Sarah and I are far from love, but we’re sneaking up on sex, which is fine by me. As we pause before the door of room 316, Sarah is fishing through her handbag for the key card. She glances over. “Let me see that shirt,” she says.
I turn, tent out the front of my t-shirt in the light. It’s a donor gift from an independent radio station: black, dominated by the ghostly graphic of a Man-O-War jellyfish dangling a long knot of tentacles below the assassin’s hood of its body. It drifts through the darkness, and the edges of the image are blurred, melting into the infinite murk of a deep and predatory sea.
Sarah presses her index finger into my chest. “I like this.” She lingers there, and the dot of pressure on my chest slowly traces the jellyfish, then stops. Sarah taps my chest once more. She zeroes in with dark eyes.
Kiss her. Do it.
“How old are you, anyway?” she asks.
My stomach drops.
“Thirty-seven,” I tell her.
She gasps. I’m eleven years older than she is. I know this.
“You sure don’t act like it, mister.”
She’s farther away now. She’s thinking.
“True, but that trend started a long time ago.”
I nudge her shoulder with my own. She looks up. I wink. She smiles.
That was close.
Lightning cracks the slate of dawn, then the thunder finally explodes in a grand godly break. It’s a good one, loud enough to startle, and the hotel shakes. Raindrops the size of fava beans wallop the third floor window. I place my hand on the silky span of panties stretching across the rolling horizon of Sarah’s warm butt. I don’t know exactly what to do with it just yet.
Lightning flashes again and we’re ions in a spark. More thunder rolls through. I’m an ass man and this is the negative zone.
She’s on her side, has pushed her bottom against me, and begins a slow squirming that sways under the covers like an intruder is rooting around for my wallet beneath the sheets. She may or may not be falling asleep, and protean and base impulses swell within the racetrack of my blood.
But in the other bed lies Sarah’s friend, Kim, who shares the hotel room but not our sentiments. Kim is in the National Guard, and her shoulders hold the swollen determination that comes from lugging about overstuffed backpacks and heavy metallic things, which is not to say she’s entirely manly. She has a northern-tier or Queen of the Corn Festival prettiness going on, but it’s combined with the lumbering racket of a coal truck that has lost its brakes on a downhill curve.
For example, Kim rolls about heavily in the other bed, and a point has been made — a point has been made — to regularly remind us she is still awake with a flopping turn, a huffy pillow adjustment, a sudden trip to the bathroom, a subtextual clearing of the throat, and I determine that in all likelihood she intends to remain awake at least as long as Sarah and I. This disrupts what I had assumed to be our coital machinations, but short of requesting a three-way with the coal truck, our options are limited.
So we wait. And waiting does what it does best — makes us sleepy.
Sarah eventually slows her incognito hips beneath the covers, and then she stops wriggling altogether. I divert my creeping hand from her bottom to the small of her back. The skin there is cool and smooth and my elbow is on my side and I trace gentle circles with my fingertips. Soft humming noises sing from her throat. She sighs. With one last heave, she slithers her small body into the curve of my big one and I breathe from the perfumed nimbus that hovers at the back of Sarah’s neck. I’m hungry for her air.
My fingers move to her hip, slow their creeping tendencies. It stops. It starts. We slip away and forget one another. We awaken and remember. This goes on. As I push my boundaries against the edge of her panties, I feel oddly foolish, and I’m acutely aware that all hopeful boys are fools when they are plotting in the dark. Sarah rolls over on her stomach and I’m on my back, resting my hand on her rear like it’s a game show buzzer and my lucky break lies on the other side of this brief commercial interruption.
It does not, and Sarah and I fall asleep for the night only to wake in fits each time the thunder shakes the bed and shocks us into the electric blue, shade-drawn now.
Room service for two (not me) wakes us up at 8:55 in the morning and there is something of a scramble. I experience the dissociative hiccup that occurs when you wake up and have no idea where you are or how you got there as Kim from bed two curses, livid with her breakfast’s insolence. She swings out of bed, stomps to the door, and accepts the delivery of two plates with polished steel covers, a plastic pot of coffee, two mugs, and two glasses of orange juice covered with plastic film. The breakfast cart is cast aside while the three of us rustle ourselves awake like our dreams have covered us in dust and chicken feathers.
