Saturday December 11, 2004
I’m pretty sure I can make out Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait in the grain pattern of our wood floors. My eyes have drifted out of focus, but I fixate on the face in the floor.
Behind me on the couch, Greg runs his fingers through my hair, as he flips through channels on the television. This is our ritual, our together time. He’s been home for six days now, and with the jetlag finally worn off, we easily slip into our regular routine—dinner followed by couch time, his feet on a pillow on the coffee table, my head on a pillow in his lap, his fingers gently stroking my scalp and trailing down my back as we watch old movies.
I remember this being the highlight of my day. The warmth of Greg’s lap under my head instilled me with a sense of calm. The tender touch of his fingers twirling strands of my hair sent shivers down my spine. I’d moan at the sensation of his touch, and he’d grin as he’d keep petting me.
I still moan at random intervals, but the reason has changed. The reason escapes me. The reason for the entire ritual escapes me. The sweetness, tenderness, and need for constant connection that originally started this shared practice have all abated. Now it’s just habit. It’s an endless, mindless repeating of a distant memory, like a residual haunting. It’s as if Greg and I aren’t here anymore, but our ghosts remain, continuing to pantomime the nuanced details of our daily lives together.
Oh Jesus, Ari, stop being so fucking maudlin.
I groan then wince when Greg’s fingers reach a particularly stubborn tangle. He tries to be gentle as he works out the knot but the unexpected tugs and pulls send pricks of pain through my scalp and down my spine. I feel the pain acutely, and I revel in it. I need it. I need the feeling of something. Even if what I’m feeling is pain, it’s better than feeling nothing—
“What’s with you?” Greg murmurs as he turns off the television.
“Huh?” My eyes snap into focus. What I thought was Van Gogh’s scruffy red beard and long, sharp nose are actually just knots in the floor’s wood grain.
“Talk to me, Ari. It’s like you’re a million miles away.”
I spring up, surprising him and tangling his fingers in my hair. With a bit of a tug of war, we break apart and I slide to the next cushion on the couch, facing him and watching him closely as I ask, “Do you love me, Greg?”
He blinks. “Of course I love you.”
I don’t wait a beat before I follow up with, “Why?”
Greg frowns. “Ari, you’re my wife. Of course I love you. What kind of question is that?”
Now I frown. “Wife—that’s a role, not a reason.”
Greg’s frown shifts into a grin, like he’s laughing at some inside joke. “Come here.”
My frown deepens and I don’t move, still waiting for an answer to my question. Greg shifts slightly, turning to face me. He clasps a hand around my leg, and gently tugs me toward him. I let him pull me into his embrace, settling on his lap, my legs straddling his waist. With one hand, he pushes a strand of hair behind my ear. With the other, he cinches me tight against him.
It feels good, being this close to him. I rest my head on his shoulder and breathe in the scent of him, fresh and clean like soap and winter wind.
“Look at me, Ari.”
I lift my head and he gently clasps his fingers on my chin, positioning me so I can’t help but look him in the eyes, fine lines radiating out from the corners when he gives me a seductive grin.
“I love your big brown eyes. I love that little gap between your two front teeth. I love that you dip your pizza in ranch dressing and drown your tacos in salsa.” He presses his lips to my neck and gives me a feathery kiss as he takes a deep breath. “I love the way you smell.” His tongue darts out and tickles the spot just below my ear. “I love the way you taste.” I shiver from head to toe and let out a shaky breath. Greg chuckles quietly, the sound rumbling through his chest like thunder. He pulls away to look me in the eyes again, using one hand to stroke my temple, then he gives my head a little thump, thump, thump with his thumb. “But mostly I love all the crazy shit you’ve got going on up here.”
“I love your laugh.”
I sigh, a bit breathless, then yelp when he cups my ass in one of his palms.
“I love your ass.”
I gasp when his palm slides so far down my ass that his fingers splay between my thighs, and proceed to tickle and tease me.
He purrs like a big cat, “And I love that gasp.”
Without another word, Greg kisses me. There is no hesitation, no awkwardness. Like a ballet, our kiss is perfect, precise, practiced; a well-choreographed pas de deux. After twelve years together, I know his mouth and his kiss intimately. I know to zig when he zags. I know that he starts gentle, the pressure in his lips soft and tender. I know that he likes to lick into my mouth with darting little dashes of tongue. Then he palms the back of my head, tangling his fingers in my hair, and groans into my mouth just before the kiss changes, grows deeper. I know to match his increased intensity stroke for stroke, nibble for nibble as our maneuvers grow more ardent and fervid.
