"You were right," Lisa told him. "Sex matters. If you say the word, I'll divorce him and marry you."
Eric considered her statement for a moment. They were seated on a limestone shelf overlooking a dark pool where a spring, cold and deep, pushed water slowly beneath their feet. He could see bright flecks of dust on the water's dark surface, floating past his feet like little stars.
"No," he replied. "You broke my heart. It's taken this long to get over you. I haven't, really. It's too hard now, going back."
She wore an oversized sweater that she was using to cover her hands. She pulled one hand out from the sweater and placed it on his arm, and spoke. "I want you to consider something then. Something I've been thinking about."
He looked over at her. Same green eyes. Same jet black hair. He still loved her, in part. The part he could not get over. Not yet.
Lisa smiled as she told him; "Remember when I told you that story--it seems stupid now--about how young couples make love so many times in the first year of marriage that if you put a penny in a jar each time you you would never empty the jar the rest of your marriage? Well, I owe it to you. I want to try that," she said.
Eric looked over at her, searching for the meaning in her statement. "You want to what?"
"You and I. Let's fill up the jar. We'll find ways to make love together for a year. It will be our way of saying goodbye. You can date anyone else or whatever you want to do. But you and I can fill the jar, and know that no matter what else might have happened in our lives together, we'll have that. If Bob and I empty the jar, so be it. But I don't think we will. He doesn't seem to care about sex. He's even told me so, now that we're married. We're only a few weeks in and, I can't believe I'm telling you this, but said he's probably going to be too busy in this first year of his job to pay much attention to me. He says that if we want to be secure in the future we need to invest the time now. Then we'll never have to worry. About money and stuff."
"That's noble of him," Eric said, somewhat bitterly. "Nothing I'd ever say, I suppose."
"Oh, you're thinking about my parents, Eric. What my parents said. You know that's not true."
He looked at her fiercely. "That I have no ambition? That seems to have set the table with you, Lisa. That's when I first saw you losing interest in me."
"They're just protective of me," she insisted. "And you came into my life so suddenly. They didn't know what to do. They've known Bob for years. They know his parents and all that."
"So it was an arranged marriage, then? Is that what you wanted?"
"It's not like that," Lisa protested, emphasizing her words. "I've always loved Bob. Since I was in middle school, really. He's solid, and sincere. He wants to take care of me. I think that is noble, like you said."
Silence followed, except for the barely audible rise of the water from the spring. Then a ruffed grouse began strumming somewhere in the woods. The sound seemed to come from deep within the earth, entering their ears at a level that moved them both to near tears. They had met the previous spring, in their last year of college. She was stunned by the ferocity of feeling she had for Eric, even giving her carefully preserved virginity to him. That still seemed strange to him, in some way. Yet both of them had emerged, that year, from self-imposed shells of previously deadened confidence. Bad relationships on his part. Stalled intentions, on hers.
With Eric, Lisa opened her world with abandon. Yet her parents weren't stupid. They could see Eric's influence upon her. Then came tightly held discussions over spring break, and then wedding plans were set with Bob. Lisa was told to break up with Eric in early September.
They agreed to meet at a music festival and camp in the woods. They got stoned and drunk and made love so wildly the tent collapsed over them. Erupting in giggles and finally full laughter, they crawled out naked and set up the tent all over again. The moon was shining and it was cold outside, but neither of them cared. Their summer tan lines glowed in the moonlight. Eric took her back into the tent and from all they could tell, the world was still their own at that point. No one owned them. Yet they knew it had to be over.
Lisa married Bob in early March that next year. The wedding was held in Florida where her parents owned an oceanside home on the Gulf side. A firm breeze blew throughout the service, making it hard for anyone to hear the pastor, or their vows. The next day a spring storm arrived and Bob barely made his flight out of Florida to get on to his business obligations. Their honeymoon was scheduled for later that summer. Yet by April, Lisa was determined that should never happen. That is why she called Eric to meet her at their favorite place in the world, by the spring in the woods.
"I'm in," Eric told her solemnly. "But I don't really know how we'll keep this a secret."
