She wasn't old yet, but she wasn't young either. Though she looked closer to thirty than forty, just the opposite was true. She didn't fear forty—she used to think that she wouldn't attach any special significance to it at all. The false bravado of youth. She knew better now. Forty was significant. Not objectively. A person doesn't crumble with the turn of a calendar page. But because one of our distant and successful ancestors had ten digits instead of twelve or thirteen, we attach an importance to turning forty that we do not to turning thirty-nine or forty-one. And forty is more important than the other multiples of ten because it is about half one's life, and the better half—at least the more exciting, wonder-filled half.
She knew this now—at least the knew that forty was special. But she didn't fear it, didn't even regret it. She had so much else to regret: her failed marriage (she didn't know whether she regretted the failure or the marriage), her past dependency on her husband, the lack of direction now in her life.
She didn't—couldn't—regret everything about her marriage. Her son, Adam, was the great joy of her life. But he was a freshman in college now and was hoping to move out of the house and into a fraternity soon. Then, she would be alone. That would be the test of her strength.
But she had never been weak—she had merely been lazy. It had just been easier to let her life revolve around her husband's. She knew that had been a mistake and she knew, at least roughly, how to change things. She was entering law school in the Fall and she was starting to think like a single person. The last was the scariest. For so long she had been a part of a single entity that consisted of her husband and her; now she wasn't sure she knew what it would be like to be just her.
But she was finding out. She was making all of the mistakes adolescents make in finding out, but she was finding out. As she looked around the bar, she was sure that this was one of the mistakes but she wasn't ready to call it quits. She considered these outings necessary passages, even where they were unsatisfying.
Rick had had casual, almost nameless sex both before and, now she knew, after they had gotten married. She wasn't a virgin when they met and she had even had an affair, such as it was, while she was married. But she had never slept with someone she didn't know and wouldn't meet again. Often the thought of doing this was repugnant—but it was always fascinating. She had fantasized about it frequently, always telling herself that the reality would be unpleasant even if the fantasy was not. But now she intended to find out—if she could carry it through.
She supposed that that depended a lot on who approached her. She thought of committing herself in advance to go with the first man who approached her, but as she surveyed the men in the bar she realized that she would not be able to stay that course. If she tried, she would probably give up the whole thing if some of these men approached her. So she decided to engage in discriminating promiscuity.
She had picked The Red Fox carefully. It was a sort of upscale meat market catering to yuppies and middle-aged business people. The parking lot was filled with sexy cars, but the drivers seemed a poor match for their cars. She wasn't looking for someone to fall in love with, but looking at the clientele she was afraid she might have trouble finding someone she wanted to fall in bed with.
After a few minutes, those on the prowl began to suspect that she was not there to meet someone—at least not someone she already knew. They thought of her as an attractive target. She was dressed in a deep blue knit dress that clung to her down to her hips and flared out below. She wore enough make-up to be obvious without being gauche. And she was pretty—beautiful, even—in a mature and sophisticated way. She had refined facial features: a narrow heart-shaped face, small nose and a sharp jaw line. Her eyes were light and her hair dark. And not a one among the prowlers had failed to notice her figure. She was not particularly chesty, but her small waist and flat stomach accentuated her breasts. Those watching her itched.
Several men approached her. Some, receiving no encouragement, retreated without a word. Others required an icy word or two before retreating. She didn't think herself picky. She didn't even know what she wanted; she just knew that she hadn't seen it yet.
She was on her third drink when a young—very young—guy sat down beside her and ordered a drink. She hadn't noticed him before; he had probably just come in. She was certain that he hadn't even looked at her before sitting down. He wasn't looking at her now.
She resented this boy's sitting here. If there were any acceptable guys in this bar, how were they supposed to approach her if he were sitting next to her? She was torn between moving to another seat and just going home.
"Do you come here often?" At first she didn't think he was talking to her and she was certain that she must have misunderstood him. Do you come here often? But when she looked at him she decided that she had heard right and that she was the intended audience.
