You Can’t Plan Feelings Out of a Foursome
Group Sex by Elisa Faison
Frances and Ben are in their sweatpants on a Saturday morning. He has made the coffee, as he always does. She drinks more than her fair share of the pot, but always offers the final half-cup to Ben. They are sitting on the couch, a green velvet sectional. It’s new. Ben’s legs are stretched long across the loveseat. Frances’ are tucked into her body, which she has pressed tightly to Ben’s side. They are looking at Ben’s phone.
“This is the app I read about,” Ben says.
“It’s better than Tinder?” Frances asks, the steam from her coffee fogging up her glasses. Warmed, she leans her nose further into her mug. She looks sweet in the morning, her face puffy from sleep, her edges soft.
Ben looks at her. He says, “I think so, for what we’re looking for anyway. I mean, according to the internet.”
Ben and Frances have never online dated before. They met in college through Frances’ ex-boyfriend. The general abundance of possible hook-ups on campus rendered sites like OK Cupid irrelevant to them, a joke. Tinder didn’t exist. Still, both had bemoaned the tragedy of online dating with their single friends. It was shallow, they said. It was robotic, they said. It was the end of romance, they said. When they were alone together, though, they sometimes expressed a secret longing to have the experience. “Think of the good bad date stories we’re missing out on!” Ben would say, imagining sharing them with his friends over a beer. “Think of all the people we won’t meet!” Frances would say, imagining the myriad ways in which she might have been adored.
“So, what happens? I make a profile and you make a profile?” Frances asks.
“Or maybe we could do a joint profile? I think there’s an option to do separate profiles and sort of link them. But since we’re only seeing people together, I think that makes the most sense. Package deal.”
They had recently had a threesome with a young woman whom they met in real life, at a restaurant. It had been exciting, for Ben, to try something new. To see Frances anew, as the young woman saw her. He had been satisfied to have the young woman in their bed. He had also been satisfied to watch her leave. The next morning, in the warm glow of their private relationship, he kissed his wife on the forehead, which appeared slightly changed to him, its wrinkles smoothed out, fresh. She lifted her face without opening her eyes and kissed his mouth. Her lips broke into a big smile, and she said, “We should do that again.”
For as long as he’d known her, Frances had been a presence. When she walked into a room, she became a solid, foundational part of it—so much so that you might wonder how the room had held together before she arrived. It was something about being sure of herself, he thought. Something about the certainty of her personhood. It was something he admired, perhaps what had attracted him to her in the first place. Since her mother had died, though, Frances had faded, sometimes quietly into the background of her life, sometimes chaotically into her compulsions and anxieties.
But that morning, her wide smile, the morning light on her cheekbones . . . He felt his own face brighten as he said, “Yes, we should.” If he noticed the little pang that went through his chest, it felt less important than the fact that she was his Frances again, just for a minute.
And so, here they are, two weeks later, drinking coffee together, wearing matching gray joggers.
“What are we looking for?” she asks, turning the phone toward him. He looks at all of the little boxes you could check off, each a tiny want that might be satisfied. What are we looking for? he thinks. He feels suddenly overwhelmed by the question. By the number of options, which feels both too many and too few. He has a tendency to do this, to make existential the smallest thing.
“What are we looking for?” he repeats, as though to indicate that he doesn’t understand the question, even though he does.
“Yeah, like, singles? Couples? Women? It wants us to specify.”
“Well, a woman, right?”
“Yeah,” she says. “For sure. But, I was thinking, if you’re into it, what about a couple? I feel like everyone is just looking for a woman. It’s a little . . . I don’t want to say cliché but maybe? And it would be nice for there to be an even playing field, so I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the other woman feels left out or alone. You know, since we’re together and she’d be single. I could let that distraction go.”
“So it would be us with two women?”
“You’re cute when you daydream.” He laughs and she continues, “Yeah, sure. Or a woman and a man. Obviously, I mean, if you’re into it. It wouldn’t have to be like, the two of you. We could just see what it’s like. Swap or whatever, if you’d prefer. In the same room. It could be fun.” She says all of this very fast.
Ben is surprised. He has expressed only the most basic, surface-level attraction to men before, mostly in order to seem open-minded and cool to Frances. He hears himself say, perhaps for the same reasons, “Yeah, I’m open to trying anything once.”
Frances beams at him.
Together, they make a profile that says that they are interested in men and in women, in singles and in couples. They upload a photo of themselves that they took last year when they were in Italy with Ben’s family. They think it makes them look adventurous and not too pretentious. When they hit “publish,” they feel like a team.
Frances has had a hard time writing lately. She is a freelance ghostwriter, currently contracted to finish the memoir of a B-list child actor who starred in a popular sci-fi show in the 1990s. She has always been a good ghost. Each new client is a little mystery to her: someone whose personal voice, energy, and vision must be discovered and captured. It thrills her, actually, to explore someone else so intimately. To understand them from the inside out. She likes to disappear into the bodies of others, to snuggle in tightly.
Or, at least, she used to like this. Lately, she has felt uncomfortable about her work and the ease with which she lets herself vanish into it. She recently came across a memoir that she’d partially ghostwritten in a bookshop and perused it. In the acknowledgments—from which her name was omitted—the official author had referred to the book as her “baby.” That’s my baby, Frances found herself thinking. Mine. Her face had flushed angrily and then, just as quickly, she felt her eyes well up with tears, overcome by the memory of packing away her mother’s books last year, the little handwritten name plates in the front of each bearing her mother’s name: Rose. Rose. This book belongs to Rose. She left the bookshop, confused and tired and wishing she could control her emotional impulses, as she had once been able to do.
Her grief for her mother had felt hot at first, an animating force. But even that had gone cold. She tries to write, but she feels too empty, bereft even of the child star’s memories.
She reaches for her phone and pulls up the dating app. A man. A man and a woman. A man. A man. Two women. She swipes and swipes, each little flick of her thumb a lifeline. Each “like” a way back into the heat of her body.
Ben is in a faculty meeting when he feels his phone buzz in his pocket. He looks down as surreptitiously as possible and sees a text from Frances: SOS.
