The following piece was read at the Salon in it’s earlier days. I’ve begun re-posting pieces that were lost in the transfer to a new site. “After” from World and Time A Novel by Sarpedon Eleftherios
When she awoke after, she kept her eyes closed. Her vagina was a bed of embers in a winter fireplace. She opened her eyes and turned to look at him, a kid’s smile crossing her face. He was sitting up against the headboard, his arms around his knees. The muscles of his shoulder and arm on her side were in repose, but showed the defined mancurves of strength. Soft blond hair carpeted the top of his thigh she could see. His temple was silvered, but the stubble on his face was chestnut. He was looking at her, expressionless. His blue eyes seemed far. She felt her sex moisten again. He raised one arm, slowly, ran fingers through his hair, and returned it to his knee. He made as if to speak but did not, then raised and lowered his eyebrows and managed a grimace.
An electric shock of fear jolted her. She inhaled sharply. Her mouth involuntarily made an “O” and she exhaled through it. She pursed her lips before she spoke. “I… I think I know what you’re thinking.”
His brows knitted. “What?”
“How I, could, uh, do all that.”
He started. “No, no,” he lied, shaking his head too fast.
He watched her raise her eyebrows at him. In fact, his brain was a shambles. Oh God, he thought, not some crazy I don’t know what under all those degrees. After pouring myself out to her. In every way. But how could she not be? Jesus, things he’d never even heard even the German girls did—his aching, shriveled, still-damp member twitched– the ones with the purple evening gloves who lined up in the off-base parking lot…. He looked down between his knees. He scowled, and then his face drooped, as if he would cry.
She was overwhelmed with love for him and compassion terror and sadness and hating herself all over again. She lunged for him and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him again and again and began to wail. “No, Gordon, no, no, it’s not that.”
“Okay.” His blond head rose and turned, as if by a tiny silent motor, to look at her face. “Then is it something?” He spoke so softly she could barely hear.
OmiGod he is as handsome and terrible as a god and he’ll be so angry and disgusted, she thought. She shrank from him, sniffling. I would hate to be anybody he had had to kill. Please save me, don’t let him leave me, she said to no god and to all gods.
She remembered his father had been a minister and he was an only child. OhGodohGodohGod what will he say what will he do... “Gordon, I know you think I must be a terrible whore, a slut.” She began to sob, tears cascading down her face, her eyes beseeching him desperately not to think it.
She means she’s not, he thought. He felt new feelings arise, and they warred fiercely with the others. He felt warmth, but not the warmth in his loins, that was gone now. He tried to calm himself. “Carla.” His voice had cracked saying her name and he felt like a fool. He cleared his throat with a hawk, snapping his head from left to right.
She was looking down now, still sobbing. Her shoulders shook. She looked up at him. Her eyes widened. “Yes?” She struggled to stop heaving. She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands like a child.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m not a…a prude or anything.”
She felt hope flare, then gutter. Her mind raced. Her emotions swung wildly. “I guess not. I wasn’t the only one, was I?” It wasn’t a question. “I mean… of us.”
“No, no, you weren’t.” He looked between his knees. “Uh,” he said. Godammit, I’m NOT going to ask about her sexual past or her former husbands or boyfriends married men or anyone, anything. He felt stuck. But he forced himself. “Well, I’ve, uh, been lonely since Margaret died. And I fell for you hard. Really hard. Really that first day out . The first morning at breakfast. And I guess I wanted it to go… to be… and I wanted to feel, uh, safe and well, special to someone that I would….” Well, go ahead, asshole, abase yourself some more. Christ, I sound like a total pathetic fucking idiot. But I am that. With her. He ground to a halt ponderously, like a tank with its treads blown off. He realized he wasn’t looking at her. But also that she wasn’t making any noise anymore. He raised his head and turned to look. She had stopped crying and was looking at him astonished. Her eyes were wide. Her mouth was open as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Oh, Gordon.” She ached for his sake and for hers too and loved him and wanted to throw herself on him again and hug him and never stop, but her judgment and self-possession were unsteadily returning, and she knew she had produced the elephant in the room and they were both in its shadow. She was sitting up with her knees folded under her. She suddenly felt her nakedness. She raised and spread her hands and lurched into speech. “Gordon, I panicked. I’m sorry. I… I feel the same, I ….” How do I tell him I love him and then tell him about this? It’s like serving crème broulee and catshit on the same plate, she thought savagely. I’ll have to go step by step.
