We were silent on the walk to my apartment. It was a full-mooned night in the upper twenties, the type to which every Michigan undergrad becomes inured. Filthy snow piles surrounded us on the lamppost-lit sidewalks. As soon as we turned onto Washington Street the wind shifted from our backs to our faces; Shelagh’s paper rustled in her hands, flapping loudly like a miniature fan.
In my apartment I found myself explaining – again – why the living room floor was strewn with football cassettes. Shelagh nodded. Everything made sense to her. “You really do have a passion for what you do,” she said, removing her boots at the door.
She picked up 10/12/96, Michigan State 42, Illinois 14. “That was a breakout game for Derrick Mason,” I said, removing my boots.
“Is he one of your favorite players?” she asked, sitting on the beat-up yellow upholstered couch, placing the cassette on her lap.
“You could say that,” I said. I went into my bedroom to retrieve my Gatsby paper, expecting Shelagh would remain on the couch. But she followed me. “Holy shit, you have more tapes in here!” she exclaimed. She kneeled to the floor and scooped up two of them. Eyeing me coyly, she said, “They’re such beautiful cassettes,” playfully sliding one along her tanned cheek, still sanguine from the cold. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful cassettes before.”
“Very funny,” I muttered, handing her my paper.
She sat at my computer, from which I’d recently sent out my Guide newsletter. “So this is where it all happens, right?” she asked. “This is where you write your football books?”
“Yup,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, rolling up the sleeves of her pink button-down shirt. “Then this is where I want to read. Maybe I can catch some of your passion.” She flattened my Gatsby paper on the desk and began reading.
Here’s an excerpt:
Nick Carraway wants to play Matthew to Gatsby’s Christ, penning a hagiographic version of another man’s life story. But Nick is no ordinary Matthew; he is a Matthew bent on asserting the accuracy of his Gatsby-Christ gospel, all the while insulting the accounts of Mark, Luke, and John. Not five pages go by, it seems, without Nick introducing documents – train-schedules on which he records party guests, Gatsby’s boyhood notebooks, Gatsby’s medals from the war – to persuade readers that Nick’s version of Gatsby’s life and death is the only verifiable one. All other accounts, proclaims Nick, “were a nightmare – grotesque, circumstantial, eager and untrue” (171).
In short, Nick seems paranoid about alternative versions of a history to which he’s hardly an objective observer. He becomes a spin doctor of Gatsby’s legacy. Witness his erasure of an obscene word scrawled on the “white steps” outside Gatsby’s house (188). (Incidentally, Professor Dalrymple: I believe Nick’s erasure scene is the literary ancestor of Holden’s attempt to erase expletives from the walls of Phoebe’s school in Catcher in the Rye. And I must say: The action of erasing an obscenity seems more plausible coming from a wide-eyed youth like Holden than it does from Nick – unless Mr. Carraway is not as world-weary as he’d have us believe he is by the book’s end. And Nick wants us to believe he’s weary: For he goes out of his way, twice, in this novel, to announce that he’s 30 years old (143, 186), as if desperately trying to impose his numerical maturity on the reader.)
As Shelagh read I stared shamelessly at her, catching the profile of her breasts as she inked remarks in my margins. Soon she caught me peeking. “Are you reading my paper?” she smiled, before turning back to my essay.
I retreated into the world of Shelagh’s paper, with its page numbers on the lower left and its solemn Palatino font. She compared the language and imagery of a Winesburg story called “Hands” to that of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. I was about halfway done reading when she said, “Okay, are we ready to talk about these?”
“I never would’ve thought to connect “Hands” and Three Lives,” I said.
“You’re too kind,” she said. “I searched for a connection because we had to write a paper. But your essay seems totally…unforced. It’s amazing. It’s better than Dalrymple’s lecture. I feel like my essay scooped the ocean floor and found a few flounders. Whereas yours – is about the wetness of the ocean. Does that make sense?”
“Don’t give me too much credit,” I said. “My mom’s an English teacher. I’ve read Gatsby a dozen times.”
“I’d do a lot to have your brains.”
“I’d do a lot if you wanted the rest of me,” I said.
“Where’s your bathroom?” she asked.
She left. I rolled onto my back and drifted into a fantasy of Shelagh returning naked and joining me on the bed. I fancied what life must have been like for her ex. I wondered how any man could dump her.
“What are you thinking about?” said Shelagh. She sat Indian style on the bed beside me, her odorless thick black socks inches from my nose. Then she lay on her side so that she faced me, our heads on the same plane. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” she whispered. Her cola-colored eyes floated within their whites like brown buoys on a milky surface. I stroked her light brown hair with my trembling fingertips. “Can I tell you something?” she whispered. “I don’t want to go back to my room tonight,” she said.
I leaned closer to her. Her mouth greeted mine with closed lips. I sensed her hesitation and though it hurt me, I was too elated about kissing her again to mourn the relative dispassion of the clench. This was the second kiss of my life and for all its shortcomings it still felt like the pleasurable culmination of a thousand once-buried wishes.
My right hand moved from her hair to her shoulder. Shelagh grabbed it there. “Would it be all right,” she whispered, “if we just shut the lights and talked?”
