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Short Story
4954 words
SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

I Am a Slave to the Nudity of Women

by Thomas E. Kennedy

“I do not know with what resolve
I could stand against it, a naked woman
Asking of me anything.”
—Alberto Rios

He sits on his sofa, vodka close to hand, a book of poetry open on his lap, although he is not reading. He is ruminating, and he advises himself not to think about rising to step into his office to check the full-screen laptop opened on his desk to see if the e-mail inbox is illuminated with the name of Lucia. Yet he does rise, the book closed around one finger, does step into his office and does look at the laptop screen and sees that there is no illuminated Lucia there and tells himself, Well that is no doubt that.

Did you think, he thinks, that the two of you were in love, could be in love? She is so much younger and lives so far away. And you who had always been suspicious of that word until Eileen made you see, or believe, it could be possible and then proceeded to withdraw from a love she had encouraged him to believe was life-long? Still staring at the screen of the laptop, he thinks how all certainties he had once felt about the idea of love, both negative and positive, were now tipped over; the only certainty remaining concerns “chemistry.” You know, he thinks, and have always known that “the chemistry” has to be right, and what is the chemistry? Lucia has the right chemistry, but what is that chemistry? Her gentle, kind smile. Her blue eyes, tender and sad and merry, yes. Her face, yes. Her body, its lines and curves and fullnesses and hollows. Her rump—how odd, he thinks, his heart captured by a rump. And the character in her chin—yet he has known people with receding chins who had character nonetheless—the features of a face deceive so why does a certain face make you see possibilities, feel that happiness is possible, trust? Yet there is no denying the chemistry of her face or her body. Or, for that matter, the chemistry of her intellect, the way she is able to see things, surprise him with a word of understanding, yes, so chemistry is more than the arrangement of features of a face and a body and a rump. Could he ever love a woman, at least initially, whose rump did not win him? And what does that say about him as a human being? How would he feel if he learned that Eileen had rejected him because she had grown disenchanted with his backside? Maybe women aren’t like that? Dream on, he thinks. He finds it difficult to believe that he is standing there, disappointed, and thinking these things. Lucia is so different from Eileen yet he cannot deny that he “loved” Eileen and is on his way to “loving” Lucia (under Eileen’s tutelage he had removed the quotation marks from the word “love”—now they are back in place for he realizes he does not know what “love” might be).

There is, of course, he thinks then, something more: The way she looks at him with admiration sparkling in her eyes; the admiring things she says. He realizes that he is a sucker for that.

This is ridiculous, he thinks.

He returns to the sofa and sips his vodka and looks at the book of poetry, a slender volume whose slenderness seems somehow to promise disproportionate depth and breadth. Still he does not read. He stares at the page and thinks.

He thinks maybe it was that Eileen, with her long chestnut hair and perfect lips and tenderness and appealing femininity (or was that an act?), kicked him out, surprising him when he still loved her by revealing that she no longer loved him, so that he still had his heart open, even though his pride or self-respect would never allow him to beg or even try to convince her of the genuineness of his love for her (he believed at that time, for a time, that he knew what genuine love was)—he thinks maybe it is for these reasons that he is ready, even eager, to love again or to keep loving for as long as he can, specifically to see if what he feels for Lucia and she for him might be love, because when he loves (regardless of what love may or may not be), he feels almost complete, so it is no good to be alone again as he was before he met Eileen, even though he was fairly content being alone for those few years before that probably because, for the last ten years of his marriage to Jessica, he did not love her at all, but only tended the relationship in a somewhat cynical manner, trying to avoid things that annoyed her, and there were so many things that annoyed her (to name but one, she would not go to the movies with him, an activity he had always enjoyed, because she so loathed the prospect of people munching candy in the dark), trying not to do things that would make her unhappy while simultaneously trying not to make himself unhappy.

Finally, of course, he failed at both things, made both of them unhappy, just as she had done (if she was to blame at all, though it takes two to tango and so forth) because, he suspected, of the basic lack of love in the relationship—(relationship, he thinks, what a clunky word! And of course, he thinks, what is love anyway, etc., although the love he felt for Eileen, in contrast to his feeling for Jessica, left him no doubt, though that lack of doubt reminded him of the necessity of maintaining a certain healthy skepticism about it all)—and therefore was not unhappy being alone, even though at times he was lonely, but there was the occasional woman (even if sex without love was ultimately unsatisfying, yet sex when it’s bad is not so very bad, although it can be absolutely dismal to wake alongside another human being you do not love but whose body cavities, to put it hyperbolically crudely, you have merely made use of and so forth).

