Episode 13: An Unguarded Moment
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Listen to The Unguarded Moment by The Church
Listen to Time Is Just A Sham by Marc Teamaker.
This episode’s stories
Toulouse by Carlo Rey Lacsamana
Lamb Chops at 4am by Marc Teamaker
The Stroke by Violeta Balhas
Mmm-hmmm by Matt McGee
Grey Area Interaction by Rachel Dalton of the Wine, Dine and 69 podcast
Undergarments of Sorrows and Struggles by Olumide Manuel
About our pillow talkers
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. He also writes for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. His works have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, Netherlands, India, and Mexico. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana.
Marc Teamaker has been a professional musician, in one way or another, for most of his life. He has made a number of full-length albums and a few EP’s under his own name and also under the name Albany Park Wirephoto with his late beautiful wife, Kathleen White. His new full-length album “Leaf Day Boys” is out and my fave track is “Been a Long Time” (but I could change my mind tomorrow). Find out more about Marc at his website. Listen to his music here, and Albany Park Wirephoto music here.
Olumide Manuel is a Pushcart-nominated poet, an environmentalist, and a biology teacher from Nigeria. His poetry has been published in Twyckenham Notes, Feral Poetry, Uncanny Magazine, Agbowó Magazine, Magma Poetry, Sandstorm Journal, Sublunary Review, Ice Floe Press, Club Plum Literary Journal, ARTmosterrific Journal, Gigantic Sequins, Isele Magazine, Muse Pie Press, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing here.
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First things first. I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which I live, work, and record Pillow Talking, the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I recognise their connection to and care of this land, and as a 20th century migrant I thank them for the sacred space I share with my family. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and still to come, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who are listening.
Please keep in mind that Pillow Talking contains adult themes and sometimes strong language, so use your discretion for where and how you listen, and who you listen with.
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 2, Episode 15 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, An Unguarded moment.
Hello, and welcome to Season 2 of Pillow Talking. It’s here. Much, much later than I thought it would be but it’s here nonetheless, and you’re here.
“So long between mirages.”
That’s a line from a song by The Church, The Unguarded Moment. I didn’t borrow the theme of the song for this episode, just the title, but still: that line fits for what’s been a long time between stories. Hopefully not all stories, but these particular stories, about this particular… what? Pastime? Phenomenon? Thing? I don’t know.
I am absolutely delighted to be back and have a bumper first episode for you, but before I get to those there’s something I need to talk to you about, because Pillow Talking is changing in a couple of small but important ways. The first is that while I’ll continue to welcome pillow talking stories about pretty much anything, I’ve decided to reveal the episode themes ahead of time. This makes planning the episodes easier for me, but themes also act as great memory or writing prompts, so they’re great for people who want to share a story with me but don’t know where to begin.
The second change is an awkward thing for me to talk about and the cringe factor is strong, so please bear with me.
If you’ve been listening for a while you’ll know that while Pillow Talking is a labour of love for me, gathering stories is like actual labour – hard labour. And I get it. It’s hard to put yourself out there and share your most intimate conversations. It’s also hard to remember them, or catch yourself in the act while having them – they’re so bloody elusive. But because Pillow Talking is a labour of love for me I want to keep it going as long as I can, with much less worry about where my next story is coming from. Which is why I’ve decided to start paying for stories. No, correction: I decided to pay for stories from the very beginning of the podcast, because I believe in paying the writer, whether they’re professional or not. It’s just that I imagined that I’d be paying them further down the line, when I had a massive listenership and sponsors came a-calling. But I’ve brought it all forward, and decided to start paying the pillow talkers now, before the sponsors which may or may never come a-calling. For now it’s an honorarium payment but my dream is that one day I’ll be paying 2 or 3 dollars a word. Ah… one day.
I’m in a privileged position, particularly in these tough times, that I don’t need to make money from Pillow Talking. In fact, it has associated costs that I never expect to recoup but I embrace them because… labour of love, see above. I have to admit, though, that my privilege only goes so far. Those honorariums – or honoraria, if you’re that way inclined – add up. And this is where I’m hoping you can help. I’m dipping into my savings for the first few episodes but thereafter taking a massive leap of faith and asking for your support in paying the people who embrace vulnerability – or lose battles with it – and invite us into their bedrooms to share their most private, intimate conversations. I’ve started a Buy Me A Coffee account where you can buy a single story as a helping hand, or contribute to Pillow Talking monthly for lasting support that makes a huge difference. Please stay to the end of the episode so that you can grab the details. It’s not a hard sell, but it is a heart-felt one, and I promise that all contributions go directly to the people who share their stories, without me skimming anything off the top because privileged – see above.
