a short story by Chara Curtis

He didn’t please me in bed. But often when I’m remembering him, I see him there, in his bed or mine. He might be reading or sleeping or looking toward me, startled—though no longer surprised—by another of my psychic invasions into his world. His expression, somber and conflicted. The distance between us, invisible yet real enough. I had wanted so much to close that interminable distance. I’m glad I failed. I needed the space to open me up.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that he might not know how, or even why, to make love to a woman. In the absence of ecstasy, I thought it reasonable to assume that no love was there. When he insisted it was, I had to believe him. I felt its glimmer a number of times, like when our eyes met in laughter over a sly irony presented on television or when we clutched each other to calm our nerves during a soccer match. But when I told him I wanted to feel that love touch me all over, he told me I should get naked and bathe in the light of the moon.

Now sometimes I do.

He said sex for him was an act of anger. I said sex with him was sheer frustration. Angry and frustrated nearly every night for weeks on end, we eventually tired of it—at least I did. He admitted only to growing weary of wrestling with “No” and couldn’t I say “Yes” just as easily? I conceded that “Yes” could not be permanently banished from the realm of all possibilities; but it wasn’t his anger I wanted in bed, it was his love. He questioned my love’s inability to embrace all things, including his anger.

Yes, yes. Okay then, yes.

His was the mindset of a culture that had evolved through marauding Persians and Macedonians, through the Roman and Ottoman Empires. I set out to explore his ancient, enduring traditions with understanding as my goal. I learned, instead, to accept.

His was a language whose architecture defied my comprehension, a language that had been constructed to express perceptions a world apart from my own. If I learned it, I wondered, would I then be able to view life from the perspective that always ends in a verb? The composition of our language must say something about the way we approach the world. I told him this, noting the subordinate placement of the object. He laughed at me. He couldn’t understand why I’d want to learn a tongue spoken only by a few.

A few?

For him alone I would have studied countless days and nights to understand what, in the end, I could only accept. My reason was never justifiable to him—possibly because in his language the object “you” doesn’t carry the weight of the predicate “love.”

He did teach me his words to say in bed. Vulgar, guttural turn-ons that purred poetic to my ears. “Say it,” he’d say. And I would say it. “Beg me,” he’d say. And I would beg.

I once ventured to ask what those lovely-sounding words meant. His back stiffened and he turned to glower at me in disgust. “Don’t ever say those things!”

“But,” I reminded him, “you told me to say them. I don’t even know what they mean. I want to know.”

“No, you don’t,” he said resolutely. “You say those things only for me. Not for anyone else and not for you. It doesn’t matter what they mean; I like to hear you say them, that’s all.”

“But you said I should never say them.”

“Only when I ask you to!” He turned away quickly. “We can’t talk about this anymore.”

I had to laugh. “Okay,” I said. “Whatever turns you on.”

He heard me; I’m certain he did. Though I didn’t see his face until hours later, I know that for a long time he was busy trying to obstruct the satisfaction I’d draw from his twisted smile.

There was only one thing I ever wanted him to say in bed, but he couldn’t and I never asked him to. I did ask him to touch me here or there, to rub his fingertips this way or that. I showed him what I wanted, guiding his hands with mine and steering his head to the places that made me burn. But he did what he pleased, which is to say—he pleased himself.

’Say it,’ he’d growl, turning me over so he could release his anger and I could locate my inevitable frustration once again.

I knew better. He knew better. I knew I’d been raised to believe the sexual act should be that tender and considerate—if somewhat nebulous—exchange known as “making love.” In his estimation, that belief was my problem. He urged me to accept his certainty that sex was strictly a selfish pleasure whose benefits were derived through releasing the emotion at hand.

“Sex and politics are the same,” he said. “They thrive on conditions. Love has no condition. How can you think love and sex are the same?”

Could I understand his point of view? Vaguely. Could I accept it? I could try. The language of sex, I supposed, needn’t be confined to one tongue alone—especially if it ever hoped to convey the highest ideal of love. I held out more hope for sex than for politics. He told me I’d be better off to stay away from both.

Nevertheless, I once waited for him to come home, my body aching for political negotiations. He walked in, saw me dressed in the black gauze dress that slid so easily up my thighs, and raised his eyebrows approvingly. With a throaty chuckle and teasing smirk, he fastened his eyes to mine and slowly removed his coat. My body flushed, my nipples budded erect, my breath suspended further action, anticipating an exotic role in collective bargaining. He sat down on the sofa and methodically unlaced his shoes; I eagerly awaited my turn. Then, showing his back to me, he clicked on the TV remote.

Just like that. Over. His anger, released, and my frustration, streaming down my legs. I cleaned up in the bathroom, and he met me just outside the door, wearing a look of unrepentant apology. He slipped a glass of wine into my hand. Unrepentant ... yes. It was true. And so, for his honesty he was absolved. We raised our glasses to truth—whatever that was—then he went to the bedroom, took off his clothes, and lay down with a book. I went to the kitchen and sat down to soak myself in poetic self-indulgence and wine.

I am a book, but you dare not read me.
My pages would burn your fingertips
and turn your eyelids red
and haunt you with voices too many.

Thoughts came, unbidden: He’s right, damn it! My love isn’t large enough to embrace everything. What have I come here for? To understand? To be understood? How utterly shallow and infantile! Why then do I stay? What obsession ...

Bound in leather, I am bound
to endure ties written by some unknown hand
on frayed linen leaves between obscure lines.
Know me, then, in the same still silence
where I can know you,
where chapters and verses vanish
in the moment they appear—
so swift the hand of life.

He came into the kitchen while I was making dinner. He watched me cook and topped off my glass of wine. I busied myself unnecessarily at the stove.

“Was it good for you?” he asked playfully.

“If you thought it was,” I proffered through clouded steam, “would it have been good for you?”

“You’re learning,” he said. I felt the warmth of his dark fingertips on my neck. “Maybe one day you’ll be ready for politics. Even when you get what you want, you point only to your concessions.”

“Power plays and cruel gambits,” I said.

His smile extended to the corners of his eyes. “Sex is powerful, is it not? And so full of conditions!”

I shook my head. “I don’t want it to be that way. I prefer making love.”

He dipped a spoon into the bubbling pot and tasted, then dipped again and raised the spoon to my lips.

“We are making love now,” he said.


©1998 Chara Curtis

Originally appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Extra

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