Before her ex-husband Richard, Tessa had long given up on the idea of coming. She had never had an orgasm—even now, as a 49-year-old divorcee, she’d never had one—but its absence had not eclipsed her life before Richard. It had been just as much a part of her life as being a brunette, or left-handed, but he had been singularly obsessed with it, ushering them into stranger and stranger territories in its pursuit.
It had begun innocently enough, with the usual props and mischiefs: vibrators, handcuffs, blindfolds, anal. Strawberry-flavored lubricants, French maid costumes, shaky videos of their bodies ricocheting in the murk. Over the years, the nearly three decades they’d spent fucking, they’d ventured further, though nothing had done the trick: not choking, whipping, spanking, or spitting; piss play, shit play, or pegging; cuckolding; orgies; sex parties; fox costumes and butt plugs that ended in voluminous tails; gleaming rubber suits that zipped over her face; roleplaying games in which he was a firefighter, and she a grateful survivor; sex in an alleyway; sex in a park; electric shocks; hypnotherapy; meditation; lucid dreaming; astral projecting; MDMA; LSD; 2C-B; prayer. Which is to say, when Tessa unearthed an old poster for Timofey Kondrashov in the filing cabinet at the print shop where she worked, she’d already tried everything else.
She was alone. Her coworker Clara, a thoroughly tattooed thirty-something, had closed the shop hours ago, leaving one fluorescent tile on in the office so that Tessa could continue working. Tessa preferred to spend time outside her lonely, one-bedroom flat—because of the affair, Richard had taken the house, and her daughter Ellie was in her final year at university—so she worked late, answering emails about car decals that advertised cake decorating businesses and vinyl banners that announced clearance sales.
She was rifling through a drawer of old invoices when she found the event poster. Timofey wasn’t exactly a looker—his headshot revealed a blunt jaw; flat, fleshy lips; heavy-lidded blue eyes; and a sparse blond beard—but as soon as she saw him, desire echoed through her body, blood pulsing hotly in her throat. Below the pensive photo, the poster advertised an evening with “the woman whisperer—gentlemen, learn the art of romance and seduction from Siberia’s premiere Prince Charming. Come a novice and leave a master of love.” The event was dated April 10, 1982. By the time she had finished studying the poster, Tessa was sitting in damp underwear so rich and pungent that it flavored the room.
Miraculously, Timofey had a website. The photo on the homepage betrayed his age: hair had migrated away from his scalp and over his jaw, his eyelids and cheeks drooped, and his lips had somehow grown longer and fleshier. A saccharine smooth jazz number played automatically and started over every time she clicked on a new page. Still, inexplicably, Tessa’s arousal swelled, and her legs felt weak as she typed out a message on the contact form:
Forgive me for the strange request—I’m sure that my situation is quite different from those of your other clients. However, given your years of experience, I thought you might have some suggestions and insight to offer me. I am happy to offer compensation for your role as a consultant.
After punching the last period with her ring finger, she plunged the hand down the front of her trousers and luxuriated in the slickness coating her labia, turning her mammalian body into something lithe and marine.
It was unfair, thought Tessa, that while she was starting to become invisible to men, Richard could bask in the silvering of his sideburns, the walnut hide replacing his face. Tessa was dissipating at the edges, the electrons rioting until they popped off her body and returned to the ether. She remembered when she’d first arrived in London: she was a university student, her face florid with pimples and radiant with oil, taking the train to her parents’ home in Ealing every month because she had no friends to speak of. Back then, she had gravity, the muscle of womanhood so dense that men followed her from platform to platform like tides lapping shore to shore.
“Honestly, I’m astonished that something so mundane as an affair did us in,” said Tessa at the back of the print shop while Clara mauled her chicken wrap. Four months post-divorce, it still dominated her conversations with people. “After the cuckolding, and the parading me through nightclubs on a leather leash—things I did for him, in a way—you’d assume that a tryst with a yoga instructor would be on the menu as well.”
“There’s a difference, though, isn’t there? Between things you’re trying together and going behind his back?” As Clara spoke, a morsel of chicken fell onto the shred of lettuce that had landed on the table earlier, like a delicate plating at an expensive restaurant. The open neck of her navy blue polo revealed tendrils of black ink.
