Each classroom of Hathaway Ladies College had a heavy clock over the door, the long minute hand of which acted as a conductor’s baton upon the scores of girls perched upon the benches of the lecture hall. As the hand drew nearer the top of the hour, a concerted susurrus arose from the ranks, a shuffling of papers, a shutting of books, a shifting of pert bottoms in seats, skirts swirling about stocking’d calves, school shoes bought specially by indulgent mothers and paid for by disinterested fathers scuffing against the floorboards. Each class closed with this predictable symphony, except for freshman English on Tuesday afternoons with Professor Robert Hayes.
In Professor Hayes’ Introductory English Literature, the clock reached the top of the hour in a rapt hush of girlish attention. Professor Hayes wore sports coats and corduroy instead of suits, and had gold-rimmed reading glasses which were frequently swept from his face in one hand and used to emphasize some point of poetry or call on some student with her lily-pale palm in the air. He had thick, slicked-down hair the color of polished maple wood, its natural color camouflaging the gray at his temples. His handsomeness was a matter of communally accepted fact, though Maddie didn’t think his appearance merited the raptures it inspired.
Maddie always sat in the crowded third row of Professor Hayes’ class. It was coveted real estate, close enough to see the blue of the professor’s eyes when he took his glasses off, and to hear the rasp in the sweet tenor of his voice when he recited Donne at the end of a long day; but not so forward as the seats in the front row, which were, Maddie knew with the intuition of a bee in a hive, the province of girls who wore scarlet lipstick and used words like décolletage when speaking about themselves.
Professor Hayes propped his hip against his desk, long legs crossed at the ankle, and said, “So you see, we can contextualize Titania’s enchanted adoration of Bottom-as-ass in relationship to the tradition of carnivalesque literature, characterized by inversions, disruptions, and distortions of the natural order. What other examples can you think of in the bard’s works?”
Hands shot up like mushrooms from leaf mulch in the fall.
“Viola and Sebastian trading places.”
“Oh, and As You Like It, also! The” –there was a breath of tittered laughter– “crossdressing.”
“What about Malvolio’s cross gartered stockings?” ventured a girl with yellow pigtails. “Because he inverts the role of the fool.”
“An interesting point,” said Professor Hayes, rolling a nub of chalk in his fingers. “Shakespeare’s fools like Malvolio and Falstaff are frequently men in positions of dignity, while his characters in the role of the fool are in contrast dignified and wise. A meta-inversion one might say.” The blonde girl twirled the end of one bright curl. Crumbs of praise riled the class like fish frothing the surface of a pond after bits of bread. Maddie felt the current stir her. She thrust her hand up, and the beam of Professor Hayes’ attention fell on her.
He pointed with the chalk. “Yes?”
Maddie wet her lips with her tongue. “Is there a relationship between the Gothic and the carnivalesque? Aren’t they both about disruption?”
An expression of surprise registered briefly as a sunbreak on Professor Hayes’ face, before turning into a small smile. “What an excellent point. You are entirely correct, both genres centrally explore and, indeed, celebrate the inversion of the natural order. They also share themes involving overthrow of authority, and violation of the sacred.”
“My father says that Gothic literature isn’t suitable for young ladies,” Maddie said, and then cringed at herself, parroting her father like a child.
Professor Hayes chuckled. “Gothic literature invites us to be gleeful voyeurs to our own worst impulses, it’s true. What’s your name, young lady?”
Maddie swallowed. She could feel the scalding jealousy of her classmates searing her. “Wainwright. Maddie Wainwright.”
“Short for Madeline? My Madeline, sweet dreamer! What a lovely name. You are quite right, Madeline. The carnivalesque and the Gothic are comfortable bedfellows. In Shakespeare’s comedies inversion is used to comedic effect, but he also uses it in his tragedies. Think of Othello, when the role of husband and protector is inverted into destroyer. Can any of you familiar with the tragedies think of other examples?”
Maddie’s mind raced. Her heart was thumping wildly. He was still looking directly at her, and all the other girls followed suit, their collective gaze like a set of coordinated mirrors setting tinder ablaze. Hands rose tentatively in her peripheral vision, and the professor’s attention began to drift from her and she leapt into the breach.
“Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, I mean. When she wishes she were a man to kill the king, and then later, the blood on her hands as if she actually did it.”
“Very good, a subtle connection.” The room seethed. Maddie’s face felt hot with pleasure. The professor raised both hands and proclaimed, voice booming, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here!” There was a ripple of stifled laughter as he continued, “Fill me from crown to toe with direst cruelty, make thick my blood–”
The door to the lecture hall opened and several heads peered around the door. “Professor,” a girl said from the hall, “it’s almost quarter past.”
