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The Art of Marriage
Annie Karney
by Peter Freund
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Not enough sex is a problem, too much sex is a curse. That was Annie Karney's predicament in a nutshell. Bobby Karney loved his wife, he adored her. He adored her body down to the very tone of her skin, to the body odor she was so ashamed of, to her big melancholy brown eyes and to the basic insecurity with which she let him approach and have his way with her. It appeared that theirs was a marriage made in heaven.
     Every night in bed Bobby sidled up to Annie and made love to her until way past midnight when he would fall sound asleep. Annie then lay stretched out, smoking a cigarette and watching it glow in the dark. It soothed her and she felt at peace. After the cigarette Annie usually got out of bed, had a glass of wine in the kitchen and read a few pages of some novel or other until her eyelids weighed down by the prose, prompted her to yawn. Then it was back to bed where she joined her husband in sleep. Bobby had no knowledge whatsoever of his wife's nightly routine, which easily ran into an hour or more. In the morning he assumed her to be as fresh, rested and full of energy, as he was. They ate their breakfast in a hurry, showered and occasionally Bobby would insist on a quickie, which Annie tried to resist with mixed success.
     Bobby saw marriage as a sensual arrangement based on his intense desire for his wife. There was no question in his mind but that this desire was reciprocal. He was noisy in his pleasure and his wife sounded off as well, so that to judge by one's ears, sex for this couple was a shared blessing. Yet, this assessment of the Karney couple's happiness misses the mark. As nature would have it, man cannot but be upright in matters of desire, woman can deceive. It is very easy for her to join her mate in the sounds of ecstasy and create an aura of happiness to envelop the conjugal relationship. If she supports the sounds with a few well-chosen gestures, the illusion can be total.
     Yet, such deception comes at great cost, if sustained night after night. For one thing, a great amount of concentration is needed to do everything at the right moment, yet make it seem spontaneous. Then, the rewards the woman reaps are minimal, while she cannot fail to perceive the immense satisfaction she dispenses to her partner. This in turn breeds envy and ultimately anger in her, and this anger will out sooner or later, whether directed at her perceived tormentor or as in the case of Annie at herself.
     Their daytime jobs couldn't have been more different. Bobby took, Annie gave. From this New England town Bobby managed billions. Assistants, secretaries, partners took in his every word and his every smile or frown had serious consequences, as far away as Wall Street. Annie was assistant curator at the town's small art museum, in charge of indexing its quite modest permanent collection. Every now and then an out of town visitor would drop in to see an out of the way Picasso or Giacometti sketch donated by one of the locals at an inflated estimate for tax purposes. On such occasions, in her unassuming way, Annie would make sure the visitor found everything of interest to him. These often quite handsome men would treat Annie to lunch and she wondered whether they would be as intense in matters sexual as her husband. She fantasized that they would be gentler, less demanding, let her be for weeks, maybe even months at a time. More often than not she concluded that this would be indeed the case, and she was probably right, but for the wrong reason, most of these art connoisseurs were simply not interested in her.
     Bobby was an outgoing man, and this entailed hosting parties, dinners, dances. Annie was more the introverted type and went to these events ex officio as it were. While Bobby would be the center of everyone's attention, Annie would sit on the sidelines, participating only when called upon to admiringly corroborate some point of Bobby's. The only person she enjoyed at these events was Clay Warner, the town's leading attorney, an older man accompanied by a movie star of a wife, Penny, some twenty years his junior. This woman was always in the whirl of the party, though she contributed precious little to it, excepting her perfect body and the thick golden hair covering her narrow forehead. Beyond that this spectacular female specimen had little to offer. But this did not deter the young males from flocking to her, like bees to honey. Clay Warner did not seem at all disturbed by his young wife's flirtatiousness. He was quite philosophical about it all.
     Their town had two better restaurants, at the two ends of what everyone referred to as the "main drag." One of these, the Cabochon attracted the artsy crowd, the other, Nick's Steak House, the business people. For Saturday dinner everybody who was anybody was to be seen at one or at the other of these two establishments. The Karneys were habitués of Nick's. Yet during the week, Annie much preferred the Cabochon, where she often ran into Clay Warren and a kind of friendship developed between them. No, it wasn't in any way erotic. Oscar Wilde not withstanding, friendship between a woman like Annie and a man like Clay is possible without turning to "passion, hatred or love". Their friendship gave them both much-needed emotional sustenance.
     Once in the spring Annie took the initiative and organized an outing to some regional cave. They first drove out of town along the road parallel to the railway tracks, Then they had to wait for the 12:05 to pass, before the gates lifted and they could cross the tracks into the parking lot. It was a nuisance, but trains have their schedules and their region was forever criss-crossed by powerful steel engines pulling wagons full of wealthy commuters to their manifold destinations. After parking the cars they still had a two-mile hike to the cave with its stalactites and stalagmites. The Karneys, the Warrens, another couple and two young men filled two cars, Clay's black BMW and Bobby's Mercedes SUV. Annie had taken great care in preparing an elaborate lunch packed in two quite heavy wicker baskets, carried by the two young men. This lunch involved three courses and she had planned for a stop on the way to the cave. When they were just about halfway, Annie suggested "let's have a period of comfort and readjustment", by which she meant "let's eat the first course now". She had prepared this wording and this allowed her to overcome her natural shyness. Much to her displeasure though, this wording elicited ridicule from all. They stopped of course, ate the caviar canapés she had carefully decorated with egg yolk, parsley and lemon peel and took a sip of well-chilled Dom Ruinart. They had nothing but highest praises for the food, but somehow that "period of comfort and readjustment" became the running gag. Even Penny caught on and, all the planning notwithstanding, the rest of the outing was ruined for Annie. In the cave, after the main course, she almost broke down in tears and Clay came to "comfort" her though without using the, by now taboo, word. By then Bobby was lying in the sun in front of the cave after noting "you have seen one stalactite, you have seen them all; this way at least I'll get a tan." The other couple had joined him and they soon were sound asleep under the warm rays of the mid-May sun. Penny and the two young men had gone to explore the cave, which put them out of sight.
  "I have noticed for some time now, you seem to be very sad. Is something bothering you?" Clay started.
     "Oh no, what makes you say that?" Annie replied disingenuously.
     "Well, I am a lawyer and I make a living second-guessing my opponents. This has developed into a habit and not even my closest friends are exempt."      "Sure, I was taken aback by everyone's reaction to my comment, after all it was just my invitation to the first course. Maybe it was funny, but that hurt."
     "Don't let it bother you, you prepared a splendid meal and you wanted to present it with class, maybe too much class, but class nonetheless."
     "That is the main problem in life, what is too much, what is not enough and what is just right, wouldn't you say?"
     "We all have to find the right amount by ourselves and then be perfectly aware that what is right for us may not be so for others, but then so what, who cares? Take my wife. Do I give her enough? I doubt it, in fact I know I don't, but you see it doesn't bother me if she wanders off to 'explore the cave' with two studs. It is up to her to determine what is just right for her. Does it bother you if I talk about this?"
     "Not really." Annie replied visibly disturbed and started picking up the china, the silverware and the cut crystal wine glasses, thereby cutting off the conversation. Clay understood that this overly sensitive woman could not deal with this issue and he rose to help Annie.
     When Penny and the two young men returned somewhat disheveled, it was decided to eat the dessert and call it a day. "Let this be our last period of adjustment and recomfortable" a laughing Penny repeated what she was sure she remembered or understood Annie as having said. The two young men found this very funny, but it appeared that they just were in a mood in which they would have found the bombshell's any utterance equally funny.
     That night for the first time Annie allowed herself to openly appear totally disinterested in sex. When her husband approached she just lay there inertly until he was done. He must have noticed something, for he asked Annie "Is something bothering you?" She answered in the negative as she had in the cave when Clay had asked her the same question. Bobby went on "You don't look like yourself, so preoccupied" "Yes, preoccupied" she replied after a brief hesitation, but by then the man was sound asleep and Annie lit her cigarette. Her hand was trembling and she could actually see this from the trajectory of the burning tip. Her heart was pounding and a general malaise overcame her. She had a deep urge to cry and presently she was sobbing. Bobby was sleeping deeply enough that he could be counted on not to notice his wife's torment. Anyway had he noticed, he would have made love to her, his way of cheering her up, and this would have only further enraged Annie. She for the first time saw the full hopelessness of her situation. There was no light at the end of her tunnel, for that matter it wasn't even obvious to her that it was a tunnel, it felt more like a hole, a precipice. She smoked more than usual, maybe five cigarettes in a row and she did not get up, she remained in the same rigid position and let the darkest thoughts invade her mind.
     What was her life about, she asked herself. She had a make-busy job. It had a certain value for a compulsive pedantic type of person. Lists, lists and more lists. Annie had not gone to graduate school, but even her college degree was wasted on these endless lists of objects without any real value or interest whether to the public at large or to the occasional scholar. Those visiting gentlemen invariably left disappointed, having wasted their time chasing junk. She tried to be helpful, but that was not possible at this town museum. All they stored was rubbish and a few second-rate works by first-rate artists. All her job did, was to set a schedule for an aimless woman. Without it she might have hit the bottle, as quite a few of her neighbors did, or have irrevocably given up, and it was this thought that terrorized her. A meaningless job was all that kept her from doing something foolish.
     There was the other side of the coin. When done with work, she ran a beautiful house. Bobby gave her all the money she needed. But again, to what avail? Where was there any happiness to be had? They had no children, one of them could not procreate, they hadn't bothered to find out which one. Bobby was not interested in children, he wanted the sex and he wanted Annie's body in its "natural state." Annie pretended that this was her position as well. Once one starts pretending .... and then there were the nightly bouts of make-believe, the fear of being exposed in the face of her mate's ecstasy. Annie jumped up and headed for the bar. She filled a large glass with Chivas and drank it to the bottom, as fast as she could. She then poured a second glass, drank it as well, and returned to the conjugal bed. By the time she lay there, a soft warmth penetrated her body, she became woozy and fell asleep.
     The next few nights Annie produced the ecstatic sounds expected of her, but her inner turmoil increased, as did her intake of hard liquor. She was a soft woman not prone to drinking, and this ever-larger nightly dosage impaired her daytime functioning. Her lists started becoming inaccurate, scrambled, redundant. But then no one ever read these lists, so this went unnoticed. But Annie herself knew and this caused her nocturnal unrest to spread into her work hours as well and she started having a permanent pain affixed to her face and at the same time very active butterflies in her stomach. She started approaching despair and there was no one to share it with. Bobby couldn't understand, and if he did, he'd insist on even more sex, as a cure. She once tried to open up to Clay at the Cabochon. He understood what Annie was trying to do, and welcomed her intimacy, but at the crucial moment she just couldn't go through with it and backed off by changing the subject. Clay gave her a look that clearly indicated his awareness of what she was doing, but instead of appreciating this man's willingness to hear her out and maybe even help her in some way or other, she just looked down at her plate and started talking like an automaton about the new subject, a bizarre murder case in a nearby town. She was relating what she had read in the local newspaper and Clay agreed by nodding disappointedly. He asked for the bill and they both went back to work.
     Clay would have liked very much to have a confidante in Annie. He had his own need to open up to someone. Living with a trophy, and that is what Penny really meant to him, led to its own very difficult problems. Sure, they had had a modicum of a sex life in the beginning, but as time went by, Penny's feelings of revulsion for her much older husband were so clearly articulated that Clay avoided any contact with his spouse. They hadn't had any intimate relations for nearly a year now. Clay knew that the bombshell would find willing takers and to be frank, he did not mind. His work took up most of his time and his sexual needs had turned very modest with age and with the kind of insecurity that living with such a demanding and desirable woman necessarily bred. Clay was in a limbo, a holding pattern of his own, and realized that Annie, for whatever reasons, was in a predicament not very different from his. Maybe by addressing her woes, he could gain some insight into his own. But it was not to be. His situation was headed for the boiling point.
     It was a Friday. Clay was in court at a divorce case hearing when he was handed the note "Penny arrested. Your presence essential. He immediately requested a postponement for personal reasons, which the judge granted without any further ado. His agitation at reading the note was so marked that both the judge and the other attorney understood that they had no choice but to agree to his request.
     Clay quickly packed his things and headed for the black BMW, which he literally raced to the police station. He had been there many times before to post bail for some VIP client or other and was on a first name basis with most of the staff. This time around, total silence and the awkwardness of consternation greeted his arrival. Right away the chief asked Clay to his office and brought him up-to-date about the charges, which were very embarrassing indeed, Penny was accused of belonging to a call-girl ring. Clay put up the bail and was led to the cell, which Penny shared with three other elegant women and two equally elegant androgynous young men. Awkwardly, in pantomime as it were, Penny was released from the cell and on his arm her husband walked her out of the building.
     By now the Warren marriage had been reduced to a purely formal arrangement, a sham, a legal loophole, a smokescreen. But, with Penny's arrest a window had been pulled wide open and its two contractors had to cope as best they could. Clay drove his young wife home and once the privacy offered by its four walls was theirs, he started holding forth as if in court. He knew that this was not appropriate, but it was what came naturally. Admittedly there was no judge setting any rules and no jury to sway, but this was the only way he knew how to make sense of the situation for himself and unless the situation made sense to him, it could not be dealt with.
