Alexander V. Bach
The rules they had talked about for a while included that he be in the same room, that they both make the choice and that they would have no contact again with the man selected, which helped with the last rule–no names; he didn’t want any way for them to know each other, and he didn’t want any names said during the act. There were also stipulations they went over about the act itself, more appeasements and compromises than straight rules, things that they had felt should stay preserved in their past, such as her resting her chin on his shoulder, or running her fingers over his chest; she wasn’t allowed to be picked up or taken from behind (which she contended would be hard to step around, as it was difficult for her to come when she was facing him); and other things, both more grand and more minute, so that they were left with a sort of choreography. He needed to try, as much for her sake as well as theirs; a woman has needs a man in his position can’t possibly satisfy. Yes, if they were to going to make it, they would both have to make sacrifices.
Still, it didn’t feel right and he knew it wouldn’t, watching the upside-down heart of her ass—like two conjoined tear-drops cradled in the man’s virile hands— the rise and fall did things to his heart he could not have planned for.
Theirs had been a relationship spawned from youthful urgency and the acceptance that marriage would facilitate more money and the possibility of safer travels throughout his service career, an extra sliver of hope against their friends’ and cousins’ and classmates’ afflictions mortal and not: begging the question which was harder to deal with. That isn’t to say there wasn’t love, they had been attached to each other, adored each other, but theirs had never subscribed to the idyllic, romanticized couple their parents had read in the war stories of their youth.
The first night he had returned home after leaving the VA hospital in Fort Wayne he soaked in their tub while her hands dragged a warm washcloth over first his legs, then his feet, the bed sores on his hamstrings and calves, a mauve light glowing on the graying porcelain. He could see the splintered molding around the bathroom, damaged from water vapor and his absence, the framing nails poking through the three-quarter inch strip of wood like crooked, silver fangs. She had painted while he was away and he didn’t like the salmon color she’d chosen, still, the moment wasn’t right to bring it up.
She had taken her time, rubbed the muscles with the washcloth, with her hands, unsure of herself or of her techniques, enduring against her lack of confidence for a career she’d never thought to be dropped into, yet enduring, nonetheless. Guiding her hands in an ablutionary apology, occasionally taking the cloth from her and cleaning parts he felt more dignified to clean himself, watching her handle his legs, the heavy limbs made buoyant in the ever-chilling water, and he had cried, out of self-pity and shame. She dropped the cloth, put his legs down, and cradled his head in her arms; a six-foot-two child swaddled in the arms of a woman their ethos had sworn him to protect and provide for, and he cried harder.
He gripped the wheels of his chair against the grunting of the man, against her surmounting sighs and the clapping of the hotel headboard bouncing off paisley wallpaper (they both agreed it shouldn’t be done in their home), their images reversed and doubled in the dresser mounted mirror that faced the bed. The drapery of her hair fell over his forehead, shrouding their faces from him. He hoped they weren’t kissing—that hadn’t been explicitly said because he felt it explicitly unsaid—yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to voice his concern. The end of the first hour beat upon his will and upon the seated muscles collecting blood and formic acid in their unmoving vigil. The bed ticked, keeping time like a Swiss watch, and after each successive movement he wanted to ask if they were almost done but refrained as he didn’t want to ruin the momentum by speaking up as he had done earlier when things were just getting started, directing the action until scolded as being distracting, and he was forced to stop, forced to be quiet and to just…watch. Early on he had tried closing his eyes, tried to imagine the noises were from another room, from a porno he used to have, from an a priori life, all of which only increased his paranoia, and he kept them open, kept them vigilant; he would act the bailiff.
Their wedding had been a practical event, that is, just their immediate family and a handful of friends with whom they had grown up. The ceremony was done in her church with her pastor because she was not Catholic. Friends of his parents owned a local bar-and-grill and they were able to have the reception there, freeing them from having to pay the VFW or the gratuitous fees at the Marriot. Near the jukebox that alternated between Springsteen and Chesney there was a table for guests to place cards and gifts inside the mouth of a poster-board collage filled with pictures of toothless smiles, gymnastic competitions, recitals, a boy flexing with war paint in a Hulkamania T-shirt, a girl wearing her older sister’s clothes, football games, soccer games, a boy with shaggy hair kissing a bleached blonde girl in a halter top, a picture of a boy with buzzed head and a girl with brown, yellow-tipped hair wearing a stained, oversized Purdue sweatshirt, and an empty 3”x5” spot on which his mother had written “Grandchildren ?” in marker.
Their song had been “Born to Run” because he thought he did a good Springsteen impression when he was drinking and they would often end their nights out with his mimetic dance and gestures, pulling her into the open space allocated for dancing and carrying her about in exaggerated movements, picking her up and letting her wrap her legs around his waist as she then placed her hands on his “engines.” They recited the same dance in a brand new wedding dress and a rented tux, dancing on peanut shells, him kissing her neck and feeling her smile against his cheek, his mind lost in an etherized swell thinking about the future.