A hot rush of panic before he opens her next text. She has sent him a screenshot from the app, a picture of a man and a woman with their faces blacked out above a wall of text:
GF and I are ENM couple (32M, 21F) looking for singles to play with, GGG & 420 Friendly!
Looking for MMF, FFM, FF, FWB
In the bdrm: BDSM, mostly D/s, sometimes switch, DP, Ropes
Sag sun, Cap moon, Cancer rising, 8×7, Fully vaxxed!
If this sounds like u, HMU!
A follow-up: I am wading through alphabet soup!!!! What does this LITERALLY MEAN!?
He snort-laughs and covers it up quickly with a small cough. The Director of Graduate Studies, who still wears an N-95 mask to work each day, scoots loudly away from him.
He texts back with one hand under the table, Will bring home decoder ring.
Thirty minutes later, she follows up: In a near-future world, humans have all but disappeared. The earth has burned. Only bulls and cuckolds and brats and daddies and cumbeggars and sugarbabies remain. This summer, find out if Ben and Frances, the last regular human married couple in the world, have what it takes to survive.
Ten minutes later, also ft a unicorn.
Over the next few weeks, they put their heads together, wade through the soup, and make meaning of the bios. Ben reads books about ethical non-monogamy. He reads More Than Two and The Ethical Slut and Polysecure. He wants to understand the concept logically before he experiences it emotionally. He leaves these books on Frances’ desk for her to read when he finishes them.
Frances does not read them. Instead, she puts her energy into navigating the app. She picks out the unicorns, a word which she now understands to mean bisexual women who are open to threesomes—rare, shining creatures who fascinate her. She picks out the normal-seeming couples whose profiles are written out in words, not in letters. She clicks “like,” she refreshes her app to see if she has been liked, she sends flirty messages. She receives a dick pic. She is repulsed—and then ashamed when the image pops into her head right before she comes later that night while Ben eats her out. She stands in her mirror and takes selfies. She learns how to angle her hips so that her butt appears round and shapely. She sends her first-ever nude to a woman called Jae, a “pansexual woman in an ENM relationship looking for feminine energies.” She feels her heart leap when Jae responds to her pic with a pic of her own. She wants to laugh. She has forgotten that a heart can actually leap, that this is more than a turn of phrase. She hasn’t felt the sensation since she was twenty years old. She is thirty-two years old and she has a crush!
A few nights later, she has a dream that Ben dies. At his funeral, she wears thigh-high leather boots and a corset. Everyone looks at her. She wakes up the moment she wraps the whip around her own throat.
When Ben is at work that day, she sends him the selfie that she had planned to send to Jae.
She and Ben meet Jae for cocktails. They laugh and flirt and navigate the awkwardness of a three-way makeout session in the parking lot when the bar closes. At home that night, tipsy and buoyant, Frances says, “She was a really good kisser, don’t you think?” And then they laugh until they cry because they can’t remember the last time they called someone a good kisser. The next morning, they can’t find Jae on the app and find they have no way to get in touch with her again.
“Ghosted,” Frances says, bereft, the feel of Jae’s mouth still on hers.
Their friends begin to wonder if they are okay, why they have disappeared. They receive a text from Ben’s best friend Max that says, Where are y’all?! If you’re hiding because Frances is pregnant, STOP! I promise to pretend not to notice that she’s not drinking.
“I’m not ashamed of what we’re doing,” Ben says over dinner that night. “It’s perfectly normal that we might want to explore before we start a family,.”
“I’m not ashamed either!” Frances says. “Not at all.”
“Maybe we should tell people what we’re up to,” he says. “Who cares if they’re weird about it. It’s not for them, it’s for us. Just us.”
And a little voice in her head, before she can stop it, whispers, It’s for me. This is mine.
A Few Questions and Helpful Comments From Frances’ Friends
Wow. Honestly, I thought y’all had like . . . the perfect marriage. I’m a little relieved. Nothing is ever as good as it seems from the outside, you know?
So Ben gets to have sex with any woman he wants but it’s not cheating? How did he convince you to let him do that? Ted has been trying to get me to have a threesome for like, forever.
A lot of couples think they can save their marriage by opening it up, but really it’s just a band-aid. You should be careful. Don’t waste your prettiest years on this.
I cheated once, when we were engaged. Daniel knows. To be honest, I don’t regret it. It made me appreciate him more.
Listen, your marriage is between you and you. I just know that I could never do it. I’m way too jealous. It’s hard work, but we just wake up and choose each other every day.
God, I miss it. That new relationship feeling. Is it as fun as I remember?
It’s not possible to love more than one person. Not like, really. I mean, sure, I love my friends, and I love my kids, and I love my husband. But that’s not the same thing.
Sorry but isn’t it a little naive to like “not believe in ownership”? It sounds like something one of Ben’s students would say! And anyway, is it so wrong to want to feel owned? We all want to belong to someone.
I dated a woman once in college and I never knew I had so many feelings. So. Much. Communication. Kill me. We’re all crazy.
Aren’t you, I don’t know, a little afraid that you might be gay? I know the Kinsey scale says everyone is a little bit gay, but what if you realize you’re gay now? In your thirties?
Obviously Ben isn’t really interested in men. He’s just doing whatever you want. He’d do anything for you. He loves you so much.
Frances is making a risotto. Ben is sitting at the kitchen table flipping through the newest issue of Bon Appetit, which arrived in their mailbox that morning. They still subscribe to it and are unsure whether they should feel guilty about doing so.
Frances, rummaging in the miscellaneous drawer for a wine bottle opener, says, “Do you ever imagine me dead?”
Ben closes the magazine calmly and pretends to think. He says, “Hm. Only when I masturbate.”
The cork comes out with a loud pop. “Ben, what the fuck!” she says, tilting the bottle of Pinot Grigio over the Le Creuset, smothering the toasting rice.
“I have to kill you off before I sleep with all those naked women. It doesn’t feel fair otherwise.”
“Ben,” she says, turning to look at him.
