"Who ARE you?" was the entire email, sent from my web site's guestbook page. That and a freemail address. As close as one can get to anonymous. But the name was emmaman, and the pun caught my eye. Leaving an email address at the site was optional; you had to ask for a reply.
I replied, that I was a cantankerous old man who wrote on the web to keep from talking to himself. My web site is a grab bag of essays too ephemeral to publish, poetry I would never consider publishing elsewhere, and fictionan unpublished novel I had given up on and dozens of short stories. Published work generally doesn't make it there, except for leftovers that I fail to take down after publication. I do not use my name, even in the comments and meta tags, so the site is anonymous, like her email address, unless you know me well enough to know I own the domain name.
"You don't sound old," she answered the next day, and she went on to analyze the featured story brilliantly. It was my newest piece, a short story I'd only begun to use at readings about two months ago, "Witko Walking Contrary." It was complicated exercise, about a man believed to be crazy. Frankly, not worth the effort she put into analyzing it. Not yet, anyway, and I had moved on. She followed the shifts in reality like a dancer a lead, and her final comment, "A bit self-indulgent, if not self-serving, no?" made me laugh. She was right.
"Who are you back?" I wrote. I was still using my info@ email address, but I signed it with the name I go by, Lynn. She sent me a two-paragraph biography. Her name was Emma Mangan. "It's actually Sholemah Racquel Mangan, thanks to a mad mother and a devout father, but I go by just Emma, which makes sense, thank God. And is pronounceable." Her father was in shipping, an Irish Jew from Cork, and her mother a Latvian American now living in St. Louis. Emma was born on Cyprus, an accident of travel, she called it.. "In 1967 or '68?" I asked. It was like flicking a spinning wheel. Her mind spun for me.
"No, 1974. But what made you guess that? Oh, my name. Well, Da was a terrible romantic. September of '74, long after the January peace agreement. What "peace," huh? I love the story about the man who shoots up the theater. Where do you get ideas like that? Is it, I mean really, do you write about things you want to do, secretly want to? I think writing is a way of expressing one's fantasy life. Have you seen the movie, the one that set him off?"
I found myself writing long, serious emails to her about my aesthetics and the backgrounds of my stories, a practice I had avoided till then as too self-absorbed for a writer. Write the writing, don't write about it, I told my students. But Emma asked the questions so fiercely, and her machinegun emails challenged me to think about things I preferred to discuss in the context of other writers. Her mind moved like a wasp, here and there, never still, always a bit dangerous. It was a sort of intellectual seduction, her interest, and I watched it, invited it, enjoyed it.
And she was a good writer, even in the lazy context of email. Her letters did not feel studied, but they glittered and clicked and spun with accuracy, and energy, and passion. She was merciless, on her friends, on me, on herself. "I have hair like a brass scouring pad," she wrote one day in the middle of a note about getting ready for work. In one letter she apologized for her pinball mind, in a few quick sentences as dizzying as anything she'd written elsewhere.
She shared an apartment with another woman. "Kitty. Who names a baby 'Kitty'? I mean, it's a diminutive for Katherine but not for her. It's her REAL name. My mother had a friend who named his first girl 'Muffin.' 'Muffin Williams!' Can you imagine what hell she is going through in high school? My mother had to be creative, spell my names her way. I mean, "Racquel?" What's the 'C' for? So people will know the 'q' is not silent? Kitty uses Kit, which helps and it could be Christine or Catherine or whatever, so people don't ask. Can you imagine naming your son 'Bubba'? I knew a guy in Houston actually named Bubba. It was on his driver's license."
Later she wrote about another woman she knew, "She thinks by putting her forearms under her tits, like it makes them heavy."
"Tit envy?" I wrote back.
"I was just," she responded, "making an observation. Don't make judgments without evidence." She went on to write about the thinker, "Laura had another of her wild dates last night. He took her to a horse pull. Don't get me wrong, I like horses. But Laura doesn't. She was talking about him as if he was the most thoughtful, observant, sensitive guy she'd ever met, and he's so obtuse that he didn't know she hates dirt and thinks animals should be in movies. So there she is, clouds of dust everywhere, sneezing (cleaning a keyboard makes her sneeze), watching these monster horses haul a sled of concrete blocks around while guys in baseball caps and suspenders named "Orlen" and "Chet" cheer them on. She didn't say a word about the horses, the next morning, just Ron did this and Ron did that. I finally said, 'Who won?' and she looked blank. 'What?' 'The pull,' I said. 'Which horses won? Did they do the superheavyweights last?' She didn't know. Not even the color. It must be terrible, to be so lonely."
She was more than a dozen years younger than I; nearly twenty in fact. "I was born the year Ike invaded Lebanon," I told her in a sketchy biographical paragraph, and let her figure it out. "I lived in Maine until I got married. We moved to Atlanta for a while, had a kid, finished school, divorced. Another marriage, another divorce, newspaper work, scribble, scribble. I was a Forest Ranger for two years after college. Overseas stringer for Newsweek after that, in Japan. My first wife was a civil engineer. Number two and I had the same birthday. Fate. Six years."
"That's not old," she wrote, "my father is ten years older than you, and he's still a vigorous man. He's on his fourth wife, and she's pregnant. More competition coming! Did you know that male lions kill the cubs when they take over a pride? I'm glad I live in Seattle and he's in Crete. He has a villa in Akoumia, about ten miles from Rethimnon? But you don't know where that is. Do you know Nikos Kazantzakis? One of his novels is set in Akoumia. But the name is different. The Greeks use a different alphabet, so Romanized names are always a guess. 'Heraklion' is 'Iraklio' on their maps."
I assumed that telling me she lived in Seattle was a studied accident.
"Seattle. I was there a few months ago. Reading at SPU."
"You are Jeffrey Antrim," her next email said. Four words. Then silence for a nearly month after I wrote back acknowledging that I was. I sent a couple of probes, tentative, polite messages, even apologizing if she felt that I had deceived her somehow. I explained that my full name was Jeffrey Maclendon Antrim, and I never liked Jeff, so I went by Lynn. "Like Margaret Atwood and 'Peggy,'" I added. Nothing.
"I want to see you again," she wrote, finally, ending three weeks of silence. Again? So she had been at the reading? "I can't tell you how terrible it was, to realize that I had been corresponding with a writer I idolize as if he were some guy on the web. I went and read everything again. Everything."
"But I am some guy on the web," I wrote, ignoring the flattery. I wondered what the real reason for her silence had been. "Great writers, one leg at a time, and all that. You know?"
"I didn't say 'great'," she responded. "I said 'idolize.' That's a matter of taste, and you suit mine. Your writing. 'Great' was your idea. Kazantzakis is great, maybe. Flaubert is great. Henry James is great. Paul Bowles maybe."
I was stung. I considered not writing for a month. Instead after a few days I replied with two words: "My mistake."
It was a week before she wrote again.
"Shit," the email started. Then the word marched down the screen, a dozen repetitions, then another dozen, then a polyglot stream: "Stront! Paska! Merde! Sik! Hovno! Skita! Gorotz! Scheisse! Hyessou! Zurullo! Bok! Skata! Fute!" Under the last one, which I suspected she had thrown in to make me curious about the others, she wrote, "I'm sorry. Ok? I've been sitting here a WEEK thinking Why do you have to be such a shit? Me I mean. I do this to people. I set them up and cut them down. It's so shitty. Please come to Seattle. Please come see me. I really want to see you again, Jeffrey. You."
"Emma, what is this all about?" I wrote. "I'm not going to fly to Seattle just to say hello to a woman I don't know. Hell, I don't even know if you are a woman."
She wrote back a piece of soft-core porn that almost convinced me "Emma" was a guy with a warped sense of humor. And she attached a picture, a head shot. It could have been anyone. It could even have been a young man. The email name still worried me a bit. I don't believe "you can tell." The dimorphic clues are wishful thinking, in my opinion, except with those exaggerated machos and femmes whom most of us aren't. I had seen transvestites in New Orleans more feminine than this photograph. I could pass for a woman, done up to. An unattractive one, but nevertheless. I believed the picture was a woman, but probably someone else. One hand rested on her own shoulder, the fingertips on the trapezius, like a reversed mantis paw, her curls touching her nails, her thumb negligently on the knob of collarbone. She was wearing something purple, deep indigo purple, that covered the other shoulder and made a ragged border at the bottom of the picture above any cleavage. I wanted it to be her, this strong-jawed creature with her stunning Pre-Raphaelite mass of blonde hair, her bold eyes and her tiny hands like rain. She looked like a sun-browned, straw-haired Jane Morris, her smile curling like a cat's and void of sharp edges. In the accompanying email, she quoted back to me pieces of a poem about making love to the woman I called Maurya, adding that she had been wearing jeans when she read it the first time and she had finished reading it with her fingers in her lap, tracing the seam below the zipper. The seam, she said, was dry. She had taken them off then, she continued, and read it again. Silk panties. Not dry. She wanted to touch my face, taste my tongue... Old stuff. The picture was not erotic. The face was cool, contained, not so much welcoming as considering.
I wrote back that the woman in the picture was very attractive and asked if she was related or a girlfriend.
She scanned her birth certificate, passport, and driver's license. She sent that with a second picture, full length on her bed, in the same indigo caftan with its grey hint of pattern. She had her hands behind her head, her weight balanced on one elbow and a hip. She had thrown a white sheet over the bed, and two huge white pillows propped her up. The wall behind was a pale lime chiffon hue, and bare, except for the edge of a poster that had crept in on the right. Her face was expressionless, a Mona Lisa, barely smiling. No, not the Mona Lisa, I realized, but another picture, the clothed version of most famous piece of pornography ever painted. I went to CGFA to confirm, and then I got the joke. It depended on her blonde hair and richly tanned complexion, the reverse of Goya's duchess. The picture, like the original, was utterly not seductive. The face was not friendly but void of expression, not even intent. Still, I was feeling hunted; and it was not an unpleasant feeling, to be prey. A plane ticket to Seattle was not so expensive, I mused.
The JPeg of the documents was crisp and sharp (and huge, a five-minute download), and the birth certificate in Greek, but I could parse the letters of her name, and the birth year was correct. She had blackened the address on the license and blotted a few places on the passport, but both pictures were sharp, recent, and clearly the woman in the caftan. The message was crisp, too: "I'm me. How do I know you are really who you say you are?"
"So," I replied, "who's your photographer? He's pretty good. Spanish?"
"I have a digital camera with a timer. Any requests?"
The crude invitation tickled at the edges of my libido. I chuckled, but blood stirred as I considered calling her bluff. What would she do? I was in the middle of editing a manuscript, and I let the possibilities play in the back of my mind for a few days. Then she startled me with another attachment. It was the second picture, mimicking even the changed position of the feet, a living maja. She was not a guy. She had tanned well for Irish and Baltic.
