Music for Torching [an excerpt]

Pin it


Music for Torching  

by A. M. Homes  

[Their own home damaged by a fire, Elaine and her husband, Paul, are staying with their suburban
neighbors, Pat and George. It is a weekday morning; the kids are at school, the husbands left for work hours

Elaine is awake. She is embarrassed to have slept late. She lies in the bed thinking that what she has
to do now is get up, get dressed, and go home. She has to fix the house, fix herself, and focus on what
comes next. She has to plan for the future.

Her plan is to go downstairs, have a quick cup of coffee, and then
go home.


Pat is in the kitchen. She is on the phone and also ironing. “Good morning,” she whispers to


“Morning,” Elaine says.


The coffeepot is on. Elaine pours herself a cup and leans against the counter. Pat is still in her
robe. Her hair is a mess. On the table is a bowl of pineapple slices, left over from the night before — no
muffins, no warm morning pastries, no fresh-baked bread. Elaine checks the clock — ten A.M. How odd.
Pat in her robe, Pat serving leftovers. If Pat can’t keep it together, who can?


Pat is smiling at Elaine, practically grinning. Why?


“What?” Elaine asks.


“You’re so lovely,” Pat says, and Elaine isn’t sure if Pat is talking to her or the person on the


Elaine sits down with her coffee and begins reading the paper. In the background Pat is ordering
lamb. “Page forty-three. Could I have three racks and then one leg?”


Elaine had never heard of anyone having meat mailed to them.


“Over the phone. Door to door. Hardware, underwear, shoes, food, everything,” Pat says as she’s
hanging up. “It saves me so much time.” Pat sprays starch on the last of the shirts and digs in, wrestling
the wrinkles.


“I slept late,” Elaine says sheepishly.


“Every day isn’t perfect,” Pat says. “Some days start strangely.”


Is that why she’s still in her robe?
As Elaine reaches across the table for the sugar, the coffee sloshes, it splashes onto Elaine’s clean
white shirt. “Shit,” she says, jumping up, running to the sink, blotting it with a kitchen sponge.


“Take it off,” Pat says.


“I’m not dressed,” Elaine says, pulling the stained fabric away from her skin — she’s braless.


Pat takes something out from under the sink, squirts it directly onto the shirt, and rubs thoroughly
with her bare hand. The spot disappears. “Will you let me iron it?” Pat asks.


Elaine hesitantly unbuttons the shirt and slips it off.


Pat moves to the ironing board to press the blouse dry. Steam rises from under the iron. Goose
bumps come up on Elaine’s skin. She crosses her arms over her chest.


Pat holds the shirt open for Elaine, like a bullfighter’s cape. Toro.


“Thanks,” Elaine says, sliding her arm in.


There’s something delicious about the shirt, crisp, bright white against her skin. The cotton is hot
on the spot where the coffee spilled, the place where Pat worked it. Hot against cold, Elaine closes her eyes
and lets the warmth soak in. “Thanks,” she says again.


Pat is moving in a slow circle around Elaine, lifting Elaine’s hair out from inside the neck of the


Something brushes against Elaine’s neck. What? What was that? A prickly triangle. Elaine turns
toward it, turning toward the trouble, wanting to see what’s what. It’s Pat. Pat kissing her. Pat kisses her
again. Pat kisses her on the lips. “Ummmm, ummm,” Pat murmurs.


A whirl, a dizzying spin.


The purple press of Pat’s lips is insistent and sure. Pat is kissing her, and Elaine isn’t sure why.
She pulls back and looks at Pat. Pat’s eyes are closed, her face a dissolve coming at Elaine again. Elaine
turns slightly to the side, avoiding her. The kiss lands on Elaine’s cheek. Pat’s eyes blink open — baffled.

Something. Guilt. Confusion. Elaine can’t think, can’t see, can’t breathe, but she doesn’t want to give Pat
the wrong idea, she doesn’t want to say no, she doesn’t want Pat to be hurt. Elaine kisses Pat.


The kiss, unbearably fragile, a spike of sensation, shoulders the frame. Everything Elaine thinks
about who she is, what she is, is irrelevant. There are no words, only sensation, smooth sensation. Tender,
like the tickling lick of a kitten. Elaine feels powerless, suddenly stoned. Pat is kissing her. She is kissing
Pat. They are standing in the middle of the kitchen, giving and getting every kiss they’ve ever gotten or
given; kissing from memory. Kissing: fast, hard, deep, frantic, long and slow. They are tasting the lips, the
mouth, the tongue. Elaine puts her hands to Pat’s face, the softness of Pat’s skin; the absence of the roughscruff
and scratch of a stale shave is so unfamiliar as to seem impossible. Pat rubs her face against Elaine’s
— sweeping the cheek, the high, light bones, muzzling the ear, the narrow line of the eyebrow, finishing
with a butterfly flick of the lashes.


Elaine’s mind struggles to make sense, to find familiar coordinates — it spins uselessly.


Pat reaches for Elaine’s hand. “Come,” she says.


“Where are you taking me?” Elaine asks in an airless voice.




