“You’re ten minutes late. Why?”
Frank’s question took her by surprise. If only Claire could tell him she hadn’t wanted to be late. That some things were simply beyond her control.
So many things were beyond her control lately. Certainly, she hadn’t wanted to move to this hole in the wall. But she’d had to or she would’ve been laid off. She hadn’t wanted to call her old friend, Elaine. She’d done it anyway. What difference had it made that calling Elaine, the owner of a four-bedroom condominium in the town to which Claire had had to move, was an act of desperation? Back at home, she’d kept her house. Claire told herself that all she needed were a few months of good luck; she’d find a new job and be able to get back to the small, cozy house she’d bought only a few years before. Although, in the end, she had made a good deal for one of the guest bedrooms with a small bathroom, heaven knew how much she hadn’t wanted to live with Elaine and her husband, Albert. Even for a few months. Even for a day. But it had been beyond her control.
* * *
Claire was thinking. It was barely 5:00 A.M. She was already dressed. She thought of her intolerable work situation. The difficulties of her new home environment were so frustrating that a job offer couldn’t come fast enough.
She heard a noise in the hallway outside her room. Claire shut her eyes and listened closely. She wanted to slip into hiding, like a hand inside a leather glove. A moment later there was a knock on her door. She didn’t answer.
“Are you sleeping?” The male voice sounded suppliant.
She opened the door and their eyes met. Claire, barely five feet tall, had to look up. She was dressed in a buttoned-up white shirt and a fashionably tight black skirt that was short enough to allow his eye access to her shapely legs. She stood there before him like a desired toy, soft and vulnerable. In the dim light of the room, her spiky hair made her look more like a punkish boy than a middle-aged woman. She knew why he was here. She was almost certain he wouldn’t touch her or even so much as come closer. Looking at her was exciting enough for him.
This was not the first time Albert had foisted himself upon Claire. Now he remained in the doorway, towering over her and blocking the way, naked except for a pair of old cotton shorts that barely contained his big belly. He was six feet tall and seriously overweight. His broad shoulders gave an impression of physical strength. His muscular legs were rather short; worn-out, flat slippers exaggerated his bulging calves and big ankles. His rough, intimidating hands reminded her of a lion’s paws. She imagined how much damage he could do with a single angry swipe. His chest was heaving slightly. His large, bare nipples protruded sharply; the sight of them made Claire feel sick to her stomach. He was visibly sweating, and the sharp odor of his body further nauseated her. She had to end this as quickly as possible.
Claire forced a smile. “Good morning.” She tried to sound nonchalant, but she knew her mere presence in the condo aroused him. It’s not my fault, she thought. I’ve done absolutely nothing to provoke his cravings. My conscience is clear.
She never had been able to toy with a man even when she wanted to. She was always jealous of the cold-blooded coquettes who knew precisely how to play their cards. Flirtation wasn’t her strength. At social events she would intentionally disappear into the background,
leaving others with no particular memory of her. She presented no real threat to other women, especially not to those who were masters at marking their territories with teasing laughter, innuendos, and plunging necklines. Claire tended to fold inward like a mimosa, the sensitive tropical plant with leaves that moved and withered when touched. Except that Claire withdrew deep within herself; so much so that few ever guessed how fearful she was of being hurt. The knocks she had suffered in life still pained her. Never had Claire realized how some of her own traits made her extra vulnerable, nor had she ever learned how to put a stop to unwanted attention.
She closed her eyes and recalled a voice from the past: “Come closer, child. Come, your uncle wants to hug you. You know how lonely I get. Ever since your Aunt Lisa had the stroke and became paralyzed, I have not been the same. I am a broken man. You are a smart girl; you understand me. You should feel sorry for me.” Hungry, rough hands would pull her skinny body between his legs. She would feel his chubby fingers running along her back and instinctively press her arms against her prepubescent body, trying to protect her flat chest. Feeling her resistance and hating to waste precious time, he would quickly move downward, touching her legs, then forcing his red, angry nozzle between them, rubbing it against her pink flesh.
He would aim his lips at hers but rarely scored; silently she would struggle, turning her face away. No matter! He was excited just to be near her; touching her was for him like holding a winning lottery ticket. He was satisfied with anything: the corner of her mouth, her cheeks, or her young neck. It was hard to find privacy in a small apartment with five people, never mind the kind of privacy his innocent mischiefs, as he called them, required. And so the entire episode rarely lasted more than ten minutes.
