I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
She had thought for sometime that all she needed was a little rest.
It had been two and a half years since her last really good night’s sleep. She had tried a new mattress, new pillows, warm milk, halcyon, flannel sheets, and a Sound Of Whales tape. Her friends started each telephone conversation with the dutiful question, “How’d you sleep, Barb?” and then waited for the complaining, turning their heads to sigh away from the mouthpiece.
She lost her appetite. Food seemed an inconvenience. As she dropped off her dry-cleaning and sat at the hair dresser and told Raoul about the transmission and piled kleenex and soup into the grocery cart, it was more and more the actions of a fraud. She wasn’t there.
“I’m fading,” she told her husband. “Try some sour cream with your potato,” he suggested practically. “No, I’m disappearing. Can’t you tell?” “Well, you look fine to me.”
Once she had sat in the front section of the Winsted Public Library for eight hours without moving and without being noticed. People moved around her and by her and through her. She was clear and flimsy and light and empty.
“Do you remember Mrs. Church?” she asked her sister Ellen. “It was Churchill,” Ellen snapped, cracking three pistachio nuts at once. “Oh yes it was. From fourth grade.” “Fifth, idiot.”
She went into the pale blue kitchen to get her sister some more nuts. When she got back, Ellen had her coat on and was sweeping some pistachio nut shells under the sofa with her foot. “You know what I fucking hate?” Ellen asked, staring at the sculpture of a pod of whales on the piano. “I hate people who are really nice to children.”
It was 10:30 at night and the crickets sounded to Barb as if they were in the room, in the bed with her. She opened her legs wide and felt a rush of cool air. The curtains rustled a little. The papers on the pale pink vanity rustled a little. She had started a wave that disturbed the damp powdery heat of her bedroom.
Outside she heard the Hudnut boys, Billy and Ted. They were camping in the backyard. They did this on July nights, piling junk food snacks in a paper bag, taking flashlights, wearing swim trunks and old teeshirts. It used to be Billy and George but George was 17 and had stopped camping five years ago. Now George drove into town at night and loitered with his friends by the drugstore. George was 6’2” but two years ago he had been 5’7”. “What should we do tonight, dear?” Mrs. Hudnut would ask her husband. “Let’s stay at home and watch George grow,” Mr. Hudnut would always answer, taking a long pull of Schlitz and pushing Ted away from the TV set.
Barb shifted again and felt some cool air puff up against her feet. She listened to Ted pitching a fit and Billy whispering frantically. “Too late.” Barb thought, as she heard the screen door bang open and Mr. Hudnut barrel out over to the pup tent.
Barb got up and moved over to the window, walking on tiptoe. She stood sideways and gently lifted the macramé curtain. She liked to watch. Mr. Hudnut reached into the pup tent and pulled out whichever boy was closest—it was Billy—and shook him up and down like a bag of nickels. Billy’s feet cracked together and his head swung from side to side. Ted stopped howling about his brother poking him and started howling in fear, throwing things, stamping his little bare feet. The Hudnuts like a good brawl, Barb thought. Good for them. Something about it excited her, raised voices, drama. She felt the skin on her back and stomach tingle. She ran her fingers over her left breast, pinching the nipple, pulling the curtain open wider. Mr. Hudnut dropped Billy, who crawled back into the tent, and chased after Ted, who was screaming blue murder and running like hell.
She switched hands and pressed and pinched her right breast, holding the curtain open with her knee. Over on the vanity she saw a black spider crawl across the glass top, skittering towards the make-up. She stroked her thigh, slipping two fingers between her legs. She was wet.
Just as Mr. Hudnut caught up to Ted and lifted him up by his hair, George drove into the driveway in his black truck and honked the horn. Mr. Hudnut exhaled and the weight of his stomach pulled him back down to earth. He dropped Ted. George walked over in his slow, easy manner and stood next to his brothers, shaking his head and laughing.
On the vanity in a ceramic cup the shape of a peacock were Barb’s eye-liners, mascaras, and make-up brushes. The spider was lost among them now. Barb reached over, feeling the macramé rub and catch against her nipples, and lifted the largest of the brushes. As she watched George—The Diplomat, they called him—talk quietly to his Dad, Barb spread her lips open and began the tickling, began the insistent sweep back and forth. Sometimes she would press in hard, letting the brush hairs dig into her clitoris. Sometimes she would barely touch herself at all.
Billy had crawled out of the tent. He and Ted were standing next to George, close, Mr. Hudnut was laughing, he had a nice laugh. He patted George on the shoulder and they all turned to walk back inside.
