Obedience

She never feels so aroused, or so perverse, as when she is riding on the train to meet her lover. It is winter now, it has been raining for two weeks straight, and the air inside the train feels expansive, moist. She lives in a city by the sea. There is a smell of salt on the seat cushions and in her clothes, and in the long dark hair of the woman who sits in the opposite seat, facing her. They are very careful not to meet one another’s eyes, but their knees are almost touching. She could reach out and touch this woman’s hair, slide her fingers into that warm mass, or she could move forward slightly and brush knees with the woman, who is two or three years older, and who is wearing a slender silver wedding band.

On the train, riding to meet him, she looks at strangers and sees potential lovers: the boy with a faint trace of a hair-lip, staring out the window; the Indian man in the long red scarf who keeps glancing her way; the young blonde woman across the aisle who is wearing blue patent leather shoes and who is reading a book half-heartedly, turning the pages more rapidly than she could possibly read them.

It seems at times that she could have any of them, that each lone person on the train is simply waiting to be approached. She imagines going to each one of them in turn, imagines their reactions. How she would sit down beside the boy with the hair-lip, place her hand on his leg, how he would be startled at first, resistant, but would finally allow her to take his hand. She would guide him out of the train, up the escalator at the end of the platform, to a hotel bar in midtown. After drinks-brandy, maybe, or scotch-she would go to the desk and discretely sign for a room. He would follow her to the elevator, then down the long hallway, and press his hand shyly into the small of her back as she unlocked the door to the room. Once inside, she would trace the faint scar of his lip with her finger, and then she would kiss him there, just briefly, before going to the bed and turning down the covers. With this boy she would be gentle, maternal almost, and afterward he would want her phone number, and she would speak as kindly as possible when she refused to give it.

With the blonde girl it would be different. She would make a comment about the book the girl is reading. It is a common book, considered a modern classic. She would say something about the mercurial main character, how he suffers his entire life for failing to act decisively at one pivotal moment. She would mention the rampant nature of his longing, how he would have been much better off if he had simply given in to desire. The blonde girl would look at her from behind wire-rimmed glasses, kicking her blue shoe nervously against the seat. "Wasn’t it a tragedy," she would say to the girl, "the way the author died?" She would ask where the girl was getting off. "What a coincidence," she would say, "that’s my stop." They would ride up the escalator together, and when they emerged at ground level she would touch the girl’s elbow and ask, "Would you like a cup of coffee?" The girl would be caught off guard, unsure what to do, but would be smiling slightly, embarrassed, as they stepped into the warmth of a dimly lit café. They would talk deep into the afternoon, and it would end innocently, in an alcove beneath an awning, when the girl would become suddenly quiet and would lean against the cool glass window of some boutique at closing time, and that is when she would lean forward and kiss her-parting the girl’s lips softly with her tongue. The girl would be surprised, she would let out a little sound as she allowed herself to be kissed, first on the mouth, then on the neck, then on the tip of her ear where a tiny topaz stone dangled like an orange teardrop. Moments later the girl would say goodbye and duck her head as she joined the throng of people racing toward the station, their steps clicking on the wet pavement.

The train pulls into 24th and Mission and the blonde girl gets off the train, sliding the book into her purse. At Civic Center, the man in the red scarf disembarks, along with the dark-haired woman. The boy with the hair-lip is still sitting there, staring sadly out the window, when she gets off at Powell. She takes the escalator alone; it hums and clatters, and its faint metallic smell is increased by the rain; she can feel the dull vibration of it in her calves. Her lover is standing at the top of the escalator, beside the newsstand, waiting for her. They kiss one another quickly on the cheek. He rests his hand on her waist as he greets her, and heat moves all through her body, like a surge of warm water that begins at her navel and rushes up her chest, down her legs, to her hands and fingers and toes. They walk close together, and she is conscious of his arm around her waist while they walk, is conscious of the danger of this, how at any moment she might look up and see a friend or acquaintance or colleague, how at any moment this thing they’ve not yet defined, this thing that is both exciting and somewhat innocent, might suddenly become something disastrous; at any moment her good and comfortable life might be changed. She imagines tearful explanations, angry discussions lasting late into the night. She imagines a suitcase on the bed and her husband piling things into it, one after the other: ties, shirts, socks, underwear. Walking with her lover on the streets of this smallish city, where someone you know is always just around the corner, she is filled with terror.

Then he is opening a door for her. They are stepping out of the rain and into a dark bar. People are smoking inside the bar, and though she doesn’t smoke there is a sweetness to that smell, something liberating in the way the smoke enters her lungs. She follows him, obediently almost, to the farthest corner, where he pulls out a chair for her. He takes her coat and scarf, lays them carefully across his own chair, then goes to the bar and orders drinks. The place is crowded, and he is gone for several minutes, his back to her, his face in profile as he tries to get the bartender’s attention. From here she can’t see it, but she knows there is a small round scar, like a bullet wound, on his neck just below his right ear; it occurs to her that she has never asked him how he got it. Suddenly it strikes her that she wants to know where the scar came from, and she wants to know other things as well: the names of his brothers and sisters, his favorite movie, the story of his first fight, where he buys his shoes. When he returns to the table and places the two glasses there, so close their rims touch, she feels the terror leaving her; something quiet takes its place. It seems to her that she has been waiting for him, that it has taken a very long time for him to get here.

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