December 3, 2022

Threesome

by Patrick Dawson

Tetra wore a pale violet shirt, a man’s shirt, billowy and loose, its silk shimmering in the light. She had been silent for a while, motionless like a bird waiting. “Have you spoken to Vera?” she asked.

He didn’t appear to be listening. “She’s been away in San Francisco,” he answered finally, intent on a tall girl’s hips across the room.

“Yes, I know. Haven’t you spoken to her since she arrived?”

The question hung there, full of sharp corners like the bones of a deeply angular face, her face.

“No. I was going to call her before we left tonight, but something on the news distracted me.”

Tetra studied his face, the expression. It was nearly blameless. “Vera’s been out there nearly a week.” She smoothed the fabric of her shirt for a moment or two as if considering the days passing. “Maybe she’s having an affair.”

Cameron was still looking at the tall girl. Her dress was the color of summer peaches. Facing her, there was a short man with a peculiar accent threaded with oddly orphaned vowels, whose voice carried through the room. He seemed to be speaking directly at her breasts, as if into a microphone. The girl’s long legs were parted, a pose lithe and graceful. It was the false poise of a young animal in the wild. She was standing on a thick rug imprinted with a curve of undulating vines. Cameron’s eyes kept travelling to the one that ended just behind her.

He glanced back toward Tetra. She was leaning forward on the low sofa, perfectly composed, a thin crescent of nipple, almost the same color as the tall girl’s dress, visible inside her blouse. It’s presence, Cameron thought, was not an accident. “I suppose Vera could have taken a lover.” His voice seemed to trail off, salted with indifference. “What do you think, a man or a woman?”

Tetra looked at him more openly now, leaning back, the nipple receding. “If it were me, I’d take up with a woman.”

“Why?”

“They’re more discreet.”

“Depends on what you mean by discreet,” he said.

Tetra wanted him to keep talking. She liked his tone. It sounded clandestine. “Well, usually we only talk about men in the abstract, a sort of vague outline of our misdeeds. No names, just the facts.”

“So how would you talk about a woman? A woman lover….”

“Lavishly.” She laughed. It had the crackle of electric sparks.

Stretched out now on the sofa, Tetra folded her arms. This too was lavish. Her arms were bare, brown from the sun. Even her spare gestures formed a diorama of indiscretion. She had wed once in haste. Once more for the sex. She came from a family with an exalted name, though the legacy of privilege rarely showed, something she had learned from her father. He had left the law to be a boat builder. Imagine sleek mahogany sailing vessels, the lines of which were sinuous as a perfect torso. Michelangelo’s David headlong in the sea. Never once did he want one for himself. Tetra always thought there was something perfectly true in this. She spent her days working at a nonprofit for homeless veterans. Almost no one knew she had started it with her own money. She also seemed to know everything, everyone.

“The girl’s name is Trudy.”

His expression posed the question before he spoke. “Who?

“The teenager over there with the epic backside.”

The tall girl had turned slightly toward them. Cameron was surprised by her youthful face with just its few secrets. Just enough he thought.

“That’s no teenager.”

“That,” she gestured with the point of her chin, “is a high school senior.”

“Hard to believe.”

For just a moment, he considered that she would be about his daughter Rebecca’s age. They might be friends.

“Well, believe it,” Tetra said coolly. “Trudy Magnison, daughter of Harriet and whatever his name was, her ex… the guy who was Attorney General.”

“Well, that would be indiscreet of me.” For a few seconds he said nothing. “Tell me, is there anyone you don’t know?”

“I try to keep up. Let’s get back to Vera.” She patted the space next to her. The movement was sensual, measured, as though carefully pouring gin in a shallow glass. “Sit here next to me,” she said. “You can look right past me and keep the precocious child in view. People will think you and I are planning something illicit.”

