She is sitting on her couch, thumbing through a magazine, and he is at his daughter Julia’s basketball game. Julia is five-ten, a sophomore. She starts at center on the varsity team and averages twelve points and nine rebounds a game. Her hair is long and wavy and black. Olive-skinned, like her father, she has a mole, a beauty mark, on her left cheek floating just over her lip.
Liz wishes she knew none of these things about his daughter, and when her phone rings and his name—Steven—appears on its screen each time it brightens, these are the things that go through her mind, unbidden, as she decides whether or not to take his call.
She thinks of Julia playing basketball, and of Julia attending student council meetings before school on Friday mornings. She thinks of the boy from the baseball team Julia has recently begun to date. That boy, Liz figures, is sitting with his friends in the stands right now, wearing blue jeans and a backwards cap. Liz has seen several photos of Julia, and she wonders if her boyfriend notices how that mole over Julia’s lip seems to relocate when she smiles or frowns or focuses her attention on something in the distance that she can’t seem to quite make out.
Liz closes the magazine sitting on her lap and slides open her phone. She holds it out in front of her while the line connects and then brings it to her ear. “Steven,” she says. “Are you or are you not at your daughter’s basketball game right now?”
She listens for cheering from the stands, or from cheerleaders. All she can hear through the line is Steven’s breathing.
“I am,” Steven says, “and I’m not.” His voice is mostly a whisper. It sounds to Liz like the kind of voice a man hiding in the back seat of a car might use to say, Don’t turn around. Just drive. I’ll tell you where to go.
“The third quarter just got started,” Steven says, “and I’m in the boys’ bathroom.”
Liz looks down at the magazine on her lap. It is a copy of Vogue, to which she subscribes. On the magazine’s cover, a woman wearing Marc Jacobs has her slender arms crossed loosely over her chest. The fingers of her left hand disappear behind the address label adhered to the magazine’s cover. Liz sees her own name and address printed on the label and considers the simple mechanics of mail delivery. How this label is printed and stuck to the cover of a magazine and then the magazine finds its way to her apartment. She can’t remember when or why she would have ever subscribed to Vogue. She is an anesthesiologist. An English major who later went to med school.
“You’re calling me from a high school restroom,” Liz says.
“I wanted to hear your voice,” Steven says.
“You’re kidding me. Please, tell me you’re kidding.”
They had had phone sex only once, two weeks ago, when Liz was in Chicago for a conference and Steven called her hotel room at two in the morning from his house’s attached garage. He had said the same thing then—I wanted to hear your voice—only he wasn’t speaking in quite the same breathy whisper.
She’d been unable to sleep that night and, after reading the hotel’s room service menu cover to cover ten times and eventually turning the TV on and tuning it to a sports channel, which was playing a rodeo, she was still awake. So, she’d welcomed the phone sex then, for the distraction and novelty it offered. She’d even found it kind of hot—each of them saying what they were doing to the other while she watched cowboys rope calves and bind their spindly kicking legs, and Steven stood with one hand on the hood of his wife’s Lexus SUV and rubbed himself through his pajamas.
But this, this seems to lack the right kind of imagination.
“I’m not kidding,” Steven says. “I need you right now. I have it in my hand, and it’s so hard.”
The last time they’d done this, once they’d transitioned from saying what they were doing to each other to saying what they were doing to themselves, he’d faltered in just this way, using pronouns without antecedents, making things unnecessarily vague. She’d let him get away with it then, even though he wound up saying something like, It can’t take it anymore. It’s going to get all over the garage floor.
Liz opens the magazine back up and begins flipping through it. “No pronouns,” she says. “If we’re going to do this, you’ve got to commit. Tell me what you have in your hand. Tell me what’s so hard.”
His voice is shaky, barely audible. She can hear noises from the game—a referee’s whistle, the squeak of gym shoes on the hardwood floor, the cheering crowd—coming through the line.
“My d-d-dick,” he says. I have my c-c-cock in my hands, and it’s so hard.”
“That’s better,” she says. “Now tell me what you’re doing to your cock. Tell me what you want me to do your big throbbing cock.”
He whimpers a little. She turns another page in the magazine.
He talks about her mouth and her hands, about her legs and her pussy, which, when he first brings it up, he calls her vagina until she corrects him.
