The woman, who likes to be called Susan, not Sue, looks down at her hands in her lap; and when she looks up, still listening, the man once again catches her eye. He has dark, curly hair and a mustache. His look is steady, absorbed, savoring, unabashedly sexual. She has no idea how long he has been staring.
The audience for the lecture is arranged in a horseshoe around the lectern, which places Susan and the man, though 20 feet apart, virtually face to face. If she looks straight ahead, she cannot avoid him.
At first, she looks away. She turns her head to the windows which open greenly onto the perfect lawns of a Southern campus. Stuck into the grass at intervals are various impromptu signs, hand-lettered and lashed to pointed sticks, which serve to guide the members of the conference from one building to the next. She has never been to Mississippi before. She has been flown here this morning as an invited guest and speaker. It is May, and roses are blooming in carefully groomed plots. She is still experiencing the wonderment of disorientation. Her mind is putting down rudimentary paths in what is otherwise a blank acreage of the unfamiliar. Directly in her line of sight sits a handsome man.
The speaker continues to drone facts, to make points, to pose rhetorical questions. When the demonstration begins, with charts and graphs, Susan must crane her neck to see them. The man with the mustache is not bothering to lean forward. He is still observing her. He tilts his head backward, very slightly. This movement lowers his lids so that his gaze changes from a commanding regard to one more relaxed, more wistful and amused. In such a manner he acknowledges her having seen him.
“Do you enjoy that sort of stuff?” he asks later. He has ambled up to her immediately after the stiff applause and the shuffling departures. People are drifting to the next forum and Susan intends to follow them.
“”That sort of stuff” is my field. I’m in business. And you?” She is brisk and direct.
He isn’t wearing one of the plastic-coated greeting tags that would announce his name and company. Hers is pinned inefficiently to her blouse. It sags on the silk. He is quite young and carries no jacket, wears no tie. “No, I’m not in business,” he says. They laugh as if this were funny.
“Susan,” he says, touching her tag very lightly with his fingertip. “Susan Vaughan.”
“Not Sue,” she says.
“I like it.” He shakes her hand with a gruff formality. He is called Edwin, and he doesn’t volunteer a surname.
“Not Ed?” she says, and they laugh again.
They walk together out of the hall. Susan holds her program in front of her and takes her direction from a mimeographed map. “Straight along here,” she says.
“No. We turn.”
“That’s an exit.”
“Right.” He gives her a quick cut of his eyes, conspiratorial.
“No, I’m sorry,” she says. She won’t leave.
Somewhat to her surprise, he follows her down the corridor and through heavy metal doors which lead them into a huge, acoustically perfect auditorium in which she fancies she hears paper tearing. Someone is merely arranging notes on the lectern. A booming thump is a pitcher of water being set by an empty glass. They sit down. As they wait, she learns he is 24, originally from Virginia, now living in Atlanta. He has been hired to take pictures for a slide presentation called “Art and the Business Environment.” He will man the projector while the lecturer explains what is being shown. “Tomorrow,” he says.
“I’m just the brawn of the operation,” he adds.
She can tell he wants to be reassured. “I would have said you were the artist. You look like one.”
An hour of packaging and profit margins makes him restless. When Susan turns her head to him and gestures slightly toward the door, meaning that he can leave if he wishes, he at once stops slouching and stretching and, like a reprimanded child, sits stock still, rigid with effort. He’s too young, she thinks.
“You bore that very well,” she says, “for someone whose field is photography.” They are finding their way to the cafeteria. He has been issued a conference member’s pass. His card is blue. Hers is yellow, the special ticket.
“I’ll enjoy lunch,” he says. “I eat anything. If I’m hungry.”
“I see. And you’re hungry?”
“Always. But mostly when I see something good.” He keeps smiling at her, giving his words double meaning. His drawl is exceptionally mild, softening all that he says though not blurring it, as a mist softens but doesn’t blur a landscape.
Susan feels she is blushing. “Already a glutton? Discipline ; yourself now so that later you won’t get fat.”
“Oh, beer will get me in the end. Like it does all us Dixie boys.”
