One evening at dinner Mrs. Cutting announced to Mr. Cutting that she thought she’d write a romance novel and become famous. She said it just as they were finishing their chocolate mousse. At the time, the remark seemed frivolous, and Mr. Cutting paid little attention; later, he would have total recall about the announcement, the mousse, the angle of the sun as it vanished over the redwood deck outside the window, and the way his wife had pursed her lips as she spoke.
The Cuttings were a handsome couple in their mid-forties. They were childless, a fact that Mrs. Cutting sometimes regretted, but she had long ago put her disappointment aside. She secretly suspected that their childlessness was the fault of Mr. Cutting’s low sperm count, but when she’d suggested that he have it checked, he had sunk into a silent, sulky depression, so she had let the matter drop.
Mr. Cutting was a man of sturdy build. A football player and fraternity man in college, he subscribed to the theory that a healthy body made a strong mind, and he worked out three nights a week at the Valley Crest Tennis and Racquetball Club. Mrs. Cutting wasn’t at all interested in exercise and, in fact, occasionally lit up a cigarette behind the Japanese Andromeda in the lower garden behind the house. At such times, she felt independent and pleasantly dizzy.
Mrs. Cutting had been in a sorority in college, a happy association that had established her belief that women should seek a bond with other females. She belonged to the Junior League, the garden club, and three book clubs, and she had recently joined a writing group that met each Wednesday night at the home of one or another of its members. For quite awhile, she had felt a tiny discontent, some mild feeling that life was dashing past her. She had made no mark on life, save perhaps in the plantings in her garden and the careful maintenance of the collection of Ming vases that filled the shelves in the dining room. Creating a garden and collecting beautiful things had seemed enough to satisfy her inner needs for a long time, but now she felt unfulfilled and restless. She hadn’t expressed these feelings to Mr. Cutting. Life for him was a series of tactical strategies that were always carefully thought out and executed. He wouldn’t have understood.
Mrs. Cutting had been a virgin when she married Mr. Cutting and being a staunch advocate of marital fidelity, she really had no gauge on which to measure the excitement and variety of physical passion. She knew what she knew, and that was all. The constant barrage of articles on sexual foreplay that peppered the pages of the magazines she leafed through at the beauty parlor, as well as the disclosures of the often unattractive and common people who spoke of their sexually aberrant behavior on television talk shows, puzzled and distressed her sensibilities. She had read only snippets of Lady Chatterley’s adventures, and none of her friends ever disclosed anything about their real life sex lives to her. Furthermore, she had never read Anais Nin.
The first meeting of the writer’s club was held at Harriet Levy’s house, and Mrs. Cutting felt a kind of breathlessness as she rang the bell. Harriet, wearing a caftan made of cloth imported from New Zealand, her dark hair swept up in a dramatic chignon, embraced her as she entered and drew her into the living room which was decorated in a mixture of exotic and traditional: cocoa mats and good Oriental rugs blended with beautifully restored antiques and modern pieces.
The writing group had named themselves “Les Girls,” and when Mrs. Cutting arrived the first night, the ladies were already out on the deck sipping from tall glasses of iced cappuccino topped with dollops of cream and chocolate sprinkles. With Mrs. Cutting, the group numbered twelve — just the right number, Harriet pointed out, to balance the psychic energy that was so important to serious writers.
Harriet proposed that they should all begin by writing romance novels and she handed out neatly stapled articles that she said clearly delineated the nature of the genre. They were not to worry about the rigidity of the genre, however. “You know, ladies, that we must spend some time reading romance novels so that we have a clear sense of what publishers are buying,” Harriet added with a nod and a smile.
“But I never thought of — ” said Mrs. Cutting
“Publishing — ” Harriet said.
“Well, yes — I guess so,” said Mrs. Cutting.
“Should publishing a novel be the end result of our efforts, more power to us. Never let it be said that we aren’t up to the task,” she said. “Go home and read, read, read. We’ll have wonderful discussions at our next meeting.”
Harriet hugged Mrs. Cutting at the door and whispered how pleased she was to have met her and how thrilled she was that the group was going to be so compatible. Mrs. Cutting felt a tingle of excitement that this new experience was to be hers and hers alone. Mr. Cutting was asleep when she arrived home and although she was a bit disappointed that he had not bothered to wait up for her on this triumphant night, she was just as glad to be alone to digest what had happened. She poured herself a sherry and curled up on the soft leather couch in the study with the articles that Harriet had given out. She smiled as she read, bathed in the waters of female bonding.
