When Hannah Met Ellie (If you touch me here, right here, and try to fill this big hole in my chest I think I’ll die.)

 

Hannah

Hannah arrived at the Victoria’s Secret store on West Broadway with an uneasy feeling she didn’t understand but pushed it away as she always did when she felt this way. She knew what she wanted to buy, or at least what Don had told her to buy. Earlier that morning he wanted sex when she wasn’t in the mood and she responded as she always did by giving a cursory lick to each of his balls, cupping both of them in her hands and then sucking him until he came which she could count on him to do quickly as she struggled not to swallow. Afterward she’d slip away to brush her teeth leaving him in his post-orgasm euphoria. But this morning he pulled her snugly against his carefully shaven, gym-perfect chest that itched from the stubble and informed her of what he desired for his birthday. Hannah knew what he would say in his irritating see how cool I am tone of voice, still inflected with the Brooklyn accent he’d tried so hard to lose ever since they married, especially since he’d been promoted to group director at Morgan Stanley.

            “I found these really hot thongs on their website that’ll be perfect to help us celebrate. There’s a Good Devil Sheer G-String for men. I’ll slip it on and we’ll imagine we’re both in an elevator. I pin you against the wall and we fuck each others brains out.”

            “Sounds lovely,” she answered with a half-hearted grin, thinking that at least a hundred thousand women had masturbated to this Christian Gray elevator fantasy ever since the book was published.

            “And there’s this Dream Angels Lace String Panty that I’ll slide down your legs as we imagine I’m the guy who claimed your virginity.” But you did when we were in college, Hannah thought although he hadn’t realized it then so how could he possibly remember it now.

            “Sounds wonderful,” she answered as she finally slipped away from him to the bathroom greatly in need of her Braun rotating brush, a mouthful of Crest and a good cleansing rinse with Listerine.

Hannah listlessly fingered the thongs on the display table when she noticed a woman on the other side smiling at her.

            “You don’t seem like you’re into it,” the woman said.

            “It’s my husband’s birthday and I… well it’s his birthday.” Hannah had to catch her breath. She had never seen such a strikingly beautiful woman. Must be about the same age as me, she thought, but so different, espresso brown hair and her skin is flawless.

            “I’m Ellie, short for Eléonore,” she said as she moved over to Hannah and offered her hand. “My father always insisted on pronouncing it in French but I shortened it when I was in my late teens to piss him off.”

            “Hello,” Hannah answered as she took Ellie’s perfectly sculpted hand.

            “I’m here shopping for masturbation thongs,” Ellie said, “because I just broke up with my girlfriend and I’m greatly in need of comfort sex.”

            Hannah suddenly burst out laughing. “This is one of those passing strangers who tell all moments like on a train, isn’t it?”

            “Would seem so,” Ellie answered still holding Hannah’s hand.

            “What’s a masturbation thong?”

            “Well, that requires elaborate description. “Join me for a glass of Chablis at Vino Vino, across the street?”

             Ellie smiled at Hannah, her lips moist with Chablis. “The primo masturbation thong is the Eyelet Thong Panty,” she proclaimed. “Your ravenously hungry lover slips it off, breathes in your fresh earthy smell and slides your aching clitoris in and out of her soft wet mouth as she fingers your g-spot, first gently, then more insistently until you finally, helplessly explode in her mouth.”

           “I like it,” Hannah said.

           “Why?”

           “It’s slow, unhurried, but mainly the feeling that your lover is so hungry for you. The ultimate turn on.”

           “Yes, every woman’s wet dream. So why were you fingering thongs at Victoria’s Secret as if they were over ripe tomatoes on sale in a supermarket?”

           “My husband Don, he’s always had this thing for Victoria’s Secret models. I’m the blonde, blue-eyed version, former cheerleader, unattainable, every guy’s fantasy of the perfect fuck. ”

           “Were you the perfect fuck?”

           “Back then it was more me fantasizing – I’ve always been good at fantasizing – about being the perfect slut. But I never slept around. Whenever Don and I had sex, each time I’d imagine fucking a different guy on the football team, and occasionally one of the cheerleaders.”

           Ellie drank a big mouthful of Chablis. “What do you think would happen right now if I bit you?” she asked.

           “If you bit me exactly where I’m thinking,” Hannah answered amused, imagining an impromptu wine tasting, “I’d drench your mouth in a great profusion of gooseberries, jalapeňo and herbs.”

           “Ellie burst out laughing. “A Sauvignon Blanc! Perfect for the perfect blue-eyed blonde. I live three blocks away on Spring Street.”

           “Tempting,” Hannah answered reaching for each of Ellie’s perfect hands. “But my head’s too filled at the moment with family, friends and the birthday boy’s party. Give me your number?”

In the cab ride back to their upper Eastside co-op, Hannah easily sank into a delicious fantasy of what it would be like as Ellie’s ravenous lover, removing her eyelet thong, gently biting her aching clitoris, sliding it in an out of her mouth drenched with juicy berries, herbal tones and a hint of spice. Clearly a Malbec, she thought delighted with herself, before she was startled by the cab driver knocking on the window for his fare.

Later that night Hannah let Don fuck her with an enthusiasm she’d never felt in the ten years they’d been together. She trembled and whimpered as he thrust back and forth inside her, feeling Ellie angling her clitoris perfectly with each thrust. Her legs shook as Ellie bit her nipples and buried her face between her legs hungrily sucking her. “Oh yes, fuck me!” she cried out. Afterward, she gazed doe-eyed at Don seeing Ellie. “You’re perfect,” she whispered before falling asleep as Ellie nestled her face between her quivering legs.

In the morning Hannah awoke with visions of Ellie massaging her body, until Don’s snoring broke the spell. The sight of him lying there immune, complacent in his own perfect world, filled her with a mixture of envy and affection that moved her for a moment to kiss him awake, but the lingering smell of his stale Dolce & Gabbana impelled her to escape to the bathroom.

            “I’m taking the day off to arrange for your party,” she said as he joined her.

            “I still can’t believe you chose me over all those other guys who wanted you when we were in college,” he exclaimed and kissed her on the nape of her neck.

            “The cheerleader now belongs exclusively to you,” she blurted out sarcastically, then shook her head realizing she’d imagined saying it.

            “Are you okay?” he asked.

            “I’m fine,” she answered and patted him reassuringly on his well defined glutes as he waddled to the shower.

