Just Sex

The shoulders get me first. Barely concealed beneath his tight, black shirt, and as my gaze travels down, I’m not disappointed—he has the kind of body a guy has to be born with. The kind that looks good in jeans, even better without.

He puts his lips to my ear and says, “Don’t worry. I turned eighteen last week.”

I’m pulling him into his room. Shut the door, flip the lock. He presses me to a wall, fingers to my collarbone, then slides his hand around my neck, and I wind a leg around his and draw him to me. I kiss him, want to absorb him, see how much I can take before I wake up.

He’s at that sex-in-cramped-closets-and-bathrooms age. Good, though not the foreign affair I’d had in mind—not that I’d had an affair in mind, not exactly anyway. His hands slip beneath my butt and lift, his tongue between my lips, says, “Shh.”

And he throws me on the bed, where I sink into the white down comforter and dissolve. The force of us, the ease of our movements—every joint and tendon sliding to bend and grasp just right. We say nothing, but our blood hums.

Damn, I’ve missed this, and as soon as I think it, a pang of guilt, quick and sharp, hits me like a poker to the ribs. It’s not that Martin is a sub-par lover, but this kid—Anthony—he’s a current on my skin, my muscles all shivers and pulsing, all animal urge to bed him down.

We roll, and I’m up on my knees, peel off my dress. He unhooks my bra, and I breathe deep and push him down. I lick his throat—he tastes like sin.

My eyes snap open, and I waver.

Stop.

But before I can say it, he lifts my chin and takes my mouth, and for minutes or maybe hours, I forget to think.

 

# # #

 

I peek at him through my fingers. He’s grinning, slumped beside me. A silver crucifix lolls on his chest, catches a glint from the bedside lamp as he shifts.

“I’m a good Catholic boy,” he said when we met, seven whole hours ago. Spiky brown hair, brown eyes to match.

Everything has stilled—the curtains, the rush of cars, our breathing. It’s my first night in Prague. I massage the bare finger where my engagement ring was, seven whole hours and fifteen minutes ago.

Anthony reaches over and pats my hip. I glance at him, manage a smile. In the way the story should go—in the way I will tell it later—it began with the removal of the ring. But to be honest, it began long before I decided to go to Prague with Vanessa, before the ring even existed.

He’s snoring softly, one arm flung above his head. I ease out of the sheets and bend to collect my clothes, but my knees buckle, and I crouch by the nightstand like a gargoyle.

What, I think, did I just do? I drop my head. You’re practically a married woman. Get dressed, go back to your room, and it’ll be like this never happened.

The dress is balled up by the closet. I tug it on, pick up the stilettos, stuff bra and panties in my purse, and slip out the door. Speed-walk down the too-bright hall and up the stairs, oddly wide and grand for a back-of-the-building staircase.

Once in my room—Vanessa is still out—I duck under the covers and try, try, try not to think about Martin, at home in Boston, teaching two summer classes so he can have July and August off. So we can take a honeymoon, get settled, glide into our new life.

Tastes like sin.

I smash Vanessa’s pillow into my face, pretend I don’t still feel the tug of Anthony’s mouth—and so help me God, my lips curl into a smile. If he were to breathe me in, I would smell of Clinique Happy and hunger.

 

# # #

 

The next morning, Vanessa and I walk to a café down the street, the name of which I can’t pronounce, and take a table outside. I shiver in my cotton skirt and blouse, thin sweater more for decoration.

Vanessa stares at me over our tiny, European cups of coffee. “You’re joking, right?”

I tip the sugar dispenser over my cup, watch a rush of white disappear into the bitter dark. I shake my head.

She slaps the table and says, “Jade Campbell, back in action.”

I thunk down the sugar. “Why’d you take me to that club?”

“Hey, I’m not the one who just boinked the man-god.”

“Shut it,” I say. “People do speak English here, you know.”

She laughs. “What’s a little romp in a foreign country?” She leans in. “It’s nice to see you having fun.”

I reach over, grab her wrist. “I’m getting married in three weeks.”

She shrugs. “I’m not my best friend’s keeper.”

“No, just my maid of honor.” I release her and cross my arms.

A group of girls about our age ambles across the cobblestone street, laughing. No big deal. And maybe it isn’t. I’m young, on vacation. I sit up straight, stretch my arms overhead, feel the pull in my joints, and yes, there it is—a memory of Martin, whacking all excuses out of reach.