"No," she said, bemused. She couldn't believe that he was trying to pick her up. "How about you?" She didn't want to hurt his feelings. He hadn't been rude, just trite. He was a nice looking guy—very attractive actually. But she found the situation preposterous, and she couldn't contain her reaction completely. Surely he would see the smirk or hear it in her voice.
But he seemed not to. "No. First time. I just didn't have any place else to go."
And the way he said it melted her. She looked at him closely for the first time and decided that she had completely misjudged him. He looked depressed. He hadn't come there to pick anyone up, she decided. He talked to her only for the small solace one can find in conversation with a stranger. She judged herself harshly for the assumptions she had made.
She thought decency required her to pursue the conversation and was debating whether to try to draw him out about his problems or to cheer him up. As it turned out, he didn't need to be drawn out.
"I was supposed to go to a rush party with my girl friend. But she broke up with me today." He took a drink of his beer.
"Well, why don't you go to the party anyway? Wouldn't it be a good place to meet other girls or at least to forget about her?" It seemed like reasonable advice to her but he almost choked on his beer.
"She broke up with me to go to the party with the president of the fraternity." She agreed that going to the party might not be the best way to forget about his girl friend.
"Well, . . . uh." She paused, waiting for him to provide his name. Wrapped up in his thoughts, he took so long that she was about to go on.
"Oh. I'm sorry. My name's Allen, Allen Raines."
"Laura Baker." 'Baker' was neither her maiden nor her married name but, nice as this guy seemed, she didn't see any reason he should know her real name.
"Well, Allen. It doesn't sound like joining this fraternity right now is the best thing you could do either. You'd see a lot of the two of them together."
The band began playing then and she couldn't hear his response. He tried again and she still couldn't hear. After his third attempt, she pulled him close and almost yelled in his ear, "Do you want to go someplace where we can talk?" He nodded, took a last gulp of his beer and got up. They left to some surprised looks.
Outside, his spirits seemed brighter. "Where to?" he asked.
She hadn't thought about that. She hesitated. As she was thinking it crossed her mind to be thankful that he hadn't matched his opening line by saying, "Your place or mine?" There is only so much laughter one can hold back.
"I know where there is another fraternity party tonight. It should be quiet enough to talk and there's free booze."
Free booze! The expression and the concept that lay behind it swept her back nearly twenty years. She declined to reminisce out loud. She was playing a maternal role anyway; no need to reinforce the age difference. Better to let herself be swept back. All she said was, "Sure." It seemed safe enough.
He decided to ride with her; he could come back later for his car, he said. When he jumped in the car, he seemed a new person. He turned on the radio and talked cheerfully about school and music and sports. (He was on the swim team. Looking at his build and his glistening hair, she realized that she should have guessed it before.)
With the exception of the fact that she was driving, she could almost feel that she was back in college going to a party. For the first time, the idea of sleeping with Allen crossed her mind. It seemed less preposterous to her now than it would have before. She felt less his senior. For a moment, she wondered if she had misgauged him. Perhaps he was picking her up from the start, and doing very well at it. If so, he was smarter and subtler than she thought. She dismissed the idea, not because it was wrong but because it didn't seem to matter now.
The fraternity was only a few minutes from the bar. They parked in an alley about a block from the fraternity house. She had turned off the ignition and started to turn toward the door when Allen put his hand on her arm. It was nothing more than a gesture to wait, but she found it disturbing.
"You want to smoke a joint?"
She gave about half a laugh and took him up on the offer. She wouldn't really be reliving her college days if she didn't get stoned. The feeling of her youth. She remembered how good things tasted, how good things felt when she was stoned. She looked forward to the feeling.
For her, the nostalgia was as thick as the smoke. Her body tingled and consciousness became disjoint. She had had enough to drink at the bar, but she was used to handling that. The dope accentuated the feeling of drunkenness and complemented it as well.
She was lost in the music and not at all clear about where they were or why they were there when she heard him ask what she had been doing in the bar. At that instant, her mood was cocky self-confidence and she shot back, "I was trying to get picked up, and I guess I succeeded."
