What he remembers: Both times, but the second time especially. Lights buzzing. An aquarium in the lobby, glowing purple, with only three tiny, striped fish in it. No castle, no rocks, just fish. Down a hall, threadbare spots on the red carpet. The knob jiggled in the door — an interior entrance; he made sure of that.
Wood paneling inside the room. A Magic Fingers machine next to the bed. He hadn’t seen one of those in years, not since he was a kid, taking car trips with his parents. Back then, a Magic Fingers machine in a hotel was not an automatic indicator of its lack of class.
“Ooh, do you have a quarter?” she said. “I’ve never seen one of these before.”
Afterward, she lay there on those papery sheets, pulled the covers all the way up under her chin. Looked down at the blanket, shiny and smooth like cheap car upholstery. Her ring finger just fit through a cigarette-burn hole. She waggled it at him like a puppet.
At least she wasn’t a kid. He even checked her driver’s license. He wasn’t that kind of a person, although he harbored a secret wish to see her in her Catholic school uniform: plaid, pleated skirt, kneesocks. The way she looked when she first came downtown with her teacher to do a senior project interviewing him, featuring him as her role model. At the time, he chuckled to himself: red hair and green eyes, the star of ninety percent of American male fantasies. A cliché. But what could he do? She was Irish. Freckled, even. Pretty, in a chubby, wholesome sort of way. She was already eighteen by then.
He remembers how he could tell it wasn’t her first time. She didn’t bleed, and what she did do, she had learned from experience. That same creamy skin, that long red hair on the pillow, had probably been stretched out in some pimply Brother Rice senior’s backseat recently. Nowadays, girls started earlier.
In fact, he remembers that she really was the one who suggested it, or at the very least expanded his suggestion into what it became. After the interview she had left with the teacher, a matronly woman with short blond hair whom he didn’t think was a nun, although he couldn’t be sure.
She came back two months later, after she had graduated, without her teacher, to thank him in person. He took her across the street to the hotel bar and bought her a drink. A Coke—he had a whisky. She was underage for that, after all.
He had leaned forward to pluck a leaf out of her hair.
“There’s so much more I can tell you about the business,” he said, leaning forward just enough to tip slightly off-balance, but not so much to fall. “I’d love to continue this conversation somewhere we can talk at greater length.”
He worried for a moment that his breath stank of liquor, but she leaned in as well and whispered, “I’d like that. Anywhere you want.”
The rooms upstairs were fancy that first time. Cut-glass water goblets. A view of the lake. Fluffy terrycloth bathrobes monogrammed with the hotel insignia. Crisp white sheets. Not that they used any of it, except the sheets, of course. And those only for three hours.
“It’s like prom night,” she said. “But during the day.”
He’d had to work on his prom night. And he wouldn’t have known how to ask a girl out. He still didn’t know. The name and title on his business card, his picture in the paper, they did all the work for him these days.
What they shared, what they did that afternoon, didn’t make up for what he missed on prom night. But for a few hours, he was able to feel something that could have been like young love. He’d earned that much.
A year later, when she came home on summer vacation from college—somewhere out East, maybe?—he was happy to hear from her. They didn’t always come back for a second time. But now, he would have to sacrifice comfort and style for economy and discretion. People might talk. Instead of the fancy downtown hotel, something on the other side of the expressway. Quiet, nondescript. He liked to think the aquarium lent it a touch of class. Disposable plastic cups for water, but what did it matter?
He hadn’t been to this particular motel before. If the others had had Magic Fingers, the women—should he call them “girls”?—hadn’t noticed.
“Leave that alone,” he said. “Ignore it.”
“Because it’s not the sign of a quality establishment. Not like last time.”
“So, I said to leave it alone.”
“Please? Just once? Before we, you know.”
He noticed, then resolved to forget, then did forget, how much she reminded him of his daughter asking to borrow the car. Despite his warning to her, he couldn’t take his eyes off the metal box on the bedside table. “For Your Comfort,” the plaque on the box read. “Relaxation Service. Try It—You’ll Feel Great!”
He tilted the unit toward him to get a better look. “They used to have these all over the place when I was younger.”
“When you were my age?” She stifled a laugh.
“Did you ever try it?” she asked, eyes focused on him, sitting down on the bed so that her rear end just grazed the bedspread, the bulk of her weight remaining on her feet.
He said he and his brother had tried it once, for fun. They lay down on the bed and it started shaking. “It lasts for a fairly long time, I think. I was surprised by how long it went on.”
“Oh, come on! Let’s do it.”
He fished a quarter out of the pocket of his slacks and fed it into the slot, listening to the plunk and echo of the coin in the empty metal box.
“Hurry! It’s going to start soon!” She threw the bedspread and blanket off and lay down on the sheets.
