Houston is made up of concentric rings, suburbs and exurbs surrounding the compacted central hell of the city. My hotel was somewhere in the middle of this vast Inferno, two-and-a-half million people living around, underneath, and on top of one another, a sexless orgy of humanity.
Here on the twenty-fourth floor and suitably anonymous, where the view is nothing but the jagged teeth of other high-rise buildings against the deep velvet blue of the darkening summer sky, nothing can touch me. And thank God—or whomever—for that. The room is technically a suite, I guess, with a separate sitting area and a little burlap-covered love seat along one beige-painted wall. The bed is maybe ten feet away, but neither Chris nor I can look at it. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Chris is perched on some cheap Ikea reproduction of an Eames chair, her nearly empty lowball glass dangling from the elegant long fingers of one hand. I’m alone on the love seat, my own drink untouched on the narrow glass-topped coffee table in front of me. My wedding ring feels heavy and prominent, like its weighing down my left hand. Maybe it is.
Chris is Chris, same as she ever was: dark hair and piercing eyes, thick well-defined eyebrows. Her mouth is full but not too much so, and her teeth are white and even. She’s put on a few pounds since we were together, but so have I. Besides, back then, she was too thin; now, her dancer’s body has had a chance to slow down and let the rest of the world catch up with her. She doesn’t wear glasses anymore.
“Something I always liked about you,” she says in the deepening gloom. “You take me to the weirdest places.”
We’ve just returned from a wedding at the Natural History Museum out in Sugar Land, maybe forty minutes from the hotel, a straight shot down I-69 in Chris’s light blue two-seater BMW convertible. Out there in the middle of the fossils and the displays and a bunch of people neither one of us had ever met before, we watched my friend Callie get married, ate the rubber-chicken dinner, and again meandered through the museum to look at everything. We could walk around, together but never touching, and laugh with one another and cast sidelong glances, grinning like little kids when one of us catches the other looking.
“It’s a hard-won skill,” I answer. My voice sounds normal. Calm.
I lean forward and pick up my glass, sipping a little of the single-malt scotch and feeling the fire bloom inside my chest down close to my heart. I put the glass back down onto the table carefully, placing it exactly where it had been.
“It’s—god, has it really been ten years?”
A little more. The last time I’d seen her, she had come to see me during a layover at Denver International. I was flying out to take a job with a newspaper somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming and had a couple of hours to kill. She was living in Colorado Springs. We’d decided that we’d meet for dinner at one of those awful airport restaurants. The food wasn’t the point, of course. My point, as it had always been since the day I met Chris, was to see her and be in her orbit, a fading planet, finding warmth from an increasingly distant star.
But Chris was always more complicated than me. She showed up, like she always did, running a little late and a little breathless. Her boyfriend came with her, and I understood then why she had agreed to see me: She needed me to see that it was over, that the separation was real, and that she wasn’t coming back. None of that was ever said, not out loud. When she introduced me to Perry, I shook his hand gravely and thought of those relay runners who hand a baton off to another racer once their lap is done.
But that was then and this was now. Perry’s lap around the track was over, just like mine had been finished before his. She was married to someone else now, some guy who had conned his way into the Trump administration and then had to resign because of all the lies on his resume. The thought made me smile, but the darkness in the room hid my satisfaction.
Chris moved on and on serially, always finding another relationship to leap toward just as the last one struck the iceberg. I knew that as well as anyone. She had leapt from a helicopter pilot named Josh to me, with hardly any hesitation whatsoever, and I was good enough until someone else came along. These days she was with an Indian national while he was in the country, and with whomever else she felt like when he left the country on business trips.
I knew all of this about her, knew that faithfulness was not a part of her being, that monogamy—even serial monogamy—was not in her makeup. She had cheated on me whenever the occasion presented itself, whenever the desire struck her, and still I stayed within her orbit. When we were together, the other men she had been with did not matter; when we were apart, the other men were only obstacles.
Nothing had mattered to me. Only her.
