a short story by Gabriela Denise Frank
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
—William Butler Yeats
MR. KENDALL (THIRD PERIOD, ENGLISH) is a total babe. We just started a unit on mythology, which is basically like studying fun, so his class is my favorite right now. I tried to sound cool when I said that on the way out of class, all lah-di-dah and whatever, and he laughed like he was embarrassed and adjusted his tie.
This week, he taught us the myth of Leda and the swan, and we were supposed to write our own myths to explain something. The deal is, Zeus, the king of all the gods and goddesses, thinks this woman named Leda is hot, so he transforms himself into a swan to have sex with her. He has to sneak around because he’s married to Hera, who’s super jealous (she must be pretty ugly because Zeus is always cheating on her), and Leda is married, too.
What I don’t get is why the two of them couldn’t just do it behind a temple if they wanted to mess around. And why isn’t Leda suspicious of a horny swan? Personally, I’d stay away from swans with agendas. And, seriously, how would a swan and a person even have sex?
Sometimes, I question if I had legs before I met Anthony. I don’t recall being aware of them the way I am when I walk down the alley to his house. My heels sink into the earth, inch by inch, like his fingertips into my skin. I imagine the pressure of his soft hands—paper-pusher’s hands, my dad would have called them—into the meat of my thighs, quivering (what a cliché) and goosefleshy.
I always park on the next block and walk through the alley, careful to step around the mud puddles. I never approach the front door. “We have to be careful,” Anthony warned me the first time I came over. “I live in a fishbowl.” He meant that his nosy neighbors would notice a strange car parked in front of his house. They would remark on a thirty-something redhead walking up the concrete steps to his door while his wife and kids were away. That’s why I always drive around the corner and leave my Civic, silver and unremarkable, in front of some other million-dollar home. Does another set of neighbors suspect an affair with another husband on another street? Do they whisper hints to his wife about the suspicious car that shows up periodically during the week? Magnolia is lousy with bored stay-at-home moms and lonely, horny married men, all peering out their front windows waiting for the mistresses to arrive.
But no one notices a woman walking up the gravel alley behind the million-dollar houses. Even if they do, no one suspects her of wrongdoing as she quietly unlatches the tall, picketed white gate like she belongs there. No one stops her as she steps through the trimmed backyard grass, circumnavigating the field of tarped objects: the lap pool, the outdoor dining set, the swings that the teenage girls who live there rarely play on anymore. All of these possessions are covered in waterproof drapes from Smith & Hawken, a herd of taupe ghosts cowering against the unforgiving winter rain.
No one stops the woman from ascending the steps to the back porch. She knocks and waits outside the kitchen, her legs trembling like new, until his silhouette darkens the curtained window. No one observes the man who answers in his robe and boxer shorts, tented with a boner. No one sees him pull the woman inside; they do not hear him laugh. No one on his carefully manicured block suspects a thing.
From the leaf-covered sidewalk, his neighbors cannot see the man lead the woman into the bedroom. The rest of the house must remain undisturbed: no mud on the white carpet, no condensation rings on the table. Only the master bedroom is allowed to be a disaster. There, his wife expects a mess—rumpled sheets, a graveyard of socks and undershirts on his side, water glasses on the nightstand, bifocals, back issues of Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist. Each day, she leaves the house with the faith that she’ll return to find it—him—the same as she left them. That’s what wives are born to think.
Each time they meet, the man begins by sliding down the redhead’s pants with two hands like peeling both sides of a banana. He kisses the flesh of her belly, her shivering thighs, all the way down, tits to toes. She daydreams of this moment, the first sizzle of his lips on her flesh, at all hours of the day when they are apart: while eating breakfast, sitting in traffic, and when she passes him in the hall at the office.
Sometimes, I have to duck into the ladies room to masturbate in between meetings just to clear my head.
