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Fornicatorium by Benjamin Anastas

Bethany, her husband thought when he woke up alone that
morning, three days into his latest banishment from the marital
bedroom, lying on a leaky yard-sale water bed that he had purchased
to fulfill a teenage fantasy (sex, beer and floating, as if on a
dirty cloud) and had set up in the apartment over the garage, with a
confusion of hoses and some gravitational difficulty, only to have
his wife announce, “I will never fuck you on that thing.” So the
water bed had leaked away in isolation all that winter, soaking the
indoor/outdoor carpeting he had installed himself (even his son had
refused to help him with the job), until, with springtime surging
through his veins and granted an uncanny intelligence to his scrotum,
Bethany had decreed for the third time in as many years that she
needed “space to think” and he was reunited with his grand unfinished
project to ensure the future of their marriage, a “fornicatorium”
separate from the house, no telephone, no email account, no demanding
kids, just the water bed, a set of Velcro straps he had bought from a
high-class catalogue and a bathroom cabinet filled with tubes of
lubricating jelly. It was Bobby Caruso’s special torment to sleep in
his dream house of unlimited orgasm by himself.


He loved sex! And thought about it constantly, he loved the nervous
moments before the act and the guiltless nuzzling afterward, the way
that sex could interrupt, like nothing else, the passage of the
hours, he loved the difficulty of insertion, the strange position of
our sex organs on the body, he loved the thump and slap
that made him think of dolphins, and the little squirting sounds, but
most of all he loved having sex with Bethany, his beautiful wife,
while she treated lovemaking (with him, anyway) like a necessary chore. He was faithful to Bethany even in his fantasy
life, where she ruled him tenderly, usually wearing something
leather, holding, more often than not, a steaming muffin tin straight
from the oven (he also loved muffins) and suggesting pornographic
scenarios the real Bethany would never have abided; in the rare event
that they did have sex his wife kept very quiet, worried openly about
the kids, heard phantom noises in the basement, and had been known to
check her watch, but lately her desire for him, iffy in the first
place, had all but absented itself from her body, that beautiful,
unbelievable body, such a gift whenever he was allowed access, so
soft, so hard, so flat, so round that even he believed she must have
come directly from the hand of God.


It took some effort for Bobby Caruso to roll himself out of the water
bed, stained a greasy “walnut” by the previous owner, and plant his
feet on the soggy carpet. Marriage to Bethany, as he saw it, had been
a verified miracle followed by series of rude awakenings — the
first came on their honeymoon in Sicily, when she had refused,
despite the cost of the hotel suite, to swallow, not a
catastrophic loss, he had decided in the end, and they had thoroughly
enjoyed their remaining weeks in the ancient sun, giddy newlyweds in
a foreign land, eating their weight in seafood and cannoli, slipping
from their clothing at the slightest provocation (okay, so maybe
Bobby had been reduced, once or twice, to masturbating guiltily
beside her while she slept off a bottle of the “local” wine). Once
they had returned home and established a regular pattern he
calculated a significant reduction in blowjobs, but so what? He still
enjoyed the rest of her body — that is, until the unexpected
arrived, EARLY PREGNANCY, a spirit-breaking wallop from which he
would never, ever recover. Sure he loved his son madly, but what kind
of trade was this? His sex life for a baby boy? Six years later came
a daughter with terrible colic, fraying Bethany’s already tender
nerves and bringing to an end the last habitual intimacy of their
marriage, the occasional back rub, while the latest rude awakening,
he figured generously, was Bethany’s rejection of his winter’s
masterwork, the fornicatorium. He wanted his wife more than ever, and
didn’t have the heart to speculate about what else, in his sexless
conundrum, could go wrong.


Bobby crossed the driveway in his pajamas and bedroom slippers,
disturbed by the singing of the birds, which sounded, that morning,
like nature’s special taunt for the separated husband. Inside, his
wife would just be finished with her shower, directing the morning
activities in her royal-blue terry-cloth robe, hair wet, perhaps a
towel draped around her shoulders, in a foul mood that made her even
sexier, to his mind; in the early days of their marriage she used to
slice his muffin in half, smear it lightly with butter, and put it in
the toaster oven, a selfless act, considering she was also in a rush,
but he could no longer look forward to that bit of morning
erotica. Now he was lucky if the children left an extra Eggo waffle
for him thawing on the countertop. Bobby rang the doorbell and waited
for an answer, trying not to think about how many neighbors might be
watching from their windows.


“Who is it?” his six-year-old daughter Jessica yelled behind the
door, loud enough to startle him.


“It’s Daddy, cough-drop. Can you open the door?” The girl was such a
tyrant that she chose her own pet names, employing them on a rotation
that he could never quite figure out.


“Who’s cough-drop?”


“Open the door for Daddy, please.”


“Who’s cough-drop?


“Open the door, Jessica.”


