Dione brought out a tray of little honeyed pastries made with filo and ground pine nuts. The women in her kitchen, all twelve of them, swooped in, and so did Mike and Jim, the couple from Lending Services at the bank where she worked. The kitchen was white and spare, except for the table laden with food and drink, and though it was crowded it had only one heterosexual man in it.
That man was Greek, like her, his hair dark and curly. But while they both had some grey, he let his show. He wore a comfortable green tweed suit with patches on the jacket elbows. He’d given his name when she’d welcomed him in, but she couldn’t remember it, except that it was somehow wrong. He had a glass of champagne in one hand, and the last of a piece of quiche in the other.
She’d invited him because Mike, one of the couple from Lending Services, had suggested that she should. She’d detected charity in that suggestion: the man was new in Baltimore and he didn’t know a soul. She’d also detected faint regret when Jim said that the man was het. That had seemed promising. Still, she’d invited the guy, whatever his name was, mainly because that would mean one more man than there were women, and her mother had always told her that was ideal for parties. She wished she could remember his name.
The other het men – ten of them! – were in the living room, with Dione’s daughter Aphrodite, and Aphrodite’s friend Abi. Some of those men used to make pitying remarks to Dione about Aphrodite, who had until recently been short, pudgy, ill dressed, sullen and uncommunicative. But in the year since Dione’s last dinner party Aphrodite had grown a head taller, and now she was nineteen and voluptuous. She was still ill dressed in a shapeless satin dress that looked like a nightie, and she was still sullen and uncommunicative, but those things had suddenly become virtues.
The men in that living room included a professor of classical literature, another of media studies, two lawyers, a senior consultant to the government, and so forth, and Dione doubted that any of them felt more than eighteen, making tortured, labored jokes for Aphrodite’s amusement. Six of the men in the living room were trying gamely not to stare when Aphrodite moved, while two accountants, a lawyer and a professor of media studies, were trying to entertain and impress her and her friend, competing for her attention.
The man in the kitchen perhaps saw Dione’s expression, when she considered Aphrodite’s magnetism and what she’d come to think of as her own invisibility, and he came over. He picked up one of her pastries and bit it. “These are delicious.” He made the rest of it disappear.
Dione looked at him, more consideringly. He was a little softer around the middle than she liked, but he’d kept it nearly under control. She guessed he was a couple of years older than her, maybe sixty. She nodded at him. He said, “Yeah, Dione. I know Artemis is a girl’s name,” he said, and she remembered: of course, he’d said his name was Artemis. He knew she’d forgotten it, and he was politely covering for her. “My mother wanted a Greek name for me, and she picked the first one she liked the sound of. At work I’ve started to introduce myself as Artegall. It saves footnotes and explanations.”
Dione frowned. “Artegall. Isn’t he someone in The Faerie Queen?”
“Yeah. Sir Artegall goes round measuring people and telling them what they’re worth. Very bossy sort of guy.”
“Got gall. It suits you.”
He stared at her. “Ah. You know, not everybody’s read The Faerie Queen. Certainly not enough to recognize character names.”
“Yes, well. My husband, Thane, was a doctor of English literature at UBalt. Uh, that’s University of Baltimore. I was doing Commerce there. He was up for a professorship. But, well…” Dione spread her hands, looking at the floor.
“He died? I’m sorry.”
“Not exactly died. He went to prison for putting LSD into a water cooler in the Maryland State Senate.”
He coughed, and recovered quickly. “Interesting. Shows initiative.”
“Everybody always says he was brilliant, but he was a tiny bit impractical. He made the LSD himself, in our bathtub, but he forgot that even a place like Annapolis would have surveillance cameras. And I’m using the past tense because it took me a while to catch on, but I did divorce him.”
“Ah. Ah well. I’m still sorry. I bet everyone thinks he was no end of a fun guy, and also that he wasn’t much fun to live with.”
