Sussex nights in early July do not stay dark for long, and by four o’clock gray creeps up on you from under bushes and from behind walls and soon you can easily make out shapes and features again. Half an hour later, it’s as good as day.
We had stayed up talking right on through the night against a shared, and much enjoyed backdrop of Joni Mitchell, Stealers Wheel, Ralph McTell, and even some George Frideric Handel, sustained by deeply held and shared beliefs. It was timeless talk. And by timeless I mean, first it was ten o’clock in the evening, then it was four in the morning. Just like that.
She was young and had a wonderful English accent. She had those kinds of eyes that sparkled a bit when she looked at you, green with gold-flecked irises. You’ve seen them perhaps? Juice Newton comes to mind. Magical eyes. Uncommon eyes—I have since learned. Unforgettable eyes—I learned that summer.
She had wonderful breasts, full from recent motherhood, though still aloft with youth. Her skin was just a shade off white toward amber, and smooth, as if someone had dipped her in creamy milk just from the farmer. Beautiful hands, milky too. And strong. And when she wrote—which I had seen her do often, for we sharedan office—she curled her cursive letters back over themselves in a way that made it look like she was on some marathon reverse traveling ovals exercise. Almost the way some left-handed writers do, but she was right-handed. And she could do this, could write like this, and legibly, even beautifully, without looking at the page—while looking at me, for example—her pen still trailing perfect letters into perfect words into perfectly straight lines of them.
An amazing skill. Amazing hands. A conjurer’s hands. Milky, too—or did I already say that?
She had full, brown hair that fell softly onto her shoulders, especially when she combed it all back from her forehead with one swift, left-hand movement, her pen hardly pausing.
She was shorter than I, a hand or so, but in a strange way she felt just as tall; you know what I mean, when you look at the physical person you see one height, when you look at the real person you see another, taller or shorter as the case may be.
She had a young son.
And she was married.
This didn’t bother me though, nor even concern me; no, not in the least, for I harbored none of those particular intentions, her breasts, her hair, her irises, and her milky skin notwithstanding.
We had worked late that night and it was time to leave, but she lingered, first putting things away, then straightening chair and desk and blotter, then again, then she came to some sort of decision and instead of leaving pulled her chair out from behind her desk and around to face me across my desk, and without as much as a hint of preamble turned personal: Why wasn’t I married? she wanted to know, elbows on my desk and chin resting on her partly fisted hands.
I don’t recall what I answered her—never found the right one, too busy with my writing, didn’t want to get hurt again, probably one of those—but I do remember that before long I found myself opening up the way we do to a sympathetic and interested ear. And I found her opening up, too, as one thought after another found words that fit and traveled across the silence between us.
I had been engaged once, no twice, I told her. Hadn’t worked out either time, which I luckily had realized before it was too late. Twice. What wasn’t right? she wanted to know. Hard to tell, I said at first, just felt wrong, you know, just didn’t feel right.
What, precisely, she wanted to know, felt wrong? How?
And I had to look at that, and I had to see, and I had to tell. And so the night was spent. And I swear, honestly, the notion of sex did not enter my mind, did not even try to. Her smile and gorgeous eyes stirred none of those sentiments. There was just this wonderful, sleepless, timeless, entirely faithful sharing.
Then she said, with a sigh that I should have heeded, that she wished she could talk like this with Bruce, her husband and good friend of mine—who currently was away on assignment, to be gone a month, perhaps two. He would understand none of these things, confess none of those things, she said, and added that she was very glad that I did. This, naturally, made me pretty much glow. With pride, perhaps, with satisfaction for sure, and with the quiet joy of giving, of bringing gladness to another.
It also woke me up to her. To the finer details of her. I don’t know how better to put it. I grew alert to her gaze. I could see it shift from some object in the room to something privately internal—without shifting her gaze or even changing their focus—as she spoke or searched for a question or pondered an answer. I would notice that thin curtain drop as she went from external to internal. And I grew alert to her breathing, evenly mostly, faster as she turned excited on some topic or other, then slow and even again, once said. And I grew alert to her hands, her milky hands, lighting cigarette after cigarette (as, by the way, did I).
And I grew aware of her lips, especially her upper lip, almost a straight line—you know, like Julie Christie’s (someone I have loved since Doctor Zhivago)—but a very full one. And I could almost smell her hair as she pushed it back again, and again, with that quick, five-fingered sweep of her left hand mostly.
Still, I swear, on a stack of holy books of your choosing, I did not harbor a single thought of sex. Well, for one thing, she was very married, and for another, as I think I mentioned, Bruce and I were friends. Not of the life-long variety, to be sure, but friends nonetheless. Bruce and I also respected one another, I guess is a good way to put it, and I would never, ever, not in a million years.
And, she was a recent mother. To Adam, Bruce’s son.
No, sex was completely out of the question, and the notion had not as much as attempted an appearance. I swear. Give me a stack of anything, I’ll swear on it.
