Aloysius did not wash up in the bathroom, or strip off his clothes. He reclined on the strange bed with grudging, certain he felt a dusting of dead skin sifted down through the top layer of the quilted comforter. The fine particles did not rise to the level of aromatics, but he knew only half of what was there was hers.
He watched the jack-o-lantern crackle like a campfire against the black window, and prayed it would be spell enough to keep sinister forces at bay. The sputtering light dipped momentarily in his incantation, tugging his anxiety down into the high lapping shadows. She spoke out of the dull edge of it. “Will you be able to sleep?”
Dozing, Aloysius’ head cleared the pillow with the thrum of a second match. The earth-orange glow of the relit jack-o-lantern radiated off the back of the commode through the adjoining bathroom, and set off the silhouette of a dressier dress against avocado tile. “Am I already asleep?” he asked.
“Do I look like a dream?”
His thoughts were scattered over the bed; he waited for one or two to find him. “Yes,” he said.
It was with the candlelight’s reemergence that he realized a chair was propped under the doorknob.“That,” she explained, “is to make you my prisoner, so you don’t go wandering off to get eaten by deer.”
Her satin evening dress and pinned-up hair were as dark as her skin was fair, leading him to think she was carved, like scrimshaw, in flat relief. There was austere belle époque grandeur to her look, reminiscent of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame X. The painter was unable to disentangle her from the atmospherics until a tilt forward at the footboard offered up an eyeful of cleavage. “We can pretend the world outside is gone,” she explained, “and there’s no tomorrow.”
Aloysius could not fathom her game of roulette, or her logic: How could someone oriented toward the future have no tomorrow?
The vanilla scent of the candle wafted warmly down the length of the bed in advance of her approach. Turning to face the door, she flowed to the edge of the mattress like inky black sand in an hourglass. “Will you unhook me, please?”
He tried not to think beyond each moment as it was presented, and with each action being an end in itself requiring no other action. The silence bearing down on the wood-frame house remained as visceral as the shrouded woods, leaving both lovers exposed in candlelight. Unlike her bedroom in town, no doe-eyed plush animals were on hand to partake in the deflowering: yet he could not vouch for what creatures peered in through the mirror-polished panes.
Regardless what the view was from outside, there was hardly enough illumination to negotiate the half-seen pieces of the black gown’s antique fasteners, or to blur the boundary between his ill-defined adulthood and her ill-defined adolescence. Still, he wanted to believe the amber light was a fossilizing resin, so bought into her notion of “no tomorrow.”
Feeling the stiff gown give, Emma rose to let the satin slither down over her buttery white skin. By the time the garment found the floor, only barely-there panties and a figment of a powder blue bra were left to blunt the impact. The spatial roundness of the beautiful girl was difficult to absorb: a whole that could not be appreciated for its parts. His eye kept skipping off her like a stone on a pond, with each glancing blow anticipating the next blow, the next angle.
Emma, still facing away, bent over her elongated shadow to un-snag the dress from it. She called to him on kicking off her heels. “Will you get the garters in the back?”
Aloysius fiddled with more antique hooks, grazing nylon with fingers and, more dangerously, bare skin with thumbs; the hosiery cascaded like smoke to her ankles. She maintained her semblance of a screen throughout, waiting to snatch her string of pearls from a crystal goblet on the night table. The necklace was carefully looped twice around her long neck before she turned to face him. “Don’t you want to get out of your clothes?” she asked.
“My clothes?” he inquired innocently.
“I will only have to iron them tomorrow if you don’t.”
“But there is no tomorrow,” he bleated.
She grinned at his reply. (His cleverness bought him a reprieve.)
The pearls were gnashed in the bedding folds, and one was placed in his palm with a serenely unclouded smile. The gem was fat and opulent and, like its companions, imperfectly round. Its lustrous color shifted from custardy yellow to pale lavender between his thumb and finger. No two pearls were alike, and as he inched up the strand to mark the subtle differences, he was being drawn into her skin. After a few minutes his tense body sank into a bog and, perceiving this, she lifted the clutch and turned away; the necklace was allowed to dribble over her back like beads of oil.
He was at last comfortable in rubbing the pearls against her smooth shoulders, and when he arrived at the base of her neck, she reached behind to remove the abalone comb from her hair. Dark fragrant locks fell into his fingers, and the nacreous strand, having served its purpose, was eased out of the picture with a gentle tug.
“I have something that will help you sleep?” she whispered.
Her provocative words skimmed his limpid surface without raising an audible ripple.
She pulled away the mass of hair. A solicitous nudge was made in his direction. “It’s like counting sheep,” was her explanation, “to connect freckles on my back until you drift off.”
