I was late for the boat that morning and had to sprint to make it before they closed the gate. The 7:05 is a commuter run, so it’s always packed. I made my way to the forward end, figuring I had a better chance of finding a seat if I avoided the centre of the hive — the coffee machines. Sure enough, in a little nook wedged between the newspaper rack and the ATM no one but tourists use, there was an open spot. I tucked my messenger bag tighter against my sweating back, and did a little sideways shuffle to navigate the knees and laptop bags that clogged the row on my way to the seat. I sat down and surreptitiously tried to wipe the sweat from my hairline. I arranged my bag at my feet, then dug through it to get my book and my phone. I checked my messages — three from work since I left the house 20 minutes before and four from lists I keep forgetting to unsubscribe to — and was about to open them when I happened to look up instead.
There she was in the seat across from me, so close that our knees could have touched if both of us had slouched down and made a real effort to do so. She looked at me and smiled this wry, sexy smile. I’m not sure what kind of smile I pulled off in response. After all, this was the woman I had fantasised about on a regular basis since I first saw her months before. There was something about her that grabbed me. Actually, there were many things about her that grabbed me. One was the way she inhabited her body so easily. There were plenty of attractive women on this ferry run, but they had the pinched beauty and tight bodies of professionals. Their bodies were walking catalogues of spin classes, Pilates, and expensive moisturiser. This woman, though, walked with the rolling ease of a dancer. Her ass was high and tight and gorgeously round. I had imagined doing all sorts of things with that ass. Her face and eyes had a look that was distant and inviting and bemused all at once, as if she was remembering something sweetly sad or delicious.
She was probably in her early forties, and I imagined her as an art director or some other profession where the women wear sexy Italian clothes and drink whiskey instead of Chardonnay. And there she was across from me, her legs crossed, her sandals almost grazing my shoes. I kept my eyes on my phone, scrolling through inane posts from my sisters, forwarded links from my father, and the various workout reports that some of my colleagues insisted on sharing every day. My body, though, was electric with her proximity. I blushed a little, remembering a recent fantasy in which she played a starring role. Once I had cooled down a bit, I hazarded another glance up. She looked up from her tablet at the same time and our eyes locked briefly. She smiled that wry smile again, glanced around and then casually ran her finger down the length of her skirt. When her finger reached the hem, she checked slyly on the passengers surrounding us. I sat against the wall and the man to my left was buried in his Wall Street Journal. Her seat abutted the ATM and the ladies to her right were busy knitting and talking about a recent IPO. The woman across from me, my ferry woman, slowly reached deep under her skirt and deep between her legs, her eyes fixed intently on mine. Then, just as casually as she had put her finger into herself, she pulled it out and sucked on it. I inhaled sharply and shifted to make my erection a little less obvious, though I could tell by the way she glanced at it that at least once person had noticed.
Then she got up and left. I pretended to read while I replayed the previous ten minutes in my head over and over. Immediately, I started to doubt if it had really happened, began to suspect I had made up parts of it. Maybe she hadn’t put her finger all the way into her pussy, but then what was she doing? And why did she have to reach so far to do it? And why did she have that mischievous look on her face when she was doing it? By the time the ferry docked, my hard-on had subsided enough to walk normally, but I was still heady with the experience. I was standing in line with the other commuters jostling to get off the boat when she appeared next to me.
“Here’s my number,” she said quietly, her voice dusky and assured. “Text me tomorrow at 7:10, but not before.”
Luckily, there was a breakthrough in the line that pushed me along so I didn’t have the chance to make an ass out of myself.
I had just enough time to say, “OK,” and that was that.
I walked up Marion Street as if on wheels, and that’s no easy task. The street is so insanely steep that people straining up it are almost parallel to the sidewalk. My company is at the top of the hill and dominates several city blocks. You’ve heard of it. I’m in tech. But I’m not smart-guy tech. I do PR. I’m the guy who makes it sound like our business with China is practically a human rights campaign. And some days I believe it. On that day, though, the only thing that mattered was getting to the office bathroom so I could jerk off quietly in a corner stall.
