Nina Reilly wiped her goggles and watched Paul swim. He stroked smoothly, kicking underwater, moving up and down the lane without stopping, like a pacing porpoise. He wore his yellow snorkel and goggles, and she could hear his lungs laboring when he came close.
Enjoying the pattern of the water on the ceiling of the condo-association pool, she returned to backstroking in another lane. Pull hard back with the arms, keep the legs stiff, and windmill that water. The two of them were going nowhere, but it felt like lovemaking, the cool slap of the water he churned up, the water rippling back to him, a water bed without the plastic.
She touched the wall. He turned at the far end. As he swam down the lane she had the strangest feeling about him, as if the pale watery creature before her solidified before her eyes. Hanging on to the rough concrete wall of the pool, she thought, he might swim toward me with that silly yellow snorkel for the rest of my life. How many years do I have left? Forty years, if I get lucky? She was in her mid-thirties, Paul was over forty. How long did they have? A lifetime? A summer?
Well, that's what I came down here to find out, she said to herself.
He hit the wall and came up grinning, goggles fogged up. "Done?" he said. Then, "What's the matter?"
"Your face says different."
"I'm trying to see the future."
"What do you see?" He pulled himself over until his face was inches from hers, his hazel eyes reddened by the chlorine, the lashes beaded, the water making rivulets along his nose, red lines across his forehead and cheeks from the goggles.
"That is the correct answer. As your reward, I will sing you a song I just made up." He pulled himself onto the edge of the pool and, legs dangling, sang in a gravelly voice:
I am the creature from the lagoon
You're a blond coed starin' at the moon
I'll rise up drippin', a scary sight
Baby, are you ready, it's love-monster night--
She hung in the water, her eyes at his ankle level. Tilting her head back and holding the wall with both hands, she let her gaze move boldly up his body, the strong pale thighs, the tight stomach with a little hangover of flesh at the waist, the sensitive nipples and broad shoulders. She said, "Are you going to wear your snorkel when you rise up?"
"I'll do whatever it takes."
"It won't take much." A look passed between them, and Nina reached over and squeezed his big toe.
"Let's wrap up in our towels and get back home," Paul said.
She mantled up onto the side of the pool, rested her knee on the concrete, stood, and adjusted her swimsuit bottom. Paul brought her the striped blue towel and they walked outside, down the path beside the bougainvillaea, below the neighbors' balconies. In the misty late afternoon they saw lights come on as people came home from work. A line of birds sat quietly in the branches of the oaks, paired off mostly, looking around. Peter Jennings pronounced the news in fatherly fashion from somebody's living room.
Paul hadn't even locked the door to his condo. Inside, in the hall with the bokhara rug that led to the living room, he said, "How was it? The future?"
He said seriously, "You know, this could go on forever or a day. Either one is okay."
"No, a day wouldn't be okay."
"You going to make me a declaration, Nina? Finally?" He folded his arms so the biceps bulged, Mr. Clean in a baggy wet pair of red trunks in his narrow hallway, and waited for her to tell him she was ready to link up her short time on earth with his. The conversations lately had been skidding into turns like these. Paul needed something from her, a formal statement, a closing of the box lid.
She couldn't do that for him, unfortunately. "You can have the first shower," she said, offering what she could.
"You are being oblique."
"You can even use my loofah."
"That's fine. We'll just continue to drift on the seas of uncertainty. Until the sun becomes a supernova and the seas all dry up."
Nina said, "I'll definitely say something before then. Just go get dressed. I'll watch the sun go down on the balcony."
"And get the fish marinating," Paul reminded her.
But he hesitated. He could see that she had a problem and he wanted to fix it. "The rash bothering you?"
"Yes. Go on, now."
"I told you, you can go in and get a shot," Paul said, still trying to fix the wrong problem. "You wouldn't feel so irritable."
They had been quiet at dinner. Now they held each other in Paul's platform bed, under the red-and-yellow Hudson Bay blanket.
A seashell night-light in the bathroom glowed dimly. Under the covers, her nightgown was pushed up to her waist. Her ankles, rear end, and forearms itched like fury. Damn right she was irritable.
