LIAM FINDS HIMSELF AT A crossroads. His wife, Carla, has exiled him from their comfortable Iowa home, and he’s seeking solace in Oregon—Portland, to be exact, where he, a fifty-year-old Professor of Poetry, has secured a lowly visiting appointment at a local college. While that is a crossroads for him, it is not the crossroad. That crucial crossroad comes now, when he faces the choice of new love over old. This weekend he has an assignation at the Hotel Lux, where he will be wining and dining his new girlfriend, a thirty-seven-year-old coffee shop manager named Lydia, who adores poetry, quotes it freely, and has been taking his night class. They have been meeting, more or less formally, since the beginning of the term. This weekend meeting, a festive coming together, represents more, much more, to Liam, as Lydia stands beside him while he checks into the hotel, waiting for the brass keys, on this Valentine’s eve, a warm counterpoint in a month that has been the wettest, the coldest, on record. But Lydia seems to have forgotten the weather as she snickers into her hands while studying Liam’s attire—red shirt and salmon pullover, plus custard slacks.
As they step into their spacious suite, Liam is momentarily blinded by a sudden burst of light streaming through the banks of windows. He draws the plum drapes and turns on a table lamp, which profiles a turquoise davenport facing a red hassock and a stocked drinks trolley. A chandelier brings the room together, like Nick and Nora’s Manhattan apartment in The Thin Man. Well, it would, except for the presence of the bed, and its heart shape. The bed, mounted on a cherry-wood frame, has a coverlet with deep buttons and a rolling surface. Liam and Lydia immediately jump on it and begin to wrestle. Liam says, “my left foot’s dangling over the edge.” Carla would never have accepted such a dysfunctional bed, he muses.
“We’ll make do. I’m starved,” says Lydia, reaching for a loaded picnic basket.
“I had that sent over, Foster and Dobbs.”
“Yum! A Valentine picnic!” says Lydia, separating out construction-paper hearts, doilies and a sachet of Kiss Me confections. She reads one aloud, “HUG ME.” She responds to the candy, “Not before I eat!” Then she tears off a hunk of baguette, tosses back her long black hair. “You got a pocketknife?”
Liam gives over his Swiss Army knife. Lydia says, “I’ll have at slicing the salami and you ‘cut the cheese.’” She lets out a belly laugh, bouncing on the head of the bed. Liam hands her a chunk of pecorino and a glass of wine, the Dundee Hills Pinot Noir he’s just opened.
Lydia giggles. “Look at you, Liam! Dressed like a third-grader’s valentine. How can I not be crazy for you,” she says, tugging at his trousers. “Take that circus outfit off, while I finish with this sausage. Then I’ll work on yours.”
Lydia, while not large, is not small. Her muscles look in tone and, at the moment, seem to be demanding protein. She eats with gusto half a tin of almonds, four cuts of sopressata and the rest of the pecorino cheese. Meantime, Liam folds his sweater, puts his shirt on a hanger, and drapes his pants on the desk chair. Feeling a chill, he hops into bed, and waits for Lydia to finish eating. Realizing he still has on his Patti Smith socks, he removes them. He keeps waiting.
“Sorry, being in love makes me hungry,” says Lydia, done feasting and finally next to him in the Valentine bed. She locates Liam’s toes and begins rubbing them. The loose waves of her charcoal locks tickle his hairless chest, and he shivers.
“You need to eat, all the laps you do,” says Liam. “Score more blue ribbons. Going to enter that diving event?”
“I’m diving on your pecorino,” says Lydia, before she sucks Liam’s soft penis into her mouth.
Then she withdraws. “Wait a minute.” She pulls Liam’s red-and-white boxers all the way down and off and resumes her rhythm. Liam doesn’t mind. Then he does mind, because suddenly it’s all over. “Forgive me,“ he says, “early launch.” Embarrassed, he turns away from her and pretends to sleep, only pretend because he can’t banish Carla’s face from Lydia’s, especially when she’s doing what she’s doing. They do it differently, he can’t help thinking. Carla would use more precision, but would it be as nice?
“No worries. I know the pistol’s still loaded.” Lydia goes limp herself, rolls on her side and brushes crumbs from the bed. Then she picks up a paperback she brought, a dog-eared copy of Neruda’s love poems. She begins reading in a whisper from one of her favorites: “‘I like for you to be still / It is as though you are absent / And hear me from far away …’” She reads it over and over, with no hurry. Soon Liam is asleep.
