The Pornographer

That’s the title of a short piece I wrote this weekend — not an entire story, mind you, but half, up to the point where something new must happen between the two characters. It’d be nice if you could put a story in your gleaming stainless steel pressure cooker and have it come out all seasoned and mellow and finished. I haven’t tried it, but think this is unlikely to work.

So, while I’m waiting for inspiration about how to go on, I’m posting a little bit of it. And all I have to say about it, really, is that it’s awfully hard to write about sex very well. Here is the first part of my effort. The story begins with a letter. It is sent to a woman who has been widowed recently. She lives with her three teenage boys. The letter is from a man she had an affair with a long time ago. It is an erotic letter, although we don’t know much about its contents. This is what happens after that letter, and another like it, arrive:

It is not hard to find out where to reach him. He is, by this time, a law professor at a university in the southern part of the state. He writes books and gives lectures on things she could not remember him ever caring about. He might still be married. He might not. They don’t talk about that on his school’s website. She writes his email address on top of one of the envelopes, puts his letters into the box with the wedding picture and her passport and tries to forget all about it.

Maybe it is all the sex in the fraught teenage air of her house, or maybe it is all the sex out in the world, or maybe it is all the sex contained in his letters, but she discovers that she cannot forget him or the things he has described.

In fact, the more the days go by, the more she sees that he has colonized most of the words she hears or uses during the day. “Pull,” and “hold,” now belong to him exclusively, as do “your,” “my” and “I.” But these are the least of her problems. More concerning is that he has used the words “take” and “put” at least four times in one paragraph and she finds herself growing warm and distracted every time her boss tells her to take a paragraph out of a report or put something on his desk before he leaves, things he says with alarming frequency. But most difficult is a string of words with no commas — “you me that room” — which makes it almost impossible for her to concentrate on her work as an auditor for the state government, a job in which these words are used on a regular basis, although obviously not with the same intention of arousing her interest.

One afternoon, when her boys are outside practicing tricks on their skateboards, she pulls the computer toward her, trying not to think about the way he has said he will pull her toward him, and begins to type. She decides on “dear” and “surprising.” She decides not to use “amusing” but does work in the phrase “give it some thought” which she has never used in quite this context, not that she recalls anyway. Without giving herself time to reconsider, she uses “love” and “hard” but in separate sentences and then, thinking it might be best to keep some things in reserve, she sends it all to him, to tell him what she thinks of that.

In his office at the law school, he hears the email beep that signals he has one more thing to do. When he sees her name, he gets up and locks his door. He has not wanted to think about whether she will answer but now that she has all he can see is that she still punctuates beautifully and never spells anything wrong. This does not frighten him the way it used to because his wife, now his ex-wife, once told him in a friendly way that as long as you use the right words at the right time, people will look the other way at how you spell them. She never lied to him, not even when she told him that she did not love him anymore, and so he believes her about the spelling.

Her email is more funny than heated, but he is glad she has decided to start that way. He has not wanted things to go too quickly from words to the room he has already told her about. He is pretty sure she will have more to say. That’s what “give it some thought” generally means. He writes one sentence, enough to keep her mind off the wrongdoing in the Department of Transportation for an entire week, and waits for her to come a little closer and tell him what she is thinking about.

It takes her three days to do so, but when she does, he discovers he cannot breathe and think about her at the same time. He tells her this and other, more specific things besides. And so it goes, for a month or two, until there are no more words in circulation in the everyday world that they have not already used to describe the many things they have done and would like to do with and to each other. The atmosphere between them, the entire corridor from the southern part of the state to the northern, buzzes with words.

One sunny afternoon, when he is in his office, absent-mindedly thinking about what she means by the word “effective,” she calls him.

There is more, but I’ll leave off here.

Wordless Week

My mother likes to tell people that she cannot remember when I learned to talk because it seems like I have always been talking. Others — my notably silent husband included — would agree.

Blogging has been a great place to locate all that chatting energy. Not just in the posts, but in the conversations that occur in the comments. But lately, I haven’t really felt like talking. I don’t think this is permanent –it’s not as though nothing is happening to me. I’m still reading and writing and working and parenting and cooking and hiking and finding out things I never knew before.

So here’s my plan to ease myself back into chattiness — I thought I’d list the six things I haven’t written about, things about which I normally would have told you more than you could possibly want to know:

1. Our new pressure cooker. I bought a pressure cooker last week, an appliance so weird, but so incredibly useful (and, as it turns out a terribly European thing), that it cries out for appreciation, for some sort of paean to the wonders of this sort of kitchen efficiency that, unlike the microwave, doesn’t ruin your food, but improves it. I did cook in it by the way — two vegetables, because I haven’t had a chance to consider the issue of meat. The broccoli cooked in about four minutes; the brussels sprouts in four and a half. Now that’s not a huge improvement over the normal cooking time for broccoli, but I will tell you here and now that the brussels sprouts were FABULOUS. I don’t really like that vegetable, but they were cooked in some sort of stock and thyme mixture and then a little butter and flour was mixed in afterwards and they were amazing. I’ll get back to you on the meat.

2. Erotic prose. I’ve been thinking about this particular topic a lot lately, as I’ve been warming up, so to speak, for the next novel I write which is about, among other things, sex. The trouble is that I don’t want to — and in fact cannot — write very good erotic prose. But this weekend, I wrote a short story that represented a huge breakthrough in this area. It was both funny and sexy, like the best sexual encounters. If I had time I would write about Lawrence and Joyce, and Anais Nin and Henry Miller, and how not to write a sex scene. And maybe I still will.

3. Jeeves and Wooster. We’ve been watching the BBC series, the one with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, and we love them both. We love how stupid Bertie’s friends are, how good humored he is, and how magically Jeeves sets things to rights. We also like how Jeeves keeps Bertie’s wardrobe miscues under control. Are the books as good as the series? We’re going to have to find out.

4. Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons. I’ve only read the first story, but I can already tell that this is a harrowing, beautifully written, wonderful book. I heard him read one of these stories at Stanford a few months ago, a story about a boy whose mother was a famous singer, and had abandoned him (or so he was told) when he was a baby. It’s the sort of story that makes you wish you were alone in the room so you could cry and not bother the people around you. By the way, his name is pronounced like this: “Call-um, Toebean”  — I think)

5. Spring. Asparagus. Strawberries. April Showers. Lemons.

6. T.S. Eliot’s Preludes, and why I loved this poem when I was in my twenties. (Because it was so wonderfully grim, and so romantic — that part about the “infinitely gentle/infinitely suffering thing” particularly) It is here, if you are interested:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimneypots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That times resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.