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Byron & Talia

short fiction
by Ed Dewke

Byron sat alone in a quadrangle of sofas in the lobby of the hotel Novotel near Rockefeller Plaza. He sat facing the elevators that brought people from the street up to the second floor lobby of the hotel. He stared at the elevator; watched the lights indicating the up and down of the car; watched, sometimes holding his breath, as the doors opened and people stepped out, stepped in. His eyes stayed on the elevators, or the registration area, even as he scratched his elbows, or his ankles, or his scalp.

He was watching for a woman using a pair of aluminum crutches; a woman with one leg. Unfathomably, he wondered what shoe she would be wearing. He remembered all her pairs of shoes from many clandestine weekends, vacations, business trips.

The elevator doors opened and a half a dozen people stepped out, men and women, but no one-legged woman with aluminum crutches. Byron scratched, then looked at his wristwatch. It was only five minutes later than they calculated she should arrive at the hotel by cab from LaGuardia. Byron knew well that a forty-five minute to one hour differential was possible in New York City, so he refused to feel impatient. Not yet. Still, he scratched and studied the comings and goings of the elevator.

The elevators opened and people stepped out. She was the last, confident on her crutches, swinging them forward while her weight was on her right leg, swinging the leg forward. She moved like a mobile tripod. She saw him immediately, swung her head to clear her short blonde hair out of her eyes and then smiled at him. Byron raised a finger beside his nose and smiled, but he did not rise, nor did he scratch. He remained seated as he watched her make her way to the registration line. He studied her. She sometimes obviously depended upon the crutches; sometimes apparently let her weight rest on the leg. He did not recognize her shoe. It was from a pair he had not seen before.

She inched forward in the line toward the registration desk. In a few moments the elevator opened again and he saw her familiar luggage among many bags on a cart maneuvered by a bellboy. There were her three matching L.L. Bean bags: the garment bag, overnight case and a tote, all monogrammed, all weathered. He believed he knew the contents of each of them — except for her shoes.

She was at the registration desk now. It was interesting watching the way she relinquished her right crutch, leaned it against the counter, kept her left crutch under her arm to replace her missing left leg, used both hands to fill out the registration form much like anyone else. For a moment, Byron was not apprehensive; he was feeling all the right feelings in spite of the changes. The registration clerk tapped a bell and a bellboy rushed to the counter to learn her room number and retrieve her luggage slips. Then she tripoded her way from registration towards the rear elevators, passing within feet of where Byron sat, watching her. Once again she smiled at him. It was a familiar smile and it warmed him — as it always did. Once again, he lay his finger aside his nose, then pointed it at her and winked. This broadened her smile further and she kept on tripoding her way passed him.

He watched the bellboy check her luggage tags against the bags piled on the carrier. He removed her three matching bags and placed them on an empty carrier, and then he pushed this carrier past Byron toward the elevators. Byron glanced at his watch and sighed.

Minutes later, Byron watched the young bell captain on the phone at his station. He watched the young man scribble, fold a piece of paper, hang up, then step from behind the station. The bell captain moved slowly toward the seating area in the lobby. “Message for Mr. Winston, Mr. Byron Winston.”

“Here,” Byron said and the young man looked relieved that his chore had been so easily dispatched. He handed Byron the folded slip of paper. Byron handed the man the folded dollar bill that was moist from having spent many minutes in the palm of his hand. He opened the note, saw the number, took hold of his one small suitcase, rose, and made for the elevators.

A minute later he stood before the door labeled 1707. He brushed flakes off his shoulders and pant legs. He breathed deeply, then knocked.

“Yes?” came her voice from beyond the door.

"It's me,” he said.

He heard the door unlatch, then open, then he heard her giggle slightly and say, “Just a moment, let me back up before you push me into the wall.”

He opened the door gingerly. She was clear of it, standing on her one real and two aluminum legs. If anything, she looked taller, but perhaps that was because the crutches raised her shoulders. She was smiling the kind of smile that presaged tears. He stepped in quickly, let the door swing shut and latch behind him, dropped his bag, moved to her. Instead of an embrace, he simply cupped her face in his hands and kissed her.

The woman, Natalia Mulney — Talia let her crutches fall to the floor so she could hug him. She just let them go, dropping to the floor behind her, and before she could lose her balance she reached up and grabbed his neck and then, quite naturally it seemed, he hugged her.

And there they were: a new, itchy, three-legged being.

In a moment she said, “Take me to the bed.”

He picked her up, one hand around her back and under her arm, the other under her hips, and with ease he lifted her and set her on the bed amidst her luggage.

