When she arrived, there was some confusion over the identity of her client, as there was another man at the hotel bar, beside a few others, who met her gaze and made a small gesture at the empty seat beside him. He was older, maybe in his early-to-mid fifties, with greying hair and eyes the color of old dollar bills; and since she was used to seeing men who looked like that, she smiled and waved, depositing herself on the chair without a thought.
He asked her what she wanted to drink and she said, “Gin and tonic, please,” and to the nearby bartender he replicated the same, almost dismissive, gesture he’d made earlier to indicate the empty seat. They resumed conversation, with the man even laying a proprietary hand on her bare shoulder in the midst of complimenting the dress. But when several minutes had passed, the man asked for her name, and she knew some misunderstanding on her part had occurred.
She did not offer it, instead asking if he was “Roland” as this was the name used by the client during their brief online correspondence. His immediate assent tipped her off more than would have any hesitation, and as she looked around the bar and its plush, dimly lit surrounds, he again put his hand on her shoulder and kept saying, “Baby, it’s me. I’m Roland. I’m Roland. Look here.”
She shrugged his hand off her shoulder and removed herself from the seat without a word. The older man returned his attention to the half-full martini in front of him as she relocated to the other side of the oval-shaped bar, where another man had been watching their interaction with a pained expression.
“Are you Roland?” This side of the bar was empty, save for the man, but she did not sit beside him.
“I am.” He looked down, fingering the straw in his cocktail. “I was about to say something, but, you know. It sorted itself out.”
“Another day, I might’ve hedged my bets with him, instead.”
He looked up but not quite at her. His eyes were vaguely blue, and together with his fair hair and pale, almost sickly, complexion, he seemed almost as insubstantial as the light refracted off the countertop. “Maybe you oughtta. I’m sure he would’ve made it worth your while.”
Just as she’d pegged the previous man to be a rich, sex-starved hound, she immediately judged this much younger man to be inexperienced, indeterminate, and equally ashamed as he was curious to participate in the sort of trysts she traded in. He had money, to be sure—as did all her clients—and he was dressed well, although the fidgety tension he struck with the setting made it obvious he was not born into wealth. That, or the ill-chosen watch. And his voice was firm but without the trained social ease of those she often met. She idly wondered if it would have been worth it to continue the farce from seconds before to its logical end.
She smiled and moved her hair to one side and took the seat beside Roland. “Oh, I think I’ll take my chances. You know how to put on an appropriate amount of cologne, for one.”
“Which is none?”
“I like that you don’t seem eager to impress.” She thanked the bartender when he slid the gin and tonic over to her. “Is Roland your real name?”
“Is Emerald yours?”
“That’s an odd choice for a pseudonym, though. Bit literary. Most guys opt for the Johns and Dicks.”
“I like to say that I was classically-sprained as a kid and never fully recovered.” A short laugh escaped him and he resumed straw-fingering. “You always get this personal?”
“Are we getting personal?” She sipped her drink. “It’s just names.”
He offered a half-hearted cheers and she clinked her glass against his with enough force to nearly dislodge it from his grasp. He shook his head and wiped off the stray spillage from his pants. “You know…you probably can tell, but I’m not quite sure how to progress from here.”
“Don’t worry. It’s not like they give us a manual, either.” She threw him another smile and patted his shoulder reassuringly. “Let’s just play it by ear.”
His eyes narrowed at her touch (so he was sensitive to manipulation, then) but it seemed to revive him. He straightened and ordered another drink.
“The other guy’s drinking that, too.”
Roland’s lips turned up at one side. “Well, he did recommend it.”
“Looks like you’re profiting off the old boy in more ways than one, tonight.”
The half-grin turned into a grimace. “Old boy,” he repeated. “He’d love that. And anyway, I wouldn’t call it profit.”
She rested her elbow on the bar, propping up her head as she regarded him, long curls falling over her palm. “What would you call it?”
“A simple transaction, at a one-to-one value. Hopefully you’re not offended by that.”
“Not at all. A lot of guys don’t seem to think I’m appreciative of the fact that it’s a business. They get loose, try to ask for more than what they’re worth. Forget who actually has the bargaining power.”
“Must’ve broken a lot of hearts.”
“Maybe, but whose mistake is that?”
Roland shrugged and smiled at the bartender when he came over with the replenished drink. “Oh, I’m sure that you see your fair share of idiots. How long have you been doing this?”
“Long enough. Now who’s getting personal?”
He lifted his hands in a placating gesture. “Easy. Just curious. If that’s a boundary you want to set, I’m happy to respect it.”
“Goodness, what a gentleman,” she said. “I really lucked out.”
