(Listen to the audio of “I Am My Beloveds,” read by Jacob Dawes)
By Jonathan Papernick
Ben sat alone on his and Shira’s sensible microfiber couch, laptop propped on his knees, entirely miserable. Shira was out canoodling with her girlfriend again, while Ben scrolled through a dizzying carousel of profile pics on Tinder, leaden heart thudding in his chest.
It was Shira’s night with Liz, and the two of them were at a Pi Day party at some down-market rental in Jamaica Plain. Shira had baked a blueberry pie and dressed for the occasion with a handmade symbol stitched to her sweater. No matter how innocently it began, the night would end with Shira in Liz’s bed.
Ben thought he had put this nightmare of doubt and longing behind him when he had married Shira and they had started, in earnest, to build a life together. Shira had always been there for Ben when it counted most, offering warmth and comfort and love. He had done the same for Shira, and that finely calibrated construct of falling and catching, falling and catching, felt as if it would carry them through to forever. But this past year had been the hardest of Ben’s life since the year his parents died. During those endless nights when Shira was out doing things with Liz Bird he wished not to imagine, it felt as if Shira had spirited away some essential element of himself, and that he was disappearing amid the middle-class trappings of their well-appointed suburban condo. Ethical non-monogamy was supposed to be a good thing for them, but Ben felt as if he had drawn the short blade that cut deeper with every passing day.
Aside from going for another run, the only way Ben knew to fill the emptiness he carried in his chest was to drag himself back to the apps and the confounding wilderness of online dating. He could never quite understand what cis and genderfluid and sapiosexual were supposed to mean, or whether he was ISO a GF or FWB, a LTR or just some basic TLC as he stumbled his way into a world in which size queens took sole measure of worth in inches and girth, in which bondage and domination was considered an asset, even a kindness, and every new human connection was a disposable thing with more, always more and greater possibilities, strutting their stuff just over the digital horizon. The apps were never the magic Sorting Hat Ben wished them to be, but that didn’t stop him from returning again and again to the illuminated screen of his phone in search of someone, anyone, who would make him feel less alone. Maybe finding a girlfriend of his own would make Shira realize that he was still a man in full. Not a roommate, but a husband worthy of her attentions in the bed and out.
Over the past month, Ben had sent out no fewer than twenty-seven personalized, grammatically correct messages to various women on Tinder, OkCupid, JDate and even Ashley Madison. His screen name was simply Benarchitect, not Patsfan69, 420guy, or whosyordaddy, so he already had a leg up on some of his competition. That, and the fact that he never began a conversation with a gross come-on line about the awesome ramming power of his monster cock or his desire to go down on her like the Titanic, but, rather, with a thoughtful callback to something meaningful from each of their bios. Because he looked non-threatening in his brand-new cobalt-blue polo shirt, fixed smile plastered to his face, he soon found himself juggling several hopeful conversations with KristinOKC, KristinTinder and Jen#4. But these conversations often went nowhere as Ben’s charm abandoned him, or the women read deep enough into his profile to figure he was married, and they disappeared.
Ben’s smartphone address book was a graveyard of lost hopes: Two Abigails, two Kellys, three Megans, one of whom Ben kissed as a Red Line train roared into Park Street station, and four Jens, punctuated by a solitary Chelsea, Heidi, Kat, Lisa, Millie, Sam, Suzy, Theresa, Violet, Zoey, and a woman who insisted Ben call her Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons. Most depressingly, Jane had blocked Ben months earlier when he told her he and Shira had opened up their marriage and he was looking for someone special *wink* *wink*, telling Ben she was uncomfortable hanging out with him, that the flirting had been fun when it felt safe, and that she cared about him, but she needed to step back both for herself and her husband, who would be freaked out if he knew Ben was willing to cross the line from friendship to sex.
That was why, when Ben’s phone lit up with a simple, unexpected text from KristinOKC saying k, meet you there @9, Ben’s heart, his tiny, battered heart, filled his chest with relief.
Ben stood a fit six-foot-one with a straightish white smile, solid shoulders and a flat stomach. His eyes were a neutral brown, his aquiline nose well proportioned. There was nothing particularly distinguishing about the way he looked—he’d been mistaken more than a few times for that guy from that place—but sometimes, from the right angle, with just the right lighting, he believed he looked downright dashing. But he was losing his hair, mousy brown and prone to curling. Not by the handful, but enough he could see his hairline creep back a few millimeters every couple months. Ben still had most of his hair, but he was sure he’d be bald by forty. In his profile pictures he managed to artfully crop himself mid-forehead, rather than relying on the obvious baseball cap to hide his most glaring flaw, so he hoped his receding hairline wasn’t a dealbreaker with KristinOKC, as he suspected it had been with some of the others.
