The Road Not Taken


Patricia’s smile isn’t just a sisterly greeting, and her drawn-out, one-word sentence isn’t just a question. Both are impudent—or seem that way, and her voice has an edgy, aggressive tone, like a schoolteacher confronting a truant. She puts her mocha frothy thing on the table, slips into her seat, plants her elbows, and grins at me. She’s all teeth and eyes sometimes.

I frown at her. “So . . . what?”

Gold bangles, a gift from some distant, perhaps forgotten man, slide toward her elbow as she makes little holes in the froth in her cup with a wooden stirrer. Scents of raspberries and cocoa reach my nose. Her fingernails, perfectly manicured and dagger-like as usual, are deep crimson. Her lipstick is flawless and is the same color as her nails, but understated, licked off. The bronze of the filtered sun through the skylight grazes blond highlights in her dark hair, and burnishes her perfectly-tanned skin. I feel familiar envy churning up in me. She looks up and grins. “So . . . Has—What’s his name again?”

“Who?” I know who she’s talking about, even before the conversation begins. I don’t want to talk about him. I imagine she senses this, but wants me to talk about him—”for your own good,” she would say. Some older sisters never stop being an older sister.

Her grin has the innocence of a lion cub testing its claws. “The writer. Your tenant.”

“Edward. His name is Edward Kingery. What about him?”

“Edward. Eduardo. Has he made a pass at you yet?” Her eyebrows are bobbling suggestively.

“Don’t be silly. He must be ten years younger than I am. He calls me ‘Mrs. Forrester.’ All of our conversations are about the weather, or where you can get a good hamburger or milkshake. Besides, he stays in the apartment upstairs all the time, writing. Sometimes he doesn’t even come downstairs for days on end—only, I think, when he needs to run out and get more frozen dinners. As far as I know he only stops working to eat or sleep. He’s there to finish his book, not to flirt with some lonely woman.” All this sounds good, I think. Plausible. But I worry I have protested too much.

Patricia flips a hand at me. “You’re lonely; you’re single. You’re also attractive. He needs a break now and then. You need a man now and then. Flirt with him a little.” She leans forward on her elbows and stares into my eyes. “Take a little initiative, Rachel!”

The edge in her voice seems to have hardened, but it’s probably my imagination. I lean back, away from her righteous insistence, and hide my mouth behind my cup, taking a sip of still-too-hot, unflavored decaf. I’m afraid she might see the approaching tremble in my lips. “I’m not single. I’m a widow.” My voice sounds strangled to me. She’ll think I’m still grieving, though.

But Patricia doesn’t notice. She’s staring at a man near the magazine rack. Smug as a well-fed cat, she gives him a throw-away smile as if to illustrate initiative and leans toward me again. “Don’t hide behind technicalities, Rachel. He’s a strong, virile man. You’re a strong, in-charge woman. Don’t wait for nature to take its course; you’ll be waiting forever. This is a new age, sister! Women go after what they want. If you want him, get him. What’s wrong with a little old-fashioned fun?”

If only you knew, Patricia. It’s well beyond mere fun. It’s well beyond flirting. It’s well beyond innocence. You would have been shocked if you had seen me this morning, bent over the dryer, speared. I shake my head and temporize: “He’s working longer lately. He must be nearing the end. Nothing will happen.”

I want the conversation to end. She doesn’t know there’s nothing left to happen. It’s as if he knew from the start that he could come down the stairs, tip me over some nearby piece of furniture, and take me, abruptly, coldly, from behind—not there, but there—without a word. Lately it has been twice, most days, that he takes me. It shames me. I dishonor myself. It has gotten so that I’m constantly aroused by the way he uses me. The slightest sound from upstairs—or sometimes even just a thought about him being in the house—has me sodden, dripping. But he never takes me there, where I’m wet.

Now, lately, when full of him, I shame myself further: my fingers dwell and move in my unvisited slickness. Each of us, going alone, seeks the same goal. I am an object; so is he. But he’s always quick, as if anxious to go back to his book. He leaves me, sore and desperate, an unfinished work; and while remnants of him slip down one or the other of my legs, I go on alone, abased and wanton. Sometimes he waits behind me, watching I presume, until I stop gasping, until my body slumps onto whatever he has used to prop me up. Then he goes back to his room.

