Mrs Bromberg's Daughter
‘How much longer?’ she asked. ‘I’m dying for a smoke.’
Janet licked the end of her pencil, tasting the bloody mineral tang of lead. ‘Just killing time till Syl gets home.’
‘You’re killing me,’ Livia murmured, holding up one hand and looking at it in the light of the window. Janet had given up telling her not to move.
Janet looked at the sketch. Mediocre. She liked the first one best, the one with Livia’s head and shoulders swathed in a mantilla, icing-sugar lace against rich dark skin. She still hadn’t quite captured her taut, strong body’s streak-of-lightning perfection, but she couldn’t look at the soft curves of Livia’s skin, just a tiny bit darker than burnt sugar, without longing to put her on a canvas. She wanted to recreate the thick blood-purple that darkened the tender skin beneath her eyes, lick with her brush the place between her nose and upper lip, the fleshy petals of her shaved cunt.
‘All right.’ She sighed, throwing down her paper.
Unlike most models, Livia didn’t rush over to see; she didn’t give a rat’s ass what other people made of her. She just reached for her cigarettes and as an afterthought, she tossed the pack to Janet, who scowled for a moment- Livia knew that she was trying to give up- but took one anyway, picking it up with her mouth like a Raymond Chandler detective.
Janet was gorgeous in her own right, with long, curly dark hair, olive skin, a high-arched nose, plum-black eyes and dark slashed brows that almost met in the centre of her forehead, like those of her idol, Frida Kahlo. She was planning to wear her Tehuana dress to her opening that evening, although Livia always laughed at her when she wore it.
‘Are you coming to the show tonight?’
Livia smiled. ‘Maybe for an hour or so. I’ve already seen what most of your models had to offer.’
Janet laughed. ‘You slut.’
Livia shrugged, gesturing with the cigarette. ‘Just because you and Sylvie are totally married.’
‘Well, not technically. I suggested to Sylvie we should campaign to legalise it, but...’
‘Does she want to marry you, though?’ Livia stretched out and held her hand up to the window, watching its tapered shape shadowed against the blaze of light with the cool, unblinking gaze of a cat.
‘She said it was just another manifestation of my politics. She didn’t get the hint anyhow, so I started reading her stuff about Hollywood dykes doing, ‘togetherness ceremonies,’ and having babies...’
Livia stretched the awe-inspiring length of her body on the cushions, running two fingers down her stomach as though to check its flatness. ‘Hmmh.’
‘We just ended up talking about what it would be like if we got the same kind of over-the-top million-pound weddings our brothers and sisters did, and it sounded like such a nightmare that we just ended up laughing and forgetting it- well, she did anyway. A few weeks later I suggested we could exchange rings, but we already did that back in college, and the thought of standing barefoot in a rose garden for hours didn’t appeal. She’s so literal.’
‘Really? I thought all that stuff would appeal to her.’
Janet grinned. ‘Roses make her sneeze.’
‘Of course...God. How do you stand it?’
‘Well, it does drive me crazy sometimes,’ Janet admitted, truthfully.
Livia stubbed out her cigarette in a brimming saucer of damp ash, turpentine and turd-like coils of oil paint. ‘Tell me about it. Two years ago I was dating this Italian guy- real hard-ass, you know, never took his leather jacket off even when steam was rising from the streets, but whenever he’d get anywhere near larch trees he’d go off into these horrible, messy sneezing fits. I couldn’t stand it after a while so I told him to call me after the hay fever season.’ She grinned. ‘Then he fell in love with his allergist and I went for chicks, but I’m no slut, Miss Rigid Monogamy.’ She slipped back into her floor-length dress, a self-made shroud of ripped layers of chiffon that almost, but not quite, managed to camouflage her lack of underwear. ‘With all your hot models, Janet, don’t you ever get...tempted?’
‘I’m only human, but I’ve been with Syl so long I wouldn’t know how to...’ Janet felt as though the blood rising into her face was strangling her. The cigarette drooped from her lips, spilling ash onto the bare skin of her knee, exposed by her ripped, spattered, ancient jeans.
‘If you wanted to.’
As Livia moved over to her, Janet didn’t register the heat of the fallen ash. She had only been sipping politely at Livia’s cigarette, but she bit the filter in sudden hunger and sucked it right down to the acrid tip. ‘If I wanted to.’
Livia smiled lazily, as if she’d won something.
At this inopportune moment, Sylvie came in, looking exhausted and carrying a bottle of chilled white wine and three Art Deco glasses. She was stuffed full of anti-histamine in an attempt to ease a particularly virulent attack of hay fever that had forced her to spend her day in the cool, hushed dark confines of the gallery, supervising preparations for Janet’s show that evening.
Janet kissed her tenderly on the lips and stroked her hair as Livia, thrusting her feet into wedge sandals fastened by silver snake clasps, eyed them cynically.
‘How’s everything at the gallery?’ Janet asked, pouring Sylvie some wine.
‘Not bad.’ Janet noticed that her voice sounded thicker and stuffier than usual. ‘A hard day, but fairly...’ she paused inexplicably for a moment, and then resumed, ‘productive.’ Sylvie went through the lengthy production of rifling through her huge, multi-layered leather purse for a hanky. Eventually, she found one, and ineffectually dabbed at her lightly flaring nostrils. She smiled at Livia, who was picking up her jacket. ‘Hey. You must be Livia.’
Livia had heard a lot about Sylvie but she’d been expecting somebody more glamorous, more suited to Janet’s hungry-eyed brightness. She saw a shy-eyed, sweet-faced woman, whose fine white skin was flushed with insufficiently camouflaged allergic blotches. Of course, she conceded, Sylvie was very pretty, looked like she could have been beautiful once, but she was still a blowzy fading blonde with a red nose. Not Livia’s type at all.
‘Janet says you’re amazing,’ Sylvie said, deciding that she hated Livia even more in close-up, especially since the girl’s heady perfume was tickling her raw, sensitive nostrils. She managed to keep her face in a mask of gracious interest, even while her nose was twitching like a rabbit’s.
‘She says I move around too much and sleep with too many girls.’ Livia declined Janet’s offer of the glass. ‘I must pick my dress up from the cleaners.’