We are proficient lovers of one another.
Normally, there is a comfort in that, a sense of rightness in each masterful maneuver. But not today. Today, there is no comfort in our practiced coupling. Each flawless kiss suffocates, each seasoned touch chafes, our studied embrace constricts. I wiggle against him, twisting away from his mouth at the same time that I grab two fistfuls of his hair. Freshly cut, finely coiffed, his honey brown locks feel soft in my hands. I pause for a moment to stroke his head, then grab again and yank. With a squeaky yelp, Greg’s head ratchets back, and I latch onto his neck like a vamp. Starting just below his ear, I bite, suck, and lick my way up to his strong jaw.
Nothing about the way I kiss Greg is studied or choreographed. I attack him, feral and ferocious, a cat pouncing on her prey. Little growls emit from the back of my throat as I lick my way into his mouth. My teeth gnash against his as we each fight for control. His hands fist my hair now, too, locked with me in a power struggle as we challenge one another with bites and licks, nibbles and tastes. As if to make a point, I give his hair another decisive yank and bite down on his bottom lip, suckle the soft flesh into my mouth, then let it go with a wet pop.
Greg groans, and I feel his response, instant and rigid against my thigh. He pulls his hands from the tangle of my hair, and slides them down my back to cup and squeeze my ass with bruising force.
With more purr to my voice than I’ve ever heard before, I whisper a command into Greg’s ear. “Take me to bed.”
His response is one decisive shake of his head, and words spoken so low they rumble in his chest. “I’m taking you right here, sweet thing.”
We’re like a couple of teenagers, all arms and elbows as we strip each other in a frenzy. I hear a tear of fabric when Greg pulls my shirt over my head in one jolting yank. I paw at his jeans and he tugs at my bra, a tangle of fumbling fingers working to spring clasps, pop buttons and yank zippers.
With one swift shift, he’s got me flat on my back, stretched across the cushions of the couch. With another jerk of motion, he’s yanked off his own t-shirt and he’s wrestling his pants down his hips. I help, using my feet and fingers to push his waistband down to his knees so he can kick his way out of the rest of his clothing. I yank what’s left of my own clothes off, and when we’re both naked, he slinks up over me like a leopard stalking his prey.
He stops, frozen over me in a stiff plank, not kissing me, not touching me; just watching me. He’s always liked the look of anticipation that dawns over my face right before he fucks me. He savors it now, a smug grin on his lips as I wiggle beneath him, my frustration like an itch. I open my legs wide, twisting them up on his back, as if to climb and mount him from below. The smug grin only grows.
Catching me by surprise, he suddenly lets his weight fall onto me. Greg is a lean man, tight with muscle, but not overly large, yet still he crushes me beneath him, the air in my lungs leaving in a whoosh. Before I recover my breath, Greg spears me in a sudden rush, burying himself to the hilt.
The feeling of him filling me sends a warm rush of energy through every synapse in my body, lighting me up like a Vegas sign. I love that about sex, it has the singular power to give me everything I need, right when I need it. Like being zapped with a pair of defibrillator paddles, I’m jolted out of arrest. My senses come alive with stunning acuity, suddenly able to taste and feel and hear and smell and touch everything.
I moan and arch my back, pressing my breasts against him as he moves first slow and then faster and deeper inside me. I shiver and curl my limbs around him, pressing up to meet his hips with each stroke. Greg grunts and moves fast onto me, into me and I feel myself about to come. I clasp my hands around his hips, digging my nails into the small of his back when it hits. I come, hard, and holler up at him, holding his gaze when I’m able to keep my eyes open.
Greg loves to watch me come, and when I do, it usually brings him with me. It does now, too. His eyes grow large and he groans low and long, then jabs into me a couple more times before collapsing on top of me, spent.
We lay naked, wrapped in a knot of legs and arms our faces cocooned in a tangle of my hair. When we’ve caught our breath, he shifts to the side and gently arranges me above him so he’s no longer crushing me. I rest my head on his chest and brush my hand over the smattering of his chest hair. At the sensation of his fingers running along the curve of my lower back in slow, sexy strokes, I sigh and nestle tighter in his embrace.
“Jesus,” Greg exhales a loud gust of breath. In a drowsy, sex-laden whisper he adds, “Christ.”
