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It’s So Much Easier When You’re Away
by Riccardo Berra/Apostrophe © 2010
Story inspired by the song 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' by Van Morrison
A mental snapshot.
My 10-year-old Callie, shrieking, jumps into my arms, bony fawn legs locked above my waist.
"Daddy, daddeee, I missed you so much. Did you miss me?" Her arch little smile, so sure of her feminine wiles, even at this tender age.
"I missed you so much my princess; I missed the air around you." I make vacuum cleaner sucking sounds. She squeals in delight, then wriggles from my grasp as towhead monster Mark Jr., my 5 year old brick house swaggers in. The action toy he clutches mimics his gait. He ignores my open arms.
"I got the new red Power Rangers." He waves it in his sister’s face; she swats it from his grasp. It sails onto the couch. They run upstairs shrieking at each other.
"A little help!"
Reflexive scowl stamped on her features, Ellen, my 42-year-old wife, pushes a suitcase through the door as if it contains lead ingots. A practiced martyr, she insinuates with inflection and body language alone how much of a total shit I am for not attending to the car as soon as she pulled up. I’m judged and found wanting oh, maybe a thousand times a day. Lately for good cause. My faults cling like wet leaves to the marital headstone.
Ellen, Callie and Mark, have been away long enough that I’m completely out of their orbit, the wobbly hyperkinetic trajectories of Mom and kids and Dad and kids and kid and kid. Let's not neglect Mom and Dad. We’re right back to circling each other like wary, battle-bruised sharks sniffing the water for blood. My family's return has sucked all the serenity from this place that was so quiet just three minutes ago. I am disquieted and out of my zone.
I'm the senior science writer for a magazine that graces dentists' offices, coffee tables and nightstands across America. The bulk of the research for my latest feature column was completed in the family's absence. I’m now at the part I love, the fugue state of shuffling and sifting to find the story that hasn’t been told, because I haven’t told it yet. All the heady-thready stuff, the scribbled cocktail napkins, OneNote tabs, taped interviews, outlines, insights, late night inspirations, Post-its tacked to my monitor have been sucked up, all aswirl like autumn leaves, making and breaking sparky new connections. I roughed out a first draft which I'm suddenly desperate to get back to.
This part is all mine. This is the black box shit they don’t or can’t teach in `how to write like a writer` schools. What’s mine is mine until I write it. Even then it’s still mine, unless in some blockheaded, uber-genitive huff I decide not to write it. Then it would stay mine forever. But Dr. Johnson got it right of course; I wouldn’t get my fee and I would get desperate, angry calls from my editor and his boss, the senior executive editor and his boss, even the new publisher, with whom I swapped cocktail stories last weekend on the balcony of his Midtown penthouse. We were all at a summers-end soirée for magazine brass to celebrate the mantle's passing to the young publisher from his father, son of the magazine's legendary founder. China cup pretty, a very young British heiress soon to be his second wife, clung unhappily to his arm. My new boss told his intended I am the magazine’s best writer. Not the best science writer, but the best writer. He told me we would become great friends.
Nobody’s calling about missed deliveries. There’s no need and never has been. I and my work are utterly reliable. Like all its predecessors, this article will go out a little shy of the deadline as an attachment to a short, cordial email. Then in a process akin to bovine digestion, Editorial will edit and fact-check and kick it upstairs. Somebody else will chew it over again like cud and kick it higher. It gets vetted by Legal, kicked back downstairs to Production and somebody else stripes in photos, charts, callouts, ads and headlines. The point is that by the time you read "my article" with my byline; it’s long since stopped being mine. It's theirs and then yours. The secret of good writing is possession. The secret of making a good living writing is dispossession. People wonder that we’re so fucked up.
My lover of three years is royally peeved at me.
I’d half-promised to take her to that Midtown party and then got jumpy about how it would look to my coworkers, none of whom have met Ellen, all of whom would instantly surmise that Karina is not my wife. So I back-pedaled off the invitation under the frailest of pretenses; then compounded the error by showing Karina the first draft of the article as a sort of consolation prize. It was the source of our first argument. Karina disagreed vehemently with what I’d written about childhood ADD (the cover page feature for January 's upcoming "Health and Science" issue). She highlighted all the sections she found objectionable. The manuscript was filled with lurid lines and slashes. There’s a red "pharmco stooge" scrawled in the margin next to a passage lambasting herbal therapies as untried and dangerous. I find this such an odd position for a third year medical resident to take.
