Blair lifted the man's arm and slid out from under him. She tucked a pillow back in her place, and he embraced it easily. She smiled at that. Men. She gathered her clothes from the floor and tucked them under her arm, picked up her shoes, stopped in the doorway. She looked back at the man, his long, lean body curled away from her, his hair a tousled mess, his face half buried in the pillow. I could climb back into bed and stay there awhile, she thought. She closed the door quietly behind her.
The hallway of his apartment was dark and she slid her hand along the wall until she found a light switch, flicked it on, squinted in the sudden brightness. She hadn't looked at the clock. Had she slept all night or only an hour or two?
She headed down the hall, drowsily dropped a shoe, which thudded on the hardwood floor. Another door opened and a woman appeared, pajamaed and sleep-rumpled. Blair recovered her shoe, stood and shrugged, naked, too slow to cover herself up.
"Are you a roommate or a wife?" Blair asked.
The woman peered at Blair. Someone without her glasses. "Roommate," she mumbled.
"Good," Blair said. "Go back to sleep. I'm leaving."
Perry. That was his name.
"Sleeping. Sorry I woke you."
The woman plunged back into the darkness of her room. Blair continued on down the hall.
She found the kitchen, dropped her clothes and shoes on the old pine table, grabbed a glass and poured herself water from the tap. She drank, then opened the fridge. Filled the glass with white wine, sipped at it, took it with her back to the table. Microwave clock read 11:45. She had barely slept. Amanda would still be awake, maybe waiting for her. She found a phone, curled into a chair at the table, dialed and drank.
"Hey," Amanda said into the phone.
"I'm sorry," Blair told her. "I'm late."
"Or early," Amanda told her. "I thought maybe you'd crawl in sometime tomorrow."
"I don't crawl, Amanda."
"Then you'd tango home. Who's the guy?"
"Maybe I'm at the library. Studying for a master's degree in quantum mechanics."
"You coming home?"
"Did you get worried? Damn, I should have called."
"I didn't get worried. I'm not a baby."
"What did you eat for dinner?"
"I finished the lasagna."
"Damn you. I've been dreaming about that lasagna."
"I'll make you some eggs."
"You go to sleep."
"I'm not tired."
Blair smiled. "OK, then I'd love a mushroom omelette. With cheese. Tons of cheese."
She hung up the phone, took one last swig of wine, pulled herself up and out of the chair. When she half-turned, pulling her sweater over her head, she saw someone standing in the doorway.
"You scared me," she said. Perry. Naked and watching her. She reached for her jeans, pulled them on. Stuffed her bra and underpants into her backpack.
"Who was that? Your boyfriend?"
Blair smiled, shook her head. "My daughter," she said. "Sixteen years old. Waiting for her mom to come home and tuck her in."
"You're some teenager's mom?"
"That I am." She slipped her feet into her shoes and turned toward him.
"You can't stay?" he asked.
"I don't stay," she said. "Something you should know about me."
"Too bad," he said, covering her hand with his own.
Blair put her hand on his chest, pressed her palm into him. "But I had fun. Tell me where we are. How I get home. That sort of thing."
They had met at a bar. He had driven them back to his place. She hadn't paid attention to anything except his slow voice, his hand on her thigh, the soft blur of streetlights from her tequila high.
"I'll drive you," he said.
"No," she told him. "I'll find a cab. Go on back to sleep."
"That's it?" he asked.
"You mean, are we now formally engaged? I don't think so."
He smiled. "I mean, can we try this one more time?"
"Maybe. Give me your phone number."
"You don't give out yours?"
He walked to the kitchen counter, pulled out a drawer, rifled through, found a business card, which he passed to her. He was comfortable being naked --- she liked watching him.
"I'll call you," she said.
"Maybe," he told her, smiling.
She pulled her backpack onto her back, headed toward the door. She looked back at him, blew him a kiss. He was watching her.
"Do you always do this?" he asked.
She stopped, leaned back against the door, suddenly tired. She waited.
"Is this what men do? And you do it better?"
"No," she said.
"Been burned too many times?" he asked.
"No," she said.
"I give up."
"I'm dying," she told him. "It's easier this way."
Neither spoke for a moment. It was the first time she said it. Something in her chest tightened. Blair leaned over, placed his business card on the side table by the front door.
"AIDS?" he asked, and she could imagine his mind flashing: Condom, we used a condom, hallelujah for condoms.
She shook her head. "I wouldn't do that to you," she said. "Just cancer. Nothing to be scared of."
"Except relationships," he told her.
"Right," she said. "Everyone's a therapist these days. Gotta run. It's been grand."
She opened the door, walked out, pulled it closed behind her.
