These excerpts feature MATURE CONTENT, 18 and older please.
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Excerpt from “The Distance Between Here and Space”, from Women in Strange Places: Stories. (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009
Some people have now come to know Annabelle’s diary as a handbook of curses: it always makes its reader do strange or uncharacteristic things.
A young woman, who had never crafted a creative word in her life, found it at a bar next to overturned ashtrays. She wrote a poem about it on a bathroom stall an hour later:
there has to be a time or place
in the distance between here and space
where a woman is herself and only.
She took it to her friends in the smoky mazes of the college dorms and they all read it, leaving behind in their interest greasy thumbprints, rings of coffee and beer worked into the covers, edges torn, or altogether singed by cigarettes.
Eventually it earned a place in a frat house’s coveted library of “smut”, on a series of tilted bookshelves in the basement.
Flogged by the passing of a decade the diary had yellowed. It made it out of the basement when one of the more conservative brothers in a new class decided to get rid of the shelves. Annabelle’s diary was the first thing he saw, sticking out among the hot pink, glossy covers of porn magazines like a bruise.
He read the first two pages out of virgin curiosity, and then tossed it over his shoulder, shaking his head in judgment.
A source of pleasure and confusion for all who read it, Annabelle’s recorded days disturbed the sleep of men in particular. The diary ended up under a few more cushions and on a few more shelves, in houses, hotels, airplanes, diners and rental cars. Another five years went by before it finally made it back into the hands of a woman, named Elizabeth.
In the weeks before her Saturn Return, Elizabeth’s artistic intrigue came to her one night on a drunken walk home from a birthday party. It was nearing four a.m. The night was powdered down by fog. Her body was exhausted from walking the blocks that heaved up and down Telegraph Hill. Her troubled thoughts were adrift in whiskey.
It had been nearly a year since she painted. When she felt something that she thought would finally feed itself into the paint and canvas, she dropped everything, sometimes leaving her job early, and ran home to really work. She would stand there, stock still, her brush up and ready, dripping navy blue (her signature starting color), her eyes intent on the canvas, forgetting even to breathe – and then nothing.
Her frustration had gotten her into the habit of tossing her brush against the wall.
When she hit these doldrums her superstition was to complain, and as if by some form of Murphy’s Law she would immediately receive inspiration and was off painting again. But that hadn’t worked lately.
The distant moan of a cargo ship pushed through the fog. When Elizabeth came to Mason and Vallejo, miles, it seemed, from the next living being, she saw a drunk woman cross the street, dressed plainly in black fitted jeans and a blue t-shirt. She was a few years younger than Elizabeth and underweight for her height, which had always been the fashion. She stood against the base of the streetlamp in a coquettish pose that was completely accidental.
Then the image struck Elizabeth. She stopped and looked at the diamond shape that formed in the distance between the woman’s waist and the inside of her elbow; at its top corners under her arm and against her palm at her hip.
In that crooked intersection, Elizabeth envisioned this woman as the classic whore; the one that braved whatever street at whatever hour to be present where men only wanted to be absent and lost in someone else. And obscuring her chances of even being seen was that persistent, trademark fog, making her heart beat hard in worry about money.
Before she realized how hard she had been studying the woman’s form, the woman turned to Elizabeth and shouted, “Hey, where can I get a cab around here?”
Elizabeth had understood, “Hey, where can I get a man around here?” She laughed right at her and kept walking, chanting to herself, “Don’t forget, the woman in diamonds, the woman in diamonds!”
With every intention to paint she finally made it up the faux marble and mildew stairway to her studio, drew a diamond on the canvas in blue, and passed out.
She woke with one of the worst flus of her life the next afternoon.
Two days later, a loud knocking at the door shook her out of a dream.
“It’s unlocked,” Elizabeth croaked.
The crowded studio smelled like paint and all the mentholated vapors of a sick person. Andrew opened the door slowly as he walked in. He carried a blue backpack over his right shoulder, and wore his favorite black cargo shorts and green t-shirt.
The fluidity of Andrew’s strong body would often give people the impression he was a dancer. He encountered an odd disappointment when he said he was just a librarian, though it wasn’t rare for him to meet someone with a pervert’s mind about his profession.
Many people felt there was a charm to his face no one could ever put their finger on. But it was the intensity of his green eyes, and the way he would smile with his eyes, that made people feel invited toward him and want to sit with him, often telling him random anecdotes and even secrets.
Seeing Andrew meant that a good story was on its way to Elizabeth. Their old friendship was virtually based on storytelling. Whenever she was sick he would come over with soup and a series of books, and she would do the same when he was ill.
