The Moaning of Some Heavenly Spheres
by Adam Hartman
It’s when Carrie and Brandon have their first orgy that they discover how much work is actually involved in getting ready for one. Actually, Carrie’s the one who finds out since she can’t get him to do anything to help. “The feng shui of fucking,” he says contemptuously over the lip of a newspaper he’s using to hide his face – but watching, nervous, over the top edge. He’s got himself buried in a plush red beanbag Carrie’s bought specifically for partying, a deep comfortable looking thing that absorbs you like the blob, and whose cleaning Brandon has made clear he will not be responsible for. It’s a sloppy leather monster with mushy guts. It won’t be easy to scrub, he says, because human juices and passion flows stain permanently. This is yet another of the little details left out of the standard cannon of porn: an understanding of the messiness of it all, on top of the exceeding amount of preparation required for any kind of activity. It’s like a dinner party. People are coming over with a distinct purpose, and not having the proper assortment of lubes and candles and pink vibrating silicone things – you might as well be serving pizza on paper plates.
Carrie’s genuinely worried if she’ll have any energy left for the actual thing. Her back and calves ache like after you’ve been painting the walls of a new apartment.
“This is your idea,” he says. He’s all dry and imperious about it, too. She sits down Indian style and spends a few minutes massaging her temples. She’s fighting back a headache. “It’ll be good for us.” “I think so, too,” he says, without much emotion. “Can you get me some water?” Carrie asks. “I’m reading,” he says, then raises his eyes above the paper to see what happens, just like when a kid tells his mother to fuck off for the first time and knows something bad is coming down the pike, but he’s not sure what and can’t help but stare in perverse fascination until the hand coming down hard across his face snaps the trance. Instead she slithers off to the bathroom, wordlessly, thinking that this was, after all, her idea, and it was enough to have frozen poor B. like the proverbial deer in the headlights. His nervousness is so transparent that she might even feel bad if he didn’t insist on playing icy and indifferent about the whole thing, smiling through his teeth that, sure, oh well, if she absolutely insisted on inviting a small harem over and forcing him to fuck a few girls of her choosing, then hell’s bells, he’d just have to oblige. But he’d be damned if he’ll help get ready for it. This just wasn’t his idea. She goes into the bathroom to suck tinny water from the tap because she wants to stare in the mirror for a while. Carrie loses herself in mirrors lately. Her tummy, though still flat as a mica plane, has begun to kick up a slight curvy fuss. She spends a few minutes rubbing it up and down, good-luck-Buddha-style, admiring, then turns around to check on the jutting bones right up around where hips join her upper body. There’s fat gathering around the pointy little nubs; it’s barely enough to notice but she’s been watching carefully for it, and besides, she’s never had much there so any accumulation is obvious. She takes her clothes off slowly, climbs onto the toilet and twirls a prima ballerina. The mirror is small and kind of lousy and she wants to get a look from all angles. This is third time today, and she’s only wearing sweats without underwear so it only takes a few seconds to slip out of them. There’s pulling and yanking and stretching. Not enough down under the breasts yet, though: the corrugation of her ribcage is still visible. Brandon whales on the door, asks what’s going on. He presses his ear to it, and when Carrie silently mouths an aggravated fuck you, it comes right on through. So he shuffles into the kitchen and gets down to the business of helping with the artichoke dip – which somehow doesn’t seem right, serving dip, although they probably will want to eat at some point. It just feels so ridiculous: put out some pita chips and white wine, pretend to be civilized before you begin role playing and slapping all the cowgirls on their asses. Carrie pops into the kitchen, relieved to see him helping. “Are we even supposed to have food?” he asks. “Feels weird.” “It would feel weird without it. We’ve gotta have food.” “Are there some sort of rules?” He doesn’t mean for it to come out so sarcastically. She huffs through her nostrils and they leave it at that. Brandon especially doesn’t want to argue. There are still a few more hours to enjoy the calm before he gets for free what big bankrolls head out to Vegas and hire a crack team of All Star hookers for. He gets back to mincing artichokes, and she returns to the arsenal of candles and lubes, and it’s more or less a druggy blur from then until when she finally yells at him loudly and consistently enough that he showers and dresses. She picks out a pair of white linen pants for him that ride low down below his hips, and which are more or less see-through, revealing the sad scared image of his coy, confused phallus; that and a light gray cotton shirt. He looks good. She tells him so. Carrie looks incredible but he keeps his mouth shut. Still, her perky little form teasing through tight fitting cloth is enough to spur on the slightest warm tingle around his groin, an alien tickle, giving him a little hope that this won’t be completely intolerable. Some time around eight the doorbell starts ringing, and doesn’t stop until the invite list is complete. They’ve all met before, no one’s a stranger, and everyone is looking their best, these guys and gals of the crème de la crème of this little suburban swinging community. Alcohol comes first, since to get oiled before lubed is next to godliness in the machinations of group sex. There’s an asymmetric couple, a thirty-something guy who’ll be blessed with love handles soon, and a petite girl too pretty for him, neither of whose names Brandon can remember. A few weeks ago Carrie and he (but mostly Carrie) brought them home from a club. He had never brought anyone home like that before, not even in college, and was mostly concerned the entire time with not showing his naivety and inexperience. Throughout it all he felt like a quivering virgin. The hope had been that Carrie’s ease with flirting and playing would spill over, since after all she was his, and he got to walk into the club’s mad night of crappy, crippling electronica base and acrid air with an erection-inspiring trophy on his arm. And the looks she was getting were undeniable, and it wasn’t late enough to attribute them to the desperately lowered standards of last call drunken loneliness. It should have imparted some confidence by association, yet it just didn’t happen for him.
