music from a farther room
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
-from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot
"I'm taking a shower," was what Peggy said to Abe before she climbed out of bed, leaving a sweaty imprint of her body on the sheet. She sealed herself inside the bathroom and the tiles were cool under her bare feet. She removed her nightgown – peeled it away from her sticky skin.
Peggy turned the cold water on. She thought she heard Abe banging around the room, punctuated by the front door slamming. If he was leaving she didn't want to stop him. She wanted to stay under the chilled spray of water until it chased every trace of warmth from her body, until it stifled every tear she had yet to cry.
You're being unkind, she had told Abe. You're being unsympathetic. He didn't love Bobby Kennedy the way Peggy did, and that was okay, but You don't have to be so cruel. Someone I admired died today.
Abe was interested in writing the story of Kennedy's death, of the events at the hotel and the motivation of the assassin, but he didn't feel much about it. It didn't strike him, not the way other events had, other deaths. Other violence.
Peggy rinsed shampoo from her hair and shuddered under the cold force of the water. She twisted the faucet until the spray weakened and then she was left in a cold, quiet bathroom. She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her torso. "Abe?" she called out, nudging the bathroom door open. The room was dark and silent and empty.
She stood in the doorway, padded toward the bed, leaving a trail of wet footprints. Peggy let go of the towel. It pooled around her feet. It was too hot. It was too hot to get back in bed and the upstairs tenant had started playing music again. It wasn't terribly loud and there was no thrumming bass, but it wouldn't help anything. It was deep and morose. She would never sleep.
Peggy figured there wouldn't be anyone else in the office, but she wouldn't have been surprised to find others passing the early morning hours there. She put her purse on her desk and headed for the kitchen with the intent of brewing coffee. When she started measuring the grounds Peggy decided she was much too hot for coffee and grabbed a glass and filled it with ice. She opened every cabinet she could reach without having to drag a chair across the floor and climb; not a bottle to be found. The drawers in her desk were empty, she knew.
She walked slowly down the hall. She turned the knob on every closed door – locked, locked, locked. Peggy stopped outside Don's door but didn't attempt to open it.
She turned and walked, heading for Ted's office. She barely touched the knob and the door squeaked open. Peggy let herself in and closed the door. She stared at the doorknob, chewing her bottom lip, and reached out to turn the lock. She surveyed the room and clutched the glass of ice to her chest. Peggy felt the pulse of cold through her blouse and slip. While she took in the neatness of Ted's space, the way it looked different from what she remembered of it when it belonged to Sterling, the cubes were melting in the glass.
Peggy drank the melted cubes. She found the bar – the cart Ted found so impressive. Most of the bottles had never been opened. She poured whiskey and drank it too fast, immediately giving herself a refill. She carried the glass and bottle to the couch. She wondered if Ted was awake at home, watching the news or staring at the ceiling or talking with his wife or not talking to his wife.
Her glass was empty and Peggy filled it again. She moved to set the bottle on the table and it wobbled and she felt woozy. She hadn't eaten for a while, and she'd been crying ever since the previous afternoon when news of Bobby Kennedy's death spread, and she was so hot.
Peggy set her glass beside her, propped against her thigh. Her fingers quivered as she undid the buttons on her blouse, sighing as the air hit her chest, her stomach, and then her shoulders and arms as she let the fabric slip away. She unzipped her skirt and stood up, lifting her glass with her. She finished the drink off and her skirt hit the floor. Peggy kicked it aside and lowered herself onto the couch, stretched out on her back.
It didn't feel like she was falling asleep. Somehow she could hear that morose music from her tenant's apartment. She heard the prayer her mother had recited over the phone, the one Peggy listened to only a little bit while she twisted the phone cord around her fingers. It didn't feel like she was falling asleep but then suddenly Peggy was waking up…
The elevator doors opened and Ted exited into the hallway, but he lingered a long while. He wondered if he should head back down, go to the 24 hour diner around the corner. Eat something. Drink coffee. He thought about picking up the first phone he saw and calling Nan to explain why she would be waking up next to a pillow and a pile of his discarded night clothes on the bed.