I nodded. She found the light switch and returned to my bed. Mellow rays of lamppost light shone through my blind-less window. We kissed again; or I should say: she let me kiss her. My tongue treaded within her inert mouth. Her tongue did not move in sync with mine, so much as it met and supported, provided assurance through mere presence. Her hands were on my back now, over my sweater. We continued to kiss, she half-heartedly, I with about six hearts.
To this day I don’t know why what happened next, happened next. It was as if someone – not me – flipped an off-on switch inside Shelagh. In two deft motions she unzipped my jeans and shoved down my boxers. Her robotic alacrity shocked me – not so much her possession of quick moves but her rapid decision to abandon her resistance. In turn I reached for her sweats, hoping to seem smooth and certain. In hooking her waistband I inadvertently snared her panties but she didn’t stop me. Next we removed each other’s tops and she was on me – and I was in her: without a word about contraception. With intense forearm pressure she squeezed my head against her collarbone. I sought kissing her but she wouldn’t lower her mouth; I sought sucking her nipples but she held me firm to her neckline. Of course, it wasn’t difficult subordinating these niggling concerns to everything else racing through my mind: how the inside of her felt like a warm bath within an endless glove; how her ass cheeks were almost too muscular to grip; how I was having sex – a hallowed act of matchless significance, according to everyone and everything – yet my mind and body, for all they did feel, had yet to feel wholly new or transformed; and how I was, in point of fact, fucking, though my mind was too preoccupied processing the moment to surrender to libidinal pleasure. Throughout – for all thirty or so seconds – I was unable to lose myself in ecstasy, for fear Shelagh would reverse her off-on switch and dismount. I felt like I might get caught trespassing. All this while I was cozy and erect inside her.
I gasped – giving vent to primal spasms, the unexpected pleasure of bursting into a warm body, rather than my hand. It surpassed the agonizing release of standing ejaculation. For here was flesh to clasp during those long, wrenching shrieks, a heated vessel absorbing my groans and shocks. I loved Shelagh more than anything at that moment. She was there for me as my body erupted and emptied and fell weak with joy and relief, surrender and gratitude.
And then it was over. I had slept with someone. And I could not believe I had slept with anyone, let alone Shelagh. And all because of – my note? My essay? Whatever had flipped her off-on switch, I had no idea. I was flabbergasted and confused: so women could fuck without kissing – what did that mean for my father’s pronouncement about sex as a sacred female act?
In the aftermath Shelagh seemed disturbed – I tried kissing her and she kept her lips closed. And I felt no spark from her lips – it seemed as if she’d gone from half-hearted to vacant.
I grabbed her hand and kissed it several times. I guided her palm to my muscle-less chest, her fingertips pulsing life through my nipples. I pressed her hand against my sternum, hoping to squeeze the neutrality from her clinical fingers, because her indifferent hand was better than no hand at all, and because I wasn’t certain when, or whether, she – or another woman – would touch my chest again. She said: “Ari, I’ll keep my hand there, but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my ability to commit. And I don’t want you to wind up hating me if I don’t stop to talk to you in class or I can’t be with you again.”
“Just please keep your hand there and don’t worry about the rest,” I whispered.
“I think you’re getting attached,” she said.
“I’m not. And if I am, it’s my problem. You’ve given me the disclaimers.”
“Fine,” she said. She curled onto her side and pressed her head into the crook of my left arm. We lay naked and silent for several minutes. Finally, I spoke up. “What are you thinking about?” I asked.
“I’m thinking, where’s your blanket?” she said. A thin beam of lamppost light cut through the celery green of her lower back’s tattoo. My blanket was wedged between me and the wall. With a series of graceless kicks and shakes I spread it over both of us. “How many women have you slept with?” she asked.
“None,” I admitted. Honesty had gotten me this far – and I was still too stunned about what had taken place to dissemble.
“But I can tell you’ve been hurt,” she said.
“How can you tell?”
“You have some of my symptoms. I’ve never seen a guy who does what you do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You bury yourself in activity and you don’t even realize it. Your whole lifestyle is a display of self-medication.”
“Do other guys hold your hand to their chest?”
“That’s unusual too. But I don’t know, actually. You seem to think I’m so experienced. Nick – that’s my ex – is the only person I’ve slept with.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she asked.
I considered saying the following: “I’m thinking about whether you’ll ever kiss me again.” Or:
“I’m thinking I wish you were here every night.”
Instead of saying those things I said: “I’m wondering if – as my life goes on – I’ll just look at each sexual chance like a poor family treats a meal at a restaurant. You know, that it’s special, just because you’re not cooking it yourself, and you don’t know when it might happen again.”
“I don’t know, Ari. I think if you spent less time on football and more time talking to freshmen women, you’d do pretty well.” I wanted to debate that point but opted for silence, rather than risk saying something that might make her remove her hand from my chest.
When I woke the next morning she was gone. And so was my virginity
Ilan Mochari's debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Kirkus Reviews calls it: "A powerful debut with Dickensian touches in its heartbreaking and occasionally humorous chronicle of the life of a modern young man." Ilan's short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club, and Oysters & Chocolate. Another story was a finalist in a Glimmer Train competition. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University. He used it to wait tables for nine years in the Boston area. For more info, please visit zinskytheobscure.com and ilanmochari.com.