He never knew where John and Jane Doe came from or how they ended up following them home through the rain that night, but now they feel as if they have some sort of special first claim to them. They sit close during the small-chat phase and trade all kinds of friendly banter. Carrie does her best to ignore them. This is supposed to be egalitarian, with all chumminess frowned upon.
“Why’d I invite them?” she whispers under breath to him, when they head back to the kitchen to refill the dip. “What are their names?” he asks. “Who cares,” she says, and charges back out in her retro espadrilles and short little tube dress thing. Brandon takes deep breaths and follows, eyeing Mr. and Mrs. Doe, and can’t help but feel a little bad for their nervousness, for their need to somehow feel at ease, whether or not this was their first thing. They weren’t drunk and coked up like last week. This was sober Daniel in the lion’s den, and now Carrie was throwing her icy daggers at them, poisoning the air.
And she doesn’t let it go for the rest of the night. When she sees Brandon cavorting in the corner with them a few hours later, she leaps up rigid-bodied, like a tossed baton, from where she’s partially spread eagle on the carpet, storms across the room and grabs his arm, as if he had just been caught playing with the bad kid from down the street whose comradeship is off limits. He’s drunk, and knocks into a side table, sending a tinkling waterfall of gin and tonic on down, as he’s dragged away by the huffy mama. “Forget it,” Carrie breathes, heavy and deep into his ears. She pulls him down to the warm sweaty spot on the carpet where the remnants of her body heat are still radiating the outline of an exact coital position. She says, “Fuck it,” and forces him to join in with a cute friend of hers, an enslaved fawn bordering on legal drinking age, who’s patiently waiting to have her head shoved authoritatively back between Carrie’s despotic thighs.
Then he gets drawn back up, she bites his lips, and all he can do is wonder what the hell she wants from him, and how can he sneak away to grab another drink. He’s thinking of bed and crawling underneath the covers, of listening to the sounds of madness through the safety of double layered sheetrock that separates living- from bedroom; he wants to know all about it the same way a child perversely wants to know more about the amorphous shadows of his dark bedroom than he lets on; who uses the blanket as proof of his fear yet doesn’t speak of the cavernous gaps between its fibers, through which the world and wind come rushing heedlessly through.
For Carrie it’s the morning when the chickens come home to roost. If there’s a mess to clean up she moves around like a zombie, always alone, since Brandon likes to sneak out before eight when he knows she’ll still be asleep. He uses work as an excuse, except for the weekends, when he goes for epic twelve mile runs, returning home so weak and doused with sweat that he has an excuse to disappear into the shower for another hour.
She almost always feels like she’s going to throw up – there’s this gurgling that gets rocking and rolling in her gut from the moment she slides off the mattress, and which usually hangs around until, somehow, she manages to force something down that’ll stay in her stomach. When her belly is particularly subversive she zones it out by therapeutically picking at the scabs of dried lube that never seem to scrub off her knees, no matter how hard she tries, like an addict with chiggers.
In the days before the scabs this is typically when she would contemplate doing a little stalking, which got her fidgety in its own unique way, since any kind of successful sleuthing brings with it a host of strategic stresses. The car was definitely off limits – too easily noticed – and no matter how stealthily she lingered long behind Brandon on the street, peeking around corners, still she felt almost certain that he’d knows she was there. Or that she looked so completely obvious that even a perfect stranger might be able to tip him off.
Nonetheless she almost always ended up following him around, if only for a little while. Usually there wasn’t much to see; sometimes he doesn’t even leave the office for lunch. The dramatics of the armies of office delivery boys, spanning the rainbow of ethnicities (food and packages) unfolded before her. There was nowhere to sit near his building so she spent hours pacing back and forth near a corner whose flanking building she could dart behind in case of an emergency. Some people started to recognize her, and if she didn’t look as if she bathed daily, would no doubt have thought of her as a harmless neighborhood schizophrenic.
