Em Wycedee is a writer, journalist and English teacher who has had her work published in major newspapers and magazines like The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, literary journals like Ethos, and zines like The Backroom Press and Event Horizon. She lives with her husband, children and cats near Washington, DC. Her work is archived at http://www.littlereview.com.
Her nipples are so much darker than I thought they'd be, and so obvious on the enormous original compared to the reproductions in coffee-table books. Standing with Jenny and Julia in the National Gallery of Art, I'm embarrassed to be staring. The entire Victorian exhibit makes me shivery. Proserpine looks like she wants to be kissed. Ellen Terry, a ripe teenager, would probably be illegal by contemporary standards. On the back wall there's a stark-naked damsel in chains being rescued by a knight with a huge sword who obviously identifies with her would-be-ravisher. I can't decide which of them I want to identify with.
"I have a nightgown like that," Jenny announces too loudly in front of Waterhouse's poor doomed Lady of Shalott. Waterhouse painted the Lady four times, but this is the most confrontational portrait, where she has just looked out the window in a gossamer dress, with her eyes and her nipples focused straight ahead. The curse hasn't come upon her yet; she's still enjoying her transgression, spying on Lancelot in the river.
I can't picture Jenny in such a scene, let alone such a nightgown. We became friends at camp more than ten years ago, when we were kids. Then we drifted apart, but last year when she moved to Washington, she looked me up. I had a boyfriend then, and she was looking, so we went on some double dates, then after Drew and I broke up we stayed in touch. Jenny is pretty in an aerobics class sort of way. I imagine she sleeps in department store pyjamas or maybe a cotton gown -- clean-cut all-American lingerie, nothing too suggestive.
Jenny and I don't have much in common anymore but her sister Julia, whom I have never forgotten, though I haven't seen her in a decade. Today Julia looks exactly the way I remember -- like a Pre-Raphaelite goddess from one of these paintings. Huge blue eyes, high cheekbones, long skirts. Not as thin as Jenny, with hair a shade of red just purple enough to insinuate that it's not natural. Too old to be a Neoclassical beauty, no alabaster skin, but there's a glamour about her. Lots of intense colors in her background.
It was my idea to come here when I heard Julia was visiting Jenny. She's really Jenny's half-sister; they're not all that close. In fact, I suspect the main reasons for Julia's visit are the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. I earned bonus points from her for knowing about the Victorian exhibition, and more points for having seen it once already. Her hair brushes my shoulder as she leans forward to study the Lady of Shalott. "Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful," she murmurs to me, quoting Tennyson.
I somehow knew that Julia would know about the Lady of Shalott, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the scandals of the Victorian art world. I have to cover my mouth to keep from giggling like Jenny. "The artist's sister modeled for that painting," I shrug -- a detail remembered from a glossy guidebook on Waterhouse.
Julia glances out of the corner of her eye at me the way she's been doing on and off all afternoon. "His sister?" The low hum in her low voice conveys her amusement.
"The Smithsonian archivist says it was his sister." My voice sounds defensive, which is stupid: she's not challenging my knowledge, she's laughing at the fact that Waterhouse painted his sister in see-through nightgowns.
As we move together towards the centerpiece, Julia tosses her hair back and I see her as Flaming June, asleep in the sun with her nipples turned toward the ceiling.
After studying the June's face, slack-jawed in sleep, Julia casts a curious look in my direction. "Would you wake her up?" she asks in a purr that might be deliberately suggestive, or might just be how she talks when she's trying to keep her voice down in a gallery.
Oh, smooth. Until this year I thought I'd never have a crush on a woman I might have a chance with, because all the women I really wanted were practically old enough to be my mother. Then that changed -- the women didn't get any younger, but I realized I was getting old enough that we could almost be peers. I wouldn't have gone for Julia, who's only a few years older than me, and was considered a strange bird by the popular people at camp, except that she was in a play. I forget what it was, something by Oscar Wilde, but she wore a long dress and looked a lot older. She had the same smoky voice even then. It was about a hundred degrees at camp that day. I thought the wet between my legs was from sweating. It took me a long time to make the connection between my panties and how I felt about women. It's nearly a hundred degrees outside the National Gallery, too hot for any of us to want to walk up the Mall to look at the First Ladies' dresses. I think about asking Julia if she wants to go see Amelia Earhart's plane in the Air and Space Museum. I wish I'd worn a skirt instead of these ugly blue capri pants that cling to my legs. Julia's hem practically sweeps the floor but her arms are bare, and the neckline scoops below the V in her cleavage, showing the freckles that dot her chest. I wonder whether her nipples are as dark as Flaming June's. I wonder what she would do if I asked her. I bet I could dare her to take me into the ladies' room and show me. Julia catches my eye as she realizes where I'm looking. "It's too hot in here," she declares, pushing her hair back from her neck. I get a quick glimpse at her armpits, the muscles shifting under her skin. "I'm going out for a cigarette. Want to come?"
