They met by email and agreed within a dozen wry, decisive volleys that they should become lovers. Windows of opportunity were assessed, an equidistant hub city selected. They decided not to provide identity clues or fax through scanned photos, but instead unite blind, trusting the power of their mutual hunger, although
and here her message decomposed into bad line breaks, like e.e. cummings on peyote, so he could only grab the gist, and return the serve:
Sure but only I have you
Which was not, of course, strictly true, given her marital status and the children whose after-school fates had yet to be arranged, so plans were still subject to sitter confirmation; tickets had to be booked by midnight, whereupon they would be, at the very moment the credit card number was typed and “Enter” pressed, nonrefundable, testing, as he noted, their courage and resolve:
The craziness had to feel good. Elsewise what is point, she concurred, having learned the email affectation of dropping articles in nonchalant NASA fashion. Once all plans were confirmed they agreed not to speak, or “speak,” until they were doing so in person. No undercutting the magic with dour doubts.
Their doubts were not identical. Hers fell into two categories.
1. Birth control. She had tried to cajole her husband into getting a vasectomy. He was not a fan of elective surgery. She volunteered to get her tubes tied so they could have sex whenever, wherever, like in the old days. Right, he said. Great idea. Maybe then you won’t just fall asleep in front of the Weather Channel. Just make sure to increase your life insurance first, in case something goes wrong from the anesthetic.
Her problem envisioning the meeting in the hub city was this: When and how was she supposed to pack a diaphragm? What if her husband wanted the cell phone, and rifled through her briefcase? (Cell phones cannot be said to be an entirely happy development for the adulterer.) Where would she remove the diaphragm afterwards and wash it out? In the airport restroom, with green liquid soap from the hand dispenser, under scrutiny from women at neighboring sinks who smirk enough as it is when you do something so intimate as to brush your teeth after a transatlantic flight? (And on a spermicide timetable, they would have to be finished six hours before.)
Better for him to wear a condom, so she didn’t have to be eulogized at her funeral as one of the people who thought the rules about STDs did not apply to them personally. Because although she had heretofore been true to her husband, and her prospective lover ditto claimed fidelity, and both felt able to vouch, with a reasonable degree of certainty, for the fidelity of their respective spouses (and she had been confirmed AIDS-free, by the life insurance physical), one really had to admit and here a passage came to her from Antony and Cleopatra, subject of her long-ago honors thesis
Antony crossed oceans, conquered kingdoms, just to get laid. Now he could go Concorde, fight the war by conference call. Yet in the fond-absent-heart department, the centuries had changed nothing. Even non-queens, married to tax attorneys, deserve a big love, to remind them that they still have souls. Elsewise what is point.
On the other hand she had not made love with a condom in close to two decades. Nor he, probably.
To travel to a foreign port in order to comfort someone over untimely loss of erection better, maybe, to have the courage of your convictions and die of AIDS.
What kind of wife did that make her? What kind of mother?
2. Head lice. There had not been many consecutive weeks in which one of her children was not out of school with a strep or stomach flu. Not to mention the more exotic new ailments, like coxsackie hoof-and-mouth disease, reengineered for people. Her sons had it for two days; she had it for two months. Totally bollixed her immune system.
And the head lice picking them out with the little comb, washing the sheets she thought she’d finished with lice in college, when she’d had to pry the crab variety off her eyelashes. It is extremely hard to make long-term plans when you can be stricken at any moment by a gastrointestinal bug. Maybe Michael Jordan has the stamina to perform in crucial playoff games afflicted with a full-out from-both-ends-at-once GI virus, but she certainly did not want even to board a plane in that condition, no less make love to a stranger. Nothing like a GI virus to remind you of marriage’s benefits.
She was sure such thoughts did not haunt her prospective lover, and she was correct.
His doubts focused on the act itself. Not the erection, upon which he felt confident he could depend, but rising to the occasion of his own expectations.
He’d claimed that her appearance didn’t matter and conceptually, that was true, unless she was fat or even . . . the truth was that he simply could not abide certain shapes of ankle. Certain (dis)arrangements of teeth. His own wife was exquisite and fit, embarking on her dawn jog even while nursing, and for what? For a man who did not set out for a jog, at dawn or ever, and whose devotion did not preclude assignations such as the present one, although the fearless email cowboy was, so far, posture only for he had been faithful.
Fourteen years. The phrase rise to the occasion of your expectations kept bronco-bulling into his brain in an ironic gospel rhythm, orated by Jesse Jackson or Johnny Cochran, to the point that he was annoyed, as if he were channel-surfing and hit over and over the same footage of the Simpson trial or Diana’s funeral.
Only the day before, at lunch, two female colleagues had proclaimed that men were better at separating their work from their personal lives because they knew how to compartmentalize. “They just lock up all those pesky emotions,” this (sour, stubby-fingered) woman said, “and get on with things.” True. Still, things shifted, like the clothes in a garment bag that has been badly shoved into the overhead bin. In the middle of trying to solve some demanding problem at work he would also “think”:
whereupon the whole jagged free association would dissolve into a runaway train of fear and fantasy (wrong gate, plane late, great kiss, fired, Quick! Broom closet!, wife sees fingernail trails on back, divorce, remarry, awful stepkids, everybody hates me, she only loves me because she doesn’t know me, if people knew me they would love me) that seemed as if it could only be resolved by the act alone.
Until his sanity itself seemed to depend on him entering this woman he didn’t know right this minute.
Not smart he told the mirror in the office bathroom, where he splashed off his face and tried to view himself as she would.
Sallow, less hair, but the phallic vein pulsing in his forehead gave him the frank, bemused gaze of a man with enough intelligence and good will to articulate this paradox: the best sex with wives is often had pretending they are strangers, whereas with strangers you have to be willing to consider you want them enough to make them wives, so you can have sex always, pretending they are strangers. She knows me, she knows me not. I know her, I know her not: sex like that Escher print in which the hand draws a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand.