And now here we sat together in a darkened hotel room again. Not touching. Fully dressed. I could tell her how many years it had been. Hell, I could tell her the number of days since the last time we’d slept together. I could count the hours down from the time I had carefully and gently kissed her lips goodbye before she drove away to start a new life in a new place, far away from me. I could remember the taste of her lips, the way her mouth opened to mine like a flower toward the Sun. I could feel our sex and how I could never get enough of it, how being with her was like giving oxygen to a drowning man. I couldn’t show her the scars on my soul, but she knew they were there. I could feel them throb.
I rose and took my glass over to the sink, rinsed it out, and poured a couple more fingers of scotch. I raised the bottle and looked at Chris perched there in that chair, her black skirt slid slightly up her thighs, the royal blue silk button-down blouse. She shook her head.
I went back to the love seat and sat, leaning forward this time. Control, Hank. Control.
“What are you smiling about?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess it’s funny.”
“This is the longest we’ve ever spent together in a hotel room with our clothes on.”
Chris nodded as if I’d said something very wise. Or very foolish. She took a long drink from her glass, then looked over its rim at me. As always, her gaze was direct and nearly unsettling. In the dim room, her eyes looked black.
“A new world record.”
Between the sitting area and the bar was a sliding-glass door that led out to a small concrete balcony with an iron railing about waist height. You could stand out there on the balcony and smoke a cigarette, let the updraft carry the ashes away somewhere so that you would never have to deal with the consequences of dropping hot gray ash from twenty-some stories up. It was too bad I didn’t smoke.
I step out to the balcony anyway, letting the vertical blinds that hang in the doorway slither past me like harmless hanging snakes. At the railing, I can look out on the ugly city. My hands grip the railing, and in the failing gray light I can see that my knuckles are so tight that they are white. A moment later, Chris joins me. She puts one soft and elegant hand on my back, between my shoulder blades, and the weight of it there calms me.
A couple of years ago, I went to the Kentucky Derby. I got to prowl around the paddock and look at some of the horses up close, big chestnut-colored beasts with streaming manes and tails, their hides fairly glowing under the Bluegrass sky. One of the horses had become restless, and so his jockey put one hand on the horse’s shoulder, up near the neck, and it gentled right down.
That’s what she’s doing to me, I thought. Hundred-pound jockeys control thousand-pound horses with a nudge. It’s about control.
Every time Chris and I made love, it was about control, being careful. Like carrying a cup filled right up the brim with hot liquid and keeping it from spilling over and burning your hand or making a mess on the carpet. The first time had been in her bed, on top of the covers, barely room for the two of us, the springs beneath us squeaking and crying out desperately. There were no words, or at least none I can remember. What I still remember, as if it had just happened yesterday, is the way she tasted, the way she smelled, the way she looked afterward, how those intense eyes softened as she held me close.
And I remember, as I always did, my sense of wonder that she had chosen me to make love with, chosen me to fill her and move with her and simply be with her in that way. The only thing I have seen in the twenty years since that first moment afterward, when the silence lay upon us and we swam back to the surface like divers from a deep blue sea, that filled me with more awe was the birth of my sons.
“Come back inside,” she says, and slides her hand down to my waist to take hold of one of my belt loops. It’s hot as hell outside, swampy and wet even up here away from the streets. I can feel my shirt cling to my back where she’s pressed it down.
I turn to her there on the balcony, my hands finding the familiar territory of her waist, then her hips. She moves in closer to me, and our lips brush against one another, almost as if by accident. And then there is no space at all between us as we lose ourselves, lips and tongues made for nothing other than this singular moment.
Four years. That’s how long it took us from first kiss to last. I didn’t know the pain that would come afterward, did not understand the hurt. I was twenty-nine years old the first time I knew what it was like to really be in love, and thirty-three when she killed me the first time.
The first time she cheated on me was with a guy named Patrick. After she told me, I lay in bed and devised ways to kill him. He and I knew one another slightly in that way that you know who a person is when you’ve grown up in the same town with them and gone to the same high school. He’d always been a nice guy, not a friend, but someone I knew. He was bigger than me, and even though he wasn’t known as a particularly tough kid, I was pretty sure he could handle me in any kind of fair fight.