“Ah, we’ve gone overtime,” Professor Hayes said in his normal voice, brushing chalk-dust off his fingers. “Remember, for next week: five hundred words on the motif of a play within a play, with citations from the text.”
Chairs and benches scraped, skirts swished, books thumped as the girls rose and eddied out of the room against the current of the next class arriving. As Maddie passed the desk at the front of the room, Hayes said, “Do you have a moment, Madeline?”
She paused, aware of the other girls gathering in their ranks behind her, arrayed in rows like birds on a branch. “Yes, sir.”
“How are you liking the class?”
“Very much,” she said dutifully, and then hesitated.
“Go on,” he said, making a little gesture with his chin, the way Maddie’s father did at the dinner table when her mother repeated something interesting her psychoanalyst had said. Professor Hayes’ chin was deeply dimpled, in a way that put Maddie irresistably in mind of a hippopotamus.
“Well, Shakespeare is a bit basic, that’s all,” she said.
“It is an introductory literature class. I take it you’ve read beyond your years?”
“My father teaches English at Mount Hawthorne in Albany. He made sure I knew my Shakespeare.”
“Very good. I can tell you have a precocious mind, and a spirit to match. I look forward to seeing what else you contribute.”
“Thank you,” she said, ducking her head, and made her escape to the dim privacy of the emptying hall.
It was a blustery autumn afternoon, dry leaves swirling and skipping between flocks of girls with their skirts whipping around their knees, pin-curls in disarray, scurrying from building to building, blown like the leaves. Maddie was hurrying to History of Art, her last class of the week, when she turned a corner and almost collided with a woman in a crimson jacket. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry,” Maddie said, clutching her book bag and looking up. The woman’s cheeks and dainty nose were pink with cold, glowing, and wisps of her brown hair had escaped from beneath her hat, blowing delicately about her face. Maddie felt a funny sort of seizing in her stomach, a queasy little lurch. The woman’s mouth was slightly open in surprise, and Maddie’s gaze was caught on her crimson lips, hooked like a fish, feeling the barbed tug. “I’m…sorry,” she stammered again.
“Ah, Madeline,” said a man’s voice from behind the woman. It was only then that Maddie jerked her gaze away and saw Professor Hayes in a peacoat and red cashmere scarf that matched the woman’s coat.
“Professor?” she squeaked.
“Madeline, meet my wife, Janet,” Hayes said.
Maddie looked back at the woman, who didn’t look much older than the senior students. The flattering authenticity of surprise had gone: Mrs. Hayes’ expression transformed from the hectic beauty of a startled bird into a glossy magazine cover. She returned Maddie’s nervous glance with a cool examination that made Maddie squirm.
“How is your essay coming, Madeline?” Hayes asked.
The wind had chapped Maddie’s lips. She had to wet them to say, “Well, I think. I know you didn’t say to write a comparative piece, but I could hardly discuss a play within a play without mentioning Hamlet.” Mrs. Hayes pulled a silver cigarette case from inside her coat and delicately removed a cigarette. Her fingers were long and elegant.
“Quite right, quite right,” Hayes said, bobbing his head like a cockerel. Maddie wondered if he was going to light his wife’s cigarette, but she flicked out a lighter of her own. “Madeline is in my freshman seminar, but she’s shown great promise. In fact,” he added, “it might do you good to meet some girls more advanced. We’re hosting a little gathering at our house tomorrow night. Some of the older students. Why don’t you join us?”
“Oh, I couldn’t…that is…it’s so kind…I don’t want to intrude…” Maddie was still looking at Mrs. Hayes, who had cupped her hands against the wind and lit up.
“Now, now, Madeline, it’s no intrusion. We would be delighted to have you, wouldn’t we dear?” This last was to his wife.
Mrs. Hayes blew out a plume of smoke, “Enchanted,” she agreed, expression unchanging. The smoke haloed her face for an instant before the wind whipped it away, carrying the sweet-acrid scent of clove tobacco past Maddie’s nostrils like a snatch of warm breath.
On Saturday Maddie dithered in front of the closet in her dorm room for longer than she would have admitted to anyone. Usually she wore jewel tones in cool colors, after her mother’s taste, or perhaps her father’s mediated by her mother’s shopping. But she couldn’t stop thinking about red – scarlet, crimson, ruby. Whether or not Maddie had ever been explicitly instructed thus, she had always thought that red, an unacceptably forward color in any case, simply didn’t suit her. However, Mrs. Hayes had a similar coloring to Maddie’s when she looked in a mirror: pale tending to pink with unexceptionable brown hair. Except on Mrs. Hayes it hadn’t looked ordinary, it had looked glamorous and touseled, as if Hepburn or Lamarr had just risen from bed. And Mrs. Hayes had worn red like the open insides of an eviscerated rabbit.
