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Vol. 5, No. 1

Disentangling
by Peter Rock

III. Sylvester

 

It is cold in the hotel room, the bed out in the middle and exposed to every draft. Lily rests on her side, facing away from Sylvester. His hand is warm, his palm soft. He strokes her bare hip, down along her leg, and then his hand rests, for a moment, between her thighs. Lily's breath whistles faintly through her nostrils, blurs into the sound of the wind. She feels so much desire, energy inside her-romance built up only to be buckled down.
    She laughs, gently, then coughs, forcing the breath from her lungs, her body curling so her cold breasts press against her ribs. The springs of the mattress complain and adjust when Sylvester stands. He walks around the bed and kneels, facing her. His warm hands are clasped, touching only each other. His skin smells sweet, faintly of vanilla. His fingernails, Lily knows, are perfectly manicured, smooth and shiny, their edges filed.
    The scene is softened through her lashes, her eyes half closed. She opens them more widely, and he is looking at her, into her, his eyes unwavering and true, not slipping away.
    "And true love caresses, leave them apart. They're light on the tresses, but hard on the heart."
    He says these words softly, under his breath, as she knew he would. Over his shoulder, she can see out the window, where a deflated balloon hangs sadly from a tree branch, its string tangled. Once, while she and Sylvester were here, a phone lineman in a yellow hardhat appeared in the window, standing on a one-man crane. He waved once, as if apologizing, then swung from view. He had no idea what he'd seen.
    Now Sylvester pulls the sheet over Lily's head. Everything is white. She feels him there, through the sheet, though she can no longer see him. She is not allowed to move, but she wants to. She wants to reach out and take hold of him, to hold him close.
    And then the silence is cut by the sound of something scratching along the plaster of the hallway, outside the room. Sylvester stands and gently rubs his hands together, as if clearing them of dust, a whisper between them as her dried skin is shaken loose. He steps away.
    Lily could throw the sheet aside, but she likes the light way it rests on her, tenting from her shoulder and hip. She likes the anticipation, the chance that Sylvester will pull it from her body. She listens to him as he puts things in the closet, as he closes the closet door. She waits for him to return, to say something; instead, she hears the whine of the hinges, of the door leading into the hall, and then the sound of that door closing.
    She imagines Sylvester walking to the elevator, descending three floors in twice the time stairs would take; she imagines him walking a little sideways, like he always does, as if he's constantly coming through a doorway. He's on the street, sauntering now, perhaps looking back, once, up to the window.
    With one hand, Lily tosses the sheet aside. The room is dim, the lamps turned off; the only illumination comes from the streetlight outside. She sets her bare feet on the floor; all the plaster and dirt have been swept against one wall. Standing, she goes to the window. Dirty raindrops, dried on the pane, are only visible up close, and through them she sees the yellow circles under the streetlights, and the light spilling from the window of the Kentucky Fried. She can see her car, parked below, a green Pinto wagon with wooden siding made of plastic. Even thieves disdain it.
    There is no sign of Sylvester. Perhaps he began running, once he left the hotel; perhaps he felt no desire to linger. Lily is not crying. She has no reason. Nothing has happened, really, yet she feels a collapsing inside.
    She scratches her head, then lifts the long straight wig free and holds it out in front of her. Her own hair is short and dark, cut close to the nape of her neck. Usually, Sylvester stays behind, helps her pin up the wig's long strands. There are no mirrors in the room. There is no furniture except the bed. Turning, she pulls the sheets tight, makes the bed, though she knows the bedding will be washed before they next return. Every time, the sheets seem whiter, bleached so hard it burns her lungs.
    Lily hangs the wig from its hook in the closet, then retrieves the petticoats from the floor, carefully folds them, and puts them away. She unhooks her garter belt, which pinches her for no purpose-she has no stockings for it to hold. She pulls the thin nightgown over her head, and stands in nothing but her panties; quickly, she fastens her bra, buttons her blouse. She shivers as she pulls on her stonewashed jeans, her suede boots that zip up the side. Her ski jacket is bright red, her cap striped with colors like a stack of LifeSavers.
    Lily looks the room over, one last time. Standing in the hallway, she locks the door to room 418 and heads for home.