Blair caught the last bus to the Haight, walked a couple of blocks, turned down her street. On the edge of the Haight, on the edge of a park, on the edge of elegance. She lived in a rented cottage behind a mansion. A dilapidated mansion in the middle of finely refurbished Victorians, most graced with pastel colors, hers boasting a loud, honking purple. The neighbors hated it. Of course. Which was Casey's plan.
Casey sat on his front steps, smoking a joint at midnight. She wasn't surprised. Her landlord had inherited money and the mansion; he coasted through life, women and drugs. She put up with him because she loved the cottage.
"Come join me," he called out before she turned down the driveway toward her haven.
"Gotta go. Amanda's waiting."
"One hit," he urged. "You'll sleep better."
Couldn't argue with that. Blair walked down the path to the front patio, joined him, midstep.
"Where were you?" he asked, passing the joint.
"None of your business," she said, taking in a good, long hit of the pot.
"Sex," he said. "I can smell it."
"You're disgusting," she told him. She took another hit.
Blair looked through the darkness toward her cottage, her daughter inside, making omelettes. She stood. "I gotta go. Amanda's making me an omelette."
"Can I join you? I'll bring wine."
"No." She started off, across the ruined grass of the front yard.
"Are you sick?" Casey called out.
Blair stopped, turned around.
"How'd you know?"
"I don't know. A hunch. Maybe that's the smell."
"You're smart for a rich kid."
"What's wrong, Blair?"
"I'm going to die?" she said. But somehow it came out as a question this time. How do you answer a question like that? She shook her head --- it still sounded as if the words had been formed in someone else's mouth. "Thanks for the smoke."
She turned and headed back behind the house, following a string of white Christmas lights that she used to line the path from the driveway to her cottage, tucked in the far corner of the backyard. The cottage was really a tiny apartment over a garage, but it was built in 1910, all in pine --- walls, floors, ceiling --- and was graced by a tree that hung over and around the house, making it feel more tree house than garage.
"I'm sick," she muttered to herself, trying a different take. No. That's beside the point. I'm dying is the point. "I'm dying" is what she needed to tell her daughter.
She climbed the wooden stairs to the cottage and caught the pungent smell of sautéed onion and garlic, saw Amanda's willowy shadow against the white curtain in the tiny kitchen, heard the African-drumming CD that Amanda listened to late at night with the lights dimmed low; she paused for a moment before turning the doorknob. Not yet, she thought. Not tonight.
She pushed the door open, breathed in, smiled. The small pine-walled living room was tented with lilac-dyed muslin billowing from the ceiling --- Blair always felt like she was entering her own exotic harem.
"Amanda, my sweet girl!" she called.
Amanda appeared in the doorway, boxer shorts, cotton camisole, untamed red curls, beaming. "You better be hungry."
Blair dropped her bag on the floor, beelined for her daughter. She ruffled her hair, planted a kiss on her ear.
"You got taller," she said, looking her kid straight in the eye.
"Since this morning?"
"Yeah. I think you beat me. Finally."
They turned back-to-back, butt-to-butt, head-to-head. Exactly the same height. But Amanda was fair-skinned and her mother dark, and Amanda's body was narrower, her bones sharper. She looked like she was about a minute away from becoming a woman, having shed her child's body only seconds before.
"You didn't sneak past me," Blair said, patting their heads together. "Yet."
They moved toward the table, a battered wood schoolteacher's desk, which sat in the middle of the tiny room that served as their dining room. Blair dropped, exhausted, into one of the wooden chairs.
"I'll get dinner," Amanda said. There was barely room in the kitchen for both of them.
Blair watched her daughter. She somehow felt she could see Amanda in all her incarnations --- she was the joyous five-year-old, the headstrong eight-year-old, the surly twelve-year-old, and now this, the lovely young woman --- in a flash of an eye. Even now, with a tattoo peeking above her tank top, she was Blair's baby. A few months ago, Amanda had come home with rove tattooed on her chest, just below her collarbone. Blair used to think she knew her daughter completely, knew every expression, every gesture. Rove? What did it mean? Was this Amanda's first hint of mystery?
"My boss said I can work an extra night at the café if I want to," Amanda said.
"You want more work?" Blair asked. "Why?"
"I want the money."
"You don't need the money. When was the last time you bought new clothes?"
Amanda owned two pairs of jeans --- one red and the other lime green --- and an odd assortment of bowling shirts, Hawaiian shirts, tuxedo shirts --- whatever she found at the vintage clothing store down the street. She looked like a kid playing dress-up, the clothes always too big for her, bound around her waist by bejeweled belts. She looked like no other kid at her high school, and Blair was proud of her for it.
