It would have been better, no doubt, if Tara Keefe's hair had not been red as dark apples, a russet that would seem artificial except in Irish tourism ads her name suited her for. No doubt she spent her childhood enduring nicknames and epithets like "carrot top." Even in the era of modish vegetable dyes her color was, however fashionable, not one she had chosen, unnatural-looking and yet not artificial enough to make a statement. It would be there, vivid as tomatoes and roses, after cerise, tourmaline, cochineal or chartreuse were washed away. And it would have been better, certainly, if Brian Leighman had not felt, as he stood in the grocery store line, a moment of self-indulgence or if, when he did, he had not indulged it.
He came to the store five or six times a week, sometimes twice in one day. He was the quintessential male grocery shopper, returning home from a bread run with three bags of groceries and no bread, or taking with him a carefully itemized list and returning home to discover that he had forgotten to put bread on it. Had he been more organized, or not so much a creature of habit that once he had settled on Safeway he simply went there every time, never considering the Smith's near his house or other alternatives, then he might not have begun to think of the store staff as people who knew him. And that would have been better, too.
Not that he encouraged friendliness. He was not rude, but neither was he forthcoming or responsive beyond the demands of civility. He had grown weary long ago of being asked if he had found everything he was looking for. The question was, for him, too theological. On the occasions when he had not found a grocery item-and he never pointed out that he might be looking for other things, things he would never expect to find in this markethe had said so a few times, at first. Always the checkerwhoever it was, young or old, male or femalewas taken aback, and seldom helpful. It was drilled in, the automatic question, just as Smith's help were instructed to say your name, if you had a Smith's card that gave it to them, as they sent you on your way. So Brian simply nodded in answer, regardless of the truth of the matter. He nodded if they actually attempted conversation, returning the polite minimums with forgettable politeness, adding a polite smile when it seemed necessary. He spoke when necessary, and went home.
But Tara Keefeher name tag said Tara K; "Keefe" he learned laterwas unexpected. He had been noticing her for some weeks. How could one not notice a girl so striking? Her hairthe color and sheen of red satin, and wispy, if that was the word, as spider webs, and long, below her shoulder bladeswas far too dramatic to miss, and she had the coloring for the hair. Her skin was white as bone, absolutely colorless it seemed until one looked closely. Then, when you looked, it took on the tint and shade of milk or ice cream, with a touch of cherry on her cheeks, not cherries but cherry ice creampale, pink and delicate. She had a big mouth. Brian would never have said it that way, but it was what popped into his head, because it spread across her face, an infectious grin, twisted on the ends almost as if on cranks, and he thought about how it always happened, the friendly smile, whenever one made the mistake of looking her in the eye. She smiled sometimes at the cash register itself. She seemed to live in a bell of happiness, and he found this charming. And that day, when he nodded in response to the routine, parroted question, she smiled at his nodding head and said, "Really? That's good!" And that was his undoing.
He had laughed, a single huff of a chuckle, caught by surprise, and he had shaken his head. And Tara did the wrong thing in response. Instead of ignoring customer weirdness, she offered attention not mandated by the handbook. She said, "What?" Not challengingly, but with a tone that suggested genuine curiosity, and Brian looked her in the face and told her.
"You have a wonderful smile," he said, as if commenting on the weather.
Her eyes widened, and her smile popped again, and she blushed a bit. On most women, it would have been too subtle to notice, unless you were studying the face. On her milky skin, it was obvious, more cherry flavor in the ice cream, as if someone had swabbed pink on her cheekbones.
"No charge," he said, glancing at the total for his groceries on her register screen.
He thought about in it the parking lot. He thought about it driving home, and he thought of her, of that almost clowny smile, a grin, really, while he put his groceries away. Then he didn't see her for a week. It was nine or ten days later, more, when he was cruising the checkouts for a short line, when he saw her bagging. He chose the next lane over, actually a bit longer than hers. Then, embarrassed by the impulse, he looked everywhere but at her. He could see, in his peripheral vision, that she had noticed him. She was glancing over, again and then once more, as if to catch his eye, casually at first and then with a bit of concern in her expression. He wouldn't look at her, and he thought after a few seconds that she had realized he was avoiding her. Puzzled, he supposed. Or not. She left off bagging to go get something for a customer, and he was done and on his way before she got back.
He felt foolish, and even rude. He glanced at the entrance to Safeway as he started his car. It would have been a silly coincidence if she had come out at that moment. Life is full of coincidences. She didn't. It would have been very silly, buffoon-silly, to get out of the car, go back inside, pretending he had forgotten something, take it to the front and get in her line, and then pretend to see her for the first time. Leave off the last, not pretend anything so unbelievable, but simply speak to her this time.
And say what? "I meant what I said about your smile, by the way." Of course, and feel more the fool. And she would be doubly surprised, first by the snub, then by the ridiculous effort to undo it. Surprised and even, possibly, frightened. And well she should be. Her own personal stalker. Say something inconsequential, then. Much better. But stupid, nonetheless, the stupid pretense and the equally stupid notion that she had given a moment's thought to his "rudeness." He drove home.
She was one of those women who look five years younger than they are, he reckoned. An effect of the skin color, no doubt, but also of the childish openness, the grinning welcome she shared around like candy. She was probably twenty. Probably enrolled at the U, which was only a few blocks away. Probably married or living with a earnest young man who wrote poems for her, managed a Crown Burger night shift, and walked their twin Shelties every morning. No. Probably testing lesbian waters with a live-in lover whose hair bristled like a scrub brush. No. Probably lived with her parents and called her father "Poppa." Probably more like eighteen. Possibly, just possibly, wondering why somebody who had paid her a compliment would ignore herno, say it: snub herthe next time he saw her.
Not hard to explain that. He could not remember the last time he had touched the living room blinds. He turned on lights at night generally. During the day twilight was adequate in the house, except for the places he worked and lived: the kitchen, the study, the bathroom, the bedroom for a few waking minutes every day. No one had seen the inside of his house in a year. Except that plumberRoto-Rooter man, actuallywho had come to fix the bathtub drain and stared at the gaudy nude of Titian's wife in fur that hung on the wall outside the bathroom door. Well, and Melissa, the cleaning lady who came in once a week. He always arranged to be out, and left a check. Once, when he was home sick on her Friday, he called and canceled and paid her anyway. She had been with him for years; she humored him.
The world allowed Brian Leighman to avoid people, and the habit came easily. He could do business on the phone. On the web. He had a video camera and DSL, so he could even conference from his office when, rarely, conference was warranted. He was on campus once a week, for the afternoon and evening, and his students got the rest of their attention by e-mail. That was all he owed the department, after all, and all the students needed. He might go fifty hours without speaking. He did not answer the phone until the messaging machine kicked in and he knew it was someone he must talk to. His sister would always begin her messages, "Pick it up, damn you." And he did. Usually. But then, sometimes not.
He had seen his sister six years ago, a few months after Altitudes was published. A conference in her home town, Richmond, and she knew he was coming, saw his name in the paper, and cornered him in a hotel lobby.
"You misanthropic son of a bitch," she said with some affection and exasperation. "You were going to sneak in and out again without so much as a call!"
He did not reply. No need. They had breakfast the next morning. She told him he was looking good. He made the necessary small talk. He never called her; he was polite when she caught him. She did not have e-mail. A mercy.
Tara Keefe apparently only worked weekends, or some odd shift he never used. He tried coming in each weekday, about the time she had been there on the Sunday when he avoided her, and she was nowhere to be seen. Then finally, Saturday afternoon, at checkstand 13, there she was, her hair soft as an Afghan hound's but red as a rose. Of course, he thought, thirteen, and he turned away, up an aisle and then down the next and into her line. And finally, in front of her.
"Hi, Smile," he said, smiling himself.
If he had said "Smiley" she might have been offended and that would have been that. She would have felt patronized and demeaned, and that, she would have said to herself even as she smiled politely, hating the fact that she couldn't not smile, a reflex that made her feel about twelve sometimes, that would have been that. But he caught her off guard, and she was curious about the odd reticence of last weekend, curious rather than offended.
"Hi, yourself. Find what you were looking for?"
She was flustered. She hated that too, being so bloody tuned in to people that she knew exactly, exactly, what they were thinking, and he was thinking exactly, she had to admit, what she had hoped he would be thinking. He had understood her perfectly, and she had understood him just as well. She rang his groceries, swiped his card, took his money, and made change. As he always did, he left a palm negligently in front of her, propped lazily on the counter, for her to drop the money in. She let one finger graze his skin, so innocently he hardly would have noticed. He met her eyes. He had noticed. He said "Thank you," and walked away, two bags in each hand, suspended like water buckets. He never said "Thank you." She could've taken a poll of the clerks to prove that.
The next week, he said, "Your mother was a Margaret Mitchell fan?"
Tara laughed. "No. It's real Irish. And my father, first generation from Limerick."
"Why would anyone name a town Limerick?" he said gruffly, and she gave him, as he had hoped she would, the smile.