It’s through all this that Carrie comes to realize that when starving yourself, cliché though it sounds, you really do start playing with the whole perception of space-time and reality; you doze into this sort of clairvoyant state, which only comes when your body has truly begun to devour itself, and you’ve left your poor desperate neurons with no other choice but to secrete their own indigenous morphine, making you resigned to death. It leaves her feeling like a great, self-deluded philosopher.
Carrie is deeply indebted to this Cassandric training, when the time finally comes that she hits the jackpot. Without its blessed clarity, there’s no chance she would ever have put it all together, mostly because it isn’t really all that obvious, the moody sight of her beau as he sits having coffee with some tall sandy-haired pal in the outdoor courtyard of a trendy overpriced place hawking faux bohemianism. It’s a bright sunny day (what else would be more appropriate?), and everyone around is looking their best, wearing light multicolored scarves and those fashionable horn rimmed specs that project the radiance of nerd chic. People are chatting and leaning in towards each other, and so are B. and his friend, and she knows that it’s all because of her Gandhi-twenty-twenty-vision that she can immediately discern the mere banter of the masses from the obvious flirting going on at Brandon’s table. He’s laughing, and the sun is on his face. So he tells some crappy joke, and the man with the sandy hair does his thing: Oh, that’s so funny. And I totally agree. And whatever else you say, I’m just going lean in and give all the right body language and maybe there’s some chance we can do something else some time, get together, maybe go to the rock gym so we can both wear fairly revealing clothing, and as long as you don’t mention if you married or not then, well, certain things are better left unsaid, don’t you agree? Brandon’s at ease. He’s done this before with this guy. They come close to touching each other but never quite make it; it’s all hovering uncertain closeness. And everyone around would be so approving if they knew, because they’re modern, of course, and proud that these two brave guys aren’t afraid to go out on a date together like this, and fuck the intolerant zealots of the world. Some of them have to be wondering – she’s not the only one spying – through the ether-mists of latte steam. It never occurs to her to suddenly pop up beside him, to pretend coincidence. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to it. He’s in a perfect position to play dumb, and she doesn’t know how she’ll react if he decides to go that route. And this is where her stomach comes back into it. Watching him does something to her hunger. It doesn’t just hang there, mellow and farseeing anymore, but instead makes her dizzy for the first time in the months. Standing there playing spy she gets a firsthand lesson in the whole mind-body dichotomy, because an actual gulf closes up inside of her, gluing flesh and soul back together like wet wax paper, and the absolute all-out war she’s been waging against herself to try and purify the corpus of anything that Brandon might find unattractive, so that he would please, for the love of god, start putting his hands on her again, is revealed as cuckolded fool’s errand. She’s suddenly pathetic rather than firm and ascetic. The sacrifice of a regular period for his unresponsive organs makes her feel like a universal jackass.
It’s a merger which leaves her, and her poor disordered body, in a word, pissed.
There’s a deli down the street where she shimmies an entire salami down her throat, taking it porn star style. It makes her violently ill, and ties her up in the bathroom for the rest of the day, but giving in feels so good that she thinks it really is a possibility that hunger strikers go through the whole business just to have the high of breaking fast.
Brandon notices her renewed appetite, right away. When they go for dinner a few days later and she orders a twenty ounce porter house, he asks if she’s crazy.
“I’m starving,” she says, wanting to spit at him through the words. And once again her bowels revolt, so she spends the next few hours in the bathroom.
Brandon is rolling around in bed, burying his head, here and there amongst the sheets and pillows, as he tries to block out the symphony of gastric vileness. The last two nights she’s been in and out of the bathroom, and when she’s finally done, she wants to fuck, regardless of whether he’s faking sleep or doing the real thing.
