Excerpt 2: Wherein Valentine’s Day is celebrated … sort of …
Cary’s away on a business trip and they’re on the phone together …
Pillowing my head on my arm, I shifted position and flexed my toes, gazing up at the midnight blue sky. “So how was Sanders The Wonder Dog today?”
“Still yipping,” she replied, her voice rich with humour. “But I think we’re in the home stretch now. They started submissions today. Or at least they started talking about starting submissions.”
“Ah.” I had no idea what that meant.
“And, you know, the judge is still suggesting settlement at the end of every day and at the end of every day, they ask each other totally offhand if there’s any chance and every day there’s none.”
“Ah well,” she said equably, “I suppose lawyers have to eat like the rest of us. Sean, where are you?”
I grinned up at the sky. “Why?”
“Well, I swear I just heard a car go past and that’s not possible if you’re in the house. Where are you?”
“Out in the backyard,” I said happily.
“At this time of night? Jesus, Sean, what if you get bitten by something? A funnelweb!”
“Oh.” I looked curiously at the grass around at me. “Do they only come out at night? Hey, another Smashing Pumpkins song.”
“I don’t know,” she said with some exasperation. “God, you’re a freak.”
“You’ve just been in Melbourne too long,” I informed her. “You’ve forgotten how nice the summer nights can be up here in civilisation.”
Cary chuckled. “I bet they’re far better in the country.”
My mouth pursed. She was right, there really weren’t enough stars in the city sky. “Yeah …”
“How is Mrs Denham, anyway?”
“Still paying her rent on time and keeping the wild parties to a minimum.”
That light lovely laugh warmed my ear. “I wonder how much bigger her collection’s gotten.”
“Speaking of freaks,” I interrupted.
“What — you know the other night when you — ”
“Sean, I hope you’re not going to start another conversation you’re going to regret,” she warned.
“ — when you said that you went to those discussion groups and met those people and were like ‘exploring your sexuality’ — ”
“Yes, thank you very much, I didn’t need that tone,” she said in her own acidic way. “What about it?”
I grinned, twitching my toes against the grass. “Did you play?”
It took her a moment to understand and then, startled, she said: “What, like with other people?”
“I — Sean,” she said with sudden force, “what if I said yes? If I told you I had enacted all sorts of debauchery with all sorts of strange men and women in clubs and dungeons across the city? What would you say then?”
I blinked a few times, trying to work out this sudden flare up. “What are you doing?”
She didn’t say anything, her silence burning and angry somehow.
“Are you trying to goad me into — jesus, woman, I asked!”
“I know! And then you don’t like the answer!”
“What? You were the one who went all weird about this. Not me!”
Cary huffed. “Yes, all right, I got a little fixated on … certain people. But don’t think I didn’t notice how much you didn’t like hearing about the men I’ve been with.”
“Yeah, well — ”
“Human nature, you said. And now you want to ask me the same thing — ”
“Fine, don’t tell me! I don’t need to know! Just making bloody conversation and taking a goddamned interest. I thought you women liked that shit. Don’t tell me — ”
“Oh, I’m going to!”
“All right then!”
We both fell silent and came to the slow realisation at the same moment. The laughter bubbling up inside me, my irritation faded away and disappeared completely when I heard the grin in her voice.
“Did you play?” she asked, her own curiosity apparent.
“What? Jesus, no. What are you, nuts?”
Cary giggled. “Why not?”
I floundered around for some way of expressing it. The sheer horror of performance. “Christ, woman, it’s embarrassing enough having to be the man in the bedroom, arse up, totally undignified, all those bloody expectations upon you. Can you kiss properly, are you sweating too much, are you too heavy, have you showered recently, does your spunk taste bad, can you find her clit, are you paying enough attention to the tits, what other areas are there, jesus what if she doesn’t like anything you’re doing — should I stop now and wait for you to finish?”
As much as I liked being funny for her, I was somewhat red with embarrassment. Would I perform? Honestly, the idea.
“Oh god,” Cary gasped eventually, “I never realised — god, you poor men.”
“Yeah, well,” I said grudgingly, “I may be overthinking it. There’s some myth out there about champion shaggers. You know, men who do it right every single time — ”
“You’re not too bad yourself,” she said mildly.
Now I was going red with pleasure. “Early days,” I muttered. “And it’s not like you’re a particularly difficult shag, either.”
Oh, for the love of —
But weirdly enough, she wasn’t offended. “What does that mean?” she asked, sounding all intrigued.
“Well, you know.” I was scrambling for a way to make this sound right. “The amount of sounds you make, I always know if I’m doing it right or not quite. And besides,” I added, wicked now, “I figure if I do it wrong, Little Miss Perfect will tell me so.”
