Nell and Henry always said that they would wait until marriage was legal for everyone in America, and now this is the case—it’s August, 2015—but earlier in the week Henry eloped with his graduate student Bridget. Bridget is twenty-three, moderately but not dramatically attractive (one of the few non-stereotypical aspects of the situation, Nell thinks, is Bridget’s lack of dramatic attractiveness), and Henry and Bridget had been dating for six months. They began having an affair last winter, when Henry and Nell were still together, then in April Henry moved out of the house that he and Nell own and directly into Bridget’s apartment. Nell and Henry had been a couple for eleven years.
In the shuttle between the Kansas City airport and the hotel where Nell’s weekend meetings will occur—the shuttle is a van, and she is its only passenger—a radio host and a guest are discussing the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. The driver catches Nell’s eye in the rearview mirror and says, “He’s not afraid to speak his mind, huh? You gotta give him that.”
Nell makes a nonverbal sound to acknowledge that, in the most literal sense, she heard the comment.
The driver says, “I never voted before, but, he makes it all the way, maybe I will. A tough businessman like that could go kick some butts in Washington.”
There was a time, up to and including the recent past, when Nell would have said something calm but repudiating in response, something professorial, or at least intended as such. Perhaps: What is it about Trump’s business record that you find most persuasive? But now she thinks, You’re a moron. All she says is “Interesting” and looks out the window, at the humidly overcast sky and the prairies of grass behind ranch-style wooden fencing. Though she lives in Wisconsin, not so many states away, she has never been to Kansas City, or even to Missouri.
“I’m not a Republican,” the driver says. “But I’m not a Democrat, either, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t never catch me voting for Shrillary.” He shudders, or mock-shudders. “If I was Bill, I’d cheat on her, too.”
The driver appears to be in his early twenties, fifteen or so years younger than Nell, with narrow shoulders on a tall frame over which he wears a shiny orange polo shirt; the van is also orange, and an orange ballpoint pen is set behind his right ear. He has nearly black hair that is combed back and looks wet, and the skin on his face is pale white and pockmarked. In the rearview mirror, he and Nell make eye contact again, and he says, “I’m not sexist.”
Nell says nothing.
“You married?” he asks.
“No,” she says.
“No,” she says again, then immediately regrets it—he gave her two chances, and she failed to take either.
“Me, I’m divorced,” he says. “Never getting wrapped up in that again. But I’ve got a four-year-old, Lisette. Total daddy’s girl. You have kids?”
“No.” This she has no desire to lie about.
Will he scold her? He doesn’t. Instead, he asks, “You a lawyer?”
She actually smiles. “You mean like Hillary? No. I’m a professor.”
“A professor of what?”
“English.” Now she is lying. She is a professor of gender and women’s studies, but outside academia it’s often easier not to get into it.
She pulls her phone from the jacket she’s wearing because of how cold the air-conditioning is and says, in a brisk tone, “I need to send an e-mail.” Instead, she checks to see how much longer it will take to get to the hotel—twenty-two minutes, apparently. The interruption works, and he doesn’t try to talk to her again until they’re downtown, off the highway. In the meantime, via Facebook, she accidentally discovers that Henry and Bridget, who got married two days ago in New Orleans (why New Orleans? Nell has no idea), had a late breakfast of beignets this morning and, as of an hour ago, were strolling around the French Quarter.
“How long you in K.C.?” the driver asks as he stops the van beneath the hotel’s porte cochère. The driveway is busy with other cars coming and going and valets and bellhops sweating in maroon uniforms near automatic glass doors.
“Until Sunday,” Nell says.
“Business or pleasure?”
It’s the midyear planning meeting for the governing board of the national association of which Nell is the most recent past president, all of which sounds so boring that she is perversely tempted to describe it to him. Instead, she simply says, “Business.”
“You have free time, you should check out our barbecue,” the guy says. “Best ribs in town are at Winslow’s. You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”
She and Henry were both vegetarians when they met, which was in graduate school; he was getting a Ph.D. in political science. Then, about five years ago, by coincidence, Henry went to a restaurant where Nell was having lunch with a friend. Nell was eating a B.L.T. Neither she nor Henry said anything until that night at home, when she asked, “Did you notice what was on my plate today?”
“Actually,” Henry said, “I’ve been eating meat, too.”
Nell was stunned. Not upset but truly shocked. She said, “Since when?”
“A year?” Henry looked sheepish as he added, “It’s just so satisfying.”
