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Topping from Below
By Laura Reese
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Laura Reese
All rights reserved.
On the last day of October, while riding her bicycle across the UCD campus, Frances Tibbs realized that she, for the very first time, was in love.
Or rather, she thought she was in love. She hadn't said it out loud yet, hadn't tested the words on her tongue, but it felt like love: everything seemed fresh and new and exciting.
Then a man stepped in front of Franny and scared the living daylights out of her. She slammed on the brakes of her bicycle and swerved, barely missing him. He was wearing a nylon stocking, one half of a panty hose, over his head. In his right hand he carried a huge gun, or perhaps it was a rifle or a shotgun. Franny did not know the difference, but, staring at it, she could see that it didn't look quite real. It was smaller than she imagined a rifle would be, and it seemed to be made of plastic.
A toy gun. It was Halloween, she remembered. The man — she could now see he was only a college student — leered, pleased with the effect he had scared out of her, and plodded on by, toting his rifle.
Feeling foolish, she got back on her bicycle and pedaled down the path along the north fork of Putah Creek. Thewater here, in the dammed-up northern end of the creek, was low and stagnant and a sickly green, giving off a stale, rotten smell that she was glad to leave behind. Once she got past the uppermost end of the creek, the path was pleasant, lined with trees and dense dark green vegetation, the air scented with the earthy, woody smells of a forest. She was riding out here in the hopes of running into her new friend, Michael. She couldn't explain, exactly, why she was drawn to him. She only knew that she thought of him constantly, and that her life, somehow, seemed a little brighter, more full of possibilities, since she'd met him. In a way, he reminded her of her father, a patient man whom she had known would protect her. It had been such a long time since her mother and father died and, even though she had a sister, she felt alone in the world. But Michael had an empathic way of looking at her, as if he could take in her whole history in a glance. It was a nice feeling.
She hit a downward slope and picked up speed. Bicycling was part of her new regimen to lose weight. She had several favorite routes: through the solar homes in west Davis; the Howard Reese bike path along Russell Boulevard out to Cactus Corners; and the route she was on today, the one she took most frequently, the path following Putah Creek on the southern edge of the university campus. The path was narrow and wound through the campus's Arboretum, a woodsy enclave of shrubs and trees, redwoods and conifers and eucalyptus. Franny loved it here; there were picnic tables hidden beneath the trees, wood chips on the ground, fallen leaves decomposing in the dirt, and the smell in the air was an ancient one, reminding her of earlier times. It was the dank, humus-heavy smell of places long forgotten, of ancient civilizations buried beneath layers of detritus and decay.
She rode across an arched wooden bridge to get to an open, grassy mound on the other side of the creek. Here, the water expanded into a wide, murky pool, a good spot for duck watching. At this time of day, late afternoon, the campus was quiet, and she had the area much to herself. She got off her bike and sat on the grass and daydreamed, hoping Michael would pass by. The air was cool — not ascold as it would be in several weeks, when the tule fog settled and crept into your bones — and the sky a sort of dingy dishwater color, flat and gray. Lightly, the breeze rippled the surface of the water and rustled through the treetops. Reddish-brown leaves flitted about, carried by the sudden gusts of wind.
Franny wrapped her arms around her knees to keep warm. The lawn had been mown recently, and it had that fresh, moist green smell of newly cut grass. Years before, her father had brought her and Billy, her brother, here when they were children. Nora, her older sister, had been a teenager then, and couldn't be persuaded to accompany them. But Franny and Billy loved the Arboretum, and sometimes they'd just sit, trancelike, eyes closed, and absorb the sounds around them. They would listen as their father, an environmental scientist, told them of man's connection with nature. There's an evolutionary bond, he'd explained to them more than once, developed over millions of years that tie people, inextricably, to their surroundings, the earth, the sun, the sky. And here, outside, with little noise but the wind breezing through the trees, the sporadic squawks of the ducks, the squishy sound of rubber every now and then as a bicyclist rode by — here she felt somehow calm, rooted. Whether it was the pull of nature that calmed her, or the protective pull of her father's sweet memory, she did not know. By now, the two had become inseparable.
Two college students, a boy and girl, arms linked, walked across the bridge and stopped halfway, looking at the water beneath them. Wistfully, Franny watched them, their dreamy smiles and untroubled faces. They were obviously in love, and this made her smile. She could hear them talking, but couldn't make out the words; sounds of their laughter lifted up into the treetops.
Farther on, toward the campus, she looked for Michael. She'd met him here three weeks ago. She had brought a bag of stale bread and was feeding it to the ducks when someone behind her had said, "You're not a student."