     "First of all you had nothing to do with that ... whole thing." he addressed Penny, "It is essential that you forcefully deny everything, is that clear?" Penny nonchalantly nodded as she continued combing her rich blond hair, as if nothing had happened and they were just deciding what to eat for dinner. "I'll fix the rest. They didn't catch you doing anything and the rest can be argued away on technicalities." Penny started getting restless and got up. She went to the refrigerator, took out a bottle of Chardonnay and poured herself a glass. She overfilled it and made quite a mess. She wiped the wine off the table with her hand and started licking her fingers. When she finished doing that, she lifted the glass and dripping wine on the floor went to the living room couch, lay down and turned on the TV. It was a stupid game show and a fat woman was orgasmically celebrating a stove she had just won. "Have you seen the TV program somewhere?" Penny asked her husband. Clay knew that the conversation was over, he had overtaxed his young wife's power of concentration. He left the room agitated by the shock visited on him earlier in the day, but also subdued, sad. His wife couldn't even comprehend the seriousness of her own situation, let alone the effect all this was having on him. For a moment he thought of Annie and then he smiled. It was a bitter smile, he remembered that patrician woman trying to open up to him at the Cabochon and not being able to go through with it. At some level he understood that whatever it was that ailed her was much more serious than the admittedly embarrassing situation confronting him now. Curiously enough he drew relief from this realization and managed to summon up the needed concentration to reach a decision: he would handle the legal mess with his considerable lawyerly skill and beyond that he would stand fully behind the woman who had so egregiously disgraced him and who could be counted on to spring further unwelcome surprises on him in the future. He started undressing, he felt he needed a rest. His thoughts returned to Annie. What has she done to make whoever it was --- probably her husband --- do onto her what made her so unhappy? What was it that he had done himself to make his own wife disgrace him so abjectly? As he was stepping in his striped silk pajamas, he had something akin to a revelation. A chain of thoughts made it all clear to him. Yes, he had married Penny for her trophy value and she lived up to his expectations in that respect. Beyond that he was not very interested in her, even sexually. He did not polish the trophy and now it tarnished. He realized that if the sexual act is performed as a maintenance job, as was clearly the case with him, then it becomes a chore and looses the excitement which is so essential for its enjoyment. He was forfeiting one of life's greatest pleasures for the appearance created by the possession of the trophy. But by now there was little he could do and at the very least, he had to salvage appearances. If only he could openly discuss all this with someone, Annie? But how? Would she listen? He had tried in the cave and she wouldn't. Here is a sensitive creature, intelligent, beautiful, unable to listen or for that matter to talk. What a pity. He could confront her and force her, as it were to have an honest talk with him. Would that be possible? He lay down and soon he was asleep.
     Next day, Saturday, Clay Warren and his wife stayed in till early evening, when they headed for the main drag. Clay personally supervised Penny's attire. He had her wear an Italian silk dress with a clear though not outrageous décolletage, white patent-leather high-heel sandals, and an elegant gold bracelet and matching earrings, instead of the gaudy custom-jewelry she usually wore. They first put in an appearance at the Cabochon. There was marked consternation, as could be expected, the call-girl ring story had made the rounds of the town after all. Clay in linen pants and a blazer entered the establishment with a resolute step, his stunning young wife on his arm. Taken aback, the locals couldn't but politely greet the couple, but no one vied for their company. They had champagne kirs at the bar with the Jamesons, who were waiting for a table by the window. It was strictly pleasantries and formal talk. When the Maitre d' came to announce that the table was ready, Hoppie Jameson felt cornered to invite the Warrens to join them. Penny looked at Clay, who thanked Hoppie, but begged her to excuse them, for they had only stopped for drinks on their way to Nick's, where they had a reservation. They took their leave and the Warrens literally paraded down the main drag. It did not escape Clay's attention, that even on the other side of the wide road, people would huddle at the sight of the elegant couple making its way to Nick's. Here and there someone would gesticulate a greeting across the thoroughfare, which Clay would smilingly return. He would also poke his wife, who then, somewhat disoriented, would follow suit.
