Because I had such interest in my last short story, here’s another one I wrote last year. This one is slightly different, and longer . . . but I’m pretty proud of it, nonetheless.
She sits on the balcony, her legs crossed, one over the other, and smokes a cigarette. The smoke whirls and turns, circles around her wrists and rises towards the sky, and she smiles, her head pillowed on the back of the lawn chair.
You sit on the other chair and gently strum your guitar. The air smells of spilled red wine and fragrant smoke, and the music follows the meandering summer air.
You met her at a community choir. She’s a dusky mezzo-soprano, the smoky voice that made you fall in love with her settling into a mid-range speaking voice with grit. She always sounds as if she’s just smoked an entire pack of Russian Sobranies. She always sounds as if she might be Marlene Dietrich’s sister.
And that’s beautiful, you know. That’s gorgeous.
Her name is Helen. She’s the music teacher at the local public school.
You get the impression that Helen’s missed her chance. That’s sad, almost in the way epic musicals are sad because there’s one moment of feeling on top of the world before it all goes to shit. She acts like she’s better than this stupid small town, like she could have been on Broadway, acting with poise and power. She’s trained herself to think above the status quo, to demand more.
And that’s beautiful, too.
You lean over her, trace the gentle swell of her cheekbone, and kiss her soft lips. She responds with grace, and smiles.
“You need to get out of here, Jason. This is a shitty town,” she says.
“I have a job. I have a life here.” Your protest is feeble, and she comes to sit on you, straddles your legs.
“You could be more, away from here. You’re too weak.”
That’s always been the problem, you think ruefully. You’ve always been too weak to choose.
You tutor kids after school on weekdays – you’re a teacher at the elementary school at the other end of town, but it doesn’t pay enough, and you’re desperate to make the rent on your upscale apartment next to the park.
Most of the kids are young, twelve and under, but you were contacted over Craigslist by a young Masters student looking for editing help on her thesis. So you got together with her, and now you sit at your dining room table and watch her type, the tip of her tongue poking out of her mouth.
She’s beautiful, too.
Her name is Ruby, and she’s doing a Masters in English. Her thesis is on something you can’t even remember now, because you’re too busy focusing on her eyes – on the gorgeous sea-green eyes that catch you every so often and make you shiver with anticipation.
Never mind Helen. Ruby seems more your speed, in these moments.
And yet, she’s different. She’s inexperienced and shy. She trembles, almost, a high singing tremble that shocks through her skin to yours when she moves and brushes against your arm, or when she drops something nervously to the ground and you bend to get it. You meet her eyes in that moment and the shock happens again.
That tremble is what keeps you going even though you know that it’s unethical to fall in love with a student. She’s twenty-five, but that doesn’t matter when you’re supposed to be advising, here.
She will ask you, sweetly, “Mr. Gardner, do you think that the way I worded this sentence is right?” “Mr. Gardner, can you tell me your thoughts on this paragraph?” “What do you think of the theme?” and you wish she’d stop talking long enough so that you could kiss her, long and deep, and then take her on the table, fucking her slowly and sweetly until she cried out.
It’s not a strange fantasy for a man to have. You’re only thirty-five.
But Ruby is Helen’s daughter . . . and that’s what makes her off-limits.
Helen is good in bed. It’s the way she takes control – and it’s the way you can do nothing else but let her. She moves her soft mouth over your body, biting at your nipples, nipping at your skin. She pins you down, though you must weigh at least 80 lbs more than she does, fucking you intensely, never taking her burning blue eyes from yours. It’s the semblance of carefully-controlled routine – the sex may take place the same way every time, but it’s never the same feeling. It’s never the same lust. She has this fire inside her and it’s just unbelievable.
So it’s not that you’re not sexually satisfied. That isn’t it at all. But you can’t help comparing . . . the exact shape of her hands silhouetted on your stomach in the half-light are the same as her daughter’s as she grips a pencil in front of the laptop. The way she breathes before she speaks, that breath to get your attention – Ruby does that, too.
It’s fucking distracting. You normally enjoy sex, but tonight, you turn away, leaving Helen cold on the other side of the bed.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
Everything, you’d love to answer, but you smile. “Nothing. I’m just a little tired.”
What she doesn’t know will never hurt her.
You kiss Ruby where you thought you would – up against the dining room table, the computer forgotten, the mouse slipping from the edge of the polished wood to clatter on one of the chairs. She tangles her hands in your hair; her body presses close to yours, and you wonder how long she’s been wanting this before she breaks away, panting, and looking surprised.
“What the hell was that?” she says, and you suddenly feel awful, as if you pushed her into something, though she responded well enough.
“I’m sorry,” you begin lamely, and she just laughs.
“It’s not a big deal. It’s just . . . well, let’s just get back to work.” She’s looking at you oddly, and you suddenly realize that you’re, well, showing more excitement than you should.
