Sydney crossed the hotel lobby, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumped, trying to make himself look inconspicuous and small.
He had expected to shrink with age, but maturity had added breadth to his height, only making his presence more commanding. At sixty, he was still taller than most men, still broad-shouldered and vital. So he slumped, feeling like a bear in his expensive clothing.
As children, he and his twin, Jacob, had been tall for their age; Sydney had never ceased to be bewildered at the series of challenges to fight issued to them by older boys. Jacob had waded right in — won some, lost some, attained respect and popularity for his pluck and good nature. Sydney had avoided the fights when he could, turning aside most confrontations with humor and reason, fighting as if his life depended on it when it did come to blows. Any popularity he had gained had been largely as fall-out from Jacob.
It didn’t help that the little girls of school and in the district had found Sydney irresistible. Their attention baffled and frightened the shy boy, and a few thumpings from jilted young suitors taught him that girls were safer ignored. Sydney had learned to efface himself, to observe and to evade.
After the war, he and Jacob were shunted between orphanages, foster homes, and the homes of distant relatives (always together, thank God!). Detachment was easy for Sydney, under those circumstances, but very hard on his twin; Sydney had suffered the pain of estrangement along with Jacob — a pain he, himself, didn’t feel.
When both brothers had won scholarships to Yale University, they had been nearly overwhelmed by the extremes of rejection and acceptance offered them in America. Jacob had embraced the welcome, Sydney had taken the snubs as an excuse to bury himself in his work. He had scarcely noticed recruitment by the Centre — it had chiefly meant moving from an apartment in Connecticut to an apartment in Delaware.
Over the years, he had perfected a manner that blended charm with formality, which kept almost all his interpersonal relationships pleasant and superficial.
He read the notice board next to the check-in desk: “Welcome PIE — Registration-Mezzanine, 3pm-5pm”, read the first notice. The second, “Twin Studies Forum — Aldershott Room”, was the one he wanted.
Two men and a woman strode into the lobby, all in jeans, t-shirts, athletic shoes and sunglasses, the American all-purpose unisex outfit. Their shirts matched — black, with white lettering: “GRAVITY. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the LAW.”
“You’ve got to switch with me, Lora,” one of the men said. “I can’t deliver a paper at eight o’clock in the morning! My eyes won’t even be open then!”
“Poor little kitten,” the woman answered. “Poke holes in your eyelids and read away.”
“Oh, Lora,” the man wheedled, “aren’t we da bestes’ friends? Hmmmm?”
“You know better than that,” the woman said. The other man laughed and joined her in singing, “‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.'”
Sydney’s head snapped around. He stared at the woman, took a step nearer. She caught the action and turned toward him, meeting his eyes. He was transported back twenty-five years….
It was 1973, and he was in his thirties, slim and intense, tightly focused on the Pretender project. He was in a Centre elevator. The door opened, and he was joined by a girl — a woman, actually, in her late twenties or early thirties — in a pants-suit, carrying a stack of manila envelopes.
“Morning,” she said.
She looked him over with the open sexual appraisal of the day and smiled wickedly.
Sydney pressed the button for his floor again, although the button was already lit and the elevator was moving.
“I just started here yesterday,” the woman said. She hefted the envelopes. “Typing pool.”
“I hope you’ll enjoy your work here.”
“Mmmmm!” She closed her eyes. “Say it again!”
“I beg your pardon?”
Her eyes opened, her gaze locking on his. Green. Her eyes were green, flecked with gold and brown. “Your voice,” she said, “is lovely! Say something else.”
At a loss, he clenched his jaw and scowled up at the floor indicator.
“My name’s Lorelei,” the woman said. “You know?”
“The water spirits of the Rhine, who lure mariners to their death on the rocks.”
She laughed, not the high-pitched giggle he had braced against, but a rich contralto chuckle.
“Not exactly. Lorelei, the Marilyn Monroe character in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. You know –” She sang, “‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.’ Of course, I’m no Marilyn.”
That called his attention to her again: She was nearly as tall as he was, in her silly platform shoes. Her long ash-brown hair was gathered at her neck and cascaded down her back. Her features were plain; but her expression was so lively, her eyes were so intelligent, he imagined she would age into beauty.
“You’d do for the Tony Curtis part, though,” she said.
A loud ding punctuated the remark.
With relief, he said, “This is my floor.” The doors were only partly open, but he slid through the crack. He kept his pace normal and refrained from loosening his collar, though he had a sharp sense that the woman was watching him walk.
“What is it, Lora?” the woman’s “bestes’ friend” asked.
“Sydney?” She breathed his name, as if afraid he’d evaporate if she said it too loudly.
“Lorelei.” She would be in her fifties, now — older than he had been when she’d come to work at the Centre. Her hair was short, now, and salted with gleaming silver. The years had transformed her plain features into striking ones. And her smile was the same: wide and full of delight.
His heart lurched as he watched the emotions play across her face: sheer joy followed by wariness and restraint.
“Lorelei, it’s…good to see you again. After all these years.”
She held out a hand, hesitantly. He took it. Impulsively, he stroked it, and felt her fingers tighten around his. With that as encouragement, he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it, stealing a glance at her from under his lashes.