Patricia is looking at the man at the magazine rack again and seems to have forgotten me. He glances at us as he moves toward the door, and she grabs the check, startling me. “Gotta run. Don’t waste the opportunity, Rachel. You’re not a mannequin, you know. How long has it been now? Three years? You deserve better.” She whisks herself out of the bookstore, trailing eddies of confidence, obviously intent on being noticed by the man she’d been watching. My older sister was always the bolder one.

He is down the stairs as soon as I come through the door. Before I can put my car keys down he is turning me, pushing me toward the wall, there in the foyer. I bend and brace myself, moist palmprints on the washed caramel chenille wallpaper, as he raises my skirt and pulls aside my panties—the peach lacy ones, the ones I chose, surely subconsciously, surely thinking this would happen.

We have never spoken, not a single word, when he fucks me. It’s as if there are four people living in the house: the two who fuck—no, the man who fucks the woman in the ass and the woman who lets him—and the two who are reserved and speak with polite voices. When he’s not fucking me it’s as if we’re co-workers in an office, or even world-weary commuters who see one another on the weekday train. Smiles, politeness: “How are you today?”, “I hope the rain continues, we need it.” These are the banalities that balance the carnalities.

I feel him trying to push into me. The constant soreness from him registers again. Is this an intimacy? I clench my buttocks and teeth, pull away, and speak the first words spoken in these times. “Do it properly!” My voice is rough-sounding. I insist: “Properly!”

He lets go of me and pauses, and I can hear his breath passing through his nostrils, the same sound he makes just before he comes. I hear the sound of his zipper, then the muffled sound of his shoes on the carpeted stairway.

I remain there in the foyer, braced against the wall like a piece of forgotten, broken furniture, panties twisted, as if I think he’ll come back. Tears drip from my nose and make spots of blackness on the Mexican Saltillo tile.

In the night he comes to my room for the first time. He is naked, needy. He takes my hand and guides it to the thickness, the hardness of him. I have never touched this, never seen it. I turn my back to him and let go long enough to pull my pajama pants down below my bottom. I take him and guide him to the place he always goes.

“No.” I can hear resignation in his voice. He pushes my hand away and goes into me, properly. I can feel the friction of his skin inside me, the writhing press of his flat stomach on my bottom. I fix my eyes on the moon-silhouetted tree outside my window and put my hand down there. As they do their work, the tips of my fingers are brushed by his cock-flesh. His clutching hand finds my breast, sending lightning into my nipple, and he pushes up, deeper, and gasps as he convulses, as his body sends itself into mine. My own lurching orgasm almost hurts, and I hear my voice, somewhere.

I reach back to touch his hip, but hesitate. I can’t. The moment will have to endure uninterrupted. We remain motionless, scarcely breathing, as he slowly loses his force and leaves me. But still he doesn’t move away; he continues to softly caress my breasts, to breathe damply into my hair, until sleep, the sleep of contentment, captures me.

In the dawn, just after sunlight adds pink to the whiteness of the sheer drapes on the windows, filling the bedroom with glowing light, he rapes my ass. This time he pulls my hair savagely when he comes. I am unable to stifle the screams and he slams the bedroom door when he leaves, as if disgusted with me—after having filled me with his muck. When I can speak, it’s just another scream: “You forgot my mouth, bastard!”

He told me he has been married three times. I wonder if he hates women and if I’ve become the vessel of his discontent. How could I have let myself get into this situation, this perversion? What kind of man is he, that he always wants to take me in this cold, unnatural, uncompromising way?

Those aren’t the troubling questions, though. I wonder about my role in this. My sister, the adventurous one, has a history with men. I don’t. I was the angelic one, she was the wicked one. She would have done exactly what she told me to do. If she had been interested in this man, she would have let him know. She’s not a tramp: with her looks, it isn’t necessary for her to be aggressive with men. They have always thundered after her like stampeding herds of bulls. I am the more plain, the more withdrawn, the more shy of the pair of us.

I married the man who took my virginity, and I remained married and faithful to him until the end. Patricia cast off her virginity like an unwanted shroud at the age of seventeen. “It was time,” she told me later. Just like that. She moved from boy to boy after that, enjoying glittery relationships with the exciting, worthy ones; sidestepping the unworthy. As she became a woman, the boys became men. But Patricia always stubbornly held on to her independence. She never moved in with a man, never depended on one.