Barb was barely aware of them. Her eyes were half-closed, her teeth clenched. As she whipped the brush back and forth, she felt an occasional spark of pain but she thought nothing of this. Once she had used the handle end of a large wooden spoon and had noticed only days later several long splinters tucked in the delicate skin of her right thigh. One time—she would never do this again—she had allowed the Hudnut dog Whistle to lick her for hours, lying dreamily on her bed, smoothing more and more chocolate spread between her legs. Not that it wasn’t wonderful. It was wonderful.
Whistle’s long red thing had jabbed her leg over and over and she had considered crawling over onto all fours, guiding it in with her fingers, letting him bang it into her. But she had looked down and seen things hopping, seen things moving and she screamed in disgust. Whistle had fleas.
It was Ted who noticed first and he was confused. He wasn’t quite sure what he was watching. It looked like the statue in the photograph on the wall in Mr. Perry’s art class. Mr. Hudnut almost tripped over Billy, whose jaw was dropped way open and whose hands were starting to open and close in small fists, and that’s what made him look up. Barb’s head was thrown back. Mr. Hudnut could see down to just below her belly button, and then the window sill cut off everything else. They watched her hands swirl in circles and magical directions below the sill and Ted thought, “She’s cooking something with her eyes closed.” “Holy Jesus!” Mr. Hudnut shouted. “Holy Beejesus. Here we go.” George looked at his father and at Ted and at Billy and then he looked up and it changed his life.
Barb heard the shouting somewhere and opened her left eye a tiny bit. She saw the four figures standing in the Hudnut yard staring up at her. She had watched McCloud one episode where a lady fainted, her legs buckling out from underneath her, and she simply floated downwards, folding up on the floor. This seemed to her to be a good time for that. As the waves of her orgasm spread out and thinned, she breathed deeply and slid down to the floor, letting go of the macramé. It fluttered shut, closing like a safety curtain on the last act of a passion play. Amen. The End. I’m finished.
She didn’t know how long they stood in the yard, watching the window. She crawled back to bed and slept soundly. Somewhere as she drifted off she realized that she probably couldn’t borrow things from the Hudnut’s any more and that Mr. Hudnut probably wouldn’t shovel the snow on her walk just for a little kiss on the cheek. She had corrupted his children. She was the devil.
The next morning in the bath she saw a line of small red marks from her pussy down her inner thigh. Small dots. Small bites.
Every morning after he left for the office, Barb would read the paper three or four times. From that she would remember maybe—the weather, or maybe an obituary notice. Mr. David Arnold dies, aged 47, heart attack, loving father and husband and son. Susan Fletcher, aged 86, peacefully in her sleep. Into God’s loving and forgiving arms we commend you, etc., etc., etc. She carefully cut out all the food coupons and threw them in the garbage. Then it was time for a bath and then time for the market. When she got back, usually Maria was vacuuming or ironing and the two of them exchanged pleasantries the rest of the afternoon.
One time he showed her a stack of neatly cut coupons he had fished out of the trash can. “Why did you throw these out?” he asked. She took them from him, examined them, shuffled them, and looked again. “We don’t use Tide. Or Ivory soap. Or Smuckers Jam. You don’t like Smuckers.”
“Then … Barb—I’m trying to understand here. Then WHY CUT THEM OUT?”
“We might have wanted them.”
He patted her arm and smiled. She smiled too. “Mr. Bernard Petchnick died today. A brain tumor. Loving father and husband.”
He sighed. “Barb, I don’t know who that is.”
“Oh.” She shifted in her seat and smiled at him again. He took several sips of scotch, still staring at her. “Maybe, you know. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Maybe you should go. It’s not so expensive. Get a little rest.”
She nodded, wondering if he could see that she was only breathing with her right lung.
George turned up three days later. It was late at night but Barb was still awake, watching a movie, eating popcorn and pecan turtles. She heard the back screen door open and she knew who it was. She had been waiting for his visit. “Hello George.” She called. “Beer’s in the fridge.” He got himself a Bud and cracked it open. He walked to the living room and stood just behind the beaded curtain, shifting from foot to foot.
“Hello, Miss Latchley.”
“You can call me Barb.”
Ten minutes passed. Barb got up, turned off the TV, and walked over to the front hall stairs.
“Want to come up?”
George pushed through the beads and fell in step behind her. They stopped at the head of the stairs. Barb pointed to three photographs. “This is my Mother. This is my Father. This is my Mother and Father together.”
