Mr. Fulger called when he wanted to see her and she obliged. For a while it was all very matter-of-fact, like a visit to the library, the reasons for going unequivocal. Regret rarely played a part. And there was little premeditation, as far as she could tell. Mr. Fulger, when not with her, resided on a plane that did not intersect her own, and after her initial period of infatuation had worn off, she had ceased to hope they might meet by chance. She had tried for a few weeks to find where he lived and worked, but he had remained unreachable, her attempts at tracing him fruitless, and soon she began to feel ridiculous for having spent the effort searching for him—in their tremendous haystack of a city, he was smaller than a needle. In any case, she did not know what she had expected—certainly not a marriage proposal, nor more permanent terms for their involvement. It seemed to her that primarily she had wanted acknowledgment of his steadfast desire for her, however infrequently this desire was manifested. At times she saw him twice a week; others, twice a month. Even when she was dating another man—a man closer to her age who sought her out in earnest, publicly and otherwise—she answered Mr. Fulger’s phone calls with a yes that triggered the naming of a meeting place, almost always a restaurant or hotel close to the center of the city, rarely the same one.
Mr. Fulger could not be his real name, since she had found only two in the phone book and neither, when she had called them, had turned out to be him. One had died very recently; the dead man’s brother had answered her call, informing her tonelessly that there would not be a funeral service but donations could be sent to a Vietnam veterans’ charity. The other had spoken in a high-pitched voice that had possibly been female. “No,” this person replied when she asked to speak with Mr. Fulger, explaining that he was a tall man with salt and pepper hair. “I’m not the one you’re looking for,” replied the unpleasant voice. “Wrong number, Miss.”
After a while it became evident that Mr. Fulger traveled frequently overseas, and at times he had gifts for her that were not extravagant, though it was clear they had been chosen with care. One evening he had given her a necklace with a heavy tiger’s eye pendant; another night, a book from the Louvre. He knew that she could draw; she had once shown him a charcoal sketch of a mournful-looking elephant. She had meant to be funny, but he had admired the drawing and asked to see others. Aside from her sister and a few close friends, he was the first person who had shown more than a solicitous interest in her talent. He told her that he might want to buy some of her work, and when he saw how this surprised her, he suggested almost harshly that she take herself more seriously. She did not tell him that hers was a family long distrustful of artists, having been burdened with a legacy of schizophrenia on one side and depression on the other. Her accountant father and real estate agent mother had objected strenuously to her choice to study graphic design in college, their tacit worry being that if she met with failure, she would end up in an institution as her great-grandfather and his brother had, or else do herself in as had two poet aunts years before, darkly inspired by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Whenever she heard these melodramatic stories told and retold by various family members over the years, Lyndsey remained dismissive, though in her private heart she wondered if theirs truly was a family more fragile than most. If so, how could they fail to worry that artists, more vulnerable to ruinous emotion, would be more capable of inflicting harm?
She had met Mr. Fulger at a concert hall where she bartended during intermission, not long before she found a better job with a firm that designed theater programs. He had given her a tip much larger than the cost of his drink. He had also left his phone number, which had turned out to be an answering service. She had called him two weeks after meeting him, leaving her name and number, the concert hall’s name as a reference. He had called back in less than three hours, inviting her to meet him for dinner that evening at an Italian restaurant on the top floor of a famously tall building.
“An old story,” Mr. Fulger had said, sipping his wine. “The decrepit and shiftless enraptured by youthful beauty.”
“You’re hardly decrepit,” she answered, barely suppressing a nervous laugh.
He smiled. “But perhaps I’m shiftless.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“And that is my good fortune.”
“I know nothing about you at all.” She felt a shiver climb her spine. His dark eyes unnerved her; he was grander, his manner more daunting, than on the night they had met.
He nodded, not replying. She fidgeted with her napkin, not looking at him for several seconds. When she met his gaze again, his expression was mild, as if he were patiently listening to someone tell a dull joke.
Unable to match his silences during the hour and a half that they dined, she talked on and on about herself. He was possibly older than she had initially thought, somewhere in his late fifties instead of his late forties. She did not want to think that he might already have reached sixty. She was twenty-six. Her maternal grandfather was sixty-four. Mr. Fulger seemed nothing like her grandfather, but she still did not want to imagine him her grandfather’s peer.
She felt that in a way, however, she deserved what she got; if she were allowing herself to call strange men, the circumstances of their meeting would presumably be strange as well. This tendency to court real danger was new, something she would have to monitor.
