The Wind from a Burning Woman




НазваниеThe Wind from a Burning Woman
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Дата конвертации27.10.2012
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might behave. She walks in seeming shreds now, only her abdomen and thighs

still covered.


"Very good," he says, and clears his throat.


She suspects he does not want her to say much at this point, but he does


not want her to be silent, either. She comes closer, one finger tugging gently

at the seam beneath her crotch, not enough to separate it. "Will you do this

for me?" she asks. The male touches her wrist, follows her fingers up into the


seam, and tugs. The seam separates.


"Good," Alice says throatily.


He fingers her a little roughly, but she does not flinch away. This is not for


her; the male is paying. He rubs and chuckles. "You're not wet," he says.


"Maybe I need a little more attention," Alice suggests. In fact, she feels no


signs of impending wetness; there is nothing for her to focus on, nothing

around which she can invoke a fantasy. The male's body by itself is hardly

inspiring. His reluctance to show his face irritates rather than intrigues. She


is not impressed by his wealth and power because for all she knows he is


e borrowing someone else's apt for the evening; he might be a poor friend of


someone well-off. No reason for interest here.


Alice has always been aware of her dreadful lack of nesting instincts. She


has never reacted to wealth and power alone, nor been tempted to chase after

partners with status. She trades sex for money, but never self. Self she has never

given to anyone.


Not wet. Jesus/


He works at her awkwardly with his finger, which is dry and a little harsh.


What you see is what you get: ma/e, middle years, sex a drive not an art, ah we//it's


a bztsiness.


"Did you ever imagine, when you were a young girl, that you'd be doing


this?" the male asks.


"Having sex?" Alice asks in return.


"Being paid for it, by someone you don't know."


"I might know you," Alice jokes, hoping to fend off the personal questions.


She does not need or want to establish a relationship beyond the most fundamental,

and that for as briefly as possible. "If you let me see your face--"


/

SLANT 83


"No," the male says again, not angrily, but more forcefully. "Well, did you?"

His finger seems to be off on its own errands. She knows she will react

eventually to this sort of fumbling, but real arousal and autonomic moisten

are two different things at this stage of her life. "Depends what age you mean."

She has even had orgasms without feeling terribly aroused or connected to

her partners, contra the hordes of (all too often male) evolutionary theorists who

buzz around the topic of feminine sex-drive like puzzled flies.

"Ah." He withdraws his finger and moves the same hand up to her breast,

where he continues to pursue his mechanical stimulations. "You started

young?"

She clasps his hand, forces the fingers flat, and works his palm around her

nipple. Then she shifts his hand to the left breast. "This one's better," she says,

and mocks breathlessness. He is not yet fully erect; he is thinking to J' much

and she must take charge.

Alice leans toward the shadowy face, wondering how close she can get before

the illusion of darkness fails. Curiously, it is like falling into a hole; he returns

her kiss but she still sees nothing. The effect is disorienting, then a little scary.

Being scared has never stimulated her.

Alice drops his hand, turns full circle, and removes her garment completely.

She backs up, rubbing her buttocks lightly against him; this accomplishes the

desired effect.

She glides onto the bed. She will tell him a story; maybe he'll finish faster.

"I started young," she says. "I found men very attractive. I was pretty at an

early age. Men responded. I took advantage of them."

"Did you ever think you would have sex for money?"

She crinkles her eyes, shakes her head. "Why?"

The male has not joined her on the bed, but stands naked and once again

de-tumescing, with that shaded void where his upper shoulders and head

should be. "If we disappoint our youthful selves, what can we do in this life

that is worth doing?"

Alice for the first time in this encounter feels real irritation, even anger. She

blunts it, pushes it under. Smiles and stretches, rolling her hips slightly. She

would like this to be over.

"Do you ask your wife such questions?" she asks coquettishly.

"Never," he says. "She wouldn't stand for it. But I'm curious. I wonder at

the contradictions between the way I see women, how they see themselves,

how everybody pretends to see them."

