A Need for Strong Hands
If Henry Was Here

By Blythe Hurley

“I observe with astonishment that the older I get and the more my body disobeys me, the younger I feel. I’m even becoming more romantic, more anarchical than before, open to every sort of folly.”—Henry Miller

Henry is always hungry. I think he is happiest sittinghenry miller at a table with his friends, food and wine, and good conversation. He could sit there and eat all day; moderation isn’t in his nature. It’s the same when we make love. I’ll use his word: when Henry and I fuck, it’s never once before sleep with the curtains safely drawn. We do it on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom floor, in the back seats of friends’ cars. We do it without caution. Still, he is never too rough. He is tender, persistent, and insatiable.

Today we are in a German restaurant, me drinking one thick-headed beer after another while Henry eats schnitzel, sauerkraut, and thick doughy dumplings with brown gravy. I wipe a dollop of it off his chin with the white cloth napkin. Outside the window the city buzzes around us.

“Your problem,” Henry says, “is that you worry too much. He’s not your husband anymore.”

“We aren’t divorced.”

“Maybe not, but you haven’t shared the same bed or even lived under the same roof for more than a year. It ought to be all the same to you, who he fucks or doesn’t. Besides, you have other fish to fry now.” He gives me a sly look out of the corner of his eye, and says, “Tell me I’m wrong.”

I don’t argue with him but he knows I don’t agree; he’s starting to lose patience with the conversation. He isn’t here to talk about another man. I try to change the subject, but my fourth tall beer has left my tongue feeling thick and clumsy.

“You’re pretty tight, aren’t you Rachel?” I laugh at that old fashioned word, laugh at him, but he doesn’t care. He likes me this way. “Come on,” he says, laying his napkin on the table and pushing back his chair. “Let’s get out of here.” Henry’s impatient; he likes to really live in this state, not just talk. He settles the check from a thin stack of bills in his wallet; as we walk toward the door his hand slides down my back and he slowly squeezes my ass. He can’t keep his hands off me.

Outside we squint in the late afternoon sun. The city towers around us, cold and shining. “Where to, baby?” he asks. “To the beach,” I reply. “I want to get wet.” We stop at a liquor store for a bottle of wine, then hop in a cab and reemerge at the beach next to the zoo on Lake Shore Drive. The sun is setting behind us, a burning, dusty haze sinking behind the skyscrapers. I feel sexy; I can smell the musky, sweaty scent coming from my own body and it’s turning me on. My black hair whips around my head in the strong wind coming off the lake; I'm glad the sun is going down so my skin won't burn a crisp pink. Henry keeps stopping to empty the sand from his scuffed up shoes.

We wander across the beach, drinking from the mouth of the wine bottle. When it’s empty, I toss it aside and run whooping into the waves. “Henry,” I call. “Come on!” Waves slide under my skirt and through my underwear, shooshing against my skin. I don’t want to think, or feel; I just want to be. He’s supposed to be so wild, but he doesn’t really show it with me; I want to push him, to make him prove himself as the wild hedonist I’ve always read about. “Henry!”

“Rachel, what, are you crazy?” he calls from the shore. “The lake is barely warm in August, let alone June. It’s not really summer yet.”

“You’re pissing me off, Henry,” I call back. “I want you in here now.” I turn my back to him, and in a moment of inspiration, pull my T-shirt over my head, baring my small breasts. I feel wild, free to be young and stupid, and also cold to my core.

Henry looks up and down the shore. Twilight is quickly falling, and the beach will soon be empty, but for now there are still people playing volleyball and joggers on the sidewalk at the edge of the sand. Henry’s broad forehead crinkles; he stands up and calls to me, “Baby, come in now before you get us in trouble. If you do, I’ll share one of my cigarettes with you, OK? Yours are all ruined now.”

I crash through the water onto the shore, then crawl over the sand towards Henry. He runs down the beach to meet me and throws his jacket around my naked torso. We sit on the sand, my dripping head in his lap. “One of these days,” he says, “you’ll get yourself into something and I won’t be around to get you out of it.” I look up at his lined, worried face and I feel foolish. Right now he looks like an old man—too old to be my lover.

“I’m not usually like this, you know.”

“I know,” he says. “You’re upset.” He looks away from my face, his eyes squinting into the glow of the fading sunset. “You don’t have to stay here, you know. We could go away somewhere together, start fresh. Would you like that?”

“You promised me a cigarette, remember?” I avoid his question, fumbling through his pockets for a light.