He proceeded to the main doors, using his key to let himself in. The quiet was eerie. He felt uncomfortable. The place wasn't his yet, wasn't quite his second home like CGC had been. He felt like an intruder coming in when it was dark and empty. Ted was carrying his jacket and tie and had the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to his elbows.
Ted glanced at every office, doors closed and lights out. He was aware of how slow he was moving. His limbs were heavy. When he finally reached his office, he was surprised to find the door locked. He didn't remember locking it. He dug the keys back out of his bag and turned the lock.
The first thing he noticed was someone on the couch. Ted's breath hitched, and when he realized it was Peggy – in a slip – he felt a flare of heat under the loosened collar of his shirt. He moved quietly to set his things on the desk. He thought about the way he left home and realized it wasn't that he didn't want to talk to anyone – he only wanted to talk to the petite, curled figure on his couch.
He turned on a lamp and sat on the edge of the coffee table. "Peggy?"
Her eyes fluttered. "Mmm," she murmured.
He reached out, lightly pressing his fingers to her shoulder. "Peggy? Peggy, what are you doing in here?"
Her eyes snapped open. Peggy bolted upright and said, "My office doesn't have a couch. It has a column."
Ted smiled. "Alright."
"What time is it?" She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them slowly. It was dark in the room, but the lamp's small spear of yellow light was too sharp for her weakened eyes.
"Early. Not quite four-thirty," he said.
Peggy was surprised. She hadn't intended to fall asleep. She stared straight ahead and then drew in a jagged hiss of breath between her teeth. "I'm sorry," she said, reaching down to grab her shirt. She clutched it to her chest and her eyes searched the floor for her skirt; it was a few feet away, partially under a chair.
"I don't mind, Peggy," Ted told her. "But I have to ask… what are you doing here?"
She swallowed. She didn't make a move to put her shirt back on. It felt good to have the air – tepid but not so hot as her apartment had been, or outside – on her skin. The silk felt better than the constricting skirt, the buttoned-up blouse. Peggy looked down at her thighs – the slip was resting far above her knees. "I couldn't sleep. I didn't know where else to go. Your office was unlocked. I'm sorry."
"Stop apologizing." Ted maneuvered on the coffee table and his knees bumped hers.
"W-what are you doing here?" she asked, taking a moment to steady her voice.
"In my own office?" he asked. He said it lightly and he wanted to laugh, but he didn't. Couldn't.
It was then Peggy noticed – Ted's smile wasn't the same wide, optimistic grin he usually sported. There were no lines around his mouth or eyes. His smile was slight, mechanical. Troubled. He was always put together, but his hair different – not slicked to the side, but loose and rumpled. He somehow looked younger and grievously tired all at once. She almost repeated her I'm sorry and then said, "Why did you come in so early? Couldn't sleep?"
He stood and retrieved a second glass from the bar. While his back was turned, Peggy thought she should get up and get dressed, but she couldn't bring herself to move.
"Refill?" Ted asked, picking up the bottle and gesturing to her glass on the table. Peggy nodded and he dropped two ice cubes from his glass into hers. He poured them each a hefty drink. While she took a sip, he only held his in the palm of his hand. "Yes," Ted answered, "Couldn't sleep."
Peggy nodded, a gesture of solidarity. "I wish I had never seen the news," she told him. "Now I can't stop seeing it. My mother calls every five minutes to say a pray for Bobby and his family." She left out the part about how Abe won't share in her sadness, and how she's not so much hurt by it as she is troubled by what it makes her think of their future. She was glad he left when she got in the shower.
Ted listened to her intently. He discarded his drink on the table. He noticed that the more Peggy relayed her grief, the more she let go of the blouse she was holding onto – held it across her lap, and then off to the side. His eyes admired the outline of her collarbone, the way one strap of her slip had fallen and revealed the softness of her shoulder. He stared at that spot, at the art of her shoulder and the cream-colored silk, at the glamour and the intimacy of it. And Ted listened, soaking in her earnestness, the truth of Peggy's sorrow.
"He was a good man," she said. "It troubles me. First, his brother. Then Martin Luther King. One after another, people with beautiful thoughts and plans." Peggy took a drink.
