I CHOSE ASH
When I was fourteen my mother told me never to call a boy first. Always let him call you, she said, or he’ll get bored. And so will you. Men need to pursue. Women need to feel pursued. You need to know the rules of the game, just make sure they don’t catch you playing them.
He called me. He brought me flowers. He held the door open. He proposed on one knee. On our wedding night he carried me over the threshold into the house he bought for us, and there he set me down and shackled me with insecurities. If you love me you will speak gently and soothingly; will defend me when I call your friends fat; will resist me in the bedroom so I’ll never think of you as easy.
I wished my mother was still alive so she could see me in this dress. She’d cover her mouth with one graceful hand, her mouth a shocked little oh. She’d say, You’re not the daughter I raised.
Well, I wouldn’t be, anyhow. Not after tonight.
“The black one’s classic. Sexy. Chic. You can’t go wrong with black.”
“And the nude?” I asked, tickling my arms until a shiver ran down them and my nipples hardened beneath the silky fabric of the dress.
The sales clerk raised an eyebrow. “You’ll need to wear a thong.”
“No I won’t.”
In the early years of our marriage, I worked so hard to convince my husband I wasn’t interested in sex so he would want to have sex that eventually I lost interest in sex. One afternoon, while I was vacuuming, he approached me from behind and kissed the back of my neck.
“You look so pretty when you clean.”
“Not right now, Pete.”
“Come here baby.”
“Pete, I’m not in the mood.” I swatted at him.
“Take off your shirt.” He pressed himself against me, his cock hard against the side of my ass.
“Knock it off.” I pushed against him and his tongue slid into my ear. “Pete, stop.” The vacuum died as I tripped over the cord and tugged it from the wall. He used the momentum of my fall to wrestle me to the carpet. A fine sweat broke out over my skin as he popped the buttons of my blouse. This was no different than any other time except this time I wasn’t pretending. I did not want to have sex with my husband. I wanted his skin to stop touching my skin. I thought that if this went any further I would clobber him over the head with whatever I could get my hands on. I said in a quiet, desperate voice, “Pete—it will be rape.”
He jerked away from me. “You really believe that.” It wasn’t a question. There could be no confusion; my face was a hard little fist. “And the other times?”
“It was a game.” It was as if I had slapped him. “You didn’t want me if you knew I wanted it.”
“You bitch.” He stood.
I sat up, clutching my blouse, hands shaking. “You really want me to not want it, don’t you?” I said, and it didn't feel like a heat-of-the-moment accusation. It felt dangerous and true.
His eyes bulged. He walked away before I had a chance to feel empowered by my audacity. I immediately began to doubt myself. He had never, would never, physically hurt me. I couldn’t imagine him cheating. He worked hard and he came home at the end of the day. He was trying to be intimate with me. Just last week I’d woken to find him lying next to me in bed, propped up on one elbow, smiling. What are you doing, I’d asked, and he’d replied, Staring at my sweet little wife. I’d wiggled my way out of the moment, slipped into the kitchen to make coffee. Now I heard my mom’s voice in my head, Cut him some slack, he’s just a man. My shoulders slumped. I was ruining my marriage, and for what? I was making this more complicated than it needed to be. It was just a game; everyone has their kinks. I had taken this too far.
I walked down the hall to ask him if he wanted something for lunch, or to apologize, or to gauge how much I'd wounded him. He was in the bathroom. I lifted my hand to tap on the door. What I heard made me stop. He was wanking off. I don’t think I’d ever heard him put that much work into anything. The sound of it was enough to send a wave of heat rolling through me, a tingle that swept from my toes to the tip of my tongue. I felt an animal urge. Then my head caught up with my body. What was he fantasizing about?
You really want me to not want it, don’t you?
A different kind of shiver ran down my spine. I walked away.
That’s a lie. I didn’t walk away. I should have. Instead I pressed the palm of my hand against the door that stood between his sounds and my silence. I stood there with my eyes closed. I didn’t touch myself but I kept my eyes closed and imagined what it would be like if I did, what it could possibly mean.
The night came. The drinks were expensive. I picked the most forbidden one, a clear liquid in a delicate glass with a single speared olive. Gin is for women with loose morals. My mother’s voice or Pete’s? Had there ever been a difference? You bitch. I drank three, then closed my tab. Tonight would not be a blur. There are some things one needs to remember in crystalline detail. First kiss. Graduation. Wedding night. And this, the night I set aside my ring.
I picked the man with the smirk, the fifty-dollar haircut, the finely-tailored jeans and cashmere sweater. A man who looks like what he is. A man used to getting what he wants. Tonight he would want me.
There had been failed attempts to leave. One time I even began to book a flight to Paris, convinced a new start would be more attainable in a place where I didn’t know the language, the customs, the rules. I pictured myself standing inside the Louvre, sipping espresso at some busy cafe, conversing with strangers in broken, hopeful gestures. As if I needed a foreign country to feel like I were in over my head.
I stood in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with Pete and tried to imagine leaving the States as Mrs. Broadstein and arriving in Paris as plane old Amy.
He rolled over, a soft, sleepy smile on his face. The years were printed around the corners of his mouth and eyes. They still had time to deepen, to change, but they were already outlines of the shape they would be when he grew old. Those same lines, I knew, had already marked their space on my own skin. We’d done this to each other.