Leda and the Swan is a myth in which the god Zeus rapes or seduces Leda, queen of Sparta. Their union results in the conception of two divine children, Helen and Pollux. Earlier the same day, Leda and her husband, Tyndareus, engaged in sexual relations, leading to the conception of two human children, Castor and Clytemnestra, the latter of which was traumatized in utero by Zeus’ rape of her mother. Despite the myth’s strong indication of assault, Leda and Zeus are often portrayed in classical paintings and sculpture as entwined in erotic union, suggesting consent.
In most versions of the tale, Leda lays two eggs from which each pair of twins, human and divine, is born. Leda’s sons, Castor and Pollux, become the constellation Gemini while Helen, her daughter with Zeus—said to be the most beautiful woman in the world—is abducted by Paris, Prince of Troy, igniting the Trojan War.
In ancient times, rape was defined as the act of seizing something and carrying it off by force whereas today we use the word abduction.
I am a coward. I say that I want to be a goddess or a wild thing but what I really want is to keep getting away with it. I hop in and out of danger like those greedy little birds inside the alligator’s jaws who pick at the decaying flesh caught in its teeth. I ignore the putrid conditions, opting for half-eaten abundance.
I could fly away at any moment, I suppose, but my yellow-feathered self likes this cage of teeth just fine. True, they gnash and tear, but they they provide shelter, too. And really, I don’t mind sharing. Between you and me, sometimes I kick one of the other birds down the gator’s gullet as a show of thanks so that he’ll keep me around. That’s just the kind of woman I am.
We never do it in my room, my house—only his. Anthony pours a glass of scotch on the way from the kitchen to his bed. Their bed.
When we are done, I roll onto my side to stare at the photos on his nightstand, trying to understand the mythology of Her. That’s how I think of Anthony’s wife: Her. She is woman, nameless yet substantial, an immovable basalt statue, a mother deity, her milk-full breasts a pronouncement, her dominion savage beyond time. He runs his hands over me and lays lust-drunk claim to my taut stomach and soft skin while the image of the Great Nurturer perched on his Biedermeyer table growls, Stay Away. In the black-and-white photo, her arms encircle Anthony and their twin daughters protectively. Mine. None of the women Zeus dallied with ever brought home the big trophy, either; he always returned home to Hera, to the hearth, to Her.
My eyes fall onto the cascade of literature dripping from Anthony’s side table to the floor, a waterfall of periodical knowledge that astute businessmen must absorb before settling into the steam room at the Seattle Athletic Club or hurtling upwards on the quicksilver express elevators to the top of the Columbia Tower for power lunches. Men of a certain stature prefer these exclusive spaces where they can escape their wives, mistresses and secretaries. In overstuffed leather booths, they clap each other on the back when their sons get into Harvard or Yale and elbow one another over the running back who fumbled the ball, costing the game.
As sleep weighs down my eyelids, Anthony dons his gold wire-frame spectacles and clicks on the light, propping himself up on the pillows with The Nation. “Well, that was fun. Too bad you have to get going.” I consider leaving my leopard-print thong wedged at the bottom of the sheets.
The very first time, I cheated with Mr. Kendall. I was fourteen. He made a point of winking at me whenever I walked into class, his favorite student two years running. Miss AP English All-Star, he liked to call me. Herald—my leading lady! Wink. “Hey, Mr. K,” I tossed over my shoulder casually, looking back to see if he watched me walk by. The third-row boys snickered, Goody-Goody, as I took my seat, but whatever. Dad had been gone for two months by then, but I could still hear him say to ignore them.
That fall, my quiz scores began to drop. It surprised everyone, especially me, as they trickled down—93, 87, 79. For the first time in my life, my scholastic super powers withered and I became like everyone else, sentenced to late-night cramming. Each morning, I woke to a textbook on my stomach as I bobbed up and down on my water bed. Sometimes, I woke up sweaty and frustrated, dreaming of Mr. K.
