[This is an excerpt from Priestesses, my erotic novel about two women who operate the most unusual retail enterprises on Earth. FWP]
Marilyn Cullinane set the box at the exact center of the sheet of wrapping paper and peered around all four sides for unevenness as carefully as if it mattered. With a sharp nod, she pulled the red and gold foil tightly around the box, made neat triangular flaps at the opposed sides, and checked once again for a discrepancy. When she was satisfied that no device at the disposal of mortal Man could detect a difference in the length of the flaps, she tore two small strips of cellophane tape from the dispenser at her side, smoothed them over the edges of the flaps, and thrust the box at Gordon.
“To the gift room,” she said.
Gordon rose and toted the box down the bedroom hallway to their guest room. The immaculately kept room hadn’t known an actual guest for nine years, but each year it provided seasonal shelter to dozens of Christmas gifts.
It was December twenty-fourth, and the queen-sized bed was piled high with boxes, each wrapped in gaily colored seasonal paper and tagged with its recipient’s name. He looked down at the package in his hands, noticed that it lacked a tag, and turned to bring it back to Marilyn, only to find her standing behind him with the tag between her fingers.
She grinned briefly, jabbed the tag onto the top of the box, and made to return to the pile of boxes on the living room floor when Gordon said, “Sweetie?”
Her head jerked around. “Hm?”
“What did we get for, uh, Jason?”
Another quick grin. “An electric shaver. Don’t you remember? You bought it.” She swept away, leaving him alone at the door to the guest room.
He glanced within one more time. The ziggurat of glittering presents for their relatives and friends was as neat and precise as his wife’s wrapping technique. The bed beneath was tightly made, almost military in its lines and the tension of its coverings. Though they hadn’t entertained a visitor in almost a decade, Marilyn changed the sheets every week nonetheless.
It had been their nuptial bed, given to them by her father as a wedding gift twenty years before. It had become their guest bed when, on their tenth anniversary, he’d surprised her with the gift of a cherry bedroom set. After ten years’ trying, they’d failed to beget a child. She’d concluded that they never would, and had lost interest in sex. He, as fond and foolish as always, had treated it as a phase that would pass. He’d thought the bedroom set would remind her that their devotion to one another was what mattered most.
Her reaction had taken him aback. She was all but silent as they jockeyed the new dressers and vanity around the room, seeking an optimum arrangement. She did as he directed, but made no suggestions of her own. It had made him fear that he’d somehow offended her with the gift, perhaps by not consulting her.
The one act to which she’d brought some animation was the exile of their old bed to the guest room. They had not made love since.
To the skilled walker, a great city can be a great delight, but one must take care. Most persons on the streets of such a city will not be skilled. Attention to their deficiencies is required. In addition, the city’s own attractions can create hazards, both fleeting and persistent, to a too rapid or heedless stride.
Gordon had resolved to walk the streets of Los Angeles until his head had cleared and his marital dissatisfactions had retreated. He did it often; he fancied that knew the byways of the city as well as any man alive. But that day a moment’s inattention had caused him to take a turn he hadn’t planned. After twenty minutes of strolling while scanning the area for familiar signs, he realized that he’d entered a part of the city’s downtown that was altogether new to him.
The shops bore unfamiliar names. Many seemed to be in languages other than English. The merchandise in their windows ranged from the exotic to the wholly incomprehensible. The buildings themselves were uneven in construction: some tall, others short; some broad, others slender; some aggressively eye-catching, others almost secretive of decor. They varied in a multitude of directions from the blend of chrome-and-glass modernity and Southwestern regionalia that characterized the city overall.
There were few people on the streets. Those Gordon saw resisted eye contact as if they feared that he might demand an explanation for their presence.
The strangeness of the district disturbed his rhythm. It caused him to shift his attention away from his pace and footing. Inevitably, moving too fast for the surroundings while gawking at the mysteries around him, he tripped and fell.
He collected himself painfully, brushed the dust from the arms of his windbreaker, and looked about for the cause of his tumble. A pace away, a large black cat, the sleekest specimen of felinity he’d ever seen, sat staring at him as if amused at his clumsiness.
Must’ve tripped over her. Haven’t done that in a dog’s age.
