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Jan/Feb 2018 Fiction

Sunbath

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel


"Which would you go back to? If you were forced to choose. Which of the two?"

The sun had so warmed the room that even naked he felt uncomfortable. She, who got a chill when others were going about in T-shirts, seemed to feel just right. He sometimes told her she was part reptile, only fully mobile after she had reached a body temperature well above what was adequate for warm-blooded creatures. But at the moment she looked very mammalian indeed, her pink skin traced with pale veins and selectively sprinkled with freckles and discreet moles. Propped up on one elbow, she could be the older sister of the woman who had lain beneath him a few minutes ago. But instead of drawn tight to her jawline, the flesh now gathered slackly to one side of her face. Her breasts, no longer spread hemispheres, strained earthward like weighted sacks.

"It's an impossible question," he said, fighting a keen urge to close his eyes.

"Why impossible? Just imagine you had to go back to one or the other."

He knew what his response had to be as soon as she spoke, herself full of mischievous energy after their sunny lovemaking. Above all, his answer had to be plausible, even true if possible, the truth one told a woman being of a different kind than what one told a friend or even one's child. But woman-truth was also the most difficult, bearing the dual burden of not being a lie and yet never being what the woman did not want to, or must not, hear.

"I wouldn't go back to either one."

"Pretend you had no choice," she persisted, bending closer, her breasts swinging recklessly.

He yearned for sleep. Why must she play this post-coital quiz as if it were some kind of afterplay?

"Choose one, A or B. Like a Chinese menu."

The backs of his eyelids were ablaze with sunlight. Ultraviolet could not penetrate glass, he recalled. Good thing. Otherwise his retinas would be scorched.

"Because," he said, unthinking, too stupefied to think, "that would mean you yourself were out of the picture."

"That's right. I don't exist."

"You've been abducted by aliens? Left me for another man?"

"Abducted by aliens," she replied cheerfully.

But it was no use trying to imagine his life untouched by her. She had altered his past as well as his present. This realization struck him with such appeal that it pushed open the shrinking chamber of his consciousness.

"It's just not possible to make that choice anymore," he said, looking up at her dark eyes. Nearsighted, she had the advantage over him. But the bright light seemed to help him focus.

"Why not?"

"If I thought I could go back, then I wouldn't have had to get divorced in the first place."

"Can't you pretend?" she said, anchoring a shank of hair behind her ear.

He did often wonder what would have happened if she had not left her first spouse. Sometimes he imagined her and Jimmy Kane making a go of it, salvaging the best of their two decades together: the children, the careers each had helped the other forge, common friends and memories, and then a future shared with more genuine intimacy than the urgent couplings of their youth. He even felt guilty of denying her that destiny.

He also envied the long tenure she and her first husband had achieved, however turbulently. All that was left from his own brief unions was a sense of rupture and incompleteness. For her the past was a fixed and dead place. For him it was alive and unfinished, daily confronting him with angry or pathetic accusation, intruding on both dream and consciousness, an ambush of unexpected tears if he ventured into an old neighborhood or heard a child cry out a certain way as he passed a playground.

"All right. Charlotte."

"No, no," she said, her elbow finally tiring. "Charlotte was your high school sweetheart. She's not eligible."

"Why not?"

"She just isn't," she said, drawing her knees up to her chin. A pout pinched her mouth into a reluctant kiss. "I guess I can't make you choose if you don't want to."

"But your premise assumes that you never existed."

"I told you, I was abducted by aliens."

"You still would have been part of my life. It's not the same as if I had, say, decided to go back with Doris or Emily before I started going out with anybody else—assuming they wanted me back. Now I would be carrying all those years with you back into the old relationship, just as I would carry that time into a relationship with any woman after you."

"You've already planned that far ahead?"

"I'm just making an analogy."

She rested her chin on her knees. In the brilliant light her skin seemed to harbor every human color, from palest ivory through each shade of beige all the way to the darkest browns represented by those dots of melanin scattered like genetic memories across her body.

"What's wrong?" he said.

"I'm disappointed. I thought I knew which one you would choose. I didn't think you would refuse to make a choice."

"I didn't refuse. I said it was impossible."

"The same thing."

She sulked then, as if he had denied her his love or something equally important.

"Do you know what I think?" he said. "I think you're asking because you're trying to find out something not about me but about yourself."

"Such as?"

But why should he have to be more explicit than she had been? His observation had occurred instinctively, with no more pre-thought than had probably gone into her own query. That was the great advantage of a woman's mind—how they skipped the useless analysis and doubt that men put into the process of thinking. It gave even their lying an honest, passionate quality that made their deceptions easy to forgive. Truth was merely a function of their most deeply felt needs.

"I have no idea what you mean," she said.

"Never mind."

"No," she said, her cheeks drawn taut with annoyance. How much more attractive she was when aroused! "You made a statement. Explain it."

"It just came to me out of the blue. Maybe the same way as your own question."

"But that had a purpose."

"Which was?"

"To see," she said, animated as if a long but compelling argument had finally been won, "which you would go back to."

"That's not a purpose. That's the question itself."

She gave him an impatient glance, a stranger's quick dismissive look.

"There had to be some reason," he said, "why you asked in the first place. And I contend it was because you were actually trying to find out something about yourself rather than about me or my past life."

Her eyes showed cautious interest.

"Which is...?"

"I have no idea."

"You do. You just won't say. It's the sadistic streak you have."

He laughed in the delight of his own guiltlessness. If only life could be this simple all the time. How much energy could be freed up if one simply accepted each moment on its own terms instead of always taking it apart like the pieces of a watch that never quite fit together and wasn't much use anyhow for telling time, not real time.