He met her eyes, then, and for a long moment they looked at each other. From an outsider’s perspective, their situation seemed inexact, caught somewhere between the professional and the intimate, and their locked gazes were charged with a combative, rather than erotic, air. It was anticipatory, all the same, and when their conversation died and the young man closed the tab, the older man stared after their departure and noted the short yet significant distance between them. His smile appeared and vanished before anyone else could catch it and he motioned to the bartender with that lazy wave he so loved, which he imagined in the haze of his dissolution could both collect, and brush away, the world entire.
She’d mistakenly characterized his love-making as a businessman’s venture: quick, efficient, and to the point. Marginal risk, acceptable gain. Little in the way of a personal investment. (Of course, she had been with more than a few businessmen, and their tastes and behaviors all varied, but with any immediate generalization, the Ideal acted as a lodestone to her judgments). Perhaps it was how he kept his white shirt on, although unbuttoned, that lent the proceedings a half-formality. And the briskness of his movements, just rough enough to stimulate physical excitation, and without a hint of savagery. There was tact to it, which was not uncommon. Then she opened her eyes as he approached climax and what she spied through his half-closed lids contained nothing of constraint or pragmatism. The hunger in his partly concealed vision was enough to tease from within its guardedness her own intrigue. It crept gingerly out of that shelter and tested the open air as Roland shook and rested his head against hers, hiding his face in the cold pillow.
He sat on the edge of the bed while she cleaned herself, staring at nothing. Or, perhaps, into himself, into whatever pit he drew the intensity of his lust from. He did not know that she watched as the water ran and she wiped off sweat, his substance and hers. In his shirt and tousled hair, he looked like some schoolboy lost in the aftermath of a fraternity’s bender. Or simply lost. Drawing the bathrobe tighter around her waist, she turned the bathroom light off and stood in front of him. He looked up and managed a smile.
“Jason,” he said.
Something like disappointment dropped in her, a penny down an abandoned mineshaft. “Hi, Jason.”
He looked down and played with the hem of his loosened shirt. “I don’t need to know your real name, of course. I just felt that…” He sighed. “Ah, fuck it. Like you said, it’s just names. I’m sure they don’t matter much here.”
“Where’s here?” she said, running a hand through dampened hair.
“This hotel room. Which is, simultaneously, many other hotel rooms. Maybe every hotel room in the whole goddamn world.”
Her eyes widened. “The last guy who got all philosophical afterwards ran me through a forty-minute lecture on Lacan. Should I break out the notebook, or…?”
He laughed, but with little mirth. They were silent, and then a sound caused Roland—or Jason—to frown and look over his shoulder at the window. “I forgot about the forecast.”
“Heavy rain,” she remarked. Surprising herself, without a cautionary thought she followed that with: “Down for another go?”
He turned back to her, an eyebrow raised. “You must be joking.”
“I am,” she said, quickly. “Or not. Doesn’t have to be right this second. And there’d be another payment, obviously.”
“Obviously.” His eyes ran down her body and she knew that it was an attempt to inspire himself. She undid her bathrobe so that his stare could meet bare flesh. “I only look like I’m made of money, you know.”
She tipped her head at the watch on the nightstand. “If you were, you wouldn’t be wearing that Tag Heuer.”
He rolled his eyes, which had just begun to color with want. “It was a gift. My mom…”
She stepped closer to him before he could finish and grabbed his hand. She placed it on her hip and moved it upwards, and down again, and back. His fingers were inert, though, and she had to position them over her breast to initiate their clutch. He leaned forward and rested his mouth on her torso.
His breath was small and warm and any continuing words were muffled by her thumb, which ran over his teeth and past, followed by her forefinger, and together they pinched his tongue and slightly pushed—a bit of fear joining the anticipation in his eyes—as if she meant to rob him of both speech and air.
It was the same, this time, although she now took the time to observe closely, to see what formed, exactly, that disjunction between the desire in his eyes and the almost Protestant restraint of his body. He was a reluctant participant in his own urging and he held her waist and shoulders and, sometimes, her face, with the delicacy one reserves for the transferal of fine art; or, with how a doctor might examine her patient. She liked this analogy better, as there seemed to be something in her (or in him) he was trying to diagnose, and not simply complete. He was slow, and paused whenever he felt close, or when small sounds of pleasure escaped her. Prying. Testing.
Once, she hooked a finger in his mouth and asked him to bite down, but he made a face and pushed her hand away. He responded by quickening his pace, which she did not particularly want. There was a struggle. She ended up above him and as they continued, she sensed his discomfort. This new imbalance spurred her, as did the consternation creasing his forehead. It took longer this way, with both of them vying for control; tense, with all the eroticism of an arm-wrestle.
When they were done, she sat up, mimicking his position against the headboard, one arm lazily resting on a bent knee. Exhaustion dimmed their physical capacities but her mind was alight. He again seemed lost in thought.
