Qué pasa? thought Graciela, as she woke with a full moon shining through her white-curtained window. After a second to consider why a sleeping man lay next to her, she realized what was up, or what was about to come up, and disentangled herself from the covers to rush across the hall to the bath, on the cramped third floor of the Victorian long ago downgraded from family home to student housing. One didn’t want to be heard throwing up, but multiple coats of paint prevented one from fully closing the door. She vomited as quietly as she could.
She yanked tissue off the roll and wiped her mouth while atop the toilet tank her goldfish swam circles in its round bowl. Not since her senior class trip to Bariloche, six years ago, had she drunk enough to make herself sick. Well, maybe a few times since, but never waking to find a stranger in her bed. What had she done last night? She flushed the toilet and waited till the noise ceased before creeping back across the hall, her hands and arms covering her nakedness as well as they could.
Who was he? She watched him sleep, his back to her, the top edge of the covers clamped in his armpit. Madre de Dios. Tiptoeing around the bed, she halted with each creak of the floor lest she wake him. On her desk chair hung her old cardigan that came halfway down her thighs once she slipped into it. Reaching for an open bottle of water by her laptop, she knocked over a Coca-Cola glass holding pens and froze while the stranger stirred and rolled onto his other side.
She was cold; her legs and feet felt like Popsicles. Gently, gingerly, she climbed onto the mattress, staying as far from his back as possible, and slipped her legs under the covers. Leaning against her pillow, she reconstructed the party given by some undergraduates in the Spanish department. She remembered everything up to a point. And then? Gradually more came to her. Bourbon and Coke. Herself saying “Just bourbon” when the Coke ran out. Difficulty negotiating the icy stairs from the house when she left the party. Someone helping her. Had that someone been leaving the party, too, or walking along the street?
Her upper body became one giant goose bump as she sat in bed, her nipples as hard as rock candies under her sweater. She didn’t want to imagine him—whoever he was—sucking on her rock candies, yet couldn’t help having a fleeting sense of how that would feel. She wanted more of the covers, but a fold of blankets and sheet were wedged under his ribcage. Gently she tugged. A few inches came free. She pulled harder and liberated a few more inches. She held perfectly still until she was certain he hadn’t awoken. With the covers looser, curiosity impelled her to lift them just enough to glimpse broad shoulders and a long back. She almost yelped thinking of what she must have let him do, judging from the circumstance in which she found herself. The advantage-taking bastard. Her teeth set hard enough to crush rock.
She refused to sit in bed with him a second longer. Tea and dry toast might help settle her stomach, and if the noise woke him she could order him to dress and get out. Letting the floorboards creak as they would, she carried a mug to the bathroom for water, brought it back and emptied it into the electric kettle left by the room’s prior tenant. After the water was hot, she pushed down the toast. (One had learned through repetition that running the kettle and toaster together tripped the breaker, ay, ay, ay.) As she waited for the toast and stared at the stranger’s large foot sticking out from under her bedclothes, a new thought occurred to her: I’m off the pill, Jesus Cristo!
Knees weak, she forsook the tea and toast, stumbled around the bed and sat on its edge for a shocked moment before raising her legs and thrusting them under the sheet. She lay back and pulled the covers to her chin. Rolling her head sideways, she studied the nape of his thick neck, wanted to jab a finger between his shoulder blades and say, “You.” Instead she stared at the ceiling in terror until daylight and after, while he slept on and on. She was about to go to sleep herself when he startled her by twisting from his side onto his back.
* * *
If Gracila had woken disoriented during the moonlit night, Buddy woke no less so in the gray of midmorning. Where the fuck? He blinked up at an unfamiliar, water-stained ceiling.
“You’re awake,” a female voice said.
Recollecting the bliss of his whereabouts, he let his head loll toward her and grinned. He shoved the covers down to show her how extremely awake he was. “Gimme a kiss?”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Gimme a kiss,” he repeated.
“Were you at the party?”
“Was I at the party? I was at a party—just not the one you were at. You don’t remember? I was out doin’ boilermakers with some assholes who started poking fun at this overweight girl, so I left? You don’t recall me telling you about it? I don’t put up with that kind of shit, making fun of anyone.”
She didn’t remember; she shook her head.
“Well, damn,” he said. “You remember me slogging down the hill just when you slipped on the stairs from that house you were comin’ out of?”
“Maybe,” she said.
“I caught you and then fell? You slid down trying to help me up?”
“Morgantown is too steep for all this ice,” she said and sighed.
He revolved a quarter turn toward her and slipped a hand under her sweater to stroke between her thighs.
“I’m not on the pill, you should know.”
He slipped a fingertip inside her honeypot and let it waltz. “Damn, that feels beautiful,” he whispered.
