I used to spend an inordinate amount of time considering what other people were like in bed. The scenarios I imagined were not poetically beautiful moments between two loving souls, but more a desperate collection of limbs interspersed with bodily functions and guttural noises—pornography without choreography.
I asked Todd if he ever thought about what other people were like in bed.
“What, like other women?”
“No, like anyone.”
I don’t think he got what I meant, so I explained. The obese physical education teacher who constantly rearranged his balls while he divided the kids into teams? I had him pegged as a two-minute man, one who didn’t bother to take his socks off in bed. The kind of guy who belched right after he climaxed. The scrawny little librarian who passed her age-speckled hands over the covers of my loaned books? I had her figured for a dynamite lover. A sweet lady who whipped up wicked good scrambled eggs the morning after and patted you on the hand as a kind of thank you. When I got to the bagger at Kroger—the one you can tell is a little different—Todd cut me off.
“Jesus, Melinda. You’re fantasizing about a retarded guy?”
“He’s not retarded. And, no, I’m not fantasizing. I’m just … curious, I guess.”
“How is it any different than you looking at your magazines?”
“It just is.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe I didn’t know where to draw the line. In my case, everybody—or every body—was fair game.
I can see now that it was more than a casual curiosity that drove me to these thoughts. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel completely empty inside. When I look back at childhood photos, I squint to recall the event that prompted the picture, all the while recognizing the emptiness that hung over me like an invisible friend no one else could see and I could go nowhere without.
Attempts to fill the void involved food. As a baby, when I was hungry, I cried. When food wasn’t brought fast enough, I shrieked. In between shrieks, my parents would shovel food into my mouth and I’d suck it in and aspirate. The pictures don’t lie. There I am on my first birthday—a cloth-diapered behemoth surrounded by a pile of unopened gifts—gutting and devouring a cake with both hands and wearing an expression of presents be damned! That kind of thing is cute when you’re a baby, even when you’re a toddler.
But when, as an adult, you purchase and eat every last crumb of your birthday cake by yourself, no one cares what the reason is. No one cares about your struggle to quell an insatiable loneliness.
Just before I met Todd, I’d had some luck on a new diet. One of those fad diets—eat all you want every other day, go meatless on Monday, skip carbs Tuesday, stand on one leg and squawk like a chicken Wednesday. You get the picture. I got the hang of it enough to lose thirty pounds.
At first Todd’s presence took the place of food. I gorged on the thought of him and “us” to the point of intoxication. However, when the newness of our relationship wore off, the emptiness returned. So did my love affair with food.
I made secret plans throughout the day as to when and where to have my next snack. Sweet? Salty? Both? Before I knew it, I was back in my “fat clothes,” telling myself it was only temporary.
From either the guilt of not being able to control myself, or Todd constantly asking, “Are you going to eat all that?” I dropped into a pit of shame equal to being caught cheating. Which, in a way I guess I had.
One night after Todd and I had just finished up a sexual interlude, an image came to me. A new second grade teacher had been hired at the elementary school where I taught. She had this malformed, child-size arm that dangled from her torso. Nice lady, really. Not deserving of my libidinous thoughts at all. I’m sure she had enough struggles in her life already. Anyway, for whatever reason I started thinking about her and that tiny arm.
What would her lover be like? The word selfless came to mind. Someone who wanted to make love to her so badly he’d see beyond her flaw, maybe even embrace it. He wouldn’t be afraid to touch her arm. In fact, he’d plant delicate kisses all over it. Then he’d take her face in his hands and tell her how beautiful and unique she was, and mean every word of it.
I tried to put the beauty of the scene into words but Todd didn’t want to hear it.
“You’re crying over some deformed chick’s sex life? Goddammit Melinda, what is wrong with you?”
The talk escalated from there. Ironic, Todd calling me a pervert. I kept my thoughts to myself after that. No sense in letting Todd down any more than I already had. I worked on concealing my meanderings. The hardest part was trying to hide my facial expressions, which Todd claimed were a dead give away to my “sick” thoughts.
I didn’t bother to explain to Todd how whenever I thought about the sex lives of others it filled me up inside. How could I explain something I barely understood myself?
Often times I try to picture some man I run across acting like Todd. I can’t seem to find anyone who looks the part; who might pull my hair a little too hard, push himself into me a little too deep even after I’ve quietly said, “ow.” One guy I saw pumping gas at the Kwik Sak seemed capable of coming home with a magazine and some accessories and pleading for things that I’d never even heard of before. But, other than him, I can’t recall any others.
So, I snacked on those bite-sized images instead of food and ended up losing a few more pounds. Weird how something that pissed Todd off so much could also bring me success. You can’t win for losing. Or maybe you can’t lose for winning?
