Steeped in post-wedding weariness, Carolyn Hutchins stared contemplatively out the window of room 826 of the Renaissance Center. A late season storm was dropping those large, heavy flakes that do not seem to fall so much as hang suspended in the fluorescent halo of the street lights below. As far as Carolyn was concerned, the winter was already old and frayed. But even she had to admit that the falling snow cascading across the landscape, created an almost magical glow to the evening.
“Jesus, Detroit in the winter,” Carolyn said making no effort to turn around. She sighed heavily and breathed in the faint aroma of wet overcoats, stale cigarette smoke and spilled whisky. It was a scent common to older hotels that had seen better days.
“I thought you seemed quite happy to be back on your home turf today,” said Sam from the hotel bed where he lay studying her.
“You know,” he intoned in his best exaggerated newscaster voice, “home-town beauty returns to win hearts with her incandescent charm.”
Carolyn turned from the window and laughed, but she was obviously pleased by the comment. She touched her hair and pursed her lips in a mock affectation of serious preening.
‘It is rather nice to be home again”, she admitted. “I’m comfortable here”
Carolyn was still a beautiful woman, Sam thought as he appraised her from across the room. It would take more than the intervening 20 years, to crumple the generous genetic gifts she was born with. Silhouetted against the splattered rings of light that crept into the room, Carolyn’s slender frame gave the impression of a delicate young girl. She was dressed only in a pretty,white, silk, slip. She aroused in Sam a tender but frightful sexual tension. This was true despite their having made hungry, almost ferocious, love only moments before on the bed where he still lay. Now, as then, her beauty overwhelmed him. He could not disguise the pleasure he took in looking at her.
Sam could remember vividly the first time he had glimpsed Carolyn at a campus apartment party hosted by the woman whose son’s wedding they now attended. He had been feeling rather gloomy at the prospect of being alone among so many people. He was a senior at the University of Michigan studying pre-law. Tonight, as was his habit, he was looking for a quick hookup after an early evening of studying.
In those days Sam enjoyed believing that love was just something that two people did for an evening; nothing more than the sudden careening together of the sexes, like bump ’em cars at an amusement park.
That all changed the moment he first spotted Carolyn; her face flushed with an incandescent glow, hands waving rhythmically through the sultry air, her summer dress whirling, swaying and shimmering above the dance floor. Immediately smitten, Sam wanted only to hear her voice and imagine the possibility of something magic occurring between them.
The year he spent with Carolyn by his side was the happiest of Sam’s life. It was a time of intoxicating innocence and freedom; of long, summer walks along shimmering, freshwater lakes in the moonlight, football games in Michigan Stadium and joyful strolls through the lumpy, white, splendor of snow covering the university Diag. Most of all though, when he recalled those days, he remembered the quiet, intimate evenings spent together, just the two of them, clinging to each other in an intoxicating fever dream of happiness.
When she left, and for a long time afterwards, he did not believe that he would ever be happy again. That powerful cocktail of excitement, ecstasy and bliss that Carolyn generated in him had exacted a terrible price when she disappeared without a word from his life.
The wedding reception that day was a comically lavish affair. It was held at the hotel conference center decorated to replicate a 1920s speakeasy. Waiters in fedoras, starched white, linen shirts and stiff black bow ties circulated under cut glass chandeliers that shimmered and sparkled in the light. The effect was one of old time gaiety and exclusivity. A ten-piece jazz band honked and tooted their way through standards of the era, as guests valiantly struggled to approximate the Charleston and Black Bottom dances before laughingly giving up and returning to more familiar moves.
When Sam first spotted Carolyn, she was standing in a tight group of guests, each coddling iceless drinks and chatting amiably. She wore a bemused half smile as if the conversation swirling around her was filled with an ironic subtext that Sam was too far away to hear. Her gaze was focused on the rim of the glass she held in front of her, swirling it around absently before unexpectedly casting her eyes upward and catching his. For a second she didn’t react, then her startling long, thick eyelashes swept down and then up again in an appraising manner before flashing Sam a radiant smile of recognition. A physical charge shot through his entire body as if he had grabbed an electrified fence. His heart was pounding so hard that he feared it might exit his body.
