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SEX FOR POETS
EXCERPT

The cool breeze is a welcome pardon from the oppressive warmth of New Wonder Manor. Old people are always so chilly, clutching blankets like precious jewels. But not Arden. He’s never had so much as a goosebump, and he believes this—just like his original pearly whites—is a sign of his impregnable virility. 

       He leads Clara to an empty bench beside a fountain. The overspray speckles the courtyard bricks. An inverted Milky Way at their feet.

       “Tell me everything,” he begins, pulling her closer on the bench. “How’s the Collective?”

       “I’d rather talk about you,” she says. “Not harassing any more nurses, I hope.”

       “They can’t stay away from me! You’d think they were all lovesick teenagers, the way they swoon.”

       Clara rolls her eyes.

       “No one could blame them, really,” he continues, spreading his arms and flexing his muscles in a pseudo stretch behind his head. “The men in our family have always been tough, red-blooded men. We’re so potent that testosterone leaks from our pores during a good sweat.”

       “Is that what I’m smelling?”

       Arden returns his fists to his lap and sniffs his armpit. He shrugs. “It’s quite impossible to resist.” He leans closer to his granddaughter. “Even in this new world...”

      The fountain, courtyard, and fellow residents mulling about in the distance, clutching walkers or nurses, begin to blur as Arden’s eyes lose focus. It’s better like this. Less pain. Peaceful and veiled, like the creamy background of one of Clara’s photographs.

       “Things weren’t always this way,” he says. “People kissed in the streets. Women wore—“

       “I know. Women wore bathing suits that showed their breasts, children gathered around the TV to watch actors have sex, there were nasty magazines on every shelf, and everyone was contaminated with all sorts of diseases. It sounds delightful. I’m so sorry I missed it.”

       “It was delightful.”

       “It was anarchy.”

       “We weren’t indecent, Clara.”

       “I love you, grandpa, but your generation behaved like animals.”

       When Arden trains his eyes on the fountain, the bubbling water, courtyard, and weary residents clutching nurses, rush once again into sharp focus.

       “What's that?” Clara asks, pointing to a smudge of ink on his hand.

       Arden quickly covers the mark. “It’s nothing,” he says. “Silly, really.”

       Clara grasps his palm, turning his knuckles to the light so she can see it better. Arden pulls his fist back into lap.

       “A young woman drew that on my hand yesterday. She and her sister were visiting their mother in the Ladies Hall, and were nice enough to stay and talk to us dirty ol' men, too.”

       “They drew on you?” Clara asks. “What’s it supposed to be?”

       “It’s a symbol. Something they’ve been working on. Very smart, those two. Lots of progressive ideas.”

       “What kind of progressive ideas?”

       He can't tell her. She's not ready.

       Arden shrugs, covering the mark with his other hand. “You got a fella yet?”

       If age teaches you anything, it’s how to push a good, old fashioned button.

       Clara throws her head back with measured dramatic flair, exploiting her mastery of the craft. “That’s not my path.”

       “What do they call it? Everlasting Hymen?”

       “Eternal Chastity.

       “That’s right. I ask every time, don’t I? Eternal Chastity. I’ll remember next time.”

       He won’t.

       Arden leans closer. “When I married your grandmother, I banged her in the restroom at the reception.”

       “Oh my God.”

       “Bent her over. Right there against the sink. Still in her wedding dress. Lace soaked with running water. Streaks of hand soap down her bodice.”

       Clara looks around as though he may have been overheard. What does he care? Let ‘em listen.

       “You have a mental illness,” she says.

       “I’m not the one in therapy.”

       Clara cringes, but her tone is pleasant when she says, “Such a despicable way to behave on your wedding day.”

       Arden smiles like a dopey old stallion, bridled and saddled and grinning into the sun. “It was the most romantic moment of my life.”

Arden waits until he hears the night nurse snoring at the front counter before creeping from his bed. He faces the door and walks backward, keeping an eye on the light from beneath the door. 

       Once at his desk, Arden rummages through his papers. He was never a writer in his youth, but he thought that taking up bad poetry as an old man had a certain elegance to it. And Arden is nothing if not elegant. 

       He sits by the dark window and draws closed the curtains. They billow with the cool, dewey moisture of a Louisiana January.

       He quietly spreads out his blank papers and works-in progress, undoing the damage his meticulous nurse created earlier in the day. Arden prefers it messy. He needs it messy.

       Messy keeps things hidden.

       Arden reaches for a box of last year’s poetry, edging the lid up and placing it soundlessly atop a pile. The room fills with the fragrance of graphite and cotton pulp. He slides his finger along the bottom pages, seeking that familiar squared edge.

       He then walks the Polaroid photo to the side of the box with his fingertip and uses a nail to lift the corner, holding his breath until he grips the photo firmly, finally—finally—liberating it from its hiding place.

       The colors have faded over time. The blanket wasn’t yellow, as it shows now, but a rich chocolate brown. Charlotte’s hair wasn’t pale green, but a deep honey blonde. And her areolae were not a blanched hue of pink. They were the color of nutmeg. Where they met the nipple, they faded to almond, but where they met the skin of her breast, the nutmeg morphed into a ring of warm mahogany. 

       The photo was taken just before they were married. Charlotte lies on a crocheted blanket strewn across a motel bed somewhere outside Tucson. Their first trip. Her hair was wild and knotted back then, but she didn’t care. That was before Polaroid cameras were removed from production under the guise of moral integrity. Before any of the Purity Standards for a New America—or their stifling amendments—were enacted, and the night that Arden took this photo, he couldn’t have known what was coming. No one could. But if he had, Arden would’ve taken a hundred more.

       Charlotte is laughing in the photo, covering her mouth with one hand and reaching out to block the camera with the other. She was embarrassed, crippled by a dash of self-doubt in an otherwise perfect moment. But the moment was still perfect. It will always be perfect. And recorded forever in the most perfect photograph Arden has ever seen. 

       He traces the disc of her nipple, where the areola meets the flesh, and remembers that ring of little raised bumps. The small delineations in her otherwise smooth skin. He’d give anything to feel those little bumps again. Brush his lips across them. 

       To be allowed to do so would be an act of mercy. A pardon for the immorality of his cursed generation. The most gracious of blessings for a smitten young man who tried his very best to never grow old.