Outside, the city had shed its darkness, a blaze of lights filled it. They sat watching the party stir. The apartment was on a high floor, its furnishings orderly, richly brocaded chairs pushed back along a wall, a simple deKooning drawing of a woman propped on the mantle. Wide windows took in most of the park. A heavyset man, cheeks flushed to the color of withering beets, balanced two deviled eggs over the food table, a bud of saliva adhering to his lip. A pair of young couples leaned on the fireplace whispering, gesturing with their phones, checking new arrivals for a hint of viral sensation. In the corner a smallish woman, a minor diva whose importance was forgotten, stood off by herself speaking to no one. The room was a net of expectations, a tide of movement with no cessation, no destination.

Cameron felt himself wiser for remaining anonymous among them, congratulating himself on how few of these people he knew, even less wanted to know. He was certain he had another kind of life. Their extravagant clothes. The cocktails held at practiced angles. They were people Tetra knew. He had come only because he wanted to test himself.

He glanced back past her nearly perfect ear, the lush pale hair curled behind it. The teenager was no longer in sight.

“Maybe she just went to the bathroom.” He could feel Tetra’s smirk. Cameron sensed something wonderfully unsettling in the way she spoke. An incantation, simultaneously innocent and sly.

“I’ve probably lost my chance with her,” he laughed.

Cameron was strong in the way of men who aren’t afraid of losing. Men who have already lost a lot. He entered rooms unceremoniously. He was forty-six. Though he had started to gain a bit of weight, women spoke quietly about him in corners. His hair was not yet grey. The women who talked about him didn’t see his cunning, only fondness and some sorrow in his luminous dark eyes.

Someone opened a window. Cool night air breathed over them and Cameron saw the fine yellow hairs brush against her neck and the skin pucker into small bumps. There was a thrill to it, something nostalgic, enticing. He wanted to hear the incantation again.

“Do you think that woman looks like Vera?” he asked.

Tetra let her hand fall on the top of the sofa. Glancing briefly at the woman he’d pointed out, she shook her head. “No, not at all. Vera is very exotic. You immediately want to stroke her.”

She still sounded sly, no longer innocent. Cameron allowed himself the luxury of her eyes. Eyes full of imagination. A waiter appeared, looming over them with a crimson drink in crystal tumblers. Tetra shook her head. He took one for himself.

“What do you suppose this is?” His voice was playful, arch. “Do you think it has a name… a bespoke cocktail with some precious title?” He examined the glass, not yet drinking, buying time.

“How about Sultry Teenager?” she offered.

Cameron fingered the ice in the drink and looked up at her, surprised now by the fullness of his expectations. He steadied himself with the peppery force of the drink. There were moments when the nakedness in her tone, something charged in it, lay just beneath the surface.

Tetra looked for the excitement in things, but was thoughtful with almost everyone, especially strangers. Somehow, only her lovers escaped these random acts of kindness, her philanthropies. She was like a rare book, its sides marbled and fine, its pages rarely opened. She wrote thank-you notes for the smallest favors, the strokes of her careful handwriting like incisions.

Cameron allowed himself to imagine her for just a moment, the fragrance of it all, drowning in it. Pushing the suggestion away, he forced himself to think of her as someone inviolable, a best friend’s wife. God, even a best friend’s mistress. Untouchable.

“Remind me how you met Vera?”

Dropping her eyes a moment, she touched the rim of his glass with a long finger. It could have meant nothing. “I see we’re changing the subject,” she said finally. “She and I met three years ago. I think it was a dinner of friends—hers, not mine. You know, arty types who speak earnestly about openings and book launches.”

They had been seated together by chance at a long table in the private room of a restaurant. There was a brief testing of wills. Tetra seemed unmistakably older, effortlessly worldly. That was all you really needed to know. Vera tried to sustain conversation, splitting the difference between sincere and properly cynical. It was all she could muster. That and her arrogant beauty. That was how it began.

“So there’s the history,” she said, reaching for his drink. “Is that all you wanted to know?” She raised his glass to her lips, letting it rest there a moment before drinking.