KristinOKC, sporting a sleeveless sequin minidress, an auburn side braid tied at the tip with a purple ribbon, and thick-framed librarian glasses, sitting at the crowded mahogany bar of a hip Davis Square nightspot, looked exactly as advertised.
“Heeeeeeeey!” KristinOKC said, spotting Ben approach. She greeted him with a friendly hug and an air kiss which Ben took to be a good sign as he slid into the chair next to her. Ben’s lungs ached, as if they were filled with wet sand. As good as KristinOKC looked, she wasn’t Shira. He wanted to be with Shira, only Shira. Every date with a new woman followed a familiar pattern: hope, then longing, then sadness. But Ben was determined to do his best to show KristinOKC he was the fun, kind, chill dude he promised in his profile.
“Must be nice to get out of the lab and relax for a while,” Ben said, at the very moment he realized he had mistaken her for KristinTinder, the postdoc at MIT, who had surely ghosted him after he seemed to confuse weather and climate during one of their conversations. He knew the difference and had been trying to make a joke that obviously fell flat.
“Yeah, I mean, isn’t the entire world just a great big laboratory?”
“That’s a bit of a general statement,” KristinOKC said. “But sure.”
Alcohol was always best at times like this, so Ben asked KristinOKC what she wanted to drink. “Gin and tonic,” she said.
It took a few tries for Ben to flag down the bartender, and when Ben turned his attention back to KristinOKC she was deeply immersed in the glossy screen of her phone. KristenOKC, belying her nickname, was swiping right on Tinder.
“Libations have been ordered,” Ben said, forcing cheer into his voice.
“Oh, sorry.” KristinOKC turned her phone over on the bar top. “I just swipe right on everyone, see how many matches I can get.”
“That’s interesting.” Ben hoped he wasn’t furrowing his brow. He looked like a middle-school assistant principal when he did that.
“Not really. It’s part sociological experiment. Hey! I guess you’re right about the world being a laboratory.” KristinOKC laughed, or, rather, ha-ha’ed. “I know it’s crass and gross and shallow, but the other part is pure ego gratification and I can’t help it. I’ll probably end up in the bad place, but it’s just too much fun.”
Their drinks arrived and they exchanged the usual. She was from Gray, Maine, received her Masters in Library and Information Science from Simmons College, and worked at a not-for-profit promoting literacy among refugees and new citizens. She had two roommates, preferred cats over dogs, but harp seals over cats! Loved vegan paella, the Brontë sisters, The Lumineers, Richard Linklater and the color purple, both the book and the actual color, lol.
Every time Ben went through the routine of reciting his bio he felt he was only half a man; a degree, a job and not much else. Something important was missing, something that explained him better than reciting his favorite food and color and book, so tonight, rather than skipping over the fact he had a wife until he felt it was safe to do so, he told KristinOKC he was married and then, much to his shame, he appended “sort of,” as a feeble explanation. Ben’s bio said he was married and in an open relationship, but he was amazed how many women seemed to skim his profile, missing that important detail, as if his marital status had been written in invisible ink.
KristinOKC asked what he meant by sort of, and Ben explained.
“So how does that work?” KristinOKC said, nonplussed.
“To be honest,” Ben said, “I’m not sure it does.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
KristinOKC seemed genuinely curious and sympathetic, so he said, “Because I love my wife.”
“That’s sweet, Ben, but do you actually want to be in an open relationship?”
“Yes. Of course! Definitely.” He wanted badly to order another drink but the bartender’s back was turned. “Kinda sorta.”
“Kinda sorta? That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. It sounds to me like you’re polyamorous under duress. Not cool.” KristinOKC shook her head for emphasis. “Not cool.”
“It was the best way forward.”
“What do you mean?”
There was something in KristinOKC’s open expression that told him he could speak honestly. Some women found such candidness to be attractive, alluring even. Ben told KristinOKC about his and Shira’s desire to have a child and how sex had been painful for years before they discovered Shira had cancer, and by then it was too late to freeze her eggs.
“Nobody expects cancer in their twenties,” Ben said. “We just assumed we’d have a family. Never questioned it. The diagnosis was such a shock, and Shira withdrew, blamed herself. It’s hard seeing someone you love hurt, knowing there’s nothing you can do to take away the pain.”
