He was acutely aware of the girl rattling around in the kitchen. Why did he ask her here? He was too tired to go through the routine one more time. But he hadn’t wanted to come back to the empty house without her. He wanted her here. He hadn’t been able to get her out of his head the whole time he was away; she had popped up in his thoughts just as if she was some phantom sidekick, leaning over his shoulder, laughing, commenting in his ear on everything he did. He didn’t want to lose that connection, he wanted to make it stronger, make it real, but he was afraid to push it.
He hadn’t had much luck holding on to women. His mother was the only woman who had loved him open-heartedly, but he had lost her long ago. He seemed to disappoint all the others simply by being himself. Staring at the TV screen a deep loneliness settled over him. Things never got any better—love, affection—it always ended mangled up. And it wasn’t all his fault, he was sure of that. Women regarded him as a prop—he had all the right superficial credentials for that—an escort to flaunt, an automatic teller machine, anything other than himself; they always wanted him to be something he wasn’t. A stand-in for the surfeit of surrogate sex. They were uncomfortable with his true passion.
Sure, yeah . . . it was hip to be idealistic for a while, but all the talk back in school about not ending up like your old man—slaving away to make a buck—the big house, the big car—he took that seriously; everyone else treated the philosophy like a throwaway fad, gone the way of long hair and flannel shirts. He believed it. His work mattered; it was tough, ball-breaking work, littered with failures and very few successes. But those successes, he knew, were the finest thing he would ever do. No one else seemed to give a shit. His friends had moved on to private practice; most of the reporters he worked with in the beginning had burned out and become flacks. Donna—and he had tried to love her without cover—had at one point told him point blank to grow up. He was beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with him. Was he just fooling himself? Just doing this to get back at Dad? No, he thought grimly, it’s still better to try and stop . . . what? Stop the individual terror, the mass graves.
He was broke. All his relationships ended up broke. He was worn out and didn’t want to mess around with another failure. The thrill of the chase was gone. God knows he had screwed enough women in the past trying to make it work, though not as many as people seemed to want to think. He smiled ruefully to himself—Amy could not figure out how to swallow that unappetizing fact, though he suspicioned that their purported beauty rather than their number was what annoyed her the most.
His expression softened at the thought of her . . . she was funny. Dare he try to push through with her? Was she the exception? Was she his truth? He was afraid to believe it, afraid to let this particular sweetness go sour, but he couldn’t shake the hope that she just might well be. The girl got to him; she pleased him, she humored him, she understood where he was coming from with an unsettling acuity, she was working her way under his shell. She had once been ensconced in the high-flying material world and had seemingly extracted herself without regret. Brave, but vulnerable and uncertain, and he wanted to protect her. She wanted something from him, too—true, but it wasn’t what the others wanted, she apparently wanted the part of him that he felt he had to hide from the rest of the world.
Suddenly she was there next to him; she had flopped down on the coach, provocatively close to him, almost in his lap; he could smell her perfume—some flower thing—could feel the warmth emanating from her body. She breathed into his ear, “I said, those tomatoes Tom and Mary gave you are too ripe.” Although conscious of her in every nerve, he couldn’t seem to unlock himself from his thoughts and look at her, and she mistook his silence as irritation at her disrupting his watching of the game. She took a swig of his beer and quickly popped up and trotted back to the kitchen. He made a grab at her, but missed.
The ballgame receded further and further into the background. What was that all about? Did she realize how often her small gestures turned him on? How easily she could drive him to erotic distraction and leave him stranded there? Was it all really for him, or was she just honing her skills in case something better came along? The old cynicism, the old caution again. No, no, he could see that she wanted him, she was hungry; he could see it in her face so often turned up to his. Those acknowledging eyes, saying it was all right . . . that soft, sweet mouth. He imagined kissing her, making her drop all her apprehensions, sinking into his arms. He imagined her doing all sorts of things . . . He could feel the tension, the longing welling up in him, an achingly overdue overload. The need to make this connection blotted out every other sensation, every indecisive thought. Damn, he wanted her. He wanted her on his own terms and he wanted her completely.
He turned off the set, walked slowly into the kitchen, and leaned against the door frame.
“Hey,” he said, softly.
I didn’t hear him at first because I had turned the radio on.
“Hey . . .”
I was a little miffed at my earlier reception, so I didn’t turn around, though there was something in the tone of that voice that registered a beacon signal deep in my subconscious.