But Maddie didn’t own any red, and had no time or allowance to go dress shopping, so she wore pink instead, hating as she zipped up the back and tied each bow in place what a nursery-school color it was.
The Hayes lived on the far side of campus in a faculty house – small brick cottages all stacked together. Professor Hayes himself opened the door and took her coat, ushering her into the small, cozy living room where a fire crackled in the grate. The half a dozen girls already assembled turned to survey her, denizens of a Serengeti watering-hole assessing a newcomer as predator or prey. Three months at college had accustomed Maddie to this ritual and she looked around in return. She was not the only girl in pink, she saw to her relief.
“Where is Mrs. Hayes?” she asked, instantly noting the absence.
“Oh, she doesn’t always join these little gatherings. She can stand on her dignity a bit. Likes to remind me she’s not a student anymore.” Professor Hayes chuckled and put a hand on Madeline’s bare shoulder. “As if I could forget.” He squeezed her arm. “Make yourself comfortable.”
There was a round of names, only half of which she remembered. Maddie found an empty seat on a sofa, next to someone named Lizzie and a red-haired girl whose name she hadn’t caught. Someone passed her a glass of white wine, which she had always preferred to red and seldom drank because her father always said it was unsophisticated and you might as well drink lemonade. Maddie enjoyed the dry tang of the wine on her tongue and wondered whether it was to Professor Hayes’ taste, or if he thought his guests unsophisticated.
He sat in a fat armchair beside the crackling fire. His legs were crossed and the hem of his trousers pulled away from his polished shoes to reveal bright argyle socks. Maddie thought how much the other girls in her class would wish to know that detail, gleaned from the intimacy of his knobby ankles.
There were girls clustered all around him, leaning forward from nearby settees and chairs, and one girl, whose name might have been Delores or Denise, sitting prettily at his feet. The eyes of the other girls rested hungrily upon her glossy brown pin curls and pink bow lips, on the way Professor Hayes smiled down at her. Maddie became aware of a hard nugget of jealous scorn, like a stone in her shoe, wanting and yet not wanting to want to be in that girl’s place, with all the other girls watching her.
The conversation swirled past Maddie containing only intermittent coherence. She hadn’t read the Russians or Kafka and her father had never let her read DH Lawrence. She sipped her drink for something to do, and soon found it was empty. “Have some more,” the redhead said, stretching toward the coffee table to reach the open wine bottle, standing beside two empty companions. The girl had freckles on the tender inside of her arm, Maddie saw when she reached out, and when her white blouse pulled against her chest Maddie could see the outline of her brassiere through the fabric. The girl filled Maddie’s glass and emptied the rest of the bottle into her own.
A sudden hush made Maddie look up, and her heart executed a trapeze leap. Mrs. Hayes had entered the room. She wore gray wool, not like a schoolmarm but like a lamb. She looked both young and dignified, the curves of her hips and bosom elegantly defined without vulgarity. Her hair was swept up carelessly, tendrils trailing down her long white neck. All the girls in their party dresses and careful curls watched her while she appeared not to notice them.
“Ah Janet!” said Professor Hayes. “How now, my queen?” His wife perched on the arm of his chair. “Are you here to join our revels?”
Mrs. Hayes put an arm around his shoulders, slipping her hand inside his jacket, against his chest. Her lips were painted scarlet, and she smiled sweetly. “Not for thy fairy kingdom, dear. I came to steal your cigarettes.” She withdrew her hand holding his cigarette case and flicked it open, rising gracefully.
“Will you bring us the new bottles of Chardonnay from the kitchen while you’re up, darling?”
Mrs. Hayes took a slow drag and let smoke curl out of her nostrils. “No.”
Professor Hayes looked more amused than annoyed. “Am I not thy lord?”
“Then I must be your lady; get the booze yourself.” She swept out on a swirl of clove smoke.
“That wasn’t very civil of her,” the girl on the floor said, flicking a curl over her shoulder to display her delicate collarbones.
“A wife’s prerogative,” Hayes said getting to his feet.
The girl sniffed. “A wife ought to be accommodating. Pleasant, at least.”
Hayes patted her head as he departed for the kitchen. “Wait till you’re married, Denise. The mysteries of man and wife will become clearer.”