They laughed, and they started making steak for dinner, or sausage, although, because of the kind of people they were (insufferable people, Nell thinks now), it had to be grass-fed or free-range or organic. And not too frequent.
All of which is to say that many times since she learned of Henry’s affair she has wondered not only if she should have known but even if she is at fault for not cheating on him. Was there an unspoken pact that she failed to discern? And, either way, hadn’t she been warned? An admiring twenty-three-year-old graduate student was, presumably, just so satisfying! Plus, Bridget and Henry had become involved at a time when Nell and Henry could go months without sex. They still got along well enough, but if they had ever felt passion or excitement—and truly, in retrospect, she can’t remember if they did—they didn’t anymore. Actually, what she remembers from their courtship is dinners at a not very good Mexican restaurant near campus, during which she could tell that he was trying to seem smart to her in exactly the way that she was trying to seem smart to him. Maybe for them that was passion? Simultaneously, she is furious at him—she feels the standard humiliation and betrayal—and she also feels an unexpected sympathy, which she has been careful not to express to him or to her friends. Their deliberately childless life, their cat, Converse (named not for the shoe but for the political scientist), their free-range beef and nights and weekends of reading and grading and high-quality television series—it was fine and a little horrible. She gets it.
To the driver, she says, “I’m not a vegetarian.”
He turns off the van’s engine. Although she paid online, in advance, for the ride, an engraved plastic sign above the rearview mirror reads, “Tips not Required but Appreciated.” As he climbs out of the front seat to retrieve her suitcase from the rear of the van, she sees that all she has in her wallet is twenties. If it weren’t for his political commentary, she would give him one—her general stance is that if she can pay three hundred dollars for a pair of shoes, or $ 11.99 a pound for Thai broccoli salad from the co-op, she can overtip hourly wage workers—but now she hesitates. She’ll ask for ten back, she decides.
She joins the driver behind the van, just as a town car goes by. When she passes him a twenty, she observes him registering the denomination and possibly developing some parting fondness for her. Which means that she can’t bring herself to ask for ten back, so instead she says, “There’s no way Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President.”
She wonders if he’ll say something like “Fuck you, lady,” but he gives no such gratification. He says, seeming concerned, “Hey, I didn’t mean offense.” From a pocket in his pants he takes a white business card with an orange stripe and the shuttle logo on the front. He adds, “I’m not driving Sunday, but, you need anything while you’re here, just call me.” Then he kneels, takes the ballpoint pen from behind his ear, and, using her black, wheeled suitcase that’s upright on the ground between them as a desk, writes “LUKE” in capital letters and a ten-digit number underneath. (Years ago, Henry had tied a checked red-and-white ribbon, from a Christmas gift his mother had sent them, to the suitcase’s handle.) The driver holds the business card up to her.
For what earthly reason would she call him? But the unsettling part is that, with him kneeling, it happens that his face is weirdly close to the zipper of her pants—he didn’t do this on purpose, she doesn’t think, but his face is maybe three inches away—so how could the idea of him performing oral sex on her not flit across her mind? In a clipped voice, she says, “Thanks for the ride.”
With CNN on in the background, Nell hangs her shirts and pants in the hotel-room closet and carries her Dopp kit into the bathroom. The members of the governing board will meet in the lobby at six and take taxis to a restaurant a mile away. Nell is moving the things she won’t need at dinner out of her purse and setting them on top of the bureau—a water bottle, a manila folder containing the notes for a paper she’s in the revise-and-resubmit stage with—when she notices that her driver’s license isn’t in the front slot of her wallet, behind the clear plastic window. Did she not put it back after going through security in the Madison airport? She isn’t particularly worried until she has searched her entire purse twice, and then she is worried. She also doesn’t find the license in the pockets of her pants or her jacket, and it wouldn’t be in her suitcase. She pictures her license sitting by itself in one of those small, round, gray containers at the end of the X-ray belt—the head shot from 2010, taken soon after she got reddish highlights, the numbers specifying her date of birth and height and weight and address. But she didn’t set it in any such container. She probably dropped it on the carpet while walking to her gate, or it fell out of her bag or her pocket on the plane.
Can you board a plane in the United States, in 2015, without an I.D.? If you’re a white woman, no doubt your chances are higher than anyone else’s. According to the Internet, she should arrive at the airport early and plan to show other forms of I.D., some of which she has (a work badge, a gym I.D., a business card) and some of which she doesn’t (a utility bill, a check, a marriage license). She also calls the airline, which feels like a futile kind of due diligence. The last call she makes is to the van driver—thank goodness for the twenty-dollar tip—who answers the phone by saying, in a professional tone, “This is Luke.”
