I gave Stephanie the best years of my life and she has never returned them. She says she has forgotten where she put them. I checked the attic and the basement and the woodshed, she explains, but I didn't find them there. I checked the storage closet and the spare bedroom and the hope chest, she says, but nothing turned up. It would help if you could tell me more about them, in case I have mistaken them for something else. Why, I could have mistaken them for odd-matched socks and donated them to charity. I could have stared right at them and never known, never known. You could give me a few more just like them, to jog my memory. I promise not to break you.
Two hours until Stephanie must go home. She is scattered over the bed, a leg there, an arm here, that one stubborn black silk stocking I stole for her hanging by a thread from her ruby red toenail. Her mouth hangs open as she sleeps, her thick black hair slumped to one side, spread like an octopus against the one pillow still balled up on the bed. She lays on her stomach with one hand still grasping the brass headboard. Sunstreaks moves over the skylight above the bed, creeping up her ankles like melted butter. I prop myself up on my elbows and watch all her shadows disappear.
Life was easy before Stephanie. Moments went by and that was enough. Seconds went by, minutes, whole hours zip zoom whizzed on by and that was okay, no problem, there was always more right in your face. Just turn around whoops there goes another morning, no time for breakfast, here comes the day and there it goes, don't blink. Look out, there's a long night ahead and you don't have the time, no time to waste, forget it sugar you fucked up, it's gone, you forgot to take a number. Whole weeks, long 7-day 80-hour work-weeks plowed on by and the reports never got done, the waste baskets never got emptied, you were stuck in traffic and oooops forgot to look up, didn't open your eyes fool so entire months were blown off the calendar, winter spring summer fall and you missed all the sales, all your coupons expired and you were in the express lane with more than 10 items, you should have seen it coming but you didn't have time because it all happened so fast you couldn't look up you were too humiliated standing there, how could you, stealing from the rich, stealing naughty things to wear, you can't possibly pay for your crimes so let me help you, just stand still a minute and let me pay for those, give them to me, give me your best years, I promise not to break you.
When the time comes, I will wake her up by running my tongue around the edges of her one exposed ear. I will stamp this movement into the primitive part of her brain. She will roll her hips a minute, gently, enough to say don't stop. I will run my tongue down the line of her neck, a tender shadow, and she will squirm and maybe groan once, not loud. I'll stop too long, she'll roll over and sigh and stretch, fall back to sleep. It's all part of the game, sleep precious baby till you break me. I plunge my hungry tongue into the deep warm shadow between her breasts, swirling circles to form a soft wet place. I will hold down her hand when it strains to clutch my hair and then mercy be damned while my tongue strokes her nipples back and forth till she sobs. Then I will lick the long streak of sweat from her heart to her belly and below, gripping both her wrists in one hand and spreading her wide open with the other, always surprised how wet, how sweet, stroking slow, then quick, tight circles then spread wide, pushing, now deep and hungry, nearly broken, ignoring her oh please no then passion gone raw and the painful grip of her thighs, a rumbling roar deep down below the floorboards soon pushing up through the mattress, through her hot belly, setting free her wrists and her eyes open wide and her little lie, I promise not to break you oh harder now yes as the roar lifts her up to soak my face with heat and rage and surrender.
Stephanie's husband is the jealous man with a drinking problem. I am the lover who is always there for her. Our roles are each one simple sentence long, easy to remember. She might be in the middle of redecorating her living room and will suddenly feel the urge to define her relationships, the people that surround her, stalk her. She might sit down on the edge of the loveseat, turn and stare out the window for a long time, a passionate daydream, strangers in her past, and right then she must know for certain who are those people that surround her now, who plan to burn her, steal from her, and what do they want? That's when she fills the void with these simple sentences, sentencing her husband, sentencing me, my husband is the jealous man with the drinking problem. Dannielle is the lover who is always there.