“Yes, that’s the way it looks,” said Tessa. “But we were through before the affair—years and years before. When he started crying, Clara, I was shocked. I was absolutely certain he’d been sleeping with a coworker, and that we were staying together in the modern sense—raising Ellie, seeing each other through old age.” Tessa stirred the soup in her cardboard container with a crust of bread, seeing in the viscous broth the image of Richard crumpling to his knees on the kitchen tile, face blotchy and smeared, after she had answered, with honesty, his accusing question. She had sunk down with him, gripped the slippery flesh of his cheeks, horrified by his horror. It had been so long since he’d shown passion for her, and not just her body, the challenge it presented.
“Does he make you come?” he had gasped after a while, and Tessa had shaken her head and allowed him to tuck his weeping face into her neck.
“What a cynical way to think of marriage,” said Clara.
One of the printers in the shop choked on a page and emitted a rhythmic, high-pitched complaint. Clara pushed the last of the chicken wrap into her mouth and chewed deliberately, waiting for Tessa to get up. She was in her early 30s and couldn’t sympathize with Tessa’s experience. She couldn’t imagine that her flesh, clinging to the physical through so many inked runes, would soon dematerialize, become undetectable to men, and next to other women, and then to teenagers and children so that her only human connections would be to babies, who see everything: all the time, all at once.
Sighing, Tessa went to the beeping printer, opened a side compartment, and wrenched free the jammed paper. Printed on the jagged leaf was some sort of map and a label in the corner reading ISOCHRONIC DISTANCES, London 1914. She studied it, trying to decipher the splotches of color radiating across the European continent. A five days’ journey from London was colored in red; a 10 days’ journey, in pink; and so on, until the code reached blue, which meant a journey of over 40 days. Her eyes flickered to Siberia in the upper left hand corner, licked in pleasing blue, and something inside her flickered, too.
From a young age, Tessa had known she was different from other girls. In secondary school, she and her friends would lay in the grass, chewing gum and trading techniques for getting off—Maude humped the corner of the bed, and Bernice imagined that she was being strangled by a green python—and she would go home and rub herself determinedly, but could conjure nothing but a pale pink horizon of pleasure, which didn’t match what she’d been told it would be like: euphoria erupting from every pore, every nerve singing with a holy vibration, total empathy with living things across infinite time and space.
“You’ll know what it felt like to be a stegosaurus watching an asteroid blast your family to pieces,” Maude said importantly.
For a while, every time Tessa masturbated, her mind would inevitably stray from the divine musculature of movie-star torsos and toward a Mesozoic apocalypse. She pictured flaming asteroids igniting the sky and barreling into the earth, plowing through miles of rainforest so lush it was almost black. Raptors ran shrieking across the devastated earth, and enormous brontosauruses thundered darkly behind screens of smoke. It was so vivid, so engrossing, that Tessa wondered after if it had happened, if she’d come.
Lying in bed with her first boyfriend, watching his penis pale and wither and the glisten of sperm drying on her torso, she confessed that she thought an orgasm as like a terrifying and beautiful dream. He took a moment before clamping a hand over his eyes and barking with laughter until she screamed, “Why are you laughing at me? You’re the one with balls hanging from your body!”
By the time she got to university, she had learned to fake it. It was useful in the usual ways: to give him the satisfaction, to be allowed to sleep, to increase the likelihood of another date. In this, at least, she had something in common with her straight, female peers, who smoked cigarettes out the window while mustering ecstatic yodels, comparing techniques.
“I go quiet for a while,” said her roommate, a girl from Manchester. “Then I start doing this low hum, in the back of my throat, which builds and builds until it’s like sticking your head in a beehive.”
It got to be tiresome, of course, to lie with her body, and once Tessa received her diploma she only moaned and mewled when moved to, only let her eyes roll back when the pleasure was blinding. There was still some place she had not reached, some door she had not jimmied open, but for the most part she’d been content with the velvet feelings she had, the measure of ecstasy she’d been prescribed.
Timofey responded the day after her inquiry. He struck a professional tone:
Thanks for your letter. I would be happy to help you. My consultant service is 300 rubles. If it is suiting you, enter your credit card details in the form indicated by this web link. Your card will be charged afterwards a 7-day free trial.
