Author’s note: I wrote the first draft of this sometime in Spring 2002, predating the blog by three years. I shopped it around to seven or eight journals, and got encouraging feedback—declines, but still…—from two editors. I sat on it until 2005, while writing first drafts of two failed children’s novels. I tinkered some more, sent it out to four or five more little magazines; all turned it down. Looking at it now, the story’s more in thrall to the finely observed epiphanies of Alice Munro and Andrea Lee than I could admit at the time. I tried so hard to make this black woman universal—no name, few identifying details, no labels or brand names, an overly studious opacity to the prose—that I’m afraid no one thought of her as a particular character at all, much less a black one. Ah well.
The story starts after the jump.
“Margarita Salt” by Walter Biggins
protected under a Creative Commons License 4.0
She met him at a conference, held in what she thought of as a nice hotel. They gave papers in a session called “The African American Novel between Native Son and Invisible Man.” She read a paper that had been revised in a mad, Irish coffee-fueled dash on the airplane flight the night before. He read a paper stoically but afterward, amid the handshakes and gossip, he had made burning eye contact with her, and only her. She fell hard for his fierce eyes and the swoops and lulls of his accent, which she could not quite place. She was goofily and giddily charmed when, as he answered her question—asked mostly so she could hear that voice again—he casually and assuredly referred to “Albert Murray’s landsliding work, The Omni-Americans,” when he probably meant “groundbreaking.”
He made her think about her husband, about the little things she liked about wearing a small cluster of sky-colored sapphires on her ring finger. The ring was one of the things she liked, but that seemed so petty that she tried to think of something more substantial.
She had seen the man in two other sessions, so she knew they shared similar research interests, and she tried to graze his shoulder after the session ended and people were milling around, making dinner dates. A buzzing crowd of bespectacled women swarmed around him and she decided to leave well enough alone.
So she went to the hotel bar and drank a vodka martini, stuttering her wedding ring around and around her finger and staring into a space just below a lit candle two tables away. When she was on her second martini, the candlelight that glowed on her cocktail glass flickered out for a second and when the glow came back, he was standing across the table from her.
She motioned for him to sit down—too eagerly, she thought—and he ordered a Jack Rose. They sat with their clear drinks staring at each other and saying inconsequential things. She flicked nonexistent dust off her shoe and he said he liked her shoes, her legs. She liked his shirt, his eyes, and said so. Somehow, they managed a dirty joke out of The New Negro.
He liked her voice. He liked her straightened hair. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. She removed hers when he made a drink order for them. She liked his teeth and those eyes that plunged into her brain and wouldn’t come out, and she liked the torrential movement of his hands when he got excited.
He gently whisked a stray hair from her forehead. She loved this. He told her that her hair was luminescent, which she loved even more, even though she felt he probably meant something else entirely. Her hair was black, with wispy gray strands twinkling like the moon on a gurgling stream.
They ran their fingertips on the rims of their glasses and spoke in soft, conspiratorial tones. She kneaded the tan line where her wedding ring normally was. Then he rubbed the line with his thumb and middle finger, while never for a second actually looking at it. He looked instead at her eyes and the winding curve of her lower neck and shoulder.
He paid for their drinks. They did not hold hands as they walked through the hotel lobby, though she thought about it. In the elevator, she realized the overhead glow made him look spectacular from a foot away, and that he looked even better from six inches away, and that he was downright magnificent from two inches away. And then there was no space between them at all.
She had almost forgotten the kind of kiss that seeped right into her skin, through her bloodstream, and billowed back out like rising steam from a pot of boiling water.
She felt his cupped palm hovered over but not touching her breast. The elevator door opened. It was his floor. They trembled down the hall, holding hands gingerly, like schoolchildren.
His room looked like hers and smelled like him. He gently removed her coat and hung it in his closet. They kissed again, slowly and smoothly.
“I think that perhaps I feel like a frozen margarita,” he said. “Would you like one as well?”
“We could have ordered two at the bar,” she said, “and brought them up here.”
