"She told me she thought you could help me! She said there'd been some no-shows! She took my name!" The receptionist had brought her down to the end of the check-in counter, away from the guests with actual reservations. Jane was trying not to make a scene, but her patience was all in tatters and she needed this bland clerk to accept some responsibility.
The young man nodded respectfully. "As I explained, when a party doesn't claim their room before 11:30, the room becomes available to others. The young woman you spoke to believed that to be the case when she took your name, but the party arrived just after that. It was a large party. I'm sorry, all we can do is call other hotels for you, and I tried them all, literally all of them. You see, there are two conventions in town, the accountants and the bird watchers. So naturally..."
"The ornithologists. It's the Northwestern Ornithological Society. And don't tell me about bed-and-breakfasts, because the other clerk already gave me that list, and I just spent the last forty-five minutes calling them. Literally."
"Did someone mention ornithologists? Are you having a problem with your room, Jane?" A smiling man in chinos and a corduroy field jacket stood at her shoulder, looking concerned.
"Oh hullo Arthur, not MY room I'm afraid. This gentleman has been explaining that I never really had a room here. Some bloody mix-up. You see, I was going to stay with the friend I flew up to visit, but she was having a row with her husband, absolutely impossible, and so... Well, I suppose I should just call the airport and try to get on something tonight, assuming that more than one flight a day goes to god-forsaken Merrimac Falls from here."
"Three do, actually." He looked at his watch. "But the last one left half an hour ago, unless it was delayed. We could check. But listen, I have this huge room with two double beds, and I never seem to use more than the one, if you don't mind sharing. The room. I'm perfectly safe. But if you aren't comfortable sharing with a male, there's a young woman from the University of Chicago, who I don't believe was leaving until tomorrow, probably not expecting company. I could call a colleague of hers who might know where she's staying, shall I?"
"No, don't bother, I wouldn't want to impose on some bird-watching woman I don't even know. They call you people bird watchers, did you hear that?" She glanced toward the clerk, but the lad had quickly slipped off to deal with paying customers.
"There's just one thing though..."
"One of the beds is full of twigs and leaves, so we'll have to share the other. You birdwatchers!"
"Ha ha. No. It's just that I have a sort of routine I do, I hate to impose. I practice meditation with yoga. I know it may sound weird, but whenever I go to a conference, on the evening of the last day I stay away from all the parties and nightlife, and spend the whole time in complete silence. It grounds me and puts a proper end to all the papers and plenary sessions and chatting up people you only see at conferences. There is nobody I would rather spend an evening talking with more than you, Jane. I really mean that. Actually, I happen to have the new Alice McDermott novel if you want something good to read, and there are plenty of watering holes nearby in case you get bored or uncomfortable."
Jane waved away his concerns. "No that's fine. I'm used to silent evenings, god knows, and we talk lots in the Faculty Club. I finished the McDermott last month myself actually. Billy was charming, but Child of My Heart just may be her best one yet. Don't worry about me, I'm as quiet as a little mouse."
Arthur nodded, peering at her earnestly. "If you're sure then. Is that all your luggage? Let me..."
She held onto the handle of her valise firmly. "Thanks, but I travel light. This thing is no bother."
"Well then. Let's get you settled, are you ready?"
Jane allowed him to lead her through the hotel's restrained but elegant lobby, and they boarded an elevator rich with polished brass and dark mahogany. We do indeed talk a lot in the faculty club, she reflected. And in the antiquarian bookstore we both frequent in town, and after performances that we both attend. No more so now than we did before Arthur's wife died two years ago, though. We were all good friends. He'd never given any sign of wanting to be more than that, but there was always a lot of warmth and mutual enjoyment when we two happened to meet. The man was certainly attractive, in a rugged outdoorsman sort of way. Is attractive. She hadn't sensed any sexual tension to their attraction, but Jane supposed she might have gotten in the habit of filtering that right out of awareness. Arthur was a zoologist who liked to refer to himself as a naturalist, and in some ways he seemed like a throwback to a period when that term wasn't quaint. She remembered the last conversation she'd had with him, just last week. They had met as they often did between classes, on the walkway leading to the Faculty Club. They had shared tea together, and she had asked him what he was working on these days. He'd described his re-analysis of Darwin's field observations and ideas about Galapagos Finches, in the light of competing perspectives among contemporary neo-Darwinists. He had explained the salient points succinctly and clearly enough to interest any reasonably intelligent layperson, including their typical undergraduates. It was no wonder he was a popular professor.
