“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
UNDER THE SPREADING CHESTNUT TREE they leaned into each other for warmth that was escaping their bodies just as quickly as they could narrow the space between them. It was the rainiest and coldest April they had seen in many many years, stranded without an umbrella between them. Aeneas had left the office for lunch, and had no intention of returning, maybe at some point, but not today. Heloise was unemployed, but by no means unemployable, just unemployed.
There was a clear spot seemingly reserved for them along the road that turned onto the office buildings of Burman and Fellows. A single segment of the enclosing fence had been lifted from its moorings, and the path cut past the mist, magically into the forest. They settled against the cold fence that was freckled with precipitation, out of view from the cars that pulled in and pushed past. The raindrops flogged the earth around them, but the patch they were standing on was left dry for the chestnut tree.
“Want to go somewhere with me,” Heloise softly asked, resting her cheek on the damp breast of his coat.
“I always do,” he said, sinking deeper into her body, encouraging the ardor of her fingers.
“Okay, so what’s the hold up?”
“I left my car at work.”
“There’s a bus coming,” she said, unrolling her wispy elastic phone, which was the size of a super slim cigarette, and parsed through seven nearby bus schedules in 2.8 seconds flat.
“But we’ll get wet,” he said distractedly. Aeneas thought neither of the rain nor his abandoned car. Seeing how far his breath could extend from his mouth, he filled in the silence between the infinite patter.
Together they dashed down the path that led from the secluded country of Burman and Fellows onto Industrial Road, where the traffic ran rampant and busses traveled here and there in short intervals. They sprang along the walk and made funny faces at each other, holding hands the entire way. Aeneas felt his heart couldn’t keep up with his feet much longer, so out of breath he was, and full of mirth. They were soaked to the bone by the time they had reached the bus stop. Drivers were impatient along the road, honking at each other through the fog for no good reason, driving too close to the curbs, cutting through the swelling puddles, splashing sidewalks to vent their frustrations.
Heloise was hopped up on a designer barbiturate called Chronostasis, which created temporal illusions in perception, extending sensory impressions in time. She couldn’t face the day straight, which meant she was usually pinballing one designer drug against another, to better control her moods, and this stratagem never worked, but some days ran smoother than others. She heard a kind of madrigal in the ambient noise of the car motors, trumpets harmoniously blaring amid the honking.
For a moment the sun burst through the clouds, and she looked directly into the rays, the light filling her eyes without burning in the slightest. She pressed his palm with all the strength in her jaunty body and desired for him to squeeze back. “With all your might,” she said. The bus driver saw them late through the brume, and pulled in for a tight stop. And then the sun had disappeared behind the clouds again.
Aeneas had never been inside her before. He sat naked from the waist down on the nubuck leather sofa, feeling silly at his erect self. There was no camouflaging his desire for her. It was slightly humid in the room, and he could sense the moistness accruing under his thighs. He’d left the windows in his condo open for fresh air, all three of them, and the wind danced in the belly of the curtain. Heloise hopped around on one leg trying to remove her tight canary jeans, struggling at the knees and ankles with the bunching denim. But then, in distinct contrast, she slipped out of her electric pink lace panties with the fluidity of a ballet dancer.
She had just gone down on him, and he was in a sort of rapture in his headspace, breathlessly swimming in a moonlit pool filled with the most beautiful waterfowl he’d ever seen. He looked at her bare femininity, and blushed like a twelve-year old in front of the marquee at a peep show.
Looking him in the eyes, she reached down surreptitiously, her cold bangle brushing against his abdomen, causing him to recoil, and put him inside her. The pleasure was too great at first, overwhelming even, rushing through them like a hot spring, they were joined at the source. She moaned deeply from a place that had been too quiet for too long, and she felt this was her true voice, luxuriant in its resonance.
“You’re crazy, Aeneas,” she said, slowly annunciating his name with an arch mock-English accent, rocking her body over his lap.
“Why?” he answered, startled at her words. “I’m not,” he said, playfully squeezing her butt cheek, and then running his fingers in the gap between, smoothing the moistness.