Hannah had invited almost fifty people to Don’s party. The day before her mother had called to make sure she’d contacted everyone on her list of family friends who served as an indulgent audience for her endless rhapsodizing about the perfect marriage she’d made with Don. There was also the list of friends who served the same purpose for Don’s mother. Hannah’s sole consolation whenever she couldn’t escape seeing the two matrons together was her unbridled pleasure in watching them grate on each other in an endless series of one upmanships over cooking, cutlery, gardening or any subject that gave them a pretext to feel superior to each other. Finally, there was the list of Don’s and Hannah’s friends and the more pressing problem of coping with them when they were in the same room together for more than three hours. In almost every respect their friends lived on different cultural planets. Hannah’s friends needed a steady diet of Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, The New Yorker and films like Before Midnight and Blue is the Warmest Color, while Don’s were perfectly content to lose themselves in Jimmy Fallon, Raw, How I Met Your Mother and films like White House Down and The Wolverine. It was virtually impossible for Hannah to assume the secretly abusive, Jane Austenesque posture she used with their mothers in these stifling encounters and she obsessively fretted over them before they actually happened. But today, as she shuttled from Zabar’s for Don’s mother’s favorite cheese blintzes to Dean and Deluca for her father’s favorite prosciutto, it occurred to her for the first time that she really didn’t give a fuck about how their friends related. By the time she got to Astor Wines and Spirits, she thought rather pleased with herself, Tonight, let them drink Malbec!

On her way out of Astor Wines and Spirits, she called Ellie.

            “Still in a biting mood?” she asked when Ellie answered.

            “Cannibalistic.”

            “I’m tempted to invite you to Don’s party but I’m afraid you’d devour me instead of the hors d’oeurves.”

            “Yes, on my knees in the middle of your living room, as your guests get turned on watching us.”

            “What are you doing Sunday?”

            “I’ve given serious thought to what I want to do, with you and to you, on our first date. Do you like surprises?”

            “Not usually, but with you I think I must.”

            “Wear a good pair of running shoes,” Ellie said laughing.

Hannah awoke on Sunday exhausted, relieved it was over. Everything had come off as predicted, like a dull movie script, she thought. The strained, overly mannered clash of their mothers; the stifled attempts of their friends to relate to each other; and their patiently suffering fathers swapping football plays on the couch over too many Yuenglings. Hannah had to concede the last word to Don’s friends at the end for blasting Diggy Simmons from their surround sound speakers which impelled the two mothers to seek refuge practically in each others arms and Hannah’s friends to form a protective circle on the far side of the living room.

            “Good morning,” Don announced brimming with post-birthday benevolence. “I hate leaving you alone all week for this business trip.”

            “I’ll miss you,” Hannah answered, satisfied with how sincere she sounded as she kissed him on the cheek and tried to slip away. But Don pulled her on top of him.

            “We can Skype on Tuesday. I’ll call at seven mountain time, ten eastern,” he said as he slipped his finger into her vagina.

            “Great,” Hannah answered and then proceeded with her usual response to Don when she wasn’t in the mood.

 

Ellie pulled up on the corner of 82nd and Third Avenue in a red  BMW convertible and screeched to a halt as a gust of hot summer wind blew her silky espresso hair around her face. Hannah slid in beside her and Ellie gave her a deep, searching kiss.

            “You taste like Listerine. What’s wrong?” she asked.

            “It’s not worth discussing. So where are you taking me in this cunt snatcher?”

            “C’est une surprise,” Ellie answered smiling facetiously.

Over two hours later, having taken Exit 17 on the New York Thruway and driven a good 20 miles past New Paltz, Hannah’s patience was wearing thin. “We’re almost there,” Ellie said with a you’ll be so pleased when you find out grin that irritated Hannah. They drove up a graveled road and approached a sprawling airplane hanger with a bright red helicopter and two blue twin-engined Otters parked outside.

            “You can’t be serious!” Hannah said as a man and a woman in their mid-twenties dressed in flight suits, approached them.

            “So this is your new BFSF,” the woman said to Ellie with an approving smile.

            “Hannah, this is Katie and Joe,” Ellie said.

            “Pleased to meet you,” Hannah said straining for composure.

            “Here’s the form you need to fill out before we go,” Katie said and handed it to Hannah.

            “Don’t forget to provide an emergency number.”

            “Emergency number!” Hannah said, glancing nervously at Ellie.

            “Ellie, why don’t you give Hannah a tour of the facilities,” Katie tactfully suggested and retreated to the airplane hanger with Joe.”

            “Have you lost your fucking mind!?” Hannah hissed.

            “You’ll love it, I promise. I’ve made hundreds of jumps and it’s perfectly safe.”

            “Then why do they need an emergency number?”

            “It’s just a formality, Hannah. You’ll never know how mind blowing this is if you don’t try it.”

            “It would also be mind blowing to jump off the the Verrazano bridge but I’ve managed to live without the experience. Why do you want me to do this with you?”

            Ellie kissed Hannah earnestly on the lips. “I love when you ask questions like that. It’s the rebellious Hannah you never succeed in hiding. I want her to fly unshackled with me.”

            “Ellie, that’s beautifully said, but why skydiving?”

            “It’s the fear that comes with it. I need to conquer it.”

            “Sometimes you should listen to your fear.”

            “Hannah, I’ll just die if you don’t jump with me.”

There were three other couples in the rumbling Otter that taxied slowly to the end of the two lane runway. Hannah leaned back against Ellie securely attached to her in a tandem harness. She looked around at the others and realized she was the only one on the plane whose legs were shaking uncontrollably. Ellie wrapped her arms around Hannah snugly. “You’re so brave!” she shouted in her ear. By the time the plane gained altitude, Hannah’s legs had stopped shaking. “We’re at 13,500 feet,” the jump master announced on a megaphone. “Each couple stand in the door and jump at my signal.”

Hannah’s heart leaped to her throat as she somersaulted out of the plane with Ellie glued to her back. Then a small stabilizing chute popped out of Ellie’s back pack that righted their free fall. The land below appeared as a dreamy far off haze of blue, green and saffron. Ellie grabbed Hannah’s hands and spread her arms under hers. “I am joyful flying with you!” she shouted. Hannah, feeling suddenly exuberant, squeezed Ellie’s hands. “Me too!”she shouted back. A minute later the main chute popped open slowing their decent. A few minutes after that they tiptoed like dancers onto a grassy stretch of landing zone laid out like a welcoming carpet, skated on their heels and landed gently on their butts. Hannah turned to Ellie as she unhooked the tandem straps and kissed her fiercely on the lips. “I did it!” she said.

Hannah sipped her second glass of Malbec and gazed out at the the people strolling on the High Line. The Hudson was aglow in bright read streaks from the setting sun. Great swirls of orange and red filled the Jersey sky.

            “I’m glad we came here instead of your apartment,” she said.

            “Me too,” Ellie answered.

            “The last time I felt this way was three years ago. We were on a family vacation in Paris. It was a hot summer day and I managed to escape Don and my parents for a Monet exhibition at the Musée Marmottan. I stood in the cool basement feeling relieved from the heat, gazing at a series of grain stacks. One of them, bathed in red, orange and soft earth tones, seemed to leap out at me. I suddenly started crying. It must have been the softness and warmth of the light, like now.” Ellie looked at Hannah wanting desperately to touch her but restrained herself. “The month before we left for Paris, my cat died. I found her at Bidawee when she was a kitten. I named her Tartine. She was so simple and sweet and trusting. She became my treasure. She was only 15 when she died, not that old. I wanted her to live to at least 22 which would be a record for cats. Don treated her correctly but I knew he didn’t love her. When I lost Tartine, I realized she was the only creature I ever truly loved.”