But then there was Eileen with her long auburn hair and delicate hands and beautiful mouth and feminine manner who told him he was the love of her life, winning him over by the force of her conviction that love clearly did exist, and she really did seem to love him to the extent that he actually began to understand that he did not love himself, but then in fact began to love himself, and then to love her, in the way a man can only love a woman when he genuinely has learned, preferably from her, to love himself (all these things, of course, being postulates built upon postulates when you have never in the first place answered the question of what, after all, is love, etc.) and there was the rub perhaps because just about when he began to love himself, and thus her, and began to think she was the love of his life, it seemed, she began to grow increasingly bored or annoyed with him (Do you have to crunch your cornflakes like that? kind of thing and so forth), ultimately showing him the door and giving him a verbal nudge toward it.

The mental image of him being nudged toward the door, though not precisely what happened, merely a manner of thinking, arrests him. He does not wish to think about these things, this recent history of his life. Living alone in his new apartment, small and lightless as it was in the depth of winter, as he negotiated the unexpected loss of Eileen, he began to be plagued by erotic fantasies of pain and humiliation that first repulsed, then baffled, then began to seem the inevitable next step for him to entertain and embrace. So he made a place for them in his psyche and allowed them to play out on the screen of his consciousness. Where, he wondered, were these scenes occurring? In what dimension did Eileen smile at him with such refined cruelty, laughing at his pain and him laughing along with her and taking pleasure from it all? Did he really entertain such thoughts? In what dimension did he welcome that cruelty? Perhaps he had thought (or convinced himself) that this entertainment would progress to some manner of release and perhaps it did on some level but on some other, perhaps more important level, he felt it involved an adulterating of what he had thought of as the closest he had come to a real experience of love, while at the same time realizing that this might all along have been the deeper point of all this, his imagined surrender to her imaginary cruelty, but no, no, no, you are confused, why would cruelty suddenly come into it when what had attracted them to one another was a mutual empathy and tenderness?

And he understands then that his intellect is limited such that he is capable of conjuring this cacophony of possibilities but not of organizing them in a comprehensible manner. Part of it has to do with the relationship of loss and lust but what is the nature of that relationship? The question makes his skull ache.

He looks at his drink and thinks, Vodka: it keepeth the reason from stifling, and sips, sips again, returns his attention to the open book in his lap where he reads, “I am a slave to the nudity of women...” The line takes his breath away, and he looks up from the page to contemplate those words. His eyes come to rest on a painting of an angel on the wall. The angel is slouched gloomily at a dining table before an empty plate and empty glass. Somehow the angel seems related to the line of poetry he has just read, which evokes the nudity of Lucia. He tells himself not to, but does lay the open book face down on the sofa cushion and does rise to go into the office to check the computer: No illuminated Lucia in the inbox. Of course. That is it. His vodka is empty so he throws two more cubes into the glass and pours in five fingers, returns to the sofa and picks up the book from the cushion, but a new thought strikes him:

That in the beginning, the very beginning, Eileen might have feared him and might have wanted to fear him and possibly confused fear with respect, confused that force she perceived in him, that she feared, with masculinity and possibly needed to have that illusion of him as forceful and masculine and fear-inspiring, which he never thought of himself as or even wanted to pretend to be, but perhaps was unconsciously inspired to do by a subliminal perception of and response to her fear, which caused an erotic reaction at that level, for he does recall how aroused he had been by her femininity, that she was small and slight and slender, that she seemed to enjoy cooking for him, even serving him, seemed to expect him to make demands of her, to seduce and undress her, to trap her wrists in his one hand as the other had its way with her body while her eyes met his in what appeared a kind of blissful surrender. Suddenly this appears to him as though illuminated along with the suspicion or perhaps understanding that it was the wearing away of her illusion that had led her to grow discontent with him and to the termination of their erotic life together.