“I’ll poop myself,” she exclaimed, batting his hands away sportively.
Aeneas partly lifted himself from the couch and drove deeper into her. His ear and neck were close to her lips, while her breath rushed up against him, and he trembled all over. She had had many men in her lifetime, but every experience with him felt like a first experience. It was difficult for her to explain. Even though he technically wasn’t hers, in their time together she possessed him in more ways than she could understand.
It was more than the feeling of a body on a body, more than a skin trade, so she naturally struggled with it, the spirit, if indeed that’s what it was. In a poetic narcotized moment, she thought of lightning striking a lake and then rippling across its face, electrifying the current so that even the fish and aquatic plants kissed the charge. But even that image was deficient in encapsulating her true feelings. And she expected more from the Chronostasis at seventy-nine dollars a pop.
If there were a bowl in the world that could contain her sighs and moans, Aeneas thought, he’d collect them all, and keep them at his bedside forever, or until he could be with her without restraint, whichever came first. His wife would question the bowl placed so near. But in it was contained the very first emotion that gave birth to all others, and he would treasure it as long he could keep the secret to himself. None of this makes sense, he thought. He thrust deeper into Heloise, and he could tell she had never allowed anyone this deep before. It filled him with bullshit macho pride at his size, but also something better, which he didn’t even dare to disclose to himself, how slippery that slope, once tread upon, how slippery.
She held his bearded face. Aeneas looked older when his cheeks and chin were bristled. He was almost thirty but he could have passed for a teenager. His body had filled out right after high school. He was lean and muscly and there was even some light hair on his chest and abdomen. It was his eyes and lips that made him look younger than his years. His grey eyes had no business being this wide, so late in life, and his lips were always in full bloom. Heloise found it impossible to resist him when she was this close to his face.
She’d put his bottom lip in her mouth, and looked perilously into his eyes while she softly bit the plump red flesh. Something feral would come over her and, again, she couldn’t explain it, and mostly wouldn’t even try. Sometimes he’d ask why she did the things she did, “I don’t know, stupid,” Heloise would say. “Why does it rain when the sun is still out?”
Aeneas would wet his lips before he spoke and it drove her wild. “In Rome they say, “Piove e c’è il sole, la gatta fa l’amore,” which means, “It rains with the sun, the female cat is making love.” Heloise shook her head. “No, no, no. Wrong, totally wrong, “ she said. “Sun showers are liquid sunshine. Didn’t you know the sun had a feminine side?”
Why did this truth reveal itself so late, she thought. Where was this feeling in her bed with Abelard? The Chronostasis was having its way with her. The moment of ecstasy was broadening and embroidering like a magnet drawing all kinds of metals to itself.
The brocaded carpet was a medieval cathedral and she heard the Sunday mass bells ringing, even though it was only Thursday. She wanted to lie on the altar and have God pour out of the stained glass and shower her naked body on the marble soleas. She would become swollen with the child of God if only he looked like Aeneas, and only if the parish would overlook the occasional somatic communion between the two, incestual or not. Why should the fruit die on the vine, she thought, and Aeneas cried out as he shot his semen deep into her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.”
“Come here, crazy boy,” she said, and pressed his forehead to the superabundance of her breasts. She ran her fingers through his damp hair and made curls with the longish strands. He held her body close and inhaled deeply, and there was something childish about the way he exhaled, she thought, but she loved it anyhow because of its nakedness. Abelard would have ran off and jumped in the shower, while this man in her arms, who was a stranger by comparison, made her feel like liquid sunshine.
“What time is Lavinia coming home,” she asked.
“I don’t care if she does,” he replied.
“You will if she walks in on us.”
“The monitoring system has been on the entire time.”
“You’re fucking joking!” she burst out, and tried to get off his lap, but he held her tighter and just laughed.
“I’m only fooling,” he said. “I dialed out this morning before I left for work.”
“Won’t she ask why?” She felt him go soft and slip out of her.
“You want to do it again?”