From the moment their eyes locked on each other, they had fallen into an easy familiar pattern. It was, he realized, the teasing, alcohol-fueled banter of their college years. So he was pleased when they silently agreed to monopolize each other for the remainder of the reception: dancing languorously to all the slow tunes and even wheedling a table change, so they could eat together. Over a dinner that included several pates and salmon mousse, roast beef and ham, they filled each other in on their lives this past twenty years.
“I want to know everything,” Sam said with genuine interest..
Caroline told him about her eleven year old daughter, Emily, who “is very musical and smart and wants to be a heart doctor like her daddy.”
“Thank God she got his brains and my looks” she said laughing. She also talked about her surprise at discovering her talent for selling high-end real estate in Seattle. “It’s all in being able to read the customer and giving them what they think they want,” a note of pride creeping into her voice. “I’m also a bit of a minor celebrity among the amateur theatre crowd I run with… You didn’t know that you are sitting with an undiscovered Hollywood star did you?,” she added, an impish grin crossing her face. “It’s just a hobby, but it does seem to satisfy my creative nature. Now, tell me something about your life.” She said to him with eagerness.
“It’s all pretty standard stuff, really” he explained modestly. “I have a very comfortable life and mostly do what I want. I’m focused now on getting my private life in order again. It’s been a rough ride since the divorce.”
When an acceptable period of time had passed, Carolyn suggested that they slip out and go up to his hotel room, and Sam eagerly accepted. Once the door to his room had closed, they fell upon one another with a hunger born of anticipation and the curiosity of a twenty year absence.
Afterward, Carolyn stood like a statue staring out at the dancing, ice glazed shimmer of the Detroit River. Sam broached the subject that had haunted him for twenty years.
“ Carolyn, I need to know something” he said. Why did you disappear all those years ago? You didn’t even give me a word of explanation.” There was an edge of bitterness, that Sam tried and failed to keep out of his voice.
“Really, Sam, that was a long time ago, I don’t remember.”
“Didn’t you realize how much that would hurt me?” he asked
Carolyn shivered and rubbed her crossed arms vigorously but did not immediately reply.
“Oh, you know how I hate confrontation,” she sighed, tossing her shoulders slightly. Facing the window again, she studied the warm,yellow lights from the buildings high in the Detroit skyline. They seemed to wink and sputter like golden object lost in the swirling snow.Her eyes betrayed a far away look as jf lost in a distant memory.
“Who knows why people do the things they do” she finally said
As she said this, Carolyn began drawing a pair of stick figures in the sweated glass of the window. The cartoon figures; he with porcupine hair and she with ringlets were holding hands under a happy face sun. Smilin Carolyn stepped back, turned and with arms outstretched, made a dramatic bowing gesture.
“Ta da,” she crooned as if she had just pulled off a magnificent magic trick and was seeking applause. Sam laughed his approval but he knew that this was Carolyn’s way of changing the subject. He also knew, at this moment, that he could forgive her anything.
“People spend too much time misunderstanding one another, don’t you think?” she added with emphasis
Locking her eyes on his, Caroline gave him a mischievous smile, and slow as a stalking cat returned to bed, pulling the blanket up to her throat with a contented feline sound. She squirmed and folded herself into Mathew’s body, laying her head on his chest until their breathing rose and fell together. Her closeness gripped at his heart. He could smell the shampoo clean scent of her hair which had come undone from the elegant upswept style she had worn at the wedding. It dangled in loose tendrils around her face and she carelessly pushed a piece behind her ear.
“If you are not going to tell me why you left twenty years ago, at least tell me why you agreed to sleep with me tonight,” Sam asked with obvious curiosity. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“ Ha, you’re like an inquisitive puppy”, Caroline said, patting his head playfully. She was in a carefree mood now and Sam wanted to extend those feelings.
“You think so” Mathew said in the same lighthearted tone, “ I gotta tell you it’s not everyday that a gorgeous woman leaps into my bed”
Propping herself up on her elbow, Carolyn laughed girlishly while looking square at Sam with a half smile.
