She told me she’d always wanted to fuck a guy in the ass. We were naked in her bed at the time, which seems important to mention. It was just past lunchtime. Soon, we’d be due back at the office.
“I don’t think you have the right equipment for that,” I said. I kept waiting for her to laugh, but she didn’t. “I’m sure you could find some guy on the Internet who’d be into it,” I said.
“But that’s the whole point,” she said. “Where’s the fun if someone’s totally into it?”
She climbed out of bed, and I watched her as she traipsed around the room, gathering her clothes. I wondered how much easier my life might be if I weren’t so hopelessly in love with her.
“I mean I know it’ll probably never happen,” she said. “That’s what makes it a fantasy, right?”
We’d been together six months. Or, together was the wrong word, but I wasn’t sure yet about the right one. We did plenty of couple-type things: dinners and movies and bands at Black Cat or the 9:30 Club, lazy Sundays in bed. A few weeks before, we’d gone down to the Jefferson Memorial and held hands among the cherry blossoms. Still, I knew there were certain things I wasn’t supposed to ask for.
Later, drinking happy hour margaritas at the generic Mexican place down the street from our office, I asked her again about that fantasy: Was she serious? Really and truly?
She nudged my foot under the table. “Why, you considering it?”
“It’s just sort of obvious, isn’t it?” I said. “The power dynamic, I mean. The role reversal? You have a couple guys in your past who treat you like…”
“Can you please not do that thing where you explain my personality to me?” she said. “It’s really annoying.”
“Sorry,” I said. Waiters weaved through the crowd wearing giant sombreros. Paunchy men in khakis and polos, cell phones holstered to their belts, talked synergy, cost overruns, the long odds of the Orioles ever becoming a playoff team again.
“Anyway, it’s not that strange,” she said.
“Neither is calling me your boyfriend,” I said.
She looked suddenly tired. One of her coworkers in the marketing department had quit unexpectedly, and she’d been taking on extra work.
“Do you really want to talk about this?” she said. “Right now?”
It occurs to me now that her body and a decent modicum of her time should have been enough. And it was, but only for a while. I was still in my twenties, but I’d been feeling old. I had a job I hated, a tiny crumbling apartment. It seemed important to make at least one thing work.
I presented it to her swathed in tissue paper inside a candy-red gift bag. We were sitting on my couch, the low-wattage station playing some singer who sounded like Al Green but was decidedly not Al Green. “It’s not even my birthday,” she said. “It’s not even Arbor Day.”
“Just open it,” I said. We’d spent an entire Saturday together, walking around the Hirshorn, lunch at Eastern Market, several beers in our favorite bar, a dark smoky place where the jukebox still took quarters. It seemed like as good a time as any.
“Is this a joke?” she said.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
The look on her face kept changing, too quickly for me to keep up. “It’s just . . .” she said. “I mean . . .”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” I said.
She kept turning the thing over in her hands, and I couldn’t help but stare at it, its sudden ridiculous purpleness. At The Pleasure Palace it had looked like nothing, cute even, next to all those larger, more menacing dongs. But here, out of context, it looked like the stupidest thing I’d ever seen.
I’m bad at uncomfortable silences, so eventually I took the thing from her and wagged it around, made the kinds of noises little kids make when they chase each other with dead birds, or dog shit on a stick. She let me do it for a while, then she snatched the thing back and set it down at the other end of the couch, away from me.
We didn’t sleep together that night. Or, what I mean to say is that we slept together but we didn’t fuck—a first—and when I woke up to pee, early the next morning, I picked the thing up from the couch and slid it into my sock drawer. I suppose I should have been relieved.
I’m older now—by nearly a decade—and I’ve learned certain things, like not to confuse sex for love, like not to expect anyone to save me from myself. Or, mostly I’ve learned. Sometimes, admittedly, I still manage to forget. There have been plenty of failures since her, women I’ve failed and women who’ve failed me, each failure its own little lifetime, its own little biosphere, hermetically sealed now and left to rot on a windowsill, where depending on my mood and my relative station in life they can look like monuments to either hopefulness or stupidity.
I even gave one woman a ring, thinking it might help. But it didn’t, though taking the ring back didn’t seem to help much either.
And still sometimes in sleep I’ll see her face, that decade-ago failure, the first one to leave a mark. I’ll wake up, disoriented, and peer over at the woman sleeping beside me, a woman who’s been around long enough that soon we’ll have to start making real decisions. In sleep she looks innocent, guileless, though I know it’s only a trick of the light. Eventually, inevitably, we’ll do terrible, unforgivable things to one another.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because I’ve still got a few good weeks left with that decade-ago woman, weeks of dinners and movies and hand-holding and late nights spent talking and fucking—incredible, enthusiastic talking and incredible, enthusiastic fucking—nights that would suggest this might defy all logic and go on forever. There’s the night when things get loud enough my neighbor leaves a note taped to my door, complaining about “wild jungle-type noises,” which in the morning we laugh over, then she pins the note to my refrigerator like a report card. There’s the night in which she arrives, unannounced, semi-drunk, and tells me maybe she loves me, that she could love me, if only she believed in love. Then the inevitable night, the one I don’t see coming only because I’ve willed myself blind, and when she tells me about him she shrugs, says, “But we had fun, right? I mean it was fun.”
When she arrives my first thought is that she’s prettier than I expected, perky and blond, a girl who looks like she should be making copies in some senator’s office, not sitting next to me on a wine-stained, secondhand couch and struggling through small talk. Every question I ask seems to be wrong: where she’s from and how long she’s worked this job and does she find it fulfilling and what are the other guys like?
Finally I get up and go to my sock drawer. When I turn back toward her she smiles. “Yeah?” she says.
“No, no,” I say. “For me. It’s for me.”
“Oh,” she says. Then a different kind of smile. “Oh.”
I’m not sure what position is the right one, so I position myself on all fours.
“You sure you don’t want me to just do fingers?” she says.
But pain is the point, isn’t it? Enough pain for the pain itself to become transformative? Or at least transporting, to lift me, however briefly, out of my own life.
She slides in just the tip and I open my mouth but no sound comes. She says “You want me to keep going?” and I manage a “yes” and she pushes it deeper and the pain is enveloping, all-consuming, but it’s not transformative, not even transporting, it just hurts like all hell, a million white-hot electrical storms exploding all the way up into my gut until I think I’m going to puke, then I know I’m going to puke.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay, okay.” But when she stops the pain doesn’t stop, only changes shape, then I turn around and see it, her holding it, smeared with blood and with something else that looks like mucus, like placenta, and I jump up for the bathroom but when my feet hit the floor there’s a whole new varietal of pain so that I just go ahead and puke all over the carpet.
What I want her to do is punch me, kick me in the stomach. But what she actually does is so much worse: she goes to the bathroom and wets a towel, which she holds up to my face. She looks genuinely concerned. “It’s gonna be okay,” she says. “Whatever it is, baby, it’s gonna be okay.” She leads me back to bed. She rubs at my neck, my shoulders. “Do you want me to stay?” she says. “I can stay.” Which is, I realize now, exactly what I wanted all along, exactly what I’d paid for, even if it pains me to admit it, even if I’d fooled myself into thinking it was something else.
Mike Ingram’s stories have appeared, most recently, in EPOCH, The Southeast Review, and Eyeshot. He’s one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse Magazine and co-host of the recently launched Book Fight podcast. He lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches writing at Temple University.