Traffic had slowed to a halt on the Beltway. I was tired. I wanted a shower; Sarah would probably make me shave; I needed a drink. As far as I could see in front of me, the jeweled highway was blinking: diamonds of headlights and rubies of taillights reflected in the cars' own August heat. No one was honking. These were all professional two-hour-a-day commuters, like me, NPR-listeners, hands-free cellphone freaks, feverish book-on-tape consumers, and they knew it was pointless.
There had probably been an accident, some fenderbender that had snarled into hundreds of microwaved dinners and frantic reschedulings. Or maybe there was some construction up ahead. A pretty woman I knew at work told me that she called the Department of Transportation every week so she could avoid the scheduled construction that seemed to dog commuters year-round. I remembered thinking at the time how smart that was, how I should do that and shave a few minutes off my drive home. I remembered looking at her full breasts, then down, away, at the high, rounded curve of her belly. She'd be taking leave soon, she said, for the baby.
Tonight I was in no hurry to shave minutes off my commute, to get home to Sarah and our quiet house. Tonight I was content to sit on the Beltway and postpone the dread for half an hour, forty-five minutes more. Tonight was sex night again.
It had started two years ago, with a flush and a bad pun: Sarah and I had watched together as she'd sent her birth control pills down the toilet. When she was done, she'd looked up at me with those laughing brown eyes and said, “Oh, baby.” If I hadn't been standing so close to her in the tiny bathroom, I might not have noticed that she was breathing as though she'd been running.
I bent down to her, my own pulse so loud in my ears that I wondered if she could hear it, and lifted her, her legs wrapped awkwardly around my waist, and carried her to the bed. Sex that day was an impossible surprise, an urgency, a responsibility that pushed us off into unknown waters. We hadn't even bothered to pull back the covers, and Sarah'd had the marks of the chenille bedspread on her fair skin for hours afterwards. I'd suckled the nipples that might one day feed my children, and when my body stiffened in impending orgasm, pouring like quicksilver into her, it was Sarah who cried out, “Yes! Yes!” and laughed aloud.
That month, though, she had her period, regular as clockwork. She was philosophical about it. “Nobody gets pregnant on the first try, Adam,” she said.
I was sitting on the edge of the bed, my shirt off, one shoe in my hand. I knew that as well as she did, and she knew that I knew. It was the first in a series of tiny false notes, the first sign that she was going to pretend she didn't need reassuring, not Sarah Wilson. Though that first barrier was easy enough to step past: I stood up, awkward in one shoe, and took her in my arms. It only took a moment's hesitation for her to relax, unhappy, into them.
“It's okay,” I said, hoping it was true, holding her body close.
“I know,” she answered. “I just hate the feeling that when my body does exactly what it's supposed to do, it's betraying me.” Her voice was muffled against my bare chest, and the feeling of her warm lips moving against my skin was giving me a hard-on. I ignored it — not coming on to your wife when you're supposed to be comforting her is an important relationship nugget — but Sarah looked up at me. Her lashes were wet, but her dimples were showing. “Well, hello there,” she said, and laced her fingers through my belt-loops. She began rolling her hips slowly against mine, point to point, feeling my hardness, making me harder. My hands came up to cup her breasts, and I kissed her, forcefully enough to hurt a little. Maybe I was relieved that the crisis seemed to be past. When we surfaced for air, it looked like she was fighting giggles, or maybe more tears. “Enjoy the freelance while you can,” she said, and pulled me by my belt-loops onto the bed, where relief came in a different form.
The next month, the poetry and booklight on Sarah's bedside table made way for a thermometer and a temperature chart. She'd been to websites, she'd talked to friends. “We have to be scientific about this,” she kept saying.
“Okay,” I said, and meant it.
Her chin went up. “You don't have to keep track,” she said, calmly enough. She was sitting too far away for me to hear her breathing.
“Sarah, dammit,” I said. Started over, keeping my voice even. “Sarah. I want to be part of this. I have to be part of this, but I also want to.” I waited for a response. Nothing. I felt helpless. I wanted to ask her not to leave, but that was ridiculous. “Just — keep me with you, okay?” Ridiculous. She lowered her brown eyes, as if considering, then nodded noncommittally. She didn't say a word.
Three days later, I was reading in bed. Sarah rolled toward me, put a tentative hand on my thigh, and said, “It's time, Adam.”
Startled, I said, “What?”
“I'm supposed to be — it's time.”
“Oh,” I said, catching on, “oh, good! Great,” and, putting my book on the floor with one hand, I put my hand on her waist with the other and pulled her toward me. Her color was high on the fair skin, and she came hard and long, clenching her fists on the sheet beneath her.
Two weeks later, she had her period.