“If I were married to Mr. Hayes, I would never be cross,” Lizzie said when he had gone. “She doesn’t deserve him.”
“She seems clever,” Maddie said, not knowing why. Her tongue seemed to be moving a little ahead of her mind.
“Oh she’s smart enough, I daresay. I remember in my first year she won some sort of essay competition for the upperclassmen. She was still a student then.” Lizzie gave them a knowing look that sat oddly on her doll-like little face. “But a man needs more than a clever wife.”
“He’s so beautiful, don’t you think?” the redhead said with a sigh.
Maddie looked at Robert Hayes as he returned with a bottle of wine in each hand. She thought his jaw was rather too square and his mouth too wide; architectural and indelicate, not at all like other beautiful things – flowers and birds and cobwebs. His hands were too big.
“Very,” she agreed, but it hardly mattered, the girl hadn’t waited for her to respond and didn’t seem to have heard. She was already talking to Lizzie about some young man of their acquaintance who was coming off poorly in comparison to Professor Hayes.
The fresh bottle was passed around and emptied, its companion uncorked. The clock on the mantle ticked, the girls twittered. There was a pitcher of water sweating on the sideboard, but no one else was drinking any, so Maddie didn’t mention it. Her mouth was dry. She drained her wine glass again. Someone poured her more.
The room was hot and close: cardigans slung over the backs of chairs, blouses unbuttoned at the neck. Hayes had taken his jacket off and rolled his shirt sleeves up to the elbow. His arms were hairy, not like the girls with their smooth bare arms rounding into succulent shoulders and graceful necks, their calves and ankles peeping from under their skirts. The red-haired girl next to Maddie had sweat gleaming on her throat, in the hollow of her clavicle, making tiny freckles shine, and Maddie couldn’t stop staring.
Once or twice she felt herself tipping, almost toppling into the other girl’s lap. That must be the alcohol. She had read plenty about its effects, though never been allowed more than a glass with dinner. The clear liquid in the bottom of her glass sloshed, nearly empty. Maddie felt lightheaded.
“It wasn’t Causabon’s intellect that doomed her, silly, it was his character.” The girl seated at the professor’s feet, Denise, cast a coy glance up at Hayes. “There’s nothing wrong with marrying a man of superior intelligence.” She pursed her lips prettily. “Superlative, even.”
“Eliot never even married,” another girl objected. “What did she know about love?”
“Did so, didn’t she? I thought she did,” said Lizzie, and everyone looked at Professor Hayes for the answer.
“Love is not the sole province of marriage,” he said, with an indulgent smile, and looked around the room. “What do you think, Madeline?”
“Me?” she said, trying to remember anything about George Eliot.
“Yes, doomed lovers: who is your choice? We’ve had Hector and Andromache, Lancelot and Guenevere, Dorothea and Causabon–which I must say gets top marks for originality. Take note, girls, there is an interesting comparative essay therein. Who would you pick, Madeline?”
Maddie could not recall a single book or story she had ever encountered. She groped in the swaying soup of her intellect. “Romeo and Juliet.” It was a silly, childish answer that any schoolgirl could make, and she didn’t need the titter of the other girls to remind her.
“Now, now, ladies,” Hayes said, “don’t be so hasty to discount the bard on account of over-exposure. Romeo and Juliet share one of the most passionate kisses in the English language.”
“The kiss of death,” Maddie said, and Hayes gave her a sharp smile.
“Precisely. Imagine the urgency, the desperation that would drive Juliet’s lips against her lover’s.” The girls leaned in as one, as if to lap up the words falling from his lips. “It is only through frenzy for death that we understand the passionate love of the waking world. Through the actors’ ecstasy the audience sees themselves, and learns what it is to love to the point of death. The great roles in Shakespeare are often counted thus: Hamlet, Iago, Lady Macbeth. But little Juliet is overlooked, when she has so much to show us.”
“It’s because she’s a girl,” Lizzie said. “No one thinks much of her.”
“Quite right. You all in this room know better. How would you stage the kiss?” A ripple of prurient amusement swept the room, a dueling-ring tension as the girls glanced at one another under their lashes, cheeks bright.
A blond girl made the first sortie. “Like this,” she said, and kissed the girl beside her on the mouth. The sight sent a shock through Maddie that left her tingling. The image of their mouths together, their soft cheeks touching, lingered after the two girls had rocked apart giggling and each had their glasses topped up with wine amidst ribbing and tittering.
