With delicate fingers, he stoked the embers of her desire.
“It’s nearly eleven,” said Jocasta.
“Coming,” said Romero.
He did not turn around to look at her. He knew she was standing in the study’s doorway, probably in the satin leopard bustier and crotchless panties he had reluctantly given her for Valentine’s Day. He continued to stare at the luminous white page on his laptop; except for the single brief sentence, it was stark naked.
“That’s what you said an hour ago. And yesterday. And last week. You’re always coming, but you never arrive.”
“Just a sec, Jo. I’ve got something going here finally. I don’t want to lose it.”
“You’re losing it all right.”
With nimble fingers, he strummed her like a mandolin.
“I’m going to bed. To sleep,” said Jocasta. “Do you hear me?”
Romero squinted at the laptop. “A half-sec, Jo. I’m almost there.”
“Happy fucking Valentine’s Day, Romero.”
With petting fingers, he stroked her like a cat.
Romero took a cautious glance over his shoulder. To his relief, the doorway was vacant. He read aloud the three sentences he had written. “Nope. Nope, nope, and nope.” He sighed and saved the document. Kicking off his shoes, he swiveled his chair around, went to the door and peeked out into the living room. The lights were out and the only sound was the tired ticking of the grandfather clock. He tiptoed to the stairs and listened. Not a sound. With any luck, he thought, Jocasta might be asleep. She was a quick and sound sleeper, even when she was angry, for which Romero was deeply grateful.
He returned to his laptop and clicked on the Instant Messenger. The screen popped up and he clicked A-Muse and typed:
rOmerO: Are you there?
The answer came in an instant:
A-muse: Of course. I’ve been waiting for you.
rOmerO: Jo just went to bed. I thought she’d never get tired.
A-muse: You’d think an old lady would nod off sooner.
rOmerO: 50’s not old. In 25 years, I’ll be 50. Someday you’ll be 50. What will you say then?
A-muse: Ask me in 25 years—when I’m 46.
rOmerO: You’re such a brat.
A-muse: Maybe you should spank me.
rOmerO: What are you wearing?
A-muse: Your boxer shorts.
rOmerO: That’s so hot.
A-muse: And I didn’t wash them.
rOmerO: That’s so unsanitary.
A-muse: You are a prissy little wuss.
rOmerO: Wait a minute. Hold that thought.
A-muse: What thought?
Romero opened his document and typed:
With precise fingers, he parted her pouting lips.
Romero shook his head. “Nope.”
A-muse: You still there?
rOmerO: Yes. Stuck on the first line of the last chapter of the new BR.
A-muse: After all those bodice rippers you’re stuck on one line?
rOmerO: I’ve got writer’s block.
A-muse: With the stuff you write, I’d call it constipation.
rOmerO: Oh, really? Thousands of women get off on my stuff.
A-muse: Good thing your pen is mightier than your dick.
rOmerO: Thanks, Ang. That’s just what I need to hear.
A-muse: Oh, don’t pout now. You’re getting better. Don’t you think I’m helping?
rOmerO: Maybe I should just go back to the sex therapist.
A-muse: I’m cheaper and a lot more fun. Come on, Rom. Buck up.
rOmerO: I’m bucking. Wednesday?
A-muse: Wednesday. And I’ve got a new toy. This is going to tickle your fancy. Guaranteed. Now go up to bed, wake her up and give it your best shot. And remember, slow and steady wins the race.
rOmerO: I just want to get to the finish line for a change.
A-muse: Stop whining or I’ll give you something to whine about.
rOmerO: You’re going to make a great mother someday.
Romero closed the IM screen. He typed:
With insistent fingers, he pressed the portal of her passion.
He saved the document and sat staring at the desktop wallpaper, a tile pattern of the covers of the ten short romance novels he had written in the past four years under the name Charlotte Chatsworth. He was the youngest and fastest throwaway romance writer in his publisher’s stable. The books, while not among the best sellers, had good and steady sales. They had attracted a small but very dedicated following, particularly among older female readers, the kind of women he had always been attracted to and who, he believed, could most appreciate him.
