It always starts with a shopping bag. Without warning, she’ll casually dump it on the dresser when she gets home from work, or prop it up against the foot of the bed on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s an opening gambit designed to be ignored, and I do my best to play along, often for days at a time; I am unwilling to spoil her surprise, or to shake the Etch A Sketch grin of anticipation from her face.
The bag is not fancy. It is the sort of cheap plastic destined to hold tomorrow’s vegetable peelings, or the dirty laundry our kids bring back from school trips. When it curls up around its contents with a rustling sigh, I feel like I’m looking through a steamed-up window on a winter’s night –a soft blur of colour emerges from that inner fog, and I want to press my face against it till everything comes into focus.
Buying online just isn’t the same, she says, and besides, we should support a local business whenever we can. I nod vigorously, lips pursed in a poor attempt at solemn agreement, until she throws a cushion at me, both of us already laughing as it sails over my head. The shop owner is a kind man, and she is his favourite customer, but I know it’s the routine that she really loves; the continuity, stretched now across a fluorescent flickbook of galloping years and endless, meandering miles.
Sometimes I know when the moment will come. I’ll burrow down under the duvet and wait, my eyes flicking open just far enough to catch the first rays of that sunny smile as it dimples her cheeks. It’s enough, that little head start, and I don’t think she’d resent the deception. I’m not a morning person – far from it – so it helps to know when I need to respond to her alarm, rather than rolling over and counting to ten as she disappears into the dewy dawn.
I should be clear about one thing: we are not bored. This is a game, but a playful one. That flame does not need to be rekindled; instead we coax constant life from it, our touch lighter with time. We are sure-footed, not ham-fisted; comfortable in our own skin, expansive and generous with each other’s.
Still, there are times when I wonder whether anything has made me happier than the sound of her fingers working the knot at the neck of the bag. Even when I’m half-asleep, unwitting muscle memory kicks in; my brain will trip a switch and prompt my body to respond with a hazy reluctance that’s quickly cleared by the emerging heat.
By the time I lift my chin onto the duvet and manage to peer over it, she has migrated to the bathroom. The shopping bag has played its part; it lies discarded, its contents already unfurled and admired, then hugged close to her naked body. She has pressed herself against me at night for 20 years now – long enough that I feel like a sofa cushion, scooped out with the indentation of her milk-white arse – but familiarity has done nothing to lessen the desire I feel whenever I watch her stretch in front of the mirror, or pad out of the shower, water flying off her skin with every step.
Why then, does this undo me with such unerring precision? Why does it thump away at some deep seam in the pit of my stomach? As I wait for the bathroom door to open, I blink away the sleep still furring the corners of my vision, and flex my thighs to an impatient, staccato beat. I prop myself up on pillows that smell of her mussed blonde hair.
She appears in front of me without any fuss. This is not a show. We take our running seriously, and at that moment I know she would happily dance out of the door and onto the street, her new kit practically shining in the emergent sunlight. It clings to her slender frame, its lurid colours throwing into sharp relief the simple lines that my hands long to trace. Her sudden indifference is intoxicating; perhaps that, above all else, is what hooks into me and pulls out the words in a rusty, ragged growl.
She freezes in place when the first plosive spits through the air between us. Her head is perfectly still, and her hands go to the waistband of her lycra shorts, as if she too is compelled by instinct to respond in the same way each time. I take a breath, and repeat myself, steadier this time.
“No – come back to bed. You look too good to waste on the outside world.”
*Massive* thanks to the lovely @19syllables, whose photo inspired this story, and who was kind enough to let me include it in the final post. Make sure you go check out her brilliant haiku on Twitter, if you haven’t done so already.