His presence also meant that Elizabeth’s heart would go at double its pace, and as sick as she was it was even more draining to spend time with her best friend – with this man who had no clue she was in love with him.
He was the reason why she couldn’t date anyone or even have a one-nighter or two. She was beginning to imagine he was the reason why she couldn’t paint, either.
“Wow, you look pretty,” he teased.
“Fuck you. How are you?”
“I’m okay,” he replied. He looked around at the organized mess of the studio.
Andrew smiled. “Still not painting huh?”
“I tried. I feel like I’m molding over. This is disgusting.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine in two days. It’s the good ol’ San Francisco Flu. Everyone gets it at least twice a month,” he offered. “I can’t stay – ”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve been so busy for months. I’ve barely seen you. What are you doing?”
Andrew smiled again. He sat beside her on the bed. “I brought you something I think would suit the weather. There’s a heat wave coming.”
“Oh wow, it’s gonna be sixty?”
“Eighty-eight for the next two whole days. It’ll help you sweat this out if you keep the windows shut like you have been.” From his bag he pulled out two books and Annabelle’s diary.
“Is that another collector’s book you’re drooling on?” Elizabeth asked. She eyed the green and blue cover. “Looks like it’s been through a hurricane.”
“My sister’s boyfriend left it at her place a couple months ago. She said she didn’t want to read it and was tired of him looking at it.” Andrew handed it to her.
The spine felt natural to her palm. It was easy to feel the dozens of hands that held the book before her. She opened the cover and read the first page, blank with the exception of the words, “by annabelle.”
“I’ve scanned it here and there, I haven’t read the whole thing myself yet. Other people have loved it – they’ve scribbled things on the inside covers and along the margins,” Andrew explained. He fingered along the places he’d mentioned while Elizabeth held it open. “Someone even went through and titled all her entries. Isn’t that funny?”
He took his hand back slowly and rested it on his lap. “It’s good,” he said.
“Why didn’t Gemma want to read it?”
“Gem’s a prude. I guess whoever this lady was, she was one hell of a – well, some people might call her a slut. I wouldn’t.”
“Andrew … I can’t read someone’s diary,” Elizabeth said. She went into a fit of glassy coughs.
“Well, when you called me you said something about painting a whore.”
“It was an idea.”
“Maybe this’ll help you make it out of your dry spell.”
“But since when do sluts keep diaries?” she asked. She caught sight of the words “HE FINALLY FUCKED ME” in bright red marker and she set the book down on her lap.
“I brought you some other beautiful books too. But don’t be shy,” Andrew said. “I’m loaning the diary to you. Don’t keep it.”
“You are a pervert.”
“I love books.”
“But slut diaries …”
“Aren’t all librarians supposed to be trashy anyway?” Andrew said with a laugh. “Want me to call you later?”
He stood and began to adjust his deflated book bag over his shoulder.
“Yeah. If I don’t answer it means the meds have kicked in. Thank you.”
Andrew kissed her forehead and set the other books on her nightstand. “I brought you some Baldwin and a really nice poetry collection. Feel better. Enjoy the diary. Don’t rub yourself too hard.”
Andrew rushed out of the studio before Elizabeth could toss an old magazine at him.
Elizabeth kept the diary out of her sight. She put it on the floor, just barely under the bed. After two hours of poetry she nodded off into plotless dreams, and woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain and her skin covered in sweat.
In her sleep her arm had gone off over the side of the bed. Her left hand first became aware of that tattered, raised spine as she came to. She grabbed the book and lifted it to her sight quickly. She felt a hint of intrigue. It was like a feather being moved across the back of her neck.
She set the book down on the floor again and opened the hard cover to revisit the simple introduction, “by annabelle.”
On the back of that page, someone had written in pencil: “beware! the man that reads this becomes an asshole, the woman that reads this becomes a whore!”
Elizabeth smirked and continued on to the blue script of Annabelle’s careful hand. She fell in love with her penmanship immediately; it reminded her of the curling crests of waves.
June 16 – Work
Dollars are permission slips.
June 18 – Dream
I had a dream that I was wearing a hideous brown and tan plaid suit. I was a woman from the 1940’s. I had a fur stole around my neck, and those big hats the movie star girls used to wear. There were lights on me, blinding me. I was on a tiny stage, so I couldn’t see the audience that watched me, I could just feel them. Like the air in the room was flexing with everyone’s breathing. It was a packed house for something. It didn’t occur to me that the something was me! And all of a sudden all these hands were coming out of the white-dark of the audience, ripping my clothes off, ripping that nice fabric. The seams of the pencil skirt were busting along the outside of my thighs. The way they busted was strange. They pulled so hard it was like my skin was busting. And I was laughing! I was almost in tears I was laughing so hard, as these hands shredded me naked.
