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DEAR PENTHOUSE FORUM (A FIRST DRAFT) by LAURA LIPPMAN

You wont believe this, but this really did happen to me just last fall, and all because I was five minutes late, which seemed like a tragedy at the time. Its only five minutes, thats what I kept telling the woman behind the counter, who couldnt be bothered to raise her gaze from her computer screen and make eye contact with me. Which is too bad, because I dont need much to be charming, but I need something to work with. Why did they make so many keystrokes, anyway, these ticket clerks? Whats in the computer that makes them frown so? I had the printout for my E-ticket, and I kept shoving it across the counter, and she kept pushing it back to me with the tip of a pen, the way I used to do with my roommate Bruces dirty underwear, when we were in college. Id round it up with a hockey stick and stash it in the corner, just to make a pathway through our dorm room. Bruce was a Goddamn slob. Im sorry, she said, stabbing that one key over and over. Theres just nothing I can do for you tonight.

But I had a reservation. Andrew Sickert. Dont you have it?

Yes, she said, hissing the s in a wet, whistling way, like a middle-school girl with new braces. God, how did older men do it? I just cant see it, especially if it really is harder to get it up as you get older, not that I can see that either. But if it does get more difficult, wouldnt you need a better visual?

I bought that ticket three weeks ago. Actually, it was two, but I was seeking any advantage, desperate to get on that plane.

It says on your printout that its not guaranteed if youre not at the gate thirty minutes ahead of departure. Her voice was oh-so-bored, the tone of a person whos just loving your pain. We had an overbooked flight earlier in the evening and a dozen people were on the standby list. When you didnt check in by 9:25, we gave your seat away.

But its only 9:40 now and I dont have luggage. I could make it, if the security line isnt too long. Even if its the last gate, Id make it. I just have to get on that flight. I have I have I could almost feel my imagination trying to stretch itself, jumping around inside my head, looking for something this woman would find worthy. I have a wedding.

Youre getting married?

No! She frowned at the reflexive shrillness in my voice. I mean, no, of course not. If it were my wedding, Id be there, like, a week ago. Its my, uh, brothers. Im the best man.

The uh was unfortunate. Is the wedding in Providence?

Boston, but its easier to fly into Providence than Logan.

And its tomorrow, Friday?

Shit, no one got married on Friday night. Even I knew that. No, but theres the rehearsal dinner, and, you know, all that stuff.

More clicks. I can get you on the 7:00 a.m. flight if you promise to check in ninety minutes ahead of time. Youll be in Providence by 8:30. I have to think thats plenty of time. For the rehearsal and stuff. By the way, that flight is thirty-five dollars more.

Okay, I said, pulling out a Visa card that was dangerously close to being maxed out, but I was reluctant to give up my cash, which I would need in abundance Friday night. I guess thats enough time.

And now I had nothing but time to spend in the dullest airport, Baltimore-Washington International, in the dullest suburb, Linthicum, on the whole Eastern Seaboard. Going home was not an option. Light Rail had stopped running, and I couldnt afford the thirty-dollar cab fare back to North Baltimore. Besides, I had to be in line at 5:30 a.m. to guarantee my seat, and that meant getting up at four. If I stayed here, at least I couldnt miss my flight.

I wandered through the ticketing area, but it was dead, the counters all on the verge of closing down. I nursed a beer, but last call was 11:00 p.m., and I couldnt get to the stores and restaurants on the other side of the metal detectors because I didnt have a boarding pass. I stood by the stairs for a while, watching the people emerge from the terminals, their faces exhausted but happy because their journeys were over. It was almost as if there were two airports-Departures, this ghost town where I was trapped, and Arrivals, with people streaming out of the gates and onto the escalators, fighting for their baggage and then throwing themselves into the gridlocked lanes on the lower level, heading home, heading out. I should be doing the same thing myself, four-hundred-some miles away. My plane would be touching down by now, the guys would be looking for me, ready to go. I tried to call them, but my cell was dead. That was the kind of night I was having.

I stretched out on one of the padded benches opposite my ticket counter and essayed a little catnap, but some old guy was pushing a vacuum cleaner right next to my head, which seemed a little hostile. Still, I closed my eyes and tried not to think of what I was missing in Boston. The guys would probably be at a bar by now, kicking back some beers. At least Id make it to the major festivities the next night. It hadnt been a complete lie, the wedding thing. I was going to a friends bachelor party, even though I wasnt invited to the wedding proper, but thats just because theres bad blood between the bride and me. She tells Bruce Im a moron, but the truth is we had a little thing, when they were sorta broken up junior year, and shes terrified Im going to tell him. And, also, I think, because she liked it, enjoyed ol Andy, who brought a lot more to the enterprise than Bruce ever could. Im not slagging my friend, but I lived with the guy for four years. I know the hand he was dealt, physiologically.

Behind my closed eyes, I thought about that week two years ago, how she had come to my room when she knew Bruce was at work, and locked the door behind her, and, without any preamble, just got down on her knees, and-

Are you stranded?

I sat up with a start, feeling as if I had been caught at something, but luckily I wasnt too disarranged down there. There was a woman standing over me, older, somewhere between thirty and forty, in one of those no-nonsense suits and smoothed-back hairdos, toting a small rolling suitcase. From my low vantage point, I couldnt help noticing she had nice legs, at least from ankle to knee. But the overall effect was prim, preternaturally old-ladyish.

Yeah. They overbooked my flight, and I cant get another one until morning, but homes too far.

No one should have to sleep on a bench. A single night could throw your back out of alignment for life. Do you need money? You probably could get a room in one of the airport motels for as little as fifty dollars. The Sleep-Inn is cheap.

