Émile Zola a was a French novelist, journalist, and playwright. I have only ever read a few of his works but the one I mention (in very bad French pronunciation, sorry), Thérèse Raquin, is the one that stayed with me. You can read and download Thérèse Raquin in a bunch of formats over at Project Gutenberg.
This episode’s stories
Little Jerk by Ed
Part I by Mezza Arancia
Something Iffy by Lainie
Dryer Sheets by Walker Raigh of the Scratch and Sniff podcast
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 8 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, The third person.
I’ve started an episode with an explanation and sorta apology before, and here I ago again. The reason is the clickbaity title. I mean – a third person in the bedroom? Hurr hurr hurr.
To be clear, though: didn’t set out to be clickbaity. Even though the story On in Episode 5 featured a literal third person, I approached this theme, like I approach all the themes, pretty broadly, doors and windows wide open to interpretation. These wide-open doors and windows let all kinds of interpretations in, which is why I got an invitation to guest on a podcast this week and when I listened to an episode to see if there were any synergies, as we say at work, I was treated to a quarter of an hour of the podcaster’s mate telling him about how this woman at work wanted him, she wanted him bad, he’d always suspected she’d wanted him, she always seemed like a freak, and now she was divorced and the week after her divorce she’s saying they should hook up, so she really was a freak… and so on. I asked the podcaster if he listened to my podcast, because I couldn’t see that I fit the tone he was going for, and he told me not to worry about it because he’s – quote – had a lot of sex workers on the show and other people who discussed sex at great length.
I had to break it to him that the only time I discuss sex at great length with anyone other than Shane it’s with my oldest friend, in private, at 2am, with two spoons and big jar of Nutella between us.
I don’t have to break it to you too, do I? I hope not. Because if I did after 8 eps I’d feel a bit silly and like I’ve let the side down. Assuming I don’t, I’ll just charge on.
As intimate as the bedroom can be, and like its own world, like some of pillow talkers have described in past episodes, I wonder if we’re ever truly alone in there. If it’s not someone you’ve invited it can be someone you haven’t – like a child (and I’ve been there, sometimes painfully and awkwardly). And probably most challenging of all, the spectre of someone who is absent yet is somehow there, casting a shadow or influencing what we do, say or feel.
I remember being in my late teens or early 20s and reading Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin. There were a couple of pages that absolutely repulsed me and yet I read them again and again. In the novel, Therese Raquin and her lover Laurent murder Therese’s husband Camille. When they marry, they find they can’t be together as they used to be. Every time they get into bed, they feel Camille’s corpse lying between them. They’re some pretty stomach-churning pages but I think what really affected me was the idea that our feelings can be strong enough to take on something like corporeal form – a third person. And what’s that third person going to do in there? Wreak havoc? Bring peace and joy? Provoke introspection or sadness? Help communication? Make sexy fun times?
Even though these stories don’t all feature anything so spectral, they do feature these feelings and more, courtesy of that third person – sometimes there, sometimes imagined, sometimes not quite human. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
Three years in, my wife doesn’t regret choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, but she does miss certain things. The biggest, or the one she mentions most often, is adult conversation. I’m like, “Honey, I’m an adult, and I’m right here” but my words are like the traffic outside – she’s learned to tune them out. And I get it. Our adult conversation isn’t the kind of adult conversation we used to have, where we talked Big Ideas and the state of the world and our chequered pasts and important stuff like which three covers of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah should the world keep before removing all the rest from all existing media and the collective consciousness? These days, we talk a lot of crap. I mean literally. Specifically, our son’s. It’s amazing how much of a couple’s time a child’s bodily secretions can take up.
It’s all that little jerk’s fault.
Don’t get me wrong. I love him and all, but he’s still a little jerk and I think on some level he gets this and would flip me the bird if his fine motor skills were up to it.
