“This isn’t working.” Leilani didn’t say the words out loud, not with Jared working so hard, so earnestly, his large hands caressing her skin, his mouth travelling the hills and valleys of her body. It would have seemed cruel, after what felt like hours of his diligent efforts to arouse her laggard interest. It hadn’t been hours yet, not tonight, but this wasn’t the first night like this, oh no. After the first few nights of passion, Leilani had found it difficult to match Jared’s interest, his attentions. It wasn’t his fault — he was a nice man, intelligent, well-read, attentive. He was exactly the kind of man she had thought she was looking for. And yet here they were in bed, and where there should have been a wet, urgent heat, there was nothing. Worse than nothing — a dry chill; Leilani was dry as a bone, dry as an old woman, and she was only thirty-four, it was too soon to be this cold and dry.
Her mother would have warned her, Leilani was sure, if her mother were still speaking to her, if her mother could have ever spoken so frankly of such things. This was the price Leilani paid for not marrying as a respectable girl would, for being restless, being wild. Her mother, born in a another land, another time, would say that her daughter had used herself up, and despite her sensible self, Leilani felt a brief flicker of fear in her heart that maybe it was so. Maybe she had been too wild, for too long.
Thirty-four now — she had had sixteen years of love, men and women, passion and pleasure and joy and heartbreak and picking herself up and trying again. Not being willing to settle for just a nice lover, a good man, a kind woman — no, Leilani had seen the sad marriage her parents had had, the compromises of it, the costs. Instead she had wanted it all, had wanted the thundercrash, the lightning strike that hit over and over and over again and told you that this one was worth fighting for. She had thought she had found it, more than once, but it had never quite worked out, and so here she was trying again, with Jared. Jared who was large and powerful and strong and even passionate, but always gentle with her, as if she were a flower that might be crushed under the weight of a pounding storm.
This wasn’t working, and if she didn’t have the heart to tell him so in bed, at least she could make the job easier for him, and quicker for her. So the next time Jared slid down in the dark room, down to lick his way along her thighs, her calves, down to suck her toes, Leilani licked her own fingers and swiftly, sneakily slid them inside her, a quick motion, as practiced and familiar as scooping rice and curry off the plate and neatly into her mouth. This, at least, hadn’t worn out, not yet, and a few quick strokes in exactly the right place was enough to raise her heartbeat, to bring her breath heavy into the summer-heated room, and that was enough for Jared who came back up, and she almost wasn’t quick enough moving her hand away, he almost caught her, but didn’t. Then he was inside her, and it was wet enough, good enough for now, though a part of her felt sick at having used a whore’s trick on the man. He was a good man. He deserved better.
Afterwards, Leilani slipped out of bed, pulled on a thin cotton robe, left Jared sleeping. It was late, and they both had to get up early tomorrow for work. But she couldn’t sleep on a night like tonight — it was thunderstorm weather, and they were overdue. The forecasters had been predicting a storm for weeks, but there had been nothing, nothing but the crackle in the air, the build-up that never quite discharged. It was driving her slowly mad. Leilani walked through the long dark hallway, down past the dining room, the kitchen, following the same path on the ancient wooden floorboards that she had walked every night for the last week, heading out onto the back porch, out to where she could finally press her flesh against the wood railing, tilt her head back, gaze up and up at the dark sky, heavy with clouds that refused to give up their moisture. Not a star in sight.
It was so dark out here. She lived on the third floor, the top floor of the brownstone, and though her neighbors had back porches too, she could barely make out the outlines of them tonight. No one would see if she decided to touch herself here, to relieve the frustration that still coiled within her, that radiated out from her center to the tips of her fingers, the tips of her toes. Leilani could let the robe slip to the ground, could, naked in the night, mark a path across her skin with rough nails, dig fingers into flesh, leave bruises. She could fuck herself hard, here on this porch for all the world to see, because no one would see, fuck herself to exhaustion and satisfaction, with Jared safely asleep, never needing to know.
But she wouldn’t do that, of course, because despite all her wildness, she wasn’t that kind of girl — or at least, she wasn’t any more. Sixteen years ago, she had let her first lover make love to her on a rooftop. Afterwards, the world seemed full of possibilities, an adventure waiting in every open doorway. Leilani had hurled herself into love, opened her heart as wide as it could go. But there had been one failed affair after another, each one ending for a different reason, but always, heart-wrenchingly, ending. And with each one, Leilani became a little more careful, more cautious.
