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"You like Leo Kottke?" he asked, holding a record, blowing on it, putting it on the turntable. "I thought we'd have some music. I've got all kinds of music. Country, rock, classical, bluegrass, jazz. You name it."
"Me too. I mean, that's what I like. All kinds." The skin of my face was tight from the soap. I sat down on a blue couch and instantly stood up again. "So come here," I said, smiling like a maniac.
He took my hair by the ends and pressed it to his nose and smelled it. He wound it around his fingers, pulling me toward him, to kiss me. His mouth was cool and shaking and strange, but nice. Nicer than anything. I shoved my hands into the back pockets of his jeans and felt his ass. "I'm glad I met you," he said.
"Me too," I said. "Take this off," I said impishly, tugging at his shirt. He gathered both of my wrists in his hands and pulled me into his bedroom. The walls were the same color as the comforter on his bed: amber, with an edge of smoke.
"Now," he said, unbuttoning my shirt. We laughed awkwardly, pawed at each other. He bent down and kissed my breasts, bit my nipples tenderly. We teetered, finally, onto his bed.
"Do you have a condom?"
It seemed impossible that I would get pregnant. Nothing could take root. I knew it, he knew it. It didn't make any sense to think this, but we were right.
I watched his face while we fucked. It was haggard and tense, as if he were concentrating on something either very far or very near; as if he were attempting to remove a splinter or thread a needle or telepathically shatter a glass in France. He saw me watching him and then his face became animated again, wide-eyed and carnivorous.
"That was nice," he said afterwards. We were laying on our backs on his bed. A mobile of fat chefs dangled above our feet. Over our heads was a birdcage without a bird. He turned on his side and placed his palm delicately on my stomach. He found my birthmark and petted it and outlined it with his finger as if he'd known me all of my life.
"Was that weird for you?" I asked.
"I wouldn't say that," he said.
"How do you feel then?"
"Like a million bucks," he said. He stood up, jerked his jeans on.
"There's a lady down the hall who's a high school teacher," I said to my mother, even though it appeared that she was sleeping. I went to the window and stared out onto the street below: snow, cars, a slice of the lake. A long silence, and then my mother's low voice.
"What's her name?"
"Is she a visitor or a resident?" She smiled, a small glorious smile.
"Resident. She's a history teacher."
My mother kept her eyes closed and we were silent for a long while. Then she said, "Ask her what she thinks happened to Amelia Earhart."
"Why?" I snapped.
"Well, you said she teaches history, right? History interests me. I'd be curious to know what her theories are. She might have a theory since she's in the know. I always liked Amelia Earhart." She opened her eyes and tried to push herself up to a sitting position against the pillows, the tubes swaying around her. "I think of her going off like that. Can you imagine? I mean, can you imagine? Having no idea what would happen? Imagine how brave she was. She was one of my personal heroes."
"Is," I said.
"Is. She is one of your personal heroes."
"Well, yes," she said. "Is." My mother sat looking carefully at me. "Where have you been?"
"Nowhere. You were sleeping. I walked around."
She continued to look at me. Pale. Drained. Regal.
"You've been somewhere."
"I told you."
My affair with Bill lasted only four days, but we had a ritual nonetheless. After sex we dressed and drank warm apple cider and ate toast with peanut butter in the kitchen before we went back to the hospital. We told each other stories about the lovers we'd had. My list was short, but interesting and multi-ethnic and it also included a man who was surely gay. Bill got a kick out of this. He told me about losing his virginity with Janet in a closet where his mother stored cleaning supplies; about Vietnamese prostitutes; a series of alcoholics in Alaska; and then Nancy. They went to Puerto Rico for their tenth wedding anniversary. They'd lolled in bed and made love and ate a bag of plums they'd bought on the street. In jest, Bill put one of these plums into Nancy's vagina and it sucked itself up inside of her and they couldn't get it out.
"Well, it came out eventually," he said, laughing, rubbing his face, laughing again, laughing so hard that his eyes filled with tears. I sat with him and smiled. I nibbled my toast. "Now there's something," he said, finally getting a hold of himself, wiping his tears away. "There's something you don't do twice."
I caught glimpses of Nancy as I passed by her room. She had a position she liked: on her side, her thin hip a tiny triangle, her blond frizzy hair matted into a flat nest at the back of her head. Besides my mother and Nancy, there were the old people. Old old. They were so old that no one knew them anymore, or, if anyone did, they only came to visit on Sundays. As I passed their rooms, I came to know them the way one knows the houses along a familiar street: the lady with a hole in her throat, the endlessly sleeping bald woman, the thrashing man tied to his bed, the other man who beckoned and yelled, "Jeanie! Jeanie!" when he saw me walk past until, finally, one day I stopped.
"Jeanie?" he said.
"Yes," I said. I stayed in the hallway, peering into his open door.
"Jeanie," he said.
"Yes," I said. I twisted my hands into the wrists of my sweater.
"You ain't Jeanie," he said at last, gently, as if he were sorry to hurt my feelings. "I know my Jeanie and you ain't her."
How impossible it is to hoodwink the nearly dead.
Often I saw their private parts. Gaping and grappling among the sheets, musty and chafed, dimly shimmering like the rinds of hard fruit. I didn't care, they didn't care. Who cared? Nobody.
I never saw Nancy's, but I imagined it, that plum. Purple, red and black; sweet, soft and bruised. Held warm inside her, as if it were still there: a thing she would not release.