We make small talk and take turns in the bathroom. The ladies go first.
Once I’m out of the bathroom, I collect my things from the nightstand: one empty billfold, four crumpled dollars, one lighter, one cellular phone, a ring of keys, a pair of sandals, and a half-eaten bag of sunflower seeds that keeps my nicotine cravings at-bay. Sarah and Kim are back in bed, slumping against their wall-mounted headboards with the blankets pulled over their laps while they watch me gather my detritus. Then, caught in the alleyway between the beds while I make an exit, I cite my office hours in the forecast and insist they should eat before their breakfasts get cold. Sarah says I can fix a plate. I say feeding gatecrashers is a bad idea, then bring up the idea of exchanging phone numbers, but never quite get the chance to ask Sarah directly.
Kim’s uncharacteristically silent, and I assume she’s still sizing me up, figuring out what kind of sleazeball I am exactly. Or maybe that’s just how it feels after sharing a hotel room with women who seem much more like strangers in the morning than they did over shots of bourbon the evening before. Instead of exchanging numbers, Sarah and I agree on our mutual friends, in a misdirected faith that someday we’ll bump into one another along the busy midway of life’s carnival.
It’s quiet now.
I’m still standing and they’re still slumping with their sheets across their laps and no one is wearing a bra. It’s not just an ending, but a hopelessly awkward one; the tackiness of my exit is inescapable.
“Well,” I finally say, “enjoy your breakfasts.”
They say goodbye.
I say it was a pleasure.
The hallway smells like burnt coffee and freshly installed carpeting, the elevator like wet dogs, the lobby like Pine Sol.
I exit the hotel and step back into the slow, misting rain that framed the previous evening. The familiar potpourri of cigarette smoke and stale beer marks a night spent in a dive bar on my clothing.
As I cut through an alley towards campus, my toes grow wet with pavement water and my mind skips through fuzzy flash-card images of Sarah from the evening before. How did a connection that flowed so naturally between us in the night end so gauche in the morning? Laughing, I blurt regrets to myself like a casual madman as I limp my way to work. Crossing the street, I zigzag between the idling moguls of traffic-tied cars.
Everything seems loud.
I am talking to myself and people are noticing.
I can’t believe I didn’t get her number.
Twenty minutes later I’m in my office, doing the hours, trying not to think about the fugue effects of 180 minutes of sleep in a twenty-four hour time period on the human brain while I stare at my monitor, mystified by the BBC website’s front page. I swear I can see the matrix. Everything is webbed in cotton, and when I speak to my office-mate, Casey, my voice creaks from a vestigial hollow deep within my skull. The only worthwhile thing I accomplish over the next hour-and-a-half happens within the first two minutes when I turn on some music.
When “Ooh-La-La” comes on, I turn it up at the risk of offending both the hallway neighbors and my prophylactic tendencies towards sentimentality. I do indeed wish I knew what I know now when I was younger, but while stewing over a failed coupling with a hangover, I feel the sentiment more acutely than usual.
“The can can’s such a pretty show
They’ll steal your heart away.
But backstage, back on earth again
The dressing rooms are gray.”
Damn you, Ronnie Wood.
I lean back in my chair and put my feet on the desk. I feel how mashed potatoes look. I sing softly and pick up a book of short stories. After reading a story featuring regrets, power drill brain surgery and vacuum cleaners, I set the book face-down on my desk.
I text Alice.
“How’s the hangover? So, I pretty much botched it with your hot/cool friend — hotel room logistics. If you talk to her, talk me up. Tell her my exit made the same noise in my head as an orchestra falling down a stairwell and I apologize. Feel that out for me, homey.”
Hours pass. Each one of them smells like the back of Sarah’s neck: fresh, vaguely floral and lightly spiced. Her scent stirs my wits the way a sniff of chai tea excites something in the back of my throat.
More hours pass.
“What do you mean? I’m confused,” Alice eventually returns. Alice does most things eventually, and confusion is her natural habitat.
