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It all began last year when Michele started commuting with me.
Our schedules were almost always the same. She boarded the train one stop after mine each morning and she sat in the same car with me at least four days out of five. Our schedules varied more in the afternoons, but I still saw her at least once or twice a week on the way home.
Both of us always chose the quiet car, me so I could spend time writing, my fingers dancing across the keys of my laptop, her so she could read and make notes in the small notebooks she carried with her, pausing from time to time to write something down. What is was she wrote I didn’t know, but hardly a trip went by when she didn’t put aside her book, pull out one of her brightly colored notebooks and write something. Sometimes her jottings were just a few words, other times she wrote for as long as ten minutes.
We rarely sat close enough for me to see what she was reading, but the few times that I did see a spine or a cover, it was poetry—once it was Rilke, another time Yates—or the angry novels of the younger generation, works filled with sexual license, terrorism, loneliness, desperate depression and anger. The contrast between the beauty of the poetry and the meanness of the prose fascinated me.
In her bright colors—pink one day, turquoise the next, a glowing yellow the following day, a raging purple the day after—she exuded the careless sensuality of the young. Her hips swayed their invitation when she walked the aisles, her breasts jostling in bras that did not quite constrain them as the train cars shifted back and forth crossing points or changing tracks. The white wires of her iPod always dangled from her ears, a vaguely self-satisfied smirk creasing her face, and a faraway gaze were the constants of her expression as she searched for a seat.
I found that I couldn’t help but watch her each morning, peering over the tops of my glasses, the light of my laptop screen a pale reflection in the lenses, as she threaded her way toward my end of the car, always to my end. Because I was one of the first to board each morning, I always managed the same seat, the only one facing forward on the upper level, my line of site down a long row of fold down seats that faced the center of the car. Some days she would land no more than a few seats from me, others as many as ten, but never farther than that.
When someone large sat and blocked my view of her, I was unhappy. When I had an unobstructed line of sight, my day began with a private, inward smile.
Her body was alluring in all the right ways. No more than five feet two, she was petite where a woman should be and nicely rounded in those other places. Her breasts were large for a woman so short, but not so large as to overpower her looks. Her hair was clipped short and spiky in a very modern style, blonde streaked with lighter blonde and hints of red peeking out from beneath. Her skin was so smooth and softly tanned that I felt irresistibly drawn to it, to her calves, her cheeks, and the softness of her neck.
She dressed in a way that spoke of a careful planning. During the warm months her skirts were very short, but not quite so short as to cross the line from professional attire to club wear. Her tops, whether blouses in the summer or sweaters in the winter, were always tight, hugging her remarkable figure. Her jewelry was a perfect compliment to whatever she wore.
Against the glow of her tan she almost always wore bright red lipstick, a shocking contrast to the whiteness of her teeth, teeth that she bared from time to time in a smile to herself as she scribbled away. Her nails were likewise red, a deep, sensual red. And the middle toe of her left foot was bound with a small silver circlet.
She could be no more than 25, just a year or two older than my own daughters, but an entire world away when it came to her sophistication, her grace, the aura of sensuality she exuded.
The ring finger of her left hand sported a platinum band and a second ring with a large diamond, maybe an entire carat. Some man somewhere nearby was very lucky.
As the weeks, then the months went by, we sometimes exchanged glances, those small moments of recognition that two people who do not know one another but who see each other almost every day share. If our eyes met, I always smiled a small smile. She likewise smiled an equally small smile back. Then we returned to our work—me to my writing, her to her reading and scribbling.
Sometimes she would wander into my dreams just before dawn to tempt me with her softness, her lips parted, a thin line of white visible beneath the red, red of her lips.
The change in our non-relationship began in early May. I was stuck on a particularly difficult sentence, one that just would not read the way I wanted it to no matter how many permutations I tried. I found myself growing angry at the words, as though it were somehow their fault that I couldn’t make them do what I wanted. Finally, I gave up and slapped my laptop closed, exasperated with myself. I don’t know if it was the anger gaziantep escortlar I was giving off or the snap of my laptop closing that caught her attention, but when I looked up she was looking at me, her private smirk spreading across her face, a glitter in her eyes that I’d never seen before.
