Updike for Beginners
I took the ugly one. At Canoe Club, one of the few bars in Hanover, New Hampshire, a town that could use a drink, my friend Josh and I had spent most of the evening talking with the bartender Sarah and her friend Clara, whose rhyming names caused us no small amount of confusion. We had drunk too many martinis on the house. Now at a quarter past closing time, decided on our respective companions, wretched with quality hooch, satisfied on the inevitable outcome, both of us walked out of Canoe Club, Sarah on Josh’s arm and Clara on mine. I may have thought I was settling for her, but I actually had no choice in the matter.
On the sofa, a creaky sectional upholstered in emerald velour, Josh and Sarah and Clara and I, enjoying a nightcap in my apartment, did a poor job of not waking up my two roommates. “Keep it down,” one said, “for fuck’s sake.” Everyone knows it’s impossible to keep it down when you’re drunk at two in the morning. We said sure.
My undergraduate thesis, a novel, sat on the coffee table. Despite my less than heartfelt objections—this was soon enough after I’d finished it for me still to be proud of the damn thing—Sarah began flipping through its 177 pages of a young writer thinking himself infallible, evident by way of the awkward third-person narration, unnecessary past-perfect flashbacks, and blatant autobiographical clearings of the throat. She came to the sex scene. Even across the room, I could recognize that block of prose sans paragraph breaks that went on for three pages, all without a single period. It was my favorite scene in the book.
“This is you,” she quoted from a moment of internal monologue, the protagonist thinking of what he would like to say. “This is perfect.”
Sarah looked up from the book I had written and told me she would do anything for someone to say that to her. I could have cried. Here was a beautiful woman who appreciated the sentiments that had come from me. She had yellow hair and she was thin and she had amazing tits. Ask any straight, male writer if he writes for a reason more important than to sleep with blond, thin, buxom women. If he says, “No,” he is an asshole, and if he says, “Yes,” he is a liar. The reason I almost cried that night was that here was such a woman who was not going to sleep with me. Sarah left my apartment with Josh, leaving me alone with her friend.
Clara was heavy. Certain short stories I had read over the years might have described her as zaftig. John Cheever or Philip Roth. The word was a part of my vocabulary because of one of them. Same goes for other things. Faulkner’s Sanctuary had frightened me with rape and Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald had taught me how to philander and Nabokov’s Lolita had horrified me with pedophilia. None of those things changed the fact that in my room, Clara tugging off her clothes, Clara sucking in her belly, she was plump in a way fiction let me know.
Each of us tasted of cheap beer. The cans on the coffee tables, Natural Lights, fell clattering to the floor. Each of us shivered with sweat. The particular time of year, May or June, fluctuated in temperature. Atop the sofa, where I imagined the green velour made us look as though we were lying on a golf course, Clara and I wrangled our naked bodies together, teeing, driving, putting, until she said, “Do you think you can turn the light off?”
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