The first night he did not suggest that they go to a hotel. He had instead taken her for a drink in a cavernous, smoky bar where a brass trio improvised discordant, rambling songs that would have impressed one of her former boyfriends, an unsuccessful pianist who violently detested his job as a receptionist at a popular radio station.
“Why do you live in this city?” Mr. Fulger asked.
She smiled, inexplicably embarrassed. “I went to college here. It’s not a bad place to be.”
“Will you stay forever?”
“Forever? I doubt it.”
“Why stay at all if you know eventually you’ll leave?”
“I wouldn’t know where else to go right now.”
“But at some point you’ll meet someone who will.”
Her face colored. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Of course, Lyndsey, of course.” He smiled, swirling the red wine in his glass. “We often rely on others to make our most important decisions. There’s no reason to be ashamed of this.”
“But I don’t think I’ve done that.” She realized it might be a lie, though at that moment she did not want him to know it.
When they left the bar, he hailed two taxis, pressing money for her fare into her hand and brushing her cheek with his lips. She tried to refuse the money, but he turned abruptly away, disappearing into his taxi. He had given her too much, fifty dollars for a twelve-dollar fare.
It would become his habit to give her money, and after a month and a half of seeing him, she would stop trying to return it. His money, indisputably, made her life more easeful. Also, the promise of his spontaneous reappearance enriched it, the phone call that arrived like a herald of what one day her life might be, though not necessarily with him: no more tiny apartments, nor the hopscotch from one debt payment to the next, nor the envy she often felt for those who wore impeccable clothes. In the end, the invincible protection of a powerful man’s money and esteem, perhaps also his love. It would have been very easy for her to do much worse.
Mr. Fulger, whose first name was Reginald, though Lyndsey rarely used it, had a small chicken-pox scar below his right eye that she found fascinating in its allusion to his unknowable childhood. There was another scar on his chest, in the cleft between his pectorals. It looked as if he had been shot—the flesh puckered in a starlike pattern— but he had smiled with amusement when she had asked if a bullet might have made the scar. A bullet so close to his heart that hadn’t killed him? No, no. He had burned himself many years ago, falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand, the pain of the fire against his bare chest causing a frenzied awakening. “I was out of my head, as I have rarely been in my life,” he said. “It’s never an ideal situation. A person who can avoid such situations is the one whom other people naturally flock to. And then, of course, all manner of deceit and handshakes follow.”
Once she had said, “Why do you give me money? You don’t have to.”
He had not liked the question. “It’s my desire to do so,” was his curt reply.
Their affair seemed as if it would go on indefinitely, until one of them died or was otherwise spirited away. Never did he fail to take her to bed after the first night he had invited her to a hotel, asking first if she wanted a view of the park, which she had, its lights distantly reassuring, as if to say she was incapable of making terrible choices and suffering their consequences. When she closed her eyes and felt her body’s warmth blend with his, there was the scent of cinnamon and then of smoke, a smell she could not detect on him at any other time.
From the start it took her breath away—in part out of shame, in part astonishing pleasure. He was far from youthful, his body trim but slackening, his chest and stomach inspiring a twinge of sadness since it was clear that they had once been very firm and strong. How many women, she wanted to ask. How many have there been? It thrilled her to think that perhaps he had slept with a hundred or more. In sixty years, a hundred was not so many—if he had started young, that was only two or three a year. And not particularly unnatural since in all things, except for sexual intimacy, variety was a virtue in human enterprise—experience, the sampling of the unknown, was a state of grace and laudable industry.
She told no one of her involvement with Mr. Fulger. For long weeks she wouldn’t see him and when at last he called, she was sometimes tempted to refuse his invitation, to say that she had other plans, which at times she did. The one night she had done this, however, he had not called again for twenty-three days. She had known him for several months and was seeing someone else she liked more than usual, but they did not yet have an understanding. Like Mr. Fulger, the new lover called her when he wanted to; he did not appear to feel beholden to her in any way.
In her head a running tally of the amount of money he had given her sometimes arrived without warning. After eleven months: $3,268, not including dinners, gifts, or hotel rooms. Because of him, she had been able to pay off one of her credit cards, and fly in her mother and sister for a long weekend, taking them to two plays. They had asked how she could afford it. A scratch-off lottery ticket, she had explained. Beginner’s luck, since she had never before spent money on such a foolish thing.
When Mr. Fulger called during their visit, she had made an excuse to her mother and sister. “A sick friend. I’ll be gone for three hours, maybe four. I’m sorry about this.”