"Lovely," I wrote. "Nice pillows."
"Are you gay?" she replied..
"Dear Emma," I wrote, "This is all very strange. I feel like the subject of some sort of experiment. I don't know you (except gynecologically, thank you) and you don't really know me. I'm not the person you get to know by reading my work."
You have black flecks in your eyes, like bits of chocolate. When you are nervous, you rub the center of your upper lip. You like to tease people; I can tell by the breathlines in your stories. You have a dry but clever wit, and a great capacity for affection and sensuality. We've been thinking and talking together for more two months. Come see me."
"You are a writer," I replied, "or a English major, anyway. 'Breathline'? 'Capacity for affection and sensuality'? What about 'mastery of POV'?"
"I can come to Seattle two weeks from next Friday. How's that?"
"Eeeekkk! I have a paper due the next Monday! I got an extension and I have toI absolutely have to get it done! I'm only half finished!"
"'Eeeekkk!'? Grown women write 'Eeeekkk'?"
"Come. I'll get the paper done." The paper was on Hubert Selby, she explained. She had been a biology major before beginning her graduate work in American Literature, and she was writing about Selby's novels as Skinner boxes. She explained what a Skinner box was. I wondered if I was in one.
I arranged a hotel. I called a friend at Pacific to tell her I was coming and might drop by.
"'Might,' is it? My heart weeps. I am but second in your affections."
"And bespoke. It's a long story, Annie. Don't make me bore you. If it gets to be a short story, I'll invite you out for Guinness and commiseration. With Herb to chaperone."
"There'll be a woman in it, no doubt."
I said, "God, I hope so."
It's a three-hour flight. She could not meet the plane. She didn't have a car. "Driver's license and no car?" I said.
"Well, I know HOW to drive," she wrote. "But they are nothing but trouble, so I don't own one. I could rent one, I guess."
I would rent a car. My hotel was near campus. We arranged to meet in the lobby at six, three hours after my plane landed at SeaTac.
I flew in on Friday, made decent time on the freeway, and was at the check-in with my bag at 5:30. When I turned to go to the elevators, there was Emma behind me. Grinning like a monkey. She threw her arms around my neck; it was a stretch. She was smaller than I had expected, barely five feet tall. Later I realized that I had always thought of Rossetti's women is tall, statuesque; an effect of their solidity, I think. Her arm around my neck was strong and hard.
"I was in the gift shop, buying you a cigar," she said. "You had one in your shirt pocket at the reading." She was wearing a floor-length skirt with a gypsy pattern, a white Latin American peasant blouse, and an unbuttoned naval pea coat a bit too large for her. Her buttery hair was bound up somehow but threatening to burst free. It was the yellow of collies and Afghans. The pictures had bleached it a little and shifted the shade. With the living presence, I remembered her now from the reading at SPU. She must not have come up for an autograph, or I'd have remembered sooner.
I put a hand around her waist while she hung from my neck. She felt warm and dry, like fresh laundry, and fleshy but not soft. Her hair smelled of lavender and some toiletry, like baby powder. She broke the clinch and took my left hand. My bag was in my right, and the computer bag over my shoulder. She offered to carry the computer.
I made my way to the elevator. "Where do you think you're going?" I said as we walked.
"You have a room?"
"I want to watch you unpack. I'm hungry."
"It's only 4:30 for me, but I missed lunch. What would you like?"
There was a long silence. The elevator door opened, and as we stepped inside she said, "Whatever you want." She was still smiling.
We rode up alone, six floors. "Seafood or something Asian are the obvious choices," I said.
"Do you have a car?"
"Then let's go to Pike Place. After you get settled."
The room was economical, dominated by a king-size bed and the fake armoire that held the "entertainment center." I put my bag on the bureau and Emma sat on the bed. I drew the drapes open. I could see the campus, and beyond it, the lake. I opened the bag and unpacked a jacket, shirts, and a pair of slacks. A muffled thump behind me made me turn. Emma was lying on the bed, her knees bent so her feet barely touched the floor, as if she had fallen on her back.
"Nice bed," she said. "Come." She put out her hands.
"Stop it," I said, smiling. "I'm not that kinda guy."
"Come on. Just lie beside me. That's all. Both feet on the floor," she added, stretching her toes down to touch the carpet.
I pulled out my dop kit and carried it into the bathroom. When I came back, she was still on the bed, her position shifted slightly. She was wearing the Puckish expression of a child who's pulled off some trick.
"You're scared of me," she said.
"I'm hungry." We looked at each other. "Let's go," I added.
She navigated to a seafood place with a view of the sound. The fish was fresh and delicious. Driving through the city, I had listened to her talk about school. She taught a couple of courses. She was going to do her thesis on John Hawkes or Cormac McCarthy. Had I read American Psycho? The movie sucked, of course. "Tell me about Maurya," she had said suddenly, interrupting herself.
"Old stuff," I had said dismissively, parking the car. Now after sea bass and perfect asparagus, over espresso and her blackberry cordial, I was willing to talk. She sipped, then licked a shining slick of dark sweetness off her upper lip with a reflexive movement, like a cat cleaning herself. I looked down at the saucer, tasted my coffee.
"We were together three years. It's not her real name, of course."
"What was it?" she said gently, as if the answer would be painful for me. It was, but it felt good, a good, releasing pain, to drop the masks.
"Matilda," I said. Then I coughed a laugh."Funny name. Even she thought so. She had ...strange uncertainties. She once told me that her ideal husband would be a homosexual. I didn't know what to make of that. We had been living together for six months. I thought I was her ideal husband. And why would a woman want a homosexual husband? She had told me she loved man/man porn. At the time, I thought of it as like the male interest in woman/woman sex: weird but common. Then she said one day that she wanted her son to grow up gay, and my skin crawled. Nothing wrong with gay, but why would you want it for your child? I wondered, sometimes, what she intended to do about it."
"What do you like?"
I caught up with her train of thought and laughed. "Pornography? Watching sex doesn't do much for me. Kind of like watching people eat, huh?"
"Why did she go?" Emma was watching my face, as if reading for truth, sincerity, duplicity. I didn't answer immediately, and she said, "Let's walk." She got up quickly, putting out a hand as if to pull me up. I dropped some cash on the table and we left, walking the concourse among the little shops. Emma slipped her hand in my coat pocket, against mine. As I talked, she wriggled her hand into mine.
"She was stifled. She wanted to find herself. She wanted to make it on her own. I'm repeating what I heard. It didn't make sense then; it still doesn't make sense."
"'Yourself' isn't somewhere else."
"Exactly." I let go of her hand and put my arm around her waist. The weight of that tiny hand in the pocket, bumping against my hipbone, was familiar and somehow comfortable. After a while she moved it to the other pocket, so that her arm circled my waist. We stopped in front of a poster store.
"Do you think she committed suicide?"
I had to leap to catch up. In the window was a poster of Marilyn Monroe, the one from Some Like It Hot where she is leaning a bit forward, smiling, touching her cleavage as if with perfume.
"Matilda?" she said.
"No. I thought you meant Marilyn Monroe. Matilda. She would never commit suicide. She might talk about it. I think it would have been a great burden and trophy if I had."
Emma put out her other hand, wrist upward. The scars were old and ugly, like scribbling with white wax.
"Oh, shit," I said.
"Long time ago," she said. "I write, you know."
"I figured. You want to show me?"
"Oh golly, would you? Would you really?" It was at once sincere and a sendup, and I laughed. I started to say, "Got anything with you?" and realized, for the first time, that she was not carrying a purse.
I said it anyway. "Got anything with you?"
"Yes, actually. A story. You can read it later."
"Let's get a coffee and I'll read it now."
It was folded up in her coat pocket, almost crumbled, just a few printed pages. It was a first-person narrative, from the point of view of a boy. He was nine, and he had a secret place, a place on the roof that he got to from the attic. It looked out on the neighbor's pool. In the afternoons, when it was hot, he would go to his place. A big elm shaded it; he could sit in the shadows like a spy or guardian. The woman next door would swim in the afternoons, then lie on her stomach and sunbathe in the slant afternoon light. She was pretty and wore a little bikini. One day she behaved strangely. She stood in the pool, the water just above her navel. The boy describes the actions without understanding that she is masturbating. Hints in her behavior suggest, without the boy realizing, that she knows he watches her. Her climax is violent and it frightens him; he wonders if she is all right. She licks her fingers.
It was a polished, professional story, easily publishable. When I looked up she said, "She didn't love you, you know."
I ignored the shift; I wondered if it was meant to sting. "It's a good story. Very smooth."
"Did it turn you on?"
"Not really," I said after considering. She looked disappointed. "I felt sorry for the boy. And I was having some trouble with the fact that the boy's reaction was being imagined by a woman. I don't think a nine-year-old boy would be that naive. I was one, remember. And with a boy narrator, it comes across as rather voyeuristic. Using a girl would make it more of an initiation."
"You hated it."
"It's publishable. You're good. It could be better, but you could get it in Northwest Review without changing a word. Ok?"
"Did you ever do anything like that?"
I paused too long, staring at her, and I saw that she knew the answer, a story I wouldn't tell. "He doesn't 'do' anything," I said, a bit flustered. "He observes doing. I'd like to read some more of your stories," I added.
"So they do turn you on," she said. I laughed and shook my head.
We drove out to the Japanese Gardens and sat through the evening. We talked about our families, our childhoods. The air was warm and humid, like a bathroom after a long shower. In the silences, I was reminded of nights in Yokohama, walking near the beach. She held my hand. At one point, while I was talking about my mother abusing my sister and my helplessness, she kissed the knuckles.
"Your hands are like Brent's," she said as if absentmindedly.
"Brent. My boyfriend."
"There's a boyfriend?" I said.
"He's in Chicago. I told him I was going to the mountains with some friends. He'll probably call anyway to check up on me."
We drove back to her apartment. Outside, we kissed more, making out in the car; an experience I had forgotten for decades–delicious, illicit, and awkward. I ran a hand over her ribs and spine, bumping like a car on railroad tracks against the back strap of her bra. I tasted her tongue, kissed the top of one breast.
"Let's go back to the hotel," I said.
"You couldn't even lie down beside me," she murmured in my ear.
"I could now," I said.
"I'm already home. Tomorrow." She kissed me a last time, pushing the hard cone of her tongue past my teeth and then letting it go soft in my mouth.
"Oh, well," I said when we parted. She slapped me playfully on the shoulder and fled. Driving home, I thought about Brent.
I returned to the hotel. When I opened the bed, I found a pair of panties, tiny and black, tucked into the bedding. I considered calling her. I went to bed.
