Orange Flower Water
There’s a gnawing pleasure in getting tanked during daylight hours, laughing stupidly as we disappear and become more realized, ripping each other’s clothes off and laying bare our demands, rising to the other’s challenges, forgetting whatever pain lies outside the moment.
It is afternoon. There is a buzz at Esther’s door. I pull on some placeholder clothing. The delivery guy looks me over, unsure whether to laugh or run. I take our food and shut the door, sparing him the decision.
Esther and I rendezvous in the kitchen, where we gorge on kung pao, egg rolls, and miscellaneous awesome. “Are you going to keep wearing my robe,” she asks, naked by the fridge, “or put on something of your own?”
I give her a kiss with my mouth half full, disrobe, and walk my bare ass back to the bedroom. Belvedere’s claimed my boxer briefs on the floor, but a scritch of the ears pries them free. Stepping in one leg at a time, I cannot help but notice the cleanliness of her closet, the absence of overflow, the lack of any item beyond the requisite number. “How come you don’t have any clutter?” I ask, returning.
She gestures mid-bite to the stacks upon stacks of manuscripts in the living room.
“That’s work,” I say, drawing beside her and stuffing my face. “That doesn’t count.”
She grins. “You’re walking funny.”
“Mhmm,” she says, swallowing chicken. “You’re the one who wanted to try it.”
“You offered,” I say. “And I’d never done it before.”
“So,” she smiles, “will we be doing it again?”
I chew a red hot pepper and fill a glass with water. “It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.”
“Spoken like a convert!” she cries and we both erupt in laughter. She takes my water away and replaces it with a cocktail. “Finish your drink.”
“You’re lapping me.”
“Between you and my boss…”
“Up-up!” she interrupts, tilting the glass to my mouth. “No personal talk.”
“Right. Books, then.”
“Books,” she concurs. She splashes more vodka into her glass and lifts a tray of sauteed lotus root. “Couch?”
We shift locations, no easy task given the feast we’ve ordered. I finish my drink and she feigns irritation, having to rise again now that she’s settled.
The clock above her passes 4:00. If today is indeed Thursday, I’m missing my weekly check-in. Whatever, I think. Conor knows where things stand.
I sift through her records for the umpteeth time, yet again impressed with her distilled taste and focus. “Eventually, we’re going to have to come up with a name for that drink of yours.”
“Orange Flower Water?” she suggests, pouring vodka over ice.
“You can’t name it after one of the ingredients,” I say. “A well-made drink is greater than the sum of its parts.”
“Are you really going to mansplain alcohol to me?”
“I wouldn’t dare.” A record by Duke Ellington jumps out at me, one of the few male artists she’s deigned to acquire. I position it on the turntable and gently drop the needle, then turn to watch her at the counter.
New lovers start as refractions of old ones. The differences register, but only fleetingly. Then the hiccup comes — a shared exhale, a prolonged look, an intimacy beyond sex — and it’s all a man can do not to fall over backwards at just how different a person the woman is than she who came before.
Kitty changed into resting clothes the moment she got home and — more often than not — went to bed still wearing them. Esther walks through her apartment naked without a hint of trepidation.
Kitty took refuge in our cuddles, radiating warmth. Esther rarely allows closeness, turning cold at perceived intrusions.
Kitty wanted to build our lives together. Esther accepts me for my lowest common denominator.
In the truest sense an adult can endure, a man is reborn when he is awakened to that new connection. Former heartbreaks fall away. Joy returns. Here is a person in the world unlike any other and together you have somehow managed to construct a bit of solace. Unwittingly or not, you’ve claimed territory in each other’s lives.
Esther moves with focused grace as she stirs our jet fuel remedy. I resist the urge to rise and hold her in my arms, hold her the way she allows vodka to hold her, without reproach, without distance, without formality or hesitation. Just a long, slow dance where no one leads and no one follows. An infinite, shared heartbeat like the tide.
Instead, I remain cross-legged on the floor and paw through a stack of manuscripts she’s been charged with refining. “What are you editing?”
