Later in life he would remember her as the fruit sex girl. Grapes, bananas, apricots. But particularly apples. She often ate them during sex. Usually she came before he did, which was in itself unusual, and then she became languorous, a little silly, and would reach across the narrow dorm bed while he was still inside her to grab one of the apples he’d stolen from the dining hall. He would have her knees over his shoulders while she chomped blithely away. They both thought it was funny. “We don’t have sex,” she said, “we have applesex.”
She was 21, also a senior, with large, Jewish eyes and almost translucent skin. Sophie. Red scars the size of caterpillars marked the flesh near her collarbone; otherwise she was luminous. She was recovering from Hodgkin’s. Chemotherapy, she told him, had made life feel both endless and contingent. “Iffy,” she said. Life had been “iffy.”
They’d met months earlier—the same week she was diagnosed. FUCK YOU, HODGKIN’S, he’d thought angrily. “I’m probably going to die,” she told him in the dining hall one night, “so I have to take the year off.” While she was gone they corresponded by email as friends.
Between classes he had written a novel. It was called The Orchard. In December of her first absent semester Sophie asked to read it and he sent her the manuscript by postal mail (this seemed more professional, more dedicated, than just emailing a document), which cost $6.52, depriving him of a sandwich. She wrote to him that she had enjoyed it, “but your description of the blowjob she gives him, while amusing, rings false. It does not really, at least in my experience, taste ‘incredibly salty,’ just somewhat salty and at times even sweet.” He’d realized that if she didn’t die, she would have sex with him.
And in January, during a visit to campus—to him—she had. The cancer was in remission. One visit became two, two became three, until she was eating apples in his bed all the time.
He had a habit, a remnant of his childhood; in moments of emotional turmoil he pretended that nonhuman objects could speak to him. They spoke reassuringly. He did the voices. “This is good,” the elm tree outside his window said. “She likes the book. She comes to see you.” Its branches shivered in the night breeze.
One day she sent him an email that said only, “Visiting you means a lot to me.”
That night he stared out his window. “Amazing,” the elm tree said, “she actually likes you.” A rustling of leaves. “I’m scared,” the elm tree said.
Sometimes she spoke of her treatments, her check-ups. The cancer seemed beaten but still she had dreams where things ate her. “These visits mean a lot to me,” she told him. “Spending the night in your bed. I really like you.” She was visiting every weekend now. “I really, really like you,” she told him. He began to think that every weekend was a little much.
One Sunday morning in early April while dressing to leave, she remarked, “I’m about a month late.” She must’ve seen the horror in his face because her demeanor changed. “Oh, don’t worry!” she said. “Don’t worry, I don’t want to keep it!”
But for days afterward he felt panic, like a fist, clenching his heart. Escape. It was spring now and girls read books on the green, their legs and shoulders bare, their bra straps visible.
She called him mid-week. “I had my scans today,” she said. “They make you drink barium first. They ask if you might be pregnant. I said no. My period came, like, an hour after I drank it.”
“Thank God,” he said.
“So I’ll see you Friday?” she said.
“Shit,” he said, “I have to write an essay this weekend.”
After that he found himself unable to return her voicemails. Most of the time, feeling besieged, he kept his phone off. In six weeks he would graduate. She sent emails saying, “What’s going on?” and “Are you okay?” He took his finals, received his cap and gown. In May, she sent an email saying, “You are hurting me.” He was ashamed of how he’d handled it but preferred to trust his instincts rather than examine or dissect them. Also he’d been having sex with a red-haired teenager from New Jersey who had read one of his poems online and emailed him, but that was short-lived.
* * *
Another girl emailed him too. Like him, she was about to graduate. Petite, excruciatingly shy, half-Irish, half-Japanese. Briony. He’d had a seminar with her and liked to congratulate himself for thinking her mind was as exquisite as her looks. At a graduation night party, he’d encountered her.
“Well, I hardly know you,” he’d summoned the boldness to say, touching her shoulder, “but you seemed cool. Good luck. I’ll probably never see you again.”
At 3 a.m. there was the email from her.
“Eh, who knows,” it said. “Maybe not never.”