He bent and kissed her again, briefly. Then she said, “I made them leave the bags for you to tend to.”

“Always so considerate,” he said, smiling. Then he set about unpacking her things.

“You look good, sweetheart,” he said as he removed her suit and skirts and blouses and hung them in the closet. “I mean it, your color is good. You look—”

“You mean I don't look a wreck from my months in rehab.”

“I mean you look healthy.”

“Albeit incomplete?” she asked.

He unzipped her overnight case. “Usual arrangement?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, and the tone in her voice dismissed him from any comment on her completeness. He set about removing her undergarments, sleepwear, accessories, cosmetics, and distributed them neatly among the drawers and the vanity in the bathroom.

He paused, looking into her suitcase, and said, “These shoes. They're all new.”

“Yes. There is a mail order house that specializes in accoutrements for amputees, including single shoes. Rights or lefts. They have a catalogue.”

“Oh,” he said.

“You should see the paraphernalia they have for those who've lost hands or arms.”

He was silent, staring at five single right-foot shoes in the bottom of her suitcase.

“I've become a member of a niche market,” she said. “Getting that catalogue was rather like throwing my first Tupperware party.” 

“Oh?” he said. “Does your shoe burp when you slip it on?”

They both laughed as Byron removed the right-foot shoes and placed them beneath the clothes hanging in the closet.

He was removing the contents of her tote when the phone rang. It startled them both. Before the second ring, she said, “That's Randall,” and lifted the handset.

“Hello? . . . Yes, everything went fine. . . . No, that was not a problem. There have been no problems. . . .”  She was silent, listening, for a long time. Finally, she said, “Don't worry, I'm fine. . . . Yes. . . . Yes, me too. Yes, dear. Me too. Good night. I'll call you tomorrow.”

While she was on the phone, he had scratched some more while putting up the few things in his own bag. He sensed her studying him and went on scratching. His flakes were flying and he clenched his teeth. He noticed a little blood under one of his nails and stopped scratching. Then she hung up.

“He's never called like that before, has he?” Byron asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he called to see that you've gotten to your destination safely. Checking up on you, I mean.”

She looked down. “Well it's understandable, isn't it?”

“I suppose,” Byron said. Then, since the empty bags were off and beneath the bed now, he sat beside her and folded her left hand between his two. “We've talked almost every day since the accident,” he said, “but mostly about you. We've not talked about Randall, about the children. I feel I've been selfish—”

“No—” she tried to stop him, but he went on.

“I need you to tell me about them,” he said.

“Lie down with me,” she said, and with amazing grace she lifted her right leg and pushed him gently to the other side of the bed. They lay side-by-side, staring up at the ceiling, her stump was between them.

“Well,” she said at last, “frankly Randall has been wonderful. Too wonderful. At times he makes me feel like a wild wounded pigeon he's taken pity on and is trying to nurse back to health and freedom.”

“Is that what this trip is?  Is this the once-again-healthy pigeon taking flight?”

“I don't know. I don't think so. If it were that, he wouldn't have called just now.”

“He thinks this has changed you, crippled you. He thinks you have become the dependent he's always wanted you to be.”

“That's unkind and it's probably not true,” she said.

“Are you defending him?”

“I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this ordeal has modified him as much as it has modified me.”

Byron turned his head to look at her and saw that she was already looking at him.

“Modified?  Are you sure that's the word you want to use?  Modified?”

She turned her face back towards the ceiling and Byron did not want to leave the question hanging. “Tell me about the children. What about Sandy and Rob?”

“They've been funny,” she said. “I think Randall sat them down before I came home from rehab and told them not to expect much from me. They were flabbergasted to see me up and preparing breakfast for everyone the day after I got home.”

“You did that?”

“Of course. Rehab was very thorough. Torturously thorough. Since then the children have become almost their old selves around me. I'm the one that's been pushing all the wrong buttons.”

“Like what?”

“Like asking Robby when he was going to ask me to the mother-son dance at his high school.”

“You didn't.”

“Yes, I did. I asked it half jokingly, I suppose, but it really threw him. It shook him up. I had to apologize and say I was just kidding and I certainly wasn't ready for any such excursion. Still, he was sullen for days.”

“Are you getting around well enough?”

She accepted this sudden change in direction. “Yes,” she said. “As things go, I was lucky on two counts.”

“Two counts?”

“One, I lost my left leg. And two, I was never one of those drivers that uses her right foot on the accelerator and left foot on the brake. Thank God I learned to drive a standard transmission and now use an automatic transmission. Still, I had to have my driver's license altered. Now there's an 'exception' line that reads I must operate an auto with high and low beam switches on the column instead of on the floor.”

