Friday, July 20, 2012

Stephanie Reents' 'The Kissing List' Excerpt

The Kissing List, by Stephanie Reents is a collection of interlocking short stories of women who bravely defy expectations and take outrageous chances in the face of a life that might turn out to be anything less than extraordinary. Below is an excerpt of the short story, Games:
*Adult Content Below*

My  plan  is  simple:  kiss  Peter’s  ball  as  a  means  of  bonking  Hayley.  After  you  kiss  in  croquet,  you  may  whack  the  other player or take an extra stroke. I want to hit Hayley deep into the heart of the blueberry bushes so that her mallet turns  blue from chipping at her ball among the ripe berries. 
“Bamarama,” I say, rattling the ice in my mint julep. “Take  that, you playboy.” 
“Shit,” Peter says, stretching out the word like a piece of  saltwater taffy. “I guess I’m a goner.”
I move my ball a mallet’s length from his. 
“What?” Peter says. “I’m off the hook, Sylvie?” 
I aim for Hayley, and my ball smacks hers. 
“You  brute,”  she  says  as  her  ball  goes  spinning  into  the  bushes.  
I know it’s cruel to go after Hayley, but I’ve been annoyed with her since the drive up from New York to Alex’s parents’  summer house in Maine. “I have to pee, I have to pee, I have to pee,” she chanted at regular intervals, and Alex dutifully pulled over, which makes sense, I suppose, since he has the hots for her, even though she has a boyfriend named geoff, a reclusive  sculptor  who’s  also  a  weekend  race  car  driver.  Alex  is  Peter’s  best friend, and Peter is my boyfriend. Hayley, as the y in her name suggests, is the kind of woman who always has to be the center of attention. I have this theory that the Western world is  populated by two kinds of women: small women with big hair,  and average to big women with all kinds of hair. Small women with big hair aren’t necessarily small, but they have some quality that makes them childlike,  like little-girl  women.  Women like this exist in a state of grace; the world still extends to them, everything for their pleasure. Even though hayley has closely  cropped blonde hair, she’s clearly one of them.  
“Don’t be a sourpussy,” Alex says before he takes his turn.  “It’s all fun and games until someone’s whites get dirty.” 
“I give up,” Hayley says. 
“Don’t,” Alex says. “Just move your ball to the edge of the  bushes.” 
“Yeah,” Peter chimes in. 
I  look  at  Peter  but  fail  to  establish  eye  contact  with  him  through the mosquito netting that’s wrapped around the baseball cap he’s wearing. We’ve all donned these contraptions to  keep away the bugs. All Peter told me about Hayley before the  trip was that she was supersmart, even though she didn’t go to  college. This is code for cool in the language spoken by Peter  and Alex, who get turned on by women who read hegel, not as  well as they do, but well enough. 
“Those  aren’t  the  rules.”  My  voice  sounds  shrill.  “You  have to hit from wherever you find yourself.”  
“Fine,” Hayley says, suddenly turning away from us and  walking toward the bushes. “I can play by whatever rules.” 
“It’s  just  a  fucking  game,  Sylvie,”  Peter  says.  “We’re  not  setting organizational policy. We’re on vacation.” 
In the shadows of the blueberry bushes, Hayley misangles  her mallet, and her ball barely moves. 
“Can I just quit?” Hayley whines, but Alex is by her side,  telling her she can take a do-over: “Croquet rule #256 states  that ball must progress or regress by at least six inches, and if, whereby it fails, the stymied gent or lady must shoot again.” He  looks at me. “Agreed, Sylvie?” 
“Of course.” I feel myself soften a little toward Harley. 
“Have you some advice?” Alex asks Peter. 
“Do you mind if I show you how?” Peter asks Hayley. 
“I need all the help I can get,” she says. 
Peter is a master of croquet, not because he plays much,  but  because  he  is  a  ruthless  competitor  in  all  sports  that  involve  using  an  intermediary  device  to  hit  balls.  His  specialty is tennis, but he can also hold his own in badminton and pool.  If  there  were  an  olympics  of  social  games,  including  bridge  and hearts and perhaps backgammon and debate, Peter would  clean  up.  He  hates  to  lose.  When  I  once  reminded  him  that  social means sociable, he growled, “What’s the point?” Then  he  hitched  his  fingers  through  my  belt  loops  and  yanked  me  toward  him.  “I  eventually  won  you,  didn’t  I?”  this  is  true,  though it didn’t take much. I was pretty lost in something I still  can’t quite explain when Peter persuaded me to go out on a real  date with him. “Since kissing doesn’t seem to count as intent to  get serious in your book,” he said, “You’ve forced me to go old  school: dinner and a movie?”  
Now, I watch as Peter stands behind Hayley and wraps his  arms around her so that they’re standing parallel,  aiming toward the ocean and the second wicket. Peter shuffles in his flipflops, moving into position, and Hayley’s clogs answer. Then he  pulls back her arms, like he’s setting the pendulum of a grandfather clock into motion, and the heavy ball darts through the  kelly green grass like a small, furtive animal running for cover  and rolls right on-target toward the wicket. A nickel-size dimple appears in hayley’s cheek. And Peter’s face is stamped with  a clown’s grin so silly I can feel his jaw ache.
The cottage has five bedrooms, and Peter and I retreat into  one  at  the  far  end  of  the  second  floor.  There  are  mouse  droppings in the box of Kleenex next to the bed. Naked under  the cumulus cloud of goose down, we begin to fight.  
