When I first met my husband, I was impressed that he had gotten all the way through Moby Dick. So far I haven’t managed to read every word in order, although I’ve dipped into it many times. My favorite chapter is one most people skip, Chapter Thirty Two, on cetology, the science of whales.
17. Ellen Finds Her Thrill
“What are you working on these days, Ellen?” asked Charlie. “Still writing about amber?” Several of the group were sitting around the coffee table with their drinks, nibbling on her homemade, Asian-spiced Chex mix.
“No, I’m working on the history of whaling and the growth of knowledge about the biology of whales, especially during the nineteenth century.”
“Moby Dick, Chapter Thirty-Two,” said Hugh.
“That’s right,” she replied, turning to him in surprise. “That’s the one where Ishmael classifies all the whales.”
“Isn’t Moby Dick a symbol of evil?” asked Val, who had been parked next to Hugh for the past half hour. Before that, Ellen couldn’t help noticing, he’d had a long conversation with Kim.
“That’s what Ahab thinks he is,” she told Val. “He is certainly terrifying and amoral. But he seems to represent different things to different readers. God, or Nature, or the ocean itself.”
“Come on,” said Charlie. “It’s pretty obvious what he is. Just look at his name.”
“You mean he’s really just a huge penis, lurking in the ocean depths and waiting to penetrate unsuspecting ships?” said Kim, starting to laugh.
“All the famous whales of the day were given men’s names, like Tom, Dick and Harry,” said Ellen. “In fact, he was based on a real whale called Mocha Dick.”
Shaking with amusement, Charlie gestured toward the TV where a massive Barry White was crooning “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.”
“Don’t even go there, House,” said Hugh in a warning tone.
Tina was laughing hard, and slurring her speech. “He was a shperm whale, ishn’t that right, Ellen?” she said.
“Yes, but that’s a reference to the spermaceti in the whale’s head.” More bursts of laughter greeted this and she started to feel flustered. “I mean, it’s a fluid that whales use for echo-location, but when people first saw it, they thought it was the whale’s semen.”
In a wondering voice, Charlie said, “Whales must have the biggest dicks in the world!”
“Well, Ellen? You’re the expert,” said Val teasingly. “How big are they?” Everyone looked at her expectantly, and she wondered how on earth the conversation had reached this point.
“The blue whale is the largest creature on earth,” she said slowly. “I believe its… member… is about eight feet long.”
Tina laughed again, a loud, honking laugh, and said, “Sorry, Charlie! Even you can’t compete with that.” She looked about the room, glancing at each of the men in turn, and a sudden lucidity shone in her eyes. “I’m trying to decide whether you’re all dicks with good taste, or just dicks that taste good.” Then she swayed and her head fell backward onto the couch cushion behind her. After this announcement, there was a pause as everyone stared at Tina, and Barry White sang, I don’t know why, I don’t know why, Can’t get enough of your love, babe.
“What should we do?” said Emily. “I was afraid this would happen. She’s had too much. Should one of us drive her home?”
“No,” decided Ellen. “Just help me get her into the guest room. She can stay there until morning if she needs to.” Hugh and Owen each took an arm and guided the semi-conscious Tina, still muttering about dicks with good taste, down the hall into Amber’s room, which doubled as the guest room. Once they left, Ellen said, “Tina, you’ll stay here tonight.” She pulled a pair of Amber’s oversize pajamas from a drawer. “You can put these on if you want.”
“’Kay,” mumbled Tina, sitting on the edge of the bed, and then lying back heavily as Ellen closed the door.
“Tina’s fine, but she’ll have a bad headache tomorrow,” she told the rest of them. While she was gone, Charlie and Jaime had fallen into an argument about an online game, “Warfare 1917,” and they asked if Ellen had a computer. Ellen was surprised; she’d been under the impression that only younger people played video games. She told them they could log in to the Mac in her bedroom, which was divided between a sleeping area and a study. Mindful of the chance that guests might wander in there, she’d cleared the room of personal items.
Aware of the late hour —it was now midnight— and chastened after the episode with Tina, the others redistributed themselves into small groups and lowered their voices. Emily thanked Ellen and said goodnight, as did Angus, who appeared to have mislaid his belt. Ellen found herself standing with Hugh by the kitchen counter. Impulsively, she said, “We never discuss our personal backgrounds at these gatherings. Is it a taboo?”
He considered this. “I suppose so. Kim likes an escapist atmosphere, where we focus on the moment.”
“I see; it’s bad form to ask, because that means you’re interested in more than a casual relationship.”
He nodded. “In case you’re wondering, I was married for ten years,” said Hugh. “I have a son, Jacob.”
“Do you see him often?” she asked.
“When he was younger. Now he’s at UCLA, and it’s like pulling teeth to get him out east. Especially in winter.”
“I’m lucky that Amber wanted to go to Parnell.” She paused, wondering how much to reveal, and then said, “My marriage to her father never really got off the ground. It ended not with a bang but a whimper.”