Doubly odd, for her Dima, whom I’ve held and read to like one of my own, works so desperately hard to put language together and his mother, my sweet soon-to-be Dr. Karina Adamova, has subjected the poor little slob to a battery of alternative/holistic/nutball therapies—all to no avail. First over his nightly red-faced screaming objection, she implemented a strict macrobiotic regimen for both of them—seaweed, raw foods, tofu and such. Having excised all manners of processed fat, sugar and carbohydrates, the good gooey normal stuff that dribbles through the prematurely sclerotic veins and expanding waistlines of America’s children, Karina ruthlessly enforced the diet until Di lost nearly ten pounds and the pediatrician gave his mother "what for." The diet got shelved. I remember Ellen and me rolling our eyes and breathing a mutual sigh of relief. Kay then took Di off Ritalin and began using some homeopathic remedy she'd found on the net. That was the final straw. Dima’s teachers howled in protest and she had to relent yet again.
Callie and Mark used to save up their candy and sneak it to Dima whenever he visited. They knew he wasn't allowed to have it. Unable to refuse my children and her own son at the same time, Karina was softened and outflanked by their generosity. Karina is fierce, cynical and fatalistic. Karinamalyshka is also wise, forgiving and adorable in the way of her Slavic forebears. Czarevna Karina.
Ellen scrolls through the phone’s digital memory and doesn’t even flinch when she sees Karina’s caller ID.
… The phone drops on the couch like a dead fish.
"Somebody’s been burning up the lines."
Not said angrily or accusingly. Just said as if it were something important that needed noting. I say nothing. Her eyes rake mine, deadpan, a split-second "fuck-you look" roiling on the horizon. Anything is possible at this moment—rage, grief, jealousy, or stone cold absolute nothing. The moment dissipates as quickly as it appears. Ellen sweeps back out the door. A gust of autumn air sweeps in to fill the vacuum.
There are no more lies between us. For three months, I’ve remained discreet, but have not lied to cover my infidelity. For three months, Ellen has acted like I never said a thing. We've even made love twice. We’ve stopped arguing. There’s an eerie, extraordinary calm between us. Though it's persisted much longer than I'd ever anticipated, I’m sure it's only temporary.
After three years of playing the coy flirty next-door neighbor game, Karina and I finally "happened" at a neighborhood Halloween blast, another in a succession of socials El abdicated. I arrived stag as usual, thinking all these middle-aged fools, myself certainly included, too old to be parading around in costumes. Trance music pounded from inside; glowing pumpkins lit the way in, me a parody of myself as a New York hipster wannabe, black on black, a smart fedora raked across my thinning crown.
… Of my Russian princess from the back, a Tchaikovsky swan. See how the white taffeta scoops so dangerously low exposing the long pale curve of her back—scapulae to iliac crest. Chest outthrust, hands fluttering about her hips and breasts, she preens and flirts pointlessly with three Brazilian Zorros, all wickedly handsome, all flamboyantly gay.
How her pale eyes blaze when she sees me. Seeking rescue from the Zorros, she crooks a finger my way and when I don’t move fast enough, she pulls me to the dance-floor, chattering mile-a-minute in her thick, endearing Baltic English. Normally I hate dancing, but the way she folds herself into my arms and begins to move so sweetly against me brings out an reserve of fluidity I didn’t know I had. Who knows what’s on the fucking stereo. The song changes. Karina tosses her hair and laughs to herself and when my eyes search hers for an explanation, she kisses me—hard—smack on the lips. Not a next-door neighborly kiss. My trembling fingers reach instinctively for her face but I freeze. All except for my terrified eyes which go everywhere at once. I push away.
"Kay, we can’t do this!"