George nodded. “Nice.” They stood for a moment. Then Barb unbuttoned her shirt and hung it over the railing. She undid her bra and folded it on top of her shirt. George nodded, and then nodded again. He seemed to be out of breath.
“I think I’d better go, Miss Latchley.”
“I think I’d better go, Barb.”
“Okay.” She took his left hand and covered her right breast with it. She took his right and covered her left. She unzipped his pants. George was so big and young and hard that she couldn’t pull his dick out so she slipped her hand in and pressed. He came immediately. She licked her fingers.
George patted her on the arm and turned to leave. At the bottom of the stairs he turned. “You have very nice boobs.” He said politely. “Thank you, George. Come back tomorrow.” “Okay. I will.” He waved goodbye.
After she heard the screen door shut, Barb headed down to the kitchen. She got the turkey baster, a bowl of ice, and went back up to the bedroom.
Barb knew she thought about sex more than her sister, Ellen. Ellen thought she was sick. When they were little and they shared a bedroom, Barb would stuff kleenex in her vagina at night and press up against the corner of their pale pink desk. “What are you doing?” Ellen would hiss. “Mind your own beeswax.” Barb shot back, feeling the little nudges reach up her stomach and down to her knees.
It was like that. The center was between her legs, the steering wheel. The rest of her was the body of the car. She used all the appropriate hand and foot signals, sometimes early, sometimes often. She had her first orgasm at 12, reading a dirty book that made its way around her class homeroom. In it a young girl was captured by an underground race of people and they forced her to be their sex slave. Barb once read this in the back seat of the family car on the long drive to visit Uncle Bernard. She folded her coat on her lap and, despite her sister’s reproachful looks, slipped her left hand under it and played with herself. “Everything okay back there?” her father asked. “Yup. Just fine, Popperomavich,” she answered. She pinched herself hard and felt her fingers slip around. It was divine.
Later, she had gone out with a lot of boys, all nice boys, and she let them all touch her. Sam Reeves was the best, because he actually wanted to look, to examine her. He used a flashlight. “I am your sex slave,” she told him. “Does this hurt?” he asked, prodding her with an eraser. “This?” “No.” “This?” “No.” “This?” He was the first one to want to lick her down there, to suck her clit. He asked in return that she come to the boys locker room after practice one day and jerk him off in front of his swim team. And she couldn’t wear underpants. As this seemed like a fair enough trade, Barb left her underpants at home one day and met Sam in the locker room late after practice.
There were nine 14-year-old boys watching. Barb felt like a movie star. Sam lay down ceremoniously on a bench and pulled off his shorts. He told Barb to lift up her skirt and turn around three times which she did, slowly. She heard Peter Kirby whistle long and loud. “Ooohee. Ooohee. That’s a pussy. That’s a real pussy.” Barb knelt down by Sam and started to pull and pump hard on his penis. Sam shifted. She pulled faster. He whispered something and she leaned forward to hear him.
“Please suck it. I said you’d suck it.”
Always obliging, Barb leaned over and put Sam’s thin dick in her mouth. It was sweet, she thought, harmless. She sucked on it for less than a minute and tasted her first spray of cum. It was over. No problem. She wiped her mouth.
When she looked up, Barb was surprised to see all nine of them pumping, pointing their small works at her. She was the high priestess and they were the congregation. She was being worshipped. Some of them had their eyes closed and they were mumbling. Danny Longfeld shot first, then Peter Kirby, then Henry White, then Scott Deets. She watched transfixed. Then the rest, spurting little puddles of white cum on the locker room floor. It was a magical moment.
Barb knew right then about the power. She knew she had the power and that nothing would ever be as important. It was the center of the world. It was the meaning of everything.
The next day he drove her to the Spa. They stopped twice; once for coffee, once for gas. They didn’t speak. Barb was too busy, counting her fingers and breathing in time to the engine piston. He carried her bags into the twin bed balcony view room and looked at her, with relief, realizing that they would be apart for the next two weeks. He needed the rest.
“Do you want any money? No, I suppose not. They said you could sign for everything.”
“Don’t let her wear my blue silk robe.”
“Julie. Julie from the Krupp’s Drugstore. I know you’ve been fucking her in the garage for three years.”
“Sweetheart, that’s not true.”
“Don’t lie. I don’t mind. I’ve seen you. She drops off my medicine and you go into the garage and do it in the Chevy. Just don’t let that bitch wear my blue silk robe.”
He was shocked. This was more than she had spoken since the stove blew up and singed all her facial hair two years ago. At first he thought her tongue had burnt and it was too painful. Then the months passed and he grew used to quiet, reading into it the comfort and easiness of their years together. He did not know that it was measured, exact, precise. She spoke 20 words a day to him, never more or less. Never turning her head to the right or the left.