The party was now a tempest of voices straining to be heard. Some people were staring into their phones. No one sought out any enlightenment. Their lives were special, they were nearly certain of it. Their only etiquette was the good life. Watching them, Cameron thought he could tolerate all of that. What he hated is how they lacked imagination.

“Vera confided to me that you don’t have a lot of friends,” she said.

He looked at her. The smile was back. “I thought you said women were discreet.”

“That troubles you?”

Cameron watched her more closely. There were moments when something intimate seemed to catch in each phrase. But always casual, like a garment carelessly tossed on a chair.

“I think it’s flattering,” she said. “Just means you’re discerning, selective.”

They both waited out the pause.

“Tonight, for example, you could select me.”

For a second or two, Tetra took on the guilty look of a dinner guest who has let slip some indiscretion, then decided it didn’t matter. She appeared mysteriously certain. The perfect expression cannot be considered. It enters the face like a breath.

“So what made you select Vera?” she asked.

“I haven’t exactly selected her, at least not in Darwin’s terms. It’s barely been, what…  four months now.”

“Shall I tell you what she says about the sex?”

“Only if you want to be indiscreet.”

“She says it’s edgy.”

“And you think that’s desirable?”

“Well….” She paused, balancing the word perfectly. “It made me want to know more.” It was the voice he liked so much, disrespectful and warm.

“I’m not sure what more I could add,” he said.

“In that case, do you want to know more about me?” She laughed again, a laugh with music in it.

He wasn’t sure why, but her questions made him slightly unsteady. He was a man standing in the dark at the water’s edge. Weighing risk and rejection. Rejection was a lesser worry. The darkness was an invitation.

There was a bright flash of lightning at the window, all silent color, its fragments glittering, then gone in the moonless dark. Cameron’s gaze passed over her slowly, a tide flowing out, finding its natural place. He was now a conjurer, inventing an image of her limbs, her stomach, the fine hairs at the curve of her lower back.

Tetra’s voice seeped into the silence just before a crack of thunder. “Did you imagine my nipple… before you saw it tonight?”

In the moment before answering, he managed to avoid the glance toward the fullness of the violet blouse. “I’m not sure if there’s any good way to answer that. Did you imagine showing it before you did? Or is that sort of thing spontaneous for you?”

The buzz of the room, the swirl of voices was offstage now, background noise. Her non-answer was a short laugh, almost a sigh. Noteworthy, but ambiguous, like a foreign phrase with more than one meaning.

“You know, I think Vera has a beautiful body,” she said. “I find myself thinking about it from time to time. It’s understated, like a girl’s body. There’s a ripeness to her skin. Almost anyone would find it alluring.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Cameron spoke without emphasis, not staking territory. But having said it, he thought it might have sounded coarse. There was so much about Tetra he didn’t know.

They were quiet for a moment. Then, as if she remembered something, “Well, I do know her fairly well.” So simple, but there was something unmistakable in it, in her tone, the words chosen. In the silence, a signal had been given, an imperative raised. They were now confederates.

He wanted something pointed in his words now, a small test. “Do you like her birthmark?”

“Yes, because her skin is perfect otherwise.” Tetra let her eyes slowly pass over the room, as though she was mining some delicate memory. “The birthmark is the flaw that sets off her beauty, makes her real.”

Behind them, near the bar, there was some makeshift argument about gin and vodka.

“And it’s in the perfect spot so it makes her belly button look like a semicolon,” she said. “I’ve been tempted by it. I always want to write something across her belly. A clever phrase, in two parts… interrupted by the semicolon.” She glanced back at him as she finished, the timing perfect, the movement with just a sway of emphasis, her neck extended, graceful as a swan.

“Everyone has been tempted by Vera at one time or another,” he said, as if to himself.

Tetra looked amused. “Or in one way or another.”

The party now had a shadowy aspect, a communal solace, as though something important had been forgotten. It was running on the momentum of earlier triumphs, the sheen of dogged sanctimony had worn down.

Cameron shook his head. “Something tells me it’s time to leave this splendid little community.”

“Is that an invitation?”

