Yesterday my handsomest colleague drove me home from work. We had been held over at the office, and the late summer sun was setting orangely as we left. I waited with my back turned as he locked the front door, surprised that he had the key.
When he offered the ride, I was happy to accept. I had taken the train that morning but over the course of the day acquired two cloth tote bags of books. It would not have been terrible to take the train back, but I did not look forward to the weight-slowed walk home from the station, which passed under several tall, dark freeway overpasses whose shadows always lasted longer than I believed they should.
“Thank you so much for doing this,” I told my handsomest colleague.
“Of course!” he said. “And now it will be fun. We can talk.”
We crossed a pedestrian walkway full of children in uniforms. It was late for them to be leaving school. I remarked that perhaps there had been some assembly.
My colleague told me that he has always appreciated our office’s proximity to the school. He found the spontaneity and vibrancy of the children stimulating, he explained, gesturing to three boys about 14 years old, who had formed a makeshift drum circle in a corner of the walkway. “It’s rejuvenating to be around the students, I think.” The boys’ uniforms were adorned with strings of Mardi Gras beads in the shape of cannabis leaves crossed over their chests like belts of bullets. “Where else will I see things like this, just happening?”
My colleague smiled at the boys, one of whom took a cabasa from his backpack and began to shake it.
“I like being around them, too,” I said. “You can tell so much about them just by watching.”
“Yes,” my colleague said, looking into my face.
“And I like to know things about them,” I told him. “Because I’m kind of a perv that way. Personal disclosure is my crack.”
I was talking about the eldest boys, the tall ones on the swim and track teams, who walk around in rolled-up sweatpants and aviator sunglasses and little else. From their slim, bendy torsos, I know almost everything about them and their lives, their revolving cycles of exercise, meals and sleep. Their friends. Everything else — school, their families, girls — exists in a dim margin on which the bright light of the boys’ attention only occasionally falls.
What I meant was that I like to think about these boys.
We reached my colleague’s car, a modest silver hybrid, and he automatically opened the passenger door for me. He waited until I had clicked my seatbelt, closed the door and made his way past the front of the car. I watched him cross the windshield, a single moment of thoughtless movement.
When he started the engine, NPR blasted through the speakers, and he apologized. “I’m normally alone in here,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s the same in my car.”
He drove and we spoke about our work and people we knew through it, about nearby places to visit on weekend trips. He was a good driver. He waited until the last possible moment to turn.
I wouldn’t have taken a ride home from most of my colleagues, although I like almost all of them just fine. I like being alone on the train more, though, to read, or simply stare into space and listen to music on my headphones, half-watching the other passengers and marveling at the passage of time. I like walking up the hill to my apartment, a form of necessary exercise. But I like this colleague better than all of these things.
I don’t think about my colleague much when I’m not around him. We are, I think, friends. He knows my husband and inquired about him as he drove. My husband and I even have a little joke about this man, an affectionate observation: He is very well dressed, in a distinctly unfussy and unstudied way. His plaid shirts are always perfectly cuffed just above the elbow, a two-inch-wide roll of fabric that is absolutely neat and flat. We have no idea how he does this, and when we have seen him, we always compare notes on his outfit. My husband says my handsomest colleague has the best shoes of any man he has ever met.
A crush requires regular thoughts, developed fantasies, behavioral fetishes, for me at least. It’s a lifestyle change, a problem. I wouldn’t say I have a crush on my colleague. A married couple admires a single man’s haberdashery, and, slightly ashamed of their sartorial sense in comparison, gently mocks him in private. Hardly a ménage à trois.
But as we drove, talking, I noticed and remembered all the other things I like about my colleague. He has black hair and is slightly balding with a short beard. His body is neat and small, which is perhaps why his clothes fit him so well. He is shorter than me. He has dexterous, simple hands with clean fingernails. I can’t seem to keep my fingernails clean, no matter what I do.
He has a handsome, vaguely exotic face. A high forehead. Nice lips.
What does it even mean for lips to be “nice”?
My colleague’s handsomeness does not photograph well. I have gone through images of him, trying to discern it, but it isn’t in the pictures. It is in his atmosphere, I think. His way of being kind, quiet and calm. If we knew each other better, maybe I would dislike these traits, would come to understand what they patch. I am glad I do not know him better.
He was driving me home, being kind, speaking in his low, measured tones about the things we both did with our time, about the struggles in those things, and all the while I was thinking about what I could say or do to make him feel that I was sexually available to him.
I didn’t plan on seducing him. I just wanted to flash my little glinting shard of appeal. To show it to him like the pale underside of my arm. To catch his eye and make him see it. That I was there next to him, and I liked it.
I haven’t figured out a better method for making a man understand than the one I developed as a teenager:
1. Pass dramatically categorical and slightly insane judgments on neutral topics.
2. Hint at a dark interior life riddled with unfulfilled sexual deviancies.
3. Become transparently vulnerable.
4. Complain about an existential problem.
“Don’t you think that people who treat their pets like children are fucking insane?” I asked him. “They’re the worst. God, I couldn’t get any sleep at all last night. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My anxiety’s been bad. Sometimes when it’s this bad I will just cry and cry without even knowing why. Like, I go to the store and some lady cuts in front of me with her cart and I’m just in tears, inconsolable.” I reached over and stroked his wrist with my thumb for a fraction of a second. “God, what am I talking about? I’m the worst. Me.”
My colleague responded to all of this with more kindness. He is fundamentally kind. But I couldn’t tell whether or not he was engaged by what I was saying. Whether he was taking the bait.
I don’t even know what taking the bait would mean, here. He wasn’t going to turn the car around and take me home with him, even though that is what I fantasized about later, in bed, after my husband had gone to sleep. We were close to my house. He was my friend, my colleague. He wasn’t thinking these things. I was only hoping that he was.
I didn’t plan on seducing him. I just wanted to flash my little glinting shard of appeal. To show it to him like the pale underside of my arm.
