Carl is lying in bed half-asleep with the side lamp still glowing when the girl appears at his bedroom door. She is wearing the white undershirt he loaned her while her travel-worn clothes are in the wash. She lies down on her stomach with her face turned away from him. She asks Carl to please fuck her, says she cannot sleep without being fucked. Carl tells her that sex is not what he is after even as his penis grows heavy against his thigh. She hitches up the shirt so that he can see that her striped panties have a tear along the side seam. Her thighs and buttocks tense and release, tense and release as if she is already being fucked. She hooks a thumb into the side of her panties and pulls them down so that one cheek is exposed. Her skin stretches smooth and full.
Please, she says.
Carl has not yet learned her name. He touches her shoulder to roll her onto her back. She shrugs off his hand and tugs the shirt over her head but pillows it under her face. Her spine seems strong and fragile at the same time with its bones straining along her back. She draws one knee up toward her chest, tugging the panties until they form a taut underline to the dark, damp space between her legs. She is twenty or twenty-two, maybe a little older.
From behind, she says, resting her head against her arm, grasping the rail of the wrought-iron headboard.
When he strokes her ass, her muscles stop tensing and releasing. She opens her legs wide until the seam of her panties gives way and the torn underwear snaps and puddles against the sheets. Carl uses both hands to pull her hips toward him, wants to bite the flesh of her ass as she bucks and backs onto him.
Harder, she says.
Carl almost forgets to pull out when he comes so he splatters her ass and back and even her hair.
I’ll get a towel, he says.
He climbs off her and her hips slide down until she is stretched full-length and face-down in the bed, her breathing audible, her face buried in the undershirt she had tugged off.
Carl runs water until it is warm and wets a corner of the clean towel.
The girl has not moved, and Carl wipes the stickiness from her back and hair. She is so still he wonders if she is asleep.
He traces the small brown birthmark like a thumbprint just below her shoulder.
Can I sleep here? she says.
Carl covers her with the thin sheet and faded quilt before he slides into bed beside her. He leans to kiss the back of her head. He can smell his own shampoo in her hair. She stretches her limbs under the sheet, and he wonders how long it has been since she slept in a regular bed.
What’s your name? he says.
Her breathing deepens. She does not answer.
Carl had found her sleeping in the town park, observed her there in the early mornings on his way to his job at the city pool. At first he thought she was a drunk local, but even the hung-over kids manage to stumble back to their homes before dawn. Outside the snack bar she eyed the families throwing away half-sandwiches the way his cat watches him scraping meat into the trash. Carl bought a hot dog with fries and sat at the table near the edge of the patio, staring at the girl until she made eye contact, then nodded to her and walked off. When Carl looked back over his shoulder, the hot dog and the girl had vanished.
That night, when he saw her sleeping under the big oak on the playground on his way home from work, he knelt beside her.
You can’t sleep here, he said.
Her body stiffened and her fingers tightened on her backpack before she opened her eyes and took in his face.
Thank you for the hot dog, she said.
Come home with me, he said. We’ll figure something out.
I’m not on drugs, she said.
I’m not a whore, she said.
Okay, she said.
Carl took her back to his house just a couple of streets from the park. She showered while he made her eggs, toast, and bacon.
She ate all the food without looking up from her plate until she had sponged the last of the egg yolk with a crust, then she sat on his couch reading the newspaper from the day before. He sat with her while she read. After a while, he turned on the television and found a movie on cable. She put down the paper and laughed at the funny parts.
When he asked her to go to the grocery store with him, she declined. She said, I’ll leave. I know you don’t want someone like me in your place alone.
Do you need anything from the store? he said.
When he returned, she had washed the dishes and cleaned the bathroom.
She told him she had run away from her life, from a boyfriend who said he would kill her if she left, from a waitressing job in Memphis. She ended up in Dade County when a trucker dropped her off at the I-75/I-24 split after she refused to suck him off.
Carl told her she could stay for a few days until she got her balance back. After she showered, he realized how young she was. Her face beaconed freshness except for a fading yellow bruise along her jawline that she kept pulling her hair over.
