NOVEL EXCERPT: from THAT PLACE AND THAT TIME

I was home one weekday night looking at the picture book I’d bought earlier at Starr Bookshop. It was about Paris, and it filled my head with thoughts of walking the narrow streets on Ile Saint-Louis, of sitting at an outdoor table at a cafe on Saint Michel, of going to the huge exotic market in the Arab district in St. Denis. I stared so hard at the full page pictures that with a little more effort I felt I might transfer my image onto them, to be shot over to France as if through a vacuum tube. It was the escape I wanted in that I didn’t have to follow a narrative, in that my brain didn’t have to work to form pictures from words; the photos did that for me. It was just the kind of hallucinogen I needed after a stressful day at Crux, where I’d done too much work and drank too much coffee. It started me dreaming about a country I intended to go to someday, that I was sure would supply me with enough beauty and pleasure all the time I was there to make me want to go back to it many times.

My doorbell rang and I assumed, before pulling up the screen and sticking my head out the window, that it was someone for the lady in the apartment under me. I was prepared to repeat a sentence I must have told to a half-dozen different people by then: “It’s the button right below it.” But it wasn’t for the lady. Mai stood at the door. I didn’t expect to see her. She had a talk to go to at school. People would be getting together after it. After that she’d planned, she told me, to go right back to Eugene’s.

I smiled down at her. She looked up at me. She yelled, too loud, I thought, but it was all right, I didn’t get many visitors. “Do you have company? Am I interrupting? Or are you going to let me in?”

“Do you think I should? It’s ten-fifteen. Past both our bedtimes.”

“Yes I think you should. And you think you should too.”

“You’re right, of course. Wait, I’ll buzz you up.”

The door downstairs slammed closed and Mai made an incredible disturbance coming up the narrow staircase. When she got to my landing she came right up to me, curled an arm around the back of my neck, pulled my head to hers and gave me a long kiss. On her tongue I tasted liquor and something sweet, vodka and tonic, and chocolate, I thought.

When she pulled away, she said, “I didn’t know if you’d be around. I thought you might have gone out with your friends you haven’t seen enough of lately. I decided to come by anyway.”

It had happened so fast, her at the door, coming up the stairs, the door shut behind us and the two of us alone, that it took a little longer for me to take all of her in: the smile that wouldn’t leave her face, her straight-black hair hanging over her shoulders, her creamy light-brown skin, her green irises with all white surrounding them, her explosive voice that told me how happy she was I was home. She was dressed in a yellow blouse and a black skirt she’d worn for the professional people she wanted to look her best for. Her excited mood transformed the atmosphere in my apartment and it’d overtaken me.

She fell back on the couch, put her hands in her lap, and said, “The lecture was great. There were important business people speaking. After it, we got to meet them. Then we went out for a drink. For two drinks. For three.” She flashed the peace sign at me, then added a third finger to it.

I joined her on the couch, my book on Paris forgotten. I’d go back to its streets another time. Tomorrow, I was sure. What I’d done during the day seemed long ago. The stress I felt. The coffee that was still playing out in me. I didn’t need anymore of a hint. Mai had gotten drunk and come here for a kiss, a long deep kiss that locked our lips together in a pressured rolling motion for a full minute, our tongues jutting in and out of each others’ mouth like hot, wet swords. If I hadn’t become so overwhelmed, so full of desire for Mai, I would have thought what we were doing was like some exaggerated scene from a bad Hollywood movie where the couple join up in surprise, can’t control themselves, rip off their clothes and screw on the couch.

It would have seemed something like that. Maybe it would have been left on the cutting room floor. But that’s what happened.

When we were done I sat back on the couch and watched her dress. She did it slow, picking her clothes up off the floor an article at a time. She put her skirt on first. Then she pulled her pale panties with the lacey edges up under it, adjusting them three times.

She looked at me. “I was hoping you’d be here, and knew you’d be glad you were. I can see it on your face. I made you happy. That’s why I came over, to make you happy.”

I said, “A while ago you were happy too. That’s what it looked like to me. You made me happy and yourself happy. I don’t think you we’re faking it with yourself.”

“I was happy. And am still happy. But I can’t stay much longer. I have to go back to Eugene’s.”

She turned, took her purse and went into the bathroom. I didn’t bother putting my clothes on. The excitement Mai had brought to my apartment was still with her. I hoped she’d come out telling me she’d changed her mind, she wanted to stay and sleep with me. The thought of the two of us in my bed was having a direct affect on me. What we’d just done in a matter of twenty minutes seemed like the start of a night instead of all of it.

The water turned off in the bathroom. She came out with her hair in place, her clothes straightened. She looked just as she had when I greeted her on the landing. She put her shoes on. She stood next to the couch and said, “I don’t want to go, but I have to get back and be up early to review for a test. You know I’ll try to see you tomorrow.”

What could I say? She’d brought me joy. Unexpected pleasure. It was the kind of thing any man would want. A woman he was getting to know coming to his place for sex. It’d shot me into the moment. Taken my head out of a book I’d bought to distract me from the moment. Given me what I would have wanted when I got tired of looking at photos of Paris.

I couldn’t control myself. Mai saw me, reached down and circled two fingers around my swollen penis, rubbing it gently. “I hope you don’t mind I did this to you? Are you going to be mad?”

I stood up and walked to the door with her. “Do you think I should be?”

She smiled. “No, I don’t.”

Then she was gone. Her shoes banging down the stairs until she got to the bottom landing and the door slammed closed behind her.

(2002)

 

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