Despite my best efforts, my scores continued to plummet: 82, 79, 75. No matter how hard I studied, I couldn’t hold the answers in my head. I panicked. Mr. K couldn’t know—my mom and friends couldn’t know—that I wasn’t who they thought I was, especially not with finals coming up.
I tucked a tiny fragment of white paper beneath my thigh and spent the next class hour contemplating my lap, terrified of being discovered. Everyone had to keep believing in me, Miss Goody-Goody, Miss Perfect, Miss Brainiac. In the end, it wasn’t so hard. It was like memorizing Dr. Velasco’s eye chart, just a little edge so that I always came out with 20/20 vision, even if I had to squint at street signs.
“Nice job,” Mr. K said the next class, tossing the graded test on my desk, 98. “Not that I was worried,” he winked. He even gave me a gold star.
Jesus, what a stupid assignment.
Dr. J said I should write it out, word by word. He wants to read my life like an amateur Harlequin novel—how I seduced Anthony—except wasn’t it the other way around? He said that writing would help me understand why I keep doing this, not just Anthony but all the men before him, but the only thing I see in my words is the pile of shit I’m sitting in. Maybe that’s the point: punishment. Or maybe he gets off on reading in excruciating detail how a so-called good girl gets the gumption to seduce her married boss.
Maybe Dr. J gets off on his patients’ softcore porn. He has me writing my sins like a Playboy Advisor confession: “I never dreamed it would happen, but one night I found myself having XXX sex with my boss on top of his desk…”
Except it wasn’t like that. Not exactly. I can’t say how it started—is there ever a moment you can point to and say, This is when I began cheating? No. Suddenly, you’re straddling him naked and you pause to wonder how you got there, but not enough to stop.
Did it start when I said something off-color in a meeting and Anthony chuckled? Was it the way his eyes flashed when I wore that emerald green wrap dress? Was it when we traded late-night emails on our first project? Was it when I began fantasizing about him forcing me down on all fours at the office like James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall in Secretary? Or, was it when he said was impressed by my smarts, when he referred to me as his star like Mr. K? The praise, so familiar.
Our flirtatious emails soon evolved into sexts. My code name for him was Mr. President and he called me Marilyn. Though he claimed she neglected him, my cynical side says he probably had more sex with that imperious wife of his knowing that a chick twelve years his junior was aching to ball him, too. He probably even pictured me when he fucked her.
Jesus, what did I think Anthony would do—deliver me from my sad, solitary existence of serial secret sex? Take care of me so that I’d never have to work again? That our life together would be a non-stop fuckfest? That he would leave his kids, his house, leave Her, to travel the world with me?
You could say it started when we were in Portland on business. Is this what you want, Dr. J? Okay, Portland. A bunch of us went dancing after a so-called team-building dinner. Correction: a few married men and their junior account execs went out with the intent of getting shit-faced and bruising, but not breaking, the line of professional behavior—technically, not cheating. Marina, known for doing it in a stairwell with her last boss, gave me a nod as Anthony slid next to me on the dance floor, a swan gliding across a still lake. I can picture the look in my eyes from his perspective, the blind determination, buzzed and begging to be led away. At least, that’s what I was going for.
For all the dirty thoughts and fantasies we had exchanged, Anthony and I had never touched before. We danced for a couple of songs, absorbing through our hands the information that we had been breathlessly guessing about for months, trading skin pics on our cell phones—suddenly, it was all there: the sweat of our bodies, the determination of his fingers tracing the curves of my hips, the swell of my breasts. The spicy aroma of his cologne, with notes of cinnamon and citrus ignited by his body heat, wafted into my nose the closer I got. The thudding house music, ecstatic, frenetic, eclipsed our need to speak. Beneath the dizzying spin of a disco ball, I dared to nestle my face into his neck, to lick the salt from it.
