I WOKE up craving watermelon. My mouth watered for a bite of a brilliant pink slice. I opened my eyes. I was lying on my stomach, my arm hanging off the edge of the bed. For a moment, I wasn't sure where I was. Numbers glowing radioactive green on a digital clock told me it was two in the morning, but my clock didn't have green numbers. Light and shadows danced against a wallpaper of cabbage roses. This was definitely not my bedroom.
The smell of watermelon was still potent in the air, overlaid now by the heady scent of musk, like a ripe Brie. I inhaled, feeling a delicious languorousness as the sweet, sharp smells worked their way up the back of my nose and filled my head.
I closed my eyes and savored the rush of memory. I was at Annie's. My car was at the mechanic'sâa busted timing chain was more than I cared to tackleâso Annie had picked me up at work and driven me to her place for dinner. And no, we hadn't eaten any. A pound and a half of prime aged Angus beef
was still sitting on Annie's kitchen counter, alongside a bunch of asparagus with half the bottoms snapped off, a loaf of French bread, and an open bottle of a Ridge Zin.
That sweet smell was Annie. The Brie was us. We'd left behind no dirty dishes, just a trail of discarded clothing starting in the kitchen and ending in Annie's bedroom hallway. I wondered if forensics could lift body prints from walls and carpeting, because there would be several to find, marking our slow progress to the bed.
Why it had taken us nearly a year finally to â¦ that was another story. My wife, Kate, would have been horrified that it took so long. She wouldn't have wanted me to entomb that side of me in her grave. But I hadn't been ready, and I hadn't been ready, and then I still hadn't been ready. I tell my patients, Listen to your feelings, listen, and do what you're ready to do when you're ready to do it. Grief takes its own good time.
After so long, I'd seriously wondered if everything still worked. It didâsensationally.
I rolled over. Annie was awake in bed beside me, propped up on her elbow staring at me. Around her face, a halo of reddish-brown curls was backlit by a pair of candles flickering on the bedside table behind her. Golden candlelight poured over her hip, dipped to her waist, and then spread up across her upper arm and shoulder. Her smile radiated contentment.
“You up?” she asked.
I reached out and ran my hand gently over her cheek, down her nose, her lips. She sucked on my fingers. I continued down, over the swell of her breast, tracing a line around her nipple. Annie took in a deep breath and arched her back. I pulled her toward me, ran my hands down her back, and cupped her ass.
“Mmm,” she said, “you do seem to be.”
It was true. I grinned. I guess when you wait that long, you've got a lot of “up” stored in you.
As I held Annie in my arms, the memory of Kate's body came back to me. Softer, smaller. Kate was spices, cinnamon and clove. I remembered how I could tuck her under my arm while we walked, how I took care as I lay on top of her. I'd had to discover what pleased her, coax her out. She liked me to be the one in control. Annie was another story. She was almost as tall as me, sinewy strong, and as greedy for the lovemaking as I was. There was no doubt about what she wanted, and I delighted in making her swoon. The pleasure of giving and getting merged. I wanted more, and then more after that.
Our lips met and what had started out as a leisurely, gentle kiss turned hard and urgent. I slid over on top of Annie and pressed my body into hers. Her skin was smooth, muscles tensed and strong, and I could feel her rising to meet me. She wrapped her long legs high around my waist.
I wanted to touch and taste every inch of her body. I reminded myself that it was only two in the morning. Plenty more night left. I could take my time, and I did.
I was working my way down her smooth belly, pausing to taste her belly button, when there was a chirping from somewhere across the room, like a cricket trying to get out of a pocket.
“Oh, shit,” we said in unison. My beeper or Annie's, who knew?
The sound stopped. Annie locked her arms around me and groaned. I buried my face between Annie's breasts and pretended it would go away. But thirty seconds later the beeper started again, as I knew it would. It was hopeless. Even though it was the weekend, I was on callâI was always on callâand they wouldn't be beeping me unless something or someone on the Neuropsychiatric Unit was out of control.
I rolled off one side of the bed, Annie rolled off the other. I fumbled through the trail of clothing, trying to remember where
I'd shed my pants. I found them in the hall and pulled out the beeper. When I pressed the button, the sound stopped. The number on the readout wasn't the unit. Who the hell else would beep me at this hour?
My stomach lurched. Please, God, not my mother. Mom lives in the other side of my two-family house, and she'd been just fine when I'd last seen her early in the evening as she set out for a date.
I stumbled down the hall. Where had I left my jacket? My cell phone was in the pocket.
In the kitchen, I stubbed my toe on one of Annie's boots. “Damn!” I bellowed and hopped across the linoleum. My jacket was there, on the back of a chair. I pulled out my phone and punched in the number as I limped back to the bedroom, giving Annie's boots a wide berth.
On the first ring, the caller picked up. “Ferguson here.”
It felt as if someone had turned a knob, and the outlines of objects in Annie's bedroom morphed from fuzzy to sharp. Chip Ferguson was a former public defender, now in private practice, whom I'd helped out on several cases as an expert witnessâwhen he needed a neuropsychologist who could explain to a jury why a witness's memory might be fallible, for example, or how a young girl's addiction to Ritalin might alter her judgment. We weren't working on a case together at the moment, but I knew Chip wouldn't be calling in the middle of the night unless it was a matter of someone's life or death.
“Chip,” I mouthed at Annie, who was back in bed, looking spectacular, lying naked among the tangle of sheets. All that was missing were the rose petals â¦ and time.
