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By Carolyn Banks
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1999 Carolyn Banks
All rights reserved.
Lida watched him unroll the thing along his penis much as she had watched her father wallpaper the kitchen. He left a gap of about two inches at the top. Her father, she recalled, had been more precise.
"Why does it look like that?" She chose these words in favor of, "Asshole, you don't have it on right."
"That's where the semen goes," Charles said patiently.
"There isn't that much semen," she argued.
"Look, Lida, I know how to do this."
Except that no bell bobbed from the tip, it looked like a fool's cap. A puppet wearing a fool's cap. She didn't say it. Instead, she inserted the plastic tube into her vagina. "Yuck," she told him, "it's like stuffing yourself with a jar of cold cream."
They both sighed deeply.
"I really don't feel like fucking," she said.
"Well, I do." He reached for her purposefully.
The rubber-coated sheath cut through the gel. "It's like having an internal," she announced as he heaved back and forth.
"Will you shut up?" he said.
"No, I mean it," she kept on, "it's awful, it's like ..."
He withdrew before she could come up with a new analogy. "God damn you." He sat up.
"God damn you!"
She looked at his penis and saw that it was clean and dry to the base. Beyond that, his pubic hair was coated with what looked like lard. "When did you take it off?" she asked.
"Take what off?"
"I didn't," he said, looking down at himself. "Oh, shit." He began to feel around the bed. "I think it's still, uh ..." He looked at her uneasily.
"No, I'm not."
"It couldn't be."
"It has to be."
She leaned back and felt inside herself. "It's not there," she said.
"Go all the way up."
"Thank God I'm thirty-five," she recited, probing as she spoke, "and not a virgin." She pulled it out and set it on the pillow.
They both stared at it.
No one who knew Lida casually would have called her a romantic. Lida, by her own reckoning, had slept with thirty men. She had, in fact, compiled a written list of names in her friend Diana's living room one night. "But," she had told Diana then, "I've only been promiscuous, oh, maybe three or four times."
"I fear," Diana had said, "for the safety of my sons."
"Not yet." Lida had laughed. "But maybe next year."
Now she sat in Diana's kitchen, depressed. "It's relentless," she said, "and I hate it."
"It could be worse." Diana's voice was reassuring, like a flat-handed pat. "Believe me, it could be worse."
"How would you know?" Lida was sometimes brutal.
Marriage had been Diana's introduction to sex. And for the twelve years since her divorce, Diana had lived a celibate life, in part because she thought her role as mater-familias demanded it, in part because she was a Jane Austen specialist.
"My life is relentless, too, in its own way," Diana said. She thought of Lida explaining the device of apostrophe to an office-full of students at the small community college—largely attended by black inner-city late-adolescents—where they both taught. "'O ramrod of rectitude!'" Lida had shouted, her arm sweeping in Diana's direction. The students had giggled. "I'm tired," Diana said now, her voice tight, "of being that 'ramrod of rectitude.' Really tired."
"Oh, shit." Lida sighed. "That really got to you. Oh, shit."
"Well, sure it got to me. It's true."
"I thought you wanted it that way."
"That's what everyone thinks," Diana said. And now that it was half out, she thought that she would say it all. "But it infuriates me that you would think so, too."
"Then change it," Lida challenged. "Damn!" She slapped her hand against the table.
"Change it! Go get yourself laid."
"Lida," she said, "can't you see that I will never 'get myself laid'?" She shook her head, just thinking of it. "Never! I might get up the nerve to join Parents Without Partners or something ..." She watched the I'm-Going-to-Be-Sick expression that Lida donned. "Okay, maybe I could join Mensa. But the point is"—she grew serious again, though Lida was still making faces—"I'm nothing like you. I will never get myself laid."
"At least," Lida said, "I'll know what to put on your tombstone."
"Oh, I'm sorry I brought it up." Diana walked to the sink and filled a pot with water. She lit the range and put the pot down on the burner so hard that the water sloshed over the sides and sizzled.
