After The Storm
By Neil Crabtree
Gwen was a good neighbor, as things went. Ordinarily I avoided getting to know the people living around me. I’d been in the same place for fifteen years, watched families move in, grow into and out of their townhouses, move away, to be replaced by another family not much different. Condos are good starter homes, and the complex I lived in had parks and swimming pools and an overpriced maintenance contract to keep everything looking well-tended. Perfect for small families, and bachelors like me.
She was a single mom. Gwen and her not-so-likeable, eight-year-old son Peter had moved in next door last year after her divorce. I had helped her carry furniture out of a trailer when I saw there was no man with her. It seemed like I had been helping her ever since, reluctantly, to be sure. I even tried getting Peter to play catch after seeing him moping around in his new neighborhood, the strange new boy. Strange was the right word, I found. The ball bounced off his chest the first time, a gentle lob I thought would be easy for him. The second lob hit him right in the face, went right between his outstretched hands in slow motion and bonked his nose, broke the frames of his glasses. He went running crying inside to his mother, and I embarrassedly tried to explain that kids half his age should have been able to catch what I had thrown. Gwen then told me he had a problem with hand-eye coordination that she thought was going away. The weird thing was, the kid insisted I sit down in front of the TV with him and play video game baseball. He showed me how to work the controller, how to hit, how to throw. It looked easy. He beat me 54-2, 67-4, 45-1 before I gave up. He was playing the computer and beating it when I left, a berserk look on his face as his little hands manipulated the players on the screen. Peter might have trouble catching a slow-pitch softball, but he could hit electronic home runs all day long.
I was able to dodge Gwen and Peter easily until the hurricane came. My normal routine of working late and then hanging out at a sports bar most of the night kept me away from home during the week, and on weekends I traveled, usually to meet up with waitresses I’d met as I ran my food service routes. There was something nice about dating women who lived a hundred miles away. Awkward situations were held to a minimum. Any of these kind women who came up with the great idea of moving in with me were confronted with the problem of logistics, and usually could be dismissed with the perfect brush-off line: I’ll call you. I’m sure love and being in love are important parts of the lives of lonely people. But I’m not lonely, and I’m surely not bored. And quite simply, it’s easier to sleep alone in my big bed. I snore terribly, and feel guilty whenever I inflict such terrible noise on someone who has been sweet enough to spend a few hours naked with me, giving and taking those things that can’t be lied about.
Everyone left work early to brace for the storm. The hurricane’s approach blew down trees, signs and traffic lights. The electricity went out during the third hour of its landfall, and stayed out as the hurricane drew closer and closer. The noise was terrible as the storm’s eyewall passed overhead, then suddenly died out entirely. I opened my front door to check on my van, and was astonished to see Gwen and Peter out walking around in the parking lot.
“What are you doing?” I yelled at them.
“It’s over. I can see the moon,” Gwen yelled back, pointing up to the clear sky.
I ran outside and grabbed them each by an arm. “We’re in the eye of the hurricane. In a couple minutes the back of the eyewall is going to hit, and it’s going to be a lot worse. Get inside. Go on.”
Taking this as an invitation, they ran into my door instead of theirs. I checked the van and found no damage, but was alarmed by the number of brick barrel tiles already loosened on our roofs. In the second part of the storm these would become projectiles as destructive as cannonballs. It was too late to do anything. Even as I ran inside I heard the train roar of wind as the back of the eye began to move across us.
I had candles lit around the rooms and my small, battery-powered TV reported that the storm, which had come ashore north of us in Fort Lauderdale, had taken an unusual turn due south instead of continuing west. Miami was taking a direct hit by a storm that should have only grazed us as it spun out to the Everglades.
“At least it’s only a Category One,” Gwen said.
“A Category One hurricane is like a category one nuclear explosion. If it hits you, you get blown away.”
She made a face and looked from me to the boy, indicating I should not scare him. Considering they had been about to go for a stroll in the eye of the storm, I had to fight back the urge to snarl at her. The powerful winds outside shook the glass of the sliding glass doors and windows. Peter watched the tiny TV screen like it was the most precious thing in the world, a link to the safe electronics of a better place and time. I poured two glasses of red wine and a grape soda.
What can I say? In that circumstance, warmed by candlelight and wine, while outside the storm pounded to get in, we all got comfortable with one another. I let the boy play his beloved video games on my laptop computer in the back room where the only window was shuttered and safe. Gwen and I sat together on the sofa and talked. She taught at the elementary school Peter now attended. Her husband was an accountant in Tampa. He had divorced her after she had an affair with a black teacher. It had been enough of a scandal that her husband had bought her a condo in Miami two hundred miles away to get an uncontested divorce. There was no custody battle, the father having no better understanding of Peter than I did, though Gwen swore they were very much alike. Gwen and the black man, Brady, still saw each other from time to time but had no real commitment. I found myself attracted to her honest expression of what must have been a painful divergence from the steady course of a happily married family.
She had red hair, not natural but one of the nice looking auburn shades of pre-made hair colors. Her face was long and fleshy, with full lips, and the way she wore her hair covered ears bigger than she liked. Her figure was a mixed bag, with an almost mannish look to her shoulders and small breasts, leading down to one of the best second halves I had seen in a while, great hips and long legs kept strong by exercise. Her eyes were brown and appeared intelligent until I heard some of the silly things she had to say. On that stormy night even her naiveté was appealing. Once the storm died down, I put them to bed in my room while I checked her place to make sure the lit candles weren’t setting fire to the furniture. When I returned, she was asleep, the boy snuggled to her breast. They looked so peaceful, so comfortable together, faces lit by candle glow. Some part of me was struck by the tenderness of mother and child in each other’s arms, so different from the childhood I’d known. I drank the rest of the wine and watched the little TV so I would not get into thinking about it.
