The second hand never stops sweeping at the Railway Hotel.
They meet by chance in the train station under the clock. “Is the noon train late?” he asks the smartly dressed woman standing there. “My wife is on it.” “It must be. I’ve been waiting here for my husband for nearly an hour.” Unlacing her knee-length boots in the Railway Hotel, she says, “My husband will come to the clock and wonder where I am.” In the hallway, people come and go, feet ticky-tocking on the wooden floor. It’s a quick-stop hotel. “One can’t wait forever,” he says, thinking about what he’ll tell his wife. The room, with its tattered pull-down window shades and chenille bedspread (it actually has cigarette burns!), has a romantic outdated dinginess that reminds her of old black-and-white movies, and she wonders if she has been drawn into this brief encounter because of them. His cute little mustache would fit right in! She removes her close-fitting chocolate suede jacket and peels down her tight velvet pants in the bathroom, while he hangs up his shirt and business suit and stretches out on the bed, remarking on time’s benevolent capriciousness. Time, she thinks, while touching up her eye shadow in the mirror, is just another wrinkle. And then another one. And so on.…
As she emerges from the bathroom, lowering her silky briefs (inspired choice), he feels himself slipping helplessly, gratefully, into another false forever. The artworks on the gray walls are mostly cheap reproductions of clichéd landscapes, but one of them, a dark woods with mysterious depths, seems to speak to his thoughts. He’d hardly noticed it at first, blinded as he was by raw desire, but now it strikes him as a poignant image of time’s shadowy infinitude. “Isn’t everything an image of time?” she asks, kicking off her slip-ons. She has switched from tight pants to skirts with snaps at the waist, and has given up her bra along with her boots, time being of the essence. Sticks with the silky briefs, though. They have been meeting weekly under the station clock and, as if they were strangers, walking at a distance from each other to the hotel, looking askance. Then, the door closing behind them, they throw themselves at each other with wild abandon, ripping off their clothing, biting and grabbing, seized by a force outside themselves. They are strangers, but they’ve discovered such perfect harmony, they feel they must have known each other long before they met under the station clock, which could be said to have engendered their sudden, yet timeless romance. Over coffee, she tells him that she always believed that there were crystalline moments in each life when that life changed utterly, irrevocably. His intrusion in hers was one of them. “I know,” he says, his eyes damp with sincerity. “It was our destiny.” They are sitting in the small café near the Railway Hotel, arranging their next rendezvous. A baroque adagio is playing on the café sound system. “In a movie I saw,” she says, sipping her cappuccino, “the lovers believed they were reenacting former lives, compelled by a kind of genetic memory.” “Interesting,” he says, though he’s not really listening. Her restless hand is on his thigh, fingering the cello part in the adagio, and he’s wondering if there’s time to dash back to the hotel. In the elevator, there’s another couple, false smiles on their flushed faces, evidently into a crystalline moment of their own. They trade empty opinions on the weather, which neither he nor she has even noticed. Perhaps it’s a rainy day: That would suit the occasion. But for all they know, the sun is shining. “The weather’s so changeable,” she says. “When it’s not just more of the same,” he says. The other couple, nodding in agreement (“That’s so true!”), leave the elevator on the floor below their own, allowing them just enough time to lurch into a kiss and mad frantic squeeze of body parts. So, that much over when they reach their room, they can get right on with flinging off their clothes and setting the bedsprings to squeaking. “We forgot to close the door,” she gasps, clasping him tightly with her arms and legs. “What?” He is thinking about the driving power of love which obliterates all else. Then he hears the amused chatter in the hallway. He nods grimly at the people gathering outside the door and shuts it.
“You can see the train station from here,” the woman says, standing at the window. Gazing down at the rails coming and going, drawing apart, then joining up again, she finds herself thinking about the thread of life, with its curious little knots along the way. Of course those are two different things, rails and thread, but she knows what she means, even if knotted rails do make a disconcerting image. She is quite lovely, poised there at the window, a meditative frown on her pretty face, her bottom glowing in the half-light. He is in love with that bottom, and says so. “It’s what there is of magic in the world.” “Doesn’t your wife have one?” “Probably. Definitely doesn’t glow, though,” he says, “to the best of my recollection.” She joins him in the cramped shower stall, bringing her magical bottom with her, and he soaps it up. He tries to guess her age by its bounciness. Does she want to know this man any better than she already does? No, but to have his soapy hands on her is very nice. Her husband never does this. She closes her eyes and lets his hands do whatever they want to do. “Beautiful!” she whispers, as he slips his fingers into hidden places, but he is already feeling time’s implacable pressure. “How much longer do you think we have?” he asks, as the shower cascades around them. With her thumb and index finger, she measures the length of his penis. “This long,” she says, and pirouettes away, humming a children’s counting song. “Oh! I feel like I’m in a dream!” she gasps. She takes his hand to pull him out of the shower, and they begin to dance, bouncing onto the bed and off again, whirling around the room to her humming. He didn’t know he could do this. She brings out the best in him. At the head of the stairs, he lifts her and springs down a step, then she lifts him, and they swing fluidly down the stairs like that, past the front desk, and out the lobby door into the street. Probably they should have put their clothes on, but they can’t stop now, they’re too caught up in their wondrous affinity. Traffic stops for them. An audience gathers, applauding. They leap and swirl down the street as if the dance were leading them, creating itself with their hopelessly enchanted bodies. They are completely lost to the moment, which they both hope will go on forever, but it doesn’t. Isn’t that his wife’s car up ahead, stalled in traffic? “I think we should go back,” he whispers. The dance is over. As soon as it ends, they become aware of their nakedness, and stumble awkwardly back down the crowded street and into the hotel lobby. It’s full of laughing people, as is the elevator, which stops at every floor, the doors opening to new audiences each time like parting curtains. In their room, they hurriedly dress and pack. “Omigod! We can’t come here again!” “No, but where? I just couldn’t bear.…!”
