69 was at the top of the list, which, in truth, Emma found a bit vanilla. But she and Robert had made the decision to create it together, and so when he approached her one evening after dinner, the list clenched tight in hand, a boyish grin on his face, and said, "Are you sure you're okay with this?" she said in return, "Yes, I'm okay with this."
Emma was in the kitchen drying their dishes with a tea towel, and she nodded and smiled back at her husband as she spoke, nodded and smiled back, hoping her smile conveyed a glimmer of the girl next door. She slung the towel over one shoulder, took the list from him, and marked a red X next to 69 before folding the paper in half and sticking it to the refrigerator with a magnet that was shaped like a chorus line of dancing carrots.
"I think this will help us," Robert said. He averted his green eyes and tapped an index finger on the dancing carrots. "Don't you think it'll help?"
Emma grabbed his hand and, still nodding and still smiling, said, "Yes, it'll help. I think the list will help."
As she led him to the living room, Emma had the sudden realization, the obvious realization, really, that Robert had never done 69 before, not with her, not with anyone, had probably never thought about doing it before the list. He was a Methodist, after all. She refrained from telling him about a certain spring break in high school when she and Ernest Collins had secured the number in the backseat of his parents' new Buick. Funny, but Emma had forgotten about Ernest Collins until that moment. Back then, at fifteen, she knew, just as she knew now, that 69 was not something a person enjoyed doing. No, it was something you did simply so you could say you had done it, a sexual rite of passage of sorts, and once accomplished there was no reason to do it again. You did it so you could gossip about it with your girlfriends while smoking a joint under the bleachers during a varsity baseball game. You told them how awkward the whole thing was, how anxious you were about jaw placement and gag reflex, how your knee kept knocking the floorboard of Ernest's parents' new Buick, and how after a few minutes you just wanted it to be over.
But 69 was the first thing Robert had written on the list, in his small, neat lettering, and he had seemed so eager to get started, so eager and so certain that the list was going to save their marriage, and so in front of their Pottery Barn sofa, Emma dropped first the tea towel and then her clothes onto the woven rug. She wasn't wearing sexy underwear that day and hadn't shaved her legs, but Robert didn't seem to mind.
Once again, her knee kept knocking the floor, and the entire time she found herself wondering whatever happened to Ernest Collins.
Sex on the Beach
In bold, boxy letters, Emma had written Sex on the Beach on the list because she knew her parents had done that back when they were still married and still happy, back when the three of them were rubber tramps on the road. Somewhere along the Oregon coast the summer Emma turned six, her parents had parked on the soft shoulder by the ocean and set up camp, leaving Emma alone in the RV. She could hear moans coming from outside, guttural moans that rose above the crashing waves, above the howling wind, and in her warm bed, Emma clung to her teddy bear. She fell asleep before her parents came back into the RV, and the next morning when she woke up there was sand, so much sand on the floor.
"I heard an animal last night," she said as her mother stirred scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet over an open fire on the beach.
"Outside. I was scared for you and Daddy."
"The only animal last night was your father." Her mother smiled and forked up a bite of egg from the skillet. "You'll understand when you're older." A fleck of yolk gripped her lower lip.
But Emma's father had left after that summer, left first to work on a fishing boat in Alaska and then later to become nothing more than a signature on a child-support check, and her mother never got around to explaining anything else about that night. She must have forgotten, though Emma didn't. Her mother's next husband, the second of four, wore a suit and tie and had never gone camping. He preferred five-star hotels to rogue campsites, and so Emma's mother came to prefer these things as well. She got expensive highlights and liposuction and began organizing charity fundraisers and didn't have time to spend answering the many questions of her inquisitive daughter.
Emma only figured out what her parents had been doing from the movies. But in the movies, whenever the characters had sex on the beach, there were always perfect waves that danced over perfectly sculpted bodies in harmony with a perfect score, waves that magically avoided choking or blinding anyone. She read somewhere that filmmakers used a special type of sand that didn't stick to human skin.
In reality, on a deserted beach with Robert, the sun low on an unseasonably warm afternoon, Emma kept getting water in her eyes, and there was so much sand. Sand that made its way into nooks and crannies she didn't before realize existed.
"I'm sorry," Robert said. They were lying naked on the beach, sand glazed over every inch of their bodies. He tried to brush a layer of sand from Emma's stomach, but unlike the movies, it adhered to her skin like glue. "I screwed up. I should have remembered to bring a blanket."