In the cafeteria they must separate. Blue cards eat in the main dining area. Yellow cards go to the reserved section, to the tables behind a velvet cordon, where the utensils are wrapped in cloth napkins and there are vases of flowers. Susan sits by two people who are experts in her field. The conversation is lively. She forgets all about the young man named Edwin until she sees him walking on a gravel path outside in the sunshine.
They confront each other beside one of the large plantings of roses. The earth has been thoroughly turned till it is brown and weedless, and the clipped bushes emerge individually from the soil, sending out buds and blooms in corollas of color. She points to one particularly lovely blossom which is apricot-shaded, tipped with pink. “Imagine naming it Mudge,” she says, for its tag reads Mudge’s Twentieth Anniversary.
“What does that mean?” he asks, baffled.
“That’s the name of the rose. Each variety has a name.”
He falls into stride beside her when he learns she is heading for her room. She is staying in a motel adjacent to the campus.
“They’ve put you up in style, haven’t they?” he says. “I’m supposed to be sleeping in one of the dorms.”
Now Susan remembers having seen him in the airport this morning. He must have arrived on another flight, but had been waiting for his luggage, when she had been. His large blue canvas backpack had contained something that had broken.
“A bottle of Jack Daniel’s,” he says in reply to her question. “Black label too.”
“I saw you picking the pieces of glass out of a towel.”
“Yeah. And my underwear stinks of it. I’ll be smelling like I’m drinking on the job.” He shakes his head. “I would have been doing just that if I hadn’t had such bum luck.”
The conversation falls. They walk in silence. Susan stares straight ahead, aware that his next words will be personal, and they are.
“You’re married, aren’t you?”
“I would have thought you were. Divorced?”
“Living with a guy?”
He is silent. She says, “Give up?”
He looks to make sure she is smiling. Finding that she is, he takes the joke. “So what are you, a nun?”
“I’ve separated from the man I used to live with and I’m about to get married. To someone else.”
“Aren’t we all?”
She is not more than moderately beautiful, with regular features, acceptable slimness, a clear complexion, large eyes. She has a vibrancy which some men find disagreeable, and in close conversation she seems sometimes not to listen, then turns with a disconcerting flash of attention and proves by her response that she has heard every word. She is attractive to men who fear being needed. Her level gaze, her matter-of-factness, and her quiet alarm at being physically approached reassure them she will back away, keep her own counsel, not grieve if they change their minds. She would seem cold, except that she moves with the ease of contentment, and the veiled stroke of her eyes across a male body is quick for the crucial details and appreciative.
“I live with my girlfriend,” he says. “We’ve been together four years.” He tells her name, describes how she sews patchwork pillows and stuffs toy dragons for a crafts store by day, then goes to school at night. She is studying for a real-estate license. She wants to buy a house.
Susan notices how sad he looks. “Do you have a job?” she says. “I mean, besides your photography.”
“Yeah. I work for my uncle on and off. Mostly off.”
They have arrived at the motel. Susan takes the key out of her purse to read its number, then walks down the row of doors until she stands before 22.
“You’re 22?” he says, right beside her as she unfastens the lock.
“No, 33, Edwin. And just for now, good-bye. I want to bathe and take a nap.” She has slid through without him and she shuts the door.
The afternoon’s hot sun is gone. The room is dark. She doesn’t open the blinds. After her bath, she lies on the bedspread nude in the cool, humming gloom. The air conditioner is on. Whoever cleaned the room must have turned it on, routinely, for Susan hasn’t touched it. The breeze from its vents stirs the long panel of beige curtains.
There are beige walls, beige spreads, and even the plaid of the armchair upholstery has beige stripes. She thinks of the Someone Somewhere whose job it was to choose the wall color and the fabrics, who sat and thumbed through many samples and considered what went with what, holding swatches together. Perhaps to reconstruct such a scene in her mind will make this dull cubicle become more personal and real. But beige is a coward’s color, she concludes. She closes her eyes.
She imagines making love to him, this Edwin. Under him at first, with his arms encircling. Then looking down on him, his mustache like a winged moth. Being kissed, his dark mustache tickling. With eerie exactitude, she can imagine her hands gripped on his back and his muscles working. She opens her eyes. The gentle purr of artificial wind makes the curtains’ hems ripple. Even the ceiling is beige here. The speech she must deliver crosses her mind. She doesn’t like the second paragraph, and she now knows how she can change it to make it better. She is suddenly very happy, with the guilty happiness of the traveler who never really wants to go home.