~

The way things are with Sylvester is worse than nothing at all. It's been a frustrating kind of tease, the thinnest sliver of possibility. Today, it all felt different. Lily wants to straighten it, to try something, to talk until everything's been said. She must find him.
    When this all began, five months ago, it was light outside-they meet after she gets out of work. Now the days are shorter, and the streets are darker; this makes everything seem less hopeful.
    She works nine to five, transcribing legal documents, typing with headphones in her ears-tapes of recorded meetings, of lawyers talking to themselves in empty offices. There are seven other women like her, at the law firm, in a cluster of eight cubicles. When she turns off her machine and removes her headphones, she hears the buzzing murmur of all the others' headphones, all the tiny words. Below this static is the women's low breathing, as slow as if they were asleep. Their fingers tap, spidering across keyboards, and their eyes stare into the monitors where the processed words surface.
    After four years at this job, Lily began to make adjustments to her transcriptions. Not grammatical changes, but slight shifts of facts; insignificant details, mostly, never names or dates. She inserts adjectives, adverbs. So far, no one has noticed.
    Often, she'll work with a magazine or newspaper open in her lap. She'll read, in pauses, or when the tapes are rewinding. She reads the Philadelphia Weekly from the front to the back, where she finds her favorite section: the Personals.
    Her interest began with the 'I Saw You' ads, in which strangers try to translate a coincidence or chance encounter into something more, and then she graduated to the 'Men Seeking Women' and the 'Women Seeking Men'-and then all the possibilities and variations. She considered whether any of them could concern her.
    Lily is thirty-two years old. Her figure is nothing special, but it's not bad, and it's holding up; her face is plain, yet not unpleasant. And now there is Sylvester. She wants it to end, and she wants it to continue. She wants it to come to something beyond where it is, beyond anticipation. How is the romance of fulfillment different? She does not know. Perhaps it's shallower, knowing how things stand-perhaps it's no romance at all?
    Finally, it was the 'Anything Goes!' ads that had drawn her in, that brought her to room 418. She'd always read them furtively, not wanting to be caught. It was there-among the Naughty Committed Couple; the Hung, Hirsute Lady Lover; and the Talented Tongue-that all this began.
    

GOT MILK?

Generous WM seeks pregnant or nursing mother. Any size, shape, race. No other involvement sought. Who will let me suckle?
    Call Box 5693

WOMAN NEEDED

Discretion necessary. Age, race, looks negotiable. Dramatic encounters. Longing and Love. Regular. Details upon verification of suitability.
    Call Box 5701

WANTED: SEXY, WET PUSSY

19 YO WM, blond hair/blue eyed track star ISO female 18-28 to hear scream as I eat her for hours and reach ecstasy only dreamed of.
    Call Box 5754

      
    The ads abashed Lily, and they excited her. She imagined answering them, following through; sometimes she even called to hear more information. She never left her name. It was number 5701 that spoke to her-she was a woman, and one was needed. She knew longing, and she could use drama. Would she be found suitable?
    She had not planned to leave her actual name, her real number. The words escaped, a slip of her unguarded desire. The man called her back in less than an hour. His voice was calm, dignified. He did not give her more information, he only told her to come alone, to meet him in a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Why did she agree? She wonders if there is a difference between curiosity and desperation.