Sensing movement behind closed doors, he would half-beg, half-order: “Don’t tell anybody!” And just like that, she would be free. Even now, so many years later, she remembered his hairy fingers with their short, bitten nails; the impatient, craving eyes running over her body; the moist, drooping lower lip; and his saggy, unshaven cheeks. His breath was heavy with tobacco and onion, and the utter repulsiveness of his entire being made him resemble an old, vulgar satyr. Through the small opening between the door and its frame, she would see how he sat motionless on his old kitchen stool, smiling at his dirty thoughts and enjoying the feelings she brought out in him. Like a delicious meal served with a fruity young wine, the flavors of the last few minutes were still lingering on his tongue. Unsatisfied, brooding, with a rising desire to take her by force, he would almost be choking on his saliva.
Today, Albert was making Claire feel like she was that ten-year-old girl again. Though she was much older now, she was still alone with her troubles. She looked at the fat figure in the doorway and sought to end this latest confrontation before it could begin.
“I’m going to work now.”
“It’s still dark outside. Why are you going to the office so early?”
He is out of his mind, she said to herself, but out loud she merely replied, “I have a lot of work to do.”
“Really? That much work?” His eyes were half-shut. She noticed a bulging vein on his neck; it looked as if it might burst. She turned away. She was not afraid; she was simply tired of this and all her other problems. She wanted to be left alone. Instead, he stood in her way, forcing himself upon her, demanding her attention, behaving so ridiculously that she wanted to slap him hard on his round, greasy cheeks.
“Come. I’ll make you a cup of coffee so you don’t fall asleep behind the wheel.” All this time he had been gazing up and down her body. Claire wanted to scream, Get out! at the top of her lungs, but instead she said calmly, “It’s okay. Thank you, though. I’ll be fine.”
“No, let’s have coffee together. Besides, I need to ask you something important.”
She wanted to shut the door in his face. She stood there for a few seconds, waiting for the wave of anger to pass.
“Okay. Why don’t you start making the coffee? I’ll be right there.”
He didn’t move.
Ah, what a morning! She picked up her computer bag. “Come on, Albert, let’s go to the kitchen.” She wanted him to go away, to disappear.
He left her a small opening and she walked out hastily, slipping by him without even closing the door, as that would’ve allowed him another few seconds of intense closeness. To her disgust, their bodies briefly touched.
Why am I doing this? The last thing I want to do is please him. I should confront him now! I should demand that he stop going into my room when I am not there. I know he goes through my underwear, my makeup kit. How dare he! She didn’t know whether to scream or cry. Actually, she wanted to do both.
“I wanted to ask you something important. I . . . Elaine? You aren’t asleep?”
Claire raised her eyes and saw him looking sheepishly behind her. She turned around and there was Elaine in her colorless old nightgown. The corners of her old friend’s lips pursed, giving her face a cautious and dissatisfied look.
When Elaine spoke, her voice was as dull as her nightgown. “Why are you holding her up? She should be at work by now. Shouldn’t you, dear?”
“Oh my. Yes, I should. Thanks anyway for the coffee, and you two enjoy your day!” As she was leaving, Claire felt two anxious pairs of eyes on the back of her head. They were burning through her like a laser. Why do I feel guilty, as if I’ve done something inappropriate? Nonsense! I did nothing wrong. Nothing!
By the time she arrived at the office, Claire felt exhausted, as if she had already worked the entire day. Tuesday mornings were especially unpleasant as she always dreaded the prospect of having her weekly meeting with Frank, her boss. Outgoing and funny, he was very popular with the female population of his department. Oddly enough, he paid little attention to Claire. Yet when she spoke, he listened; his answers were sharp, sometimes almost angry. The strangest part of their adversarial relationship was that she nevertheless liked him. Why, she thought, am I attracted to a nasty piece of work like him? Sometimes she felt as if his eyes were following her, though she couldn’t be sure. She found herself thinking about him more often than she cared to admit.
The time for the meeting had arrived. She knocked on the door of Frank’s office.