I went the other direction, clinging to convention as if my sanity depended on it. My virginity was still intact when I went to college, and I didn’t surrender it until I was certain the man was to be my husband. Love came into my life only once.

Patricia gave up her virginity and clung to her independence. I did the opposite. Her surrender was quick, a brief flash of pain. Mine was a languishing, lifetime ache.

I have always envied my sister, and sometimes the line between envy and hatred has been wispy. It’s not just for her beauty; it’s for her life. When we’re together, I am the faded, lifeless one. She coruscates, I absorb light and become invisible. She ricochets, I lose momentum and fall unnoticed in some corner.

She doesn’t know how I resent her sometimes.

When Edward Kingery moved into the apartment I built upstairs, there were lurking notions in me, things I didn’t admit to myself. This could be my adventure. Patricia’s advice in the bookstore coffee shop was tardy. Two weeks after he moved in, controlled by the part of my mind that never speaks, I let him know I was approachable. “I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “My husband collected first editions, and now I would like to sell them. Can you suggest a way to do this?”

In Andrew’s den, a room I no longer used, Edward admired the long shelves of carefully-preserved books. I watched his hands as he touched the spines tenderly, as if they were babies’ faces. His hands were delicate, his fingers long and slender. I imagined him touching me. “I’ll buy them,” he said, turning to face me.

The window to my soul was open and he saw into me. His hands were on my waist, on my back, on my shoulders. His lips were on mine, feverish. I gasped and leaned against him in surrender, breathless, out of control. He pulled open my blouse and moved his face into the well of my breasts, breathing heat and moisture on me. He pulled my clothing, I pulled his. Not naked but naked enough, we fell onto the Tabriz rug Andrew had so cherished, beside the long dark mahogany bookshelves, and I, at the age of forty-three, was fucked by a man who was not my husband—it would have been wrong—in Andrew’s sanctuary where humans had never fucked—it would have been wrong—and it was right.

It was so easy. The threshold was never as high, never as real, as I had imagined it. I had never let myself believe that intelligent humans can propel themselves into sex without caution, without fanfare, urgently and animal-like. But there we were, almost strangers, welded by the surprising thickness of his lunging cock, my legs locked around him by instinct, my cunt wanton and hungry. As he moved inside his eyes seemed to enter me as well, as if he were looking into my soul. He held himself up on rigid arms, and as his pubis collided with mine, as he drove into me with the force of frenzy, as his eyes locked on mine in surrender to lust, his face twisted and a groan lurched from him. Deep within me I felt his rushes, his hot flush, almost immediately, as if it had only been an instant since he entered me. I clutched him between my legs, absorbing him, cradling him. I was a valley, he was a surging river, we were Iguassu. The woman part of me, the part that accepts and absorbs, was the whole of me, and that was enough.

As I felt him begin to wither in that helpless way men do, he whispered, “It’s been a long time, too long.”

I pulled his face down to me and kissed him, raising my hips to press against him. Then I came, quietly, pitifully, trying to hide it from him as if I were embarrassing myself. Andrew had always looked away when I came, making me feel it was disgraceful. This man watched me as if he knew what I was trying to hide from him. A smile flickered on his lips.

He moved slowly, his softened cock still inside me, a mushy, gentle thing, and a distant look came into his eyes as I felt him begin to harden again. In time, slowly, he became rigid, filling me more completely than before, and with his eyes locked on mine he fucked me, fucked me, fucked me. It was as if we were merely wandering, with nowhere to go, with no objective but to prolong the process. Stevenson had it: To travel hopefully is better than to arrive. But in time we did arrive again. In time he drove deeply into me and froze, in time more of his come spurted into me, in time I hid nothing when I came and allowed myself wheezes and unseemly grunts, sounds of amazement, disbelief: Was that me?

At first there was a concordance between us, built by the sex. At first. But the sweet romantic seedling of this relationship has now grown into a flesh-eating monstrosity. It can’t even be called a relationship. Now here I am, on my bed, oozing from his violations, hating him the way he wants me to hate him—hating him because I must hate him.

I hear the shower start upstairs. I can remember, but with increasing vagueness, lying in my bed as he showered, imagining, my eyes closed, my fingers buried in my harp-like bridge, moving, moving, until the pianissimo was banished by drums, by heavy bass, booming inside me. But that was in the beginning. I can’t imagine anything now.

