Wallace was clean and freshly showered.
He adjusted the speed on the cruise control to an even sixty and stared out the window at the rows of cattails growing on the side of the turnpike. Through their tawny, rowed communities he could see New York approach from the east, a tangle of concrete and steel. He drove past the city, further north, until he couldn’t wait any longer, which turned out to be Massachusetts.
In the motel they signed in under his name. It had taken a lot of talking to get her to come this weekend. Marisa was worried that her parents might find out. She was nineteen, and it was legal, but her parents paid for her to go to college, and they were old-style orthodox Christians, and that meant that it was a secret. In the two months that he’d been seeing her, starting with casual conversations at the water cooler, clandestine gropings in movie theatres, that was between them. Wallace tried to remember the quality of his fears when he was nineteen, before both his parents had passed away, but after a minute or so of that kind of thinking Wallace stopped, wondering what the point of that kind of thinking was. Instead, Wallace paid for the room. Ninety dollars that he gave to the graying blond at the front desk. As she handed him the perforated key card, Wallace imagined that she was prettier before she started working behind the desk. At twenty-nine Wallace felt he had the right to think things like that.
“There’s a wedding reception in our banquet room,” she said, gesticulating with her palms. “The Richards party. It’s a little noisy now, but they should be all finished up around midnight. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.” She motioned them to the elevator with an outstretched arm. “Room 235, on the left.”
Inside the elevator the sound of the party was dulled. He lifted his shoulders, hefting the wicker picnic basket and small suitcase, examining the shadow of Marisa’s form on the stainless steel elevator door. When the doors opened he heard the party’s gaggle, the sound of big band, Benny Goodman. He felt something lost as he turned down the hall. He imagined highballs and frosted glasses, women in long stain dresses who told you they believed in God. He wondered what it would be to take Marisa downstairs, stand her next to him at the bar. He imagined his hand resting on her waist, her back a willowy lean. And why not imagine something like this, he figured. It wasn’t like he was breaking the law.
Room 235. Three incandescent lamps, one large television facing a queen-sized bed with a nondescript landscape above it. The painting could have been of the beach or the desert.
Wallace placed their luggage on the floor as Marisa tested the mattress gently with her fingers before sitting. As Marisa chewed on her lower lip, he decided to go with the bottle of wine he’d been planning to save for tomorrow. He retrieved a bottle of white wine from the wicker picnic basket and sat down on the bed, facing the television, with the bottle resting on his knee.
Wallace then wondered what to do. How does one…begin? He had a sudden fear that she would change her mind, want to leave. He imagined getting back in the car, driving through the night to New Jersey. He wondered what the next days would be like, whether or not he would speak to her that next Monday, as she was chewing her nails at her data entry terminal. He figured that he would speak to her either way. After all, he was a good guy. And she would be going back to college in two months. Either way, two months was short. You can do either thing for two months.
But beyond that, he wanted her to stay. Wanted to take her out to dinner at restaurants she couldn’t afford. Wanted to get her drunk.
When she had first come to work at New Jersey Physicians Insurance it was evident that she didn’t belong. Dressed like a belle at a southern cotillion for her first day at data entry. Wallace sat in his office with his door open and watched her in her cubicle. He watched her move to the water fountain, drink from the stream then move her face into it, holding her curled blond hair out of the steel basin. It was summer and the water was always cold. She drank it down, her throat moved. Maybe it was the cubicle, maybe it was that she didn’t belong, but Wallace wanted to believe in it, step on it, breathe it in and enjoy it.
Wallace motioned with the bottle.
“Wine, babe?” he asked.
Marisa nodded. “Mmm. Please.”
Wallace used a key to tear through the plastic seal around the bottle. Confronted with the cork, he realized he didn’t have a corkscrew.
Wallace grunted and considered his options. The easiest would be to call room service and ask for a corkscrew. But Wallace didn’t know the exact rules in such a matter. He didn’t even know if it was legal to bring your own wine into a hotel. These things had never occurred to him before. Added to this was the complication that could arise from having a waiter enter the room. He wasn’t worried about what a waiter would think seeing a young woman and man ten years her elder with a corked bottle of wine—waiters get paid to see things like that. More specifically he was worried about Marisa, and the reaction that such a visit would elicit. This was Marisa’s first time, he was sure of that. He’d been with two virgins before, Sarah when he was twenty, and Lisa when he was sixteen and a virgin himself. He understood that this was a delicate thing.