I spent the next day at the Asian Art Museum and had lunch with Ann Falconer and her husband Herb. Emma worked in the library, wouldn't be off till late afternoon.
"I'm being pursued, I think," I said to Ann.
"About time!" she said. "I'da done it myself, barring Herb's prejudices."
We talked a bit over enchiladas and Mexican beer. They had known Mattie and never approved of her. Ann had said once, when I mentioned that people never could figure out how my second wife and I managed together, with all our differences, "The real mystery was what you saw in Matilda. Besides the obvious, of course." Matilda, like Emma, was younger than I, but only a few years. I described Emma, and Ann asserted that "a pattern was emerging." Ann was my age, and a looker, with her black hair and violet eyes. I said so.
"Please, Lynn, not in front of the hubbie!"
Herb smiled paternally and applied honey to a sopapilla.
"Well, if Herb ever tosses you out, I'll be there with a basket."
Ann kissed my cheek as we parted, and wished me luck. "Whatever that means," she added.
I took Emma to Nikko for dinner. She wore the indigo caftan and a bone-white cashmere shawl against the chill. She ordered a vegetable tempura with tofu. She insisted that we sit side-by-side. When the waitress swished away in her red kimono, I put a little black bundle, her panties rolled into an oval and secured with a rubber band that made an hourglass of them, next to her sake cup.
"While you were in the bathroom," she said with a smirk. She didn't blush or unwrap them, or even touch them. I wasn't sure I believed her. I suspect she had brought them to leave. They lay like a gift beside her plate. She picked up her water glass. "Did you dream of me?"
"It was a hard night," I said, timing it to catch her with a mouthful of water.
She coughed and snickered, put down the glass and whispered, "Nice try."
After dinner we went back to my room. In the car she said, "I don't believe this."
"I'm with Jeffrey Antrim. I spent the whole reading imagining coming up to the podium like a sleepwalker and giving you a blowjob in front of everyone."
"They'd have been disappointed. You were about four rows back. With a dark boy, kind of fragile looking, like a young Timothy Dalton. Was that Brent?" The young man had leaned over and whispered in her ear at one point, and she had gasped and pushed him playfully. That and the hair. I was fairly sure she hadn't come up after.
"That was Eric. He's just a boy I know."
"I had sex with him that night and imagined it was you. He was angry when I told him, after."
I gave her a sidelong glance. "I'll bet," I said ironically. She was rubbing her forearm, looking ahead into the street.
I kissed her in the elevator, and moved my hand down from the base of her spine, pulling her against me. She licked my neck before we broke the clinch. When the door of my room shut, she stopped me and fell to her knees in front of me, rubbing her palm on my zipper. I was hard, of course, and uncomfortable. I put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
"Turn on the light," she said, taking the zipper in her fingers and pulling it down.
Light sprang at us from three sides. She had me in both hands, her face so close I could feel her breath. "Make me," she said.
"Make me! Make me!" She was moving her hands up and down slowly, staring at my cock. I put a hand behind her head and pulled her toward me, and she took me in her mouth. Once I made to take my hand away and she grabbed my wrist, holding me there, bending me into her mouth with the other. I watched her head move. The sensation was exquisite and my hand, tangled in the mass of her honey-colored hair, followed the patterns of her movement. She unbuckled my pants blindly, then stood up to remove the shirt. I helped her. I pushed off my shoes and then my socks and the rest, and I was naked. For a moment I thought how surely she could wreck my life by screaming for help. Then she shifted the caftan off her shoulders and wriggled free of it. She was naked under it. Nothing if not consistent.
I kissed the bony knob on each shoulder, played with the inside of her mouth, tasting myself on her tongue. I knelt and kissed her belly and flanks, and then we moved to the bed.
"The lights," I said. I got back up and turned them off. The drapes were open. I could see lighted offices above us, a few buildings away. I lay down beside her, ran my fingertips lightly along her thigh. We were grey in thin moonlight.
"Lie back," she whispered. I lay on my back and she lay on top of me, but face up, smothering me in her hair. She was not heavy, but I was breathing hard. I was trapped beneath her, and then she opened her legs and pulled me up between them. She held me against the surface of her groin and rocked, masturbating on the keel of my penis. The sensation in the penis is generalized. I could feel warmth, and moisture, and slick friction. I put a hand on her to explore the fleshy details, but she pushed me gently, insistently, away, leaving my palm high on her belly over the navel. Her hand covered the shaft and pressed the glans into her hair but I was still outside, outside, when she began to moan and then, like fainting, came. She twisted her head around and cried "Hold me. Hold me," when the climax came. I already had both arms around her waist, balancing her with my forearms. Then she kissed my mouth with kisses like fire and hunger, our heads twisted together awkwardly and her torso wiry with the effort to turn without losing the contact below. I was mad with need, and at the last moment she pushed me down and inside so that I came at once inside her tidal finish, like something thrown ashore in a storm.
She stayed the night. When she was sound asleep, I bent to kiss her and she woke enough to slap at me and mumble "Don't" like a molested child. I lay beside her for an hour, listening to the monotony of her breathing, thinking about mysteries I never understood or found interesting. Once, she cried in her sleep, and I was unsure if I should comfort her. I slept. On Sunday morning, before the sun, I rolled on top of her and she struggled silently beneath me. I made to move away.
"What?" I said. For answer, she rolled on top of me and then, pushing with a knee, pulled me onto her and locked her ankles behind my calves and pushed me into her with a rough hand, engulfing me firmly, tight as a slick fist.
"Make me," she hissed. This time I understood, and I took her wrists in my hands and put her hands above her head, pinning them to the bed, and pressed into her while she strained against my grip and moved her heels up and down my calves. She moved her feet up my legs until she was splayed open beneath me like a koala on a tree, the balls and curved arches of her feet warm against the backs of my thighs just above the knee. I lowered my face to kiss her and she locked her legs around me like a wrestler, straining against my grip on her wrists. She took my earlobe in her mouth, biting too hard.
She hissed and broke her left hand free and her nails were in my back, raking and clawing. But I was in too deep to pull out. I plunged madly against her while she made torturous patterns on my back with the free hand. I fought to hold the other and rocked into her. She came with her teeth on my shoulder almost, not quite, harder than I could bear.
It took a moment to get my breath. "Ow," I said into her ear.
"Let me kiss and make it better," she whispered.
"Not a chance," I said.
She chuckled darkly. "Not your prick, silly. Your back." She wriggled, trying to escape from under me. I still held her right hand above her head, against the headboard. I let go. When she was free she prodded me onto my stomach and I felt her mouth on my back. I wondered if I was bleeding. The nerve endings on the back are hopeless, but I could feel her moving and her tongue. She straddled my waist and leaned in and around to kiss. Her mouth was salty.
"How about the aquarium?" I said. "After I bandage up?"
She smiled. "It's not so bad. Just a couple of scratches. Clean me," she added, her lips actually touching my ear as she whispered. She squeezed my waist gently for punctuation.
"No," I said when I realized what she meant. "I don't like the taste. Of myself, I mean. Semen."
"I want a snowball," she said, drawing out the vowels. When I said nothing, she said, "Let's take a shower." In the shower we washed each other and then, the rinsing water in our faces, took turns tasting the fresh, musky results.
We went by her apartment so she could change, and then we spent the afternoon at the aquarium, marveling over the fish and touching each other with a kind of easy, innocent intimacy. On the way out, she insisted that I buy her a T-shirt. She picked one with a languid octopus and the aquarium logo on it. "A large," she said after she had decided which design she wanted.
As we were walking out, she said, "I'll tell Brent you gave it to me as a memento." I ignored her. We were alone on the outgoing ramp. She took my arm and leaned in to say, "I'll tell him I wore it while we made love."
I stopped. "That's not funny."
"It's just a joke," she said. We started walking again, her face sulky. "Sorry," she added ironically.
We walked silently, making our way toward the stairs to Pike Place. A woman passed us going the other way, a tall blonde dressed entirely in black, moving fast. Emma murmured, almost to herself, "Somebody worked her over."
"That woman. Didn't you see her? She was looking at the ground but walking fast. Leading with her right shoulder, like she didn't want us to see her face. The way she had her arms." She crossed her arms defensively, mimicking the woman's angular pose as we continued up the ramp to the street. "She actually had her head turned a bit." She hesitated. "Fifty or sixty degrees. I'll bet there was a bruise on the other side."
She was right, I realized as I remembered the woman's posture and her odd walk. There was something furtive and beaten about her, a look not of actual damage but remembered damage. I recalled from some years ago the neighbor who had made me so nervous. I had told my wife that when I spoke to this woman, she always flinched as if my voice hurt her ears. Years later I learned that her boyish husband had been beating her up on a regular basis.
We walked. She continued, still more to herself than to me. "I wonder if it was her mother or her boyfriend?"
"Pretty good," I said.
"For a girl," she appended, grinning.
"You must not be very serious about this Brent," I said.
"We'll probably get married," she said. She had a hand in my pocket again; she was looking at her feet. "Or I'll dump the poor kid."
"If it were me"
"That would be a different story, of course," she said soberly. She did not look up. "Don't be angry with me, huh?"
"I wish I'd known there was a boyfriend."
"It doesn't matter."
"Can you stay till tomorrow?"
"I" Knocking people off balance is a control thing, I thought to myself. I had an early evening flight. There was no reason to be in Denver Monday.
"Come on. There's an Indian place by your hotel. Tandoori chicken? I'm not done with you."
We were passing a phone booth. Feeling a bit foolish, I relented. "Let me call." I arranged for a noon flight Monday. Then I called the hotel. It was not a busy time, and staying was no problem. She was gleeful, I was pleased and a bit ashamed. In an ethnic shop, I bought her earrings from Zaire. Strange as she was, and troubling, I was astonished at my good fortune. An intelligent, literate, gorgeous woman who was mad about me. A groupie, my imaginary vizier whispered. He should have spit.
Night came, and the Indian food, and dessert in my room till late in the night.
Over dinner she had talked about her father. He had emigrated from Lithuania to Cork as a young man. Her head lay on my chest. The the drapes were shut and the lights on; her pale frizz sparkled. "How does an Irish Jew from Lithuania get named 'Mangan'?" I said into her hair. As I looked down the length of her, the contrast of the rich burnished skin and her yellow hair was almost surreal. But the hair was real, down to the roots.
"Mangan is my stepfather. My mother's second husband."
"You didn't keep your daddy's name."
"Light," she said into my armpit. I turned it off. The room went black, then settled into a deep grey.
"He left when I was a baby; I hardly ever see him. I only remember Ernest being with us. Ernest Mangan. He was a lawyer in Chicago. They divorced, and then he died. Cancer. Momma's married to this sleaze Andy, in real estate. He turned out to be a keeper."