Cary let out an outraged gasp.
“Probably with notes and everything. A diagram. ‘Dear Sean, please note that instead of going left, you went right instead. Please refer to the attached diagram and focus on the marked locations. Apply required pressure here. Please refer to the numbering scale for degree of pressure required. Please adhere to the proper angles. Thrust here. This many times. Then pause. Wax on, wax off.’ Don’t you reckon?”
When she eventually recovered, I was told somewhat faintly: “Oh my god, you are such a wretch.”
“Yeah, I know.” I stretched, happy and lazy. “So did you?”
“Oh.” There was some rustling as she shifted in bed. The images drifting through my mind, I listened to her say: “You know, it was odd. I wanted to. And for a while, I quite expected to. Like a natural evolution? It seemed to be the thing to do and well, I wanted the pleasure, I wanted to experience everything.”
Cary paused, clearly thinking. I reached for my beer, idly checking the contents against the shine of the porch light before I drank. The breeze was hot tonight, stirring the sticky city air around me. But this low to the ground, there was the tiniest bit of coolness, maybe up from the earth.
“And then one day I was at our discussion group — only women, it was awesome, most wonderful group of women I’d ever met — in this gorgeous house over in Enmore, and we were watching this clip on YouTube, of this woman who was being fisted — ”
I choked, spluttering as the beer went down the wrong way.
“ — and one of the ladies said something about ‘Well, clearly by that point she’s been done by everyone in the club cos look how stretched and open she is, how red she is.’ And I don’t know, it kind of grew on me from that point … that really, I don’t want to have sex with people I don’t know. Even if it is pure pleasure in an environment where everything’s controlled and safe, where I can say exactly what I want and when to stop. I wasn’t sure …”
I stayed quiet, listened to her thinking.
“You know what was quite flattering, though? Quite a lot of the women in that group asked me at one point or another if I was going to play, if I was considering it. Maybe it’s my ego,” Cary said with irony, “but I kinda thought there was a sort of come‑on there but it was probably more of an encouragement. They told me I should think about it, that maybe I would like it.”
“Mm. What’d you say?”
She sighed. “In the end, I stopped going. I said to Sarah and Mel that basically I realised I didn’t want to do all that stuff with strangers. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it in a relationship, with someone I could trust. Because, well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice quiet. It stayed between us, connecting us, the reality of this precious thing, so precious it had to remain unspoken.
“What about you?” Cary asked, her curiosity back. “When did you discover it?”
I shrugged even though she couldn’t see me. “Dunno. Maybe some porno somewhere. Dunno. It just happened.”
“Oh? With … someone?” she asked delicately.
I grinned, struck by the memory. “Marcy. Yeah, of course it was Marcy. She asked me to tie her up and it kinda went from there.” Cary didn’t say anything to that and, sensing some danger, I added: “Not much further though. She swanned off soon enough. But yeah, I guess that was the start. And then, I don’t know, you just kind of … absorb things.”
“Mm. You men,” Cary said, her voice full of cheer again. “You just bumble around and fall into things, don’t you?”
“ ‘s best way,” I replied, unoffended.
She snorted. “Yeah, right. I’m sure Robert agrees with that. Bumbling into a divorce now, as he is.”
Couldn’t argue with that. Taking another swig, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Yeah, well, I told him not to marry her.”
“Don’t sound so shocked. Brute, remember?”
“Yes, but — even that … did you really?”
“Sure,” I said, still not seeing what was so bad about it. “I mean, he was pretty young. I didn’t want to get married, I couldn’t see why he wanted to — ”
Cary snorted again but didn’t interrupt me.
“ — and he wasn’t sure either. I mean, he totally had a full on panic attack the night before the wedding and I told him, man, I told him, let’s just go. You don’t have to do this. You don’t want to, don’t do it. You’ll be fine without her. Mind you, he’s been without his balls for so fucking long he probably doesn’t even know how to exist.”
“Sean!” She sounded genuinely outraged now. “Is that what you think marriage is?”
I was getting a little uncomfortable about the direction of the conversation but I answered anyway: “I don’t know. It’s what I know his marriage is like. But, yeah, his parents seem to be fine. Mr Somerset is still a man so yeah, maybe not all marriages are like that.”
“You’re a very odd boy,” she told me. “All these strange notions tucked away in your head.”
“Don’t talk to me, Miss I Have Trouble With Days.”
She ignored this. “Which reminds me, you never did tell me — ”
“What?” I scratched my navel under my tshirt, glad the conversation had turned tide once more.