Whenever she leaves where she belongs, she becomes immediately detached and misses nothing and no one she has left behind. It is something she never confesses about herself. She keeps a list of names and addresses of the people she will write to. As if she were missing them. This exercise with postcards and stamps seems necessary for sanity, for otherwise she feels cut adrift. She likes the thought that she can step out of her regular life, then step back in it again. Being in a completely different place, with no ties to her friends or past, excites her. The sensation reminds her of acting, of her days in college theater, when she would dress and paint herself into a stranger, then walk from the wings into the fierce brilliance of the stage, a place where silence was a vast, rustling attentiveness in the greenish black cavern beyond the footlights. Such moments of speaking her lines were her most intense experiences of privacy. Now travel takes her there, into deep solitude.
He finds her later as she climbs a flight of stairs heading for a seminar. Is she planning to waste more time listening to “pontificators?” He wants to know. She smiles, because it’s so evident he has thought carefully to come up with a word like “pontificators” to impress her.
“I know it all seems a waste to you,” she says.
“But these are my subjects. I’m working my way up the corporate ladder, you see. I’ve got to pay attention to the rungs.”
He wants her to come for a walk. While she was napping, he discovered a park. “It isn’t far. You’ll like it.”
“I’m sure I would.” She shakes her head.
Then she notices that the seminar room is small, unventilated, and drab. Two men, already seated, are smoking cigars. Does she need to know more about profit sharing? Will the speaker even know that much more than she? Thus far the conference hasn’t impressed her.
“I’m with you,” she says, turning suddenly, and he flushes with surprise, beaming, set aglow. She is reminded how uniquely attractive young men can be, men who are still novices at disguising their feelings, whose dissimulations fail. Perhaps this is because their circulatory systems are excellent. Their colors change. They redden with delight and pale with dismay. They are prone to unanticipated erections. “Edwin,” she says, “you’re delightful.”
He pretends he hasn’t heard.
As they walk along the shaded boulevards (to his directions, no longer to hers) he is talking. She listens. He knows only that she lives and works in Philadelphia, that her parents are alive, that she doesn’t smoke. This is enough for him. He isn’t curious. Instead, he is rapturously enthusiastic on the subject of his own life. He has built a cabin in a plot of woods his father owns. It’s hardly a cabin, just a three-walled shelter with a concrete floor and screens, a place to set up the folding cots and aluminum chairs, a roof to shade the beer cooler. He and his friends go there to drink and to swim in the lake. He’s building a platform cantilevered over the water. “You’ll be able to run out and dive off the end,” he says, as if Susan might actually come there and see it.
“Is the water deep enough?” she answers.
“Always deep enough. And there are snakes in there swimming around.” He makes a zigzag in the air with one finger, looking at her to see how she will react.
“But harmless snakes,” he says. “They crook up their heads and look at you. Don’t bite or do much of anything. The mosquitoes are the ones that bite.” His girl friend hates going to the lake because of the mosquitoes.
The park is typical of any small-town Southern park. It is part zoo, part garden, part war memorial. Two dogs chase each other. There are swings whose metal seats and chains have been heated in the strong sun to such a degree that a small boy in shorts, lifted up to take a seat, shrieks and cries. The azaleas are past their prime. Clusters of their last flowers, limp pink handkerchiefs, still cling to the branches.
“Disappointed?” he says. “It looked better earlier when it was cooler and I was here alone.”
“No, I like being here. It’s just that it’s hot.”
They walk under the shade of magnolias. When they reach the other end of the park, he shows her a deep concrete basin painted mint green, filled with a dozen alligators, none of which is over five feet long. All of them float motionless in the mud-colored water.
Susan has braced her arms on the basin’s rim as she looks down. “They look comfortable, don’t they?” she says.
“But they have their eyes open.”
“Dead people’s eyes are often open.” He says this wisely, as if this were something he has known for a long while. “You can’t keep them shut too easily. They tend to come open again.” He explains that the uncle for whom he works owns a mortuary. “I’m an assistant, and it’s good money.”