~

Lily had waited at a shining, plastic table, the fluorescent light reflecting all around her. She knew he was the one as soon as he came in-he so obviously didn't belong there. Where did he belong? She stood as he approached, and it surprised her, how tall he was, the bulk of him, his shadow falling across her and changing everything. For a moment, in that silence, she imagined him lying on top of her-she would be entirely covered, he would break her in two.
    "You may call me Dr. Bender," he said.
    He was dressed as if for a costume party set in a different era?in a dark suit, despite the heat, buckled shoes, his lank hair swept from his shining forehead. His speech seemed old, also, his words formal and carefully chosen, sifted through his mustache.
    "I'm delighted that you made it," he said, reaching to take her hand from her side. He smelled like alcohol, she thought, then decided it was some kind of medicine.
    She tried to tell him that there had been a mistake, that she didn't know him, that she'd had second thoughts.
    "Nonsense," he told her. He told her she had come in a spirit of goodwill, and that he appreciated it. "I assure you," he said, laughing under his breath, "that it is not I who is to be the object of your affection." He promised she would not be disappointed.
    The words Dr. Bender said were ridiculous, yet something-sincerity?-about the way he spoke made Lily follow when he guided her across the street and through the hotel's lobby, into the elevator and down the hallway, to room 418. When he opened the door, she stepped into the dilapidated room, the white bed glowing; against one wall rested two bright lamps, a cassette player on the floor between them.
    "I must leave you here," Dr. Bender told her. "I will return in under fifteen minutes."
    He closed the door behind him, and Lily was left alone. After a moment, she stepped to the single window. Below, she saw Dr. Bender slowly crossing the street, entering the Kentucky Fried. She re-crossed the room, reached for the doorknob. It was unlocked. Stepping into the hallway, she looked both ways; she could run, but then she would never know. He'd left the door open, perhaps, to show her that it was her decision. That she was not going to run was the scariest and most exciting fact of all.
    She stepped back into the room and closed the door, then walked around the perimeter. She pushed the PLAY button on the tape recorder; in a moment, there was a low, rough whistling, its pitch shifting. Hitting EJECT, she read the tape's label-Wind. She continued circling, spiraling inward until she reached the bed; she checked underneath it, then sat down to wait.
    When the doorknob turned, she stood. Dr. Bender entered the room first, but he was not alone. The other man was smaller, more Lily's size. His skin was black, his body slim. She liked the way he looked, and how he looked at her. If he was nervous, it was only slightly. He wore a brown leather jacket, the same color as his pointed shoes. His beard was shaved precisely, as if the edges were painted on; his mustache was just a sliver, four whiskers thick, balanced on his upper lip.
    Lily felt something as she stood ten feet away. A faint twinge in her rib cage, an edge of pain. Not exactly recognition, though Sylvester always felt familiar to her at the same time as he made her uneasy. Later, he told her that he, too, had answered an ad; Dr. Bender wanted to be sure they didn't already know each other.
    That first day, standing by the bed, she was ready for anything; she forced herself not to turn away. Earlier, she'd chosen a black dress that had grown tighter than she liked; she hoped it would be right for this, whatever this was. She'd pulled back her hair, and taken off all her jewelry. She wore black eyeliner, dark red lipstick. Shoes with low, sharp heels. She felt Sylvester's eyes on her, and sensed that he liked what he saw. He smiled, and his teeth looked sharp and white.

~

In the beginning they met twice, even three times a week, in room 418. Now, when she needs it most, the frequency has dropped to once every two weeks, or even less. Lily waits for the calls, checks her answering machine ten times a day, drives out of her way to pass the hotel.
    That first night ended after the introductions; it was only for Dr. Bender to be certain that Lily and Sylvester would do, that they could be trusted.
    "There will be compensation," he told them, "but I could not tell you that, before now-this is not prostitution, but people's thoughts tend toward the literal. Most of your compensation, however, will not be in money. Listen carefully to me: these times in this hotel are the only connection the three of us will have. Outside of this room, we do not exist for each other. Any breach of this, any attempt at contact, will mean the end. Are we in agreement?"
    The second time they met, he brought a duffel bag filled with their costumes. Both she and Sylvester had to change out of their clothes before they began. No nylon, no bright colors, no sneakers were allowed to be seen. They were all hidden away in the closet.
    The first few times were only rehearsals, really. Dr. Bender had to show them how it was all supposed to go. He was very serious about it; he never joked. He held their costumes against his body, playing both their parts. He even wore her wig, and they didn't laugh. They watched as he shifted the way he moved-not becoming them, but revealing a way they might be. He taught them exactly how to touch each other, the stiffness of their gestures, their expressions like something was being lost, slipping away.
    Every movement had to be repeated the same way. Every word, the lines built from some kind of old poetry. Dr. Bender worked and worked with Sylvester, repeating the words, helping him memorize them. Before long, Sylvester changed his beard to pointed sideburns; he was complimented for his authenticity.
    "You must do it with honesty," he told them, and his belief made it seem possible, as he stood aside and listened, as he watched with his pipe clenched in his teeth and a perfect whirlwind of smoke obscuring his face. "And don't ever ask me why. Your innocence is essential."
    Eventually, he spent less time in room 418 with them; he interrupted less frequently. There was nothing except the taped sound of the wind, the bright lights, Sylvester reciting the poetry, touching her only so far. Each time Lily became more aroused, as if she returned to find her excitement where she'd left it.
    "Unity of effect," Dr. Bender said, and soon he did not come into the room at all. There was only the phone call alerting them to be there, and then the scratch of his key in the hallway-the signal that he'd arrived and, then, the signal that he'd departed. Envelopes of money were there ahead of time, in the closet. They were not to talk outside of the words he gave them; Sylvester was to leave at the end of the scene, and once he was gone she could rise from the bed.
    Both she and Sylvester realized that Dr. Bender was in the next room, his eye watching through the hole in the wall. They knew better than to look at it, directly, yet it was always there, in their peripheral vision, switching back and forth. Sometimes she almost forgot they were being watched, but still she felt the weight of that eye, still she felt her movements subtly guided. Even when hours were lost in seconds and she felt a weightlessness, even when she saw Sylvester's erection, pushing out his nightshirt, the tip pulsing with his heartbeat. She never reached out and grasped it.
    "Be honest," Dr. Bender told them, yet until now the words and actions have felt stilted, slightly false.
    Today was the first time that they seemed to make sense, to feel as if they applied to her, to Sylvester: And true love caresses, leave them apart. They're light on the tresses, but hard on the heart.