I understand that last as a double entendre. But Jenny stays oblivious. "We just got here!" she squeals. "It'll take forever to get back in. You were the one who wanted to see the paintings!"
"I'm only in town for two more days." The statement is cryptic to Jenny, who doesn't understand why that would make her sister want to leave the Pre-Raphaelites so soon after insisting that we visit. But I understand her meaning from the smile she gives me.
"You stay, Jen. We'll go, and meet you by the fountain in twenty minutes." I follow Julia, though I have a pretty good idea where she's headed. She doesn't stop for a smoke. We go straight to the ladies' room, past the large fountain where a naked Venus frolics with cupids. The restroom line snakes into the corridor -- mostly mothers with children. Julia leans back against the marble wall, pressing her arms to the stone to cool them. Her breasts thrust forward. Through half-closed eyes she catches me looking and grins, "Hot enough for you?", inclining her head towards the doors as if she means the weather. I nod.
Inside the ladies' room it's chaos. Mothers are going into stalls with two, three children, women cluster around in groups waiting for friends. Two women who don't speak English huddle together over a baby one is breast-feeding while the other adjusts a bright-colored scarf around her neck. At first, I can't imagine breast-feeding in a room with so many germs. Then I think about the 19th century, when people fed babies and made love in rooms with chamber pots and sometimes dead bodies. Those gauzy Rossetti goddesses got syphilis and died in childbirth. People take beauty where they can.
Though my face is burning, no one appears to pay us any attention as Julia and I head together to an empty stall when it opens -- the handicapped stall, largest of all, and remote in the back corner of the restroom. The smells of human waste and disinfectant are nearly overwhelming in the close confines, but once she has locked the door, Julia moves close to me, and her scent overpowers everything else.
"Do you need to pee?" she asks in an ironic voice.
"No." The heaviness in my pelvis is sweet pressure, the weight of anticipation. Julia's arms around my waist send a jolt of electricity through me and I feel a flash of heat between my legs. Then she corners me against the wall beside the toilet, putting her hands on either side of my waist. She kisses me.
I have never taken a woman's tongue into my mouth before, so I try at first to analyze the experience, comparing it to men I have kissed. Julia's mouth is softer but her teeth feel sharper, or perhaps she is using them less discriminately, allowing them to nip at my lips and the skin between my nose and mouth. I stop comparing and focus on kissing her back, sucking on her tongue. Her belly presses into mine, her knee urges my legs apart. I want to squat and rub myself on her thigh, but am afraid of wrinkling her skirt, leaving a wet spot on it. I'm terrified of not behaving like a lady -- like all the beautiful women on the walls of the exhibit hall.
"Do you like this?" Julia whispers. I am afraid to do anything other than nod. "Then touch me." Her hands settle gently on my breasts as she moves her mouth to my neck, sucking. I feel her playing with my nipples, then she reaches underneath my shirt to unhook my bra. I'm not sure what she wants me to do, and Iím not nearly as courageous, so I tentatively put my hands on her torso and stroke upwards.
The material of her dress feels the way Sargent's Lady Agnew looks -- lace and silk and ribbons, as inviting as a birthday package. Julia makes a pleased humming sound -- a little too loudly for the restroom, I think as my self-consciousness returns. Then she slides a hand into the waistband of my pants, and I stop thinking about anything except when will she touch me down there, will she mind how wet my panties are, will she actually put her hand inside them and touch my clit...
Abruptly my fear dissipates and I want to feel her pussy, even if none of the gorgeous women on the walls of the museum ever did that with each other, even the ones with scandalous pasts like Madame X. I am curious how Julia's compares to mine, whether she's as wet as I am and whether it's the sticky, thick kind of wet that sticks to your panties or the slippery, soaking kind that goes right through them. But I have no idea how to go about getting to her, pressed against the wall with her hand in my pants and her body hidden in a floor-length skirt. I don't want her to stop what she's doing, nor to think I want her to, so I am afraid to dislodge her.
She touches the drenched spot between my legs and pulls her hand out, which makes me ashamed, but it's only so she can pull down my pants and underwear. "Look what I found," she murmurs conspiratorially as we both look down at my pussy. My pubic hair is damp and matted, the labia swollen and shining. I think of the paintings outside, women with smooth hairless triangles between their legs, and I am embarrassed at my unkempt, indelicate appearance. I remember reading about how Ruskin's wife left him for John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Ruskin said Effie was deformed and refused to consummate their marriage, but then she had lots of children with Millais. The biographers speculated that Ruskin had never seen a naked woman -- just paintings like Titian's Venus, who had the pelvis of a little girl -- so Ruskin thought there was something wrong with his wife for having pubic hair, for owning a real labia.