            Ellie forced herself not to reach for Hannah’s hands. “Whenever I walk down Bleecker Street or West Broadway, I sneak looks at the couples strolling or seated at outdoor tables; the way their eyes cross, how close their hands are, how one sometimes shares food with the other. I make up stories about them. The couple sitting next to me, new lovers still devouring each other with their eyes; that couple over there glaring at each other, still angry from their morning fight; and the one further down, exhausted with three kids in tow, yet content, knowing deep in their hearts they’re lucky to be there with those kids. And me on the outside imagining what it’s like for them, making up their stories.”

            “I’ve been fantasizing about you,” Hannah said, ever since I first laid eyes on you at Victoria’s Secret. But I know it’ll never be the way I imagine it.”

            “Why would it be? Nothing should happen the way you imagine it. If it does, it’s not real. When I saw you half heartedly fingering those thongs, you looked so beautiful and sad. I just wanted to be near you, kiss you. I never thought beyond that. Lovers should make it up as they go.”

            Hannah, suddenly feeling the urge to laugh, smiled facetiously at Ellie. “Like Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson?”

            “Christ, an inspiration to us all!” Ellie retorted, laughing.

            “Okay, Susan Sontag & Annie Leibovitz”

            “Nah, the former too precious, the latter too crazy, even for me, although she makes wonderful pictures.”

            “Alright, Charlie Rose and Maureen Dowd.”

            “I love it! Picture him on his knees before her clutching her book for dear life. ‘Is this man necessary!?’ he pleads.”

            “Seriously, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.”

            “Hmm, dated but still a grand, lovely story.”

            “Okay, Thelma and Louise.”

            “Certainly not! I will never condone violence. And they’re not even gay.”

            “What’s that got to do with anything? Alright then, Ellen DeGeneres & Portia de Rossi.

            “Absolutely superbly imperfect! You may now kiss my hand, for starters.”

They rented a room at The Standard with great picture windows that looked out over the Hudson. They undressed each other slowly. Ellie held Hannah from behind and gently cupped her breasts as they looked out at the Hudson now flecked with light from the city. Ellie slipped her finger between her buttocks and slowly, insistently moved it back and forth from her anus to her vagina as Hannah opened and swelled and gushed all over her hand. Then Ellie lifted her finger to her mouth and sucked it. “Yes, gooseberries and herbs,” she said with a self-satisfied grin. “But requires a bit more jalapeňo.” Hannah spun Ellie around, pushed her down on the bed and buried her face between her legs. Ellie came almost instantly. After a long moment, Hannah, relishing her timing, raised her head. “Hmm, a tolerable Malbec but clearly in need of more bottle aging,” she said barely able to stifle her laughter. Ellie grabbed a pillow and lobbed it at Hannah who quickly retaliated. They engaged in a tenacious pillow fight until collapsing, sweaty and exhausted in each others arms.

“I want you to come. I want to ravish you,” Ellie said breathing heavily. She kissed Hannah aggressively on her lips and sucked her nipples which hardened quickly. “Like white truffles, rich and pungent,” she whispered. “And the rest of you,” she murmured as she licked her belly and moved to her pubic hair, “all earth and spice.” Her mouth found Hannah’s clitoris and her finger moved to her g-spot. “And your taste bewitches me.” Hannah cried out as she came, springing upward uncontrollably as Ellie gripped her thighs and sucked. Later as she lay in Ellie’s arms Hannah whispered, “I feel like I’m 20 again making love for the first time.”

Hannah awoke with her head cradled by Ellie’s breasts. She lifted her head and watched  her breathing peacefully. She usually awoke in the morning feeling empty, on really bad days like she had a hole in her chest. As she took in the softness of Ellie’s face, her sumptuous breasts and golden brown hair in the morning light, she suddenly thought of the opera Carmina Burana. She imagined Ellie as the succulent, roasted swan in the opening scene, about to be devoured by her and other ravenous diners. Hannah stiffened and tried to suppress the image. She realized with a start that she’d lost her cell phone. Her eyes darted nervously to the digital clock on the bed stand which displayed 6:30 am. Ellie stretched out her arms languorously and smiled at Hannah.

            “I have to go to work,” Hannah said.

            “What’s the matter?”

            “Ellie, I just imagined you as a roasted swan served on a silver platter to me and a bunch of starving people.”

            “Ellie erupted in laughter. “Carmina Burana! I hope you at least had me infused with rosemary and garlic. Your succulent swan roasted to perfection. And of course, my darling, you’ll be my swan.” Ellie moved to kiss Hannah on the lips. “We’ll have such delicious fun devouring one another.”

            “Ellie, stop! Now you’re reading my mind!”

            “Hannah, it’s just good fun.”

            Hannah shook her head, gasping for air. “Ellie, this is too much, it’s too much for me!”

Hannah sat in the bathtub, limp and depleted, facing Ellie who gently soaped her neck, shoulders and breasts knowing better than to try and reassure her. “You should be telling me I feel sorry for your next lover,” Hannah said.

 

Don was waiting for Hannah as she entered the living room. When she saw him holding her cell phone, she felt anxious. When she followed his eyes as they moved from her hair still damp from her bath with Ellie, to her wrinkled shirt, her grass stained shorts, she felt a surge of panic.

            “We finished early,” he said. “Thought I’d surprise you with dinner tonight at The River Cafe. I guess the surprise is on me. “Who is he, the guy who’s…fucking my wife?” Don’s bleak, beaten tone hit Hannah like a sledge hammer. His face filled with shock and hurt made her eyes sting with tears. What have I done to him!? she thought, but still couldn’t stop herself from thinking that of course he’d assume it was a man.

            “When did it start?”

            “I was shopping at Victoria’s Secret. It began as an amusement, fantasy thongs, jokes about wine tasting. I’ve hurt you so badly” she said as tears streamed down her face. She wanted to say more, how she’d felt buried for the past ten years, lost herself after they were married, but the words dissolved in her mouth, replaced by deep, wrenching remorse as she thought over and over again, I’ve hurt him so badly!

            “We need couples counseling,” Don said.

            “Yes,” she answered lamely, thinking that in Don’s world every problem had a neat solution, so why would her jumping out of an airplane and plunging into a passionate affair with a woman be any different.

The first and only counseling session I had with Hannah and Don was a troubling clash of emotional, intellectual and esthetic needs that could never be reconciled. It was useful to Hannah because for the first time in her years with Don she was able to put words on her feelings which confused and enraged him and drove him to despair.

            “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” he cried out. “The first time I saw you at that fraternity party, you were the most gorgeous blue-eyed blond I’d ever met.”

            “I was the only blue-eyed blond you’d ever met.”

            “You smelled so good, I couldn’t get enough of you.”

            “I smelled like New Girl drenched in Cashmere Mist, oozing just the right amount of sex. You never knew what I really smelled like. I didn’t know what I smelled like!”

            “The first night we spent together, I felt so tender toward you. I wanted to hold and protect you until you fell asleep in my arms.”