Ted sat back. "I'm sorry we haven't had much time to talk since the merger."
She tilted her head.
"We've had meetings, but… I hope you don't feel like I've been leaving you out."
Peggy shook her head. "Well," she amended.
She pursed her lips. "One of the reasons I decided to leave SCDP was… Don has a tendency to shut people out. There's not a lot of teamwork, is one way to put it. I don't want to get lost here, Ted."
He reached out and briefly pressed the tips of his fingers to her bare knee and then drew his hand away and made a fist. "That won't happen." Ted raked his fingers through his hair. "It's been a tough few weeks, Peggy. I promise, though, I'll get focused. If you ever feel that happening, you'll tell me?"
Ted didn't know if it was that she caught the intensity of his eyes, or grew uncomfortable as the wan light filtering in through the windows brightened, but Peggy lifted her blouse to her chest. If she had stood at that moment, she would have been between his legs, pressed to his knees, her chest precariously close to his face. Ted felt a weight in his lungs and took the cue of her nervous eyes. He got up from the table and went to his desk.
He stole a glance toward Peggy as she buttoned her blouse. He watched her retrieve her skirt. It was somehow more intimate to watch her dress than it had been to sit with her in a state of undress and Ted turned to his desk, gripping the edge. His mouth went dry at the sound of a zipper and he turned to see Peggy regard how she'd failed to tuck in one side of her shirt and then she let it be.
"Are you hungry?" Peggy asked. "I'm sure we have bread and margarine. Or we could-"
"Frank is dying."
Her mouth opened and closed. Peggy took a step toward him. She paused, feeling foolish for going on and on about Kennedy. She recovered herself quickly and closed the distance between them, reaching out to squeeze his arm. She nodded and whispered, "I know."
Ted choked out a strained, self-deprecating laugh. "Of course you do. Everyone does. Everyone but me." He shrugged and backed away from her touch. He sat against the edge of his desk. "I refused to believe it and now…"
"He's your friend. You were being hopeful." Peggy treaded carefully. "Did something happen?"
"I went to the hospital last night. I had just been there. But this time they wouldn't let me go in. Family only. One of the doctors had to explain it to me. How little time Frank has left and…" Ted sighed. "In a matter of hours he…"
Peggy moved to his side, mimicking his stance against the desk – shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow.
"It was driving me crazy how nobody would name the firm. It seemed obvious to me what it should be. I get it now."
Peggy leaned against him. "You should go back to the hospital this morning. You are his family."
Ted looked at her and smiled warmly. "I'm glad your office has a column and no couch," he told her quietly. "I'm glad you were here."
The corners of her mouth lifted. "Me too."
Ted leaned away from the desk and stood in front of Peggy. He noticed she missed a button and tenderly pinched the fabric of her shirt between his thumb and index finger. He didn't move and she curled her fingers around his wrist. He expected to be pushed away but she pulled his hand down and leaned forward. Peggy's mouth was soft and warm against his, and when her lips parted he was drawn against her, into her. His hands were rough at her hips, yanking the side of her shirt that had been tucked, feeling the silk underneath the blouse.
Peggy's hands were eager, sliding up his chest, over his shoulders. She wrapped her arms around his neck and got even closer to him. Ted lifted her up onto the desk and his breath snagged at the way her legs clasped around him and he sank into every curve and hard edge of her body.
Outside his office, the lights flickered on – a bold intrusion. Ted pulled back from her kiss, his hands lingering at Peggy's waist. They both turned and looked out the small window. The sound of wheels rolling on the floor, the slap of a mop, humming and singing. They both knew it was the early morning janitor and they both knew it was time to leave the safety of Ted's office.
There was no apology this time, no shared regret. Ted smoothed a hand down the side of Peggy's shirt where it was wrinkled. He eased back and held her hand while she hopped down from the desk and stepped into her shoe that had fallen off. She tucked her shirt in and fixed the buttons.
"I'll make toast," Ted said. "I should eat something before I go back to the hospital."
Peggy nodded. "I'll meet you in the kitchen."