~

As she accelerates down her street, Lily realizes she can't remember any of her drive from the hotel. She parks at the curb, locks the Club across the steering wheel, then opens the passenger door and slides across. The walk is icy, unshoveled; hurrying, finding the front door key, she almost falls.
    "Hello?"
    There's no answer. She shares the row house with two college girls, both ten years younger than she is. They study at Temple-Julie's in the education school, Kristin can't decide-and Lily has nothing in common with them. In the living room, there are posters of bands she's never heard, and a musty, broken-down couch, and a television with a tinfoil halo. She kicks her way toward the kitchen, where she picks up the phone.
    This is the only number she has for Sylvester. As it rings, as she figures out what to say, she glances at the bills stuck to the refrigerator by magnets. The cupboards are filled with mismatched plates and cups, everything chipped, left behind by prior tenants who are now far away, living better lives. Lily rinses out a glass and fills it with water, sets it next to a two-foot-tall bong she's never seen before-it's made of clear purple plastic, blackened around the bowl. She can't believe she lives in this world, and in the hotel, and at work, typing the lawyers' words. In each place, she feels like a different person; they are not subtle adjustments.
    Sylvester's not there. He never is. Lily pauses. She almost hangs up without leaving a message, then can't stop herself.
    "You took off on me! I need to talk to you, we need to get together. Outside of the hotel. Call me. We can't wait for that jackass elephant man to set it up. The times are too far apart. Call me."
    She hangs up the phone, and is not certain what to do next, only that it has to be something. Her car keys are still in her hand.

~

Lily had been ready for Sylvester since the first rehearsal-that is the truth. She'd wanted to throw the sheet aside, to open her legs and catch him there. They didn't have to talk, to plan it. They spoke with their eyes, the tremors in their outstretched hands. It took almost three months before they acted, before they touched in ways they hadn't been taught.
    That first time, they waited for the signal of Dr. Bender's departure, and then Lily slid out from under the sheet, and made the bed, and they started the scene from the beginning-carefully, like a spell, for no one except themselves. And after Sylvester covered her with the sheet, he uncovered her; he was no longer wearing his nightshirt. At the sight, she wrestled free from her gown, and then, at last, she felt his skin on her. She cried out, and he covered her mouth. He was quiet, but his hands were strong, his pale palms gently slapping her, his long dark fingers, finally, and his fingernails at the back of her neck, her thighs, the round cheeks of her ass. His eyes were wide, rolling and still on her. What she wanted was to feel his tip just forcing its way into her and then loose again and coming back inside; he wanted to be deep as he could be. They worked their compromise, again and again.
    It is always like that-only in room 418, and only after the scene has been played through, as a continuation. The possibility of Dr. Bender's return only heightens the thrill. Is it that he would punish them? Take the game away? Or is the possibility of disappointing him what tinges the act with delicious fear?
    They rested, that first night, after their shadows had buckled and rolled along the far wall; they laughed into each other's skin as the tape ran out and the wind clicked off. Lily almost told him he didn't look like a Sylvester, that it was a cat's name, but in that same moment she realized that Sylvester was not his name at all, but only one he gave her, to use as a marker. She felt silly, exposed, to have given him her actual name; in a way, she hoped he believed she'd given him a false one, too-in another way, she hoped he knew the truth.
    They climbed from the bed, together, and went to the hole in the wall. Bending down, they took turns peering through. The room on the other side was the same as the one they stood in, only more broken down and empty, littered with sticks of broken furniture.