That was surely true of Jocasta, a professor of Classical Studies at Columbia, a woman with impeccable academic credentials and a secret insatiable appetite for raunchy romance novels, which she devoured by the bushel. She had been divorced by her plastic surgeon husband, who left her for a twenty-five-year-old personal trainer, six months prior to meeting Romero at a party of a friend of a friend. When Romero revealed to her, in the course of a waning conversation, that he was Charlotte Chatsworth, she literally gasped. Three French martinis later, she pulled him out onto the cold, wind-swept terrace, away from the babbling crowd, threw her arms around his neck and whispered, “You’ve made me come a thousand times.”
“Wow,” is all that Romero could think of to say.
They kissed so long and hard that he didn’t know if he was turning blue from the cold or a lack of oxygen.
Romero had succeeded in putting off an actual bedroom encounter for a month. He was finishing his latest book, he lied, and didn’t have a moment to spare. And he had a penile irritation. Slight, he assured Jocasta, but it put him off his game. Jocasta, who happened to be busy with conferences at the time, did not press the issue.
The real reason for Romero’s reluctance was his daunting lack of experience. His amorous encounters with flesh-and-blood women, as opposed to ink-and-paper ones, were few and paltry. At twenty-five he had made love to completion just eight times, five of those times with the same woman, and one of those five times so prematurely that he counted it as only half a time. It was not that he did not want to have sex; he was simply exceptionally unskilled at it. It was just like riding a bicycle, something he had never been able to master as a child, no matter how much his mother had assured him he could do it. After innumerable falls and collisions throughout his childhood and into his teens, he simply swore off bicycles forever.
Finally, on his twenty-third birthday, Romero sought the help of a sex therapist. The therapist was a man so homely that Romero was certain his expertise on matters sexual was strictly theoretical rather than applied, much as his own was strictly literary. The therapist talked a lot and Romero, for the most part, listened patiently. Part of his therapy consisted of work with a sexual surrogate, a young German woman, who, after two sessions, seemed mildly angry with him. She lectured him on erogenous zones, how to find them, and what to do when you got there. But Romero felt lost.
After two months, he dropped the therapy altogether. The German woman gave him the name of another surrogate who did the work, she said, under the table. She was younger, not as expensive, and more “rigorous,” as she phrased it, in her approach. Romero put the name and number in his wallet and forgot about her—until he met Jocasta. Faced with the need—and desire—to rise up to her amatory expectations, he called the amateur surrogate for an emergency session.
After five 90-minute sessions over the course of three weeks, what had begun as a crash course in erotic survival had evolved, for Romero, into something else. While the 21-year-old surrogate, Angelina, had her quirks and irritating qualities (she was a bit bossy and chewed gum almost constantly), she seemed genuinely interested in Romero and sincerely desirous of helping him. And she had a sense of humor. In searching for a sex coach, he had found something more—a friend.
Romero opened the document again and read over the string of possible opening lines. He typed:
With practiced fingers, he brought her trembling to the brink.
He shook his head, saved the document, and closed the laptop.
With his shoes in his hand, Romero slowly ascended the dark stairs, trying to avoid the creaks that might alert Jocasta to his approach. Sound sleeper though she was, he didn’t want to take a chance on waking her and raising her expectations, despite Angelina’s directive to do so. It was almost midnight; perhaps he could make an attempt in the morning, under more favorable conditions. He was, by nature, a morning person. The night for him was good for nothing but sleep, ideally uninterrupted.
When he reached the top of the stairs, he looked down the hall to the door of the guest bedroom and for a desperate moment considered spending the night there. But if Jocasta awoke to find herself alone in her bed, absent even of his mere dead weight, it would make matters worse. Since he’d been spending more and more time staying over her house (at her urging), something he could do as he worked from home, he had established a small wardrobe in the guest bedroom closet. He decided to at least wash up and brush his teeth in the guest bathroom to minimize the risk of awakening her.
