was really quite a pretty girl. Tall with long brown hair, she had a
delicate face, an ample body. Aaron walked beside her, following a few
steps behind Hugh and his date as they crossed from the station to the
Princeton Inn. Hugh's date, a dark, taut girl named Tony, clung to him
as they moved, looking up at him, smiling. Aaron turned his attention
to Shelly Gingham.
Shelly was from the South, New Orleans, to be exact. She pronounced it "N'awlins." And her "Daddy" was in the cotton business. She loved her daddy, her mommy, too. As he listened to her, Aaron realized that the girl seemed to love everything. She loved the East and she loved Sarah Lawrence, which was the most wonderful school in the entire world, didn't he think so? Aaron nodded. Shelly and Tony were friends at Sarah Lawrence, but then everybody at Sarah Lawrence was friends with everybody else. That was what made it so wonderful. Aaron smiled as she rattled on. She was wild about Princeton and simply ecstatic about being back again and so glad to meet him, Hugh had spoken about him so much. Hugh was a dear, didn't he think so? Aaron said he thought so. And she was so happy to meet a fellow writer. She herself was a poetess of sorts. She laughed. Poetess. Such a funny-sounding word. Aaron smiled. She loved Aaron's name. It sounded like a writer's name and that was probably why she loved it. "Ay-ron," she said. "Ay-ron Fahstone." Without warning, she smiled and took his hand.
She liked him.
She liked him.
So why was he still afraid?
They had cocktails at the Princeton Inn, two drinks apiece, and then slowly made their way into the main dining room. Shelly had another drink; Aaron joined her. He drank and he smiled and he talked, but all the while he was playing the game again, Name That Fear, and he was just finishing his shrimp cocktail when the answer came to him. She was a warm girl, a girl who was absolutely guaranteed to do the trick. Later, in his house, they would be alone; Hugh would go off to another room with Tony and then they would be alone, he and Shelly, and she would look at him and she would smile at him and she would expect things of him.
And what if he couldn't perform?
He had heard stories about that. One concerned a Princeton boy who had pursued a Barnard girl for three years, always hoping, and then, then, the night she relented, that moment as she lay naked beside him, he couldn't perform. Aaron sipped his water, put it down, picked up his drink, finished it off and ordered another. If he couldn't perform, then Shelly might tell Tony and Tony might tell Hugh and Hugh wouldn't tell but Tony might date other boys, Shelly too, and they would tell the other boys and then everyone would know and then everyone would laugh and I'm scared, Aaron thought. I'm just so scared.
What if I can't?
What if I can't?
As dinner went on, Aaron began telling tales about his mother, Charlotte Stories, most of them imaginary, and everyone laughed and Shelly was smiling at him almost all the time and he returned it, talking and laughing, and when dinner was done he excused himself and fled to the men's room, where he carefully washed his face, taking his time, pressing cool water against his fevered skin.
"You really are shy around girls," Hugh said, standing behind him, smiling. "One thing about you, Aaron, is you have absolutely no way with women."
"You know how it is," Aaron said casually.
"Just keep your hands off my date," Hugh said. "I want to tell you that rarely have I met a creep so reeking with charm."
"She does like me, doesn't she?" Aaron said.
"No, she hates you." Hugh slugged Aaron on the arm. "Creep." Together they walked back to the girls, then made their way to Hugh's eating club on Prospect. There was a dance that night, and Aaron watched as Hugh took Tony in his arms and danced away. Aaron paused, then took Shelly in his arms. He had learned to dance from his sister, who used him to practice with when no one else was available, and he danced well enough. Shelly's body was heavy against his. Pressing. After one dance Aaron asked if they might sit, explaining about his legs, how they sometimes hurt. Shelly was immediately sympathetic, so they sat in a corner of the room, watching the others. Shelly was quite drunk and Aaron forced himself to listen as she explained that she really didn't love her father because what he was was a no-good bastard and her mother wasn't much more than that and she talked on and on and then Hugh was beside them, suggesting to Aaron that they take a little trip to Aaron's house. Aaron stood. Slowly they climbed the hill from Prospect to Nassau Street, Hugh and Tony in front, Aaron and Shelly a few steps behind. Maybe his mother had come back early. Sometimes she did that. Once. Once she had done it. Perhaps tonight would be the second time. The lights would be on and she would be sitting in the living room, knitting something for Deborah's child. A sweater or a pair of socks or--
The house was dark.
