Bliss swore and ran down the hall, but not before I saw her tears.
The Gardener sat on my bed and brushed my hair until it gleamed like silk, running his fingers through it again and again. Then his hands moved elsewhere, and his mouth, and I closed my eyes and silently recited “The Valley of Unrest.”
“Wait, what?” Eddison interrupts, a sickened expression on his face.
She looks away from the picture, giving him a bemused look. “‘The Valley of Unrest,’” she repeats. “It’s a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. ‘They had gone unto the wars, trusting to the mild-eyed stars, nightly, from their azure towers, to keep watch above the flowers’ . . . I like Poe. There’s something refreshing about a man who’s so unabashedly morose.”
“It’s what I did whenever the Gardener came to my room,” she says baldly. “I wasn’t going to fight him, because I didn’t want to die, but I wasn’t going to participate either. So I let him do his thing, and to keep my mind occupied, I recited Poe’s poems.”
“The day he finished your tattoo, was that the first time, uh . . . the first time—”
“I recited Poe?” she finishes for him, one eyebrow arched mockingly. Victor flushes but nods. “No, thank God. I’d gotten curious about sex a few months before, so Hope loaned me one of her boys. Sort of.”
Eddison makes a choking sound and Victor can’t help but be grateful that his wife has these kinds of discussions with their daughters.
In any other setting, we probably would have called Hope a whore, except that Sophia—who actually had been a prostitute until her daughters were taken away by the cops—was a little sensitive about words like that. Plus, Hope was in it for the fun, not the money. She could have made a fortune, though. Male, female, pairs, trios, or groups, Hope was up for anything.
And there really wasn’t any such thing as privacy in the apartment. Except for the bathroom, it was all one room, after all, and the curtains between the beds weren’t thick enough to conceal much. No canopies, anyway. They certainly didn’t make anything soundproof. Hope and Jessica weren’t the only girls to bring people home, but they did it with the most frequency, sometimes more than once in a day.
Early exposure—no pun intended—to pedophiles had left me mostly uninterested in sex. That, plus my parents. It seemed a horrific business, not one I wanted any part of, but living with the girls gradually changed that. When they weren’t doing it, they were frequently talking about it, and even when they laughed at me, they answered silly questions about it—or in Hope’s case, decided to demonstrate how to masturbate—so eventually curiosity won out over the distaste and I decided to give it a try. Well, I decided to think about giving it a try. I backed away from a lot of opportunities at first because I still wasn’t sure.
Then one afternoon when I didn’t have to go into work in the evening, Hope came home trailing two boys. Jason we worked with, one of the few males on the overwhelmingly female waitstaff, and his friend Topher was a pretty standard fixture in the apartment. They frequently dropped by whether Hope was there or not; we thought they were fun to hang out with. Sometimes they brought food. The three were barely in the door before Hope was busy pulling off Jason’s clothing, and the two of them were completely naked by the time they tumbled laughing through the curtains onto her bed.
Topher at least had the grace to blush and kick the trail of clothing closer to the bed.
I was on one of the couches with a book. One of the first things I did once I had a real address was to get a library card, and I made a couple trips a week. Reading had been an escape when I was younger, and even though I didn’t have anything I particularly needed to escape from anymore, it was still something I loved. When the clothing was more or less contained, Topher poured two glasses of orange juice—social services had swung by a couple of days ago, so the fridge was actually stocked—and handed one of them to me as he flopped next to me on the couch.
“What, not joining them?” I teased, and his blush deepened.
“It’s no mystery that being with Hope is a little like having a time-share, but I don’t share at the same time,” he mumbled, and I snickered. Hope was exactly like a time-share, and proud of it.
Topher was a model, maybe nineteen, who sometimes helped Guilian with the deliveries to make a few extra bucks. He was good-looking in that bland model way—you know, the kind of good-looking that seems really ordinary because it’s shoved in your face all the time? He was a decent guy, though. We talked about the matinee a whole slew of us had gone to see the week before, about a gig he had for a few days as a living dummy for a temporary museum exhibit, about one of our mutual acquaintances getting married, and whether or not it would last, all while Hope and Jason went at it screaming and giggling.
So, pretty much a normal afternoon.
Eventually, though, their fun had to end. “It’s almost four o’clock!” I yelled over the groaning. “You two need to get to work!”
“Okay, I’ll finish him off!”
True to her word, she had Jason grunting in less than thirty seconds, and ten minutes later, they’d both had a quick rinse in the shower and were off to work. Most of the girls were working that night, except for Noémie and Amber, who both had a night class on Wednesdays and wouldn’t be back until almost ten. Topher left for a little while but came back with takeout from Taki’s on the corner.
I knew Hope’s usual invitation to sex was to kiss someone and shove her hand down his or her pants, but I wasn’t Hope.
“Do you want to teach me about sex?”
I was a different kind of straightforward.
Anyone else probably would have blanched, but Topher was a friend of Hope’s. Plus, he’d been there for some of the conversations. All he did was smile, and I was reassured by the fact that it wasn’t a smirk. “Sure, if you think you’re ready for it.”
“I think so. I mean, we can always stop.”
“Yes, we can. Just tell me if you get uncomfortable, okay?”
He took the remains of our dinner and shoved them into the overflowing trash can by the door; Hope was supposed to take it out when she left for work. When he came back to the couches, he dropped down onto the cushion and gently pulled me to lean against him. “We’ll start slow,” he said. And he kissed me.
We didn’t actually have sex that night; he called it Everything But. It was comfortable, though, and fun, and we laughed as much as anything, which in itself would have been strange just a year before when I’d first moved in. We kept the clothes on after Noémie and Amber came home from class, but he stayed with me that night in my narrow bed and we played more under the sheets until Noémie—in the next bed over—laughed and said if we didn’t shut up she was going to join us. It was a few days later that we had the privacy to go all the way, and the first time, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was.
Then we did it again, and that time I did.
We spent the next few weeks fooling around, until he met a girl at church he wanted to be serious with, but as easily as we’d become friends with benefits we went back to being friends, without any awkwardness or hurt feelings at all. Neither of us had fallen for the other, neither of us was putting more into it than the other. I loved when he came by the apartment, but not because I expected sex after he started dating his church girl. Topher was just a good guy, someone we all adored.
It did not, however, make me understand my parents’ fascination with sex to the exclusion of all else.