Zoe Whittall, pictured. Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri.
Jim and Eleanor stood in the middle of a frozen pond. It was early March, around midnight, and the trip had been Jim’s idea. He felt liberated from the city an hour south, and like a superhero for walking where he normally swam.
Eleanor, the only other human for miles, felt one second away from breaking through the ice. Imagined the hypothermia, certain death underneath fourteen visible stars. The pond was a bull’s-eye in a circle of trees, thick and unforgiving. Eleanor didn’t trust rural areas. There was a break between the trees for a small path to Jim’s car, a 1991 four-door Toyota hatchback. Grass green.
Jim held his arms akimbo, and breathed in deep under the glow of the almost-full moon. He said something predictable, like, “Isn’t this moment magical, El? I’m so glad I could share this place with you.” When she didn’t answer, he murmured, “Oh, El.”
She pulled her pink-and-green-striped scarf tighter around her neck, chewing on its itchy wool. She felt as if she were slowly fusing bone and blood, drowning in terror and the loneliness of being with only him. She was thinking to herself, Yeah fucking guy, this would be a really stupid way to die. It’s almost spring.
Jim inhaled again, leaned his head back. His black curls were dusted with snow. Jim was possibly the most handsome man Eleanor had ever dated. Relax, she commanded herself. Goddammit, be in this moment. She shivered, popped open her mouth to free the soggy scarf. She tried to emulate his carefree stance but couldn’t.
Instead, she reached for the zipper of his worn-in 501s, startling him out of his moment of natural euphoria. She felt sturdier on the ice once her knees were planted firm. He grinned through his surprise, still looking up at the moon. Oh, El.
Jim could never predict when they would have sex. If he initiated, she turned him down. Always. He learned to feign disinterest, to never appear wanting, and there she would be, cold pink lips working him on a frozen pond. Or in the parking lot of the A&P, discussing when the Soviet Union became Russia again, she hazarded a guess, and reached out for his hand as though to hold it. While he spouted off what he knew, she shoved his hand violently under her skirt, grabbing him by the neck, demanding hard. Now. He learned to just roll with that feeling of shock and bewilderment. It started to be a turn-on. From one moment to the next, he never knew.
She liked it when he ejaculated on her breasts, and even now, in the cold, she ripped two buttons off her coat, and pulled up her T-shirt so it could land hot against her skin. That single feeling, she told him, was almost enough to get her off.
The first time she asked him to, he said that’s so porno and laughed the way he did when he was uncomfortable. When she insisted, his forehead furrowed, like he couldn’t believe a girl was making that request. The sex he’d had with Jennifer, his ex, had been nice, the way he thought sex was supposed to be. Jim considered himself a sweet guy, the kind who respected women. El pushed him to places he hadn’t considered.
Eleanor demanded nakedness. She liked public places, awkward timing, the brash obvious sleaze of sex. She liked the smell, and the weird way that human skin could look so weak. She liked how penises gave themselves away, rendered the guys attached to them so needy. Sex was ugly. It was always humiliating, no matter how romantic the moon, the setting. “Humans are just fucking gross,” she’d said once, watching two conventionally attractive teenagers paw at each other in a bus shelter. Jim had said, “But remember how it felt, when it was all so new?”
After Jim came, he laughed as though someone had said something absurd. He reached out to hold her. She mashed her T-shirt against her chest, making a circle with her hand. She pulled her coat tight, turned and walked toward the fracture in the forest.
“Wait, I have a bottle of wine,” Jim called after her. “I thought we could have a toast!”
“I’m fucking freezing.” She flipped open her cellphone and tried to find the path in its faint blue light.
“Hold on, babe, I’ll help you." Jim had a flashlight in his jean jacket pocket. He aimed the beam around her. He was always grateful after a blow job, like she’d just washed his floors or made him his favourite meal. She found it embarrassing, and it was partly why she liked to do it; it swung the balance of power in her favour.
When they got back in the car, Jim put the unopened bottle of wine in the trunk, pulled out a blanket to drape over Eleanor’s legs; the heater was prone to shutting off for no reason. Eleanor pretended to fall asleep while he drove back to the city.
When the suburbs started clotting the view, and the smog became a concrete visual, Eleanor’s heart slowed. Jim said, “Honey, let’s move to the country. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to raise our kids there? Without all this bullshit?”
