Disappointments — both those writ outsized, humiliating and overlarge, versus those smaller and quieter, but no less painful — she knows are an unceasing part of life. You’re met by them at every turn. You think you have arrived, captured what you wanted, only for it to slip away. The illusion of greater safety recognized for just that what it is: illusory.
The flat thud of her body as it fell, the gasp of the crowd drowning out her heart as it pounded in her ears. The gentle upturn of her husband’s (husband then, ex-husband now) mouth as he said, “It’s not enough,” and she knew it to be a truth that she had left untouched out of fear.
It’s Sam Spence, at her gym, two years after she saw him last.
She has the distinct sense that he’s waiting for her, only she had seen him first at one of the small tables near the smoothie stall, his conversational partner unrecognizable to her.
She eyes the exit same as he is eyeing her.
“Olympiad detective Kip Glaspie,” he calls to her, extending his hand for her to shake. She takes it. She doesn't bother to correct him, Olympiad being a period of time rather than the athlete.
“Sam,” she simply says. And then, with a wry grin, “I didn't know you worked out.”
She comes to the gym to swim. After the birth, she cared less about what the magazines called pre- and post-mum figures but cared instead about returning her body to herself. Her favorite part about training had always been the rubbery, elastic yield of her body. As if she could make it do anything. The exhausted twinge of muscle, the ache in her chest as she fought for breath after pushing too hard — all of it was good. She lacks the energy to drive herself that hard these days, but she likes the steady, stealthy demand of swimming laps. Kip had rinsed off in the locker room, but she can still smell the chlorine clinging to her skin.
He ignores her. “I think we should catch up,” he says instead. He looks her over, from her messily pulled back hair to the damp still collected in the hollow of her throat, the untied laces of her left shoe. “I think I’d like that.”
“Well. If you’d like it, then by all means.”
See Kip. This is Kip, almost two years later. Tired-eyed but kind-mouthed, hitting the ten year mark of her time as police. A hungry guilt had gnawed at her in the immediate weeks after the Shaw case. It settled in her, filling in the empty parts of herself she hadn't realized she had left vacant.
She lives alone now, their child the last thing they share, splitting time between two flats.
She had met her husband when they both were teachers and it often felt as if since then she had gone and run an immense distance he lacked the will or speed to follow. That, to her, was the most frightening part: how quickly, how effortlessly, happiness could fade.
When she speaks to him now on the phone, at the front door, he still says to her, “I love you, Kip.”
“I love you, too,” she says and then she hangs up. She leaves. She is running still and running low on patience for the complexities that have knotted up inside of her.
Kip prefers the simplicity of the thickly bound picture books she reads to her child at night. Noun and verb, cause and effect — gloriously simple.
See Kip run. See Kip fall. See Kip splat.
So she goes to a pub with Sam. He’s a distasteful man, nothing likable to be excavated in him. He’s negligently dangerous, like a loaded gun left in a kitchen drawer. Next to the potato peeler, the blunted knife she carves apples with, the drawer itself jerry-rigged with a child-safety lock.
“You’re still alive,” she says, bright but not kind. They are both perched as if ready to flee should the other change their mind about occupying the same table. That surprises her: she had expected more smug confidence from him.
“Yes.” A near drawl. “Disappointed?”
“Surprised, maybe,” she says. “If memory serves, you’d aligned yourself with the sort of people who attach a shorter lifespan to not only themselves but those around them.”
“Your concern is much appreciated,” he says, as if it is anything but.
“So are you then? Still in the people smuggling business?”
He pushes his pint forward and the wet bottom of the glass slides easy along the pocked tabletop. He is grinning, though his mouth remains closed, and he watches the glass instead of her. He does not speak until he glances up at her, his smile growing wider but all the more guarded for it. For all her work as a detective, all her dedication to a mystery to solve, she can’t stand men like him. Men that are waiting open metal teeth, waiting to close. “Hardly a topic of conversation in mixed company, I’d say.”
“Oh? Am I that now? Mixed company? Tell me, is that due more to gender or jurisdiction?”
“Our mutual history, rather.” He says it like rotting fruit sitting on his tongue.
He still has that mercenary edge to him, as if anything empathetic had been shaved off of him in the name of personal gain. Or England’s gain, perhaps. He seems the sort of man to confuse the two. She knows: he doesn’t see people as people but rather pawns, to be moved around a board frustratingly not of his own design. She’s met a handful of MI5 agents throughout her ten years on the force, and he has inarguably been the worst of the lot.
As if to prove that point, he nods towards her hands, clasped around her pint.
“You take your ring off to swim?”
