Friday, July 20, 2012
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.”
“Give me a break. She’s insipid. Were you listening to the conversation on the way up?” I slump against my pillow.
“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 Amazon.com, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, and IndiBound.