Emma agreed that he, rather that they, should have brought a blanket. It was sort of obvious. But she also understood that sometimes the most obvious thing was the first thing a person overlooked. She took Robert's hand, gently, and said, "It's fine. It's only sand. It'll wash off in the shower. Let's try again." Emma shifted so that she was on her back and spread her legs, feeling grit burrow deep in her ass crack. Robert hovered above her on his hands and knees before lowering himself, entering her. She watched as the horizon swallowed the sun.
Watch a Porno
The XXX section in their corner video store was stationed next to the children's movies. As Emma and Robert passed through the black curtain that led to the adult videos, she avoided making eye contact with a mother who was holding up two Disney cartoons, the first featuring a pink princess and the second a blue princess.
Behind the curtain, Emma paused to look at a copy of A Clockwork Orgy. "I read a study that found many lesbians enjoy watching gay male porn," she said to Robert. "Isn't that interesting?"
"There's a study on lesbian porn-watching habits?"
"There's a study for everything."
Robert's brow furrowed as he inspected the back of a VHS case. "Our parents never did stuff like this."
"Yes, they did. Mine hooked up a VCR in the RV. One night I woke up, and they were watching a porno. It was from the mid-70s, back when everyone had body hair and bellies. The man was enormous. That's what I remember the most. His penis. I had seen my dad naked before, so I knew what penises were. Nakedness is nothing when you're crammed in an RV. But this guy was big. I mean, as big as my forearm." Emma held out her arm, and Robert spanned it with his thumb and index finger while she continued talking. "And my parents, they were naked, too. My father had my mother bent over the dinette table, her face and breasts smashed against the same surface where we'd be eating cereal in a few hours, and as the man in the movie came, my father came too."
Robert was still holding Emma's forearm. She watched as he focused on a wire rack that displayed the Dirty Debutantes series. He said, "Well, my parents never did stuff like that."
"I'm sure they did. They just hid it from you."
"They're Methodists. I don't think my dad ever read Playboy."
"Even Methodists have sex. Everyone's parents have sex."
"Not like this, they didn't." Robert held out a copy of Mr. Holland's Anus.
They settled on Edward Penishands because they both had seen and loved the original, that is, the non-porn version of the movie, and they both were amused by the concept of a man with penises for hands.
"Let's get this." Robert showed her the video. "It looks funny."
Emma studied the back cover. "Question. Would you rather have penis hands or scissor hands?"
"I'd rather have hand-hands."
Robert took the movie back from her. He shrugged. "I don't know what else to say about something that's never going to happen."
"It's hypothetical," Emma said. "With scissors for hands, you'd be worried about hurting others, about hurting yourself. But in the movie, Edward found ways to use his hands for good. He created beauty. He made art. With penises for hands, you wouldn't kill people, but everyone you'd encounter would want you to fuck them. I mean, I get it. Who wouldn't want to fuck the guy with penis hands?"
"I still would rather have hand-hands," Robert said.
"How about a compromise? One of each?"
It wasn't like Robert had never watched porn before. Emma knew he had. Of course he had. She had come home after brunch one Sunday afternoon and found him on the sofa with one hand down the front of his boxers watching a staticky Debbie Does Dallas. A classic. She started to move toward him when he saw her. He immediately pulled his hand out of his shorts and pushed Stop on the VCR remote.
"You're back," he said.
In the video store, Emma felt optimistic that things were starting to change. The list was opening up her reserved husband to new ideas and new experiences, and as a result it was bringing them closer. That was, after all, the entire purpose of the list. "I'd rather you have hand-hands, too," she said. "You're right. This does look funny." She kissed him on the cheek and made her way to the register.
They picked up a six pack on their way home and ordered a pizza to eat while they watched the movie. And Robert was right. It was funny. They hadn't laughed that hard together in a long time. And while Edward Penishands did turn her on, that is, while it turned them both on, when they made love that night, it felt like something more than porn induced, like the truest of connections, and for a moment, Emma remembered why they had fallen in love in the first place, why they had gotten married. For a moment, it felt like the list was working. It was working. For a moment, it felt like everything was going to be okay.
Emma surprised Robert one evening when she greeted him in their bedroom wearing a Catholic schoolgirl's uniform, an easy choice, maybe even a bit predictable--a push-up bra under a low-cut white blouse, her round, bare bottom peeking out from beneath a short-pleated skirt. She handed him a leather flogger.
