“Just hold me.”
After exhilarating sex – and a few times instead of – she wanted to be held. So close there was no space between. His arm under her neck, her head in the crook of his shoulder. Her arm crossing his chest so that her breast rested on his pec while her hand stroked his neck, played with his ear lobe or the curl of his hair. Her thigh thrown across his leg so that her foot caressed the inside of his ankle. She felt the rumble of his chest as he laughed with delight. He felt the weight of her desire for his physical presence and the sigh of her satisfaction.
“Let’s stay like this forever.”
“If only. But there are planes to catch and clients to appease and bills to pay …”
“Thanks for ruining a beautiful moment.”
“But I can promise you I’ll never forget. That forever I will come back to this moment. That when someone suggests that I find my bliss, I will be right here. Just like this, wrapped in you.”
+ + +
I thought it was worth one last try. As the sunny day turned into a dusky evening, I determined that I would ask outright for time alone with James and open myself to re-establishing our intimacy – if that was even possible. During dinner at the seaside restaurant, I looked for indications of the evening plans and as we left, I maneuvered myself close to James.
“Can I ask you to hang back with me? Maybe drop the rest of the gang off at the house and take the car on to Seaside Slim’s?”
“Uh, sure. That sounds like a plan. Mark seems beat and the young bloods have women to meet, so a nightcap at Slim’s sounds like a good end to the day,” he agreed.
I had not heard about the women that Raleigh and Luke planned to meet but I am sure they had met a lot of women I never heard about. Raleigh was in college and not predisposed to share intimacies with his mother, so I would have to wait until one of these women was worthy of my acquaintance. Or my son wanted me to pay for her dinner.
Seaside Slim’s was bar we had frequented for many years when we visited Hilton Head. It was a small shack the first time we bought a drink from Slim twenty years ago. And he was actually slim. We are visiting my aunt just after our marriage and had taken a day trip to the island. The only beach bar not encased in a hotel and surrounded by screaming children was found by asking at a nearby gas station. The locals knew the best places, not the ones that were flashy and guzzled the money from tourists. As newlyweds on a tight budget, we appreciated the low-key setting and the local price on longneck beers as well as the friendly banter – all while watching the waves over the top of the sea oats.
The popularity of Seaside Slim’s grew every year that we returned. The shack doubled in size and added a deck. Then the shack became an elevated gazebo and doubled in size again with tiered decking. They added “small bites” from a new restaurant next door but stayed true to their identity as a bar – and avoided opening before noon or serving a children’s menu. Slim wrote a recipe book and another recipe book. But through it all, he remembered our names.
“Suzie! James! It’s been too long! How’s Raleigh?” Slim was either a wizard, a savant, or had an Eidetic memory.
“We’re doing well, doing well. And you have not slowed down at all. Every table filled,” James smiled.
“We saved two seats at the bar for you. Are you still drinking that Mexican beer with a lime? And a mojito for you, lovely lady?”
“You’re scaring me with your wisdom – but yes.” Beginning this part of the evening with rum and mint would be perfect. James and I fell quiet for a moment.
“I don’t want to spoil a really pleasant occasion, but you do know I asked you here to talk, right?” Directness was not comfortable for James and I knew he would avoid it as along as possible. I did not know how many drinks or how much time I had, so I couldn’t afford to wait for him to open the subject. In fact, I was sure that would never happen.
“Yes.” He stared straight ahead. “I was hoping you would let it ride for a few days while we relaxed, but I realize that’s not your style.”
The heat began to rise in my face and my breath became slightly shallow. He was going to make this conversation ‘my fault.’ I steadied myself and tried to refrain from a sharp reply.
“Our options range from ‘no thinking about our situation at all’ to ‘calling in the divorce lawyers’ and many places in-between. I am not comfortable with either of the extremes, so I would like for us to choose a meeting spot somewhere in the middle.”
He sighed heavily. “You are always so analytic … and so right. Your clarity is annoying only because I should have thought of it myself.”
Slim placed the drinks before us. I took the lead on moving to a more secluded location for sharing personal information. “I hope you don’t mind, Slim, but a table just opened up on the deck and I’d like to take it for our first night out. Can we catch up with you tomorrow? We’re here all week.”
