Adèle appears to have it all. A successful journalist specialising in North African affairs, she lives in an elegant Parisian apartment with her surgeon husband and their young son. But beneath the surface of her bourgeois respectability, Adèle has a secret – she is consumed by an insatiable need for sex. She wants to be ‘devoured, sucked, swallowed whole’ by anyone, it seems, who isn’t her husband.
Adèle is Slimani’s first novel; it was published in France in 2014 and has just been translated into English by Sam Taylor on the back of the success of her second novel, Lullaby, which won the Prix Goncourt in 2016 and captivated readers in the UK when it was published here last year. Both are dark, disturbing novels, and not just for the brutal subject matter of child murder and sex addiction but because Slimani explores nightmarish extremes of female subjectivity. She sets maternal duty against desire, ambition and liberty, exposing loneliness at the heart of family life.
I found Adèle as arresting as Lullaby, but not quite as satisfying. I did not like Adèle, but that shouldn’t have mattered. What I found most difficult was that I couldn’t understand her. From the outset, she craves violence and degradation. In the shower, she wants ‘someone to grab her and smash her skull into the glass door.’ On the metro, she sees a man and thinks: ‘He’s ugly. He might do.’ When she stops off to visit a lover, the act is neither ‘obscene enough or tender enough’ to gratify her. She fantasises about her boss, carefully choosing her outfits and crafting intelligent stories to impress him, only to realise he is ‘potbellied and clumsy’ in the flesh.
Rather than erotic and daring, Adèle’s sexual encounters are relentlessly devoid of pleasure. Her ‘favourite moment’ is before the first kiss when she is ‘the mistress of the magic’. It is the situation not the act that arouses her, and yet she is driven by a deep compulsion to give men pleasure. Her only agency is in choosing who to seduce, but she isn’t very choosey.
Adèle does not fit the mould of a modern #MeToo woman. She is submissive and likes being overpowered. When she begs two drug-dealing prostitutes to hurt her, she is left ‘just a shard of broken glass now, a maze of ridges and fissures’. The choices she gives herself are a bit frustrating – to fuck herself into oblivion or accept the living death of family life.
Adèle shares a lot in common with Madame Bovary. She’s shallow and materialistic, restless in her marriage to a well-to-do doctor, and unfulfilled by her role as a mother. But while Emma struck me as flawed and noble, sacrificing herself for a dream of romantic love, Adèle doesn’t seem to care very much about anything. She clings to the respectability her husband affords her but sees ‘family life as a dreadful punishment’. Her love for her son is ‘a rough, misshapen love, dented and bruised by everyday life’. She loses interest in her work and begins to plagiarise articles and invent sources once she has seduced her boss, for ‘What was the point of working now that she’d had him?’
Slimani doesn’t offer any justification for Adèle’s behaviour. We understand that she felt stifled growing up in a provincial town, that a trip through the seedy Pigalle area of Paris when she was a girl, with her mother and a man who wasn’t her father, first inspired her feelings of ‘fear and longing, disgust and arousal’. She was later stirred by a passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and she lost her virginity on the damp floor of a garage to a heartless boyfriend. But none of these really explain Adèle’s compulsions.
When Adèle’s husband Richard finds out about her many affairs, he takes her to live in the Normandy countryside. For a woman who feared losing everything, most of all her freedom, rural life is a prison. Adèle has no phone, no money, no car, and no means of escape – until her father dies and she is released to attend his funeral. What happens next is heartbreaking. Adèle betrays herself and our hopes for her. She is an enigma. Richard can’t solve her, and neither can we. She resists interpretation and redemption.
Adèle is a brilliant snapshot of sex addiction. It’s compelling and propulsive, and delivered in elegant, bracingly spare prose, but I can’t say I found it an easy read. I never quite got to grips with the emptiness fuelling Adèle’s addiction, and by the end, although I pitied Adèle, I also felt a bit numb. Torn between extremes of maternal obligation and desire, both of which will destroy her, Adèle has no real liberty. And Slimani – in presenting female sexuality and family life as binaries – doesn’t offer any answers. It’s a deeply troubling novel, one that will stay with me for a long time.
Can you tell the gender of an artist by looking at their paintings? Know the sex of an author by reading her work?
Bastille Day is a day celebrating theDeclaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.Although in 1789, when it was proclaimed, women were not considered citizens. It wasn’t until 1791 that France’s first feminist, Olympe de Gouges, published a declaration recognising women as citizens, and it would be a further 54 years before France would grant women the right to vote. I asked writers, artists and a gallerist how much much has changed since then, and what it means to be feminine?
Sylvie Bailly(writer and gallerist): My grandmother was born in 1900 and she received her first chequebook when my grandfather died. And that was in 1979!
Litro: I guess to pay for his funeral.
Sylvie Bailly: The problem with how a woman finds her place in these big cities [Bailly came to Paris from Vienna when she was seven]…is how you can be feminine as well as a working woman in a big city. Because we are not women in the countryside. We are business women. And that is the point, we make efforts to be feminine, but somehow we have to be active, modern women.
Litro: We were talking earlier about brands and how they operate as sociological symbols. When we do not have time to reconnect with nature, with our feminine side, when we’re more and more taking on masculine roles, then fashion becomes a stand-in for what we lack. We have the money to buy a brand that is a symbol of femininity.
Sylvie Bailly: We say in France a panoplie. I don’t know if it’s the same in English; we buy an outfit, but it doesn’t mean that we are feminine. There are some women – they can’t walk in very high heels – and in Paris sometimes it’s strange how a woman walks.
Litro: Like a wounded animal.
Sylvie Bailly: Yes, yes. A wounded animal!
Litro: And what does it mean to be a woman today?
Sylvie Bailly: In the past the way a woman was clothed was dependent on her origin, religion, social status. And now you take modern culture and put it on old culture and it’s strange somehow. You know what I mean? A work of art, it’s like a message in a bottle. Messages from the ancient world somehow.
Litro: It can be understood by all without the barriers of language. There is a painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It’s a portrait by Bronzino of the poet Laura Battiferri. It’s not one of his well-known paintings. He painted for the Medicis and normally did very stylised portraits, but this one was striking for other reasons. Later I did a little research and found out she was married to a sculptor and couldn’t have children, so this caused her some sadness which she funnelled into her poems. But without knowing all this, the first time I looked at the painting there was something immediate and powerful and extreme. She has a very fierce profile, a little like a crow, and these large, intelligent eyes. And her hand is holding this book and the way it’s bent it looks almost like a claw. And of all the amazing paintings and Renaissance sculptures in Florence, Botticellis and Michaelangelos, it’s strange, this is the painting that stays with me.
Sylvie Bailly: That’s what’s interesting about your paintings, too. It is aesthetically pleasing, and yet it’s unsettling. There is a woman on the beach, but look closer, she has almost no clothes on and there is this helicopter on the the horizon.
Litro: Well, thank you. I try to…I don’t know if I succeed always…but that is the thing about painting, this ability for it to speak to us after many years. This painting was done in the 16th century, but in it Battiferri seems like a feminist, like Olympe de Gouges. She had independence. She was a poet and she couldn’t have children, that route wasn’t open to her so she wrote.
Sylvie Bailly: Olympe de Gouges was from a not really poor family from the south of France. She was born in Montauban. Her mother was educated at the same time as Jean-Jacques Lefranc, who was from a very wealthy family. Because their families were close, they spent all their time together when they were young and they were in love. When her mother became pregnant he didn’t support her and never recognised Olympe as his child. Later he became a famous author and married a wealthy woman.
Litro: That’s interesting because Battiferri was also the illegitimate child of a wealthy man. Although her father recognized and eventually legitimized her, it may have contributed to her need to be recognized for her art.
Sylvie Bailly: Olympe’s mother’s name was Olympe. She adopted her mother’s name to honour her. Lefranc was immensely rich and famous. She wanted to have the recognition of her father, and that’s why she adopted de Gouges with the noble prefix because she wanted to be appreciated by her father, who was now a famous author and an enemy of Voltaire. Voltaire was one of the Siècles de Lumières[a European intellectual movement for equality,1715-1789, whose members included David Hume and Thomas Jefferson].
Because her father never gave her mother money to educate Olympe, she became revolutionary and aware that there must be more equality. She became a humanist. She was the first woman in France to fight against slavery. She didn’t only have feminist ideas. She wrote a play L’Esclavage des nègres which was performed at the Comédie Française – because when she left Montauban she came to Paris and was fortunate to have wealthy friends who helped her bring her play to the Comédie Française. But the problem was that when slave owners visited Paris they all attended the Comédie Française. And her play, which spoke out against slavery, became a big scandal.
She was also the first woman to propose the right of divorce, fought for more independence for women, the welfare state and abolishment of the death penalty. She campaigned for access to hygienic maternity wards for the poor. She grasped so many important things which are the basis for our modern world.
Litro: She was a vanguardist.
Sylvie Bailly: Absolutely. She attended public academies, but really she educated herself. And Mirabeau, who was a famous French politician said – so many intelligent ideas coming from an uneducated woman. She wrote many socially-engaged plays which encouraged political change.
I am surprised that she is not better known outside of France. As the Revolution progressed, she became more outspoken and finally she was arrested for her writings. The prosecution claimed that her writings stirred support for the Royalists, but de Gouges stated she had always supported the Revolution. At this time the Jacobins wouldn’t tolerate opposition from intellectuals. De Gouges was sentenced to death on 2 November 1793 and was executed by guillotine the following day.
Sylvie Bailly Formerly a lawyer specialising in international law, Bailly is now a gallerist and the author of many non-fiction books, including Des siècles de beauté, which discusses beauty in it’s political and religious context, and as a counterpoint to male hegemony. The exhibition Elles: Chinese Women Artists runs in Galerie Olympe de Gouges from October 1 to November 7.
Next week: Part II – Conversation with Jean-Luc Maxence about Jung, celebrating the difference between men and women, and the impossibility of writing genderless fiction.
Lost Things and Missing Persons
Angelina waited tables in the bar of a hotel in mid-town El Paso. She was a young woman and wore a flower—a lilac or an iris or sometimes even an orchid—in her short, straight, mouse-brown hair. She wore no makeup on her lightly-freckled face, her hazel eyes steady and kind.
“You always have a flower in your hair,” Jeff the bartender said to her one night. He was also young, a couple years older than she was. “Why do you do that? None of the other waitresses do that.”
“They should,” Angelina said, nodding once, her hair and flower bouncing gently as she placed an order of drinks on her round black tray. “The customers like it, especially the men. I make more tips.”
“Wow,” Jeff said, smiling. “I never would’ve thought.”
“Of course not—you’re a guy,” Angelina smiled back. She picked up her tray to go serve the drinks.
Jeff and Angelina chatted casually and got to know each other a little on the nights they worked together, if they weren’t too busy and if Jeff wasn’t flirting with another of the waitresses or one of the customers. He never flirted with her. Though she was a cocktail waitress and wore the skimpy green dress the hotel management mandated and supplied, to him she seemed far too sober-minded and just plain nice to put the moves on. Raised in El Paso, she was a student at a university in San Antonio, working at this bar when she was back home on break. She didn’t smoke, she rarely drank, she made no bawdy comments or lascivious leers—she was a rock-solid Methodist—and she never picked anyone up, nor did she seem to have a boyfriend. As far as Jeff could tell, she had no interest in romance at all.
The second summer they worked together, he was managing the bar along with tending it. Not showing up for a scheduled shift now and then was something most cocktail waitresses could be counted on to do, some more than others. Angelina always showed up, and on nights when Jeff was short-staffed with a waitress calling in sick, or tired, or sick and tired, or simply not showing up and not bothering to call, Jeff could phone Angelina and she would come in, happy to work the extra shift and earn what her flower, her polite, cheerful steadiness, and the skimpy green dress might bring her.
Just before she returned to school at the end of that second summer, she came by the bar one afternoon when Jeff was tending happy hour. It was the very start of the shift and there was no one else there. She followed him onto the unlighted stage by the dance floor when he went up to the deejay’s booth to set some music to playing; when he turned, she was there in front of him to say goodbye. She kissed him, and they kissed for a long time, he in his bartender’s uniform with its black pants and vest, she in a light summer dress. He was surprised and pleased. He’d had no idea she might want to do this. She kissed well, and he liked the feel of her body under his hands.
Back in El Paso on her break that winter and working at the bar again, she invited Jeff over for Christmas dinner with her parents—her father a thin, trembling public school administrator who always had a can of beer in his hand and a smile on his face, her mother a level and sharp radiologist who wore glasses and who, while pleasant enough, brooked little nonsense. It was snowing outside that day and a football game was on the colour television in one corner of the cozy living room of their modest tract house. Angelina wore a navy blue sweater and new blue jeans, both snug but not immodestly so, and when she stood in the living room with her hands on her hips to look at the television a moment after a touchdown or a field goal, the crowd cheering and the announcers excited, Jeff noticed for the first time the fine, enticing balance of her figure, her narrow young waist and flat belly, the outline of her small and perfect breasts. It never occurred to him she might be posing.
She was quite different from him, religious, a churchgoer, sober and cheerful without giddiness, without noticeable swing of mood. Though he had been raised a Baptist and had read the Bible through, from In the beginning to Amen, he hadn’t been to services in years and was rarely more than accidentally and temporarily sober, his moods depending more than he realised on whatever he was somewhat or largely under the influence of. Though he liked what he saw when he looked at her, he wanted to make some attempt to keep from ill-using her. She had recently turned 22 and during one of the slack-time chats they’d had at the bar, had told him she was still a virgin. He was 24 and a fuck-around. She pretty much knew by now that he had slept with more than one of her fellow waitresses, though she may not have known, this winter, that on a Friday or Saturday night with the bar fully crewed, she was in fact the only waitress on the floor he had not slept with.