“Hey,” she whispers playfully climbing into bed. She wriggles up next to him. “Come on,” he says, “you’ve been in there for the past hour. It’s gross.” “I’ll shower,” she says, and before he can protest Carrie is out the bed and the water’s running. “Wanna come in too?” she calls out over the running water, but he doesn’t answer. A headache’s coming on – a real one. Brandon sits up and pulls his knees up close around his chest, like a child hiding in a corner from an abusive parent. After a while he shuffles down into the kitchen, plows around in the fridge, looking for something, anything to be doing when she comes out. There’s a half eaten container of egg salad that looks pretty good, it’s speckled with black olives and smells of chives, so he yanks it out along with a beer. He takes a few mushy bites for show, but focuses most of his attention on the brew, putting it away in two long swigs, grabs another and does the same. His gut swells full of gas, and he goes for another, closing his eyes tight as he starts to put it away, too. There’s a fat bunch of tears waiting right in the corners of his eyes that he can let loose if he wants, and actually one or two do come trickling on down before he hears the pitter-patter of dripping feet on the tile. “Why are you eating?” Carrie says, grabbing his shoulders. She turns his chair around, slow, so it moans against the floor. Once he’s been turned, then he peels his eyes open. Carrie’s naked, and her blonde hair, top and bottom, is hanging threadlike and low; there’s gobs of water swelling down off her, and she’s paying close attention to her stomach. “Still hurt?” he asks. She reaches for his beer, looks at the empty bottles with some weird expression that he can’t quite make out, and then sips it. “Carrie. Please. I’m tired.” She winks, pulls off his shirt, and falls to her knees. There had been times when she wondered if he truly did not notice her starving herself. Sometimes sympathy got the better of her, and she was able to think of him as victim that had been socially conditioned away from being able to notice the gradual self-consumption of the female body. As delusions go, it was perfectly natural. It let her tolerate him; kept her trying to bring him to life as she wriggled and twisted like a silkworm in any crevice she could find in nighttime sheets; which kept her from vomiting at the sight of his shaving residue crusted in the sink in noontime light, after she was finally able to peel herself out of bed, hours after he’d gone, and she had been left to spend the late morning hours masturbating furiously just to relieve her anguished muscles and make simple walking possible, like an old lady with her Epsom salt baths. But as soon as she realizes that he notices the sudden change in diet, that his eyes have been wide open all along, all bets are off. So she cheats on him twice for revenge. Both times she picks the lucky guy out at the same bookstore coffee shop, a chain mega-store, with a full pastry display and free wireless internet access. Her guys look self-employed and suave, and sit drinking trendy effeminate iced coffees. Picking them up requires almost no effort on her part; the first time she just puts down her book and looks right at her mark, stares obviously, never moves throughout the building crescendo of his nervous fidgeting, the clearing of his throat, his obvious attempts to suck in the slight mid-thirties gut he’s developing, keeping right on until evolution finally blesses him with the testicles to get up and speak to her. The second time she sits down uninvited at her future lover’s table. They all mechanically rape each other a motel a few miles down the road.
Brandon knows something’s up when he comes home from work to find his sweet wife on the floor in the center of a happy little circle of sex toys. “I’m not satisfied,” she says with the dullness of a Fifties housewife who has suddenly become aware of the humdrum sterility of her existence, but not before all that’s left of her spirit has been excised. He looks back at her with the horror of “What now?” like a walnut in his throat. He knows he looks guilty as hell.
He asks, “What do you mean?” in the way he has spent what has felt like his whole life practicing, playing truly puzzled, without any idea what she’s talking about, swear to god. “We never have sex,” she says, playing with a neon green phallus. “And this is supposed to make things better?” he asks, all priggish Victorian. “Where did you get all this stuff?” “Ordered it. Sit down.” When he speaks he tries to be calm and measured. Once when he was younger his older cousin got him stoned on Thanksgiving, out in the backyard, with dreams that the mediocre food and filial banter would be replaced by rainbow sensations to rival those of a communal acid trip. Instead he spent the entire meal concentrating on every move he made, how loud and long he laughed at jokes, if he looked too thirsty or hungry, if he smelled like smoke. In the end he just ended up with a terrible headache and had to go to bed early. Sitting with Carrie amongst her perverted stash he feels again like he’s being watched a little too closely by his grandmother, who smells a burnt scent on him she’s not precisely familiar, yet knows, aided by the perceptiveness of the elderly, which can pick it up when their progeny’s progeny are up to no good, that something was not kosher. Meanwhile, Grandma is laying all her goodies out for him. So he goes into a protracted, rehearsed soothing diatribe about regularity, marriage, what it does to spontaneity and romance, et cetera and so forth. He brings out the big gun of therapy. They shouldn’t go to a shrink – no, screw that, they’re not crazy, but a counselor of some sort would be good. It can even be New Age and flaky, they can talk about orgasms and mutual pleasure and what can be done to merge their spirits and how they can dance