After eight months of trying with no success — all shake and no bake, as Sarah memorably put it — we went to the doctor together. The doctor, a blonde woman of about thirty-eight, asked questions we had both anticipated, and we gave smooth, practiced answers. Yes, Sarah's temperature charts indicated she was ovulating. Yes, we practiced intercourse on the recommended days. No (I answered with a large, insincere smile), I was not wearing “tighty whiteys.”
The doctor drew blood from Sarah's arm, the two female heads together, one dark, one light. I got a sterile jar and an antiseptic room to beat off in. I thought of Kathy Dieter from college, her sweet tanned haunches in front of me, the way I went without textbooks and would cheerfully have gone without food to afford condoms for our noisy, sweaty, carefree fucking.
All the tests came back normal, we were told on our second visit. The pathways seemed to be clear; my sperm was within normal limits; Sarah had all the right hormones.
“There isn't much we can do,” said the doctor, raising her hands, apparently to show the futility of modern medicine in these mysterious affairs. Sarah sat beside me in a blue dress and sneakers. Her hands lay in her lap, soccer Madonna. “Sometimes it just takes some time and no one knows why.”
Afterwards, in the car, we sat for a moment in silence. Then, unexpectedly enough that I started in my seat, Sarah hit the door with the side of her clenched fist. “No one knows why? Jesus Christ, some expert she is. I bet she didn't even send off that blood for testing.” She hit the door again, harder this time. “She probably just eyeballed it and decided nothing was wrong.”
“My sperm, too,” I said helpfully. “Probably has a little collection in her freezer. For the special cocktail parties.” Sarah snorted, and her shoulders relaxed a tiny bit, but she didn't really think it was very funny.
That night, after I finished a long run, I went into the bathroom and started running myself a bath. I was achy and tired, looking forward to the water, as hot as I could bear it, on my sore muscles.
“What are you doing?” said Sarah from the doorway. Her voice was sharp.
“Running a bath,” I said, looking at her.
“What do you mean, running a bath? A hot bath?”
“Of course, a hot bath.” The mirror was starting to steam up. What was she talking about?
“Don't you even want a baby?” I was starting to feel angry and punch-drunk, my calves trembling with exhaustion. Then I understood.
“Sarah. There's nothing wrong with me. With my sperm. The tests—”
“Well, there goddamn well will be if you boil it,” she said. “And are you saying that there is something wrong with me?”
“No! Jesus!” But she was gone. We made it up, of course, and she cried and I held her. But I quit taking baths. One more thing under suspicion. Or two, if you meant my balls.
Every month after that, Sarah spun a little faster, and her focus became a little narrower, and her loathing for the Kotex pads under the sink became a little blacker. She wasn't crazy. She wasn't even obsessed, not really. But some of the light went out of those brown eyes, and she walked too fast, past playgrounds full of shouting kids and past certain topics of conversation. Once, we were at a party for someone at Sarah's office, and a woman we were talking to started a smiling question, “So, when are you two —” She never got the chance to finish. Sarah tripped on an invisible line in the carpet and spilled her drink everywhere. We left shortly after that, Sarah needing to change into something clean.
I didn't bring it up, after the party. It wasn't easy for me to be part of Sarah's spin, wondering whether I was expected at any given moment to be intuitive, clairvoyant or tougher than a fifteen-cent steak. Easier, much easier, not to have noticed her narrowed mouth, the breathing that was almost panting, before the incident got lost in the apologies.
Our sex life got narrower, too: the important part became the carefully-timed coupling three or four times mid-month, followed each time by an hour in bed to let my sperm make its way through Sarah's womb. I would lie beside her, looking at her cool, remote profile, her chin pointing at the ceiling. Sometimes I would close my eyes and imagine the child we hoped for. Usually it was a girl who looked exactly as I imagined Sarah had when she was a baby, with coffee-brown eyes and hair. Just once, half-dreaming, I saw a tiny boy with my own blue eyes looking back at me. He opened his mouth. It hurts, he said, and I suddenly woke to find Sarah looking at me in the twilight, an unreadable expression on her face.
It had to break sometime. One day I was lazily masturbating in the bedroom, thinking I was alone for an hour at least, and she walked in on me. She stood in the doorway, her eyes round with disbelief and something else, and the something else grew as my dick wilted. She waited as I zipped my pants and then turned and went into the living room. Good, I thought. Take it out of the bedroom for a change. But it didn't turn out that way.
“Adam, I just don't even know what to say to you.”
“Because I was jacking off? Oh, come off it, Sarah.”
“It's sex night tomorrow night.”
“And I'm supposed to be a monk or something? Sarah, it's been almost ten days since we had sex. You can't just ask me to abstain except for three days a month.”