They were snowed-in the last Monday night of that year, when it was just the two of them in the bar, the storm starting in the early evening and not stopping until a half-foot of fresh snow covered the desert city. The hotel’s night manager, a middle-aged divorcé with a couple of kids barely younger than Jeff and Angelina, let them have a couple empty rooms after they had closed the bar and changed into their street clothes.
“I insist on it,” he said. “I’m not going to let you two drive home in this if I can help it.” He handed them the keys.
Jeff saw Angelina to her room, their footsteps crunch-squeaking through still-falling snow, then he went to his own, across an open passageway and a few doors down. Inside, he turned on the lights and the cabled-in television and turned up the heat. His overcoat was an old US Army fatigue jacket his father had brought home from the Vietnam War. Out of one of its pockets he pulled a novel about the American Civil War; out of another he pulled a small baggie of marijuana, a pack of rolling papers, and a pack of cigarettes. He tossed these items onto the round table in the middle of the room, pulled out one of the chairs there, took his jacket off and draped it over the back of the chair, and sat to roll himself a joint. Soon as he had it rolled, the phone rang.
“Jeffrey,” Angelina said, “are you still up?”
“Yes,” he said. She was the only person besides his father and the hotel’s general manager who called him Jeffrey.
“I hate to bother you,” she said, “but my heater won’t work. Could you come take a look?”
“Sure. I’ll be right there.”
He couldn’t get it to work, either. Shortly he and Angelina were on her hotel room’s bed, its covers still up, him on his back, her straddling him, both of them fully-dressed and still winter-coated in her cold room with its lights turned out. It happened so naturally and fast, he never could recall just how.
She kissed him and said, “I want you to be the first.”
He never asked her why. Of all the men she must have known, he couldn’t believe he was the best she could do. He didn’t want to mess it up by getting too inquisitive about it. If she wanted him to be the first, he would be the first. As for that night, it was too cold in her room for them to remove any clothing there. He didn’t invite her back to his room, fearing they would be fired if they were found to have spent the night or any significant portion of it in the same room together. The hotel management had strict rules about employees doing that sort of thing. It crossed his mind to be gallant and offer to swap rooms with her, but he was not that gallant. He returned to his room, smoked the joint and a cigarette, lay in his bed watching the Three Stooges on television, read some of his novel, and was awake until almost daylight, unable to sleep. Angelina told him the following night at work that she hadn’t been able to sleep either, as cold as it had been in her room.
After she returned to school in San Antonio, they stayed in constant touch through letters and occasional phone calls. When she was back in El Paso for spring break, she didn’t work at the bar, she was only home for a week, but she and Jeff went to the movies one night, to see Gandhi. It was a long movie, with an intermission that came right after the scene of a massacre; refreshments were out of the question. After the movie, she came home with Jeff to his one-room apartment, where they sat on his bed and made out. With his gentle, murmuring, patient insistence, she removed first her blouse and then her bra, but she wouldn’t lie down on the bed and she wanted the lamp on the night-stand left on. She sat with her head down, almost as though she were ashamed. Jeff was wondering if he was still to be her first, or even if they were ever to be more intimate at all, when not long after midnight, his phone rang. It was Angelina’s mother.
“Tell her she has to come home right now.”
Jeff and Angelina became lovers in May, the day after she returned to El Paso for the summer. They spent a passionate season together, making love here and there: in her bed, in his, on his carpeted floor, on his sofa. She cried the first time. That would be the time in her bed, filled with the stuffed toy frogs and frog pillows she had collected as a girl. She kissed and kissed Jeff, but he kept turning into himself. The bright sunlight beat hard on the thin, flowered curtain covering her bedroom window.
She returned to school in late August. It was her final undergraduate year. She and Jeff had talked of their future, of marriage, of graduate school in El Paso, of her becoming a schoolteacher.
The waitress who replaced her at the hotel bar, who even ended up wearing the same skimpy green cocktail dress she had worn, this waitress became Jeff’s lover less than three weeks after Angelina had returned to San Antonio. (There are several San Antonios; the one after whom the city in Texas is named is the one from Padua, the patron saint of lost things and missing persons.) Approximately six weeks later, this replacement waitress invited Jeff to move in with her. He accepted.
Before Christmas came and Angelina returned to El Paso for the holiday, Jeff could no longer hide from her what he had done, writing her a letter to tell her he had moved and who he had moved in with. She wrote him a letter in response that so shamed him, he could neither re-read it nor throw it away. He stored it with what he considered his most important papers, not one of which he ever re-read or threw away.
He remained with the replacement waitress, whose story in its details is immaterial here, but who answered a need so deep in Jeff that he did not know it existed until she found it. Nonetheless, sometimes Jeff’s relationship with the replacement waitress was strained. They were young and he was often intoxicated on this or that for days or even weeks on end.
The following summer, during one of these rough patches, Angelina was back in El Paso for a time. She and Jeff ended up making love one final time, on a July afternoon in the bed Jeff normally shared with the replacement waitress, who was fortuitously absent. Angelina hoped, without getting her hopes too high, that Jeff would leave this other woman and return to her, but even if he didn’t, she thought it was worth it. It had been almost a year since she had last made love with him, she hadn’t ever made love with anyone else—that would come soon enough, and she would not long after that be married to this new and second lover—and she quite simply loved the act of sexual intercourse just as she quite simply loved Jeff, even if she had to let him go. Which she did. He went on to marry the replacement waitress and when that marriage came apart a few years later he would some nights lie in his otherwise empty bed and recall Angelina, the flower in her hair and her kind and steady eyes.
William, sitting on the edge of his bed in his underwear, took a long, thirst-quenching pull from a 1.5 litre bottle of Evian.
What you did down there, Megan said, was exceptional.
Thanks, he said, wiping his mouth with the hairs on his forearm.
No, she said. I’m serious. You think your handprints are—
Probably, he said, they usually are.
Megan, who worked at the bank where he did business, jumped up on the bed, twisted hips and torso and looked at herself in the mirror.
Ooooooh, she said. What a naughty boy you are.
William watched as she, at first tentatively, then confidently, touched and lifted the skin he had just reddened and raised with his hands. He was 37, the co-owner of a small, profitable vegetarian restaurant, a man who had made enough mistakes, repeatedly enough and over enough number of years, to earn experience and a smooth, relatively uncomplicated life. He thought of himself like a monk in the city, minus the silly rules, and sitting there, watching Megan, he felt the pride a man feels after satisfying a woman in bed, after doing so aggressively and in a primal and masculine way. He liked that, but he wasn’t a primal, aggressive, or masculine man. He told himself he wasn’t and that he didn’t want to be. The world’s problems were male problems, and he wanted to leave such problems and worlds behind. But the bedroom was different. The bedroom was tricky.
Megan crouched, completely naked, and stared at him. She was beautifully unselfconscious, so free of the usual insecurities. She was only 26. He wondered what men had come before him.
She did a kind of duck walk and made her way to the edge of the bed where he was seated. He had been thinking, recently, about asking her to move in. A woman’s presence was something he had come to rely on, and it was time for hers.
She started massaging his shoulders. I wonder what it’d be like if you…
What? he asked.
Did that to my face.
He turned. His immediate reaction was No, No way, but when someone was bold enough to speak them, it was necessary to be careful with desires. Women had been careful with his.
You would really want me to? he said.
I don’t know, she said, maybe.
He watched her, watched for a sign.
No, she said.
She held out her hand and helped pull him up and onto the bed. She leaned against the headboard, her feet tucked beneath her, and reached down between his legs.
He was facing her, sort of kneeling, and he hadn’t come earlier, which changes things. He let the water bottle fall from his hand.
I want you to, she said.
She bent forward, got off his underwear, kept touching him.
Do it, she said.
He had never done it before. The only time he had ever hit a girl’s face, by accident, was when he was five. He had merely meant to push his cousin – she deserved it – into the bushes, but he had tripped over her bicycle and clipped her face, and his aunt, who had only witnessed the end of things, lectured him as she led him into the house for a spanking.
Little boys, she said, pinching and bruising his arm with her tugging, meaty hand, don’t hit little girls, and big, strong men, she said with even more passion and cruelty, don’t hit women. You want to become a man, don’t you, William?
But over the years, he had thought about it. Not out on the street or thanks to anger or anything brutish and stupid like that, but in bed, in the bedroom. In the bedroom, he wanted to approach, if for no other reason than variety, that type of masculinity.
Now, Megan said.
One mood-killing word of hesitation and the moment would pass.
Do it now, she said.
Would it be a loss? Irretrievable?
He had sodomized them and let them ram their dildos into him. He had spanked them all and played with hot wax and heated knives and had urinated on their faces, though he would never do that again, not with someone he loved. He had pushed and learned, but this wasn’t that, not exactly. Or was it? Violence is tricky, too, much trickier than anyone would have you believe.
Now, she said.
It’s so hard to know where the lines are.
Do it now.
What man hasn’t, at some point in their lives, thought of doing it?
His hands were by his thighs, palms down on the mattress; he looked at the right one and then snapped it across her cheek. He hadn’t used his full force – not even a quarter of what he had done to the flesh of her behind – but the noise was crisp and her head whipped to the side and he was ready to apologise, to say, never again, but her face turned back and the grin on that face changed things even more.
You lied, he said.
Again, she said.
He would have liked to have been disgusted with himself or with her, to feel shame, but he didn’t.
Earlier, he said.
Again, she said.
You’ve done it, he said.
Do it, she said.
Sex is the trickiest.
He hit her again, and once more, and then he was on top of her and inside her and soon he was finished, exploded, and she looked even more satisfied, but her face was a mess, puffy and red and not beautiful.
Don’t worry, she said, I’m a genius with makeup.
He wasn’t worried. What he had done was neither fortunate, nor unfortunate: it was knowledge. This was just one of those moments in life, neither right nor wrong, where he had crossed an unsolid line. One day he would regret the crossing, and it would become wrong, as things do, but not for a while. By then the line would be well constructed, another solid piece of self-knowledge, personally impassable, and Megan would be long gone and he would be left to wonder, rarely – so very rarely – if he had become a man, the kind his aunt had once mentioned.
Short Story: “The Recovery Position” by Stuart Snelson
This week on Litro Lab, actor Greg Page reads a story that appeared in our Sex-themed issue in February. “The Recovery Position” by Stuart Snelson is a painfully funny tale of a man’s attempts to liven up his married sex life with the help of an inflatable friend.
You can listen to the podcast using the player below, or search “Litro Lab” on iTunes.
Litro members can read Stuart’s story from our “Sex” February issue online here. To sign up for our membership deal, which includes all print issues delivered to your door, full online access to all short fiction, and membership of our book club: click here.
Stuart Snelson’s work has appeared previously in Litro and Paraxis, and is forthcoming in Notes from the Underground. He is currently at work on his second novel whilst trying to find a home for his first, Drinking Up Time. He lives in London and can be contacted at [email protected]
Snelson’s story is read by Greg Page, who trained at Maria Grey College and the City Lit. Previous credits include touring with the London Bubble, Malvolio for TTC, appearing as a hired killer and a gay street preacher in independent films, and the voice of a coma victim for BBC radio. He currently appears in Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre, London. He can be contacted through Rosebery Management.
Tracey Cox’s Literary Problem Page
Authors may expect us to buy the happy-ever-after ending, but seriously? Wives in the attic, cross-species love and a 2,000 year age gap? How long is it really going to last? Our guest sex expert Tracey Cox helps out some fictional couples we’ve always thought could do with some serious therapy after the final page.
Book: JANE EYRE
Author: CHARLOTTE BRONTË
Relationship: JANE EYRE AND MR ROCHESTER
It’s not surprising that Jane feels obliged to explain herself at the end of the book when she says, “Reader, I married him.” Her relationship has hardly had a good track record to date: their first attempt at tying the knot was interrupted by the revelation that Mr Rochester had another wife locked in the attic of the house he was planning on sharing with Jane. Jane has suffered a loveless childhood, is passionate and very moral. Edward Rochester is Jane’s dark and mysterious employer, equally passionate and with an equally troubled past. At the end of the book, Jane agrees to have Mr Rochester only after he is disabled, blinded, impoverished and powerless.
Tracey says: Danger, danger, do not go there – which is why Jane didn’t until Mr Rochester was completely disempowered. Hiding dark, important secrets – like a wife locked in the attic – from someone you intend to spend the rest of your life with, is not a great foundation for a relationship. Trust is blown immediately and remains shaky from there on. Most women would run a mile after the discovery, Jane doesn’t because she’s got low self-esteem from a loveless childhood. Two tortured souls with matching troubled pasts, do attract because they have things in common. But in order to heal, at least one of the pair of you needs to have had a secure past and upbringing in order to ‘teach’ the other how to function healthily within a relationship. There is hope though: Rochester loses everything, which could be enough to make him completely rethink himself and create a ‘new’ Rochester who can love and won’t lie in the future.
Author: STEPHENIE MEYER
Relationship: BELLA SWAN AND EDWARD CULLEN
Suggested by: Sophie Wiggins @SophieCWiggs “I think Bella Swan and Edward Cullen would benefit from some intensive couples therapy”
Bella Swan is a clumsy teenager with low self-esteem trying to fit in in a new town. Edward Cullen is the hottie Bella meets at her new school who happens to be a vampire. Apart from their mismatched background, their on-again-off-again relationship has to overcome some hurdles: Edward can’t tell what Bella is thinking (it’s not just a man thing, she’s immune to his mind-reading power), there’s a love triangle with a werewolf rival, and at one point he leaves her because he thinks she’d better off not being in a relationship with the un-dead. But Bella and Edward end up getting married and having a half-human, half-vampire daughter.