I tiptoe down the stairs before the children wake up. On the floor of the entryway, still partly tucked under the door, lies a square pink envelope with my name swirled purple on the front in Stephanie's flawless calligraphy. I put the envelope quickly between the folds of my bathrobe. The fragrance of lavendar rises and I breath in deep, closing my eyes to bring back the finer moments of a recent fuck. Two distinctly different squeals from children being tickled upstairs break the silence and I flinch, startled. The letter slips down my belly and I grab it from the outside, holding on tight. Richard appears at the top of the stairs and calls down to me, am I there? Am I making coffee? Do I see how warm it is outside? Do I know it's been a year since we all went to the beach? Holding on tight, the letter between my legs, baby-steps to the bathroom, oh has it really been that long, I say. I hadn't noticed. Hold on I'll be right out. Just a minute. I used to lock myself in the bathroom when I was too young to be doing what I did when I locked myself in the bathroom. Now I lock myself in to do things like hide from Richard, hide from the children, have good long noisy cries, sit and stare at my satin monogrammed initials on the bath towels and remember where I came from, that slap-happy poverty of long ago, steam open suspicious mail addressed to Richard, read contrived gossip about one-hit wonders in my son's teeny-bop magazines, and read Stephanie's love letters. My son yells at the door, are you going to be in there forever, Mom? His small soft voice breaks the thick sweet air of my fantasy of Stephanie spread open in a field of wild iris. I lean forward on the toilet seat, covering my thighs and wiping my wet fingers on the monogrammed towel. Just a minute, just a minute, I say. I reach over and turn on the faucet, hoping the sound of the water in the sink will account for something. I say, I'll be out right as soon as I brush my teeth. After I cum I flush the toilet and tear up the letter, dropping each piece into the water spiralling down.
I broke the law for Stephanie, several times, shoplifting trinkets and teddies and toys for her that I couldn't resist, little expensive do-nothings that sit there on her nightstand and stare at me while we fuck. I'm sure she drags them out of a bottom drawer somewhere just for me. When I'm gone, when her husband is there, when she is hosting designer parties, when she fucks that slut Fiona, she hides the toys and the teddies and probably the trinkets too. I have stolen coffee table books and pocket revolvers for her, and rings that glow in the dark. I have felt my heart drop to my ankles at the sight of a security guard coming at me in the mall. I have felt the sting of adrenaline in my mouth, gulping for dry air while slipping black lace teddies with red satin ribbons into my purse. I have soaked my panties walking through boutiques wearing seamed black fishnet stockings and tight pink corsets under my jeans and sweatshirt. I have sat in my car in the parking lot, digging through my purse, grabbing handfuls of pierced earrings and slave bracelets and toe rings, prepared to swallow the evidence. I have stooped so low, so low for the hour here, afternoon there, the every other Thursday and the long empty spaces in-between. I have seen her face on every mannequin in the mall, etched her silhouette on dressing room mirrors, and held her up to me. I have arrived home late many times, without a proper excuse, reeking of her cunt, stammering and mumbling and promising gifts for the children. I have exceeded credit limits, forgotten proper I.D., parked in handicapped zones for her. I have strolled past the prison gates and eyed the barbed wire, and I'd still break the law for her, every law.