Our gaze held one another for just a moment or two and then I felt myself flushing, embarrassed, as though she were looking into me, seeing things I didn’t want her to see. I smiled wanly back at her, then turned to look out the window, afraid that if I looked back she would still be smirking at me. And I was still angry. I didn’t look back at her, but when our train left her stop downtown, she was standing on the platform as the train pulled away and was staring at me as the crowd of commuters eddied and swirled around her, jostling their way to the exit stairs. Our eyes locked again for no more than three seconds and I was gone.
The following morning, I was watching for her as I always did, but more carefully than before. I knew that she was somehow on to me, that she knew I’d been paying very close attention to her all this time, and I wanted to try to pretend that it wasn’t so.
She had no intention of letting me.
When she stepped into our car, I was immediately aware of her the way that a small bird is aware of the predator that hovers just beyond its vision. I forced myself to keep my eyes locked on my screen, to not look up. But she came and sat in the closest possible seat to mine, not more than three feet from me, and as she did, her perfume washed over me, a scent of jasmine and something tropical—maybe coconut.
I fought against my urge to look up and lost. As soon as I did, she felt my glance, turned and smiled at me, a full smile, not that little smirk, or the small smile of recognition. It was as if I’d been caught in a tractor beam, my whole being locked onto her for that brief moment. Then she turned away, pulled out her book and began reading.
What could I do? I went back to my writing, but aimlessly, lost in the proximity of her. Several times during our 45 minutes together I peeked over my glasses at her, but she was absorbed in her own work, in her own life, seemingly oblivious to me. But I knew she wasn’t. There had been many seats for her to choose from and she’d chosen to sit as close to me as she could.
This became our routine. Me sitting anxiously waiting for her to board our train, her sitting as close to me as possible and each morning greeting me with her smile. We might have gone on like that forever, me afraid to speak for fear of breaking the spell she’d cast over me, but she wasn’t willing to let it continue like that.
“You seem much happier with your work lately,” she said one morning as she plopped down in front of me.
“I’m sorry. What?” I sputtered, too surprised that she’d spoken to me to be articulate.
“I said, you seem much happier with your work lately.”
“Oh, uh, well, yes, I am,” I replied. “It’s going rather well, actually.”
“What are you writing?” she asked.
“Really? That’s wonderful. And dangerous, don’t you think?”
“Dangerous?” I asked. This was my third novel, but I’d never thought of writing as dangerous before.
“Sure,” she said. “Words have a way of taking on a life of their own. How do you control them?”
“Ah,” I said. “I see what you mean. Well, I guess I’d never really thought of them as dangerous before. But, yes, they can be more assertive than people realize.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
“And you,” I said, rushing forward now that the line had been crossed, “What about your work?”
“Yes,” I said. “All that writing in your notebooks.”
She waved a hand in the air, a dismissive gesture. “Oh, that. It’s not work. Not really. Just an attempt to make sense of things. That’s all.”
I understood, of course, because I was one of those people who wrote in the margins of my books, sometimes whole paragraphs.
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
Then she smiled at me again, but in a different way. In a way that said she knew things about me that I didn’t even know myself.
“Yes,” she said. “I can see that.”
Before we could explore our new found familiarity any further, we arrived at her stop and she exited with only a small wave as she left the car.
Over the next several months that first conversation blossomed into a full-fledged argument—one that spanned the entire trajectory of American culture—literature, movies, music and film. We had wildly divergent beliefs about what constituted beauty, grace and meaning, and our discussions had become so animated that we were banished from the quiet car by a fussy conductor. I’d given up writing in the mornings. If it weren’t for the fact that Michele’s afternoon schedule was usually different from mine, I wouldn’t have gotten any writing done at all. I don’t know how she felt about the loss of reading time, but she certainly didn’t seem to resent it.
Along the way I learned that she was in fact 26 and she learned that I was 49. She’d been married almost five years, I’d been married almost 20 before it ended five years ago. On the day I confessed my age, she laughed out loud, startling several people around us enough that they rattled their newspapers disapprovingly. When I asked her what was so funny, she said that her father was only 47.
