In which Jessie Girard ponders the possibility of love, buys food for a party, and suffers "hostess regret."
She was out, at night, in New York, laughing on the near-empty street, laughing like a crazy person, which perhaps she was. She didn't feel the record-breaking cold; she was wearing an extra mantle. She was afraid to name the feeling, but she recognized it. Only love could warm you like this, lying soft and unseen, like a cape across your shoulders. She felt wrapped in cashmere and wondered for an instant if all the conspicuous consumption of good woolens and fur that she'd just walked past in the brighter lit shopping district of SoHo was an attempt to substitute for this sensation, when it was missing.
The five-below-zero temperature created an optical illusion as Jessie walked toward her loft. Her vision altered -- she looked out at her street as if through too-strong prescription glasses. The buildings appeared sharp and overly outlined, so distinct that they seemed to move toward her, doubling in dimension, like a 3-D effect in novelty films she'd seen as a child. She felt keen, sharpened herself: everything had just changed for the better. Oh wasn't it wonderful? She laughed again, almost "hearing" his voice as she conducted both sides of a conversation that played on in her mind.
How could she have forgotten love? What had she been doing, thinking, that this could have been lost to her for so long? She felt as if she had been shaken from a dreamless sleep that had lasted nearly a decade.
It had been at least that long since Jessie had nourished delusions of domestic nirvana. She'd been divorced from her childhood sweetheart for years, divorced also from the goal of a marriage. She had edited out a wedding as the hoped-for ending (although from time to time, the image did pop up, like one of those gimmick greeting cards: bride and groom, atop the cake). For years now, she had mentally cried "No" at the unbidden nuptial apparition. She knew better, she thought. When she wanted male companionship, Jessie imagined the comfort of a standing body hug, the clinch at the sink, a warm belly at her back in bed, for better sleeps. Someone to say "I have a cold" to, split an entrée, walk her home from a distant party. Maybe down the road, a friend. A traveling companion to see the world with, when her work was done, if it ever was...Yes, she sometimes thought she might like to share her life, but she'd considered herself content to go it alone.
And now, a man had taken her by literal surprise and left her in, of all things, a state of grace. She had forgotten even the possibility of falling in love. The "falling" part was apt -- she had in fact tumbled backward onto a bed.
As she walked up her block, the memories of the past few days insulated her from the bitter temperature (the date later proved to be the coldest night of the year). How on earth could she have forgotten sex? It had been three years, her longest intermission...but still...
She was still laughing at the jokes they had shared -- "I can feel my bones creak." And the way her body had remembered for her, and she'd found herself rotating her hips in the time-honored way, hopping into unaccustomed positions. Oh yes, she'd remembered thinking, I used to do this -- as she'd kissed his chest, nursing on his vestigial nipples...
Oh, dear, Jessie ordered herself, stop thinking of the vestigial nipples...She had to descend to earth...She reached into her pocket to hold the glove that he had lost, and she had found. What is love without a talisman? The old sheepskin glove kept the shape of his fingers, even the lines of his palm. She held it as, only last night, she had held his hand. She must remember to tell him that she had his glove; she had found it in her pocket, after she boarded the plane.
On this particular night, Butane Street appeared as desolate as a moonscape, lunar in its loneliness. The last people she had seen were two blocks past. Later, she would recall them also, as signs of the specific quality of this night. There had been three lone individuals -- a drug dealer, incongruous for Christmas, peddling his pharmaceutical presents; a man exposing himself in a doorway; and a woman in a motorized wheelchair, buzzing past, a beatific smile on her face.
On another night, Jessie might have wondered how that woman could be happy, paralyzed, making her way alone, but tonight she thought she knew. On another night, she might have resented the drug peddler more, now she thought, It's terrible, but it must be anesthesia for people in pain. On another night, she might have been disgusted by the flasher; tonight, she felt sorry for him, waving his penis in the cold, tugging at himself for carnal consolation.
A great benevolence had descended upon Jessie; she was warmed and buoyed by her past weekend, the newness of being touched again. She had thought that might never happen. Especially now, since the past few years, and the series of harsh events, one of which had left its imprint on her body. Could it be so simple? That all she had needed was that touch? Could one other person make the entire difference? Between going forward, with an inner tremble, or rushing ahead, uplifted and glad, ready for whatever might happen next?
Tonight, she was facing a social challenge, but it didn't truly daunt her. If she looked at the logistics -- that she had to prepare a party in less than an hour -- she would have to admit defeat in advance. She was too happy to concentrate on details; her euphoria separated her even from herself. In her mind, she was back in Colorado. She was thinking not of what she had to do, but what she had just done. The kissing, the holding...she saw, in her mind's eye, his face, his chest -- to which she had said a playful good-bye, ducking her head under his sweater as they sat in his parked car at the airport. She could still feel his skin, pick up the scent, and taste him on her tongue. She finally understood everything she'd ever read of magic spells and cloud nine.
Should she tell her friends about the weekend? Or, better to keep the secret, sweet and private, to herself? If she spoke the words aloud, would the spell disintegrate into the atmosphere, like the vapor rising from the gutter grate?
