She removed a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and gestured with them, asking if she could. I shook my head to say no.
"Are you drunk?" I said.
"No," she said, sounding wounded by the implication.
"Why are you here?"
"I don't know. I just flew in from Italy. I was on the plane coming in to JFK and we were circling over the city. We were just a few hundred feet off the ground. We went around and around. The city was endless, just lights and highways and rain as far as you could see. I don't know why, but I thought of you being somewhere down there."
"You were in Italy to see your father?"
"Not really. I was just bumming around, having a good time."
"Does your stepfather know you're back?"
"Nope. I'm done with him for good now."
She unwrapped the towel from her head, letting her hair fall in wet, ropy curls. She draped the towel around her neck like a prizefighter.
"He just wrote me a letter," I said. "He wanted to know where you were."
She laughed bitterly, from a deep reserve of contempt. "Oh, I'm very impressed. There's dedicated parenting for you. Did he write in the letter that he had fucking disowned me?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he said, 'You are no longer my daughter,' and 'You're on your own now. From now on no money, no support, no nothing.'"
"I don't think you should stay here."
"I guess I'll have to borrow an umbrella, then."
She leaned backward in the chair, drying her hair with the towel, cocking her head to one side and working the area around the ear. Her damp shirt clung to the curves of her chest and shoulder and arm, and I felt a desire that was intense and illogical.
"Can't we be reasonable?" she said.
I didn't have the heart to throw her out. Nor did I foresee the extremes of confusion and distress to which, given a chance, she would lead me. I thought, what could be the harm in letting her crash for the night? It was raining pretty hard out.
"Fine. Stay for the night. But that's it. Just one night."
"God, I could use a drink. Have you got anything?"
SHOWERED, WEARING SOME spare shorts and a Princeton T-shirt that was too big for her, reclining on my mattress and waving her bare feet, Anna looked comfortable and relaxed, though tired. Next to her, on the floor, was a mug she was using as an ashtray. She had said she was going outside to smoke, but I relented and told her not to bother. The last time I had smoked was with her. I remembered the dry, sweet taste, the transcendent light-headedness of a deep inhalation, the antsy, low-grade need for another and another. I had quit as soon as we broke up, the difficulty of the chemical withdrawal hardly noticeable within another, more pervasive withdrawal.
I watched her drawing the smoke into her lungs, holding it in and releasing her ghostly breath, ritualistically tapping the cigarette against the mug. I resisted the impulse to ask for one. I was too strong to be defeated now, after so long without even feeling the craving.
In another mug was some sake from a bottle that had been knocking around the kitchen since the beginning of the year. It was a gift to me from a Japanese friend, but it tasted of paint thinner and I wouldn't drink it. I had stood in the kitchen considering the sake bottle, knowing that Anna would be delighted with it. The last thing she needed was someone to help her drink. It was a perverse decision to bring it to her, a form of surreptitious punishment. She didn't see it as such, and was drinking the stuff like milk.
The rain drummed softly and hypnotically on the window behind the bed. The only illumination was from my small desk lamp, which cast looming shadows on the walls. The room was warm and cozy, and I could almost forgive Anna for making herself so comfortable despite my studied silence.
From Empire of Light by David Czuchlewski. Copyright 2003 by Davind Czuchlewski. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Putnam books.
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