Notes on a Non-Scandal:
1. No copyright infringement intended, no profit gained. Story is mine, so please request permission before archiving, stealing, or doing an interpretative dance based upon it.
2. An expansion of a very short piece written for the “even angels” livejournal community (http://community.livejournal.com/even_angels_/). Props to flying peanuts for the first and last lines of the first section. Refers to characters in previous stories (specifically “Coup de Grace” and “Venezia”), so it might be a good idea to read those stories first before proceeding here.
3. Intended as a Valentine’s Day piece, but you know me: too much, and always too late.
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“The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic
—from The History Boys, Alan Bennett
1. Mykonos, 1953
Another moment passes, slowly sculpted by her breath, each
one a stepping stone toward awakening.
The cobbled path snakes to the beach and beyond, to the coastline gently disrupted by villas and cottages burning white against pale sand and the translucent cool Aegean. Even now, on this overcast morning, the warmth of stone gently blazes under her feet. Going native, or her idea of such: Suntanned, loose hair, wrinkled clothes, barefoot.
She had been surprisingly unsurprised by waking up alone. If not for the imprimatur of sex upon the bed, a scented still life of peaks and eddies of bunched-up sheets, pummeled pillows, and dips in the aging mattress, she might have thought it all a fantastic dream, courtesy of her inverted self.
But this was what happened when you loved a wanderer: The morning after was usually a solo affair. Mouth scorched dry by the plentiful wine of the previous night, you quietly took account of every delicious ache and made plans to keep yourself occupied until she returned. What was for lunch? Dinner? Would the family from Heidelberg reappear on the beach armed with their gramophone, wooing the seagulls with Beethoven concertos?
Where was she? No doubt scrambling over the ruins of a Byzantine church, the very one that made her eyes light up three days ago when they arrived on the island.
Under normal circumstances, work would be a legitimate distraction. But this was a vacation: enforced frivolity. The rule had been no books, and none of their attendant paraphernalia either! No lumpy tomes on pre-Hellenistic culture, or pretentious modernist novels, or even racy paperbacks about naughty boarding school girls. No notebooks accompanied by ostentatious yet leaky fountain pens or humble pencil stubs. She felt grateful for the stingy allowance of one Greek newspaper.
Was she more troubled by the absence of her lover or the absence of her languages?
That morning she had dreamt she was a paragraph. Every motion typed a sentence. She would stretch and with breathless length—hands on the headboard, toes capturing the mattress edge—be a Virginia Woolf sentence, elegantly sprawling, perfectly composed. Or in sleep’s fetal contraction she would mimic Hemingway’s brevity. The absentminded curl of her fingers could be punctuation, perhaps a clutch of semi-colons, and a toss of her black hair an unrepentantly bleak little Brontë descriptor: Brooding on the beach.
Too much wine last night. She had stared at the bed, at the meringue of sheets that remained defiantly unmade, reminding her of a thing that before last night she had never done before—well, more specifically, of a thing that she had only ever been on the receiving end of. Even within the prim corridors of her own mind she found it difficult to employ the proper terminology.
It was truly unfair to blame the wine. Blame desire, blame love, blame the taste of that body, more an intoxicant than any liquor, blame those hands tangled in your hair and the tongue tracing the edge of your jaw, blame that blessedly husky voice: Do you want to? Blame curiosity. Blame that yearning to dominate, to hold onto what was easily given and somehow never quite yours—never quite yours, because she loved exploring as much as she loved you.
I will do anything you want.
She took to the role with confident ease. Her body knew what her mind did not, and if she wondered what it would really be like to be a man inside a woman, she did know what it was like to be a woman inside another woman. She always had. The language of her body was not one she had ever easily understood, and as a result screeds lay within her, waiting for discovery, waiting to be read.
The sun pulses under thinning clouds, teasing at breakthrough. In the midst of spending alone a glorious day, her most beautiful pages grow distracted, and shiver.
2. Paris, 1944
“I will give anything for a goddamn book in English.”
The old man was the third merchant to whom Janice had made this melodramatic declaration—indeed, she thought of it as rather French-like, resplendent with a sweeping hand gesture. Whether or not he understood, she could not discern: He shrugged apologetically and she moved on to the next stall.
There she found a small volume of Robert Browning, beautifully bound in green cloth, letters stamped in enticing gilt. She hated Browning, but she was desperate. The ambulance unit was grounded for the day. Liberated Paris was cold, occasionally dangerous, and—not surprisingly, for someone who did not want to be there—boring.
Janice waved the book like a flag of surrender, a hopeless declaration of her monolingualism. “Eh—combien?”
