Beneath the masks of ourselves

by Antheros

To H. Jekyll, in payment of a bet;
but more than that, to all my writer friends,
for the hours of pleasant stories and delightful emails.

And, to any writer reading this, may you find some joy and some wisdom;
not mine, for I not aspire so much,
but yours, for a book gives only answers you already had in yourself.

Nobody is one block of harmony. We are all afraid of something, or feel limited in something. We all need somebody to talk to. It would be good if we talked to each other-not just pitter-patter, but real talk. We shouldn't be so afraid, because most people really like this contact; that you show you are vulnerable makes them free to be vulnerable too. It's so much easier to be together when we drop our masks.” Liv Ullman

Chapter 1

Photography, like nothing else, teaches how fleeting time is. The picture we want to take is gone before we can point our camera at it: everything moved, the rare bird fled away, the lovely grin on your lover's face gone. Photography also teaches something else, something one thinks writing should teach too.


Everything is in the details. Details make life. God is in the details. Whether it is a blink too hard or a leg swinging, hands making involuntary movements or a gaze away when a lie is told. Noticing details will make you walk out of a poker table with more money than you started with, and life is a very big poker table.

Because, with Athena, all it took to start it was a single word.

I got her first email one day, out of the blue—obviously, since I did not know her. She said she had liked my stories, and made a few comments about them. I replied. Soon we were writing to each other daily; she was a writer herself, and I started to read her stories. Telling about those early days is confusing; memories are discontinuous and fragmentary, changing over time, and the emails jump from subject to subject and do not follow the increasing feeling of intimacy and comfort that we began to share.

From the beginning I assumed it was “her” and not “him;” not only from the stories she wrote and from her style, but also because her nick was Athena, and it didn't seem to me that somebody who would pick Athena as an alias would be male. Either way, soon the emails made it obvious that Athena was a woman.

Again, details.

Her stories were delicacies exhaling class and style, a pleasure to read among the usual garbage that is found online. Soon our emails outgrew our literary production. We talked about everything—except about who we were in real life—but mostly about writing.

One day I picked that word out.

I like slang. It may be the most interesting aspect of language, after the concept of language itself. It's a remarkable way to affirm your identity, to pretend to be (and perhaps become) somebody, to say what you want in a way that will be understood by those (and only those) who you want to understand it. It shows who you are, where you came from. The accent, the words you pick.

I think nobody would have noticed it, unless they lived in the same city we lived; it was a local slang. I liked to use it too, and once a friend that lived far away made a comment about it. “You sometimes use funny expressions,” he said, referring to the inhabitants of my city in general. People have a remarkable ability to change completely how they are talking, to new dialects, almost. You're talking with your friends, using all the four-letter words you know and your phone rings, it's your girlfriend. You immediately change to another dialect. If it was your mother, it would be another one. Your boss, another one. You change the tone of your voice, the kind of adjectives you use, the speed you talk, the way you address the person you are speaking to, everything; I've seen people that had ticks when talking in certain environments and lost them in others. Maybe Athena had grown used to me, maybe she just assumed I'd understand it, maybe she was distracted. Either way, she didn't even notice it.

Little things. Details.

I told her about it. We liked to pick on each other. She had a passion for History, and often set her stories in the past. She wrote carefully, she researched, she got even the expressions used at the period right. I loved to find anachronisms in their stories and tease her, but it was hard to find a mistake. She did the same with my stories, finding inconsistencies, typos, my lousy syntax. It was a little game we played. It was challenging, it was fun.

She replied, “You told me where you live, yet you just guessed where I live.” I searched through the old emails, finding all the comments I could gather that could help my case: weather, traffic, anything. It took me hours, but I got four phrases, which I sent with comments and the date she wrote them. No, I didn't have anything better to do that day.

“Do you think you are Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot? It doesn't matter, both are cocky, boring and never get a girl.” The playful argument continued and died, we both knowing we lived no more than an hour away, who knows, maybe a couple blocks from each other. I now started my emails with something like “I hope the weather there is as pretty as it's here” and other gists like it.

We started to chat online. We had began to do so sometime after we discovered we lived in the same town. One of those conversations stand to my mind. It was two in the morning, I was trying to gather my will to finish some late work, and I saw she was online.

“So don't you sleep? Of course, it must be the time zone,” I began.

“What about you?”

“I'm working.”

“I don't buy that.”

“I am working. I did not say I was being productive.”

“Are you writing?” I asked.

“No. Are you?”

“A little.”

“What are you writing?”

“It's unpublishable.”

“Hm, must be interesting.”

We chatted for more than two hours about nothing, then she said she was going to bed. Looking back, that harmless conversation was a turning point. I told her about a big sale at a book shop the following week, in an email I sent some days after the chat. “Don't miss it,” I said. Her next question surprised me. “Do you work there?” I said I didn't, which is the truth, but it was the first time one of us had asked such a direct question. “Do you want to meet me there?”

“I don't think it's wise,” she said.

But the box was open. I asked her something that from time to time popped into my mind. “Did it occur to you that we may know each other?” We shared a lot of interests. No matter how big a city is, people that share interests are likely to go to the same places.

“Yes. Wouldn't it be disappointing if we do? We meet and talk to each other, probably bored to death, while wondering if we have new emails from the very person we're talking to.”

“Maybe we like each other. But, to tell you the truth, I don't think we've met,” I wrote her.

“Why?” she asked.

“We'd know.”


“Knowing,” I said. “Just like I knew you lived here.”

To live is to be constantly pushed around by the unexpected. I saw she was online one day, it was close to lunch time. I rarely log in while working, but I was bored and wanted a refreshing conversation. “I was thinking about Chinese today, what do you say?” I started.

“I hate Chinese,” she said, thinking I was joking.

“I bet you love Italian food.”

“I do.”

“I know a great restaurant. What do you say?”

The long pause was much more important than the “no”. I almost wrote the name of the restaurant and that I'd be there, but I'd be giving her a big advantage. She could go there and see me, find me in the crowd, and not show herself. I waited a little longer.

Then I decided it was worth the risk. If she did that, tough luck.

“I'll be at Antonio's. Ask for my nickname,” I said, giving her the address. Antonio's was a small Italian restaurant that pretended to be pretentious, but was not. I chose it because there were some tables that couldn't be seen from most of the restaurant. “I'll wait for you. Can you be there in fifteen minutes?”

“I won't go.”

“Fine. I'll be there in fifteen minutes. I'll have a drink, then lunch. I hope you show up.”

This is how it all began. I could have written a story about it, how we fell in love and lived happily ever after. Only it didn't happen that way.

I got the corner table, one that was practically hidden from everywhere else. I told the hostess that someone might come looking for me. I asked if someone was waiting for me already, but she said no. I looked around, trying to find Athena, not knowing what she looked like.

I asked for a Bloody Mary, and was prepared to take my time. I didn't want to go back to the office, whether Athena showed up or not. I was sure she wouldn't show up.

But she did. I was reading the menu, deciding what to get. She was ten or fifteen minutes late. I saw movement, and there was the hostess with a woman, right in front of my table. “Can't be her,” I thought. “She is too young.” But she came to me. “Hi,” she said, looking down.

“Hi.” The hostess was smart enough to go away quickly. “Nice to meet you.”

“You are... aren't you?”

“I am. Is it you too?”


I smiled. “Nice to meet you,” I said again.

“You too.”

“Do you want something to drink?”

She was uncomfortable, nervous, ready to leave.

“I don't know. Maybe I should leave.” But she looked at me, asking for a reason to stay.

“You are here already. It'll be fun. I bet in a couple minutes you'll be saying stingy phrases like you are used to.”

I called the waiter, who miraculously came that same second. “The lady wants... What do you want to drink?”

“White wine.” After the waiter had gone, she continued. “So, I was right after all.”

“About what?”

“About us.”

“What do you mean?”

“We don't know each other. I told you. I'd know.”

“Yes, I guess you are right.”

“Do I look like you imagined?” She asked me, point-blank. I hate when women do that.

“Yes,” I said. She saw through me, though.

“No, I don't. I saw your look when you first saw me. I almost ran away. I should have known.”

“Why do you say that?”

“How did you imagine me?” Her tone of voice grew more demanding. “Come on, you describe your characters well. And don't bullshit me, I'll know if you lie.”

So I drank a gulp of my Mary, and closed my eyes, picturing her—as I had imagined her before.

“I thought you'd be shorter. You know, petite, five foot and something. You'd have darker hair, dark brown hair. I don't know what it would look like, maybe shoulder long. Not very short, boyish, no, never. It had to look feminine. You'd be dressed in something expensive—all your clothes were expensive—but picked at random. I don't know why I thought you were small, because you have such a presence in your emails, but I thought you'd be one of those small, bossy girls that, if they are not unbearable, they are incredibly cute. You'd be the cute type. But talk, be aggressive. I thought you'd come here and be yourself—Athena, I mean. And you'd have a soft face, pretty, with dark eyes.”

I opened my eyes. She was quiet. “I guess the only thing I got right was that you are pretty. With a soft face. And your voice, I thought it would be... less delicate. More aggressive.” She had a very light brown hair, almost blond, which was long, but not enough to fall beneath her shoulders. She was neither tall or short—shorter than me, however—, but she was pretty; she had a certain “it” which some women have, for which I could never find a proper adjective; the look of someone too mature for their body, and who isn't aware of her attractiveness. It's something about the way they move, the way they look at you. A touch of girl-next-door, I guess.

She was still quiet. “So you were a good surprise. I mean it.” I saw she needed something else. “Do you know why I stared at you like that? I thought you were older. Ten years older. You should not be taken back by that, I won't treat you differently because of it. You should consider it a compliment. It's easy to seem ten years younger in a conversation. The other way around, however, is impossible to pretend if you are not mature enough. And I doubt I am the first to tell you that, that you are too mature for your age. Am I?”


“And you hate hearing that.” She didn't nod, but I knew she did.

“I know it's an awful question, but how old are you? Of course, if you don't want to answer...”

“How old do I look?”

“Twenty. You could pass by eighteen or nineteen. But I think you are a bit older. Twenty-three.”

“Almost. Twenty-two.”

“Close enough.”

“How old are you?”



“Add three.”

The waiter arrived with her white wine. “What do you want to eat? I'll have a Napolitan salad and the saltimbocca.”

“I don't know, I haven't chosen yet.”

“Would you come back later then?” The waiter left.

She opened her menu.

“Are you sorry you came?”

“No... It's not that.”


“You'll treat me like a child now.”

“I won't. I don't treat even five year olds like children.”

She just glanced down to her menu again. The waiter came back—his solicitude, to me, became obvious to be plain curiosity. “Ready to order?”

She nodded.

“I'll have a Capresi salad.”

“Nothing else?”

“They have good fish here,” I said, wondering if she was on a diet. Of course, women are always on diets.

“I suggest the sea bass,” the waiter said. She agreed, probably more out of politeness than anything else. The waiter asked if we didn't want something more, but we refused. Once he was out of reach I talked again.

“He's curious.”


“He's curious about us.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That if someone asked for me, I'd be here.”

“Did you say your name?”

“I said Marquis.”

“`If someone asks for the Marquis, that's me?' You said that?”

“Pretty much. I said that somebody might be looking for the Marquis de Poiuy, and to please show her to my table.”



“They think we're on a blind date.”

“Poor fellows. How innocent they are. If only they read us.” She grinned at this comment. It was the first time I saw her smile.

