It is the lifeless middle of the afternoon. Houses across the region are sealed against the heat.
The shutters in Igor’s study are half closed. Light filters through them, fashioning shadows against the walls. He is running through a melody by Pergolesi. He neither hears nor sees Coco enter the room.
Stirred by the faint strains of the piano, she has been drawn like a somnambulist toward their source. She stands in a corner of the room, watching him. A white linen suit sets off her deep bronze tan. The skirt is cinched by a dark belt. Light from the shutters stripes one side of her face. Her bare feet feel the coolness of the floor.
Seeing Igor’s hands ripple across the piano, she experiences a slow inflammation of her senses. Her mind made up, she shuffles silently out of her skirt, which falls in a wrinkly heap at her feet.
Igor becomes abruptly aware of her presence, sensing her nearness like an animal. He stops playing, but does not turn around, remaining frozen in midgesture, his fingers tense and arrested above the keys. Coco moves like heat behind him. Two deft hands steal over his eyes.
She whispers thrillingly in his ear.
He does not answer, but with supreme self-control he closes the lid of the piano. He turns slowly as she backs off. A line of sweat appears on his forehead. His throat is parched, and his tongue feels like a bone. The sound of a bird outside scrapes across the floor of his mind. He sits facing her, astonished, his hands placed chastely on his knees. They look at one another trustingly for some moments. Then jubilantly she pulls off her top. The fabric snags on the cloud of her hair. Static adheres to a few stray wisps so that they stick out witchily. She lets the top drop with startling casualness the short distance from her hand to the floor. Then, without visible hurry, she peels off her underclothes. The sight of her naked stuns him.
Straightening her hair, she turns around. She knows she’s taking a risk, but it’s what she wants. She’s thought about it, and the only way to succeed, she decides, is to be as open and honest as possible. Despite her frankness, she feels vulnerable and fights a natural shyness.
She lies upon her stomach across the chaise longue, her legs bent at an angle to her body. Slats of light from the shutters extend in bars across her body, improvising a keyboard the length of her naked back. Her face tilts up toward him, her chin cupped in her hand. “Well?” she says. There’s a sense of challenge in her voice. She sounds almost cross.
A faint hum hangs in the air, sustained from the ghostly notes of the piano. Igor hesitates, half puzzled, half afraid.
He feels all at sea and moves heavily as through water toward her. He halts for a moment, his shadow occluding the stripes across her back. His glasses sit with a desperate attempt at equilibrium on his nose. A fly fizzes and crackles in a corner of the room.
His fingers tingle as though recovering from numbness. His limbs are no longer solid. Something catches in his throat. It’s insane, he thinks. But his chest seems suddenly full with blood. Then, like a piece of elastic that has stretched and stretched and finally snapped back, frenziedly he undresses, abandoning his garments like bad debts. She watches him struggle with the buckle of his trousers, smiles to see him rip off his shoes. His eyes reveal a raw need, a desperate longing.
Desire undoes him. He kisses her hungrily on the stomach. A delicious salinity films her skin. He absorbs the scent of her hair and inhales the odor of her breasts like damp roses, feeling their smearing pressure against his chest. He feels her tongue flutter in his mouth. Quick, oysterish kisses.
“Hey, slow down a little!” she says, sensing his impatience.
He looks up, stunned to hear her voice. Now that it is happening, it seems unreal. He loses any sensation of weight in his body. Appalled at himself, yet unrepentant, he is overwhelmed by the sheer carnality of the act.
Coco smiles at him. “Slowly,” she urges. He smiles back, disarmed.
It’s as though his life thus far has been a sham. A door within him is flung open. He feels something monstrous in his performance, something utterly reckless released. At this moment, music seems a remote groping, a mealymouthed endeavor, an obscure project that can at best approximate the passion he feels. The compositions into which he has thrown himself seem as coldly abstract as mathematical proofs. The physicality of his love for Coco is what makes life urgent now.
He is permeated by the scent her flesh gives off. His lips cling to her skin and release themselves only to find new undiscovered points of her body. His fingers find with fierce ardor the flute stops of her vertebrae. Fumbling along the warm and tawny insides of her thighs, his hands are cold there and she shivers.
Minutes before it had seemed wholly improper to sleep with her. Now it seems the most natural thing in the world. He remembers the first time Catherine and he made love—a messy, painful defloration. He experiences nothing of that with Coco. It’s what he has been waiting for secretly all his life. He feels their limbs mingle as if they were made to.
Slowly Coco feels herself the center of a set of concentric circles, around which everything seems to ripple and blur. A glow spreads itself like an odor across her chest. The low flame on her cheeks spreads to a fire engulfing her whole body. She feels something well within her, quicken, achieve a brief vertiginous rhythm, and then explode. Her insides feel as if they’re falling. For a moment, her eyes have a stupid look, then her head snaps sideways violently.
