Reviewed by Jean Roberta
Have you ever dreamed about being suddenly naked in unusual circumstances? The emotional flavor of such dreams depends on how much you dread exposure or how much you secretly or openly yearn to be seen -- and it depends on who sees you.
A theme of nakedness in an erotic anthology doesn't seem brilliant at first glance, since sex generally requires a state of undress. These stories, however, explore all the implications of being uncovered, laid bare, shown for who one really is, deprived of a familiar cloak or disguise. A few of these stories are about discovering someone else's raw, naked truth. It's a surprisingly diverse theme.
In her introduction, the editor explains: "At the gym, in the shower, on the subway, at a tea party, the women in Smooth leave behind their inhibitions and go where many women have only dreamed about. Sexy, playful, sensual and celebratory, these nineteen stories will be sure to entice you as they reveal so much skin." In the imaginary worlds of these stories, nakedness is often embarrassing in a titillating way, but never really dangerous. And a naked woman (like the bare-breasted Amazon warriors in Monique Wittig's feminist fantasy novel Les Guerrilleres) can leave the onlooker disarmed.
In "This Night" by Suzanne V. Slate, a deceptively simple male-dominant, female-submissive scenario is repeated with the roles reversed, although the woman is naked in both versions. In the first, she is ordered to strip by her Master, who forces her to display herself to a stranger. In the second, the woman calmly opens the door in the altogether, while her boy-toy is helpless to stop her.
"Eden" by Molly Slate explores the implications of the Biblical story in which Adam and Eve awake from a state of blissful innocence by realizing that they are naked, and feeling ashamed. (In Slate's version, shame is also the beginning of lust, or fascination with the exotic body of the Other.) The body of a deer reminds Adam of mortality, then Eve thinks: "His neck jerked up. He glared at me with that blinking accusation again, and then something happened -- something new. His face cracked. It was waterless, but I stared in amazement before I realized that I had broken open, too, and something new was spilling out, something good and merciful, like balm. Its hand pulled and twisted in my stomach. This isn't mercy -- it's the thing you got in the trade, the thing you're left with when mercy's fled. It was loud; it was chaos." After mutual misunderstanding and emotional pain, the first woman and the first man reach a fragile agreement.
Several of these stories deal with tattoos as a means of covering or enhancing bare skin. In "Ink" by Jennifer Peters, a woman with a tattoo fetish meets the man of her dreams, but waits to reveal her own body art. She explains: "Maybe it's because my mother used to call my best friend with the abundance of body art Sideshow Barbie, or maybe it's due to the fact that a date once called tattooed girls 'major sluts,' but I like to keep my own ink to myself." In due course, she shows her tattoos to the man who can appreciate them, and her.
In "Adornment Is Power" by Teresa Noelle Roberts, Mara and Joel, who used to date in their clueless youth, reconnect after they have each discovered BDSM and their own versatile natures as switches. Their current sexual knowledge and self-awareness are represented by their body art.
In Lisabet Sarai's story, "Clean Slate," a female former gang-member is getting her tattoos erased so that she can be a suitable wife for her upscale fiance. As the attendant Luisa lasers the ink off Ally's skin, Ally regrets giving up her favorite tattoo:
I called her Lilith. She had huge tits with red-grape nipples and a glorious fat ass. Her skin was black velvet. Her pomegranate lips parted to show pointed teeth that gleamed with my natural paleness. Lilith lounged naked on my chest, luxuriant jet curls tumbling across my shoulder, the globe of her butt coinciding with the meager swell of my own tit. Lilith grasped a steel-blue sword in one hand and a hank of chain in the other. Nobody fucked with Lilith.
Ally learns that Lilith, as her alter ego or guardian spirit, can still be with her even when the tattoo is gone. This story is powerful, and it is one of my favorites in the book.
"Live Action" by Susan St. Aubin is an atmospheric story set in a foggy city with streetcars (San Francisco?) in some past era when pounding a typewriter in an office was the default job for a typical young woman from a smaller town. Ellen, heroine of this story, develops "a fascination with windows," where anything or anyone could appear. In due course, she sees a man who needs an audience as much as Ellen needs to learn the secrets of a worldly city.
"Ivy League Associates" by Donna George Storey is an unusually realistic and entertaining story about the sex trade, in which a woman who went to Princeton goes to work as a call girl, theoretically because she is researching a book, but actually because she is a starving artist who needs the money. The client who orders her to come to his house in a raincoat over bare skin abruptly changes his tone when he and she both realize that they have met in different circumstances. Being addressed by her real name makes Erica feel much more naked than she did en route. A sexual encounter between these two characters suddenly becomes less inevitable, and more satisfying for both than they expected.
"Loyly" by Angela Caperton is a steamy story about rebounding from heartbreak. A woman who goes to a bleak hotel alone in a Michigan winter is cheered to discover the hotel sauna. She is first surprised, then aroused by an unself-conscious fellow-tourist, a man from Finland who teaches her that "loyly" in his language means both "steam" and "spirit." He introduces her to the healing potential of the sauna, a traditional haven for those who live in harsh northern climates.
The rest of the stories are competently-written, good-natured and well-paced, but they fall into predictable categories. The editor's own piece, "Chilly Girl," could fit in with her other stories that make distinct fetishes comprehensible for those who don't share them -- or who haven't explored them yet.
This collection as a whole is as colorful and varied as other Cleis anthologies, including the annual series, Best Women's Erotica and Best Lesbian Erotica.