"I've been a bad, bad girl," she said, trying to make her voice high-pitched and airy as she got down on her hands and knees on their bed.
Robert blushed as he held the flogger in his hands. "What do you want me to do with this?"
"You tell me." Emma raised her bottom in the air. "What do naughty, naughty schoolgirls deserve?" She felt the flaccid flick of the flogger's tails against her backside, but then Robert dropped it on the hardwood floor.
"I can't get into this." He sat on the edge of their bed. "It feels weird."
Emma rested on her knees and held her arms out to him. She said, "It's only a fantasy."
"Yeah, but I have a niece in middle school. And you're a teacher. Doesn't that creep you out?"
"Fantasies aren't real. They're healthy."
But Robert was frowning now. Emma watched as his eyes followed the trail of family photos on their bedroom wall. He folded his hands in his lap, and so she leaned up against him and said, "We can try something else. Dirty French maid? Does that sound good?"
When Robert agreed, Emma threw together an impromptu maid's uniform from a witch's costume she had worn the previous Halloween. And while that fantasy seemed to excite Robert--he apparently had no qualms about watching his wife use a feather duster in the corners of their bedroom while wearing a haphazardly-cut black polyester dress and strappy lingerie--as they were making love, Emma found herself fantasizing about being his naughty Catholic schoolgirl and he, her knowing teacher.
In a small booth at the strip club, Emma sat on Robert's lap while two women clad in nothing but pink body paint and sequined G-strings danced behind a glass barrier. When one of the women dropped to her knees and lowered the other woman's G-string with her teeth, Emma ran her hand over Robert's crotch.
"Do you like that?" She fiddled with his zippered fly. "Two women together?"
"Yeah, it's sexy." But then he covered her hand with his and said, "Do you think that paint is toxic?"
After the peep show ended, they circled the club, Robert clutching her hand in his firm grip. Emma exchanged glances with the strippers, keen glances, their eyebrows raised, lips curled in union, as if she and the strippers shared a silent secret from the men in the club. Emma felt a burst of sexual power, a power she'd always known she possessed, but one she'd never fully appreciated until that moment. It made her feel like she could entice Robert to do anything.
She pulled him into an embrace and nibbled at his ear. "Let's get a private room," she said.
And so, while Robert sat on a leather ottoman, Emma danced with a stripper who called herself Destiny. Destiny had a red gemstone on one of her front teeth, and as the red lights in the room bounced against her flawless skin, her entire body seemed to glow like a ruby alien. Emma pressed her small, clothed breasts against Destiny's naked implants. She found herself getting aroused.
"You know, we're not supposed to do this," Destiny said while she unbuttoned Emma's shirt and lifted up her bra, "but for two hundred bucks I'll go home with you two tonight." She squeezed Emma's left nipple between her thumb and index finger.
Emma turned toward Robert who was still seated on the leather ottoman. She wanted to say something encouraging about Destiny's offer, something to signal she was up for the adventure, but he looked uncomfortable, his arms and legs crossed, his lips pressed in a taut seam. He stood and placed another twenty on the ottoman cushion.
"No thank you," he said to Destiny. "We think that's enough." And then to Emma, "I'll meet you outside," before he left the room.
Destiny tucked the twenty into her G-string. "Too bad," she said.
Emma pulled her bra back down and buttoned her shirt. She couldn't think of what else to say except, "He can't help it. He's a Methodist." Her nipples were still hard.
Destiny nodded. "Understood. My parents made me get baptized for a second time when I turned thirteen. Clearly that backfired." Then she slid her hand down the front of Emma's skirt. She said, "You, though. I can tell you're wide open."
Emma sucked in a breath as she felt one of Destiny's fingers slip inside her. The two of them started kissing, Emma's tongue flicking across the red gemstone. Destiny's mouth tasted like Grand Marnier and menthol cigarettes. She pulled her hand out from Emma's skirt, and sucked the tip of her index finger. "Yes, too, too bad," she said again, and went back to the club's main room.
Out front, Robert was leaning against a utility pole. "What took you so long?" he said.
Emma checked to make sure her shirt was tucked in, that every button was properly fastened. "It's nothing. Destiny wanted the name of my hairdresser."