I’ll have to call Donna and see what she thinks. If I ask Julie she’ll just tell me I need to get laid. This isn’t news.
“Well this is stupid,” Elizabeth said to herself.
She turned to the next page.
June 21 – Bank man
At work today my favorite man came in to make a series of deposits for his boss. He was telling me about how he was tired of running this kind of errand for her as I put the information into the computer. He is obviously someone of low standing at his job. But all I can sense in him is power. This reined-in thing. He was angry about running errands for his boss, I thought, because he was the one who wanted to be boss. I know what it’s like to be at the bottom, I don’t like it either. For him I would stay there. If he needs someone to take out that pent-up need for seizing power on, I am his woman.
I’ve gone and come back to this page twice tonight. I can’t sit still. I was just in the kitchen steaming milk and I caught myself rubbing the side of my neck, and then my hand drifted down to the center of my shirt. I was thinking about what his mind must be like. I see him as the kind of man who wouldn’t take off his silk navy suit to fuck. He’s so tall. His features are perfect. The power in that body is so balanced, I can see it when he walks.
He would get me in a closet. In a corner out of sight from people in the office maybe. He would pull up my skirt, push my panties to the side, he would free himself into me. He would look me in the eye when he came. Maybe he wouldn’t care if I did. I wonder if he’d blame me for the mess I made him make, like a coded thank you. As a secretive “let’s do this again.” I hate the burning of wanting someone you can’t have. I wonder if anyone feels this the way I feel the absence in my hands. These days when I get this infatuated with a guy it’s like there are dents in his flesh that are the shape of my hands, made only for their fit. I hate this I hate this shit! Why can’t I forget about him? Or any of the other ones? It’s like waking up to a familiar scent in a warm bed. And it’s comforting! But it hurts.
Elizabeth felt something inside her retreat. Her energy was lower now with the words of this stranger that instantly mirrored her thoughts about Andrew. The longing that never died, even while she slept, was there when she woke up as if it were keeping vigil over her every night. Their friendship had been long and easy, and her love of him had always been secret. She preferred it that way. Things weren’t messy that way.
Yet the vulnerability of being ill made it worse. The need to be taken care of, to feel someone next to her, serving her, was stoking her fever as the medicine began to reclaim its hold.
She rolled onto her back and dreamed about sex in an office.
The studio was a sauna the next morning. The air coming into her mouth and one of her nostrils felt fat. She didn’t open a single window or vent, or crack her apartment door as she would sometimes do when it got hot. She went to the bathroom when she woke up, took a hot shower with a soap that smelled of tea tree oil, and instantly got back into bed.
She felt just as bad as she had the night before, only this time, Annabelle’s words were on her lap, and she didn’t care about the scalding gravel of her sore throat.
June 22 – Bank man!
When I got into bed I lied there with my thighs together. I hoped I would fall asleep but I couldn’t. It didn’t matter what I tried to do. I fucked myself in bed for what felt like half the night. I stopped when my hands got too tired. And this morning, who was my first customer in line, in that bullshit bank?
He wore a black suit today, with a perfectly white shirt and a mint green tie. He smiled at me again, he complained to me again. I fantasized about writing my phone number on his deposit receipt. And also about opening my blouse for him and showing him my bra. Oh my god I wanted to do anything he would say to me. But instead, I said, thank you, have a wonderful afternoon. That was so humiliating. That was like stuffing my mouth full of nails. I wonder if he thinks about me ever. I should tell him I want him. Where would I start! I would drop to my knees wherever he was and hope to stop time for him with my tongue.
June 23 – Kevin
I went out with Julie last night to this bar she’s obsessed with. She said it was time to “let myself” get picked up. I didn’t want this, I just wanted the man from work. Now I’m afraid something in me has been opened. I met a guy named Kevin who was okay looking but had a great smile. He asked me my name. He wasn’t my type and I didn’t think I was going to talk to him long so I lied and said my name was Annabelle. I was a little drunk by the time closing time came around. I wasn’t hanging off him or anything. I’m usually not very good at hitting on men. He told me he wanted to take me home so I said fine. We got in the cab and made out some. He lives near the Bay Bridge. Had a real pretty view from his apartment. He asked me if I liked to experiment. I felt like my blood was about a thousand degrees. Inside I was saying, “Yes! Yes! Let’s do something nuts!” But I just couldn’t get horny because he wasn’t the man from work. Kevin asked me if I fantasized about anything and I told him I only fantasized about fucking the guy from work. He said he’d change my mind. He said he liked doing kinky things with underwear.
I couldn’t be a chooser for being such a beggar, I hadn’t gotten laid in a looong time! He put on a pair of hot pink crotchless panties. He gave me a new pair of small boxers and extended the flap into a hole straight down the middle over my pussy. We fucked that way. It was weird. But I liked it. I stayed over.
Ever since then I’ve felt this thing … I want to be full of someone. It doesn’t matter who. I want to know them, to take sips of them through their skin. I just want to have sex. But now I’m so scared of myself. What if this gets me into trouble?
June 25 – Lawrence
I did it again. With a cop! Beautiful jawline, a body that filled out the uniform perfectly. He was the hottest thing I’d ever seen guarding an armored truck. The truck was running late. They didn’t get in til five. I was just leaving. I saw him look at me. I love the way men look at women. Weird thing to analyze. Men seem to break up the female body into sections. I don’t think we’re ever a whole to them. Maybe we are. To him I was a pair of legs and a face I think. He completely glossed over my figure and my tits. He loved looking at my legs. He thought I wasn’t noticing. I asked myself what someone in the movies might do – I sure as hell didn’t know what to do. I took a post-it and wrote my phone number on it and told him to meet me at the bar down my block at 11. And he did! I can’t believe it worked. His name is Lawrence, he’s a delicious blonde from Montana of all places. The city girl in me went into “abuse the country boy” override. It didn’t take long. We had one beer and after that we kissed. I sat in his lap at the bar. He said I was aggressive. All this stuff started to come out of my mouth. That I wanted him to cuff me! I’ve never thought about that before. I told him I wanted him to go get his uniform and fuck me in it. Then he told me the oddest thing. He said it’s illegal to wear it when he wasn’t on duty. He was dead serious about it. So committed. So faithful and dedicated to his job. I had to fuck him for his integrity alone! He doesn’t live far from here. He went and got the uniform and instead of fucking me while wearing it he laid it out on the bed! J Already arranged! It was like a cop had melted into the bed and all that was left was the uniform. He was really, really, really good too. I came so hard at one point I wouldn’t be surprised if someone on a plane heard me.
Elizabeth woke with the diary open against her chest. Her body writhed gently as she became aware of the heat, now a presence in the room unto itself. A small moan of discomfort came from her, as her body had become stiffer over night.
She examined the thickness of the remaining pages of Annabelle’s diary with her finger and thumb. There had to be fifty pages left at least. Annabelle could wait, she could sit there on the bed, ready to advise her more if she needed it, ready to understand the all-consuming need for Andrew’s body that had come back to haunt Elizabeth as the goosebumps of inspiration. She decided to only pleasure herself through the painting.
Elizabeth set up the canvas and laid out her paints gently. She covered the canvas first with a soft sheen of metallic blue, then built voluminous shapes of red on red, green on black. She breathed deeply, letting her hand create the long, easy strokes, as her mind struggled for focus.
Her thoughts wandered. Instead of considering the gauges of the shapes, she thought about what would happen if she and Andrew had sex. It was frightening to imagine something like that ripping the seam out of their friendship. But she knew exactly where Annabelle was in her mind at work, with the suited man standing there. She knew how the shapes of a room and all the people in it could completely vanish and become a pane of grey. The world would cease to exist, with the exception of that one object of lust that never aged or became repetitive. She knew how an urge could utterly bleach the risk out of a situation.
But she knew cowardice, too.
She looked over her shoulder at the diary, open on the bed.
Telling Andrew would only be the beginning. She’d have act. Maybe – and most likely, she imagined – she would have to run away with what might feel like a hole in her chest at his rejection.
Elizabeth had no idea how to imagine the scene in her mind. She put down her paintbrush and returned hungrily to the diary.
June 28 – Annabelle
I must make it a habit to write in here more. This is the only place I can unwrap my mind in without caution. I haven’t told Julie or Donna or Greg or anyone about this. They call me to go out and do things, they call me to ask me questions and meet their friends. I can’t. My heart won’t stop racing. My mind won’t stop being so fucking curious. I’ve started a list of things I’ve never done.
I did something I’ve always made fun of other people for doing. I put up ads for sex partners on a bunch of sites online. So far I’ve gotten something like one hundred responses. So many are fakes or ads for something. But there are some actual men on here. I hate how so many of them are people who don’t have any social skills. I’ve talked to one of them on the phone already and he sounds awkward and boring. I need someone who can match wits with me. I’m still going by the name Annabelle. I think I’m going to keep it.
I’m back. I’ve made two dates for tomorrow. I’m being greedy. I know I’m being greedy. I just can’t keep up with myself all of a sudden. This is fun. This is really fun but I’m nervous – I’m not doing anything dumb, I don’t think I’ll catch anything or something like that. I just feel like I’m vibrating, constantly.