By: Michael Summerleigh
She had never been late coming home from work. Bonker and Zoom got supper at 5.30 without fail, so when she turned the corner he sensed…knew…something was wrong. The sunset shone through the three high-rise towers to the west like solstice through the sarsens at Stonehenge, ran rivers of gold down through the streets, struck red-bronze sparks from the mane of her chestnut hair; the linen of her lily-patterned dress blazed white against her skin and even at a distance she was startlingly beautiful…but she was more than hours late, and the normally confident swing of her stride was slow and painful to watch. When she finally reached the concrete walk to her townhouse door she stumbled, turned an ankle in one of her cork-soled rope sandals and staggered back against a parked car. He was already halfway across the street, moving towards her. As she tried to stand up he was there with an arm around her waist, catching her before she fell. She struggled instinctively, swung around in his arms with a clenched fist that connected just below his ribs and actually knocked the wind out of his lungs.
“Leave me alone,” she sobbed, still fighting against him. “Get your fucking hands off me I’ll–“
“Natalie stop it’s okay it’s me…Jackson…it’s okay…”
She turned, stared a up at him blearily through the tangle of her hair.
Her eyes matched the deep rich brown of her hair, but they were dazed, muddy, filled with pain. She seemed to look right through him, seeing nothing, and repeated his name, this time with a tiny crease of concentration coming between her eyebrows as she tried to process two syllables into something with meaning.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I got you now you’re gonna be fine…”
She sagged against him, reacting to the calm in his voice, or maybe just exhaustion.
“I think I caught something,” she mumbled. “I wasn’t sick this morning.”
She wasn’t really talking to him, feverish enough that he could feel the unnatural heat through the thin layer of her clothing. He half-carried her up the few steps to her door, reached into the bleached canvas bag dangling from one shoulder to find her keys, fumbled one into the deadbolt…cursed to need a second one for the handset lock…finally swung the door open with one hip and then picked her up bodily…down a short hallway that opened into a kitchen on the left…the open expanse of the sky-lit living room.
“I gotta get supper for the guys,” she whispered, almost in tears. “Please…”
He laid her down on a the woodframe futon/sofa, tucked a pillow under head.
“I’ll feed them, Natalie,” he said…then repeated himself a bit louder to make sure she had heard him. “In the kitchen, right…?
She nodded slowly, her eyes clenched shut, the rasp in her breathing sounding like it was bubbling up from deep in her lungs. He got her sandals off, looked around for something to cover her, found a rough woollen Mexican blanket folded up inside the low cabinet beneath the widescreen television Two cats stood in the archway off to the back bedrooms.
Zoom was green-eyed, a short-haired marmalade tabby…sleek, unobtrusive, silent and slinky as running water from a distance. Bonker was a massive black and-white longhair, one green eye and the other one spooky gold…intimidation on four paws.
They both looked at him as if to say Who the fuck are you?
He said: “Relax boys, I’ll be with you in a minute…”
He turned and went back into the kitchen, located their food bowls, vaguely aware of at least one set of paws having thumped along in his wake. He turned to the counter with the bowls in hand…found them both staring at him again.
“I’m on it guys really…your mom’s not feelin’ good so just chill okay?”
He found an open can of mixed seafood whatever in the refrigerator and an unopened one in the cupboard. He shovelled half a can each into the two bowls, emptied and refilled a larger one with fresh water from the sink. Once he had them on the floor, the cats eyed him warily as their noses got a whiff of dinner. Zoom got hungry first and edged past him. Bonker decided he wanted whatever it was in Zoom’s bowl and they exchanged a few pleasantries. The short-hair seemed to debate making a issue of it, decided that scrapping wasn’t worth the effort once he realised the stuff in Bonker’s bowl was same as the stuff in his .
He left them in the kitchen, making horrible noises as they inhaled their food. When he walked back into the living room, Natalie was unconscious on the floor.
* * *
He didn’t do much thinking over the next hour or so. Someone had stoked the fire on her fever and he could almost see the heat coming off her. On his way down the back hallway with her in his arms he managed to kick off his boots and undo the zipper on her dress. In the bathroom, he got them both down to their underwear and into the shower, trying to find a spray that was cold without being too cold, all the while with one arm around the waist of a someone gone limp and delirious. She didn’t have the strength to actually fight him, but they stood under the hiss and sting of the water sheeting down over them and danced to two totally different tunes.
It seemed like lifetimes later but she stopped struggling, draped her arms over his shoulders. The pain seemed to rush out of her in a long sigh that brought her close into his arms where he could see it disappear in the places it had etched itself on her face. She was light in his embrace, slender and small-boned, but her breasts were large and heavy and swelled upwards where they pressed against his chest. He wrapped her in a bath-sheet and carried her into one of the bedrooms. The cats stood in the doorway watching him, leapt up onto the bed beside her the moment he tucked a blanket around her and stepped away.
