MY FRIEND MAXINE was explaining why she was going to go to a marriage counselor. "Henry is really p.o.'d," she said, passing me a sticky bun and a cup of coffee. Naturally I asked why.
"I was just minding my own business," Maxine said, "watching 'The Young and the Restless' on the T.V. - God, I really love that show - and thinking I'd do the ironing while they were giving the news after 'Search for Tomorrow.' I knew I could finish Henry's shirts before 'As the World Turns.' They're Perma-Press and I just give 'em a little touch-up around the collar. I always think they look a little nicer that way, and it only take a jiff. But then I picked up this book I bought at the drugstore. I'd seen it advertised on the T.V. It's about Vikings, and this beautiful nun, Tara. Well, she starts out as a nun, anyway."
"She didn't have a vocation?" I asked.
"Vocation?" Maxine shrieked, looking indignant. "Just listen to this!" She began to read from the book: "'No - no!' I recognized the terrified voice of a novice. 'Please, sir, no!' Oh, God, I thought, not that . . . ."
Maxine paused. "I've got to skip over some parts here," she said, blushing as pink as the rollers in her hair.Then she continued:
"I tried to close my ears to the long, agonized shriek that followed. Pains like those she was enduring shot through me, my flesh crawled with the agony of what she was suffering. . . . Having taken vows of chastity, my gentle sisters in God were suffering the torments of the damned as both body and sould were violated by the lust of the heathen invaders. . . . 'Please sir, not again.' I cringed at the helplessness of the whimper."
"Did you get that?" Maxine demanded. "Did you ever? Doing that to a whole convent full of nuns?"
"Life is like that," I said, "at the corner of Hollywood and Viking."
"And that's only the beginning, just halfway through the first chapter. ANd when I got to the end of the chapter, there was no turning back, just like it says here." Maxine began to read:
"Now that there was no turning back, all strength left me, and I slumped in his arms. I felt completely drained of fear or hate or despair, and I waited numbly, uncaring, for him to have his way with me."
"Surely not," I exclaimed. "Not that." The style was contagious.
"Well, it wasn't so bad," Maxine explained, "because Rorik - that's the Viking leader's name and he's destined to be king - isn't really a monster of evil. He knows he can possess Tara only on her terms. Tara's really a shy, dependent person who desperately longs for love and security, and he marries her. Listen," Maxine said, smiling beatifically and beginning to read again:
"I clung to him as I clung to the rock when the surging waves pulled at me and I thought I was going to drown. When we reached a climax simultaneously, I bit his lip; and the taste of blood was bittersweet on my tongue."
"Isn't that beautiful?" Maxine asked.
"Havelock Ellis," I murmured.
"Yeah," Maxine said, "Rorik has a touch of the poet in him. He takes her to his country, Hordaland - that 's in Norway - and gives her a beautiful fur coat. Here, I'll read you about it."
"He removed the wrappings and unrolled a magnificient white fox cape. The skins had been meticulously sewn together to bring out the full beauty of each pelt. It was shaped to fit the shoulders, not just be wrapped around the body; and when Rorik draped it over me, it hung to my feet. Two intricately wrought brooches held it together at throat and breastline. In addition, it had a hood that fit loosely but securely over my head. I could scarcely articulate my admiration for the soft beauty of it. I had never seen such luxury."
"Sounds like the Saks catalogue," I said.
"Then on her wedding night, the second wedding, the big one in Hordaland - the first was just on shipboard - Tara finds out that Rorik has two other wives, and she is caught between revulsion and desire."
"It's always a dilemma," I said. Maxine looked a little caught herself.
"Well, it's the custom," she said. "They're still heathens. There a lot of interesting Viking customs in the book. It's very authentic. But naturally Tara is aghast." Maxine picked up the book again. "As long as you have two wives, she tells him, 'I will not be your third.' He gives her a look of savage desire and rips her chemise from neck to hem! Oh, it would send shivers up your spine," Maxine said, giving a little shudder. "But eventually he sends his other two wives away because he really loves Tara and she gives him a son and also a daughter. Twins, like was prophesied.Tara has never known such happiness. She learns the language and she is loved by the people. But Rorik has an evil brother who wants the throne. One day in the woods he tries to rape Tara."
"Sounds like Hamlet, " I said. "Those Scandinavians are all alike. Must be the long winter nights.When they're not filled with lust, they're conniving for power."
"Yeah, Hamlet," Maxine said. "Well, Barbara Ferry Johnson - she wrote it - teaches English in South Carolina. She wrote Delta Blood, too. That was wonderful."
"Well, maybe it's the hot, tempestuous summers in Myrtle Beach," I said. Maxine gave me a quizzical look.
"Anyway," she said, "I couldn't put the book down. Rorik and Tara are kidnapped on a state visit to King Torvald of Zealand, separated, and sold into slavery. The evil brother arranged it. You can't imagine the days of unmitigated, abominable horror that followed. Constantinople. Harems. Bear fights. Buggery! Intrigue."
"No Sapphic love?" I asked.
"Yeah," Maxine said, "probably that too. Anyway Tara escapes, but she remains true to Rorik. Well, almost true."
"Isn't that the way," I said.
"It needs must be," said Maxine. "After all, she has her needs. By this time Tara has been befriended by a rich merchant in Constantinople, sort of a friend of Rorik's family, and she goes to a slave auction one day and there is Rorik. But he's sold before the servant she's sent back for gold to buy him can return with the money! Isn't that awful?"
"What happens then?" I asked, catching the fever.
"Then she is desolate. She's living in the harem, but she's not one of them, if you know what I mean. The harem women were slaves to loneliness and in thrall to a passionate need for love," said Maxine.
"Aren't we all," I mumbled.
"I think that's a quote from the book," said Maxine. "A lot of the lines have stuck in my head. But then she goes to a bear fight, and guess who is down there in the pit, fighting the bear?"
"Don't tell me," I said. "Rorik?"
"You bet. He's brutally mauled, but Tara screams, the rich merchant buys him and, well, you knew, they go back to Hordaland, and Rorik slays his evil brother and he's crowned king."
"It needs must be," I said, "but what about Henry?"
Tears came to Maxine's eyes. "Oh, Henry," she said. "I forgot all about the ironing, what with the excitement. I even forgot about 'As the World Turns'. I forgot about dinner. I wish I'd forgotten about Henry." Maxine began to cry. "That uncouth slob. You can't imagine how mad he was, just because I'd forgotten to make the spaghetti. It's his favorite. You ever taste my spaghetti sauce?"
"Did he rip your chemise," I asked, "from neck to hem?"
"Are you kidding? That slob? He just pulled out a six-pack of Bud from the fridge and drank 'em down, one right after the other. And then he started on another six-pack. And then he just passed out, snoring. He was despicable."
"He didn't even have a certain diabolical charm?" I asked.
"About as much charm as a belch," Maxine huffed. "Oh, you can't imagine the unmitigated, abominable horror I've been through! We exchanged bitter words, and they were like gall on my tongue. What we had once shared now seemed irrevocably destroyed. That's why I'm going to got to a marriage counselor."
"Maybe you should give him a copy of Delta Blood, " I said. "Stir up the old juices and all that."
"Delta Blood, " Maxine sighed. "Now there's a book! Let me tell you about Delta Blood. "
"Please, Maxine," I whimpered. "Not again."