A Taste of A Life Less Monogamous – Chapter 12
Midmorning traffic bloomed into early afternoon traffic on the Kennedy Expressway into Chicago. Ryan stared at the left blinker of the car in front of him, already all the way in the leftmost lane. He leaned his head toward to the side and saw an unbroken line of tail lights. A plane passed overhead, low enough to identify the airline as United, descending toward O’Hare Airport.
His hands-free speaker blared a ring, then another, then another. C’mon, Noah, pickup! What could he possibly have going on?
“Hello,” said Noah.
“How’s that hangover?”
“Not bad, actually,” said Ryan with a laugh. “Yours?”
“Pssht! I don’t get hangovers.”
Ryan nodded, waiting. Waiting for what? A moment? An invitation to ask? The offering up of unasked information?
“Did I lose you, Ryan?”
“No, I, uh, I just wanted to ask.” Well fucking ask already! “So, you know this, for a fact?”
Noah made a sound that approximated “heh” and then held the silence a while longer. “Should I just go ahead and assume we’re talking about Bruce and Paige?”
He knew I’d call, thought Ryan. “Yes.”
“Yes, Ryan. They’re swingers. They swing.”
“They swing.” Ryan couldn’t parse exact meaning even as he repeated it. More information was definitely necessary. “What does that even mean, these days?”
“Well,” Ryan found himself at a loss, “I mean, I thought swinging was just something people did in the seventies. Like Quaaludes.”
“You know, next time you make fun of me for sounding like a ‘get off my lawn’ old man, I’m going to take you back to this moment and paint you this specific picture.”
“It means they have sex with other people.”
“They have affairs.”
Noah’s sigh came through loud and clear. “As far as I know, Ryan, they go on dates with other couples and have sex with them.”
Ryan sat, silent. The blinker and brake lights ahead of him both snapped off. For the first time since the conversation had begun, Ryan inched his car forward.
“You and Barbara aren’t—”
“Have you ever—”
“It’s not our thing.”
He nodded, watching a Virgin Air plane slide impossibly low over his car, coming in for a landing. “Gotcha.”
“I don’t have any other information for you, though,” said Noah. “Beyond our first conversation about it, shortly after I met Bruce, I have not spoken to him about their shenanigans.”
“Shenanigans,” whispered Ryan.
“I don’t ask because I don’t need to know. Some things are and should be private. You good?”
“Did you need anything else, Ryan?”
“Oh,” Ryan replied, seeing the brake lights coming on again ahead of him. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Yeah. Don’t forget poker on the fourth.”
“I’ll be there.”
As traffic stopped again, Ryan rested his right hand on his thigh, just above the knee. He felt where she’d touched him. The smile, the warmth. “You’re not paying nearly enough attention to what’s going on in here. And most importantly, down here.” The bulge grew again. Ryan grabbed at his pants to adjust.
She’d seen last night, surely. She knew.
How could she not know? She was attractive, and surely she knew the effect her attractiveness had on other people. Especially if she was a— If she did that. S-words for five hundred dollars, Alex?
Certainly it was possible that Bruce and Paige just preferred to mingle separately and had taken a genuine friendly shine to he and Jennifer. We are nice people, he thought. And somewhat attractive, right? There it was again, though. If it had to do with their attractiveness, then the Shepards were trying…something.
“Were you trying to recruit us?” Ryan asked the car in front of him.
That makes it sound so… sinister, said the voice from last night, a nebulous and hazy version of Paige. His imagination supplied a far clearer image than he’d have expected, having only just met her. Her hair cascading, her cheeks dusted with freckles, eyes the impossible color of arctic water.
A honk brought him out of it. He saw he’d fallen nearly an entire car length behind the next car. Ryan shook his head, threw his hand up, as if to say, “My bad.” What he actually said, through the smile that might have been visible in his rear view mirror, was, “Kiss my ass.”
His miniscule journey completed, Ryan sighed. The specter of Paige had vanished from his mind, and his conjuring attempts now left him with only vague outlines. Recruiting does sound sinister, he admitted to himself, but that is only if it’s to do something you don’t want to do.
Now, that’s interesting.
Another plane passed overhead, its logo ambiguous. “Don’t you find that interesting?” he asked it. “Because it’s not sinister if they correctly identified people who might be interested in doing the same thing! It’s just an, I’m sure, very small subsection of the population doing what it needs to do to make a connection.”
To make a connection.
To break through.
Wasn’t that what they’ve been trying to do? If you stripped away all the theater from their sessions with Dr. Petrillo, it was about the sex, but not just about liking it, it was about enjoying living, not just doing it. All the times he and Jennifer had stayed home instead of going to parties, keeping their friend group to a whopping two other couples. Wasn’t that limiting? Wasn’t that—
Ryan hit the brakes just in time to stop less than an inch from the car in front of him. He saw the driver do a very similar gesture to his “my bad” but had the distinct impression from the stabbing hand motion that this bad was his. He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out, slow, steady. He looked at the empty cup, formerly containing overpriced coffee, in his cup-holder, wondering if maybe he could suck a touch more from it. Historical data from the past two times he’d tried suggested he ought to just leave it for dead.
“What if we’re happy?” he’d asked Dr. Petrillo in the solo portion of their first couple’s session.
“What if you’re happy?” Petrillo asked back, noting, Ryan assumed, his defensive tone on his notepad.
Ryan waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. After an almost interminable silence, Petrillo’s shoulders went up, and he cocked his head a few degrees to the right.
“Well, we wouldn’t need this, right?” Ryan said.
“Do you need this?”
“Not if we’re happy.”
“Are you happy?”
Ryan frowned. “Sometimes,” he told the car through the window, “Sometimes we’re happy.”
But that’s why they’d gone. “I’m tired of just existing,” Jennifer had said. “Aren’t you?”
“I think we do more than just exist.”
“Yeah? What?” she’d said. “No hobbies, no vacations, no sex, what are we even saving for?”
“For what, Ryan?” She’d grabbed his chin and turned it toward her face. “So we can have more room to hide from the world outside and do nothing?”
She apologized in Dr. Petrillo’s office, thanks to a referral from Barbara, who hadn’t answered whether she saw Petrillo solo or with Noah. “But I can’t just exist anymore. I need something in my life. Things! People! Pleasure! You!”
Dr. Petrillo pressed his pen cap into his dark black mustache and remained silent.
Ryan knew, objectively, that the ultimate job of therapists was to bring you to the realizations you need to make. Because forced change so rarely stuck. After another session, Ryan had been ready to cop to Jennifer’s complaint about “just existing.” He wanted it too, after all, he wanted more.
He just had no idea what more looked like.
None at all.
A flicker of hope, as Ryan saw the flashing lights of a squad car over the next hill in the highway. “Almost to the problem,” he exclaimed aloud, then immediately felt self-conscious about his enthusiasm. Could be someone dead up there. Could also just be a stupid driver, of course. Or a cop just fucking with all of them, right?
Whatever Bruce and Paige’s motives might be, they represented one thing that the Lamberts had not experienced in quite a long time: making new friends. Whether it came about as part of a vast conspiracy to induct them into the secret society of swingers, or was, as he and Jennifer had felt, the joy of experiencing a connection with new people, did it really matter?
Ryan decided that it didn’t.
The tension in his back and shoulders that he hadn’t realized was there lessened. Traffic ahead began to clear.