Meredith sat across from Johnny in a crowded café, the smell of egg rolls and lemon tea hovered in the warm air. She listened to him talk about his screenplay, something she could do for hours because his English accent was like his bottled, slapped on scent- cheeky and enticing.
“Listen,” he said, “Eddie is still going to have his issues at the end of the story. None of this Hollywood happy ending shit. Eddie isn’t …” Johnny stopped speaking and stared at her. She thought he was pausing for dramatic effect, that any second he was going to tap the drooping ash off his cigarette and wink. But his eyes remained locked on hers and he didn’t un-pause. He was frozen. It was like he’d met eyes with Medusa.
Meredith stared back, her heart racing, glancing away for a few seconds, locating the waiter who was behind the bar manning the grand cappuccino maker. The shining steel machine screeched and hissed and she watched it as if from a great distance. When a cloud of steam burst out she turned herself back to Johnny’s unblinking gaze and allowed it to coil around her. She thought of the man she met while on vacation in Spain who bound her wrists with a silk scarf. Inhaling deeply, she waited, wondering if she had done this to him. She waited until he snapped his fingers and gazed around the room, avoiding her eyes, and finally saying, “At the end, Eddie might see the error of his ways, but he’ll still be the same guy.”
Later, at home, Meredith read that people can fall in love as a result of prolonged eye contact. Meredith didn’t want to fall in love. And she didn’t want the suspended animation while falling. She was pretty sure it was the hard disoriented thump of landing that she wanted. The article said that the longer paired strangers held eye contact with each other, the more attracted they became.
* * * * *
Meredith is taking a long weekend with her writing group, driving three hours west of the city to Christian’s house. There are five of them- Christian and Johnny and Nina and Bev. They are all working on screenplays- but this weekend Meredith wants to make a serious dent in hers. She wants to find an ending, flesh out her characters, make it sing.
They arrive at midday and she feels the long afternoon stretched out in front of her. The house is open with windows, blurring the line of inside and out. Meredith can sense something sharp in Nina, something that needs to be worn down. Beautiful Nina in her ugly green sweater is in the kitchen emptying cardboard boxes of groceries. Nina’s been here before, it’s clear by the way she gets to making coffee, knowing exactly where the tin is, where the cups are. She empties a large Tupperware container of soup into a pot and says, “Keep an eye on this.”
Stirring a pot of lukewarm soup, Meredith observes the exposed beams above. Two oversized portraits hang on the wall in the living room. The eyes on the elongated, pale faces remind Meredith of eggs. And they have no mouths.
“Did Christian paint those?”
Nina glances at the art and tugs her sleeves down over her hands.
“Where is everybody?” she says. She rifles through a bag and pulls out a knife, the blade wrapped in silver foil.
Meredith sees the guys through the sliding doors, smoking, pulling chairs across the deck one-handed.
Nina places a water bottle on the table beside each bowl. She breaks large chunks of bread and drops them in a basket. She slices a large slab of butter and says, “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Meredith has never attended a writing retreat before-doesn’t know what to expect. So far it feels like Nina is trying to herd cats. The guys are sitting with their legs outstretched catching some rays.
Meredith goes out and says, “Nina’s got the lunch ready. You should probably come.”
“Just getting some Vitamin D,” Johnny says, his ink blue eyes flicking over her.
“Yeah, Says Christian. “When the sun shows face in February, you snatch it by the ass and hold on tight.”
Meredith likes Christian because she is never left wondering what he is thinking. She stands in front of them, glancing up through the sliding glass doors at Nina who is ladling soup. When Nina disappears down a hallway Meredith relaxes for a minute. Christian is smirking at her, raising his eyebrows, nodding his head at Johnny who has his eyes closed. Meredith shouldn’t have told him. What was she thinking? It’s this writers’ life: sitting in cafes, always self reflecting, letting the afternoon coffee roll into evening drinks, watching out the window as the real world shuffles home from work. Thinking she should get a job, shrugging off the sense that Frank is pissed off even though he says he isn’t. Letting her fantasy life merge with her real life- both becoming a form of fiction that awaits an inevitable yet evasive ending.
Christian knows about Johnny’s absence seizures. One night when Meredith and Christian had drinks, she leaned forward, eyes lowered, fiddling with the stem of her wine glass, and told Christian that Johnny’s absences had an effect on her. Meredith told him about the strangers and the eye contact experiment. And Christian had leaned forward, eyes flirting with her secrets, because he adores secrets. He lolls around on people’s secrets.