~

    It's late, the streetlights blending into each other, the pedestrians harder to see. Lily circles through traffic, around the blocks of the city, in spirals, in figure eights. Where could he be? Is he looking for her? She drives slowly, aimlessly, choosing the narrowest alleyways, waiting patiently as people attempt to parallel park.
    Once they'd broken that rule, they couldn't stop. The scratch of Sylvester's beard left its mark, a kind of rash beneath her clothes; at work, she'd look down the neck of her blouse and shiver at the sight-a sign from another world-as she anticipated the next time. Only once did he call her, and then only to say he was thinking of her, that he liked the smell of her. He will never meet her, not outside of the hotel, not without Dr. Bender calling first, and he'll never talk of how they met, their connection to each other. He won't discuss Dr. Bender at all, what they do for him, or why-as if the language on the outside cannot describe it, as if they can only come together inside that staged scene.
    She will find him. She'll see him waving from the dark sidewalk, and she'll pull over; he'll open the door, and ask if he can drive. The driver's door is broken, so she'll slide across and climb out. They'll kiss, their bodies brushing against each other as they switch places, and then they'll begin to move through the city, out Kelly Drive, along boathouse row, the Schuylkill dark and frozen on the left.
    It's just so nice to finally see him outside of room 418, she'll say. She'll tell him that she feels like she can breathe. The dashboard light will flicker, as it does; Sylvester's expression will stay the same. Calm. When he turns his head to check his blindspot, he'll look at Lily for a dangerously long time before returning his attention to the road.
    She'll ask if he's taking her somewhere, if he's going to do things to her, and he'll only smile. They'll swoop across the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, toward the gates of the zoo, the dark shapes of fences and cages. In the parking lot, they'll fold down the Pinto's backseat and do it all-they'll say whatever they like, and take things in any order, and leave their clothes on or take them all off. Afterward, Sylvester will hold her; he will talk to her like he always does. Sometimes he tells her that he is not married, that he runs a small business; he never says exactly what kind. He talks about things she can't quite follow, and his voice rises with a kind of pride. He says there's a different kind of economy in the city-one that is about scores being settled, one that is not only about money. For him, though, it is about money, because of the things he can do, the things he can make happen. Sometimes it has to seem like a random accident, a strange coincidence, and other times it has to seem like a prank. The more powerful people are, he says, the more petty they are. Motivations are subtle, difficult to figure.
    Sylvester can do all this, and more. And it means that whenever someone crosses him, whenever he feels someone taking advantage, he knows how to handle the situation-he takes pleasure in doing so. "I won't stand being disrespected," he said, once, lying back with his hand on his forehead, staring at the hotel room's cracked ceiling. "I can get behind anyone, no matter what they're doing and who they are, how quick-I'll be behind them and they won't even know it." He tells Lily to let him know if anyone makes her feel afraid. He says he can straighten anything.
    She needs him here, on the outside; to have him only in room 418 is worse than not at all. It tears at her now, remembering how he'll turn over, how he'll hold her so gently with his soft voice spilling all around her.

