The house was in a pretty, wooded neighborhood not too far from campus and had a string of cheerful white fairy lights across the doorway. Before he got out of the car, he said, darkly, like a warning, “Just so you know, I have cats.”

“I know,” she said. “We texted about them, remember?”

At the front door, he fumbled with his keys for what seemed a ridiculously long time and swore under his breath. She rubbed his back to try to keep the mood going, but that seemed to fluster him even more, so she stopped.

“Well. This is my house,” he said flatly, pushing the door open.

The room they were in was dimly lit and full of objects, all of which, as her eyes adjusted, resolved into familiarity. He had two large, full bookcases, a shelf of vinyl records, a collection of board games, and a lot of art—or, at least, posters that had been hung in frames, instead of being tacked or taped to the wall.

“I like it,” she said, truthfully, and, as she did, she identified the emotion she was feeling as relief. It occurred to her that she’d never gone to someone’s house to have sex before; because she’d dated only guys her age, there had always been some element of sneaking around, to avoid roommates. It was new, and a little frightening, to be so completely on someone else’s turf, and the fact that Robert’s house gave evidence of his having interests that she shared, if only in their broadest categories—art, games, books, music—struck her as a reassuring endorsement of her choice.

As she thought this, she saw that Robert was watching her closely, observing the impression the room had made. And, as though fear weren’t quite ready to release its hold on her, she had the brief wild idea that maybe this was not a room at all but a trap meant to lure her into the false belief that Robert was a normal person, a person like her, when in fact all the other rooms in the house were empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains. But then he was kissing her, throwing her bag and their coats on the couch and ushering her into the bedroom, groping her ass and pawing at her chest, with the avid clumsiness of that first kiss.

The bedroom wasn’t empty, though it was emptier than the living room; he didn’t have a bed frame, just a mattress and a box spring on the floor. There was a bottle of whiskey on his dresser, and he took a swig from it, then handed it to her and kneeled down and opened his laptop, an action that confused her, until she understood that he was putting on music.

Margot sat on the bed while Robert took off his shirt and unbuckled his pants, pulling them down to his ankles before realizing that he was still wearing his shoes and bending over to untie them. Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.

She tried to bludgeon her resistance into submission by taking a sip of the whiskey, but when he fell on top of her with those huge, sloppy kisses, his hand moving mechanically across her breasts and down to her crotch, as if he were making some perverse sign of the cross, she began to have trouble breathing and to feel that she really might not be able to go through with it after all.

Wriggling out from under the weight of him and straddling him helped, as did closing her eyes and remembering him kissing her forehead at the 7-Eleven. Encouraged by her progress, she pulled her shirt up over her head. Robert reached up and scooped her breast out of her bra, so that it jutted half in and half out of the cup, and rolled her nipple between his thumb and forefinger. This was uncomfortable, so she leaned forward, pushing herself into his hand. He got the hint and tried to undo her bra, but he couldn’t work the clasp, his evident frustration reminiscent of his struggle with the keys, until at last he said, bossily, “Take that thing off,” and she complied.

The way he looked at her then was like an exaggerated version of the expression she’d seen on the faces of all the guys she’d been naked with, not that there were that many—six in total, Robert made seven. He looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex—a guy revealed like that. Robert showed her more open need than any of the others, even though he was older, and must have seen more breasts, more bodies, than they had—but maybe that was part of it for him, the fact that he was older, and she was young.

As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.

The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got, and soon they were rocking against each other, getting into a rhythm, and she reached into his underwear and took his penis in her hand and felt the pearled droplet of moisture on its tip. He made that sound again, that high-pitched feminine whine, and she wished there were a way she could ask him not to do that, but she couldn’t think of any. Then his hand was inside her underwear, and when he felt that she was wet he visibly relaxed. He fingered her a little, very softly, and she bit her lip and put on a show for him, but then he poked her too hard and she flinched, and he jerked his hand away. “Sorry!” he said.

And then he asked, urgently, “Wait. Have you ever done this before?”

The night did, indeed, feel so odd and unprecedented that her first impulse was to say no, but then she realized what he meant and she laughed out loud.

She didn’t mean to laugh; she knew well enough already that, while Robert might enjoy being the subject of gentle, flirtatious teasing, he was not a person who would enjoy being laughed at, not at all. But she couldn’t help it. Losing her virginity had been a long, drawn-out affair preceded by several months’ worth of intense discussion with her boyfriend of two years, plus a visit to the gynecologist and a horrifically embarrassing but ultimately incredibly meaningful conversation with her mom, who, in the end, had not only reserved her a room at a bed-and-breakfast but, after the event, written her a card. The idea that, instead of that whole involved, emotional process, she might have watched a pretentious Holocaust movie, drunk three beers, and then gone to some random house to lose her virginity to a guy she’d met at a movie theatre was so funny that suddenly she couldn’t stop laughing, though the laughter had a slightly hysterical edge.

“I’m sorry,” Robert said coldly. “I didn’t know.”

Abruptly, she stopped giggling.

“No, it was . . . nice of you to check,” she said. “I’ve had sex before, though. I’m sorry I laughed.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” he said, but she could tell by his face, as well as by the fact that he was going soft beneath her, that she did.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, reflexively, and then, in a burst of inspiration, “I guess I’m just nervous, or something?”

He narrowed his eyes at her, as though suspicious of this claim, but it seemed to placate him. “You don’t have to be nervous,” he said. “We’ll take it slow.”

Yeah, right, she thought, and then he was on top of her again, kissing her and weighing her down, and she knew that her last chance of enjoying this encounter had disappeared, but that she would carry through with it until it was over. When Robert was naked, rolling a condom onto a dick that was only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly, she felt a wave of revulsion that she thought might actually break through her sense of pinned stasis, but then he shoved his finger in her again, not at all gently this time, and she imagined herself from above, naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her, and her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal.

During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made! And she marvelled at herself for a while, at the mystery of this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.

After a short while, Robert got up and hurried to the bathroom in a bow-legged waddle, clutching the condom to keep it from falling off. Margot lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, noticing for the first time that there were stickers on it, those little stars and moons that were supposed to glow in the dark.

Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.

“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful yet hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say, “And then he said, ‘You make my dick so hard,’ ” and the boy would shriek in agony and grab her leg, saying, “Oh, my God, stop, please, no, I can’t take it anymore,” and the two of them would collapse into each other’s arms and laugh and laugh—but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.

So instead she shrugged, and Robert said, “We could watch a movie,” and he went to the computer and downloaded something; she didn’t pay attention to what. For some reason, he’d chosen a movie with subtitles, and she kept closing her eyes, so she had no idea what was going on. The whole time, he was stroking her hair and trailing light kisses down her shoulder, as if he’d forgotten that ten minutes ago he’d thrown her around as if they were in a porno and growled, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits” in her ear.

Then, out of nowhere, he started talking about his feelings for her. He talked about how hard it had been for him when she went away for break, not knowing if she had an old high-school boyfriend she might reconnect with back home. During those two weeks, it turned out, an entire secret drama had played out in his head, one in which she’d left campus committed to him, to Robert, but at home had been drawn back to the high-school guy, who, in Robert’s mind, was some kind of brutish, handsome jock, not worthy of her but nonetheless seductive by virtue of his position at the top of the hierarchy back home in Saline. “I was so worried you might, like, make a bad decision and things would be different between us when you got back,” he said. “But I should have trusted you.” My high-school boyfriend is gay, Margot imagined telling him. We were pretty sure of it in high school, but after a year of sleeping around at college he’s definitely figured it out. In fact, he’s not even a hundred per cent positive that he identifies as a man anymore; we spent a lot of time over break talking about what it would mean for him to come out as non-binary, so sex with him wasn’t going to happen, and you could have asked me about that if you were worried; you could have asked me about a lot of things. But she didn’t say any of that; she just lay silently, emanating a black, hateful aura, until finally Robert trailed off. “Are you still awake?” he asked, and she said yes, and he said, “Is everything O.K.?”

“How old are you, exactly?” she asked him.

“I’m thirty-four,” he said. “Is that a problem?”

She could sense him in the dark beside her vibrating with fear.

“No,” she said. “It’s fine.”

“Good,” he said. “It was something I wanted to bring up with you, but I didn’t know how you’d take it.” He rolled over and kissed her forehead, and she felt like a slug he’d poured salt on, disintegrating under that kiss.

She looked at the clock; it was nearly three in the morning. “I should go home, probably,” she said.

“Really?” he said. “But I thought you’d stay over. I make great scrambled eggs!”

“Thanks,” she said, sliding into her leggings. “But I can’t. My roommate would be worried. So.”

“Gotta get back to the dorm room,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Yep,” she said. “Since that’s where I live.”

The drive was endless. The snow had turned to rain. They didn’t talk. Eventually, Robert switched the radio to late-night NPR. Margot recalled how, when they first got on the highway to go to the movie, she’d imagined that Robert might murder her, and she thought, Maybe he’ll murder me now.

He didn’t murder her. He drove her to her dorm. “I had a really nice time tonight,” he said, unbuckling his seat belt.

“Thanks,” she said. She clutched her bag in her hands. “Me, too.”

“I’m so glad we finally got to go on a date,” he said.

“A date,” she said to her imaginary boyfriend. “He called that a date.” And they both laughed and laughed.

“You’re welcome,” she said. She reached for the door handle. “Thanks for the movie and stuff.”

“Wait,” he said, and grabbed her arm. “Come here.” He dragged her back, wrapped his arms around her, and pushed his tongue down her throat one last time. “Oh, my God, when will it end?” she asked the imaginary boyfriend, but the imaginary boyfriend didn’t answer her.

“Good night,” she said, and then she opened the door and escaped. By the time she got to her room, she already had a text from him: no words, just hearts and faces with heart eyes and, for some reason, a dolphin.

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