Listen to Roxane Gay read 'Bone Density'
My husband and I sit in our family room idling the longest season away. Winter is more a state of being than a season, in this place. It takes hold for six or seven dark, cruel months. The cold becomes familiar. There is a silence when it snows. Tonight, we sit, together, but alone with our work. We can see outside, to the street where now and again a car creeps through inches of the white stuff, its sounds muffled by a fresh blanket of powder. The fire is waning but we are too lazy, not intrepid enough to brave the elements and gather more wood from the shed in the back. We sit, not speaking to each other, filling the quiet around us. Every hour or so, I slide my feet into wool slippers, pull my sweater around me, and smoke a cigarette by the back patio door, open only an inch or two. Snow has been falling for several hours and the absence of sound as fresh flakes falling to the ground is seductive. I feel slight pangs of guilt as I ash my cigarette, the dark flakes damaging the winter portrait, and I can hear his heavy sighs. He disapproves. He worries because he reads about the hazards of smoking and is particularly concerned that smoking decreases bone density. He likes me the way I am, doesn't want to see me become less of a woman, he says.
Our relationship is like this—David travels three or four days out of every week of every month of every year. He's a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the local university. He is somewhat renowned in his field. This is what I'm told by his adoring colleagues and students at boring cocktail parties where I play the part of devoted wife. They always marvel at what it must be like to be married to the great Dr. David Foster III. They imagine, I think, that our nights are filled with romantic whisperings about fluid dynamics and heat transfer or the power of biomechanical joints. They forget that I am a writer and maintain only a cursory understanding of and interest in David's work—just enough to assure him that my love is true. In exchange he maintains the same level of understanding about my writing and carefully pores over any story I place before him. He is deliberate in how he reads my work. He leans forward, slides his glasses up his nose, clears his throat as if that might somehow help him clear his mind and gain greater insight into my words.
Our relationship is like this—a terrible cliché. He is that professor who has torrid but discreet (or are they discrete?) affairs with research assistants and students and strangers he meets in hotel bars. He knows I know. I know he knows I know. It's an interesting equation. But we pretend that we're both faithful and true. The lie suits us and I refuse to play the part of the dissatisfied, jealous wife. I'm not dissatisfied. I know who I married. And I have secrets of my own. There's a poet, Bennett, who lives in a cabin on the other side of town. He has no telephone, lives nearly off the grid. He is completely different from David—dark, unhappy, brooding. He is enamored with the idea of himself as a tortured poet in search of his own Walden Pond. Bennett's self-involvement turns me on.
Bennett is not romantic and we don't delude ourselves about the state of our affair. He is, however, intense and always leaves me sore in uncomfortable places. When David is out of town, and only when David is out of town, I sneak away to Bennett's place. The cabin is small, spare, but clean. It is a home. He heats it with an antique, wood-burning stove. He doesn't want any distractions when he's writing, he tells me so he doesn't bother with most modern conveniences, save for a stereo to play music. His focus can be so singular it frightens me. When he gets an idea in his head, nothing else matters. I don't matter. That turns me on too. Sometimes, I watch him, hunched over a small wooden desk, writing furiously with a lead pencil and I know he has forgotten that I am on his bed, naked, the flat sheet bunched under my armpits.
There is little ceremony between us. Bennett takes me into his arms or shoves me against the wall knocking a picture loose, the instant I open his door and call his name. He's like a teenager, groping at me awkwardly, pulling my clothes off, sliding his fingers between my thighs. "You're wet," he'll grunt, as if he's surprised, each time that he continues to excite me. We fuck on his narrow twin bed. The threadbare sheets make my skin raw. I grip the headboard with one hand and hold the wall with the other, my eyes closed. Bennett buries his head in my shoulder. Eye contact bothers him—he never wants to reveal too much of himself. I love his body and enjoy marking him with my fingernails, leaving the skin of his back angry and broken. His arms are strong, deeply tanned even in the dead of winter, and tightly woven with sinewy muscles from years of chopping wood and climbing rocks. His thighs are thick from snowshoeing and hiking. He has the look of a man who uses his body more than he uses his mind. It is a contradiction. Looks are deceiving.
