THE SCENT OF NICOTIANA
In front of the open window to the balcony walkway, the drapes rippled. The scent of Nicotiana drifted through them, along with the voice sounds of other motel guests.
Cissy smiled at him. With her arms raised above her head, she smoothed her hair across the pillow into a frame for her face. Michael stood in the doorway to the bathroom, his toothbrush clenched between his teeth, and grinned at her.
Around the toothbrush, he mumbled, “You look like a shampoo commercial.”
“That’s not very romantic. Say something sexy.”
“Let’s make out, okay, babe?” The foam dribbled from the upturned corners of his mouth.
“Not with a toothbrush in your mouth. That’s gross.”
Laughing, so that the small, glittering bubbles burst on the surface of his teeth, he went back to the sink and returned rubbing his face with a washcloth. She waited until his weight on the edge of the bed sagged the springs. Rolling her face against his arm, she breathed the clean smell of chlorine and suntan lotion. Above the white edge of the towel knotted around his hips, the light from the bedside lamp bronzed the tan on his tall young body. Her hand was a white star on his chest. She felt overdressed in her bra and thong.
“Do you have to leave Thursday?” he asked.
“Thursday? I can’t, no, I have to leave tomorrow.”
“But you said…”
“I know, I’m so sorry! But Penn might come home Wednesday.” Sitting up, she hugged her bent legs and rested her chin on her knees. She rubbed at the small blue veins in her hands. Her long hair, still damp from the shower, fanned out across her shoulders, clinging to her skin. “I thought he’d be gone all week but he changed his mind.”
Michael stood and walked away, leaving a cold vacancy that chilled her arm.
She swung her feet to the rug, drew back quickly from the small wet circle of their swimsuits dropped there, and stood up. “He beat me home last week. Good thing I’d left my suitcase in the car when I went in the house.”
His eyebrows rose in question. “And?”
“You’d have to know Penn to believe him.” Stepping up onto the bed, she spread her feet wide for balance, then bent one knee in a fencing position. With her chin pushed forward, she wrapped her hair into a blond collar around her neck. Her mimicking voice was a low rasp. “Cecily, I can’t find the fucking checkbook.”
Smiling too sweetly, she straightened her leg, tilted her head, and piped a reply to her imaginary husband. “Hello, Penn.”
Low voice, chin out. “Where’s the fucking checkbook?”
High voice, head tilted. “Have a nice trip, dear?”
Low voice. “Can’t find anything in this Goddamn place.”
High voice. “What would you like for supper, dear?”
Low voice. “Did I get any messages? Did Major Hadley call? Where were you?”
“No and no and out shopping.”
“What? Cecily, will you for Godsake stop tapping your fingernails?” She pushed her chin out further and growled. As the crescent of her eyebrows rose, high in the center of her forehead and low at the corners of her long eyes, the dimpled creases deepened below her cheekbones, forming a wreath of laughter around her mouth.
The tight line of Michael’s mouth turned up at the corners. His laughter burst out with hers. Cissy held her arms toward him, lost her footing on the shaking bed and fell backwards onto the pillows, her hands groping at air. Michael dropped on top of her and she gasped. As his mouth pressed into her throat, she wound her arms around him. Turning her face slowly against the warmth of his face, she caught his ear with her lips.
“I can’t breathe,” she whispered.
He mumbled something.
She sighed. “Say nice things to me.”
Slowly he pushed himself up from her, propping an elbow on each side of her head. With his hand hanging limp from his bent wrist, he let his fingertips brush and curl the wisps of hair caught against her throat.
“I love you, Cissy. Why don’t we get this settled? I’ll tell him if you can’t.”
“Could you? And what if he laughs? You don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t.”
Her voice softened. “I can’t just walk in and say, oh, Michael, the thing is, he won’t give me a divorce. Not without a fight. It’s going to be messy.”
“Or maybe you don’t love me enough.”
“That’s not true!” She pulled him down, her arms cradling his head. Rocking slowly, she stroked his neck and kissed his hair and whispered, “I do love you, I do, I do. And I will tell Penn, I promise. But you’ve got to give me time. I have to pick the right time.”