Late that evening, on her way out of the hotel room, Mr. Fulger had given her an inordinately thick envelope. She saw in the cab that he had filled it with singles and five-dollar bills. She felt the chilly heat of acute embarrassment, as if she were checking a payphone for stray nickels, passersby laughing at her petty avarice.
And when she returned to her apartment with whisker burn, her sister noticed. “A sick friend,” she said knowingly. “I wish I had a sick friend.”
“I’d like you to move out of this city,” said Mr. Fulger after a year of amorous meetings. “I’ll make the arrangements. You could be closer to your family if you’d like.”
She stared at him. “I don’t want to move.”
“I know someone who could give you a much better job if you allow me to make the plans for your relocation. I don’t see what you have to lose.” He regarded her. “Unless there’s someone here you’d miss too much?”
“Most of my friends are here.”
“You’d make new ones.” He paused. “You’ve said yourself that eventually you’ll move away. There’s no reason it couldn’t be next month.”
She shook her head. “No, thanks. Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Of course not. I’d see you just as often.”
“I don’t want to move right now.”
He sighed. “Think about it for a little while. Your salary would double.”
She gazed at him in surprise. “What would I be doing?”
“The same thing you do here.”
“I don’t know if I should believe you.”
“You can. Truthfully, you can. I’d arrange for a contract from your new employer.”
“My God,” she said, her stomach sickened.
He smiled. “It’s not a bad suggestion, is it? Few would say you’re making a foolish move.”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“I’ll check with you in the morning then.”
No one else she knew lived like this. She was half enamored and half appalled by a man she knew nothing about, other than the intimacies of his body, his style of lovemaking, a few other superficial details. She knew his voice well enough to recognize it the moment he spoke a syllable into the phone; she knew some of the foods he favored (salmon over beef tenderloin, quail over chicken). She had never seen him drive, did not know if he could. She thought it odd that he carried no keys. All that he removed from his pockets before taking off his tailored slacks were a billfold with only two credit cards; a money clip with several crisp bills; a few coins; a linen handkerchief, usually pale blue. His address was never on any of the items he carried; she had checked several times, risking this indecency while he used the bathroom. The only time she had ever seen him angry was on a night when a young thief had tried to steal her small beaded purse from the back of her chair in a quiet, exclusive restaurant. Mr. Fulger had risen from the table, motioned to the maitre-d’, and the thief was then stopped at the door with Lyndsey’s purse hidden under his overcoat.
“You might know the expression, ‘If thy hand offends, cut it off,’” said Mr. Fulger, fuming at the craven, inappropriately handsome thief outside the restaurant while they waited with a security guard for the police.
She had wanted to leave, feeling the thief’s fear and humiliation almost as her own, but Mr. Fulger had made her stay with him until the police arrived. “They’ll need your testimony,” he insisted, looking from her to the thief. “I’m sure this isn’t his first offense. He knew what he was doing. But obviously so did I.”
Certain words she did not allow herself to consider—concubine, whore, slut. Early on she had come to think of the money she took from him as a gift. If he had been her father, sending her money once a month because he worried about her well-being, few would have faulted her for keeping it. Mr. Fulger as well appeared to worry about her well-being. His money was meant to make her happy and on its face there could be nothing wrong with this. He insisted; he was forceful, persuasive, right about so many of the observations he made while in her company. She would have continued to see him even if he stopped paying her. At least, she considered this to be true since she could not imagine not seeing him. The sex was satisfying, often thrilling. The money was simply something extra. Many would have said, once their moralizing had been proven specious, that she was very lucky.
The new job was far away, on the coast most distant from the city where she currently lived. Instead of theater programs, she would be designing print ads for feature films. Her parents would only be a three-hour drive if she agreed to accept Mr. Fulger’s offer. The night of the offer she didn’t sleep. She regarded the contents of her studio apartment, the new sofa, the sleek Chinese screen, the walnut hat stand that was purely ornamental. She sat in the window seat, looking down at the cars streaming toward and away from the city’s center. She had grown to adore her small place, unsure if she could leave it so hastily, despite the promise of a doubled salary. She knew that Mr. Fulger had not lied to her; his offer, indisputably, was valid. But she did not know that she would accept it until he called her in the morning, at precisely eight o’clock. It seemed wrong to her, but she could not decide why. A terrifying thought arrived—perhaps this was the first stage of madness.
Though she also knew that always trying to be logical was equally mad. If a spectacular chance came along, it would be foolish not to take it.
“You should put in your notice today. The new office will expect you to be moved in and ready to start with them in four weeks.”
She felt panic rise up, her heart stammering. “You said a month.”