“No,” Elaine says, fast, firm. Bed, that’s breaking a rule — a rule she didn’t know she had. It is
like being a teenager again. There are things you will and won’t do. Bed is too much. Pat and George’s bed,
their twins’ twin beds — no. Bed is out of the question. So far it is a kiss, just a kiss, nothing truly
unforgivable. “No,” she says again.


“Am I frightening you?” Pat asks, coming in close, whispering the question right into Elaine’s
mouth. Kissing. “Am I?” Pat’s hand is on Elaine’s shirt, on the buttons.


Elaine, not wanting to offend, breathes, “No,” even though she is terrified.


Pat undoes the buttons. It feels amazingly good. Pat is unbuttoning the blouse, brushing her lips
against Elaine’s neck, her clavicle, going lower.


Elaine fixates on the blouse, holding it against her body, worrying it will get wrinkled.


“Don’t worry,” Pat says, pulling the blouse away. “I’ll iron it. I promise, I’ll iron it again when
we’re done.”


The shirt falls to the floor.


Elaine bends to pick it up. She stops to drape it over the back of a chair.


It’s fine, Elaine tells herself, if it’s only a kiss. Fine as long as the clothing is on, fine if only her
shirt is off, fine if . . . She’s making rules and instantly breaking them.


Pat is at her breast. A noise escapes Elaine, an embarrassingly deep sigh — like air rushing out of
something. Elaine can’t believe that she’s letting this happen; she’s not stopping it, she’s not screaming,

she’s enjoying it. Pat is kissing Elaine’s belly, tonguing the cesarean scar that no one ever touches. Elaine
reaches for Pat — there’s an incredible strangeness when they touch simultaneously. Elaine can’t tell who is
who, what is what — Marcel Marceau, a mirror game, each miming the other. Phenomenal confusion.
Elaine touches Pat’s breast, pressing. Her knees buckle, she collapses to the floor. Pat goes with her.


They are in the kitchen, down on the linoleum floor. It is fine, Elaine tells herself, fine as long as
Pat is dressed, fine as long as Elaine keeps what’s left of her clothes on.


“Is this all right?” Pat asks.


“Nice,” Elaine manages to say.


Luscious. Delicious. Pat is smooth and buttery, not like Paul, not a mass of fur, a
jumble of abrasion from beard to prick. Pat is soft, enveloping.


Elaine is thinking that it’ll stop in a minute, it won’t really happen, it won’t go too far. It’s just
two women exploring. She remembers reading about consciousness-raising groups, women sitting in
circles on living-room floors, looking at their cervixes like little boys in circle jerks, women taking
possession of their bodies. Only this is far more personal — Pat is taking possession of Elaine.


Pat is pulling Elaine’s pants off. Elaine is lifting her hip, her khakis are tossed off under the
kitchen table. Pat is still in her robe. Elaine reaches for the belt, half thinking she will use it to pull herself
up, she will lift herself up and out of this. The robe opens, exposing Pat.


Pat spreads herself out over Elaine, skin to skin, breast to breast. Pat against her, not ripe,
repulsive. She almost screams — it’s like a living thing — tongue and teeth.


And Pat is on top, grinding against Elaine, humping her in a strangely prickless pose. Fucking
that’s all friction.


She reaches her hand under Elaine’s ass to get a better grip. Crumbs. There are crumbs stuck to
Elaine’s ass. Horrified, Pat twists around and begins licking them off, sucking the crumbs from Elaine,
from the floor, and swallowing them like a human vacuum cleaner. “I sweep,” she says, wiping dust off her
mouth. “I sweep every day. I’m sweeping all the time.”


“It’s all right,” Elaine says. “It’s fine.”


Fine if it’s only on the outside, fine if it’s just a hand. Fine if it’s fingers and not a tongue, and
then fine if it is a tongue. Fine if it’s just that, and then it’s fine. It’s all fine.


They are two full-grown women, mothers, going at each other on the kitchen floor. A thick,
musky scent rises, a sexual stew.


Pat reaches up. Pulling a pot holder shaped like a bright red lobster off the counter, tucking it
under Elaine’s head — from above Elaine looks as if she has claw-shaped devils’ horns sticking out of her
head. “That’s better,” Pat says.


“Thank you,” Elaine says. “I was starting to get a headache.”


“Mmmm,” Pat says, spinning her tongue in circles.


“Mmmm,” Elaine echoes involuntarily.


Pat’s fingers curl between Elaine’s legs, slipping in.


“Aooww,” Elaine says, combining “Ah” and “Ow,” pain and pleasure. It takes a minute to figure
out what hurts. “Your ring,” Elaine pants.


The high diamond mount of Pat’s engagement ring is scraping her. Pat pulls off the ring, it
skitters across the floor, and she slips her hand back into Elaine, finding the spot. She slips in and out more
quickly, more vigorously.


Elaine comes in cacophonous convulsions, great guttural exaltations. She’s filled with a flooding
sensation, as though a seal has broken; her womb, in seizures, squeezes as though expelling Elaine herself.


