Ben pulls himself together for long enough to get out of the building without making more of a scene than he already has. Indeed, he makes such a good job of it that anyone watching them waiting for a cab wouldn’t have known he’d just been a screaming madman in the derelict theatre they had emerged from. The only thing that gives him away, to anyone who knows him, is the way that his hand rests on hers where she had threaded her arm through his to guide him. Ben hasn’t voluntarily touched her in years.
He’s miles away though, trapped in his head, so Phyllis takes charge. She hails the cab, encourages him into it. As she goes to climb in herself, she sees Buddy lead a weeping Sally out onto the street. Phyllis looks at Buddy. Buddy looks at Phyllis. They nod to one another. Phyllis knows they will never see each other again. She thinks Buddy knows it too. He’s never been as dumb as he pretends to be.
Phyllis gets into the cab. Ben hasn’t even noticed that she lingered outside. He is half slumped in his seat, staring out of the window, but when Phyllis has spoken to the driver and settled back, he gropes for her hand. She lets him hold it, clinging like she is a buoy in a storm, but she does not speak. There will surely be words. They will not be here.
New York is too busy these days, even at two am. The cab weaves through almost as much traffic as the morning rush, and she hates it. Things change, over time. Things that once were beautiful and exciting get old and boring. It happens to everything; theatres, cities, people and before you know it there are office blocks and two am traffic jams and grey hairs, and no idea of where the time has gone. Phyllis glances at Ben, who has not moved. Theatres and cities are easy, she thinks. It’s people that are hard.
They keep a small apartment in New York, for when they have to be here. There’s only the housekeeper there when they are not, and she will already be sleeping. It is good; their other places have too many ears. As the cab draws up outside, Ben moves so suddenly that Phyllis jumps. He reaches into his jacket and takes out his wallet, pulls out some money, gives it to the driver. Phyllis is pleased that he isn’t completely catatonic. That would be hard to get around.
They make it inside the building, into the elevator. Marie has left the light on over the door, and in the hall. They are inside, door closed, and it is a parody of how they stood earlier, primped and ready to go out, hating one another. Now Ben is dishevelled, she is wary and she does not know entirely what she feels. It is almost awkward. It will not do.
Phyllis kicks off her heels and goes into the bathroom. She does not need to use it, but it will give Ben a moment to arrange himself, wherever this is going to happen. He moves as though to follow her, then when she closes the door, he carries onto the lounge and there is the familiar clink of bottle on glass. Let him drink. He’s already past the point of no return.
Phyllis goes to the sink, clutches it as she looks in the mirror. The same old face looks out as her, tired and pinched beneath the mask, and she reaches for a cloth. First things first. Let Ben see the true face of their years together. He hasn’t seen her without make up for years. Perhaps it will shock him.
As she scrubs, with no care for the drops of water that fall onto her dress, she replays the words. It has been an evening of words, furious, burning, painful words. They shouldn’t have gone to the theatre at all. It was a terrible mistake. And yet, would they have spoken to one another, truly, if they had not? She had been so angry with him, ready finally, to drop it all and leave him. Perhaps she still would. Perhaps she wouldn’t. She had not been exaggerating when she told him it would be the hardest thing that either of them ever had to do. She does not know if she has the strength. She does not know if he has the strength. That man who she found on his knees, crying out for her, was not her husband at all, and yet he was more of her husband in that moment than he had been for decades.
Her face clean, Phyllis reaches up to take the pins from her hair, lets it hang loose around her face. It is only another line of defence that she knows she must remove if they are truly going to see one another. There is no sound from the lounge and she wonders wryly if she will find him passed out on the couch. What a laugh that would be.
I need you, Phyll
That is what he had said, leaning into the touch that she offered, freely. It was instinctive for her, no thought to the reasoning behind it. He had not been sure if she truly meant it, and yet he had taken her hand in the cab, as though his own motivation was clearer to him.
I need you.
How she longs for and hates those words, a loving noose around her neck.
As the last pin comes out, there is another clink of a bottle. He is waiting, and suddenly she is not so sure that she can face him, talk and talk about things that hurt so much. She looks down; her dress is a mess of water and smudges, and she will not wear it. Instead, she lets it fall to the floor and reaches for her robe that hangs near the door. As she takes it down, her fingers brush his robe next to it. It is made of rough towelling, well-worn and warm compared to her own cool silk, and it has always smelled of him. A poet would probably write a verse about the damn metaphor of it, but Phyllis has never pretended to be more than she is. Let them keep their verses.