“Who was he?” She felt she was near the end of the puzzle before her, with only a few pieces out of place. “High school boyfriend? College flame?”
“Good guess,” he said, contemplation broken by a wry smile. “A family friend, at first. We’re a perfectly progressive bunch but they felt he was a bad influence. We saw each other in secret for a year but I got tired of the charade. Anyway, we were in different places in life. And I would be lying if I didn’t say my heart stopped being in it a while before we broke things off. He was too dependent on me and I wanted other things, other people.”
“And this happened when?”
“A couple months ago. He called me yesterday. Crying. Cursing at me. I blocked him but it’s hard to forget the sort of things he said.”
“So I’m a rebound, then. An experimental one, at that.”
He eyed her. “What makes you think I haven’t been with a woman before?”
“You know your way around in bed. But you don’t look at me like someone you’re just paying for sex.”
His eyes left her.
“What was his name?”
The smile, which had dropped as the memory of sundered love returned to him, made another appearance.
They made a last-ditch effort, the finale of which had him leaning back, eyes closed, as she worked him, but no dice. It was difficult to say what encouraged her, other than the novelty of someone who seemed unimpressed by his own flesh’s longing. There were men who hated her as they fucked her and men who loved her when there was no physical contact at all. And she’d had men who were openly experimenting and found her wanting, in the end. Men who wept at her naked body and men who came and went in what seemed like mere moments, whisking themselves off to the subway or airport after dropping a thick wad of cash on the bed. But there were always the outliers and they were each more fascinating than the last.
She knew he was simply the latest in a series of surprises: men who revealed, through their intimacy, the signs of real being, and whose revelations were an attempt to uncover in her that same signification. It was not only that they wanted to know her, for all the men did, and in oftentimes silly, pathetic ways. Bouquets and poetry and fetish-suits, the gamut. She had the impression from the more peculiar men that their attempts to know her were part and parcel of their attempts to know themselves, to solve some desperate conundrum they would never voice and yet screamed out from their pores, nevertheless. They bared themselves, and to feel so intertwined with their complications, to bask in the mood of their brooding…
His story was far from rare, even somewhat passé, but there was something deeper to his skewed loving.
It was not that he was altogether neutral in his desire. The coolness, the distance, indicated that although he’d been with women before, those moments had been borne more out of circumstance than preference. But she could not put away the yearning in his eyes when they’d reached a simultaneous peak. He was putting on his clothes when she turned, still in bed, and asked him:
“You didn’t really respond to my accusation from earlier.”
Roland or Jason or simply Stranger, as he’d always been, tilted his head. “Which was?”
“Your experiment. Whatever this is.”
“You make it sound so detached. Like I’ve spent the whole evening dissecting you.”
“In a way, you were.” She let herself listen to the downpour. Closing her eyes, it was only the falling rain and the rustle of his clothes. And her heart’s beat, which struggled to match the faint tick of the watch on the nightstand. Even in this way, he moved at a separate pace. “In another world, I’d probably be in love with you.”
The rustling stopped. Then with the rain came soft laughter. “I guess I’d be in love with you, too.”
“But in an even different world than mine.”
Suddenly she felt warmth on her cheek. She did not need to open her eyes to know it was his right hand, since there was a slight flaw along the palm which she’d gnawed at in her passion. A childhood wound, perhaps. Or an adult one, self-inflicted. She’d never know, and didn’t care to.
His voice was inflected with curiosity, and his words were measured, as with any responsible delivery of a diagnosis: “You fixate on difference. I can’t judge you because you seem to be doing alright, but you should take it easy, yeah? It was good to see you relax, finally. I felt most for you when it was like that, for the both of us.”
He ran his thumb over her mouth once, and then his hand was replaced by another warmth. They stayed that way for a moment, pressed together, until he pulled his lips from hers and walked away.
When he was gone, and when she left the hotel room, only a few lights were on, and the bar was empty of drinks and drinking men. A pop star was singing about forgetting him, whoever he was, through the speakers. The words entered and departed from her mind like strangers in an elevator. The melody was melancholy and curt. She stood by the sliding doors until she remembered who the singer was and made a mental note. It would not hurt to listen to that melody again.
It was raining still. Heavy rain. When she walked outside and put her hand beyond the canopy cover, she understood the rain was light there, where her fingers reached, and it was only all of it together that made it heavy. It was a strange comfort to know that although so much had seemingly changed, back there, it was not so for the world. It rained. Heavy rain. Lighter in spots. Then it would lighten all at once. And it would be a clear enough walk from here to wherever she needed next to be.
* * *
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More from Ezekiel Yu: MEMOIR: A White Scorpion In Barstow, California, Bolt of the Average: On Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus”, Nature’s Nurture: On Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”