Considering her shyness, that had to have taken a lot of courage or several drinks.
That night to his surprise he dreamed about her, her heartbreaking body as white and perfect as a peeled apple.
After graduation he went home for a week, then moved into an apartment in New York, where he’d already been hired as editorial assistant at a publisher. There were many beautiful women in Manhattan but none captured his imagination like the Briony from his dream.
He emailed asking how she was. “I’m hibernating at my mother’s house in Florida,” she replied. “After a brief, four-year dalliance with socialization, I've re-discovered misanthropy. Wait, let me rephrase: I’m lonely and don’t know what to do with myself.”
The whole email was like that and despite or because of the affectations he found it sexy. Grammatical emails from beautiful women aroused him. He told her that he was lonely in the city.
“I’m like a deep-sea fish,” he wrote in one email, “lurking in the darkness of my apartment. I wake, slog through 8 hours of office bullshit, go home, close the blinds & put on headphones, and write undisturbed until 1 a.m. Repeat ad infinitum/nauseum.” He wanted her badly and hoped that by exaggerating his own antisocial tendencies to resemble hers, he might inspire her to want him, too.
Indeed, she began to confide. As a girl she had witnessed her mother’s nervous breakdowns. One day coming home early from school she’d looked in the basement window and seen her mother on the concrete floor, face black. Later Briony was told that her mother “lived elsewhere” and that if she ever saw her, she should lock all the doors and call the police.
“I value our correspondence,” she wrote. “I tell you things I wouldn’t tell anyone else.”
“I value it, too,” he replied. “It alleviates feelings of isolation and anonymity.”
One day at a poetry reading he met a small, winsome woman who seemed a couple years older. In the cab ride home he asked if she’d moved to the city right after college. She said, “I’m thirty-six.” In bed she was frolicsome and tireless. Her body was young. “I’m fucking a thirty-six-year-old,” he thought.
To Briony he wrote, “Another dreary week. Time passes. And you? How do you pass time?”
She wrote, “Playing Boggle. Reading Ada. I watched The Thing—Hawks version. Also I was persuaded to go to the beach. A wave knocked me over.”
He imagined penetrating her, watching her face. Fragile, pale, and lightly freckled. She would make no noise except perhaps a small happy whimpering. If he could have her he wouldn’t need anyone else.
“So,” he asked, “think you might be in NYC sometime? If you ever need a place to crash…”
She wrote, “I love writing to you but am wary of visiting. Afraid of how it’ll be. Will it be awkward? We’re both such estranged people. And although we know intimate details—too many—we’ve barely interacted in person. It’ll be disorienting, weird. I sometimes don’t know how I feel about you, how you feel about me.”
FUCK, he thought. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK.
He wrote back, “I love you.” He thought it might be true. She did not reply.
The next afternoon he met a girl who lived across the street. They’d seen each other through their bedroom windows before and this time she leaned out of her window and waved. They screamed greetings over the noise of traffic. “I always see you,” she screamed. “You like sushi?” he screamed. They got sushi and went back to her apartment. “Want to see what your apartment looks like from my apartment?” he said. “Okay,” she said. They went to his apartment and fucked. She was a photography student, tall and sanguine. Her body was flawless except for a calf scar inflicted by a moped in Thailand. Also she wore Mickey Mouse panties. Her preference was to face the wall and have sex from behind.
Soon afterward, he had drinks with several college friends and told them about the thirty-six-year-old and the window girl and also two others.
That weekend Briony replied. “You’ve certainly been having adventures,” she wrote. “Lonely old women. Girls observed through windows. Sluts you met online. What was that about being a ‘deep-sea fish’?”
He wrote back, “Exactly how do you hear this stuff while in hibernation?”
She wrote, “Doesn’t look like I’ll get to NY anytime soon.”
FUCK, he thought.
* * *
He began an affair with a girl down the hall at his office, an assistant editor at a more prestigious imprint. Two years his senior, she was a hesitant brunette with effortless posture and a perfect nose. Emily. One night during that fall’s transit strike she offered to let him sleep on her couch. He slept in her bed.
