Breathe

I won’t claim the woman was a stunning beauty because she wasn’t. But “stunning beauty” was exactly how Chad had described her to me just prior to our boarding a noon flight to St. Paul for the annual medical malpractice conference. He didn’t elaborate and since he was in first class and I wasn’t (he was a full partner; I was just an associate) I didn’t hear any additional details. I did know that she was an old acquaintance of his from King’s College in London and would be just the right tonic to get me back into the mix (again, his words) after my sixteen-year marriage officially ended the month before. I was reluctant – more cautious than reluctant, actually – but when pressed, I couldn’t come up with a good enough reason not to surrender. This trait – hesitation without risk, fear without threat – was something my ex-wife considered my greatest flaw. “You even think before you breathe,” she once told me.

I had only recently arrived in the hotel bar where our firm was gathering for a pre-conference mixer when I saw Chadleading a woman through the crowd, prodding her forward like a shepherd thinning the herd. He stood her up in front of me and announced, “Here’s someone you just have to meet.” It wasn’t clear who he was talking to because he immediately hurried off without bothering to introduce us.

The woman and I stood dumbly for a brief moment. Around us, lawyers of all shapes and stripes bustled, each flavored with expensive cologne and frank expressions. “Every Breath You Take” thumped softly from the sound system.

As I said, she was no beauty. Her straight dark hair was parted in the middle likeCherand the skin of her face looked sad, pasty and recently lifted. But she was most definitely in my age bracket and she was dressed elegantly, in a sleeveless black dress, silk wrap and clutch purse. Like me, she cradled a glass of white wine.

When I offered her my hand, she shook her head and presented the purse and glass to show both hands occupied. Then, to my surprise, she curtseyed. In response, I grinned and declared, “Utterly charmed.”

To this, she rolled her eyes and said, “But of course you are,” with what I detected was an utterly bored British accent. She murmured something else, something that sounded derisive. I cleared my throat. A waiter scurried by and brushed against my shoulder. My chardonnay spilled over the lip of the glass and across my fingers. Having no napkin, I flicked my hand nonchalantly at my side.

Whatever appraisal of me she had conducted was now over and she began to scan the room for something more interesting. I cleared my throat again and said, “Quite a crowd, huh? The firm really knows how to pack in our future unsatisfied clients.”

She sipped her wine and pursed her lips in a way that suggested absolute disdain for both the wine and my sarcasm.

I sighed and decided I was done. It was wrong to be there anyway, in such a forced, unfamiliar situation, so soon after the divorce. I looked around for somewhere to park my glass. Before I stepped away, I paused and gave the woman in front of me one final examination.

I wanted desperately to show her how unimportant she was to me, but instead I found myself leaning forward, closing the space between us to no more than a couple of inches, so that my lips were a mere breath from her ear. When she didn’t shy away as I expected, I whispered: “I have a room upstairs. Eight twenty-one. I’m heading there now.”

Before waiting for a reaction, I sidestepped to the left and navigated deftly across the room and out into the lobby. At the elevator, I chanced a look back to see if she had followed. The ill-lit bar pulsed with another ’80s tune, the name of which I couldn’t recall. The crowd within moved around and swayed like a dark curtain. No one emerged.

What I had just done hit me soon after I got to my room. I stood facing the bathroom mirror. My heart picked up speed. My legs trembled. What a stupid, stupid, stupid thing to do, I thought. Was I really that desperate? Or did I just have – as a client of mine once offered as a defense against an assault charge – an “out-of-body experience”? I know what my ex-wife would have said. Three words, seasoned with a lingering glare that criticized everything about me, my choice of shoes, the cut of my suit, the color of my eyes: Nice try, Bob.

Which pretty much summed up the marriage as a whole. Although the trouble was probably sown soon after we wed, I would later trace the bud of our marital breaking point to an incident about a year prior.

On the way home from the city, on a stretch of road where traffic began to converge and thicken, we passed an overturned minivan on the shoulder. It was obvious the accident had just occurred because the gravel dust was still settling, the wheels still spinning. Several cars and a truck had already pulled over, their occupants jumping out. I whistled in what I was later ashamed to admit was relief that we had not been caught in the back-up soon to befall those further behind. I watched the scene disappear in my rearview.

My wife had turned around to look as well, but then began to scrutinize me. I braced myself, hearing her words before she even opened her mouth.

 “I knew you wouldn’t stop,” she said with a coldness I had never detected before.

