Marriages fall apart. Everyone has reasons, but no one really knows why. We got married young. Maybe that was our mistake. In New York State, you can legally get married before you can do a shot of tequila. We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way that we knew there were starving children in Africa. It was a tragic fact but worlds away from our reality. We were going to be different. We would keep the fire stoked; best friends who fucked each other senseless every night. We would avoid the pitfalls of complacency; stay young at heart and in shape, keep our kisses long and deep and our bellies flat, hold hands when we walked, conduct whispered conversations deep into the night, make out in movie theaters, and go down on each other with undimmed enthusiasm until the arthritic limitations of old age made it inadvisable.
“Will you still love me when I’m old?” Jen would say, usually when we were in bed in her dorm room, lying drowsily on her dented mattress in the thick musk of our evaporating sex. She’d be lying on her belly and I’d be on my side, running a lazy finger down the shallow canyon of her spine to where it met the rising curves of her outstanding ass. I was stupidly proud of her ass when we were dating. I would hold open doors for her just to watch it bounce ahead of me, high and tight and perfectly proportioned in her jeans, and I would think to myself, That is an ass to grow old with. I looked at Jen’s ass as my own personal achievement, wanted to take her ass home to meet my parents.
“When my breasts sag and my teeth fall out, and I’m all dried up and wrinkled like a prune?” Jen would say.
“Of course I will.”
“You won’t trade me in for a younger woman?”
“Of course I will. But I’ll feel bad about it.”
And we would laugh at the impossibility of it all.
Love made us partners in narcissism, and we talked ceaselessly about how close we were, how perfect our connection was, like we were the first people in history to ever get it exactly right. We were that couple for a while, nauseatingly impervious assholes, busy staring into each other’s eyes while everyone else was trying to have a good time. When I think about how stupid we were, how obstinately clueless about the realities that awaited us, I just want to go back to that skinny, cocksure kid with his bloated heart and perennial erection, and kick his teeth in.
I want to materialize before that smug little shit like the Ghost of Christmas Past and scare the matrimonial impulse right out of him. Forget marriage, I’ll rail at him. Just go for the tequila.”
I want to tell him how he and the love of his life will slowly fall into a routine, how the sex, while still perfectly fine, will become commonplace enough that it won’t be unheard of to postpone it in favor of a television show, or a late-night snack. How they’ll stop strategically smothering their farts and closing the door to urinate; how he’ll feel himself growing self-conscious telling funny stories to their friends in front of her, because she’s heard all his funny stories before; how she won’t laugh at his jokes the way other people do; how she’ll start to spend more and more time on the phone with her girlfriends at night. How they will get into raging fights over the most trivial issues: the failure to replace a roll of toilet paper, a cereal bowl caked with oatmeal left to harden in the sink, proper management of the checkbook. How an unspoken point system will come into play, with each side keeping score according to their own complicated set of rules. I want to materialize before that smug little shit like the Ghost of Christmas Past and scare the matrimonial impulse right out of him. Forget marriage, I’ll rail at him. Just go for the tequila. Then I’ll whisk him away to the future and show him the look on his face…
… when I walked into my bedroom and found Jen in bed with another man.
By that point, I probably should have suspected something. Adultery, like any other crime, generates evidence as an inevitable by-product, like plants and oxygen or humans and, well, shit. So there were no doubt a handful of ways I could have figured it out that would have spared me the eye-gouging trauma of actually having to witness it firsthand. The clues must have been piling up for a while already, like unread e-mails, just a click away from being read. A strange number on her cell phone bill, a call quickly ended when I entered the room, the odd unexplained receipt, a minor bite mark on the slope of her neck that I didn’t remember inflicting, her markedly depleted libido. In the days that followed, I would review the last year or so of our marriage like the security tapes after a robbery, wondering how the hell I could have been so damn oblivious, how it took actually walking in on them to finally get the picture. And even then, as I watched them humping and moaning on my bed, it took me a little while to put it all together.
Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us.
So when I came home early on Jen’s thirty-third birthday to find her lying spread-eagle on the bed, with some guy’s wide, doughy ass hovering above her, clenching and unclenching to the universal beat of procreation, his hands jammed under her ass, lifting her up into each thrust, her fingers leaving white marks where they pressed into his back, well, it took some time to process.
It hadn’t yet sunk in that it was Jen in the bed. All I knew was that it was my bed, and the only man who had any business having sex in it was me. I briefly considered the possibility that I was in the wrong house, but that seemed like a long shot, and a quick glance over to the picture of Jen on my night table, young and luminous in her bridal gown, confirmed that I was in the right place. Which was something of a minor relief actually, because to make that kind of mistake, to actually let yourself into your neighbor’s house and walk upstairs to their bedroom oblivious to your error, was probably cause to expect the worst from a brain scan. And if I had walked in on my neighbors rutting like dogs in the middle of the afternoon, I doubt that even the most heartfelt apology would have been accepted, and I’d never be able to make eye contact with them again, let alone ask them to get the mail when we went on vacation. Also, our neighbors, the Bowens, were in their late sixties and Mr Bowen was eating his way toward his third heart attack. Even if he was still sexually active, which I highly doubted given the circumference of his gelatinous gut, the effect of such an untimely intrusion would probably have sent him into cardiac arrest. So, all things considered, it was probably a good thing that I was in my own house.
Except, that being the case, it posed a handful of troubling scenarios, the most obvious of which was that the woman writhing on the bed in a pool of her own sweat, inserting her French-manicured index finger like a dart into the bull’s-eye of her lover’s anus, was my wife, Jen.
Which, of course, I’d known the instant I stepped into the room. But my brain was shielding me from the realization, giving me little random thoughts to process, just to keep me distracted, really, while, behind the scenes, my subconscious scrambled to assemble the facts and prepare a strategy for damage control. So instead of thinking, right away, Jen is fucking someone, my marriage is over, or something along those lines, my next thought was actually this: Jen never sticks her finger into my asshole during sex. Not that I had any desire for her to do so, especially now that I was seeing firsthand, so to speak, where it had been. We did some fun, nasty stuff from time to time, Jen and I – positions, props, creamy desserts, et cetera – but I fell squarely into that category of men who simply never feel the desire to bring their asshole into the mix. Not that I was judging the men who did.
Except for the man who was currently impaled two knuckles deep on my wife’s index finger, one digit away from the one she used to flip the bird at the guy who had cut us off in the HOV lane last week, two away from the diamond eternity band I’d bought her on our fifth anniversary. I was judging him pretty severely, actually. So much so that it took me an extra beat to realize that he was, in fact, Wade Boulanger, a popular radio personality who, in addition to screwing my wife and apparently enjoying the occasional bit of anal stimulation, was also my boss.
Extracted from This Is Where I Leave You.
Jonathan Tropper was born and raised in Riverdale, New York. He attended the creative writing program at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science, where he received a Masters degree. He lives with his wife and children in Westchester, New York, and teaches writing at Manhattanville College. A new film tie-in edition of This Is Where I Leave You is published in the UK by Orion, along with his other novels How to Talk to a Widower, Everything Changes and One Last Thing Before I Go. He wrote the screenplay for the This Is Where I Leave You film, and is currently adapting One Last Thing Before I Go. He is also the co-creator and executive producer of the television show Banshee, which is currently shooting its third season. Read more.