She hesitates, then takes his robe down from the hook. If they are to talk, really speak, he must remove his layers, just as she has removed hers. A final glimpse in the mirror before she leaves. That little girl from thirty years ago might as well be the one looking back at her. Phyllis does not think she understands any more than that girl did, anyway.
Ben is sitting in the dark, glass in hand and he blinks up at her as she switches on the table lamp. Next to the lamp is a drink. He has poured her one too.
“Phyll,” he says, his voice barely more than a whisper, “You – your hair is down.”
“Just like old times, huh?” she says, careful to keep too much dismissiveness from her voice. “I brought your robe. Get undressed and put it on.”
“I want to talk to Ben. Not the suit.”
She is amazed at how confident she sounds. He must hear it too, because he hauls himself to his feet. He is swaying, still drunk, and he shrugs out of his jacket. Phyllis goes to the window, pulls the drapes. She hadn’t meant for him to do this here, but he is doing it and not arguing, so she doesn’t try to stop him.
His movements are economical, if clumsy, and he doesn’t meet her eye. The few times they have slept together in recent years, he has come to her in the dark, taken what he wanted and left. She has not seen him like this in a long time, and she finds no shame in watching. If he cared, he would have left the room. The last button on his shirt comes apart and he tosses it carelessly to the floor. It is then he flushes and turns his back on her, as he begins to work at the button on his pants. Phyllis doesn’t say a word; if he isn’t quite ready, she will not push.
Instead, she examines his back, muscles moving beneath the skin, muscles that once made her hungry with anticipation. His shoulders, wide and commanding, would have been called burly had he been a less sophisticated man. They are covered with a fine down of greying hair, hair that had not been there before. How all things come to age. He drops his pants, revealing thighs that are almost running to fat, covered in that same hair. Phyllis had loved those legs once.
Ben reaches for his robe, ties it firmly before he goes underneath and takes off his underwear too, adds them to the pile. He has never been shy before.
“Hello, Ben,” she says, as he turns to look at her from under his eyebrows. “Long time, no see.”
“Phyllis,” he picks up his glass, even though it is empty. “What I said – I don’t know what happened.”
“You told the truth, Ben,” she says. “Or a truth, anyway. I think in the end, they’re the same thing.”
Ben begins to pace, back and forth, glass clutched in his hand, one last attempt at putting something in front of himself.
“I did mean it,” he says. “And you are a marvel. I meant that too.”
“I know,” Phyllis says, surprised that she does, and that she also means it. “Did you mean the other things too? About leaving? About me leaving you?”
He falters a pace and then picks himself back up into the rhythm.
“Maybe,” he says. “Did you?”
“Oh yes. I did.”
There is silence as they both think on this. Phyllis sips her drink, a vodka martini mixed just as she likes it. Ben looks longingly at the bourbon bottle, then puts his glass down on the table. Without it, he begins to work his hands together, nervous, and she is struck again that this is, and is not, her husband.
“Sit. People are trying to sleep downstairs.”
He comes to her side on the couch, but does not sit close enough to touch. Phyllis is glad of that. She wants him to, she thinks, but also not. She is not sure that she knows those hands.
“I might have meant it,” he says. “But I don’t want it. I don’t want it to be the truth.”
“So what are you saying? We forget it all and make a new one? A new truth?”
“Could we?” His voice is quiet, unsure and Phyllis is unsure too. She is not old enough to know things like this.
“We hurt one another. Bad. Real bad. That’s the truth, right there.”
“I love you, Phyllis. That’s the only thing I’m sure of right now.”
He says it so matter of factly that she almost doesn’t hear him at all. It’s been a while since those words rung from those lips.
“And that’s supposed to be enough, is it?” Phyllis asks, an old ember of rage kindling within her. “You say those words and we forget it all ever happened? I’ve heard it before, Benjamin Stone.”
This is where he should snap back, yell, do something to show that he isn’t prepared to take the blame like this, to be called out on the things he has done. It is how they work. He does not do that, and a part of Phyllis is surprised, the part that is standing outside of herself, watching this evening unfold, insisting that it is time to pack up and leave him. The rest of her is not surprised at all, when he brings his hands up to his eyes and covers them, or when a moment of silence passes, or when he finally begins to cry. It has been coming, this whole evening.