Tracey says: On the plus side, these two have perseverance and passion: they both want a relationship and there’s bucket loads of chemistry. Score high on both these factors and it’s got a good chance of lasting the distance. Not so good: incompatibility and different backgrounds. Those delicious ‘love hormones’ that release at the start, fuelling desire and idealising heavily, wear off around six to nine months. That’s when you really know if you’ve made a good choice: it’s day to day compatibility that keeps things flowing smoothly, making the relationship nice and easy. In real life, Bella would end up feeling resentful for all she’s had to give up to be with Edward. And who wants an almighty row with a vampire?
Book: LORD OF THE RINGS
Couple: ARAGORN, SON OF ARATHORN AND ARWEN EVENSTAR
Suggested by: Emily Cleaver @EmilyCleaver – “I’ve always thought Aragorn and Arwen would bore each other to tears within a month of marriage.”
Aragorn is an up-and-coming royal, heir to the throne of Gondor, Arwen is one of the last of the race of elves of Middle Earth. It’s love at first sight, although there’s a bit of an age difference to contend with – Aragorn is 20 when they first meet, Arwen has seen the wrong side of 2,000. Arwen has to make some major sacrifices to make it work, like giving up immortality. They’re kept apart by her over-protective father at first, then they’re married when Aragorn takes the throne.
Tracey says: The problem with couples who get together after a huge battle and against all odds, is that when they finally do, it’s all a bit of an anti-climax. It’s a lot like having an affair: once it’s out in the open and everyone approves, the couple split because a lot of the appeal of an affair is that it’s forbidden and high on drama and tension. There’s high incompatibility between these two as well with the age difference (eat your heart out Harry Styles) and different cultures. And there’s a disapproving parent : it feels great to rebel but most people secretly want our parents to approve of our choices. Emily’s prediction could well be right: they’ll bore the pants off each other long-term!
When I worked as a call girl, I relied on, and needed, denial to function in life. That denial was essential in order to work. To have sex with men and women I didn’t want to have sex with, to have people see me naked, to have strangers touch my body, touch my skin anywhere they wanted with whatever body part of theirs they wanted to use, I had to be in denial. That is what allowed me to do it without breaking, without falling apart, without realising the hell in which I was living.
To build and stabilise my denial, I told myself that I was receiving compensation for the abuse I’d suffered as a child. The shut-down (dissociation) I’d learned to deal with childhood abuse was the tool that enabled me to cut off when I was working. I could do this and earn substantial amounts of money, and that was my compensation.
The truth is that after a very short while, dissociation wasn’t enough on its own. I had to use drugs as well. Heroin, crack, cocaine, marijuana, GHB, ecstasy, alcohol – anything. I would take any pill anyone gave me, sniff any line, inject any concoction. I didn’t care if it killed me. I had such a horrific pain in my soul and in my heart. It was essential for it to be numbed. Dying would have solved my pain problem. I wanted to die for much of my life, and numerous times, I tried.
My addiction to heroin and crack started a short while after I began working as a call girl. When I initially started, I did it for money and freedom. Not to buy drugs, but to have nice clothes, to go on wonderful holidays, to have more time to myself. I was lazy. I had a decent job, but I wanted to work fewer hours and earn more. I thought it was wonderful, what I was doing. I didn’t know at the time there’d be a price to pay – that 13 years later, I would still be paying the price for the abuse I allowed to happen to me. I might have used the money to put myself through college, telling myself what a great thing I was achieving, but by the time I got to university, I had to drop out due to my addiction and suicidal mental state.
Had I felt loved as a child, I would not have done such an unloving thing to myself as an adult. Had I known how to love myself, learned, as most children do, how to love themselves, and learned what love feels like, I would not have been able to do such an unloving thing to myself. But I didn’t learn those things as a child, nor did the other call girls I knew. That is how and why we did what we did, what enabled us to do it. We didn’t know how to be loving to ourselves. We didn’t learn that when we should have, because we weren’t shown it like most other women are when they are girls.
It is not that I believed I was a bad or unlovable person. I actually thought the world, and most of the people (men) in it, were bad. I believed I was doing the best I could for myself. Even when I ended up sticking needles in my arms, I felt I was doing a loving thing for myself, numbing my internal pain the best way I knew how. That’s how damaged I was.
My denial was so strong, so ingrained, that I was disconnected from my body. That is what allowed me to get right back to work the day after I was raped. I was living somewhere else, not in my body. My body was a mere vehicle from which to make money. I think that is why I have no memories of the faces of my clients, even my regular clients whom I might have seen every couple of weeks for a couple of years or more. They could walk past me in the street and I wouldn’t recognise them. All my memories are watching myself from outside my body. My spirit, my soul, my heart, was rarely at home there. Because when it was, they were the times I tried to take my life. So many times, I tried to kill myself. That’s what happened when I was present, when my denial was ruptured.
We walked across the street to the park. Some of our number dropped back, heading to the pub. They claimed they were too manly to go any longer without beer, but there was a wariness in their actions, a fear that what lay ahead was too strong for their blood.
The whole day had been like that. In clusters they dropped, like falling fruit, making their excuses and leaving. In this way I became a friend among strangers, laughing loudly, demonstrative in my behaviour, vocal, open, engaged in this for the long haul, staying the course. To what end, I didn’t know; something like seeing this thing through, following the path of least resistance, or heading towards a goal that I told myself was nameless.
Her name, in fact, was Lily. She was a wouldn’t-it-be-nice rather than an earnest aim. I didn’t want to set myself up for a fall. She wasn’t beautiful, but quite pretty, a little plump, neon bracelets and a denim satchel. The other girl was better-looking, a carefree black girl called Karen, blue jeans and shapely, her curves accentuated by her clothes. Maybe Lily drew my eye because she seemed more attainable, but I think it’s because she was the ringleader, the spirit of fire, the one who took us from place to place, from task to task, from drink to drink and drug to drug. Whatever it was, this psychological space she ledus all to share, it was an interesting place to be.
We had walked quite far into the park now, away from the sound of traffic, and I noticed the strangers, new recruits, drummed up from somewhere to make up the numbers. Of the originals, only five remained; myself, Lily, Karen and two men, an Asian medical student and one whose name and face I can’t remember.
We stopped, because Lily had stopped. People were pairing off, and the student and I looked at each other with unspoken questions. What is this? Should we go with each other? Which girl do you want? Would you mind if I went with Lily?
I settled these questions by walking directly towards her. She smiled at me as she bent down, placing her clockwork radio on a patch of grass free from the melting snow. The radio belted out an old swing tune and I took her in my arms. My left hand cradled the side of her waist and the other led the dance as she pressed close to me.
“Have you any idea how fucking hard it is to dance wearing wellies?” I said. Her easy laughter brought relief as we relaxed into each other. I kissed her neck, falling into it the way one falls into sleep. It tasted of cooling sweat and cheap perfume, and my pulse rose and I breathed the bitterness in, and I pulled her closer to me.
“We can do anything you want,” she breathed in my ear. “As long as we do it safe.”
Partly because I wanted it too, and partly because I felt like I should, I gave my assent. All was well except the distance between my thoughts and actions. I wished I was more in the moment, no reflexivity, no doubt. I had got what I wanted though. I imagined us all from above, pretty young things in ballroom couples, holding each other in the song and the slush.
Soon afterwards I lay on her bed, watching her undress, thinking to myself this could only happen in London, she could only happen in London. We negotiated boundaries between polite and sexy, between love and lust, between the sensual and the carnal, between our red-glowing drives and our hesitant minds, between who we were and who we should be, between fear of it ending and the rules of casual sex, between passion and nonchalance, between each other and inside ourselves. Fucking, clumsily, like dancing in wellies.
A Healthy Respect for Sex: What Lady Chatterley’s Lover Can Still Teach Us
There is an urban legend that runs something like this. It’s the year two-thousand-and-something and in Ibiza, or somewhere of that ilk, a nightclub runs a competition. The prize: a surfboard. The challenge: do something obscene on stage. A seventeen-year-old girl called Constance is eager to win. With no word to her peers she strips naked and climbs on stage with a man she has plucked from the crowd. For two minutes Constance and the unknown man perform anal sex in full view of the club. There are cheers, but also groans. Constance doesn’t win the surfboard.
In 1929, the UK and US publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was blocked on grounds of obscenity. Eighty or so years later it seems plausible that a couple could have anal sex in a public competition that urges the obscene, and not win. This is a facile comparison, perhaps. The girl in question would no doubt still be thought obscene by some, but the comparison does at least draw attention to what we perceive as obscene now and what was deemed obscene in 1929.
If there had been a surfboard up for grabs for a display of obscenity in fiction in 1929, Lady Chatterley’s Lover surely would have won. Even when it was finally published openly in 1960, it would probably have picked up the prize. It’s popularly thought of as scandalous and smutty, — high-brow pornography for the thinking pervert.
But what does the novel actually contain? What if our mythical Constance, fresh from her public failure to win a surfboard the night before, rolled out of her hotel room bed, wandered down to the beach and began to read a copy of that D. H. Lawrence novel? Would she be shocked? Would she think it obscene? Would she feel anything at all?
“You set fire to her haystacks alright”: the Sex theme
For a novel with a relatively simple storyline – Lady Chatterley, wife of aristocratic, crippled Clifford, falls in love with Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper – D. H. Lawrence crams a lot into just three hundred pages. There is a fairly unsubtle portrayal of British class tensions that pits the working man Mellors against the landed Clifford Chatterley; there is the notable and lengthy description of a Derbyshire landscape raped by the greed of industry; and there are the bruised bodies of the Great War — of which Clifford is but one — shell-shocked, fearful and anxious for the future. But surrounding everything in the novel is the overarching theme of sex.
Constance Chatterley talks of sex from the word go, describing her seventeen-year-old romps in Dresden, prior to her marriage, and her subsequent attempts at chastity with the impotent Clifford. Clifford voices his own perfunctory opinions on companionship being the true measure of love, and is, at several points, eager enough for a child that he is happy for Lady Chatterley to go and find herself a lover with which to begat one, so long as she is discreet about it. But sex chat is not limited to the main players in the book. In fact, it becomes hard to think of any character that does not at least allude to how they think we should love. Clifford has a circle of friends who appear at house Chatterley to eat dinner and discuss sex, offering a high-minded assessment of when and where a gentleman should and shouldn’t. There is the motherly Mrs Bolton, a servant who cares for Clifford once Constance has had enough of her wifely duty; the strident Hilda, who is divorced by her husband and declares herself “off men”; and Constance’s father, who, upon meeting the gamekeeper for whom his daughter is leaving Clifford, decides to simply congratulate him: “You set fire to her haystacks alright,” he quips.
Sex is not only discussed openly in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it also serves as Lawrence’s symbolic concern: namely that the modern world of money and mining is killing off mankind’s connection with the earthly, the natural, the real, and thus, mankind himself. That the child-man Clifford ends up as an active businessman pursuing profit in the collieries on his land is a not so subtle allusion to Lawrence’s fears for the nation’s manhood under industrial capitalism. At one point Clifford’s mechanical wheelchair, which is meant to allow him to move without the aid of others, gets stuck in the mud and refuses to start. Both Clifford and Mellors (who is on hand in any woodland scene) are impotent in the face of this machine; Clifford is trapped and Mellors can only think of feeding it oil and petrol.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book suspicious of the modern world, a book which sees money and industry working against manhood and nature. Whole sections of prose read as polemics against the world which Lawrence had spent a lifetime watching encroach, but running through this melancholy is something far simpler: the story of the love that blossoms between Lady Chatterley and the keeper, Oliver Mellors.
The Redemptive Power of Sex: “A woman’s a lovely thing when ‘er ‘s deep ter fuck, and cunt’s good.”
At the heart of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the story of two people who fall in love because they have awesome sex. Mellors arrives in the novel as little more than an object. At first he is a gruff and distant figure, prone to killing cats in front of his young daughter and content to retreat behind his Derbyshire dialect. Even as Lady Chatterley begins exploring the woods where he works, and he feels the same stirrings in his loins that she feels in her womb, he is determined to avoid contact, or at least determined to try. But he is soon a leading voice, instructing Constance Chatterley, and the reader, on the delights of fucking. Mellors emerges slowly, sliding past the stale big house discussions and the talk of money and mining.
Lady Chatterley and Mellors have sex on a brown soldier’s blanket laid on the floor of a hut. By the second act of love both the reader and Lady Chatterley are in little doubt that Mellors has certainly got something about him. His is not a classical hero. To look at he is no Abercrombie and Fitch window-boy, being pale and rangy rather than broad and bronzed. He is in his late thirties and he still suffers from the legacy of a respiratory infection picked up while in the army. Neither is Mr Mellors a sweet talker. In many ways he is aggressively blunt. He is a man who comes up with post-coital phrases like: “A woman’s a lovely thing when ‘er ‘s deep ter fuck, and cunt’s good.” Mellors, like D. H. Lawrence himself, is a believer in the redemptive power of the mutual orgasm: a Calvinist creed, which sees some blessed and others never to come in tandem; and when Lady Chatterley asks if people often come-off together Mellors is doubtful: “A good many of ‘em never,” he says. “You can see by the raw look of them.”
One of the major issue the authorities in 1929 had with the the novel was Lawrence’s inclusion of one particular four-letter word, the profane reference to female genitalia: “cunt”. In “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover“, written in 1929 as a foreword to the book, Lawrence explained how he wishes to rescue “cunt”, along with “fuck”, from the lexicon of dirty words and “make them stand for a healthy respect for sex”. Mellors is clearly fighting Lawrence’s corner on this one. When Constance unwittingly believes the words fuck and cunt to have the same meaning he abruptly correct her: “Nay, Nay!” he says. “Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ Ha’nt a lot besides an animal aren’t ter? – even ter fuck. Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass!”