“She won’t ask why?” she queried a second time, grabbing his hair and pulling it for added emphasis.
“Ouch! I’ll just say I muffed up the codes,” he said, and tried to loosen her grip on his hair by squeezing her wrist. “What do say, on the bed this time?”
“And if she calls your work she’ll know you left hours early?”
“I don’t care,” he said, and lifted her from the couch, his moist skin making a sticky, tearing sound on the leather, and walked her over to the bedroom, her legs wrapped tightly around his waist, trying not to knock anything over. He plopped her down on the unmade bed and went hard again in an instant. “Not bad, eh?” he said, and laid on top her and met her laminate wetness.
“Not like that,” she said, and pushed his body away, filaments of honey untwisting. “I want you like this.” She turned around and pulled his hips close, and their bodies aligned perfectly like two chairs set into each other.
“Okay,” he said.
THERE WAS A GREEK RESTAURANT on Richmond Avenue that had finally got the Hellenic cuisine right in Graceland after a long string of dreary, paprika-laden failures, and with the Michelin guide having recently added a second star to the restaurant in its annual rating, Anamnesis had received an influx of frenzied patrons who were hot on their heels to taste chefs Aris Leandros and Toula Xanthopoulos progressive signature dishes, like the lauded culinary marvel that was the “Gift of Athena,” which consisted of an edible miniature faux olive tree, and the luxuriant “Foloi Oak Forest,” which was a deconstructed black forest dessert assembled right at the patrons table.
Despite the difficulties of securing a table at Anamnesis without having to wait months and months on end for a reservation, Abelard Scrivener, miraculously some would say, had a standing table at Anamnesis, or at any other restaurant of his choosing in the downtown core, and this proved to be a highly desirable trait in a partner nowadays, partly because it guaranteed at least a temporary foothold in the upper strata of fashionable society, and also because it dramatically increased a socialite’s chances of experiencing the curated latest in the emphatic gastrointestinal pursuit of happiness.
Money could not secure a place among Graceland’s “it” circle, neither could fame, title, or any other blue-blood currency. It was now utility that lay at the heart of the movable feast. The desirability of what you could contribute was the only way to gain acceptance to the party and what was desirable was constantly changing. Abelard’s seat at the banquet was of priority because he was the senior director of strategy at Elysium Pharmaceuticals, the world’s most accelerated pharmaceutical company, purveyors of “legal highs,” and was a walking apothecary, perpetually weighted with designer drugs in his legal possession in order to field test the many tablets, tinctures, and tonics, and internationally popularize the business.
Anamnesis occupied a chimerical place on Richmond, neighboring the big banks and the stock exchange, imbuing the financial district where everything had a finite, measurable value attached, with a little culinary fantasy, where epicureans could gather under the Tyrian purple lighting of the restaurant, and consign to oblivion the hustle and bustle of the Richmond racket for an evening. The sharp April breeze whisked over from the lake was caught between the burnished corporate monoliths, generating the dreaded down-draught, which is what happened when air hit a building and, with nowhere else to go, was pushed up and around the sides of the structure, and then forced downwards, increasing wind speed at street level. A discreet doorway was surrounded by a frosted nondescript front, unsigned, nameless, save for a group of noisy smokers loitering the walkway in a granite mist. The valet stepped out onto the busy street to corral the cars into the validated parking a few blocks down.
Inside Anamnesis, near the centre tables, where Trent Stillwell, CEO of Horizon Zero Dawn, one of the leading VR technology companies in Graceland, dined most Fridays, sat Abelard Scrivener and friends. Stillwell was a big-ticket bachelor in the city, not yet thirty, and was said to be easily worth over one-hundred million dollars. He was seen with a different lady every few weeks, blonde, brunette, red-head, there really was no discernible pattern or preference, and had a table that neighboured Abelard’s, which was a pretty big deal for Abelard because the two were on friendly terms, often comping each other aperitifs, and exchanging witty small talk over the fricasseed murmur of the restaurant. Abelard was hoping to get invited to one of Stillwell’s parties in the near future and the fact that he was within striking distance was extremely exciting for him. If he could hitch his wagon to Stillwell’s star for even a fortnight, it would raise his profile in Graceland considerably, and he salivated at the social-climbing prospect, which was even greater than sex to his mind.
Abelard pinched the stem of the large Bordeaux glass with his thumb and forefinger, and elegantly lifted the crystal bowl to his faintly moistened lips, sloping the smoky carmine body to the back of his throat in demonstration to the others at the table the Abelardian way to taste that particular two-hundred dollar Cabernet. He then serenely nodded to the sommelier, who decanted the Cabernet into three more glasses after having refreshed the original, and then paused formally at Abelard’s side to await further direction. Abelard cavalierly brushed the foot of the glass with his fingers, and with this virtuosic codified gesture, the sommelier was sent away.
“I see you’ve trained them well,” Lavinia was first to say.
“He haunts his standing table weekly, with or without me,” Heloise added.
“Which also happens to be a great torch song,” Aeneas said, taking an indelicate swig of the Cabernet, only momentarily distracted from his smartHub to join the conversation.
“Abe doesn’t like romantic songs,” Heloise chortled. “A hummingbird couldn’t catch Abe listening to music.”
“I like to be an expert in the things I know,” Abelard said authoritatively. “With music, where does one begin?”
“If Abe can’t taste it or wear it, it’s not a thing at all,” Heloise quipped.
“That’s not entirely true,” said Abelard, softly biting into a Calimyrna fig decorous with Gorgonzola and goat cheese mousse. “I have a watch that rings Beethoven at canonical hours.”
“You mark the hours of prayer?” Lavinia asked playfully.
“Six, twelve, and six, faithfully.”
“Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, like clockwork, to recite the glutton’s prayer.”
Heloise advertently brushed the point-toe of her Louboutin’s against Aeneas’ straight-fitted trousers, and he lifted his eyes from the news broadcast on his smartHub long enough to see Heloise stick out her tongue at him through her wine-stained lips that matched her patent-lather pumps in hue. He silently mouthed the words, “Fuck you,” to her and she made a reproving face at his muted comment, while under the table, she raised her leg and placed the crimson four-inch heel of her shoe on the cushion between his thighs and rested it there. Aeneas couldn’t very well look under the table at the lace stocking casing her ankle or the silhouette of the stiletto that lay merely a millimetre or so from his crotch, and rendered the letter “Y” where there only should have been a “V,” but he knew it was there, and it made him think of the ten-letter word that had won him a game of scramble the other night, which began with letter “Y.”
“Yuppiedom,” said Aeneas, reading from the newly-opened tab on his smartHub, “according to author Victor Davis Hanson, is a young city that houses self-absorbed young professionals, earning good pay, enjoying the cultural attractions of sophisticated urban life and generally out of touch with, indeed antithetical to, most of the challenges and concerns of a far less well-off and more parochial Middle America.”
“That’s illuminating,” said Lavinia and drank a large mouthful of cabernet, pursing her lips, careful not to spill any of it, a brazen gesture that caught Abelard’s attention, who was drifting in and out of the conversation too, because he was keeping tabs on what was happening at other tables around the room, like a boat that goes with the tide, drawing near, and then skirring away.
“You still begrudge me the other night?” asked Aeneas softly, referring to their late night Scramble game earlier in the week, and he gazed at Lavinia’s milky cheek that was nearly translucent after the long winter, as she was looking away into the hazy distance of the candle-lit restaurant. He lingered on the freckled ear lobes that were pierced thrice and orange-hued like glistening Cowrie, the champagne brows that domed her periwinkle eyes, her animated mouth that held so many tactile secrets within its provocative labial rondure, her heart-shaped chin that was filled with hundreds of short little blonde hairs that she hated and waxed away every so often without Aeneas approval, because to him it was proof, the one outward proof he needed to remind himself that she was not human the way he was human. She was a different feline creature altogether, Faustian, shape-shifting, superior even, and chronically unimpressed. Nietzsche would have had a field day cataloguing the genealogy of her morals.
