by Tsipi Keller


"Have you noticed how wives snap at their husbands? When guests are present?" Sara, my friend of these past thirty years or so, addressed me as soon as Clara, her maid, had served the main course and left the room. I was admiring the piece of steamed salmon on my plate, inhaling its delicate aroma and itching to reach for my fork, when Sara spoke. Even though she intoned it as a question, it was really a statement; Sara, normally, solicits a response as mere echo or corroboration of her own proclamations.

"Yes," I said, trying to appear casual as I picked up fork and knife. "I've had occasion to -"

"But," Sara continued. "Is it the guests who make the wives more irritable than usual, or are the wives just irritable? And why?"

"Maybe," I ventured, "it's the old, you know, familiarity breeds contempt?" I quickly cut a piece of the salmon and put it in my mouth - pure delight!

"No, dear." Sara finally reached for her fork and knife.

"The wives are not getting it, pure and simple. Some things are, you know, simple." Sara paused to put a small cube of grilled asparagus in her mouth. "Their husbands don't excite them anymore, and that's where the famed headaches come in. If the wives had the guts and opportunity they would take on a lover, but, for the most part, they're passive, they don't do it." Sara dabbed at her mouth, then placed her white, now lipstick- stained linen napkin back in her lap. "It's sad, very sad."

I nodded, chewing circumspectly. For a time, she remained quiet, cutting into her salmon and chewing, so I was able to eat in peace. Every time Sara went on like this, about husbands and sex, I thought of that old lady on TV who gave advice to late-night callers, while fondling dildos and vibrators in her age-spotted hands. Sara and the lady were more or less the same age - I don't know this for sure, Sara and I don't discuss our age, politics, or religion - but didn't look anything alike, Sara was large, whereas the woman on TV was small and skinny and looked a little withered. I've tried many times, in my mind at least, to describe Sara, her face, that is, since the body, aside from being wide and stocky, is ordinary enough, solid, strong, not fat. She has small dark eyes, like buttons, I guess, but there's a spark to them, I would even say a lively spark. They're sharp, too, those eyes, and when she gives you a certain look you have to hold her gaze as proof that you are hiding nothing, that you are guile-free. Her nose is kind of prominent, and her skin, well, her skin is not her best feature, it's thick and her pores show. But, she dresses well - even for our little, get-together lunch, she put on a fresh, pinkish- orangey dress, with large yellow buttons going down the front; she takes good care of herself, and the results, subtle as they may be, are palpable. A man, I imagine, may still find her sexually appealing, since, on the whole, she does present quite an attractive package. All a potential suitor need do is consider the milk baths, the perfumed massages, the silky undergarments, to get his mind inflamed. Had I been a man, she would have gotten my attention, I think.

Sara was watching me, and I realized I hadn't responded to her comment about the wives not daring to take on a lover.

"Well, yes, that's true, but I've heard stories about wives in the suburbs sleeping with the lawn boy, the window washer, the postman, you name it," I put in my two cents, fulfilling my duty as the sole guest.

"Don't tell me you believe these stories." Sara resumed eating. I forgot to mention that not only was she large, she had large appetites and seemed to revel in them as her given right; this, too, was a point in her favor. She ate slowly, daintily, savoring every bite. I had already finished my small portion (smaller than hers, I believe) and was now sipping my second chilled chardonnay.

"Well," I said, conceding that maybe I didn't believe those stories, either. "But -" I suddenly remembered. "I have a friend, right here in the city, who took the supermarket delivery boy to bed. I know this for a fact as she told me so herself."

Sara gave me a look with her sharp little eyes, and for a moment I thought that she thought it was I who had taken the boy to my bed.

"Pathetic, though, isn't it?" Sara said, putting a morsel of steamed salmon in her mouth.

"Yes, but she needed it, and so she did it. He was handsome, she said, and had very smooth skin. I don't see anything wrong with a woman taking a boy to bed."

"Neither do I. I just think it's pathetic, that's all."

I shrugged, fiddling with the heavy, silver fork on the white tablecloth. "I just read a story about a few men in a slaughterhouse carving holes in the side of a cow and raping her, so to speak, in the holes. Not one of them, incidentally, used the one, or two actually, real holes, which I found strange."

Sara nearly gagged. "Is that what you find strange? The whole thing is sick, horridly and morally sick. Where did you hear such a story?"

"That was my point, precisely. Women may do pathetic things once in a while, but men..."

"I see." Sara heaved her bosom. She had finished eating and pushed her plate aside. As if on cue, Clara arrived and cleared the table in her customary efficient and quiet manner. I normally feel ill at ease when I'm being served, even in restaurants, but with Clara, I don't know, it doesn't bother me one bit. I have to say, I love coming here, to Sara's, for lunch or dinner. The food is always superb, and the fact that, thanks to Clara, neither of us has to lift a guilty finger, is a comfort, a kind of luxury I don't enjoy at home.

As we sat and waited for the dessert - my favorite course - I let my mind wander, trying to imagine what kind of dessert Clara would bring to the table. Last time I was here, two months or so ago, Clara served the most delicate flourless chocolate cake, with a small mound of whipped cream and crushed nuts on a side plate.

"As gruesome as your story is," Sara spoke up, "men have a long, you know" -she smiled mysteriously as I held my breath - "history, doing it with animals, usually sheep. Fitting." Sara smacked her lips, and a sudden laugh burst out of me.

"You're funny," I said, knowing she liked to be told she was funny.

"They like to do things together, like in a team, you know? Especially when they rape something or someone. These are the normal ones among them, those who also like to masturbate together. Then, of course, you have the real psychos, the killers and the serial killers. They don't only rape you, they kill you, too, and sometimes dine on preferred body parts. God knows what goes on in the heads of such, well, what should I call them, they don't belong in the human race, obviously, they're animals, worse than animals, uncivilized, barbaric creatures."

I nodded, thinking I might point out that animals, actually, were gentle, and vegetarian, animals like cows and horses, but then, I knew what she meant, so I just said, "I know what you mean."

"Maybe they didn't go for the real holes because those would have been harder to reach? You'd need to climb a stool or something?"

I glanced toward the kitchen, motioning to Sara, so as to say, Is Clara listening to our vile conversation? Sara had a strong, authoritative voice, she wasn't one to whisper.

Sara dismissed my concern with a wave of her hand. "Nothing she hasn't heard before, don't forget where she comes from."

"Of course." Clara came from Honduras, and, according to the stories she had told Sara over the years, had seen every type of brutality imaginable, toward man and beast alike. We were very fortunate, Sara had said more than once, to have had the privilege to grow up and live in a country like the U.S.

Clara entered, pushing a little cart, and we both straightened up in our chairs. We smiled, our hands in our laps. Clara poured our coffee into small china cups, and then placed the most delectable-looking banana cream pie on our dessert plates.

"My favorite," Sara exclaimed, and I nodded excitedly, it was my favorite, too. "Isn't she wonderful?" Sara said to me, briefly placing her ringed hand on Clara's arm. "She always surprises me. What would I have done without her?"

Clara smiled, then retreated discreetly to the kitchen. I wondered, not for the first time, if she was allowed to partake of the same food as her mistress and her guests.

We picked up our spoons and dipped into the pies.

"Scrumptious," I said, filled with gratitude to Sara, to Clara, to my good fortune. Then, strangely, inexplicably, an emptiness filled me, a kind of anxiety I guess, and I remembered my mother, nearly ninety, in a nursing home up in Yonkers. I go to see her once a month, and during my last visit the whole place was under extreme scrutiny as it was alleged, by a visiting family member, a lawyer no less, that a nurse, a female, had made sexual use of his father, an old man who was half comatose. He had caught her in the act, the lawyer said. I was trying to decide if this was a story I wanted to share with Sara, when Sara suddenly put down her spoon and said, "Any mention of the cow's tits?"

"The cow's tits?" I repeated, looking at her as if she'd flipped; it took a couple of seconds before I understood what she was referring to. "No, no mention of the tits."

"I find that curious." Sara picked up her spoon.

"Yeah, me too."

We ate our banana cream pies, and sipped our coffees.

"You'd think, you know, that men would go after the tits," Sara said. "If only as foreplay."

"With a cow?"

"Well, yes. If a cow, as sexual object, strikes your fancy."

This was quite funny, I thought, but I had just put a spoonful of banana cream in my mouth and couldn't laugh, so I pressed one hand to my lips and sent the other aflutter, indicating that I thought her remark was very funny.

"Maybe they did go after the tits, but the man who told the story forgot to mention it?" I said once I'd swallowed.

"Strange. People are strange," Sara said dreamily, grazing the oval of her left nostril with the nail of her pinky. "We live in a strange world, strange times. Life is not what it used to be."

Sara paused, and I opened my mouth, prepared to announce that truer words were never said, but she continued. "Even a small thing as a sponge, so Clara informs me, is not what it used to be. It used to be that you paid, I don't know, a buck for a dozen of good sponges that would last you a lifetime, but these days you buy two for $1.99, and they crumble in your hands in no time at all. Ah, well, life continues."

"Sponges, yes, I know," I said. I was beginning to feel drowsy, which usually happens after dessert. That's one of the peculiar drawbacks to a rich lunch. I looked forward to getting into a cab, then riding home through the park, arriving at my building where Tony, the doorman, would pull the door and greet me as if he were truly happy to see me, and I'd go up the elevator and into my hushed, dim apartment, and, after a short stop in the bathroom, would get into my bed and take a little nap.



Copyright 2007 by Tsipi Keller