‘Oh, you don’t have to go yet, surely,’ Janet said, playing with the long green stem of her glass.
Sylvie shot her an urgent, watery look, as if to say, ‘Yes, she does!’ Quickly, she turned away and walked off to the other side of the room, trying to choke down the seemingly insurmountable urge to sneeze.
Janet recognised the signals, and knowing her lover’s embarrassment, put down the wine-bottle and said hurriedly, ‘But if you do, let me show you out.’
Livia gave a straight cat-smile. ‘No need, Janet. See you both later. Nice to meet you, Sylvie.’
Sylvie tried to cover her discomfort by looking out of the window, her back to the two women so they couldn’t see her nose wrinkle and twitch. She couldn’t bear the idea of sneezing in front of Livia.
‘Y-you too,’ she said in a strained little voice, fighting the desire to firmly park a finger under her nose. Her refined voice had thickened and she was hitching in breath, hurrying her words in an attempt to finish her sentence. ‘Hi-I- see you tonight?’
The model looked around dreamily. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘where’s my bag?’
Sylvie almost screamed with frustration, and wondered whether to just rush downstairs to the bathroom. She stayed where she was, though, her eyes welling as she tried to fight down the urge, the tickle growing every time she snatched a breath through her clogged sinuses.
After what seemed like an eternity, Janet found Livia’s bag under one of the couch’s embroidered cushions and showed her to the door, slamming it exaggeratedly so Sylvie could hear. She took a deep, gulping breath as Janet scurried silently across the room to her. As she let go with a huge ‘HahTISSHOO!’ she felt Janet’s arms around her and her hand under her nose, wiping the way only she could. Her lover’s surprising touch was sometimes the only thing that could stop Sylvie from embarking on a tiring sneezing fit.
‘Bless you, love.’ Janet patted Sylvie’s hair comfortingly and let her hand linger down the soft skin of her lover’s neck, absently playing with a lock of dark blonde hair that curled in her paint-stained palm.
She sniffled. ‘Whew, thanks, honey. Was that really obvious?’
‘To me, yes, but not to Livia. There’s a picture of that girl in the dictionary under ‘self-absorbed.’ Feeling better after that?’ Janet asked, faintly amused. ‘Looked like you needed it.’
Sylvie gave her a rather impressive dirty look. ‘Just fine, thank you. And I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t laugh.’
Janet grinned. ‘I’m not laughing!’
Sylvie suddenly smiled back at Janet. ‘I don’t blame you. I’m ridiculous, aren’t I?’ Sylvie sniffled and rubbed her nose against the base of her palm. She looked adorably helpless with her watery eyes and damp, flushed cheeks.
Janet kissed her damp, quivery lips. ‘You’re beautiful.’
‘And you’re crazy...’ Sylvie’s voice had grown brief and breathy, and she was gently rubbing her nose. ‘hahAHHH...’ Sylvie hastily reached for her handkerchief, her breath hitching dangerously, and got it to her nose just as the urge to sneeze finally detonated. ‘Huh...ha-tiSSSH! Ha-TISSHHHooo!’
Janet looked at her sympathetically. ‘Poor you. Have you been like this all day?’
Sylvie dabbed her nose delicately, feeling the tickle ebb a little but knowing it wouldn’t stay that way- when she was really stressed or had been trying valiantly to hold back a sneeze, the sneeze always came out in triplicate. She breathed slowly, the white handkerchief belling out with every breath. ‘Worse. I could hardly get a word out. Evy gave me some of her anti-histamine pills to clear my head. They were seriously hardcore- stuff I usually stay away from- but my endless sneezing was driving everyone crazy so I took them. I don’t know how she manages to take those things and keep so calm. I’m so buzzed that even driving here scared me....I was really paranoid that I was going to have one of my demon sneezing fits and plough the car into a building, so I tried to hold thehh...thehb id...’ her voice had become tight and stuffy, ‘which is why I’b sdeezihg like crazy dow...scuse be...’
Her eyes shut tightly and the impressive swell of her bosom rise and fell beneath the thin silk of her summer dress. One of the things that Janet loved about the way her lover sneezed was the way she looked just like a society matron, her downy face frosted with makeup, her lips cherry-glossed and her watery eyes shadowed in blue. For the daintiness and urgency of her posture as she jammed her finger under her nose, her eyes squeezed to slits, her breath coming in high, short gasps, she could have been one of Janet’s mother’s coffee-klatsch friends with their American Tan stockings and stiffly coiffed hair, who had seemed to her like creatures from another miraculous planet.
Sylvie’s head snapped down with a wet sneeze, which she tried to hold in her hanky. ‘Ha-hah-TISSHHOOO!...ooh…'
As a self-confessed tomboy, femininity always got Janet hot; she loved the trail of a silk scarf in the wind, a cusp of lace nudging at a collar, a strategic pendant in the cleavage. She’d learnt to marvel at the independent clack of metal-edged heels on the pavement, the scents that women blessed their throats and wrists with. She loved the way that men looked at Sylvie’s plump cheesecake-postergirl figure, as if they were begging her to make their lives an exquisite hell.
Sylvie sniffled and patted her nose with the damp handkerchief. She was a strong, successful woman, but she still sneezed like her mother had taught her- never without a hanky at the ready, never without excusing herself afterwards, and, ideally, never. She still held back sometimes, even when a tickle was really torturing her, and Janet liked to pretend that she was oblivious to her lover’s discomfort. She’s stroke her back and kiss her neck, secretly relishing each tiny quake of anticipation that shook Sylvie before she pulled away and started fumbling in her sleeve for a hanky.
The feminine sneeze- Sylvie’s high-pitched, urgent, ‘Ahh-tisssh-oooo!’ had always eluded Janet; given that she spent half her life in old shirts and her hands were almost always too covered in paint, clay or charcoal dust to get to her nose, she often just wriggled her nose helplessly, hands kept firmly to her sides although she desperately wanted to get them to her nose and ease the itch, and then when it finally built up enough strength to form itself into a sneeze, she just let it out- or buried her face in the crook of her dusty-flannelled arm if anyone was watching- and let out a big, dry, somewhat masculine, ‘HuhKMPPHH-CHAAU!’ Her own sneezes didn’t excite her in the least, but there was something about Sylvie’s that always made her feel strange; tender, yes, but a little wicked too.