The next morning I was on the 7:05. I claimed the same seat I had been in the day before and got out my book and phone. My stomach clenched when another woman sat across from me, and her friend plunked down beside her. It was 7:07 and I was facing not the woman of my fantasies, but two other women, probably attorneys. I looked around, trying to locate her shoulder-length sandy blonde hair amid the crowd. At 7:10 I still couldn’t see her, but I texted:
Nothing for a full two minutes, and then:
I’m in the first row by the galley. Stay there.
And then decided I should include a question so that I’d get a response back:
How are you?
I hesitated before sending. Should I add a winky face? I decided no and hit send.
I’m wet. And I’m not wearing panties today, so it’s a little uncomfortable.
My cock leaped. I looked over to where she was sitting. She was in a sexy white summer dress. She glanced imperceptibly in my direction, rubbed her thighs together a little and nodded down toward her phone. I didn’t know what to say. So I just texted:
You just made me so hard.
She wrote back:
Tell me more.
I didn’t know what she wanted, exactly, so I just went for the truth without trying to be literary:
I want to feel that wetness. I want to put my finger up your dress and spread you wide.
I blushed when I sent it, wondering if I had gone too far. I snuck a glance at the passengers around me, paranoid that they knew exactly what I was up to. My phone vibrated.
What would you do after you spread me wide?
For a moment I had that middle school feeling when you realise that someone’s getting you to say stuff just so they can use it against you to embarrass you, but then I thought I didn’t really give a shit because I was enjoying the thought of fucking her so much.
I’d lick you. I’d plunge my tongue deep into your pussy. I’d grab your ass.
I hit send. A minute later my phone vibrated again.
Tell me more.
The window was thrown wide open, and I had no idea where to go. There were so many things to do. I couldn’t even begin to articulate what and how. I looked across at her, at the ease of her sitting in that white dress, her shoulder slightly tanned. She had her phone on her lap, and was reading a newspaper.
I’d like to hike up that dress, turn you around, and press myself against your ass. I’d like to reach around you and cup your breasts…
At this point I paused with performance anxiety. What do you text to a woman like that? Everything I came up with sounded like I either had a mommy complex (“I want to bury my face in your breasts”) or a porn addiction. I ploughed on.
I want to smell your hair, and then I want to pull it while I fuck you hard from behind.
I hit send.
The thing about texting on the ferry is that there is a pocket of dead air when you hit the middle of the trip. We had entered that zone while I was composing my message, so now the text hovered in the static somewhere above us. She wouldn’t receive it for a full quarter of an hour. I imagined the space above all of our heads was filled with messages sent but not received. I wondered how many of them were dirty, like mine. I wondered also how many mundane loving words were caught in the limbo, and if it would make a difference if they were never received.
My ferry woman put her phone in her purse, and walked off in the direction of the bathroom. I considered following her, but I was already feeling stalkerish. She had started it, but I was beginning to think I had pushed it too far. The pulling her hair part. The fuck you hard part. Maybe she just wanted a little virtual cunnilingus and I sent her a rapey text instead. I wished I could pull the text out of the ether and revise it.
Across from me, the attorneys were comparing Cross Fit injuries. One was detailing her plantar fasciitis and expounding on her physical therapist’s insight. She had her shoe off so she could illustrate exact pain points. Her friend was nodding vigorously and making little knowing sounds. I could tell she couldn’t wait for her turn, she had the words queued up and was ready to burst forth with her own arch pain experiences as soon as there was an opening. I picked up my novel and tried to focus, but the words of my text kept distracting me. I felt a little anticipatory shame, knowing that what I had written might disgust my texting partner. I also had a low-grade hard-on.