            “I was never in need of protection. I almost laughed when I saw your erection and realized you were too shy to remove your jockey shorts. When I let you fuck me, I did it casually thinking giving up my V card was way overdue.”

            “I was so crazy for you.”

            “How could you be crazy for me when you didn’t know me!? And today, half the time when we fuck I feel like your doing the prom queen. The other half I’m down on my knees licking the star quarterback’s carefully shaven balls, then sucking him off. It’s all so…predictable.”

            “What will we say to our parents?”

            “It’s more what they’ll say to us. Your father will tell me I need to be more patient with you. My mother will take me in her arms and remind me of how good you are and how much you need me. Then the two sainted mothers will plunge into an orgy of self-pity, brooding over how we destroyed their dreams for us, the perfect couple. They’ll have more fun than they’ve had in years, like Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Phillips kvetching and reinventing history together in Pride and Prejudice.

            “Another one of your fucking literary references that nobody gets but you!”

            “Maybe if I picked one from The Wolverine, it’d be easier for you. Our fathers are the only ones who’ll act normal when they get the news. They’ll throw some Yuenglings in the cooler and go fishing for the weekend. ”

            “You think this is all a big fucking joke.”

            “No, because I know what your mother will do to you when she finds out. She’ll make you feel like a pussy, a loser who isn’t man enough to keep his wife; the way she did every time you got less than a perfect grade in high school or screwed up on the line of scrimmage; or when you stumbled over the words reading the Haftarah at your Bar Mitzvah. We’ve been hearing about that one for years. And you’ll get down on your knees all apologetic the way you always do and stick your nose up her ass.”

            “I don’t know who the hell you are anymore!”

            “You never knew me, ” Hannah said as she burst into tears. “The things we’ve done in our ten years together have always been about you, never me. It was my life too!”

 

Hannah arrived a week later visibly anxious, her eyes red from crying. I went to the bathroom and got her some wet paper towels which she accepted gratefully.

            “My mother insisted we see a woman therapist,” she said. “It was a disaster but I can’t help being amused by what happened. The first thing she asked was why we just walked into her office instead of waiting for her to come to us in the waiting room. “Huh, because the door was open,” I answered. Then she got into this whole shtick about the importance of emotional boundaries for successful relationships, how Don and I had lost our boundaries and how merged we were with each other. I didn’t have a clue about what she was saying but smiled at her anyway. Then she looked at me approvingly as if she was grading me which pissed me off. I should have told her I really thought she was too constipated to have boundary problems.”

            “Ellie sounds like a boundary breaker. If you’d seen that therapist with her, she’d probably have been shocked by Ellie pushing you to skydive with her and your letting her do it.”

            “Ellie’s a photographer, creative, always looking to do things differently. Don’s the complete opposite. He got depressed because the therapist couldn’t come up with a plan to cure my infidelity. She looked at him sadly trying to empathize with him. I thought of a scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral. These ditzy folk singers are chanting, ‘I’m sad when you’re sad. I’m glad when you’re glad.’ She could have been one of the folk singers. How amusing it would be to watch her work with our mothers. They’d make a wicked trio. Have you ever read Jane Austen?

            “I love Austen.”

            “Pride and Prejudice is my favorite. And you?”

            “All of them for different reasons but especially Persuasion, a rich, subtle love story about a young woman and a sea captain, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.

            “I know the story. So I’m Anne Elliot and Ellie is Captain Wentworth?”

            “No, you’re Lizzie Bennet, but I refuse to play Darcy.” Hannah’s eyes brightened and she gave me an approving smile.

            “How are you feeling about Don?”

            “He’s bleeding because of me. He sleeps on the couch, leaves early for work, comes home late. I feel like a disgusting bitch for cheating on my husband, then I get so angry I want to scream at him.”

            “What does he do to press your buttons?”

            Hannah shook her head in frustration. “Last night I dreamed we were at a football game. Don was on the line of scrimmage and his mother was shouting at him from the stands to run with the ball. He was exhausted, sweating, panting, about to collapse but he decided to run with it anyway. I suddenly jump in, grab the ball from him and bop him on the head with it; then I throw the ball at his mother in the stands and hit her right on the nose, bulls eye!”

            “That’s a subtle one. Did you share it with Don?”

            “I tried but he didn’t hear me. How can he be such a talented investment banker and so out to lunch on himself. He lives his whole life kissing ass, beginning with his mother. I don’t know who he really is.”

            “Do you know who you really are?

            “I’ve never really thought about it.”

            “Did you ever see the film, Cider House Rules?

            “A long time ago.”

            “Remember the scene when Homer Wells confronts Mr. Rose about getting his daughter Rose-Rose pregnant?”

            “Vaguely.”

            “When Homer calls Mr. Rose on what he’s done to his daughter, Mr. Rose tells him, ‘Ain’t none of your business, Homer.’ But Homer keeps pressing him, and each time Mr. Rose, angrier and angrier, tells him, ‘Ain’t none of your business!’ Then he challenges Homer. ‘What is your business!?’ he shouts. Only then does Homer realize what his real business is. He finds the medical bag he hid under his bed that Doctor Larch had sent him earlier from the orphanage and helps Rose-Rose abort her father’s child. Homer Wells who never graduated high school or attended medical school, who’d been trained by Doctor Larch ever since he was a boy to have superb gynecological and obstetrical technique, finally uses that medical bag, his real business in life.”

            Hannah sighed wearily. “I don’t known what my my real business is. All I know is that I never chose Don. I let him choose me. I convinced myself that I loved him because he is loveable. He’s kind, decent, loyal. Wherever he went I followed him. I learned to love the way he idolized me, his unflagging devotion, even though it suffocated me.”

 

Hannah was her mother’s first and only child, the perfect creation Mary had always dreamed of, her major life achievement. Mary couldn’t get enough of her new baby. The feedings in the first weeks enthralled her. Hannah’s mouth around the aureole of her swollen breast, her lips ardently sucking as her tiny tongue cradled her nipple. And the cuddling. Every moment she could hold her precious child she cooed loudly with the torrent of kisses she lavished on her. “Just me and my angel,” she whispered. At three months Hannah started making worrisome clicking sounds at each feeding. Doctor Morrison, who’d known Mary ever since she was a child, suspected the clicking might be Hannah’s attempt to stop the deluge of milk from her mother. “It might be a good time to start weaning Hannah,” he tactfully suggested. Mary dutifully complied but it hurt her to see how easily Hannah adjusted to bottle feeding. And it wounded her to see how peaceful and contented Hannah was in the arms of her father.

When Hannah was five her mother continued to shower her with hugs and kisses, when she left for school in the morning, came home in late afternoon and every night when she unfailingly insisted on putting her little girl to bed. Mary’s kisses sometimes made Hannah dizzy and gasp for breath but she learned to love them as much she loved her mother. Hannah also loved being with the other kids at school because the teachers were always too busy to single her out for attention.