Janet kissed her lover’s downy, perfumed neck. ‘You know, Syl, you shouldn’t...’
‘Try to hold them in.’ Sylvie finished for her, smiling. ‘I know. I don’t know why that’s supposed to be so bad for me, though. And it’s got to be better for the rest of the world.’
‘Not to me.’
Sylvie grinned openly, which upgraded her face from pretty to gorgeous. ‘It’s been practically twenty years, Jan. I can’t believe you haven’t got bored of this by now.’
Janet raised her eyebrows. ‘Why, honey, are you?’
Sylvie sat down on the silk-heaped couch and took a sip of her wine. ‘I’m bored of sneezing my way through three pocket-packs of Kleenex a day, but I’m not bored of you.’
Janet put an arm around her lover’s shoulders. ‘So you don’t mind that I always want to jump your bones when you…’
A gentle, self-mocking smile bathed Sylvie’s petulant expression. She clicked her tongue, pushed back her thick, smooth butterscotch hair and gave Janet a no-hard-feelings grin. ‘I think of it more as compensation.’
‘Umm...’ Janet kissed Sylvie’s hair, drowning in its strong lemon smell. The scent of her skin was perfumed and private, a smell of sweat, perfume and sweet, dry talcum powder. She began to unbutton Sylvie’s crumpled jade summer dress, positioning one hand on the soft, bounteous handful of Sylvie’s bare knee and stroking higher.
Sylvie kissed her with a surprising hunger given her wet-eyed, snotty state, but there was something special that radiated from Janet when she was turned on, something dark and satisfyingly dirty that hardly ever failed to get her wet. She freed Janet’s luxurious dark curls from their red rubber band and slipped her hands under her lover’s worn shirt, enjoying the warmth of Janet’s olive skin, the indescribably soft handfuls of her breasts.
In response to a surprised, aroused little gasp- an incongruously feminine sound from her lover- she ran her fingers over her lover’s hard nipples, cool in contrast to the hot, slightly sweaty flesh around them and drawn up into tight excited peaks. Janet wriggled out of her ancient jeans; as usual, she was wearing no panties. Even through her stuffed nose Sylvie could get a faint scent of Janet’s sex-musk, and that familiar scent flipped a switch in her; as Janet boyishly with the clasp of Sylvie’s heavy embroidered bra, Sylvie realised that she smelled the same and she didn’t protest when Janet thrust down her cream silk panties with all the finesse of a fifteen-year-old boy at the drive-in. They had no time for preliminaries, but Janet paused as usual to relish the sight of her lover, her beautiful, plump Pre-Raphaelite, golden coils of hair bright on the tarnished silks, her soft plump skin like ivory.
Janet stroked the soft, sun-white down on her pale limbs, the huge snowy hills of her breasts, her nipples, like peach rosebuds opening to the sun. She buried her head between Sylvie’s breasts and drank in the warm dough smell of her damp flesh, the essence of her sweat.
Sylvie’s whole body seized with the buildup of a huge, intense sneeze, taking Janet with her as her lover burrowed closer into the luxurious cushions of her flesh, not wanting to miss a single vibration of the sneeze. She did this under the pretence of rubbing Sylvie’s back, which she did hope would give her lover a little comfort, but her motives were far from altruistic.
‘Heh eh...ehh...ehhhh...EehhAHTSHOOO!’ The sneeze was uncharacteristically huge, half-smothered in one hand which Sylvie held above Janet’s head, spraying the crown of her forehead beneath a widow’s peak of dark hair.
‘Bless you,’ Janet murmured lovingly.
Sylvie stroked Janet’s breasts and stomach, playing teasingly with the ruby fastener of her navel stud. As her lover’s fingers worked delicately around the jewelled ball, Janet felt the reverberations in her clit. She was already aching to be touched, the lips of her vagina sweetly swollen. Sylvie anchored the ball of her palm against Janet’s crotch, applying a gently rolling pressure that rocked her into the beginnings of pleasure.
‘Did you enjoy that, honey?’
‘I don’t cream myself every time you sneeze, you know,’ Janet murmured, trying to sound put out.
She wasn’t exactly lying, but this wasn’t a subject they often discussed; whenever they worked Janet’s fetish into their sex life, it was usually purely coincidental. On their third date, they’d gone to a Moroccan tapas bar, Janet in a sharp suit, Sylvie in a little-woman 1950s skirt and a black V-neck that revealed almost-illegal amounts of luxurious cleavage. They’d got outrageously drunk on red wine and totally shameless, feeding each other rolled-up parcels of food from tiny bowls, trying to find the most outrageous combination of morsels, feeling full to the brim although they’d hardly eaten a thing. Trying to sober up enough to actually have sex, they’d ordered strong coffee in glass cups as tiny as thimbles; Janet’s was spiced with cinnamon and coriander, and smelled amazing. She’d held the tiny cup under Sylvie’s nose; her new lover inhaled and then ducked quickly away, exploding with a huge, sudden, ‘HaTISHOOO!’ that turned quite a few heads. Janet, feeling a familiar sharp twisting sensation deep within her, had looked down at her hands. Sylvie, unbelievably embarrassed at ruining the mood, looked at her and remembered that Janet didn’t mind at all. Their eyes had met and they’d swapped small, abashed smiles, and then burst out laughing.
As she lovingly stroked Janet’s glossy, dark bush, Sylvie felt her nose seize and tingle, heralding yet another sneeze. She hoped it wouldn’t develop into a fit again; Janet liked her sneezes to be separate, clearly defined events, so she could give all her attention to each one. Janet wriggled as she felt her lover’s build-up course through them both; the sensation of Sylvie’s deep, desperate breaths on her neck was unbearably arousing. Sylvie gasped, then sneezed again, with a wrenching, ‘HAISSHOO!’ the soft, cool spray landing on Janet’s breasts.