I stretch like a cat, still wrapped within his arms, feeling flushed and hot, but reveling in the sensation of his sticky, sweat-slicked flesh against mine.
“What’s gotten into you?” He closes his eyes and starts to smack his lips in that way he does right before he drifts off to sleep. Still, he’s talking. The words fall out of his mouth with a yawn as he absently rubs at the hickey I’ve left on his neck, “I think you’ve left marks.”
I grin wide as I catch sight of the pink and purple bite and suck marks dotting his throat, finding a strange sense of pride in leaving my mark on him.
With a laugh, he asks, “Is that what you meant by trying new things?”
Without thinking, I throw out a casual reply, “That… and other stuff.”
Greg shifts his head to look at me, a smirk on his face. “Other stuff, eh?” There is a devilish glint in his eyes, and I realize why when he slips his hand down my backside and gooses my naked ass. Of course, the final frontier would be Greg’s first thought. He’s asked to be my back door man more than once, actually begged a couple of times, and my answer has always been a firm “no.”
I squeal with surprise and squirm in his arms, croaking out an awkward, “That hadn’t made my list.”
Greg chuckles, sliding his hand back up to safe territory, and I relax again. But as I start to think about it, I open my mind to the possibility. Why not say “yes” next time? The only thing to fear is fear itself…and pain. But it can’t hurt that much, can it? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and venturing into butt stuff would surely be a big leap, a bootylicious bounce if you will, toward living a life of bluster, moxy, and gusto, right?
Lost in my thoughts, I almost miss Greg’s yawned question, “There’s a list?”
“What’s on it?”
There isn’t actually a list in the strictest sense of the word, nothing has been committed to paper as yet. It’s more like a Möbius strip of thoughts, ideas, and fantasies that has floated around in the back corners of my mind. But a few ideas do continue to surface, such as, “Well, I want to get drunk. I’m twenty-nine and I’ve never been drunk. That’s kind of pathetic. So…yeah…I want to get drunk.”
“Mm hmmm.” He mumbles drowsily, only half-listening. The stroke of his fingers on my back slows and occasionally stops as he teeters at the edge of sleep.
“Also, I’d like to kiss a girl.”
Greg’s eyes rocket open and he blinks once, twice, a third time before a smile creeps across his lips. “You want to kiss a girl? Really?”
“Any specific girl in mind?”
I shake my head.
“Hmm.” His hands squeeze my hips, and I’m pretty sure I feel a suddenly-there semi twitch against my thigh. “Well, when you find this mystery girl you want to kiss, can I watch?”
Now I’m the one who’s speechless, blinking, stunned and a bit amused by his nonchalant response. I’ve just told him I want to kiss another person, a person who is not him, and he thinks it’s hot? Then again, we are talking about a woman, and men so rarely feel threatened by women.
“What if I were to say that I wanted to kiss another guy?”
Greg stills completely. His fingers stiffen on my hips and his eyes narrow as he stares at me. I stare back, not wanting to be the one who blinks first. Ultimately, though, I blink and look away, then back at Greg. His brow furrows and his eyes narrow when he asks, “Any specific guy in mind?”
I shake my head, no.
He clears his throat, “Why do you want to kiss another guy?”
“I didn’t say that I want to kiss another guy, I just asked what you would say if I did?”
Greg frowns, “What are we talking about here, Ari?”
“In all your travels, have you ever met a woman who you wanted to…be with?”
Greg’s frown deepens, goes dark. “Are you asking me if I’ve ever cheated on you?” Before I can answer, his hands tighten on my waist and he insists, “I’ve never cheated, not once, Ari Beth. I wouldn’t do that.”
“But surely you’ve been attracted to other women, right? You’ve thought about it, right?”
“Big difference between thinking about something and doing it.” He answers without answering, and gives me that frown again—pursed lips and furrowed brow, all pinched and squinting as if he’s trying to see through the skin and bone and catch a glimpse of what’s in my head.
“What if we were to agree that it’s okay to act on those desires?”
Greg freezes, his body as rigid as a block of ice. He clears his throat and quietly asks, “Are we really having this conversation?” He shifts beneath me, gently detangling our limbs, then sits upright, “Because if we are, I need to…I need a beer.”
I look him in the eyes and slowly nod.
With a fortifying breath, like he’s about to dive underwater, Greg rises to his feet, slides his boxers back on, and walks silently into the kitchen.