“Why not? I don't exactly ask you to do very much on those three days, do I?”
“No, that's exactly it,” I said. I wasn't shouting, but I was standing very close to her, and I could feel the tendons standing out in my neck. “Exactly it. All I am any more is a boner. A boner and a donor. Night deposit. Not a husband, not a partner. And all because I can't be a father.” Or because you can't be a mother. It hung in the air, unsaid.
“Be a father?” She almost spat the words. “You don't even make me come any more.”
I was so angry I could hardly see. I'd fought her on that, showed her studies that said female orgasm could help conception, that it might even be the purpose of the whole delicate business. She'd refused, been immovable, said she'd read it could force sperm out of the body.
I didn't raise my hand to her. But I didn't sleep with her that night, either, or the next, or the next. We nursed our bruises and our distrust under the same roof, slowly recovering from what had been said, and what had not. One night I found that the nest of blankets I'd made on the couch was gone; I took it as an invitation. Things were fragile, friable around the edges, but the center seemed all right still, to me. I didn't know how it seemed to Sarah.
It was dark by the time I finally made it through the traffic jams on the Beltway and pulled into the driveway. I switched the car off and sat for a moment, listening to the tick of the engine, rubbing at the delicate skin under my eyes. Two years. I was starting to feel all but superfluous. This seemed to be Sarah's argument with herself, something I was less and less a part of. I thought again of my coworker, her breasts and belly, the way she'd abruptly admitted to me one day over coffee that the baby had been an accident. She was happy now, she hastened to assure me, smiling, but at first!... An accident.
These thoughts were too familiar. I pushed them away and went inside. I noticed on my way through the garage that Sarah's car wasn't there, and the house was dark and still. I tried to remember: was this her night for ballet class? I found a note stuck to the microwave: “Out. Eat. Love. S.”, and I took a sandwich into the den with me.
But I wasn't really hungry. And I couldn't concentrate on the ball game. Where was Sarah? She was always home when I got home. I got up and walked around restlessly. Maybe she'd waited for me to get home and decided I was being late on purpose. No, she knew traffic around here. And as if giving in to something that had been there all along, I wondered, with a sudden desperate unhappiness, if she was with someone else. Someone who could give her what she wanted so badly. I stood for a moment, my head lowered, my thoughts full of this idea: some other man's prick in my wife's cunt, some other man's child in my wife's belly, some hunger satisfied. Then I shook myself, as if coming out of a dream or a fever. Sarah was shopping, or she was out with a friend, or she was at a movie, or she was watching the goddamn Chippendales, for all I knew. She would tell me when she got home. I was going to sit on the couch and eat my sandwich and watch my baseball game and be sensible. So I waited.
I must have fallen asleep in front of the television. I awoke with its blue light flickering over me in the dark room, aware that it had suddenly fallen silent. “Shhhh,” breathed a warm voice in my ear. What? I thought. I felt half-stunned. And then a warm, wet mouth enveloped my earlobe. I drew breath sharply and tried to turn my head, but felt a fierce little nip. “Shhhh,” said the voice again, and warm lips began to trail open kisses down the tendon in my neck toward the hollow of my throat. I had an erection already. I couldn't remember the last time she... the last time we had been like this.
I closed my eyes and raised one hand toward the weight beside me on the couch. Terrycloth; a warm scent of skin and soap; finally, one warm breast falling sweetly into my hand like a ripe apple, with a nipple almost painfully hard. I could hear her breathing, fast and light, as I moved my thumb over the nipple, flicking it with the nail. Her hand rested at the inside of my knee for a moment, then moved up over the fabric of my pants, over and over, light strokes up my inner thighs that just grazed my balls. My cock was throbbing, pushing at my zipper.
I fumbled for the tie of her robe and opened it to find her other breast, but she stopped me when I tried to slide it off her shoulders. “Ah ah,” she whispered warm in my ear. “I need that.” Then her fingers were at my waistband, freeing the button and letting her knuckles slowly drag the length of my cock as she slid the zipper down. One heartbeat, and then the wet heat of her mouth was hungry on the head of my cock. I groaned aloud. It had been more than a year since Sarah had tasted me; not a useful position for conception. My buttocks clenched as she began: Sarah was very good at this. Her tongue swirled around the head, vibrated for a moment on the underside of the swollen glans, tenderly stroked the length of my cock. Jesus. Suction now, with tiny dancing movements of the tip of her tongue that sent pulses of pleasure through me. I couldn't stop gasping. My hips were beginning to thrust involuntarily.
Sarah's suction stopped. I froze, and her mouth left my cock. Right, I thought, trying to control my breathing, my mind almost clear for a moment. It's sex night, can't come like this.