on the whiffing currents of sexual bliss. “It’s crap,” says Carrie. She’s barely listening. And whatever of it that’s getting through isn’t making a dent. He says, “These people can help. It’s their job.” “We can do it ourselves.” He’s duly husbandly. He sits down with her and does his part, hiding as best he can the cold sweat beading up on his neck and upper lip, keeping a steady voice all the way through. She begins by dragging Brandon to a club she finds online through a website for swingers. It’s actually just a normal place that has a weekly night for the group. The rules for membership are less stringent than many of the others: single men allowed. “It’ll be like a college leather party, that’s all,” she tells him soothingly, even though he pretends to react coolly to the plan. She knows him too well, notices all his trembles. But she’s a purely benevolent dictator, doing it for him. She isn’t the least bit concerned of what the people there will look like, so it’s a pleasant surprise when most of them turn out to be twenty-somethings, and generally representative of what you’d expect from a regular club crowd. There’s the occasional lonely male letch trolling about in the corners, approaching younger looking girls, getting turned away as he nervously massages the finger where during the daylight hours his wedding band probably sits. Conversation is a little strained at first, but there’s liquor all over the place. And they don’t have to move, mostly because what Carrie’s wearing might be considered sluttish by a prostitute. Her aura couples to testosterone and the occasional estrogenic flare up: the moths flock to the light, the light buys drinks, light and moths carouse and laugh and, here and there, bump into one another, edge closer through emerging dribs and drabs of intoxication. Eventually the moths are burning up, so ensconced are they by the flames. Carrie and Brandon can be selective, although she’s doing all the choosing: she whittles it down to two girls and a lucky guy, none of them know each other (or so they say). “Just follow our car,” Carrie says, and she and B. drive wordlessly back to their place, the lucky 1L class caravanning in tow. Back at home there’s nearly no discussion whatsoever. Anyway, they’re all drunk enough that it doesn’t matter; no one wants to postpone the inevitable anymore, especially the guy, whose pants look like they’re going to be catapulted off by the uncontrollable throbbing going on underneath. Carrie starts out with Brandon and lets Mr. Throb do his thing with the girls, but Throb wants Carrie, and she knows it, it’s clear and wordlessly transmitted to the whole movable feast, so the girls make way as she pulls and steers her frightened husband towards him, where she forces the love of her life to at least touch and taste in front of her, even if he never gets far beyond it that night. In early September they take a vacation for a weekend up by a big lake in the country. It’s an attempt to relive a long weekend from before they were married that had gone down in the books as one of the few Legendary Getaways that any couple worth their salt always have in the memory bag as a time when everything worked out perfect. They both do everything they can not to think about the heavy whiff of futility and impending doom that rides in the backseat with them all the way up, and which grins impishly in the rear view at whoever’s turn it is to drive. On the way they zip by a gas station where, in the once upon a time fantasy, Brandon had taken her into the handicapped unisex bathroom and made love to her until the teenage kid on duty at the place, who for most of the time was content to listen with his ear to the door, getting together a great story for that weekend, finally had to put his foot down. An old incontinent curmudgeon and his wife showed up doing the dance of the tortured bladders, and threatened to call the cops when they heard what was going on. Yet even the escape had been fun: Brandon covering her over with his coat, Carrie walking like a duck because she had pulled her pants up quickly and was still dripping pretty heavily, shooting past the whole dog and pony show in embarrassed hysterics – so fast that neither of them ever saw the longing jealousy in the eyes of the old couple, and would never know that they had actually inspired a physiologically unsuccessful, but valiant all the same, attempt at geriatric coitous that night. But this time neither of them wants to stop. Carrie actually turns away from the place, made a little nauseous by it. It gets so bad, so fast, that she wants to stop to get some fresh air, but doesn’t ask because what she wants even more is to put as much distance as possible between them and the station.
They have lunch at a lousy diner along the road.
Carrie asks, “How far are we?” “Two and half more,” says Brandon. “I remember it as closer,” says Carrie. “Nuh-uh,” he shakes his head. And then: “These eggs suck.” “Mine sucks too,” she says. “What do you want to do tonight?” he asks. “We should go for dinner. At that place. It was a steak place, right?” “I don’t remember. Yeah, it was, maybe. I think I had the fish there.” “The fish sucks up here, too.” They check in around mid-afternoon, the room is stuffy and doesn’t have a claw foot tub like they both remember. Carrie says tonelessly, “I’m going for a walk,” and heads out by herself for a while. It’s about a mile into town along beautiful autumn roads – real cliché: some apple orchards, a place that gives tractor rides and lets kids pick out pumpkins for Halloween. All the way she’s rubbing her stomach, proud of it, getting meatier. She’s hungry, and gets some ice cream even though it’s cold out, then mulls around for a while catching looks from some men (principally the ones who are from out of town, up here for similar reasons) and gets moderately hopeful. At the end of the street with