“Beautifully written. Very lyrical. And so many triple-score words I had to read with a dictionary by the bedside just to make sense of it.” Cleo set the heavy book on the table with an air of finality. “Now that we’ve dealt with Wolf Hall, I have a saucy tale to tell. And it’s a very good one, so buckle up, my friends.”
The other two women at the table burst into laughter, but Maggie Hendricks’ stomach did an uneasy drop-and-roll as her friend made her lighthearted announcement. This was the part of their monthly book club meetings she always dreaded — the part where talk of books and ideas and themes morphed into a discussion of men and sex and all things in-between.
“So does that mean you’re up for reading the sequel?” Maggie asked in a vain attempt to keep the discussion on track.
“Sure. Bring it on,” Jane said, raising her glass of wine high.
“Yeah. What she said,” Florence said.
They were seated around the old oak table in the back room of Maggie’s bookstore, The Reading Room, located in the hip and happening inner-city Melbourne suburb of Northcote. A half-empty bottle of wine and a platter of cheese and crackers stood on the table before them, along with four copies of Wolf Hall.
“Come on, Cleo, you can’t tease us with an opener like that and then hold back,” Jane said, gesturing for Cleo to ante up.
“At the risk of repeating myself, what she said,” Florence said, laughing at her own joke. Her long, straight black hair swung forward as she leaned in to grab herself a cracker and some cheese.
“You have no idea how much I have been gagging to talk to you guys about this,” Cleo said, shifting to the edge of her seat. “You know how I’ve been talking about getting a tattoo for a while now, right?”
Jane nodded sagely. “Your quarter-life crisis.”
“Exactly. Well, I decided on something, and I made a booking at that place up near the train station. The big gray place on the corner?”
“Brothers Ink. I love that building. Classic Melbourne neo-Gothic,” Jane said. She was a draftsman, so it made sense she’d noticed the architecture.
“That’s the one. So, I made my booking, and I got one of the actual brothers. Eduardo. Brazilian by birth. Amazing green eyes. And his body... You know how I have a thing for scrawny men? Well, he’s the rich woman’s scrawny. Muscles where he needs them, lean where it counts. Just...really hot. Really. Hot.” Cleo literally squirmed in her seat as she described her tattooist.
Maggie stood, propelled to her feet by a bone-deep unease. “We’re probably going to need another bottle of wine, right? And maybe something else to eat?”
She didn’t wait for her friends to respond, collecting the cheese platter and moving across to the mini-fridge tucked beneath the counter that ran along one side of the room. She busied herself preparing more food as Cleo continued talking.
“We talked about my tattoo for a while. He has the cutest accent, even though he and his brother have been in Australia for half their lives. He did a sketch, then he took me to one of their private workrooms.”
“Good God. This is going to be really filthy, isn’t it?” Florence said.
“In the best possible way,” Cleo promised. “So, we go into the back room, and he tells me to take off my skirt and underwear.”
Maggie didn’t need to look to know Cleo was smiling a cat-that-ate-the-cream smile. Maggie sliced a block of cheddar into precise squares and placed them in neat rows on the platter in front of her.
“So I’m stretched out on this table, naked from the waist down except for my shoes, and Eduardo—God, even his name is sexy—Eduardo rubs something cold on my butt and positions the design we’ve agreed on. Then he holds up a mirror so I can see how it looks. And I’m looking in the mirror, and he’s looking in the mirror, but I can see he’s looking at my ass, not the tattoo. And then I say to him, ‘What do you think?’ and he says, ‘I think I like it a lot that you didn’t take off your shoes.’ And our eyes just kind of locked, and that was it.”
Maggie reached for the tub of olives and started arranging them next to the cheese. It was hard to get them to stay put, they were so round and oily, but she did her damnedest to keep things orderly.
“And then what happened?” Florence asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“The. Best. Sex. Of. My. Life.” Cleo punctuated each word with a slap of both of her palms to the table. “That man made me come so many times I forgot my own name. The things he did with his mouth... I swear, I nearly levitated.”
The olives wouldn’t behave themselves. Maggie scooped them into a small dish and set them on the platter. Then she added some more crackers.
Over her shoulder, Cleo spoke in detail about Eduardo the Love God. About how thick and long his cock was and how nimble his fingers and the way he seemed to relish everything about the female body, smells and tastes and textures... The platter was done, but Maggie couldn’t let it go. She rearranged the cheese cubes again, shuffled the crackers around, trying to make it as neat and symmetrical as possible. Then she registered what she was doing and forced herself to step back from the counter.
Repeat after me, Hendricks: I cannot control the world by controlling every detail.
