Published in: Ripe Fruit, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, vol. 3
It started with a phone call. Sarah had been expecting the call, but it was still a shock. She had learned over the last few years, as friends succumbed to old age, and to one or another disease, that there were limits to how well you could prepare for death. It was usually cancer, of one type or another. Cancer had gotten Daniel, too. It was hard when it was someone you’d loved.
"I’m so sorry, Ruth."
"Can I come out? Tonight?"
"The next flight down arrives at 8:30."
"I’ll meet you at the airport."
Sarah put down the phone, meeting Saul’s calm eyes as he walked out of the studio, wiping paint-stained hands on his pants. She bit back brief irritation at his calm. He and Daniel had never quite gotten along, though they had tried, for the sake of the women. Saul had been quietly pleased when Daniel’s career had taken him to Seattle, though not so pleased when Ruth joined him there, a few months later. Saul had locked himself up in his studio and painted huge dark canvases, ugly compositions in a dark palette: black, indigo, midnight blue. But Ruth had been happier with Daniel than she had ever been with them, happier married and with children on the way. Eventually Saul had bowed to that truth.
Sarah said, "I’ll pick her up. You go ahead and finish."
Saul nodded, stepping forward and leaning down to kiss her forehead gently. "You okay?"
Sarah managed a smile. "I’ll be all right. Ruth didn’t sound good, though."
"No." He opened his arms then, and she stepped into them, heedless of drying paint. She rested her cheek against his chest, wrapped her arms around him, desperately glad that he was healthy. Some arthritis, a tendency to catch nasty colds; nothing that couldn’t be fixed by keeping him out of the studio for a few days. After this many years, she could manage that, at least, even if she had to scold like a shrew to do it. She rested in his arms a moment, breathing in his scent, cinnamon sugar under sharp layers of paint and turpentine. He kissed the top of her head, and then let her go.
"I’ll make up the bed in the guest room," she said.
Saul nodded, turned, and walked back into the studio, quietly closing the door behind him.
Sarah waited at the Alaska Airlines gate window, her face an inch or two from the cold glass. It was raining outside, a cold hard rain, typical for Oakland in January. The baggage handlers drove their little carts back and forth, luggage covered by dark tarps. The plane had been delayed, leaving her with nothing to do but wait and remember.
The last time she had made love to Daniel, they had been alone. He was leaving in the morning; Ruth had already said what they all suspected would only be a temporary goodbye. Sarah knew her own would be a final one, and so she had taken this last night alone with him. She had planned for it to be tender, sweet and slow. That had seemed appropriate for a goodbye. But instead, Sarah had found herself biting his neck, raking his back, riding him until they were both exhausted, until she was trembling with tiredness. Daniel hadn’t been gentle with her either, had dug his fingers into her ass, had bitten her breasts. They had left marks on each others’ bodies, dark and brutal and bruised. They had kissed until their lips were puffed and sore. And it was only in the morning, with the long night giving way to a grey sunrise, that their pace had slowed, that they had settled into a hollow of the bed, his hand stroking her dark hair, her fist nested in the curls on his chest. He had asked her then to come with him to Seattle. She had let silence say no for her, and he hadn’t asked again. Sarah had gone to Saul the next night with Daniel’s marks on her body. He had been gentle with her that night, and for some time afterward.
The passengers were walking off the plane, some into the arms of family or eager lovers. Ruth walked down, wearing a dark dress, her eyes puffy and red. She had been crying on the plane. Ruth had never cared what people thought about little things. She cried freely in public. She had occasionally tried to provoke screaming fights in parking lots and malls. She had been willing to have sex in the woods, in open fields, had teased and persuaded them all until they joined her. It was only in the big things that she was at all conventional.