He was looking down now, embarrassed. All he could think was, She loves me. She actually does. She loves me.
But she didn’t know that. She took a slow breath. “That was very kind what you said.” Her voice started to shake. She steadied it. She had never told a man, not even her kindly father who had forgiven her anything and what a woman could never tell her father anyway, what she was dreading to tell him. Just tell it. You could lose everything either way. “I’ve been lonely too. I have come to realize that I imposed it on myself, that… I withdraw from people. Beginning a long time ago.” Okay, she thought, that was okay. She paused. He was looking up now. His face was opening again. Thank God thank God thank God she breathed to herself. “And so.” This was the hard part, so very hard. Go. Tell it! “And so, in college…”
“M.I.T.” he said.
“Yes. M.I.T. was… hard. Frosh year one of my roommates, a Chinese girl from New Jersey, committed suicide.” Oh God it was so horrible finding her dead. What is it like for him, who has known so much death? Then she felt relief. This was the way to start. She closed her eyes tight and opened them, blinking. She had struggled viciously to suppress that memory. How the dead girl’s mother, crazy with grief, had screamed at her. “You no friend my daughter. You cold. Evil! Shame!” Carla began to cry again, softly this time.
“That’s too bad.” His hand stirred from his knee, as if he would reach out to her. Yes, it was good to start here, maybe it’ll help him understand.. Her heart raced at the thought. She took a deep breath.
“Yes, it was terrible. It made me scared of making friends. Of everyone. I began to withdraw from people. I went to class, the library, and the gym. And track. A professor took an interest in me. The first older man in my life who didn’t want to put his hand on me or sleep with me. He was wonderful. He was a paleontologist. So here I am. A paleontologist like him.” Not too fast, she thought. “But there was a lot in between. He was very sweet and totally sexless. He made me feel safe. Happy even, in a thin way. But that reminded me of being lonely too.”
My God, he thought. I thought I was the shy one. His feelings roiled. She’s a leopard, a cheetah, my lover, my friend, my inspiration, fierce, funny, independent, maddening, unpredictable, a conscience, a goad, a goal. Some of these images were not conscious, just fleeting images. He ran out of things that she was. Dear God, do I love her. I don’t care what she is.
But she couldn’t hear his thoughts. “Anyway.” She cleared her throat. “Late one night I discovered… well, no, I knew about, but anyway I stumbled across… no, that’s not true, I went looking.” She looked down again. Her voice was so low he could barely hear it. “Porn-o-graph-y.” She pronounced it slowly. “I mean on the Internet.” She kept looking down. OhGodohGodohGod there it is I said it sounds so cheap and ugly like some pimply fat girl in a Snoopy sweatshirt fingering-herself pervert. She didn’t dare look up.
“Hmh,” he grunted without thinking. A curse of youth, he thought. Well, I was no better. He remembered how he spent his first night each visit home from the Point after his parents were asleep. He had made sure to do his own laundry.
She was going on. “I knew normal women don’t like it, it turns them off, it’s not a problem for them. So I didn’t tell anyone. But I got worse and worse and then I began to collect it. On my hard drive and after Computer Services sent an Assistant to inspect my computer, for viruses or something—I was terrified and I’m sure he found the evidence but he never said anything. Or did anything. I guess. I was scared of him for weeks—so then I was collecting it on my cell. Video clips. Pictures. Then when nobody came to kick me out of school—would they have? No of course they wouldn’t.– I went back to the computer. I made collections. And then select collections of my collections. I signed up for Websites. I kept up my grades. Schoolwork was my relief from the porn . But I was distracted by it. I almost got bounced from the track team. But I couldn’t let that happen. I’d lost my mind, my basic decency but by God I was not going to lose my body too.”