She loosened his tie, scraping a finger across his light stubble.
“Oh no,” he said. “I can improve on theirs myself.”
It took her a moment to figure out what he meant.
“My margaritas are supreme,” he said.
“But how will you make them? You don’t have tequila here, do you?”
“Not only that, but also triple sec, limes and Bacardi margarita concentrate.”
He twirled the tequila bottle in his hand, and almost dropped it.
“You have tequila in your room?” she said. “I don’t even have a blender in mine. Did you buy all this when you got here?”
“Oh no. This room is—what word am I looking for?—well-stocked. This hotel is bonafide.”
He probably meant “topnotch,” she decided.
“Do you have an executive suite?” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘ahh?’” she said. “You don’t, either. Or, at least, if you have one, then so do I. My room looks exactly like yours, without the blender and the accoutrements. You must have meant to say, ‘ooh la la,” and she kissed him.
He said, “Perhaps a previous tenant, then?”, kissing the delicate, delectable space below her jawbone.
Maybe he meant “guest.” “I think the housekeeping would have filched a bottle of good tequila. You know, we don’t absolutely need to have frozen margaritas.”
“You’re right. I could just sip tequila off your shoulder blades.” He traced a line from her collarbone to her forearm.
“You could just have me.”
“Your idea,” he said, “is perhaps better than mine.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After they were done, her hair was sweat-slick and clinging to his chest. He licked her fingertips and kissed her closed eyelids. There were too many things flowing into, and out of, her head.
“Perhaps now I can make you one of my world-famous margaritas?”
“I think that would be terrific,” she said.
He kissed her moist belly and stood up. She was surprised by how much she still liked his body. She watched him unwind the plastic sealing strap from the Bacardi mixer and scoop the contents into the blender. He poured tequila into the empty Bacardi can until it was three-fourths full, and poured triple sec on top until the liquid sat glassy-smooth and still on the container’s rim, a quivering bubble about to burst. With a bit of legerdemain she could not believe she saw, he poured the mixture into the blender without spilling a drop.
He clinked and splished ice cubes one by one into the blender. When the ice had reached the blender’s top, he set the cover on it as if adjusting antennas to get perfect reception from a finicky television.
The grinding ice jarred her awake. His mouth moved but she couldn’t hear him over the din. She cupped her palm and held it open-faced next to her ear.
He sliced a lime into eight identical wedges and cut each down the middle until the blade touched the rind. He spread open a slit wedge and fitted it to the rim of a glass. He ran the wedge along the rim until the rim glistened with lime juice. Opening a package of margarita salt with a crisp snap, he upended the glass and dabbed it into the salt.
“How much margarita salt would you care for?” he said.
She sat upright in bed. She worried the tan line where her wedding band usually was.
When people, usually her grandmother or her aunt or her mother-in-law, used to tell her that it was the little things that really mattered, she would nod her head slowly and look around the room for someone else to talk to. But they were right, at least about this. She had figured it out, one substantial thing she liked about her husband. She liked that there was one person who knew with absolute authority and certainty that margarita salt stung her throat and made her gag, and that she did not like it.
Her blouse was halfway buttoned before he realized what was happening.
“Don’t touch me,” she said. “Don’t. Don’t.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What have I done wrong?”
She could not even begin to say, so she fled. She was in the elevator, staring at the lit button for her floor, when she remembered her coat. She had left it in the man’s closet. And with it, in the coat’s secret pocket on the inside of the left breast, was her wedding ring.
She swore. She screamed. She punched the elevator doors until her knuckles swelled from the pain. When she had finished, she brushed back her hair and pressed the button for his floor.
Walking down the hall the second time, the walls seemed farther apart and the air chillier. The hardwood floor and Oriental rugs glowed with an even greater intensity and luster than before, and this annoyed her. She knocked lightly on his door and heard the shuffling of sock feet on the floor within. In the corner of her mouth, she tasted the liquid aluminum you taste when you drink boiling water, and she realized she had no idea what she was about to do, or what she was capable of.