It was month later that he was crossing the lot, coming in, and he saw her sitting on the brick planter, a fuzzy grey sweater draped against the chill, her face presented almost worshipfully to the sun. She turned her head enough to indicate that she saw him, and he smiled a greeting and bobbed his head as he passed. But she said, "Hi, you," and he stopped.
"Hi, yourself, Irish."
"You shop too fast, someone else will have to check you out."
"I'll creep," he said. He went inside.
The groceries came to $35.87 and he only had $33, so he fumbled out a credit card.
"Brian Leighman," she read after he swiped it, getting the vowels right. "A nice Anglo Saxon name your own self."
"British, though. Your sworn enemies."
"Not me, man. I'm an American."
"I have no country," he said solemnly. She laughed, as he had hoped she would. He left.
She was outside again a couple of weeks later, about the same time, and she waved as he approached. It was warmer. No sweater. She tilted her head up to his face, squinting against the sun.
"How you doing, Mr. Leighman?"
"Brian," he said. She put out a hand like a trained child. And grinned. The damn smile.
"Howja do, Brian. Tara Keefe. Pleased to meetcha." She did not get up, though.
They shook hands. Her hand was moist, not damp but warm and soft like moisturizer might make young skin. He knew his own hands were coarse and calloused, and they were huge, with short, blunt fingers and a webwork of permanent fissures. He could have taken both of her hands easily in one of his.
"You own stock?" she said.
"Safeway. You are doing your part to keep us solvent."
"Creature of habit," he said. Stopped to talk, he had turned half away, so that he was facing across her view of the parking lot.
"You seen The Lord of the Rings yet?"
He almost said what would have been his standard reply, one he'd actually said to a student a few months ago: "I don't do movies." Another road not taken. He just said, "No."
"I'm going tonight. The 8:40 show at Trolley. I wondered if you had seen it. It's supposed to be pretty good. But you never know. It can't match the books."
"No," he said. They talked a bit about Tolkien. She was not a fan, but she had read the trilogy, and The Hobbit, and had them read to her before that. "They read well aloud," he said. "That's one of Tolkien's real strengths."
"Back to work," she said, standing up briskly. "See ya."
He had not been meaning to go to the movie. He had, in fact, read the books again around the time the movie premiered, some months ago, a little act of protest he had enjoyed. He had not been to a movie in more than a year. Trolley Square was not far from his house, halfway, in fact, between his house and Safeway, and he drove by on his way home. And then came back, four hours later, for the 8:40 show. He found her lingering in the lobby, casually, as if she didn't want to sit down until she had to.
"Hey, Tara Keefe."
"Hey, Brian Leighman. Didn't expect to see you here."
"Well, I can't very well claim that," he said, and she blushed again and flashed the smile. One could become used to it. She was wearing a gauzy, elvish thing like a caftan, light but opaque, with a heavy man's belt snugging it around her waist. "You waiting for friends?"
"No," she said. Then she added, almost defiantly, "Just you."
He grinned. "We'll need popcorn."
"Ok. But no artificially enhanced butter substitute product."
They sat together very like a date, or a father treating his daughter. He was carefully distant. Once, for a just a moment, she leaned into his shoulder, touched his arm lightly with her fingers, and spoke a soft comment on the film. Her hair brushed his shoulder and then away. That was all, except for bumping knuckles now and then in the popcorn bag.
"Well, what I need now," she said as they returned to the lobby, stretching her arms in front of her as if waking from sleep, "is a big piece of blackberry cheesecake from Papagena's. Of course, I'll gain ten pounds before your very eyes and have to spend the whole week on the treadmill."
"Small price to pay. Where is Papagena's?" The bistro was across the street. They walked through the parking lot.
"You bought the popcorn," she said, refusing to let him pay for the desserts. They sat down and she took a quick bite of the cheesecake, swallowed and sighed. "Ah, sugar rush," she said. He had ordered an espresso, a double, and he savored the rich acids while she sliced and consumed her dessert. "Did you like it?" she said after a few bites. "The movie?"
They talked about the movie for nearly an hour. It was after one by then, and the staff began stacking chairs pointedly.
"We're being evicted," he said finally, and they stood up. A waiter passed with a surly glare.
"Churl," Tara growled.
"Now, don't start anything I'll have to finish," Brian said. "They've been monumentally patient." He fumbled for a tip, and they left, crossed the deserted parking lot. Her car, a beat-up Japanese hatchback, sat alone in the center of one area. His aging Ford was half in the shade of a solitary tree. He walked her to her car.
"I'm glad you came, Brian," she said, slowing as they arrived at the car.
He nodded. They were still walking, side by side, not touching. After a few steps she said in a deeper voice, "Me too, Tara. It's been grand." She broadened the 'a' of "grand". Her father was definitely very Irish.
"Thank you for inviting me. Sort of," he said.
"Are you going to ask for my phone number, or is this the end?"
"Could it be both?"
"That would be needlessly cruel, huh? Are you needlessly cruel?" She crossed her arms and faced him.
"Well, then, I'll have to take my chances." She gave him her phone number, rattling off ten digits. They stood awkwardly by her car while he fumbled for paper and wrote it down as she repeated it. They stood a few seconds longer than necessary. Then he took her hand, lifted it to his lips, and kissed it.
"Very sweet," he said gruffly.
"It's the cheesecake," she said, and she flashed him the grin again, like an arrow between the eyes. He was still holding her hand. He squeezed and let go. He stood waiting till the car pulled away, waved to her departing wave, and walked to his car, much consumed by thought.
She smelled of the Orient. Spices, ginger perhaps. Patchouli. But her breath, when it touched him, had been smoky and earthen, fighting the exotic smell that seemed to come from her hair. Before that night, he had never imagined her except in the unflattering drabs of the checkout line, khaki jeans and a variety of immemorable white blouses, black running shoes. The caftan was a shock as exotic as the scent, a hint of Galadriel impersonation that she seemed too level-headed for.
He did not call the next day. He had a commitment that evening, someone else's seminar, a debt he had to settle. It served as an excuse, and he did not call until the night after. She had the phone in two rings, and there was her crisp voice: "Tara here."
"Brian here. How are you?"
"Breathless, here," she said. "But don't let it go to your head. I just got home from work."
So she has two jobs, he thought. "Is this a bad time, then?"
"No, no. Just let me drop stuff." There was scuffling in the background, then a thump when she put down the phone. In a minute or so she was back.
"Now then, you have my full attention, such as it is."
"It's fine. I don't need much."
"Sorry, did you say something?"
"I said I'd like you take you to dinner."
"Great. I'm starved!"
"Oh, well, I wasn't" he said, and then he thought, Why not? "For what?"
"Fame. Glory. Fajitas. I'll settle for the fajitas."
They agreed to meet at Del Norte in an hour. She beat him there, but not, she insisted, by much. He ordered a Margarita; she had a coke. Munching salsa and chips, she told him about her day job, clerking at a used record shop. That, at least, was how he thought of it. She had said "used CD."
"It'll keep me alive till help comes," she concluded. "And what do you do?"
"Consultant. Stuff with computers. I write for some magazines," he said vaguely.
"Technical writer. My father wants me to learn that. Have a trade, he calls it. I figure I'll just keep living on mac and cheese."
"Are you in school?"
She nodded. "Sometimes I wish I was 'technical'," she said after wrapping her first shrimp fajitas. "I can manage my word processor, and the Internet, and that's it."
"It's a knack, not a skill." They talked a bit about software, the ritual swapping of version numbers and horror stories, and the dinner was soon over.
"I cook," she said. "Quite domestically."
"Me too," he growled.
"Why do you do that?"
"Say perfectly non-confrontational things as if they were dangerous topics?"
He laughed. "I've never heard it described that way. Thank you."
"You're welcome, but that doesn't answer my question. Huh?"
"No reason," he said. "It just feels good."
"'Me too...'" she growled, drawing the last vowel out a bit. "Hey, you're right, it does!"
They made an early evening of it, and she invited him to dinner at her apartment. He negotiated bringing wine, and he went home. When he got to the house there was a message on his answering machine. He hit the button. The machine moaned and clicked.
"Chablis," the machine said, then the click of her hanging up. They had agreed on a Cabernet. He got a Chablis the next afternoon.
Her apartment was a basement affair on the Avenues, a long walk from campus. It was small and private, decorated with spare, almost Japanese delicacy. A poster, a Turner he thought, hung over her little modular stereo. She had put on music, Chopin, or maybe Schubert, a few minutes before he arrived. On an end table near the old couch, a piece of carved cinnabar, some sort of animal-Asian, hairy, but probably imaginary. Who knew with the Orient? He wondered if she had chosen it because the cinnabar matched her hair. On her bookshelves were novels, collections of short storiesRaymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, Andrea Barrett, an unfamiliar paperback copy of Ficciones. After a moment, he blinked, realizing that it was a Spanish edition. Well. A few books away from Borges, nestled between Bluebeard's Egg and a cheap paperback anthology, was Altitudes, Solitudes. Hardcover, no less. None of his other books, though. She called him to open the wine.
