“I don’t quite know what to do right now,” Elihu Wingate says.

“It’s late. We suggest you turn out the light and go to sleep.”

“Good idea,” he says. He wonders where they’re going to go. The silence becomes awkward. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable in the living room,” he says. “I could help you—”

“We will stay here, thank you,” the spokesvirgin says, sweetly but firmly. “It’s not good for you to be alone.”

“Right. Of course.” Elihu Wingate turns off the lamp. “Well, good night,” he says, and in the darkness a chorus of small queenly voices wishes him good night.

Elihu Wingate looks up “grotto” in the dictionary and decides that a gazebo will be close enough. He chooses one made of rock maple with cedar shingles. He and Lance apply a golden-oak stain/polyurethane varnish to it and set it up in the backyard. They install shelves and nooks of various heights. His mother plants climbing yellow jasmine vine along the outside.

“They’ll love it,” Lance says.

Elihu Wingate wonders how anyone can look so blissful without being doped up.

“Don’t worry, E,” Lance says. “I’m not giving the kids drugs.”

Scylla’s latest blog, to Elihu Wingate’s relief, has nothing to do with psychology. Instead she seems to be ranting about the way creative writing is taught.

He looks at the date/time stamp. She posted it a few minutes ago. His e-mail program chimes. A note from Scylla.

I see you’re online, it says. You like the new post?

He presses Reply. Maybe we could talk about this in IM? My screen name is PsyE.

OK, comes the reply. What the hell.

That, Elihu Wingate reflects, is the likely response he’ll get if he ever actually asks a woman out on a date.

An IM window appears.

Scylla:        So, PsyE, what do I call you?

Elihu:        How about Brett Austin?

Scylla:        Really? Are you square-jawed? Teutonic?

Elihu:        OK, let’s go with Riley Windmiller.

“Riley suits you better,” says one of the Virgins on the bookcase above the computer. The others murmur assent.

Scylla:        I don’t do online sex. That’s for losers.

Elihu:        Not what I was looking for either. Actually I’ve never done it.

“You’re a virgin,” a Virgin says. They titter.

“I’d like a little privacy, if you don’t mind.”

More giggles, but they say nothing more.

Scylla:        So entertain me. I’m bored. And don’t ask me about my childhood or recurring
                   dreams or any of that other psych-crap.

Elihu Wingate struggles to think of non-loser topics. Finally he describes a consumer experiment he designed, involving samples of gourmet chocolates at supermarkets.

Scylla, it turns out, loves chocolate. Preferably with crunchy centers. Imagine there’s a choice, he tells her: chocolates with hazelnuts, with coconut, with toffee bits. Quickly she chooses the toffee.

Elihu Wingate closes his eyes, pictures himself in the supermarket. There’s a woman looking at the chocolates, she has intense brown eyes, a pale, somewhat oval face—he wishes he could fill in more detail.

Elihu:        Let’s say I had twenty kinds of centers instead of three. Hazelnuts, pecans,
                   cashews, almonds, peanuts, coconut. Some are mocha and some aren’t. Some
                   are dark chocolate, some are milk.

He pictures offering her one. She lets him feed her, then takes his hand and swirls her tongue around the melted chocolate on his fingertips.

Elihu Wingate has lost track of how many years he’s gone without sex, so the sudden intense arousal is painful and alarming. Not helped, either, by the chortling Virgins on the bookcase. Some of them are trying to shush the others.

Scylla:        Wait—all these choices — now I’m not sure what I’m going to buy.

Elihu:        Exactly. That’s what’s so intriguing. After a certain point, having too many
                   choices kind of paralyzes us — we start thinking about regretting all those
                   untasted options, and we end up buying less. And we psychologists learn
                   something interesting about how the mind works.

Elihu Wingate braces himself for her response, something sarcastic about how profitable these observations are.

Scylla:        This was fun.

Elihu Wingate is too shocked to relax.

Scylla: Good chocolate, good conversation. I’m nicely sated. We’ll have to do this again sometime.

She logs off.

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