~

Now she drives past the zoo parking lot, down the other bank of the Schuylkill. She heads back into the city, into the narrow streets. Her eyes want to close; her legs are cramped. She parks, opens the passenger door, then slides across and stretches in the cold air. Reaching across the lighted cab, she kills the ignition, pockets the keys. She locks the passenger door and starts off. She feels the need to walk.
    There's only the sound of her arms against her sides, the slick whisper of nylon. She mistakes squirrels for rats before she sees their tails-one tries to bite the other's ass, they spiral up a tree. The streets are empty. Still, she feels as if she's being followed; she looks behind her but she can't see far. What time is it? She doesn't have her watch.
    She lingers in dark, narrow alleys, pauses to stamp snow from her boots. She cannot feel her fingers or toes. Paper and plastic bags circle in the cold wind, caught in an empty intersection. She wants to be at its center, spun there, her arms wide. Three men in hard hats, one half-submerged in a manhole, watch her pass; next to them, a metal heater shaped like a torpedo blows steam into the night. The men disappear and surface in the cloud.
    When Lily sees the diner, she's thinking of coffee, of chicken noodle soup. The neon is faint through the steam-covered windows. She leans into the door and, overhead, bells ring.
    There are only a few tables, booths along the windows, and a horseshoe-shaped counter ringed with stools. The Formica is dull, worn in round spots where many elbows have rested. The air smells of burned coffee, of hamburgers. Lily is not certain if she senses him before she sees him. Dr. Bender. He absolutely fills one side of a booth; no one could fit next to him. His back faces her, and he has not seen her, but she cannot walk away. Instead, she is drawn closer, until she could reach out and touch his shoulder. Loose papers cover the table and he is writing in a notebook. He hums, murmurs to himself. His pen does not stop or slow; it trails a line of black, crooked letters, words impossible for her to read.
    Turning suddenly, Dr. Bender smiles, as if he is hardly surprised, as if he is happy to see her. She's embarrassed about her clothes-the red nylon jacket, the striped hat-but he doesn't seem to take offense or even notice.
    "Lily," he says. "Are you unhappy?" He gently closes the notebook, then begins shuffling and stacking the papers. "Sit down." He grips the edges of the table in his huge hands and pulls it toward him, making space on the other side. "Where are my manners?"
    "I don't know," she says. "It's late, I mean. I don't know if I can sit down."
    "Sit down," he says again. "It can't get much later."
    She sits, only half facing him. There's no room for her legs beneath the table. Over the doorway, she sees there's plastic mistletoe. Strings of popcorn and cranberries hang from the ceiling above the counter. She feels Dr. Bender watching her, even as he continues to straighten his papers. Is this meeting a coincidence? Does it matter? Suddenly, she's sweating, as if warmth radiates from the doctor's huge body. She unzips her jacket, shrugs it off behind her.
    "It can always get later," she says.
    "I suppose you're right," he says. "Until it becomes early, again."
    She has not seen him up close for months; he seems older now, more tired. His hands, loose on the table, look wide and dangerous; his head is enormous, heavy, and his small eyes are fixed on her. The loose skin on his face and neck suggests that he was once even larger, that he is shrinking.
    "I'm surprised you'd ask me to sit here," she says. "I thought it was against the rules-seeing each other outside, I mean."
    "It's late," he says.
    Lily cannot tell if he means more than just the hour. A silence settles between them. She wonders if they can now talk about what was forbidden before; she wonders what else they would have to discuss. Away from room 418, he seems less overwhelming-frail, somehow, despite his size. She feels suddenly unfettered, facing him.
    "Are you really a doctor?" she says.
    "Yes," he says. "A kind of doctor."
    "A kind?"
    "I am an examiner." He gestures to the papers at his elbow. "I investigate murders. I find clues in the bodies of the deceased."
    She kicks him under the table, by mistake. The cups of coffee-when did the waitress bring them?-quiver and spill into their saucers before settling. Dr. Bender waves off her apology.
    "What brings you out this late at night?" he says.
    "Driving." She shrugs, to show that speaking of herself does not interest her, that this is not where she wants to take the conversation. "So," she says, "all these papers have to do with a murder?"
    "I've been involved in an investigation this evening, yes."
    "Well," Lily says.
    Dr. Bender takes his pipe from a pocket, but the waitress stops him before he can light it. He thanks her, and sets it carefully on the table. Time passes very slowly, as if the air has thickened around them.
    "I think we know who's responsible," he says to Lily, his voice lower. "I think you do." He looks into her eyes. "The man we know as Sylvester," he says.
    Lily is surrounded by the smell of old pipe smoke, of chemicals and cologne. The surface of her skin tightens, winding cold and then loosening, her muscles finally relaxing. She imagines Sylvester's face, his smile. A murderer. She finds it hard, if not impossible, to believe.
    "By your reaction," Dr. Bender says, "I can see that you did not know about it. I'm thankful to find that's the case. Still, it would interest me to be put in touch with him. Sylvester."
    "You could call him," Lily says. "Set up a meeting in room 418."
    "We will get to that. We will discuss the hotel." Dr. Bender rakes his hair back from his forehead, mops his face with a handkerchief, smooths his mustache. "Now, though, I'd like to ask your help in contacting this man. Tonight's events may impair my ability to do so, and I believe you might have more direct means. I'd be willing to pay."
    "This was never about money," she says, her mouth dry, her voice uneven.