Wallace ended up examining his pocketknife for options. He considered the Philips-head screwdriver, the awl, even the sharp end of the saw. He settled on the short knife and started to push the cork into the bottle. He had to twist and work the knife. The top of the cork was disintegrating into small pieces, but the cork as a whole seemed intent on remaining inert.
Wallace’s hand slipped and the knife closed in on itself, catching his finger. He gasped as the pain came, standing, throwing his bottle to the ground, gripping his finger-end and relishing in the heavy thud of glass on the carpet. “Goddamit,” he swore. “Goddamit,” he said, holding his hand.
“Babe,” Marisa breathed, moving forward and grabbing his injured hand.
The pain was like a scream in Wallace’s ear. “Let go, Jesus Christ, let go,” he barked.
Marisa stopped and turned hard into the bathroom. She closed the door behind her with a slam.
Wallace took a deep breath. He leaned his head back with his nose facing the ceiling and exhaled. Eventually, he approached the door. “Marisa? Babe? Open the door.” He waited a few seconds. “Marisa? Can you open the door, please?” He waited and decided to try again. He made his voice steady. “Marisa, could you at least give me a towel. You don’t have to let me in, just give me a towel. I’m bleeding here.”
This time Wallace pressed his ear against the door. Through the locked wood he could hear her gasping like a sprinter out of breath. She seemed to be mumbling something, the actual words obscured by the sound of the reception below. Wallace gave up trying to decipher the words after a moment or two.
“Goddamn party,” he mumbled. He was beginning to bleed on the carpet. He walked to the bed, removed a pillowcase and wrapped it tight around his hand. When he was satisfied with the dressing, he picked up the wine bottle and, this time using the flat of the jackknife, pried the cork into the bottle. It floated in pieces at the top. He took a sip and stopped to spit out the specks of cork that he caught on his tongue.
“All right. Relax,” he told himself. He approached the door slowly, with quiet, cat steps. He squared his feet and put his palms against the door. “Marisa, honey,” he started. “Marisa. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be angry. I don’t know what came over me.” He waited. “Marisa, where are you? I’m sorry. I know you’re nervous.” He waited. He could sense her beginning to soften behind the door. I’m nervous too, honey. I love you, babe.” Even after saying this he felt the lie in his throat, like biting tinfoil.
He heard Marisa moving in the bathroom, the water running, the last complacent sniffles. He kept talking. “I love you,” he said, this time leaning his forehead against the door, letting wooden coolness move through. “Do you hear me? I love you,” he said again, and again, four times until she opened the door. He put his wrapped hand around her back. “Let’s drink some wine. We’re together now.”
Her hand started as a slow tremble on his thigh. He imagined this tremble starting somewhere in her chest, and moving through the veins in her arms. It was the first time he’d seen her fully undressed, and lying next to her he felt an urge to soothe her. He could feel her muscles relax and tense and he moved his hands over them – relaxing in her arms and shoulders, tensing when he moved over her pelvis, examining the dark wires of hair. He covered her breast with his tongue, angled his hips in her direction.
She gave a stuttered breath. “Wallace. Is the door locked?”
She waited for a second before speaking again. “Could you just check it?”
Wallace lifted his head and coughed. He felt himself brimming over below, the first touches of frustration moving through the inside of his thighs. He stood up and walked naked to the door. He made an extravagant display of unlocking and re-locking the door. “Okay?” he asked.
“Okay,” she told him.
He slid back into the bed next to her, moved his mouth to her stomach, traced the fine, invisible hairs with his tongue. He felt Marisa tighten when she heard the sound. “Listen,” she said.
Wallace sighed, and lifted his head. Several men were yelling outside.
“What is it?” Marisa asked.
“Some people talking.” He nibbled her hip.
“Talking? Sounds like more than that.” She bounded off the bed and put her underwear back on. “Let’s look,” she said running to the window. “Turn off the light.”
Wallace rolled onto his back. He felt a sudden sense of shame at her childish impulse to watch. This was not the kind of girl who leans against you in a bar. Not yet at least. He walked slowly to the light switch and shut it off. Marisa was already kneeling by the window. The sounds of arguing outside had escalated, rising in volume and pitch.
“Come on,” she said, waving him over. He kneeled beside her. Only then did she draw the curtain, so that both of them could see. Down in the parking lot two men in tuxedos were squared off like pugilists, voices raised, waists bent in at each other. On the right, the taller man was waiving his arms, pointing at the other. The other, shorter, slimmer man appeared to be listening.
“It’s like a movie,” Marisa said, with something approaching wonder in her voice. “What do you think happened?”
“Just drunk people fighting. It happens sometimes, okay?”