Paying the writer isn’t just about compensation. It’s also about the people themselves. The pillow talkers who share their stories are rare, rare beasts in a time where there are literally thousands of podcasts with people talking about all the sex they’re having and how, but so little about the communication that got them there or the communication that happened after, or the communication that’s happening in the bedroom when there’s no sex to be had. (It’s the kind of thing that John Lennon would be writing about if he were alive today.) They’re turning an uncomfortable lens on themselves when it’s easier – always, infinitely easier – to focus your storytelling lens on other people.
Since I’ve started paying for stories I’ve started receiving lots more submissions and the simple fact is that I reject many more stories than I accept. As anyone who’s been in writing or publishing knows, this is par for the course, and I honestly don’t mind when people send me something that’s not suitable, and I encourage them to try again. Except for one kind of submission I get, which is where someone gets any old story they already had lying around in their notes or their heads and they bookend it with a supposed Pillow Talk. There’s a couple in bed, and one says something like, how was your day, honey? Then the other person replies – funny thing, I got kidnapped by terrorists today, or… I turned into a werewolf today. Then we cut to a completely unrelated story: murder, mayhem, explosions, beginning middle and end, and then suddenly we’re back in the bedroom having that “pillow talk” again. “Gee honey, I’m so glad you escaped the terrorists and they came to no good end!”, or “Gee honey, I’m so glad you’re not a werewolf anymore!” or “Gee honey, sorry to hear you’re a werewolf now – love you anyway!”
It’s pretty disingenuous and shows me this person hasn’t bothered to listen to a single story, let alone a full episode, but , you know, whatever. The thing that rankles me the most is that ultimately, it’s insulting to the people who are brave enough and vulnerable enough to let their guard down and share their stories.
Which brings me to tonight’s episode. These 6 stories – yep, 6, I told you it was a bumper episode – all feature unguarded moments: times when people were completely open and raw and real. Sometimes by choice – a brave choice – like sharing the deepest source of their pain. Sometimes by a complete lack of choice, like being in a hospital bed, or in a nightmare. Sometimes because the moment has taken them completely by surprise, like sharing a lamb chop at 4am.
Before I shoosh you, a word about one of these stories. I really love this story, and it’s so beautifully written that as I was reading it could absolutely HEAR the voice of one of the people in it; I FELT its rhythm, its life. But I would never want to offend anyone by actually DOING their voice, know what I mean? So I will read it as myself and trust that the music of the words will rise above and give you un aire, as we say in Spanish – an air, a flavour – and connect with you like it did me. Ready?
Ssh. Let’s listen.
She was still undressed when she reached for her handbag on the floor at the foot of the bed. In the dimness of the hostel room lit by a single lampshade I glimpsed her pale skin moving like a shadow. An hour or two had passed after we made love and I was filled with desire for her again. The paleness of her skin resembled the sunlight filtered through the glass door and curtain; one felt its warm softness just by looking at it – soft as a cat’s fur. She sat at the side of the bed in the glare of the cheap lampshade and pulled out from her bag a pen and a bundle of postcards. Her nipples were red cherries in the half darkness.
Do you want me to turn the light on? I said as I slowly pulled myself from sleep.
Don’t bother, the lampshade is enough, she said in a whisper, in an English inflected with a heavy French accent.
She tied her long curly walnut-colored hair into an onion roll. There were strands of hair at the nape of her neck that were left untied. Noticing those strands I was led to a forgotten tenderness. I couldn’t go back to sleep.
For three weeks she had been traveling around Andalusia. Seville, Cordoba, Jaén, Granada, and Málaga was her last stop. She arrived three days ago at the hostel where I was staying. When I saw her in the lobby among other traveler guests she looked as if she just came back from a grape harvest; she was wearing one of those straw hats local vendors sell to tourists. She had a tired, sunburnt face. What struck me most when I first saw her was her rich walnut-colored hair that reached the shoulders. It reminded me of chocolates and autumn.
She began to inspect the postcards one by one. They were several. In the morning she must go to the post office before her flight in the afternoon for Toulouse, her home.
You should see the red-bricked buildings in Toulouse, she said during our first conversation.
Toulouse, also known as The Pink City.
Are the buildings really made of pink bricks? I asked in sincere ignorance.
She thought for a while.
They look reddish to me.
We both laughed.
That’s when I learned that each city has its color. Málaga to me is green because of the tropical plants I remember vividly in the park on La Almeda in the city center and its calm sea which is strikingly green in the midday sun. Manila, my old home, the color between joy and pain, is orange.