“Shira’s a nice name,” KristinOKC said, smiling. “Your wife’s better now? She’s in remission?”
“She had a full hysterectomy. She’s cancer free.”
They were silent for a moment, and Ben wondered whether he had said too much, whether he was trying to gain sympathy through Shira’s pain.
“I’m sorry,” KristinOKC said. “So how did you end up being open?”
“I don’t know. We were both destroyed by the whole thing, the entire path of our life that we had planned—you know, kids and family—just gone. It was devastating, and I think we got onto this track of pain and sadness and forgot how to enjoy each other.”
KristinOKC nodded along with Ben, focusing her eyes on his. “What about adoption?”
Ben sighed. “We tried a bunch of agencies here and overseas and they were either scammy or too expensive or they flagged Shira’s cancer, saying adoptive parents needed a clean bill of health. That just sent Shira spiraling all over again. We just wanted to be parents so badly, and doors kept slamming in our faces.”
“What about surrogacy?”
“Expensive. Only one of us was working,” Ben said. “And Shira’s health.”
“She blamed herself and really withdrew from life. I just hated seeing her shrinking from the things she once cared about.”
Ben signed her up for a life-drawing class, and she loved it, seemed to come alive. And as the weeks passed she became more and more the woman Ben had known before all the bad stuff went down. She revived her dormant business, and everything looked as if it was getting better, but she had met someone, a woman, and she was happy and started taking care of herself again.
“I just couldn’t say no because I love her, and I thought it was temporary and that we’d find our way back to each other.”
“I’m glad your wife’s happy,” KristinOKC said. “But what about you?”
“It’s not that bad.” Ben considered how many men would have felt lucky just to be sitting at that bar with KristinOKC. She was smart and beautiful and kind, and she was talking to him when she could have been talking to anyone. “Yes my wife is in love with another woman, and it hurts, but I have the chance to love anyone I want, and have Shira too. I’m lucky, actually. I have a lot to be grateful for.”
“And how many other women do you love?”
Ben’s silence said everything.
KristinOKC said, “This isn’t fair. There needs to be balance for this to work. Believe me, I’ve been open since college. It’s not for everyone, and I don’t think it’s for you.”
Ben nodded as he realized he was definitely, definitively, unquestionably, not going to have sex tonight. “Why did you agree to go out with me?”
“Because I wanted to go on a date with you.”
KristinOKC lowered her eyes a bit and looked away. “Because you seemed kind.”
“Do you still think I’m kind?”
“Go home, Ben. Tell your wife you love her. Tell her you want to nope out and go back to just you and her again.”
It was after eleven when Ben returned home. Shira was still out with Liz, and their condo felt empty and forbidding. Ben had convinced himself Shira’s affair with Liz was worse than if Shira had been with another man because he could never do with Shira what Liz and she did together. He could never provide whatever it was Liz Bird, with all her crazy tattoos and piercings and punk rock attitude, could provide. Ben wanted only to crawl into bed with Shira and hold her, feel her soothing warmth against his skin, for her to smother his desolation with her familiar body.
Ben remembered his ring, secured behind a lonely, crumpled condom in the tiny change pocket of his jeans, and fished it out with fingers stiff as chopsticks. He held it in his hand for a moment, staring at his warped reflection in the curve of the gold band. He thought back with amazement to his wedding day all those years ago, the feeling of boundless optimism and warmth and safety, the sense that he and Shira were embarking on a great adventure that was theirs and theirs alone. No crystal ball could have envisioned such a sad spectacle as him returning home alone from another failed date and furtively slipping his ring back onto his finger.
Ben poured himself some brandy and wandered out to the sunroom Shira used as her studio, the hub of her burgeoning Judaica business.
A square of beige, textured paper lay in the center of Shira’s tilted art desk, her jars of ink and calligraphy pens neatly arranged in their places.
Though Ben could not read the intricate Hebrew script, he knew Shira was working on a baby-naming certificate for her childhood friend Melissa back in Maryland. It seemed Shira had stopped right in the middle of a word, her usually steady hand spidering southward on the document, and Ben could not help but think Shira had been overcome at that moment by the irreversible fact she would never give birth to a baby, never have a child of her own.
