He lay back like the ambushed dead, arms flung down at his sides, legs splayed out and feet sticking up, naked. He lay in the familiar bed against the familiar pillows he'd not seen in over a year. Eyes closed, face slack, he might indeed have been dead save for the figure also naked embracing his lower body and swiveling her head in a sensual way.
He opened his eyes, barely, and looked down at her. He looked with cool, lowered lids at her mouth pressed around him. As he watched he felt the pleasant sensation, but it was not making it up to his head. The good feeling remained relegated to what was going on down there. It stopped in the vicinity of his hips. He did like it, though. Who wouldn't? He especially liked seeing her down there after this long time.
He had no idea what had gotten her there.
He certainly wasn't going to ask her about it. There was no way he was going to wade into those dangerous waters and try to find out why she'd changed her mind or what she was thinking or why she'd let him back in or even if she'd changed her mind. He didn't want to jinx it, their being in bed together. Besides, he didn't really want to know. If he'd learned only a few things in their long association--and he considered over three years to be pretty long--one of them was that when Kay did tell him what was going on in her mind, the report was usually not very good. I honestly think you don't have any conception of what love is. She had a knack for being blunt in a way he didn't particularly want to deal with at the moment. He preferred this side of her, her solicitous side, which he was getting the benefit of right now.
And even if he did want to know, he no longer trusted himself to ask her in the right way or have the right response ready for what she might say. He'd learned that, for them, there was no right thing to say. Plus, he didn't want to risk the subject of Vanessa coming up. He couldn't face that. Whenever Vanessa's name came up, it always ended badly. Of course, it worked the other way around, when Vanessa brought up the subject of Kay Bailey. If Kay Bailey came up things were likely to take a turn for the worse. He might be dense about some things, but he'd learned that.
But wait, now that he thought about it, and being in this position allowed his mind sort of to drift and wander, Kay had already brought up the subject of Vanessa--earlier while she was making them lunch. She had her back to him, standing at the counter. She did not pause from slicing tomatoes in long, patient strokes when she half turned her face back to him. 'How's Ms. Crane?' she said. A little alarm alerted him to check her face and he saw no clenched jaw which he interpreted as an encouraging sign and so told her that he and Vanessa were still talking, which was true, and that Vanessa had not ruled out the possibility that they get back together, which was somewhat stretching the truth. It was, instead, a reflection of what he hoped the truth might be, despite the fact that Vanessa had told him in no uncertain terms--that was the phrase she used--that it was finally and absolutely over and she could not imagine them ever repairing the damage he'd done. Except that she did happen to be saying this sitting on the edge of the bed where they'd just spent the night together. So all was not lost. She was still seeing him. He didn't bother getting into these specifics with Kay. He wanted to be honest, but no one wants complete honesty if it's going to rip open your heart.
Kay had simply nodded, uncharacteristically not reacting, and put the lopsided bread in the toaster. She was in one of her calm frames of mind. At one point while they were eating she looked at him in a pointed way and smiled, beaming.
'What are you smiling at?' he said, a little frightened.
'It's good to see you,' she said. She looked genuinely happy. He did not understand women.
Like a draft in the room he could still feel how bad things had gotten and didn't expect to see her beaming at him this way. He certainly hadn't expected ever to be back in here either, in her small bedroom with the tall window and the afternoon light going along the long yellow curtain. He looked up at the ceiling. It told him nothing. But he kept his gaze there. If he was going to make sense of this it would be easier if he didn't look at her or at what she was doing to him. Instead, he thought, he should just bask in the sensation and, if he was lucky, it would take over his mind.
God, he was lovely. God, he was sweet. God. God. God. This had to be the sweetest thing she'd ever felt, nothing had ever been sweeter. It was overwhelming, the feeling that this was pretty much the only thing that mattered, this being with him, this sweetness, this . . . communing . . . this . . . there was no good word for it.
Her fingers encircled the base of his penis and she ran her parted lips up and down him, introducing her tongue like a third lip. Her other hand traveled over his stomach, exploring. It stopped. It moved over his hips. Her palm rested lightly on his skin, as if she were testing the heat over an electric burner. The palm descended, flat. It was a wonderful feeling: skin. Her brushing back and forth was hypnotic and lulled her. With her head bowed she glanced to the side with blurred lazy vision and saw his arm lying there on the sheet. The veins were raised over the back of his hand. She liked seeing his hand there, the manliness of it, and liked the fact that it was his hand and certain, and love for his hand spread through her. It seemed so large for how narrow the forearm was. She closed her eyes and brushed over him, not hurrying. His hand was certain while he had always been uncertain. But this, she thought, this. It . . . was . . . really . . .
But he couldn't empty his mind. He hadn't seen her in so long. He'd finally gotten used to not seeing her. When last had he? Once eight months ago. Probably not two or three times in the six months before that. Her refusal to see him had been part of the continual attempt to enforce something. Not that she wasn't right to, not that he didn't deserve to be barred and not that it wasn't the best thing for her and, truth be told, for him. He had himself told her she was better off without him. He himself had admitted he was a sorry bastard and that she ought to have run away in the opposite direction the moment she saw him. He was the first person to own up to that. Not that he actually thought she'd believe him. It's easy not to believe the bad things about a person when you first meet, particularly if you're kissing that person. But he had warned her. He couldn't be accused of trying to put one over on her, or of pretending to be something he wasn't. He'd let enough people down recently not to be maintaining certain illusions about himself.
