The Landscape of Pleasure
The man next to my father at the bar winked shyly at me. I had seen this man before. His name was Russell. He wasn’t a member of our club, but he and my father were friendly. He was a former Army officer, and he restored classic cars. “He’s unstoppable,” my father often said. “That man’s unstoppable.”
Tuesday was Family Night at Highland, and the club’s waiters set up the buffet table in a chilly, vaulted dining room whose gleaming windows overlooked the final hole of the golf course. Supper was served from half past five until eight, unfailingly, even in August, when most families vacationed to escape the suffocating heat. Highland’s clean, glistening food—pink slabs of roast beef, smothered chicken, deviled eggs—resembled the classic yet hearty fare served after a funeral, whose primary aim was to satisfy. The club’s desserts, though, were my mother’s favorite. When her black pencil skirts fit—she ordered them from Colette in Paris—my mother allowed herself a spongy snippet of coconut cake, which was baked by a widow who lived in the oldest neighborhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Highland had been serving the same cakes as far back as I could remember, and my father often complained that their taste never changed. My mother always told him that was precisely the point, but, from her, that sort of remark was ignored.
A single cup of black coffee always signaled the end of my mother’s supper, and two weeks before I left for college, she finally permitted me to have one with her.
“Diana, please get a clean plate if you want more food.” My mother wiped the red smear of lipstick from the rim of her china cup with my father’s greasy napkin. “Quit picking at your father’s scraps.”
I finished chewing the chicken finger I’d poached from his plate. My father was drinking in the club’s smoky, English-style bar with a partner in his law firm.
My mother forked a bite of coconut cake off my dessert plate and eyed the other wives in the meager crowd. In those days, like today, the women my mother’s age wore leather pumps and large, splendid diamond studs.
“Don’t slouch, Diana,” she said. “Where’s your friend Christine tonight?”
“Her mother’s in Barbados,” I said. “Their maid’s fixing her supper.”
My mother frowned. “Christine’s mother ought to learn how to keep a handle on her belongings.”
I stood up quickly. “I’m going to the ladies’ room.”
My mother pursed her lips. “Hurry. Your father needs rounding up.”
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
The hallway outside the bathroom was padded with dusty green carpet. A notched console table stood against the wall. Two gilt bud vases, perpetually bursting with dried violets, partially concealed an old rotary phone. It was icy inside the bathroom, but I lingered in front of the full-length mirror. Carefully, I retraced my mouth with the nude Wet n Wild lipstick I’d found in the front seat of my convertible the day before. I held my breath until the tube was back in my dress pocket. I started to push the bathroom door open, but a man’s voice—a muffled, electric hum—stopped me.
I cracked the door. My father’s hip was pressed against the console table, and he was coiling the phone cord around his narrow wrist. His face was tilted away from mine. “There’s no reason to feel that way. You know better. I know you do. Think.”
When I tapped the small of his back, he jerked around. His earlobes burned rusty red, as if they’d been pinched. The receiver plunked hollowly down on the carpet.
“Hey there, baby doll.”
“Mom’s ready to go.” I squeezed his elbow, and his gold cuff links winked in the dim light. Each one resembled a man’s tooth. I’d paid for them with money I’d earned lifeguarding at the club’s pool the summer before. Whenever my father argued an important case, he wore them to court.
He raised his Old-Fashioned. “You go on back to the table,” he said. “I’ll meet you two in the bar. I haven’t signed my ticket yet.”
I flitted back into the dining room. The instant my mother spied me, she sprang up. “It’s late,” she said, and pressed her lips together. “Why don’t you get him tonight?”
At the bar, my father was standing beside a squat coffee table with his partner and a friend. Like his partner, he wore a soft, gorgeous beige suit, with his white shirt parted a little ways at the neck. When I caught his eye, my father promptly stubbed out his cigarette. The other man beside him winked shyly at me. This man was tall, and carefully yet casually dressed. I’d seen him before—his name was Russell. He wasn’t a member of Highland, but he and my father had become friendly the year before. He restored classic cars, Thunderbirds and Mustangs, to pristine condition. My father often repeated tales about Russell’s Army tours; Russell was a retired officer. “He’s unstoppable,” my father often said in an edgy, admiring voice. “That man’s unstoppable.”