"I buy CDs," Amanda said. And help pay the rent, Blair thought. She grabbed her daughter's hand as she passed by and pulled her close.
"You're too grown up, my girl," Blair said.
"I like working there," Amanda said. "And when it's quiet, I can get my homework done."
"How about parties, friends, goofing off?" Blair asked while Amanda set the table.
"Yeah, right," Amanda said.
"Is it my fault?" Blair asked. "If I didn't love you so much, you'd go have fun somewhere else."
Amanda leaned over and placed her fingers on her mother's lips. "Stop worrying about me," she told her.
"Could you bring me a glass of wine, sweetheart?"
The wine appeared, already poured and waiting. Blair took it from Amanda and grinned. When Amanda turned back into the kitchen, Blair closed her eyes, squeezing them tight. Not pain. Just too much noise in her head.
"Do you eat lunch by yourself at school?" Blair asked.
"I'm curious. I hated lunch at school. It was the most miserable time."
"I read a book," Amanda said quietly. "It doesn't matter."
"It does matter, sweetheart," Blair told her. "You need to talk to someone."
"I talk to you."
Blair watched Amanda in the kitchen, moving from pan to bowl to silverware drawer to stove, her hands always moving, every gesture as graceful as a dance.
"You're not lonely?" Blair asked quietly.
"No, Mom. I'm fine. I hate school. OK? But work's fine and then I come home."
"I know," Blair said.
"Dinner," Amanda announced, presenting the pan with a grand swoop of her arm. A perfect omelette.
"Bravo," Blair said. She was a chef; her daughter had learned well. And she shared with her the appreciation of good food.
Amanda slid the omelette onto Blair's plate.
"You eating?" Blair asked.
"Lasagna," she said. "I told you."
"How many nights will you work?" Blair asked. She tasted her omelette while they talked.
"It's up to me. I can match the nights you work so we can be home on the same nights."
"I might quit the restaurant," Blair said, though she hadn't thought about that yet. Her mind was racing through too many things --- money, illness, leaving her daughter, and now this idea: leaving her work.
"Quit cooking? Why?"
"Burnout. I'm exhausted."
"Since when? What are you talking about?"
Blair got up from the table. She turned, looking for somewhere to go.
"I've got to pee," she said, heading into the bathroom.
She shut the door behind her and leaned back against it. Pressed hard against the spot where her mole had been, under her bra strap, the mole that scraped and bled and healed and scraped and bled. Until finally she showed her doc during a routine physical and the good doctor cut the mole, tested the mole and pronounced her dead on arrival. Melanoma. Advanced stage. Why the hell didn't you do anything about this?
Because I was busy. Because I've got a daughter and a crazy job and not enough money. Because I don't pay attention to the details.
"Coming." She flushed the toilet and splashed water on her face. Opened the door. Sat down at the table. Knew that Amanda was watching her. She had told the doc, "I can accept dying. For me. But not for my daughter. She's got no one else."
"The omelette's delicious," Blair said, staring at it.
"You had a doctor's appointment this afternoon," Amanda said.
"You don't miss much. You're a pain in the butt."
"Yeah, I had a doctor's appointment."
"I've got some bug. Some virus. The doctor wants me to take a break from cooking for a while."
"What is it?"
"A virus. I just need to rest some. And I need to eat omelettes. That's the magic cure."
Blair picked up her fork and started eating. Her stomach was rototilling and she could barely swallow her food. Amanda still watched her.
"You're lying," Amanda said.
"I'm not lying," Blair barked. "Don't accuse me of lying. I'm sick. You think I'm happy about it? You think I want to stop cooking after all these years?"
Amanda's chair banged back against the wall and she was gone. The door to her room slammed shut just as the chair clattered to the floor. Blair pushed her plate away and dropped her head to the table.
The good doctor had said, "Do you have family?"
"No. My parents died years ago."
"There's a support group at the hospital."
"I don't need a support group," Blair had said.
"You're not alone in this," the doctor said. "You have to think about your daughter."
"That's all I can think about." Blair had walked out. Leaving prescriptions for pain that would come. Phone numbers for people who would tell her how to cope. Pamphlets that would describe how she would die.
She walked out and kept walking, from the Haight to the Mission, from bar to bar, drinking a shot of tequila, moving on. When she met the man with the deep voice and the soft touch, she was numb enough to go home with him, numb enough to make love until they slept, numb enough to forget Amanda. Until she woke up.
She picked up her fork and took another bite of her omelette. Her hunger was gone. She drank her wine. Hours of tequila, sex and pot and still she couldn't turn off her brain.
"Amanda?" she called.
The door flew open and Amanda appeared.
"I'm sorry I yelled. I hate being sick."
"What's wrong with you?" Amanda asked suspiciously.
"I told you." Blair drank the rest of her wine. "A goddamn virus."
"What kind of virus?"
"I don't know. I don't understand their mumbo jumbo. I'm tired, that's all. Maybe it's that fatigue thing. Where you can't get out of bed."
"I've never seen you not get out of bed."
"Speaking of which," Blair said, pushing back her chair and turning toward her daughter, "you have school tomorrow. It's past midnight. Get your sorry ass in bed."
Amanda walked up to Blair, leaned over and kissed her on the top of her head. Like a blessing.
"Good night, sweetheart. I love your omelette."
"That's two lies in one night," Amanda said, heading back into her room and shutting the door behind her.
Blair heard Amanda rattle around in the kitchen early the next morning. She didn't move. Chronic fatigue syndrome. Wouldn't that be nice? Too tired to care. She listened to the noise of Amanda's morning routine: Now she's getting the milk; now she's pulling her cereal from the pantry; that's the cabinet for the bowl, drawer for the spoon. See. She doesn't need me.
Where does a kid live when she's sixteen and she's an orphan? No way she's going to an orphanage. Does she stay here in the cottage, take her books and head to school, come home and make herself dinner, go to bed, wake up, take her books and head to school?
Blair buried herself deeper in the bed, smothering the sounds of Amanda surviving without her. When she came up for air, the cottage was silent --- Amanda was gone. And somehow Blair slept.
Until she heard the door open and thought, She's home; I've slept all day. No, an hour had passed.
"Amanda?" she called out tentatively.
And for the first time she thought: It's an intruder, a rapist, a madman. He'll kill me. Hot damn. I won't have to spend so much time dying after all.
But still, there was the problem of Amanda. How could the best thing in my life, Blair thought, become the worst thing in my life? My daughter.
And then another door opened, her own bedroom door, and the madman stood there in the form of her landlord, Casey.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"Checking up on you."
"I don't need checking up on. And you didn't knock."
"I have a key."
"You don't have a right to use that key. Unless there's an emergency."
"I'd call this an emergency."
"You're horny every day. What's new with that?"
"That's got nothing to do with your being horny."
"Thought maybe you'd want to forget about your troubles."
"Casey," Blair moaned, but she pulled back the covers, and he walked toward her, throwing off his clothes on the way.
Casey was tall, skinny, balding and bearded, a caricature of an aging hippie. But he loved sex, almost as much as he loved drugs, and if he wasn't high on anything other than pot, he was a wonderful lover. So Blair let him in her bed from time to time --- though he asked too often and stayed too long.
"Get a girlfriend, Casey. Get a wife," she said, looking up at him.
"You're beautiful," he said. He reached down and stroked her arm.
"For about another minute."
She wasn't beautiful, but men found her exotic or sexy or something --- it had proved true through all the stages of her life. Now, at forty-two, she was still fit, probably because she walked back and forth to work, ate little because she spent so much time around food, and seemed to be in motion all the time --- even in the small spaces of her restaurant kitchen or tiny cottage. She was dark, her hair cut short but untamed, with loose curls that framed her face and fell across her eyes. Her features were all a little large --- her eyes wide, her nose long, her lips full --- and though she saw the faults in that when she looked in the mirror, men saw a kind of lush, ripe territory they wanted to explore.
"You contagious?" Casey asked.
"No. Climb in."
"You hurt anywhere?" he asked, sliding into bed beside her, curling his body around hers. His hands started moving over her skin, sending little shock currents through her.
"Not anymore," she murmured, moving closer, breathing him in.
"What is it, Blair? What's wrong with you?" he asked, moving over her body, their legs tangling, their breath finding the space in the crook of each other's neck.
"Not enough sex," she whispered.
He pushed himself down in the bed, drawing lines with his tongue over her full breasts, between them, down along the flat slope of her stomach. When he buried his face between her legs, she moaned and felt herself open --- her legs, her chest, her heart. And then she was crying, but he didn't notice, so he kept sucking her, and her legs wrapped around his neck so that he wouldn't stop.
When she came, she pushed him over and climbed on top of him, sliding his cock inside of her, not waiting for his rhythm, his desire, his need. She rocked against him, pulled away, her body lifted, her head thrown back. She was still coming.
Then he sat up, pushing her back, so this time he was leaning over her, plunging into her, hard, so hard that she thought he might break her, and she wanted him to go further, to make her body hurt from so much feeling. And suddenly he pulled out of her and grabbed himself in his hand and let himself come all over her stomach.