Emily was all sex, squirming against him the moment he touched her, saying, “I cannot do this,” as she guided his hand between her legs. She was also the best so far: lovely, limber, vocal, and almost frighteningly obsessed with him. At work the next morning he thought calmly, “My coworker swallowed my come last night.”
Weeks passed. They visited MoMA and the Museum of Sex. Emily had been there once and was eager to take him. They saw Army of Shadows in the cramped cavern of the Film Forum, ate dinner at Ivo & Lulu. But mostly they had sex: on her kitchen counter, her window sill, her sofa, the rug by her mirror, sometimes even on her bed. During work they’d go across the street to a fashionable hotel and in a bathroom by the hotel pool—a bathroom where one wall was a huge blown-up photo of Chiang Kai-shek and the other three were mirrors—they’d unzip and fuck violently against the sink.
One night they lay in bed, fondling after sex. “I never thought I’d do this,” Emily said. “It makes work difficult. I’m thinking about your cock while I’m typing emails to Louis Menand.”
“Maybe,” he said, “we should start dating.”
“I thought we were,” she said.
Uncomfortably he recalled the skinny, black-haired girl he’d met at a friend’s housewarming the previous weekend.
“I guess we are,” he said. “You should meet my parents.”
More weeks passed. She had a twelve year old brother who came to visit one weekend; they all played soccer in Central Park, went to a concert at Meadowlands. The brother had a scarred face from a dog attack as a toddler. Emily doted on him.
Watching her with her brother, he could not fail to recognize that she was the nicest and most giving of all his girlfriends.
His novel, The Orchard, had not found a publisher but he was writing another one, The Charnel House. Emily asked to read it so he gave her the four finished chapters. Soon she gave them back. “I’m really sorry,” she said, “I can’t read it. The narrator is like you but all he does is cheat and lie. It’s disconcerting.”
“Okay,” he said, annoyed. He never gave her anything else.
Emily had an office to herself after another assistant editor quit, so when they were both working late he’d fuck her there with the door locked, bent over her desk, her palms against the window. Once while they were like that, she said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” he said.
He felt reasonably confident this might be true. But when he returned to his desk, the thought occurred to him that he might like to quit this job and move to another city.
They were now months into the affair—relationship—and the sex stayed good. One problem. Emily never had orgasms. “What do you want me to do?” he would ask her. “What do I have to do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I’ve never had an orgasm with another person. I can’t.”
It kept him up at night, angry.
One night they were up late at her apartment. They usually fucked two or three times a night and had only done it once so far tonight. They would be up for hours more. “I don’t understand the orgasm thing,” he said. “Never, with anyone? I don’t understand how you can enjoy sex if you know you’ll never come.”
“It’s not about that,” she said.
“That’s one of the things sex is about,” he said.
“But I don’t care if I have an orgasm.”
She sounded honest but how could that be true.
“I care,” he said.
“What do you want me to do, fake it?” she asked. She was draped naked on the sofa. “I love the sex we have.”
He stared out her window, also naked. The moon was full. In its fullness and brightness it looked like a hard white apple. A dim restlessness stirred in him.
“I’m hungry,” Emily said.
He turned, jolted from something, a thought. “I’ll run to Café Prince,” he said. The 24-hour deli two blocks away. “I'll get sandwiches. Same as last time?”
“You don’t have to,” she said, but he was already dressing.
He went downstairs and hurried to the deli. Ten minutes later he was walking back through the deserted darkness, the sandwiches and drinks in a grocery bag. At the door of her building he stopped, hand hovering by the buzzer. The moon hung in the sky. He looked at the moon. Something was churning in him. The moon said, “Don’t.” He lowered his hand. The moon said, “Time to go.” Setting the grocery bag by her door, he hesitated a moment longer, then wandered off down the street, both savoring and disliking the coolness of the night.
Nick Antosca is the author of the novels Midnight Picnic (Word Riot Press, 2009) and Fires (Impetus Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Nerve, Hustler, The New York Sun, Identity Theory, The Barcelona Review, The Huffington Post, and others. He was born in New Orleans and lives in New York, and his blog is Brothercyst