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Pillow Stories


by Vanessa Carlisle

At forty-four years old, I was still managing a bar on the eastern end of the Sunset strip. My staff at the bar was at least fifteen years younger than me, crazy with ambition and hormones, alternately drunk and hung-over. On the nights when I filled in pouring drinks, I made twice what they made -- because I had so much more experience, is what I told them. The truth was that I just didn't care about any of it: money, customers, bottle counts. My wife and I were separated, had been for years, but we hadn't gotten around to finalizing the divorce. Her boyfriend didn't seem to care. They lived down in Long Beach so I wasn't forced to interact with them. I thought about them, though, every day.

I had a closet of black clothes, a stubbly goatee, and long days in which I'd walk the Venice boardwalk or sit on my porch, smoking Swisher Sweets and drinking Argentinean reds from Trader Joe's. One night when I came out of the bar manager's office, where I'd been drawing my name in 3D letters on the desk calendar, I saw this unbelievably cute young woman sitting by herself, drinking a martini with three olives. She had short, jet black hair cut like a flapper's, red lipstick, and blue eyes. The girls weren't wearing red lipstick much then. I immediately wanted to take her neck in my mouth, wanted to lift her arms up and feel her fingers in my hair. She had small breasts, but they were round and spaced wide on her body so she had a perfect hourglass from the front. She left before I talked to her.

She came in every Thursday for two months. I started filling in at the bar those nights. Her name was Sandi. She was 26, an actress. I had the banter down pat, of course, but when she gave me her number I was shocked and couldn't call for days. I didn't understand what she could possibly see in me except that I always made sure her martinis were strong and free. I knew better than to theorize why she came in alone.

We set up a date over a series of voicemails. In her last message before we were to meet she said, "I've never seen you without a bar between us, and I've never talked to you live on the phone. I hope you're not a robot."

I felt like a teenager on our first date because I didn't know where to put my hands and she seemed so much older than she was, sitting next to me at the sushi counter in a black skirt. When I went to the bathroom and tried to get my straw hair to settle over the thin spots on my forehead, she ordered herself a drink. I came back to find her joking with a cocktail waitress about how annoying first dates always were. I didn't know what to talk about and I was desperately afraid that I would say something painfully inappropriate like "You know, I remember when Kennedy was killed," so I tried to ask her questions, but every time she told a story about her lovely family I ruined it with a story about my alcoholic, divorced, neglectful parents. Every time she talked about becoming an actress I reminded her, somehow, that the odds were against her.

I said, "I was surprised that you gave me your number," and she smiled. I said, "You seem much more mature than 26," and "I've had a pretty difficult life," and various other ridiculous things. At the end of dinner I noticed that she had twisted her paper napkin into a knot, ripped the ends and tied those in knots too, and I wanted to keep it, take it home and hang it on my door, it was so beautiful and tortured, a wrinkled and sweaty star. I was too nervous to get a hard-on, even with her black lashes and dimples flashing me all night.

In the car, she leaned in and looked at me sidelong. "When was the last time you got laid?" she said, and I stuttered, because it had been almost two years, and she patted my hand and said, "Don't worry sweetie, this is what I do."

I didn't understand, and told her so. She said she was a sex therapist. She said men like me were her specialty. She would "do a session" with me for $500.

I felt like we'd stumbled onto some indie film set. Any moment now her director would come swooping in and tell me I needed to stop tapping the steering wheel. He'd tell me to act more natural. The future audience would be laughing. "What does that mean--'men like me'?" I said.

"There are a lot of older guys in this city who -- for a reason that isn't their level of physical attractiveness -- don't have regular sex."

"I'm not really older," I said, automatically. "I'm just older than you." She waved it off. We didn't talk for a few seconds. She was calm, looking forward as we drove. "Even if I had $500 to spare," I said, "what's in a session?"

"Depends on you," she said, shrugging, "and what your issues are."

"Is it like going to therapy?" I said.

"It is therapy," she said, "but I don't stay on the other side of the room."

I thought about her sitting in my lap, while I talked about my wife. I imagined her stripping while she told me I needed to keep a journal.

"Most people ignore their sexual problems," she said knowingly. She put a hand on my thigh, which felt more like a test than a come-on, and stayed quiet until I pulled up to her place. When she asked me to come up to her apartment I almost said "What for?" before I realized that that sounded idiotic, juvenile, and rude. So I went upstairs, and tried not to seem astounded when she kissed me. Her place was in the North end of Korea Town. She'd taken a frowsy tenement box and strung it with Christmas lights and tapestries.

