On a featureless day in a blank season of my life, while I stared at television images forgotten as soon as they were perceived, I chanced to see the commercial for Shadowloves.
The scene was a barren field in autumn. A scattering of trees, drooping and colorless, stood out against an empty sky.
"Are you alone?" a throaty, feminine voice inquired. "Is love no more than a memory - or a dream?"
I nodded vaguely. The screen showed a man - not Adonis but a mildly flattering reflection of the way that I thought of myself - walking solitaire, his feet kicking dead leaves from the way.
"You don't have to be lonely. There is a place where you can meet the one your heart has been waiting for."
Warmth seeped in, melting the chill. Spring arrived. The forlorn lover raised his head and loped toward the Sun. A woman, unfocused but beautiful, ran out of the sky and embraced him.
"Shadowloves is the different resort - with a different approach to finding and nurturing permanent relationships."
A kaleidoscope of activities - tennis, swimming, sailing, dancing, dining, a stroll beneath an improbably brilliant moon - culminated in a distant view of a lingering, passionate kiss.
"Come to Shadowloves. We know your dream. Soon you will, too."
The camera approached the lovers as the picture faded. A telephone number blinked across the screen.
I had never visited, had never thought of visiting, a "singles resort". My habits were as sober, regular and unexciting as most people expect a thirty-two year old accountant's to be. Much as I loathed the stereotype, I fit it exactly, from my unpretentious Marshall Field's suits to my nonexistent love life.
The only woman whom I had ever kissed seriously had been my high school sweetheart, whom I would have married in due course. Except that she became pregnant (not by me) in her sophomore year of college and thereafter drifted into a netherworld of promiscuity, politics and drugs that terrified my cautious soul.
A pop psychologist would doubtless have asserted that Leona's descent into hell had left me too frightened to form relationships with women. Certainly, I came to the conclusion that they were strange, unpredictable creatures. If I turned out to know so little about the woman whom I knew best, how vast was my ignorance of new acquaintances, trembling with mysterious energies and born from unknown pasts?
Still, I would have replied to the psychologist, there was nothing wrong with this life that I had fallen into. With fewer distractions than my colleagues, I outstripped them at work. Already I was the youngest partner at the firm of Ramsey & Whiting, with a low six-figure income, a rising reputation and brilliant prospects. Someday, when I felt like doing so, I could add a wife to the other accouterments of professional success.
The path that led me away from this contented state and into Shadowloves began the December before I saw the commercial, at my employer's Christmas party.
Ramsey & Whiting may not be a household name, but it is a solid regional accounting firm, centered in the Midwest, ranking just below the Big Five in size and prestige. The Christmas party, the one annual gathering of personnel from all thirty-four of our offices, is a massive enterprise that fills two ballrooms at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
That year I was on the committee overseeing preparations and thus arrived very early, while the caterers were in the process of putting up decorations and laying out the buffet. I provided some casual supervision and waited for the surge of arrivals.
It was not fascinating work, and I did not look forward to the evening. Large parties full of unknown and, worse, half-known people make me nervous and bored. To alleviate these unpleasant sensations, I took advantage of the opportunity to be the first to sample the bar.
I had just fetched my third bourbon-and-water, and was beginning to notice that the room was less empty than before, when a small, impeccably tailored, German-accented man hailed me. I recognized him as Joshua Kirscheimer, tax partner at our middling office in Rockford, Illinois.
He greeted me with the degree of enthusiasm that really ought to be reserved for long-lost sons and insisted that I cross the room to be introduced to the rest of the Rockford staff.
I nodded listlessly through the names, enduring mechanical handshakes and barely noticing the faces in front of me.
Naturally, he made the introductions in order of seniority, ending with, ". . . and this is our new girl, Julia Florimel, whom we hired in September. She intends to go into taxes, too. A very wise choice, wouldn't you say, Steven?"
I started another handshake and nod, then got a good look at the young woman and was shaken out of my torpor.
She was so dazzling that a single glance was not enough to grasp her beauty. With the assistance of much staring, I pieced together a picture of a tall brunette with vibrant blue eyes, a model's figure and a strangely impish smile.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Moore," she said, and no chimes ever sounded more sweetly.
"Can I get you a drink?"
