The first time I saw her, I imagined her naked. I contemplated what her pale skin would look like under the soft light of my bedroom lamp, or under the half blinding light of a midday sun – running in a field of tall grass blowing in the wind or half hidden in a cold spring, swimming, her body and the sunlight reflecting against the blue water like a kaleidoscope.
The second time I saw her, Lauren, she arrived early. My wife Maureen and our boys weren’t back from their den meeting yet and so we stood facing each other, a countertop and twenty years between us, waiting. I offered her a soda, but she asked if she could have milk. I poured her a glass and placed it on the counter. I looked down, mindlessly sifted the mail and again imagined I might touch her hair, her knee, her lips. Those lips, placed softly on the edge of the glass as she tipped her head back, so slightly, for a drink. I would have spoken to her if I had known what to say, if I could have heard myself think over the pounding of my heart. I knew then, already, that my evening would be spent over the expensive dinner of a date night, sitting across from my wife, but I would still be captivated by the thought of Lauren existing in this room. Standing in our kitchen, her legs brushing the barstool at the counter and her fingertips tapping its surface as we listened to the clock, tick and tock, like the steady beat of a heart.
“Mr. Knight…” the words were tender on her lips, spoken so softly that I nearly lost them in the commotion of the front door opening and Maureen and the boys spilling into the room. Then, her whispered, “never mind,” leaving a cruel question mark between us.
Maureen usually drove Lauren home. At fifteen she didn’t have a driver’s license. Usually we found her asleep on our couch, a school book lying open near her head and a sliver of saliva pooled by her wet lips. Maureen would gently shake her shoulder and help her pack up her things. I would listen to the soft mummer of their voices as they blended together and drifted through the house and out the door. Once alone I would retreat to the shower to rid myself of my growing desire – sure that Maureen would come home ready to stumble into bed, half drunk with her need for sleep. How many nights had she turned away from me, ignored me, even when I pressed myself, hard, against her legs? Of course, I only wish it were the simple that explain.
Standing in the shower, eyes closed, I would sigh, surrendering to the scenario I’d fought from my mind all night. Hands moving, the sound of a shoe kicked to the floor, the rustling of a shirt pulled overhead. The snap of a bra clasp. Whispers between us – questions and directions – all the ways I could guide her and she could reassure me. She would say I want you. I need you. I love you.
My thinking, my wondering mind, was a dark and dangerous friend. Captivating me and drawing me down long corridors of thought and possibility. If only I could press my lips to that fair, naked collarbone. I let my mind dance around the edges of shadowy memories, of the things in my past that were both temptation and terror mingled together. My attempts to bury the deeper motivations within me were maddening. There were so many girls. I was careful not to linger within these thoughts. Maureen suspected me of more than she could ever bring herself to accuse; her watchful eyes always upon me. But she kept her emotions and any suspicions tidy. Maybe I only imagined her suspicion; sure that every moment my eyes lingered on Lauren was accounted for and considered. She was careful not to bruise or batter me with any awareness of my desires, real or imagined. But, she was nervously attentive and because of this, or maybe because of the well of shame in my own gut, I ventured nothing. My reality was sanitary and stale. I tried to will myself to remember Maureen in her girlhood, when she could set me aflame inside with her tender charm and sinewy body. But I could not recapture her.
I existed in this realm, a place of tenuous teetering between my carnal subconscious and my habitual hunt for domestic tranquility.
“Please…” Maureen spoke plainly, pleadingly, but without any hint of desperation, “think about seeing Dr. Lerner again. She was good, for you, for us… before.”
Weeks passed without the respite of Lauren’s face. Whether she was busy with school or away on family vacation, I didn’t know. Maureen would have known, but I could not ask her. Ten times a day I found the question ready to spill from my mouth, yet I always managed to swallow it back down. So each night I stayed away a little longer, I worked a little later or had just one more beer with a friend; all the time hoping, hoping for something that I could not name, only imagine. Once home I would find that the wood floors still creaked in all the expected places. My reflection in the mirror still revealed the scar on my left check. We ate mashed potatoes and discussed schedules and obligations. It was as if my wife and the boys moved around me daily like characters on some repeated loop. I began to realize that even when Maureen and I made love it was with the same sort of absent minded vigor one might dedicate to mowing the lawn. A task that must be attended to and can be appreciated once completed, but that you attend to only half thinking about what you are doing—the other half of the time you are thinking of something else – someone else.