“So,” I say.
“What was that all about?” 
“What?” Peter answers. 
“You know. During croquet.” 
“I was helping her,” he says. 
“Why are you like this, Sylvie?” Peter opens a book the size of a cinder block on the history of New York. 
“I can’t believe you like people like her.” 
“Her  whole  Marxist  critique  of  higher  education?  Her  family’s hardly the proletariat. How do you think she can afford to work for a photographer?” 
“She didn’t go to college because she hated school.” 
“She’s interesting.” 
“Give me a break. She’s insipid. Were you listening to the  conversation on the way up?” I slump against my pillow. 
“Which one?” 
“Where she said she hated high school, but sixty-seven of  her classmates have friended her on Facebook.” 
“So what? I’m friends with people I don’t even remember.”  Peter pretends for a moment to get engrossed in a page of his  tome, which annoys me. 
“She contradicts herself constantly, and she doesn’t seem  the least bit aware of it. She told me that until six months ago  she  didn’t  own  any  shoes  besides  combat  boots.  Then  she  started wearing clogs and Converse low tops. It was as if she experienced some profound breakthrough when she realized she could wear clogs. I wanted to shake her and say, You’re twenty­ six. You can wear any kind of shoes you want. How does Alex  know her, anyway?” 
“They met in Costa Rica last summer.” 
“And he’s hoping for something to happen?” 
“He’d be thrilled. I’d be too.” 
“I’m sure you would.” I press the palm of my hand against  my chin. 
“Don’t start. You know that’s not what I mean. Kiss?” he  asks. 
Even  though  I  know  I  should  tamp  down  my  ugly  feelings, I feel them wriggling like worms in a container of fishing  bait. In the past year, I’ve only added one new name to my list:  Peter’s. “Gonna get married?” Laurie teases when we chat over  the phone. She has moved back home. “Gonna have babies?”  I’m twenty-eight, a socially appropriate age for settling down.  I love Peter, but being with someone means being with yourself  in a way that’s harder than when you are on your own.  
“I have a tattoo,” I say illogically. “Why doesn’t mine count  for anything?” 
My tattoo is small—just the call numbers for Clarissa inked  in neat penmanship across the lower left side of my back. I got it  on a whim in oxford when literature still felt urgent to me. The first time Peter peeled back my black wool tights, I gave him the  sexy one-line summary: “It’s about a coquette who’s ruined by  a rake.” Peter laughed: “You’re the thinking man’s bombshell.” 
Now Peter answers, “Of course yours counts. But it’s different. It’s an allusion to a book, for Christ’s sake.”
“So butterflies are better?” 
“Not better,” he says, “just different. Stop being so competitive.” 
I don’t move. “I don’t understand how you can like someone like her and like me, too.” 
“I can like her, but like you differently,” Peter says. “I can  think she’s wonderful and still love you.” 
I turn away. 
“All right, then,” Peter says. “No kiss.” 
But I turn back, and we begin kissing. We come up from  the covers, and I straddle Peter, and we start to have sex. His  face  comes  unmasked,  and  I  notice  the  things  that  are  pure  Peter:  how  half  of  his  left  eyebrow  has  been  rubbed  away  by  worry,  and  how  above  the  other  is  a  small  scar  he  got  from  jumping off the shed in his backyard when he was a child. His  fine blond hair sticks up. All of this, and especially his expression—which is always stunned when we first come together— reminds me of a little boy. I press my hand against Peter’s neck,  gently  at  first,  then  I  gradually  clamp  it  harder  between  my  thumb and index finger. I can feel his adam’s apple bob when  he swallows. Peter likes this; he likes it when I take control. He’s  told me it’s a turn-on, which is why I do it. Usually I loosen my  grip after a few seconds, sit back on my heels, forget about how  Peter looks unmasked, and concentrate on how we feel together.  But tonight I don’t.  
Peter  rasps;  his  expression  changes.  He  looks  at  me  as  though  I’m  a  stranger.  I  shift  my  weight  and  move  my  other  hand to Peter’s neck, my thumbs pressing in on both sides of his voice box. The flesh yields, but not the bones. His tongue  comes out of his mouth, the narrow tip of it touches his top lip,  and his eyes close. And then suddenly they open, both at the  same time, and he says, “Stop it, Sylvie. You’re hurting me.” 
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, reducing the pressure, turning my  fingers into something light and without intention, like birds’  feathers. “You should have said something.”
Peter pushes himself up on his elbows until he’s sitting. He  grabs my shoulders and presses me backward to the bed, and  we keep having sex until he comes. Then he rolls off and faces  the windows away from me, and I know that it’s over. 
It’s so quiet and still when Peter speaks, his voice is like an object that trips you in a dark room. 
“Why did you do that?” he demands. 
“Never mind. Good night.” 
Peter doesn’t move. His back is still turned to me. 
“Backs can’t kiss, can they? All right, lipless back, no kiss.  I get the picture.”

The Kissing List can be purchased at, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, and IndiBound.

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