"Your hairdresser?" Robert held out a hand to flag down a cab.
"Hers moved to Nebraska."
A cab pulled up, and Robert went to open the door for her. As she stepped inside, Emma touched her fingers to her mouth, still feeling the heat from Destiny's lips on her own.
Emma wanted to make this work. She sincerely believed it would work, that she and Robert could save their marriage, if they just kept trying. And so, in preparation for the next item on the list, she took a day off from work. She got a mani-pedi, waxed, plucked, and polished, her skin rubbed down with a coffee body scrub to help target unwanted cellulite.
Later, her skin tingling from the scrub, Emma cleaned the apartment, paying special attention to the bathroom. She squeezed mildew remover on the tiles and mopped the floor. She spread a new shower mat in the tub to prevent slippage. She made sure the towels were clean and fluffy and set a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums on the back of the toilet, thinking they made the small, dark bathroom seem brighter.
While she cleaned, Emma thought about the first time she had shower sex, with Cristina, a woman who lived down the hall in her dormitory. They had been flirting with each other since the start of the semester, brushing shoulders in the cafeteria and exchanging quiet gazes when they picked up their mail.
Then one night, the night of the homecoming game, as their classmates filed into the dorm hallway wearing face paint and university sweatshirts, Cristina knocked on Emma's open door and said, "You know, I hate football." She was leaning against the doorway dressed in a tank top and tiny, tiny shorts.
"I hate football, too," Emma said.
The two of them stayed in, sharing a bottle of wine, and when Cristina traced an index finger along Emma's hip and tugged at the waistband of her cutoffs, Emma took her by the hand and led her to the shower room. Cristina's lips were plump and soft against Emma's. Her dewy skin smelled like lavender, her hair like roses. As they made love, Emma could hear the distant cheers of her classmates.
For seven weeks the two of them would meet there late at night, after the library had closed, after the bars had let out. They'd turn on every showerhead, letting the room fill with steam, and take turns soaping each other's bodies with a pink puff and Cristina's lavender body wash.
In her sculpture class, for her final project that semester, Emma made a statue of Cristina, her high breasts, her viola curves. She said to herself that this, yes, this could be love. Until one night at the beginning of the spring semester, when Cristina told her that she had met someone, the TA of her physics class.
"I know it's early," she said, "but I think he's the one."
From then on, the two of them would only wave and nod when they passed in the hall, as if they barely knew each other. The boyfriend was always with Cristina, his hand firm on her lower back. Then, in the middle of the semester, Cristina moved out of her dorm room and into her boyfriend's apartment, and Emma never saw her again.
After Cristina there had been, on occasion, other women. Flings with a Polly, Jessa, and Tiffany, women who, after a night spent reviewing chemistry formulas or Shakespearean sonnets, would put on Ani DiFranco and hand Emma a beer. They'd sit on the bed, listening to music and drinking, until their thighs began to touch, and then they'd lean in for a kiss, hesitant tongues slinking into hungry mouths.
For many of these women, Emma suspected this was mere curiosity, or more likely the woman's boyfriend's curiosity. Often the boyfriend would join them, the three of them cramped and sweaty on the narrow dorm bed. Emma sensed that the woman, whether Polly, Jessa, or Tiffany, was succumbing to the boyfriend's aspiration to have sex with two women at the same time. These nights, these ménages à trois, Emma also enjoyed, but she preferred it when it was just her and the woman alone in the room, and she wasn't the guest star in someone else's boyfriend's fantasy. It wasn't curiosity; being with these women was as natural to her as being with a man.
Emma never told Robert any of this. It felt like the story of another life, of another person entirely. When they first started dating, after they'd been having sex for a few weeks and things were getting serious, he asked her if she had ever slept with a woman. Emma shrugged and said, "Oh, you know. One drunken night in college. I woke up in bed with a friend. I don't think anything happened."
The week they moved into the apartment, she unpacked the statue of Cristina and placed it on a bookshelf in the living room, and when Robert picked it up and said, "Who's this?" Emma responded, "She's nobody. She was a model for an art class. I got an A."
Sex with Robert in their small bathroom was more challenging than in the dormitory's expansive shower room. If anything, Emma had to admit things got a bit clumsy. The length of their limbs seemed to grow every time they repositioned themselves in the tub, each struggling to maintain balance without knocking the other over. It felt a bit like a square peg, round hole situation, though Emma knew that wasn't really the case. They dealt with the awkwardness by laughing and wound up having sex on their sparkling bathroom floor.
