Toeing the line

Ambition and her toe lingered between us on the couch that day.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

I sat on the train back to New York with my eyes closed, thinking of Gina. Thinking not of sex with her but of her blue jeans: the road of faded denim that led from her knee up the inside of her thigh to her crotch, visible when she’d pulled her legs up on the couch across the room from me and explained why it was hard for her to live in Northampton, Mass. The thing was, she liked people with ambition. Western Massachusetts, she said, lacked ambition, lacked passion. Passion. She had it in her, passion, and it was like she couldn’t do anything other than fulfill it, or try to at least. She would write. That was her passion.

I was visiting her roommate, but my friend was working that evening. An old movie was on the TV, but we weren’t watching. Gina had found out I was a writer. She’d asked me to read some of her work.

“Your rhythm is good,” I told her when I was done. She’d given me a two-page scene she’d written for her creative nonfiction writing class: “Valentine’s Day, 1996.”

“He was a drunk,” she’d written of an old lover, “and I had, as can happen, become one too.”

“It sounds like you,” I said, although I knew it wasn’t a compliment to tell a writer that her prose sounded like her speech. But she thought it was, so I continued: “The way you arrange clauses. You have a voice. This is your sentence.” And I meant it.

“Really?” Gina said, and leaned toward me, her right hand supporting her head with her elbow on the couch’s arm, her left hand reaching across the inner thigh to hold her right hip as she twisted closer. She had long legs and arms well-muscled from practicing karate; she wore an orange corduroy button-down shirt with the sleeves pushed up, and I could see the tendons in her olive forearms flexing like a ship’s rigging. Gina’s face was equally strong, a broad jaw holding big white teeth, one slightly discolored, her umber eyes set deep under plucked, sharp-edged eyebrows, arched like the roof of a colonnade, inviting but controlled. Now her eyes searched, looking for not only praise but ambition, mine and her own. To her I was a writer from New York, and I was telling her she was a writer from Northampton.

“Let me show you,” I said, and moved a book I’d been reading from the cushion beside me to the table on the other side. I edged forward and leaned on my knees. She sat beside me and did the same, two craftsmen consulting. Here, I said, pointing to a sentence, and here, and here. But you don’t need that one; did you add it in a second draft? Yes, she said, and her toe brushed against my left foot. I moved my foot away.

“I add things, sometimes,” Gina said, taking the left side of the page in her hand so that we held it together. “I like it to be clean, but then I worry that it’s not, I don’t know, written.”

“So you add words like ‘allotted’ and ‘inebriated,’” I said.

“Yes,” she said, and her toe touched me again. This time I only moved my foot a little. Her toe followed.

“You’re 25,” I said, “and you’re back in school, and at last you know what you want to do.”

“Yes!” She smiled for her passion, in which she believed wholeheartedly, simply; hers was a passion for writing, no more, nothing complicated. But her toe remained pressed against the edge of my foot. She smelled like the clean sweat that remains even after a shower, warm and distinct.

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“So you write something, and you write clean, with good rhythm. Then you go back to it, and you wonder, ‘Where do all the beautiful words go?’ And you add them. Because they look –”

“Writerly,” Gina said, and frowned, her lips and teeth slightly parted in distaste. “I don’t want it to be writerly.” Her toe retreated.

“So don’t worry about beautiful words,” I said. “Concentrate on details. Like here, you describe looking in the mirror and seeing your face, pale and gaunt and with raccoon eyes. That could be anybody. That’s just strung-out. What did you look like? For instance, you have a lot of beauty marks on your face.” Her toe made contact again. “And they’re beautiful. But what do they look like on a pale, gaunt face?”

“I don’t know,” Gina said.

“Make it up,” I said. “Or stay up all night tonight and look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow and see what you see.”

Gina’s shoulder dipped in toward mine just as I moved my foot away from her toe. I moved my foot back toward her; her shoulder retreated, but her hand brushed my thigh. We froze, and I thought: She thinks I know more than her about writing and she’ll keep edging closer as long as she thinks I know more than her. But I think she knows more than me about this kind of thing between women and men, and already I’ve given her doubts, because I have doubts. Is there a difference between a fraud, a coward, a cad? What did that toe mean, anyway?

I didn’t move. Neither did Gina. I sighed.

“Thank you,” Gina said, and stood up and returned to the other couch.

On the train I could think of nothing but her toe pressed against my foot, how I would have continued to feel it even as we had reached for one another, as my hand slid over her hip and her full lips pressed against mine.

Oh, the toe!

I screwed up! What the hell else could a toe pressed up against your foot mean when you’re from New York and published and sitting next to a woman from Northampton reading over the story she’d written about her self-destructive love affair? Why did I hesitate? And what else — she told me the man wasn’t her type, too bony, not like me — her toe, my hand reaching across her, on her hip. The black and white Tony Curtis movie on the TV, “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Tony tells the dame, “Stop thinking with your hips!” Gina was thinking with her hips and talking with her toe, but I never left the page. But if I had — the denim clad column of inner thigh, the toe …

I closed my eyes. Pulsing against the inside of my skull was the rhythm of the tracks and the dappled flanks of the passing world as the sun flickered through the trees, and I sucked in a gallon of air that smelled like the tingle of sweat I’d smelled on Gina. Not sweat left over from before a shower, but fresh beneath her arms, between her legs, in her hair, as she leaned toward ambition, hers and mine.

Jeff Sharlet, Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the bestselling author of "The Family." His most recent book is "Sweet Heaven When I Die."

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