Eleanor’s eyes grazed the skyline, now a row of ugly strip mall–style one-story roti shops and Naughty Vixen sex stores. “Sometimes, Jim, I think you’ve never listened to a single thing I’ve ever said besides come on my tits.”
El had no idea why she said that. If anything, Jim listened almost too intently. He seemed to remember every detail of every story she ever told him. Lately, she’d been finding his attention irritating. Whenever she acted mean, she felt terrible, but she kept doing it. She had no idea how to stop. The other day, her sister had said, “Jim is way too good for you. You better not fuck it up.” El bristled, but knew her sister was right.
Jim slowed the car down for a red light and turned toward her. He looked hurt. El mumbled a stuttering, unconvincing apology. “I just don’t feel safe in rural areas, right? I’m a city girl.”
He nodded. “Of course, I knew that. It was stupid of me to suggest it.”
They drove in silence. El contemplated the space between who she wanted to be and who she really was. She pulled off her scarf and balled it up, rubbing her neck. She felt the skin behind her ears, raised in a red dotted rash from her allergy to wool.
Jim and Eleanor started dating last June, sort of. They were colleagues on one of those touring buses that sends amateur actors and science students around, performing experiments for kids at elementary schools. The words The Learning Caravan! were painted on the side of their eight-seater van. Their slogan was We Make Science Out Of This World! Eleanor had to wear a bug costume. Jim was in charge of the chemicals. Their mandate was to inspire children’s interest in the sciences. They were sponsored in part by the government, and in part by a pharmaceutical conglomerate.
The Learning Caravan travelled to Maine for a five-day tour of rural schools. The performers were either booked two-to-a-room in Super-6 motels with carpets that felt like Rice Krispie squares, or, in very small towns, stayed with parents or teachers associated with the school.
One night, when her sleeping options were either a basement pull-out couch or a lounge chair, Eleanor had opted to camp out in the van instead. So did Jim. They’d walked toward the van at the same time, lights in the windows of the house dimmed or shutting off. The sound of the highway nearby whirring.
“You forget something?” Eleanor had asked, as she slumped into the back seat and stretched out her legs.
Jim poked his head through the passenger-side door. “I was actually thinking of crashing here, you know. It’s weird inside.”
Eleanor pushed the seats down to form a flat surface and makeshift bed. “There’s room for both of us, I guess.”
When Jim lay down next to her, he was instantly turned on, and she noticed. Eleanor wasn’t the kind of girl that turned heads, but her body moved like she didn’t give a fuck. Jim turned away.
For a few moments, Eleanor considered her options. She wouldn’t sleep well thinking of how close they were, and how he had a hard-on. She felt like maybe he would jerk off surreptitiously while she slept, and that grossed her out.
He didn’t stop her when she reached around his curled body and slid her hand into his jogging pants. She rolled him onto his back and held her free hand on his chest in a starfish and he’d found it hard to breathe. Just when he was about to come, she’d said, “Don’t.” She unzipped her jeans and said, “Watch me.”
Jim didn’t even remember Jennifer, their dog, their two-bedroom apartment overlooking the park, until hours later. Eleanor fell asleep fast, and he watched her until the sun crested the low hills behind the highway. In the morning, Jim felt a confusing mix of guilt and arousal, and the less El looked him in the eye, the more his obsession grew.
Almost a full year after that first encounter, and two months after Jim took Eleanor to look at stars in the country, they sat across from each other in Dunkin’ Donuts. Jim ate an apple fritter. El sipped a black coffee. She chewed the lip of the white cup. They had just had sex in the back of the number thirty-two bus. They had to go pick up their final pay-cheques from the Learning Caravan, which was breaking for summer. Jim was going to work for his dad at the tractor store. Eleanor was going to shampoo heads. They were both signed up to go back to the Caravan in the fall, but secretly hoped they’d find something better in the meantime.
“How long have you felt this way?” El asked.
“I dunno. A few weeks.”
Looking out the window, El watched an old boyfriend saunter by and wave, holding his wife’s hand. She remembered how, after sex, he had always said nice girl and petted her head like a dog.
“Jennifer was always so kind to me,” Jim was saying. “I just feel like I was so awful to her, and had this thing with you—I can’t even call it a relationship. And I used to think I could make you fall in love with me, but it’s mostly sexual, right? You’re mean to me, and this is going to sound so weird, but it’s like I almost enjoy it. It’s not right. I’m not that guy.”