A prolonged shudder runs through her. Her limbs stiffen, and pink spots appear where her fingers press into Igor’s arms.
They both rest on the floor. Gently she runs her fingers through his hair and traces the ripened line of his jaw. She strokes the muscles of his stomach and caresses the insides of his arms. He seems immobilized for a moment. But she relaxes him, kissing his head, eyelids, neck, and chest, before coaxing him into her with an ardor he finds almost immodest.
Astonishing how slim she is, he thinks, the hungry young look of her hips pulling him in. He eases deeper until he’s swallowed by her heat. A hot slippery softness that makes him think of licorice. With thrilling delicacy, her hands trail over his body, enjoying a series of wondrous contacts. Blindly she sucks his fingers. Lithely she arches her back. He realizes, a little awed, that he is being instructed. Slowly he senses a realignment taking place. He feels his whole life being redefined, his entire existence reshaped.
Drunkenly he loses himself inside her. Her breath is warm and fluttery against his chest. As his movements quicken, becoming more urgent, he feels their warm charged bodies move in synchrony like two melodic lines. His face becomes radiant, his lips stretched wide with desire. Then he trembles with fierce pleasure. A single hot charge stings his flesh. The delirium suffuses itself long-sufferingly through his body.
Motionless, they lie together for a few moments in a state of mutual dissolution. She rests her body against his. He sets his hand, limp as a leaf curl, on her stomach. Her fingertips pamper the hairs at the back of his neck. Eventually they both rise from the floor. Standing apart, she folds her arms in suddenly discovered modesty.
“Forgive me,” he whispers.
“I couldn’t help myself.”
She asks, “Did I shock you?”
As she turns to retrieve her top, he sees her shoulder blades flex symmetrically like a winged creature at rest.
He finds himself thinking bizarrely of Beethoven’s final string quartet. In that piece, the composer asks the violinist to play two notes together without separating them—only directing that the second should be played “with emotion,” with a kind of audible sob. All his life, Igor has wondered what that meant. Now, marvelously, he knows. He has felt that sob inside himself, in the movements their two bodies enjoyed in making love.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, stroking one of her eyelids with his thumb.
“I mean it.”
After a pause, she asks, “Have you ever slept with anyone except Catherine?” She sees him smile. “I mean apart from me.”
“It didn’t occur to me until I met you.” This is not quite true. It has occurred to him with increasing frequency of late. But he’s always feared the flat retributive hand of God smiting him in the act. He still does. “I’ve wanted it to happen ever since.”
“Me, too,” she says. This is also a lie. It is only in the last week or two that her admiration for him has developed into a powerful sexual attraction. What would have surprised her a week ago, however, seems inevitable and necessary now.
“Are you sure I’m rich enough for you?”
Enigmatically. “I’m used to having a good time.”
She sees he is about to say something else and puts a finger to his lips, hushing him. Down the corridor, they can hear the children finishing their lessons for the afternoon. “I must go,” she whispers and dresses quickly. She stops to blow him a kiss before slipping in silence out the door.
Afterward, Igor wipes a thin film of dust from the top of the piano. He opens the lid the way a horse might lift its gums to reveal a set of healthy teeth. Bending his head close to the keys, he guddles for a moment in the lower registers.
Music spills from the study for the remainder of the afternoon.
Exhausted, Igor lies in the dark, lengthways, next to his sleeping wife.
Normally he sleeps on his stomach, but tonight he lies on his back. He’s afraid he will smother facedown. The moon is full, giving the room an incubatory glow. His eyes stare at the ceiling. His toes point upward. His hands, slightly curled, rest inertly at his sides. He finds it oppressively hot. Stifling. Heat presses in at the window, and a pain presses behind his eye. He experiences an inner tightening.
He feels terrible. Sternly raised by his parents, he finds faithfulness a hard standard to break. Loyalty has always had for him the force of an implacable law. Marrying, he’d taken a sacred vow. And in breaking it he feels guilt like a liquid thicken his blood. Yet when he asks himself if he wants to spend the rest of his life with Catherine, he suffers the realization that the answer is no. Doesn’t he deserve to be happy, too?
A wild hope takes over that perhaps Catherine need never know. Better still, she might grow to accept it. But Coco might not want that. Then it crosses his mind: what exactly does she want? A fling? A long-lasting relationship? Marriage? If a mere fling, he’d hate it. He’s too infatuated to want just that. But marriage: that would require a complete and potentially messy renegotiation of the terms of his life. The possibilities branch and fork before him until his future seems suddenly out of control.