The Magic Fingers came to life at a volume that startled him, a mechanical whine accompanied by the vibration of the box springs. She didn’t say anything, just giggled, as if she were on an amusement park ride and was particularly enjoying it. He watched her pink-painted toes curl in ecstasy and stood, fully dressed, watching her, but just couldn’t put himself—gray hair covering the gut he’d given up trying to lose—in the picture.
When the bed stopped moving, she went to the bathroom and ran water into one of the plastic cups. He heard her throat swallowing the water, then rustling of fabrics. She dashed back, naked, and ducked under the sheets.
Ten minutes earlier, watching her on the trembling bed, he couldn’t have done it. But as he watched her lie down, spread her legs—outlines visible through the near-transparent poly-cotton fabric, he knew he was ready. He smiled when she crooked that finger at him, flashed back to her look of eager anticipation before the Magic Fingers, and imagined for a moment that what he could give her was even better.
“Thank you,” she said when she got up to leave. “I’ll never forget this.”
And that was the end. He wouldn’t call her. She wouldn’t call him. Just a pleasant memory for both of them.
He remembers how easy it was. The older he gets, the more his name and picture are in the papers, the more money he makes, of course, the easier it gets.
He barely remembers being young, a nobody, when women brushed right past him. Now, women the same age as he was then—younger, better-looking sometimes—are begging for him. Or, if not begging, at least willing. Interns. Eager college students. New employees right out of college. The first time he suggested the hotel, twenty years ago or so, he was surprised when the temp agreed to meet him there, already undressed when he arrived. Months later, with the client’s daughter, home on Christmas break from Stanford, he was surprised again at her readiness. Just one more sign he’d made it.
What he doesn’t remember: how he, once again, had to make a conscious effort to block the phrase, “rutting old goat,” from his mind. One of the secretaries early in his career had used it to refer to one of the top executives who had a reputation for cheating on his wife. The executive wore blue dress shirts with white collars, which he himself would never wear.
He doesn’t remember how she tried to run her fingers through what she thought was his hair and the brief pause, the momentary flash of surprise in her eyes, when it didn’t move. At the time, he thought she must have been the only one who couldn’t tell. Of course, he hadn’t remembered the others, who, like her, were too polite to say anything. His wife, formerly one of these same women, was the one who told him to get the piece, and insisted he keep it. He does his best to forget it’s there and pretend no one else sees it either. When he’s reminded of it, as he was then, he blots it out of his memory, like a stain on a sheet.
He doesn’t remember, during what should have been the moment of transport, how hyper-aware he was of everything around him: the TV on its metal stand, the whine of the air conditioner, the smell of cigarette smoke that over the years had seeped into the curtains and the carpet. This young, soft person underneath him, smelling like baby powder, seemed almost incidental to the scene. Neither of them cried out, although he wasn’t sure if she had any reason to.
He looked at her, but looked away before their eyes could meet accidentally. Everything had happened much faster this time. The Magic Fingers had lasted longer. There would be no lingering, waiting for the next opportunity an hour later. As soon as he finished, he felt her move toward him. He began to embrace her tighter until he realized she was just getting up, starting toward her clothes piled in a heap in the bathroom.
She went to the door, jiggling the loose knob, as he put his shirt on.
“So, um, this is sort of an awkward question, under the circumstances I mean, but I’m going to start looking for internships and stuff. I was wondering if, you know, next year or next semester, if you could maybe, like…”
During the pause, he took note of the way her voice had switched from innocent-yet-naughty coed to budding career woman. He knew what was coming next. Since he didn’t want to prolong the moment any more than he had to, he finished the sentence for her.
If he had been looking at her—he still couldn’t—he would have noticed a similar tendency on her part to avoid eye contact as she continued to worry the doorknob.
“I’d be happy to write you a recommendation,” he said. “You just let me know where.”
“Awesome. Thank you so much. Have, um, a good day.”
He looked up in time to see her flip her hair over her shoulder and pull the door shut. Her steps bounced down the hallway, a young girl again. He had a vision of the Catholic school uniform.
He remembers most of those two afternoons together, but not their last goodbye. Not the fact that he never actually said goodbye, or said anything at all when she left.
Then again, he never remembers that part.
What he’ll forget: her name, until she writes him in December, reminding him of who she was and asking for that recommendation. He’ll probably give it to her.
He’ll forget the fact that they never did talk about the business, and that he wouldn’t have known what to tell her anyway. “Get to know the right people” was obviously a lesson she’d already learned.
But what he needs to forget—though he hasn’t been able to—is the way she laid on the bed, before, all her clothes still on, grinning like a kid, perfectly still other than the quick shudder of anticipation in her shoulders for the machine to start. How he stood there, with his toupee and his old-man belly, watching her. Wondering just exactly where it was that those Magic Fingers could reach.