This postcard will go to Vivienne, she lives in Paris. From the balcony of her apartment you can see Notre Dame. It’s always nice to drink coffee up there.
The postcard was a picture of the view over the city of Granada from the top of the Alhambra. At the back of the postcard she wrote: “V. the Moors were genius, this castle is tall as your apartment, miss you.”—and signed her name M.
She didn’t choose a postcard at random. Beneath the yellow light of the tiny lampshade she scrutinized each postcard with attentiveness and great care as if what she was holding between her hands was a face. Something of the image in the postcard corresponded to its recipient. If you were lucky enough to receive a postcard from her you would smile because it touched something in you.
How two travelers unknown to each other end up on the same bed is hard to explain. I do not remember any hint of explicit flirtation between us during our first meeting. Judging by the way she met the glance of the opposite sex she was averse to it. There was something in her gestures, countenance, and manner of speaking which exuded a sense of self-assuredness that was snobbish at times and dissuaded any possible male sexual approach. Perhaps an inadvertent desire was ignited between us through the course of our intermittent conversations. We disagreed on certain things. I did not trust photography as an art form as she did. Sometimes she was pitiless in her observation. Liberté, égalité, fraternité –we in France pay lip service to these shit, she once said in dignified sarcasm. What bound us together was a kind of idealism that often accompanies youthful revolt. In the short span of three days I foresaw that a part of our shared destiny was to mock power and authority despite the risks involved in it. Our future lives, I believed, somehow were predicated on that vision. For three days we talked so much about everything enough to fill the silences of our lifetime.
On the bed she let go of her self-assuredness. When our bodies touched a searching tenderness engulfed the two of us. Arms and legs tangled, consuming kisses, long erections, miraculous dampness. We traveled to where desire led us—to places where the discovery of pleasure was constantly new, and each time we stumbled upon an unexpected coming we kept its promise in the longing of each other’s skin, like a postcard.
Longing is a frontier that can never be crossed. Its distance is always present and elsewhere. Writing this now I realize that the name Toulouse pronounced slowly, syllable by syllable, sounds like “to lose.” To lose is every traveler’s destination. We never saw each other again.
We spent the wee hours of that morning of her last day in Málaga, still undressed, looking at the postcards. We observed them one by one, telling stories from what we saw in every image that passed back and forth from our hands.
See this one here?
It was a picture of the Paseo del Parque in Málaga.
It reminds me of an afternoon in Livorno, she said.
Christmas morning, two thousand and ten, brought the threat of snow. A lot of snow. My flight was scheduled for Boxing Day. I had a gig booked in Chicago a couple of days later. But there was a more compelling reason that made me change my flight. I had to beat it out of New York before the snow. Actually it was Newark, but who’s counting? I will explain shortly. My family was very understanding about me not showing up for Christmas dinner. After all, this was my work. But the real reason I need to get to the Windy City was Kathleen.
Kathleen and I became acquainted two months earlier online of all places. A mutual friend of ours had turned her on to some of my music and she found me and friended me. We hit it off on a number of posts and then somehow we found ourselves in private message and eventually there was a phone call. It happened after we had both come from a Christmas party, she in Chicago and me in Connecticut. This is when I, and I’d also like to think WE fell in love. Is it possible to fall in love with words and a voice? Soft and wise. The basic stuff was that we shared musical tastes and got each others’ humor. But on that phone call there was something more. A serious strange connection. It was like we knew each other all our lives. (See – Time Is Just A Sham ). It’s funny because while I was 8 years older than KT, I’ve always felt that SHE was older and smarter. But I digress. After this initial call we talked pretty much every night… until that snowy Christmas night when I arrived at O’Hare.
So I beat it out of the small Revolutionary War town I was living in at the time. The car service came at 3:30 P.M., as the snow was already falling. I needed to make a 6:30 flight out of Newark. The whole trip to the airport was nerve wracking, but we made it on time. Now I just had to hope the flight wouldn’t get cancelled. I checked in and went to the gate to wait and pray. There I ran into a couple who saw my guitar case. They persuaded me to take Miss Martin out and show it to them. They were very friendly and that calmed me down. Shortly after that we boarded and took off. Temporary relief.