The link took Tessa to a survey that asked for her billing address, credit card number, date of birth, place of birth, height and weight, hair color, eye color, face shape, breast size, body type, blood type, medical history, parents’ names, siblings’ names, pets’ names, friends’ names, religious beliefs, spiritual beliefs, no-longer-held beliefs, occupation, interests, sexual orientation, marital status, duration of most recent relationship if single, positive qualities of most recent relationship, negative qualities of most recent relationship, lessons learned from most recent relationship, unanswered questions from most recent relationship, lingering traumas from most recent relationship, existential crises born of most recent relationship.
When a memory led her too far astray, the music on the site—the brassy wail of the saxophone announcing another loop—called her back to the task. Dutifully, she wrote it all down. She and Richard had met the summer after college. He’d asked her for directions to the nearest tube station at just the right time: the time Tessa had considered a leather jacket, frayed and worn in summer, to be sexy, and assumed a man’s self-confidence to be warranted. He was new to the city, but not that new, he confided later, tracing her jaw with a thumb. It made her feel stupid and beautiful. They weren’t particularly well-matched—she was much more left-leaning than he was, and they didn’t share the same tastes in books, films, or music, but he came from family money and showed her how life could be comfortable. He had proposed a year after their meeting, a few months after his mother had passed, and he had displayed such vulnerability and strength during the ordeal, shown her such a deep well of emotion and intelligence, that she’d said yes, not realizing that her access to his emotions would fade with his grief.
Tessa was helping a customer size a photo of a coffee mug that would go on an A-frame sign when her phone buzzed.
Hello. It is Timofey, she read. I have conducted studies on your answers and am ready to begin your mind-body activations. You are in a calm, relaxing place, yes, where you feel you can be yourself?
She clicked aimlessly around the screen as she considered her response, the mouse making pock pock sounds.
“What if we put the text over the mug?” suggested the customer, a reed of a man who swam in his peach collared shirt. “Wouldn’t that look nice? Can you put the text as a layer on top of the mug?”
Yes, she texted back. I feel calm and relaxed.
Good. Currently it is 4 hours in the afternoon in Siberia. I am going to London to meet you, but solely following your mind-body optimization exercises. Number one step, you need to decide what kind of creature you inhabit. It is very important that you come in contact with your being. For example, I have the legs of a bear, the body of an alligator, and the head of a stork. Who are you?
“This man is absolutely barmy,” said Tessa.
“I’m just suggesting one simple change,” said the customer, bristling.
Tessa swiveled in her chair and shouted, “Clara. I need you to take over.”
“What for?” Clara shouted from the break room.
“Just get out here, please. I’ve got urgent business.”
Clara goose-stepped into view.
“Thanks,” said Tessa. “I’ll just be a minute.”
“Well, now I’ve got to explain everything again,” said the customer.
“Text over the mug,” said Tessa. “We’re not idiots.” She hurried to the back and slid into a chair that still cradled Clara’s heat. An image of Timofey with a stork bill protruding from his sun-stung face, his shoulders carrying alligator scales like epaulets, flashed behind her eyelids every time she blinked. No one’s ever asked me that before, she typed. She watched the blue cursor, paralyzed by the idea of Timofey waiting for her response, her insides cinching with that incomprehensible want. Then, giving her shoulders a shake, she continued, I guess I would have a cat’s head on a chicken’s body. A chicken body with butterfly wings.
His reply came immediately, as though he’d anticipated her answer. Yes, yes. You understand yourself. This chicken body means vulnerable, also down in reality, and this butterfly wings hint at ambition. But your cat’s head, it is very cunning and sometimes can be cruel. In sex and love, you can wear any of these characteristics such like clothing. You need to learn who you are, and in the presence of what person. Today you are chicken. Tomorrow, maybe, you are cat.
Tessa approached the idea gingerly, probing for ways in which she might have been a chicken, her pronged feet stuttering forward in search of scattered seed. She did feel, all of a sudden, that she’d been chasing pleasure in a dumb, provincial way—maybe that had been the problem all these years.
Her phone was suddenly animate, singing and vibrating in her hand. A cold misgiving spread through her stomach; she wondered if she had said something wrong, if Timofey had a policy of not working with cat-chicken-butterflies. When she raised the screen, however, it was her daughter Ellie’s name on the screen. Twice bewildered—her daughter had not voluntarily spoken to her since learning about the affair—Tessa answered it in a frantic tone.