“I think it ought to be more than one kiss,” Lizzie said. “Little kisses, like this,” and suddenly her hand was on the back of Maddie’s neck, warm and slightly sticky, and then she was pressing her lips to Maddie’s, quick and dry, in succession, each electric as a spark.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Denise said, “It’s about the staging, the drama. Let me show you. Madeline, was it? Come here.” Helpless under Denise’s commanding gaze, Maddie slid from the couch and joined Denise kneeling in front of the fire. The gazes of the other girls prickled her neck, more heated than Maddie had imagined. “Lie back,” Denise said. Feeling silly, Maddie did, stretching out like Romeo’s corpse on the worn Turkish rug. “Oh churl, drunk all,” Denise exclaimed, making Maddie jump, “and left no friendly drop to help me after!”
Getting a grip in Maddie’s hair that stung her scalp, Denise pulled her head back sharply against the floor. Maddie’s whole body arched after the movement. She gave a startled little cry at the zip of heat that surged from her scalp to her toes, and in that instant, with her mouth already open, Denise descended on her. It was a wet kiss but not clumsy, demanding, devouring. Denise’s tongue swept along her inner lip, making her shiver, swirled across her tongue, sharing the tart taste of wine, making her shiver and try to close her mouth. Denise transformed the movement into a sort of undulation of their tongues and lips together, a visceral reciprocity that Maddie had never imagined. Her whole body felt like it was filling up with warm champagne, frothy and confused.
There was a glassy, resounding crash from another room. Several of the girls shrieked, and Denise jolted away, leaving Maddie gasping and disoriented. The sound had come from the kitchen. Professor Hayes started up out of his chair with a curse. “What the hell was that? Janet?”
Mrs. Hayes came sauntering out of the kitchen, wearing her crimson winter coat and carrying her hat in one hand. From her prone position on the floor, Maddie could see the fine weave of her stockings tight over her delicate ankles. “I’m going out,” Mrs. Hayes said, casting a glance at Maddie that made Maddie burn. “I’m afraid I’ve broken the tray of cocktail glasses.”
“The whole tray?” Hayes snapped, but Janet was already gliding away, stepping pointedly over someone’s shoe which had been cast off in the middle of the floor. Maddie watched the flex of her shapely calves as she stalked from the living room.
The professor’s face was thunderous, but by the time the front door slammed, he had slumped back into his armchair, shaking his head. All the girls watched him in tense anticipation. Then he threw his head back and barked a laugh. “The whole damn tray, my god!” The room dissolved into giggles and shrieks of laughter. Maddie ended up with her head lolling in Denise’s lap, her vision full of girls’ calves and ankles, the froth of their skirts revealing their knees and glimpses of ivory thigh as they shifted and fluttered like restless hens.
Laughing left her breathless, exhausted, and her eyes kept sliding shut, the room growing blurry and the chatter indistinct. The last thing she saw was the scarlet glow of the coals in the hearth, the color of Mrs. Hayes’ coat.
Maddie woke with a hand in her hair, kneading gently. Blinking, she saw a blurry pale face wearing red lipstick and shining brown hair, and wondered when Mrs. Hayes had come back. Then her vision cleared and she recognized Denise, with her curls relaxing from the humidity into messy waves around her shoulders. She wasn’t looking at Maddie, instead up at the rumble of a masculine voice. Maddie stirred and glanced around, rubbing her eyes.
“Sleeping beauty wakes,” Hayes said. “And without even the benefit of a kiss.”
Blearily, Maddie was aware she was lying with her head in Denise’s lap. There was discomfort and awkwardness somewhere but it felt as if it belonged to someone else, only sensed secondhand through imperfect empathy. The room was quiet and dim, the fire burnt low, all but a single lamp switched off. When she turned her head, feeling the fabric of Denise’s skirt against her cheek, the room was almost empty, except for the three of them, and Lizzie and another girl asleep on the couch.
“Where is everyone?” she rasped.
“Gone home,” Hayes said. “Madeline asleep in lap of legends old, and Elizabeth and Barbara likewise sunk in enchanted slumber.”
“Needed to sleep off the booze,” Denise said. “Just like you, hon. Think you can get yourself home?”
“Now, now,” Hayes said, “you don’t mean to send a sleeping maid out to wander the wood in the dead of night. Oh, those whose beauties proudly make them cruel!”
“It’s just across campus,” Denise said.
“Jealous, sweet Denise?” he asked.
“Of her?” she said, looking directly at Maddie for the first time since kissing her. “She’s just a kid.”
Hayes chuckled. “Quite right. Do you think you could teach her something?”
