Christmas morning began with sex. Better, longer the second time around, though less stunning. Flora liked having sex with Paul, but she would have preferred to do it in the afternoon or evening, or at least after she'd had her coffee. She felt incompatible with most men she'd been with for this reason -- morning sex. She caught herself missing the sex of her girlhood, which had occurred later in the day. There was something about high school sex. Not skill, of course. And really, she was romanticizing it. She was always doing that, getting the past wrong. But as sex became more competent, more expected, even more pleasurable, it seemed a little less exciting, less dangerous. Gone was the sense of being bad. Where the titillating fear of getting caught? No wonder academics loved adultery (along with the rest of the planet). It saved them from the suffocating appropriateness of the rest of their lives. Growing up, it became harder and harder to feel illicit. So what, you fucked. Big deal, you smoked. Okay, you went on the occasional bender. You were an adult. You knew what you were doing. You used condoms. You understood the risks. You repented with brain-pummeling hangovers.
Flora had decided not to celebrate Christmas. Her mother, who'd grown up just Jewish enough to be deprived of the holiday, had never been very good at it, and didn't seem to mind when Flora announced after the memorial that she would not be observing it this year. The Christmases they shared in the little house had been the most desultory occasions, deliberately gloomy -- such gloom could not be arrived at by accident. Two sad presents under the tree, and later, no tree at all. So much trouble. All those dried pine needles. "I'm better at daily life," her mother had offered as an explanation. But her father had excelled at Christmas. He'd loved it with an unabashed glee found more often in people under the age of ten. He used pillowcases for stockings, stuffing them with thoughtful curiosities -- a clear plastic stapler where you could watch the interstices at work, a pocket-size kaleidoscope, a hand-carved wooden spoon with a coiled serpent tail for a handle. His cards were watercolors he'd made, with captions running across the top: "Flora-Girl at Work," "Where Is My Flora-Girl?" The first of a small Flora behind a giant desk, the second showing a sad mouse on the phone, looking patiently out a kitchen window. He'd drawn himself as an importuning mouse, rendering her and, before her, her mother as cats. Flora still had a yellowing card he'd made her mother when she was newly pregnant. It showed a round-bellied Rapunzel-like cat, her tail trailing out a window, the humble mouse on the ground, hat in hand. The caption read "From the Mouse Who Loved the Puce So Much He Gave Her Exactly What She Wanted."
Flora had spent Christmas Eve at Paul's apartment so she would not wake on the morning itself in her father's bed. She had called him at his office that night, having no one else to call, and he had sounded as lonely as she was, and when he arrived at her father's house to pick her up, standing there in the kitchen she had felt that if they weren't naked in minutes, she would die. She led him upstairs, though not to her father's bed, but up the back stairs to her old bed, the twin canopy, where she had lost her virginity at fifteen, her father away at a conference and her mother thinking she was staying with him -- how much easier parents who did not speak had made a life of deception -- and she pulled off his clothes and helped him with hers and they had fucked and she had come in moments. Afterward she was embarrassed and Paul was stunned, and it seemed better not to think too much about it. But the good thing about it was that while lying on his back he noticed she had done nothing to fix the leak, nothing, that is, but duct-tape a garbage bag over the offending area of ceiling, and he had reached for his pants and found his cell phone and called the contractor he knew and soon, right after the holidays, it would be fixed, or at least patched. No longer oozing, or molding. But a new roof would have to wait. Threads and patches would do for now.
Despite the threadbare roof, the niceness of her father's house was awkward. There Flora was, not working, never expected to show up anywhere at any given moment, and living alone in a house big enough for an upper-middle-class family of five, while Paul worked late nights to pay back his student loans and make rent on his one-bedroom in town. And there was the further awkwardness of his knowing the intimacies of her finances -- knowing them perhaps better than she herself knew them. While lying post-coitally stunned and staring at the garbage bag where the ceiling should have been, he had asked her if she'd thought of selling the house. The mortgage was paid off; the local market had appreciated in recent years. "You'd make enough to buy something in the city," he said. "More than enough."
But mixing financial and sexual services seemed inadvisable.
"Let's leave, I think," she said.
Copyright Maggie Pouncey/Pantheon Books.
Maggie Pouncey is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Perfect Reader" is her debut novel.