She sparkled a smile and said, “Yes, quite Continental.”
“BUT –” both her male friends said in tandem, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
She half-turned and said, “Don’t you two have anything better to do than sing backup to my life? Go violate an inequality or something.”
“Take your time, Lora,” one of the men said. “Registration will be open for another five whole minutes. Time travel isn’t yet practicable in the classic system as we know it.”
“Gee, thanks, Mr. Wizard. — Sydney, I have to go. Are you staying here? How long?”
“I’ll be here all week-end, with the Twins Forum. You?”
“I’m with PIE. We’re here all week-end, too.”
He took the plunge: “Have a drink with me later? Tonight?”
“Um…How about 5:30? In the bar, right over there?”
She pointed to a frosted glass door with a 1920’s dancer and the name CHARLESTON painted on it.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll be waiting.”
Lorelei remembered being unimpressed by the Suit in the elevator. Buttoned-down, uptight, short-haired Young Republican ultra-conservative type, by the looks of him. Just like her father; just like her husband. Still, just so she could report it to her feminist friends, she gave him the once-over. And liked what she saw.
He blushed when she smiled at him, and she was enchanted. She’d never seen a man blush before — and this wasn’t a boy, he was a grown man! Pushing forty, she judged, around ten years older than she was, but cute, in a square kind of way.
She opened a conversation, and the first thing he said — she didn’t remember what it was, now, just the effect — had sent waves of warmth through her. That voice! The sound of it alone was delicious, but the unidentifiable accent that went with it…
She told him her name, and he avoided telling her his by making a joke about hers. A dry, professor-like joke, bringing in German mythology, but she got the message: he saw her as a threat.
A man of his generation would see a liberated woman as a threat. She’d give him “threat”. She stood back and went into heavy flirtation mode, but the elevator stopped and he took it as an opportunity to avoid dealing with her.
She held the door open and watched him until he turned a corner.
Lorelei couldn’t remember if it was later that same day or another day, when she saw him again. She checked the name on the last of her work packets against the nameplate next to the open door and went into the office. And there he was, his jacket draped over the back of his swivel chair, shirt sleeves unbuttoned and cuffs folded back, tie loosened, top button undone. His attention was riveted on a manuscript to which he was making last-minute changes. He didn’t look like a man; he looked like a college boy — like one of her fellow freshmen.
When he looked up and saw her, he blushed.
“It’s me,” Lorelei said. “Death on the Rocks.” She handed him the work packet, wishing he’d touch her hand when he took it, but not surprised when he carefully didn’t. “So this is who you are,” she said, running a finger across his name on the paper he was correcting. “Doctor –“
“Sydney,” he said. “Just Sydney. I prefer it.”
“That’s refreshing. Most people want as much deference as they can squeeze out of their hirelings.”
Sydney’s cold features softened with a slight smile. “I didn’t hire you. I would consider you a…co-worker.”
She lifted a fist in a militant salute. “Power to the people!” she said, happy when Sydney laughed.
“You aren’t planning to make a career in business, then?” he asked.
“God forbid! I’m working my way through college.”
Sydney lifted an eyebrow in surprise.
“I got married right out of high school. Put my husband through business school — now it’s my turn.”
“Political Science major?”
“Ha, ha. Physical Science. I want to know what makes things work. I want to know what makes things…things.”
“Sub-atomic particles? Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?”
“Theories — General and Special. Very good!”
And an unlikely friendship had begun. Lorelei had dropped the femme fatale act, and Sydney had unbent a trifle. For the four years of Lorelei’s undergraduate schooling, they had waved to one another in the hall, enjoyed brief conversations over yellow manila envelopes, shared the occasional lunch or snack break, and exchanged greetings when they turned up at the same concerts or plays.
Then, she graduated.
Sydney scattered clothes over the bed, calling on the spirit of Miss Parker to advise him what to wear on this very odd occasion. Formality would be inappropriate, but so would an untoward laxness of dress. He settled on a tan shirt, brown-and-gold tweed trousers, and a black tie with a thin gold pattern. On second thought, he discarded the tie, and pulled on a dark brown sweater vest. Unbuttoned his top shirt button. Buttoned it again. Combed his hair. Grimaced at the growing thinness of it, the growing whiteness of it, at the difference between himself as he was and as he had been. How had she even recognized him? Well, she had aged, too, and he had recognized her. His heart had recognized her. Was it the same for her?
He hoped he wouldn’t be late. It wouldn’t do to be late. That would be insult to injury, and the thought of adding discourtesy to his other sins pained him. The elevator was swift and empty — a miracle, with two conferences in residence — and he made it to the bar before Lorelei. He chose a table in a dim nook not far from the door. Dim, in case she cried; near the door, in case she planned to vent twenty-five years of hatred — one of them could leave with minimal additional fuss.
She hadn’t looked like a woman carrying a store of resentment, though. She had seemed happy to see him. Seemed.
When Lorelei entered the bar, she had changed clothes, too, into a hunter-green cocktail dress. The neckline was low, though not imprudent.
He rose to meet her, holding out his hands for hers. She placed one hand between both of his, cupped the back of his head in her other hand, and kissed the edge — the very corner — of his mouth. So sweet…She was so sweet….