About a week before Todd’s annual work party, I still hadn’t made up my mind whether to go or not. Though Todd hadn’t asked, I told him I was concerned about how all the major players of the company were going to be there. My real concern: I didn’t know anybody. I’d feel lonely. I’d do something to fill myself up. Something Todd didn’t like.
“I always end up saying something incredibly misplaced when I’m in a pressure cooker situation like that,” I told Todd.
“Yeah and I can’t be babysitting you all night. If you’re going, you need to keep that in mind.”
“I don’t need babysitting.” And with that statement I locked myself into going.
That night Todd toured the crowd acting like the model employee while I hovered near the food table. I’d just shoved another jalapeno popper into my mouth when some guy backed into me. He apologized all over the place then introduced himself and his wife. Brett and Alecia McSomebody. I introduced myself, garbling around the scalding, cheesy mess in my mouth.
“From the North Street office?”
“No. I’m Todd’s girlfriend.”
Alecia cocked her head at me as if to ask, who?
“LeFevre. Todd LeFevre,” I said.
“Oh, oh, oh.” Alecia said. “LeFevre’s had a terrific year. Absolutely banner.”
“If he keeps it up, he’ll be in the running for our Agent of the Quarter,” Brett added.
I wondered how many years of marriage it took for them to perfect their one-two punch way of talking. They were otherwise so mismatched.
Alecia stood about five inches taller than Brett and towered over me. Her legs were long and sinewy, like pulled taffy. I imagined those legs wrapped around Brett, squeezing the life out of him in a candy hug. Brett would be the one on top, sweaty. His face buried just below her manly shoulders until he satisfied her.
Stop! I pleaded with myself to switch gears entirely; consider their statistics. Summer home: 5,000 square foot ranch overlooking Lake Tahoe. Education: Ivy league. So-so grades. Car make and model: Matching Lexus LS460’s—something big enough to accommodate Alecia if she felt like getting frisky in the back seat after a PTA meeting.
“So, you both work at Krieg?” I asked in a desperate attempt to move on.
Alecia and Brett laughed as if I’d just delivered the punch line to a very long joke. I could feel my face turning red and my throat constricting. If I laughed along with them it would mean I was in on the joke. If I didn’t laugh, they’d know how big of an ignoramus I truly was. Put in this position, I resorted to more comforting thoughts. By the time Todd showed up I’d just concluded Alecia would most certainly make Brett sleep in the wet spot. No post-coital cuddles for her.
My face revealed my thoughts. Todd pinched the back of my neck in what might’ve appeared to be a loving manner, but signaled to me that I’d better, Cut this shit out. Right now. He smiled a smile I’d never seen before, like he’d just let out a bad fart and was waiting apologetically for the stench to reach them. Todd asked about their flight in and the conversation seemed to go on forever in a ridiculous amount of detail. I excused myself and headed to the dessert table. He stood there and talked and laughed. At one point all three of them were staring at me. Alecia and Brett grinning, Todd giving me the stink-eye. We left a few minutes later.
Todd drove home NASCAR-style without uttering a word. I could tell he was mad at me. Had my eating embarrassed him? Or pissed him off? He jerked the car to a stop in the driveway and said, “Get out.” I did as he said. I barely got the passenger door closed before he backed down the driveway, ran over the mailbox and peeled out.
Once I got inside and my hands stopped shaking, I opened a new pint of ice cream; dug out chunks of chocolate and ate them in the dark, binged on sea salt potato chips, M & M’s, and leftover chicken potpie. I went over and over the conversation I’d had with the McWhoevers. What had I missed?
I came to around four in the morning to Todd stumbling in through the front door. One whiff and I could tell he’d been at Dooley’s Pink Palace giving his money away again. He smelled like Mad Dog 20/20 and vomit. When he came in he didn’t say anything to me, just looked at me like see what you made me do, and headed to the bathroom. I heard the toilet flush and the shower come on. I knocked on the door and waited. When Todd didn’t answer, I went in and stood beside the mirrored shower door.
“Todd,” I said.
“Not now, Melinda.”
“Please, just tell me what I did wrong.”
Several minutes went by. The bathroom fogged up some and I lost sight of my reflection in the mirror.
“They’re the owners, Melinda. The owners. You can’t remember that without an org chart?”
He was right, of course. A good girlfriend would commit certain names to memory.
“I bet if I gave you an org chart you’d just use it to think up a bunch of sick shit.”
He was right again. I probably would consider what kind of things each one of those self-important morons said to their wives during sex. The meaningless words that stream out of their mouths during what’s supposed to be an act of love. According to Todd, the things that get said during sex don’t mean anything.
I sincerely hope he’s right about that.
“I’m sorry,” I said over the squeal of the shower turning off. I unfolded a towel and held it out for Todd. He raked back the shower curtain and snatched the towel out of my hands. He dried all around his torso and down to his crotch. His penis looked like a recoiled party favor, inching away from me in disgust.