“Will I get extra credit for tutoring?” Denise’s face was lifted away from Maddie, she could only see Hayes’ looking down at both of them.
He grinned like a pale fox, showing all his teeth, ashy hair bright in the dim light. “Double points for a group assignment,” he said, slouching down a little in his chair.
“You’re a dirty old man,” Denise said, sounding pleased with herself, as if it were a phrase like décolletage. Maddie wondered how you said it in French. Une homme vieux, vieullard… The world swayed again and she realized that Denise had lifted Maddie’s head from her thigh to the rug and was kneeling beside her, enormous as a stone sphinx, unbuttoning her blouse.
Maddie’s mouth fell open as she watched Denise reveal her white brassier, her soft belly. She had not yet processed the tenderness of the fold of flesh at Denise’s belly button before the brassiere was banished, whipped off like a magician’s tablecloth. Denise’s breasts were large and heavy, pink tips pointing nearly downwards, directly toward Maddie lying on the floor. Maddie’s mouth watered. It was like standing at a bakery window staring at the frosted swirls of the cupcakes, or watching the man behind the diner counter scoop ice cream and impatiently waiting for mother to pay. It must be some Freudian sense-memory of infancy, she thought confusedly, because she had never felt such a visceral urge to put her mouth on anything before.
Her lips parted in anticipation as Denise leaned over. But instead of bending down and letting Maddie lose herself in the feast of Denise’s breasts, Denise instead began unbuttoning Maddie’s dress down the front. Her breasts swayed as she moved and Maddie found she had lifted a hand to touch. Denise’s skin was silky, her nipple a tight little nub, attracting Maddie’s fingers.
“She’s a natural,” Professor Hayes said, low voice like a splash of cold water. Maddie had forgotten him. She released Denise and crossed her arms over her bare chest abruptly, cheeks flaming.
“Don’t be shy,” he said. “Think of it as carnivale au naturel. Let this be the bank where the wild thyme blows.”
“Don’t be a baby,” Denise added, and Maddie thought how sometimes a concise argument was more effective than a literary one, and that she would have to tell her father her insight, and then Denise’s small palms were hot and damp on her thighs, rucking Maddie’s skirt up around her waist.
Maddie gasped, air gone soupy. Her thighs prickled with gooseflesh even though the room was hot. She was wearing her white underpants, no different than any other day – not that she had anything different to wear even if she had expected to end up lying on the rug in her professor’s living room with her skirt around her waist and her underthings on display. It wasn’t an eventuality one prepared for at a cocktail party. It wasn’t like running out of seltzer water.
There was a swish of fabric and Maddie lolled her head to look at Denise, who knelt, monumentally naked between Maddie’s spread knees. She had a creamy belly, softly curved, wide hips and a shock of dark curls at the juncture of her thighs which drew Maddie’s gaze magnetically. Denise once more was looking at Robert instead of at her, so Maddie allowed herself to stare without embarrassment. She had examined herself in a mirror, of course, with the critical eye of adolescent girlhood, but had never imagined that one so similar in an itemization of parts should be so different in impact. Her own nude reflection had never left her dry-mouthed and hungry, with a hot, squirming tension in her belly.
Hayes said something Maddie hardly heard, his voice a low rumble, and Denise said, “You think so?” and slipped her thumbs under the elastic waist of Maddie’s underpants. Maddie’s muscles clenched in shock all at once as she realized what Denise was doing, a second before she tugged Maddie’s panties down her thighs. As the gusset pulled away from her crotch, Maddie felt the cool air and slight sticky tug of the fabric and realized with a yelp of shame that she was soaking wet. She’d leaked all over her underwear without even realizing it. That happened sometimes, with no rhyme or reason; sometimes a day with friends, or reading a book, or even once after being called to the headmistress’s office at school, but no one else had ever seen.
Then, before she had finished reeling from the shock and shame of that, she felt a hand between her legs, and looked up at Denise with a helpless gasp as she spread Maddie’s wet folds with her fingers. Maddie cried out, her whole body shuddering, and to her dismay felt herself flutter around where Denise was holding her open.
Denise made a clucking sound as if to soothe a horse and began to rub her fingers in the tender, dripping slit of Maddie’s sex. The touch sent uneven sparks along Maddie’s nerves and she realized she was keening aloud, jolting her hips up against Denise’s hand like an animal — capable of self-observation but not self-control, ego drowning in a wash of pleasure. She was writhing, exposed, sweat breaking on her brow and bare backside abraded by the rug. Her lungs and heart pumped as if sprinting toward something, something unknown but wildly desired, urgently needed, terrifying — and then the pressure in her stomach shattered into hot, sharp shards, and she was shuddering and crying out, thighs clenching helplessly around Denise’s wrist.