“Uh, excuse me,” you say, flushing a dull red, and dash to the bathroom, where you stand, staring at your reflected face in the mirror, your mind going a mile a minute.
Does her mother know that you’re editing Ruby’s thesis? Does she know that you have her hot daughter here every afternoon of the week? That you stare into her green eyes, wondering what it would be like to fuck her?
You’re starting to go crazy with the wanting – the fact that Helen and Ruby are melding into one unattainable woman, and you can’t do anything about it.
Helen is over, sipping a beer, which looks weird in her hands. She doesn’t look like a beer drinker. You prove right again in your assessment of her when she puts it down with a grimace.
“This is swill. Don’t you have anything better?”
“You can check the wine cupboard, above the stove. I had a party about a month ago; I think there were some bottles left behind.”
“Trust a man to not be able to pick out a decent wine.” She flows off the chair and you find yourself admiring the curves of her breasts under her satin purple blouse. Jesus. You can barely control yourself anymore.
“My daughter says she knows you,” she mentions off-hand, rifling through the cupboard to find a highball glass. “Don’t you have any wine glasses?” she adds disdainfully, and you blush slightly.
“No. I’m not much of a wine drinker.”
She rolls her eyes and sloshes a healthy measure of red wine into the highball, comes to sit down. “Yeah, she mentioned she got an elementary teacher to do some editing of her thesis for her, about thirty-five, goes by the name of Jason. I knew it was you.” She barks a laugh and sips her wine.
“So?” You’re oddly defensive, and she shrugs in a graceful motion.
“So, nothing. I just think it’s funny, is all. How come you never told me?”
“I don’t know. We don’t exactly discuss work with each other.”
“Yeah,” she agrees, and drops the subject. “I’m going to Paris. I have a meeting with a choral director there. He wants to give me some tips about competition with the kids. They’re good enough for national competition these days.”
You feign interest. “Oh, neat. You must be working hard.”
She shrugs. “Or maybe it’s a way to find a way out. I don’t know.” She peers at you oddly. “You’re weird tonight.”
“Sorry. Just tired.”
She just shrugs again. “Me too. Tired of life.”
It’s different sleeping with two women at the same time, and especially when those women are so closely related and one is kind of off-limits.
Ruby had sipped wine, white this time, and sparkling, from the same highball glass and giggled against the lip and you finally ended up carrying her, half-drunk, to the white king-size bed to kiss her everywhere until she begged you to sleep with her. You weren’t going to – you had all the best intentions – but you kissed her and inhibitions were rolled over when she pinned you to the mattress and bit your neck.
You’d been so hard and aching and drunk that you’d fucked her, hard, and then felt like an absolute asshole when she’d cried out, tears beading on her cheeks, and the quivering of her body the first real indication that you’d done something that could never be taken back.
And the fucking condom broke – you pulled out and realized and she stared down in horror, and then met your eyes. Because she’s a Masters student, dammit, and she has a career far away from here, and one fucking accident could ruin it all.
You’d spent the rest of the night leaning against the bathroom door as she vomited within, the tears and retching meshing together in one long anguished scream that seemed to go on forever.
You slipped her money for the Morning-After pill, and considered your duty done.
Of course, there would be no question of her ever coming again. Of course she would keep this to herself.
You shake the thought of Ruby from your mind, refuse to answer her phone calls, and ignore the emails that come up, one after the other. She’s forgiven you. She wants you. She wants to come over; you’re not done with her thesis yet.
You slam your head against your hand and swear. “Fuck, fuck.” Because Helen’s going to find out, and then you’re going to have no one at all, because you’re pretty sure Ruby has no idea you’re dating her mother. They don’t seem to be close.
You want to ignore both women, to give you time to gather your thoughts. But all through this uncertainty, that tremble – the excitement, the unknown – and you know you’re intricately bound up in this. You can’t stay away, and so you let Ruby come back, fucking her every night of the weekend through this interminable summer.
Helen comes back from Paris the last week of August, during a heat wave, with a plethora of literature and a lot of French wine. She buys you some wine glasses from Wal-Mart and you thank her, standing in bare feet and jeans on the balcony as she cuts some cranberry goat cheese and brings it out to look over the dusty small-town street.
“You’re different,” she tells you, and you shrug.
“Not any different than I ever was.” You don’t think she can tell, and anyway, who would ever suspect? So now you have Ruby’s favourite white wine in the fridge. That means nothing. Maybe you started drinking wine for Helen. And anyway, she doesn’t even notice it, or the way the apartment’s a little cleaner, maybe, since Ruby started coming over so often.
“I don’t know. If I wasn’t so sure you’re a lonely idiot, I’d swear that you’d been fucking someone else.” She’s so matter-of-fact and harsh, and so goddamn sure of herself – it’s sickening. You watch her drink the wine, a little spilling on her mouth, and you grab her, suddenly, biting at her neck.