We turned onto the street that intersects mine. There were only a few more minutes left, so I shut up and tried to enjoy being in an enclosed space with him. He smelled wonderful. I wasn’t actually close enough to smell him, but I knew he smelled wonderful, like leather or sage. He is the kind of man who undoubtedly smells fucking great.
I rolled my window down and looked out as we passed the cluster of bars and restaurants a few blocks from where I live. Valet stands had been pushed out into the street. Black-jacketed men jumped into the path of my colleague’s car, trying to get him to let them park it. But my colleague drove on, steady. He didn’t seem to notice the glittering attractions or the many young women waiting to get into the bars. I leaned my head against the car door, pretending we were out on a date.
Then I saw my husband walking down the street. He was wearing blue jeans and a collared shirt buttoned all the way up, despite the fact that it was quite hot. He had recently cut his hair very short. He wore an expression of aggravation that I knew meant he was overheated. It raised in me the same feelings I experience every night in our home, longing for his fine features to smooth, exhaustion. He looked both familiar and like a stranger, which frightened me.
I knew I should call out to him, but I did not. I wanted my last moments with my handsome colleague. I let my husband walk on in the opposite direction.
My colleague pulled up in front of my apartment. It had been nice to “catch up,” he said. My husband and I, he said — he used my husband’s name — should call him sometime, if we wanted to get a beer. During the ride’s delirious heights I had considered kissing him good-bye on the cheek, but I settled for a half hug against his compact seatbelted chest.
Not calling out to my husband already bothered me, even before I saw him again, even before he returned home. It bothered me as I let myself into the apartment. It bothered me for the rest of the night, as we had dinner with friends and then sat on the floor, sweating. It bothered and bothered me. But it didn’t stop me from doing what I’ve done too many nights this month: bringing my computer into the bedroom to watch something with my husband, and then, after he fell asleep, watching muted pornography alone.
I worked up a modified scenario. My colleague and I drove, talking. At some vital conversational intersection we both fell silent. Then I laid it out for him, telling him frankly that I was attracted to him. That if it was all right with him, nothing would make me happier than some straightforward sexual congress between our two corporeal bodies. He turned the car around and drove me to his apartment. We didn’t speak. When he parked, he calmly, quietly, kindly unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over and kissed me with astonishing force, his hand sliding down into the collar of my shirt.
In bed, I couldn’t sustain the fantasy. When the porn was on, I focused on the scenario, flamed for it. Between videos, my mind wandered to my colleague. I saw him undress me, saw his fine little body under those neat clothes. I saw myself making a sexy joke about his cuffed sleeves. But when I turned off the computer and rolled onto my stomach, I dried up. I was tired. I couldn’t find my foothold.
My husband slept beside me. After long minutes in the dark, I raised my head and looked at his back, at the place where the flesh of his neck meets his shoulders, at the gentle curve of his hairline against the back of his skull. I looked at his skin and his moles and his ears. I pressed myself against his back, careful to keep a fold of duvet between us. I wrapped my arm around his torso and squeezed my eyes shut until the tears left me. I told him I loved him. He was asleep. I told him again that I loved him. He did not wake. I curled against him and cried into his skin. “I love you, I love you,” I mouthed, afraid my whisper would wake him. He did not wake.
I was still awake when the closeness became uncomfortable and I had to roll away from him to air my wet chest. I spoke his name in the dark room. He did not wake. I had seen him and not called his name.
Last night there was nothing good on television. We watched a handful of last-choice shows, and then descended into a sleepy stupor in front of a funny news show. All of the news has been bad recently, so the show was not very funny. After it ended, I noticed my husband half asleep beside me, not caring.
We’ve developed a nightly routine: make dinner, get stoned, eat, all while watching television or movies. It’s not such a bad thing. For a long time it has helped us, I think. Taking that time away from everything else. Not thinking too much. Not worrying.
It is a salve on the problems we can’t solve quickly. Lack of money to go out and do things (once I believed that adulthood meant eating a delicious restaurant meal on most nights), personality differences (my husband does not like to go out as much as I do, although now that we have been together for some time I think I have become more like him, or perhaps simply this is how I too have aged) and the myriad personal problems that emerged in the first months that we lived together.
At the beginning of our marriage we used to eat dinner at the dining room table. We sat across from each other under the overhead light from the fan, the table set with placemats, plates, knives, forks, napkins, glasses of water and wine. Something was not right. The light was glaring, too yellow. We didn’t have much to say; often, even at restaurants, we ate in silence, unless there was a pointed topic to discuss. And, to my great surprise, after we had shared a few meals together as married people my husband said that I chewed very loudly, with my mouth slightly open, something he found disgusting.
No one had ever told me this before. I couldn’t imagine that it was true, and if it was true, I couldn’t imagine that it was such a big deal. But between us it became a big deal. He began to chastise me, in a way he thought gentle and I did not. I began to cry. My husband has a bad reaction to women weeping, I think from his mother. The sight of my crying face does not signal to him to embrace and soothe me. It makes him feel furious and manipulated.
So we solved the problem by eating stoned in front of the television, many layers of aural padding between our bodies. I think I learned to close my mouth, too.
This story makes my husband sound horrible. I told it at a party recently, the first time I’ve done so, and everyone was aghast. I’ll admit I enjoyed their reaction. My husband, who was there, felt hurt, and while I felt vindicated, I understood, too. This was only my side. I left out a lot. He is sensitive. He moved here from far away to be with me. In his family people are extremely quiet and prompt and consider these the lodestars of courtesy.
Sometimes when there is nothing good on television and it is very hot and my husband is dozing beside me I become quite aggravated. There are things we could be doing in the evenings. I don’t really care about going out because it costs money and I want to save our money, I want to hoard it up like the dried beans and canned goods I stockpile in our pantry. Sometimes I wish we could see friends but we do that, sometimes. Sometimes I think I should work later in the evening but I see the logic of stopping, of having an endpoint in the day, and I am probably the better for it.
Every night I wish we had sex. I wish we had sex every night.