His mouth had begun to open. She darted a look at him, and it didn’t look good to him. But it didn’t necessarily look bad.
She paused. What does that look on his face mean? Her skin felt clammy. “But I learned some things, however… gross most of the stuff was.” She was looking down now. I’ve got to convince him why. “I realized I didn’t like the most of the regular sex stuff, because the guys were always leering, high-fiving each other, cursing and calling the women sluts and whores and pumping them so hard, bang right from the start, it was painful. You could see the women wincing, trying to hold the guys back with their hands, or slow them down, sometimes yelling with the pain. But then there was the oral sex….” She stopped. OhGodohGod. She closed her eyes. Then opened them wide and snapped her head sideways urgently to look at him. “Are you.. can you…. hear this?” Do I want him to? she thought.
He was gaping at her now. But he hadn’t heard what she’d said. Suddenly he realized she had spoken and recalled that it sounded like a question. “Uh. Oh, no. I mean yes, it’s okay, sure, go on. Do you want to?”
She felt braver, fleetingly rash. She felt the hood of her clitoris firming. Her hips shifted and she sat up straighter. “Okay. So. I began to refine my collection to consensual, loving. I’ve never been with a woman and don’t want to, and I don’t get excited about a man being with a man—I wouldn’t ever forbid it to anyone or condemn it.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded at the last remark. Why did he do that? She forced herself on. “But I found it was the bisexual stuff where all the models, the men and the women, were the most tender with each other. All kinds of sex, but slow, uh, wet, and a lot of … gentling, as if they really cared not just about their own pleasure, not even only about each other’s pleasure, but cared about each other. Not just… well… ass-slamming.” She cleared her throat. “So. I had my own massive, refined, world-class personal Porn Ph.D. library. I carried it from college to graduate school to postgraduate school. I got single rooms. I didn’t have boyfriends. Oh, some tried. They all seemed like jerks. They got turned on by my body. In the gym they would stare and the brave ones would hit on me. They were putting their eyes all over me wanting to touch me. I think most of them didn’t even want to sleep with me. They were too afraid. Just memorize what I looked like and then go masturbate. Creeps. I hated it. So I got to wearing full sweats or warm-ups all the time in the gym, and outside running too, even in hot weather. I bought them two sizes too big. So the jerks just stopped noticing me. They couldn’t see anything. Oh, and that wasn’t all. No. I got pretty intimidating in class. Finally all that worked. The women didn’t like my looks and neither the men nor the women liked my brains. I went around in my own little world. I had a life at night.” Such as it was. “I fell in love, I guess with the models. Instead. No—I mean, not with the actual models, the actors. With the love. The love they were giving. And getting. I mean, I never wanted to meet them. I looked at some part of the best of my collection almost every night. When I went through the best once, I went around again. I studied them. How they looked. All the models in my best ones were good looking. You know, the women toned, even athletic, not just floppy tits and cottage-cheese butts. The guys well-built, athletic.” The two naked young men with chiseled bodies sitting on the bed, the trim young brunette lying naked on her back with one man resting the back of her head in his lap, his semierect member lying alongside her face, as three fingers of each of his hands cupped a small, firm breast while thumb and forefinger pinchrolled its nipple, the other man at her crotch, her legs wrapped around his waist, his hips moving his strikingly thick cock slowly in and out of her, and her eyes closed, her lips parted, she in total trust and utterly oblivious to anything but sexual pleasure. “The best was hard to find. It took a lot of time. But I found it. Do you know, the women do it for money, but the men do it free, for the sport? I read that. Anyway, I got interested in what was underneath it. Did they care about pleasing each other? Did they seem to care about each other? Was the desire real? Where it was, or I couldn’t tell, those were the ones I liked.”
