Sex with Sam had never been particularly good. He had always done his best to please and this was poignant, if not meaningful, to Jean. But as time began to dull Jean’s sense of pleasure and acceptance, she faced the inescapable truth that this was to be the love in her life, that this was what she was to know of lust, of sex, of passion.
The morning’s bout of romance had done little to solve the problem.
“Oh honey, you feel so good right now.”
“Oh Sam.” Jean upped the breathing.
“Oh honey, you’re so beautiful.”
“Oh honey, you’re so handsome.”
“Oh God,” said Jean. A jabbing sensation spiked from her groin to her backbone.
Sam stopped and shifted his weight.
They stared at each other, eyes locked, bodies meshed, Jean feeling, in the place where lust should live, its utter absence.
“You okay?” asked Sam.
“I’m fine,” said Jean. She homed in on a crack in the ceiling. They stayed like this for several seconds, intertwined yet unconnected.
Taking silence as a sign, Sam renewed his efforts. They worked back into the whole giddy ruse with the best of intentions.
“Aah,” said Jean.
“What is it?” asked Sam.
“I think I just ripped a muscle.”
And with that, he tumbled off and acknowledged the greater rupture.
For Jean and Sam, marriage had caused a rip, a stark separation, a sailing away from the comforts of youth, among them sex, leisure, free time, unencumbered thoughts, all of which had been exchanged overnight for the hallmarks of married life, and then, five years and nine months later, for the infinite privilege and burden of shaping tiny humans.
They had settled into a comfortable routine, fulfilled plans, dotted i’s, checked boxes.
“But nothing could prepare them for what happened that summer.”
“Can we kill the movie taglines?” said Jean.
“Come on,” said Sam. “They’re funny.”
“Not when you spend your days trying to solve exactly that problem.”
“Jean, don’t be so serious,” said Sam.
Jean paused, choked back annoyance, did her best to smile despite the pain bisecting her body.
“Sometimes,” said Sam, “forever has to get worse before it gets better.”
Jean breathed out, nodded.
“Two grown-ups. Two children. One bathroom,” said Sam. “Will they escape certain destruction?”
Jean had to smile at this. “Everyone loves the horror genre.”
Sam stopped and stared at Jean, squaring off her brown eyes with his blue ones. “What would make you happy?” said Sam. “It’s getting harder to decipher.”
“Love, sex, help with the kids,” said Jean.
“Sex with me?” asked Sam. “Or someone else?”
“With you,” said Jean. And then to herself, and maybe the occasional ex-boyfriend.
Jean was not exaggerating. She had lost that loving feeling. She found the thought of two touching bodies mildly nauseating. Whenever she thought about sex, it seemed a desperate and inelegant endeavor. The words “dry hump” and “rub” came to mind. She pictured wild animals mating. She imagined her tits being tugged and poked like dough on a baker’s table. She thought of unbecoming hair, rough skin, groping, clutching, panting, leg chafing leg like campers’ twigs—God forbid a pair of lovers set a bed on fire.
She could not remember a time in her life when yearning had coursed through her, when her body had hungered for another body, been host to pleasure, sensation. And yet she felt no compulsion to recover the craving. It was as though her brain had been scoured and raided by a brilliant surgeon. With the curl of the knife, he had nixed the female brain’s power center, excising desire itself from the cerebellum. Weirder still, Jean found this to be a plausible state of being. One did not long for longing, she discovered, once passion was fully absent.
* * *
Libido had little to do with it, nor did any of the typical reasons. Days earlier, Jean had declared the death of her sex drive with all the certainty of Alfred Kinsey. At the time, she was seated on a stationary bike next to Noelle, her friend and colleague. They were riding, according to their spin teacher, across the Serengeti, an improbable feat of imagination considering they were trapped in a dank black room with condensed sweat fogging the mirrors, tracing the very fine line between denial and self-awareness.
“Sex is overrated,” Jean whispered.
“Oh Jean,” said Noelle. “That makes me sad. Just to hear you say that.”
“I guess there was a time when I would have found that statement tragic. But now that I’ve breastfed two babies, I’ll never again find it.…” She stopped, sucked air.
“Find what?” Noelle asked.
“Find sex sexy.”
“Please,” said Noelle. “You just need a new—”
“Don’t say vibrator.”
“I wasn’t going to say that. I was going to say new adventure. A new guy to picture.”
Jean had come to accept just this as the bounds of her sexuality—her imagination—and its outline, the aging, rounding form that separated her and sex from their once intimate relationship. Common sense, of course, has never been imagination’s deterrent. And yet, for Jean, sex had become a mystery so elusive, an exotic creature so hard to spot she had simply stopped staking it out, abandoned her tent for base camp: family, a fulfilling job, and a sexless marriage.
Many will argue that, for a girl, imagination trumps titillation; it’s love that triggers lust, not lust that triggers all the excitement. Plunk a girl in a clean white lab in front of a slide projector and click away on the spotlit screen: a single red rose, a man in briefs, a skyline, a sunset. The subject should be on the floor sweating and heaving while her male counterpart comes to life at the first sight of undergarments. And yet, for Jean, even tried-and-true triggers failed her. Her imagination had gone limp. Her brain was dry and shriveled. She could not even imagine imagining sex. It was a distant galaxy in a fading black hole and Jean was a satellite spinning into someone else’s orbit.
