The white lines along I-40 East blend together into a barely broken blur as you make your way toward Winston-Salem. This is what has filled your mind for weeks. Emma, the interstate, the backpack and duffel bag, the stack of CDs, your bare foot on the pedal, even the chips and soda resting in the passenger seat have held tightly to your mind. At work you mentally composed playlists for the seven hour drive, you’ve ignored nights with your friends to stare at the purple line from your place to Emma’s on the map, and in bed the different ways you could greet Emma ran through your head.
Emma is funny. Emma is smart. Emma paints and has shown her work in galleries. Emma listens to This American Life every week. Emma is of a similar maturity level and appropriate age. Emma is by far the best looking woman that has ever either shown or feigned interest in you, you’re not sure which. Emma, even though she wants to wait until she is in her late twenties at least, wants children. Emma likes you. Emma says that she likes your body, your hair, and your usually unshaven face. Emma already knows things about you which you would never have told her in person. Emma wants to spend a Saturday evening painting and watching you listen, sprawled on the floor beside the radio, to A Prairie Home Companion. Emma has had experiences unlike anything you can imagine. Emma, although you have communicated primarily over the internet, and you have very rarely talked on the phone, takes over your thoughts with greater ease that any other woman you’ve ever met.
This scares you. And when you cross into North Carolina and feel the shivers which you’d dealt with as you first buckled your seat belt that morning return you pull your second to last CD out of its case and try to talk yourself out of your nerves.
Tip 39: Online Relationships Can Break You Down
Nina was unlike any woman you’d ever come into contact with in the twenty years of your life. In the beginning, Nina, at 37 and being married, was purely an erotic goal for you to pursue on sleepless nights. With your laptop resting warmly on the hill of your bare stomach, you stared at the bright screen in your dark bedroom, focusing on Nina’s bashful smile in the picture at the border of the chat window, reading her large green words and replying in your plain black font, trying to get some result from your efforts, and occasionally slipping a hand under the elastic band of your boxers to keep the excited tension from slipping away.
The evolution into a very odd relationship happened quickly. You let Nina consume your time. You stopped studying and waited anxiously for her log on in the afternoons, and when her screen name popped up you quickly rushed to grab her attention. After a month of your mild flirtations with each other you began to swap pictures. You ignored Nina every time she said that she was too old, or that she was too wrinkled, or that she was too flabby. You praised her beauty, her intelligence, her constitution, her anything, and her everything.
“Gosh… you’re beautiful,” you would tell her after you had talked her into emailing you yet another picture and sometimes in the middle of a conversation, just so she knew where your mind was.
“I’m old and wrinkly,” she would always reply.
“Don’t ever say that. You’re not. You know how badly I want you. Don’t you?”
This response was always a gutsy move by you. Most nights she would tell you to stop and bring up her husband, or she would go off on how she was hypocrite because what she wanted more than anything to set a good example for people, to show them all the good that could come from having God and Jesus in your life and living the kind of life that would honor them, but some nights you could tell that she and her husband had split a bottle of wine at dinner, and it was on these nights that you could swear you actually felt Nina’s blond hair tickling your chest as you worked yourself over beneath your comforter, your eyes focused on her picture, mumbling softly to yourself as she described, the design of her pubic hair, or dreams she had had about the two of you rubbing against each other in a nearly empty movie theater or being in motel room where you had taken her not against her will, but with her explaining why you shouldn’t.
Every week you wanted more, and you wanted her more than the last. You would beg for another picture, with more and more of Nina’s skin exposed, another hour of talking online at night, even if it was just to discuss what was on television. And when she gave you her number, the two of you learned the other’s schedule, and every afternoon you waited for her to return from her jog, and, without any thought given to the existence of her husband, you asked if she was still naked after her shower, sometimes getting an honest answer of yes. You worked up the courage to ask if she had slipped her fingers between her legs as the water poured over her face. Had she let herself think of you as she did so? You would beg to hear about a dream she had had the night before, in every detail, until finally you had slunk down on the sofa with your jeans open, holding your phone hard against your ear, and softly begging her to let herself feel how she had felt the night before.
“We have to just get it out of our systems,” you would say when her guilt built up and her voice cracked through the phone.
“Ugh…You’re killing me…”
“You’re killing me!”
