by: Bobby Mathews
He lay still on the bed while the woman molded herself to him, her head on his shoulder. One of her arms was draped across his chest. The room had been drab and cramped with the lights on, and the weight of what they were there to do had lain heavily upon him. With the lights off, it was easier. The shades were drawn tight across the windows. He had turned on the bathroom light and left the door open a crack. There was just enough light that he could make out the slim length of her thigh pressed against him.
It shouldn’t have been that difficult. He reached for the bedside table, groping past the remnants of the condom package and found the remote control. A smiling desk clerk had issued the clicker with the same efficiency she’d used to present his key. He would have to turn in the remote and the room key when he checked out, she said. The smiling desk clerk hadn’t seen the woman waiting in the car.
He turned on the TV. Automatically, he began to scroll through the channels again. Halfway through, the woman began to move restlessly beside him. It annoyed her when he did that. That was the reason he did it.
“Why don’t we watch the news?” She said. Her voice didn’t betray her irritation, but she held her body rigid until he settled on a channel.
“It’s fine,” she said. Meaning, of course, that it wasn’t.
On the screen, a group of well-dressed men and women were discussing the election. They escalated, going from squabbling to screaming, then full-on shouting at one another. It was like watching spoiled children who weren’t their way. He had never understood why politics was so personal to some people.
Of course that had changed. He understood now. All too well.
The woman took the remote from his hand and pointed it at the TV. The screen went black.
“They can’t help themselves, can they?” She asked. “Do you understand it?”
“I don’t either. You would think after a while that they’d get tired. They won, for God’s sake. It makes me exhausted just watching.”
“You don’t want to talk, do you?” She said. He shrugged. She sat up and looked at him in the gloomy darkness. “You never want to talk anymore afterward. It’s enough for you to bring me to a place like this.”
“It was all we had time for,” he said. “You know how things are.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know. You’re too busy now for anything else. We used to talk about art and books and people we know. Now you just say you don’t know. We can’t even have a conversation.”
“Yes we can,” he said. He sat up too. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I don’t know.” She chewed her lower lip. “Let’s talk about the election. Why do you think they keep going on like they are?”
“I guess it’s because you fight for so long for something. You want it so badly. But then in the end it turns out you can’t have it. It’s hard to let go of the things you really want.”
“That makes sense,” she said.
“It should,” he said. He hadn’t meant to sound so waspish. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. His lips brushed hers.
“I’m sorry,” she said, then laughed bitterly. “I don’t even know why I’m apologizing.”
“Me either,” he said.
He lay back down on the thin mattress, and she pressed herself against him. It was very warm in the room, and their bodies wore a thin coat of sweat like a second frictionless skin. She held him tightly, as if she were afraid she would lose him in the dark. He stayed comfortably still in her embrace. After a while, she could no longer stand the quiet.
“I love you,” she said.
He said it back, and after a minute, she sat up.
“We’d better go. It’s getting late.”
The digital clock on the bedside table glowed 8:37. Not late at all. He turned on the wall lamp above the bed. The top sheet was bunched in her lap, exposing her breasts. She saw him looking at her and smiled.
“Will you hand me my underwear?” She asked.
Their clothes were strewn around the room as if thrown by a cyclone. He giggled once, and then covered his mouth. He didn’t remember it being that passionate. He dutifully brought her underwear and sat on the edge of the bed while she put it on. She dressed quickly, then went into the bathroom and closed the door.
He dressed while she was in the bathroom. It was always that way. He could be naked with her, but he never dressed or undressed in front of her.
When she came out of the bathroom, he had already put on his jacket. His car keys were in his hand. She went to the bedside table and picked up the condom wrapper with two fingers. She disappeared back into the bathroom. He heard the toilet flush, and then she came back out.
“There now,” she said. “I think we’re ready.”
He opened the door of the room and looked out. There was no one outside. He let her go first, head ducked down deep into her coat. He opened the car door for her, and then got in on the driver’s side. They drove away without stopping by the front desk to check out, just left the room key on the bureau beside the TV. The remote control stayed hidden in the right front pocket of his jacket.
Bobby Mathews is a journalist and writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. His fiction has appeared in Bristol Noir, All Due Respect, Close to the Bone, and The Dark City, with stories slated in Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, and Flash Fiction Magazine in 2021.