He couldn’t sleep. Beside him, the woman had shrugged free of the covers. Even in the dark, he could make out the rise of her hip and the long descent of her leg toward the blanket rumpled about her feet.
The man eased himself from the bed with both hands, hushing the creak of the mattress as he rose. The wooden floor, though, groaned under his foot. He knew the reason: the plywood beneath the oak strips had too few nails marrying it to the joists. In the first apartment he had rented after leaving home, his grandfather had explained to him the bowing of the floor in the entrance hallway; like any craftsman offended by imperfection, the retired carpenter had cursed the slipshod work. That was a long time ago, the man thought, motionless beside the bed.
The woman did not stir, so he took another step. His arms swept the darkness like a blind man’s as, wary of furniture, he felt his way through the unfamiliar room until he found the window. Concealing his nakedness behind the velvet folds, he curled back the edge of the curtain and checked his car, parked on the street below. The rundown neighborhood was growing fashionable with the opening of a few galleries and, just a month ago, a chic café two blocks over, but enough vagrants still haunted the area to make one uneasy after dark. He wondered why she would live here. She was an attorney, after all. She could afford more.
As he returned to bed, the floor creaked again. The subflooring, he remembered, that was what his grandfather had called it.
“Can’t sleep?” Her voice was tender, groggy.
“New bed,” he explained.
“Come get used to it,” she invited, pulling back the sheet for him.
Hunched over to find the mattress, he felt his way through the dark. His hand brushed the woman’s ankle, and she rolled onto her back.
He must have fallen asleep again afterward, because when the radio suddenly clicked on at 6:00, he was startled by the voice announcing that during the night, our bombs had begun to fall on Baghdad. Early reports indicated that not a single plane had been shot down. After months of ultimatums, the war was finally underway.
The woman was turning toward him, to kiss he guessed. Over her shoulder, he saw the light beginning to seep in along the edges of the thick curtain. She snuggled in the hollow of his shoulder.
“Maybe we should call in sick,” she whispered, nuzzling her face against his chest.
Just after lunch, he telephoned her.
She was pleased to hear from him. “Most guys, they don’t call so soon.”
He knew it wasn’t supposed to be cool, getting in touch the next day. It might make him look desperate.
Fuck it, he thought. “How about dinner?”
“When and where?” She wasn’t playing coy either.
“I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“Make it eight,” she told him. “No, we’d better say nine. One of the partners is going to want me to hang around late.”
“Nine at your place.”
They never made it to the restaurant. Instead, about eleven, they wrapped themselves in sheets and padded barefoot into her kitchen. He made an omelet with goat cheese and onions while she opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio. “It’s all I had in the fridge,” she explained, handing him a glass.
He turned on the little TV next to the food processor. The news had just begun.
The bombardment continued in Baghdad. Special forces were operating freely in the north with the help of the Kurds. Armored columns leading convoys of infantry had launched an invasion at dawn from staging areas in Kuwait. Resistance was crumbling, the White House assured the country.
The woman flicked a switch on the side of the television, and a cursing Iraqi cradling a dead baby in his arms seemed to be sucked into the pinprick of white light that remained in the center of the screen for a moment before it, too, faded to darkness. “It’s so depressing,” she apologized.
He eased the omelet from the pan onto a large plate.
She was impressed. “You’ve done this before.”
The next day, and the day after that, they spent the night together. At one point, he started from sleep, unsure in the darkness where he was. But little by little, he got used to her bed.
And eventually, though this took a good deal more time, he no longer noticed the groan of the floor underfoot.
It turns out, as we all learned over the next nine years, you can get used to anything.
An O. Henry Award winner, John Biguenet is the author of The Torturer’s Apprentice and Oyster, with two new books coming out this fall: The Rising Water Trilogy and Silence. More info at http://www.biguenet.com.