Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neck-line of the faded blue dress. He’d read the press releases, of course. He recalled, from an article, her description of nursing her last child only six months before her first radiation treatment. Then he noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra.
What did they have inside them: saline or silicone? And how did these feel, respectively? He probably stared too long. (But how could she expect people not to stare when she wore a dress cut like that?)
Had his wife noticed? Doubtful. She noticed so little about him these days.
“This is some place you have here,” he said too quickly.
Though they weren’t exactly friends, she’d come into his office before, with her little girl, and they’d talked about her plans to sponsor a mobile mammography unit. They’d formed a connection, it had seemed to him then, and their time together lingered taut as a problem in his mind. But now she’d definitely seen him staring at her breasts, about which she must have had extraordinarily complicated feelings, and she was annoyed.
“What does that mean exactly?”
“I just meant you have a nice home,” Jake replied.
“It’s too big, isn’t it?”
He didn’t know how to reply: the house, miles from the road and framed, on this spring evening, by an almost otherworldly lushness of green, was in fact an old plantation estate that included detached quarters for both servants and slaves; of course it was, technically, too big, but what could he say? “It’s lovely,” he managed.
Dissatisfied, she turned to his wife. “Wouldn’t you say a house this size is way too big, even for a family of five?”
Sheila, surveying the foyer, tilting her heart-shaped face up toward the high, vast ceiling, seemed actually to be considering the question. Jake was mortified.
To his relief she replied that she was sure the children loved all the space.
“Actually my children seem to crave small spaces,” the hostess said. “The twins once spent an entire day inside a packing crate. When I was their age I hated tight spaces. I screamed when people shut the door to my room, which I shared with my brother and was about the size of a closet. I’m afraid we’re doomed to want the opposite of what we have.” She looked back at Jake and seemed in that moment to forgive him. “Well, you two should go on in and have a drink. Don’t you look adorable, like newlyweds!”
People often immediately identified them as newlyweds. Jake worried over this, but when he asked Sheila if it bothered her, she laughed. She said what it really meant was that people were thinking of the two of them having good sex. Sheila’s implied understanding of the difference between good and bad sex also disturbed him. The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.
“You can let go of my hand now,” she said to him at the party that night. He hadn’t known he’d been holding it.
Sheila was twenty-two, and had just graduated with a degree in music from Bob Jones University. Jake was twenty-six and before this job had worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper in Charlotte. He had loved the stink of newsprint that clung to his cubicle and the late-night deadlines, the euphoria that came over him after filing a story. Then, at a party—she’d driven up to Charlotte with some friends—he’d met Sheila, shyly beautiful and somehow detached from the noise and flash of people in their twenties parading their allure. They’d been at the apartment of a friend of a friend. When he went out on the balcony to smoke, he’d found her sitting there in a lawn chair, in a robin’s egg blue dress that glowed against the orange sunset, staring up at him with a sense of expectation so palpable he felt late. She had seemed to him, with her glossy auburn hair and knowing expression, unashamedly pure, and all of the warm summer night they’d sat out on the porch of the friend’s apartment, watching people through the glass doors and making up comic bits of conversation for them, analyzing their gestures. He hadn’t had dinner. Someone from a neighboring apartment was grilling meat and despite the smell of the steak, he stayed by her side.
“I hate flirting,” she’d said at the point in the night when people were beginning to couple off. He followed her gaze into the living room of the apartment, at a girl striding across the room in stilettos. “And I hate high-heeled shoes.” He’d noticed, when he came out onto the porch to smoke, the abandoned blue heels, her bare feet. “Do you know why people like them so much?” He said he had assumed it was because they were flattering to the leg, and she excitedly replied, “Lordosis. You know: the arch of a woman’s back during copulation?” He watched as she slipped on her heels and told him to pay close attention to the effect they had on her posture. “Isn’t our culture sick?” she said. He studied her ass, her toned calves, and agreed wholeheartedly while she continued with her criticisms, aware that she, cheeks flushed in the lamplight passing through the glass, was also aroused. She said that she wished he would stop smoking because she didn’t want him to get cancer, and he promptly ground the cigarette he was smoking beneath his heel. She asked him to hand over the pack, and, staring right into his eyes, she tossed it behind her, over the railing. He didn’t know whether to be irritated or impressed: she was so ethereal, but also kind of a bitch. By the time he made plans to drive the hour and a half to her town to see her the next weekend, he thought he might already be in love.
The wedding had taken place in a cathedral carved into the side of a mountain, at sunset, at the very end of summer. It was near perfect, marred only by Sheila’s family having to deal with the arrival of an estranged, drunken uncle—someone had promptly called him a cab before the ceremony—and by his mother arriving just as the quartet began the first piece, in the skirt and blouse she’d worn the evening before, at the rehearsal dinner. He was quietly humiliated—he knew she’d driven down to Atlanta after dinner, to meet a man she’d been chatting with on the Internet—and annoyed by the lean look of her, her too-long, graying hair. He did not want to think of her growing old alone. But the tension faded the moment Sheila, in her ivory gown, shoulders bared, approached the altar. Though she moved toward him, he was stirred by the sensation that he was approaching her, and he felt none of the fear other married men had warned him about.