Knowing that it would have driven a railroad spike of fear into her heart, you kept yourself from telling her that you loved her or that you longed to buy a ticket for the next flight to Phoenix, just to see if her skin was as soft as you’d been imagining during these phone romances. It would have been too real for her if you had said that you loved her. You knew she would have stopped, and you wanted to at least keep pretending. You wanted the afternoons when she was just out of the shower after her jog, the nights when she couldn’t sleep, and the nights when her husband had had too much wine to stay up. You even wanted the lectures about sin and God, because, deep down, you believed that that was part of it for her.
When Nina finally put a stop to the phone calls and pictures and stopped with the daily instant messages you slept with a girl you barely knew, and, after leaving her to freshen up in private, you began composing an email to Nina on your way to your car. You had hoped that it would push the same button as tales of your past experiences and encounters had earlier, but you were only told to be careful.
“You don’t want a kid now kiddo,” was her only reply.
And that was it. She ignored you, did rigorous therapy on her moral constitution until it was back to its full potency, and left you to deal with what had happened in your own way. It had stopped too quickly for you, but there was nothing to do. You poured over Nina’s pictures trying to coax your mind into recreating the sound of her voice, but, even with daily attempts, you could never match the quick breaths she took as you pressed your phone closer to your mouth and whispered into her ear.
Tip 53: Walk... At Least Jog... Don’t Run.
Emma rents the top level of an old two story which had been converted into a duplex by the elderly couple who reside on the bottom level, and when you see Emma quickly coming down the metal stairs from her door you have no idea how she saw you turn into the pea gravel driveway. She gives you a small wave and lingers on the bottom step while you inch your feet back into your shoes and shakily blow the last of your nerves toward the steering wheel before looking at her. Her lush brown hair, dark brown eyes, tight lipped smile, the freckle on her nose, full cheeks, and sloped shoulders, she looks exactly as her pictures have led you to believe.
Emma meets you as you step out of the car and, quickly, her arms wrap around your neck. Your forearm lands against the exposed strip of skin between her jeans and T-shirt, and you quickly reposition your arms. When Emma finally lets you go she looks you over and hugs you again.
“You’re really real,” she says.
Emma takes your hand and locks her fingers between yours. You can feel her nervous energy mixing with your own, running through your fingers in time with odd rhythm of your pair heartbeats.
Emma begins kissing you before you can set your backpack beside your duffle bag. She begins kissing you before she secures the dead bolt and fumbles with her hands behind her back until she hears the familiar snap, her lips never leaving yours. Where is the awkward pause? Did you miss it? How did you get your bags? You didn’t hear the metal steps, or did you? You can’t remember. Did she kiss you at your car? Did she start as you ascended the staircase, or had it started as you passed through the door?
The awkward pause is key to your process. It is the last chance to establish a plan. A laugh, silence, withdrawal, each takes you toward a different ending, but there is not even a chance for a break with Emma. As soon as Emma hears the dead bolt’s snap she pulls her body tightly into your chest, and you set your backpack beside your duffle bag as the two of you begin fumbling with your clothes.
Emma pulls her T-shirt over her head and fixes her bangs as it falls to the floor. You unbutton to your undershirt and begin stepping out of your shoes. Emma keeps her eyes on you as she unhooks her bra, and you freeze as she unzips her jeans.
“What?” She asks.
“Are you scared?” She asks playfully.
You say no, and she places her hands over your own, and together you push the waist of her jeans toward her knees.
After the last troublesome sock is cast into the pile of clothes by the door, skin is carefully and softly and slowly explored from the doorway to the small den as the two of you begin to wordlessly work your way toward Emma’s bedroom. Emma takes charge, leading you from chair to sofa, from den to hallway to finally bedroom, remaining honest to the preferences and ideas she had shared with you in your more romantic evenings, and she only breaks the silence when she quickly utters, “don’t” to keep you from apologizing when a drop of sweat falls from the tip of your nose onto her upper lip. You watch as she runs her tongue over the droplet, and you mash your lips against hers.
Tip 19: Embarrassment Is Not To Be Shared
“What happened here?” Emma asks running her thumb along the fat scar on your left index finger.
“Uh, I mashed it on a dumbbell rack in high school. I was putting my weight back and pinch,” you reply.
Emma lets out a quick sigh of empathy and kisses the scar before returning her head to your chest.
“Thank you,” you whisper.
While the two of you lie across her bed, cooling and shriveling, Emma continues hunting for scars, and you look around her bedroom going from the notebooks and DVDs on dresser to the outline of dresses and jackets in her open closet. Photographs and her sketches are tacked on the walls along with drawings and water colors done by her students. You think of reaching for the fleece blanket folded over the oak footboard, but you know it would cause you both to rise and dress.
“I’ve never really done this,” you say.