Our host in the corner, I’m not sure, yeah I am sure, makes a point of not seeing us. Karina’s pale face flushes scarlet. She deflates in a flash. She smells of the several shots of courage it took to do this. Pain and shame crisscross her features like a lightning strike.
"Sorry." She mumbles, chin pressed to her chest. "Sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry." Tears well in the corners of her eyes.
"We can’t do this … here."
"How did you know we’d be together?"
How? Before that first shockwave blasted off so many dry, shriveled layers of pith, I’d just assumed I’d gone dry to the core. Surprise—hot stinging pink flesh and raw red blood still pump away. I’d merely been hibernating. Though transformed, it took two more years, till this summer in fact, before I could come out to Ellen and share this truth with her.
This is that shot.
Me at the kitchen table in the dark with my head in my hands. Ellen at the fridge, holds it open as if the additional 40 watts from its interior are sufficient to illuminate the scene.
"Since I don’t enjoy fucking you fuckhead fucking fucker and I’m not your fucking intellectual equal, why don’t you have the fucking good sense to fucking leave?" Her voice rising instead of falling at the sentence’s end. "Why don’t you just get the fuck out?"
This last part comes out in a strangled scream. Two sentences—more passion and more invectives than I’ve heard in the entirety of our relationship. This is entirely expected.
"Because I don’t want to and I don't really think you want me to."
"Well, you're wrong; I do."
"The kids need me. You do too."
"Ellen, you don't want to hate me."
"Oh, you’d be surprised."
"Sweetheart, you stopped wanting me so long ago."
"Stop telling me what I want! What I need. What I think. Anyways, it’s not true."
But her eyes show she knows it is.
"You replaced me in your heart with our children. I’m like this occasional visitor. You’re a good mother, but I needed, I need more."
"You need. You need. You’re too needy. Worse than the kids."
"I won’t disagree and I won’t pressure you anymore—that way."
"Does everything come down to sex with you? Everything?"
"No, and if you want me to leave, I will."
"You weren’t patient with me. You never were. You think I’m stupid. And I’m not."
"I know you’re not."
"I’m smart. Not so good with words and big fancy ideas as you. But not so stupid."
"You’re smart enough to know we have history. History we can’t undo."
"Who said I want to?"
"I don’t either. I still love you. I've always loved you. And I want to stay."
"Stay, go, whatever. Just don’t expect me to wake up tomorrow morning smiling, wash your shirts, cook your meals, draw your bath, spread my legs ..."
"It’s for the kids."
"They’re the only ones I’d play this little charade for."
"And please. Nobody else needs to know or put their two cents in." (I'm thinking parents, in-laws, family. Her father who has always hated me without cause. Now he'd have a good one.) "I think we can agree on that."
"Don’t presume to know what’s agreeable to me. Mark."
"I presume nothing."
"You presume everything. You wanna have your cake and eat it too. You always have."
Movement upstairs. We both heard it. I slipped to the landing in time to just catch the trailing edge of something bright and wispy, like the cuff of pink Hello Kitty pajamas or the corner of a favorite blanket. Add to my album of shame, this unrecorded image of a sweet little face twisted uncomprehendingly over the pit of parental discord that has just opened beneath her.
Ellen and I stared at each other in mortified silence. I expected additional accusations and epithets. It would only be fair. I expected a demand that I immediately break off with Karina. That would be fair too. But Ellen had spoken her final words on this subject. On my end, there were other things I’d thought I'd wanted to air. Aspects of "our history" that support the case of Mark the attentive husband, provider and father. Mark as not the philandering, abandoning asshole. But this argument and all others go flatline. The next morning Callie is gay and chatty—perhaps thinking what she'd overheard had just been a bad dream. All our other family routines continue like no conversation had ever taken place. It's quite startling how we’re a lot more pleasant together than we used to be. It’s nice, an uneasy sort of nice, strictly eye of the storm.
"How’d you know we’d be together?"
A pale swan sans plumage, lost in my arms, her neck gracefully curved, warmed, steam rising from everywhere we touch. Pale eyes search my face for an answer.
"You were there. Something came back when you kissed me at that party. Something absent so long, I’d forgotten it ever existed."
"Silly, romantic man." She pushes me down on the bed and straddles my knees.