When it is the woman whose desire is absent, the advice is always to simply submit to the man. Often, she is told, the woman will find that she enjoys the sexual act once it has begun. Her initial reticence is the problem and its shucking will bring them back together.
No one ever gives men this advice. It wouldn’t work. Blood must flood the male genitals for penetrational intercourse to occur. But more than brutal biological fact, I think there exists a real concern that telling a man to go along with it until he gets into it would somehow offend him. To submit like that.
This advice is also never given to men because this discussion never occurs. Erectile dysfunction, yes. Lack of desire because a wife has gained weight, yes. Alcoholism-induced mutual withdrawal, yes. Sexual disinterest yawning and vast as an empty hangar? No.
Every night I ask my husband if he would like to have sex. No, he says, every night.
Well, not always — we did a month ago. Before that it was two months. Before that, two more. Before that, I don’t even like to think about it, but it was four. I think four months is the longest we have gone.
Maybe it is six. Six months.
When I ask my husband if he would like to have sex, I try to sound cute. Casual.
“Do you want to mess around?”
“Want to make love?”
“Hey, let’s do it!”
I try to be goofy, light, immature, unthreatening. I know that he is threatened by my desire, because that’s what he throws at me when I push the subject: “I know it’s all you think about, all the time.”
In a different context this could be a sexy taunt. But it wounds me, here.
My husband slept beside me. The variety show ended, loudly.
“This sucks,” I said. “Let’s go to bed.”
He checked the locks on the door. I refilled the water pitcher and took it to the refrigerator. We brushed our teeth, washed our faces, peed.
Every night I wish we had sex. I wish we had sex every night.
He does this thing when he’s done with the sink in which he wipes his wet hands on my belly. I think this is a gesture of love but it makes me squirm. It has nothing to do with sexual appreciation; it’s a childish little friendly move. He wets my skin and then he’s out of the bathroom, in bed.
Earlier, as he dozed next to me on the couch, I trolled casual sex classifieds and watched pornography on mute. I have to stop that. Eating my sex junk food.
I finished and went into the dark to lie down beside him and tried to find the right position to touch myself as I went to sleep. I had a fantasy about a colleague that I wanted to use. I rolled onto on my stomach, tucked my right hand between my legs.
My husband put his hand on my arm. Held it, despite the heat. Recently he’s been doing this more. Touching me as we go to bed. I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, but I feel that it’s designed to make up for the lack of sex. He struggles to show me that he loves me the way I want him to.
Then — strange miracle! I swear we made out as I always want to. Making out, high on the list of my favorite sexual acts. Kissing and kissing with tongue, groping each other, long prostrate bodies pressing together. How I love it. My husband made out with me, I was sure!
But in the morning the memory seemed odd, fractured. I asked him if it had happened. He couldn’t remember, either.
“Maybe,” he said.
He has, in the past, groped me in his sleep, as a prelude to sex. I always wake so happily, feel the erection, press myself into his hands. But he is asleep. Not there for me. Maybe something like that happened, with the making out. More likely I simply dreamed it.
The problem with fantasizing about people I know is that, eventually, I see the person again, or maybe I even see them regularly, and what I made them do in my fantasy embarrasses me. I’m not embarrassed by the fantasy itself, please understand. I personally believe my fantasies to be fan-fucking-tastic. But my gentle handsomest colleague does not need to be dragged into what is effectively a recitation of my sexual subconscious.
Except for the fact that he does, because I can’t fantasize about celebrities anymore. It’s too bleak. As the gulf between me and these people has widened, as I have become less believably a very young pretty girl, the idea of sleeping with some man whose entire life is exercise and diet has become ridiculous and sad.
I suppose that’s my problem. What does it matter who I fantasize about?
It matters because a few nights ago I was sitting across a dinner table from my colleague, watching him drink a beer and smile affably at conversation. He talked about a nearby neighborhood with excellent Lebanese food. He described an article he had read that argued all private schools should be closed in order to improve the quality of public schools. He wore a red sweater over a blue T-shirt, jeans. He is a lovely person with pleasant ideas and charming notions, someone I am happy to know.
The night before we had dinner — my husband was there, too, and other friends — I had snuck out of bed and into the bathroom to masturbate. My attempts at masturbating in bed beside my sleeping husband had not been successful. I am too nervous that my movements will wake him, and the surest way for me to orgasm is to assume the seated rocking position that I’ve cultivated since early childhood. I can’t do that in bed.
So I went into the bathroom and sat Indian-style, facing a white wall. I thought of being alone with my colleague. I saw us in some scenario that inevitably led to being alone. And then, of course, he kissed me, we pawed at each other, we did all the things I miss and don’t know if I will get to do again.
I hope I will. I think I will. It’s just hard to know. I trust that I will have sex again, that my husband and I will make love again. But things like making out, being groped through my clothes, the idea of it happening anywhere — on the couch, in the kitchen, in the car, as it once did — I can see these things never happening again.
When I think on this I begin to believe that if there was an opportunity to make love to another man, if there was a way to have that sort of passionate entanglement with some man who wanted me, that I would have to go for it, automatically.
But then I remember that I am not that type of person, that the love I feel for my husband grows deeper every day, that his sweetness and kindness and care for me would be destroyed by this act. I do not think I could really keep it a secret.
That’s part of the fantasy — the idea that I could keep it a secret.
I do not want to be one of those casualties of life who uses phrases like “passionate entanglement” and thinks something poetic is going on when it’s not. When in fact the situation is two primed and throbbing sets of genitals, out for each other.
Not that that is not poetic.
My fantasy progressed to a scene of sex in which I was on top and my colleague held my hips and we ground against each other.
Things like making out, being groped through my clothes, the idea of it happening anywhere — on the couch, in the kitchen, in the car, as it once did — I can see these things never happening again.
It surprised me; this is my husband’s favorite sexual position, so common in our occasional sex life that I have come to almost dislike it. But there it was, in the fantasy.
In these scenarios we are always just desperate in lust, me and whoever I’m fucking. That’s the most important part — the breathless sense that this assignation must occur now, or we both might die of want.
