When I told Teresa, her face closed over. I had no trouble imagining how much she hated him. We never talked about it again.
Teresa's horse was delivered to the house a couple of days after we got back; she installed him in the barn and paid for a load of hay the next day. We still had a few days before the semester began. She spent her mornings learning the horse's character. She accustomed Sam to the giant dog by taking her along on her rides. Teresa was a natural rider, held to her horse by some loose-boned magnetism. At the end of January I decided to get a second horse, so we could ride together. I had wanted to call Ellen, to have her come down and help me look at horses, but Teresa insisted that we didn't need her help. I called her anyway. She asked to talk to Teresa, and Teresa took the phone reluctantly. She listened for a few minutes, making an occasional uncomomunicative response. I went to the kitchen.
"Yeah. I figured something like that," I heard her say. Again she was silent.
"I'm grateful. All right?" She sounded angry.
I was getting a Coke. I plinked the top with a fingernail as I came back toward the couch, where she was sitting with the phone. She glanced at me, angrily, I thought. What was going on?
"Here's Thomas. Talk to him about horses."
"Is there a problem?" I said into the phone, my eyes on Teresa so that either of them could answer. Teresa's lips got tight; she flounced an eyebrow and turned abruptly and walked away.
"No problem," Ellen said. "I talked to one of her acquaintances from Ely. I was passing on a message." Her voice sounded a little exasperated. I heard Teresa's door shut emphatically. "What did you want to know about horses?"
We talked for a few minutes, then we were interrupted by a clunk on the line. "Oops. I've got call waiting," Ellen said. "Hang on." In a minute, she was back on the line. "Thomas, hon, it's kind of an emergency."
I went to Teresa's door and knocked.
"I'll be out in a minute!" she called.
I went back to the couch.
"Is something wrong?" I said when she reappeared.
"I got a letter from a guy I knew in Ely. It turns out Ellen gave him my address."
"How'd he end up meeting her?"
"How else? He worked at Loretta's. He was looking for me. I guess she recognized the description," she added bitterly.
"Is he going to bother you?"
"No." She glanced at me, the first eye contact she had made since coming back into the room. "No, it's nothing like that. I just don't like having people give out your address. Not to my crowd, anyway," she added ruefully.
"Do you need a post office box?" I said after we had looked at each other for some time without breaking the awkward silence.
"No. I need a bath." She appropriated my bathroom without another word. I didn't see her again until she came to bed.
When I found the horse I wanted, a black gelding with a dappled rump, I had Don look at it, and he haggled a bit on the price for me. Once we had two horses, Teresa and I explored the hills above the Albers ranch, getting accustomed to the horses. Once we took Sam on an overnighter off toward the Truckee River. I named my horse Shunka. Teresa said "Chunky" was more like it. He'd been cut proud, and he had the stallion's muscular rump and thighs.
A contract for the new novel had not been waiting when we got back. However, there was an enthusiastic letter from my agent. She wanted some changes, minor ones, and she had the book at a publisher she was sure would love it. There was another letter, from Ruth Stroh, waiting at the office. She was coming through Reno with some friends, on the way to San Francisco. Could she stop and say hello? It was dated the day we had left for New Mexico, and she would have been in Reno a few days before we got back. Four days after we got home, she had called the house.
"We're on our way back," she said. I was uncertain what to do; she had cut through the problem. "If you'd rather I didn't come by, it's OK."
"It's out of your way," I said.
"I don't mind. The guys want to hit the casinos. They're under age."
We talked for a few minutes; then I had given her my address and directions. She gave me her home address. "In case I forget," she said.
I had half an hour to explain Ruth to Teresa. I did not tell her about my suspicions regarding Ruth's father, only about Stroh's suicide and my relationship with his daughter before and after. Teresa offered diplomatically to go for a walk. She and Sam were gone when a Camaro pulled into the yard. Watching Ruth come to the door, I wondered what she would think of the new novel, once it was published. I had given the protagonist, Beth Poulos, what I imagined of Ruth's relationship with her father.
"Hi!" She stopped on the top step. I came outside.
"Hi, kiddo. Want some coffee?"
We sat on the porch steps, drank coffee, and talked. She was with her sister Ann, who had enrolled at Colorado State. "She's back in Reno. I wanted to bring her to meet you, but she was shy, and I decided I didn't want her along anyway. I got a story published."
"Mosaic. It's a magazine for undergraduate writing. It's about Marie. The story."
I asked about Marie. She was taking ballet and whining about the tedium of barre exercises.
"I guess she thought it was all performance and bouquets," Ruth said. "I miss you." She had let her hair grow. It still curled wildly around her head.
"We had a good year, you and I. I'm sorry I had to cut out on you. Leaving you behind was one of the few things that I regretted."
She was watching my face, as if reading my lips. She smiled. "I switched to English." She had been majoring in political science. "I like Professor Springer. And Professor Oates is silly. They hired a new guy after you left who's a really good teacher. Your office mate's husband? Peter Lindheim? I took his survey."