Romero found the master bedroom incomprehensibly large. He could not understand why anyone would need a bedroom of such size unless they planned on staging massive bacchanals or practice rollerblading. He crossed the dark room, the carpet cold under his bare feet, and insinuated himself into the king-size bed, sliding his lanky body under the sheet and comforter with as little disturbance as he could manage. He lay still on his back on the unyielding mattress. Jocasta’s dark form was barely discernible on the far side of the bed. He took a shallow breath and closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes. Jocasta was hovering over him like a dark cloud. She smelled of rain.
“Oh, Jo. I thought you were asleep.”
“Is that a new scent?” he said, scrambling for conversation.
“Really? Nice. Lovely. Ever think about how perfumes get their names?”
Jocasta rolled over to the far side of the bed, reached to the night table, and turned on the lamp. The room went red.
“Is that a new bulb?” asked Romero.
Jocasta shimmied back across the bed to him. “Do you remember that scene in Jake of Hearts where Jake is chopping wood for his breakfast and Sara brings him a ladle of water—”
“A gourd. It was a gourd ladle.”
“And Jake holds the ladle to let Sara take a drink and she can’t drink fast enough and the water runs down her chin and wets her all down the front—”
“And she feels the berries of her breasts bruise against the rough gingham blouse,” quoted Romero.
“Oh, that rough gingham blouse,” sighed Jocasta and slipped her hand under the elastic of his boxer shorts.
“Whoa.” Romero pulled away. “A little sensitive there. Be careful.”
But Jocasta took the plunge. Romero grabbed her hand. “Jo, I’ll go off.”
“For Christ’s sake!” Jocasta rolled off him and sat up in bed. “Touching you is like defusing a bomb. Do you expect me to believe that?” She made a sound like a wounded animal and sat up in bed, her satin leopard bustier red in the dull glow of the lamp. “Shit!” She ran her hands through her short red-tinted hair. “Shit, shit, shit!”
“Jocasta, listen to me,” said Romero, pulling himself up. “It’s not you. You’re lovely, really. You’re dynamite.”
“I’m just a little oversensitive sometimes.”
“Yes. Oversensitive. And last time I couldn’t get you up with a derrick.”
“I’m a little under-sensitive sometimes.”
“And you were groping around me like you’d lost your keys.”
“I was just—exploring,” said Romero.
“Do you expect me to believe you are so inept? You’re Charlotte Chatsworth, for God’s sake.”
Romero sat up and put his hand on her shoulder.
Jocasta jumped out of bed and began pacing around the room. She was tall, leggy, slightly settled at the waist, a bit dimpled below and small on top. Her hard breathing strained her bustier and there was a run in one of her black stockings. “Why don’t you be honest? It’s me. Just too fucking old. Just—just—unfuckable!” Romero slid out of bed and started pacing behind her. She turned on him and yelled, “Stop following me.” He sat on the foot of the bed. “If you find me such a turn-off just say so. Tell me the truth. You won’t hurt my feelings. I’m a big girl. I can take it. I’ve taken it from better men than you, believe me.”
“It’s got nothing to do with age. You know I prefer old women,” said Romero and bit his lip. “Olderwomen. I meant older. That’s what I meant.”
“Yes, that’s right, old women,” said Jocasta. “Vintage. Aged. Like the best cheese.”
“I never said cheese. Wine, maybe. But never cheese. Someone else must have called you cheese.”
Jocasta pressed her hands to her eyes and sobbed loudly, but just once. She crossed the room wearily and lowered herself down on the Turkish divan against the wall. She bought it, she had informed Romero, after reading his early opus Midnight in Istanbul. Romero thought of the scene where Rashseed, the Sultan’s handsome but awkward bodyguard, takes the young English woman Lydia over his knees and spanks her, leading to one of his most steamy, if not historically accurate, scenes. Romero thought of Angelina in his unwashed boxer shorts. “Jocasta!” he said loudly.
“Come here. Now. Stand before me.”
Jocasta sat up and looked at him. She seemed sad and a little frumpy. Her breasts were scrunched by the bustier and stray strands of graying hair peeked out from the slit in her crotchless panties.