She smiled and nodded, and I was enthralled. For the rest of the evening, I brazenly tracked her footsteps, pressing food and drink into her hand, dominating her conversations and behaving overall in a manner that gradually turned her smile from impish to long-suffering. Not that I noticed such nuances; I was as emotionally inebriated as if I had been drinking steadily since dawn.
In an earlier era, she would have been a movie star or a rich man's wife. But women nowadays have more and better opportunities. Her ambition was to finish up her C.P.A. and advance through the ranks at Ramsey & Whiting. After venturing a few light conversational gambits and learning that she had little to say about movies or travel or television or celebrity gossip, I discovered that she grew animated when the talk turned to the Internal Revenue Code, I.R.S. rulings and pending tax legislation.
In the course of the party, she accumulated other admirers. By about ten o'clock, she was at the center of a small crowd in the middle of the dwindling gala. Someone suggested going out to dance. He claimed to know a great nightspot where the drinks were cheap and the jazz band reminiscent of the roaring twenties.
I hoped that Julia would turn the idea down. I had a foggy vision of spiriting her away to a quiet nook where we could converse intimately until dawn. But the impish smile returned, and she mimed a dance step or two to express her approval.
The nightspot would have been a short taxi ride from the hotel on ordinary days. Snow had started to fall, however, and the going was slow. I contrived to slip into the same taxi at Julia, though there was a body between us, and I could do nothing more than stare worshipfully at her face as it was illumined by passing headlights.
The band proved to be very loud, and the drinks were not all that cheap. I gulped one after another while bitterly watching my beloved whirling on the dance floor, passing blithely from one partner to another.
She reveled in dancing, breaking off only long enough to sip lemonade. During one of those pauses, I begged for the next dance, and she agreed, but so impersonally that I did not bother to follow her back into the maelstrom.
By ones and twos, the club emptied. I stayed, made stubborn by liquor. In the vicinity of 2:00 a.m., the band departed. The lights came up, and I realized that Julia and I were the only patrons left.
"It's late," she said, shaking her head, when I offered to buy a nightcap.
"Yeah, I guess so. Can I get a taxi?"
"That would be helpful. Thank you."
Outside, a chilling wind pummeled my face with snow that was halfway to becoming ice and drove away the worst of my drunkenness. Traffic crept unsteadily, cars seeming to shy from the blizzard. After a numbing wait, a lighted cab appeared and stopped at my hail. I summoned Julia, and she climbed in. I entered after her.
"Hyatt Regency," she said firmly. "Then - where will you be going, Mr. Moore?"
I mumbled my address. "Or maybe I should stay at the hotel, too. The weather's so vicious. Of course, I'd need a room."
"I'm sure they're not overbooked tonight, Mr. Moore."
I made my last sally as the cab rolled to a stop at the entrance to the Hyatt's east tower. She had opened her purse and was fumbling for her wallet.
I leaned far over. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it."
I was close enough to slip my arm around her back and drag her toward me. She resisted for a moment, then went limp. Moving my hand to the back of her head, I tried to maneuver her mouth toward mine.
The instant before our lips made contact, she drew back violently. My hold gave way at the unanticipated maneuver. She opened the door briskly and sprang into the night.
The next day, I thought of calling her at the hotel, flooding her with apologies, sending flowers or candy. But I did nothing. The routine of my life continued; it no longer brought content.
Shadowloves entered my life in late April, just after the chaos of tax season. I called the number on the television screen, obtained directions and, the next Friday afternoon, left work early to drive to that promise of I knew not what.
It lay well to the north of Chicago, at the end of a dirt-surfaced road that had to be pursued like Ariadne's thread through a tangle of similar tracks. When I found the place, its exterior was void of the yuppie glitter that I had expected - a big, stone mansion, faux-Gothic in style, flanked by wild gardens out of Orlando Furioso. Within what I glimpsed of those gardens, the hues of the flowers were too intense, and the growth of the hedges too luxuriant, for the year's cold and sunless Spring.
The drive ran beneath a marble arch, exquisitely delicate in design. I slowed my car to view the stonework more closely. It was undecorated, but the veins of the stone swirled mysteriously, hinting at runes and cabalistic signs inscribed by unnatural powers. I admired the effect before driving on.
At the main entrance to the building, a sleek valet took my keys and shepherded the car out of sight. Inside, the surroundings were more on the lines that I had expected: immense swatches of mirror, forests of varnished woodwork, a profusion of plants whose slick green leaves imitated plastic. Customers were scattered here and there, all but lost in the wilderness of decoration. I found a place, well separated from everyone else, at the formidably long, glowingly polished bar. Perched atop a stool that was slightly too high to be comfortable, I ordered a beer and sipped morosely, wondering what purpose this outing served.
A gray-haired, thin-faced woman tended my section of the bar, not the sort of hired help that I had anticipated here. At first, I thought of her as "grandmotherly", but as I peered at her more closely - she drew my gaze back to her, however often I tried to focus elsewhere - that image altered. Her eyes darted again and again into mine. They were deep, black eyes, like twin chasms - not malevolent but set apart from humankind, as alien to this home of light flirtations as the deep granite is to the tinkling waterspout.
My beer ran out. She refilled it without my asking.
"The second round is always on the house," she crooned.
I mumbled a thank you and tried, without success, to look at an anorexic girl at the opposite end of the bar.
"You look like a nice young man," my bar matron continued. "What brings you to Shadowloves? I can see that you are not one to give you soul casually or only for a single night."
It was flattering to be singled out from the general run of patrons. All at once, the woman was grandmotherly again, and I began to talk - to talk about Julia, about my sudden love and silly hopes and about how both love and hope had come crashing down. The months that had passed since then, I discovered as I spoke, had only aggravated the wound. I remembered a saying from somewhere: Time is like the wind: It puts out little loves and makes great ones blaze more brightly.
Details poured out, many of them fuzzy until then: the precise shade of Julia's hair, the fall of her curls across her forehead and ears, the crystal earrings that she had worn, the shape and color of her lips, the brief warmth when I embraced her, the scent of her perfume, the delicacy of her skin. . . . A choking desire wrapped itself around me; I longed to shout or sing or leap on tables to relieve the intolerable frustration.
At the moment when I could bear no more, when I was on the verge of hurling myself into the matron's arms and bewailing my fate, she broke into my lament, pitching her words so softly that I heard them less with my ears than with my mind. "Go, walk in the garden," she whispered, and I felt no impulse to disobey.
A glass double door, thickly etched with uncanny scrimshaws, led to the garden. The knob tingled as I grasped and turned it.
Beyond the door, the place seemed as wild close-up as when I had spied it from a distance. Abnormally luscious blooms, hints of poison in their overripeness, luxuriated in the midst of knife-edged grasses and high, thorny hedges. Chipped and broken flagstones marked a path of sorts. I followed it thoughtlessly, not caring much where I went.
In the depths of the maze, I turned an abrupt corner and stumbled into a hemmed-in clearing dominated by an ancient oak. The tree was more than simple wood. Its lower branches harbored an orange and blue fungus that glittered phosphorescently in the declining Sun. Around its base, where branches and leaves cast a perpetual shadow, snow lingered unseasonably - not the dirty drifts that one spots occasionally on Chicago side streets but a fresh, uncontaminated layer.
On that pure, white blanket, a human figure stood, leaning casually against the trunk of the oak. Its feet were bare, its only covering a sheath of white silk that blended into white shoulders and highlighted a cascade of black hair.
I recognized Julia. A ray of sunlight had threaded its way through the shadows to make her eyes glow like turquoise gems.
My instinctive reaction was to retreat from the cul de sac. She forestalled me by waving her hand and breathing a syllable that sounded like my name. I approached with a trembling gait.
She stepped out of the snow drift and extended her hand. Before I could grasp it, she lifted her fingers to my cheek.
"This is - is a surprise," I said.
"This is Shadowloves," she replied.
She led me to a bench in a dark corner of the clearing. We sat there together, as if we were long-time lovers reunited. I lived in a haze of her perfume and kisses and soft endearments, to which I responded with clumsy adorations. How long that paradise continued, I could not judge. It ended when I fell asleep, leaning against her shoulder, my lips devouring the fragrance of her neck.
