Friday, the last evening of the conference. I have outlasted everyone, even the interns, to have you alone to myself. Two glasses of the house white are all I need to loosen up. It’s been a long, good week but our brains buzz with fatigue. This is the part of the evening where I ask you to walk me to my hotel. It’s only a block away. I can’t get lost and I’m not scared. You know this, but are too polite to refuse a lady. You have lingered with me because you say you like my books and I believe you. I like your books, too. It doesn’t bother me you only read my work because you had to, being the moderator of one of my panels. You said you only intended to skim the most recent book but accidentally ended up reading all the between bits. Then you picked up the others and read them in reverse chronological order.
You don’t reveal much of your self in your writing. You’ve got the important things you do. Languages flow around and out of you. You live in the external world of history and politics. You said, a blush suddenly burning under your eyes, you felt you knew me from my writing. Knew me embarrassingly well. People often tell me this. The adjectives they use are raw, naked, unsparing, intimate. All I have to offer is my self, what I did with my body, what I think. My first books were about my old life, the emptiness, the wallowing in whatever substances and men I thought would make the loneliness abate. Then I stepped out of the traffic and ignored the noise. I learned two people weren’t meant to demolish each other. But after a decade of marriage and children, of contentment, comes the wish to see if I still have a sliver of wildness left. I used to only see despair in my past. Now I can also see the lost joy of freedom. Are you the dark forest I can run through?
We walk the block and I concentrate on not twisting an ankle in my treacherous tall-heeled boots. Thin veins of chill marble the night. The cold reinvigorates me after hours wilting in the overheated bar. The wine wasn’t nearly enough to knock me off my rocker but it was enough to take me home to my recklessness. I am ready to deliver my speech to you. Others say it’s impossible to embarrass me; I seem to possess an unfathomable reserve of bravery. It’s not that. I’m not brave. You live thousands of miles away. We’ll likely never cross paths again. This literary conference affords me a rare opportunity.
I reach out and take your shoulder, your jacket actually, so careful am I not to apply any pressure. The sidewalk outside the hotel is deserted.
“I find you very attractive.” I feel you straighten your back and shift your weight. I drop my hand from your rayoned arm and take a step back. “We’re both married, I get it. Come on up. Writer to writer, this will never end up in a memoir.”
I crack a smile. I’m not lying. I’ve given myself to readers through memoir. I gave myself to my family as a wife and mother, then wrote about it. After all those dispatches from the glass box, I’d like one secret for myself.
You clear your throat. “My kids.” You look away from me.
I lean in conspiratorially, determined, my pride aching. “Your hesitation is charming.”
“It’s late.” You look to check your watch, but your wrist is bare.
I put my hands up in surrender. “It was worth a shot. Thank you for walking me back. Good conference. Glad I could finally meet you.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m flattered. You’re great.”
I nod with a smile of defeat. I reach into my purse and fish out a glossy business card. “If you ever visit my neck of the woods, let me know. We’ll take loops on the downtown freeways at night. It’s what I do when I can’t sleep.”
There are lines of my speech even I can’t utter aloud. Cross this doorway with me, I forget what nineteen years old feels like. Remind me. Be a tourist in my life and then go back to your wife. She’s always the main dedication of your books. My image searches reveal her dark blonde hair like water weeds. Her gray eyes like oyster shells on fresh ice.
After I tuck the card in your shirt pocket, you are gone. I stand looking down at my first pair of shoes purchased from the window display at full price. Reminded again of my gravity, of how stuck to the pavement I am. Last month I turned forty-two.
I drift through the hotel lobby, all cool neutrals. My heels echo on the stone floor. I float up in the elevator and slip into my room. I slide open the glass door to the cramped balcony, sink into one of two metal chairs and knead the ache in my chest. The millions of lights along the skyline twinkle at me, cold and illuminating.
Around noon tomorrow I will get on the plane. I will land back in my foggy city at night. My cheerful husband will insist on picking me up even though I protest the train is fine. He’ll be understanding when I’m quiet on the way home. He’ll say, “Tell me all about the conference tomorrow.”
The next morning, he will smooth purple jam on my spelt toast and set out my favorite coffee cup, the one with the handle superglued back on. It’s been run through the machine so many times the decorations are bubbling and flaking off. The house will be warm. Why does this immense good fortune leave me wanting? He adores me and I adore him. And yet, I nurture this shame. I honor my husband with my reluctant virtue. This is the man who pokes around the tools in the garage and promised to be with me until the end. And he damn well means it.