Swooping down over Lake Michigan, on approach to O’Hare International, my calm turned to mini panic mode. I am going to meet and stay, the key word being stay, with someone I previously met on the internet? This isn’t exactly the first time that I had met someone online… but this was Kathleen! The woman I fell in love with on the phone. So you might imagine how I was feeling. She had texted me to tell me she would be waiting in the passenger pick up at 3E. Black Toyota Rav 4 Sport. As I approached the exit of the terminal my heart was beating like Charlie Watts on his Gretsch drum kit. I hit the sidewalk and there she was across the street leaning on her car. Slender auburn Irish American in a military green Navy peacoat finishing a cigarette. I could see her crystal blue eyes looking right at me from halfway across the street. She had that look you get right before you burst out laughing. Like when you’d be with your best friend in their kitchen after school having some milk and cookies and someone says something silly and you both lose it. Uncontrollable laughter. Milk coming out your nose laughter. Right there was another reason why I was already in love with her. When I reached her we looked at each other still smiling like little kids and hugged each other softly. While we were in our giddy and dreamlike embrace a woman police officer kiddingly said, “Ok, break it up” motioning us to leave with a smile on her face. As we drove away back to her apartment I put my hand on her knee. We hardly said a word the whole way there. We were just drinking in each others aura, as cheesy as that sounds.
We climbed the five flights at 4118 North St. Louis Avenue, where we would eventually live together as man wife, and collapsed into each others’ arms in exhaustion at the top of the stairs and kissed. Here’s where in the film it cuts to black for a second or two and then on to the next scene…
4 AM…We are smoking Marlboro Lights in our underwear, making fun of something on TV, when KT asks me if I’m hungry. “I have some leftover lamb chops.” “Yes of course,” I
said. When did I ever turn down a lamb chop? She didn’t even heat them up, which actually makes them even more tasty. Anyway, I digress again. So here we are now with a plate of cold lamp chops and a bottle of wine in our underwear as daylight slowly pours through the big bay windows. It was like a beautiful dream. When we were done with our feast we had a cigarette and a few more cracks at the television and she looked at me and said, “Come on, let’s go to bed.”
For this one, I’m going to need you to stretch your idea of a pillow talk. It was definitely a private, intimate conversation; in fact I know for a fact it wouldn’t have happened with anyone else there. And it was a bedroom… of sorts. A room in a hospital ward. And the person on the pillow wasn’t a partner or any kind of romantic liaison, but the first person I loved in this life.
They’re terrible days to recall. I was heavily pregnant with my first son and already had a toddler daughter, almost two years old, when my mother, my anchor and the source of everything I felt was best in me, almost died.
She hadn’t been well for days. I remember her unable to move from her easy chair in the living room, so sick, unable to move, but she couldn’t tell me exactly how she felt sick. Headache? Dizzyness? Nausea? Pain? None of these things. All of these things. My father was worried, but my mother, as always looking after him – typical of a woman who marries a much younger man – and knowing he wouldn’t cope, reassured him. She was fine, she said. She just needed rest.
One day I was with her while my father was working in a town an hour away. She felt like someone put her in slow motion, she said. It came in waves, she said. This worried me enough to take her to the hospital, where they admitted her straight away. As she lay in her hospital bed waiting for her doctor and family friend, Brom, to come and assess her, she said to me, “Here it comes again, see? Listen how when I talk, what I’m saying goes really slow. It’s so hard to talk…”
Just like she’d said, in front of my eyes, she’d gone from 45rpm to 33rpm, forming each word with herculean effort. Whatever it was that was happening, it wasn’t right. I called for the nurse. The nurse took one look at my mother and hit the panic button. Nurses and Brom came running. My mother was swallowed up in the tidal wave of their urgent ministrations. I backed away slowly, not knowing what to do. Brom looked up and met my eyes. He looked afraid. Suddenly I was terrified.
“You’d better go,” he said. “Ring your dad.”
And that was the last time my mother and I spoke. Or rather, it was the last time she spoke. She hadn’t just had a stroke, Brom said. She’d had a series of them. Some smaller ones before coming to hospital, and a few cataclysmic ones in hospital. We didn’t know if she would live or die. For now, she was unconscious, and she remained unconscious, for weeks.
My world became small and hyper focused: my mother’s hospital bed, where she lay, tiny after a lifetime of appearing like a giant to us, not responding to anyone or anything. We lived literally across the road from the hospital and I crossed that road several times a day. I took my daughter, who my mother adored, and would stay as long as her wrigglyness allowed. When she went down for her nap I’d get someone to watch her and run across to sit next to my mother’s bed again. I’d go after dinner while my husband bathed our daughter and put her to bed, and I’d stay there with my father until lights out when the nurses would gently tell us that maybe it was time we went home. People worried about me, told me that the stress of living in this world would bring on labour.
“No,” I said with utmost certainty. “The baby will wait. The baby will come when ma is out of hospital.”