The bookseller, finally taking note of her customer, looked up. “Whatever you can afford,” she replied in the kind of rapid, accented English where the words seemed both slow and fast at once—spoken quickly, yet reaching the ear in their own sweet time, like the echo of a transatlantic call where the listener perfectly predicts every stress and syllable. She was small and slender, wrapped tightly in what once was a fashionable belted jacket that now possessed a threadbare glory, and with the type of ripe mouth that demanded lipstick. Her eyes were dark and no doubt held depths that Janice could not, would not imagine plumbing because there was too much pain, too much loss accumulated in four years alone. She was nothing like Mel and yet precisely for that reason, she could not help but remind Janice so powerfully and completely of Mel and of that connection between them, perhaps destroyed forever by arguments as fierce as their lovemaking had been.
Unexpectedly, the bookseller stiffened and Janice realized that she had stared too long. The idle sport of comparison had mercilessly returned her to square one of that inescapable intersection between the truth of her loneliness and her desire.
And, in the wrong place and time, it was the kind of look that could get one’s face slapped. Or worse. But not this time. The Frenchwoman nodded at the book. “I’d take food for it.” With unmistakable intent, both her head and her voice lowered. “Or whatever you’re willing to offer.”
Janice fumbled, caught between the boldness of acceptance and the urge to drop the book on the wooden cart and plunge through the narrow, book-lined street, which now taunted her as if it were an obstacle course. “I don’t have anything with me.”
The bookseller lunged across the carrel and for a moment Janice thought their hands would meet, but instead she tapped the cover of the Browning book, as if sending a seduction in Morse code. “Come back later.”
It was not the first time she had slept in sheets rough and musty, and with a woman whose name she did not know. Afterward, the food she brought—two tins of meat, a package of crumbling biscuits—sat forlorn upon a kitchen table and the twilight mounted within a window frame matched the toneless color of the walls. Perhaps unwilling to spoil things with conversation, or unsure of asking Janice to leave, the woman feigned sleep. Janice sat up in the bed, lit a Gauloise, and watched an elegant distortion of smoke scrolling up the darkening wall. She thought of Mel’s nearly indecipherable handwriting—a particularly angular loop of smoke looked almost precisely like her capital G. I’m in love with someone, she wanted to tell this woman. It seemed bad form, though, to say it aloud to someone you just fucked, particularly for the sole purpose of erecting a boundary between what she had just done and the confines of her heart. So she repeated it within the quiet of her mind, and wrote it, indelibly and invisibly, upon the walls.
3. Venice, 1973
“Don’t you have to go?”
Go? Francesca thought. And leave the sheets that gently lapped at her skin, the soft cradle of the pillow, the experienced hand gliding along her back? Abandon all this, for seeing Lo straniero senza nome—Clint Eastwood on screen, lasciviously serenaded by an audience of stoned, giddy whores?
So she does not move. “Do you want me to go?”
Mel does not answer. Rarely does she answer any direct question put to her, leaving Francesca to methods of interrogation both rigorous and rude, and steeped in dirty tricks: She demands answers while naked and seemingly immersed in the task at hand—while teasing a breast with her mouth, while pushing a hand between two willing thighs. The coin of knowledge, she has discovered, can rival the lure of real money, at least under certain desperate circumstances.
Tell me where you grew up. Later, Francesca recalled the strange thrill she had in a bookstore, finding a map of the United States and seeing the jagged, prescription-pink state of South Carolina resting under her finger.
Tell me about your mother and father. “I don’t remember my mother very well—anymore. But I do remember she never liked to sit still and she loved to sing along with the radio. My father was very tall and very charming and very smart. I inherited the tall part from him. I’ve never been quite convinced about the rest.”
The first person you kissed? “A boy named Jason. I was 17, he was 18. He had invited me to his grandmother’s house for dinner. Dessert was strawberry pie—fragole, cara. So when he kissed me later, it tasted like that. Like strawberries. It led me to believe all sorts of mistaken things about men.”
Tell me about the woman you won’t talk about. Melinda’s eyes had closed at that. “You know I can’t.”
Tell me why I feel deeply for you. This one she never asked. Feelings were an exaggeration, a fiction for those who had the luxury of reading, a dangerous imperative that would be the first line in a story of fantastic heartbreak.
The fingers stop their intricate gavotte upon her back. “I have something for you.”
Francesca rolls over and already Mel, dark robe silkily billowing with motion, is halfway across the room and retrieving something from the hazardous stacks of papers and books that threaten a literary landslide from the hotel desk.