Henry is always asking me to run away with him. He knows it’s safe to ask because I always say no. He’s in no danger of having to keep any promises. I knew who Henry was from the beginning; I knew not to take him too seriously. He said the same thing countless times to the women he wrote about, and none of them are still around.

He gives me a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket. As I fumble with the lighter, I feel his thick strong hands sliding under the jacket and over my breasts. My body tenses and rises to his touch. There is sand stuck to my skin, falling lightly away under his fingers. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s go to your place.”

We catch a bus going in the direction of my apartment, then get off and walk the last fifteen minutes or so. My hair is dry now, tangled and fishy-smelling and sandy. The beer and wine have worn off, and there is a tight, pointed ache behind my eyes. Suddenly I am going to cry. I don’t want Henry to see. It is dark now, and people are out in their Saturday night clothes. I feel naked with only Henry’s beat-up jacket between their eyes and my skin. I pull it tighter around me.

“Are you cold, baby?” he asks, and I wonder what he plans to do about it if I say yes. He looks into my face and sees my red eyes. “Thinking about him again?” he asks. I nod. He puts his arm around me and squeezes tight, but there is something about the set of his jaw that makes me feel a little frightened.

Henry stops in the corner grocery across the street from my building while I wait outside, leaning against the bricks and smoking a cigarette. Night air moves against my skin under the jacket, raising goose bumps on my arms and breasts. I hope no one I know will walk by. Henry returns with more cigarettes, another bottle of wine, some eggs and bread for tomorrow’s breakfast, and a bar of chocolate “to soothe you,” he says. I put a square of it to my lips and smile as the richness spreads over my tongue, and Henry crushes me up against the building, his lips pressing into my neck. His stubbly cheeks rasp against me. “I’m going to make you happy tonight, Rachel,” he says, his voice hot and insistent against my skin. “I won’t let you say no.”

Back at the apartment he undresses me gently, then lays me on the bed. We drink the wine in gasping gulps between kisses and caresses. His hands and the drink make me dizzy; the smell of my body and his is everywhere. He takes off his clothes and drapes them over the back of a chair. Then he is on top of me, inside me, and it’s true, I am happy; happy to be lost in the smell and the heat and power of him for this one moment. I know this is why I like him. He pays attention to what moves me.

Afterwards, I pull the blankets over myself and lay my head on his chest. He lights a cigarette and strokes my hair. I am drifting in and out of dreams.

“Baby, are you awake?” he asks.

“Mmm hmm,” I mumble.

“Have you thought anymore about what I asked you? We’d have a lot of fun together. We could go to Paris, or New York. I’d show you the places I used to write about, where I used to live....”

“Don’t tease me, Henry,” I say. “I’m too tired to kid around.” Then I am asleep.

In the morning I wake to see him watching the pink blur of a city sunrise spreading over the tops of the buildings. It is Sunday morning. My head throbs and my throat is dry. Henry is smoking. He is naked. No one could say Henry is handsome; he is bald and he has a jiggly little potbelly. I don’t care.

Henry is alive, more so than anyone I’ve ever known. His soul is younger than men half his age; he is sexier than men twice as handsome. He is awake to every moment. I didn’t want to feel after my husband left, but Henry won’t let me live that way. He forces me to feel things, even things that hurt. Henry consumes life, and I want that, too.

Henry picks up the picture of my husband that sits on the windowsill as he exhales a cloud of smoke. His back is turned to me, and I can’t see his expression. I don’t know what he’s feeling as he looks at that handsome, empty face. I know now that I still want the man in the picture back, despite the lying and running around. Henry has brought to the surface all the things I had buried and denied; I know now that I’d rather be miserable than not feel anything.

I shift and yawn under the covers. Henry turns to me, comes back into bed and kisses me. His mouth is warm and so sweet against mine.

“Would you like some coffee, baby?” he asks. I nod, and he stands up again and pulls his trousers up over his hips. Something falls out of his pocket onto the bed; he doesn’t notice as he walks off into the kitchen.

It is a ring box, the burgundy velvet soft and rich in my hand. Inside, there is a gold band, and a note reading, “Come away with me, Rachel. I like the way you live; I want to watch you do it. Your Henry.” I drop it as if scalded and realize with a start that it’s not Henry who won’t make promises that he might have to keep.

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Copyright© 2003 by Blythe Hurley.

1st photo: levity.com. 2nd photo: press.uchicago.edu. 3rd and 4th photos: houseofwaterdancer.com.

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