“I am waiting.” Romero folded his arms.
Jocasta smirked but did as she was told. She stood before him at the foot of the bed.
“You need to know, my wild mare, whose hand holds the reins,” declared Romero. With one swift and sure motion, he pulled her to him and bent her over his knees, miraculously without dropping her. She let out a little yelp.
With hard and stinging fingers, he flamed her reddening cheeks, thought Romero and filed it away in his memory for future use. With the first few strokes, Jocasta began to whimper and wiggle appreciatively.
“Take that,” said Romero, his confidence growing with each stroke. But Jocasta’s wiggling was having a dangerous effect and by the sixth stroke he knew he was in trouble. “And that.” He began to use a trick that Angelina had taught him, mentally naming the capitals of the fifty states: Alabama, Montgomery; Alaska, Juno. “And that!” Arizona, Phoenix; Arkansas, Little Rock; California, Sacramento…but before he could get to Colorado, it was all over. And it wasn’t much.
Jocasta sensed a minor seismic event and stopped wiggling. “You didn’t,” she moaned.
Jocasta righted herself. She stared down at his shorts. “You are,” she said coldly, “no Charlotte Chatsworth.” And she walked out of the bedroom.
“Fuck!” said Romero. He stood in the middle of the big red-lit room and shook his head. He was at a loss for words. He walked to the windows and looked out at the street. Although it was past midnight, all the lights in the house across the way were on and he could hear the faint sound of music. Apparently, a Valentine’s Day party was in full swing. He stood for some minutes. He was tired and wanted to go to bed.
It was Jocasta. She was standing in the bedroom doorway. She was holding a suitcase.
“Where are you going?” asked Romero.
“I’m not going anywhere.You’regoing. Now.”
Romero realized it was his suitcase. “Oh.”
“All your stuff is in here. Not too neatly.”
“That’s okay. Jo, I’m—”
Romero took the suitcase, went to the guest bedroom and got dressed. He made his way down the stairs to the study and picked up his laptop, went through the living room, paused to listen to the grandfather clock strike the half hour, and left.
He walked down the path to his car at the curb.
He turned and looked up. Jocasta was in the bedroom window. She was wrapped in a white terry cloth robe. She flung a book out the window and it bounced on the path and landed at his feet. It was Midnight in Istanbul. As he bent down to pick it up, another book bounced off his back. Jake of Hearts. That was followed by The Thief of Thebes, his Greek themed romance. He was glad it missed him, as it was his longest book and had a bit of heft to it. Jocasta stood at the window ready to pitch another volume. She looked at the cover and hesitated. She gave Romero a long sad look, shut the window, and vanished inside. Across the street, a woman who’d been watching the scene from the porch of the partying house laughed.
Romero got in his car. He flipped open his laptop and clicked on the document and typed: With cold steely fingers, he shucked her like an oyster. But he deleted it immediately. He took out his cellphone and hit a fast dial number.
“You asleep, Angelina?” he asked.
“Would I be talking to you if I was asleep?”
Romero sighed and shook his head.
“Guess it didn’t go too well tonight,” said Angelina.
Romero said nothing.
“Hey, come on. The course of true love and all that shit. You know.”
“I’m really tired,” Romero said.
“Go home. I’ll meet you there in half an hour.”
“I don’t want any lessons.”
“Forget the lessons. We’ll play hooky. You can make me something to eat. That egg thing with the vegetables. What is it?”
“Yeah. I loved that.”
“It’s almost one in the morning,” said Romero.
“And I’m starving. Can I bring anything?”
Romero looked at the bedroom window of Jocasta’s house. It was still aglow in red.
There was a pause. “I’m kind of glad it didn’t work out. I mean with Jocasta. I hope you are too.”
Romero turned on the ignition. “See you in half an hour.” He flipped the phone off.
He pulled out and drove down the street under the shadowy trees. It was cold and clear and quiet. After a few minutes, he pulled over to the side. He took out his laptop and opened a new document.
With strong yet gentle fingers, he took her by the hand.
Paul Negri asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.