“Come in. Sit down.” He put his feet up on the desk while leaning back in his big leather chair. Frank was a good-looking man. His close-shaven skin was smooth and unwrinkled except for the slightest hint of crow’s feet about his eyes. Those large, dark eyes were nicely shaped; their expression could turn quickly from inquisitive to openly mocking. The best part of his face was his mouth, his full lips sexy and suggestive.
Claire sat in front of him, thinking his back would definitely hurt if he didn’t soon change his sitting position. They were looking at each other face-to-face, with a certain amount of mutual curiosity.
“You’re ten minutes late. Why?”
Claire wanted to tell him about all the morning troubles she simply couldn’t control. But she changed her mind: “I was on the phone with the IT help desk.”
“That’s no excuse.” He was studying her, an intense look on his face. “I was in a much better mood earlier and now I’m irritated.” He paused to see what effect his words had upon her. Then he continued to push. “Now I won’t agree to anything you’re about to ask me for. You missed your chance by ten minutes.”
“Oh?” She couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
His phone rang. He checked the incoming number, then let the call go to voice mail. “I approved your attending the CMS conference in D.C. You’ll be presenting.” He looked at the calendar. “Give or take, it’s about seven months from now; you should have plenty of time to prepare. I hope that makes you happy.” As she remained silent, he continued. “I won’t be going, so you’ll need to cover for me.” He marked something in his calendar. When he spoke again, his voice betrayed his agitation. “Aren’t you going to thank me?”
“Thank you?” She was taken aback. “I’m speechless.”
“Really? I didn’t think I’d live to see such a phenomenon.” He continued to study her. An uncomfortable silence fell between them. Finally, he sat straight in his chair. “So, are you getting acclimated?”
“Yes. I’m all good now.” She too straightened her back against her chair.
“I’m glad. By the way, are you still renting?”
“Yes.” His patronizing tone caused her to cringe a little inside.
“Alone?” He had been playing absently with his glasses. Now he stopped and stared hard at her.
She merely raised her eyebrows at him.
“I mean, don’t you feel lonely?”
“Hmm . . . I get emails from you late at night. Do you ever relax, or go out? There’s a great bar across the street. They have decent food, cheap drinks too. . . . You should check it out sometime. I go there on Friday nights. Do you like bars?”
“Not particularly.” She had never been this clipped with him before.
“What do you like, then?” He appeared calm, yet Claire thought she detected impatience in his voice. He plowed ahead. “Drive a mile down Main Street and you’ll find plenty of great restaurants. I could give you a lift if you need one.”
“I’m sure you could.” She was beginning to withdraw within herself again, like a mimosa that’s been touched.
“Would you like me to?” His voice had taken on an urgent tone, almost demanding.
Claire’s eyes widened. “Are you out of your mind?” For an instant, she was frightened by the words she had just uttered. Yet she still liked him; it was too bad he was such a brute.
“On the contrary. I’m totally focused.” His smile disappeared, replaced by a look of annoyance. “I’m willing to show you a good time.”
“Yes. I’m offering you my help. You should be grateful.” He leaned forward a bit.
“Are you drunk?”
“No, I’m quite sober. Are you paying attention?” He got up and went around his desk, coming much closer to her than he ever had before. “I want to see what’s beneath the masquerade you put on every day.”
She got up to leave.
“Don’t even think about it. Sit down!” There was a dangerous flash of anger in his brown eyes. She sat down, looking at him with a mocking smile.
The calmer she stayed, the angrier he became. “Look at yourself. You walk around here with your nose in the air, as if you were getting a chairman’s award. I hate to burst your bubble, but no one’s staging a gala benefit in your honor.”
“No, not a gala, but a first-class circus performance.” Claire had suddenly found her voice. “Very entertaining, I must admit. I’m especially enjoying the clowns.”
“Are you calling me a clown?”
“With all due respect, I’ll take a rain check on answering that. But what do you think of yourself?”
“I asked you first.”
“All right, if you insist. The truth is that you are still a clown in training. But don’t take it to heart or sink into a depression over it. I don’t mean it as a criticism. Please don’t be hard on yourself. Keep it up and eventually you’ll be hysterically funny.”