Stop thinking about this, she told herself. Get the apartment in order, cook the food, uncork the wine, light the candles. Her pace quickened, in step with her thoughts: get upstairs, turn on the oven, clear the worst of the debris. She recalled the mess upstairs -- her laundry on the bed, all her research materials on the table and started to laugh.
I am doomed, she told herself, with an inner giggle. It was as if the gods had conspired. Not only had the weather not "cooperated" -- it was now deteriorating. The ice storm that had delayed her return flight to New York by a day had now rejoined her here. The wind picked up as she walked; the forecast was that snow would follow.
Jessie fought the river wind as she made her way on the long, final block west. The wind was so powerful it blew her one step back, for every two she took forward. A few times, she had to stop, to rebalance her shopping bags. Her hands gripped the sacks, heavy with Australian red wine, Pellegrino water, the five Cornish hens, and ten pounds of Yukon gold potatoes.
Oh why had she bought such heavy food? Why potatoes? Most of the women were dieting; they might get angry at the sight of the potatoes. They might identify with the potatoes. At the moment, Jessie herself felt not unlike a potato, bundled in her beige down coat, bulky and lumpy, her head sticking up like a knobby growth.
She had walked a good twelve blocks from Dean & DeLuca. Her boots had failed to be waterproof and now her feet felt like the potatoes too, only frozen. As she paused, one shopping bag slipped, and the bottom hit the slush on the sidewalk. The sodden paper gave way, and the hens slipped out, five goose-pimpled poultry corpses, falling into the gutter of Hudson Street. Jessie cursed as she tried to retrieve the hens. More groceries spilled into the street. The three so-called blood oranges that she had intended to serve macerated in cassis rolled toward a sewer opening. Oh, what had she been thinking to have a dinner party at her apartment? Why hadn't they all just chosen a restaurant? But that had seemed much too impersonal for this evening's occasion.
An hour earlier, she had hit the ground running. She'd dropped her suitcase off at the loft, then taken the airport cab straight to Dean & DeLuca to buy as many prepared foods as possible. Oh why had she gotten ambitious at the food counter? Why hadn't she just gone ahead and bought the meal, precooked?
As she crawled on the pavement, trying to retrieve all the food that had spilled, Jessie recalled her rationale. She wanted tonight to be different, so special...beyond catering, past takeout. She would cook every item herself, to ensure its perfection. That had seemed more festive somehow, more personal. It was just as easy to roast the hens as buy them already cooked and costing ten times as much. Those itsy-bitsy hens -- it seemed as if the smaller they were, the more they cost.
I can do an apricot glaze, she had told herself, but she hadn't answered the unasked question: when? When would she have time? Then, of course, she didn't dare wait for delivery; she'd better get to roasting right away. She'd counted on getting a taxicab, forget the cost -- it was a bad and also important night. Time was all that mattered. She'd stood at the curb, flailing for a cab, and of course, there had been none. So here she was at 5:30 P.M., with uncooked little chickens, going up to a semiclean apartment, with her five best friends expected in an hour.
It was impossible. They would understand of course -- they were her friends. They had known one another for so long, seen one another's unretouched moments. This was the old Theresa House gang, her first friends in the city. They all "went back"; they'd seen each other naked, sick, crying, vomiting. But that didn't mean she should strive for such cinema verité tonight. This was supposed to be a festive occasion -- it would be unpleasant to sit there, in the disorder.
As she bent over the pavement, picking up the cold little Cornish hens, Jessie mentally projected and could see the two weeks' worth of laundry piled on her bed. How could she clean up in time? All her research was strewn across the living room, the cat box was unchanged in the bathroom...Her mind was reeling -- what to do first? Set the table, roast the Cornish hens? If only she had time, how she'd love a hot shower. Jessie knew she'd be lucky if she got to pee, which she also had to do.
As she retrieved the fallen blood oranges, the phone rang in her purse. Jessie wasn't yet accustomed to the cell phone. She had ambivalent feelings about having one. Only a few weeks ago, she'd looked askance at the people walking, talking, down the street. She'd thought they looked like idiots, and now she was one of them. The beeps emitted, with electronic insistence, from deep within her handbag. For a moment, Jessie imagined her purse was talking to her, the voice of materialism, speaking up for itself. She struggled into a doorway and tried to answer, but she could hear only a high cackle, unintelligible against the howl of the wind.
Even though she knew it wasn't him -- the man she had just begun to love -- her heart had quickened, and she controlled her breathing as she spoke into the receiver. He had said he would phone her tonight, but later. She was sure he would keep his word -- this man was so wonderful; he was creditable. It was still too early. "Eight o'clock" he had said. So this call had to be from someone else. It rang again, but now there was only a mechanized moan emitting from the receiver, as if the tiny cell phone had intersected some galactic disturbance high above her.
Jessie imagined the call was from one of her guests who had decided not to brave the elements tonight. Who would want to go out in this weather?
This was a stay-home night if ever there was one. Even Jessie thought of an evening alone in her big old easy chair, cuddled in a comforter, sipping hot soup, reading, patting the cat, reliving the private pleasures of her trip to Colorado. Maybe she should have called everyone from the airport, while there was still time.