It was an old habit, born of a time when her life had had too many doctors and uncertainty in it, yet she still fell back on it when she was feeling nervous or anxious. Like right now.
She’d known these women for years, ever since they’d all met during orientation week in the first year at university. She loved how frank and loud and funny and honest they were, and she wasn’t offended by the sex talk. Often, it was hilarious and surprisingly educational. Sometimes it left her feeling dissatisfied with her empty bed. But most of the time she simply felt like a fraud. She nodded knowingly and laughed with her friends. Sometimes—okay, rarely—she even offered up tales of her own exploits for their amusement. But she always left out one very important detail—she’d never had an orgasm in her life.
It wasn’t through lack of trying. She’d read every women’s magazine article on the subject since time began. She’d stared at the mysterious folds between her legs via a hand mirror, identifying all the major anatomical landmarks. She’d tried masturbation, battery-operated devices, erotic literature and movies, and numerous encounters with boyfriends over the years. And still it had never happened for her, no matter how hard she concentrated, no matter how much she wanted it.
Perhaps she was dead from the waist down. There were some women who just couldn’t reach climax, she knew. Anorgasmic, the doctors called it. Over the years, she’d become the best fake-orgasm actress this side of Porn Valley, USA. She’d fine-tuned enough moans, breath catches, hip wiggling and gasps to make even Meg Ryan look like an amateur. And she’d never told anyone, ever, about her…situation. Because it wasn’t a problem. She refused to think of it as one. It just was. A fact of life. Like being short or having straight hair or a big nose.
It was only during these monthly meetings with her friends that it became a Thing. Otherwise, she lived her life. Her quiet, passionless, orgasm-less life.
A gale of boisterous laughter drew her back to the here and now, and she tuned into the conversation.
“...And then, after he’d finished my tattoo, we did it again. I could barely walk the next day. And I mean that in a good way,” Cleo said.
Maggie carried the platter and the extra bottle of wine to the table, pasting on a smile. “So, what you’re saying is that this is a full-service tattoo studio,” she said, deadpan.
Her friends cracked up. Maggie reached for the wine bottle and filled her glass right to the brim. Screw it, it wasn’t as though she had to drive, since her tiny Victorian cottage was just around the corner. Might as well drown her inadequacies.
“So, when are you seeing Mr. Golden Wang again?” Florence asked.
Cleo nearly choked on her wine. “Are you kidding me? I can’t see him again.”
“Why not?” Jane asked. “Because that would ruin it. Right now, it’s a perfectly formed fantasy. I’m not ruining it by finding out he farts in bed and has bad breath and ingrown toenails. Besides, I’ve got too much going on at work right now to be distracted. No, Eduardo will forever remain my fantasy fuck, enshrined eternally in the glow of relative anonymity,” Cleo said with a far-off look in her eyes.
“You are so full of it,” Florence said fondly.
“True,” Cleo agreed.
Book club went longer than usual that night, what with Jane and Florence demanding every juicy detail from Cleo. Cleo was flushed, her eyes shiny with satisfaction as she gladly spilled all. More than once, Maggie winced privately, hoping Eduardo wasn’t the private type, since she was pretty sure that all four of them could now buy him underwear with reasonable accuracy.
Then she reminded herself that he’d done her friend in the back room of his tattoo studio. Not exactly a shy guy, apparently.
She shut the door on her friends just after midnight and spent twenty minutes clearing the decks so she wouldn’t have to face a mess tomorrow morning. She checked the rear door, set the alarm, and let herself out the front door. High Street was busy, as usual, with people flocking to the many cafés, bars and pubs that had made Northcote the place to live and hang out in Melbourne’s inner North.
She was a little buzzed from so much wine, and when she got home she floated restlessly from room to room, her head full of Cleo’s story.
A big, strong male body. A lover who made women forget their own names. The. Best. Sex. Of Cleo’s life. What would that entail, exactly?
Cleo wasn’t a virgin, after all. Lots of orgasms. Obviously. Lucky her. But what else?
Images flashed across her mind as she brushed her teeth and prepared for bed. By the time she was sliding between the sheets, she felt distinctly...warm. And wet. And horny.
Damn you, Cleo.
There was a reason Maggie didn’t read erotic literature anymore. There was nothing worse than building herself up for a payoff that never came. Worse yet, sometimes it physically hurt to be so aroused and have nowhere to go with it.
She twisted and tossed and turned for a few minutes before she finally gave up. She had to at least try. Maybe this time would be different. Maybe.
She slipped her hand beneath the waistband of her pajamas then her panties, moving past the warm silk of her pubic hair before delving between her thighs.