We neared the city. I reread my message to make sure autocorrect hadn’t messed it up and to see if it had finally been delivered. It had. We were out of the dead zone. It took all of my will power not to watch my ferry woman as she returned to her seat. My phone rested quiet and cold on my thigh. We docked. I stood up with the rest of the passengers in my aisle and gathered my stuff for the walk off the boat. The Cross Fit women had moved on to tennis elbow. They stood behind me in line, talking over each other. By this time I knew the first names of both of their physical therapists. I felt my phone vibrate. It’s just a ghost vibration, I told myself. She’s done with you. Don’t check it. I checked it.
Ah, nice. Text me Thursday at 7:10.
My whole being coalesced around that narrow black type on my screen. Something profound shifted inside me and I walked up the gangway buoyed by the sigh in her “Ah.” For the next two days I was in love with the world. I adored my co-workers and laughed easily at their jokes. I was the jovial guy in line at Rite Aid. I asked tourists if they needed help finding anything. Of course, I was also stringing out with anticipation. I checked my phone relentlessly just in case she had texted. Intellectually I knew that I was somewhere on the periphery of the periphery for her, but I held out a tiny, ridiculous hope that our encounter meant something to her and that Thursday was as tantalising to her as it was to me. By Wednesday mid-afternoon I was loopy with imagined intimacy and I sent her a text, which I immediately regretted.
Thinking of you.
I didn’t add a smiley face, but I might as well have. So desperate. In the midst of berating myself, my phone vibrated. I leapt to check it. Work. I turned off my phone. I checked it an hour later. More work. I checked it at 1 a.m. A text from a friend and two from co-workers, but nothing from her.
On Thursday morning, I woke with a tight feeling in my chest. I dressed and prepared myself for inevitable disappointment. I need to focus on work anyway, I told myself. I’ll text her at 7:10 just because I said I would and I’m honorable, but that will be that and I can move on to writing press releases. I boarded the boat and set up my laptop at one of the counters at the forward end. I opened up my work email and started replying to the messages co-workers had sent in the pre-dawn hours. I looked up and was shocked to see her standing at the counter across from me. She looked at me expectantly. I fired off a text:
Good morning. Sorry I texted yesterday.
Right away she sent this:
Good morning. I accept your apology.
I didn’t want to jump right into flirting, or whatever it was we were doing, so I hesitated. Finally, I settled on something safe:
How are you?
I waited. My phone vibrated.
The small talk was excruciating, but I didn’t want to be the one to make the leap. I sent another:
Ha ha, we haven’t officially met. What’s your name?
I wanted to look up to gauge her reaction to my message. I held off, though, and pretended to be engrossed in my laptop screen. My phone screen flashed.
It doesn’t matter. Tell me something interesting.
It was an invitation and a command. It kind of pissed me off. Before I could edit myself, I wrote back:
The Westin. 1 p.m. I’ll text you the room number at 12:55.
My chest thrummed. I looked behind me out the window to try to settle myself down. Fuck. We had just entered the dead air zone. I had the balls to write and send the text that one moment only; I couldn’t stand having it hang in limbo for fifteen minutes. I asked the guy next to me to keep an eye on my laptop and I escaped to the bathroom.
When I returned to my post at the counter, I snuck a glance at her. We were still in dead air territory, so she was oblivious to my idiocy. She stood typing at her laptop, her eyes more faraway and aloof than ever. She had her hair down and she was wearing a black shirt dress. She wore several chunky rings. It wasn’t clear if one of them was a wedding ring. Suddenly I was certain I wanted her to receive the text hanging above her. Even if she rejected me, knowing that she would know how much I craved her filled me with satisfaction.
We exited the dead zone and I kept one hand on my phone, as if her reply would be instantly transferred through my skin. It didn’t come. I walked up the gangway and up the hill, each step a little further from my fantasy. It wasn’t until midway through my first meeting of the day that my phone vibrated.
A shutter slid open in my mind. The beauty of it made me ache.