Next to him, his wife’s head is exposed above the sheet. Her breathing is uneven, her hair fanned out like a shadow behind her head. He reaches across to touch her forehead. It is hot. Her cheeks are hectic with fever. Her body has always generated more heat than his own. She has always enjoyed this caloric superiority over him. He closes his eyes. All he can see is Coco. All he can think of is Coco. She’s the first thing he thinks of in the morning and the last thing he contemplates late at night. She has become his whole world. It’s as if nothing came before. Everything else is canceled out. He wants his life to start over again, he decides: here and now, with her.
In thinking this, he becomes vaguely conscious of a shape surrounding him. Something dense and vengeful spreads in the dark above his bed. He feels a weight oppress his chest. His scalp freezes. Terrified, he pulls the covers up to his neck. Try as he might, he cannot sleep. And this after having attempted to deaden his senses with vodka until quite late.
He lies on his wrong side as the small hours slide by. And he’s bitten alive. It seems the mosquitoes have registered the rise in his blood. All night, they fizz above him like watches being wound. Worse, cats scream like babies outside his window. The sound—its high-pitched whining, its intimations of bristling fur—rips with its claws into his appalled consciousness.
Abruptly, he awakes. A twinge of pain starts from deep within him. Dyspepsia. Little acid secretions set off a burning sensation in his chest.
It is very early in the morning. He feels dizzy with the twin burdens of guilt and fatigue. Sitting up, he senses the room’s angles tilt. An unstable sense of gravity seems to have entered the fabric of things. Objects upon their surfaces appear uncertainly sustained, held down by a pressure unseen. As he rises from the bed, Igor is frightened that the floor might fall away beneath him to reveal the abyss beneath. Tentatively his feet reach for the ground. Only miraculous forces conspire, it seems, to keep him upright.
In truth he is preoccupied: blissfully, hopelessly preoccupied, and subject to ungovernable urges. He cannot help himself now. Everywhere he is reminded of her. Her smell crowds his nostrils, her image clings to the mirrors. The gravity of her warm mass drags him toward her. He is in torment. The heat is driving him to despair.
And he is afraid there will be a price to pay. What if Catherine finds out? She would be destroyed. She’s already very weak. This might push her over the edge.
He looks across at her. She no longer seems like someone he knows. A distance has opened up between them that calls into question everything they’ve ever shared. He tries to remember a time when they were happy. A collection of moments is summoned, but they seem in his mind to be stiff as pictures, remote and even vaguely unreal. A seashell on her bedside table gleams creamily with its inner light.
He walks toward the window and peeps through the curtains. The sky is dark still. The usual stars swarm into his vision. Oddly, the universe seems unaltered.
He thinks of the invisible sinews of connection, the unseen webs of contingency that have delivered him here, with Coco in this villa, at this irreducible point in time. He wonders what benign or malevolent effort of destiny has so tugged him toward her.
He’s never been one to give up on things, to quit. He likes to stick at a task until it’s done. But where is his responsibility now? His sense of endurance, his ability to see things through? And what is it all for, anyway? A glimpse of freedom, wholly unreal? A taste of desire, ruinous?
His face is filmed with perspiration. His pajama top adheres tackily to his back. A white heat ripples across his skin. Fear touches him. He resists an impulse to kneel and pray more fervently than he has ever done before. For what, after all, could he say? What has happened, he wanted to happen. He had willed it, even, and yielded with shameless speed.
He moves into the bathroom and confronts his image in the mirror. A gray, taut face is thrown back at him. He sees his thinning hair, his rotting teeth. The network of fine lines on his palms seems deepened into trenches. Another two years and he will be forty. What is he doing at his age, falling in love? It is absurd. A feeling of utter bliss at his experience vies with a feeling of terror at the possibility of its loss. He wants more of her, needs more of her. Nothing in his life has prepared him for this.
He removes his glasses and turns on the tap, scooping handfuls of cold water onto his face. He winces at the shock. Then, with the air of a man who has just discovered appetites that scream out to be appeased, he fills a bath and pours jugful after jugful of water over his head. The water cascades over his torso, flattening the dark hairs on his chest and back. He shivers with exhilaration.
Dressed, he makes his way downstairs. Entering his study, he prepares to take on the world through his work. It is still too early for breakfast, still too early to wake anyone by playing the piano. In any case, it is out of tune. It has warped in the heat—or the humidity, which is also very high. At least it is cool right now. Outdoors, the morning light is shadowless. The apple trees are glazed with dew.
He glances at the photographs of his family on the desk. They seem alien to him now, as if overnight someone has changed the frames. He feels guilt perch like a squat bird on his shoulder, its talons sinking deep into his skin.
Seeking respite in his music, he takes out a clean sheet of paper. He picks up a sharpened pencil and shoves his glasses up on his head. Then, taking great pains not to extend his strokes a millimeter above or below the staves, he marks off the bars in regular lines.