We met in Mugar, Boston University’s main library: fluorescent, musty, and in a word, hideous. Not a place I liked to linger. I was up on my toes, straining for a book on the highest shelf, handy stepladder nowhere in sight. Like a fairy godfather, Martin appeared with his kind, white smile, asked what book I needed, got it down. Martin. Blond-haired, clean-shaven Martin Sanders. A Ph.D. student then, five years my senior, as good as screamed “mature, committed relationship,” before I even knew his name.

My first years of college had been a black pearl string of affairs, the last with a married neighbor, before I’d forced myself into celibacy. For my health, for my sanity—I don’t know which. I moved out of the high-rise coed dorm and into a basement apartment with two girls from my Origins of Civilization study group. And that’s what we did: studied, occasionally went for ice cream. I met Martin after thirteen months of this, my sex drive simultaneously numb and clawing up the walls.

This time, it’ll be different. I repeated that to myself while getting ready for our first date, while we walked to the restaurant, while I pretended to read the menu. During dinner, I knocked over the saltshaker three times, jerked away when he leaned in to kiss me goodnight. Sex, I knew—but dating? Relationships? I felt like a hockey player stumbling around a golf course: Hey guys, where’s the net?

All night, Martin looked at me like a little boy would a puzzle. He looked at me like that for months. Neither demure nor mysterious, I feared the day he would realize I was simply inept.

“Look,” Vanessa says.

I look at her.

“I know you love Martin,” she says. “But he never has to find out. Consider it a last hurrah before the life of wedded… whatever.” She waves the word off with a flick of her hand.

I say, “You’re a real moral compass, you know that?”

She smiles, places her elbows on the chair. “Where’s your ring?”

I open my mouth, but no words form.

The waitress brings our breakfast. Vanessa’s bratwurst swims in a pool of off-white cream, dark roll and tomato slices beside it. I stick with a plain croissant, a bowl of muesli, ignoring Vanessa’s “you’re not being adventurous” look. With a fork, she slices the sausage, dips it in cream, and takes a bite, as though she does this every day.

Vanessa was my freshman roommate, and I’m still struck by the ease with which she lives. Like everything’s just that easy. Martin’s like that, too, albeit in a much different way—put-together, never a raised voice or impatient sigh. I held out on him for six months, “the standard,” according to my new good-girl roommates, and he never pressured me. He didn’t say it, but I think he thought I was a virgin. And I didn’t correct him, didn’t so much as hint at the miles and miles between his assumption and the truth.

When we finally did it, he kept asking if I was comfortable, did I need a break? Awkward, but not bad, and nothing like Vanessa’s “going bare-assed down a metal slide” analogy. The longer you go without, the worse it gets, she’d warned in sing-song.

I tear off a corner of croissant and chew. This isn’t happening. I’m different now. I am Jade the Fiancée, soon to be Jade, Wife of Martin. I am not the black sheep—I am the lamb who’s so white, no one thinks it’s real.

“What are you thinking?” Vanessa says.

My knee hits the table, spilling coffee. “Nothing.” I dab the stains with a napkin.

She says, “It’s just sex, you know.”

 

# # #

 

Come evening, the city glows a surreal orange, the sun setting on a day of clouds and teasing, five-minute rainstorms, of ducking in and out of Czech glass shops, of muttering “mm-hmm” to Vanessa’s remarks and seeing nothing other than what I’ve done.

At night, Anthony and I tear into each other again.

I seek him out. I take Vanessa back to the club, where I lurk in clear view of the entrance. Slide him to the dance floor, hand up his shirt, make sure he can tell I’m not wearing a bra—I do everything but suggest we go back to the hotel. He takes care of that.

He kisses hard and makes no protest when my teeth catch, his flesh bulging between them. I work my way up his stomach, arms, neck. When I reach his mouth, the face startles me—Wrong, I think. All wrong, but his fingers trace a path inside my thighs and on up, and the thought wafts away like smoke in the wind.

I stay in his bed longer than I intend. When I walk into my room, Vanessa is on the floor, flipping through a Cosmo.

She says, “What’s that saying? ‘Screw me once, shame on you. Screw me twice, shame on me?’”

What happens after three times? I close the door and say, “It’s ‘fool.’ Not ‘screw.’”