“What’s so funny about me being older than your father?” I asked.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you,” she said mysteriously.
One day she surprised me by demanding to see what I’d been writing lately. At first I refused, embarrassed to let her see something still unpolished.
“Come on,” she said. “I’ve read your other two books and they’re very good. I like the fact that they are so different from each other.”
I blushed then. I had no idea she’d done that.
“It’s really not at a place where I could show it to you,” I said. “I’m too unhappy with it right now.”
“All the more reason to let me read some of it,” she said. “A fresh perspective can’t hurt can it?”
The real problem was not the unpolished nature of what I’d written, it was the content. The erotic content of the current draft was very high and at this particular moment I wasn’t ready to share it with anyone. For one thing, I’d been tapping into the hidden corners of my own sexuality for parts of my characters and if she were to read what I’d written, it would be like exposing myself to her.
“Seriously,” she said, her voice firmer now. “I’ve been screwing up my courage for more than a month now to ask you. Now that I have, you have to let me read some of it.”
Something about the way she spoke to me, whether it was the timbre of her voice or the fact that she’d invested so much in my writing already overcame my reticence. I held up one finger to make her wait, opened one of the chapters I was happiest with and handed her the laptop.
She grabbed at it like it was a lifeline, turned away from me and began reading. For the rest of our ride she didn’t speak again, although her expressions gave me some clues. One minute she was frowning, another she was smirking. All I could do was sit there quietly and watch her eyes darting back and forth and her fingers tapping the scroll keys.
When we neared her station, she closed up my iBook and handed it back to me.
“Thanks,” she said. “Thanks a lot.”
“Well?” I asked. “What do you think?”
She shook her head. “It’s too soon for me to say anything.”
“I’ve got to get off,” she said.
She grabbed her bag then and bolted for the door, her black pleated skirt swishing back and forth as she hurried to make sure she didn’t miss her stop. I turned to the window to watch her walk away, childishly hoping she’d wave to me. Instead, I saw her standing stock still on the platform, commuters surging around her. She wasn’t looking at me. She was writing furiously in one of her notebooks. I felt the urge to jump up and pull the emergency stop handle on the train so I could watch her write. But of course, I didn’t.
That afternoon, she wasn’t on the train. I felt a tremendous disappointment wash over me as we pulled out and she didn’t board. I needed to know what she’d written, how she’d made sense of my work, of me.
Fortunately, I didn’t have too much longer to wait. The following morning Michele boarded our car, came straight to the seats that I’d come to think of as “our seats,” smiled, put out her hand and said, “Laptop please.”
“Not until you tell me something,” I said.
“You know I can’t do that,” she replied. “I only managed to read 20 pages. I can’t tell you anything from that. Hand it over.”
So I did.
All the way into town, we repeated our performance of the previous morning—me watching, her reading.
Ten minutes out from her station, Michele sighed, closed up the computer and handed it back to me. I was about to ask her what she thought again, but she turned away from me, pulled out a bright red notebook, the one I’d seen her writing in yesterday, and began to write like she was possessed.
When the scratchy voice on the intercom called her station, she closed the notebook with a snap, turned to me, smiled and said, “Well. That was very good.”
I felt a blush rising to my face. Unaccountably, I cared a lot about her opinion. I hadn’t shown any of the draft to anyone—not my editor, my girlfriend, not anyone. That she liked it pleased me immensely.
“Thanks,” was all I could think of to say.
“No, really,” she said. “It’s really good.”
“Any other insights than that,” I probed.
She pursed her lips, then she smiled a mysterious smile and said, “Let’s just say there’s more to you than I realized.”
The train lurched to a stop and before I could ask her what she meant by that, she was up and off to the door. This time, though, she was looking up at my window as the train pulled out. She didn’t smile or wave. She just looked.
I didn’t open the computer again until I arrived in my office. When I did, I was surprised to see that she’d gone well beyond the chapter that I’d opened for her to read and had read the entire next chapter. This was the one where the main characters end up trapped in a mountain cabin by a blizzard and spend a week together in desperate sexual combat, wrenching at the darkness in each other’s souls. If I’d known she was going to read that chapter, I’d have hidden it on the hard drive.