She began to laugh hysterically, cut short by her older brother
Devon, who finally opened the door for Bobby. The boy was awfully
introspective for twelve and so nervous that he bit his fingernails
down to stubs — although the latest development, thanks to the
older kids at his school, had been his interest in rap, right down to
the baggy jogging suit he was wearing right now.


“Devon!” Jessica yelled, because her voice knew only one volume. “You
ruined everything!”


“Morning, Dad,” the boy said, heading back upstairs in his artfully
untied low-tops. He told his sister, “Shut up.”


Bobby dreaded reentering the family melodrama, the yelling, the
tears, the constant need for discipline, the testing of his will to
punish — but never without love — and during Bethany’s
“trial periods,” when she made him sleep above the garage, his
authority, with the children, was noticeably undermined. The marital
bedroom, as it turned out, was the seat of all power. And his
children (especially the girl) had been born with an expertise in
manipulating power structures; at the very worst she might end up a
union boss, at best a presidential biographer. (Jessica lacks the
charisma, he surmised, to run for President herself.) Children
demanded everything you had, and in return they offered you report
cards for signature. They shared nothing! On his last birthday
Jessica had presented him with an atrocious drawing, which would have
been fine had it been of something sweet, like a butterfly, or a
ladybug, or a pretty flower, but she had given him a huge
self-portrait in Magic Marker. Her mother had taken dictation
for the caption, “Jessie takes a walk in the woods.” And gets
he had thought to himself, beaming with his best version of
the father’s proud, touched smile. Bethany had suggested that he hang
the picture in his office, so he dropped it off at the frame shop
and promptly forgot about it. When the shopkeeper called the house a
month later, he paid dearly for the oversight! And all for the sake
of this child who was shameless, greedy, inscrutable, loud, and had
made it her personal project, from the time of her colic, to see that
Bobby would never have sex again for the rest of his life. Jessica
followed him into the kitchen with an annoying attachment, dragging
her favorite handbag, a gift from Bethany’s mother, who was suffering
from the late stages of Alzheimer’s and lived — such as her life
was nowadays — in a nursing home over by the Danvers shopping
mall. Bethany hadn’t been to visit her since February (at least) and
he had chalked up her recent mood to guilt, and her abiding
sense that she had failed her mother.


“Mommy’s upstairs,” Jessie reported, “combing her lovely hair.”


“Is she taking you to school today?”


“I think so.”


“Did you sleep well?” Bobby asked because he felt like he should,
pulling a coffee mug down from the kitchen cabinet.


“Yes,” she answered, sitting down at the table to resume a messy bout
of cereal eating. “I got scared and slept in Mommy’s bed.”


“You don’t say.”


“I have a purse!” she yelled.


“I can see that, Jessica.”


“We’re out of muffins!”


Bobby poured his coffee and considered the merits of earplugs,
although there might not be a substance, he figured, natural or
synthetic, that could muffle the sound of his daughter’s voice.


He spoke to Bethany once that morning, without incident, on his way
upstairs to use the shower. She had already dressed for work in the
tight-fitting beige suit she saved for springtime, and it took all of
his will power not to thank her for so thoroughly sexualizing the
drabbest of all shades of color. Instead he met her at the bottom of
the stairs and compared notes with her on the day to come, who needed
to be where and for how long, what to have for dinner, something
about a meeting running log and her car beginning to sputter, and
once they had reached an agreement, on terms that confused him, they
parted ways. How could she be so, well, functional when they
hadn’t slept together in six months? The bathroom was still humid
with her steam and he soaked up all he could, standing in a puddle of
her rinsing water; with the shower running and his eyes closed he
imagined that Bethany’s hand, and not a tiny fraction of the municipal
water supply, were sliding over him, touching his shoulders and the
middle of his back, working slowly down his chest to the lower
regions of his body, warming him with sensual love. Every knucklehead
in his office envied him after seeing her wedding picture on his
desk, making the standard joke about wife swapping; his friends at
the tennis club were forever dropping hints about mixed doubles; his
little brother Sam, the dateless wonder, worshipped him for his good
luck — but all the admiration in the world meant nothing if
Bethany didn’t want to fuck him anymore.


“Bye, Daddy!” his daughter yelled downstairs, disrupting his
thoughts. If he made recording of her “Bye, Daddy,” and sold it to
the military, they could use it to drive dictators underground . . .


“See ya,” he called back, meant only for her mother. Just a word
would have cured his morning frustration, anything at all, a curse, a
snide remark, some meaningless formality; he waited for Bethany’s
answer while the water heater lost its muscle and his shower turned
lukewarm. Bobby heard the door to the mudroom slam shut downstairs
and opened his eyes to the ghastly salmon-colored bathroom, emptied,
suddenly, of all sexual potential. He felt a telltale release in the
area of his scrotum as his wife entered the attached garage. Too
The shower went completely cold.

From The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance by
Benjamin Anastas, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright
© 2001 by Benjamin Anastas. By permission of Benjamin Anastas
and the Donadio and Olson Literary Agency.

Benjamin Anastas and