Later, I asked her why she'd kissed me, and she told me that she wasn't exactly sure, only that she wanted to try and calm me down some way. I wanted her so bad I was afraid. She backed away from the kiss and said, "Wow. Hey. You're a great kisser. Do you like eating pussy?" And while I nodded dumbly, she said, "Listen, I'll make you a deal. Go down on me, and if you can make me come, I'd like you to talk me through it so I can help other guys get better at it. We'll barter."

I wanted to say no, aware that there was something emasculating in this proposal. But I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Normally she'd charge someone $500 to touch her, and I'd get to do it for free. It was the weirdest thing to happen to me for years.

"Well?" she said, eyebrows raised. "Yes or no?"

"Okay, yeah," I said, reaching for her. She snaked into my arms, made little cooing noises, and then after two minutes of kissing, she pulled off her skirt and lay back on her bed. She nodded at me. She was wearing red lace panties, which I guessed I was supposed to take off her. She kept her black top on.

I knelt down and kissed her belly. She smelled sweet, like one of those cookie-flavored lotions, and her body was covered in a very fine layer of blonde hair. I hooked my arms under her legs, pulled her panties off, and kissed her softly on her pubic bone. She was totally clean-shaven, or waxed, no stubble, like a little girl, which made my whole body throb a time or two, made me hard, then I felt guilty, got soft, all of this happening while I started to kiss and suck her inner lips, her clit, and she closed her eyes and breathed calmly, normally. She had almost no taste, which surprised me. The vague musky salt of her, when I could catch it, was like her secret, real self, the one she kept safe from clients, maybe from all men. She wanted my fingers in her, she moved her hips in rhythm with me, she reached down and pulled on the back of my head. She never got that wet. Eventually she came, but the orgasm seemed short and light, to me.

"That was nice," she said. "You can sleep here, it's late. We'll talk about your technique tomorrow." So I curled against her perfect body, her skin like heated porcelain, her back muscles taut. I stroked her black hair when she slept. In the middle of the night she woke up gasping.

"You okay?" I whispered. I touched her face.

She moved her cheek away and said, "I have these drowning dreams."

Then she snuggled closer and closed her eyes. "It's no big deal."

The next morning, I tried to describe what I'd done. I was miserable at it. "I sucked first, then licked, then sucked again?" I couldn't figure out what she wanted from me.

"You've got to be more precise!" she said. "Sucked what? How hard?"

Eventually she gave up. "Forget it," she said, "I'll just figure it out by feel. You do what you do, and I'll put the words to it."

I agreed. I asked her if there was one guy in particular this was for. She nodded. "He's my only reliable client right now," she said.

We became friends, sort of. Sandi would make me see romantic movies with her, the kind her other client never wanted to see. She had perfect, tall posture, and spoke with the cynical wit of a Stanford grad to the snotty scene-people we met at West Hollywood diners. I knew she wanted to conquer the Hollywood scene more than anything, but she was never intimidated and I admired her for that.

I met her father completely by accident on a morning when he came to town unexpectedly. His face was calm with that same assured confidence Sandi always had. He'd come to surprise her for brunch, and he invited me, but I declined, knowing that she never would have invited me herself. She hugged me lightly in her father's presence and offered a breezy "Talk to you later," before they drove away. I thought he looked like me, and wanted to tease her about needing a sex therapist herself. I didn't, though, afraid she'd stop calling. We'd been seeing each other for about a month then.

Later that day, she called me on her way to see a new client. She complained about being broke, teased me about how wimpy I was for not fucking any of the girls who worked at my bar, and then slipped into a wistful discussion of her aspirations to become an actress, a great actress, one of the great actresses of our age. I said almost nothing. She said, "Come over after work. I'll be tired, but come over anyway."

The bar was a madhouse that night -- some Barbie had a birthday party and I was muddling mint for a glittery knot of mojito drinkers for hours. My wrists killed by 3AM. I went to Sandi's anyway.

It always smelled vaguely like pot there, as if the party had just barely broken up. She pulled two microbrews from her fridge and said she was worried I was falling in love with her.

"I think you should get an older, more interested girlfriend," she said. "Like, get a real girlfriend." We sat in Ikea armchairs, facing each other. She was sniffling, like she had allergies or a cold, and running her hands up and down her calves occasionally as she talked. I tried to hold her gaze while I explained that I didn't want a girlfriend right now anyway. I told her that I wasn't even emotionally capable of falling in love.

"Sandi, you're an incredible person," I said. "But I just don't have that kind of depth of feeling for anything at all right now, much less another person."

"What a relief," she said, "I'm so glad we can talk like this."

She relaxed back into her chair, and the mischievous smile, the one that made it okay for me to touch her, appeared slowly. I put my beer on the floor. I kneeled in front of her chair. She smelled like chocolate and cigarettes. I whispered that I didn't expect to stay the night, which she always wanted to hear, and I slid my hands under her shirt, trying not to scratch her perfect, soft skin with my calloused thumbs.

