Antonia Hildebrand – STRAIGHT

Antonia Hildebrand’s first published short story appeared in Downs Images and in ‘Woman’s Day’ Summer Reading’ and she has since been widely published in journals, magazines and anthologies in Australia as well as Britain and the USA and Ireland. She has reviewed books for the Toowoomba Chronicle newspaper. She has contributed to Radio National’s Bush Telegraph program. Many of her short stories have been broadcast by Queensland Storyteller on Radio 4RPH and by Radio 91.3FM Yeppoon. She is the author of eight books, ranging from biography, autobiography, essays, poetry, and short fiction through to novels. Her novel, ‘The Darkened Room’ was published by Ginninderra Press in 2022.


STRAIGHT

By Antonia Hildebrand


 ‘It’s not just the penis,’ I told him irritably. ‘It’s the whole experience of being with a man.’    ‘Meaning what?’ he said, sceptically.    ‘Their sweet, useless little nipples, their cute little arses, their beautiful legs, body hair, biceps, pecs, muscles overall, their beautiful hands, their voices, the way they smell, the way you smell when they’ve finished with you. I even like the feeling of semen running down my legs. I wouldn’t get this with a woman so I’m not interested. I’m hopelessly straight but I can change if you want me to,’ I added as a parting shot. Paul looked absolutely scandalized. I laughed at him and turned on the coffee machine. His jealousy wasn’t cute or funny it was just tiresome. Was any woman I was friends with now going to be seen as a threat? In spite of me explaining to him why I preferred having sex with men rather than women and swearing that I was straight? 

 He grew ever more infuriating. When I was in the kitchen I would hear him coming up the stairs from the rumpus room where he read the newspaper and watched cable. The stairs creaked so I always knew when he was coming. Sometimes hope revived briefly and I would expect him to do something interesting but when he got to the kitchen did he tell me a funny story, praise my beauty or stick his finger up my pussy and make me purr? No. None of the above. He would just look at me with his stupid suspicious face, as if he expected me to be writhing on the kitchen floor with some woman. I was often rendered speechless by the sight of his paranoid face and he was not prepared to say anything much, for fear of copping another blast of logic from me. So we would stare at each other silently: he with suspicion and me with contempt. A horrible way to live but neither of us could afford the rent we were paying for the townhouse we shared, on our own.

 It had all started to go bad at his fortieth birthday party when he found me in the kitchen in the arms of the blonde and beauteous Katie who was (I had no idea) a lesbian. For some reason she decided I was too, and launched herself at me. I was too shocked to stop her and stood there like a dolt being energetically kissed. Paul dropped the glass bowl he was carrying to the kitchen on the tiles where it smashed into a million scintillating shards of crystal.    ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he asked, very softly. He was white as a ghost. Katie stopped kissing me, blushing fiercely, and left the kitchen. This left me to try to explain things to Paul whose face had gone from white to red with anger. Downhill all the way from there, except in bed. The belief that I was a lesbian stimulated him to new heights while producing fierce resentment and disgust at the same time. It was both exhilarating and confusing for me and the stress was wearing me down. I even began to doubt my sexuality, something I had never experienced in my life before.  I began to think that I was in fact a lesbian. Paul was convinced that I was and it seemed Katie was too. The thought came to me (I dismissed it at first) that the only way I could know for sure was to go to bed with Katie. How else could I know the truth? When Paul had finally gone to sleep after treating me to angry sex, no doubt while visualizing me in bed with Katie, I would rant to myself that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to punish me for being (as he thought) a lesbian but he also wanted to use the idea of it to become sexually aroused and to increase his own sexual pleasure. On the outside I was calm but inside I boiled with rage. I felt as if he was treating me like a sex toy and longed to ask him to move out but I couldn’t pay the rent on my own and I was in a ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ frame of mind. I could recall in grim detail every horrible flatmate I had ever had and he was far from being the worst of them.

 To make matters worse, Katie had begun stalking me – texting, phoning, messaging me on facebook. I ignored her lovestruck messages which were trying so hard not to be lovestruck. She was now in a state I recognized all too well. I had often been in that state myself. I had even been in that state about Paul in the beginning. I would go weak in the knees remembering the smell of his aftershave. My pussy ached whenever I thought of his hairy chest and his gorgeous tanned hands. Thinking about his taut little arse almost brought on the vapours. I knew exactly what Katie was going through and I pitied her. It’s a delusional state produced by a chemical called PEA, which dissipates or begins to, around the two year mark in a relationship. Paul and I had been together almost two years exactly. It was an explanation, but there was more to it than that.

 By mistake I answered a call from Katie – pressed the wrong button, dithering around. When my mobile rings I panic and flounder around like a fool. I can never remember what I’m supposed to touch to answer calls and consequently answer calls I don’t want to take and miss calls I do want to take.  And just when I get used to it my phone becomes out of date and I have to get a new one and start all over again. Katie’s voice was high and nervous.    ‘Aileen, I need to see you. I need to see you as soon as possible. We have to talk.’ I was feeling annoyed with Paul and took it out on her.    ‘I’m pretty sure talking’s not what you have in mind,’ I said, with a carefree laugh. There was painful silence from her end.    ‘No, really,’ she said at last, ‘I have to talk to you.’    ‘Just as long as you remember it’s hard to talk with someone’s tongue down your throat.’ I actually giggled, then realized that she would interpret this as flirtation.  There was a confused sound from her and then the sound of paper rustling.   