“Hello? Mum? Everything all right?”
“What? Oh—yes, yes, everything’s fine.”
“Are you sure? You sound a bit shrill.”
“It’s nothing, nothing. Just work stuff, that’s all.”
“You have to learn not to take everything on so personally, you know. Work is just work.”
“That’s very wise, Ellie. I’ll have to remember that.”
“Anyway, I have class in a minute. I just wanted to say hi, and to ask if it was okay to bring Eric around when I visit.”
Tessa’s spine snapped to attention. “I thought you were staying with Dad after the Michaelmas term?” It had been excruciating to tell Ellie the reason for the divorce. It was such cruel news, and she could never articulate why she’d done it without ruining Ellie’s relationship with her father. (How could she tell her daughter about his ruthless sexual ego? Or that she considered herself deserving of happiness at his expense, for once?) Now, her chest inflated. She knew their bond was unimpeachable, that Ellie would consider the subterranean plots that ran through every marriage. Ellie was a smart, compassionate girl.
“Dad and I sort of got in a fight when I told him Eric was coming,” said Ellie.
“Oh.” Everything in Tessa’s field of vision clenched and grew denser. “Of course, darling, you and Eric are welcome anytime. Anytime.”
Ellie had been dating the boy for nearly all of her university years. Richard had never approved of him, raging in the shower that he was boring and a braggart, his voice booming over the sound of raining water: “She’s wasting her time. She should be making herself available for someone to come along who actually understands her and can make her happy.” Tessa, brushing her teeth, had paused to consider the irony of this advice, wishing that someone had told her so when she was young. On this count, however, Tessa agreed with him—Eric, who wore tailored blazers and whose favorite band was the Beatles, was a bit underwhelming—but this trip would be her way back into the family.
“Great,” said Ellie. “I’ve got to run. Talk to you soon.”
“Love you,” said Tessa, and hung up before she could hear anything back.
Timofey’s rate, as it turned out, was not 300 rubles per hour, but 300 rubles per minute. When she received the first invoice, Tessa sent a frantic email requesting to terminate his services immediately, to which he’d responded:
My dear Tessa. Do not panic. Do not despair. All your life, you slowly reached out for what belongs to you. This time you must capture the object of your desire. My trip has already begun. I swim across the Aleutian Islands, battling the cold. I wear a beard of ice.
Entranced by a vision of Timofey slicing through the frigid sea, wrapped in a black wool coat and fur hat, ice floes spinning in his wake, Tessa sold her wedding ring. That was a great burden lifted from her life, and she was grateful to Timofey for it. She managed to cling to this gratefulness through the loss of her car (it was better for the environment), her computer (now she would tackle her pile of unread books), her furniture (it was charming and bohemian to take meals on the floor), her expensive clothes (vanity was a sin). She was reluctant to sell her phone, but he reassured her that he would find other ways to reach her.
The people of Labrador are kind, read a postcard from Timofey. His writing was miniscule, leaving a gasp of white space, and strongly slanted to the left. Yesterday, one old woman concocted for me a delectable soup. It began the thought: I am equally vulnerable to pain and joy. What are happenings that bring you pain and joy together?
She had no way to answer. She pictured him marching off the edge of the Labrador Peninsula and into the Atlantic Ocean, the water the same diluted pink that had been used in the map of isochronic distances. Faithfully, she sold her grandmother’s vintage gold brooch. After a certain point, it became easy: every time she cast something off, she had less to lose. In that sense, it was not so different from the transactions she’d made with Richard. She’d given him everything he wanted. Power for pleasure. Pleasure for pain.
“Have you been robbed? Where are all of your things?” Ellie dropped her duffle bag and gaped at the apartment, which had been pared down to a single couch and a floor lamp. A few framed photographs hung on the wall and leaned on the fireplace mantle, their placement seeming erratic when divorced from the context of her other things. Gone were the oak dining table and chairs with their handsome, sculpted backs; gone was the Turkish rug with its scarlet arabesques; gone were the tufted corduroy armchairs; gone were the ceramic planters that had frothed with green vines.