When you talk, though, when you exchange views and beliefs and dreams this intensely, this sincerely and for this long, it seems that portals open and after a while some thoughts slip through and wing their way across the silence before words can catch them, and talk finds another dimension. This is what happened that night.
I don’t know whether we stopped talking altogether and only thought our way through the early morning hours or whether we thought and talked both, for it does not matter. What does matter is that in those early hours of July I found and understood her precisely, and she found and understood me precisely and though we never touched—of course not, she was my friend’s wife—we could have been making love for hours, that’s how close we felt. And still, I swear, the thought “sex” had not occurred to me. Not even a hint of.
So far, then, I am innocent. Honorable.
It was past four now, and not much left of the night. Still, I suggested that tomorrow (or the rest of today, rather) would be hard to take if we didn’t get some sleep and she agreed.
We locked the office and walked down the paved path toward the large manor house where I stayed temporarily—she lived maybe a quarter of a mile past that. And still the notion of sex had not stirred, much less surfaced.
The birds were already up and preparing for business, you could hear them stir and chirp in trees and bushes. I remember seeing a butterfly, too, and thinking isn’t this a bit early for butterflies, but that was it; but for the birds, the butterfly, a faint mist, and her and I, there were no one else. Unless you count the trees, but they never sleep.
We had almost reached the manor side door, which is the one I used, when I turned a little to my left to face her and said, “Well, goodnight, then.”
We both stopped. She turned, too, the better to face me, and now she appeared eight feet tall. Not unlike a suddenly towering Sonia Braga. Dark, in a way, and very, very present. She said, “Len…”
It was the beginning of a sentence, but no words followed. Instead, out through her still wide open portals and in through my still wide open portals rushed a bolt a scream a wind a thunder that struck me in the chest and seized me from groin to lungs to mouth and I could not breathe for the raw desire that entered and filled and rocked and shook and held me. I was fighting for balance for the force was physical and it still raged. All I could say, all I could find and manage to say to stave off the onslaught was, “Not now.”
Portals still open, she knew precisely what that meant and without a word, and with an almost matter-of-factly resignation, she turned and left. I stood stock still, or tried to, swaying still perhaps from the impact, and watched her move away through the last of the pre-dawn. I did not hear her steps although they must have made sounds, her feet did touch the ground, and there were only the birds competing for my ears. But I didn’t hear her steps. It’s almost as if I did not see her either, as if the image of her moving away I now see is only conjecture: She left, so she must have walked away. Perhaps I didn’t, couldn’t see anything. Perhaps I was only reeling, still fighting for breath, blind to the rest of the Earth.
Then I could see again, for sure. I could see her climb and reach the top of the gentle slope of the driveway, which then veered to the right at the gatehouse and vanished her behind trees and bushes and birds stirring.
I turned and managed to find my keys. I managed to open the door. I managed to enter the small hallway just inside. I managed to shut the door behind me. I didn’t stop to lean against it, though I easily could have. Instead, I walked past the small and ancient elevator to my right, out over the large hardwood floor, reached the sweeping stairs to my left and took them two by two up to my second floor bedroom.
I sat down on my bed, still shaking a little. Vibrating is probably a better word. Heart still racing. Breath still sporadic. For I knew the thing that had leaped out of her and struck and entered me with such force. I knew it beyond question: I had seen the essence of, the pure, unmasked version of sex. The primordial version, the one straight out of the original box.
Below my window, at the end of a wide, sloping lawn, there is a small lake, perhaps it is a large pond, I’m not sure what dimensions go with what word, but whichever, lake or pond, as I look out at it, I see the fog gather in large white wooly blankets over the black surface. Thicker and thicker and then, as I watch, in some amazing collusion with the air, thicker still and then it rises and, almost by sleight of hand, reaches the top of the trees, which now stick up out of the whitish sea like masts of sinking schooners. Rising further, and the trees are gone too.
I turn back to the room. There’s my bed. I really should get some sleep. I lie down, close my eyes, try to wind down, try to fall.
Who am I kidding? There is no way.
I am still reeling, swimming.
With the wonder of it, really. Sex, as pure as I can imagine her, has shown herself and I am still reeling, swimming from the impact. I have never seen her unmasked before—I doubt many have—I have never touched her wires ungloved, never suspected, never imagined she could exist this, this purely, in such concentration.
Had she been a drug, I would have just overdosed.
But I think I know what happened, and how: our portals were so open, the channel between us so wide, so free, so uncensored, so unobstructed that anything could travel across unchecked. Anything. And it did.
Then I wonder if she wonders, too.
It’s a little after five and I give up on sleep altogether. I get out my notebook and sit down to write in it.
The following day. She did not mention the thunder. I did not mention it either. It was as if we’d agreed to ignore it. Perhaps then it will have never happened. Too colossal, too odd, it couldn’t have, that’s how we agreed, perhaps.
But we talked again that night, and again till dawn. And the following night. And the night after that.
I discovered that, much to my surprise, I could function quite well on two hours of sleep a night. That and lots and lots of cigarettes and coffee. She made a sister discovery.