Sylvie murmured a solicitous, completely insincere apology as she watched Janet’s skin flush, partly from embarrassment at her vulnerability, partly in arousal. Gently, she ran her tongue from the sensitive spot at the base of Janet’s ear down to her finely-carved shoulder blades, lazily moving it down between her lover’s breasts but avoiding the dark peaks of her nipples, and back up again, breathing with exaggerated stuffiness through her mouth, disturbing the dark down at Janet’s neck and then- ooh, it was coming- gave a few overwrought gasps, pulling Janet in tighter with the base of her palm still on her silky-damp groin and sneezing wetly into her shoulder. ‘HaTISSSCHoooo!’
Janet shuddered involuntarily. ‘Sylvie,’ she said, trying to sound stern, ‘you’re teasing me a little here.’
‘Ab I?’ Sylvie sounded stuffily innocent as she nuzzled Janet’s neck. ‘I dod’t bead to. I jusd cahh...cahd’t...stohb...sdeehhzihg...’
Janet felt her lover’s nostrils flare and eyelashes flutter against her skin as Sylvie tried to get the renewed urge under control, a lone tear of irritation standing out on her shoulder like a drop of sweat.
‘Don’t you dare,’ she murmured, feeling the helpless, shuddery breaths on her neck and her cunt beginning to pulse with heat in the same rhythm. ‘You’re making me all wet.’ She could smell herself, bittersweet and rich.
Sylvie instinctively swallowed, her throat dry and taut. Janet was such a minx. ‘Thadh’s dot by probleb,’ she whispered, realising too late that it was bloody difficult to make a stream of clogged consonants sound erotic.
Janet wriggled with pleasure. ‘It will be. One more sneeze and I’m going to jump your bones.’
Sylvie rubbed her nose against Janet’s neck, as though trying to rub the itch away. Janet felt the wetness of Sylvie’s round-stretched nostrils against her warm, downy skin, and then gasped as Sylvie’s fingers reached between her damp thighs and found her unbelievably slick, a mass of silky-wet tissue curving and tight like a rose in the rain, but giving beneath her fingers.
Suddenly, Sylvie let loose with a mighty, ‘HuRESSHOOO!’ with her lips at Janet’s ear, the sound reverberating through Janet’s head, leaving her shaking and helpless.
Her fists tightening around the silk drapes, Janet moaned. ‘What did I just say?’
‘I wasd’t listedig.’ Sylvie’s fingers went deeper as she tried to hold back laughter at her lover’s delicious discomfort. Janet was so wet that Sylvie could actually hear the deep, squishy, profoundly unladylike noises that her fingers made as she tried to get inside her lover. ‘Too busy sdeezig...huddey, you are wet.’
Janet hunched her shoulders, her body hot, damp and limp against the silk. ‘I had a feeling...’
‘Feels like you’ve beed havig a whole lot of feeligs.’ Mischievously, Sylvie touched the nub of her clitoris. ‘I’ll have to be very careful with you...’
Janet writhed against the pillows at the prospect of this delicious torture being played out longer. She knew more wetness must be flooding out and felt faintly- excitingly- ashamed. She loved to lose control, but it made her squirm too. ‘Not too long,’ she begged from the back of her dry throat. ‘Oh honey...I really...’ her voice trailed off.
Sylvie kissed her neck again, her fingers twisting in deeper against a wetness so powerful and slippery it saturated her fingers, slicking her to the wrist. ‘You really what?’
‘I really want to...’
Sylvie’s fingers dived deeper, curling and uncurling sweetly and provoking a burst of words, ‘I really wanna come...’
Sylvie’s nose was tickling unbearably now, the rounded tip tingling as though someone was rubbing fur over it, the caverns of her nasal passages seizing with the urge, her lungs stretched taut with the need to let go. ‘And,’ she sniffled through her stuffiness. ‘I really godda...hahhh...sdeehh...sdeehze...’
Janet moaned quietly, feeling the twitch of her lover’s nose on her soft skin. ‘You know what’ll happen if you do.’ She felt her clit beginning to tingle deliciously, hot blood gathering in her groin.
‘We’ve hahdly eved starded,’ Sylvie breathed, rubbing her itchy nose against Janet’s shoulder and her fingers against the slick wet warmth, spreading it like honey from her lover’s inner depths to her clit and the mound above it. ‘Ooh, this is addoyihg! But I cah’d…cahhhh…by doze is really…ticklig…’
Janet arched her back in pleasure as Sylvie’s steady playings grew faster and more frenetic, mirroring the waves of irritation that coursed through her.
‘I wadt to try subthihg,’ Sylvie said, sensuously kissing her lover’s neck, breath fluttering like a bird’s wing.
‘What?’ Janet slid closer in, Sylvie’s fingers penetrating her more deeply, staring at her lover with wide, hungry eyes.
‘I...’ Sylvie sniffed shallowly, feeling the tickle forming and growing full, ‘thihk that sdeehze is really close dow...’
‘Oh, now that is a problem...’ Janet sighed, trying for sarcasm even though she was dangerously close to orgasm already. ‘Just go for it, honey. Get all those nasty tickles out of your nose.’
‘This tibe...could you help be hode it back?’
Sylvie felt the heat spread onto her fingers the minute she suggested this. It had always been one of Janet’s fantasies to have absolute control over her lover’s sneezes- usually, this meant coaxing them out, but holding them in? Allowing Sylvie to keep her composure and be completely vulnerable, completely dominated, at the same time...what an idea.
‘What...see how long you can manage?’
‘How long...we can badage.’ She stroked Janet’s clit to illustrate what she meant. ‘I’b controllig you as well, ared’t I?’
‘Ohh...so you’re going to try and hold me back too?’
‘Right. This way, we could try for...sibultadeous...you dow...’ Sylvie sniffed again, her face screwing up lightly as the tickle grew- she could feel it pulsating, radiating out through her nasal passages, her head and throat, in waves of irritation that vibrated gently, driving her insane.
‘First of all,’ Janet said softly, ‘I’ll give you a head-start.’ She reached for a tissue from a depleted box on the windowsill and held it to Sylvie’s nose. ‘Have a good blow. It should help.’
