‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so’. Nick often recalls that line from a John Berryman poem (is it one of the Dream Songs?) on a midweek evening like this. Dinner has been consumed, half a bottle of Sauvignon stares back at him from the coffee table, whispering, silently, ‘finish me’. The TV is on but he is not watching. The images flicker and blur before his eyes. Soon his wife will be home and he will be forced out of his reverie to recount his day, or , more likely, to listen to her recounting hers. The secret of the ‘success’ of Nick and Annabelle’s ten year (ten years) marriage, lies partly in Nick’s ability to look as if he is listening, and even to ask questions and make noises in the appropriate places, when really, ever since the beginning probably, he has been a thousand miles away.
The key in the lock jolts him to attention. Annabelle bustles in, awash with colour, movement, bags, kisses, words. Sometimes Nick thinks she is the only animated thing in his other wise still-frame life. She is talking and is obviously excited about something, because the tell tale sign has appeared: a pink blotch in the middle of each cheek. They appear on her otherwise pale complexion when she is drunk, or angry, or hormonal or all three. But tonight the little roses of colour just indicate enthusiasm and passion. Nick waits for her to sit down then pours his wife a glass of wine. He zones in to her monologue, tries to pick out the words as if he is an old radio transmitter, crackling and buzzing and finally tuning in.
‘…and so Sandra said…’ she stops for breath and sips her wine, looking at her husband quizzically.
‘You know Sandra don’t you Nick? You know, Sandra and Jim’.
‘Oh yeah, the one whose husband had an affair with the babysitter’.
‘Yes. Anyway she was telling me how they got over their difficulties and became polyamorous’.
‘Polyamorous. They have an open relationship’.
‘So you mean he’s still banging the babysitter? Lucky Jim. If that had have been me I’d have been out on my ear’.
‘Nick! Don’t be silly. We don’t even have…’
Annabelle trails off. Their childlessness wears them like a dark, winter coat. They very rarely refer to it. But it stifles them. And also, in a way they do not understand or ever speak about, binds them together. It is their only shared secret. Their song.
‘No. The babysitter is out of the picture. Sandra and Jim have both got secondary partners now’.
‘Secondary partners? What are they? A firm of solicitors?’
Annabelle ignores him and carries on unabated.
‘They just sat down and worked it all out one day. They went onto some swinging and dating sites and now they both have girlfriends. They all know each other. Sometimes they go to parties as a foursome’.
‘Like key swap parties? Sounds very 1973’.
‘No. Swinger parties. At clubs. It’s actually a very modern arrangement’.
‘Anyway. They are all meeting tomorrow in town its a polyamory group. And… I said we’d go’.
‘You what? I’m not going to a polyamory group. I’m not a fucking hippie’.
‘It’s just for drinks and socialising’.
‘Oh right so we don’t have to have a gang bang in All Bar One? Glad to hear it.’
Nick has raised his voice. He doesn’t know why but this whole ‘polyamory’ idea is starting to annoy him. He gulps his wine and tries to calm down.
‘Ok I’ll go on my own. But I am serious about this. You know our marriage is in trouble. We have to do something.’
Neither of them had acknowledged this plain fact before. It hangs in the air, not knowing where to land.
‘Sandra lent me this’. She takes a book out of her bag and hands it to Nick.
‘The Ethical Slut’ he reads, sceptically. ‘Jesus’.
Annabelle looks at Nick and her eyes do that thing they do, where they seem to grow in size, and get darker in colour, a deeper blue, and then, as if she is manipulating her own tear ducts with a hidden pump, tears start to flow. She’s good. He has to admit it, she’s damned good.
‘I don’t know about this’ he says. He must be mad. His wife is basically offering him a ‘get out of jail free card’- the chance for sex with other women, no strings attached. But there are always strings. This is a marriage. A marriage that is based on conditional as opposed to the unconditional love that they originally agreed to.Then something occurs to him.
‘Are you seeing someone else?’ he asks, his eyes narrowing into a frown.
