His Respect

by Larry Smith

When they were driving home that night, he told her about the excerpt he’d seen of the old Playboy Penthouse Party television show—it was called something like that—that had Lenny Bruce making an appearance. She was too young to remember the program, most likely, but it was just an awful thing. Each week was a mock-up party with famous singers singing and celebrities showing up and Hugh Hefner slinking about in a cardigan.

“Oh God,” she laughed, that soft harmonious little cushion of sound that he loved so much. “That does sound awful.”

“But wait until I tell you about Lenny Bruce on the show.”

Amy’s breasts under the low-cut black dress smelled of talcum even through the light raincoat she was wearing. It was a comforting marriage smell that made him want to crawl under the sheets and cuddle and make love. He’d achieved a casual delight in her presence, and that was also a wonderful part of a marriage that seemed to be working, even though it was, at least for now, a little unconventional.

He knew about Leif from the beginning. She was always honest about it. It was hard to break with him, she had confessed, and, yes, they could be married, but this old lover was somebody that she just couldn’t let go of right away. There might even be nights she’d come home late because of some mutual felt need for intimacy. And he agreed to it, first because he wanted her so much, and, second, because he had faith it was, finally, toward him that she was most deeply headed with all her heart and soul.

It was something that, in the early days, he acceded to with almost a kind of euphoria. To be giving her so much! To be doing so much for the wife the sight and scent of whom delighted him so! The soft and pale and fleshy flesh of her! The kindly way she laughed! The delight she took in life, and in people. Even boring old men and women, her aunts and uncles, or his, she took trouble to accommodate. Yet, the most fascinating part of her was those round blue eyes, paradoxically almost challenging. Paradoxical, because her manner was altogether so comfortable, yet just a slight glint of the big eyes looked hungry.

“I didn’t know he was ever on television,” she laughed, her face enlivened in anticipation of a good story.

“The interesting thing was that Hefner and his friends were very uncomfortable with Bruce, which you could see when he told them this story about his experience doing the Steve Allen show.”

“So he was on TV a lot,” she said.

“Not a lot. But Allen was incredibly hip for his time. He still is. He had Kerouac on his show in the fifties, he had Bruce. But the censor wouldn’t let Bruce tell this cute story about a conversation with his aunt in Queens. They were washing dishes after dinner and she saw a tattoo on his arm that he had gotten in the service. She was horrified because they were Jews and Jews don’t allow tattoos. ‘You can’t disfigure your body,’ she screamed. ‘They won’t bury you in sacred ground.’ So Bruce told her, ‘I’ll cut off my arm and they can bury the rest of me in sacred ground.’”

Yet three years had come and gone, and Leif was still part of their lives. By then, there were days the whole arrangement left him with a hollow, numbing anxiety, and he just didn’t know what to do about it. There were days he thought a girlfriend might make him feel better, but he didn’t want a girlfriend. Besides, they were both respectful toward him, and he only saw Leif once or twice a month anyway. Yet the most unsettling part of it all was his own lust at the thought of his wife sleeping with another man. It wasn’t a lust he was comfortable feeling, or that had ever been a characteristic part of him, although he did realize this lust was one form of his love, hungry love. It was that he needed to get deeper and deeper into that creamy flesh and fuck as if to save his life, to, in essence, fuck all thoughts of the other man out of her.

“Pretty mild joke,” she said.

“Oh, but this was the 1950s, and the censor said no. ‘Why not?’ asked Bruce. ‘Because it might offend Jewish people,’ said the censor. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Bruce. ‘I’ve known Jewish people all my life, and I can promise you they won’t be offended.’ ‘I’ll take it under advisement,’ says the censor, and he comes back in an hour, and says, ‘Mr. Bruce, we definitely cannot let you tell that joke.’ ‘Why not?’ asks Bruce again. ‘Because it will offend gentile people,’ said the censor. ‘Offend gentile people?’ says Bruce. ‘How the hell will it possibly offend gentile people?’

“ ‘Because,’ said the censor, ‘it implies that gentile people will bury anything!’ “

One night he was full of desire after Leif had eaten dinner at their house. He sucked at Amy’s thighs and pussy and belly as if to engorge her, and the more he tried to not think of the other man, the more hungrily he sucked. And, as he sucked, the thought that Leif had been inside her the day before, maybe, or the day before that, drove him onward. Yet, after he finished, all he could think of was the fairly interesting conversation with Leif that evening.

They were always having thoughtful discussions. In this one, Leif had talked about the odd but highly significant tie-in between Karl Marx and his own uncle, a rich real estate broker. Uncle bludgeoned the people he conversed with, especially when they were college students, as Leif had been at the time when they had first come into conflict. Uncle despised any smell of idealism. He’d hammer at it with his own distinctive rendition of life’s meaning, which was that all human motive and aspiration is ruled by money. Anybody can be bought, so forget all the bullshit about religion and political philosophy; it’s the profit motive that drives the great events of history.