"I'm no good at solving other people's problems," Lida tried to explain. "You tell me, more or less, that you'd like to—I don't know—have someone around. But then you won't do anything about it."
"Do?" Diana walked back toward the table. "Do? I don't know what to do. I'm forty-three years old. What do I do? What do you do?"
"I don't do anything."
"Well, you must. Something I've never been able to do. You must! Thirty men didn't just come crawling out of the woodwork. I would like to, just once, try your kind of relentless.
I've had my kind up to here."
Lida sat toying with a strand of her impeccably silky black hair. Finally she shoved her chair back, sighed dramatically, and stood up. "Hey, are you making coffee?"
"Yes," said Diana briefly.
Lida walked over to the refrigerator, opened the door, and stared inside.
"What are you looking for?" Diana asked.
"I wish I knew. Someone who isn't a ... hey, what's this?" She pulled forth a small waxed container of half-and-half. "What are you, having a party?" She cocked her head, lifted her brows.
"No," said Diana, busy with the coffeepot. "I wish you'd sit down."
"What? Are you mad at me?"
"Yes, I'm mad. I'm mad because I'm disappointed. We talk about something that matters, and then we stop talking about it. And nothing changes."
"What can I do? What can I say that will change it? You want me to do a number on you? Okay. You look like shit, Diana. You dress like shit. You wear those cat-eye glasses that my mother wouldn't even wear and you pile your hair on your head like some archetypal librarian. You have a mustache. Jesus Christ, Diana! You have a mustache! And you're asking me why no one ever makes a pass at you?"
"I'm not talking about passes," Diana said, feeling battered.
"Oh, no? Then what are you talking about? What's relentless? Crawling into an empty bed every night, right? Isn't that what you're saying? Come on, isn't it?" But now it was Lida who began to cry. She rummaged in her purse and came up with a handful of Kleenex.
"I'm not sure I know what's going on here," Diana said, running her finger along her upper lip.
Lida sniffed and sniveled. "I'm not trying to make it sound like some magazine makeover." She blew her nose. "But you don't have anyone because you look as though you don't want anyone. And I'm crying because I don't have anyone ..."
Diana moved to interrupt, but Lida held up her hand. "No, don't argue. I don't have anyone for very long—and I never have, Diana—no matter how I look. Your problem is simple. The electrolysis lady at Garfinckel's could solve your problem. My problem can't be solved. My problem is me."
And then they were talking about Lida again. Wasn't that always the way? Wasn't that what drew people to her and what drove them away? Lida knew it. She had pasted on her office wall an old New Yorker cartoon—a peacock whose tail reached the full width of the page. "And now," the bird addressed its puny and plain companion, "let's talk about you."
"Shit," Lida said now. "I don't want to talk about my problems. I really don't. How does it always happen?"
"It's not your fault," Diana said.
Lida was looking in her purse for her makeup. "I refuse to believe it was the abortion," she said. "I hated his guts long before then." She frowned, remembering the little reefs of hatred that had signaled the mainland. "Bone dry," she said. "That's the way I feel right now. Bone dry."
"Temporary," Diana assured her.
"It damn well better be. Otherwise, when I go into the hospital—"
Lida sipped at her coffee now, all passion spent. "I didn't tell you?"
"No, you didn't tell me."
"I'm having my tubes tied." Lida shrugged. "I mean, just in case you're right and this feeling is temporary."
"You're being sterilized?"
"Why not? I don't want to go through this again."
Diana was relieved, laughing. "I'll bring you a novel," she said.
"I'll just be in overnight," Lida told her. "Maybe not even that."
"I'll bring you one anyway. Something with a lot of lust and miscegenation."
"Oh, God," Lida said. "Lust, yes, but please, skip the miscegenation. Just bring me a mystery."
"A carefully considered choice." Diana handed the book to Lida. "I just knew you'd love the cover."
Lida looked at it and guffawed. The photo showed a man in black sitting cross-legged in a chair. The gun in his hand, lengthened by a silencer, was obviously intended to represent his penis.