He lifted his head in the circle of her arms so that his face was above hers. “How long?”
“I don’t know, darling.”
“You always say that.”
“It’s not going to be easy. And we’re happy, aren’t we? It won’t hurt to wait a little longer.”
The glow from the lamp outlined the firm line of his jaw. “You’re not just stalling me, are you, Cissy?”
“No, no! I swear. Please trust me.”
The muscles of his face tightened and then relaxed. With a yelp, he rolled her over and over, winding the sheet around her, and then, with her arms pinned to her sides beneath the sheet, he pulled her up from the bed and stood on the floor beside her. Her face bright with laughter, she leaned into his arms. Michael braced his legs against the bedside and bent his shoulder into her waist. As he straightened and her head swung downward, her laughter turned into shrieks. She tried to bite his back. Swatting her lightly, he marched to the door and opened it. She hung across his shoulder, able to see only the white towel stretched taut above his tanned legs.
He said, “Okay, lady, where shall we go to dinner?”
Soft, warm air, sweet-scented by the hibiscus and nicotiana in the courtyard below them quieted them. Through the veil of her hair and the curled pattern of white metal below the railing, she could see the flickering of torches. Tiki torches. She hadn’t seen Tiki torches in years. It was an old hotel, a bit rundown, and she had picked it because it was the sort of place where she would never run into anyone she knew.
When he neared the end of the walkway, he leaned forward and let her slide to her feet. From the shadows they looked down at the pool, a black rectangle shot through with flame reflections.
“Want to go swimming again?” he asked.
“Sure. In a sheet.”
“You can drop it.”
“Wouldn’t you be surprised if I did.”
Leaning out over the railing, he snapped off a spray of bougainvillea. His fingers twined the mass of red glass petals in her hair.
Footsteps clicked on the staircase.
White shutters, held by wrought iron bracts, framed the doorways and windows. They pressed their backs against them.
A couple, silhouetted against the shimmering pool, came slowly up the stairs, the man’s white-shirted arm around the woman’s shoulders. Her head was bent forward. As the couple turned at the top of the stairs, Cissy could see the gleam of tears on the woman’s face.
The man kept saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. Don’t be mad.”
They stopped at a door and Cissy heard the key in the lock and how old was this place that it still had metal keys?
“Let’s go finish dressing,” Cissy said. With the sheet wrapped loosely and trailing at her heels, she led Michael back to their room. Coming in out of the darkness, she blinked. Michael, standing by her, swung her up in his arms, kicked the door closed, and tossed her on the bed.
“I want my dinner,” Cissy said. “All I have to do is dress. You haven’t taken your shower yet.”
“Okay, but I’ll get you later.” Whipping off his towel, he snapped it at her, then ran into the bathroom. She was still struggling with the tangled sheet when the door slammed.
For a moment she fell back, quiet, her eyes open, staring at the circle of light on the ceiling above the lamp. Turning her head on the rumpled pillow, she looked at the cheap wristwatch on the table and past it to his worn backpack opened on the chair. Above the sound of the shower she could hear him whistling. She stood up and found her comb. In front of the mirror she wound her hair into a high, pale coil, tucking in the wisps. Leaning forward, she frowned at her reflection. With her fingertip she smoothed the small lines around her eyes. As she pulled her silk dress over her head, she watched the familiar shape of her blond head emerge from the cloud of fabric.
Through the pounding on the water, Michael called her name. She opened the bathroom door a crack. The room was filled with steam.
“Do you need something?”
“Yup, soap. Is there some out there?”
“Michael! You haven’t started! Oh, all right.” There were paper-wrapped bars on the sink counter. “Yes, there’s some here. Now be careful. I don’t want to get my dress spotted.”
Through the frosted glass shower door she could see his tall form. He pushed open the door and stuck his head out. Water ran down his grinning face and dripped on the floor.
“Sure, I’ve started. I’ve got my skin nice and saturated. Don’t you soak before you soap?”