Despite his pratfall, the internal play on words caused him to smile. He nodded courteously to the cat, who stared at him a moment longer, then turned and slinked away with a cat’s typical sinuousness into the open door of a shop he hadn’t yet consciously registered.
It appeared to be a lingerie shop. An assortment of corsets, waist cinchers, camisoles, merrywidows, and teddies stood in the display. The name embossed at the base of the window in baroque red curlicues was Naughty But Nice.
A tall, raven-haired woman of statuesque build and aristocratic carriage emerged and peered down at him. He felt his pulse quicken.
If a sixteen year old boy were challenged to draw the perfect female body, he might have produced the long-legged vision that contemplated Gordon as he sat upon the sidewalk. If Gordon were then asked to clothe that body, and to top it with a face to challenge the fantasies of a mature man, he could not have improved upon the form-fitting silk bustier, the leather miniskirt, the stiletto-heeled pumps, and the perfectly composed, slightly intrigued face that stood above him.
He could not place her age.
“Are you hurt, dear?” Her voice was an alto melody. Each word throbbed with passionate vitality.
“Uh, no, I’m fine, really.” He levered himself up from the sidewalk and tried to assume a dignified stance. “But thank you for asking.” Without thinking, he held out his hand, as if he’d just been introduced to a business associate or the wife of a friend.
She took his hand in a curious grip, almost as if she were about to raise it to her lips and kiss it. “Not at all.” He expected her to let go; she did not. “Were you doing some late Christmas shopping?”
“No, not really.” The soft warmth of her grip was as disturbing as the rest of her. “Just strolling a bit. I wasn’t paying proper attention, and I tripped over your cat.”
She smiled. “Yes, Astarte can be a hazard, no doubt of it.” Her eyes locked with his. They were as magnetic as the rest of her: large, jet black, and preternaturally steady upon his own. He found that he couldn’t look away. “Even if you’re not looking for something special for your special someone, might I interest you in a cup of tea? I’ve had no guests for some hours, and a spot of company would be very welcome.”
Never afterward could he remember giving assent. But he followed that dangerously beautiful woman into the shop, his hand held lightly but inescapably in hers, and allowed her to lead him into a place of wonder.
“So she shows no desire at all, then?”
Gordon grimaced and looked away. “I can’t see any. But in all honesty, it’s been so long that I’m not sure I remember what it looks like.”
Helen nodded. “She might not remember what it feels like. The suppression of desire can bury it so deep that the feel for one’s sensual, sexual side is completely lost.”
“Have you had that problem?”
Helen chuckled. “Never, dear. But I’ve made a career out of other people’s troubles with it.” She nodded sideways toward the aisles of erotically oriented goods on display.
Gordon blushed despite his attempts to repress it. A Catholic upbringing and a sustained unwillingness to think dispassionately about sex had left him unready for so intimate a conversation with a perfect stranger. He could hardly believe it was happening.
Helen smiled at his discomfort. “Really, Gordon, did you think your neighbors are that much more like the gods and goddesses on television than you and Marilyn? Did you assume that their nights were all red revels in the pleasures of the flesh? I assure you, they’re far closer to your station than our popular culture would have you believe. Otherwise, I’d never sell a thing.”
She rose from the little table at which they sat, ambled into the aisle nearest them, and picked out a device from the array of goods. She returned to the table and held it out for Gordon’s perusal. It was a rubber contrivance mounted on a set of elastic straps.
“Have you ever seen one of these?”
Gordon shook his head.
“It’s called a French nub. It’s made for a woman to wear. The conical bit goes into her vagina, and the straps go around her waist and legs. It draws out her lubrication and compels her to think about her sexual parts, but it doesn’t provide quite enough stimulation to bring her to a climax. The idea is to evoke desire without satisfaction, so that when her man arrives, she’ll be eager for him.” Helen smiled. “It was devised to ready a virgin bride for the consummation of her marriage. I doubt Marilyn has ever heard of it, much less worn one. But what if she did?”
Gordon fell back against his chair and howled a laugh replete with pain. “Do you have any idea how she would react to the suggestion? I couldn’t get her into that thing if I had the whole United States Army behind me!”