“Right.” She turns a page. “And the third time’s a charm.”

I collapse on the bed. Ten minutes later, Vanessa’s beside me and fast asleep. I cup my hands over my nose and inhale, a perfumed wave of lust and sweat—a shadow blooms and fills my ribs, digs a deep pit I’ve known before.

Martin proposed in Mugar, kneeled in between the rows of floor-to-ceiling, book-clogged shelves. I understood then what people meant when they said the walls were closing in.

I shook my head, knocked out the thought.

“Martin,” I said, hands by my sides. “You don’t want to marry me.”

He laughed. “I don’t?”

“I’m not who you think I am.” I paused, couldn’t stop staring at that little black box. “This, what I’ve been doing.” I covered my face, took a breath.

He stood, slipped the box into his pants pocket. “I know this is scary, but you have to believe in us. In me.” He eased my hands off my face, took them in his, and said, “We’re good together, don’t you think?”

The knot in my gut tightened, scraped a catch in my throat. I nodded.

He smiled. “As for not knowing you, well, I don’t think that’s true.”

He kept my hands in one of his, reached the other into his pocket, and I heard a snap. Out came a princess cut diamond on a white gold band. The perfect ring.

“But if it is,” he said, and slid the ring onto my finger. “We have a lifetime to correct that.”

He kissed me. My brain ripped through my past, tallied all he didn’t know—it’d take about a lifetime to bring him up to speed. Somewhere inside me, I knew it wasn’t right, making the commitment with so many secrets.

But when his mouth left mine, I said, “Okay.” And nothing more.

I squirm out of bed and tear off the dress, throw it at the open suitcase, where it lands in a wrinkled heap. When I packed, I included one dress and my only pair of heels. One club, I told myself. I’ll go to one club, dance with one boy, and then come home and resume my life. Like baiting an addict—just one more hit, go out right, then you can give it up for good.

 

# # #

 

“The issue is simple,” Vanessa says, as we idle through the National Museum, stale, cold air blowing in from all sides. “This is a classic case of repression.”

“Shh,” I say.

We’re in the anthropological section. She moves to the next display—more skeletons—and speaks over her shoulder. “Your infidelity stems from an unresolved problem you have with Martin. Your relationship with him, or maybe even the one with yourself. A hidden desire buried deep in your subconscious, underneath layers of childhood trauma and the idealization of your father.”

The back of my neck prickles. Idealization. I wonder what that looks like. Not Dad in my teen years, performing his one-man show of ignoring my mom, my sister, and me, culminating in the grand finale of his suicide.

I’ve stopped moving. Vanessa pivots to face me.

She says, “You’re just working out your issues.”

I say, “Go buy another pashmina and leave me and my subconscious alone.”

I stomp off to a collection of skulls. I stare at them hard, like I’m studying their every crack and crevice. I can end everything now, I tell myself, and no one will get hurt.

Vanessa comes up and puts a hand on my shoulder.

“I need air,” I say, not waiting for a response before I head to the exit and push open the door. Barrel down the wide, traffic-clogged street, and into the cobblestone alleys of old town.

I wander without rhyme or direction. The sun’s out, but thunderheads hover, charging the air with static. It felt just like this that October, when my dad kicked off the L.A. fire season by engulfing himself and the neighboring hills in flames. I’ve never seen a blackened sky the same way again. Thank you, Vanessa, now I can’t get him out of my head.

Martin doesn’t know my father killed himself, just that he’s dead. Vanessa doesn’t even know. “Heart attack,” I told them both, and anyone else who asks. I figure it’s close enough to the truth—somewhere, his heart got twisted, changed him. He wasn’t going to win any father-of-the-year awards, but he cared about us. He had to. Only love can make a person that desperate.

I keep winding through the narrow lanes, pass jewelry shop upon jewelry shop, windows filled with rings, every type of precious stone. I put my naked hands in my pockets. Martin tells me he loves me every time we have sex. What if he was doing some student while I was here, thinking everything was fine?

I stop. Could he be? I shake my head and walk on. Martin would never, but it’s not as though I don’t deserve it.

The street opens in front of a cathedral, two-spire towers shrieking to pierce the clouds. I crane my neck, searching for gargoyles.

You have to quit this. He loves you.

