"I turned my first trick at sixteen."
"I mean it. Sixteen. You want me to tell you about it?"
"I don't believe you."
"You told me you hadn't even had oral sex until after you broke up with your husband. That would've been when you were, oh, twenty."
"And that you believed," she said, slipping into a mocking little-girl voice, her face a jeering mask. "Oh, gee, mister, I never done that before!" He indulged her, a little embarrassed by the drift of their conversation.
"What's going on?" he said.
"Not much. What's up with you?"
"Are you trying to impress me?"
"Impress you with what?"
"I don't know. That's why I asked."
"I just want you to believe me when I'm telling you something."
"All right. Tell me."
She propped herself beside him on one elbow. "I was waitressing in Durango," she said. "When I was in high school. I hadn't met Steve yet. That was later. I was waitressing at this posh hotel, the Strater. Old Victorian place. All the girls could've turned tricks if they wanted and they were careful. One thing you didn't do, you didn't go to anybody's room. If you did that, and someone saw you, they knew what you were up to and you got fired on your ass. But hey, if a guy came on to you, and he wanted to cop a little in the parking lot, hustle your bun up to a secluded park and get off, who would know?"
She paused. When he didn't speak, she listened to his breathing.
"All right. So I hadn't everfor money, I meanbut this one night, I was feeling kind of horny and this really nice guy, this major stud, a computer engineer down from Denver to fix a machine on campus, he was staying at the Holiday Inn, across the street and down, but he likes the food at the Strater. That's not all he liked, so he starts hitting on me. Nice, but hitting on me. He was subtle, no loud talk or grab-ass. I guess he knew what he was doing; nobody seemed to notice.
"When I bring him the check, he pretends he forgot where he is. He writes his room number on the check. I say, 'I thought you were at the Holiday Inn,' and he laughs, like how thoughtless, and he says, 'I am. Room 236. I guess I can't charge it to my room,' and he laughs again."
She rolled onto her back, her head propped up on a pillow. He waited for her to continue. She exhaled a long breath.
"So he says, 'Not much to do in this town,' and then he says, 'I guess I'll just hang out in my room.' And then I said, 'You ought to find some company,' and he grins at me like Robert Redford being a good boy, and I thought 'This is it.' Then he says, 'Maybe somebody'll come along,' and I say, 'You wait and see.'"
"So you went to his room."
"Sure. I didn't think of it, at first, as turning a trick. I just said something like, 'What did you have in mind?' and he kind of started nuzzling me and he muttered what he wanted and it was something I certainly didn't mind doing, and then he said he'd give me thirty dollars if I would just do one other little thing, and I realized he was buying. I was feeling pretty brave, and I said something like, 'Honey, thirty just covers the basics.'"
She stopped. He waited. Finally he said, "So what did he do?"
"He paid me fifty bucks to suck him off."
She lay very still beside him. By now, he was lying on his back too, wide awake but any sexual desire drenched in the cold candor of the story. He had a corner of the sheet draped across his pubes, his sex flaccid under the fabric. She was gleaming naked in the moonlight. When he glanced at her, he caught the wet flash of her white eyeball for an instant. She was looking at the ceiling, her mind elsewhere.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"It's who I am, Ben. You want to know who I am."
ms., Diseases of the Heart
By mid-March, our research project was taking up a full day each week. Claudine and I began driving home together every day, still alternating the cars. She had begun another paper on McCullers, and the first was at The Southern Review. We had given an interim report at a teaching colloquium in late February. It rehearsed the old squabbles, whether objectivity per se mechanized and dehumanized the grading process, whether what standardless bleeding hearts called subjectivity was nothing more than failure of nerve and, ultimately, poverty of teaching skill. Claudine held the middle ground heroically. My second mother-in-law had taught me, years ago, how to sleep with my eyes open.
My avoidance of Peter was studious. I refused a dinner invitation from Claudine, making excuses. She would come from the house, each morning I picked her up, in a brown study. Often she slammed the front door. Once she stood and looked at the door five or ten seconds after it crashed shut. I never saw Peterat the door, at a window.
"He sleeps late; he's up all night reading Swift or working on his dissertation."
There was little point in Peter applying for jobs until his dissertation was written, and even then a DU Ph.D. in eighteenth-century English literature could spend a couple of years publishing and waiting for lightning to single him out for a job anywhere. Arapahoe Community College had a new Yale Ph.D., dissertation and all, on their Freshman English faculty. On the other hand, Peter's was an enviable situation: his wife had a very good job in a city with nearly a dozen colleges and university campuses within commuting distance, and he was thought of quite highly by Ravel Burke, a professor of considerable influence at DU and elsewhere, not just locally. Biding his time, Peter should be able to get a good faculty position in the Denver area, very possibly at DU.
At the beginning of March, Dan called. Bill had dropped the shoe. He had resigned, effective next fall. The job would be in the next Chronicle of Higher Education.
"But Dean Anderson has already told me he wants you to interview. You'll get a letter by the end of the week."
I had talked to Ellen twice in February, and when the dean's invitation arrived, we were ready to meet to discuss the contract. "I can set up the interview Monday. If I fly to Reno Saturday and come up to Winnemucca that night, we'll have all day Sunday. I can drive back to Reno Sunday night."
"How's your friend?" she said after we'd worked out the details of the trip. I had to think a minute to know what she meant. Claudine.
I didn't know. Silent on the phone, I realized I was trying not to know. "OK," I said lamely. "It'll be good to see you again," I added.
"Oh, you sweet talker, you."
Peter was still violent. Of course; I was simultaneously puzzled and struck by the obvious. He wouldn't change; people don't change, they just get older. Claudine wouldn't change either. She was who she was and where she wanted to be. Love. Loved. And loving. Claudine reported in a couple of times a week; things were going OK, she'd volunteer. I pretended I didn't see the occasional bruise. Peter would call her at work. One day I came in the office from my nine o'clock and realized after a minute that it was Peter on the line with her.
"I didn't say that. I have to" she was saying. "Well, I don't see why. Can't we discuss it?" she added. I sat at my desk, catching an embarrassed glance from her. For a moment I could hear his voice from across the room, a static, tinny sound without coherent meaning. I looked at her again; she was staring into her lap, the phone a little away from her ear. As I walked out, she started another sentence, another, and still one more. I went to Jack Oates' office and listened to him for a half hour. When I came back, Claudine was intent upon her work; she did not acknowledge my return. A minute or so after I sat down, she left as if hurrying to a remembered appointment.
|Chapter Seven continues...|