     The Warrens got virtually the same reception at Nick's, but there they had a table which they occupied with great authority. Tendentious whispering was going on at many a table and Clay was fully aware of that, but he had decided to stand by his wife and wanted to convey this decision to one and all. In some sense he was right, for most of the whisperers were admiring his decency and the nobility of his gesture. Bobby and Annie Karney were also dining at Nick's and after greeting the Warrens effusively, did not invite them to their table. But then no one expected such an invitation, under the circumstances the Warrens would probably prefer to eat alone with whatever privacy that gave them. To the casual observer it looked as if Penny and Clay were having an animated conversation and a real good time. It was however all an illusion, for Clay kept asking Penny one trivial question after another. He was asking these questions in an emotion-laden tone, often accompanying them by a happy-looking smile or even by audible bursts of laughter. The questions were so constructed as to insure Penny's attention and her ability to answer them and thereby make it look as if the couple was having a routine good time out. The only one to catch on to what was going on at the Warren table was Annie, who managed to exchange a few meaningful glances with Clay. Annie's glances were deliberately admiring and intended to give whatever encouragement the situation permitted. Clay's glances at Annie were the only moments during which he let his guard down and let his immense pain and shame shine beacon-like at the sole woman who could possibly share his grief.
     After Bobby had settled the check, Annie made a point of passing by the Warren table on the way out and the two women exchanged kisses with each other and with the two men, who cordially shook hands. Bobby was visibly uncomfortable at having to kiss Penny in front of many of his staring acquaintances. He blushed, causing another round of, now laughter-accompanied, whispers at many tables.
     The following Monday Clay Warner showed up at the town museum just before lunch break. He appeared uncharacteristically emotional as he invited Annie to join him at the Cabochon. She had an appointment to take her Volvo for a tune-up at the dealer some fifteen minutes out of town. Clay didn't mind "that's alright, you drop your car, then we continue a bit in my car, buy sandwiches at the Inn at the Mill, go down to the brook and eat them alfresco. After lunch I'll drive you back to the Volvo man." This sounded fine and just about half an hour later the two were comfortably sitting on Clay's plaid blanket under a weeping willow by the brook. It was a quite isolated spot. As they were eating delicious sandwiches on freshly baked bread, Clay made the first opening
     "I know I may sound very pushy, but I absolutely had to speak to you. I am in a very tough spot"
     "I know, I know, I have heard. In any case, I was very impressed with the way you handled it. Your appearance with Penny at Nick's was a very noble gesture, very dignified too. I admire you for it."
     "You read more into it than is warranted. It was a deliberate gesture, that's all. Penny is not a bad person, she is just very dumb. I know that what I am going to say may make you uneasy, I tried to bring the subject up in the cave, as you may remember, but at the risk of imposing, I truly wish to share my thoughts with you now. For some reason I see you as the only one who might understand and that means a lot to me. As is, I mull things over by myself, like with a legal case. The difference is that I myself am deeply involved in all this and that I am not sure that I am acting wisely." Clay looked at Annie and though she appeared uneasy, it was clear that this time she was willing to hear him out.
     Clay started on a quite detailed history of his marriage. Tears were welling up in Annie's eyes. Clay offered her a tissue, but in the last moment he took control of the situation and wiped Annie's brown eyes himself. In the interest of efficiency, he brought his own face very close to Annie's, and when he thought he heard her panting, he very suddenly, though not without gentleness, kissed her. She put her arm around his neck and he slowly eased her on her back. A while later Clay started making love to Annie. It was an easygoing, unpressured act and when it was over, the male smiled the smile of total satisfaction, and the woman appeared to reciprocate this smile. His own need sated, Clay did not carefully examine his partner's reaction to what had just passed between them. That was a big mistake, for this was the smile of a woman who knew how to feign. At least this time around she did not have to fake the very details of the act, a major improvement over what was expected of her at home. Yet, her expectations again remained unmet and even in this relaxed atmosphere she did not derive any pleasure. By the time she could have raised the issue, the gent was no longer receptive.
     They drove back in total silence and Clay dropped Annie off at the Volvo dealership. She had to still wait a quarter of an hour, during which the butterflies in her stomach came to life and an overwhelming sadness settled on Annie. When the Volvo man came to announce that her car was ready, Annie was crying bitterly. She blamed the tears on an intense allergic reaction, though she did not say to what. The Volvo man didn't care anyway. She paid, got in her car, and started driving back to the museum. She knew she was late. At the railroad crossing leading to the main drag the gate was just coming down. Annie thought she could still squeeze through, but she got trapped.

All Poetry & Nothing ButClash of CivilizationsEC ChairFeatured PoetsForeign DeskGalleryStage
Hedonism: Theory & PracticeLetters & GlossolaliaArt of MarriageMoney TalkPets & BeastsZounds

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