Sam lay on his back, his wife’s leg heavy on top of his, her tongue warm and slick against his neck, and inhaled as she slid her hand past his belly, paunchy again, into his pajama bottom. Her manicured nails, alarmingly long, scraped his skin. He twitched.
“Was that it? Did you feel something?”
From this close up she looked like a prison guard, her eyes an interrogation, scanning his face, skipping around as if to check dilation of pupils, sweat on forehead, a parting of lips, anything. He shook his head, dropped his eyes, and waited, along with her, to see if anything would happen. Nothing, and after a series of tugs and jerks that he felt were designed more to inflict punishment for not being able to fulfill his husbandly duties than any sincere attempt to excite him, she sighed deeply, took off her new silk nightgown, the pink tag still attached to the back, and placed it in the shopping bag.
“Well, that was the last reasonable idea I had.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
She snorted, a sound of deep dissatisfaction, and lay down next to him, her arm cold and foreign against his. He resisted the urge to move, stayed still and silent, and blinked instead at the ceiling fan, dimly visible in the light that spilled in from the open bathroom door.
After a while she asked, “Are things ever going to, I don’t know, be different?”
He knew she meant more than just his difficulties in the bedroom. He knew, too, that he was supposed to admire the fact that ever since his return, she had not pressed him for an immediate return to the old normal, had waited a few weeks until that morning, when in a flurry of cereal and emotion, she had struck him, her nail leaving a cut in his lip, and let her tears, and venom, loose. He stayed quiet.
“Well?” she said and, receiving no response, sighed again. “Can we at least turn the light off? Or can you still not sleep without it?”
At this, he laughed, louder than he had intended to, his guilt betraying him in that way. That light stood for everything: their disrupted life, her anger, and his jail cell where there had been no darkness at night. When her arm stiffened, he fell silent.
“Nothing.” He reached for her hand and kissed it quickly, in memory of a habit, and got up to turn the light off.
* * *
When she fell asleep, he tiptoed his way downstairs, looking for something to occupy him. Since his return, sleep did not come so easily to him, and he spent nights wandering the house, cataloging the ways in which it longer seemed to fit him. He wandered through the living room where the pictures of their wedding stared down at him from the wall above the TV, her smile not yet having disappeared along with the roundness of her face. The cushions on the sofa were in disarray, as if someone had thrown them there and forgotten. A pile of New Yorker magazines sat on the coffee table, still in their wrappings. He had been the one to establish order in their lives, and now, faced with dust and disarray, he found himself irritated.
In the kitchen, he opened and closed cabinets filled with junk food. “Your old favorites,” she had said and he, who had spent just over three years in the prison yard lifting weights and doing push-ups, wondered if he really had had that kind of abandon with his body. This was not how he remembered himself.
In the seven months they had been married, before he had found himself being handcuffed and carted off for embezzlement, he thought he was a controlled man. She had often laughed at his restraint as they stood in the kitchen, surrounded by flour and sugar, her licking chocolate icing off her fingers. The sight had simultaneously repulsed and attracted him, her smacking sounds of satisfaction, the creamy way she said “moist.” In the bedroom, too, his abandon had been her success, the slow opening up of his world: a trickle of fantasy until he was so far into wants that a lifetime of discipline had slipped away, and he had found himself living a life where nothing was in his control anymore.
Sam grabbed a bag of chips from the cabinet and moved to a corner of the kitchen, sliding his back down against the wall until he felt the cold tile beneath him. This familiar stance comforted him, a reminder of his home for the last three years. He coughed as he ripped the sides of the bag open, the crinkle loud in the quiet nighttime kitchen, and waited to hear if there was any movement. He then carefully placed one chip in his mouth, slowly sucking the salt out of the crispness before chewing, the habit of secrecy not quite having left him.
These moments of nostalgia hit Sam at the strangest of times. In the mornings, as he stood under the cold stream of water, eyes closed, he wanted the damp smell of bodies, the bar of soap his palms had become accustomed to. At night, he missed the rough edges of his prison blanket, the firm, unrelenting width of his pillow and, most of all, the quietness of his thoughts in the semidark after the cell lights turned off. There was nothing to do, nowhere to be, and in those moments he had found himself as present as he could have ever imagined.
The salt from the chips stung the cut on his lip, and he felt a prickle in his eyes. Letting the bag drop, he licked the wound, tasting the salty cut, enjoying the dull stinging. Here in this corner he could feel—and he liked it. He closed his eyes and imagined he was in his cell, tucked away at the end of the hallway. His wife’s smiling face, flanked by legs and bodies of women cut out from magazines, a reverse Medusa, looked down at him from the wall next to his bed. Her eyes had done it every time—that just-laughed glow of satisfaction, that head about to relax into a tilt, a picture from before they had married.
He kept licking the wound, ran his hand along the lower tip of lip, imagined it was her. Just as he used to imagine lying in his cell. She was smiling, hovering above him, and saying, “Are you okay, baby?” He felt a movement. Leaning his head back, he slid his hand inside his pajamas and touched himself. Thought again of how she had looked the first few times she came to see him in jail, her body wide and eager, spilling across the visiting room table; she had missed him. And he, too, finding himself unable to touch her, touching the table instead, drawing on it words like “love” and “I want you.”
His hand moved faster as he imagined lying on his bunk at night, in the dark, low light spilling in from the hallway, looking at her face, those eyes, the legs and arms, the smile, the distance between them. This imagining the imagined felt like a joke, but he could feel. He could feel more than she was able to make him feel. His lip hurt, his eyes stung, and he tried to imagine harder and harder until tears fell, and with a cry, he came.