The Adulterants, page 1
TIN HOUSE BOOKS / Portland, Oregon & Brooklyn, New York
“. . . AND I THINK IT’S A PROBLEM WITH OUR IDEA OF innocence,” she said, and it was clear from the changeable volume of her voice that we were having one of the most engaged conversations at 8b Longford Close. My wife, Garthene, was not at the party. She was not about to emerge from the bathroom and discover her husband reaching a windy philosophical plateau with an unmarried woman who, from a distance, seemed to be wearing a lot of poorly applied lipstick but in reality just had an unusual upper-lip transition.
“You should speak to my wife,” I said. “Garthene loves this kind of thing.”
It is terrific to have a partner with the name Garthene. Just the mention of it brings decorum to a conversation.
“Funny,” she said, “you don’t look married.”
I spotted Dave Finlay and waved him over. Dave, one of the top focus pullers in the UK film industry, was traveling back from the kitchen with a pile of crisps in his cupped left hand, a full glass of wine in his right. The accuracy of movement required by a focus puller is incredible. Garthene and I reckon Dave Finlay for a very precise lover. It is okay for us to joke about this because Garthene could never find Dave attractive on account of one of his habits. When he drinks wine, small beads of it become trapped in the thick hairs of his moustache, and Dave is aware this happens, so after each sip he draws his bottom lip up over his top lip and pulls down remnants of, in this instance, Picpoul de Pinet. What I’m fairly certain Dave doesn’t know is that this creates a flick-back whereby his moustache, as it regains its shape, spritzes a very fine, near-imperceptible mist of what we can safely assume is a mix of wine and mouth juices. The spray does not so much land on anyone as just become one with the atmosphere in the room, reminding us that the air we breathe is full of each other’s fluids and innards and skin. In the abstract, I have no problem with knowing this. When we smell something we absorb tiny bits of that smell’s source. Fine. But Garthene and I agree that, in the moment of a conversation with Dave Finlay, becoming aware that your next in-breath will be, to a greater than normal extent, rich in his DNA, is a pretty profound turn-off. I wondered whether the situation would get easier if Dave kept a neater moustache, but before that could happen he would need the self-respect engendered by an active love life, and before that could happen he would need a neater moustache, and so on.
The unmarried woman shook the raised pinky of Dave’s wine-holding hand, introduced herself, then touched his elbow, which was my cue to drift away. I went into the bathroom and composed a message for my wife. The stench of death, Garthene. The stench of death overwhelming this whole charade. Every clinked glass, every hollow laugh, every rewind—the more noise we make, the easier the black wing finds us in the dark. The canapés also, bullshit. 6/10.
We don’t have friends who make canapés. The gap in meaning would be obvious to my wife. Garthene would want me to have a good time but would appreciate my pretending not to, since she was working nights. She texted back: Drink more x. That felt good because my wife does not x lightly.
Back in the corridor, Michael Bonner was dabbing at his phone, waiting to go into the toilet after me. Nobody resented Michael for still being into cocaine because we all understood that, for him, the bathroom was a kind of time machine. He would come out a few minutes later looking startled, having visited himself at a house party from five years ago, before he had met Kamara and had twin girls. I knew from experience to avoid Michael until much later on in the evening, when his drugs had run out and he hated himself a little. Then he became quite likable.
On my wife’s advice, I quickly finished my large glass of wine before heading back into the lounge. There, Lee, our host, was preparing drinks. I watched him rhythmically slam a tea towel full of ice cubes against the edge of the dining table. An ineffective way to crush ice but undeniably impressive. In the kitchen, I found his wife, Marie—very beautiful, with a high forehead and good wrinkles—lighting a cigarette off the hob. I knew it was not a problem for Garthene, my talking to Marie. Marie and Lee have always carried an air of tremendous financial-sexual security. It’s also clear Marie has spent her whole adult life being the attractive person and finds it not exactly boring, just unworthy of comment. She waved away the smoke as I approached.
“Ray,” she said, “great you’re here.”
I made an exaggerated play of sucking in the second-hand smoke and she laughed silently, which made what was left in her lungs come out. Strange how different it felt, taking in Marie’s exhalations compared to the mouth juices of Dave Finlay. She hopped up on to the counter to blow smoke more accurately out of the narrow window. Her bare calves on the white handle-free cabinet were pretty special. I knew that Garthene would think it weird for me not to notice them. Not registering them would be a sign that I was too frightened to look for fear of combusting with repressed lust. Her legs were outstanding. That was no problem. She had a semicircle-shaped scar that made her left kneecap look cheerful.
“I’ve been the pace car this evening, Ray.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“My husband sent me here to take a long slow drink of delicious water.”
“You seem sober. I’d put you in charge of heavy machinery.”
“Lee says I’m too old for this. Too old to make it work.”
“You have one of those faces that never look drunk. Try slurring something.”
She looked down at her lap. “Gnsh um chuffly.”
“There you go,” I said.
“Great. Now you’re more convincing.”
She smiled and squinted at me through the smoke. “You are starting to seem good-looking,” she said.
This was fine, by the way. Garthene could have been in the room with us and it would not have been an issue.
“I worry the wine has compromised an authentic sense of your own agency,” I said. “So it’s morally impossible for us to sleep together.”
“But what if the wine has just allowed me access to my true feelings?”
“As a modern man, I make no assumptions. I’d need very clear signals. I will literally never assume anything about anyone, that’s how modern I am.”
“What if I dragged you upstairs?” she said.
“Well, I’d lie completely still on the bed, make no movements whatsoever, and if you chose, of your own volition—”
“Then you’d let me feed on you?”
“Then I would facilitate your needs.”
The mention of my wife’s name was proof, if any were needed, that she had been implicitly in the room throughout the preceding exchange. Marie handed me her cigarette because she knows that, after a few drinks, I have a fondness for the third quarter. There was lipstick on the filter. She was not wearing lipstick that looked like she was wearing any, but here it was.
Lee came in with two drinks. “Is the pace car on blocks yet?” he said.
Marie pulled a used pint glass from the sink, filled it with tap water and necked the lot, her throat pulsing, a dribble running into the hollow of her left collarbone. She was breathing hard by the time she brought the pint down. They had a little stare-off, then he nodded and put a tall fizzy drink next to her thigh on the counter. She watched it release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He gave the other drink to me.
“You’re a gent,” I said.
I had enjoyed my conversation with Marie so much I felt like staying in the kitchen and talking more. Lee saw me hand the cigarette back to his wife. He leaned against the cooker.
“Why isn’t Garth
“She’s on nights,” I said. “Won’t finish till six in the morning.”
“That’s okay,” Lee said. “We won’t be asleep.”
“Even so, she has a thing about the way she smells after a night shift,” I said. “Toxin sweat. I try to tell her it’s the scent of dedicating one’s life to the care of others, but she says that’s exactly the sort of thing someone who’s not spent time in a hospital would say.”
Neither of them was listening. Lee watched Marie light another cigarette. She was usually just a social smoker but tonight she’d upgraded. I could hear one of the hobs hissing as Lee’s backside pressed against the dials. His head got redder as he drank. He was a few shades shy of full ripeness now. Marie blew smoke at him and he stared at her through it then turned to me and said “Look after her,” before shouldering back into the lounge. I reached over and turned off the hob.
“He’s a good man, your man,” I said.
Marie stopped bothering to aim her cigarette smoke out of the window.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Has Garthene told you about my and Lee’s arrangement?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then your wife sure can keep a secret,” she said, and she laughed.
The air in the room was changing color.
“So what’s the arrangement?” I asked.
“That we’re both allowed to sleep with one stranger a year.”
“I am not kidding,” she said. “And basically that means—”
“Hang on,” I said, holding up my hand. “Every year?”
“Well, because the way—”
“What if you’re together for, like, thirty years?” I said. “That’s two football teams and all the coaching staff.”
When I think of a decent joke I just have to make it.
Marie was silent. We could hear Michael Bonner in the next room making a strong case for something.
“Ignore me,” I said. “I’m a terrible listener. So you can sleep with anyone you want to?”
“Not exactly. There are rules. It can’t be a friend and it has to happen outside London.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Because anything that occurs beyond the M25 has no consequence, ethically or emotionally.”
“There you go,” Marie said.
“How do you keep track of who’s done what and how often?”
“We don’t,” she said. “The point is: never talk about it.”
I shook my head in awe.
“We trust each other to lie to each other,” she said.
“You two are so futuristic.”
In the lounge, we could see Lee picking up and putting down beer cans on the coffee table until he found one he liked the weight of.
I had not noticed Marie finishing her drink but it was finished.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she said.
At Marie and Lee’s parties, the spare room tended to be an overflow space, but tonight it was empty. There was a prince-size bed in the middle of the room, a dresser to one side, and a winged armchair to the other. Marie propped up the pillows and got under the duvet with her back against the padded headboard. She lifted the edge of the covers and I went around the bed and got in beside her. We didn’t take off our shoes, which made a difference, morally. The room was well lit and the built-in mirrored wardrobe allowed us to observe ourselves. It was an amusing sight, Marie fully clothed in bed, smoking luxuriously. I enjoyed the situation. On one wall there was a clip-framed architectural blueprint. On my side the ceiling slanted down with the roof. Marie’s right hand held the cigarette while her left hand rested under the covers, next to my leg.
I made an attempt to imagine Garthene in the room with us. Garthene, sober and returning from the night shift, smelling of bacterial emissions, putting one hand on the door frame for balance as she slipped off her shoe. Her husband and her oldest friend’s wife smoking in a small double bed. I realized that the situation was defined by my feelings about it. If I regarded this moment as sexually meaningful, that’s what it became. But if my main concern was how my wife would interpret these circumstances, then the situation was not inherently hurtful and only worrying because of how it might be misconstrued. I was able to disarm the whole enterprise with the power of clear thinking.
Marie passed me her cigarette as it got toward the good bit. In the mirror, we looked post-coital but sad, as though we’d started having sex but one of us had encountered a problem—I just can’t do this, sorry—so we’d given up and were now merely running through our private neuroses in silence.
“Do you want to know what else?” she said.
“Very much,” I said.
“Lee thinks I sleep with other people but I don’t. I don’t sleep with anyone except him.”
In the mirror I watched my own eyebrows rising.
“So there you go,” she said. “Shame on me. I have been utterly faithful.”
“You mean you made the arrangement but you haven’t ever actually . . . ?”
“That’s my dark secret. And I just can’t seem to enjoy him fucking other people either.”
Through the floorboards there came the bark of Michael Bonner laughing.
The door opened a fraction, Dave Finlay’s head appeared, then he apologized, retreated.
Marie looked into my eyes via the mirror. It was comfortable this way; we could look at each other with only the slightest adjustment of our normal gaze. It meant that we weren’t turned toward each other in bed, which would have crossed a line, I decided, since our eyes and mouths would have been too close together. Even with clothes and shoes on, turning toward each other in a prince-size bed was a definite line. The duvet cover’s pattern was the flag of Japan, a country famous for youth suicide. When I passed the cigarette back to Marie, she reached for it awkwardly with her right hand. She kept her left hand where it was, under the duvet, gently knuckling my thigh. I could feel her wedding ring.
I looked into her eyes in the mirror while she blew smoke out and, for a moment, we both looked black and white. We traveled through time. When Marie first arrived in our friendship group, there had been a little jousting among the single men, until she and Lee got together. I was not one of the guys involved. I just can’t get excited about someone who doesn’t have some pretty prominent flaws.
From downstairs, we could hear the gush of nitrous balloons inflating. The evening had reached its next stage. In the early days of our romance, Garthene used to steal canisters of Entonox from work and bring them to parties. There was the thrill of the drug itself and, equally powerful, the thrill of wasting public-health resources.
We heard Lee coming up the stairs. He was talking to the unmarried woman. She was saying: “I’m getting a whiff of aspiration from your art collection, Lee.”
“Glad to hear it. Wouldn’t want Marie to have spent all that money and have nobody notice.”
Lee paid Marie rent. He was a tenant husband, which was very modern. Marie was the only one of our friends who owned property, though Garthene and I were trying. Just the month before, we’d had our hearts broken, gazumped on a nasty little split-level in the dead land at the edge of Walthamstow Marshes. Now we were waiting to hear about our asking-price offer on a horrible maisonette beyond the Lea Bridge roundabout.
I felt the mattress shift as Marie yelled for her husband. “Leebo!” she said. “Leebo!”
“Yes, dear,” he called through the door.
“Ray and I are in bed here and absolutely parched.”
I thought it was important to be part of the joke. Some jokes only carry if everyone gets behind them. “It’s true, big man. Me and your wife have got a major thirst on.”
“I’m just showing my new friend your flat,” he said. “She wants to judge you and it can’t wait.”
The woman spoke through the door: “Lee’s right, Marie. I’ve been putting
It was good that everyone was getting on board.
As we heard them go into the master bedroom next door, Marie’s hand moved on top of my thigh and nudged the edge of my crotch. She blew smoke up toward the paper lampshade. As long as I did not turn toward her, it was fine. I was helping Marie through a difficult moment in her marriage. And with that thought, I brought Garthene into the room with us. Garthene, who knows more than most about putting herself in challenging situations for the health and happiness of others, was in the room, wearing her purple nurse’s tunic, and she gave a solemn nod.
You cannot blame a body. That was one thing her job had taught her. You cannot blame a body for its response.
Marie was looking at me without use of the mirror—she had turned her head. Her hand was on my crotch, which had responded without my say-so.
“You dream about me, don’t you?” she said.
“I do,” I said, “absolutely.” It was important to work through this.
“You dream about me.”
My sex dreams were unique because if I made love to a woman who was not my wife, I would usually experience in-dream remorse. I would seek to apologize, in the dream. I felt Marie’s hand tighten and she yelled at the wall: “Lee, thirsty work in here.”
We listened to the conversation stop next door. Their voices lowered then carried on.
“How’s Garth?” Marie said.
It was good to know we could still bring my wife into the conversation.
“I bet she looks fantastic naked right now, doesn’t she?”
Then the door opened and Lee came in. His face was its deepest color and he had a bottle of rum in his hand. I let my left leg slip out from under the cover just so he could see I had my shoes on. It was too deliberate, I now realize.
“He-ey, party in here,” he said, and he stepped up to the bed and unstopped the bottle. He handed the rum to his wife, then his face came swooping down and he kissed me on the lips and laughed. “We’re lucky you’ve got things under control,” he said, then he tried to kiss me with tongues but my mouth wasn’t fully open so his tongue hit my teeth. Then he laughed harder, with his head thrown back. I tasted rum. His neck was bright pink and showing the cords beneath.