The next morning, Mrs. Cutting went immediately to the bookstore and purchased ten romance novels.
“Going to do a little reading, I see,” said the clerk.
“Oh, not just reading,” said Mrs. Cutting. “A little writing as well.”
When she got home, Mrs. Cutting sat down on the leather couch in the study and began to read. By three o’clock, she had already begun her third novel and had gotten up only once to let the dog out and to make a cucumber sandwich. When Mr. Cutting arrived home at seven-thirty, he found the house in darkness except for the light in the study. There he found Mrs. Cutting sprawled on the couch with her feet up and her hair down around her shoulders.
“Darling!” she said. “Are you home already? I’ve been so busy, so really engrossed, I simply lost track of time. So sorry.”
“Marjorie, why are you talking like that?” Mr. Cutting said.
“Like what, darling?”
“Like that. You never call me darling. And why are you stretched out on the sofa like that? You look like…”
“A strumpet? What a quaint word,” Mrs. Cutting said.
Then she rose slowly, slipped her arms around her husband’s neck and kissed him.
Mr. Cutting stared at her for a moment. Then he squared his shoulders and stepped a few feet back. He felt somehow that he had been compromised, and in trying to sort things out, he focused on the books that were spread out on the coffee table. Voluptuous women with bodices stretched tightly across their breasts clung to muscular young men. For a moment, he wondered if he had caught his wife indulging in some secret sin that she had carefully hidden from him for all of the years of their marriage. Then her announcement at dinner came back to him, and he thought he understood what was going on.
“Been reading, I see,” he said.
“Aren’t you feeling well? “ he said.
“I feel fine,” she said. Mrs. Cutting had straightened her hair and smoothed her skirt. She began to arrange the books into two neat stacks. “I think I told you that I am going to write romance novels. And publish them, too.”
“Practicing, then, I guess,” he said.
For the next two weeks. Mr. Cutting never knew what he would find when he got home. On several occasions, she met him at the door wearing nothing but the short silk kimono he had brought her from a business trip to Japan. At other times, she was withdrawn and seemed not to care if he was there at all. The laptop disappeared from the den and appeared on the mahogany table in the spare bedroom. From there, she had an ideal view of the wisteria vines that were just beginning to burst forth their lavender blossoms. Beyond the wisteria, a bed of white lilies, yellow stamens protruding from their bell-shaped blooms, stood tall and proud on rigid stalks. Each morning she worked in the spare room and each evening before Mr. Cutting arrived home, she made a hard copy of the manuscript and placed it in a manila envelope. Then she unplugged the laptop and placed it with the manuscript inside the table drawer, which she locked.
Mr. Cutting was thrown off balance. The more questions he asked about his wife’s writing, the fewer answers he received. She began meeting at night with the other ladies from the writing group, not just once a week, but sometimes two or three times. It was necessary, she said, to share her writing in order to get feedback. Harriet had been right about the psychic energy of the twelve women, she said. It was really something of a miracle, and Harriet, the dear sweet thing, had so much to offer all of them, she said.
“What the hell does her husband think about having a bunch of women around two or three nights a week? Maybe I should call him and ask if he wants to meet me someplace for a drink,” said Mr. Cutting.
“There is no Mr. Levy,” Mrs. Cutting replied. “They’re divorced. She’s had a frightful time of it, actually. And she’s so talented. You must meet her sometime. Really. You’ll love her.”
For two days, Mr. Cutting sulked, but Mrs. Cutting appeared not to notice.
One night when Mrs. Cutting was off with the girls, Mr. Cutting picked up one of the romance novels that were stacked on the coffee table. The story was about a young working girl who had fallen in love with her boss. The plot progressed rapidly; the language was flowery. He could sense a current of sexual tension that became stronger and stronger from page to page, and he was drawn into the story in a way that he never imagined that he would be. On page fifty, he was shocked to discover the young woman and her boss locked in a torrid embrace on the leather couch in the boss’s office.
