he bedspread was sloughing off the end of the bed, the white sheets were flat as paper. This is not what she'd pictured when she asked him over for lunch today. It really wasn't. She may have changed her shirt a couple of times dressing this morning and put on lipstick, then wiped it off. It was Benjamin, after all. But she wasn't planning on winding up in bed. She was well aware there'd been other times in the past when she'd met him ostensibly as a friend and it had been known to evolve that some admission like I think about you still or the more direct I still want you would cause a sort of toppling of their reserve and before she knew it she'd find herself blurrily pushing him away at the same time that she was kissing him. When she finally managed to separate she would be half buttoned and unbuckled and the internal army which she'd had at attention to face him seemed to have collapsed into a dreamy, entwined heap. And, she had to admit there'd been times when things had evolved a little further. She wasn't perfect. But there definitely were plenty of times when she had remained polite and restrained, when they didn't talk about matters of the heart or, to be honest, about anything important to either of them. That's how it'd been recently, for over a year now. Or more, if she thought about it. It always helped to resist him if she were sexually in thrall with someone else. Then the troops would stay at attention, no problem.
But now, at this stage of things, she'd thought as she set out their lunch plates on the Indian bedspread which covered her plywood table, enough time had passed that she could feel safe whether there was another man or not. (At the moment, there was not.) Isn't that what everyone said? That after enough time had passed you wouldn't be affected anymore?
What did they know? Look at her now. With him. Time hadn't protected her at all. Fact is, time had thrown her in the opposite direction. Look where it threw her: back in bed with the guy. And with fewer qualms about being with him than she'd ever had. Apparently time eroded misgivings, too. No one had mentioned that. No one mentioned how time saturated relations between people with more meaning, not less. None of this undressing would have happened without the passage of time.
It wasn't exactly adding up as she'd figured.
Small tentative blips of danger appeared on her radar screen, but they were easy to ignore. The little alarms of the mind are less likely to be detected when the body is taken over by pleasure.
The first time he met her he was struck by something right away. She was leaning in the doorway of his office, a head with a fur-fronted hat like the Russians wear, talking to his assistant. He hardly saw her, a figure out of the corner of his eye, but that was enough. His chest felt a thump. When she walked in, he looked away. Not that she was so amazing-looking or anything, but there was something promising about her. His body felt it before he even knew what it was. Somehow his body knew she was going to change things.
She was wearing a blue Chinese jacket with all these ties on it, and when she sat down at the table she undid some of them but didn't take off the coat. She sat and listened to him like a youth recruit listening to her revolutionary assignment. She even knew something about Central American politics. He gave her the usual spiel about the script, which of course she had read or she wouldn't have been there applying for the job, but he had to rely on automatic because he was feeling strangely backed into himself. He felt as if most of what he was saying was ridiculous, but it didn't really bother him because he was also feeling strangely vibrant. She stayed very still listening to him, frowning, businesslike which was in contrast to the flaps on her hat, which were flipped up kookily and trembled slightly when she moved. She kept her mouth pursed in concentration. Every now and then a twitch escaped from it, as if it wanted to be moving. He told her about his struggles to get the movie made and cracked some usual jokes. He made her laugh. That was one thing he knew how to do, make a girl laugh. Her laugh had relief and surprise in it. It had a lot of girl in it. He wanted to keep making her laugh.
She asked him, 'What was the first thing that made you want to make this movie?' Her brow was furrowed. Her mouth twitched as if suppressing a smile. It was a normal, regular question, but it seemed as if no one had ever asked him it before, or, at least, not with the interest she had, and he felt as if she'd just inserted one of those microscopic needles into his spine and was making an exploratory tap down into the deepest recesses of his psyche.
It was weird. He liked it.
He hired her. On her way out she surprised him by sort of lunging toward him as if she was about to fall over. She grabbed his arm and gave it a squeeze, not in a flirtatious wayhe had made sure to mention Vanessa, the fiancée, all thatbut it somehow hit him more than if it had been flirtatious. It was full of goodwill, and strong.
