Henry and Anita left the windy shore and found an old tottering picnic table beneath a spruce tree. Anita kicked off her shoes. He saw she had blisters on her heels and wished he’d told her to wear hiking boots. She began to circle the table looking outward, arms half-raised as wings.
—Now what’s back here, she said, distancing from the table.
—The surprise, he said.
He led her over a grassy rise and through thin leafless woods and soon they reached a clearing strewn with vast blackened fragments of stone and mortar. He watched her gaze over the ruins.
—There was a hotel here in the twenties, he said, following her gaze. It was popular with celebrities. Harry Houdini stayed here, Calvin Coolidge, some others.
He watched Anita tilt her head, watched her eyes explore. She was silent, all looking. He waited until she glanced back at him then gave the next piece:
—People paid what they thought it was worth, he said, And they paid a lot. Then it burned down and they never rebuilt it.
She broke away down the hill and stopped beside the first large artifact: a corner of what had once been a room, about neck-high, floor of grass and weeds. They crouched out of the wind. His hand found the nape of her neck and gently clenched. She sat entranced, little wisps of hair clung to her face and masked her eyes.
—It burned down? she said absently. Did anyone die?
—Probably, he said, loosening his grip. She bounced a couple of times in place then stood. She peeked over the edge of their room, scanned the clearing.
—We’re in the hotel, she said, dropping back inside. It’s the night of the fire.
With that she left him and entered the windy emptiness, he followed. Without looking back she called out, Stay where you are.
—Where are you going?
—To my room. I don’t know you.
He watched the ruins take Anita. At about the middle of the clearing she stepped behind a low wall. It came up to the middle button on her jacket. She took her jacket off. She took her shirt off. She took her bra off and stood there gazing through him. He couldn’t move. Then she bent and sank from sight, and he guessed she was pulling down her pants. When she rose he did not exist, she raised her arms and ran her hands through her hair, raised her closed eyes to the grey sky. She was taking a shower. At the edge of the clearing Henry’s hands ached with emptiness. He approached her as if in a dream, watching her distant existence, vacantly wincing at bits of rubble beneath his feet. Wind hurried like an animal between the ruins, the sky darkened. If it began to rain his life would end.
Before he knew it he was standing in front of her, the crumbling wall between them. His hand rose toward her. He was not in control. She gently stepped back and continued showering, eyes mostly closed. He edged around the wall and stood behind her and watched her and felt fatal. He slid one arm around her waist.
—Oh, she said. I must’ve left the door unlocked. How careless of me.
Henry did not speak. He pulled her against him and used his free hand to feel between her legs. She turned abruptly.
—This could be anywhere, she said.
—We could be doing this anywhere. I want it to be like the night of the fire. She pulled up her underwear, slipped into her shirt. He felt like dying. His hand wandered below his belt.
—Stop that, she said. Save yourself.
She zipped what he had unzipped. He checked the sky. He thought about the picnic pavilion beside the lake. The only place to hide if it rained, and if there were other people around that’s where they would all go.
—Can you just tell me what’s going on? said Henry. It looks like it’s going to rain soon.
—The hotel is on fire, didn’t you know? Most everyone is already out. (she stepped closer and whispered) I’m going to my room now, we’re going to bump into each other later in the smoky halls. I’m a movie star, but you don’t know that until you are up close. You are the owner of the hotel. Your life is burning down, your dreams, everything you own is inside the building, aflame.
—Wow Anita, that is depressing.
—But we will get out together, won’t we? Won’t you save me, when you find me?
She slowly walked away from him and her pile of jacket, bra and pants.
—If you find me, she called back. He thought to follow her and take her to the ground, take her in the leaves. Now. He took two steps without realizing. As if she sensed this, she shouted
—Close your eyes and count to twenty.
He immediately closed his eyes. He counted the beats of his heart. It beat quickly and powerfully, he let it go another twenty. Opening his eyes, he was alone. He wandered and peeked, whistled, wandered to the middle of the rubbly clearing. Looked to the sky: a small bright patch of cloud which could have been the hidden sun. He condescended to imagine a chandelier hidden in smoke. The wind made beautiful sounds through the dry leaves. His love was here, somewhere, among the ruins. Waiting for him. The air was newly warm, the sky was heavy and near. He dropped his jacket to the earth.
She was standing in the shattered, roofless space of what had once been a corridor. He stopped and watched her: one arm at her side and the other raised and gently grabbing at something in the air. Her eyes followed something and she gently grabbed and checked her hand as if trying to catch fireflies. He walked slowly to her.
—What are you doing?
—Isn’t it beautiful? I’ve been trying to catch bits of ash, but they are so insubstantial that the force of my hand through the air sends them fleeing. No matter how careful I am, how slowly I reach, I can’t catch them. Not one. I even tried holding my breath so as to move slower and more like a ghost, but it doesn’t work. Where are they coming from? Has the chef burned dinner?
—Ma’am, there’s a fire in the hotel. Please come with me.
She planted her hands on her hips. Her underwear was black lace and he could see through it, he saw the form of the lips of her vulva and his mouth filled with saliva and he felt faint. He wanted only her.
—Who are you to ask me to leave? Do you know who I am? I’m a movie star. Sure it’s smokey in here, but don’t you even recognize my voice?
He gripped her arm.
—Ma’am, I’m the owner of the hotel. If you won’t come with me, I’ll make you come with me.
She slapped his face.
—Jesus, easy, he said.
—You will not make me leave, she said. I have paid dearly for my stay here. I have paid generously and thus I have a right to stay for as long as I please. You will not take me anywhere.