And the following night. This time I walked her home.
It is four or so in the morning, as usual. The air is moist and I can see dew on the grass and bushes and on the leaves of the overhanging trees. Everything smells early. Birds stirring, as usual. No butterflies, though.
Before we can see her house, it’s just up beyond the bend, we veer off the dirt road and onto a path and—led by god knows what hand—followed it into a clearing with a view of the lake (or pond), hidden now beneath a low, thick fog. There’s a fallen tree here, the trunk sat smooth by many resters, spectators, lovers. We sit down. Side by side. Although we have shared much, oh yes, so much, we have yet to touch, for she’s married, for Christ’s sake. To a friend of mine. Talking is fine, even if all through the night, nights, touching is not. Talking is wonderful and very fine, touching is completely out of the question.
The log is damp, but surprisingly uncold as we sit, side by side, not touching, not talking. The fog has risen again and the top of the trees down by the lake again remind me of sunken ships. I may or may not have mentioned this to her. The birds are growing louder, more and more stirring to the new day, and then she reaches for and picks up my hand, something not really me, but full of electricity—hers or mine, I don’t know. I give one thought, two, to retrieving my hand, but it’s no longer mine to retrieve. She has claimed it, and next I know our lips collide ever so softly.
It is like my first kiss, all over.
My very first kiss was sheer amazement.
I’ve heard that first kisses can be tentative, timid, sweet, alluring, feverish, hungry, bungling, thirsty, exploratory, drunken, searching, yielding, dry, wet, slobbery, teethy, tonguey, furious, seldom violent, dreamed, unacknowledged, hasty, long. My first kiss was not so much a kiss as a fusion.
Tongue finding tongue and delighting in the discovery of honey.
I have often wondered what happened to her. I remember her name and I can see her face, to this day, very clearly before me. A wisp of a girl, with perfect lips and a sweet, happy tongue.
This is the second fusion of my life. Tongue again finding tongue and again delighting in the discovery of sweetness. And never-ending. The sun might have risen and set and risen again during this kiss, what would I know? The kiss washed over me in wave after wave. If there was a thought of my friend, the husband, it was too timid to speak up in the face of all this ocean.
New rules: Kissing is okay. Hand-holding is okay. And, of course, talking is the most okay of all.
There was not a single night for the next two weeks that we did not talk. Her husband was still away, and there was now talk of extending his assignment until Christmas. I found myself hoping this rumor would prove true.
We talked until dawn again and again. We played Stealers Wheel again, and Mozart, and Handel, and Cat Stevens, and the Beatles, and we smoked cigarettes, and drank coffee. I emptied many ash trays. And each pre-dawn, as I walked her home, we’d detour into the small clearing with its view of the lake and its broad, round, smooth, if a little damp, lovers’ log.
New rules: Her breasts are no longer out of bounds.
They are hills of cloud. How can weight be so soft and so electric? My hands hum and swear that her breasts are not of this Earth.
New rules: As long as it is not actually sex.
“Actually sex” is now specifically defined as intercourse, and that, for her, is how you would be unfaithful to a husband. And that, for me, is how you would betray a friend. What falls short of that, however, falls within the still okay.
We spent the next two weeks not actually having sex, every night.
We talked about it often enough. We almost had it often enough, but we did not actually. And so, still—by our agreed upon definitions—she had not been unfaithful to her husband and I had not betrayed my friend. There was still the one strand intact, the one promise to myself not broken. The one shred of honor left. I could still climb out, had I the strength. Or so I told myself in sentient moments.
I am, by now, needless to say, hopelessly in love with her, and unlike the schooners in the mist, you can see no part of me.
This feeling is not altogether pleasant.
Then one morning it is three o’clock and I’m not sure by what compass we had steered, but we find ourselves in my bedroom, not talking, not actually having sex, and then actually having sex.
The little voice, the timid one, could be heard, somewhere, I’m pretty sure of it. It would have spoken. But it might as well have whispered at an oncoming comet to go away. The comet struck and my last strand of honor ignited, ruptured, fled, not to be heard from again.
What we now had, by definition, was an affair. Lots of people have affairs, some even with their friends’ wives. They survive. The world does not end. It’s not like killing someone, or like stealing, you know.
Well, that’s just it: it is a little like killing, and it is definitely stealing. But were we not meant for each other? Was this not, after all, on some level only we could see, right? The only way things could be. I tried, and tried so hard to believe that.
Then we talked less, and had actual sex more. Quite secretly, of course, we disguised the affair well. No one suspected, we were good hiders. And far too soon, after a quick, cold autumn, Christmas arrived and with it Bruce.
Her husband. My friend.
We have agreed not to tell him anything. But driving to the station to pick him up, I know there is only one thing I can do: I have to tell him. I see him, embrace him, stow his luggage in the back of the car, drive him back to his house and I don’t tell him a thing, hoping against hope that she will not tell him either, as agreed.
Then I wait. I smoke a lot of cigarettes. I don’t sleep much.
A day goes by. Two.
Then she tells.