Liz could not be less aroused by it all. She continues flipping through the magazine, focusing every now and then on an advertisement for jewelry or shoes, but she plays along. She talks about how swollen her clit is, about how good his dick feels in her hands and mouth, how much she wants it in her dripping pussy.
For a few minutes, she thinks of Julia’s boyfriend. She has never met him, has never even seen a photo of him, but he is easy enough to imagine. He is exactly the kind of boy who never would have even looked at her in high school. He is exactly the kind of boy Steven was twenty-five years ago, when he was a senior in high school and Liz was just a kid, a third grader.
She tries to think of a boy like Julia’s boyfriend, or like Steven himself had been—passing her a note in the hallway, waiting for her by her locker after school, taking her to a party after a game. There is a fantasy worth exploring there, but she can’t tap into it. All she can imagine is forty-three-year-old Steven standing in the boys’ bathroom at the high school, his boxers around his thighs, his phone squeezed between his ear and shoulder. So she continues to turn the pages of the magazine—the one with her name and address adhered to its cover, the one that has magically found its way to her apartment—and she continues to talk about how great Steven’s hands feel on her tits, how she likes that thing he is doing to her clit with his thumb.
A few minutes later, Steven begins to grow bolder. Liz has stopped looking at the magazine and realizes she is absently twirling her hair in her fingers and staring at the wall when he barks, “Fuck yeah.” Through the line, Liz can hear the words echo around the bathroom. She kind of likes the way he growled the words, so she closes the magazine and turns on the television, which is muted. She tries the sports channel, hoping for a rodeo, but finds only a commercial.
She stands up from the couch and walks over to the window that looks out on the street. Snow is still falling outside, has been for hours. There is a sheet of ice beneath what continues to accumulate on the road despite the snowplows’ efforts, and people are driving past, it seems, with one foot on the brake and one on the gas. They are moving forward, but their brake lights are miraculously, almost continuously lit.
“I like the way you said that, baby,” Liz says. “Are you going to come for me?”
Steven begins to moan. His voice sounds spittly.
Liz watches the cars’ brake lights reflect in fuzzy rectangles off the slush in the street. There is something about her being here—warm, in a pair of yoga pants and a tank top, surrounded by amber light—and those cars being there—out in the street, in the blustery cold—that makes her want to get more into this little phone sex session.
She walks back over to the couch and lies down. “On my face,” she says. “I want you to come on my pretty little face.”
Steven whimpers again. Though she doesn’t mean to, Liz begins to think of Steven’s wife, April, sitting in the stands, cheering on Julia, while her husband is hidden away in the bathroom calling the other woman. She wonders if April knows what he is up to, if she misses him at all.
To her surprise, Liz begins to muster a little more arousal from the thought of April, alone in the stands. April is spectacularly pretty. She is fashionable. She does Pilates. There are probably a couple husbands and more than a few high school boys checking out April right now. What is arousing to Liz isn’t the thought of April, or the thought of those boys and men with their eyes on her, but the way April allows Liz to see herself as the other woman. The woman to whom April’s husband turns for sex.
Liz runs her hand down the plane of her belly. She leans back into the couch, adjusts her hips. Then she slips her hand beneath the waistband of her yoga pants.
She lets out a little moan, and it is genuine.
Steven moans, too, loud enough that Liz again hears an echo. She closes her eyes and brushes her fingertips against her underwear. She hikes her foot up onto the couch and presses a little harder into the fabric of her underwear, rubs half a circle into it.
For a moment, her mind goes completely blank. It is not filled with Julia or Julia’s boyfriend. It is not filled with April or Steven or those men from a few weeks back roping calves on television. It is filled only with what she feels each time her fingers trace that half-circle.
She adjusts her hips again, presses her ass down into the couch, and her free hand finds her right nipple. She is going to come. In the warmth and dim amber light of her apartment, alone, while outside a winter storm whitens everything.
And then the line goes dead.
Liz isn’t sure, but she thinks she might have heard a splashing sound just before the line disconnected. The sound a phone might make if it were dropped into a toilet.
Liz’s arousal immediately dies with the phone line. It isn’t the idea of Steven dropping his phone into the toilet that kills her arousal, or the idea of Steven coming in the boys’ high school bathroom—the reason, no doubt, he dropped the phone in the first place. It is how his absence on the line has suddenly made him more present to her.
