A.W. Hill is a writer living in Hollywood. His first novel, a supernatural thriller entitled Enoch's Portal, has been published by Champion Press, Ltd and is currently in active film development at Paramount. Visit Raszer. An erotic short story entitled "The Conductor" is currently readable at Slip Tongue.
Standing at the Edge
We were both flying from Los Angeles to New York, and we both had seats in business class, courtesy of our respective employers. They were aisle seats, requested so as to make it less likely that we’d have company (only children ask for window seats with any regularity, and there are rarely children in business class). There, the similarity of our itineraries ends, for she was headed home to a deluxe single in the South St. Seaport enclave of Manhattan and I was headed away from a house and a wife in Studio City. I was on a junket. That famous excuse for bourgeois hanky panky: the business trip.
She was in 4C; I was in 4B. We were sitting opposite one another, a difficult position from which to check the other out without being caught in the act. That turned out to be a good thing, if good can be measured in terms of love both won and lost. She wore a navy blue suit with a high-necked white blouse. Pearl buttons, I think, which she undid one by one in approximately twenty minute intervals until I was able to see the lace border of her bra. She never, ever admitted to doing it purposefully, but I think I know better. On the lap of her skirt was a legal brief which I surmised (after the second button had been undone) had a limited command of her attention, but she was clearly a professional and a frequent flyer. That much I could tell from the ease with which she ordered a second Chardonnay and the fact that she had removed her pumps and had her feet langorously curled beneath her rump and commandeering half of the neighboring seat. When she first noticed me looking, she was curling around her ringless finger a thick strand of wild honey hair which - when she released it - fell over her left eye and locked my stare in place for a solid second before I was able to avert my eyes and return to the book of medieval illuminations that I was browsing. It was then that I noticed that the lapis blue of the Virgin Mary’s robe matched the blue of her business suit.
I can’t say, I thought to myself, that she’s beautiful - but she was, to use an archaic but wonderful word, comely. Moreover, she was not afraid. By the third exchange of peeks, we were holding one another’s gaze for a good two seconds. How is it we can sometimes know with such certainty that we’re going to end up in bed with someone? What flush of skin or release of scent permits us to make this assumption? A whole branch of semiotics ought to be devoted to sexual semaphore. The Italian writer, Umberto Eco, is a medievalist, like me, and a scholar of signs. I’d like to ask him: did it begin in the 12th Century Languedoc with the Lady-at-Court discreetly dropping her handkerchief from the high window of the tower, followed by a lascivious sidelong glance before letting the curtain fall? For millennia before that, men simply ravished women, usually without much warning and usually from the rear. Then, quite suddenly in historical terms, it became an exchange of signals: a game of chess with the Queen captured through cunning and wit, and rarely without being an accomplice in her own undoing.
I think I knew that the gate had opened when she returned her feet to the navy pumps which nicely matched her suit and scooted over to the window seat, leaving the seat beside conspicuously available. If occupying the aisle seat is a palm raised in warning, then sitting alone at the window, chin resting pensively on fist, head turned away to view the ether of night, is an admission of solitude and an eloquent invitation to communion. I once met an English housewife on a train from Canterbury to London. We were in a compartment and she was accompanied by a young child and a wire shopping cart, a combination which didn’t exactly invite sexual trespass. And yet she had left two buttons of her silk blouse open and was gazing wistfully at the passing farmland, her eyebrows lifting subtly with each swell of the green earth as if it suggested to her the gentle rise to ecstasy. When we finally spoke, we got around somehow to the subject of El Greco and late-medieval Spanish art, and when she said, “I find the images exquisitely painful .... but also quite erotic,” I knew that she was prepared to betray her husband.
Kathryn (this, I discovered, was the name of the woman on the plane) did not return to her legal brief. Instead, after staring out the window for a few minutes, allowing me to admire the arch of her spine, she turned slowly and rested her right temple lightly on her fingers so that her hair fell in gentle cascade from her back to her shoulder. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Then I picked up my drink and my book, rose from my seat, and went to her.
“Are you saving that seat for a friend?” I asked, smiling after.
“No,” she answered, laughing.
“I know how nice it can be to have an empty seat next to you on a long flight, so I’m a little hesitant to ask, but .... do you mind if I join you?”
“Sure ... no. I mean ... please do.” She made a polite display of making room for me, though there was plenty, and I noticed that she straightened her spine and lifted her chin just enough so that she could regard me with eyes cast slightly down. It was the opposite of the textbook gesture of female submissiveness, which would have sent me right back to my own seat.