Again, as when he described the snakes, he is looking at her, measuring her reaction.
Susan nods gravely, wondering why men feel the urge to shock the very women whom they wish to please. Men are always doing this, she thinks. They tell her horrid stones, use coarse words, confess crimes, hoping for what? Her disgust? Her approbation? She has never figured this out, but she accepts it as a part of the seduction ritual.
She says, “I’ve never seen a body. I mean, a dead human being’s body.”
“It can make you sad. If they’re young.”
“Not if they’re old?”
“Then you feel sad they got old. Not so much that they died.”
As they begin to walk back to the park gates, he says, “I took my gear over to the dorm, and I met a girl there.”
“Yeah. She’s a nice one.”
Susan smiles and arches her brows. “Lucky you.” She does not slow her pace. She lifts her hair off the back of her neck, to cool herself.
He is waiting for her to say more. Forcefully, he pulls a switch off a tree, strips it of leaves, then flicks it over and over. It makes a dull, savage hiss through the air.
She is silent.
He says, “So maybe I won’t sleep alone tonight.”
“Not if your luck holds.”
She avoids his eyes, which are on her. She doubts he has met another woman, for if he has, why isn’t he there, not here? Or is he flattering her that he prefers her? Or challenging her that she must take him or another will? Whatever his aim, his effect has been to make the Mississippi humidity more oppressive. The small of her back and her underarms are damp.
They pass the swing set again. No children swing there. The two dogs that have been chasing each other now move in a tight circle, nose to tail. The bigger, fluffy dog, the male, is licking the ass of the short-hair. This gives a new meaning, thinks Susan, to the expression, “Dog eat dog.”
“You want a drink?” he says, pointing to a water fountain under the last tree in the line of magnolias. The cement-cradled public drinking font has smooth pebbles crusting its pedestal’s surface and a burnished brass button. As he presses the button, the water spurts in a high arc, lifting over the chrome rim and falling to the ground. Susan notices how the grass grows much greener in that very spot.
“I’m not thirsty,” she says.
He sticks his face into the water, squirting his squinting eyes, opening his mouth fishlike, spluttering. Then he jumps backward, releasing the button and shouting, “Wooo— eee!”
The arc of water dies.
He does the same thing twice more, then shakes his wet, curly hair. “Feels good,” he says. “And the water’s cold.”
On the campus, she leaves him at the bed of roses and continues on to her room. His last words were, “See you at dinner,” but she has decided to go late to avoid him. She will sit with her peers. She will recoup her professionalism. She will settle to the task of making contacts, gleaning news, trading facts. She will take some time to look over her speech. She will linger at the interminable cocktail party. She will get a night’s sleep.
The next morning, she sees him across the empty tables, eating his breakfast alone. He is a late riser just as she is. She joins him with her tray.
“Good morning, Edwin.”
“Hi.” He glowers. He won’t smile at her.
She sits across from him. He is drinking black coffee and eating toast spread thickly with jam. His plate has already been cleaned. He had drunk two glasses of juice.
He tells her that breakfast is always the best meal in any cafeteria. “It’s harder to louse up, I guess. The cook has two ingredients—bread and eggs, eggs and bread. Gets lots of practice.” Still he won’t smile.
“You look tired,” she says.
“She kept you up then?”
When he raises his eyes, perplexed, Susan knows he has forgotten his line of the day before. “What about the girl back at the dorm?” she prompts him. “Weren’t you lucky?”
He tells her his hard-luck story. Not only would the girl not have him, but his room was taken by someone else. He returned very late from drinking at a bar only to find that there was no place for him to sleep. His belongings had been placed out in the hall. “There was nothing for me to do but unroll my sleeping bag and sack out right there.”
“On the floor?”
Susan feels he should complain to the conference managers. “They shouldn’t have flown you here, then not provided you with a place to stay. Have you told someone?”
He hasn’t been able to take a shower either, he says. Something is wrong with the plumbing in the wing where he slept. There has been no running water. In the other wing, there was such a long line of students waiting turns that he gave up.
“Well, that’s outrageous,” she says. “Here. Take my key. I won’t be using my room at all this morning. You can take your shower there.”
