"Why do I love you, Jen, and why do you love me? Why do I desire you?"
"Don't be so obsessive, Phil. Just be happy we do love and desire each other, okay?"
He was afraid to talk too much like a professor around her, but he wanted to talk about it because he was afraid love and desire could evaporate. Everything between them rested on a mystery. He wondered about all of it, why he was attracted to the curve of her breast, or why the turn of her belly down to her pubis excited him. Passion is a mystery. Desire is. Everything is. He'd read up on it, of course, because that was what he did. "The heart and the mind... what an enigma." Charlie Chaplin had said that, but others said similar things. He was afraid to let Jennifer's love be a mystery.
He told friends he feared desire and love just happened. That's what he had said when he and Jennifer had gone through their bad time. He knew you didn't choose your desires. For his part, he loved Jennifer but he wanted many women. Desire chose this one, or that one. Could Jen ever want someone else? She was certain of us, then she wasn't, now she is again. I don't think I can ever be certain of anything. That's not true. I'm certain I need her.
He didn't tell Jen or anyone else that he fantasized all the time, that he had thoughts of what he could do with some woman, of how he could arrange it. He had to force the fantasies aside so he could work.
There was a girl just today, a student, walking along the sidewalk. A summer day, nothing in particular happening, no place special, gum wrappers and cigarette butts on the walk of a strip mall near the university. She was walking like any other girl, in jeans, with a backpack, her hair in a ponytail, and when she passed him he could tell she wasn't wearing a bra and her young breasts were bobbing in time to her steps. She was just passing by, just a teenage girl, and I wanted her. She's all I thought about all afternoon.
Jennifer's favorite film is "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." Philip bought her the DVD, and tonight they're watching it in bed. It took forever to get little Kirsten to sleep, so long they had thought they wouldn't have time to watch it. While it plays Philip examines her face as much as the film. When it's over and they're lying there talking, ready to go to sleep, and it's not yet decided if they'll make love tonight, he asks about her favorite scene.
"I love it where James Spader tells Andie McDowell that men often fall in love with the woman they're having sex with, and women begin wanting sex with the man they love."
"Does that description fit you?"
At first Philip smiles, but then he does a double take.
"Wait a minute. Wait just a damn minute. You started liking sex after you fell for me?"
"Yes. Aren't you flattered?"
"Uh-uh! Time out! You had sex long before we met. You mean you didn't like it? Or did you love those guys, too?"
This is going a lot further than she had intended. She asks, "Is this an inquisition?" and gets out of bed to turn off floor lamp, the DVD player, and the TV. His apology follows her down the hall as she checks on Kirsten.
"I'm sorry honey, but I just don't understand. And besides, I fell for you before I ever got you into the sack." He half shouts the last part out into the hall.
There's no answer for a minute, then there are footsteps and Jennifer comes back into the room.
"Don't be so romantic. You got me into the sack almost right away." She gets back in the bed and hits her pillows to fluff them.
"And you didn't enjoy it? That's not my memory." He begins to wonder if she had faked it, and if that was true what else is true?
"I enjoyed it just fine, but it wasn't the same, darling. It was... oh... I liked it like I like... I don't know. Like I like going to the carnival or having a fine meal. It was nice but I didn't miss it when I didn't have it. I didn't think about it all the time."
She laughs a quiet little laugh of remembrance.
"More often I worried about how to get men to not push for sex without driving them away, or how to deal with being in my period. That sort of thing. And you know what? This is the sort of thing girls aren't supposed to tell their guys."
It's always dangerous when you start to delve into people's desires, into their private places. There are things everyone keeps private, and things about themselves they can't explain. Philip decides to push the questioning a little.
"But now you like sex with me?"
She stares at him for a moment and then rolls her eyes.
"Isn't it obvious? Who's usually the aggressor?"
"Because I fell for you, and you were so sweet and loving to me." She sits up and turns toward him, looking down at him with a fierce expression. "Listen up, darling. You want to know, so I'll tell you because you're mine. It was only after we had been going together for a while that I began to think about sex a lot. During the day. At work. That was new to me. Thinking of what we could do, of what would be hot. So there. Now you know."
"Wow." It's more an exhalation than a comment. He looks into her eyes with a thoughtful expression. "I guess I don't know what to think. I guess you're still a mystery to me, hon." He rests a hand on her thigh.
"Maybe not quite as much as a few minutes ago."
"You didn't ever, say, think about men's bodies? A lot of women act like they do. You know. They joke about penises and all."
"Oh God! When I first saw an adult penis close up I thought it was grotesque. I didn't really much like how they looked until I fell for you and started to like John Henry here."
She lays her hand ever so lightly over his penis and he gets a hard-on. It's almost instantaneous. He lays a hand over hers, keeping the cool hand on him.
"You didn't ever even masturbate?"
"Oh, once in a while. It was nice... but..."
"Okay, okay. I get the picture. So when you first saw the film, where the sister tells Andie McDowell that she let the Spader character videotape her masturbating, that didn't make you hot?"
"The first time I saw it? No! I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever heard about. Who would do something like that? What I loved was the scene at the end, where he comes home and she's sitting on the porch and they reach their hands to each other. That was so loving! It got to me. If I'd been on a date, the guy would have got lucky that night for sure!"