He turned and she felt him put his hand on the inside of her knee. It felt good but she didn't respond. Now that she had made up her mind and let him know what was going to happen, she didn't think he needed much encouragement; guys never did when she was in college. She just wanted to feel his seduction.
He moved his hand up her thigh and turned her towards him. As his hand neared her crotch he kissed her. In a corner of her mind she thought how typically juvenile this maneuver was. If you kiss her really convincingly, maybe she won't notice what you are doing elsewhere, and even if she does, she may not want to stop you because that would end the romantic kiss. Distraction or bribery, that's how guys looked at it. It often worked, not because it was distracting but because the fiction that it was could be maintained and the girl could maintain her image in her own and, more importantly, her boyfriend's eyes.
Laura felt it hardly necessary for her but it was endearing. She slipped her hand into his crotch and felt him bursting against his zipper. No surprise. She remembered the easily provoked penises of youth.
"Cars are a little tight. D'you want to go up to my room?"
"Where do you live?" She knew that her mind was foggy but she was sure they had come to a fraternity party.
"Oh. I'm sorry," he said. "I live here, in the fraternity." He pulled his head back a few inches to look her in the eyes. "I lied to you about my girl friend and trying to get into a fraternity and all that. I just thought it would give the best chance of picking you up."
The alcohol and dope combined to give the conversation a bizarreness that was exacerbated by the fact that his hand was under her dress massaging her till the wetness was unmistakable.
So her first reaction had been right. He had been trying to pick her up from the start. But she was also right when she decided that it didn't matter. They left the car and headed up to his room. She was pleased to find that there was an outside staircase to the third floor that allowed them to avoid the party.
The room was classic frat-rat: beer cans on the window sill, a stereo on the desk and candle to set the mood in case you got lucky. He had, so he lit the candle and put on some music.
"Beer or wine," he said reaching into a compact refrigerator which sat under the desk making it impossible for anyone to sit at the desk. Apparently, studying was no more a part of students' lives now than it had been when she was a student.
"Wine." She certainly didn't need the alcohol but she needed something to hold. She promised herself that she would just sip on it. It tasted so good that she reneged.
He stood in front of her next to the bed and reached around her to unzip her dress. He slipped it off her shoulders and it fell to the floor. Still barely touching her, he unhooked her bra.
Had she not been thoroughly immersed in the moment, she would have realized how much she had underestimated him. She would have realized that she expected a painfully slow grope on the bed while he tried to undress her almost surreptitiously. Boys do that. They think maybe a girl won't know when her dress is being unzipped or her bra unhooked.
But he understood how erotic it could be just to be undressed by a virtual stranger. He let her bra down and eased off her panty hose and panties.
He stood in front of her gently running his fingertips down her arms and back. She suddenly realized that her eyes had been closed for a few moments and her breathing had become audible. He, on the other hand, seemed to be the complete master of the situation. She could feel no age gap between them now. She stood before him naked and vulnerable. He was fully dressed.
She began to unbutton his shirt. He stopped her. She fought to become alert enough to reconcile his behavior with her expectations. She couldn't do it.
"I can't make love with you," he said with some apparent regret. This did nothing to make things intelligible to Laura. He certainly wasn't gay, at least not exclusively gay. He was attracted to her. It wasn't moral scruples that inhibited him or else why bring her up to the room at all. Ideas offered themselves and were rejected. She was at a loss.
"There is something else I should have told you." She waited for him to continue, suddenly wishing that she were dressed. Had he paused longer, she would have started putting her clothes on. But he continued: "I brought you here for someone else."
It only took a fraction of a second for the comment to register, but in her state Laura felt as if it took minutes.
"I'm not some sort of whore you pass around for your purposes. I decide who I sleep with and when and why I sleep with them." And she started to reach for her clothes. He stopped her by gently grabbing her shoulders.