The question stumbles her for a brief second, but she hides it. Or she thinks she does. He’s probably built to recognize weakness in an opponent, to watch for the signs. Her fingers are bare; they are every day now. Silly of her to think he wouldn’t notice. She flexes her fingers away from the sweating glass.
“It’s off all the time these days,” she says, too lightly.
“Poor Kip Glaspie,” he says with great mockery.
“Yes. Poor, poor me.”
“How old is the kid now?” The way Sam asks it, they might as well be sitting in an interrogation room and not a half-empty, poorly lit pub.
“A little over eighteen months.” She lifts her pint to her mouth.
“How long you been divorced?”
A grim grin stretches rubbery. “A little over six months.”
“And how long since I saw you last?”
“Not nearly fucking long enough,” she says, entirely pleasant.
An uncomfortable quiet settles and she refuses to be the one to break it.
“I watched that video of you,” he says at last. “Beijing was it?”
He knows it was. Beijing, the Summer 2008 games. God, what a disaster. She doesn't reply but instead sits there with the ghost of a smile gracing her lips. Humoring him.
“Beijing. Up you went and down you came. Up and down. Up, and,” he slaps the table with the palm of his hand. “I watched it again and again. And again. It only became the more amusing for me.”
“You and the rest of this planet.”
“It looked like it hurt,” he says, as if imagining that pleases him.
She nods. “It did. My pride, near as much as the rest of my body.”
She supposes that she should be proud, in a way, that her athletic career ended in such a public blaze of ignominy. Most careers merely fizzled, the athlete in question lost and adrift without any clear path forward. A skill-set that suited nothing of day-to-day life.
“What was it,” she asks then, “that you wanted to catch up on?”
His posture relaxes, slightly, and she determines this is an act. “Call it curiosity,” he says.
She arches an eyebrow, but she says nothing. Working a murder is same as working a puzzle box is same as sorting a person: the pieces are there and it’s her job to make them fit. To make sense of them. Reassembling your life serves as something similar.
The last two years have accumulated for her a collection of quietly mounting frustrations. The job. Single motherhood. Divorce, an empty bed. Some days, there is an itch in the back of her throat. There is an ugliness that creeps up to envelope her in too hot, clinging arms, leaving her with a red-blooded desire to make someone pay. It’s so unlike herself, and she treats these passing moods like any other piece of wrong-fitting evidence: with care and curiosity.
“Aren’t you curious about me?” he asks.
She shakes her head. She is, and she isn’t.
Kip has fucked only one man since first her separation and then divorce. People treated separation as a very different matter than divorce. When she first said it to people — “We’ve separated” — everyone in her life, family and coworkers and what few friends she had kept through the years who did not share custody with the soon-to-be-ex, treated it as a phase. A space that could be entered and exited where very little changed. A vestibule, a waiting room of sorts. There was still a chance to turn around and reenter the life lived before. Kip knew, even then, that wasn’t going to happen. She has always been a person who goes straight forward. She does not double back. She does not see a point.
But she has slept with one man other than her husband in the last decade. It was a disappointingly mild experience, and she had thought that even then, under this man, only his first name known to her and forgotten as quickly and accidentally as the desire she had at some point felt for him. She had not come until she returned home, under the too-hot spray of the shower, her hand working desperately between her legs, lonely and annoyed for it when she finally found a pale replica of relief.
She eyes Sam across the table. She doesn’t like him. He has long graceful fingers and a mean thin mouth. Something lurches sideways within her. Like when you’re three drinks in and your face looks just unrecognizable enough in a pub bathroom mirror to amaze you. Wonder at what it might be capable of doing. Who that person attached to it might be or become.
Kip finishes her pint, a less than ladylike swipe at her wet mouth with the back of her hand. At some point, she made a decision. She decided what she wants — for now, at the least. That’s not nothing. A split-second decision is still a decision made.
“I’m going to get out of here,” she says. She stands as abruptly as she says it. She looks down at him looking up at her. “Are you coming?”
Kip has her pants off. Kip is in the front seat of her car. Kip is in Sam’s lap. The teeth of the opened zip of his trousers bite into the skin of her inner thigh.
“Go on then,” she says. It’s as close to an invitation as she can grant him. More obvious than what she gave him earlier: her exit, Sam at her heels. Sam had followed her from the pub; he walked behind rather than beside her. He paused when she paused at her car in the parking deck and then she did the inevitable: her hand placed firm on his chest and she kissed him, bitter and demanding. He had laughed against her mouth, and she had said, “It really isn’t funny,” but then he had his tongue in her month.
