Ben returned home quickly, anxious to know what “surprise” his wife had planned for him. She had been vague over the phone, and knowing her it could have been anything from Italian takeout to another new and ridiculously expensive pair of Italian shoes. A persistent rain began to fall as he approached their modest house. Both Ben and Jessica had agreed that the Audi, which Ben had given her for their 5th anniversary, deserved the privilege of the garage. Dripping from the brief walk to the front door, Ben entered with a half-smile. Part of him was secretly hoping to be surprised by his friends and family, a slightly late but still acceptable celebration of his birthday the previous month. Instead he found his one and only in the kitchen perched on a stool, dressed in what she often claimed was her favorite black dress. He shut the door, placed his damp coat on the hanger, greeted his wife, and removed the shoes from his small feet. Then he turned to her and asked expectantly, “So what’s this surprise you couldn’t wait to tell me about?”
She slowly put on the same embarrassed smile she had whenever she burnt dinner, which was similar to the smile Ben put on when he ate it anyway. She opened her mouth, then paused. “Have you ever wanted to try swinging?”
“What do you mean, swinging?”
“You know,” she replied, “swinging. As in we go to someone’s house, meet some nice people, and then pair off…”
He looked at her. “What the hell? What are you talking about?” he asked hurriedly. He shoved his briefcase on the kitchen counter and began to rifle through his papers, desperate to find something, anything. From behind the briefcase he asked, “You mean us? You and me? And another couple?”
“Yeah. I was thinking we might try it. You know, just to try something different. I’m kind of curious about it,” she said. “I mean if you don’t want to we don’t have to, but I think we should try it. I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun. And it might be good for us.”
“Good for us? How—how—what the hell are you talking about?”
“Well, me and Melinda were talking last weekend and—”
“For Christ’s sake, Melinda? As in Hank and Melinda? Those two? You’re kidding right? Tell me you’re kidding, Jessica! Please.” He could feel his cheeks getting hotter and hotter.
Ben stared at her. “I still love you, Jessica. I do,” he managed to squeak out.
“Oh stop being so sensitive, Ben. I love you too! But you’re being ridiculous,” she said, her voice rising swiftly. “I was just trying to make things interesting around here. But if that’s how you feel then just forget it. You’re never around, and when you are you never want to do anything fun. You’re so boring!”
And with that she left the room and headed up the stairs, rattling off a long list of complaints that Ben felt very inclined to believe were justified. As her voice faded away Ben realized how much this had meant to Jessica. He realized how wrong he was, how any normal man would jump at the chance to try something like this. He hurried after her, taking the stairs two or three at a time and frantically begging her to come back. When he finally reached their bedroom door he realized how foolish he must have looked and calmed himself, opening the double doors almost reverently. There he found Jessica on the bed, red-faced and holding back tears. She smiled at him as best she could from behind her disheveled hair but Ben could tell it was taking her an immense amount of concentration to keep from crying again.
“Jessica? Jess, honey? Come on, don’t be upset. If you really want to do this, we’ll do it. We will.”
“Really? Really, Ben? We don’t have to. It’s really not that big a deal,” she said, refusing to make eye contact. Ben bent down on one knee and took her hands in his.
“No, Jess. I’ll…I’ll do it. You know I love you, right?”
“Okay,” she murmured. “I love you too, Benny,” she said, finally looking up. Slowly the two recovered themselves and began to get ready. Jessica fished out her makeup kit and sat herself down in front of the vanity while Ben looked around, unsure of what to do.
“So…what should I wear? Should I dress up or…”
“Well I don’t know, silly. It’s not like I’ve done this before. Just put on a nice collared shirt, that should do. And don’t wear jeans,” she warned him, “Wear those black pants that I bought you. They make you look quite dashing,” she said, using the same horrible English accent she had used on their first date. Her words created a warmth in Ben that caused him to smile as he thought back to that night. In his mind he replayed those memories over and over again while he changed out of his suit and into his new “Swinger’s Outfit”.
“Well don’t you look handsome,” Jessica offered, giving him the once-over and nodding approvingly. “Just one final touch…” she said, taking her father’s old watch and placing it on his wrist. The watch was an old antique that rarely kept accurate time, but Ben valued it for other reasons. Just before Jessica’s father had died he had instructed her to give it to a man she felt she could truly trust as much as she had trusted him, and on their wedding night she had given it to Ben.
“Thanks honey,” he said with a smile. “You look wonderful too. So do we need to bring anything with us?”
“Nope,” Jessica replied cheerily. “Oh, just our car keys. Apparently that’s how we choose our partners.” Almost as an afterthought she added, “We better take my car. I don’t want them thinking all we can afford is that crappy little Honda you insist on driving around in.”
For the first 20 minutes of the trip each remained silent, their eyes locked on the road ahead and their minds focused on calming thoughts. When they reached the railroad crossing a train was passing through and the alarm bells rang urgently, almost without order. As they waited Ben couldn’t help staring at Jessica. When she finally noticed the strange look on his face she just laughed, and a second later Ben was laughing too. It began as an uneasy chuckle, but as her laughter grew more recognizable to him an old and familiar certainty quickly announced itself. The train passed, the arms raised, and they drove on.
As they approached 1151 McGovern Ben thought he could feel Jessica getting more and more anxious. As soon as they arrived Ben hurried out of the car, hoping to open the door for his wife just as he had done on that first date that he remembered so fondly. But this time she was already slamming the door shut by the time he was halfway around. “See, I knew you’d be just as excited as I was,” Jessica said, laughing nervously. He smiled.
“So how many other couples are going to be here? Anyone we know?” he asked with all the calm he could muster.
“No one else we know, but Mel told me there’d be at least four other couples. Exciting, right?”
“Yeah,” Ben responded.
As the two walked toward the front door along a winding brick path through a meticulously groomed garden, Ben slowly felt himself overwhelmed by the need to remind Jessica of just how much he loved her. He grabbed both her hands tightly, looked up at her and said in a soft voice, “I love you Jess.” She kissed him then, but after a few seconds her lips slipped away, pulling Ben along with them. As the couple approached the house the door opened and a large figure stood silhouetted in the archway. From where he stood the man appeared to be a giant in Ben’s eyes, and he gripped Jessica’s hand even tighter. Hank, whom Ben had met only twice previously, silently ushered them into the house, showing them to a sitting room with comfortable leather chairs and a warm, crackling fire. The other couples had already arrived and were seated around the fire, quietly chatting amongst themselves.
Ben and Jessica entered the room and immediately the eyes of the other couples were on them. Ben was afraid he and Jessica would be appraised like cattle, but to his surprise the others were quite friendly. Hank introduced them to everyone and pretty soon they were ready to begin. They all stood in a circle while Melinda passed out condoms from a hand-woven basket Ben swore he remembered from Martha Stewart Living. Hank collected their car keys in a reusable GladWareÒ container. Jessica proudly placed the keys to her Audi in with the rest, though the keys were hardly the focus of anyone’s attention.
Ben was informed that it was ladies’ night, so they would be picking the keys this time. The first two to pair off were Sheryl and Hank. Hank gave Melinda a quick kiss while Sheryl got a playful, encouraging slap on the butt from her husband Daniel. Hand in hand the two headed up the stairs to one of the many bedrooms. Then it was Jessica’s turn to draw. Ben watched her intently. Slowly her hand moved toward the keys and Ben thought he saw a flash of fear in her eyes. Daintily she drew the keys belonging to Michael and Carolyn. Michael took Jessica’s hand in his, not hurriedly but with an eagerness that Ben found revolting. Together they climbed the stairs, whispering what could only be dark secrets to each other. Ben watched her ascend until she was out of sight and then quickly turned his attention back to the keys.
It was Carolyn’s turn to draw and, secretly, a part of Ben hoped she would choose him. Of all the wives present she was the only one he had found the least bit respectable. Though beyond the standard “hello” and “nice to meet you” they had spoken little, from her conversations with others and her calm demeanor, Ben had gathered that she was both a warm mother and a devoted partner. He came back to reality just in time to see her hold up the keys to Geoff’s Jaguar. He realized what he had been thinking and scolded himself for his unfaithful hopes. Jessica deserves better, Ben thought to himself. But as Geoff and Melinda exited into the hallway, Jessica was nowhere to be found. Instead he was left with Max’s wife Arielle, smiling seductively and holding the keys to Jessica’s Audi. He turned to face her and knew immediately he couldn’t go through with it.
He followed her up the stairs without a word, all the while his mind racing with possible excuses. In the bedroom he sat down and immediately began to apologize, as though he had broken an expensive vase. His apologies continued until he realized Arielle was not going to stop him. When he finally looked up at her, her gaze was cold and her smile mocked him, as though she both hated and loved the scene before her. “Pathetic,” she said, staring right at him. But Ben did not look away from her. Instead he smiled as best he could and returned her gaze with his warm, weak eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’m just sorry.”
She took his apology, and with an exaggerated sigh she headed for the door. Only slightly relieved, Ben decided to go back downstairs and wait around until Jessica was ready to go home. He hoped he hadn’t just jeopardized Jessica’s friendship with Melinda over a silly little thing like sex.
At first Ben tried to sleep but he found the leather couches hot and uncomfortable. By the time he gave up on sleep it was already 2:00am, and he was sure Jessica would be done any minute. As he sat staring at the immaculate white walls, Ben began to doubt himself. Arielle had been right: he was pathetic. His wife had given him permission to spend the night with a beautiful stranger and he had refused. Why? he asked himself angrily, Why? He clenched his fists and closed his eyes, but almost as if by magic the answer began to swell within him, and he knew exactly why. He slowly relaxed his muscles and his breathing slowed.
In this brief calm Ben managed to fall into a restless sleep. He dreamt of his mother, who held his tiny 8-year-old body in her weakened arms. The room appeared to be his Aunt Janine’s lavish guest room, where his mother had spent her final months. Having resigned herself to her sister’s eventual passing, Janine had worked tirelessly to make Ben’s mother as comfortable as possible, and Ben had done what he could. The dream was nothing significant, he merely lay there with his mother, listening to the irregular rhythm of his mother’s breathing. The door must have been locked, because in his dream he heard someone on the other side struggling with the doorknob, jostling it in an attempt to intrude on the moment.
Finally Ben realized it was not the door handle, but rather the harsh jingling of keys directly above his face. He opened his eyes to find Jessica standing over him, half-heartedly motioning for him to get up. Obediently he arose, checking his watch for the time. It had stopped working at 2:21, but the grandfather clock in the hall claimed it was 5:39am. Ben looked outside and found that the sun had not yet begun to rise. He took the keys from Jessica and quietly they left the house, walked back along the pathway, and got into their car. The rain began to fall again just as they closed the doors to the Audi. “Did you have fun Benny?” Jessica asked softly, half asleep and eyes closed.
“Not really, Jess,” Ben whispered back. “Not really.”
“That’s too bad, baby. I think we should do it again,” she murmured. “You’ll have more fun next time. I know you, Benny, you were just too nervous this time.”
“Yeah, that was it,” Ben agreed, letting only the slightest hint of sarcasm enter his voice. They drove in silence, and against his will Ben felt himself start to lose control of his temper. He was about to ask Jessica what exactly he was supposed to have found “fun” about the experience when he realized she had fallen asleep. He stared at her as he drove, and as her breathing became steadier Ben found himself becoming more and more relaxed. He admired her soft features, her quiet exhalations, the steady rise and fall of her chest. All of this calmed him like nothing else could and he began to remember that this was not just anyone, this was his wife and the love of his life. Through the rain he thought he could see the railroad crossing in the distance. He could just make out the shape of the two raised arms against the hazy darkness.
He gazed at Jessica for a long time, barely paying attention to the empty road ahead of them. Staring at her as he drove, a sense of confidence came over him. As he approached the railroad crossing he slowed the car. He carefully brought the car across the tracks, careful not to wake his sleeping wife. The rain was coming down fiercely now, and outside the car Ben could hear it pounding the earth with a methodical and purposeful rhythm. As she slept Jessica murmured something unintelligible, but Ben ignored it and drove on.