It has been coming their whole lives.
In thirty years, Phyllis has never seen Ben cry. He didn’t cry when his father died, three years into their marriage. He didn’t cry when his mother died, ten years after that. He wasn’t even crying earlier, when she found him on the floor of the theatre calling for her.
But he’s crying now.
Phyllis used to imagine a moment like this, when he would finally open himself up, let her hold him as she thought a wife should be allowed to hold her husband. She stopped in the end, made herself accept that was not who he was, that she would never have that chance, he’d never trust her enough for that, never love her enough. And it hurt, sure it did, but she always had been a trier and what was one more wound when there were so many already?
But now he’s crying, and she has forgotten it all and the temptation to run is almost too much. She doesn’t owe him anything. Nothing at all.
In the still air of the apartment, oddly quiet as though even the traffic is holding its breath, Ben is the only sound. He is going about it quietly, but his shoulders shakes and his breath comes in gasps. Even now, even now, he is trying to fight it.
Phyllis can’t help it in the end. She has longed for this and she has never been able to stand seeing a man cry.
She shuffles, inch by inch, closer to him until she can grasp that shoulder, slide her hands around him to pull him close. As he stiffens, then leans into her, finally, finally, she feels long forgotten tears pricking at her own eyes. She did not know that she still had them to shed for him. Quietly, she allows them to fall. If he sees them, so be it. If he doesn’t, it hardly matters.
Her hands, her touch, give him courage and he lets the sobs tear through him, deep, growling sobs that must surely be hurting, ripped from him like an organ he does not want to give up. He turns his head, pushes his face into her neck and it is hot, too hot and his tears burn her skin, but Phyllis brings a hand to cradle his head and hold him there. Her stomach lurches as she realises that this man, this stranger in her husband’s robe, is one who has come home to her at last, away at a war neither of them knew he had been fighting. Her tears fall into his hair and she massages them into the damp strands, already slick with sweat. When did his hair begin to thin?
She does not know how long they sit, but she is soaked in sweat, her own and his, by the time he gasps into her neck.
“How can you stand it, Phyll? How can you stand me at all?”
“I’m not sure of that yet,” she says, honest, because honesty is all they have now. “But maybe – I’m not making you a promise here, Benjamin Stone.”
“No,” he pulls away far enough to look at her face. “But maybe what?”
“Maybe,” she chooses her words carefully – she will not make a new prison for herself. “Maybe there is a way. To find who we used to be. Do you remember those kids?”
Ben’s eyes go dark, wet with the tears that have not yet dried. His face is red, his hair a mess and he is more handsome than she has ever seen him before.
“That little bastard is nothing to aspire to,” Ben says.
“No,” Phyllis agrees and has to cover her mouth to stop herself from recklessly kissing his lips. “But they had hope, those little ones. Hope that it would all work out in the end.”
“In the end,” he murmurs and, impossibly, there is the sweetest hint of a smile beginning to dawn on that face. “You think – there could be hope?”
And then she gives in, bringing her hands up to grip at his robe, tug him closer until she is kissing him. There is a chance that this is the biggest mistake she has made in years. There is also a chance that it isn’t, and Phyllis has always been optimistic, for the most part.
Ben kisses her back, careful and chaste, before he can turn away.
“Are you sure, Phyll?” he asks, barely able to speak the words as she twists her hands in his robe and does not let him go. “We don’t-”
“Shut up,” she says, her mouth on his jaw, under his ear, at his throat. “Tonight we do.”
He shudders and turns his mouth back to hers, soft and so achingly familiar. They had been good at this once, and Phyllis’ body is remembering. There is a tight warmth in her chest as his large hand comes up to tangle in her hair and she thinks she might cry again, if she had the tears to do so. She has missed him, and she did not even know it.
God, she has missed him.
The couch is not big enough. Ben is too tall and they are both too old. The arm digs into her back as Ben presses close, giving himself to her in a way that he has never done before. His mouth is hot and she pushes her tongue between his lips, and he groans. She doubts any of his whores have ever kissed him like this, and the thought makes her triumphant, because he is hers. He always has been and now she can claim him.
Hers, hers, hers.