But Jessie had gone to so much effort already. First, there had been the difficulty of choosing a date, on which they could all attend. Jessie had sorted through the details of all their calendars: six women, six schedules. Then, it had been almost impossible to convince Claire to accept a party in her honor. She had refused, saying, "It's too much bother." Jessie had to talk her into it, swearing not to call the party a "baby shower."
The truth was, they were all wondering about Claire; she had not seen any of them in three months. It was mysterious, not like Claire. She had dropped out of ballet class, their reading group, the subscription to the Manhattan Theatre Club. They had all invited her for dinner, a movie, anything, and she had avoided them all. This was odd, and Jessie wanted to see for herself. The party, the "it's-not-a-baby-shower-but-is" had to be tonight: they would never be able to agree on a new date, in time.
For a minute, she wished she'd never moved from Midtown; she wished she hadn't volunteered to be the hostess tonight. She fumbled in her purse, clawing through receipts, lipsticks, pencils, finally finding her keys at the bottom of her bag. The keys were industrial, hard and utilitarian, like the building, a former factory.
The name FRANKENHEIMER'S was still engraved above the door. The final irony, learned after she bought her loft, was that Jessie's own grandmother had labored in this very building in l917, when it was still a millinery sweatshop. Almost a century ago, her grandmother had stood, possibly in Jessie's own loft, gluing feathers onto felt hats, for a dollar a week. Now, Jessie Girard, her granddaughter, had mortgaged herself for half a million dollars, to occupy the same space. How many feathers glued to how many brims? How many feathers to support oneself?
Jessie juggled the packages, dropped the cell phone in the slush, and suddenly became aware that a pile of what she had believed was rags had risen and was beckoning to her from the next doorway. He was a vagrant; she had seen him before -- he wore a fur-lined flyer's cap, a peacoat, and open galoshes. He was begging, she guessed, although often he just muttered obscenities or screamed "It all sucks." Sometimes, though, he was oddly specific and muttered "They all wear the same perfume now."
Tonight he moved closer to her, and Jessie was startled to see that he was carrying a tote bag that was marked with a Ralph Lauren insignia: the miniature polo player, riding for the strike. Could this bum be a refugee from a Ralph Lauren lifestyle? That chilled Jessie more than the freezing temperature. No, surely not; he'd somehow come by the bag through illicit means. The Ralph Lauren bag appeared in rather good condition, two-toned, canvas and tan leather. The bum reached into the bag and leaned toward her. She could smell whiskey and his body odor, which was ripe and somehow fruity, like a spoiled banana. He breathed something in her ear, which she tried not to hear. She forced her door inward, and slid inside, before processing what he had said:
"No thanks," she whispered.
Ecstasy. Shivering, glad to be indoors, Jessie rode the former freight elevator to the top floor, twelve, and stepped directly into her loft.
The loft was beautiful, what her friend Martha called "drop-dead beautiful" with its big views looking downtown to the south and out across the sequined stripe of the Hudson to the west. Jessie always wondered what Martha meant by "drop-dead beautiful" -- that the place was so stunning, you could collapse in cardiac arrest? Or that the layout was so in-your-face gorgeous, that the less real estate-endowed would expire in envy? Martha touted fatal foyers and killer kitchens. Certainly, Jessie could agree, the stakes had risen in the city and a spire could cut through your heart.
Tonight, having left the mountainscape of the Rockies, craggy but somehow gentled by their snowcaps, Jessie returned to her urban vista with a shock. The high-rise offices loomed, hard-cut, sparkling giants of commerce -- the edifices seemed to personify the business world. Were they always so glary? When Jessie was overworked or behind on the minimum payments on her credit cards, she suffered another sort of optical illusion -- the city turned Cubist, its corners cut like daggers.
There was one office tower she could see downtown; her friend Lisbeth joked and called it the "Darth Vader" -- the building was obsidian, and it did glare at her, challenging her to meet its aggression. Jessie had had day-mares of herself, sliding down its shear surface, fingernails clutching at glass, all the way down. The gutslide down glass. Jessie had not been born in the city; much as she had longed for it; within her was that stomach clutch of fear. New York was home, but she felt as if the welcome mat could be yanked at any moment.
Now, coming back after only a few days, Jessie was stunned by the way, in her absence, the loft seemed to have reverted to its former identity. It was as if the loft knew it was not a loft but a sweatshop: all that greeted her inside were the shadows, animate with a century of memory; the ghosts of cheap labor crouched in its corners.
She tripped over her soft-sided suitcase, jackknifed like a body. Jessie pitched forward into her 1,800 square feet of "raw space." A year ago, when she bought this "raw space," she'd relished the expression. "Raw" -- it had seemed appetizing, a challenge, an architectural "raw" bar to sink her talented teeth into. She'd been happy to buy it "raw" -- the only way she could afford it. "Rawness" had beckoned, an empty palette. She had not reckoned with how "raw" it would feel to live in an unfinished space, to try to work and survive in what had essentially been a construction site for the past eight months.
Tonight, returning after such a short trip, she felt, at first glance, that she'd lost what interior ground she had gained. This did not look, feel, or smell homey.