Until here she was with Jared, with no idea why she was with him. Leilani couldn’t tell him what she wanted, what she needed, and she didn’t think he could give it to her anyway. It was time, past time, to break things off and set him free.
Jared wanted to marry her. He had told her that the day they met, as she walked past him, walking down 57th Street to the bookstore, passing him leaning against a tree, a burly black man with his head shaved, sharp in crisp white shirt and dark blue jeans. The kind of man her mother would cross the street to avoid. He whistled as she walked by. Leilani turned a little and smiled, appreciating the compliment, the lift to her spirits on a grey May morning, and he said, “A girl as pretty as you must be married.” And she laughed, as much at being called a girl as anything else, here in Hyde Park, a campus town where pretty little eighteen-year-olds filled the tree-lined streets. She laughed, charmed, and shaken her head no. And he smiled a wide smile of perfect shining teeth, and said, “I sure would like to marry you myself.” Leilani had thought he was joking.
Leilani hadn’t said anything more to him that day, but she saw him again, a few days later, in the bookstore this time, two volumes of Tacitus tucked under one arm, and a third spread on the book-lined table before him. An English translation, not the original Latin, but still. His concentration so deep that he didn’t even notice her walking past, and that had charmed her too, and made her ashamed that she had seen the rich ebony shade of his skin and assumed that he was — well, not quite her kind, not the university, the intellectual, type. Later, over thick cheeseburgers and a shared chocolate milkshake at the Medici, she would discover that in fact Jared wasn’t a grad student or a professor, that he did work in the physical plant, supervising the grounds crew, that he read ancient history for pleasure, for fun. That made it all the worse, of course. Sometimes Leilani thought that she had gone to bed with him a week later more out of embarrassment than anything else.
She admitted that to him, the following night over dinner. Leilani had cooked, basmati rice and spicy chicken curry, sweet carrots and green beens with turmeric sauce. She wasn’t much of a cook, so had had to start over three times on the chicken curry, burning the onions the first time, scorching the meat the second. Leilani had been ready to scream with frustration, but had instead started over again, determined to finally, finally get it right. She had wished she could cook Jared a feast, an apology for what she’d been thinking. Over dinner that night, she said, her eyes fixed on her half-eaten plate, the words falling awkward out of her mouth, “That first day, when we met — I didn’t expect you to be smart. And when you asked me out, the only reason I said yes was because of the way you looked. Big. Strong.” Dark and dangerous. She didn’t quite have the nerve to say that last, but the rest was bad enough. Leilani bit her lip, waiting for him to get angry, to storm out. It was what she deserved.
But instead, Jared was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “Well, I suppose I didn’t know much about you when I saw you walking down that street. I knew you had that long black hair, so silky smooth, and I wanted to swim in it, like swimming in the ocean, at night.” He reached out, across the table, took a few strands of her hair in his fingerstips and tugged them, gently, making her look up at him. His eyes were calm, thoughtful. “I knew your skin was like sweet coffee with cream.” Jared smiled then, that smile that had captured her the day they met. Smiled and said, with a sweet lilt in his voice, a sudden deep down-home accent, “But now that I know you a little, I surely do like you, Miss Leilani. And I think you like me too.”
And Leilani had laughed, charmed by his speech, and by him, and admitting that it was true, that she did like him, liked the way he talked, the way he walked. She liked that Jared called his mother every night, just for a few minutes, just to say hello. Leilani liked that he could beat her at chess, which none of her lovers ever had. She liked that he could cook like a demon, that he made her johnny cakes with sweet honey, and barbecued ribs so tender that the flesh fell right off them. She especially liked that Jared had eaten everything that she had cooked, never saying a word of complaint about the chicken that still, despite all her efforts, managed to taste more than a little burnt. He was a good man, the kind of man you fell in love with, the kind of man you married. There was no good reason to think that he might not be the man for her. At first, the sex had been good too.
The first night she brought him upstairs to her bed, as she unbuttoned Jared’s white shirt, uncovering solid muscle over layers of more muscle, Leilani felt like it was her birthday, Christmas, even her wedding day, all rolled up into one. Jared was the best present ever. Six feet tall and so strong that he could pick her up with one arm. Over a week of dinners, and alone in her bed after, she had closed her eyes and slid her hand under the covers, between her legs. She had made herself crazy with fantasies of just how he would take her, how he would lose control, would slam her down into the bed, would ravage her willing body. And at first, he had seemed ardent enough, had covered her in kisses. Jared had traced long, slow paths from mouth to collarbone, from breast to nipple and then eagerly down to the triangle between her thighs.