I ground down on him and he held me tightly, by my hips. Then he reached up and slapped me across the face, as hard as he could.
It is strange to me that this is a necessary ingredient of these fantasies, my colleague slapping me. My gentle and kind colleague, a head shorter than I, who speaks softly and hates to be the center of attention.
How I love the idea of it. The hard rebuke of his palm against my face. The sting, after.
This morning, in the car, my husband — he was driving me to work, a kind thing he does, a sign of love — said that he tried to make love to me in the night but I wouldn’t wake up.
“What?” I was immediately filled with a great sense of loss.
“Well, it was strange,” he said. “I woke up this morning without my underwear on, and I thought, why is that? But then I remembered that at some point in the night I woke up feeling very amorous, and I tried to see if you were interested. I touched you, and I took off my underwear. But you were fast asleep.”
He didn’t say it in an angry or disappointed way. It was just what happened. And as he described it, I began to think that I remembered this event, somehow, a buried sleep memory of an erection. Because, as I said, it has happened before — because in the past my husband has unconsciously groped me, or sought me sexually in his sleep — it did not surprise me, although it was unusual for him to remember.
“I thought it was a dream,” I told him.
“Yeah, I can see how you would think that.” He made a happy-sad face. “That it would only happen in a dream.”
When he is feeling gentle and calm these are the kinds of conversations we can have about the problem. These are the kinds of feelings we can explore. We never get to why. He says he’s working on why. We understand a little bit of it. It has to do with a sense of control and a terror of intimacy as vulnerability, as openness. It has to do with how, as he says, it is more difficult to have sex with someone you love and have known for a very long time.
More difficult for him.
What does it say about me that even this melancholy conversation felt to me like progress, felt good, felt freeing? My husband admits to me a botched middle-of-the-night assignation with my unconscious body and I rise on wings of hope.
I’m sitting in a computer lab at my company. I like to come here because it is quiet and largely empty. I sign in with my work ID and they give me a little card for the computer, which entitles me to a desk with a monitor and tower drive, a row of power outlets and heavy black headphones.
I come here to work, but I rarely do. Something about the impersonality of the place makes it difficult, although it should be just the opposite. The something may be me; I’m so pleased to be in a clean, blank space that it feels more like respite than work, and I busy myself doing as I like. Reading advice columns and short stories and articles about strange happenings. Using the Internet to stare into the lives of people I don’t particularly like, or teenage girls I find oddly fascinating, or those I truly dislike, whom I silently mock.
Hours of this seem wonderful in the abstract, but are just mildly diverting in the actual, and afterward I feel quite useless. Because I have not fully committed to my diversion, and so I am half-awake in my awareness that what I am doing is wrong, or at least wasteful. Afterward I feel a sense of failure and loss.
Sometimes this feeling rises in me before my time in the lab is done, and then I feel doubly bad. Ashamed. I am almost always hungry, but in a way that doesn’t feel like hunger. I eat too much food at night and then none during the day. Twice in the last week I have gorged myself on some innocuous item — dried apricots, beer, ice cream, perhaps the latter two are not innocuous — and woken early with diarrhea and a deep, unshakeable sadness. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
I know some of the problems I have, and I know about my husband’s problems, but I want always to avoid blaming my problems on his problems. Because if it is that simple of an equation, then I could solve all of my problems by leaving my husband, and I know this is not true. I do not want it to be true. I love my husband and want to be with him.
So the other thing I do in the computer lab when I am here, waiting to not be waiting anymore, is masturbate.
For most of my life I could only masturbate by sitting on the floor with my legs crossed and rocking my mons pubis into my right heel. I did this from infancy forward with great success. As a small child I was able to do it in school before the teacher realized what was going on. I still masturbate this way, but obviously I can no longer do it in public. In the last year or two I’ve discovered a certain stiffness beginning to form in my legs, which further limits this method. But about five years ago I discovered that I could masturbate covertly anywhere by simply sitting and squeezing a certain muscle, the same one that I do Kegel exercises with. I suppose that makes it the Kegel muscle. If I sit straight and squeeze it and focus, rocking back and forth a bit, I can come within a number of minutes.
I’ve done this many places now, and it seems to be becoming a habit during the hours I spend in the computer lab. I have so many questions about it. Does masturbating in the lab make me a bad person, foisting my sexuality on all these blameless strangers? I’ve never seen any evidence that anyone notices, but maybe they do. Maybe it’s a thing they know about me, the guard who checks out the computers: “Oh, here’s the woman who masturbates at her desk.”
I’m sure that’s not the case. I would get into trouble, be asked to leave. Right?
This method brings on a strange orgasm. I have no room or space to invoke a particular fantasy. I just focus on making it happen, and maybe there are a few images that help me along. Today I thought about my husband’s naked body from behind, about the way it would look to watch him thrust into me — and I thought about the feeling of that, of the head of his penis touching the back wall of my vagina. My cervix, or whatever is there, exactly. I should know, but I don’t.
Every night when I go to sleep I try to lucid dream of sex. It rarely works, but a few days ago I had the most vivid dream just before waking.
The setup was elaborate: I was staying at the home of a Russian family, in Russia. They were wealthy in the way that Tolstoy characters are wealthy, but it seemed to be the present day. In any case, I was not uncomfortable. There were two or three adult daughters, very beautiful, with dark hair and eyes. I was a visitor, or perhaps some kind of paid lady’s companion. The parents noticed that the daughters liked me and invited me to stay.
The parents had split up, but were still living together. The mother was very cosmopolitan and exciting, a swirl of long and expensive scarves who tromped in several times a day to take me from whatever I was doing with gossip and interesting drinks.
The father was taciturn but kind. He smiled sometimes.
I lived in this family’s life for many pleasant days, eating salads made of grated carrot, drinking icy vodka. And then the dream came to its purpose. When it was time for bed one night, I was told that I was to share the father’s bed. No one thought anything about this arrangement odd. I climbed into bed with the father and he made love to me.