“Here, be careful now.” She held back, her hand extended toward him.
“Hey, you’re all dressed.” Steam floated around him. His wet hand shot forward and caught her wrist.
“Stop that! You’ll get my dress wet.”
“Good. Then we’ll hang it up and have to wait for it to dry.”
“You’re impossible.” She started to pull away. Doubling her arm behind her, he pulled her closer. She tried to keep distance between their bodies but as his wet mouth covered hers, she relaxed, pleased by the clean taste of the water.
Steam warmed her arms, made her dress cling, and dampened her hair. Pulling free, she cried, “What am I doing! Come out of there!”
He snatched at her. She jumped back and bumped into a towel rack. With a whoop he lunged forward.
His mouth and eyes widened. As his feet slid on the wet floor, the glass door banged against the wall and then swung forward. Her reaching fingers grazed his shoulder.
Too late. His feet went out from under him and before he could grab anything, he crashed through the glass door.
He landed in a pile of broken shards, odd, dull bits, and for a moment she was sure it was the sort of glass that wasn’t supposed to shatter but if it did, the edges were dull. That’s what she’d been told.
She screamed his name. He didn’t answer, just lay there on the floor. With a cry she dropped to her knees and tried to lift him. Her hands slipped on his skin. He moaned and tried to lift his head and she saw a trail of blood widening in the pool of water on the floor.
Groping in the direction of the towel rack, she grabbed a towel, pulled it down and tried to slide it into a pillow below his face.
His head dropped into the mound of terry cloth. Slowly he turned his face toward her, his eyes closed against the blood streaming from the gash on his forehead. She looked down his crumpled form and saw numerous small cuts.
He whispered, “Cissy. Call somebody.”
“Here, let me help. Lie still a minute.”
“Call the manager.”
“The manager. Yes. All right.” She ran to the phone and flicked the buttons rapidly. She could see him through the doorway. “Yes, hello! Please, I need, please, I am in room one seven three and he, ah, he fell through the glass door. The shower door. Yes, yes, badly, he’s bleeding and I can’t stop it, I don’t know what to do. Yes, all right.”
Running back to him, she knelt on the wet tiles and tried to press a washcloth against the large gash on his head. Blood soaked through the cloth. His long body lay curved, a dark shadow in a bed of blood and glass shards. He had bleeding gashes from his shoulder to his thigh.
“Michael, they are sending help.”
The muscle in his jaw tightened. She pressed her forehead against his cheek. “Darling, you’ll be all right. You’ve got to. Oh, my Michael.” She chewed her lip and bit back tears. “Michael, listen. You mustn’t tell anyone my name. Say you don’t know. Say you just met me, do you understand?”
As she sat back, her fingertips outlining his face and drawing slowly away, he opened his eyes. He looked at her without speaking.
She cried, “Please don’t hate me. If you need anything, money or anything, oh! That sounds terrible. But if you do, Michael, I’ll phone you. I’ll help, somehow.”
The banging on the door roused her. Jumping up, she ran to open the door. A man brushed past her, said something about an ambulance on the way, and crouched down by Michael.
Sweeping her hand across the dresser top, Cissy shoved her jewelry and cosmetics into her purse. After a glance at the manager, who had his back to her, she grabbed her suitcase and ran through the open door to the walkway.
In the distance she heard the sirens. She fled down the stairs, past the lawn. Orange flashes caught in her tears. The odors of oil and chlorine and wet grass and nicotiana surrounded her. Running to the half empty parking lot, she fell against the side of her car. In the dark she could not find her keys in her purse.
Groping through combs, billfold, phone, scraps of paper, her fingers finally touched the smooth hard shape of the remote on her key ring.
As the ambulance shrieked to the curb by the building, she opened her car door, tossed her purse and bag at the passenger seat, and slid in behind the wheel. Ducking her head, she inserted the shaking key, stamped her foot on the gas pedal, and drove away.
The ebook Tales of Lovers and Liars contains two stories, The Scent of Nicotiana and House on Pilings.