"Some lovelorn designer's idea of subtlety," Lida said. "But, oh, God, ain't it the truth?" She looked at Diana. "Have you read it?"
"Are you kidding? With a cover like that?"
"Well, at the moment, it beats curling up with the Areopagitica." Lida's Milton course was scheduled for the fall semester. "Lord, Diana, did you ever hear them pronounce Areopagitica?"
Diana cast an uneasy glance at the black woman in the bed next to Lida's. "Call you tomorrow"—she eased toward the door—"when you're home."
Lida, who had already begun to plumb the book's pages, didn't speak. She gave a perfunctory wave that was intended to serve as both thank you and good-bye.
"Oh, Jesus, you've got to read this, Diana." Lida burst into Diana's office brandishing the book. "No kidding, this guy is better than Milton. Better, even, than Jane Austen." She laughed at her own exaggeration, then topped it. "No, really," she said.
Diana gestured at the syllabus she was struggling to complete. "I'm sorry," she said, "but the real world beckons."
"Listen ..." Lida prepared to read from the book. "Just listen to a few lines."
Diana was irritated. Lida always tried to sweep everyone up in her own enthusiasm. She often succeeded, which was, in large measure, the secret of her security on the faculty of Brady State College—that, and the fact that she'd slept with only two of her students, both very discreet young men.
Diana remembered asking Lida, "Were they black?" It seemed a silly question, since almost all of the students were. But Lida had said no. And while Diana was rapidly running the white males on campus by on a sort of mental treadmill, Lida had continued talking.
"One," Lida said, "had skin the color of root beer. Or, if you want to get fancy, Calvados, you know, the brandy? And the other one, his skin was lighter. More like peanut butter."
"They were black," Diana said, hastily dismissing the white men who stood uncomfortably in the glare of her mind's eye.
"'Colored,'" Lida told her, "is really more precise. It really is." And when Diana asked a question that even she, herself, found unthinkable, Lida repaid her. "It was just what you'd expect," she teased. "They didn't wear Jockey shorts. They wore zebra-skin loincloths. And when they kissed me, my lips just bled and bled."
"Tell me," Diana had insisted.
"It wasn't that great. But I think it was an age thing, not a race thing. God, I hope it was an age thing."
"Who were they?"
"I can't believe this, Diana, what is with you?" But then she answered. "One was back before you came. His name was George Washington. I mean, how could I resist?"
"You slept with him because of his name?"
"Oh, God, no. Now, that's what I mean by promiscuous. No. I slept with him because of his sense of humor. He said, 'Don' you wanna put a little sign right up over yo' bed tellin' folks George Washington slept here?'" Lida had laughed, as much at her memory as at the way Diana seemed to shrink in the face of it. "See?" she had said. "I can see a line like that would never get to you. But it really got to me."
Now she sat at Diana's table reading the lines that were getting to her today, but Diana pretended not to hear. "Come on, Diana," Lida said, "you have to admit that he's damn good. In fact, he's fantastic. In fact, I'm in love."
"Who is he?" Diana relented.
"I don't know." Lida flipped the cover shut and read the author's name. "It just says 'Duvivier.' That's a strange name." She read the back cover and the inside flaps and the copyright notice. "That's all, just 'Duvivier.'"
"Leave it," Diana said, "I'll get to it."CHAPTER 2
Duvivier. He had seen the name on a brass plate under some painting or other. It had the quality of an infinitive, he thought. Yes. To revive. The fact that the name meant nothing of the sort did not intrude upon the sense of irony that he felt. He chose it, smiling.
But Duvivier was merely one of his names. The three under which he wrote included those of Paul Philippe Grisone and Jackson R.W. Bishop. His checks arrived and were deposited in the Bishop name. His fourth name, he assumed, had long been forgotten.
He heard the scrape of the milk cans on the pavement and the sound of the cart moving off. It was later than the light had led him to believe. He walked to the window, pushed back the curtain, and looked down into the street.
