It was nearly midnight when Marley finished setting up her newest and most expensive acquisition: An 80-watt-per-channel Fisher stereo receiver, with a tuner, dual tape deck, turntable, and a pair of monster speakers that could double as end tables. With the money she’d spent, there was little left over for an entertainment center but, ever resourceful, Marley created one with a few garden pavers and a couple of one-by-ten boards she’d scavenged from her parents’ storage room. Now it was time to fire it up and let the music play. She punched buttons and twisted knobs until she found her favorite spot on the FM dial: KDKB, ‘Arizona’s Alternative’ rock station. The smooth baritone musings of late-night jock, Frank Baum, oozed through the speakers as he segued into the next song on his playlist, Patti Smith’s Because the Night.

As Patti lamented about the night belonging to lust and lovers, Marley poured herself another glass of wine. Between the wine and Patti’s musical moans of desire, the familiar ache of unfulfilled want flared between Marley’s thighs. Music, especially songs about love and loss, had a way of transporting Marley back in time, right back to 1977, to the night of her first Roadrunner hockey game when jersey number 14 locked his beseeching brown eyes with hers. Much as she tried to bury her painful past, that fateful night was one she could neither forget nor put to rest. It was a night that changed her life, a night she replayed in her mind a million times since; a night replaying in her mind now as she cradled her wine…

~ ~

The hockey player, she remembered, had kept his eye on Marley throughout the game, repeatedly skating by the section where she sat, tapping his stick on the safety glass, trying in vain to get her attention. While secretly flattered, Marley had pretended to ignore him, not to be cruel or to play hard to get, but because she had no idea how to respond; the experience was entirely new and exciting…and terrifying, as it had brought all her insecurities and self-doubts rushing to the surface. Nevertheless, she continued attending the games throughout the season—she couldn’t stop herself, so intoxicating were the euphoric feelings his attention stirred in her. For the first time in her life, she no longer felt invisible. He made her feel special, noticed, and desired.

After that first game, Marley raced home and retreated to her bedroom. She didn’t sleep that night; instead, she lay awake reliving every moment over and over. She dared to imagine herself with him, touching him, kissing him. Oh god, she thought, what would he think of her if he knew that she, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, was a pathetic sexual novice who’d had sex only once in her life, at a time when she was beyond drunk and sick as a dog? Doubt and anguish began to set in as she catalogued all the other reasons she wasn’t good enough for him—that she was a drop-out, unemployed, still lived with her parents, and was ashamed of her imperfect body. In Marley’s mind, she was a loser, a nobody, with nothing of material or personal value to offer anybody, let alone a professional sports hero. The reality of all her flaws and imperfections quashed any dreams of romance she might have imagined. If he rejected her—as she knew he surely would—it would break her heart and wound her soul beyond recovery. Yet, she couldn’t let go of the hope of the new and exciting life his attention offered.

Soon, her life revolved around going to every home game. Away games she spent glued to her AM/FM radio, hanging on every word of the play-by-play for any mention of Number 14. The days in between home games were excruciatingly long for Marley—and apparently excruciating for Number 14 as well because with each passing game, he became more and more frustrated with her, a frustration that pushed him to amp the intensity of his on-ice gestures toward her, desperate to gain her attention. And with each passing game, she’d again pretended to ignore him, only to retreat to her bedroom afterward to lose herself in her secret desire, pushing her romantic fantasies further and further, until they grew into heated, sexual imaginings of every conceivable scenario in which she and her Number 14 would finally meet and consummate their mutual lust. Before long, her nights of fantasy became physically unbearable; the incessant aching between her legs so plagued Marley that, for the first time in her twenty-one years, she touched herself. In the dark of her bedroom, lit only by the glow of her radio, she imagined the tall, raven-haired Number 14 kissing her all over—her lips, her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, her…

As her fantasies intensified, Number 14’s kisses progressed to heavy petting. She imagined his tongue against her clitoris, licking and sucking it while she, in reality, rubbed it with fervor, making the fleshy nub swell and pulse against her own fingers, pulsing harder and faster and faster and harder until it erupted, sending a shockwave through her body and a blast of hot ejaculate shooting clear across the room.

Her first orgasm.