Jean feared she had decoded the truth about her sisters, the fact that launched the thousand ships, the force that powers Facebook. Female sexuality, Jean decided, is not unlike a peacock. The very moment it sidles up, it’s gone in a flurry of feathers. At times, it truly seems to crave warmth and admiration. At others, it turns away from love, allergic to human kindness. But most of all—and this is perhaps the only thing on which it can be counted—it seeks to defy whatever rules are ascribed to it, fueling desire with desire, desire that cannot be requited, until that desire flames out, like a spotlight in a blackout.
Jean turned now to face her pillow, breathed into the fabric while Sam clomped off without a word, acting very pious. The sound of his feet on the floor was followed by the patter of children’s, their presence making the morning’s misfire slightly less galling. Jean rolled over and batted at the drawer of her bedside table. The pink plastic case for her birth control was shiny as candy—as were the twenty-eight unopened pills routinely eschewed in favor of the rhythm method. It’s not that she wanted more children with any active awareness; it’s that the sex was infrequent enough that the chance was nonexistent. And perhaps the theoretical risk imbued conjugal sex with a much-needed element of excitement.
They heard the children at the same time, but Sam gave the better performance. He stood in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, gazing at his reflection in the mirror as though peering in would bring him closer to self-knowledge. He kept up the act for seconds as the children’s calls escalated. Jean paused at the bathroom door and delivered a meaningful glower, then, exhausted by the idea of the fight, advanced to her hollering children.
The Banks lived on two floors of a blameless Brooklyn brownstone, a homestead blessed seven years ago by Jean’s rose-colored glasses. Thanks to these, the peeling structure had appeared as a towering mansion, a project they could one day call a home—provided their incomes tripled and Sam developed a knack for home improvement. But as the economy scribbled on their tidy blueprints, the apartment graduated from a project to a problem, from something with “amazing potential” to an overwhelming nuisance, a progression, Jean often noted, that was not unlike their marriage.
The house was tainted by one major defect of construction, a relic of Victorian structures built throughout Brooklyn. A central staircase extended from the ground floor to the roof, an ovular spiral and, within it, a hole into which you could gaze from any floor and drop laundry or a penny or, if you leaned far enough, fall to your death in an elegant swan dive.
“I’m obligated to tell you,” the real estate broker had told Jean and Sam on their second viewing, “these banisters are not up to code and need a little refreshment.” And then, with a patronizing pat, “I’d look into this sooner than later, given that you’re expecting.”
A very pregnant Jean teetered precariously behind her. “Expecting what?” she’d wanted to say. “Certain death or certain children?”
“I find, with children, as with men,” the broker went on to say, “they’ll basically ignore it if you don’t draw too much attention. It’s when you say it’s forbidden that you have a problem.” She winked at Sam as if to say she could keep any secret. And the couple, though perfectly horrified, made fun of the broker all the way home, then promptly submitted their offer.
The stair remained an open debate up to the current moment, causing Jean to shudder every time the children went silent. They made various attempts to engineer a version of prevention, winding a net around the stairs from the ground floor to the skylight, extending the banister with plywood, and installing a Lucite extension. The rigs only made the staircase look strangely more decrepit and colluded with the general sense that just beneath the surface of family life lay clear and present danger.
The muddle of the television crept into Jean’s thinking, a feature on a strange structure in New York’s outer boroughs. The monument of sorts was built for the World’s Fair in 1967, a sixty-foot ornate globe, a steel maze of oceans and continents that straddled the BQE between Queens and Long Island. The structure was a testament to midcentury excitement. It was dubbed the Unisphere and, though planned for a two-year stint, had been left to weather forty years of global warming and heavy traffic. On the show, a buff female engineer traversed the globe in a harness, finding the spots with the worst decay, homing in on the hot spots. She answered the newsman’s questions as she dangled between Cuba and the Caribbean islands.
“It’s a study in progressive decay,” she explained. Jean decided not to share the phrase with her husband.
Somehow, Sam and Jean had sustained many years of rational pessimism, focusing on the positive even as their incomes stalled and their cost of living doubled. Holding on would surely prove the wise decision in the long run. Holding on was the new American Dream—it’s what everyone was doing. It was as though the entire generation had bought IKEA’s starter kitchen only to find, midassembly, they’d been following the wrong instructions. But the general state of the world acted as both foil and accomplice. If they were going down, Jean felt, then at least they could go down with the solace that others were going down with them.
From an aesthetic perspective, the place was the picture of charming. A stoop instead of a picket fence; red brick instead of white clapboard; strollers, idling ice cream truck, muffled screams from nearby playgrounds. Every morning, the street was scrubbed by the city’s robust sunrise. Every night, lamplight transformed the building into a Halloween pumpkin.
The apartment was decorated in the typical fashion of parents, with a tacit decision to favor safety over anything more attractive. A stately leather sofa peeled as though it had once been painted. Magic Marker added polka dots to fabric hauled back from Thailand. Rugs and chairs, tables and desks, the yield of careful flea market culling, skirted the line between cozy and messy. The apartment was a monument to Jean and Sam’s wise choices, proof that a life can be made like cake, provided with the right ingredients and correct timing.
Copyright © 2013 by Galt Niederhoffer