"I know that. That's why I'm telling you now. I was supposed to trick you into it or force you into it. I can't do that. When I agreed to do this, I didn't think of you as a person—certainly not as one I would like." He seemed sincere; and he was. "Just listen to what I have to say before you go. Okay?"
She stopped reaching for her clothes and they sat down on the bed.
"All new fraternity members have to go through a long initiation ritual. They are led around the house with hoods over their heads and told to do all sorts of things. Some of the things they do are embarrassing, some disgusting, and some they think are disgusting but really are not. You know, like when you make someone think that egg white is donkey cum and make them eat it."
Laura had never heard of that before but, as soon as she considered it, she could see how it would seem funny to college-aged guys.
"Well one of the things a new pledge has to do is to have sex with a stranger. But they don't know that's what they are going to do." He paused to take a drink of his wine and fill Laura's glass. "Of course, once they start, they know what they are doing. Then the question is, 'Can they do it well?'"
"The pledge that's being initiated tonight is a real nice guy, he's good-looking and we understand he's a virgin. A rare thing these days."
He looked at her questioningly so she assumed his sales pitch was over. "No!" she said and started to get up.
"Okay, but tell me one thing. Why did you go to the bar tonight?" She stopped. She had underestimated him. There was a long pause before he continued. "You didn't come looking for me. You came looking for some anonymous sex. That's what I am offering you. You'll never see this guy's face."
That's exactly what she had come looking for and that's exactly what he was offering. She hadn't been thinking of anything quite this strange, but she realized that she was about to turn it down only because she hadn't controlled it. But now it was her decision. She visualized it in her mind, took a gulp of wine and summoned up her strength. "I guess that's about as anonymous as you can get. What the hell?"
What she had agreed to was not the fulfillment of any fantasy she had had. But go through with it or not, she would fantasize about it often in the future. And if she didn't do it, she would always wonder about it. And wasn't it a part of the new Laura to worry less and do more? Somehow it felt to her as if this act of brazen slutishness would severe forever the connection to the perfect suburban housewife she'd been.
"It will just be a few minutes," said Allen as he got up to leave.
Laura poured herself another glass of wine, got under the sheets and tried to work herself into the mood for the initiation rite. By the time the door opened again, she had done a pretty good job.
Four people came in: three in scarlet robes and hoods with eye holes cut out; the forth in a grey rob and hood. His hood completely covered his face. She only half listened to the mumbo jumbo one of the scarlet robes uttered. She thought it was Allen but, if so, he was disguising his voice.
The boy in the grey robe was listening very carefully, though. Getting into this fraternity was very important to him. Important enough to endure embarrassing and humiliating himself. Important enough even to leave his girl friend down at the party while he went through initiation. He knew that it was standard practice for the fraternity brothers to hit on the pledges' girl friends while the pledges went through initiation. They were often successful. Sometimes the pledges even asked their girl friends to go to bed with the guys in order to help their chances of getting in. Sometimes the girls did it. Sometimes they did it on their own, for their own reasons.
He didn't want to get into the fraternity badly enough to ask Janet to do that. She wouldn't have done it anyway. After all, they had been going together for two years and hadn't made love yet. But he was willing to leave her down there knowing that his future brothers would be trying. And he was willing to do things that he couldn't ever tell her about. She would have thought much of it childish and some of it would destroy her respect for him. He was willing to risk a lot to get in and he listened carefully to his instructions.
"Scum! This is the last test. A test of your commitment, of your willingness to follow the instructions of your fraternity elders, and of your manhood. Are you willing to undertake this test?"
The boy in the grey hood nodded. He was forbidden to speak.
"What is before you is a female animal—an animal sometimes found on farms. Take off your robe." Laura started in sudden realization. She knew that the pledge was not to know initially that what was going to happen, but only now did she realize that she was to be the egg white parading as donkey cum. She saw how the scarlet robes created and maintained their deception. One of them held near the grey hood a tray of unwashed sheep's wool and, no doubt, though she couldn't see from where she was, other sources of sheep scent.