She had a grand case of poison oak, predator of the Central California hills, because, oblivious to it, she had gone hiking behind the condo last week. She had no one to blame but herself, which irritated her even more.
And all of this specific irritation had wrapped itself around a general core of irritation within her. Although Paul did not intend it, circumstance had made of her the girlfriend who lives out of the suitcase in the corner. She had no home anymore, only his home, his street, his doors, his walls. She floated in his pool.
Living together was a revelation. Paul kept guns all over the house and a locked gun case in the car trunk; she hated that. His study was full of high-tech equipment she couldn't identify. He was physically exhausting; he worked out religiously at his gym, ran, played tennis, went rock-climbing, even played darts at his favorite bar. He cooked and loved to drive and he listened to jazz until late into the night. He had way too much vigor for her; he made her feel like a slug.
She liked to read all day, swim a bit, have a walk around the neighborhood with Hitchcock. She was a news junkie, loved to shop on the Net, enjoyed sitting at the kitchen table taking notes for that law-journal article she would write someday.
They weren't kids, and melding their lifestyles didn't come easy. And sometimes, damn right again, she found this irritating.
But she wasn't ready to say these things, so instead she sat up and searched the nightstand for her cream and said, "I told you, I got a shot of prednisone when I was a kid when I had it bad. The next morning I couldn't get out of bed, and my dad called the doctor. Oh, he said, steroids can cause muscle weakness. I couldn't stand up, my legs wouldn't hold me. I had to lie down for a week."
"It cured the rash, didn't it?"
Nina finished applying the hydrocortisone cream, slowly screwed the lid on, and set it on the table. That question of his pushed her irritation to a new flaming height.
Paul lay on his back, the sheet pulled up to his hairy chest, his hands entwined behind his head, revealing armpits covered with the same curling golden hair she loved so much, observing her. His smooth skin was a reproach, and his self-assurance needed a good kick in the rear.
"Do what you want," he said, too late. When he began rubbing her back, she pulled away.
Her dog, Hitchcock, stirred on the rug, stretched and got up and padded into the far corner of the bedroom, sensing gnarly human vibes, looking for peace.
Nina said, lapsing into self-pity, "I feel like a crocodile."
"It's not that bad and it's not catching, honey. And I can't see it in the dark."
She thought, if this love affair ends in a day I won't be able to take it, that's the truth. I've been through enough. But I can't live like this either.
"This will never work," she blurted out.
"Whoa," Paul said. "I thought we were having fun. What catastrophe just happened that I missed?"
"I'm not cut out to be half of a couple. I'm a solitary person." She scratched her forearm.
Paul said in a soothing tone, "Right now, we're together. Right now, we're good."
He reached out a hand and stroked her hip prize-filly style. At least this part of her anatomy had no rash. His touch calmed her. The prickling of her skin seemed less intense.
She felt her blood heating up, rising to the surface of her skin as he continued to massage, moving from her hip down to her thigh. His hand slipped around to her front and his fingers cruised into the danger zone. "Look," he said, "all that wine you drank tonight dehydrated you and makes the rash feel worse. You'll feel better in the morning."
"Grr." Nina pushed off his hand and jumped out of bed. "Leave my drinking habits out of this." She marched around the cold bedroom, arms crossed, thinking dark thoughts. Was there some secret smooth path between men and women that she had yet to discover?
Paul got up on his elbow to watch her. "C'mon back," he said. "Bedtime."
She didn't answer.
"Don't make me get out of bed. One."
The warning, issued in Paul's husky, determined voice, aroused physical reactions, warmth and wetness.
Against the white of the sheet, his skin appeared darker than usual. He had an end-of-the-day roughness on his cheeks.
"Not till I'm good and ready!"
"I'll get you good and ready. Two and a half."
Paul flung back the covers. "You're asking for it," he said. He jumped out of bed. Nina slid open the screen and rushed out to the deck, Hitchcock joyous at her heels.
Outside, bright stars. Wide oaks studding dark hills. Sage scent. A motorcycle's red light winking on Carmel Valley Road. She stood at the wood railing, back to Paul, wondering what he would do next.