At 12:30, I cancelled my afternoon meetings and headed to The Westin. Across the street from the hotel is this restaurant my wife, my almost ex-wife, and I always used to go to. It has pulsing music and these big, wavy glass forms all over—suspended from the ceiling, piled on pillars, stacked in alcoves. The effect is like being in a rich and fragile undersea garden. I glanced in, then crossed 5th Avenue and entered the hotel. The lobby was hushed and cool, humming with secret lives. I almost gave the clerk a false name, then remembered that it really didn’t matter. I’m a frugal guy usually, but on that day I happily paid for a suite on the thirty-third floor. I wanted to be whatever kind of man this woman thought I was.
I got to the suite and checked my phone. It was just 12:50. I peed, applied some more deodorant, rinsed my mouth with mouthwash, and washed my face. 12:53. At the brink of 12:55 I texted:
Right away I checked to see if it had been delivered. It had. And then it was read. I could see the little word cloud and ellipsis as she composed her message. Then:
At the elevator.
My stomach and groin tightened. I took a sip of water. She knocked before I could decide whether to leave my shoes on or take them off. When I opened the door and saw her, I relaxed a bit.
“Hello,” she said.
Her voice was low and tinged with an accent I couldn’t place. She smiled mischievously, but this time I was assuredly in on the joke. She had a bag slung over her shoulder, from which she pulled a bottle of Jameson whiskey.
“I thought this might be good for this afternoon,” she said. “Do you drink?”
“I do,” I said.
The whiskey gave us something to do. I got glasses, she opened the bottle. She poured and, as we toasted, she stepped closer. We stood inches from each other for a few moments, sipping our drinks and smiling. Inside I felt coiled. We both knew she would be the one to initiate contact.
Finally, she ran a finger along my collar. I reached for her waist, but she stopped me, took a step back, reached up her dress, and slid her underwear down. She had to bend down a little to get her feet out of them. The posture—the nape of her neck exposed and her ass tilted up like that—was at once awkward and sexy. I tried to breathe and stand naturally as she righted herself, looked at me, and placed her panties on the coffee table.
“I’m going to sit on the edge of the bed,” she said. “I want you to put your face between my legs, but don’t touch.”
I nodded and took a sip of the Jameson. She moved to the bed and sat on its bottom edge. She unbuttoned the top few buttons of her shirt dress, revealing first a surprise of freckles, then the swell of her breasts, and the edge of a sheer black bra. When I knelt down before her, she scooted down and parted her legs just enough to allow me to press my face into her crotch. When my nose and mouth were almost touching her pussy, she stayed me with one hand.
“Stop there,” she said, and pressed her thighs together against my cheeks. I closed my eyes and breathed in her humidity. My cock felt constrained by my pants, and had already made a little spot on the cloth. I tried to reach out my tongue to taste her, but she grabbed my hair and pushed me back into position. We stayed that way for what seemed like minutes, her sitting on the edge of the bed with one hand firmly on my head, me a tantalising whisper from her cunt.
Finally, she gave me permission to proceed.
“You can taste now, but just once,” she said.
I ran my tongue along her outer lips and then pushed it gradually into her. She was warm and tasted sweetly, faintly metallic. She exhaled a little as I withdrew my tongue. When I leaned back I could see her eyes were closed and she was biting her bottom lip. I grabbed her knees and stood up, unbuckling my belt as I did. She looked up, pulled me toward her by my waistband, and re-did my belt buckle.
“Are you free until evening?” she asked.
“I am,” I said.
“Well, let’s take our time,” she said.
I laughed. We didn’t know each other’s names, so it seemed to me we had blown well past the point of taking things slowly. She chuckled and stood, then unbuttoned a few more buttons on her dress, let it slip down her body, and stepped out of it. She stood before me in her bra.
“We can take our time,” I said. She unhooked her bra and let it fall to the floor.
She stepped toward me and dipped her index finger in my whiskey, then ran her finger from the top of her pubic hair to her navel. She dipped again, and continued the line from her navel to the little u of her clavicle. She brought her finger to my mouth, where she lined my lips and then pushed her finger in. I sucked on it, tongued it so I could taste the Jameson as well as the salty flavour of her skin. She withdrew her finger slowly, inserted it in my glass once more, and traced her nipples. She turned and walked to the bed, pulled the covers off, and lay back. I followed her.