She looked at him. He had his eyes closed, and his mouth spread across his face in a sweet smile. Stoned. He was probably stoned at nine o'clock in the morning.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. "You're crying," he said.
She shook her head.
"We should do that more often," he said.
Again she shook her head.
He lay down next to her, upside down in the bed.
"Go away, Casey," she said.
"Give me five minutes, darling. Just let me lie here next to you."
"Five minutes," she told him. "Then go away and never come back. I don't want to do this anymore."
He leaned up on his elbow, gazed down at her.
"Did I hurt you?"
"Not enough," she said. She closed her eyes, rolled away from him. "Please," she said, her voice hard. "Go."
She kept her back to him while he stood, put on his clothes, moved toward the door.
She waited, turned away from him, until she heard him leave.
When the door clicked closed behind him, she lay in bed for a moment, contemplating sleep. But she thought about the cancer in her body and felt heavy, weighed down by so many black cancer cells, pressing her into the mattress. She pushed herself upright and began to tremble.
She would die. She would die before her daughter finished high school, before she finished growing up. Before she found boyfriends, lost boyfriends, chose careers and changed them again, found new cities, new homes. Blair would die, and someone would take her place in the kitchen at the café; someone would move into the cottage; Casey and Perry would find other women to love for a moment or two. But no one would step in as Amanda's mother. No one would love her daughter with the same passion, the same joy.
Blair forced herself out of bed. She needed to stop the shaking in her body. She threw on a kimono, went into the kitchen to put up water for tea. The kettle wobbled in her unsteady hand. She remembered a moment in her childhood --- she had watched Hitchcock's The Birds one evening; she might have been eleven or twelve --- and she woke in the middle of the night, screaming. Her mother was in her room before she herself was fully awake, the screams just beginning to subside. Her mother held her, quietly, stroking her head, waiting until Blair mumbled something about the black sky of birds. "Shh," her mother said, holding Blair, letting her fall back to sleep in her arms. I need someone to hold me, Blair thought.
Her parents were killed when Blair was twenty-six. They had taken their first real vacation, a fishing trip to Mexico, and chose to drive to Baja because flights were so expensive. The police said they must have been lost, to have ended up in such a godforsaken town in the middle of the mountains. A couple of teenage boys stopped their car, robbed them, and when Blair's father had a heart attack, the boys panicked and shot Blair's mother. They stole $345 and the old Buick, leaving the couple in a ravine at the side of the road.
Blair thought about her parents, guns pointed in their faces. Was her mother holding her father, who would have already fallen to the ground? Was her father already dead, her mother already mourning him when the bullet pierced her own heart? Or had her mother been shot first, and her dad's heart stopped cold at the thought of life without her? Did either have time to think about death? Did they die instantly? Were they lucky to die so quickly, with so little time to spend contemplating death?
A policewoman came to her apartment in SoHo, where she was living at the time, where the latest boyfriend had just moved out, where she had just learned that she was pregnant, that morning, and already she had an appointment for an abortion at the clinic in the Village. "I'm sorry, sugar," the cop said after telling her about her parents' deaths, and Blair had looked at her, confused: Why is she calling me sugar? My mother called me sugar. Did she know that? The woman repeated the story to Blair, as if she hadn't heard enough the first time, and still she couldn't react, couldn't make sense of any of it. Until the policewoman left, and Blair crumbled.
Blair found things to do to keep herself busy --- collect her parents' bodies in Oakland, find a cemetery, bury them, sell their house, give away their belongings. And when she was done with it all, she was still pregnant, still aching with grief.
I want my baby, she decided.
She never went back to New York. She found an apartment in Berkeley, a waitressing job, a day-care center. When she yearned for her parents, she gathered Amanda in her arms instead. She was the grown-up now. She was the mother.
Over time, when she thought about her parents, her memories shifted in her mind, like pieces in a kaleidoscope. They reformed themselves, reorganized, rewrote her history. She had only hazy memory of the fights with her father when she was a teenager --- about the way she dressed, her politics, the pot she smoked, the bad boys she dated. She forgot her anger at her mother for sending her to private school on a full scholarship --- her mother thought she would belong to this other world but instead she inhabited its shadowy fringes. Blair remembered, rather, cooking with her mother, fishing with her father; she remembered their sweet love for each other and how she felt blessed when she heard the horror stories of everyone's parents' divorces. At home, she was safe. And when the world proved to be dangerous, she secluded herself in the cocoon of her childhood home.
Now she needed her mother, her father. She stood in the middle of the kitchen in her own cocoon, this tree-house cottage, and listened to the wail of the teakettle.
Excerpted from ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS © Copyright 2005 by Ellen Sussman. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.
On a Night Like This