Russell’s eyes met mine. “Here for your dad?” He was at least an inch taller than my father, with huge, pale gray eyes. His cheeks were tan, lean. “Are you trying to keep him on the straight and narrow?”
My father’s eyes darkened. “That’s enough.” He clasped my shoulder. “Diana leaves for UNC in a couple of weeks. She won a scholarship, tuition and everything.”
“She looks like a movie star.” Russell’s mouth tightened. “An old-school one.”
My father flattened a hand between my shoulder blades. “She does, doesn’t she?”
They nodded, and a thrilling heat bloomed beneath my skin.
After my father drove us home, he retreated to his study off the foyer, and my mother went into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of cheap white wine. When I was in eighth grade, she and my father had tried to quit drinking. It was their final, failed attempt. After that, my mother began repeating a line from a bald psychologist on television: you can never escape your own mind. Fate was your mind, she often said, and your mind was set in stone at birth.
A mound of pink shopping bags lay on the kitchen table. My mother fingered the white down comforter she’d bought for my dorm room that afternoon. We still had to order my dresses for rush.
She filled her chipped wine glass to the brim. “Quit looking at me like that, Diana. You know how crazy that makes me.”
The door to the study hung open, and every few minutes, my father’s laughter—a low, nervy thrumming—could be heard.
My mother bolted her wine. “Your father acts just like Daddy sometimes.” She stood ramrod straight and marched out of the kitchen, drawn, apparently, by a wiry, irresistible force.
My car keys lay in a scarlet bowl on the counter. The bowl also contained three pink-lacquered chicken eggs. My mother had blown out their insides with a coffee straw before incising circles into their sides. Tiny painted figurines from Crafts, Frames & Things were used to re-create scenes from “Cinderella” and “Snow White” inside them. Every year, before Christmas, she sold these ornaments at a friend’s booth during the Junior League’s Holiday Fair.
It was nearly eight. The shouting and crying would begin any minute now—and were bound to last for hours. My father hadn’t come home at all the night before, and my mother had sat up on the chaise lounge in her sitting room until dawn, smoking and watching QVC. Usually, after a night like that, dull, mangled-looking rings and bracelets arrived in the mail a week later. Most found their way into my jewelry box. Whenever I showed the heavy gold cuffs to Christine, she cooed, “That’s sexy stuff!”
I called her from my convertible. She was already at Buchanan’s, where a bartender twice our age served her, and whoever was with her, spiked Cokes. All we had to do was remember to keep our traps shut, Christine said.
Christine was hunched over a grimy table in the smoking section. Beside her sat a girl I’d never seen before; a basting of greasy foundation made her look as if she were permanently snared in a camera flash. She held Christine’s pink Chanel purse on her lap.
Christine wore an inky silk blouse that hugged the silhouette of her bra. She was forever trying out new looks, and recently she’d begun dressing like the chilly siren in Belle de Jour, her mother’s favorite foreign film. The blouse originally belonged to her mother, but they constantly traded clothes. Her mother said Christine was her best friend.
Christine pointed to the dark-red cups on the table. “Want a Coke?”
The other girl pushed one toward me. Her filmy hazel eyes—they were furtive, weirdly gleeful, like Christine’s—flicked up and down the front of my linen shift.
“I saw your mother’s ex-boyfriend at the club tonight,” I said.
Christine lit another cigarette and inhaled deeply. Her mother was vacationing in Barbados with a stylish orthodontist. “You mean the last one? Who’s he with now?”
I tasted my drink. “He was only in the bar.”
“Russell’s fucking hot,” Christine said. “Even for an old dude.”
“He’s probably about 40.”
Christine passed her cigarette to the other girl, who smiled clumsily, adoringly. She was missing teeth and wore a spiked wristband. Speech seemed beyond her now.
