"Come back inside with me," he says quietly, his voice even lower than the pale lamplight, so gentle she can barely hear him. There is a rushing, pulsing sound in her ears which she recognises as being like the sound your blood makes in your skull a few moments before you faint.
"Please, Laura. Don't go back to the hotel," he says. He has taken hold of her hand again and she watches as he runs his thumb languidly over the back of her knuckles. His hands have held her - if not literally, then at least figuratively - from the very beginning. In partnership with his eyes, Paul's hands are the most expressive part of him. She watches the passage of his thumb over the back of her hand as it sweeps back and forth with a rhythm all its own, noting how neatly trimmed his nails are, even as they shine with the faintest sheen of pizza grease. It is about the only sign of vanity she can detect in him.
Laura is finding it hard to move, difficult to think straight. She wonders how a single beer could render her so helpless. Or is she drunk on Paul Weston? Ridiculous! He is so close that if she were to inhale deeply enough, she could taste him. Outside it has started to rain fitfully, the squally wind picking up sheetfuls of water and throwing them against the sash window, as if challenging her to come out and play with the elements. The insolent weather suddenly reminds Laura of the photograph of Paul that she had seen earlier in the evening. How the half resentful stare, aimed directly at the camera-holder, had suggested a young man who normally reigned in his anger and his sadness but, like the a sudden change in the weather, could sometimes let it break out and spill over its deliberate containment.
Laura shivers at the idea of Paul Weston losing his self control, of being overwhelmed by anger or lust or even grief. That's why, she thinks distractedly, grief is such a powerful aphrodisiac. Suddenly, she wants to see that passion. And not in the way she had experienced when he had suffered his panic attack outside her house.
He bends lower and touches just the end of his nose and his lips to a very sensitive area behind her ear. "Stay," he says. It is no longer a question.
Hand laid protectively on the small of her back, Paul steers her inexorably towards his bedroom. "You've already met my kitchen," he says, waving his spare hand in an expansive gesture. "As you can see, I employed the finest best interior decorator in New York. The style is a fine example of early post-modernist 'Aprés Takeout.' "
He's nervous, she thinks.
"Bathroom's there, should you need to ... avail yourself. Another architectural masterpiece. The plumbing is largely original."
Very nervous, she thinks. Hiding behind words, as always.
They reach the threshold of his bedroom. It is dark, a little cavernous, lit only by the yellowish sodium glare of the streetlights outside which infuses inwards through the half-opened shuttering. Laura turns and manages to stop Paul from saying any more with a well-appointed kiss. "You need to stop talking now," she says evenly, throwing him a look from under her lowered brows.
Paul draws a deep breath, trying to banish his nerves. Gina is in his head, saying "There is no cooling off period, Paul! Ten minutes or ten years, it doesn't matter - " but he pushes the image aside, violently. Instead, he pictures himself swimming confidently and strongly, feeling the cool water slide gently over his body. Thinking about swimming, envisioning the strokes and how they coordinate with his legs kicking and the movement of his head as he breathes, is a way he has found to steady his breath. It helps with his asthma. Paul feels the oxygen seeping back into his body. Laura has begun work on the buttons of his shirt but he stops her, forcing himself to take the lead once again. He pushes her backwards into the room. Because the topography of the place is unknown to her she has to be guided entirely by his grip on her upper arms. His steering her in this way is, again, exciting. She's helpless, keeping her eyes fixed on him, trusting him to guide her and to steer her, just as she had always tried to do.
He pulls off the rest of her clothes, saying nothing, keeping his mouth occupied in other ways. He throws the bed covers back and invites her to get in. Then he steps backwards, into a patch of shadow, and undresses himself. Laura is struck by the contrast between Paul and Alex. Alex had been nothing short of a total exhibitionist, anxious to show her how well-honed he was, how he cared for himself physically. Looking back, she realises how insecure he must have been, judging by his behaviour. Paul is self-conscious and excited, but Laura senses an entirely different set of emotions coming from him as he drops his clothes on the floor, slides into the cold bed beside her and gathers her in to him. She feels as if he is taking possession of her. They shiver. The bed is freezing cold. She looks at him, again noting contrasts: Compared to Alex, Paul's skin is so pallid it seems almost to glow. The darkness of his hair is a feint, a dodge. His skin follows the lead set by his eyes.
He kisses her again, and the coldness vanishes. It feels like she is blushing with her entire body. She again pushes her fingers deep into his hair. A vehicle goes past outside and its headlamps track a pathway across the ceiling. The rain kicks up even more of a fuss, making the sash windows rattle. A perfect night to stay in and make love.
Any trace of the nerves that had been plaguing Paul have vanished along with the cold of the cotton bed linen. He now feels he's on familiar territory, as he drags the backs of his fingertips first in lazy circles over Laura's stomach and ribs and then elsewhere. His lips follow the trail blazed by his fingers. He teases her, but doesn't drag it out too long. Just long enough to find her special frequency and set her whole body humming in resonance with his touch. She comes once, twice, making him grin fiercely, almost triumphantly. He's playing her body for her like it is an instrument. She comes again and is finding it hard to catch her breath. He lets her relax for a moment before kneeling in front of her and pulling her legs up so her ankles come to rest on his shoulders.