“Not bad!” He charged forward. “Allow me to return your frankness. Your sweet, quiet tone of voice doesn’t fool anyone. Your obnoxious attitude and passive resistance are very irritating. Believe me, you aren’t as smart as you think you are! You’re stubborn, opinionated, and you refuse to follow simple instructions. You’re below average.”
Frank was tall. He always wore white Ralph Lauren shirts; he liked to roll up the sleeves to reveal his impressive biceps. He was fifty-four years old but looked younger; his stylish haircut made him appear more youthful still.
“Look, it doesn’t have to be this way.” His voice was softer now. “It actually could be very pleasant for both of us.” Quite sure of himself, he sat on the edge of the desk, almost touching her legs with his knees.
“What exactly do you have in mind?”
He took the pad she was holding out of her hand. “Would you like to spend the evening with me?”
His cocky attitude was too much for Claire. “You must be dreaming, or running a fever. Oh, wait! I get it. Of course, your secretary! Is Janet old news? Already? That was quick. Or are you looking for an alternative bedmate while Janet’s vacationing in Europe with her husband?”
He smiled but didn’t move. “Are we playing a guessing game?”
She stood up and was now even closer to him; there was no way to get to the door unless he made way for her. He stood up, leaned over, and whispered in her ear: “Don’t be a fool.” He was beginning to lose control. Her physical closeness, the perfume she wore, her stubborn and yet almost playful resistance were giving him signals he was unable to read with any certainty. Had she unintentionally provoked him?
Slowly, he took her by the waist and forced her to come closer still. She pushed both hands against his chest. It was a silent fight she was about to lose.
“I don’t think so.”
“Go to hell.” She bit him on the arm—hard, enough to leave tooth marks on his skin. For a few seconds he still held her tightly; then he let her go.
He looked at her and not at his arm, as if he felt no pain. She was panting, standing in front of him, filling the room with the shock wave of her suppressed emotions. It was like silent thunder.
“Don’t go,” he said, looking down. She would’ve laughed in his face if she hadn’t been so angry. For a moment she looked at him with disdain. She left quietly; the door slowly closed behind her.
His lips were parched, his throat dry. He moved her chair back against the wall. She had left no trace of her presence, and yet he still saw her; his mind couldn’t let her go. He rolled down his sleeves, vividly remembering her hands holding the pad. She wore no wedding band. He stood in front of the computer, thankful his phone was silent.
Right before lunch, the HR manager called and left a message, asking him to come see her. He had expected the call. He turned off his computer, shredded all the paperwork on top of his desk, grabbed his car keys, sunglasses, and her pad, and went out.
* * *
“Hey, you look tired, babe.” The woman with huge fake eyelashes and nails invited him to sit down. “So, have you heard?”
He shook his head.
“She’s leaving! Frank, did you hear what I just said? I expected a big, fat smile from you!”
“I’m sorry, Amy. I don’t understand. What happened?”
“Your princess came to my office and told me that she was leaving! Buh-bye. Au revoir!” She paused, waiting for his reaction.
“Did she say why?” Frank sounded surprised.
“That’s the thing: no! She said . . . let me see, I jotted it down . . . ah, here it is: ‘I overestimated the whole thing and, clearly, for whatever reason, it didn’t work out. It’s beyond my control.’ What a stupid thing to say! She shouldn’t have ever come here. She should’ve taking her separation package and left. We spent so much money on relocating her. And boy, she was expensive! We could’ve hired two recent graduates and paid them less than what she was making alone. And the way she was dressed!” Amy threw her hands in the air; her long synthetic nails made cold, clicking sound. “She was a fricking outsider. Too bad I couldn’t tell her how much you helped to finally push her out. I saw it!” Amy’s lips widened in an oily smile: “This
witch with a capital B is so full of it, she was oblivious all this time. Congratulations! Now I can finally report to the top that it’s done! Look, you deserve a pat on the back.”
“What else did she say?” He felt an urge to put an immediate stop to the diarrhea of words and animated gesticulations that hurt his eyes.
Amy dropped her substantial body into the chair. “I told her to talk to you, but she said . . . aha! Here . . .” Amy read from her notes: “Frank wasn’t feeling well and I didn’t want to add any more stress as it was already a stressful morning for him.”
She burst into wild laughter. “Get it?” Amy couldn’t stop laughing and clapping her chubby hands with excitement. When she finally stopped, she picked up a tissue to wipe away tears of joy.