Here’s an example. Sunday, the one day his mom and I can really sleep in – there’s no work, there’s no activities, no insane breakfast get-togethers (worst idea ever, by the way). He shuffles into our room like a miniature version of The Dude, climbs into bed between us, cuddles up to his mom and goes back to sleep. I don’t even get a look-in here. Totally ignored. So you see what I mean. If he wants to keep sleeping, why not do it in his own room? And if he wants to cuddle his mom, why not go to the other side of the bed so we can both get at her? Like I said: little jerk.
It occurred to me that the minute we get up and start our day, that’s when life as responsible adults with a kid hits us full force and the opportunity to connect as a couple and have that adult conversation my wife is craving gets smashed to itty bitty pieces. The one time we could have is that Sunday morning in bed when there’s no rush to get up. If it wasn’t for that little jerk.
I had an idea.
My wife took really seriously the whole idea of limiting screen time for our kid. If not having screen time for the first 18 months of life is good, she figured two years would be better. And even after that she’s been super, super strict – no more than half an hour a day. She didn’t introduce him to the iPad until a few months ago, and oh my God – you’d think he was seeing sunshine or eating ice cream for the first time. He’s obsessed with the thing. Or he would be, except that he’s only allowed on it for half an hour at a time just once or twice a week. But that was all about to change, and so was our bizarre Sunday love triangle.
Sunday morning I woke up early. I crept quietly out of our room and into our son’s room. He was just waking up.
“Hey, buddy,” I said softly, and gave him a morning hug. And the iPad.
I went back to bed. My wife kept sleeping. She eventually woke up with a bit of a start, asking where our son was. I told her he was still sleeping, and yes, of course I’d checked in on him. Wink wink.
So we talked, in soft voices. I’d actually brushed up on some of those conversation-starter questions that are peddled to people who are desperate to throw successful dinner parties, whatever the hell those are – it’s been so long since I’ve been one I can’t remember. I felt a bit stupid and I was sure she’d see through my ruse, but I acted as casual as I could and asked her one of these questions and before too long we were talking. Like – really talking. And she was laughing and thinking about stuff and it was just great. Just us. For like an hour, and then she said something like, “I could use a coffee” and I told her I’d get it. So I got up, got the coffee, got the iPad off the kid, who miraculously didn’t scream for it, got the kid, and came back into the bedroom with coffee and kid saying, “Look who I found?” and then we had some nice time together in bed, the three of us.
I’ve kept this new routine for about two months now. My wife doesn’t suspect a thing. And when I bring my son to the bedroom with me, he has magically not mentioned the iPad – not even once. Maybe he’s not such a little jerk after all. Maybe he’s a genius. Just like his old man.
I’ve heard of men going into grown women’s bedrooms and when they see the bed covered in soft toys noping the hell out of there. Here’s something to make any woman nope the hell out of a man’s bedroom: going in and seeing a picture of his mother in a frame on the bedside table, and if that wasn’t enough, a picture of this man sitting on the grass next to her headstone. This happened to me. And maybe I should have noped the hell out of there, but I didn’t.
If it helps explain why I didn’t, it wasn’t that I discovered these things when we gave in to passion. It was only our second date and I was at his place for drinks before going out. He had a nice studio apartment and no door separating the sleeping space. I went to use the loo, and saw the pictures then. The woman in the picture was so much like him it couldn’t have been anyone other than his mother.
My mind fast-forwarded a million miles an hour. I liked this man. (Yes, despite these pictures that should have made me nope the hell out of there.) If we ended up in bed, what was the protocol? Turn the pictures to the wall? Put them face down? Ask him to remove them? Keep them as they were and try to ignore them while we fucked? Every option seemed so disrespectful. It was a no-win situation.
The solution presented itself on our third date: we ended up in bed at my place. And he stayed all night and then we went for breakfast, which segued into a late lunch, which segued to an hours-long walk down the beach, and he ended up going home almost 24 hours later. And amongst all this, we talked nonstop. I guess one of the reasons I let him stay so long was the pillow talk that I just didn’t want to end. He was just a great, great guy. And an interesting one. And he was interested in me. So we talked about all kinds of stuff from our past, our families, everything.