“Frances,” he says, seriously.
She narrows her eyes at him, smirking. She wiggles the wine bottle in the air and asks, “Want some of this?”
“Sure,” he says, and gets up to grab two wine glasses from the cabinet.
Frances pours the wine. They clink their glasses together. She adds a ladle-full of warm stock to the pot.
“Franny. Why are you asking me if I ever imagine you dead?” Ben asks, standing just behind her, letting himself linger in the buttery scent of the softened onions. He runs a hand through her hair and then down her back.
She pauses for a moment and then shrugs. “Just curious. I imagined your funeral the other day.”
She turns to face him. “That’s not weird. Surely you’ve imagined my funeral.”
“Sure. I’ve imagined it,” Ben says, and takes a sip of wine.
“Well, how do you see yourself at it? I’m just curious. Do you imagine yourself in a suit in the front row? About to get up and make everyone weep with like, a perfect eulogy about me? Or do you think you’ll be a crying mess? And everyone is worried about you because maybe you showed up in your sweatpants or something.”
“Frances,” he says, and reaches out to touch her shoulder, a look on his face that is more earnest than Frances wants it to be.
“Hold on,” she says. She turns from him, adding another ladle of stock even though it’s too early.
“Hey,” he says, and turns her back around. He pushes a little strand of hair, stuck to her forehead from the steam, behind her ear. She lifts her glass to her mouth and tilts it awkwardly between them to take a sip. “First of all, I won’t be attending your funeral because I require that I die first. Second of all, at my funeral, I expect you to look fucking stunning. If you don’t, I’ll haunt you.”
“You don’t get to claim dying first,” she says, surprised to feel the quaver at the back of her throat. “That’s not fair.”
“Fine,” he says. “But just so you know, if you die first, I’ll be at your funeral in a stained T-shirt and boxers and will probably have Dorito dust all over my fingers. I’ll cause a scene because I’ll run up to your casket and wail into it, leaving big orange fingerprints all over your dead body.” He takes a long, nonchalant drink of wine. “The choice is yours.”
Frances wipes her eyes and drinks another sip of wine, too. She smiles and says, “You know. You don’t have to kill me off in order to sleep with a bunch of hot women. Especially not in your imagination. That’s the whole point of this whole thing.”
Ben shrugs, kisses her on the top of her head and grabs a wooden spoon to give the risotto a stir. “I know. It just feels wrong.”
She takes the spoon from him and says, “I’d rather be alive.”
One morning, they wake to find that they have connected on their app with a couple—a man and a woman named Adam and Celeste who identify themselves as polyamorous and both bisexual. “We’re very much in love and will prioritize our primary partnership. We are looking for another man and another woman in a similar situation to connect with sexually and emotionally,” their profile says. They appear to be in their mid-thirties, a bit crunchier than Ben and Frances. Adam is white with dirty-blonde, shoulder length hair slightly more wild than Ben’s. He has a neck tattoo of a butterfly and an eyebrow piercing. His flannel shirt partially conceals a chest tattoo. Celeste is racially ambiguous. Her skin is slightly darker than Adam’s and is freckled across her nose and cheekbones. She wears no makeup and her long hair is wavy and untamed, falling over her linen dress. Both are lovely, Frances thinks, but her eyes are drawn to Adam in the photo. This makes her feel complicated, sitting next to Ben. She feels a pulse of attraction, imagines her fingers running down the lines of the tattoo, discovering its final shape.
“What do you think?” she asks.
“I mean . . . they sound like us. It sounds like what we’re doing, right?”
“Sort of. Yeah. I mean, I hadn’t really thought of this as like, polyamory. It feels a little”—Frances gives a grimace and fake shiver— “mushy.”
“Ha. Yeah, I know what you mean. Like, I don’t want to go out and hold hands with two other people at an outdoor concert.”
“But also . . . I think that’s a pretty reductive picture of polyamory. Because we do want to try dating another person or another couple together. And we do want to like them. And get to know them. And not just like, wife swap. Or swing.“
“Yeah. I mean, those just feel pretty cold. And pretty hetero.”
“Are you . . . are you definitely open to a guy?” Frances feels herself hoping.
Ben puts on his professorial face, the one he affects whenever he has been thinking hard about something and has decided it’s finally ready to voice. “Yeah. It’s been on my mind since you mentioned seeing a couple. I feel like . . . I mean, honestly, I feel like you can’t know what you like until you really try it. And whatever I fucked around with as a kid doesn’t really count. I think if we’re going to do this, we should really do it. Like, really try new things and experiences together.”
Frances is overcome by a swell of emotion. She is still surprised, sometimes, when Ben is exactly who she hopes he is. She feels lucky, undeserving. And she also loves getting what she wants. “I love you,” she says. “So . . . group sex. A foursome is group sex, right?”
“I think so. Yeah. Group sex.”
She scoots her body closer to his in the bed, brushes her fingers along his arm. “It’ll be hot to see you with another guy.”
He laughs, grabs her hand and kisses her fingertips. “Is it weird to say that I also think it’ll be hot to see you with another guy?”
She blushes, her hand still touching his mouth. “Not weird. Hotter.” With her other hand, she sets down her coffee. They fuck and forget to message the couple until hours later.
Whenever Ben and Frances have sex, it is intimate, connective. They feel closer afterward, as though their bodies fit together more comfortably. As though the other’s skin has become more magnetic. But whether or not their sex has ever been “private” is up for debate. When Ben kisses Frances, his mouth is on Frances’ mouth. But he is also kissing a version of Frances who exists only in his memory, a little less lined, a little rounder in the face, as she was when he met her. When Frances runs her hands down Ben’s back, she is touching Ben. But she is also touching a Ben who exists only in her imagination, a little more confident, a little more dominant, a little less inhibited. They fuck each other, but they also fuck a thousand other versions of each other who come and go unbidden. And sometimes, when they fuck each other, they are also fucking other people: old boyfriends, old girlfriends, their hot yoga instructor, the guy from that show, the people from that porn that once got them off, an accidental friend who might walk in. In the room, they are alone. They work to make each other come in the ways that only they know exactly how to do. But it happens all at once, every time: the doors burst open. Behind their closed eyes, they are suddenly surrounded by bodies, watching, touching, being touched; being just a little bit prettier, a little bit sexier, a little bit dirtier than the real Ben or Frances are. It’s hot, having group sex. They do it over and over again. And then they come and the other people vanish. Their counterparts come together and coalesce, once again, into one self, one body, a little older and a little worse and infinitely more lovable. They look at each other, their faces sweaty and wrinkled around the eyes where those younger selves once laughed, and they see each other. They pull together, tight.