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. It wouldn't have been unusual for Chip to have beeped Annie in the middle of the night. She'd been his investigator when they both worked for the public defender, and now she'd followed him into private
practice. But for him to be beeping me was odd.
I said, “Peter here, and this better be damned good.”
Annie slipped off the bed and disappeared into the bathroom.
“Peter, sorry to have to wake you, but I need your help,” he said. I wanted to scream,
At two in the morning?
“Someone I've known for years just called. Nick Babikian. He sounded very distraught, barely coherent. He asked me to come over.”
“What's that got to do with me?”
“I'm worried about this guy,” Chip said. “We were in the chess club together in high school.”
“Chess club?” It seemed like a tenuous link. I tried to imagine Chip as a chess-playing kid. It wasn't an easy image to square with his daily three-piece suit and tie, or with the Grateful Dead poster hanging on his office door.
“Actually, I met him my sophomore year of high school. I was probably the closest thing he had to a friend. He's not the type who makes friends easily. A very odd guy. Intense. Owns his own businessâinvented some computer game that made him a mint. Lives in a fancy part of Weston now with his wife and his mother, who's got Alzheimer's. I've helped him out before with legal advice. I don't know what it is this time exactly, but he's distraught. Barely holding himself together.”
“You think he's having a breakdown?”
“Peter, I know when I'm over my head, and I'm over my head with this. I thought about getting him to call a crisis hotline or go to the ER, but he'd never trust a stranger. I don't know what he might do, and I sure as hell don't want to do the wrong thing. You deal with people in crisis all the time.”
I knew what was coming next. I thought again about watermelon and rose petals. But the sound of the toilet flushing brought me back to the present. Tonight was over.
“Could you meet me there?” Chip asked.
“Sure,” I said reluctantly.
“It's in Weston. Just off Route 117 â¦” I found a pencil on the bedside table and tore a piece of paper from a pad in the drawer. He gave me directions, up a winding road, right at a fork. I knew the area. It was chockablock with mansions hidden in the hillsides. “Number 238.”
Chip went on talking. Annie came out of the bathroom. Everything about Annie is long. Long limbs. Long neck. And in between, all wonderful curves. In this light, her shoulders and breasts, stomach and legs were luminous, marred only by an angry red blotch on the side of her thigh. I went over to her and touched it gently.
“Rug burn,” she whispered with a smile.
I bent and kissed the scrape. I could so easily have kept going.
“ â¦ over there right away â¦” Chip was saying. He stopped. “Peter, are you with me?”
“Sorry, I was distracted for a minute. What was that?”
“I'm going over there right away. How long do you think you'll be?”
That's when I remembered. I didn't have my car. I put my hand over the receiver. “Can you drive me to Weston?” I whispered.
Annie nodded. From her expression, I realized she'd been expecting this. She disappeared into the bathroom again. A moment later the shower went on.
“Should be about a half hour, maybe a bit more,” I told Chip.
After I hung up, I sat there. At least there wouldn't be any traffic. Twenty minutes over, an hour max to determine how much help Nick Babikian was going to need, twenty minutes back, and that still left time for me and Annie to pick up where we'd left off.
I was in the kitchen pulling on my pants when Annie's phone rang. Who'd be calling in the middle of the night? Two rings. Three. Annie was still in the shower. I heard her muffled cry,
something, and then “ â¦ get that!” I picked up.
There was wet breathing. “Annie?” The man's voice was slurred. “Is this Annie the Blowjob Queen?” He laughed. “I'm lookin' for a good time, Annie. Says right here, call Annie.” In the background I heard music, voices. “You there, honey?”
I wanted to reach through the phone line and strangle the guy. “Who the fuck are you and what do you think you're fuckin' doing?” I barked.
“Fuck off!” I shouted.
“Hey, easy buddy. No offense!”
“You call again and I'll rip your head off.”
“Oooh, you got me scared shitfaced,” the man said, crooning at me. The line went dead.
I slammed down the receiver. My stomach had started to knot up. I couldn't stand the thought of anyone slobbering over Annie.
Annie came into the kitchen, zipping up her jeans. I tried to keep my voice calm. “You just got a very disgusting phone call.”
“Why'd you answer it?”
“You told me to.”
“Well, that's not what I heard.”
“Yeah, well,” Annie said, buttoning her pale blue cotton work shirt, “I've been getting some crank phone calls lately.”
“Lately?” Now that stomach knot had worked its way up into my throat. “Since when?”
“A week. Maybe more.” Annie was avoiding eye contact. “It seems like someone's been posting my name and number in bars.”
“Did you notify the police?” I asked.
“The police? Are you kidding?” Annie gave me the eye. Her
look softened. “Peter, don't go all protective on me. I'm a big girl.”
Annie straightened the baby doll that was tipped back on a chair by the kitchen door, its legs up in the air. The doll was as incongruous with Annie's I-can-take-care-of-myself image as the cabbage-rose wallpaper.
“Some jerk calling you. I don't like it.”
“Well, I don't like it, either. I usually take the phone off the hook at night. Last night I got â¦ uhhh â¦ distracted. I'm sure you know how that is.” She gave me a long, lingering kiss. She radiated the smell of warm soap, and her hair was still damp. We stood there, staring at each other. “And I don't want to have to wait a year for the next installment,” she said.
“Can you wait two hours?”
“That makes two of us,” I said, staring deep into her gray eyes. “You might have to get used to me hovering over you. It's what I do when I care.”
“It makes my teeth itch.”
“Tough.” I glanced at the clock. “We need to get going.”