“No problem! You newlyweds grab that table in the dark corner and I’ll check on your empty glasses.”
The dark corner was the perfect spot away from poking elbows and prying ears. The sound of the sea could be heard about the clinking glassware and the silhouettes of beach walkers could be seen in the faint moonlight. Once again, James stared into the distance without speaking.
“Do you want to go first?” I asked, hoping he would say everything that needed to be said and I could passively agree.
“Suzie, what is it we need to discuss? You said our marriage was stagnant, you ask me to enter counseling – and I hesitated – and then you took the position in Chicago. I thought you wanted, needed that time away to think. I haven’t changed. I’m still waiting.”
“Still waiting to go to marriage counseling?”
“Is that really necessary? Because here’s what I expect. You’ll talk, you’ll cry, I’ll feel like shit, the counselor will agree with you, and I’ll have to agree to change -even though I don’t know why.”
“James, that’s unfair when you have never even been to a session.”
“But I know how you are. You’re so much better with feelings and words and that analytical stuff. I can’t win.”
“Win? It’s not a game, we’re not competing, I don’t win anything. Other than perhaps the fleeting approval of a therapist who is getting paid to spend an hour with us, I don’t get anything. In the current situation, we both lose.”
“And what’s the current situation? Other than our living arrangement, what is this ‘situation’ you refer to?” I could feel his frustration starting to rise. On most occasions, that would deter me - letting my discomfort tell me to back-off and back-down. Searching for a joke to defuse his hurt feelings. But I didn’t have time for that.
“The situation is: you have a wife who told you she felt your relationship was slowly dying – and who asked you to engage in the one thing that is typically recommended for people in that condition. Through your inaction, you refused. So she assumed you did not care about your dying relationship or maybe you were satisfied to be in a dying relationship. But she is not. And in that scenario, she felt you were ‘winning’ and could not or did not want to see what ‘losing’ did to her – so she left. A convenient, explainable departure that doesn’t embarrass you into having to tell people she walked out on a dying marriage.”
The words came flying out so fast, I had to pause to take a breath. And to see what reaction they had elicited from their target. To see what to say next or if there was anything to say next.
“You think I don’t care about our relationship?”
“I said I assumed one of two things: you either did not care about the state of our relationship or you are satisfied to be in a dying relationship. I’m not sure what else to assume. People usually choose what makes them comfortable – if not happy.”
“What about fear? What if I don’t choose something else out of fear?”
“Fear of what, James? Because the thing you should fear is losing me, losing our marriage.”
“I do fear that. But not as much as being responsible.”
I had to stop to think about what he said. “Responsible for what?”
“For failing you, for disappointing you. For not being the man you needed.”
At moments like these, I looked across the table at a little boy. Someone who doubted himself, someone who felt unworthy, someone who needed reassurance. And I was the strong one holding a whip with my naked, hurtful words. How could I be so cruel?
“Did I say you failed me or disappointed me?”
“Not in so many words, but who is responsible for this wreaked marriage if not me?”
“Both of us. Careers, a child, parents, in-laws. Always wanting something more: bigger house, bigger car, bigger vacation. We are both on that hamster wheel. Especially with regards to our work and Raleigh. But when one of us says it’s time to get off …”
“What do you want me to do? Move to Chicago?”
“No, I’m not even sure how much longer I’ll be there. I want you to go with me to counseling. The problem is: I don’t know how to arrange that while we live apart.”
James stared at the table. “When do you think Chicago will be over?”
I shook my head. “I really don’t know. I have a meeting with Devlin Marks on Monday but I have no idea why.”
“It’s good money. And a good use of your skills. I don’t want you to give that up.”
“I could try to schedule a regular trip to Cincinnati if you would find a counselor.”
James looked at me like I had just made a strategic chess move. Except we never played chess. In fact, we never played any games any more.
“Fine, Suzie Q. I’ll find a counselor.” And then he reached for my hand.
“Ready for the next round?” called Slim from the bar.
+ + +
We left the bar feeling buoyant. I was pleased we had actually talked, talked honestly, and talked about next steps. And James was not beat down or guilt-ridden or defensive. The conversation had been the best outcome I could expect.