“So, how’re things at home?” Christine slurred her words. Her maid was sleeping at her house while her mother was away. The maid recited verses from Exodus while she fried chicken wings for supper, Christine said.
“Things are fine,” I said.
She waggled her bare ring finger. “That’s not what my mother told me before she took off.”
I pressed the tip of my cigarette into a gash in the plastic tabletop. The back of my tongue tasted sour. “Wasn’t it your father who fucked his way down our street?”
The other girl dropped her burning cigarette into her drink. Christine’s eyes widened. “Touché, Diana,” she said.
She grinned, but I didn’t smile back. I’d learned when to say nothing and mean it.
Christine laughed. “Forget it.” She ran two bony fingers through her long, soft blond hair. “Anyway, my mom still says my dad was the best screw ever. Some people get off on being treated like shit. That’s their oxygen.”
I scanned the room. “When’re you leaving for Chapel Hill?”
“Same day as you.” She shrugged. “Finally, I’m blowing this joint.”
I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, they’d jammed their chairs together so that Christine’s cheek touched the other girl’s temple.
I rapped on the table with my knuckles. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The other girl panted a little. Christine stared at me. “See someone you know?” she asked.
Their eyes shone. “Call.”
“After you go,” Christine said.
“Stop acting stupid,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Elle va,” Christine said. “Don’t let anybody catch you.”
I walked toward the other side of the bar. Russell’s booth was directly under one of the restaurant’s plastic lanterns, which had been scoured to resemble antiques. I’d noticed him on my trip to the bathroom. Christine must not have seen him; she’d surely have said something.
I said hello, and his eyes quickly floated up.
“Diana.” His mouth formed a taut O. “You here with your mother?”
“No.” I managed a nonchalant shrug. “Just a couple of girls.”
He fingered his Zippo. “How’s your mother?”
A man I didn’t know was with him. He was slightly younger than Russell, but had the same tan, veined neck and arms of men accustomed to gyms, weight machines.
“Do you want to sit down?” Russell held his white shirt cuffs an inch above the tabletop. “Just for a minute, maybe?”
“Only for a minute.”
He slid over, and I scooted in beside him. His pale-green button-down was similar to the one he’d worn the night he delivered my convertible to our house on Lakeshore. A glamorous car—a steel-blue ’55 T-Bird with a white ragtop. Russell had spent months refurbishing its interior, and my father had presented it to me after news of my scholarship arrived.
I reached for Russell’s pack of American Spirits.
He smiled. “Would you like a cigarette?”
I sat quietly while he spoke to his friend in a low voice. I practiced keeping smoke down in my lungs, and after a while, the other man left. I’d never been alone with one of my father’s friends.
“Who was that?”
“Another old Airborne guy. He fought in Desert Storm several years ago.”
“How long were you in the Army?”
“Too long.” His voice turned wistful.
“Do you miss it?”
A muscle along his jaw constricted. I realized I was holding my breath.
“I was better at it than my father ever was,” he said. “How old are you, Diana?”
“I leave for school in two weeks.”
“Does your father know you’re here?”
“Of course,” I said. “Why wouldn’t he?”
Russell shifted his thighs and gazed into his half-empty glass. “What’re you going to major in?”
“Biology.” I smiled up at him, just a little, and he smiled back. “Or psychology.”
I gave him my cigarette. He blew smoke out of his nostrils. “Your father says you want to be a lawyer.” His wrist trembled. Black hair grew on the backs of his slender hands.
I shook my head. “That’s what he does. He says psychology is for quacks.”
He made a noise down deep in his throat, like a strangled honk. His fingers were long, with fine, rounded tips, and I imagined they would smell of cedar and tobacco.
He left his Jaguar at Buchanan’s and drove my convertible to his house. In the car, we barely acknowledged each other, except once, at a stop sign, he turned toward me and found my eyes in the gloom. I thought: You have only this one life. But with Russell behind the wheel of my car, the ramifications of that thought did not disturb me. No, I felt far larger than I actually was, more imposing than I’d ever dreamed myself to be, and I nearly said the words aloud. As if he sensed the urgency behind my placid face, Russell drove faster. Maybe he was terrified I would fling my door open at the next red light and simply disappear into the night air. I certainly considered that—in those days, I was under the spell of a secret self that led a twilight existence inside my brain, and I imagined that only the most elusive, ungovernable woman was capable of provoking a great love, a great hatred. I never spoke of this with anyone.