“We’re kind of alone in here, aren’t we?” I said. She made a cursory survey of the cabin; there were only three others in business class.
“All to ourselves.”
“New York on business?” I asked.
“No. L.A. was the business. I’m going home.”
“Where’s home? The city?”
“Mm-hmm. South Street Seaport. Do you know the area?”
“Not well. That’s one of those nouveau riche sectors carved out of the old Lower East Side, right?” She drew back a little. Again, I smiled.
“Did you just insult me?” she asked, giving me a look.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “You look more like old money.”
“Is that so?”
“You know, I think I did go to a sushi place in the Seaport .... on the dock ....”
“Yellowtail. Some Broadway people own it. I’m a regular.”
“You like sushi.”
“Ah, a purist.”
“I just like to get to the point. If it’s raw fish you came for, then it’s raw fish you should have.”
“Would you say the same for, oh, I dunno .... a French restaurant? Skip all the preliminaries and go straight for the coq au vin?”
“No. Only with sushi, because simplicity is the thing. Why do I look like ‘old money’?” Good, I thought. Seduction has everything to do with affirmation.
I looked down at her right hand, its thumb and forefinger lightly clasping the upper stem of her wine glass. “The way you handle your Chardonnay. And that slightly imperious way you hold your head.”
She laughed, and I liked the sound of it very much. I cupped my hand around my lips and leaned over as if to conspire.
“They have a stash of 1985 Pouilly Fuisse on board. But you have to ask the steward.” I inclined my head in the direction of a vested dandy with bleached hair and a pearl earring who stood on the galley’s threshold with his hands folded behind his back. “That handsome fellow over there. His name’s Brett.”
She shot me a sidelong look. “You seem to know him intimately.”
“It gets lonely at thirty-five thousand feet. A man has needs.”
She waggled her finger at me. Then (perhaps sensing that I was dancing her too quickly to the veranda), she sat back and adopted a more formal tone. “What about you? Are you on a business trip?”
“Yeah. It’s starting to feel like I live there, but yes. My home is Los Angeles.”
“So, I guess that makes you bi-coastal.”
“I take the gravest offense at that characterization, counselor.”
“I’ll withdraw the question. How often do you .... come?”
“At the pleasure of my employer. I probably should get an apartment.”
“Or a lover,” she said.
I must have blushed in spite of myself. “That would be a step up, yes. But then I couldn’t watch dirty movies in my hotel room.”
“You don’t, do you?” she said with mock indignation.
“No. Not really. It’s tempting, but I always stop short because I’m sure the CIA is compiling a dossier on me.”
“Why .... are you trafficking in something illicit?”
I lifted the book of medieval illuminations. “No traffic is more suspect than the trade in religious icons. Particularly if it involves Virgins.” I opened the book to a beautiful plate depicting The Assumption, and then waved Brett the flight attendant over before turning back to see her reaction. “I work for the Getty Museum. Acquisitions. They are very big on illuminated manuscripts, and there’s a German collection that’s come to New York for auction. I intend to get it.”
“I believe you will,” she said. “Do you like what you do?”
Brett had arrived at our side, but I let him cool his heels. “I love what I do. I’d probably get bored if it was all Picasso’s and Klee’s, but these ....” I ran my finger over the Virgin’s cerulean robes. “These are a passion. They have a beauty that’s totally devoid of self-consciousness or pretension. They come from an age of belief. But more than that: an age when the spiritual was sensual. Look at the contour of her cheek, the folds of her skirts. This painter was a man in love.” I extended my hand to her. “I’m Paul Bressler. I’m very pleased to meet you.” Her response was delayed for a moment; I think she had been holding her breath.
“Kathryn Needham,” she said, accepting my hand. “The pleasure is mine.”
I turned to our steward, who was only mildly piqued. “Hi. Sorry, Brett. Still have a bottle of that good Pouilly left in the vault?”
Brett gave me a wink and a little tight-lipped smile. “I think we can manage it for you, Mr. Bressler. Two glasses?”
“Yes, please. Thanks, Brett.” He turned on his heel, and Kathryn and I suppressed giggles as he walked stiffly off. It looked as if he’d had an especially bois-terous rendezvous during his stopover in L.A. “What about you, Kathryn,” I asked. “Do you love what you do?”
There was a hint of a sigh. “I love what I do, but I’m not sure I love what it’s doing to me.” The good wine arrived and I waited for Brett to pour, and for her to drink. She took what amounted more to a gulp than a sip.
“How do you mean .... ‘what it’s doing to you’?”