Leilani had been wet that night, had been hungry for him, had spread her legs and invited him in with no hesitation at all. And when she finally had him inside her that first night, when he began to move, sending shivers through her, Leilani had raked her nails down her back, bit the flesh of his shoulder hard. Jared didn’t complain — he’d taken it, taken everything she could dish out — but he didn’t reciprocate. That night had been good enough, but it had made her nervous. And as she’d feared, no matter what she did to him, that night or the ones that followed, he was unfailingly gentle with her. Jared whispered sweet words in her ear. He said softly, “I could really love you, girl.” Or even, “You’re the kind of girl I’d like to marry.” And then he kissed her again, softly, on the lips. He kissed her with respect, and it made her want to scream.
Leilani told herself, “Well, he just needs to get to know me better.” But the nights and weeks went by, and though she whispered, “faster,” “harder,” Jared didn’t seem able to take the hint. She hadn’t been able to just come right out and say, say, “I need you to fuck me really hard.” So maybe it was her fault that it hadn’t gotten better — it had gotten worse. Until now, here they were.
For the last few weeks, the best part of dating Jared hadn’t been when they were alone together — it was when they were out. They walked to campus and Leilani defiantly held his hand, enjoying the covert glances and outright stares. They went to restaurants together; they cuddled close in movies. At the Reynolds Club, they ate lunch with her professor friends on his break — then after he’d kissed her and left, Leilani smiled mysteriously at their fevered questions. What’s he like? Is he really on the grounds crew? This isn’t serious, is it? What will your parents say?
That one did make her heart thump, though she wasn’t about to show it. By now, her parents would have heard the news from someone; her sisters would have discussed it all in detail; her father the professor might even have seen them, walking around campus, holding hands. But her parents hadn’t spoken to her in years, so unless Leilani asked her sisters, she needn’t know what they were were saying. Someday her parents might speak to her again. Maybe if she got married. Maybe even if she married Jared. Her parents were educated people — they might be furious at their daughter, ashamed of her, for flagrantly having sex outside of marriage, but they would never admit, even to themselves, that they didn’t want her to marry a black man.
At least Jared’s family was honest.
Jared had begged Leilani to go with him to his sister’s birthday party; begged with words, with soft touches to the back of her neck, with wide, dark eyes, until she would have found it easier to kick a puppy than say no to him. So Leilani had put on a sleeveless white dress, modestly knee-length, had brushed out her hair until it shone, and at his request, wore it loose and long. She had let him drive her west, past the university, into the areas where the students weren’t supposed to walk. When they got out of the car, he’d put out his arm and she had slipped a hand through it, so that they might parade up the front walk to his mother’s neat little house, cheerful with a fresh coat of yellow paint. Leilani had been on display, and that was to be expected — she was the new girlfriend. What she hadn’t expected was the way the men looked at her, with more concentrated lust than she’d ever experienced, an honest intensity of desire. They said to her face, Girl, you are fine! Do you have any sisters? Leilani blushed and Jared grinned wide, showing bright white teeth, shepherding her around with a proprietary hand on the small of her back. She could have handled the men, but then there were the women. Jared’s mother, polite but cold. Jared’s sister Kesia, whose skin was even darker than Jared’s, and who neatly managed, with a plateful of food and a cold lemonade, to avoid shaking her hand. When Leilani went to use the washroom, she emerged to overhear Kesia hissing to Jared, angry and low, What, you couldn’t get a white girl, so you settled for next best? And fury rose in Leilani, fury rose and then died, smothered by the knowledge that if Jared had picked her to satisfy some tainted craving, she had done worse.
“What are you doing out here?” Jared leaned in the doorway, his voice low and rough, his body huge and dark and menacing — or it would be, if it were her fantasy. But she knew him too well for that. Leilani fought to keep the frustration from her voice as she said, “I couldn’t sleep. Go back to bed. No need for both of us to be tired tomorrow.”
“You should come inside — it’s going to storm.”
“They keep saying that, but it never happens. It drives me crazy.”
He was quiet a long moment. Then said, “Are you talking about the storm, or about us?”
She hadn’t realized that he knew how frustrated she was. Leilani had underestimated him again, but she was too angry to be embarrassed this time. Not that she had any right to be angry at him — he hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t his fault that he was just too nice. The kind of guy she should be with, not the kind she wanted.
“This isn’t working for me. I’m sorry, Jared.” What else could she say? It isn’t you, it’s me? Hard for anyone to believe that, and not much comfort even if you did. At least she was ending it early, before anyone could get too hurt. It had only been a few weeks.