In the gray Portland dawn, a stray ray of sunshine finds its way through a crack in the curtains, illuminating the wedding ring Liam still wears. He knows Carla says it’s over, but he can’t bring himself to abandon this crafted piece of jewelry to a paperclip box in his sock drawer. It’s hand-hammered gold, with a small garnet stone that right now’s returning delicate splashes of light. He’s awake, contemplating Lydia’s porcelain face, pillowed by her tresses. She clicks open one blue-green speckled eye and lets go a big smile. “Hi, Valentine,” she says, tickling a stubbled cheek.
Liam’s not reassured. Looking straight at her, he says, “‘Once you, a woman, came / to soothe a time-torn man.’“
“Who’s that?” asks Lydia.
“Hardy. He would also have apologized about last night.”
“‘No problemo,’ to quote an unfavorite past president. Remember from your first lecture? ‘He that hath no bedfellow, must lie alone.’ We’re lucky, we have each other to bed.”
“I can’t believe you remember such an obscure quotation!” he says, as he pats her on the bottom. Then he puts a hand between her legs, finds her wet. She guides his fingers, he guides hers. She takes him in, he takes her in. They turn to this ancient liquid dance, abandon themselves to it. She reverses and inserts him, rides a long time. Like rain they come, rain-making sounds, not low but leaping and sharp. We are cats courting on a fence, thinks Liam.
At rest, they peer out on the wet morning. They see rows of little wooden houses tracing a hillside to its crest, where the mist loses the houses. Lydia alters her view, to take in Liam. “I love you! Why do you still wear her wedding ring? She threw you out. Ditch the ring.”
Liam yanks off the ring, yields. “There,” he says. His ring hand feels heavy. He can barely lift it. His look won’t leave his fourth finger, the white circle of skin, him going round and round it with his thumb. Liam’s with Lydia who loves him. He says, “I feel I’m falling in love with you.” He’s not lying. He does feel that special attraction for Lydia, that thing he has called ‘love.’ But also he remembers Carla’s hot—cinnamon—breath on his neck. And those ‘wild raspberry’ dreams, as she referred to them.
At the Japanese Gardens they stroll, admiring the plum blossoms and fresh daffodils. At the Zen sand court, Liam writes ‘L + L’ with the toe of his shoe, then Lydia picks up a fallen twig and encloses the script in a heart-shape. When wind chimes ring, they go to the sound, emanating from the gift shop. Liam finds the chimes, swinging over a bed of obsidian stones in a bamboo crate. He glides his knuckles under the stones, letting them cascade as his hand surfaces. He decides to buy a sack of seven. “One for each week I’ve held you in my heart,” says Liam to Lydia, as he holds the sack before her like booty. He frets she’ll judge the gesture corny, but he can’t help it; he’s a hopeless romantic. Lydia buys an alabaster cat, carved smooth except for where whiskers are etched. She dusts her palms on her sweatpants. They pocket the purchases and start back down the long hill. Clouds cut loose, causing them to break into a run. The path becomes slippery—mud, moss and rain.
Liam tries to catch Lydia, but she’s too fast. She pauses at puddles, splashes, circles him then speeds away, daring him to catch her, the opposite of a Daphne. At last, under the awning of The Lux, they corner each other, hug chest-to-breast, and shake their windbreakers. Liam takes off his soaked canvas hat, the French one that reads ‘fun-extrême’, and flips it at Lydia who screams, “Don’t make my waves any wetter.”
One of the young valets, Geraldo, gallantly swings open the great glass door. “Welcome back,” he says before a low bow and a swish of his brass-buttoned cap. Liam, his mind lost to Lydia, stands oblivious to Geraldo. They shake, stomp their feet, dash up the flowered carpet to their suite, poking each other as they go.
In the room, clothes flying, they rush for the shower. Lydia cranks the spray to high and her skin burns bright pink. Liam twists open the little cardboard box in the wire-rack and smells the palm-size bar of lavender soap. The lavender scent makes his mind pull up a day in Provence with Carla, when they romped near-naked in a purple field, a ‘life-day’, as they named it, never repeated. He adjusts the water pressure, and washes Lydia, carefully. “I’m washing ton chat,” he says.