Jessie inhaled the scent of plaster, spackling. The instant she was behind her own door, the need to pee, which had been urgent before, became uncontrollable. The urge won out over her desire to check the phone answering machine, and the stack of unopened mail, shoved under her door. She crossed her legs and hopped in a near dance step toward the toilet that she herself had installed. As Jessie performed her odd jig she passed the cat, who lurched from the shadows.
At first Jessie thought the animal, desperate in its loneliness, was greeting her. The cat was one of those white cats, with blue eyes, that are born deaf. She had not heard Jessie enter; she must have responded to the vibration of her step and the cue of the light switch. As the animal weaved toward her, Jessie recognized that the cat was retching. The cat began to heave, a fur ball caught in its throat; her eyes rolled, staring up at Jessie as if to say "Help."
Oh, not now, Jessie thought. Et tu, Colette?
Jessie hopped into the bathroom she had built, without bothering to shut the substandard door that she had also installed. Inside the little gray bathroom, where the slate tiles had been set somewhat askew by her own hand, Jessie struggled to get her panties down in time, and crashed onto the half unhinged toilet seat. As she peed in this precarious position, she tilted forward on the askew seat and was brought into direct eye contact with a leaflet entitled "Buyer's Remorse" that rested on the floor, amongst other papers she had intended to stack for recycling.
I have buyer's remorse, all right, she admitted to herself. And she had something else that she'd read about in a woman's magazine on the plane -- "hostess regret." "Hostess regret" was defined as a syndrome that strikes women an hour before guests arrive -- the hostess regrets she ever planned a party. As Jessie sat there on a crooked little toilet seat, both feelings merged; "the buyer's remorse" and the "hostess regret." These twin emotions melded into the greater worry over her own fiery urgency, this burning she felt...
Maybe she had more than a need to pee? Maybe she had contracted some exotic venereal disease from the man she'd gone to bed with back in Colorado? Venereal disease or just cystitis? Because she had known pleasure, did she now have to suffer?
No, she refused to suffer. So much sex. Cystitis, for sure. She recalled her honeymoon, twenty years before, when as a teenage girl, she'd returned home from the Caribbean with her innards on fire. So much sex then, too, but it had been the youthful, gymnastic intercourse she'd engaged in, with her husband, Hank.
Although she had no time to reminisce -- she should clean and at least preheat the oven -- Jessie could not help recalling the sensation of an overused vulva. Yes, so much sex then too...but repetitive, almost grueling intercourse. At nineteen, she had not been able to properly evaluate her honeymoon; Hank had been her "first." Now, many men and years later, Jessie did not want to regard that sex as "bad" or wasted effort, but she was even more puzzled in retrospect by the quality of those marital relations. While she had known they loved each other, that love had not been well expressed physically. Her ex-husband, Hank, could be tender in talk and intimate by mail, but when he entered her body, his spirit had seemed to depart. He had been entirely physical, avoided eye contact when engaged.
Her husband had been handsome, relentlessly virile, Jessie conceded as she sat, in slight discomfort, on her self-installed "throne," but she preferred what she had just experienced with a stranger to the emotionless exchange that had passed between her husband and herself for the twelve years of their marriage.
Intimacy, she supposed, wasn't acquired or learned -- it was either absent or magically intrinsic: oh, in Colorado...the kindling in that man's eyes, desire and liking, a humor that had not impeded their passion (he had entered her while still trying to kick off one cowboy boot). Laughing, lusting...everything at once -- alien and familiar.
Sex was mystery, Jessie admitted to herself. It didn't make sense. She and Hank had loved each other, stayed together...yet they had been less intimate than she had just been with a near-stranger.
She finished in the bathroom, tossed the "Buyer's Remorse" pamphlet in the wicker wastebasket. No time for regrets of any kind tonight. She'd better get on with it...Clean or cook first?
Jessie had a method, the same one she applied to her work as a journalist. She evaluated the situation, tackled what was in front of her. Systematically, she solved the worst problems first...like triage at a battlefield. A dinner party was no different. She decided: a good hostess deals first with what would be most disgusting to guests.
The mess. Outside the bathroom door, she confronted the cat, Colette, who was now puking in great, back-arching spasms, spewing spirals of congealed regurgitated cat food and fur. This was a priority. Jessie grabbed a paper towel, and mopped up the cat's mess. Then she hauled out the vacuum cleaner and dragged it, roaring, around the 1,800 square feet. For the first time she rued her vast square footage. The vacuum began to backfire tubes of compacted grime that were a match for Colette's upchuckings.
And I wanted this to be elegant, Jessie thought. Now she'd be lucky if no one called the Health Department. She ran for her emergency weapons -- the broom, dustpan, and a mammoth trash bag. Kneeling, she clawed at the vacuum bag by hand, stuffed the trash bag, picked up the worst of the lint, and dumped the kitty litter. She marveled at the calcified consistency of the cat turds. A stray cat turd rolled across the bathroom floor, and Jessie picked it up; she could feel a deep chill emanating from that cat turd, as if cat turds had a mysterious negative ability to retain frigid temperature. Oh, how was tonight going to be beautiful, festive with all this to handle...?