“Keep going,” Professor Hayes said from far away, “like we did last time.”
The tidal wave of Denise’s body rose over Maddie, who was still panting helplessly. Her muscles trembled with aftershocks of her own personal cataclysm. The ripple of Denise’s thighs and hips as she moved, the bounce of her breasts was tectonic. Maddie had a confused impression of Robert Hayes seated in his chair towering over both of them, dark against the glowing hearth, like the Lincoln memorial in basalt rather than marble, knees spread wide.
Then he was obscured by Denise’s body as she heaved one leg over Maddie’s face, so that the arch of her body was like the expanse of a pale winter sky, rounded with fleshy clouds, a transformation of the heavens. Her breasts swayed, hypnotic, and when Maddie tipped her head back she saw Denise’s sex peeking out from beneath her pubic curls like the shy pink innards of an oyster. There was a waft of rich, salty scent that made Maddie’s mouth water once more.
Then the moon of Denise’s backside eclipsed the low light of the room and Maddie gasped as Denise lowered her haunches onto Maddie’s face. Her nostrils filled with the savory smell of Denise’s slick slit. The curls above her cunt were coarser than Maddie had expected, rasping at her chin, sharply contrasted with the soaked silk feeling of her folds against Maddie’s mouth and nose. Maddie nuzzled up instinctively, and felt Denise make a satisfied hum into Maddie’s own crotch.
Maddie was still tingling and twitching there as something wet and softer than the touch of fingers began to explore her. Denise was kissing her cunt as she had earlier mastered Maddie’s mouth, expert and showy. Her body undulated over Maddie, rocking against Maddie’s chin, smearing sticky, salty fluid over Maddie’s lips. Maddie felt her thighs flexing against Denise’s shoulders and Denise wrapping an arm under Maddie’s ass to keep her still. Her breasts were a warm, heavy pressure against Maddie’s belly.
Maddie could see nothing, and it liberated the rest of her senses; the world shrank to Denise’s weight and the textures of her sex, to the kitcheny, bread-and-meat smell of her, to the strong grip of her hand on Maddie’s thigh and the insubstantial stimulation of her tongue on Maddie’s tender flesh. Opening her mouth, Maddie tried to imitate the motions, felt but not seen, probing with her tongue at the soft folds; the mysterious, dripping mouth making love to hers. She could hear her own heart pounding, the loud rush of her breath through her nose and Denise panting also. Further away, there was the rhythmic ticking of the mantle clock and a matching swishing of fabric and flesh, but everything beyond her intimate cloister was unreachable. Time and its companion, place, had dissolved into an eternal, elemental darkness. She felt her body rocked by the warm, womb-like tides of secret pleasure, ebbing and flowing between two bodies.
She thought muzzily that all over campus, all across town, all over the world women had, in the hidden, humid caverns beneath their skirts, a honeyed crevice between soft thighs, each an undiscovered country. How strange that she had never realized before that everywhere she went, all around her, in class or in the supermarket, at a cocktail party, everywhere there were women and girls, there were also their cunts, waiting to be explored–
She was seized again with seismic convulsions, fireworks of sensation blazing along her body, making her seize and shudder, feeling the flutter of a small bird between her legs. Denise’s thighs flexed, and the world shifted. Light returned, bright after blindness though it was only a bit of the dim room revealed as Denise hefted herself up. Two fingers with polished nails slid into Maddie’s field of view, stroking swiftly at Denise’s slit, small circles at the apex of her folds. Lying with her head on the carpet between Denise’s legs, Maddie watched the hypnotic swirl of her hand, and saw bits of the rest of Denise sway in and out of view beyond her thighs — a rounded shoulder, a glimpse of creamy breast, a lock of hair.
Denise was moaning loudly, no longer muffled by Maddie’s cunt, and her moan turned into a series of high grunts like a puppy at a teat as her thighs trembled. A splash of salty fluid sprayed from between Denise’s frantic fingers, wetting Maddie’s slick chin again, and Maddie licked her lips, savoring the taste. Denise sighed long and satisfied, and the sky of her pelvis tilted like the horizon on a pitching ship. It made Maddie a little seasick, so she closed her eyes again.
When she opened them, she could see Denise’s back, her spread thighs as she knelt in front of the arm chair and the tumble of her dark hair, now thoroughly mussed, bent and bobbing between Robert Hayes’ thighs. The two of them made an obscene diagram, uncomfortably explicit to watch in the open. Maddie looked away and her eye was caught by a shape behind them, where the doorway to the kitchen ought to have been.