She served chicken breasts with pine nuts, braised asparagus, and a bread fresh as homemade. He asked. It was. They ate at the coffee table, him sitting with crossed ankles, her somehow managing to negotiate and, for a half an hour, endure sitting Geisha-style on her heels. She pried a couple of compliments out of him, sincere ones, on the food.
"You must be an English major," he said.
"Uh-hunh," she shot a look at her bookshelves and mumbled her reply around a mouthful of asparagus.
She swallowed. She was eating the asparagus with her fingers, one stalk at a time, licking the butter off her fingertips carefully and then touching her napkin before picking up her fork again. "Sort of." She paused. "It's sort of in the sense that I'm writing but I'm not trying to get into the program. The Creative Writing Program. I'll always need a day job," she added with a quick, quirked, self-deprecating smile.
"'Fiction' what? Oh, you mean write it. Used to. I don't have the attention span for writing the stuff."
"I know what you mean. I think."
"I switched to poetry. Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, that kind of thing. Utah's own Amy Lowell if I hit my marks, huh? Did you used to write fiction?"
"Fiction's hard work, like you said. Computer books are easy money, if you have the knack. You read Spanish?"
"Uh-hunh." She was studying his face, as if waiting for something. Then she added, "You must have started out as more than a technical writer."
"I write this and that. Technical writing is a day job." They finished the meal in thoughtful silence. She shooed him aside as she cleared the table. Not one to argue, he went back to the bookshelves. He pulled Altitudes off the shelf and thumbed through the pages. Some were marked. She reappeared at his side.
"Now there's a book that will make you slash your wrists," she said. "He teaches here."
Brian made a rumbling sound that could have been acknowledgment or almost anything except indigestion. He flipped through a few pages. She was scanning her shelves. Someone had written on the title page, "TeeThis reminds me of you." Brian shut the book without paying any attention to the signature. He put the book back. She pulled another book from a lower shelf, an ancient, beat-up paperback with a black cover. Fowles' The Ebony Tower. "That's a favorite," she said. "You ever read it?"
Brian nodded, handled the book, looked at a couple of marked places, put it back. She favored purple felt-tips.
They finished the wine. Brian sat on the couch. Tara sat on the floor, talking about this writer and that. Her tastes were a bit old-fashioned, which was a pleasant surprise. She mentioned Bob Lee, beginning to describe Altitudes, Solitudes, and he steered the conversation elsewhere, back to Fowles. He got her talking about Daniel Martin, which she had not liked, and then about her father, who reminded her of a character from some movie he did not recognize. She was from Cedar City, and it had been a near thing, choosing the U over Southern Utah. "They have a good English program," she said a bit defensively.
"Why haven't you tried for the Creative Writing Program?" he said.
"I guess I want to teach." She was staring at the wall, her weight propped on her hands. "That's baloney. I'm not good enough. It's something you figure out, if you're lucky." She sipped her wine. "I had a friend whose sister was in the program. She ended up having an abortion."
"She was having an affair with one of the instructors."
He breathed through his nose. "Well, that sort of thing happens. Impressionable girls and intellectuals a little short on scruples."
"He's not even there any more. He was a poet. He won the ABA or something and went to California."
Brian nodded, remembering the name. Four years ago.
"Anyway. I decided I wasn't fresh meat. Not like I'm a prude or anything, but anybody who would tell me I was talented is just trying to get into my pants." She glared at him, as if he might disagree. "Lormy friend's sister was in pretty bad shape. He worked her over good." She popped the smile, but there was a rueful quality to it. "Like the song. Warren Zevon?" He nodded. "And he was married," she said. "Creep."
They sipped wine meditatively. He began to tell her about growing up in West Texas, on the New Mexico border. She had lived in Utah all her life, even though her family was not LDS. Her father's parents were railroad people from Ogden, immigrants. Her mother was from Price. He told her about his father dying in an oil rig explosion. "There wasn't any body left," he said. "Nothing. It drove my mother nuts."
"You mean really?"
He thought about that. "Yeah, I guess I do. She changed for the worst. I mean, she was never diagnosed or committed, but... yeah."
"But it didn't drive you crazy."
"I was sixteen."
She studied him for a longer time than the answer warranted. "What?" he said finally.
She smiled, and it was not the smile he liked, it was something harder and darker and secret, penetrating and unflinching. Friendly but by no means innocent nor to be trifled with. "You are very good at that," she said. Before he could speak she added, "changing the subject."
She joked about her father's obsession with Ireland, which he had never seen. They had endured Irish pipe music, not penny whistles but bagpipes, and stories from Irish history long before Michael Collins was the name of a movie. "I'm probably the only female of my age in Utah who knows what a Fenian is," she said with the older familiar grin. "And oi can spill Shone Fenn," she said in a melodramatic, reedy baritone. "And parnounce it. An' you know what's funny," she added in her own voice. "Daddy never read a word of Yeats in his life, and he wouldn't know Seamus Heaney from a Burns ballad. You ever been to Europe?"
"I lived in Dublin for a while, actually. Working on a computer project." He told her about the blossoming of the computer industry in Dublin, essentially invisible outside the industry.
"So," she said. "You ever been to Limerick?"
"Nope. Went to the east coast once, but Dublin was enough for me."
"I've never been out of the states," she said. "Silly. I should become a stewardess. I could learn French pretty easy."
"With the Spanish."
"I'm good with languages. Do you miss your father?"
"I...." The question seemed odd and intrusive, and he was flustered. Miss him? Forty years dead? "Yeah," he said. "He was a good guy. My mother got a pile of money from the oil company. It didn't make her rich, but she didn't have to work. At a job, anyway. I remember the morning he went to work. He and I argued about a date I had that night. He didn't like her father. It was no big deal, but for me, yeah. I was sixteen and he was speaking ill of my girlfriend's father. Called him "white trash." I was steamed, and then he was gone, and then he disappeared from the planet."
"You should write about him."
He almost said, "I did," but then he thought better of it. He had, and he would again, and he would again after that. It was never an oil rig in the stories. Once it was a semi, jack-knifed on the freeway outside Dallas and the body gone in burning fuel. Once it was a man on a lake, freezing his hands to oars so he could get his son back to shore in the Michigan winter, late evening and cold enough to freeze hands but not the big hungry lake. When he came out of his reverie, she was not looking at him. She was looking at her CD player, as if the music were visible. He still didn't say anything. He looked at the CD player as well. Nothing there but quiet music.
She got up and found another bottle of wine, something dark, red, and a little bitter, and they worked on that. She had adopted a spot on the floor as her place, sitting cross-legged, Indian-style, most of the evening. She got up when the last CD ended and restarted them absentmindedly. Then she took a second glass of the red wine back to her place and leaned to put it on the floor. She sat down and stretched her legs, extending her feet and bending to almost touch her head on the floor in the wide triangle between them. When she came back up, she turned away at the waist and back, a second stretching motion and a third. Then, her legs still spread, she gave him a long, sober look.
When she began the stretching exercise, he studied her from the couch, his wine glass in one hand, his eyes moving from ankle to hair, reading the supple movement of her torso. They stared at each other like two animals meeting by chance and uncertain. Then she smiled, and he smiled in response, and he stood up.
"I'd better let you get to bed," he said.
"No hurry," she said without getting up. He did not respond. She had to crane her neck a bit to look at his face. After a moment, she offered her hands to him and he took them and lifted. She came up as dead weight, leveraged off her feet, holding her legs stiff until they were vertical. Then she took her weight, put her feet together, and leaned into him. His own hands were at his shoulders, still holding her wrists, and her face was unambiguously too close to his. He extended his arms, and they made a cruciform figure when their lips came together. She kissed with a soft, opening, welcoming mouth, touching his lips with the tip of her tongue, lightly as a child taking powdered sugar from her own hand. He moved a leg forward, and she parted her thighs to embrace it subtly, as if for nothing but simple convenience.
He moved his mouth to her neck, and she whispered, "It's like kissing a hairbrush."
"Sorry," he murmured, lipping a pulse point on her neck.
"A sexy hairbrush," she said.
He made the noise again, a ruhing sound that she decided was simple acknowledgment, his "I hear you." He was still holding her arms out, his hands cuffs on her wrists. She grasped air, flexing fingers, and struggled a bit, but he held her and she consented to the awkward posture. Then he let go and put his hands on her waist. She draped her arms around his neck and leaned into her elbows, sinking against him. He was hard. She imagined the weight of it in her hand and a bud of heat bloomed inside her.
He stepped back, and she let him slip through her arms, leaving her wrists on his shoulders.
"My, my," she said.
"Time to go now."
"But you'll be back?"
He stepped in and kissed her again, a businesslike if not exactly chaste kiss on the mouth.