“Dirty mind.” She said that whenever I suggested something malicious in our emails. I grinned back. “I wonder if they thought you are a real Marquis.”

“There are no more real Marquises.”

“And yet everybody would like to be one.”

“Do you think so?” I asked. “Well. I read your email from this morning. I did not reply yet, but I liked that idea for a story.”

“The professor seducing the student?”

“Well, put like that it sounds like a cliche beaten to death,” I replied. I noticed how she twitched her head to the right when she nodded. “But you twisted it in an interesting way, making the professor a good-looking young woman, and the student a guy that is not interested. Are you going to write the rest of it?”

“Maybe. But if I did, it would be set in the past.”

“As you usually do. But how could it be set before the sixties or seventies?” She did the odd nodding again. She raised her eyebrows lightly when she did it. I used to find her fondness of the past odd, but now I found it quite amusing. I thought then that her tender age explained it, but I was mistaken.

“Why is the period when a story happens so important to you? I already told you that I try to set my stories in such a way that they are timeless.”

“Because you would like to live for ever? Or do you mind getting old?”

“Oh, now I start to recognize you, by the stings.”

“Sorry. I didn't mean to be hostile.”

“It's all right, you are just being yourself.”

“I'm not.”

“Yes you are.”

“No, I'm not.”

I got it.

“You are being Athena.”

“Athena is not who I am. It's odd even to hear the name out loud.”

“It is who you are. Maybe only when you write. It doesn't matter. Here, you can be her. Just like you always were with me.” She didn't seem moved. “The difference is probably that Athena talks what comes to your mind, and you usually don't.”

She looked at me, a bit hurt.

“You love to make these guesses, don't you? To pretend to read minds.” I laughed at her remark, but she was serious. “You do.” I was afraid, for a moment, that she'd leap away.

“I'm sorry. But you are so clever that I enjoy trying to understand you.” She was surprised by my compliment. I decided to change the subject. “Did my invitation surprise you?”


“I was bored to death. And I thought, why not?”

She was quiet again, restless as she was when she arrived.

“You said you were not coming.”

“I did.”

“Were you bored too?”

“A little.”

“Do you save your words for the emails?” She looked at me and I grinned as widely as I could.


“I wish I was the lucky bastard getting them.” She smiled again, and we both relaxed.

The waiter came with the food. I asked for a bottle of mineral water. She started to eat as if she was not hungry. I once again wondered if she was on a diet. The questions that popped into my mind were more personal than I wanted, and we ate in silence for a moment.

“Do you meet online friends often?” She asked me.

“No. Rarely. I used to, but now I don't anymore.”

“Why not?”

“I don't have much time to do that.”

“For someone short on time, you write a lot.”

“Writing is a good way of pretending to work. It's impressive. People see you typing like a maniac for two hours and they think that you are working your ass off.”

“Don't they notice it?”

“That I'm writing? No.”

“That you're not working.”

“Oh, that. No, I work for a big company, it's kind of hard to notice who is working and who is not. Too many people.”

“Do they know you write?”


“Aren't you afraid they might find out?”


“Why not?”

“They won't.”

“How do you know? Maybe they see what you are writing, behind your shoulders, maybe they'll find your files.”

“No, that's not possible. I don't keep files in the company's computer. I don't read my emails there.”

“You chatted with me today.”

“Once in a blue moon, and even so.”

“You don't believe in the big brother.”

“On the contrary. I know him well enough. If he wants to read my diary, it doesn't matter how many precautions I take. Are you afraid that people may discover that you write?”

The waiter was back again. Waiters apparently have perfect bad timing. We waited until he went away, but she didn't answer my question, and I didn't push it any further.

We then started to talk about our works, and the conversation flowed easily, with no new interruptions. We left the restaurant as good old friends. At the street, we stopped, uncomfortable again.

“Well,” I said, “better get back to work.”


“It was great to finally meet you.”

“You too.”

“Can we do this again?”

She hesitated for a moment. “Maybe.”

“I'll email you then. Bye, then.”

“Bye,” she said. I walked back to work feeling a lot lighter. But my mind was restless, reviewing the lunch in my head.

I didn't think of asking her out on a date. I had noticed the mark of the ring on her left annular, and decided I didn't want that sort of trouble. Details. But I continued to email her. Our emails were a little awkward for a few days, in which we measured our words and barely said a word about the lunch. It all went on as before, except we knew what we looked like now. I still met her online from time to time.

But some three weeks later, I was so pissed off with my job that I looked for her again. She was online.

“Antonio's today?”

“I don't know if I can make it...”

“I'll be there by noon,” I said. This time I knew she would go.

She arrived shortly after I did. We said hello and went to the same table, which was vacant.

“Bad day at work?”

“How do you know?”

“Your face. Your invitation.”

“Sorry. I didn't want to do it like that... But...”

“It's all right.”

“I'll make it up to you with a calm dinner.”

She looked worried, but tried to disguise. “We'll see about that,” she said, pretending to play the difficult.

There are many things I remember well about us, but exactly what happened in that lunch is not one of them. All I know is that we somehow got into an argument. What about? I can't say. I know we accused each other of things that we could accuse ourselves, and thus things that we knew would hurt. It is useless to repeat the insults, the accusations. At the end of the lunch, she just stood up and left. I let her go.

But I changed my mind just as she walked out of the restaurant, in one of those instants in which a decision shapes the rest of our lives. I briskly walked out of the restaurant, trying to catch her. She was standing at the corner and few people were walking by.

I was suddenly hypnotized by her. She was leaning against the wall, but barely touching it, as if she could somehow float. It didn't matter, because I was looking only at her hazel eyes, noticing they almost looked green if you paid close attention. And I was closer than I should have been, because I did not want to be standing on the middle of the sidewalk—and because I wanted to be closer to her to talk to her. Then, against all my judgment, against what I had made me promise to myself, against the memory of the shadow of her ring, I came closer and closer to her. She did not move, watching me; it was like time had stopped all of the sudden; or one of those dreams in which walking takes all your strength. Then she closed her eyes, or I closed mine, but I felt her lips, the warmth of her mouth, the faint taste of the remains of her lipstick, and I knew that everything was doomed, but that I was finally getting her, that the argument had been a denial from both of us. I don't know for how long we kissed; later, I could only think that it was not long enough. I wanted to feel the tip of her tongue brushing against mine again, the taste of the tiramisu she had eaten at Antonio's, her soft lips that were so pleasant to kiss.

When I opened my eyes again, she still had hers closed. Then she opened them as widely as possible, like reindeer seeing the headlights of a car.

“I have to go,” she mumbled, moving away.

“Shit,” I said, watching her go, but no sound came out of my throat.

I spent the following days in an odd mixture of emotions. Anguish, lust, guilt, emptiness, happiness; the memory of the kiss turned my brain inside out trying to cope with all I felt. While I knew that continuing with it was stupid, I enjoyed her presence so much... Our relation had been, up to then, based only on what we thought, our ideas and opinions; nothing else—beauty, money, status, position—had influenced us. In a certain way, we had the purest relationship two people could have.

But she was a woman, and she had the sort of look that I was always attracted to. And yet... It was strange to say that I loved her; I didn't. I felt... I didn't know how I felt.

As the days passed by, I thought I could understand my feelings for her better. I had not mentioned the kiss in my emails, waiting for her to say something first. She didn't. Either our heritage of hiding emotions, or the brightness of our screens made us not talk about it. I finally decided that I didn't love her, that I didn't even like her in any way other than friendship; that she was the sort of friend that we meet only two or three times in a lifetime, that the kiss had been a mistake.

I wrote to her. I could have written pages and pages, but I kept myself to three paragraphs, saying that no matter what had happened between us, we should not lose our friendship. She said we should not meet again, at least for a while.

Everything settled down. I took some other woman that had been flirting with me out, hoping it would help me to empty my balls. It did. But as I lay in bed, seeing her profile and the blond hair reflecting the pale blue light of the room, I felt lonely, and missed Athena. I knew I could not talk to her about this, and yet I longed for such a talk.

I left a note to the girl. “Great evening. Call you tomorrow.” It was terse and unoriginal, even more for a writer. But the Marquis wanted to leave the room.

I walked for a few blocks. It was late, the streets empty. No cars were passing by, and the windows of the buildings were all dark. I wondered if Athena was in one of them; perhaps she was up, looking out, or maybe writing.

I found a cab and went home.

Later I wrote the story of someone who takes a girl to a hotel room and fucks her, in the most classic casual sex possible, and leaves the room feeling empty and guilty. He arrives at his apartment feeling sad, takes a shower and decides to turn the TV on. By chance he finds a movie with one of the most classic hot sex scenes ever (mainstream, not porn) and ends up jacking off and drifting to a good, satisfying sleep.

Psychoanalysts would have rejoiced.

I sent it to Athena during a sleepless night. It had been a while since I had written anything, and the catharsis made me feel better. That night I decided that I should worry less about what I felt for her, and what I should feel for her, and just let it go. Perhaps it was a bad excuse for the knowledge that she was married and that I wouldn't have her. Things were almost normal between us—until I wrote that other story.

It was about us. It was obviously about us. Of course, in that story they ended together; it was a little involved, they had problems, she had a fiancé. I sent it to her. I don't know why. Stupidity, vanity, loneliness, blindness, denial. The very next day we arranged to meet again. I wanted it. Like a dumb man, I thought sending her the story would... what, make her mine? Impress her? Dominate her? Pick one, pick them all, it doesn't matter. It was stupid.

She arrived wearing a pair of big black glasses, and sat without saying a word. I am surprised that she went at all; she could very well have ignored me completely. She sat but didn't take her glasses off, and I knew that she wouldn't, that she had probably cried and her eyes were swollen. I hated myself for making her cry.

“Do you want to talk?”

“Sure,” she said, pretending to be fine.

“I mean... do you want to talk about something in particular?”

She gazed at me, though I couldn't see her eyes. Her shoulders fell, and she was apparently forcing herself not to cry.

“You are a fucking bastard.”

It caught me by surprise. I knew she would be affected by the story, but her reaction was not what I expected.


“Don't play this with me. It may work with blond bimbos, but not with me. What do you want, Marquis?”

That was a good question. I had been working on it my entire life, and I hadn't gone far.

“I don't know.”

“You don't know?”


“You're pathetic,” she said, her upper lip twitching in disgust. “You are in your thirties, wearing a three-thousand-dollar suit and three-hundred-dollar shoes, writing erotic stories using a pseudonym. And you say you don't know what you want. I know what you want. You want to take me to bed, fuck me thinking you are as good as you make your characters, and then write a story about me. How you fucked me senseless, making me come so many times that I lost count.”

“That's not true.”

“Oh, really? Are you going to say you never write from your real experiences?”

“Sometimes, but-”

“No buts. You are pathetic. You use your skills to confuse people. I don't know what you do for a living, but I bet you are a lawyer. A damn good one, that screw people so well that they beg you to be merciful and let them keep what is rightfully theirs.”

She stood up at that and left. I was dizzy for a moment with the sudden change of events, but I went after her. I found her at the street, walking away as fast as she could. I ran after her, and grabbed her arm.

“Fuck off, Marquis!”

It was surreal. Being told to fuck off by someone I liked more than anybody else and whose name I didn't know, right in the middle of the street. I couldn't help but laugh as I thought of the absurd of the situation.

She slapped me.

I looked at her, not laughing anymore, the slap stinging on my cheek. She was pale, as someone can be. I thought she was going to faint. I still held her other arm.

“Do you hate me because you see yourself in me?” I asked.