“I’m convinced that Vera left me because I wouldn’t fight with her. She had a thing about make-up sex.”
“Whereas you would have preferred the sex without the fight beforehand,” she guessed.
“Mmm. Yes. She said I was no fun any more. She used to call me ‘Hugh the Stolid.’”
Ellen’s gaze focused on his massive shoulders. “Maybe she meant to say ‘huge and solid.’” She pictured herself in bed, enfolded in Hugh’s arms, sensing his large, comforting presence beside her through the night.
Hugh reacted to her remark with the tiniest of smiles. “I’m going to have a smoke now,” he said, and disappeared down the hallway. Nice going, Bartlett, said Ellen to herself. Next time, why don’t you just grab his crotch?
It was nearing one in the morning. After Tina’s collapse, Ellen had turned off the TV and switched to a playlist of mellower, late-night songs, a mix of Mel Tormé, Chet Baker, and Diana Krall. She refilled the snack bowls and then, in spite of the strict instructions she had issued herself to leave Hugh alone, took her glass of wine to where he was sitting in a big armchair. It was the one she’d known he would select, across from her fishtank. Striped angelfish the size of dollar coins floated dreamily back and forth, their motions soothing and hypnotic, while a few blue neons darted here and there. Sinking down without a word, she sat on the floor, leaning against the front of the chair, and pleasantly aware of his legs beside her shoulder.
“You did well, Ellen. Thanks for all this,” came Hugh’s deep voice from behind her.
“My pleasure,” she answered. “I have the feeling of relief that every host or hostess enjoys, knowing that the evening has been a success.” She thought of Tina and corrected herself, “or at least not a total disaster.”
Hugh was silent for a moment, and then spoke again, more softly. “For some reason I was Mr. Popularity this evening. Why?”
“Oh, it’s partly your gallant behavior toward Val when she cut herself. That got everyone’s attention. And… it seems the ladies feel you should be sharing the wealth more than you do.”
“And you, Ellen? What do you think?”
Ellen’s heart began to pound, and she turned her head slightly as she spoke, so that he could see her profile. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t mind if you showed me your etchings.”
A low rumble reached her ears and she realized that it was Hugh’s laugh. She sensed it when he leaned forward, and she felt the warm fingers of one hand gently stroking the nape of her neck
“I’ve done some etching. It’s a printmaking technique and damnably messy. My place always smells like turpentine for days afterwards.” He fell silent.
Mixed signals, she thought. He was changing the subject, but he was touching her, and for the first time. She closed her eyes as the caress continued. It was as erotic as if he were stroking her breasts, and darts of desire swam like tiny blue neons down to her womb. She wanted to say: More, please. I like that. But she was afraid that if she acknowledged his touch in any way, it would stop. Instead she said, “I’m sure the end result is well worth the mess.”
“Ellen, have you got any more ice?” It was Charlie, and his voice was coming closer. Damn, damn, damn! She opened her eyes as the fingers disappeared from her neck.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll get it for you.” She stood, then turned and deliberately met Hugh’s gaze for a long moment, keeping her expression neutral, but hoping he grasped her wordless message. Then she got Charlie his ice. After that, the evening rapidly came to a close. Kim left with Owen, and Val left with Charlie; they were nearly the last to go. Tina was still in the guest room with the door shut, and Ellen supposed she was down for the evening.
Hugh silently helped her ferry all the glasses, napkins and snack bowls to the kitchen. He brought the last highball glass and set it on the countertop, standing at arm’s length. “I’ll be on my way now.” She nodded, trying to smile in spite of her disappointment. Unexpectedly, he laid a palm on each of her shoulders and slowly closed his fingers around them. He pulled her to him, then bent to kiss her. His lips, his tongue, the taste of him: all made her shiver with desire, and she felt the hairs standing on her forearms. She reached for him, running her hands beneath his jacket and around his waist, pulling him into closer contact. I’ve found my thrill, she thought. When he broke the kiss and they gazed at one another, it occurred to her that his features no longer seemed grim and stark. His hazel-colored eyes, large and intense, held her spellbound.
As he released her, the physical separation was almost painful. She felt as a small child does when he is torn from his favorite blanket.
“Goodnight, Ellen.” Donning his fedora, Hugh disappeared down the hallway.
Ellen took a few deep breaths, trying to gather her wits. She was too aroused to fall asleep easily now. She would toss and turn in bed for what remained of the night. She went to check on Tina, knocking before opening the door. Tina had not put on the pajamas, but she was curled into a fetal position on the bed, her back to the door, softly snoring. Ellen decided not to wake her.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: For some reason, my mind was on things nautical when I wrote this chapter. I even gave Ellen a (freshwater) fish tank with angelfish and neons. Ellen is a historian of science, and keeping fish fits with her character.
Moby Dick was inspired by real life whales, including an albino bull named Mocha Dick who was thought to attack ships in revenge. Another was the whale who stove in the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820. Ron Howard has made a film about that story, which I’ve not seen, but what a cast!