It was only weeks later that Gwen and I dated. The neighborhood still looked like God had lost his car keys and spent hours tossing things around looking for them. The streets of our planned community were lined with broken trees, though big piles of downed limbs and branches and roots had been removed. The signs at the gas station were frames without much of the plastic, and banners with WE’RE OPEN still hung in the front. At the shopping center, there was plywood over the fronts of several stores, and the names on the awnings there were damaged as well, so CL___ERS and FL__STS and _HINES_ and __ QUOR waited for customers and insurance adjusters.
Peter was at his father’s, called out of school for the week, to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Gwen was discouraged from going after a bitter phone call. I took her to dinner, a nice place with a patio bar and a steel drum band. We both ate and drank too much. We knew where it was leading, and so it seemed completely natural to go straight to her place and up the stairs to her bedroom. The flirting and the looks and the touching of the hands, all those little things led up to a natural conclusion. On the way up the stairs I noticed a vase of beautiful long-stemmed red roses with a card attached, and made a joke, something about there being competition. She laughed briefly, and then went into the bathroom, leaving me to figure out the point. Feeling the night’s alcohol, I undressed and got into her comfortable king-sized bed, turning down the light, seeing a child’s nightlight come on near the dresser as I did so.
She came out in a silk robe and lay down with me. I felt her nakedness through the thin material, smelled her mouthwash and hairspray, felt her strong legs move over mine. We kissed like we had known each other a long time, without the awkward bumping of tongues and teeth so common on a first night. It seemed while I’d been traveling the countryside there had been a treasure right next door waiting for my discovery. We took our time, growing warm beneath the cover, hands probing boldly, followed by lips, and when we began to sweat I moved on top of her, feeling her hot breath urging me on.
As I slid into her, she seemed to freeze in position, locking my hips with her legs. At first I thought she was attempting to slow my rhythm, but as I moved back and forth, her face was turned, her arms thrown back to either side, and she literally ceased to move, other than to pant through clenched teeth. I had expected her to grind her sex on mine, to eagerly seek out her release, to wiggle like a crazy person, something, but this rigidity startled me. I raised myself on my arms, adjusting the angle of the action, but still nothing, just my indifferent thing slipping in and out of her, a wetness spreading over me that denied friction. Looking down on her facing the wall, eyes locked shut, breathing like she was exercising, I thought she resembled a rape victim, or a woman forced into prostitution, submitting unwillingly to her customer’s demands.
I’d wanted to share real passion with Gwen but joined to her at the hips like that, when emotion should have carried us away, I found myself drafted into some psychodrama only she could see. Uneasy, I checked the nightstand and nearby surfaces for weapons or sharp objects. Then it dawned on me that she was giving herself to me, like a payment for some service or favor. She wanted nothing for herself. I did not know if she was always like this during intercourse, or had just worked up this paralysis for my benefit. I wanted to do something for her, force her to relax, but it seemed absurd: how can you force someone to relax? I debated picking her up, changing positions, biting her neck like a vampire, but there was nothing about her behavior that said she wanted anything different. Maybe inside her head sparks were flying and fireworks went off in great explosions. Perhaps she had been abused as a child. If she called me Daddy, I would run out of the room screaming.
Held fast by those powerful legs, denied the kisses or embrace of a lover, I lost my own desire. Not wanting to disappoint her, I wiggled and thrust some more, then sighed and collapsed upon her. I closed my eyes and waited to be released. It was the first time I had faked my own orgasm. I would have been happier if she’d faked hers.
“That was wonderful,” she said, coming back to life. I nearly asked her what.
“Yeah. Great,” I said instead. I eased out and lay next to her, trying to think of a tenderness that would not embarrass us both. I could not.
We separated and she pulled her robe together and went back into the bathroom. I lay there a minute, then got up and began dressing. By the time she came back I was pulling on my shoes. She touched her fingers to her lips.
“Oh dear. You’re leaving? Is something wrong?”
“I’m sorry, Gwen. I’d love to stay. But I have a report due at eight tomorrow and I haven’t even started it. I’m really sorry. I thought we were just going to dinner.”
Her big lips pouted, then gave way to a smile as she found the comfort of her pillows and the warmth beneath the covers. I was glad there was little distress.
“Actually, I’m exhausted,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep last night, worrying about Peter. But I’ll sleep well tonight. Thank you for a lovely evening.”
“You’re the best. There’ll be other times.”
“I’ll call you,” she said, turning on her side.
I went down the stairs, trying not to seem in a hurry. I passed the roses, stopped myself from reading her card. I did not want to know any more about Mr. Flowers.
Outside the night air seemed alive and chill, and I wanted to run to breathe it deeply, and get away faster. I slipped on a piece of broken plaster and nearly fell but I caught myself in time, went home, agile and undamaged.
Sleep did not come easily. Behind my eyelids I saw scenes of movement, broken things swirling in circles, rain coloring the world gray. I gave up before dawn.
I could not get the night out of my head, what had been given, what taken away.
Maybe that was how she saw me. She was mirroring my actions, felt me straining to hold myself back, clenching my teeth with the effort.
I knew I had to talk to her about it. But it was too early to wake her up. It was better to get on the road, get things done, work my way through.
She’d call me, she said.
Neil Crabtree lives in Miami, FL, with his wife and children, and his
Neil's last work for VerbSap was Live Band Tonight.
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