It’s small, rectangular, flat, wrapped in brown paper. Definitely not a dildo. But a book? One of those fantastic old bound volumes carrying the heady scent of leather, the seductive undertow of dead languages? What in hell would she do with something like that? Even more importantly, Francesca wonders as she fondles the parcel, why does she want something like that? “Such exquisite wrapping!”
As only a retired professor can, Mel smiles indulgently. “Showing off your English again.”
“You do the same in Italian,” Francesca retorts and, for good measure, throws in a contraction, something which she usually avoids because she fears her tongue will not leap over that peculiar floating apostrophe: “Don’t you?”
She peels away the brown paper. It is a simple blank cahier, with lined pages and a ribbed, elastic enclosure that promised to hold tightly whatever words that may be entrusted to it. It’s the kind of black notebook she sees in use among many skinny, bespectacled café habitués, the ones who drink and smoke and talk too much. The ones who could not afford a minute of her company. “An empty book.” To reflect my empty mind?
Mel seems amused at her visible and puzzled disappointment. “For you to write in.”
Her face tingles with the burn of self-consciousness. “And why would I want to do that?”
“You’re always scribbling away on those pieces of paper you keep in your pockets. So I thought you might benefit from a proper writing journal.”
“Oh.” You notice me. This prompts elated anguish.
“But—if you don’t like it, or if you have no real use for it—“ Mel makes a teasing reach for it.
“No.” She clutches the journal to her bare chest, as if it were really going to be taken away. “I want it.”
Mel permits a smile to cross her features. Twice in one day, Francesca thinks, even though this one is small, spectral—a ghost of a smile for a ghost of a woman. “Good.”
Imagining herself in a kind of freefall, Francesca keeps the black notebook against her as she tumbles back onto her stomach. The slick cover warms against her skin as she presses her face deep into the pillow, smothering the dangerous feeling that tightens her throat. The inscription upon her body begins anew, and she submits to fingers upon flesh, bone against sinew, to a language that, in its state of partial comprehension and consummate allure, is maddening.
4. Cambridge, 1947
This room, this house, this Indian summer, this woman. More specifically, this beautiful woman who had somehow alchemized the dreary task of organizing their combined libraries (including the sizable one she had inherited from her scholar father) into a kind of sacred erotic act. Whether human or book, spines fit sublimely snug into Mel’s palm—that very morning, the heel of her hand had pressed deep into Janice’s back, I can feel your bones, she had said in a voice that marveled and with a touch unraveling into reverence, and then Janice had realized that no one had ever touched her quite like this, as if wanting to get under her skin.
Now, in the study, Mel sifted through pages tissue-thin or frayed and stiff, and with every touch and caress she recalled the provenance attached to every book—Janice could read it plainly upon her relaxed face—the gifts, the impulsive purchases, the ones she loved when younger, the ones her father loved, the ones mocked and marked in the margins by the ruthless academic tag team of Pappas pere and fille.
“We don’t need three copies of Suetonius, do we?”
Acutely aware of her uselessness in this endeavor, Janice languished sweatily on the sofa. If her damp shirt were not marrying itself to the leather material, it was at the very least in the act of a fevered proposal. “I’m not sure we even need one.”
“Indeed we do. A professor needs a proper library, Dr. Covington.”
“But I plan on being a very improper professor. Given what we did here last week—”
“We can’t ever do that again.”
Her forcefulness both surprised and disappointed Janice. “No?”
“Not on the desk, I mean,” Mel amended.
“Oh.” Relieved, Janice wondered how sturdy the dining room table was.
“Because the whole time I kept thinking my father would be spinning in his grave, knowing what I was doing on his desk.”
“I dunno. I think he’d be happy to see you get good use out of it.”
Mel laughed. “You’re terrible.” She knelt before the open foot locker where Janice’s books had been moldering for several years—and where Janice would have been quite content to keep them—and pulled out a particularly warped, water-damaged clothbound edition of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. Her mouth curdled. “Good thing you didn’t fall in love with a librarian. This would be grounds for separation.”
“Oh Christ, toss that,” Janice groaned. As it was placed in the disappointingly small “to go” pile, her eyelids fluttered shut.
“I didn’t know you liked Browning.”
“I don’t.” It slipped out before Janice realized it. She opened her eyes, sat up, and stared at the slender, green-gold book that Mel held.