She looked at him, surprised. That was perceptive. “Yeah. Life shouldn’t be surprising all the fucking time. Hard-won wisdom, that.”
“Too true.” He nodded. “But occasional surprises are ok?”
“Oh sure. Out of the blue is good. In its place.”
“Then… Would you mind…” He leaned forward to whisper something in her ear. She tilted her head to give him better access. He whispered, “You’re crazy to be jealous of your daughter.”
She nodded impatiently and jerked her head away. If he thought he was going to do family therapy at a party, based on two minutes acquaintance… But he touched her hand and said, not quite into her ear but still too quietly for the other women to hear, “I mean, I have mixed motives in saying so. For one thing, I want to make an observation about what’s it’s like, being Aphrodite’s age. And also, I’d like to compliment you. Particularly your ass.”
She decided he was not going to get away with that. She said, “Oh?” And she said it coldly.
“Well, for one thing, your ass is amazing, and it’s ridiculous that–”
“Oh? I really don’t…” It occurred to her that she was playing the offended dowager. In a farce. And he had been both observant and sympathetic, so far. And when had she decided that lust, openly declared, was a bad thing? She shook her head. “No, on the other hand, I suppose that does count as out of the blue.”
“Truth is good. Out of the blue and otherwise.” He frowned. “Anyway, you and I both know what to do with truth. That’s one of two reasons you shouldn’t envy poor Aphrodite.”
“No, listen, Dione. First, your ass is easily the best in this house. No disrespect to Aphrodite. Or, I don’t know, Mike. Second, Aphrodite only knows how to put up with the behavior she’s getting from these men, respectable and stupid though they are. But that’s not enough fun. She doesn’t know how to enjoy herself with it.”
Dione felt annoyance. Unwittingly, he’d reminded her of responsibilities, in what should have been a pitch for irresponsibility. “Well, you’ve done yourself in there. I can’t go off and leave Aphrodite dealing with all that lust.”
“Each of them will keep the others from saying or doing anything, oh, what’s the word, inappropriate. From what I saw, the majority of the guys weren’t assholes. She couldn’t be safer. She should just have more fun with it. You’d know how. Knowledge is good.”
“And that’s the motto of the college in Animal House.”
He smiled, as if that was something clever, and he’d said it. He put his finger on her sternum, or, to put it another way, between her breasts. He nodded. “We have a shared culture. We know a lot. We pick up a lot without having to explain things to each other. And we don’t have to lie, or withhold too much. Imagine Rob in there” – Rob was the professor of media studies – “pretending he doesn’t remember the moon landing, say. Previewing every sentence in his head, so he doesn’t remind her of his age.”
“Actually, I genuinely didn’t see it. I was outside skipping, and I didn’t come in to watch TV.”
“My father made me watch it. It wasn’t much of a show, tell the truth. But my point is, we don’t have to lie to each other. We have shared culture and experience, and we don’t have to pretend that we don’t. And you still have a fantastic ass. I’d love to share that.”
“A little too elegantly turned, that. The line about sharing. But all right. You can compliment me.”
He paused, plainly thinking about how he’d say what he meant to say. He chose the less direct version. “Actually, I would very much like to, uh… be in private with you, at this party. For a while. If that was all right with you.”
She looked at him again. Thane had said something very similar to her when they’d first met, and she’d enjoyed the inadvertent awkwardness with which he’d broken various rules concerning acceptable behavior. And she’d enjoyed that evening, even if Thane had eventually turned out to be impossible.
Still, that had been more than thirty years ago. Bringing up two sons, and two daughters, with Aphrodite younger than the others by a decade and the only one still living at home, had taken away some of her spontaneity. Still, she’d been impulsive, once. She’d had zest. Zest had been good.
Meanwhile, time was what it was, and Artemis, or Artegall, was here, now. She decided that paunch or no paunch he looked good. And that so far, she liked him. He’d been perceptive and sympathetic without being cloying, and then he’d said things that were wrong, to amuse her. She put her finger on his mouth, thinking, This is flirting. I’m flirting. When did I last do that?