By this time I have abandoned the office for home, where I am attempting to take a nap while my neighbor mows his semi-wet grass during a break in the weather. Muted sunlight glows over my hometown valley, diffused by a thick blanket of clouds. My neighbor’s lawnmower coughs, growls and farts smoke.
I tell Alice about sharing the bed with Sarah, about the light petting, about Kim, about not knowing how to go about getting Sarah’s phone number in the morning.
There’s a short wait and my phone chirps.
“Ha ha ha. Sarah is an interesting…” and Alice’s message stops.
I wait. Alice texts again.
“She is married, you know.”
My neighbor walks his mower past my window and runs over a stick. With a bang, the stick clangs off of the blade and knocks around the steel skirt for a few seconds. I smell burning oil. I read the message again, then stare at the empty glow of my phone’s reply screen for a harsh minute. The screen goes black. I turn it on again. When in doubt, make a joke.
“Haha. Baba Yaga! Well, that didn’t come up.”
“Ha. Well, she is.”
“So you’re saying there’s a chance…”
“She hates her husband. They sleep in separate beds and she says she’s saving up for a lawyer.”
She says she’s saving up. It’s for a lawyer.
The rain clears in the afternoon, but fast moving cirrus clouds range high in the firmament, pledging their bad intentions while they flee Hurricane Irene as it presses up a distant coast five states away. I take advantage of the troubled tangerine sunset and smoke a joint while I walk to the grocery store. Halfway there, I see a young couple walking the sidewalk towards me. The boyfriend is an Asian Buddy Holly with black hair he’s pulled into spikes. His girlfriend marches with small steps at his side in a fluffed skirt, looking at her frilly white socks and shiny black shoes as if she’s pacing something off.
As we near one another, I palm the joint and see the girl is fixated on her phone. They are holding hands tightly, arms straightened and elbows levered against one another. When we pass, the boyfriend pulls his girlfriend close, as if she were filled with hydrogen and in danger of floating away at the slightest nudge, then bobbing her way across an eternity of sky that stretches longer than even the idea of string.
They are young and they are Buddy Holly and they are Patsy Cline and the electric sky is splashed with clouds that the sunset has set on fire. Everything looks beautiful and I can’t tell if any of this makes me sad or if it makes me happy.
I feel lousy. I still feel asleep.
The clouds are on fire.
There was a young Buddy Holly.
There was a floating Patsy Cline.
Gravity reigns, but for the idea of string.
I never talk to Sarah again, but I think about her for weeks, usually with a squirmy combination of chagrin and gaiety. Then, a week before Thanksgiving — just as memories of that night and the resulting morning are beginning to fade — I find out that Sarah hasn’t quite forgotten about me either, or at least about what I was wearing.
“Hey, check this out,” Alice says. She extends her phone across the bar, and on its screen is a picture of a white glowing blob. I grab the phone and look closer. It’s a boy in a jellyfish costume, with a translucent umbrella for the hood and strings of lights hanging from the canopy for the tentacles. It’s glowing in the night and the child has virtually disappeared, save for the eerie reflection of blue light on his pale cheeks.
“Whoa, nice Halloween costume. Who is it?”
“Sarah made it for her son. She says she got the idea from your shirt. It’s so fucking cool. Isn’t she awesome?”
Yes, I’m sure to bump into Sarah again, one day, sometime, along the midway, and this will make for a good time. We’ll hug, have a laugh. I’ll do something ineffectual like punch her playfully on the shoulder and call her “kiddo.” I’ll ask her how her son is doing. I’ll make an inappropriate joke about her husband. Maybe we’ll even raise a glass in Kim’s honor.
I’ll tell Sarah I wrote a story about her; we’ll have a real nice chat about it.
And then you know what we’ll do?
Close the fucking deal.
About the author:
Matthew D. Perez is a writer living beyond his means in central Pennsylvania. His other decent writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, a magazine that was nice enough to hire him on as an Assistant Editor. (He swears this happened after publication.) Matt teaches whatever sort of English they tell him to teach at Penn State, where he earned his M.F.A. in 2004. He is trying to get his shit together, assuming that such a state-of-affairs is possible.