Amidst the sex, Constance and Mellors get involved in some bizarre, at times ridiculous, behaviour: they plait forget-me-nots into their pubic hair; they run naked in the rain and fuck as animals in the dirt; and they concoct pet names that personify their genitals as Lady Jane and John Thomas, Sir Pestle and Lady Mortar. Yet as the novel progresses, and in amongst all the sensational sex and talk of fuck and cunt, there are growing moments of domestic tenderness. Connie calms Mellors’ fears that they will be discovered in his house, reminding him that at that point they are only drinking tea together (she, the Lady, waiting on him); and then there are over two pages of pillow talk, Connie gently mocking Mellors’ dialect.
“It’s all this cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy”: How Sex Can Save the World
Before she leaves for Venice, in the act that draws the book to its close, Constance asks Mellors what he believes in. “Yes, I do believe in something,” he replies, “I believe in being warm-hearted. I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart. I believe if men could fuck with warm hearts, and the women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come right. It’s all this cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy.” At times Lady Chatterley’s Lover appears to be urging the reader to believe that such warm-hearted fucking could restore that which is being lost in the modern world. What is perhaps tragic is that the modern world from which Lawrence wanted to save us with tender-hearted sex, is the very world that declared the book obscene.
It was D.H. Lawrence himself who said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” In the eight or so years that have passed since Lawrence wrote this novel it would not seem that warm-hearted fucking has saved anyone, or that the word cunt has been rescued from that lexicon of dirty words. In 2013 we certainly have a sexual morality different to that in 1929, but it is still built on the same basic blocks of difference. For every person who would fuck on stage in an attempt to win a surfboard there is another who will be shocked if they are told early on in a relationship, “Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee lass.”
What Lady Chatterley’s Lover teachesus, in its content and its reception is that the obscene is simply a characteristic of opinion or attitude. It is Constance who decides that her sex with Mellors is pure, while sex with others is not, just as it is the reader who must decide whether the word cunt offends, or is in fact “the beauty of thee”. We might think that we live with a different attitude to sex and the obscene today. Some might think it obscene to have public anal sex on an Ibiza stage, others that this is a totally acceptable way to attempt to win a surfboard, but it remains ridiculous to think that that one event is characteristic of a whole society, just as it is ridiculous to believe that one word of a book carries its entire meaning.
At the novel’s end, Constance and Mellors are living apart, awaiting divorce proceedings and plotting a life together. Mellors is proudly chaste; he loves it “as snowdrops love snow”. For Lady Chatterley and her lover, sex was only a part of something bigger. Just because it is the part that people most readily recall does not mean it is the part which matters. In fact, the obscene is more often the part hijacked by others, the part viewed as sensational, and so while our seventeen-year old Constance of Ibiza might be remembered for one night of obscene behaviour it would be naïve to think that that makes her an obscene person; indeed, the obscene here is only a minor aspect of her tale, lynched by others to serve their own ends.
Sin City: Decadence and Doom in Weimar Berlin
You couldn’t find anything more nauseating than what goes on in Berlin, quite openly, every day. The people there don’t know how low they have sunk. Evil does not know itself there. That town is doomed more than Sodom ever was. —Christopher Isherwood
Politics, poverty, cabaret and sex are the words that sum up Weimar Berlin, the city that flourished briefly and brightly between the wars. This week on Litro Lab, our guest podcasters are journalists and Berlin residents Jennifer Collins and Tam Eastley, known as the Mädels with a Microphone. They explore the seedier side of Weimar Berlin’s cabaret scene and gay district, speaking to a local expert about one of Berlin’s best-known chroniclers, Christopher Isherwood, and the notorious haunts of the period, like the Eldorado cabaret club in the Schöneberg district, where Berlin’s transvestive and transgender community came together to see artists like singer and cabaret dancer Claire Waldorf.
To listen to this episode, use the player below. Or you can subscribe on iTunes — just search “litro lab”.
You can find Mädels with a Microphone online, or on Twitter, Soundcloud or Facebook, or on itunes. In their podcast series, Jennifer and Tam strive to create informative and quirky long and short podcasts about the hidden side of Berlin. Their podcasts are entirely self-produced using Audacity free software and trusty little zoom H2 recorders.
The Top 10 Weirdest Relationships in Literature
Cross-dressing, blood-sucking, inter-species flirtation and a touch of necrophilia. The novelist Rosie Garland picks her top ten weirdest relationships in literature. Her debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities, is published by HarperCollins in March 2013.
Whether the gods are spreading eagle wings and carrying off pretty young men, or showering virgins with golden seed, strange relationships have been central to all religions and cultures.
I was suckled on fairytales. As a child, when opportunities seemed much more fluid, the idea of marrying a mermaid or a lion seemed entirely reasonable. Admittedly, many of the tales reassert the “normal”; Goldilocks rejects the bed-hopping antics of the Three Bears; Snow White is rescued from the polyamorous possibilities of Seven Dwarves by a faceless charming prince. I preferred Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty stuck by her monster to the happy ending.
The edge of things has always interested me more than the soft, squishy centre, whether that’s apple pie or politics. I’ve always written about outsiders, whoever they might be. I’m inspired by characters who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates they have been provided with, and the friction that occurs when they try.
So it’s not surprising, I suppose, that my debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities (out March 2013), is set in a Victorian sideshow. It is told through the eyes of Eve, a woman completely covered in hair, and interwoven with the story of Abel, a man who heals from any wound. Both of them are freaks of nature, and both are searching for escape. The novel explores life on the fringes of society, what it means to be different, and traces their struggle for self-discovery on the boundaries of what is perceived as human.
So, being asked to choose the top ten weird relationships in literature is a tough call. Why not Gregor Samsa, transformed into a beetle in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”? Ahab and the white whale? All seven of Mr Wroe’s Virgins?
Here are my picks, in no particular order of strangeness…
1. Shakespeare – Twelfth Night
Who better than the Bard to open the proceedings? Strange relationships abound in his plays, from Titus Andronicus’ gore-fest to Titania’s infatuation with Bottom. In Twelfth Night, he plays with gender confusion in his most flirtatious manner. Viola dresses as a man, Cesario, and falls in love with Orsino, who is in love with Viola — but he rather likes the look of Cesario too. Olivia also falls in love with Cesario. Confused? Add this twist: A man acts the part of a woman who is impersonating a man. She (or he) loves a man who is in love with a woman. Who is actually a man. Your head may explode now.
2. Marquis de Sade – The 120 Days of Sodom
Vestigial plot, layer upon cumulative layer of sexual activity, each one impossibly more extreme than the one preceding it: are these the near-unreadable masturbatory fantasies of an Aristo who spent much of his adult life in prison, or nascent radical sexual philosophy? The jury is most definitely out. The Noes are led, unsurprisingly, by Andrea Dworkin who saw in him the archetypal violent misogynist. However, the Ayes have some heavyweights on their team, including Simone de Beauvoir who thought him a forefather of modern Existentialism, and Angela Carter (see No. 10), who described him as a “moral pornographer”.
3. Bram Stoker – Dracula
The grand-daddy of them all. Not so much for the long-undead Count’s blood-sucking consummation with Lucy, nor the homoerotic frisson between him and Jonathan Harker in the opening chapter, nor even the luxuriant eroticism of Harker’s seduction by Dracula’s three wives. The strangest scene is that between Dracula and Mina Harker. Dracula gashes a wound in his own chest and forces Mina to suck at the bloody slit, like a “child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk”. Say what? Repressed Victorian sexuality at its finest and weirdest.
4. Edgar Allen Poe – “Berenice”, “Ligeia” and “Morella”
You wait ages for a story dealing with sex and grave-robbing, then three come along at once. Each of these short tales features a narrator with a far from healthy interest in the physical remains of their recently-deceased lovers. “Berenice” shimmers with fetishistic descriptions of her teeth, freshly yanked from the cadaver; the narrator of “Ligeia” attempts (ahem) “resuscitation” of her corpse; “Morella” is a twisted narrative of “mistaking” one’s daughter for her dead mother. All dished up with voluptuous description of death and disease. Something for all the family!
5. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
It’s a relief to turn to safe romantic fiction. Or is it? Well-known for its opening line and unnamed narrator. Known only as the Second Mrs. de Winter, she is prim, naïve and even after she hooks the dashing Max, there’s no sense that much sex takes place. So far, so boring. However, when it comes to Rebecca it is clear that there was a great deal of sex, and none of it wholesome, vanilla or in any way missionary. A mistresspiece of anti-feminism, the novel charts the downfall of a woman who is prepared to perjure herself to hang onto her man. Her reward is a wife-murderer for a husband.
6. Ursula le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
Classic is a much overused word, but I’ll brave it in this case. A human, Genly Ai, visits Winter: a planet whose citizens are neuter, adopting sexual identities and having sex only once a month. Genly is called “the Pervert” for being male all the time and becomes drawn into labyrinthine diplomatic struggles. When he develops a relationship with Estraven, a native of Winter, he learns much about life free of binaries or dualities.
7. Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club
A rare example of a great novel with an equally fantastic film adaptation — in fact it’s hard to read it without seeing Pitt, Norton and Bonham-Carter. Partly an elegy for masculinity in crisis, it has one of the strangest relationships in fiction. Not the Narrator and his girlfriend Marla, but the Narrator and Tyler Durden. The novel has a far greater homoerotic frisson than the movie (e.g. they meet on a nudist beach). The two men might not have sex of the missionary variety, but theirs is one of the most intensely physical relationships in fiction, and certainly the most bizarre.
8. Alan Moore – Watchmen
In Moore’s tour-de-force, superpowered Doc Manhattan is so far removed from humanity that he loses all interest in whether it lives or dies. He leaves for Mars, leading an emotionally detached existence, unconcerned by the ants wriggling on the surface of the blue planet next door. It’s only his unlikely relationship with the very human Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) that enables him to reconnect with the miracle that is flawed humanity. And thereby saves the world. Hurrah!
9. Gene Roddenberry – Star Trek
Did they or didn’t they? Roddenberry broke sixties’ conventions with a bridge crew featuring white, black, asian and alien. He made no secret of wanting to throw gay characters into the mix (nixed by the studios). One theory is that he hid them in plain sight as Kirk/Spock — whom he compared to Alexander and Hephaiston — the pairing which sparked the whole subset of “slash” fiction. In this novel, he created the word t’hy’la (meaning friend/brother/lover) purely so Spock could use it when referring to Kirk. And don’t get me started on the famous “this simple feeling” scene. “Chums” don’t hold hands like that. Trust me.
10. Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber
In my voracious childhood reading of fairy tales I took a particular dislike to Hans Christian Andersen and his angst-ridden tragedies where Match Girls die of hypothermia and Little Mermaids never get their prince because they have icky tails. The short stories in The Bloody Chamber knock that melodramatic misery into a cocked witch’s hat. Bursting with strong female protagonists, an assertive Red Riding Hood wakes the morning after “between the paws of the tender wolf”, and in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”, the heroine transforms herself into a tiger in a delightful reversal of the traditional tale.
Litro #122: Sex
Cover art is Au Centre de la Terre II (2013) by Nadege Meriau: “My current practice explores the possibilities of creating images that combine the visceral and the sublime. Drawing on the idea of perception as participatory and the body as part of the flesh of the world, my work addresses the senses. Images of incandescent and dripping dwellings not only evoke primeval hungers but also envelop and absorb.”
This is only a taster of our Sex issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.
The Magnet and the Needle
She resented his apology for the display of power it was. The silence had been building for some miles, compressed by the confined space of the car, and it was clear the thin statement of contrition was on its way. He had the tilt to his head that signaled an imminent announcement on a difficult subject. Changing lanes to come off the main road, he began.
‘I have to say,’ he said in a tone that suggested the very opposite of obligation, and carried on to throw out a checklist of reasons for his behaviour, forming a trellis of self-supporting justifications to which his excellent opinion of himself would be able to cling. The apology came in the midst of this soliloquy. It slipped out sotto voce, as the slip road arced them away from the motorway, under the flyover, and onto the B-road that would lead them to the foothills and their destination.
[private]Night came on quickly, as if it had been held up back east and was making time. The car’s headlights honourably dipped to oncoming traffic but the deeper into the hills they went, switchbacking the gradients, the more the full beam shone. Dashboard glow gave the interior a somber, submerged aspect. The radio, tuned to classical music and turned down low, did not have to compete with the engine, which handled the hairpin gear changes without complaint.
GPS confidently filled the gaps in his talking. It was a woman’s voice, polite but firm with her directions. About thirty miles from the motorway, the first glitch was noticed.
‘Is this still the same road?’ he asked, and she wondered if he was talking to her, or the machine.
They were put right in the next village, where, after a crawl of speed bumps, they saw for the first time their objective written on a sign. Sandra experienced a minor jolt of localisation. Some nights ago she had found the place online, read all about it, looked at the gallery, and it was odd now to see its name in the real world. She was pleased by the thought that the signpost was still there, even though she could no longer see it.
‘Right,’ he said, and took one. The hills rose around them, great hulking shadow patches against the gleaming stars. There were few dwellings up here, the handful they passed were shut up and dark. He was talking again, something about work, and she looked for the pole star, but with every twist in the road the scene wheeled above her.
They arrived an hour late after two detours and sharp words. He parked in front of the inn and proceeded to jab the buttons of the GPS, accusing it of being deranged.
‘We’re here now,’ she said, looking at the building in front of them. It was early eighteenth century, squat and high roofed. Lantern-shaped lights adorned the entrance, a bright red door with a low beam and an actual bell on a cord.
In total contradiction to the climate of the car, the night air was crisp with a keen wind. Three other cars were in front of the inn, high-end sleek things. It was an expensive gesture, this night away from it all.
He gave up with the onboard computer and the boot was opened and bags recovered. As they walked towards the inn, she felt for her mobile, noticed it was missing and was about to stop when she remembered, no mobiles. It was one of the rules of the night.
The room was fine. The dinner was very nice, and the wine flowed but the air was still soured. She knew he could sense it in the way she used her fork, the way her eyes skimmed him.