   ‘I’m at work,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to go. I need to see you but I’ll understand if you don’t want to.’ She hung up. I only then noticed that Paul was watching me with the suspicious look that had become his normal way of looking at me.  

  ‘Who was that?’ he murmured pretending to be reading the paper.  

 ‘It was Katie,’ I said.

He stopped pretending to read the paper and stared at me. He stared at me for some time but I gave him no further information and left for work. Let him stew. I had no idea what I was going to do. Meeting Katie would facilitate my plan to go to bed with her to find out if I was gay or not but that was a drastic step and did I even want to know? Not knowing had served me well so far, why rock the boat? In a way Paul was encouraging me to find out because his hostile, suspicious face was driving me mad and I longed to tell him something that would be a victory for me.  Either that I was gay (victory for me in that I had been to bed with a woman and proved I was gay and didn’t need Paul) or I wasn’t gay (victory for me in that Paul was wrong and had been behaving like a fool). Once victory becomes more important than common sense you have definitely lost your way.

 Katie soon phoned again and this time I agreed to meet her. After I got off the phone I felt sick when I thought of the implications, but I needed a circuit breaker: something had to change. Leaving would have been the simplest option but it would also have been cowardly. I told myself it was time for me to stop being cowardly. When I sat down at the kitchen table, I noticed my hands were trembling but I was resolved to prove to Paul that I was, or was not, gay. Increasingly I didn’t care what the outcome was, only that there was an outcome. Action versus stasis. If I had to go on living with his crazy suspicions I thought I would start speaking in tongues. A Freudian slip, of course, to be thinking that. When I met her in a coffee shop Katie was obviously excited but very smooth.    ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I hope I didn’t cause any trouble.’ I wanted things to stay pleasant so I told her things were fine. A complete lie. Things had never been worse between Paul and I and it was because of her mad kiss. I didn’t tell her I now wanted to know, myself, if I was gay or not or that I considered her the ideal candidate to help me find out.  She looked lovely. Her porcelain skin was slightly flushed and her blonde hair washed and shining. She was wearing a black dress with a white band at the neck and the hem. She could have stepped off the cover of a magazine and her poppy red lipstick meant that her mouth was the focal point of my gaze. I found myself staring at her breasts, the tops of which rose slightly above the white band at the neck of her dress; two round, milky white mounds. Were her nipples pink or coral/brown like mine? I knew she had no children; pregnancy darkens the nipples, so they were probably pink. We made small talk and I had no idea how to broach the idea of going to bed. When you were both women who made the first move? We ordered food and she ordered a Bellini so I did too. My fish and her fettucine arrived and she ordered a bottle of champagne. Not cheap but not outrageously expensive either. She wasn’t one to lose her head, so the kiss had been a calculated ploy. To find out what her chances were with me.

 We talked over lunch for an hour or so but didn’t discuss the kiss or what it might mean and then she made her way back to her office, tipsy and looking very pretty. We had arranged to meet again but this time in a bar where there were rooms to be had upstairs. When we parted at the door of the restaurant she had put her arms around me in a hug and given me a chaste peck on the cheek.    ‘See you next week,’ she trilled, as if a sizzling undercurrent of sex and sexuality wasn’t burning away underneath our politeness and our buddy-buddy hug. Now I had to go home and face Paul and his suspicions. Suspicions I was beginning to share. To say I would have rathered stick pins in my eyes than face his hostility would have been an understatement. When I got home he was downstairs in his lair. I could hear a movie playing, probably on Netflix, and the sound of a newspaper being flicked and flipped until he reached the page he wanted. I knew I would be eating alone again. I could smell the lingering odour of a frozen meal he had heated in the microwave. I hesitated at the top of the stairs. Should I go down? Should I try to make peace? I did and we ended up in bed. But of course bed was now a battleground and even though I had an orgasm it was only a temporary truce in an ongoing war. But we were speaking again. In monosyllables; but we were speaking.

 In an attempt to prepare myself I started watching lesbian movies but they were mostly dismal and didn’t really teach me anything I didn’t already know.  I decided Katie would have to be the teacher if we ever found ourselves in bed together. Her fatal allure for me was that she lusted after me in a way that Paul no longer did and I wanted to feel wanted.  Paul was still happy enough to have sex with me if the opportunity presented itself but it was formulaic and mostly passionless. I expected sex with Katie to be a very different experience. I was only able to watch the lesbian movies when Paul was out and nearly got caught a couple of times when he came back early from somewhere. None of which helped my situation with him. He started eating dinner with me again at night but it was still monosyllables across the table. I started going over past events in my mind that might prove I was gay – or not. There was that Danish girl, a sales assistant in a shoe store in Hamburg, who ran her hands up and down my thighs while helping me to try on a pair of boots. Did she know I was gay? Did she have gaydar? I remembered other incidents like this and some days I bordered on panic. How would I tell my family and friends that I was gay? Surely it would change my life in all kinds of ways if I was. I wasn’t all that sure I could handle it, if I was. But then I told myself to calm down. I didn’t know I was gay. The trouble was I was becoming more and more convinced that there was only one way to find out.