He told me he and his brother has been raised by his dad. Not an easy man. But he’d always been there for them. And as for his mum, he was “trying to sort through some stuff”. I decided to be brave and asked him about the pictures on his bedside table. He explained that he’d only got to know his mum in the last year of her life. She had left when he and his brother were little, and all the time they were growing up, their dad had told them that their mum was a just a no-good person. She hadn’t wanted them. Even though he always yearned for his mother he never went looking for her; his dad was this old-fashioned, “My word is my bond” person, and he couldn’t imagine that he’d lie about this.
For whatever reason, it turns out that his dad had lied. He found this out when his mother reached out to him out of the blue one day. The boys were more curious than resentful so they agreed to meet, and she told them her side of the story. It made perfect sense, and she had proof, too. There was no way to make up for the lost time, lies, or damage, so they did what they could. And then one day, as suddenly as she’d arrived, she was gone. She died suddenly, too young.
My boyfriend – because at this point I decided he was my boyfriend – was just trying to process it all. It was a lot. He said he wanted to process it and come out of it without resentment or bitterness. But he had so little of his mum. That headstone was one of just a couple of things. What might seem weird or creepy to some, including a girl on a second date, made sense to him at that time.
More than once I’ve wondered what if I had noped the hell out of there? What if I hadn’t given our pillow talk a chance to go on into the next day? Sometimes people just need a second chance. Like his mother did. And like with his mother it doesn’t have to be for a long time – just long enough to make a difference to the rest of your life.
Short story, that makes me laugh and get creeped out in roughly equal amounts.
I was on a first-time Zoe date with a gorgeous woman who invited me home. Let’s call her Zoe too because I’ve forgotten her name and I always think of her as Zoe because it was a Zoe date. Anyway, I’d definitely got lucky, or so I thought. She had a nice apartment, and when we got inside a dog came to the door to greet her – it was one of those tiny ugly dogs that look like a wind-up toy someone left too close to the radiator. When we got to the bedroom the dog followed and took up its position in a tiny pink-and-gold sofa in the corner of the room, and that was fine. I call myself a crazy cat lady and totally get the whole pets-having-run-of-the-house thing.
Zoe and I get into it and it was nice. It was afterwards that things got weird. She calls the dog over (it was something like Miffy, or Biffy, or Tiffy – something iffy) and it jumps up onto the bed in a single bound like a circus flea. Also fine. Like I said, my cats have run of the house and whether or not they’re allowed on the bed they end up there anyway – they’re cats. She’s holding the dog and starts talking to it – baby talk.
Not so fine. I like women. I don’t like girls. The whole baby doll thing is a huge turn-off to me, but OK. It’s not so bad. But then she starts replying to herself in baby talk as the dog. You know the kind of thing – kind of bouncing or jiggling the dog to the rhythm of what she’s saying. And then, as the dog talking baby talk, starts trying to have a conversation with me. In the third person.
“Woz dat nice for Lainie? Would Lainie like a dwink?”
It was weird.
Not just that, but I didn’t know who I was supposed to look at. The woman, or the dog?
I don’t remember what I did – probably both. Kind of laughed it off, trying to be, you know, “fun”.
But it kept going. And I was getting more and more creeped out, but trying to keep a smile on my face. Eventually the woman-as-dog-talking-baby-talk made a proposition for us to have sex again, and that was it. I made some excuse and got the hell out of Dodge.
When I was a block away I rang the friends who knew about the date, told them what happened and we laughed until we cried. To this day it’s impossible to be out with them and not hear “Would Lainie like a dwink?” at least once.
“I’m so sorry… I don’t know why I let him get to me…” Catching my breath from sobbing, I dried my eyes on the duvet. I was so grateful that it still had that fluffy, this-must-be-what-clouds-smell-like scent. Those dryer sheet commercials in the 80s weren’t kidding. It was as comforting as sun beaming through on a cold winter day while getting hugged by your favorite stuffed animal.