‘Right,’ he said, and made a show of throwing his napkin on the table. ‘Are you still angry with me?’
She thought hard for a response but settled with, ‘I suppose so.’
It was enough for him. He picked up the napkin and returned it to his knee. He liked things to be said, problems aired – didn’t matter if they never got resolved, as long as an emotional standoff was acknowledged as such. He enjoyed his pork belly and applesauce and said so. Even his basic pleasures were said.
She wanted to say something but she didn’t know what to say. She wanted to step out of her mood, having decided she might as well enjoy the night for what it was. She cast around.
‘I like the windows in this place.’
‘Yes,’ he said, and looked at them for the first time.
They consisted of little diamonds of glass between diagonal lines of lead. She considered telling him the name of the style. She decided not to, it felt like showing off.
Back in their room she locked herself in the bathroom and took her time getting ready for bed. She rarely wore a watch these days and in a moment of foresight she had decided, in the absence of a phone, to wear one. It was a present from him. The white face and graceful hands were reminiscent of him. It told her the time in his voice. Another thing said.
She knew he was waiting in the bed. She wondered what he was imagining, with what mental images he was underclothing her: the mesh camisole in cream with lace at the bust, or white charmeuse slip with black suspenders. Perhaps the ever-popular corset, pearl blush pink with a scatter of tiny black hearts, breasts to the ceiling. Lips as red as they could be. Tonight she was in a shift. Her lips were naked.
She crept out of the bathroom and into the bed and into his arms. He was ready and didn’t notice what she wore. They had sex and she enjoyed some of it. A mental image had lodged itself soon after they started and wouldn’t be shaken. He was jabbing at her as he did the errant GPS. I’m deranged, she said to herself and wondered if she should begin issuing instructions to him in the machine’s voice.
Soon enough, he arrived at his destination. She lay awake for some time after, thinking about her own, knowing only she was many miles from home, yet feeling left behind.[/private]
Following a 2003 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum, the artist John Currin fell into a long dry spell, what he described in an interview with the Independent as “impotence with the brush.” Two years into the funk, he found a cartoon a friend had torn from a dirty magazine and sent to him in hopes of lifting his spirits. On the other side of the cartoon was a pornographic photo of a woman in a corset, her legs spread wide. He began a painting based on the image. Inspired, he prowled the Internet for more porn shots, and started more pieces. His sexual paintings are graphic, luscious, and fearless. In one, a man and a woman, naked, kiss open mouthed, their wet tongues fused, the woman with her right hand around the man’s rigid penis, the man with his left middle finger inside the woman; in another, two women fondle a third.
[private]I am not interested in art but I am interested in sex, so after I first learned of Currin in a New Yorker profile in January, 2008, his name and his work stayed with me. I didn’t think about him, however, until nearly a year later, when my writing stalled. Not being able to write when you want to is like not being able to come. It is impotence with the pen, or a premature menopause drying up the creative juices. Lucky for me, recent conversations among my friends about erotica brought Currin to mind. I hope he and his work will do for me what the picture on the back of the cartoon did for him.
Though my talent for art is as meager as my knowledge of and interest in the world of art, in college I took both printmaking and drawing, assuming those classes would be easy credits and a nice break from writing and literature. For our final printmaking assignment, students were told to select the technique they most enjoyed—woodcut or linocut, etching or silk-screening—and create a print of a body part.
Little amused me more than my ability to shock people with my writing (easy for a blunt New Yorker to do to an audience of sheltered undergrads), and my choice of body part was a no-brainer. I did not have the skill to design something beautiful, nor the understanding needed to make a print based on theories deeper than beauty. It takes an extraordinary talent to paint a vagina as sumptuously as John Currin does; it takes no talent to simply draw one. In my room I sat naked before the mirror, opened my legs, and sketched. Back in the studio, I began etching: rounded buttocks, lips, a hint of clitoris, hundreds of whorls around it all, twirling to the top of the metal plate. On the last day of class I hung my print in the front of the room between a woodcut of a bloodshot eye and a screen print of a wrist streaming rivers of blue and red. The teacher and my classmates regarded my art very seriously. They mistook my audacity for thoughtfulness.
I am envious of artists like Currin who can find their subjects outside themselves. In my writing as much as in my printmaking I turn inward for my inspiration. The view vacillates between fascinating and dull, sometimes disconcertingly clear, other times muddled, but always limited. Focusing on outside objects—a crinkled paper shopping bag, a statue of a dog in the town park, stacks of cardboard boxes—was a requirement of my college drawing class. My work never progressed beyond what an attentive six-year-old could do. The teacher noted that my naïve perspective added to the charm of my work, but he had to point out that artistically it was a serious flaw.
In some of his paintings, Currin will render a woman just as she appears in the porn shot until he gets to her face, at which point he borrows the face of a model from an old clothing catalogue. Instead of seeing what we’d expect to see atop a body being licked, fingered, or fucked—eyes rolled back in pleasure, a mouth tensely determined or opened in a breathy, silent wail—we find vapid eyes and a lying smile. The effect is jarring. He is not depicting the raunchy sex of regular people but the sex of pornography, sex staged for an insatiable market, and underneath the masks of orgasmic delight aren’t the actors feeling as phony as clothing models? At times don’t we all go through the motions, including the facial contortions, when really we’re elsewhere?
My undergraduate thesis was an autobiographical novella about my first sexual relationship. That’s what I called it, anyway. Truthfully, it was memoir written in the third person. I didn’t fictionalize a word but wrote it all as I remembered it, changing only the names of the characters. This allowed me the distance I needed to write about something so intimate. I didn’t get off the subway at 3 a.m. with so many hickeys on my face I looked like I’d been beaten, and find my father waiting there for me. She did. I didn’t lose my virginity at fifteen on my friend’s parents’ bed to a drunk eighteen-year-old who didn’t wear a condom and finished by jerking off over my bloody belly. She did.
Currin said in the New Yorker profile, “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it.” If I were as brave as Currin, the bulk of my work might be about sex, too. In the cacophony of my mind, carnal thoughts and memories are a siren song. So many of our youthful personal landmarks, the milestones that become most meaningful to a child approaching adolescence, are sexual ones, and it is the stuff from those years that cleaves to us forever. Some girls dread their first period, but others ache for its arrival; we anticipate with terror and yearning our first kiss, the feel of a breast in our hand or a hand on our breast; fingers and tongues exploring the parts we’ve only touched ourselves; and finally the day we are virgins no more. Clumsy and fumbling, sweet and loving, rough and painful, sex is as multilayered as paint on a canvas or a well-constructed essay. That it be portrayed in art with frankness is the only fair treatment of an act so complex and universal.
For Currin, though, to be frank is to be obscene. Rarely does he depict a vulva that is not spread wide open, wet, eager to be or already penetrated. But he lavishes on the bedclothes, a lace glove, or a set of dishes the same attention he gives women’s genitals. This may be why his paintings can cross the line of graphic representation without losing their respectability. Even when they are obscene, they are beautiful.
Enjoying porn is a sort of voyeurism; producing sexually explicit material based on your own experiences is a sort of exhibitionism. Because writing any personal nonfiction is much like masturbation—the concentrated devotion to self, culminating, when it goes well, in a deep sense of satisfaction—the author of erotic essays is, essentially, pleasuring him or herself in front of an audience.
The first time sex—intercourse—made me come, I was sixteen and doing it on a park bench with that same boy to whom I’d lost my virginity. Ben had long, messy rock-star hair, eyes blue as a thousand clichés, deliciously full lips; my attraction to him was so consuming I had ceased to exist for any purpose other than to be with him. We were in Stuyvesant Town, on Manhattan’s East Side, on a late spring or early summer night, when it was warm enough to wear a skirt without tights or leggings. My friend Olga, an odd girl who was still years away from having sex herself, asked if she could watch us. Ben and I had just finished smoking a joint and thought Olga’s idea was a good one. While Olga sat on one end of the bench, I took off my panties and straddled Ben on the other. We smiled and kissed. As usual, there was no condom. Dozens of identical red-brick apartment buildings stood quiet guard around us. Two uncles, an aunt, and a cousin of mine lived in Stuyvesant Town. It could have been the thrill of fucking outdoors, in front of someone, the risk of getting caught, the humid air against my legs, the genial position conducive to climaxing, a combination of all those things—but I knew, almost immediately, that the long-awaited orgasm was coming. I slumped over Ben’s shoulder as he rushed to pull out. Panting and a bit dizzy, I giggled against his neck. Young and oblivious, he hadn’t realized that this one, different from all the others, was real. Olga nodded, impressed.
So began my fondness for outdoor activities and public displays of affection. Over the next four years, Ben and I sought out other park benches; we tried the beach (too sandy); we let another friend watch us (she masturbated as we fucked but wouldn’t let either of us touch her); we froze in the Vermont woods in April (the ground both hard and muddy from still-melting ice and snow, and gnarled tree roots, rocks, and twigs scratching our ignorant city asses). Only after we broke up but continued to meet illicitly did our habitual exhibitionism lose its quality of youthful, experimental innocence. He had a new girlfriend, and I was afraid that I’d never be loved by anyone else. One day when I was home from college on break he told me to meet him at work at lunchtime; he knew a place where we could go. Wordlessly, we headed west on Fortieth Street, distracted by the midday midtown hubbub of delivery trucks blocking traffic, the honking of cars trapped behind the trucks, people running errands or eating lunch as they walked, trying to squeeze life in at lunchtime. The air smelled of street-vendor hot dogs and exhaust and cigarette smoke, but sometimes a breeze carried an undercurrent of fresh green spring.
Then I saw, in a window across the street, posters and t-shirts colorful and sinister below neon signs: Peepshow, Adult Videos, XXX. With his hand around my shoulders, Ben walked us quickly past the two men behind the front counter, past the shelves of videos, to a row of doors. We entered an empty stall. The walls were tomato-bisque orange, with a screen in the middle of one of them, and the space tight, a little bigger than the average apartment closet. A blobby viscous smear like spit but of course not glazed a spot on the dark gray floor. Before I could change my mind, Ben took a roll of quarters from his jacket pocket and started feeding them into the slit next to the screen. Our movie began with two naked women—a skinny blonde with bulbous breasts and a skinny brunette with smaller, perky tits and big, brown, upturned nipples—kneeling on a thin bed in a bare room, passionately, sloppily kissing, too much tongue and wetness, twangy porn music blocking some of their slurps and groans. The brunette lay back on the black sheet and those happy nipples of hers pointed straight up to God. The blonde licked circles around one of them while pinching the other before trailing her long tongue all the way down to her friend’s hairless, gleaming cunt.
That was all I saw of the movie. It had served its purpose, arousing me enough that it didn’t matter that we had to be fast and that I was no longer attracted to Ben. I pushed up my flowery skirt—much like the one I’d worn the night on the bench in front of Olga—and removed my underwear, careful not to let them touch the floor. Unlike the night on the bench, I would not come. My forearms were pressed against the wall; I balled my hands to prevent my fingers from touching anything. I heard doors around us open and shut. Hungry for more quarters, the screen went blank. After Ben yanked himself out of me, I dropped my skirt over my sticky skin but left my panties crumpled in my jacket pocket. On shaky legs we left our booth and hurried toward the front door. My head was down.
It was too bright outside. Ben yammered the whole way back, another noise in a city of noises, and I didn’t care what he was saying, I only wanted to be alone. Expertly finding paths through the crowd as only New Yorkers know how to do, we brushed by other people, bumping their arms, never looking back. I focused on my short subway ride home, on my bathtub, where I could give myself the orgasm he couldn’t give me and clean my body in water so hot I’d sweat and the world around me would redden. Before we arrived at his store he slipped me a small bag of hash. I stuck it in my jacket pocket with my panties.
“Best lunch ever,” he said, pecking me on the cheek. “Peepshow chicken.”
At twenty-three, I told these and similar stories to an older man I was trying to seduce, a client of the marketing firm where I had an internship. I both succeeded and failed: he found me irresistible but disgusting. He fondled me under tables at fancy restaurants, pressed my head down to his crotch in taxis, bought an antique bench for us to use on his terrace; but sometimes, out of the blue, glaring and seething, he would ask me how I could have done the things I did with Ben and others. His disgust, I surmised, had less to do with me and more to do with the urges I brought out in him, but still I burned with a shame I’d never felt before—not because of the restaurants, taxis, and terrace, but because I chose to be with a person who found me shameful. My motive in sharing my intimate experiences had been to get him in bed; how many of us have the foresight to consider what may happen after that?
John Currin stated that one impulse behind his pornographic paintings was to take something clearly unbeautiful and turn it into something beautiful, though he admitted to feeling humiliated by the work. I whispered like a caress the salacious stories of my past to this man twice my age and knew exactly why I was doing it, but did not anticipate the shame that would follow. On the page my stories are not whispered, the motives compelling me to put them there are not so clear, and the repercussions are not known. So why do it? “All art is about its own making,” Currin said.
When I decided to make an etching of my vagina, I wanted my classmates to be awed by my daring. When I met Ben for lunch, I did so out of loneliness, but also for fun: my high-school years had overflowed with adventure, and I was bored. When I seduced the older client, I needed to test my power. Now, circumstances are naturally different from what they were in high school, in college, and at my first real job. I, however, am very much the same. Risks have always been, at least in part, their own reward. What I can no longer do on a park bench I can always do on paper.
In John Currin’s painting Purple Bra, a woman lies with legs apart on a white, soft-looking blanket. Only her torso appears on the canvas; she has no face. Other than a lacy lavender bra pushed up over her chest, she is nude. She hugs herself with her left arm, her hand tucked gently below her breast. Her right arm vanishes off the side of the painting, perhaps holding up her right leg, of which we see only a slice; a greater portion of her inner left thigh is visible, flat against the blanket. Peeking out from under her right shoulder is a thatch of straw-colored hair. In the center of her stomach, her belly button curves temptingly, like a pond in the middle of a desert. Pale skin disappears below a dark, wild, unkempt pelt. Her lips are parted slightly. A black tunnel forms in the crevice between her buttocks.
