“Conversely, true pleasure, joie de vivre and orgastic potency shatter body armour and roles.” – Raoul Vaneigem
Monday morning, at 3:00 am, Paulette texted his phone—U OK?
Not even a full day ago, she had been fighting to save his life. She stared at her phone, which was doing nothing; her heart pounded. Probably safe to send it now. He’d be asleep.
The problem was thinking too much, replaying every moment in her mind, all day long—in the shower, at the gym, here in bed where she’d spent the rest of the day watching movies with Con, even at work loading trucks—seeing things she’d been too busy enjoying, or too busy surviving to have registered, and not just the sex: like his hands, office-soft but powerful, or the thick, ugly scar along his left arm at the elbow; those damn, clumsy, bony knees, or the twenty extra pounds, to her expert eye, that had begun to distort the long lines of his body; and all the other more vulnerable intimacies. And it wasn’t even the sex exactly; no, it wasn’t the sex at all: the thing she couldn’t forget was his feathering touch on her skin, still pulsing through every nerve whenever she thought of it. Or the way he looked at her, and that was a dangerous thrill that summoned tears whenever she dared to dwell on it at all. Lingering over shit like that was not her M.O.—once and done and on to the next. What she wanted, what she needed, was a good fuck to wipe away the memory of that fearful night, to put her back in control of things.
At 12:30, after work, she walked into Dean’s Tap Room, as she often did, alone or with Constantia. Floyd waved a greeting from behind the bar and pulled her beer before she had chosen a seat. She stood for a moment to watch two unshaven men in plaid shirts playing pool, mechanics she guessed, based on an undiminished aura of motor oil that permeated their vicinity. One of them noticed her and smiled; he had a gold tooth and big meaty hands. The younger, leaner one, wearing a beat up Steelers baseball cap from Super Bowl XL, was bent over to make a shot. She circled the table slowly, saw a far better angle that would take down one more ball than what he was attempting. He put a nice spin on it and accomplished his objective, but she turned away. Baggy jeans, no ass, no imagination.
The beer was good though, and she bullshitted for a while with Floyd.
“Bad day?” he suggested.
She shrugged it off. “Just life being…you know, life.”
A blast of cold air shivered across her skin as a clinging couple came in. Her stomach lurched. He was slipping in the snow, falling toward his knees and then tipping, she saw him going down, only now as if from farther away, out of body, and she felt it all again as fear gripping her throat. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, focused. Another deep breath. Flashbacks were an old story. Right now, her arms upon the wooden bar, one hand around a cool glass, her feet tucked up under her on the rails of the stool, she wasn’t hurt, hadn’t been, she was safe. All she asked was to be strong, and she was, and she was proud of it. But it had been too close. Had she made mistakes? Was he really alright? He whose name was forced away whenever it surfaced.
A hand fell softly on her shoulder.
She startled noticeably, and the hand was removed. A nice-looking kid stood beside her, thick black hair wedged off his forehead like a wall, navy and gold sweatshirt, some kind of round insignia. Pitt.
“Sorry. You sorta looked—there for a minute…”
“I’m fine. Thanks.” She looked back at the beer. He was still standing there. She made an effort to smile.
“Go ahead, sit down. I’m alone.”
He smiled back at her as he sat. Just her type: naive, sweet, a rescuer. God, how she liked to fuck with their heads… and other less intellectual endowments.
She turned toward him, her face tipped upward, leaning on her hand.
“Are you a med student or criminal justice?”
He was leaning in close and smelled like soap. Fresh from the gym. Working out probably made him horny.
“The type of guy who comes over to make sure the unhappy girl at the bar is OK,” she smirked.
“I’m not sure what I am. How about you? You look like you need something to take the edge off.”
He chuckled nervously. “And you’re the one to do that?”
“You must have thought so.”
She stretched her long legs across to the rails of his stool.
“Criminal justice,” he said.
She smiled; this time for real. “Are you packing?”
He looked slightly like that eponymous deer. “Right now? No. No, I’m still in school.”
“Are you sure?”
He wasn’t. In fact, he seemed to have no idea what she was getting at, not that that posed any real problem; a little bluntness at this point usually cut the chase with these types. Maybe it was too easy, because suddenly she wasn’t feeling it anymore. By now, she should have been swimming in the rush as the quarry swerved, confused, right back across her trail. The air wet with the smell of fear…but not tonight.
“Well, John T., I think I’m going to head on home.”
“My name is Barry…” he said to the air where she used to be.