“This is the person who was your passenger to the Garden Center Hotel,” Nell says. “You dropped me off about forty-five minutes ago.”
“Hey there.” Immediately, Luke sounds warmer.
Trying to match his warmth, she says, “I might have dropped my driver’s license in your van. Can you check for me? My name is Eleanor Davies.”
“I’m driving now, but I’ll look after this drop-off, no problem.”
Impulsively, Nell says, “If you find it, I’ll pay you.” Should she specify an amount? Another twenty? Fifty?
“Well, it’s here or it’s not,” Luke says. “I’ll call you back.”
“I was sitting in the first row of the back seat,” Nell says, and, when he speaks again, Luke seems amused.
He says, “Yeah, I remember.”
He hasn’t called by the time she has to go to dinner. She calls him again before leaving her room, but the call goes to voice mail. The dinner, attended by nine people including Nell, is more fun than she expected—they spend a good chunk of it discussing a gender-studies department in California that’s imploding, plus they drink six bottles of wine—and the group decides to walk back to the hotel. In her room, Nell realizes that, forty-two minutes ago, she received a call from Luke, and then a text. “Hey call me,” the text reads.
“You at the hotel now?” he says when she calls, and when she confirms that she is he says, “My shift just ended, so I can be there in fifteen.”
“Wow, thank you so much,” Nell says. “I really appreciate this.” He will text when he arrives, they agree, and she’ll go outside.
Except that, when she reaches the lobby, he’s standing inside it, near the glass doors. He’s not wearing the shiny orange polo shirt; he has on dark-gray jeans and a black, hooded, sleeveless shirt. His biceps are stringily well-defined; also, the shirt makes her cringe. She has decided to give him forty dollars, which she’s folded in half and is holding out even before they speak. He waves away the money and says, “Buy me a drink and we’ll call it even.”
“Buy you a drink?” she repeats. If she were sober, she’d definitely make an excuse.
With his chin, Luke gestures across the lobby toward the hotel bar, from which come boisterous conversations and the notes of a live saxophone player. “One Jack and Coke,” he says. “You ask me, you’re getting a bargain.”
Having a drink in the hotel bar with Luke the Shuttle Driver is almost enjoyable, because it’s like an anthropological experience. Beyond her wish to get her license back, she feels no fondness for the person sitting across the table, but the structure of his life, the path that brought him from birth to this moment, is interesting in the way that anyone’s is. He’s twenty-seven, older than she guessed, born in Wichita, the second of two brothers. His parents split up before his second birthday; he’s met his father a handful of times and doesn’t like him. He’ll never disappear from his daughter’s life the way that his father disappeared from his. He and his mom and his brother moved to Kansas City when he was in fifth grade—her parents are from here—and he played baseball in junior high and high school and hoped for a scholarship to Truman State (a scout even came to one of his games), but senior year he tore his U.C.L. After that, he did a semester at U.M.K.C., but the classes were boring and not worth the money. (“No offense,” he says, as if Nell, by virtue of being a professor, had a hand in running them.) He met his ex-wife, Shelley, in high school, but the funny thing is that he didn’t like her that much then, so he should have known. He thinks she just wanted a kid. They were married for two years, and now she’s dating someone else from their high-school class, and Luke thinks better that guy than him. Luke and his buddy Tim want to start their own shuttle service, definitely in the next eighteen months; the manager of the one he’s working for now is a dick.
Eliciting this information isn’t difficult. The one question he asks her is how many years she had to go to school to become a professor. She says, “How many after high school or how many total?”
“After high school,” he says, and she says, “Nine.”
Without consulting her, he orders them a second round, and after finishing it Nell is the drunkest she’s been since she was a bridesmaid in her friend Anna’s wedding, in 2003: she’s wall shiftingly drunk. She says, “O.K., give me my license now.”
Luke grins. “How ’bout I walk you to your room? Be a gentleman and all.”
“That’s subtle,” she says. Does he know what “subtle” means? (It’s not that she’s unaware that she’s an élitist asshole. She’s aware! She’s just powerless not to be one. Also, seriously, does he know what “subtle” means?) She says, “Is hitting on passengers a thing with you or should I feel special?”
