Semele Burning, or: How to Love Someone Who is Uncertain

Samantha Edmonds

This is what she remembers:

• pain
• disbelief
• that she’d read somewhere it only hurt because your muscles are tense from nerves
• opening her legs farther, trying to relax
• the sounds she made: gasps, groans, moans
• his silence, except for asking if she wanted him to stop
• her answer: a headshake, no words
• pain
• tightness
• wetness
• shock
• her legs wrapped around his
• her hands on his back
• heavy breathing
• that she left her shirt on
• pain
• pleasure?

This is what she doesn’t remember:

• how it got so far
• wanting to, then:
• wanting to stop
• where he put her underwear
• where he put his hands
• his facial expressions
• God
• her hypothetical future husband
• fear
• regret
• pleasure?

After half a year of almost-having, Ruth Emerson is pretty good at predicting the unpredictable (the trick is to expect the opposite of whatever he did last time), but she could not have expected this. She thinks back to an hour before when he said, “So are you going to stay the night?” like she’d ever considered leaving. And she thinks back to the hour before that, when she was staring into his beer, the darkest on tap, and not speaking up when he decided to order another. And another. And another.

She thinks about the night before this, stone sober, when he acted like the Baptist minister he was and sent her away and said they shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, and she had wanted to scream obscenities throw something shove him storm out get mad.

But that is not how to do it.

Here’s how to do it:

Love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love.

Her best friend, Grace, an anthropologist, three years older and much more sexually experienced, would tell her virginity’s only significance is cultural: Religious traditions like Ruth’s place special value on this state, as if it is directly related to one’s personal worth. Preachers like her father declare that it is meant to be cherished, protected, hoarded. Given, at long last, to someone special, usually accompanied by ceremony. Not in a mostly empty room in the dark, almost by accident.

Lying beside him minutes after, wrapped in black night and his arms, she is pretty sure he loves her tonight; but she knows that tomorrow he might not be able to look her in the eye. She wanted to wait and would have in any other circumstance, but that is not how to love him. You don’t say Maybe. You don’t say I don’t know. You don’t say I’m not sure. Those are for him to say, in the moments he wavers. What are we doing? What are we thinking? Your parents—my job—your reputation—what about God? When he gets like that she makes shushing sounds and holds his hands and promises that everything will be okay. She needs to be constant, consistent, the steady eye in his uncertainty storm. There is only room for one question mark in this relationship.

So this is how she does it:

Of course.
Whatever you want.

In the morning she wants to freak out, but she zips the panic up with her jeans and holds her fear inside when she hugs herself, listening to the shower running. He awoke before she did, wasted no time jumping under the hot water. She sits fully dressed in the bed, criss-cross applesauce, and tries to ignore the pain between her legs. She wonders if he will kiss her goodbye on the cheek or on the mouth or at all.

Anthropologically speaking, her friend would explain to the Protestant-raised twenty-year-old, this does seem a big deal. But anatomically speaking, she’d then add, nothing is different inside. Regardless, ten minutes later when Ruth is in her car, she wonders if people can tell. She slams her hand against the steering wheel because he did not ask her to stay. The sting is welcome on her open palm. She slams it again. Again. Again. She wants to be home, to fling herself across her bed, teenage-tantrum style. She is crying. She wants him to hear, to look out his window and catch her in the act of breaking down. She wants him to know, goddammit, just once, to know what he’s doing to her. But letting him see this—that is not how to do it.

Jordan Baker, in The Great Gatsby, explains to Nick Carraway that a bad driver is only dangerous when they meet another bad driver, so Ruth never lets him see her doubt.

On their way to his house last night, she watched him driving, his eyes straight ahead and unaware of how she consumed him with her own. The window was down a crack; a cool night air whispered in. The sun had set so recently the sky was still blue. She watched his hand on the wheel, knuckles prominent, thick short fingers. She admired the flatness of his belly, the curve of his thighs in denim. She noticed his arm, skinny and pale and freckle-covered from shoulder to elbow, adorably and impossibly young, a little boy’s arm; and the way the thick black hair started just beneath the elbow and covered his forearms in a grown-up, manly way, and she loved him for being both at once. She stared again at his hands, wide square fingernails, for a long time, tiny bones moving as his fingers twitched. He had a freckle on his right thumb, just above the thumbnail. A vein was visible in the L-shape from pointer to thumb. It beat with a steady rhythm, predictable, traceable.

If he caught her staring, would he smile back, put his hand on her leg? Or turn away? She looked at his face, what she could see of his eyes from this angle. Every time he blinked, she reminded herself not to. For added steadiness, she held her breath even as his leg shook. The question she will never ask was on her tongue, but she bit it. She loved him for his yes. She loved him, still, for and despite his no. She loved him through his maybe.

These are the things she can no longer do, now that she’s not a virgin: Win a game of “Never Have I Ever”; be offered as sacrifice to a heathen god; live through a horror movie; tame a unicorn.

He didn’t speak about what they’d done when he got out of the shower. On her way home, she tries to imagine what it will feel like when he apologizes, turns to her with a face full of guilt. When he says, We shouldn’t have done that, and she feels something inside her break. Shouldn’t she be the one to regret the loss of her own virginity? He hasn’t apologized—yet— but he did kiss her cheek, chastely, as she left, when less than twenty-four hours ago he’d been inside her. She wanted to hit him, or kiss him, or both.

But that is not how to do it.

Two years ago, as a high school graduation trip, Ruth visited Grace in Tanzania, where she was interning with anthropologists studying the Maasai tribe. What Ruth remembers most from her visit is the bus ride from the airport. There was a herd of goats, not uncommonly, crossing the street ahead of them. The bus driver did not stop. The herd was halfway across the road when the vehicle drew near, and some of those in front darted forward, bleating, arriving at the other side in safety. Still others, near the back, turned and galloped to the side they’d just come from to wait until the way was clear.

One little goat did neither. Ruth saw it all from the front passenger seat, looking down at him through the windshield. He took three steps in the direction the first few goats had gone, then realized his other friends hadn’t followed, they’d turned, and so he took two steps back that way after them. He was orange and white, two tiny horns like flower buds just starting to peek through his head. He lifted one leg, small brown hoof at the end of it. He sidestepped right, left, and maybe before he even knew it, the bus was upon him. That was not how to do it.

There was a bump-bump of wheels leaving and returning to the road, once, twice. She saw tufts of orange hair blow away in the wind as the driver put two hands on the wheel and his foot on the pedal, eyes forward as he kept it steady. He never stopped, didn’t even slow down. That, she thought, was how to do it.


Samantha Edmonds is a creative writing graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Pleiades, Midwestern Gothic, SFWP Quarterly, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @sam_edmonds122.

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