The bed vibrates; they tear off their clothes and throw themselves on it.
Checking in at the Park Motel on the highway, she says, “Look at that clock on the wall! It’s like the one in the train station! I feel spooked!” “I think the train clock has old-fashioned Roman numerals,” he says, “where this one has only dots.” “Are you sure?” The motel cabin is ultra-modern with no closets or drawers, but it does have a condom dispenser and a minibar. The small TV on the wall is running with the sound off. Vehicles are chasing each other on it. There are crashes, explosions, collapsing buildings, flying bodies, the usual. She stands at the window, looking out upon the peaceful country scene. It’s lovely, but she misses the cluttered alley, the tangle of railroad tracks beyond. The king-size bed vibrates silently when a button is pushed, so they tear off their clothes and throw themselves on it, grabbing and biting with wild abandon, etc., but he doesn’t feel up to it. “Probably I’m only hungry,” he says, shutting down the restless bed. It might help, she thinks, if the springs squeaked. He calls room service and the receptionist tells him the kitchen is closed. “Closed? It’s still lunchtime! Is it ever open?” “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?” He slams the phone down. “We could take a bath,” she suggests. The whirlpool tub is big enough for four people, which provokes a thought neither of them expresses. They turn on all the nozzles and squat in front of the surging sprays of water. Maybe time just is, he thinks, and we flow. He sighs. This isn’t working either. “I know, let’s go for a walk in the park,” she proposes, turning off the water. “If in fact there is one.”
Hoping to excite themselves, they leave their clothes behind and wear only the fluffy white bathrobes hanging on pegs in the bathroom, the paper slippers by the bed. There’s a sign outside their door that points at a path: to the park. This is somehow amusing and lightens their spirits. They walk hand-in-hand down the path, feeling a bit giddy in the airy bathrobes, until they reach the edge of a dark woods. “It’s like that painting in the Railway Hotel,” he says, somewhat apprehensively. “Don’t be silly,” she says, reaching into his bathrobe with an electric fingertip. “No one else is here. Let’s find a place to dance!” In the middle of the woods, they discover a grassy sunlit meadow, which may be the motel’s namesake park, and, shedding their bathrobes and slippers, they surrender once again to the disciplined freedom of dance. They swoop lightly around the meadow, feeling one with nature and with each other, their dreamlike movements fluid and delightful. “Oh joy!” she says. Then, as though under the spell of the dance itself, they find themselves wheeling down the darkening path into the trees. “Whoa!” he exclaims, trying to slow down. She is giggling, but she’s also frightened. They stagger to a stop, skinning their knees as they tumble. They creep back up the path to the meadow, gripped by the fear that the meadow might not be there. It’s there, but their robes and slippers aren’t. “Oh no! The room key was in my bathrobe pocket!” They pause at the edge of the woods to see who might be watching, then dash to the locked cabin door. They bang their hips and shoulders against it, but it won’t give. He breaks a window to unlock it, raises it as high as it will go. Not high enough for him, but, with her robe off, she’s able to slither through (this whole misadventure is almost funny, he thinks, watching her wriggling backside slowly disappear) and open the door from the inside. “There’s nothing funny about this,” she says when she sees his face. Comedy always ruins everything, one of them is thinking. Distantly, they hear applause. Hopefully, it’s coming from the game show on the TV, the sound now on. “I hate it here,” she says, snapping the TV off and her skirt on. “I want to go back to the Railway Hotel.” He’s already into his jeans and loafers. But the Railway Hotel is booked solid until at least 7:30. She glances at her watch. “I almost don’t remember my husband,” she says. “I remember my wife,” he says. “She’s going to be very angry. What time is it?” “I think it’s Wednesday.” They kiss cheeks and, booking the hotel, make a date to meet again under the station clock.
She arrives the day and time agreed on, but he’s not there. She’s hurt, but also vaguely relieved. She glances up at the clock: Ah, she’s too early. Well, she should probably wait. She thinks about his soapy hands and recovers a trace of nostalgia and desire. From across the arrival hall, her husband waves at her, smiling. Was she supposed to meet him here? She waves back. Luckily, she’s dressed in her customary suede jacket and boots. He, meanwhile, is at a meeting, an appointment he couldn’t miss. He ends it as quickly as he can and dashes off to the train station, still in his business suit, loosening his tie as he trots along. He’s late, and when he reaches the clock, she’s not there. Has she been here and gone? He’s disappointed. After that little jog, he could use a shower, so maybe he should keep the hotel booking. He could bounce on and off the bed again. How did they do that? On his own, he’d only break a leg. He strokes his mustache tuft, glances up at the clock, smiles wistfully. He was right. Roman numerals.