Bill looked up at the faint shadows the candlelight projected on the ceiling of his study and whispered, “People need illusions, it gives them a sense of security.” Sarah nodded and quietly replied, “Isn’t that why most people get married, because of fear?” They were lying on his antique daybed. “Vulnerability and fear are two very different things, Sarah.” The minute flame burning atop the candle on his writing desk wavered in a draft. “How so?” He turned towards her and slowly wrapped both of his arms around her waist. She reveled in the warmth of his body and the sound of his voice, “Well if you think about it Sarah, fear is very temporal and vulnerability is a permanent state of mind.” She felt so diminutive in his arms when he said her name. “Then why did you get married?” she asked. The oval desk clock was facing them and its hands indicated the correct time. “I got married because I fell in love,” Bill replied hesitantly. It was two-fifteen in the morning. Sarah calculated the time it would take her to walk home and realized that they had almost two more hours together before she said, “Well, isn’t that an illusion as well?” The patchwork quilt they were wrapped up in had a fan pattern, “It didn’t seem like that at the time,” and was made last winter by Bill’s wife Mary. She pressed her hips into his and asked, “And now?” He thought of his wife, who was sleeping upstairs as he said, “And now you’re here.” Sarah said, “It’s hard to imagine that you were ever happy together,” and then hoped that she didn’t sound too possessive. He thought of the sleeping pills his wife took every night as he said, “People change,” in a flat tone. “Not everyone,” Sarah countered. “No, not everyone is capable of change, that’s true and I think that’s part of the problem. She can’t comprehend the fact that I’ve changed, I’ve grown and she just refuses to accept that.” She thought about how she could tell Bill that he should get a divorce while watching the thin red second hand on his desk clock move from one to seven. The second hand got all the way to eleven and she still hadn’t thought of a tactful way of saying it. The flame grew an inch as it flickered back and forth. Sarah couldn’t imagine Bill’s wife doing anything other than toiling in her garden during the late spring and summer. She thought of Mary’s long slender fingers deftly pulling weeds out of her meticulously crafted flowerbeds. She thought of Mary hunched over her sewing machine all winter long as her thin bloodless lips pursed in concentration. Mary’s hands skillfully guiding the needle through the dotted line of the latest McCall’s dress pattern. Mary, the perfectly frigid wife, baking dozens of pies and cakes for PTA fundraisers at the High School, much to the chagrin of her husband, the French teacher and Chess club sponsor. Mary reminded Sarah of a Sears catalogue model; everything she was photographed doing was so perfectly prefabricated. Sarah fantasized about Mary’s decapitation for the thousandth time. Walter, the fifteen pound tabby, sat up on his hind legs at the foot of the daybed and began licking his overstuffed belly. Sarah smiled and looked down at Walter as he started to purr. When Bill would lie on top of Sarah, Walter made a game of pulling at her wavy blond hair with his front paws. It amused Sarah, but infuriated Bill, who would have to stop his rapid thrusts and then quickly pick up Walter by the scruff of his neck and toss him across the room before he could continue penetrating Sarah. Undeterred, Walter would charge back to the daybed, leap up onto the pillow next to her head and begin pulling at her hair. She would have to place her hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter as Bill picked up the cat and hurled him further away from the daybed. Walter would tire of his game only after the second or third time that they had sex. Bill couldn’t put Walter outside because he would spend the rest of the night meowing and scratching at the door in an attempt to reclaim the study. “Well Sarah, why do you think your parents got married?” She looked up from the cat and said, “Because my father needed a slow-moving punching bag,” in a dry whisper. “Seriously Sarah, do you think they have ever been happy together?” he asked and then continued before she could reply, “They have never been happy together because happiness was never a priority. Their generation pursued the illusion of family because that’s how they were conditioned.” Sarah cleared her throat, “My parents might have been happy together when they were younger, like when my mother gave birth to more punching bags.” Sarah had worn a cast on her right arm during the late winter and early spring of her junior year. She told everybody at school an elaborate lie about falling off her bike after skidding on a patch of ice and nearly getting run over by a car. She finally told Bill the truth a month later after they had sex for the first time in the back seat of his car. Her father had broken her arm when he discovered a half-eaten bag of Oreo cookies in her bedroom. “You can always stay here if it gets that bad again. I’ll just tell Mary that you are one of my best students and that you’re having problems at home.” Sarah smiled, “Really?” Bill kissed her on the nape of the neck and said, “She’ll understand.” She tried to imagine what living with him would be like as she began to blush, “That’s so sweet of you.” “Then you’ll be able to sleep in this room.” “I don’t know Bill,” and it almost sounded too good to be true, “seeing you with her all the time would make me so crazy.