[Image by Illustrations by Jia Sung]
This itch is not a normal itch. It has to do with pain. If the itch were a normal itch, its signal would travel along a fixed pathway from the skin to the brain. But this itch has convinced pain neurons to also be itch neurons. The itch neurons and the pain neurons are all ganged up against you. This itch is basically forever.
The itch is from a rash, a word Adeen hates. Rash as in hasty, unconsidered. A word that tall men use against inflamed women to deter them from tossing the china against the wall. “Don’t be rash.” But she hates the other words for it, too. The western doctors call it atopic dermatitis and push prescriptions into her hands for potent steroids and declare that she must have recently changed her laundry detergent (no), that she must wash her hands too often (no). “This usually happens when people wash their hands too often. Do you wash your hands too often?”
Its formal name comes from the Greek word ekzema, which means “something thrown out by heat.” The question is, how did it get so hot in there? This heat is the cause of all of your chemical reactions.
The affair emerges like an apparition, and she participates with intention, assuming that one day it would dissipate into nothingness, and that would be the end. They meet for drinks, for coffee, for more drinks, they go back to her apartment. The apparition invites her to come over to his apartment but she refuses. There are limits to her tolerance and she knows that at the sight of a framed picture of him on his wedding day her decorum would dissolve. She’d smash the picture down onto the mantel and grind it into shards of broken glass until it was in shreds. Don’t be rash.
The acupuncturist flicks tiny needles into the points on her shins that talk to her immune system. “I’m treating the wind in your body. You have an excess of wind.” When small drops of blood pool where the needles have been removed the acupuncturist gets excited. “Your body is releasing heat. This is very good.” Let us not forget the leeches who used to find employment sucking up disease.
She devours books and articles about infidelity. Podcasts of recorded couples’ therapy. A woman and a man sitting in a room trying to repair the damage that had been caused by his betrayal, by her negligence of the erotic. Adeen desires the company and the guidance of those who’d trod before her into sin. The clinical assessments of cheating were depressing, but the novelists made it into something complex, inevitable, mortal. Flesh requiring flesh.
In Henry and June, Anais Niin passes back and forth between the arms of her loving husband, Hugo, and the cock of her moody lover, Henry Miller. Hugo tells her “You fall in love with people’s minds,” and Anais assures him that he will not lose her, but she is in love with Henry’s mind. Both men are in love with hers. Henry Miller reads her new novel and gives her the ultimate compliment for back then, and maybe still for now: “Henry says I write like a man.”
“I can’t stop dreaming of tasting you.” He writes.
“This is a sexy thing to wake up to.” Adeen replies.
“Tell me what you want me to do to you.”
“I’ll write you some erotica.”
She loves homework.
The touches were: your hand on my arm, then your hand on my hip – reaching over from your barstool, pressing in with your thumb to demonstrate the location of a muscle, then your hand around my hand, then your palms pressed on either side of my torso, cupping my ribcage, then your palms around my face and drawing me to you, then mouths, then your hand down my jeans, inside, as we stand outside my front door, me pinned up against the terra-cotta archway. More mouths. Months ago someone wedged a plastic statue of an angel in a tree on the sidewalk, and I open my eyes to see her over your shoulder, hands raised, welcoming us into the kingdom of exaltation. Then, standing in the center of my bedroom, naked from the waist up, your lips on me, and my hand on your, and your you in mine. Almost a surprise, almost a wrong turn, suddenly there. The threshold has been crossed and we’re both in it now, moving together. You leave, and our final kiss is squinty-eyed against the bright light of the hallway. Extra bright, in case of an emergency, like a fire or a blitz. “When was this place built?” “Like, before the civil war.” Before the automobile, before the subway, but not before affairs. I return to sheets I don’t have to share and you go back to your other life, the main one. I fill with pleasure and disbelief. This is what happens when two people want the same thing. I am outside the lines drawn around your life, a little refuge in a village over the river.
He says he wants to tell his wife.
“I want her to join us.”
She loves that sometimes he and she are an “us.”
Later in bed his wife comes up in breathy conversation and he asks Adeen “Do you want to fuck us?” She is excluded from their us, but invited into it.
“What if your wife and I fall in love?” she replies, creating a third us, larger and more complex, and finds herself momentarily relieved by the possibility of this us. This us is no longer a secret, no longer an aberration. It’s an honest arrangement. Menage a trois. Household of three. A triangle, that holy shape of vulvas and Christianity. The formation within which all relation occurs. Think of the atom – the building block of all sentient life. Proton, neutron, electron, the power of the universe exists between three parts. A triangle makes a pair seem desolate, myopic, weak, selfish. He’s sprawled at the foot of bed, and she stares at thighs that can move a bicycle 300 miles down the eastern seaboard. She contemplates the many angles possible in a really good triangle.
In her head this becomes a very sexy fantasy. Two lovers, all for me? Adeen considers it, and for a moment the flow of love in the universe seems infinite. To Adeen, monogamy seeks to divide, contain, and portion out love, building little barricades around individual love units and warning the lovers within the walls to stay inside. And what for the ones who scale the wall?
Probably: A minotaur is released upon them, devouring the cheats and their mistresses, sucking the passionate marrow from their spines.
The rash blooms randomly throughout the day in reaction to unseen triggers. On the wrist, behind the knee, above the elbow on the softest whitest part of her inner arm. When he’s there next to her, it grows dormant. Her entire body finds rest next to his, even her explosive epidermis.