Syd was ashamed to feel the urge to touch her again, feel her body under his hands…again….
The second time he saw her, the first time she delivered finished work to his office, he turned giddy. She told him she was married, and he envied the man who could wrap his arms around that soft, ripe body and pull it close…
Firmly, he forbade himself the fantasies her nearness inspired. He was not a loving man. He was a comfortable, reserved acquaintance. He treasured their resultant friendship, but he longed for more.
For the four years of Lorelei’s undergraduate work, Sydney ached with a growing desire for her. The fact that she never, after their second meeting, actively fueled that desire, did nothing but increase it. His air of strict propriety was a shield and bulwark against the shameful violation of his feelings for the trusting woman. He was careful to avoid being alone with her for long, and courteously discouraged any discussion of her home life. That, he could not have borne.
And then she graduated.
She came to his office, hesitating on the threshold. She was nervous. He had never seen her nervous.
“I know you don’t like personal stuff,” she said, turning pale as she spoke, “but I have to tell you this. It’s important to me. Jack’s leaving me. In fact, he’s gone. I mean, I’m gone.”
“What?” He couldn’t believe it. How could a man leave Lorelei?
“He says he’s in love with his secretary. He handed me the papers yesterday. He said he wanted to wait until I finished my degree. Said it might distract me, make my grades drop, and there was no use wasting good money. He’s very considerate.”
She stopped and blew her nose. Sydney wanted more than life to stand and take her in his arms, to stroke her hair, to feel her take comfort in his embrace, but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even speak.
Lorelei lifted her chin. “He offered me what he called ‘reasonable’ alimony, and I laughed in his face.” Color flooded her cheeks. “I won’t go into all that. But, anyway, I moved into a cheesy little apartment for the summer; that’s where I’ve been living. And…” The angry sparkle in her eyes turned triumphant. “Something else I didn’t tell you: I won a scholarship — a full scholarship — to Columbia — for graduate work. I didn’t say anything about it, because I wasn’t sure I’d take it. Everything depended on Jack.” She sighed deeply. “Now, it doesn’t. I leave in two weeks. I just handed in my resignation.”
Sydney sat, stunned by the weight of her emotion, numbed by the thought of losing what little of her he had.
When she asked to see him after work the evening of her last day at the Centre, since they would probably never see each other again, he surprised himself by saying yes.
He would meet her for a drink at her apartment, and she would drive them to Hungarian Mike’s for dinner and dancing.
Sydney promised himself he would maintain his dignity and protect hers. He would not even think of taking advantage of her loneliness and hurt. One drink, and they would be in the public eye for the rest of the evening. When they got back to her apartment, if she invited him in, he would decline. Then she would be gone, and they would both be safe.
“What’ll you have?” Lorelei asked, rattling what sounded like any number of bottles in the kitchen area.
“Scotch,” Syd said, ill-at-ease in the one-room efficiency. At least there was no bed in evidence; just low, uncomfortable-looking, cushion-like chairs and a couch with wall-propped pillows instead of a back.
“Scotch, I got. Water or soda?”
Lorelei brought him the bottle, put it in his hand. “Scotch,” she said. “No ice, no water, no soda. Would you like a glass?”
He nodded, chuckling. He marveled at her poise, under the circumstances. Of course, she thought she was entertaining a true friend, not one who wished the door would seal before they could leave this unprecedented solitude.
“And a ladylike glahss of sherry for me,” Lorelei said, in an affected voice, bringing him a tumbler.
They sat on the couch. He poured himself a small splash of straight Scotch and sipped it.
“What a man…” Lorelei said, and he almost choked on his nervous laughter.
He was anxious to leave, but savored every second alone with her. When she suggested he put on some music, since they didn’t need to go quite yet, he took his time choosing. All her music, except the classical pieces, were unfamiliar to him, and classical music was to be attended to, not played as background to conversation. In the end, he selected something at random, something with a heavy, dragging beat and a discordant guitar.
“I didn’t know you dug R-and-B,” she said. He didn’t even know what R-and-B was, but he didn’t contradict her.
He seemed to have poured himself more Scotch than he had intended. He took another sip, and felt the effect on his empty stomach.
“Perhaps we’d better go,” he said.
“Do you think so? It’s still early….”
“We might be caught in traffic,” he said, an alarming warmth spreading through his limbs.
“I suppose you’re right. Did you see what the girls in the typing pool gave me? It’s on the book case over there.”
It was a cloisonné vase, royal blue, with jewel-like flowers twined around it. Glad of an excuse to put some distance between himself and temptation, he walked over to see it better. She had bought a rose and a spray of baby’s-breath to put in the vase. The rose was a delicate pink, and headily fragrant.
“I thought that was so nice of them,” she said. “Well, let’s finish our drinks and go.”
His glass seemed to be bottomless — he must have been more anxious than he had thought, to have poured so much.
Lorelei drank the last of her sherry, put down the glass, and leaned back against the pillows.
“I almost hate to go,” she said. “It’s so nice here.”