They meet Adam and Celeste for drinks after a week of texting.
“Do I look okay?” Frances asks as they get out of the car. She is wearing a skirt and Doc Martens, a look which she hopes will read a little bit queer and not as a grown woman trying to look young.
“You look perfect. Do I look okay?”
Ben looks, as he always does to Frances, unacceptably better than her. In his glasses and sweater, he reminds Frances of those Oscar Isaac thirst traps from Scenes From a Marriage. Her heart swells with pride and contracts with envy. She grabs his hand and they walk in together.
They have agreed that, most likely, nothing will happen between the four of them tonight. They want to get to know them first. They want to establish healthy, clear boundaries. Tonight, they will just get a feel for them. That’s the plan.
But they are perfect. More magnetic than their photos and exuding an affection for one another that has the strange effect of enveloping Ben and Frances, too. Celeste is a music teacher and waxes poetic about her students and her favorite classical pieces. Adam, it turns out, is the co-owner of a brewery where Ben and Frances, in their mid-twenties, played weekly trivia. To all four of them, this feels—improbably and after several cocktails—like fate. “We must have met you before!” Ben says, twice.
When Adam and Celeste walk up to the bar to pay their tab, Ben turns to Frances and asks, “Do you think they like us?”
Frances, flushed and giddy, says, “Totally. We’ve been a delight!”
“We are a delight!” Ben agrees.
“They’re talking about us,” Frances whispers into his ear, looking over at the bar where Adam and Celeste are bent low over the check.
“Checking in? About tonight?” Ben speculates.
“Well . . . what do you think?” he asks, his eyes twinkling. She has seen this look before: it’s the same one he had when they left their number for the woman at the restaurant.
“I’m game if you’re game. I feel comfortable with them,” she says.
Ben nods frantically.
When they return to the table, Celeste says, “So . . . no pressure, but do you want to come over for another drink at ours?”
They barely make it through the door before Celeste runs her fingers through Frances’ hair and kisses her. “Is this okay?” she asks. Frances nods, her words lost in the sudden, overwhelming physicality of her own body. A brief intrusive thought: Will Ben be okay kissing Adam? When she imagined having sex with the two of them, she thought that she would kiss Adam first. It was both deeply exciting and pragmatic to her. Ben would feel more comfortable starting with Celeste. But now, with Celeste’s mouth on hers, watching Ben grab the back of Adam’s neck, pragmatism feels ridiculous. She might have laughed if everything didn’t feel so urgent, so immediate, so encompassing.
When they talk about it afterward—all four of them, still naked, trying to remember who did what when, how Ben ended up on the floor with Celeste, how Frances ended up biting Adam’s neck as Ben went down on him, how Frances found herself lying underneath Celeste as she was being fucked from behind by Adam—they find that they have no idea how any of it happened. It felt, to Frances, like dissolving into a feeling and then watching herself be reassembled again, sweatier and more content. They laugh as they try to trace their movements, all four still entwined in the bedroom. They have no idea how they came to be there.
The sky is a light gray-purple when Frances and Ben get home. They crawl into bed together. Before they fall asleep, they have sex again, their bodies still brightly alive.
A Few Questions and Helpful Comments Ben and Frances’ Friends Have About Adam and Celeste
How’d it happen, anyway? Were you just trying to spice things up and it got . . . I don’t know . . . out of hand? No judgment! We don’t have sex nearly as much as we used to, either.
Okay, help me out. If you like them, and they like you, and nothing ever goes wrong, and you fall in love, what happens? Are you going to like, move in together? Raise kids together? Like . . . what’s the goal?
A foursome just feels like a lot of legs.
So, Frances, how pretty is Celeste? I feel like I would want her to be uglier than me so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Like, worry that her boobs are bigger or that she’s skinner or whatever. I’d want to be the hot one. Although, I guess at the same time, I want her to be super hot, since we’re having sex. I don’t know. Are you attracted to Celeste, like actually, or do you just wish that you looked like her?
Is it weird, to see your partner with someone else? I feel like it could be sort of hot.
What kind of protection are you using? Condoms? What about like, herpes? It’s just that it seems like they’re the kind of people who have sex with a lot of other people.
Could you two stop touching each other? We get it. You’ve had some kind of sexual awakening.
So, were you always bisexual and just didn’t realize it? Or is it something you’re just kind of . . . trying out? Like a kink?
I hope this isn’t weird to say, but I haven’t seen you this happy in a long time, Franny. It’s nice.
After they have been sleeping together, the four of them, for about a month, Celeste texts Frances and asks if she wants to come over to watch a movie because Adam is out of town. Totally cool if it’s not where y’all are. But we’re feeling comfortable with same-gender one-on-one hook-ups since it’s what we originally planned on.
They had told Ben and Frances, a week or so before, that they hadn’t intended on dating together. Celeste wanted to date a woman, and Adam a man. But they liked Frances and Ben, and so adjusted their plan.
When she reads the text, Frances feels herself flush. She has been dying to see Celeste one-on-one. She loves the group sex, loves how it strengthens her bond with Ben, as though they are one side of a regular couple, a singular person with shared quirks and insecurities and desires. It’s hot—and somehow hotter every time. But she has found herself, once or twice, frustrated when she is pulled away from Celeste by Ben or Adam. She has cultivated a pulsating desire to figure Celeste out: to learn exactly how she likes Frances to touch her, and where and when. She wants desperately to understand Celeste, inside and out.