She had begun with the excuses five months ago. He’d be watching television, drinking a beer after work, when she came into the living room to announce that she needed to go out and buy some paper towels, or that she craved ice cream she’d failed to purchase last time she went out. “Let me come with you,” he’d say. But she’d argue that she wouldn’t be long, that she had a new CD to listen to, and this meant she wanted to be by herself. Early on he’d realized she preferred listening to new music alone, because he was unmusical, or at least compared to her. And so he let her go. Sometimes she came back right away. But a few times she’d stayed gone for hours. On Thursdays she had a late orchestra practice, and after one of these sessions didn’t come home until close to two in the morning, claiming she’d had coffee with a female friend from the orchestra and lost track of time. That evening, he’d pulled into the drive at the same time she was dashing across the walkway, and recalled that she’d looked especially nice for her practice, her usually straight hair in the waves she sometimes wore when they went out. After they embraced, she reached back for his hand, holding it thoughtfully in her own, her thumb reassuringly—too reassuringly—massaging his palm. “Skip it,” he begged, testing her, but she seemed to look through him. She laughed as she turned toward her car.
One afternoon, meaning to call his wife at home, he’d heard his mother’s voice speak; he’d accidentally dialed her number. He made small talk for a few minutes. But in asking what he thought of as harmless questions, he must have accidentally let some of the suspicion he felt for his wife leak into his voice, because his mother began to laugh at him. She said, “Aren’t both of us a little old for you to be calling to check up on me?”
“Checking up” on her was what she used to call his less artful enquiries into her love life, the ones he made as a teenager.
“What did I say?” he asked her, already feeling a too-familiar sense of frustration.
“It’s not what you say,” she explained, exasperated with him in the manner of a daughter with her father. “It’s your tone. You talk to me like you’ve already decided I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear. Or like whatever I’m about to say to you is a lie.”
Jake thought of her when she was in love—how, when he was small, she would bend down to peer with such intensity into his eyes before school, her hands reverentially skimming his hair and cheeks before coming to rest lightly, worshipfully, on his shoulders; how, outside, walking through the cool air toward the bus stop, he felt like a sacred being, warm with his mother’s love and the wonder of his own light. He had been too young, then, to understand the effects of romance: that she spent on him the excess of her feelings for some man. In the lull between men she could never touch him in quite the same way.
Now he sighed. When he hurt her he became to her every man who’d hurt her.
“I just hope you don’t talk to your wife like you talk to me,” she replied.
He wanted to trust his wife, he truly did. But he couldn’t stop himself from noticing, in public, the way Sheila returned the types of male glances she’d before seemed not to notice. He’d be talking to her about some movie they’d just seen, or about work, and he would see her eyes dart away from him to study the back of a young waiter, or the shoulders of a man older than her father. Occasionally, he’d even seen his wife lock eyes with a stranger and offer this person a flirtatious half-smile—right in front of Jake—and when Jake asked if she knew that man, his way of telling her he’d caught her, she’d say, “He just reminded me of someone I used to know.” Or, in a puzzled, dismissive tone, as if Jake were paranoid, “I’m just being friendly.” It was upsetting not only in itself, but also because it was the kind of behavior he associated with his mother. Again he felt the unease he’d felt as a little boy, nervously cherishing the brief periods of peace they had between her lovers, all the while afraid that any of the strange men they encountered in shops, at the park, at the zoo or museum, could very well end up in their home. He understood how quickly their movie nights and pancake suppers, their reading the newspaper together on Saturday morning—her happily questioning him about what he’d read, delighting in his answers, (“Why don’t you help me wrap my mind around that, Mr. Know-it-all?”), would be replaced by the drama of her infatuation, by a monster (gross and strong and idiotic they seemed to him) who wished him dead.
Now, at this party, on this spring night, in this huge old house, one room giving way to another in mazelike fashion, all of them familiarly pleasant with their cleverly mismatched furniture and Oriental rugs, like decor from a magazine, he would have to mind Sheila. Or, he wouldn’t be able to mind her. He already felt her wanting to slip away from him and explore, and knew that she would.
She was as usual oblivious to his suspicion. “That woman,” Sheila said, grinning, speaking of their hostess, “is so interesting. I wonder if she was that strange before she was rich.”
She wore a strapless dark-blue dress. She kept rolling back her bare shoulders and stretching her arms. She seemed always to be stretching lately, especially in public.
“I doubt it,” he said, deciding not to let on all he knew of her (as if he could’ve even explained what he knew). “Things like that change people.”