Then he had asked her about her own work. As a mathematician, she found that sort of question from non-mathematicians hard to answer. But when she began to speak of how rapid shifts in the boundaries between observable and non-observable structure were changing the way mathematicians thought about such things as fractals and Mandelbrott sets, she sensed a genuine interest. As she began to convey her own ideas, she also sensed that he enjoyed watching her talk more than he really followed the content. She did remember a comment he had offered at the time though. He said he thought undergraduate math departments in little colleges like their own mostly served would-be computer scientists, and very bright space cadets. He said he could tell she would strongly attract both sorts. In retrospect, she decided, since he didn't follow her content, that remark had been a flirt.
The elevator came up to their floor. "I saw you on the Piney Branch Nature Trail last weekend. I wanted to catch up with you, but I was a couple of hundred yards down-slope, and you were really pushing on up. I thought you might want to be alone. Do you hike a lot?" Jane nodded. "I love to hike," she told him. "I swim too, but hiking is my real love." Arthur smiled at her with approval. "There are some really great hikes around Merrimac Falls. Many are off the marked trails. I'd love to show you when we get back." Pause. "Ah, unless you really rather be alone in the woods, I can understand that if anybody can." "Not always," she assured him. "It might be nice." And it actually would, she realized. She was used to saying activities she didn't care to commit to "might be nice" whenever men suggested anything like a date. But in this case, she was surprised to discover, the idea was more than nice.
As they walked next to each other down the corridor, she became aware that Arthur was watching her. They paused at his door. "Before we go into silence, is there anything you want to say?" She shook her head. "Is there anything you want to ask me?" She shook her head again, and they smiled at each other. Let the silence begin, she said in her mind. He's established his boundaries clearly enough.
Closing the door behind her and latching it, Arthur walked over to a low bureau on the far side of the room, and lit a candle. The candle was set into a simple candleholder in the middle of what looked like a plain cotton place mat. And now the wards have been set too, she decided. Unless he intends that candle to establish a romantic mood? No, she thought, he wasn't even expecting me. Noting that his meditation cushion in the middle of his bedcover sat directly in front of the candle, she felt a sense of clarification, and an almost subliminal sense of relief. I'm a woman who needs contexts to be clear, she thought.
Jane placed her bag on a surface of plastic straps held in tension by chromed metal tubes. When she turned, Arthur had removed his shoes and placed them under his bed. She noted that the whole room was very neatly organized, with everything in its place. Indeed, nothing much of his was in view except the candle and the meditation cushion. Not like most men, she observed. She removed her own shoes and placed them under her bed. He opened the drawer next to his bed, and removed a small bundle of fabric. Jane took a copy of the Atlantic Monthly from her bag, adjusted her cushions, and lay on her bed with her back propped against the pillows. She opened the magazine. Arthur tossed a length of cloth on his cushion, and carried the rest into the bathroom. In a few moments, Jane heard the shower running. She began to read this month's short story.
The story was good enough that she had almost forgotten about Arthur when he re-entered. Arthur must have left his clothing in the bath area, because he carried only a folded square of cotton cloth. He was dressed now in a cut-off pair of gray sweat pants and a white T-shirt. Without looking in her direction, he walked to the area near the ends of their beds, and carefully spread the cloth out on the suite's carpet. He kneeled in the middle facing the candle, and sat back on his heels. After a few seconds he straightened his back and placed his hands together in front of his chest. Jane decided that she felt a bit like an intruder to someone else's spiritual experience, and raised her magazine again. He must have held his pose for perhaps half a minute before he prostrated himself with hands above his head. Jane could tell, because she peeked at him over the top of her magazine. Hell, if he didn't want me to see him, he would have asked me to come to his room later, she decided, and put the magazine down again. He held his new pose for perhaps another minute, and then sat up on his cloth with his knees in front of him. He removed his T-shirt, folded it, and placed it next to the cloth. If you were just going to take it off, why did you put it on? Jane asked in her mind. He had a nice trim body, and she decided that yoga was of more than casual interest to him. He lay down on his back with his arms at his sides, along the long axis of the room. His feet faced the door, with his head away from where Jane sat. That's the corpse pose, Jane recalled. He kept that one for several minutes. He stood up, removed his pants, folded them in half, and placed them on top of his T-shirt. Facing away from the door, Arthur folded himself at the waist, legs and torso straight, and slowly bent down until the fingers of both hands were almost straight against the cloth, in front of his toes. His balls stuck out behind his tightly pressed thighs, their skin stretched tight and shiny pink. Jane quickly raised her magazine again. Eek! she thought, and immediately felt like a coward. She lowered her magazine and placed it beside her, folding her hands in her lap. Am I a stick, a stone, she asked rhetorically? I will not pretend that I am. That man has a beautiful body, and really, he practically invited me to look at him. She continued to regard him with frank attention.