“What kind of effect, doll?” He can get away with speaking like this because he is Christian. James Dean one minute, a gay Scottish highlander the next.
“You know,” Meredith said.
“Of course I fucking know.” Christian laughed and took a swig of her wine. “The only problem is, Johnny doesn’t have a fucking clue. Get him in the loop. Lasso the poor bugger.”
“There’s only one problem.”
“You mean the fact that he may be looking at you, but he sure as hell isn’t seeing you.”
* * * * *
The five of them eat lunch at the big wooden table that has maintained the integrity of being a huge piece of tree. Nina says, “So does everyone have a plan?”
“Plans make my fingers cramp,” Christian says.
“Wouldn’t want that,” Nina says, rolling her eyes.
Sometimes she feels the chill of old age creeping over her and she has to remind herself she is only thirty-six. But she feels it anyway because she doesn’t have a plan. She feels it because she quit her job to write and she wonders if she will ever have another one. Meredith knows that eventually Frank will leave her and she will be alone. She wonders if this is it, if this is the best version of her.
Meredith glances over at Johnny. He is still. But after a few seconds he raises his hand and rubs it across his cheek and she hears the scratch of his unshaven face. The way he leaves three buttons undone on his navy dress shirt makes her feel very unmarried. He turns and catches her looking, winks and moves on to address Nina’s question. Suddenly, just like that, she is grasping at the secrecy that exists between them, drawn to the notion of something scandalous.
Frank has no opinion of her writing retreat. He works twelve hours a day tearing down drywall, putting up drywall, down on his knees lining up bathroom tiles. He comes home with a stiff back, a fine layer of dust on his sweatshirt, smelling ripe and looking old. He bakes in front of the TV watching back-to-back episodes of Dancing with the Stars. He is absent in a completely different way as he moves around her in the kitchen, careful not to touch her. This makes her feel breakable, explosive. Meredith thinks of their first date at the Fabulous Café after watching Highway 69, drinking peppermint tea, talking until the waitress shut the lights off and told them she had to be back for the morning shift.
Meredith never would have believed that the desire to tell each other things would disappear. That she and Frank would run out of things to talk about. A long steady absence where he hovers just beneath the surface of himself, too tired, too indifferent. But indifference isn’t enough to make him leave, or to make her leave. So they both stay, waiting for the inevitable ending.
Johnny and Meredith talk. Mostly he talks about his script, about his wife and his teenage daughter. He told her he found a condom in the waste bin- his daughter’s. She’s fourteen. He said this with a bit of envy, of her age, and her place in life. He confessed that he desperately missed being young and traveling on trains across Europe and meeting girls and saying good-bye to girls.
“Sometimes saying goodbye and knowing you will never see a girl again is the sweetest fucking thing there is.”
This is his dilemma with his script. Does Eddie leave his wife? Does he go to the woman he has a connection with even though they’ve never touched. He describes the scene where Eddie locks this woman into his gaze and feels the tension ripping and pulling at his body. “You know what I mean? It’s the fucking most brilliant feeling. It owns you.”
Meredith wants something too. A blast that will shake her to the core- split her skin and let everything spill out in a mess. She wants to be caught and have to fight to get away. She wants Johnny to throw her up against a wall, to feel the weight of him pinning her there, to feel the warm fumbling of his hands as he reaches under her clothes and pushes inside her. She wants to fight him and lose.
“I just want to go to Thailand and sleep and get massages on the beach. Does anyone fucking want to go to Thailand with me?” Christian says, as he leans forward and starts rolling a cigarette. Bev talks about when she went to Thailand and the masseuse massaged her naked breasts. Bev is from New Jersey and her accent makes her words sound held back in their attempt to escape from her mouth.
Christian doesn’t look up. “Sweet,” he says. ”I can totally picture it, Bev.”
Bev is fifty-eight but sex still lingers on her. Meredith and Nina think it is her Bohemian thing, the silent explosion of an Afro beaver as the jeans unzip. A pot induced blow-job.
* * * * *
That night, she knocks on Johnny’s door.
Meredith sits on the edge of his bed, him in grey and white striped boxers and his leather jacket, she in boots in case she has to make a run for it. His hairless exposed chest stares at her.