Helen didn’t react in any way he could have predicted. She nodded once slightly, returned the nub to its shelf, and reseated herself across from him, fingers steepled before her. Her eyes slid slowly closed. Gordon had the sense that she’d entered a new state of consciousness, one at which he could not guess.
Is she a sex shop entrepreneur, or something else? Something subtler?
“So Marilyn’s problem,” she murmured, “isn’t necessarily that she feels no desire for you. Perhaps she does and perhaps she doesn’t. But it’s very likely that she doesn’t want to feel desire, for you or anyone.” Her eyes opened, a black tapestry of mysteries behind them. “Could it be that your mutual infertility made her feel a failure?”
Gordon swallowed. Helen had arrowed straight to his darkest fear. He had wanted children, quite as much as Marilyn had. In the first years of their marriage, he’d talked about it nonstop.
“Gordon,” she said, voice ringing with new command, “How’s your own desire? Are you sure you want Marilyn’s desire to return?”
Though he was securely seated, Gordon was seized by vertigo, as if he’d been snatched out of the shop and set upon a precipice where strong and swirling winds blew all about him. Any movement could be fatal, but in so fickle a gale, standing still was no safer. Helen’s eyes, darkly brilliant, told him in a tongue without words that a cusp had arrived from which he could not retreat.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
Helen smiled microscopically. “Don’t you mean ‘what are you?’”
He gaped, shorn of words.
“Consider me a specialist of an unusual kind, Gordon. So unusual that there’s no other anywhere in the world. My purview is desire and the loss of desire. So, lucky you, you’ve brought your troubles to exactly the person best equipped to help you with them. Now answer my question.”
“I…don’t know,” he forced out at last. “I love her. She’s a good woman…a good wife. I wouldn’t want to lose her…” He ran down in confusion and fear.
“Except,” Helen supplied, “that you feel as if you’ve lost her already. Don’t you?”
“So she must overcome her sense of failure, and you must overcome your sense of disappointment and loss.” Helen sat back and smiled. The intensity seemed to have faded from her. “A pretty problem. But soluble—if you’re still man enough to commit yourself fully to the contest.”
Gordon frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“How does one dispel a sense of failure, Gordon?”
The question puzzled him. It seemed to have no handles. He strained to ignore its metaphysical implications and take it literally.
“By succeeding at something, I suppose.”
Helen nodded. “And if the sufferer is not oneself, but one’s wife?”
It stopped him. “I don’t know. Can anyone do that for someone else?”
“It depends. In this case, the answer is yes.” She leaned forward and peered directly into his eyes. “And how does one dispel a sense of loss?”
Gordon started to answer, clamped his mouth shut.
Helen rose and went through the beaded curtain to the back of her shop. Some minutes later, she returned with a large box covered in a satiny red paper and handed it to him.
“Tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock exactly, you’re to go to your bedroom, open this box and make proper use of the contents. Then wait about ten minutes more, and go to your ‘gift room.’ That’s all.”
“Why? What’s in the box?”
She shook her head. “You have no need to know that as yet. Just do as I’ve said, exactly and without reservation.
“Some men defeat themselves before the contest begins, Gordon. And some women adjudge themselves failures without ever grappling with what failure really means. A man of character must resist the temptation to lower his banner out of presentiment of doom. When his beloved needs his gifts, he must not withhold them for fear of rebuff.” She looked down at him, once again a figure of power, secrets, and unknowable intent. He started to speak, but she waved him back to silence. “Go home, Gordon. Prepare yourself.”
Marilyn had finished with her cleaning and was desultorily tidying up the house, which didn’t really need it. It was an excuse to move about, and to survey the one achievement of her adult years in which she took some pride.
When the master bedroom was as tight as a drumhead, everything in its exactly proper place, she proceeded to the guest room. Though the door was kept closed, opened only to add a freshly wrapped gift to the pile, she would give it the same micrometric going-over that every other room received.
Within, all seemed to be as it ought…except for the large purple box set all but invisibly behind the television stand, and which she was certain she had never seen.
Slowly, in suspicion of a trap laid for an excessively curious spouse, she pulled the stand away to reveal the full dimensions of the package. It was cubical, about eighteen inches on a side. Its satiny royal purple wrappings bore no design. They were as tight and careful as any she’d ever made. There was no tag anywhere upon it to indicate either its provenance or its intended recipient.