I stroked her back. She pulled away and sat up on her heels and knees, a geisha. Or a karate student at rest. She was leaning forward. Her breasts were small but well-defined, round, and in this position they hung away from her chest a little and swayed as she spoke. I put an arm around her thighs, my hand resting against her foot. "He tried to mess with me. When I was fourteen."
She nodded. "I was sick in bed. Real sexy. Stuffy nose, smelling like piss and menthol. He started rubbing me, all sympathy, my chest, my neck, and then his hand was on my leg. Mamay doesn't know about this. She went to the store and left us alone. He pushed me down and got on me over the covers and tried to put a finger in me, but he couldn't find it in the covers." She was breathing deeper and her voice barely a whisper. "He tried to make me, you know, with my mouth, but I cried and choked so he rubbed on me till he came."
"That doesn't sound like 'trying.'"
"It wasn't so bad, but I was sick. And he was disgusting. But he got it all over his pants. He was a shit."
She kissed my chest, leaning down to rest her head below my chin. She sank onto my chest, her legs still folded up beside my hip. "My father" she said, then stopped.
"It's Ok," I said.
"My poor Mamay."
"Andy doesn't sound like much of a catch."
"Ernest was nice. My father" she repeated, stopping again.
"He used me."
"He used me like a boy." I must have stiffened, because she pressed against me as if to hold me down. It was too much. I wondered if there was any truth in all this, but I was silent. She went on. "I was visiting him in Paris, when I was nine. He was between wives. I was nine. Mamay was between husbands, off 'finding herself.' He gave me ice cream and had me sit in his lap. He rubbed me and made me come, but I didn't know it was that. Then one day he wanted it in my mouth. What is it about men and that?" she said in a sudden aside.
"I don't know."
"I was scared and I wouldn't, and he never made me. But he made me You know, like a boy, in back. First he just rubbed on me and spurted on my bottom. It was a few days after my ninth birthday. Then one day he did it. He put something in me first. I figured out a few years ago that it was a barbiturate suppository, to relax me. I had a friend who had them for her baby, and I figured it out. I wonder where he got them, but he has money. He was full of explanations. I had to be "intact', but this wouldn't hurt. He must have meant some other kind of hurt. He was little and he greased me and I was dopey, and it still hurt."
"Emma" I interrupted. I did not want to believe this string of horrors.
"You don't believe me," she said. She was looking at her knees, speaking in a confessional monotone. "When he was done, I could smell him, as if someone had dirty pants. I threw up. He washed me with a hot towel and kissed my mons. That's what he called it, my 'mons.' He did it again the next day, and after that. Always with the suppository or something. He fucked me every night after that, practically. Never in front. Never mean or rough, but. You don't believe me. You don't believe about Andy either. You think I'm making this up. He was small. Smaller than you, and when he came he grunted a bit. Nobody would believe it. He let me lay on my back and put my legs"
She was silent for nearly a minute. I apologized for snapping at her, feeling a bit ashamed. She took a breath, sank to my chest, and went on. "You don't believe me. See? Nobody would. I'm sleepy."
"It's Ok," I said. "Go ahead if you want."
She was silent again, tucked into my armpit. I stared at the ceiling imagining a nine-year-old girl sodomized until it became commonplace, helpless. Both of us outside the sheets, I could smell our mingled odors and I found them almost revolting. My cock was sticky with sex and I wanted to wash. Her breathing sounded like sleep, and I began to drift in and out of the dark as I stared upwardasleep, then not.
"Make love to me, Jeffrey."
It was later. I was startled, so I think I had been sleeping. I glanced down at her head, still cradled against my chest. "No biting." I couldn't see her face.
"No biting," she murmured.
"No kicking or scratching."
"Or kicking," I said, tumbling her onto her back, kissing her just below her ear and slipping my hand down her belly.
"No kicking no pushing no prodding no yanking no tearing."
I kissed her neck and rolled onto her. "Maybe a little prodding."
"No whipping no thumping no chewing no pounding..." she added, her voice tapering off as our mouths touched. I slipped inside. She whispered in my ear, "You're no fun."
It was a slow freight, slow, ponderous, and unstoppable, the next few minutes. We were silent and intent on one shared thing. It was almost as if we had held our breath. After, while I lay propped over her, not wanting to separate but reasoning with myself ("You can't sleep here; she'll suffocate."), she said, "Nice."
I nearly said "I love you." But I waited.
I waited until the plane was over Boise, Idaho. I could see the river and beyond it, the Snake winding its way out of Wyoming. I had been inventorying my feelings like a leper his dead limbs, and whimsy struck me. I dialed her number on the in-flight phone.
I was uncertain of her voice on the phone. I had never heard it before, I realized when she said, "Hello?"
"Jeffrey? You can't be back yet."
"Nope. I'm 35,000 feet above Twin Falls, Idaho. I was wondering, what would you think, if, say, I was falling in love with you?"
The long silence was, to say the least, humbling. "Jeffrey. Lynn." I braced myself.
"I love you," I said.
"I love you too," she replied. It was like sinking into a warm quilt. I smiled stupidly.
"Glad to hear it," I said.
"Stop now. This must cost a fortune."
"I sent you a story. Read your email."
When I got home, I printed the story and set it aside. It was appended to a long, gushy email that I suspected was meant to be satirical and a bit over the top, like the insults men use for endearments. She had not sent another after we talked. Reading her message, already outdated by our conversation, I was simultaneously amused and touched. She was, my superego would insist, dangerously promiscuous. But maybe not. Maybe that was the generations talking. She was bright and clever, as sharp a reader as I had ever run into, not just of me but of other writers we discussed. I didn't share her enthusiasm for McCarthy's faux-Biblical screeds, but I couldn't dismiss her arguments as easily as I could his books. Her other favorites were strange bedfellows, writers that I for the most part had no patience with, like Burroughs, Hawkes, Plath, Battaile. I imagined I would learn she adored the paintings of Francis Bacon, and I shuddered a bit. Oil and water don't mix, but oil and vinegar do, I thought.
"Dear Emma," I wrote,
"Thanks for the story. Haven't read it yet, but I will this evening. And the weekend. If I said, 'Thanks,' I can imagine you smacking me for it. Not the sex. Yeah, yeah, good sex, great sex, a little noisy. But not the sex. Sex is easy. Sex is lightning; love is sunlight. The conversation. The way you touched my hand when I told you about my sister that I couldn't save, the comforting kiss on the tendon. Tenderness. I can hear you mumbling, "What dreck!" while I wax maudlin here. Oh well. On the plane I didn't want to 'see you again,' I wanted to be with you, to watch you wake up and hear about your day, to smell the lavender in your hair (and figure out the baby powder. What is it with the baby powder?), to buy groceries and light bulbs with you and have you posture and snap at me, like dogs playing. This isn't getting it, of course. Never mind.
A few hours later, I picked up the story. It was called "Plum." It recounted a gang rape, stealing its structure from Rashomon, with each of four versions moving the action forward and shedding different, contradictory light on what happened. Three guys and a girl, and the girl, Alice, told her story last. The first part, by "David," described her as a willing participant who knew exactly what she was getting into. David describes her coming on to him and his two buddies, all of them buzzed, in a downtown bar. They retire to the second boy's apartment, Conrad's place, all of them drunk and a bit horny, and she has sex with David on the second boy's bed while the other two drink in the kitchen. They are interrupted by the second boy, her too drunk to say no when he demands his turn. David is a bit disgusted by the scene. He goes to the kitchen.
Then the second boy, Conrad, tells the story again, with David charming her, disarming her, moving past her guard, seducing her, maneuvering her into bed, and then, after he has scored, inviting Conrad in for sloppy seconds. The third guy watches Conrad struggle to get hard enough to penetrate her. He offers to help, vague about how, and makes a joke about Conrad's hairy ass. Emma had captured the tough male patois of drunken guys on the make. The girl, drunk as they, begins a flyting repartee with the third boy, whose name turns out to be "Brent." His name made me shudder. The game of dozens turns ugly as he shifts his comments to her looks and performance and she hers to speculation about his likely inadequacies. Judging by Brent's comments, "Alice" does not resemble Emma physically. David comes back in and she insults him too. Conrad ejaculates with some relief and gets out of the way. His story ends with her putting a hand between her legs, him standing, watching.
Brent's version begins when he wakes up in the apartment, unsure how he's gotten there, half drunk, half hung over. Conrad and Dave tell their stories in hindsight, first-person narratives, but Brent's is stream of consciousness, as it happens. He is drawn to the bedroom by the sounds of sex. David is in the kitchen. Brent goes to the bedroom door, sees Alice on the bed, Conrad's cock in her mouth (a detail not mentioned in Conrad's story) and tosses off a size joke that prompts Conrad to reply "Fuck you," to which Brent answers "No thanks, fairy." All in good guy fun, of course. Then Alice throws Brent's insult back at him crudely and he leaves. He comes back with a beer and watches while Conrad continues between her legs. He offers to do her with the beer bottle "or something more fitting." She tosses off another insult and turns her attention back to Conrad, who is in her but still and looking befuddled. David is standing behind Brent, in the doorway, and says, "You're next." Alice says, "That shouldn't take long," then wraps her legs higher around Conrad's pelvis and exaggerates her own movements and pleasure. The conversation gets uglier when she is done with Conrad. Brent asks how any one "so fat" could also be "titless." She insults all the guys eventually, deliberately provoking them, and she refuses to do Brent. Then he says he'll pay her ten bucks. She haggles. He pulls out a couple of bills and offers to "put them up your snatch." She takes them. He unzips in front of her face and says, "I'm not rooting around in fucksnot. Eat me."
Her story is also stream of consciousness, like Brent's. Brent's was reasonably coherent. She is so stoned that hers doesn't make much sense, even at the beginning, where she seems to blend Conrad and David together and even imagines one or both of them to be someone else not present. She describes with a kind of disjunctive but clinical innocence the details of their intercourse, but Conrad does not wait for David to finish, and she is confused and disoriented to find herself doing both of them at once. She struggles vaguely; David finishes and Conrad switches from her mouth to between her legs as she watches David's walk in endless slow motion to the door. Then there is a break like unconsciousness, and she finds someone looming on top of her, prodding at her face, grunting and lapping her crotch. She struggles again. His weight compels her. His cock flails her face like a rubber truncheon. He comes grossly, spilling gummy semen on her face, hair, neck. Then another one is there. Conrad? David? Brent? She is confused and frightened. She can't remember, and she is forced, injured, pulled and penetrated repeatedly, crying and cursing and helpless; and finally, with Brent's cock in her mouth and the other two drunk men out cold, she bites. The last page describes in climical detail the consistency and solidity of the cock, the resistance of the bony inner tissue against her teeth, the taste of his blood. He screams and strikes out at her. The other men sleep like death. He hits her head, breaking her cheekbone, and she hangs on like a pitbull, gnawing and chewing and finally, when he hits her again, taking off the glans. Then the man is gone in her sense of things and like a coda she describes the texture and taste of the disembodied flesh, like a small ripe plum, on her tongue.
