You wouldn’t know of the Excelsior unless you already knew it, a bar tucked away in a corner of Grand Central Station, overlooking the main concourse. He had simply happened upon it, killing time while he waited for a train. He placed the ribbon-tied pastry box on the bar with his book, then pulled in his stool. It took a moment to get the attention of the barkeeper, a tall charismatic woman with flyaway frizzy black hair, as much a circus ringmaster as a pourer of beers. She served him a Weissbier, in a glass, with a slice of lemon. He didn’t want the lemon; although it made the beer taste better, it left his stomach feeling bitter. But when you’re in mid-town, you go with the local custom.
He didn’t notice her walking in, engrossed as he was in his book. There were a number of empty stools along the bar, but she chose to sit beside him. The barkeeper responded to her immediately.
“Great book,” she said to him. “Streetcar Named Desire, I studied it in college.”
The barkeeper produced a mimosa and placed the woman’s proffered credit card behind the bar.
“And whatever my friend is having,” she said, waving to his half-empty glass. Another Weissbier and glass were placed in front of him.
“Thank you,” he said, surprised, but not offended. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Cal.”
“Kat,” she said. “Who is the cake for?”
“A box of pastries, for my aunt in Connecticut,” he said. “Long overdue visit, plus favourite bakery.”
She nodded, as though he had passed a test. They were both facing the bar; he tried to assess her appearance in the bar mirror, or through brief sidelong glances, in the gloom of the mahogany-panelled room. She was a good-looking woman, tall, brown curling hair, angular face, but pretty. Dressed in office clothes, a suit jacket and skirt; her blouse sufficiently open-necked to reveal cleavage. As they chatted, she leaned into him, touching his forearm to emphasise a point, their knees brushing as they turned in to one another, to be heard over the growing din of the bar.
After three beers, a discussion of post-war theatre and a comparison of cities that they both had visited, she looked directly at him and said, “I know a place near here where we could go. If you want?”
“Right answer,” she affirmed.
She pulled out her phone, swiped the lock code, opened an app, click, click, click, with her long, elegant fingers and manicured nails. While she was clicking, he was able to take a longer look at her. Yes, a good-looking woman, probably five or ten years younger than him. Probably law or banking, he thought. She raised a hand to the barkeeper who handed her the payment terminal and then the two of them pushed past and evaded the bodies that were crowding the bar.
They jumped in a cab at the Vanderbilt Avenue rank, she gave the name of the hotel and they set out in the mid-afternoon traffic. Her leg, which had been brushing his thigh in the bar – who had been doing the brushing, him or her? – was now pressed against his leg.
“I hope,” she said. “that you don’t feel railroaded into coming along.”
“I’m into it,” he said, still holding the pastry box, his book shoved into the pocket of his overcoat.
The hotel had a lobby of glass, marble and polished brass. Nice enough to not be insulting, he speculated; yet not so nice that she might meet anybody that she knew, anybody that mattered. The check-in clerk handed him the electronic key card, as she loitered in an armchair near the door.
“Elevator around the corner on the left, sir,” he said. “Have a nice evening.”
In the elevator they stood side by side. He put his hand on her lower back and pulled her blouse out of the waistband. He placed his hand on her neat lower back, running his fingers along the slender muscles that flanked her spine.
“I like that,” she said in a conversational voice, as though to some other person in the lift, even though they were alone. “CCTV be damned.”
“So, Cal,” she said. “Single, divorced or widowed.”
“Widowed,” he responded.
“Right answer,” she said.
Once in the room they turned to face each other. He tilted his head down and pushed her suit jacket off her shoulders; she let it fall to the floor. He knelt down to loosen the buckles on her high-heel shoes; she stepped out of them. She pushed his sports jacket from his shoulders and then started to unbutton his shirt, down to his waist. Then she tugged at his belt, loosening it as he unbuttoned her blouse.
Even when they were down to their underwear, they still stood slightly apart. If they had been strangers in a crowded subway this distance would have been perfectly respectful. He reached out and pushed her pants off her hips, peeling them down, until they fell below her knees, and she stepped out of them. His erection was tenting his shorts, and she reached inside the waistband and took him in her hand, lowering his shorts past the obstacle she carefully held. Then she looked up and smiled. He leaned in to kiss her, but she fell to her knees and took him in her mouth. He took in a sharp intake of breath and closed his eyes. He wasn’t going to climax this way, but it was a fine opening move. He opened his eyes briefly and realised that the venetian blinds hadn’t been closed and that there were people working in the office on the other side of the avenue.
“Do you want me to pull the blinds?” he asked.
“I want you to get hot,” she said. “Let them look if they want to.”
