Fiction - The Grey Area, Absinthe Literary Review
 

Love and Lust
a short story by Janis Freegard

Love and Lust are sitting at the bar together. Lust’s elegant fingers are wrapped around a tequila sunrise. Love sips lemonade. Lust has squeezed her body into a low-cut leather number. Love wears a hand-knitted mohair jersey and comfortable jeans. Lust’s eyes are rimmed with black kohl and her lips are the color of overripe cherries. Love’s face shines with a natural, healthy glow.

“You know we’re not really so different,” says Lust.

Love settles in for the debate. They’ve had this one before.

“It’s all about human contact,” continues Lust. “Bringing people together, cheating death one more time. Together we keep the world moving, you and I. I provide drive; you provide commitment.”

Love wriggles on her barstool. “A lot of good you do for the world,” comes her retort. “Greed, power, domination—that’s your legacy. I’m the one who delivers the healing, the nurturing. It’s not passion but compassion that keeps the world alive. What’s your gift to humanity? Five minutes’ fumbling in the back seat of a car? A quick fuck with a stranger in a public toilet?”

“And what’s so bad about that? People need a little fun in their lives. A brief connection with another living adult to remind them that they’re part of humanity. It harms no one else, brings a little pleasure. Don’t come the moralist with me.” And Lust plucks the toothpick out of her glass, with the cherry and the slice of orange, and slowly, slowly licks at the cherry, and ever-so-delicately grips it between her teeth, sliding it off the end of the toothpick into her cherry-lipped mouth.

For a moment, Love is transfixed, but she recovers. “You’re all fun and no responsibility. Because of you we’re plagued with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.”

“Now hold on a minute!” Lust takes another sip from her cocktail, taps her painted nails on the bar. “Those things are as much your responsibility as mine. Women are as likely to get pregnant through love as through lust. Don’t blame me for a lack of contraception and sex education. What about the woman who gets pregnant because she hopes a child will cement a shaky relationship? That’s nothing to do with me; that one’s all yours.” She takes a cigarette from the silver case in her handbag and lights it with her Zippo. She waits for Love’s comeback.

“The problem there is not love, but a lack of love.” Love looks around the bar. “See that man over there with the sandy moustache? He’s here to meet his girlfriend, but there’s another woman waiting at home for him, crying her eyes out. If he loved her more and lusted less, there’d be no problem.”

Lust rolls her eyes. “But you admit though, that the woman left at home is crying for love. If she didn’t love so deeply, so misdirectedly, she wouldn’t be miserable.”

Love ignores her. “Look,” she says. “There’s another example of the anguish you cause.” She points at a young man in a suit who is drinking alone. “He’s had a hopeless crush for years on a man who barely acknowledges his existence. Look at how unhappy it’s left him. Sleepless nights filled with longing, and now he’s trying to escape into a beer glass. All because he lusts after some pretty, unattainable young thing. The poor man’s close to suicide.”

Lust is having none of this. “And how many suicides have there been for love? How many lives wasted, careers destroyed, families torn apart? How much human misery because love given is not always returned? Or because love disintegrates and decays, leaving a wake of grief. Are you forgetting the pain that follows you around?”

“So you think no one ever suffered for Lust? Sexual infatuation can be stronger and more damaging than love. You trap lives in bondage.” Here Lust smirks. “Slaves to their hormones.”

“Oh please, Love. Bondage, slavery? You’ll get me all excited, you naughty girl!”

“I won’t be dragged down to your level. You don’t take anything seriously.”

“Except pleasure. I’m desperately serious about pleasure.”

“Do you think no one ever died because of lust? Have you forgotten about syphilis? And AIDS?”

“Now that’s not fair. That’s sheer misfortune, like any kind of disease. You can hardly hold me accountable for accidents of nature. And you’re not as pure as you’d like to think, Love. There are innumerable instances of love going wrong that you’d prefer not to acknowledge. What about men who beat women they claim to love? Who kill their families?”

“That’s possession, not love. More your line than mine. I give people warmth and comfort.”

“And I don’t?”

“You give them sex and materialism and addiction.”

“But more importantly I give them desire. And it’s desire that pulls people out of the ruts they sink into. It’s desire that frees them from their restrictive little boxes. And don’t tell me no one was ever addicted to love. There are plenty of people drifting from partner to partner, seeking to make themselves whole, seeking a way out of their loneliness. Company is something you and I both provide. I say it again, Love, we’re really not so different.”

Love grows quiet, and Lust orders herself another cocktail.

“You’re so frivolous,” says Love finally. “It’s all superficial with you; you don’t give people what they really need.”

“Ah, but I give them what they want. People want more than holding hands and drinking cocoa together. They want ardor, fervor, carnality.”

Love is indignant. “That’s not true. You have people flitting from one barren relationship to the next, unsatisfied, yearning, searching for something real; searching for me.”

“Yearning has its own special satisfaction. I leave people wanting more. That’s a gift. You just fill people up with unrealistic expectations and watch them crumble when their dreams are inevitably dashed. You see that woman who just walked in?”