She offered Colette a plate with pats of expensive unsalted creamery butter, said to be a remedy for fur balls and calcified cat turds. The cat licked, appeared cured, and collapsed in a heap before the unlit fireplace, on a throw rug. She began to purr, a near-snore of joy.
The scene could be salvaged. Jessie put the oven on high, to preheat, then looked around the room. Solve the most drastic problem first: clear the kitchen table, set the silverware. That would give an appearance of readiness, even if inaccurate...
Jessie started to pick up the unsorted papers on the table and came eye to eye with a news picture, grainy black and white on thermal fax paper. Her hand stopped, and she stared down at his face. Him. The One. He was shown, his professional expression set -- "Jesse Dark, civil liberties attorney, Native American rights activist, representing his tribe, descendents of the Anasazi in a defamation suit."
Had she inklings, all the weeks she had researched and studied these clips, that she would end up in a motel bed with him? That she would find herself, heels locked behind his neck, head thrown back, her throat emitting unrecognizable sounds of what she dimly called joy?
She tried to remember when she first felt the stirrings. Those preliminary days, across from him in court, she had noted his starched shirt, the string tie, the impossible fit of his jeans, the beaten heels of his cowboy boots. Yes, she'd secretly acknowledged he was one of the more attractive men she'd seen...but never would she have predicted that in another night, she would look up to the ceiling of a motel room and regard its stuccoed surface as...her glimpse of heaven.
No, she had had no idea. She had been taken unawares, thank God. Jessie had prided herself on her seriousness as a journalist. "He" had been a subject, not a potential object of affection. "He" glared back at her from her thermal fax image: "He" looked handsome, even in the grainy, poor reproduction, sulky and swarthy as his name suggested: Jesse Dark. Jessie giggled, transfixed: he looked so severe, who would have believed he was playful?
Somewhere in this pile of clutter, Jessie had a videotape that showed her male namesake (and possible soul mate) addressing a crowd of protesters outside a cave. Within that cave his ancestors, of the Anasazi tribe, were accused of killing their ancient enemies, cooking and devouring their flesh and then -- this was the worst accusation -- defecating their digested remains on the campfire.
It was this detail -- that the ashes had perfectly preserved the human feces -- that had allowed for DNA testing now, so many centuries later -- that had caught Jessie Girard's trained eye and triggered something in her too, something she could not understand. What a defining moment, how astounding that scientists could re-create the specific incident: a moment of ultimate rage, that had taken place over a thousand years ago. In a sense that ancient fire had been relit, and the sworn enemies, reengaged. It was the sort of story Jessie loved. She had known she had to cover the demonstration, she had to interview the man who led it...There was a book in it. And now, she felt, God help her, that she had to hear from that man again, that she had to touch him...
Jessie paused in her preparations. She knew she had to put away all these papers, tapes, files, but the subject drew her and now, of course, she knew the man in the photograph...Knew him? His DNA floated within her. Her thighs still ached from being held down by his hands, in those unaccustomed positions. She could, if she concentrated, recall the exact pressure of his tongue and teeth on her nub of flesh.
We went a little crazy, she recalled, happy. They had in fact, crossed some boundary in each other and come out howling on the other side. Although she would never have dared tell him -- he was a cannibal, all right, she had thought, but only in the best sense.
No sexual reverie, she forbid herself. Jessie forced herself to resume tidying: she threw the extra items -- her work, the newspapers, assorted junk of all description -- on a bedsheet, bagged the whole mess, and threw it in the closet. Not a tip from Martha Stewart or a Hint from Heloise, but this hid a multitude of sins. She reserved the snapshots of Jesse Dark, of course. She couldn't throw him in the closet. She tucked the pictures in the utility drawer near the stove. Maybe she would show her friends, later, if it seemed appropriate.
No time now for recalled orgasmic joy...she had to roast the hens...glaze them...what had she been thinking?
Jessie could cook; she knew what to do. Zing, zing, zing, she washed and rubbed down the goose-pimpled little hens. Zing, zing, zing, she forced softened butter under their skins...Zing, zing, zing, she rubbed them down with more butter, apricot jam, and ginger. Then she splayed out their legs; set them, in this mass undignified squat, into the hot oven...and turned the knob higher to broil. This high-heat method was the wild way to roast poultry; she could burn them into charred husks if she didn't pay attention.
Now, if she could prepare an hors d'oeuvre, she would stand a chance. Jessie opened her purse and extracted a jar so precious, she had hand-held it on the flight back to New York from Colorado. A jar of genuine green chili.
She could not resist. As she opened the sealed glass jar, Jessie spooned up a taste. It was a quick fix, for she had tasted green chili for the first time three nights before, in Colorado, during the dinner. That was the night she finally got up the nerve to invite Jesse Dark back to her motel room, and rewrite her own personal history with a series of fevered firsts -- first time she ever slept with a "source" (not proud of that, but it paled beside her pleasure), first time she had a spontaneous orgasm on penetration, first time she shut her eyes and made a conscious decision not to control the event taking place. First time she did not edit her response but spoke without regard to the consequences of what she was feeling. First time she exposed her wounded body.