Why does that spark her desire? Aroused by a simple little scene of domestic intimacy. How does it work? How does the mystery work?
"You said the first time you saw it."
"Well... if you have to know... later, after we were together and I watched it again, I fantasized that I was the sister and it was you videotaping me masturbating, and... well, kapow!"
They are silent for a minute, just looking at each other. She's just barely moving her hand on John Henry. Finally he speaks, but his voice is hardly more than a whisper.
"Jesus Jen. Jesus! Jesus, you're fantastic! I have to see you masturbate. I really do."
"Oh no honey. I couldn't really do that. Not really. You have to do it to me yourself."
She didn't tell the whole truth. No one ever can. No one knows the whole truth, of course, but there are things she knows that she can't tell him. Not even him. Especially not him. She wishes she could but she's afraid of what the whole truth would do to him, of what it would do to them. She gets by on things that aren't actually lies. They're truths that mask a huge truth.
She helps him pull off her nightgown and tug down her panties and lies passively before him so he can masturbate her, leaving one hand by her side and one on his leg. He moves his hands all over her, massaging her thighs and moving up to her crotch, where he moves hands up and down, lightly over her almost silken pubic hair, and with more force over and through her labia. Massaging her labia, pulling them, stroking them. Slipping his fingers down between them to the mouth of her vagina. Pushing two fingers inside her, then slipping them out again and up between her labia, to the top and down again.
He knows what he is doing. What she likes. They've done this before. He'll take his time. When she's high enough he'll move away from that region. He'll massage her legs and arms, her face and head, her neck. He'll spend time on her feet and on her hands. Then he'll massage her breasts gently, gently, caressing them and trying to make goose bumps, before he finally returns past her belly to her sex. He'll have made her wait long enough.
Jennifer half closes her eyes and sighs for him because Philip likes it when she sighs, and she likes it, herself. She loves the feel of his large, man's hands playing with her body, and she knows this will be extra good. There's only one problem--that she can never quite rid herself of the memory of a woman's hands playing with her.
Jennifer, too, has thought about the mystery of desire. She doesn't discuss it with Philip but she carries it around with her. It kept her from reading a paper at the Modern Language Association meetings, a paper about the sources of desire in the works of magical realist novelists. So ironic. Real human desires trumped those of the characters in novels, and I still don't know where they came from.
What breeds desire?
It's been two years. How often since has she thought of it? Every day? Jennifer could tell something was different, almost from their greeting, but she had no desire. She was uncomfortable because her friend was coming on to her in little ways. Francesca was. Her dear friend from grad school, married and divorced, and tenured the same year Jennifer was. They'd traveled together before. Now they were rooming together at the meetings, the first time in a long time.
What breeds desire? Jennifer doesn't know. There hadn't been any, not for her, but for Francesca? Why was she acting differently? What changed?
Did I give you signals, Franny? I didn't know. I really didn't know.
Francesca wasn't any more subtle about it than men are, sitting too close, touching more often than she should, keeping contact a second longer than necessary. There were the pointed little sex comments and jokes, the half-serious questions about Jen and Philip.
I know we always teased and flirted, but it was between friends. Not like this. It never meant anything before, did it?
Jennifer brushed it all off and bantered around it and knew it was going to be uncomfortable, and that she might have to confront Francesca when they were alone.
Jennifer doesn't know what breeds desire, but she knows it can happen, and not because she's in love with someone first. Back in their room, she faced Francesca and started trying to extricate, doing it gently, giving Fran outs and excuses and deniability, and in mid-sentence Fran touched her breast.
Today it is the movement and the touch that Jen remembers. She sees the whole sequence, Francesca's right arm coming from her waist, as smooth as can be, palm out and fingers half spread. She watches it move straight to her left breast. Did she watch it like that at the time or did it catch her by surprise? It doesn't matter. She sees it now. Fran caught the nipple area in the hollow of her hand and reached her fingers around to capture the whole thing, as though kneading it. What was there about it? Boys had done that, years before, and she'd slapped them. It had been automatic, easy. But now Jennifer couldn't move. She never finished her sentence.
She tried to speak and maybe whispered a faint "No." Maybe not. Her memory isn't perfect on that. Maybe she said "Please." She knows she was hardly breathing, and that her eyes went to the hand, then to Francesca's face, then back.
The world changed.
What was it? Today she thinks about it and just can't quite grasp it. Something about the hand being small, and a woman's, and being Francesca's. Something she's never been able to put a finger on. Before Fran brought her other hand to Jennifer's cheek or leaned in to kiss her, desire captured Jen.
Franny, how did it happen? Did you put a spell on me? It's all fragments of memories today. I don't understand. I'm standing stupidly while you unbutton my blouse, and the air conditioner is blowing right onto my chest and chilling me. You're kissing me so deeply. How did it happen? Your tongue, Fran. When did I start sucking it? You tasted different. Why did I wrestle yours with mine? You strummed my nipples that first time. Why was it different? Men had strummed them. I always liked it, but it wasn't like this. How did you get my clothes off so quickly? I didn't even know you were doing it. I don't think I knew. And then you pulled my panties down. My panties pulled down by a woman. Something about that. Something I don't understand, any more than I understood when you pushed me to the bed and crawled between my legs. Your pretty face at my vagina and your little mouth going up and down against me.