So, advised Leif, keep that in mind in the oppressive presence of on-campus Marxists. Remember that Marx was only right in the basest sense that Uncle was right. At some level, they are indeed right, but Marxism is no less a cliché than Uncle’s debased little axioms on human history.

As the remnants of the dinner conversation faded, Les was vaguely perturbed by a look in Amy’s eyes that had become rather nagging in its familiarity. She looked fond of him, honestly fond, but even his most urgent probing and heartfelt sexual attention did not erase this look, which suggested palpable distance. Maybe it was just her. Maybe the look was an indelible part of her way of reacting in intimate situations. Maybe Leif saw it too, although it was painful to dwell at any length on what Leif saw or did not see.

“The point is, Hefner and his friends looked completely uncomfortable while Bruce was telling the story,” said Les. “They were frauds, these people, or, if they weren’t frauds, they were drearily conventional for all their sexual freedom and hedonistic life style crap. They couldn’t handle a real iconoclast like Bruce. They liked freedom up to a point, but not what real revolutionaries think or dream about.”

“I totally understand,” said Amy.

One night, panic made him truly ferocious. It wasn’t from fear he’d lose her. But there was a sense of loss, loss of something he’d never had, that was crystallized in that look of hers in bed, and in the awful word “condescending” that seemed, finally, to describe it. He loved her so much, the neat small bush, the lovely moons of red paint on her toenails. If Leif was seeing something else as well, why couldn’t he? He’d fuck it out of her. He’d fuck it out of her and keep it for his own. He’d recapture his wife, all of her, and then who knows…There was nothing wrong with him. His body was strong. His cock was big enough, if Amy really cared about that. It was something she never mentioned. She hardly used words with him at all, except “I love you” or “that was nice” after making love. Again, he’d remind himself she wasn’t blameworthy, she’d been honest from the beginning.

That night he took her by the shoulders and brought her face close by his. It was a fascination, Amy’s face, pallid in a way almost pre-Raphaelite, yet fleshy and full of life, slightly freckled. For years, he’d doted on the face until familiarity made it a part of him. Amy started a little, not resistant, but not acquiescent either. He pressed harder and harder, not begging, but deeply needing, until she finally smiled.

Without anger or vengefulness, he knew then the most feral desire of his life. Purely instinctive, an involuntary muscular exertion of the whole man, he corralled the butt cheeks. He even heard himself growl. His penis groped just inside her cheeks, pale like her face, fleshy and robust like her face. That was her beauty, the very essence of it, that she could be ethereal or that she could sparkle almost like a child, yet she was ample, and imperfect. Naked in bed, or out and about in the world, it was a physical presence that neatly paralleled her personality.

How lovely the soft woman’s little butt hole looked as he made for it! It was like to dance beneath his gaze. This sex act was one they’d never done before or talked about. But the urge pointed that way; in his gut, he needed to be in hers. So forceful was the desire at that moment, it didn’t occur to him that it might hurt her, or that it would be, from her standpoint, a shocking occurrence.

She wriggled out from under and drew back sharply against the headboard. Slapped back to his senses, he could feel his whole body draw in on itself, in a kind of rudely remorseful awakening. Had he insulted her, shocked her? Please, he could have said, pretend it never happened! Nothing, least of all a sex act, was worth any breach between them. He worried, yet she didn’t look angry. There was even an apologetic shadow in her gaze.

“I thought that was something we might try,” he said, sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I guess I got carried away.”

Amy lay back down and stared out toward the windows. When he nestled in her arms, she welcomed him. But she was silent. She didn’t look at him either.

“I guess I never did that before, and thought…” he was starting to say, but now she averted her head altogether, leaving him to study the faint freckles on her neck. He nibbled gently at her earlobe.

Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. “What’s the matter?” he asked, but Amy shook her head, not wanting to answer. Instead, her body opened, abstractly; her legs were spread, and she stretched her arms above her head. He dared not touch her, and she was faintly weeping. The only time he saw her cry before, really, was when her mother died.

He ached to lay her, to douse himself in the talc-like smell. Yet when she looked away again, toward the window, longing, it seemed, for something out there, it naturally occurred to him that Leif, and all that Leif was for her, had obtruded as never before. And, as never before, he knew clammy jealousy, not just envy for more of her than he had thus far had, but a focused and clearly defined suspicion: that Amy’s lover truly had a great sexual hold on her, that his wife was simply another man’s.

Worst of all—at first only a vague formulation, then in a sudden dismal next moment an insistent apprehension—what he had wanted to do to her was somehow darkly mixed up in all of it. He didn’t probe his own imagination for more detail, though he did feel supremely ridiculous for having so long minimized the physical bond between his wife and her lover, as if Leif were somehow just one old flame that hadn’t quite gone out in the drizzle.

He blurted it out, not quite the exact question he wanted to ask, but a less specific version. “Have you ever done that with anyone else?”

The crying stopped, and she winced, like someone wrestling with something unsaid, that was huge to say, and struggling of its own weight to get out. The condescension, that “you are a sweet man” look, was there but mingled now with a more powerful force that had nothing to do with him. He was in the presence of something awesomely secret and he was afraid, sensing that her own kindness could not suppress what was coming. The next moment only brought it closer to the edge, because, when she leaned away from him, she exposed part of her rear in the process.

He touched her there again. His need to do so was irresistible. And, once again, as he did so, he regretted what he feared to have been an insensitive gesture. But the voice that came from the other person preempted regret. Ambiguity itself was thrashed to smithereens with her one statement as the tips of his fingers were still touching her slightly at the crack. The voice, for the first time since they were married, was a stranger’s.

“Please don’t. It’s Leif’s.”

The sound of it at first was utterly absurd, especially from her, who would never say anything to hurt anyone. Utterly absurd, yet enormous withal. “What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to talk about,” she said, nervously now, as if concerned that she’d been flushed out. But there was an eagerness to disclose that he had never heard before, and that terrified him.

“You’re my wife,” he said matter-of-factly, as if the fact itself would negate whatever it was she had said.

“But Leif and I have shared a lot too.”

“Why can’t I even touch you there?” he asked, for the first time that evening with something akin to anger. But he couldn’t rage. Rage died with the vision of bright blue eyes sparkling in a smooth white face. “Do you love him more than me?”

“No, just in a different way,” she answered, tense now, a little impatient.

“How different?” he asked, fighting off a sad tone he certainly didn’t want her to hear.

“Very different,” she said, almost sternly. Impatience took her over now even though, oddly, that soft smile of hers he’d loved these years had reappeared. In all, she looked like a woman who loved him, but could stand the thought of losing him.

“I guess I understand,” he stammered.

“Les,” she said at last, the smile gone now. “Ask it outright.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ask it outright.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Ask it outright,” she said, so fiercely this time that he jumped, almost, as he asked, “Leif has done it with you there?”

“Where?” she demanded with the voice of a human being now given over to primal love, unmitigated, uncharacteristic, astoundingly real.

“In your ass?”

“Yes, he has,” she said, her voice quickly kinder, almost earnest as well. “And I believe you need to ask something else as well.”

“Why can’t I do it too?” he asked, dutifully, the very question she had in mind.

“It’s not because I wouldn’t want you to,” she said. She turned toward him, closer than she’d been since he had first tried to take her. Her ruby red nipples were hard; she was aroused. “It’s because I promised him I would never do it with any other man.”

“But I’m your husband,” he said, despising himself for saying it even as he said it.

“I made a promise.”

“Why would you make such a promise?” he asked, the incipient anger resurfacing. Yet she seemed to respond to the anger in kind, respectfully, but as if it were a cue to let go more of what she was capable of saying.

“Because I love him and because it’s an incredible thing to give to somebody you love. Because when he first fucked me like that, I made noises I never made before, ever. Because I was grateful, because his thing was so hard, because he probed me and shocked me and delighted me. And so I made my promise, I gave him my ass, and it was a solemn promise, that it would be his and his alone, and you have to respect it.”

“I do,” he whispered, ravished as only a man can be ravished. She was still his wife. “I do respect it.”

“Just remember, there are things you’ve got that he wishes he had.”

“Can I at least look at it?”

Amy laughed at that, not cruelly, a warm laugh meant to reassure him, but a second later her eyes went distant again, as if another, prepossessing spirit were in the room. “Ok,” she said to him, and crouched on the bed on all fours, bending her head as she elevated the creamy spheres. “Look,” she said, “but don’t touch.”

“I won’t,” he muttered.

“This is how I squat when I’m alone dreaming of him.”

“I see,” he said.

Her face was mostly hidden, but he could see from the side Amy’s jaw tighten as if she were preparing to withstand an assault, yet ready to lose control at the very same time. “He owns me here,” she said. “He fucks it. He has my ass. I love it. I love him.”

“I can respect that.”

“He calls me sweet things. He calls my ass sweet things,” she said, abrasively, yet distant enough not to sound hostile. In fact, it was simultaneously almost dreamy, the feminine drone of her. “He’s inside me. He’s way inside. No human being except him ever goes there.” And then, in a scorching, plaintiff way, she repeated, “Ever! Ever!”

“I understand that.”

“It’s his altar. He pig-fucks it.”

“Oh God,” he said, shocked now, the last vestige of his inner reserve broken even though he resolved to accept, to be as accepting as ever. Her knees slid wider on the bed, and he could see up into it, into the forbidden part.

“He said it feels like heaven,” she said.

“I’m sure,” he said.

“It is heaven, he says.”

“I can respect that,” he said.


Larry Smith’s story “Through Alice Glass Darkly” was published by Sliptongue in November 2008. Recently, his story “Tight Like That” appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (print edition), #27. “The Shield of Paris” is in Issue Three of Low Rent and is currently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His stories “Kid’s Friend” and “New Jersey and Me” are both published in Exquisite Corpse. Recent fiction has also appeared in Knock and (forthcoming) PANK. His other fiction has appeared in Hambone and spork; his poetry in Descant (Canada), Konglomerati, Hierophant, and others and his articles and essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others.

© 2009 by Larry Smith





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