He let his mouth form a shadowy smile, but didn’t answer.

A knot of people had gathered near them. A girl laughed, the sound like a bird, high-pitched, almost urgent. The laughing girl had a kind expression, unguarded and open, as though she had never been disappointed. She made Cameron think once more of his daughter, the arc of a little girl’s laughter snapping through brittle winter air, the compressed light outside their kitchen window at breakfast, watching with her as the birds fell silently to the ledge outside, her eyes wondrous. Daddy, don’t they see us, don’t they know we’re here? No, they’re in their own world. Just like we’re in ours… just we two. He had been away from her so much. The thought kept him silent with regret now.

There was the suggestion of traffic beyond the windows. The atmosphere in the room seemed to shift like a garden falling under the spell of clouds. Tetra lowered her chin, which made her face softer, gentler, and leaned toward him. “What do you say we go?”

 

They stood facing the river of traffic flowing downtown. He searched for the yellow light of a taxi and she could see the fine bones of his face, the silhouette rendered against the tide of car lights like cast bronze. It seemed like a noble face, ancient, befitting an old coin. A centurion’s face.

The taxi dropped them at the corner in a light rain and they walked without speaking, the city pared to a soft hum around them. A large neon sign cast the only light on the pavement. It was a painter’s spare light, shadowy and worn. Beneath the elevated train tracks, Tetra paused a moment at a doorway. There was a hill of black bags and cardboard mounted on some steps. The rain started to fall steadily again, soaking the flimsy shelter over a sleeping body. Rummaging through her bag, her voice was distracted. “Do you have a pen?”

Taking Cameron’s pen, she pulled a small white card from her bag and began to write, then tucked the card carefully into the opening of a duffle bag with a faded cloth emblem that bore two swords and an inscription: We Rain Death.

She answered his quizzical look as they walked away. “It’s from Vietnam. The helicopter crews used to drop cards imprinted with it during raids. A lot of the men can’t let that stuff go—the order of it—even after so long. You try to get them to forget, remind them we’re all fugitives from something.” She shrugged, gathering her coat against the chilly rain. “He probably won’t call me, but you never know.”

The stairs to his apartment were cast iron, faded with age. It was like ascending the decks of a great ship, the muscular boast of a forgotten century. At the second floor landing, there were voices raised in anger as they passed. Nothing else disturbed the silence of the old ship. Cameron let her walk first through the metal door, stiff on its hinges as though unwilling to give up its secrets. The warm air inside was oppressively damp, thick as foam.

“I should have left the air conditioning on,” he said absently. “Sometimes you turn it off and don’t know why.”

“Maybe you thought you wouldn’t be back tonight.”

There was one vast room and, at the end, the shadow of a hallway. High ceilings, made of hammered tin, made the space feel even larger. The neon glow from the street cast the windows in orange light. Far off, one could see the dark line of the river. Only a few spare objects occupied the room, like mannequins in a deserted store. Deliberately, like someone leaving the past behind, Tetra followed the light filling the space.

He could see why people envied her. “You act like you’ve been here,” he said, pushing the door closed.

Tetra was examining a drawing, a wonderfully simple rendering of a bird in pastel. “No, I just act like I know the rules.” The curve of her mouth seemed to make a statement, the promise of guiltless love. He thought about the limits of keeping faith with something, someone. There are things you cannot hope for.

“I once went to a faith healer in Peru,” she said suddenly, turning to face him. “Did Vera ever tell you that? I suppose it’s a little embarrassing. If she didn’t tell you, she was being discreet.”

“We’re back to that?”

“Tell me, are you weighing the two of us now?” She was leaning against the back of a scarred leather chair, doubled by her reflection in the window that looked out to the street. “Me and Vera, I mean?”

“That would be tasteless, don’t you think? For all three of us.”

“I don’t think anything would have to be tasteless.” The sureness in her voice was arranged like a bouquet. “Between the three of us I mean.”

