Complex Electra

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A Complex Electra by Ilise Benun    

is what I remember. My father was an imposing man, tall, with ink-black hair in short, hard waves that lay back from his temples. He was bearded and wooly, his heft covered with a coat of
coarse and curly dark hair, like a grizzly bear, like a caveman. Thin-lipped and heavy-jawed, he had

a wide neck, with a prodigious Adam’s apple, set atop a pair of broad shoulders.


At thirteen, I was thick in the waist, wide in the hips and not what you’d call smooth-of-skin. But my father saw none of that. To him, I was Beauty, and he always had a compliment for me, whether it was about my outfit, my hairstyle or my calves, muscular from years of ballet.


One Friday, my father was working late at the factory of our family business and I’d offered to help with the paperwork. When I arrived, the cutters and sewers were lined up at the time clock, chatting with my father as they punched out. He shook the hand of each one of them, thanked them for their good work that week, and patted them on the back as they left. I stood close and, as he talked, I smoothed under my palm the dark hairs that blanketed the back of his hand.


When everyone was gone, my father turned to me and opened his arms for our hug. I reached around his waist, pressed my face against his chest, took a deep breath and squeezed as hard as I could.


“You’re pretty strong for a girl,” he said, following our script.


“The tighter to squeeze you with, my dear.”


His long arms hung over my shoulders and his hands came down to rest on my schoolgirl skirt. “Oh, man, this little bottom of yours,” he said, with a firm squeeze. “I just can’t help myself.” And for a blessed moment he held me with such authority it was as if I were suspended above the ground. Then, with a pat, he let me go.


“Okay, Beauty, enough horsing around. Let’s get to work. I have a new job for you today, so sit right down here.” Like a gentleman, he held the chair and like a lady, I curtsied.


“Here we have today’s orders.” He rapped on a stack of papers with the eraser end of a pencil. He was standing behind me, leaning over so that his arms encircled me and I could feel the heat from his body. “In each of these columns, I want you to write the store name, the dollar total and the shipping date. Got it?”


I lifted my chin and breathed in his warm exhale, blended with the cinnamon gum he chewed all day. His Adam’s apple stared down at me, then promptly disappeared. He was talking, saying something
and pointing with the pencil back to the pile, but I couldn’t hear a word. I could only smile up at him and nod.


“Okay, get to work.” He walked over to his desk and sat down. I shifted in my seat, coughed,

sniffled and sneezed, erased loudly, shuffled papers, even came close to dropping them on the floor. He didn’t budge. Then I pushed the chair back and walked toward the door.


“Taking a break already?”


“I’ll be back, ” I said, and picked up my book bag.


In the ladies’ room, I dug hurriedly among my books and old sandwich remnants until I found the small vinyl makeup kit I’d bought several months before at Bullocks. I leaned close to the mirror and inspected my nose, my chin, my upper lip. With a tiny dollop of foundation, I covered a bright red pimple on the tip of my nose, then dusted it with powder from a compact that clicked open and closed. Mascara baton in hand, I isolated, elongated and thickened each eyelash. Next came the blush, which I applied in long, clean lines up along my cheekbones and toward my temples, as I had practiced in my own bathroom with the door locked.


Moving quickly now, I pursed my lips and applied Rouge Sublime. I pulled my hairbrush down my back, through tangles that wouldn’t give. As a final flourish, I undid two buttons on my white shirt and leaned toward the mirror to see what a view from above would reveal: a peek of black lace and a tiny pink rose.


Dad sat at the conference table, his back to me, and I stood at the threshold of his office, leaning against the doorjamb, my elbow extended as high as it would reach, my cheek pressing into my upper arm. Imagining myself as Lauren Bacall, or Lucille Ball, tall and sleek and thin in a floor-length red dress, I shifted my weight back and forth, my hips swaying, almost circling.


Then I approached silently and stood behind my father for a moment, stealthlike. With a deep breath, I reached forward and placed my trembling palm on his shoulder. I squeezed once and held my hand there.


“Thank you, honey. My shoulders are a bit stiff.” I squeezed again.


“Do you want a massage, Daddy?” My voice was high and tight, not what I’d intended.


“No, Beauty,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”


I stepped closer, put my other hand on his shoulder and began to knead gently. I pressed my thumb

over the neckline of his shirt, inching my finger slowly along his clavicle. A low moaning sound arose from him, and I pressed harder. Then with both hands, I spread my fingers up his neck, and softly raked his scalp with my nails.


“Honey, really,” he said, waving his hand above his shoulder. “We don’t have time to play.”


I leaned in toward his throat at that moment, my lips parted, and my chest grazed his back.


That’s when he stood up. Suddenly he was towering over me, his eyes wide and full and I watched as
they moved slowly, seeing my strategically unbuttoned shirt, the tiny flower, my red mouth. All I could do was stand there waiting, for punishment or absolution or ecstasy.


At first, nothing happened. He didn’t smile with pity. He didn’t take me in his arms. He didn’t sit me down on his lap for a little talk. He just stood there, motionless, looking. His watch ticked loudly and a car passed by outside.


Then his face changed, it softened a little and he sighed deeply. He drew me toward his chest, and said quietly, “No, honey.” He cradled my entire head in the hollow of his hand, repeating over and over, “No, honey, no.” I began to weep. All that unspeakable desire I’d been nursing for so long, melted and drained out in long, deep sobs. All the while, he held me to him.


When my sobs tempered to a sniffle, he released my head, took me by the outer arms and pulled me away from him. “I love you,” he said, bending down and looking directly into my swollen, mascara-bleared eyes. “You know that, right?” I nodded and kept nodding as I buried my head back in his chest. Again, he pulled me away, this time with a little more force. He kissed me once on each wet eyelid and whispered, “Okay. Now, go clean yourself up, and we’ll get back to work.”

Ilise Benun and