He secured the boat and walked her toward her car. Her legs were surprisingly tired, and the first few steps on the dock she found herself bracing for the boards to lurch beneath her, as if it was the land that was treacherous and not the sea, and when they reached the street and he took her hand, it felt natural, though his palm was more callused than it had seemed while moving over her body. She was about to ask him home when he stopped and cleared his throat, and the sound thrilled her, because being with Steven was like being with Claudia had been, only now, as an adult, that sense that someone else was so much like you they might have been your twin. She knew what he was thinking, what was coming, and thought that his place was as good as hers; better even: she could always leave if things went wrong. She shifted the basket hanging from her elbow and leaned close to him.
"Listen," he said. His face was ruddy from the sun, his hair windblown. She pressed his hand to let him know he should ask, and swung the basket behind her, believing he meant to kiss her. In an odd way, she thought, it would be their first kiss: the sex had been so spontaneous that it almost didn't count. She was surprised at her impulsiveness, but not dismayed, the Grieshaber, the sex, it was as if she'd suddenly reinhabited her old self, the person she'd been years before with Claudia, and that pleased her. With him she felt whole again, her again. The connection was deep and palpable and utterly unnecessary to explain.
"I hope you won't think me rude," he said. "But I have a fair amount of work to do cleaning up the boat."
Her knees locked, her breathing clenched, she felt as though she'd been gutted. What was he saying? To her the boat had seemed perfectly clean, but it was clear that he was dismissing her. She let go of his hand and walked on, thinking that perhaps he hadn't enjoyed the sex or the silence after all.
To cover her embarrassment, she was compensatory, overly cool. "No." She folded her arms and watched her feet on the cobbles, taking care not to trip, aware of the bouncing of her breasts beneath her sweater, of the basket bumping at her side. The motion of her breasts struck her as absurd, and it galled her to think he'd seen her naked so shortly before, that even now, her bra was stuffed into the top of the basket. "I understand perfectly," she said. "I've work to do myself."
He was walking beside her, so she quickened her stride and pulled ahead. "I probably shouldn't have come at all."
A loose cobble shifted under her shoe, throwing her off balance, and when he took her arm and stopped she was brought up short and forced to face him.
"Did you not have a good time?" he said.
His directness shocked her into honesty. "Actually, I had a wonderful time."
"Then you shouldn't say that."
She laughed, surprised, and then swallowed the laughter, feeling herself blush, the skin on her face grow tight. What was he about? She pulled her arm away. "I suppose you're right."
He walked beside her to her car and tried once to hold her hand, but she would not allow it, switching the basket so it swung between them. If he'd had a good time, he hadn't said so. She fumbled with her keys. Should she ask him if he had, or should she wait to be invited out again? Perhaps he'd suggest another trip. She put the key in the lock, hoping that he would, since that would be her best chance for revenge, and imagined his mouth clenching into a small bud of disappointment when she refused him.
Before she decided, he opened the door and took her elbow and steered her into the car. The late sun was burning on the windshield, and he blinked his eyes against it.
She moved her legs, gripped the door frame, bent at the waist, and began to slide in, glad her shorts weren't shorter.
"Here you go," he said, and slammed the door on her hand.
The pain was so startling that it was not instantaneous. She saw him shudder, and she had a moment when she was looking at her improperly hinged fingers, knowing the pain was about to come but aware that it was not yet there, and then it enveloped her. It was shattering, so total it seemed akin to the language of pleasure. Her legs went but she would not lean against him, refusing to disintegrate in front of a man who was still largely a stranger, and who caused in her such conflicting emotions; instead, she sagged against the car.
He opened his mouth but no words came out, and his face was as pale as paper, as if he'd never seen the sun. With an effort, she handed him her keys.
"I can't drive," he said. His breathing was very shallow.
She started around for the passenger side, leaning her elbow on the roof for leverage. "I'll shift with my other hand," she said. She needed to get to a hospital quickly; her voice was beginning to shake.
"No." He stopped her. "I mean I can't drive at all."
She tried to comprehend what he was saying, but in her pain the meaning of his words seemed impossible to grasp. He glanced over her shoulder, squeezed her arm, left. Why was he running away? The back of her hand was already purple. Doubling over, she heard a horn.
He'd brought back a taxi; she saw the yellow hood and roof through swimming eyes. She cradled her hand in her lap as she climbed in, fingers curled, palm up, and he stuffed money through the driver's window, gave directions, and banged on the roof; the taxi shot away. She expected bones to burst through her skin, her mouth tasted like old pennies, she bit her tongue to stifle a moan.
Later, she would be angry that he'd not come along, even though she knew people reacted oddly to pain and guilt, but just now, feet jammed against the transmission hump, holding herself rigid in the speeding car, she was grateful not to have to listen to endless apologies. Her agony was pure enough, and she did not want to mix it with anger or disgust.
Excerpted from Collectors by Paul Griner. Copyright © 1999 by Paul Griner. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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.