Hannah’s relationship with Mary changed dramatically during her first year in high school when she suffered a severe attack of psoriasis. Her face, arms and elbows broke out in ugly patches of greyish pink, scaly skin. She tried desperately to cover it with sweaters and long sleeved blouses but the girls at school began snickering behind her back and started calling her elephant girl. Mary was at once horrified and relieved to discover she was needed again by her daughter. She plunged into a strident campaign to eradicate Hannah’s psoriasis. Three dermatologists were consulted and meticulously questioned; corticosteroids administered to reduce the inflammation; retinoids to reduce the scales; ultraviolet light treatments to stimulate production of vitamin D and expensive, specially enriched moisturizers applied three times a day. Mary undertook all of this with the zeal of a medieval general fighting the crusades. Yet during the thrice daily moisturizing rituals, when Hannah looked into her mother’s eyes as she applied the lotion, she saw mixed with her unbridled devotion, disgust at the sight of her daughter. Her whole caring, loving, frowning face couldn’t hide Mary’s feeling that she’d given birth to a gargoyle. It was then that Hannah learned to look at her mother with a mixture of warmth and coldness, when she realized she could relieve Mary by giving in to her or make her anxious by being sullen or unappreciative. This knowledge filled Hannah with trepidation and a strange sense of wickedness, this power she now had over her mother; reinforced many years later when she found drawings Mary had made of her as she grew older, drawings that resembled a hackneyed collection of Barbie Dolls. She thought of Lindsey, the American Girl Doll her mother included ostensibly as an afterthought along with the other gifts – Material Girl Shorts, a Strapless Sweetheart Junior Dress and a Tommy Girl Junior Skirt – for her seventeenth birthday. But Hannah knew Lindsey was the real gift from her mother. Lindsey, Mattel’s American Girl of the Year in 2001, unbelievably gorgeous, perpetually graceful, eager to please. Her mother’s immutable fantasy.

The psoriasis cleared up in Hannah’s junior year. By then her skin had been transformed into a soft, dove-like sheen, almost magically it seemed to Hannah and her mother. She also developed full, pear shaped breasts that combined with her dazzling blond hair, long athletic thighs and agile ass drove every boy who came near her to distraction. Hannah secretly delighted in her new found sexual power but it scared her even more than her passive meanness to her mother. One day she took the train to Manhattan, snuck down to The Pink Pussycat in Greenwich Village and bought a big penis wand that with no small effort she managed to hide from Mary. She discovered an old Youtube video of an I’m too Sexy commercial for Abercrombie and Fitch that she played at night on her ipad. As she masturbated, she could always depend on the lyrics… I’m too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt, so sexy it hurts….and I’m too sexy for Milan too sexy for Milan, New York and Japon…accompanied by a succession of half naked, flawlessly proportioned Abercrombie men and women, to give her deep, convulsive orgasms. It was the one unassailable fantasy, more than equal to her mother’s, that Hannah retreated to all through high school and her first year in college when she first let Don fuck her, and every time since.

 

When her cell phone rang, Hannah’s first impulse was to ignore Ellie’s call but she forced herself to answer.

            “I think you need a rest,” Ellie said.

            How can you know what I need Hannah thought, laughing as she answered, “What do you propose this time, bungee jumping, hang gliding, wind suit flying?”

            “Hm, wind suit flying…Seriously, I was thinking a weekend in the country. A cabin overlooking a small lake, actually a big pond; some country fairs, home cooking.”

Hannah awoke to the smell of fresh brewed coffee and the aroma of blueberry muffins that reminded her of the pancakes her father made for her on their last vacation, the year before she was invaded by the psoriasis. She shuddered recalling the barely disguised revulsion of everyone who knew her then, or believed they knew her, and thought of a scene from The Elephant Man, John Merrick in the circus side show, deformed and ugly. She tried to recall the night she’d spent spooning and cuddling Ellie but was suddenly seized with dread. Chilling images flashed in her head of her wandering naked, finding Tartine her beloved kitty lost to her years ago, dying in a trash can filled with ashes.  Hannah tried to remember the rest of the dream but the images faded quickly.

She poured a mug of coffee in the narrow, well equipped kitchen to one side of the cabin, took a golden blueberry muffin and moved to the back porch where she found Ellie curled up on a couch, gazing out at the pond shrouded in haze.

            “Best time of day,” Ellie said “watching the haze give way to the morning sun. Listen, do you hear that?”

            “That clucking sound?”

            “Yes, a wild turkey, calling out to its mate. Must be a flock of them, a miracle they’ve managed to survive the land developers.” Hannah sat down beside Ellie and tried to eat her muffin.

            “Fresh from Balthazar, Ellie said. “What’s the matter?”

            Hannah, sullen, dismissive, dropped her muffin and looked out at the pond. “I can’t do this,” she said. Ellie looked at her afraid to make the wrong move, say the wrong words. She tries so hard, Hannah thought pierced by the hurt in Ellie’s face, but I’m so empty. I have no words for her, for anybody. “I can’t be with you now,” is all she could say.

On the long drive back to the city, Hannah escaped into a deep, numbing sleep. She vaguely remembered Ellie dropping her off at her co-op.

 

Ellie

Ellie didn’t see it coming but should have. Arianna’s shock at the exhibition when Jeremy Seitman of New York Magazine announced that her austere images of solitary people are what Edward Hopper might have captured had he used a camera. And her rage when she read Christian Vincenti’s review in The Village Voice that praised Ellie for capturing the fleeting movements of couples seated in cafes – a toe unconsciously grazing a naked ankle, an elbow brushing the others forearm – how she caught the richness of their mingled narratives in her pictures.

            “You deceitful bitch!” Arianna screamed. You stole it from me!”

            “Oh, Arianna, I didn’t mean to,” Ellie pleaded as if she’d actually done something wrong. “I did get the idea from your paper. After you asked me to read it, I had a dream about how hard it is for me to show my deeper feelings. Then I started taking pictures of people, in restaurants, sidewalk cafes, Washington Square Park. It thrilled me when I realized I could capture couples revealing their emotional connections to each other. At last, I had something important to say in my pictures!” What Ellie didn’t tell Arianna was how wearisome it had been to read her paper, a  chapter in her doctoral dissertation on emotional intimacy. The redundancies and stilted language. The clotted academic descriptions meant to pass as prose. She dices and homogenizes her patients’ stories, Ellie thought as she forced herself to finish the paper, pours them into her concepts as if they were casserole dishes and bakes them until they’re dead. Ellie could never say any of this to Arianna.

It started the night before when they were having sex.

            “You think I didn’t know you were faking it!? Arianna shouted. Ellie, exhausted from too much sex with Arianna, overcome by the smell of her and needing desperately to sleep, slipped out of bed and retreated to the living room. Arianna drove after her.

            “Did you really think you could fool me?

            “Why ask when you already know the answer?” Ellie said wearily.

            “I know damn well when you fake an orgasm! It’s what you do, isn’t it. Seduce them, get them hot for you, then move to another planet while your ass is still there in the sheets.”