People used the word “visiting” about these trips to the hospital, but to me they didn’t feel like visits. They were my mission. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else existed. And while I was in that world I didn’t shut up for a second. I told my mother everything that was going on in our lives. Gave her messages from my brother and sister far away. Because I’d seen a movie or two about people in comas I read to her – her favourite books, the Spanish version of Hello! magazine. I talked her through visualisation exercises, telling her to imagine her body healing itself. I was heavily into tai chi those days, and I told her to picture the chi where it resides in the dan tien, the belly, getting bigger and bigger and then spreading it to where her body most needed it: her cold hands and feet, her heart, and most of all, her brain. Sometimes, when I was most scared, not just for her but at the prospect of a life without her, I pleaded with her to come back to us.
And so it was, because I was almost constantly there, that I was present when she woke up. There must have been a lull in my incessant chatter because I heard her take a deep breath and whisper, “Violeta…”
I stood up, clasped her hand, and got close.
“I’m here, ma, I’m here!”
“Violeta…” she said, a bit stronger this time. Her eyes were fluttering awake, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking in the other direction, as if trying to focus on something far away. Maybe where she’d been. The very portal between life and death. It was the moment I’d been waiting for, praying for. Was she all there? Was this the miracle moment?
“I… need you to do something for me…” she said.
“Anything, ma! Tell me! What do you need?” Tears were streaming down my cheeks.
What? I couldn’t understand. Was it a request to gather the family? Call my dad? Call a lawyer? Go on an errand to rectify some long-regretted wrong in her life? Was she going to reveal to me the mystery of life? Messages from beyond?
Ma tried again. Carefully, more clearly this time, she repeated what she’d said:
“I need you to pluck the hairs on my chin.”
Yes. The very first thing my mother said when she came out of her coma after nearly dying from a series of strokes was for me to pluck her chin.
And pluck her chin I did, and make fun of her for this I did, for the ten years she lived after that. But it would be a long time before I got it.
Every day my mother woke up, she chose how to present herself to the world. It was her superpower. This choice armoured her with the pride and dignity she needed to face the day and do what she had to do, even when the day brought hardship or tragedy. The day she asked me to pluck the hairs on her chin was the day she decided to live.
Time gifted me with understanding for what at the time I thought was a ridiculous, frivolous request. Time also gifted me with hormones that would allow me to grow quite the luxurious beard. That is, if I let myself, instead of sitting at the table in my patio every single morning, where the rising sun over our suburban fence hits my face just right and I grab my magnifying mirror and tweezers and get to work.
There are three lorikeets that hang around here. They sound like my mother and her two sisters laughing. Forget the heavenly choir: my mother and my tías’ laughter is the sound that I would most love to hear as I cross my own portal between life and death. But for now, as these three lorikeets fly around raucously I say hello, and laugh as well, and say thanks a freakin bunch for these damn genes that have me plucking what looks like pubes out of my face. But I only kinda mean it, and I’m grateful for these few moments where I get to choose the face I show the world that day.
“My boobs are killing me.”
Bee-Bee has just said this for the eighty-second time this hour. The pain isn’t from overuse, as I know all too well, or because it’s that time of the month or, God forbid, that. We’re both in our fifties and all the plumbing still works great but we plowed those fertile fields decades ago. Graduations and grandkids are our speed now. We’ve happily moved into the recreational-sex stage: getting in every last boff before the bills come due.
But Bee-Bee’s been talking about how much her boobs hurt for almost four weeks. Her doctor recommended that, as standard maintenance, she have her implants removed after twenty years service.
“They’re just jackin’ me up and putting in a new this and a new that, Mmm-hmm. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, sticking new hay in the Scarecrow, mmm-hmm.”
She ends almost every sentence with Mmm-hmm, like Billy Bob in Slingblade but with kinkier hair and Halle Berry’s Monster’s Ball body.
And those sentences never stop coming. It’s charming really, a big reason we’re still together. She talks like this even when I’m not around; I’ll hear her walking around the house blathering about having forgotten where her phone charger is and why’s everything gotta move on its own, mmm-hmm.
I’d rolled to my side of the bed and twenty seconds later she sat up and lifted the specialized sports bra the doctor insisted on. It puts pressure on the stitching area. The doctor says it’ll result in shapely breasts when it’s all over.
“And I can’t wait for it to be over, mmm-hmm.”
Cued by her gentle snore we start a good post-sex nap, the first time in days she’s just turned over and gone right to sleep. I woke with her ass in my hand, like palming a basketball. Whenever she starts muttering goddamn boobs I’d give a little squeeze and she’d stop.
An hour later she jarred from sleep as if something had bit her. She sat up and began swirling her hands around the side of her boobs like a locomotive building a head of steam.
“I’d be happy to do that for you.”