    "Of course not," he says. "I apologize for my presumption. You've already done so much for me."
    Lily watches drops of water roll down the inside of the window, making long rips in the steam, collecting in puddles around the dead flies on the sill. She remembers Dr. Bender in her wig, his huge body moving in slow motion, teaching her all the pieces of the scene. She tests a fork's tines against her fingertips.
    "You told us never to contact each other," she says. "I never even tried."
    "On the contrary." Shifting the papers, he takes out a microcassette player; it looks like a domino against his huge hand. "This tape," he says, "was in the answering machine, at the scene of the crime I am investigating." Dr. Bender pushes the PLAY button. At first, through the static, there's his own voice:
    "Thursday, November nineteenth, five-thirty p.m. The location remains the same as always."
    Lily recognizes the message-it's identical to the ones he leaves for her. Then there's a click, and a beep, and then a woman's voice; it takes a moment for her to realize it's her own. The message is from today, earlier, while she stood in her kitchen. Her voice is strained, insistent. Dr. Bender lets the message play to its end, and then he stops the tape.
    "'Jackass elephant man,'" he says, almost smiling. "That's pretty good." He puts the tape player away. "Now," he says, "there's no reason we can't be honest with each other."
    "I don't know," Lily says. She feels caught, found out, and she cannot tell why Dr. Bender is not more upset with her. "I only have the phone number you do," she says. "Obviously."
    "I believe," Dr. Bender says, "that our friend Sylvester misunderstood my intentions. My motivations. I know he's followed me, that he's collected information. None of that matters. I want to find him, to tell him that. This is no competition; I do not want to challenge or hurt him."
    "What about me?" Lily says. "What if I was hurt?"
    Dr. Bender closes his eyes, opens them, closes them again. The sharp hands of the clock above the counter are about to meet at 12.
    "I was hurt," she says. "I think everything's changed and I don't know why, except now you have to tell me, now I'm going to ask. Don't interrupt." Lily struggles to keep her voice down. She stares across at him until he turns his eyes away. "I used to think it was simple," she says, "that you liked to watch, and while your eye was watching us your hands were on yourself, on the other side of that wall. Now I think it was something else, something more complicated. I don't know what."
    Dr. Bender opens his eyes. He does not seem to see her. He licks his lips, then begins to speak. "At first," he says, "I just wanted to see it, to see something like that. Between people, you understand. It was never so crass as you suggest."
    "At first?" she says.
    He takes out his handkerchief and wipes his face. His lips tremble, but no words come out. Finally, he waves to the waitress, then orders a bowl of soup.
    "Who did he kill?" Lily says.
    Dr. Bender looks at her as if what she's said makes no sense at all. On the stools at the counter, two men turn to stare.
    "I apologize," he says. "I understand how you could have reached that conclusion. However, while this evening's investigation appeared to be a murder, it turned out to be no such thing. I don't believe our friend is in fact capable of such a crime."
    Lily's coffee is gone; she can still feel it on her teeth, sour in her stomach. With one hand, she squeezes the napkin dispenser. The spring inside squeaks. Her other hand tests the chewing gum, dried and hard, stuck along the bottom of the table.
    "I wanted," Dr. Bender says, the words coming slowly. "I wanted it to be pure. Does that sound ridiculous?" Lily tries to shake the sympathy rising in her. She wants to comfort him, but she has to fight for herself, as well. Is it ridiculous, what he is saying?
    "Only because it was fake," she says. "It was set up and artificial from the beginning."
    "Yes," he says. "In the beginning. Let me ask you this-it took about three months, didn't it? Before you started breaking rules? I could tell. Just the way your movements changed, the slight adjustment in how you reacted to each other. A different tension between you. A new familiarity."
    "You expected too much," she says. "We're just people."
    "Exactly," he says. "It was never meant to be perfect. I saw the attraction, it was necessary, and I expected you would eventually consummate it. Once you had that secret, you moved differently; the lights shone on you in a new way."
    "You watched us?"
    "No," he says. "Not beyond what we'd rehearsed. I was happy to recognize it, though, that you two had dared. I wanted the feelings to become real. I wanted you to forget me and how everything began."
    "That was the point?" Lily says. "How could we forget?"
    "You couldn't," he says. "And I couldn't. That could not be overcome. I did not know that at first. I had to learn it. I had to learn that the person who had to see it was someone else entirely, someone who didn't know the beginning."
    "What are you talking about?"
    "This was the final night," he says. "Tonight. I won't be calling you again."
    "Just like that," Lily says, her voice soft. It is a statement, not a question. Her hands are in fists, and she straightens her fingers; she has failed to hold on to anything. The news does not come as a surprise, she tells herself, since she has already sensed that it's over.
    Dr. Bender straightens his stack of papers, his gaze turned down. He looks less tired now. His eyes shine, his thick fingers unfold. Shifting his weight, he slides his two leather suitcases out from under the table. He opens one, and feeds his papers into it. He holds up the microcassette player for a moment, as if it's a joke between them.
    "If you'll excuse me," he says, standing. "It has been my pleasure."
    "Your soup," she says.
    It rests in the middle of the table, yellow and steaming.
    "I ordered it for you," he says.
    As he walks away, the heavy suitcases, one in each hand, seem necessary to hold his feet to the floor. He is already at the door, too far away to hear, when Lily calls out to thank him.

