My Cherry

We met at the bank where I work. I’m a teller. A friend of mine at the bank set it up. "Her name’s Cherie," he said. I asked him why he wouldn’t go out with her. He said she was his sister’s friend. "It’s too much like dating my sister," he said. "You should meet her. You would like her."

I didn’t meet so many single women—just people’s wives—so I agreed. My friend, a homely Indian guy named Ali, arranged for a lunch on a Thursday afternoon. We met outside the bank.

I didn’t like Cherie at first. Her ankles were too thick, which spoke of things in other parts of her body. And she was very tan, a dark, burnt orange kind of tan, which made those ankles look like roasted meat. You don’t want a woman to be edible in that way. She explained to me—it was almost the first thing she said—that she’d just gotten back from Hawaii and it would soon fade. "I’m usually not this tan," she said as if she knew that a tan bothered me. Which was nice in a way because I’m fairly pale myself. My legs are almost pink in places. I don’t even like to wear shorts because that’s like admitting that you’re pale. Like you’re made of paper. So I liked that she was trying to make me feel at ease, apologizing almost, and I also liked her curly brown hair. There was almost too much of it but it wasn’t frizzy. She had feminine hair.

We went to lunch at a deli near the bank. Turned out she worked nearby, at a book distribution company.

"How do you know Ali?" I asked, even though I knew she was his sister’s friend.

"I went to high school with his sister," she said.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"He’s a nice guy," I said.

"He is a nice guy. He’s sweet."

I could tell that she didn’t like Ali too much. I mean, who could? There was something kind of perverted about him, shifty and nervous. Like he wanted to be invited inside places but he was just too foreign, too short and dark, and he would never have a chance. It was actually one of the reasons I first liked Cherie—that she wouldn’t go out with Ali. He was a nice guy, fine, but there was something slightly off about him. He looked like he masturbated. An all right guy to have lunch with, on breaks.

I didn’t say any of this about Ali. We talked politely for a while, the way people do. But we were getting along decently, no nervous gaps in the conversation that can seem as long as a lecture. And she was starting to look prettier to me. She had a nice mouth and I liked looking at it talk.

So we started seeing each other. Strange, after a long time eating frozen chicken pot pies and watching sitcoms that I didn’t really like—they made me feel bad actually—I had someone I could be guaranteed to share meals with, see movies with, and I never had to be alone, and even when I was alone I knew she was there waiting. That felt like love, you know? I have to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was just grateful to have someone to sleep with or that I liked her company. It didn’t matter to me because it felt good either way. So after six months of this I proposed to her. I took her to the same crappy no-name deli where we had lunch that first time. I can be romantic. And I gave her a ring.

She accepted, and here we are now, on our honeymoon. And I’m not sure I can face the rest of my life.

There are many little things. Like every time I have to initiate sex. Even on this honeymoon. If I was a woman, I’d be going down on me all the time. Not that I’d ever go down on another guy. Jesus no. It’s just that if I had the choice I’d put her on one of those gynecological tables and study that strange and foreign tunnel. Flaps and folds and wet. I thought I might have been queer when I was younger. When I saw it in magazines, I thought, shit this is what I have to deal with? Other guys were talking about getting and fingering pussy and it seemed like a foreign thing to me. It seemed wrong, somehow. Sloppy, maybe. I’ve gotten over that, mostly, though you won’t see me going down very often unless the girl’s right out of the shower or she’s really thin. I should shut up. Thoughts like these can seem adulterous. I just don’t know why women don’t ever initiate it, especially when it seems to feel so much better for them. All that screaming. I’ll breath heavy but I won’t scream. Maybe I’ll moan a bit when it’s happening. Only when I mean it. Women just like to act more. Put on makeup and dress up. I guess it’s because women get so little breaks in life, at least the sex is better for them. It’s a man’s world and they’ve got to put up with the pain of childbirth. There’s one thing I’m glad about not having to do. Wait nine months for the pain of being stabbed with a nine pound knife. So the sex is better. You think Cherie would initiate it some of the time, but no, I’ve got to go through the same fucking ritual every time out. I rub her back, I rub her hair, maybe she rubs mine, I suck on her tits for a long time, as if she doesn’t want to do it until she doesn’t have a choice. My God, there are so many things I can’t stand about her already. She’s cheerful in a way that doesn’t seem real. Sometimes I feel like nothing she ever says matters. Her love of cats. I can understand liking cats, they’re sort of like women, but collecting little statues and calendars, I don’t understand. True story, I once beat off while stroking a cat’s head. I felt really weird after that. A female cat. Everyone can see that we don’t belong together.