The male is no fool. She specks him now as a lobe-slave driven by theory,

his curiosity a cold kind of lust. He does not want sex; he wants personal

datafiow, but that is precisely what he has not paid for.

"What do you mean?" she asks, crossing her legs, no longer displaying what

does not seem to be at issue.


84 GREG BEAR


The male sits on the side of the bed and puts his right hand on her raised

knee. He wears no rings in this hand and there are no ring marks on his fingers.

There is a moving blur on his left hand, however--the careful engines of

deception obscure s6mething there. The blur could easily hide several ring

marks, and that could make him high comb. "I have contradictions, Lord

knows. But don't you think men and women should know themselves better?

So there can be less pain in the world."


Alice rolls away from the male and puts her legs over the edge of the bed.

With one swift movement, she stands, bends to sweep up her garment in one

hand, and holds it limp in front of her. "I don't blame myself for the world's

pain," she says.


The male holds up his hands, pats the bed. "Please don't be angry."

"And I don't feel the need for therapy, thank you."


He says nothing for long, uncomfortable seconds. Alice stands motionless.

The male's hands drop and his fingers grasp the bed covers convulsively, then

relax. "I enjoy your vids," he says. 'You are so sexy, with so many men... I

wonder how you do it. Are you just a good actress?"


Alice catches that word, so little used now. The reaction to the word "therapy,''

the on-and-off arousal, the archaic language . . .


"When I was lonely, I watched you. I imagined you as my wife, in a long-term

relationship, never as a whore or someone who had sex for money... I

wanted you to feel something for the men you were with.."


So he is awkward and shy after all, just not getting around to what he wants,

trying to avoid the end of a fantasy. Alice relaxes and drops her garment a

little. She has heard this so often from vid and Yox consumers. Clash of expectations.

Slave to sex-killing culture.


"There I was, seeing you, thinking perhaps here was a woman, if I met her

in person, if the situation was right, I could fall in love. And these men were


having you, thoroughly and enthusiastically. I knew you deserved better."

"You, for instance," Alice says.


"You made wrong decisions, obviously. When you were young and didn't

know any better. I mean, you could have gone far, with your looks, your

voice... All these men, if they just fumbled all over you..."


His voice sounds distant, strained. He needs to forget this and relax. Some

men get addicted, obsessive, wallowing in unreal flesh.


"It's an art and it's a kind of work I enjoy," she says. "I enjoy making people

feel good and I've never been mistreated." That is not true, strictly. "It's a

professional relationship, always, but I feel more for some of my partners. That's

just the way it is."


"Were any of them your lovers? In life, I mean?"

"I separate my work, my art, from my life."

"Which is it, work or art?"


She sits on the bed again, reaches for his hand. "You have me in the flesh,


/

SLANT 85


He pulls his hand back. "I'm being stupid, but the fantasy of it all disturbs

me," he says.


"Maybe I should come back later, after you've relaxed."

"Even if there were time, I'd never see you again. No."

The word hangs. And then,

"No. That's not right either."


Finally he moves forward and takes her by the shoulders, bends her back

on the bed, pushes her knees apart. He is tumescent enough, though not strong

and insistent. Slowly he moves and builds. The blur and shadow oscillates

above her and she suspects he is not even looking at her, he is wasting this

moment on a straightforward coupling with little grace or consideration. That's

all he can do.


"Watch me," he says. She looks up at the shadow. "No," he says. "Down

here." She looks down between them. The familiarity of the join, the bodies

enmeshed, of no great significance for her. "Watch when it happens," he insists.


So concerned where it goes what we do with it. We eject it and brew it in tea

aj%rwards. We spread it on cupcakes. We save it in little bottles and laugh over it


with our friends: "So much effort, so little product!" We wipe it up with napkins and

dispose of them. I do not care about this part of you, or about your pleasure. You've done

nothing to earn my caring. You give me nothing to hang on to.