When she shows the text to Ben, she downplays her desire, terrified that he won’t be willing to cross this particular boundary. But Ben only shrugs and says, “Hm. Kind of weird, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s not risky to go one-on-one with the same gender, but it is risky to go one-on-one with the opposite gender? It’s a little bi-phobic, right? It privileges heterosexual relationships as more meaningful than queer ones.”
Frances hadn’t thought of it that way, but she agrees instantly. “Totally,” she nods.
“Like, it’s the same old thing, just in woke language about personal boundaries. The basic idea is that two women together can’t be anything more than fun and sexy—because their ‘real’ desire will always be for men.”
As he speaks, Frances finds herself getting worked up. It annoys her, suddenly, the idea that Celeste feels comfortable dating her, but not Ben, because she is somehow non-threatening to Celeste’s primary relationship. She would be as likely to leave Ben for a woman as for a man, she thinks to herself proudly.
“. . . And just on a personal level, I feel differently.” Ben is still speaking. “Maybe I’d be jealous if you were on a date with Adam. But it wouldn’t be any different than whatever jealousy I might or might not feel if you go hang out with Celeste. It’s just about me feeling left out, either way. And that’s my problem, not yours—and definitely not, like, our problem. Because in the end, you would never leave me for a woman or for a man, equally.”
“Right,” Frances says, and leans in to kiss him. “I was just thinking almost the exact same thing.”
The first time she spends the night with Celeste, Frances is unsure of herself. When they are alone, Celeste feels like Frances’ friend. They open a bottle of wine and pop popcorn and watch Bridget Jones’ Diary. They argue about whether Hugh Grant is sexy or gross. They swoon over Colin Firth. The more comfortable Frances gets, the more she fears that she and Celeste are kidding themselves, that they’re just two married, straight women playing queer.
But then, there is Celeste’s hand on her thigh. There is the way she leans into her shoulder when she laughs. There is the way she licks the butter off the tips of Frances’ fingers.
When they get in bed, Frances’ earlier fears feel ridiculous. She pulls Celeste’s body back into hers, wraps her legs around her, pushes her hair to the side and bites her neck. She licks all the way up to her earlobe and then pulls her T-shirt off. It catches on Celeste’s left earring and they laugh, feeling silly. They pause, try again. Frances kisses along the edges of Celeste’s left ear and sighs into it. She cups Celeste’s breasts, and her hands, which had been empty, are full. She brushes her thumbs across Celeste’s nipples and thrills when they harden, amazed that something her body does can change the very structure of another woman’s body. She moves one hand down slowly and is overcome by something like pride when she feels how wet Celeste is. This is for me, Frances thinks. Celeste’s body is doing this for me. She presses two fingers onto her clit and then Celeste says, “Wait.”
Her heart stops, briefly, when Celeste pulls away from her. Her chest and stomach, which were hot and sweaty, now seem just cold and wet, exposed to the air. But Celeste doesn’t get up; she only leans over to her bedside cabinet and pulls out a small blue vibrator.
“Is this okay?” she asks, her voice barely hiding an embarrassed tremor.
“Oh,” Frances says, feeling a little unnecessary suddenly, like an intruder.
“It’s not you,” Celeste says quickly. “It’s just a lot easier for me to come this way. Alone, too.” A little pleading look which breaks Frances’ heart.
“I want it to be good for you,” Frances says, unsure. Celeste smiles, clicks to the setting she wants, and hands the vibrator to Frances. It fits perfectly in her palm.
“Stay here,” Celeste says as she leans back into Frances and pushes her hand back down to her clit. She holds Frances’ hand with her own, pressing it down hard. Frances feels Celeste relax and loosen in her arms. This is what Celeste looks like when she’s alone, Frances realizes. She feels like a ghost, watching something that ought to be private. It occurs to her that this is a good feeling. She wonders if Adam has ever seen Celeste like this. The thought makes her face grow hot with desire. Frances pulls Celeste’s body deeper into hers and, when Celeste comes, both of their backs arch together. When Celeste turns around and goes down on Frances, she comes almost immediately, before she has a chance to question how vulnerable she and Celeste have made themselves to each other.
Afterward, she asks: “Do you use that with Adam, too?”
Celeste laughs a small laugh. “Yeah, I do now. It’s pretty easy to use during sex. I have another one that’s specifically for partner play.”
“I’ve never used a vibrator with Ben. Honestly, I don’t really use one at all. They’re too strong or something. I don’t know. I’m a little vanilla I think.”
“So vanilla you’re having regular group sex,” Celeste says, and Frances laughs, embarrassed. “I didn’t use it with Adam for a long time, though. He was weird and jealous about it at first, like he wanted to prove he could be better. It sucked. It just meant I had to fake it to have a good time with him. He came around, obviously. It doesn’t matter how you come, it’s just nice to do it together.”
“Yeah,” Frances says. “I agree.” But inwardly, she feels herself flinch. Had Celeste been pretending when they’d had sex before, in a group? Frances had faked plenty of orgasms in her life, even sometimes with Ben, though the shame she felt afterward usually eclipsed any of the performance’s convenience. Wouldn’t she be able to recognize a fake orgasm, even if Ben or Adam couldn’t? The idea that she might have missed something so basic unsettles her. Her climaxes had been real. Did that mean she was too easily satisfied?
Her discomfort must color her face because Celeste asks, “Is everything okay?”
“Do you . . . can you only come with the vibrator?” Frances asks, embarrassed. “Because I thought . . . “
“Oh god,” Celeste says. “Sorry! I shouldn’t have mentioned faking it. No, I don’t need it. It just helps, sometimes. Especially if I’m feeling nervous.”
“I make you nervous?”
Celeste smiles. “In a good way.” She kisses Frances, more tenderly than usual, and touches her cheek. “Wow,” she says. “That was way easier to explain to you for some reason.”
Frances feels a sense of warmth creep over her, a sense that she and Celeste are in something together, a team.
A List of Frances’ Worries
- That her friends no longer believe she has the perfect marriage.
- That she no longer has the perfect marriage.