She withdraws her hand from her pants and finds the remote control, begins turning up the volume on the television. As she taps the button on the remote, she watches the vertical blue bars at the bottom of the screen blink to life, and she keeps tapping the button until the blue bars stretch all the way across it. The volume is so loud Liz can’t understand anything at all that is being said. Still, her finger continues to tap the button on the remote, long after the volume has stopped going any higher.
The next morning, a bouquet of flowers arrives at the nurse’s station, and Liz, walking toward the residential I.C.U. wing, sees two female nurses simultaneously go for the card. The two women are chubby, their skin unnaturally tanned. It is a popular look for nurses around here. Liz likes to think of them as butterscotch marshmallows. Just because it’s tanned, she has thought more than once, doesn’t mean it’s not fat.
Their fingers fumble for the card, and Liz wonders which of them will be the lucky recipient of a dozen unoriginal and somewhat tasteless red roses.
The woman in Winnie the Pooh scrubs snags the card and turns away from the bouquet. She hunches her shoulders, as if she is trying to protect the envelope in her hands. The woman in St. Louis Cardinals scrubs performs a fake pout and cranes her neck, trying to read the card despite the other woman’s efforts.
Liz is a little appalled by it all. Embarrassed for women in general—but especially these two.
The woman in Winnie the Pooh scrubs turns back around, frowns, and drops her hands. Then she returns the card to its forked plastic holder.
Liz pushes open the doors that lead to the I.C.U. She has tucked her patient’s chart between her arm and lab coat, and she is rubbing her hands together, as if to cleanse them. She is about to reach the room of Mr. Andrews, a recent arrival to the wing, when she hears someone calling what sounds like her name.
When Liz turns, the nurse wearing St. Louis Cardinals scrubs is standing down the hall from her, waving her pudgy left hand in the air. “Dr. Reid,” the nurse says. “We have some flowers for you at the nurse’s station.”
Liz stuffs her hands into the pockets of her lab coat and balls her fists. Mr. Andrews’ file is choked, jutting out from under her arm as if it is in a kind of headlock. “Really,” she says.
“Well, the card is only addressed to Liz,” the nurse says. “But you’re the only Liz we can think of who’s here right now.” She is still holding her left hand in the air, and Liz stares at it, wondering if the visible portion of gold band wedged onto the woman’s ring finger is the underside of an engagement or a wedding ring.
“I see,” Liz says. The nurse finally lowers her hand, and Liz gathers Mr. Andrews’ chart and holds it in front of her. If the flowers are from Steven—and they have to be from Steven—she wants nothing to do with them.
She sees that the ring on the nurse’s finger is an engagement ring, a smallish diamond. Part of her is annoyed by the engagement ring. Surely, Liz thinks, this is the type of woman whose husband will one day cheat on her, if he is any kind of man at all. Part of her, though, is hopeful, too, that the love this woman and her fiancé feel for one another is special, pure, one-of-a-kind. All of her thrums, though she tries to fight it off, with guilt.
She considers telling the woman to imagine that the flowers are from her fiancé and to have her way with them. Instead, she tells the nurse to return the flowers to the nurse’s station, she’ll be by for them when she’s available.
Mr. Andrews has fifth-stage pancreatic cancer. Liz consulted with him and his wife when she helped him manage his nausea before and after his first and only chemo treatment, a little over a month ago. Since then, he had been trying to die at home with hospice care, but the strain on his wife, a sweet, bent, black-and-silver-haired woman nearing eighty, had become too much, and now he is back.
When Liz is about to knock on the open door that leads to Mr. Andrews’ room, she sees the back of Mrs. Andrews. The woman is leaning over the side of her husband’s bed, and she has her hands on the dying man’s cheeks. Her face is pressed so close to his that their noses have to be touching. Liz thinks maybe the woman is kissing him—passionately, considering the way she is holding his face in her hands.
Liz begins to back away from the room’s threshold, and the woman speaks. “Don’t you die on me,” she says, gently rocking Mr. Andrews’ head back and forth in her hands, as if she is trying to wake him. “Don’t you die on me.”
Liz’s heart buckles inside her chest. She thinks she can feel her throat closing. She accidentally bumps the door with Mr. Andrews’ chart, and Mrs. Andrews releases her husband’s face, stands upright, turns around.