the ice cream place she finds a chain bookstore, makes straight for the newspaper section, looking for the local circulation. She flips furiously through it, to the back, looking for the nightlife listings and any hope that they may be able to go out and do some picking up that evening; her suitcase was almost half-filled with gear, and despite the appearances of conservative provinciality of the town, she knows that even Cotton Mather wouldn’t be able to resist the treasure trove she had lugged along with her. Only there isn’t much hope in the paper. All seediness around here is well hidden; you need to be a local, to have trolled for ages in the shadows in a place like this to know about the speakeasies. She doesn’t put the paper down right away, though, since she can feel the eyes of a well built redhead she spotted on her way in; he had been slinking around the cookbook section, casting eyes in a way that convinced her this was probably a regular repertoire for him. Carrie counts down backward from fifty, staring at an ad for discount ski clothes, struggling to remember how her buttocks look in the nice tight jeans she happens to be wearing, and once she hits the zero mark and recalls that these are one of her better pair, she turns around slowly and with a beaming and totally unambiguous smile, giving a cute little “Hi, there.” The next morning Brandon goes running before five and manages to catch the sunrise for the last two or three miles; he gets back to the room feeling pretty good, showers, and slithers back under the covers to rub against Carrie. “Hungry?” he says, and begins kissing the sidewall of her left breast, which is peeking surreptitiously from the side of a pink pajama tank top adorned with hearts. At first there’s no visible response aside from a slight hardening of her nipple which goes soft after a few uneventful seconds. But he’s feeling good and high; he can still smell the trees in his hair despite the shower, and somehow the sudden life that has sprung up between his legs is not pulling a Tower of Pisa: the foundations are strong and vertical and not to be taken for granted, so he slips right on inside. Carrie wakes up invaded, and smiles. “Mornin’, sweetheart,” he whispers in a mock Southern drawl. “Morning,” she squeals a little, as she replies just in time with a push from him. “Aah,” she says, “the ceiling is red.” Brandon cranes his neck. It is indeed painted a deep blush red. “I guess it is,” he says. They make it downstairs for the last half hour of breakfast. It’s the same woman from years ago who runs the place, keeping watch over the lower half of her house with the seriousness of a commandant, yet still managing a grandmotherly geniality in going over the histories of the sundry knickknacks crammed in so tight that the corners of the house seem ready to burst. The dining room is: four kitschy country tables and a broken down golden retriever called Shandy who saunters from table to table wondering, albeit with great reserved dignity, if he’ll get any scraps. Brandon gives him some bacon, which he eats with the slow certainty of an animal that has never had to fight for his food. The old woman sees this and immediately takes a warmer tone with them. “He’s old,” she says, oozing over to their table. “Bet you can’t guess how old.” “Ten,” Carrie says, uninterested. “Fourteen,” the old woman comes back, confrontational and victorious. “And can still digest bacon.” So Brandon gives Shandy another piece. The matron leaves and they’re alone again, except for Shandy who sticks around, feeling good and satisfied and full of greasy fat. “That was nice this morning,” says Carrie. “Yeah.” Brandon shakes his head nervously and eats. Already he’s feeling queasy over the whole thing, wants to forget about druggy oxygenation coupled with the high delusions of early morning horniness, when everything is aching with swollen blood vessels just crying to be milked. He can’t get rid of the taste of her morning breath nor the distinct scent of someone else all over her, leaving no doubt about where she disappeared to the day before, he cursing silently that at least he scrapes the cologne odors off before climbing into bed with her. He asks calmly, “What’ll we do today?” They end up going for a hike along a trail that isn’t too heavily traveled by tourists. Plus, it’s cold out for this early in the season so the passersby are far and few between. Brandon decides to be cocky and show off his stamina by bounding ahead in the brush, leaving her alone. She’s just as well with it, though, since her mind is roiling with the guilt for having let the guy from the bookstore forgo a condom – a delayed reaction, as usual. She’s a dangerous sucker for a momentary rush. But now that she’s faced with Brandon’s firm, sashaying body cutting its way through the woods, she can only wonder at what sort of nasty bacteria or retroviruses she had, in true black widow fashion, transmitted to him in the throes of midmorning orgasm. Whatever he deserved, that was too much. So she relives the bodily inspection of Bookstore Guy, the moles and imperfections, any rash or redness, convincing herself that whatever silent agents he might be employing, there were at least no outward signs of sickness. Maybe, she thinks, she ought to slip him some antibiotics just to be safe – something she always feels completely absurd doing, like playing spy vs. spy with penicillin and his coffee. All the same, it is responsible. Better than nothing. Now, blessed by the healing power of mutual guilt, they manage to have a decent day together. They do some apple picking, and talk about a crisp recipe that Brandon’s mother had perfected, and had plenty of occasions to share with Carrie, before she dropped dead from a heart attack two years ago in a Macy’s department store. They argue about the tricks for the dough while Brandon holds open a hemp sack which