It happened before he thought. It seemed beyond his control. One second, he was putting his empty glass on the floor; the next, he was looking at Lorelei in her red shirt-waist dress, gazing up at him so sweetly; and then…
He leaned across her, and his lips brushed hers. He felt her react but, before she could defend herself, he kissed her again, still gently, but not to be denied. His hand caressed her waist, slid around to her back, and pressed her upward, against his chest.
Her lips moved under his; her arms pulled him closer. She freed her mouth and whispered his name. She kicked off her shoes and relaxed into his embrace.
Thrilled — excited as he had never been before — Sydney claimed her lips again. He eased apart from her and, trembling, touched her breast. She shuddered and put a hand on his, inciting him to go on.
He needed no encouragement. He cursed himself, once, for his selfishness, then let nature do his thinking.
The pillows hit the floor; the couch revealed itself as a bed in disguise.
Lorelei unbuttoned his shirt while he unbuttoned her dress. All intervening garments were disposed of with dreamlike efficiency, and he took her — took the woman who thought he was her friend — took her and reveled in the taking.
Afterwards, they held one another and wept.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She stroked his hair. “Don’t be sorry. I wanted it. Didn’t you know?”
He shook his head. “It’s my fault. How could I — ? I know you can never forgive me, but –“
“Listen to me –“
He sat up and pulled his clothes back together.
“Whatever you think of me,” he said, “you can’t think any less of me than I do of myself. I’ve wanted you for so long… You’re so dear…. But that’s no excuse. There is no excuse.”
“I’m sorry.” He all but ran from the apartment.
He received a letter from her, postmarked that same evening, but he hadn’t the courage to read the recriminations it must surely contain. She wrote him more than once, in the following year, but he neither opened the letters nor returned them. He had them in a strong box at his bank, reminders of his perfidy and his hour of greatest joy.
Lorelei pulled her chair closer around the table’s circle and took his hand.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said. “Thank you for meeting me. I can hardly believe you even spoke. When you didn’t answer my letters, I knew you were furious with me.”
“Furious? I? What did I have to be furious about? I didn’t read the letters. I was afraid to.”
The waiter interrupted them.
Sydney wanted Scotch, but he ordered a dry white wine. Lorelei ordered the same.
When the waiter had gone, Sydney took refuge in small talk.
“College went well?”
Her expression was unreadable in the dimness, but she paused before answering, as if she were having trouble returning to the shallows where Sydney felt most comfortable.
“Masters from Columbia, Doctorate from University of Chicago — Go Cubs!”
Sydney chuckled, charmed again by her contrasts, her swift shifts of tone, so unlike his own carefully featureless surface.
“Did you stick with Physical Science?” he asked.
“I specialized in sub-atomics — Chaos Theory, ultimately.”
“You’re a theoretical physicist?”
“Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? — All those syllables, with an ‘ist’ on the end. I’m a teacher. I wanted to learn; I never even dreamed of contributing to the field, so I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t. I’ve done my share of donkey work for big names — big brains; guess I contributed in some small way, if you want to look at the Big Picture. But I teach.”
Sydney smiled, hoping she could see the pleasure and affection he felt at her accomplishments, not the least of which was her clear contentment.
“I’m teaching this weekend,” she said. “PIE stands for Physics Is for Everyone. Some governmental committee had this Bright Idea that America could meet the goals and needs of the twenty-first century and remain competitive in this global economy — Sound familiar? — only if the general populace were educated in the modern sciences. U of C got tapped to develop this set of layman’s lectures and take them on the road once a month. The faculty takes turns coming out. I’m doing one on the strange attractor tomorrow and on entangled particles on Sunday.”
“Sounds like a romance novel,” Sydney said, before he thought, and they were back where they had started. “Did you..ever remarry?”
“No.” She pointedly inspected the ring finger of his left hand.
“I never married,” Sydney said, softly. “There was always so much to do….”
She lowered her head and spoke so quietly he could hardly hear her. “I’ve kicked myself over and over for what I did. Please tell me it had absolutely nothing to do with your…lack of time. — I wanted to make it up to you, or at least make up with you. When you didn’t answer my letters… I didn’t know what else I could do. Come to the Centre? Make a scene? I had to move on, and I hoped you had, too.” She looked up at him, begging him to release her from a burden he didn’t see, hadn’t asked her to bear. “Maybe we both came here this weekend for a reason, Syd. This is my chance to ask you to forgive me.” He saw the glint of tears in her eyes. Green eyes, he remembered, flecked with gold and brown. “Can you forgive me?”
“Do you think I’ve blamed my victim all these years? Have I burdened you with the guilt of your own abuse, as well as the abuse itself?”
Lorelei drew a sharp breath. “The what?”
“Abuse. You were in pain. You trusted me. I betrayed you. What else would you call it?”
She buried her face in her hands, leaving a gap for her mouth. “If the waiter comes back,” she said, “tell him I want a martini. A double. Easy on the vermouth.”
From the first time she saw him, Lorelei felt she was having an affair with Sydney. Jack’s increasing indifference, his late nights at the office, perfume-scented shirts, and lipstick-stained collars all failed to hurt her as much as she knew they should have, because she had a lover of her own. If ever a woman committed adultery in her heart, that woman was Lorelei. She confessed to her priest and promised to guard her thoughts, but she couldn’t guard her feelings. Guilt haunted her; not guilt toward her inconstant husband, or even toward the church, but toward Sydney. He honored her with his friendship, and she harbored these lustful thoughts toward him….
