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Small Kindness
June 1, 2003

This was how it would begin

by Elizabeth Real   PrintEasy

Are your parents proud of you?"

It is dark and quiet in his bedroom and he takes a minute to answer. I hear him breathe, feel the mattress give underneath him as he turns toward me. He says, "Yeah. Sometimes."

I am lying on my side with my back to him, staring straight ahead into his closet. His shirts hang there in a uniformity that surprises me here in this apartment, in this life of his that otherwise seems to languish in disorder.

"They wish I'd get a job more like their jobs," he says.

Email to a FriendI know what he means, though I don't know what his parents do. He plays the bass, writes music, bags groceries at an organic market in the West Village and, though this work eats sixteen hours of his day, it is not enough.

I have an office and a secretary, clients who respect me and a boss who tells me I make him look good. I make more money than my mother ever has, take vacations to places she's never been, and this is not enough, either.

My right arm dangles over the side of his mattress and my fingers toy with the soft cotton underpants pulled from his body in moments not long past.

"You are lovely," he whispers now, as he did when our friend Sophie first left us alone at the table furthest from the bar.

"Lovely?" I'd asked then, smiling down into the melting ice of my fourth gin and tonic. "Is that all?"

He'd looked away from me as he brought a bottle of beer to his lips and said, "For some girls, lovely is enough."

Text BiteIt was past closing and there were fewer than a dozen of us left in the bar. The staff and our friends were winding down all around us, stripping away their stiff, nighttime personas to relax in the comfort of their own personalities.

But not us, not yet. He said, "I think I should take you to dinner sometime."

He seemed braced for whatever small rejection might come next. And for a moment I thought of all the reasons I might say no: an inner incompatibility that would not be long assuaged by a mutual liking of Nina Simone, or by childhood memories set along the same strip of Maine's coastline; of the moment sure to come at the end of the dinner he proposed when my credit card would be the obvious choice. But there, at the end of a not-very-good day, was a man who called me 'lovely'.

I said 'yes' to dinner.

"And what about now?" he asked, emboldened by early success. He motioned toward the bar and our friends with a flick of his shaved head. "We could go someplace… quieter."

He was asking me back to his apartment. I knew that accepting this invitation meant refusing the invitation to dinner. By going home with him, I agreed that we would not have a relationship full of walks in the rain and grocery shopping, fraught with expectation and hard feelings. Going home with him meant we would have a dynamic, an arrangement, a scenario, at best.

"I don't know," I said. I had not anticipated this when Sophie invited me out to hear the band play. I'd showered and left my dark hair curly, slipped into a pair of gray cotton panties and shapeless jeans, expecting a couple hours of semi-rowdy fun with a crowd I hardly knew.

He looked over his shoulder at the bar, saw our friends busy in conversation, and leaned across the table. He touched his lips to mine in a plush, wet kiss that made my heels dig into the floor, searching for solid footing. He whispered, "You do know."

I knew that I liked the way he looked, that I liked the way his faded t-shirt clung to his shoulders and upper arms. I liked the way he moved and the way he moved in on me.

He went to collect his bass, an upright clothed in a space-age suit, while I went to kiss Sophie goodnight. I caught his eye as I headed for the door and watched his pace slow, a silent agreement that our exits should be staggered by as many minutes as possible.

When I pushed into the cool, late-night air a taxi slowed, its driver gauging my interest. I considered getting in, naming my own corner and speeding away. I could go home, get back to my quiet, ordered life and never blush when Sophie mentioned his name. Instead, I asked the driver to open the trunk.

"Perfect timing," he said, leaning the bass against the side of the cab while expertly lifting the amplifier into the trunk. He nodded toward the backseat and said, "You first. The bass will sit on our laps."

Text BiteI moved across the seat and he slid the bass and himself in after me. He spoke over the instrument to give the driver his address, then sat back with a loud, dissatisfied groan that I knew had nothing to do with me.

The cab turned right on Canal, headed for the East Side, and he maneuvered around the bass to put an arm around my shoulders, to pull me into the calm inlet of his body.

I let my eyelids flutter closed and was caught, then, in a place somewhere between memory and dream. I was floating on my back in tranquil waters on a sunny day. There was a body there, too, on my right, her eyes shut, her hands supine, spread outward from her body. My mother exhaled in a melodic, telling sigh, and I felt my face pour into the widening gap of a guileless, unplanned smile. She and I were enjoying a rare slice of peace, a moment spent without expectation. My mother and I drifted in quiet certainty, in ripe acceptance of each other and whatever the sea might bring.

His lips were moving against the top of my head when he brought me back. He was saying, "We're almost home."

"Did I sleep?" I asked, though it seemed unlikely in the back of a taxi with an upright bass pinning me to my seat. Still, I could not account for the thirty blocks between the bar and East Twelfth Street, and the soothing lap of waves that still echoed in my ears.

The taxi stopped in front of his building and I fumbled over the bills we owed the driver while he played out the choreography of maneuvering his equipment out of the cab and into the building. When we arrived on the fifth floor he unlocked his door and we were welcomed by a nightlight that covered the familiar shapes of a kitchen in a soft yellow glow.