I hadn't known about Peter. "How is Claudine?"
"Professor Lindheim?" She studied my face. "OK, I guess. She offered this Focussed Study class on Kate Chopin that I took. Kate Chopin's pretty boring. You know, Ann Rice is from New Orleans?" I smiled to acknowledge that I'd managed the leap. "But she also got me to read Carson McCullers."
"Claudine," I said.
She looked nonplussed. "What?"
"Not Ann Rice."
"Oh." She was puzzled, then she lit up. It was like homecoming, to see that wonderful smile again. "I guess I'm just as scatterbrained as ever!" she cried.
I shook my head, smiling.
She went on, her face serious again. "She is influencing me; McCullers, I mean, not ProfessorClaudine," she said in a serious tone. I struggled with a smile, then let it happen. "Well, she is!" Ruth said, amused and offended.
"She's a good writer," I agreed.
"My boyfriend is prob'ly losing his shirt."
"He better be. If he wins, they'll card him, take his winnings, and throw him out."
"He'll be twenty-one in April. It's really nice here. You have a girlfriend?"
I saw where she was looking. Teresa had left a pair of muddy sandals on the porch a couple of days ago.
"What's she like?"
I told her about Teresa.
"Kinda young for you," she said.
"I guess." I thought how much older than Ruth she seemed.
"I better go," Ruth said. She didn't move. She was looking at me. We were sitting on the porch. Again, I thought. I wondered what she was thinking.
"You could stay for lunch," I said. "Teresa's gone for a walk with Sam. She should be back in a while. You'd like her," I added.
"You know what happened with my dad?" she said.
I braced myself. "I've speculated."
"He was getting after Doris. She didn't tell me. She told Father Ambrose. Then she told a doctor. It got out."
There was nothing to say. I swilled my coffee, watching the tiny maelstrom, waiting.
"It was bad. I should have told someone. Or done something. Have you ever hated and loved someone at the same time?"
"Oh yes. God, yes." It seemed the right thing to say. I knew what she meant; I remembered the feeling from long ago.
"The worst thing was not being sure why I hated him. Well, I was sure when he started in on Doris. But even then, I didn't just hate him. And then he did... that, and it was like my hating him made it happen. You know? Like it was what I had wished for but not what I really wanted?"
"I'll bet you didn't do anything wrong," I said gently.
"Yes I did," she snapped. "Before."
"I meant you can't hold yourself responsible for what your father did."
"It's really nice here," she said, taking in the panorama of the hills. There was snow visible in the distance. "You know, I told my father about you, and he read some of the letters you wrote to the class. And your comments on my papers. We had a big fight. He said some dirty things about you." I heard the murmur of Teresa's voice from behind the house. Ruth turned her head toward the sound. "I'd better get back to town," Ruth said. She stood up as Teresa came around the corner with Sam. I got up too, and came down the stairs. Sam charged Ruth affectionately. I introduced Teresa.
"Stay for lunch," Teresa said. "It's no casino buffet, but I make a mean tuna salad."
"I can't. I got to get Daniel's car back to Reno and get him and Freddie and Ann out of Harrah's before they lose their shirts."
"Well, at least let me show you the house. Huh?"
They went inside. I wasn't invited. Sam and I watched the door slam. Sam sat expectantly, waiting for someone to notice the error. I clicked my tongue, and she glanced impatiently at me, then returned her gaze to the door.
I sat on the stairs and clicked again. "Com'on, babe. Come here."
She came over for scratching. Her ears twisted and turned like antenna. We heard one voice, then another, following their progress through the house. Then a door slammed, and Sam jumped up and disappeared, headed for the back door, Teresa's door. Soon the three ladies reemerged from around the corner. The humans were talking animatedly about plants. Sam was doing a reel around their knees.
I stood up. Teresa came forward and passed me, going up the stairs. As she passed, she let her hand slide up my arm. She stopped at the top of the stairs and turned. Ruth was looking at me as if she had something to say. Suddenly she stepped forward confidently, threw her arms around me, and kissed mea light, assertive peck that was over before I could even raise my arms. I caught her elbows as she stepped away with a wild look up at Teresa. We stood a moment with our arms around each other, then she pulled herself gently from my embrace, smiling with a touch of triumph, a kid who had gotten away with something, in her eyes. The look passed as quickly as I read it, and she offered a hand up the stairs to Teresa.
"Take good care of him. He needs it," she said severely. Teresa smiled and stepped down into the handshake to hug her. Ruth dodged Sam as she hurried to her car, then turned and fell to her knees to hug the dog. Teresa and I stood on the porch to watch Ruth return to her car. Ruth waved once more from the Camaro, and she was gone. We went inside.