Carrie fills to the brim with fat green Granny Smiths. “These are good, not mealy,” Brandon says. He’s keeping in mind the glorious smile Carrie had on her face that morning when he made his move. It keeps him smiling, though lingering right behind the contentment is the vile double blade: he’s mostly happy because he got through his husbandly duties, but afraid that he’s whetted an appetite and set a standard for the next two days that he can’t possibly imagine living up to. It’s getting dark by the time they pay for the fruit at a register in the farmhouse next to the field. There’s a perfectly stereotypical old farm couple that runs the place, and the folks make conversation precisely the way cute relics from the country are supposed to: How are you enjoying the weather? Aren’t the leaves and peacefulness glorious, et cetera and so forth? “Let’s pretend they really give a shit,” Carrie says hopefully with her eyes, and Brandon gives his assent. So it turns into sort of a contest as to how long they can stand there bantering before the kindly country folk tell them, in not so many words, to fuck off and go get some therapy, if that’s what they need. It comes sooner than later: an icy “Have a last look around, we’re closing soon,” to which Brandon picks out a gallon of cider, and they take off. A week later and the apples are overripe and rotting on the kitchen counter. Brandon pulls out the dough recipe when they got home, but each day that passes, the more painfully arduous the task of making the crisps seems, and the idea fades away wordlessly, hospice-like, a cancer-stricken ascetic tragedy that’s been waiting patiently, and philosophically, for its time to come. Carrie sets up a vile six-some the day Brandon finally tosses the Granny Smiths into the trash. It’s the first time he and Carrie touch each other since the morning in the bed and breakfast. The universe was merciful for the rest of the trip: she never came looking for more, and as fate would have it, he would never know that her celibate tenderness for the remainder of the weekend was the calm result of her unwillingness to expose him to the glorious sexual-evolutionary microbes of our time. But by the fateful night of the death of the apples all tests had come back negative, and her blood was piping with the desire to get all lubed up and awash once more in potential disease. It’s some horrible fetish thing she’s come up with, sprung on him like a mad conspiracy all at once when he gets back from work that evening. A camcorder gets passed around during the whole thing, although Carrie keeps control of it for most of the night. She’s so adept at holding it at precise pornographic angles that Brandon is positive she’s spent time practicing: it’s not an easy thing to be bent over a couch and tortured by the momentum of a guy who knows he’s on film, and keeps a steady director’s hand. It’s nothing if not preoccupying, so she never realizes when, around five in the morning, Brandon quietly slips away and out of the house. No one tips her off since none of them really misses him. He’s always the most boring and irrelevant of any group. He’s tearing down the road at a mad pace in the purple cold pause in the fabric of time, just before sunrise, in running clothes that need to be washed, whose odors rise up and literally punch him in the face, overwhelming even the ubiquitous assault of rotting autumn leaves. The insides of his thighs are rank and sticky, and they begin to chafe after only a few miles. He goes as long as he can before it feels as if his skin might begin to crack. Years ago he used to run until his toes bled. For the longest time he thought it was only a skin issue but somehow ended up suffering some slight nerve damage in his left foot’s pinky member. He’s cautious since then, so he ends up walking about a mile to the gas station down the road that has a twenty-four hour convenience store, sits on the curb with a coffee and newspaper inhaling the admixture of burning dew and car exhaust – cocktail of a new day. Meanwhile Carrie is finally exhausted and feeling repulsive. They recently met a guy called Trot, a made-up moniker she was sure, who looks a little something like a surfer kid but possibly older. He’s one of those types whose precise age is somehow impossible to nail down, wearing, as he does, woven bracelets and Birkenstocks to complement a fairly expensive looking cell phone and electronic organizer. Trot is a wonderful lay but is profoundly dense. She’s been throwing the message in his direction, for a good hour, that it might be time to get going soon. Everyone else has gone except for two girls, whose consistency is quickly catapulting them into the realm of friendship, and who somehow always manage to find each other’s arms towards the end of the night, falling asleep therein. They definitely did not know each other in the beginning, but Carrie is beginning to suspect they may be dating. It leaves her with the feeling of an old Jewish grandmother matching-up horny and repressed shtetle youths. Trot is kissing her nipples lightly. She has to pretend like she’s interested every now and then while being sure not to give him the impression that she wants to go again. It’s not terribly hard; the appearance of skin in early-morning light is always as foul and blemished, completely lacking in the butter shellac that nighttime and candles impart to it. Ever since she spent her first night with a boy it’s bothered her, become an intrinsic turnoff the way some people develop aversions to specific liquors that have made them sick. It’s actually a problem Brandon’s complexion is immune to. “What do you do?” she asks, hoping mention of work will get him moving. When he answers unclearly through his teeth, while continuing to munch on her, trying to get a rise, she pushes a little further with: “Do you need to be anywhere soon?” Trot sighs, giving