As Paul drove home in the growing dark, with a light rain sprinkling the windshield, he felt drained.
After all the worry, the investigation, the hassles over the pylon, he'd won. His idea was going to make history. And yet he felt numb.
For the first time in months, he was alone with time on his hands. He thought about stopping for a bite to eat, but he wasn't that hungry. He'd make himself a can of chili and have a nice cold beer. He'd sit and watch television and just crap out. That was the ticket.
As he slowly neared his house, he sensed something different.
There was one car too many there.
He reached under the seat for a rag to wipe the condensed steam from inside the windshield. It was raining harder now, in gusts. A cold fresh wind crept through the slightly open vent window.
The Polanskis had a van and a sedan, but those were parked along the front of their house.
The car parked in front of Paul's house was unfamiliar.
As he pulled in beside the car, he shook his head. Maybe the Polanskis had visitors; but why park in his driveway rather than theirs?
Pulling his jacket over his head in the downpour, Paul dashed across the gravel driveway and up the wooden porch.
Key in hand, he was about to unlock the door.
"Hi," a strange woman said, stepping out of the shadows on the porch.
Paul nearly dropped the key at the sight of a thin, beautiful apparition.
He recognized Marsha's voice, but not Marsha.
She stepped forward awkwardly, fists tensed by her sides, her body language uncertain, almost scared. "I wanted to see you."
"It is you, isn't it?" He stepped closer for a look. This was a different Marsha. She was thinner and
"One of the makeup people owed me a favor at one of the studios," she said with nervous, brittle humor. "I just cashed in some chips. They did my face and my hair. I also bought a new set of clothes." She wore an expensive dark brown leather jacket cut like a suit jacket, and a blouse and a pearl chokerthe blouse had a thick, pearly look almost as rich as the pearl itself. She wore a dark brown miniskirt, dark hose through which her pale muscular calves glistened, and brown high heels. "I wanted to look my best."
"I'm stunned," he said, wondering why he felt no emotion one way or the other. "Well, are you staying somewhere in town?"
"If you'd like, come on in and I'll turn on the heat. I've been away most of this month."
"I know," she said walking awkwardly, stiffly, as if her high heeled shoes were too tight.
"How do you mean, you know?"
"Paul, think about the timing. This is no accident."
He closed the door. "I've had a hard month, and I think I'm hallucinating. Are you Marsha or not?" Somebody was playing a very grotesque prank on him. Was it Fitch getting back at him? Who was this razor-thin, hard beauty?
She shrugged her hands apart. "Paul, I'm Peter's mom, remember? We used to live next door." Her face took on an anguished expression. "Did I hurt you so badly that you forgot me?" She put her hands to her face. "I am such a fool."
Marsha would have burst into tears. This woman didn't. She strode to the door, her shoes echoing hard. "I should not have come. It was another mistake, and I'm sorry." She turned the handle and pulled the door open.
She turned, one foot on the door step. "What?"
"Why don't you sit down and I'll make tea."
"Are you sure?" She softened. "You look at me as if I were a stranger. It scares me. You're looking right through me, as if we'd never met before."
"I'm...lost for words."
She closed the door. "I'm sorry." She stepped close and put her hands on his shoulders. He recognized the handsthey were Marsha's. "You sit right down on the couch." He sat down, and she knelt down and pulled his shoes off, first one, then the other. "I'll make us some tea. Are you hungry?"
"A bit." He watched as she took off her jacket. "You've lost weight."
"I've been under stress too. And I've been working out, jogging. I've become a vegetarian."
"That your car out there?" He followed her into the kitchen, padding in his stocking feet. She kicked off the high heels and was beginning to look more and more like Marsha.
"I don't want to get my blouse dirty," she said. "Got an old shirt I can wear?"
"Yeah... let me see." He went into the bedroom, found a plain white T-shirt, smelled it to make sure it was clean, and brought it to her.
She pulled down the shades all around.
She took off her choker and laid it aside. She unbuttoned her blouse and took it off. Her body was slender and pale and differentmore wiry, more athleticif it had been hardened in a kiln. She reached behind, undid the fastener, and laid it on top of the blouse on a chair at the foot of the kitchen table.
Handing over the T-shirt, Paul recognized her round, firm breasts. Those were the pink nipples of Marsha that he had thought he'd never see again. "It is really you," he said.
She pulled the T-shirt over her head and shook it down to cover her upper body. It reached half way down her thighs. "I wanted to ask you a question, but I think it should wait until tomorrow."
"Are you staying here for the night?" Part of him wished she wouldn't.
"Unless you want me to sleep in my car."
"No. I don't want that."
"Honey," she said, "I had no idea it would be like this." She stepped close and held his face between her palms. Her fingers were cold. "If you want, I'll walk out of here tonight. If you want to be rid of me. I wouldn't blame you." She regarded him with big serious eyes. "There has not been anyone else, you should know that. Not even a kiss on a date, Paul."
"What do you mean, you know?"
She laughed. "Mr. Rich told me you've been up to your eyeballs in nose cones."
"You've been talking to Ben Rich?"
"I called them to ask if I can have my old job back. They fell all over themselves because I said I'll settle my suit and we're done."
"You want to come back to Burbank?" His stomach twisted. It had been better when she was totally gone.
"Maybe. Will you do me a great favor?"
She took his hands in hers. "I know I don't deserve it, and you certainly must be honest and say no if you feel that way, but would you please try to put up with me for a day or two?" She misted a little. Her voice got thick. "I just thought."
She started to rummage around, making dinner. Paul took a cola outno beer; he wanted to have a clear head. While she cookedmacaroni and cheese from a box, toast, a can of artichokes"you need someone to go shop for you"he sat at the kitchen table with his cola and watched her.
"How is Pete?"
"Pete is fine. He's with Jeffrey's parents, and they are having a ball with him."
"So you were right. It was good to go back home."
"Yes it was. And then it wasn't. Something came up."
"What was that?"
"I'll tell you tomorrow, okay?"
He shrugged. He was still numb, and he was shocked at how he felt nothing. She could have walked out right now, and he would have gone about his business of feeling sad and lonely without skipping a beat. But he wouldn't tell her that, because he wasn't a mean person, and it was okay after these months.
She looked cute in that T-shirt, the dark little skirt, the dark hose covering a very fine pair of legs.
"So you called Steve and he said you could have your job back."
"What else did you and Steve talk about?"
She put plates on the table.
"No, just sit." She brushed her fingertips behind his ear and went for the silverware. Rattling knives and forks onto the table, she said: "I asked Ben how you were."
Paul shrugged. "How would he know how I am?"
She brought the pan over and spooned out macaroni. "He said that you seemed very sad after I left."
"How would he know?" Paul waved his hands in the air.
"Because he could see how fond you were of Peter and me." She slid his plate in front of him and sat down. She picked at her food while he ate in a steady rhythm. "He knew you were hurting."
Paul said: "Tell me about Pete."
"Pete is in school up there and doing fine. He has some new friends who come over to play with Condor IV. He tells them all about his great friend Paul who works for the Government. He's quite proud of you. And he misses you."
"I got his little note not long ago."
"He wished you'd answer it, but I understand."
Paul was silent. He couldn't carry on a relationship with her son while she dumped him. If she wanted to contact him, she should do it directly, not through her son. But she hadn't.
After dinner, she did the dishes while he hung out in the kitchen. He did feel the compulsion to hover around her.
When she was done, she dried her hands on a dish towel. "Do you want me to spend the night?"
She smiled. "Okay, then I'm going to change. I'll be back in a few minutes. Mind if I take a shower?"
"Of course not."
He watched the news on the TV in the livingroom.
A while later she came through the house in her familiar nightgown. On her feet were the fuzzy slipper that went flop, flop, flop.
"It is you," he said.
"It is me," she agreed. "Are you tired?"
"How about we slip into bed and just pillow talk?"
Soon, they were in bed and the room was dark except for soft stray light from the street light down the road. She felt warm beside him. The rain fell quietly and steadily outside, beading the windows, a rare desert rain that made the air smell fresh. She laid her cheek on his shoulder, snuggled very close with one leg wrapped around his thigh, and sighed. "I dreamed about this," she said.
He touched her cheek, and kissed her scalp through her hair. It smelled kind of fresh and clean, and he remembered her coconut smell.
"That was nice," she said. "That's the first time you've kissed me."
"Oh, so you want to be kissed."
"Yes." She kissed his cheek and hovered, waiting, staring over the hillside of his cheek. He reached around her, feeling the incredible smoothness and the music in the curvature of her body. He pulled her to him. She was hungry, her breath hot as she sought his mouth with hers like a starving animal. Her strong hand grasped his face as her tongue forced itself in to his mouth and she leverage herself on top of him.
Then he grasped her in his much stronger arms and rolled over, pinning her underneath him. Her knees were pulled up into his ribs and her hands grasped his buttocks, pulling him toward her. "Yes," she said, "now."
They slept late into the next day, awakening every few hours to make love.
About noon, they lay tiredly and playfully nuzzling as warm sunshine poured in under a closed shade.
"I'm sorry about what happened," she told him, thoughtfully twirling a few strands of his hair over his forehead with her fingers.
"Funny thing," he said, "I was really hurt, but I buried myself in my work, and when Ben kicked me out yesterday and made me take a week off, I was terrified that I would finally have to deal with my feelings."
She nodded. "Honey, Steve did just the right thing. When I asked how you were, he knew the score. He said, Are you coming back? And I said Maybebecause I've done nothing but think about you, more and more lately. There isn't another you in this whole world. See, I thought I didn't love you because I didn't feel about you the way I felt about Jeffrey. But I can never meet him again or feel that way. I feel differently about you, but it's just as strong in a deeper way, because I was a girl when I fell in love with Jeffrey, and now I'm a woman and I'm in love for the second time in my life. Well anyway, Mr. Rich said, Do you want to know when would be the best time to talk with him? I said, Yes, if you don't tell him we talked. He said I'll let you know as soon as we finish this big project in the next week or two, and I'll tell you exactly when to be sitting on his doorstep. "
"Clever timing," Paul agreed.
She smiled fondly, running her finger over the contour of his cheek. "He said, Let's make a deal. You wait so he doesn't get all rattled before we're done, and I'll make him stay home a week so you two can work out whatever you're going to do. "
Paul shook his head and laughed. "All that time, he knew you wanted to see me, and I was aching inside from losing you?"
"You said you were going to ask me a question, but you would wait until today."
"Yes. Want me to ask?"
"Okay, go ahead."
"Do you love me?"
"You weren't so sure yesterday."
"I'm just getting over the shock."
"You're not going to resent me?"
"No. You see, because I didn't deal with my pain, it never was an issue."
She tore her hair and shook her head, rolling her eyes. "Men!"
"So," he concluded, "right now I feel as if the last few months never happened, and you just went away for a little vacation."
"Honestly? How do guys do that?"
"It's top secret, like nose cones." He wiggled the tip of her nose.