They had once travelled east together, two couples in a car, perfectly unremarkable to all outward eyes. They had stopped in Wisconsin, had decided to camp that night instead of staying in a motel. Two separate tents, and the night sky overhead. While Daniel and Saul finished washing the dinner dishes in a nearby creek, Ruth had taken Sarah by the hand and led her into the woods, searching for fallen branches to build a fire. Sarah had dutifully collected wood until Ruth came up behind her, lifting her skirt, kneeling down on dirt and twigs and grass. Sarah wore no underwear in those days, at Ruth’s request. So when Ruth’s mouth reached for her, Sarah had only to shift her legs further apart, to try to balance herself, a load of wood resting in her arms, eyes closed. Ruth’s tongue licked under her ass, tracing the delicate line at the tops of her thighs. Ruth’s tongue slid up over her clit, then back again, sliding deep inside her. Ruth’s hands held onto Sarah’s hips, her fingers gently caressing the sharp protrusions of hipbones, the skin that lay over them. Sarah was usually quiet, but in the middle of the empty woods, she let herself moan. Ruth’s tongue flickered over and around, licking eagerly until Sarah’s thighs were trembling. Her heart was pounding, and just as she began to come, waves of pleasure rippling through her, as the wood fell from her arms, Saul was there with her, in front of her, holding her up — his mouth moving on hers, his chest pressed against her breasts, and his hands behind her, buried in Ruth’s hair. Then they were all falling to the ground, Saul and Ruth and Sarah and Daniel too, a tangle of bodies, clothes discarded, forgotten, naked skin against dirt and moss and scratching twigs. Leaves and starlight overhead, and Ruth laughing in the night, laughing with loud and shameless delight. It had always been that way with her.
Ruth paused at the bottom of the walkway, eyes scanning the crowd, passing right over Sarah. It had been over a year since they’d seen each other last. Between Christmas and New Year’s, Sarah had gone up to Seattle for a few days. Saul had originally planned to come as well, but had gotten caught up in a painting and changed his mind. Sarah had come alone into a house full of children and grandchildren, a house full of laughter. Ruth had cooked a feast, with her daughters and sons helping. The grandkids had made macaroons, and each one of them had begged a story from Auntie Sarah. Sarah had left their house a little envious; Ruth had built exactly the kind of home that she’d dreamed of. And while it wasn’t the kind of home Sarah herself had ever wanted — still, it was lovely. It wasn’t until the following March that the cancer had been diagnosed. Sarah had always meant to go up and see Daniel again — but she hadn’t, in the end.
She stepped forward, raised a hand to Ruth. There was the blink of recognition, the momentary brightening of eyes. Ruth looked lovely despite puffed eyes, slender and fair in her button-down dress, a raincoat over one arm. Her hair had gone entirely to silver, a sleek and shining cap — like rain in moonlight. Ruth came down through the thinning crowd, paused a few steps away. Then Sarah held out her arms, and Ruth walked into them, her eyes filling with tears again. Sarah held her close, sheltering her in the fragile privacy of her arms, until the crowd had entirely dissolved away.
Saul met them at the door. He’d changed out of his paint-stained clothes. Ruth dropped her raincoat, letting it fall in a wet puddle on the floor, and threw herself forward, into his strong arms. She had calmed down in the car, had been able to talk about the last week with Daniel. He’d gotten much weaker towards the end; in the last few days, he hadn’t really spoken. Sarah’s chest had ached a little, with various regrets. Ruth hadn’t cried for most of the ride, but now she was sobbing, great gasping sobs, catching the air in her throat and letting it out again. Saul held her, looking helplessly at Sarah over Ruth’s head. Sarah shrugged, put down Ruth’s bag, and bent to pick the raincoat up off the wood floor. She turned and hung it neatly on the rack, while Saul gently led Ruth into the living room. Sarah waited in the hall, listening to them walking across the room, sitting down on the sofa. Slowly, Ruth’s sobs quieted again. When it was silent, Sarah walked into the room. Ruth was nestled in Saul’s arms, her eyes closed. His eyes were fixed on the doorway, and met Sarah’s as she entered. She hadn’t expected that, that he would be looking for her. She should have known better.
"Do you want some coffee, Ruth?" Sarah asked.
Ruth shook her head, not opening her eyes. "It would just keep me awake. I haven’t been sleeping much this last week. I’m so tired…"
"Dinner? Saul made pot roast for lunch — there’s plenty left."
"No, I’m okay. Just bed, if that’s all right?"
"That’s fine, dear. Come on — I’ll get you settled."
Ruth hugged Saul once more, and then got up from the sofa. Sarah led her into the guest bedroom, turned down the sheets, closed the drapes while Ruth pulled off her clothes and slid into bed. She had always slept nude; Sarah remembered. Sarah came back to the bed, and stood over it, hesitating. Ruth looked exhausted, with a tinge of grey to her skin.
"Do you want me to sit with you a bit? Just until you fall asleep?"
"No, no — I’ll be okay." Ruth reached out, taking Sarah’s hand in hers and squeezing, gently. "Thank you."
Sarah leaned over and kissed her gently twice — once on the cheek, once, briefly, on her lips. "It’s nothing, love. Sleep. Sleep well." She stood up then, turned out the light, and slipped out the door, closing it behind her.