“Stop fooling around . . . come here.”
Ross was waiting, his eyes darkly intense, shining, signaling me, calling me home. The inane thought, ‘This is it!’ flashed through my mind. I inadvertently threw the dishtowel on the floor rather than back on the counter. Never breaking contact with those eyes, I went over and stood very close in front of him. We looked at each other, each able to hear the desire silently avowed by the other. Ross put his hands on my face, spreading them out across my temples and cheeks, sinking his fingers into my hair. He seemed unable to move or speak. Another song came across the air.
“Dance with me,” I murmured.
So we moved together, eyes closed, slowly, increasingly swaying further back and forth, back and forth, secure in our movements and in each other’s arms, falling into hypnotic rather than frantic abandon. Swaying side to side in unison to the rhythm, we spoke our love in this manner, a dance more loaded with erotic sensation than anything else I’d previously known. Once again Ross put his hands on my face, sliding them back and gripping the hair at the nape of my neck, gently pulling down, forcing my face upward toward his. Finally he kissed me, kissed all the misery out of me. No other man . . .
He lifted me off my feet. Turning toward the stairs, Ross misjudged the width of the doorway and the romantic carrying up to heaven was stopped abruptly by his slamming my ankles into the door jamb. Pain and surprise caused me to jerk so violently that he lost his balance and we tumbled through the doorway onto the dining room floor, catching the cord and pulling the phone off the hook in the process.
“Jesus . . .,” I moaned, rubbing my ankle. Ross reached up back behind his head and felt blindly for the phone’s handset on the table, somehow managing to put it back on its cradle, silencing the dial tone. This struck both of us as hilarious and we giggled like a couple of idiots, sprawled out on the floor, the sound escaping from me somewhere between an unhinged squeal and a bad case of the hiccups. The mesmerizing spell was broken, but the metamorphosis had taken place—Ross took my foot in his hand and kissed the reddening bruise. It was a warm intimate gesture, something I’d never seen come so easily for him, yet it was completely natural.
“Sorry,” he smiled. In a heart-breakingly nerdy, salacious manner he proceeded to rub his mouth up and down my leg, looking at me from under his lashes.
“Ross . . .”
“Stop it, that tickles.”
“Ross . . .” I started again, then hesitated.
He released me and started to get up. “C’mon, we can talk later, all night if you like.”
Hot and still, one could feel the inhalations and exhalations of the house itself, creaking, shifting, warm air wafting in, ebbing out. Cars were no longer on the rampage, and the distant rumble of the surf emerged in the ensuing silence. The sun was lower in the sky. A fine film of sweat covered Ross’ forehead, a trickle winding down past his temple. I wiped it away with my fingers, running them down his cheek. He staggered to his feet, pulling me up.
“You go, I have to grab my purse,” I said with exaggerated significance.
“I’m not charging for this.” I wanted to smack him; I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.
* * *
Upstairs, I swung out of the bathroom, leaning on the door, blithely announcing, “I’ll be right back.” Ross was sitting on the bed pulling off his shoes. He looked up at me and winked, a gesture both mocking and covering up the urgency. Closing the door again, I did feel that I’d been given the raw end of the deal. It was necessary to maneuver in a small stuffy room and fiddle with various accouterments. I was worried about taking too long, never having done this before under pressure, worried about destroying the mood.
“Are you all right in there?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I called out. I rubbed my forehead with the back of my wrist. I acutely felt my inexperience; I didn’t know any special tricks.
“I’m gonna come in and get you if you don’t come out!”
The caveman routine merely upped the ante. I splashed cold water over my face and patted it dry. I peeled off the rest of my clothes and bent over and ruffled up my hair, flinging my head back up like the sexpot I wanted to be at that moment. A little rusty in my moves, not brazen or confident enough to bounce out of the bathroom completely naked, I came out with Ross’ bath towel wrapped around me.
The bedroom was bronzed with a beautiful sunset glow, sea breezes from the open windows blowing the curtains softly over the bed, a vessel bound for open water. Ross was sitting on the side of the bed, half-stripped, hair tousled, hands clasped, arms resting lightly on his thighs—my captain. I stood still for a moment, still on the shore, and took the whole sight in. The look in his eyes, shining up at me, focused into me, made it worth being born, if only for this trip.
“Drop the towel,” he said.