Sylvie obeyed, at first slightly restrained, but then blowing fully as Janet’s fingers travelled down her nose, pressing one nostril, then another. Sylvie felt wonderfully soothed- she hadn’t had anyone blow her nose like this since she was four years old- but then she panicked for a moment, wondering if Janet had been so successful that the urge to sneeze was entirely gone. She breathed in experimentally, and felt a faint tingle in her nose. Good.
She breathed out heavily, then inhaled through her red, inflamed nostrils, trying to encourage the tickle to grow. ‘Thank you, hon. I think that went a little too well.’
Janet’s face was flushed and damp-looking as Sylvie resumed stroking her, both of them feeling their urges slowly grow. ‘No tickles?’
‘A little bit of a tickle.’ Sylvie sniffed reflexively, making the sensation stronger. ‘Feel free to help it out.’ Her eyes were starting to water, her throat close. ‘Ohh. It’s getting bigger already. Ah. Ahhh...whew. Ooh. God, that is nasty.’
Feeling suddenly tender towards her, Janet decided to give her a way out. ‘We don’t have to do this, honey, really. You don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself.’
‘I am,’ Sylvie replied honestly. ‘This way, I...I codtrol you, and you do the sabe. Ihhh- it works. Really.’ But her breathing was getting shallow, the tickle flickering and then deciding to grow. ‘I... I deed... to... uhhhh... ahhhh...’
Janet rubbed her finger vigorously under Sylvie’s nose, trying to emulate the circular motion that she’d seen her lover use when she was being tortured with a tickle, as Sylvie’s face scrunched, her lip helplessly curling up, her nose wrinkling and her eyes squinching tightly shut. ‘Ahhhh-’
Her whole body was tense, straining, trying not to erupt as Janet gently rubbed and rubbed at her nostrils, feeling her breaths as the sneeze came even harder, the strange sensation of Sylvie’s nostrils vibrating against her fingers. ‘Ahhhh-aahhhh-’
Janet pressed harder, and she relaxed. ‘Ummm. That was close!’
Janet wriggled against Sylvie’s fingers, absolutely loving this. ‘How close?’
‘Too close. Still...drivihg be crazy...oooh. Tickle alert!’
Sylvie’s face screwed up again and Janet kissed her on the lips, relishing their quivering, sneeze-distorted fullness, the irregular rushes of air that escaped Sylvie’s lips as she desperately tried to take in just enough air to keep her on the edge. The last thing she could do was gasp, but Janet wasn’t making things easy for her. She was rubbing herself up and down Sylvie’s hand, her face hardening into an animalistic expression of pure concentration as she stared into her lover’s contorted face, concentrating on the inexorable growth of her own pleasure. Although Sylvie was paying too much attention to her nose to give Janet the hard up-and-down strokes she usually relished, it hardly mattered.
‘Just...hehh...uhh.’ Janet’s finger went under her nose again, though Sylvie’s eyes told her what she knew, that this wasn’t a failsafe method. ‘Jahd...th...the tickle’s gettig worse...strogger...I really feel like I have to sdeehze...’ There were, tears welling in those big blue eyes, which were fluttering shut as every muscle in Sylvie’s body steeled itself against the oncoming explosion. ‘Jahd, seriously, I...gotta sdeehze!’ she gasped. ‘I thigk I’m gudda explode!’
Janet wondered whether to risk it, but decided she’d much rather prolong the pleasure by suppressing the sneeze with her fingers- at the worst, Sylvie would sneeze into her hand, which always made her seem deliciously vulnerable.
Sylvie made helpless little noises, furiously trying to hold back, Janet’s finger practically jammed against her hugely extended nostrils. She tried to warn Janet that this wasn’t going to work. ‘hhhi... hhah... uh... hhii...iieeaahhh...’ with her shoulders shaking and her breasts heaving magnificently, she made a visual feast, an embarrassment of riches.
Gently, Janet rubbed Sylvie’s nose from the bridge to the tip, pressing down first on one quivering nostril, then the other, feeling her lover’s breaths dwindle from tearing gasps to soft sighs.
Sylvie’s eyes opened. She was flushed a deep red from exertion, and although she tried to eke it out, the desire to sneeze was still overwhelming. ‘That was close!’
Janet was also flushed, her deep olive skin glowing with rose-heart heat. ‘I think I...I’m closer.’ She positioned herself more securely on Sylvie’s fingers, still with a finger at her nose- if the sneeze came at the wrong moment it might not get her off, although she seriously doubted that. She was as focused on the sneeze as her lover. She took her finger away for a fraction of a second and in it the sneeze came in full force, ‘Aahhh... AHHHH-’ she gave a real pit-of-the-stomach gasp, ‘HaAHH!’ and knew it was over.
Janet replaced her finger, but the damage was done. ‘I...I really have to sdeehze, Jahd!...I cah’d...hodeitback!’
Janet gave a shamed, shivery laugh. She was drenched in sweat, her slim, firm thighs quivering with the urge to come. ‘Me neither. OK, let’s do it.’
Sylvie’s breathing quickened as she plunged her fingers deeply into her lover, reaching, mercifully, her most sensitive spot. Sylvie’s eyes were watering with the burning pressure as she fought the sneeze, scrunching her nose frantically. She looked at Janet, her eyes reflecting her helplessness as she desperately tried not to let it go- not yet.
‘It’s OK,’ Janet murmured, shunting herself closer to ecstasy. ‘Let it out, love.’
Sylvie obeyed. ‘Huh...haaaaah...’ Dimly, through teary, half-shut eyes she watched her lover furiously riding her fingers, her expression hard and unpretty but unbelievably exciting, infused with a primal, barbaric beauty. For one horrible moment, just as Janet reached the height of her climax, she thought that the sneeze was too intense to get out, but it gathered momentum as it rolled through her sinuses in a ball of mounting pressure. It seemed to halt right at the edge, staying in place for a second too long- the need was so intense for both of them that they were practically seeing stars, neither of them able to control the urges that distorted their minds and bodies.
Then Sylvie erupted with a force at once completely new and wonderfully familiar to her lover, a massive, volcanic, ‘IEEHH-AATSCHOOO!!’ that sent them both over the edge.
Liquid from the sneeze dripped down Janet’s fingers, and fluid from Janet’s orgasm down Sylvie’s. Laughter bubbling up from deep inside her, Janet reached for the tissues again and handed them to her lover. Practically purring with pleasure, she stretched out on the sheets and gave her lover a tender kiss. ‘Oh, honey, that was unreal.’ She raised herself on one elbow, her whole body one big satisfied smile. ‘How about something a little more orthodox for you?’
Sylvie sniffled into a Kleenex and muffled two more delicate sneezes. ‘I’b fide, huddey. Really.’
‘But you didn’t get off.’
‘It was still good,’ Sylvie protested, but her eyes showed Janet just how much she wanted more. They kissed each other voraciously and Sylvie grew hot to the touch, sweaty, in a blaze of fever and lust. The dying sunlight glowed on her dense bush of caramel-blonde hair, lighting on one lone tear that had threaded its way down to Sylvie’s chin during the build-up, along with the dewier wetness beneath her bush. Gently experimenting, Janet dipped a finger into her lover’s cunt, finding her wonderfully wet.
Janet shook back her hair from her sweaty face, her mouth pouted into a bulls-eye, peach-sized breasts held out in front of her like sacred offerings, nipples taut and flushed pink against her brown skin. ‘You asked for this.’
Sylvie smiled lazily up at her. ‘I dodh’t rebebber askig, but whadever-’
Janet was on her before she could finish the sentence.
Satiated, the two women lay in the swathes of silk. They looked like two pornographic Pre-Raphaelite princesses, but their concerns were rather more prosaic; Sylvie was planning to stuff herself with more antihistamines, and Janet was debating the diplomacy of lighting a cigarette.
‘Jan,’ said Sylvie, languidly, ‘this thing of yours...’
Janet stretched her long brown body, far too relaxed to feel embarrassed. ‘Hmm?’
She avoided Sylvie’s eyes, though, and looked instead at the vase of waxy tulips on the windowsill, such a pale yellow they were almost beige, each almond-shaped petal tapering off into a blade.
‘Where’d you reckon it...’ Sylvie paused. ‘Came from?’
Janet laughed and told her.
She liked to put down the moment that her interest developed to a hot summer’s day when her mother and her friends had been sitting around the table drinking black tea, picking up frosted cookies with long, pearly fingernails, nibbling daintily and talking in the usual gooey argot of euphemisms, Yiddish hybrids and whispery bedroom secrets. These women were all shaped like Sylvie- plump, curvy and white-skinned, their extra handfuls evidence of a furtive pride in their husband’s money and their baby-making hips.
When Janet discovered the first feminine secret she could remember, she was probably about ten and wearing an uncomfortably itchy pink dress, her hair exploding out of its French plait in little dark seaweedy fronds, torn between pride at sitting with the grown-ups and the desire to get into her cut-offs and onto her bike. Her mother already knew- in part- what she didn’t have a word for yet. That Janet was different, not just because of her foul mouth and tangled hair. After all those ballet classes, those petticoats, those pink coconut-iced birthday cakes and the endless succession of cold, comfortless plastic dolls the colour of tinned salmon with white nylon hair and sky-blue eyes that clicked like cockroach wings- all of those gross, gratuitous and unnecessary trappings of womanhood- after all that, how in God’s name could her daughter be a dyke? But Mrs. LaVine had a feeling about Janet, even then.
One of the women, a Mrs. Bromberg, had spent five minutes fighting the urge to sneeze. She was a big old Polish dame, pretty, blonde-haired, wide-hipped and big-breasted, her mouth Marilyn Monroe red and her face frosted like a white meringue platter. Janet had a huge crush on her, although it would be some years before she could think about women in those terms. That particular day, she’d been wearing a blue fifties-style suit with a frothy-collared blouse, gold buttons up to her neck, and the obligatory corset underneath. Her fine hair had been teased into a lemon-blonde coiffure and she was wearing high navy flight-stewardess pumps from which her calves and ankles bloomed, plump and fine-skinned as babies’ creased arms.
She had also brought her daughter, who was the kind of girl that Janet would have ordinarily loathed, but she didn’t; she wasn’t sure why. She was the opposite of Janet in almost every way; she was chubby and blonde and smelled like vanilla cookies and Play-Doh. Janet never knew if it was her soap or her smooth, yardstick-straight hair that smelled like that, or just some sugary scent that her felt-soft skin radiated, as though it was being baked. Sometimes when they were on their own, the two girls would indulge in silly, affectionate gestures- the little blonde would blow in Janet’s ear, which she hated, and then Janet would jump on top of her, the other girl giggling and suppressing her shrieks, hissing ‘Don’t! Don’t!’ as Janet took a few long strands of her black hair, twist it into a tight cord and tickled her button nose, usually as red and shiny-looking as a wild strawberry. She was a cheerful little thing, Mrs. Bromberg’s daughter, but whenever she sneezed- which was often- her big, short-sighted blue eyes always looked tearful, and Janet longed to pet her, dry her eyes, drag her around as though she was a big pink-and-white doll (although Janet tended to turn her dolls into art installations). Both mother and daughter had hay fever. Janet just knew that her friend was always walking around with a scrunched-up nose and a damp lacy handkerchief, but she’d never seen Mrs. Bromberg sneeze.
Janet had sat there, open-mouthed, staring at her as the other women studiously ignored her; her nose-rubbing, which had began surreptitiously, grew frantic and her head kept making funny little upward jerks, as though she was waking up with each increase of the urge. Her breathing had grown high and whistly like a tea-kettle, and she was doing everything to keep from drawing attention to herself, although she was usually one of the loudest, most demanding of Janet’s mother’s friends, prone to picking up any nearby child and smothering them in wet lipsticky kisses. Now, though, she was silent, although she kept sniffing, the nostrils of her wide Scandinavian nose flaring a little with each sniff.
Janet couldn’t understand why none of the other women were reacting to her at all, why their voices had grown louder, or why Mrs. Bromberg didn’t just sneeze if her nose tickled. It was all a mystery to her, but she noticed her mother’s pink-painted fingers plucking at the tablecloth, something she only usually did in tense situations, like when her father started talking about jacking in the fashion business and going back to painting, which he was rather mediocre at, unlike his daughter.
Janet looked at Mrs. Bromberg’s daughter, but her eyes were also cast down, her blunt little fingers cats-cradling. She knew from all this that it was bad manners to stare at Mrs. Bromberg, but she couldn’t help it, it was like those weird magazines that she’d found in her dad’s study drawer while looking for the green ink, and sometimes she’d go back and look, feeling queasy but strangely excited, a funny tickly feeling between her legs as if she had to pee.
She kept watching. Mrs. Bromberg’s cheeks, were flushed beneath their powder and her finger was practically jammed against her nose, her head held right back so Janet was gazing at the fleshy underside of her jaw; she fought the urge to rub the flat of her finger against her chin like she did with her cat Toulouse. Janet sat on her hands- that was what she did when she was nervous- and tried to concentrate on her mother’s eyes, knowing they would tell her what to do. Her mother’s eyes, though, were shielded, and when they met Janet’s they had an expression of curious intensity, coupled with tightly pressed-together lips. The message was clearly; Don’t say anything. It was a great trial for Mrs. LaVine having a daughter with eyes like a hawk and a voice loud enough to get her a contract at the National, particularly when she said things like, ‘Is that man’s hair on purpose?’
This time, though, Janet took the hint, but she couldn’t stop her eyes sliding away to Mrs. Bromberg, who’d straightened up a little and looked as if she might be getting the tickle under control, although her eyes were teary and she kept giving little breathy sniffs. The buildup had calmed down a little, steadying to a regular, ‘hii...hiiih...hih...’ that seemed to chime with the sugary conversation, little wordless acknowledgements of what was being said.
Janet didn’t envy grownups one bit, and especially not now- kids could sneeze whenever they wanted to, although she was uncomfortably aware that if she had to sneeze now, she’d be expected to use a handkerchief, and of course she didn’t have one. Imagine carrying a piece of cloth about with you just in case you had to sneeze or blow your nose! Ridiculous. Janet believed in travelling light.
She’d never held back a sneeze herself, so she had no idea how Mrs. Bromberg must be feeling. She supposed it must be something like holding in the urge to pee, which- given that she’d had one too many glasses of her mother’s grown-up black tea- was something she’d been suffering from for the past ten minutes. She’d been crossing her legs, trying not to fidget or think about it, but for some reason watching Mrs. Bromberg made it worse. She felt a greater sympathy for the woman as she pressed her thighs together, fighting the urge to press her fingers to her crotch- only babies did that.
‘Hihhh...ihh..hi...ihhhh.’ A soft, wet sniff, and then a long exhale.
Suddenly- just as it seemed that the sneeze had gone away- Mrs. Bromberg reached frantically for her pocketbook. As she reached into its deep-sea depths, fumbling for a hanky, her mouth dropped slackly open and her eyes turned-up and squinched; she looked wonderfully goofy, like a cartoon character- and the free hand was right back under the nose, all of it this time, the palm pressed right up with the flat of her fingers tight against her flared nostrils.
Her head was already tilting back again. The moment she located a hanky Janet knew that she’d just let go. As the stoplight-red fingernails closed around a white, ridiculously impractical sliver of lace, Mrs. Bromberg gave a deep, wrenching gasp and pulled up the hanky, waving it like a flag of surrender, her diamond wedding ring glinting in the late afternoon light.
The other guests had stopped talking now; they’d given up. So, it seemed, had Mrs. Bromberg. Paying no heed to the barrier of the fingers or the outspread hanky, the sneeze exploded out of her in a huge, intrusive, extremely unladylike, ‘HEHHH-REESHHOOOOOOOO!’
She doubled over the table, plump elbows crooked as if to brace herself, and the sneeze washed across the table in an almost visible wave of power, the air charged with spit and snot, cups juddering in their saucers and flower-petals shivering in feeble protest. As she sneezed, her huge swimmer’s shoulders hunched, her head bobbed down violently, and then back up with that funny wake-up twitch.
There was a difference when she came up this time, though. She was bald.
Janet tried not to laugh- holding in the giggles as Mrs. Bromberg had tried to hold in the sneeze- but it was just as unsuccessful. The laughter exploded through her fingers with a rude, squelchy sound like a belch or fart which just made her double up, her little body pressed into itself like a rustly pink concertina. The pleasure of finally letting go was just as intense as it had been for Mrs. Bromberg, who was replacing her wig with a remarkable composure, considering how agitated the sneeze had got her; it seemed almost as if this sort of thing was normal, which for some reason Janet found even more hilarious. None of the other women seemed to be reacting either, although her mother still wasn’t looking at her, but down at her plate. A single stare from Mrs. LaVine would have been enough to dry the giggles in her throat, but no stare was forthcoming, so she giggled and rustled in her taffeta dress.
Then she felt something else, something nasty giving way deep within her, a squeezing sensation that made her laughter even more hysterical. This time she did have to pee! She jumped up- no time to excuse herself- and bolted for the bathroom, but it was too late, she could already feel a familiar heat burning down her leg and into her lacy Shabbas-best socks even as she tried to squeeze it back. Racing to the bathroom, she heard it patter behind her like a rainstorm on the wooden floor.
Getting control of herself in the bathroom, Janet realised the horror of her situation. She had laughed- she had misbehaved- she had wet her pants like a baby- and now she had ruined her Sunday dress and her mother would be up all night scrubbing the good-room carpet with Stardrops like that time when her brother threw her on the couch to practise sumo wrestling immediately after she’d eaten three banana sandwiches and she’d upchucked on the floor. She was bad. She would never be one of those price-beyond-rubies women. Sniffling, rubbing her hot sweaty face with her hands, she slipped out of her dress and sat on the bathroom floor in her vest and knickers- the knickers, of course, were soaking, but she couldn’t think of an alternative.
Then her mother burst in and she’d jumped up, thrown herself into the bath as though to hide herself- Mrs. LaVine had a fierce temper, which Janet and her brother had inherited, and although her squalls were quick, they were often frightening. But her mother didn’t seem angry- just in a rush.
‘Quick, quick!’ she cried, bolting the door behind her and swiftly unfastening a bewildering conglomeration of lace, nylon, rubber and latex beneath her black and white flowered dress. ‘You little horror,’ she hissed affectionately to her damp, shivering daughter as she plumped down squarely on the toilet, and then Janet heard her mother’s sigh of relief and a great gush of pee that completely outdid her own, making her start to laugh again. Her mother never did anything this personal in front of the kids, and watching her felt unbelievably intoxicating, almost sexy. ‘This is your fault,’ her mother amended, leaning back luxuriously, and then confided, ‘I almost wet myself too,’ causing Janet to go off on another fit of rude, bubbly giggles. ‘You think that was bad, Jan? Wait till you have kids!’
Once she’d got back into the layers of panties, girdle and stockings and swathed her daughter in a towel, Mrs. LaVine was all business again as she reapplied her lipstick, pursing her mouth into a red bullseye. She emphasised her thick black eyebrows; one of her husband’s business associates had once told her she looked like Elizabeth Taylor, so she wore about a pound of melted black mascara around each eye. When she smiled, the paint at the edges of her eyes crinkled and coiled like snakes. Janet watched, her open mouth mirroring her mother’s as she put the mascara on.
‘I suppose you’d better get back into your jeans,’ Mrs. LaVine said resignedly. ‘Looks like it’ll be a few more years before we can make a lady out of you.’
‘For ever and ever,’ said Janet, clutching her towel around her.
‘So you don’t want some of my lipstick?’
‘But I can wear lipstick and not be a lady.’
Her mother smiled. Janet didn’t know why. ‘True.’ She applied an invisible dab to her daughter’s pursed lips. ‘There you go, shenelah. Run off and break some hearts.'
‘Why is Mrs. Bromberg bald?’
‘Jan!’ Her mother made a keep-it-down sign with her hands. ‘You’re not supposed to talk about that!’
Janet had gathered that, but... ‘Why not?’
‘It’s something for married ladies.’
‘What?’ Janet was completely nonplussed. ‘All married ladies?'
‘No, not even all Jewish ladies. Just certain ones. Like your Aunt Rachel and me.’
‘But you’ve got hair.’ She looked at her mother in the mirror.
‘Yes, I do, but I shave it.’
Janet reached up to tug her mother’s hair, and Mrs. LaVine resisted her. ‘Later, darling, I’ll show you.’
‘That’s not real?’
‘It is real. It is mine. It’s made out of my old hair. That’s why it’s like yours, all dark and curly.’
‘Does it look dead?’
‘It does now,’ Janet said truthfully.
Mrs. LaVine opened the door. ‘Darling, when you get married, you’ll have to shave your hair too.’
The door swung shut behind her.
‘I’m never getting married,’ Janet said, wondering if she was still small enough to hide in the bathroom closet. At least until the ladies left.
Then Mrs. Bromberg’s daughter came in, still armoured in her pale blue ‘company,’ dress, designed along much the same lines as Janet’s urine-saturated pink monstrosity. The women liked to see them as a matched set; blonde and brunette, or as Janet thought, Beauty and the Beast. She sat down next to Janet on the bathroom floor.
‘Did you um...know about that?’ Janet asked. ‘Your mum’s hair?'
‘She sleeps in a headscarf. Your mum must be really good at remembering to put hers on. Mine doesn’t always if it’s just us. She says it itches.’
Janet wriggled. ‘I’m never letting them do that to me.’
‘But you have to. All ladies do if they want to get married. Don’t you want to get married?’
‘No,’ said Janet defiantly.
Her friend blushed, her eyes bright and cheeks flushed with peach-pink, a dusty colour as elusive as musk. She said shyly, ‘Me neither.’
‘Let’s never do it, then.’
Janet snuggled in close to the girl, bathing in her aroma. That scent made Janet forgive her for everything- her prissiness, her perfection, her straight A’s in everything, her ability to always know what was right. At the centre of that complex smell was the essence of her, a complicated bouquet that perfumes and deodorants could never reproduce. Janet longed to wrap herself in that smell. She imagined it would feel like a white fur rug.
Naked underneath her towel, she felt vulnerable. A tendril of intimacy curled between them, something private and terribly sensitive that made Janet feel funny. It wasn’t quite the feeling she got looking at her dad’s magazines, but it wasn’t far off.
Unable to stop herself, she thrust her nose into the short blonde hair, filling her head with her icing-sugar scent, a fragrance of talcum powder, candy apples, and pure vanilla, all as smooth as cream, cloying but a little dry. Its sweetness tickled Janet’s nose, making her sneeze, ‘AhTCHAAA!’ right into the girl’s hair.
The two girls looked at each other and burst out laughing. Then, suddenly, Mrs. Bromberg’s daughter leaned in and gave Janet a fluttery white butterfly of a kiss on her chapped, lipsticked mouth.
Sylvie was laughing. ‘Ooh. What would Freud have to say about that?’
‘Knowing him? Probably that I really wanted dick.’ Janet looked uncomfortable. ‘Look, it’s not…I mean, it doesn’t matter that it was…you know what I mean?’
Sylvie just smiled. ‘I’ll take your word for it, but anyway, we’ve got to get going soon. I hung your dress downstairs.’
‘You’re a star.’ Janet propped herself up on one elbow. ‘Syl, can I ask you a big favour? For tonight, can you put my hair up Frida Kahlo style, you know, with the red and yellow ribbons?’
‘But Jan, that’ll take forever.’ Sylvie was stepping back into her still-damp panties, fastening her bra. Her fragile skin contrasted with the stark white of the embroidered bra and the soft, kind light created sensual pools of darkness between the gold risings of her flesh.
‘You’re the only one who can do it right, though.’ Janet smiled flirtatiously. ‘You’ve got such good fingers.’
‘Hmm,’ Sylvie said sceptically. ‘Are you sure it’s not just because you want to look like a certain unspeakably gorgeous twenty-one- year-old model?’
She walked back over to the bed and gave Janet a kiss, like the one she’d given her in the bathroom all those years ago. When she walked downstairs, Janet permitted herself a secret smile at the sun-starred ceiling.
Twenty years of marriage, and it still felt good when Mrs. Bromberg’s daughter was wrong.