The Old Paperback

She found an old paperback buried somewhere in the attic, amidst tube tops and cut offs, denim with holes in all the right places, slinky gowns, sequined tops, platform heels, espadrilles… Its back page had a crimson imprint, of perfectly formed lips, half open in anticipation.

That perfect imprint didn’t betray the fever pitch of that moment years ago when the world had shrunk rather pathetically to a pinpoint where the only reality was a desire for dissolution and unresisting disintegration in his arms. It was like a screaming trance, an anguished moment that sought completion and consummation where none was possible. In just such a moment of desperation she had kissed the back page of the book, before allowing herself to experience the resolution she sought, at her own hands. It was quick, easy and uncomplicated and left nothing but an emptiness that had only spread wider since the day they parted.

That lipstick smeared back page of the Delta of Venus…it was the only remaining fragment of the relationship that had consumed them. It was his parting gift and a permanent reminder of the excesses she sought and would never realize.

The pages of the book were now yellowed with age, not crisp like they had been twenty years ago when Keith had dragged her into the bookstore at the corner of 33rd and Madison Avenue.

The words “Antiquarian Bookstore” were intimidating and people had to be buzzed in to enter the store. Miranda had passed by several times, had let her finger hover over the buzzer and then changed her mind about entering until he dragged her in that day. The stern looking man at the desk had glowered at them as they browsed through all the shelves, taking books out, replacing them and walking through the aisles until they came to the one labeled “EROTIC LITERATURE”. D of V lay nestled there. Before Keith bought the book they had leafed through the pages, reading aloud some of the passages, causing further consternation for the man at the desk.

They had spent many an afternoon, flat on their bellies, reading passages from the book, giggling or shocked or tantalized enough to drop the book and crawl into each others’ skins.

Miranda stared at the lipstick imprint on the back page, twirling her hair around a finger… he used to love running his fingers through her hair and then cupping the back of her head in his palm and drawing her face close to his, lips planting kisses all along her neck, nibbling at her ears before locking in an interminable kiss. The memory of the kiss could still set her aflame.

She had been awakened by the incessant ringing of her telephone that morning. She had answered rudely, it was rather early, her alarm wasn’t set to go off for another hour. And then she heard his voice asking if he had awakened her.

She was speechless for several seconds, even as the effect of his rich baritone were felt in the instantaneous heat and a flurry of sensations coursing through every cell. She answered tentatively, “Keith?”

“Yes it’s me. Have you missed me Miranda?”

She was stunned at his tone, his question framed as though he had only been away for a few days or weeks, not twenty odd years!

“I never expected to hear from you again Keith…”

The call had sent her to the attic. She had a sudden urge to retrieve all the broken fragments that she had managed to preserve from the Keith period of her life. Now she sat examining each piece and retrieving those lazy, hazy years spent with him and even the inexplicable break that had sent them on different paths in life.

She realized that even over the last twenty years his thoughts had never left her mind. Even if the thoughts were never complete or never progressed into a logical coherent chain of dreams or plans or desires, even if her brain simply whispered “Keith” once every morning, or every afternoon, or several times during a full moon…he was still very much present; like an old mark on a wall or a chip in a favorite coffee mug. It explained the ease with which she had recognized his voice after all these years.

The day she saw him for the last time they had just finished making love, culminating in shared ecstasy as always. Her head was resting on his arms and he was twirling a strand of her thick and curly hair around his fingers. The fingers occasionally let go of the hair and traveled down to caress a nipple or to run across her belly.

They were talking and joking around as they always did after their rather frequent displays of passion, when in a sudden change of tone to seriousness, he told her that he was leaving on an assignment for the Medecins sans frontieres.

He said he was leaving for Katine the next day. She looked at him, stunned by the suddenness of the announcement. He had never talked about his work before. She knew he was a doctor but had no idea he was working with MSF. He had never discussed his work before. There were so many questions she wanted to ask him, so much she needed to know.

“You never told me you worked with them, how long will you be away? Can I come with you?”

“No, Miranda, you can’t come with me. You have your work, your life here, I can’t take you away from everything.”

