The Birthday Girl 

Page 9 of 10

Because she is, she knows it, she's beautiful but she's dead, and I feel myself drawn toward her, toward the taste of ashes in my mouth. I rise to leave, but I don't leave. I can't seem to. Like gravity, she pulls me in. Her body is perfect. Her pubic hair is pale gold, honey-colored.

Then I remember Justin, back in the room — his little body, wet with soap, so many years ago — alone in our room, and I know I shouldn't be here, I know I don't want him to end up this way, alone.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I tell her. "I have to go."

"Don't go," she says.

"I have to."

"Not tonight," she says. "It's just one night."

"I have to go," I tell her. And even then, it's half a slow minute longer before I can gather myself to go, take my eyes from hers, turn my back on her lovely body and automatically walk away, out the door and into the hallway and down the hallway, breaking through sticky little cobwebs of need and desire, half-mistaken, ready to turn back or to flee, at the same time. I feel like I've been narrowly rescued, at the same time wanting to turn back to her, wanting not so much to touch her — though I do want to touch her — as to help, if I can, for just one night, her loneliness.

I stand at the doorway to the parking lot and press my hot forehead against the cold glass. Outside the wind has died down but the snow has continued to fall, big fat flakes drifting slowly down, slowly as the snow in one of those Christmas balls filled with slow liquid, the little house with the snowman out front...

Elaine is waiting for me when I get back to the room, Elaine and Justin.

Immediately I feel accused, and I am — she can smell it on me, the perfume, candle-smoke and cigarettes. She always could.

"What are you doing here?" I ask her.

She looks good, stylish, expensive, sleek. She air-kisses me on either cheek and gives me a guarded, warning look. We're not going to talk about it with Justin around.

"They landed us in Helena and bused us up," she says. "A hellish drive."

"I was just down in the bar," I tell her.

"Really?" Elaine says. "I was just looking for you there. Just a few minutes ago."

"You must have just missed me."

"I'm sure I did," she says.

And this is all. In a minute, she will go back to her room down the hall; in six hours, we'll all be awake again, and I'll be driving back to the airport, the bright sunshine painful on the white, white snow. In a couple of days you'll be back playing second base under the rustling palm trees, and I know that you'll be wondering what happened on this night, and I think someday I might tell you, though I can't imagine where or when it would come up. Just another day in the river of days, long gone.

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