Marisa snapped her neck around to face him. Even in the darkness it seemed like her ears were red. “Don’t say that like I’m some fucking child. I know it happens. I’ve got brothers, I’ve got a father. I’ve watched them puke from the goddamn stuff.” She pointed at the bottle. “I’ve taken care of all of them. I know it happens.”
While Marisa spoke at him, Wallace muffled a swear and watched the men. The taller one pushed at the other. He pushed back, turned around, and started walking away. The tall man recovered his balance. By the way he held his body underneath the streetlamp Wallace could tell that he was considering what to do. He watched the tall man puff his chest and move towards the other. In the streetlight, his shadow loomed long and willowy, mutable stripes of darkness. He concentrated on the men and their shadows, their projected darkness. He watched the tall man’s shadow reach inside its coat, bring out its arm and push it against the back of the other man’s shoulder.
Then there was a flash of light, the short report of gunfire igniting. Then there was the sound, a small pop almost too quiet. Wallace felt Marisa’s nails dig into his thigh. He felt his sex slackening below him. The man seemed to stand for a minute before crumpling to the pavement, wailing as if singing.
“My God,” Marisa whispered.
Wallace imagined a long wind blowing outside. They observed the gunman. He stood still, then slowly walked to the curb with his feet dragging before sitting on the concrete and cradling his head in his hands. Wallace turned to Marisa, whose mouth was the shape of a small zero. Her breasts were high on her chest, and she was beginning to chew on her fingernails. He remembered that when he first saw her, she had been wearing barrettes.
The refrigerator from the mini-bar turned on, and looking outside Wallace imagined he could hear the sound of these men’s souls escaping.
Wallace suddenly stood up, gripped by some inchoate fear. He took two quick steps to the right, turned, took two steps to the left before rushing to the bathroom. He shut the door behind him and turned on the light. It hurt his eyes. His stomach was clenched like a fist. His skull, air and vertigo.
He heard Marisa approach the door. She knocked three times. “Wallace, let me in.” She knocked again.
As the nausea came, he realized he was hyperventilating and attempted to stutter his breaths. He sat on the toilet. His stomach unwound, and he relieved himself. The odor was hot and almost fruity.
“Wallace, let me in.” Her voice was on an even keel. He thought of cleaning himself and opening the door, but felt a shame at his odor.
“I’m okay,” he snapped, holding his stomach.
“Jesus, Wallace, I’m not worried about you. They’re still down there. They haven’t moved.”
Wallace’s stomach tightened up again, his voice and breath was wheezy. “Someone will come along.”
“We have to call the police. You have to call the police, you’re an eyewitness.”
“Someone will notice it,” he said. “It’s their business, not ours. We don’t have to do anything. Christ, Marisa, someone will see it.”
“Wallace, we saw it. All right? Wallace, come out here.”
Wallace was lightheaded. He felt light and dying, like a child. Immersed, buried. He felt bile in the back of his throat and brought his head down between his knees.
Marisa gave up and went to the phone. Wallace listened to her dial and make a report to the police. Something about the quality of her voice made him sure that her hands were steady. He wondered what had brought him here. After all, Wallace was a good guy. He’d volunteered in soup kitchens in high school, and once he’d “adopted” a refugee child from Honduras off the television. He’d kept her picture in his wallet. So, how was it now that he was here, that his wallet was empty?
Wallace thought of Marisa at the drinking fountain, and listened to her voice on the phone. What a surprise. A surprise that she made it seem easy. The words, that is. Easy like camping with his old man, back when they lived an hour’s drive from the New Hampshire Whites. Easy like the Saturday nights spent when he was first in love with Lisa, Sunday mornings afterwards, the breakfasts his mother made when she was alive. Easy as her biscuits. Easy as honey. Easy like drinking water, feeling it wash through you.
The next time Wallace will hear a voice like that will be ten years later, give or take. Ten years after the next Monday, when he saw Marisa chewing on a pencil at her cubicle.
He will be driving through Utah, this time as a salesman, this time as a man who pays alimony. He’ll be on his way to a conference, driving through the middle of the night. He’ll flip the station and flip back, hearing the DJ’s voice. His heart will catch for a split second and resume. Even though he will know that he can never be sure about it, he will believe that voice to be hers. Something about its timbre. Fluidity. He will remember clutching himself in the bathroom, refusing to be led into the next room. He will think about the river in her voice, how the river touches the sea, how the sea touches everything. And this time, he’ll try again, closing his eyes languorously, leaning his skull against the headrest, his fingers steering by the sound of her voice, which broadcasts over two hundred miles of desert.