The pose is one of a woman who has just been touching herself. She finished her morning shower, maybe, and started to dress when the mood struck her. The blanket is chenille, sensuous, a kiss against skin softened and perfumed by lotion. Lying back, the fingertips of her right hand wander across her belly and down to her thigh, where they linger, tracing paths to and from the edge of her pubic hair, while her left hand pushes up her purple bra and kneads each breast in turn. She keeps her right hand busy on her thigh until desire transforms into a pulsing ache. Her pelvis has developed a mind of its own and is lifting and twisting toward her fingers. One finger first, like the tip of a tongue, grazes her clitoris. She lets the finger slip down to capture the wetness accumulating below and spreads it around her lips. With her left hand she continues to massage her breasts, playing with her nipples, gentle, hard, gentle again. Clean smells from her shower mingle with the musk of her body. The finger that’s been dancing circles around her clitoris begins moving more rapidly, then dizzily falls in the hole below. Her left hand jumps down to help. She is raising her hips off the blanket now, one finger inside the larger opening, another teasing the smaller, while her right hand resumes its work on the outside. Air builds up in her lungs and escapes in huffs, in pants, in little strangled moans. She leans forward. Her hands are a whirlwind, on high speed, tickling, pumping, licking, fucking, until they are clenched by the muscles inside, and she whimpers, and falls back. Her legs close around her hands and she rolls from side to side. Hair is caught underneath her shoulder, pinching, but she ignores it. Finally resting again, she extracts her left arm and settles it against the bottom of her chest, where it lifts and drops with her breaths. Her legs, sweaty and damp, part. She brings her right hand to her face, to her nose and to her mouth, before wiping it off on her right thigh. A clock on her nightstand catches her eye, reminding her she has somewhere to be. She sighs, satisfied.[/private]
“Do you like to listen to music during sex?” The website is asking me. I tick ‘no’. I think, who is listening to music during sex? I feel sorry for them. An old boyfriend of mine used to put music on before we had sex. It was how I knew he was about to pin me to the sofa. We were always drunk. I took his prescription medication. With his blessing, of course. He’d pin me in to the corner of the sofa like a dog, with one knee on the floor, until I was sort of supine. He held my hands above my head. Actually he wasn’t really my boyfriend. The music always seemed inappropriate. It took me a while to get into it. He’d whisper things into my ear, things like “You’re weird.” Now his wife is very beautiful. Or what I mean to say is that she’s always been very beautiful, but has only recently become his wife. They have a baby, whose name I don’t know.
[private]“Can you name everybody you’ve had sex with?” I tick yes. I actually have them all written down somewhere, because it’s for some reason important to me. There are a couple without surnames, I admit. I think about making up surnames for them. Sometimes I look at the list with indifference, sometimes with horror. But I think that’s how I look at everything.
I’m answering these questions because my boyfriend left me for a woman who wears fancy underwear. I know this because I carried on having sex with him, and we sometimes did it in their shared flat. I can’t understand it, honestly. I’m basically uninterested in clothing myself. Last time I was at the flat, he was lying on the bed with his feet on the floor, still in shoes, with his boxers and trousers folded like playroom shackles around his ankles. Men look idiotic like that, but that’s how he was. I said “Close your eyes,” and then I put on one of her bras. It fit pretty much perfectly, which just goes to show that he does only like thin women I guess. The straps had diamantes on them, as well as frills. When he opened his eyes I pulled one of the cups down and rubbed my nipple hard. He started to masturbate. After a while we were having sex and my mind started wandering. I thought, where the hell is this woman anyway. We have sex at least twice a week and it’s never at a time inconvenient for either of us. I thought maybe she had an exercise class. I thought, what the fuck is this man doing fucking me and a woman with frilly pants who goes to an exercise class. He has no preference.
I don’t know for sure if she had an exercise class or not, but we stopped seeing each other. I mean my boyfriend and I stopped. I’d never seen the woman with the fancy underwear in my life. I let his calls go to voicemail. He’s the last name on my list. At first I didn’t care much about the lack of sex but now I do. I joined this dating website and it asks me what I want. But first it tries to ascertain my character.[/private]
Excerpt from The Writing Shed
Katja’s room was right at the top of the house; in fact it was set into the roof. The ceiling in the small room was comfortably low and the single, bare sash window began just above the floor. The walls were plain, save for a poster of Janis Joplin bedecked in bangles and beads and sat astride a Harley Davidson. Padam knew the photograph from an L.P. cover and had always been impressed by the singer’s look of debauched innocence. There was a Dansette record player on the floor and beside it a cardboard box containing a meagre collection of albums. Clothes were strewn around areas of the whole room. He made out dresses, jeans and slight, delightful panties. The garments even cascaded over an old walnut chest of drawers. Padam realised there was no wardrobe but then he couldn’t imagine where you could put one in here. The bed was simply a double mattress on the floor with what he took to be an Eiderdown on top of it and a couple of bolster pillows.
[private]On a recessed shelf above the bed were three framed photographs, all with people with their arms around each other and, to his mind, obviously American. Whether it was the clothes, the hairstyles, the expressions that made him think that he couldn’t decide. He considered asking but didn’t want to bring the homely into this room just now. Such a decision made him quiet. He feared disturbing what was seemingly ordained.
And now, as if a sign, he noticed on the end of the shelf, the open packet of contraceptive pills; the empty, ragged foil circles. That meant he could avoid the always ill-timed question. She, meanwhile, was making her way to turn off the main light, after lighting an assortment of candles around the room. After considering this exchange of light, she decided to bring another candle to life on the small window sill …
“A signal?” he asked her.
He saw his reflection move against the night in the window. “Reminded me of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.”
“What’s that, a poem?” she replied, now from somewhere behind him. There was a preoccupied tone to her voice to it so he didn’t answer. She didn’t press him for a reply and he felt he’d got away with trying to sound clever; he’d not interrupted the consecration.
He thought they must have been in what were intended as the servant quarters of the house when it was originally built. The rooms had not quite reverted to original use but it was close. Padam had learned downstairs that Katja was more a friend of the family, in fact their babysitter back in Seattle. When Hal had come over here for a year as a visiting professor, they’d invited her along. She knew the children and it would be ‘an education for her’, was how it was described to him. At seventeen, she was nearly two years younger. Already during the evening it’d sometimes seemed more and sometimes the other way around. Her confidence in a foreign country, the easy way she dealt with him, made her seem more experienced than he was. But she couldn’t completely disguise her age. Some moments he felt almost parental in front of her. Maybe it was because she was American or maybe it was because he’d done a couple of years’ worth more of drugs. What did he always say to Phillips?
Nothing like drugs for making you grow up.
And this particular deal, the one he’d brought with him in his shoe, had proved a perfect accompaniment to the evening. He couldn’t vouch for anyone else but he now felt his thoughts clear yet profound, his body deeply relaxed but capable. He didn’t know exactly what would happen now but he just hoped her senses were in the same order as his.
While he stood there, idly looking around the room, she’d been choosing a record to play.
“I love Joni Mitchell.” Padam answered; suddenly aware it could have been the first time he has said the word ‘Love’ in her presence.
The sound of the dulcimer trickled out the single speaker.
And it was simple, wonderful, there was no pretence. She just undressed and climbed into the bed. You Americans, Padam thought blithely to himself, you don’t mess around.
He knew she wasn’t a virgin but this would have confirmed it anyway. She didn’t try to hide her breasts under the bedclothes but stretched up her arms to him. Even in the candlelight there was no way of disguising the extent of his erection as he undressed, even if he’d wanted to. But he wasn’t bothered, not at all, not by anything. Already to him this was as natural as it could possibly be and yet he was acutely aware at the same time just how exceptional it was. He knew his whole life would not contain many hours as good as these. There was a line from Kerouac trying to break into his mind… about that moment when you think everything’s about to arrive – when you suddenly know that and it’s all decided forever. He wished the thought could have been his own but there was no room in him tonight to fret for anything.
The candlelight caught the dew on his tip and as he descended gently into her arms so he felt it skate along the warm, smooth skin of her stomach. He kissed her as carefully and as tenderly as he could manage. There was no reason to rush for there was no reasoning in him. She seemed to respond precisely, their lips brushing up against one another’s as if they were the true boundaries of their bodies. For now, only their tongues could go beyond.
They fitted together. Her fingers sought out where he hadn’t realised he most wanted her to touch him. His mouth discovered places it seemed as if she hadn’t known were lonely in that fashion until his tongue greeted them. His fingertips lived every nuance of her skin, from the hard terrain of barely cushioned bone to the very edge of her hot, underground flesh. But this last domain, he told himself, was really for later, much later, when there were no other answers left. When he opened his eyes again it was to a kaleidoscope of tiny wonders; so many things, that as soon as he saw them, had to be blessed immediately.
Her hair begged his mouth to send a message down its every strand.
Her brow wanted smoothing with innumerable grazes from his lips.
Her eyebrows required worrying by the tip of his tongue.
Her glistening eyelids needed drying with a slight touch of his breath.
Now all the places where pleasure might be hiding;
Behind the minuscule shell of her nostril,
Beneath the brink of her ear,
Inside the precise curves of her philtrum, as he imitated the angel’s touch,
Along every single millimetre at the brim of her lips,
The soft summit of her chin,
The sweep of her creamy neck,
The scoop behind her collar bone,
The sinuous mound of her shoulder,
The dark clefts of her arm,
Beneath the globe of her breast, which had to be breathed upon and a
new word written there by his tongue,
Into the hinterland of a nipple, still to be tantalised,
A bead of sweat, forcing itself between her breasts, to be swept up
into his mouth,
He must be wherever a sensation could possibly be missed, no hurry, none at all, the inevitable remaining inevitable, a lover’s work is never done. He was trying out every one of his favourite impulses upon her; trying, trying, trying to discover just the right moment.
And so it was he knew, for certain, when the time arrived. As he pushed her onto her back he felt the gentle resistance she provided simply to remind them both of the magnitude of what they were undertaking.
He positioned his body carefully and gently pushed himself into her. They both shivered over the glide of their connection. Their bodies were completely prepared. They’d reached the point on the summit where they were perched above the sweeping drop and they stared at one another from the distance of his supporting arms. He teetered deliberately just so he could see her eyes widen and then close. She reached up and dragged her fingers down his boy-smooth chest and around his hips, all to make him sway a little more.
He smiled gently down upon her and then closed his eyes, raising his head up and taking a long breath through his nose before letting his gaze fall back on her. He slowly began to ease the both of them over the pinnacle, no hurry, none at all, the inevitable remaining inevitable.
In part, he needed for it to be done this way to make sure they arrived at the vale together. The natural gravity of his desire was the last thing he required here and she seemed to sense that, as he lowered them gently down the slope, accruing pace only as she responded to it.
He could barely hold himself back when she forgot to embrace him any more and was lost in the pleasure of it all. Her head turned from side to side, eyes slammed shut now, her chin drawing some strange shape in the air, her lips parting, harassed by her own tongue and her hands starting to gather up the sheet into their palms.
When he saw her mouth opening to cry out he thought he must join her but it was so much a sight for him he could only watch and listen in awe, almost doubting he had any part in this delight that drew such wildness from her.
Then he felt her hands on him, reaching out to drag him down deeper into her. All around them was the still eye of the room and their embrace was the storm; the infinite urgency, the desperateness you only get from need, the flawless confusion of the senses by pleasure.
“You’re still trying. Now I just want to feel you shoot inside me!”
These were the first real words either of them had formed since he joined her in her bed. At the exact moment of this decree he sensed the rush, felt the electrocution through his whole body and mind. He was aware of his being suddenly, fiercely and blissfully dissolved.
For a while he was nothing. Complete. Then, very gradually, did he start to reform. Soon it became obvious to him… he was now an altogether simpler being.
It was all so free.
He thought how this moment was the perfect accumulation of so many different things… their youth, their naivety, the beauty of their flesh, the sequence and degree of their climaxes, of course. But to that he could add the quality of the hash, the hour, the lamplight, even the architecture of the house; why, he could make a list to never end. It was being alive. There was nowhere else, no other time in existence, no-one else he would rather be.
He contemplated adding the music in the background to the list but the single side of the L.P. had finished long before their bodies and the player had put itself to rest. But the music was of the times and the times themselves were a special concoction. It was altogether a unique set of conditions – just as the lovers themselves were each in their way. The two of them were a configuration of circumstances. What a beautiful thing they made.
Laying gently in each other’s arms, at first it seemed to him they dare not speak. There was no need to say anything and to do so might disturb the enchantment. It was enough to muse and somehow know beyond question that the abstraction was shared, although it often had to be reinforced by lips or fingers or just a slowed stare. Each such caress was merely the prelude to another. They seemed to drift against each other’s skin until a single touch or kiss, apparently no different from a hundred others before, for some reason began something more crucial. Half the night they drifted like this until the dark outside was weakening. It was as if they barely trusted themselves to sleep in case the other needed them again.
And what he came to know, without any obvious recourse to thought, was that this had become the most perfect night of his young life so far. It might be a terrible cliché but then its inevitable truth made it so – that if his living ceased here – if he died right now, at this minute – it wouldn’t matter to him quite so much as a few hours before.[/private]
Sleep always takes Jack by surprise now that he’s turned fifty. His legs can’t find a comfortable spot, his mind won’t turn off, he doesn’t feel as tired as he did a minute ago, but when he’s about to give it up—Pop! He’s in a brand new world.
Somewhere he doesn’t recognize.
Somewhere things sneak up on him.
Like the final exam for a college class he never attended.
Like standing in a crowded room where no one notices his pants are missing.
Like the most sexually exciting thing in the world that isn’t really sex at all. Not quite anyway.
