Erotic Notion #16: Was the Door Locked?
By Hapax Legomenon

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The couple sat across from me slurping spaghetti noisily. The dinner turned out to be better than the conversation. That surprised me; it had been five months since I'd last seen Martha, and now she was treating me almost like a stranger.

"The meatballs are excellent," said her husband Albert.

"Thank you," Martha said, dipping garlic bread into the sauce.

"Spectacular," I agreed. "Just like Paisano's."

Martha smiled at the reference. Paisano's was a dingy restaurant she and I frequented in sophomore year. The food was horrible, and we went mainly for the late night coffee. "I should hope not," she said.

Albert laughed, unfazed by our cryptic jokes. Martha and I shared many, going back to high school (years before she and Albert met in Paris). The saga of Martha and Albert started out as a study abroad romance lasting two semesters. When the year was over, he returned to Amherst; she to Trinity. Then, after a month's worth of desperate letters and a telephone marathon that ended with a proposal, she announced to her Trinity friends that the man she was marrying was someone we'd never met.

I saw her husband at the wedding (of course) and even shook hands with him on the receiving line. Five months later, a job interview in Oklahoma City and Martha's offer to let me crash on their couch provided the perfect opportunity to learn more about her husband. They had already accomplished the unfathomable; they had bought a house. The place looked nice although unpacked boxes were everywhere and none of the furniture had permanent locations.

Five months of marriage seemed to change Martha's outlook. Her hospitality seemed rushed, quaint, anxious. She had the smile of one already adjusted to paradise and now ready to move on with life. The transition from college graduate to wife made her more sedate, less excited by things, more willing to laugh at things not that funny. She viewed me as she viewed her entire past: with friendly interest mixed with a suspicion I would distract her from the paradise that was her marriage.

I once was in love with her. Once. Now I was simply in lust with her in a friendly, good-natured way. Do attractions to people ever disappear? I was susceptible to her airy laugh, the fluid way she moved her hands, the open affection she showed when meeting people for the first time.

Still, I couldn't help trying to find in her marital behavior some external sign of sensuality. We were all sexually repressed in college, Martha especially. She shied away from flings and the momentary thrill of closeness at dances. She even avoided dinnertime conversations when the sexual banter become too explicit. At such moments I almost felt embarrassed on her behalf. She leapt into marriage quickly and wholeheartedly; it hinted at some hidden passionate sensibility which surprised us all. At the wedding it was a shock (though a delicious one) to see her kissing the groom, to see her lips covering his so enthusiastically. That was a rare moment of public passion. But it submerged as quickly as it had appeared. I had heard how Muslim women covered their faces to heighten the mystery. I had always been tantalized by the veil wrapped around married women I knew; it was the veil of sensuality, of sexual companionship, of female desire that is gratified yet hidden. Its allure was irresistible.

At about ten thirty, Martha announced she was going to bed. Though she may very well have been exhausted (having to get up early the next day, etc), the premature end to the evening surprised me. For the time I'd known her, she never went to bed early. Some of our college study sessions didn't even begin until eleven. Going to bed so soon was a dangerous anomaly, a sign that marriage was draining her of energy she once possessed in abundance.

After Martha went through a series of yawns and stretches on her way to the bedroom, Albert mentioned that he too felt kind of tired and planned to retire early. At first, I was amused at the near simultaneity of their announcements. Then, in a flash, I understood. For them, "going to bed" wasn't merely a solitary recuperation from the daily exhaustions; it was a retreat into the naked company of someone willing to shield you from loneliness. Martha's words, "It's time to go to bed," and her simple authoritative tone recalled the simplicity of a mother's admonition. It stressed the banal, the routine, the unremarkable. But here the meaning was inverted, made pleasantly ambiguous. That was the beauty of the statement: the striking resemblance it bore to innocence. As if sensuality were so easy to talk about! I was startled and envious. I even felt the victim of a slight dishonesty. For them, the declaration of going to bed was a subtle signal, a benign expression of a hunger that would keep them up all night. And most of all, "going to bed" was a decision – mutually agreed upon – to enter a secret marvelous world that shut outsiders away.

I wanted to be part of that world. Or if not that world, then some other magical world I'd never been able to experience. Nothing was wrong with the spartan bachelor's life, but I wondered if a secret companion could ever change me, if the insertion of another loneliness into my own could ever ease my situation. Later, after the newlyweds disappeared behind the bedroom door and I settled into a Spanish novel on the couch, I felt alone, ignored, unknowable.