Startled, she'd turned around. It was the first time she'd seen Michael. He was tall and olive-skinned, with dark hair graying at the temples. She'd guessed, by the lines in his face, that he was in his late forties. There was a knowing look about him, almost cynical, as if he'd seen and done it all. Both his hands were in his pants pockets, and he stared at her without blinking, his face inscrutable. Franny lowered her head. When she looked up again he was still watching her, his eyes cold and unfeeling, she'd thought, but then a slow smile emerged from his lips. She was uncomfortable being the cynosure of all his attention, and felt as though he was sizing her up for something, coming to some sort of decision about her.
"No," she had said, "I'm not a student," and she blushed, as if she had been caught doing something wrong, even though she knew she hadn't. She turned away. She tore off a piece of bread and threw it to a duck. There were five of them in front of her, all glossy green-headed mallards, and they scrambled for the bread. She threw the rest of it and reached in her bag for more. The man hadn't moved and she felt him watching her, making her feel self-conscious.
"You don't look like a student," he finally said, and Franny wondered why she didn't. She hadn't been out of school herself that long.
"I've seen you out here, lying on the grass, feeding the ducks. You always come around this time, always by yourself."
Franny gave him a quick, oblique glance, but didn't say anything. It was a bit unnerving, discovering someone had been watching her the past few weeks. She glanced at him again. All his features were sharp and definite: a square jaw, a straight, precise nose, a lean but sturdy body. He wasn't what you would call a handsome man, she thought, but he was impressive. Too impressive. She wished there was something amorphous about him, something to make him a little less intimidating, a thickening waistline, maybe, or sagging jowls.
"May I?" he said, and without waiting for an answer he lifted her arm by the wrist, took the slice of bread from her hand. Franny, taken aback by the intimacy of his gesture, said nothing. She watched as he fed the ducks with her bread.
He said, "I've begun looking out here around this time of day, expecting to find you here. When you're not, I feel as though my day is somehow incomplete, that something ismissing." He turned his face slightly and looked at her, a sparkle of amusement in his eyes. "It seems I've come to rely on you, like my morning cup of coffee."
Franny had smiled at this; she'd never been compared to caffeine before. Then he'd introduced himself, and for three weeks now she'd been meeting him here. He didn't always come. Sometimes he'd miss several days, and she'd get an anxious knot in her stomach, wondering if she'd ever see him again. But then he'd appear and just start talking, without any explanation for his absence. He had a smooth, relaxed manner that made it easy to talk to him although, in truth, she let him do most of the talking. He didn't seem to mind, though, as some people did, and he didn't put her on the spot, trying to get her to open up. He seemed to know, intuitively, that she would come around when she was ready. She was grateful for this — most people gave up on her before she felt at ease around them — and it wasn't long before she found herself riding to Putah Creek not for the exercise but for the express purpose of meeting him, always being disappointed when he didn't show.
Michael was a professor in the music department; he was sophisticated and intelligent, not the type whom she thought would ever be interested in her. Not that she had a type. She'd dated a few men, but nothing ever seemed to work out. Just last month, Nora dragged her to an office party at the Bee, and she'd met a man there. He was a reporter, like Nora, and had blond hair and such a frank, wholesome look about him, such a boyish innocence, that she trusted him instinctively. He seemed sincere, but the next morning — after she'd slept with him — he sheepishly told her he'd had too much to drink the night before. Franny could blame no one but herself. She'd never acted so impulsively before, sleeping with a man she'd just met. She'd been too eager, too desperate, hoping the sex — which wasn't very good — would lead to further intimacy. It didn't. He took her out to breakfast at the Food for Thought Cafe on K Street, but his discomfort was evident all during the meal. He was too polite, too solicitous: he'd made a mistake and was trying graciously to extricate himself. She could see the misgivings in his eyes, the pity, the uneasiness. If she hadn't felt so bad herself, she would've felt sorry for him. After that, she waited several days for him to call, and when he didn't she phoned him. It was awkward and humiliating. Maybe they could be friends, he said kindly. She'd hung up, declining his well-intentioned but spurious offer.
Michael would never behave like that, she thought now. Michael. He was twice her age, forty-eight, she'd learned — only six years younger than her father would have been — but she felt comfortable around him as she never had with anyone else. Sometimes, at home, she'd fantasize about Michael, putting him in her life, making him her boyfriend. She had no idea what he thought of her, or if he even thought of her at all. Even though he was friendly and appeared to genuinely like her, he seemed out of reach.
She heard rustling footsteps in the grass behind her and she smiled, knowing it was Michael.
She turned around at the sound of his voice. He always seemed to appear out of nowhere, catching her while she was daydreaming. She smiled at his appearance. There was a sensuality about him that she didn't understand, something powerful, pulling her along like an undertow, yet something remote — in his dark, cool eyes, in the controlled tone of his voice — that made her want to reach out and draw him near, although she knew she never would.