“Do you really think people change, or just seem to change?” Sheila said, scanning the crowd. She would just as soon take the opposite position. She was like that. She never betrayed guilt about what she was doing to him, and that she behaved so normally around him made him think she either loved him so much that her feelings for other men didn’t affect her feelings for him, or that she didn’t love him at all. “Because I think everything is already there inside of you,” she went on. “What you are. By the time childhood is over. What I think is that you just become this purer and purer version of what you already are.”
“You mean who you already are.”
“No. That’s not what I meant,” softly, thoughtfully, as if to herself.
He’d found out about her virginity on their third date, over pasta at an Italian restaurant, after the waiter handed them the wine list. “You know, I should probably tell you now: I don’t drink. Both sets of my grandparents were alcoholics and so no one in my family drinks. But I don’t mind that you do. Also, I guess I should tell you, too, that I don’t have sex. Until I get married. I mean, I’m a virgin. Sex isn’t just a physical thing to me, but a deeply spiritual thing that I only want to experience with my future husband, to whom I want to offer my purity as a gift. Just don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
He understood that she had made this little speech before, that she offered it as both a challenge and discouragement. But he was not discouraged. In that moment he had become hypnotized by the miracle of her mouth, her hands, her chest rising with her breath. He had thoughts he’d have been too embarrassed to ever speak aloud: waking to an untouched blanket of snow, freshly cut flowers, the smell of baking bread. He thought, strangely, of women emerging from the water of the local pool, wet hair heavy against their shoulders, rivulets of water cascading down bare limbs. In grade school, on picture day, he had seen the ivory hem of a girl’s new dress on the playground splattered with mud.
He found himself adjusting the cuff of his sleeve, smoothing his hair.
“I respect that very much,” he told her. Even the sight of her fork spearing food now intrigued him.
She hadn’t acted surprised.
Pictures of Sheila as a child revealed a bespectacled, awkwardly thin person in baggy clothes. Her parents were devout fundamentalists whose black-and-white television stayed up in the attic, and they limited their library to biblical commentary. Friendly but guarded, they watched him with eyes he couldn’t read. Wariness fringed their air of puritanical optimism, and their voices slipped into warning tones creepy to him when the sun had just gone down and the beige of their living room appeared gray before the turning on of lamps. But her mother’s frequent offers of snacks and tea reassured him.
“People are born with an emptiness inside them,” said her father, a big bearded man who worked in construction. While they talked, he gently, rhythmically stroked the matted back of the family’s aged terrier, his hand as wide as the dog. “If you don’t fill it with God it grows. Emptiness begets emptiness,” he said. “Nothing begets nothing.”
“Love begets love,” her mother said. She was a slender woman with a kind smile and dark, boyish haircut, her blouses a size too large.
“Love begets compassion,” the father corrected. “And compassion begets love. Compassion is God’s love.”
Sheila’s mother nodded emphatically. Sheila was picking at her cuticles and looked up to glance over at him, rolled her eyes. (She was like this—sometimes regarding her religion seriously, sometimes speaking of it almost as a joke she went along with.)
“Do you believe in God’s love?” her father asked Jake.
Of course, Jake said; though of course not, he thought. His mother had dabbled in every major faith and some of the minor ones, had even flirted with the occult, and religion seemed to him an unnecessary and too often desperate exhaustion of will. The self-infatuated tone of people’s voices when they spoke of their intimacy with a higher power depressed him. He would force himself not to cringe when Sheila’s mother, smelling of the same linen-scented detergent her daughter used, hugged him good-bye and whispered into his ear, “God loves you.” And when, a month before the wedding—breath drawn, eyes shut—he allowed Sheila’s father to drown him in the water of the baptistery at their little country church, he felt nauseated.
But he liked imagining Sheila, with her red hair and look of calm curiosity, emerging from this little cave of deprivation. In her college photos—in the succession of them, from freshman to senior year—you could see her, whom he thought of as his Sheila, distinguishing herself from this world. The cave became the background that defined her. Her body grew graceful, shoulders rolled back, hair longer and even a deeper auburn, and the simplicity of her clothes elegant; but what changed most was the way she reacted to the camera. The shy, averted gaze of the adolescent gave way to a head-on stare, her eyes lit with something like impatience. Her school uniform—the long khaki skirts and white button-down blouses—seemed to emphasize her ease in her body, an ease that communicated to him latent sexual appetite. She had, with her pouty lips, what he and his friends, as teenagers, would’ve happily referred to as “a slutty face,” and the irony of this made him laugh.
He thought, he felt, that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him.
She seemed to communicate this through her long legs, bared by short skirts—she wore short skirts constantly now that she’d graduated from the school, except when they visited her parents, for whom she dressed like an elementary-school librarian—and through the way she would press her breasts up against him when they kissed.
When his hands became too insistent, she’d pull her face from his, her long red hair falling into his mouth, and say, in a sweet, apologetic voice, “We need to stop now.” Disentangle herself from his arms. It was almost as if he were with a high-school girl.