A gray day, a day that the tourists would complain about. The Ministry of Tourism routed them through the village regularly now that the restoration of the town was almost complete. He would leave Pedraza for good, he decided.
He had come here many years earlier. The water was sweet and the air was thin and few in the village could muster more than an English phrase or two. It had taken a half day by Land Rover to make the climb, and that, too, swayed him. There was nothing in Pedraza save what he, in one of his novels, had called an amniotic solitude.
Which novel? He could not remember. Nonetheless, it was a good line, a bright line. No matter how easily the words came, he would still entertain himself now and again by recalling those of his phrases he most admired. Only occasionally, say, on one of his infrequent trips to America, would he widen his audience, parading before his companions the very excellent and tested dialogue of one of his characters.
But his characters were not enough. He had created their authors as well.
Duvivier, for instance, was the least serious and most successful of the lot. He was a bit splashy, perhaps, given to bullying waiters and carrying enormous sums of cash. If he chose to sleep with a woman, it would be as Duvivier, who had a talent for gymnastic sex and who was not averse to impertinent coversation.
And were he to sleep with a man, he would be Paul Philippe Grisone, prone to exoticism and languor.
Jackson R.W. Bishop, though not yet fifty, was, alas, a crusty celibate.
"El correo." The maid had brought his mail.
He instructed her to set it on the table in the hall. Even his Spanish was more fluent than was necessary here. He would definitely leave Pedraza.
He opened the packet from New York first. It was a scattering of reviews of the latest Duvivier book, the seventh to appear in the States. He read them, though he already knew what they would contain. His American audience saw how well he used the form, and missed, utterly, how brilliantly he mocked it. But even half-read, Duvivier made such a lot of money.
Jackson R.W. Bishop went down to breakfast.CHAPTER 3
"Is this the end of the line?" The newly sterilized Lida had circled three-fourths of the block surrounding the movie house.
"I think so," he said.
"Jesus"—Lida shook her head—"I expected to find the Holy Grail."
They laughed, and then, as strangers do, lapsed into silence. Lida stared at her feet, wondering if the tennis shoes she was wearing made her look like a housewife.
"Are you a lesbian?" he asked.
"Why? Do they wear tennis shoes?"
The line advanced until they rounded the corner nearest the entrance. It stopped, then it began to dissolve. "Sold out," a man called, "next show, eleven-fifty-five."
"By eleven-fifty-five"—Lida looked at her watch—"I'll be ..."
"Great idea!" He offered his arm.
"Where the hell are you taking me?" Lida asked. "To Baltimore?"
He had driven out Connecticut Avenue to the Beltway, a circumferential highway that feeds the Washington suburbs. "I'm taking you to my office." He offered a reassuring smile.
"Oh, married, huh?" She rolled the window down and let the night air in. "I should have known."
"Does it make a difference?" He looked over at her briefly.
"That's a corny line. An easy lay is an easy lay is an easy lay."
He frowned over the steering wheel, guiding the car to the exit ramp.
"In case you're wondering," Lida said, "I'm an old-maid English teacher. That's why I talk this way."
"I was wondering, as a matter of fact."
He drove around a flat red building and parked in the empty lot. They advanced to the back door under a streetlamp. He fished for another set of keys, opened the lock, and switched on the light.
The hallway was dingy and uninspired. "If I had an office like this," Lida said, "I'm not sure I'd bring anyone to it."
He led her to yet another door, repeated the procedure, and stepped aside.
Lida preceded him into the room. "Much better," she said.
"We aren't there yet." There was one more door. "Wait." He went inside and lit a small table lamp.
Lida sat on the sofa and stared at the row of diplomas that faced her. "Oh, no. Not a doctor."
He laughed. "Psychiatrist," he said, laughing still.
"Did someone I know put you up to this?"
Excerpted from Mr. Right by Carolyn Banks. Copyright © 1999 Carolyn Banks. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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