He shrugged and laughed. Two weeks. Okay.
He kissed her and left. She walked into the bathroom and began to count the tiles. As he crossed the parking lot to his car, he chuckled to himself, wondering how on earth she could have forgotten that Krupp’s drugstore burned down the year the Hudnut boy went to Vietnam.
George visited every night. Barb would be in the den, they would go upstairs, they would take off their clothes. At first it was on the landing, as George couldn’t last long enough to make it to the bedroom. Then the hallway, then the bedroom floor, and finally one triumphant day they were on the bed, under the covers, and George thought this was comfortable.
Barb taught him all the things she thought were important. She found he knew very little. She told him about kissing, pressing, pushing, pulling, pinching, spanking, and chocolate. He learned slowly. Sometimes Barb would think he was never going to get one particular skill, and then, just when she was about to tell him to Smarten Up or Else, he would smile in his slow interesting way and show that he had been listening, not just thinking of trucks or corn or algebra homework.
After six months, they stopped together down in the kitchen for a sandwich.
Barb asked, “Would you like tuna or peanut butter?”
George thought for a moment. “Whichever. It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters. Everything matters.”
“Well then. Peanut butter, on white toast, cut straight, not on the diagonal. Leave the crusts on.”
Barb had the same.
Some nights they had soup, after that. Once a month or so, Barb would make popcorn and they would sit and watch a movie.
“That’s Judy Garland. Do you know who she is?”
“She’s Judy Garland.”
George was a different person. His grades improved, he stopped arguing with his parents, he walked taller. He began to talk about the possibility of going to college next September if he didn’t get drafted. He was now capable of maintaining an erection for 25 minutes, as opposed to 25 seconds. He thought that was wonderful. Barb was encouraging him to talk dirty. It turned her on. She read aloud to him from the dirty story she’d written in tenth grade.
“She was his sex slave. He tied her hands to the stable door. He pushed her legs apart, lifting up her flimsy school girl skirt. The skirt was wool. It was grey. She wasn’t wearing any underpants. This really big dog barked nearby.”
“Alright. ‘… This really big dog barked nearby. He put his hands …’ I can’t read this.”
“If you don’t read it I won’t suck your penis anymore.”
“‘He put his hands on her ass and gripped hard. She tried to move away. He held her around the waist with one arm and pulled out his hard long cock and fucked her from behind. She really enjoyed it.’”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes. I think it’s a great story. And well written too.”
“Thank you.” She reached under the covers and gave him a good tug.
That winter they met early in the morning as George had football practice after school and then homework and he was beat by the end of the day. He would come over at 6:00 AM and then they would have cornflakes and Maxwell House coffee. Things were good between them. George swept the snow off her walk and fixed all the electrical and minor plumbing problems in Barb’s old house. When the wind howled and the cold gripped their street week after week, they smiled, they had a secret, they were fucking all the time.
Barb had lemongrass tea at 11:00 AM, before her aromatherapy massage but after her pedicure. By some quirk of scheduling, Barb had a pedicure two days in a row rather than once in the start and once at the finish. She didn’t mind. She asked for extra polish both times. She asked for the callouses to be rubbed and scraped and shaved very close.
The days confused her. Meals were at set times. Barb had not eaten a single meal at the same time for ten years, not since George had died. At the spa, breakfast was at 6:30 AM, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:00 PM. She just couldn’t get it right. She found herself in the kitchen frequently, clutching her soft pink terry robe, mumbling something about a few crackers and a handful of cheese. Within two days the front desk had her down in their records as “problem guest.”
The afternoon of her third complete spa day, Barb shuffled down the hall to the massage suite. Her lymphatic massage was at 4:00 PM. She was not late. She was shown into room six by a large Polish woman who told her to take off her robe, lie on the table face down, and cover herself with the clean white sheet. “You will enjoy,” the woman said firmly, patting her arm. “Eric he is very very good.” Barb took off her robe, hung it up, and lay down on the table, pulling the sheet up over her back with some difficulty. She counted the threads of cotton woven in a one inch square right near her eye. She listened with one ear to the Whindam Hill massage music and with the other to the conversation in the room next to hers. A woman was explaining her husband’s infidelities in great detail. She then explained her own. Finally the door opened and she heard someone pad in.
