Warning: Sexual theme (not explicit) and (brief) depictions of nudity.
She wants me.
The thought that went through Harold's mind as he shared the cramped elevator, surrounded on all sides with mirrors that couldn't hide the woman in the midriff-exposing halter-top that had been kind enough to hold the elevator door for him in the four-star hotel that tried so hard to pretend to be a five-star.
Fourteen. That was Harold's floor number. But the next floor to light was fifteen, even though he'd hammered the button thrice with the knuckle of his index finger and watched it go green. The bottom of her nose came up to just below his, supplementing the upturned point that he found alluring and the coy smile that adorned her lips as her azure eyes fixated on his in the reflection.
Lips just right for kissing.
This no was firmer than the last, and it lingered in his mind, drawn out into something that resembled the elongated "ohm" of his meditation sessions, so he went with it. Over and over in his mind, he overwrote his thoughts with the sound. He replaced the image of her curves and that belly button that hovered whenever he closed his eyes with the weathered, bearded face of his former instructor, wagging his finger in disapproval.
When he opened his eyes again, which were the color of dog excrement that had baked in the Texas sun for a day and a half, hidden in pig-like eye sockets and his own worn features, the feelings all but fled. He saw something pink on the floor with flecks of shiny sequins tucked into it in a heap on the floor.
Harold's eyes stretched involuntarily up from her flip-flops, over her tanned calves, and grazed the bottom ridges of her cut-off jean shorts. He found the belly button again and caught himself.
His plump cheeks went bright red in the mirror as he cursed himself. He had to control himself. Had to reign himself in. But his eyes continued to find two pert baseball-sized breasts that hung there, waiting for him to…
Harold blinked his eyes one more time, hoping against hope that the rather remarkable, smooth adornments would ensconce themselves back behind the sequin-covered pink halter on the ground. He gritted his teeth and took a smooth swig of the scotch in his hand. His shaky hands betrayed with icy clinks the feeling growing in the pit of his belly and pulse racing behind his ears.
The jean shorts had fallen by the time nineteen arrived.
He almost breathed a sigh of relief when an elderly nun boarded next. Almost. Harold popped his knuckles against the button for fifteen again in futility, three times, and it lit. He sucked in his breath and slid his trembling fingers down to the door open button, holding it to keep the door aloft so that the nipples — woman — beside him could make her way from the elevator. Part of him wanted to shove her out and toss her clothes behind her.
The nun said nothing.
Harold clenched his teeth as he examined the nun's face for the disapproval he'd received so many times in parochial school. The knuckles that had wrapped the button now ached in the remembered pain of rulers slapped across their backs.
When the habit lifted to expose two gnarled knees, he fled before it could go any higher. Five feet later, he looked back down the hall to see that both the woman and the nun stood in the hallway behind him. Six feet…seven feet…eight feet…ten feet. Finally, he stopped and turned for a complete look. A naked woman stood behind him, but the habit had dropped back down, and there was the look of scorn he'd expected but directed at the woman beside her. Slender arms now concealed the vulnerable parts of the woman, reminding him of a venus painting, except venus had been alabaster white, and the woman had turned beet red.
Harold ducked into his room and slammed the lock shut. Then a second later, remembered to swing the door back open and throw the do-not-disturb sign across the handle on the outside. Perspiration ran the length of his forehead, and droplets slid down his nose.
At first, it had been a fun and exciting new adventure. Then, he'd been naive enough to believe that he had been the one attracting them. His round face in the mirror, complete with puffy cheeks — rosy red not from embarrassment but from too much drink — stared back at him. His corpulent belly had fleshed out over his belt, and pushed his buttoned short apart, revealing a tuft of belly hair.
"I love that about you," his first, Gwen, had said, twirling it around her fingers. "It's like you're a big pillow I can curl up in."
Yeah, until he'd gone for donuts for breakfast and came back to find her scowling at him and throwing things that she could find — pillows at first. The ironing board sailing across the room at his head had hinted that perhaps her participation in their evening together had been less than voluntary. Harold reached up to his head and touched the spot where the leg of the board had collided in just the right way to leave a round mark that remained to this day. He lately passed that off as a birthmark when he was around people long enough to actually have a conversation about it. To think that it had been in this exact same hotel.
Yeah, it had been fine enough at first, he scowled in his mind. Until the meditation instructor started getting a little handsy. He remembered the feeble older man dragging his tongue seductively across those wrinkled, enlightened lips.
He'd tried to explain to Gwen, as he lay supine on the floor recovering from the ironing-board collision, but how does one explain something they don't yet understand? It's me, not you. Hardly seemed to cut it as Gwen had followed the ironing board with the iron.