Dancing was enough until it wasn’t. Without asking, he grabbed my hand and pulled me to the door of the club. I stumbled as my shoes held to the battered floor, sticky with decades of spilled Jack and Cokes. I never said yes or no, just allowed him to take me out of there without letting our colleagues know.
Running hand in hand through the mist, we flew over puddles, our feathers buoyant. It was bone-cold January. Droplets beaded on the backs of our hands, our eyelids, our cheeks, the tips of our noses, our hair damp. In the yellow glow of my room, the only sensible thing to do was to strip off our heavy, sodden clothes.
The aroma of scotch on his breath, a peaty halo. He was a so-so kisser. I glossed over that. He quickly figured out the way I liked it, what to do with his mouth, his tongue. Older men always know. I suppose that’s why I like them.
His shirt and my blouse came unbuttoned. (Dr. J, I hope you’re enjoying this.) I was surprised to discover butterflied scars all over his torso—benign fibroid tumors, surgically removed, he said. I pictured tiny pieces of Anthony inside silver kidney-shaped trays. I kissed his scars like a roadmap. (It was romantic in my head.)
Pants come off, mine then his. Humidity between my thighs, a fetid warmth. Untethered. Unzipped. Unpeeled. Enough new information for a while, his skin, my skin, until it wasn’t. We needed more. I ached with the wish that he would rip off my panties and suddenly, he did, like he read my mind. His rhythmic thumb strokes had me dangling at the edge of a hard orgasm, but then he stopped. That’s control.
“I like what you’ve got going on down there,” he growled, his face in my scant patch of a landing strip. She probably had a full bush, the poor old dear. Licking, sucking, the tip of his tongue, back and forth, under, over—Fucking slay me! I screamed inside—but he didn’t. Start and stop, that was his thing. I couldn’t take it anymore, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask for what I wanted, either.
“So…?” he said, a dirty frat boy grin hanging from his slick lips.
“You…want me to…?”
“Say it,” he smiled. “Come on, Marilyn.”
Is he like this with Her? No. She doesn’t beg, doesn’t mewl, doesn’t prowl like a cat in heat. That’s why he was there with me. Because he’s that kind of guy.
Fuck it. This is where I become Marilyn. I play her dirty because that’s the kind of girl she is. “Mr. President, I’m begging you to put me out of my misery,” I croon, employing Marilyn’s aching whisper. “I want to feel you come inside me, make you pop like warm champagne.” I say this ridiculous thing because it’s what he wants to hear, because it’s the sort of thing She won’t.
After the words dripped from my lips, he nestled his face into the crook of my arm, the way birds do. He nestled another part of himself inside me, shallow to deep, inch by inch. He sank down; so did I. My body descended to the bottom of the lake, my fingers catching in the murky reeds, pulled down by their heaviness—fucked, really fucked—and, oh God, it’s the kind of thing that good people can’t get over.
Swans are the largest of the order of birds called anseriformes, which includes swimming, floating and diving waterfowl. While it is typical for swans to remain paired for life, swan “divorces” can occur following nest failure or death of a mate.
The number of eggs in a swan’s clutch generally ranges from four to seven. Unlike other birds, male swans, known as cobs, assist their female mates in nest-building and incubating eggs.
As soon as Dad found out Mom was pregnant with me, he began fixing up the house. Before I was born, he painted my room yellow, installed safety plugs in every outlet and handcrafted a rocking chair, a high chair and a crib, all out of wood.
The term used to describe such preparatory behavior in both humans and birds is nesting.
I remember how Mr. K reached out to dab my face, his thumb on my lips, wiping left to right. Plump. Saucy. Our waitress laughs when we ask for more napkins, which we—I—clearly need. We are her customers, so no big. She doesn’t know, doesn’t care. We could be uncle and niece, siblings, friends. The fact that our act is so passable makes it all the more delicious.