She stooped and hefted it. It seemed to weigh about ten pounds. She shook it gently, and a low rustle came from its innards.
Did Gordon put this here?
Gordon could wrap a decent package, but this one was beyond his standard. More, he’d never have chosen wrapping paper so richly colored, or so voluptuous to the hand.
If I’m not sure it’s for me…but how will I know who should open it, without opening it?
The edges of the wrappings were free of tape. The paper had to be self-adhesive on its underside. She probed one flap with a fingernail. It came free to her touch. She peeled the flap back gingerly, looking for any clue to the package’s source or destination.
She found it almost at once:
Naughty But Nice
4095 Altamura Drive
Los Angeles, CA
She started, and the package slipped from her hands to thump against the floor. She squatted there in confusion, afraid to touch it again.
It has to be an exotic lingerie shop. Gordon went to an exotica shop for a gift for me. He couldn’t have meant it for anyone else.
Couldn’t he? He certainly wasn’t obvious about it, and he did his best to hide it. And…I haven’t touched him in years.
If there were another woman in Gordon’s life, he hadn’t given any sign.
The need to see what was in the package swelled in her. Her hands moved of their own accord toward that dangerously sensual purple package. As her fingertips brushed the surface, she jerked them back by main force.
I mustn’t. Not until I know it’s for me…or not.
She rose, strode to the telephone nook, and looked for the shop in the directory. There were no listings, either in the white or the yellow pages.
How could a commercial establishment not have a telephone listing?
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and flipped pages to the listing for the local taxi service. The address of the shop was burned into her memory.
Naughty But Nice was indeed an exotic lingerie shop. The displays near the front presented all the usual flirtatious undergarments, and a few she’d never seen before. As Marilyn walked further in, the lingerie gave way to marital aids of obvious function, and then to stranger items whose purposes she could not divine.
The statuesque, glamorously clothed woman at the front counter raised an eyebrow as Marilyn entered. She pushed her book to one side and lined her fingertips along the counter.
“Welcome, dear,” she said in a soft coo that throbbed with sensuality. “What may I do for you?”
The woman’s presence threw Marilyn momentarily off balance. She hadn’t planned out her approach; she’d merely hoped that a polite inquiry would draw forth the information she wanted. But the right questions were as elusive as morning mist.
Seconds passed. The woman at the counter smiled steadily and enigmatically, apparently content to wait as long as Marilyn needed.
Finally, Marilyn dipped into her purse for her wallet, pulled out the photo of Gordon she carried, and laid it on the counter. The woman glanced down at it briefly. Her expression did not change.
“Have you seen this man recently?” Marilyn said.
The woman cocked an eyebrow. “Are you sure he would want me to tell you, dear?”
That’s as good as a yes.
The woman put out her hand, a friendly twinkle in her eye. “I’m not really trying to fence with you. Yes, he was here earlier today. I’m Helen, by the way.”
Marilyn took the hand and shook it gently. She was somewhat surprised when Helen failed to release her. She looked up, and her gaze caught on Helen’s eyes, the deepest, darkest orbs she’d ever spied in a human face.
“I can see,” Helen murmured, “why he’s so devoted to you. You have the face of an elven princess and a beautifully delicate figure.” Her thumb passed caressingly over the backs of Marilyn’s fingers. The contact was hypnotically soothing. Marilyn could hardly remember where she was, and not at all why she’d come.
Without letting go of Marilyn’s hand, Helen rounded the counter and pulled her toward a small table and two chairs placed inconspicuously in the corner.
“I know he still loves me,” Marilyn said, “and of course I still love him. It’s just that—“
“’Of course? Of course?’” Helen’s smile vanished and her face darkened. “You deny him all enjoyment of your body, you make him feel a churl even for thinking about it, you reave him of one of the essential achievements of manhood, but that’s all right because you still love him?”
Marilyn gaped. “What achievement do you mean?”
“Do you have any idea,” Helen said, “how radically different a man’s experience of sex is from a woman’s, dear?”
Helen sat back and folded her arms over her breasts. She looked at Marilyn as a teacher might an underachieving pupil, one who had more than adequate ability but refused to apply himself.