Richard knows a shortcut to Oyster Beach. We take the first left after the second right, he says, turning the map over and over. Emma and Todd whisper secrets to each other in the backseat, things that send them into high-pitched giggles while pointing at each other. Keep it down you two, Richard says. He points at the next intersection and says honey turn right. I turn right. We are a handsome family, us 'burbanites. We have blonde-haired children with straight teeth, no braces in this family, no sirreee. We go together, none of us clash, we are color-coordinated. Richard's hair is just tossled enough for the beach. My tan has ripened to perfection, no bathing suit lines on this body oh no. I have the same trendy haircut I had in high school. The one Richard told me was wild. I subscribe to all the right magazines and book clubs so I know what to say if someone asks me to break the desperate silences at cocktail parties. I know what to wear, what to think, when to jump and how high. We have two pedigree Irish setters with encoded collars in case they are stolen, and they have real names like Rudy and Nadia, not cute names like Igor or Sushi. When we are all asleep at night our galoshes are lined up in the mudroom, in size order, rain or shine, summer winter spring and fall. When I can't sleep I go out to the mudroom and look at the galoshes and feel a peace that I can't get any other way. Richard says oops, okay, I think we should have turned left but it's okay, okay? Turn right here. I turn right. When we met, Richard dropped the corsage on the floor and Mother picked babies breath out of the carpet for a week. You can't get this stuff up with the vacuum cleaner, she told me, the petals are too tiny. When we met, Richard asked Mother a lot of unusual questions, like do you have a microwave oven Mrs. Langolier? Do you have a food processor? Do you have a pocket calculator? He was leading up to a moment, that sly guy. He was getting ready to tell her that she could have all this and more if she'd just sit still and let progress hit her upside the head. Yessirree lady and I don't mean maybe, this and more can be all yours for a song. She fell in love with him sitting at the kitchen table, watching him grind up egg shells in the food processor. I waited to fall until we were in the back seat of his Monte Carlo. Richard rolls down the window and hangs his head out as if this will help him navigate. The strong scent of the sea drifts through the car, and we all breath in hard and say aaahhhhh. Emma says, are we there yet Mommy cuz I have to go to the toilet cuz I didn't go at the restaurant cuz Todd locked the door. Are you gonna hold me tight in the water Mommy cuz I get real scared of sharks. Is this the beach Mommy? Aha! says Richard. I was right all along, wouldn't you know. I should have trusted my instincts, he says, stuffing the map into the glove compartment. Intuition, I say. Huh? Richard says. You should have trusted your intuition, I say. Same difference, he says.
My intuition told me it was evil, loving you. It was an unspeakable terrible love, dangerous and cruel. You wrapped yourself around me and suffocated me like oily smoke. I reached out to hold you or to push you away, and though you were everywhere I couldn't touch you, I couldn't breath. I am a picture of a nude woman on her knees in solitary confinement, reaching out in the dark, gasping for air. It is not enough that your picture is under my pillow, it is not enough danger. I wake up in the middle of the night filled with the horror of never having known you, my heart racing, gasping for air, reaching out in the dark. My intuition told me you were the last straw, an act of desperation, the first real thing that ever happened to me, the long-awaited omen. In my mind's eye I saw a woman with sad eyes but in my heart I felt fingernails dragged across a chalkboard. In my mind I reasoned that you'd go away as strangers always do, but in my heart I cut my eyes out, held on tight and waited to hit bottom. Bottom is everywhere you are, I reach for it, falling falling gasping for air, reaching out in the dark. Take me back. Shatter me you sweet slut Stephanie.
She got caught in the mall stealing a $300 camisole for Stephanie, who made a few calls and bailed her out. "Your little escapade interrupted a perfectly good fuck with Fiona and this sweet huge boy she brought with her," Stephanie told her later, to punish her. Stephanie paid for the camisole and gave it to Fiona as a conciliatory gift. It was fate that drove her to it, made her soar above the law. If they would just let her stand up a minute, she could get a hold of herself and explain. If they would just take off the handcuffs, let her wipe the snot off her face. If the gods had only steered her towards a therapist's office instead of the mall, to a hair appointment, to lunch with friends...if she only had friends. If she'd made a list of what she wanted, the camisole would not have been the most important thing. It was only a symptom. If she'd only ignored the insidious voices purring deep inside her when a porcelain mannequin wearing the camisole to die for, beckoned her through the door of the mall boutique. The deep voice imprisoned in a cave inside her belly said you are a worthless lazy slut look at you your face all swelled up again no wonder he fucks around on you no wonder they all fuck around on you. The sweet soft voice all over her body skin-deep said you have waited all your life for this satin, this lace, this fate. The security guard was so careful not to hurt her when he put on the handcuffs. He said, I don't want to break your skin. If she'd only gone to college and become a veterinarian and stayed a virgin like she'd planned. If that hot summer night naked spread-eagled in the back of Richard's new car hadn't been so bad and so good. If her daughter hadn't been born nine months later, born beautiful and sweet and worth dying for. If she'd known what a huge disappointment life would turn out to be for Richard. If only stealing didn't warm her up so, fill her with such a deep conviction that fate was responsible for everything, or how else could she explain her whole life? It is fate that filled her with a sudden lust for silk that spread so fast and so smooth, a heat rash rose across her breasts when she gently quickly slipped the black camisole off the mannequin and gently quickly slipped into the dressing room where she undressed and gently, slowly, eased the answer to everything over her hard nipples and squeezed her thighs together to hold in the ache and quickly dressed and hurried toward the entrance back into the mall when, like a manic scream, the boutique's theft alarm sounded.