[private]The image shimmers with erotic detail, too hot and far away to stay in focus, but its theme is as bright and clear as a full moon on werewolf night. For years this image hid in the glow of more acceptable passions, but those have faded now. Fifty birthdays will do that to a man.
This thing is as shiny as the day it popped into existence, when Jack was a thirteen-year-old late bloomer, all alone and thinking about the prettiest girl in the eighth grade.
Margaret somebody. Her last name is gone, but not what Jack was thinking about her, back when the world was young and his fetish didn’t have a name. Things like that never go away. They hide in the undergrowth and wait until the wolf bane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright.
Jack wakes with a start. Totally rested for the first time in years, alert, ready to put his dream on paper before it boils away like liquid nitrogen. This dream can’t be reduced to words, but that’s no problem for the best fantasy illustrator in Manhattan. That’s what people call him nowadays on fan sites and blogs, where everybody is a critique.
All the slippery details turn solid as he slides them onto paper. First, there is woman, naked except for a pair of Italian shoes. They have six-inch heels. They’ll be red when the drawing is complete, the color of an honest to goodness claret from the province of Bordeaux.
Two ropes wind around her wrists and ankles like loose strands of Virginia Creeper. They bind her into a kneeling position accentuating every curve. More ropes circle her chest, tied together with angler’s knots and reef knots. A taut-line hitch adjusts the tension between her ankles and her wrists. The whole thing will come apart with a single tug on a central hitching tie, the moment Jack is ready. Thank God he was a Boy Scout.
What Jack wants to do with this imaginary woman isn’t so important as the fact that he can do anything. The look in her eyes will prove her willingness, once he decides whose face to give her. The possibilities spell themselves out in heartbeats, like Morse code. How could he have forgotten all of this?
Jack closes the sketchbook when he hears Jenny’s footsteps. This is his exclusive fantasy—erotic, harmless, shameful—but something a wife might understand if he gives her a chance.
He asks her, “Did you ever have a dream you couldn’t talk about?” That’s at least half a chance.
She shows him her condescending smile, part Mona Lisa and part Jack Nicholson. Jenny won’t talk about dreams right now; she wants to talk about their daughter.
“Ellie’s coming over this evening,” Jenny says. “She’s got a new job—Art teacher at Sequoia elementary school.”
So now Ellie is an artist too, just like Jack and Jenny. Not Picassos, maybe, or De Koonings, or even Norman Rockwells, but they make a living putting ideas onto paper. Jack draws dragons, and aliens, and scantily clad women wielding swords. Jenny reduces Harlequin historical romances to two dimensions. Their pictures find their way onto the covers of the worst novels ever written.
Now Ellie draws flowers and stick figures for first graders with attention deficit disorder. It’s a start.
Jack thinks of the new image in his sketchbook, and wonders if anyone else might think it’s special.
“We’ll have tuna casserole,” Jenny says.
Except for the picture he’s just drawn, Jack’s whole life seems like tuna casserole.
A quick survey of the Internet convinces Jack that he is not alone. Wolf bane has been blooming for a long time and there are lots of fetishes. From bondage to corporal punishment to necrophilia, and each has a well-established niche for illustrators.
No one with any real talent in the ropes and chains category—not yet anyway—but there’s a lot of time and energy devoted to the craft. Clumsy, stiff figures in primitive colors. Too much detail, nothing left to the imagination. No understanding of perspective, composition, or even knots. The girls look frightened, or aroused. Both things are as wrong as the texture of the ropes and the interplay of light and shadow. None of the pictures tell a story beyond the illustration.
The websites are anonymous and corporate. They leave visitors feeling empty and exploited, not like they are totally normal people, who spice up their lives with a little something extra. Only the slightest amount of proof is required.
Misogynistic porn sites need a female face to pardon their mostly male visitors.
See, women like it too.
Preferably an attractive, young woman, just starting a sexually active life devoted to submission and humiliation. A fresh, innocent girl, almost too good to be true.
Jack has a pretty good idea what she’ll look like, and when he hears the doorbell ring he knows for sure.
Jenny opens the front door. “Ellie, we’re so glad you could come.”
Jack’s daughter makes it almost all the way across the room before he deletes his current bondage website, and the one behind that, and the one behind that. No time to do anything but point and click. He’ll clear history when she’s gone.
“Hi Dad,” she kisses Jack on the forehead. “Wait till you hear about my new job.”
Maybe Jack can get a few new pictures of her later on. It isn’t like he’s going to use her real name.
Some illustrations pour out of the mind like warm syrup, every line and color falling into exactly the right spot. Jack’s bondage fantasies have waited a long time to find their shape.
Jenny is more curious than usual.
“I’ll show you when the series is finished,” he lies. Usually he doesn’t need to do that, because Jenny doesn’t like his genre any more than he likes hers.
“Just the usual,” he tells her. “Girls with brass braziers, big butts, and weapons.” Maybe she won’t want to look, but Jack closes the sketchpad just in case.
“You’re so intense,” she says. “Like you used to be . . . You know?” She puts a hand on his shoulder and runs her fingers up his cheek. Her eyes are big, like an anime girl’s. The overhead light reflects in them, like a matching pair of full moons. Jenny smiles and kisses the fingertips that have just touched face.
Jack recognizes that look, and that gesture, even though he hasn’t seen either for a long time.
“I thought I might go up stairs in a few minutes,” she whispers. “Take a shower. You could join me.”
How can he say no?
Jack follows her up the stairs, basking in the view. How had he not noticed what she’s wearing? Something from Victoria’s Secret. Glossy and smooth, contoured to accentuate curves, like well placed ropes. Jack remembers all the reasons Jenny is desirable, her smile, the way she moves, the way she knows exactly what’s on his mind.
Does she know what’s on his mind—exactly? As they enter their bedroom, on their way to the shower, Jack sees the nylon rope coiled on his pillow. Ice white, whipped on the ends with green thread, like it came out of one of his illustrations.
Has she seen them? Does she know what he is up to? He’ll ask her later, if everything goes the way he thinks it will. They can take a shower later too.
Jack’s domain name is: Ashleysbend, the same as knot 1452 in Ashley’s Book of Knots. The host’s name is Ashley too, even though she has Ellie’s face, drawn from photographs in the family album.
Ashley Windsor, her last name borrowed from King Edward VIII before his abdication. First he invented the Windsor knot and then he gave up the crown for love. Who says obsession isn’t romantic?
Ellie’s face is on every illustration. Her pensive look goes well with chains. Her exercise face is good for peering out of cages. Sinnet ropes put furrows in her brow. Handcuffs make her grimace.
It wouldn’t be right to use his daughter’s naked body, so Jack borrows Jenny’s. The two of them have always been close. Now they’re closer. Only a few modifications are necessary to keep Jenny young and supple. Jack started making those in his imagination many years ago. It’s easier since the full moon came out. He doesn’t even need the digital pictures she allows him to take.
“Don’t let them fall into the wrong hands,” she tells him, without knowing they already have.
Jack asks Jenny if she thinks fetishes are contagious.
“Yes,” she says, and Jack knows it is the truth, because her arms are tied behind her back and her ankles are attached to them with double bowline knots.
Sometimes its a bite that spreads the madness. Sometimes it’s a kiss. Sometimes it’s a picture of the moon.
It isn’t long until Jack adds discipline to his website. It’s another kink Jenny is willing to try as soon as she’s infected.
One thing feeds another. First life imitates art, and then art imitates life, and finally the engine of obsession drives everything with a clean-green engine that has a zero carbon footprint but leaves other kinds of marks.
It doesn’t take long for the news to get around. There is a talented bondage and discipline illustrator who gets it. His ink and color accentuate all the essentials. Negativity is reduced to its necessary minimum.
Ashley is believable because she’s real. Everybody sees it, and for the first time, Jack regrets putting Ellie’s face on these images, especially with flagellation added to the mix. But the wrong-feeling only makes his illustrations more intense, more desirable to fans. He is linked with websites and blogs around the world, and Ellie’s face on Jenny’s body are there for everyone who has a laptop and five minutes.
Jack never suspected there were so many.
When he adds a member’s section to his site, some Ashley Windsor fans are willing to pay. Fifteen dollars a month to look at pictures he can’t stop drawing anyway. Some people are fascinated with black and white, others want full color. The site really takes off when he learns animation.
Ellie always knocks in case she’s caught Jack and Jenny doing something they seldom did before she moved away. This time she uses her key and storms in like a policewoman who is serving her first warrant and hopes to use her gun.
“God damn it.” She walks past Jack, straight to Jenny, and it’s a good thing because he’s just finishing a translucent tear that leaves a moisture trail down Ashley’s left cheek, and he can’t stop until it’s finished.
He’s pretty sure Ellie wouldn’t understand the ropes, and the Italian shoes, but he’s a little afraid she might. Jack blows air across the picture and hopes there is adequate mother-daughter time to allow the ink to dry.
Ellie slaps a stack of papers onto the kitchen table where Jenny has just finished her seventh cup of coffee.
“Would you like some?” Jenny shows her a one quart carton of artificial creamer with a picture of an Indian on it.
“I like to heat the creamer in the microwave for thirty seconds,” Jenny says, as if drinking coffee were the most important thing in the room. But she’s already turned her head toward the stack of papers.
“Can you believe this crap?” Ellie lifts the top paper so Jenny can’t ignore it, and even from another room, Jack can see it is a picture.
Ellie lays it down again when she sees him moving toward her. She picks the stack of pictures up before Jack can get a closer look, but first-rate illustrations stand out from across the room even if they are too far away to see the details.
Maybe I can explain.
Jack tries to think of how a father tells his daughter why her face is worn by a fantasy woman who is tied up and whipped, and why there is something in her expression that proves she likes it.
He starts a couple of sentences, but the words fall into a jumble of lies and confusion. Jack remembers a phrase from a legal document he once read: “Further affiant sayeth not.” It sounds biblical and official, like good advice sometimes does, so Jack keeps quiet and waits to see what happens next.
“Some pervert put my picture on the Internet.” Ellie almost has her voice under control.
Jack thinks pervert is kind of a strong word for a guy who just draws pictures, but he continues to sayeth not. He reaches for the stack of papers, and Ellie takes a step away. It’s pretty clear she hasn’t identified the pervert yet; Jack is grateful for that, but he sort of wants to get the whole thing over.
“Maybe they’re not so bad,” he says. Jenny nods her head and twists her face into a semi-agreeable look he hasn’t seen since he talked her into voting for George W. Bush.
“Maybe they’re art,” Jack says.
How long will it take Jenny to see that Ashley Windsor, has her body? It shouldn’t take too long, because both Ashley and Jenny have port wine birthmarks shaped like Oklahoma located where a tramp stamp tattoo would be. No more than an inch from the panhandle to the Arkansas border, but it probably wouldn’t happen twice.
“Maybe it’s a coincidence.”
Ellie stares at Jack as if he might have some odd colored nose debris. He checks just to be sure.
Ellie thumbs through her stack of papers until she settles on one that might be suitable to show to her parents while her mother drinks another cup of coffee and her father searches for the nearest exit.
“Check it out.” Ellie holds the picture out for Jack to see, but her hands are shaking so much that all the colors run together. His hands aren’t shaking quite that bad, so he takes the illustration from her.
It’s not mine. Jack mouths the words, but doesn’t give them any sound.
A naked girl is pressed against the iron bars of a primitive jail. She’s wearing nothing but Ellie’s face. Her Victorian dress is crumpled on the stone floor her. Behind her through the barred window, a full moon is shining.
The scene that led to this one fills Jack’s mind like a train passing through a tunnel. There is nothing to say until it’s out the other side.
“Well done,” he says without meaning to.
“Thank you,” Jenny says.
Ellie doesn’t notice. She’s busy tearing the picture in half. Then into quarters. Then into eighths. That’s as far as she can go.
That’s as far as any of them can go.
Ellie selects another picture. The full moon is bigger in this one.
Jack and Jenny watch their daughter trace it with the tip of her little finger. Waiting for the infection to take hold.[/private]
The Recovery Position
Ever the stickler, he was the sort of man who bristled at the misuse of the word dilemma. Insistent upon correct usage, he never tired of pointing out to his students that technically, it should be used only when one was faced with two options, both of which were unfavourable. His thoughts turned to this as he lay naked, prostrate on the floor, waiting in vain for the pain to stop.
Through good intentions and perverse execution, he had found himself in his present predicament. It had started as an effort to extend his bedroom repertoire, to inject an element of surprise into the act of lovemaking. Of late, he and his wife had flagged, sexually. Adamant that he would not let explicit thrills slip so readily from his grasp, and with their anniversary as a deadline, he worked towards reinvigorating their moribund relationship.
[private]To this end, he had purchased a copy of the Kama Sutra. Alone he had flicked distractedly, absorbed plethoric permutations he had never considered. Opting, of necessity, for an illustrated edition, he nevertheless eschewed lavishly photographed offerings; lithe youngsters would not be his guides. There would be no intimations of mortality, of his advancing years; cartoons would be his illustrious instructors, delicate pencil renderings outlining the mechanics. These sketchy fornicators lent the exercise a sense of deja-vu. Upon publication, he and his wife had dallied briefly with the Joy of Sex, its sinful lineations. Summoning images from the time, he saw a bearded man perpetually locked in the wheelbarrow. He supposed there were worse ways to spend eternity. But it was some time since they had experimented with new positions, and by some time he meant since the seventies.
Rather than negotiate the book’s exotic offerings with his wife he had decided to take a more academic approach. In her absence, his approach was one of geometry, not so much impassioned as diagrammatic amassment. In the manner of martial art forms, routines would be drilled until second nature. Whilst he accepted that his methodology was not best suited to the task, it was, he felt, the only way to offset his wife’s objections. With a rigorous meticulousness, he set about committing the book to memory.