James continued to hold my hand as we walked to the car. An uncharacteristic gesture. When we were first dating he was demonstrative enough but in the early years of marriage I had complained that he never touched me in public. We were friends with a couple who always touched, kissed openly, and she often sat in his lap. James said that was just for show and usually meant something was wrong, that our love did not have to be a public performance. Sure enough, our friends divorced in a horrible flame. I never bothered him about public displays of affection again.
Yet, I liked to hold his hand. I liked his arm around my shoulder and my waist. I liked to be kissed quickly on the lips. I had to be content with these tokens infrequently, and each occasion was memorable. Just the fact he was holding my hand was immensely meaningful.
When the entered the house, it was dark and quiet. Except for the gentle snores was we passed Mark’s room. I assumed the boys were still out, so we left a light on the staircase and closed the door to our suite at the top.
I was never sure what James had in mind. He methodically removed his clothing and went in the bathroom to brush his teeth. While he was flossing, I made the decision to skip the sleep shirt and slid beneath the covers in my bare skin, turning on my side to face the center. Skip the toothbrush and make-up remover, I was living dangerously. When he emerged in his tee-shirt, he turned on the bedside light and lay on his back. The room was silent.
“It was a nice evening,” he said quietly from his side of the bed.
“Yes, it was.” And that’s it? The evening is over and holding my hand is as far as we go?
I knew I could start the seduction myself, but I didn’t want to. I did not want him to passively respond to my advances – I wanted to see if intimacy was something he actively wanted. I was willing to meet half-way but I wanted to be wanted.
He rolled to his side to face me. “We could make it nicer.”
I smiled. “Yes, we could.”
He reached for my breast. “I see you forgot your bedclothes.”
“Not really forgot them. Just decided I didn’t need them.”
James smiled. “Yes, there is a difference.”
We easily fell into familiar patterns. It was a fortunate coincidence that James was visually aroused by my breasts – their shape, their weight, the nipples - and that I was physically aroused by his touch. As it had always been, he was immediately erect. In fact, sometimes I wasn’t sure I had ever seen his penis when it wasn’t erect.
“Can we start with you astride me? I love to look at your breasts while you’re fucking me.”
In anticipation of this moment, I had fortunately inserted a lubricant – because I wasn’t sure he would wait until I was fully wet with arousal. I took the position he requested and focused on the pleasure it gave both of us. But it seemed before I had started to fall into the rhythm of our coupling, he was already climaxing – and it was over.
“I’m sorry. I guess it’s been too long and you got me too excited.”
I smiled as I looked down at him. Of course it was my fault.
“No worries. We’re here all week!” Just like the traveling comedy show. I rolled off of him and onto my side. “Besides, you can just hold me.”
I was looking for the human touch. An arm to support me, my cheek on warm skin, the sound of a soft heartbeat in my ear.
“Sure. As soon as I clean myself up. Be right back.” He was out of the bed and into the bathroom before I could question when sex had become so dirty. I heard the water running and he emerged with a washcloth.
“That’s okay. I’ll get my own.” The thought of wet terrycloth on my ass was less than appealing. I passed him in the doorway to the toilet. Leaving a warm bed was disappointing but apparently cleanliness was next to sex godliness, so I sought my own soap and warm water. How I missed my bidet.
When I returned to the bed, he was already on his back with his flip phone. “Just checking the weather,” he said without looking at me. I slid next to him, and angled for a position under his arm, but he moved stiffly.
“I think I did something to my shoulder yesterday. It’s really sore. I should probably but a pain patch on it.”
“Do you have one? I could get it.”
“Yes but it’s too much trouble. I’ll just make sure to sleep on my other side. I took an anti-inflammatory so we’ll see if it’s gone by tomorrow.”
My hand around his bicep was the alternative to snuggling next to his chest. James smiled at me as he put his phone away. “That was nice. Next time I’ll last longer.”
“Next time. There’s something to look forward to.” I smiled back at him to keep the pleasantries going.
“But it won’t be tonight. I’m really beat. Even that short stint wore me out.” James patted my hand on his arm. “You’re a great lover, Susie Q.”
“Thanks …” Was there a prize? Should I ask for a rating?
“We’ll talk more in the morning,” James murmured as he turned away from me and rolled on his side. He was asleep in less than a minute.
I looked at his shoulder, silhouetted in the pale moonlight. We easily fell into familiar patterns.