But she said, “You’re the first man in a while to say something like that to me. And men are notorious liars, did you know that?”
“Of course I’m telling the truth. And if upstairs is impossible, I’m happy with the corridor. Carpet looks comfy.”
Dione smiled at last. Maybe honesty was a reasonably good policy. It made a change, anyway. “Ok. But we have a kitchen full of women and two guys. And there’s Aphrodite and her admirers.”
“Only Mike and Jim have actually noticed us. They’ll cope. The women will notice us leaving, but they’ll just keep talking. As for Aphrodite–”
“Maybe you could go and get her? Tell her you need help with… whatever comes after the pastries.” He put his finger on her mouth, as she had to him.
The movement caught Mike’s attention, briefly, though not a single woman noticed it. They were listening to Meg and Isadora arguing about whether they should be indignant about their husbands and lovers abandoning them to gawk at two younger women. Isadora argued that men were children and couldn’t help it, while Meg was more inclined to blame them. The two women had both had plenty of wine and they were noisy, neither of them really meaning what they were saying. They led the debate; the others commented when they got an opening.
Dione took his hand, kissed his fingertips, and moved it away. She said, “I’ll get Aphrodite. Let Abi alone for a bit.”
She went to the sitting room and caught Aphrodite’s eyes. Aphrodite scowled; here was Mom, about to be tedious. Her expression made it plain that the men in that room were boring too. Dione remembered her own youth: she’d projected disdain like a lighthouse beam. Disdain kept scary things, complicated things, at bay. Also, men had earned a lot of the disdain she’d directed at them. As Aphrodite’s admirers were doing.
Aphrodite looked up at her, perching on the couch. “What do you want, mom? I mean, do you need something?”
“It won’t take a second.”
So Aphrodite sighed, and raised her arm to brush her hair away from her face. Then she stood. Ten male chins lifted, following that movement. Dione led her daughter into the kitchen.
“I need your help, darling. But not handing out plates.”
“This is Artegall,” Dione said. “He and I are going to be missing, for an hour. All right?”
“Oh god, Mom.”
“So I’m hoping you and Abi will carry on keeping the men busy. Except that at the moment you’re entertaining them. They should be entertaining you.”
“Do you mind if I make some suggestions?”
Aphrodite shook her head. Surely it was against nature, to get advice from her mother. But she said, “Maybe.”
“Ok. You’re sitting with your knees together. Every ten minutes, you should cross your legs. Watch them pretend not to notice. It’s comedy. And then say you’re very interested in… something they’re not going to know anything about. Who directed the last Marvell film?”
“Sheralee Wu. She’s cool. Weird that she did a Marvell.”
“Great! So you’re interested in the films of Sheralee Wu. The early, non-commercial ones. Watch them trying to get the conversation back to something they’ve heard of. Tarantino, probably.”
“Do the gag thing when they mention Tarantino?”
“I think you can fill an hour, and have a lot of fun. Does Mr. Gall have any ideas?”
Artegall – that was who he was, she had decided – shook his head. “I just know I’m awed. You’re tricksy. Both of you. No, wait. I don’t know anything much about manga. Or video games less than ten years old. Bet they don’t either. Even Rob Media Studies, though he’ll try to bluff. Talk about that. Ask them questions: what’s their favorite game? Will Abi pick up on what you’re doing?”
“Hell for the yes.”
Artegall said, “Well then, have fun. And thank you for your help.”
“Aphrodite.” Dione eyed her daughter, her pinning-to-the-fridge glance.
“Thank you. The next time Sebastian’s here, would you prefer me to carry on pretending I don’t know he’s here, or can I give him coffee and baklava?”
Aphrodite stopped in the act of turning away. “Mom!” Then she was gone.