After, as they lay together on a pile of damp towels, Robert said, "You cleaned."
"I cleaned," Emma said. "I'm glad you noticed." Her eyes wandered to the bunch of chrysanthemums. They gleamed like captured sunlight in their glass vase.
Robert was looking at the tangle of neckties Emma had scattered on their bed. "Are you sure about this?" he said.
"Yes, I'm sure. There's pleasure in pain, pain in pleasure," Emma said.
"I don't know. I read that somewhere."
"How exactly does this work?" Robert lifted up an assortment of ties like he was sorting through a bargain bin. "Do we take turns or something?"
Emma pushed him back onto the mattress. The ties in his hands rained to the floor. She raised Robert's arms over his head and fastened them to their metal bed frame with a tie that was decorated with yellow rubber duckies and said, "Just remember the safe word is Aardvark."
"If it gets too much for you, just say, Aardvark. But don't worry. You can trust me."
Emma sliced up the center of Robert's t-shirt with a pair of sewing scissors. She tugged off his trousers and straddled him, then clawed her fingernails down his exposed torso, not hard enough to draw blood but still leaving behind white tracks in his skin. She watched as her husband's green eyes widened in fear and excitement.
She remembered one Christmas Eve in Venice with Lorenzo, no last name, just Lorenzo. He had been her waiter at the trattoria where she had eaten dinner. Emma was the only customer that night, and Lorenzo kept filling her glass with prosecco, even after she had finished her inky risotto and tiramisu. Ti prego, resta; ti prego, resta, he kept saying. He knelt behind her chair. His lips brushed the back of her neck. His hand snaked down the front of her blouse.
When the trattoria closed, Emma and Lorenzo walked together through the windy streets of Venice, back to her hotel room where Lorenzo lit a row of votive candles on the windowsill and then used a long silk scarf to tie her to the bedposts of the room's single bed before he blindfolded and gagged her. Emma remembered the erotic sting of melted candle wax as it spilled onto her abdomen. Outside the church bells rang and rang and rang.
Afterward, she and Lorenzo sat naked on the bed refueling themselves with potato chips and warm soda while watching Little House on the Prairie dubbed in Italian. Emma remembered how she'd rubbed her sore wrists, how she'd touched the tender red blotches on her belly, impatient for the second round.
Now, almost ten years later, Robert slept, content from their night of light bondage. He lay on his side, body curled like a child, his breath calm, even. In the moonlight, Emma could see the thin tracks from her fingernails on his skin. As she watched him, she had a thought. Maybe this wasn't only about sex. Maybe there was something more, something the list couldn't resolve. She traced her index finger along the jagged scratches on Robert's bare shoulder, pausing at a place where she had, in fact, drawn blood. She closed her eyes and pressed her lips to the spot.
No, it was working. It had to work.
Emma put on her robe and went into the living room and sat in the oversized armchair under the bay window. The list was on the end table. She took it in her hands. She wondered if life itself was an extensive list, perhaps a string of certain things you wanted to accomplish, but she suspected more often than not most items were things you were supposed to accomplish—Thirty Things Every Empowered Woman MUST DO Before She Turns Thirty! Forty Before Your Forties! A Big Bucket List Before The Big 5-0!—things to do that you would cross off one by one until there was nothing left on your list to do but die.
Emma contemplated where she was on her list, whether she was where she was supposed to be. She wondered if there was a way to backtrack, to reassess, to revise life's list, to make it your own. She wondered if there was room for improvisation, for a life lived by your own needs and expectations.
But still, she wanted to make this work. She truly wanted to make it work with Robert. Emma stared at the list they had made together, at the row of X's and the items left unchecked. "Aardvark," she said to the empty room.
Emma decided to skip over Chocolate Syrup. It was one of Robert's contributions to the list, but she reasoned they were well beyond such innocent entries. Besides, she knew that no matter how many old sheets she put down on the mattress, chocolate syrup in bed would become nothing more than an endless mess that she'd never be able to fully clean up. And even though it wasn't always perfect, the list seemed to be working. Robert was walking with a swagger Emma had never before seen in him. He was smiling more. He was exercising. He had even lost five pounds. Yes, the list was working.
And so, at a friend's wedding, Emma led Robert into the janitor's closet just down the hall from the reception.