Mr. K wipes the red from my lips and licks it from his finger. “We’re both consenting adults now, aren’t we?” He laughs, still such a babe. “Hard to believe you had braces only a few years ago and now you’re a sophomore in college, home for the holidays. I’m glad we ran into each other.”
I giggle nervously, I don’t know at what. Underneath the tablecloth, his knee wedges in between mine, prying open my legs. Yeah. So bad.
Across cultures, swans are associated with fidelity, purity and light. In Hindu traditions, the swan is a metaphor for a person without attachment, as indicated by their water-resistant feathers. In Vedic literature, those who have attained great spiritual capabilities are known as Paramahamsa or the Supreme Swan. This designation indicates a person’s grace and ability to travel between spiritual worlds.
Growing up, I believed that I could perceive things others couldn’t, a realm beyond reality; for mystics like me, reality held clues to its existence. White feathers, weathered sea shells, barnacle husks—these were ingredients in my revealing spell. Combined properly with sand and flame, they opened a shimmering portal in the water though which I went looking for him, my father, playing hide-and-seek on the other side of the breakers.
“Right away, I knew you were special,” Mom says, my birth story her favorite myth. “We couldn’t get to the hospital in time, but it didn’t matter because you hatched on the sand with the sun on your face like it was meant to be.”
In telling it, she notes that I was born near the swans’ nests. She and dad had been picnicking on the waterfront, feeding them bread when she went into labor. “The darned things waddled over to our blanket like you were one of theirs.” A park ranger called the paramedics who took us to the hospital.
When I was little, I insisted that I had hatched from an egg on the beach. Mom said that I would waddle up to swans and point, shrieking with laughter as if to ask, Are you my parents? For years, I was convinced Mom was one of them, too, that she could fly based on her ability to disappear for an afternoon, as if into the air.
When I was fourteen, after Dad died, a book appeared on Mom’s nightstand called Fear of Flying. I thought, Well, that’s ridiculous, she’s not afraid to fly. Then I wondered if that’s where she went all those times I couldn’t find her. Maybe she was out searching for him.
My mother is fair of face, as they say, snowy-skinned like me, the same copper-red hair, but without all the freckles. It didn’t take long for suitors to line up after Dad was gone. As a girl, I wondered when it would be my turn to be beautiful like her. I suppose a part of me still does.
One by one, she always sends the men packing. I sense they’re fun for a time, but never good enough. Occasionally, she’ll bring one home who I hope to see again, but whenever I ask after him, she winks at me like Mr. K used to do. “Claudia,” she says, petting my hair, her voice molten gold. “We swans mate for life.”
I want to win. I want to be chosen. He picks me over Her.
This how the dream goes: I wake in the weak spring Saturday light streaming through the bedroom window. Birds twitter lazily outside. I suppose they chirp, but in my dream they jeer at me. Cheap, cheap. The heater hasn’t kicked on. It’s silent and chilly except where our bodies meet beneath the sheets.
In my dream, we have the luxury of time, no scurrying to gather our clothes. They hang in the closet. Our closet. What’s his is mine. Ours. His legs, my legs, our legs. The glint of silver strands woven with honey browns and flaxen blondes; his hair is mine. He’s a heartbeat from fifty and, even though I own his cock now, he’s still fuckable. His green eyes are mine. His (my) crow’s feet are beginning to scratch out at the corners make him more virile, somehow. Wise. His chest, mine. His heart, mine. His hands, mine. His hips, mine. His name, mine.
Whatever came before, I like to believe that he rescued me from it.
Dear Mrs. K,
I am so sorry
Dear Mrs. K,
I don’t know how to begin
Dear Mrs. K,
I can’t tell you how awful I feel
Dear Mrs. K,
Mom said that I should write to you to apologize. Honestly, I don’t think a letter will do much—I mean, how does a person say sorry for blowing someone else’s husband in their living room over winter break?
I am only writing this because I know I’ll never mail it. Even if I did, could you ever forgive me? I wouldn’t, if I were you.