He smiles and refuses. Has she forgotten that he’s going to show his slides? “I thought you’d come see the work of the artist.” He pronounces “artist” with irony, deprecating himself. She can tell he is eager for her to agree to be there.
Instead of concentrating, as she should, on advances in marketing techniques, Susan sits through the lecture that is illustrated with Edwin’s slides. Most art, she concludes, makes big buildings more depressing, not less so. There seems to be a dead eye in the business world, which fills recessed-lit foyers, corridors, and offices with paintings that look programmed, flat, and cost-efficient. Even more dismal are the chunky welded-steel sculptures that dwarf any courtyard’s spindly potted trees.
“What did you think?” Edwin asks her afterward.
She is evasive, of course. “It was nice.”
“You didn’t like it. I can tell.”
“You take good photographs. I merely wish your subjects had been more worthy.”
This pleases him. “You mean they were good, my photographs?”
“Of course they were. They were clear. They seem well-composed. You’ll have to forgive me for not knowing more about it.”
Mollified, he says, “I complained about what happened last night. I’ve been promised another room. But so far nothing’s happened.”
They are walking on the now familiar path. The roses send up a heavenly smell. Blooms that were full and perfect just the day before are now showering petals, and buds that were tightly bound are loosening. There is a rose named “Bliss.”
She says, “What is your last name? I’ve been meaning to ask you,”
It seems too apropos, and she laughs. Hunter, stalker, trapper. Seeker of quarry.
“See?” he says, and he has flipped open his wallet to show his driver’s license. She realizes this is what he still has to do occasionally when he buys a drink.
Then he says abruptly, in a burst, “I like being with you, It’s easy to be with you.” This tiny affirmation appears to have cost him a great effort, for he has struggled to get it out, and now, with its weight gone, he walks as if he just set down a burden. He bounces on his toes. He flexes his shoulders.
Amused, she touches his forearm, a signal for him to halt, and she lets her hand rest on him even when he stops. “See that?” she says, nodding her head.
“That. The bush with those three different types of roses on it. They do that by grafting. Aren’t they clever?”
He holds her touch by remaining breathlessly still. Then he moves slightly closer, leaning with such imperceptible insistence forward that her hand resting lightly becomes a soft pressure on his muscle. She can scent what he would smell like if she were to turn into his shoulder and rest her face on him, as she could very easily do. He parts his lips and lowers his head, for kissing.
She chooses to pull back but squeezes his arm as she releases him. He knows enough about women to take her lead, withdrawing himself, to mask any resentment, and to resume walking beside her, measuring his steps to hers. In complete silence they walk the full length of the long rose bed until they have reached the point where they usually part.
“Well, Mr. Hunter,” she says quietly, “I have a bed that’s big enough for two and a shower that works. Would you like to spend the night with me?”
“Yes, I would.” His voice is tremulous, a little high, and more tender than a whisper.
She doesn’t have to look to confirm that his face is suffused with color and gently tilted, like the blooms she stands beside. She says, “Will you come after dinner, after it gets dark?”
As quickly as that, it has happened. He turns stiffly and begins to walk away until the walk is too much for him and he must break irrepressibly into a run. She watches. Moments before making him her offer, Susan Vaughan, with her pinned name tag and her conference notes, wouldn’t have predicted she would make such a departure from the official schedule. What am I doing, she wonders. And why?
Because, she thinks, while washing herself carefully in the spotless tiled bathroom, he gave no wrong answers. Because he said, simply, forthrightly, “I like being with you. It’s easy to be with you.” Because he knew how to lean forward very slowly and responsively, and equally he had understood he should pull away. Because his arm was lean and lithe, and he smelt of the ocean.
The Mississippi twilight, when it finally begins, is prolonged. At least it seems so to Susan, The sun has set for hours before the streetlights blink on and some of the cars take the signal to use their headlights. Still it is far from dark. The heat haze becomes a vast purple mist. She sits on the bed, fully dressed again, and tries to read.
She anticipates suggesting that they go out together to a bar, for she is having her usual second thoughts. All men are risks. And why sleep with them, she asks herself, anxious now. Her hands sweat, and her stomach is tight. Men are either wonderfully sweet, physically magical, in which case their power to compel is great and relinquishing them is hard. Or else they are disappointing, petty, arrogant, ridiculous, demanding, and one would so much rather be alone. She rises and begins to pace the floor.