up, but takes his sweet old time getting moving. “How long you guys been doing this?” His process of dressing involves protracted bouts of stretching, a last ditch attempt at rekindling interest (an act which must have worked a lot, because he’s exuding the supreme confidence that he’ll be recalled to the couch). It takes a full five minutes for him to get his underwear on. When Carrie speaks she’s careful to come off as annoyed. “A few months.” “Hmm. There’s a party next week if you’re into it. Cool people. Invitation only, so they’re good looking. No skanks.” “No skanks?” she says, squinting. The squint is asking how old he is. “Yeah. A cool place. The guy’s got like this huge place and he does décor things. You know? Like themes – sometimes food, sometimes like Roman or Greek or whatever.” Carrie says, “You can email us.” “Phone number?” She says, “I don’t think so.” “You don’t need to bring your husband, you know,” says Trot, a big old candy cane grin prancing cockily on his strategically grizzled mug. “I’ll think about it,” Carrie says, covering herself over with a quilt – leaving him no doubt that she would not think about it, while unable to convince herself that she wasn’t interested. He shrugs and finishes getting dressed, the rest of the clothes going on quickly. He slips on his Birkenstocks, giving one last stretch. “Later, girl,” he says. Just before he opens the door she’s gripped by the thought he might not, after all, bother reminding her about the party. “Hey,” she says suddenly, like a burp. “So you should remind me about that thing.” “Sure,” says Trot. He’s smiling again, but it’s different now. He’s on top. And he leaves. Carrie tiptoes past the sleeping girlfriends only to wake them up a few minutes later with as she bangs around in the kitchen, throwing a few eggs on the stove. Small dabs of hot butter prick her tummy, and she jumps back when a renegade lipid scalds her inner thigh. Her groin is especially sore, and somehow the singing heat magnifies it so intensely that she needs to sit down. So she pulls a chair up to the stove and does her cooking, looking like a kid who is too short to see over the counter but with an appetite that can only come after a good ten hours of sex. Brandon, meanwhile, gets nauseous for the first half hour or so after he’s finished running. Nor can he ever eat right after sex. It’s the same nausea. Drinking is fine, though. He can pick up and run for miles after a liter of coffee, no problem, never any cramps, caffeine pulsing all piss and vinegar in his veins. He tosses the paper and takes off down the road in a steady gallop; it’s uphill for a while, so he picks up speed to keep from hitting his shins too hard on the down-step. His legs hurt, though; he’s sore, he always is the morning after. Her worship of contortionism is a pain in the ass – for all the callisthenic reasons, to be sure, but even worse because of the way she uses it as a cover to try and throw him headlong into other guys. Scissor kicks and the wrapping of thighs around midsections in an effort to have him accidentally penetrate some poor unsuspecting victim gets annoying. Yet even in those mad sweaty moments it’s unclear what in the hell she really knows or suspects: whether it’s what she wants to see him do, a fantasy all her own, or some kind of sadism. He doesn’t put fantasies like that past her anymore. Nor her willingness to toss him into sodomy as if he were a barroom dart. But neither can he rule out sadism. And just the idea of that sadism reflects perfectly, right as sunshine, all the good reason and justification she might have for making him suffer. Meanwhile Carrie burns her eggs and throws them away. Her girl-pals in the other room distract her when they wake, she takes her eyes off the bubbling yellow curds for a minute too long and now they’re screwed. She hates any kind of brown on them. “Morning,” she says through the gurgling stomach vapors that have penetrated her mouth. “Want some food?” “Nah,” one says, though they might as well speak in unison. They’re holding hands. The sight of it is almost enough to make Carrie cry; by some miracle she doesn’t. Then she gives a meek: “Okay-bye.” They prance off together, practically under a rainbow and skipping. Probably off to get pancakes or something batter-smelling at a cute little place where only true lovers can go to eat, where anyone two of lesser acquaintance, no matter how deep into each other’s orifices they may have ventured the night previous, would stick out as alien-repugnant. Brandon likes French toast with almonds. She looks at the clock and figures he’ll be home soon enough. She was harsh last night with him, she didn’t hold back any amount of violence, and has the need to be nice for a few hours until she can’t control it again. And Brandon takes peace offerings easily: simple things like how parents gladly accept crappy birthday cards conjured out of construction paper and crayons from their kids. Brandon is nearly sane enough to handle the rest of the day. The veins up around his temples are pumping nice and hard the endorphins and other natural morphines that for some reason evolution make us work for. It would be so much simpler if we could open the floodgates ourselves by thought; just issue a mental command, just want it, and the proper neurons vomit out the contents of their channels and make us feel perfectly happy. He never goes home until he feels like this. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. He needs to be able to stand anything and never think. He needs his bones and joints to scream in pleasurable agony. Carrie meanwhile is watching the clock and getting impatient. She waits for a long as she can nursing her coffee, before she begins picking away at her plate, starting from the outside corners of the toast, just slicing away imperceptible bits, and gradually taking less care to be stealthy about it.