And maybe I’m not all that sorry. I’m sorry that I got caught, and I’m sorry that you’re upset, but would I take it back? Mom says Mr. K stole something from me, but what we had was amazing. Like she would know. None of my friends understand, and I doubt you would, either.
I do feel like total shit that you caught us. That look on your face. I never meant for that. I guess that’s what I’m sorry for—not that Mr. K and I fell in love, or what it felt like to be with him, but that you had to find out the way you did.
Anthony and I climax together every time, one and then the other, like trip wires setting each other off. As the orgasm throbs through his body into mine, he blurts out a piping sound, something between laughter and pain. I must have looked surprised, lightly horrified, the first time he did it, but a person can get used to anything. “I’m sorry,” he laughed, burying his face into my breasts. “That’s just what happens when I come.” Bullshit. I think his come-laugh means victory, a motherfucking note of taps to signal the end of a successful campaign. I suppose I feel the same way, I just don’t make as much noise.
I remember how the room shimmered that first night in Portland, like the magic portal I used to conjure in the water as a child. Fucking him brought me to the other side of reality. Lying next to Anthony that first night, I felt the undulation of my old water bed where I’d lay each night in high school fantasizing about Mr. K instead of boys my age. I’d drift off to sleep, my pulse thudding after making myself come, fuzzy and warm with his imagined hand between my legs. I’d lay there conjuring flirtatious lines to say in class, hoping to charm Mr. K into asking me to stay after. It wasn’t so different with the others who would come between Mr. K and Anthony, just a progression of classrooms and cloakrooms to hotel rooms and boardrooms. Only this time, I really brought down the big game.
Because what can a girl do with men but dance? The brain is our most erotic organ, Mr. K once said, and isn’t its power the mere suggestion of what might happen when skin meets skin? The bare knees of Lolita, the curve of Leda’s neck, a finely turned ankle in sky-high Louboutins, the open rotation of a netted thigh, the peek of skin that blushes warm and bruises purple? Seduction is an idea, a divine question, and flesh is the answer made human. Isn’t that what I’m searching for?
Swans mate for life, Mom said, and when they do, the nest closes around them. The world becomes cramped and insufferable—a shell, a cage—yet their aching desire never ceases. Like any pair, they become trapped and wanting.
Is it ever possible to have it all? I wonder as I flop next to Anthony in bed, but the answer never comes. Floating in the post-coital void, I begin to understand the good sense my mother had not to settle down again. She soars high, keeps liaisons light. I picture her spreading her wings as she begins each new romance, miraculously drafting above the same obligations that threaten to pull me down: tests I cannot complete, dates I cannot keep, jobs and men I cannot seem to hold, at least, not for long. Maybe I don’t want to. Cleaving to them would mean that they would have a hold on me, too.
Why Anthony—or any of them? He never did care to ask. My spiteful self drifts off to the echo of his diminishing chuckle, a lapping tide. We’re caught in a lulling wave of sleep that threatens to obliterate everything. Normally, he’d be shaking me awake, reminding me that we cannot allow ourselves to be pulled under, not here, not now, not in Her bed. Instead, his moaning turns husky and sonorous as he closes his eyes, wedges his hand between my trembling, humid thighs. He’s so sated and spent that he’s close to saying he loves me, I think. Who seduced who? I don’t know. Does it matter? Desire asks and flesh responds; it knows no bounds. It is wild. Unending. Eventually, it moves on.
I sputter to pull myself from the inky tentacles of sleep, wrapped in Anthony’s heavy embrace, but the truth is, I want Her to find us. Why not let drowsiness take me, take us, into another world? Just before I surrender, I swear that I hear, beneath the dying waves of Anthony’s breath, a hollow reverberation, soft and mournful—the far-off trumpet of a swan.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her writing appears in True Story, The Rumpus, Stoneboat and Crack the Spine. She lives and writes in Seattle. Find more about her at www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.