As we settled into the new routines of second semester, with Teresa coming on campus regularly for classes, I looked forward to finding her home. Often we'd go the entire day without seeing each other. She had gotten her three-year-old anthropology credits transferred from UC Sacramento, and she was working on her degree. Her textbooks filled half a shelf of her bookcase. I had read some of the text for Introduction to Plains Indian Ethnology, and I recommended a couple of other titles.
Nicole Rabinsky, my agent, called to tell me that Love Crafts had been accepted by Random House. "They're looking at a major publicity campaign! They want to get you on the talk shows with girls from COYOTE. They're thinking major motion picture, Thomas!"
"How much advance?" I asked. When she told me, I caught my breath. "Get the contract out here before they come to their senses," I said.
"I FedExed it. You should get it today. Don't read it; just sign it and get it back here."
"Sure, and find out I've signed my royalties away to your favorite charity."
"Baby needs new shoes."
I had thought, toward the end of building the manuscript, of adding Teresa to the novel, but it would have complicated the main character. It would have been an act of affection rather than an aesthetic choice; I had resisted. I told her my news and offered her a copy of the manuscript to read.
"This is Ellen," she said a few days later, returning the pile of paper.
"Yes. She was the inspiration. It's other people too." I was unwilling to identify Ruth, but flattered that Teresa had recognized Ellen.
"You've glamourized her a little," she said.
"How?" I was not prepared for jealousy. I had written about making love with Ellen, that night in the motel room. The man was someone else, but Teresa knew me in bed well enough to recognize that I hadn't been making that up. I wondered what she was thinking of, though. I had let my affection for Ellen show, certainly, but I hadn't covered her moles. Was Teresa still smarting over her friend's letter? I suppose I should have been angry as well. I didn't want pimps and whorehouse bouncers showing up at our door any more than Teresa did. I resolved that I would say something to Ellen, next time we talked.
Teresa was holding the manuscript in one hand, offering it to me. She shook the pages a little. "This only shows part of what it's like. It's got an ugly side, you know."
She seemed to reconsider. "Oh, never mind," she said. She looked down at the pages, then offered them again. I took them.
"No, really," I said. "Do you mean prostitution? I've never denied it has an ugly side. I just wasn't interested in that part of the story. It's about Beth. Ellen, if you like."
"If you stay in it, you get to know some scary people," she said, as if to herself.
I felt like we were having two monologues. "Like what? You mean Mafia? Kinky johns?"
"Well, sure. Degenerates. Sickos. Organized crime. Drug dealers. Thugs. Bad guys. The cathouses are all owned by the Mafia, I'm sure. They come with the territory."
"OK. But that's true if you run a restaurant or a magazine shop. But there are some good people in the business, too. People who just have different sexual values than what 'normal' people pretend they believe. Honest women. Ellen's a good person."
"I know that!" she said with some exasperation. "Never mind."
It took a few weeks of the semester for us to accommodate our lives to each other's schedules. Again, I had a night class. I would come home to find her watching a late movie or reading. Occasionally, she would study past even my endurance and I would go to bed; always, dutifully, she would come to our bed. Once she slipped in beside me without waking me. I was charmed to discover her there in the morning, sound asleep, her hand resting negligently on my flank.
We made love; often we merely slept, sometimes tucked into each other like spoons. I came to know the topography of her body intimately, the way a man learns to know land he's wedded to for life. One afternoon I began to strip her naked on the back porch, slowly exploring each new territory as I uncovered it. I got her out of her shirt and bra without protest.
"Stop that!" she squealed when I opened her jeans. "What if that dirty old man comes riding by?"
"Let him. I owe him one. Let him look and suffer."
"I don't want him looking," she said. "Let's go inside."
I had my hands on her bare waist. I kissed the top of her breast. "Let's go in the aspens. If he comes in there, he's trespassing. Sam'll bite him."
"Sam's inside," she pointed out, reasonably enough. She had her arms up, half covering her breasts, her knuckles cradling her chin. When I looked up from my ministrations, she was smiling.
"Come on," I said, pulling her up with me and putting an arm around her waist. She was naked from the waist up, her jeans snapped but unzipped. She zipped them again as we stepped off the porch. I snuck glances at the delicious bounce of her naked breasts as we walked to the aspens and inside. As soon as we were surrounded, I dropped to my knees in front of her and popped the snap on her jeans. When I unzipped them again, they slipped past her rump and then fell. She was wearing white bikini pants. I kissed the dark shadow at the center.
"No fair if I'm naked and you're not."
"You first," I said. She put a hand on my shoulder and wriggled her feet out of the jeans.
"It would've been a lot more dignified to take my shoes off first."
"Who cares about dignity?" I said, sitting on my heels. I put my hands on my hips. "I want to see your bottom."