‘No. Of course not!’ And he does realise it was probably a long shot. Annabelle finds it difficult to hide anything from Nick, except for the things she hides from herself. And she couldn’t have an affair without knowing it could she? So what is it? Where did this come from? He goes to get more wine from the kitchen. He needs it.
‘Sandra said it has saved her marriage’.
‘Is Sandra planning on joining in with our marriage to try and save that too?’ He’s angry. He isn’t sure why but it feels right.
Annabelle knows when Nick is not playing anymore. She pours herself a large glass of wine, and just walks out the room to bed, leaving Nick to finish the bottle, The Ethical Slut poised on the coffee table infront of him like a threat. He opens it despite himself on a random page and begins to read:
‘To us, a slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you. A slut may choose to have sex with herself only, or with the Fifth Fleet. He may be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, a radical activist or a peaceful suburbanite.’
‘We believe that it is fundamentally a radical political act to deprivatize sex. So much oppression in our culture is based on shame about sex: the oppression of women, of cultural minorities, oppression in the name of the (presumably asexual) family, oppression of sexual minorities. We are all oppressed. We have all been taught, one way or another, that our desires, our bodies, our sexualities, are shameful. What better way to defeat oppression than to get together in communities and celebrate the wonders of sex?’
Nick puts the book down. It makes sex sound rather academic and political. He always thought of sex as a primal thing. Something he did when he wasn’t thinking, something he did without thinking, something he did to stop himself thinking. All this analysis is highly unsexy. He drains the wine from his glass and wanders up to bed, slipping in next to his sleeping wife. Maybe she will forget about this whole Ethical Slut idea in the morning, and just go back to nagging him and having hairbrained ideas about moving to France to set up a small holding.
She doesn’t forget. In fact it is almost as if the book and the idea took hold of her in the night, and filled her dreams. Because she wakes up talking about it. She talks about it over breakfast. She talks about it while they go out to do the weekly shop, and in the cafe where they stop for coffee. By the time she is actually ready to go to Polyamory Group, Nick never wants to hear about sex and relationships ever again.
‘For the last time no. I’m not going to Balamory club. I am going to watch the match in the pub’.
Annabelle knows she has lost this particular battle. But the war is not over yet.
‘Ok well I will come back with more information and we can talk about it later. I’ll be back about seven if you want to wait for dinner.’
‘Bye then’. They kiss each other lightly on the cheek. They have said goodbye thousands of times before. But this time, unbenownst to either of them. This time it is different.
The Crown is Nick’s favourite pub. It is actually one of his favourite places. As soon as he walks through the doors a sense of calm descends upon him. He feels almost invincible, and he hasn’t even ordered a drink. It is something about the dim lighting, the dark red wallpaper, the comfy seats. Now he comes to think of it, The Crown is not unlike a womb to Nick. He wonders what Freud would make of that.
‘Pint of the usual, Nick?’ asks Jo, his favourite barmaid.
‘Yes, why change now eh?’
‘You are a man of habit’, she says, smiling approvingly.
‘And one for yourself of course Jo’.
‘Thanks. I am off duty soon I will have it then’.
Nick goes to sit down in ‘his corner’. He can’t see the TVs from there, but he didn’t really want to watch the match. He just said that because he knew it would annoy Annabelle. He would have liked to have chatted to Jo more, but he doesn’t want to become one of those men that props up the bar and leers at the barmaid. He gets out his John Berryman book and sips his pint.
‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.’
Nick nods in agreement with this dead poet.
‘I didn’t know you read poetry’. It’s Jo. She is clearing the glasses from his table.
‘I have hidden shallows’ quips Nick.
Jo laughs. She must be half his age. Not quite half. Twenty two, twenty three? She is slightly built, cropped bleached blonde hair, kind of androgyne in her style and demeanour.
‘I’m finishing in a minute’ she says, ‘I’ll come and join you for that pint if that is ok’.
Something unexpected flicks across Nick’s mind. A flash of light. A momentary sudden sense of things opening up, of possibility, of change.
Jo sits down beside him and takes a swig of her pint. She is all limbs- arms and legs and elbows. Annabelle in comparison is so fleshy. Nick feels bad about comparing them, but he finds the contrast beguiling. Jo interrupts his appraisal.
‘So what’s new?’
‘Oh, nothing much’. Should he tell her? About Polyamory Club? About The Ethical Slut? No. It would sound like a terrible attempt at a come-on. It probably would be. They sit and drink in companiable silence.
‘Let’s get out of here’. Says Jo, suddenly.’I’ve got some beer at home. I am sick of these four walls it’s my night off’.
So Nick follows her out, as if on a string that she is pulling, and he finds himself in her flat.
Jo’s appartment is not unlike Jo herself- sparse, efficient, kind of genderless but also sexy. Modern. she puts on some trip hop and passes him a bottle of lager. That Spanish stuff.
‘Estrella’ says Jo. Rolling her ‘r’. ‘It means star’.
Nick sits back on the sofa and relaxes, for the first time in…for the first time in a long time. Jo is dancing, well, kind of dancing in a lazy, easy way. She swigs from her bottle and moves her hips to the beat of the bass. Sunlight streams into the room and bounces off her hair. She looks like an angel. Oh God. What the hell am I doing?
But before Nick has time to answer his own question, Jo has stopped dancing and has moved over to the sofa. She puts down her beer and kneels infront of him. He doesn’t know what to do. But the joyful fact is, he doesn’t have to do anything. The whole point of this elfin, confident, easy going young woman, is that she is the one in control. Nick just has to sit back and enjoy the ride. Jo takes his beer out of his hand and puts it next to hers on the side table. She undoes the belt of his jeans, holding his gaze as she does so. Then she undoes his flies, and she finds the bulge of his cock under the cotton of his boxers and strokes it gently, still looking up at him. She tells him to undress and so he does. She tells him to sit back down and so he does. And then, still fully clothed herself, kneeling at his feet, she gives Nick, forty one year old, balding, slightly dishevelled, jaded unhappily married Nick, the blowjob of his life.
When she is done, and has wiped off the cum that she aimed deliberately over her face, all he can think of to say is
‘It’s a pleasure mate. I thought you looked like you needed that’. And then she goes to fetch two more beers while Nick gets dressed. They drink and listen to music like before. There is no tension, no awkwardness. it is almost as if they are just two friends, kicking back on a Saturday evening. Maybe they are? Is this what friends do? But the calm is broken by Nick’s sudden memory. By his sudden memory of his wife.
‘Shit! What time is it?’ He jumps up spilling beer on the floor. ‘Shit sorry’.
‘It’s only seven’ says Jo, unfazed.
‘Oh, I have to go. I said I’d cook dinner for…’
‘Annabelle. Yeah, I know. Ok then’ and she jumps up, goes to the front door, plants a kiss on his lips, hands him her phone number.
‘Call me’ . With that she shuts the door and leaves Nick to deal with reality by himself.
The walk home is long. The sun goes in. Everything that just happened feels like a dream, as if it might not have happened at all. Nick slows down when he approaches his house. He’s armed with a take-away and some wine, but he doesn’t know how to act normal. To make everything ok.
Annabelle is there already, and those pink blotches are showing up on her cheeks. He assumes it is anger but it’s excitement again.
‘Oh there you are!’
He goes into the kitchen to serve the meal and she follows him in talking fast as usual. She tells him about polyamory group, and how lovely everyone was, and how its really an ‘inclusive’ atmosphere, and how positive she feels about the future, and how they gave her advice about using the internet to meet people, OK Cupid or something, about how she doesn’t want to rush things, because of course they both have to agree that it’s a good idea and…
Nick let’s her voice wash over him. He pours the wine, hands her a plate of food, sits down on the sofa beside his wife the way he has done night after night for the last ten years. He takes a sip of wine and considers telling her. He feels Jo’s phone number burning a hole in his pocket. He looks at The Ethical Slut, still open face down on the table where he left it last night. He doesn’t want to be a member of polyamory club. It makes everything seem so respectable. So suburban. So unappealing. Nick makes a decision. He doesn’t say a word. He smiles. There are no rules.