I pushed her hands aside and rubbed the way she had. They felt the same, a little lumpy, like the fat cells hadn’t decided where to land yet, but the mass and thickness were the same as ever.
“I appreciate you being here,” she said.
“Pain is the body’s way of saying something’s wrong. And it’s been how long?”
She sucked air through her teeth. “Ow.”
“Not you, what you’re doing feels good.”
“How long’s the pain been like this?”
“Four weeks, dammit.”
“No one should be in pain this long.”
“Well I am dammit, mmm-hmm. I admit I’m a big crybaby when it comes to pain but,” she inhaled through her teeth again and took over the rubbing. “Stupid boobs.”
“That bra is a medieval torture device.”
“It’s something I tell you what. These doctors…”
“No no no.”
“What no no no. Don’t no no me, mister.”
“Hmm. Have I ever told you about Sammi?”
She kept rubbing. “What?”
“My friend, Sammi.”
“What? Ow. No. Who’s he.”
“OK, who’s she.”
“Works for the DA. When an election comes around I learn about the candidates, make a choice. But when it comes to D.A. and sheriff and all that law enforcement stuff I just check Sammi’s Facebook page, see who she’s supporting and vote that way.”
“Why,” she rubbed.
“She knows better than me. Same with doctors. I own a body, you own yours, but it’s been my experience that they know far more than we do.”
She inhaled through her teeth again. “Ow.”
She laid down on her side and we faded out again. My hand gravitated back to its resting place on her backside.
“I’m a little chunky in the monkey back there,” she said. “If I go out in a pair of stretch pants nowadays I look like a scoop of ice cream that’s too big for its cone.”
“Disagree. Besides, it’ll just be fun to work it off.”
“Mmm-hmm, so you saying I’m fat.”
“Yep. Huge. I am not the least bit attracted to you.”
I started patting her ass with a steady rhythm. Rather than another sharp inhale of pain she started mouthing a beat to my tapping. The silliness made her laugh, the first time in days. Apparently the antidote for pain is diversion.
“Do you remember how we met,” I asked.
“Yeah. You were playing in a band at that bar, the Irish one.”
I had to think about it. “Oh, that place! No, I think we met at that guy’s house, the one who lived over off Evenstar.”
“Oh God, that dude,” she started rubbing again. “He was something else, I tell you what. Mmm-hmm. Paid me well for being his caregiver but asked too much.”
“All I remember is the whole part about our divorces.”
Bee-Bee and I met ten years ago. She’d used the money from her divorce to buy her condo; I’d recently taken an engagement band off my finger and put it in a drawer where, for all I know it’s still rolling around.
“Who were you engaged to?” she asked.
“Kirsten. She was a good lady. She just wasn’t playing for my team.”
“Not playing for your team as in, a girls-only team or… did you guys play in a softball league or something?”
“My grandmother used to say. ‘So long as you’re rowing the boat in the same direction you’ll be OK.’ Kirsten wasn’t rowing my direction is all.”
Pause. For a moment I think she’s fallen asleep. Good, I thought.
“She was older,” Bee-Bee said.
“She was only what, three years older than me so she shouldn’t have been too obsessed with 401k’s and all that.”
“My 401k took a motheruckin’ hit last month I tell you what. Good thing I put most of my money in this condo when I did, mmm-hmm.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” I gave her ass another little pat. “Besides, you can always live off me.”
“Right! Mr. Big Spender, never even taken me to dinner.”
I was about to argue, or at least respond, when I realized she was right. How is it we’ve been hooking up on and off for ten years and never had a proper date?
“Wow. I suck.”
“You don’t have to agree.”
“I’ll agree all I want, I’m usually right anyway. Besides, I’d rather just kick it, hang around here and watch TV anyway.”
“I know. But still. Now I feel like…”
“… a cad.”
“A cad. A scoundrel. A no-good… whaddayacallit.”
“Well, once I’m back up and firing on all cylinders I’ll let you take me out somewhere fancy. Then you can not feel like a cad if it makes you feel any better.”
“Did you see the new place up the corner, Rick’s?”
“What? Ow. Where?”
“It’s this fine dining place with a bar tucked in the back, in its own room. We can walk there. I hear they have good pasta.”
“Oh, just what I need,” she patted her gut, “I already got this big ol’ balllooogah down here.”
“That’s our love child.”
“Yeah right! I better not be having no kids, uh-uh, I’m done mister, this factory is out of business. The employees all got laid off and spent their last paychecks, mmm-hmm. No more.”
“OK. When all this boob stuff is over we can go to Rick’s. And the circus!”
“What? What are you talking about circus?”
