from A Complement of Lovers
As the train pulled away, Rodney was left with a cold, rainy Sunday on his hands and an imperative need to head off an oncoming depression. He spent the day hanging around Theater Lobby, watching rehearsals of scenes he wasn’t in. On impulse, Rodney turned to Julia and invited her to dinner.
He took her to the Sirloin and Saddle, a popular chain restaurant, where he bought her a steak and they chatted about theater. Julia spoke so loudly that everyone in the restaurant could hear her, but Rodney didn’t mind: Julia’s voice thrilled him. He was guilty of losing her words because he was concentrating on their sound. She had an impressive range of highs and lows——completely unstudied——that beguiled him. She used her face expressively, she used her hands expressively, and she held his expressively.
Rodney was surprised and encouraged. Everything was starting to slide together again. Hoping for a miracle, sufficiently enthused to think that Julia offered definite possibilities (she made up for her small bust with large eyes and luscious lips), Rodney took her back to his empty apartment. Neither Nick nor Bart would appear until Monday morning to change clothes on their way to work. And if they did come back, all the better. He would gain stature if they found him with yet another beautiful girl.
Sitting in the living room he had furnished for the occasion (in case it should arise), he set the lights down low, played soft music on the phonograph and went through the proper paces; at least, those he knew from movies, books, and listening to his roommates talk. He chose Bogart for her because Julia looked like the kind of girl who would succumb to a Bogart-type character. He only smiled half-smiles and showed a lot of teeth; his words were short, hard, and loaded with insinuation. Rodney was so carried away by his performance, he imagined he was moving his hands because he wanted to, working buttons to see what was hidden, and getting excited by what became exposed. Just when he thought the quest for the fleece was about to end, Julia pulled up short.
“No,” she said. “I can’t. Don’t ask me why.” She pronounced “ask” and “can’t” beautifully. “I just can’t.” There, she had said it again.
Rodney’s character did not allow pleading——Bogie was tough. “All right, sweetheart, whenever you’re ready. I hope, for your sake, I’m still available.”
Julia was conscience-stricken. She apologized profusely for leading him on. “I wanted to,” she whined. “I thought I could, but at the last moment I knew I couldn’t go through with it. I’m so afraid. I knew this man, and we had an accident…”
Rodney listened to Julia’s rationalizations feeling like a man in a barrel who had been prevented from going over Niagara in the nick of time.
“…I’ll try very hard to reconcile it. Please give me time. Oh, I want to so badly. I really do.” All she saw was Bogie looking at her, unbelieving. “It isn’t as though this were my first time,” she said in a high-pitched squeal. “It isn’t.”
As their relationship wound on, Rodney learned several things about himself. With no requirement to be excited, he could be excited; with no need to fear failure, he was in a constant state of readiness; relieved of the responsibility to perform, he was free to perform. But he found lovemaking as disappointing as ever. Although his body went through the motions and reacted properly, he felt no thrill, no overpowering emotion, no feelings for her as a woman. And when he pressed her to go further to test himself, at her first sign of resistance, his mood faded. He told himself he could not plead and maintain an erection at the same time, but he knew that wasn’t the problem. The fear that she might say yes, shifting the burden of proof to him, strangled any sexual excitement.
“Oh, Brode, really; I mean really, not again.” She drawled out the last syllable in characteristic fashion until it was two, until the blame for their failure fell only on him and not at all on her.
“What do you mean, ‘not again’? Would you have liked me to go on?”
She paused long enough to assure him she had been enjoying herself. “No, no. I wouldn’t. God, I couldn’t go through that again.”
“Will you make up your goddamned mind? You seem to be sending conflicting messages.”
“Well, aren’t you? What the hell…” She pushed him off roughly. He gave way and she got up from the sofa and walked nude to the piano bench where her pack of cigarettes lay. When she turned back puffing, Rodney had slumped down, his legs outstretched, knees locked, a towel draped across his groin. “Oh, hell,” Julia broke out, “I don’t know what’s wrong. All I know is that I’m scared to have it all happen again, but I don’t want to stop living. I like making love with you. It’s so nice. Can’t we just go on doing what we’re doing? Just that. Nothing else. Can’t we?”
He looked at her appraisingly——so pretty as she stood over him playing on her voice——so tall, so slender, her brown hair cascading over her shoulders, eyes so big and pleading. She was begging him to take advantage of her, to plow past her objections, and he sat helpless to comply, like a marionette with severed strings.