Some of my thoughts are unwelcome: My relationship with this man is a telescoped version of my marriage, which began with romance, loving, and affectionate sex. But in the end, before the automobile accident, Andrew would use me. I would let him, so he could dump for a day or two his need. Here I am again, same song, same dance, with another man. What is it with me and men?

But it isn’t exactly a similar situation, is it? Andrew was very reserved about sex. I rarely saw him naked, we always made love—made love, never fucked—in the dark. Even after fifteen years of marriage I could still count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we had sex in some adventurous, unconventional way. And all of that was in our first few years together. Anal sex? Andrew would have been repelled by the idea. So would I, for that matter. We would have been embarrassed.

Edward Kingery leaves quietly while I’m having my morning coffee in the kitchen. Without a plan, I go upstairs.

The apartment is made of two bedrooms. One of the rooms is a master bedroom, like a motel room. Across the hall there is a smaller room, which I converted into a kitchenette. The bedroom is locked, but the kitchen door is open. In the refrigerator, I find out-of-date milk, beer, chardonnay, butter, brown eggs, blue Stilton cheese, yellow mustard and an open package of cold cuts. In the freezer there are low-calorie frozen dinners. On top of the refrigerator is a loaf of dried-out bread, half empty. In the cabinets, sugar, cereal, canned soup, and pasta. There’s a half-empty cup of coffee grown cold on the little table, surrounded by a dusting of sugar, which I brush off the tabletop into the coffee cup.

Sitting at the table, I imagine I can smell him. The idea angers me.

The bedroom door has a big round brass deadbolt lock. I have a key to that lock, but I’ve never used it, in respect for his privacy. But a man who has done to me what this man has, hasn’t he already relinquished his own right to privacy? What secret could he have that’s more telling than the fact that he likes to butt-fuck me?

The kitchen, his public face, was neat. The bedroom and bathroom, his body beneath the underwear, is not. The bed is unmade. There is clothing strewn about as if discarded in disgust. Everywhere there are piles of papers and books. There must be a dozen copies of his manuscript piled into a corner, tipping, slumped to the side. Wet towels are clumped on the floor in the bathroom. There is a musty, damp, male odor. The toilet seat is up, and the toilet needs cleaning, the rim spotted with the piss-splatters men make, reminding me of my husband. Without knowing it I have missed those ochre splatters as much as I once resented them.

“Can I help you?”

I whirl, heart pounding. He is lounging in the doorway, leaning lazily against the jamb. I have the lie prepared: “I thought there was a plumbing leak.”

“You don’t say.” His insolence is chilling.

“You will be moving out today, won’t you?”

His face changes now, as if I’ve slapped him. “Can’t we talk first?”

“About what?” My calm amazes me.

He moves his hand, as if handing me ideas. “We could—I could. . .”

“Stop?” My cold, aggressive tone is a surprise.

“I thought you—”

“Liked it?”

He looks at the floor. “You seemed to—”

“Be that type?”

Now he glares: “Fuck you.”

“Can you? My cunt isn’t very boyish.”

He has not moved from the doorway, blocking my escape. I feel off-balance and trapped. The person who has been speaking is so unlike me that I feel displaced, as if there is a third person in the room. “You have to leave,” I tell him.

He gives me a silent look and I can see smoldering danger in his eyes, but it doesn’t frighten me. It energizes me.

“Or you can fuck me properly.” Stepping backwards, I fall onto his bed. “Let’s see you do it. Fuck me. Properly. Now. Make me come.”

He takes a half-step toward me, but stops. “I can’t—” He looks away. “I’ll send somebody for my things,” he mutters, and then he’s gone. I remain on the bed, his scent surrounding me.

In the afternoon, when Patricia calls, I tell her Edward Kingery can’t handle women who know what they want. I tell her he can’t get it up. I tell her he’s moving out.

“Who’da thunk?” she says.

“So?” My tone is mocking, impudent, aggressive. I can feel a smile growing my face.

There’s a pause, then: “So . . . what?” she asks, guardedly.

“So, if you want a lump of coal, you can have it now. If you want a diamond, you have to wait.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Bingo. Looking at my nails, I decide a manicure should be the first priority. “Oh, nothing. Gotta run, Sis. Call me later, okay?”

© 2006 Sidney Durham. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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