Her feminist friends assured her that what she felt for him was natural and healthy, that she should feel guilty for not indulging her urges, not for having them. She didn’t see it that way, and was scrupulous in behaving toward Sydney with clean civility. Her friends assured her that, being a man, Sydney was only pretending to have no designs on her person, but she didn’t believe them. She hoped, but she didn’t believe.
And all the time, paradoxically, she worked harder and harder at salvaging her crumbling marriage. She didn’t understand how Jack could just fall out of love with her when she had to have her love for him squeezed out of her, drop by drop. Maybe he couldn’t help himself, any more than she could help her feelings for Sydney. Maybe Suzanne loved him back. (If Sydney showed the slightest interest in a physical relationship, Lorelei asked herself, would she say no? No.)
So she couldn’t blame him when he handed her the papers from his lawyer. She didn’t ask him how he could do this to her, because she knew. She did ask him how he thought he was going to remarry, and he said he was leaving the church. That was more shocking, to Lorelei, than his leaving the marriage.
“If you want to get an annulment,” he’d told her, “I won’t fight it. I’ll help you. Even pay for half. It doesn’t matter to me, but I know it does to you.”
Jack was very considerate, in his way.
She moved out, she kept her personal pain out of the office, and she planned her future.
On the day she handed in her resignation to the Centre, she knew she couldn’t just leave. One chance. She would give Life one last chance to make her happy, and then she would stop expecting — stop hoping for — any earthly joy.
Incredibly, Sydney agreed to meet her at her apartment. He seemed so self-assured and easy, and she was so nervous — making silly jokes, trying for laughs. Every time she could distract his attention, she snuck more Scotch into his glass. Her plan wasn’t to get him drunk, just to loosen his inhibitions, so that an evening of good food and music would lead gradually, inexorably, to a night of fantasy come true.
Instead, her first seductive overture had triggered a firestorm. One minute, she was making cow-eyes at the man and the next, he was on the job.
She met his passion with equal hunger. Like two starving people, they devoured one another until, too soon, they lay in each other’s arms and wept because the banquet was over, and because it was so delicious.
Then he sat up, with that inexplicable apology, that refusal to hear what she was telling him. She was afraid it was the liquor, and called his home number to be sure he had returned there safely, hanging up when he answered. She wrote him a letter, begging his forgiveness for tricking him into behavior he so detested, but he didn’t reply. He never wrote back, and she soon stopped writing.
Sydney reached toward Lorelei’s bowed head, wanting again to comfort her, again unable to permit the touch. “Would you like me to leave?”
“No!” She straightened. “‘What we have here,'” she quoted, “‘is a failure to communicate.'”
“What do you mean?”
Music interrupted her; music with that heavy, dragging beat Syd had come to identify as Rhythm and Blues.
“Dance?” Lorelei asked.
“I…don’t know how to dance — to this.”
With a wicked smile, Lorelei said, “I’ll show you.” She stood and held out a hand to him.
Sydney slid his hand into hers and let her lead him to the bar’s minuscule dance floor, where two other couples joined them. Sydney moved into the usual dancing position, but Lorelei slipped out of the traditional hold and put both her hands on his waist. After a brief hesitation and a quick check of the other dancers, he arced his arms around hers and rested his hands on her back.
As the music played, he felt himself surrender to the sounds, to the beat, and he relaxed. Without thinking, he pressed Lorelei gently closer, and she moved willingly. Her hands drifted around his waist until he held her swaying in an upright embrace.
Her head rested on his shoulder. Too softly for her to feel, he kissed her hair; he breathed in its fragrance — clean and faintly citron. He had meant her not to feel it, but perhaps she had; she moved her head…raised it slightly… He felt her lips on his neck…and again…just under his chin…below his ear… He tried to pull away, afraid his all-too-obvious excitement would frighten her, given his past conduct, but she held him against her.
Heart pounding, Sydney finally allowed himself to understand that he was wanted.
The music stopped, but he couldn’t bear to let her go. She pushed away and he dropped his arms; arms that felt cold, empty, and unnecessary without her in them.
She took one of his hands and tugged him off the floor. “Let’s go.”
“My room. Okay?”
He nodded, feeling a smile blossom, loving the smile she gave him in return.
The halls and elevator were too crowded for intimacy but, as soon as the hotel room door closed behind them, Lorelei was in his arms. They kissed passionately, lingeringly; more a drawing of long-awaited nourishment than a kiss.
The evening sunlight, leaking past the edges of the curtains, washed them in gold and gray. Lorelei drew him toward the bed, and he followed her happily. At the bed’s edge, she stopped and pulled back from him, but he wasn’t afraid now; he wasn’t afraid that she had changed her mind, or that he had repelled her — he knew her better than that, now. Her embraces, her kisses, her caresses had taught him better than that, in the space of less than an hour.
She lifted the bottom edge of his sweater vest, peeled it up, and he bent to let her slip it off. She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt…the second…the third… She spread the shirt open and put her hand inside, over his hammering heart…
He put his arms around her and lifted her onto the bed, lay down next to her. He wanted her so, but he remembered how it had been before: the ravenous satisfaction of desire, the guilt and melancholy afterward. This time would be different. He held her, kissed her, stroked her face, her hair, her body, thrilled to the feel of her hands on his bared chest. The delight was intoxicating…dizzying…almost enervating…
Lorelei eased off the bed and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking with laughter she tried hard to keep silent. He’d gone to sleep! She wiped the tears of hilarity away and risked peeking at him.
Sydney lay on his side, his shirt unbuttoned to his waist, sleeping as if he’d never slept well before.
She sat beside him, smoothing his hair, relishing the power of being so trusted, so comforting, so deeply pleasurable, that the world’s most guarded man made himself completely vulnerable to her. She kissed his ear — lightly — and maneuvered his shoes off his feet without waking him.
Suddenly, she was hungry, and remembered she hadn’t had dinner.
“Lucky for me I’m cheap.” She opened the mini-fridge and took out an apple, a wedge of cheddar, a small loaf of hard-crusted bread, and a bottle of Killian’s Red beer — meant for tomorrow’s lunch, but there was more.
She hoped Sydney would wake soon. She kept checking, as she ate, then as she went over the papers she was due to give. She made, perhaps, a little more noise than was strictly necessary when she brushed her teeth and got ready for bed. Her feelings vacillated between intense frustration and lush forbearance. Forbearance won.
She covered Sydney with an extra blanket from the closet, climbed in, naked, next to him, and pulled him into her arms. He settled there with a sigh of such contentment she thought her heart would burst with love.
When Sydney woke, he was alone. The bedside clock said it was 7:30 — He had slept for an hour! He looked again. 7:30 am — !
He sat upright, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He looked around…Not his room. Then he hadn’t dreamed last night. On the other hand, he couldn’t exactly recall last night. Gently, he touched the impress in the pillow beside his own, the rumpled coverlet. What had happened?
In another room, someone was singing. — In the bathroom. He sock-footed to the door and listened. Lorelei was singing. Did that mean that, whatever he had done — or hadn’t done — she wasn’t angry? That depended on the song.
It was opera…something from Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE. He closed his eyes and listened more closely, hoping it wouldn’t be the Queen of the Night’s revenge aria…. No, it was…it was Papageno and Pamina’s song in praise of love. He pressed his palm against the door panel, only moving away when he heard the knob slide in its casing.
She stepped out in a cloud of scented steam, dressed in a paisley blouse and a charcoal pants-suit. She smiled when she saw him; he held her close and nuzzled her neck. She was soft and warm and fragrant, and she put her arms around his waist and melted against him. He tried to move her back to the bed, but she chuckled and resisted.
“You had your chance,” she murmured, giving his waist a final squeeze before she released him. “If Joey has to give a talk at eight, the least I can do is be there to hear it. You have a seminar to attend, too, don’t you?”
He sat on the bed, alone, and forced himself to ask, quite casually, “Is Joey… Are you and he…?”
“An item?” She shook her head, jingling her silver atomic-model earrings. “Joey and Frank are an item. Frank is the one I called Mr. Wizard yesterday.”
“Oh.” He couldn’t keep the satisfaction out of his voice.
Lorelei sat next to him, a hand on his thigh. “I’m not an item with anyone at the moment. Does that matter?”
“Are you an item?”
“No. I don’t seem to be…item material.”
She laughed and kissed him briefly, sweetly. “You are so wrong.” She touched his face and traced the line of a dimple there. “Will we see each other later?”
“I’d like that. Would you?”
“Mm-hmm. Suppose we eat dinner tonight — just for a change. There’s a good, inexpensive French restaurant around the corner. Meet me in the lobby here at six?”
One last kiss, and she was gone. Sydney put on his shoes and made himself presentable, locked the door of Lorelei’s room and returned to his own, showered, shaved, dressed, ate a solitary breakfast and found the Twins Forum, all in a golden glow of happiness that made every breath taste of vintage wine.
She wasn’t waiting for him in the lobby. He had rushed from the last symposium to shower and change (maroon turtleneck, fawn trousers, hounds-tooth blazer). Then the elevator had taken forever; he had used the stairs, and the door to the lobby had been locked. No-one had answered his knock, and he had had to go to the mezzanine, onto the balcony, and back down. He was late, and she was gone.
Hoping he didn’t look as wild as he felt, he ran a hand over his hair and tried to think — what should he do?
A young man in the hotel’s livery stood at Sydney’s elbow.
The young man licked his lips nervously, his tongue ring clicking against his teeth. “Um…Do the words ‘Death on the Rocks’ mean anything to you?”
Syd laughed, relieved. “You have a message from Lorelei?”
“She said she was going on to the restaurant to hold the reservation. She said she’d meet you in the bar. It’s La Rond, out this door, turn left, around the corner, half-way down the block.”
He stood in the doorway of the restaurant’s bar, looking at her. She wore a full-skirted cocktail dress in dusty rose and a matching bolero jacket, woven with a pattern of silver roses. Her legs, in silver stockings, seemed to pour down the side of the stool. She chatted with the bartender, smiling…laughing… Sydney was shocked at the strength of the jealousy clutching his heart. He wanted her smiles to be for him. Only for him.