“The circus is in town. You know the one with the horses? Where everyone rides around in tights bouncing from horse to horse?”
“What in the hell are you talking about? Circus! I haven’t, wow..”
And she went on about how many decades it’s been since she went to a circus. She’d seen an elephant crap, then a man came along with a giant bag and scooped it up and carried it away.
“That is one job you couldn’t pay me enough to do, not ever, mmm-hmm. What the hell did people ever see in the circus, anyway?”
“Distraction,” I said, patted her butt, and thought just like now, and it’s working.
“So not to bring it up again but when’s the next procedure? Like the doctor…”
“I’m going to the doctor on Thursday and they better figure this shit out or else ol’ Bee-Bee’s gonna be tearing shit down, mmm-hmm. I’ll grab that doctor by his you-know-whats and say ‘feel that? That’s what I’ve been going through lately and it ain’t too great now is it?”
It was quiet a moment.
“Lemme know if you need to practice that.”
“Practice what? My doctor-convincing moves? You’d like that, wouldn’t you.”
A gentle pat on her butt was all the answer we needed. Those moments, they’re actually when you know you’ve found one of the great lovers of a lifetime.
Sometimes, the thing you need to say to each other doesn’t need words. And the comfort of knowing someone is there, no matter how bad the pain, is just what the doctor ordered.
The news was rife with sexual assault allegations. #metoo was a resounding drumbeat all around the world.
I had been dating my partner (we’ll call him Joe) for a little over a year and though he knew that my history included some less than consensual interactions, we had never really talked about it in detail. He said it hurt him too much to think of me in such pain. And to me, things were so good between us, I didn’t want to focus on the darkness that my past held.
One Saturday, shortly after Bret Kavanaugh was confirmed to the US Supreme Court, I went with some friends to march in protest and stand witness to all survivors of sexual assault. That night, we went out to a bar, and I heard a familiar song over the speakers in the bar we were at, a song that has made me feel sick to my stomach each time I hear it. It was a song that was played shortly before this grey area of consent occured, a song he loved.
I felt bile rise in my throat and rushed to exit the bar. Joe followed, and an awkward walk back to his place occurred. I knew I was feeling bad, but I couldn’t put the pieces together to work out why. I lashed out, reacted, and Joe was at a loss as to why I was so upset, seemingly out of nowhere.
Consent and truthfulness had been so much in the news in the last few weeks that I’d been reading my old journals. I suppose I wanted to understand if my recollection was correct – if I was remembering things as they happened, or if my memory was clouded by emotion. It is no wonder that I was not in a good mental spot that night: I had been swimming in a pool of negative memories.
Joe was unsure why I was so all over the place, and I was not describing myself well. I wasn’t even sure of what I was feeling, or why. That night, he held me as we fell asleep, but I was still unsure if he understood the gravity of the experience I was carrying.
The next morning, we lay in bed. He asked me how I was, and I told him the truth – I felt broken. He asked if I wanted to talk about it, and those were the magic words. All I wanted was to tell him, for him to stand witness to my experiences, to validate me, to hear me. And most of all, to love me despite.
I told him everything. My complex and confusing relationship with the man prior to our “grey area interaction” (any other term feels wrong, somehow). I spoke about that night, and how I convinced myself that I loved this person, and how I continued the relationship after. About how fucked up I was mentally, after, almost dropping out of school because I couldn’t deal. I told him about another experience I had in my 20s that compounded this initial experience and caused my entire decade of my 20s to revolve around healing from betrayal.
He listened. I could tell that it hurt him to see me so distressed. He had never seen me in such a state over the course of our year together, and to him, I imagine that it seemingly came out of nowhere.
He asked questions. Questions to clarify the events, wanting to put himself in my place to empathize as much as he possibly could.
He held me. As I told my story, he held me tight, not letting go for a second, understanding intuitively that his embrace was giving me strength.
This was a big moment for me, for us. Over the course of our year together, I had kept my emotions close to my chest – I wasn’t ready to share so much of myself. Even when I had two deaths in my family in the course of the year, I kept a brave face on, not wanting him to see my weakness. When I wasn’t eating due to anxiety, I didn’t let that on to him either. I was obsessed with seeming put together.
In this moment, I let him see me. I let him see the deepest, raw parts of me, and I didn’t hide from being vulnerable. I embraced it, all the while hoping that the love he had for me would keep him by my side, despite my brokenness.
When I completed my tale, and exhausted all of my tears, he leant down and kissed my cheeks, my forehead, my mouth. I was intoxicated by him, by the feeling of being so open, so close. I can’t describe the longing I felt. I felt like my heart was one with his in that moment and I wanted our bodies to be as well.
