He must have noticed this, because he looks at me, puzzled, gives a little frown I choose to interpret as concern, though it may merely be irritation. “Here,” he says. “You can sit down.” He pulls a chair out for me, sets it in front of his desk. Then he goes around behind the desk and sits down, slowly and it seems to me elaborately. What this act tells me is that he hasn’t brought me here to touch me in any way, against my will. He smiles. The smile is not sinister or predatory. It’s merely a smile, a formal kind of smile, friendly but a little distant, as if I’m a kitten in a window. One he’s looking at but doesn’t intend to buy.
I sit up straight on the chair, my hands folded on my lap. I feel as if my feet in their flat red shoes aren’t quite touching the floor. But of course they are.
“You must find this strange,” he says.
I simply look at him. The understatement of the year, was a phrase my mother uses. Used.
I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.
“I guess it is a little strange,” he says, as if I’ve answered.
I think I should have a hat on, tied with a bow under my chin.
“I want…” he says.
I try not to lean forward. Yes? Yes yes? What, then? What does he want? But I won’t give it away, this eagerness of mine. It’s a bargaining session, things are about to be exchanged. She who does not hesitate is lost. I’m not giving anything away: selling only.
“I would like -” he says. “This will sound silly.” And he does look embarrassed, sheepish was the word, the way men used to look once. He’s old enough to remember how to look that way, and to remember also how appealing women once found it. The young ones don’t know those tricks. They’ve never had to use them.
“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says.
I hold myself absolutely rigid. I keep my face unmoving. So that’s what’s in the forbidden room! Scrabble! I want to laugh, shriek with laughter, fall off my chair. This was once the game of old women, old men, in the summers or in retirement villas, to be played when there was nothing good on television. Or of adolescents, once, long long ago. My mother had a set, kept at the back of the hall cupboard, with the Christmas-tree decorations in their cardboard boxes. Once she tried to interest me in it, when I was thirteen and miserable and at loose ends.
Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife. Now it’s desirable. Now he’s compromised himself. It’s as if he’s offered me drugs.
“All right,” I say, as if indifferent. I can in fact hardly speak.
He doesn’t say why he wants to play Scrabble with me. I don’t ask him. He merely takes a box out from one of the drawers in his desk and opens it up. There are the plasticized wooden counters I remember, the board divided into squares, the little holders for setting the letters in. He dumps the counters out on the top of his desk and begins to turn them over. After a moment I join in.
“You know how to play?” he says.
We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.
I win the first game, I let him win the second: I still haven’t discovered what the terms are, what I will be able to ask for, in exchange.
Finally he tells me it’s time for me to go home. Those are the words he uses: go home. He means to my room. He asks me if I will be all right, as if the stairway is a dark street. I say yes. We open his study door, just a crack, and listen for noises in the hall.
This is like being on a date. This is like sneaking into the dorm after hours.
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