Remembering this, Jessie was propelled back to that moment, so unanticipated. How had she dared so much, so soon, with this stranger? Years of cautious sexual tiptoeing had been her style...walking tightropes of indecision. Maybe she would, no, she wouldn't. Being discreet in bed, even when almost screaming. Everything but the truth. She could not believe she had used the word love. Should she have bitten her kiss-bruised lip? Would that word love drive him away, or bring him to her? Jessie smiled as she spooned out the green chili into a dish. It was the perfect condiment to what had occurred: hot velvet.
Yes, he would call when he said. He was different...he was not afraid.
She scrubbed the potatoes and threw them in to roast, nestled amongst twiglets of rosemary, studded with garlic slivers, dressed in olive oil. Jessie was getting hungry now.
Mentally, she was back in the tiny Tex-Mex place in Coyoteville, Colorado, reliving that night's historic pleasures...What a relief it had been to have a man seize the initiative.
When Jessie had approached him for a quote at the press conference, he had seemed polite but wary, his black eyes flicking over her face, appraising her. She remembered how hard she had tried not to seem like an idiot. She had stressed her Ph.D. in anthropology, emphasized her studies of tribal custom (omitting that her interest stemmed from becoming aroused, as a thirteen-year-old, reading of politically incorrect "Indian" capture in the western romance Ramona).
She had submitted, for his approval she supposed, her prize-winning book on the Jackson Whites -- Natives of the Ramapo Mountains. How happy she'd been then, to perceive acceptance in his unanticipated dinner invitation -- to the green chili place up the road. She had accompanied him in a daze of joy, trying to make conversation, her blood racing, a hormonal riptide already making her a little woozy.
As soon as they had sat down at a table, Jesse Dark had asked her why she cared whether the Anasazi were cannibals or not? She had thought for a while, sipping a potent drink over the salted lip of a heavy tumbler (in retrospect that serious margarita could take partial credit for her relaxation of principle, not to mate with anyone with whom she had any professional involvement) before answering.
"It was in the exact detailing of the scientific data," she had told him, "the accident of the ashes being the perfect preservative, the re-creation of that moment of rage that occurred over a thousand years ago...That interested me."
He had looked at her then, with a hint of a smile. He had very chapped lips, and they seemed to crack at his unaccustomed expression. Later, he'd confessed he made up his mind, to get her to bed. "I knew you were angry, that you were hiding everything. If that moment obsessed you -- you interested me."
They had talked until the café closed. They'd been oblivious until the waiter wiped down their table and turned up the lights. Jessie had been so pleased. For all these years, she'd sat down to dinner with dozens of different men only to ask herself the same question: could it be him? Only to hear her inner voice respond, No, not him, not this one.
Then suddenly, she didn't even have to ask: she had looked across the candle that guttered to its conclusion between them and said yes.
It was almost funny how attracted they were to each other. That this had not been the usual case of one wanting more than the other. What she'd seen in Jesse's dark eyes was a mirror. At one point in their conversation, his face had melted, gone suddenly soft, and his gaze turned downward, shy. Then, he had looked up at her -- oh she wished she could have photographed that expression -- so helpless, as if he could not say what he wanted. She'd adored him for that lost moment, when he seemed so hapless, not the tough guy who had held the national press at bay, but a sweeter fellow than she would ever have predicted from these news clips on her kitchen table. A sweet fellow looking to her, with unspoken hope.
Should she tell her friends what happened next? Should she show them his picture? Hold a screening of his news video? She was so tempted, but would it be safe to let this secret escape?
Maybe it was best kept safe, inside her. Sexual secrets could evaporate if you aired them in group conversation. Yet she wanted them to know: he had helped her more than she could have dreamed...it had not just been the usual. She promised herself not to relate the details. She would just imply she had "met" someone.
Jessie lit the candles on the kitchen table, set out six of her best china plates, and six linen napkins that had, thank God, come back from the Chinese laundry. For an instant, she thought about removing one of the place settings: Martha had said she could not stay. Some instinct instructed Jessie to leave that sixth place -- opposite where Claire would sit, as guest of honor, at the head of the table.
The evening was taking potential shape. If she could just manage that hot shower and prepare a few more hors d'oeuvres, all would at least appear under control. Maybe she would tell them just a little...
Jessie went and stood before the dressing mirror in her bathroom. She looked into her own eyes as she stripped for a quick shower. She expected to meet her familiar self, the person she'd been when last she stood here, only days ago...as if another version of Jessie Girard had, like the cat, waited for her to come home.
The woman whose fluctuant hazel eyes stared back at her did not much resemble the person reflected in the motel mirror in Colorado. Within her irises, something had turned, kaleidoscopelike, and tightened the focus with new-gained knowledge and, admit it, confidence. For God bless this man, this stranger, who looked forbidding from a distance in court, God bless him in close quarters...for whatever else, he had given her, he had given her his desire, unaffected by seeing her scar.
Jessie dared let her hand fall to her side. Now she looked at what she had avoided confronting all this past year: her own naked body. How reluctant she had been for the past eleven months, to show her body to anyone...even herself.