It was only ten, but the stooped brick houses in Russell’s subdivision were already dark, unfamiliar. Empty hatchbacks and pickup trucks were neatly parked under his neighbors’ spindly carports. Russell’s thick green lawn glittered wetly under a spidery skin of moonlight. The black nodules of his sprinkler system clicked in the muggy air, and in one of the peeling river birches, a single nighthawk warbled. The bird swooped down, and I stood, as if poised for a flight of my own, and watched its feathery gray body shoot upward.
Inside, Russell mixed an Old-Fashioned while I perched on his sofa. The tubular metal furniture in the living room was precisely arranged, and on a glass coffee table was a faded picture of him and a small, black-haired boy in navy shorts and rubber flip-flops. A remote ocean sparkled behind them; the boy stood several feet from him. In the photo, Russell didn’t have any silver in his hair.
He turned his glass around in his hand. The ice cubes clinked. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Cranberry juice, please.”
“If you don’t have any, water is fine.”
He delivered my juice in a slim blue glass that resembled the ones my mother had inherited from her mother. He sat down next to me and watched me drink; my thirst pleased him. After my glass was empty, he placed it on the coffee table, and I patted him, lightly, on the knee. He leaned over and gently undid the top button of my dress, careful not to touch any skin. My fingers brushed against the gray hairs at one temple.
“This isn’t right,” he said. “It’s not right, you know.”
I rested my nose against his throat and stroked his temple until, finally, he continued unbuttoning me. He rubbed one nipple, then the other. The pads of his fingers were cool, hot. It wasn’t anything like the way it was with boys at school.
I kissed him on his mouth.
“Here?” he said. His palm slid slowly down my stomach, and he pressed the tip of his thumbnail into my navel.
He felt along my back, and I stiffened. That morning, a small ring of eczema had erupted at the base of my spine.
“What’s this?” Tenderly, he scratched it.
“Don’t.” My face was burning now, and I began to inch away. “Don’t.”
But the veins in my neck beat desperately, and he stroked them with both hands. I recalled how my father had grinned at him in Highland’s bar. That man’s unstoppable.
Russell kissed me again. “Please, Diana. Make me stop.” He smoothed the wisps of hair on the nape of my neck. “You should, you know.”
He touched one of my eyebrows. Up close, his gray eyes were enormous, and a strange violet ring bound each iris.
“Would my bedroom be all right with you?” he said.
“Yes.” You are mindful of me now, I thought.
We stood, but my legs struggled to support my body, so he took my wrists from behind. He pressed his chest against my back and guided me down a tiled passageway where the blackness swirled like water. Inside his narrow room, he was a source of dark light, and I closed my eyes and imagined his body was that of a fabulous, nervous creature that stalked the desert for food. The notch in his throat tasted of cedar and tobacco.
On the way home, I flew past Christine’s house. Her car wasn’t in the driveway yet, and the wind gathered around my convertible and seemed to whisper over the whirring crickets: Nobody forgets anything. It’s all stored up somewhere. But I knew how to safeguard the warm, glowing compartment in my brain that no one here was allowed to touch anymore. I already knew when to say nothing and mean it.
I parked my car on the curb in front of my house. The ring of high white homes along Lakeshore glared into the night, but their windows, like pupils fogged with breath, gave up nothing. It was hard not to believe these houses held only clouds. The air smelled of dank heat and rotten grass from the man-made lake. My father’s black Alfa Romeo was gone, and bleary light flickered through the wooden blinds in my mother’s sitting room. A walled garden twisted around one side of our house, and I scaled the steaming bricks and eased open my bedroom window, which was always unlocked.