Cameron knew he hesitated a moment too long before answering, sensed the scrutiny lingering in the hollows of her answer. He took off his jacket, then his tie. It was a soft blue knitted tie that he rolled slowly between his fingers. For a moment he thought about Vera, about their last dinner together. He couldn’t remember how she had looked or anything they had said.

“I want to know about your faith healer,” he said at last. “Somehow I can’t imagine you believing in any faith but yourself.”

“Well, there was a local legend about her I’d heard from some friends. I was expecting some ancient dowager wrinkled with age, all wild, gray hair, gravelly voice. A Delphic presence. But she was slim and young, tentative almost. With the darkest eyes I’ve ever seen.”

“And which part of you did she heal?”

“No, I’m quite serious. There really was something about her. Obviously, I was skeptical. But for a while… well, perhaps a day or so anyway, I felt strangely at peace.”

He let his mouth fall partly open, like someone unwilling to be taken in. “And after that you always had this mystical power over men,” he said.

“No, I had that before.” Somehow the phrase lacked even a trace of arrogance. “And a couple of days of peace is nothing to be sneered at. I think all salvation is temporary.”

“Salvation, or satisfaction?”

“Both probably.”

“And your oracle, she granted you some deep vision?”

For a moment, Tetra seemed to ignore him. Her real face—thoughtful, open—had emerged all of a sudden, the sly facade gone. It bore the weight of things, their cause and the consequences. She had turned slightly and was silent, eyeing her reflection in the window. There were thin lines of age furrowing at the edge of her mouth and eyes and for a moment, like a tree bending in the wind, her features appeared to falter just slightly.

“Well, I’m not without vision, I know some things. You are going to leave Vera—soon, perhaps. You may have already left her.” It was not quite a question.

She began circling the room once more, as if seeing its details for the first time, how austere it was, like the cell of a monk. Something penitent in it. Nothing on the walls, and only a single photograph in a tarnished silver frame, propped high on a bookshelf. Cameron standing at the gate of the zoo with a young girl. There were elephants and lions cast in wrought iron above them, a high summer sun giving them life. The girl was perhaps seven or eight, eyes alight, her head resting at his hip in a pose of perfect intimacy. Resting on the shelf opposite was its simulacrum, a child’s delicate drawing of father and daughter together.

“You were married before, I know that,” Tetra said. “Children?”

“So Vera is discreet. I had a daughter,” he said simply. In his face suddenly, the veil of deep sadness, as if the girl’s shadowy form was there in the room. “Rebecca died. Very suddenly, she was nine.”

Cameron began to speak, then held back as though reconsidering. Starting up again, it was as though he was reading aloud from a sacred text, a book of the dead, the words with a rigid cadence.

“I never go to the ocean anymore. It was probably too late to be swimming, too late in the season.” His breathing sounded ragged, helpless. “Who am I kidding? It was too late, the currents in September can be tough. But she loved the water, it was like a game of ours—who’d stay in longer. But the wind, the churning came up so suddenly it caught me unaware.” He was staring down, examining his hands, as though an answer was there. “I only turned away from her for a moment.”

The words had been spoken before. Many times, mostly to himself. “I can still picture the bright light when the wave hit us.” The image seemed to consume him. Trying to surface, gasping, the taste of salt water choking him once more, the pictures that staggered through his senses every day. Tetra could see his face had gone slightly pale. He closed his eyes, squeezing back thoughts if only for a few moments, as if binding himself to the memory of his daughter.

“You know whenever we swam together, there was something wonderfully permanent in it, something about fathers and daughters that you’re certain will last forever. And then you discover things have a tide just like the water, and you’re anchored to nothing.”

He leaned his head back toward her, shutting his eyes again, his voice giving way slightly. “My head struck something underwater and it stunned me. By the time I came up, I didn’t see her. It still seems impossible to believe.”

Something primal was triggered in the recall of it: the supreme fear of the moment, the search, minutes filling with devastation—time that doesn’t compute as time, and in the end, a small body floating face up, borne back to him like an offering, carried in the swells. It happens in an instant, a life divides. All that came before, everything since. The shame was like the sentence of a judge.

