s nothing wrong with socialism,” I defended myself.

“You are too trusting.”

“Maybe.”

“Where do you go to school?” you asked.

It was the first time at the conference anyone had taken an interest in anything beyond themselves.

“I’m living in the city this summer, but I go to school in Chicago.”

“University of Chicago? That’s a great school.”

“Northwestern.”

“That’s an even better school,” you smiled and kept your mouth open so that you could quickly steal a sip from my drink.

“You know there is an entire bar next to the kitchen,” I said teasingly.

“I just wanted to know what you were drinking,” you said and flashed a twinkled smile.

“You could always ask.”

You then told me your name and that you were about to start your senior year at Princeton. Your family lived in the Upper East Side so just like the guys from Columbia and NYU, you were not staying at the hotel with the rest of us. You had just gotten back from studying abroad in Argentina. You really had no interest in being an investment banker, but your father, a principal at McKinsey, forced you to come.

“I want to work for a non-profit,” you continued.

I looked at you in silence, almost in awe, realizing how I never considered that a selfless heart should also be a must-have in a mate. Before you could really notice my idolizing stare, your phone vibrates.

“Listen, my dealer’s downstairs, would you like to find a room upstairs and smoke a joint with me?” And just like that, I found myself smoking pot with a nice, down-to- earth Princeton boy whose dreams of helping the world outweighed the desire to stuff his wallet. We snuck upstairs and found an empty bedroom with a large window leading out to the fire escape. I turned on the desk lamp and took my coat off. You took off yours, and we both tossed them neatly on the bed. Together we huddled on the ledge by the open window and lit your poorly rolled joint. As I took a hit, I envisioned my future life with this trophy of a man.

Inhale.

Your parents, progressive and supportive, would find me a breath of fresh air in their stuffy Upper East Side existence. I’d delight the sophisticates at the galas and fundraisers and they’d be okay with me staying at home writing in my underwear while you worked. Every morning before another draining day at the office, I’d have your coffee ready just the way you like it, foamy and brown. During the day, I’d take our dog, a husky named London, out for a walk around Central Park and have dinner reservations made before you got home. I’d iron your shirts, your ties and give you foot rubs on the weekends while our cat, Vienna, purrs indulgently by our side. We’d live below 14th Street because you’d never be able to prevent me from being hip. And you’d say to all your friends that was what you loved most about me.

“Why are you looking at me that way?” you asked, suddenly self-aware, taking the joint from my sticky fingers.

“Because you’re gorgeous,” I said. Your head dropped with grace, and I could tell you were blushing. I placed my hand on your shoulder and leaned in, eyes closed, lips perched, desiring to kiss you. But I never reached your mouth. I opened my eyes and instead you retracted away from me, your hand clutching on to my forearm, barricading me from moving in any further.

“Is there something wrong?” I asked, confused, unsure of what to do with this great sudden need to be close to you.

“I’m sorry,” you sprung up from the ledge and began to pace frantically around the empty room. “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. It’s not at all what you think.”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“I’m straight.”

I shrugged, “I’m a socialist.”

“There aren’t opportunities for straight white guys, you know? I can’t pretend to be black but I can pretend to…”

“Show interest in me?” I asked. “Well, you wouldn’t be the first guy to ever do that.”

“I thought I’d flirt a little, get a couple of business cards in my pocket and be home by midnight,” you explained yourself. “But then I started getting drilled down there. The gay Ivy-Leaguers, they have like a secret lingo or something I just couldn’t seem to decipher. I’d figure it’d be best if I just…”

“Hid out upstairs and got high?”

“Listen, I liked hanging out with you. I shouldn’t have given you the wrong idea.”

“Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I’m not going to out you to Boston Consulting.”

“Thank you.”

“And since we’re being completely honest, I’m not really here trying to break into banking anyway. I’m secretly scoping out potential husbands,” I stood up and walked towards the bed to get my coat.

“That’s not very socialist of you. Going through all this just to find a sugar daddy?” You sound rather disappointed, as if somehow you expected more from me. But this was it. This was my master plan.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” I said putting on my coat.

“Don’t you have any aspirations?” Your tone went from bewildered to mildly insulting.

“I want to be a writer,” I said, leveling up my defenses. “I’m just not fully prepared to starve in some shithole on the Lower East Side for the rest of my life.”

“And marrying for money is your solution? It just sounds to me like you’re not giving yourself enough credit. I mean, have you even tried?”

I refused to answer your condescending question. All I knew how to do was try.

“Congratulations. I’m sure you’ll make a great banker: deceptive, scheming and controlling, ready to pounce on a sure thing. Daddy will be proud,” I stopped talking and made my way towards the door, choosing not to fight for a trophy husband custom built for someone else’s mantle.

“Don’t be like that,” you said. “I just think you are so much better than that.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” I said.

“I know that you’re smart. And that you go to an awesome school. You’re goddamn determined.” After a second you finished with, “Unfortunately, I can’t speak as to your kissing skills.” You then flashed your devil teeth.

“Well, thanks for being honest,” I said calmly.

“Ah, I thought I was deceptive,” you tried to keep fighting, but I could tell it was just for fun.

“Out there,” I pointed towards the door, with the rest of the bankers, the college students, the interns and the prodigal sons, “out there you are one hell of a liar. In here, I’m glad we’re being honest.”

“How am I going to get out of here in one piece?” you asked, weighing your exit strategies.

“With another lie and a liar on your side,” I suggested and grabbed you by the arm. The doors of the bedroom flung open and you and I walked out. We graced our way down the stairs and through the hallway on the first floor. Some of the men in the living room took notice of our early departure and watched. You and I made the perfect couple. The power couple. The champagne toast couple. The sailing in the Greek isles couple. The couple you’d kill to have at your house for dinner. The couple you’d die to have in your bed for a threesome. The proud yet pleasant couple. At the door, you grabbed my face quickly and kissed me with our mouths closed.

“What was that all about?” I whispered as my cheeks turned to scarlet.

“We want to make this believable right?”

Outside on the front steps, you shook my hand, gave me your business card, wished me good luck, said goodbye, headed out to look for a cab and disappeared forever. I was left alone with enough time for reality to fade back in. I realized we weren’t perfect. My perfect husband would have hugged me, kissed me and never let me go. He would love me unconditionally until the end of time.

Exhale. TC mark

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