“Well, I’m not always… so generous with my affection….if that’s what you mean” She said with mock indignation as she sank back onto her pillow with a sigh.
“Besides”she said melodramatically with a hint of exaggerated southern girl helplessness in her tone.. “I just couldn’t help myself.” Carolyn batted her eyelashes up and down teasingly. She made a soft purring sound in the back of her throat.
“ And if you must know’ she said, giving him a direct look “ things are a little complicated at home.”
“ Why?… are you unhappy in your marriage”, Sam asked with more emphasis than he wanted.
“You know how it is” Caroline sighed, “the suspense just falls out after a while.”Closing her eyes, she added teasingly, “We have an agreement, he agrees to adore me…and I, for my part, agree to let him” She giggled quietly and snuggled closer to Sam “Really, it’s nice sort of, I guess, but he’s not much of a challenge anymore”.She gave a long sigh that Sam could not read.
Somewhere in the distance a siren could be heard racing through the snow covered Detroit night, it’s urgent mission announced to the city below. They had both stopped to listen, until it’s piercing wail faded in the night air.
“I thought I loved him at first” She began again, “I was certainly a starry eyed young bride. But it didn’t take me long to learn that romantic love is fragile thing.” She gave a short laugh but a glitter of tears rose in her eyes. With that, she rolled over and reached into her purse on the end table and pulled out a half smoked joint. With squinted eyes, she lit it, took a deep drag and passed it to Sam.
“It’s sad don’t you think”, she said as she slowly exhaled the smoke “that there is so little difference- a whisker really- between adoring love and utter indifference”
Sam nodded his agreement, before taking a long drag on the burning joint.
“ Do you know what I wish” he asked, hoping to change the subject back to this night and their time together.
“I wish we could stay in this moment forever, just the two of us”.
“ Mmm that would be wonderful wouldn’t it” she replied dreamily.
“In fact, I wish,” Sam said wistfully “we could just splice out the last twenty years…you know start fresh from where we left off”
“ Oh and while your dreaming”, she whispered mischievously, “could you please give me my twenty year old body back again too”
Sam pulled her closer to him and traced the pink ridge of her spine with his fingers. It had stopped snowing and the sky outside had turned a faint blue- purple heralding dawn’s imminent arrival. He could feel a sense of panic rising in his throat. In a few short, hours they would both board planes bound for cities on opposite coasts. How could he let that happen. Fate had thrown them together again and he was certain that fate was giving him a second chance; if only he would seize it. The thought of never seeing her again filled him with dread. He couldn’t help but believe that something valuable had been taken away from him years ago, and he wanted it back. He was not, he told himself, about to become just another memory to her…. just another shooting star that momentarily explodes and lights up the night sky, only to quickly disappear from her life forever.
“Carolyn,” he stammered, “I have something really important to discuss with you”
“Really, baby, not now” she pleaded, “we are having such a lovely time. Can’t whatever it is, wait til tomorrow”
At that moment, Sam noted, that rings of morning light had begun to splatter and creep slowly into the room, bathing the walls with the sudden realization that the evening was almost over. Sam could feel sweat form and trickle down his temple. Time, he thought, was running out. A cottony silence enveloped the room and Sam could sense her unease as the mood veered toward this new more serious tone. His breath was coming fast and he forced himself to inhale long gulps of air to try to relax.
“No”,he said emphatically, and perhaps a bit too forcefully. “Tomorrow will be too late.” He couldn’t help but think about her dramatic departure twenty years ago. He felt a desperate need to keep that ghost at bay again.
“ Well if it must be done, then out with it man” she said with a dramatic flourish and a sardonic smile, hoping to recapture the lightness and casual intimacy of moments before. For an instant there was a murky silence and he could hear the sound of grinding gears of a truck below. He felt a metallic taste in his mouth that he associated with fear.
“I have this wild notion” Sam began and then stopped abruptly sensing it was the wrong direction. He took a deep breath.
“Seeing you today ” he began again “and being with you like this” he struggled for the words that would convey the importance of this moment.