Of course, he thinks, you have to realize that the fucking was important, and neither was the lack of fucking unimportant after she began to grow disenchanted with him. In the beginning, the fucking was the sine qua non and be-all-end-all, etc., a mix of instinct and consideration, of giving and holding back, of urgency tempered by reserve, spiced by the discovery and revelation of mutual secrets. But Eileen was also sometimes the aggressor in their erotic play, she was good at aggressing, was it a mistake for him not to have resisted, not to have kept her in that place where her illusion of him could thrive, but he didn’t, he even discussed it (How did you know I would like it if you did that? and so forth), should have kept it pure of words, but he didn’t, until there weren’t many secrets left (there are always secrets, etc., no one can ever truly know another or even, perhaps especially, him- or herself, etc.) which led to a nakedness that went beyond the physical to the spiritual, the psychological, to what seemed to be a complete nakedness in their embrace but maybe just was based on that mutual feminine-masculine illusion so that they were building on an illusion, an unsound basis for love, which at first seemed akin to some kind of state of grace, to know and to be known (insofar as one can ever know or be known and so forth), to know another with reverence for the knowledge, to be known with tenderness for your vulnerabilities and so on and so forth.

Then came the moment when one or the other of them, both perhaps, used the knowledge without care, teasingly, took the gloves off. I-know-you kind of thing. I see right through you, and so forth, and Ha ha, you’d probably actually like that, how pathetic kind of thing. And then one or the other of them feels they’re out on thin ice and in for a dunking from which he or she will emerge shivering and distraught. Or maybe the shadow part which was revealed is simply now illuminated, out in the light, and no longer has the force it had when it was locked away (you are, after all, what you are kind of thing), no longer interesting, or maybe just an illusion, self-knowledge being a series of lost self-deceptions and knowledge of the other being a series of disenchantments perhaps, the shadow of desire being dissipated in the light of awareness, and perhaps after that, perhaps when you get to that point, the beauty of real desire is possible, if by then you have any measure of desire left at all, but what it all led to finally was that he was no longer the love of her life, although she was still the love of his or seemed so (assuming that love is a real quantity or quality at all and not merely an illusion that each human being freely embraces because of his or her incompleteness.)

Or maybe, he thinks, it’s just a matter of all passion eventually burning out regardless of what you do. Familiarity breeds contempt kind of thing. Desire an illusion as well as love, etc., on the other side of which is the cooling. But, he thinks, Eileen reached the cooling before he did. As far as he knows he might never have reached the cooling, although it is entirely possible that his love was perversely stoked to even greater life by her cooling, that his desire began to flourish more greatly in panic at the withdrawal of hers. Too late to know now, for now he is irrevocably separated from her and does not want to return, could not, even if she wanted him to, even if she implored him, that would only embarrass him on her behalf.

But his heart is still open to love (“love”).

However, the chemistry has to be right. He can’t just love any woman. The chemistry is right with Lucia, but is that a chemistry of passion which is also doomed to burn out? (And, again, of course, what is at the root of this right chemistry business is quite another question; it seems there are only questions upon questions and perhaps the only way out is to become a Buddhist and renounce all desire as illusion, but who in the world other than a damn Buddhist wants to live without desire, to ignore the jumping of your blood when it jumps; even if its jumping is only delusive, it does, in fact, jump, and that must be the bottom line: your blood jumps. His blood jumps, although perhaps one should seek a state of unjumping blood, the age of calm and wise blood, where a man and a woman live together beyond passion just as companions of different sexes without sex, How was your day kind of thing, And how was yours, etc., but would that really mean no more fucking at all forever; even if it is but a tingling of the nerves kind of thing, he does not wish to contemplate the entire rest of his life without it. And it is no mere tingling of the nerves, the dance to orgasm is surely sacred, or is that so much eyewash dispersed for profit by New Age and advertising mountebanks. We are in the dark, he thinks; I am in the dark. And there is another possible aspect to this chemistry business. What if the so-called “right chemistry” is in fact an unconscious formula devised by a variety of subliminal experiences and forces that has become his destiny merely because, say, his mother once looked at him in a certain way when his father had said or done something or other at a time when he was pre- or semi-lingual which then programmed his desire in a direction quite beyond his control or comprehension so that when the “right chemistry” presents itself, it merely turns him into a “fool for love” or as Milton put it, Among them Hee a spirit of frenzy sent who hurt their minds/and sent them in a mad fury to hasten their destruction or something like that, which could conceivably mean that when he longs to “love” a certain woman what he really longs for is to reinvent Eden and then the inevitable Fall from Grace, his own destruction or, to put it less melodramatically, his own nonproductive infatuation—a repetition of failure?)

