Afterwards, when I knew that I had not loved him at all, the shock was all in my stomach, like the feeling when you miscount going upstairs in the dark and climb a step that is not there. It was not my heart that was upset but rather my balance. I had not yet learned that it was possible to desire a man so and not love him a little.
Oh, I longed for him. When he was not there, the hours passed so slowly that it seemed that the sun had fallen asleep in the sky. I would wait at the window for whole days for the first glimpse of him. Every time a figure rounded the corner out of the trees, my heart leapt, my skin feverish with hope even as my eyes determined it to be someone to whom he bore not the slightest resemblance. Even Slack the butcher, a man of no more than five feet in height and several times that around the middle, whose arms were so pitifully short they could barely insert the tips of his fingers into the pockets of his coat. I turned my face away hurriedly then, my cheeks hot, caught between shame and laughter. How that beer-soaked dumpling would have licked his lips to imagine the tumbling in my belly at the sight of him, the hot rush of longing between my thighs that made my fingers curl into my palms and set the nape of my neck prickling with delicious anticipation.
In the dusty half-light of the upper room, breathless against the wall, I lifted my skirts then and pressed my hand against the slick muskiness within. The lips parted instantly, the swollen mouth sucking greedily at my fingers, gripping them with muscular ardour. When at last I lifted my hand to my mouth and licked it, remembering the arching fervour of his tongue, the perfect private taste of myself on his hot red mouth, I had to bite down hard upon my knuckles to prevent myself from crying out with the unbearable force of it.
Oh yes, I was alive with desire for him, every inch of me crawling with it. A whiff of the orange water he favoured, the touch of his silk handkerchief against my cheek, the remembrance of the golden fringe of his eyelashes or the delicate whorl of his ear, any of these and less could dry my mouth and melt the flesh between my legs to liquid honey. When he was with me, my sharp tongue softened to butter. I, who had always mocked the other girls for their foolish passions, could hardly breathe. The weaknesses in his face—the girlish pinkness of his damp lips, the irresolute cast of his chin—did nothing to cool my ardour. On the contrary, their vulnerability inflamed me. Whenever I was near him, I thought only of touching him, possessing him. There was something about the untarnished lustre of his skin that drew my fingertips towards him, determining their movements as the earth commands the sun. I had to clasp them in my lap to hold them steady.
The longing intoxicated me so I could barely look at him. We sat together in front of the empty fireplace, I in the bentwood chair, he upon a footstool at my feet. My mother’s knitting needles clicked away the hour, although she kept her face turned resolutely towards the wall. For myself I watched his hands, which were narrow with long delicate fingers and nails like pink shells. They dangled impatiently between his legs, twisting themselves into complicated knots.
It never occurred to me to offer him my hand to hold. Slowly, as though I wished only to make myself more comfortable, I adjusted my skirt, exposing the white flesh of my calves. His hands twitched and jumped. I lifted my petticoats a little higher then. The fingers of his right hand stretched outwards, hesitating for only a moment. I could feel the heat of them although he did not touch me. My legs trembled. And then his fingertips reached out and caressed the tender cleft behind my knee.
The ungovernable swell of desire that surged in my belly knocked the breath from my lungs and I gasped, despite myself. Silently he brought his other hand up to cover my mouth. I kissed it, licked it, bit it. He groaned softly. Beneath my skirts his right hand moved deftly over my skin so that the fine hairs upon my thighs burst into tiny flowers of flame. I slid down towards him, my legs parted, and closed my eyes, inhaling the leather smell of his hand on my face. Every nerve in my body strained towards his touch as inexorably, miraculously, his hand moved upwards.
Unhooked by longing, my body arched towards him. When at last he reached in to touch me, there was nothing else left, nothing in the world but his fingers and the delirious incoherent frenzy of pure sensation they sent spiralling through me, as though I were an instrument vibrating with the exquisite hymns of the angels. Did that make him an angel? My toes clenched in my boots, and my belly held itself aloft in a moment of stillness as the flame quivered, perfectly bright. I held my breath. In the explosion I lost sight of myself. I was a million brilliant fragments, the darkness of my belly alive with stars. When at last I opened my eyes to look at him, my lashes shone with tears. He raised a finger to his lips and smiled.
Oh, that smile! When he smiled, his mouth curved higher on one side than the other, dimpling his right cheek. That dimple spoke to me more eloquently than his eyes, for all their untroubled blueness. And it was surely one hundred times more fluent than his speech, which was halting at the best of times and rutted with hiccupping and frequently incomprehensible exclamations. Even now, when so much time has passed and I must squint to recognise the girl in the bentwood chair, the recollection of that tiny indentation can unsettle me. Back in those days, it was as if, within its perfect crease, there was concealed a secret, a secret of unimaginable wonder that might be known only to me. For like everyone who falls for the first time under the spell of corporeal desire, I believed myself a pioneer, the discoverer of something never before identified, something perfectly extraordinary. I was godlike, omnipotent, an alchemist who had taken vulgar flesh and somehow, magically, rendered it gold.
Had you asked me then, I would have said I loved him. How else to explain how desperately, ferociously alive he made me feel? It was only afterwards, when the lust had cooled, that I saw that I was in love not with him at all but rather with myself, with what I became when he touched me. I had never thought myself handsome. My lips were too full, my nose insufficiently imperious, my eyes with their heavy brows set too wide apart. I was denied the porcelain complexion I secretly longed for. Instead, my face seemed always to have a sleepy, bruised look about it, as if I had just awoken. But when he touched me, I was beautiful. It was only afterwards, as he offered his compliments to my mother and prepared to return home, that I became a girl once more, commonplace, cumbersome, rooted by my clumsy boots to the cold stone floor.
He patronised my mother from the beginning, his address to her exaggeratedly courteous, a pastiche of itself. As for her, she bridled at every unctuous insincerity, her habitually suspicious face as eager as a girl’s.
“I am but your humble servant, madam. There could be no greater privilege than to oblige you,” he would say, bowing deeply before throwing himself into the bentwood chair and allowing my mother to loosen his boots. He did not trouble to look at her as he spoke. His tongue was already moistening his lips as he smiled his lazy smile at me, his eyes stroking my neck and the slope of my breasts.
I’m ashamed to say that at those moments I cared not a jot for her humiliation. He could have called my mother a whore or the Queen of Sheba, it would have been all the same to me. The pleasantries were a necessary chore to be endured, but my heart beat so loudly in my ears I hardly heard them. I thought only of the tug of my breath inside my chest, the shimmering anticipation between my thighs. As long as he touched me, as long as he smiled at me and caressed me, his fingers drawing a quivering music from my tightly strung nerves, my mother’s dignity was not a matter of the least concern. As long as that tiny indentation in the corner of his mouth whispered its secrets to my heart and to my privities, he might have unsheathed his sword and sliced off my mother’s head and I would have found reason to hold her responsible for his offence.