We got married today. And we decided to have our honeymoon in Atlantic City.

I kind of liked that: a classic. It’s like we were celebrating our honeymoon with all the other people who ever went on their honeymoon in Atlantic City. Cherie was OK with it, though she also wanted to go somewhere warmer. You know, traditionally warmer. But she liked the idea of gambling, which she had never really done before.

When we got there I was struck by how run-down the place seemed. The boardwalk wasn’t all that glamorous and the buildings seemed so small and old. That was my first impression. It seemed kind of forced, like it wanted to be something it wasn’t.

A honeymoon seemed like a lot of pressure, really. Like it’s supposed to be the best week of your life. When we walked up to our hotel we saw that there was going to be a fight that weekend, which seemed a little less than romantic. Roy "The Fire" Firestone, who I’d never heard of, was fighting. I didn’t follow boxing. One of those things I think I should do, but I don’t. There were posters everywhere.

We got the honeymoon suite. There was actually a bed shaped like a heart and champagne waiting for us. We both thought it was kind of hokey, but we went along with it. It made it easy to think of this as a honeymoon. To make it a story we could tell people later.

We spent the first night gambling. That’s what we were there to do. If I see a gambling table I’ve got to use it. It’s probably better that I don’t come to Atlantic City or Vegas more than every once in a while because I’m a gambler. I like it. I couldn’t make a living at it, but I like the feeling of gambling. Even when I lose. I always have a chance to come back from it and win.

I went straight to the blackjack and roulette tables. Those were my favorite games. Poker didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I don’t know what the hell Texas Hold ’Em is and some people make this seem like there’s something wrong with me. Cherie didn’t know much of anything about Blackjack which was kind of cute so I showed her what to do, how to bet and everything.

"The idea is to get to 21. And you say ‘Hit me’ when you want another card," I said. "It’s better to hold at something like eighteen but I like taking my chances."

I liked how she was looking up at me, kind of expectant.

Cherie stood next to me as I played. There was a female dealer wearing a bowtie. I didn’t have much luck. In fact, I was having awful luck. I kept losing. I don’t really want to get into it. I didn’t win a hand, which seemed impossible. I wanted to show Cherie how it worked but how could I if I kept losing? "You’ll do better tomorrow," she said to me.

"Yeah, I will," I said.

I didn’t want to blow too much money too fast—we were on a budget—so I decided to take a breather and follow Cherie around while she played the slots. That’s all she wanted to do. "Easier," she said. "Easier to lose," I said. First thing she played was a Wheel of Fortune game and she won thirty dollars almost right away. Some lights lit up, something whirred, and out poured sixty coins. She picked up the coins and put them in her cup and walked on like it was nothing.

Next she sat down at a slot machine called Speed Demon. Instead of cherries and lemons there were little race cars. Cherie started playing. She put a couple of coins in and nothing happened. "Statistically slots aren’t your luckiest game," I told her. She looked up at me like she hadn’t heard me and put some more coins in. She lost some more. Slots weren’t so interesting so I started looking around the casino. A lot of old people, some lifelong card players, the waitresses didn’t look much better than stewardess. Did stewardesses used to be pretty, because I don’t remember it. I looked down at Cherie. Cherie won a couple of more dollars. She chirped a little. And then Cherie took the coin, a gold fifty-cent token, and she kissed it. It seemed like a slow-motion thing except it wasn’t. And she put it in and pulled the hammer. Suddenly there were lights.

"It’s happened again," she said.

The ping-ping sound of the rising numbers kept chiming. Neither of us knew how high it would go but the little digital numbers had climbed past three hundred.

"God, do you think it will climb any higher?" she said, a kind of squeal.

"I don’t know," I said watching the numbers climb.

At five fifty the numbers finally started to slow down, until it finally came to a stop at 568.

"Five hundred and sixty eight dollars," Cherie said, breathlessly. "Ooh, I want to push it." She pointed her finger at the CASH OUT button and pressed it. Gold dollar coins started pouring out, clanging against each other. It was an insulting sound.

Cherie looked over at me with this blazing smile and probably saw me frowning.

"Oh honey, I feel bad."

That annoyed me. She felt bad.

"You’ve been playing so much and here I come along and—"

"It’s OK, Cherie."

"Are you sure?"

"It’s OK."

"I must just be lucky."

Cherie’s coins kept falling. It occurred to me that they use 50 cent coins so more coins will pour out of the machine, making people think they’d won more than they had. Maybe that’s obvious, I don’t know. Something like 1,000 coins were pouring out of the machine. Cherie grabbed the coins from the metal tray—I thought hungrily—and started putting them in the plastic cups.

"God, it looks as if I’m going to need more than one cup."

Cups were discarded all over the place. I got her a couple as the coins kept falling.

Cherie was giddy but trying not to seem too happy. But I could tell she was. She was screaming with joy inside.

"Looks like you’re doing better than me," said a lady’s voice to our left. It was an old woman with her husband. The place was 98 percent old people. The woman was smiling at us holding one of the plastic cups in a pale, wrinkled hand. "I’ve been at these machines all day," she said. "How much did you win?"

"Five hundred and sixty eight dollars," Cherie said, proudly.

The old woman looked at me. "Doesn’t look like your friend’s so happy."

"He’s my husband," Cherie said, almost defensively.

"Well, hubby doesn’t look so happy you won."

Cherie looked over at me and said, "Oh, oh."

The old woman broadened her smile and kept looking at me. So did her husband—a sly kind of smile saying, I know what it’s like when the girl wins. I’m not you, I thought to myself. Then they left us alone, still smiling, the old woman putting fifty-cent pieces into her machine, one after the other.
Finally the coins stopped. Cherie had five full cups of coins. She stood up and held them clumsily in her arms.

"Do you want me to hold one?" I said.

"No, I got them," she said.

Everything she was doing was bothering me now. The fact that she was trying to hide her joy was more insulting than anything. If she was showing her happiness maybe I would have rejoiced with her, but she was hiding it, as if she knew it was eating me up and she couldn’t help herself.

"I should stop gambling now," she said. "Quit while I’m ahead."

"Fine," I said.

"You’re not upset, are you?"

"I’m fine."

"Good," she said and smiled like she’d never been proud in her life.

Then she walked to the Cash Out window. She looked very serious, like she had made the big time. She was a real gambler. She took long, fast strides. I wasn’t really in the mood to keep up with her.

We stepped up to the window. The teller looked at Cherie and then at me. It was a smooth-skinned Asian guy. He gave a little smirk. She beat you didn’t she? he was thinking. I could tell. The guy poured the coins into a machine and the numbers rose and rose again, same thing all over again. Then he counted out the bills.

"Look at all that money," Cherie exclaimed. She was very excited. She even wet her lips. "Just look at it," she said. "I can’t believe I did so well."

That was enough. I walked fast away from the teller window. So fast that Cherie had to run to keep up with me. I could feel her pattering behind me. I stopped and turned around and she almost ran into me.

"What is it, Len? You’re not mad, are you?"

"No, I just want to get out of the casino and get some air." I was going to let it rest at that but then I let her have it. "Of course I’m mad," I said. "And shouldn’t I be? You’re prancing around so proud. Like you’re happy you won and I didn’t."

"I’m not. I’m just happy I won. I thought I could take us out to dinner tonight. When have we ever had this much money to play around with?"

"Come on. You know what you’re doing. I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re gloating."

You know, I don’t really want to get into the whole fight. It went back and forth like that for a while. She said, if you loved me you’d be happy for me. I threw back, if you loved me you’d realize why this might make me unhappy. In the end, I said, "I wish we had never fucking gotten married." Her eyes started to get wet. She didn’t want to cry in front of me so she stormed off. I stood there feeling alone and angry and like I was being watched and I decided I needed a drink.