            By now Ellie had reached her breaking point. “Ever heard the old adage about finding the best therapist?” she asked sarcastically. “You’re always better off with a social worker because they think with their hearts. Forget about a psychiatrist because they’ve never been in therapy. And avoid a psychologist at all cost because they’re always trying to be so fucking smart!”

            “You’ve always been a no brainer for me. You’re daddy issues have poisoned our relationship, all of your relationships.”

            “Ellie, if you’re so smart why did you wind up sleeping with your patient?”

            “I believed I could help you”

            “Like Carl Jung helped Sabrina Spielrein and Toni Wolff, by sleeping with them?

            “I thought we could be happy.”

            “Arianna, Jung was a genius. What’s your excuse? And it doesn’t take a genius to see you’ve got mommy issues coming out your ass. Ten minutes of watching you and your mother at dinner is enough to convince anyone she doesn’t gave a shit about you and never will.”

It ended in a stalemate of the abusive mother imago versus that of the deficient father. At least that’s what Arianna concluded. But Ellie had never felt Arianna was like her father. She’d always been openly tenacious, doggedly persistent, the exact opposite of her father. The week after their blow up, Ellie came home to find Arianna’s furniture and personal belongings gone from their apartment. As she examined the empty rooms she was struck by their bleakness, except for her photographs arranged unevenly on the walls. For the hundredth time her eyes scanned the photographs. She took in the subtle gestures of her subjects, their emotional nuances and connections to each other and tried to recapture the feeling of reassurance they normally gave her. A violent hunger suddenly welled up inside her. She proceeded methodically to pull each photograph off the wall, smash it on the nearest table and slam it to the floor. By the time she finished, her hands and arms were sprinkled with blood from the shards of glass. The following day she collected the lacerated pictures and locked them away in a big wooden box that she buried under cartons of old school papers and suitcases in the back of her bedroom closet.

Ellie grew up on the Upper West Side in a family of highly educated French and Italian Jews perpetually at war with each other over who could lay claim to the richest culture. Ellie’s Italian mother Bianca never tired of reminding her French father that it was Catherine de Medici’s Abruzzese servants who taught the French to use knives and forks, not to mention the rudiments of good wine making, “Imagine Catherine de Medici enthroned in the Louvre instructing her lesser French subjects on the best cuisine,” she’d say by way of openers to Ellie’s father. Jacques never failed to respond to his wife with a smile flavored with sarcasm. “Ma chère, you’ve forgotten the pasta!” he declared zeroing in on his wife like a mongoose on a cobra, “It was surely created by the Italians in spite of what the Chinese may say.” And then the punch line, “Although the poor, disjointed Italians haven’t made much of their invention. No doubt this explains why the biggest manufacturer of pasta in the European Community is French.” Most of these skirmishes took place at the dinner table where Ellie and her younger brother Carlo laughed nervously at their parents’ words and phrases that were often beyond their comprehension.

The skirmishes continued as Ellie and Carlo grew older and learned to take sides. By the time Ellie was in grade school and Carlo in kindergarten, it was understood that Ellie was her father’s favorite and Carlo belonged exclusively to her mother. Neither Ellie nor Carlo was happy with this state of affairs, especially Carlo. Once when they were in their teens, they got into a heated argument. Carlo grabbed an iron frying pan and would have split open Ellie’s head if she hadn’t broken the force of it with her hand. She remembered the stinging pain of it for years. And Ellie taunted Carlo whenever she could. “Mommy cut off your balls right after you came out of her womb you little pussy,” she frequently told him. If Bianca resented Ellie for baiting Carlo or being her father’s best loved, she never expressed it openly. But Ellie knew better. She knew it whenever she tried to say something important to her mother and Bianca’s deadly silences and cold disdain made the words dissolve in her mouth. Ellie never let her mother’s resentment get to her because she knew she could always depend on her father. She remembered when she was three and vaulted too high on a swing in Abington Square Park and fell and broke her arm. Her father rushed to her rescue, scooped her up in his arms and smiled at her. She knew then that he was the strongest person in the world.

Jacques was a professor of literature at NYU. He tutored Ellie in French from the time she was a toddler all through her undergraduate years at Tisch School of the Arts. As Ellie grew older, the time she spent with her father became precious to her, especially after she lost her virginity at a frat party to a boy whose name she couldn’t remember. None of the socializing she did with her friends at school could compare to the moments she spent with Jacques in spirited discussions, laughing joyfully with him in his tiny office in the Washington Mews, a special room in which they locked themselves away from the outside world. Ellie became addicted to her father’s eyes, the way they admired and yearned for her. Once he took her face in his hands and kissed her lightly on the lips. “You’re my muse,” he told her.

On her nineteenth birthday, Jacques introduced Ellie to a collection of erotic poems that Guillaume Apollinaire wrote to his lover Louise de Coligny from the trenches during the first world war. “I first saw a reading by Jean Louis Trintignant and his daughter Marie at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris,” he told her. As they watched a video of the performance, Ellie was awestruck by the erotic lines Trintignant read to his daughter, her knowledge of their professional work as actors not withstanding.

                                                   I love your deliciously elastic body,
                                                 The graceful curve of your shoulders,
                                         Your left breast so insolent, the right one so tender,
                                              It’s nipple sleeping like uncorked champagne.
                                                         Your armpits so soft and downy.
                                            Your navel a tiny moon hollow and mysterious.
                                                         Your vulva a resplendent garden
                                                          And your exquisitely agile ass.

 

Trintignant’s words and the yearning in his face as he spoke them to his daughter thrilled Ellie. Jacques’ words, delivered in his cool not quite aloof professorial manner, intrigued her. “I’ve always had a desire to satirize the performance, make the eroticism more appealing to a modern audience,” he said. “We could improvise from the original text. Write dialog for your short film project at Tisch. You could easily write Louise de Coligny, Appollinaire’s unfaithful lover.”

They spent Sunday afternoons in Jacques’ tiny office, like actors transported to the Thâtre de l’Atelier, immersed in the erotic language of Apollinaire, translating and improvising from the original French. Ellie soon realized that the free flowing nature and absence of story structure in Appolinaire’s poetry made it impossible to adapt as a short film, even if the images could be sufficiently softened to get past the screening committee at Tisch. She also understood that Jacques, like most of her teachers, was a poor storyteller. She never shared any of this with him; nor could she tell him she felt the readings had opened them to a dangerously ravenous artistic world unconstrained by conventional morality; a world that gave them license to freely express their most wicked sexual feelings in words.

The rehearsals and improvisations lasted several weeks. Ellie became addicted to them. She sometimes imagined stripping naked for her father. Her feeling of wickedness became stronger and more delicious during each reading. Jacques never once touched her which intensified her excitement. On one occasion reading the text she orgasmed secretly under the burning gaze of his eyes.