“Nice wine,” she said. “I’m glad you happened along. I’m not as cultivated as I look.” She sipped again, probably weighing the risks of shifting from flirtatious banter to self-revelation. “I’m an attorney .... but you guessed that. My firm represents sports franchises, including the Los Angeles Dodgers. I like it. I’ve always been kind of a jock.”
“Good. Maybe you can explain to me what an earned run average is ....”
A little laugh, but still, the wistfulness. “I’ve spent the last ten years since law school bucking for partner, nothing else. Finally got it this year at 32.”
I clinked her glass. “Congratulations. You’re a made woman.”
“Well, that’s the problem. I’m not. My life just buzzes from six in the morning until seven or eight at night, and then everything stops dead. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have dates and friends and so forth. I do. But then, there’s this silence, like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and I can hear my own heartbeat. I can be in a hotel or in my own flat and the silence, and this weird sort of ringing, is the same. And I have to kind of wonder .... what happened to the rest of me.”
“And so, you go to the Yellowtail, where they know you and nobody cares if you have a little too much sake .... and eat sashimi.”
“Yeah. That’s what I do. And listen to Nina Simone records.”
“Nina’s pretty good company, but I know .... she can’t cook you scrambled eggs. For what it’s worth, Kathryn, here’s what I think. I think that smart, driven people are lonely most of the time. They can shack up, get married, surround themselves with workmates and friends, and they’re still going to end the day at the edge of the Grand Canyon, listening to their own heartbeat. The only time they ever truly find solace is in the company of other equally smart, driven people .... and then only fleetingly. In the Middle Ages, they probably became devotees of the Virgin, like Heloise and Abelard.”
“Pretty bleak assessment.”
“You can look at it that way. On the other hand, look at us. We gave up our empty seats and our private space to share a few hours of communion at forty-thousand feet .... who knows why? Shirley MacLaine would probably say we recognized one another from a past life.” She laughed softly and relaxed her chin, secure that I was not going to make fun of her existential dilemna. She was no longer looking at me from on high, but had settled back in her seat to be yin to my yang. “When I meet people like you,” I continued, “it’s like one of these illuminated manuscripts as opposed to the white noise of, say, a Jackson Pollock. I’ve got my own Grand Canyons, but I can pretty well face them as long as a bluebird sails by every so often.”
“Got to pee,” I announce.
It was a red-eye flight, and the cabin lights were dimmed to allow those who had breakfast meetings a chance for fitful sleep. Whether Brett dimmed them a degree or two more than usual for our benefit I can’t say, but at some later point he did rustle by with truffles and whisper, “Sweet dreams, travelers of the night.”
We finished our wine in silence. Not the awkward silence of strangers but the comfortable silence of friends. I remained hazily awake, suspended in some liminal place neither here nor there, but in the half-light, the engines’ drone lulled Kathryn to sleep, her hands in her lap, still delicately clasping the wine glass. It had tipped to an angle somewhat greater than that of the Tower of Pisa and there was still an ounce of wine in it, so I slipped it gently from her fingers and placed it on my tray table. A moment later, she moaned very softly and laid her head against my right shoulder, her mead-colored hair spilling onto my chest. She must have been aware enough - even if only in that most ancient region of the brain - to measure my response, because when I accepted her weight and took a strand of her hair between my fingers, she brought her stockinged feet back up to their former cozy beneath her ass and laid her open hand on my thigh.
An hour passed, enough time to put us somewhere over the Allegheny Mountains, or maybe the Catskills -- I’m not certain of the flight path. I’d now drifted off into high-altitude slumber, which makes up in potential for epiphany what it fails to provide in nourishment. My head had rolled against hers and my lips brushed the part in her thick hair. I felt her knee snuggle against my hip, and then, as guilelessly as a child picking daisies, she put her hand on my zipper flap and began to caress me. I had a full erection with seconds, which must have been the point, because she then slipped her hand inside my pants and took hold of me with as much savoir faire as she had the wine glass.
I kissed her forehead and moved my hand into the three-button breach she’d left for me in her blouse, then inside the lacy blue bra she’d given me such a tantalizing glimpse of earlier. Her nipple, at first yielding, began to swell, not so much from direct contact as from the hungry kisses I gave her eyes and the half-words I whispered to her. After I told her she smelled like love, she took my hand and guided it beneath her skirt, where I found her pantyhose damp with desire.
“I’m married,” I said to her. “But I do get to New York pretty often.”
“That could be just perfect,” she said, and opened her legs. “A little less silence in the Grand Canyon.”
Copyright © 2002 A.W. Hill. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post.
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