And just as she thinks it’s over, as she starts to relax, Pat’s mouth slides south, and Elaine is
flash-frozen at the summit of sensation, her body stun-gunned by the flick of Pat’s tongue. She lies splayed
out on the linoleum, comparing Pat to Paul: Paul goes down on her because he saw it in a porno movie,
because he thinks it’s the cool thing to do. Paul goes down on her like he’s really eating her, like she’s a
Big Mac and he’s got to get his mouth around the whole burger in one big bite.


Elaine is concentrating, trying to figure out exactly what Pat is doing. Every lick, every flick
causes an electric surge, a tiny sharp shock, to flash through her body.


She is seeing flashes of light, fleeting images. It’s as though she’s losing consciousness, losing
her mind, dying. She can’t bear any more — it’s too much. She pushes Pat away.


“Stop,” she says, closing her legs. “It’s enough.”


Pat lies next to her. Pat kisses her. Elaine tastes herself on Pat’s lips, a tart tang, surprisingly
slick, a lip-gloss lubricant. Their mouths move over each other, hungry.


They begin again.


She owes Pat something.


Elaine’s hand moves down, over the rolling hill of Pat’s belly, the slow arch of her pelvis. The
absence of balls, of the ropy, rock-hard root, is strange, simultaneously familiar and un-. Elaine rubs Pat,
working fast and furtively in the swampy heat, doing what needs to be done, not lingering. Pat fills with
blood, becoming thick, fibrous, seeming to swell, to tighten on Elaine’s hand. Out of character and
undignified, Pat writhes athletically, enthusiastically, on the floor. She comes with a long, low moan.


They are finished.


Elaine looks around the kitchen — at the cabinets, the counters, noticing that the coffeemaker is
still on and that they kicked the kitchen table, knocking some of the sections of the newspaper to the floor.

Her thigh is stuck to the linoleum; she peels it up; it makes a thick sucking sound. She is naked on the
kitchen floor with a pot holder tucked under her head as if she’s had some strange household accident. Her
underwear is across the room, by the refrigerator; her khakis are under the kitchen table; her blouse, draped
over the chair. She is doused in the queer perfume of sex, drowsy — as though awakened from a dream
before it ended.


“You’re a treat,” Pat says. “A delicacy. I never get to kiss. George doesn’t like it.”


Elaine is crawling around on all fours, rounding up her clothing, wondering, What do you do now?
How do you bring yourself to standing? How do you get up, get dressed and move along?


“How about a bath, a long, hot bath?” Pat asks.


Elaine pulls on her underwear and looks at the kitchen clock. “I can’t,” she says. “Look at the
time; it’s eleven-thirty. Aren’t you worried about having gotten off schedule?”


Pat shrugs. She finds her ring on the floor and puts it in her mouth, sucking it to clean it.


Elaine is dressing as fast as she possibly can. She can’t believe what she’s done: Okay, so Pat
kissed her — George doesn’t like to kiss, and Pat needed a kiss, but what about the rest — did it really
happen? Has Pat done this before? Does Pat think it was all Elaine’s fault? And why is Elaine thinking
fault? Why is she blaming herself? Pure panic.


“Are you all right?” Pat asks.


“It’s fine,” Elaine says, hurrying.


Elaine needs to be in her car going home, she needs to be someplace familiar and safe, she needs a
few minutes alone. She is suffering the strange anxiety of having risen so far up and out of herself as to
seem entirely untethered. She’s scared herself — as though this has never been done before, as though she
and Pat invented it right there on the kitchen floor. She wonders if she’s suffered some odd injury — did she
hurt herself? Did Pat scrape her? Will she get an infection? Will she have to tell someone — explain it?
She fumbles frantically with the buttons on her blouse.


“You seem upset,” Pat says, slipping back into her robe.


“I just feel . . . like I’m running late. I slept late, and then, well, this happened. And now I’m
really late. I should go.” Elaine practically runs for the door.


“Something special you want for dinner?” Pat calls after her. “What’s your favorite food?
Wednesday is grab bag. Everyone puts in their wishes, and each person ends up getting at least one thing
they want.”


Nothing, Elaine wants nothing.


“You can’t leave without naming something,” Pat says.


“Beets,” Elaine says, racing.


“Oh, that’s good, that’s great. I never would have thought of that,” Pat says.


Elaine throws the car into gear and pulls away — she hates beets. Why did she say beets? She
drives around the block, pulls up in front of the house, and blows the horn. Pat opens the door, thrilled that
Elaine has returned. She leans forward, as though expecting Elaine to make some declaration along the lines
of “I love you,” or at least “Thanks, that was fun.” Elaine rolls down the window and shouts her confession
across the lawn. “I hate beets. I don’t know why I said that.”


Pat’s face takes a fall.


“Asparagus,” Elaine says. “Asparagus is fine.”


“Oh,” Pat calls back, recovering. “Oh, good. Asparagus is a good thing.”

(from the forthcoming novel Music for Torching to be published by Rob Weisbach Books, an imprint of
William Morrow)

A. M. Homes and