Speechless, I found myself breaking all the rules of reading, wondering what truth was its basis, imagining Emma getting herself into a situation like the opening scene in the bar and extrapolating, later, Alice's horror story. And Alice's lack of remorse, her absolute pleasure, not in the revenge but in the carnal sensation of the mutilation, made my skin crawl. And then the brutality, the decision to use her boyfriend's name, in some way the most horrifying detail. Emma. That evening I read it again, more critically.
The phone rang at one a.m. It was Emma, breathing my name, a query, into the phone. "I missed you tonight," she said.
"I thought you were a vegetarian," I said.
"I am, sort of..." she said, then interrupted herself and choked a giggle. "Did you like it?"
I launched into an analysis. It was not as good as the one about the boy and his neighbor. It wasn't so much a story as a narrative with a punchline. "It's really hard to believe that the other two guys could fail to mention Brent's injury," I said. "And switching to stream of consciousness for Brent and then Alice. That doesn't work."
"Well, I couldn't have them tell the story afterwards, like Conrad and David."
"I know, but it's so obvious that this is the reason you do it. I don't think you even need the other three stories. Just do Alice's point of view. Was it an assignment?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's a Rashomon imitation. I wondered if you were assigned to imitate Akutagawa."
"It's a movie. By Akira Kurosawa."
"It's based on a story. So it was an assignment?"
"Yeah. Currigan loved the story."
"It's pretty compelling. But it's artificial, like an assignment. Even the alphabetical names. I mean, what's the point? It doesn't really have a point, just the shudder at the end."
"Yeah, well. Whatever." Her voice was petulant.
"Don't sulk," I said. "You win some, you lose some. The first one was better. Send more. Maybe your Currigan guy was right and I'm wrong. I'm so glad to hear your voice," I added.
"I miss you," she said. We talked for two hours, both of us mumbling occasionally about the time, tomorrow's exhaustion, neither willing to say "good night" and go.
After a few days, she brought up Brent again. They had lived together for three years in college, then been long-distance lovers when his career took him to the Midwest and hers her to the Pacific Coast. He had been an athlete, a college baseball star with a few years in the minors, and now he was finishing a law degree.
"He sounds perfect," I said. "You can have two-point-three kids."
"He's no challenge. I can get anything I want. He stumbles over himself to give me what he thinks I want."
"Stop it. I wrote a story about him. I never dared show him. I could publish it, and he wouldn't even know it was him. But if I told him. Whew." There was silence. She had never said a word about using his name in the other story, nor had I. That detail had lain between us like an embarrassing odor. "I'll send it to you," she added.
She did. It was called "In Place." I almost felt sorry for him. No, I did feel sorry for him, but I tried not to. Patronized, not even worthy of contempt. The protagonist used him like a Kleenex, and he didn't even know it. The portrait of the woman was so compelling that I worried that Emma didn't know just how awful this woman was. But she had said she did, or all but said it. And he did sound boring. How could a man be the subject of such condescension and not aware? And if that was all there was to Brent, what did she want him for?
"I don't 'want him,'" she explained. "I 'have him.' It's not the same thing, you know. Like a puppy that turned out badly. Or ugly hair. Ugly, but it's yours."
"But he isn't 'yours.' If someone felt about me the way you feel about him, I'd be gone so fast...."
"Well, he loves me, you know. Unconditional love blah blah? You've heard of it? And we're good in bed. As long as he doesn't talk."
"I don't know how to get rid of him."
"Say it's been nice, I'm in love with this sexy writer, goodbye."
"Emma, tell him. You are making a fool of him."
"Well, I'm not good at sharing."
"Is that a threat?"
"It's a fact. If you make me feel like one of the guys on your dance card, I'll be gone. I don't like being second."
"You are special."
"Aren't we all."
"Don't be that way. Jeffrey?"
No one but Emma and people who didn't know me called me "Jeffrey." When she said it, it tugged my heart. I think she knew that, of course. She called me "Lynn" sometimes and occasionally, inexplicably, "Jeffrey Lynn."
For weeks the phone bills grew. Sometimes she called, more often I. We talked about Brent. One night she was on the phone with him for three hours and then, for another hour, me. She had forbidden him to visit. He knew something was up; what should she do? I stuck to the simple answer. She refused to tell him.
She and Kitty had separate phones. If she was out, I left messages on her machine. When she called and missed me, she would hang up and tell me later. One night I got Emma's machine and after her message played through I said, "Thank God she's gone. We hardly ever get to talk. She doesn't suspect. She thinks it's her I'm mad about, but it's you. Your predictability, the way you promise 'And I'll get back to you as soon as I can.' And you vixen! You never do, but I keep calling. I love your hissing, metallic 'R's, the way the phone number rolls in your mouth. God, what if Emma finds out? Erase this message."
"You silly man," she said when I picked up the phone later that night. "I'm going home for a long break, for the Fourth. I could fly through Denver. But I can't stay."
"I miss you desperately."
"You just wanna get laid."
"That's one of those 'Have you stopped beating your wife' things," I said with some exasperation. "If I say, 'I do not.' you can attack from a dozen directions. If I say yes, then you've got me again."
"So just tell the truth."
"I want to kiss the little mole on your chest about five ribs down."
"My nipple? Thanks."
I laughed. "You are impossible."
Impossible to convey the meaning in meaningless conversations. We talked about peanut butter, how it tasted with mustard, mayonnaise, bananas, crunchy versus smooth. Mustard with cheese. A mutual loathing for brie. We argued about bad movies. I told her about walking around Nederlands one Saturday morning, having come up for a folk music festival and then lost interest. She described watching All-Star Wrestling one night just to get Kitty's goat. She could have read the phone book. She would fall silent and I would say, after a few minutes, "Hello? Miss Mangan?" and she would murmur sleepily, "Just talk. It puts me to sleep."
We agreed to meet at the airport, coming and going. She said it was a long drive for an hour face-to-face, and I said, "What else do I have to do?"
So we sat outside the Panda Express on the concourse and talked over bad food. We walked through the lower level of the airport, took a quick tour of Mangelson's and the American Indian pictures in the halls. Drank espresso and talked. Looked out glass walls at the high plains and the distant wall of Rockies, and talked.
"Rainier is very Asian, you know." She had her hand woven through my arm. I had just pointed out Long's Peak in the jags of the western horizon. "You look at it, and it looks like the top of a mountain floating on a bed of clouds. The floating world," she concluded.
"The Tetons are my favorite mountains. There's a pass east of them that takes you up and through a cut and suddenly they are there. They look like the lower jaw of a Bear god."
"You could come to St. Louis. Meet my mother."
"And Andy? No."
"Brent will be there."
"Oh, hey. Meet Brent."
"I'm not much for sharing."
"I'm going to tell him."
"That we're done, he and I. I am. I told my mother about you. She said Brent deserved a chance to see me and hear it in person. She likes Brent."
"I'm sure he's a wonderful human being."
They announced her plane. At the gate, a half hour later, she gave me a quick peck on the mouth and she was gone.
She called me from St. Louis nearly a week later, Thursday evening. I had her number for emergencies, but she had no Internet access, and I had told her I wouldn't call her family's house. She called to tell me that she and Brent were staying at his house over the weekend.
"I didn't want you to call and be surprised," she explained.
"No," I said, "this is much better."
"It isn't what you think," she said. "His parents are out of town for the weekend. We'll have privacy."
"Wonderful. So you can tell him?"
"I'll tell him."
"Somehow a weekend alone with him seems like a mixed message."
"I said I'd tell him."
"You knew I wouldn't call. Why did you call to tell me?"
"I didn't want you to call and find out from someone else."
"You knew I wouldn't call. You wanted to tell me ahead of doing it. So I'd know where you were while you were there. Wonder what you were doing. Thanks."
"I didn't want you to think I was sneaking around on you."
"No. When did he arrive?"
"Saturday. He took vacation."
"So you've had all week to tell him."
"There wasn't a good time. Why should I tell him anything, anyway? Maybe I'm not done with him!"
I let the silence hang. "You will be done with one of us. I'm not polyandrous."
"Maybe I'm done with both of you."
"Ok! You couldn't stand it."
"It would hurt; I'd get used to it."
"You'd keep writing."
"Yes you would. Look, I'll tell him."
But in the airport again, on her way back, she explained that she hadn't. He "was hurting." She couldn't do it.
"So you slept with him instead."
"You are so old-fashioned."
I glanced at my watch. "Your plane is leaving soon."
"It's more than an hour. Oh, right." She got up, stared at me, and walked away. I debated letting her go. I couldn't.
She didn't look around when I caught up with her. She said out of the corner of her mouth, "You offer me candy, Mister, and I'll scream for a cop."
"I am sinking rapidly into love with you. And I'm monogamous. That may be our mutual misfortune. I don't want to share your affections. I'm not crazy about sharing your body. But I don't want to be the Number 2 man in your life. One or nothing."
"Nobody is more important to me than you."
"Ok." We were walking fast. She stopped and grabbed me, kissed me passionately. I kissed her back. People went around us. We stood still. She whispered my name.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'd be different, but it would be dishonest."
"Come with me," she whispered. "Come to Seattle. Now."
"Now? With no luggage."
"Do it. Do it, do it do it!" she whispered fiercely.
I laughed. "You are a lunatic," I said. "I can come this weekend."
"All right. Let's go to the gate. I'll try to get a ticket."
"The sea is calm tonight," I murmured. She was behind me, her arms around me. I was standing at the plate glass, the drapes open, the lights out.
"That's Lake Washington," she said.
"I know. Figure of speech."
"It's a poem," she said.
"Matthew Arnold. Drab man. How would we live?"
"You know, I was told many years ago that he actually spent that evening with a prostitute"
"Let me finish. Then I found out it was his honeymoon, with his wife. Then after that I checked, and it turns out he published the poem sixteen years after they were married. Sixteen years. That's a long time."
"Do you think he was remembering? Or wishing it had been that way? Or he went back with a whore?"
"We would cook"
"I don't cook."
"I would cook; you would do the laundry"
"I don't do laundry." She squeezed.
"What? You cut some sort of deal with your roommate?"
"I don't do laundry if I don't have to. Ok?"
"You would work hard to make enough money to hire servants...."
"Do you think I could make money doing pornographic films?"
I was blind-sided. "That kind of money goes up your nose," I said.
"How do you know?"
"I knew someone."
"A porn star? Who?"
"Not a porn star. She did some sex for money."
"A whore? You went with whores?"
"She was a student." I turned in her arms. "Don't you ever worry about STDs?"
"Don't you?" she snapped. "I take precautions."
"Not with me."
"No, not with you. I trust you."
"Do you trust"
"Why are we talking about this?"
"Because porn stars die of AIDS and heroin addiction."
"I was just kidding."
"Emma. I can't tell sometimes. Ok?"
She was wearing my shirt for a robe. I knelt and pressed my ear against her stomach. She put her hands on my head.
"Do you know the rest of the poem?" she said.
It wasn't until the next morning, when I caught her naked in the bathroom, drying her hair, that I saw the bruise on her ribs.
"What's this?" I said, pointing at it in the mirror. It was the size of a small orange, a blotch of purples and greens.
"I fell," she said, shooting a glance at my face. I didn't believe her. "Brent," she said.
"He hit you?"
"We got physical."
"When you told him?"
She nodded, watching my face in the mirror.
"So you did tell him." She nodded once, her reflection glaring at me.
I thought about her explanation. There were two more bruises on her right arm, from blows, and a mark on her left forearm like it had been gripped too hard. She had been wearing a long, loose blouse when we turned out the lights. And then my shirt. I could have bruised her wrist myself, try as much as I had not to.
"So you fought. Physically/"
"It happens. He pushed me. I slapped him. He grabbed me. I pushed him. He hit me. I fell down. He kicked my arm. He pulled me around."
"He kicked you."
"Get over it," she snapped, turning away and departing. I followed her into the bedroom. She began gathering up her clothes.
"Get over it? I just spend a ton of money to fly to Seattle to spend the evening with you, at your request. This morning I learn that the man you spent last weekend with beat you up, possibly while you were having sex, and I should 'get over it'? What fucking kind of answer is that?"
"You want me to pay for your ticket?"
I took an abrupt step at her and nearly hit her myself. And she knew it. Her eyes flashed, wide and glittering, for an instant, and she smiled with unnerving triumph. I spun on my forward step, staggering, and walked to the window. I stood facing the drapes.
"The money isn't the point," I said. "You are."
"What? I'm what?"
I hesitated. I turned and walked back. "A challenge," I said, as matter-of-fact as I could, and I brought her hand to my lips and kissed her palm lightly. She pulled free and wrapped her arms around me, put her head on my chest, and we stood so for a minute or more. Had my heart stopped at that moment, I would not have felt cheated.
Over breakfast she seemed preoccupied. "What is it?" I said.
"Tom is starting to be a problem."
"Tom Currigan. My thesis advisor. You know? He believes that good teaching requires getting really close to your students," she said with a sneer. "Looks like my turn is up soon."
"What is he doing?"
"Oh you know. Long looks. Eyes where they don't belong. Undeserved compliments. Special favors. The usual suspects." She shrugged, drank her coffee. She took her coffee black and dark. Her hands were like a child's on the cup. "He won't leave me alone. It gets embarrassing sometimes. And he's old and fat and smells like an ashtray somebody spilled beer in."
"Not very formidable."
"I'm not worried. It's a nuisance. And he could mess up my thesis, I suppose."
"Can't you switch to someone else?"
"Pretty late for that. I'll be done with coursework this semester. Then I go write."
I finished my toast. Tasted my coffee.
"He put his hand on my back in the hall. Hot stuff."
"If you're not interested, tell him you're not interested."
"He wants me to meet him for lunch at the Westin. To discuss a special project."
The Westin was in downtown Seattle, across town from campus.
"So don't go."
She looked surprised. "Why not?"
"You know what he has in mind. A little lunch. A little upstairs. Just don't go, and he'll leave you alone."
"What about the project?"
"Why does it need to be discussed at the Westin?"
She laughed. "There isn't any special project!"
"So why go?"
"Because I'm curious to see what he'll do."
"Emma, don't go."
"I guess you're right."
"What are you going to do about Brent?" I said after a long silence. She had finished her egg, refreshed her coffee. She ate with swift delicacy; watching was a pleasure.
"I told him we needed to move on."
She shot me an irritated look. "No, dreckbrain! Why would I tell him that?"
"Your statement was ambiguous."
"He knew what I meant. I don't want his kind of complications."
"How about my kind?"
"I haven't decided."
She laughed. "Oh no, I'se hurt 'is feelin's."
"I'm in love with you. That doesn't mean I have to have anything, but it means I resent what others get."
She stared. Then she smiled. "That is the weirdest definition of love I've ever heard. But you're right. I don't want anybody else getting anything from you that I could have." Her face went sly and she touched my foot with hers. "Oops," she said.
I laid my hand between us, palm up. She dropped hers in it, squeezed, and then played my fingers like piano keys, slowly, meditatively. Watching her fingers move, she murmured, "I have to go."
"Thank you for coming to Seattle, Lynn."
"Thank you for coming to Seattle, Lynn," she mimicked, grinning. "I wish you were going to be in my bed when I get home from work."
"It would be awkward for Kitty, though."
I drove her to campus. She had dropped her luggage at her apartment the night before, so she went straight to the library. I went back to the airport.
That night she called.
"I had lunch with Clara, Semele Danton, and Trish Sterling today. Four of us at the table, and Currigan has hit on each one! It was so funny. Semele is from Haiti. She looks and talks like a Nubian princess. Her skin is shiny Hershey's chocolate. She said, 'False orgasm: Oh, Tom! Oh, Tom!' We all fell about laughing. The waiter thought we were crackers. Trish says he sweats on you something awful. She only did it once. Clara says she didn't, but I don't know if I believe her. She wants you to come read. She was at the SPU reading. She is the chair of the undergraduate writers' committee. She's a senior this Fall. She's from Eye-Oh-Wah!"
"'Ok' she's from Iowa? Or 'Ok' you'll come? She has the hots for you, you know. Her eyes got big when I told her I knew you. I talked about some of your unpublished poems. I was mean. I gave her "Weight" to read. She skimmed the first verse and took it home, for later. I'll bet she came halfway through it. That's the sexiest poem every written, and she hadn't seen it, of course. She was all turned on about your 'range.' 'Hey, look at the range on that one!'" she added, dropping into a tenor register.
"I have nice range," I said, pretending to be wounded. I had written "Weight" for her. It was a far cry from "Dover Beach."
"Pretty good breadth and depth, too, sweetie."
"Are you going to come?"
"On the phone?"
She made a gagging noise. "That's not what I meant, you dork. Will you do the reading?"
"Just don't get any ideas about Clara. She's a nice girl. Someday she'll make someone a wonderful librarian."
"Do you talk to them about me the way you talk to me about them?"
"Sure. I told them all about you. The toupee, the lifts, everything."
"Great. I'll read barefoot, just to give you the lie."
"Don't be silly," she said.
We talked about a paper she was working on, and then she said, "Would you convert?"
"What?" I was beginning to think of that word as a kind of punctuation. Her mind was like a hummingbird: here, there, beautiful and fierce. At times, I just wanted to stand still and watch it.
"Convert. To Judaism. My mother would never let me marry a Gentile. I told you Brent was Jewish. You would have to convert, and I can't imagine you doing that. Would you?"
"Well, what would it require? Besides circumcision, which is already taken care of."
"You know. Study. Stuff. Promise to raise the children as Jews."
"But would I have to believe in Jehovah? Or say I did? I'm an atheist, sort of."
"How can you be 'sort of'?" she said in a scornful aside. "No, not even say you did. That would be easier, of course, but it isn't necessary. Mamay and I are atheists, of course. You just have to agree to do things. That's all."
It sounded pretty odd to my lapsed Congregational ear. "Do things. Like Passover. Maintain the Sabbath. Send the kids to synagogue."
"Sure. I could do that."
"Tom asked me about the Westin again today. We're going tomorrow evening."
It was like an ice cube at the base of my skull. I had to say something. "Is his wife coming along?"
"Don't be silly."
"You are being silly. You know what he's got in mind, and you are playing with fire. If you turn him down graciously, you should be fine. If you lead him on and then cut him off, he'll be mad at you."
"Maybe I'll just give him what he wants."
"Are you serious?"
"Of course not. 'Are you serious?' Give me a break, huh? I'm just... exploring."
"It's a bad idea. Don't do it, Emma."
"Ok. You really think this McCullers thing is publishable?"
I had read her essay on Carson McCullers after she got it back from the instructor. It was brilliant. Her professor had given it an A and lavish praise; I concurred. We both had suggested some revisions. I had also suggested a place to send it.
"I don't need to be in Seattle while I write my thesis. I could come to Denver in May after I finish my coursework."
"I have room."
"That would be sweet. But I'd never get any work done."
"I work sometimes, too."
"We'd never get any work done."
"It would be easy to set up my office with two desks."
"Do you live near Boulder or DU?"
"A long walk from DU."
"You would have to do all the cooking."
"Chef Boyardee. Manwiches."
"Beggars can't be choosers."
"I wasn't begging," she snapped. "I can always go back to St. Louis."
"It's a joke, Emma. Ha. Ha?"
"It's not very funny."
"In hindsight, no."
"Your birthday's next week."
"Yeah." She must have looked it up somewhere, I thought. "When's yours?"
"September 21st. Brent wants to come out."
"I thought you were done with Brent."
"I am done with Brent. I guess he's not done with me."
"Did you tell him not to?"
"He's a big boy. Did you hear from Clara?"
"Yeah. I'm on for February. The 25th."
"So you still love me?"
"Will you come to Seattle for my birthday?"
"And hang out with Brent?"
"If you come, I won't see him."
"If you tell him you'll be with me, he won't come."
"Yes he will."
"What do you want us to do, duel?"
"Just come. I won't see him."
"Why won't you tell him not to come?" I said with some exasperation. "Are you done with him or not?"
"If you don't want to see me for my birthday, fine."
"Look, I'll try. But I don't want him there. Is that so hard to understand?"
"Great! We can go out on the sound. And there's a new play opening that I want to see. I'll get tickets."
She didn't call the next night. I called her, around midnight, and got her answering machine. I left no message, and I didn't call the next night, or the next. Her silence didn't bother me; I was pretty sure what she had done, and I was feeling foolish. Finally, Saturday, she called me.
"Sure. Back from the Westin?"
"I didn't go. I'm meeting him tonight."
I laughed. "Do you study cruelty or is it a gift?" I said.
"What do you mean?"
"You told me you were going Wednesday night. You weren't home Wednesday at midnight. You let me stew for three days thinking of what might have happened. And now you want to run me through that gauntlet again. You must think I'm dreadfully stupid. What did you want? Besides to jab me with a stick? I'm kind of busy."
