The Morning After
“…the dreams and desires which never leave me, the wish to live authentically and without restraint.” –Guy Debord
This time, it was the advent of daylight that woke him, and Ike began to realize with not a small bit of shock where he was and that the sleeping woman clinging to him was Paulette. He tried to bring back the details of what happened last night, but it was all disjointed images of blowing snow and cartoon bombs, whatever that meant. To the degree possible, between the constraints of the couch and the embrace of the one he was sharing it with, he stretched, arching his neck backward, pointing his toes and then giving his body a good tension-shake to wake up. Man, he ached—
That fast, she was full of fight again, in the tangle of blankets, to be free of him, even as he tried to hold onto her, or they’d topple off the couch. But they did anyway, hard, a knot of thrashing arms, legs, blankets. He made a weird strangled sound.
She tried to get up, but a well-placed knee brought her down; wriggling free wasn’t working either because he had her shoulder pinned to the floor.
“You dick!” she said, punching hard into the blanket lump that rolled around laughing. Seemingly satisfied with his winded oof, she stood over him. “You are not funny.”
He stared up at her from the floor, his brain singing a silent wow. All lean muscle, perfect long lines like a dancer, completely unselfconscious. He was turned on again.
She glanced down at him with something like contempt. “You gonna stay down there in the blankets, Naked Boy?”
She went into the kitchen, flicked on the light, started banging through the cabinets. “How do you like your coffee?” she called out.
Ike moved silently across the room. “Huge mug, black,” he said, startling her when she found him so close.
He laughed, taking the cup she passed around the wall. Padding into the kitchen, cocooned in a red blanket, he leaned against the counter looking her over, admiring the elaborate tattoo that covered the small of her back with tendrils that snaked up toward her shoulder blades and down to frame her hips. She had opened a cabinet and was pointing to food options—no to an English muffin; yes to Constantia’s Poptarts.
When she turned, her face was as empty as she could make it, but he knew he was having an effect.
“What are you grinning at?” he said, grinning at her.
“Shut the fuck up.”
That wiped the grin off his face.
What did he have to be so chirpy about anyway? And how this smirking smart-ass she used to hate was giving her such strange, jittery feelings, she had no idea. It was ridiculous. Maybe it was just that he was here and she never had men here; it was a rule. Was it only the emergency that had made her break it? Good time as any to throw his clothes in the dryer. He didn’t follow her.
She nudged the thermostat up as she passed it; heard the heat come on. Anxiety shivered up her spine, repeating that it was time for him to go. Now and sooner than now. She didn’t like the almost claustrophobic feeling that was tightening at her throat, but if she could get into the shower for a while, or maybe a few rounds on the punching bag at the gym, she’d be straight again. It was nothing.
On the other hand, she still hadn’t gotten what she’d wanted from this little encounter, and as it always went with this guy, the repeated wounds to her pride made her that much more determined to have it and be done. But if that was her problem, the weirdness was in the specifics of the wanting: to look at him again, to enjoy the heady rush of a man she could push away and hold onto at the same time, the inexhaustible play against the familiar rhythm of quickening desire, the sound of his breathing as he slept… OK, that bit was officially fucked up. There were rules for a reason.
“About 20 minutes,” she said when she came back into the living room, where she found him bundled up on the couch, dipping the Poptart into his coffee. He looked miserable.
“Are you cold?” she asked, realizing she was still naked.
He shook his head slightly and she left the room again. She grabbed a pair of workout pants and a tank top, rummaged in her room for protection (just in case), though he was probably less of a risk that way than most she’d taken on, so why bother? Splashing her face with cold water didn’t help much, and as she toweled off, shook her hair out, she gazed absently at the face in the mirror. For a second, she didn’t register who she was looking at, the tired, peaceable face momentarily unfamiliar except for the tension about the eyes. Losing her shit was not an option; not now, not with a stranger in the house. She snapped the light off and didn’t look in the mirror again.
