New York Sex Painted Leaf Press
Renee thought Claire sounded strange and remote on the phone, a small shadowy voice with no center, as if she had been blown apart by a bomb.
"Something's wrong with Claire," she said to her husband, Rafe.
"Let's have them over," he replied, distracted by the article he was reading.
"That's not what I meant."
"Something's wrong with Claire," Renee said to her friend Jesse as they shopped Balducci's.
"I think so, too," Jesse answered, snagging a triple crème cheese sample from a passing tray.
"I think there's a problem with Colin."
"The perfect couple? Childhood sweethearts?" Jesse eyed the small cheese wedge in her hand with a mixture of fear and greed.
"Are you going to eat that?" Renee asked.
Jesse popped the morsel in her mouth. "Let's take Claire to lunch," she said.
"All right. All right!" said Claire, draining her glass. "I want another white wine."
"You don't have to talk about it," said Renee.
"You'll feel better if you do," said Jesse.
"All right!" said Claire. "Colin has moved out. Our marriage is finished."
"Just like that?" asked Jesse.
"Just let me tell this my way, please. It's hard enough. Where's the waiter?"
"Of course," said Renee, signaling for the waiter.
Claire looked away till the waiter had taken their order and left. Then she began in a low, shaky voice.
"This is all I will say. Two weeks ago we went to a dinner party at the Bassetts, and Colin got drunk. Something he doesn't do much, as you know. He insisted on sitting next to Meg Bassett during dinner and acting silly and whispering in her ear. She was smiling, and once or twice I saw her shake her head and kind of look around. I tried to get his attention, but he just ignored me. He got even drunker and sillier after dinner, and then he made an ass of himself when I insisted on taking him home."
"That doesn't sound like Colin," said Renee.
"It's not like Colin," said Claire. "Anyway, the next morning he woke up late. He looked upset. I asked him why he had drunk so much and behaved so badly."
Claire paused and looked up into the hungry eyes of her two friends. Her pale face glowed with the transcendence of fresh wounds and deep pain.
"And then," she continued, "he blurted something out. And after that, I told him the marriage was over. And I asked him to move out immediately. Which he did."
The waiter set fresh drinks before the women and removed their empty glasses. Claire sipped her wine and looked away. Jesse began to grow impatient with what seemed like unnecessary dramatics on Claire's part. "Well," she finally prompted, "what did he say?"
"I won't tell you," said Claire, "and the reason is this. There is the slimmest chance that Colin and I will somehow get back together. I don't see much hope for that, but if it happened, I would never want anyone we know to know what he said to me that morning."
"He's having an affair with Meg Bassett," Renee announced, looking at Claire for confirmation.
Claire gave Renee a withering look. "It's much more complicated than that, believe me."
"Wow," said Jesse, whose mind had just awakened to the multiplicity of possibilities. "It's like that line from Gertrude Stein, 'The answer is suicide, what is the question?'"
Claire started to cry.
"Sweetie," said Jesse, "I didn't mean...don't think for one minute that I..."
"It feels like dying," said Claire between sobs.
Renee reached forward and took Claire's hand. She found herself reflecting on the degree to which well intentioned, decent people (like herself, for example) were drawn with deep fascination to the details of scandal and ruin in the lives of friends. Although she did not fully acknowledge it, sifting through these periodic disasters served to reaffirm that her own life, however predictable, quotidian, or compromised at middle age, was still clearly preferable to the wreckage and chaos that lay outside the careful paths she and Rafe had managed to cultivate and walk.
* * *
Renee told Rafe the story over dinner that evening.
"It's got to be something sexual," he said.
"The Bassetts have a great looking daughter. What is she, sixteen, seventeen?"
"Do you find her sexy? Does she turn you on?"
"Just thinking out loud. What do you think it was?"
"I don't know. Something with three or four people, maybe."
"I know," said Rafe, smiling. "He asked if he could try on some of her dresses."
"Where did that come from?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, is that a fantasy of yours?"
"Give me a break. It's just one of a thousand possibilities."
"But it's the one you chose. Out of all the others."
"I thought we were having fun with this."
"If you ever wanted to try on something of mine, I wouldn't mind. I would be understanding." Renee smiled.
Rafe stood up, angry, and crossed to the window. "Yeah. Right. And if you ever want to invite a couple of friends over to join us for a rollicking fuck, feel free."
"Why are you so angry?" Renee asked sweetly. "And by the way, would you prefer male or female friends? Would you get off watching some guy do me?"
Rafe looked at his wife's pretty face. He studied her alert, winsome, welcoming expression. He was experiencing an eerie, prickly feeling he had felt three or four times before in the past twenty years, a feeling always accompanied by the sense that this woman he had lived with in civility and comfort for so long was, not too far below her tranquil surface, a complete stranger. And then it occurred to him that perhaps the inverse was true — perhaps after all this time she represented common ground and consistency and he was the stranger.
* * *
When Jesse told Claire's story to her husband Jim, he almost immediately assumed some sort of gay involvement on Colin's part, possibly with Michael Bassett, or maybe a threesome with Meg and Michael, or perhaps Colin with Meg and some other man.
"Why not throw in the Basset's daughter?" Jesse asked. "She's a beauty."
"I think there's another man involved," Jim said. "Claire is terrified of AIDS. I've heard her say so."
Jesse was reminded of a tender moment more than twenty years ago when Jim had confessed to a very intense, very brief homosexual affair during his freshman year in college.
"Do you think Colin is good looking?" she asked.
"I suppose. Why do you ask?"
"Are you attracted to him?"
Jim looked at her. "Come on, Jes. What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, why do you assume the answer involves gay sex? Does Colin seem gay to you? Did he ever come on to you?"
"Sorry to disappoint you. It just seemed like a reasonable guess, given Claire's fear of AIDS."
"I've always thought Colin and Michael were both almost aggressively masculine. Alpha male types."
Jesse noticed Jim was getting that tight set to his mouth. She knew the signal. It meant `back off.'
"Are you afraid of AIDS?" she asked lightly.
"Of course I am," said Jim in a clipped tone that foreclosed further discussion.
Jesse would have been happier if Jim had laughed and asked her why in the world he should be afraid of AIDS when, after all, she had been his only sex partner for twenty years. Indeed, she would have been happier if he had simply shrugged and said nothing at all.
Neither of them had ever been tested for AIDS.
* * *
A week after their discussion about Colin and Claire, Renee arrived home to find Rafe in bed at six in the evening with the shades drawn, apparently asleep. She drew back the sheet to discover he was wearing a Fredericks of Hollywood slip she had received as a Christmas joke gift five years before. She had always considered it too trashy to wear. Without a word, almost without hesitation, Renee stripped off her dress, bra, and panties. She then jerked the frilly slip above Rafe's hips, exposing his terrible need, and straddled him, pinning his arms to the bed.
Later, cradling him, Renee whispered in his ear. "I know a woman at work. Pretty, short blond hair, slim. Kind of dykey looking. Would you be interested sometime in a threesome? Just us girls?"
From the deep aftershock of the strongest orgasm Rafe could remember, he was capable of little more than a nod and half smile in response.
Within the next year, a number of people would remark that Renee and Rafe's marriage seemed rejuvenated, seemed stronger, indeed, than ever before.
* * *
Although she tried, in the weeks following their discussion, Jesse could not shake the idea that there must have been some specific reason for Jim's fear of AIDS, that this fear must be connected to some act, some exposure. But when she gently tried to broach the subject with Jim, he insisted vehemently that she was making an issue out of a semantic misunderstanding.
"What I meant was, I'm afraid of AIDS just like everybody else," he hissed at her, his mouth freezing into the tight lines that signaled he was nearing his limit. "Everybody's afraid. Why do I need a goddamn reason?"
A month later, Jesse asked Jim to take an AIDS test with her. He refused on principle. It made no sense to her. If he had nothing to fear, why was he so opposed to the test? She let it go for another week, then asked him again, and this time he really lost it and started screaming at her.
Jesse remembered an article in The New York Times some years ago which said the chances of contracting AIDS from a single sexual encounter with an infected person were about one in five hundred. Did that mean, she wondered, that you were almost certain to get the disease if you had sex with an infected person five hundred times? Statistics had never been her long suit.
Six months passed before Jesse filed for divorce, during which time she had sex with Jim three times and always insisted he use a condom.
Jim didn't contest the divorce.
* * *
Claire and Colin reconciled after a four month separation, during which time they attended daily marriage counseling sessions, together and separately, conducted by a married couple, both psychologists, who operated within a framework of situational ethics and espoused a holistic, non sexist, ecumenical approach focused on empowering both parties.
They remained friends with Rene and Rafe, although they saw less of Jesse and Jim after their divorce. But within a short time, it seemed clear to their friends that Meg and Michael Bassett had become very close to Claire and Colin. In the ensuing years, the two couples were frequently seen together in restaurants and at parties and the theater, often accompanied by the Bassett's young daughter, who, though unusually pretty, almost never dated, and would, in fact, remain unmarried till the age of thirty-eight, a year after her father's death, at which time she would choose a man remarkably similar in temperament.