“Let me go.”

It was all wasted. I had nothing to lose. I might as well steal another kiss, the last one.

Only she kissed me back the moment my lips touched hers. We kissed together passionately. She didn't go away this time. Her tongue invaded my mouth, searching mine, her mouth sucking me. I took her glasses off; her eyes were a little swollen. Where was the nearest hotel? There was one some two blocks away. I wanted to take her into my arms and run to it.

“I want you,” I said. “I want you now. You, not only your body. I want you more than I ever wanted anybody else.”

She nodded very slightly. I started to walk, holding her waist.

The check-in lasted for ever. I handled the guy a large bill and told him that I was in a great hurry, and that I could take care of any paperwork later. It was not quite the sort of hotel I was looking for. Athena looked the other way, wearing the glasses again. He nodded.

“If you could give me a key, now.”

“I have to...”

“There's no need. I will be back.”

He hesitated, while I wondered what the world would be like without bribes and considered pulling another bill from my wallet.

“I need your name, Mr...”

I had an idea.

“Marquis. Marquis de Poiuy.”

The word Marquis made all the difference. “I'm sorry, uh, Mr. Marquis. Here's a key, just a moment, sir,” he said in what he thought was the best way to address me.

As I went to the elevator, I wondered if he was calling paparazzi for a shot of the Marquis' mistress. Or if just the word 'Marquis' was enough to get a better treatment. But she kissed me before I could decide. She pulled me hard against her body, and I kissed her back. We barely made to the room.

I took her dark glasses off, while she practically ripped my clothes. My jacket fell first, the tie was pulled off, I was surprised the buttons of my shirt didn't pop all over the room. She pushed me over the bed, taking my belt and pants off, pulling my socks, my underpants. She pulled her blouse over her head and took off her skirt. I looked at her body, a young body that begged to be made love to. She was wearing black bra and panties. She reached back and unsnapped her bra, which fell to the floor after a quick motion of her arms. Her breasts were lovely, able to fit in your mouth, perky, shaped like pears, with long hard nipples like the ones so usual in men magazines from the 1960s. It felt odd, everything was unreal. I remember asking myself too many questions, I remember the desire to give up to lust and to ignore my doubts.

I remember little of what happened. Not that it feels like a blank; no, the memory is fuzzy, blurred, things happening all at the same time. I remember how strongly I could smell her perfume, the scent of her shampoo in her hair, always so pleasant. Hands, hands everywhere. Our kisses, sometimes hesitating, self-conscious, sometimes wild, a desire to get as much as we could. I remember my worry. “I won't last...” That was the only time I remember she grinned, and she did it so very naughtily.

“Then I guess you'll have to do it twice.” She pulled me closer, kissing me while she took me inside her.

I did it three times.

To write an imaginary sex story is one thing: you can picture the details in your head, you can plan it, you can rewrite the part where you play with her breasts. Telling something that happened is quite different. I was overwhelmed by the situation, by the unexpected events—meeting Athena, hearing what she said, being slapped, being with a married woman, seeing her naked and lustful for the first time. How can I remember how many times I licked her, if I teased her left nipple or the right one first? No, sex for stories is different, it is planned, sketched, invented for the reader—or for the writer. There's too much detail, too much time to think, it's linear; your brain isn't half shut down, your body isn't being touched by hands, legs, breasts; the moans and terse breathing and the sounds of flesh against flesh, the sudden movements and bodies rolling over, the words that have no meaning, interjections spoken because you're out of control, because you're seeking the end but enjoying the path... All that is lost in words, even in images.

If it can be described, if it can be retold... it wasn't good enough.

“You fuck as you write,” she said, afterwards. I remember it clearly, because it surprised me. I was thinking that I was late for work, but I had no desire to leave that woman alone to come back to a desk and watch a computer screen for the rest of the day. I could afford to be late.

“Is that a good thing?” I asked.

“Well, I like your writing.”

“I'll take that as an yes, then.”

I couldn't see her eyes; she was resting her head over my chest.

“By your silence, it seems I don't,” she said.

No, she didn't. Her writing was soft, light, of romantic passion, slow movements, tender desire. People never fucked in her stories, they only made love in ethereal ways; soul mates who had found each other after searching their entires lives, for whom sex was melting into each other in a way that achieved the nirvana. There is no sex like that.

“Would you rather write better than you fuck or fuck better than you write?” I asked.

“I don't know. Which one is it?”

No way out for me.

“You know that you don't fuck like you write. You are wilder in bed; no adjectives, lots of verbs.”

She nodded, and I wished I could have said something more... anything. To make her feel better.

“You have to go, don't you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Go. I'll stay here to take a shower.”

“I'll take one too.”

“Then go. I'll wait.”

I took the quickest shower of my life, in and out in less than a minute. She was still there, under the sheets, but the moment was lost. I dressed as she watched silently. I almost asked her if we'd see each other again, but it seemed impossible not to. And I was afraid she might say no.

“See you,” I said. She gave me her sad smile, the one that was so much hers.

“See you,” she uttered. I stared at her for another moment before I finally turned around and left the room.

Chapter 2

There was no need to setup anything, to make arrangements. It was just natural. I suppose all affairs are like that: unplanned, natural. Things just settle into a routine. We met for lunch, we went to the hotel—another one, which was less conspicuous and had a less strict check in. At first it was a little awkward; our emails continued with no mention whatsoever to what was happening in real life. They were, I guess, safe harbors, keeping a little of order in all that was happening. The first few encounters, however, were just the opposite. The words were few and we barely mentioned the stories or what we had been talking about on the emails, often leaving the restaurant after nothing but a drink, sometimes meeting in the hotel. There was no schedule, sometimes we just met online and combined to meet for lunch, often not even entering the restaurant. It was confusing until it became a routine. I wish I could remember more of those days; memory is so funny. I can remember somethings perfectly, as if they were happening right now: the settings, the tone of her voice, the way her hair was combed. Some of the things I remember are contradicted by the emails I kept; sometimes they are so different from my recollections that it almost seems one of them was fabricated. One of the was fabricated: my memories, changing as time passed. Telling this story has been a constant questioning of reality. I've re-read the emails, reading forgotten discussions, pleasant compliments, things that once mattered and that have completely disappeared from my mind. Sometimes they come back, I read a phrase and it's like a switch has been activated, it all comes back in a sudden jolt. Sometimes, however, I read words that I myself have written and they feel stranger than that of a classic writer dead two hundred years before I was born.

What I remember the most is the routine, the weekly meetings at the same room, first at the hotel, then at The Place, the small apartment that I rented only for our meetings. It was different than any other relationship I had. There was no jealousy—I had always been jealous—no questions of who we were, what we had done the day before. We didn't know each other names, where the other lived, anything. All the questions that people ask to know each other were uninteresting. We didn't ask them not because they were forbidden, but because we had no interest whatsoever. Our relationship did not belong to the world, it only existed in the words of computer screens and in these occasional meetings we had, beneath the masks of ourselves.

I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't for the sex that we met. If it weren't, why meeting every week? And doing it every week? We could have just sat at a nice cafe and talked until life called us both back to reality. We didn't have to get naked as soon as we entered the room, jumping into bed as soon as our clothes were gone. But it also was not for the sex alone. The sex was part of it; there was the sex, there were the talks, and they seemed to be two different things, but they weren't. The sex was exercise and pleasure, but more than that, I now believe, it was to break the ice; the sex was what made us talk about anything we wanted, unabashed. There was a huge comfort in being naked, post-orgasmic, in the arms of someone who knew so many things about you that nobody else knew, that nobody else would ever know. We trusted each other completely.

No, it was for the sex as well, only... in a unique way. It wasn't for getting rid of our body fluids and calming down our hormones, and it wasn't love.

Sometimes there was little or no sex—not caused by her periods, that didn't stop either of us. Sometimes we did it in the shower, even then, or in bed, depending on her flux, or we just didn't have intercourse. Erotic writers can be quite imaginative in bed. I didn't mind, she seemed to find it naughty and forbidden. That was what mattered: how we were free to be ourselves, to say and do whatever we wanted. I never held back a thought or a question, never lied to her, never gave her only half of an answer. There was only one time when this complete freedom led to an argument.

“Did you know wedding rings leave marks?” I asked her one day, not long after that first time—it must have been on our third meeting—while playing with her hand. She had not even brushed anything related to her husband, her life, but her hand was always like that, empty but with the mark of a wedding ring. She hid her hand immediately, as if she had suddenly touched something very hot.

“How long have you known?”

“The first time we met.”

“Shit.” She sat up, facing back from me. It is not difficult to recall exactly how much time passed since the first time we met and the day I asked this. Though we couldn't have gone to bed more than three or four times, I also felt that we already had settled into a routine.

“I thought there was a possibility that you had just divorced,” I said. It was not a lie; I had entertained that possibility, but I knew it was very unlikely.

“And yet, you didn't mind.”

“I did. That's why it took a while for me to ask you out again. That's why I hesitated. That's why I... And today... You didn't seem to...”

“What man cares what a good lay wears on her fingers, right?”

“That's mean,” I said, hurt.

“Shit.” She started to stand up, to go away, but I held her.

“Why are you mad?”

“Do you think I fuck around all the time?” She was mad.


“You do. Fuck you.”


“I'm not Athena!” She screamed, trying to get away from me. “Let me go!” I released her. She started to dress. I went to her, but she didn't look at me. I knew she was ready to break into tears, but she would wait until I was far away. I held her again, forcing her to look at me.

“What? Are you going to rape me now?”

I did something else. I caressed her face lightly and hugged her, my arms protecting her from the world. It was all it took. I heard her cry, loudly, feeling the hot tears on my chest, her sobs against me. She hugged me with all her strength, her hands pulling my flesh, scraping my skin. When she was feeling better I moved to the bed, sitting on its side and making her sit on my lap and hug me like a child.

“You'll be late,” she muttered.

“I don't mind.”

“I'm sorry.”

“It's all right. Do you want to talk?”

“I don't know.”

“I can stay here this afternoon, if you want.”


“Really. I wouldn't like to leave you now.”

“I'm feeling better.”

She let me go, and dried her eyes with the back of her hands. I was naked, so it was hard to offer a handkerchief. “What a show,” she mocked herself. “I think I'll go now. It's better.” She stood up and started to dress again.

“Do you want to go get a cup of coffee?”

“No,” she said, sniffing. “I have some thinking to do.”

I dressed too. She was ready before I did, though. “I'm going now.” I came closer to her, and she looked down again. “Don't.”

“Just promise we'll meet again, if not only for a cup of coffee. And that we'll continue to email each other.”

“I can't promise anything right now, Marquis.”

I kissed her, before she could move away. A light kiss.

“I know. But...”

She turned around and left, leaving behind the sound of the closing door and the unknown future. Perhaps the weight of the affair would be too much. I walked out of the hotel wondering if I would ever see her again. If I'd ever hear of her again, her stories or emails. She could disappear easily, and the prospect of losing her was painful. What we had was strange: she was my friend, my psychiatrist and my client, my courtesan. Did I love her?

I have asked this question to myself many times since that day. Have I ever loved her?

I was never in love with her, that passionate love that sweeps us away. I've loved like that before. No, the sight of Athena didn't make my heart beat faster, nor did it take my breath away or made me stutter. Yes, I often thought of her—or so I recall. Yet it was not masturbating at night, in my empty apartment—not often, at least—and I never pictured Athena when I was fucking somebody else.

It is all so complicated, this life of ours.