She wishes she had said nothing to Edwin Hunter. Taking him on is unnecessary, promiscuous, perhaps even dangerous. Instantly she represses the fear that he might abuse her or harm her. This sort of bad experience has never happened to her.(Yet, she concedes. The worst has never happened to me yet.) Like a sportsman, though, who weighs the chances, she prides herself on her luck, her deft choices, her shrewd timing. She has known which men to trust. She has never guessed wrongly. Her loving father gave her a sixth sense in sex.
I will enjoy him, she tells herself. She goes to the mirror and looks, There she is, her remembered self and all her changes, her own composite, which no new friend, certainly no stranger, can ever see. She feels inviolate. She feels wreathed in a luxurious peace and desired, for a moment. Then, very suddenly, she’s lonely in a silence murmuring with traffic. What if he doesn’t come? But he will, of course, because she remembers the inadvertant jolt he gave at the moment she propositioned him. She smiles at the recollection. It was as if she had delivered him a physical blow violent enough to have made him stagger. He’s an experienced but not a jaded 24.
And he has no place to stay the night, she thinks, imagining him stretching out in a bedroll on a linoleum floor. Being glad to offer creaturely comforts to win his gratitude, she gives up for good her thought of writing a note, sticking it to the door, turning off the lights, and hiding. She sits at what serves as a dressing table and opens her mouth to examine her teeth. His teeth still have their little scalloped flutings, the mark of youth. Hers are worn. Two lines in the skin of her neck won’t vanish, no matter which way she holds her head. These lines are new? No, she has had them always, but they used to disappear when she lifted her chin. Like this.
She is exposing her pale neck to the strong light when she hears a soft tap-tap-tap. She rises at once and opens the door to find him standing there. His head is bowed, and slowly he lifts it. He is nervous and unsmiling. His pack looks heavy on his shoulders. At first she thinks he has come with terrible news, for his face looks stricken. Wild-eyed, startled. His eyelids are open preternaturally. He reminds her of a panicked horse.
“You’re here,” she says. “I’m glad you’re early.”
“You’ll have plenty of time for your shower.”
He is looking around the room as he enters it.
“Is anything wrong?”
“No.” He shrugs off the straps and eases the pack to the floor.
“Why not put it there?” She points to a corner near her suitcase.
He swings the pack into the corner, then stands looking at it. When he turns to her, he folds his arms. He is still unsmiling and pale. He looks so terrified that she is afraid she will laugh. She realizes he had hoped to find her undressed.
“Would you like a drink?” she says.
“No, don’t bother.”
“It’s no bother. The ice machine is just down the way.”
“No, no. I’m fine. I don’t need it.”
“I’ve been working on my speech,” she says, nodding at the papers spread out on the bureau. He walks over to them and examines her briefcase, slim, expensive, of black leather with brass fastenings. He opens it, then shuts it. Hearing the click of its locks seems to intrigue him.
In the lamplight, his skin is very smooth, and standing there as he does, slender and slouching, he makes her feel what she rarely feels for men—protective.
“Your shower, Mr. Hunter? Here’s a bit of soap, especially for you.” She hands him a sample-size soap cake still in its wrapper. “That’s the bathroom.” She points to the door. “And extra towels are folded on the back of the toilet. You’ll see them.”
Obediently, fully clothed, he goes into the bathroom, closing the door.
She takes off her clothes. When she hears the shower running, she goes in. He is momentarily invisible, standing just beyond her on the other side of the frosted glass. Under the rush of water, his body is a tanned rippling and his head a dark rose.
She pulls open the panel and steps into water and into his arms.
“You’re like a regular girl,” he says, looking at her, laughing with pleasure. “Like the others.”
“You expected something else?” She’s amused. He has obviously taken the age difference too seriously. Now he is confident again, stroking and teasing her body with his hands.
As she lathers him with soap, he suddenly says, “Hey, please, let’s stop this. I’ve had two showers already. I don’t want to wait any longer. Can’t we just go to bed?”