“We hold the veto power. We compel them to woo us, seduce us, cater to us. When we oh-so-generously let them near, they do almost all of the work, yet their orgasms involve only a tiny portion of their bodies and last a mere second or two. Ours are incomparably fuller and longer—and at so much smaller a cost that it doesn’t bear comparison.” She shook her head. “We get so much more out of it than they do, it’s a wonder they bother with us at all. So why do they bother with us, Marilyn?”
Helen’s silent glare accused her of having missed something critical, something she ought to have known without needing to be told.
“I don’t know. I…never thought about it.”
The reproof in Helen’s eyes remained strong, but something else entered to temper it, something wryly amused.
“You ought to have thought about it. But you’re not the only one. Harridans all across this land have been telling women like you that you’re owed, that men’s desire for you is barely a hair’s breadth from chattel slavery, that ‘a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’ And you’re too afraid to contradict them, or too proud to ask your mothers whether it might just possibly be some other way. So they go on to catechize the men, telling them what oppressors they are, and how awful the burdens of womanhood are, and how unfair it is that they should get to exhaust their bodies and erode their spirits with wage labor while women sit in the safety and comfort of their homes, being most oppressively provided for.” Helen shook her head. “If a hundredth of that were true, the race would have died out thousands of years ago. It’s we who owe them, Marilyn. Without them, we would still be cowering in caves. They have made us a world where we can be whatever we please.”
“What…” Marilyn swallowed. “What should I do?”
The beaded curtain to the rear area crackled softly as a large black cat poked through. It jumped onto the little table, went to Marilyn, and bumped the underside of her jaw with its head. Marilyn stroked it tentatively, and felt a sensuous charge travel through her. Helen watched them with an air of amusement.
“If I tell you,” the shopkeeper murmured, “will you promise me that you’ll do it? All of it, omitting not the slightest detail?”
Marilyn stiffened. She’d never been happy about following instructions. But she knew in a preconscious, pre-rational way that the survival of her marriage, and possibly of her mind, hung in the balance. She rummaged through her purse for a notepad and a pen.
Helen smiled. “You won’t need those, dear. It’s quite simple. Tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock exactly, go to your ‘gift room,’ open the purple box, and don everything you find inside it. When you’ve done that, just wait. That’s all.”
Marilyn put down her pen and looked levelly at Helen. “So the box is for me after all? What’s in it? Did you help him pick it out?”
Helen shook her head. “Not at all, dear. Yes, the box is for you, but he doesn’t know the first thing about it, or about any of this. I assembled that package and put it there. Gordon’s gift to you will be of another variety. Now go home.”
As they sat over their coffee and muffins, Gordon tried to keep an unobtrusive eye on the clock. It wasn’t easy. He didn’t want Marilyn to notice. He had to pretend that the newspaper, which, as usual on Christmas Day, was little more than filler, had his complete attention. That required him to glance back and forth among the paper, his wife, and the digital display on the microwave oven, thankfully just behind her.
He couldn’t quite understand why she would be doing the very same thing, but there was no doubt of it. He’d caught her eyes moving toward the clock on their coffeemaker, just a few degrees to starboard of his head, several times.
She looks as if she has something to tell me. Something she’d rather not say.
Could she be thinking of leaving me? I couldn’t bear it. But what if her coolness toward me is because her warmth has been going to another man?
The arrival of the awaited instant left him briefly paralyzed. He knew what he was supposed to do. He’d guessed at the contents of the shiny red box, but his conjectures had been unconvincing. How could the contents of a cardboard box empower him to take away his wife’s sense of failure?
You won’t find out by sitting here. Get on with it.
He rose, and Marilyn’s gaze jerked up from her paper, to the coffeemaker, and then to his face, all in the space of a single second.
“Excuse me.” He laid his paper on the table, went to their bedroom, and closed the door carefully behind him. After a moment to let his heart slow, he pulled the red box out from under their bed.
The wrappings came off easily. He pushed them aside, put hesitant fingers to the lid, and pulled it away.
The box contained a tuxedo.
He lifted out the jacket and inspected it. It was a fine piece of clothing, beautifully woven from natural silk, all the stitching and details just so. He held it briefly against his torso, and noted that the tailoring was an exact match to his figure. Clearly it had been meant, and perhaps made, explicitly for him.