Dione left the kitchen, and waited in the corridor. She looked at her watch and timed Artegall; he’d kept her waiting another two and a half minutes, a mix of practiced-adulterer and impatience.
She intended to take him up the stairs, but he stood in front of her and pulled her in close. His hands slid down her back and clasped her ass. He smiled. “I told you.” He meant his praise of her ass.
It was easy to appreciate the comfort of his hands on her, and his appreciation, and his body felt firm enough, when he stood and leaned in to her. But she kissed him and whispered in his ear, “We’re making a scene.”
“No one’s here.”
“We don’t know when someone’s coming this way. Anyway, if we make a scene in a forest, would anyone see?”
“But we’d still be making a scene. Got it. And lead on.”
In her bedroom, upstairs, beige-walled except for the painting of her bare back, made by the lover she’d had after Thane. He looked at it and didn’t comment, and dropped his jacket on the back of her chair. The room was tidy. She hadn’t expected anyone to see her room, but she liked to have the whole house tidy before she hosted events. It felt like having things under control.
He kissed her shoulder, then her neck. He wasn’t exactly controlled, but at least she didn’t have to worry about mess, unless he looked in the clothes basket. She intended to kiss him back, romantically, but time and lust were moving faster than she’d realized, and she bit his shoulder, then took off his tie. She busied herself with his shirt buttons and uncovered white, lightly furred chest, that of a man who went to the gym but not to excess, and who didn’t get out in the sun enough. She explored further, and bared his stomach and waist. She smiled, thinking of how much she hated the words “love handles”, but didn’t hate that body shape. He wasn’t perfect; she wasn’t perfect. They would do each other nicely, it seemed.
Certainly he was enthusiastic. His hands were under her shirt, and he held her breasts, and made a little sound of lust and approval. Men usually tried to reach behind her and undo the catch, one-handed if possible, but he simply made a bundle of her top, t-shirt and bra, and lifted them together.
She raised her arms and he lifted her clothes in a bundle as if she were a child, and they pressed together again, skin touching skin.
Her back was chilled in the air. Then she realized that was her own shiver, which had nothing to do with temperature. He stood, a head taller than she was, his arms warmly round her back, smiling down at her. He said, “You are ok, aren’t you?”
“Shhh.” She put her finger to his mouth again. Then tugged at his belt and zip.
A minute later they were naked, standing together, embraced. He lowered her to her bed, and climbed up beside her. Despite his eagerness to get her to this situation his cock was not hard. As a young woman, Dione remembered, it had been years before she even saw a cock that wasn’t hard and pointing at her as if she were a lodestone made of flesh. Except when it had just come in her.
Artegall noticed her glance. He wasn’t, thank god, apologetic nor disconcerted. He said, “Ah, give me a moment or two. Cock generally wakes up a minute or two later than me. I hope you’re not bored with cunnilingus.”
“Remind me, and I’ll let you know.”
He chuckled, and put his hands under her buttocks, and said, “Fantastic. I said fantastic.”
“Fantastic.” He kissed her belly, then let his tongue slide down, through trimmed pubic hair, to skirt around her clitoris and touch her lips. There was a second, before he began to tongue her, when she could feel him smile.
Then the world seemed to move around her, his tongue both soft and hard against her soft lips, pushing slightly and keeping up a steady rhythm, neither slow nor fast. She felt an overpowering sense of fondness and pleasure, sighed, “Ohhhhh,” and reached one hand down to scuff his hair and hold him. With her other hand she pinched her own left nipple.
His fingers tautened on her ass, and he pressed fractionally but did not speed up. Dione let her head sank back, and relaxed, while pleasure, and a certain kind of pressure, built within her. She began to move against him, slowly, her cunt wet, puffy, meeting the wetness of his mouth. Her hips undulated slowly, comfortable under his tongue.
At last he sped up, and his tongue touched her clitoris for the first time – Dione gasped with the good shock of that – and he seemed to change up a gear, so that he pleasured her harder and faster. Dione heard herself make a nasal sound, at once satisfied and yearning. She said, “Uh!” She realized she couldn’t produce his name just at that moment, so she hissed, “Yes.”
