The story's about a man who must choose between the love of a woman and the hedonism of his friends, between love and nothing, between faith and its opposite.
The Last Good Woman
The Last Good Woman
I drove home alone in the hours after midnight along nearly deserted streets a number of times that summer, fulfilled in the long run but in the short run feeling somewhat deprived. And each time I’d come through the door of the apartment half expecting to see Liz sitting on the sofa wrapped in her white cotton bathrobe, grading a batch of papers from which she’d suddenly look up, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, and smile in sublime gladness as the answer to her own deprivation walked through the door. There was no reason why I should expect to see this. I knew perfectly well she would be asleep and that I’d end up in a chair in the front room, beer in hand, browsing through a Playboy or staring at the wall and pondering the story Murch thought I’d been working on for the past three months but which I had not even started. I had not started it because it did not exist. It did not exist because I pondered not a story but the idea of one, and less the idea of one than of writing it. Like all stories I saw myself writing it was undoubtedly a great story, and doomed to remain so.
But I did not spend much time that summer browsing through magazines or pondering stories not merely unborn but unconceived. I acquired instead a new habit which on the surface seemed just slightly less compelling than pictures of naked women passing beneath my eyes like various succulent dishes laid out buffet-style and more or less suited to taste, but which was in the beginning aimed at the same end and was therefore itself a compulsion: I fell into the habit of watching Liz sleep.
On the very night the cheerleader stuck to her scruples and my vision of the road was obscured by healthy curiosity, I came through the front door to be greeted by the pale glow of the desk lamp Liz had left burning. I passed into the darkened back room and knelt down to give the good-night kiss she expected even in sleep. As I did so, she trapped my face between her cheek and shoulder with a brief shrug, her breathing undisturbed. Then I got a beer from the refrigerator, pulled a magazine off the stack, and by the light of the desk lamp sat down to see what the day’s selection was like. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the pictures seemed to complete what my imagination, in the matter of Linda’s legs, only guessed at, but that the pictures made me guess at what could be completed by neither. The more I thought about it the more imaginary the pictures became. The became more imaginary than the imagination, which may not have been able to get Linda’s legs right but at least could finish what it started, even if it finished falsely.
There is nothing in the real world like the real thing. The picture must be finished truly, and if it was true in the long run then it was true in the short – rising from the chair as I thought this, flinging the magazine back on the stack with one hand, clenching the beer in the other – and if that day on which Gerald shrugged and the priest pronounced had finished something, had heralded the beginning of a true end, then the real thing was at that moment asleep in the room behind me.
It was a typically humid summer night and she slept with the sheet thrown back. I sat down to observe her from the dressing table chair, the only light coming from the doorway behind me and the window over the bed through which streetlight cast the same soft white glow as the desk lamp. She lay on her stomach with one leg drawn up and wearing a brief green and white-striped nightshift that had ridden above her hips. Staring now at the rims of her bottom peeking from beneath the panties, I attempted to invest my gaze with an excess of healthy curios-
ity, to inspire a little glandular flow. I leaned forward, as though trying to cross some kind of barrier, and there suddenly swam into view Stacy’s blond form shimmering in the moonlight. I could feel her hand on my chest, her breast against my shoulder; all I had to do was roll over and take hold of the real thing. Liz gave a deep sigh and wiped it away. She raised up on her hands slightly and turned toward the wall, now with the other leg drawn up. I continued staring, thinking something might happen now that I couldn’t see her face so well, but this trick of trying to see her anew by not seeing her at all didn’t work anymore and Stacy returned, standing there before me and billowing forth an invisible womb of warmth mere clothing, had she worn any, could not possibly contain, or so it seemed in memory. I reached for the warmth but did not touch. And there she was, asleep in my bed the next morning with one breast exposed and looking like an angel. If things had worked out differently, I might have been asleep beside her. If things had worked out differently, I might never have seen her as she really wasn’t.
I sat back in the chair, still gazing at that spot where thighs and rump join forces, but no longer with such ferocity of purpose, for all attempts to invoke lust invoked anything but Liz. That spot, or any other, had become too much a part of her to be also a part of my imagination. And if I had been close enough to touch I would have discovered only what I already knew – that she was soft there, so soft you indeed had to touch, or even kiss, to know it, and more often of late found myself doing just that, though not in a riot of passion but peace. One recent evening while waiting my turn at the shower, she had emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a towel. She stood before the mirror unpinning her hair, drops of water still sparkling on her shoulders. I sat on the bed behind her, watching. After a moment, the action far ahead of any conscious impulse, I reached out to grab her hips. I turned her around and pulled the towel away. There was no rush to modesty. She just gave me a vaguely puzzled smile as I gradually buried my face in her stomach. She placed her hands on my head and rested them there until the compulsion released its hold, then turned around and continued undoing her hair, as though my need to fix upon her as an object of reverence were perfectly natural and even anticipated.
Thinking back on it later I’d wonder at a thing so capable of possessing and nearly rending the heart that it seemed anything so exquisitely painful must also be unnatural, that if given half a chance love would overwhelm and devour everything in its path, and that anything so voracious must also be guarded against. But reason could not tame its rising within like some hidden second creature with a will and ambition of its own because, for the moment at least, its will was my will; because, with my face nestled in her belly in defiance of all reason, I knew that I had never done anything so reasonable, to the point that even in moments of idle fantasy attempts to use Liz in the same way I’d use pictures in a magazine or the memory of Stacy left me with the ugly sensation that something was being profaned, and hence with the paradox that what was good enough for most other women was not good enough for this certain one.