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The Other Body

"They’re not all the same size?" Jane burst out laughing at my question, her black eyes rolling up so far that all I could see was the whites. And the older woman looked at me, as if for the first time. They were the first words I’d spoken, or rather whispered, since we were trying to make sure none of the other passengers overheard. "More or less, I mean," I said, trying to recover, which of course only made it all worse. Jane’s laugh came again, not muffled this time, and sounding down the full length of the carriage. And this time the woman laughed too, an odd grin exposing the gum above her not very straight teeth. The heads of a few nearer passengers turned, a newspaper ruffled.

Jane, in her usual bold way, had started up a conversation with this woman just after we’d got on at Paddington. We were in uniform already, going back to school. She’d invited me home for the long visiting weekend, since I was one of the only girls at school whose family lived overseas. The woman’s over-rouged cheeks came closer. She winked at Jane as if she were in a pantomime.

"More or less," she mimicked my tone, raising her eyebrows. "Yes, well that’s the whole long and short of it—isn’t it dearie?" And the two of them exploded again, the laughter forced out between their compressed lips like air from a balloon, eyes watering. It took me a moment to even grasp the joke. The whole notion was so astounding. I felt the familiar hot flush prickling up my neck. Our new friend sat back, gave me a confidential pat on the thigh. "After all, it’s like our bosoms, really. Different sizes—shapes for that matter." Her eyes moved over me, as if examining fruit at a stand. She was quite common, not really a lady. Not like Jane’s or my mother. And in any case it couldn’t be like us at all—different shapes and sizes. There were those Greek statues at museums, and the reproductions in that big book in my father’s library that William had showed me after everyone in the house was asleep. But Jane had only gotten started.

"What does it feel like?" The woman turned to the window, and I thought she was going to ignore Jane. Outside, the telegraph posts going by seemed to be marking time. But then she turned back to us. Jane’s face seemed to be daring the woman, with that insolent expression that always irritated our teachers beyond endurance. But the woman’s eyes seemed more curious than shocked at having heard the question from a twelve-year-old schoolgirl on a train. And I felt a momentary sensation of falling—not down, but rather into myself, enveloped by the rocking motion of the carriage, the steady metallic beat of the carriage wheels against the rails, the telegraph poles seeming to click by in the rain outside.

Neither of them turned away their eyes. I imagined myself somehow inside the woman, seeing Jane’s face—that face that it always seemed to me could do what no other face could. It was girlish, even child-like, profoundly untroubled—and at the very same time there was another look, as if side-by-side with the first. The look that at school we called Jane’s "tart face"—almost shockingly lewd, frank, coarse. I imagined the woman wondering, going back and forth between the two faces. We would beg Jane to put on this face, in the dormitory, when the matron was down the hall somewhere. And soon she’d be mincing up and down between the beds, hands on her hips, reciting to us in a falsetto, chin in the air: "He took her—he possessed her—he had her—he enjoyed her—he had his way with her—he knew her," the rest of us in fits of giggles no matter how many times we’d heard it before. Jane would already be going on, swirling the edge of her night robe out with one hand: "Has a gentleman laid siege to your chaste treasure?"

The woman leaned forward again. "Most of what you hear about all that is stuff and nonsense." She looked up at the ceiling of the compartment. "But since you want to know, I’ll tell you. Why shouldn’t you know, after all?" She seemed to say this more to herself than to us, her eyes narrowing, lips pursing a little as she glanced around the carriage at the other passengers, asleep in their seats, or reading. "It’s different," she started, "different times. That’s for starters. And with different men, it’s different." Here she winked at me, but I was already thinking—how could she, with different men? But even through the whisper her voice seemed more weary than lewd or suggestive. "As far as that goes, we’re different, too—women, I mean." She looked out the window. I followed her eyes out over the now open country, our pale reflections superimposed in the glass over damp fields. It would be dark by the time we reached the school.

"But what does it feel like? When you do it?"

The woman quickly glanced at Jane again. The three of us were by ourselves, at the far end of the carriage, Jane and I side-by-side, facing the woman. Then suddenly she bent forward, leaning her elbows on her knees, hands clasped. I watched her thumbs making small, irregular movements against each other. Our heads were nearly touching.

"You see, there aren’t exactly words for it, for the feeling. So it’s hard to describe it. Especially for girls like you, who can’t—" The thumbs stopped moving. "When he first—that first moment you feel yourself—feel him, I mean—that can send a thrill through you. If you’re in the mood of course." The woman looked at Jane, with a hopeful expression. "How shall I say it," the woman went on. "Have you ever seen a man—a boy, I mean—that you fancied?" Jane nodded, and I followed her example, not really sure why. "Well, you feel a little breathless, a bit warm inside. Don’t you? You imagine things?" Her eyes, so close I could see the tiny gold flecks in them, were on me now. Had I felt it? But what? "It’s like that, only more of course, because you’re both—not wearing anything. And his hands are touching you."

"Touching you wherever he wants," Jane interrupted. I thought of a man’s—boy’s—hands on me, everywhere, up high between my legs, inside. That idea was somehow more shocking than that of the other penetration. The hand less blind, in some way, than that other part of him.

"Well, the fact is, men can be funny that way."