The diffuse light revealed no freckles, and in the low contrast her shallow back offered few ledges. Regardless, the woman had shrunk down to become something manageable in his imagination: a blank, supple canvas. Aloysius brought his hand up to where the pearls dabbled her downy neck and began to draw. Owing to the lengthy preamble, his touch was no longer self-conscious; and with her facing away, the anonymity afforded him resembled solitude. He articulated each vertebra in turn, with occasional excursions to scoop out a dimple or reshape a tendon. With so much time and pliable skin on his side of the bed, his mind was bound to stray into analogy.
The flatness of the substratum reminded him particularly of the art nouveau painter Gustav Klimt: His lovers, with eyes clinched and souls subsumed in desire, required little in the way of round, pictorial space. Their sensuality was better conveyed on a two-dimensional plane: one studded with pattern and decorated with symbols half-in and half-out of the world. Hands were needed to navigate it, which Klimt ably and meticulously supplied. To Aloysius’ thinking, the wandering eye alone invented space, while the hand, forever blind in its needs, is inescapably one with its object.
The artist eventually reached the precipice of Emma’s tailbone. It resided under the covers out of sight, if not out of reach. The toothy lace of the thong panty was a provisional border, although what it divided was more in him than her.
The candle in the bathroom convulsed in his moment of indecision, and dropped down a step; the artist’s finger followed the shadow’s lengthening stride to circle where an exposed buttock folded below the last vertebra. The pleasing fullness of the form did not bring more analogy to mind but, instead, contradiction: Emma’s flesh was both warm and cool to the touch, both powder puff and durable hide. Regardless, this was the part of the female anatomy that, like an archetypal wellspring, lay behind every impulse his male psyche willed into the world under the banner of art.
Having uncovered her on the bed, the emboldened topographer was determined to finish what he started. He was impervious to all that came before—even the black windows. Charting his itinerary, he descended legs that smell rapturously of shaving gel; and in his exploration, he employed every aspect of sense to this one aspect of her. From lips, to tongue, to incisors, to eyelashes, to eyebrows—his tools became increasingly novel the further away he got from her head (and from any thought in it about what he might be doing).
The tapering line of Emma’s thigh slid down to become the concave bend of a knee, though the notches of a shinbone too quickly ended on the high-buffed finish of her glossy toenails. Reaching a cul-de-sac, Aloysius rubbed his cheek against the coarse soles of her feet, and took in their thin, aquarelle layer of perspiration like salty sea air. He looked back over the covered terrain, as if her body were a beach where every molecule of sand came to be replaced by another. There was no way of knowing if this woman at her feet was the same one he started with at her head. In his book of lines and plotted curves, the rest of her, the halcyon girl twirling in grass under a blue sky, seemed more fairytale than anything connected to this body.
Retracing the contours would not so much be like sewing up loose ends as pulling out the first of many tentative stitches. Resultantly, he was hurried with his map in reverse, and, given his fatigue, impatient. Before slipping into incoherence, he rallied to draw the covers back over his shivering and compliant map. He was not admitting defeat, only bedding down in a little corner of the labyrinth for a nap.
The blanket was again shoved to her knees, though now she faced him. With her dark head nestled on his pillow, and skulls touching at the brow, he felt her teeth clattering from a chill; the reverberation of bone against bone pulsed with telepathic thoughts.
What had been a pared-down neoclassical view of her from the back was intrusively baroque from the front. The gap between their bodies created an odd foreshortened perspective, one the painter never encountered in art or anatomy books. Emma’s shoulders loomed over snout-like breasts, while the remainder of her resembled distant buttes. From the oblique angle, she appeared both bulbous and angular, as if the two halves of her were extruded from different molds and slapped together in committee. The view was not at first glance erotic, more like some unfinished aspect of Nature’s seduction not completely worked out on paper. Yet it was an agreeable geometry after a short while: half Dali landscape and half Proustian maze. These perspectives, however, only split the difference between ideal and object—and it was the object, most particularly, that muscled its way up through the pretty scenery.
Emma’s warm breath was musky on his face, sweet and sour. Even allowing for the dimness, the close quarters made her skin explode with follicles and pores. Little chinks emerged in the porcelain veneer: a pimple here, a welt there. The unexpected earthiness of her hovered somewhere between a clinical examination and a primer on fetishes. Love was barely a beginning to any of it.
She detected a bat of his eye. “Are you asleep?”
His head rolled ambiguously on the pillow.
A finger grazed his cheek with a gentle reprimand. “You forgot to draw on my arms.”
Aloysius’ hand brushed her yielding shoulder. From there, gravity dragged his fingertips over slender bones to a slenderer wrist. It was here at her most vulnerable point where he found a seeming end to his maze: scar tissue, soft as an infant’s lips, puckered under his thumb.
Her fingers balled to make a weak fist, but she made no attempt to pull away. “In the tenth grade,” came the confession.
She was as puzzled by the razor scar as was he.
Aloysius was stuck for what to say next. Another dimension planted itself between them, although this one suggested no clear direction on the bed. “Do you not want to talk about it?” he muttered.
“I don’t dwell on the past.”
“If you have no tomorrow, where are you?”