At first she felt nothing. She heard the man walk around the table twice. She felt observed. Then his hands passed three times lightly over her whole body, rising and falling with the terrain. He pulled the sheet down and folded it, exposing just her back. He began to press, in the smallest increments, down her spine. It was a tiny journey. When he got to the base of her spine she held her breath; he continued, slowly, insistently, pressing into her buttocks through the sheet until he reached the tops of her thighs.
He started at the top of her back again, but this time Barb was ready. When the hands reached her lower back, she stretched her arm back and pulled the sheet off, exposing her skin. The hands stopped. For a moment they did not move. Then they worked on, pressing deeply into her.
He left the room. Barb shifted impatiently. When she heard him return he was carrying something. He shut the door firmly and he may have locked it. When his hands touched her back again they were softer, slick with oil, more purposeful. They swept down her body from neck to feet in a wash of reassurance. He understands, Barb thought. He knows me. He wants me. It made complete sense to her that this had happened right then, right there. Room six. Room sex. Five hundred threads per one square inch. He cheated on me first, in Paris, with Yvette.
She turned over, eyes still closed. His hands covered her breasts, massaging in the coconut oil, rolling her nipples in his fingers. He was breathing hard. She smiled. He circled her stomach, left to right, left to right, left to right. His thumb pressed into her belly button. He leaned forward and licked it. She had an orgasm, the first in ten years.
He touched her feet. Each toe. Her ankles, calves, knees, inner thighs, spread her legs apart and pulled her down to the end of the table and rested her legs on his shoulders and dived right in. Barb was glad she’d had the two pedicures. It’s important to be prepared.
He climbed on top of her. Barb was ready. He held her two hands in his one and reached down to guide his short thick cock into her, two powerful thrusts. He grunted. She tried to pull her hands free but he held them hard. “I am your sex slave,” she whispered in his ear, and he pounded into her, wild, sweating. She came again. Had it really been ten years? It seemed to her then that it was not that long. She drifted off into thought, as he got up and leaned against the wall, panting. He toweled her dry, leaned over and picked her up, cradling her in his lap. She wanted to fuck again. She wrapped her arms around his neck and licked his ear.
“George,” she whispered.
“I’m Eric,” he murmured, “but it doesn’t matter.”
George was drafted two weeks after graduating high school. They threw him a going away party, the whole street. He had tried to be brave but Barb could tell he wasn’t happy about going to Vietnam. His Uncle had been killed there in 1968. George had felt sure that his number wasn’t going to come up, as he had never been lucky.
“Will you miss me?”
“Yes, I will.”
Their last night was marked by record as the night they did it seven times. Barb let him take pictures of all of her private parts so he would have something to look at when he wanted to masturbate. They also managed to take a shot of Barb sucking his cock and one of him shooting his cum into the air, a tragic arc, but Barb kept those as her remembrance. The next morning he left and she watched from her window. The next day it rained.
That winter George was blown up by a land mine while deep in enemy territory on a very important mission. There were not enough parts of him left to fill a normal coffin, so they used a child’s coffin, small and white. The day she found out Barb stopped eating all the foods they had eaten together, and burned her bed in the back yard. The younger Hudnut children watched her naked ceremony until their parents pulled them away. At the funeral Barb found herself unable to stop wondering which parts of George exactly had been found and were in the coffin. She wanted to look. She ran up during the final hymn and tried to pry it open, oblivious to the screams of women and children behind her. As the men pulled her off, Barb found her voice.
“I have to know!” she shouted. “Just tell me! It was mine! Is it blown up into a million pieces or is it in the box? I want it, I must have it—Oh George …”
They pulled her out of the church and Sergeant Goppley took her down to the station. She never stopped screaming. The town doctor came and gave her a sedative, and then another the next day, and then another, and then two years worth of a bottle of Valium. She quieted down. She met a nice man and got married. At first he thought that her reticence to have sex was because she was a virgin. After two years she finally consented and he discovered that she wasn’t but by then his interest in her had waned and he was looking elsewhere. Time passed and nothing changed.
Ten days after he dropped her off, he came to pick her up. The woman at the front desk was surprised to see him.
“Why, Mr. Borchette, Mrs. Borchette checked out five days ago. We naturally assumed she was going home!”
He paid the balance of her bill and wandered outside. It was a beautiful day. He knew that he would never find her, never know where she had gone, never know why she had left. It was nothing to do with him, he realized. It never had been.
He drove to a coffee shop and ordered his favorite lunch: pea soup with crumbled crackers, a turkey on rye, and a slice of banana cream pie with coffee. He ate slowly with increasing cheer and drove home full of plans to finally redecorate the living room.
Caroline Sharp lives and works in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter where she writes fiction and screenplays.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee