Solicitous
by Allison McCarthy


From the sidewalk, Anna watched the young man's hands curl around the waist of a mannequin's absurdly slender female form. He lifted the mannequin from one side of the clothing display to the opposite end, then back again, as if the weight were no greater than the small bags of mangoes sold to the tourists in the early morning hours. A manager stood at the side of the glass case, directing him with the broad movements of her arms and almost no words. He had to crouch just to fit in the frame, he was so tall, and his green eyes focused on the model's figure. He held the fabric near the figure's plastic rear bunched in his hand, the way other women's dresses and asses and curves must have stuck to his hand before. Anna knew she was making the critical mistake of staring. Long looks incited trouble, the tour guide had claimed, but keeping her eyes trained on the ground. In any case, she could tell that the man in the window liked to be watched, but at the time, she didn't think about how she, too, liked seeing him in this way.

Judging by the way he stared back at her, she was certain that he would come outside.

She came back in the spring to visit, and he met Anna at the airport in Oranjestad with flowers in his hands. He told her that he had arrived ten minutes before the flight landed, enough time to ensure that she wouldn't be left waiting. Conscious of her stride, Anna shook out her hair and turned her head at the sight of Luc's scarlet hibiscuses and white lilies. A bag on each shoulder, she moved towards him in quick steps, considerably fast for the high heels she wore. She laughed once they were close enough to study each other's facial expressions. "You picked these on the way over, didn't you?" she said as her heavy carry-on baggage dropped at their feet.

Blushes were uncommon for Luc and looked somewhat out of place with his usually confident gaze, and he answered only with a sheepish smile. Her two arms encircled his neck as they embraced. Even in tall shoes, she still measured up only to the bottom part of his chest, and she listened as he inhaled the scent of her shampoo from strands near her earlobe.

"You probably took them from your neighbor's veranda," she said, cradling the flowers into the crook of her left arm. "So corny."

She had used another of her words that registers as nothing in his English lexicon, confusing his command of the language. Despite the constant barrage of teasing, Anna had never directly insulted him, but even she could hear how her laughter carried a lightly menacing sound that required no translation.

"Corny?" he asked.

She plucked one of the buds and tucked it into her hair. "It means you don't need to bring these, but it's sort of sweet that you did," she said, kissing him again before he had the chance to grow defensive.

His kiss was slow and deliberate, a thought without punctuation. "How long are you visiting?"

"I'll be staying through the sixteenth," she said. "Then I go back for a meeting with a client on the eighteenth, right before we go to trial."

She asked if they could walk to her hotel from here, and when he told her they could leave as soon as she liked, the same quick pace which moved her towards him in the airport lobby took them to a room with locked doors, clean sheets, and a reservation for one hard-earned vacation week.

None of the channels on her hotel room television were tuning in. "I don't always like to have sex," she said, holding the remote.

"Yes, of course," Luc said. "You had a long flight." Anna lay stretched out on the left end of a queen-sized mattress, with both her legs demurely crossed. Her portable fan and adaptable electrical outlet had already been plugged into the wall, but the hot air in the room repressed any relief. Luc was shirtless and drinking water from the bathroom sink.

"It's not just that, though," Anna said. "I have to be feeling a certain...mood, I guess."

"Yes," he repeated.

"When I want to, we will," she told him, then turned back to a soccer match broadcast from another continent.

He took her swimming at the beach in the morning, shopping on the avenue boardwalks in the afternoon. From across the dinner table, he reached to close his hand around only a couple of her fingers. This was the sort of tender but too-earnest gesture that had proven typical of Luc's vision of romance, the kind of mild ridiculousness that would have reduced her to roll her eyes if a man in New Haven had tried to make a similar move.

Anna could never tell if his tendresses were calculated or spontaneous. She had once asked if he was like this with other women, but he had told her she was silly to worry over such things. Still, she didn't pull away as the sweat from their hands mingled and the hot food went untouched.

In the year since she'd last seen him, he'd taken jobs as a waiter, concierge, landscaper, but he had been out of work for the past six weeks. She listened to him talk about the new job he was planning to apply for near the docks. When they ran out of things to say over dinner, the conversation nearly always turned toward his vague attempts at self-improvement. The second bottle of white wine sat chilling between them, and he took a long sip from his glass.

"You shouldn't shave those little hairs," Luc said, pointing to her arms.

Her hands freed, Anna bit into one of her fish cakes and spoke with her mouth full of peppers. "I don't shave," she said. "I prefer waxing. Do you honestly think there's something natural about tipped nails and bare skin?" Before her flight, she had sat as still as she could manage for nearly forty-five minutes in a nail salon, while each of the follicles around her bikini line, arms, legs, eyebrows, and the space above her lips were wrenched from her body by Sonya, a quiet Spanish girl who Anna always chose for these occasions. She had tried the services of other women, but only Sonya would efficiently tear the hair from her body without making small talk.

"Yes," he said. "And now your arms are as scratchy as your legs." One of Luc's feet had slipped out from his sandals and now rubbed against her exposed legs. Anyone on the terrace might have been watching as he stroked her calves underneath the table. She liked this part of the seduction best, when he could make pedestrian things like feet and stubble seem undeniably erotic.

"Men don't like hairy arms," she said. "They aren't attractive." Anna wondered if he could somehow convince her that the bristles of brown hair on her arms were actually the most sexually-charged places on her body.

"They do here," he said. "All you have to do is look around to see it."

It wasn't their first meal at this restaurant, but it was the first time she had noticed that the other women dining had arms darkened by both the sun and thick clumps of hair. Some of them were round and soft-bellied, but a few looked like Anna, with the same freckles dotting their shoulders, small breasts, and gangly limbs. Every woman in the room probably had lovers in Oranjestad, she thought, muscular and tanned men like Luc, sensitive to another's insecurities, men who never told their partners that their arms were ugly.

The check had to be paid at the front, and while she waited for her credit card to be accepted, she pushed her limbs against his, feeling her light grains of stubble against his coarse forearms. The sensation was neither soft nor pleasant, the opposite of sensual. Only on vacation, with a few careful words and some white wine to wash them down, could she have found any beauty in the detestable body hairs she no longer had any desire to groom.

The sex later on was more or less what she expected: a few awkward touches and confused looks in her hotel bed, but mostly their eyes stayed closed. If one happened to catch the other staring, each would quickly look away or press on harder.

"Does it feel good?" she whispered.

He muffled his answer into the pillow. "Yes, Anna," he murmured. "So good, Anna. I love it when you're on top, Anna."

Last time, there had been all sorts of public escapades: in the surf, lagoons, an unexpected tryst near a night club. Whatever she had thought this time would hold, it was almost nothing like she remembered.

She had started to pack for her departure only a few hours before the plane was scheduled to leave. This time, Anna carried no small souvenir postcards or straw-brimmed hats, and she had taken fewer photos than last trip. Luc sat in an upright chair near the window, but his gaze at the parking lot outside seemed unfocused. The television's background noise, which effectively prevented any chatter, flickered off into a static mess resembling the noises made by tired people checking in at the lobby downstairs.

"I'll call next week," she said.

"Really?"

"Of course," she said. "I would call more often, but your family gets so strange whenever I do. Is it because I'm American?"

He shrugged in response and sipped from his can of cola. "It's not where I'd choose to live," he said. "It's just how things are."

"You could move," she suggested. "There were so many real estate signs everywhere we went."

"Maybe," he mumbled, his voice full of doubt.

She thought about the best way to thank him. He hadn't kissed her since the night before. "I've had a lovely visit," she said.

"Yes," he said.

"Perfect weather, I think. Not a single day of precipitation." The pretentious sound of this last word, and the false cheeriness she had used to deliver it, made her wince.

"It doesn't rain this time of year," he said, as if Anna should have consulted a meteorology guide before coming. There were so many things she could neither know nor understand about life here.

She refolded her last pair of clean underwear and rolled it into the bottom of her carry-on.

"For the plane ride?" Luc sneered.

"What?"