She felt him change his grip on her buttocks, lifting her a little, his fingers pressing taut into her flesh. Two fingers slipped into her, then three. She opened her mouth, breathing hard. The pressure that had been building in her became a wave, and she let it carry her forward, screaming, though trying to keep it quiet.
Afterwards she took some time to catch her breath again. He raised his face, wet and grinning. She smiled down at him and said, “You. You there.”
He crawled forward. His cock was still not really hard. He looked down at himself, and made an annoyed sound. Dione said, “No. No, you don’t. You relax. And, um, get on your back. Artegall.”
He grinned at her, probably because she had produced his name, and complied. Dione bent down and took his cock in her mouth, licking the underside and grinning to herself when he gasped. She applied soft suction as she took more of him in. She worked her body round while she sucked him, until her cunt pressed against his right knee. She rode him as she tongued and sucked his cock.
It took him a little longer than she expected, perhaps because he was annoyed with himself, but soon enough the lump in her mouth was bigger, fatter, and a minute or so later, harder. She always loved this transformation. It was as if she could work magic. But Artegall suddenly jerked under her and said, “Shit!”
Dione didn’t stop. She made an interrogative sound with her nose. “Nnn?”
“Condoms. I wasn’t expecting this. Or you. I don’t have any on me.”
Dione was surprised. She’d thought of him as more practiced than that. Then she lifted her head: “I don’t have any, either.”
He shook his head. “I’m so sorry. I’d forgotten I haven’t, you know, re-stocked the wallet. When I – I’m just an idiot.” His cock, just below her, showed signs of wilting again.
Dione told him, firmly, “You’d be amazed how much this is not a problem. Though I bet you’ll never be caught unprepared again.” And she dropped her head, taking his cock, still semi-erect, into her, and giving it all her attention. He gasped again, gratifyingly.
In time she felt him spread his hands, fingers like steel spiders clawing at her bed, and his breathing was labored and loud. She slowed down for five or six strokes, while he made incoherent noises, and then sped up again, her head bobbing, sucking him harder. In about a minute, his buttocks lifted from the bed, his body weight on his elbows and ankles. He said, with the utmost earnestness, “Dione–”
She expected him to come, come he didn’t. It was a climax of a kind, of sensation, but not an orgasm. But he gasped for breath and subsided, apparently enervated, his hands caressing her head.
She smiled down at him, not that he could see her at that moment. She climbed back up his body and kissed his shoulder, his neck and the side of his mouth. He turned and half-raised his head and kissed the corner of her mouth. She smiled. She kissed him, and he resisted for a second, then accepted her and kissed her back.
She said, “Are you going to come?”
“You mean, in your mouth? Splat? I would eventually. For now, I think we’re run out of time.” Dione glanced at her bedside clock. They’d been away for about fifty minutes.
She said, “I guess.” He grinned and reached for her shoulders, pulling her down onto him. They clasped each other and rolled about on her bed, until he was above her.
He said, “I have behaved badly. As a party guest, monopolizing the host and all. I’m glad, too.”
“I’m glad you behaved badly. Well, it was only moderately badly, to be frank.”
“I’m pretty sure I can do worse.”
“Some day I’ll hold you to that. I’d like to see your worst.”
“I’d, uh. I’d like to stay up here, but we’ve nearly used up our hour. And I bet you got more cakes or something to serve.”
She reached up and tweaked his nose. “Yeah. There is katiïfi. You can help me dish it out. Like a good domesticated man.”
“I am here to serve.” He made it sound robotic.
“You are. And you’ve been satisfactory so far. You’re going to clean up now, in the ensuite. And then you’re going out the window.”
“Out? I’m that expendable?”