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and began massaging them, “Well, that way we could spend every night together.” The thought of having him all to herself night after night made her smile, “That would be nice.” She turned around to face him and he discovered her warm smile, “Without you having to crawl in and out of your bedroom window, like a cat burglar.” She looked at his eyes and said, “Don’t you think that would make a good poem,” before kissing him on the lips. “Well Sarah, I think that poem has already been written.” She kissed him again as she rolled on top of him and said, “But not written nearly as well as you could do.” She stepped through thin empty pockets of ice as she made her way over the ditch. The sound punctuated the silence. The cold air clung to her face and made her breath visible. Streams of gray clouds pushed themselves across the sky, slowly revealing and then obscuring the silver crescent of the moon. Her chin was tucked into the thick wool scarf around her neck and her hands were buried in the pockets of her navy pea coat. She turned around when she got to the edge of the road. Bill’s house was dark. She blinked twice. The candle in his study was out. The wind blowing in her face made her eyes fill with tears. She shivered slightly as she turned and began walking away from his house. The dotted yellow line in the center of the road was still visible. A thin spray of fallen snow was blowing between her sneakers as the wind pushed at her back. It was a three-mile walk. She pressed her eyes closed and felt her heart beating rapidly in her head. She placed her right hand on his wrist and felt his pulse; their hearts were beating in unison. “Do you think that it’s still snowing?” The sound of the wind had died down. “It wasn’t snowing very hard before.” They listened to the hushed silence for a long minute before Bill whispered, “It’s so quiet outside.” She nodded her head, “winter is here.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin with his right hand, “We’ll probably get a dusting, nothing more than an inch.” Sarah turned her head and looked at the clock on Bill’s desk, “I should leave soon,” it was three. He turned to her and frowned, “You don’t have to leave right now, do you?” Sarah nodded, “Pretty soon.” He sighed, “It’s almost impossible for me to fall asleep after you leave,” as she placed her head on his chest. She closed her eyes again and imagined that they were lying on an open raft that was lazily floating across the Atlantic Ocean. Seagulls would light on the edge of the raft as dolphins would leap over them, doing flips and somersaults. She opened her eyes and said, “It’s a long walk.” He kissed her on the forehead, “I’d like to make love to you again before you leave.” She placed both of her hands between his legs and felt him growing erect as she said, “The time goes by so quickly.” The telephone poles that lined the road were humming quietly in the pre-dawn silence. A recently plowed field was partially covered in a thin coating of snow. The upturned soil ran like parallel black lines alongside the white rows. Small icicles clinging to the underside of the glazed telephone wires were broken off in a strong gust of wind and blown onto the frozen ground. She frowned as she thought of the conversation that they had had while she was getting dressed. Why was it so important for him to know how she had lost her virginity? Why hadn’t she invented another story? She realized that when she had said, “Men lie to get what they want and then they leave,” that it could apply to him as well. Again, she felt the creeping suspicion that he had slept with a lot of girls who had taken his class. Why was the truth so important to him when his wife was upstairs asleep? Sarah was so afraid he would soon tire of her; she always felt so awkward and needy. Sarah looked up when she heard the sound of an approaching truck. She quickly walked off the road and slid down into the ditch before looking up again. A milk truck was speeding down the center of the road. The sound of the truck enveloped her footfalls as she ran to a nearby oak tree and crouched behind its trunk. She pressed herself against the cold trunk and watched the elongated reflection of the tree she hid behind flash by on the side of the stainless steel tank as it sped past. She turned and waited until the taillights disappeared around a bend in the road before she stood up. Bill placed the thumb and forefinger of his right hand beneath her chin and smiled as she looked deeply into his eyes. “Well Sarah, I don’t think we would be together if I wasn’t one of your teachers.” She returned his smile with a playful wink and said, “I knew you were going to say that.” “How did you know that?” she took his right hand in hers and kissed the tips of each one of his fingers before she said, “I have ways of reading your mind.” Bill placed his left hand on her flat stomach, “Well it was a very good question.” She drew her body closer to his, “And?” The tips of his fingers moved slowly through her thick pubic hair as he asked, “Why do you need to know?” She opened her legs slightly to accommodate his fingers and said, “I need to know everything about you because I love you.” Bill began gently fingering her clitoris with the index and middle finger of his right hand, “You have given me this opportunity…” Sarah said, “And,” then bit her lower lip. He applied more pressure as his fingers continued moving in small circles while he said, “And everything that happens to me happens for a reason,” he quietly cleared his throat and then continued, “How else could we have become this close?” She smiled, “I could never imagine anything like this happening to me in like a billion years.” Bill placed his left arm around Sarah’s bare shoulder and asked, “So how did you know that that was what I was thinking about?” Her blue eyes were glazed, “By the way you were looking at me,” and she was breathing heavily. He smiled warmly and asked, “How am I looking at you right now?” Sarah giggled, “My