With my legs wrapped around Bennett's waist, my body filled, (he is longer than my husband), I think of David who is almost delicate in comparison. My husband is soft where Bennett is rough, handsome where Bennett is not. After he comes, in a loud, ugly display that always scares me the way I like, my lover and I lie next to each other smoking. We use a saucer as an ashtray, leaving it balancing precariously between us. Bennett is not remotely concerned with the density of my bones. He never asks me why I don't come. That I return to him, time and again seems to be enough, as it is for me. I like the gnawing dissatisfaction I carry home with me. I will rest my head on Bennett's chest and listen to him talk about his poetry; sometimes, he reads to me or we listen to old bluegrass records. I tell him what's going on in the world beyond the walls of his cabin. I allow myself to drown in the way he smells, natural and sweaty and his simple complexities. When he falls asleep, I tuck a quilt around him, wrap myself in the necessary layers to brave the outdoors and I leave. He never asks when I'll be back. He knows he will see me again or he doesn't care, which also turns me on.
After a last cigarette, I return to the family room and smile at David, his face shadowed by the dim glow of his laptop monitor. I snap the computer shut and sit on his lap, tracing his ear with my finger. "It's time for bed," I say. He kisses the left corner of my mouth, then slides his hands, smooth like alabaster, save for a small callous where he holds his pen, beneath my t-shirt. I shiver, pulling his hands upward to my breasts. I remove his glasses, kiss his forehead, slide my lips along the length of his nose, and then we're kissing, our breath warm with tobacco, coffee, hot pepper from dinner. After eleven years, David knows my body well. While we make love, I think of Bennett. With David, I allow myself to come, extravagantly.
Our relationship is like this—I spend our days apart imagining what kind of lover David must be like with his other women. Is he as insatiable with them, as he is with me? I imagine shiny, nubile girls, their bodies shaved elaborately, breasts round, high, perky, calf muscles taut. They have their parts to play in the cliché. I imagine them sitting coyly, in his cluttered office, calling him Doctor, perched on the edge of his desk. I imagine them playing the part of ingénue, all plaid skirts, white shirts, thighs spread wide revealing pristine white panties, moist at the edges. It turns me on, to think of him and these tarts, tangled in rough, impersonal hotel sheets, making a mess of themselves, and a mess of our marriage. I think of these girls when he's fucking me and telling me that I'm a hot lay and his hair is damp, clinging to the edges of his face and in his eyes I can see that he does love me. I think of them when he's telling me how special I am to him. Then I start to wonder if perhaps, for him, the word has a different definition.
In the morning, we are in bed, David's heavy arm draped across my body. He is very possessive, when he sleeps, likes to keep me close, he tells me. It is cold, and from our bedroom window, I can see that it is still snowing. Before winter's end, more than 350 inches will fall. I extract myself from his embrace, and go to the kitchen to start coffee. When I return he is sitting up, channel surfing, looking more like a young man than someone in his late thirties. His chest, bare, is covered in goose bumps. Our relationship is like this—I need these moments to remember why I love him even when I hate him. David grins at me, takes the proffered coffee. He nods toward the window. "We should go for a walk," he says. I shrug. I am not one for the outdoors, but I can make these small sacrifices.
Outside, the trees are bare and skeletal. He holds my hand, and I follow in the large footsteps he makes with his boots. "I want to show you something," he says. We head into the thicket of trees behind our home and after fifteen minutes, come upon a small creek, the water still inexplicably running over frozen stones.
He wipes a few snowflakes from my scarf, tightens my jacket around me. "Don't you love this place?"
I lean against a thick tree trunk, and bite my lower lip. David pulls his camera from his coat pocket. "Don't move," he says.
I glare into the camera. He knows I hate having my picture taken, and yet he persists. This is what our relationship is like, the not really knowing one another. He makes a silly face and I finally crack a smile. David furiously presses the shutter release to capture the moment. His earnestness makes me smile wider, and soon, I am playing it up for the camera. He pauses, looks at me carefully. Then, he closes the distance between us, and he is pressing me against the tree, studying my face carefully. I clasp my hand around his neck. I look away. We ignore the camera as it drops into a soft pile of snow. The branches above me are beautiful, encased in snow and ice.
Later, I am in our bathroom, drying my hair. David stands behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist. We watch each other in the mirror. "I have to go out of town tomorrow," he says. "It's a last minute thing, I'm taking the place of a guy in my department at a very important conference. Can't be avoided."