The thoughts burn. The male finishes with a few insignificant sounds, pulls

out and away, rolls over on his back. He does not even breathe hard. Minimal

effort, satisfaction hardly worth--


"You're just a woman," he says. "You don't feel any different. Why should

I care?"


"I never asked you to care," she says. The burning in her mind reminds her

of years long past, of disproportionate feelings occupying very Little space in a

tightly bound head, when life was cataspace and anaspace in unpredictable

alternation. The worst times of her life.


"I do care," the male says. "Beauty like yours deserves that much. You

shouldn't cheapen yourself by giving yourself to men who don't deserve you."

"It's a little late for that," Alice says. "And I never give. I share."


The male laughs with a sound like knuckles on rough wood and throws up

his arms, revealing smooth armpits, a few ribs visible beneath the soft white

skin. "Someone with your beauty could work her way high in any society.

Every woman makes conscious decisions.., where to spend her life, who to

associate with."


"Some woman threw you over and gave herself to a shink bastard? That's

what this is all about?"


"I've led a very calm life, actually. I like women but I worry they don't

know how to live their lives. A woman judges and weighs her every lover,

whether he can satisfy, what his social standing is, how aggressive, how strong.

That's what we're taught."


86 GREG BEAR


"But some women choose the wrong men all their lives, not just when

they're young. When the time comes for a man to make his choice, the best

men pass these women by . . . They're tainted. They don't feed a man's self-respect.

I mean, they go to bed with fools and bastards. Where's the prize in

them, knowing that?"

The spike is white-hot now. Alice wants out. "You need to be my protector,"

she says with forced humor.

"Maybe," the man says, and chuckles again.

"You want me to choose men you approve of. You want to share me with

your buddies. That's really generous." Hand me over to your cronies, co/leagues,

and business partners, members of your tribe, for the next round. Maybe your bosses or

superiors, for a little clan elevation. You son of a bitch.

Suddenly, his pattern clicks. She's studied male psychology enough to see

the simple, bold conflicts in this shaded, hidden man. Raised pious New Federalist,

son of the Moral Surge, whose God is power and wealth and stylish

living, whose insides churn with repressed fascination with the basic functions,

the kind of man who likes women who laugh nervously when someone says

pee-pee. Puppy of the twisted social order.

Alice stands. "I need to clean up."

The man rises on one elbow. "Do you wipe it off... Or do you just flush

it?"

"I don't worship it, if that's what you mean."

"So much effort, so little result," he murmurs.

Alice flinches. Her thought in his mouth.

"Restart, reboot, improve our lot. I thought we'd never get anywhere without

that." He is babbling. She cannot see his expression but his voice is taut

and the next words are spoken with a painful edge. "It's done. No one can

help me, I certainly can't help myself. Mea culpa, Alice. Mea maxima culpa. You

are the lamb. Everybody like you has to suffer. I apologize for all that's going

to happen. I suppose it has to, but I wish I understood."

Alice blinks rapidly, genuinely frightened. She steps back three paces, mumbles

some excuse, and lets a few blinking lights along the floor guide her to

the bathroom.

In the bathroom, she locks the door and cleans herself, sits on the toilet,

relieves the painful nervous pressure, wishes she could piss out the entire evening.

The bidet warmly rinses her and applies a subtle florid perfume that she

does not like. Using a large plush charcoal gray towel, she stands and wipes

herself again and again until her thighs and labia are pink.

The toilet says, "Excuse me, but you show signs of an infection of unknown

character, perhaps centered in your nasal passages or bronchial tubes. You

should refer to your physician for more detailed tests."

Alice stares at the toilet's hard snail curl, the marble pallor, its lips an oval

of observant surprise. "What?" she asks, stunned.


/

SLANT 87


The toilet repeats this appraisal of her discharged fluids.

"Maybe it's him," she says.

"Analysis is of your urine."


She has never heard such words from a toilet. All diseases are known, nearly

all easily treatable, mutations predicted, ranked and evaluated worldwide

within days, tailored monitors and phage hunters sent after microbial intruders...


She has never in her life been infected by a venereal disease, or any other.
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