“Your ‘cat,’ the French call it. Once, I was on this train, leaving my friend Sandrine’s Paris apartment just after dawn on a Monday, the TGV coach bound for Nantes …”
“Shut up. My turn,” says Lydia, covering Liam all over with shampoo gel, a mint color and perfume. She starts with his wavy chestnut hair, kneading and kneading, moving down his body, a limb at a time. Bubbles are everywhere. The bubbles pop, releasing the fragrance. “Peppermint sticks, take my licks,” she rhymes. They embrace, and slide and glide against each other like slips of soap circling a drain, revolving under the falling water. Lydia shuts off the shower, reaches for a large Turkish towel. She towels Liam down, and down, getting his attention. When he seems attentive enough, she tears the towel away from him and escapes on her toes to the Valentine bed, Liam in hot pursuit.
In the bed, they glow like coals for a summer barbecue. They grapple, sweat from the wet heat, clinch. After a few random lips and lunges, they come up for air. “I can pin you,” says Lydia. She springs up and comes down hard, spread-eagling Liam, keeping his back flat against the bed, which yields an ominous creak. Then—crack!
“Lydia, the bed’s breaking! The hotel manager, what will I tell him?”
“Up the manager,” says Lydia, raising a free middle finger and continuing to wrestle.
“Damn. It’s splintered on one side.” Liam drops his jaw, ceases speaking. It’s the sex, he decides. Sex has the power to break beds, to break hearts. His heart? Lydia’s? Carla’s? Hearing the crack again interrupts his meditations, as does Lydia: “Let me return to my conversation with Mr. Johnson,” she demands, reaching for his crotch.
But Liam has lost his mojo. He’s getting pulled too many directions. “Later,” says Liam, “we got to get dressed for our dinner at Bella.”
“How’d you hear about Bella?” asks Lydia.
“Last Tuesday, reading its posted menu on Morrison.”
“Good call, mon amour. I bring my coffee suppliers here. Classy place. What you having?”
“Lamb carpaccio and the linguine with clams.”
“Tasty. I’m way hungry, but I gotta go pee,” says Lydia. “Order me a nice pasta, then a steak Florentine. Make sure it’s bone-in.” Liam’s wrinkles his forehead, in a startle. “I know,” says Lydia, “I talk dirty.” As she rises from the table, she pulls down her shear red skirt, then leaves for the ladies.
The waiter, Aldo by name tag, arrives with a flourish, and Liam relays their choices. “And what would you like to drink, sir?”
“Two flutes of Prosecco, please, to begin.” While she’s gone, Liam ponders. He’s over the moon for Lydia in the sack. Plus she’s funny and smart. Carla could be all those things too, at least when she cared to. But Carla gave him the heave-ho. Maybe … he stops pondering when Lydia breezes back to the table and grabs the bubbly wine offering. “A toast,” says Liam, raising his own glass.
“To the man I love,” says Lydia, then finishes her glass in one pull.
“I wrote something on Thursday, seems fitting,” says Liam. He recites:
“Bring her back, fingers warm on her pasta plate,
waiting. These seconds, return and leave,
like the yeasty bubbles in this bright Prosecco,
at this Tuscan table, while rain puddles the patio.”
“Liam, so beautiful.” As Lydia stretches across the table, her brimming breasts pushing against the table edge, she takes a napkin ring, and puts it around the second and third fingers of his left hand. “With this ring …” Her voice drifts away and she places a hand on top. A fat bead of Prosecco swims upward to the wine’s meniscus, chased by smaller beads. Time disappears, until Aldo intrudes. “Carpacchio for you, sir. And, for you, signorina, tortelli with mushrooms.”
“Bring a bottle of that Rosso di Montalcino, the 2010,” says Lydia.
Once Aldo moves out of earshot, she says, “Since I cannot devour you here, I will devour this tortelli.” They set upon the food, eating at lightning speed.
She looks up, from the last of her pasta. “I chose you, Liam. Why did you choose me?”
“Spontaneous, witty, unguarded,” says Liam, cupping his cleft chin. “You tuck in, consume life.” As if a gong had rung the end of round one, Aldo puts the main dishes down. Before Liam, he places a pile of linguine, woven among a heap of steaming clams. Before Lydia, he leverages down an eighteen-ounce T-Bone, thick-cut and grilled in the Tuscan way, finished with fresh lemon. The lovers fall to their feast—eating, chewing, smacking and sucking. Suddenly, they are sated. They look at their plates with surprise. Against their best manners, they place their palms on their stomachs. Lydia says, “Let’s spring for a different sort of dessert, back at the hotel.”