“It’s the new thing—minimalism,” said Tessa, picking up her daughter’s bag and, not knowing where to put it, setting it back down on the scarred hardwood floor. “This Japanese woman, Marie Kondo—have you heard of her? She says everything you own is supposed to spark joy, and if not, well, straight out it goes.”
“It’s very airy in here,” said Eric with hesitation. He seemed unsure of his direction: whether he should align himself with his girlfriend, or ingratiate himself with her mother.
Ellie scoffed, tossed a look of disbelief at Tessa, and stomped further into the apartment as though she’d find the vanished possessions stacked in a spare room.
Eric let go of his expensive-looking rolling suitcase, and its precision-machinated wheels carried it across the slanted floor before he clutched it again. “Thanks for letting us stay here, Mrs—Tessa,” he said in his usual, unimpeachable way. He had a broad, earnest face with a sharp nose and tiny, pointed teeth. Somehow, by the grace of proportion and placement, his abrasive features formed a pleasing whole. He was also tall and broad-shouldered with dark ripples of hair, which Tessa had always admired; she searched for the outline of his body under his button-down shirt and felt some horrible fist of desire clench within her.
“It’s my pleasure,” she said, and as soon as she uttered the last word, strength began to drain from her legs. She remembered, as she reached out to clutch the back of a nonexistent armchair, Timofey’s cryptic message, scrawled on the back of a receipt stamped with the address of a gas station in Marseilles: Everyday you must make yourself ready to receive satisfaction. You must make yourself like a clear glass awaiting water. The receipt had croaked up through the machine at the bookstore after the cashier had processed the used books she’d brought in. She tightened up her smile in an attempt to remain upright and said, “Can I get you something to drink?”
Ellie tromped back into the room. “This isn’t normal, Mum. I’m worried.” She wore a heavy green sweater that swung around her knees. She looked so much like Tessa had at that age with her protruding cheekbones brazen with acne and her bangs spiked with grease from her scalp. Bangs didn’t become her, but Tessa wouldn’t tell her that, just as her own mother hadn’t. “Do you need to see someone? You know, talk about everything that’s happened?”
Tessa filled up a glass of water. “As a matter of fact, I am seeing someone, and he’s been quite helpful.” She brought it to Eric and wrapped his hand around it, feeling the hard peaks of his knuckles under the warm skin. “I’m afraid you’ll have to share this glass.” The clearness of what you want will be like the ringing bell, Timofey had told her through the radio of a passing car. She watched the boy take a sip, the flex of his throat muscle as he swallowed, and was seized by desperation. She wished it could be any other way—any way at all. “He’s helping me set new intentions for my life, and see myself from a new perspective,” said Tessa.
Ellie accepted the glass from her boyfriend and drained it in one gulp. She sighed, smacked her lips. “Well, I’ve been dying to take a shower. Have you still got a shower in the place?” She laughed without waiting for an answer and stalked away, sighing, “Bloody hell.”
In the vacuum Ellie left in her wake, Tessa’s desire swelled, pressing against the walls of the room. She imagined the boy leaning into her mouth, making her back bend like a bow, himself the urgent arrow. She would tug his shirt open, send the buttons pinging around the bare apartment. It was madness—surely this wasn’t what Timofey had meant when he’d spray-painted the building outside her window: Fear is the most transparent form of longing. It is a pale precursor of desire.
Buying herself time, Tessa groped her way to the window, to see if the red lettering was still there. Timofey hadn’t signed this most recent message, but she recognized his cramped, slanting words. The idea that he had been so close to her flat, his clothes ragged from weather and travel, had given her eager goosebumps, and she was certain that a glimpse of his prescriptive scrawl would rescue her from her current thrall, but when her fingers hooked onto the windowsill she saw that someone had already brushed over it, the bleary letters barely legible under coats of cream paint.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Jenny Xie is a writer based in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in publications like Gulf Coast Online and The Offing, and won awards from Devil's Lake, Narrative, Joyland, and Best of the Net. A Bread Loaf scholar, MacDowell fellow, and Aspen Words fellow, she holds degrees from UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University. She is the executive editor of Dwell.com.
1519 Harmon Street
Berkeley, CA 94703
This is where I discovered my cat, Trumer, a tiny mewling thing with blue eyes and a crooked tail. He's sitting on the couch back as I write this, his paws tucked under him in what I call Loaf Mode.