Gore felt a small plate, which probably carried cake, brush up against his fingers. He couldn’t believe it had been ten years; wasn’t it amazing how what you did every day added up in increments to your entire life? Like a crude comedian, he thought, asked to host a prestigious awards show, the tiny events didn’t deserve to be associated with something so profound. But maybe it was egalitarian and good: every instant played its part in extending and ultimately ending life, the way that all the people in Gore’s apartment played their parts in maintaining their arrangement. (And wasn’t it weird that such an unconventional living situation should be commemorated in such a traditional way, with a celebration, admittedly private and small? Didn’t it take the erotic appeal away from how they lived? Weren’t the others disturbed by the noisemakers, the cards, the clapping, and the candles? Apparently not, for they themselves had thrown the party and bought the cake, from which Gore was now starting to fumble a piece loose with his fork.)
In a second, the utensil had found his mouth and he had swallowed, as he had swallowed the whole idea of living like this in the first place. At the start, he’d been a bit reluctant to digest it; now he just thought the whole thing delicious. He began to make his way for more cake, his hand scrambling across the table and banging into—whose hand was it, Annabelle’s? Or Shem’s? He couldn’t tell; they both used lotion and kept their nails short.
Early in his life, he would never have been open to such a thing, but everything had changed after he became impotent and his wife died—not that one thing had caused the other, though maybe one had, for they had actually happened in reverse order (her death, then his impotence), so maybe the second had been a traumatized reaction to the first, or so a shrink had told him; maybe it was true. Why not? It made sense.
At the time, he had considered himself of no more use to women, not as a lover, anyway (and, yes, he knew that there were other acts to perform than “the deed,” but call him old-fashioned, this had usually been the denouement of his amorous encounters; without it, he feared it would be like reading a whodunit with the last page missing: all that information and evidence accrued with no revelation, something that would lead only to frustration, a sense of time frittered away).
In truth, he was embarrassed and just couldn’t admit it to anyone. And, yes, he had tried pills but they endowed him with a weird object below his waist that felt both attached to and detached from himself, as if he were waving an appliance around, an electric carving knife for turkey, and one that was malfunctioning, sputtering sparks, and incapable of being controlled.
It was peculiar that he minded this, for Gore had always been detached as a person; he knew it and so had his wife, Liesel (sensibly, she felt there was always something to put up with in a relationship; other men were cruel or piggish, for example, and that was worse, and she was no prize, either, etc., more reasons he had loved her). His job for many years had even involved distance and observation: He had managed a movie revival theater downtown, at the time the last of its kind and itself about to be closed, sending Gore into an early (and unwanted) retirement. Without the job, he found he missed less the movies than the experience of being in an audience watching them: slipping into the house, standing in the back, melding into one big eye with the other people, not directly engaging them (asking afterwards how they had liked the picture, how they could be better “served,” which he had had to do on occasion) but melting into one mass public perception of a thing. It had made him feel warm as few other things had done in his life, less alone, even loved and loving.
That was why not long after—the what, triple whammy? The three strikes?—his wife’s death, his firing, and his becoming impotent, that he had decided to pursue a new line of work.
“Available to witness weddings…Discreet and dependable…” He couldn’t remember exactly how he had phrased the ad, but he had placed it online and paid to keep it there. Gore had charged a small amount, enough to show he was sincere but not so much to scare anybody off. Within days, he had received interest from more than one couple and, within a few months, was earning enough to seriously supplement his other income from investments, a small inheritance, etc.
He would meet the couples in the hall outside the city clerk’s office, usually before it opened in the morning. He would announce that he was fine with being paid afterwards, but some would insist on splitting the fee—half now, half later—as if he might bolt before it was over, or the bride or the groom would, which was more likely. The couples were young, old, and middle-aged; straight and gay; attractive, passable, and hideous; dressed to kill (a white wedding dress, a powder blue suit) or down (a running suit and sweatpants for them both). They hired him because they had no friends or could not agree on whom to ask (their first fight?) or wished for their own reasons to keep the event a secret. Many shook his hand and took leave of him directly following the finish; some bought him a sandwich and made a hollow vow to keep in touch; a few gave him gifts (the T-shirt saying “Witness” sold as a joke in the store near the chapel; cufflinks).