I showered and shut myself in my walk-in closet. Naked, I stood before the mirror on the back of the door. I thought of Russell’s thumb sliding down to the tip of my breastbone. You make me stop. With one finger, I flicked the porcelain light switch up and down and watched my pupils fold and unfold themselves in the glass. How much light do they contain? In the shadowed sheen of Russell’s bedroom, his wide, pale irises had been clouded, the keen pricks of his clenched pupils hardly visible. Now you are on guard for me.
Finally, I lay down in a white cotton nightgown, but couldn’t fall asleep. For my birthday, my father had given me a book about Egyptian sculpture; he and my mother had cruised down the Nile the summer before. I turned the shining pages slowly. For weeks, I’d studied them. One showed a photograph of a gold case fashioned in the shape of an ibis, a holy bird. The mummies in these engraved cases were pitiful creatures, the book said. Most were left near musty altars in the galleries of underground chambers, and I imagined they had been sacrificed by wealthy Egyptians to secure eternal life for themselves.
I pulled the sheet up to my chin, and when I finally dozed off, I dreamed of nothing—a gray abyss stretching as far as I could see, above and below.
Around noon my eyes opened, and I smelled what seemed to be the tip of a burnt match. But it was only bacon frying. Get your ass up. Keep moving. I pulled on my linen shift from the night before and dragged a brush through my hair.
My mother was hunched over the kitchen stove. “Would you like bacon? I’m fixing coffee and coconut cake, too.”
She opened a box of toothpicks, and I noticed the blush artfully dabbed along each of her cheekbones. As always, she’d arranged her blond hair in a French twist, but her eyes were swollen, with faint blue circles beneath them.
“Your father might be away for a few days. It’s nothing important.”
My fingers gripped the lipstick in my pocket.
“It’s just another malpractice case,” she said. “It’ll blow over. They always do.”
“You’re crazy!” The words shot out before they could be crammed back down. “You’re fucked up to stay here!”
She surged forward to slap me but stopped herself. “You think you can do whatever you want, don’t you? Because you’re so smart. Because now you’re leaving.” The muscles in her ringed fingers hardened, softened. “You wait. One day you’ll see.”
She put the box of toothpicks back in the spice cabinet and slunk away.
Christine was already at the club, her bronzed arms and legs stretched out on a canary-colored deck chair by the pool. She loaned me a string bikini—she kept several stashed in her tennis locker—and we ordered a plate of chicken fingers to share by the deep end, where the water shone gold in the clean light.
She oiled her thighs, one at a time, before handing me the bottle. A small tin triangle was fixed to the spandex between my breasts. I tried to lift it away from my skin.
Christine rolled over. One eye popped open. “That thing gets hot, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It does.”
She wolfed down a cold hunk of chicken. “I always thought it would be cool if it really left a mark or something.”
“Doesn’t it make a tan line?”
“I mean a real mark, Diana. Like a tattoo.” She inspected her navel, which contained a pink rhinestone. “Like a brand.”
She jabbed my forearm with one finger. “I saw your car parked on the curb last night. What’d you do?”
“Nothing.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “What about you?”
“The same.” I heard her rubbing her thighs together to make them glisten. “Last night, I decided my name isn’t right. Not for me.”
“I thought you liked your name.”
“Christine isn’t sophisticated enough.” She inspected her rosy fingernails for chips. “And it’s better to be hated than pitied, I’ve decided.”
She shut her eyes and rolled up in a rigid ball, with her cheek cradled in one palm. She trembled throughout her nap. Christine was an insomniac, and no matter how late she came in at night, I knew she often swam for hours in her pool while her black mutt sat on the diving board, watching the blackened sky over the spotlighted water.
After a while, the sun shifted away from the deep end. I draped my towel over Christine’s burnt shoulders, and she was still. Her thighs, like mine, were stringy and hairless. I sat with her until her eyes opened.