Julia spreads me open with her fingers and begins to stroke, still standing away from me so I can see what she's doing. None of those porcelain women will ever feel anything like this in their unblemished cool stone bodies that have no entrances. Julia's fingers make a moist sound as they slide up and down my slit. I am sure the person in the stall next to us must be able to smell what's going on in here, but it no longer matters. As she moves in to kiss me, Julia reaches around me with her free hand to cup my ass.
"Mmm," she says as she licks my ear, like it's edible.
"Ohh," I answer her.
"Julia, are you in here?" An annoyed call snaps us out of our swoon. Jenny. It's been more than fifteen minutes. Shit, how are we going to get out of this stall together without her seeing? Julia's hands are still buried between my legs but her fingers are no longer moving, and just like that I feel myself closing up, like petals folding in on a flower when the sun is eclipsed. Flaming June, fast asleep with the blazing folds sticking damply to her skin, naked and open yet shuttered.
"Get on the toilet." Julia's hands press under my thigh, urging it up. At first I think she means to sit, then I realize she wants me to get up on the back of the toilet so my feet can't be seen from beneath the walls of the stall. I climb onto the toilet seat and sit on the tank, careful to keep my head too low to be seen from outside.
"Just a minute, Jenny," Julia calls to her sister. She turns back to me, straddling the toilet. Her kiss is deep, full of promise, and a moment later it's moving down my neck, then diving between my legs. Julia sits backward on the toilet, bent down to my pussy, as I spread wide and arch up to her. The wall is cool behind my back, my pants bind my legs together at my ankles. Julia uses one hand to stroke me while with the other she reaches around to support my back.
I come without warning, slamming my head back into the tile wall, though I can't say whether it's that or holding back my scream that leaves me dizzy and breathless when the contractions finally let up and Julia raises her head. The whole lower half of her face is glistening with my juices and her lipstick's gone, but she looks so beautiful, flushed and bright like someone should paint her. Over her head through the crack I can see people walking past the bathroom stall, probably wondering why she's sitting backward on the seat. She grins, winks, stands up and whispers, "Let me get her out of here."
Jenny, she means Jenny. I'd forgotten all about her. Meanwhile Julia wipes off her face with some toilet paper, straightens her skirt and digs in her purse for a mint. "Meet you by the fountain," she murmurs, her clean peppermint breath in my face, then she unlocks the door and makes her escape. I leap down to lock it again as soon as she's gone.
From the crack I watch Julia lead her sister out of the bathroom, explaining that she thinks I already left and I'm probably waiting for them. I sit on the toilet and relieve myself, though in truth it offers little relief, and I wonder whether I have missed my chance to touch Julia, to find out what she tastes like, to see what's under her skirt. Slowly I wipe myself off and leave the stall to wash my hands, wondering whether the other women in the restroom can smell me, but the room is full of stench -- too much perfume and too much shit -- the same stink Rossetti must have encountered when he went searching for prostitutes to pose for him.
The sisters are sitting on the edge of the fountain when I approach them. They're surrounded by kids with coins and by other waiting people -- some dressed for dates, some checking out the rest of the crowd. Every time the enormous doors open to admit a visitor from outside, a blast of heat singes the room. I look at Julia and feel the same heat burst through me.
"We could pose like the three women reading in that Albert Moore painting," suggests Jenny. "If we all put on the same color nightgowns."
"I'd rather pose as Venus getting fanned," deadpans her sister, looking me up and down speculatively. "Let's go to the gift shop and see if they have any of those Chinese fans from the Oriental Gallery."
While Jenny thumbs through pretentious books on the Renaissance masters, Julia and I head to the modern section, where we bow our heads over O 'Keefe's and Chicago's pussy-flowers. "Why don't you tell Jenny the heat's given you a headache," she murmurs. "Then I'll tell her I have research to do and I can follow you."
Again I imagine Julia asleep in my windowsill, her nipples upturned for me to stroke. I wonder whether Lord Leighton ever felt up his models as they dozed. I'm not a painter, but it would be incredibly erotic to have a woman spread out for my brush strokes, open to my gaze. Maybe I'll turn the air conditioning off so I can watch sweat cling to her forehead and roll down her neck.
"It is awfully hot," I agree.
© 2002 Em Wycedee. All rights reserved. Do not copy or post.
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