The wine glass drops to the cement of the balcony and shatters.
“Jason, what?” She isn’t even upset, just bewildered. You don’t even know what you’re doing.
“Fuck me,” you breathe, and she nods, grabbing your hand, carefully stepping over the glass, and landing on the couch in your living room.
You come, but in an unsatisfying way that doesn’t hit you deep inside. Fuck.
She rolls off you and stares at you with the same bewildered look in her eyes. “Something is up with you, buddy.”
Yes, you want to tell her. I’m sleeping with your daughter. She’s better in bed than you and more eager. I think I’m going crazy.
Instead, you smile, that same polite, bland smile you’ve perfected over the years, and shrug, pulling her back into your arms.
“Of course not.”
It’s the idea of it all that’s confusing – pregnant, as if one broken condom could ruin a life. And you GAVE her money for that pill – why the fuck didn’t she take it?
Ruby stands on the balcony, in the exact place her mother always stands, and sighs. “Yeah, pregnant. And I think I want to keep it.”
Oh, no. No, no, no. “But why? You told me you didn’t want kids until you were at least thirty.”
“I don’t know. I just . . . want to keep it.” She raises her head, skewers you with a green-eyed stare. “Why do you care? Do you want to be involved?”
What? You completely sidestep the question. The issue here is her mother. The issue is Helen, knowing that her daughter was impregnated by you.
“I don’t know. I can’t really process this. Why didn’t you take the pill?”
“I don’t know!” She’s yelling now, and you place a gentle finger on her lips.
“Shh. The neighbours are going to hear.”
She calms down and you step inside the house, pulling the sliding door shut securely after her.
“I don’t know why,” she murmurs again. “Don’t you want to be a dad?”
“Not really.” It comes out before you can stop it, and she looks hurt. You try to save it. “I mean, I don’t know if I want to be one yet. I haven’t thought about it.”
“You’re thirty-five years old. And anyway, you seem set, here. It’s a good place to raise kids.”
“Well, I don’t even have a choice now, do I?” Your voice rises and she winces, looking like a little girl in trouble with her parents.
“I wish you’d taken the pill,” you mutter, and she laughs, suddenly, derisively. Your head flies up and you have to do a double-take to make sure it isn’t Helen standing there.
“Why? This has nothing to do with you at all, you know. God, my mother was right. You’re so goddamn selfish.”
“Sure, you don’t think I know you’ve been sleeping with her for the past year? She thinks you’re funny, a funny little boring man who’s a good fuck and nothing else.”
“What?” Your mind is spinning, and she looks triumphant.
“No, she doesn’t know you and I are together. You’re lucky. She’d flip.”
You have to sit down, and she looks disdainful. “You’re pathetic. And trust me that once this kid is born, I’m coming for every bit of child support I’m owed. But you don’t have to be involved. You’re going to be too busy dealing with my mother when she finds out that this baby is yours.”
She leaves and you sit, staring at the wall, wondering how the hell your life turned into such a mess.
Helen predictably leaves you, but she isn’t mad. She actually can’t stop laughing.
“You’re an idiot, Jason,” she says, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching you pour wine into the new wine glasses, spilling a drop on the counter.
“Why?” You’re tired, and your voice is low, ashamed.
“It’s not that I blame you for going after Ruby. It’s that I blame you for catching yourself up. Jesus, why didn’t you make sure she’d taken the pill? She’s pretty, but she has her own agenda.” She laughs, the barking, derisive laugh, and you drop your head again.
“Anyway, it’s your problem, now. I told her to abort it. She never listens to her mother, anyway.”
“What do you think?” Now her voice is scornful. “You don’t have any respect for me, and I have absolutely none for you. Have fun cleaning up this mess.”
You sigh, and her face softens a little.
“You need to get out of here . . . because if you don’t, you’re going to be stuck forever.”
She leaves and you realize that she’s all-consuming, Helen. You’ll miss her.
You refuse to call Ruby, but you do sneak to the university when you know that she’s defending her thesis. You watch her get congratulated by Helen and a man who must be her father, and jealousy shoots through you as Helen hugs her and a young man who must be a boyfriend takes her hand.
There’s no sign of pregnancy that you can see. Maybe she never was pregnant. Maybe she aborted.
It’s not like you’ll ever know, anyway. And whatever she did was her choice. You know that inherently, but you still feel slightly hurt for reasons you can’t determine.
Though you miss Helen, you find that you miss Ruby more. The straight, understated beauty – she never tried as hard as Helen did to be someone she wasn’t. But Helen’s control, her command of a situation – it’s something you envy.
From the back, she looks like her mother –that straight back, that self-assured behaviour. But there’s that tremble – the quiver in her hands, the shiver down her legs.
If you had your choice again, you’d take that high, ringing trembling blaze over the controlled forest fire.