Ellie was more thrilled than surprised when Jacques suggested a way to bring more dramatic movement to Apollinaire’s poetry by viewing A Summer Night in the City. “It’s about a woman who wakes up with her lover after a one night stand,” he explained in his sanguine manner. “She can’t get him to leave and they spend the day together naked, lounging in her apartment, jousting with each other, sharing stories of missed connections. An audacious film by American standards, although I’m not sure I agree with the ending.” When Ellie asked why he said, “One get’s the impression that, against all odds, they’ll stay together.” Ellie easily understood her father’s feelings given his curdled emotional relationship with her mother; yet she’d often wondered as she grew older and on rare occasions shared her thoughts with Carlo, if theirs was the only possibility. She was inspired by the film. The two lovers, a man and a woman, spend the entire day naked and exposed, challenging and provoking one another. The woman is cynical and tries to discourage him but no matter how hard she tries she can’t get him to leave. At the end, they go back to bed emotionally depleted and fall asleep in each others arms. Ellie watched the film twice in one sitting. At the end, her heart swelled with such painful longing that she had to run out and jog around Washington Square Park until it subsided. She asked Jacques for the screenplay which he complacently retrieved from his library gratified by her interest in the story, without a clue as to why it moved her so deeply.

Jacques announced the news like a bombshell after their last improvisation, as they left his office  and walked through the arch in Washington Square park. “I’m taking a three month sabbatical in France,” he said dispassionately looking out at the fountain to avoid her eyes. “We can Skype as often as you wish. I’ll want detailed updates on your film.” Ellie stared at her father aghast as if he’d just bludgeoned her. For an instant she thought she might scream. Instead she took a slow, measured breath and responded to him as she’d learned to do throughout their readings. “Of course,” she said like a well rehearsed actor.

Ellie drove herself pitilessly to create a rough cut of her film before he left. She cast Bruno, a guy in one of her film classes who looked like a younger version of her father. When she first approached Bruno she told him sarcastically, “I’m sure you won’t mind working naked.” They set up three cameras, one for wide shots and two for reaction shots and recruited two other guys from their film class to adjust the lighting and work the cameras. They shot the footage in Jacques’ office the weekend he attended a Modern Language Association convention in Chicago. Ellie spent hours editing the film in the Tisch film lab, obsessed with revealing every graphic detail to her father. She handed him a disk at the airport. “I’m sure you’ll find it diverting on the plane,” she told him.

Jacques called in the middle of the night from Paris and left a dozen frantic voice mails pleading with her to answer. Ellie listened lying wide awake in bed, then deleted all of them. She was jubilant every time she entered the film lab remembering how skillfully she’d edited her film, playing Final Cut Pro like Mozart on the piano, she thought indulging herself. It excited her to replay the most crucial scene because it was so blatantly pornographic. She played it over and over again on her ipad whenever she needed a fix – in class, in Washington Square Park, in a toilet in the Bobst library where she once masturbated imagining her father’s face on the plane as he watched it.

Like her mother, Ellie knew the precise movements and gestures that would strike most deeply at her father, especially the final moment when Bruno buries his face between her legs, plunges into her as she fakes an orgasm and stares deadpan into the camera at her father.

She stayed up all night editing the final close up, adjusting the lighting for each thrust, the alto and bass of each cry and moan. Not for the faculty screening panel at Tisch, she told herself, but tailor-made for my father.

At the end of her senior year, after disabusing Bruno of his fantasies of an extended hookup, Ellie moved into an apartment in Bushwick with him and the two other students from their film class. She ignored Jacques at her graduation and forced herself to sit through an overpriced, celebratory dinner at Pernod, his favorite restaurant. All through dinner, she responded with bland indifference to his less than subtle efforts to engage her, savoring her mother’s satisfaction at witnessing the breech between them. A month after her graduation dinner, she emailed Jacques a link to a softer version of the video that she’d managed on the second try get past the Google censors on Youtube. “Two thousand hits the first week,” she wrote in her email. “Yesterday, I received my first advertising check from Google. Now exploring more lucrative opportunities on less restrictive websites.” It was the last time she ever contacted her father.

 

            “I feel paralyzed,” Hannah said as she slumped down on the couch, “like this giant vice has grabbed hold of my chest and I can’t get free of it. I’ve never seen Don so depressed. He won’t eat, he’s stopped coming home. Yesterday, he told me he’s moving in with a friend from work who isn’t married. I feel like a hideous monster. As he was leaving, I thought of a scene from The English Patient, when Almásy and Katharine break up. He tells her, ‘Katherine, I want you to know I’m not missing you yet’ and she answers ‘You will.’ I know Don, he holds everything in. When this finally hits him, I’m afraid he’ll explode. He could…” Tears stung Hannah’s eyes.

            “Have you talked to him since he left?”

            “Every time I call, I get his voice mail. I’ve left a half dozen messages. Ellie does the same with me. She was so elated expecting a peaceful weekend in the Hudson Valley. I couldn’t stand being with her.”

            “What made it so hard for you?”

            “I had a dream during the night we spent together. I couldn’t remember all of it then. Pieces of it have been coming back to me. I’m wandering naked, stripped of my wallet, my ID, credit cards. I get money from an ATM and somehow manage to get back to the house I grew up in near Rhinebeck, not far from the cabin where Ellie and I stayed. The house is deserted, dingy, filthy. I walk to the backyard where we had an incinerator to burn leaves. I find Tartine, the kitty I lost years ago, half dead lying in the ashes. She’s barely breathing. I’m too weak to help her.”

            “Hannah, there’s a scene in Cider House Rules when Homer has to take a dead fetus and put in an incinerator in back of the orphanage.”

            “That one I remember. It’s horrific. Homer couldn’t stand Dr. Larch performing abortions even though the girls who came to him were too young to take care of their babies. The scene makes me think of Tartine. She was a birthday present from my father. I was 11 years old and he took me to Bidawee. One of her eyes was slightly yellow compared to the other one which was pure Spring Green. They told me she had a mild case of feline herpes and tried to downplay it but it didn’t matter to me. She was so innocent and beautiful. My father told them she’d get all the meds she needed from our vet. They let me play with her in a small room with a window to see how we’d get along. This precious little kitten, nuzzling my hands and biting my fingers. I kissed her on her head and she started purring. I think that’s when they decided we could take her even though she’d been promised to somebody else. Tartine thrived all through my years in school and after I married Don. She never lost her tinged eye but it didn’t matter to me. She was so playful, sweet and trusting. She’d settle on my chest at night purring and fall asleep. It annoyed Don but I told him he could always sleep on the couch. About four years ago she developed a hyperthyroid condition. The vet said we could either subject her to radiation for three weeks in the hospital, no visits, in complete isolation, or I could give her drops of Tapazole every day. I chose the Tapazole because there was no way I could isolate my little girl in a sterile hospital setting for three weeks. I gave her the drops every morning. She’d look up at me sweet and trusting. I needed her as much as she needed me. It worked for about two years but then she lost weight. We increased the dosage which worked for another year but she again lost weight. We tried surgery to remove her thyroid. She never recovered. She was in such pain. She could barely walk or eat. I kicked Don out of bed and spent my last night with her beside me. She peed all over the bed spread. She whimpered when the vet gave her the injection. My beautiful little girl fell asleep in my hands.”

