The Birthday Girl 

Page 6 of 10

Gwen is staring up into the blue light of the tank, as if she's seeing something more than the rest of us, which maybe she is. Nothing really seems to be happening. It's just a hand resting on somebody's ass, and watching it makes me lonely. His legs are all right, hairy and muscular, but her legs seem like an example of all the flab and rot and death that comes to the body. The woman these legs belong to is not young and not tall and not slim. And yet they are there together, touching, floating in the pool. They think they're alone. They forgive each other enough to touch. They float.

"The things that I want and the things that I need, I can't get them to match up," Gwen says, still watching intently. "The people that I love. Bob tells me I smell like cigarettes."

"It's your birthday," I tell her. "You can have a little fun."

"It's my birthday? Who told you that?"

"You did."

Her eyes slowly peel from the blue water of the tank and down to my arm, which her hand is still gripping. I had forgotten this myself. Her eyes open wide as she takes her hand away, and her mouth twists into sorrow.

"My God," she says. "I was saying those things out loud. I was talking, wasn't I?"

"A little," I tell her.

"All that time, I thought I was dreaming," she says. She suddenly looks deflated, quite drunk, and the bartender is staring at me as if I made it happen. She was here first but that's not going to matter. I think of Justin, back in the room, and know that I have made a mistake by coming here. I think of the snow outside. Gwen says, "The pills."

"You'd better go back to your room," says the bartender.

Gwen says, "I can't remember which one is mine."

"It's on your key. See if you can find your key."

Just then the light goes strange and wavy and when I look up, the couple are scrambling out of the pool and the surface of the water, reflecting down at us, is in turmoil. The light is agitated on Gwen's face as she dumps the contents of her bag on the bar in front of her — change, mints, pens and Kleenex, a Palm Pilot and a cell phone — then rakes through them with her fingers, finding pennies. Finding an aerosol of Mace, which the bartender shouldn't ought to see. I nudge it back into her purse and there is her key, right in front of her, room 212.

"Thank you, Richard," she says. "There's something wrong with me."

"Do you want me to help you find your room?"

"Yes," she says.

The bartender scowls at me — she disapproves of picking off the drunk — but I'm an innocent man, my intentions are good, I mean to walk her to the room and come right back! Or maybe just go back to the room, keep Justin company if he's still awake, which he is. The boy doesn't sleep, except all morning long. Gwen gathers her things back into her bag and steps gingerly off the barstool, a little funhouse wobble in her move. She was fine a minute ago. Piano Pat is firing up the Wurlitzer as we leave, a flurry of arpeggios that gradually resolves into "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."

"I'm not going to fuck you," Gwen says in the hallway.

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