There’s a lot more to be done with George and Justine’s marriage in the re-write. But for now, George continues to talk about his life with Justine both before and after the birth of their son.
I believed in heaven – for a time – in my early months of marriage with Justine. Looking back, I see those days as bursting at the seams. As I write this now, I think that ‘swelling’ is an underrated metamorphosis. Think about the storm clouds as they gather in the sky. Consider their engorgement, the burgeoning shades of mauve, the full, curvaceous edges. Is there anything more lovely than a silhouette about to break into a haze?
Justine was like that in her pregnancy with Harland.
I lay in bed and watched her wander naked through the room.
She was more beautiful than I had ever seen her.
Her breasts were fuller, her areolae larger. Her abdomen became a sphere, its contour a horizon. Depending on the angle of the light, the line of flaxen hair below her navel would shimmer as it disappeared over the gentle curve of skin, vanishing in the thick black curls which glistened in the shadows.
Inhibited, my wife was not.
Opening the curtains in the deepening glow of morning, she’d often say, “We’re safe in daylight. Not a soul can see us from outside. If we have the curtains open and our lamps lit after dark? Now that’s a different story, that is. I love to feel the sunlight.”
Hardening beneath the bedclothes, I’d watch her as she sat before the dressing table, tipping lotion into her palms and rubbing it over her body: her neck, her breasts, her stomach. She’d turn and bend, massaging her thighs, her calves, her shins. Once she grew too full to bend, she’d summon me, and I’d descend before her, spreading the lotion on the places which she couldn’t reach. There was many a time when she’d lean back and urge me into her. How beautiful was that? To see the mirror behind her. To see her shoulder-blades create a gully for her cascade of hair. To see beneath her chin as she threw back her head to watch our shadows on the ceiling. To take her darkened nipple on my tongue and tug the supplications from her throat. I loved the way she begged for what she had already. The way she pleaded “deeper” when I was deep already. The way she panted “suck me” when I could suck no harder.
“Don’t you dare be careful, George,” she’d whisper as she always did.
But as the months wore on, I was more careful, but that too was exquisite, to gently slide into her swollen shadows, ease out glistening, push back into her slick passageway, to feel its walls close in on me to charge the friction, paint it iridescent for the soft rose light of morning.
Gone were the days and nights of half-dressed rough abandon.
Everything was natural then.
Dawnlight. Moonlight. Sunlight. Twilight.
The slow exchange of aphrodisiacs we were born with – built-in stimulants of flesh and bone, entrances and exits parting – opening – gaping – closing – showing us the human body is our heaven. How I loved to penetrate her gently, knowing that I longed to knife her, elicit her most lustful sounds. The unrequited need for force just made us hungrier.
But no. The ache was destiny.
We always undulated softly into that last depth as not to jar the baby. Sometimes, just before, she’d pull me to the floor and straddle me. As she rocked into the moment, I’d long for her to suckle herself.
And when she did, I’d surge, my body riddled with the wildest pleasure.
Of course, back then I didn’t foresee the dark, postpartum days when I’d be on the outside looking in. I wasn’t a fool. I knew that Justine was recovering, still bleeding. I understood her body was for Harland. Her arms, her lap, her breasts belonged to him now. But that was intellectual. Bona fide cerebral. My body felt the sting.
I’d come into the bedroom and see our infant hooked onto her breast, the thin white line of milk around his tiny lips, his little fingers sunk into her flesh. And whilst it wasn’t sexual, it was a divinity exclusive to mother and son with no acknowledgment of father. When Justine was feeding Harland, she’d close her eyes and drift into an inaccessible state. If I came in, she’d shoo me away with a flick of her hand or sometimes a sharp “can’t you see he’s feeding” and I’d skulk off to my study or the garden.
Around that time, we started fighting.
Almost every time I tried to touch her, it turned into a quarrel.
“For God’s sake, George,” she snapped on one occasion. “I’m knackered to no end. The baby’s sucked me dry. I’ve got all of forty minutes before he wakes me up again. Are you so bloody desperate that you can’t hold on another few months? I need to heal!”
“Heal?” I railed. “You stopped bleeding weeks ago!”
“Oh? So that’s what it all boils down to for you then? Whether I’m bleeding or not?”
“Well, I’m only using the excuse I’ve been given.”