I woke up slowly in the chill half-hour that precedes the dawn. The oak looked sickly and pale. The snow that gave birth to my love had melted away. As for the woman herself, I hunted desperately with my eyes, but she was gone.
For a while, I could luxuriate in memories and imagine that my life had stored up enough happiness to last it forever. Then the Sun grew brighter, and birds chirruped in the trees, and footsteps scuffled on lanes out of my sight, and the light of common day invaded my romance. The fairy symphony of bird songs dissolved into discordant whistles. Stiff muscles, an unappetizing mouth and an empty stomach demanded their due. I sat up, stretched uncomfortably and stood up, realizing that I had no idea of where or how to meet Julia again.
All day I wandered the grounds, searching for her. She was not registered as a guest, and no one would acknowledge having seen a woman who fit her description. As evening neared, I returned to the spot where we had met. The glen seemed murkier now. The fungus on the oak branches was a leprous shade, while the top of the hedge was turning brown. The bench where we had loved looked decrepit. And Julia was not there.
Unable to separate myself from the site of my infatuation, I took a room for the night. The lodgings were at some distance from the main building, in picturesque cabins scattered across a rolling hillside. Mine had a clear view of Lake Michigan. I sat at the window with a bottle of scotch in my hand, brooding over the waters as they descended from blue to purple to black.
At the moment when the final trace of color vanished - No, my memory is abridging, making the juxtaposition more dramatic than it probably was. Full night must have been an hour old; the stars were thick in the sky. Before my waning vision, they fell into runic patterns. While I attempted to decipher them, there came a light, musical rapping on the door.
I did not doubt for an instant that she was the one who knocked. When I opened the door to her, she wore only a wisp of muslin reinforced by a network of golden lace. I pulled her inside. The scanty clothing had dissolved even before we reached the bed.
When I first became conscious in the morning, she was not beside me. I threw my pillow across the bedroom and cursed. Then I smelled coffee brewing and eggs and bacon frying. Her footsteps pattered toward me in response to my growls.
"Is something wrong, my darling?" she asked.
I shook my head. "Julia, I love you."
"Good," she answered, "I love you, too," and went back to the kitchenette.
The breakfast that she brought to me in bed was wonderfully cooked, but I could scarcely concentrate on food. She cajoled me into eating by lifting the fork to my mouth and forcing tidbits into it, as if I were her uncooperative child.
When the plate was still half full, I stubbornly shoved it aside. "Julia, dearest," I whispered. "I've never asked a woman anything like this before - I would never have thought of asking - but - would you come live with me?"
She pouted, the oval of her mouth so enticing that I delayed her response by kissing it. Then came her words, "No, love, I can't."
"Why can't you? Darling, you don't mean that this was just a one-night stand?"
"No, that's not what I mean. What I mean is that I can't live with you because I can't leave Shadowloves. I'm not real, you see."
The remark was too odd to leave an impression. All that I gleaned was that my first proposal had been rejected. Perhaps she had other lovers here. I didn't inquire. I was madly confident that, in time, I would best the competition and take Julia home with me.
We remained together all that day and the following night. I would gladly have spent Monday with her, too, calling in sick for the first time in ten years, but she departed in the early light, while I was still dozing. On her pillow she left a note promising to meet me again next weekend.
Thus began the new pattern of my life: the long drive to Shadowloves on Friday; the anxious wait for Julia; her theophany at my cabin door shortly after twilight; days spent at her side, as we swam, boated, danced, hiked, played tennis or merely lay on the beach holding hands; nights that need no description; her inevitable disappearance in the first mists of Monday morning and her sweetly scribbled note pledging to repeat the cycle next weekend.
During those idylls, we rarely spoke to anyone else, except for the bare minimum of conversation with the Shadowloves staff. There were, I noticed, other couples that seemed to reappear every weekend, but, like us, they were too self-absorbed to seek new friendships.
Outside of Shadowloves, I still put in full days at the office and accomplished as much work as before. To make the necessary time, I dropped out of the small circle of pastimes and friends that used to fill my spare hours. Now, when I discovered an unscheduled minute, I could fill it happily by dreaming about Julia.
Autumn arrived, a blustery season in Chicago, a cozy one at Shadowloves. I gave Julia a diamond ring. She accepted and wore it but still would make no commitment more than a week in advance.