Now, he lifts an eyebrow. “And what might you expect me to do with that.” He pronounces the word carefully, that, as if it is any other four-letter word. His gaze shifts from her face to between her spread legs, like an already opened gift.
“Fuck me.” She says that the same way she would lodge a complaint, she thinks.
He likes that. His mouth opens in a sharp grin. He lounges back as well as he can, cramped in her passenger seat, striking the pose she had anticipated from him from the start: arrogant. In control. Smarter than her.
“A fuck in a parking garage all I’m good for?” he asks, arch, sardonic. So casual, like he doesn't already have his cock out.
"And even that may be stretching your merit.”
He watches her as he undoes his collar, the buttons at his cuffs, as he rolls his sleeves. “And here I had thought,” and he says this too casually too to be anything other than dangerous, “you were the sort of woman to put comfort over expediency.” His teeth flash again. “Who would jump at the chance to sit on a man’s face.”
There’s a hot clutch inside of her, makes her want to grind down against him, but she doesn’t. She thinks he would look good like that though: under her, eyes dark, mouth and chin wet with her, hair mussed and out of breath.
“Is that what you’re offering me?” She manages to keep her voice steady. She knows better; he’s not a man who offers anything for free. A bear trap of a man.
He licks his lips; unclear if it’s intentional or involuntary. His eyes drag back down to her bared cunt, that mask he wears dropping for a moment — leaving his face mean and wanting — before he meets her eye again.
“I’ve thought of little else for some time now.” He says it oddly formal, like they are in some tortured Jane Austen production instead of the front seat of her car. She doesn’t know if he means the last odd hour or prior time shared.
She grabs him by the hair and she settles against him, lets him feel the wet slick of her cunt against the length of his cock. He squirms. She thinks she has a condom in her purse; she should grab that before this goes too far. She lifts her hips, leans back a little, her weight on his thighs.
“I’d say, ‘next time,’” she says, low, “but I am hopeful never to see you again.”
“Your loss,” he says, just as low, and he runs the edge of his thumb along the seam of her. He pushes further, the tip of his thumb sinking easy into her. His cock goes ignored, for now, which is another thing that surprises her. She thought he’d be a selfish fuck, had anticipated it even. Kip can’t decide if that’s disappointing or not, decides instead it doesn’t matter and she pushes down against his offered hand.
So she follows him to a pub, she fucks him in the front seat of her car. Kip rides him, one hand fisted in the collar of his shirt, the other snaked down between their bodies, rubbing at herself.
“Fucking hell, Kip,” he gasps, grits out from behind clenched teeth. Like he doesn’t want to give her any more than he already has; they have an accord, she thinks. They are on the same begrudging page. See Sam at gym. See Kip drink. See Kip fuck.
She wants to believe this is the sort of reckless thing that exists outside of consequence. That it must, since such an act — Sam’s cock inside of her, her knees bumping uncomfortably against the keys in his pocket and the plastic seatbelt fastener, the spread of his hands on her and the spread of his thighs under her — feels so far outside her own person. Anything brought about from this can't belong to her either.
Her head drops forward, her body irretrievably close to coming. He must be the same: he can’t stop moving, can’t stop the sounds from leaving his mouth. He’s quiet enough, despite all the noise he’s making — embarrassing and earnest, near begging or entirely there, whimpering when he’s not breathlessly trying to goad her. Like he’s trying to pry something more from her.
Sam's neck smells of expensive aftershave, heavy and heady. She wants to bite his throat, so she gives in and she does. She likes how his hips rock into her, the directionless grab of his hand under her shirt. It’s not as impersonal a fuck as she had imagined, in the tiny space of time she had afforded to such a thought. It’s different to come with another person rather than alone. Somehow, she had forgotten.
Kip clumsily returns to the driver’s seat, after. Breathing hard, her pants are bunched around her knees, modesty left somewhere between the gym and the pub and her car. That good, aching soreness is already settling between her legs.
“Get out,” she says, still winded. She pushes her hair out of her eyes.
Beside her, Sam chuckles to himself as he refastens his belt. He leaves his business card behind. It’s an unnecessary gesture; she had saved his number during the Shaw case, superstitious, as if keeping his information would somehow keep him away.
She keeps her eyes fixed on the business card perched against the gear shift. “I don’t like you,” she says. “You’re a bad person.”
He laughs, and there’s no warmth to it. “This self-righteousness? Is precisely why I can't fucking stand you either.” He straightens his collar; above the edge of it, his skin is a splotchy red from her mouth. He slams the car door shut.
“That’s good,” she breathes, low and quiet. She can still feel him inside her. “That’s really good.”