Paulette went straight home, showered, wrapped up in her robe with the idea of watching something on TV, maybe that vampire thing on HBO. Con was still at work. Reaching into the pocket of her robe, she’d found a cardboard ticket, except that it wasn’t a ticket; it was a business card. In green letters, under the logo of Franklin Krasnoski Radnor and Sykowitz, it read: Isaac Duckworth, Associate AIA. Her fingers closed around it, but there was no cell phone number listed. She flipped it over and stopped breathing.
I’d like you to want to call me.
Any time is fine.
His cell phone number was neatly penciled under his name, every word in amazingly tidy block letters, placed precisely to fit with even margins all around. Just so. She rubbed a thumb over the surface of the card and placed it back in her pocket. For later.
Now was later. If she closed her eyes, she saw him, not as he’d been at Silky’s, five-four-three inches away on the bench, or in the snow, the car, or here in the apartment, not even that night behind the door at the party when every available nerve cell had been vibrating to the ridiculously loud music; instead, she saw him walking toward her that first time at Gooski’s. An athlete’s swagger: that had been her first thought. The second was the swift, piercing pain when his eyes met hers; small, blue, fringed in pale lashes; a little death during which she still stood, breathed, probably spoke, she didn’t know. All she had been sure of was how offensive she found him. Strange how that could be…
Just as she was ready to settle back into her pillows, the screen flashed: Gr8 miss u2 CM
Fuck. Why wasn’t he asleep? L8r
Damn him. No, it was her fault; she started it. She tapped mem-4 and waited. It was ringing, and then he picked up.
“Hey,” he answered in a low voice, pitched to the intimate. He sounded experienced in these late night conversations; she wasn’t. The gravelly roughness she’d heard the other morning was still there.
“Hey, yourself,” she said. She was sure the way she was smiling was going to come over in her voice; she was keeping it down, even though Con was not home. “What are you doing up?”
“Googling hypothermia. Coffee was the wrong thing, apparently,” he said with a chuckle that was met with silence. “I couldn’t sleep. Maybe it’s too warm in here—I’ve been thinking about your couch…”
She wished he was still joking; she wanted to tell him something, but didn’t know how to make the words please touch me again come out. “That’s not the way I roll. I told you,” she said with a bitterness aimed more at herself than at him. “Besides, I’d think you’d be sleeping pretty well tonight.”
“Not at all. I had you last night. I’m alone again. It sucks.”
“You had someone last night, Duckworth. Does it really matter who?”
There was silence on the other end; he was either figuring out how to be nice about it or didn’t have an answer. Both were shit.
“But excepting the circumstances,” Ike said finally, “wasn’t it nice?”
“I had that nightmare, remember?”
“Oh. Right.” There was another silence. “Not because of me—me being there—was it?”
“I really don’t know.” Because she didn’t; it might have been true. A brooding silence followed, hers this time. Shit. “Ike? It probably wasn’t the sleeping thing—with you—I have nightmares all the time.”
The million dollar question. How do you answer something like that when your whole life is the answer?
“The short version?” She found herself tracing spirals on the red blanket as she spoke.
“The long version. Start tonight and call me for the next one thousand nights till we get to the end.”
Her heart throbbed in her throat. “Can I tell you what I’d like to be doing to you right now instead?”
There was a short, breathy laugh on the other end. “Don’t be a tease. You text when you won’t call; and you call when you won’t see me.”
“Now you know the truth about me. Live with it, Duckworth.”
The void hung there between them, wound up tight, at least to her.
“Listen, Paulette. I’d be there in ten minutes if you wanted me. I’ll stay on the phone all night with you, if it will help. Just don’t mess with me—I’m fucked up enough already.”
Air. Empty air.
Long version or short version, she wasn’t up to either, but she got his attitude alright. This was some life when even perfect-looking people were damaged goods. “I don’t even know how to start,” she began.
“Then don’t. Tell me how it ends.”
She took a deep breath and the words sprang free before she had a chance to protect them. “At a police station. We walked there from her house. I shook the whole fucking way. That was the real end, there, and Con was with me. Can you believe her? She was fourteen but she wasn’t scared of anyone, not even cops. But I was. They can steal your life without even trying.”
“But not that time?”
“No, not that time.”
Maybe it would be easier on the phone, after all. It was the best she could give him. What she had no way to know was that the man on the other end suffered a violent shock at the hinted darkness behind those words, the raw pain in the voice reciting them, a formula devised to say something unsayable. He didn’t want to think beyond what he was feeling to what it meant. He only knew what he longed to do for her right then, even knowing it wasn’t something she’d find easy.
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