She laughed. "You. Are. Crazy," she said, carefully enunciating each word. She kicked off her shoes, and I helped with the socks. She had nothing left but her panties. She stood hesitant for a moment, unsure how to proceed. Then she hooked her fingers in them and stepped free of them. I kissed her bare belly, putting one hand on the small of her back. Her pubic bone pressed against my chin. Then she sank to her knees in front of me and kissed me with a wet passion that made me ready to burst. I stripped off my shirt for her to lie on and we made love in the grasses.
Afterward, I put my pants on, rolled her onto her stomach and massaged her back. The image of her nudity under the sun was poignant. I wanted to cover her, to be a blanket for her, but still see that dark nakedness. The brown tones of her skin evened out in the winter; when she first had moved in, she had patterns of shade and light that demarked a bikini for sunbathing and the casual exposure of arms and legs while wearing shorts and T-shirts or tank tops. She was not a compulsive tanner, and not self-conscious about the unevenness of her coloring.
"If I had my way, you'd go naked all the time."
"Sure, cut down the clothing bills," she murmured into her arm.
"That too." I kneaded the rope of muscle lining her backbone.
"Sitting on plastic chairs would be a treat," she muttered.
"You can carry a towel."
"I resign," she said.
"All right." I rolled her on her back and kissed her cheek. "You are so beautiful," I said, still straddling her.
She smiled. "Thanks. We tries to please," she said, her voice a pathetic imitation of a Southern drawl. "You wanna blow job, bay-bee?" she added with an insinuating whine.
"What?" she said, suddenly serious.
I was embarrassed. I could not meet her eyes. Her beauty at that moment disarmed me. "I was thinking of something. It's Ruth, I think, from the Bible. 'Never shouldst thou part from me.'"
She stared at my face. Her eyes filled with tears. "Can't you just say it?" she cried in a soft voice. She turned her head aside. When she closed her eyes, a tear squeezed free. "Christ, Tommo, can't you just say it without the literary bullshit?"
Abruptly, she rolled against me once, then again, as if trying to get free. I rose from one knee and released her. She got up. She put on her jeans, skipping the underpants and stuffing them in her pocket like a hankie. Then she grabbed up my shirt. "I need this more'n you do," she said. "It's my turn to cook." She was gone before I could say anything.
She spent a long time on the phone that night. When she came to bed, she announced that she needed to go home over the weekend.
"Aunt Flo, actually. I'll be back Sunday night, OK?"
"What is it? Is something wrong?"
"It's family. Don't worry," she said reassuringly. I worried anyway.
Friday night she left in her Datsun. I thought of going to visit Ellen. That was impossible. I hadn't seen her for months. But Teresa knew all about Ellen now, if she hadn't before, from the book. I didn't want to be gone if she called; I didn't want to tell her I'd gone to see Ellen, and most of all, I didn't want to have to insist, however true it were, that I hadn't gone for professional reasons. So Sam and I haunted the hills. I didn't even know Aunt Flo's last name. She lived "up north," according to Teresa. She was adamantly uncommunicative beyond that.
So I waited. I rode Shunka, my black gelding, with Sam for company. We dropped in on Don Albers and, after six months, I met the famous bull. There were no messages on the phone when I got back. I spent Sunday preparing for classes. At six, I heard the familiar rattle of her Datsun; I forbade myself to go to the porch. She found me in my office and kissed the top of my head.
"Miss me." It sounded like an order.
"Yes. I had to cook for two nights straight."
"Fuck you," she said amicably.
I rolled my chair around and pulled her into my lap.
"With pleasure," I said. She kissed my neck. She had to study.
"Monday's your birthday," I said that night as we lay in the dark.
"What do you want?"
"I suppose the Porsche is out?"
"This year. Unless Love Crafts gets optioned."
"And the mink."
"Maybe in my will."
She was quiet. Then she curled up against me, her skin a little cooler than mine from a quick trip to the bathroom. She said, "Y'know what I want? I want you to tell me something you've never told anyone else."
"That's all? What's the catch?"
"It has to be brand new, and true. You talk so much, finding something you really never told anybody in your whole life should be pretty tough."
"Um." I pretended to be drifting off.
"Deal? Tom?" She poked me with an elbow, and I rolled away from the bone a little.
"Don't be a brat. I did once."
"The story about my brother. I never told anyone the truth."
"Yeah, but you wrote a version of it. That doesn't count. At all!"
"Don't sulk," I muttered.
"And I want to keep it. I mean, after you tell me, you can't ever tell anyone else."
On her birthday, I gave her a small item of jewelry, a pair of clamorous Navajo earrings, silver feathers and dangling teal stones. I got a small cake with "Over 21" on it and took her to the restaurant at the top of Harrah's.
And that night, with her tucked against me in the blue dark, I told her about Kathryn. A nearly full moon hung like a streetlight in the window across from her. The night was clear, and the moon showed most of its surprised face.
"She's my first sexual memory, a magic woman, beaded with shower water," I explained, whispering in the dark.
"And you've never told anyone," she said conspiratorially.