They had dinner at his house a few nights later, and spent the shank of the evening "making out," as he called it to her amusement, on the couch. He opened her blouse enough to kiss the tops of her breasts, almost to the aureole. Her breasts were soft and aqueous, like fleshy bags of milk, not the plump, firm sexless fruit, the various citruses, of men's magazines. He cupped one in his hand to hold it more firmly against his lips. Later in the evening, he found bruise-like scratches on it, a delicate tracery from the bristles of his beard. That night, she simply suffered his attentions, responding to his movements but instigating nothing. Her mouth under his was so soft and open that he imagined plunging into it, disappearing into her like a fish upstream. She flexed her back to offer the breast he kissed, and she put her arms above her head, draped over the couch, while he attended to her. Then, as if both of them knew they had reached a stopping place, he stopped. She embraced his neck; he kissed her, first the side of her mouth, then the edge of an eyelid, and then her ear and the pit below her ear. They stood up. She made as if to leave, embraced him, kissed him with a kind of voluptuous abandon that left her draped like heavy fabric on his body. He let a hand arrive at the triangle of bone at the base of her spine and spread his fingers so that they pressed into the swell of her bottom.
Then he let go of her, their bodies parted, and she kissed him once more and she was gone.
A few nights later, they went to an art film, dark and German, at the Tower, and then back to her apartment. It was an experiment. They had both heard of the film, and the director, but neither had seen it when it was released. She talked about the movie, standing with him in her front room. She had hated it, and they had established early on that they had made a big mistake, then sat it out, hoping for improvement that never came. "It's not like I want Disney endings," she said. "I saw Fanny and Alexander twice in a week. My boyfriend wouldn't go back. But it takes more than U2 songs and fashionable decadence to get my attention. And that girl!"
He shook his head agreeably. "Why I don't go to movies," he said.
She continued to dissect the film, talking casually, as if she had not noticed that he was unbuttoning her blouse. When he peeled the fabric away, revealing the bra underneath, she stopped talking and took a deep breath through her nose. The blouse fell to hang from her wrists, and she flicked her hands, directing it toward the couch where it landed soundlessly. The bra fastened in back. He pulled her into an embrace that left his mouth on hers and his hands on the fastener. Her skin was warm, as if she had been in the sun all afternoon, and her breasts moved against him as she worked her mouth around his tongue. When the bra separated he moved his hands upward, sliding the straps down onto her arms until all that held the bra in place was the pressure of their bodies. He bent to kiss her breasts and the bra fell.
She put her hands together in front of her, miming a bound prisoner, and the bra slipped the rest of the way, falling to the floor between them. He knelt and tasted her belly, the light wall of muscle near her hip, the fleshy pillow around her navel. She put a hand on his shoulder. He unsnapped her jeans and worked her hips free of them, one side and then the other. Her underpants were black, not chosen to match the green satin bra. They were black cotton. A few curls of electric red, almost tangerine orange, spilled from the crotch. Her thighs were firm and smooth, and he kissed the muscles, kissing each inch of her leg as it was revealed, until he was crouched at her knees, his tongue touching the firm plum shape of her calf muscles. Then she stepped free of the jeans, awkwardly shedding her shoes, and he came back up again, put his mouth against the black cotton, pressing his lips and nose against the firm mount of her sex, hooked his thumbs in the fabric at her hips and peeled the last garment away. Without looking at her, his eyes shut, in fact, he moved his tongue through the crimson thicket of her groin and she gave a soft cry, a moaning whimper, when his tongue touched the hot center of her sex. She shifted the angle of her hips to give his tongue freer access, and put a hand, but no weight, on his head. He parted the curtain of flesh and touched the lip of her sex. He put a hand behind, pushing his fingers between the open thighs, and she stepped sideways a few inches, opening her legs. He slipped two fingers together into her.
She rocked against his fingers, bracing herself with her hands on his head. "I need to..." she said querulously, and she moved away from him and sank on the couch. He took her ankles, still in socks, in his hands and laid her calves on his shoulders. Then he leaned into the warm center of her, letting her legs slide down the back of his shirt, and tasted her until she came with passionate cries muted as if they could be overheard.
While her orgasm faded and slipped away, he leaned up and into her, so that her legs were awkwardly pressed against his chest and her damp sex against the ache in his jeans, and he kissed the taste of her into her mouth, swabbing her own flavor onto her tongue. She had never tasted it before, and it was different, quite different, from the salt and leather taste of a man or the alum bitterness of semen. Her cunt mimicked the welcoming pressure of her mouth, kissing his loins, hurt a bit by the denim and the zipper under it, while she nursed his tongue.
She was conscious, after a moment, that she was naked; he fully dressed. And rather ridiculously jack-knifed against him, she was, her ankles in the air like a cartoon character fallen into a trash can. And the socks, white socks.
"What about you?" she said. She jittered a bit to free her legs and drop them around his waist, her naked groin still pressed against his pants, but her back resting against the couch. She peeled ineffectually at the socks with her toes, one side and then the other. It was hopeless, and not important, after all. She reached for his belt, pulled at it.
"Not yet," he said. And with that settled for the time being, she abandoned herself to her own pleasure, taking his attentions wherever they fell, welcoming his mouth, his fingers, the pressure of his thigh, the delicious scandal of coarse fabric on her most intimate nudity. At last he stopped and she was aware of the chill of nakedness. He kissed her hand, then the pulse point on her wrist, and she spread the fingers into his beard, sliding them up the jaw and into his hair.
"Aren't you going to...?" she said, and he shook his head. "Is something wrong? I have... the things."
"No hurry," he said. She looked hurt, and he leaned down to kiss her belly, a quick descent to her navel then up again. She slid off the couch and into his lap, her legs around his waist, her weight on his thighs.
"Well, my, that was nice," she said. "I have to admit." Her mouth was next to his ear, so close he could feel the heat and moisture in her breath.
"You'll freeze," he said, and he reached for the blouse with one hand, draped it around her shoulders. She leaned back to study his face. His hair was mussed. Otherwise, he looked just as he had when they came through the front door. She combed his hair with her fingers.
"Wine?" she said. He nodded. She squirmed free of him, holding the blouse shut around her shoulders with one hand, and swiftly, impatiently, stripped off her socks. Then she took a step away, had second thoughts and returned and snatched up her panties and then hurried into the kitchen, almost running, one hand holding the blouse, the black underwear in the other. The blouse barely covered the round peach swell of her bottom. He stood up, his own tumescence fading and less uncomfortable, and sat on the couch. He was there when she returned wearing the blouse and, he assumed, the panties. She was carrying a glass of red wine.
"I thought we could share," she said. She held the glass to his mouth, and he sipped. She settled in beside him. She sipped the wine, then he took it from her hand and drank again.
"I have a hair appointment tomorrow," she said. He glanced at the clock. It was after midnight. When he didn't speak she said, "Don't you think it's comical looking? That carroty red hair. Down there I mean?"
"No." She offered a kiss. He kissed her briefly. She sipped the wine. His mouth tasted of wine and her.
"Will you stay tonight?"
"I don't think so."
"Nothing is wrong."
"No. I promise. But I should go."
"You like me."
He laughed. "You are wonderful," he said. "You are like a beautiful violin, all smooth surfaces and gleaming and luscious and full of potential."
"But a little wooden." She was smiling.
"There's the one difference," he said, "no wood." And he kissed her again, a long, lingering kiss that made him hard and uncomfortable again in his snug jeans. She slid a hand tentatively up the ridge of the zipper and he turned, rose, still kissing her but bent over her, bracing his hands on the back of the couch, and she pressed her hand on the solidity of his sex while they finished the kiss.
'No hurry," he said again, kissing her neck, and then she stood up, they said awkward goodbyes, and he left. He woke in the night and again in the morning hard as wood.
They had lunch the next day, Friday, downtown at Lamb's. She was a bit shy and withdrawn. He wondered if it was because of the imbalance between them; she had been naked and he not. No helping that.
"Dinner at my house Sunday?" he said. Back at his house, Mel would be cleaning while they finished lunch. Friday was her day. He'd left a note about special attention to the kitchen. "Company," he had written, thinking how that would intrigue her. She knew his habits well enough, little as they met.
Tara brightened. "What can I bring?"
"Your smile," he said, looking at her wonderful, radiant face. She was, no question, charming. He shook his head and drank a sip of his coffee.
"You do that a lot," she said.
"Shake your head, as if you were disagreeing with someone, or incredulous. It makes me insecure." She didn't look insecure. She was looking right at him and not looking at all insecure.
"I talk to myself. Habit of old age."
"You are not old!" she said. He smiled and picked up a disk of boiled beet from his plate. He placed in on his tongue and retracted it into his mouth, then opened his mouth again, raised his eyebrows, and showed her the purple disk, untouched and shiny. "That's disgusting," she said, but she grinned. "What do you talk about?"
"I finish conversations."
"Who were you finishing with now?"
"Stop making me dig at you like a poor hungry dog. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that you are a glorious Celtic fantasy, and I should not become attached to you."
She arched an eyebrow. The expression added ten years to her face. "Thanks and no thanks. What if I become attached to you?"
"It will pass."
She concentrated on her food. After a while she said, "What if it doesn't?"
"It will," he said again, in the same flat tone. She looked sharply at him, offended.
"You don't know what I feel."
"I know the sun comes up, winter gives way to summer, and we get old." He said it with a grin of his own, as if it were the answer to a riddle. She refused to be humored.
"We'll see," she muttered, turning again to her food.