Her hand flutters between my legs. Touching me everywhere but …
I imagine a solitary traveler asleep on a long journey. He awakes to discover that he's not only arrived at his destination, but has slept through the entire journey. Like suspended animation or teleportation; there is no sense that time has passed. She covers my face with savage kisses. Her churning hips coat my hips and thighs with a slippery whorl of desire. She bears down, pinning me beneath her greedy, weepy cunt.
"How did you know Kay?"
I don't wait for her answer. I push back—up and into her and she gasps, her pelvis rolls, a balletic undulation and she receives me whole. Her long hair falls forward in slow grace, her tresses tickling my forehead and cheeks. She fills my ear with wet kisses and whimpers. Twice in an hour, we’ve done this like we’ve done it our whole lives, like we were made to, meant to. This practiced intimacy derived not of boredom or routine, but of the tight breathless symmetry of two forms sculpted from the same material by the world’s finest craftsman, polished to join without seams or gaps. It’s something I’ve never felt in my writing, though God knows I’ve tried and perhaps once or twice come close to.
"How did you know?" I repeated.
"When you fill me, fill me. Fill me!"
Her moans rattled the window jamb in her little bedroom like the autumn wind outside. In the tenuous strand of days ahead we’ll spend our flames against each other; perhaps even grow old as lovers, but never together. That’s already writ. Sad perhaps, though sometimes we swear our love bends the curve of time.
Nights like tonight, Dima sleeps over while his mother works her rotation at the hospital. The great thing about Ellen—one of the great things—she never once treated Dima any differently when she found out about his mother and me. Never skipped a beat. She isn’t built like that. Treats him like her own. He, any kid, all kids, trigger this nurturing failsafe in her. I wish I still did. I love watching her and what she gives to the little ones. It drives Karina absolutely crazy.
Ellen stands at the kids’ bedroom before lights out. She’s naked beneath a thin, above-the-knee linen nightie that hides nothing. Her prominent nipples and the inverted triangular outline of her bush are visible. We share the narrow doorway without touching and maintain civil distances in these intimate quarters, except for those two times, both at her initiation, when we didn’t. She dresses, undresses and makes her toilet in front of me. Nothing has changed that way. After 90 days of dead calm I disquiet myself with the fleeting notion that she just might be the sort to seethe and writhe in silence, then snap without warning and harvest my dick by the light of the moon. Just like that crazy chick in Virginia last year. Ellen reads my involuntary gasp as affection for the kids. Her eyes on mine warm—a little. I am moved as Callie reads "Goodnight Moon" to Dima who mouths the words with her. Mark Jr. sleeps in a corner of his sister’s bed, curled, fatcat-like in repose. The house is full, like it’s never been empty.
I brush past Ellen, grazing one soft breast beneath the soft fabric of her nightie as I enter the bedroom to heft my little boy from his sister’s bed and deposit him in his own. When I return, she flips off the bedroom light.
"I’m going out for air," I tell her.
"Going to meet your lover, lover?"
"No, just air. Unless you have a better idea."
It was a stupid thing to say. Her eyes roll. The gown ripples with the motion of her breasts and thighs as she turns and recedes into the shadows of our unlit bedroom.
You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
I have a 30-year old Cuban cigar sticking out of my pocket, courtesy of my new great friend, the publisher. I pause to reverently unwrap and stoke it in the Truffaut-blue day-for-night wash from the billboard across the way. Dylan, no, a sadder, sweeter voice—Van Morrison's, trickles down from an open second-story window.
The carpet, too, is moving under you
There was a time when I saw my life as linear, a life like all others, originated at a discrete point, infinitely small and hard with no value; projecting through time, not razor straight, but ballistic—predictable and bounded in ascendance and decay. Of course, it didn’t quite play out that way. Pungent and sweet, like the smoke from my cigar, like the song from the open window, the ray curls, branches and blooms—unexpectedly polynomic.
Strike another match, go start anew
Lyrics trail me down the pavement as I pick up my pace. A flush rises in my cheeks. The blood sings in my veins and fingertips. I adjust my hat so the rising wind won’t take it. The first big drops begin to fall.
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