“Excuse, George? Excuse? It hasn’t been an excuse. It’s been the truth. And there’s a damn sight more to it than bleeding. I’m tired. I’m drained. My nipples are sore from Harland. If I get a chance to sleep, I sleep. I certainly can’t be servicing you.”
“Yes. Servicing. Because you clearly don’t give a damn about how I feel. All you seem to care about is your bloody man-quake down there, something you can jolly well do for yourself. That’s right. Go ahead. I don’t even mind. In fact, it’ll be a godsend if it gets you off my back.”
I was livid, pacing at the foot of the bed.
“Oh, right, Justine,” I bellowed. “I suppose that’s an indulgence you’ve relished yourself in between your husbands, in your temporary widowhood. A little self-pleasuring here and there? Well, God knows you’re extremely good at it. I’ve seen it firsthand when you’re sucking yourself.”
And that was it.
She was out of bed, up against me, slamming her fist on my chest.
“You’re despicable,” she cried. “I only did that because you begged for it, George. You pleaded for it. As if the rest of my body wasn’t enough. How sexually gluttonous can one be? Before Harland was born, you had every orifice I could possibly give you and you still wanted me to do that to myself. And now that we have a son who needs feeding and changing and bathing and nurturing, the boar that you are, all you can think about is taking your turn at the trough.”
“You know what the pathetic thing about all this is, Justine?” I shouted back. “That up until now, I’ve seen your body as a little piece of heaven – paradise. But seeing as we are how we see ourselves I suppose that’s what your body has become: a feeding trough rank with slops.”
“Get out of my sight!” she screamed. “Get out of my bloody sight!”
At that moment, Harland woke up and started crying, swiftly working himself into a wail.
“Time to feed the animal,” I seethed, loathing that I’d said that.
“He is your son,” she said quietly, but crueler than if she had shouted. “What kind of father refers to his only son like that? For someone as old as you are, you’re nothing but a selfish, ill-mannered child with the sexual urges of a lurid old man. Go up to your study. Lock the door. Draw the curtains. Unbutton yourself. Picture whatever you must. Pump the seed out of your system. Clean yourself up. And go to sleep. Meanwhile, I’ll be caring for our child.”
How I hated Justine in that moment.
Deep down, I knew I shouldn’t. She was right. She was doing what she was supposed to do: take care of Harland. I, on the other hand, was wallowing in self-pity, desperate for sexual release, but shared sexual release, deep intimacy with my wife. It never occurred to me in those days that I should lull Harland to sleep and give Justine room to care for herself.
But knowing wasn’t enough.
Overcome with fury, I bolted from the room and flew up the stairs to my study where I flung myself into the chair by the fire and threw my head back, trying my best to rein in my breath. And then, I did what no man should ever do: I undid myself and violated my wife in my mind. I dragged Justine down and tore off her clothes, knifing myself into her whilst drinking her milk until it ran down my chin in sync with the semen spilling over my hand.
The very next night, Justine called me to her. The instant I stepped in the room, I noticed that Harland wasn’t in his cradle by the hearth.
“He’s in the nursery tonight,” she murmured. “I’m so sorry, George, for I realise I’ve been sharp, but it’s only because I’ve been tired. I do miss you here.” She threw back the bedclothes and patted my side of the bed. “Please. Let’s put our wrongs right. I’m open.”
I smiled, because whenever she said, “I’m open”, she meant she was open for me.
And it should’ve been sweet.
Because, there in the moonlight, she had me sit with my back against the headboard. Dragging off her nightdress, she mounted me, gripping the headboard, beginning to rock slowly. Bringing my hands to her breasts, I could feel they were hard, engorged with her milk.
“You’re not going to steal it from the baby,” she whispered. “The more I express, the more I produce. They’re so full, they hurt, George. Please, darling, take it. I need to get it out.”
And it should’ve been sweet.
Because it was the most intimate moment I’d ever had. To be in her like that, but drinking her milk, to feel it run moonlit between us, glossing our bodies.
And it should’ve been sweet.
To be gifted such pleasure.
To spasm like that, aglow in her liquid.
But after my sin, the moment was bitter.
My father always said that oblivion to others was the one great ailment of the self-absorbed; the ‘Disease of Narcissists’ he called it. What my father didn’t say, however, is that narcissism is born from emotional erasure, perpetual dismissal, often in the formative years of early childhood. And in the hunger for attention, the narcissist self-lauds on the internal pedestal whilst belittling those around him, particularly those who live under false impression that they need him.