* * *
She could not argue with his sentiment. If his morning breath repelled her, nothing else about him did. I should kick him out of bed, out of the house, she told herself. He’s so young. She stared into boyish brown eyes with sleep in their corners. An undergrad. She couldn’t resist laying a hand on his distended bicep. “You have nice arms.” The words were involuntary.
He crooked his arm to swell his muscle, and she wrapped her fingers over it. He whispered, “I like you feeling my muscle.”
* * *
He had not begun lifting weights in middle school because he knew that someday he would like a woman’s touch on his bicep. He had known only that he loved to play football. But, at fourteen, as he mowed a neighbor’s lawn shirtless, a girl less attractive than flirtatious stopped her bicycle to chat and before peddling on asked boldly to feel his muscle. From that moment, he had known that all any girl would ever have to do was feel his muscle and she could make him do whatever she wanted.
He watched Graciela look down his body to his second head as it nodded up at her.
* * *
Graciela knew she should shove him off the bed but also wondered if such throbbing hurt him. She had found penises objectively ugly, whatever exquisite purpose they might achieve, but just now his looked handsome, so husky, twitching so fiercely, its hole expanding and contracting like her goldfish’s mouth. She stared in fascination.
“Remember the joke you told me last night?” he asked. “The prince’s girlfriend calling his pecker a wee-wee, and after they got married him saying from then on she should call it a cock; but she said she’d seen lots of cocks and his was definitely a wee-wee. Remember telling me that? You couldn’t stop laughing? You really don’t remember?”
She shrugged her eyebrows while he chuckled—at the joke or at her, she couldn’t tell.
* * *
He unbuttoned her sweater far enough to attach himself to first one breast, then the other. There he might have stayed for the rest of his life, moving back and forth, nipple-to-nipple, while his middle finger communed with her sweet little trigger. But he sensed an eruption drawing nigh and felt confident he had her riding the primal wave with him, so he lifted his mouth from her bosom, reached to the floor beside the bed and fumbled from his jeans pocket one of two condoms left. With his teeth he tore the wrapper open and then placed the rubbery ring into her fingers. He watched her hesitate, her hand hovering near his dancing penis.
* * *
It’s not exactly cheating, she thought. His flesh will never touch mine. His semen will never be in me.
* * *
When they got up from the bed, she put on her sweater and he pulled on jeans. Brimming with guilt, she wished he would put on more.
“I’m starved,” he said.
“All I have is tea and toast.”
“Sounds great.” Without being asked, he sat at the tiny table near a vanity where she kept her kettle. She dropped bread into the toaster and thought it would always be this way, the man afterward sitting and waiting while the woman made the tea and toast.
Beneath the table his bare feet covered hers as he ate several slices, gobbed with butter and jam, and she a single dry slice. She wanted to pull her feet away, but they craved warmth, even if from him. With his long legs, there was no room under the table for her feet to escape, anyhow. She tried to be polite, tried to hide how much she wished he would finish eating and go, how much she wanted to be rid of the sight of him and even rid of all knowledge of his existence.
Finally he put on a T-shirt, socks and sneakers, leather jacket.
“I know where you live,” he said, pausing in the hall outside her room, “but maybe gimme your number? Maybe we can have supper? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I can’t really.” She regretted bringing pain into his eyes, naïve as they appeared despite the fact that his hands and mouth had so recently demonstrated they knew what they were doing. “I have a boyfriend, you see.”
She watched his hands ball into fists and tuck into the jacket pockets. “But since Pablo’s in Boston,” he said.
“I told you about Pablo?”
“You met at college in Buenos Aires and fell in love,” he recited, “and both came to this country to get your PhDs.”
“And you did this?” Her arm stretched backward, her hand fluttered toward the bed.
“Boston’s a long way off. What you and I do—”
She slapped him.
* * *
He rubbed his stinging cheek while she said something in what he recognized as Spanish. She glared and said something else in Spanish before slamming the door.
“Goddamn,” he mumbled in confusion, hand to face. He coasted down two flights of narrow stairs, splintery and pliant with age, took his knit cap from a jacket pocket and pulled it on. Outside, he remembered being a little boy and his mom saying, “Your feelings are hurt, that’s all that’s wrong with you.” When his mom had said it, and about what, he couldn’t remember.
Careful of his footing on the icy sidewalk, and in the icy roadway wherever the asphalt looked safer, he walked the foggy mile to his dorm singing over and over in his atonal voice the chorus of a Methodist Sunday school ditty that perhaps came to mind because today was Sunday, although that wasn’t why he sang it. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
(Buddy in Incorrigible is also the protagonist in McCann’s crime novel, The Man Who Asked to Be Killed)