The sound of a bedroom door locking can be one of the most thrilling sounds to a young man's erotic imagination. I must have been asleep a few hours when I heard it, the careful, clandestine twisting of a latch in the darkness. I couldn't say what was more surprising: that I could hear the click, or that someone should be twisting the lock at such a strange hour. But I heard it. And I listened more attentively, in the futile hope of hearing moans or sweaty limbs pressed together. No other noise came. It kept me awake, much as in my own apartment I used to lie in bed wondering whether I had really locked the front door. Sometimes I was too tired to worry about it. At other times I would be unable to concentrate on anything (not even sleep) until I certified that yes, the door was locked (nine times out of ten it was). Of course, my apartment had nothing worth stealing, and I hardly worried about burglars. My anxiety had less to do with safety than an unconscious need to close things off, to define boundaries between inside and outside. I was afraid that one morning I'd find the door wide open not from foul play but carelessness.

I pondered the paradox of nakedness, the misfortune that Martha's nakedness was meant only for her husband's eyes. No amount of fantasizing on my part could equal an actual glance of her naked self, not a glance furtively-gained, but one received and acknowledged openly. She remained in one room; I in the other. The only nakedness known to me was my own. Female acquaintances became incomplete versions of a naked woman known to me only through imagination. Compared to this abstraction, the population of women reminded me of colorful veils used by magicians to suggest shapes of objects never underneath them in the first place.

The twisting of the lock became for me the erotic link between the bedroom and the living room, between the two people locked in carnal embrace and the curious outsider. It was a way to protect me from the sight of marital love in its starkest, most obscene configuration. Surely Martha and Albert trusted me. Surely they thought me mature enough not to snoop or barge in unexpectedly. But the possibility of that event, admittedly ludicrous, was still a possibility requiring preventive countermeasures.

How could I be sure that what I heard was not a door locking but a door unlocking? By the time the door was unlocked, Martha and Albert might have already exhumed the body of their marriage, given it a thorough examination and reburied it without leaving a trace. Were the barriers between the two adjoining rooms as absolute as I had supposed? Or was I only imagining? Was nothing really hidden from me? For the rest of the night, I pondered a question which has stayed with me to this day: was it locked? Was the door locked?


A variation of this story adopts the perspective of someone already inside the bedroom. Martha's perspective is perhaps more interesting. In five months of marriage, she had grown accustomed to conjugal kinkiness without being bored of it. But tonight was different. Albert's caresses had an unusual aggressiveness. She guessed it to be the result of some primitive masculine need to demonstrate control over her in the face of a male guest asleep on the living room couch. She found the game enjoyable. To recognize the cause of her husband's behavior was to see the child in him, the child she sometimes adored (and sometimes merely tolerated). So when Albert interrupted the caresses by standing and wandering around the dark bedroom, she was not afraid, just curious.

"What are you doing?" she whispered. Albert said nothing. She repeated the question a little louder. Instead of answering, Albert went to the door and twisted the lock on the doorknob. The gesture made no sense. What was he planning? Wasn't the door already locked? He stood naked by the door. Suddenly she became aware of the way she filled the bed with her nakedness. What was he planning? The situation reminded her of movie murderers who lock the door before moving forward to strangle the victim (a strangling depicted not by images but by the victim's futile cries). Albert's locking of the door offered the threat (and excitement) of danger, vulnerability, control. She feared it and anxiously awaited it.

But then, couldn't he have gone to the door to unlock it? There was danger in that too, but a danger more subtle, more ambiguous. If the door were unlocked, it could be quickly whipped open, painting a stripe of light across her body. An unlocked door offered the threat of interruption and public exposure. Albert moved away from the door and lay in bed again, penetrating her with unrelenting energy. She wrapped her arms around him, whispering, "Did you lock the door? Is the door locked?" He didn't reply but chuckled as he kept diving into her. She kissed him and looked into his face, finding the maniacal expression of a man convinced that love never met resistance.

Written 1994.

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At the wedding it was a shock (though a delicious one) to see her kissing the groom, to see her lips covering his so enthusiastically.
Suzuki Harunobu
Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) Unidentified Shungu
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