Slowly and deliberately, Arthur took first the plow pose, held it for a long time, and then repeated it three more times. Then he assumed the cobra pose, beginning with lying out on his stomach, head up with chin on the floor, and hands palm down next to his chest and directly below his elbows. Repeatedly and slowly, he bent his torso backward until it was almost a "u", and he could look up at the ceiling; then, come slowly down again. This time he was facing the door, so Jane had a clear view of his calm face as he raised and lowered it. He never glanced at her. However, as he changed his position to move into a left-facing twisted pose, Jane saw him glance quickly up at and instantly away from her, as he forced his torso to rotate left against the pressure of his straight right arm locked against the inside of his left foot. That asana did interesting things to his genitals. Ha, caught you! she exclaimed to herself. You wanted to see if I was watching. I'll bet you hoped I was. I'm enjoying it, too, can you tell?
Arthur proceeded through a long series of exercises, each one performed with slow deliberation and intense focus. Many were new to her, but the ones she knew were done in just the way her one-time yoga teacher had said they should be, but never were by beginners like her own class. Jane did not again notice Arthur sneaking a glance in her direction, but she felt certain he was conscious of her. She did note his penis, because, she told herself, it gave a clue to what his mind was really on. Apparently it remained indifferent to her own hypothetical arousal: Any impure motives Arthur may have brought to his spiritual practice were below its notice. The message in its relaxed manner, she thought, might be that Arthur's mind was actually on his business, which was not she but yoga. For what felt like the better part of an hour, Arthur continued to twist and flex and stretch and compress his anatomy. Then he moved from asanas, physical exercises, to nadi, breathing ones. Now his eyes were closed, and as far as Jane could tell, his control and concentration were at a very high level. He ended with a final asana, the graceful and fluid Greeting the Sun movement, or Suryasana, which as Jane recalled, her own teacher said traditionally came at the beginning not the end of a session. Now he came to his feet in a loose, casual way, picked up his clothes and placed them in a bureau drawer, then folded his yoga cloth over his arm. He seemed to pause for a moment, then turned toward her. He smiled warmly and nodded. She felt herself smile and nod back. He moved to the side of his bed away from hers, and draped the shawl from the bed over his shoulders. He moved onto the bed, seated himself on his cushion, and arranged his yoga cloth around his waist. He sat straight, hands in lap, and almost but not quite closed his eyes. He seemed to gaze at a point below the candle flame. Silence seemed to settle around them more deeply.
A warm smile to be sure, but what can we say about the semiotics of that smile, she asked herself. Really, it changed everything. By establishing a relational frame, it made what came before that frame a text, not a mere sequence of natural movements. It made the male beauty and the spiritual grace and so on, meaningful. It said: I gave that to you. I hope you liked it. I'm happy we shared it, and I wonder what else we can share? She frowned. Most of all, she decided, it invited a reply. She sat and thought about that for awhile, her magazine forgotten. Then she got up, took her bathrobe and a little bag of toiletry items from her suitcase, and went into the bathroom. She undressed carefully, tossing her clothes onto a long marble counter with a sink in one end. Arthur's clothing was not in evidence, to any particular surprise. She adjusted the water in the shower, stepped in, and allowed it to wash over her very sensitive body as she turned about to present all parts of herself to its hard spray. She soaped her hands and slid them all over herself gently. With a washcloth, she slowly and thoughtfully scrubbed every part of herself clean, including all the spaces between her toes. She made the water cool, and rinsed herself for a long time. She turned off the water, got out and toweled herself dry. Looking at her image in the glass, she considered but decided against replacing a little of her makeup. It's not a sexpot's body and it never was, she told herself judiciously. But it really is a fine one, and it's mine. I do walk a lot, and I swim, and I eat well. I don't do that in order to look good, but because I like to. But damn, she declared silently, striking a pose, I do like the results. She leaned forward to stare into her own large eyes. You're more aroused now than when you were watching him, aren't you, little slut? Do you want him then, your first man in over five years? She straightened, considering. It's not as if I weren't sexually active, I just find it simpler not to involve other people. Usually. She winked at herself conspiratorially, slid into her big bathrobe, then gathered up her clothes. Opening the door, Jane paused for a moment to let her breathing settle.