After some time, he lifted her up, locked one arm around her and placed two fingers between her thighs, pressing both of her lips, then pushing his middle finger inside her. She whimpered, surrendering, then hissed inaudible phrases. As he continued to explore her, the phrases became more insistent, please, please, now. He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back towards the bed, lifting her into the middle of the counterpane so that he would have room to kneel before her. Her legs parted, she guided him with her hands, and he buried himself unceremoniously inside her. She stared at him, eyes wide open in what might have been horror; her mouth fallen open. As he started to move inside her she ran her claws along his flank, then took his face in her hands, tracing his cheek and jawbones, staring at him as though he had appeared mysteriously from nowhere. A howling grief emanated from a place deep inside her.
As he climaxed, his weight collapsed onto her body, unconcerned with her state. After a few minutes, when the breeze of the air conditioner made his body hair stand on end, he asked her if he should move. No, she said, that’s just perfect. He pulled the counterpane and top-sheet down and dragged her under the covers. Her eyes were closed, her body limp, she was breathing easily, wrapping her body across his, tracing first the muscles of his back, then his stomach and midriff.
He started to doze a little, until he felt her trace her fingers along his sac, kneading it gently, then caressing his drooping shaft with two expert and gentle fingers, until he started to respond again, like a dog on a leash. He slipped easily inside her and started again to rock his hips, his face buried in her neck, breathing through her hair. Then a feeling of power arose within him, he started to kick his hips roughly against her; she clung to him as though she was falling off a cliff. He raised his head to notice for the first time a large wall mirror beside the bed, perfectly capturing their entwined bodies, their rough rocking dance, her hands running through his hair, her head snapped back, her mouth open. He paused, reached down and bit her. Her eyes shot open, and she slapped him.
“I just thought I would do that,” he said.
“You’ve probably marked me,” she responded, tracing a finger along the teeth-marks.
“Oh well,” he said, with little remorse evident in his voice.
“Right answer,” she said.
As darkness gathered, they knew that it was time to go. He showered first and was sitting on the bed when she emerged in a bath towel.
“Your phone rang a bunch of times while you were in the shower,” he said. She nodded and flipped the phone over, the display faced down. Then she started to gather her clothes from the carpet. As they covered themselves in the artefacts of their adult lives, re-arranging themselves as responsible and predictable members of society, she pressed a wad of crisp new notes into his waistband. He laughed, and without looking, ran a finger along the fold of the notes.
“What’s this?” he asked, with a smirk.
“It’s International Women’s Day,” she said. “I thought it would be fun to pay a man for sex.”
“Did you give me what I’m worth?” he asked puckishly.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “I paid you the equivalent of two hours of my billable time; and I’m the best there is.”
As he walked her to the lobby to hail her a taxi, he guessed it was more money than he made in a week.
“I feel I should walk you to your taxi or your door,” he explained.
“That is sweet. But it makes more sense to take the subway at this time of the evening; the taxi will weave up and down streets and avenues, but the subway takes you straight where you want to go,” she said. “Sometimes you want a man to be tender, to make love to you; sometimes you want him to take you straight to pound-town. You were great.”
She stood on her toes and kissed him hard on the lips, before turning to walk away.
“Should we keep in touch?” he called after her.
“Do you need a lawyer?” she asked, only half-turning to respond.
“I might, sometime,” he said.
“Well unless you’re suing somebody over an aircraft lease, I’m probably not the lawyer you need,” she said over her shoulder. Then she turned fully towards him.
“Is there really an aunt in Connecticut?” she asked.
“Yes. And in terms of relationship status…”
“That’s all I need to know; that’s really sweet. Right answer. Say hello to her from me.”
He stood there outside the revolving door of the hotel, watching as she descended the subway steps. Then he made his way back to the room, where the pastry box sat on the vanity unit.
He called his aunt to explain that he had come down with some kind of stomach bug that afternoon and wouldn’t be along to visit her that evening; they arranged to meet the following week. His stomach was sour from the beer and the lemons and, looking into the empty office across the avenue, he repressed a rising tristesse. He sat on the bed and tried to unknot the ribbon on the box of pastries. He didn’t have anything sharp, so he tore the box. He took out a pastry that was filled with sweet custard and took a bite from it. It was far too sweet for an empty stomach, but he ate it all anyway. Who doesn’t like rich food? Who doesn’t like to nibble just a bit; doesn’t like to have a whole one; doesn’t like to gorge? The next one didn’t seem as luscious - pastry with a coating of chocolate - but there was a chocolate cream inside too. He thought about throwing it in the trash, but ate it instead. He reached for a third one, hoping for pure pastry, with maybe some jelly, but it also had a rich caramel filling. He finished it and regretted it immediately. Yet, he wondered, what worth has a life that has no regrets? And even if he regretted it right now, that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t celebrate it in the future. This he knew; that the only things that he would truly regret would be the things he did not dare to do.