Through the book’s numerous positions he would seduce his wife once more, would impress her with his flexibility. He reasoned that she would be more receptive to suggestions with an erotic heritage. They would not be re-enacting pornography, tentative mimicry beneath a flat screen, but by candlelight he hoped to usher in similar results under the umbrella of Eastern mysticism; lascivious intentions cloaked in a cloud of patchouli. Prior to his mishap, he had envisaged the ways in which he would take her, engage her with his suddenly broadened palette, leaving her breathless, astonished, by his dynamic gymnastics. That seemed unlikely now.
This had not been his first attempt to rekindle the flame. Knowing that his missionary administrations were barely enough to keep her awake for the duration, he had falsified a spirit of adventure. For this he had not strayed far beyond their comfort zones. There had been no custom-made leather outfits, no arsenal of intimidating toys and rehearsed safety words. He had surprised in predictable fashion: a mirrored ceiling, a waterbed, some costumes bought in anticipation of role-play. The latter, a long shot, had been greeted by his wife’s supercilious refusal: I will not stoop to the dressing up box. Was he trying to re-animate a corpse? He refused to give up hope.
In the day, whilst his wife was at work, he would apply himself to the carnal arts. This at least had been his plan. However it soon became apparent that unpartnered he would struggle to memorise the motions, in essence like learning to dance alone. Outsiders, he suspected, would suggest that the point was to explore this new world together, but outsiders, as far as he was aware, were not on naked terms with his wife. In the bedroom, as elsewhere in her life, she refused to suffer fools; no longer would she tolerate his erotic incompetence. If he was to sway her, he needed to do so with conviction. Conceding that the Kama Sutra was not a manual for one, he considered a more practical approach. Alone in their bedroom he had tried to forge an effigy from what lay around him. A pillow, her nominative stand-in, had not been the least of her, a sack of feathers, plumped, awaiting his advance. Limbless, it had proved an insubstantial substitute, a dislocated torso with which he would fail to get the measure of positions. He would require something more corporeal.
Men he had known, less theoretically inclined, had visited prostitutes with the intention of repertoire expansion, had endeavoured to commit new positions to memory through hands on tutelage. Wives and girlfriends were doubtless unaware of their excursions. How would these women react upon discovering that their partners had solicited outside help in order to revitalise their sex lives? Their seedy deeds seemed unlikely to be interpreted as selfless acts.
Fearful of condescension, he nevertheless pitied these poor women. It was doubtful that, finding themselves in hostile servility they had much time for their client’s diversions. Must they embrace all roles: depositary, counsellor, teacher? What did they care for their client’s marriage? The continuation of its imperilled state was undeniably to their financial advantage. He pictured their nonplussed looks when asked advice on different positions. Surely it went against their best interest to elongate the process, to delay climax? Speed was of the essence. He sensed premature ejaculators would be greeted warmly, hasty transactions preferable, assuming punters were taxed climactically, that they did not pay for a timed slot. There would be no opportunity to reconvene, to muster gusto for an encore.
She arrived discreetly, by post. Unwrapping his parcel, he regarded his new partner, shrink-wrapped in a box. Through plastic sheeting, their eyes met. Upon unfolding her, preparing to breathe life into her, he contemplated her deflated form. Previously he had scorned men who resorted to such desperate ends to satisfy themselves, their flat-packed mistresses only one step up from having sex with balloons. How many married men harboured collapsible concubines? Guilty husbands secretly engaged in airtight adultery? He had entered into his own rubbery negotiations with a higher goal, he reassured himself. That said, he had no intention of revealing to his wife the intricacies of his rehearsals. With his lips he had breathed if not life then at least form into her. Upon curved air he would perfect his manoeuvres.
Claims of a lifelike nature, it seemed, had been optimistic exaggeration. Post-inflation it hardly beckoned him, its eyes, painted, agog, not of the come-to-bed variety. He had bought the doll after the failure of a pillow to replicate his wife. In truth, it was not much of an improvement, possessed as it was of a passivity even his wife would struggle to emulate. At best it could be described as anatomically vague. With unbending limbs, he struggled to get her into the requisite positions. Her, he thought. He had fallen immediately into mentally addressing the doll in the feminine form, even though, despite rudimentary mouldings, it was entirely sexless. This was to salve his own misgivings, investing it with female properties although she was no more a woman than a dinghy. Dissatisfied, he would nonetheless get his money’s worth, would not be sending her back to her maker. At the thought, he shuddered, summoned bleak images of the returns department of a sex toy retailer.
On his bed, atop this woman, he arrived at his plight. The specifics of the incident would be lost. Negotiating a particularly outlandish position, stretching himself astride his blow-up bride, he had lost his footing. Clambering, his frantic flapping had done little to save him, the waterbed’s undulations proving a hindrance to balance. His squeaking partner offered little help as he failed to gain purchase on her slippery skin, akin to reasserting himself on a lilo in a swimming pool. Falling from grace, he found himself dispensed beside the bed, a jumble of contorted, painful limbs. The exact nature of the damage inflicted was not clear beyond the fact that any movement caused absolute agony. Upon stumbling, his erection reconsidered itself and wilted sympathetically, his afternoon’s arousals brought to an abrupt conclusion. Something had given way, a crick. He felt pains pulse in parts of his body he couldn’t even name, whose existence he had complacently ignored during less painful times. He tried to move but agonies pierced him. He would remain stationary.
Shivering, he chastised himself for his absentmindedness, for failing to place his clothes within easy reach, although he could not have foreseen the tumble of events. Diligently, and with the spontaneity to which his wife was accustomed, he had removed and folded his clothes. With his shirt, he enshrouded a chair. It was a liaison with no call for hasty disrobement. He doubted that the enticements of this sexless receptacle had led any man to undress frantically.
His phone, previously considered out of harm’s way was now out of help’s way. What though would he do if he had access to it? Summon the emergency services? The cavalry heralded, his front door kicked down, before they thundered upstairs to his aid. He imagined their rush to his rescue scuppered by hysterics upon stumbling upon his singular situation as he lay prostrate, the victim of domestic abuse, a fall out with his speechless spouse. How did they remain straight-faced in such circumstances? They must encounter all sorts. Of dignified necessity, his rescue would need to be mediated through his wife.
Eventually he ceased his desperate attempts to right himself, remained, through pain, an upturned turtle, a shrivelled newborn floundering, unfortunate. The torturous sensations made any movement unwise. He couldn’t die like this, could he? This would remain, through circumstance, a rhetorical inquiry. He hoped his wife, out of consideration for herself if nothing else, would disguise the manner of his departure from this world. Prone, alone, a slapstick fatality: death by misadventure.
As he stumbled from the bed, he had heard a loud shriek. Had it been his? It was an irrational inquiry. Unless as an act of ventriloquism he would have to concede, the scream had been his own. It seemed unlikely to have slipped from the glossed lips, which circled invitingly upon the face of his accomplice. It was a mouth designed not for communication but acceptance, lips poised not for conversation but admittance, ingress, the third of a trio of penetrable apertures. The scream, from wherever it came, was immediately replaced by a litany of curses, the full spectrum of profanity explored, a vulgar workout as he became sorely accustomed to his body’s reconfiguration.
His fall had been broken by the scatter cushions he had swept from the bed, his wife a soft-furnishing Sisyphus removing them every night only to replace them every morning. He would never understand. Before removal, he had photographed them in order that they may be replaced without arousing ire or suspicion.
His thoughts turned to his air-filled assistant. Briefly, they had shared a moment, and the earth had moved. Reflected in the mirror above, looking down upon him, she seemed to taunt him, aglow in her undiminished buoyancy. The latest technologies, her manufacturers assured him, meant the doll’s breasts would be seam free, as though, finger fumbled, this alone would shatter any illusions. He envied credulous men their suspension of disbelief. Her breasts seemed no less artificial than the silicon augmentations he saw about town, swollen and disproportionate. Everyone now seemed engaged in some manner of enhancement. Were the dolls moving towards womanhood or vice versa?
Reflected, they resembled a mismatched couple at a nudist beach. She had been one of many options. It was odd to think that there was an entire industry based around these plastic partners, loneliness conquered by aide of receptive synthetics. Whilst these mute, rubbery receptacles may accommodate some manner of release, they hardly seemed ideal mates. Like all the women in their owner’s lives, he imagined, they would be let down afterwards, sex followed by a sense of deflation. Post-coitally, the air would be drained from their bodies, folded neatly away following the routine rinsing of holes. They were far from marriage material, friends making wedding gifts of puncture repair kits.
In her lifeless likeness, she competed with a bestiary of balloon animals. He presumed they were the sole domain of stag nights, future grooms saddling synthetic sheep. Had this moulded menagerie ever proved a stepping-stone to more visceral thrills? Were they gateway inflatables? An amusing gift awakening previously unknown desires, from stag jag to tiptoeing in pastures new as they crept upon unsuspecting cattle? Afterwards, remorseful, regarding the off-kilter wilt of their members, ruminating whether to consult a doctor or a vet. Were they ever ordered in earnest, he wondered, apprehensive zoophiles keen to test the waters, a legal trial run before braving the elements? Could trapped air replicate such delights?
Where did their deviant lines end? Did they offer other forbidden hollows, darker attractions, blow-up children sold under the counter? Preferable, surely, that those so inclined relieve their murky urges into some squeaking simulacrum rather than the real thing. Would that be a legally dubious production? After all, it was just a matter of scale. Discovered in cupboards, they would prove difficult to explain away. Finding himself exploring the moral implications of having sex with inflatable minors, he suspected he was entering the early stages of delirium.
Earlier in the day, as he unwrapped his partner, his primary concern had been the aroma, that whilst inside this synthetic other he would be tainted by a factory fresh smell, that he would need to shower to get the smell of plastic from his body. He had greater concerns now.
Perhaps it would have been kinder all round if he had taken a mistress, separate sex and his marriage for good. Taken, he thought. How quaint, as though selecting a mate from an orderly queue, regimented courtesans awaiting his attention. But an affair would not have been a guilt free endeavour. He was not predisposed to complications. Such entanglements required a cloak and dagger existence that was beyond him. The lying, he imagined, would prove more exhausting than the sex.
Beyond the embarrassment, how would he fare physically? Moaning, prone, as pains juddered through him, he became concerned he may have inflicted lasting damage. Was this it now? Would he no longer be conjugally functional without the aide of medical apparatus? Was he doomed to a life as half man, half machine? An assisted shift into his wife would not be overly romantic, a Heath Robinson contraption of harness and gurneys allowing congress. He had not contemplated chiropractic intervention, saw nothing arousing in that possibility. Doubled over, he considered a new position: he supine in a hospital bed, his wife straddling his shiftless bones.
In slow motion, he tried to replay his awkward tumble. He feared that his reduced agility signalled the onset of decrepitude. He didn’t need medical reports to tell him that he was past his sexual prime, the post-coital ache in his bones told him all he needed to know. Even so, he had anticipated a few more decades of healthy activity. He had noticed, of late, his body’s recalcitrance to his will. He felt the decline in all of its inevitability. His arthritic advances would prove all the easier to fend off.
Would he be doomed to a life with inflatable Katy now? She at least would not spurn his advances. With the minimum of luggage, he could whisk her away for dirty weekends. She could even, if he had the audacity to face probing customs officials, travel as hand luggage. He didn’t relish such a grim future, bleak romantic breaks, a foot pump giving shape to his lover.
As day turned to night, darkness at least obscured his predicament; in the dimming light he was unable to see his situation reflected from above. More than anything, he felt foolish. As an effort towards proving his virility, it had fallen somewhat flat. He cringed at the thought of his wife’s face, her shock and disappointment as she stumbled upon the scene. He hoped that after engaging the emergency services she would be able to see the funny side of his misadventures. Over the years, she had come to expect certain eccentricities on his behalf, but this perhaps was a peculiarity too far. Could his wife shift this indelible tryst from her memory? He wouldn’t blame her if she left him for someone less sexually fragile. Stricken, huddled double, he provided an unwelcome foreshadow of stooped futures. He had hoped not to advertise his deficiencies. Haunting the horizon, a rigorous loose-limbed youth, reliably pliable, his erstwhile replacement. Through trying to enliven his sex life he would likely wind up without one.
This then was his dilemma: to be discovered or not. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he knew he required medical attention, that without his wife’s reappearance he may die. That at least was his own fatalistic prognosis. If she returned, however, he would have to deal with her disgust and dismay, would have to, in his weakened state, forge arguments for his defence. In his mind the words, I can explain, rolled relentlessly, his opening gambit lest his wife got the wrong idea. Could he explain? Muttered gruffly, I was doing it for you, would prove an unconvincing valediction. He remained uncertain which option was the least desirable. Even if he should slip into death before her return, his wife would still be confronted by the aftermath, a final image potent enough to obscure all other memories, a mockery made of the marital bed. Mercifully, their children all lived elsewhere; they would not have their memories darkened by this episode. For that, he was grateful.
Naked, foetal, locked in his abnormal contortion he winced. Engulfed by a sense of dread and relief, he heard, downstairs, a key turn in the lock.[/private]
Flash Fiction Competition: “This is not love…”
To celebrate the new year and the launch of Litro‘s new Membership Platform, we are partnering with Penguin Books to bring you a very special flash fiction competition.
Our February theme for the magazine is Sex, so as a counterpoint to all that romance (well, presumably), our challenge to you is to write a piece of short fiction from the prompt:
“This is not love…”
Entries must be no more than 1,000 words long, and should not have been previously published anywhere, in print or online. The deadline for entries is 7 February, and the winning story will be announced on the Litro website on 14 February.
The winner and the two runners-up will have their stories published on the Litro website as well, while the overall winner will also receive three beautiful Clothbound Classics editions of Alice in Wonderland, Hard Times and Bleak House, kindly supplied by Penguin (see right). They’re so lovely we were tempted to just keep them for ourselves…