The couch was deserted.
“Ike?” Her voice was betraying her.
“Yeah?” He emerged from the kitchen, bare feet sticking out from her red blanket.
“I thought you’d gone.”
He flashed her for a moment and then submerged again in the blanket. “Hardly.”
She threw herself onto the couch and reached for the mug she’d left on the side table.
“I’m sorry,” he said, staying across the room. “You’d really like to be rid of me, I know.”
Her gaze lifted over the rim of her mug, enough to take in a view of big, white feet on the whiter tile floor. “Am I that pathetically obvious? It’s just—I don’t know how to do this,” her hand indicating the two of them.
He crossed to the couch and sat in the far corner, tucking his feet safely under cover.
She aimed a wan smile at her coffee. “I’m more the escape artist type.”
“Give me a hit of that—my brain is still offline,” he said, reaching for the mug.
She handed it across mechanically. He drank deeply and handed it back.
“Me,” he said, “I spent a lot of effort trying to get the girls I liked to sleep with me.” He laughed. “By the time I did, they already had the next year of my life planned.”
Wedged into the opposite corner of the couch, she sneaked a glance at the pale man who seemed to have a thing for controlling women. He was staring toward the kitchen window, maybe trying to judge what time it was from the gray glass or guess how much snow had fallen. “Bit of a mismatch then.”
He shrugged. “Seemed a pretty good match last night.”
They turned at the same time, looking at each other.
There was something about his eyes, like the falling dreams, the panic rising again from where she’d willfully submerged it. Empty blue eyes. So what? Without being asked, she offered the mug again and he took it, his fingers caressing hers in the exchange. The gaze did not break; it made her feel faint, almost like a dare. The way it had been in the car last night.
His eyes dropped toward the coffee, but still she stared at him. Clueless man.
When he looked up, she knew this time he saw it. His face became so curiously serious, studying her, his eyes sliding from her eyes, over her bruised cheekbone, her mouth. With an arm across the back of the couch for balance, he rocked onto his toes, his face tipped toward her. For one moment, before his lips closed over hers, the deep eyes looked at her, and they weren’t empty now, not at all. Blindly, she got rid of the coffee cup, bringing both of her hands over his collarbone, his throat, the small ears and into his hair. There was gentle insistence in the way he kissed her, like a great engine waiting for the gas. It wanted permission, poor thing; it wanted release. That’s what she wanted. That.
She wanted to let it out.
They collapsed together in a fit of choice and gravity. The narrow space made the awkward shift and slide as they tried to move together funny, intending not to fall, important that they didn’t fall, as she was sure they would, and that he would stop again for some reason, which she might kill him for if he did it again, and then he did stop, again, always the cautious little Boy Scout, but the answer was in her pocket, somewhere down around her ankles at the moment, their laughter not nervous anymore as her artful feet and his long reach worked in unison. When they looked at each other this time, there was a kind of elated wonder mixed with the thrumming need that drove them back together, finally. Oh, finally.
His weight, his arms held her so she couldn’t move, except closer, which her hands begged him for. She rose for air between kisses like a long-distance swimmer, like the house was burning down, trapped with it, dropping the match.
Fires you can’t escape. She knew about that. Maybe why she wanted it. And here it was. Straining together to get some piece of that thing everyone craved, that chemical perfection, the little black out of two, warping their bodies together after that one thing, before it’s over, and there’s only air and breath and separateness.
That gasp, as if surprised, his nose dropping to rest against her shoulder. She sighed and shifted. Half-sated, half-disappointed, over too soon, and never quite finding what desire promised. Her fingers lifted to the nape of his neck, cradling his head there.
The dryer’s alarm buzzed.
It took her a full, dazed minute to sort out what that sound was and that it had not come from their bodies, from the tangle of pants and blanket at one end, or from his sweat-slick torso collapsed across her at the other.
“Ike?” she whispered, thinking he might be out for the count.
