She wasn’t angry with him, but with them—the faceless them she liked to blame when things didn’t go the way she planned….”
by alan gunter
It’s nearing 5:00 AM and it’s still hot. The sweat drips from the small of her back onto the sheets as she presses her body against his, and her one-sided erotic fantasy causes her to involuntarily release her breath and then try to catch it again. There may not be another chance like this and she puts her hand on his member to claim her territory. In the tilted mirror above the dresser she watches the intermittent flash of the soft red neon from the sign across the street illuminate them there on the bed—naked and sultry—and it makes their skin shine like fresh blood under a full moon.
She thinks it has the look and feel of a dime store novel, and in her mind’s eye she can even see them on the cover: he’s asleep on his back and a part of her spread-out glistening body is lying on top of him face down; the sheets are tangled under them but one corner barely covers the area below his waist; her bare bottom is titillating but isn’t considered pornography, and the artist lets it stand so it can still sit on the shelf next to the magazines—perhaps a momentary risqué distraction to the freshly scrubbed new teenagers who come in to buy candy bars, and model airplanes, and cheap bracelets—inadvisable, to be sure, but perfectly legal.
But in real life, the sheets still smell of their lovemaking, still bear the stains of their passions, and still hold the oils from their bodies, constant reminders all of how short the night can be when the dawn isn’t welcome. He’d fallen asleep right away but she just couldn’t—not then, . . . and not now. How could she? —this may be the last time she sees him.
How can he sleep at a time like this?
And she wonders why she chose to stay.
“It’s too painful to stay,” she’d told him, “I’d rather leave and go dancing by myself. I can’t think about it anymore. It hurts too much.”
But he held her in the way a man holds the woman he loves.
“Stay,” was all he said. And that’s all it took—it was also too painful to leave.
Is she glad she stayed? Yes, . . . and no—an answer fraught with impossible explanation. Like an Escher tessellation, the opposing desires fit neatly into one another and repeat themselves over and over, filling her mind with nothing else. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all academic now. What’s done is done, and her decision to stay is something she’s going to have to live with—hopefully without regret.
Is the room getting lighter, or is it just her fear suggesting it? Is the hour of his departure that near? She didn’t think so. It was only last week that he’d told her, and ever since he had, her days have been like whirlwinds, topsy-turvy and fragmented. The usual thoughts and concerns of a young woman came and went like unruly children doing their own thing, there was no thread holding them all together, no framework that made them relevant, and no order that gave them meaning. She had lost herself in the maelstrom of his words:
“I’ve been called up. I leave in a week.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Of course, baby. How could I leave without seeing you one more time?”
“What about your wife? How do you plan to explain it to her? It’s not like you can just tell her you’re going out of town on business, or camping with the guys, or—”
“I’ve already taken care of it.”
“I told her I have to report on Tuesday, but I don’t report till Wednesday. We’ve got a whole day to be with each other.”
“God, . . . why now? All of a sudden they want you, is that it? What about us? What about the plans we made? What am I gonna do if you don’t come back?”
It would have been natural for her to cry then, but she didn’t. Her voice didn’t even crack. She was angry. She stood there in her kitchen—wearing only that translucent slip he liked—staring at him, actually expecting a reasonable answer. She wasn’t angry with him, but with them—the faceless them she liked to blame when things didn’t go the way she planned. He just sat there turning the half-filled glass of bourbon on the table round and round, his mindless gaze on the motionless liquid belying the tumultuous thoughts that tried to answer her slippery questions. He had no answers, but he couldn’t even say that.
“She wants a divorce.”
“A lot of good that does us now. What is that? Another two years? You could be dead by then.”
“Please, don’t say that. Say anything but that.”
Her cell phone began playing that annoying “William Tell Overture” again. They both thought of the Lone Ranger, not Gioachino Rossini. He downed the bourbon when she answered with exaggerated calmness.
He looked over at her anxious silence.
“Hello!” she yelled. “Goddamn it! If you call me one more time, I’m calling the police. Now leave me alone you fucking pervert,” and she angrily turned it off.
She hadn’t wanted a cell phone. It felt good to slam the receiver down and hang up on people she found annoying—it was impossible to do that with a cell phone. But now that she had one, she wished she’d gotten caller ID.
“Was that him again?”