I roll my eyes at David in the mirror and throw the hair dryer on the bathroom counter. "Very important?"
David kisses my right shoulder. "You know how it is."
I smile tightly. The day after David leaves, I will pay Bennett a visit. I will bring him a new record I found at The Salvation Army. I will miss my husband.
The winters here are long, but they are even longer when you spend them alone. There's Bennett, but I know where I stand with him. Such clarity is uncomfortable. After a big snowfall, the white flakes turn to grey sludge, then dark with sand and salt. A fresh layer of ice covers the streets and sidewalks. I long to wear shoes instead of the clunky boots necessary to navigate the outdoors. David is gone for eight days on his very important business. I fill the days with my work, which takes a darker turn. It is hard to write about happy things when you can never escape the kind of cold that sinks into your bones and stays there. I am in Siberia, I decide. I am comforted by thoughts of exile, cold solace, meditation, and inspiration borne of emotional deprivation. It is all very dramatic.
My evenings are filled with dinner with friends, bad television movies, and planning dream vacations in sunnier climes. David dutifully calls me three times a day, as regular as three square meals. Our conversations are brief during the day, longer at night. He loves to hear me come, he tells me. I love to give him a show. I tell him all the dirty things I am doing to myself in excruciating detail. He makes me beg, over the phone, and I can hear his satisfaction when I do. He revels in the knowledge that no matter the distance, he has a hold over me. The specificity of these conversations and the twisted depths of my imagination are two of the reasons he enjoys being married to a writer. After reading a new story, he often tells me I have a knack for details. I wonder if he's alone, during these calls, or if his hand is running through a lover's hair as he listens to his wife playing the part of his whore. A part of me hopes he isn't because sometimes, I am not. When David returns, he is full of stories about drunken engineers in swanky bars in downtown Philadelphia and the inferior intellects of the people in his field. He beats his chest. "I am a God among men," he says. "But more than anything, I missed you."
"Of course you did," I reply. For the next several weeks, I will tease him mercilessly, and remind him that he is a God among men. He will find this endearing, until he doesn't.
When I unpack David's suitcase, I create neat piles of clothes that can be put away, laundered, or sent to the dry cleaners. I organize his toiletries, making sure that he has enough toothpaste, lotion, shaving cream for the next occasion when he must conduct very important business. The routine relaxes me, reminds me of my part time role as wife. I search the pockets for matchbooks, coins, receipts, pens, design ideas on cocktail napkins. Once, I found a joint that we smoked in the shed in the backyard, giggling like stoners until we singed our fingers on the roach.
This time, I find a Polaroid image of David posing with a young brunette, attractive in her own way. She is smiling. He is not. She is hugging him from the side, looking at him the way I imagine all his lovers look at him—adoringly, desperately. They don't know the man I married so they can afford to look at him like that. David looks like he's trying to slide out of this girl's embrace. It's a sad little scene. There's a phone number, written across the bottom of the picture in red lipstick. I leave the Polaroid on his side of the bathroom, perched against the toothbrush holder. This isn't the first time I've found an artifact of his infidelity. It won't be the last. I leave the tokens for him to find, because he has left them for me to find. Our relationship is like this—we play games because we can and we like it. Most days, these games keep us together.
Later tonight, he will tell me its time for bed. We'll slide, naked, between our sheets. He'll lie on top of me, and I will relax, enjoy how my chest constricts beneath the weight of his body, like I'm suffocating. I'll drown in the scent of cologne and his hair products and body wash. We'll make love like we haven't shared our bodies with anyone else; like we are still the people we once promised to be.
After I've finished putting his things in order and I've cooked us dinner and we've made the small talk married people who know each other too well make, we sit in our family room, on our couch, in our familiar positions between laptops and secrets and lovers and the silence of the snow that continues to fall. The old radiators creak as they struggle to cough hot air into the room.
"Are you cold?" David asks, with a shy smile.
I nod and he pulls me close, wrapping his arms around me. His body feels narrow, almost frail against mine, as if his bones have lost some of their density. I return his embrace. I realize I am holding less of a man than he once was. I wonder how much stamina we have left for the games we play. And then, I stand in the back doorway for a smoke thinking about Bennet, rough and merciless, necessary. I accept that I am, perhaps, less of a woman. Our relationship is like this.
About the author:
Roxane Gay is the Associate Editor of PANK Magazine.
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