He laid the jacket on the bed and looked through the other contents of the box. It yielded a white dress shirt, a clip-on bow tie, and a pair of black dress shoes with over-the calf socks stuffed into them.
Helen’s command echoed in his head: Make proper use of the contents. But what could those uses be, on a Christmas Day at home with one’s wife, with no outings of any kind in prospect, much less the sort of thing to which one wears a tuxedo?
He removed his sweatshirt and jeans and put on the suit. As he’d expected, it fit him perfectly, accommodating his height, the breadth of his shoulders, and his slight paunch all just so.
He took up the shoes, and pulled the socks out of them. A round golden circle fell out of the toe of the right shoe and into his hand: a wedding ring.
He sat, stunned.
“A man of character must resist the temptation to lower his banner out of presentiment of doom…When his beloved needs his gifts, he must not withhold them for fear of rebuff.”
Is this what Marilyn needs?
Do I love her enough to give it to her…again? Am I man enough?
The clock on the nightstand read 11:17. He donned the socks and shoes, slipped the ring into his jacket pocket, and made to wait.
Marilyn stared dumbfounded at the pile of garments in the box.
Am I supposed to wear all this? Under what?
Her accumulated fear, a store ten years deep, rose to block her thoughts and pluck at her will. It seemed an hour before she could do more than stare into the box in her lap.
It’s a mockery. It’s not…appropriate. It’s not about me!
But Helen had been explicit.
“It’s we who owe them, Marilyn…They have made us a world where we can be whatever we please.”
The huge pile of presents that would soon find their way to various relatives, friends, acquaintances and coworkers tottered and tumbled around her. A few of the smaller packages slid off the edge of the bed and thumped onto the floor. She peered down at them and spotted the flat rectangle that contained her gift to Gordon.
I got him a monogrammed folio. Something for work, no pleasure or joy in it. Nothing of me in it at all.
Shakily, she slid the box off her lap, stood, and removed her blouse and jeans.
Gordon restrained his urge to knock by the narrowest of margins. He hesitated, put his hand to the knob of the guest room door, twisted and pushed.
Marilyn stood there, an erotic vision in white. She wore a white lace and satin teddy. A white satin G-string. White satin garters and white silk hose. White leather pumps with five inch heels. A bridal crown with an attached veil of the finest white gauze. In her hands she clasped a small bouquet in blue and white, plainly artificial yet with leaves and petals as soft as any natural flowers.
Her eyes went wide as he entered. They stood appraising one another, unmoving and unspeaking, while time itself seemed to stand still.
“I…” He blinked and shook his head. “I forgot how beautiful you are.”
“I forgot how handsome you are,” she whispered.
He moved forward and put his hands around hers.
“Can you forgive me?” she said.
“For not giving you children.”
A bubble of joy burst in his chest. His eyes filled with tears as he regarded his wife.
“You are the only gift I’ve ever wanted.”
She dropped the bouquet and clutched him to her.
Presently she said, “That strange woman…”
He knew at once who she meant. “She said she was a specialist.”
She looked up at him, puzzled.
“Does it matter?” he said.
“Well, maybe not…but she gave me this thing.”
He frowned. “What sort of thing?”
She blushed. “It’s…well…it’s under my G-string.”
He let one hand trail down her finery, laid his fingers against the satin panel over her loins and pressed gently. There was a small protrusion beneath it that yielded like rubber.
Marilyn immediately tensed. Her eyes slid closed, her head tipped back, and she emitted a humming murmur that came from deep in her chest. Her pelvis pressed forward and rubbed against him.
“I see. Well, before we explore that line of thought any further, perhaps I should give you this.” He fumbled out the ring. Her eyes went wide again as he sank to one knee.
“Will you have me as your husband…again?”
Silently, she held out her hand. He slipped the ring onto her third finger, alongside her original wedding ring, rose and clasped her once more.
“Shall we retire to our bedroom?” he said.
She backed away at once, and fear that he had spoiled the moment lanced through him. But she smiled, and cleansed the bed of its burden of packages with a sweep of her arm, and his heart grew light once more.
“This is our marriage bed, isn’t it?”
She lay down upon it and held out her arms.
“Then come give me your gift.”
And he did.
Copyright © 2010 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.