Then I heard a crinkle.
I opened my eyes. By the flickering light of the television, I could see my wife's serious, lovely, focused face, concentrating on something in her hands. A condom. I shut my eyes again before she could catch me looking at her, my thoughts whirling. What the hell was she doing? Why— but then I felt one of Sarah's hands gently cup my balls, stroking, and then slide up to caress my throbbing penis, and all questions fled.
She didn't say a word of explanation. Her touch was not tentative. For each millimeter she rolled the condom down, she stroked back up the length of my cock, apparently checking the fit and ensuring quality control. Down a little, back up again. Down a little more. I was gritting my teeth, sensitive almost beyond bearing, the pressure in my balls growing each moment. When the ring of latex finally reached the base of my cock, I made a sound in my throat somewhere between a sob and a growl, and pulled her to me, onto my lap, straddling my thighs. I reached between her legs, my warm fingers finding her center, and separated her pussy lips, releasing a flood of her slick wetness. That was what I needed to know. This was not just about me.
But Sarah wasn't waiting. She had her hand on my sheathed cock, and she was wriggling hips and thighs, and she was pulling her robe out of the way, and — now — my cock was at her entrance. I met her eyes. Her face was flushed. With one thrust I was inside her, inside Sarah, deep inside, one of her nipples in my mouth, my first two fingers on either side of her clit, a marble drowning in oil. Her hands were in my hair, pulling just hard enough to hurt a little but not enough — no, never enough to distract me from this.
“You,” she was saying in my ear, “you, you, Jesus keep doing that, yes, you, I want you, I don't care, I just want you, oh fuck yes, you matter, Adam Adam Adam I want you just you just you Adam Adam Adam yes yes! yes!” I was thrusting hard, feeling it in the muscles in the small of my back, cupping her ass with one hand and rubbing her clit over and over with the other, and she was riding me, her thighs working. I could feel my orgasm like a copper spring, wound tighter and tighter, then ah God sudden sharp release, and her voice was a husky laughing shriek and mine was a shuddering ohhhhhh, and then I was holding her tight to me and it was over, but something had changed.
Sarah kissed me on each eyelid. Her face was serious, but there was a hint of a smile as she carefully disengaged from my deflated penis.
Semen trickled down her left thigh.
We looked at each other, aghast for one unthinking moment. In the dim light, my appalled wife looked about sixteen. “Jesus, Adam,” she said. “The fucking condom broke.”
Then the dam burst. A snicker turned into a giggle turned into a roar. Sarah's helpless, dissolved, high-pitched gasps sent her reeling, rubber-legged, for the couch next to me; I sat, ridiculous with my pants around my ankles, and simply brayed with laughter. I laughed and laughed, my head tilted back, powerless to stop, until my stomach hurt and all the little muscles in my abdomen felt rubbery and weak. Just as I was beginning to wind down, slowly gaining control with hitching gasps, I could hear Sarah start in again next to me, and that sent me off again, whooping. Sarah leaned against me, shaking, and I dimly perceived that she was crying as well as laughing, her face streaming with tears. I pulled her close, unable to stop even then; the sight of the crumpled condom on the floor sent us both into another fit of hysterical giggles. Two years. What in fuck's sake were we doing?
I wiped at my eyes, a lump in my throat, still hooting a little with laughter, and looked at Sarah. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but she was more or less under control, only the occasional hiccup escaping her. “Sarah,” I said. My voice sounded oddly strained, shaky. “Come on, give. What was that all about?” I didn't dare say the word “condom” for fear it would set us off again.
She looked at me for a moment without saying anything, then shrugged a little. “I wanted a break,” she said. “I wanted to fuck you, just you, not your — not your sperm, if you know what I mean. I wanted it to be just the two of us, not the two of us plus all the shit in the way.” She looked at the condom on the floor, and this time we were in no danger of laughing. “It didn't work, though, did it?”
I shook my head, but not in negation. “You didn't have to do that,” I said. I pulled her to me, started kissing her face gently, the corners of her eyelids, the angle of her jaw, her cheekbones, the tip of her nose. She was crying again, but quietly now, no trace of hysteria. “You didn't have to do that,” I repeated. Soft kisses. I was thinking: now what?
Now what? As always, the short questions have the long answers. For us, here, now, it has turned out to be a daughter, Alice Namikim Wilson. Alice is the name we decided on for a girl when we began; Namikim is the name her mother gave her back in Korea. It was a small death for Sarah, I think, giving up a little on the idea of having a child of our own, but it was a birth, too, in a way. Alice has Sarah's coffee-brown eyes, even if she didn't get them from Sarah.
And when she laughs, hooting and pointing, she sounds just like me.