My wife is a voyeur: always looking into the cars next to us as they pass. Sometimes I do that, but I immediately turn away if they catch me, but she holds their gaze. It has to do with her personality. She has an empirical way of moving through the world, much less self-conscious than me. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and we were traveling. It would not have been a complete lie to say that we came out here to have sex. But perhaps it might be better to say that we worked it into our itinerary. It was an odd choice in terms of locale, but sometimes circumstances choose us. In addition to our luggage, we also brought a Hitachi magic wand, a blindfold, a leather harness, a ball-gag, and a variety of simulated penises (some anatomically correct and others just smooth pointed tubes of silicone). Plus, some more classical provisions: canned Old Fashioneds, a bottle of wine, and a pizza we picked up at a place that made Neapolitan style pizzas. She was talking on the phone to her sister Theresa who was complaining about their other sister, Leigh. It was a complaint that I was familiar with — Theresa didn’t think Leigh took good enough care of her dog. She kept him crated up for too long and didn’t pay enough attention to him when he was out. He was often hungry, waif-like, and alone. There was some worry that Leigh would make a bad parent of children. My wife, her name is Jacky, said, well Smiley’s not a fucking human is he then? When she’s talking to her family, her accent slips slightly into the register of a Ringo Starr. Even thinking about it makes me smile.

After passing a sign that announced 3-D printed homes the city came into view. The sun was setting on what looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape. This particular city was near the California–Arizona border and we were driving from one state to the other. My wife is English and she always commented on such landscapes that were still alien to her. That’s one of the things that drew us together — an interest in the built environment, in architecture and the way it interacted with nature. As we sped along, I saw a lonely looking house that looked as if it were melting or weeping. More like a concave mass of material that was once a house, its detritus scattered all over the field that it was built upon. It looked as close to a dead body as a house could look and I had to look away out of respect. The idea of judging a landscape post-apocalyptic might say something more about the viewer than what is being viewed. Could it be that we were critical of poverty. Of suffering like this. I don’t think that’s the case, but our judgments made me uneasy. Like most Europeans I have met, Jacky has anti-capitalist sympathies. She would, of course, blame capitalism, agribusiness, corporate farming, or simply, America, for what had happened out there. She is critical of the contextual factors. When she said, Jesus Christ, it’s like Mad fucking Max out here, her judgment fell upon capitalism, not the man on the side of the freeway digging through a pile of garbage dangerously close to passing cars. It was a city that may or may not have had a library or a museum or a radio station or monument to a conquistador (there were, however, according to Wikipedia, which Jacky was reading on her phone, two state prisons). What this town did have was motels, or budget hotels as they’re called now. New ones, modern ones. It was a waystation or middle point between two giant metropolises.

Jacky had another sister besides Leigh and Theresa. Her name was Jo and she was murdered while on vacation in Spain. Jacky rarely talks about it with me. I know the year that it occurred. I know the murder is officially unsolved. I know that her murder was preceded by a sexual assault. And I know that the main suspect comes from a prominent Dutch family. There are lawyers and investigators and even diplomats involved. I often think about the situations people put themselves in. Sometimes I wonder if an authentic life is one that is necessarily lived dangerously. I know it’s a simplified way of putting it, but some of us are open and some of us are closed, and openness can be an invitation to danger. Occasionally I’ll read about Jo’s murder online. The details are extremely sordid and I make judgments about my wife’s sister that I know I shouldn’t. This is a source of much guilt on my part. My mother always referred to me as “too judgmental.” She would bring strange men home and so many of my judgments had to do with sex and what amount of seriousness people approached it with. Even Jacky thinks I have a kind of puritanical streak running through me. She often talks to her mother and sisters on the phone in front of me. I never do so in front of her. When I talk to my mother I make sure to go outside or talk to her when Jacky’s at work. I don’t like people who I’m not talking to listening to me talk to somebody else. Even if what I’m saying is anodyne. Jacky doesn’t care unless she’s talking about Jo and in that case she’ll slip away and I’ll know what’s being discussed. I wrote down in my notebook once that I need to know more about Jo. The only pictures I’ve ever seen of Jo were as a child, all the sisters together as girls. I don’t even know what kind of music she liked or what vocation she had planned for the future. Jacky teaches history, Theresa’s a nurse, Leigh works in a film archive.

There were other signs of cruelty that I noticed on that freeway somewhere near the California–Arizona border. Chickens being transported in plastic cubes with small air-holes and cattle stuffed into trailers. You could see their mournful eyes in those slits cut into the metal. We also saw a series of busses that hauled portable toilets and sinks on rickety trailers. The words Farm Labor Services were stenciled onto the doors of the busses. I could just make out the faces of the people through dark windows and I wondered about their lives. I got the feeling that I was seeing something that wasn’t meant to be seen. Is this normal, I thought. Was it insulting to feel sorry for them. Who am I to feel sorry for anyone. Was I only humiliating myself by seeing their position as degraded. Is hard work good for the soul. What if hard work is the product of exploitation. I thought about a society that eliminates slavery only to replace it with quasi-slavery. And then I thought about work camps and internment camps and death camps and for some reason, even Jesus. Not Jesus the man, but Jesus, the symbol or symbolic utterance meant to connote subordination. Not just subordination, but the honor in being broken, humiliated, destroyed. Perhaps the central ethic of Christian theology is the negation of humiliation through the acceptance of being degraded, the courting of suffering in order to enact the truest state of moral repose.     