“Hey hon. Come back to bed.” That familiar mumble and the age-old mix of resentment and surrender welled inside me.
I folded myself around him and let myself be softened by sleep. As I slid in two directions I felt a necessary numbness, like when I was a kid and would cross my eyes into a purposeful blur in order to retreat from words I was tired of reading. I told myself I would book the flight to Paris in the morning, and in the morning I told myself, The next time it feels like I can’t breathe. I’ll do it then.
“You’re not wearing any panties.”
“A guy might get the wrong idea.”
“A guy might get precisely the idea intended.”
“Why waste time?”
“Delayed gratification is said to yield better results.”
“Trust me, I know all about that.”
I told my mom over tea one morning, I don’t remember the last time I felt attached to my body. How am I supposed to use my body to love him when I’m not inside it?
Nonsense, she’d said, you just need to stop watching those dramatic movies of yours. Go home and look at your husband. Look at him. He’s the man you fell in love with.
I did as she said. That night, after dinner and a glass of wine, he reached out and stroked the hair from my cheek, tucked it behind my ear. I looked into his deep-set eyes, the ones I’d committed to for life. I remembered him on our wedding day, earnest and trembling. The shy but increasingly confident smile that had spread across his face when he saw me in my white dress. His gentle hands belying the force of his kiss. He hadn’t changed much, hadn’t grown soft in the middle or grey, but when he rested his hand on the inside of my thigh I recoiled as if he were a stranger. He couldn’t douse the flicker in his eyes. I averted mine, sat staring at his hand on my thigh as he sat staring at the side of my face. His breath was rapid and restrained. The more my body tensed against the proximity of his want, the more I felt him wanting me.
I forced myself to raise my eyes, but I couldn’t get as far as his gaze on me. My eyes stuck to his parted mouth, the glistening speck of spittle on his bottom lip. I was acutely aware of the rise and fall of my own chest, the small, raised freckle on the swell of my right breast, the one Pete would always kiss on his way down the highway of my body. A shudder went through me then, a shudder of want laced with self-disgust.
He got up, took my glass, kissed me chastely on the forehead. He looked in my eyes and I knew I must be imagining the whole thing, but god save me, I wasn’t. He wants me until he knows I want him, I thought. And then, He only wants it if he can take it from me. I went into the bathroom, turned the shower on, and dry-heaved into the sink.
His name was Gregory. We left the club like tigers released from a circus cage. He opened the door to a svelte black car. We didn’t speak. Halfway to his loft I spread my legs slowly but deliberately. “God, I can smell you”, and he wasn’t smirking anymore; his face was long, hungry, ravenous. He could barely keep his eyes on the road. I found myself quite capable of saying exactly what I wanted. No one was touching me and it was already the best sex of my life.
When I was sixteen I walked in on my parents necking in the living room. They looked like rhinos, they were so stiff and awkward. It was the only time I ever saw them desire each other.
Sometimes, out of the blue, my mother would mention masturbation. Men have to do it sometimes, she’d say, they’re physical creatures. But it’s a sin for a woman to do it. Perverse.
Of course it was also a sin to have sex outside of wedlock. Or oral. Or impure thoughts.
Pete was the first person to touch me that way. I laid stiff as a tree, repulsed by anatomy and everything it entailed. He loved me for the way I needed him to show me how, and I loved the idea of being loved, worthy of a man’s instruction.
The lawful union of a man and wife is a beautiful thing, my mother explained, her smile guiding me toward what it meant to be a woman. Why would you throw it away on someone who doesn’t love you?
How do you know if it’s love?
Men don’t buy rings for passing flings. Her laugh was champagne. I thought that meant she was happy.
Gregory’s apartment was modern, clean, beautiful. He did not put on music. He did not offer me a drink. He did not tell me to sit on the sofa, make myself at home.
I did not play coy. I did not walk around looking at pictures in order to show off my figure and create a space in which to feel desired from a comfortable distance. I did not ease the tension with jokes. I did not want to feel comfortable. I had desire for the both of us, enough desire to get us anywhere we needed to go.
We stood in front of the sofa. Never before had I felt so exposed; Gregory looked clear through my dress, my skin, my bones. His hunger looked at my hunger.
“You’re not going to touch me,” I said, and at first he didn’t believe me. “Not until you’ve seen how bad I want it.” He watched in awe as I undressed, slipping a strap off one shoulder, then the other; tugging at the zipper; bending over, stepping out of the nude fabric, the matching patent leather heels.
Minutes later, I stood naked in front of a full-length mirror. My hunger was written all over my face, my mouth loose and wet. I took my time. He watched, said nothing. He was naked and beautiful, glossy as a magazine page. I looked from his body to mine. My god, what I had to give. There was no hurry. We were both in awe of the moment. And then I was reaching for him, and he wasn't turning away.
The next morning I went home to my house, but it wasn’t my house anymore. Inside it was a man who wasn’t my husband anymore. I sat down on a sofa that had nothing to do with me and talked to Pete with a voice that belonged to someone I didn’t know. It was a voice I couldn’t fathom. When he asked where I had been, if I had stayed out fucking someone, the voice said yes. When he asked who, it said “Me”.