Not only loves me, takes care of me. In the month before graduation, I panicked about finding employment. I’d majored in archaeology, having once harbored a deep conviction I’d become an Egyptologist. No future there, but Martin to the rescue—I had a job lined up a week later: assistant copy editor for a local, nothing paper.

“Now you don’t have to worry,” Martin said.

I remember thinking, I’ll never have to worry again.

I hit the river and make my way back down different roads to an open plaza, packed with outdoor cafés. Throngs of people fill the tables, and just as many meander around. I start to push into the crowd, and not halfway through, there’s Anthony—a bed’s-length away, eating with his friends.

Run.

Our eyes meet, and I go still. He smiles, says something to the guys that makes them turn to me in sync, then he stands and walks over. So close, I can see the freckles on the bridge of his nose.

“Check it out,” he says, and lifts a sleeve to show me a violet, scalloped-edged bruise.

“Oh, my God.” I reach up to touch it. “Did I do that?”

He nods. “You worked me over.”

Something about that mark, outdoors, in daylight, makes me see it the way a stranger might—painful, ugly, embarrassing. And then, I think, I am a stranger.

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

He shrugs, releases the sleeve, and steps even closer. “We’ll be at this club tonight called… Car-lovee Laz-nee?” He raises both eyebrows, like maybe I speak Czech and can help him out. I don’t. I shrug, too.

He pulls a crumpled map out of his back pocket, tears off a blank section, and asks for a pen. I dig into my purse and hand him one. He writes Karlovy Lazne on the paper and slides it into my palm.

“The receptionist at the hotel told us about it,” he says. “Ask her for directions.”

“I don’t know. I—”

He catches my mouth, holds me by the pull of lips alone. I fight my nails’ urge to scrape his skin.

“Try,” he says. He’s an inch from my face. “We’ll be there around 11:00.”

This is not okay. I say, “Okay.”

I watch him return to the table, that perfect V of his shoulders and back. People swarm around me, closing the gap between us until I can no longer see him. I continue the way I was going. I know the answer: screw me three times, shame on me for not telling you to stop.

 

# # #

 

Five a.m., I slink in and lock myself in the bathroom. Switch on the light that flickers and buzzes over the towel rack, casts a sickly glow on everything, especially me. I peel off my clothes and check my half-naked body in the half-length mirror, spinning around, tugging flesh. Shift the bra straps, examine breasts, pull down my underwear, and climb onto the tub, twist again. Not a mark. But I ache just the same.

I step down and wrap my arms beneath my chest, fingers pressing into my ribs. I don’t fight the memory: Martin cooking spaghetti, sauce bubbling on the back burner. When I sidled up next to him, he fit an arm around my waist, used his other hand to stir the pasta with a slotted spoon. I told him about Vanessa’s vacation plans.

He said, “Cutting it close, don’t you think?”

“The wedding won’t fall apart in a week,” I said. “And I can’t let her run around Prague alone.”

He lifted a different spoon, gave the sauce a swirl. “Remember spring break? You had to drag her out of that rapper’s hotel room.” He hit the spoon on the pot’s side, releasing what had stuck. “You sure you’re up for that?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on her,” I said.

He kissed the top of my head, set his chin there. I stared at the clock over the stove. We were quiet a good twenty seconds before he said, “Come back to me, all right?”

I looped my arms around his middle and hugged him hard. “Of course,” I said, and hoped to God he couldn’t feel my heart, banging like boiling water against the lid of my chest.

 

# # #

 

He tells me he was named for Saint Anthony, patron saint of things lost. He will attend Yale in the fall, major in economics, inherit the family fortune. He asks about my professional life, my college years, but he doesn’t need to. I know what I am to him.

I stir the lemon wedge around my tap water, exhausted by the bar’s dim light and smoke-heavy air. He nurses cheap beer, even though he can afford expensive wine. I can think of a hundred things he helped me lose.

I glance at my watch.

He says, “Want to get out of here?” He knows what he is, too.

The fourth time doesn’t deserve a rhyme.

 

# # #

 

The window is wide open as the sun threatens to rise, and I can tell the clouds have moved in, air thick with coming rain. I spread my arms and legs on top of my bed, like a dead starfish. A decent person would berate herself, but I’m tired. And decent? I wonder if I even understand what that means.