What thrilled me, in the dream and now, was the way he did it. It was workmanlike lovemaking, in the best way. He found a young woman in his bed and took me in his arms and set to his task. He was virile, intense. He overwhelmed me in the way that I wanted him to.
In the morning, at breakfast, his daughters and ex-wife were as friendly and normal as ever.
Waking, I tried to remember his face. Made him every famous Russian I could see. I try still.
This morning the Internet is plastered with images of a beautiful man. The Internet is always full of images of beautiful people, and the corners of it that I frequent are probably more likely to be plastered with more beautiful men than women, because I try to limit my exposure to idealized images of women, which make me too sad. It’s too easy to draw the connection between my own sexless state and their implied surfeit of sexual happiness, or at least attention, to start making the lazy connections the brain perfects in adolescence, creating the sense that I am ugly, or undesirable, or have simply somehow missed a window in which my beauty and libido were equalized against men’s and my chances of happy regular sex were high.
So I don’t look at too many beautiful women, although they are everywhere. The world does not lack for female beauty. But it does lack for male beauty, which is persnickety and idiosyncratic — what shines my knob is not what shines the knob of the lady beside me. Most men deemed attractive by whatever governing body makes these designations do nothing for me at all.
I’m trying to explain why it seems like a worthy endeavor, looking. And why I was surprised that the man whose face and body are everywhere on the Internet today, a man who I have consistently regarded as desirable, has been cast as the lead in the film adaptation of a book that claims to explore the subject of feminine desire.
I haven’t read the book. It is widely regarded as poorly written, and as I understand it the plot contains nothing novel or incendiary, only a barrage of endless heightened description of extremely mild bondage and submission. I don’t begrudge anyone else the pleasure this book might bring. In fact, the idea makes me happy — that a book can bring on sexual happiness in the mind of a reader. But the book has nothing to do with what those photographs did to me.
They were black and white, high contrast; the man had begun his career as an underwear model. So some were of his bare oiled torso, and others of his face. I prefer faces to torsos, but I looked at both. And then, when I looked away, I found I wanted to look again. And I did.
I don’t pretend there is anything remarkable in any of this. What struck me was how immediately I felt the urge to fantasize about the man. Which is, I’m sure, what the producers of the film are hoping for.
There is nothing wrong with fantasy, but in the last 10 years of my life it has become a daily companion, each year more prominent. It seems to me that it should be the other way around, that as I move from adolescence into adulthood I should find myself spending less time fantasizing about sex and more time having it.
Because as I imagined myself there with the actor — the beautiful man whose beauty is his job, whose whole self must be twisted up in the maintenance of that beauty — I realized immediately how absurd the pairing was. It’s one thing to picture yourself with a friend, or a neighbor, someone whose beauty is not celebrated by the masses. It’s quite another to envision yourself undressing a celebrity. Someone whose job is to be pretty.
There is nothing wrong with fantasy, but in the last 10 years of my life it has become a daily companion, each year more prominent.
The difficulty my fantasies have begun to present has made me feel more than ever like a man.
It’s something my husband first pointed out to me, an insight from his analyst. I have a strong animus, he a strong anima. My shadow man-self, looming over my shoulder, dominant, leering at his shadow woman-self, demure. He didn’t elaborate, but the analysis continued apace in my mind. The sexual conflict between us would be the epitome of traditional marital discord, were I a man and he a woman. What a trope of advice columns, that! Just this morning I saw that my situation is not absent from the minds of the nation’s advice columnists.
Dear Amy: “Wondering (but not Wandering) Wife” is in a sexless marriage. So am I. My husband and I have been through therapy, read self-help books and so forth. But he simply never wants to do it. The time is never right for him. We have not had sex in years and probably never will again. This makes me so sad.
— Not Wandering
Dear Not: I have heard from dozens of women in the same boat.
What are we supposed to do with that, Amy? The whole of your response is that there are more of us. Dozens, even. What cold comfort. But I’ll admit it made me feel better.
I want to feel sympathy for men. Men, whose sexual need has been magnified to a social concern. Men, who claim that women deny them comfort and release. Men, who have denied me and denied me and denied me.
When I fantasize, the scenario always starts the same, with the dance and rituals of sex. Foreplay, I guess. Taking off each other’s clothes, kissing, touching. In real life it wouldn’t have to go that way, if it went that way a good number of times beforehand. What I mean to say is that I could get down to it pronto, without any preheating of the oven, so to speak, if in my life I had ever had my share of preheating.
If the man in my fantasy is someone I know, then the fantasy includes the revelation of our mutual attraction, the flimsy reasoning that takes us from clothed colleagues to bedmates.
I will never be free of fantasy. I am shackled to it. It is the scenario that unfolds automatically in front of me.
But increasingly fantasy depresses me, and not only because of the contrast between my sex-stuffed inner life and my sex-starved real life. When I fantasize I understand something fundamental about men. The way that their brains allow them to slot themselves in next to a swimsuit model or a movie star. The reason why the body is so important.
To be good at sex, you do not have to be smart or kind or beautiful, although these things help. You just have to be willing and interested, the two qualities most impossible to invoke in another person. The body — its idealized image — is only a shorthand for willing interest. In fantasies, beauty is just a way of saying, “Yes.”
I have simply begun to feel silly when I put myself in a bedroom with an imagined man, because I know I am not there with him. I know that he did not choose me. That’s what I miss. Choice.
In my fantasies, I am lying down with these men. I kiss them, am kissed by them.
By now, my fantasy life is 10 times longer and more diverse than the one I have lived.
In the last few months, a man I went to high school with has begun showing a greater interest in me online. He’s not someone I ever knew well, but I watched him carefully and with great interest during a concentrated period of my life, when I was 13 years old and everything felt monumental and grand and every pang of desire held simultaneous threat and promise.