"Fine. I missed you. I see that was a mistake."
"The mistake was mine. I thought Well, never mind what I thought. You and I are different species."
"If it's so important, I won't go."
"I don't want you to go."
"It's just to see what he wants."
"You know what he wants. You either are planning to give it to him, or you want to torture him. Neither speaks well of you."
"Thanks a lot."
"Give me a third possibility."
"Maybe I'm interested in him. He's a good writer and a good teacher."
"Look, Emma, you go ahead and be interested in him. And Brent. And Eric. But stop being interested in me, Ok? I'm tired of this."
"So goodbye love, huh?"
"I love you. I have you inside me like an embryo. Or a virus. I wear memories of you next to my skin. I think about you the moment I wake up. I taste you in my food and hear you behind me when I'm alone."
"But I'm not going to be a name on your dance card. Love is a condition. I can't help loving you, but I'll walk away if you don't love me back."
"I do love you."
"Then why are you playing around with this professor? Why are you letting Brent come visit you for your birthday?"
"You want to own me."
"No! You don't own me. But I'm not fucking two or three other women. Maybe love isn't exclusive for you. Should I be playing around?"
"You'd better not be."
"Both directions, Emma. What you want, you have to give."
"All right. I won't go."
"Look, you do what you want to do. But if you want to go, that costs you me."
"You would drop me just because I had dinner with a professor? That's sick."
"Don't twist things. You aren't 'just having dinner with a professor.' The guy wants to fuck you. He fucks all his good-looking students; it's nothing personal. And you are playing with him. And playing with fire. This is self-destructive, if you know you aren't going to sleep with him. And if you are going to sleep with him, then I'm done with you."
"Maybe I should be done with all of you."
"Maybe you should. I can't tell you what you should do. But I'm not going to stand in line. I give you fidelity and I expect it back. You know that. If you don't give it back, then you are stealing from me."
"I shouldn't have called."
"Why did you?"
"I missed you."
"I miss you, Emma. Don't do this to me. I can't live this way; it's not in my genes. I won't judge you, but I can't live this way."
"And you would just drop me."
"I don't want less. All or nothing."
"God, yes, it's hard. It's like cutting off my own hand. But I can't stand this. I don't want to talk to you about who you are screwing this week. I don't want the leftovers. I won't be second in your heart."
"I have to go."
I was silent. The pain in my heart was unbearable, but I bore it, and I passed through it.
"I promised Kitty I'd go with her to aerobics. I have to get ready."
I was not fool enough to think I had misunderstood.
"Have fun," I said. We said goodbye.
I did not call. She called me Monday night.
"I went to the Westin," she said by way of "hello."
"He asked me to go to New York with him. I told him no."
"He's a sloppy eater."
I was silent.
"I wonder if he'll give me a hard time on my thesis."
"Lynn. I didn't sleep with him. Lynn? You don't believe me."
"No, I believe you."
"Your birthday is next week."
"I wish I could come and be with you."
"I wish you were here."
"But I can't."
The conversation thawed slowly, and I called her the next night, and the next. We agreed that she would call on my birthday. She sent me a book of short stories, inscribed, "For the coyote story, and for love." I read the coyote story, wondering what she meant. On my birthday, she did not call. At last, after midnight, I called, and there was no answer. I didn't leave a message. The day seemed like a movie, someone else's idea of life. That night I got an email from her:
"Sorry I missed your birthday. Some friends invited me to cruise on the sound. Semele's boyfriend has a boat. It was great. I wrote a poem about Tom C. Then I realized it was about you too. Here it is."
The poem was a cruel satire on old men who drool over women young enough to be their daughters. It was not especially biting, but the intent was clear enough. The next morning, I canceled the ticket for the September trip. That night, I replied:
"Thanks for the poem. It was the perfect way to celebrate growing a year older. You be good now."
The phone rang an hour later.
"Be good now?"
"What is it, Emma?"
"Happy birthday. I'm sorry I was gone."
"What do you want, Emma?"
"Tell me about Matilda."
"She was beautiful. She was thoughtful and tender. One day she got bored and left. What do you want to know?"
"She never loved you."
"If she didn't love me, then no one ever has."
"Thanks a lot."
"Maybe I don't know love when I see it. Like color blindness."
"I said I was sorry."
"I know. I was sorry too. Is there anything else?"
"Are you still coming next month?"
"I've made other plans. Give my regards to Brent."
"Tom is not like this."
"No, I suppose not."
"Don't what? You want me to accept you on your terms. I won't. I want you to accept me on my terms. You won't. Impasse. Like ships in the night."
"Don't you love me?"
"Sure. Madly, wildly, desolately. But not blindly."
"Blindly is bad."
"I miss you."
"We've already had this conversation."
"What can I do?"
"Come to Denver for your birthday."
"What about Brent?"
"You aren't going to see him, so what difference? If you tell him you'll be out of town, maybe that will get the idea across."
"Come to Denver. I have to work."
"Things can be juggled. I'll even pay for the ticket."
"All right? You'll come?"
"Yes. Oh, Lynn, don't give up on me, Ok?"
"You are a challenge." I felt foolish. She said she'd get the ticket right away, and we talked about other things. I was sick with joy, and at the same time braced for the next blow. She fell asleep on the phone and I woke her to say goodnight.
Currigan still worried her. He circled her like a hungry dog, his attitude pugnacious now that it was clear she wouldn't put out. She and her girlfriends were merciless about him. "Trish says he's big. Not prize-winning, but memorable. But not very clean. He thinks smelly is sexy." I let her go on, only half-listening, when she got onto a Currigan riff. Brent was still a presence, however. He called, he expostulated, he pled, and she listened. And reported to me.
And her birthday approached. It fell on a Monday, and she would fly in Saturday to spend the rest of the weekend. Then she changed her plans.
"I can't come," she said to start a conversation when I picked up the phone. "I have to see Brent."
"I thought he wasn't coming."
"He says he'll come to Denver. He wants to settle things. I have to be here. Maybe I can come later. The next weekend, maybe."
She left it indefinite, and I let it go. Brent was coming to Seattle on Saturday. "You could still come," she said.
"No, you settle with Brent, and then call me."
"You aren't afraid of him?"
"No, I'm not afraid of him. What's he going to do, beat me up? I'm not his type."
"Look, I don't want him in my life. I don't need to know him. I don't want to know him. He hit you. He kicked you. He's a thug. Don't let him get you alone. Why are you doing this?"
"I owe him at least a conversation."
"Fine. Have lunch. Let him talk."
"I wish you would come."
"Why? To protect you? If you are afraid of him, stay away from him."
"I'm not afraid of him, Ok?"
"I know. So why do you want me to come?"
"He'll just be here Saturday night. I'll call you."
And she did. Her voice was wrong somehow. She began with vague pleasantries, as if she was not alone. In a few seconds I realized that she was drunk. Not hopeless and out of control, but "tipsy." And not alone. And then she began to breathe hard, a poor imitation of sexual excitement.
"Lynn? Lynn. I learned a new word today. 'Gamahuche?' It means"
"'Hoosh', not 'hootch'. I know what it means."
" to go down on a woman. I" she gasped. "I taught it to Brent." She breathed once, twice, again, and then said, "Oh, Brent. Oh, Brent." I hung up the phone and took it off the hook.
Sunday night I pulled the wall plug on the phone, in the early evening. She couldn't get through to the answering machine either. I didn't sleep, but the phone didn't ring. Monday I did the same. Then I stopped; Tuesday she called.
"It was just a joke," she said.
"Humor is so subjective. Did Brent think it was funny?"
"I was alone," she said.
"Of course. I figured."
"Then what are you so upset about?"
"I figured no man would let you talk to another man while he was giving her head, and he'd never let you tell the other what he was doing. Of course, you live in a different world than I do. Maybe he was too drunk to think about it, or too stricken with your charms. But you didn't do it for a joke. You did it to hurt me. I'm tired of your desire to hurt me. I feel a bit like a big dog pestered by a child it loves. Eventually he has to either go away or bite. I don't bite."
"So you go away."
"I'm already gone."
"Fine." She hung up.
It was two months before I got an email asking if I was still coming in February. I replied that I was keeping in touch with Clara. That's all I said. The rest of her message chatted about a new story I had posted at my site, as if nothing were strained between us. As if "between us" was still meaningful. She asked a couple of good questions, and I was tempted. But I ignored the bait. And later I dropped another note to Clara Rasmussen, telling her that I was available to meet classes if she liked. She suggested dinner; I accepted.
In a few days, I got an email from Emma: "So. Dinner with Clara. Moo-oo."
I considered telling her I'd forwarded her message to Clara. But I wouldn't actually have done it, and I think Emma would know I could never do that, to Clara if not to her. I was bluffing, and what good would it do, even if she believed me?
I flew in on Wednesday night. I spent the evening alone, in a different hotel to avoid any chance of Emma turning up. Of course, Clara knew where I was, so Emma called.
"You could have called," she said.
"Yes. But what for?"
"You're right. I don't have time to see you anyway." It was after eleven. Loud music was playing. Her room was always cat-quiet. "I'm working," she said.
"Doing what?" I said, immediately regretting it.
"In a bar."
I didn't pursue the conversation. I really didn't want to know. "Are you working tomorrow night?" I asked.
"No. I'll be off."
"Have a good time," I said flatly. She hung up. I took the phone of the hook, but I didn't sleep. At least I knew she wasn't home, if I got weak. I spent the next day talking to three writing classes, chaperoned by Clara. Clara was bright and enthusiastic, a good hostess. Ann Falconer would have liked her. She was tall and solidly built, like a Michelangelo sibyll or a Raphael girl. Not fat but what my mother called "big-boned," like a good strong horse, a hunting mare. She wore her blonde hair in a French braid and she was self-conscious at first, touching herself vaguely here and there when I talked with her, blushing once while introducing me. But she spoke with intelligence and charm; she would be a good teacher. As we walked to the second class she said, "I invited Emma Mangan to join us for dinner. I hope you don't mind."
I minded, but there was no gracious way to say so. Emma joined us at six at a campus hangout. She had a dark, intense-looking boy with her. I assumed he was Eric; she introduced him as Raymond. He glared. I suppose he thought he had to beat me to get in her pants. I spent the meal being attentive to Clara, who obviously expected to be odd one out. We made small talk; she finally warmed up when I showed an interest in her thesis. She was writing on the Metaphysical Poets. After eating, we walked to the reading as a group, Clara and I, Emma and Raymond. Clara didn't seem to know Raymond, or he her. Afterwards we had coffee, the four of us and a few others. More conversation, little of mine with Emma, who had two other boys in attendence besides Raymond. Raymond had begun to sneer at me while I talked with Clara. I was dismissed, apparently, as no competition. It was cute, I suppose. At last it was just Clara, Emma, and I. And Raymond. He went to get his car. While Clara was at the door struggling with her coat, Emma hissed, "Call me." I walked to the door, gave Clara a hand with her coat, and turned to wait for Emma. She and Raymond drove away; I walked Clara back to her apartment building. We shook hands, I offered to read an essay on Thomas Traherne. I walked back to my car.