Now she stood on her own bath mat, a bit gritty with plaster dust, and remembered the moonlit walk in Coyoteville. The sky, cluttered with stars...electric, active in the heavens. The saloon doors were swinging open and shut, admitting and discharging men on joyous winter benders. There had been a true Yahoo! in the cold night air, and Jessie had been swept along with it.
She was dying to confide the details to her friends -- how he'd paused with her, in the deserted doorway of a closed gun shop. He'd edged her against the locked door. The way he moved her, made her go backward; excited her past reason.
And there was another delicious detail -- oh maybe it would be all right to tell her friends. She hadn't been dressed warmly enough, and he had been wearing an old oversize shearling coat. Suddenly, he had opened his coat and enveloped her in it, pulling her against his body.
She'd felt the heat of him, even through his jeans, then that twitch that signaled he wanted her. And she remembered thinking, Oh God, this is going to happen, just as his lips closed over hers, and his tongue invaded her mouth, and a corresponding thrust, trapped in those jeans, prodded against her belly.
He'd kissed her so hard. She had thought, for a few moments, This style of kissing is not for me. It's too aggressive -- the tongue so deep, so fast, the harshness of his unshaved cheek, the unexpected hardness even of his lips. Like leather. And then, she'd been forced to acknowledge that he brought about an instant response; her thighs went wet, she was pasted together. It had been funny, embarrassing to respond that fast. Their conversation stalled, and they had torn into each other, all discussion of cannibalism abandoned.
When they reached her motel, they had been speechless in their agreement. She had fumbled for her key; he had used it to open her door. They fell into the room, not bothering to flip the light switch; just as well, that worked a singing fluorescent bar over the bureau. The drapes were open, and the moonlight had spilled into the room, illuminating what they would do with one another.
She had stood before him, naked as if on that moon. He was the first to see her since her surgery. She had paused for a second, silly in her insecurity, in which she wanted to cry out a disclaimer: "I had a beautiful body." Show him something like a "before" picture, so he would know who she really was...not this thirty-nine-year-old woman, who'd been through quite a bit, the most traumatic of which was obvious in the still-red slash across the left side of her chest.
She had wanted to issue a traveler's advisory before they undressed, but she had not found any words. So there she had stood, feeling truly naked for the first time in her life. Before the surgery, her body had been fine; she'd been nude before men, but psychically, she had been dressed. For an instant, she recalled what it had been like the last time she made love, how she'd thrown off her clothes and jumped onto the mattress. She'd felt the springs under her heels as she bounced, her hair swinging. And the man had said, "Do you know how beautiful you are?" And she'd laughed and said, "Yes."
No such self-assurance only three nights ago, with Jesse Dark, in that Colorado motel, no such bounce. She'd forced herself to hold still, be silent. She had so feared that she would see pity in his eyes. She remembered thinking, being really naked was showing yourself, flaws and all, and hoping somehow it would still be all right.
His eyes had questioned her, and then she'd whispered the truth. Her surgery, and the reason for it, had not been so drastic as it appeared. What she had was a warning of the disease, rather than the disease itself, what is aptly called a precursor. The prognosis was excellent, only the treatment had been severe.
Jessie had suffered as much from the "cure" as the condition, until now, until him. Whatever else he would do or not do in her future, Jesse Dark had already done what no doctor could -- he had "kissed her better."
Now, safe at home in her own bathroom mirror, Jessie risked looking. She saw what Jesse Dark had seen by moonlight. Jessie did not appear so much mutilated as altered. On one side, the right, her breast was as before, full but still upright, rose tipped. On the left, the surface had shape but no detail, like the molded bosom on a naked store mannequin. Jessie was reminded of the "dollar dolls" she'd owned as a child, how the plastic breasts were suggested, without nipples; form instead of substance. She could not say the worst words, cancer or mastectomy. She hated those words, cancer the crab, taking its first bites of her, a literal nibble. And mastectomy reminded her of masticate -- the crab chewing on the most delicate meat.
"I had an operation" was all she could say.
Did it hurt? He had wanted to know. "Not really," she'd answered him; the nerves had been cut too. All she felt now was a sense of constriction; it was unfortunate that it was directly over her heart.
Later, she told him the story, how the surgeon had even offered to "pick it out," but when Jessie had viewed her own films, she had acknowledged the true picture. Speck after speck in her left breast, specks that collected into constellations...One could "pick out" that blasted star debris, that the doctors labeled "microcalcifications," as easily as one could capture a cloud.
So the true breast itself was gone, and with it, for a year, her own sensation. Until now, until Jesse. He had whispered, "It doesn't matter." Would that hold true?
She had not confided in any of the other women, even to Lisbeth, to whom she was closest in the group. All year, she'd hugged this secret to herself. No news was good news. No conversation meant that maybe it had not happened. Jessie had been too frightened to express fear. If she told people, it would seem more ominous. She would receive flowers in the hospital, there would be that buzz when she emerged. She had overheard so many whispered surgical horror stories at parties: "Oh, did you hear? She had..."
No, not for her. No flowers, cards, or whispers. She had maintained "business as usual," even with a plastic "drain" under her shirt. She went to editorial meetings, bandaged under her blouse, and no one "knew." So maybe she could convince herself it was not true. She was too scared for conversation; her own mother had died of the more serious version. Who needed to say, "Now maybe it's me?"