"He's gone all the time," she replied excitedly. "All, the time," she repeated. "It won't be any trouble. We can meet wherever you want. Your place. A hotel. Whatever. Let's just do it."
He chuckled then. "You make it sound like a Nike commercial."
"Yes," she smiled. "Just do it."
Their first Encounter, as they titled their trysts, was like it had always been. They definitely melded well. She could climb into his embrace and find that point of truth. They finished exhausted, yet eager. They added 3 pennies to the jar that afternoon.
In 7 days they met again, adding two more pennies to the jar. But it was agreed that their Encounters should only occur once a week so that her presence at home would not be missed. "Besides," she whispered in his ear after a particularly intense session. "Meeting more than once a week would be cheating."
He rolled him into her arms again. He gave her three more pennies before they left.
She kept the penny jar in a space deep in the back of her closet, behind a shoe rack and well out of sight behind hanging clothes.
Through May and June and July they kept up their promise to one another. The pennies were an inch deep in the jar now. Eric had taken to finding pennies with distinctive marks about them. Old pennies. Shiny new ones. Different dates and editions. Eric never really knew there was so much to know about pennies, and interesting pennies were not that hard to find. You just had to pay attention. There was diversity, even a richness is so common an item.
For now, he took pleasure in what they symbolized. He cherished what he and Lisa were doing, to say goodbye. It was easy to see that he still loved her, and that she loved him. But this long slide from the present to the future really felt like the right way to go about things. For the rest of their lives.
Then in July she came to him sad and disturbed. It was a hot, breathless sort of day. Eric knew right away something was wrong with Lisa. They talked for a while before getting into bed, and things did not really change. They made love, and it was good, but not great between them. "I think Bob might know about us," she muttered before leaving with two pennies in her hand. "I can't be sure. But he made love to me last night, and he was very determined about it. Does that mean I need to put a penny in the jar for him too?"
"We didn't establish any rules," Eric admitted. "But if you're going to be honest, like, letter of the law, I suppose you should."
"Then I will, tonight," she responded. "But I want his pennies to be different from yours. Somehow. So that I know what I'm looking at the rest of my life."
"Wait here," Eric told her. He came back with a handful of Canadian coins he'd kept in a small case on his dresser for years. "Use these. They come from north of the border, so to speak."
"Thank you," she smiled. "This could get a little weird, you know. I mean, the burden's going to be on me to empty the jar if Bob all of a sudden gets a sex life."
Eric turned his head slightly, looking out the window to her car on the street. "You know, I can't help you with that. Unless you want to quit."
"No, no," she said. "Let's keep things the way they are. We'll see you next week."
And they did meet up for more Encounters. Eric was now determined to add to the jar himself. He picked out three beautiful new pennies, each of them marked with the stolid face of Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe, they called him. Eric handed Lisa the pennies with gladness. She closed her fingers on them and kissed his cheek. "Bob added two pennies this week too," she admitted. "I'm kind of wondering what's going on."
"Is he good now? Any better than what you told me earlier?" Lisa had shared that Bob was a thumper: Grind away until the moment comes, then fall off and sigh.
"It's changing," she said quietly. "I can't quite explain it. It's not the same as it was. At least it's not bad," she repeated. She looked at Eric, softly smiled and said, "Maybe this is how it's supposed to be."
He did not have the courage at that moment to tell her that he had, indeed, met someone himself recently. She was an old friend from high school. They met at the grocery store and exchanged phone numbers. No sex as yet, and Eric was relieved at that. He was not sure he could handle two women at once.
But Lisa began to look at her duties as something she definitely liked. Bob was up to 3 pennies a week, and not so forcefully. Their relationship was beginning to blossom, it seemed. But that meant Lisa needed to be religious about her use of the pill. All that sperm from Eric and Bob was pounding at her uterus, she imagined. All it took was one sperm to break through and reach an egg and things could get very messy. That thought struck her cold and dumb.
Candles on both ends
Then Eric and his new girlfriend Pamela broke through their sexual silence one night after dinner and dancing. Holding another woman was strange and wonderful, he realized. Her body responded differently to his touch. She was ticklish in odd places, and her jumpy activity in bed excited him in different ways. Of course he had to be careful not to whisper the name of Lisa into Pamela's ear. That was so confusing.
