Linnet’s blog will be on hiatus until January. Happy New Year, everyone!
Ellen’s first meetup with the Belles and their manly playmates is the subject of this week’s chapter.
5. Taking Liberties
Kim Kavanagh lived in the hipster neighborhood of Northern Liberties in downtown Philadelphia, as Ellen learned when she emailed her to ask the address. “Don’t be surprised if I leave earlier than the rest of you,” she wrote. “I’m not that used to drinking or late nights, and I want to make sure I get home safely.”
“Sure,” Kim wrote back. “If you have a lot to drink you can always crash in my guest room. BTW, do you text?” Most of the communication about meeting up, it appeared, went on through texting rather than email, which was only for hopeless Luddites.
Kim’s condo was predictably stylish, in a building called the Cigar Factory after its former function. The floor plan was open, with huge windows, exposed brick, and 60s-style vintage furniture. Ellen arrived at eight, nervous as a cat, and wearing what she hoped was an attractive outfit: a brown, lowcut sweater dress that followed the lines of her body without hugging it too tightly. She wore her fancy new silken bra and panties, feeling self-conscious but assuming that she wasn’t going to be showing them off to anyone just yet. The teardrop pendant of her favorite amber necklace nestled at the top of her modest cleavage, and her shoes were retro chunky heels with a strap over the instep.
As Kim opened the door to her, Ellen saw that a small crowd had already gathered in conversation, and the deep bass notes of a hip-hop tune thrummed rhythmically in the apartment. Not Ellen’s cup of tea, but at least it wasn’t too loud. A few of the others looked up as she entered; she saw Emily and Tina acknowledge her before Kim said, “Ellen, this is Angus. He’ll get you a drink.” The kitchen had a dedicated bar area, and a large, blue-eyed, red-haired man was standing behind it. “Hello there and welcome,” he said in a Scots accent. “What can I get ye?”
Ellen was in the mood for a martini, but she pointed to one of the Coronas on ice, thinking it would be best to go easy. “How about a wee nip wi’ that?” asked Angus, and pouring her a shot of Dewar’s, he handed it over with a wink.
“You’re giving me both?” she asked, confused.
“Aye, it’s a boilermaker,” he replied kindly, as though speaking to a child. “Down the whiskey first, all at once. Well, go on, lassie,” he said expectantly. Mentally shrugging, she put the tiny glass to her lips and swallowed the contents in one gulp. A moment later, as the fiery liquor made its way down her throat, she sucked in her breath and and wheezed a little, shaking her head. “Ya beauty! Now the beer will cool ye down,” he said, gallantly pouring it into a pint glass for her. “Thanks,” she said, still trying to catch her breath.
“Is Angus giving you a hard time over there?” called Tina. “Come on and meet the rest of us. Everyone, this is Ellen Bartlett. She teaches at Parnell.”
Ellen was introduced to Charlie House, the writer, who was a short man though quite good-looking. He had appealing crinkles at the corners of his eyes when he smiled, and curly brown hair. He reminded her of James Caan, and his bulging torso advertised the fact that he worked out regularly. “I see Angus is already plying you with drink,” he said. “Don’t let him. That’s my job.”
Everyone chuckled, and she exchanged friendly nods with Owen Griffith, whom she already knew from work. He was a Classicist, trim and dapper with a neat gray beard, and of medium height. It was slightly unnerving to meet him in this context. She had greeted him in hallways for years now, but even after her divorce, it never occurred to her to think of him as a potential sexual partner. She wondered whether he was surprised by her appearance in the group.
“Hola, bonita Elena,” said Hector Hernandez. Ellen returned his smile. Hector was a creative writing professor at Parnell, tall, dark and elegant. She knew him by sight, though they hadn’t met before. She was surprised at the warm reception she was getting from all these men, and the way they immediately acknowledged her femininity. It reminded her of the semester she had spent abroad before she met Derek. The men in France had acted this way. She regretted that she hadn’t allowed herself some sexual experimentation with them.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sound at the door. The new arrival let himself in after knocking. His large frame, clad in a dark suit, filled the doorway for a moment, and he removed a fedora as he entered, hanging it on a stand that Kim kept in the entryway. He had short dark hair, slightly longer on top, and a rather grim face, like some world-weary gumshoe from a film noir. “Hi, Hugh,” said Val and Tina in unison. So this was Hugh Barry, the illustrator. He nodded to the assembled group, plucked a Corona from the ice bucket, then moved at a measured pace to a large armchair in the corner.
“Tell us about yourself,” said Hector to Ellen. “What do you teach?”
“General history courses, and history of science,” she answered, taking a sip of her beer. “That’s my field. My dissertation was on amber, its cultural significance in the West and its impact on science and technology. As a matter of fact,” she laughed, “I named my daughter Amber.”
“I bet you have a lot of amber jewelry,” said Emily with a note of envy in her voice. “Isn’t that necklace made of fossil amber?”
“Yes,” said Ellen, her hand moving to the pendant on her chest. “There’s a little mosquito frozen in here, and he’s fifty million years old.”
“Just like Owen here,” said Charlie, patting him on the back.