“Get your fancy ass in this bed, Valentine.” Liam does as he is told.
“May I moisten your roses?” asks Liam.
“‘Yes, yes. I say Yes!’”remarks Lydia, before adding, “Lawrence said that.”
Without further ado, Liam starts making wet tongue rings around Lydia’s breasts, to her evident delight. At the same time, Lydia, with a free hand, begins to stroke Liam’s penis, but to little effect. “What’s wrong? I got the wrong angle?”
“It’s me. Can’t get it up.”
“It’s something. Tell me—for us. ‘Be true for us,’ as Patmore said.”
“It’s Carla,” says Liam. He loathes admitting this. The last thing he wants is Carla in the room, judging him, like she can do. But there she is, in the mirror over the Valentine bed, looking down on him with a smirk.
“You love Carla—still,” says Lydia.
“No. No, no. I told you I love you. ‘Let me count the ways …’ ”
“Then why no boner?” Lydia offers up, plainly, this troubling question.
“I kept seeing Carla in my mind, at different times, in different ways. Right now I see her doing things about the house.”
“Oh, reading by the bay window, sorting her watercolors, mending.”
“She sews. Made me a sweater once, forest green, does my buttons …”
“Liam, I will do anything. But I can’t sew.” Lydia moves her thumb and forefinger, as if they hold needle and thread.
“Neither can I. We’ll manage.” At this easy acceptance, Lydia lets out a gasp.
“We going to live together? she asks. “Where? Get engaged? When? I want the ‘fun.’ I want the ‘games.’ And I want you because I love you, Liam— only you.” It comes to Liam in an instant. Lydia does not want to be a part-time, over-time, girlfriend of the Visiting Poet. At the cusp of child-bearing age, not to mention loneliness, she wants the deal done. Lydia wants to be with him, to take him as he is. Carla does not want to be with him, unless he becomes someone he can’t be. She has never wanted Liam the goofball, the hopeless romantic, the endless gourmand, the schmaltzy poet, the guy who dotes over three-year-old kids.
“And I love you,” responds Liam. As he makes this declaration, his penis swings into service.
Sunday morning. Lydia’s asleep. Liam’s awake, watching raindrops turn mauve as the streetlamps change. He sees the rain, hears it beating. It’s coming down cats and dogs. How many cats? How many dogs? He doesn’t want to count. Quietly he gets up, pulls on his pants, boots, rain slicker. Soon he’s standing on 15th Ave. The rain is not cats and dogs, it’s sheets. He pushes a fist into his pocket and pulls out his phone. He punches ‘Contacts,’ scrolls to Carla’s number, and taps it. He knows she’s up, since it’s about nine a.m. there.
“Carla?” says Liam, from under an awning.
“Yes. Liam, what? It’s only eight o’clock.”
“I thought it was nine.”
“You botched the time difference, like always. What’s up?” Liam thinks about the other calls he’s made, when he tried to chat about the pea patch, Uncle Billy, the student beer parties next door, Saturday’s chores—topics they had shared. Then he had hoped she’d invite him back.
“How’s the painting going?” Liam ventures.
“I’ve got the studio arranged the way I want. Finished the last of Autumn Sonata. Liam, why did you call?”
“I thought I should tell you I’ve met someone. It’s been a year to the day that we separated,” Liam says, in an honest way.
“What’s her name?”
“Sounds like an eyeshadow.”
“You ever think about me?”
“‘Of course.’ That’s what the Portland baristas here say when you order a half-caf skinny caramel latte. Or anything else. They say it as if the customer made a difficult request but, with heroic effort, they will fulfill it. Weird.”
“Still your same, spaced-out self. Look, my string group’s coming over. We’re working up Pachelbel’s Canon for Easter. I’ve got to go buy donuts and coffee for them.”
“It’s a local donut.” Liam pauses. “Before you go, I need to tell you I’m filing for divorce tomorrow.”
“Liam, I can’t discuss it now.” She breaks the connection.
Liam extends his hand out from the awning and, feeling no rain, begins his walk back to the hotel, a few blocks away. He passes the First Presbyterian Church, a grand Victorian edifice, and hears the organ playing triumphal hymns, which suit his decisive mood. In his uxorious quest for a wife, Carla has been lost but Lydia, he dares to believe, has been won. He strolls into the hotel lobby, at peace with the world.