Mr. Cutting dropped the book. He was flushed and anxious. He stood up and wandered to the window where, had it not been dark, he could have seen the heavily laden wisteria vines and the tall, rigid lily stalks with their bell-shaped blossoms, ripe and sweetly redolent. The idea that his wife had read the scene that he had just finished startled him. Worse yet, he felt compromised. What if Marjorie was writing scenes like the sexually graphic scene that had drawn his attention?
It wasn’t that he was a prude. But the description of the coupling was so detailed. He recalled hearing or reading somewhere that a writer can write only what he has experienced. What if — and this was the real fear that lurked there in the study — what if Marjorie was writing about sex and using their lovemaking for her model! After all, she had been a virgin when he married her, and he believed absolutely that her sexual experience stopped with him.
Mr. Cutting felt a tightness in his chest, for he knew something that his wife did not. He knew his shortcomings as a lover. The men at the club were forever discussing the topic of sex, and he’d heard his share of intimate details of their sexual encounters. Putting dimension and speed aside, he was well aware of more exotic techniques he might have tried in their bedroom. The truth was, however, that he didn’t really care that much about sex. He did what he did.
As he paced back and forth across the study, Mr. Cutting imagined the scene of his humiliation. He saw the bored expressions on the faces of the ladies and heard their giggles as they listened to Marjorie’s description of their conjoining. Mr. Cutting groaned and smoothed back his hair. Then, because he was a reasonable man, a man of business who knew that there was nothing more dangerous than to be caught on the defensive, he stood up, squared his shoulders and prepared to search for the facts.
Although he paid little attention to his wife’s daily routine, he knew that she was compulsively neat. She would never have left her writing out on the table because it would have made the room look unbalanced. The table in the guest room on which she worked had one large drawer, and that must be where she had placed her manuscript. Perfectly simple, he thought as he approached the table. Perfectly simple. Except that the drawer was locked. He searched the room for the key, but it was nowhere to be found. He was on the verge of forcing the lock when he remembered that they kept a number of skeleton keys in the front hall.
What had moments before seemed horrible to him now became an adventure in which he played the cunning detective, the wise priest and the invincible hero. With trembling fingers, he inserted each key until he found a match and extracted the folder containing Mrs. Cutting’s neatly printed manuscript.
The first ten pages dragged on and on. The heroine was a childless married woman whose oafish husband didn’t pay her enough attention. She had gone behind his back to engage a divorce lawyer. Mr. Cutting found his wife’s manuscript unsettling. If it were true that writers only write about what they know, then his wife might be expressing her true feelings of unhappiness.
He put the idea out of his mind. In fact, he wanted to put the whole manuscript out of his mind when he realized that the young lady and the lawyer were about to have sex. The description of the liaison between the man and woman excited him, and in his excitement, he forgot that the author was his wife. In fact, he had momentarily forgotten the fears that had driven him to read the manuscript in the first place. With a sense of relief that bordered on joy, he recognized that the details of the romantic coupling in the story bore no resemblance to any acts that he and Mrs. Cutting had ever committed in their lovemaking. He had been given a total reprieve. Marjorie had saved him; in fact, she had elevated him to a position of esteem, assuming that the writing ladies subscribed to the theory about writers and their experiences. He did wonder just for a moment how his wife had managed to write so vividly about lovemaking, but he quickly put any doubts out of his mind. He was, in fact, proud of her imagination.
When Mrs. Cutting returned that night, flushed and excited from her meeting with the writing ladies, Mr. Cutting saw a stranger and a liar, and a tremor passed through him. He rose to face his wife and moved slowly and deliberately toward her through the dim shadows of the den. He took her firmly in his arms and kissed her with a passion that he had never felt for her before. With a gasp, she demurred momentarily, but then returned his kiss with equal fervor.
In moments, their clothes lay in jumbled heaps, and they were making love on the Oriental rug. In moments, they reached what in the terminology of the romance genre might have been described as “pinnacles of ecstasy” and lay there, limbs entangled and ghostly white against the rich and intricate design of the rug. They sighed in unison and drew closer to each other for warmth. Outside in the garden, the frogs chirruped steadily in the darkness, and a light, nourishing rain began to fall softly on the lilies that lay beyond the wisteria in Mrs. Cutting’s garden.