Then she turned and saw him, and he no longer grudged the bartender the anaemic expression he’d mistaken for a smile. She came to him. It was only with the greatest exercise of will that he kept himself from sweeping her into his arms.
“I see Tongue-Boy gave you my message.” She took his arm and led him to the Maitre’d’s station.
“Ah!” the head waiter said, with a smile. “Le monsieur est ici. Tres bien. This way, if you please….”
The food was wonderful, and the wine. And the company. Sydney found himself using all his pleasantry, all his charm, and none of his formality. For once in his life, he wanted no barriers, no protection. He felt lightheaded with vulnerability. So many times, he reached for her hand and pulled back, afraid he’d disgust her with his blatant need. So many times, he couldn’t make himself pull back, and took her hand, or stroked her fingers. When he did, she responded; invariably, she responded: she curled her hand in his, as if their hands were naked bodies fitting themselves together, and again he had to pull away, nearly overcome with desire.
Still, they managed to converse as if they were simply having dinner. …What he had done all day, what she had done all day, how her paper had been received, funny questions from the audience. He told her, in general terms, about the progress of his twin research and of his brother’s death.
They walked back to the hotel in the balmy moonlight, hand in hand. Before they entered the lobby, they stopped, as if they had rehearsed it, turned to each other, and kissed. Their lips barely touched, an observer who had blinked would have missed it, but Sydney felt an electric warmth course through his body.
As they passed through the lobby, Syd saw “Tongue-Boy” grin and give Lora a thumbs-up. She returned the gesture. Syd drew her hand through the crook of his arm in an unconscious sign of possession. She smiled up at him, pulled back his cuff, and caressed his wrist while they waited for the elevator.
Safe. That was the basic feeling he had with Lora: He was safe. She would never turn on him, or turn from him, never take offense where none was intended, never deliberately hurt him. Her husband must have been insane. All the men she’d met since the divorce must have been insane. How could a man know her and not want to be with her, always — always?
But all the men she had known couldn’t have been insane. If Lora was alone, it must be because she chose to be alone. Could it be that… Could it be that she had been waiting, hoping to find him again? At that possibility, Syd’s heart leapt, and he slipped his arm from under Lora’s hand and put it around her waist. Surprised, Lora looked up at him, and the tenderness in her expression was nearly more than he could bear.
The elevator doors slid open. A laughing crowd poured out.
“Lora! We were just looking for you!”
At the heart of the crowd were Joey and Frank, Lora’s co-workers.
“There’s a great blues bar a couple blocks from here — you’ve gotta come with us.” Joey gave Syd the once-over. “Your friend, too, of course.”
Syd held Lora more tightly.
“I’ll have to give it a miss,” Lora said. “But thanks.”
“C’mon, Lora –“
Frank plucked at Joey’s sleeve. “We’ll tell you all about it on the way home. See you tomorrow.”
They had the elevator to themselves.
“Frank’s a romantic,” Lora said. “Joey would have whined at me until I smacked him; he and Frank make a good pair.”
“So do we,” Sydney was horrified to hear himself saying. He buried his face in Lora’s hair and murmured, “We make a good pair.”
Lora relaxed against him, running her hands inside his jacket, as if she wanted to memorize every muscle by touch.
She thought to herself, He must know it’s impossible. He must know, but he isn’t thinking now. Imagine that — Syd not thinking!
Lora felt physically weak, as if all her energy were concentrated in her heart. When the elevator doors opened at her floor, it was only with great effort she detached herself and walked on her own. If he had literally swept her off her feet and carried her to her room, she wouldn’t have objected, though she would have brained any other man who might have tried.
There was no discussion as she unlocked the door for them and locked it behind them. There was no question about where Syd would spend the night. They both knew. The comfortable silence was filled with the inaudible hum of two hearts finally on the same wavelength.
She shrugged out of her bolero jacket and tossed it on the chair. Syd’s jacket went on top of it. He stood behind her as she removed her earrings, kissing each lobe as it was unburdened. He put his arms around hers, lifted her left wrist, and unbuckled her watch, put it on the dresser. He lifted her right wrist, but she hadn’t worn a bracelet; the wrist was bare. He raised it and kissed it, his lips soft and warm on her pulse. She brushed his cheek with her mouth. Slowly, he turned his head, and their lips met.
Lora felt as if her veins were filled with warm honey. Her heartbeat was strong and heavy; what was happening now was too solemn for flutters.
Sydney’s arms drew back from her waist. He found her dress’ zipper and undid it, slowly — so slowly. Then his hands were inside the dress, on her skin, warm and gentle… She leaned against him and reached up, fingers twining in those lovely messy curls at the base of his neck, urging him on with her kisses.
This time, nothing was hurried. This time, there was no guilt, no anxiety, no misunderstanding. This time, it was a very long time before either of them went to sleep.
The sound of his cell phone woke him. He reached for his jacket on the bedside chair and retrieved the instrument.
“Where in the hell are you?”
It was Miss Parker, his co-worker — technically, his supervisor — on one current project at the Centre.
“Where would I be at –” he checked the clock, “– 4:30 in the morning? In bed.”