Every time I saw her, I thought she might change her mind and want to make love. She would pull me on top of her and I'd worry I was crushing her. A few minutes later she would rock her hips and moan like a Siren while I sucked her clit. I'd push her up to the head of the bed so I could rub my hard-on into the mattress. So I could feel something too. Sometimes I'd balance on one arm, and masturbate while I drew circles just inside her vagina with my tongue, but then I'd feel guilty for not keeping focus. She would touch my back with palms so urgent I would feel them burning my skin throughout the next day. I started noticing that when she was about to come, she'd clench her toes. She had these long, perfectly manicured toes, and her feet were so powerful they looked like angry fists for a few seconds, and then she'd shudder two or three times, her toes would uncurl, and one leg would float over my head so that she was whole, intact, again. Every time I saw her, I would realize in that last moment that we were not going to have sex.

Afterward, I would listen to her worry that she was sending me mixed messages.

My desire for her would make it seem worth it -- her flighty, infrequent phone calls, the way she refused to fall asleep anywhere but her own tiny apartment, her demand for witty banter, and the way she justified her not wanting to have sex with me. When I brought it up one night, the possibility of having sex, she quickly started discussing how sex would add a level of commitment to the arrangement that she just wasn't prepared to handle. She told me that oral sex was different, it was tougher to help other people with, so this was good research, she enjoyed it of course, but.

"But what?"

Then she reminded me, again, of how I still had a wife down in Long Beach, and she teased me about being too lazy to sign divorce papers even though we hadn't been together for three years, or in love for five. When I offered to get the divorce she looked offended and told me that unless I was prepared to start paying her she wanted nothing to do with it. "We have a good thing here," she said, "if you want help with your issues it's no longer a barter."

She told me, without saying it directly, that I was too old, had too much emotional baggage, and posed too much of a social imposition to her sharp-tongued, tight-abbed, up-and-coming self for her to really care for me. She would remind me, without ever saying it, that she could date whomever she wanted.

"But you can sleep here tonight, if you want," she would say, which was an invitation to cuddling and cunnilingus. I would agree, because she was so fascinating and young, like a wild kitten. I would summon up nearly twenty-five years of experience being an attentive lover to make her orgasm, sometimes two or three times in a row, and then she'd sleep, sweaty and twitching, with her leg between mine and her arm pressing my chest. I would feel some deep sense of accomplishment at this, because she was such a little nymph, a professional, and the fact that I could make her come meant she did feel some desire for me, at some level.

When I was honest, I could admit that she made me feel less lonely because of the way she nuzzled me in her sleep. It was her soft, sleeping self that would finally lure me, because asleep she was such a young girl, so tiny, and she wanted to be held tighter than anyone I'd ever been with before. When I masturbated at home, after seeing her, I'd picture her asleep.

I told people I was dating a twenty-six-year-old actress. I told them that story even though I barely ever saw her, because her scent on my clothes would jolt my insides like the psychic who one time sent an electric current through my whole body simply by touching my hand. I was forty-four, and I was starting to think about death and what it all meant and why the hell I didn't have any kids yet. I was tiring of the bar business but caught in the inertia of only working three nights a week, and I was finally seeing the languid promise of Los Angeles as some kind of big community delusion, like God or the free market.

Months after Sandi stopped returning my calls, when I realized that I would work for someone else all of my life, and when my not-quite-ex wife returned to me in a silent, private exhaustion of her own, I began to remember Sandi the "sex therapist" like a fairy tale or a waking dream. I told my wife about her years later, and she accused me of having drunk fantasies during the "dark years."

On our first date, Sandi had rolled her eyes when I listened to Elton John in the car because he was such a geezer.

"Not Tiny Dancer!" she had said.

"It's a great song," I said.

"Not only is it drama, it's nostalgic drama," she said.

"It's a beautiful story."

"Oh please. Are you kidding me? It's just an acid trip he never got over."

She did not allow me any romantic gestures outside of paying for dinner, but she kissed me on the beach in Venice once, because the beauty of the sunset took over. Her eyes went sparkly, her hair wild, and I could see that she was searching for the same thing I was -- the Beautiful Moment, the Ultimate Moment with the Right Person, where the questions are answered and the future is clear. And although she seemed to always be disappointed, always protected, always ironic, at that time in my life I would call and call and call because I was forty-four years old and she was twenty-six and it was unbelievable that I got to touch her at all, in the first place.

©2010 by Vanessa Carlisle

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Vanessa Carlisle completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College, and her work has appeared in both literary and trade magazines, including NinthLetter, Boink Magazine, The Catalyst, and others. She lives in L.A. and does some rather odd things to pay bills while she works on her second novel.

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