“Give or take a few days. Four weeks is hardly less than a month.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she said, defeated. “But it’s so soon.”
“Maybe, but not unmanageable. You’ll be fine.”
After she hung up, she sat on her bed and sobbed. It was all so ridiculous. She had been handed an enviable new job and was now mourning her good fortune. She had previously thought herself pragmatic, prone to displays of cool appraisal, bracing practicality, sometimes at the expense of those who deserved better from her.
The man she was seeing still had not declared himself to her, but when she told him the following evening that she would be moving across the country, he said that he did not want her to go.
“Is there any way that you could stay a little longer, maybe a few more months?” he asked.
She shook her head, wanting to explain but unable to do it. He trusted her, even though they had never declared anything to each other.
“I could fly out there to visit, I suppose,” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “That’d be nice.”
“You never told me that you were looking for another job.”
“I wasn’t,” she said. “It came out of nowhere.”
“Are you sure it’s what you want?” he murmured.
“I think it is,” she said, smiling wanly.
Her family was happy for her, pleased that she was moving closer to where she had grown up after so many years in a city they considered dangerous, a place also prone to abominable weather for half the year, if not more. The new job sounded interesting, and surely at some point she might even meet a few movie stars? (Even so, they did not want her to be seduced by the glamour and reckless lifestyle of these actors—she should have a good time but keep her wits about her!)
Lyndsey did not know who Mr. Fulger knew at the firm that had hired her. She risked a few awkward inquiries shortly after she started but was rewarded with blank stares. No one had heard of anyone named Mr. Fulger. Was she sure it wasn’t Fellsted? Or Fulstein? She tried again, using only his first name. No. No Reginald. Only a Ronald. A Gerald too.
Mr. Fulger kept his word; he began calling not long after she had settled in, arranging to take her out to new restaurants and chic hotels that had been built into verdant mountainsides.
“We could go to my new place instead sometime,” she said during their third meeting in the new city. “It’s more spacious than my old apartment.”
“I’m sure it is,” he said. “But it’s your refuge, not mine.”
“I wouldn’t mind sharing.”
He shook his head. “I prefer hotels.”
He gazed at her, his face more tired than usual. “The possibilities.”
She was unhappy with his reply, with her new job, with her loneliness. “Where is your wife?”
Surprise briefly transformed his features. “I’ve told you that I’m divorced.”
She looked at him, doubtful.
“It’s of no consequence, Lyndsey.”
“So I’m the only one?”
He took a long time to reply. “In a way, yes.”
“Why did you make me move?”
“I didn’t make you do anything. You chose to move.”
“You basically forced me.”
He shook his head, his expression tolerant. “The position opened and I knew it’d be a good match for you. You couldn’t disagree.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I want to go back.”
He sighed. “You’ve been here for four weeks. Hardly more than a blink of an eye when measured against your entire life.”
Her other lover soon flew out to see her, his delight with her new situation causing her to question her displeasure. “You’ve got it made,” he said. “I’d move here tomorrow if I could find a set-up like this one.”
“Maybe you could. I could ask around.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’ll do a little research first.”
But after he left, she did not hear from him for several days, and he admitted when they spoke that he had not started looking for something closer to her. Mr. Fulger was also curiously silent. A month passed, then another. Perhaps he had seen her with her lover during his visit and had felt jealous, angered to find her enjoying herself with a much younger man. Countless times she had wondered if she had ever passed by a store or an apartment building where Mr. Fulger might have stood looking out at her. It had always seemed possible that he might spy on her or else hire someone to do it for him, but of course she had never caught him or noticed anyone following her.
She began to wake in the middle of the night, feeling keenly the absurdity of their relationship. It could not continue. When at last he called after ten weeks of silence, she told him that she wanted everything between them to stop.
“No,” he said simply.
“Why not?” she said.
“Because this requires almost nothing of you. I’ve never been stingy, you’d have to agree.”
“But I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s become too upsetting.”
“You’re being foolish,” he said, naming a hotel, giving her an address. “Come out tonight and I know you’ll feel better.”
In their room, he had two dozen pink roses waiting for her. He spent time on her body, more than usual. She started to cry, her face buried in his shoulder.
“Do you want more money?” he asked, drawing away. “Would that make it easier?”
She shook her head, covering herself with the sheets. “I have more than enough now.”
“I doubt that,” he murmured.
“We have to stop this before I go crazy.”
He sat up, his face hardened with displeasure. His thick, graying hair stood up on one side of his head, giving him a comical air in spite of the scowl. She wiped roughly at her wet cheeks, hoping her mascara hadn’t run.