A late weekend in October was particularly seraphic. We picnicked in the woods, admiring the color-changing leaves, then, taking advantage of an unseasonably warm night, bedded down in a sleeping bag out of sight of the world. The night sky was clear and star-filled, and I whispered to Julia a poem that I remembered from a college course in Classical Civilization:
When you look at the stars, my star,
I wish that I could be
The face of heaven gazing with
Ten thousand eyes on thee.
"Did you make that up yourself?" she asked.
"No, I read it in a book."
"Do you read a lot of books?"
"I used to. Since I fell in love with you, I don't have the time for lesser affairs."
She seemed pleased with that answer, and the rest of the night was particularly memorable.
On Monday she lingered, contrary to her habit. When I asked her to return to Chicago with me, she refused, as usual, but added, "Don't despair, darling. Maybe we're reaching the point where something permanent can be arranged."
Happy in that limited promise, I was untroubled as I arrived in the office not long before noon. The anxious look on my secretary's face jarred me out of my daydreams.
"Mr. Ramsey wants to see you," she whispered, "as soon as you get in."
Jerome Ramsey, a man who for fifty years had considered 7:00 a.m. to be a late and leisurely hour for reporting to duty, eyed me balefully as I entered his office. For a fleeting instant, I expected much worse news than I received.
"Josh Kirscheimer had a heart attack Saturday. I want you to go to Rockford and take charge of his tax practice. The firm jet will be standing by at Meigs Field as soon as you can get packed. Somebody from the office will meet you at the Rockford airport."
The beautiful weekend sky had started to fall apart in the wee hours of the morning. By the time when I was ready to leave Chicago, all of northern Illinois lay under a cloud bank, a fact that would not, I knew, influence Mr. Ramsey to delay my departure.
We landed in Rockford on instruments and luck. Still airsick, I ran across the tarmac in driving rain. The first gust of wind shattered my inadequate umbrella, and I entered the terminal thoroughly drenched. I wiped moisture from my eyes and looked about for my ride to the office.
A tall, dark-haired woman stood not far off. She began to move tentatively in my direction. When my vision cleared, I recognized Julia.
"Mr. Moore?" she asked when we were about ten feet apart.
I took her formality and hesitation as a joke. "Am I really that bedraggled?" I reached out to hug her. She leaped backward, her expression bewildered and strange.
Puzzled, I humored her mood. "Yes, I'm Steve Moore," I said.
"Julia Florimel." She stretched her arm to its utmost length and let me shake her limp hand. Its fingers bore no rings.
We gathered my luggage and proceeded to her car, enduring another drenching on the way. As we proceeded to my hotel, our conversation was strictly about business. She told me about the I.R.S. audit of the office's biggest client that was occupying most of her time. Mr. Kirscheimer had been handling it personally, and his collapse had left her all at sea. I suggested various temporizing tactics to use with auditor and promised to take the case in hand as quickly as I could.
I found it difficult to concentrate on these professional matters. Two or three times I was about to ask why my lover was treating me like someone unknown. Each time, though, something in her countenance discouraged me. I felt as shy as in my pre-Shadowloves days and remembered too vividly the gruesome details from last year's Christmas party.
I changed into dry clothes in my hotel room while Julia waited in the lobby, after which we proceeded to the Ramsey & Whiting office. Joshua Kirscheimer, I swiftly learned, shared the failing of many tax specialists: His work papers were as disorderly as the Internal Revenue Code. Loose ends fluttered all about. The absolutely essential tidying-up, I reckoned, would occupy two or three weeks, including the weekends. I wondered whether Julia would slip away to Shadowloves without me.
At about eight o'clock, as I sought to untangle Kirscheimer's files, she poked her head into my office.
"You must be exhausted, Mr. Moore," she said apologetically. "I don't want to keep you, but - well - I really need help on this audit. And, as long as you're staying late anyway, maybe we could grab a bite of dinner and talk about it."
Now, I thought, the masquerade will end. But it continued. We dined in the restaurant in my hotel, an elegant, even romantic, venue - too much of both for our intense discussion of depreciation methods, accounting for inventories and recapture of investment tax credits. She was as I remembered her from December, self-possessed, efficient, untouchable. We divided the check, and she left immediately after it had been paid.
