How could it have come this far? She had sworn it would never happen again, and yet here she was, climbing the stairs into the open air at the top of the building. It was nighttime, cool, still, and starlit. She followed, hand trapped in his—if she could only find some strength, pull him down and watch him
tumble to the landing, she could step over him and go home and forget. She was here, she told herself, of her own free will. This would be the last time, and it would be easy to say so.
They stepped out onto the roof. He put his arm around her, nuzzled his face in her hair, and then led her toward the wall at the perimeter. He leaned her against it and moved up behind her, close, his face in her neck as she looked out over the blazing lights of Westwood. They were directly up two flights from her apartment, fourteen stories from street level. His arms crossed in front of her and his hands cupped her breasts under her robe. How did this happen? I despise this person! Yet she shifted her shoulders to accommodate his embrace from behind. She had liked him once. With reservations, yes, but he had been so charming.
He had helped her when, without even knowing it, she most needed help. She felt his left hand slide down past her belly, grazing the soft hair with his fingertips. He placed his right foot between her feet, prompting her to set them farther apart. A finger curved and found its mark—she gasped and realized she was moist, betrayed by her own body as it reacted, as if in pleasure, in spite of her feelings.
Her hair was still wet from a bath. He liked her freshly bathed for these sessions. Our little times together, he called them. As if they were lovers, but without the love. She concentrated on the rough texture of the stucco wall. He withdrew his hands and turned her around, then lifted her so that she sat on the wall. This is the last time, you son of a bitch.
Absentmindedly, she placed her hands on his shoulders as he parted her robe and bent to brush his lips high against the inside of her thigh. The wall was narrow and uncomfortable to sit on. Behind her, LA’s affluent Westside stretched all the way to the ocean. It had all seemed so thrilling when he first brought her up here—the danger, the craziness of it—she had convulsed in orgasm before falling into the safety of his arms and weeping in relief.
Now she felt nothing, not even fear. Just an odd detachment, like staring out a window into the rain, or waiting in a long line at the market. Soon she would simulate an orgasm so that it could all be over.
There was a pressure at her stomach and she felt herself tilting backward. It happened so suddenly she lost hold of his shoulders, and now she felt the sharp points of the stucco scrape the backs of her calves.
Falling, she thought of her brother, Jeff, and the time he saved her life. They were teenagers, bodysurfing at Santa Monica Beach, and he plucked her out of the ocean after a wave tumbled her for so long she thought her feet would never find the sandy bottom. Her last thought before she hit the ground was of the man on the roof. How clear, how perfectly clear, that everything they had done together had always pointed relentlessly toward this.
Jeffrey Fenner found out about his sister’s death while waiting for a plane to take him home. By the time he arrived at San Francisco Airport it was almost midnight, and now he had to decide between a nearby hotel and the redeye special. He needed a drink but the airport lounge was closed. He opted for the flight back to LA. He bought his ticket and headed for the men’s room. Locked in a stall, he sat on the toilet seat and put his briefcase on his knees. There was over an hour to wait, plus forty minutes on the plane, then the taxi ride home meant another forty minutes—it all added up to at least a half-gram of coke required for the duration. He opened the briefcase and pulled out a bank deposit bag, inserted the key into the lock, and pulled the zipper. Inside were a variety of neatly labeled vials and plastic bags. He located the bag marked “personal” and the orange vial that said “Valium.” From the bag he pulled a flake of soapy white crystal the size of his thumbnail.
Resealing the bag, he took out two Valiums, placing one in his mouth and the other in his pocket. He fished in his left shoe in the hollow of his arch and located a small amber glass vial. Using the vial, he mashed the piece of cocaine into powder and scooped it onto his driver’s license, which he then bent into a curve as he tapped the powder into the mouth of the vial. When the vial was full, he capped it and replaced it in his shoe. He transferred the rest of the coke on his license to the back of his left hand and lifted it to his nostril, inhaling sharply.
Refreshed, he closed up his briefcase, checked his nostrils in the mirror, and went back out to the lobby. The lighting was grim and everything looked dingy. The people had an equally grim look, as though lost or sentenced to an endless purgatory for travelers. It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten in a long time.
In the middle of the lounge was a fast food stand. He joined a line of ten or twelve people who stood, zombie-like and silent, waiting for a Middle Eastern-looking guy with a red-and-white striped cap and matching apron to microwave a new batch of chilidogs. The food looked plastic, like the permanent display meals at a cheap chain restaurant.
He stared ahead and listened until the sounds around him merged into an abstract buzz. He looked forward to getting back home, although in fact he wouldn’t be going home; he had to stop by Rich’s place first and make a delivery. At least he could relax, have a drink, while they weighed product and did the math. Then he could finally go home and go to sleep. Sleep—he hadn’t slept in three days.
Muscles in his leg twitched with exhaustion and toxins; he felt creaky and brittle, cranky, jumpy, and increasingly sour. From the background of babble, one particular noise seemed to be demanding attention. It had a red flag on it, like a loud knock in the middle of the night.
“You are wanting something, sir? We have veddy good chilidog. You are wanting how many chilidog?” He found that he was at the counter, oblivious to how he had arrived there. In a moment of panic he realized his hands were empty; he looked down and saw his briefcase on the floor, locked between his ankles.
“Two.” He held up two fingers to verify. The guy handed him a pair of paper boats containing long lumps covered with something that looked like steaming dog food. Jeff paid, scooped up his briefcase, and turned away.
The food was ugly, but he was surprised at how good it smelled. He devoured both dogs, wolflike, sitting in the row of hard plastic seats farthest from the other waiting passengers. Afterward, he headed back to the men’s room to wash his hands. It was large and very bright, but vacant, so he took a quick blast from the cap of the amber vial. There was still some time to kill, so he pulled out his cell phone and thumbed Rich’s number.
“Hello?” Rich’s girlfriend answered on the first ring.
“Hey Lilah, it’s Jeff.” His voice echoed weirdly in the bathroom stall.
“Where are you? Rich waited, but he had to go out.”
“I’m at the airport in San Francisco. Things got a little hung up but I’ll be there by two thirty.
Think Rich’ll be back?”
“I haven’t been able to reach him. Are you still coming by?” He pictured her, with her high cheekbones and pouty little mouth. Her crazy mess of hair. They had been friends for years, but someone else was always in the way. He went to a concession stand and bought mints and a paper, then went to sit by the terminal at Gate 5, where Southwest Airline Flight #3714 would be leaving for Los Angeles at 12:10 a.m.
It was in the Metro section of the LA Times:
SUICIDE IN WESTWOOD
Twenty-eight-year-old Marilyn Fenner, a research assistant at UCLA, was found dead Monday morning, apparently after jumping from her twelfth-floor balcony.
Shit, he thought, no way.
Jeff Fenner’s life is out of control. At the nadir of a rocky, sometimes-up-usually-down career, he has come face to face with his demons: he’s being investigated by the police, he owes money to the wrong people, and he sees an empty future shutting down in front of him. When