"There's nothing in the house for dinner," she said.

"Fish."

"I hate fish. I hate to handle it. I hate the little bones."

"Spaghetti."

"We're out of sauce."

Her brow had relaxed, but her sun-soaked profile was still that of a wronged woman.

He put his arm around her baking shoulders. Her warm hair smelled funky. He wondered would he burn his lips if he kissed her .

"We'll eat out."

"Where?"

"Mexican."

"Yuck."

"The Carriage House."

She closed her eyes and slowly opened them again, the lids long and heavy. She seemed to be interrogating the sun about some matter more weighty than what they would have for dinner. But then she suddenly threw her legs over the side of the bed.

"Give me a few minutes to get ready."

 

The day's special was baked scrod. She had given up red meat but wasn't ready yet to eat fish more than once a week. "God knows what kind of toxins are in it."

In the dying light her face seemed to carry her years frankly. The thick lenses of her glasses—she had no patience for contacts—while enlarging her eyes also muted their appeal.

"I still don't eat swordfish," he said. "It wouldn't do any harm, once or twice a year. But I'm afraid I'll end up brain-damaged like those Japanese they used to show on TV back in the '70s."

They laughed as if he had told a joke. As they grew older their humor had become more of a gallows variety, one-liners to keep the inevitable at bay.

The scrod arrived overcooked, but a white house wine surprised them. They ordered a second carafe.

"You know," she said when they had nearly finished, "if you had answered my question the way I thought you would..."

"Not that again."

She raised the shoulders of the cardigan she had brought for the air conditioning, smiling into her wine glass like a loopy fortune-teller. "Sometimes you think you know someone..."

"And sometimes you can't be satisfied with a perfectly honest answer."

She peered over the top of the wire eyeglasses that had slid halfway down her nose. He knew she couldn't bring him into focus without the help of the thick lenses.

"If you had met me when I was sixteen," she said, "you would have run the other way."

"So would you."

She grinned with one side of her face. "Maybe."

"No maybe about it. You wanted someone like Jimmy," he said, her first husband's name bile on his tongue. "And you got him."

"I 'got' him all right."

"And you were happy as a pig in..."

"Yes, I was. Or thought I was."

"Don't be coy," he said, feeling warm, though when he first sat down he was tempted to ask the waiter to lower the air conditioning. "You were nuts about him. You told me so."

"I must have been, to put up with what I did."

"Couldn't get enough of him. Fucked his brains out."

She nodded as if acknowledging an ancient wisdom.

"When he started fooling around with other women, you waited by the door for him to come home. You may have forgotten, but I haven't."

She contemplated her wine glass sympathetically for a moment, then brutally drained it.

"Even so," she said, reaching for the carafe, her glasses still unaccountably askew. She was fussy about them, always worrying where she had left them although they were never out of reach. Ordinarily she also waited for him to pour the wine. "I'd still like to know which one you'd go back to."

"Maybe you're the one who should have stuck it out, with Jimmy the K."

"That's absurd."

"You spent, what, twenty years together? Raised two kids. Went to God knows how many weddings and funerals. Thanksgivings. Christmas. A lifetime, really. Me, I never hung around for more than three years at a time. Never got to see my kid grow up. It's not the same, you know, trying to be a parent just on weekends. The two of you could have come to some sort of accommodation. A new compact. You had all those years to build on. He was getting older, less inclined to chase pussy...."

He was out of breath. Why was he burrowing himself into this jealous fantasy? She rarely talked anymore about her first marriage, although she used to tell him far more than he cared to hear. She claimed that her silence now only meant that there was nothing to add, that it was a closed chapter in her life. But sometimes her silence seemed to suggest that her first marriage was not so much a closed book as a secret garden.

"You'll never understand about me and Jimmy," she said, her eyeglasses suddenly back where they belonged. "You'd have to live it like I did."

"It lasted twenty years. Why not forty? Or fifty?"

Out on the street nothing seemed more important than the heat.

"They say it's supposed to hit 95 tomorrow," she said. "When we were kids and it got hot like this we used to sleep on the floor."

"So did we." He recalled the still dark air, a fan whining in a window nearby, his younger brother snoring as if he were tucked under a warm quilt on a snowy night. "My parents said air conditioning was 'unhealthy.' I suspect they were just too cheap to buy one."

"I'm glad we bought one," she said, taking his hand as if they had just shared an intimacy. It was not a small or especially pretty hand, but its touch was almost as exciting as the plush of her breasts. Ten years ago merely holding her hand in public could mean an embarrassing situation for him. "I hate the cold. You know that. But even someone like me appreciates air conditioning on a night like last night."

"You had two blankets on!"

"I know," she said, pressing against his arm. To his amazement, his groin began to quicken.

"On a hot sticky night?"

"Especially on a hot night."

They reached the intersection of a thoroughfare that took a long downward slope to the west. A giant sun hung like a stage prop just above the horizon. They stood and watched it slide behind some anonymous hills, the other pedestrians scarcely giving it a glance.

"What makes it red?" she asked.

"Atmosphere. Pollution, actually."

They watched until only a slim arc remained.

"Tomorrow we have to do wash."

"I'll take it over first thing."

"Then let's plan something special."

"Such as?"

"You decide. In the evening I'll make something nice for dinner. Let's have candles. That's your job too."

He knew that the most they would do is see a mediocre movie and that her idea of something "nice" was overcooked cutlets. But he found himself anticipating the next day with as much optimism as she, along with all the other days they would share, whatever the burden of their unalterable pasts.

 

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