“Is she coming back?”
“No! I told her to pack and leave. See?” Amy jiggled a badge in front of his eyes. “That’s it! She’s gone and I’ll make sure she never comes back here again! Are you feeling okay? Maybe for once that nut was right: you do look stressed. What’s the matter? Missing her already?” She howled with laughter that made her eyelashes flip like the wings of a giant moth.
“I might be getting the flu. I’d better go home before I give it to you.”
“Good idea. Feel better, and hey! Congratulations, man! You finally did it.”
Frank got into his car. He drove slowly, trying to think about nothing. He knew that when he got home, he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep; insomnia had always given him a bad taste in his mouth.
Claire, on the other hand, was thinking about every detail. Luckily, the condo was empty when she got there. She was ready in a matter of minutes, packing only those items she considered essential. Finally, she wrote a thank-you note to Elaine, including a few lines about her car, which she would leave with her. When she got into the yellow cab, she pressed her back deep into the leather seat, away from the window, afraid to be recognized by the neighbors. Only after they crossed the bridge and merged into the highway did she draw her first deep breath. It started to rain. The wipers were making painfully screeching noises. The streaks of dirty water running down the windows from the roof of the cab looked like old ripped curtains. It was cold and ugly outside.
They wound up caught in terrible traffic and she almost missed her flight.
* * *
It was early in the morning when she got home. She dropped her suitcase in the hallway. On the way to the bedroom she took off her shoes, jeans, stockings, and everything else until she was naked. Exhausted, she crawled into bed and was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.
A phone call woke her up sometime later; she refused to answer it or even move a muscle. An hour after that, still naked, she went into the bathroom. She turned on the shower and stood motionless under the hot water. While still at the airport she had received an email telling her that the job offer she had been counting on had fallen through. What now? On Monday she would start looking all over again. She would have to begin making calls, asking people for help. If push came to shove, she would need to rent this tiny house and move in with her cousin. It would be a little tight, but hopefully it wouldn’t be for long. Although that was exactly how she
had convinced herself to move in with Elaine. What a nasty situation she was in! But she’d get through it. She always did.
A wave of self-pity rose so quickly that she couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. They streamed down her face, and she let the steaming water wash them away. The pictures of shells on a beach that decorated the shower curtain seemed to stare at her. She wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes, feeling that, somehow, the shells were judging her. She turned and faced the wall, still sobbing.
The water was getting cold; she had used up all the hot water. Blinded by tears, she found the faucet and turned off the taps. The showerhead leaked a few heavy drops and then fell silent. The pipes behind the tiles gave a last low sigh. There was no other sound but her sobbing. Then she caught her breath. He had called her obnoxious, below average. Was that what she was?
She shrank within herself, thinking of how others perceived her. Then she recovered a little. Whatever, she thought. I can’t change now. I’m too old. The flood of tears dried up. Then she raised her shoulders as if she were about to start sobbing all over again. But she didn’t; it was just a last spasm. She took a towel and pressed it against her hairline. Then she looked in the mirror, where she saw the swollen face of someone she refused to recognize.
The rest of the day she spent paying bills, answering emails, and cleaning. She was busy enough that she forgot to eat. In the twilight, she felt a bad headache coming on. A hangover, she thought for a moment. A hangover from too much reality.
Claire went to the kitchen and made herself a Turkish coffee. She stood by the window, watching two adorable squirrels joyfully playing around the tree. She didn’t envy them. She
envied Janet, Frank’s secretary. The cup in her hand grew cold. She looked at it without interest, drank the cold coffee at once, like a shot of vodka.
* * *
Handsome and confident, he still stood on the stage. “If no one else has any questions, I’m happy to introduce the next presenter, Mark Levitz.” Thirstily, she watched him walking back to his seat.
Coming to the CMS conference, she thought, was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, she’d had to travel to Washington on her own dime and the trip hadn’t been cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Long ago she had persuaded herself that coming here would be a good networking technique that could end up with permanent employment; she was contracting and earning just enough to make ends meet. But deep down she knew the real reason she was here. She’d had to see him. She was hoping to fix what she thought she had broken seven months before. She couldn’t afford to fail now.