            “Hannah, you were always devoted to Tartine. Why would you cast her half dead in an incinerator in your nightmare?”

            “Because it’s not really Tartine,” Hannah said as she broke into sobs.

The following week Hannah filed no fault divorce papers. She left Don a message telling him he could have the co-op and found a studio apartment on Lafayette Street with a large picture window in the bedroom facing East. Before unpacking she filled the window with hanging ferns and a magnificent Potus plant. It soothed her to awaken each day to the plants luxuriating in the warmth of the sun. Once she imagined Ellie waking beside her but quickly suppressed the image.

She forced herself to use a Citbike to commute to her job at IBM in the Met Life Tower at Madison Square. At the end of the workday, she’d sit in the park and watch people scurrying to their subways and buses, or wander up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center, or buy a ticket to watch a movie she couldn’t remember; anything to distract her even briefly from the painful sadness that had invaded her body.

One day on her lunch break she was approached by guy from another department at IBM. A clone for Don she thought, so GQ in his Armani suit.

            “Wanna take my picture?” he asked undressing her with his eyes.

            “Hardly,” she answered deciding that this time she wouldn’t just fantasize about being a perfect slut.

They took a room at the Nomad Hotel a few blocks from the Madison Square. He surprised her by undressing her slowly, taking time to kiss her lips, breasts and go down on her; things Don had always done poorly, that Ellie did perfectly.

            “You taste so good,” he moaned.

            “Like a Sauvignon Blanc,” she said and couldn’t stop herself from laughing. Much to her relief he came quickly.

            “How was it?” he asked.

            “Every girl’s dream,” she answered knowing she’d burst his bubble. She was careful to move safely away from him when he tore off his condom.

Hannah smiled ironically as he dashed away from her in front of the hotel. She gazed at the buildings strung along Fifth Avenue that sloped down to Washington Square Park. The arch had taken on a reddish gold hue in the late afternoon sun. When she reached the park, she surveyed the Greek revival houses lining the cobble stoned street of Washington Mews and wondered which of them housed the office of Ellie’s father. She walked through the arch as Ellie must have done dozens of times with her father and found a park bench near the fountain. As she watched the students entering and leaving the Bobst Library, rushing to their classes, she imagined the paths Ellie had taken through the park and was seized with sharp, painful longing.

             “I saw Ellie last week,” Hannah told me. “She showed me a Spanish film, En La Cama, about a couple who have a hookup. The guy is tenacious. She can’t get him to leave. She pushes him away and he keeps trying to engage her. Ellie cried at the end when the two lovers collapse exhausted and fall asleep in each others arms. She called me yesterday to invite me to her new photo exhibition.”

           “Ellie’s not subtle,” I said. “She talks you into jumping out of an airplane; tells you about a wild turkey calling out to its mate; shows you a film about a woman who can’t get rid of her lover. Now she want’s you to see her latest pictures.”

            “What should I do?”

            “How do you feel about her.”

            “We don’t talk about feelings in my family.”

            “No, you keep them inside to protect yourselves. Have you ever thought that you and Ellie – the lovers – are most in need of protection?”

Hannah’s body shook uncontrollably as she entered the Matthew Marks Gallery, the way it had on that stupid plane ride she’d taken with Ellie. People had already formed a queue at the reception desk to inquire about the price of her photographs. Her eyes scanned the pictures. Some were almost exactly as Ellie had described them. New lovers lost in each others eyes in an outdoor cafe. A couple glaring at each other in the aftermath of their morning fight. Parents tending to three unruly children, too weary to enjoy their lunch. Students languidly sipping mouthfuls of bear on the grass in Washington Square Park. Motifs resplendent with intimations about the lives of the people who inhabited them.

Hannah moved to a smaller room where she was startled to find a triptych of pictures of herself. In one she’s determinedly riding her Citibike up Lafayette Street, her skirt billowing in the morning sun. In the second she’s sitting on a park bench wistfully watching passersby in Madison Square. In the third, she’s alone in Washington Square in the late afternoon light that accentuates the sorrow in her face. Ellie suddenly felt a stabbing pain in her chest. Her throat began to ache. She turned away from the pictures and found Ellie standing behind her.

            “I was afraid to get too close, so I settled for watching you from a distance.”

            “You’re the only one who sees me, even from a distance.”

Ellie took Hannah’s hand and lead her out of the gallery. They walked to the West Side promenade and found a park bench overlooking the Hudson. Tears streamed down Hannah’s face as she moved her hand to her chest. “I have a big, gaping hole inside me,” she told Ellie. “An ugly baby with a deformed mouth is hiding there crying out for her mother’s milk. Hannah reached for Ellie’s hand, placed it on her chest and broke into sobs. “If you touch me here, right here, I think I’ll die.” .

The following week, Hannah moved into Ellie’s apartment. Ellie threw out all her window shades to make room for her giant Potus and beautiful hanging ferns.

            “Do you know what a lesbian brings on her second date?” Ellie asked with her know it all grin.

            “Ellie, I know the joke, a u-haul!” Hannah answered pleased with herself.

            “My darling, I think you need a full size van.”

            “So what happens when you get tired of my cooking, my eyes get wrinkled and my tits start to sag?”

            “I’ll help with the cooking but that’ll probably make it worse. No problem with your sagging tits as long as I know they belong exclusively to me. Now the wrinkled eyes, they could be a problem. But if you ever mention Botox, I’ll have a bloody screaming fit!”

The last time I saw Hannah, she wondered how Ellie or anybody could capture the way another person feels in a picture.

            “Monet said that an artist already has a painting in his head before he paints it,” I said. “Ellie identified with what you’re feeling so her pictures of you are also about what she’s feeling. That’s how we connect with each other, like ‘Oh, me too!’ She’s showing you her hidden self in the pictures. You both hide differently. You withdraw into yourself. She jumps out of airplanes. Ellie can’t hide when she takes your pictures because she has to use the way she feels deep down to capture you. When you both look at the pictures, the feelings they evoke help you to be authentic and connect with each other.”

            “But we’re so different. What if it doesn’t work out with us?”

            “Yes, you are different. You work for IBM. She’s a freelance artist. It’s a no brainer that you’ll have conflicts. If they get out of hand, you can always come back for a tune up. But bring Ellie.”

            “She doesn’t think much of therapists.”

            “Understandable after Ariana. Tell her I said it’s always a big mistake to sleep with your patients.”

            “Everybody says that but I never understood why.”

            “Freud explained it in a little one and half page paper. Because it’s so hard on your nervous system. You’ll fuck up trying to be a both a good shrink and a good lover.”

            “And if you fuck up trying to be a good lover?”

            “You try to make it better and sometimes you’ll make it worse. But you’ll always give each other room to practice.”

Hannah and Ellie settled in together and eventually bought a co-op in Green Point. Last week Hannah called and told me that they’d decided to adopt a baby. “You both have a lot of mother’s milk to give,” I told her. 

 

 

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