Her mind had successfully buried the incident surrounding her acquisition of the book, and had even gone so far as to spin out several convincing, believable plot lines involving its perceived loss—left in a café or on a bench near the Tuileries, given it to one of the other drivers, tossed it into the Seine—but here it was again, in all its unforeseeable stupidity, glaringly out of place and time. At odd intervals over the years, she had wondered what happened to the woman, thought of her stiff, trembling body, her awkward caresses, her unconvincing compliments: You’re very handsome. Was she happy, and no longer lonely? Was she even alive?
Mel raised an eyebrow. “A gift?”
I thought I would never see you again. “You could—say that.” If only because it made me realize how much I really love you, and how no one could make me feel the way you do.
As excuses, they were worthless. The truth was usually like that.
“Well.” Mel touched the bridge of her glasses. “I like Browning.” She gave the book a thoughtful glance before consigning it to the poetry shelf. As if performing a magic trick, her hand passed elegantly across murky cloth spines as she aligned the Browning against the other books. And then she met Janice’s look with a smile simultaneously kind and serious, as befitting someone intent on acceptance no matter the act or the consequences, and generous in the difficult art of forgiveness.
It took no more than two bold, long steps for Janice to reject the sofa, cross the room, and surrender to an embrace. The v-neck of Mel’s blouse formed a luscious snare hinting at the mysterious intoxicant of her scent, her skin. From this source Janice indulged in a deep draft and instantly felt as if she’d downed a dozen blazing shots of bourbon—and while her legs wavered, it was only because they were tangled with a pair much longer than her own. Mel’s mouth, hot and insistent, found hers and with a delighted shiver she opened her mouth wider, welcoming the sweet exploration that followed. Frenzy subverted intention by creating a panicked taskmaster—Mel was attempting to unbutton her shirt while unbuckling her belt—while they staggered away from the desk and toward the desk’s companion, an broad old leather chair which, Janice hoped, did not share the desk’s verboten status. Regardless, they tumbled into it and she found herself neatly straddling Mel’s lap and anticipating the hand that successfully breached both belt and trouser buttons.
The important things would come later. Only under the complete cover of night did she feel safe enough to say things like I love you, to savor the words in her mouth, to taste their reverberation as they unfurled into darkness—to see and feel nothing beyond that, and to give nothing but the purity of words and their intent to a woman who loved language.
5. South Carolina, 1933
The backyard spilled down the incline at such a precipitous angle that it appeared the land was running away from the civilization implicit in the large, domineering house— until it was finally truncated by a dirt road that had seen a history of horses, carriages, wagons. Runaway slaves had also traveled this same road, limned in moonlight and heading north—or so she had been solemnly told by the family maids, cooks, grooms, and stablemen. Now it served largely as a shortcut to and from the high school.
From the vantage point of the back porch she watched the occasional straggler from the school walking home, and she felt an absurd sense of superiority: for she was already at home, had drunk an entire glass of sweet iced tea, and was studying even though she was officially a week ahead of everyone in history and geometry and math and everything else and light years ahead of them all in Latin. Mel looked up from The Elements of Structural Botany. No one was on the road now, except for one girl.
She had never paid much attention to the girl before. Her name was Carol Ann and she was relatively new in town—her family was from Beaufort. Practically an entire year had passed without them saying much to one another beyond cordial hellos and drawling how-are-yous. And now it was late spring, blossoms bedded on the ground, and that girl Mel had barely spoken to all year long was now loping down the path from the school, alone, with the sun etching gold into every darkened shade of her dirty blonde hair and her bare arms swinging with a loose-limbed grace and slowing, for a barely imperceptible moment, as she turned toward Mel and waved with neighborly vigor.
For whenever I look at you even briefly
I can no longer say a single thing
In her father’s library, there were secret compartments of books discerned to be too dangerous and too adult, still, for her youthful tastes. She found them months ago, including the Loeb Lyra Graeca and, contained between its green cover, the slender treasure of Sappho’s verses.
In the turmoil of reading them, she was not exclusively undone by the poet’s objects of affection, but by the rule of passion that governed every word. She waited for passion. Every day, when she would witness Ruthlee desperately seize the arm of her boyfriend, or the fiery, slavish intensity of girls gathered around Mr. Maines, the English teacher, or Jason’s bright, adoring gaze aimed squarely at her, she waited.
But within the sharpened shadows of a late spring afternoon, on a dirt road where a beautiful girl walked alone, she waited no longer; the knowledge she craved was finally hers. A delicate flame runs beneath my skin, the ancient poet had written, and now she knew exactly how that felt. And yet she could find no other words to describe the feeling, or to say, even to herself, what it made her. It would take years to build the vocabulary of love and desire and to discard much of the shame she would feel as a result, but now, for the first moment in her life, she burned.
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