grandma, what big eyes you have.” Bill growled and then said, “The better to see you with my dear,” in an old woman’s falsetto. Sarah pressed her thighs around his fingers as she continued giggling, “My grandma, what a beautiful mouth you have.” Bill said, “The better to kiss you with my sweet,” before he pressed his lips to hers. Sarah placed her hands on Bill’s shoulders and closed her eyes. Her tongue darted into his mouth as they remained in each other’s arms for a long minute. The wind could be heard outside as it moved through a small copse of pine trees. They felt the cold draft as it made it’s way through the window above them. Sarah slowly brought her mouth away from his and whispered, “You know I love you so much.” The flame burning atop the candle on Bill’s desk began to flicker in the draft. Bill nodded before saying, “Nobody would ever understand what we share.” Walter yawned and blinked twice before quickly shaking his head back and forth. He was scratching himself behind his left ear with his rear leg as Sarah said, “Just don’t look at me that way in class and they won’t.” Walter stood up and arched his back before sitting up on his hind legs. “I don’t think anyone in class would have the where-with-all to know what’s going on. You give your classmates too much credit.” The wind picked up and they both heard tiny bits of snow hitting the frost covered window. “You think so?” Sarah closed her eyes and lay her head on Bill’s chest. The snow blowing on the window above her head made her think about being in a sandstorm in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia. He began massaging her clitoris again and she shuddered. His heart continued to beat in time with hers and she imagined that they were huddled together in a canvas tent as the sandstorm continued howling around them. Walter began walking up her legs gingerly while purring. “They live in fantasy worlds, Sarah.” She opened her eyes and looked down at Walter who was standing on her hips and watching them intently. His eyes reflected the candlelight. “They have never had to pay the slightest bit of attention to what is going on around them so why would they start now?” She looked at Bill and asked, “So did the big bad wolf eat Little Red Riding Hood or did she have to pout to get her way?” He smiled, “The only time I ever saw you pout was that time I gave you a C.” Walter jumped off her and onto the floor. “We had to write an essay today…. I mean yesterday, in English class for current events. I wrote about that ferry that capsized on the Mississippi and how reading about it in the newspaper affected my life.” Walter sat facing them on the center of the circular rug in the middle of the room and began licking his left paw. Bill said, “I heard about that. Fifty people died—” “And,” Sarah interrupted him, “ I got an A. Aren’t you proud of me?” The snow continued hitting the window above their heads as Bill said, “You care too much about the grades those idiots give you.” Walter lay on the rug in a semi-circle and curled his head above his front paws. “Well it was really sad. All those people on the ferry were on their way to work when it collided with that oil tanker in the fog. It was really early in the morning and they say that most of the people on the ferry were sleeping in their cars when it capsized.” The sound of the wind blowing through the pines abruptly faded. “Have you taken a look at that list of colleges I gave you last week?” The snow blowing on the frost covered window above their heads abated. Sarah looked down at the thin trail of black hair on his flat stomach as she said, “No, I haven’t.” The candle’s flame grew a half-inch as wax began to run down its side in a thin slow moving stream. Bill removed his right arm from Sarah’s shoulder and placed his hand beneath her chin. She looked up at him as he said, “You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Why don’t you do it this weekend.” Sarah spent most of her weekends locked in her bedroom; paralyzed by the thought that he still might be intimate with Mary. Sarah would torment herself with the idea that his wife would finally discover what was going on and force him to end their relationship. “I haven’t had time to look at it yet,” She never wanted to leave him and the thought of going off to college next fall filled her with dread. “I always know when you’re not telling me the truth.” Sarah asked, “Did you hear about that cargo ship that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle the other day?” in an attempt to change the subject. “No I didn’t.” Sarah kissed him on the mouth and then said, “The Sylvia L. Ossa vanished without a trace.” “Very mysterious,” Bill added. Sarah kissed him again and then asked, “Isn’t that a pretty name?” Bill nodded, “I’d like to have a ship named after me.” She giggled and then said, “Not if it’s going to vanish in the Bermuda Triangle.” Sarah walked cautiously towards the picnic bench beneath her bedroom window. Snow had melted into her sneakers and her socks felt like they had frozen to her toes. She stepped onto the snow-covered bench and looked into her bedroom. Her breath created a slight haze on the glass as she sighed. There was no light shining beneath her bedroom door. Her parents were still upstairs, asleep. She placed her hand on the bottom of the window and pushed it up an inch. The casements had been coated with soap. She slipped her fingers beneath the window and pushed it open very slowly. She placed her right leg over the window ledge and stepped into her bedroom. The house was silent. She turned around and quickly closed the window as quietly as she had opened it. Sarah frowned as she glanced at the oval desk clock, it was three-forty five. She had to leave soon. Bill looked up at her and asked, “How old were you when you lost your