“Good morning,” Liz tries to say, hoping the words don’t break apart inside her mouth. She is worried the woman might be embarrassed, or upset that Liz has seen what has just happened, but Mrs. Andrews, it seems, is past such concerns.
“Good morning,” Mrs. Andrews says. “Come in. Come in.”
From his bed, Mr. Andrews looks at Liz, recognizes her, and gives her a thumbs-up. “Dr. Reid,” he says. Smiling, Liz approaches him and asks how he is feeling.
Mr. Andrews says he feels okay, considering. Then his face darkens, becomes concerned-looking. He purses his lips before he says, “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re not going to be doing any more chemo.” His eyes look past Liz, searching for his wife. He looks heartbroken.
Liz explains that she isn’t there to prepare him for treatment but to help him manage his pain.
She checks Mr. Andrews’ morphine drip, and notices that he hasn’t used anywhere near as much of the medication as he could have. He’s hardly used any at all.
“You know how this thing works, right?” she asks, indicating the I.V. stand next to the bed.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “I know that I push this little button here and then a couple minutes later I’m mostly pain-free and can barely keep my eyes open.” The old man waves a bony hand dismissively. “How many more conversations am I going to have with Clara?” he asks. Mrs. Andrews approaches the bed and holds his left hand. “I’d like to at least know what I’m saying. I’d like to not feel like I was talking inside some kind of dream.”
Liz has heard all of this from patients before, but still it takes her by surprise. As an anesthesiologist, she likes to think of herself as someone who takes people’s pain away, helps their bodies, their minds, forget about it completely. And she can’t help but be taken aback when her patients refuse this kind of forgetting. She knows that the only way Mr. Andrews could be in worse pain right now was if he had suffered third-degree burns or were continuously giving birth.
“Well, you know what to do if you need a little relief,” Liz says. “Just push that button there.”
“I’ll make sure he uses the morphine,” Mrs. Andrews says. “At least once in a while. You should see the faces he makes sometimes. I can’t stand to see him like that. It just—”
Mr. Andrews interrupts her. He says that it’s not just being unaware of what’s going on when he’s talking to Clara. It’s that he knows his body is dying, and not feeling that—being, sometimes, completely unaware of it—bothers him. “It’s unnerving,” he says, “not feeling what I know I should be feeling.”
Liz thinks, though it’s not necessarily what Mr. Andrews is talking about, of conscious sedation, which allows patients to be aware of what is happening to them but not feel a thing. She’s used conscious sedation dozens, hundreds of times during surgeries and still, it amazes her. How patients can have their skin opened up, their insides prodded, and sit there like nothing at all is going on. How they can answer her questions, practically hold a conversation with her, while their nerves should be singing.
“Well, you listen to Clara,” Liz says. “Give yourself a little relief every now and then.”
“Will do, doc,” Mr. Andrews says. He starts to say something else but begins to choke. Mrs. Andrews grabs a plastic cup lined with a paper towel and holds it beneath his chin, and Mr. Andrews drools a stream of dark brown phlegm into it. The sputum smells like excrement, which is pretty much what it is—waste, his dead and dying insides. Mrs. Andrews uses a tissue to wipe a dark string of sputum from Mr. Andrews’ lower lip, and he thanks her while trying to smile, while coughing up a little more waste into his mouth.
The roses are from Steven. Liz swipes them from the nurse’s station when none of the nurses are around and carries them to her office. When she reads the card—Liz, I loved talking to you on the phone last night, but tonight, I’m picking you up at seven. xoxo, Steven—she can’t help but imagine Steven’s whispery, car-jacker voice reading it to her. She removes one rose from the vase and sets it on her desk, and then she carts the rest of the bouquet to the bathroom.
She closes the bathroom door and locks it behind her. In the mirror over the sink, she sees herself—white blouse beneath a white lab coat, dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail, hands holding a vase of flowers. It’s unsettling.
Liz didn’t know Steven was married when they met, when she ran into him one day on her way to her car after work. He’d been sick with a cold that seemed to be hanging around for about a week too long, and his doctor had ordered a chest X-ray. He was standing near one of the hospital’s side entrance doors, smoking. He was tall, Italian-looking. No coat despite the cold. He had the sleeves of his work shirt rolled, and right away, Liz could tell that his hands, his forearms, knew their way around a woman.
