Steamy stories from award-winning writers including Louise Erdrich and Souvankham Thammavongsa make “Anonymous Sex” a book to devour
If some of our best contemporary writers set out to write, well, passionate scenes of erotica, what would they write? You’ll never know which of the 27 authors wrote which story. Toronto writer and Giller winner Souvankham Thammavongsa, perhaps? Or maybe Edmund White, or Louise Erdrich or Chigozie Obioma? Editors Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan called upon these names to write about desire and sex. So they wouldn’t feel inhibited, all of the pieces are published anonymously. Who might have written the piece excerpted below titled “Find Me?” Have a read, and take a guess. None of us will ever know.
On the platform at Union Station, snow embellished the encroaching dark with shifting skeins of swirling white. Eloise could feel the chill through the silk stockings on her calves, but her ankles were protected by sheepskin-lined boots and the rest of her by a thick wool coat with a black fox shawl collar and cuffs. A matching fur hat pressed down over her loose black curls, so her pale face and light eyes appeared suspended in a mantle of darkness.
She was twenty-five years old, already a widow after four years of marriage to a man who had never given her cause to feel strongly one way or another about anything. Twice during this marriage, her husband’s cousin, a successful rancher “out west,” had visited the couple. Henry Pickles was a plainspoken, plain-featured, socially awkward, largely humorless fellow, but he had won Eloise with his frank admiration of her and envy of her husband. Henry had waited exactly one year from the day his unfortunate cousin succumbed to a virulent influenza before penning a short, sincere, and persuasive message, asking Eloise to be his wife.
She had no other prospects and was eager to leave the claustrophobic, frigid world of the upstate New York town where she had passed a quiet and unremarkable life. Henry had included a photograph of her new home, an ocher stucco ranch house with a deep porch, a tiled roof flanked by two large mystery trees, and a truck parked to one side. A rancher’s wife, she thought. She might learn to ride a horse.
Henry Pickles, her family agreed, had done well for himself, and Eloise’s hope that her new husband might be more attentive to her feelings than his cousin was strengthened when he sent her a first-class ticket to Reno. She would have a room and bath to herself for three long days and nights, while the train steamed steadily through the Northeast, along the Great Lakes, across the Central Plains, and into the western states, arriving at last in an unknown land called Nevada. Even the word felt like a warm breeze to her.
As she bustled along the platform, she spotted the porter who had taken her bags earlier waving her to a carriage with the word “First” stenciled in gold on the door. She climbed the three steps to the vestibule and stepped into a narrow, carpeted hall lined with tall windows on one side and shiny wine-red door panels on the other, each marked discreetly with a gold leaf number. Hers was number 3.
Hesitantly, she opened the door. It was like entering a charming, luxurious parlor. The walls were paneled mahogany. Above the dentil molding, the vaulted ceiling, lacquered a creamy viridian green, gave an unexpected impression of height. The thick carpet, in the Aubusson style with a pattern of blousy roses on a background of pale blue and cream, softened the color scheme. Two dark green, tufted leather couches faced each other on either side of a tall window shadowed by heavy damask drapes and a half-pulled shade of gray brocaded silk. A table had been deployed beneath the window and Eloise’s vanity case placed upon it. On the opposite wall, her large case and hatbox were stowed alongside a low built-in desk with a chair drawn up beneath it and a framed mirror above. Beyond this, a smoked-glass door opened into another space. Eloise peeked past it to find a bright bathroom with every convenience: a porcelain basin with a handheld shower attached and a brass drain in the floor, a toilet discreetly hidden beneath a mahogany seat, and a brass rack stacked with neatly folded towels. “They’ve thought of everything,” she said.
After a solitary meal in the half-empty dining car, Eloise returned to her compartment to find it transformed into a spacious boudoir. The couches had become a comfortable bed with a leather headboard, made up neatly with starched linen sheets, and piled with pillows in matching cases. A mauve velvet duvet lay folded at the foot. A matching chenille throw hung over the back of the desk chair. On the desk, an artfully arranged wooden tray held two glasses, a carafe of water, and a square lacquered box of chocolate truffles. Eloise had drunk half a bottle of wine with her trout dinner, and the effects of the alcohol combined with the constant rocking of the train as it hurtled through the night caused her to stagger slightly when she pulled the compartment door closed behind her. She turned the latch and sat down hard on the mattress. The room was warm, perhaps too warm. She tugged off her boots, leaving them where they fell. Then she pulled at her collar and opened the front of her travel suit. She felt deliciously free. The shade had been drawn. She leaned back, raising it halfway, but all she could see was her own reflection in the glass. This filled her with a secretive and sensuous pleasure. She pulled her jacket off, unbuttoned the blouse underneath, and without thinking, stood up, took two steps across the carpet, and helped herself to one of the chocolates. It collapsed against the roof of her mouth, releasing a rich, sweet cream that spread evenly across her tongue. “So good,” she said softly. She took her dressing gown from the closet and laid it on the bed. It was a simple garment of yellow silk, the color of the wine she had drunk at dinner. Languidly she undressed, hanging her skirt and blouse next to her coat, folding her slip, bra, underpants, and stockings, and stowing them away.
Excerpted from ‘Find Me’ in “Anonymous Sex.” Copyright © 2023, edited by Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
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