I’d written that chapter several nights before in one sitting and it was one of the most emotionally draining things I’d ever done. It was still very raw and the mix of anger and anguish I felt as I wrote it was palpable. At least I thought it was.
That afternoon I hoped against hope that Michele would be on my train, but once again she wasn’t. And because it was Friday, I knew I wouldn’t see her again for at least two days. If only I knew her last name, her telephone number or her email. I wanted to explain, to ask her to unread what I’d shown her, to say something that would make me feel better about what she’d glimpsed.
On Sunday night I hardly slept. Three times I got out of bed, sat at my computer, and tried to rewrite that goddamned chapter. But I couldn’t. Each time I managed to change a few words, to move a comma, or correct a typo. But that was all I could do. I had to talk to Michele first.
Monday morning dawned oppressive. It was already 80 degrees when I left my house at 7:10 a.m. and the prediction was for over 100. The humidity was supposed to soar to 80 percent. Standing on the platform waiting for the train I began to sweat, little beads of moisture forming at my hairline, others running down between my shoulder blades. The train smell of the platform, that mixture of oil, rust and things I didn’t want to think about made me want to gag.
To my great relief, Michele boarded as per usual. Today she was a vision in yellow and blue, floating down the aisle like a sexy Bumble Bee. I had to smile when I saw her. I’d never had that kind of self-assurance and I found it very attractive, maybe even a little daunting.
“Good morning,” she said as she sat. “Good weekend?”
“Not particularly,” I replied truthfully.
Her eyebrows hitched upward. “Oh? Everything okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was just frustrated most of the weekend. Every time I tried to write I got stuck.”
“Oh my,” she said. “That’s bad.”
“Yes. It is. But what about you? Good weekend?”
“Not particularly,” she said, then laughed lightly.
“Oh? Everything okay?” I asked, mimicking her tone of voice as best I could.
“Yes,” she said. “I suppose so. Let’s just say I was frustrated in my own way all weekend.”
I know I should have asked more, but I was panting to know what she thought of what she’d read and I needed to explain it to her.
“So,” I began.
Before I could say anything, she leaned forward, lowered her voice and said, “One reason I was so unhappy all weekend was because of what I read.”
“Let me explain,” I began again, but she waved me off, needing to say what she wanted to say.
“That chapter was so intense. I was there with them the whole time, you know? I couldn’t stop thinking about how much they wanted to hurt one another, how much they needed to inflict pain, how damaged they both were.”
“Yes,” I said. “That was the point.”
“I know it was,” she continued, her voice still hushed, but with a thrill to it. “And it was also incredibly hot, you know. The way they battered one another in bed, driving themselves to those depths of pain and pleasure at the same time. How did you know?”
“How did I know what?” I asked, not sure what she meant.
Her voice dropped even lower, so low that the noise of the train’s wheels all but obscured it, forcing me to lean even closer to hear her.
“How did you know it would be like that?”
How to answer? Michele’s eyes glittered as she stared at me, waiting. It was as if my answer mattered very, very much to her.
“I’m not sure, really,” I said. It was true. The chapter had just sort of surged out of me in one of those bursts that sometimes overtake me. I’d written it in one sitting, almost twelve hours straight.
“It was just what happened to them,” I continued. “The two of them have been bothering me for a long time—the way they dislike each other, the way they have to make love despite that dislike, the way they each use sex as a weapon against the other. For some reason, when I turned them loose on each other in that cabin, it’s just what happened.”
She just nodded and didn’t say anything. I noticed that her lips were parted slightly and she seemed to be breathing a little more heavily than normal. It occurred to me that she was turned on not only by what I’d written, but also by talking to me about it. It was a flattering feeling, so I kept talking.
“It seems to me that sex is often combative, each person using the other for his or her own needs. People like to talk about sex as giving, but I think there’s a lot more taking involved. Both of these characters are takers, and as things unfolded, they just kept taking until there wasn’t anything left on either side of the bed.”
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