* * *
He was surprised to find it was still an hour short of midnight. He got out of his shower-damp shorts and slipped back into the rest of his clothing…left his boots in the front hall and revisited the kitchen…found an old bottle of Scotch under the counter maybe a third of it left…poured all of it into a big tumbler. Sat down on the woodframe sofa/futon thing in the living room and started breathing again.
In silver moonlight the walls seemed to have been done in an impersonal rental off-white, but covered with posterised prints of her photographs, framed original drawings, a pair of photos in the archway that were studio-posed nudes. There was a bookcase as well… eclectic titles on history, philosophy, some old textbooks and a biography of Michael Jackson. He drank her whiskey, too wired to sleep, unwilling to let himself drift off so he could keep checking on her, make sure the fever stayed away.
Once upon a time he had been so grateful for the warmth and the company of the
woman he’d married. A blessed sense of relief that had felt like asking questions was unnecessary…like what it was they wanted for the rest of their lives…where they wanted to be ten twenty however many years down the road…the nuts and the bolts of what it would take to hold them together as those days and weeks and months and years went by…
And now he was sitting in the living room of somebody he’d only just met after three days of what anyone would have called “stalking” her, never mind that maybe he’d saved her life he suddenly felt like somewhere along the way perhaps he’d lost some sort of perspective, his sense of reality, inched himself all unknowing into the land of sickos and perverts.
When he woke up it was only a few hours later and the glass was empty in his hand. She was sitting in the chair across from him, rubbing sleep from her eyes, still looking a little bit dazed but most definitely levelling a wordless WTF at him.
“Jackson,” she said.
He nodded again.
“You live four hundred miles away from here.”
“I wanted to see you. I didn’t think…I just…well…I did…”
She took some time with that thought, found another one she felt was more in need of clarification.
“I don’t remember coming home,”
He said, “You were running a really bad fever…almost collapsed out in front…on the sidewalk…”
“And now I’m safe and sound and in my nightgown with a bunch of wet towels and my underwear on the floor next to my bed.”
“I didn’t know what else t’do. You were totally out I thought you were gonna burn up on me if I didn’t do something.”
“I was afraid it would take too long for somebody t’get here.”
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, reached for a throw pillow and hugged that too,
folded her legs carefully underneath her all the while keeping her eyes on him, weighing the words.
“So?” she asked.
He looked at her, not understanding.
“What d’you think?”
“What do I think about what, Natalie?”
He couldn’t tell if the note of contempt was meant for him, or perhaps just intrinsic to the nature of her next question.
“Am I fuckable?”
He realised he had gone speechless, turned away when he felt a flush of heat rising up into his face he said:
He turned the word over in his head because it was something he’d not really ever heard before. He was pretty certain Webster had never considered the term for inclusion in his dictionary…knew for a fact it was a concept he had never once even thought in the way she meant it.
“You’re everything a beautiful forty-one year old woman should be,” he said, still not looking at her.
“You could try answering the question,” she said derisively, taunting him for being embarrassed. “Well…?”
“You know that’s not how I look at you,” he said defensively…but a few hours ago, after he’d managed to wrestle them out of the shower, he’d stripped off her panties and bra, towelled her dry while she was only half-awake…combed her wet hair out over her pillow…put four loose bows in the lace ties down the front of the night-dress he’d slipped around her.
“You’re a guy.”
“We’re not all the same.”
“Sure you are,” she said, now not even hiding the contempt in her voice. “Some of you just pretend better.”
Desperate, he said: “Natalie what d’you want from me with all this?”
“What d’you want from me, Jackson? Why the fuck are you here at all? Does your wife know where you are?”
“I wanted to meet you. I was gonna call, ask if you would have supper with me.”
That had been three days ago, after driving almost eight hours, standing outside her door a block away, nights in a rented room borrowed from a novel written by Franz Kafka.
“What about the missus, Jackson?”
“We don’t answer to each other anymore. You know that.”
“How about being nice to her for a change, instead of sneaking off to ask me out on a date?”
He looked at her helplessly…dishevelled with sleep and still so stunning he had nothing to say that could possibly be the answer she was looking for…wondered how on earth he had thought she could be anything else than what she was, what she had claimed to be during their online conversations.
“Jackson, don’t you know that eventually every relationship turns to shit?”
“I don’t believe that. I don’t believe you do either. Not after some of the things you’ve said.”
She shook her head at him, like he was a five-year old incapable of understanding…
loosened a sleep-tangle of hair that fell down over one shoulder and made him ache inside, desperate again, for something…anything…to keep her there…talking to him…he said:
“So where’s what’s-his-face?”
“He went off to some gaming convention for the weekend. Says he gets ideas for his
commercial work from looking at all that shit, and probably from fucking the brainless
twenty-something he’s in bed with right now.”