Like father, like daughter. There’s a twinge in every muscle of my stomach when I think it, and damn, I want to rub it away, roll over until it smothers. But I let the pain throb. He never cheated on my mom, that I know of—but that’s not the point. You have to be a certain kind of sick to do what he did, and the more I think about it, the more I wonder if he wasn’t in his right mind after all. Maybe he did consider what his death would do to us, and he made the choice anyway. Maybe he was just that selfish.

I hear Vanessa fumble with the key card, the doorknob. She peeks her head in, backlit by the bright white glow in the hall.

“I’m not asleep,” I say.

She enters, goes to the other side of the bed, and kicks off her shoes. “Anthony leaves today, doesn’t he?”

I rub my eyes. In the time I’ve been lying here, I counted: this affair cost me fifteen hours of sleep, not including the hours lost thinking about it.

“Yeah,” I say. “They’re heading to Berlin after breakfast.” I don’t tell her my dominant feeling is relief.

“Did you get his number?”

I let my head fall to face her. “You’re kidding, right?”

She tosses her clothes in the suitcase and slips on a nightgown. She says, “Might not be a bad idea. Yale’s only a few hours’ drive.”

I go back to studying the ceiling, its mottled pattern more visible by the second. I lift an arm and point to the door. “Hurry. Let’s go invite him to the wedding.”

 

# # #

 

We sit at a café, my head throbbing, my much-needed thimble of coffee delayed while Vanessa flirts with the waiter. The clouds are downright menacing, looking to burst at any moment, though no one else seems concerned. I reach into my bag, find the ring, and put it on. Imagine it searing flesh to the bone.

So that’s it? Martin will say. Two years, and we’re done like that? We’ll be sitting on the foot of the bed, the only place to sit in his bedroom. Our bedroom, the one I was moving into. I will be unpacking, attempting conversation, and just blurt out what I’ve done in the idiotic way I do everything around him.

We won’t touch. I will keep my neck bent, stare hard at the floor. Why? he’ll ask. Every excuse will sound meaningless and insulting, each one stupider than the last, so I’ll say nothing, as his eyes bore into me, trying to comprehend. And when he does, he’ll say, I never knew you could be so selfish. I will force my gaze to his and say, I did.

I pull off the ring. I don’t like how my hand looks.

“Ready to order?”

I could go home, smile, make up stories about museums, plays I didn’t see. I could wear the diamond, the white dress, and pray I’m not struck dead at the altar.

“Yoo-hoo.” Vanessa waves at me. “You okay?”

“No,” I say.

She clears her throat. “Well, Gus here says he can get us into a great club tonight. You up for it?”

Gus, the waiter, whose real name is Gustav, is tall and tan and well-built. I know what Vanessa is thinking: he would make a fine sloppy second.

He grins at me. “You like to dance?”

But I am tired of grinning men. I say, “No, Gus. I don’t.”

His smile falls. Vanessa makes a face.

I push back the chair, metal scraping stone, and stand, walk the best beeline I can through the maze of shops and streets, the hordes of tourists. I squeeze the ring hard, make a brand on my palm, and see myself standing at his door, surrounded by boxes and suitcases. I’ll put them in a cab, get on a plane, and fly—where?

At the Charles Bridge, I start across, an image of Martin, alone on the bed, pounding through me with every step. He wants to hate me, deserves to. I wish I knew what to say so he could.

Midway, I stop. The river has taken on the smoke-gray of the clouds—clouds that have piled in such heavy layers, it seems impossible they’re still hanging on. I lean forward and picture myself tipping over the rail, body plummeting until I’m sucked under the current, buried, forgotten. My breaths go shallow, muscles clenching, this ominous sky bearing down on me, mute.

Rain already, I want to say. Just give it up. Nothing.

Ring in hand, I stick out a fist over the dull, rushing water. Go still, so still, and tell myself, Drop it. But my fingers hold tight, won’t let go. No action so simple, nor a thousand times more demanding, will let me pretend I’m anything other than what I am.

I slip the ring into my pocket and turn around, press my back to the railing. I watch people drift past, holding hands, taking pictures, glancing at earrings, magnets, postcards, whatever the vendors have on display. I wonder what my mom felt when she found out my dad was gone. Only now does it occur to me that I’ve never thought to ask.

Lightning flashes in a bone-white blaze, and I shut my eyes, count two Mississippis—thunder rumbles. I wait, but it still doesn’t rain. Like solace could ever be that simple.

Front page image by Brad Hammonds.

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