I knelt on the bed between her legs, still fully clothed, still straining and sticking to my pants. Carefully, I ran my tongue along the whiskey line she had delineated, circling first her pale, erect nipples, then moving lower. I dipped my finger in the honeyed pool of whiskey in her navel, then traced it along the thin white rib of a scar that extended along her lower belly. She exhaled sharply, a tiny gasp caught in her throat, and tilted her hips up. I pushed her thighs up and apart, bent between her legs again, and licked her swollen clit. She held my head there, forcing me against her tighter and tighter.
Suddenly, she pushed my head away from her pussy. I looked up. Her neck and face were flushed, and she was looking at me with the same intimate and distant gaze that I knew from the ferry.
“Stand up,” she said.
“You can fuck me now. Keep your clothes on and start slow.”
She rolled onto her hands and knees, presenting her ass and cunt to me. I unbuckled, unzipped, and freed my straining cock. I grabbed her hips and jerked her closer to the edge of the bed, then pushed the tip of my cock gradually into the folds of her lips.
“Wait there,” she said. I obeyed. She rocked her hips slightly and began to gradually press herself toward me, enveloping my cock as she went. I stayed still until I could feel her wet against my balls. I pulled out to the verge, then slammed into her.
“Wait there,” she gasped. She clenched herself around me, and I gripped her hips hard. The juncture where our bodies met was slick. She reached for my hand and pressed it between her legs. I rubbed her clit, circling it, teasing it, increasing the pressure until she pressed herself hard against me, bucked and moaned, coming hot and wet around my hard cock.
She detached herself and turned around to face me. Her face was even more flushed and her hair was messy, damp at the temples. It took all of my concentration to hold myself back, but I wanted to make the afternoon last as long as I could.
“Now for you,” she said, smiling and moving back toward the headboard. She cupped a breast in each hand and thumbed her nipples, offering them to me. I sucked on them, enjoying the earthy sweet taste of her skin, then bit down until she cried out and tilted her head back in anguished pleasure. I couldn’t wait any longer. I spread her legs wide, parted her with my cock, and fucked her fast and rough. With each stroke she gasped and held my arms tighter and tighter. When I shuddered and came she held my face, then held my body to her and rubbed her pelvis against mine and came again in a breathless clinging.
We lay together in a mess of sheets, in a room now redolent of sex, laundry and whiskey. She ran her hands over my chest, pulling lightly now and then on a hair. The gesture was so casual and intimate that I briefly entertained a fantasy of a future of afternoons like this, of evenings in dimly lit restaurants, of mornings in little coastal hotels. I sat up and poured us more whiskey.
“So, are you married?” she asked. The question shocked me. I didn’t expect her to ask me anything; so far she had been all commands and observations. I especially didn’t expect her to ask me that.
“We’re separated,” I said.
“I suppose there’s a story there,” she said.
“Yes, she— ,” I stopped, realising that she didn’t want to hear it and that I was tired of telling it. I felt a sudden lightness come over me.
“Are you married?” I asked.
“Do you and your husband have an agreement or something?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” It was a statement, not a question, and it wasn’t unkind. My fantasies dissipated; somehow their dissipation pleased me.
“This is it, isn’t it?” I said. She smiled and pulled my hand to her breast.
“Yes,” she said. I smiled and pressed her to the mattress. We kissed each other hungrily, our mouths rough and sweet with whiskey. We fucked and fucked, beyond regret and sorrow and betrayal, beyond strangeness and familiarity.
* * * * *
We see each other on the ferry occasionally. We don’t talk and we don’t text, but we acknowledge each other in imperceptible ways. I look around at the other passengers and wonder what they’re typing on their devices, what desires they’re holding back or enacting, how far they’d go to forget or remember. And when the boat enters the dead zone, I still wonder what messages are suspended, waiting to be delivered, but also wonder about that other space, the alive zone, where all the unwritten, unspoken messages are sent and received, where lives are commuted by strangers and lovers.