For a few breaths, everything went still, and my entire world was the feeling of Elliot’s heart beating against mine, and the way his hand spread across my lower back.
“I’m so excited it’s summer,” I said into his neck.
He stepped back, still smiling. “Me too.” There it was again – the breathless silence between us. And then he broke it, brandishing two books in his hand. “I brought you something to read.”
“Something for our library?”
He laughed dryly. “Not really. You may not want to leave these out.”
His words confused me until I looked at the covers: Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
I was enough of a book nerd to know these were not books I would already find in my high school’s library.
“What are these?” I asked, seeking confirmation.
He shrugged. “Erotic literature.”
“When did you get them?”
“A couple of years ago. I read them in January.”
I swallowed thickly. After my revelation that things were definitely changing between me and Elliot, these books felt like blistering rocks in my hands.
Elliot flopped down on the futon. “You’re all curious about boys and sex, I thought you might want to read them.”
I felt my entire face heat and handed the books back, avoiding his eyes. “Oh, that’s okay.”
I was ready for a step forward. But the idea of sex, and Elliot, sent me into light-headed territory.
“‘That’s okay’?” he asked, incredulous.
“I’m not sure I’d like them.” My voice was thick; the lie didn’t want to roll off my tongue.
He smirked. “Cool. Well, I’m done with them anyway. If it’s okay, I’ll leave them here.”
A week into vacation and I caved. The nondescript book spines had been staring at me, daring. I’d put them on the shelf between The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – in other words, squarely in Elliot territory, as a hint that he was welcome to take them home if he chose.
It’s not like I wasn’t curious. It’s not like I didn’t itch to pick them up. But with Elliot stretched out in front of me every day, absently reaching to scratch his stomach or crossing his legs at the ankle – the movement somehow redefining and emphasizing what existed beneath the buttons of his jeans… I wasn’t sure what I really needed was more erotica.
Alas, Delta of Venus was first. I started it at daybreak, hours – I reasoned – before Elliot would show up.
But as usual, it was like he knew.
“Oooh. What are you reading?” he asked from the doorway. The barest daylight weakly lit my bedroom behind him; he blocked most of it with the width of his shoulders.
I ignored the rising heat in my cheeks and turned back to the cover as if I needed to remind myself. “Oh. Just one of the books you got me.”
“Ah,” he said, and I heard the satisfied grin in his voice. “You’re up early, too. Which one?”
Unwilling to say the name, I simply held up the book and waved it at him, struggling to look casual even though I knew my face was a ripe, heated red.
“Mind if I join you in the closet?”
“Suit yourself.” I rolled onto my stomach and continued reading.
The words were almost too much even for the privacy of my thoughts. I’d always thought of sexual things in such abstract ways, not with language but with visuals. And even more intense? I realized while reading this… I always imagined Elliot. I would imagine him coming closer and touching me, what he might say or how he might look. But never had I thought words like quivering, and tormented with desire, and absorbed him until he came.
I could feel him watching me but worked to keep my expression neutral. “Hm,” I said thoughtfully. “Interesting.”
Elliot exhaled a laugh.
“What did you just read?” he asked a while later, voice teasing. “Your eyes are going to fall out of your head.”
“It’s erotic literature,” I said, shrugging. “Safe money says I read something erotic.”
“Not a chance.”
“It’s okay if you’re embarrassed by it,” he said, returning to his book. “I won’t push.”
I was intensely embarrassed by it. But, at the same time, I was thrilled by it, and vexed by it. It was sexual, but so impersonal. I wanted to infuse it with more feeling. His hands became Elliot’s. Her hands became mine. I imagined emotion there that wasn’t on the page. I wondered if it was the same for Elliot when he read it, and whether he noticed how… distant it all seemed.
I inhaled a shaky breath and read, “‘So was Venus born of the sea with this little kernel of salty honey in her, which only caresses could bring out of the darker recesses of her body.’”
Elliot stared at his book, eyebrows knitted together as he nodded sagely. His voice came out a little hoarse: “That’s a good line.”
“‘A good line’?” I repeated, incredulously. “It’s…”
Actually, I didn’t have an ending to the sentence. It was a level of thinking I didn’t really have the capacity or experience to articulate, but something about it felt familiar, in an ancient kind of way.
“I know,” he murmured. “Do you like the rest of it?”
“It’s okay.” I flipped back through the pages. “It’s a little impersonal and… some of the stories are kind of sad.”
Elliot laughed and I gaped at him. “What?” I asked.
“Did you read the foreword, Macy?”
I scowled. “Who reads the foreword to erotica?”
He laughed again and shook his head. “No, you should. The stories were commissioned by a wealthy man. He just wanted sex. No feelings, no emotion.”
“Oh,” I said, looking down at the book that suddenly made so much more sense. “Yeah, no. I don’t like it. Not like that.”
He nodded, adjusting the beanbag beneath him.
“You read this?” I asked.
He hummed an affirmative noise.
“Did you like it?”
“I had the same reaction you did, I think.” With a tiny grunt, he stretched his legs out, putting his hands behind his head. I didn’t look at the buttons on his jeans. Certainly not twice. “It’s sexy, but distant, too.”
“Why did you read it?”
“Why?” he repeated incredulously as he lifted his head to look at me. “I don’t know. Because I love to read? I love that you can use words to convince people, or anger people, or entertain people. But you can use them to…” He shrugged, blushing a little. “Arouse people, too.”
I looked back down to the book, unsure what else to say.
“I haven’t seen you since April,” he said. “Whatever happened with spring formal?”
Laughing, I told him, “Nikki went with Ravesh.”
“Of course she did. Drama always settles with the dullest outcome possible. But I meant you.”
“Oh.” I dropped the book and lifted a hand to chew on my fingernail. “Yeah, I just stayed at home.”
I could feel him watching me, and he pushed up onto an elbow. “I would have come, you know.”
Looking at him, I tried to show him with my eyes that I really hadn’t wanted to go. “I know.”
“You don’t want me to meet your friends?” he asked, and his tone was playful, but at the distant edge was a sincere worry.
Quickly, I shook my head. “It’s not that.” I looked at him – at his face that was nearly in perfect proportion now, his expressive eyes, full mouth, angled jaw. “Okay, I guess it’s partly that. I want you to meet them, but I don’t really want them to meet you.”
He scrunched his nose. “Okay?”
“I mean,” I said, wanting to diffuse the insult I saw on his face, “I didn’t really trust Nikki and Elyse at the time, and I felt like if they met you they might flirt with you – especially at that dance – and I would have been a ball of rage.”