Another full minute passed before he made a sound. “Yeah?”
Still he was dead weight, motionless. Not that she minded entirely; she kind of liked his crushing warmth. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
“Yeah.” He pushed up from her, his hips still locked against her pelvis, a soft wetness caressing her. And then she felt cool air as he lifted away, grabbing the blanket to wrap up in, and again, so quick she almost thought it didn’t happen, his glance sent that fluttering pain through her again. What did he see? Men never looked at her like that.
“Leave it,” she said, limply grabbing at the blanket.
Naked, he walked away down the hall. The bathroom door closed before she roused herself, redressed, dumped the blankets back on her bed. Then, her hands crossed over her shoulders, she waited for him in the hall.
He emerged disheveled, clothed, a pink flush over his cheekbones. “Gotta go,” he said, his voice husky and rough, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets.
She nodded, following him to the door. Was there something she wanted to say? Go. Stay. The door was open: it was decided, he was going. A weird reversal to watch someone escaping her rather than being the one to run. Impulsively, she reached out to bring him back, his dark blue eyes flickering shut as she kissed him.
Pulling away on a short intake of air, he stayed near under the pressure of her hand, stroking the length of her nose with his thumb.
“I won’t call, right? You call, when you—“
She protested and he shook his head. “—when you want to.” There was a tiny smile, impish. “You’re clever, you’ll find it.” Then he really was gone.
She stood in the dark hall, listening as the fire door below fell to, the car engine roared to life, then faded away. And she was alone again.
Con and Fred were up, or rather, made it downstairs, just before noon, where they found Ike sprawled on the couch, a huge coffee mug on the floor beside him and the New York Times Sunday edition piled on his chest.
“Hey, Ike,” Fred said as soon as he saw him from the stairs.
“Hey, Rich Man,” came the hoarse voice from the couch.
“Somebody’s catching cold,” Constantia said, stopping to look down at Ike. “When did you get in, anyway? I’d have sworn I heard you coming in after the sun was up.”
He flicked his eyes upward at the she-creature with the pursed lips.
“Must have been when I woke up. Sort of needed some air.” Fred chuckled, returning from the kitchen with two mugs of coffee. “I weighed the probabilities of getting up the stairs or to the porch rail and chose the porch.”
“Good thing you didn’t need to pee,” she said suspiciously, taking a mug from Fred.
“Yeah, that would have required some finer decision making than I believe I’m capable of.”
It was true; he knew he looked like death warmed over. “I didn’t think you had that much to drink…”
“I guess I lost track.”
“But you got Paulette home alright?”
“Sure,” he muttered, his face buried in the sports page again.
Fred cooked up some brunch—bacon, a lovely hash with about eight different vegetables, mostly from his own garden, toast and more coffee—which Constantia and Fred took in the living room, to hang out with Ike, who wasn’t eating. Aside from a bit of toast she wheedled him into taking.
Ike gave up on the paper while they were there; aside from passing Con the magazine, the fashion page and finally the crossword puzzle, he scarcely moved and said nothing, merely smiling at Fred when he periodically launched into an audible daydream about things he was going to do for Casa Hector. Though bodily he felt as wrung out and insubstantial as someone recovering from the flu, the suffocating weight that had pressed him since May was lifted, gone, and he was jubilant in its wake. If the happy couple had withdrawn their attention from each other, they might have seen a curious glimmer in his eyes. Ike didn’t mind; the things he was feeling now were something he wanted to hold apart, sheltered and private, for a little while. He did not know why this particular, answered desire roused such protectiveness; all he knew was that it was his, his alone, and he didn’t want to share it.
The smells of bacon, coffee and the newspaper ink six inches from his face, the rumble in the pipes as steam filled the radiator, the extra blanket that Con found for him, the accelerating excitement of Fred’s voice and Constantia’s pealing laughter—this was a happy house.
He hoped Hector knew.
Need to go back? Find the rest of the story here. Next chapter.