I think it was a Tuesday, Maureen stood at the counter and I watched her slicing; slow, delicate slicing of cucumbers. She was humming, quietly so that I could not quite identify the tune; I only heard her voice as part of a faint mixture of the hum of the refrigerator and the distant television. My eyes fell to the round edges of her hips. The material pulled taunt and clinging to the curves of her legs and thighs. She was swaying too, to the music she heard in her head. I just watched her. I don’t know for how long. I was conscious of how hard I was, pressing against my zipper. Driving home from work, the vibrations of the car and thoughts of Lauren rose up in my mind – bare and open to me. Her hip bones jutting and her knees parted. Maureen didn’t turn around when I placed my keys on the counter; she sung a hello over her shoulders. Hey honey. The boys are watching TV; I poured you a glass of wine. I’m sure I answered her, but I don’t know what I said. I watched her slicing – swaying. Except then I tried to picture her heavy thighs naked, still swaying in front of me. I willed myself to create, to fantasize this scenario of taking my wife, of being inside her, of swelling to fill her completely. It would be consuming. She would have to place her hands in front of her, the sink full of soapy water, and that water would slosh, spit, splash onto us. Her hands would slide. I was aware that I was listening for her moans and whimpers, as if they really existed floating between us like an unsettled spirit. I’m sure that her wet hands would reach back and grab my hair; she would claw at me in climax. I pictured all of this. But it didn’t matter; I still wilted amid those thoughts.
Months of unwavering lust settled into my bones. I began to feel sick with craving. My old man once said he could feel the rain coming, feel it in his bones and in the muscles of his broad back. This is what I felt for her, as if she was some far away rain driving toward me, toward my restless body. I swore to myself I could feel her coming. It was a Friday night, the streets wet with a cold autumn rain. Maureen sat next to me, in silence, we had only the beating the of the windshield wipers—pounding—to keep us company. Maureen had a headache. Our date night was over early. We pulled into our driveway, the headlights shining into the windows, illuminating her, head bent over a small book. She glanced out into the dark night, toward me and unrelenting rain.
“I’ll drive her home tonight,” I heard my voice say.
“You’re too good to me.” Maureen said this as if she wanted to remind that it could be true and let her eyes meet mine for a pause of two or three blinks. She kissed my cheek and I could feel the small flecks of skin from her dry lips scrape against me. She opened the car door and dashed away. I watched, a patient voyeur, as Maureen spoke to Lauren and she gathered her things. She pulled her long blonde hair into a pony tail. She picked up her books. She opened the door and paused for a moment, silhouetted by the light and the rain like a seraph. She walked to my car, her languid body unhurried as the rain fell upon her head. Maureen stepped into the doorway, clutching the frame tightly, but she never stopped smiling.
“Thank you for the ride Mr. Knight,” she said as she slid into the car seat next to me, her chin turned down so her brown eyes could look up at me. Pieces of her damp hair, already fallen loose from her pony tail, framed her face. It occurred to me that she was aware of herself, of her luminous sensuality. A dawning sadness rose up from deep inside me; how bright the yearnings of youth can burn, before they are dampened by the awareness of consequence.
“No problem Lauren. Sorry for the short night.” I put the car in reverse and tried again to focus on the rhythmic music of the rain, the wipers beating, my heart beating—yet somehow all I could hear was her warm breath, moving in and out of her chest. It smelled as if the air was filled with her—an intoxicating mixture of strawberries, flowers, and musk. Was it some sort of lotion, a shampoo? Whatever it was, it was unmistakably fresh; a smell that grown women, wives and mothers, no longer possess. I felt drunk.
“I hate to ask, but, would you mind dropping me at my friend Caitlin’s house. She lives only a few extra miles…”
“Did you ask your parents?” I instantly regretted the stern and fatherly tone to my voice.
“They said it was okay if I could find a ride. I was going to call a friend to pick me up at your house but then you were waiting in the car and well, I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind driving me.” She paused, just a little, before she said you. I felt her eyes on me, but was afraid to take my eyes from the road. I couldn’t risk the dangers of the harsh rain or the possibility of meeting her gaze.
“Okay, just tell me when I need to turn.”
Caitlin lived more than a few extra miles away. Nearly twenty minutes passed along with the familiarity of the suburbs. We turned off the highway onto a country road. The absence of streetlights cast us in darkness except for the glow of the dash lights. Several miles beforehand I had turned on the radio, hoping to fill the charged silence between us and now, as we edged farther and farther into the night, it filled the car with a low, crackling static. I knew eventually we would arrive and there would be a moment of goodbye, some form of forced acknowledgement between us—for some reason I pictured the moment as poignant and prophetical. The distant promise of this washed my mind of every rational thought. The yellow light of a front porch loomed in front of us. We bumped over the rough gravel driveway until the car stopped, the tires crunching the ground. She began picking up her things, scattered about the floorboard. I sat motionless; breathless.