And the amazing thing is, Joe knew me well enough to understand that. I feel like most guys would feel weird about instigating sex after such an emotional admission, but Joe knew that what I needed after the emotional comfort was physical comfort.
The sex was unlike any other sex I had ever had up until that moment. It was pure, connected, real. I felt like I was truly being seen for the first time.
After protecting my heart and being so calculated about what I shared and how much vulnerability I allowed, he continued to love me through it all. He still does.
There have been many more moments of weakness, vulnerability, and brokenness since then, and we have stood with one another through them all. What a gift to have such a connection; one that is raw, truthful, genuine, and messy along with all of the many moments of good.
In that moment, curled into him, I understood that that is the beauty and complexity of real love. It’s not just about the dates, the great sex, the laughter. Those things are all wonderful, but what makes love truly real is the moments of true vulnerability, of brokenness. And trusting that you will be loved through it all.
I’ve never learn how to sleep in a cuddle. I always drift away to find sleep my own way. But to her, that’s my wham-bam-thank-you-sir attitude regardless of how great the sex might have been. I don’t know how the touch of skins is relaxing, still I pretend and cuddle till I’m sure she is deeply asleep before untangling myself from such mess of limbs.
I told her that she makes her most beautiful faces when she is laughing and when she is moaning. I never put this —her sleeping face —up, because it is too peaceful and I don’t know if beauty is supposed to be that peaceful. But then, I’ve learned secondhand from her, from watching her sleep and break into nightmares, that the most peaceful things wear undergarments of sorrows and struggles.
The nightmare begins with her breathing apparatus always, the lungs —how they shift in gear, and her whole body follows into a terrible seizure. The first time I saw it happened, I was scared, and almost shook her out of it. But then her fingers found my shoulder —we were in a loose cuddle —and dug into the skin and all the screams vanished from the bottom of my throat. Her face morphed into an allotrope of pain and it overruled the sensation in my shoulder. Then she muttered something —a name —again and again until she relaxed back into the peaceful sleep.
The name she calls in her sleep is a man’s name. But it is not my name, nor any god’s name. I have never asked her about it, and will never. Because if that name is a shelter in her nightmares, I don’t want to rummage it with questions bordering on insecurities. Because if my own nightmares leak on the bed in screams and sweat, I want her to treat me with the same indifference. And because our relationship is presumably not that deep.
“I’m just here for the D” that’s what she said about this relationship on days she acknowledges there is even a relationship.
The night of her birthday, I came with flowers, I came with songs, I came with gifts, I came with a cake but I met her drunk, I met her smoking, I met her crying. Then she laughed and she kissed me and she fucked me like the goddess that she is. I was still catching my breath in the sensuousness of our synchronized release when she said, “Olu, you are not your boyfriend, stop acting like you are”
I counted my breath to thirteen. “What if, what if I want to be” I replied, tension crackling in my voice.
She smiled, and locked us in her favorite cuddle position —her head and an arm on my chest, our legs are always a mess of network. I was counting my breath again, and it was exactly on the seventeenth count when she whispered,
“You can’t. You cannot love me. I’m damaged, Olu. Just hold me”
That night I held her. I didn’t loose the cuddle. When the nightmare came, we trembled together. When her fingernails burrowed into my chest, I did not flinch. When she called another man’s name, I did not flinch. Maybe I was trying to prove that I can. That I can love her. Or maybe I was beating myself for not telling her I’m damaged too, and that I need her, more than she can ever need me.
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:
Toulouse by Carlo Rey Lacsamana
Lamb Chops at 4am by my friend, no – my very good, much-loved friend, Marc Teamaker
The Stroke by me (yes, me – I snuck one in!)
Mmm-hmmm by Matt McGee
Grey Area Interaction by Rachel Dalton of the Wine, Dine and 69 podcast
Undergarments of Sorrows and Struggles by Olumide Manuel
Special thanks to another much-loved friend, the brilliant actor, director, voice actor and teacher Joy Vandervort-Cobb, for acting as consultant on this episode. She’s always the voice of reason and oh, boy – what a voice, both literally and figuratively.
If you’d like to know more about these great pillow talkers, head over to www.pillowtalkingproject.com – they are there in the show notes, along with other bits and pieces and a transcript of the episode if you’d like to take it somewhere quiet and read.
You can submit a story there, too. Here are the upcoming themes and deadlines:
Sanctuary – submit by 2 July 2022
Who do you think you are? – submit by 16 July 2022
I remember – submit by 2 July 2022
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On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Blue: another colour, this time for one that can be sad or peaceful, cool or deep, as wide as the sky or as focused as someone’s eyes. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.