Illuminated in a wash of silver moonlight was a shape like a sarcophagus, tall and angular, blocking the light, and in the center of its head was a burning orange eye. Maddie found she couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, her limbs heavy with the paralytic panic of a nightmare. A prosaic, pornographic slurping and moaning from the armchair ought to have dispelled the spector, as waking life did to dreams but it was still there when Denise rose stretched, and began to dress. Maddie wondered how no one but she could see it.
“Alright, Madeline?” the professor asked, doing up his belt. Maddie made a soft noise of dissent, all she could coax from her throat.
“I broke her,” Denise said, amused. Like a doll, Maddie thought, like a broken toy.
“Think but this and all is mended,” Professor Hayes said in his classroom voice, “that you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear. Now, Madeline, you can’t lie there all night,” he went on, standing over her. “Can you get her home, Denise?”
“I don’t know where she lives, I’ve never met her before. Can’t she have the other couch?” Maddie wanted to protest that she was alright, that she could walk home, but her tongue and limbs weren’t cooperating.
“Very well,” Hayes said, sounding annoyed. They lifted her onto the empty sofa, and Denise found a cardigan to button around her — Maddie wasn’t sure that it was hers — and smoothed her skirt down over her still-wet thighs. From the couch she could still see the figure in the kitchen doorway as Denise and the professor kissed and exchanged soft goodbyes.
Then the front door shut, echoing through the house, and the specter moved. Moonlight fell across its profile and the shape shifted before Maddie’s blurry eyes into that of a woman wearing a hat and coat, leaning in the doorway, her winter garments giving her the boxy shape of a tomb. Blinking, Maddie recognized Mrs. Hayes, holding the glowing eye of a lit cigarette to her lips.
“Ill-met,” Mrs. Hayes said, and there was a loud thump and a curse as Robert tripped over a footstool and landed hard on the floor.
“Jesus, woman, are you trying to break my neck?” he said. “Christ. When did you come in?”
“Enjoy your revels, Robin?” she asked in a voice that brought the December night inside.
He looked up at her from the floor. The fire had burned so low that the moonlight through the kitchen windows, falling across the floor through the doorway, made the illumination in the room more blue than gold. The professor’s pale face was washed of all color, skull-like. She sauntered toward him, sweeping past Maddie without a glance, and stood looking down at her husband, cigarette blazing in the dark.
He held out a hand for help up from the floor. When she ignored it, he braced it on his thigh instead and heaved himself to his feet with a grunt. “I would have enjoyed them more with you. You used to enjoy this sort of thing.”
She turned away. Her shadow moved before her on the floor. The moon was so bright, it must surely be full tonight, Maddie thought. “I suppose I grew out of schoolgirl games,” she said, sweet clove smoke wafting on the drift of her voice. “Go to bed, Rob.”
“Will you come up?”
“Well, the couches are occupied.” She stood motionless, towering in the dark as her husband shuffled around her and out of the room. The stairs creaked. Maddie felt an easing of tension in her chest of which she had not hitherto been aware, and Mrs. Hayes, as if vocalizing the private sensations of Maddie’s body, sighed deeply.
Bending near the couch, she stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray on the end table, and then shrugged off her winter coat, tossing in over the back of an empty chair. Her figure transformed from obelisk to woman in the moonlight, and she stretched her arms over her head, showing the charcoal-sketched curve of her hips and bosom. She rolled her shoulders as if settling back into her human shape, and then went to the sideboard, and Maddie heard the chink and glug of the water jug.
Turning with a glitter of glass in her hands, Mrs. Hayes swept across the room and set a cup of water on the end table beside the ashtray, near Maddie’s head. Maddie blinked groggily at it. Her eyelids were heavy but she was fighting sleep. On the other side of slumber lay the light of day, lucid discovery of what remained of Maddie’s self, what new shape she had taken. As long as she lay awake, she could remain unformed and unfinished in the womb of night.
On the other side of the room, Mrs. Hayes set down two more glasses with soft clinks, and then, with a scraping of furniture legs on carpet, heaved the heavy armchair around to face the fire. With the chair moved, Maddie could see the hearth. Mrs. Hayes lowered herself heavily into the armchair and propped her feet up on the fender. In the fireplace, the last of the embers rippled and danced. The red light refracted in the water glass, splitting into prismatic ripples, fire turned to liquid. Maddie fixed her gaze on the shifting light as the long, forgiving night stretched on.