“Yeah, well, sorry doesn’t cut it this time. I’ve had enough of your bullshit.” He threw his towel down and pushed past me.
My first thought: is he leaving me? Then: look at yourself. Of course he is. You’re a stupid cow. I crumpled onto the bathroom tile and cried, sobbed right into his wet towel. I grabbed the extra fold on my gut, got a good handful of fat and squeezed. Moved down to my thighs and slapped the excess gathered there.
Todd came in. He stepped over me to the sink and brushed his teeth. As soon as he left, I climbed into the bathtub, pulled the shower curtain around me and let the hot water roll over me, wishing it would melt my skin and boil my bones down small enough to get sucked into the drain.
Next thing I knew, I was in front of the medicine cabinet counting the Vicodin pills again, entertaining how nice it would be if I wasn’t around anymore; if I found a black hole and slipped into it forever. I wallowed for a few minutes, imagined Todd’s remorse when he’d find the empty bottle of pills next to my lifeless body. As usual, as soon as I pictured the part where Todd might actually put words to his regret, all I could hear him say was, “You took all my Vicodin!” No, it wasn’t quite time for Vicodin.
I changed out of my wet clothes, washed my face and wrapped my hair in a towel. If I couldn’t kill myself, I’d kill Todd. With kindness. I made corned beef hash, dicing up the onions real small the way Todd likes. He didn’t eat with me but I heard him moving around the kitchen after I went to bed.
For a few days I walked around like a ghost, quietly hovering in the shadows near Todd, trying not to be seen. Eventually he stopped avoiding me, stopped glaring at me. When he came to bed instead of sleeping on the couch, I knew we’d be okay. Sex was the next step in his forgiveness. I forced myself to relax and go with the flow. I didn’t flinch, not even when he got to the rougher stuff he liked. Intimacy comes at a price, I told myself.
Everything was sailing along in the right direction until last night.
There I was, in the living room alone with my Doritos, when an update came on TV about Camille Hixson, who, at age sixteen, had made headlines for being a concubine of fifty-six year old cult leader Freddy Lovar. The mini documentary focused on how Camille’s life had turned out in the years since Freddy had been arrested for statutory rape and she’d been deprogrammed. The national news played and replayed the footage of Freddy getting cuffed and Camille clawing at the police while they dragged her away from him. The story got so much airtime it became America’s pet fish in a glass bowl.
I considered turning the TV off but something about this woman drew me in. She wasn’t a half-bad looking girl now. Back when the world first caught up with her, though, she’d been used and abused by Lovar and then fileted by the media. I remembered her as disheveled and angry, like a wild animal. Now, here she was this calm woman with zero chance of bashing an interviewer over the head to get to her “master” like she’d reportedly once done.
The interviewer recapped past events for the audience and then asked Hixson about her current life. I opened my bag of Doritos and leaned back into the couch.
All right, I thought. Fill me in.
Hixson said before she’d hooked up with Lovar she’d considered herself an average girl. She’d had normal hopes for her future like passing her driver’s test, finding a boyfriend, and going to prom. She’d never even heard of cults prior to meeting Lovar, and had no idea she’d been recruited into one until she learned of it in the deprogramming process.
“I didn’t believe it at first. But, slowly I began to see just how vulnerable I was back then. I liked anyone who liked me. And here was this man who liked me. Unfortunately, that man was Freddy. He honed in on my vulnerability and was able to lure me into being his,” she hesitated, “…sex slave. It’s still hard to believe.”
The interviewer asked Hixson how she was doing now, emotionally. The camera zoomed in on her face. Her smile was easy. Her eyes, confident. I’d never seen her look as beautiful as she did then. She straightened up in her seat and stared right into the camera as if she’d been waiting a lifetime to answer the question.
“Here’s what I’ve figured out in these past years. There’s a big disparity between the life we think we’re living and the life we’re actually living. I mean, I thought Freddy loved me and I believed I was in love with him. But what we had wasn’t love. It was an illusion.”
“That bimbo’s still around?” Todd’s voice startled me. I hadn’t noticed him come into the room. He reached one hand into the Doritos bag on my lap and held out his other hand for the remote.
“We all live in some kind of illusion,” Camille continued. “It’s just that some illusions are better than others.”
Todd rolled his eyes and sighed. “Give it here,” he said, motioning again for the remote, “I can’t stand to hear this freak talk anymore.”
I didn’t budge.
Amber Colleen Hart is the author of the short story collection No Landscape Lasts Forever, which earned her a silver medal in the 2017 Independent Book Publisher’s Awards. Her stories have been published in Neon, Cheat River Review, Gravel, Lumina, and Ponder Review, among others. She currently resides in Columbia, Tennessee.
Image: Flickr / steve