They finished their meal and sat in silent companionship for a while, him lazing over a third cup of coffee, she eating a dessert, a local concoction of pudding and fresh fruit that left him vaguely aghast. He let his eyes wander over her white, Hibernian skin. "I'd like to see you," he said, "in a Medieval dress, the green of oak leaves, appointed in gold."
"'Appointed'!" She looked around the room, to see if anyone else had noticed. "I've never heard anyone actually say 'appointed.'" Her eyes were merry, and there was a bit of the white pudding on her upper lip, delicate and inviting. "In that context, I mean."
"Thesaurus on the nightstand."
Sunday afternoon, he was in front of her at Safeway. Behind him, next in line, a heavyset woman with big hair and a toddler working on a peach. Tara weighed two potatoes, punched the register, then picked up the next items, two artichokes.
"I love artichokes," she said.
"You should get some."
"I'm sure I will," she said, ringing them up. And the smile, the damned smile. He smiled back.
"This one," he said, picking one up in two fingers as if it were a rose, and showing it to the woman behind him, "is for the most beautiful woman in the world." She smiled too, the patronizing smile of a mother with other things to think about. He paid and left; Tara was in his house three hours later. When he closed the front door and turned to her, she stepped against him and gave him a kiss.
"For being sweet at the store," she explained. She was wearing a dark green woolen sweater, jeans, and hiking boots. She sat on his couch and began unlacing the boots. When he returned with wine, they were by the door, her socks stuffed in them..
"Not planning a quick getaway, I see." He handed her the wine. She sipped.
"I can run pretty fast in bare feet." She offered a foot, wiggling the toes. She had long toes, unpolished nails, blue veins a tracery on the top. He squatted by her foot and kissed the arch, then the palm of the arch, touching the latter with the tip of his tongue. She flinched, ticklish. She pulled him up onto her, putting a leg on either side of him, and embraced him, her legs around his hips, her arms around his neck. He kissed her and discovered that the sweater had buttons in back. He had forgotten that girls used to do that, wear sweaters backwards. He slipped two fingers inside and found warm, bare skin.
"Feed me," she whined.
They ate at the dining room table. It was a room he never used. Often, he ate at the stove, standing in the kitchen. It was a habit he had fallen into after Mary moved out, two years ago. He'd had to clear the table of accumulated books, magazines, piles of paper, an abandoned hammer he had lost track of. The table was set intimately for her, two plates huddled together at one corner. They atesteaks, potatoes, artichokes. He had bought her for dessert a slice of blackberry cheesecake from Papagena's. He drank coffee while she sectioned the dessert, just as she had that night, into manageable geometric solids. She offered him a forkful for a taste, and he let it melt in his mouth, then cleared his palate with the coffee.
"I love that photograph," she said. She was looking at a landscape on the wall, the rocks of Abiquiu, red as raw meat.
"My son took it."
She continued to look at it. Finally she returned to her dessert. "He's a professional photographer?"
She finished the dessert in silence. He watched her eat; she did not look up until she was done, and when she did, it was obvious that he had been studying her. "What?" she said, a bit defensively.
"So? There must be more interesting things about him than his age. Where does he teach?"
"Does he have children?"
"Do you just have the one?"
"Yes. His mother and I divorced when he was two. 1966."
"Stop it," she said.
He started to say, "What?" but decided not to bluff. "Would you like some more wine? Brandy? I may actually have Cognac."
He found some in the back of the clutter of bottles, opened but untouched. He had to make do with new wine glasses. They retired to the living room. They talked. Another of Robbie's pictures hung above the stereo, an atmospheric forest scene from near Chattanooga. He was telling her about touring the Chickamauga battlefield when she started kissing his neck. She pulled him around and said, "Let's make out," then kissed his smile away.
He unbuttoned the sweater. She had nothing under it; her nipples were hard and angry-looking. He leaned down to kiss one and she said, "Uhnt-uh, my turn." She unbuttoned his shirt, peeling it away to reveal his chest. She discovered the tufts of hair on his shoulders and tasted them with her tongue, then suckled his breast. He lay still for her on the couch, savoring the pleasure. She slid bonelessly to the floor and began to undo his pants, stripping them and then his underwear away. He was not a big man, given the weight and substance of middle age. When he was naked, his cock rose from the thicket of his hair and she ran a finger down the underside, enjoying the silky texture of the thin skin. She pushed her way between his knees, turning him to face her, huddling a bit, focused, and took him in her mouth, rolling the plum head across her tongue and then sliding the ring of her lips down the shaft a half-inch, an inch, at a time. With the angle of their bodies and the slant of light from the kitchen, he could not see, and that intensified the sensation. Her red hair fell like curtains around her face.
When he was thoroughly moistened and aching with the pressure of engorgement, he reached for her shoulders and pulled her away from his loins. Her face, when it emerged from the crimson drapery of her hair, was ecstatic and half-unconscious, like St. Theresa pierced, and he tipped her back onto the carpet, falling slowly between her legs, and parted her, passing into her like a thumb opening moist, fresh, hot bread. She tipped up into his stroke and engulfed him in the warm, nursing bath of her cunt. He began slowly, tentatively, with gentle, exploratory gestures, but soon he was pushing urgently into her, pounding bone to bone and clutching her bottom, one firm globe of her bottom, in his right hand to part her and press her against his desire.
She moaned, a sound that might be taken for distress elsewhere, and put a hand at the base of his spine, then she grabbed her left ankle and pulled her foot higher, opening around him like the very sea at night and he dove and came and lost breath and was willing, as the heat rushed from him into the hot well, to die just then. When she felt the pulse of his orgasm, she made another wounded cry and clutched him tighter, desperately, releasing her ankle, her own hips suddenly moving with frantic haste.
They lay for a long time, minutes, without speaking, lipping each other, offering tiny gestures of sexual contacta squeeze, a shift of angle, a quick clutching at him as he slipped out of her at last. They kissed, his weight on his elbows, and she turned his head in her hands, stretched her own head up and explored the whorls of his ear with her tongue, her breath a steamy breeze.
"Mercy," she said at last. For reply, he kissed her neck. "Mercy," she said again. "You are the hairiest man I ever...." Her voice trailed off.
"Saw?" he said to her neck. "'Saw' is a good recovery."
"Yes. That's it. Saw." They kissed, a peck mouth to mouth. "What is this?" she said, tilting her head back and pointing with a glance up and behind her at the stereo.
"Japanese bamboo flute." It had been classical guitar when she came in, a favorite CD of his, Bach arrangements, the guitar as crisp and metallic as a harpsichord. The Japanese music had begun while they were making love on the carpet.
"It sounds like they are performing in a tunnel."
"Well, the flutes are huge. Some of them as thick as your ankle."
"Ah! Never use the words 'thick' and 'ankle' in the same sentence when talking to a Utah girl."
"The carpet will skin you. Come to bed," he said, and he extricated himself from her embrace, rising to his knees and extending a hand as he stood up. She took his hand and came up with him. Naked and barefoot, he was slightly taller than she, only inches. When she was shod, they were of a height, in fact. He kept her hand and led her to the bed. She stopped to admire the Titian. As they passed through the bedroom door she said, "She's beautiful," and he said, "Titian's wife. He loved her. That made her beautiful."
She lay down, loose as a doll, and he began to minister to her body, tasting nipples and belly. He picked up a foot and circled her ankle, his thumb and fingertips easily touching. He caught her eye and she smiled; he kissed her ankle between his fingers, then worked his way down her leg, finally lying inverted beside her. She reached for his groin and took him in her hand, then her mouth, and they rolled on and over each other, two tangled leaves drifting in a fall breeze. She stayed the night.
After a quick and simple breakfastcoffee, tea, toast and jamshe was on her way, a class at ten and things to pick up before hitting campus. Then work. They agreed, hastily as she departed, to meet that night at Del Norte. She wore the sweater frontwards in the morning, one of his T-shirts under it. During the day he wrote, for the first time in months.
"I think I want a Margarita," she said as they settled at the table that night. He ordered his as usualrocks, saltedand she went the opposite, what he called "a Tequila slush."
"Well, we can't all be manly he-men," she said crisply. While they talked, she looked around the room, enjoying the decor. Once she waved to someone. He glanced over. A couple of college girls a few tables away.
They ate chips and talked about cats. "I'd get one, but they aren't allowed. I'd be evicted. The smell, the landlady says." She swallowed a mouthful of salsa, making a face after and waving her hand in front of her mouth. "I have missionaries upstairs. Did you notice? They have a picture of Jesus in the window. I think they sleep in their white shirts."
"I got proselytized a few times, my first year here. They pretty much leave me alone now. Are you working tomorrow?"
"Too bad. I was thinking about going up Mill Creek Canyon. How about Wednesday?"
She was off Wednesday, she said. They would meet at his house, which was a few miles from the canyon road, after lunch. It was an hour's walk in and another out. He filled a bota with wine, and she brought bottled water. They talked while they hiked. She knew birds, and she began identifying them for him. It turned into a game. Towhees, thrashers, a phoebe, a chickadee's four-note drone and its bobbing body spotted at last in a pine. In less than an hour, they came to a place he knew, where a side trail, barely a deer run, went into seclusion, and they sat in the shade touching, and drank wine. She kissed him and watched his face. Then a vireo appeared in the aspens, and they talked birds again.