The Seidel name Ben’s father had passed onto him, whatever in the world it was worth, would end with Ben. Though he tried to inoculate himself against this pain, raising images of soiled diapers and milk vomit, tantrums and meltdowns, the brattiest of snot-nosed children screaming sleeplessly for yet another bedtime story, Ben knew joy and happiness was just on the other side of these trifles, and that he and Shira would have loved and cherished whomever their offspring turned out to be. The children would need their parents to protect them, teach them, build them up, show them the way to make the world a better place, just as Ben and Shira’s parents had done for them. Without a child, there was only Shira, would only be Shira, and, on nights like this when Shira was out with Liz, the thought terrified him like nothing else. He wanted to take Shira by the hand and kiss her as they used to and tell her he knew he was far from perfect, but he loved her and wanted to thank her for loving a fallible creature such as himself.
Shira’s work hung framed on the wall behind him, mostly ketubahs, intricately designed Jewish marriage contracts, swirls of colorful, entwined flowers and vines, lithe tree branches bending and arching over Shira’s beautiful Hebrew calligraphy, stating a man may not divorce a woman against her will. Sometimes there were English phrases as well, and Ben read aloud the iconic phrase from the Song of Songs: I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved Is Mine.
All around him, judgment hung on his very own walls; his marriage was a mess. He would never be a father, would never know the safety and comfort and purpose and belonging of family. He was barely a lover to Shira anymore. They did it every few weeks, but the act of union was desultory, obligatory, going through the expected motions of husband and wife. Each of the ketubahs on the wall represented joy and happiness and Jewish continuity, linking one generation to the next, and Ben hungered to be a link in that chain, to be every bit the fully realized, fully grown man his father was, and his father had been before him. It would never happen with Shira, and Ben wondered if they were just running out the clock on their marriage, winding down one tick at a time until they were strangers who couldn’t remember why they had chosen each other in the first place.
Ben finished the last of his brandy, a warm starburst forming inside his belly. The alcohol must have hit him harder than he expected because Shira’s signature, bearing her maiden name alongside his own last name, struck him like a slap in the face: Shira Seidel-Weismann. Had she been hedging all along with that hyphen? Had she ever intended to give herself fully to him? Ben was prepared to sacrifice his dreams of fatherhood just to be with Shira, she and him and no one else, because Shira was his love, his only love. But he was not her only love.
The only time Ben was able to fully take possession of himself and make sense out of the senseless was when he ran. For that hour, his heart beating a steady 140 beats a minute, blood cycling through his veins, Ben knew everything would turn out all right.
He slipped into his running shorts, laced up his shoes, and before long he was flying around Spy Pond, light as air. The path was three miles around, give or take, and Ben could have run all night. Alone out there on the trail, taking the hills and dips with ease, a fat moon guiding his way, he might have been the first person in the world, or the last, a solitary late-night runner trying simply to catch up with his best self. Ben wasn’t the least bit lonely out there. The rhythmic sounds of his footfalls soothed him, driving him onward. His even breathing filled him with a clean rush of restorative air. He required no one else’s permission to receive the unique pleasure of his endorphins blasting on all cylinders, and he wondered why he would ever stop, why he would ever relinquish this power he had over his untamed emotions.
All the confusion of the world seemed to melt away as Ben circled the pond a second time, and he felt a sudden rush of clarity. By the time he returned home dripping sweat in the crisp March evening he knew what he needed to do. KristinOKC was right. His arrangement with Shira was not fair. Stop seeing Liz, stop seeing her now because it is hurting me, it is hurting us. Let’s start again, just you and me.
Shira was asleep in bed, breathing easily. She had left the lamp on for Ben, and in its dim glow he studied her serene, almond-shaped face, her long eyelashes, her tender lips curved into a peaceful smile.
This is my wife, Ben thought with amazement, this is my wife. Soon she would belong to him again, only him.
He undressed and washed himself in the bathroom sink, his desire for her rekindled. He would have woken her and fucked her all night as he did when she was new to him, an open-hearted junior at Smith College, but he didn’t want to disturb her dreams.
How long had it been since he had even deep-kissed her? How long had it been since their kisses had been anything but perfunctory, habitual, polite? How had he ever allowed it to come to this?
Ben clicked off the bedside lamp, pulled the sheets back and slid into bed beside Shira. Her body was warm, alive with possibility. Shira alone had the power to restore Ben’s fragile sense of self and piece him back together, one kindhearted kiss at a time. He cuddled up close to her, kissed her softly on the neck, and smelled the distinct patchouli scent of Liz on Shira’s skin.
There in the darkness, it was as if there were a third person in bed with them.