I think I loved her in a light, pure way. The circumstances of our love gave us what we usually hid beneath our masks. It also, somehow, removed the seduction that makes love blossom. We were shielded from the world—both the good and bad.

The emails disappeared for two days. Then they came back, with no reference to what had happened. She did come back, next week. We didn't mention the incident; a glance was enough. If that single word was what set everything in this direction, if that invitation to Antonio's was the beginning, this glance was what settled everything.

Every Tuesday, at noon.

There was good sex, too. I hope I didn't give the impression that I didn't care for it at all. I will ramble a lot in telling this story, as a real storyteller does. Linear, straight stories are boring. “So nineteenth century”, Athena could have said, leading us to a long discussion of the nineteenth century stories.

In a way, my whole relationship with Athena was a fantasy. The cheating, the secrecy. Fetishes were never as important to me as they seem to be to some people—people who have fetishes that rule their lives. Perhaps they're happier; to feel aroused just from seeing a pretty foot, leather clothes—anything that to me has no sexual connotation in itself—can be hell or heaven. Fantasies, well, they come and go.

Fantasies. Aren't they a mystery? Fetishes and fantasies. Why do details excite us so much?

I played a fantasy with Athena once, one that marked me. It rapes any other thoughts I'm having when it comes to my mind.

I had been seeing in my mind the same image, for days. Athena, with her back to me, her arms extended above her head and pressed against the wall for equilibrium, her legs slightly open, her body completely naked, almost trembling. Her light hair falling on her back, sometimes to be pushed by my hands, delicately but with resolve, while I sought her mouth with mine; sometimes thrown to the side as I caressed and kissed her back.

I was waiting for her when she opened the apartment door. I grinned when she saw me, leaning against the wall, my arms crossed. She was wearing a long skirt, a dark one with white pattern that fell just below her knees. I don't remember her shirt anymore; but I remember her face. The smile of recognition and hello—we already had been seeing each other for long—, the questioning eyes wondering what was different.

“What's going on?” she asked me.

I don't know where that fantasy came from. Fantasies rarely come from anywhere, do they? Sometimes from a movie or a story, I guess. It was such a strong image, the idea of her body all mine, pinned against the wall, ready to be mine, my hands grabbing her flesh, following her contours like a sculptor checking the smoothness of his marble masterpiece.

“You're my toy today, Tina.” I pulled her to me, kissing her. Then I pushed her against the wall. “Raise your arms.” I took her shirt off. She was wearing black underwear. I unsnapped her bra and held her hands against the wall. “I've got something on my mind,” I whispered to her ear.

Athena and I occasionally spoke of fantasies, but we played few with each other. I remember the way she commented on her husband's occasional desires, with the tone of a grown-up talking about the immature desires of a child. She indulged sometimes, when they weren't too much of a bother to do. She once laughed of the handcuff he brought home. “He was pissed off when I laughed,” she said. I laughed. “It was not the handcuff itself,” she added. “It's the way he did it. Kinda like a fifteen-year-old showing a condom to his girlfriend for the first time, like a condom would turn the girl on and convince her to take her clothes off at once to fuck him.”

That afternoon, she didn't laugh. She didn't try to escape. She breathed, while my hands—very warm, that was part of my fantasy; I had them in my pockets until I heard her key in the door—traced her flesh with desire and lust, squeezed her breasts, the thumbs seeking the tips of her nipples. I took my shirt off, quickly, and knelt behind her. “Close your eyes,” I ordered, when she looked back to see what I was doing; she complied.

Her legs. Strong legs, young and shaped by her daily jogging. I caressed them, jousting them, going slowly towards her waist. I didn't try to take her skirt off. My hands felt her thighs, pleasant to the touch, warm, until they reached her panties. I took them off in one quick pull, feeling her surprise. It turned me on immensely. Even recalling that image is enough to turn me on instantly; her body partially hidden only by the thin skirt; her arms holding her weight, the feet still wearing the ankle strap shoes that were so suited for the occasion.

I stood up. Her body was tense, waiting.

“You're mine now,” I whispered to her ear, our bodies touching slightly. I pulled her skirt down.

It may have been the best fuck of my life. No other time spent inside a woman overwhelmed me so much. I remember how I started to penetrate her slowly, then I quickly moved myself up, reaching as far as I could, feeling her tight butt give as her body wasn't prepared for that much strength, and her brain absorbed the shock of surprise, pleasure, perhaps pain. She moaned, loudly, so loudly that it probably crossed walls. I kept the steady, fast rhythm, my hands playing with her body, pulling her hair. We hardly kissed, the position and the quickness of the movements didn't allow for it. I came strongly, I don't know how long afterwards—not so little, not so much, that's what I remember—but so strongly that everything else disappeared, everything except the powerful feeling overcoming my senses.

Athena was still holding to the wall, her breathing even more ragged than mine. I watched her for a few seconds, then I stood up and held my arm around her. She slowly turned around, her head hiding on my shoulder. My next memory is of lying over the bed, getting my breath back, my arm over my forehead, my body limp and sweaty, the muscles pleasantly tired. We fucked each other's brains until we could barely move.

She wrote a story, a few days later, about how far people can go for those few minutes of absolute bliss, and the main sex scene resembles ours enough to hardly be a coincidence, albeit being somewhat harder—a contrast to Athena's usual scenes, more romantic and sugary. That is one of my favorite stories, to this very day.

We never fucked like that again.

It was weird to have put down that afternoon into words.

Writing a sex scene that actually happened is very odd, more than an imagined one. I already think that writing a sex scene is odd, when you're looking for that pornographic appeal. I always make a comparison in my mind: it's like describing a banquet in immense detail, counting the number of times you chewed the food, if you ate the potatoes before the beef. It's not surprising that most descriptions are so boring and many authors find these scenes so difficult to write.

Our brains forgive it, of course, having entered the aroused state that seems like madness. Have you noticed that? How, when we're aroused, things that ordinarily would be unattractive, not titillating, or even slightly repulsive are cast into a different light and arouse us.

“No, I don't find it difficult, I just find it unsettling,” Athena said once about writing sex scenes. “You see, Marquis, I'm imagining something that is arousing. It's a good situation, often one in which I would gladly be the main character, and yet I have to think what both characters are doing, how they are doing it, in which order, and type all that into coherent phrases. It's like, I don't know, juggling and having sex at the same time. You can't enjoy either, and your mind keeps moving from one to the other and is more confused than anything else.”

We had many discussions like that.

Chapter 3

After the first time we went to bed, that day Athena slapped me, we continued to email each other. I've read some of these emails again, recently; it would be impossible to find any mention to our first meeting if I didn't know its exact date. “By the way, that story we discussed today was the best ever. Are there more chapters?” I wrote, after our second time. How could I write such a terrible phrase? Be so unoriginal, so crude? Yet she didn't seem to mind. “Maybe, but they haven't been written yet.” Corny as it may be, it was true; everything was yet to be written, and all writers know that the book they want to write now is better than anything they have ever written. It's putting it down into words that ruins it.

Just like life.

We arranged to meet again—a new restaurant, some place she suggested. I never kept logs of our chats, and I don't remember it anymore. I'd never been there before, and we never went back. It was close to The Hotel, however.

“The Hotel” was where we met at first—that's how we called it, just “The Hotel.” It was an old place, decayed enough to rent rooms for a couple hours, no questions asked or even glances at us, unlike the one we spent our first afternoon together. I had seen it before, often passing in front of it. Any big city has places like that.

I met Athena at the bar of Antonio's, that second time, and we had a drink. The conversation was strange, difficult, that day. “Let's go,” I said, leaving money over the counter—like in the movies, yes; waiting for the bill would have destroyed my sudden resolution. She didn't say yes or no, just following me.

A few blocks later we were at The Hotel. I used another name—not Marquis, like before at the first hotel, and not my real name. Two minutes later we were taking each other's clothes, this time slowly and looking straight into each others' eyes. Athena's eyes were of a soft tone of hazelnut, small but intense, with short eyelashes. She squinted them when she orgasmed.

The memory of that afternoon is clear in my mind. We were in no hurry; it was not the first time, there were no more excuses. We couldn't pretend that we were just out of ourselves, doing a one-time thing that we could ignore later, hiding it together with the other skeletons we had. We knew it was not the last time, we knew that we had given out to that lust, or desire, or the search for something out of ordinary had won, that we'd be seeing each other again and again. That we shared our deepest secret with each other.

It was slow, deliberate. We made no effort to prove our skills at sex; foreplay, as I remember, consisted of hands caressing bodies and seeking private parts while we kissed. It may lasted a long time—I remember it as such. But I'm a man, she may well have thought that I was too impatient. If I learned one thing in life, it is that people are seldom thinking the same thing; even lovers or siblings.

Sometimes I think about it. On rainy Sundays, for example, locked inside, watching the water falling and transforming one less day of my life into boredom and loneliness. I sit in front of the large window, a hot cup in my hands, and I think of all the people I've been close to. I wonder if they felt like I did, and I am almost sure that they didn't. I am sure that Clara didn't like me—my first love, breaking my heart so easily. I am sure that Amanda loved me—poor girl, I must have hurt her feelings so much. Friends, lovers, family. How many times I must have hurt their feelings with what I thought were harmless phrases, simple gestures, perhaps just ignoring their dreams and desires and not doing what they wanted, not saying the words they wanted to hear from me the most. Athena, who were you? Sometimes—specially in those cold days when you lay your body over mine, your face hiding in my neck, the covers protecting us from the weather, and we stayed like that in silence for a long time—I wondered if you ever were in love with me. I wondered what would you say if I asked you to never leave, to just stay with me and never go back to your like. Once or twice I got so close to actually asking it that I opened my mouth, my tongue articulating the first word, before I decided against it, because I wasn't sure if I loved you. Then, some other days, when you were happy and playful, jumping over the bed naked to play with me, tickling my feet, laughing, all your teeth showing, I almost felt a pang and thought that I was not more than a joyful ride in your life, a way to spend empty afternoons and to get distracted from the routine that you seemed not to care much for. When, in the end... ah, I shall keep the end for the ending. Before that, there is still much to tell. Before that, there was a no.

“Can you spend a night with me?” I asked her once.

“A night?”

“Yes, a night.”

“No,” she answered. That `no' made me sad, like a little child that asks their parents if he can ride the carousel.

But so much happened before I asked her that question. I can't keep my focus. Athena told me once that I was a lousy storyteller.

“Don't take this wrong,” she said, her hands doing something to her legs, half a caress, half a scratch. I adored when she was so much oblivious to her nakedness that she behaved as if she were alone and dressed. “But I don't think you could write a long story linearly.”

“I could. I just don't like to write linearly.”

“You can't,” she grinned. “You're like an odd fiddler that can play some Paganini pieces but can't play scales. Now, don't be like that.” She pulled me to her, but I was a bit reluctant. “Look,” she said after seeing my reluctance. “I'll bet you a long, great blow job, playing with your come with my tongue and swallowing. Now, forget it and come here.”

I started writing a linear story when I arrived home that day, but it never went beyond page ten.

We got to know each other far too well.

But there's much more to that subject. After I gave up I told her so.

“My stories are linear,” I argued. “Just not in time. They are a build-up, a sequence of sometimes apparently uncorrelated facts that slowly form a picture. They have to be presented in a certain order, not to be to random or too obvious.”

“That's an excuse,” she said. “It's like an abstract painter that can't draw. He's a liar, not an artist. If you take Picasso, he could draw very well. He could have been not a cubist, but... well, he did a lot of things early in his career before verging into cubism. It makes sense. He makes a choice, not for what he is able to do, but for what he thinks is more interesting and important.”