“Was this the first time you ever let go of him? The first time you stopped talking to him?” Alex asked.
It was. It was the first time in twelve years that Trent and I hadn’t spoken to one another. It was also the beginning of August. Just a week and half away from the would-be anniversary.
“You’ve never really stood up to him have you? You always had to find a way to get past him but never to tell him to back off. Maybe you should…” Alex paused. “Maybe it’s time to tell him you’re not ready to talk.”
It had been three months since Alex and I became husband and wife, Trent had moved across the country with the girl he should have always been with, and here I was crying to Alex about my ex texting me.
Trent’s first text came through while we were walking around Davis Square. “Hey, Portland OR is a really cool place. You should check it out sometime. That blog post you wrote was really good btw.” The magic power of old habits sucked me in like a spell. I sent a polite response back as fast as the tips of my fingers could tap it out. “Glad to hear it! Thanks for the kind words on the post.” Why? Why did I do that?
The second text came through while we were at a friend’s birthday party. I popped back into the house to check my work email and found a second text from Trent waiting for me. It was a picture of Portland Flugtag and a note that Morgan, our old account executive, was in labor. The first text was cordial, polished, seemingly well thought out. But this second one was like, “Oh hey, we’re friends again. I’m back to disrupt your life.”
I wanted to say, “Get out. Get off my phone. I liked it when we weren’t speaking,” because I was starting to feel like things were concluding for the first time. My angst toward our old home town was subsiding, but even with Trent 3000 miles away, it all felt the same. The irrational part of me frantically wondered if I should change my phone number. This seemed terribly drastic and dramatic, but I was feeling suffocated and out of control. I wanted to protect my space, my energy, my time. I wanted to type back: YOU WILL NOT INFLUENCE THE PRESENT.
Sniffling and swallowing my crazed thoughts, I looked at Alex. “I think you’re right. I never thought of it that way… It feels like the thing with Grace. Like I’m not ready to speak to her yet. And I’m definitely not ready to speak to Trent. But I’m also worried about the timing of all of this. Our old anniversary is around the corner…”
Alex never knew how haunted I was by certain dates. “It’s like a death. There was once a living thing on that day. It is no longer alive. This was the first year I thought I’d be able to get through it without thinking about it.”
Alex held me as my crying subsided. He didn’t judge me. He didn’t pick a fight. He just listened and told me it was okay. That he and I were going to be okay. (Even if an old boyfriend could still rile me up into a sniveling mess in the middle of the night.)
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
Little Jerk by Ed
Part 1 by Mezza Arancia
Something Iffy by Lainie
Dryer Sheets by Walker Raigh of the Scratch and Sniff podcast
As always, thank you so much for listening. It means everything. As any of my ex writing students could tell you, I don’t believe that anyone writes just for themselves. Everyone has an audience, even if the audience is invisible or theoretical, or just not there yet – like someone reading your work a couple of generations down the track. Or even if it’s something we anthropomorphise, like a diary – otherwise why do we bother writing, “Dear diary”? And I think this applies to all kinds of storytelling, including podcasting. So even though I get so much out of Pillow Talking, I don’t create it just to please myself. (By the way: If I did it just to please myself I’d probably paint myself in a more flattering, sophisticated light, and not as someone who can power through her half of a jar of Nutella in the middle of the night while her kids and husband are asleep.)
Thank you to those of you who are sending me feedback and messages and subscribing and sharing. If you haven’t left a review or rating yet, I’d love you to take just a minute or two to do that – it helps heaps.
You know what else helps? As well as making me backflip-happy? That’s when someone sends in a story. Honestly – opening up the back end of my website and seeing that there’s a message there makes my day, makes my week and Shane always knows because of my happy YAY! If you want to make me go YAY! send your story in. It’s easy – just go to pillowtalkingproject.com and remember you can submit anonymously if you like.
Check out the show notes while you’re there!
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, That’s… ill advised. Stories about those bad, bad ideas and their consequences in the forum of the bedroom.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.