~

The waitress takes away the bowl once the soup is gone. Lily sits, summoning the energy to rise, trying to remember where her car is parked. She is thinking of all she gave up, all she hoped for-that world has collapsed in on itself and cannot be found again, can never be understood from here. This saddens her; at the same time, she feels a kind of relief.
    Then a movement startles her. Someone is outside, on the other side of the window, a hand only inches from her face, trying to scrub away the steam. The steam is on the inside, so it cannot be cleared. Next, a white face, blurred and strange, leans close, trying to see her. Lily feels her heart accelerate, her fingers go cold.
    Then the bells ring, and a man enters. He's slight-a boy, actually. A teenager. He doesn't hesitate; he walks straight for her. There's something eerie about him, not quite right. The white lining, like cotton, pushes through holes in his jacket. His long blond hair is parted straight down the middle, that line a bright arrow, pointing at her.
    He stands next to the table. She tries not to meet his eyes. He reaches out, picks up the glass of water Dr. Bender left behind. When she looks at the boy, she realizes that the shining on the smooth skin of his face, and his hands, is not reflected from the light above. It's coming from within, radiating outward.
    "I almost didn't recognize you," he whispers, his lips hardly moving. "I like your hair this way."
    Lily does not answer, and he does not seem to mind. He begins to drink, and she watches. She has never seen him before. His fingers on the glass are almost translucent; they disappear, they multiply. She senses that something is about to happen, that this is no coincidence, no mistake. The boy does not set the glass down until the ice rattles against his teeth. He still does not sit, but remains standing close, watching her.
    "No one told me to find you," he says.
    "What?" she says, her voice even lower than his.
    "Is it all right if I touch you?" he says.
    Lily doesn't answer, doesn't really nod.
    His fingers are cold, electric, working beneath the hair at the nape of her neck, then pressing her skin. A delicious warmth pours down her spine, along her nerves that branch like trees, like fingers-feathers of heat roll down her arms, her legs, to the tip of each finger and toe and circling darkly back. She gasps. Warm filaments snake around her bones, loose in her skull, and settle everywhere, rooted and tight.
    Then the boy withdraws his hand. Turning, he walks slowly away, through the door.
    Lily watches him go. She sees him outside, along the steamy window, the shape of him fading and then no longer there. The warmth remains; it resides in her. She knows that she will carry this change out into the night, that she will rise with it in the morning. Days and weeks, months and years. She will find love, here and in other places, with other people. Hope will overflow and spread out before her.

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