He really wanted to stop. Not that he was afraid of getting caught or anything. He always made sure the friend or lover or husband did not see him. He made a point of never meeting them. Yet Lucas was the one who picked him up near Kansas City after he had stood by the road with his thumb out for five hours battered by the tailwinds of 18-wheelers in the rain. Lucas was the one who urged that he not be in such a rush to see that girl he met his last time through Houston, insisting that he stay as long as he wanted and help Darcy with the paint job that would enable her to pay off her bookstore bill.
So for a whole week between her classes Darcy and he painted rooms in a professor’s house, she cutting in the corners and edges with a brush, he following with the roller. They framed and filled drab white space with strokes of butterscotch, ginger, and peach, he and she moving around shrouded furniture huddled in the center of room after room as streams of Vivaldi’s “Spring” descended from a shoulder-strap boom-box slung on a chandelier, the creamy smell of the paint mingling with the brassy scent of her perspiration. It seemed she lingered with the brush so that she was not too far ahead, keeping him close to her scent when he stroked with the roller above or around her. Or maybe he was just day-dreaming it. Every night he lay awake in his tent in Darcy’s front yard, listening to the grunts and moans of Lucas and her from the bedroom window over the porch. And every morning when the sun had risen to a golden ball of light bleeding through the orange nylon of his tent, he woke to hear the clomp of Lucas’s work boots upon the porch boards.
Only last year he was a junior at Yale who had just published Late Bloomer, a New York Times best-seller-list novel. His agent had three studios clamoring for the movie rights. On an unexpectedly sultry May afternoon, in the middle of a Cleanth Brooks lecture on As I Lay Dying, as classmates cleared their throats and furiously penned the professor’s words in their notebooks to articulate their own infatuation with William Faulkner, he asked himself the question he could no longer ignore: what are you trying to fill with all your words? He quit school the next week before finals, and as he wandered from commune to college around America, he wondered whether he was ever going to find a place where he could feel both free and at home. He had set out on this path in hopes that it would be a pilgrimage to communities where people revered and celebrated life and explored new ways of living. The choice people he found were indeed profound, wholesome, fun-loving, and adventurous, but usually women who were already wedded or engaged or otherwise committed to a man. And he was beginning to fear that if he didn’t stop fooling around with them soon, he might never want to stop.
This morning he awoke early. He lashed his tent to his backpack as dawn came pink through the pines across the road, coating with a tender light the redbud limbs that veiled the front porch. An autumn chill stung his nose as he breathed in the sweet smell of the fallen heart-shaped leaves decaying in the dew. Hoisting the pack onto his shoulders, he took a last look at the house. Darcy’s home-grown vegetarian delights, the laughter over mugs of red wine, the acting out of scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth, the guitar-playing and singing of folk songs–he had discovered here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, another refuge from the American wilderness of perpetually flickering television sets. It was indeed tempting to stay a little bit longer, but he just knew in the only way that he had come to know throughout this whole unscheduled journey–from such events or circumstances as the completion of the paint job or the dwindling of new things to say while washing dishes with Darcy–that it was time to go. He wanted no entangling conversations or prolonged parting scenes, no enhanced possibility of feeling attached to people he enjoyed having been with but would probably never see again.
The shade was drawn behind their window.
He found himself stepping onto the porch. The floor boards creaked beneath his hiking boots. A breeze lifted the bottom of the window shade a few inches off the sill, its side curling to reveal Darcy’s head upon the pillow. Lucas was not there.
He pushed the shade up on the backs of his fingers, holding it there to behold her breathing deeply in the ebb and flow of sleep, the long black hair gently rising and falling with the pink blanket that draped her body. A dab of sunlight imparted a golden tone to her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttered. She lifted her head and beheld him with dreamy green eyes until she focused over his shoulders at the backpack.
“Without even saying goodbye to Lucas?”
He said, “What time’s he coming back?”
“Couple of hours.” She swallowed, never taking her eyes off him. “He just went to borrow a chain saw for some job near Fort Smith.”
“He’s going that far?”