 Then one night I went to a party without Paul and there were a lot of youngish men there. One in particular caught my eye. The standard dark and handsome that I preferred. The attraction was instant and reciprocated. He had greenish eyes,  and had just returned from a holiday on a Greek island. He told me the name of it but my brain had stopped processing such trivia. Other trivia it would accept: how perfectly proportioned he was, for example, how everything was exactly the way it should be. His lips were full and he had lashes so thick and black they looked fake.  He was wearing white shorts and a black polo shirt. Around his neck a silver disc hung on a silver chain. He wore an expensive watch on one wrist and a thick, silver chain bracelet on the other. He was barefoot and tanned (I was sure) from head to foot. He offered to go and find me another glass of white wine.. His name was Craig. I told him mine and when he returned with two glasses of wine we found a private spot in a pergola near the barbeque area where we talked for a couple of hours about everything – but not whether I was gay or not. I had only gone to this party because the hostess had phoned me repeatedly and begged me to be there.    

‘Too many men and not enough women,’ she told me, while a blender frantically blended in the background.  ‘I’m making guacamole dip,’ she said over the grinding, crunching shriek of the blender. I made a last minute decision to go, washed my hair, wore a glittery top and slinky black skirt and treated my lips to fuchsia lipstick I had bought the day before. Diamond studs in my ears, a black choker around my neck and strappy black shoes on my feet and I was out the door.  Paul didn’t even bother responding when I shouted down the stairs.     ‘I’m going to a party at Stella’s.’    Silence. I roared off in the car in a bit of a rage. But now I was sitting in a pergola with a lovely man, sipping white wine and in no kind of rage at all.

 By midnight I was in his bed and any idea that I was gay was put to scorn. If not to the sword. I behaved disgracefully and so did he. I pictured Paul at home, downstairs, asleep in the big red armchair he favoured for reading the newspaper while a movie ran unwatched and had to stop myself laughing. Paul was a man who could drive a woman to other women in desperation, I was sure of that, but that didn’t mean I was a lesbian. Or even that I had some kind of sexuality crisis. In all likelihood, he did. Craig was the Anti-Paul: he was gentle, skilled and worked hard to please me –and he did. Lying there the next morning, a study in tanned skin and tangled white sheets, he was everything I thought I wanted. But now I was so cynical I thought he was too good to be true. I thought he had to have some flaw. A wife. A girlfriend. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Alcoholism. The list I went through in my mind seemed endless. My clothes, my jewellery, my handbag and my shoes lay in a heap on the floor. Discarded in a frenzy in my eagerness to get into bed and it all seemed like the beginning of something. But what? And would it be good or bad?    ‘I’ll make breakfast,’ Craig said, confirming that he was too good to be true. I decided I would do nothing. I wouldn’t phone or text Paul, I would just let things unfold.

 When I went home three days later Paul was frosty but seemed unfazed.  

 ‘You stayed at Stella’s,’ he said. It wasn’t a question. He simply assumed that I was ‘safe’, that no other man would want me, since he didn’t.  

 ‘No, actually. I met someone at the party and went home with him. I slept with him and I’ve been with him for three days at his place and now he’s asked me to move in with him.’  

 Paul’s face went a dirty grey colour. “You aren’t serious?’ he said, after a while.  

 ‘Yes, I am. That’s what happened. So I’ll be moving out, which means you’ll need to find another flatmate if you want to keep renting this place.’   

Only silence from him. ‘And I know for sure now that I’m not gay,’ I added as he turned to walk away. He didn’t stop and he didn’t turn around. I watched him walk away and was sad: for him, for us, for what might have been.

 My mobile rang. It was Katie and for once I was able to answer it without any fuss.    ‘We still on for next week?’ she said with girlish excitement.    ‘No, Katie. I’m sorry. I’ve met someone else and I’m moving out of the townhouse. His name’s Craig. I met him at a party at Stella’s. Everything’s kind of up in the air.’ There was silence and then a strange noise. It took me a while to realize she was crying. I cast around desperately. What could I say? Nothing I said would comfort her. I realized for the first time how much she had invested in me and the hope of a relationship. PEA was the same in same sex relationships, so she was in its grip as I had been before, was now and would be again. It was another cruel trick of Mother Nature – she had so many to play on us and most people didn’t even know she was fooling them. It was no comfort to know I knew about her tricks. It didn’t save me from suffering any more than it would save Katie.   

 ‘Katie, I’m not a lesbian. We could never have been together,’ I told her, kindly.   

She stopped crying and shouted, ‘Screw you, you deceitful bitch,’ down the phone.

Then she hung up. I smiled. She would be all right. Then I got down my rather battered brown suitcase that had been all over the world with me and began packing. I felt foolishly, uselessly guilty over Katie and Paul.  Tomorrow would be different. Better? Worse? Who could say? But it would be different, that much was certain.

 

 

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