“What’s with the jacket?” she says.
“You like it?” he says running an admiring hand down the sleeve. “Touch it if you want.”
She pushes her hands between her knees.
“Your absence seizures turn me on,” Meredith says.
Johnny looks at her and she glances up at his eyes, but quickly drops her gaze to the scar on his cheek that’s the shape of Italy.
“Interesting.” He says slowly. “This jacket kinda turns me on.”
“Was that weird of me to tell you?” Meredith says, wondering how he got the scar.
“The weirdness isn’t in the telling,” Johnny says. He shrugs out of the jacket and drapes it over her shoulders. “Nice, right?”
Meredith didn’t think this far ahead when she imagined telling him. She never thought past the point where the confession rolled out of her mouth like a tractor trailer pulling out of a truck stop on a humid summer night. This feeling now that is racing through her body; this is the velocity required to merge.
She feels the weight of her own hand wanting to reach out and touch his chest. Open hand over his heart and feel it race. Down to the soft part of his belly. Sliding under the waistband. She doesn’t move. The cracked open smell of leather taunts her.
She meets his eyes for a second and then looks away.
The others are asleep, Nina, likely still wrapped in her green sweater, in the attic on an air mattress that moans each time she rolls. Christian is in the front room. An hour ago when she walked by he was smoking a joint, standing by the open window watching the snow. And Bohemian Bev is in a room just off the kitchen, banished because she snores.
“Are you going to say anything?” Meredith asks.
Her attraction to him has started to feel uncontrollable- like the time her washing machine flooded and the smooth edged pool of water slithered out of the bathroom, into the hall and hovered by the bedroom before she could contain it with towels.
He has his hand over his mouth, tapping his lip. His phone rings from across the room.
“That’ll be Sheila,” he says.
Now, she is starting to regret telling him. It’s hanging there between them like the glare of sunlight. His door is slightly ajar. Maybe this is a sign that she should just get up and creep back to her room and face him in the morning like nothing happened. His suitcase is open on the floor with clothes strewn about it. For someone who always has such an immaculate appearance, he seems messy.
The dog Cleopatra barks in the hallway and Meredith stands up. The phone stops ringing. Johnny grabs her gently by the wrist.
“You’re not leaving?” he says.
“Yeah. I’ll let you process this.”
He raises his eyebrows, and grins.
“Lots of weird shit to think about. Maybe we can pick this up later.”
Meredith walks back down the hallway. One side is all windows. It’s still snowing. She wants to step outside and taste the cold air, to be reminded what it feels like to be cold.
Christian is still awake, standing where he was an hour ago. Meredith knocks softly on the open door.
“Where are you coming from?” he winks at her. “Old Frank won’t like this.”
Old Frank is twelve years older than her.
“There’s nothing for Old Frank to know.”
But she doesn’t care anyway. Something has to give.
“Ohhh, I don’t know how true that is. His sweet little Meredith off on a writer’s retreat, sneaking into the bedroom of the jolly old English chap.”
Meredith sits down at his desk and fiddles with the glass paperweight, a little man in a gold hat trapped inside.
“Tell me,” Christian says, “does our Johnny sleep in the buff?”
“You’d like to know,” she says, drawing circles on his notepad.
Christian is openly Bi. And Polyamorous. The best of all worlds.
“Someone’s gotta cut you loose. Let the crazy out.”
“My crazy is big,” Meredith says.
Christian nods. “I know. I can see it in your eyes.”
* * * * *
At breakfast they sit around in relative silence. It is a rule of the retreat that everyone is up by eight and working by nine. Nina is still floating around on her air mattress, calling down that she is awake, but taking her time.
“If you don’t move your ass soon,” Christian calls up, “I’m coming up there to deflate you.”
“Stay put. I’m not decent.”
“Where I come from, that qualifies as an invitation.” Christian gets up, his silk kimono fluttering to reveal tight black underwear, pours an extra cup of coffee and heads for the stairs.
Bev is eating an egg and starring unapologetically. She has hound dog eyes and a black and white sense of morality. Meredith chooses to look at the bright yellow congealed yolk instead of at Johnny who is reading his iPad.
“We’re reading Nina’s script out loud tonight, Bev says. “The one about the couple that miscarries.”