For the first time since encountering Number 14, Marley slept soundly through the night, deeply and utterly content in knowing that, even if she and Number 14 could never be together in reality, nothing could keep them apart in her imagination.

Though her sister Dahlia and brother-in-law Keith made no mention of Number 14’s obvious on-ice advances toward Marley, they did invite her to hockey-related publicity events and parties, venues through which to meet the players, but Marley always declined. The season came to an end, leaving Number 14’s desire unacknowledged by Marley, and their mutual lust, unconsummated. Marley spent the off-season exercising with a frenzy, vowing to ‘fix’ her imperfect body before the next season began, in a desperate attempt to build the self-esteem needed to brave meeting him. She marked the days on a calendar leading to the first game of the new season. It was just a week before the start of the new season when Marley heard a radio broadcast announcing changes to the upcoming season’s lineup:

Number 14 had been traded. To another city, far away. He would not be waiting for her when the puck dropped at the first game of the new season, nor at any game thereafter.

Alone in her bedroom, Marley stared at the radio in stunned silence. As the sports announcer moved on to other news, a great force of emotional upheaval within her abdomen began to foment, forming into a fist that shoved up into her chest, shoved harder still until it lodged in her throat and choked off her breath, strangling her hope of ever again seeing Number 14. She would never meet him; never touch, kiss, or know his desire—or he, hers.

The realization came crashing down on her like a boot upon an ant. The fist lodged in her throat pushed up again, kept on pushing until from her mouth came a mournful wail. Marley bit into her pillow to muffle the pitiful lamentations of her breaking heart.

For the days, weeks, and months that followed, she carried her inconsolable grief entirely within, locked deep inside, safe from the assured judgement and ridicule of her family members, were they to ever find out.

Marley never saw Number 14 again. But instead of defeating her, the crushing heartbreak motivated her. She had vowed back then to overcome the impediments that stood in the way of life’s opportunities, starting with that first step she’d taken in moving from her small bedroom into her late grandmother’s efficiency. It was then that an older, trusted friend helped her to get the job at the county animal shelter—working nights answering phone complaints of strays and barking dogs. It was Marley’s first steady job, but the $2.75 an hour it paid barely covered her groceries, car insurance, and monthly loan payment for the used car she’d bought. She paid her parents fifty bucks a month for rent on the efficiency, which was all that was left of her monthly income. She knew, back then, if she was ever to move out from under her parents’ roof, she’d need a better paying job, but what chance did she have without a high school degree? So she signed up at the local junior college to take the state-administered general education development exam—the G.E.D.—a battery of four tests covering diverse disciplines. She took the exam cold turkey, without the benefit of any preparatory classes, even though it’d been nearly three years since she’d last stepped foot on a high school campus or cracked open a textbook of any kind. So it was a complete surprise to her when she received the exam results from the Arizona Department of Education—she’d passed all four sections with scores in the high 90s. The G.E.D certificate she received as a result of her passing scores was as good as any high school diploma—it was Marley’s golden ticket to finding a better job and, one day, gaining her independence.

And, now, here she was: In her own place, drinking her own wine, listening to her own stereo, the dial set to whichever radio station she damned well pleased. All that was missing was Number 14, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. But there was no one, not even an unreasonable facsimile.

In the two years since Number 14 entered into her fantasy life and helped give her that first gushing orgasm, Marley had had countless more, employing a variety of innocuous household tools to enhance the experience; her hairbrush being her favorite. The day Inga read her list of Ten Reasons a Cucumber is Better Than a Man, Marley remembered feeling a bit confused and left out of the carnal jokes everyone but she and Lina seemed to be ‘getting’. She wondered if it was due to her lack of experience or just plain stupidity. While she’d had plenty of orgasms, she’d never experienced one with a man. Granted, she’d only been with two men, neither experience of which was ideal. Still, in her many endeavors of self-pleasure, it never occurred to her to use an object as a replacement for a penis. Yes, she did use a hairbrush, more specifically the handle of the hairbrush, but she never used it for penetration; rather, she used it to pleasure her clitoris, pumping the smooth, lacquered handle up and down, letting it slide back and forth along the side of her clit, much as a man (she imagined) would pump his hand up and down his cock—an action that, for Marley, never failed to deliver a mind-blowing orgasm and a powerful ejaculation.