She hadn't bought it. In her mind, he'd taken advantage of her. She'd locked herself in the bathroom for three hours and wouldn't even come out for her mobile phone, even when it chimed on the floor displaying the images of three children who were, from the looks of it, three, five, and maybe seven or nine years old — two girls and one boy. They spanned its face with the text overlaid of "Hubby." The sobs happened next, and he'd been devastated.
When she went silent, he thought she'd hurt herself, and then he banged on the bathroom door himself. The perils of travel were that he was in hotels daily across the country. A salesman by trade, Harold had to make a living, and he hadn't been an excellent salesman. And vacuum cleaners, in the twentieth century, barely made enough commission to pay for the drink that he sloshed quickly back, ignoring the burn in his throat.
That same morning, now so long ago, he'd gone to the maître d' and had convinced the man that no, he hadn't locked a woman in there. But yes, there was a woman locked in his bathroom. And yes, her clothes were all still on the floor by the bed. By the way, that spot on the floor was his own blood and not hers.
Then he'd faltered. The door sprang open, and like it or not, the sight of her naked body emerging, clearly not cut or damaged in any way, spiked Harold enough for the maître d' to decide that it was entirely too warm in the apartment. The man partially disrobed in a matter of seconds. Harold could only imagine what had gone through Gwen's mind at the time, naked and staring out, seeing two men standing there, one of whom had rid himself of clothing — mainly, except his pants hadn't cleared his feet yet.
She didn't come to him then or even approach. Instead, she crouched by the toilet against the far wall. And the limits of his power revealed themselves to him — and to her — as the maître d' demonstrated quite viscerally through unrequested groping that it was Harold's corpulent belly hair that he'd been after.
That had been a tough one. As it turns out, the maître d' of a hotel has a key to the deadbolt, which had been in the pants still wrapped around the man's ankles as Harold had ejected him from the room.
"What the hell?!" Gwen had shouted, safely tucked between the toilet and the wall, over ten feet from where Harold wrestled with the door to keep the maître d' at bay. "What did you do to him? What did you do to me?"
Harold didn't know. Not yet. He didn't realize that his arousal was contagious or that it took about ten feet to curb the effects. Mainly because it had never happened before. In fact, he'd never even had a woman naked in his room before Gwen, mother of three, though the children had not seemed to have had any impact on her body. Nor, until the morning, had they any effect on her sexual proclivities. Except they'd been his sexual proclivities and not hers. He finally staved off the overly-helpful maître d' with a privacy latch.
What was happening began to dawn on him as he approached her with his hands held before him in a do-no-evil gesture. As soon as he'd closed three feet, her facial features changed. No more scowl. The eyes that had kept darting over to her phone, which had vibrated itself within eyesight of the doorway to the bathroom, now fixated only on him.
He had noticed. He had seen and had stepped backward, covering the three feet in seconds. The maître d' pounded on the door to gain entrance, and Harold had ducked just in time for a still-wrapped toilet paper roll to sail by his head.
"Stop," he'd screamed. "Please stop. I'm sorry."
"Give me my clothes. Now."
Harold had dutifully tossed her clothing into the bathroom and had averted his eyes as she dressed. While she had finished, he stumbled around the edge of the closet toward the bed — and more importantly, away from her — before collapsing onto the overstuffed mattress.
"What did you do to me?" she had asked, staying well away from him. The pounding on the door stopped too, and the maître d', who'd never made eye contact with him again after, must have pulled up his pants and made his way down the stairs.
"I don't know," he'd said, telling her the truth. His mind twisted back through the days before, when he'd touted his Super Sucker Five-Thousand up three flights of stairs to try to sell to an older woman living alone. He'd gotten that sale after almost an hour of — if he was truthful with himself — flat-out lies about its capabilities. Part of him thought his affliction had begun that day.
Sure, it can get up wine stains. It's just that powerful.
He shook his head at the memory of the older woman who'd written out a check for the inflated price of five thousand dollars. When he'd cashed that check, that had been the biggest payday of his life ever for a vacuum sale. The retail price was only three hundred dollars. Still, he'd justified the difference in the cost of transporting the vacuum with him across the country in the back of a Buick LeSabre.
Shaky fingers dialed Gwen's number, which he'd gotten by surprise three days after.
"I told my husband," she'd told him, her voice verging on cracking over the tinny phone line. She'd divulged that they were already having problems. She'd only shared because, like Harold, she'd had nobody else to talk to. Her mother, who had been her former confidant, had been alienated by her casual infidelities. Gwen's father had died when she was young, and the hotel stay had been, by everything she'd told her family, a business trip. "He left me."