“They say there are four stages of grief,” he said. “There are only two… shock and joylessness.”

There is a longing in certain people that lingers in a slight smile or distracted gaze, even in their silence. His longing had long since hardened into a kind of sacrament. Tetra had let it warm her all night, nurtured it with her own desires, but misread its meaning. Like the photograph that at first she had also misread, seeing only casual smiles, the sunlight, the love. It too was something sacred, an altarpiece carefully placed there to be venerated.

She reached for the lamp beside them. Light dropped into the corners of the room. Moving close to him, she placed her hands around his, the silk of her blouse against his skin. Desire now held a different power. They were not really alone. The photograph and the girl filled the stillness of the room.

“Vera never mentioned any of this,” she said.

“I haven’t told her anything. Like your soldiers—the vets, I was trying to hold onto some form of order I guess.”

She watched his expression soften. His face was no longer that of a warrior. She had misread that too. What she had seen was just forbearance.

Briefly, he told her what came in the wake of a child’s death, the long slow fall. He had been without hope for the first time. His wife had abandoned him for her grief. They saw the usual counsellors who made promises about the healing powers of time until the morning his wife said she was leaving. When she told him, she was facing out the same window where Cameron and the girl had watched the birds together.

“It’s strange,” he said, “I used to see her in my mind as the little girl she was when it happened. Now I keep seeing the girl she would be…seventeen, eighteen years old. It’s as though the only way I can hold on to her, truly hold on to the memory, is to imagine the life she would have had. And when I do, she’s always laughing, but it’s the little girl’s laugh. The one I remember.”

Tetra saw his face go slack, but even in deep sadness his eyes were dry, his pain dulled, deep loss and guilt trailing after it helplessly.

For a moment he appeared to be considering something important. “I was a good father… I think.”

The phrase, each part of it, seemed so carefully chosen she smiled, letting her body rest gently against his. For a long time they sat together in the quiet.

“You’re right about Vera, though,” he said at last. “Like some of the others, I’ve used up what she had—what could distract me. That sounds callous, I know. But I’m not sure if I have another choice.”

She looked at him directly. “I think you do, you will.”

The rain had begun again, falling against the windows, a soft, steady rhythm. Cameron looked around and smiled. “Some lover I was to be, I never even offered you a drink. This is not how I imagined the night turning out.”

“I think both of us got more out of it than that.” The sureness animated her voice again. “Maybe a lot more.”

Tetra thought to say more, but now truly discreet, remained silent. For a time, they leaned comfortably into each other, the language of their bodies retrained. When she left, barely the ghost of a shared kiss. She meant it to remind him of days of laughter.

The nearby buildings had fallen dark. In the spare light, Cameron sought out the familiar. Ordinary things claiming their place, mannequin-fragments of a life, somehow altered. We recall the moments, the words, spoken and unspoken, what can be reconciled and all that cannot: memory, love, self, and their place in everything. They gather like an early snow, faint, easily vanished. What fades easily, and what is forever and incorruptible. Her name was Rebecca. She made precocious drawings, flawless faces, deeply intimate. The missing live on, inside us.

In the windows of the darkened room, the moon had appeared in the lee of the rainstorm. Its light yellowed the rooftops and collected in pools of water around the doorways on the sidewalk below.

In a room uptown, the tall girl was undressing, still young, her secrets intact.

 

Patrick Dawson’s short story, The Language of Rivers, was the recipient of the 45th New Millennium Writings prize for fiction in 2018. His story Threesome, was a finalist in Narrative’s Fall 2018 contest and also longlisted for the Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction. He was a semifinalist for the 2021 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and his story Purgatory was longlisted for the Pulp Literature Press Hummingbird Fiction Prize. He was selected as a participant in the 2021 Bread Loaf Writers Conference and The Sirenland Writers Conference in Italy. His work has been published in New Millennium Writings, Cowboy Jamboree, Sky Island Journal, and The Meadow.