This is not at all what Laura had expected. She'd been expecting to have to take the lead. She'd arrogantly assumed that Paul would be rendered next to immobile by her youth and her utter, undoubted sexiness. Laura has been fantasising about Paul for quite some time, but had always been shrewd enough to realise that reality was unlikely to come up to the standard set inside her head.
But what's happening now ... is a lot like what she had fantasised about.
Paul pushes into her, with a moan that sounds almost grateful. He is, in fact, a satisfyingly noisy lover. She likes that. Laura watches his face, fascinated by what she sees there. Without warning he looks up and returns her stare, holding her gaze unflinchingly, as if daring her to look deeper inside himself, to see him at his most vulnerable and at his most powerful. After a few moments he pulls her legs back down on either side of his hips and bends forwards to kiss her, his beard's beginnings scratching at her face and throat. She feels the unmistakable sensation that he is about to come and, to her surprise, she also climaxes. And as Paul finally gasps and spends himself inside her, Laura bursts into tears.
Just about any other guy she has ever been with would probably have freaked out at this point. Or, would have flapped around and made a fuss. Or, cracked some kind of lame joke about his prowess. But Paul just stays with her. He makes no effort to pull away, not even to make himself more comfortable. He adjusts his weight slightly to allow her to breathe more easily, and then just lies looking intently at her, catching his own breath. His face is calm, patient. Laura feels safe. She really lets go, sobbing noisily and productively, and isn't immune to the irony that whilst she was fantasising about seeing Paul lose control, it was actually SHE who needed to do exactly that, all along.
Outside, the recalcitrant weather begins to quieten down. As presently, so does Laura. Paul tilts down onto his side, his legs still all tangled up with hers, one arm thrown over her midriff. He pushes a lock of her hair back behind her ear.
"You can talk again now, if you want - " she says finally. He pulls the bed covers over the two of them.
He laughs. "I don't think I can." His eyes still have not left her face. "I think I've said everything, somehow." He lies there adoring her in silence, and whereas normally this expression on a man would set warning bells ringing in her head, Laura is enjoying his gaze. She reads the laugh lines on his cheeks, around his eyes and on his forehead. His face is like the pages of a familiar bed-time book. It calms her and soon she is asleep.
Sometime later they are both awake and ready again. She takes him first in her hands and then her mouth, before sitting astride him and accommodating him that way. This seems to have a very profound effect on him - for if Laura had been comparing her fantasies to reality last time, then this time it is definitely Paul's turn. He throws his arms up and grips the bedstead, allowing Laura full control. He groans. His head thrashes from side to side. He looks agonised. The pressure builds inside her and she comes, throwing her head back and crying out. Paul presses his hips upwards, over and over again, to meet her with his own climax.
Laura begins to collapse forwards on his chest.
"Oh, God. Don't move yet, please - " he pleads with her.
"Are you OK?"
The question is loaded. Paul opens his eyes. Laura maneuvers herself gingerly off him and sits watching his face. She runs her hand up and down his leg, as if trying to comfort him, though in truth she also just likes the feel of his thigh. She can't think that she had hurt him in some way, and yet his face looks distinctly uncomfortable.
Paul is, indeed, very uncomfortable. He knows that he has to lie to Laura now. He's very far from OK, faced with the sudden realisation that he is about to lose Laura all over again. He has to look her in the eye and tell her a bare-faced lie, just as he did a year ago when she asked him, "Do you want me?" and he had answered, "No."
"I'm fine," he says finally.
But of course, he isn't.
Paul Weston is the hungriest man in New York. He thinks about fresh Polish sesame seed bagels, or buttered croissants and cappuccino, or smoked fish kedgeree from the Punjabi place on 85th. He thinks about pecan waffles and freshly squeezed blood orange juice. Anything, anything at all, to keep him from thinking about Laura.
He'd woken, and she was gone.
Paul brews tea for himself, choosing a blend that transports him back to a summer in his childhood he spent on his uncle's smallholding in County Clare. He dumps an extra sugar into the mug, trying to treat his taste-buds and his depleted blood sugar. As he stirs the liquid absently, his eyes slowly falling out of focus, he recognises the unmistakable signs that he is feeling sorry for himself.
His eyelids close. He can still smell her.
This of all mornings, he has good reason to curse his excellent memory - the memory that got him through college and his professional training with an ease that seemed sometimes to border on arrogance. Paul is trying to think about food and trying to remember the breakfasts his aunt used to cook for him, but all he can see is Laura and, more disturbingly, Gina. Paul is drawn inexorably back to the weekend Kate went to Rome with her new lover instead of with him, the weekend he wanted to throw a party and cook for people and get a bit drunk and maybe get lucky with an old flame.
That weekend Paul had wanted to be witty and attractive; urbane and charming and sexy. He'd tried it out on Gina, and had ended up telling her that he was in love with Laura.
Paul looks around his empty apartment. His expression is bleak. He realises he is still stirring the tea and quits, throwing the spoon into the sink.
Gina had said to him, "And then she'll leave you Paul. She'll leave."
An airplane hefts itself across the still-leaden skies above Brooklyn, which is still trying to shrug off last night's rain. Is Laura on it? That one? The next one? Or the one that flew over forty-five minutes ago?
Paul Weston lifts his mug of heavily sugared Red Label Darjeeling and silently toasts his old mentor. And then he smiles.
Perhaps he'll make chowder today.