Richard started drinking too much soon after his father died of alcoholism. He came home late a few nights, smelling of bourbon, his father's favorite poison. He missed the smell of his father, that distilled odor of a man busy dying. He hated his father for the first half of his life and spent the second half recovering from the first half. He became his father's partner in the law firm and together they chased ambulances to the scenes of airline disasters, criminals to the scenes of the crimes, and ex-wives to the scenes of adulteries. His mother died of loneliness before she ever saw her first grandchild. They found her nude and dead, clutching a handful of quaaludes, the rest of the bottle empty. Richard said later that she had always admired Marilyn Monroe and wanted to be an actress but instead got married because that is what women did in her time. Bullshit, thought Danielle. What woman ever gave a fuck about time? There is no time. There are only moments. Danielle married Richard for his quadrophonic stereo system and his gaudy red velvet seat cushions. She learned to cum this way, the heavy metal music blaring, the color red, the rich smell of thai stick burning, the glimpses in the rear view mirror of Richard's hairy ass, his desperate cock rising and plunging into her. They don't teach kids about mid-life crises in sex education They should. Richard's came early and was so typical it was hard to believe he was proud of it. He had the same mid-life crisis Sally Jesse Raphael, Geraldo Rivera and Oprah Winfrey urged viewers to stay tuned for. Soon, he bypassed the formality of coming home past a decent hour and just came home in the afternoons drunk and smelling of sex, spilling into the house and onto the sofa or sometimes just oozing right into the bed, fly unzipped, saturated. At these times, Danielle stood against the eve of the bedroom door and twirled her orange marmalade hair, thinking of ways. There's the slow cruel way. She could tie his hairy wrists to the bedposts with black electrical tape. She could tie his feet together with antennae wire. It wouldn't be necessary to undress him, she could just a soon set him on fire in his designer suit. Maybe take the wingtips off, because she'd picked them out. There was a problem with keeping him from waking up the children while he burned, screaming and all. So she considered the fast merciful way. She could tiptoe up to him and gently place one of the monogrammed satin pillows against the back of his head, push the mouth of the pocket revolver against the pillow and blow his brains out. But the mess. Inevitably she would have trouble scrubbing all of Richard's brain and bone fragments out of the bed. It always came to this: letting him die this way, the way he is now. One sip at a time. Letting him drown in his sorrow, letting him torture himself without her coming up with something more cruel, more fast or slow, more merciful. Besides, letting him kill himself is a sort of murder, it's just not as fun.
We wasted a lot of time. We could have discussed the problem. Instead we etched each other's name in the dew our heavy breathing made on the windows, and laughed about the gearshift nob-sized bruise that would soon appear on my ass. We could have said Let's Figure Out What To Do About Our Situation. Do We Divorce Our Husbands? Do We Just Keep Meeting Like This, Whenever? Will We Regret This After We Get Dressed? Is This Just One of Those Things That Only Happens in The Movies? Are We Done Yet? Instead I said to Stephanie that I have this thing about one-hit wonders lately, like George Michael. I steal my son's teeny-bop magazines and look at glossy photos of George Michael and dream about a life together, me and George. Stephanie said that's nothing, I have never stopped loving Diana Ross since the '60s, when I saw her on the Ed Sullivan Show and she has never not even once answered my letters. I said you mean you write to her? Stephanie said yes I write a lot of letters. Then she said do that again, that squeezie thing, that's it, now harder. I pinch her clit between my fingers. I said maybe I should write to George Michael. Stephanie said oh god that feels so damn good you're killing me oh god oh god. I said I bet he gets hundreds of letters a day. Stephanie said shut up oh god put your fingers in me now I'm just about ready to. I watch Stephanie cum and wonder if we spend too much time talking about other people.