“He may resemble me in age, my friend, but he’s closer to you in size.” Amid the laughter that followed this retort, the crowd broke into smaller conversations. Ellen joined one group and then another, chatting about music, books, films, and art, the main preoccupations of this social circle. Most of the men were divorced, she had gathered from Emily, and some had children from their previous marriages, but the conversation rarely touched on domestic or personal matters.
She visited the bar again, where Kim fixed her a delicious dry martini, dropping in a gorgonzola-stuffed olive. The time passed quickly, and she enjoyed herself. She found Charlie and Angus to be the most outgoing of the men; Hugh and Owen were the most introverted and preferred to listen to others’ conversation, only occasionally contributing a question or a quip. When Kim announced that it was Emily’s turn to choose the next venue, Hugh groaned. “Not My Nipple again,” he said, putting his arm around Emily and giving her an avuncular squeeze. “I don’t think I can take any more late Stevie Nicks.”
“Hey,” said Emily, pretending to be angry. “My Tipple’s a great bar, and we all like it.”
“Too femmy,” said Hugh. “Their menu is all Cosmopolitans.”
“Well, what did you think I was going to pick? Cooper’s Cavern?” snapped Emily. Ellen laughed; she’d been to the Cavern, which had a very masculine atmosphere, with dark paneling, low lights, heavy leather armchairs, and a huge collection of whiskeys. Hugh would be right at home there.
Charlie brought her a second martini, and she accepted it, thinking it would be best to take only a few sips, as she’d already had plenty to drink. But he began questioning her about amber, and telling her about a writers’ conference outside of Helsinki, where he had found a piece of amber on the shore of the Baltic sea.
“Kim has an amazing amber piece that she got from her grandmother,” he said. “I’m surprised she hasn’t shown it to you. Come on.” She set down her almost-empty glass, and he led her to Kim’s study, a windowless room with surprisingly few books, where the luxury of a plush white rug offset the spareness of the slim aluminum desk. He pointed out a gorgeous amber teacup and saucer on a shelf. The cup had a silver handle and base with little clawed feet. The amber was thin and translucent, mottled like tortoiseshell.
“It’s exquisite,” she said, holding the cup to the overhead light. As she set it back on the saucer and turned to Charlie, he said, “Not as lovely as you, Ellen.” He took her by the waist and drew her close, kissing her lightly. Surprised, she stiffened a little, and then relaxed as she began to enjoy the kiss. Charlie was shorter than she was, but he didn’t seem inhibited by the fact that he had to turn his face up to kiss her. He was confident, gradually deepening the kiss and moving his hands over her body. She put her arms around him, feeling the hard muscles of his shoulders and back, aware that she was aroused, and also rather drunk. Not much can happen in here, she thought, glancing at the hard, sleek office chair, so it’s probably okay.
Now Charlie had a warm hand on her right breast, and another on her rear end. “Ellen, you’re so sexy,” he whispered in her ear. “Look what you’re doing to me.” He pushed her hips firmly against his, renewing the kiss. Ellen was shocked out of her amorous intoxication when she felt his erection. It was very hard, like a foreign object, and surprisingly large. Its bulk against her pubic bone was uncomfortable, a wrong fit. Derek had been taller than she, and she remembered the way he used to press pleasurably against her lower belly. Charlie sensed her hesitation and took her hand, placing it on his crotch. Good heavens, she thought, as he said, “You’re breathing harder. Do you like that, Ellen? Do you like my big cock?”
“Umm, yes, Charlie, it’s very nice.” Now I know why Emily calls you Charlemagne. “Amazing, really. But I should be going,” she said, pulling back a little. Her body was responding to his touch and, yes, to the massive thing in his trousers, but being with him didn’t feel right. She found herself hoping his feelings wouldn’t be hurt. He took the rejection surprisingly well, merely giving her a firm squeeze on the rear end before releasing her. “Another time, then,” he said. “You’ll hang out with us again, won’t you?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed the evening very much.” The door of the study was almost, but not completely closed, and she led the way as they emerged, noticing the eyes of a few other guests flick in her direction: Tina, Emily, Hugh. Some of them must have left; she didn’t see Hector or Val. Charlie quickly disappeared in the direction of the bath. She made a beeline for Kim, who was in the kitchen, and said in a low voice, “Would you happen to have any coffee on hand? I think I’ve overindulged.”
“I don’t have any made up, but there’s some Starbucks Via and a kettle here,” said Kim. “Or I could send Owen out to get you some from Hotshots. It’s just around the corner.”
“Oh no, the Via’s fine,” said Ellen gratefully, as Kim put the kettle on, and set out a slender foil packet and a tall mug. “Charlie showed me your amber teacup,” she told Kim. “It’s beautiful.”
“Charlie’s really into show and tell,” replied Kim. “I guess you figured that out.”
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Readers of Apollo’s Fire may recall a brief scene in Cooper’s Cavern where Andy meets with her attorney Jeffrey. Cooper’s will be the venue for a later meetup in this story, and Jeffrey will appear as a minor character.
For those not reared in an Anglophone school system, “show and tell” is a common activity for young children, who bring a favorite object to school (often something of which they are quite proud) to display to their classmates.