The remainder of the week was not much different. I saw Julia every day. We conversed about professional subjects, the picture of mentor and disciple, while I secretly longed for her and pondered the distance between us. Not once did she allude to Shadowloves or show any sign that she cared about our intimacy.
Preoccupied with what I had lost, I scarcely noticed that, on their own terms, relations between us were warming. She started to call me "Steve" and once in a while mentioned subjects that were not strictly business. On Friday we went out to lunch and did not say a word about her tax audit. As we walked back to the office, she put her hand on my arm.
"Steve, it must be hard on you, being out here in the boondocks all alone. I was wondering whether - whether you'd like to have supper tonight with me and my folks. It's not anything fancy, but I think you'd like my Mom and Dad. They're cultured types like you."
Her parents, it turned out, both taught at a local college, he history, she economics. As predicted, they were delightful people. We talked into the night about topics that I hadn't thought about since before my romance began. Julia was not as knowledgeable, but she obviously liked listening to the knowledge of others.
Well past midnight, she drove me back to the hotel. The bar was still serving, and I invited her to stay for a drink. She did, and our talk ran on and on, until both of us began to droop in our chairs. When the barman announced the last round, we walked back to her car. She stood beside the door, keys in her hand, doing nothing. Impulsively, I gave her a kiss. It was very brief, but she definitely kissed back.
I slept well that night for the first time since coming to Rockford.
It was not, however, a very long sleep. At seven o'clock, the telephone rang. I wrestled the receiver against my ear and heard, before I could say "hello", a vaguely familiar, old-womanish voice. "You are making a mistake, Steven Moore. Come back to Shadowloves."
"What the hell!" I answered. A click and a dial tone were her reply.
I went into the office after a quick breakfast. Julia was already there, bleary-eyed but smiling. We worked on her audit until mid-afternoon, when I declared that we had done as much as we could today and, the weather having turned pleasant, might indulge in a ride through the country. She consented with more than a trace of enthusiasm.
The country around Rockford does not, to be candid, hold one's interest very long or firmly. Most of the flat fields yield corn, some pasture cattle, and a few grow spare, white, lonely houses that seem like nervous intruders into the empty world.
My principal thought about all this was gratitude that there was no beautiful landscape to distract Julia and me from each other.
At Shadowloves she had always been glamorous in chic clothes, expertly applied makeup, elegant jewelry. Today she wore baggy blue jeans, a shapeless blouse and dirty sneakers. Her face was unpainted, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. But she smiled more frequently and naturally than I remembered. Her laugh was lighter and her conversation more playful.
Once, after we had both laughed to the point of breathlessness at an ancient joke, she fell into a brief study, gazing past my head at a Norman Rockwell-ish church that we happened to be approaching.
"Anything wrong?" I asked after a little while.
She shook her head, and her face was bright again. "Steve, have you ever misjudged someone terribly?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"I'm sure I have."
"Me, too." And she brushed my cheek with a kiss. "Say, where are we going?"
"I haven't been paying attention. Wherever the car leads us, I suppose."
"That's good enough for me." She began to chatter about her parents and her childhood, about books that she had liked as a girl, her teen years as a short, dumpy intellectual and the disorienting surprise of the spurt of growth in her senior year of high school that transformed her into sought-after beauty. A few words suggested that she carried regrets from that period. Like my own life before Shadowloves, hers had been centered on work, varied with humdrum recreations pursued more for duty than for pleasure.
Meanwhile the automobile went its own way, unguided by any conscious decisions on my part. We continued to drive east, as that was the direction in which we had started. Without my paying much attention, the monotonous fields gave way to woods and hills and traces of suburbia.
Familiarity tugged at me. As tiny quivers of alarm tried to draw my attention, Julia leaned against me. "Steve, after you finish this assignment, I'd like to get up to Chicago now and then. Would that be okay with you?"
"Of course," I answered.
The car rounded the base of a hill. I looked up and saw, just below its summit, the entrance to Shadowloves. The resort loomed in the first twinges of twilight, ghastly and gothic and menacing, while the poisonous garden cast fluorescent highlights on the walls.