Lisa dared not stop to count the pennies in her jar. Eric and Bob were adding them at a steady pace, though Eric dropped to two each week from three. Secretly she was relieved. Eric made no sign of disinterest, but he felt it when Lisa left his house. Pamela really was replacing Lisa now.
Then Eric grew curious toward the end of their year of lovemaking. He'd was all out of Canadian pennies. They were increasingly hard to find, for some reason, like someone turned off the spigot. Then he read that some secret society of political zealots had been taking them out of circulation for years. The online article had read: "Purity Party out to purge America of foreign coins."
What nuts, he imagined. So Eric was forced to find some other alternative to give Lisa as a symbol of their lovemaking.
He decided on laundry tokens. The machines at the laundromat where he did his clothes used 8-sided coins purchased from a change machine on site. Each had a star on its face. Eric bought 10 dollars worth of tokens figuring that when his year with Lisa was through, he could always use the rest to simply dry his clothes.
It was time he started considering his own future anyway. A year out of college and he was still working as a bank teller while writing on nights and weekends. His goal was always to become a screenwriter. Lisa's parents had almost spit out their food when he'd told them over dinner, the one time he'd been invited to their home.
No ambition, indeed. Screenwriting was an ambition. It just wasn't a "career" like they had in mind for Lisa's future husband. Bob was an analyst of some sort. That much Lisa had told Eric. An analyst. A perverse thought came to Eric's mind, a writer's play on words. A jealous joke as well. Did that mean Bob did her in the butt as well?
What use, such thoughts? Eric figured that was just how his mind worked. Without that interplay his craft would not be possible. He could not write interesting dialogue if his mind did not go places no one else would go.
Then Pamela broke it off with Eric. No reason given at first. She left a text message and offered to meet for dinner to explain, if he wanted. Suddenly things were terrifying without her. She'd been his exit plan from life with Lisa. Now she was gone too.
The final weeks of Encounters with Lisa took on a solemn cast. She was warmer than ever toward him, and that made him sad. He could tell that she was sad as well, but not in the same way. Oh, well. This was not bound to have a happy conclusion at any rate.
Eric bought one more round of laundry tokens, just enough to finish the deal. Lisa asked if they could meet somewhere, a campground maybe, to celebrate old times.
It was bittersweet, by then. Eric handed her the last few tokens and they kissed. She thanked him and held and told him, "Take care of yourself." And she drove away.
Eric decided to take up Pamela's offer to meet for dinner. He wanted to know, at least, why she'd decided so suddenly to call it quits.
Pamela looked beautiful sitting across from him at the table of their favorite restaurant. They ordered their food and Pamela leaned forward with her eyes in a squint. "Why didn't you just tell me about the pennies thing?"
Eric was stunned. Of course. She knew. But how did she know about the pennies? Had Lisa found out about Pam and told her?
That was not it. Couldn't be. Pamela continued. "I lunch the day before I broke up with you with an analyst named Bob," she told him. "He's married to a woman named Lisa that I think you know."
"Bob…" Eric stammered.
"I guess he's an analyst of some sort? Well, he analyzed the situation pretty well, if you ask me. Somewhere along the way he figured out your lover Lisa was cheating on him. So he started looking for clues around the house. He'd read somewhere that women almost always keep some record of their infidelities. A diary, some token, whatever."
"And he found the penny jar," Eric said.
"Was that it? He didn't say they were in a jar, exactly. He just told me he counted the coins and then kept track of how many were added each time he made love to his wife, and then kept track of the other coins as well. It wasn't hard for an analyst to figure out what was going on. So he decided to up his game a little. Turns out even you even giving her enough coins, Eric. You didn't really bargain for that end of the deal."
"So…how did he find you..." Eric whispered.
"Well, Bob kind of took over the scenario, you might say. He got your friend Lisa to confess the whole bargain you and she had together. Then he dug into what you were about and it didn't take long for him to find me. So he set up a lunch and let me in on the deal, too. I guess it made Lisa sort of sad, knowing that you were at the center of all this. She told Bob she was worried that she'd ruined your life. That you seemed so innocent."