At Highland, Christine and I ordered shrimp cocktails and filet mignon for supper. We split two bottles of sparkling water. Christine chatted and laughed, but her gaiety seemed intended to offset an encroaching, forbidding solemnity. All of the couples in the dining room were familiar, and as I stared into their comfortable faces, I was aware that this meal was unlike the countless others Christine and I had shared. Soon, like so many other things already irretrievably lost, this portion of our lives would exist only in the past. Our conversation skimmed uneasily around that fact. When I finally drove home, the kitchen was quiet. I grabbed a Mickey Mouse Bar from the freezer and carried it to my room, where I turned the air conditioner on full blast. I licked the ice-cream bar under my comforter. Hours later, the bark of a car braking startled me awake.
I crept toward the window that overlooked our circular driveway.
“Easy there, man, easy.” Russell helped my father from his Jaguar. “We’re here.”
My father hung on to Russell’s bulging forearm, his thin fingers bone-white on Russell’s tan skin. My father stared at our house. “I know exactly where we are.” He managed to yank himself free and straighten his rumpled tie. “This is my street.”
The front door creaked open, and I heard my father weaving across the granite foyer. I rapped the window with one knuckle, and Russell met my eyes. Neither of us smiled. His car drifted down the street and stopped. I thought of his palms against my throat, of my blood vessels running beneath his thumb pads: You make me stop. The Jaguar engine sounded like a heartbeat.
I didn’t dare let myself move from the window. The car lingered there for what seemed like an hour but might’ve been only a minute.
I didn’t climb out my window.
Russell started coming for me the next night. He always waited until my parents were asleep, and once we were inside his dim bedroom, we liked to question each other: Who are you when you’re not with anyone? What do you like to eat that makes your stomach ache? I liked to tell him I didn’t know, and he told me he’d been married several times. It was never enough, he said, staring at my hands.
When Russell was angry with me, he crouched on his side of the bed and lit matches. He watched them burn down before letting them fall into a shot glass balanced on his bare thigh. I’d stolen an amulet from my mother’s perfume chest—a razor-thin heart scarab on a fine gold chain—and I stroked its blue faience body until he was done.
Sometimes, after he fell asleep, I touched the tender skin around his navel. Other times, I softly bit his earlobes, which tasted of salt and something murky and secret, like dirt. One night, our seventh together, I gently pinched his nostrils shut while he slept. He woke immediately with a startled bark and flipped me onto my back. Darkness obscured his face, but his eyes seemed to watch my lips silently open and close. He clamped my wrists to the mattress and straddled me.
“Don’t.” He whispered hoarsely. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
“Get off me,” I said. “Get off me right now.”
“Let me go.”
“Why should I?” He stared at the amulet. My father had given it to my mother, who had never removed it from the alabaster gift box.
“You’ve got to let go of me,” I panted.
“That’s not what you really want me to do, is it?” He kissed my throat. “Is it, baby?” He covered me with his long body.
“Please, Russell,” I whispered against his damp chest.
“Please?” His heart beat wildly. “Please what?”
“Please. You’re starting to crush me.”
He rolled onto his side. For a moment, I didn’t move. But then Russell smirked impishly, and I slapped him on his left cheek, hard.
He sat up slowly. He stroked his cheek. “I like how you say please,” he said.
“It’s time for me to go. It’s time for me to leave.”
“I don’t want you to,” he said. “Come here.”
I pressed my knees to my chest and shook my head.
“Diana,” he said. “Please.”
“No.” I watched his eyes. “You come here.”
He obeyed, and for a brief spell, his body uncoiled, and he allowed himself to be held. In that moment, I could’ve done anything; anything could’ve been done to me. A part of me wanted to stay with him like that for months—years—but I stared out the mildewed bedroom window and recalled the choking darkness of Lakeshore at night. Soon, I thought. Soon, I’m leaving this place.
I met Christine at the pool the next morning, like always. In the afternoon, we drove to Cross Creek Mall. Christine had decided she needed a fresh look for Chapel Hill, and she bought long, diaphanous skirts and silk camisoles crusted with bugle beads and tiny mirrors. I picked out backless sundresses and leather sandals with heels; one pair laced up to my knees. I knew such things were forbidden, but I charged everything to the MasterCard my father had given me the day after Russell had brought him home. Silently, my mother examined these new purchases. We didn’t mention the scene in the kitchen. Now that my father was back home—he ate guiltily, without complaint, whatever food my mother fixed—she’d booked a September trip to Rome for them. I didn’t mention their upcoming vacation to Russell. When we were alone, we never talked about them. Of course, I knew my mother would only regard our affair as a calculated stab at her and my father if she learned of it.
