A Short Story
By Michael Conniff
She kissed him on the mouth so hard it hurt.
She had never kissed him that way before: her mouth had never been a weapon that she could wield. But now her mouth was coiled and dangerous, with some bite to it: her teeth left a mark, a bruise, like a scar on his upper lip. Now when she kissed him, his mouth hurt like a bastard.
Gloria would always mainstream her new lover into their lovemaking because she picked up sexual habits like static cling, though her husband would be the last to know. The first time was the worst because he had no idea his wife, the most important person in his life, had crossed the line.
I want to do something for you, she said. Something new.
That was fine with him the first time, even though it seemed so different than anything Gloria had ever tried before. To that point, his wife had not been much of a lover: Gloria looked away when there was lift off and never looked back at him until it was over. She was quiet, too—so quiet he actually worried she might be sterile or something. He had heard that for some women sex hurt and there were no two ways about it. He thought Gloria might be one of those women.
Then she was suddenly doing the new thing to him over and over, up and then down, every night and all the livelong day on weekends. There were only so many happy endings he could take, despite the benefits, but she was hungry and unapologetic, as if she were doing him a favor every time she messed with his belt or unzipped his zipper.
He went along with it—and why not? Gloria was getting better at it by the day. How could she not? Muscle memory and all that.
Then one day the first new thing stopped cold. After a week of feeling zipped up, he loosened his belt and zipped his zipper up and down and up like a signal—zing-zing-zing—that he was open for business. But Gloria never even looked up from her samples, as if the new thing had never happened in the first place. Instead Gloria was acting like someone had died and she were in mourning. Her brooding went on for months—with some boo-hooing shushed up into a bath towel in the John out of earshot—and she never did that thing to him again. From that moment on, he would have to do it to himself. Gloria was a buyer for a department store, and so she was never there when he came home from school. Most nights, when she was in town, he would make dinner for them, eat less than half, and leave the rest in a Zip-Loc in the microwave with the right amount of time programmed in. Then he would grade homework and work on the next day’s study plan. Gloria would come home, peck him on the cheek, hit the button on the microwave, eat a bite or two of dinner, and put the rest away in Tupperware for lunch the next day.
He thought they were happy—or at least as happy as people had a right to be—and otherwise he did not think much of it until Gloria went on another one of her buying trips: this time, when she came home, she was flat-out crazy in bed. It had been months since the unzipping had been zipped up, so he was taken aback when Gloria climbed on top of him facing backwards for the first time ever. Facing away from him, his wife could not stop bucking, and he did not necessarily want her to stop. To have a red-hot wife coming home from a road trip was a good thing, and there were no two ways about it, backwards or forwards. He was nobody’s fool. The days of old, sterile Gloria were gone for good at a time when he was much busier than ever with his own life. His tutoring business had taken off after the parents heard what he was doing for little Willie Bent, maybe the smartest kid in the entire third grade. Willie’s father was a horse trainer at Pimlico who had never been to college, so he was unspeakably grateful that his son had something special going for him. Tutoring was a way to make good money and to do some good.
For her part, Gloria was promoted—and then promoted again—first to lead buyer for the store, then for the region. People who worked for her said she had the touch when it came to merchandise. She was never home, but then he was gone most weekday nights tutoring Willie Bent and the other children. When she finally made her way home from a trip, Gloria was a wild buckaroo—but one day she turned to face him, and they never did it that way again. He could still manage the buckaroo without Gloria, but only in his mind, as you might imagine. His great awakening took years, even though Gloria slipped every one of her lovers between the marital sheets unseen. Up to that moment—to the kiss that left a mark on his lip—there had been no proof, no other evidence that his beloved had gone over to the dark side. Strange items never appeared in their laundry, and there were no love notes falling out of that season’s designer pocketbook. Maybe the cell phone held Gloria’s secrets, but all of that was hidden behind the one password not based on her birthday. Even the smells she might pick up were hidden in that department-store cloud that you could never separate from Gloria herself.
Of course, the telltale signs of dalliance were there. Her tastes in lovemaking changed almost as often as a new season came in Gloria’s region. Every four to six months his wife would bring something new to the bedroom, and he expected as much, even if it felt dirty or wrong at first. He was a creature of habit but he could get used to almost everything. For a time her legs were pointing in every direction like a new kind of mathematical apparatus. Gloria wanted him to put it in the place where he had never gone before so there it went. Then they stopped using the bed and found their way to the floor, the recliner, the sink, the couch. She showed him how to speed her up and then slow her down—how to keep her right there on the edge before the big enchilada came and went. He was amazed at how many balls he could keep up in the air once Gloria taught him how to juggle. And he learned it was never over until she was done.
Without a doubt, his favorite was still the old backways buckaroo, but she never turned her back on him again: once his wife had moved on to another concept you could not coax her back to square one on a bet.
Gloria went from being a nobody in bed to a woman who had explored every possibility—one by one by one—with all the benefits that came right along with it for him. Unbeknownst to her or to him, Gloria had taken them through a master’s class on the sexual revolution, as seen from the inside out.
By this time little Willie Bent had made it from third grade all the way to eighth, when he started taking college courses online that his tutor gladly paid for. The Bent boy was touched by genius: with the right encouragement (and tutoring) he was taking off like a racehorse heading down the home stretch past high school and right into the winner’s circle at a college of his choice.
He made sure Gloria came to Willie Bent’s graduation, because he wanted her to put a name to the face he talked about almost every night. Because he so loved to teach, to see a boy take off in life like that was ecstasy for him, like a math orgasm, and Gloria could see that. She jumped up even before he did when Willie Bent took home the Cardinal’s Special Award for Mathematical Excellence, a big silver Pegasus trophy that usually stayed in the closet most years. At the reception, she treated the Bents like old friends—flirting with the father, Don Bent, and giggling with the boy’s mother, Riva Bent. She messed with Willie Bent’s hair and said: “My husband says you’re off to the races.”
To come full circle, Gloria bit him on the lip for the first time not long after Willie Bent’ graduation. It left that mark the first time and then every time, like hurting him had become part of Gloria’s ongoing sexual fulfillment. Gloria was all teeth in bed now—his mouth started to hurt so bad when they kissed he wanted to keep it shut forever. He had to face it: once Gloria got certain merchandise in her mind she could not be stopped. He was by no measure a stupid man, so the discovery of Gloria’s cheating could not be waylaid forever, given the evidence he could feel in his mouth and see in the mirror. One night, while he was grading papers, the unadulterated truth hit him like a cold hard smack in the face: someone’s hurting Gloria—and that’s why Gloria’s hurting me.
He was not a detective and not inclined to distrust his fellow man, but as a math lover he was a man of logic. If somebody were kissing Gloria too hard and he was bearing the brunt, then it would not take a genius to trace her behavior back through the unzipping and the pointy legs and the naughty hole and the old buckaroo. It would take an idiot not see Gloria had a habit of bringing her extracurriculars back home like a new handbag, and he finally knew he had been a complete idiot for the entire course of his marriage. His own stupidity was mortifying.
How could he have been so dumb?
People they knew were probably laughing at him behind his back—but maybe not. As far as he could tell, Gloria’s shenanigans had always taken place a long way from home. Everyone in her region probably knew, but it was not like she was the first person in history to ever find a little something-something on the road.
He could do nothing, of course, as many men (smart and dumb) had done before him. He could accept his fate as a cuckold, a word he had heard about in college in a course he was forced to take.
Or he could turn his life around by acting like a man.
Thank God Willie Bent was away at bugle practice.
The worst thing in the world would have been for that genius boy to witness what happened next in his own home. The hurt would have scabbed up into scars that would never go away, like the brand on a horse’s rump. Had Willie Bent been home that day, he might never have aced graduate school and gone on from M.I.T. to a career in data-driven wagering on the ponies, parlaying the odds in Vegas into too many millions to count.
Thank goodness the boy was not there to watch.
When their front door opened, he could see Don Bent had little bruises all across his upper lip. That was all he needed to know. He punched Don Bent so hard in the mouth that blood hit the rug before he did.
“What the fuck?” said Don Bent, lying on his back.
“If you ever touch my wife again I will kill you.”
“Your wife?” Don Bent said.
He looked behind Don Bent and he could see Riva Bent crying. If he looked closely at her red lipstick in the spotlight of the hall light, he could see Riva Bent had no bruises along her upper lip—or anywhere else for that matter.
He stepped over Don Bent to slap Riva Bent right in the kisser with the back of his hand.
“Sorry,” he said to her husband. “I had the whole thing backwards.”
Then he went straight home, feeling better than he had in weeks. He actually beat his chest, da-dump, once with each fist, if you can imagine that.
There was only one way to change the equation that was his marriage—one way to make everything add up to something better in life.
She was his wife: like it or not—this was their life—so he never said a word to her about his dramatic encounter with the Bents. Instead he made Gloria unzip him and then do the first thing she had ever done, with him keeping her at just the right angle until he was ready to move on to the next lesson. He pointed her legs in every direction and then had his way with her naughty hole. He turned her right around for the buckaroo so he would not have to look her in the face: he gave Gloria the bucking of a lifetime, until her legs were shaking from the ride.
But he was not done yet. He flipped her over and stayed right on the edge for a long time before it was time to bite her, hard, on the mouth, so hard he tasted the tickle of blood as it trickled from her upper lip and into her mouth.
“Ouch,” she said.
He had never seen his wife so happy.
As for Willie Bent, he kept on tutoring him even harder after the Bents parents divorced. The boy never found out about his mother and Gloria, thank goodness. As a grown man you can’t find a mark on him.