Carl pulled out the sofa bed and apologized for not having sheets for it. She said the sleeping bag was warmer anyway, said it made her feel safe. He did not think to ask her name until that night when she lay curled and fucked on his bed.
She is gone when Carl wakes at ten the next morning. He feels ashamed for taking advantage of the damaged girl and tries to ignore his skin memory of her briny willingness.
Carl calls in sick, tells his boss he has the flu.
He crawls back into bed and gathers the shirt she had used as a pillow against his face. He settles to sleep with the shirt stretched across his eyes.
He smells garlic and onions cooking when he wakes. The girl stands at the stove stirring a pot. Her hair is pulled back so Carl can see the full curve of the bruise as it snakes along her jawline and behind her ear.
I went for a walk, she says. You were still asleep when I came back.
I thought you’d left, he says.
Do you want me to go?
I want you to stay. Carl still has the T-shirt clutched in his hand. Stay, he says.
Carl kisses the back of her neck. It’s early for lunch, he says.
The sauce needs to simmer all day, she says. She turns, kisses him back, presses against him. Karen, she says.
Who’s Karen? he says. Carl has become distracted because she is not wearing a bra and he can feel her nipples through her shirt.
I’m Karen, she says.
Come to bed, Karen. Her name feels right in his mouth.
This time, in the daylight, is different. Karen is gentle, almost demure, smiling and stroking and softly moaning. Her eyes take him in the same way they did when he spoke to her under the tree in the park. Assessing, weighing options.
Carl wonders at the strangeness, the mystery of rescuing a pretty girl who so urgently opens to sex. His ex-wife had grown into a stingy, lazy lover in the months before she left. He is afraid of how quickly he has come to think that Karen belongs in his house, in his bed, in his life.
They spoon the Bolognese sauce over penne. Karen has added too much garlic but he tells her it is the best he ever had. He does not know if he means the sex or the sauce.
I can’t stay, she says.
You have to stay, he says. Carl covers her hand with his own.
Karen snatches her hand away. I don’t have to do anything, she says. She pulls her hair across her jawline.
Carl realizes his mistake and grows desperate to clarify. I need you, he says.
These are the wrong words. Karen curls her hand around a fork and glances at the door. Carl wants to calm her, to stroke her shoulders and show her he is not like the man from Memphis. When Carl moves toward her, arms stretched to envelope her, to smother her rattling fear, Karen jabs the fork into his left shoulder. His push is almost like a reflex that sends her sprawling back against the stovetop so that the handle of still-simmering sauce gets smacked by her flailing arms and dumps its contents onto her back. She screams. Her scream reminds Carl of the sound she made as she writhed under him in bed the night before.
I don’t want to hurt you, he says. The fork still protrudes from his shoulder. He holds his arms wide with his palms out. Let me help you. I’ll take care of you.
She slumps on the floor in the puddle of sauce. Why does this always happen to me? she says.
It occurs to Carl that she may not even be eighteen. The fork works its way out of his shoulder and clatters to the floor. He runs to the bedroom and grabs the first towel he sees, which is the one lying on the floor next to the bed.
Karen has gone still, her back half-turned from him as if she is staring at her reflection in the oven door. He touches her shoulder. Let’s get you cleaned up, he says.
He helps her out of her clothes and into the shower. She holds her hands so he can slip her shirt off over her head. As he rinses her skin in cool water, Carl is relieved that he has not yet left a visible mark on her. His shoulder throbs from the fork punctures. He leads her to the bed where she lies down still naked, still wet, and Carl pulls the sheet over her. Carl shoos the cat away from the spilled meal and cleans the sauce off the floor. When Carl returns to the bedroom, Karen has dressed herself and is sitting on the edge of the bed. Her intensity, her power to twist him into a different version of himself, scares him. He is afraid he will hurt her again, like the men who came before him.
Why don’t you leave in the morning? he says.
You want me to go? she says.
She looks both fresh but worn, like a good pair of jeans just out of the dryer. He tells her to stay.