Once inside, he would sit with each couple while they got a number and waited to be called on a digital bulletin board, as if in a bakery. After being summoned, they would face a clerk behind a counter: one time it was a woman who spoke so softly they had to lean in to hear her, as if she were ashamed of what she was saying or trying not to divulge such an intimate interaction or trying to test the couples’ commitment by putting them through one more hoop, which was constantly asking her to repeat herself. Another clerk, a man, droned questions in a dead voice, as if furnishing a thing as boring as a fishing license: “Have you ever [gone fishing] before?” “Is the person you [went fishing with before] still alive?” “Do you know the date when you [stopped going fishing] with him?”
Then Gore would stand behind them in a small chapel with paint peeling atmospherically from the walls as they took their brief vows. The chaplain who often administered them spoke in a soft and heavy urban accent, like a compassionate cop making inquiries at a crime scene: “Do you take…”“Do you take…” “Does anyone here have a legal reason why…” And each time, by watching, Gore would feel the couples’ nervousness and hope fly at and seep into him like snow; and, when they kissed to seal the ceremony, he would absorb the pleasure and relief each experienced (and, despite what someone cynical might have thought, in all the ceremonies he witnessed—and he must have seen three hundred in the five years he did them—no one being married ever evinced hostility or mockery or doubt, no matter how much of these emotions he or she had expressed before entering; and some had from agitation or another spur been jocular or cocky or coarse in the waiting room). It allowed Gore to join in love without attempting an action he could no longer perform or moving a muscle or sacrificing something, like dignity.
Then, one morning, he witnessed the wedding of Annabel and Shem. She was a tall (over six foot) black woman, British by birth, in her 30s, who used to model and now did the books for her fiancé, who was American, smaller, softer, white, older than she by ten years, and leader through inheritance of a shipping business about which he was too bored to explain very much.
Nothing stood out about the ceremony except the obvious high quality of the bride’s and groom’s clothes, which were admittedly still simple: a business suit; a shirt, skirt and choker of pearls. Yet during the event, Gore noticed something odd: Annabel looked at him even more intently than he did her. And, afterwards, she asked—apparently with her new husband’s approval—what Gore was doing that night. When he said, “nothing,” she extended an invitation for him to come to their home.
And it was a home, a complete townhouse in an exclusive neighborhood, on a dead end street that screeched to a stop right before it fell into the river. Gore had never seen a place so opulent; Shem had inherited it after his father’s death (his mother had moved to another of their properties, in a suburb a highway, two bridges, and a world away from town).
“Let’s eat,” she said. “Getting married made me hungry. We don’t cook, though. Take-out all right?”
The take-out was from the city’s best Japanese restaurant, raw fish that dissolved like delicious tears upon Gore’s tongue. He licked his fingers afterwards, he couldn’t help it. When she was sure he was finally finished, Annabel asked if he wanted to see the upstairs, and, as if hypnotized by sedatives in the sushi, Gore agreed.
The staircase was so ornate that Gore thought Annabel should have been carrying a candelabra to light their way, as if in an old horror movie. When they reached the top landing, she began to discuss discreetly her love life with Shem.
She said there had always been something missing from it, something she could not quite put her finger on, excuse the suggestive imagery, and now—after watching Gore watch them be wed—she knew what it was.
That night, she put Gore on a chair at the front of their bedroom, near a closed door and turned-off light switch. He had once seen a movie in which a milquetoast husband was tied hand and foot in a chair and made to watch his slutty wife have sex with a repellently appealing escaped convict—a scene he had watched over and over again—but this situation differed in that he was not being forced but asked nicely and would not be bound but free to cross his legs and arms and drink from a water bottle thoughtfully provided on the dresser to his left. And while the idea would be the same—for him to watch Annabel and Shem make love—the intention was not to punish him but to give Annabel pleasure, if he didn’t mind, which he didn’t, for he soon found he got his own pleasure from it, which was different from hers and greater than any other he had experienced in his life.
