by Tom Underhill
part 1 of 2
Time: The present
Stumbling naked out of the hotel room, Jim flung half the contents of his wallet back at the equally naked prostitute before slamming the door. He was too flustered to be thankful he was alone in the hallway; it wouldn’t have mattered right now anyway.
Dazed but hurrying, he fumbled on the undershirt and khakis he’d had just enough presence of mind to grab, his black body hair poking out of the edges of each. His socks and shoes he’d left behind but he wasn’t going back. He had more clothes in his gym bag, which was in the car.
He had to get out and get to his car.
Taking the stairs three and four at a time — waiting for the elevator would have meant risking her coming out as he stood there — Jim raced down the five floors, moving his aging athlete’s body at a speed it hadn’t experienced since college. After dashing into the lobby, he threw the rest of his cash at the uninterested man behind the desk and fled out the door.
Jim crossed the parking lot at a shambling sprint, his bare feet avoiding the broken glass more by luck than design. Once at his car, it took a frantic few moments to fish his keys out of his pocket and into the lock before he could get in and roar away.
But no matter how much physical distance he put between himself and the hotel, he couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. What couldn’t have just happened...
Time: 35 minutes ago
“Looking for some fun?” She looks bemused, not nearly as tired, resigned, and drugged out as the other girls patrolling the street. Her clothes are just as tight, and her hair’s dyed in the same half-hearted way (in her case, a faded red), but she’s the only one who makes him nervous.
“Yeah.” He hasn’t been, has never done this before. But her expression, her inflection... Jim opens the passenger-side door for her.
Torn between watching the road and watching her, he has to force himself to start driving again. Her skirt is dangerously short and the seat belt somehow manages to accentuate her cleavage, but it’s her eyes he keeps being drawn to. “So...”
“There’s a hotel I know coming up. Turn left at the next light.” She still sounds like she’s enjoying herself, at least a little, which only enhances the attraction.
Swallowing and nodding, Jim forces down the sudden surge of guilt; apparently the prospect of paying for sex has stripped away the aplomb he’s worked all his life to acquire. Flailing, he attempts the intimacy of introduction as they wait for the light to change: “I’m Jim.”
She chuckles smoothly. “I’m Claudia. And it’s green.”
Squealing the tires in his haste to accelerate, he swerves hard to the left. Jim’s still shocked at how unsure of himself he feels; he honestly hasn’t felt this awkward since his first time. Since Laura Dangles, his sophomore year girlfriend, invited him over to her house with the promise that her mom would be at work until eight.
He feels even more stilted once the hotel-room door closes behind them.
“So what do you like?” Claudia, though, looks perfectly at ease.
Jim knows he doesn’t. “Just... Just the normal stuff, I guess.”
“You sure? Not looking for anything special?” She glances down to tease off her shoes but he can still see her knowing smile.
“No, I mean, yes, I want this to be, I just-”
“It’s okay.” Claudia looks back up, her expression not just tolerant but tender now. She sets down the shoe in her left hand and rises to touch him with her right.
Jim feels himself tense up even more, but then she puts her other hand on him too and he starts to relax. His clothes fall away. Hers do, too.
“Look at me.”
He does, focusing on her eyes and how like Laura Dangles she looks from this angle.
And then he’s inside her...
Time: 16 years ago
...and then he’s inside Laura.
On her basement couch. Surrounded by her awful, 70’s style wallpaper, lava lamp, and shag carpet that reeked of German shepherd. Jesus: Claudia’s gone; Laura’s here; he’s sixteen.
This isn’t a flashback: he is back. But that’s impossible, he—
He’s going too fast. As disoriented and disconcerted as he is, Jim can tell. He hadn’t known then —now? — but later experience with other girls had made him realize how badly he’d botched this first time. Laura had never told him but, now that he actually looks, her blue eyes are clearly trying to.
Latching on to the one thing that makes sense, he eases up and starts to feel her relax. He takes the time to touch her, caress her back and her sides, and then resumes, slower and more sensually.
She actually seems like she’s enjoying it now. And he’s starting to as well, losing himself in a bad memory turning good...
He’s close to finishing, but he can’t make himself pull out. This will be the one thing he doesn’t fix. Nothing had come of it anyway. He’d always wanted to breathe her name, though, just as he came: ”Rachel...”
Jim knows the name is wrong even as it leaves his lips, the name of a girl he hadn’t known existed when he was sixteen.
Time: 14 minutes ago
But when he opens his mouth to apologize, he’s forming the words to Claudia.
Time: The present
Jim pulled into his garage and reflexively killed the engine, vaguely aware that he must have just made record time home. His still bare feet felt like they’d acquired a good deal of grit from working the pedals so hard. But instead of standing up and getting out, he stared at the cluttered shelf his car’s front fender was all but touching.
That hadn’t been his imagination: it had been too vivid, too clear, nothing like the projections he’d long been guilty of with Rachel, his wife of ten years. He didn’t do drugs, hadn’t touched them since college. So what the hell had just happened?
Claudia’s “Good, wasn’t it?” — her response to his sputtering question as he’d readjusted to the present — was still ringing through his ears. Even shaking his head hard didn’t get it out. He was a little less terrified now that he was safely home but his limbs were still heavy, his head light, his heart racing.
And yet... and yet part of him was starting to feel rejuvenated. The part that refused to think rationally and was strangely eager to see Rachel.