“Liam! Where have you been?” asks Lydia. “I called and called, but your phone kept going to voice mail. I was about to send out the Coast Guard.”
Couldn’t sleep. Went for a walk. Then I called Carla.”
“I told her I’m filing for divorce tomorrow.”
Through sobs, Lydia recites: “‘I sleep with thee, and wake with thee.” Lydia throws one of the turquoise pillows at him. “Mañana land, that’s where tomorrow is.”
Liam dodges the pillow, says, “Let’s move in together, my place.”
“You live in a tiny, grungy studio overlooking the 205 bypass.”
“Ouch! That hurts. OK. My suitcase goes to your apartment once we checkout. Let’s leave now.”
“Wait until you read this letter that was slipped under the door this morning.”
“Dear Mr. Dunworthy:
Head of housekeeping on your floor has reported to us the condition of the bed in your suite—the Valentine Suite (Room 631). She explains that the heart-shaped frame now has a deep, extensive crack. Our Chief of Maintenance has examined the damaged bed (in the presence of Ms. Lydia Konstantopoulou) and affirms that its repair, if such a repair be possible, will be in the neighborhood of $1400. As a sign of our good faith, and our abiding desire to foster customer satisfaction, we are deducting just half that amount ($700) from your credit card on file, against final costs.
To show our consideration to you, as special guests in these unusual circumstances, we have sent to you a bottle of Oregon champagne. Please enjoy it. We do hope that Ms. Konstantopoulou, in particular, can accept our apologies for the intrusion. Housekeeping and maintenance were only trying to preserve standards.
Head Manager, h.m.d.
“I’m so embarrassed,” says Lydia. “A run-in with another manager. And everyone in the hotel’s making up naughty stories about us. Not funny.”
“Funniest thing ever. All in service of Cupid, recorded for eternity in the repair log of the Hotel Lux. Hand me the bottle.”
“Why? You want to get drunk?”
“Remember Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Day We Got Drunk on Cake’?”
“It was William Trevor’s story, Professor.”
“Whomever. Today we get drunk on cake. Get your coat.”
“The Palace of Cake, just around the corner. I’ve already drafted a poem about it.
Every day I go to Palace of Cake
to eat cake, wonderful cakes
of almond paste, coconut cream, blood orange—
blood orange my favorite with its blood-red
“Let’s go! I want the coconut cream.“ Off they go, skipping, with Liam ever careful to avoid the mud puddles.
The Palace of Cake takes up a modest cement block building. Liam suspects it was once a gas station. In any case, it is now painted canary and the way the blocks are stacked makes it appear like a cake. Inside, Mandy the baker pats flour from her apron, revs up the big beater. “Cake every day keeps the doctor away,” she yells.
“It looks like a Vienna coffee house!” counters Lydia, eyeing the interior layout.
“On the dot,” says Mandy to Lydia. “Everyone loves the cakes we bake except the bride and groom. Their tummies only admit butterflies.”
“Bet I know one bride who’d eat cake every day,” says Liam, taking Lydia’s hand.
“Maybe not coconut cream every day,” quips Lydia.
“Oh, come on,” says Mandy. “It gives you good guilt.” Lydia laughs. Liam orders two pieces and they get tipsy on the hotel champagne gift, which they share with Mandy.
“Let’s have a piece of the blood-orange now,” says Liam.
“I’m game,” replies Lydia.
Liam takes Lydia’s left hand in his. Then he lifts delicately her ring finger and gives it a kiss. “Do you know why I love you so much, bride-to-be?”
“Tell me more, dream boy.”
“You like to play.”
Mike Lewis-Beck writes from Iowa City. He has pieces in American Journal of Poetry, Alexandria Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Big Windows Review, Cortland Review, Chariton Review, Guesthouse, Pure Slush, Pilgrimage, Rootstalk, Seminary Ridge Review, Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art, Writers’ Café, and Wapsipinicon Almanac, among other venues. His short story, “Delivery in Göteborg,” won a Finalist prize from Chariton Review, 2015. “My Cherry Orchard in Iowa,” was named a ‘Notable Essay’ in Best American Essays 2011. He has a book of poems, Rural Routes, recently published by Alexandria Quarterly Press.