“What makes you think I’m hitting on you?” But he’s still grinning, and it’s the first thing he’s said that a man she’d want to go out with would say. (How will she ever, in real life, meet a man she wants to go out with who wants to go out with her? Should she join Match? Tinder? Will her students find her there?) Then Luke says, “Just kidding, I’m totally hitting on you,” and it’s double the exact right thing to say—he has a sense of humor and he’s complimenting her.
She says, “If you give me my license, you can walk me to my room.”
“Let me walk you to your room, and I’ll give you your license.”
Is this how the heroines of romance novels feel? They have, in air quotes, no choice but to submit; they are absolved of responsibility by extenuating circumstances. (Semi-relatedly, Nell was once the first author on a paper titled “Booty Call: Norms of Restricted and Unrestricted Sociosexuality in Hook-Up Culture,” a paper that, when she last checked Google Scholar, which was yesterday, had been cited thirty-one times.)
Nell charges the drinks to her room, and in the elevator up to the seventh floor he is standing behind her, and presses his face between her neck and shoulder and it feels really good; when they are configured like this, it’s difficult to remember that she’s not attracted to him. Inside her room—the pretense that he is merely walking her to the door has apparently dissolved—they make out for a while by the bathroom. (It’s weird, but not bad-weird, to be kissing a man other than Henry. She has not done so for eleven years.) Then they’re horizontal on the king-size bed, on top of the white down comforter. They roll over a few times, but mostly she’s under him. Eventually, he unbuttons and removes her blouse, then her bra, then pulls off his ridiculous hooded shirt. (Probably, if she were less drunk, she’d turn out the light on the nightstand.) He’s taller and thinner than Henry, and he uses his hands in a less habitually proficient but perhaps more natively adept way. He smells like some very fake, very male kind of body wash or deodorant. Intermittently, she thinks of how amused her friend Lisa, who’s an economics professor, will be when she texts her to say that she had a one-night stand with the shuttle driver. Though, for it to count as a one-night stand, is penetration required? Will penetration occur? Maybe, if he has a condom.
He’s assiduously licking her left nipple, then her right one, then kissing down her sternum, though he stops above her navel and starts to come back up. She says, “Keep going,” and when he raises his head to look at her she says, “You’re allowed to go down on me.” This is not a thing she ever said to Henry. Although he did it—not often but occasionally, in years past—neither of them treated it like a privilege she was bestowing.
Luke pulls down her pants and her underwear at the same time. He has to stand to get them over her ankles. From above her, he says, “Wow, you haven’t shaved lately, huh? Not a fan of the Brazilian?”
Which might stop her cold if he were a person whose opinion she cared about, a person she’d ever see again. She knows from her students that being mostly or completely hairless is the norm now, unremarkable even among those who consider themselves ardent feminists, and it occurs to her that she may well be the oldest woman Luke has ever hooked up with.
The funny, awful part is that she did shave recently—she shaved her so-called bikini line this morning in the shower, because she had seen online that the hotel has a pool and had packed her bathing suit, which in fact is not a bikini. Lightly, she says to Luke, “You’re very chivalrous.”
Their eyes meet—she’s perhaps three per cent less hammered than she was down in the lobby, though still hammered enough not to worry about her drunkenness wearing off anytime soon—and at first he says nothing. Then, so seriously that his words almost incite in her a genuine emotion, he says, “You’re pretty.”
With her coöperation, he tugs her body toward the foot of the bed, so that her legs are dangling off it, then he kneels on the floor and begins his ministrations. (Being eaten out by the shuttle driver! While naked! With the lights on! In Kansas City! Lisa is going to find this hilarious.) Pretty soon, Nell stops thinking of Lisa. Eventually, wondrously, there is the surge, then the cascade. Though she doesn’t do it, it crosses her mind to say “I love you” to Luke. That is, in such a situation she can understand why a person would.
He is next to her on the bed again—he’s naked, too, though she doesn’t recall when he removed the rest of his clothes—and she closes her eyes as she reaches for his erection and starts moving her hand. In spite of the impulse to declare her love, she’s still not crazy about the sight of him. She says, “I’ll give you a blow job, but I want my license first. For real.”
He doesn’t respond, and she stops moving her hand. She says, “Just get it and put it on the bedside table. Then we can quit discussing this.”
In a small voice, he says, “I don’t have it.”
Her eyes flap open. “Seriously?”
“I checked the van, but it wasn’t there.”
“Are you kidding me?” She sits up. “Then what the fuck are you doing here?”
He says nothing, and she says, “You lied to me.”
He shrugs. “I wish I had it.”