Was it now safe to confide this history to her friends along with the happy hoped-for ending? No, Jessie decided. Why start a flurry of delayed reaction, overconcern? Why worry her friends and give voice to feelings she did not want to express?
She had denied herself the release of confession, choosing instead the consolations of privacy. And she would maintain that silence tonight. Tonight was for Claire, tonight was for celebration, for happiness. If she told any tales at all, it might be of her romance. She wanted to brag -- "I did it. He loved me." He loved me, imperfect, as I am. Kissing a scar turns it to silk, restores sensation. I am healed.
Jessie smiled as she stepped under the hot shower. She wasn't thinking someone could arrive any minute, before she was ready. She was back in that motel room in Coyoteville, with that man who had surprised her with his sweetness. She was still marveling that a man with lips like leather could be kind.
She closed her eyes, feeling the water course over her skin, remembering how he'd touched and kissed her everywhere...how they had rushed the first time, to fit together, to erase what differences appeared, but the next several times, they had lingered. It had been easy then, to forget what had worried her; Jessie had forgotten everything, including who she was. And then it had been nice to remember, because he'd turned to her in the dawn and said, "Come here, I want to hold you."
Now, would he keep his promise? To call. Tonight. Eight o'clock. His time or hers? She wished she could be sure. It must have been "her" time. She tried to remember if he had been that specific. What exactly had he whispered in her ear -- "My time is your time"?
Or would he disappear now, as men were wont to do? Would he vanish, lost in that psychic equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, the postcoital divide? Or would he remain, a part of her, for now, forever? She turned off the water, toweled dry, and felt again that internal burning. Sexually transmitted disease or just cystitis? Pleasure or pain?
There was no time to dwell on what might be an unfortunate aftermath: Jessie threw on a bathrobe, then raced over to the stove. She pulled the Cornish hens from the oven; thank God, they had not burned. The glaze had worked: they shone, golden, brown, with flecks of apricot. The potatoes had not quite cooked through, and for a second, she considered finishing them in the microwave. She had the same contempt for her microwave that she had for her cell phone: more molecules moving around in the name of instant gratification. A necessary evil perhaps, but to be avoided when possible.
She put the potatoes back in the regular oven, to brown in the Cornish hen juices. With luck, they would finish roasting before anyone arrived. Jessie looked around -- it was almost respectable. She ran to get a dress, then on impulse, pulled the sweater she had worn when she met Jesse Dark from her suitcase. Perhaps it held part of the magic spell. The sweater was white wool, and becoming with her long dark hair. She drew on brown leggings, her comfortable old house shoes, and felt she was almost ready.
She set the green chili, circled by a frill of poised blue tortilla chips, on the counter near the table. For decoration, she added a bouquet of tulips, semifrozen from her long walk to the loft, and placed the flowers, on the nod, in the center of the table. Then she positioned the wine bottles, two to start, on the counter. As she worked, she could detect the cooking aromas, the plumes of garlic- and onion-scented steam.
Now, the piece de résistance: her gift for Claire and the baby. Jessie dragged out the carved wooden cradle that she had been saving for so long. The cradle was antique, perhaps 150 years old, handmade of course, with beautiful red-patterned woven straps. The cradle had originated in Lapland; it was designed to hang, like a hammock.
Claire will love it, she knew. No frilly pink ruffles, no acrylic fuzz. This was authentic and exotic: perfect for Claire. Jessie had bought it at an auction, thinking that maybe someday she might have her own baby. She felt a twinge as she propped her card "To Claire" on top of the cradle.
But no, she chided herself. Claire should have the cradle. Jessie stood back, for a moment, to admire the smooth wooden shape, rounded almost like an antique dough bowl. What fun it would be to see a baby in this, and how profound, that it had held babies for over a century. Jessie loved items imbued with history, and so did Claire -- it was one of the interests they shared.
Jessie felt suddenly happy: she was doing this for Claire. She ran through her final hostess frenzy: setting out the wineglasses, lighting more candles, a fire in the grate.
The temperature -- from the lights, the fire, the candles, and the stove -- began to rise, driving away the chill that had crept into the corners of the vast and until recently "raw" space. The half-frozen yellow tulips seemed to revive and open in response. The loft began to glow, exuding a more golden hue that pushed back the shadows and banished the factory's past.
Jessie popped the cork on a bottle of the Shiraz "Aussie Red," and let it and herself breathe. She turned on the CD player -- Rampal; Claire would appreciate the flute. Jessie herself enjoyed the first notes as they rose toward the loft's high ceiling. She might yet carry this off. She laughed as she took a preliminary sip of wine. It was amazing what you could do in an hour, if you had to...Maybe one more hors d'oeuvre and she could consider herself ready.
She was washing a grape tomato, and preparing to stuff it with cheese, when the downstairs buzzer shrilled. She ran to the intercom and called, "Who is it?"
"Come on up," Jessie said, and pressed the button. She heard the freight elevator groan, lurch, and ascend again. Then the elevator shuddered to a halt beside her, and opened to yield her first guest.
Copyright © 2002 by Laura Shaine Cunningham