"I have to go out of town for a few days," he said when they had returned to the car.
"You didn't tell me."
"I just did," he said with some irony.
"Next week. Publisher thing, one of those Learn Brain Surgery in Two Weeks things. A 3-D rendering program." He turned the key over and the Ford rumbled. "Maybe you could take care of my mail, keep an eye on the place?"
"Ok. I'd love to."
Monday evening they watched a movie at her apartment, Scent of a Woman. Brian had picked it out. Afterward he said, "He reminds me of my father."
"He reminds me of you," she said. She took him to bed.
When they lay quiet after lovemaking, he said, "Tara, ease my mind. Tell me if there is a two somewhere in your age."
She laughed, a loud, crowing sound. "You are crazy!" she said. "Twelve!" When he didn't laugh she said, "Twenty-eight."
"Thank God," he murmured, so seriously that she had a fit of giggles.
"Now you," she said. "You can't be sixty, but"
"Do I look sixty?"
"You look fifty. You look younger than my old man, who's fifty-two. But you can't be, unless your son was born when you were fourteen."
'Or fifteen. Fifty-five."
"So he was born when you were nineteen? That means...."
"I married my high school sweetheart. She had Rob six months later. I went to college, she went to work. She got tired of being 'looked down on' and divorced me. She and Robbie and her boss lived happily ever after."
"He sold insurance. She was his receptionist. They've been married, let's see, thirty-four years."
"Were you only married the one time?"
"Yeah. Some major live-ins, but no contracts. You?"
"Boyfriends in high school. Guys I dated. Ralph. He lived here for a while."
"Oh, no, you weren't a virgin."
"Well neither were you, for Heaven's sake!"
"Sweetheart, when you get to be my age, virginity is about as appealing as the smell of a new car." He kissed her, and they lay together in her bed until her breathing suggested sleep had come or would soon. He tried to slip free of her and she woke.
"You don't have to go home," she said.
"I wish you'd stay."
"Why not?" she said, putting a bit of a childish whine in her tone. She was playing, but there was a thread of seriousness in the play.
"Not tonight. Let's not..." he left the thought unfinished.
"I lovehaving you here," she said.
"I'm leaving in the morning. My trip."
"You didn't tell me."
"I thought I did. You were going to check the mail."
"I mean that it was tomorrow. How long will you be gone?"
"It's just a couple of days. Well, almost a week. Back Saturday morning. I thought I told you. Really." He got up then and began dressing. After he buckled his jeans, he pulled a key from his pocket and gave it to her.
She came to her door draped in a quilt. When she kissed him goodbye she said, "You better bring me a present."
He thought about her on the flight, so much that he actually caught himself, for the first time in his life, contemplating the in-flight phone. He wished, in fact, that he had not set the trip up so expansively. He had planned to have a couple of personal days, to wander the Met and the Guggenheim, possibly drive up the Hudson. Now he found himself wishing he had tried to bring her along. He had dismissed the idea, thinking of the complications of her jobs, her schoolwork. He had not offered. She had never been out of state, except for the obligatory family trip to Disneyland, and she would have jumped at the chance. At least he thought so. He could call her, even now, passing over Ohio, and buy her a ticket. She would be horrified at the cost, but it was his money, and he had little enough use for it. And then, in the midst of calculating the logistics, turning yet another unread page of his magazine, he realized what was happening, and he shook his head.
But he called her Monday night, late in the evening, and they talked for nearly two hours. She had argued about Stephen Crane with one of her instructors. She presented her arguments to him, her voice becoming indignant as she relived the conflict. He agreed with her on this, the professor on that, and played with her mind like a child lofting a balloon, more interested in the spectacle than in his own participation. At last, she simmered down, and her irritation settled into self-mockery, then silence.
There was a awkward silence, then and exchange of endearments, and he said he'd call her tomorrow. He did not sleep very well; he attributed it to the noise of the city.
"I know who you are," she said the next night by way of greeting.
"I wish I did," he said.
"Yeah, right. I feel like such an idiot. 'There's one that'll make you slash your wrists.' I meant that in a nice way, you know."
"No offense. Altitudes is hard going."
"Karen and Twila recognized you at Del Norte. Twila had seen you at the Oates reception. She said something about it this morning at the gym. 'You're dating Bob Lee?' she said. Like I would know."
"Were you ever going to tell me?" When he didn't reply, she said, "Why don't you use your real name?"
"It's Brian Robert," he said. "My first big break was some sword and sorcery stuff, when it was just getting popular. My publisher thought I should have a simple name, easy to remember. He said Leighman was too confusing. People wouldn't know if it was 'Lee Man' or 'Lay Man.' Hurt sales. Tarq Molsabian pays the rent. Magic realism and bronze jocks; the best of both worlds."
"Tarq. Heroic barbarian yada yada. Never mind."
"But once you started getting serious books, like Altitudesfunny, you call it that. Of course. I always thought of it as Solitudes."
He was relieved; she did not seem seriously upset. "It just didn't matter to me that much, the name," he said, switching the phone to the other ear. She was quiet. "So you didn't know who I was. Before."
"No! Why should I?"
"Well, I figured you might have seen me on campus, the reception? Or recognized me from the picture in the book."
"There isn't a picture in the book. I looked this afternoon. Then I realized I had never seen a picture of you. Man! I'd have recognized John Fowles!"
"Yeah, well I'm no John Fowles."
She made a derisory snort. He was unsure whether to be offended. He didn't regard the gap as big enough to warrant derision.
"Did you think I was some sort of intellectual groupie?" she said.
"Nah. Just assumed you knew what you were getting into. Who, rather."
"Nope," she said. "And I love Solitudes, believe it or not, wrists and all." He nodded acknowledgment. "I do!"
"I haven't written anything that good in five years."
"Well, you won the Utah Holiday prize last year. One of my professors photocopied the story for us. I'll bet there was a picture then."
"Probably. That was hack stuff. Intellectual hack stuff."
"Oh, don't be silly. It was sweet. Sad and sentimental, not like Solitudes. It's like it really happened. Almost like a memoir."
He was silent.
"I liked it," she said firmly. "Except for the title."
"What's wrong with the title?"
"It reminds me of Elvis Presley."
"'Chains of Love'? It should remind you of Marilyn Manson."
She didn't laugh. There was a long silence. "The woman," she said at last. "Was she the one who lived with you?"
"Yeah. For a while."
"There was no Maggie," he said.
"What about the dog?"
"There was a dog. And a Gwen."
"She committed suicide?"
"Of course not. She told me she cared deeply about me and ran away to live with a couple of homosexual friends."
"She was gay?" she said incredulously.
Tara sighed into the phone, causing a long scatter of static. "Good grief." He smiled. She seemed to consider the idea. "Total weirdness," she concluded.
"Totally," he said.
"Love is a greater mystery than Death," she intoned.
"Wilde," she said. "Being profound."
He settled into the pillow. He closed his eyes, relaxed, the phone crunched against his chin. He said, "So, you want me to autograph the book?"
"What? Oh, Solitudes."
He smiled. "You are great for the ego. 'Remember, sire, thou art human.'"
"Don't be silly. If you had given it to me, it would be different. I think it is autographed, actually."
"You bought a signed one?"
"No, by the guy who gave it to me. Ralph. He wrote in it, I think. It was a Christmas present."
"He said it reminded him of you."
"You saw it. Yeah, I remember. Such a silly thing. He must have meant the title; he certainly didn't read any of it. He was a biologist." She giggled. "An ornithopter."
"Isn't that some kind of"
"Yeah. I was always stumbling through 'or-ni-tho-log-ist'," she said, carefully breaking the word into syllables. So we compromised."
He made a snorting noise to convey appreciation. He found himself wishing she were in the bed. Just the warmth, the smell of her hair. The bed was huge.
Then she said, "Did you love Gwen? Whatever her name was?"
"Mary. I don't believe in love."
There was a long silence on the phone. At last she said, "You love your son."
"It's all names, isn't it? Children love their mothers. That's mostly gratitude. And self-interest. I like my son, but we hardly know each other, really."
"Oh, right. He was gone."
He did not correct her reasoning. There was another silence.
"So you don't..." she said, and then stopped again. After a pause she said, "You don't love people."
"I don't know. I don't know what that word means."
"What about your family?"
"My mother kissed me once."
She laughed, then stopped. "I'm sorry. I thought you were kidding."
It was his turn to laugh. "I'm afraid not. She had about as much capacity for love as an alligator. Even before the accident."
"Actually," she said, "crocodiles are very good parents."
"Ok, bad analogy. A sea turtle."
"I get the picture. How sad."
"Don't lose any sleep over it," he said. Then he sighed. "Tara, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that to sound sowhatever it sounded like."
"Yeah," he agreed. "Mean will do. I don't cry myself to sleep over my mother, Ok? Any more than I do about Dad. He died. Eventually she will. Don't be feeling sorry for me. Maybe I'm lucky. Maybe I'm one of the few who found out the truth."