“I know that, but it's not that straightforward. Maybe I can't write 300 pages of a linear story, but maybe I can't write a detective story either. Writers don't write everything.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“So I'll make a bet,” I said. “Write a dark, terror story. Make it at least 60 pages long.”

“No. I don't like those stories.”

The conversation didn't go much farther, both of us having proved our points. No winner was a common situation for us.

Our conversations were always the most important thing happening between us. Sometimes we didn't even get our clothes off, anxious that we were to talk about some subject that was causing long emails. We left happy and satisfied, not even noticing that we had barely touched each other. Athena could also appear with a new question, seemingly out of the blue—but I always wondered if she hadn't been pondering on it for days, throwing it to me like a ragged ball thrown to a dog.

“Who's the pervert?” Athena asked me once. “The writer or the reader?”

“Both,” I replied. “Obviously.”

“But who's the biggest?” she asked.

It was a dark afternoon. It must have been late fall, early winter, the sky heavy and grey. It was just one in the afternoon and the bedroom was eerily dark. She was sitting against the headboard, my head lying on her lap, her head so intense, foreshortened by my point of view. I remember her breasts, so free and natural, so feminine, yet not overtly sensual.

“The writer,” Athena continued, “would be the biggest, don't you think? After all, he's the creator, his mind gave birth to the tits and cocks and cunts and what they did to each other. And yet... do you remember our talks about stories writing themselves, characters that we hated and yet couldn't change because they just were like that? Am I a murderer for writing a detective novel? Did writing about the Crusades made me a Templar Knight? No, no. Then writers of sex stories don't have to be perverts. I wrote a rape scene that disgusted me so much... but then, who knows how many readers may have read it and found it arousing? They are the perverts, not me. They, jerking off while reading how that poor girl was held down and fucked by three men. They are perverts, Marquis, the big perverts. Our audience, not us. We are, at worst, like a metal company forging guns; the readers are the ones who buy them and use them for killing, for hunting, or just put it on the back of the closet because they are actually afraid of guns.”

And we were not the perverts, Athena and I, even if we met in secret, locking ourselves in an empty bedroom to have sex and talk. Does it make any sense at all? We were there, just the two of us, leaving the world to be in peace for half an afternoon. The sex was pure, inconsequential; not a statement of free love, not a escape from bad or unattractive lovers, not an outlet for our hidden desires. It was just something that felt good, what we felt to be a harmless game that was not played to win, but to pass time. A very big version of tic-tac-toe—or a small version of life. The problem wasn't our little affair, but everything else.

“We, Marquis, are pure enough to let our wishes and desires, and our fantasies and ghosts, escape to the paper; we are brave and vain and stupid enough to let them be read by others. We're dumb idiots who seek the ivory tower of a white sheet to be the idealists that we can't be in our every day life.” She paused, her gaze lost far away. A few seconds later, she turned her head towards me. “Just fuck me again, will you?” she sad, sitting over me and riding me for her life, her right hand playing strongly with her clitoris, seeking the orgasm that hid life away for that split second.

“Who did you want to fuck but never could?” she asked me one day. We were playing hand games on each other's bodies. I remember, who knows why, that I was giving a lot of attention to the skin around her pussy, but not to the actual place.


“Yes. You're not telling me you fucked all the women you ever desired.”


“Then, tell me,” she said, girlishly, her hand doing a a quick jerk to my dick.

“The first grade teacher of my school.”

She stopped, and her voice was up one octave.

“You wanted to fuck your first grade teacher?”

“No, not my first grade teacher. I was what, thirteen, fourteen. I think she must have been nineteen, twenty, she taught at the first grade. She was fuel to my dreams.”

“Did you ever talk to her?” Athena asked me.

“No,” I answered, closing my eyes and thinking about her. “I don't know if I can actually remember her face, not very well, at least. It's been ages since I last thought of her. Funny she was the first one to pop into my head when you asked me. Okay, your turn now.”

“Was she blond?”

“No, she was... Her hair was light, but not blond. Come on, your turn.”

“Did you jack off to her?”

“Yeah, I did. What do you think thirteen year old boys do?”


“Now you're behaving like a thirteen year old girl. Why, you didn't jack off?”

“No,” she said.

“No way.”

“No, I didn't. I thought it was dirty. Wrong, somehow. I only started later. You know, boys do it a lot. Girls, they do, but not so much.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don't know, they just think it's dirty, or whatever. Women don't do that as much as men, you know it.”

“Odd. Anyway, who'd you like to fuck?”

“Lord Byron.”

“What?” I asked, startled.

“Lord Byron!” she answered again.

“The poet?”


“Why him?”

“I'm not sure. His verses, his life... I think he must have been a hell of a lover.”

“So, no film stars in you dreams?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, thinking for a moment. “Why? You can see them whenever you want, you can watch them pretend to fuck on the silver screen, larger than life, perfect lighting, make-up, everything retouched by computers. They're dolls. Yes, they are dolls. Dolls, to me, aren't sexy. I've grown up.”

Sometimes I wished I could enter her mind and experience it first hand. Then I dreaded it.

She asked me about my work once.

“You don't like it.”

“Most people hate their jobs. It says a lot about our society, I guess, that we just go on doing them.”

“Why, then? It's not like you didn't have a choice. Was it?”

“Well... life happened. Plans became dreams, dreams were dismissed as impossible, and the daily mediocrity caught up with me.” It did. Life just keeps going, relentless, while we try to build our little castles of cards. “Do you know what beats you?”

“What?” She asked.

“When you see that there are people younger than you, trying to get your job, your position. You're not the plankton anymore, you're food for someone younger, faster, less tired than yourself.”

“Just like you were.”

“Yes, just like you were. Working is dying, a slow and often painful death; we spend most of our lives doing it, and... it's just worthless. Nothing matters. And everybody does it.

“I don't know why,” I continued, “but I just now remembered the other day, when I was eating at the restaurant with my friend, and I saw this woman arriving and sitting on her table, when we were half way through the meal, and I thought, `she's sad.' But you know me, Tina, I like to pretend that I read minds, that I'm a deep knower of human soul, and I thought I was just guessing, seeing what was not there. She sat right in my field of view, eating alone, and her eyes got redder and redder as time passed. If I were alone I think I'd have gone to talk to her; tell her that, if someone had made her cry, she was worth much more than that person and thus should not be sad; or, if she was sad because something bad had happened, well, life sucks sometimes, it's as difficult as hell and we have to go on, enjoying the most simple things, drawing a smile from a phrase uttered by a stranger or from the sight of a happy child playing, still ignorant of the bad things to come and the struggle of everyday. I'd have told her that, if she wanted to talk to somebody, I was there, even though I was a stranger and it is not wise to talk to strangers. And that, above all, she should not let those tears ruin her day, and should always remember that getting a simple smile from her would make the day of somebody like me.

“But my friend could not see her from where he was sitting and was oblivious to all that, and I did not stand up or talked to her, even when she stood up and, sniffing and drying her red eyes with the back of her hand, walked back to life and to whatever was hurting her. She left, I stayed. Work is in someway like that. You walk in, see someone shitty and needing your help, and you just keep eating your meal.”

“Life is like that too,” Athena concluded.

It amazes me to some degree that music has mattered so little in our relationship. As much as I can remember, there was not a single time when music was present to one of our meetings. I find that strange, now, specially because it was many times a subjects of our conversations. Athena told me she used to play the piano when she was a kid—I never played anything in my life—but we both shared similar tastes for music. Perhaps this is the reason: we didn't have to play the music we liked for each other to know it, understand it; we didn't have to point out why our favorite bands were good.

More than just the music, this happened to everything. We never turned on the television in the Hotel; we never brought magazines or books, we never even gave books to each other. We never shared anything in real life besides our bodies and a few meals which, if remarkable, were not for the food, but for the talking.

“Why do you write?” she asked me once.

“I like it.”

“No, I want the full answer.” Some days Athena was deeper. She was looking for something more than a fuck, more than just the harmless conversation that, on other days, she seemed to welcome so much, delicately changing the subject when it tended to more intellectual subjects.

“What full answer?”

“There's a reason. People don't do things for no reason.”

“Actually, my pretty, they do.”

She cocked her head, the way she did when she gave up a point that she didn't care for. “Not writing, though. People don't write for no reason.”

“It gives me pleasure. I like to create worlds, to make characters, to build situations. Who knows, maybe it's the child in me.”

“Isn't it an escape?”

“Yes, maybe, as well. But I don't use it to escape reality. Do you?”

She was pensive for a few moments.

“Yes, I do.” Her gaze, lost away, hinted the thoughts she was having, too shy to be said out loud. “Kinda hard not to, don't you think? When you are writing, being the character, thinking about that situation, how can you keep yourself away? It is a escape.”

“Is it a escape to tell a story that you lived? Or that someone else told you? The movie you watched last night?”

She considered my words.

“Is that what writing is to you? A telling?”


She grinned, her eyes still lost in the infinite.

“It must be boring to death.”

Writing was a constant topic of conversation for us. I remember another of these conversations.

“Do you occasionally have blocks?”

“Not quite,” I answered. “I sometimes don't want to write, which is different. Do you?”

“Yes. I sometimes want to write, but I end up just reading things I have wrote, reviewing them, although I hardly ever fix anything. I sometimes spend hours reading my old stories. Sometimes reading the unfinished ones, trying to understand what I was writing, remembering why I decided to write them.”

“Do you take much of what you write from your life?”

“Yeah, I always have gang bangs in my place with my husband.”

“Awesome. You should invite me, one of these days.”

“You moron,” she said.

“But I don't mean that. Not the sex. The stories.”


“Really?” I asked.

“I don't think so, do you?”

I thought for a moment.

“Yes, I think I do. Most of what I write comes, in one way or another, from my life. I read somewhere that all writers are autobiographers; it's something like that. How can you write something that has no relation with you?”

“Like mystery novels?”

“Even them. So you're not a detective or a serial killer, yet the way you perceive them is imprinted in your work. How your main character is shaped. Haven't you noticed how hard it is to make your main character flawed, and not like yourself?”

“I see what you mean”, Athena said. “Yet... I don't know. Do you write your fantasies? Or do you write things that you wouldn't ever do?”

“Both,” I replied. “or neither. I think I write the most about what interests me.”

“You know, almost all sex writers write about their fantasies.”

“I know, we're exceptions” I said. “It must be hard to jack off while typing. Don't you think?”

But Athena only smiled, and never answered me.

I've kept her emails. All of them. They're there, hidden in some magnetic way in my computer, hidden from the world. I sometimes think that I should delete them, but I can't. Would I behave the same if they were handwritten letters, stored in yellowing sheets that scream their age and the times long gone? Would I hide them in a shoe box, deep in the darkest closet of my house? Or perhaps even get a safe deposit box? I almost printed all those emails once, to store them in the vaults of a bank. Maybe the drawer above would contain a gun, the one below a diamond necklace, perhaps besides another set of letters whose owner could not bear the thought of losing them for ever.

I sometimes read them. I pick one at random. Sometimes they are so dumb, little jokes and puns, comments of comments of comments, the kind of thing that emails make so easy to write. Letters must have been so more dangerous and deep, without emoticons and quick replies; the paper waiting for days and not allowing a quick cut and paste, or erasing thoughts that easily. Thoughts coming in full, long paragraphs that had make sense together.

