“I’ve just been out riding my bicycle,” Malcolm said.
“Frances bought me one for Christmas.”
“That’s sad. Where are you?”
“Next to the canal. Want to know what I’m looking at?”
“Not really. All right.”
“Right in front of me there’s a boatload of red-faced German tourists waiting for the lock to drain. Across the water there’s a couple of kids playing Ping-Pong. Do you remember the solid concrete Ping-Pong tables by the canal?”
“They must just pour them into a mold.” He paused. “I’m calling because I wanted to hear your voice,” he explained.
“Here it is,” she said. “Here’s my voice.”
But now there came another voice—a man’s voice, in the background. “Who are you talking to?” it asked.
“It’s Malcolm,” said Susan.
“Who are you talking to?” Malcolm also asked.
Both men began asking Susan unhappy, overlapping questions.
“Wait,” she said to them. “Wait a minute.” She spoke to Tom first. He was displeased by the fact of Malcolm’s calling, so displeased that he was leaving, he said. Susan asked him to stay but Tom said he wouldn’t. Susan apologized; they made plans to discuss it at lunch. “Good luck today,” she called. A quiet moment, and Susan uncovered the phone. “All right, he’s gone.”
Malcolm couldn’t think of anything to say; he was terribly shocked and hurt to know Susan was with another man. He felt the wretched yank in his throat that signaled the possibility of tears.
“Look,” said Susan, “you’re not allowed even to express an opinion on the matter, do you understand me? It’s beyond reason for you to try to make me feel bad about this, so don’t you dare, all right?”
Malcolm nodded but didn’t reply verbally.
“Were you expecting me to mourn our loss in perpetuity?” Susan asked.
“Yes,” Malcolm answered truthfully. He took hold of himself. “All right,” he said. “Let’s hear it. Let’s talk. Who is this person?”
“He was my fiancé in college. I’ve told you about Tom before.”
Earnestly, Malcolm asked, “What were you wishing him luck for? Has he entered a dick-sucking contest?”
“That’s very witty, Malcolm. No, he’s got a big meeting today.”
“Oh, a big meeting.”
“Sounds big. What’s this bimbo do?”
“He works on Wall Street.” Preempting Malcolm’s disparaging comment, Susan said, “Fuck you. At least he has a job.”
“Yes, at least there’s that.”
“He made his own way from nothing.”
“Such a hero.”
Susan paused a pause which, the moment Malcolm heard it, he knew something ugly was on the other end of it. He waited for the ugliness, and here it was: “He’s asked me to marry him,” Susan said.
“Why did he ask me to marry him?” Susan said. “Is that the question? I can only guess at that, but I assume it’s to do with his wanting us to be married.”
Malcolm said, “This isn’t making sense to me.”
“All the parts. I can’t imagine the scenario. Did he use the same ring as before, or is there a new ring?”
“There was no ring either time.”
“That’s a shame. Probably he’s been too distracted by big meetings to go to the jeweler’s.”
“It wasn’t a planned thing. It just came up yesterday.”
“What, during a lull?”
“I guess so.” Susan thought a moment. “You never gave me a ring either. Or is that different? I suppose you feel it’s charming when you do it.”
Malcolm recognized the situation was getting away from him. He decided the time had come for a bold gesture. “I want you,” he said, “to come visit me in Paris.”
Susan laughed, hard, and for a long time. After the laughter had passed, Malcolm said, “Well? What do you think?”
“I don’t think we’re through discussing what we were discussing, is what I think.”
“What’s to discuss? You can’t accept the proposal because you’re still engaged to me. It’s illegal. It’s polygamy.”
“That’s a felony.”
“You’re not allowed to behave this way. Do you understand me? It’s small and cruel and I won’t and don’t accept it. Now, I’m sure I’m very flattered that you finally thought to call me however many weeks after your disappearance from what was our shared life. But you’re mistaken if you think I’m going to welcome you back, all right? You’re just wrong about it. I’m not going to do that anymore. You blew it, and it’s blown, and that’s all there is to it.”
Malcolm’s face was fixed in a portrait of concentrated discomfort. He made a sort of grunting noise.
“Listen,” said Susan. “Will you—can you please not call here? At least not for a little while? I’ve been feeling better in the last couple of days, and I’d appreciate your keeping some distance.”
Malcolm was wondering what the meanest thing he could say might be. There were so many mean things, but which was the absolute, the incontrovertible? Before he concluded his thought, however, Susan hung up the phone. He stepped from the booth, into the sunshine. The boatload of Germans was gone, as were the boys playing Ping-Pong. Malcolm drifted away from the phone booth and toward Joan’s apartment