She’d already been in bed for nearly twenty minutes when she heard him come into the bedroom. Her back was to him in the slightly musty dark but after fourteen years of marriage she could track his movements easily enough – God knows he rarely varied them.
The muted whooshing sound with its intermittent jingle would be his khakis which he took off one leg at a time, never once displaying a sense of irony over this. The rustling sound was his fingers working the buttons on one of his endless series of blue or white oxford cloth button downs.
She tried to remember which he was wearing tonight, but though she had sat through breakfast and dinner with him, she couldn’t remember. The rustling became a little louder, more sibilant – those were his dark socks coming off. No need to wonder what color they were – he only and always wore navy.
I hate losing socks, he told her once. This way, I never have to search for a missing sock. They’re all the same. His sock drawer was a wild tangle of solo socks. Laundry days she often thought how like left-behind snake skins they were.
The only man she’d ever known to wear dark socks was her father. All of her boyfriends wore sandals or boat shoes, so when she’d first seen him, this man, her husband, in dark socks, she had laughed, which hurt him.
He shuffled to the bathroom and ran the faucet. There was a silence then, a silence she knew he was using to bare his teeth at himself in the toothpaste spotted mirror. The first time she saw him doing this she’d thought he was trying to scare her. She’d shrieked a little and laughed, clutching her night gown to her chest. He had continued to bare his teeth at himself in the mirror, his eyes shifting to her briefly, then returning to their point by point, molar by molar check for the incipient signs of gingivitis.
Heart attack was linked to gum disease, he’d read, and ever since then he could be found with his Cheshire grin in all kinds of reflective surfaces: shop windows, the rear view mirror, the polished chromed door of the fitness club they sometimes remembered to go to.
It was odd that he was so interested in his gums, but showed no vanity at all about his beige teeth with the crooked incisor. Her family had always had white teeth straight as picket fences. Her first boyfriend had once referred to her “million dollar smile,” a compliment he’d issued offhandedly, almost a throw-away comment but she had treasured it and from then on saw her teeth as the central, defining aspect of her beauty.
The bed creaked once, and was still. She began to let her held breath out in a small trickling stream. Then the bed shifted with his weight, and after a moment – of what, she often wondered: indecision? hesitation? fear? hope or memory? – his hand landed on her hip. So there it was. The breath that still pooled in her throat rushed out in a not quite silent sigh, making the question “Are you still awake” unnecessary, though of course he’d ask it anyway.
She remembered her college boyfriend, the first time they slept together, the almost unbearable sensuous luxury of lying next to one another all night long, giving the sex an almost holy feeling, as if her narrow bed had been transformed into an altar.
“You still awake?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m awake.”
She turned onto her back in the dark.
His touch was familiar as the pilled woolen blanket that covered her, as familiar and pleasant as any of the small appliances in their appointed places in the green and white kitchen.
His right hand wandered over her left breast as if feeling a basket of muffins, the fingers interested but not passionate, and not bothering to remove or seek entry to her nightgown. The college boyfriend, emboldened by the intimacy of sleeping together, had insisted she sleep naked, often endeavoring to be the first in bed where he would sit with his back to the headboard and watch her undress as if she were a movie.
She had been awkward at first with her nudity, wishing not so much for a better body as a different body. She was too suffused with insistent shame to understand the avidity of his eyes was ecstatic appreciation. Her feminist studies classes eventually subverted the boyfriend’s enthusiastic approval of all things carnal into an accusation of objectification.
The boyfriend was replaced with the visiting feminist studies professor emeritus from Purdue, a man who had gained fame by writing a book about female body dysmorphia titled “Your Beautiful Cunt.”
Above her, in the dark, her nightgown was being politely lifted. The cunt professor, too, had been sexually polite, something she’d been disappointed by and, worse, surprised by her disappointment.
At the professor’s encouragement she’d fumblingly tried to talk about her desire for a passionate, masterful lover (which she was rapidly, dismayingly learning had nothing necessarily to do with being an older lover) but she’d used the word ‘like’ instead of ‘desire’, and ‘experimental’ instead of ‘masterful’, and so perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised to come home one day to find him sitting politely in a straight backed kitchen chair, legs crossed (and apparently shaved), wearing a pair of her panties, her best peach-colored bra, and the white peep toe slingback pumps she saved for Easter.
He stood when she came through the door, and something in the way he did it told her immediately it wasn’t his first time in high heels.
You, he declaimed, have a beautiful cunt!
She shouldn’t have been surprised, but she was only 19 at the time and she was surprised, so surprised she had screamed (and, she feared, laughed) and fled, and did not return until she was sure the professor had departed, hopefully to some other cunt.
She’d been unaccountably touched to find the bra and panties neatly folded into small silky triangles on the chair, the shoes underneath, their toes peeping out at her as if in shared embarrassment, though at his or hers she was never sure.
In the dark, her husband, who considered himself a feminist and would never, ever say the word cunt (she was certain he’d never even think it) finished moving above her and rolled off, punching up his pillow and drifting quickly of to sleep.