“The fire escape leads to the back door. When you go in people in the living room will think you’ve been in the kitchen. People in the kitchen will think you’ve been in the living room. Me, I’ll make my grand re-entrance in the kitchen.”
“Sound,” he said. It was all he said. He gathered up his clothes and disappeared into the ensuite. Water ran. Dione thought about having a man cleaning up, post-coitally, in her domain. She had let herself become utterly unused to it, and yet it had been part of her daily life for decades.
He re-emerged, dressed. “The fire escape, huh?” He crossed the room and opened the window. He put a leg over the sill, then looked back at her. “I think, if it’s ok with you, we should do this again, without other houseguests and other constraints.” He raised his eyebrows, interrogatively.
Dione smiled. “I’ve made a conquest? And I owe you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, we should do this again. Don’t suggest a time. No plans. We’ll just see what happens. And how we go.”
He considered that, and then nodded as if she’d rebuked him. Harshly but not unfairly. “I shall make no plans. But I’ll try to be charming, anyway.” And he swung his other leg over the sill, and was gone.
Dione had a shower. She wore a cap: she wouldn’t have time to dry her hair, and returning with wet hair was something that the women would notice. When she came down the stairs, she could hear Artegall in the living room, talking about manga as if, she guessed, he’d read something about its current state on his phone in the last five minutes. She stood at the door of the living room, just outside.
Artegall sat next to Abi, and they were talking about the adventures of someone or something called Viper Sagara. He was a quick study, it seemed. Abi had her legs over his, though he was carefully taking no advantage. Still, he had to be enjoying the intimacy, even if Abi was mostly using him to annoy the suitors. The suitors did look irritated: this man would surely go away soon. There must be some justice in this universe. Dione was reminded of the final books of the Odyssey, the suitors dealing with Odysseus’s unwelcome presence before they were themselves removed. She frowned, watching Abi pet the man. She’d just had sex with this man, but still, she hadn’t thought he’d be that enticing to a young woman. But obviously he had certain powers.
She nodded at Aphrodite. Aphrodite stood up and skipped to join her in the passage. She was smiling. That was something she hadn’t had from her daughter in some time. Maybe not in a year or so. “Hi, mom. How was it?”
“It” was a last-second substitution for “he”. Dione said, “It was good. And surprisingly sweet. How’s… Abi?”
“She’s wonderful. We’ve been mocking these gentlemen. You know,” she said, as if she had discovered something important, “men are stupid, aren’t they?”
“Yes, my daughter. Though that’s only by and large true. Find yourself one who isn’t.”
“Well, for some reason I’ve yet to meet Sebastian. I’d like to. I think… he has good taste in women.”
Aphrodite hugged her suddenly, and Dione let that extraordinary thing happen. She said, ”So has your Greek man. He’s funny. I like him.”
“Oh well. You may see more of him. But don’t expect too much.”
And then Artegall bid farewell to Abi, and joined Dione. He looked at Aphrodite, and bowed slightly. “I am pleased once more to meet the daughter of the house.” Aphrodite let him kiss her hand. Then he looked at Dione. “Are you all right?”
“I’m good, Artegall.” Then she grinned. “Thank you for asking. But I think you might make yourself seen in the kitchen for a while, without me.”
Artegall smiled. “I’ll leave you two together. I’ll bring you a glass of champagne in a while. And one for you, Aphrodite. And one for Abi.” He put his hands in his pockets and walked to the kitchen. Jaunty, Dione thought: he was being jaunty.
Aphrodite said, “So I shouldn’t start calling him Daddy?”
“Under no circumstances! Not even as a weird sex thing.”
“No. He’s helped re-open some possibilities that I’d given up on. I think it’s my duty to see to it that he doesn’t like everything that happens as a result.”
Aphrodite nodded. “Good. It’s time you… broadened your horizons again.”
Still, the party ended in the late afternoon. And when Dione waved goodbye to guests, it somehow happened that Artegall still stood beside her, unchallenged, with his hand resting lightly on her bottom.