Sex as a Second Language: A Novel

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9780743268943: Sex as a Second Language: A Novel
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A teacher of English as a second language, forty-year-old Katherine Miner is an expert on idiomatic phrases and subtle verbal cues. When it comes to the opposite sex, however, she's baffled enough to choose early retirement from the dating game. It's not that she hates men, it's just that she doesn't trust them. After all, her soon-to-be ex-husband has dropped all contact with their son, and her own father disappeared from her life thirty years ago. And then Kat meets Magnus Grimmson, a tall, good-looking, tongue-tied Icelander in the front row of her class. Magnus doesn't appear to pose any threat -- in fact, he seems to understand less about women than Kat does about men. But just when Kat considers risking a little intimacy, her father reappears in her life, causing unexpected complications. Emotionally torn, Kat is left to question whom she can trust -- and to realize that she still has a lot to learn about men and the kind of communication they don't teach in school.

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About the Author:

Alisa Kwitney is the author of On the Couch, Does She or Doesn't She?, The Dominant Blonde, Till the Fat Lady Sings, and the forthcoming Flirting in Cars. Her books have been translated into Russian, German, and Japanese. A former comic book editor with DC Comics/Vertigo, Kwitney holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University. She lives with her family in the Hudson River Valley and New York City. Visit her website at www.alisakwitney.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter one

"You're too young to retire from sex."

"But I'm too old to put up with all the bullshit that's involved," said Kat, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. "Besides, the only men I find attractive are the ones I'd be insane to get involved with."

This comment received a mixed review from her friends -- a wry smile from Zandra, a look of concern from Marcy. Shit. Kat had learned the hard way that if she didn't present her depression in a sufficiently amusing manner, she'd wind up having to sit through a steady barrage of unsolicited advice. See a therapist. Take an evening course. Try the new generation of mood-altering drugs.

Yet as much as Kat longed to avoid being on the receiving end of any more prepackaged wisdom, she wasn't sure that she could sustain the requisite level of wit to satisfy her friends. Her feet were sore from walking ten blocks in three-and-a-half-inch heels and her head was beginning to throb from the drone of fifty other peoples' dinner conversations.

"But Kat," said Marcy, "the last time you were single was ten years ago. Are you saying your taste in men hasn't changed at all?"

"Well, I no longer fantasize about Kevin Costner."

"No, seriously. Let's talk about what would attract you now." There was a look of missionary eagerness on her pretty, fine-boned features.

"Marcy, I beseech you, no in-depth analysis." Underneath the table, Kat surreptitiously slipped out of her stilettos. "How about a nice, safe topic, like the pros and cons of government-sponsored torture?"

"Very funny." Zandra reached for her martini, jangling the silver bracelets on her arm. "Am I allowed to mention that there's a guy over at that table who's checking you out?"

Kat tucked her bare feet under her chair. "You always think men are checking us out. He's probably looking for a waiter."

In contrast to Marcy, who seemed to have lost all her fashion sense, Zandra was improving with age. Ten years earlier, when they'd first become friends while watching their toddlers in the playground, Zandra had concealed her hair in bandannas and her body in baggy overalls. Then, sometime last fall, Zandra had stopped trying to restrain her abundant curls and started wearing fitted clothes that flattered her generous, hourglass figure. Not surprisingly, her transformation had coincided with the advent of a new man in her life. Well, not actually in her life, Kat thought, since the man only made sporadic guest appearances. But it was this very unpredictability that kept Zandra on constant French-bra-and-matching-panties alert.

Marcy, on the other hand, had gone from gamine short hair and funky vintage dresses to a lank bob and shapeless designer shifts. Looking at her now, Kat could hardly recognize the bohemian waif she'd met fifteen years earlier in a summer Shakespeare production. It was a classic case of mommification, but in Marcy's case, she hadn't managed to have the child yet.

Thinking about it made Kat realize that she probably needed a style overhaul herself. She'd been wearing the same tailored, mannish chic for over a decade.

"No, he's definitely looking at you, Kat," said Zandra, gesturing with a toothpicked olive. "See, the blue shirt, over there?"

Kat wondered if she should try something different with her hair. Layer it? Lighten it? Cut it all off? "I see him."

"You're not even looking, Kat."

"I'm using my peripheral vision. Not my type."

Zandra looked skeptical. "And what exactly is your type?"

"Borderline." Now that her divorce was almost final, Kat was aware that her friends felt she ought to be past the stage of obsessive thinking and intense bitterness. Without ever saying so directly, Zandra and Marcy had let Kat know that there was a rough timetable for adjusting to breakups. After six months, Kat had reached the point where she was expected to provide a few sardonic anecdotes about her soon-to-be ex, as well as some fresh tidbits of carnal misadventure with new, prospective mates.

But she couldn't find the motivation necessary to give a convincing performance. Kat no longer believed she would discover some magical fit with a man. Sure, if she looked hard enough, she could probably find a partner for some mutual genital friction, but she'd given up all hope of someone taking her through the hot, sweaty crucible of transformative sex.