“I thought about it.”

“No you didn’t.”

“What good would it have done?” I heard a guilty tremor in my voice and hated it. “Besides, those other cars already stopped.”

“Other cars,” she huffed and faced forward in her seat. “Other cars are always stopping.”

“What the hell kind of sense does that make? And if you wanted to be a hero, you should have said something.”

“I’m not driving.”

“Do you want me to turn back?”

Now she was looking away and out her window, but I could tell she was smirking in satisfaction. “You won’t turn back,” she said.

“Watch me.” I changed lanes and even flipped on my turn signal, ostensibly looking for an exit. But the road ahead was cleared of almost all traffic. We could be home in minutes rather than hours.

“You won’t turn back,” she said again.

And of course, I didn’t. Because honestly, what good would it have done? And what was wrong with caution anyway? Had it really led me astray? Hadn’t it prevented the knot of fear and regret I was feeling at this precise moment? Standing in front of a bathroom mirror after propositioning a stranger in a hotel bar? Hadn’t it—

Someone pounded heavily on the room door, so hard that the draw chain rattled. I froze, then swallowed hard, then crept over and stood in front of the door. Was it my boss? The police? The woman’s enraged husband? I knew it wasn’t beneath Chad to introduce me to a married woman, especially one he perceived as willing yet beneath the attention of a full partner. The one possibility that had not occurred to me was that it might be the woman. No, this knock was definitely the product of a man’s knuckles, masculine and burly.

Another knock shook the door, this time even harder, burlier. Like a fugitive, I shivered and squinted through the peep hole. I instantly recognized the part in the woman’s dark hair. I wanted to feel relief, but my heart skipped again and beat faster. I drew in a deep breath and opened the door. “Well, well,” I said grandly, “I was just—” but the woman was already past me and inside the room.

“The hell took you so long?” she snapped. “Didn’t you hear me knocking?”

“I was…” I started, thinking I would tell her I was in the bathroom.

She conducted a dismissive survey of the room, then tossed her purse onto the bed. Showing keen familiarity with the layout, she brushed aside the curtains and ducked out onto the balcony.

I followed her. She had positioned herself at the corner end of the patio and was staring out into the warm, moonless evening. I stepped forward, leaning against the balcony rail as if bellying up to a bar. I peered out across the glittering cityscape to where I thought she was looking. For a long time, neither one of us spoke.

“Quite a view,” I said finally.

“Have you anything to drink?” she said. “Wine, preferably.”

“I could call. Room service, I mean.”

She harrumphed.

For whatever reason, the thought just then occurred to me that she might be a prostitute. It wasn’t uncommon for the firm, especially one as nimble as ours, to engage such services. And God only knew Chad’s definition of “old colleague.” Regardless, I felt compelled to ask. “Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a…” and here she turned and squinted at me, one eyebrow raised. “What I mean is, are you…” I struggled for a word, any word other than the one I was thinking. “…English?” I finally said.

“I’m an American citizen,” she said, and turned back to the view.

I followed her gaze. Far away, a plane inched across the night sky.

“So I take it you’re divorced,” she said, the thrust of her voice making me jump.

“Um, yes. Recently. And you?”

She offered only a vague grunt in answer. “Have you any children?”

“I did.”

Did? They’re dead?”

“No. Jesus no. My wife got custody of them. In the divorce.”

“But you’re a lawyer.”

“So’s she. A better one unfortunately.”

“Clearly.”

Once again, we said nothing for several seconds. Faint sirens sounded in the distance. A gust of wind billowed up out of the void but died before reaching us. Her eyes never moved or blinked. “Such a sick place,” she said. “The whole town.”

“Oh I don’t know,” I said, desperate now for levity. “Some light dusting. A couple of throw pillows…”

She shook her head, having none of it. “Sick.”

I looked back through the glass balcony door, at the bed, her purse, the door of the room. My cell phone buzzed in my inside jacket pocket and I muttered, “One moment.” She waved her hand, the queen dismissing a lowly subject.

My phone revealed a text message from Chad that read, Where the hell R U?

I thumbed a quick note back to him: What’s the name of the woman you introduced me to?

Within a span of few seconds came the reply. No clue. Just met her myself.

I stared down at the small screen on my phone, straining to digest the words, when he pinged me with, The gal I wanted you to meet is here now. Where R U? I re-read this final text three times then slipped the phone back into my pocket. “Sorry about that,” I said.