Claire barely listened to the next presenter. Behind the pole, she carefully watched him, her heart jumping every time he turned around and looked back. When the lunch break was announced, she quickly got up and went to find him. He stood with his back to the exit.
He turned around. She could tell he was surprised to see her. She always had liked his open smile. He looked sharp in his expensive jacket. And she noticed other women were looking at him with interest. Aware of how quickly she lost all the color in her face, she couldn’t decide immediately if he was eyeing her inquisitively or mockingly. To keep her poise, Claire almost frenziedly clung to her bag.
“Nice presentation.” She felt a tightening in her throat. She broke through her shyness and complimented him. “And you look . . . nice as well.”
“Thank you. You too.” He bowed slightly to her in approval. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
She contemplated his comment for a moment and then quickly said, “I came because I wanted to see you. I knew I would find you here; you were listed as a presenter.” He raised his eyebrows. Blushing despite herself and breathing with difficulty, she asked, “Are you free tonight? Would you like to have dinner with me?”
He hesitated for a moment. “I’m leaving tonight. I’m afraid it won’t be possible.”
“How about lunch, then?” She stood very close to him, extremely embarrassed, burning inside, waiting for his verdict.
“Now, you mean? Look, if you want to chat, we could…” He gestured to the chairs along the wall.
She moistened her lips before she replied. “I would like to talk to you in private. Please.” She was out of breath, as if she had just run for a long distance.
“Sure. Walk with me. I know an empty room where we can talk.”
The sleeveless navy blue dress she wore emphasized her small waist and her beautiful long neck. For the first time he noticed how fresh and clean her skin looked. As they turned the corner, he said sincerely, “If you’re still looking for a job, I can give you a few solid leads. Some of my friends are hiring. I could recommend you to them.”
She caught no irony in his voice. He was pleasant, gentlemanly. “Thank you.” She felt the pulse of her heart inside her throat.
He invited her into the empty room, used earlier in the morning for late registrations. “After you.” She walked in and he followed her. Then he shot the door with his foot. He leaned against the wall, his arms folded across his chest.
“Well, I’m all ears, Claire. What is it you wanted to say?”
A feeling resembling riding on a swing went over her. She felt a little off-kilter.
“What did you drink back there? You told me you didn’t like bars.” He leaned forward and held her firmly until she finally regained her composure. “Are you okay?” He let go of her but seemed ready to give her his support if she needed it.
Instinctively, she closed her eyes. Ah, how much she wanted him to draw her up to him. For a moment, the temptation to drop to the floor or pretend she was falling was high; he would have to help her up, he would touch her, hug her; he would say something that would make her want to cry. Cry from the desire to have him, as he was, and not wanting to share him with anyone, with the rest of the world. An icy calm had fallen over her, but beneath it her thoughts were flying at full stretch.
“Hear me out, please. You see…” She had started slowly. She was afraid the right words would fail her. She knew what was at stake. “I was thinking why I didn’t accept your—” she stumbled for a moment—“proposition. I’ve been angry with myself because I could never understand why I… I behaved so eccentrically. Normally I don’t bite.” It was a meek attempt to relieve the tension. She felt stupid; she was trying too hard.
He smiled softly, almost sympathetically. “That’s okay. I deserved it. Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
“Wait!” Her face grew even paler than before, all her movements strained by the effort of coping with the feelings that interfered with her thoughts. She stretched out her hand. “You’re standing there and smiling, thinking I’m the most irrational person on earth.”
Intuitively, he understood what a great tribulation she was in. He felt a pang in his chest and instantly the room was too hot.
“I must tell you what has tortured me since we saw each other last. For a long time I tried to figure out what happened. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. Are you interested to know?” She looked at him, her back very straight, her cheeks on fire.
He nodded his head, still smiling with his eyes.
“I was angry with you because I was…”
A bar of silence felt between them. He slowly moved away from the wall and came closer to her. “What is it, Claire? What did you want to tell me?” He didn’t sound patronizing. His tone was kind, patient.