"Funny?" Jane’s eyes narrowed.

"I mean about touching you—there at any rate. Oh there’s no problem with the bosom, until they get bored at least." The woman looked down the carriage again. "Some men haven’t a clue, you see." Her voice was a murmur. All at once she seemed hideous to me. It was something about the skin, the flesh itself, her woman’s body. Jane’s body was so small, light, and I felt mine becoming—like that, heavy, dense. "Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. No one ever told me, I can tell you that. Perhaps there’s no way but learning ourselves, you know?" There was such a long silence that it seemed the conversation was finished. I was thinking—that’s good—because Jane could scare me the way she never let things go, talking to a grown- up that way. But I also wanted them to go on, the two of them with me just listening. Then Jane was whispering again.

"We don’t care about all that. We want you to tell us what it feels like." Breaking out of the silence so close to my ear it felt like her whisper was inside me—what it feels like, we want to know, we want to know. There was that terrible hardness in Jane’s face again, in her dark eyes. But the woman answered at once, her voice very calm and flat.

"I’m telling you. He comes in, he moves in and out. It can feel lovely or it can feel like nothing at all."

"How can it be both?" The woman smiled, sat back, watching Jane as if from a great distance.

"Well, perhaps you’ve nothing to learn. You know everything already." And she looked over at me, as if waiting for me to say something.

"I don’t know what it’s like, how it feels." Jane’s whisper was steady, each word separate, the way the masters spoke to us in class if they thought we were being willfully dense. The woman’s eyes left me and turned back to Jane.

"How it feels? Don’t you see, it’s like trying to tell someone how something tastes that they’ve never eaten. It depends."

"On the man, you mean?"

"Well, yes. For starters. He can be on top of you, sweating and grunting away, and then he’s done. He lets out a big groan and collapses on you. I won’t lie to you about it. He’s all right, but you’re just worked up. Or you might feel nothing at all, might just be glad it’s over." It had all come out in a rush. She stopped, went on more slowly. "With us, it’s not like that. It doesn’t just happen. Not that they can’t have their little problems, mind you."

"Problems?" The woman moved in her seat, shook her head a little as if trying to clear it. Again there was the furtive glance toward the other passengers.

"Well, all right. I’ve gone this far. They might not get hard—you do understand that, don’t you? Or finish too quickly, before anything’s really got started. Well, there you are. You see, I shouldn’t be telling you any of this." Jane seemed to consider a moment.

"Before, you said it can feel lovely."

"Yes, that’s right. And I’m sure it will for you." She stood up and pulled a small traveling bag from the rack overhead, sat down again with one hand on it. The rhythm of the carriage wheels had begun to slow. A conductor came through the door at the far end of the carriage and called out the station.

"What’s it feel like when—" Jane paused "—when, you know, you feel him—finish?" The woman rolled her eyes up, then turned to look out the window in the direction the train was moving, as if calculating how soon it would stop. But then she relaxed again, settled back in her seat.

"When he ejaculates? Ejaculates his sperm?" Now the insolent look was in her eyes, as if daring Jane. "Are those the words you’re searching for? I thought you knew everything, dear."

"Yes, then. What does it feel like then?" The woman gave out a little peal of laughter.

"Oh dear, the blessed moment. No, I shouldn’t make fun of you. I’m being unkind." The train slowed into a long curve and I saw the black locomotive up ahead, the station coming nearer. A grey postal carriage was by the platform, the horse’s head inside its feedbag. "Men get easily excited, you see. Sometimes just by looking at a woman’s body, just by being touched—there. It might take one or two minutes, and then it’s done."

"One or two minutes?"

"Oh yes. No, we’re not like them. It takes us longer." Her words kept coming, in a grating whisper. "A man just going in and out, for a minute or two, inside us—that doesn’t make it happen. Just like that. Don’t you understand?"

"Make what happen?" It was my voice.

"Ecstasy, she means." Jane answered, before the woman could. A girl from the upper form had said that, in the dormitory. She’d run both hands through her hair, tilting her head back, eyes closed, as she said it.

"Ecstasy? Oh, yes, all right." The woman looked over our heads at something in the distance, a slight smile on her mouth but her eyes somehow sad, or tired. Jane seemed not to notice. She was already whispering again.

"How much of it is there? The sperm, I mean."

"What? My god, does this girl never stop?" The woman looked at me again.

"When he does it. Inside you."

"You don’t feel it, exactly—not the fluid itself, I mean. I’ve told you, he stops moving, usually, when it happens. Sort of shudders and strains against you." There was that strange twist of her lips again. "That’s how you know. And you gradually feel less of him, so to speak." Inside me, so impossible to imagine. I felt the hot flush rising again on my neck. "Well, here’s my station." The whistle sounded and the carriage was almost at a stop.

"But how much?" Jane repeated. "And it’s hot, isn’t it?" The woman, pulling on her gloves, looked as if she weren’t going to answer. There was the slightest movement of her head, then all at once she was standing up. She leaned down toward us just as the scream of the steam brakes filled the carriage. I watched her hand come forward and chuck Jane lightly on the chin. Now there was no triumph in her eyes—to me they were simply sad.

"Lukewarm, my girl. And it wouldn’t fill a thimble."

  Chris Horner


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