She closed the closet door with a click. "Fuck me," she said. "Fuck me hard."
"What?" Robert said.
"I added it this morning." Emma unzipped his pants and hiked up her dress. She hadn't worn underwear for the occasion.
Robert's hands danced up her backside. She could tell he was turned on, yet he said, "Someone's going to walk in on us. We're going to get caught."
Emma turned around and stood with her legs spread-eagle. She placed both hands on the wall. The wall was sticky, and she wondered if it was some sort of cleaning product residue or if others had snuck away into this very closet for a quickie during an accounting conference or someone's parents' fiftieth anniversary party. She said, "The thrill of getting caught is kind of the point, isn't it?" She could hear the beat of music through the closet door.
Robert finished in three thrusts and a series of machine gun-like grunts, reminiscent of the boy Emma had lost her virginity to at a neighborhood pool party the summer before ninth grade, on the worn boards of a neighbor's treehouse with a high school senior she had met earlier that day at the party. A friend's older sister had told Emma that it was best to not start high school still a virgin, and so after downing three strawberry wine coolers she followed the boy to the treehouse, not even sure of his name. The whole experience from kissing to undressing to his, not her, orgasm took less than five minutes, and then the boy never talked to her again. But he did talk about her with his friends and half the boys in the senior class.
By the time Emma arrived in high school she already had a reputation as a slut, a cliché, even though she only had sex with the boy from the party and previously kissed two others. It was a label she fought to get rid of, not because she didn't like having sex, even having sex with multiple partners. No, it was the label she had a problem with, the judgment.
In the janitor's closet at the wedding reception, Emma could hear the opening notes of "Y.M.C.A.," could hear the elevated voices. She knew the guests had all filed onto the dance floor, their arms raised in unison. She felt cool silk slide across her bare skin as Robert pulled her dress back down. "We should go. We don't want to miss the cake," he said, his fingers lingering on the hem of her blue silk.
The day Robert came home with a magenta-colored bag containing a silicone inflatable butt plug and a giant bottle of cotton candy flavored lubricant Emma realized she had become bored with the list, with its defined sense of purpose and lack of spontaneity. They weren't making love at all except for the list, the sole objective being the checking off of another item so they could move forward to the next.
"Let's order Chinese food instead," she said.
Robert frowned. "I thought you wanted to do this," he said. "You told me the list would save our marriage."
"It will. I know it will." Emma flipped through the scattering of delivery menus on the telephone table in the entryway. "But we have five episodes of The Sopranos to catch up on. Maybe we should give the list a breather."
Robert didn't argue with her. He put the bag with the silicone inflatable butt plug and the cotton candy-flavored lubricant in the coat closet, and they sat on the sofa watching The Sopranos and eating Chinese food directly out of cardboard cartons.
"You have something on your chin," Robert said after the last episode ended. He reached for the remote and turned on The Daily Show.
Emma swiped at her face with the back of her hand. "Did I get it?"
He tapped her chin with a chopstick, his eyes never leaving the television screen. "Other side."
"Oh. Okay. Thanks."
Emma gathered up the leftover Chinese food cartons and carried them to the kitchen. She wasn't worried. She was just tired. They had hit a bit of a rough patch. They were working through it. The list was helping them work through it. No, she wasn't worried.
But at the same time, she thought of her mother. Her mother had always told Emma she needed to lean into the man. She had told her that eventually all men would expect her to lean in. Her mother, Emma knew, was quite familiar with the concept of leaning in. With Emma's father she had been a hippie with unshaved armpits and a binder full of tempeh recipes; with her second husband she had transformed into the perfect trophy wife who wore designer clothes and got weekly blowouts; with her third husband she had become a vocal member of the PTA, getting a bob and driving a minivan; and with her current husband she had morphed into a staunch NRA supporter who once got arrested at a Second Amendment rally.
Emma knew she could never be like that. No. She was who she was, who she was, who she was. She and Robert made their own rules. They leaned in together. The list was on the kitchen table, beneath the half-empty cartons of Chinese food, and she picked it up and ran a finger down the long row of X's.
She went back into the living room. "Are you about ready for bed?" she said.
"In a bit," Robert said. "I'm going to finish watching this.
"I guess I'm turning in then."
Emma couldn't sleep that night, and she sensed Robert wasn't sleeping either. They didn't have sex, though, but instead lay side-by-side in bed, not touching, in fact barely moving at all.
