‘Luster,’ by Raven Leilani: An Excerpt

‘Luster,’ by Raven Leilani: An Excerpt

The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light. He is uptown processing a new bundle of microfiche and I am downtown handling corrections for a new Labrador detective manuscript. He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing. His messages come with impeccable punctuation. He is fond of words like taste and spread. The empty text field is full of possibilities. Of course I worry about IT remoting into my computer, or my internet history warranting yet another disciplinary meeting with HR. But the risk. The thrill of a third pair of unseen eyes. The idea that someone in the office, with that sweet, post-lunch-break optimism, might come across the thread and see how tenderly Eric and I have built this private world.

In his first message, he points out a few typos in my online profile and tells me he has an open marriage. His profile pictures are candid and loose—a grainy photo of him asleep in the sand, a photo of him shaving, taken from behind. It is this last photo that moves me. The dirty tile and the soft recession of steam. His face in the mirror, stern with quiet scrutiny. I save the photo to my phone so I can look at it on the train. Women look over my shoulder and smile, and I let them believe he is mine.

Otherwise, I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of the facts. Here’s a fact: I have great breasts, which have warped my spine. More facts: My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends, and men lose interest in me when I talk. It always goes well initially, but then I talk too explicitly about my ovarian torsion or my rent. Eric is different. Two weeks into our correspondence, he tells me about the cancer that ravaged half of his maternal family. He tells me about an aunt he loved who made potions with fox hair and hemp. How she was buried with a corn husk doll she’d made of herself. Still, he describes his childhood home lovingly, the digressions of farmland between Milwaukee and Appleton, the yellow-breasted chats and tundra swans that would appear in his yard, looking for seed. When I talk about my childhood, I only talk about the happy parts. The VHS of Spice World I received for my fifth birthday, the Barbie I melted in the microwave when no one was home. Of course, the context of my childhood—the boy bands, the Lunchables, the impeachment of Bill Clinton—only emphasizes our generational gap. Eric is sensitive about his age and about mine, and he makes a considerable effort to manage the twenty-three-year discrepancy. He follows me on Instagram and leaves lengthy comments on my posts. Retired internet slang interspersed with earnest remarks about how the light falls on my face. Compared to the inscrutable advances of younger men, it is a relief.

* * *

[ Return to the review of “Luster.” ]

We talk for a month before our schedules align. We try to meet earlier, but things always come up. This is just one way his life is different from mine. There are people who count on him, and sometimes they need him urgently. Between his abrupt cancellations, I realize that I need him, too. In a way that makes my dreams delirious expressions of thirst—long stretches of yellow desert, cathedrals hemmed in dripping moss. By the time we set our first real date, I would’ve done anything. He wanted to go to Six Flags.

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