She pushes him away and he goes. Marvelling in her strength, she stands and pulls him close, and he comes. Ben has always towered over her, tall as she is, and he does so now, but she has never felt stronger. He looks down at her, eyes wide and so trusting she cannot breathe. When she reaches for his hand, he gives it. He’s warm and it is so gentle. How long has it been since someone was gentle with her? She knows what is going to happen now. Surely he knows it too.
Phyllis switches off the lamp and he holds her tighter as she leads him out of the lounge, out into the hall, towards his bedroom. She will not do this in hers. Her bedroom has been the scene of too many broken nights, too many visits neither of them enjoyed. His bedroom is neutral. At the door he stops, tugging on her hand, and she turns to look at him. He is hanging his head, staring down at their joined hands.
“Phyll, are you sure?”
“Don’t ask me darling. Just come now.”
The room smells of him and it seems to give him courage, being back in his own territory, for he is brave enough to step forwards and kiss her for himself.
It is simple enough in the end. Phyllis reaches for his robe and unties it, pushing it from his shoulders, running her hands over his chest. There is more of that hair here, the greying curls, and his gasp into her mouth is surprisingly sweet when she tangles her fingers into it. She lets him reach down and remove her own robe. She does not want him to feel exposed and, besides, this is the first time that she has wanted to feel him against her for the longest time. She wants the warmth of his skin, and pulls him once more towards her, presses herself to his solid bulk.
As she does, she feels a hitch in his breath and seems somehow to understand what he wants. She runs her hands around his back and rests her head against his shoulder, holding him in an embrace. Phyllis can feel the thrum of his heart in her ear and there in the darkness she can pretend that they have gone back, back to how it was before, and then she feels his legs give way and releases him to sink onto the bed before he falls to the floor.
“Phyll,” he mutters, and she follows him until they are lying side by side, and when she runs her fingers through his hair, he begins to sob again. She should be tired of it, this weeping, but how can she be, when she wished once so hard that he would do anything to show her that he still felt something.
Instead of speaking, she rests his head on her breast and allows him to cry, the tears heating her skin again.
“I love you, Phyll,” he says, his voice hoarse, his hand coming to rest on her stomach, and there is a wonder in his voice when she allows him to leave it there. “I’ve been so stupid.”
“You have,” she kisses the top of his head and his hand spasms. “But we’re here, right?”
She is not sure how, after that, they turn once more to kisses, but they do and then his lips are on her breast and she cannot think. They have had sex plenty, the lives they’ve had together, but have they ever made love? Perhaps, once upon a time, but she has forgotten it. It seems though, that he has not.
He will not rule here though, that much she knows, and when he must stop to draw breath, Phyllis pushes him away and rubs her hands over his chest, his nipples, until he is panting.
“Shh,” she murmurs, because she will not be undone here, not after so long. She will not be made vulnerable.
They move in the darkness, slow and so very gentle as she takes his prick in her hand. He is only half hard, but it does not take long. It has never taken them long, and by the time she has stroked him to hardness, he is trembling with the effort of holding himself up.
“Phyll, can I see you? Can I get the light?”
“Yes,” she says, and he gets the lamp. His eyes shine as she comes back to her, dark and so beautiful and he kisses her breasts again, once, twice, before a careful finger comes to test, to see if she is ready for him. It is like a caress and her back arches and she nods.
He closes his eyes as he pushes into her but she does not close hers. She must look at him, his face in all of its contortions, and she is not disgusted as she once would have been. That face, so dear to her, the face she should hate, and did hate only that morning, but now they are making love and she cannot take her eyes from him. She reaches up, takes hold of his ears and pulls his face to hers, foreheads pressed together, and his eyes open so close to hers that all she can see is the dewiness of them and oh God, she cannot hate him.
She’ll never be able to hate him.
He becomes erratic in his thrusts and he reaches down to touch her, fingers playing over and if he has ever done that before, she does not recall. Whichever of his whores taught him that, she should send her a card. He does not stop until she feels the crest rise inside her, and she comes, hard.
“Let it go, Ben,” she gasps, and he follows her, shaking, and if he is crying again when he lies down at her side, she does not mind it. She brushes the tears away and pulls the comforter over them both, letting him rest against her so close it is as though he wants to climb inside her skin.
“Don’t go, Phyll,” he mutters. “Please don’t go.”
“I won’t,” she says, and she means it. She really does, and isn’t that the biggest marvel of all?
“Go to sleep. I’ll be here.”