virginity?” She began to blush as she said, “That’s an embarrassing question.” A thick puddle of his semen had spilled out of her and collected in his pubic hair. “You said that you were going to tell me tonight.” Sarah rolled off of him and onto her side, “Do you really want to hear about this?” He nodded and said, “Yes.” She sat up on the daybed and placed her back on the upholstered headrest. “It’s so embarrassing.” The fabric had a decorative floral pattern. Bill rested his head on a pillow and looked up at her, “what happened?” Sarah spread out her fingers and ran them through her hair a half-dozen times before she asked, “Do you really want to know?” He nodded again and said, “If you want to tell me, yes. Although I don’t think that I have ever forced you to do anything that you didn’t want to.” Sarah sighed, “It was after my cousin’s wedding in Syracuse. The reception was at this nice restaurant and all the adults got really drunk. Everyone was dancing and having a good time. It was the first time I had ever had champagne.” Bill rubbed the stubble on his chin with his right hand in a distracted way as he asked, “How old were you?” Sarah looked down at him cautiously, “I was twelve.” Bill nodded nonchalantly and added, “And you were drinking.” She frowned, “I only had a couple of glasses. I don’t really like the taste of it.” He shrugged, “Maybe when you’re older, champagne is an acquired taste.” “And I was dancing with a friend of the groom.” “How old was he?” Sarah looked down at him, “He told me that he was twenty-five,” and smiled apologetically before she added, “He was so cute.” Bill swallowed, “What happened?” Sarah looked at the frost that had collected on the window as she said, “We were dancing and then I had to pee because of the champagne and he followed me into the bathroom.” The flickering candlelight barely illuminated the white crystalline coating on the window. “I didn’t know he was behind me until I was in the stall and when I turned around to close the door he was standing there and then we started kissing.” She drew the quilt up around her chest and looked down at Bill as she continued, “He was afraid someone would come in so we had to be very quiet. He bolted the stall door and then I lifted up my dress. He sat on the toilet seat and I sat on his lap facing him. It didn’t hurt that much.” Bill looked at her closely before he asked, “So did you enjoy it?” She shrugged, “Kinda.” He tried to read the masked expression on her face, “What does that mean?” “It was really awkward and he was so big. When he put my hands on his cock it got so huge and that was pretty scary. I had never really seen anything like it before.” “Did he wear a condom?” She shook her head, “No. It didn’t matter anyway because it was before I had my first period,” and looked him in the eyes, “ Are you upset with me?” He shook his head, “No, I’m not,” and then asked, “Is this true?” Sarah looked at the candle as the flame began to flicker and wondered why he would ask her that before saying, “Of course it’s true.” There was less than a quarter inch left to the candle on his desk. “What happened next?” “I was pretty scared at first but I really wanted to,” she said, realizing that their time together was almost over, “He left the bathroom just before the bride walked in with some of her friends to smoke a joint. I sat on the toilet seat with my legs up so they wouldn’t notice me. I had to wait for them to leave before I could clean myself up.” She looked over at Walter and discovered that he was sleeping on the rug. “Did you ever see him again?” His voice had an urgency, “Did you ever see him again?” that she wasn’t accustomed to. “No,” she shook her head, “I found out he was married right after that. He introduced me to his wife when I asked him if he wanted to dance with me some more. I was so angry, I almost told my brother.” Bill nodded purposefully. “You’re not upset with me are you?” she asked, afraid that she might have committed another blunder. He shook his head, “I’m really surprised,” and his voice became familiar to her again, “that you would give yourself to a stranger so quickly.” She looked down at him cautiously; “Well that’s why I’ve never told anyone. It’s so embarrassing.” He crossed his arms over his chest, “A lot of people would call that rape.” “I told you that I wanted to.” “I understand that Sarah, but he abused you.” “Isn’t that what most men do?” She asked rhetorically and then realized that she didn’t want to end their night like this. He clenched his jaw and said, “I don’t think so.” “They lie to get what they want and then they leave,” she swung her legs off the side of the bed, placed her bare feet on the cold wood floor and said, “Unless a girl is stupid enough to believe what she is being told. I mean come on,” she took her bra off the chair that her clothes were draped over and concluded, “it’s just like rape.” He watched as she fastened the clasp on her bra and then said, “All the same, I’m surprised that you would lower yourself like that.” She dressed quickly, then stood over the daybed and looked down at Bill, “Listen I have to go.” She leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He looked up and said, “I’ll see you in class.” She nodded and turned away from the daybed. He watched as she walked to the door and then quietly let herself out. He listened to her footfalls as they made their way through the crunching snow and then the candle burned itself out.
Donald Breckenridge is a playwright, novelist and The Brooklyn Rail’s fiction editor. He lives in Park Slope.
Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, and co-Editor and co-Founder of InTranslation. He is the author of more than a dozen plays, and four novels including, And Then, which was published by Godine/Black Sparrow in the spring of 2017.