Online Exclusive

Third Party
The woman turned to lie on her side in the bed. Her body turned in bed, but she did not turn. She was looking at the ceiling. She looked at the ceiling. It had happened. Her body was on the side of her. She thought about her mother’s first husband. He was Jewish but also Zen and sometimes he left New York City to meditate. You can’t talk at the meditation center, but when you come back to the city you can talk. When he wasn’t at a meditation center, when he was in the city, her mother’s first husband loved to talk. Once he told her that her mother was sexually normal, and she never forgot that he told her that. At first she thought maybe it meant her mother had no hang-ups, she was a healthy and engaged sexual partner, but that couldn’t have been normal, not for a girl in the late ‘50s, even a bad girl, a wild girl, ungently raised; maybe it meant her mother had the normal hang-ups, normal for the time and place, for her caste and class. Her mother’s first husband told her about meditation. When you meditate you realize that you are not two things, not a body and a mind. You sit down in a large room. You sit for hours, for days, for three or ten days. Suddenly it happens: You become aware of a sitting body. You become aware of a mind. You observe the twitches of the body, its muscular and chemical properties, and you observe the patterns of thoughts in the mind. This “you” is a third thing; it is separate from your body, which is sitting, and your mind, which is thinking. Her mother married three times. The woman has imagined sleeping with her mother’s first husband. She has wondered if that would be normal. Within small circles of friends, it is normal for the friends to sleep together, to pair off and break up and recombine, and sometimes circles of friends are intergenerational and one of the friends has slept with your mother and then you sleep with that friend. It is most likely normal. There is a small chance, though, that it is sordid, a sordid thing to do, and maybe if she did it—slept with her mother’s first husband—the sordidness would go into retroactive effect. Her mother could no longer be considered sexually normal. She had participated in a sordid love triangle with her own daughter. The woman did not know her mother’s second husband, but if she met him and slept with him—either knowingly or through some strange coincidence—if she slept with two of her mother’s three husbands, that would not be normal. Her mother’s third husband was the woman’s father. The woman loved her mother’s third husband more than her mother loved him, but that was definitely normal. A daughter’s love for her father isn’t like the love of a wife for her husband or a son for his father. A daughter’s love for her father is a third thing, a special kind of love with an almost vestigial quality, a hold over from primitive times, when there were no parents per se, just fathers who owned their progeny, who could keep or kill or marry off their progeny to serve any purpose. In those times, it was normal: fathers owning daughters, keeping daughters by their sides to feed them and bathe them and anoint their feet in their old age and warm their beds. Everyone shared a single room, a single pot. There was no privacy, no nicety, between fathers and daughters. If the woman slept with her mother’s first husband, would he tell someone, someday, that she was sexually normal? Once when the woman was very young she slept with a man, a lyricist for a jam band that toured college campuses, a man who was fervent with words, and after they finished, he massaged her palm with his thumbs. She used her other hand to stroke his long hair. He put down her palm and began to tap a rhythm on her chest, a gesture that might have seemed absentminded but instead impressed her as simple and exuberant. Then he caught up her hand again and said, “That was the penultimate.” Of course the man, who was also very young, meant something positive, he meant super ultimate, he meant that he had enjoyed himself, that it had been wonderful, their fucking, the best fuck of his life. He was the sort of man who would say something like that, a positive, sensitive man whose sincerity she questioned, although he always behaved in accordance with his expressed intentions and his expressed intentions were mild and consistent, not to mention kind, generous, and flattering to her ego. As their acquaintance deepened, and with it, her suspicions, she began to worry more and more about her character. Why did she question the man’s sincerity? Why was she always looking for the worst in people? What vileness in her did she want to see borne out in the rest of humankind? Why couldn’t a man say she was the best fuck of his life and mean it? But he did not say that she was the best fuck of his life. He said of their fucking: That was the penultimate. And penultimate does not mean super ultimate. It means last but one. Second to last. After she broke up with the man and did not find a new man, not immediately, not for years, she grew obsessed with what he had said regardless of what he had meant by it, which anyway she would never know for sure. That was the last but one. She wondered if part of her trouble finding a new man was the fear that this new man would be exactly that: the last, the last one. She would break up with the man or the man would break up with her and she would never have another man. Maybe that was why she now slept with so many men, why she cheated on so many men, every man that she dated. As soon as she slept with a man she needed to know that he was not the last, that there were more men, that she would never run out of men and lie for hours, for days, for months, for years in a bed with no one beside her to hear if she breathed. Was this normal? She wanted to sleep with her mother’s first husband so he would tell her. His last trip to the meditation center had focused on the meditations that you do to prepare for death. You go through cycles of dissolution as you die and you meditate through these cycles, until the last cycle, which is an aperture you enter with nothing on the other side. When her mother’s first husband said “you,” she wasn’t sure which “you” he meant, the normal “you” or the special “you” that is neither body nor mind: the third “you.” She lay in bed with her body turned over. She was not meditating, had never meditated, but something had happened. Her limbs were still and tacky with sweat. Thoughts were moving through her mind. She thought about those balls that rolled across the floor with the unmoving images inside. The balls that were really three things: clear plastic casings, weighted balls, images. The images were inside the weighted balls. The weighted balls were inside the clear plastic casings. The clear plastic casings moved independently of the balls; they rolled but the weighted balls did not roll, with images unmoving in the center. Hers was a beetle, a big beetle. Maybe it was a roach. The ball rolled across the floor but the beetle inside did not roll. It stayed right side up. It skimmed across the floor. She made the beetle, the roach, skim across the floor. It was suspended just above the floor, skimming forward, the clear casing spinning and spinning around it. Her body had turned around her in bed, but she had not turned with her body. She was on her back, looking up, looking at the ceiling through her body, her rotated body. She tried to listen for her breath. Not her breath, the breath that moved in and out of her face, her face that was now on her side, to the left of her. She tried to listen for breath, to listen leftward. When you meditate you listen for your breath. You focus on your breath. Who is this you? Not her body. Not her mind. Who is this you? There is no one else in the bed. If she could talk she would say: Tell me. Tell me what’s happening. Is this normal? But she can’t talk. She can observe her thoughts. She observes them, they are moving. They are moving so quickly. They are turning around her. Her body has stilled. In between, that might be an aperture. There is an aperture. Am I breathing? She would say: Am I breathing? Between breaths, is that a widening aperture? Is that breathing? Who can tell you? It’s part of breathing, not breathing. Her not breathing, it’s the last part of the breathing. She’s breathing. She’s breathing. It’s so wide, the black bed. She would tell him what it’s like, what happens, how you listen, how you can’t find your face. 

Joanna Ruocco is the author of several books, including The Week (The Elephants), Dan (Dorothy), and Field Glass (Sidebrow), with Joanna Howard. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Wake Forest University.