There was a long silence this time, and then she said, "That's what's sad, Brian." And she changed the subject, told him what had come in the mail, moving the conversation relentlessly elsewhere. She told him about the funniest woman who had come in that afternoon looking for Sibelius leider, for Heaven's sake, and they actually had one CD from a Finnish label called Bis. She told him to call Wednesday night, whatever time he got in. "I won't be asleep," she said.
When he called, she said, "Just a minute." After a pause, he heard her voice again:
"'When love dies, it is as if the lover dies. We look into the eyes once full of love, eyes where we felt, so recently, not merely welcome but wanted, needed, as necessary as sun, and we see nothing. They gaze on us as meaninglessly as they regard blue jays or grocery clerks.' Ouch!" she said, interrupting herself. "'We grieve for love lost as we would for a loved one dead, because in a sense the lover is dead. Some stranger stands there in her place. The resemblance is so uncanny that we are even, sometimes, fooled, in our grief-'"
"That's enough, Tara. I remember."
"No, let me finish."
She continued in her reading voice, "'We are even, sometimes, fooled, in our grief, convinced that the report of her death was mistaken, that this is her, and some odd cloud is casting a shadow that misleads us; that it is there, the love, there in the eyes if we only look more closely.'"
"Maybe so, but it's your romantic tommycoddle, sir. And fresh from the oven."
"I can't be responsible for the stupidity of my characters."
"This isn't just a 'character,' and you know it. It's the narrator. I had it marked. I marked it when I read it."
"He's a bad sketch of me, without my good sense."
"'Bull sugar,' as my friend La Rayne used to say."
He began to laugh in spite of himself. "'Bull sugar'? You made that up."
"No. But I made up 'La Rayne.' How about this," she said, "page 313, and I quote: 'She had been gone nearly a year. This was not a surprise. Michael woke up every morning knowing how long it had been then, each day later. Sitting in the staff meeting, he was aware of her absence as a man would be aware of a lost leg or hand. He stared at his hand, imagining the slick stump, a bit swollen, of scar tissue that would remain. He moved a finger and thought of the ghost fingers effect that amputees reported. He looked up. She was staring at his hand from across the table, no more listening to the presentation than he was. She raised her eyes. He looked away.'"
"You see what I meant. Nothing but trash," he said when she stopped reading.
She offered to meet him at the airport Saturday morning, and he pointed out that they would then have two cars to deal with. Besides, she would be at work when he landed. They planned to spend the evening at his house. "I can bring your mail," she said, as if an excuse were required. It would have been only a few dollars difference, to change the ticket and come home early. He doubted if she would know that.
After he got home, he thought about going over to the Safeway, but that seemed unfair, to see her before the agreed time, and on turf where she must pretend indifference. So he sorted through the mail, which lay in a pile on the couch after all. Then he tended to the neglected yard. At seven she was standing at the back door. She was wearing jeans and a poet's blouse, a blue light as haze, and red earrings, studs like frozen cranberry juice, a red that shifted her hair color to a dark orange hue.
"I rang and you didn't answer," she said. "So I came through." She walked briskly over to him, wrapped him in what could have been a crushing hug, and kissed him. He was shirtless and conscious of his own sweat, and of the dirt on his shorts and hands. The hair at his waist, at the base of his spine, felt almost greasy to him. But he returned her kiss, and she did not retreat. They went inside, holding hands. He glanced at her blouse; it was stained with the damp of his body.
"I missed you," she said. "Of course."
"Of course." She batted his shoulder.
"'I missed you too, Tara darling,'" she said.
They sat on the floor and she collapsed suddenly, rolling on her back and putting her head on his leg and looking up into his face. He was very aware of the sweat, the yard dust; she seemed oblivious. She had a hand on his knee and a serious expression on her face. "What is it with you?" she said. "Why can't you say things like, 'I missed you, too'? You know it's true. I know you missed me, but it hurts that you won't say it. It's like you're sorry you missed me. Is that what it is?"
"I thought about you constantly. I woke up once and thought for a second you were in the bed"
"Who'd it turn out to be?" He sat silently, studying her face. She looked mischievous, then angry, then contrite. When she arrived at contrite, she raised her other hand and cupped his groin. He was beginning to stir against the heat of her temple. He could not lean down to kiss her with her elbows jutting up like that.
"I missed you," he said, with ill grace. She slipped her hand inside the loose shorts and gripped his penis like a wand.
He moved as if to get up, and she said, "No, be still." She extricated him from the fabric and kissed the dark glans. "No," she said again, and twisted onto her knees. She untied his shoes and yanked them off; he had skipped socks. She hooked her fingers in the elastic of the shorts, and then he was naked. "Tit for tat," she said, and she took him in her mouth. She ministered to him for some time. The sensation was exquisite. At last she stopped and looked up at him, his penis standing between them, held up in her right hand.
"You're hard on a girl's ego," she said. "Most men would be weeping and wiping themselves by now."
"I don't want to come in your mouth."
She put her lips at the base of his cock and slid them upwards to the tip. Then she took the tip in her mouth and descended again, slowly. He pushed into her a bit and put a hand on her hair. She raised her head with a kind of finality, her skull cupped in his hand. Her hair felt like spider silk.
"Well, what do you want then?"
"Your body wrapped around me like a demented monkey."
She climbed onto him and mimed sex against his naked body, straddling him as if he were a horse, working her mouth over his face. He rolled her over at last and lay on top of her, and she wrapped her legs around his waist and rocked her groin against his naked flesh, careful not to press too abrasively with the coarse denim. "I give up," she whispered, and he undressed her, with her help, and when she was naked he slipped inside her as if she were a bath of hot oil. Her thighs touched his flanks and ribs and he put a hand on each side of her bottom, parting her and pulling her against him like a raped pillow. She moaned and cried and clutched him to her chest, her head to one side and her eyes shut. When her breathing told him she was near the finish, he moistened a finger and slipped into her, below her cunt, and the knot of muscle resisted, then squeezed. She gave a cry of alarm, then of pleasure and despair, and he felt the pulse of her orgasm on his fingertip. His own finish came then.
"Shower," he said when his breath was normal again.
"I can't move."
"I can carry you."
"I'll lie in the tub and drown."
"I'll protect you."
She squirmed and he lifted free of her. They stood up, Tara leaning on him a bit. "We can even wash your clothes, if you like," he said, surveying the scatter of his filthy work clothes and her jeans, her stained blouse, the rest. "We got them all sweaty and dirty." She ran a finger through her hair, not looking up and not speaking. They walked to the bathroom.
When he turned on the shower, she said, "I need an elastic or something. Never mind." The room began to cloud with steam. He had her check the temperature of the water. She approved and stepped in. He came in behind her, took the soap from its dish and began to suds her back. The soap had a green tint that gave her skin a minty look. She had not secured her hair, and as if to get it over with, she tipped her head into the stream. Water splashed off her skull into his face and ran in a current down the groove of her spine, cutting a milky swath through the pale green suds. Her hair went mahogany.
"Turn," he said, and she rotated to face him, her eyes still shut. He knelt in front of her and reached for her foot, lifting it just enough to soap the bottom while she balanced herself with a hand on his shoulder. He worked his way up her legs, first one then the other, and then soaped her belly, moving his hand in long circular strokes. He put the soap down and took a breast in each soapy hand. He leaned forward to kiss her mouth while his hands rubbed breast, armpit, ribs. Then he put his hand between her legs, parting her with the knuckle of his thumb, scrubbing her inner thigh, her labia, the perineum and the knot behind it.
"I've never done that before," she breathed. He didn't ask what she meant. He kissed her below the ear and put a hand on either side of her bottom, parting her from behind and letting the water sluice into the cleft, directing it a bit with one hand. He stepped away and turned her about, and she finished rinsing. Then she took the soap and said, "Now you."
She washed his entire body, neglecting nothing, huddled at his feet briefly, standing and directing his movement later, shampooing his short hair and the bush of his beard. When they were both soap-free, she embraced him, the last of the warm water striking her back, and whispered, "You even have a hairy butt." He growled a reply and she kissed his gruff mouth. He thought for a moment about entering her there. He would fold her to the floor and come into her from behind, thrusting into the warm separation, gripped by the clutching fist of her cunt.
"I know what you're thinking," she whispered.
"Not too obvious," he said, pushing the hard rod of his sex against her navel.
"Well, what's stopping you?"
"We're almost out of water," he said, lifting a hand into the warm stream.
"Well, dang," she said. She stepped away and turned off the shower. When she looked back at him, she knelt again and tasted the velvety meat of his glans, then tipped him down and into her mouth.
When they were dry, her hair turbaned in a towel, they climbed onto the bed. After a few minutes of play, he rolled her on her belly, spread her out face-down like da Vinci's symmetrical manarms wide, legs an inverted 'V'and put himself on top of and then inside her. She was helpless to move, except for side-to-side slewing of vertebrae that changed the angle of his strokes and made her bottom move against his loins. When she felt the heat and pressure of his impending climax, she lifted her head and twisted awkwardly for a kiss. He bent into his orgasm and linked his mouth to hers.