They sat at the kitchen table, cups of coffee nestled in their hands, not talking. Just being together. Sarah remembered the day when she realized that she would rather be silent with Saul, than be talking with anyone else. They hadn’t met Ruth yet, or Daniel; they’d only known each other a few weeks. They’d just finished making love on a hot July night and were lying side by side on the bed, not touching. It was really too hot to cuddle, too hot for sex. They had both ended up exhausted, lying on the bed with waves of heat rolling off their bodies. Saul was quiet, just breathing, and Sarah lay there listening to his breaths, counting them, trying to synchronize them with her own. She couldn’t quite manage it, not for long. Her heart beat faster, her breath puffed in and out of her. But being there with him, breathing was a little slower and sweeter than it would normally be. Being with him, not even touching, she was happier than she’d ever been.
Sarah finished her coffee. "I’m going to go to bed," she said. "Coming?"
"I’ll be there in a minute. I’ll just finish the dishes."
Sarah nodded and rose from the table, leaving her coffee cup for him to clear. She straightened a few books in the living room as she walked through it, gathered his sketches from the little tables and from the floor, piling them in a neat stack. She walked into the hall, and then paused. To her right was the hall leading to their bedroom. Straight ahead was the hall leading to the library, to the studio, and then to the guest room. She almost turned right, almost went straight to bed. But then she walked forward down the long hall, and at the end of it, heard her. Ruth was crying again. Sarah stood there a while, listening.
When she came back to the bedroom, Saul was already in bed, waiting for her. Sarah stood in the doorway, looking at him. He lay half covered by the sheet, his head turned, looking at her. She knew what would happen if she came to bed. She could tell by looking at him, by the way he looked at her. He would pull her close, and kiss her forehead and eyes and cheeks. He would run his hands over her soft body; he would touch her until she came, shuddering in his arms.
"Ruth’s crying." It was harder than she’d expected, to say it. It had been a long time.
His eyes widened, the way they only did when he was very surprised, or sometimes during sex, when she startled him with pleasure.
"You should go to her." That was easier to say. Once the problem was set, the conclusion was obvious. Obvious to her, at any rate.
Saul swung himself slowly out of bed, pulled on a pair of pants. He didn’t bother with a shirt. "You’ll be all right?" It was a question, but also a statement. He knew her that well, knew that she wouldn’t have raised the issue if she weren’t sure. He trusted her for that. Still, it was good of him to check, one last time. It was one of the reasons she loved him so. She nodded, and collected a kiss as he went by.
Sarah let herself out of the house, walking barefoot. It was a little cold, but not too much. The rain had stopped some time ago, and the garden was dark and green in the moonlight. She wandered through the garden — its neat paths, its carefully tended borders. Saul took care of the vegetables; she nurtured the flowers and herbs. At this time of year, little was blooming, but the foliage was deep and rich and green. Winter was a good time for plants in Oakland; it was the summer’s heat that parched them dry, left them sere and barren. She carefully did not approach the east end of the house; even through closed windows and shades, she might have heard something. She also refrained from imagination, from certain memories. If she had tried, Sarah could have reconstructed what was likely happening in that bedroom; she could have remembered Ruth’s small sounds, her open mouth, her small breasts and arching body. Saul’s face, over hers. She could have remembered, and the memory might have been sweet, or bitter, or both. But she was too old to torment herself that way. There was no need.
Instead, she put those thoughts aside, and walked to the far west end of the garden, where the roses grew. It was the one wild patch in the garden, a garden filled with patterns, where foxglove and golden poppy and iris and daffodil, each in their season, would walk in neat rows and curves, in designs she and Saul had outlined. But the roses had been there when they bought the house, the summer after Ruth had left. Crimson and yellow, white and peach, orange and burgundy — the roses grew now in profusion against the western wall, trimmed back only when they threatened the rest of the garden. Wild and lovely. She had built a bench to face them, and Saul often sat on it, sketching the roses. Sarah liked to sit underneath them, surrounded by them, drowning in their sweet scent. She went there now, sitting down in the muddy ground, under the vines and thorns.
There were no roses in January, but they’d come again, soon enough. She’d be waiting for them. In the meantime, it was enough to close her eyes, feel the mud under her toes, and remember Daniel. The way he laughed, bright and full. The way he would return to a comment from a conversation hours past. The way he had touched her sometimes, so lightly, as if she were a bird. The scent of him, dark and rich, like coffee in a garden, after rain.