Where does it end? In the act. The only way out of the hall of mirrors was to follow his cock. A phrase came to him that so pithily summarized the line of thought he had been entertaining, he couldn’t resist violating their agreement, and sharing it:
What he got back from her, with surprising alacrity, alarmed him:
“Literary” was not the problem. He had dated his share of English majors and could cope with the stray allusion, even lob one back.
What disturbed him was the recognition that like most women she was going to want to talk about sex, whereas for him, the ideal act was essentially wordless. You should not need to ask was it good for you. If you were contrite, you should not need to say it with flowers. Men did not feel less than women, but they bought less stock in the expression of feeling; the axiom that “letting it out” “made you feel better” was the equivalent, for his money, of kissing a kid’s boo-boo. Mere voodoo. Certain things felt bad because they should feel bad failure, grief and other things, like sex, should feel good. What was to discuss?
Already he suspected her suspicion: He had put out for bid an “imaginary woman” with specs to which she had precipitously failed to conform, by being a “real person.” They hadn’t met! What could be less “real” than that! This was all wheel-spinning. He wrote back:
SEE YOU ON TUES stop CANT WAIT stop, he added, then returned his brain to work, hoping that the play on telegram format would seem an acceptable rejoinder to her fancier formulations.
But it didn’t.
One reason to marry: so you don’t have to date, waiting to see when men would deign to call, or come. All through the animal kingdom, males worshipped at the throne of Estrus. But humankind? Let a woman bat a lash and the man ran. She tried to keep herself from twirling, like her son’s spin-top ballpoint pen, in widening gyres over these doubts. In another time zone there was a mouth, attached to a man. Below there were other parts which would also fit, or not. This was all she knew, all she was going to know. Now ditch script, go w/flow.
Yet! The options were finite, as any woman of sound mind knew (and she surely qualified, even if walking around the office greased up like a cake pan). She could survey the options, from best to worst:
As a student she had hated making outlines, hated the way they boxed you, but aside from the jokey cameo appearances by the rich and famous this list did, in fact, prognosticate likely outcomes.
While you could choose to meander without a map, the road did, in fact, go somewhere, and your willingness to be luggage-free did not generate additional destinations; it just meant you had less to carry, and also that you might be stranded without a change of clothes. She thought of her son with his Gameboy, manically pressing buttons. Or Menu Column A and Menu Column B on old-fashioned Chinese menus, marriage like sweet-and-sour pork or moo shu pork or even escalating to something more gourmet like pork in black bean sauce still just pork, which is why, at Chinese restaurants, one so often said Someone else order, even realizing that the success of the meal is in the harmony of the combinations; that marriage, like cooking, requires freshness, attention to detail, imagination.
Probably, she thought, he had made a similar outline. She saw him in a leather chair, trying not to think of her, trying to relax by reading a computer magazine while his wife got the kids to bed. One ad trumpeted a new software program that allowed you to write your own interactive fiction. You could name the characters, choose their pasts, send them to war or outer space. You could be sociological (she’s from the wrong side of the tracks) or surreal (she’s a toaster oven). Then why, with so many choices, was everything so predictable?
Because a character ordered from a Chinese menu, one trait from Column A, one from Column B, is not a person. A person is presented to you whole, immutable and unknown. You don’t get to turn a person upside down and shake them to erase, as on an Etch-a-Sketch.
He was, in fact, thinking these thoughts. He was even reading the computer magazine, in the leather chair, while his sharp yet placid wife bathed the kids and shoved them, still damp, into pajamas. The list of options he had generated was remarkably similar to hers. He, too, had strained for fresh outcomes. His favorites:
He had work allies, a squash opponent, his brother in San Diego.
As it stood, however, he had to admit that pretty much his only true friend was his wife whom he would risk losing for sex. Because sex was a story. Friendship was not a story. Okay, you had your good-cop, bad-cop buddy movies. But friendship was not news. Marriage, parenthood: not news. Sex was the only news, but talk about the same old story paradoxes everywhere!
In his leather chair, in his head, in the hotel room in the hub city, everything was predictable bed, blinds, bathroom except for her face. Soon he would be holding this face in his hands and its deep eyes would be locked on his until they closed for the kiss. A tongue is a fact, with force. Then: breast. Breast. Two new facts. Matching. He saw rather than felt his own hands, his own mouth, and knew he would be reinvented, however briefly, in his newness for her.
In bed with TV on, thigh warm against her husband’s, in her head, she stripped, unblinking. She stood before a new man naked, awaiting his hands and mouth. Everything clean, simple, free of pretense, at least until a snippet of poetry scampered into the fantasy Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the shadow and she had to laugh, because she had no idea why the quote had come to her or what was its source.
She had to ask her husband, beside her in bed watching the Weather Channel with its meteorologist who seemed to have been pregnant for two or three years, her profiled stomach so enormous she must be having triplets. Her husband has never used a computer and is thus unlikely to embark on an email romance, she reassured herself as he left the room, climbed back into bed with Eliot and recited from “The Hollow Men,” deadpan:
and she laughed, delighted. She showed him the inscription in the book, given to her as a twenty-first birthday present by an old boyfriend whose name her husband knew, as he knew virtually everything about her, and she was flooded with raw love for him.
Sweetheart, I would email, suggest that we wait, but there are no cancellations, no exchanges, besides I have promised to honor and obey our blackout, knowing as you might know too, on the other side of the hub city that not the fact of the act, but its anticipation, is the best part.
Yes indeedy. Between the desire and the spasm: nice place to visit. If only a girl could live in that imaginary hotel room, hands slowly approaching.