“Quality of life has greatly improved for you since we’ve met,” he said.
“I don’t know if I agree.”
He regarded her. “Don’t be melodramatic.”
“Why can’t I ever call you? Why did you wait more than two months to call me?”
“I was away on an extended business trip.”
He hesitated. “I have never understood why people feel the need to know everything about each other. What would it change if I told you how I spend my time when I’m not with you?”
“I wouldn’t feel so much like I’m sleeping with a stranger.”
He shook his head. “It’s clear that you have no trouble enjoying it.”
“I’m going to say no the next time you call.”
His expression was noncommittal. “We shall see.”
“What do you do for a living?”
He sighed. “I sell clothing. I own several factories. Some in Asia, some in Eastern Europe. That’s all.”
“Couldn’t I travel with you sometime?”
He gave her an unreadable look. “I don’t think so, Lyndsey. That wouldn’t work very well. You wouldn’t enjoy yourself anyway. I’m always in meetings.”
After a time, things again became routine, her former life and her regret at its loss receding—she went to work, she had dinner on occasion with a few people who were now her friends, she saw other friends from high school who lived in the city or occasionally visited it. Her lover on the opposite coast began to see someone else. She met a man who worked for a movie studio for whom she designed posters. Mr. Fulger called every two or three weeks, their lovemaking remained predictably, perversely satisfying. After ten months, the man from the movie studio asked her to marry him. She said yes and told Mr. Fulger that she would have to stop seeing him because of her engagement.
Again he said no.
She felt more desperate than she ever had with him. “It has to stop,” she said. “I could pay you back everything you’ve given me.”
“No. I’m not interested in a refund.”
“I want to marry this man.”
“Fine. I won’t stop you, but you and I will still be seeing each other after your marriage. That’s all I require.”
“Please find someone else.”
He shook his head. “You suit me perfectly. It wouldn’t be as pleasurable with someone else.”
She left him that night thinking that she would have to move, request an unlisted phone number, dye her hair, change jobs, attempt everything to get away from him. She would ask her fiancé if they could move far away and find new jobs; she would say she was tired of the traffic, the unhealthy air. They would do better to move up the coast, maybe work from home if possible.
But when she began to explain to him why she wanted to make these changes, her fiancé suspected the story wasn’t complete and connived the truth from her. When he learned that she had continued to sleep with Mr. Fulger during their courtship, he broke off their engagement, explaining that it might be old-fashioned in their permissive times to be upset about such a thing, but he couldn’t help his innate squeamishness when it came to infidelity. He marveled as well over her ability to be so calmly deceitful during their courtship. Had she loved him at all?
“He is simply one man among the many thousands more you’ll meet,” said Mr. Fulger upon learning of the broken engagement. “And I won’t live forever. Or perhaps the next man you fall for won’t mind me so much.”
She made plans to leave the city, to move north to another state. Nothing else seemed possible—this, she recognized dimly, was hysteria. When the contents of her apartment were packed in boxes and ready to go on the moving truck, profound despair seized her. The moving men were sent away. She tossed one box from her second story window, narrowly missing a woman who walked by with a bag of groceries. “I should call the police,” yelled the woman, staring up at Lyndsey from the sidewalk in fear and amazement, half of her groceries now spilled on the ground next to the ruined box of cooking pots.
“It was an accident,” cried Lyndsey, trembling with horror. “I’m so sorry.”
“You could have killed me,” yelled the woman, angrier now. “What’s your fucking problem?”
He did not understand why she remained so unhappy. She was not poor, or dying prematurely from some vicious illness, or imprisoned on wrongful charges, or grievously disabled, or the wife of an abusive husband in a place where religion made divorce impossible. Why was she wasting time feeling so sorry for herself? She had so much freedom, was accountable to him for so little, only a few hours a month, and it wasn’t like he did anything but spoil her.
He had a point, of course. His logic, though it filled her with despair, remained unassailable. She would not be released, even if she threatened to harm one or both of them, even if what he did to her became rape. What was so terrible about her situation, he wanted to know. She remained young and beautiful; she had a good job, a nice home, friends, a loving family. Obviously there were much worse things to lament if she would spend a moment or two considering the range of horrors just outside her usual frame of reference. She could of course be happy again. In the frankest analysis, this would remain, as always, her choice.
Christine Sneed is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the Midwest, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and several issues of The Literary Review. She lives in Pasadena, CA and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s graduate creative writing programs. “Quality of Life was originally published in New England Review.