I remain unmoved for a moment, flat on my back, alone and naked, staring up at the stilled ceiling fan overhead. With a jolt I sit upright, looking for my clothes. They’re strewn about the room, my jeans inside-out in a pile by my feet. I wrestling the denim to extricate my underwear, then hurriedly pull them on. They’re inside-out, but I don’t care. I need cover for this conversation; any cover will do.
From afar, I hear Greg holler, “You want a beer?”
The words “no, thanks” balance on the tip of my tongue, but when I open my mouth to answer, “Yes, please,” comes out.
Greg returns with two bottles of Shiner Bock, handing me one as he walks past me to settle onto the far cushion of the couch, a gulf of leather between us. He leans closer and extends his hand, the one holding his beer. I hesitate before clinking my glass against his, surprised by the casual toast. He lifts his bottle and takes a long sip. I follow his lead and frown at the strange taste. Why do people drink beer? It’s not very good.
Greg’s lips lift in a brief smile before he schools his features and asks, “What’s going on? What is this all about?”
I take a deep breath, and before I can stop myself, I blurt it out, saying the words that once said cannot be unsaid, words that once voiced could change everything…
“I want to open our marriage.”
Greg blinks, thinks, and then finally—after what feels like hours—speaks. His reply is quiet, just a whisper of a question. “Why?”
I begin to panic beneath his cool hard gaze, babbling as my only defense. “It was the funeral that got me thinking…I started thinking about all the amazing things your grandpa had done in his life, all the crazy stories. By contrast I realized how…small my life is.” I pause when I see Greg flinch, masking his expression behind his beer as he slowly takes a sip. “I don’t mean small. I just mean…” I groan, frustrated that I can’t seem to express myself coherently. “I’m not putting any of this on you. I love you, Greg, you know I love you. I’ve loved you since I was seventeen, and that hasn’t changed. But sometimes I feel like we’ve limited ourselves by committing to each other so young. Or maybe it’s just me—I’ve limited myself, I’ve closed myself off to the world outside.” Another pause as I swallow hard, not able to get the lump out of my throat. I look down at the bottle in my hand, the drink inside, and take a long pull. I nearly choke on it, swallowing with a cough and sputter as I set the bottle aside and shift to sit against the arm of the furniture, facing off with Greg. He does the same. We both pull our legs to our chests, as if our knees are armor and can provide an adequate defense of our hearts in this bizarre jousting match. “I think I just want to open myself up…I want the space…the freedom to experience the world around me, on my terms, and I want to give you that freedom too.”
“And you think opening our marriage will give you the freedom you need?”
“Us. It will give us more freedom. And yes, I think it will.”
“Why can’t you experience the world with me, with just me?”
My spirits sink. My fortitude collapses like a house of cards. I try to swallow the lump in my throat as I mumble a weak, “Yeah, you’re right.” I rest my cheek on the tops of my knees, staring at the growing ring of condensation forming around the base of my beer bottle. “I don’t know what I’m on about. I’ve just been in a weird mood lately. Forget I said anything.”
“No.” Greg sets his beer aside too and brushes his fingers across my shins to get my attention. “Ari, I’m not arguing with you. I’m just trying to understand where this is coming from. Because let’s be clear, what you’re asking for is permission to fuck other guys, right? That’s the bottom line.” Greg’s tone isn’t angry or harsh in any way. Even as he says the word ‘fuck’ he enunciates clearly, his tone phlegmatic. It’s as if we’re entering a debate, and he’s formulated his rebuttal with his usual academic dispassion.
I look him in the eyes, trying to read him. And that’s when he surprises me with the hint of a sweet, supportive smile. It’s exactly what I need to regain my courage and continue this.
I take a deep breath, and he does too. I steel my spine, sitting up straight and proud, and he adjusts as well. I stare straight at him, not flinching, blushing, or glancing away when he levels those warm, whiskey-colored eyes at me. When I open my mouth to speak, he slowly nods as encouragement.
“I’m almost thirty, and I feel like I’ve done so little. I skipped all the normal parts of being twenty-something. I’ve never been drunk, never been to a raging party, never had a one-night stand or a threesome, never gotten high…” I watch Greg for any sign that my words are hurting him, but there’s nothing. He listens with a stoic, statue-still expression plastered over his face. So I continue. “I’ve created this comfortable bubble, and existed within it for as long as I can remember. I’m restless. I want to explore my boundaries, try new things.” I shrug and twist my fingers into an uncomfortable pretzel. “I think there are parts of life that have passed me by, and I want the chance to experience them, to experience all parts of life.” I take a fortifying breath. “I guess I just want to shake things up a bit.”
