Porn & Picasso

by: T.E. Cowell

“If she won’t respect my past, then ditto for hers.” When a regrettable fragment of a man’s past comes back to haunt him, and the relationship that’s he’s built comes crashing down, it’s at the intersection of art and sex where the final truth lies…

Everything was going smoothly until the Wednesday Susan returned from her once-a-week ladies’ night out. I’d been sitting on the couch in the living room, nursing my requisite nightcap, the window open so that the winding-down sounds of the neighborhood could reach my ears and provide what I thought of as a comforting aura when I heard the click of the front door handle being turned, followed by the strained sounds of Susan’s breath as she emerged into our apartment. She closed the door and kicked off her heels, and I turned my head and looked at her, watching her hurry past the kitchen and into the living room, making a beeline straight for me.

She perched herself on my lap, all one-hundred-and-fifteen-odd-pounds of her, then slid her hand behind the nape of my neck to the back of my head and drew me in for a kiss. It was a kiss that was delivered sloppily, shamelessly, and with a wet liberal exchange of saliva — hers tasting like wine and mine mostly of cognac. When our lips parted, Susan stood up, grabbed my hands with hers and pulled me off the couch with surprising strength. She made a point of not letting go of my hands until we arrived in the bedroom.

“What’s this about?” I asked once we were in the bedroom, but Susan ignored me and, incredibly, gave me a two-handed push on my chest with enough force that I stumbled backwards. Before I could fully recover from the force of her push I was pushed again, and this time I fell backwards onto our bed, watching with wonder as Susan eagerly climbed on top of me and straddled me with her flexible, able thighs.

“Susan?” I said. “Hey, what’s going on?” Truth be told, I was a little spooked. This behavior was that out of the ordinary for Susan. We were getting married, and yes, we loved each other, but we just didn’t act like this — like hungry, clumsy teenagers. We had a schedule, a schedule that like most working adults we stuck to. Typically we only had sex on the weekends. Typically I took out the trash. Typically Susan cooked dinner if we weren’t going out on the town.

“I’m your fiancée and I’m in the mood,” she said. “Sue me.”

Her straight blonde hair fell over the sides of her face, and her cheeks were flushed to about the same crimson tone I imagined they were after she’d finished one of her weekend core-intensive yoga workouts. She started working on removing the sweatpants I had on, but I grabbed her hands, halting her progress.

“I hate secrets,” I said.

“Ha! That’s ironic.”

She successfully freed her hands from my grasp and brought them back to my waistline, but I stopped her again.

“Tell me,” I said.

“I’ll tell you in the morning.”

As usual, I was the first one up in the morning. I rose out of bed, used the bathroom, went into the kitchen and started the coffee. I waited for the coffee to finish brewing standing by the living room windows. It was a gray morning, raining heavily, with gray clouds covering the sky in every direction I looked. I watched a few cars pass on the street six stories below, their hoods shiny from the rain, their tires splashing as they passed through puddles.

When the coffee machine finished I filled two mugs and brought them into the bedroom. I set one down on Susan’s nightstand.

“Thanks,” she said, her voice delectably raspy from the early hour.

“You’re awake,” I said. “Good morning, ladybug.”

I went around the foot of the bed to my side, set my mug on my nightstand, hopped back in bed and, seeing that my fiancée was still content to rest, opened a book I’d started a few days earlier. As I read I periodically reached for my coffee, sipped it, and glanced at Susan’s still body. But it was hard reading that morning. My mind wouldn’t stop wondering about Susan and her secret. I really did hate secrets.

After a half hour Susan started to move. With some yawning and stretching, she pushed her two pillows snug against the headboard and went from lying down to sitting up. She started sipping her coffee. It was lukewarm by this point, but this was Susan’s morning routine.

I closed the book and set it back on my nightstand, looked at Susan and waited for her to look at me.

“Sooo,” I said, “about last night. About this secret of yours.”

She looked from me to her reproduction of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman, hanging on the wall just past the foot of the bed. It was a painting, or poster rather (being a reproduction), that Susan had brought with her from her previous apartment, and from her apartment previous to that one. An old friend had apparently given her the poster, framed, for her birthday when she’d been in college. I wasn’t crazy about the poster at all, and I found the subject matter — the weeping woman — rather unsettling. But Susan liked it, so upon her wishes I had allowed her to hang it in our bedroom after we moved in together.

Susan looked at me again, unwaveringly this time, and spoke, “You did porn, didn’t you?”

I didn’t know what to say or how to react to what she had said. I thought of lying but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

After I admitted this secret of my past to Susan, this secret that I was fairly certain I would’ve carried with me to the grave, I learned that one of Susan’s girlfriends had told her that she thought she’d seen me in a porno that she and her boyfriend had rented. I didn’t know people still rented movies, pornos or otherwise, and thought everyone just watched what they wanted to online these days, but apparently I was wrong.

Susan wanted to know how many pornos I’d been in.

“Only one,” I told her adamantly. It was the truth. I had been in just one because, to be honest, I’d had a hard time lasting long enough “in the sack.” The women were very attractive in a very sleazy way, and they kept making these artificial moaning sounds that hadn’t helped my stamina one bit.

Susan looked back at The Weeping Woman after I came clean. She was quiet for a time as she absorbed, or tried to absorb, this startling piece of my past. While she was quiet, I thought it was a good time to speak up, to do some explaining.

“I needed the money,” I said. “It was when I first moved here­­, six years ago, that it happened. I saw an ad on Craigslist and responded to it, and the rest is history. If I hadn’t needed the money so badly I would have thought twice about it. It’s been something I’ve regretted doing ever since.”

Susan raised her mug to her lips and sipped her lukewarm coffee, her eyes still on her Picasso. I wanted to know how this new knowledge she’d gained would affect things. I wanted to know what it meant for us. I could feel the premonition of disaster rolling around in my gut.

“So, are you upset, then?” I asked, cautiously. “Disappointed? Disgusted? You must be, right?”

Susan looked at me again. She stared. I felt small. I felt despicable, unworthy of her gaze. I looked away, at nothing in particular. I crossed my arms.

“Surprisingly,” she said, “I’m not upset. Shocked? Yes. Disappointed? No, not exactly. Disgusted? Again, not exactly. The past is the past, and how you lived yours, well, it doesn’t matter to me.” She shut her eyes, shook her head and said, “That didn’t come out right. Let me try again. Your past matters to me, of course, because, of course, you wouldn’t be here without it. But whatever you did back in the day, well, it gets a free pass with me. Just as I hope whatever I did back in the day gets a free pass with you, even if it’s true that I haven’t done anything quite as remarkable as, let’s say, porn.”

After we’d finished talking Susan had to start getting ready for work. She rose from the bed and went into the bathroom and started the shower, but then she came out of the bathroom a minute later, fully nude, and asked if I wanted to join her. I didn’t, really, wanting instead to continue to sit in bed and digest what had happened, but I acquiesced all the same and joined her.

After the shower-and-then-some, Susan dressed hurriedly for work and then left the apartment. When she was gone I went back into the kitchen, poured myself the last cup of coffee from the pot, and returned to the bedroom and sat in bed. I closed my eyes and tried to think straight, to figure out how I felt about all this. Perhaps a simpler man would’ve felt relieved if his fiancée had found out that he’d starred in a porno and had let him off the hook not only without a fuss, but had rewarded him with sex. I didn’t feel relieved though, in fact I felt quite the opposite of relieved. I wondered if Susan’s idea of me would be forever shifted now. I hoped it wouldn’t be, of course, but I had to wonder. Maybe it would be like what I hear winning the lottery is like: a bout of incredulity at first that over time simmers down until life is back to the way it once was, back to being normal.

When Susan returned from work that day I was back on the couch, just like the night before. I turned my head and watched her come in the front door, slip off her shoes, hang her coat on the hanger screwed to the closet door, then turn to face me. She smiled, I tried to smile in return, and then I watched her walk into the living room and sit down on my lap, again just like the night before. She ran a hand through my hair, brought her mouth to mine, kissed me deeply, though without the sloppiness of the previous night’s kiss. Then she stood up off my lap and, facing me, pulled a black plastic bag free from the purse she still had strapped around one shoulder.

“So I called Kelly,” she said, “and after work I stopped over at her place to borrow the porno.”

She spoke the words casually, as if she’d simply gone to the grocery store to pick up eggs and broccoli. I stared at her from the couch. I hadn’t given any thought to the idea of her actually watching the porno.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out.

“Honey,” Susan said, no doubt noticing my consternation. “I’m curious, is all. If we’re going to be married I’ve decided that I need to see this.” She raised the bag in her hand and gave it a shake.

“Why?” I said, finding my voice again. “Why do you need to see it? Can’t we just let bygones be bygones? You said it yourself just this morning: the past is the past, it’s the future that matters.”

“I know I did. And I meant it. Please don’t get upset, okay? I’m not sure why I need to see it, only that I do. I’ve been thinking all day about it. After I see it it’ll be out of our lives for good, I promise. I’ll never bring it up ever again if you don’t want me to, okay? You don’t have to watch it with me if you don’t want to.”

I tried to laugh. I shook my head. This was unbelievable. Of course I didn’t want to watch it. Was she kidding? Was she out of her mind? I got up off the couch, stormed past her, went into the bedroom, slammed the door, and fell onto the bed.

Within minutes, I could distinguish audible moans and groans coming from the TV in the living room. I imagined Susan sitting cross-legged on the couch, fully engaged in the raw coupling of strangers’ bodies.

Around then is when I lost it. When, without giving much thought to what I was doing, I threw the book that had previously been on my nightstand at the wall and watched it hit smack-dab against Susan’s Picasso reproduction. I hadn’t aimed at her poster, hadn’t aimed at anything, really. I had merely thrown the book blindly in a state of frustration and something near to rage. But after the book hit the poster, I was glad, or at the very least, felt no guilt or sense of wrongdoing. I was thinking something along the lines of: if she won’t respect my past, then ditto for hers.

The poster shook from the nail it was held up by but didn’t fall. Instead it hung crooked. I went closer to inspect the poster for damage, but I was hardly concerned with its fate, even after I discovered a spider web-shaped crack in the frame’s glass.

The moaning and groaning sounds of sex continued to seep from the living room into the bedroom. I lifted the Picasso off the nail, turned and then headed with it for the balcony. I dangled the damn thing over the railing, daring myself to let go, and then I did.

Susan didn’t wait to tell me in words what she thought of the porn — she was so turned on after watching it that she essentially attacked me in the bedroom. I couldn’t have resisted her if I’d wanted to.

We were both breathing hard when we were done. I figured it was the last time, and so was glad I’d, or we’d, rather, gone out with a bang.

“That was amazing,” Susan said in between attempts to catch her breath. Then I heard it, a halt in her breathing, followed quickly by: “Honey, where’s my Picasso?”

I didn’t answer her. I glanced toward the balcony, and, as if reading my cue, Susan scrambled out of bed and hurried over to the railing. From the bed I watched her peer on her tiptoes over the railing, naked. I admired her backside one last time, tried to take it all in and remember it and be thankful for the two, almost three years we’d been together.

Susan didn’t seem to realize the fact that she was naked at first. Then she did and covered her breasts with her hands and hurried back inside. She looked narrow-eyed at me lying on the bed on my side, one elbow supporting my weight and said, “I can’t believe you’d do such a thing! Just what the hell were you thinking?”

Without waiting for a response from me she started picking her clothes up off the carpet alongside the bed. She was practically jumping into her clothes she was in such a hurry. Then she left our bedroom without another word.

Susan didn’t return to the apartment until hours later, around sundown. After coming in the front door, she went straight into the bedroom. After she’d gone into the bedroom I rose from the couch, curious to see what she was doing. I could see that she was packing, filling her old suitcase with clothes. She worked mechanically, without bothering to notice me watching her. Finally, she zipped up the suitcase, turned and faced me.        

“I’ll be staying at a friend’s place for a few days,” she said.

I silently nodded.

Susan stared at me, her eyes wide and her posture slack. “I just…I can’t believe you. I can’t believe you’d do such a thing. I’m disappointed. I’m shocked. I’m disgusted. I’m all of the above.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Not good enough,” she said.

She walked towards me, lugging her suitcase behind her. I made room for her to pass and watched her leave the apartment for the second time that day. She didn’t bother closing the front door this time.

I stood there for a while facing the open front door. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to feel. I felt confused. What exactly had just happened? I left the front door open, just in case she changed her mind.

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