“He’ll give you a ride if you want. Why don’t you wait?”
“I don’t know. I just feel like getting out there.”
“Well could you do me a favor?” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I must have slept funny or something. Think you could give me a little massage?”
A few minutes’ delay wouldn’t kill him. He turned toward the front door.
It squeaked as he entered the living room. He unshouldered the pack and placed it by the door beneath Lucas’s rifle mounted on the wall. Then he padded past the fireplace and opened Darcy’s door.
She turned onto her stomach. The pink blanket covered her legs and butt, giving way at the small of her back to a bedsheet whose edge ran across her shoulder blades.
He sat on the edge of the bed by her waist. “Where does it hurt?”
She nestled her cheek into the pillow and closed her eyes. “Just start and I’ll tell you.”
He placed his hands on her bare shoulders and began kneading the muscles at the base of her neck between his thumbs and pointer fingers.
“Here?” he said.
She shifted her shoulder blades from side to side. “N‑n‑not quite,” she said. “Move your thumbs down my back a bit…A little bit more…A little more–there. Ther-r-re.” She moaned deep and sweet, but he could not feel himself relieving any knot in the muscles flanking her spine. He only felt the supple flesh yielding beneath his finger pads, the rhythmic rocking of her shoulders as he pressed little circles into her flesh. She moaned more and more contentedly, issuing breath after breath as he pressed into her flesh, her cherry‑red lips parted upon the pillow, each breath barely grazing his wrist as a warm moist intimation. She slipped her hands under her cheek, her arms barely emerging from the bedsheet. He smelled that brassy scent of her perspiration, and right then and there he knew he was going to let it happen because they had been waiting for it to happen. The nape of her neck beckoned.
He leaned forward and kissed it. “Here?” he said.
She rolled over, beaming, pinpoints of gold light flickering in her pupils. As she raised an arm behind her head, she arched her back, and the bedsheet slipped off her breasts, those melons with chocolate‑red nipples. With a cat‑like hiss he went for those nipples, kissing, licking, biting them as a sheet of goosebumps streaked up her breasts. They grabbed and grappled with bedsheet and flannel and denim until his shirt was off and his jeans were down at his boots. Her nails raked his butt, lightning bolts of chill shooting up his sides as he split her thighs with his knees.
Suddenly he heard the sound of a truck door shutting, work boots upon the concrete walkway, and the whistling of a tune.
He sprang off the bed and hopped into the closet with his jeans around his ankles. Holding the door shut, he felt the house shake from the thunder of bootsteps bounding over the porch and through the living room. Blood pulsed in his ears. Semen dripped on his thigh. He put his hand to his chest: his shirt was still out there! He hesitated, thinking maybe he should just keep still, but if Lucas spotted that shirt, he’d have to run for his life. He pulled up his pants, letting go of the door knob to button them.
The door clicked open. A needle of light stabbed his foot.
“Lucas!” she said with feigned surprise. “You weren’t–”
There was the sound from a jeans zipper, the squeal of bed springs. Kisses peppering flesh until Darcy softly said, “Hey, tiger. I’ll still be here tonight.”
She said, “Well, I’ll be more into then.”
“But you’re always into it, Darcy. You’ve said it’s been okay, but I don’t surprise you enough.”
“I know, but…”
“It’s getting old with me, right?”
“What else could it be?” The sound of boot heels pacing the floor. “Jesus, Darcy!”
The boom of a clenched fist bashing the wall. The closet door jamb shook against his cheek. Boot heels fading from the room. The sharp squeak of the kitchen faucet. Water splashed upon a face.
A hollow silence fell over the room. He opened the closet door and poked his head out. Darcy lay with her face in the pillows. Her shoulders quaked.
“Darcy,” he said softly.
She rolled over to face him. Her eyes were red and very moist.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She exhaled and sniffled while glancing up at the ceiling. “You’re sorry.”
“Hey, Darcy,” Lucas called from the living room. “What’s Paul’s back–” There was a pause–a long, long pause. Then came the clunk of the rifle being pulled from the rack.
* * *