“Good Lord, I thought they stopped making foot operated high-low light switches two decades ago.”

“I think they did. It takes a while for the bureaucracy to catch up.”

Byron chuckled, then sat up and removed his shoes and socks. Flakes fell in piles onto the royal purple bed cover. “Some things haven’t changed,” Byron said, sweeping them onto the floor.

“Are you trying something new for the psoriasis?”  Talia asked.

“I’m back on goops. They took me off the pills because of my liver.”

“I will help you with the goops.”

He looked at her. “Just like old times.”  She looked away.

“Wait,” she said. “Are we eating room service tonight or going out?”

“I hadn't thought that far ahead,” Byron said. “Do you have a preference?”

She looked down at his naked feet. “Room service will be fine, tonight,” she said. “But we're in no hurry, are we?”

The next hour was not as awkward as he feared it might be. She had insisted on one change from their normal pattern. She wanted him on her right, so that her whole leg was against him; always in the past he had been on the left.

When they began to undress, she said at one point:  “I'm wearing pantyhose and the left leg is scrunched up and taped. I don't want you to be repulsed.”

She wanted him to look away while she wriggled out of her pantyhose, but he insisted he would not be repulsed and, in fact, he wasn't.

He hadn't known quite what to expect. Muscle and skin had been carefully folded over the new end, stitched, and what there was to see was an intricate web of red scars that she said would eventually turn white. What was left of her left hip was shapeless and nearly immobile because the muscles intended to anchor at the knee joint now ended halfway there. Her right hip was somewhat atrophied. She showed him the exercises they taught her in rehab to retain some shape in her buttocks.

And, of course, she moved beneath him and on top of him and beside him differently than before.

Once, when he was on top, she wrapped her right leg around him, gripping him beneath his buttocks as she had always done, but it was only half of the sensation he remembered and it made him grow soft inside her. She took this good-heartedly, however. She pointed her toe to the ceiling and said, “I'll just wave it in the air if I have to!” 

He avoided touching the end of her stump, fearing both the way it would feel to him and that it might be sensitive to her, too. She made no mention of his restraint.

It was their habit to share a shower afterwards. But instead, she asked Byron to draw her a bath. He was sitting on the closed toilet, fingers dangling in the few inches of water, testing the temperature, when she tripoded, nude, into the bathroom.

“Bet you wonder how this is done, don't you?” she asked. Then she turned her back to the tub, used her crutches to ease herself onto the rim, lay down the crutches beside the tub, swung her right leg in and gently let herself down into the water. It was, in fact, a graceful, well-learned maneuver.

Byron was impressed. He stood and declared, “You may bathe if you wish, darling, but I still intend to take a shower.”  And then, before she could protest, he stepped into the tub, pulled the shower curtain in and closed behind him and raised the lever which redirected the water to the shower head. In an instant he was whistling and she sat, bespattered, between his legs, blinking crazily against the spray of soap and water.

While they were drying each other, Talia said, “I think this is the worst I’ve seen your psoriasis. So many new patches! It must be awful. What’s caused the flare-up do you think?”

“They say stress is a trigger. Your situation had me very stressed for a very long time.”

Before he could say more, she said, “Well it’s over, now. You don’t have to be stressed because of me anymore. Fetch your goop and I’ll apply it.”

They were both dressed as they had been, the bed haphazardly remade, when room service arrived and set up their dinner for two.

Byron insisted, as he always did, on paying cash so the dinner would not show up on her hotel bill. When the waiter left and they were settled at the small folding table with the warming drawers beneath, Byron lit the candle and then rose to turn out all but one of the lights in their room. He turned the alarm clock radio on and found a classical station, setting the volume low. He filled their wine glasses, which they clicked together before they drank.

They picked at their salads in silence, avoiding each other's eyes.

Finally Byron sighed. “That was too easy,” he said.

“I told you the rehab was thorough,” she said, grinning.

“No,” Byron said and did not return her grin. “It was too easy.”

“What do you mean? I wasn't ruined, Byron. I lost a leg, not my sex.”

“I expected it to be clumsy. I expected to make mistakes. I expected you to make mistakes. It was as though you had practiced.”

She drank more wine. “Practiced?”

“That's not what I mean.”

“But I have, of course, practiced—”

“You and Randall,” he said, looking directly at her. “You're making love again.”

She looked away but said, “Not like this.”

“You and he have had intercourse since the accident. He's in love with you again. It's why he called.”

“He's been kind and understanding and has taken care of me, Byron,” she said.

“So you let him have you — mercifully.”

She dropped her salad fork on the salad plate.