The pumping increased and he watched the man’s hands go white from the firmness of his grip on her ass—still taught with youth and the absence of childbirth—as he pulled her closer and picked up his pace. He grimaced watching her aqua fingernails slide over the man’s hands and wrap around his forearms, assisting his hold on her and allowing more of him inside of her. The blankets spilling off the bed knocked the plastic cocktail cups onto the floor, spilling limes, stirrer straws and empty nips of Bombay. He hated that she still drank Gin ‘n Tonics, being the last drink he’d ordered before a knife was stuck into his back–something Spanish whispered into his ear–and he had felt so much weight falling under him. She muttered “Oh God” and they switched positions, him on top of her holding her knees up to her chest, her tongue stroking her incisors before disappearing back into her mouth. On the man’s shoulder, now the closest body part to him, was a tattoo of some jungle cat or other, a black negative in the red light of the EXIT sign celestially hovering over the door.
The room next to theirs had, since their arrival, been playing the same lamentable German symphony over and over again, the same morose piano accompanying a horrifyingly sad tenor, stalking through the wall and wallpaper, and, after numerous repetitions, the German phrases began planting themselves in his head until the song ended, began and came back around again: “Still ist die Nact, es ru-hen die Gas-sen, in die-sem Hau-se wohn-te mein Schatz… Du Dop-pel-gän-ger, du blei-cher Ge-sel-le, was äffst du nach mein Lie-bes-leid.” The music was, needless to say, an eerie score for the event. After so many times, he wondered if perhaps the person next door hadn’t killed himself, herself; the hotel seemed like that kind of place.
They had tried to work things out on their own. He had called the initial phase of their experimentation “Sex For Eunuchs.” Their first move required that she lay naked on the bed, and he to wheel himself to her side, her head propped up on a pillow against the bare wall so their mouths could meet, close but not touching, breathing the other’s breath in a slow rhythm until they were both drunk on carbon-dioxide, as her hands manipulated her breasts before emigrating south. It was the act of tantalization that made it erotic, she had said. The whole time they had stared at each other’s eyes so pathetically and desperately hopeful that this would be enough for both of them, cognitively repressing the nagging doubt that it would not. He hated these “games” for his inaction. Their sex then shifted to her lying prostrate on his naked body while their intertwined hands moved over her, his hands guiding her masturbation, their masturbation, like a Ouija board.
They had tried toys and he would use them on her: his idea, and admittedly one in which her pleasure rode backseat to the need for him to feel he could still offer her some gratification. She couldn’t come and the sex became perfunctory. She needed more than machination, needed more than his elbow and shoulder working in-tune like a piston, needed the raw and idiosyncratic motion of two fumbling bodies, throwing each other out of symmetry, hitting each other’s pleasure points with accidentals; she needed the passing notes of sexual symphony, needed a force more than gravity pulling her down, pulling him more inside of her—a stabilizing hand on the crest of her ass…And how could he give that to her?
She had mentioned a strap-on once, and he had told her to “fuck off!” He didn’t want a “surrogate cock.” Then she asked what he thought the toys were which made him pout. But she had mentioned it again and he gradually became less reticent.
On a Saturday night after his consent, she had propped his head up on a throw pillow, bent his body to a sixty-degree angle, then removed his clothes one layer at a time: first a button, then another, pulling the shirt from his shoulders, sidling his pants down and yanking them—erotically, she had thought—from his ankles. He had looked down and seen his flaccid member underneath a veil of cotton briefs, had seen the tubes coming out the side, leading to the catheter and colostomy bags tied to the back of his chair sitting beside him. His chair: A vigilant nurse? A visage of sympathetic camaraderie? A beneficent voyeur? His fraternal twin of symbiotic necessity? She then climbed onto the bed, one hand balancing herself, the other waving the polyurethane priapus, a peevish smile on her face diminishing his confidence and heightening his unease and apprehension. As she bent down to his waist he had stopped her.
“I don’t want that…thing—look, can we just put a towel or a blanket underneath?”
She had scoffed but climbed off him and disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned she placed the towel over his hips and he spread it out to cover the bulge of his failed masculinity, making sure he could see only his abdomen disappearing into terry cloth shuddering quickly and shallow to match his breath. Then she reached underneath him and fastened the strap.
“Giddy-up,” she laughed, unaccompanied.
He had refused to do that again, and she didn’t object—which he was grateful for; but that had led to other talks, which led them to tonight.