“A bit?” He lets out a small laugh and I do, too. Saying all of this out loud sounds absolutely ridiculous, but there’s no turning back now.
“Yeah. You know me and my gift for subtlety.”
He gives me an awkward smile. It looks funny on him, but it is what I need in order to finally relax. “Ari, for someone in their twenties, you’ve done a lot with your life. You know that, right? You’re a published author, for Christ’s sake. That’s more than most people can say.”
I roll my eyes but can’t help the smile that creeps onto my lips in appreciation of his kind words. I don’t know what to say, so I just shrug and then hate myself for shrugging. What a lazy expression a shrug is, and this is no time for lazy expressions.
“Okay.” Greg chews the inside of his lip, deep in thought. “Let’s say we agree to this, hypothetically. Would there be any ground rules?”
Ground rules? Holy shit, are we really talking about this? “Of course there would be…ground rules.” I answer before I’ve thought it through.
I have no idea. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well,” He hardly takes any time to think before he blurts out, “Not Jake.”
“Jake?” Jake. As in my best friend who I think of as a big brother, that Jake? Uh. Okay.
“I don’t think I can deal with you being with him. Also, we need to promise each other that any extra-marital activity will be safe. I know you’re on the pill, but outside of us, it’s different. We should always use condoms when we’re with anyone else.”
I’m stunned silent. I don’t know where I thought this conversation would go, but I wasn’t expecting it to go here. Though it does seem fitting that Greg would completely gloss over my ethereal ideas of freedom and space, and focus entirely on practical details like rubbers and safety.
Then again, I don’t know why I’m surprised. Greg is an engineer, a scientist, in more ways than just his career. He approaches all aspects of his life like it were a chemistry experiment, with the objective detachment of an observer. Add part A to part B, get a reaction. It seems he’s approaching this concept of opening our marriage with the same discipline, working the problem, offering solutions and suggestions with a cool dispassion that I’ve never been able to muster.
I nod and finally squawk out a hoarse, “Okay.”
“Do you have any ground rules for me?” It’s as if my idea has become his. He’s driving this now.
I almost shrug again and stop myself before I finally add, “I…I don’t know. Can I think about it?”
Greg shrugs and nods. No shrugging, I want to shout. Maybe that should be a ground rule.
There is a prolonged silence as we both stare at the other’s knees, not able to make eye contact. Then Greg speaks, and I’m not exactly sure what he means when he says, “Okay.”
“We can open the marriage. But if it starts to cause problems between us, we close it. You and me, Ari, that’s what’s important here.”
Funny. I never thought we’d get this far in the conversation, so I’d never really given any of this serious thought. The longevity of our open marriage was not something I had even considered. How could I not have thought all of this through before bringing it up?
Jesus. I’m such a child. I’m a little girl disguised in a woman’s body. I’m like one of those kids who manages to graduate high school never having learned how to read. I’ve managed to get older, without ever actually growing up. And now, here I am, negotiating the terms of an open-marriage with my husband as if I’m even remotely capable of such a grown-up concept. But I better get capable, and fast, because apparently this is happening.
“Okay,” I say flatly.
“Okay,” he repeats with a slow grin.
This is surreal.
Should it hurt that he’s not more upset, jealous, or possessive? His detachment is almost an affront, and it takes me a moment to remember—this was my goddamn idea!
“Okay,” I repeat, sharing his grin with a breath that tousles the hair around my face.
Without a word, Greg holds my gaze as he reaches his hand toward me and strokes the top of my bare foot with the back of his fingers. It’s a small gesture, but it’s exactly right for the moment. I slip my hand down and link my pinky finger with his.
We sit like this for a moment, and then, completely in sync, both dive at each other and tangle together—a furious, twisting mass of lips and limbs. As we kiss and touch and explore each other anew, I feel a growing and nearly overwhelming rush of nervous energy. It is euphoric, this promise of freedom. It fizzes and bubbles and explodes through me like uncorked champagne.
I climb on top of Greg and he lets me, a sly grin on his lips as I tug his boxers out of my way. With awkward fingers and the sound of torn fabric, he pushes my underwear to the side and…we both groan when we connect once more. I move fast and hard. I plant my hands on his chest, arch back and open up my lungs, crying out in ecstasy. Oh holy fuck. More than just uncorked, the bottle is shattered into a million pieces, as if christening some new sea vessel.
This is going to be a wild ride.