“Byron,” she said. “Do you see Randall, in this room? Why do you think I'm here?”

He softened, and scratched an elbow through his shirt. “I'm sorry,” he said, “that wasn't fair.”

“No. It wasn't.”

“I can't possibly know what it's been like for you.”

“No. You can't.”

“But all those months, our almost daily phone conversations. You never mentioned—”

“Why would I? Why should I have?”

“Is it over?” he asked. “Have you and Randall—  Have you returned to the way it was?”

“Byron, is it the way it was between us?”

They resumed eating. Several moments later, Byron said. “It's three more years, you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Is Sandy headed for college?”

“I'm certain. Robby starts next year. He's already picked his college and it's out of state. Sandy may not wish to go out of state, but I'm sure she'll want to live on campus somewhere.”

“Then you're still planning—”

Talia interrupted him. “It's very difficult for me to imagine Randall and me together once the children are gone.”

“It's our plan that you not be together beyond then,” Byron said.

She looked at her almost empty wine glass.

Byron watched her in the candle's glow and his eyes moistened. “Talia, when that phone rang this afternoon it was like a guillotine falling on my heart. Everything seemed so meticulously planned, so inarguably logical, when it was obvious he did not love you. You did not need him to love you, because I love you. But if he loves you again, and he is in the nest . . . well, I am on the outside.” 

She was quiet for a long moment, then she said, “Randall's kindness gave me the strength I needed to survive for you, Byron. This hideous accident, it could have ruined everything. Remember the first time we spoke, when I was drugged up and between surgeries, and there was still some question as to whether or not the leg could be saved?  Do you remember begging me to let you come? To hell with our plans, you said. You need me to be with you, you said. And the most difficult thing I've ever said to you, Byron Winston, was No, don't come, don't ruin US. If Randall had not been kind, do you think I would have had the strength to make you save US?  What do you suppose would have happened had Randall not been kind?  You know what would have happened. I would have said, Yes, Byron, come be with me. And then the world we've made for ourselves, for our future, would have collapsed.”

Byron reached for her hand, which was trembling, and squeezed it tenderly. “I know,” he said. “I know.”

“You're bleeding,” she said and gestured to his elbow, at the spot of blood growing larger on his shirt.

They stayed awake until dawn, intermittently making love, talking, reminiscing past clandestine encounters, sharing the unphotographed and unwritten scrapbook of their decade together. They never mentioned sex between Talia and Randall again. When dawn began to illuminate the drapes, they drifted off to sleep until the embarrassing entrance of the maid around noon. Byron had forgotten to hang out the do-not-disturb sign. Then they giggled for a full half-hour, wondering, guessing, what the maid's red-faced exclamation in Spanish had meant before her hasty retreat.

By two p.m., Talia was dressed and Byron was shaving in the bathroom.

“Byron?” she called to him.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Does it make a difference?  My leg, I mean.”

“I shouldn't think you'd have to ask that, sweetheart. I'm tired and sore and trying not to bleed all over this damned bathroom.”

“No, don't tease me. I feel — inadequate. I know this sounds self-indulgent, but it's rather like I'd lost a breast or something.”

He stuck his head out of the bathroom and saw her standing between her crutches gazing out the window. “No,” he said, and she turned to look at him. “It makes no difference.”

She smiled at him and turned back to gaze out the window.

That night they ate in the Novotel's restaurant on the second floor, behind the lounge, with a view overlooking Broadway. After dinner they took a carriage ride around Rockefeller Plaza, cuddled beneath a blanket in the back seat against the nip in the air.

As they passed Winter Garden, Talia asked, “Do you remember our first-row seats at Cats?

“Of course. Five — or was it six? — years ago.”

She thought for a moment. “Six, I think.”  Then she nuzzled into his shoulder and pretended to purr. Byron wriggled his hand between her legs.

Back in their room, the message light on the telephone was blinking. The room was cold; astringent.

Byron said, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and snatched the Guestbook from the bureau, indicating he would be a while.

Ten minutes later, when Byron emerged naked from the bathroom, wiping his face and hands with a towel, she was already undressed and between the sheets. She looked at him, not smiling, but inquiring.

“Well,” Byron said. “How is the son-of-a-bitch?”

She blanched and turned her head away.

“I wish—” she started to say.

“I know,” Byron said and moved around to the other side of the bed so that he could see her face. “You wish I wouldn't talk about him that way.”

“I wish you would understand,” she said.

He started to get into the bed on the left side. She reminded him gently, “No, the other side.”

He moved to the other side and she slid to the center of the bed to make room for him. When he was between the sheets she took his arm and made him put it under her head so she lay against his shoulder, her long right leg pressed tight against his strong left leg. She tried to grasp his toes with her toes.