Her smile became a deep pool. “Stuck in the present with you.”
He inhaled her hot breath at his chin, unable to escape it.
Without further exposition, she pressed into him with an earnest kiss. Her dusky face curved away from the tip of his nose like a moonscape thrust under a fish-eyed lens. Moist lips slid to define one set of boundaries, while another (that of their pillows) dissolved into depths beneath their heads. The makings of such intimate physical contact required subtle negotiations, with bodies dragging behind and getting in the way.
Aloysius, half-seduced by the suddenness of it, squinted through fluttering eyelashes to contemplate the evolving logistics. The planes of Emma’s features were curved and straight at the same time. Her flesh blurred, but never disappeared as a barrier. There were the admitted bones of her, with knees and forearms jutting and grazing him at different pressure points; but she was everywhere and nowhere on the bed. He considered her necklace drumming his boney sternum, the pinching clasps of her bra straps, the thickness of her eyelids, the gauge and stiffness of her eyebrows, and the smooth, velvety cleft of her mouth. For all these parts, she was intact and turning over on his tongue like blissful cinnamon candy. It was a devious slight of hand, contrived in the mind with delicate fingers and executed imperfectly with mittens. Every aspiration was misjudged as an action, but both lovers were content with error and mark alike.
Invariably the muscles in their faces tired, and Emma, not wanting to relinquish the amber mesh that bound them, cradled his cheek against hers. Strands of her flowing hair cascaded over his face, and the sensation was one of looking through pillars in a dark cathedral, and in the only direction unobstructed by her: to spandrels in the ceiling.
She yanked the ends of his shirt out of his pants and whimpered, “I want to feel your skin.”
When her hand lit on his belt buckle, his hand lit gently on hers. If it was half in his mind to dissuade her, his touch became an encouraging caress.
Emma, impatient, grabbed his noncommittal hand and redirected it along her side: one knuckle for each groove of rib. His thumb was slipped down into her negligible brassiere, whereupon the lace peeled away to surrender the node of a hardening nipple. Her lips scuffed his ear with little puffs of banking air, and cooed wordless directive. His fingers acquiesced to cup the full, round breast, and were at once pushed away to the neutral terrain of her stomach. The candlelight faltered with the rebuke, indicating by its bleary-eyed wink, that the flame was down to skittering over a hot puddle of wax.
Aloysius glanced up at the wall to see his shadow crumble in the smoke, yet diffusion placed it further from the bed than he should imagine, as though it belonged to an intruder taking advantage of the distraction to skulk. His eye darted edgewise across the pillowcase to catch their amorous tussle in a windowpane, but no one else was seen in the room.
The flame buckled once more in a draft—was a backdoor open? Emma guided her lover’s hand down over the hard crest of her hip before tucking it into the lining of her panties. His fingers were so tightly smashed in hers they served no purpose. Only his wrist grazed silk and fine stubble in the twist. Her face sank into the pillow they shared, blocking view of the door. A guttural groan radiated out from delicate muscles of her neck.
Had an axe-wielding fiancé moved the chair from the door? Was he watching them from the dark hall? Emma screamed with abandon. “YES…! YES…! YES…!”
It tingled in the clinch, and lasted mere seconds. His hand was ejected from the briefs with a pop of elastic and returned to him. The woman smiled salaciously through a fan of hair, biting his cheek with a kiss and a purr. “I knew you would have your way with me.” With the proclamation, she turned away in an unexcited tone. “Now go to sleep, naughty boy.”
The man was left, like a hit-and-run-victim, where he collided with pavement.
Emma pulled the covers over her shoulders, having shrunk from the scale of demanding Amazon to that of atomized child in a blink. What was two wills that became one was rudely two again; and what had been a canvas that became a door was now a wall.
Aloysius’ brain hummed; his heart sloshed in dull ears still ringing from her piercing screech. He had been whittled down to the rudimentary reflexes of a headless male mantis left half-eaten so it could still copulate, but his lover bored of her seduction and dropped through a trapdoor. Her exit was cavalier, and her orgasm, unconvincing. Still, his side of the bed was now lined with barbed spurs, like little dependent clauses he might artfully arrange in his next poem for her.
The artist traveled a thousand miles in a thousand hours with another man’s lover, and was thoroughly exhausted by the journey. All the masks she showed him were doubtless true, though he knew the complexity he supposed in the masquerade was more in his mind than of her willful creation; and therein lay the single greatest obstacle to his forming a union with a woman of Emma’s age: Her impetuousness would hatch a hundred-and-one possible interpretations in his imagination, and loving her, by necessity of who he was, would be a full-time job. In short, her life, no matter how ultimately frivolous or dear to him, would effectively become their life together. This is why he needed to be the other man: to be compartmentalized by her and spared the guilt of needing to compartmentalize her.
The failing candlelight twitched to send the disembodied shadow on the wall into a drunkard’s spin. It whirled until impaling itself on the flame.
Chapter Twenty-two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.