He had seemed distant then, in that instant something told her she had lost him, that she won’t be seeing him again. He had dressed himself and walked out of her apartment.

She had never figured out how to move on. She had never really examined her feelings for him. She didn’t know if what she felt for him was love, especially since Miranda had never been able to define love; she couldn’t define “falling” in love or “being” in love. The people who talked about being in love were always clingy, always dependent, needy, jealous or possessive and she never felt that way about him.

She had enjoyed having him in her life. She had never been able to forget how his skin felt next to hers. In the intervening years she had never felt the absence of anyone as deeply or as viscerally as she had his. She felt as though a part of her had gone missing the day he walked out of her life.

There had been times when just the rustle of fabric against her skin was enough to trigger in her an unplumbed depth of need that only Keith could satisfy, but those times were equally balanced by moments when she couldn’t care less about the the feel of fabric, or the caress of the setting sun that bathed everything in a gold, or the gentle clinging of the autumn leaf on the pristine surface of a whitewashed wall or door.

In these catatonic moments of ennui, the wafting breeze that dropped a curly tendril of her own hair across her brow couldn’t elicit even a whiff of a response.

But then again there were times when any one of these things were enough to start a glow, to light an ember deep down as the warmth spread, enveloping her as she sought his satiny skin, which now resided only in her memory; skin over which she could melt and flow, and melt and flow over and over again.

The lipstick mark on the back page of the old paperback had been left there in a moment of intense recollection, a few months after Keith left. She had buried it in the attic because it seemed so ridiculous now.

All that appeared ridiculous now was nothing short of sublime in those precious few moments of trance. The harsh morning glare came later, underscoring every pathetic detail of the deep neckline that had been pulled and stretched so it barely skimmed the nipples or exposed them, depending on the height of the frenzied moment, or the untouched side of the bed that had mocked her attempts at finding self-sufficient pleasure, or the jarring ticking of the clock that marked the passage of no more than five minutes.

An entire week of steadily building pressure had faded into nothingness and desolation in five short minutes after which the laughter from the inanimate objects around her struck like whiplash…as the outside sounds of birds, chirping, kids playing or jackhammers hammering had started registering around her. There had been an entire world full of quotidian rhythms, cheeriness, innocence, curiosity and laughter bubbling and tinkling around her stiflingly onanistic radius.

There were many moments like that over the last twenty years, desperate moments of emptiness and unfulfilled desire…but he had called again this morning. He had said he was back in town and had asked her if he could stop by in the evening. She had answered him with stunned silence before saying yes.

She had spent the rest of the day poised somewhere above herself, watching as her corporeal self rushed around from her wardrobe, trying on one dress and then opting for another, to her bathroom mirror, tugging at some of the lines that had appeared around her mouth and her eyes since they last met, pulling her hair back tight since it helped stretch the skin across the face and then letting the hair go, remembering he liked it loose and cascading around her shoulders.

She laughed at her foolishness, her nervous frenzy. Her actions seemed as meaningless as the relationship itself, a relationship that had amounted to nothing and had led nowhere…and yet her preening continued. Even as she reflected on her unresolved past, she wondered about the necessity for resolution, for finality and closure… perhaps things never ended, never really began, perhaps they just ebbed and flowed and swirled all around. All the same, she still ran around all day, glancing at her watch, and feeling that all too familiar need that set her teeth on edge.

Her doorbell rang at six. He was at the door, a bottle of champagne in his hand. He looked her over and whistled, his lips curling around a smile and the laugh lines around his eyes – just slightly deeper than she remembered. There was some gray around his temples but other than that he was the same Keith. Their gazes locked, fixing each other on the spot until he said, “Won’t you ask me in Miranda?”

They walked in, hand in hand until he tugged at her hand and drew her closer. She felt those familiar lips on hers once again. They kissed hungrily but with a familiarity that rendered the missing years meaningless. He needed her as much as she needed him, not just then but always.

The questions could wait, explanations could wait, a narration of the events that led to the presence of a gold band on the ring finger of his left hand, could wait.

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