That night walking home he wondered about her, telling himself he was wondering about her the way anyone wonders about someone he's just met and is about to work with. He wondered about where she lived and what her life was like and if she was involved with anyone and what she'd be like in bed, just normal idle thoughts.
He saw her again a few days later at Liesl's loft, where they'd agreed to meet before an art opening. Liesl was a pot friend he'd met during his brief employment moving works of art, and she'd suggested her friend Kay for his movie. Kay was there already and opened the door to him and led him back into the gigantic room. As he followed her he could see her shape better. She was wearing jeans and a small sweater and giant boots. She had narrow hips without much of a waist, but with a sloping curve at her lower back. A strong urge to get near that body expressed itself in his becoming mute and planting himself by a window, a place he'd spent many hours, since there were no chairs in Liesl's loft. Kay and Liesl were crossing back and forth in the narrow door across the room, still getting dressed. What were they doing? They looked ready to him. During one of his times of estrangement from Vanessa a few years before he'd found himself back there in Liesl's bed. Just that one time. Liesl had been his friend for a reason; she wasn't his type. She looked toohow would he put it?exhausted. You heard people say that whenever men and women were friends they secretly wanted to sleep with each other. But he never wanted to again. Just that once. Watching them arranging themselves in the mirror above Liesl's paint-encrusted sink, he felt intuitively about this new woman Kay that she probably shared a lot of the same interests that he had. At least, more than Vanessa. Though he loved Vanessa. He told himself that. It was like a refrain, one he often returned to since he'd fallen out of love with her. It was his concession to fidelity to remind himself of his continual love for Vanessa in the presence of this new woman.
Later at the opening he glimpsed Kay across the crowded white room. There were people in bulky coats and a muffled din. He felt a sudden proprietary feeling when he saw her gaze up at a tall guy with a goatee. What was that guy saying to her to make her eyes shine that way?
She sank into the familiarity of him and let the sex drug do its work. Benjamin was like that, a drug. He was the lure of the abyss. She drank him in. He was like a strong liqueur trickling down such heat inside you, you wonder, Have I been so cold until now?
Yes. It was starting again, the blood humming. She let it carry her. What was that Oscar Wilde quote?that the beauty of the emotions is that they lead us astray. The humming spread through her. She felt how wound up she'd been. What relief this was. She was tired of having to look out for herself, tired of beating through thick brush. She didn't realize how tired. Trying to sort out the right way to behave if she was going to get where she wanted ultimately. Which wasn't likely this. At least, that's what she'd convinced herself of. But a whizzing in her ears seemed to indicate tanks receding, called off to fight other battles.
For a moment the rushing stopped like an engine switching off and her languorous feeling was suspended. She was momentarily stranded, staring at the soft bulging veins an inch from her face. It often happened at some point during sex: the oddness of what she was doing, in this case, swallowing a man's private parts, pumping him up and down. He wasn't making a sound or a movement. For an instant she felt the absurdity of sex like a wink.
Then she saw them as two soldiers, survivors on a battlefield, too exhausted even to moan, united by the fact that they'd both gone through the barrage and both were miraculously still breathing.
The thing to do was to press on. The sensation would come back again. Sometimes you had to help it.
So, pressing forward, she continued pumping at him, lips firm. An image appeared of an oil rig on a dusty Texan flatland. She let it fade. It became pistons in a factory assembly line. Neither was helping her to press on. She steered her attention out of the factory and into an alley behind a bar where a door was open to some music playing and in the shadows were a man and a woman. The man's back was against a wall and he was pulling up the woman's short skirt. He told her to get down on her knees. The woman did what she was told. She was wearing high boots. She unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants and began doing the same thing Kay was doing. Kay sort of merged with the woman. The ground was hard under her knees and the man's hands were guiding her neck, binding her. She went over other details of what was going on in the alley, someone spying through the door, the man lifting her shirt to feel the woman's breasts. Dwelling on this scenario intensified the less varied activity of what Kay was actually doing there, ministering to a silent Benjamin.
Excerpted from Rapture by Susan Minot. Copyright © 2002 by Susan Minot. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.