- That Celeste feels like what they are doing isn’t sex but foreplay.
- That maybe she isn’t attracted to Celeste but only wants to look like her.
- That she might not ever be able to untangle the difference between being attracted to women and wanting to look like them.
- That when her mother died, she lost the only experience of total, full, unhesitating love she would ever be granted.
- That she might always be doomed to love people more than they love her.
- That, by wanting to be loved by other people, she might be less lovable to Ben.
- That she might end up alone.
- That she might, currently, be the happiest she has been in a long time.
Ben has been preparing, for the last three weeks, to get fucked in the ass.
He and Adam have been on one solo date. They drank beer and played pool at Adam’s brewery and, eventually, talked about their past experiences with men. Ben’s were confined to his childhood—group masturbation with other boys, the occasional shameful blow job, and, once, when he was fourteen, a painful attempt at anal sex. Adam did these things at around the same age, but then, in his mid-twenties, he became curious about his sexuality and had, for about nine months, been the secondary partner to a married gay man ten years his senior. They talked about shame and confusion and desire until, after he had shut down the bar, Adam pushed Ben backward into the pool table and blew him. “I like you,” he had said to Ben. “I like you a lot.”
A List of Ben’s Worries
- That he might be bisexual.
- That, by being bisexual, he might be less attractive to Frances.
- That he might not be bisexual.
- That, by not being bisexual, he might be less attractive to Frances.
- That he is boring.
- That, at some point, Adam and Celeste will realize that he is merely an uninteresting person who is married to an interesting person.
- That, when Frances also realizes he is an uninteresting person, he will be left behind.
- That he might end up alone.
- That Frances might, currently, be the happiest she has been in a long time.
When he gets home from the brewery, flushed and a little bit embarrassed, Ben gets into bed next to a sleeping Frances. He pulls up Amazon on his phone and orders the anal training kit that Adam recommended.
To his surprise, he likes it, likes the feeling of being full, likes the depth of a prostate orgasm. He wonders if this is what it feels like for Frances when she comes when he is inside of her.
Try this next, Adam texts him. It’s a link to a vibrating butt plug. I like to use this with Celeste too.
Ben has never really liked taking the dominant role in the bedroom with Frances. It feels unnatural to him. In their regular life, Ben finds pleasure in succumbing to Frances’ whims, to letting her be in charge. He likes being at Frances’ mercy. And so, in some ways, lying face-down on their bed while she pushes a vibrating butt plug into his asshole feels perfectly comfortable, perfectly right—like something he had been wanting to do without knowing it.
“Is this okay?” she keeps asking as she pushes deeper into him. He feels that he ought to be put off by her timidity, but he isn’t. He likes saying, “Yes, it’s good.” He likes being the one to determine whether or not it is okay and good, even as he lies ostensibly powerless. He likes her hand on his back, pressing down softly. He likes it when she leans forward and lightly kisses his shoulder with the final push. He’s not sure whether his pleasure comes from the almost motherly way she is attending to him or from the sense that she might violently rip him open. He doesn’t really care.
The next time the four of them have sex, he finds himself drawn to Adam, wanting to be grabbed by him, to be pushed face-down on the bed by him, to be crushed. But when Adam turns around and asks Ben to fuck him, Ben loses his erection. He’s not sure why and though Adam redirects him kindly and with care, he is ashamed. He comes that night with Frances on top of him, his eyes on her face the whole time.
He still wants Adam. But he finds himself making excuses not to get together with him alone. Adam doesn’t push it.
Upon Reflection, Their Friends Have A Few More Thoughts
Actually, I think it’s really smart of you and Ben, getting it all out of your system before you start having kids. You won’t have time for stuff like this after. Trust me.
What if Frances gets pregnant? I mean, won’t you always be worried it isn’t really yours?
You will stop seeing them—and anyone else—when you start trying to get pregnant, right? It’s a sacred time for the two of you. It really feels special.
How could Ben possibly be okay with someone else having sex with you when you’re pregnant!? Aren’t you worried you’ll get an STI? That’s like, really, really bad for the baby.
You guys seem so happy right now, though. And you’re still young, you’ve got a few more years to waste. No problem with just having fun for a while. Kids can wait. The whole thirty-five thing is really a myth!
What are you going to tell your kids? Kids see everything. You can’t keep an open marriage hidden from them. What if they tell your parents? Kids will say anything!
I don’t know. It takes a village, right? Trust me! I could have used a few extra sets of hands.
It’s just that this stuff can be really confusing and damaging for kids. I’ve seen it. We have some kids like that at school.
You know, historically, children reared collectively were more likely to survive. In prehistoric societies, babies were breastfed by multiple women. Is there a filter on your app to find lactating women? Ha!
Ben begins to feel like the odd one out. He barely sees Celeste anymore. Frances gets together with her while he’s teaching his evening class, or on nights that he has plans with Max—relaxing nights that sometimes feel like the only ones that aren’t focused on sex and dating. Lately, it seems to Ben that Frances is in an intimate relationship with her phone. Rather than plugging it in by the bed when she gets home, or tossing it somewhere and forgetting it, Frances begins to keep it on her in the house. In the pocket of her sweatpants or within eyesight, on whatever table is closest to her. When it vibrates, her body vibrates with it. Ben has become just another human body, warm in the night. He tries to be okay with it. He doesn’t want to spoil anything for her. He can tell that her phone is making her happy.
Sometimes, when Frances opens the phone and finds what she desires—that little word on her home screen: Celeste—she closes it immediately, not wanting the moment to be over. She wonders for a few minutes what the text will say. She tries to keep from smiling.
In spite of herself, and despite the fact that such a text would be in patently poor taste, she can’t help herself from thinking: Tell me you love me, tell me you love me, tell me you love me. It feels subversive—more subversive, at this point, than the sex itself. Celeste never does say it, though sometimes, Frances thinks, she hints at it. When she texts, I can still feel you on my skin, for instance. Or, I was thinking about last night all day. One of my students asked me if I was smiling so much because I had a crush <3. Texts of this sort can buoy Frances for days at a time.