She hadn’t looked at him for some time. She paused to steady herself. “Well. So I realize now that over time I just, uh, memorized, really, without particularly trying to, the things they did. That I liked. That … I wanted. That I would do with … someone.” She blinked rapidly and a tear ran down her face. “Down to each little detail. A hand here, a tongue there, how long this, how long that….” She became suddenly silent. Okay, okay, she thought. That’s done. She sat erect. “Tonight was the real life that I could actually have!” Her eyes fixed on the side of his head, pleading. He had stretched out his legs, his face tilting down toward his hands folded on the tops of his thighs. His member was shriveled, motionless. For an outraged moment she thought he might be asleep. She tilted her shoulders and head down, breasts swinging, and looked up at his face. His eyes were open. They looked at hers.
She took another big breath and resumed. “So, I … have to finish. Don’t I.” Do I? Should I just stop now? She cleared her throat again. Another breath. “I didn’t just fall in love with the porn. I…. I….” This is it, she thought. This is where he walks. “I… bought ….uh, vibrators. Two sizes. Shit, tell him, it explains that, too. “For two places. I came within a breath of buying a screwing machine off a Website. One with a piston and gears and an electric motor. With my poor retired academic parents’ money they sent me.” She put her hands in her face. Her head and shoulders shook up and down and tears began to run from between her fingers. She snatched her head up and sniffled in fiercely. “But I couldn’t bring myself. I just couldn’t. Thank God.” She wiped a forearm across her brow. This is going to finish it, she wailed to herself. She couldn’t look at him. “So,” she was speaking in a whimper now, “I used those. Night after night. In the daytime. Holidays when no one was around. Of course I was always around. No one asked me anywhere.” I took care of that, she thought bitterly. “At least it was a comfort. No creeps looking at me sideways, no sex too horrible to imagine.” Her head felt as if it would explode. Do I sound ridiculous? Do I sound even sane? I can’t tell anymore, she despaired.
She was beginning to feel exhausted. She didn’t know why, but she wanted him to know the rest. The last of it. To get it all out. She spoke fast now. “During post-doc I met Bohm. I don’t want to tell everything. Not the academic part. That was hell. I thought my career was gone before it started. But the … the physical part.” Is a woman supposed to tell a man this? What am I doing? Why? She looked at Ralli wistfully. Ralli didn’t look up. I’m talking to a stone. Her skin chilled, her sex numbing. Maybe I need just to tell this to myself. So she continued in a low monotone. Finish it out, make him understand I could actually love someone. Or wanted to enough to try. “Bohm was gentle. He’s the gentlest man in the world. Even more than Father was. So I fell for him. I was hopelessly in love for the first time and I felt so safe, at last.” She sighed. “At last.” She began to cry again, softly this time. “And so I wanted to do something physical with him, anything. But that’s when it all died, everything. That killed it. His gentle wasn’t enough. He just couldn’t do it. I seemed strong to him, I think, and he liked that at first, when we met, but it made him scared when we finally tried to make love. And after opening myself to him.” She looked up at Ralli afraid. “Just a little, not like this,” she hastened. “I was too scared to tell him all I’ve told you. Why do I think Gordon will understand when I was sure Bohm couldn’t? She looked down. “He couldn’t make love to me. He tried. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t get it… you know. Then he was ashamed. He acted like he wanted to die. It was him. But it was me, too! I felt so failed and worthless.” She paused. “Worthless,” she said with anger. She started to cry. Suddenly she snapped her head sideways violently. He felt a flung tear splash his cheek. She glared at him. “There. I told you,” she almost shouted. She was now enraged. She didn’t know at what. Or whom. Him. Herself. Everyone. No one.
She raised her hands, waving her palms at him and howled, “Maybe you’d rather I actually was just a goddamned dirty slut. Then at least you’d have an excuse to want to see me again.” She threw herself away from him to the other side of the bed, on her stomach, sobbing and heaving.
When she woke in the morning, she lay where she had fallen. The sheet and the pad under her face were wet. She looked up abruptly. What was last night? Friday?, she thought. Oh. She let her head fall to the bed. Then she felt as if a safe had dropped on her. She was naked and her head ached, as if she hadn’t breathed enough. She felt abject and defenseless. She snapped onto her left side to look across the bed where he had been. No one. Nothing. Her apartment was silent. She was sure was gone. Forever.
Thumbprint – Blue Flower, 1918 Georgia O’Keefe