“You know, you’re not supposed to be smoking that close to the building,” Liz told him. She pointed across the street, where two nurses in scrubs and puffy winter coats were smoking next to the parking lot. “You’re supposed to be over there.”
Steven said, “Why don’t you walk me over there, then.”
That first day, she learned only that he owned a construction business and liked to play poker. When he complimented her hair and her calves, his left eyebrow twitched in this way that Liz couldn’t stop looking at. She could tell he was close to ten years older than her, but she could taste in her mouth the sex his skin exuded.
Once Steven had field stripped his cigarette—pinching its cherry off and snuffing it out with his shoe—he asked Liz if he could call her some time.
Liz said, “I’d be pissed if you didn’t.”
The next weekend, they traveled to Burlington so Steven could play in a poker tournament. They got a room at the casino and checked in at three. While Steven played in the tournament, Liz hung out at the casino’s spa—took a mud bath, got a pedicure. Four hours later, Steven finished at the final table, and the two of them spent the rest of the night and the next morning in bed.
When Liz was packing her small bag the following day, Steven’s cell phone rang. “It’s my wife,” he said, like it was nothing. Then he stepped out into the hall to take the call.
Liz couldn’t believe it. She thought maybe he’d said My ex-wife or That’s life.
Steven returned a few minutes later, and Liz said, “I’m sorry, but did you say that was your wife?”
“Yeah,” he said. He bent down to pick up yesterday’s socks and tossed them into his suitcase. He zipped it closed and said, “You knew I was married, right? I mean, it’s not like I took off my wedding band, tried to trick you.”
Liz didn’t think she was old enough yet to have to look at men’s ring fingers for wedding bands. At what age did such a thing become protocol?
In a brief head rush, Liz could imagine, based solely on Steven’s haircut—which looked expensive, despite his working-man’s hands and forearms—what his wife looked like. She looked like one of those women who have everything. Liz had been seeing such women all her life.
Ever since she’d taken the job in Monmouth, Liz had had a hard time meeting anybody at all. She was tired of spending night after night alone in her apartment. In the weeks before she met Steven, it had gotten to the point where she was thinking of buying a cat, or joining a knitting club.
She thought, Fuck it. She said, “Yeah, I knew you were married. I just assumed your wife wouldn’t be trying to get in touch with you while you were playing poker.”
“I like you, Liz. I do,” Steven said. “You look a little shocked, though. Or at least surprised. Here. I want to be up front with you.” He pulled his wallet out of his jeans. “This,” he said, pointing to a photo of April, “is my wife.” Liz glanced at the photo, but only to confirm that April looked the way she’d imagined her. She did.
“And this,” Steven said, flipping to a photo of Julia, “is my daughter.”
The smart, responsible thing to do, especially after seeing that photo of Julia, would have been to retreat, to go back on the decision she’d dizzily made just a few moments earlier. But Liz had never felt so desired in her life as she had when she was with Steven, even in such a short period of time. The way he looked at her made the hairs on the backs of her wrists stand up.
Liz kissed him, hard. “I appreciate it,” she said.
However stupid and irresponsible it might have been, she decided during their drive back to Monmouth from Iowa that she was going to prolong this affair as long as she could. She wanted to see if she could make a married man—a man who was married to the likes of April, no less—fall in love with her. She wanted to see if she could make Steven leave April for her, or at least consider it. And what, after all, did she have to lose? It was as if she were playing for free, however terrible the hand.
But just a few months later, Steven was showing her many—many—pictures of his daughter. He was calling her during his daughter’s basketball game, wanting phone sex. And now this—sending her flowers at work. Liz had wanted him to love her, to fall in love with her, but now that it seemed he had, there was something pathetic about it all.
Liz upends the vase, water and all, into the bathroom’s trashcan and covers the roses with a thick wad of paper towels. Back in her office, she picks the single rose up off her desk and plucks one of its petals. “She loves him not,” she says, letting the petal fall to the floor. She tugs another petal from the rose, and says again, whispering it this time, “She loves him not.”
She loves him not. She loves him not. She loves him not.
When Steven’s truck arrives at her apartment, Liz is standing by the front window in her winter coat, waiting for him. Snow is no longer falling, but it lingers in plowed clumps along the road like miniature mountain ranges. Steven sits in his truck in the driveway that leads to the apartment’s parking garages, waiting for her. He removes his hands from the steering wheel and places them in front of the truck’s vents to warm them.
Liz locks and closes the door behind her, and then steps out into the cold, tucking her chin against her chest.
She has decided that this will be the last time she sees Steven, that tonight she is going to call things off for good. She thought of doing it all by phone, but decided against it because she realized she wanted to see him. Perhaps she wanted to give him one last opportunity to change her mind. Already, she has been imagining six or seven cats crawling around her apartment, mewling.
The truck’s warmth beads her forehead with sweat as soon as she steps inside it. Steven reaches across the seat to kiss her, and she leans her cheek into his lips. His cologne smells good, like him, but the way the scent mingles with the car’s heated air is almost too much.
“I was thinking we’d drive to Abingdon,” Steven says. “For drinks.”
For the past four months, they’ve been having drinks in small towns all over west central Illinois. Rio, Roseville, Keithsburg. Liz has liked the feeling of stepping unknown into bars and restaurants arm-in-arm with Steven while ten or twelve heads simultaneously turn. Even now, she is seduced by the thrill of anonymity such a trip would offer.
“No drinks,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere we can talk.” Steven backs the truck out of the driveway, puts it into drive, and Liz realizes the minor impossibility of what she has just said. Where can they go just to talk? It would almost have to be some bar in some small town.
“Somewhere we can talk,” Steven says. “All right, then.”
They drive through Monmouth taking poorly lit side streets, mostly, and eventually wind up on Broadway, one of the town’s two main drags. Liz instinctually settles down into the seat, as if trying to make herself invisible. They pass the Hardee’s, a gas station, the KFC. It seems to Liz they’re headed toward ShopKo, or the Farm King out on the edge of town. Either place would be unacceptable to Steven, she is sure. But he turns onto 34 and in a couple of minutes they are driving through the ShopKo parking lot.
“We going shopping?” Liz asks.
“Yeah,” Steven says. “Sure.” He’s being sarcastic, but Liz still doesn’t know where he’s taking her. He drives to the far end of the lot, which is lit dull orange by flood lamps, turns right, and drives down a darkened narrow road that separates the side of the building from a cornfield. He stops the truck halfway between where they’ve entered the road and where it opens up into what has to be the store’s back lot—delivery docks, employee parking.
“So let’s talk,” Steven says, undoing his seatbelt, reaching across the seat for one of the buttons on Liz’s coat. The truck is still running, the vents pumping out hot, dry air.
The heat is almost too much, so Liz helps Steven with the buttons. She takes off her seatbelt and shrugs out of her coat, lays it across her lap. She is dressed in the exact same thing she wore to work that day: a white blouse, pinstriped slacks, black heels. Her dark hair is still pulled back in its low ponytail.
There is something about the darkness, the seclusion of this place that gives Liz pause. She imagines herself back in her apartment, in her coat, waiting for Steven to pick her up, and thinks about how she has gone from that place to this one in just a matter of minutes. How she was at home, alone, and now here she is, not alone, in a place that feels so strange to her it could almost be another planet.
She stares through the fogging windshield at the dark, snow-covered alley stretching out in front of her, and she can’t remember at all what it was she’d wanted to say to Steven before she left her apartment.
“Let’s not,” she says.
In a couple minutes, they are wearing almost nothing. Her underwear has been pulled to the side, and she’s in a bra and thigh-high pantyhose. He’s wearing socks and a pair of boxers. The truck has bucket seats and an extended cab, and her seat has been reclined all the way back. The windows are almost completely sheened with steam. With so much exposed skin, Liz can feel some of the outside’s cold on her, but only a little.
Steven slides Liz’s seat farther back into the cab and crawls into the space between the front of her seat and the dashboard. He kisses his way up her thighs, and Liz’s legs prickle with goosebumps. She runs her fingers through his hair, and it occurs to her that this is almost the exact fantasy that she was trying to tap into the night before when they were talking on the phone. She raises her hips off the seat and presses Steven’s face into her. She can feel the warmth of his mouth, somehow, deep inside her chest.
She imagines that she is sixteen, and Steven is a senior in high school, a star on the baseball team. She is sixteen and beautiful, popular, and she is parking with one of the beautiful boys. She imagines she is Julia, and immediately, this feels very wrong.
She removes her hands from his hair and begins to feel for Steven’s chin, to pull it toward her, so she can say to his face, his beautiful face, what she wanted to say to it in the first place, when she hears a knock on the truck’s window. The knock sounds more like a crack, like metal-on-glass, and she hears the crack again, twice, in quick succession.
Steven sits up on his knees, and Liz pulls on the lever that raises her seat. Through the fogged passenger window, they can see a wide sphere of yellow light. A flashlight.
“Nice,” Steven says. He looks out the rear window. “There’s some kind of cop car behind us.” He laughs and reaches around Liz into the extended cab to scrounge for clothes. He hands Liz her blouse and pants, and she drapes the pants across her lap and holds her shirt across her chest with one arm. Steven climbs into the driver’s seat and starts to pull his pants up over his boxers.
“Go ahead and roll down the window, I guess,” he says. “Time to get our wrists slapped.”
Liz reaches across her body with her free hand and rolls down the window. The flashlight is trained directly on her face, and she turns away, looks at the glove compartment.
“Would you please turn off the vehicle and remove the keys from the ignition?” the cop says. Liz looks to her left, sees the flashlight’s beam illuminating the steering wheel, the keys.
“Sure,” Steven says. “No problem, officer.” He turns off the truck and holds his hands over the steering wheel with his fingers spread wide, as if he is surrendering, or about to ask the cop not to shoot.
“Step out of the vehicle, please,” the cop says.
Steven opens his door and steps outside, pulling up his pants and fastening them.
“You, too, ma’am,” the cop says. “Out of the vehicle.”
Liz exits the truck, still holding her blouse over her chest. She tries to use her free hand to put on her pants, but the cop stops her. “You can leave the pants in the truck,” he says. Then he turns to Steven and says, “You, too. Lose the pants. And get rid of the socks. Hand them to me.”
“What are you talking about?” Steven says. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Public indecency is no joke,” the cop says. “Give me the pants.”
Liz is hunched over, covering her bra, her breasts. She should feel the cold, she thinks, but she doesn’t. She feels almost nothing at all.
Steven takes off his pants and socks and hands them to the cop, stands near the hood of the truck in his boxers with his shoulders drawn in. Against this particular backdrop—the alley, the stubbly cornfield, all of it covered in snow—he looks thinner, less muscular than he usually does. He looks almost frail. Liz can hear her pantyhose scrape the snow beneath her feet as she switches from foot to foot, but really, she can’t feel the cold. She presses her feet down into the ground hard, hoping to feel something, but it doesn’t work.
“I’ll take that shirt you’re holding up,” the cop says and waves a finger at Liz.
“You can’t do this,” Steven says. “You can’t.”
Liz isn’t sure whether this cop is some kind of sick, just getting off, or some kind of god, exacting his own brand of moral justice. In a few months, she will find out that he is both, when she sees an article in the newspaper detailing his recent court appearance. She will learn that the man’s wife left him and afterward, he began seeking out adulterous couples that were doing just the kind of thing Steven and Liz were doing. In one case, he forced a couple to run naked around a cemetery. In another, he gave the pair a bare-bottomed spanking with his leather gloves. Right now, though, Liz doesn’t know these things, and she gets the feeling that whatever it is that’s going on with the guy, he isn’t one to argue. She tosses her shirt to him, and he catches it and balls it up in his hands with Steven’s clothes.
The cop looks them over—Liz standing there in her thigh-high pantyhose and bra, Steven in his striped boxers—and points at Steven. Under his breath, the cop says something that sounds to Liz like you fucking people. Then he tells Steven to drop the boxers.
“This is ridiculous,” Steven says. “It’s absurd.”
Liz says, “Just do what he says, Steven. Please.”
The cop tucks the ball of clothes under his arm and draws his flashlight from his belt. He shines it on Steven, then on Liz, and again on Steven, running it up and down their bodies. The cop is kind of short, thin. It looks to Liz like he might have reddish hair under the brim of his cap.
“This,” the cop says, and scans them again one by one with the flashlight. “This is what’s absurd. Two adults, sneaking around. Parking.” He spits out this last word like it’s a curse. “Now hand over the boxers, lover boy. You,” he says, shining the flashlight’s beam on Liz, “can keep the hose, but I’ll take the bra.” He smiles in a way that is not really a smile at all. Steven mutters and kicks off his boxers.