I don't like to read them. Yes, I feel good for a moment, I smile, I laugh, I'm surprised by things she said I had long forgotten about, I'm surprised by things I said, either for their sheer stupidity or by their sudden smartness. As I read them, however, I remember that they are skeletons, dead, lying there only because I could not find courage to press a little button. I remember all that has happened, and it makes me blue, sad, lonely.

Funny world, this one we live in these days. Our biggest decisions are whether to push a little button or not.

More often than not, we don't.

Chapter 4

Much of our interaction was in pieces, broken, shaped perhaps by emails and short messages. We could keep the same conversation over weeks, but only saying a few phrases at a time. Other times the conversation was quick, dry and just to the point yet deeper and more sincere than usual. Many of the moments I remember are like that, almost like flash stories.

I sometimes dream about her.

“I dreamed of you the other day.”

“You did?”

She was almost asleep. So was I.

“I did.”

“What was the dream about?” she mumbled.

“Not sure. We were somewhere, I don't know where. A hotel, perhaps. We wanted to be with each other but we couldn't, because there were other people. Then I took you to an empty room somehow, but when I kissed you, everything dissolved and I woke up.”

“At least you kissed me.”

Then we fell asleep.

“Do you think I'm fat?”

Women. I'd had the vain impression that Athena would be smarter than that.

“Yes. Very fat.”

“Fuck you!” She said, slapping me playfully.

“I'm sorry, should I have lied?”

Athena had a beautiful body, not anorexic like it's fashion nowadays. Sometimes she made me think of a cat; the way she moved when she was on all fours, or how she could suddenly jump around quickly. I was fond of her body, and it certainly turned me on. I liked her legs, smooth, silky to the touch, probably tended two times a day with special creams.

“Hell yeah!” she laughed.

“I learned that women don't believe when we tell them the truth. If I had answered, ‛No, I think you are fine’, you wouldn't have believed me. The secret is to answer so hyperbolically that there's no way the woman would believe. She gets pissed off at your answer, and it all goes well. You know, women are complicated, dear.”

“Oh, just fuck off, we're not like that,” she said, still smiling.

“Of course not,” I said in the most sarcastic tone I could find.

“You're worthless. Come here and pay for your words,” she said, spreading her legs.

“I like this.”

I had fallen asleep. “What?”

“The after.”


“Yes. Dozing off, feeling my legs tired, the eyelids heavy. The peace. The drunkenness of orgasm,” she quoted.

“Some people feel depressed.”


“Don't you ever?” I asked.

“Sometimes. Not when I let myself go.”

“Do you?”

“With you? I do.”

“Only with me?” I asked.

“It's none of your business.”

“No, it isn't.”

I waited, almost falling asleep again.

“Do you feel depressed?” she asked me.

“Sometimes. After one-night stands. Started when I was in college, a sophomore or so. Sex had become usual, and it was more a physical need than a pleasure.”

“Did it often?”


“Casual sex.”

“A bit.”

“How much is a bit?”

“None of your business.”

“That's a lot.”

“I hated it, fucking and leaving, fucking and telling someone to leave, fucking and waking up with a stranger that I felt no connection to but for the sexual attraction the night before.”

“But you still did it.”

“Less and less. Until I practically stopped.”

“Never had a girlfriend?”

“Of course I did. Why?”

“What was sex with her like?”

“It was better.”

I knew what she was going to ask. “What about me?”

“I feel really depressed. When I walk out through that door.”

She hugged me tighter.

“The first time we did it... I arrived home feeling guilt, sick, disgusted with myself. I hated myself,” Athena said. “I took a long bath, very long, because I could not clean myself. Then he arrived, behaving as he ever did. And through the next week, everything was the same. Nothing had changed. He arrived late as usual. He fucked me as usual, he noticed no difference. I wrote better than usual. You said that yourself, when I sent you a story, weeks later, that I had written then. You didn't know when I had written it. You said it was more powerful, stronger, filled with emotion.”

She took her breath back.

“He travels a lot. He really does, I know it, it's not an excuse. Sometimes he spends only one day away, goes out early in the morning and comes back at night, sometimes he spends a few days out. It's his job, but... You're a guy. Is he cheating on me?”

“I don't know him.”

“You know men.”

“Not all men are the same.”

“What would the average one do?”

I wanted to avoid answering that question, but she talked again while I tried to find a way out of it.

“I think he does not have another woman, but he screws around. Bars. Hookers, maybe. Expensive escorts, I mean. That's more like him. I am right, am I not?” I shrugged. Quite possible, going out when he was hundreds of miles away with whoever he was working with there, maybe a strip club, maybe a bar, maybe a fancy whorehouse, maybe an escort that he saw regularly, fucking her and later talking about his wife. Perhaps he did have a mistress, how would I know? “I don't know him.”

“You have a polite way to say yes. Funny, that,” she said, hiding her head on my neck. It took her a long while to ask her next question. “Are you married, Marquis?”

“No, I'm not.”

“I... wouldn't mind if you were. Who am I to say anything?”

“I'm really not.” I hesitated, but something made me say the whole truth. Athena made me feel comfortable, at home. “I was.”

“You were?”


“What... happened?”

“We were young and stupid.” I only realized what I had said after I said it; but Athena didn't seem to have taken the phrase personally. I thought of Emily, and I felt nothing. There was no love, no anger, no sadness anymore. “Just that. We should never had married.”

“For how long were you married?”

“Almost three years. Two years longer than we should, actually. We didn't even cheat on each other. We were too tired from fighting with each other. One day I just walked out of the apartment. I went to a hotel, sat in front of the window for most of the night, and we got a divorce.”

“Oh,” she said. “It must be awful to go through a divorce.”

“It wasn't much worse than going through our marriage,” I said, before I could think. I once loved Emily, very much. “Actually, we were so tired of arguing with each other that the divorce wasn't difficult. We both just wanted to get over it.”

I paused, suddenly feeling very tired.

“I think I'm getting old, Athena. I look back at some parts of my life and they seem so distant that they could have been just a movie I watched, or a story I invented.”

“Don't you want to marry again?” Athena asked. I remember to have been astonished.

“I think that thought had never crossed my mind,” I said, and I meant it, at least up until that very minute.

In hindsight, one of the most pleasing aspects of our relationship was the complete openness. No subject was taboo—even things that at first would have been out of question to know, names, jobs, addresses, the tags that the world uses to label people—were later no big deal; they were uninteresting or just didn't matter. What would I gain asking her real name? I already had a name for her, one that I could whisper into her ear.

“Do you like giving blow jobs?”

The question just slipped out of my mouth. I was lying over my back, my chest covered with fresh semen, some still oozing from my penis. I remember the change in her expression, from the satisfaction of a cat that just ate a mouse to bewilderment.


“Do you? I mean, I don't think women mind it doing it these days, but do you enjoy it it?”

After another moment of bewilderment, she started to laugh.

“What? What is wrong with that question?”

In my defense, the question was valid. Blow jobs, for Athena, seemed to be about the performance of pleasure; not like your cheap porn, not just looking straight into your eye with a wickedly naughty smile. No, she was the archetypal girl-next-door, grown up enough to know what sex is and how to do it, but not to be decadent and slutty. Her face was of interest and a touch of lust, of love for what she was doing, always intense but not tense. Her movements were slow and deliberate. The first time she blew me like this—her countenance being a sex act by itself, paused, not her mouth seeking flesh here and there in a fast ping-pong of built-up foreplay—, I was overwhelmed. It took my entire will not to come in less than a minute.

I used to feel strangely detached from my own body when she did it. Her mouth and touch were warm and fuzzy, delicate and slow; her fingers and the tip of her nose trailed smooth paths on my skin. When her eyes sought mine, they carried a small glint of curiosity, wondering whether she was doing all right—not what I wanted, mind you, but the feelings she wanted to imprint over me.

“You're one of a kind, Marquis,” she said. She cocked her head. “Yes. I like it. I like the feeling of a cock in my mouth, soft and warm. I never really liked the taste of semen, I think it's too strong—but I don't mind too much either, I guess I'm used to it. Sucking on it pleases me. I guess Freud could write a book or two on this, but I like it. I just don't like facials. I think this thing of coming on the face is pretty like like dogs peeing on lamp posts. Why, do you like eating pussy?”

“Yes, but... the position is awkward. You know, the nose sometimes get in the way, my tongue gets tired after a couple minutes licking fast or hard. I usually don't mind the taste. When a woman is close to getting a period, it often gets too strong.”

We spent the rest of that session discussing the fine distinctions of taste of body fluids, which is a conversation that I suppose not many people ever had. To us, it was just like talking about which kind of tea we preferred.

“I need some help today. You have to fuck me in the ass,” Athena said, bluntly, when I entered the Place.

“Do I what how?” I couldn't be more surprised.

She laughed, amused.

“I'm writing a scene with anal sex, and I want to describe it well. So you have to fuck me there.”

I must have looked dumbfounded.

“What? Isn't it every guy's fantasy?”

“I... well...”

“Come on. Have you ever done it?” She asked.

“I... Yes.” She didn't hear me. I was, somehow, embarrassed.


“Yes,” I repeated.

“Good. I brought a good lubricant.”

It was my turn to ask her.

“Have you ever been fucked there?”

“Yes,” she said. “Once.”


“Well, I hated it. It hurt like hell, he didn't have a clue. You're gentle, you'll take your time, and not try to stick your cock straight in, trying to poke my stomach on the first swing.”

I fucked her ass. It was an experiment, more than a normal fuck, and I felt I was a teenager again, virgin and hesitant, but this time calm and relaxed. I took my time. It wasn't great, but it was not unpleasant. I won't describe it here, she has already done it in her own story. “It feels... I don't know,” she said. “Not unpleasant, but not exactly sexual, somehow... We'll have to do it again.”

She didn't come, nor did I.

She didn't come every time. Sometimes she said she wasn't in the right mood, and that she wouldn't come, no matter what I tried.

“The orientals know it's not about the orgasm,” she told me. “It's getting there, it's the whole experience. You don't have to have an orgasm to enjoy it thoroughly, completely.”

We talked about that a few times. I understand sex should not be a race, but to me orgasming has always been essential. There were a couple times I didn't come with Athena, being too tired, upset or sad. But then I didn't want sex at all, and the body playing was more a distraction than a pleasure.

“I'm feeling so lazy today,” I said.

Athena smiled, leaning over her elbow, her head resting on her hand, the other hand playing on my chest. “I wouldn't have thought so.”

I grinned.

“You have such a dirty mind.”

“I have not,” she defended herself.

“You write smut.”

“It's not smut!” She almost shouted.

“Erotica, if you prefer.”

“You're so rude,” she said, slapping me playfully.

“Forgive me, milady.”

“I'll think about it.”

We stood there for some time. I watched her, her eyes moving from my chest to my eyes and back, her fingers tracing convoluted paths on my skin.

“What did you mean by lazy?”

“The work. Coming back to that. I sometimes wish time froze while we are here.”

“I know.”

“I wish I didn't have to go back. As if it matters if I am there or not.”

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

“I can go back, pretend to work the rest of the day and nobody would notice. But I have to be there.”

“Do you hate your job?”

“No, I don't hate it. I just don't like it.”

“Why don't you leave it?”

“I have to pay my bills.” I answered.

“I mean, get another job.”

“It will be the same, if not worse.”

“Some people find jobs they like.”

“You should be happy you don't work.”

“It's not like that. I wish I worked.”

“Then why don't you?”

“He says I shouldn't. I don't have to.” She was referring to her husband.