They lay together in the amber light of the bedroom. She knelt and adjusted her turban, which had nearly disassembled itself. He got up and returned with crackers and cheese and a glass of white wine. They snacked together.
"Can we do this for, oh, another forty or fifty years?" she said.
"Somehow I doubt it."
"Ok, twenty, then."
"In twenty years, I'll be seventy-five, and you'll be ten years older than my son."
"Not unless he stops growing."
"You are ten years younger than Rob. Do you have any idea what he would think of all this? Christ, he would think you were too young for him."
"His loss. And he's probably right. Poor boy. Eight years," she added.
"Why am I carrying on about twenty years from now? You'll be gone in twenty months. Twenty days if lightning strikes."
"You have a crush on a dirty old man."
"I don't want to be crushed."
She napped tucked in his shoulder. He lay listening to her breathe. The light was still on, dim, gold as firelight. In a half hour or so, she woke and made a trip to the bathroom. He heard his hair dryer run. Soon she was back. She took a cracker in her mouth, then a sip of wine, letting the cracker dissolve in the alcohol rather than crunching it up. She turned off the light and settled back into his armpit.
"You think I didn't notice that you evaded my question," she said.
"Wednesday night. Did you love Mary?"
"She didn't love me."
"Yes. All right? Yes."
She nodded against his shoulder. She said, "See?" Then she fell asleep for the night.
In the morning she was up early. She had begun a breakfast by the time he arrived in the kitchen.
"I hate it that I have to work every day. This would be a nice day to go up to Park City or something."
He gave her a sympathetic kiss on the shoulder. She was wearing one of his chambray shirts as a robe, and a pair of his socks floppy and incongruous on her delicate feet. "I know," he said. "I'd like to take you to Zion."
"That would be nice," she said, leaning into his hug. "I could be sick a day or two. Actually, Rodger would let me off for a couple days if I planned it out. He's such a Romantic, he'd be tickled. But that means it has to be a weekday. No way I could pull that off at Safeway."
They ate at the dining room table, at quickly improvised places. "I have to run," she said over a forkful of egg. "I need to go home before work. I could bring something for dinner after work?"
"That would be nice," he said. They agreed on a menu. She kissed him, a domestic peck, and left. He flipped through the paper for an hour, then went to the computer and wrote all day.
"I wrote a poem for you," she said as she came through the door that night. He almost flinched. She handed it to him as if it were a telegram she'd found on the door, a sheet of paper with a few lines of her angular writing. "And Zion. And Easter, of course." He read it standing at the door while she made herself comfortable in the kitchen.
Your fleece in my hands,
I drink exploding snowflakes
Brown shoulders in Zion
Make spring rosettes
He joined her in the kitchen. "Thank you," he said.
She nodded. She was cooking mushrooms.
After dinner, they made love with the lights on. He went down to her groin and explored her, looking, fondling, and kissing, parting her with his fingers. She ran her fingers through the hair on his thighs. At one point she said, "Let me know if you find anything I should worry about."
He found a scar, like a dab of wax on the concave hollow of her right groin. She was hairless there, at that spot, and the scar tissue was shiny and slightly dimpled. He kissed her, centering his mouth on the scar. Then he kissed the other side, symmetrically, and then he opened her with nuzzling movements of his mouth and slipped his tongue inside her. She lifted to meet his tongue. They played together for a few minutes, and then he righted himself and kissed her mouth, the taste of herthe taste of both of them, her sweet, his sourstrong on his tongue.
"I love... that," she murmured when they broke from the kiss, her mouth against his ear. "I love you," she said more firmly, correcting the evasion. He lipped her shoulder. She got free of him and turned out the light. "No more autopsy exams," she said. Then she kissed him again, embracing him with one leg, by way of forgiveness.
They lay quietly together, each thinking their own thoughts. She rolled toward him and gave him a long, theatrical kiss, then whispered, "Ich habe deinen Mund geküssen," and kissed him again.
"Oh, it's from a German song."
"I have kissed your mouth."
"German. Spanish. Amazing."
"I'm sure I got it wrong. Never mind," she added, settling against him.
They lay quietly for some time, at last, he began to speak. "A few months ago, I saw this cute little girl, a cute little redhead with skin like strawberry Quik, in the grocery. I got a wild hair, and I flirted with her, which startled her a bit. The next time I went to the store, I was embarrassed, and I avoided her. I think it bothered her. I can't say 'hurt her feelings'; that would be making too much of it. But she has avoided me ever since. Not avoided, exactly, but she normally makes eye contact with her customers, or used to, and she doesn't with me any more.
"It bothered me. I felt that I had smutted an innocence, by touching her that way, like a man who can't resist touching a butterfly. And I got to thinking what could have happened if I had not snubbed her the next time, if there had not been twenty-five, possibly thirty years' difference in our ages and she was, by some terrible coincidence, unbelievable in someone so pretty, as lonely as I was."
Tara squeezed his chest and kissed him, a quick reassuring peck, but she did not speak.
"So I wrote a story. It was pretty self-indulgent, really. I filled it with sex, and made the characters clever and witty." She pinched him, digging her nails into the skin below his solar plexus. He cried out. "What was that?" he said.
"Just so you know you aren't a character in a stupid story."
"Never said I was."
"You did so." She pinched herself then. "See. I'm real."
"That doesn't prove anything," he said. "And it's completely in character."
"Oh go to hell," she muttered, but she still lay on his chest.
"Ok," he said. "I think I will write a story about us, though. I started one today. I'm making you older, ten or twelve years, and taller, and I decided to get rid of the trademark hair. I've shortened the writer, too, remembering a woman I had an affair with. She was the only woman I ever made love to who was taller than me, even barefoot. I've made him shorter and hairy, with a thick beard. I had a friend in college, a married guy, who tried to get me and his wife into a threesome. I think we were going to be the bread and him the meat. Anyway, he was a wonderful Rabelaisian character, stocky and hirsute"
"Did you do it?" she said to his pectoral. In the pause she said, "Did you have sex with him?"
"Nope. Not my taste, I'm afraid. I'm strictly a girl lover."
"I'm twenty-eight," she said with an edge of disapproval. "Stop calling me a 'girl.'"
"I didn't mean"
"You did before."
He lay silent for a moment. Then he continued. "I think I'll make her French, or Greeksomething Mediterranean. And have her live far away, in Delaware or New Jersey. Married. And he'll be married, too. She'll get to know him by e-mail and then, months later, he will be traveling and they will meet and have a moment of indiscretion that allows me one vivid sex scene. It will wreck his marriage. I have to figure out how. Hers will be strengthened by it, as if she needed a fling for reassurance. Proof that she was still attractive. Regrets, good-bye."
"Is this my punishment? For saying the bad word?"
"What do you mean?"
"I love you."
"You love the idea of me."
"Don't tell me how I feel."
"You will wake up one morning. Possibly tomorrow morning, and I'll be asleep. You will notice the coarseness of my skin, the network of wrinkles around my eyes, the ruined capillaries in my cheeks and nose, the used look of my eyelids and lips, and you will remember that the last time you were so close to a male face this old, it was your father."
"Stop it. Don't be such a beast."
"You will smell age on the breath from my nose."
"Your age doesn't matter. This is such shit."
"It doesn't really. Women love like they wear lipstick. One morning, they look in the mirror and say, 'Rose Carmine! Why on earth would I want to wear Rose Carmine?' And they are at Dillard's when it opens, looking for a new color."
"Some women are like that. So are some men, Brian."
"Everybody is like that. We talk about love, hoping to convince ourselves. The way we talk about God."
"I can't prove it. All I can do is know it. I can't prove birds will be singing tomorrow morning when the sun comes up. I can't prove they sing because they're happy. And I can't prove that when I hear them sing, whatever they are doing it for, it makes me happy. You just have to believe me when I tell you what I feel. I love you. I want you beside me when I wake up twenty years from now. Maybe tomorrow morning I won't feel that way. Maybe I'll have a heart attack in the night and I'll be dead before breakfast. So what? I love you now. Are you going to hide from that? Are you that big a coward?"
"You don't love me. You love getting your brains screwed out. Me too, of course."
She did not reply for a long time. Finally she said, "Man, talk about 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' How am I supposed to get out of that one?"
He didn't say anything.
"It sounds pretty Puritanical, accusing me of liking sex."
He was silent.
"Do you really think I would quit seeing you if we stopped making love?"
"I think eventually you will decide to take the things you learn about giving and taking pleasure, and use them with someone you like better."
She was silent then. She knelt beside him and looked down at him. She reached out with a fingertip and ran the nail across his throat, too lightly to scratch. At last, she rose from the bed and began to dress. When she was dressed, she looked down at him in the grey moonlight. "You could say something to try to make me stay," she said.
He did not speak. She regarded him, the dark, colorless shape of his naked body, rendered indistinct by the light and the blurring effect of his hair. She took a step toward the door. Then he spoke.
"Does it change anything, that I love you?"
"I don't think you know how."