Patients under conscious sedation require constant monitoring. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and oxygen levels. If you don’t keep an eye on them, they can slip, just like that, into a deep sleep.
Liz is pretty sure she’s breathing. Her heart, it must be beating.
Steven covers his cock with one hand, and he manages to look even frailer than he had before. More vulnerable. Liz exhales a mouthful of air and watches it form a cloud in front of her face and then disperse.
The cop surveys the field behind Steven, waggles his flashlight at it. Liz looks at Steven. She still hasn’t taken off her bra. Steven mouths the words, I’m sorry, at her. He looks, despite the curly black and gray hairs on his chest, like a child. She is disgusted.
The cop says he’s giving them two options. They can take back their clothes and get dressed and step inside the warm cab of that truck, at which time, he will issue each of them tickets for public indecency and trespassing on private property. Or, if they prefer, they can remain naked just a few more minutes and lie on their backs and make snow angels for him. He points at a spot in the field where the snow has drifted. “Right over there,” he says. “I don’t want those corn stalks scratching up your backs.”
The cop takes a couple steps, and he limps, or hobbles. Liz wonders if the damage that seems to have been done to his leg is temporary or permanent.
The thing about the tickets, Liz has learned since moving to town, is that Monmouth has a daily newspaper that prints a public record of the previous day’s police and fire calls. It’s not uncommon for Liz to see the Register folded open to this section at the nurse’s station, detailing the town’s retail thefts and DUIs, its domestic batteries and public intoxications, the offenders’ names and ages and addresses meted out in precise black type, one letter and number at a time. She often finds herself reading it without really wanting to, joylessly.
If it were up to her, she would gladly tell this officer to write the tickets. She might have to worry about a patient or two—say, the sweet and devoted Clara Andrews—or those butterscotch marshmallow nurses reading about it in the paper, but that would be the extent of it. She knows, though, that it’s not just up to her.
Steven would have to worry about April. He would have to worry about Julia and Julia’s boyfriend, and about any number of his employees and competitors and potential clients. Any of them could read about this and ruin for him his life as he knows it.
“Okay,” Steven says. “Okay.” He looks at Liz, begging her with his eyes to endure this thing for him.
A part of her would do it for him without thinking. This part of her would see some beautiful boy or man like Steven needing her, and she would do whatever it took to answer that need. This part of her, it would walk over to Steven and take his hand in hers, lead him to the snowdrift.
Steven is hunched over, still covering himself with his hand. “Please,” he says.
Patients under conscious sedation can speak and think. They might not feel anything, but they have a present and past they are sometimes fully aware of. It’s like existing, Liz thinks, in two places at once. Or more than two. A hundred. A thousand.
Liz begins walking toward Steven but then turns to the cop and tells him she’ll take her clothes. She offers him her first and last name, her date of birth, her address. She has her arms crossed over her chest and finds herself on the verge of impatiently tapping her foot.
The cop is stunned. He instinctively reaches for his nightstick, but his hand is still occupied with the flashlight. Steven whimpers her name.
The cop slowly hands Liz the ball of clothes, and she disentangles her blouse and draws her arms through its sleeves.
Steven lets the cop know that he’s still willing to do this, that he’ll do whatever he asks. He walks over to the mound of snow the cop lighted earlier and lies down on it, begins to move his arms and legs in small arcs. The cop finds Steven with the flashlight, and the bottoms of his feet shine bright pink. It’s so pathetic Liz can barely stand to watch.
The cop doesn’t write Liz a ticket. He continues to shine his light on Steven while Liz walks over to the truck and opens the passenger door, retrieves her pants and shoes. Once she is dressed, she begins to walk down the lane the truck had driven to get them here. She hears Steven call out, “Look. I’m doing what you wanted. I’m doing exactly what you asked me to do.”
Liz keeps walking, but she can’t keep herself from imagining some other version of herself, one that would have happily complied with what Steven and the cop wanted her to do. She imagines this other self lying on its back next to Steven, looking up at the sky, the stars. She imagines the snow against this other self’s back, against its head and calves and the heels of its feet, so cold it’s like a kind of heat. She imagines this other self—and it feels as real to her as walking away does, maybe even more real, which frightens her in a way she can’t quite comprehend—beginning to feel the cold fully now, spreading through it, warming it, prodding its limbs to move.