“And you just obey?”

She shrugged, looking down. That was the first time I wanted to be with her, all day long, every day.

“I'll be gone for a couple of weeks,” she said. I later realized that she probably had been meaning to tell it to me for some time.


“Do you mind?”

“Well, I can't say that I like it. Vacation?”


“Nice. Where are you going?”

Athena didn't answer for a while. I was looking at the ceiling, and couldn't see her expression. Then it dawned on me that it was the sort of question we never asked each other; I asked it automatically, not that I cared. I was about to apologize when she talked again.

“To a beach.”

“I like beaches.”

“I don't.”

“Why not?”

“My skin is too white. I get sunburned easily.”

“Oh, that sucks. Use sun block.”

“I will.”

“But I hope you'll get some tan. I'll like it.”

“I bet.”

“So we don't see each other next week or the one after it?”


“I'll miss you.”

“You have two good hands, I'm sure you can take care of it.”

“Yes, I'll write emails.”

“That's not what I meant!” She lifted her head from my chest and looked at me, amused. “You are only naughty when it suits you, right?”

“Of course. It's no fun to be naughty when others expect it.”

“Silly.” She rested her head again.

“Don't worry, I have a nice harem in my palace. Hundreds of women, all safely stored in a little box I like to call `my computer'.”

“I can imagine. So you are a porn maniac.”

“Not really. I was talking about the stories.”

She lifted her head again. “I hate when I don't know if you are lying or not.”

“I never lie.”

“Bullshit. Everybody lies.”

“I meant to you.”

She seemed to be pensive.

“You know that's not what I meant,” she said, after a while.


“Do you really never lie to me?”

“Not that I can remember.”

She again took a while to say something.

“You may be right. It's just that my life is made of lies now, so I think that they are everywhere.”

“Don't lie to me,” I asked. “Don't say anything that you don't want, but don't lie.”

“Okay,” she agreed. I thought a lot about it later, how we lie to protect ourselves, to protect the people we love, to save our asses, to pretend, and because we are just used to. And whether good lies are better than the truth. We can't be hurt by thoughts we don't have. “I don't have a reason to, anyway. Can we meet again this week?”

“Sure,” I said. “The day after tomorrow?”

She nodded, not bothering to raise her head.

“Will you fuck me like a maniac?”

“I'll do my best.”

Chapter 5

Coming back home today I saw a girl that reminded me of Juliette. Juliette was my first great love. I met her when I was a freshman in college. I think she never loved me, though we went out together for a few months. It was her hair, I think; that ponytail that Juliette used all the time. Athena showed up wearing a ponytail on occasion; I never told her how I good I think she looked with it. I was afraid she might think that I had a kink for young girls. I don't. It's the memory of Juliette, and the remains of a mostly teenage love.

Life is an accumulation of remains, until one day we finally disappear.

“I like to write after half a bottle of wine or so,” I said.

“You write drunk?”

“Half a bottle of wine hardly qualifies as drunk, unless you're thirteen, drinking for the first time on an empty stomach.”

“What about the `or so'?”

I laughed.

“What about it?”

“How much is one `or so'?”

“Less than half a bottle. Or so.” I said.

“I never thought you wrote drunk.”

“I don't. I don't get drunk.”

“If I drank a bottle of wine, it would make me sleepy,” she told me.

“It's a good state of mind for writing. It's relaxing.”

“I don't think so.”

“Have you ever tried?”


“Then try it.”

“Maybe I will. Do you that that every time you write?”

“No. Only on Sundays, usually. I like to have time.”

“Time is always precious. I wish I could pause time,” she said, dreamily.

“If I could do that, I would never unpause it again.”

“You majored in History, didn't you?”

She seemed astonished.

“How do you know?”

“I guessed. You always set you stories in the past. You research. You love doing it, and you know what you are doing. That's why I guessed. Why did you pick that nick?”

“Ah. Yeah, that's kind of obvious. About the nick, she's my favorite goddess. Why, why did you pick yours?”

“Poiuy sounds better than Asdfg.”

“What about Qwerty?”

“Nah, too beaten.”

“Why Marquis?”

“Because a marquis is not too important but not too unimportant.”

“Pathetic,” she said, her eyes far away, thinking of something else. “When I was a teenager I wanted to be an actress. Not for the glamor, but because I liked the job.”

“You wanted to be an actress?” I asked her.

She giggled. “Yes...”

“No, really!”

“Really! I was in the amateur theater group in college.”

“You're kidding me.”

“No, I'm not!” she said, slapping me playfully. “Why won't you believe me?”

“I don't know, I just never thought that you'd be an actress. You're a writer.”

“So, can't actors write?”

“Maybe, but writers can't act.”

“Why not?” She was amused by that discussion, in her best mood.

“Because. I can't act.”

“So what? Maybe other writers can.”

“Right. I don't think so.”

“Welles could.”

“Welles was a genius,” I replied.

“Oh, right, and you are not. Now I get it.” I jumped over her, and we played body games for a few minutes. Athena was ticklish.

“Stop it!” She said, still laughing. “I can't breathe!”

I relished, leaving her quiet. I watched her, for a long time, nude over the bed. I had got us a four-poster bed for the Place, and in some conversations we sat facing each other. I had a pillow against one of the posters, and she reclined against the head board. We probably would have felt less comfortable if we weren't naked—it's true. I liked to study her body.

“I was Miranda in `The Tempest',” she said, after a while, in a quiet voice.

“It suits you.”

“I was good.”

“I believe you.”

I stared at each other for a moment.

“Go. Say it,” I asked her.



She gazed away.

“I don't remember.”

“Sure you do. The most famous verses of the play are Miranda's.”

“No.” She shook her head. I touched her cheek with my hand.

“I want you to. Please.”

She hesitated some more. Maybe I did something else to convince her, something that I didn't perceive, something that I don't remember.

“O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in't!”

She blushed and diverted her eyes. A pornographer, lying naked with her lover, but saying that she had been an actress—emphasis on the “had been”—was what made her blush. Maybe our life is defined by the things we don't do, the things that we stop doing, just as an artist can draw a whole scene by drawing just the negative spaces.

It was my birthday. I gave myself a present: a whole afternoon with Athena. I told people at the office that I had an urgent call and had to visit some clients. As long as I file an expenses report and a client visit report, nobody thinks I spent the afternoon by myself.

Athena did not know it was my birthday. I don't know when it's hers. She once told me her sign, but I don't remember it anymore.

I just told her I had the afternoon off. We fucked like maniacs, and I remember I came four times. When we were about to leave, she touched my arm.

“Whatever it is, don't worry about it. It will pass.”

I looked at her, seeing the slight smile in her lips, reassuring. “Life will pass,” I thought, giving her a phony smile and a peck.

“Can you spend a night with me?” I asked.

“A night?”

“Yes, a night.”


“Why not?”

“What am I going to say to him?”

“Pick a day he's traveling.”

“He'll call home.”

“Tell him you are staying at a friend's.”

“Let's talk about something else.”

“Are you happy?” I asked her once.

“That's a fucking awful question to ask someone.”

“I know.”

“I drown myself in books. I read for six, eight hours in a row, then stop for a few minutes and start to read again. I read so much that is makes me physically nauseated. Really. I feel sick. I have to stop. But it's no use, I come back. I try to drown in all that information, all those ideas; I read three, four, five books at the same time, alternating to each other as I get tired of them. I start to read faster. If I have some `disposable' thing to read, a magazine or a newspaper, I read it from the first to the last page. My eyes run over the pages. I like reading papers, because I barely need to move my eyes from side to side. I just let them slide down the page, enjoying the short columns.”

“Don't you write?” I asked.

“Sometimes. But not much. I can't write much anymore. Actually, in a few rare occasions I write a lot. It's almost as if I'm typing something that I know by heart. I can barely stop. But usually no. I write a couple of paragraphs and leave them. I start to reread what I have written before, reviewing and looking for mistakes, for corrections.”

“You haven't sent me anything new to read for a while,” I complained.

“I'm having a mental block.” She said it so sadly that I could barely hear.


“I don't know. I always wrote compulsively. I wanted to write more than I could type, but I have not been able to write for a while now.”


“Anything. Fiction. But even emails are hard to write. It's almost as if all the things I wrote were in my mind ready to leave, but they it's empty. There is nothing new which wants to get out. I mean, writing was always my life, since my teenage days. I kept long diaries, writing pages and pages everyday, and I wrote poems and fables, girlish romantic stories, inventing stories for my younger cousins.”

“Sometimes I have that as well. Then it goes away,” I said.

“I know. But not writing is so sad for me. I feel I'm missing something in my life.”

This happened not long before the end. Her block went away, but she didn't write as prolifically as before.”

The afternoons spent with her where sometimes a fountain of peace. I may be too young to be asking for a fountain of youth, but... sometimes, when she fell asleep and I didn't, I watched her, every inch of her, and it made me feel old. I saw her skin, flawless and fair, the very light brown hair, of a shade that I could never find an expression to describe it properly—burnt golden? light chestnut?—with its well-behaved disheveled style, the shiny locks going in every possible direction but falling down together. I felt every second that ran, a second less in our lives, a second more to my age; there she was, beautiful and naked, her breathing long and deep, her face relaxed, mine for that brief afternoon, and soon all that would be gone, a sweet memory—maybe sour at the same time—and someday we would both be dead and that would all be forgotten, while new lovers met for their own brief respite.

There were other afternoons, the ones she seemed to sense my loneliness, and she laid my head on her lap, or over her breasts, and played lazily with my hair. I liked that. I had a girlfriend—she lasted less than three months, suddenly deciding that she was wasting her life being with only one guy—who did that. Emily never did it to me. But I didn't think of Emily then; she already belonged to the past, to the youth that was beginning to leaving me. Some of the afternoons, when the conversation was lively and we could not even wait for each other to finish our sentences, those days I felt I had a connection with the world; that someone could understand me, that someone could be more than a robot working for me, pretending to listen and obey, secretly desiring my position. I felt that there was something more than the politics that makes our lives—that makes my life, more and more as I grow older. The alternative—the empty eyes that I sometimes see in men that have realized that their lives will never go anywhere, and they are fated to be what they are at twenty for ever—only made me sadder. Athena made me forget all of that in those conversations we had; yet, sometimes—it could be a simple comment that she didn't get, or her opinion about something—sometime she felt so alien that it struck me, I felt a sickness taking hold of me and could almost see the abyss that seemed to separate me from the rest of the world. I know I could be harsh at those times.

Yet I knew that I'd be back to the streets, to my meaningless job, to a sleepless night in an empty bed.

She was quiet that day. When we entered the room, she went straight to bed, and sat there. I started to take my shoes off.

“Marquis... Would you mind not taking the clothes off today?” I thought it was an odd request, but I agreed.

“Sit there.”

I sat on the bed, reclining against the pillows. She started to take her clothes off, and I watched. When she was naked, she walked to me.

“Hold me.”

She sat on my lap, quietly, and rested her head on my shoulder, cuddling against me as much as she could.

“Do you mind if we stay like this, quiet?”

“No,” I almost whispered. I hugged her, and we spent all the time I had like that, barely moving except for the occasional petting on her head and smooth hair, and in absolute silence. When I had to go, she stood up.

“Thanks. I needed that.”

I never asked her what happened that day. She never talked about it. I think she didn't need to. I think it wouldn't have helped her.

“Why don't you get a girlfriend, Marquis?”