Does she love Celeste? She isn’t sure. She knows that, one evening when she is in bed with Celeste after they’ve both come, she is bursting with the word. She is facing Celeste, their heads on one pillow, her leg draped over Celeste’s hip, her wet thighs still pressed hard into her skin. She is looking directly into Celeste’s eyes and running her thumb across her eyebrow. The word is taking up all of the air space in her lungs, and she feels like she might suffocate from wanting to say: I love looking at you. I love the way your bangs stick to your forehead when you sweat. I love the way your hair feels in my hand. I love the acne scars on your back, a little constellation. I love the way your nipples get hard in my mouth. I love the softness of your stomach. I love the first time I reach my hand up your skirt and feel how wet you are. I love the way you taste. I love the way you feel next to me in bed. I actually, unironically, think you might be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Instead, she breathes, hard and fast and eager.
She knows all of the jokes about lesbians—What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul. Ha ha—and begins to wonder if women fall in love more easily than men. Or are women just more likely to mistake infatuation for love?
“It’s called limerence,” Ben tells her one night when she can’t hold it in any longer. They’d made fish tacos for dinner and, at the last minute, decided to also make margaritas. They eat on their back porch. Frances is at the mercy of the warming air, the salty rim, the sour-sweet alcohol. Her second drink has reminded her of how much she wants to touch Celeste’s body, but also of how much she trusts Ben. He understands her, she thinks, and can help her.
“Limerence?” she asks, savoring the lilting syllables. It’s a word that sounds like salt on a rim, like sparkles on the hem of a dress. She doesn’t know what it means, but she knows instantly that it is what she feels for Celeste.
“Yeah,” Ben says, sitting up straight and beginning to beam in the way that he does when he knows something that Frances doesn’t. “I read about it in that book on polyamory and attachment styles. I think I left it out for you.”
“Oh right!” Frances says, unsure if this is one of the books she has pretended to have read. “Remind me.”
“It’s that really intense feeling you get at the beginning of a relationship, when all you can think about is the other person. It can feel like love—or like romantic love anyway—but it’s more obsessive. You’re fixated on the other person and your feelings for them, and all you want is for them to reciprocate. It’s really normal. Nothing to like, worry about.” He is saying this to Frances, but also to himself. He has been telling himself not to worry a lot these days. He lets the words play on repeat in his head.
“So, it’s basically just a crush?” Frances asks, disappointed.
“Yeah, but they didn’t want to make you feel like a teenager, so they invented a new word.”
“They also didn’t want to be heteronormative.” Ben crosses the porch and runs his hand through her hair, rubs his nose against hers. “Don’t worry,” he says, quietly. “It’s intense, but it’ll be over soon.” And it’s worth it, he thinks, to see her this happy again. This energetic. It’ll be over soon, he repeats to himself.
She begins to grieve almost immediately.
The more she thinks about it, she realizes that, of course, she is not in love with Celeste. Celeste really pisses her off. She reminds herself of this often. Celeste is nitpicky and defensive. She corrects Adam all the time, in front of everyone. She appears to be jealous of Frances when the four of them have sex together, breaking in when Frances is with Adam. She believes in astrology. She thinks cilantro tastes like soap, or pretends to think cilantro tastes like soap in order to have a thing. She talks about people’s auras. She is a dog person. She keeps her house at a sweltering seventy-eight degrees.
But the thing is: she keeps her house at a sweltering seventy-eight degrees because she likes to be nearly naked at home, likes to appreciate the difference between her couch’s soft velvet and her dog’s scraggly fur on her legs, likes to feel the vibrations of her guitar against her belly, the hum of the earth as it carries her slowly through space.
Frances knows these things, and knowing these things makes it impossible for her to stop thinking about Celeste. In the time it takes Celeste to type out a text, Frances can imagine their entire life together at home in their bras and panties. A future contained in three little dots.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether she loves Celeste. What matters is that she be next to Celeste, that her body be one of the grounding pulses against Celeste’s skin. What matters is that feeling—amorphous and tender, sororal and sexual—of being held by her. She lives in it, fully, for the next two months, trying to savor, and not to define, the warmth of eating dinner with Celeste on her porch, of sharing gossip about their friends with Celeste’s hand on her inner thigh, of watching TV naked under a blanket together, Celeste’s head on Frances’ shoulder.
Two weeks pass in which there is little to no contact between any of the four of them; all but Frances are busy with work, in and out of town. No one seems as willing to spend time on one another as they once were—as Frances still is. She sits at home and hopes her anxiety will transform into the almost-manic, obsessive state from which she produces her best ghostwriting.
It doesn’t. Instead, she spends two weeks sending careful, casual texts to Celeste every other day or so, to remind Celeste that she exists. Sometimes they are links to songs she is listening to, which she thinks will make her seem interesting and which, if closely considered, contain hidden hints of longing. Sometimes the texts say things like, How did your meeting go? Sometimes they are just emojis—hearts, a sun hat with a bright green ribbon around it. One day, in a fit of daring and melodrama, she sends a snippet from a letter that Virginia Woolf wrote to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, in 1927: “I like your energy. I love your legs. I long to see you.” She receives perfunctory responses that are perfectly amicable, and perfectly devastating.
Frances worries she has done something wrong, that she has come on too strong for Celeste. She has been told hundreds of times in her life that she is an “intense person,” and indeed she thrives on emotional brinks. Not everyone is like this, she reminds herself. Celeste savors her independence more than Frances does. Frances savors the feeling that her heart is between someone else’s teeth.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Ben says.
On a Saturday morning, Frances wakes up to a text: Free for a coffee? Her heart begins to race. Yes, she responds, and though she has typed the word, she feels out of breath as though she has screamed it. She blinks and refocuses her eyes. The text is from Adam, not from Celeste. Something shifts in her belly.