Their vocals increased in volume and his head dropped to his lap (hands gripping the cold rails of the wheels) while hers was thrown back, eyes closed, a mouth full of mirth. Her fingers were interwoven with his. The carpet was silent under his wheels as he pulled the chair backward the equivalent of a step. Her head dropped to the man’s shoulder and he realized their agreements were more pudding than stone. He glided towards the partition separating the bedroom from the living area of the suite, towards a collapsible bed masquerading as a thin couch as her head pulled back slowly revealing, from her lip to her chin, a sparkling trail of saliva glittering in the faint luminescence of night. Silently still, his wheels moved along their invisible track and out of the bedroom against the primal noises, making no acknowledgment to his station’s departure. Gradually his spins became longer, moving him closer towards the door on which the edges of the fire escape routes were hastily painted over, opening the door at first only a crack, testing for noise and light from the bedroom. Hearing no disruption in their congress, he breached the threshold of the room and crossed into the yellow light of the hallway, sconces glowing like scattered coffee-stained teeth whose enamel has been chipped away, illuminated by the current of the hotel guests’ dirge. Fueled on the coal of his own escape to a blessed absentmindedness, he accelerated down the fake oriental carpeting, arms pumping the wheels and cycling back to apply pressure to the crests of his locomotion: his hands throwing the rails of the wheels to the ground again and again, feeling the folly of friction attempt to slow him.
Numbered doors flew past him down the long corridor, doors with similar anonymous atrocities. His vision narrowed to only the view of what was immediate: the carpet, the corridor, the lighted sconces on the wall. Rolling faster he failed to notice the wire-conduit hiccupped in the carpet, which caught the wheels and vaulted him into the stale air. His face rubbed hot against the short bristles of the carpet, scraping away a fine layer of skin; his elbows bruised under his cotton shirt and a sharp sting throbbing in his wrist. He groaned and after a minute lifted his hands to his face and felt little dabs of blood on his cheeks and forehead. Down his body his legs lay contorted and folded under each other, the trail of him spreading out in a thin line, like a bicycle-severed earthworm: his arms trying to right his body, his legs gnarled and useless, the twisted tubes attaching him to the bags of waste on the back of the chair standing sentinel over his writhing torso. Turning himself until he was on his back, he lied for a while on the coarse fabric, stirring and contemplating how he could manage to free himself from the weight and his entanglement. He rested the back of his head on the carpet and tried to catch his breath before attempting a return to freedom and dignity. He closed his eyes and reopened them on the burning incandescence of the sconce above him, where, as his gaze focused on the grey-brown dot inside the thin glass, he found a moth burning its wings upon the light bulb.
She drove home as the night waxed darker. There would be no sound slumber in that room. The couch would remain a couch; the bars of soap would remain packed in paper boxes next to vials of shampoo and conditioner, seals intact; the bed would remain as it was, with unfurled sheets and a permeating dampness.
As she drove he thought, Would there be others? Yes, probably. Not for a while, he knew. She had seen the look on his face as he had allowed the man’s hands, covered in sweat and her discharge, to lift him, to carry him, and place him delicately back in his chair while she cooed sympathetically, motherly, in his ear, wrapped with ample suggestion in a hotel towel, directing the man’s movement and stroking the back of the man’s head gratefully when he was back in place.
She drove smoothly—slowly and contentedly—looking at him now and then with reassuring smiles as if the night had merely been a trip to the dentist, a tooth pulled, a cavity filled, a necessary, singular event hurdled. He knew there’d be other times down the road, other men, other names agreeably repressed and discarded, new men taking up the role of Mr. Anonymous, The Mystery Man, Mr. E, together assembling a solitary cloaked man known only by function…because, after all, it had worked; because, simply, she would have to. He knew he would object, knew they would fight, and in the resolve—a week? a month? a year?—they would talk in quiet terms in an attempt to smother the pity and shame and reproach in the other’s voice. Then there would be a point when he would give in.
They would find a new man, they would seek him out at a bar or hotel, in classified ads, chat rooms; they would reserve a room somewhere cheap but in the echelon above the hourly payment establishments. He would sit and watch, maybe he would leave the room again; maybe he would be still and defeated and patiently wait for her to come. Maybe, down the road, he would refuse to go with her. Maybe she would put up a fit, saying how she needed him there, how his presence was in their agreement, in their rules, but she would resign that maybe the best thing would be for her to go alone, for him to stay, seeing how hard it was on him. She would leave, kissing him on the forehead, and return several hours later drunk and giddy. He would have put himself to bed, and she would climb in on his side and stroke the skin behind his ear.
He could see this as clearly as he could see the lines on the road and the bugs crashing clandestine against the windshield. He could read the future on her face in the light of the dash, in the scrapes on his hands and face, in her lane changing and acceleration, in the diaphanous reflection of themselves in the tempered glass against the dirty, humid night. Yes, months, years, from now, she’ll leave the house longer and longer, and he’ll stay because it’s consistent, because it’s necessary, because–who else would have him? He’ll stay home, picking at his dinner, guffawing at the droll dialogue from some sitcom or other, listening for the six-cylinder whir of their modified mini-van to turn up the drive, pause, idle before cutting out, while he remains inside, dreading, hoping, fearing, praying she’ll come back with a name.