She looked at him, feeling how much she wanted him. “I…I was in love with you,” she said quietly. “And…I simply wanted you to ask me. If you had, I would have done anything for you. I still would. You don’t even need to ask me anymore. I’m telling you, as is.” She was afraid to look at him. She was afraid to find a little spark of ridicule, of laughter in his eyes. She looked down at the carpet, not noticing a wine stain right under her heels. In fact, she didn’t see
anything at all because the pain she felt was taking over her entire being. As if she were mortally wounded. Yes, she might as well be mortally wounded. And yet how easily she could be cured.
His eyes narrowed and he frowned, as if he needed to concentrate, to study through his glasses this rare specimen in front of him, the one he had mistaken for a simple white chamomile. He was astonished she had opened before him in this way.
“Oh, Claire, Claire.” He hugged her ever so gently, as if she were a little girl lost in a big, busy town. He brushed his closely shaved cheek against her short hair that resembled sharp hedgehog’s needles, except, he discovered, they were soft and smelled like mimosa. A sweet, painful compassion filled him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“I’m so sorry, Claire.” He waited for a moment, trying to find the right words. “Please, try to be reasonable. You were my employee. We weren’t friends in any real sense, any more than I’m friends with any of my other employees. If I weren’t your boss, we would never have had any relationship at all. And, of course, we never really had any relationship. I don’t know you all that well. And what I do know about you from our interactions tells me that, at the end of the day, we probably wouldn’t be simpatico anyway.”
He felt her body tighten in his hands.
“It’s not true. I always, always loved you.” As she said it, she raised her head and saw how intently he listened; but alas, he simply didn’t hear her.
“Claire! I’m not husband material. Please believe me.”
“I’m not asking you to marry me. I just want to be with you. Please allow me. I love you.” Now she looked at him. She forgot her pride, taking upon herself the yoke of shame. But
she didn’t care. She wanted to be with him so badly. There was nothing in life she wanted more. Her eyes stared, large, troubled, feverish in her thin face.
“You don’t even know me. I’m not a nice person. I would ruin your life. I’m not worthy of you.”
“I don’t care,” she whispered, softly and bitterly.
There was an embarrassed silence. His fingers touched her wet face.
“Claire!” Then again: “Claire!” He crashed his teeth together so violently, the muscles in his cheeks stood out.
She held her courage in both hands, summoned up her will, and took the last step. She sought the simplest words, but they grew as she went on, unable to stop. “You have no idea what you did. I think about you all the time. I think about you when I’m at work, when I drive, when I take a shower, watch TV, read. The worst is when I try to sleep. I think about you touching me, kissing me, making love to me. I think that if you were ever to hurt me, I would forgive you. I would love you even more. Because I believe I can make you love me back. I know I can. Give me a chance, please.” Held by him, she felt she could confess everything and he would understand. She would knock on his heart until he heard her. He must hear her. It was now or never.
“Claire!” He felt a shiver go down his spine. He took a step back. “Please! I can’t. I don’t love you that way. As people, we are very, very different, and that means that, as a person, you simply don’t particularly interest me. You’re trying to fill a void in your life by pretending I could ever care for you in more than a superficial way. Don’t you understand what an immature way that is to approach life?”
She stood quietly, shamed, feeling as if he had whipped her naked in front of the entire world. When she finally spoke, her voice was hollow and rusty. “I understand.” She avoided his eyes.
Then Claire lifted her head. There was emptiness before her, emptiness behind her. A phrase rang in her head: It’s beyond my control. She swallowed. She needed to leave the room immediately or she would break down in a million pieces. She would simply dissolve. She was very pale and her body felt empty. She held her head high, her gaze straight in front of her.
She suddenly looked directly at him: “Good-bye, then.” Claire stood there for a few seconds, looking at him, absorbing his face, storing the image in her memory. She pulled herself together sharply. She left quietly; the door slowly closed behind her.
Frank knew the ways of the world, and he saw clearly enough how the matter really stood. Not that any judge in the world would have found him guilty. But he felt guilty all the same. Guilty and sad.
Adel's stories are inspired by events she has witnessed and people she's encountered. With vivid descriptions, Adel captures the complex and often contradicting inner worlds of her characters. While lives become intimately entangled, individuals remain distinct, and defenselessly alone. Traveling well beyond the surface and into their depths, Adel reveals the surging pulse hidden within ordinary lives. Intense, multidimensional relationships pull and provoke the most delicate areas of humanity, giving us a refreshing taste of life's true flavors.
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