Nonetheless, his heart was still open to love, it seems to him, after Eileen stopped loving him and he met Lucia and felt the first stirrings of love which led to the two of them putting their mouths together and intertwining their tongues and tasting one another’s saliva which, though objectively might seem repellent, was subjectively quite stimulating—Wow indeed!—as was tasting and touching virtually all other parts of her body.

Actually, he knew Lucia already for the past couple of years, but never dreamed she was interested in him love-wise because she is so much younger than he, and anyway, when he met her he had just been taught by Eileen to love himself, and was not even thinking of Lucia in that way, being as he was so “fully in love” with Eileen, although apparently she, Lucia, was thinking of him in that way to his great surprise, and now he sees suddenly, as though scales have fallen from his eyes as it says in the Bible or somewhere, that he desires her also, in fact very much so. And what, he wonders, is the essence of his desire for Lucia? Surprise, perhaps? Surprise she would even for an instant desire him? There was so much against it. He is eighteen years older than she for one thing, lives two thousand miles away, and each of them has a life there, where he or she lives, from which they neither can nor wish to extricate themselves.

He thinks back over the girls and women he has been with over the six decades of his life—well, the four and a half erotically active decades—and can only conclude that of the ten or twelve, he has only approached what he would think of as love (if he had a definition) with the two: Jessica, to whom he was married for twenty years, and that love, if it had ever really been love (“love” which has still not been explicated) burned out in the first ten, even eight years; and Eileen, who taught him really to love, or so it seemed, and then, after fifteen years, rather abruptly gave him the boot, and now perhaps his passion for Lucia, too, was already at an end, or rather hers for him.

Now he is sixty-three (Liar! You’re sixty-five!) and hardly wiser about these things than he was at fifteen, albeit with a more complex confusion, and now is involved with Lucia who he feels he could love, maybe already does love—(if he is not merely setting traps of illusion for himself, falling for women with whom his relationship [relationship, what a word!] is by definition doomed and perishable [which is of course a real possibility—cf. Milton’s spirit of frenzy etc.], although he cannot deny that he becomes extremely glad every time he sees or even imagines her face and her body and her kind and gentle manner as well as her wit and intelligence [blood jumping and so forth], and of course her rump, and who seems quite definitely to find something of value in him which tends to make him value himself—cf. Gene Kelly in some musical romantic comedy singing and dancing on roller skates: “Can it be, I like myself? She likes me, so I like myself...”)—although he is by no means fit for roller skating any longer and in ten years will be seventy-three and she will only by then be fifty-five so this prospect of love (perhaps extremely remote prospect of love is a more accurate term) seems doomed to fail (and there you have that again!), maybe has already failed, making him wonder if love is perhaps only a temporal thing (immortal love does seem a rather romance-comic-book romantic notion when it comes to the crunch of the cornflakes), and in truth what could she possibly see in him, he doesn’t even like her to see his aging body naked although he does extremely enjoy seeing her in that state, trim and tanned and creamed and gleaming as her relatively young flesh is.

Is that what this is all about then, just lasciviousness? No, no, no, he has only seen her naked three times anyway (although his breath goes shallow remembering every detail of those three exhilarating experiences, nor does it have to do only with young flesh because Eileen was five years older than he and he was greatly enamored of her flesh even when it began to age and sag a bit, though he can’t say how he might have felt if it had sagged a great deal more, but was spared that test by Eileen having ceased to love him when he still loved her), his primary pleasure has been taken far more from her (Lucia’s) person, her manner, her words, than from her body (this went for both Eileen and for Lucia, although he cannot discount the piquancy of the fucking with Lucia—it was quite an experience for his sixty-three-year-old self to create the two-backed beast with Lucia’s forty-five-year-old one —wow, indeed to put it mildly!—although he remembers meeting a woman of forty-five once when he was thirty-four and the two of them kissing, perhaps the nicest kisses he has ever experienced, her lips and mouth so knowing and engaged that he still recalls the kisses nearly thirty years later, although he also remembers thinking, from the vantage point of his thirties, how much older she seemed than he, while now he is thinking that forty-five is quite young indeed. Everything, it seems, is relative or even worse.