“Had sex?” Emma laughs and shifts to meet your eyes. “You’re very good for a first timer. A real natural.”
“Stuck around for a while.”
“Oh,” she says. “So you’ve just had one night fun?”
“No, I just don’t hang around. Especially not for a whole weekend.”
“I don’t know really.”
“Well, if you run away you’ll miss all the other fun,” Emma says.
She runs her fingers across your chest hair before giving the sagging flesh beneath a quick shake, making her giggle.
“Sorry,” she says fighting another laugh.
“I usually leave my shirt on.”
“No. I like it. The hair and…”
“Stop,” she says, flicking your chest. ”Who was your first?”
“It was Olivia Thomason, in the girl’s bathroom near the gym, after a football game.”
“With the candlestick, or was it the rope?”
“Don’t make fun.”
“It’s cute. She sounds like she was a total whore, but it’s cute.”
“What about you?”
“Mark O’Brien… He was a senior. I was a sophomore.”
“Aww,” she says and gives you a kiss on the cheek and your chest another jiggle.
“We got caught,” you say quietly.
“By who?” Emma says lifting herself up to rest on her elbow. “A teacher?”
“One of the water girls.”
“Oh my gosh,” she smiles.
“Nobody that could get us into trouble, but I was really embarrassed, and I had to spend every afternoon the rest of the season with her looking at me all disappointed and embarrassed.”
“I know,” you say.
“Come,” she says rolling off the bed. “Let’s go get a pizza.”
On the way to the pizza place, Emma holds your hand as you drive, inside she rests her head on your shoulder while the two of you wait for the pizza, and you don’t worry about seeming foolish on the return trip as you both sing along with Gavin Rossdale, explaining how you’re never alone, yet still seem to be alone all the time. You sit next to each other at the coffee table, eating directly from the box and passing a bottle of wine, while the two of you talk over the heavily dubbed cable version of Pulp Fiction, and after the Emma tosses the crust of her last piece back into the box, she rises quickly and rushes to the small kitchen, bringing back a small square cake covered in blue and white icing, a quart of vanilla ice cream, a box of candles, and a small pink lighter.
“Oh man,” you say.
“I’m afraid of walking with fire that close to my hair, so it isn’t as pretty a presentation as I’d like, but imagine the candles are on it and that they’re lit and be amazed.”
“I can imagine it very clearly,” you say taking another sip from the bottle.
“Good boy,” she says placing the cake on top of the pizza box.
Emma eases onto her knees and begins placing the candles into a small circle in the middle of the cake, before running the pink lighter around the wicks. As the short white candles take hold of the lighter’s small flame, Emma’s face changes into something of a different time, and as soon as Emma tosses the lighter onto the table you kiss her with a force you’ve never felt move from inside your body with the candlelight, the cake, the wine, what was to date the magnum opus of a sexual romp for you, even the image of Emma’s quick wave as you pulled into the driveway, helping to move your lips.
“Now then,” she says quietly after you pull away. “You have a proper cake, so happy belated birthday.”
After the cake and ice cream are set aside and the wine bottle tapped to release the last remaining drop, Emma rises clumsily. She steadies herself with the sofa and scampers giddily to bedroom saying that she has forgotten something. As she shuts the door you gather the pizza box and empty bottle and place them in the trash beneath the sink.
“Are you ready?” Emma calls from behind the bedroom door.
“I am,” you say hurrying back to the sofa.
“Are you excited?”
“Okay! Oh wait,” she laughs. “Shut your eyes.”
“Shut your eyes, or I’m not coming out.”
“Are they shut?”
“Yes,” you lie.
“Promise.” she says.
“I promise you that my eyes are shut incredibly tight,” you say as you place your hand over your face.”
You hear Emma’s footsteps coming down the hallway, and you hear her clear her throat when she stops a few feet in front of you.
“Open,” she says.
Emma stands before you, naked, covered from her hips to her neck by a large square canvas displaying a naked portrait of herself alone among a sprawl of dead trees. She has rustled her hair to match the painting; her smile is the only difference from her likeness on the canvas.
“Do you like it?”
“I love it,” you say.
“It’s a pretty good likeness right?” Emma asks moving the portrait to the side so that she can recreate the pose displayed in the painting.
“Spot on dear.”
“My boobs are bigger in the painting. They always are though. I’ve always wanted bigger boobs.”
“I don’t know,” you say.
“Happy Birthday,” she smiles, handing you the canvas. “Thank God you aren’t too kinky and like fucking under the bed or anything. You’d have seen it early.”
“Yes, thank God for that.”