We jolted as I braked the car more quickly than was prudent. She flung her arms forward and barely avoided banging her head against the windshield.
"Sorry," I muttered.
"Why did you stop?"
"It's about time to head back, that's all."
Disappointment swept across her face. "Is that what you really want to do?"
I stumbled over my response while she cast her eyes on Shadowloves.
"I'm thirsty," she said decisively. "Let's stop up there for a drink."
"It's probably closed."
"Don't be ridiculous. Every light’s on. Anyway, I want to see the place close up. It looks fascinating. Where did they ever find such brilliant flowers?"
I could not think of any counterargument. The car crept up the hill, seeming to match my wariness.
The valet who took the car was unfamiliar - a white-cheeked, spectral figure. He dangled the keys from fingers whose skin did not look as if it quite covered their bones.
Inside, all was, as usual, mirrors and mahogany and a profusion of plants. Unusually, there were no people. As we walked toward the bar, I scanned every half-hidden cranny. All were empty of patrons.
"Nobody's here," I said, feeling sudden relief. "They must be closed."
She wavered. "Maybe you're right. . . . No, there's a woman tending the bar."
Without looking, I knew who it was.
Julia perched on a stool, asked for a glass of sherry and gazed into the crone's infinitely deep eyes. Silently, I toyed with a beer.
Julia's glass was empty. The woman brought another without being summoned.
"The second round is always on the house."
"Let's drink up and leave," I whispered. She gave no sign of having heard me.
The woman began to speak, softly and compellingly, for Julia's ear only. I heard Julia's soft and sad tones replying. Words reached me, weak and weary from crossing the gulf between the speakers and me.
"I was only a freshman, and I wasn't used to being attractive. He taught calculus. The first day of class, he stared at me every minute. I stared back. I'd never even imagined that a man could be so beautiful.
"It took a few weeks for me to get up the nerve to stay after class to talk to him. Meanwhile, I started wearing short-shorts and halter tops and always sat in the front row.
"On the last day of class, he asked me for a date. He was very scrupulous. He insisted on grading my final exam before we went to bed together. I got a B-plus.
"Over Christmas break, I moved into his apartment, though I had to keep everything secret from my parents, so I pretended that I still lived in the dorm. Naturally, they trusted me. I felt a little guilty but didn't really care, because I was so very, very happy.
"When summer came, he dropped me. No explanations. No good-byes. Just a note saying that he'd gone to California for a week on job interviews and wanted me out of the apartment when he got back.
"I thought I could stay and confront him, but he was too clever for that. A couple of his buddies showed up one afternoon, took all of his stuff away and told me that they had sublet the place, starting tomorrow. If I wasn't gone by then, the police would throw me out.
"They wouldn't tell me where he was. I suppose one of the interviews in California clicked. In any case, I never saw him again."
"But you haven't forgotten him, have you, my child?"
"I should have. I thought I was starting to."
"Go walk in the garden, darling. It will do you good."
Julia stood up. I grabbed her hand with a desperate wrench. "Don't listen to her. We have to leave."
She slipped free and walked steadily toward the glass door that led to the garden. I trailed after her, helpless and afraid.
She wound her way through the maze of hedges, coming at last to a clearing. Detail for detail, it was not the same one that I had entered months ago, but it, too, held an oak tree and iridescent fungus and a mound of unseasonable snow.
The man who leaned against the oak was tall, sandy-haired, muscular. He beckoned, and Julia fell into his arms.
In this glen, as in mine, there was a bench in a secluded corner. I fled as the pair of them fell passionately on top of it.
Around the corner of the hedge, I saw Julia again.
"You're late, sweetheart," she murmured. She placed her hands beneath my chin and pulled it toward her. The diamond on her finger dug into my flesh.
Every weekend now, regardless of all else, I come to Shadowloves and consort with the woman of my dreams. I have no desire to escape from her, even if I could, but there is little joy in my pleasure.
The saddest moments come when the backmost corner of my eye catches sight of another invariable guest. She walks hand in hand with her lover, attentive only to his presence. Yet now and then I fancy that I could approach her. I raise my hand to wave. Her hand, too, makes tentative motions.
Then our companions pull us back. The moment dies, and we languish again in the delights of Shadowloves.