Still, he wasn't going to take the blame for everything. Not everything was his fault. Some things a person can't help. Was it a person's fault if he fell in love with someone else? Could he have stopped that? He couldn't've helped it. How does a person help falling in love?
Or, if you were going to take first things first, how does a person help falling out of love? That was the problem before anything. He'd fallen out of love with Vanessa. He still loved her, he'd always love her, but he wasn't in love anymore. He'd just lost it. So was it not understandable if a person found it difficult to face the excruciating fact that the person he'd fallen out of love with happened to be his fiancée?
Well, he did face it. He hung in there. And, given his reasoning, he didn't think it so outlandish to believe that if he just stuck with her anyway she hopefully wouldn't notice that he, the guy who used to plead with her to marry him, to the point that it became a running joke, no longer felt the same lovestruck urgency. After all, they had been together for eleven years, which made the lack of urgency not surprising, but also in a way kind of worse.
So anyway you do your best. You continue with the plan to get married--fortunately no date has been set--figuring she'll never notice the difference and will be spared the hurt. And it might haunt you a little, but you figure deep down that this is what was bound to happen over time anyway and that one can't stay in love like that forever. So you are pretty resolved with the situation when into your preproduction office of the movie you've been trying to make for the last eight years, which is finally, actually, coming together, walks a production designer named Kay Bailey who has a way of frowning at you and looking down when you speak as if she's hearing something extra in your voice. And slowly but surely is revealed to you your miserable situation in all its miserable perspective.
The bedspread was sloughing off the end of the bed, the white sheets were flat as paper. This is not what she'd pictured when she asked him over for lunch today. It really wasn't. She may have changed her shirt a couple of times dressing this morning and put on lipstick, then wiped it off. It was Benjamin, after all. But she was not planning on winding up in bed. She was well aware there'd been other times in the past when she'd met him ostensibly as a friend and it had been known to evolve that some admission like I think about you still or the more direct I still want you would cause a sort of toppling of their reserve and before she knew it she'd find herself blurrily pushing him away at the same time that she was kissing him. When she finally managed to separate she would be half buttoned and unbuckled and the internal army which she'd had at attention to face him seemed to have collapsed into a dreamy, entwined heap. And, she had to admit, there'd been times when things had evolved a little further. She wasn't perfect. But there definitely were plenty of times when she had remained polite and restrained, when they didn't talk about matters of the heart or, to be honest, about anything important to either of them. That's how it'd been recently, for over a year now. Or more, if she thought about it. It always helped to resist him if she were sexually in thrall with someone else. Then the troops would stay at attention, no problem.
But now, at this stage of things, she'd thought as she set out their lunch plates on the Indian bedspread which covered her plywood table, enough time had passed that she could feel safe whether there was another man or not. (At the moment, there was not.) Isn't that what everyone said? That after enough time had passed you wouldn't be affected anymore?
What did they know? Look at her now. With him. Time hadn't protected her at all. Fact is, time had thrown her in the opposite direction. Look where it threw her: back in bed with the guy. And with fewer qualms about being with him than she'd ever had. Apparently time eroded misgivings, too. No one had mentioned that. No one mentioned how time saturated relations between people with more meaning, not less. None of this undressing would have happened without the passage of time.
It wasn't exactly adding up as she'd figured.
Small tentative blips of danger appeared on her radar screen, but they were easy to ignore. The little alarms of the mind are less likely to be detected when the body is taken over by pleasure.
The first time he met her he was struck by something right away. She was leaning in the doorway of his office, a head with a fur-fronted hat like the Russians wear, talking to his assistant. He hardly saw her, a figure out of the corner of his eye, but that was enough. His chest felt a thump. When she walked in, he looked away. Not that she was so amazing-looking or anything, but there was something promising about her. His body felt it before he even knew what it was. Somehow his body knew she was going to change things.
She was wearing a blue Chinese jacket with all these ties on it, and when she sat down at the table she undid some of them but didn't take off the coat. She sat and listened to him like a youth recruit listening to her revolutionary assignment. She even knew something about Central American politics. He gave her the usual spiel about the script, which of course she had read or she wouldn't have been there applying for the job, but he had to rely on automatic because he was feeling strangely backed into himself. He felt as if most of what he was saying was ridiculous, but it didn't really bother him because he was also feeling strangely vibrant. She stayed very still listening to him, frowning, businesslike which was in contrast to the flaps on her hat, which were flipped up kookily and trembled slightly when she moved. She kept her mouth pursed in concentration. Every now and then a twitch escaped from her mouth, as if it wanted to say something but was restraining. He told her about his struggles to get the movie made and cracked some usual jokes. He made her laugh. That was one thing he knew how to do, make a girl laugh. Her laugh had relief and surprise in it. It had a lot of girl in it. He wanted to keep making her laugh.
She asked him, 'What was the first thing that made you want to make this movie?' Her brow was furrowed. Her mouth twitched as if suppressing a smile. It was a normal, regular question, but it seemed as if no one had ever asked him it before, or, at least, not with the interest she had, and he felt as if she'd just inserted one of those microscopic needles into his spine and was making an exploratory tap down into the deepest recesses of his psyche.
It was weird. He liked it.
Excerpted from Rapture by Susan Minot Copyright © 2002 by Susan Minot.