We meet in a hallway.
We pause. Just the slightest of hesitations. That’s enough.
(Later I give a paper. On the sublimated sexual impulse in “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” The ironies are more painful than pleasurable. But that doesn’t happen until later.)
He says, there in the hallway, “I know you from somewhere.”
He’s a big man. I am attracted to the heft of him. I am attracted to the way he carries himself. He has confidence. He knows he is attractive. He knows women enjoy feeing his eyes on them. That they imagine slipping their hands in under the rucked-up clothing, the messy spill of suit-jacket, unbuttoned cuff. In, to where the flesh lies. Yes, to where it lies. Both firm and yielding.
“Somewhere,” I say.
He says, “No, really. Last year?”
“We met last year,” I say. “We talked about Kafka. You got angry.”
“I got angry?” he says, surprised, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
Should he trust me? Why would I say this about him, if it weren’t true? Those first moments, as we stand there, what attracts us to one other is the feeling that we are on the verge of some kind of truthfulness. In the face of this feeling, would I lie?
Of course I would. I am lying. I look him in the eye. I use what is at hand.
I say, “You said that Kafka was lying. That he was lying to himself, and so to us. You said you felt betrayed by that lie. That it cast a shadow over your life. Our lives. That we had to burn through the shadow, and expose him with the bright light of our own living.”
By now he knows I’m lying, of course. And yet he’s intrigued, too. Because I’ve caught the heft of his emotional attitude—toward certain writers, toward certain people’s sensibilities. He hasn’t yet determined how good I am—that is, did we in fact have a conversation, at this same conference a year ago, perhaps about some other writer? How could we have talked so intimately, without him remembering? I feel him look me up and down. He is attracted to me; I can see him measuring it out, calculating. Yes. Yes, he thinks: he would have felt this way had he met me before. Then I feel him pause again. Unless he’d been preoccupied. Unless he hadn’t been paying attention. Unless I hadn’t been on, or what’s worse, unless I hadn’t even been part of the conversation, but had just been an on-looker, not part of this unremembered conversation, yet still there, paying attention, noting his behavior as he held forth, observing the rich, high-pitched emotional roll as he crouched, clenching himself, then flexed upward for the sudden dunk, 2 points, score. His prowess and ability proven.
Or—and here I can see him pause again. Is it all coming from this moment—this brief pause in the hallway, two people at a conference, sizing each other up?
“I got angry,” he says. Once he decides on a course of action, his execution is stunningly swift. He has decided that I am telling him that he has the option; he can get angry now, here in this hallway with me, if he wants, and so close off the possibilities. It’s really quite unnerving, this swift sudden sexual understanding.
“I do that,” he adds, his body going supple and receptive. He leans forward. “It’s a failing of mine.”
“But you do it charmingly,” I say. “You do it with conviction. That makes all the difference.”
“I have conviction,” he says. “I am a man of beliefs.”
“Oh, I know that,” I say. I murmur it, leaning forward myself, saying it in a low undertone that some men find irresistible. I know that he is such a man.
But he’s alert. I see him rein himself in. He holds himself tightly—and then he lets himself out. He swells a bit, allowing himself a small show of pride. “But in fact, I've found my beliefs on Kafka have changed. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that.”
“Really?” I nod politely. I am wary now, too.
“It happens. We grow older. We see things differently. Our attitudes change.” He pauses. “Surely this has happened to you?”
I close my eyes briefly, to let him know I feel the jab, to communicate my understanding that I am no longer a girl. But then, while my eyes are still closed, he seizes my hand. That is in fact what it was: a seizing. I open my eyes with surprise. He has my hand in his. He holds it up before us, examines my ring. He turns the ring on my finger, slowly. Then he turns it a second time, more quickly. This second turning burns a little.
“You want me to make love to you,” he says calmly. “And I will make love to you. But not tonight. That would make you too pleased with yourself. Tomorrow. After the party. We’ll meet.” He smiles. “If you like.”
“And tonight I’ll find another lover,” I say.
His eyes widen. Then he smiles. “If you like,” he says.
“A man who likes Kafka. Who sees his loneliness. Who understands how much it hurt him, to be alone in the way he was. No one had been alone like he was. It’s true of each of us. No one has been alone the way we have. The way we are. Each of us. Alone right now.”
He smiles, indulging me. “You are a poet.”
I say, “No. I am alone.” I am walking away before he understands. I glance back at him, over my shoulder. It’s this look that I want him to remember. And of course he’s watching me. Our eyes meet.