The Heat

The heat at night is worse than the heat in daytime. Even with the fan on, nothing moves, and the walls store up warmth, give it out like a used oven. Surely it will rain soon. Why do I want it? It will only mean more dampness. There’s lightning far away but no thunder. Looking out the window I can see it, a glimmer, like the phosphorescence you get in stirred seawater, behind the sky, which is overcast and too low and a dull grey infra-red. The searchlights are off, which is not usual. A power failure. Or else Serena Joy has arranged it.

I sit in the darkness; no point in having the light on, to advertise the fact that I’m still awake. I’m fully dressed in my red habit again, having shed the spangles, scraped off the lipstick with toilet paper. I hope nothing shows, I hope I don’t smell of it, or of him either.

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She’s here at midnight, as she said she’d be. I can hear her, a faint tapping, a faint shuffling on the muffling rug of the corridor, before her light knock comes. I don’t say anything, but follow her back along the hall and down the stairs. She can walk faster, she’s stronger than I thought. Her left hand clamps the banister, in pain maybe but holding on, steadying her. I think: she’s biting her lip, she’s suffering. She wants it all right, that baby. I see the two of us, a blue shape, a red shape, in the brief glass eye of the mirror as we descend. Myself, my obverse.

We go out through the kitchen. It’s empty, a dim nightlight’s left on; it has the calm of empty kitchens at night. The bowls on the counter, the canisters and stoneware jars loom round and heavy through the shadowy light. The knives are put away into their wooden rack.

“I won’t go outside with you,” she whispers. Odd, to hear her whispering, as if she is one of us. Usually Wives do not lower their voices. “You go out through the door and turn right. There’s another door, it’s open. Go up the stairs and knock, he’s expecting you. No one will see you. I’ll sit here.” She’ll wait for me then, in case there’s trouble; in case Cora and Rita wake up, no one knows why, come in from their room at the back of the kitchen. What will she say to them? That she couldn’t sleep. That she wanted some hot milk. She’ll be adroit enough to lie well, I can see that.

“The Commander’s in his bedroom upstairs,” she says. “He won’t come down this late, he never does.” That’s what she thinks.

I open the kitchen door, step out, wait a moment for vision. It’s so long since I’ve been outside, alone, at night. Now there’s thunder, the storm’s moving closer. What has she done about the Guardians? I could be shot for a prowler. Paid them off somehow, I hope: cigarettes, whiskey, or maybe they know all about it, her stud farm, maybe if this doesn’t work she’ll try them next.

The door to the garage is only steps away. I cross, feet noiseless on the grass, and open it quickly, slip inside. The stairway is dark, darker than I can see. I feel my way up, stair by stair: carpet here, I think of it as mushroom- coloured. This must have been an apartment once, for a student, a young single person with a job. A lot of the big houses around here had them. A bachelor, a studio, those were the names for that kind of apartment. It pleases me to be able to remember this. Separate entrance, it would say in the ads, and that meant you could have sex, unobserved.

I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door there. He opens it himself, who else was I expecting? There’s a lamp on, only one but enough light to make me blink. I look past him, not wanting to meet his eyes. It’s a single room, with a fold-out bed, made up, and a kitchenette counter at the far end, and another door that must lead to the bathroom. This room is stripped down, military, minimal. No pictures on the walls, no plants. He’s camping out. The blanket on the bed is grey and says U.S.

He steps back and aside to let me past. He’s in his shirt sleeves, and is holding a cigarette, lit. I smell the smoke on him, in the warm air of the room, all over. I’d like to take off my clothes, bathe in it, rub it over my skin.

No preliminaries; he knows why I’m here. He doesn’t even say anything, why fool around, it’s an assignment. He moves away from me, turns off the lamp. Outside, like punctuation, there’s a flash of lightning; almost no pause and then the thunder. He’s undoing my dress, a man made of darkness, I can’t see his face, and I can hardly breathe, hardly stand, and I’m not standing. His mouth is on me, his hands, I can’t wait and he’s moving, already, love, it’s been so long, I’m alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. I knew it might only be once.

I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.

I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door. He opens it himself. There’s a lamp on; I blink. I look past his eyes, it’s a single room, the bed’s made up, stripped down, military. No pictures but the blanket says U.S. He’s in his shirt sleeves, he’s holding a cigarette.

“Here,” he says to me, “have a drag.” No preliminaries, he knows why I’m here. To get knocked up, to get in trouble, up the pole, those were all names for it once. I take the cigarette from him, draw deeply in, hand it back. Our fingers hardly touch. Even that much smoke makes me dizzy.

He says nothing, just looks at me, unsmiling. It would be better, more friendly, if he would touch me. I feel stupid and ugly, although I know I am not either. Still, what does he think, why doesn’t he say something? Maybe he thinks I’ve been slutting around, at Jezebel’s, with the Commander or more. It annoys me that I’m even worrying about what he thinks. Let’s be practical.

“I don’t have much time,” I say. This is awkward and clumsy, it isn’t what I mean.

“I could just squirt it into a bottle and you could pour it in,” he says. He doesn’t smile.

“There’s no need to be brutal,” I say. Possibly he feels used. Possibly he wants something from me, some emotion, some ackowledgement that he too is human, is more than just a seedpod. “I know it’s hard for you,” I try.

He shrugs. “I get paid,” he says, punk surliness. But still makes no move.

I get paid, you get laid, I rhyme in my head. So that’s how we’re going to do it. He didn’t like the makeup, the spangles. We’re going to be tough.