I couldn’t get out of bed for days. I devised plans to keep them apart. I would talk with Chris on the phone, pathetic in my need for her, and I could feel the distance in the sound of her curt replies to me. Couldn’t she see I needed her?
Patrick was a recovering drug addict and open about it. I could buy a sizable amount of weed and hide it in his car. Then call the cops. That could work. But I had never done drugs, not at all, and I had always hung around a kind of churchy crowd when I was younger, so even though I might have a workable idea, the plan seemed stalled, with no way to put it into motion. I didn’t have a hookup, not even as a thirty-year-old adult.
I needed a way to drive a wedge between them, so I did the next-best thing: I told Chris that Patrick had begun doing drugs again. It was a lousy thing to do. But my need for her outweighed everything else. I was an addict myself, but it was her that I was addicted to. When they broke up—when Chris couldn’t or wouldn’t believe Patrick’s denials—she came back to me.
Now, moving on the balcony together, fitting like long-lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, it felt different. I don’t know which of us pulled away first, so that means it was probably her.
“I’d forgotten how … intense … you could be,” she said. Her lips were swollen, her chin reddened from my five-o’clock shadow. How do we leave so many words unspoken and still understand one another?
We go back inside, and now she kicks her shoes off and joins me on the love seat, sitting turned toward me with her feet tucked under her admirable little butt. We’re both sweating now, and the air-conditioner in the hotel room is working hard. I left the door of the balcony open, and we can hear distant sounds of city streets, human noises that will wake us eventually from this small isolated dream and drown us back to reality.
“We’ve always been different,” I say. “You’re the practical one. I’m the hopeless romantic.”
Chris rises from the love seat and goes to the sink. She pours us new drinks in the old glasses, pads back across the room and hands me one. My arm is draped across the back of the little couch, forming a perfect little nook for her to cuddle in against me. But she sits again as she had before, our knees nearly touching. She is very like a cat, my Chris. If you want her to come to you too badly, she will not.
“I wouldn’t say hopeless,” she says, and uses those elegant fingers to reach out along the back of the love seat to find my hand and stroke my wedding ring. She’s wearing one, too. It doesn’t match mine, of course.
The second time she cheated on me was with Kevin. He was a flyboy at the local Army post, stationed there for flight school, learning to fly attack helicopters in one endless war or another. I’m sure he was handsome in his flight suit. They all are, and they all seem to land townie girlfriends for the three- to six-month courses they take out at the base. I never met Kevin, but I saw him from a distance a few times.
Just as with Patrick, I didn’t know how to get rid of Kevin, either. He lived on the Army post, so I had no access to him. I took to driving around my hometown at all hours of the night. I knew what he drove, and I’d see the car around town. One night when he was at Chris’s place, I sneaked up to the passenger side of his car and scratched a gay slur in huge block letters in the paint with a flat-tipped screwdriver. His Army buddies got blamed for it. Chris told me he wasn’t well-liked by them, either.
It took her a while, but Chris came back to me again. Kevin had grown distant (of course he had—he was only there to fly, and to get a little piece on the side). She told me that he had a huge cock, and I was dumb enough to ask “How big?” At least twice as long as yours, she said. “But yours is thicker, I think.”
The night she told me that, I fucked her five times.
We had made love countless times, but that was the first time that it felt well and truly like fucking, like I was using her as an object just to get myself off. I could feel when she orgasmed beneath me, but I didn’t care if she came. Her pleasure was incidental to my own, and yet she kept encouraging me. Keep going, keep going, keep going. My head was a red haze of anger, my hips nothing but a piston-driving machine. And when I was at last done, exhausted and slick with fever-sweat, I rolled away from her and off the bed toward the shower. I couldn’t stand feeling wrong about what we had just done.