My last night with Russell was a Monday, and when I asked him what kind of animal he’d like to be, he said he wanted to be one that could see well in the dark.
He placed a clay bowl filled with red grapes next to his pillow, and we ate quietly.
Later, after we were finished, he brushed my damp bangs off my forehead. “Do you think I’m good, Diana?”
“Yes.” That was true.
He pressed his lips to my neck and sighed. “Why?”
“Why?” I kissed his mouth a long time.
“I don’t want you to leave,” he said.
I said nothing. Finally, he looked away.
I kneaded his stomach. My hand slipped down, and his thigh muscles tightened.
“Hey!” His pupils were very wide. “What’re you doing?”
I smoothed down his wiry tuft.
“Stop petting me.” He rolled onto his side and grabbed my wrists. “Come here.” His mouth was warm, and I let him scratch the eczema on my back with his thumbnail.
“You make me feel alive,” he said, and he drifted to sleep, one leg crooked tightly over my hip. Everywhere, it seemed, was the close, heavy scent of his skin.
When it was time, I woke him. We sat on the edge of his bed, and I let him dress me in the dark. Once he was finished, I clasped the amulet around his neck.
In his car, he allowed me to kiss him as if we were alone in his room. He dropped me on the curb in front of Christine’s house, and I trudged back to mine. My sandals dangled from one hand, and as I crossed our glinting lawn, the blinds in my mother’s sitting room shifted slightly. I stood still on the grass and waited for more, but the window stayed empty. Flecks of mud dotted my ankles, and Christine’s voice sounded in my head: Some people get off on being treated like shit.
That night, I dreamed I’d been buried alive in a warm stone room deep within a desert. Hieroglyphs and half-bird, half-human figures were cut into the soaring walls, and I stretched to touch them.
The night before I was set to leave, my father tried to tempt me with his chicken fingers, but the food at Family Night seemed tasteless. Before supper, my mother had surprised me with a shopping bag bursting with pastel skirts and cardigans.
Now she placed her coffee cup in its saucer. “Wear your silk capris tomorrow. They’ll look real pretty with my black patent flats.”
“Aren’t those flats new?”
“You can have them if you like.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The crowd thinned, and my father split for the bar. Christine and her mother strolled up to our table, and my mother seemed to beam. Our mothers had been in the same sorority at Vanderbilt. They started rehashing an old college story.
“It’s been nonstop memory lane at my house all day,” Christine whispered, sitting next to me.
“I got a ton of clothes. Flats, too.”
“So you did, sweetheart.” Like a gangster in a movie, she spoke out of the side of her mouth. “Less than 24 hours left in the joint.” She grasped my hand under the table.
Her mother waved, and Christine withdrew her hand and stood up. “Call me tomorrow.”
My mother swallowed the last bite of coconut cake. “Why don’t you round up your father? Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”
He was telling his partner a joke at the bar.
“We need to go,” I said. “Mom wants us to get up early.”
From behind my father and his partner, Russell appeared.
My father smiled at me. “Tomorrow’s the big day.” He nodded at Russell and his partner. “Diana’s leaving for Chapel Hill. She won a scholarship.”
“You told them that already,” I said.
My father slung an arm around my shoulders. “Can’t I be proud of my baby?”
Russell plunked his drink onto the bar. “What’re you going to major in?”
“Psychology. Or maybe biology.”
My father laughed. “She’ll make a great paralegal or physician’s assistant.” He squeezed my waist. “She’s my baby doll.”
Russell’s eyes narrowed.
“Psychology’s a quack science,” my father said. His partner winked coyly.
“Tell your mother I’ll be home in a bit,” my father said. “One of these guys will give me a ride.”
Russell plucked a salted almond out of a brass bowl and bit it in two.