—Okay then we’re going to die, he said, hand on his flushed cheek. He checked the sky, he checked the clearing.
—I know, she said.
They stood there in silence. He saw his handprint on her arm where he had pressed away the blood. He crossed his arms and looked away.
She stepped up to him and spoke in a whisper:
—You need to want me to come with you, but you can’t say it. I can’t leave because you want me to. I need to leave because I want to. You can do this.
She took an atavistic step back. He ran his hand through his hair.
—I don’t like this, he said.
—So, Mr. Owner, how do feel about the fact that your hotel is burning down? Are you insured?
—I don’t know.
—Why aren’t you saving yourself?
—Because I need you to— because I want— because captain goes down with the ship.
His hands settled on her hips. When she did not pull away, his fingers traced up her spine to her bra, around and down her ribs. She took a deep breath.
—Are you sure you don’t want to save yourself? she said.
—I would be leaving half of myself behind.
She softly escaped the helix of his moving hands and stepped into a mossy alcove. She hoisted herself carefully onto the waist-high wall.
—What a nice view, she said, looking over her shoulder. I like the view from this room. What a shame. We could escape right now if we wanted. Hop right out the window.
—We’re on the third floor, he said, peering down. I don’t recommend jumping. I think we’re stuck, for better or for worse.
She leaned back and he held her legs, she leaned far out over the edge and reached for the woods. He kissed her belly while she leaned, he kissed her pelvic bone. She sat up and held his head. He kissed her innermost thigh. He rose and they put their open mouths together. They breathed each other’s breath and clung close together on the sill of the third floor window of the burning hotel.
Anita’s words struggled out between breaths:
—Have you seen any of my movies?
—I’ve seen all of them. He sucked softly at her neck. He wished she’d let him leave a mark. Just once. Anything that would exist beyond this moment, beyond this mountain.
—Am I a good actor?
—Yes. The best.
—Do you get jealous when I kiss other men on screen?
—It’s not real. This is real.
A low rumble passed over the mountain. Perhaps a distant rifle report, Henry hoped. Perhaps the highway carried up by the wind. Anything but thunder.
—Tell me what you think of me, she said. Tell me.
He ran his hands up and down her back, visiting her three moles in turn. This was real. Over her shoulder he watched for a moment the thin windblown trees and, beyond, the grey glow of the lake.
—Why, she said. Why. She held his face in her hands and rocked her hips slowly.
—Because you can’t know or you won’t come with me. You said you can’t know.
—Tell me anyway.
He lifted her from the ledge and without separating their union he lay them in the leaves. Her hair spread out and he looked into her brown eyes and down her neck to her breasts peeking out from her hiked shirt. He entered her and he lost his fear. He held himself motionless over her, gazed down to where her legs forked around his hips.
—I want to take you with me, said Henry.
—Say it again, she said. I feel like I’ll die if you don’t. Don’t let me die.
They rolled over. His body rose to hers like a drowning mouth to the surface of the water. He took up a fistful of dry leaves and ran his open palm across her breasts and the leaves crackled and blew away. Orgasm approached as if from outside of himself, like a phantom from the woods. He fantasized the two of them spied upon. Suddenly a twig snapped just outside their broken space and a flash of anxiety split through him. He braced to be witnessed into existence: he listened: they remained alone but for the laughter of the leaves. A chilly breeze blew and they hugged closer to each other, her dark, merciful hair descended over him to curtain out the world.
—You have to stay low like this, below the smoke, he whispered. Her reply, if she replied, fell away in the strengthening wind. There was a sudden arcing of their figure and it was over. Their bodies continued to pulse and rock against each other, slowly, involuntarily. They breathed heavy, mouths at each other’s ear.
—I felt a raindrop on my back, she said.
He ran his fingers searchingly along her spine.
—Did you find it? she said.
Mutely he brushed away the bits of leaf and grit clinging to her skin. A raindrop pricked his thigh. Another the back of his hand.
—It’s raining, he said.
—I told you! Just in time, too. I could feel the flames just around the corner.
—We didn’t have to worry after all. Who would’ve thought. Can we still say I saved you?
She smiled shyly and he realized she was finally his and suddenly to him the falling rain was a celebration. He had done it, at last. They got up and brushed themselves off and brushed each other off and dressed and departed the clearing. At the edge they stopped to take a last look over the ruins. They gazed through the thin rain.
He took her hand. They hobbled over the shiny black rocks of the shore as the rain heaved, they spotted the pavilion and ran. Catching their breath, they listened to the hollow panging on the aluminum roof. A thick fog seeped from the far woods and sprawled across the water. On the opposite shore a vast pine rose above the haze like a monument in their honor.
—We’re trapped, he said with a smile. It’s a long way down. We should wait till the rain stops, it’ll be muddy and slippery.
—I can’t wait. I need to go soon. She took her hand from his.
The words went clean through him like a bullet. He sat down. Can’t. Need to. He didn’t want to know why.
—Why? he said.
She looked at him and sighed, she dropped her eyes.
—You know why, she said.
He searched for pain in her face.
—Walk me down? Please? she asked.
—If we must. He wanted to ask, Do you want to leave? He wanted to ask, Was this secluded enough for you? He wanted to ask—
—Thank you for inviting me, she said. It is a lovely place. But now I have to leave.
He stood carefully, flexed his cold, bluish hands. Rubbed his eye. Grateful he would have her in his sight at least as she succumbed to the pull of the realm below the clouds. He renewed that old battered promise to himself: I’ll keep her in my sight no matter what. Then the panging of the aluminum lifted away like a burdensome hood. They were out in the open rain. They were out.