After his last physical meeting with Lucia, they sent lengthy e-mails to one another every day, filling the vast ether of their two-thousand-mile separation, sometimes twice a day, and every time he saw the name Lucia illuminated in his inbox, his heart leapt and his blood jumped, although he has to admit that then the e-mails began to come every other day, then twice a week, then once a week, and now he has not heard from her for fifteen days except for a couple of lines in which, however, she hastened to say she was thinking of him and which she signed “kisses”—though he is left in doubt as to whether she thought of those kisses in a literal sense or merely as a complimentary closing.

So, he thinks, what is he living off now? A word (kisses—an ambiguous word really) and the thought of his existing inside her pretty head (which might also be a hyperbole —what, after all, he thinks, does “thinking of you” really mean—thinking at the moment of writing those words or thinking more generally or even—do not rule this out—wanting to tell him that she was thinking of him when in fact she was hardly thinking of him at all or even thinking about how to extricate herself from this constant need to send him e-mails and from the prospect of having to see him naked again?)

This is instructive, he thinks. This should be instructive. He thinks that he really should learn from this. What? he wonders. What should he learn? Perhaps, he thinks, this will finally teach him about the nature of love, the nature of loneliness, the nature of desire, the nature of life.

Don’t be a fool, he thinks. Lucia is her own person and she owes him nothing at all and is free to decide against becoming involved with him and probably would be wise to do so because of the age difference and the geographical distance to name but two very salient matters.

Although he would prefer not to, he rises from the sofa, the slender book of poetry held open on his index finger, and pads across the carpet into his office to check his e-mail. There is no illuminated Lucia in his inbox so his blood does not jump but sinks with resignation.

Don’t be a fool, he thinks. Who could blame her? A young beautiful woman like that has no need of an old fool like me. This was merely a flirtation. A fluttering of the pulses. A pleasant interlude. A temporary jumping of the blood through the fiery hoops. So let it rest.

He clicks the “refresh” tab on his screen. Two new e-mails appear, but neither is from Lucia, and the absence of Lucia’s illuminated name in his inbox makes him feel incomplete, but he thinks that probably everyone always feels incomplete anyway, it being a condition of being alive to feel incomplete and particularly a condition of a man of his age who should not expect to be completed by a relatively much younger and still beautiful woman. That is it, and he realizes that he is to be spared the mysteries and surprises and disappointments and vicissitudes of this “love” affair.

He closes the book which he was still holding open on his index finger at the poem whose first line had so beguiled him and returns it to its alphabetical slot on his poetry shelf. Then he goes in to his office to shut down the laptop, but does look once more to see if the name Lucia is illuminated in the inbox, which it is not, and he cannot help but wonder what he would do if the name should suddenly appear on the screen, and she professed profound love for him—would he be glad or frightened?—or, conversely, continued to offer ambiguous statements, complimentary closings of “kisses” and “thinking of you”—and either way, it seems to him now, is a kind of potential fall, a gateway to a kind of Fall from Grace where a kind of spirit of frenzy lays in wait for him.

He remembers then that in one of her e-mails Lucia said something about having been “naked in his bed,” and he remembers the details of her naked body—particularly perhaps her rump, how odd, he thinks again, to surrender one’s heart to a rump, though other parts as well—and of Eileen’s naked body and her rump, which he also cherished (definitely part of the chemistry: My soul then sold for but a rump?/By those hips parenthesized?) And he remembers once then in Dublin at a conference when he was entertaining a group of colleagues in his hotel room late one night and stepped out into the hall to get more ice from the machine and a naked woman was standing outside the open door across the way, a most appealingly naked woman, and she spoke in fury to him, shouting, “Ye can shut the fuck up, ye can, all of ye!” and his mouth dropped open at the paradox of her inviting nakedness and her furious anger, and he muttered simply, “Yes, I will, of course, forgive me,” and she disappeared into her room with a flash of comely rump, and now he returns to his poetry shelf to find the book he has just put back into its alphabetical slot and thumbs it open to the page and the line, “I am a slave to the nudity of women,” and it occurs to him that that perhaps is all he knows and all he needs to know. But he does not know with what resolve he could stand against it, a naked woman, asking of him anything.

—From Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down: A Novel in Essays (New American Press, 2010); reprinted here by author’s permission


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury