An excerpt from
I Am My Beloveds
Ben Seidel’s heart was still pounding from his run around frigid Spy Pond when his wife, Shira, swept into their living room wearing a little black dress, flared jauntily at the hem, and a pair of glossy black pumps Ben had never seen before. Ben, in his orange compression tights and sweat-wicking pullover, could not have looked more at odds with his wife of eight years.
“Wow,” Ben said. “You look amazing. Where are we going?” Shira, who was nearly a foot shorter than Ben without her four-inch heels, smiled softly at her husband, squinching her eyebrows together as if she had stepped on a particularly jagged piece of Lego.
“Not we. Me,” Shira said. “I’m going out. Sort of a Galentine’s Day thing.”
“But it’s Saturday night.” Ben sighed. “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
“That’s tomorrow,” Shira said, adjusting a twisted bra strap.
“We didn’t have any plans for tonight. Remember I asked you a couple times?”
Ben did not remember Shira asking if they had plans because they had stopped making plans, spending most Saturday nights in front of the television debating endlessly over what to watch on Netflix and going to bed well before midnight. Ben pulled off his fleece hat and reflexively combed his fingers through his matted, thinning hair. “Maybe I had a surprise,” Ben said.
“And you know how much I love surprises,” Shira countered.
“But you didn’t, right?”
Shira was wearing contact lenses for maybe the third time that Ben could recall, rather than her usual thick-framed glasses which the two of them joked about as she labored over her drafting table. They look like old TV screens!
Now, her eyes looked bigger somehow, her lashes thicker, almost dangerous; the complex alchemy of women’s makeup forever a mystery to Ben.
Ben had forgotten what it felt like to truly desire Shira with the sort of urgent passion they had when they had first met, when he and Shira would spend all weekend in bed discovering each others’ secret places. But that had changed even before she got sick, long before the hysterectomy, her body closing up to Ben like a tulip at night. Even when the pain had gone, Ben and Shira had not returned to each other, aside from brief, infrequent encounters in the dark of their bedroom to remind them they were still husband and wife, whether or not they would ever raise a child together.
Shira’s eyes glittered and she quirked a single eyebrow. Ben felt an urge to take her in his arms and kiss her. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll get you a giant ribeye at Davio’s tomorrow night, which is actually Valentine’s Day. I’ll even drive.”
“It’s a Sunday night,” Ben said, heart collapsing. Sunday night was reserved for 60 Minutes, the New York Times crossword and early to bed, not romance.
Shira hadn’t dressed up for him since forever, and he felt almost embarrassed by his sudden hunger for her, the way a hormonal pre-teen might feel getting hard for his cousin at a family reunion.
“Where are you going tonight?” Ben said as he slipped off one shoe and then the other. He had trouble drawing a full breath, and he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with his regular six-mile loop.
“A party,” Shira said.
“With who?” Ben said, more sharply than he intended. He couldn’t figure out how to not make it sound like some sort of petty accusation.
“Liz,” Shira said, a small smile forming. Her lips were as red as if she had bitten into Ben’s jugular. “Remember? The woman I told you about from my life-drawing class.”
“The stripper?” Ben said, eyes itching.
“She’s a burlesque dancer,” Shira said. “And that’s just for fun. You know, a sometimes thing. She’s an artist, like me.”
A hard fist formed in Ben’s throat, and he dropped down onto their couch, knees trembling. “That sounds like a date.”
Shira’s mouth fell open, and she took a step or two backwards, as if she’d been blown by a strong gust of wind. “Ben,” she said, her voice small, “it is a date. I’ve been looking for the right words to tell you all week. I fucked up, okay, because I was scared to tell you.”
“Why would you be scared?”
“Because I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want you to talk me out of it.”
Ben turned away from Shira and caught his reflection in the glossy blackness of their living-room window. With his chewed up hairline and spandex tights he looked as unlovable as he felt. He just wanted to escape into the forgiving embrace of a hot shower, but they had to have this conversation now, before Shira did something that might break the two of them forever.
“I didn’t know you really, actually meant it,” Ben said. “About being open. I thought we were still talking about it. I thought we’d have a discussion first.”
“I’m sorry,” Shira said. “I thought you understood that was the discussion.” She paused and flicked some invisible speck off the coffee table. “What about Jane?”
“She’s just a friend,” Ben said.
Ben had met Jane by chance, running on the Minuteman Trail, and they had started texting about the joys of running, to stretch or not to stretch, the Murakami book. They had begun texting each other so naturally that Ben felt he had to keep it secret or their friendship would disappear. When Shira caught him furtively texting Jane one night she asked Ben if he was cheating on her. He had said of course not, never, but the discussion about opening their marriage had begun.
“You think she’s not into you?”
“Don’t you find her attractive?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t mean I want to fuck her.”
“Come on, Ben. You find her attractive but you don’t want to sleep with her?”
Ben leapt to his feet. “We were drifting. I felt so far from you, and I needed someone to talk to. I would never cheat. You know I never would.”
“But you hid her from me. Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen eventually?”
“That’s not fair. You’re projecting because you think I lost interest in you, but you’re the one who gave up on me.”
“I did not give up on you! My body went through major trauma.”
Shira’s voice cracked, and her makeup started to run. “Excuse me if sex was the last thing I wanted. From you or anyone.”
Shira followed Ben into the kitchen, and the sound of her clacking heels in pursuit made Ben want to slip on his Asics and run.
“And now you want Liz,” Ben said.
“I want to feel the pleasure of being a woman, not just the pain.”
“Then why not do it with me? I’m you’re husband.”
Shira was silent for a long moment, and she wiped her nose with the back of her wrist. “Sometimes,” she began, “the thought of sex with you feels like returning to the scene of a crime.”
“What?” Ben said, and then he had no words, his voice silenced by a sour thickening in his throat.
“Every time I think of sex—I think of us trying—I feel sick and sad and … hollowed out. There’s nothing inside me anymore that can create life.”
“I’m sorry. I wish you didn’t see it that way. You have so much left to create.”
“Don’t patronize me, Ben.”
Shira looked at Ben with her big, wet eyes, and he wanted to take her in his arms.
“Do you still find me attractive?” Ben said.
“Devilishly so. I just need to learn to love my body again.”
“Do you still love me?”
“Of course I do, Ben, and I always will.” Ben started to interrupt, but Shira held up a hand, signaling she would be heard without his commentary. “But this could be a good thing for both of us. I need some sort of reset. You know, rebooting my relationship with my own body. You’re free to explore your desires while we find our way back to each other. No matter what happens, I will always be your soft place to land.”
“I don’t want to lose you. Am I?” Ben said. “Losing you?”
“Of course not.” Shira offered a pinkie for Ben to shake. “I promise.”
“You can’t know that,” Ben said, listlessly hooking his finger in hers.
“This is important for both of us. I know this will help bring us back to each other. You are always my husband.”
“Can’t we figure this out on our own? What is it I can’t give you?”
Shira chewed on her lip and looked away from Ben; she was usually so good at eye contact. “The mystery, the unknown, exploring different parts of myself. That feeling of being wanted. It’s like nothing else, that look in their eyes when they just have to have you.”
“The look Liz gives you.” Ben’s shoulders felt so heavy, as if he were carrying a backpack full of his regrets.
“Yes. It’s very powerful.” Shira expelled a long sigh. “I truly believe this is a way back to ourselves, a way for us to be how we used to be before everything went down.”
“In the meantime, I’m competing with a woman.”
Shira had been with women as an undergraduate at Smith, and Ben had always been turned on by the prospect of his wife and another woman; he just somehow imagined he’d be a part of it if it happened again.
“Don’t be silly. You’re not competing with anyone. I come home to you, I live with you and I love you.”
Shira threw her arms around Ben and buried her face in his chest. “I love you. Please try and see this as a good thing, a springboard to the next phase of our lives. Together. Me and you.”
Ben held Shira as her body shuddered against his chest.
“What now?” Ben asked, after a moment. He and Shira fit so well together, the way she melted into him.
She peeled herself away and wiped her face with a dish towel they’d gotten on a trip to Maine. “I have to go. I’m sorry. I can’t be late.”
“Okay. Have fun tonight.”
“Why don’t you send Jane a flirty text, and then take it from there.”
Ben looked at Shira doubtfully. “Really?”
Shira smiled and did her best Bogie imitation, “I think it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Ben felt a stirring in his groin. Maybe Shira was right. Maybe Jane was into him.
“Listen, babe, I’ve got to run.” Shira grabbed her long down coat from the closet. “You don’t need to wait up for me. We can catch up in the morning.”
“Wait,” Ben said, heart thundering in his chest.
Shira did a little half turn, her face in profile over her left shoulder. “What’s up?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too. I promise you we’re going to be all right.”