Love swivels on her stool to look towards the entrance. A tall woman with short dark hair and sadness in her eyes stands looking around the bar.

“Same old story.” Lust continues. “Her lover’s just left her for another woman.”

“Your fault, no doubt.”

“No, yours actually. Her partner fell in love with someone else. But what she needs now is a little company, a little fire, some reassurance that she’s attractive and attracted.”

“She needs love in her life again. She needs affection, commitment.”

“That’s what caused her problems in the first place. It’s the last thing she needs. She needs a warm body, someone who isn’t going to make emotional demands on her. She needs physical comfort.”

“She needs emotional comfort. The love of a good friend ...”

“She’s not ready for further entanglements. She needs an uncomplicated affair.”

“I’m telling you, it’s me she needs.” Love sounds almost angry.

“No,” says Lust, with some satisfaction at getting her friend rattled. “She needs a distraction from the pain of loving. She needs a spark in her life. She needs to forget, if only for a few pleasurable moments. I can give her respite from her pain. All you can offer her now is more distress.”

Love responds with a glare.

“In fact,” says Lust with a glint in her wicked green eyes, “I think I’ll go over there right now and get acquainted.”

“You’ll only make it worse.”

“Let her be the judge of that.” And Lust slides off her bar-stool, licks her lipsticked lips and saunters over to where the woman sits alone. Heads turn.

“Mind if I join you?”

The woman glances up from her beer, gestures to the vacant chair and goes back to gazing into the glass in front of her.

Lust arranges her long, shapely legs to their best advantage. She leans a little closer. “Nursing a broken heart?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Let me see. You haven’t slept for a week, you’re not eating properly, and you’ve been living off beer and cigarettes.”

“Very perceptive.” For the first time, the woman meets Lust’s black-rimmed eyes.

“You’ve been crying for days and you’ve wondered whether life’s worth living. You’ve decided never to love again.”

The woman matches Lust’s stare.

“You deserve better than that,” says Lust.

“Do I now?”

“I know what you need,” says Lust. “You need to take your mind off things.”

“Really. And what would you recommend?”

“As a matter of fact—”

But Lust is interrupted by Love’s appearance at the table.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend,” asks Love, ignoring Lust’s scowl. She smiles at the woman and sets down her lemonade on the table.

The woman extends her hand. “Alex,” she says.

Love presses her hand warmly and looks directly into Alex’s eyes. “You look so sad. I know what you’re going through. You need someone to take care of you.”

“Honey, I could take care of her just fine,” says Lust, rising to the competition. “A few hours with me and Alex will forget she was ever in love at all.”

“Leave her alone. She needs looking after. I could make a home for her, give her a safe place to hide until her heart mends.”

“She doesn’t want to hide. She wants a bit of excitement, a thrill. I can help her to gather the energy she needs to get past this unhappiness.”

Alex looks from one to the other, bemused. “Just who exactly are you two?” she asks.

Love clasps her hands together and gazes into middle distance. “I am all that is noble about humanity,” she begins. “I am forgiveness and compassion. I am the hand that reaches out to help another. I am the voice that soothes and comforts. I am kindness. I have no boundaries. Not time, not distance, not difference can limit me. I cannot be destroyed; I can only grow and deepen. I endure.”

“Oh, please. Spare us the theatrics!” says Lust.

“As I was saying, I endure. I am the bedrock of all human relationships, the foundation of community. Whereas you, Lust—you deal only in appearances, fleeting moments of empty indulgence. There is no purpose, nothing lasting in what you do.”

Lust has had enough. “Life is meant to be lived. We live to feel, we live to act. Life should be fun, it should be dynamic. Who but me gives the sweet joy of craving, the gratification of bodily desires. I am stimulation, titillation, sensuality. I am forbidden, I am danger. And I am as much an integral part of the human condition as you are.” She runs sensual fingers through her glossy hair.

“You’re nothing more than an hour in a spa pool with your neighbor’s wife. You’re a wet dream, a fleeting fantasy. You’re just a poor imitation of me.”

“Me? Imitate you?” Lust crosses her shapely legs. “Why on earth would I want to?”

And then Love notices that Alex has left. “You’ve driven her away.”

“The lady wants to be alone. Looks like we both missed out this time.” Lust smiles, teasing.

“I could have helped her. Nothing means anything to you. You’re so shallow.”

Lust is unperturbed. “Oh, really? I’m so base, and you’re so superior. Better shallow than sanctimonious.”

Love softens. “I don’t really think I’m better than you. It’s just that you’re so ... so—”

“Lascivious? Lecherous? Lewd? How about licentious? Libidinous?”

“I’m sorry,” says Love.

Lust looks down at her empty cocktail glass. “It’s just you and me then,” she says. When she looks up, her eyes are glistening. She reaches over and runs her finger down Love’s cheek. “We need each other,” she says. “We’re more together than we are apart.”

Love catches her hand and presses it to her face. “We’re not really so different,” she says. “I can heal you.”

Lust smiles her wicked smile and slips an arm around Love’s yielding waist. “Of course you can, my dear.”

  

© 2003 Janis Freegard

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