He put his arms around her from behind and pressed against her. "I'm sorry, honey," he said. "Whatever I did or said, I'm sorry." Then he mumbled some things about how he loved her, and the universe realigned in that shifty way it has. The anti-itch cream began working and the self-pity dissipated, because he was pressing insistently now, hard and ready.
His skin felt hot in the moist cool air. She let him lower her to the plastic chaise lounge and push up the nightgown and then she locked lips with him. He had hard lips, not the smooshy kind, lips that made definite demands.
Leaves crackled under her on the plastic strapping, marking her, but she was past caring. The Summer Triangle spread across the sky above her half-closed eyes and how unimaginably distant blazed that inferno of stars in the blacklit storm of energies--
The light next door went on. The curious Mr. Mitts, Paul's elderly neighbor, had awakened. The head of his fat tabby appeared on his windowsill, ears pricked, and Hitchcock made a hopeless run for it, barking and snarling and waking up the whole place.
"In we go," Paul whispered. He carried her in.
Paul lay drowsy beside her, his breath thickened into a burr.
"Are you awake?"
"Good night, sweetheart."
Paul didn't answer.
"You know"--she opened her eyes and let the moonlight fill them, let herself talk--"I've been thinking some more about why I left Tahoe. I wanted to be with you, I really did. I needed time off from law. I was wrung dry. We both know that."
No response from his side of the bed.
She sat up in bed and reached for her cream. "I've been here at your place for three weeks. Bob's gone to Europe for the summer, I rented my house at Tahoe, and another lawyer is running my office up there. Pieces of me are strewn all over the place."
She thought about that for a while, punching her pillow, searching for just the right angle to rest her head. "Paul? I can't stand that for long. Have you ever read about the shamans who go through a ceremony of being blasted apart? Metaphorically, I mean. And then they reassemble as new people. They have some guidance, though. Traditions and dogmas. I don't have any guidance at all, and smithereens of me are drifting around. What kind of new person am I becoming?"
He turned as though he heard her and laid a muscular arm over her chest, and the declaration he had asked for earlier launched itself silently in her head. She thought, even though you're too aggressive and you want to control me, I love you. But, Paul, I'm afraid you want a sidekick. I can't be just a sidekick. I fought too hard to be autonomous, free.
Free, such a rare state for a woman. Autonomous. A word too seldom linked with the word woman.
She felt herself turning as moody as a three-year-old whose ice cream had fallen off the cone. Damn it, she thought, touching a finger to his tanned cheek. I do sort of want to be your doggone sidekick, at the same time.
What happens now?
She spiraled down into anxious dreams.
The last one went like this: She was back in court at Tahoe, dressed up, made up, sharp, making a closing argument in a murder case. The ladies and gents of the jury watched intently as she held up her arm and scratched her forearm meaningfully, one time only.
Somehow in this dream logic everybody in the courtroom knew that one scratch meant, he's innocent. The jury members lifted their skinny legs and prepared to scratch back.
Just then the door opened and a lawyer named Jeffrey Riesner came in wearing an Armani suit. He looked bewildered. Nina remembered that he was dead and his face began to cave in and she ran out the back. The forest closed around her and she ran on until she came to a rock wall. She could hear his peculiar breathing behind her so she scrabbled up to a high ledge.
He flew up after her like a wasp, to throw her off and kill her--
She woke up, breathing hard, pushing the button on her watch to make it light up. Almost 6:00 a.m. Thursday morning had begun. The phone was ringing.
"Wuh?" Paul said. He removed his arm from where it had come to rest on her chest.
Outside the sliding doors to the deck, ghostly fog, lit palely by a young sun somewhere above. On Nina's right, Paul lay on his back and went back to snoring. On her left, on a bedside table just big enough for a lamp, a pair of glasses, water, and a book, the phone continued to ring. She reached for it. It fell to the floor.
Excerpted from Presumption of Death by Perri O'Shaughnessy. Copyright © 2003 by Perri O'Shaughnessy. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.