“Yes. Who else? He calls me almost every day—mostly at night. I think he times it for when he thinks I’m getting into bed. How in the hell does he know I sleep naked?”
“What kinds of things does he say?”
“Nothing. He’s never said a goddamn thing. All he does is breathe into the phone. I know what he’s doing. Does he think I don’t know?”
“Look, either get caller ID, or just hang up. He probably gets off on you getting rattled.”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
She sat on the floor next to him, and then laid her arm on his leg, and her head on her arm. He stroked her hair.
It took her almost a week to get to the point where she could even accept it. “Why waste the last days on self-pity?” she had told herself. The more she thought about it, the more she realized it did no good to think about it. It was going to happen regardless of how she spent her time, and if she continued to wallow in the loneliness of Wednesday morning, she would miss the fullness of Tuesday night.
So, for the sake of survival, she planned their last night like she would plan her wedding: she got her hair done, bought some new lingerie, some erotic oils and perfumes, and all the things that could go to make it a night to remember. She would use them to bring to their bed all the words, and sounds, and smells, and private acts of intimacy that made them what they were together. But in the back of her mind she knew that these very private and special things would quickly be relegated to the trunk in the attic, covered with dust and musty odors, locked away with all of the other dreams that were, times that had been, and forgotten memories of youth.
He moves his arm and puts his hand on her back, and then turns his head toward her without opening his eyes. She watches his mouth, the pulse of the vein in his neck, the rise and fall of his chest, and the almost imperceptible thrust of his hips urging her not to stop. He’s dreaming of her. But why dream? She’s right there.
“I’m right here, my love, . . . lying next to you.”
He strokes her back and she moans. She needs him for more than just now. She’ll need him this afternoon, and tomorrow night, and the next day, and the next. But he’ll be gone and the need she’ll have will have to be filled with something else: Work? Friends? Hobbies? Other men?
No! —never other men. There are no other men. It revolts her to think of such a thing, it makes her ashamed, afraid that it may come to that. No! —never other men, she vows. She’s firm about that. If she must, she’ll use her own hands to take his place until he returns—if he returns. And if he should not, the price of living will be too great and she will give up.
The room is lighter. She’s sure of it. She can see the furniture now, even when the neon isn’t on. The chairs and table and sofa look like ghosts moving about, their motion an optical illusion from the off and on pattern of the soft red light. They’re waking up to tell her that time is short. Suddenly she hates herself for waiting.
“Baby,” she coos. “Wake up. I need you. Wake up.”
“Hmmm,” and he rolls a little closer and kisses her hair. “What is it? Hmm?”
“Can you feel me next to you?”
“Yeah, I feel you. I feel your body against me.”
“Baby, please, . . . one more time.”
“One more time?”
“Just one more time before you go.”
She kisses his stomach a few times and rubs her cheek on his chest. It’s impossible for her to keep track of the rest of the world while lost in this urgent desire. But the world goes on, nonetheless, demanding attention at the most inopportune times. This was not the time for William Tell, but that’s the way life is.
“Let it go,” he says.
“As much as I want to, I can’t. I know it’s him and I want to see who it is. I got caller ID yesterday.”
She rolls over enough to reach the cell phone on the nightstand, flips open the lid, and squints to see the number when the red light comes.
“What? That’s impossible.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t mean ‘its you calling’, I mean ‘it’s your phone number’.”
“Son of a bitch. She’s been checking up on me.”
“No. That can’t be it.”
“Because she thinks you’ve already left. Besides, how would she know this number?”
“Give me that.”
He grabs the phone from her hand and hits talk.
“Who the fuck is this?”
She waits for his expression to change, but he closes the phone instead.
“Who was it?”
“They hung up.”
They lay there on their backs, thinking about the call, and for a string of moments she was distracted by it. The day was stirring like Jack’s giant and something had to be done. How had the light entered so stealthily? It was all slipping away.
“Baby, let’s not think about it,” she begged of him. “It’s starting to get light. Make love to me—one more time. Please. Hurry.”
Desperation is ugly, awkward, and ignoble, and she felt it creep onto the bed and settle between them, shivering like the coward it is. Her anger was all but gone now, and the first tear could fall.
Nothing lasts. Nor should it.
(illustrations: troy dockins)