“Being with you today ” he began again, “made me realIze what I should have known all along”. He paused for dramatic effect, before continuing. “I realized today, that I love you, I really love you.” This was said in a rush of words heavily ladled with emotion. It felt good, he thought, to unburden himself of those words.
Sam could sense her dark eyes eyes staring at him now although he felt too timid to look at her.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he related in earnest tones, into the silence. “ I know that I can make you happy” He stammered, his heart beating as fast as a hummingbird.
With that he turned and looked directly into her eyes waiting for a reaction. Her first expression was a faint suspicious smile. She thought that Sam must be joking, but then she began to pale as the truth seeped into her consciousness like a knowing fog. She stared at him with wide, dead serious eyes.
“Christ sakes, Sam,what are you talking about” her voice rising with resentment.
“Today was just a lark, nothing serious. I have a husband and a family”she paused briefly, “a job.” Frustration, was clearly evident on her face
Her words struck Sam like a physical blow. Shame broke over him in a wave, and his crumpled, broken face, revealed everything. He had made a terrible mistake, he thought. His breath was coming so fast that it sounded more like a gasp.
“But I thought you were unhappy in your marriage and your…
Carolyn cut him off. “You must be mad” she growled sitting bolt upright on the bed. “That’s just silly talk. Harmless complaining. All peoples lives are expressed in half truths, don’t you know that by now.”
She searched his face with an air of astonished bewilderment.
“I certainly have no intention of running off with you or whatever other crazy scheme you have running around in that head of yours,” she indicated with a note of finality.
He gazed at her, helplessly. His hands were visibly shaking now. The force of her, full of sudden, flashing fury and rejection was almost more than he could bear. Sam had a sudden urge to cause her pain, but he resisted that impulse which passed quickly.
“But what about today,” Sam pleaded, “I thought that we we had a deep connection, I thought…”
Sam, honey,” she sighed in apparent exasperation but calmer now, and with a more sympathetic, conciliatory tone.
“Today wasn’t real. It was just a game …a temporary respite from real life.”
She stopped for a second and gathered her thoughts and then spoke in a crisp soothing tone.
“ It was a fantasy, Sam, just a pleasant fantasy. Something that we can both carry around and pull out when life becomes tedious….I thought you understood that on some level.”
Sam looked at her in blank disbelief. It was all too clear and too enormous. He felt he might burst into tears, more from shame than true unhappiness.
“So what was all this today” Sam wailed almost hysterical, waving his arm to take in the the whole room. “Some sort of performance.” “Some kind of melodrama that you were putting on?”
Carolyn sighed with resignation but did not respond. She rose without a word and methodically began to gather her clothes without glancing at Sam. She dressed in a quick, careless manner, stuffing her nylons into her purse, along with her discarded jewelry, not even bothering to put on her high heels. She walked to the mirror, made a half gesture to repair her hair, rubbed her tired eyes and surveyed the room for missing articles. With her shoes and purse in either hand she opened the door and turned to Sam. She was about to say something, thought better of it, and walked out. Sam heard the door close with finality and her footsteps retreat down the hall to the elevator.
Sam awoke late the next morning to sunshine which had already melted last night’s snow into the crunching, dripping, slush fest that passes for spring in the Midwest. He noticed that the pristine white cover of snow from the night before, had disguised the hidden layers of damp earth and muddy decay lying just below it. The hotel room smelled stale and looked suddenly stark in the daylight. It struck him that even the furniture had taken on a sort of worn loneliness. He could hear voices in the hall, the quiet murmuring of guests checking out of their rooms.
Sam knew that he had badly misjudged the situation last night and made a fool of himself . It couldn’t be helped. The night before Caroline had represented the delirious promise of happiness, and in his mind, he had put up a furiously romantic struggle to recapture the past. It was, of course, a fool’s errand and he should have known better. He was not sorry though. ‘Love, after all, is fragile thing,’he reasoned. Next time, he vowed, as he packed up his suitcase to leave, next time, if there is a next time, I will not ad-lib…but merely play the role as written. His packing now complete, Sam closed the latches on his suitcase and strode out of the room to the elevator without looking back.