We were in the seventh grade. We didn’t go to the same school, which was good; at school I was a hopeless pariah. No boy would have had me in the way boys had girls in those innocent days. The lucky girls got to hold a boy’s hand, get pizza or hot dogs together, and kiss in discreet closed-mouth pecks meted out like medication. I wanted that medication. I wanted sex, too — the sex I had read about in books and saw in movies — but I was certain that I was the only one who did. Certainly the only girl. I knew even then that what I wanted was different from whatever that handful of boys may have been thinking, too, far and away from whatever they were jerking off to in the shaded privacy of their bedrooms.
It fills me with tenderness, to think about it. The boys who frightened and enticed me, who seemed unfathomably cool, seated on the edges of twin beds in their little bedrooms, playing with their erections. Did they look at pictures? Conjure the face of a girl from school, the sexy friend of an older sister? Did they do as I did and get there through books?
Or am I as out of the loop as ever? Were they all fucking each other in those modest little chambers, spreading flexible 13-year-old legs across plaid flannel coverlets?
Probably not. Then, as now, I lived in a prison of my own desire. I could see things they couldn’t. I wanted things that they didn’t.
I met him in CCD, which we called “Catholic class,” an evening course in Catholic doctrine and theology. It met on Wednesday nights in classrooms at a parochial school I did not attend. We were a group of about 10 students, mostly girls, passively receiving a volunteer teacher’s attempt to impress the Church upon us via a workbook illustrated with ugly line drawings of virtues and values, quizzes on the sacraments and benedictions, a lot of filling-in-the-blank. My parents had ruined any chance of me liking the class by raising me to be open-minded, thoughtful and discerning. But they wanted me to go to CCD so that I could be confirmed and I acquiesced, holding on for hope of learning a path to magic. And after the hell of sixth grade, in which all of my friends had turned against me, one by one, the opportunity to meet people my age outside of school appealed.
My attention fell on him right away, as soon as seventh grade CCD started. He was short — most boys were short then, and the ones I liked could be counted on to be at least a head below me in height — and wore a white canvas boat hat. Now I recognize it as the whim of a child trying to figure out self-presentation, but at the time wearing a hat to CCD was a mild act of rebellion. We couldn’t wear them in school, after all.
He was the only boy who spoke and listened to me, as if he had noticed that I was intelligent and his interest was piqued by this intelligence. I didn’t think this then. It’s my guess now. He was slight, with olive skin and curly black hair, a strong nose.
But he wasn’t the boy I had a crush on. That boy had a first name I’d never heard before — Seamus — and perpetually sleepy eyes. I sat next to Seamus on a van ride back from a day of service at a soup kitchen and regaled him with stories about my oddness. I was in the early stages of developing my tactic of charming a stranger with a running self-deprecating commentary on myself. I told him about my love of nature, that I identified as Wiccan.
“Is that one of those weird Japanese things?” he asked, and I, thrilled, assured him it was not.
After the van ride, we had several thrilling exchanges of instant messages, so it seemed reasonable to me to have a $37 bouquet of flowers delivered to his house on Valentine’s Day with my email address written on the card. This was before he could easily use this information to figure out who I was.
Seamus wrote me a confused email. I did not reply, but continued to flirt with him on instant message. Then, just as it seemed we were hurtling toward each other — toward a shared revelation — the collision I had plotted for us fell apart. He told me, in an instant message conversation in which I had crept closer and closer to revealing myself as the origin of the flowers, that he thought I was a little weird. I made up a ridiculous story about some imaginary homeschooled friend being behind the entire thing — not only the bouquet but also our whole correspondence, as if I was only a proxy, the conduit through which the disembodied desire of this undersocialized and invisible soul traveled. Seamus seemed disinterested or disbelieving, I couldn’t figure out which. Perhaps a gutting tonic of the two. Insult was added to injury when another girl told me that she had gone to a movie with Seamus and another girl, whom she described as “pretty cozy” with Seamus.
So the short boy in the hat was just my friend. Not even. I had a crush on him, smaller than the one I had on Seamus. And, unlike Seamus, this hatted boy and I went to high school together. (Seamus, I believe, went to a Catholic boys’ school. Years and years later, I contacted him again, trying to sort out what had happened. “It was really nice of you to do, but I just didn’t know you,” he told me. Story of my life.)
Then, as now, I lived in a prison of my own desire.
The hatted boy grew taller but remained small for a man. He no longer wore his hat. Sophomore year of high school we had American history together. By that time I had a boyfriend, the last man I loved who had an uncomplicated relationship to sex. I didn’t need the hatted boy anymore, and I didn’t think he particularly needed me, either, which was why I was baffled and honored when, one spring night during my senior year, he told me that he spent most of sophomore year fantasizing about fucking me.
We were almost done with high school, back on instant messenger. He came online, surprising me, and I said hi, reminding him who I was. He didn’t need reminding. He may have been a little drunk. He told me that he had watched me fall asleep in our history class every morning right as the teacher began his lecture. I reminded him that I was always able to answer questions correctly when the teacher woke me.
I always wanted to have sex with you, he replied. To touch your big breasts.
It was juvenile and honest. It thrilled me. But I had a boyfriend. I don’t remember exactly how I said it, but in that conversation I promised him that he could see my breasts before graduation, an offer that never came to fruition. I only remember making it because I drunkenly trotted it out for another friend, later, a boy I also had feelings for, a man who had difficulty with vulnerability and intimacy, like all of the men I would love after my high school boyfriend.
“What am I going to do?” I remember drunkenly moaning to my friend on somebody’s porch.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said.
I was worried you wouldn’t be okay with just sex. That you’d want a relationship, the hatless hatted boy wrote, that night when we were seniors.
He was right. Then, I wouldn’t have been okay with that. Then, I believed that my boyfriend and I would be together forever. Not in a facile or easy way. I wanted this future for its difficulty. It was not romantic.
But now. Now I could do it. And I wonder, when he is suddenly so friendly to me, online.
The hatted boy grew up into a scientist. He participates in a startling number of athletic activities. And now he is writing to me again. Could I do it?
I wonder. He will visit his parents at Christmas, as will I, with my husband. We could all grab a beer. Or I could beg off with an excuse and go alone. That would be suspicious. The hatted boy has seen photographs of my husband. Liked them.