At midnight, the Jaguar halted on the curb across the street from my bedroom window. Almost immediately, both doors swung open. They stood on the side of the road, where the streetlight, like a shimmering acid-green eye, peered into their faces.
“Get away!” My father jabbed his finger in Russell’s sweaty face and charged up the driveway.
Russell took a step toward our yard, and my father whipped around unsteadily. “I’ll call the police!”
Russell stood quietly. He stared up and down the empty street. “No,” he said wearily. “You won’t.”
My father hurled his beer bottle onto the cement. Glass and foam exploded in a dull white burst. “Get the fuck off my street!”
I hid behind the curtain, and Russell climbed slowly into his car. Minutes dragged by. It was impossible to see his face. Finally, his car lurched away. Lakeshore looked exactly as it had the moment before, but nothing was recognizable.
Our front door slammed open. My mother was already in the foyer.
“Go back to bed.” He sounded out of breath.
“Was that Russell?”
“Tell me what he did to you.”
“Something’s happened,” she said. “Come here.”
The door to my father’s study clicked open and shut.
My father was clutching a coffee mug when I walked into the kitchen the next morning. Through the bay window, sunlight streamed into the room, and a plate of homemade doughnuts rested on the table. I poured a glass of filtered water.
“Your mother’s got a stomach virus.” He bit into a doughnut and scraped his lips with a linen napkin. We avoided each other’s eyes. “Your bags are already in the car.”
On the way to Chapel Hill, I asked about his own time there. He told a story that involved too much Pabst Blue Ribbon and a drive-in theater, and he acted like his old self. Near campus a lustrous bug, black as a beetle, hit the windshield with a wet clap, and my father stopped for gas. He picked up the bug by its wings—a gray smear remained—and I caught him staring at me through the glass. The bug’s damp innards dangled like steel wool.
He hauled my bags up the stairs that led to my single room. Christine made her entrance after he’d tossed the last suitcase onto the brown metal twin. She knew my father didn’t think much of her—he said she lacked self-control—but she pirouetted in the doorway anyway, in her crinkly fuchsia skirt. My father’s eyes flicked from her to me.
After graduation, Christine would join a spiritual commune in New Mexico, and she’d fall out of touch. Although her mother would perpetually refer to her as a free spirit, I would learn through Fayetteville’s grapevine that Christine was pimped out to buy food and cleaning supplies.
But that night, our first night of college, neither of us could’ve known anything about that, and Christine asked me if I wanted to go hunt for a sushi restaurant on Franklin Street.
My father pressed a wad of 20s into my hand. “Go. Call if you need anything else. Your mother will be up soon.”
Once he was gone, Christine dragged me to the bathroom, where she jumped up and down and flashed the full-length mirror; glitter sparkled on both breasts. I waited while she applied another coat of strawberry lip gloss.
The hallway was empty when I unlocked my room later that night. Like Christine, most of the other girls were probably at keg parties. I was too tired.
A leather-bound book was propped at the foot of my bed—my father must’ve come back while Christine and I were in the bathroom. The book, another one from Cairo, detailed rites and hymns designed to prepare the dead for paradise; chapters were named after primitive functions of the body. On the title page was a picture of a jackal-headed man opening the mouth of the pharaoh’s wife with a hook resembling a bull’s leg and a gold tool shaped like a finger. When I turned the page, the amulet and a maroon envelope embossed with my father’s initials tumbled onto the floor. The letter inside the envelope was creased so precisely that it slit my finger.
Diana, I had to tell your mother, for your own good. But you are merely a girl, and so I ask no questions. He will never lay eyes on you again. It was not your fault, I know. But you will have to explain that to your mother, who is sick to death. What you’ll tell her is that you meant nothing by it. It was not your doing. He made you. You were tricked. People like that do fool us. Your mother is smart and understands that. She understands that love requires work and generosity. If you ask her, she will forgive you.
I sat on my bare mattress for a long time, fingering the tube of lipstick on my lap. Then, I wrote back: I loved him.
I loved all of them terribly once.