She walked slowly from the dressing room, not looking at Arthur as she replaced her clothing in her little suitcase. Then she moved across the carpet until she stood where Arthur had done his yoga, to face his candle, and behind it, the suite's large mirror. Arthur's bed was at her back. She took an elastic band from her pocket, and gathering her damp hair in one hand, put it into a loose ponytail with studied care. Here you stand in front of the man's candle, she admonished herself, pretending you need the mirror when you just had one. Who are you kidding? Frowning, she determined not to loose herself in self-consciousness. She regarded her image calmly, taking in her still-wet hair, slightly flushed face with its narrow chin and small mouth, and the voluptuousness of her plain white terrycloth bathroom. She let her eyes shift to the reflection of Arthur behind her. Wrapped in his meditation, head slightly bowed, his heavy-lidded eyes seemed to regard her bare feet, or perhaps everything was all emptiness for him now. He's not even giving me an audience, Jane thought wryly. Arthur sat statue-like on his firm round pillow. His legs were simply crossed; she could see his hairy calves, his bare feet. Looking poised and relaxed on his (what do they call it, zafu? his cushion thing), Arthur had cupped his left hand in his right, then placed both in his lap. The cotton cloth he had used for yoga covered his legs to just below the knees, and up his lower waist to below his belly button. The earth-colored shawl covered his shoulders, but he had let it drape loosely over his upper body. Jane's gaze took in the patch of golden hairs on his chest. Her eyes moved down across his torso. The soft, low cloud of his chest hair gave way to a wilder kind, glossy and almost black. Becoming curly, a thin dark river of hair flowed down his belly and behind his lap cloth. She could not have stood regarding his image for more than five seconds, when he raised his eyes and met hers in the mirror. Her immediate impulse was to glance away, but she caught herself in time, so that each pair of eyes held the other calmly. I hope I look calm, she thought, but my heart is beating so fast. Jane fancied that as their gazes wound together, gaze became physical, perhaps an energy field stretching between their gendered polarity. His eyes were warm and brown. She regarded them, as he slowly let his gaze wander down her form, giving it the same detached interest he had given her face. There's no more pretense of doing anything but look at me now. And he makes sure I know what he's looking at, too, she mused.
Seconds passed. Nothing moved; no extraneous gesture broke the intensity. Their silence seemed bigger than the room. Jane recalled her own experience with meditation then, a ten-day retreat in a Buddhist center in rural Massachusetts. There, she had spent hours each day doing walking meditation in a large room, just as silent as this one. Now, she felt as if her body had stepped directly from that room to this, bringing a richer silence along with it. She remembered like a revelation, how fully the process of walking in a mindful way could displaced every other conscious thing, except for some slow, random thoughts that drifted like cud-chewing cattle across the still pastures of her mind. I feel just like that, she thought now. I remember it: deliberately raise the heel of one foot, let the ball of the foot roll to take my weight then yield it again, push off gently with the toes, keep consciousness within that leg swinging forward with near-glacial patience. Leg swung without conscious intent toward a point on the floor where heel met tatami mat, and took her weight. Then feel that foot roll forward onto its toes, and so on and on and on until her mind and footsteps felt as light as clouds. An amused thought brought her back into this moment and this place: If anyone looked in here, they would think the two of us were either stoned or crazy. Her grin almost became a chuckle. The corners of Arthur's mouth quirked up in an answering grin, bringing a twinkle to his warm eyes and firming her resolve.