He aimed the empty cola straight for the waste basket. "In case some nice man wants to ball you on the jet." His throw went askew and the can landed near her dresser. "What do they call itů the Mile-High Club, I think? Is that how you say it?"

"You're jealous," she said, but even as she said it, she knew that wasn't the right word.

"You'd fuck him for the thrill," he said. "Just because you could."

"You can't possibly be serious," Anna said. "In any case, I'm not the sort—"

But she stopped.

"Or maybe you won't," he said, coming up behind her and wrapping an arm around her waist. His kisses on her neck were wet and sticky. "Maybe you'll think of me the whole ride back. That'd be nice, eh?"

She zipped her bag and turned to face him. "You weren't this moody the last time I left. Is it stress?"

"A little," he said. "I told you I lost my job last month."

"Oh, no."

"It will be fine," he said, his eyes lowered. "I just need to get on my feet." He tightened his embrace.

"I have to go now," she said. "I suppose I can see myself to the airport. I'll call soon."

"I need money, Anna," Luc said. The control behind his tone shattered at the penultimate word, breaking into little pieces of spittle that gathered at the corners of his lips.

Incredulous, she could only lower her purse onto the bed. "Have I not provided well for you this week?" she asked.

"You've taken me where you wanted to go. I've shown you what you wanted to see. I've done my part."

Not a single mention of finances until the end of their visit. Should she have left it by the bedside? Was that how this was done? Her voice grew high and shrill. "This trip was important to me. Haven't I paid for every meal, every taxi ride, every stupid little excursion you thought might be fun?"

"I can't pay the landlord with fish cake dinners, woman!"

She had tried to remain composed, but now she felt stunned into an obligatory silence by his sudden burst of anger. Anna's voice sounded shaky and unsure, more like the tone of someone years younger than herself. "I didn't...I didn't think you needed anything, this time," she said.

He shook his head disdainfully. "It's always the same," he said. "You think I can give something for nothing. It doesn't work that way."

She went to touch his shoulder, a gesture meant to convey her empathy and understanding, even as she was unaware of what could have provoked such an outburst, but Luc flinched at her embrace. He muttered something under his breath, but Anna couldn't make out what he had said, and she first thought it might not have been English.

Anna reached into her wallet and pulled out the last of her converted money, nearly two hundred in American dollars. She threw the colored bills near the pillow, but her aim wasn't as good as Luc's, and they landed on the floor instead.

Luc mumbled again, but this time she understood that he had said "whore." He had not specified whether he was referring to Anna or himself, or perhaps even someone not present in the room. She didn't think that made much sense, though. He had meant it for one of them and she knew this even without being sure of the comment's reference. Regardless, she knew it was not a label they would ever share amongst themselves.

As she made her way toward the door, the space between them grew wider. By the time she had her bags at the entrance of the third floor elevator, the doorway to their hotel room still open, Luc was still talking to himself and she carried the bags on her shoulders, occasionally shifting the weight from one side to another. When the elevator came, she paused to see if he would offer to, at least, go with her downstairs. He was still talking but not to her, nor to the maid walking past who carried a dilapidated mop and bucket, probably headed for the terrace to clean up from the drinking game of late-night guests. Anna called out to greet the maid, and when the woman turned around, Anna pressed a tip into her hands for the cleaning service.

She looked up to see if Luc had been watching. He met her eye and started to say something: the first words were in English that she could understand, the rest sounding more like the mutterings of one of the trade salesmen in the airports, ones who offered their cheap souvenirs. She tried to listen to the words he was speaking, but the sounds were unintelligible and she could no longer make out the language. She waited for him to repeat himself, to translate and clarify, but she had gotten into the elevator and he was still speaking but no longer to her as the doors closed.

Allison McCarthy is a recent graduate of Goucher College and currently resides in Greenbelt, Maryland. Her work has previously been published in literary magazines such as The Baltimore Review, Scribble, and The Write Side Up, as well as in the anthology Into Our Clothes: A Collection of Prose and Poetry (Writer's Lair, 2006). A winner of the 2007 Maryland Writers Association Short Works Contest, additional work is forthcoming in Dark Sky..

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