But I allow myself the thought, let it spread out in front of me. Us, alone in bar. There’s a variant, in which my husband is there and politely steps out when it becomes clear where things are heading, but I don’t care for it. It’s impossible and too sad. So it’s just the former boy in the hat and me, seated at a little brown table, looking at each other over two beers.
I wonder what I would wear. A dress, maybe, but it would be winter, so maybe a sweater. Jeans. Something carefully chosen but not too, something sexy but not too. I wouldn’t want to signal my intentions to him, although maybe I would.
In the decade since I’ve seen him, his hairline has begun to recede. His face is long, his skin still olive, his nose still prominent. He is fit and wiry. Attraction to him does not come naturally, but I can will it on. Imagine getting drunker and drunker, or better yet, stoned. Feeling the proximity of his desire like a wonderful rash.
That’s what I’m banking on. Him still wanting me. When I consider the possibility that he might not, that he might be baffled by my husband’s absence and horrified by my lascivious assumption, everything curdles and turns.
But let me pretend. We drink beer after beer. Our catch-up conversation circles more private subjects. I lay my wrist on the table, underside exposed. Eventually he touches it. First by accident, then in mute sympathy, as I tell some story. We both realize his hand is on my wrist a few moments too late. We make no effort to stop touching.
Do I imagine him sliding into the booth beside me? Or do we stay separate, discuss in low tones what comes next, as if someone might overhear and tell? I don’t know.
I don’t know where what happens next happens, only that it does. His hands over my clothes, feeling me, as he has wanted to for so long. My breath catching, that idea that I am wanted, that access to me is desired, that my own desire, sturdy and full, can meet another.
I have pictured various positions, naked scenarios, the crown of his balding head tucked between my legs. I think of him kissing my neck, my hand, my arm, my face. My back. In another life I loved to have my back kissed. I thought it was the most wonderful feeling in the world. I can’t even recall that feeling. Intellectually, I remember it, but my senses do not.
And yet I struggle with the hatted boy, although it seems to me that he should be a flexible enough object of fantasy. Is it because I am still not as attracted to him as I am to someone else, just as it was years ago? Seamus then, my husband now. I want their attention first, before him. This is the explanation that makes the most sense, but I try still. I imagine his hand on my wrist. The first kiss — long and deep, please God let it be something he has wanted — and then what comes after. That feeling of being filled, of being full.
In December, it did actually happen, the hatless boy contacted me and suggested that we get coffee. He was in fact home visiting his family, quelle surprise. It was the week after Christmas, after the night of Christmas itself, on which my husband and I had the most terrible sexual encounter of our marriage.
It had been a nice day. We cooked and unwrapped presents. We drank, heavily. And then we went to bed, calmly, without expectation of sex on my part. I was content to lie in the dark with my head against my husband’s chest, hearing the resonance of his heartbeat through the organ’s covering of viscera and bone and muscle and skin and hair.
I love him. Sometimes this makes it easier, sometimes harder.
The lights were out and we were drifting to sleep when to my great and delighted surprise he made an overture to me. He took my hand and put it on his hard cock. I pulled down his pants and put my mouth on him. I was so happy to be wanted. We slipped easily into sex, the automatic kind that holds with our routine — squelching my hopes of something different, but not bad, not bad at all. I sat atop him, trying to breathe past the burn. It had been two months since our last encounter, and I have learned that my body does not wait as I do. It closes up shop. It takes a few minutes, when I am afforded the rare opportunity, to be able to fully join.
When I finally access the thing I so dearly want, it is painful to me. It hurts. The feeling will pass. But I need a minute.
On Christmas I did not get a minute. I got my husband’s quick ejaculation, and immediate return to sleep.
“Hey,” I said. “I didn’t …”
He was in fact already asleep. He may never have woken.
I woke him, gently. He shook me off. “I’m tired.”
I lay as far away from him as possible, crying silently. I don’t care for crying silently, or crying in the bathroom, or in the closet, or under my desk, which is the latest place my crying habits have taken me. I need to cry because of my husband but I cannot cry because of my husband so my solution is to find the places that my husband will not know I am crying and go to them to cry. The bathroom is my mainstay, that quiet chamber of tiles. In a pinch, a closet will do. Recently I have taken to crawling into the box of available space beneath my desk to crouch and pinch my arms and bite my lips as I sob.
When he is asleep I can cry without hiding, but silently.
The bedroom was hot, but outside was cold, freezing cold. Everything dusted in snow and ice. In the forest preserve a few blocks west of my parents’ house the river had iced over and deer had either died or ventured deeper into the woods to survive. Animal carcasses everywhere, frozen in whatever state of rot. Soon I might join them. Be among them. Ten years of life without sex on my terms had passed in one movement of some man’s hand. My own death would find me, my face wrinkled and worn as I too eagerly ate the food at business meetings, starving for pleasure, and wiped my greasy hands on my cheap pants before stumbling back home.
Eventually I accomplished something like sleep.
The bathroom is my mainstay, that quiet chamber of tiles. In a pinch, a closet will do.
In the morning, I made plans to see my old friend the hatted boy, or whatever he was then or is to me now. He even offered to pick me up. I accepted, and soon I was in an older car on a snowy day, hurtling toward the coffee shop where I had spent many hours in my first year of high school, when it seemed the most cheerful and promising place on Earth.
One night almost 15 years to the day before I visited the coffee shop with the former boy in the hat, my first boyfriend’s band played a terrible show at this coffee shop. The turnout was good because they were opening for Someday Soon, a Christian prog-rock band with a big local following. My first boyfriend limped through his weak set, playing a lot of instruments and then stalking off the stage, glaring at the crowd of Someday Soon fans massed outside. No matter how bad his music was it was rude of them to wait out his set instead of coming in to listen. I thought that then and I think it now.
He yelled at me on his way to his friend’s car to smoke pot. “You don’t get it.” I tried to hug him but he wouldn’t let me. “This is what Jamie and I were talking about when we said we don’t rock anymore. You don’t get it at all.”