The first time, they started slowly, or Shem did, anyway, not incompetently or indifferently, but with a certain lack of zing that made Gore understand what Annabel had meant by missing something. But this was quickly changed by Gore watching, for when he caught Annabel’s gaze, their four eyes shining in whatever light came through the blinds from the streetlamps or the moon, which was particularly big and brilliant tonight, like a klieglight at the premiere of this idea, she became aroused in a way that made Shem better, made him pick up his game, as it were, like a logy tennis champ inspired to aggressive play by his suddenly adept opponent. The action became more frenzied, Shem drilling into her, Annabel gripping and slapping and spanking him to do so, while Gore and Annabel bore into each other, too, with their eyes, both holding the stare as tightly as she held Gore at the end, forcing her husband to finish by finishing so wildly herself, crying out, “Shem!” and then “Gore!” “Shem!’ and then “Gore!” as if making sure to thank them both, from politeness, the way in his youth Gore’s mother had insisted on his attending every party to which he was invited, whether he liked the inviting child or not, so as not to hurt any little one’s feelings, since there would be so much pain for everyone later on. (And Annabel made sure only to use positions in which she and Gore could see each other: she wouldn’t go on top or turn her back to him, not because it was rude—though it may have been partly that—because then only he would see and not she, and what good was that, for her, not him? She didn’t know yet that he would enjoy it, he was only learning this himself and slowly). And neither had any temptation to laugh while looking, as you do in staring contests as a kid; there was nothing funny about it; there might have been to other people but not to them, not during it, anyway; afterwards, they all kind of laughed about, well, how intense it had been, not how idiotic.
And it had been intense for Gore—secretly and in a strange way, he found it incredibly exciting, even though physically he felt nothing, the arousal all in his head and not communicated anywhere else, as if a crucial and internal phone cord had been yanked from his wall and he had been talking to no one the entire time (“Hello? Hello? Is anybody there? Jesus Christ! Goodbye!”). The excitement of seeing them had been great not because he was privy to something private of which Annabel may have been ashamed and so eager to reveal (because it excited her to be punished or condemned? Due to poor parenting, she equated punishment with approval, connection, love? Or did her excitement stem from being exonerated, forgiven, her “immoral” activities made to seem innocent by being so flagrantly public? But then wouldn’t she want to do it in the road, to coin the old song lyric, before as many people as possible? Gore didn’t know, he was no shrink, and he never asked Annabel, either; she had even less interest in introspection than he). No, he so enjoyed watching them because it meant blending into a big ball of swaying and heaving energy, as he had in the movie theater, obviously, but this was even better, as if he had stepped into the screen and onto the set, mingling with the movie stars. And, being stars, they couldn’t be touched, only gazed upon, which was great.
They finished late, and Gore was offered a canopied and super-soft guest room bed, which he accepted. At breakfast the next morning (where they had all kinds of cereal and toast and egg white omelettes), Annabel told him openly that doing this would save their marriage, as having a child would for other couples. Would he please move in with them? (Annabel had cleared this with Shem, apparently, for he merely read the paper at the table the entire time.) Would he be in their bedroom whenever they wanted to love each other? They would support him, he could quit his witness job downtown; Gore’s job had done its job by introducing him to them.
Gore was taken aback, unused to being approached so directly about such a personal thing. Yet he agreed to consider it. The breakfast turned silent while he continued to eat and Annabel stared at him, as she had last night, awaiting a reply. Soon the quality—say it, the deliciousness—of the food did more than preoccupy, it seduced: as soon as he had finished the last irresistible lick of jam and butter and slightly burnt bread and it had slid down and coated his coarse throat, he had agreed, staring into Annabel’s limpid and yearning eyes as he had eight hours earlier. Why not, he thought? He was lonely and lovelorn and there was warmth in this place with these two.
Annabel bent forward and kissed him gratefully on the cheek and maybe a little on the mouth, too; it was awkward leaning forward over other people’s plates. Shem looked up for a second and smiled, okay with it, before turning a page of the paper to the crossword.
And so they lived together, Gore as more and less than a roommate, all his expenses paid, encouraged to come and go as he pleased, asked to merely be around in the occasion of Annabel and Shem becoming intimate (and it was never truly scheduled but he noticed there came to be a pattern to the times and places: usually at nights, once or twice a week, in the early years, anyway, Gore alerted by a text to his phone if he was in his room, reading, which he usually was, not being a party animal or night owl at this age, sometimes already asleep or in front of a film he had wanted to see, and so slightly inconvenienced, and walking down the hall in his undershirt and shorts or pajamas or even nude beneath a robe, supplied by his friends free of charge), to take his place on the chair beside the dozing light switch by the closed door.
There was the occasional impulsive episode to break things up, as well, when the three would be sitting idly on the sofa, slightly drunk, and Annabel would feel the urge and sloppily straddle Shem; or having had Shem join her in the shower, Annabel would become inspired by the water and soap and heat, and Gore would find himself sitting on the closed toilet, Annabel having opened the shower door, indifferent to the spray causing puddles on the floor and making Gore sopping wet (wearing a bathing suit he had found in his dresser drawer), Shem diligently behind Annabel, Annabel especially aroused, slapping the stall wall as if trying to shut up a noisy neighbor, Annabel and Gore only catching glimpses of each other’s eyes through the hovering steam as Sherlock Holmes had found the hound on the foggy moor, right? (And was that the movie Gore had been watching before she called? He couldn’t remember.)