He was quiet for a long time. Then, finally, “You’re not giving us much of a chance.”
Leilani wrapped her arms around herself, not wanting to see the lostness in his eyes. Maybe she’d been fooling herself, about no one getting hurt. Maybe it was too late. Maybe it had been too late from that first day, when he said he’d like to marry her. She wasn’t the marrying kind.
“I think it’s better this way. I do.” It wasn’t really about the sex. The sex was just a symptom. Jared was a sweet guy. But Leilani needed more than sweetness.
“Well, then.” Heavy acceptance in his voice, and she was glad he wasn’t going to fight her on this. Wasn’t she? “Come inside at least. It’s starting to rain.”
A fat drop hit her arm, hard. And then another, and another. In less than a minute, the sky had opened up with the suddenness that you only found in a summer thunderstorm, and the rain was pounding down, wind whipping it along, and she was already drenched. Slamming into her skin, blinding her, washing away all kinds of dirt and darkness. Leilani felt her heart lift, her pulse speeding up, racing. The rain was talking to her, telling her what she needed to do. One last chance.
“You go ahead,” she said quietly. “I want to stay out here. Just for a little while.”
“Your clothes are getting soaked!”
“Then I’ll take them off,” Leilani said, fighting back the urge to laugh. It wouldn’t be kind, laughing now. But oh, her body wanted to, and that had nothing to do with Jared, and everything to do with the rain, with the sharp crack of thunder, and the lightning that whited-out the sky a moment later. Leilani slipped out of her robe and let it fall to deck, leaning back now against the railing again, closing her eyes, letting the warm rain pound against her face, her breasts, her belly. It was a good body to give to the night. No longer as slim as when she was the girl who liked to run, but with an added lushness now, curves that flashed in the lightning light and then disappeared again into darkness.
Were there neighbors watching the storm, safe behind their windows? Watching her? Leilani didn’t care. Let them hide inside and watch. Ah, there was the rush, the excitement she’d been missing. There was the part of herself she had lost. Leilani lifted her hands, cupped her breasts, dug her fingers into flesh. Felt shivers race beneath her skin as she squeezed her nipples between her fingertips. Was he watching? If Jared could walk away from this, then she’d know she was right to send him away.
“Damn, you’re crazy, girl.” Finality in his voice, and the screen door slamming, and silence after. Ah well, Leilani thought. She’d tried her best. Maybe her best wasn’t what Jared wanted. It hurt, but the pain slid into the hard wet wood against her back, the water-logged tendrils of her hair whipping in the wind, the slick trail her fingers followed down her body, down her belly, to that promised land she had lost sight of.
And then the door slammed back again, and Jared was there, one big hand grabbing her wrists, pulling them up, hard, above her head, to press against a post. The other hand on her flesh, hard and rough, not bothering with soft touches, long lingerings. Straight between her thighs, pressing her legs apart, shoving fingers up, inside, and god, she was wet. Not just with rain. A few quick strokes and then Jared’s hand was gone, leaving an aching emptiness; her hips arched up, involuntary, and thank god, thank god he was there to meet her. Naked as well, soaking wet and completely hard, his hand on her ass, lifting her up and onto him, so that her legs wrapped around him as far as they could go. Her hands still high above her head, her wrists still crushed in his grip, and it hurt, and that just made it better. He fucked her hard against the post, no gentleness left in him. She was racing now, racing the storm, and the storm was going to win, but that was fine, that was great. The lightning flashed, the thunder crashed, and she whited out in a shock that ran from head to toes to fingertips.
Afterwards, they lay together on the deck as the storm dwindled down, down to a few warm raindrops, here and there. Jared was solid beside her, warm. Her wrists ached, and so did other parts. Lots of other parts. There might be splinters in her back.
Jared rolled away, and for a chilly moment Leilani thought that he was going to get up, going to walk away, disgusted with them both, leaving her a used, crumpled heap on the wooden deck. There was always that possibility. A necessary risk. But he just rolled far enough away to raise up on one elbow, his thigh still pressed warm against hers, his dark eyes looking down at her. Smiling. Jared asked her then, his voice rough with what might have been anger, or passion, or laughter, “So was that enough to satisfy you, girl?”
Leilani just smiled back, not sure of her answer. She reached up and pulled him down into a kiss. The storm was over, but there were many hours left until morning. Maybe, Leilani thought, her heart still pounding, her throat dry, or maybe not.