Stephanie dresses quickly while I look out the window to identify the uninvited guest. I can see that it's a short gray-haired woman who looks like Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz. So that's what I tell Stephanie. She says oh god that's my mother what the hell is she doing here? Stephanie's mother turns to look at the window as she presses the call button again and I step back, out of sight. Stephanie tries to walk and pull up her designer jeans at the same time, and ends up tumbling against the wall. Yes? she says, pressing the intercom button with her nose while tucking in her blouse. Is that you dear? says Stephanie's mother. Who else, mother? Stephanie answers. Well, I...can you let me in, dear? I have something for you, says Stephanie's mother. Yah, answers Stephanie, wait for me in the study, I just got out of the bathtub. She zips her jeans and presses the 'enter' button. Are you sure it's not a bad time? says Stephanie's mother over the buzzing sound of the 'enter' switch. No, just come in, wait for me, I'll be down, Stephanie says. The buzzer stops and Stephanie leaps to the closet, flings it open and grabs a hairbrush, stares in the mirror on the closet door and tries to brush her hair. It doesn't help. Her hair is matted and sticky, her face is flushed, the smell of sex on her breath, she looks freshly fucked. No chance of her passing for 'just got out of the bathtub.' She slips her ruby red toenails into white sandals, adjusts her collar, and turns to look at me. Am I alright? she asks. Perfect, I say, glancing quickly away from the shiny patches on her collarbone where I drooled on her. You are radiant, I say. Her face tightens. Bad news. She sighs and stares above my head as if I was an elevator she's waiting to reach her floor. Leave quietly, she says, business-like, strapping on her wristwatch and then glancing at the door that leads to the bathroom that leads to the jacuzzi that's next to the back gate that leads to the street that leads to the way for me to get out of her face.
Daily life is for shit so we all have secret lives, ones we construct and maintain in daydreams while driving our husbands' cars. Yours might be full of fast rich designer friends that never carry cash and have backstage passes and minimalistic business cards, and you smile to yourself because certainly no one else has ever managed terrible secrets quite the way you do. Mine is the secret of omission, the name you whispered carelessly in your sleep. You said, "Oh Fiona it's getting so bad..." and I rose out of bed and peeked out your curtains, shocked at how empty your neighborhood is in broad daylight. I loved you that day, the one time we slept together, you naked wrapped around a pillow and me shivering naked by the window, hating that slut Fiona whoever she is. I ruined it, stepping out of your mind and into your car, following my criminal record to your big fat house and becoming part of your every other Thursday and an hour here and there. I could have remained your undiscovered tendency, your closet desire, safe in the primitive part of your complicated brain. I'd be one of your whispers, one of your noisy dreams, your little night terror, unbroken. You would whisper Danielle the first time you slept with Fiona after you fucked her. It's too bad that Fiona is real to you and only a figment of my imagination. Fiona might be your therapist if you have one, and if you don't have one you should. We throw around a lot of pain, you and I, to keep us from getting too comfortable lest we get out of our shitty little lives and get an apartment together and share a bed and food stamps and designer cats. Fiona probably knows more about me than I do, you talk about me to her, she breaks bread with you and I get the crumbs. You pay Fiona for permission to love your husband. I let you do it for free. I stare at you a lot when you're awake, but that one time you slept, snoring like a pirate, I stared long and hard and with quiet tears streaming down. I asked myself, all this for a black silk camisole in a big brass bed? I could have said, nice of you to offer but I really can't afford the calories. But no. I got hungry. I was ravenous. I suddenly remembered I hadn't ever eaten anything good for me in all my life. And here was my chance, in a brass bed with a girl who squeals when she cums. That was my moment, staring at you then, two hours before you had to go home. Men have all the time in the world and women have moments. While you slept, I said goodbye. You were scattered all over the bed, one stolen black silk stocking still hanging by a thread from your ruby red toenail. You were on your stomach, your beautiful black hair slumped to one side, spread like an octopus. Your hand still holding on tight to the brass headboard. Even behind the barrier of sleep you were afraid of letting go. I crawled back onto the bed and propped myself up on my elbows. Sunstreaks through the curtain crept up your spine. It only took you a moment to break me forever while all your shadows disappeared.
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