He released the bass and amplifier into an alcove behind a small, scarred table, and asked in a hushed tone, "Can I get you anything?"

I shook my head 'no' and he led me through the kitchen and down the hallway, past his roommates' closed doors to his bedroom at the far end of the hall.

His bed was unmade, sheet music and coins were scattered on top of a cheap chest of drawers, and piles of discarded clothes lay across the hardwood floor. He kicked off his battered Doc Martens and stood on the mattress in order to raise the blinds over his single window to let in a nick of moonlight. I let my purse and jacket fall someplace near my feet, but otherwise stood still, two steps inside the room, and watched him move around me, pushing piles of clothes away from me, then closing his door with a hard-worn click.

"What a shitty day," he said, more to himself than to me. He rubbed a flat palm against the length of my back. He put his arms around me and drew me into a hug, seemingly heartfelt and healthy. Without his shoes he was only a few inches taller than I, and manageable.

I turned my head into his neck and breathed deeply, taking in the Mick Jagger smell of him, all residual sweat and cigarette smoke.

He said, "Do you know how sexy you are?"

This was how it would begin. There would be guttural compliments, rough, impatient kisses, then his hand, unstoppable and uncaring, in my pants.

"I watched you come in and sit with Sophie," he said. "I got so hard just watching you take off your jacket."

I pulled my body away from his, uncertain if I'd be able to listen to all he might say. It was not too late, then. I might have held him off with fast-spoken apologies before hurrying out of the apartment, down all five flights of stairs, to feel freedom in the first waft of the night's air on my face.

He took advantage of the space between us to begin his assault on my mouth, so coarse, so rash, that I began to kiss him back, just to slow him down.

Text BiteHe moved us toward the mattress and I fell backward onto it, my legs angled so my polished oxfords hung politely over the side.

He looked at me in a new way. It was an evaluation, I was sure, crass and comprehensive now in a way his first glances at me were not. He was looking at my body sprawled on his bed and certainly enumerating all the ways he might fuck me.

"Look at you," he said, dropping to his knees at the side of the mattress to run a flat hand from my thigh up over the fly of my jeans, past my belt buckle, up the placket of buttons on my shirt to cup my left breast in his hand.

It was too late to run now. So I propped myself up on one elbow, moving closer to the kiss I felt sure would crack open a bout of pounding, of squeezing and taking. I offered myself with a small nod, sure he would move fast, working clumsy fingers at my belt to push my jeans down to my ankles, to push himself into me.

But he didn't. He sat at the foot of the bed, brought my feet into his lap and unlaced first one of my shoes, then the next. His eyes met mine, his face full of something near tenderness, and while he pulled off my oxfords and set them on the floor I began working at the buttons of my own shirt.

The sex came slowly. Bumpy and unfamiliar, but kind.

He is kissing me, now, just underneath my ear, his body curved around mine. And he asks, "What about your parents?"

"It's just my mom," I say. My father hollered and hit and has been gone so long that I don't think of him as a parent. He is a man we once knew. "It shouldn't matter."

"What?" he asks. "Her approval?"

I move my head against his pillow in what I hope he will take as a 'yes'.

I don't tell him that I have long since given up on attaining my mother's approval. It is a feat I will never achieve, that I have half-convinced myself is unnecessary, even irrelevant. And while I know the totality of my life is unacceptable to her, I continue to hope she feels an inkling of parental pride in something I am, in just one thing that I do.

It will not be this, I know; it will not be pride that I am lying with a man I hardly know on a single mattress tucked into the corner of a tiny room. It will not be pride that I will face his roommates in the morning, hungover and swollen, but unblinking. She wants more for me than this, than him, than a solitary, early morning taxi ride in last night's clothes. And that is why I feel like less, in these moments between motion and sleep.

He is moving, tugging at covers, and then I feel him pressing himself against my backside, pulling the thin sheet over the curve of my shoulder and touching a scratchy kiss just above my temple.

He has faced disappointment today at the hands of a music industry executive, has assigned and been assigned blame by the men in his band. He has checked aisle six for the price of hearts-of-palm, played two sets for a disinterested crowd packed into a filthy bar, and he has complimented and cajoled me away from our mutual friends and back to his bed.

My day was marginally softer, all mislaid files and misunderstandings among people who now think a little less of me. It was one more day in a lifetime full of whole-milk yogurt and Egyptian cotton, of hurried, unhappy phone calls with friends and the gentle demands of a post-abusive family. It was one day not unlike a hundred others, cluttered with bright bubbles of self-importance, alight with the glare of self-pity.

I close my eyes, eager to sink into sleep, to feel my mother nearby and quiet waters beneath me again. And just as I am set adrift, I hear him ask, "Pancakes or eggs?"

"Hmm?" I turn my head, away from his closet, away from the door, to look at him.

And though the first light of morning is already staining the world outside his window, he says, "In the morning. Do you want pancakes or eggs?"

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