There was a bar downstairs. A small place in the lobby by the escalator. It was always hard to find places in the casinos so I got lost on the way. They fix it so it’s like a maze that only leads to the casino floor. I took the wrong escalator and ended up at some restaurant. Fuck Cherie for this mess, I thought. By the time I finally made it to the bar, I was ready for a hard drink.

I ordered a cold Jack Daniels on the rocks. I never liked Jack Daniels, never understood why anyone did. In college all my friends drank it fast like water. Sometimes I thought they were trying to fool me—trying to seem braver and harder than they were—by drinking apple juice. But then I tried what they were drinking and could only take small, sort of timid sips.

Those same guys were getting laid all the time—like drinking whiskey and having it easy with girls went hand in hand. I didn’t lose my cherry until I was 22—a girl with a lot of acne and a good body. I kind of liked that. I wondered how Cherie had lost hers. Actually, I take that back. I didn’t want to hear about it, not here.
The whiskey tasted like lighter fluid to me. But that was what I wanted to drink.

"You look like you lost a bundle," a voice said next to me. I had just gotten the drink.

"What?"

"You look like you might have lost a lot of money."

It was a businessman of some kind. He was gray-haired wearing a nice-looking suit, sitting with a guy who looked like him only younger. They looked content, like they had futures.

I nodded my head, shut my eyes dramatically, and said, "Yeah."

"We’re here for the fight," he said.

"The fight?"

"The heavyweight fight. You must have seen the billboards. They’re advertising it all over the place."

"No, I didn’t know. Besides I’ve done enough fighting of my own."

I thought maybe that last comment had scared the man off but he asked, "Problems with the wife?"

"Problems with the newlywed," I said.

"Oh really? How long’s it been?"

"Six hours."

The man both frowned and smiled, almost like the look Cherie gave when she won her money.

"What do you do for a living?" he said then.

"I’m in banking."

"Oh yeah? Me too. What field?"

"I’m a teller," I said.

He frowned a little, a great look of disappointment. "Oh." He turned back to the younger man and they started talking again.

A voice came over the loudspeaker. "Leonard Friedman. Mr. Leonard Friedman. You are wanted at information counter three."

I ignored the call and took a sip of whiskey. A small sip, I’ll admit.

People always talk about how depressed people stare into their drinks. There’s some truth to that because that’s what I was doing, staring into my drink. I thought about Cherie some. I didn’t know why she went by Cherie. My Cherie, I sometimes called her, which she said she liked. I knew her real name was Cheryl but I thought there might have been more to it than that. Maybe it was a childhood nickname or something. I was going to find it out on this trip. And other things. It’s true she could get on your nerves like everyone. When you thought about it there was something that annoyed you about everybody. The thing about working in a bank is you come in contact with every kind of person there is. But Cherie was nice, soft in that way that only women were, kind of impossibly comforting.

I had been too hard on her really. It was a good thing to have that money. I actually started to feel good about it—I mean, we had a bunch of money. That was nice. I’m a stupid idiot sometimes. She was good at heart. She was my whole life now so I shouldn’t fuck it up. I don’t know half of why I do things.

I turned on my barstool and looked around the place. Mirrored ceiling, mirrored walls. People of a lot of types going up the long escalator to the casino floor. There was one thing I noticed. Most people were smiling. They were happy to be there. Like they were at an amusement park. Across the lobby I saw Cherie walking quickly, flustered, head darting back and forth, helpless looking, which made me feel kind of proud that I could do that to someone, that someone cared enough. When she spotted me at the bar her eyes lit up and she seemed to sink with relief. She came up to the bar slightly damp with sweat, her hair kind of messed up, and I couldn’t help but smile a little.

"I didn’t know where you were," she said. "I went up and down the boardwalk to all the casinos looking for you."

"Cherie, I didn’t go anywhere. I just came downstairs to the bar."

"Didn’t you hear my page?"

"You paged me? No, I didn’t hear it."

Cherie’s eyes were wet with tears, mascara running a little bit and looking bruised. "These places are like a maze," she said.

"Come here," I said. "It’s all right."

She came into my arms with a sigh and slackened. "I’m so glad I finally found you," she said. "I was so worried."

"There’s nothing to worry about," I said.

It felt good holding her there like that. Her head was buried against my chest and her curly hair smelled good. Times like these I knew I was going to stay married to her.

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