We passed the initial tranche of motels, gas stations, and fast-food establishments. Ours was one exit further. The motel complex looked massive in its isolation. From the vantage of the freeway, we could see the pool where no one was gathered. Aside from the parking lot, there were dirt fields all around. As we got off the freeway a man in a leather or faux leather duster and no shirt carried a tire through the dirt. When we parked the car the first thing I noticed was that one of the front doors, which had been made of glass, had been replaced by a piece of plywood. The sky, which had been a dirty gray was both darkening and being illuminated by one of those otherworldly sunsets that seem to occur in the middle of nowhere. We checked in and went to our room, passing an ice machine that had a piece of paper affixed to it with the words NO ICE written in black sharpie. The room was clean and neat and small. The art on the walls were blown up black and white photographs of desert landscapes (scrub, rocky hills, saguaro cactuses), but with large orange and yellow grids superimposed. I spent some time thinking about who produced such art. Was it generated by the artificial intelligence we were being taught to fear or did a human do it. I sat on the toilet looking at that saguaro cactus and thought about how cultures change, surreptitiously at first and then in great convulsive revolutions.

We each took showers. Cleanliness is part of the ritual. I enjoy all the rituals involved in lovemaking. Jacky has taught me how to see all the ways that the past, even the sacred past, has persisted secretly into the present. The architecture of our everyday existence is made up of all kinds of rote behaviors that would take on a religious or quasi-religious significance if we still thought in those terms. It is possible that sex, if performed properly, is itself a religion, or at least part of a religious practice that has become secularized. The end being not necessarily pleasure, but the leading of a good life. Not materially good but morally so in our commitment to mutual devotion. When we first met, me and Jacky would fuck for hours and neither of us would have an orgasm. Sometimes we’d have sex, three, four, five times a day. No devices or drugs. We’d fuck and watch TV and fuck and eat and sleep like children or animals. Things have evolved and become more intentional. The ritual takes its form in the place of the spontaneous. This is not to say that every aspect of the sex act is plotted and planned, only that the field of play is established through a set of well thought-out rules.

I showered first, then laid, completely naked, on the bed. It was warm in the room. I went over to the wall-mounted thing that was both a heater and an air conditioner but couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I opened the curtains and looked out at the parking lot. It was the kind of city that benefitted from darkness. I could hear coughing out there, incessant, nagging, almost tubercular in its depth and wetness. I plugged in the Hitachi to charge and put my harness on, then laid back down. After we were finished, Jacky lay there, spent on the bed. I got a towel to wipe ourselves down with and then I laid next to her, my body enclosing hers. Our closeness was intense and palpable. I had never been unfaithful to her and never asked if she had been to me. I didn’t want to know. We didn’t turn on the television. We had long since abandoned television. I can’t say why exactly, we just did. It wasn’t a cultural or political stand. It was just a fact. We listened to music, which played from my phone. I think we listened to Bill Evans that night. After the pizza was gone, Jacky asked about the chocolate we had brought. I had forgotten about it. Apparently, we had left it in the car. Would I get it, she asked. The thought of going out there gave me the creeps. Plus, it was cold and we were warm in our nakedness. We should just skip the chocolate, I told her. Without saying anything, but not in a petulant sort of way, she started to dress as if she was going out to get it. I don’t spend much time thinking about chivalry or gender roles, but for whatever reason I knew the right thing to do was for me to go out. I slipped on my pants and then a shirt and shoes. Jacky smiled with genuine gratitude and I kissed her on the forehead.

I walked down a long, brightly lit, hallway across gray carpeting with obvious stains that ran ragged at the edges near the walls. After making a left at the broken ice machine there was a glass door which lead out to the parking lot. Our car was very close, but before I could get to it I noticed a woman in a long-sleeve dress smoking under a lamp. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this woman because of what was to transpire. It wasn’t life-changing or traumatic or tragic, it was just a conversation that when I replay it in my mind always stops me in my tracks. An event that sometimes makes me question my sanity, as if I had replaced reality with unreality or a dream. What are you doing out here, she asked, pointing to the parking lot, the motel, the sky, everything. I told her we were traveling. Of course, she said. I noticed then that she wasn’t wearing a long sleeve dress, but a dark blue terry cloth robe and sandals, cheap or temporary ones, like you’d be given in a hospital or jail. How about you, I asked. She smiled and pointed her cigarette at the glass door that I had just exited from and said, we’re shooting our version of Salò in there. I looked at the door and then back at her. I didn’t say anything at first. The whole time I was out there, I couldn’t think of much to say. Eric’s setting up the next shot, she said, he’s a genius. Have you seen it, she asked, Salò? I shook my head. It’s quite the production, do you want to come inside and see how we’re doing it? I thought about Jacky lying in bed alone and didn’t answer. She came closer and said, I’m not going to twist your arm, but it’s not every day that you’re able to see something like this. She checked the time on her phone and asked, you know what Eric always says? Eric says in order to truly depict decadence, you have to become truly decadent yourself. No acting. She asked me what I thought about that and I didn’t have a good answer. I was curious but I withheld that knowledge from her. I didn’t want her to know that I wanted to see what she wanted to show me. But I did have a question for her thought. It had been troubling me for a long while — is anyone being hurt in there? Something shifted in her face that brought the whole night, maybe even the whole day into focus, and she said, only each other.


Image: By Andrew Karn, Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Bryan D. Price
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