“Now, now,” she says. “Follow the rules or you don’t get a drink.”
“Not personal,” I say. “These qualify as books, don’t they?”
“Some more than others.” She brings over our drinks as the Duke’s piano floats upward. She compliments my choice of a record, then spears a mystery vegetable with her chopstick. “I’m presently editing a spellbinding assortment of self-help books, diet books, and cookbooks,” she says, “most, if not all, of which started as blogs.” She pops the vegetable in her mouth. “How’s that for the state of publishing?”
Belvedere trots over to complete our triangle, and promptly disrupts my own attempt at bringing food to mouth. “This cat is coming dangerously close to becoming your cat.”
“No way, bucko. He belongs to nobody.”
I manage to get a bean sprout past the wild beast — all I taste is the sauce. As I chew, Belvedere rears onto his hind legs and bats at my mouth. “You have to be kidding me.”
“I’d help,” Esther says, “but he’s not my cat.”
“Okay, okay,” I say, picking him up and placing him on the couch with only mild scratches to show for it. “How come you’re not editing novels?”
“A little thing called earnings potential,” she says, petting the length of the cat’s spine.
I feel her looking at me as I try to nab some rice, but when I look up again she’s all eyes on Belvedere.
“I have one,” she says, “about a girl who goes missing at a street fair. Don’t know how well it’s going to do, though. No one’s going to empathize with a mother who doesn’t notice her child being led away.”
The sun falls out of sight behind taller buildings, casting her apartment in shadow. Esther circles to the front door and flips a switch. She’s never bothered to change out the harsh, too-bright bulbs that come with new rentals, the ones that make life resemble a cheap film.
“There’s also the standard fare,” she continues, returning to her seat. “Men sleeping around to find themselves. Women taking vows of celibacy to find themselves, Riveting, groundbreaking stuff.”
“Maybe they should switch it,” I say. “Men going celibate while women sleep around.”
“Nice in concept, but men cave the second that sex is offered.”
“Plus, whenever society sees a woman empowered to explore her sexuality, it instantly becomes the subject of political debate.”
“Slut-shaming is alive and well in America, my friend.” She pauses mid-sip. “Oh, and just so you don’t think I wasn’t listening, you wouldn’t be able to resist five minutes if I told you to fuck me.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Start the timer.”
“I’m still worn out from before,” I say, “so I think the odds are in my favor.”
She pushes her tongue into the side of her cheek. “I can help with that.”
The phone rings in the kitchen. Esther continues to pet Belvedere. After the second ring, she asks if I wouldn’t mind giving her some privacy.
Despite the lack of clutter in the rest of Esther’s apartment, the bathroom’s been overtaken by tiny bottles. I read their labels for lack of anything else to do, and am soon convinced that the tiny bottle industry is one of the most expertly executed money-making schemes of the twenty-first century. These bottles — ostensibly for moisturizing and conditioning and refining — talk not about what the product accomplishes for one’s body, but rather the lifestyle currently in vogue. Tied to the earth, open to the universe, hearts swollen and pockets empty. In another life, perhaps I’ll forego finance in favor of women’s beauty products. That’s where the real money is.
The walls bleed sound, allowing odd words through. “…can’t…because…enough…” I turn on the tub to drown them out.
When the call is over, she knocks and enters. Notices the tub.
“You said you needed privacy,” I say. “And your walls are made out of paper.
For a moment, her guard is down. I see miles into her eyes. Then she breaks our gaze to test the bathtub’s temperature. She cranks the hot water and shuts the drain. Draws into me. We kiss, long and deep. She reaches down to cup me in her hand, my body responds. “See?” she says. “I told you, you couldn’t resist.”
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group. He was commissioned by At Large magazine to publish his third novel in serialization — now available, with new chapters publishing weekly — titled My Life on Rye. And, as one half of the wife-and-husband team Grackle + Pigeon, he’ll be publishing a tome for modern living this fall — Blanket Fort: Growing Up Is Optional (HarperCollins/Morrow Gift). You can find his work at nathanielkressen.com.