Emma called at 4 a.m.
"I'm working in a nude bar," she said.
"That's nice," I said. "It's late."
"Raymond's more your type."
"Is that what you think? He's a dweeb."
"I'll bet he reads Genet and carries a switchblade. Tracks on his arms?"
"Don't be ugly. Don't you care about me at all?"
"I love you. It's a disease. I've learned to live with it."
"You already mentioned that."
"Come to my apartment."
"Are you alone?"
"Yes. Do you want me to be alone?"
"This is some sort of last trick, right? One last slash of the claws?"
"No, you come here. I'll pay for a cab."
"Why won't you come here?"
"I don't want to see your place."
"You don't trust me."
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
I gave her my room number. She hung up. Twenty minutes later, she was at the door. I opened it.
She stepped inside, put her arms around my neck, and kissed my mouth, crushing my lip against my teeth. The door shut behind her. She was pushing, pushing me toward the bed. I was dressed; I had put on jeans and a shirt while waiting, and my socks. She was wearing a short skirt, a long coat, and flats, a big loose blouse and a hat against the rain. She pushed, kissing my chest, taking nibbling, threatening bites that left my shirt wet. I yielded backwards and fell onto the bed, her on top of me. She straddled me, rocking her crotch against me. Hunched over me like that, her groin and her mouth on me, she licked my ear and breathed a hot obscenity. She took the lobe between her teeth. I thought of a hawk mantling a rabbit and was amused and thrilled.
My body stirred under the pressure of her pubes, and I pushed her coat off her arms, down to her wrists, and she threw it off. The blouse was a pullover, and I pushed it up and off. Her breasts bounced in my face. She unbuttoned my shirt and sucked spots on my chest, fierce as a leech. I had no belt; she unsnapped and unzipped me and I pushed my pants down, then pushed the skirt up, pulled her panties down around her knees, and thrust myself inside her. She gasped and came back up to my mouth, her hands in my hair, almost gagging me with her tongue, raping my face. We rolled over, so that I was on top, and we struggled free of the tangle of underwear and knotted jeans, kicking and squirming while we rocked into each other. "I want to come in your heart," I gasped. "In your brain."
"Spit me like a deer," she cried. I laughed, but desperately. She wrapped her legs around my waist and gave herself utterly to penetration. I held her shoulders from behind her back to push her down harder, firmer. She pulled at my hair when I kissed her, her hands like fists in a horse's mane. She climaxed holding her own ankles, then my back, my buttocks, her calves, then herself apart to take it deeper, to split in half if I would do it. I thought my heart would burst, and I nearly fainted when I was done.
"See," she said fiercely into my ear. "See?"
"See?" She breathed in gasps.
"I love you."
"That cow. Did you fuck that cow?"
I struggled to get free of her. But she held me still, her ankles and hands locked against my turning. She pushed her cunt against my softening flesh and her fingers set delicate nails in my back. Her mouth was inches from my ear.
"Did you?" she said again.
"Stop it! Stop it! What is the matter with you?"
"You fucked her. Just to show me. You just had to do it. You fucked her. Did she take it in the ass? Did she lick you? Did she say 'God, Lynn, oh God, you're soo big!'" Her breathe burned my ear.
"I didn't, and it's none of your damn business. Let go of me!"
"You wanted to. You couldn't keep your eyes off her tits. And she'd have blown you under the table for a kind word. 'Tell me about your theories on Metaphysical animal imagery, Clara!' 'Do you think Marvel meant the fawn to be both a classical image and a religious icon, Mr. Antrim?' 'Can I lick your tits?'"
I got free of her and sat up. I kicked off the last leg of my pants. The socks looked ridiculous and I stripped them off angrily and threw them aside and then there we were, inexplicibly naked. I ran my hand through my hair, at the same time filled with joy and despair, love and horror. For a cartoonish moment, I imagined myself running through the window, my legs pumping on air, and then falling out of this mess. I pushed my hair aside again.
"Admit it," she said, her voice reasonable and conversational. "You thought about fucking her."
"Sure. So what?"
"So did you?"
"No. It's none of your business really, is it? Did you" I meant to ask if she had fucked Raymond, then I realized I didn't want to ask.
"Fuck Raymond? In his dreams. Is that what you think? I just brought him to make you jealous."
"We're done, Emma. I don't want this."
"That's not what I heard a few minutes ago. You can't stay away."
I turned, at last, to face her. In the uninspired light of the hotel room she glowed like a goddess. Not Venus but someone cruel, capricious, and sweet as a kitten. There was no cruelty in her face, no calculation. I could hear my heart breaking. It was like looking into the face of a tiger.
"I can stay away," I said. But I was weeping. I sat down, my back to her.
"Lynn. Love me," she said, and she came into my lap, gathering herself to me like a child. "Love me."
"I love you," I said to her hair. She leaned up to kiss me. We sat silent for a minute, and my body stirred under her weight. She slid away and pushed me down. She kissed her way to my groin and took me in her mouth, nursing quietly, her thighs heavy on my arm and her body relaxed. We made love again, if that is the word for it, and then slept. She left in the morning, and I flew home thinking over and over like an idiot, "Now what? Now what?"
We talked. Tentatively. Skirting some delicate things. She was dancing in a nude bar. We fought about that. She was fencing with Currigan. We fought about that. I got the blood tests. For me, that is a sign that I am moving on. I don't worry about getting diseases, but I worry about giving them. I was consciously done with her. She asked for visits and I put her off. She got angry, and I waited it out. The bar dancing made me ill. The thing with Currigan was like an addiction. I said so. She talked about the guys hitting on her in the bar. Bikers. Truck drivers. She wrote a story about it. Reading it turned my stomach.
"I fucked Currigan." she said one night when we were arguing about the bar. "Last night. You are always thinking I'm going to, so I figured what's the use. So I let him. What a pig. He's big. Bigger than you. And he stinks. Never again."
"Goodbye, Emma." I hung up.
There was nothing, nothing for weeks. I was corresponding, not hectically, with Clara Rasmussen, and she wrote occasionally about Emma, but I did not inquire. I got an email from Emma one night, one sentence: "Do you imagine I think about you?"
"I imagine you fat-assed and frizz-haired, with two tousle-headed brats squalling and smearing snot on your skirt," I wrote. "I imagine you forty-five, hoarse from cigarettes and gin, wondering if, when your gay roommate returns from cruising the meat markets, you will be able to talk him into fucking you a little. I imagine you staring at videos of injured men, boxers and hockey players, staring at the blood, your hand in your pants, breathing hard. I do not imagine you thinking of me. I know you think of me. And what you think, on those occasions, doesn't interest me." There was no reply.
I had given Clara my phone number, back when we were setting up the reading. She only used it once, one night a few months later. "Emma's in the hospital," she said. "She was in an accident. She wants to see you."
I wondered immediately if this were a trick. I was ashamed, but there had been so many tricks. I couldn't imagine Clara conspiring with her, so I dismissed the possibility. "I don't think that's a good idea," I said.
"Jeffrey, she's really bad. She may be"
"She was on a motorcycle. With a guy. Some biker. He lost it and she got thrown under a car. He's dead. The guy was dead on the scene, they said. In pieces! She's got head injuries. Her back. Jeffrey, please. She wants to see you."
"Are her parents there? Her mother?"
"She came today. Emma wants you to come. It's really important."
"All right," I said. It was not a matter of persuasion. I had to go; it took a while to admit it. Clara gave me the name of the hospital, and I got the next flight. I was there the next morning. Her mother met me in the ward. She was not, as I had expected, an older version of Emma. She was tall and dark. She looked more Mediterranean than Baltic. Another lie, I supposed. I wondered if there had ever been any truth between us.
"You are Mr. Antrim?" she said. She offered a hand. It was palm down, almost as if she expected a kiss. I squeezed politely and nodded.
"She wants to see you. She is going to die, Mr. Antrim." There was a short, balding man behind her and with him two younger women, teenaged I suppose. "The doctors are afraid of the words. I'm not."
I touched my face nervously. She took my hand and brought me to the others, introducing me to her husband and their daughters. "Imogen. Maria. This is Raki's Mr. Antrim. And my husband. Andy Gutenberne."
"I didn't know Emma had sisters," I said lamely.
I shook hands with Andy. He was a few inches shorter than Mrs. Gutenberne. His hand was damp and soft. When he let go, he passed his palm over his bald crown. He gestured toward the nurses' station. "They let us see her. She's asleep. They'll tell us when she wakes up. They monitor everything."
We sat together. We made small talk. Mrs. Gutenberne sat beside me. I asked about Emma's father.
"Ernest?" she said, glancing toward Andy, who was reading a magazine. "He died of cancer. Twelve years ago."
"No, I meant"
"Oh, her 'real' father. But he died before she was born. Solomon Patriedes. Sol never got to see her face. Tragic. I married Ernie a few years later and we came to America. I converted. He was Catholic and I am... ecumenical. I think of him as her real father."
After half an hour, a nurse came and took them away. They stayed with her for a few minutes, then the girls and Andy came back and sent me in. Her mother was at the door. She gave me a polite smile and stepped out, passing me where I stood in the doorway. Andy said to her as she walked into the waiting room, "I think we should get a priest. I know she doesn't want one. But the girls."
Emma was barely recognizable, a doll of swathing and tubes. A machine blinked beside the bed. I wondered if they had shaved her head. She was awake, and she smiled a bit when she saw me. I sat beside her. She didn't speak, just looked at me, her eyes a bit unfocused. Then she said something I couldn't hear. Her hand lifted and fell. I took it and leaned forward. "...Knew you come." she muttered. Her mouth moved a bit, as if remembering how to smile. Her lip was swollen, and her nose. And her cheek was bruised and lumpy. Her arm lay on the covers, in a cast from elbow to wrist. There was a tube feeding into the turban of dressings on her head.
"Emma," I said. What else could I say? And it came to me, the obvious. "I love you."
"Uh-hunh." She watched my face. Her eyes closed a bit, then opened wide again. I could hardly bear to look at her. The machines of care. The room smelled of air conditioning. "You came," she said.
"I..." she said. Then she seemed to lose her train of thought for a moment. Her eyes focused and she said, "One."
That's what it sounded like. Her eyes closed before I understood.
"It was never a contest, Emma," I said. She didn't hear me.