The impossibility of it makes it possible to surrender. He sees her book on mindfulness on her coffee table one night and launches into an explanation about the “third eye” being the part of the brain where you realize what you’re seeing, and she is pretty sure that he is wrong. If they’d actually been trying to establish a relationship she likely would have battled with him and they both would have grown doubtful and irritated. Instead, she drapes her legs over his lap and they both shut their eyes and she says the mantra from the book while he continues to expound his theory and by the end she is aware of her breath and they are calm. Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.
If you live in the city long enough, you notice that all the signs keep changing, and your life becomes a palimpsest too. On Wednesday it’s a nail salon, on Thursday it’s a bodega having a grand opening, and you spin around on the corner, disoriented, because you could have sworn you knew where you were. Old lover’s names are scratched out and carved over. Adeen takes the apparition to the same bar where she first met her last lover, and also this guy Ronnie who was cousins with her college friend and did rune stones, and also a Hawaiian man who taught graphic design to James Franco. Adeen and the apparition face each other on their stools, her legs on his rungs, his on hers. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he says and she swings her knees apart and faces the V at him, like a spotlight, as if he were Pavlov and she was obedient. He hands Adeen cash for their beers. On the walk back to her apartment he describes a deep-sea fishing trip – a man tethered to a pole with a full-body harness, fish that swim so hard and strong they’ll pull the entire man overboard and swim away with him, into the deep. They stay up all night and they even do backrubs and she feels an expansive joy, and the joy is not just from the indiscretion. The joy is from eating pizza naked on his lap at 3am.
The European analyst on the podcast says that the erotic exists “at the tip of the sword,” in the zones of secret and mystery that fill the space between two people, that’s where the passion is. Adeen and the apparition fill the erotic zone in different ways. He goes on vacation and texts her dozens of selfies. In most of them he’s wearing yellow-tinted cycling goggles and posing in front of the Alps, the Cote d’Azur, the orange groves of Seville. He is gone from the city for weeks, almost a month, and Adeen does not know if his wife is with him or not. He only says “I” and also “I love you.” Adeen texts “We are having a massive summer storm. . .making me lusty,” and he replies “tell me about this lust!” and Adeen wants to tell him about the silk sleep dress she is gazing at on her laptop screen. It comes in a dirty peach color called “coax” and she is zooming in on all of thumbnails and she wants it, but it is stupidly expensive. She does the “cost-per-wear” calculation and rationalizes. Maybe it actually made sense to spend money on pajamas since you really do spend loads of time in them. If she ordered it now it might arrive for when she sees him again in person. Before she can text back, he texts that cum is dripping while he thinks about her body, then he texts a pornographic GIF of three women on a bed and says, “I want to have an orgy with you and your friends.”
She does not send the screenshot of the sleep dress.
He texts, “Do you know which of friends you want to invite?”
The problem with the GIF (also, where does one find these things? Adeen uses the internet way differently) is how skinny two of the three girls are. The one in the middle who is being pleasured is normal size, but the two bent in front of her, hands and mouths working on her crotch, butts crocked to the ceiling so their labia is exposed as if they were stray cats, look starving. Adeen is too concerned about their health to be aroused. She took a writing class once where the instructor gave his students a postcard with an image on the front and a few words or a poem written on the back to serve as the writing prompt for the next half-hour. It was meant to get the juices flowing. Image: lesbian threesome. Words: Is your wife with you in Europe?
Maybe it takes a bad woman to recognize a bad man.
In the middle of the night she claws at the itch on her ankles, and even in her dreams she feels the deep pleasure of scratching. Her heat is pathological. She is tearing it apart, her flesh, her home, all that is solid, and the relief rushes in.
He returns and they meet for coffee in a sunny park by the river and he says that he and his wife discovered a piece of real estate in the South of France and were in the process of buying it and moving there. She’d heard of this kind of thing. There were articles on the internet every few weeks about the deals that could be had on castles in Spain and France in places where the communities had died out and infrastructure had crumbled. People flicked the articles around to each other and said “for the price of my 1 bed in Murray Hill I could own a castle!” and it turned out that some people had enough liquid cash to actually do this crazy thing, and he and his wife were two of these people. Adeen looks straight ahead when he tells her. She stops breathing and lifts her coffee to her lips and says, “I decided which friend I want to invite.”
The call and response of the itch and the scratch brings waves of gratification as she draws her own blood to the surface, raising her smooth white flesh into ridges of heat. It insists so boldly on attention. And doing the harm feels better than anything. The wires are crossed, the neurons are confused, the messaging is wrong. “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” – Anais, again.
Adeen buys a magnum of champagne and walks over the Williamsburg bridge and the fog is so thick she can’t see Manhattan, not one spark of it. It is blotted out and painted black, a void. A sense of distance and mystery overcomes her. She feels like she is out at sea, not knowing what is up ahead, and the sensation is so out of place in this metropolis that she knows she has slipped into the fold of something, between the bed and the wall. When she arrives at their apartment and knocks on the door, his wife is the one who answers. “Are you her?” The triangle is the strongest shape, that’s why they built the pyramids out of it.
Bridget McFadden lives in Sleepy Hollow, NY with her houseplants. Her work has appeared in Brokelyn, BlazeVOX, and Entropy.