He had hoped not to wake Lora, but her eyes were open (green, flecked with gold and brown). He mouthed the word, “Boss.”
“Like hell,” Parker said. “I had the front desk put me through to your room. Broots sat here for ten minutes, listening to your phone ring. Where are you?”
“Well,” Syd murmured, with a wicked smile, “I didn’t say I was in my own bed.”
The silence on the other end of the line was so profound, Syd finally said, “Miss Parker? Are you there?”
When Parker spoke, she had obviously decided to ignore all implications and get back to business.
“We’re going to Boston. I want you on the next available flight.”
Next available flight? When he had just found this joy?
“But, Parker –“
“So you miss a day with the Doublemint Twins. This is top priority. Boston. Be at the Indianapolis airport at –” Syd heard her fingers snapping as she badgered Broots, their other co-worker, to give her the information, “– eight o’clock. A.M.”
He sighed and put down the phone. Typical. Predicable, really. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the headboard.
“Bad news?” Lora asked.
“I have to take the next available flight to Boston. I have to be at the airport in Indianapolis at eight. This morning.”
Lora sat up, tucking the sheet around herself. “I have a paper to give at nine-thirty, or I’d come see you off.”
Abruptly, Syd scooped her into his arms and held her tightly, almost roughly. How could she be so complacent? Didn’t she understand?
“I don’t want to say goodbye so soon! When I’ve just found you again, after all this time? We have so much to talk about. So much to plan….”
Lora stroked his shoulders, his back, ran her hand over his hipbone and along the line of his thigh. Her touch was magical, transforming his anger into tenderness. When his angry grip loosened, she said, “You know we can’t be together, don’t you? I mean, in a white-picket-fence kind of way?”
Syd visualized a flower-draped cottage on the Centre grounds, and Lora hanging wash in the back yard. He laughed.
“Are you going to quit your job and come to Chicago?” she said. She answered her own question: “No. And I’m not going to quit my job and come live in Delaware, that’s for damn sure.”
She pulled away far enough to look into his eyes. He wanted her to kiss him. She did; passionately, lingeringly. He eased her back onto the pillows, and they made love again, and this time was the best of all.
They lay on their sides, arms and legs entwined, with his head cradled in the hollow between her shoulder and her breast. She ran her fingers through his hair, and he gave her body tiny soft kisses.
She said, “This paper I’m giving to day is on entangled particles. Do you know anything about them?”
He shook his head. “Uh-uh.”
“There’s a theory that two particles, once they’ve interacted, stay connected, no matter how far apart they are in space or how much time has passed. It’s an example of non-locality, but most people like to use Einstein’s term: spooky action at a distance. That’s us.” He looked up at her. She pulled him closer and kissed him. “We’ve been entangled since the first day we saw each other. We were bound to find each other again. We had to resolve our misunderstanding. This weekend happened twenty-five years ago. Spooky.”
“Very,” he said. “And we’ll never be completely apart again. We can write each other –“
“Oh, will you answer my letters now? How nice.”
He chuckled, nestling back into place. “And we can phone. And e-mail.”
“And there are planes and trains and automobiles, and long, long weekends now and then and here and there.”
“Mm-hmmm.” — Planes!! What time was it? He sat up. “The time! I forgot!”
Lora grasped his wrists and laughed. “I didn’t forget. You have five minutes left to snuggle. Then I’ll call room service for breakfast while you get dressed. You can pack and come back here to eat. Check out from here and have the desk call a cab, and you’ll be in Indy with time to spare.”
Syd gathered her into his arms. “I never knew you were so efficient.”
“I’m an experienced slacker. I know how to milk every minute.”
Sydney packed as quickly as he could — not difficult, considering how little time he’d spent in his room. He grinned at the telephone, imagining Miss Parker making that morning’s call, then forcing somebody else to wait for the answer. She would probably have something to say to him about it; he wondered if she would quiz him, or pass a remark and then ignore the entire incident. Broots would want to know all the details. Syd’s grin widened. Broots was doomed to disappointment. Syd wasn’t a man to…kiss…and tell.
Breakfast was rushed, but Syd took mental notes for next time: how they would order different dishes and share; how they would linger over coffee sweetened with kisses; how he would feed her oranges, slice by slice, and lick the juice from her lips.
Too soon, the desk called to say his cab was waiting.
Lora, dressed in a blue pants-suit and lightweight cream sweater for her final day at the seminar, came down with him.
“Tongue-boy” was on the desk; he accepted Sydney’s key with a wide smile. Sydney decided that Tongue-boy must be yet another romantic.
As the cabbie loaded Syd’s baggage, Syd put his hands on Lora’s shoulders. His hands felt heavy with their coming emptiness.
“And so we part,” he said.
“Never,” she answered. “Me photon, you electron, remember?”
One more kiss, one more embrace, and he had no choice but to fold himself into the cab and close the door. The cab pulled out of the parking lot and circled the block before heading north out of town. Syd twisted in his seat to keep the hotel entrance in sight. Lora was there. Lora was always there, as long as he could see where she stood. Lora would always be there, no matter where they were, no matter how much time passed. He was entangled. Finally, beautifully, unequivocally entangled.
He was so happy. Though it was, in its way, spooky.