"Oh, my God…" Eric said, breaking into a fit of tears. People at neighboring tables turned their heads to look at them.
"Well, it seems like Bob really did you and her a favor. He counted up all the coins, foreign and domestic--and took the jar to the bank and put it in a safe deposit box. He wouldn't let Lisa count the coins. He said that was for him to know, only him. Not you. Not Lisa. Not anyone. Eric," Pamela said. "How could you?"
"It was her idea," he said, his lower lip shuddering.
"Either way, it's pathetic. Sweet, in some way, but pathetic. When I found out I told myself that I just couldn't keep seeing you. Surely you understand that."
"Yes," he admitted. "I see that. I get that."
Pamela said: "So you're done with all this? Can you move on with your life now?"
There was a pause. Eric gathered himself for a minute, staring at a fireplace across the room. It was not real, but the flames were flickering and it gave Eric an idea. "No, I'm not quite through," Eric replied. "I just got a great idea for a screenplay."
"No. You wouldn't," Pamela demanded. "That's not right."
"Who says?" Eric blurted. "Isn't that what we writers do," Eric said. "We chronicle life. It's our one ambition. To find a good story and turn it into something..that moves people. Makes them think. I think this fits the bill."
Pamela stood up, gathering her purse. "Well, good night," she told him, tossing her napkin on the table as she threw her bag over her should. "Have fun with that."
"Pamela. I'm really sorry about this," he confessed. She dropped her chin to her clavicle, made a disgusted face and walked away.
The waiter returned with both plates of food, then looked at Eric with a questioning shrug.
"I'll eat them both," Eric said. "Adn the bottle of wine, too. You can put the other plate on her side where it belongs. I'll get to that whe I'm done with this one."
It took him a while to eat the full meal, times two. By then, new couples had arrived and taken their seats around him. Eric slowly ate the entire plate of food Pamela had ordered, and downed the full bottle of wine, glass by glass. Their favorite year. A dry, full-bodied wine. Eric was feeling drunk and full, and fat by the time he'd finished eating. Then he lifted the cloth napkin from his lap and pulled out Sharpie pen in his jacket pocket to write down some words in blurry ink. "Empty the Jar," it read. He drew a half full jar of pennies next to the words.
Then held up the napkin and waved it over his head, talking to the restaurant patrons he was now treating as his audience. "So I won't forget!" he declared. "And may all your jars be emptied. Ha haaa!!"
Of course no one knew what the hell he was talking about. And Eric was definitely now drunk from drinking the whole bottle of wine. The waiter hurried the bill to Eric's table and ushered him out of the restaurant. "Should we call you a cab?" he asked.
"Why would you do that?" Eric responded, chuckling in that knowing way of a drunken man. "My name is Eric. Not cab." Eric stood wavering on the sidewalk, gathering his senses, as it were, for his walk to wherever.
He stepped out into the street and began looking for his car. He could not remember which direction the damn thing was parked. He turned right, then left, looking for familiar signs. Then he felt a hand on his elbow. It was Pamela. "C'mon," she told him. "I've been down at the bar for an hour and was wondering when you'd finally come out. I'm not really mad at you, so much as disappointed. I've thought it through, and I think she just had too much of a hold on you. So let's go home. Just promise me one thing, Eric. That you'll never keep track of how often we make love. Ever."
He stared at her drunkenly. "I, promise," he said. "Although I think you're worth a quarter, not just a penny."
"You're drunker than I thought you'd be," Pamela retored. "But neither of us is legal. Let's grab a cab and come back for our cars in the morning."
"That sounds good," Eric slurred. "I'm just so tired. And I'm sick of keeping promises." He stared at her solemnly. She shook her head.
"Promises are made to be broken," she laughed quietly, holding him up by the arm. "Let's just get home and start fresh tomorrow. Sound good?"
"Better than good," Eric answered. "And I'm really sorry, Pamela. Can you forgive me?"
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't," she replied. "Something in me always a writer in my life. It's my one ambition, if you can believe that."
"I do, Eric said. "I can believe anything now."