“I begrudge you the last two years,” she said, looking Aeneas straight in the eyes for a change, through to the bottom of his oceanic soul, or so he thought, because she was always able to cut him to the quick with a gesture, a word, a glance, and what’s even worse, she knew it.
“From the branches hang olives that are a molecular synthesis of wheat, oregano, onions, and Kalamata olive puree. The leaves are a compound of sage, sesame, cornmeal and AP flour, and Cretan olives, and the trunk is an amalgam of whole wheat flour, thyme, walnuts, and Halkidiki olives,” Abelard was pedantically telling Heloise, and she rolled her eyes at his description of the hors d’oeuvre because she was certain she had heard it before, and because she knew he was really addressing Aeneas and Lavinia and hoping to wow them with his culinary knowledge.
“It’s just a piece of fucking toasted bread,” said Aeneas.
“You’re being rude now,” said Lavinia, shocked by Aeneas’ outburst, uncommon as they were, especially in restaurants, where Aeneas could shrink to the size of salt shaker, because he hated being waited on and he hated people watching him eat, which according to him, was as naked an act as using the toilet. He’d say to Lavinia, people don’t shit together, so why should they eat together? It’s an inane public custom and what’s worse, it’s shameful. People with an appetite for communal gourmandization are a step away from state sanctioned orgy parties. And Lavinia, who loved to cuckold him in conversation all the time would say, Oh, I don’t know, I just love a good sausage party.
“If you looked up from your smartHub for a second you would surely appreciate the complexity of the dish,” said Abelard.
“And if you looked down at my smartHub for a moment you’d appreciate that our troops are turning over a village in Kashmir as we dine at this very expensive, too expensive restaurant,” said Aeneas.
“Don’t worry about it, it’s my treat.”
“That’s not the fucking point, Abelard. Why do you always miss the fucking point?” Heloise pushed Aeneas’ chair with her patent-leather pump and it was perceptible enough to function as a four-inch warning, but it did not faze Aeneas who, probably because he was comfortable enough around his old school mates to act somewhat like himself, or he had forgotten himself, forgotten his manners, forgotten where he was, and decided he was going to be heard tonight.
“So what? We have troops in Kashmir settling some cross border troubles. Why should that stop us from enjoying the Tree of Athena?” said Lavinia, playing with the moon-shaped pendant that plumbed the depths of her dress’s plunging neckline, and nobody at the table could tell if she was being sincere or sarcastic or some new combination of both.
“Gift of Athena,” said Abelard.
“Because our new super soldiers are tearing up a village sweeping for terrorists and it’s being televised by some guerrilla news channel and they are literally mowing through women and children for no fucking reason at all.”
“After dinner we can try the Foloi Oak Forest that’s composed of a fantasia of dark and white chocolate mousses, trees contrived of sticks of dark chocolate and cotton candy foliage, soil of coffee and cocoa, and decorated throughout with spherical cherry puree and multi-colored icing sugar,” said Abelard, in abject disregard of Aeneas.
“You shouldn’t dip into your own stash, Abelard,” said Heloise, in an attempt to dial back the tension to a moderate spa level. “You know I like to do that for you.”
“There is a thin red line between business and pleasure,” Abelard chortled.
“And what is the chemical du jour?” asked Lavinia.
“A conscience in the lower classes is useful like castration is amongst bulls,” said Abelard reproachfully.
“What the fuck does that mean, Abe?”
“It means I’m in desperate need of salvation.”
“I’m still wearing some?” said Heloise to Lavinia, pointing to her lips. “Want to try?”
Lavinia stood from the table and smoothed out her creamy tea length dress. She walked clockwise around the table, behind Aeneas who followed her every slinky step, and when she had reached Heloise, Lavinia bent down, and kissed her long and deep on the mouth, and when she came up for air, she said, “Black cherry,” sticking her finger in her mouth so as to smooth the flavours on her lips. “Yummy.”
“What is the Kappa Effect, Alex,” said Abelard, ostensibly pleased with himself. “The cavalry has arrived.”