Kat turned to Zandra. "Why don't we talk about your love life? Are you still seeing the semi-famous guy?" As the man in question was also semi-married, Zandra had kept his identity a secret.

"We're taking a break right now. He says he needs some time to be on his own and figure out what he wants."

Translation: He was blowing her off. Kat tried to think of a tactful way of putting this. "I hate to say it, but I think you'd better brace yourself. When men say that, they almost never decide that what they really want is more intimacy."

Zandra lifted her chin a fraction. "Well, I'm not as certain as you are that it's all over. But you don't see me just sitting around, refusing to meet anyone new." This was true enough. Zandra believed that romance came to those who pursued it, and her quest for an enlightened partner seemed to entail a never-ending array of workshops with titles such as Tantric Vegan Cookery and Spirit Guide Hiking.

Marcy, on the other hand, had been dating the same passive-aggressive underachiever for seven years. As far as Kat could tell, his main attraction was that he gave Marcy something to complain about.

"And how are you and Steve doing, Marcy?"

"We're talking about going to Iceland this winter."

"Iceland? In winter?"

"It's actually supposed to be very pretty, and not as cold as people think." Also, Kat assumed, it was cheap. Steve was a forty-two-year-old struggling jazz musician, and his refusal to stop temping and get a steady job meant that he lacked the funds to travel anywhere nice with Marcy, let alone get married and have a child with her.

"So, what do you do on a winter vacation in Iceland?"

Marcy stirred her martini. "Well, there's supposed to be a fabulous nightlife."

Which meant that Marcy was going to wind up alone in her hotel room while Steve drank himself into a stupor. Looking at Zandra (trying too hard in an African beaded choker and low-cut red blouse) and Marcy (not trying hard enough in a gray velvet chemise), Kat wondered why the hell she'd been voted the sick puppy of their trio. She also wondered how long she had to stay before pleading a headache and heading back home.

Adding to Kat's general feeling of malaise was the fact that the restaurant, Carnivore, was dark and hot and packed tight with college students and young professionals, all bombarding one another with flirtatious pheromones.

Kat couldn't even get her drink refilled, as the waitstaff were making only brief appearances at each table before vanishing into the back, presumably to play a hand or two of poker before returning.

Zandra had said that a night out was just what Kat needed. If grouchy was an improvement on miserable, then her plan was working.

"Where is our waitress, anyway?" Kat scanned the room. "We should never have told her we needed another minute to make up our minds."

"Speaking of making up one's mind," said Zandra, "have you decided what you want to do about your birthday next week?"

"Yes," said Kat. "Ignore it." It wasn't the fact of leaving her thirties that disturbed Kat. The way she saw it, she was still youthful enough to wear her hair long and her jeans low, yet old enough to know not to flash her thong when she sat down. After spending much of her twenties in open auditions, Kat no longer fretted about her looks, her talent, or her ability to withstand rejection.

But with her personal and professional lives on hold, Kat wasn't quite in the mood to celebrate the fact that her life was now approximately half over.

"But Kat, you can't just ignore the big four-oh," said Zandra. "Marcy and I were talking about throwing you a surprise party, but we decided you'd probably kill us."

"Oh, dear God. Promise me you aren't going to do anything like that. You aren't, are you? This isn't some elaborate deception where you pretend to be really frank and open while secretly plotting to confront me with a cross section of my past?"

Marcy put her hand on Kat's arm. "Are you having feelings about reaching middle age?"

Kat laughed. "Yes, I feel this incredible urge to go buy elastic pants and start shopping in bulk. No, Marcy, I'm not depressed about getting older. In fact, I kind of like the fact that for the first time in over twenty years, there isn't a man in my life and I don't care."

"Of course you don't need a man in your life," said Zandra. "But I get the impression that you've closed yourself off. I hate the idea that your experience with Logan has made you hate all men."

"Oh, Zandra, please." Kat pushed away from the table, her chair scraping along the floor. "Listen, it's not that I hate men. I don't. In fact, there are many ways in which I prefer them to women. Men tend to be more direct than women, more decisive and goal-oriented. I like the fact that men seem to worry less than women about other peoples' opinions. And, since I am heterosexual, I do find myself physically attracted to them from time to time."

Zandra raised her eyebrows. "Okay, if you admire them so much, then explain why you've decided to keep them all at arm's length."

"Because," Kat said firmly, "I don't trust men. I figure it's best to keep a lion tamer's attitude -- you never know when the other half of your act is going to forget its training, revert to instinct, and bite the hand that feeds it."

"So you assume that all men are going to wind up disappointing you," said Marcy.

"It's a safe assumption. If you're married long enough, you should expect periodic unreliability, chronic disappointment, even an occasional lapse in faithfulness. In fact, just to be on the safe side, I always fig...

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ISBN 10:  0743268903 ISBN 13:  9780743268905
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