El snorted, rolled her eyes, sipped her coffee. She made a point of looking at a sad-looking fifty-plus couple sitting at an adjacent table. They were sharing a Boston cream, both eating it with plastic spoons, not talking. “You had sex with me because you were too weak,” she said, watching the couple, “and then you had to break up with Jennifer because you are too honest. And then you got stuck with me.” It was happening again. She felt like one of those tiny birds with its mouth agape, waiting.
When Jim looked at her, he saw one of those mean cats, the ones that swipe at you and won’t ever make eye contact.
“I fell in love with you, El,” he said. “But I feel like, half the time, you don’t even really like me.”
Eleanor shrugged. A tear formed in the corner of her eye and she wiped it away. “How long have you been speaking to her?”
“Jenny? I don’t know.” He pretended to count backwards, as if he didn’t know precisely. “A few weeks now, I guess. We ran into each other at Costco.” Of course. Costco. “She just seemed like she’s forgiven me, you know, already. She was with a guy, and it made me so jealous, I guess. We started emailing and talking through our breakup and I just remembered all these good things about us. And, I guess, so did she.”
Jim said, “I still feel like I’m infatuated with you, you know, even though you make me feel so terrible about myself.”
“I make you feel terrible about yourself?”
“Sometimes. I feel like your dog.”
Eleanor snorted again. “That’s rich. You cheat on me because”—she sing-songed—“I make you feel bad about yourself.”
“I didn’t cheat on you. Jennifer and I are just talking.”
“About getting back together?”
Eleanor stood up and walked over to the garbage. She crumpled her coffee cup and pushed it through one of the swinging doors.
Jim looked down and followed her. They pushed through the glass doors, stood by the side of the parking lot. Jim grabbed El’s hand. “Oh, El.”
He started to cry. It made Eleanor almost grateful, to pity him in that moment. When he just stood still with a normal not-crying face, she could remember how much she loved having sex with him—even how much she looked forward to seeing him explain chemistry to the kids. He joked around onstage. The kids loved him. Their faces made El love him, too, in moments.
She watched him cry for a second, then said, “Okay, later. No use dragging this out.” She walked toward the bus stop, knowing all Jim wanted was for her to admit she’d miss him. Wanted her to cry. No fucking dice, she thought.
She went home and dragged her old dresser out onto the back porch and started stripping the years of paint from its wood. She took a shower, then made her sister a lasagna. She did three loads of whites and dusted the bookshelves. When there was nothing left to do, she went down into her basement bedroom and cried, and didn’t get up for fourteen hours.
By the second day at her new job, El actually missed wearing the bug costume. Teaching children about insects was a lot more fun than listening to women chat all day about the minutia of their lives while she shampooed their heads and set them beneath the alien-like bubble of the hair dryer.
El’s sister had set her up with the job because she was one of the salon-owners. “It’s really not for you,” she’d said. “You have to like people. And you are like Dad. You hate most people.”
“I do not.”
“El, it’s so obvious.”
In September, the science crew reunited in a surburban mall parking lot on the side of a highway. Eleanor held a hard-shell baby-blue suitcase from the 1970s that had once belonged to her dead mother. She wanted to scratch at her breasts because they were itchy under the push-up bra. She’d never worn one before. They were going to Virginia for four days. Eleanor convinced herself she’d get a lot of schoolwork done in her off-time, and would ignore Jim completely.
Aside from Jim, those employed by the Learning Caravan were not attractive folk. Eleanor was no exception: plain-faced, knock-kneed, bad skin, lustreless brown hair. But she now sported red highlights and pink nails; the girls at the salon had used her as a mannequin when it was slow. El was so starved for physical contact that she let them paw at her, and felt soothed by their meddling hands pulling at her hair, squeezing her shoulders when they turned the chair around so she could see the results in the mirror. Everyone from the science crew kept complimenting her flashy dye job. She felt awkward.
Jennifer drove Jim to the parking lot, stood next to him while he loaded his gear into the side compartment of the yellow converted school bus. Neither of them looked at Eleanor.
Jennifer looked just liked Eleanor imagined. Clean-cut, tapered jeans, a homely sweatshirt with a brand name across the breasts. She looked like she could be a Sunday school teacher. Like she waited until prom to have sex.
Eleanor learned about sex when she was twelve. Her sister brought boys home after school, and their apartment was small. El would study in the kitchen while her sister had sex on the couch. She grew to despise the way her sister would just lie there. Afterward El would ask her, “What does it feel like?”
Her sister would shrug. “Kind of painful and awkward, but I like having a boyfriend.”
The first time Eleanor got felt up she was fourteen. Her lab partner Alan, with the bad part in his hair and a laugh like a handful of shaking change, was over at the apartment. They were studying for a physics test, and El wasn’t sure what came over her. She said, “You wanna see my tits?” She stood up in front of the shelf of debate trophies in her small bedroom.
Alan looked like he might throw up. He was instantly covered in sweat. But he nodded. El took off her shirt. Alan stared at her. He looked stunned, lobotomized. El found herself smiling. She liked the way Alan looked, like his brain had emptied, when not five minutes earlier he was boasting in a nasal whine how much he knew about atmospheric pressure.
She walked over to him and put her right breast in his mouth. Alan made a sound like he was having a stroke, jerked up and ran out the door. That night, Eleanor moved fast under the covers until her hand went numb. She pictured a shirtless teen TV star lying on his back, her right foot pinning his chest to the floor, his eyes wide and frightened, watching her.
Jim and Eleanor sat at opposite ends of the bus while they caught up with their colleagues. They hit three schools back to back and arrived at a highway-side motel exhausted. Nobody at the Learning Caravan knew that El and Jim had broken up, so the coordinator had booked them the same hotel room. Jim tried to say something, but no one else wanted to switch.
Jim made a show out of laying his sleeping bag flat on the floor, even though the bed was ample and they’d shared one a thousand times. He called Jennifer from his cell. Eleanor could hear him through the window, lying, saying he was bunking with Todd, the audio-visual coordinator.
Eleanor sat on the bed reading.
Jim pretended to sleep.
Eventually Eleanor said, “I can’t sleep. Do you want to have a drink? Like, just as friends?”
Jim sat up in the dark. “Okay.”
They went to the corner store and bought a case of beer. They drank the first few silently, then they started going over their summers.
“Is everything good with Jenny?” Eleanor didn’t really want to know the answer.
Jim shrugged. “Yeah, it’s good. I mean, except she watches me all the time. She reads my email. I have to text her every five minutes. She begged me not to take this job again, but I really hated working at the shop.” Eleanor was silent. “I guess I’m kind of happy to have some space for the whole week,” Jim said. “I haven’t been alone in quite a while.”
Eleanor watched him as he spoke. She wanted to go over and push him to the ground, grind her hips into him. But it wasn’t right. Now that she’d seen Jennifer, she somehow couldn’t initiate it anymore. She didn’t like the reversal of power, how Jim looked at her so casually.
“I’ve missed you,” Jim offered.
“I’ve missed you, too.”
“You seem different, El.”
Jim shrugged. “Softer.”
“It’s the hair. I’m trying this new…feminine thing.” El almost laughed.
After his third beer, Jim stood up, El presumed, to go the bathroom. Instead he walked over to where El was sitting cross-legged on the bed and kissed her hard on the mouth. She was startled by it, but didn’t push him away the way she normally would have.
He pulled away and stared at her. Then he took off his clothes, and stood naked with a big grin on his face.
“Now it’s your turn.”
El giggled. She started to take off her clothes, throwing them in a pile on top of her suitcase. Jim pulled back the sheets on the bed and got in.
“Turn around,” Jim said. “Lie sideways.”
Eleanor raised her eyebrows at him.
“Just do it,” he said, smiling.
She lay sideways on the bed, head propped on the pillow. Jim curled around her body in a spoon, his hands clasped together around her waist. He kissed the back of her neck softly for a second, and then stopped.
El lay very still, unsure of what to do. She knew exactly what she would have done in the past, but decided not to try anything. Eventually, after the digital alarm clock went from 1:02 to 1:08, she said, quietly, “Jim?”
His breathing was slow and warm on her neck, and she realized he was fast asleep.
On her list of sexual conquests, Eleanor could not remember sleeping in a spoon with anyone, naked, ever. They were simply cuddled, as close as two people could be. Eleanor usually shunned cuddling as a form of slow strangulation. This felt different. She contemplated moving his arm, but felt so warm. Eventually she stopped questioning it. They slept, curled in a half-moon, until morning.