Ejaculation. Marley had never given the word much thought, except to regale in the sublime pleasure of it. But Inga’s cucumber list gave her pause to do so and made her realize she’d never heard the word ‘ejaculation’ associated with any kind of orgasm except the male kind. In high school, she recalled the giggly sex talks of her high school girlfriends, and later as an adult, those of her sisters and sisters-in-law, talks that revolved around climaxing during intercourse. Never had any of them mentioned ejaculation as part of their orgasmic experience. It was beginning to dawn on Marley that she must be doing it all wrong, that there must be a far greater pleasure awaiting her within the deep, uncharted depths of her vagina.

Marley swirled her wine and threw back the last of it as Bob Seger’s whiskey-flavored voice rasped of the banker and the lawyer and the cop all having one thing in common: the fire down below—a malady shared by Marley who could painfully relate. Before heading off to bed, she stopped in the kitchen for a peek in the fridge:

There they were, in the vegetable crisper, all ten of them: long, fleshy cylinders covered in their bumpy, dark-green skins. Marley had bought them at Bashas after work, on sale, with the idea of making them into a dish—a cucumber salad for Inga—for the Communications pot luck tomorrow, Friday, in celebration of the official last day of their twelve-week training. Without hesitation, Marley decided nine would be sufficient for the salad…

~ ~

The cucumber was a huge disappointment. Too big, too dry and, jeezus!, much too cold. Whatever pleasures her vagina might hold would have to wait for another time. For tonight, well… there was a reason she kept a hairbrush on her bedside table. Marley reached down and opened one of the bedframe’s storage drawers to retrieve a towel. Her hairbrush method was quick and effective, but it was also very messy. The one thing Marley could relate to on Inga’s cucumber list was the one about sleeping on the wet spot.

As expected, the hairbrush did not disappoint. Marley tossed the towel to the floor and closed her eyes. Sleep was not far away…

~ ~

A shrill ringing in Marley’s ear jolted her from her sleep.

Is it time to get up already?” she mumbled. She reached out to slap off the alarm clock…and then remembered she didn’t have one. The ringing continued to assault Marley’s ears until she woke enough to realize the sound was coming from the phone on her nightstand. The clock radio next to it read one o’clock, reminding Marley that she’d been asleep only a few minutes.

A twinge of panic shot through her as she wondered why anyone would be calling her at this hour. She’d had the phone just a few days and could count on one hand the number of people who knew her new phone digits. Her mind instantly imagined her father, collapsed on the family couch, dead from a coronary, or one of her siblings, a bloody corpse inside the mangled wreckage of a car.

Heart racing, Marley answered the phone with a tone of urgency: “Hello?”

There was no response.

“Hello?” she said again.

Again, there was only silence on the other end.

Marley tried once more, this time letting her tone convey her growing irritation: “Hello!”

Finally, the caller made a sound: A wet, drawn-out, husky breath.

It was an obscene phone call, Marley’s first, and it both pissed her off and frightened her. Only her family had her number and she couldn’t imagine any of them pulling such a creepy prank at such an hour. Though her brother, Mitch

Marley vanquished the thought. Probably just some random caller, she reasoned.

The caller exhaled another throaty breath into the mouthpiece, sending an uneasy chill through Marley. Reflexively, her brain defaulted to the work script she used when dealing with unresponsive callers: “If you don’t say anything, I will have to terminate this call.”

Another wet respiration blew through the receiver; she could almost feel the heat of it licking at her ear. Marley slammed down the phone and gave a shudder of disgust. The creepiness of the call reminded her of Lina and the break-in attempt Marley had read about in the Exceptional Incidents report that morning. Lina hadn’t shown up for work, either, still too traumatized to come in. Marley imagined the terror Lina must have felt and shuddered again before reaching to the large casement window above the waterbed’s headboard to make sure it was closed and securely latched.

Back beneath the covers, Marley once again closed her eyes and waited to fall into a sleep that would make her forget about her sad state of singleness, Lina’s late-night burglar and, most of all, the obscene phone call.

But sleep, like her imaginary lover, Number 14, proved fleeting and frustrating…and damnably elusive.

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