He sat down on the grass beside her, then leaned back on his elbows, unaware of the chill in the air. He was dressed casually, brown slacks, a jacket with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, but there was always something formal about him no matter what he wore. He seemed so well put together, always comfortable with himself, while Franny, feeling frumpy and cold, was a shapeless bundle of bulky clothes: oversized coat, black jeans, cable-knit sweater, wool scarf and mittens.
Silently, he watched the young couple on the bridge. They turned and walked, hand in hand, off into the distance.
"Young love," he said, with just a trace of sarcasm. Franny looked at him, waiting for something more. But he said nothing.
"I think it's kind of sweet," she said finally, softly.
Michael looked at her, considering. His gaze was penetrating, as if he could read her mind. Discomfited, she bowed her head. A sudden gust of wind tossed her hair. Then, ever so lightly, she felt him brush her cheek with the back of his hand — the first time he'd touched her.
"You're right, Franny," he said. "It can be sweet." He added, "It's never been like that for you, has it?"
Was she that transparent? she wondered, and she felt her cheeks redden, embarrassed that he knew, that at the age of twenty-four, she'd never before been in love, had never even come close to being in love. She started to say no, that love had never been sweet for her, but just then a woman, a petite lady with wavy black hair, smiled and called out to Michael as she walked by, flirting with him. Obviously, they were friends. She was very pretty, with arched plucked eyebrows and painted lips, and wore a snug, wine-colored linen suit that only a small woman could attractively wear.
Franny played with the grass. She pulled a weed out by its root. "She's pretty," she finally said. Then added, "I think she likes you."
Michael gave her a half smile and she blushed, knowing he had guessed she was jealous.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I'm not interested in her. Would you like to know the kind of woman who does interest me?"
"Oh," Franny said. "Well ..." And her voice trailed off. She didn't know if she wanted to hear him talk about other women.
Michael laughed, deep and kind. He said, "Let's go to my house. I think it's time I made love to you."
Franny blinked. In her fantasies, it didn't happen like this. Never once did he say, "I think it's time I made love to you." She was expecting something different, something a little more romantic.
When she didn't reply, he stood up. "Come on," he said. "Take a chance."
Franny felt she had never done anything really daring in her life, nothing adventuresome, never taken a chance is what it came down to. Nora, her older sister, was always taking chances. She went to Nicaragua during all the fighting down there. She went backpacking by herself. And for one vacation, she went white-water rafting down the Urubamba River in Peru. Franny could not imagine herself trekking around the world, putting her life at risk for sheer amusement. Perhaps, she thought, it was her time to take a chance, and so she looked up at him and said the only thing she could think of: "Okay."
Michael put Franny's bike in the trunk of his car and they drove out to his home in Willowbank in south Davis. All the homes were large and old, most of them well kept, with ivy-covered entrances and sweeping lawns and mature trees everywhere. Michael's home was set far back from the road, a sprawling ranch-style house, the front shrouded in wisteria. Inside, the house looked newly remodeled: polished solid oak hardwood floors, skylights in the kitchen and foyer, ceramic-tiled counters, a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows in the living room. It looked precise yet comfortable, Franny thought, much as Michael looked.
Nervously, she walked around his house. Most of the colors were warm and rich, earthy brown tones. It should have put her at ease, but it didn't. She felt strangely out of place, awkward, like a duck in a dress shop: she didn't belong here.
Michael watched her as she surveyed his house. One by one, he took off her coat, then scarf, then mittens. Franny had the feeling he was peeling her away, layer by layer. He fixed her a drink without asking if she wanted one, and handed it to her, saying, "Drink this. I think you need to relax a little."
Normally, she didn't drink liquor — she didn't like the taste — but, like a child, she did as she was told. He led her to the couch and they sat down. He talked to her as he had on campus, soothingly, quietly, caressing her with his words. She thought of her father's words, also soothing, and finally she relaxed, not sure if it was Michael's voice that calmed her, her father's silent words, or the liquor she was drinking. And finally, when Michael did kiss her, it was tender, not boozy and sloppy like the kisses of the last man she'd been with, the reporter from the Bee. Gentle and warm and utterly erotic, it was all she had hoped for.
He took her into his bedroom and hung his jacket over a chair. The high, arched-ceiling room was spacious and had a light, airy feel to it, the walls papered in pale shades of blue and gray, the furniture blond and modern and comfortable, with a king-sized, four-poster bed. The drapes were open, and through the bay window she could see his backyard, in the middle of which was a huge black dog lumbering across the lawn.
Michael watched Franny, who was standing stiffly by the doorway. "Don't look so grim," he said. "You're going to like this."
Excerpted from Topping from Below by Laura Reese. Copyright © 1995 Laura Reese. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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