They walked inside. "Nobody's home, I guess," Aaron said. "How's that for luck?"
They sat in the living room a while, talking. Aaron asked if anyone wanted a drink and Shelly said she wouldn't mind a wee one, so he went to the kitchen and slowly made two highballs. When he returned they talked some more. Tony was all over Hugh now, running her hands along his body, kissing his neck. Then Hugh stood. "Excuse us a while," he said. He and Tony disappeared into Deborah's old room. The door closed.
"We're all alone," Shelly said.
Aaron made a smile. What if I can't? What if I can't? Please, God. "Drink O.K.?"
Aaron took a long swallow. "I could use a little freshener," he said, and he stood.
She drained the glass. "As long as you're headed in that general direction..."
Aaron went to the kitchen. Slowly he got out an ice tray. He reached for the bottle of whisky and poured the drinks.
Then Shelly was in the doorway. "I got lonesome," she said.
"With you in a sec," Aaron said, fiddling with a long spoon, trying to stir the highballs. He could feel her standing close behind him now, moving in. Her arms went around his chest. Aaron waited.
"You must swear never to let me get lonesome again," Shelly said. "On your sacred word of honor. I'll never release you until you do."
"I swear," Aaron whispered.
She relaxed her hold and he spun around, eyes closed, blindly reaching out for her, pulling her body in toward him. He kissed her brutally, holding the kiss for as long as he could before breaking it, burying his face in her neck, kissing her hair. He kissed her ear and then her cheek before attacking her mouth again. Her arms were tight around him and they battled with their tongues. This time she was the one who broke, throwing her head back, smiling up at him.
"Hey, lover," Shelly said.
He smiled back at her and he rubbed his hands across her full body and he bit her neck but he felt nothing. No excitement, nothing at all, and he knew unless he could feel he would never be able to perform and he told himself that everything would be fine if he would just give himself time, time, but even in that moment he knew he had never been so frightened in his life, nor would he ever be again. But he was wrong. His fear was just beginning.
Because slowly, arms tight around him, she began to lead him to the bedroom.
She undressed in the dark and as she did he periodically attacked her body, caressing her breasts, her thighs, her gently rounded stomach. When she was naked he took off his clothes and then they embraced, standing by the bed. Aaron bit her lip and she winced, pulling back a moment before dragging him down on the sheets. Horizontal, the combat continued. Viciously, Aaron kissed her. Again and again he touched her breasts and fingered her soft thighs. Then, when he knew he was going to scream, he jammed his mouth down on hers and held it there until the scream died inside him.
"You're pretty," Aaron whispered then. Please, God. "You are. You're so pretty. You're pretty." Please, God.
He felt nothing. Nothing. Aaron kissed her breasts. They felt like clay. In the darkness he could see her looking at him. In the darkness he could sense her starting to pull away. Ferociously Aaron attacked her, rolling across the bed, kicking and biting, groaning for her benefit, saying her name, "Shelly, Shelly," over and over. Mechanically his hands journeyed along her body, and he continued whispering her name, louder, and he groaned and panted and sucked in air. But he felt nothing. Nothing. Nothing at--
Quite without warning he began to feel.
His eyes shut so tightly they hurt, Aaron shrieked as the excitement grew inside him, swelling like a blister, filling his body. He kissed lips--but in his mind, not her lips. He touched flesh--but in his mind, flesh other than hers.
It was Hugh he was touching. Hugh was beside him. Hugh was the one who was breathing his name. Aaron knelt over the other figure.
In rhythm, their bodies rocked.