“Oh yeah,” Meredith says. The cat, Murray, is under the table rubbing against her leg.
“Meredith can read the wife and Johnny can be the husband.” Bev says deadpan.
Johnny looks up.
“What was that?”
“You’re going to be my husband,” Meredith says.
“Is that right?”
“Apparently it’s right on.” She raises her eyebrows at Bev and leaves the table.
She gets dressed in wooly tights, a thick sweater and her parka and goes outside to shovel snow. The house is spectacular. Christian bought it when the market was low and spent three years renovating. He works as a freelance copywriter and inherited some money when his partner died eight years ago. Meredith shovels the deck outside the kitchen window, pushing the shovel across the entire surface and dumping the snow off the end. Christian is back in the kitchen with Nina and Bev. Meredith waves at him and notices from this distance how sad he looks standing there with his skinny legs sticking out from his Japanese kimono. Johnny has come out to join her. He is wearing reflective sunglasses, their mirrored surface elongating and distorting images.
“Mind if I lend a hand?”
Meredith passes him the shovel and then brushes snow off a chair.
The snow is thick and wet and after a few minutes he stops and props the shovel against the wall. From his pocket he pulls his little bag of tobacco and rolling paper, clearing a surface on the table to roll his cigarette.
He really is beautiful, kind of Nordic looking with his fine blond hair and sharp face. After a minute of silence she realizes that he hasn’t moved. His outstretched hand holds the cigarette.
“The sun is nice,” Meredith says.
He doesn’t respond so she turns her face upwards to the sun and basks in the heat. It has been a very long winter.
Meredith thinks back to the day she went for lunch and half way through her crispy General Tso chicken decided not to go back to work. Not after lunch, not ever. When Frank came home that evening she told him she was let go, and for the next two months she left the house and sat in the park and wrote treatments of movie scripts. She wrote the beginnings and the sex scenes and bits of the middle. She wrote herself into the script but carefully disguised. Sometimes she was a man who spent hours looking through his telescope, or a woman in her twenties who did whatever she wanted, and once she was an old woman that punched people she loved and got away with it because she had Alzheimer’s.
It was only by chance that Christian walked by and saw her writing, a giant cup of Tim Horton’s coffee beside her, Cleopatra with him.
“What are you writing?” he said.
“A series of films.”
“You’re fucking joking.”
Johnny snaps his fingers and she looks over.
It is a minute before he is completely back.
“How was that for you then?” he says.
“Are you all hot and bothered?” He is smiling.
“You had your sunglasses on.”
“It’s only when I can see your eyes, when you lock me in your absent stare. I feel like I can’t escape.”
“Right.” He nods. “No sunglasses.”
Meredith writes all day, only coming out of her room to make coffee and stuff her pockets with M&M’s. She works best this way- juiced up on caffeine and sugar on an empty stomach. She likes the hollow feeling, the buzz in her limbs and the clarity in her mind.
At seven they eat dinner together- curried millet. Meredith fills her wine glass and plate three times. When she reaches for a second helping of dessert Christian says,
“Doesn’t Old Frank feed you?”
Meredith sits beside Johnny on the sofa as Nina passes out copies of her script. He smells like Armani Code- she saw the bottle on the floor near his suitcase and Googled it- fresh lemon and bergamot, traces of the Mediterranean. His shirt rides up, revealing a handful of flesh.
Meredith gets to it, reading her lines seriously, not glancing ahead, because she wants each one to be a surprise.
“Do you want my cunt?”
This slips from her mouth without a hint of emotion. It’s all she can do not to laugh once it’s out there. Can he feel her resistance, the way her body is rupturing, shaking the sofa cushion gently? But when he speaks- the sweet warm breath of his voice, there is the brush of something luscious on her skin. She inhales, shifts into it.
“Not now darling. I’m tired.”
She shifts out of it.
“Too tired for my cunt? ”
The two of them read the entire script. They have sex, dry apathetic thrusts. She gets pregnant, has an ultrasound, miscarries the fetus onto the bathroom floor under fluorescent lights. They grieve. All of this in two hours. At the end Meredith is parched and a hard stone pushes from deep within her belly.
After the priest comes and tells her to be good to herself, she looks up from the pages and sees that Nina’s eyes are closed and her scrunched face is wet with tears. Behind her, snow falls silently behind a great pane of glass. Christian has his socks off, his feet curled into the shag carpet. Bev gets up and hugs Nina and they go off to the kitchen to make whiskey tea.