I’d never thought myself a narcissist until Harland was born.
But I was, and my narcissism was born of that dynamic of yore: magnifying myself to compensate for others who’d made me feel so small.
When Justine waved me away from a room, I felt the same pang as when my father had shooed me from his study. When Justine avoided my gaze, I felt the same hurt as I had when my mother had been flirting with whatever man was in our company. When Justine brushed off my statements, I felt the same rejection as I had when my parents had told me I should be seen and not heard. But worst of all was when Justine got lost in her own mind. She’d be so dreamy-eyed, I wondered if she were thinking of the baby. That look – of being somewhere else – I’d seen in both my parents when they were entwined with figments of the lovers they could never have. Did Justine have such a man?
By the time Justine resumed her dotage of me, it was too late. I was already given to hubris, gilding my own brain with big ideas, lofty notions of myself. I’d ascend into the dark green room and throw myself into my masterpiece, convinced it was exactly what the whole world needed. I wrote so much that the writer’s bump grew larger than it had ever been. My head was swollen. My eyes were blinded by my own light.
Even when the winter came and saddled me with rheumatoid arthritis, I wrote with aching fingers. Even when I wheezed and coughed over the paper, I steeled myself to keep on writing – just one more page – just one more chapter – then another fifty pages.
“You really should see a doctor,” Justine would badger. “Truly, George, you’re getting worse.”
“No,” I’d snap at her. “I won’t do that. What if he puts me in the infirmary? If he does that, I won’t be able to finish. And I need to finish – for Harland – for his children – for theirs. This, what I’m writing, Justine, is my legacy. It’s what I have to give.”
“Well, you’re far more likely to give it if you take care of your ailments first.”
“How about this?” I’d return. “How about I agree to see the doctor once I’ve finished my masterpiece? Once it’s done, I’ll see to my health. I promise.”
“Very well, George, have it your way, but I don’t agree.”
Truth be told, I didn’t need her to agree. I was obsessed with my work and consumed by myself. There was nothing I wanted more than to while away the days amongst the paper greenery and velvet vines. I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to complete the story of my life. Why? I wasn’t certain. Perhaps it went back to that notion of Justine’s – that our bodies intuit the storm, inciting us to take cover.
As the winter weeks wore on, I grew more poorly. My throat was sore, my jowls swollen, inconveniences I’d blamed on middle age and chilling weather. Sitting at my desk for hours, I often suffered pins and needles in my hands and feet and froze with sudden muscle cramps which pulled my legs from under me. I’d wait for the excruciating spasms to subside, then write until the lamps burned out and I could see my breath in ghostly, short-lived clouds before me.
The day before I finished my manuscript, Justine announced that she’d ordered a cake from Larkspur’s Bakery to celebrate my literary achievement. How fortunate was I to have a wife who lauded my achievements and made such lovely gestures to support me? I was the luckiest man in the world, I wagered. My beloved, with whom I’d endured so much, had beautified my writing space, and filled my inkwell daily. And now? A cake! By Jove, I was a fortunate chap.
The following evening, Justine came up to the study with a cup of tea and the cake on a platter.
The cake was small covered in bright green icing vines with tiny peppermints dotted throughout.
“Oh, George,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m not well.”
“That’s not good,” I returned, noting how pale and shaky she looked. “What is it?”
“Nausea,” she whispered, swallowing hard. “I don’t think I can eat the cake.”
“What a pity.” I was disappointed, but nevertheless, I reached over and served myself a slice, working away at it with the little copper fork. “But it’s ever-so-delightful,” I gushed. “So, thank you – so much. I can’t begin to express just how supportive you’ve been through all this and whilst nursing Harland. Oh, Justine, I’ve been such a brute, a petulant child more like it, sulking the way I was at the start.”
“It’s water under the bridge,” she said weakly, clamping her palsied hands between her thighs. “But I really do feel poorly, George. I think – I need to get downstairs –”
As she rose from the chair and hurried to the door, I moved to get up.
“No, George,” she gusted under her breath. “You stay there. I’ll be back up in a bit.”
In the wake of her departure, I finished the first slice of cake and indulged in a second, returning to my desk and writing what I’ve just written – about my work – my wife – the cake. And then –