Whenever he'd touch me I would think, these are Charlene's hands, this is Charlene's mouth. Later, when I'd learned to touch myself, I'd think, these are Charlene's hands, this is Charlene's mouth...

She was always the quiet one. The first day of college orientation we were put into a group together - seven young women. I was the youngest at sixteen, Charlene just a little older. I warmed to her at once, sensing her intelligence before ever speaking to her. Green eyes beneath a Louise Brooks bob, long arms and legs like mine. Tall. Almost schoolmarmish, if you weren't paying attention. Charlie counted on your inattention - she could see you better when you were looking away.

The other Girls were on the fast track for an Mrs. degree. They giggled and flirted with one another in that easy way Southern women have, that inborn ability to simultaneously ingratiate themselves to and size up the competition. I felt myself being dismissed, and I didn't care. I was smitten immediately. Charlie was different, and I pursued her like a fix.

(They are always "Girls' Schools", never "women's colleges". We were all Girls, whether we were sixteen or 23. And the truth is this: most of us stayed Girls, because most of us were not allowed to be anything else. The rules were simple. You were supposed to be ponytailed, happy, and smart-but-not-too. Smart was supposed to scare away the Boys. The Boys were the Reason We Are Here. Worse yet, smart would upset the other Girls. Competition was ok when it came to dating; it was anathema in the classroom. The classroom is where the Girls were all equal.)

Charlie dared to be smart. She had x-ray vision when it came to bullshit. Raised in the slums of Southern Florida, she was a woman (was she ever a Girl? I don't think so.) who should have been born to academics on Manhattan's Upper East Side. My mother, who loved her on sight, privately called her "a rose in an onion patch." Knowing my mother's own dark wit, I wonder whether she meant Charlie's family or the school we attended. The observation worked either way.

We were friendly enemies before we were anything else, Charlie and I. We battled it out in classrooms, in late-night debates over cheap wine and too many cigarettes. We lovingly lacerated one another.

Once upon a perfect springtime we met a man and ate him whole.

He thought he was dangerous enough for both of us. He approached us in the park as we lazed half-asleep on our blanket, our limbs a downy tangle. He was older - must have been, what, 26? 27? - and we both saw the panther behind his smile. We smiled back. "Are you together?" he purred. "Are you alone?" Charlie asked, and I could hear something languid and predatory in her voice.

We took him home, this poet, this young Brando. He smelled like sex in dark places. He excited us beyond measure, and we shared him like a needle. One night in Charlie's room, the next in mine, until finally he smelled like both of us, reeked of our combined sweat and hunger. For the rest of the term - almost two months - we sleepwalked through classes, barely eating, living for this new high. He would come to me Charlie-scented, and no man I'd ever fucked tasted as sweet. Even freshly showered he tasted of Charlie. He'd never stay a full night with either of us - he had his own place - and just before the sun rose he would escape. The nights I had him were feverdreams of lust. I cursed every dawn. I'm certain he believed that I was begging him to stay. That he was the drug that made my skin flush, made my eyes dilate, kept me coming back for another hit. After all, it was his arrogance that made him so appealing to us both. His arrogance and his words.

Whenever he'd touch me I would think, these are Charlene's hands, this is Charlene's mouth. Later, when I'd learned to touch myself, I'd think, these are Charlene's hands, this is Charlene's mouth... What began as an incantation became a prayer.

He was a gifted wordsmith. Every morning before he left he'd hide a poem somewhere - behind a mirror, under a pillow, tucked inside a shoe. I stumbled on scrawled lustletters for weeks after he left us. I think she did too; I can't be sure, because we never really talked about it. We never needed to. He was just there, like air, as inevitable as the nights he inhabited. Aside from that first afternoon, we never saw him in the daylight again. Aside from that first afternoon, we never again saw him while we were together. He learned fast, though, and began to use his words to work a darker kind of magic. Charlie and I didn't talk about him, because he did it for us.

She likes it when I do this, he would say, and he would put his mouth there. Or, Her fingers are long, like yours. Or, cruelly, When I next touch her, what do you want me to say? What do you want me to do to her? Should I tell her what you do to me? How you do exactly what I say, exactly what I want? And later, almost conversationally, while I gasped for breath, This is going to get her so hot, so wet... When he was more sure of his power, and not unkindly: Does she know what a slut you are? What a dirty girl?

I was literally faint with desire, drunk on it, twenty-four hours of every day. It's no way to live, and my grades suffered terribly.

I wouldn't trade a single wet second of it, not for all the 4.0 gradepoint averages in the world.

He disappeared right before exams began, and we managed to shake ourselves awake enough to finish out the year with respectable marks. Charlie's still my best friend. How could she not be?

Last autumn, and a perfect autumn it was, I travelled North to visit her. She's a teacher now, a great teacher, and her students see things in her that I saw when I was their age. One night we lit candles in her garden and put back a few bottles of wine, good wine. The kind that makes you warm in all the right places, fuzzy in all the right ways. She was still beautiful in the gathering twilight, and suddenly my husband seemed very far away, our mutual lover from half a lifetime ago very close. With murmured laughter and easy conversation we finally spoke of him, spoke of him honestly, spoke of him while leaves spiralled around us like a benediction. It was a holy time, a profane time, moments and hours like no others in the history of my world. I told her about my incantation, my prayer, and her smile was worth all the years of silence.

Together we reverently burned our past, and it smelled like incense, like burning leaves.

Thanks, Byz, for the nodeshell challenge

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