She barely remembered what his skin felt like. She never noticed what he smelled like.
That night she had poured wine into one of her few intact glasses, squinted at herself in the mirror, dragged mascara through her blonde lashes and run a paper towel over the toothpaste left in the sink. She took off her ragged underwear and dug around for something sexier – a black thong, maybe, or something lace. A bulb in the light fixture overhead hadn’t worked for weeks, and salt stained the oak floor near the door, where she kicked her boots off at the end of the day. Besides these small cracks in her carefully ordered life, the apartment reflected the veneer she worked so hard to polish. The yellow spines of National Geographic lined up along two shelves on her wall – she didn’t read the magazines anymore, but they kept coming and she had once seen them displayed like this in a Frank Lloyd Wright house somewhere in Wisconsin. She had anticipated tonight for weeks, but now that it was here she felt overwhelmed. She was tired, she had woken up too early that morning and her straight-cut fringe was greasy from holding it out of her way all day at the library.
Too late to do anything about it now.
She had promised her friends that she would go to the staff party at a small and dingy dim sum place, had promised that she would make an effort. Her phone lit up: they were at the restaurant already, had already started on a round of rail tequila and dumplings. She pulled on the outfit that always elicited compliments: a black kimono-style top that hugged her breasts carefully, dark jeans that were half an inch too long, leather boots that made them an inch too short. Slipping her wool jacket on top, flicking on her porch light, she headed out into the Midwestern snowdrifts, frozen solid by November.
By the time she arrived at the restaurant, everything was glowing. An alarming number of candles and dark red lights gave her the feeling that she might be shanghaied by the end of the night. Although in this bone-deep coldness, would being shanghaied be so bad? Maybe not. Her friends, along with some people she had never seen before, occupied the far corner of the restaurant, the sticky table in front of them covered in shot glasses and empty plates. Squeezing in beside two of them on the tiny bench, she pushed her bangs to the side and took a sip of the nearest drink.
As she lowered the glass, she noticed someone staring at her—a tall, lanky man with hair cropped slightly too close to his head and sleeves pushed up above his elbows. The certainty with which he looked at her gave her pause. True, there was nothing odd about his gaze, but it was fixed on her, unflinching, unapologetic.
A couple of drinks later, her cheeks glowed the same red as the shadows, the same red as her friends’ cheeks around her. Those eyes had remained on her all night, as if someone was just behind her, breathing on the back of her neck.
“He’s watching you, you know,” said a friend. “Go over there, say something.”
But she didn’t. Later, when he walked over to where she was leaning against a wall, she adjusted her bra strap and checked her phone for some excuse to seem busy. She held her breath. His boyish look betrayed the confidence with which he carried himself; he didn’t seem perturbed by the fact that she hadn’t smiled at him, hadn’t held eye contact with him, kept picking at a hangnail on her thumb.
“Nervous?” he asked, in a voice curiously deeper than she had imagined.
“Not at all,” she said, flashing a smirk that she hoped made him believe her.
Noticing that her drink was empty, he pushed his full glass towards her. As her hands wrapped around it, he held on for a second, the tips of their fingers touching. (Or did they touch? She wasn’t sure, but it felt like contact was made.) The red light above illuminated everything hazily: their skin appeared to be the same color. Now he was so close to her that she could hear his breath, feel the heat from his body.
Their conversation was unremarkable. They talked and made jokes, laughing haltingly. They touched upon things consciously sexy; she told him that she had once fantasized about her history professor, he confessed that he had cheated on his previous girlfriend. By the time people were trickling out of the restaurant, the two of them leaned into each other more easily, knowing that they were going home together.
“I live a few blocks away,” she said, knowing already how he would respond.
The walk back to her apartment was cold and awkward. Without the dimmed lighting of the restaurant their skin seemed too white, acne scars from high school suddenly visible. He saw now that her bottom teeth were crooked, she saw that his coat was too big, bought from a thrift store. She realised that she was nervous. She no longer felt their fingers touching, even though her hand was inside one of his pockets.
Once back, things progressed quickly. His hands were in her hair, his tongue was in her mouth. He didn’t notice the puddle of snow his boots left on her floor, he didn’t look up to the perfectly ordered National Geographics. They were on her bed, the lamp on her nightstand casting strange shadows on their bodies. His fingers quickly found their way inside her, he pressed against her with an immediacy she hadn’t felt since she was a teenager. Even as she still fumbled with her bra, armed splayed behind her like broken moth wings, he entered her, pushed into her without saying anything. She tasted his fingers on her tongue, salty and bitter. Within moments he pulled out, came on her breasts.
“What did you do to me, baby?” he moaned, rolling over and leaving the puddle growing cold across her chest. Her eyes flickered over to his snow boots kicked off near her door; to the missing light bulb overhead. Saying nothing, she pulled herself out of his arms, took a pair of stained underwear from her dresser and slid them up her thighs, still pale-scarred by the nervous melancholy of her teen years. By the time she came back from the bathroom, tying up her hair and toweling off her body, he was sitting up and struggling with his belt.
“I have a girlfriend,” he said.
“I have to work in the morning,” he said.
“You were great, baby,” he said.
As the door shut behind him, she was already focused on her hangnail, already noticing the place she had cut herself shaving, already turning off the cheap light next to her.