“Yes, I'll do that. Today, after work, I'll go out and get one. I saw a sale of girlfriends coming over, maybe they'll have something nice.”

“I'm serious,” Athena said, looking indeed serious.

“It's not easy to find someone,” I replied. “I always envied those people whose school sweethearts are the love of their lives. But I also wondered if they really are the love of their lives. You know?”

“It's not that impossible to find someone you love either.” Then, she asked me the question. “Have you ever loved anybody? I mean, really loved?”

“Yes,” I said, but back then she wasn't just in the list yet.

But soon after that, there was Daphne. I think I should have written about her before, but I didn't. I still dated other women, while seeing Athena. She knew that, she had no objections. Daphne was different from the rest of them; she was smart and easy to talk, her looks those of the archetypal redhead. I started to like her, and she liked me.

“I'm dating someone,” I told Athena one day. She froze. She pretended she was all right, but she hated it. She asked me questions about her, as if we were just friends and she wanted to know if Daphne would be a good girlfriend. For the four or six weeks I dated her, things were strange between Athena and I.

“I wrote Daphne an erotic story.”

“What was it about?”

“Her. It was one of her fantasies.”

“Which one?”

“It was a stroke story.”

“One of those fuck-everything-in-skirts stories?”

“No, just the guy meets girl and pseudo romantically fuck. I hated it.”

“Did she like it?”

“She loved it. I hated it even more.”

“What do you mean?”

“She told me what she thought of it. It was supposed to be a sexy game, you know, she told me what else she would have done to me if we were the characters. It did turn me on, enough, but part of me kept thinking that she would be a lousy writer.”

Athena laughed.

“I'm serious. Damn! I can't believe it,” I added.

“You're one of a kind, Marquis. Does she fuck well?”


“So stop writing to her and fuck her,” Athena said.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Should I write to you or fuck you?” I asked her.

“Both. Come here,” she said, extending her arms and spreading her legs, but in fact closing her feelings.

“What would you do if I disappeared?” She asked me that with a dreamy look, as if she had not noticed that she had spoken her thoughts aloud.

“I had a friend that disappeared once,” I said.


“He moved away, and after some time I suddenly stopped hearing from him. No news whatsoever. Never more. It's been years. Not a phone call, not a postcard, not an email. I never found out what happened to him.”

“Maybe nothing happened to him,” she said.

“I think he may have died. He had complained of a minor illness the last time I heard from him.”

“Aren't you curious?”

“I am. Will you disappear?”

“No, I won't.”

But disappearing is relative.

Chapter 6

Many times I have asked myself why things have to end. I guess it's because we change, and nothing else changes the same way each one of us do. Or perhaps it's just the way we are made, our brain getting tired of the sameness. Many things end because we let them: lunch with someone we like, because we have to work; a week-end away, in a small and cozy place, for the same reason. We leave people we love and we're not exactly sure why. We refuse eating a second ice-cream cone for fear of getting fat—often, even the first cone—, and we spend our money in needs which we only think we have, instead of spending in things which actually give us pleasure. We just don't let things be.

“To everything there is an end.”

My grandmother often said that. I can hear her voice, as if she were here, as I write these words. “No, there's no end to numbers,” I argued with her when I first learned that numbers are infinite.

“Yes, there is. Because you can't live forever to count them all.”

“Would you want to live forever?” Athena asked me once.

“Only in a world without assholes,” I answered.

“Only pussies?”

I laughed.

“Yes, and writers and words.”

“As if you were any better than them, Marquis.”

Yes, as if I, or her, or anyone walking down the street were any better.

As I said, we talked much about writing, and it wasn't only once that we discussed endings. “I hate stories which are left open. Kill the main character! It's better than not having him say yes or no.”

One of the last conversations I had with her was about writing.

“I think I'll stop writing, Athena.”

She turned to me, surprised. “But why?”

“I don't like the things I've been writing, lately.”

“Trust me, they are good. I wouldn't lie.”

I grinned very lightly.

“I haven't sent them to you. But it's not whether they're good or bad.”

“Then, why?” I like Athena's voice. It's soft, feminine, it caresses you like a soft hand.

“They are too sad. Too real.”

“Like in... bondage?”

I couldn't help but laugh. She was puzzled.

“No. Like in life. Memories. The present, the future. Even fictional stories. They are killing me. I'm spending nights up, writing things so sad that I sometimes cry, and then I look out and it's morning, the sun is rising, and I have to go to work. I work like a zombie. I fall asleep in my office, and only notice because the phone rings, someone enters, the computer makes a noise every now and them because I set it to. But I'm writing. All this time, when I'm talking to people, when I'm at one of those endless boring meetings that seem to be all I do, when I'm riding the elevator up and down, when I commute to work and back home, I'm writing, storing everything on my head to type it down later. I'm either asleep or writing. The only peace I have is when I'm with you, when the sex makes me forget the world, when I see you on top of me with that delightful smile you have, your breasts rocking up and down, hypnotically, your hands against my chest, your pretty hair, the noises you make, those lovely moans and the heaving, and the flesh to flesh sounds, this is what frees me for a few minutes and gives me strength to keep going. But after I leave that door, dead tired from the sex, the insomnia and the job I hate, it's like I'm Atlas again, and I'm writing in my mind, more stories, my biography, past and future, and so much... I feel I'm spinning faster and faster, and that at some point I'll snap.”

I paused, thinking for a long moment before continuing

“And the more I write, the less I seem to find anything in it. The readers become rare and gone, my stories get more and more different, standing from the crowd just for being unlike the others. Maybe there's a reader enjoying them, and I always think of this guy. I picture him, reading alone in a dark Saturday afternoon, enjoying the quietness of his home. But what's the point? The sequence of stories? I can invent hundreds of them, different plots, different characters, but they all seem the same to me. Rip the pages of a book and throw them into the air, they'll fall onto the floor, all unique, but all just the same for anyone looking at the scene.

“I'm making both life and writing one and the same, and they're both going in the wrong direction.”

That day Athena tried to console me, but I don't remember what she said. I wasn't listening. I left the Place and didn't go back to work.

I started this story talking about photography. Pictures save forever that unique moment which will never come back. We hold them in our hands and see people who are gone, still young and ignorant of the things to come. All the possibilities still open, and yet not knowing the tragedies that would befall upon them days later, months later.

Despite what Athena said about my non-linear writing, there is a system to it. I join the pieces not ordered by color, but trying to form a mosaic that is only seen as you move away.

It was a cloudy day, and we were at the Place, looking through the window. It wasn't much after I told her I wasn't going to write anymore, perhaps a couple weeks, or less. Athena was behind me, still in bed.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Outside,” I answered. “It's a sad place to live.”

“Life can't be like this.”

“What we have? Good?”

“No, I didn't mean that,” she said, coming to the window. “Just... we have things to do. This is... a fantasy.”

“A fantasy,” I repeated.

“Yes. You ask too many questions,” she said. “You are always looking for a meaning, for a solution.”

“And nobody else is.”

“I guess not.”

“We're both wrong,” I said.

“There's no right and wrong in this.”

“You know those insipid stroke stories?” I asked, and she nodded. “That's asking no questions. This, what we have here, this is asking questions.”

“I'm not Athena. You're not the Marquis de Poiuy. We don't even know who we are.”

“You're wrong. This is who we really are.”

“I think I have made you too romantic.”

She kissed me, and walked back to bed.

“No. This is how it should be.” I turned myself, to face her. “This is. Athena, stay with me. Let's live, together, being happy. We're unhappy, all the time, except when we are together.”

“You can't be serious. What we have doesn't exist.”

“It does.”

“No, it is a fiction. We wouldn't be like this if we were together all the time. Then there would be bills, and obligations, and problems, and all those things.”

“We can make ourselves a new life. Come with me.”

“No. I can't leave my life like that.”

“You can. You want to, or you wouldn't be thinking about it. We can trace a new life for ourselves. We can move away.”

“Don't be romantic. I'm twenty-three and I don't buy that. You can't be serious and think that it's possible to find this idyllic life you say.”

I don't want to repeat the entire argument, it's just too painful. I told her I loved her, she said I didn't, I just wanted to. We argued, shouted, cried. You can fill the blanks.

“I'll do it, anyway,” I said, as she readied herself to leave. “I'll quit my job. I'll go away, move to quiet place, away from this mad jungle of concrete. I'll go and I wish you came with me.”

Those were harsh days. I didn't want to bring the subject in an email, and I couldn't find her otherwise. I waited the next days, making plans, finding where to move. When I entered the Place, it was empty. I waited, but she never came.

I wrote her. She didn't answer.

I went back again, in our usual days. She didn't come in neither of our next two appointments. On the third, I waited thinking she would never come again and just when I was about to leave, she arrived.

“You came.”

“I can't go, Marquis. I just can't.”


“I can't leave everything.”

“Leave what? A husband who is absent most of the time? A marriage that doesn't exist?”

“I... can't face the unknown...”

Funny. We prefer to travel the same old hard and broken road than to wander around trying to find a shorter and nicer one.

My dear readers, you may have noticed that this story is coming to its end. It's not nice of me, stylistically, to state that, I know. But there's a difference between life and writing a story: a good story writes itself, while life needs constant pushes and nudges.

We are all suckers for a happy ending. I don't deny it, I don't fight it; I myself feel deceived when I read a novel and good guy and good girl don't get together at the end, even more if it's a movie. We all root for them. Dramas are all right and Russian plays have their place, but a happy ending is what puts a smile on the readers' face. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but by now you must know that this story won't have one.

Yet, to the minimum pleasure of your readers who followed this story up to this point, Athena doesn't die, I don't die, and there's no deus ex machina to join us, mercifully, because that's even worse than a sad ending. But things are as they are; without further ado, and as bluntly as I can put it: Athena didn't come with me.

She didn't leave her comfortable, though empty and unhappy life to live with me, nor followed me like Mrs. Robinson's daughter (who'd remember her name) to the uncomfortable silence of “what now.” She said no, repeating it in a confusing two-page long email, which doesn't make much sense, but I can summarize and interpret it as “sorry, won't change my life for you, but I did really like our time together, only it can't go on like it was anymore.” I won't delve into it anymore, for there's not much else to say. It was a blow, but I didn't really expect her to come. People hardly ever do that in real life, much less when they have a brain and are more than twenty years old.

Then, some weeks later, I fell ill. They couldn't find anything wrong with me (“stress,” that's what the doctors said in a few hundred more words and dollars), except some “minor anomalies”, but I felt awful and thought I was going to die. It was not depression. It was physical; pain on my limbs, my heart feeling tired, out of breath, constant weariness, headaches. I was given two weeks off work, and now here I am.

I'm really thinking about changing my life. It's not easy to change your life, it's like parachuting. You have to jump, close your eyes and leave the safe plane behind, and sometimes your parachute may not be the first-class-will-never-fail equipment you'd like to have strapped to your back. There's also the constant problem of money, and so on. I'm looking for alternatives.

They offered me a better position at the office. Good conditions, except for quality of life, of course. I thought of taking it when I was offered, just before I left for these vacations (if I can call them that). I won't write anymore, anyway, and I won't have Athena. Who really wants a life? Nobody, or we just wouldn't wear ties.

But I used these days off work to come to the countryside. I think I could open a small shop in this touristic town, selling useless stuff for five or six times its actual value. I'm looking for a place to rent tomorrow. I liked to work on clay when I was a kid, making small people and animals and cities. Perhaps I could do that again.

You know, the details.

Copyright Antheros (c) 2008. All rights to this story are reserved.