I Want to Watch You
A week with no sex later, Robert approached Emma after breakfast, grinning that familiar boyish grin. "I have an idea," he said. "I added something new, something exciting. I think it'll help." He held out the list. The paper had become crinkled over time, and a brown blotch spread across one corner. Emma suspected it was tea or soy sauce. Her eyes skimmed to the bottom of the page. In purple ink Robert had scrawled, I want to watch you.
"Watch me?" Emma stirred Sweet'N Low into her to-go cup of coffee. "Watch me what? Masturbate?"
"No. I want to watch you." Robert said. "There's this guy at my gym. I want to watch you with him. I already talked to him about it."
She paused. "What do you mean you already talked to him about it?"
"I showed him your picture. He's into the idea. He thinks you're sexy."
Emma wasn't sure how to react. True, she had enjoyed threesomes in the past. But she never thought Robert would initiate such a thing; he seemed so bound by convention. The idea was a little unnerving, yet Emma wanted to make this work. She truly did. Sincerely. She twisted the lid on her to-go cup and said, "Okay. If you think it'll help."
"Yes, it'll help," Robert said.
Robert invited the guy over to their apartment that Friday night. When Emma opened the door, the guy greeted her with kisses on both cheeks. "Marcel," he said. He was holding a bottle of gin.
Marcel had a subtle accent, French, she guessed, and a chiseled jawline, black wavy hair, and dark eyes. Emma was surprised. She had assumed he'd be cute but flabby, the kind of guy she'd had sex with in her twenties after two-too-many drinks, a guy she'd picked up outside a bar after last call on a winter night, blurry-eyed and standards lowered, during that frantic scramble to hook up with whomever else was left cold, alone, and horny. But Marcel was handsome, sexy even, better looking than she'd expected, and Emma found herself wondering why Robert had picked such a good-looking guy when he himself was, she had to admit, a bit average, a bit ordinary.
Robert made martinis with Marcel's bottle of gin, the three of them seated in an obtuse triangle in the living room, Emma on the sofa, Marcel in the armchair, Robert in a desk chair by the bookshelves. They talked about the warm weather, the basketball playoffs, their favorite childhood movies. Then, after a second round of martinis, Marcel stood and crossed the room. He sat next to Emma on the sofa and slid one hand under her floral dress, teasing her inner thighs with his fingertips.
"What are you up for?" he said.
"I'm up for anything." Emma widened her legs to Marcel. Then to Robert, still sitting in the desk chair she said, "What about you, honey?"
Robert caught her stare with his green eyes. He smiled and said, "Anything goes, Em."
"Anything goes," she said to Marcel.
Marcel didn't require direction. He took the lead. Emma could tell he was an experienced lover, adventurous, attentive. Over the course of the night, she and Marcel had sex in every room in the apartment and progressed through half the items on the list: porno; Catholic schoolgirl; light bondage; shower sex; silicone inflatable butt plug; even chocolate syrup, which, as predicted, stained the sheets to the point that Emma had to throw them away.
But even so, their lovemaking lacked intimacy. It felt mechanical, scripted, like they were two actors blocking an adult film. Put your mouth here; bend over here; touch yourself here; insert two fingers here and here and here. Even Emma's orgasms, which later, as she relayed the saga to her girlfriends over bottomless mimosas, she had to admit were plentiful, felt rehearsed and inadequate.
As the sun started to rise, the walls of the apartment took on a faint, pink sheen. Emma and Marcel landed back in the living room, landed back on 69, and at last she found her eyes drifting toward her audience. Expecting Robert to be captivated, even aroused, jeans and boxers bunched around his ankles, hand wrapped around himself, ready to join in the merriment, Emma was surprised to find him sitting in the armchair, fully clothed, simply staring out the bay window. She felt her knee bump the hardwood floor.
"Aardvark," she said between pursed lips. "Aardvark."
But Robert's eyes kept staring out the window, kept staring at a budding cherry blossom tree, at a house sparrow perched high on its branches, staring down at the cranky grumble of a bus as it passed by on the street below.
Emma was perplexed, not yet able to understand what she was seeing. Though a more perceptive eye might have recognized in his stare that Robert had made a poignant discovery, that in his mind he had already boarded the bus without her, boarded it hoping it would take him anywhere but that pink-hued room.
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