Jamie was my first boyfriend’s friend, a petulant middle-aged man in the body of a chubby 16-year-old boy. I hadn’t been privy to their conversation about rocking out, so I guess he was right. I didn’t get it. I tried to hug him again and he turned away. Later, in the backseat of my mom’s car, my best friend asked me what she could do to get me to stop crying and I said, “Just hold me.”
Every time I go to the coffee shop, the part of me I left there when I was 15 flickers on, lights up in proximity to the rest of me. I feel it hanging there among the colorful art by untrained painters that lines the walls. Later I staged a poetry reading at this coffee shop, right after my graduation from high school, to an audience of two, my history teacher and a boy I had never laid eyes on before, who laughed long and low after each poem, as if they were funny. They weren’t, at least not to me.
What more fantastic place could there be to begin an assignation? I ordered the giant iced coffee topped with whipped cream I had favored in another life. The hatless boy settled across from me. In the V of his dark sweater, I saw layers, collared plaid shirt, long underwear of waffled cotton, clean white T-shirt.
We smiled at each other. He ordered a green tea. We sipped.
We began to talk and I turned on my method. Laid out the innuendo in tracks. Baited the trap with an embarrassing revelation. Touched his arm, briefly.
The hatless boy barreled past it, sturdy and indomitable. He told me about his hobbies, his love for the little provincial city where he worked, his interest in writing. He said he would like to meet my husband.
“I’m sure you’d get along,” I told him.
We parted with a hug.
Before you ask: Yes, I have considered suggesting to my husband that I be allowed to seek sex outside of our marriage. But I can’t imagine actually making that proposal, much less following through on it. All my life I have sought committed relationships and thrust my energy into keeping them strong. I would not find it simple to find a stranger to sleep with, or to sleep with a stranger. Undoubtedly I am trapped by my own romanticism; without an initial impression, a moment of chemistry, why would I want to have sex with some person I don’t know?
Until such a moment occurs, or my husband recovers his desire, I have chosen to be free.
Free is not how I feel, most of the time. Most of the time I feel pain.
Last week it was the worst it has ever been. I was left home alone and took the opportunity to masturbate as I rarely do now, naked, on my bed. I brushed the top of something with my fingertips and with the fingertips of my feeling. On the bed where I sleep chastely with my husband, night after night, I opened my skin like that. But opening broke something inside me. This has happened before and will happen again but I never expect it. I feel pleasure and I break. After, I scrambled to the high left corner of the bed and crouched there like a hurt animal, my eyes tracking alert across the room. It was some time before I could resume human behavior.
And then I could do nothing for the rest of the day. I tried to busy myself with chores but found myself doubled over beside the laundry, heaving, and then I was sobbing on all fours on the floor, my knees grinding into the wood. I thought, now that part of your life is over, it is gone to you now. Now you are older, and everyone you know is older, and the stability and security you fought against a tide so hard for as a young woman, now it is yours. If you escape it there will be no one waiting for you outside it. To escape you must take a great risk you cannot come back from. And you are not brave, you have never been brave in that way, you have only been brave when it requires you to sacrifice, and so here you are poised between two sacrifices.
Before you ask: Yes, I have considered suggesting to my husband that I be allowed to seek sex outside of our marriage.
It’s over, it’s gone from you now, you made the choice to be with the man who did not want it, and although you did not know you were making that choice and have parsed it in arguments where he bellows at you that he hates sex, that it repulses him, that before he met you it was a beautiful language all its own and now it is only the vile sound and smell of his own suffering, that you have made him speak to strangers about it and this has hurt him deeply, how much he despises it, how much — you cannot help but think — he despises you, and this is where you are, and this is where you live.
All day I was helpless against my sadness, could do nothing against it. When my husband came home, he was annoyed that I was depressed. I could not lift myself even to please him. “You seem like you’re ready to die,” he said. I went to sleep in a haze, panting, seeing that shoreline fade behind me, gone, gone.
But sometimes there are times like last night, when I feel better, hopeful.
I do not know why.
I am beginning to believe it is grace.
Last night, my husband arrived home from work and asked if I had bought a bottle of wine to drink with dinner. I had not. I volunteered to go out and pick one up.
I left the apartment in the soft clothes I had worn all day to work inside. When I was younger, I would not have gone out like this. But now, I don’t care. I live in a city where such things are not particularly important. The climate is clement.
The walk to the store to buy the wine took me past a commercial strip of bars, restaurants and shops, where young people sit outside and eat dinner with their friends. It is never absent beautiful women, their hair and makeup just so. Women who look as I never will, spindly poles with intricate faces and incredible shoes. The warm yellow light of the restaurants, the din of the bars. I passed all of it happily.
Seeing the beautiful women and feeling the hot air on my face, I think I know what it is to be a man. To want and not receive. To be asked and to deny. I feel my man-self inside me, stretching and growing. His strength and his brutality. His power of choice. Walking calmly past the market, past all of the wares on display. Appreciating beauty for beauty. Buying my wine. Thinking again and again in the warm night, I am free. I think that if someone I loved saw me and chose not to call my name, I would not be hurt.
Even if it is an illusion, even if it belongs only to this night, I ride in my man’s body. Feel his breath in my nose, his blood beating in my veins. His life hard and alive against his belly. He takes me in his arms. I fall into his open mouth, lost, free.
Lisa Locascio’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, The Believer, Bookforum, Tin House Flash Fridays, Los Angeles Review, The Minola Review and two editions of the anthology “California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State.” An excerpt of her novel, “Jutland Gothic,” received a 2015 Pushcart Prize nomination from the journal Your Impossible Voice. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and edits the L.A. and San Francisco editions of Joyland and the new ekphrastic collaboration magazine 7×7. Visit her online at lisalocascio.com and by following @senzaflash.
In slightly different form, the first section of this story appeared in Heavy Feather Review 4.2 as “Ride,” and the fifth section appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review 56 as “Lab.”
Photo: “Love Me Goes Big in Los Angeles” courtesy of Wooster Collective