“Are you planning to, like, sell it?” Who do people sell licenses to? she wonders. Underage kids? Identity thieves?
“I told you, I don’t have it.”
“Well, it’s not like you have any credibility at this point.”
After a beat, he says, “Or maybe you didn’t really lose it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She will reflect on this moment later, will reflect on it extensively, and one of the conclusions she’ll come to is that, with more self-possession, he could have recalibrated the mood. He could have done a variation on the thing he did in the bar, when he teased her for assuming he was hitting on her and then admitted he was hitting on her. If he had been more confident, that is, or presumptuous, even—if he’d jokingly pointed out her glaring and abundant complicity. But her life has probably given her far more practice at presumption than his has given him. And, in reality, he looks scared of her. His looking scared makes her feel like a scary woman, and the feeling is both repugnant and pleasurable.
Quietly, he says, “I swear I don’t have it.”
“You should leave,” she says, then adds, “Now.”
Again when they look at each other, she is close to puncturing the theatrics of her own anger—certainly she is not oblivious of the non-equitability of their encounter ending at this moment—but she hasn’t yet selected the words that she’ll use to cause the puncture. As drunk as she is, the words are hard to find.
“I thought we were having fun.” His tone is a little pathetic and also a little accusing. “You had fun.” It’s his stating what she has already acknowledged to herself, what she was considering acknowledging to him, that definitively tips the scales the wrong way.
“Get out,” she says.
In her peripheral vision, as she looks down at her bare legs, she can see him stand and dress. Her heart is beating rapidly. Clothed, he folds his arms. If he’d reached down and touched her shoulder . . . If he’d sat back down next to her . . .
“Eleanor,” he says, and this is the first and only time he uses her name, which of course is her real name, though not one that anybody who knows her calls her by. “I wasn’t trying to trick you. I just wanted to hang out.”
She says nothing, and after a minute he walks to the door and leaves.
Her headache lasts until mid-afternoon on Saturday, through the budget meeting, the meeting about the newly proposed journal, the discussion of where to hold future conferences after the ones that are scheduled for 2016 and 2017. She suspects that some of her colleagues are hungover, too, and she’d likely be hungover, anyway, without the additional drinks she had with Luke, so it’s almost as if the Luke interlude didn’t occur—as if it were a brief and intensely enjoyable dream that took a horrible turn. And yet, after she wakes from a pre-dinner nap, the meetings are a blur and the time with Luke is painfully vivid.
Nell rises from bed and splashes cold water on her face. She wants days and weeks to have passed, so that she can revert to being her boring self, her wronged-by-her-partner, high-road self; she wants to build up the capital, if only in her own mind, of not being cruel. She no longer thinks that she’ll tell Lisa anything.
Which means that when, while dressing to meet her colleagues for dinner, she finds her driver’s license in the left pocket of her jacket the discovery only amplifies her distress. The lining of the jacket’s left pocket is ripped, which she knew about, because a dime had been slipping around inside it since last spring. But she hadn’t realized that the hole was large enough for a license to pass through.
When she was a sophomore in high school, the father of a kind and popular classmate died of cancer. Nell didn’t know the boy well, and she wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to write him a condolence note. He came back to school after a week, at which point she hadn’t written one. It seemed like perhaps it was too late. But, a few days later, she wondered, had it been too late? Weeks later, was it too late? Months? She occasionally still recalls this boy, now a man who is, like her, nearly forty, and she wishes she had expressed compassion.
This is how she will feel about Luke. She could have summoned him back on Friday night. She could have called him on Saturday, after finding the license. She could have texted him on Sunday, or after she returned to Madison. However, though she thinks of him regularly—she thinks of him especially during the Republican debates, then during the primaries, the caucuses, and the Convention—she never initiates contact. She does join Match, she goes to a salon and gets fully waxed, she starts dating an architect whom she didn’t meet on Match, who is eight years older than her, pro women’s pubic hair, and appalled by how readily a gender-studies professor will capitulate to arbitrary standards of female beauty. Nell finds his view to be a relief personally, but intellectually a facile and unendearing failure of imagination.
Sometimes, when she’s half asleep, she remembers Luke saying, “You’re pretty,” how serious and sincere his voice was. She remembers when his face was between her legs, and she feels shame and desire. But by daylight it’s hard not to mock her own overblown emotions. He didn’t have anything to do with her losing the license, no, but it’s his fault that she thought he did. Besides, he was a Trump supporter. ?
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