She didn’t even seem angry…just exhausted she stood up and said:
“Jackson I’m going back t’bed. I have to go to work in the morning.”
He looked down at her bare feet on the rug…a few steps away from each other…separated by something endless, infinite and incomprehensible.
“Can I crash here, on the couch? I’ll just get a couple of hours of sleep before I take off.”
“Do whatever you wanna do, Jackson,” she sighed. “Move yourself into fuckin’ Tony’s bedroom if that’s what you want…”
In the archway, she stopped for a moment, looked over her shoulder at him and said:
“Thanks for getting me in off the street.”
* * *
When the sun came up he was still awake…sleepless now…haunted…slowly coming to terms with something he wasn’t ready to acknowledge with any kind of coherent thought.
He walked down the hallway and looked at her asleep….curled up under the blankets… faceless beneath the spill of her hair…
Bonker and Zoom left off washing…glared at him from where they’d spooned up against her back and thighs. He whispered Be safe and happy and hoped that someday somebody would come along who would convince her that love and trust weren’t just words in a cheap romance novel.
* * *
He picked up his damp underwear, slipped soundlessly back into his boots and let himself out her front door, stood in the watery new sunlight breathing in damp and diesel as the city came awake around him. He walked back to where he’d parked his car the day before and ripped up the parking ticket on the windscreen. Then he drove aimlessly for a little while, in rush-hour traffic, until he found some public parking and spent the day wandering around the sprawl of a park that was less than a mile from her house…studied stone statues raised up in honour of city fathers and historical heroes …sat beside a fountain as the ebb and flow of people still living their lives ran by him…considered going back to her house a dozen times…waiting for her…again…and found it no longer seemed as important to him as it had the day before.
He could have been sleepwalking all day and simply not known. Another sunset shone through the three high-rise towers to the west like solstice through the sarsens at Stonehenge, ran rivers of gold down through the streets. He got up slowly, found his car in the parking lot and joined the evening commuters on his way back to the interstate.
* * *
The highway unwound in front of his headlights…dotted lines strobe-like with the passing of time and other vehicles…solid yellow ribbons a prison bending him to the dawdle of drivers closer to home than he would ever be. At some point in the middle of the night when he was alone on the highway and the quarter-round slice of his world bordered by thousands of lives being lived beyond the reach of his high beams, he looked back across all the years of traveling he had done…most of them on his own…always moving….or running…even the years and years with his wife.
He shifted uncomfortably…too many hours…no respite…no sleep…miles to go before he could lie sleepless staring into a different kind of dark than the one on the other side of his windscreen. He reached for a bottle of water…found it empty…thin plastic drying in the absence of moisture and a wash of dashboard heat. When the rain started to splatter down and his wipers slashed away ineffectually as it grew into a downpour he let out a deep breath and thought perhaps he could simply stop at the end of this journey…live out the rest of his days quietly in surroundings that were at least familiar… make an end of the endless highways.
The thought should have brought comfort. Given him a sense of relief that it was over. But he knew what it really meant…that in the last twenty-four hours something dreadful and intolerable had happened and he simply had run out of places to hide.
He realised he was having a hard time breathing; that his throat had gone raw; that all the muscles in his body suddenly felt like they were being stretched and twisted and that someone had lit a chemical fire inside his head. He realised he had waited too long to get back on the road and now whatever killer virus had tried to take Natalie was mindlessly intent on taking him instead.
“You’re not going home,” he whispered, more tired than he had ever been before in all the sixty-odd-almost-seventy years of his life. “You don’t even know what it means.”
He closed his eyes…felt the tires on the passenger side of the car sliding off onto the shoulder…found himself back in the wash of soft golden lamplight in her bedroom, looking down at her in the few brief moments before he reached to do up the first lace tie on her nightgown.
Her hair was a glistening arc across the pillow, already losing dampness, beginning to wave and curl back down across her shoulders. Her head was turned to one side…eyes closed…eyelids trembling slightly, moving the long dark lashes in small shadows across her cheeks she was breathing easier now, into a cupped hand flung up into her hair on the pillow…child-like…helpless…so much more than just fuckable he…
…Touched her once…so gently…where he could see her heart beating softly up into her throat… closed his own eyes for an instant when he felt her pulse under his fingertips… opened them again…saw the slow rise and fall of her breasts….the sweet curve of her hips and belly down to the elegant mound of her pussy, and the neat tiny triangle of dark hair that disappeared into the shelter of her thighs…
He imagined for a moment what it might have been like for them to kiss…together…to feel her body in response to his…satin skin…warmth …to see her dark eyes open for him…focus for a moment…and then become soft and dreamy…to close slowly to the worship in his touch…
In the bleak howling lightning-blasted wasteland of his heart there was …suddenly… an absolute silence…and peace…one last exquisite moment when she adored him, and what little he had left to give was more than she had ever dreamed of.