“I need a smoke, Christian says. “I need a fucking cigarette. That story was like the hardest nut grab ever.”
Johnny gets up too and they disappear out to the deck that is blanketed with snow again.
After a few minutes they are back inside, hair damp, cheeks slapped red, bringing with them the sweet smell of marijuana. And the women return, the whiskey steam rising from a tray of cups.
Johnny has sunk back into the sofa, soft and pleasantly stoned, beside her.
Bev starts the critiquing process, saying how brave Nina was to write this. Meredith wonders how brave it is to throw your mess out there like that.
“I think the scene with the fetus is too much. It’s hyper realism,” Meredith says.
Everyone turns to look at her. “Think of it on screen, larger than life. It’s too much to expect from the viewer. It’s assault.”
Meredith knows that she is full of shit. Too scared to look at her own life like Nina has.
“Do you think that’s true?” Johnny says, so only she can hear him. Christian has started talking about ways to film it- “A glimpse, full view, either way the viewer will look away.”
Meredith turns to Johnny and fumbles with her words. “It’s too raw. I don’t know what to do with that kind of rawness.”
Meredith feels the sharp edges of the lie as it comes out. He looks into her eyes, just for a second or two, and the grip of resistance holds her again. She wants to touch him, pull him in so close he becomes blurry.
“If you want to be a writer you have to force yourself to look,” he says.
“Yeah, Christian says. “Grow some balls.”
Finally, when the others have gone to bed, Meredith stays with Johnny on the sofa. He has his hand under his shirt, rubbing his belly slowly.
“Perhaps we should give this some attention?”
“We don’t have to,” she says.
“Right then,” he says, standing and pulling her up by the arm. He steers her by the elbow towards his room and when the door is closed he says,
“You’re turned on by the one thing that isn’t really me. You’re turned on when I’m mentally absent. Kinda fucked up wouldn’t you say?”
“Not really. It’s not your mind I need right now.”
He gives her a look that splits her wide open.
They have sex on his bed- him on top, watching her the whole time. She wants him to look away, to not talk at all. She just wants the collision of his hips smashing into hers. “Not so gentle,” she says at one point.
He stops being gentle and holds her wrists together, above her head with one hand. “Open your eyes and look at me,” he says sternly. She looks into his eyes, her heart pounding with anger. His eyes still locked on her he pushes his hand down between her legs and instinctively her hips rise up. She releases herself into the slap of warm skin, the hard crush of his lips into hers so she feels the awkwardness of her own teeth. Something in her shifts, screams and sighs.
He collapses down on top of her, the smell of lemon and bergamot grabbing at her throat as he buries his face in the space between her neck and the pillow. The real scent of him, something like warm bread, rises off his scalp through his hair. Calm. The weight of him keeps her still.
“How does your script end?” Meredith says, desperate for the sound of her own voice. She places her open palm on his back.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” He pushes himself up onto one elbow. “You’re really getting into this starring thing?” she says.
“It’s cool. And I like how it freaks you out.”
Meredith forces herself to look back but her gaze wanders. The bedside lamp is on, a dim tungsten light. She grazes the scar under his eye with her fingertip.
“It doesn’t work if you don’t play,” he says.
After a while she leans in and kisses his lips softly and then gets out of the bed. As she gets dressed she notice his clothes again, on the floor, and resists the urge to pick them up and shake them, to fold them and hang them over the white wicker chair.
“You don’t have to go.”
“I still need an ending. I should go work on it.”
“Meredith leaving. That’s an ending. Meredith staying. That’s an ending.”
“What if I just sit on the edge of the bed for a while?”
“Crappy ending. Fence sitting.”
“How does your script end? Happy?”
“It ends the way it was inevitably meant to end.”
“Still not going to tell me?”
She sits on the edge of the bed and takes her shirt off. He lifts his arms and folds them behind his head, content to watch. The skin on the underside of his arm is pale and smooth. She thinks about biting it, the sharp pinch of her teeth.
“Do she want to have sex again?” she says.
He laughs. “You know I’m not in my twenties, right?”
“You’re blocking my ending with your performance issues.”
“Good endings come to those who wait,” he says.
“That buys me some time.”
She crawls back under the covers knowing full well that for something to begin something must end.