“Thanks again Mr. Knight,” she said as she sat up, jacket and books in hand, turning slightly to look at me. “I really appreciate it.”
And then it happened; her hand, reaching the distance between us, reaching for me. She placed it on my shoulder. Was it a pat of gratitude, or something more? It could have meant nothing, just a habit or unconscious act or mannerism. But it didn’t matter. I felt the weight of her palm, the warmth of her touch. It spread through me like a fever. When she turned to leave, to open the car door and step out of the moment, I watched her hand fall away from me. I watched this brief, glittering moment of hope in my life, so tangled up in the idea of her, begin to slip away. So I caught her. I stopped her. I grabbed her hand before it was too late and I pulled her back to me. I wasn’t thinking, but I know inside myself I believed there was a world of immense possibility between us. Anything could happen if I could just make her stay with me a little longer. My mind calculated carefully the idea her lips, the taste of her tongue, the searing sensation of my fingers traveling the smooth skin of her thighs… She snatched her hand back to her own body and away from the clutches of my desire. But her body remained trapped halfway between going and staying. One foot already stepping outside of the car, yet she seemed unable to pull herself away; as if the weight of what I had done was holding her captive and immobile.
“Stay with me. God… please, I’m…”
“What? Mr. Knight, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Haven’t you ever thought, or wondered, or…”
“Mr. Knight? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
I met her gaze, I saw confusion. I saw what else, pity? Disgust? It was enough, whatever I saw in her eyes, to lift away the dense and misguided fog that had been blinding me. The clarity hurt. Goddamn it hurt. I tried like hell to recover myself, to tuck away the desire and need that was so raw and open to her just seconds before. “Fine.” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You sure?” Now I was sure, her eyes were shadowed with fear and mistrust.
“Probably just something I ate,” I said. My smile felt almost comically phony. I turned away from her; sat up straight in my seat, pretended to inspect something in my lap.
“Okay. Well, thanks again Mr. Knight.” No longer hesitating, she shut the car door behind her and walked through the beam of my headlights, never looking back. I watched her walk to the door and another young girl let her inside. I watched the careful scenery of my manufactured hope dissolve around me. The road home was long and dark.
I dropped my keys on the kitchen counter, amid the piling mail and dirty cups. The lingering scent of some takeout dinner hovered in the air. The light was left on over the oven and it cast a dim yellow glow through the room. I could see all the remnants of the evening. Empty soda cans, a novel turned face down and abandoned, school work scattered about the kitchen table. I emptied my pockets, like I do every night, and placed my cell phone and wallet on the counter along with my keys. Then I placed my hands in my pockets and hung my head. I was frozen, if only for a moment, in that place. I was home.
I slipped off my shoes so I wouldn’t wake anyone and I walked, silently, across the room and up the stairs. I undressed in complete darkness. As I walked to my side of the bed I heard Maureen whimper. I stood still, peering through the thick night so that I could make out the outline of her body in front of me. I walked to her bedside. Her lips were parted and she whimpered again. It sounded as if she were trying to whisper something to me. I was sure she was asleep, yet I still leaned over her, desperate to hear what she might have to say. As if the words said in her sleep were some sort of divine utterances. She said nothing more, but I didn’t move. I felt paralyzed with waiting.
Finally, it was too much; my body caved in. I fell to my knees at her bedside and rested my forehead into the mattress, feeling the cool cotton sheets pressed against my face. Then I wept—wet and sloppy tears. My naked body trembled and shook. I pressed my clenched fists against the sides of my head and I prayed a silent prayer; a selfish and desperate prayer. Enough, I prayed. Enough!
I heard the rustle of the sheets. “Michael?”
I stood quickly and backed into the darkness of our bedroom. “Just me, honey. Go back to sleep.”
I moved quietly, slipping on a shirt and boxers and found my side of the bed, sliding my body into the worn grooves in the mattress. Maureen reached for me and pulled me to her. She slid away from the center of the bed and made room for me beside her. The warmth of where her body had been welcomed me. She pulled the sheets back around both our bodies, but I was still shivering. “You were gone so long,” she mumbled, never really having woken up at all. I opened my mouth but before I could speak she began shushing me – she pulled me close, deep into her chest. In her arms I felt as if I was a delirious and feverish child, but there I finally slept, deep and dreamless.
Heather Luby is really nothing more than a girl from the Ozark Mountains that grew up with dreams of writing stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, The Citron Review, Travel by the Books, Annotation Nation and a few other little places too. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently feverishly revising her novel Laws of Motion. When not conversing with the characters of her imagination, she can found wrangling two willful and beautiful daughters around the suburbs of St. Louis, MO, and most certainly drinking strong coffee.
© 2011, Heather Luby