She leaves Ben on their green velvet sectional, no longer quite new, to have his coffee alone. Ben doesn’t mind the solitude. He definitely doesn’t. He rarely has the house to himself, since Frances so often works from home. He settles in to enjoy his book. He reads a sentence, takes a sip of coffee. He reads the same sentence again, and then again. He stands, runs his fingers through his hair. He likes to be alone in the mornings, likes to stretch out across the couch, likes to put on whatever music he wants. He definitely likes this. He puts his half-empty coffee cup back in the kitchen, blaming the caffeine for his inability to concentrate. Eventually, he gives up and goes to the grocery store.
Frances and Adam get out of their cars at the same time, both feeling a little awkward.
“Hi!” she says, walking up confidently to hide her nerves.
“Hi,” he says. He stops and they hug.
Though she’s not really sure she wants to, Frances kisses him quickly on the mouth. He kisses her back because he doesn’t know how not to.
She lets out a little laugh and says, “Let’s go in.”
They each order large black coffees at the counter. Adam pulls out his credit card and insists on paying. Though it is only a $2 cup, Frances feels uncomfortable letting him, though she can’t articulate why, even to herself.
Once they’ve settled into a quiet table in the corner of the coffee shop and have completed their requisite pleasantries, Adam says, “Frances, I don’t know how to start.”
A hot wave of something rolls through her body. “Just say it,” she says.
“I . . . well, I guess I want to say . . . I don’t know . . . .”
To Frances’ surprise, Adam’s eyes fill with tears. He sees her notice and wipes his eyes, embarrassed. She fills with affection for him, this sweet man. She remembers the first time she saw him, in the app. Suddenly, she longs, as she did then, to reach out to him, to run her hands along the lines of his tattoos. She wishes she had made more time for him as an individual.
“Adam,” she says, keeping her hands in her lap. “It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay.” She has no idea if this is true, but she can’t keep from saying it. She wants to enfold him in promises.
“I need to ask you . . . ,” he wipes his face again and then lets out a loud, surprising growl of frustration. “Sorry. This is embarrassing.”
“It is. I . . . I’m here because . . . I need to ask you to stop. To stop seeing Celeste. Please.” He says this to his coffee cup and then picks it up, takes a long drink.
“I don’t . . . what do you mean, to stop?” Frances knows what he means; but if she pretends that she doesn’t, perhaps he won’t be able to articulate what he wants her to do, and she won’t have to do it.
“It’s . . . affecting us. Her seeing you. I feel . . . well, we’ve been fighting. Please. She knows I’m here talking to you. She’s . . . well, she agrees with me. It’s become too complicated. She’s . . . well, I don’t know how to . . . she’s more emotionally invested in you than she wanted to be. She’s always had a hard time separating sex from . . . well, you know.”
From love, Frances thinks. She allows herself to think it, just for a second. She loves me. The whole time she has loved me. Her heart swells.
“Wait,” she says, willing her mind to catch up. Willing her body to sit still. “Are you breaking up with me? For Celeste?”
“I think it’s more . . . I think we need to focus our energies on just each other for a while.” Adam runs his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry this is so weird. We were up all night. She said she couldn’t do it, not yet. See you, I mean.”
“When can I see her?” The pull feels so strong suddenly. If she can only see her, she thinks, Celeste will change her mind.
Adam looks alarmed. He looks into her eyes for the first time all morning. “I don’t know,” he says. “I think . . . I think I’m asking you not to see her. To please step away.”
“Do I . . . Do I have a choice?” she asks, her heart beginning to fall, her mind beginning to catch up.
Adam hesitates. “Yeah,” he says. “But please.”
For a second, she feels angry. She has no power. Adam knows she has no power. Her choices, she knows, don’t matter at all. She never gets to keep the things that keep her alive. To her horror, she feels her own eyes start to fill up with tears. She feels her hand shake. Her anger dissipates as quickly as it appeared. She is suddenly afraid she will crumble.
“Okay,” she says, getting up, leaving her full cup of coffee on the table. She begins to leave, but then turns around. “It’s your responsibility to tell Ben. I’m not doing it.”
Ben receives a text from Frances: Please don’t talk to me when I get home. As he is reading, Adam calls him. He walks through the produce section, weighing his options as Adam explains. He feels, as he selects a bunch of bananas—not too ripe and not too green—a wave of relief wash over him. The feeling surprises him—and then it doesn’t. He won’t have to be the one who calls off the relationship. He can remain, in Frances’ eyes, the open-minded, non-jealous husband he wants her to have. He feigns sadness and disappointment for a while and then hangs up the phone. He pays for his purchases.
Without looking around, Frances goes straight to the bedroom when she gets home. She sits down in front of her mirror and watches her face contort and redden. She gets a text. Celeste. Her heart pulses. She puts her phone down. She waits. She picks it up and opens the text. Im sorry. This is hard for me too. It makes her sad. It makes her angry. She wants to respond, I am the one who this is hard for! Me! But she doesn’t have the resolve. She begins to cry and doesn’t stop for a long time. She wants more: more time, more Celeste. She spins through hundreds of ways that she might have been able to hold onto these things—had she behaved differently, said something differently, lived differently. Ghostly versions of Celeste’s body brush up against hers in her grief. She will never touch Celeste again.
I am heartbroken, Frances thinks. These words actually roll through her head. She lets them sit in her mouth, unsaid. She savors their taste. I am heartbroken. Her eyes have almost swollen shut. I am five years married and I am heartbroken. Then: Ben. The thought of him makes her cry even more.
When her tears finally begin to slow, she takes out her phone. Holding it in one hand, she takes a picture of herself in the mirror. She’s not exactly sure why she does this, except that she wants some kind of evidence. Proof that this thing happened to her. Proof that she is a ruined, messy, broken-hearted person who maybe fell in love with the wrong person and who hasn’t, yet, died. “You’re still alive,” she says quietly to her reflection. “You’re more alive.” Then she gets in bed.
When Ben brings a bouquet of lilies and bottle of wine home from his grocery run, she hugs him hard around the neck and sobs into his shoulder. He kisses her on the top of the head and she folds herself into Ben’s steady, warm body. He exhales and, with Frances’ face safely pressed into his chest, he allows a shameful smile to creep across his face. It’s just the two of them. He settles in.