< modern american usage

He said, to defer the sex act seemingly imminent, that he worried, sometimes, he was a bad person. She was unclothed, January light on her breasts, sitting with legs apart and folded at the knees, straddling him, fixing her hair, which changed, he noted, the shape of her breasts. He saw his stranded computer, playing something by Sibelius at the corner of the bed, and the thick blue spine of Garner’s Modern American Usage dominating the otherwise quiet titles of her wooden bookshelf. She was flexible. Not un-atheletic. She told him that she, too, worried about being a bad person. His eyes lingered on her breasts. He felt her legs, which were shaven and well-shaped. They kissed each other. The room was not cold. Her sheets were white with faint pinstripes, twisted around the bed which, despite its disarray—not from passion, they had come to it like that—smelled pleasant, like detergent. He had the basics of a feeling that they were lying to each other—that neither of them thought they were really a bad person, not truly, even if they regretted certain actions they had undertaken in the past. People do this. Neither had spoken much about their life—the word ‘life,’ like ‘past’ carrying the weight of explaining decisions which are, in hindsight, obvious, and thus hard to tell a good story about. At least without making one's-self the villain. It is easy to tell a story, he thought, where one is the villain because, of course, such stories aren’t easy to tell. He thought about bringing this up, like he had before discussed with her some of the books on her shelf. Something off-the-cuff. She had played a little game with him before—asking him to guess an author she was thinking of, one with the initials H.M. But, thinking for a long time, he had grown increasingly anxious, increasingly panicked and unable to think of anyone, of any profession, it seemed, with those initials. He had conceded, embarrassingly. She had laughed, bending forward, as he was sitting on her floor. Through perfect teeth she said that it was Herman Melville (she had been then clothed, the atmosphere of the room compressed, quiet, not sexual at all—he had not assumed that was coming, though in hindsight he saw very little), and just before her laugh he was sure he had also seen a small contortion of her lips that signaled, he was sure of it, some ratcheting down, on some internal scale she kept for all those she cared about enough to talk to, her perception of his intelligence. That this pained him spoke a great deal. He had read only one story by the man, and not his supposed magnum opus, the story in question seeming to speak directly to his probably kneejerk reaction to her straddling him, both of their top halves bare and their pelvises clasped warmly and with pressure, squeezing harrowingly what few layers of stretchy fabric lay in-between, namely: I would prefer not to.

He could explain to her that he had not done it—had sex—which could go, he conjectured, one of two ways. Maybe it would encourage her to gently decouple from the erotic tension at hand out of some concern for what might be to him, not to her, a big moment; she might allow them to comfortably separate and, perhaps only after tenderly and fraternally embracing him, speak about other things: make the night about something else. All the while, if this happened, he would search for disappointment in her eyes—sitting there with half an erection and a cold back as whatever hormones regulated temperature during sex seeped back into his muscles, or were metabolized by his liver: wherever they went. She might though, alternatively, he thought, see it all as an erotic opportunity: to strip him of something which he had, for reasons unclear to her, maintained longer than most people. He could be forced to join, he thought, a race towards the culmination of the act, which he was sure he could complete, perhaps with great enjoyment on both sides, his not feeling deficient physically or erotically, having learned the sensual zones that even if stimulated without great precision, as he held no pretense of being able to do, would be be arousing to her simply by the ease of human arousal as it had pertained, for thousands of years, to the survival of their species.

He stated that he had been in a ‘thing’ for a while but had never done ‘it’ because of many reasons which were complicated but not necessarily coupled to his unwillingness to do ‘it,’ not at all, but rather his hesitance to impose or make it an ‘issue important to him’—a relationship being composed of two people and thus being complex, etc. It became clear he had spoken too quietly for her to catch all of what he had said, although it was clear enough to her that his statement had not been an invocation of passion. She prompted him to repeat because she had not heard which, as he would review in his head many times following, showed a reserve and gentle truth to her ways that struck him very plainly and made him, for the first time in as long as he could remember, feel simultaneously stupid and unashamed of being so. It made sense, maybe given her character and, perhaps, the presence of the massive dictionary of American grammatical usage on her shelf, of which they had spoken at moderate length in no unspecific terms, the blue tome having been at the center of an essay by postmodern short-storyist and essayist David Foster Wallace (deceased eight years before), for whom they both held an appreciation, referencing in this same conversation (both clothed at the time) another friend who, at a party of their mutual friends, had danced in orange lobster-claw oven mitts by instruction of a drinking game, speaking out loud repetitively the title of one of Wallace’s books of essays (also coincidentally a title of one of the essays therein): Consider the Lobster. This book also contained the essay on American usage and Garner’s book, in fact.

He said he hadn’t done ‘this’ before. Hadn’t done ‘it’ before. Because of complicated factors, extremely complex factors, rapidly changing and paradoxical and not the least bit totally embarrassing and facile factors not entirely under his control, he said, attempting to be clear while also calm and cool, perhaps even suave as the pure white sunlight and bared breasts of no modest import in the room suggested he should, perhaps, aspire to be. She leaned forward, pressing her chest to his, her head to the tender space where his neck joined his head, her legs still folded to either side of his pelvis, which was highly compressed and beginning to ache. Her warm skin contacted his own warm skin, and then there was nothing to look at. No light, no books, no breasts. Her skin smelled like health, unlike anyone’s skin, for which he felt he had an uncanny memory, those natural epidermal smells, and in which he placed great meaning—the people who were no longer good to him having smelled, when they embraced in the waning days of their relationship, to him bad or sick and unlike when they had met. Like a souring of their soul had taken place. A waning moon. She sighed, and he wondered, for a moment, if it was out of frustration or unfulfilled desire, both of which could have been fixed, in some way, he knew, by his having sex with her, but then he stopped, and realized he didn’t know her. She lay there for a while, as if she could have been taking a short nap, her breathing even. She 'nuzzled' him. And his fears were, in a way, soothed. And it occurred to him that those things he had thought had been wrong, although one never knew, one could never be sure.

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