It was barely warm enough to leave the windows open. From the bed Cassie listened to the easy give-and-take of a conversation as the last of the night’s dog walkers passed their house. “Does my weight feel good?” She pressed fully onto Ben, ankles to shoulders, her face against his neck.
He moaned his affirmation.
Cassie lifted his T-shirt and then hers, bringing them skin-to-skin. She’d read recently that newborns should have at least four hours of skin-to-skin contact each day and the recommendation made her wonder, Had she failed her own children? She started to ask Ben, “Honey, do you think –,” but he put his hand over her mouth.
“Don’t talk. Don’t think,” he whispered.
She was hyperaware of the sensations—warm, smooth, alive. How many hours should adults have? She felt an urge in her hips but allowed only slight pressure toward Ben. Sex was a commodity in their bedroom, with an unspoken tally kept of who instigated when. Lately, Cassie had been the initiator. She craved sex—not lovemaking, nothing tender, something brutish, two wrestlers going at each other. Was it the final cry of her ovaries? Reproduce! Ensure the survival of the species! Maybe that was what the cougar phenomenon was about. Middle-aged ovaries blogging and writing books and producing TV shows about their yearnings toward strong-gorgeous-too-young-to-marry sperm. Another developmental milestone.
Ben flipped Cassie onto her back and kissed her shoulder. He drifted south and she squeezed his arms. In bed their communication was effortless. Of course sex had evolved (devolved?) over their twenty-year marriage, from the initial rough and greedy consumption, to easy and comfortable (dreary?), and then to the duty of exhausted new parents, to tender nostalgia (remember how it used to be?), and now the surprise of how it used to be all over again.
Cassie wanted to say shocking, nasty things, to whisper words like cock, suck, fuck me hard, to throw her head back and reveal her pale, vulnerable neck. She slid beneath the covers, wrapped her hand around Ben, your name here, and squeezed, both her hand and her eyes tight. A woman’s need to be known is as basic as a sexual urge. She pictured Seth’s dark stare, the tightrope between them, as Ben pushed against her. Fuck me, Seth. Then she opened her eyes and there was Ben, his stare hungry, intent, unfocused, a hunter’s concentration that embarrassed Cassie. She used to close her eyes to offer Ben privacy, but now she closed them and thought, What’s on your mind, Cassie? She gripped the sheets and pushed back against Ben/Seth in her imaginary ménage à trois.
“Everything,” she exclaimed, moving her hands up Ben’s arms, groping his triceps like a rock climber seeking purchase. She wanted Ben to recall this moment the next time he was at the gym doing dips or whatever he did to develop such wonderful arms, counting off his reps, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, and suddenly be aflame with desire for Cassie. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes.” And it was only a slight exaggeration.
After, when she leaned over to turn out the light, she imagined the pale curve of her back like a Manet nude or a slice of ripe pear. She paused, wanting Ben to notice, to stroke his hand down the length of her spine and say, You are lovely. She tried to telegraph her longing through the absolute grace of her extended arm. But he was already gone, drifted into solid sleep. This was not the first time she’d imagined Ben admiring her back. During the middle months of her first pregnancy, Cassie lived in a constant state of amazement. She inhabited her body with another human being! She was a voluptuous poster child of strength, fertility, and energy. One morning, standing naked in a square of sunlight, reaching for a pair of green boots on the top shelf of her closet as she balanced easily on her toes, she extended her arm with such elegance she was sure Ben was astonished and overcome. She could feel his eyes, hungrily exploring her back, her ass, her newly luxurious hair. “Honey,” he’d said, “even your back is fatter.”
* * *
Her first time, she’d been at a keg party in Pacifica with Jeremy Deak and was suddenly freezing and dizzyingly drunk. Jeremy drove her to his house. They didn’t have sex on his back seat. Jeremy hid Cassie in his closet while he said good night to his dad, anchored in his Barcalounger in the blue glow of the all-night movie channel. Jeremy’s mom worked the night shift at the cannery, and their house, Cassie remembered, always smelled faintly of whatever was ripe: pears, green beans, yams, peaches. She may have thrown up in his car on the way over. She probably threw up in his car. When she woke the next day, naked in his bed, her head felt as if it were painfully cobbling itself back together. Her mouth was pasty with stale vomit, and Jeremy was gone. It took several attempts to overcome the spins and stand. When she couldn’t find her underpants, she pulled back the sheets and saw the silver-dollar-pancake-size spots of blood. Cassie was not on her period. It had happened and she didn’t remember a thing. Her head throbbed so painfully she couldn’t tell if she hurt down there as well, but she did feel slightly crusty. In the mirror she was too horrified by the catastrophe of her reflection to search for new womanly knowledge in her eyes. Her hair was massively snarled, her eyes smeared with mascara and iridescent blue shadow as if she’d been in a fight with a peacock. A note from Jeremy was taped to the corner — I’ll call you. Cassie dressed; she couldn’t find her purse, so she finger-smoothed her troll-doll hair, shoved his note in her pocket, and quietly opened the bedroom door. The TV was still on. Jeremy’s mom slept sitting up on the couch, her hair confined in a net, her feet in a tub of water. The living room smelled sweet, like fruit cocktail. Cassie nearly made it to the door.
“Goodbye, Cassie,” Mrs. Deak said.
“You too, Mrs. Deak.” Cassie answered as brightly as she could and then realized she made no sense. “Thanks for having me over!” Outside she found her purse, its contents strewn across the front yard — hairbrush, lip-gloss, a mimeographed page of algebra problems, movie-ticket stub, a Bic lighter.
Cassie told this story on herself plenty of times, to girlfriends, to Ben. She even made up a name for that horrible walk across Jeremy Deak’s living room, the tramp-traipse. She usually finished up by saying that to this day fruit cocktail made her ill. The story garnered laughs. Of course the parts she left out—the part where Mrs. Deak said, “I can smell from here what kind of girl you are” and the part when Cassie realized her first sexual experience was stolen by Jeremy and the part where she was swallowed up in shame and loneliness—those were the only parts Seth would want to talk about. Which was why she hadn’t told him.
* * *
“Should I get a tattoo?”
Cassie hadn’t realized Ben was awake. She wove her leg over and between his, skin to skin again. “Really?”
“If I do, when I see it—”
“Forever, you know you’ll see it forever.”
“I know, forever. But every time I do I’ll think about Ethan catching a glimpse of his tattoo and remembering going with his dad. It’ll be like that drawing of the man holding the glass paperweight and inside it you can see a man holding a glass paperweight and inside that a man holds a paperweight, on and on.” In the dark of their room, Ben’s voice was soft as cotton. “It’ll mean something.”
Cassie closed her eyes. Yes, when Ethan was fifty he might be sentimental enough to think it. Ben was sentimental right now and for that she loved him.