“ — what is your definition of a man?”
I thought for a few moments. “Someone with balls.”
She made that laughing gasping sound as I added: “No, I’m serious. Someone with fucking character. Someone with the force of conviction. Like Mr Somerset.”
“So wait,” she interrupted, “what are you implying, that I don’t have character?”
“Metaphor,” I said loudly, making her laugh. Then suddenly I felt a little too exposed, like maybe finally I’d told her too much. “I don’t know,” I continued in a mumble, “I’m still working it out.”
“Mm. Fair enough.”
In the small silence, a plane went over, high and zooming through the slight cloud cover. I looked for lights but couldn’t see any. From where I lay, there was just the house in front of me and the glow of the terrace house next door. Our own private world.
“So,” Cary said comfortably, “did you spend all day listening to your Timothy gay boy love?”
I wasn’t going to react to that. “Pretty much. He’s going now. Almost up to the last album.”
It was Valentine’s Day and I wasn’t going to mention it. If this was her subtle way of doing it, it was bloody clever.
Cary sighed. “Honestly, I hate Valentine’s Day.”
I relaxed. “Yeah?”
“It’s just so nauseating, you know? Attacked by clichés every which way you turn. I mean, I don’t even like roses! Chocolate, yes. Who doesn’t like chocolate? But even then, gad almighty, you can just tell all the chocolate they’re peddling are the crappiest stupidest quality. Mind you,” her tone switched to a rich irony, “I’m very damned glad I’m not in the office, I’ll tell you that.”
“Why? Too many office girls preening over their flowers?”
“No, do you know what a pain it is to be a receptionist in an office on Valentine’s Day? Drove me nuts when I used to be on reception. Constantly having to carry flowers to people’s desks, especially when you’re in a multilevel office. Although, yes, it is kinda fun to go on the PA system, when you have one, and summon various people to the reception area and then watch their faces go all red when they see the flowers. Hee. Guys as well as girls.”
“Yay for equal opportunity,” I drawled.
“Oh shush. Haven’t you ever gotten a valentine? You sad bastard.”
I made an affronted sound. “Excuse you! Virginia, remember? Wrote me some hideously lovely poetry on Valentine’s Day — ”
“And you — ”
“Yes,” I said sadly, “I did write Clarissa Markham some terrible stuff, too.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Cary assured me, “I bet Blake would have appreciated the sentiment. If not the rhyming scheme.”
As our laughter drifted into silence, I twined my fingers around the short grass, wondering if I should mention it. Point it out to her.
“Anyway,” Cary said, “I’ve got enough beautiful sentiment in the Curt Smith album. So all those roses and chocolates can go stuff themselves. Do you know, even Sanders asked me if I had some valentine coming to me? The hideous nerve of the man!”
Startled, I had torn loose the grass. “What? What did you say?”
“I told him, oh yes, any number of them. There’s the Russian cannibalist, the Boston Strangler, Charlie Manson, and probably a few boys in the various registries.”
I let out a shout of laughter. “You fucking well didn’t! And anyway, Boston Strangler’s long dead.”
“I know that. No, I didn’t,” she admitted, “but it was close, let me tell you. I just did the demure office manager thing. He probably thinks I’m dating some tweed‑jacketed English professor with asthma who takes me ballroom dancing and reads me Shakespeare on Sunday arvos.”
“I read you Shakespeare,” I protested.
“Telling me to sit on your face is not Shakespeare — ”
“I beg your pardon!”
“It’s rude and — ”
“Do you want me to find the act and scene? Cos I can! I bloody well can!”
“ — lewd and I’m quite sure that’s not what Petruchio meant.”
“Ha! When was the last time you read Hamlet?”
“What?” she said, startled.
“Country matters,” I said with relish, nodding. “Look it up.”
Cary was silent for a few moments. And then, her voice bubbling: “Oh my god, you are an English professor. I’m going to have to buy you a tweed jacket. I’ll bring you back one from here. Oh my god.” As she went off into a fit of laughter at her own lame sense of humour, I straightened my Genesis lineup tshirt and tried to look as cool as I could.
Eventually, when the cosy silence returned, I said quietly: “When are you coming back?”
She paused. “I don’t know. Maybe Saturday. They’re trying to get it done by Friday.” She sighed. “Don’t hold your breath though, okay?”
I didn’t say it but christ, the missing her weighed on me. And maybe from her silence, she felt it too. That night, I took the phone back into the house and lay on the couch so she could hear Tim as well. She fell asleep before I did, her breathing soft in my ear. I listened, my eyes drifting shut.
Don’t worry, no fisting here. :p