Gore never knew if they ever did it without him, though Annabel once assured him (when both were in the bag) that they would postpone or cancel the event if he were not around, the way a Broadway show posts a notice and gives exchanges the night a star has stayed home sick. “If a tree falls in the forest, etc.,” she had said, though she didn’t say “falls,” amusingly and crudely attributing a sex act to a stationary, seed-producing, and regenerating plant.
When Shem would go out of town on business or to the country to see his elderly, alcoholic mother, Annabel would sometimes ask Gore to watch her pleasure herself, and the experience would be especially intense for them both, for he sensed at these times that he saw her and knew her in ways that Shem did not, though she never hid the truth from Shem when he returned, usually just casually mentioning it and getting a distracted smile in return, as if he were simply happy she had kept busy while he was gone. (Gore, however, would sometimes remember the strong smell of her perfume and body parts for days, ruing when he could no longer summon them by inhaling his own skin and clothes. At last, on a weekend when Shem was away, he for the first time took the initiative and asked Annabel to do it for him and she agreed, as surprised and pleased as a singer onstage who gets a request for a favorite song no one ever wants to hear. And even though her “performance” seemed slightly intentional and over-the-top, he had never felt closer to her than after it was over and she had made him suck and lick her fingers, as if giving him her autograph or serving him her own delicacy or, no, like a mother breast-feeding her baby boy, a gesture Gore savored, for it would never be repeated, having as much unnerved as it had excited them. Anyway, it had all been a long time ago.)
Annabel offered another piece of the cake, which was delicious (Annabel and Shem still didn’t cook but provided the best of store-bought and delivered). Gore fluttered his fingers, meaning, I couldn’t, maybe a few years ago I could or would have but no longer, it’s kind of sad or simply bittersweet (Annabel probably only saw, “No, thanks, I’m stuffed,” in his one wave). But it was bittersweet: Gore had been old enough when they began and now was even older: this was the waning of the coda, in other words, not just the end, the very end. Annabel and Shem were older, too, and so made love less often, half as much it seemed sometimes. And it was different for them all now, for Gore no longer could see.
In truth, he could still see something—his macular degeneration hadn’t gone that far, he wasn’t completely blind—but he mostly picked up globs and throbs of colored matter, like the animation of beating hearts in educational old cartoons. Consequently, he kept his eyes closed most of the time now, not wishing to compare what little he perceived with what he used to take in; it was too painful and pointless, for it was not going to get better, he would only grow weaker and worse.
What he heard mattered most to him now: the sounds of gasps and moans, rubs and slaps, threats and promises, cries and whispers (like the old Bergman movie, only in English not Swedish, so the dubbed edition he had once to his horror booked by mistake at his theater and had to pull midway through the first show before giving refunds), the whole song and dance or even symphony of love; as clichéd as that sounded, that’s what it had become to him, a score with themes, arias and recitatives, always unique but always too a reinterpretation of something invented eons ago, culminating—in their house, anyway—with a woman shouting “Shem!” and then “Gore!” though Gore wondered if Annabel said it now the way a performer repeats a corny catchphrase out of obligation or compassion, just to please her fans, the same way, he wondered, they let him sit in their room now or let him stay in their house at all, for old times’ sake, as they wouldn’t have been able to put a dying dog down.
He was being too harsh, at least about himself, for tonight would take him somewhere new. Gore’s sight had always been essential to him, especially since his wife’s death; but maybe it had really been an impediment, a shield, a screen in itself. Tonight, after the party, in their bedroom, using only his imagination, he saw not just Annabel and Shem but himself and Liesel, and himself and every other woman he had been with and every other couple (or trio! Or more!) who had ever loved each other. In the dark, for the first time in years and the last time of his life, he felt a physical reaction, an arousal rising in and on him, the way they say souls of the living rise at the instant that they die. As Annabel and Shem finished—or pretended to, for him, another anniversary gift?—he melded with all humanity, as he had always wished to do but from a distance; and, no longer detached, he joined all the people who had ever seen others or been seen by the rapt and staring eyes in the frowning face of the earth.