"I was less than five, or my mother would never have let this happen. Even so, I think she was upset by it. But I'm not sure, because a piece of my memory wraps the whole incident in a kind of calm. Kathryn was our next-door neighbor. It was in Panama, and we lived in houses on pillars, eight or ten feet above the dangerous ground with its snakes and spiders. My dad stepped out the door one morning, and his foot crushed a tiny boa. He kept that snake in a jar of formaldehyde for years.
"The two porches of the duplex shared a staircase that forked at the top, so Kathryn's house was the only place I could go without climbing down the stairs. My mother visited her often; they had coffee in the morning, after their husbands had gone. I would have been less than five, because otherwise I would have been in school.
"I just remembered the colors of the house: dark greens. Kathryn was in another room that morning when we came in. Those days, you didn't lock your door, and knocking was enough warning before you walked in on your friends.
"When my mother called her name from the door, she called back to come in. I could hear the shower through the open door of the bathroom and through the door screen, and I heard it stop as we walked into the living room. The enlisted quarters were not large. We probably had one bedroom, or possibly two, and a kitchen and bathroom, possibly a dining room, but nothing else. Her house would have been the mirror twin of ours. The doorway to the bathroom was down a short hall, but not visible from the place where we entered the living room. As we stood five or six steps from the front door, my mother and Kathryn talked casually at a distance, words I don't remember.
"Then Kathryn appeared, finishing a sentence as she stepped through the door, talking and dabbing an arm with a towel. The towel was brilliantly white, or seemed so, because she was naked, and her skin was deerskin brown, somewhere between tanned deerskin and oiled blond oak. Beads of water suggested oil on her skin. Her hair was black, surely darkened by water; she worked the towel through it while she continued to talk, fluffing it briskly."
I paused. For a moment, she was there again, Kathryn, alive, bejewelled.
"I don't want to dramatize the moment; I'm telling you only the truth. I would like to remember that my mother was speechless with disapproval, but I half-recall that they just kept talking, as if I wasn't there at all."
"Maybe you were younger. Two or three. And your mom didn't think you were paying attention," Teresa whispered. "I can remember a couple of things that happened when I was two."
"I don't know. Maybe I was. Where was my little brother, if I was five? Anyway, she didn't seem to care. That's the truth of memory; it makes less sense than the lie interpretation would invent, how it should have been. I don't remember any words; I don't remember a setting, except for the half-invented house. A picture on Kathryn's wall, something nondescript, PX or motel quality, merely to break the monotony of flat green space. All I remember is the green room, vague furnishings as if seen from the bottom of a pool. And then, brilliantly focused, the glorious shine of her dark and naked skin.
"Down the years she seemed to me, in the moments when I remembered her, deeply tanned. But I remember now that she had no tan lines; her breasts were the same rich color as her face. I remember my mother saying something about all this to someonesurely not my fatherand mentioning the lack of tan lines, scandalized because to her their absence suggested nude sunbathing.
"Perhaps she hadn't realized I was with my mother. Kathryn, I mean. Perhaps she would not have stepped out, had she known I was there. But I don't think so. We usually came together, and Kathryn babysat for me. My mother would have been about twenty-nine, if I am right about the date, and I've always thought of Kathryn as between twenty and twenty-fiveyounger than my mother.
"But I've never, till this moment, imagined my mother younger than thirty-five, her age when I was eleven, even though I can recall encounters with her that happened earlier. My mother aged; Kathryn didn't. Maybe they were the same age."
Teresa exhaled through her nose. I waited for her to speak, then I continued.
"There was nothing prurient in seeing Kathryn's naked body. I was too young for prurience and too dazzled by the living Venus. You understand how much more than sexual such a memory is, how truly erotic. The beads of water are transparent in my memory even today, glittering in the light from the front window like gems or bits of glass. Her skin is the color of mine, but many shades darker. Her hair was raven's-wing black, like yours, the color I've coveted for myself all my adult life. My sister Barbara's coloring was the same, but I remember Kathryn complete from long before I noticed that.
"Maybe she was an absolute slut, and she did lie nude under the Panama sun, maybe in the privacy of a fenced porch. I don't think so. Recreating her tonight, I want to remember her being French, but for no good reason. That's part of the myth I'm dissecting while I tell you this; Kathryn could be a French name, I suppose. French would fit in with my family mythology. My mother was French, and in her folk ethnography, the French of Europe were paragons of insatiable lust. She hated lust. My father served in France, World War II.
"I think Kathryn was Chicana or maybe even American Indian, and 'French' came from my mother's need to explain people by attaching them to a national stereotype. I've known Chicano girls named Linda, Chippewa women named Helen, Denise, and Deborah. The beautiful Michif girls I taught to write in North Dakota could have been Kathryn's sisters. For me Kathryn had no nationality; she was simply a vision of the feminine, unattached to assumptions or explanations. In the memory that my mother would have built for me, explaining Kathryn, possibly chewing away at this event later, 'French' meant an immigrant. It meant that she had been born in France and, most likely, married her husband while he was stationed there, a free ticket to U.S. citizenship that, my mother would have guaranteed, she'd discard as soon as she could. 'French' meant strolling on the beaches of Nice in bathing suits illegal in America. That's what it meant to my mother, and what she taught me to understand by it.
