ON 3rd
Jeffrey Rubin

She thrills me, this woman behind the counter at the Rolling in Dough bakery over on 3rd. She sells me acrid cups of coffee, pushes scones that taste for all the world like blueberry-studded boulders. Yet I come back every day because she thrills me.

Her name is Greta. So Old World, so classic. My wife's name is Jennifer, which suits her but can only be called classic if you consider the 1970's a golden age.

Greta and Jennifer are different in so many ways. Jennifer is tall, a runner, tight and lean. Greta is short and round—not a single sharp edge—with a full backside and real hips. Jennifer has perfect little breasts, a prize under silken blouses or oversize sweaters. Greta’s are pendulous under a jam-smeared baker’s apron.

Jennifer: She's the woman I married nine years ago, my one and only sex partner for ten. The mother of my kids, Mark, age 8, and the baby, Hanna, fourteen months this April.

Greta: We've got no history, unless you count our daily banter over my purchase of coffee and pastry.

“Back for another scone, Joel?”

“Just for the service, Greta.”

I keep to my side of the counter, she keeps to hers.

But that might change. It might.

One night, Jenn and I were lying in bed after a good twenty minutes of it. I was pretty amorous. I felt loose-limbed, focused, utterly at ease. Jennifer lay beside me, rubbing my leg with hers.

“Tell me about Erin,” she blurted.

“What?” I asked.

“Erin. Lavigne. You went out with her before me, right? Tell me about her.”

“What’s to tell?” I said, sitting up. I was feeling a little defensive. I mean, here was a bolt from the blue. “That was 10 years ago.”

“You slept with her, didn’t you, Joel?”

“Why are we bringing this up?” I couldn’t begin to figure it out just then. Jennifer knew I’d slept with Erin. She knew that Erin was the only other woman I’d ever slept with. In fact, my wife knew my whole brief history, which I’d compulsively revealed during one of our earliest dates. That was one of my quirks, my tics, which scared some women, but which Jennifer had found endearing. I simply wasn’t keen on mysteries. Naturally, I wasn’t comfortable with the particular mystery of this conversation.

I looked at my wife. I swear, she was busting to say something. She was all but vibrating beside me.

“Would you like to see her again?”

“Huh? Christ, Jenn.”

“OK, let me ask you this: Do you miss it? I mean, do you feel like you missed out by not…”

“Not what?”

“Not having other women, Joel. Not playing the field. Experiencing things. Being a hound. You know, like Len.” Len was my best friend, two wives and half a dozen affairs in ten years.

A lightbulb went on in my head. The wrong bulb. “You think I’m screwing around? I swear, I don’t even know where Erin lives. She could be dead for all I know.”

Jennifer chuckled.

“I mean it,” I said, starting to climb out of bed. “You wanna see my credit card receipts? Check my cellphone. Check me out. There's no one.”

She reached over and patted my shoulder. “I don’t think you’re having an affair, Joel. I just wonder: what if you could?”

“I wouldn’t, OK?” I said, firm in my conviction. Loyalty, fidelity, these were a source of pride to me. Like I was a knight, and these were the cornerstones of my rigorous code.

Besides, I knew, as an old married man, how to step lightly through the minefield of marriage hypotheticals. As surely as you never answer in the affirmative when your wife asks if she looks like she’s still packing baby weight, you dance over questions like these.

“Listen, Joel, what if I said it was fine? What if I told you that I wouldn’t mind?” She was sitting up in bed now. No longer looking impish. Now, just impassioned. Enthusiastic, even. All that intensity, it was actually scary.

“What is all this? What’s wrong?”

“We’re good, Joel. Really. But what if we could be better?”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, this is New York City,” I reminded her. “Not the Ozarks.”

“Open your mind,” she said.

“A mind can be too open.”

"You might like it. God, how many guys would kill for a chance like this? You could try new things. Learn new things.''

“So I’m sexually boring?” I asked.

“No, Joel, that’s not it,” she said. “But, it’s been ten years. And what have we got, thirty or forty more?”

“Not if you keep this up,” I said. “I just might jump in front of a bus.”

She did keep at it, though. And though I never leaped off the curb, it became a constant source of discussion for us, the same way that we got immersed in mortgage rates when we bought our co-op, or child-rearing theories when she was pregnant the first time.

We talked about it at home, by phone, by e-mail. We debated it in the city and the country. I was affronted, which made me unyielding. I dug in my heels every time: at a restaurant uptown, a theater in Midtown, and, one day, while waiting in line for some blueberry scones at the Rolling in Dough bakery over on 3rd.

Jeffrey Rubin is an editor at The New York Times. His stories have appeared in several journals, including Bellevue Literary Review and Crab Orchard Review. "On 3rd" is a 2005 storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story.

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