Moving as if he’d just awakened from a coma, Jim tentatively reached into the backseat and found his gym bag. His running shoes were still moist with sweat but, if he didn’t put them on, he couldn’t pretend nothing had just happened.
Rachel had been away on business for the weekend. They’d talked twice on the phone but it had been as formulaic as everything else these days: their vacations, their dinners, their sex. But now, now he was more excited than he’d been in a long, long time.
Finally opening the car door, Jim hurried to unload his briefcase and the doggie bag from lunch. Rachel should have been home for a few hours now, maybe bored and looking for something to do, maybe willing to help him work out the images of those other women.
Practically bursting through the door into the kitchen, he started to announce his presence like he hadn’t for years: “Honey, I’m—”
Her hair (red instead of brown) and skirt (instead of khakis) cut his words and motion short. Rachel was standing at the island with her back to him, a knife in one hand and a green pepper in the other. “Home?” she finished for him without turning.
“Yeah. I like your hair.”
Now she did turn towards him, the blade and vegetable still in her hands. “My hair? And my trip was fine.” She sounded, not angry, but definitely exasperated. And tired.
“I’m sorry, Honey.” Jim was, but he was also still extremely confused, even more so than he’d been in the car. He tried not to show it, though, setting his things on the island and moving to embrace her.
Rachel didn’t resist but she didn’t return the hug either.
Disturbed but determined, he ran one hand through her hair while the other crept towards her breast. “I didn’t mean to be rude, and it looks great, but it’s... different, isn’t it?”
“It’s the same as it’s always been since I’ve dated you, dear. Since you told me how much you like redheads.” It was hard to tell whether Rachel was playing a game or not; her voice was that flat.
“I did?” Jim began caressing her through her shirt, sure at least (about this if nothing else) that he loved when she went bra-less.
Today’s lack of lingerie was apparently about comfort and not seduction, however. With a perfunctory “Not now, Jim,” she moved away and resumed chopping. “Dinner’s in half an hour.”
Even though he didn’t want to take the dismissal for what it clearly was, he acquiesced reluctantly after watching how much more interested she was in the pepper. What made Jim actually leave the kitchen, though, was the realization that with the skirt and hair Rachel looked, even if only vaguely, like an older Claudia.
* * *
She wasn’t on the same corner as the day before.
Part of him was glad, the part that had managed to resurrect the guilt he had once felt for adultery, but most of him felt disappointed and even a little desperate.
Not for Claudia, though. Or at least not for her body, but for the experience it had somehow provided: flashing back to a better memory. A memory where relationships were exciting, where sex was good, and where it wasn’t all tedium and routine yet.
Jim turned left when the light changed, crossing over from the right lane to do so. He wasn’t really sure why, but it felt correct. The whore wasn’t visible down this street either, though.
And that flashback, that flashback had happened. He could still see every detail, feel every contact so vividly it couldn’t have been just a memory. It had been reality. A reliving that didn’t make any sense, that he couldn’t explain or share with anyone else. So why not sidestep the search for answers he’d never find and concentrate on doing it again? On repeating the past, a past more pleasant than the—
But it hadn’t been a total repeat.
Jim slammed on the brakes, maintaining just enough control to pull over into an empty parking space as the car behind him honked furiously.
He’d slowed down for Laura. Because he knew, from hindsight, that he’d been going too fast. That she was hurting but, because it was her first time too, she hadn’t wanted to say anything. He’d made a change — and then come home to Rachel’s Claudia-style hair?
What kind of dumbass Twilight Zone logic was that? Jim ran his hands threw his own hair, noting absently that it needed a wash. But nothing else had changed, right? Or not that he knew of. What was the connection? There had to be one, but how...
Claudia walked past on the sidewalk, the sway beneath her impossibly short skirt demanding attention.
* * *
Time: 7 years ago
Rachel looks up at him with eyes in need of reassurance. After a second’s delay, Jim groans appreciatively in response, marveling as he does so at how instantaneously the transition took place: just like that, he was with his wife and not the whore, in the first bedroom he and Rachel had lived in together.
The view of Syracuse from the sixth floor window cinched it: this was somewhere during the period when he was getting his masters and she, her MBA, the time he’d idealized as their happiest together, insanely busy as they’d been — probably because their sex had been great. Memory hadn’t exaggerated that, at least.
So good, in fact, that he begins to forget how Claudia had been able to forestall all his questions with a kiss and a tug at his belt-buckle. But...
She looks up at him again, slowing but not stopping.
“Can you sto- Can I kiss you?”
Rachel pauses for a second and then withdraws her mouth to stand up.
Realizing how timidly he’d asked, Jim does his best to French-kiss her passionately. It takes her a moment but then she returns the kiss at least as forcefully.
Closing his eyes, he lets his hands navigate her body, her younger body, from memory. Slower was better. It would last longer, maybe even give him time to sort some of this out.
She starts sinking again, floating back down to waist level. Despite everything else he’d remembered, somehow he’d forgotten how much she — and he — used to enjoy oral sex.
If he’s right, though, he needs to last, needs to stop her again so he can investigate.
But Rachel seems determined to finish what she’s started, and if he deflects her again, he might change something else. And it feels too good. This, right now, makes sense, even if nothing else does — which mean’s he’s weak. He’s known that for a while, though. Letting himself be sent back sooner than he’d intended is just more proof of this fact.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill