Essence: Literary Noir Short Fiction By Ruth Rouff
Ruth Rouff, author of Essence, is a freelance educational writer who lives in southern New Jersey. Her work has been published in various literary journals. In 2016 Bedazzled Ink published her collection of prose and poetry entitled Pagan Heaven. She has also had two young adult nonfiction books published by Townsend Press.
Carla lay in bed on pastel blue Egyptian cotton sheets, the high thread count of which hadn’t helped her love life one bit. She was staring at the ceiling, more specifically at the outline of the overhead fan, which she could see dimly in the darkness. The digital clock read 3:05 in the morning and her husband Jake, she knew, was down the hall in the computer room watching pornography.
They hadn’t made love that night. Whenever Jake couldn’t sleep, he’d go into the computer room and watch pornography. It wasn’t something he was ashamed of. Several times she had looked in on him—the door was open—and seen him in the process of whacking off. She was embarrassed, but he simply looked sheepish, sheepishly urgent, and kept on doing what he was doing. Fortunately, he was using a hand towel. He could toss that in the washer; she wouldn’t.
“It’s what guys do,” he told her when she questioned his masturbating to pornography. “It has nothing to do with you, honey,” he added. “It’s entertainment, like watching a movie.”
They hadn’t made love that night. Whenever Jake couldn’t sleep, he’d go into the computer room and watch pornography.
She still didn’t understand it. She had never masturbated to any Brad Pitt movies, despite his being her favorite male star, and she felt no compulsion to watch pornography. She loved when Jake made love to her. But lately he didn’t seem to get the same pleasure out of it that she did. Long gone were the days of extended foreplay. Now he’d unceremoniously climb on top of her, insert the old thing, and huff away, then drop off to sleep like a rock.
Though Carla tried hard to maintain her figure, avoiding bread whenever she could, she knew she wasn’t the same svelte size six Jake had married. Having two kids had put pounds on her, and she had a roll of belly fat that she could clamp between her thumb and forefinger. But she wasn’t nearly as hefty as her friends, Vicky and Roz. Those two had ballooned out amazingly, with arms and legs as puffy as pillows. They had double chins even though they were both only in their mid-40s. Carrying all that fat had to be hard on their joints. If they didn’t lose weight, Carla thought they would wind up having to get around Shop-Rite on mechanized scooters by the time they turned 60. It was because they had become habituated to the Standard American Diet—SAD, for short.
Carla knew fat shaming was not nice, but she wondered about her friends’ self-image. She guessed it was some consolation to them that their husbands had also gotten fat, too, developing massive bellies that made their legs look stick-like, like a young child’s drawing. Jake, on the other hand, was still ramrod thin, damn him, despite all the junk food he ate.
After doing what he apparently had to do, Jake returned to bed. Carla pretended to be asleep. It was now 3:32 am. Why confront him? They had been over this terrain before. When she had questioned his addiction to porn, he laughed and suggested she watch some with him…at night on TV when their ten-year-old twins—Aiden and Cody—were asleep.
So, one night Carla made some microwave popcorn, settled down on the couch, and Jake streamed porn in the comfort of their living room. Though she tried to get into the spirit of the thing for Jake’s sake, she thought the couples were ridiculous looking; the women with outsized breasts (probably implants) and vacuous expressions. For them acting in porn was probably a step up from waitressing. Or telemarketing. The men were equally vacuous.
Years ago, Carla had watched a movie about the porn industry, “Boogie Nights,” which she rather liked. But the men in this video made the dim-witted protagonist of that movie look like a genius. All this didn’t seem to matter to Jake. He seemed proud of his knowledge of pornography. He knew which actors and directors were “hot” and who had acted in other videos he had seen. He seemed to have an encyclopedic memory for such data, the same way he had for sports statistics.
…she thought the couples were ridiculous looking; the women with outsized breasts (probably implants) and vacuous expressions.
There was a gay man, Keith, at the marketing firm where Carla worked, who was very good-looking and toned. Carla had met his partner, Tim, who was equally good-looking and toned at a company event. Thinking she at least might see two studly men if she watched gay male porn, she asked Jake to put some on. He reluctantly did so. But that porn was equally insipid: two dumb lugs going at each other, making little grunts and moans. Rhythmic slapping sounds. One looked Middle Eastern; she hadn’t known Arabs were into acting in porno. Maybe that’s one reason this man came to America. They weren’t all terrorists.
Jake looked bored as he munched on the popcorn.
“Wanta watch some lesbian porn?” he suggested as if they were ordering at Applebee’s.
“Why not?” Carla said. Back when she was in college, a girl had once attracted her, a cute, whippet-thin girl named Tracy who was in her Post-Impressionist art history class. Tracy wore a ring through one nostril, a multitude of ear piercings, and dressed in white shirts, jeans, and
electrician’s boots. She wore her red hair cut razor short, but despite her Spartan appearance there was an undertone of femininity to her, an elegance. Carla knew that some of her classmates were experimenting with lesbianism; they seemed to go through a phase, generally around the beginning of sophomore year, where they flaunted it. But red-headed Tracy never gave her the slightest notice, so Carla never acted on her attraction.
These “lesbians” in the video were nothing like Tracy or the other lesbians she had known at Rutgers. They were bleach blonds or obviously fake redheads, as dull as an old pencil. One could imagine a male director behind the camera instructing them what to do.
“Now eat her,” the director was probably saying. “Eat her like cake.” Carla could tell such an inclination didn’t come naturally to the actresses.
Jake didn’t seem to notice that.
“Oh, this is more like it,” Jake said, putting his arm around Carla and sidling closer to her as they watched the performance. He smelled, as he usually did, like Irish Spring.
“Have you ever done it with a woman?” Jake asked her. “Back in college?”
“No, and I don’t want to now,” Carla replied. She didn’t want him getting any ideas about threesomes. In fact, the thought of being involved in a threesome with any of the women she knew appalled her.
That night, they made love. If you could call it that. Carla, who thought Jake must be imagining the women in the video all the while, never felt lonelier.
A few days later, her friend Roz called her to tell her that a woman they both knew, Janelle, was having a party demonstrating essential oils.
A party? She thought back on the times when she was little, when her mom was demonstrating Tupperware. There’d be a cluster of neighborhood women in the living room, with Dad consigned to the den. Her mom served Bundt cake and coffee. There’d be conversation and laughter. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Then they’d order plastic ware that they could “burp.”
After that gig ended, her mom signed up to be a Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant. She picked up a little pocket money from both jobs, which seemed to please her. Otherwise, the only jobs she had outside the home were part-time ones in retail, such as at Macy’s at the Cherry Hill Mall during the holiday season. She hadn’t gone to college.
“What are essential oils?” Carla asked Roz.
“They’re oil condensed from plants,” Roz said. “They smell really good. But come to the party and Janelle will explain it all.”
“I won’t have to spend a lot of money?” Carla asked. Though both she and Josh were making good money, she didn’t like to spend it on stuff she deemed trivial. They were both socking funds away for the kids’ college. Truth to tell, Carla had been socking away a bit more than Jake. He had spent over $30,000 on his new truck: a pugnacious-looking vehicle that could seemingly level a small town.
“No, this stuff doesn’t cost a lot,” Roz replied. “It’s little vials of stuff. Cute little vials.”
Carla didn’t know much about Janelle, though she lived a few doors down. She had met her a couple of years ago at a breast cancer walkathon around Cooper River. She seemed like one of those aging hippie types. A little ditzy, a little weird. Still dressed in tie-dye. Roz said she had
a boyfriend who was a chiropractor. That must be the man Carla noticed entering Janelle’s house once in a while. He wasn’t much to look at, with a thin frame and big nose, but he was probably perfect for getting spinal adjustments.
“Okay,” Carla said.
The party, of course, was held at Janelle’s house, a craftsman-style structure with an ample front porch. Since Janelle was more Roz’s friend than hers, it was the first time Carla had been inside.
The décor was…interesting: lavender walls, white crown molding, recessed lighting, a capacious russet-colored sofa, a mesquite coffee table with distressed wood, large bookcase, hardwood floors. There was a row of cacti in small pots arranged along the fireplace mantle. Mexican artwork—the earth tones of Diego Rivera or was it George Orozco? on one wall: a peasant couple dancing in a swirl of mauves and pinks and pale green and yellow.
What appeared to be a hand-stamped metalwork sun—its rays wriggling out like octopus arms—on another wall. A painting depicting two children seated on the floor playing a board game on the wall nearest the stairs. Very nicely done. When Carla remembered that Roz had told her Janelle worked as an art teacher at a Friends school in Millersville, she felt a pang that she had done nothing with her art history education.
Janelle, who greeted each of them, was wearing a long red ruffled peasant skirt. The other women in the room would have looked like fire trucks in such a skirt, but Janelle was tall and narrow hipped enough to carry it off. Her off-white blouse was peasant too, with blue and gold embroidery. The neckline was low enough to expose some of her freckled chest, though not
low enough to be provocative. She was a vivid-looking woman; keen dark eyes under dark brows. Lustrous dark hair, threaded with gray, that fell in waves to her shoulders. Of course, she wore a necklace and earrings—flowing silver, not gold. With her prominent cheekbones, Carla wondered if Janelle might be part Native American. She knew there were still some of them, Lenape, in the southern part of the state. She had once attended an Indian pow wow in Salem County, which was open to the public.
Besides Roz and Vicky, four other women showed up, none of whom Carla had met before but two of whom Carla recognized from Aiden and Cody’s soccer practice. All these women were overweight, from a little to a lot. In fact, after Roz sat down on the sofa, with Janelle on the other side, there wasn’t room for anyone else. Fortunately, Janelle had pulled over some comfortable chairs from the dining room, or the rest of them would have had to sit on the floor. It would have been difficult for them to get up.
Janelle served wine and cheese and crackers—several types of cheese in case you didn’t like the European kind. That was good because Carla wasn’t a big fan of brie or camembert. They introduced themselves and talked a little and drank wine. There were three bottles.
Carla complimented Janelle on the assortment of cheeses.
“I belong to the Cheese of the Month Club,” Janelle replied. “It sounds kind of self-indulgent, but I do like cheese.”
“We should have a fondue party some time,” Roz said. “If that’s still a thing.”
Cheese of the Month Club? Carla had once belonged to the Quality Paperback Book Club. But that had gone out of business due to the Internet. It was just as well. She was too busy to bother filling out and mailing the card instructing them not to send the monthly selection, let alone read most of the books they sent her. Instead, they just piled up, like recriminations.
“Did you paint that?” Carla asked Janelle, as she looked over at the children playing a game.
“Yes,” Janelle said.
“It’s beautiful,” Carla remarked. She thought it looked somewhat like an Alice Neel.
“It’s decent,” Janelle replied. “Those are my sister’s kids.”
Carla already knew that Janelle had no kids of her own.
When the conversation slowed, Janelle lifted a brown carrying case off the floor and opened it: her kit of essential oils. Small vials of jasmine, peppermint, bergamot, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, others, each in its own cozy compartment. There was something intimate about the way Janelle handled each vial. She had elegant wrists, beautiful hands, set off by turquoise jewelry.
Even though Carla knew full well that this presentation was something of a show, she had to admire Janelle’s style, her incantatory tone, her physical presence. It was something you couldn’t get watching QVC.
“OF course, you’ve heard of frankincense and myrrh,” Janelle told the group.
The women murmured acknowledgment. Except for one woman, Sophia Feingold, they had all been raised as Christians.
Janelle stated, “It’s no coincidence that the wise men brought these substances to the baby Jesus, as they were highly valued in Biblical times.”
“Those ancient people weren’t so dumb,” Roz opined.
Janelle continued to lift each vial and explain its properties. Some, like lavender, she said, were believed to relieve anxiety. Some, like cinnamon and lemon, were thought to improve the complexion.
It was interesting, Carla thought, that Janelle always said, “thought to” and “believed to,” as if she herself was not entirely convinced of the benefits of the oils. She liked that about her. She guessed Janelle was hosting this party because Friends schools didn’t pay their teachers all that much. Private schools were notorious for that.
“My Ryan could use those,” one woman, a short, stocky, sandy-haired woman named Lauren, exclaimed. “He’s got an awful case of acne and the injections don’t seem to be helping much.”
Carla was dubious about these supposed beneficial properties; after all, she had gotten a B+ in biology at Rutgers. But it was certainly fun passing around the vials and smelling them. They did smell delicious. So rich, so vivid! They were stimulating!
One, jasmine, was said to improve the libido.
“That’s the one I want!” Carla blurted out. “Not for myself!” Then she found herself confessing Jake’s addiction to pornography, to the detriment of their sex life. True confessions, like some god-damned Sylvia Plath. It must be the wine. She had already finished a second glass of Pinot Grigio.
The other women stirred, a bit uneasy but interested, as if they might be experiencing the same problem with their husbands.
Janelle gazed at Carla thoughtfully. Carla liked the way she studied her. Penetratingly but not critically.
“Try the jasmine,” Janelle said. “Use it with a diffuser.”
“I don’t own a diffuser,” Carla said.
Janelle told her she could order her one for $30.
“You can get them on Amazon for a little cheaper,” she conceded. “But this is a quality one.”
Carla ordered the diffuser, as well as a vial of jasmine and one of lavender because it was said to reduce stress. Sometimes her job at the marketing firm was stressful. There were all kinds of regulations to follow in pharmaceutical marketing, shifting regulations, deadlines to meet, and big money on the line. Consequently, some of the people she worked with weren’t the nicest. Nice? There were probably drug pushers down the road in Camden who were nicer.
“Is Janelle part Native American?” Carla asked Roz hopefully as they were walking toward their homes after the demonstration let out. Roz had ordered a ton of essential oils.
“No, I don’t think so,” Roz said. “Her last name is Przybyla.”
“Oh that’s right,” Carla said. She had forgotten.
“Why did you ask?”
“I don’t know. Because of her dark hair and cheekbones, I guess.”
“No, I think she’s Polish. Some Poles have high cheekbones too.”
“That’s true.” Carla thought of Pope John Paul II. He had high cheekbones to die for—wasted on a man.
A couple of weeks later, when her essential oil and diffuser arrived, Carla loaded the jasmine into the diffuser and turned it on.
“What’s that smell?” Jake asked, so she told him.
“It’s an essential oil. Jasmine. I got it from Janelle Przybyla. Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of nice.”
But the aroma only worked to the extent that it increased Jake’s addiction to pornography. Now, shortly after dinner, he immediately went into the computer room and shut the door. He stayed in there for hours. When he came back to bed, he seemed uninterested in making love. At least with her.
Carla gave Janelle a call and told him that the essential oil had only increased Jake’s addiction to pornography.
There was a pause at the end of the line.
“I don’t know if I should tell you this, but those essential oils I showed you all aren’t all I do,” Janelle said. “Come over and I’ll explain.”
It was one thing to be invited to Janelle’s house with a group of women. It was quite another thing seeing Janelle alone, kind of intimidating, like being in the lair of some beautiful animal. Did tigers have lairs? The smell of sandalwood floated in the air. As Janelle leaned over a candle that burned on the coffee table, her vivid features flickered in its light. Oh, she had crow’s feet and all, but the signs of aging only gave her face more character. The recessed lighting was darker. There was even a cat sitting on the sofa: tortoiseshell, not black.
“That’s Piper,” Janelle explained. “I had to lock her up when the women came over because Roz hates cats.”
Carla loved cats, had two of her own—Samson and Delilah.
Janelle took a vial from her pocket. She was wearing another long skirt, peacock blue this time, with an undertone of forest green.
“I don’t keep this with the other oils,” she explained. “It’s something I put together myself. It contains an herb I got from some indigenous folks in the central highlands of Mexico.”
“What’s in it?” Carla asked.
“I don’t recall the indigenous name for it, but it will change Jake’s outlook. When he looks at the women in pornography, they’ll definitely be…unappealing to him.”
Carla found this hard to believe. Was Janelle nuts? What college had she gone to? Had she even gone to college? Then Janelle looked at her with her deep, dark, eyes, and Carla found herself making out a hefty check to her.
“That’s steep,” Carla remarked as she was writing out the check.
“This stuff’s not easy to come by,” Janelle replied. “You have to hunt for it.”
“Will you give me a refund if it doesn’t work?”
“Certainly,” Janelle said. She laid a gentle, ring-laden hand on Carla’s wrist. “But it’ll work.”
Carla noticed that Janelle wore the same bracelet on her right wrist that she had seen at the party.
“Is that bracelet by Charles Laloma?” she asked.
“This? I wish,” replied Janelle.
Carla felt some compunction about putting the stuff in the diffuser, but after all, she would be smelling it too. So would the twins. And it wasn’t like they were eating it.
It worked. The next time Jake went to the computer room, he was only in there a few minutes before he let out a yelp like a dog whose paw had been stepped on. A few minutes later, he emerged from the room and went downstairs to watch regular TV with the kids.
That night, he stayed in bed with Carla, but did not make love to her. What he didn’t tell Carla was that all the women in the streaming porn sites had appeared highly unappealing to him: gaunt, with drooping breasts, sagging skin, wild, patchy hair, their faces veritable death’s heads—witches out of Macbeth.
A few days later, Jake watched pornography again, on different sites this time, and the same thing happened—hideous hags. He thought he might be losing his mind, but when he looked at real people—his wife and kids—they appeared normal to him. Even the people on Facebook looked normal to him. It was only when he watched pornography that the women looked grotesque.
The fact that he came back to bed that night and made love to Carla made her feel triumphant.
But about a month later, with the mysterious substance still diffusing throughout the house—she had had to purchase a second vial from Janelle—Jake announced to Carla that he
had fallen in love with Brittany, an already divorced twenty-something who worked as an administrative assistant at his financial management firm.
“I want a divorce,” Jake told her shortly after dinner.
This was hardly what Carla had wanted to happen.
Not knowing what else to do, she marched over to Janelle’s house the same evening and rang the bell.
A voice called, “Come in.”
Carla found Janelle watching an old movie—“Vertigo”—on TCM. Piper had been curled on her lap but jumped off when Janelle rose to greet Carla.
“How did you know it was me?
“I saw you through the curtains. Have a seat.”
The curtains were nice—open weave.
Carla explained what had happened with Jake. She was angry at first, as if she had been gypped.
“There can be unintended consequences to everything,” Janelle patiently explained. That was what Jake was, she added. His true nature. The essential oil, whatever it was, merely brought that fact to the surface, sad as it might be.
“So in essence, Jake is, is…”
“Rather juvenile,” Janelle said.
“That’s just great,” Carla said. She had met Jake at Rutgers. He was physically very attractive, but she should have been forewarned by the fact that he belonged to a fraternity. A jock fraternity at that.
“The only constant is change,” Janelle said soothingly. “Have some Sauvignon.”
Carla drank a glass and began to relax, albeit slightly.
“What do I do now?” she asked, restraining herself from putting her feet up on Janelle’s distressed wood coffee table.
Janelle sat back on the sofa.
“Whatever you want,” she said. “You have a good job, don’t you?”
Janelle knew that Carla had a good job in pharma marketing because she had mentioned it during the essential oil get-together.
Carla looked dubious. Then she looked at Janelle. The woman was so wise, so beautiful, so calm. For a moment, she thought of throwing herself at her, but that would have been pathetic. Janelle was so much better looking than she.
At first, Carla was forlorn. She felt like a failure. Then she hired a good lawyer, divorced Jake, and got a good settlement: decent child support and the house. She wasn’t greedy.
As time passed, Carla began to realize that it was nice that Jake had gone. He had never been much of a conversationalist. In addition to the pornography, he watched football most of the day on Saturdays and all-day Sundays. He lived and bled Eagles green. The twins took the divorce
well; they would see their father on Wednesday evenings and alternate weekends. That seemed enough.
Jake being out of the house gave Carla time to think. What did she really want in life? Maybe she would read more books. Janelle seemed to manage quite well with simply having a boyfriend and a geeky looking one at that.
Carla took to visiting Janelle more often—roughly once a week. Though there was always something reserved about Janelle, something for want of a better word, cultured, she didn’t seem to mind her visits.
“Where did you go to college?” Carla asked her.
“Antioch,” Janelle replied.
That figured. They watched movies together, mostly dramas, and talked during the boring parts. Sometimes they talked about politics, about people, sometimes about books—Janelle now was reading more and had recently astounded herself by completing Dickens’s Little Dorrit.
“Pierce is easy-going,” Janelle explained to Carla. “He has kids from his previous marriage whom he spends time with. We get together once a week and on weekends. Jake has an RV. We hike and travel together…all over the world. That’s enough for us.”
“Do you love him?” Carla asked.
Janelle shrugged, as if she hadn’t given the matter much thought.
“I suppose,” she finally added.
Maybe Carla would try Match.com to try and find a man like Pierce. But for now, she had a plan simmering in the back of her mind. She put down the copy of The Lovely Bones she was reading and thought more about it. With her expertise in pharmaceutical marketing, she would suggest they take Janelle’s mysterious Mexican product national, perhaps global. These days you could sell anything herbal on the Internet. You didn’t have to get FDA approval. Of course, they’d have to lower the price somewhat. No one was going to shell out $100 for a vial of something unknown. There would be a lot of details to iron out, but it would be fun working with Janelle; that is, if she agreed to Carla’s plan.
Would it be moral to spring such a product on people? Carla gave that matter some thought. Well, they could issue a warning about possible side effects, like the drug companies did when they marketed their medications—nausea, heart attacks, blood clots, strokes, shortness of breath, constipation, dizziness, diarrhea, you name it. Carla bet, dollars to donuts, that some women were so dissatisfied with their husbands that they’d be willing to accept any and all risks. Besides, no one was actually ingesting the product they would be selling, only smelling it.
And after all, as Janelle had sagely told her, the only constant in life was change.
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