It will be later, after they have spent their first energies and lie curled together, that she confronts him with “You slipped up, didn’t you?” She is smiling. “What was this about your having had two showers before showing up here? You said so.”
He is silent.
“Come, come. I’m not angry. I just want to know the truth.”
He grins with satisfaction, rubbing her hip gently with his palm. His hands by being calloused from his carpentry create new sensations on her skin.
“Now, own up,” she says. “Tell me. You’ve been fibbing to me, haven’t you?” (Another part of the ritual: men tend to lie.)
“Admit it. You had access to a bathroom of your own, didn’t you?”
In the half-dark, he chuckles.
“Not that I mind.” She squeezes his arm. “I like being wanted for something more than my plumbing.”
“Okay, I confess to a bathroom.”
“One that worked?”
“Yep, that worked.”
“Furthermore, you were using a room all to yourself, now weren’t you? A firm mattress, a bureau, etcetera.”
“Ah, I should’ve known it. You didn’t sleep on that hallway floor.”
“No.” He raises himself on his elbow so as to look down on her. His erection under her hand is pink as a rose, petal soft.
“And all my sympathy’s been wasted!” She laughs. “Why, you rogue, you naughty cheat, there was nothing wrong with your room!”
“Oh, but there was,” he says.
“Sugar,” he leans to tell her in his lowest, loveliest voice, “they forgot to put a woman in my bed.”
This next time, with ebullience, with style, he moves into her as one who knows his way. He is looking directly into her face as he takes her. His tentative movements and questioning probes give way to the full stroke of pleasure-giving that makes her cry out. At another point, when he lifts her shoulders to shift her, repositioning her, she is aware how he moves a body’s weight often in his work. Practiced. And that revelation—of his laying out the dead—chills her momentarily; then, with mysterious force, stimulates her to reoffer herself even more passionately.
Later, in the complete dark, Susan says, “Edwin?” Lights from the street cannot penetrate the curtains and he is invisible, yet she knows by his breath’s new rhythm and how his head lolls too carefully on her breast that he is awake.
“How deep is your lake?”
He moves even closer. “Twenty feet after a solid rain.”
“I’m sorry I’ll never see it.”
“Well, it’s not so pretty really. And the mosquitoes are bad.”
The next morning she walks back and forth from closet to suitcase, packing, clenched against feeling depressed. She is scheduled to deliver her paper, then answer questions, then be driven to the airport. The man named Edwin Hunter is still there. Under the drawn sheet, his long body is stretched out as immobile as an alligator’s. His eyes are open. He watches. The morning light turns the bedroom’s beige a rose’s pink.
Methodical action soothes her. She clips the typed pages together and arranges them in her briefcase. She puts stamps on her postcards. From the bathroom, she gathers a Givenchy soap in a plastic case, a zippered make-up bag, a bottle of L’air du Temps, a toothbrush made for travel that retracts into a silver cylinder, and deposits these in the suitcase. She slips over her head a long chain with carnelian pendant, then loops up her hair and fastens it, holding the pins in her teeth.
“When do you give your speech?” he says, sitting up.
She reads her wristwatch. “An hour and a half.”
As he lifts her skirt and begins to strip her of her pants, she takes hold of his wrists. She kisses his coarse, curly hair. “Wicked,” she says.
“Who’s the man you’re supposed to marry?”
Because the question is surly and rhetorical, she doesn’t answer.
They make love again. When they have finished and she has dressed once more and he has pulled on a pair of bourbon-scented jeans and a shirt, he takes from his pack a dog-eared spiral-bound notebook. He borrows her pencil. “I want to give you my address,” he says, tearing an edge from a page.
She shakes her head.
“What? Why not?” He gives her a rueful look.
“Thanks, but I can’t write you.”
He wads the paper and with a quick grace tosses it. She watches its slow, perfect arc. It vanishes into the wastepaper basket. “But I’ll think of you,” he says. “May I do that?”
“And I of you.” She means it.
He leaves first. In the full light, he makes his way across the parking lot. She watches him from behind folds of the beige curtain. This moment is utterly real to her. Without detachment. From the way he holds his head and saunters, tapping lightly with one hand the hoods of the cars he passes, she guesses he is whistling.