Harold had invited her to lunch, and she'd accepted. When she'd shown up in the hotel lobby, she'd launched his business card back into his face.
"Garth left me too," she'd said. "Since I stood him up to come to the room with you."
Harold hadn't understood at first, and it had taken thirty minutes of pleading to calm her down enough for her to tell him that Garth had been the partner in the extramarital affair — the person who she'd been on liaison with when she'd found an irresistible basketball-shaped man in the lobby bar. Those were her exact words: basketball-shaped. And as he stared at himself in the mirror, he saw it was true. Years of travel and sitting in a car had devolved him into a piece of sporting equipment.
There had been no accidental arousal in the lobby bar at that time. The maître d', clearly annoyed that Harold was still there for two more nights, had quit the next day. The bartender had happily served them whatever they asked for — which was water.
His thick fingers punched her number into his phone. Three rings. Then four.
"What do you want?"
"It happened again."
Harold stood in silence, holding the phone up to his ear.
"I don't know what to do."
"You can't control yourself?"
"It's been a very long time for me, Gwen," he offered. He also didn't share that he'd used that influence almost fourteen times, not for sexual gratification but to go on the most considerable vacuum-cleaner-sales tear that anyone probably in the history of vacuum-cleaner-salesmanship had ever seen. And he definitely didn't add that she'd been his last — and only — sexual contact with another human being during that time. What kind of loser would he be with the type of power he'd had and zero adventures to show for it?
"Nothing happened. Not really. But I may have ruined the life of a pretty woman and a nun."
He described his encounter, and she waited — maybe patiently, maybe not — but she did wait. After he finished, what she told him broke his heart. He'd known that her husband had left, but there had been something residual in what he'd done to her — or so she claimed. She'd had three other partners since and gotten caught with two of them. That was enough for her husband to win custody of their three children, which meant he also got the house, and the good car. Gwen was left with a beater and a bank account with about two hundred dollars. And no place to go. She lived in her car.
"I'm sorry," he said and meant it.
"You should be," she said. He didn't bother to remind her that she'd been in the lobby bar to meet with her romantic tryst. It wouldn't have mattered.
Harold sighed and closed his eyes.
"Can we meet?" he asked, aware of the lost puppy-dog sound that crept into his voice. The silence took up at least thirty seconds.
"I promise nothing will happen," he said, knowing this to be true. She'd been his first, and the only thing he felt about her now was guilt and the dull ache that seemed to throb the mark on his forehead that still hadn't gone away.
"Fine. Public place only. And only for waters."
His heart leaped. Gwen was the only one on the entire planet perhaps who truly understood what he was going through. Gwen was the absolute only one on earth he trusted himself around. There would be no arousal — at least, not directed toward her. He was reasonably sure he could contain himself. Mostly.
"Are you in town?"
"This is part of my normal route. I'm here, staying at the…"
"No. We'll meet at the Duck Parade, down on fifth. Do you know where that's at?"
The Duck Parade was precisely what it sounded like: a parade of ducks. The waitstaff all wore hideous duck costumes that, even in his wildest, most outlandish fantasies, weren't remotely attractive. When he arrived, he was informed that she'd already made a reservation at the farthest table away from the others, secluded against a back fence and covered under an obscenely large umbrella. It wasn't exactly the most public location, and on the other side of the wall, he felt reasonably sure, even if he didn't dare to look, was a strip club. She hadn't thought it through.
Or so he thought. It was only when a burly-looking man in denim jeans and a thick plaid jacket walked up and plopped himself down at the same table that Harold began to get the idea. The man scowled and ordered a Long Island Iced Tea.
"You here for Gwen," the man asked, his gruff voice gravely and tense.
"Don't give me that shit. That whore told me you'd be here."
Harold grimaced and thought long and hard about the situation. He looked at the duck costumes, then ordered a stiff martini when the waiter with the pimply-sounding voice came back by. Harold then slowly let his eyes peer through a fence gap toward the strip club. And then he knew. With a shaking hand, he downed the martini in a single gulp.
"You her husband?" he asked casually, careful to keep his eyes on the voluptuous neon woman in the advertisement, her naked breasts lighting up and fading. Deep down, he felt the churn in his loins. He ordered and downed another martini.
It really was the least he could do. Harold then noticed the sparkle in the man's dark hazel eyes. House, kids, and the life he'd stolen all hung in the balance of what happened next.
"I'm staying in the hotel Visiage. It's about two blocks from here. What do you say?"