"My mother was from Maine. Chicanos stayed out of Maine, and Indians were safely isolated in the north. Chicano and Indian meant the cartoons she saw in movies, not the potentially beautiful realities. She knew, from her folk resources, that real 'Mexicans' and Indians were fat and oatmeal-skinned, dead-eyed and shapeless. When Jane Russell played 'Chiquita' or Apache princess Debra Paget fell for Tom Jeffords, we all knew that they were pretend Mexicans and Indians. They had to use white women to represent the Chicano and Indian girls; otherwise, how could anyone believe that a white man would fall for them?"
"Don't be mean," Teresa murmured. She moved her head against my chest a little.
"Kathryn was not black or Asiatic. My mother would have known if she was. Or Hawaian or Filipino. She would have known, and Kathryn's shamelessness would not have been a mystery to her. She had paraded before us naked because colored women are like that or because Orientals have no sense of shame. It's true; she had no sense of shame. Except that she would have been shamed, as I am even now, by that sloppy lump of generalization smeared across this chance moment of honesty. She did not 'parade.' Her nakedness..." I stopped speaking; I groped for the right word.
"I almost said nudity, but that is a lie: that white towel was not a covering but a tool; she was simply naked, unposed, unconscious. Her nakedness was nothing more than a natural condition, as naked of meaning as her body was of clothes. And I realize now that I did not examine her nakedness, 'peek' at her, though I took it in absolutely and I can see her before me, in all the certain detail of anatomy, while I say this. A few years later, three boys caught my sister, threw her down, and stripped off her panties so I could see a girl. I looked and was ashamed; that time I saw nothing. There was nothing of Kathryn I didn't see; there's nothing I don't remember. I could describe as if from a photograph in my hand. I see her nownot the elderly woman she is, if she's still alive, but the young and golden, luminous vision."
I stopped speaking again. Involuntarily I sighed, Kathryn's caramel skin rich in my mind's eye. Teresa's breath was so even, I thought she might have fallen asleep. Then she sighed. She kissed the hollow of my shoulder and rolled, wordlessly, half onto me. I put an arm around her, the nylon of her nightgown liquid under my fingers.
She muttered something. "Bassindera," it sounded like.
"Nothing," she murmured.
I waited. Still she didn't speak. She was pretending she had fallen asleep. I wasn't going to let her off that easily. "Good enough?" I said.
"Um-hum," she murmured. Her hair was across my mouth.
We lay still. Again I thought she was asleep, and I stroked her back, still thinking of Kathryn. When Teresa spoke, her voice was precise and even, not the slurring drawl of a mouth getting mixed signals from a retiring brain.
"You know about my Aunt Florence in Winnemucca. Her husband was a sheepherder. Iturbé, his name was." She had a leg resting on my thigh, the fabric of her nightgown a vague turn-on that stirred me sleepily. She took my other arm and drew it around her. I pressed my hand against the flat bone above her rump, pushing her enfolding legs closer. "Sometimes Papa would send us to live with relatives. In the summer, mostly. Usually it was his family, over in Ignacio. In Colorado. This one time, it was Mama's sister Florence. Me, David, Estelline, Victoriaand Mama kept the baby because he was too young. Papa took us in his old truck, to this old house in Winnemucca. Uncle Richard was going to be gone all summer. Estelline cried when Papa left.
"Aunt Florence announced that we had lice. Head lice. Right after Papa left. She hauled us all to the barber in her station wagon, and he shaved our heads. Estelline was four. She cried all day. I was ten. I tried to comfort Estelline. David teased her and I slapped him a good one."
She ran a hand through her hair. In the half light of the moon, it was black as a well.
"I refused to look in a mirror. Victoria was young enough that she didn't even know what happened, and Estelline forgot all about it eventually, when her new hair grew in. Pretty soon, Aunt Florence caught on that I wouldn't look in mirrors. I wouldn't say why; I just refused. She slapped me a couple of times for being stubborn, when my face wasn't perfectly clean. I couldn't see it. Once she got mad and she slapped me a lot, holding me in front of the mirror in her bedroom and screaming 'Look!' over and over, shaking me by my arm and twisting my face this way and that. I just kept my eyes shut and took it.
"By the end of summer, my hair was OK, couple of inches long. I didn't look in a mirror until we got back home. I never saw in any of Aunt Florence's mirrors. The first morning I was home, when I went to the bathroom, I looked in the mirror.
"I didn't recognize myself. No, I mean, it didn't seem to be me. I don't know how to explain it. Not that I changed, but that it was someone else. I can't explain it very well, I guess. It was like it was a window with another girl behind it, looking back. A girl my age, but somebody I'd never met. I didn't know her. I wasn't in mirrors any more. It was some little girl I couldn't remember."
Her hair was in my face. She was done. I lay still, imagining the girl whose face was gone.
Finally, I said, "Teresa?"
"That's me," she said. When I did not go on, she waited, her breathing suggestive of sleep. Then she said, "What?" She was drifting into sleep.
"Dolorosa," I whispered. "It's a nice name. A true name," I added. "Chacon. The one and only."
"Yeah. Hot chick," she murmured, nearly asleep.
At last, the even rise and fall of her breath convinced me she was asleep. Her hair had a rich apple tang, gift of her shampoo, and under it an oily, salty natural must, that signature. I knew, smelling her hair, how animal mothers found their young by smell. There was no other. Some of her hair draped my face like a scarf. It was coarser than mine, depthless in the moonlight. As I drifted to sleep, I thought of cats smothering their masters with a pillow of fur.
She woke me a few hours later by suckling my ear. She was lying on my prone body like a child draped along the back of a horse.
"Tom, explain to me why we aren't married." I was not visibly startled. She sat up, letting the covers fall from her back. Her nightgown was lighter than her skin, some fruity pink I'd cast aspersions on the first time she wore it. She drew it off and dropped it over the side of the bed; there was enough moonlight to appreciate her nakedness. She was straddling my waist, nude but not impaled. Sam stirred in the living room. I heard the tick of her claws, circling to soften the floor, then a flump and a sigh.
"This is a hell of a time to ask me that. Are you going to blackmail me?" I put my hands on her thighs, squeezing the main muscles. Her legs were firm as a soft wood; the skin was electrically soft, so that when I brushed them with my palms, it was as if my skin rode the molecule of air above them.
"Yeah. Blackmail." She wiggled a little, tantalizing me with her rump. "Nothing happens till you answer my question." She squirmed again, sliding away.
"Do you want to be married?" The lights were out; it was too dark to see faces. Her hair was an indefinite mass draping her head. She put her hands lightly on my hands.
"Trick question. You first."
"What would a marriage give you that you don't already have?"
"Stop answering a question with a question. I hate it when you do that!"
"Ohh!" she exhaled impotently. Then she bounced on me, playfully knocking the wind out of me.
"Hey! No SM." She descended to kiss me, and the angle of her prone body slowly granted entrance to what was inaccessible before. We moved rhythmically together, kneading each other and, after a few minutes, reaching a pleasantly sharp, shared climax, a pleasure piquyant and rare. We lay spent, chilled by our sweat, while I framed an answer to her question.
"OK. No questions. I like you. You are a dear friend. I don't want to pretend more than that. In a year or so, you'll grow tired of me. You'll meet the so-called man of your dreams and run off to copulate and calve in his honor. At best, you will complete your degree and move on to find a normal life. I'd like to think you will think you were enriched by this experience, but it isn't necessary. I'll remember you with fondness and affection."
She was coiled around me still, her head on my chest. One of her feet was insinuated under my knee. I took a breath, thinking my reasons through.
"If we were married, our relationship would require a crisis when it was time to end it. This way, we have the ending pre-defined. If we still like each other in October, when the contract expires, we'll renew it. If not, we won't. No anger, no sense of betrayal, no recriminations. No blame."
"Can I tell you something?"
"That, Teresa, is a dumb question."
"At least I didn't say, 'Do you need to?'" I imagined that the shifting muscles of her face made a smile against my chest. "What?"
"Don't get mad." She sat up to face me. "Ellen said you were a wonderful man and a complete jerk, and I would be lucky to have known you, if I could stand it."
"Thank you, Ellen, darling." Then I thought about it. "She told you that? When?"
"That night. We went over to her house to talk."
"Yeah." She anticipated the direction of my surmise. "I was there when she called you," she admitted reluctantly.
"This is not good to hear."
"Why not? What's wrong with that?"
"Come on, Teresa. Ellen was supposed to be on my side. At least back then. What else did she tell you about me?"
"That you were gentle and kind. Honest. And" she hesitated.
"And what? What!"
"... uncertain." She rolled off my torso, flinging herself onto her side of the bed. "And afraid," she amended. "I shouldn't've told you. You're already pissed off!"
"Yes, I'm pissed off." I confess I am uncertain why, but I was.
"She worked me over pretty good, y'know. She asked me some pretty raunchy stuff, along with a lot of personal things. She wanted to know if I had any size preferences."
"No. Stop it, please."
"Did she really offer you a job? Or was that more girl-for-girl BS?"
"Yes. Exactly like she said. No. She made that up. But I wouldn't've taken her up on it. I've done that, and I don't want any more of it. I'd've turned her down; exactly why she said. You think I'm a prostitute. I don't."