“Don’t tell me,” the woman said. “Your ex-wife.”

“Actually, that was my boss,” I lied, my voice faltering. “He needs me to…um…”

She stood up on her toes then and stretched out over the balcony rail like a gymnast preparing for a difficult maneuver. “How far down do you think this is?”

I felt my knees clutch and wobble at the question. Without much thought, I spoke the first thing that sprang into my mind: “I just realized I don’t know your name. I mean…what I mean to say is…well, what is it?”

She straightened up, turned and glared at me through the still air, her features thick with accusation. “The hell do you care?”

“Mine’s Bob.”

“Bob,” she said. “That figures.”

“Look, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

And for the first time, she smiled. “I’ll tell you what wasn’t a good idea. Bob. That bloody awful tie.”

“I have to go. We have to go.”

“Are you sure, Bob? Are you sure you don’t want to hook up first? Isn’t that what the kids say these days? Hook up?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“They used to say ‘tussle’ in my day. Did you ever use that word? With your wife maybe?”

“Frankly—”

She closed the space between us in two quick steps and before I could react, she was kissing me. Her thin hands circled around my hips and pulled me against her. She panted as she kissed, tender but serious. Without reason and against logic, I found myself kissing back. There isn’t anything right about this, I heard my mind saying, but I also knew, without a doubt, that I was aroused. My hands touched the smoothness of her dress. I could feel the heat of her skin through the fabric. She spoke then, my lips muffling her words. “Do you know what I have in my purse, Bobby? Do you?”

“I can guess,” I said.

My hands were now sliding across the subtle dip in her back and I was thinking about her breasts when I heard her say: “A straight razor.”

I pushed her away. “Jesus, what the fuck?”

She was laughing now, one hand covering her mouth. “Shall I run and grab it? Perhaps we can tussle over it?”

“I think you need to leave.”

She composed herself and responded sadly. “Oh, I’m going to be here a long time, Bob. With you. Only with you.”

“I seriously doubt that.”

Her face broke up a bit and she wandered back to the balcony rail. I retreated into the room and then hurried over to the purse. I fumbled with the latch, popped it open and…nothing. Nothing but a tissue, stained with what appeared to be lipstick.

My phone buzzed and I flipped it open. Chad’s text read, Don’t tell me you’re nailing that English hag? She was killing my buzz and I was just trying to get rid of her.

I thrust the phone back into my jacket pocket. The woman was leaning out over the rail again, staring down at the city. Through the silk scarf across her back, I saw she had turned tense, her shoulders laced with compact muscles that seemed to twitch in the faint light.

I edged into the balcony doorway. “We should go back downstairs,” I said.

Without turning, she said, “Really? Do you insist?”

“Yes.”

“Arm in arm? Shall we go back downstairs arm in arm? As if we’ve been in love? Forever in love.”

I almost said no, but stopped. Her tone sounded much more plaintive and vulnerable than before. So I said nothing.

She leaned a bit further over the rail, her toes pushing her body upwards. I braced myself and gauged that I could reach her by simply lurching forward, which seemed to be what she wanted. And yet…and yet if I did nothing, nothing at all, what would happen? Would she cast herself out over the rail, plummeting eight floors, swallowed by the sickness of the city? Would I really be doing either of us any favors if I prevented such a tragedy? Of course I wouldn’t. Because it wasn’t a bad trait I was fighting. It was a precise clarity and tolerance for reality, something my wife would never understand. Just as she would never understand that whatever was about to happen to this woman – this stunning beauty – was inevitable and not only was there nothing I could do to change it, there was nothing anyone could do.

The woman groaned then, as if exhausted by my inaction and silence. She tossed her hair back out of her face and tugged on the corner of her scarf until it was up over her shoulder. Then she turned away from the night and shouldered past me and across the length of the room. She paused at the door, her back to me, perhaps waiting for me to open it. “Could I ask one favor before we go?” she said.

I sighed and said, “You can ask.”

“If not for me, then for whatever god you pray to.”

“Yes then,” I said. And for good measure, “Anything.”

“Could you change that bloody tie?”

James Mathews grew up in El Paso, Texas and now lives in Maryland. His fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including the Northwest Review, Carolina Quarterly, the Wisconsin Review, The Pacific Review and The Florida Review. His short story collection, Last Known Position, was published by the University of North Texas Press and won the 2008 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. His website is http://www.jamesmathewsonline.com.

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