“I'm afraid,” Byron said, “that I've got to leave tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?

“I know. It's a day earlier than we planned. But I must.”

She tensed but said nothing.

“I'm sorry,” Byron said.

“It's because of him,” she said.

“Probably.”

“Is it Randall, or is it this fucking stump?”

“I'm not dealing with any of it well.”

“Not dealing with what?  With Randall?  With the stump?”

“You know it's not you. I mean, it's not your . . . leg.”

He turned his face to her. “What would you do if I asked you to pick up the phone right now and call him and tell him everything — lay out the whole plan for him — tell him what's been going on for ten years?”

“You would ask me to do that?”

“I might.”

“Don't.”

He sighed and looked at the ceiling again. “Like I said, I'm not dealing with this very well.”

“Do you remember our first time, Byron?”

“Of course.”

“You were so worried about how I would react to your psoriasis. You said you felt like a lizard and knew I would be repulsed. Then, later, you confessed that you thought only your wife could put up with you and your skin.”

“Yeah, I got lucky: two tolerant women in one lifetime.”

“My point is, your wife proved to you that your psoriasis was not a show stopper. Had your wife rejected you, would you have ever had the courage to make love to me?”

Byron was silent. Every retort that came to mind seemed irrational or too confrontational.

After a few seconds of silence, Talia asked, “What can I do?”

“Let's sleep. I don't want to quarrel.”

“No. Don't roll away from me now.”

“Let's sleep on it. Please. I can't say anymore without hurting both of us.”

And he was, amazingly enough, able to fall asleep.

He woke when the door opened. It was daylight beyond the closed drapes. His first thought was the maid, but then, as the unknowing bellboy entered the room, he noticed he was alone in the bed. The bellboy started and blazed red when he saw Byron in the bed.

“Oh, I'm so sorry. I thought the room was unoccupied. This is 1707, isn't it?”

“Yes.”

“Mrs. Mulney's room?”

“Yes. Where—”

“Oh, I see. There's her luggage. I'll just be a moment.”  He started to pile the three packed bags onto the cart.

“Wait!” Byron shouted and leaped naked from the bed. “Where is she?” 

The bellboy, still flushed, stuttered, “She's checking out now, sir.”

He couldn't stop the bellboy. He jumped into his pants, yanked on his shirt, not bothering to tuck it in. He fumbled into his shoes; by the time they were laced, the bellboy was long gone. He glanced in the mirror on his way to the door, paused long enough to run his fingers through his hair, then bolted from the room.

She was not at the cashier's station, nor at the registration desk. He saw the elevator doors close on the cart with her luggage. He ran to the elevator and pounded on the down arrow button. Long, anguished moments passed before the doors opened again, and then he had to step aside to let a full load of guests step out.  

On ground level he blew through the main doors of the Novotel; spied the long row of cabs. Saw the luggage cart and the last of her three bags being hefted into the trunk of the cab. The bellboy dropped the trunk lid and tapped on the fender indicating to the cabby that he could leave.

First Byron jumped into the street just in front of the cab, preventing the driver from pulling away from the curb. He saw her shadow in the back seat. It was small, frail and precious. He bolted to the curbside back door of the cab. The door was locked, she was looking at him, crying, tears streaming. She rolled the window down a crack.

“No!” he shouted through the crack. “I don't have to leave today. I'm not leaving today.

She could barely speak, but she did not look away from him. Her eyes were like milk-chocolate pudding, her lips quivered violently. “Oh my dear,” she managed to say. “I am leaving today. Don't feel bad my love, it was planned that I leave today. It's on my ticket, you see, that I leave today.”  She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hands. “My God I've loved you, Byron Winston. And I always will.”

Then she turned her head to the cabby and said, “Please, let's hurry or I'll be late for my flight.”

Byron stepped back and watched the cab elbow its way into the traffic and speed away. Slowly he became aware that people were looking at him askance. He looked like someone who had slept on a grate. Ignoring the stares, he moved back through the doors of the Novotel, waited for the elevator to take him to the second story lobby, then walked on wobbly legs to the sofa where he had sat, waiting for her, before. The bell captain and several of his minions cast disapproving glances at him. He was a man, disheveled, scratching maniacally. He ignored glances from the staff. He watched the doors of the elevator. He looked at his wrist to check the time but saw he was not wearing his wristwatch and scratched the spot it should have occupied. The elevator kept coming and going, people stepped off, stepped on. In a few moments, if he were quiet, they would forget that he was there, and then he could sit there forever, if that's what it took.

* * *

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