"Christ, don't tell me you fell in love at first sight."
"I didn't say anything about love. Damn. Thomas. You are a goddamn hypocrite. You defined what I was and what we would have, and I agreed to it. What do you want?"
"I want an honest relationship."
"Do you? Don't you want a pretty pussy handy that won't embarrass you in public? 'Yeah, I can dress her up, but I can't take her out.' Isn't that the honest truth? Really?"
"What am I supposed to be afraid of?" She was lying flat now, the covers drawn up to her collarbone. I could see the glitter of her eyes in the gathering light.
"Nothing. I don't know."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You don't have any choice."
I could feel her body stiffen. There was a silence I could not break. Then she spoke. "Yes I do." That was all. We both lay in silence then, awake, our bodies immobilized. After a while, her breathing became even and steady. I knew that she was asleep.
I lay wakeful. After a few minutes my head and arm began to swell. My head was too heavy to move, my arm a log. It was still, very still; even her breathing faded. My head was too big, too big for the room. I had thought Ellen was my friend. Now she seemed more like Teresa's. I could not move my arm. I lay very still. I fell asleep.
I had not spoken to Ellen since January. My first impulse was to drive up to Winnemucca and confront her. That was impractical, and weighing the practicalities, I realized that it wouldn't accomplish anything, aside from allowing me to blow off some steam. Teresa was cool in the morning, almost sullen. She was wearing her glasses. She still didn't usually, except to watch television or read. We left separately for campusnot unusual, since our schedules were quite different. I was home when she returned, and she went straight to her apartment, entering through her own door. Later I saw her riding away west on Strider.
When she returned, I joined her at the barn. I arrived as she hefted the saddle off Strider's back and threw it onto a rail. His back was sodden under the blanket.
"Great. We saw some deer." She began grooming the horse without looking at me. Her back did not exclude me, nor was it inviting. In spite of myself, I admired the tight curves of her seat, the groove of pantyline defining the thigh. Abstractedly, I thought of touching her. I dismissed the thought.
"If you want to cancel the contract, I'll do it," I said, watching the brisk strokes of the curry comb. "I owe you eight months of the bonusfour thousand dollars."
She turned then to face me, the curry comb strapped onto one hand.
"Is that what you want? It's your money."
I struggled for the right terms. "I would miss you."
"I'd miss you too," she said, turning back to the horse. I let her finish. We walked back side-by-side. At the door, I put a hand on the small of her back, guiding her into the house. She did not resist.
When we were inside, I acknowledged to myself that what I felt was tenderness, an affection discontiguous with lust. I took her in my arms. She placed a hand politely on my back, her head on my chest. We stood together for a minute or more, silent, perhaps both wondering what the other was thinking. Perhaps not.
"I can't love, Teresa. I don't know how."
"Bullshit," she muttered.
"It's not bullshit. It's like a sociopath. I'm a sociopath. I was born without the love chromosome. In my genes. I can make the motions, say the words, but it's all whoring. I'm good at making women feel loved, but it's all fake. I'm the whore here, Teresa. I'm the prostitute."
"That's bullshit." She did not move. She was speaking into my chest.
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Really. I resent it, sometimes, that I am denied something other people apparently have. My father lived with my mother all those years. I knew by the time I was twelve that she hated him. I never asked him why he stuck it out. It baffled me. Women love men who beat them senseless. Men love women who sneer at their gifts and eat and drink themselves into swinishness. I can't. I can't love someone while she changes. I can't be the person she wants me to be forever. I don't know how, and I'm not sure I want to."
She exhaled, a sound rich with exasperation.
"I don't believe in love. It is one of those vicious delusions, like the godhead. An opiate for full-grown children. Believing in love, like my father did, doesn't make it real. I think people claim to love because they want to believe, because the world is so horrifying if I am right and they are wrong."
"You are so full'a shit," she said into my shirt.
"My eyes are brown," I added. She drew back to look me in the face.
"Yeah. They sure are. Let's eat, Tommo."
The evening passed casually, small talk and television. At ten, she put the glasses aside, crossed to my chair, took my hand, and pulled me up.
"Let's go to bed, Boss."
We made love quietly, more massage than agon. After I came, she lay still while I withered out of her. I tried to roll off, but she held me until I was utterly flaccid, then she came with me as if we were locked together, rolling over and putting her head on my chest.
"I want out of the contract," she said. My heart pained me.
"Would you stay?"
"Without a contract?"
"No, I meant. Yes, without the contract."
"Can you tell me why not?"
"Say it and I'll stay."
"Then I want out."
"It's up to you, Boss. You say, I stay."
She bit my chest. Hard.
Suddenly her head was beside my ear and she hissed with comic melodrama, "Say it or I'll bite off your ear." She took the lobe with the delicacy of a cat mouthing a bird to carry it home.
"I love you, you vicious bitch."
"All right then."