But that was a long time ago. Tonight, I caressed her cheek, and she tilted her warm face into the palm of my hand. Her hair fell over my wrist, soft and full. I could remember how it felt in my fingers, how lovely it looked splayed across the pillow on her bed. There was a moment, so many years ago, when she’d cut her hair from its long tresses down into a pixie cut. She’d given me a lock of her hair then. I still have it somewhere.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said finally, and stood up. She ran her fingers through her hair and let out a loud sigh. “I don’t think we should do this.”
I laughed, a mostly silent little chuff of sound. But she caught it. She knew me so well, even after all these years. I tended to forget that she knew me almost as well as I knew her. And if she didn’t know all of my secrets that was simply because I had more secrets to keep than she did.
“I know, I know. I’m impossible. I can’t—”
“Hush,” I say. “I get it.”
“I think so,” I say. “We’ve been doing this dance for how long? I get on a plane to come see you—”
“I thought you wanted to go to your friend’s wedding.”
“Do I have to spell everything out for you?” I ask. “You know why I came. Why I’m really here, charging at the football like Charlie Brown. You wouldn’t be Lucy if you didn’t snatch it away at the last second. Every time.”
She folded her arms across her chest, a hard frown pulling down the corners of her mouth. In the glowering dark, she looked ancient and unknowable, an Easter Island head with a shroud of hair.
“That’s what you really think?”
“It’s not what I think. It’s how it is.”
“You fucking bastard,” she says. “I don’t know why I thought maybe you’d changed after all this time.”
“I could say the same.”
“Everything that’s not a yes is a rejection to you,” she says. “Maybe I can’t always say yes, Hank. Did you ever think of that? It’s not always about you and what you want.”
“When has it ever been?”
Chris sits down in the faux Eames chair and begins putting her shoes back on. In the darkness, she feels around like a blind person, patting the floor for her other shoe and not breaking eye contact with me. When she finds the shoe, she slides it on and stands back up. She’s in my face now.
“It is always about you,” she says. “It’s about you and why in the hell I can’t give you what you want, why I can’t ever be what you want me to be. How can you not see that?”
I don’t know what to say to that. This is the most anger I’ve ever seen from her. Even when we were on the rocks, when we were fighting over Patrick or Kevin or whomever else she let into her bed, she was never this angry. I don’t know what to do with this anger, a fury that matches my own in its intensity and pain. Chris takes a deep breath, steadies herself, and lunges forward with her next salvo.
“You and I, God, this is why we can’t be together. You know the DNA strand, the double-helix thing? That’s what I think about when I think about you and me. We’re constantly pulling apart and coming back together. We’re part of the same thing, but we can’t always be together. I thought you knew that. I thought you understood.”
“I love you,” I say. “I always have.”
The smile that breaks on Chris’s face is irrevocably sad, like an orphan on Christmas morning.
“I know,” she says. “And I love you, too. But it’s not enough. It never was. I’m sorry.”
And now she’s at the door. Why is she the one who always leaves? Why am I the one left behind, always left behind. Charlie Brown watching the football being pulled away and away and away, kicking hopelessly and praying that this time–by God, this time–it will be different.
But it’s not. I watch her go, hear the final click in the hotel room door as she closes it softly behind her. I cross to the sink, pour myself a little more of the scotch, and step out through the open door onto the balcony. The heat, after the air-conditioning in the room, is like a warm, damp blanket pressed down on a baby’s face and held there against the inevitable thrash and wail of a dying infant.
She’s killed me again, and I think again about how very like a cat Chris is. But maybe I am, too. I drink a little scotch and watch it disappear as the night grows deeper and the traffic and the people in the city center disappear. My watch tells me it’s past midnight, and all of the scotch in the glass is gone. I hold the glass out over the balcony and see the light refract and sparkle with the dim fury of the city lights.
And then I let it go. The empty glass tumbles from my fingers and falls down, down, down, a streak of quicksilver against the black velvet of the night. Twenty-four stories to the black and waiting Styx of the pavement. It’s so far away that I don’t even hear the glass shatter when it hits the street.
Bobby Mathews is a writer and former journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama. His short fiction runs the gamut from literary to crime and horror. His novel, Magic City Blues, will be published in February 2022 from Close to the Bone.