She fished a wallet out of her bag, and while Im not strong on these kind of details, it looked like an expensive purse to me, and the billfold was thick with cash. Most of the time, I dont angst over money-Im just twenty-three, getting started in the world, Ill make my bundle soon enough-but it was hard, looking at all those bills, and thinking about the gap between us. Why shouldnt I take fifty dollars? She clearly wouldnt feel it.

But, for some reason, I couldnt. Naw. Because Id never repay you. I mean, I could, Ive got a job. But I know myself. Ill lose your address or something, never get it back to you.

She smiled, which transformed her features. Definitely between thirty and forty, but closer to the thirty end now that I studied her. Her eyes were gray, her mouth big and curvy, fuller on top than on the bottom, so her teeth poked out just a little. I go for that overbite thing. And the suit was a kind of camouflage, I realized, in a good way. Most women dress to hide their flaws, but a few use clothes to cover up their virtues. She was trying to hide her best qualities, but I could see the swells beneath her outfit-both on top, and in the back, where her ass rose up almost in defiance of the tailored jacket and straight skirt. You cant keep a good ass down.

Dont be so gallant, she said. Im not offering a loan. Im doing a good deed. I like to do good deeds.

It just doesnt seem right. I dont know why I was so firm on this, but I think it was because she was basically sweet. I couldnt help thinking wed meet again, and I wouldnt want to be remembered as the guy who took fifty dollars from her.

Well- that smile again, bigger this time. We have a stand-off.

Guess so. But you better get down to that taxi stand if you want to get home tonight. The lines twenty-deep. We glanced out the windows, down to the level below, which was just chaos. Up here, however, it was quiet and private, the man with the vacuum cleaner having finally moved on, the counters all closed.

Im lucky. I have my own car.

I think the lucky person is the man whos waiting at home for you.

Oh. She was flustered, which just made her sexier. Theres no one-I mean-well, Im single.

Thats hard to believe. The automatic bullshit thing to say, yet I was sincere. How could someone like that ticket-clerk crone have a ring on her finger, while this woman was running around loose?

Its a chicken-or-egg problem.

Huh?

Am I single because Im a workaholic, or am I a workaholic because Im single?

Oh, thats easy. Its the first one. No contest.

Her faced seemed to light up and I swear I saw her eyes go filmy, as if she were about to cry. Thats the nicest thing anyones ever said to me.

You need to hang out with better people, then.

Look- She put her hand on mine, and it was cool and soft, the kind of hand that gets slathered in cream on a regular basis, the hand of a woman whos taking care of every part of herself. I knew shed be waxed to a fine finish beneath that conservative little suit, with painted toenails and nothing but good smells. I have a two-bedroom apartment on the south side of the city, just a few blocks from the big hotels. You can spend the night in my guest room, catch the first airport shuttle from the Hyatt at five. Its only fifteen dollars, and youll get where youre going rested and unkinked.

Funny, but I felt protective of her. It was almost as if I were two people-a guy who wanted to keep her from a guy like me, the guy who wanted to get inside her apartment and rip that suit off, see what she was keeping from the rest of the world.

I couldnt do that. Thats an even bigger favor than giving me fifty dollars for a hotel room.

I dont know. It seems to me there are ways you could pay me back, if you put your mind to it.

She didnt smile, or arch an eyebrow, or do a single thing with her face to acknowledge what she had just offered. She simply turned and began pulling her bag toward the sliding glass doors. But I was never more certain in my life that a woman wanted me. I got up, grabbed my own suitcase, and followed her, our wheels thrumming in unison. She led me to a black BMW in the short-term lot. Neither one of us said a word, we could barely look at each other, but I had her skirt halfway up her thigh even as she handed the parking lot attendant two bucks. He never even bothered to look down, just handed her the change, bored with his life. Its amazing what people dont see, but after all-people didnt see her, this amazing woman. Because she was small and modest, she passed through the world without acknowledgment. I was glad I hadnt made the mistake of not seeing what was there.

Her apartment was only twenty minutes away, and if it had been twenty-five, I think I would have made her pull over to the side of the road or risked bursting. I had her skirt above her waist now, yet she kept control of the car and leveled her eyes straight ahead, which just made me wilder for her. Once she parked, she didnt bother to pop the trunk, and by that time I wasnt too worried about my suitcase. I wasnt going to need any clothes until the morning. She ran up the stairs and I followed.

The apartment building was a little shabby, and in an iffier neighborhood than I expected, but those warehouse lofts usually are in odd parts of town. She pulled me into the dark living room and locked the door behind me, throwing on the dead bolt as if I might change my mind, but there was no risk of that. I didnt have the time or the inclination to take in my surroundings, although I did notice that the room was sparsely furnished-nothing more than a sofa, a desk with an open laptop, and this huge credenza of jars with gleaming gold tops, which looked sort of like those big things of peppers you see at some delis, although not quite the same. I couldnt help thinking it was a project of hers, that maybe they were vases distorted by the moonlight.

You an artist? I asked as she backed away and began pulling her clothes off, revealing a body that was even better than I had hoped.

Im in business.

I mean, as a hobby? I inclined my head toward the credenza, as I was trying to get my trousers off without tripping.

Im a pickler.

What? Not that I really cared about the answer, as I had my hands on her now. She let me kiss and touch what I could reach, then sank to her knees, as if all she cared about was pleasing me. Well, she had said she was into good deeds, and I had done pretty well by her in the car.

A pickler, she said, her breath warm and moist. I put up fruits and vegetables and other things as well, so I can enjoy I hem all winter long. And then she stopped talking because she had-



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