RESTLESS in bed, Mike stares into the dark.
In the Bible, the Angel of Death is a messenger; the Talmud says he appears when there is no further remedy to be found, no other appeal to be made.
Timekeeper of the world.
Mike closes his eyes, tries to will himself to drift away. Let this cup pass from me.
For years now, he has denied his loneliness, has refused to even think about it. When his wife left him, it was easy to blame the weight and move on. Certainly, the last few years, with the demands of work and a global crisis, have made it very easy to forget.
Tonight is different. Something, despair perhaps or hope — they can seem so alike — awoke in him on the balcony the other night. It has gnawed at him these last two days, and it refuses to be stilled.
He hauls himself out of bed and ponders his situation for a moment. It is possible she might call security; it would be embarrassing, but he is unlikely to be thrown into jail for simply knocking on a door. She could answer and then merely close it again. That’s all right, he decides; he’s used to doors closing on him. Would she open it, let him in? Strangely enough, this seems the most disquieting prospect.
Well, then. Here we go.
He glances up and down the hall to see if there is anyone coming. He feels a bit foolish for doing so; he is a grown man, after all, and the hotel is virtually deserted. He pauses to collect himself, and then rings the bell. It is nearly 2am, and she is likely to be asleep. He fights the urge to scuttle back to his room and rings the bell again.
He hears shuffling on the other side. A sound he thinks is the hum of the hotel’s air conditioning turns out to be the rush of blood to his head.
She does not seem surprised to see him.
“Hello,” he says. She says nothing, waits. “I’m in the room next to yours. My name’s Mike.”
The question, when it comes, is polite but somber. “What can I do for you?”
He hadn’t thought of an answer for that one.
“I’d like to talk.”
“Because.” He pauses. “Because I can’t sleep. And obviously, neither can you.”
The door closes; for a moment Mike thinks it has closed for good, but he hears the clink of the chain being undone. When she opens it again, she is alert but not wary; she steps aside to let him pass. There’s only one lamp lit in the room, framing her in its warm orange glow. She is wearing a white tank top and jeans, her feet bare on the carpet. When he brushes past her, he catches a whiff of citrus, her perfume or shampoo. Her laptop, blinking on the dressing table, is playing music: a woman singing Ne me quitte pas.
“I don’t know what to call you.”
“Hello, Marisol.” He realizes that she is not so much beautiful as alive, intensely alive behind the politeness and reserve. He gains the sense that she really sees him when she looks at him. It is unnerving, and he is momentarily stumped. Say something, anything.
“Why did you run away from me last night?’
“You want the truth?”
“Truth’s always nice.”
“Not always.” She looks away. “I suppose the same reason you were running after me.”
“Ah.” Mike feels a rare stab of pleasure, but suppresses a smile.
“I saw you yesterday morning,” she volunteers.
“Outside the lobby, yes. I saw you, too.”
She shakes her head. “No, at the conference.”
“The WHO conference?” He is taken aback. “What were you doing there?”
“I’m covering it for my agency. I caught your report. You’ve been busy.”
“Ah.” Mike tilts his head slightly. “I didn’t see you.”
“I tried to stay out of your way.”
“Because of the other night?” She says nothing. Mike looks down at his feet. “I scared you that much?”
A beat. “You scare me now.”
He clears his throat, suddenly dry. “That wasn’t my intention. Isn’t.”
“What is your intention, then?”
The laptop is now playing an Aznavour song. When he recognizes it, he can’t help smiling; it seems appropriate for the occasion. “Par la contradiction de ma tete et mon coeur,” he echoes softly. “J’en deduis que je t’aime.” Surprise, delight flicker across her face, then are quickly gone.
He walks toward the balcony, pausing a short distance away from the glass doors. They’re open a few inches, and a mild breeze is stirring the curtains. He is aware that she is still watching him closely; he hopes she is not repelled by what she sees.
“My wife is dead,” he says quietly. “Well, she left me first. Then she died.”
Without seeing her, he can tell she’s moved a bit closer to him. “In the first wave?”
“Yes.” He chuckles. “The one that killed all the supermodels.”
A moment’s silence. “Did she see you before she died?”
“No. I wanted her to. In the end, there didn’t seem to be any point.” He is surprised to hear her laughing softly. He turns to look at her. “Share?”
“There was a man once. I suppose you could call it a mercy fuck. He whipped out a calculator after sex, tried to figure out my BMI. Said I would be so pretty if …”
“If only you lost weight,” he joins her in finishing the sentence. She blushes, somewhat embarrassed but not displeased by this. Strange, how such a little thing can seem so intimate.
“Well. I was doing a story on the water problem last year — about hospitals here not being able to cope. He was a patient at one hospital. He was in the last stages. He saw me.”
Mike can’t help staring at her. If she had looked anything like this last year, Calculator Man would have been beside himself.
“What did he say?”
She has a habit of glancing away before saying something uncomfortable. “He said: ‘The fat shall inherit the earth‘.” Her tone is dispassionate, her voice steady. Something tears inside him.
“He was an idiot.”
She touches him first, unsure, her fingers lightly brushing the hair on his arm. She does not meet his gaze, concentrating instead on a point somewhere behind him. When she withdraws, he quickly moves in: locking his massive, powerful arms around her, pressing his body hard against hers. He feels resistance ripple through her, but he refuses to let go, brushing his lips against her hair, breathing her in. He spreads one large hand over the small of her back, lets the other drift to her waist, under her top. His heartbeat quickening now; her skin is smooth, smooth. He lays her on the bed, holds her firmly in place beneath him.
“Listen to me,” he demands, forcing her to look at him. “There are no calculators here. Listen. He was an idiot, okay?”
When she finally looks at him, she does not break eye contact. “A dead idiot now,” she says, and then neither of them says anything for a while.