She asked me on our wedding night, after I had helped her out of her dress, after we had made love twice, after I opened the first bottle of champagne and found it flat, after we drank the flat champagne and then another bottle, after we sobered up and put on the pajamas we had bought for the honeymoon, and after we settled into bed like the married couple we now were.
I was reading our travel guide to Tahiti. We would spend two more nights in New York, saying goodbye to guests and thanking our parents for paying for the wedding, and then we would catch a flight for ten days of living inside a Gauguin painting. I expected the women to have thighs molded from lava. I expected to spread my wife's hair against the sand and imagine she was one of those Tahitian women. I was good with my imagination.
My wife looked up from her magazine, "How many women have you slept with?"
I dog-eared the page on must-see beaches.
I'll admit I was surprised--not by the question, which had been mouthed by many cautiously blithe girlfriends--but that my wife was asking it. We had been together for nearly five years and she never had any interest in the women before her. She hadn't even seemed particularly concerned about my fidelity. When I once confessed to kissing a co-worker at an office party, she shrugged and straddled me and I forgot about the coworker's shea-buttered skin and nervous laugh. It was precisely because of my wife's uncaring confidence that I had remained faithful.
"So, what's the number?" She said. It seemed the question had only just occurred to her. She turned to me and was staring at me with an intensity I had come to expect.
"You're not going to like it," I said, but already I felt the mixture of pride and false shame. I had compared my experience with friends and I nearly always won. I was excited to test her, to see her raised eyebrow.
"Forty seven," I said and leaned into the pillow. My wife showed no shock or surprise, but rather stared at me. She made a small sound, as though working through a difficult math problem.
"Do you wish you didn't know?" I said.
"No. Just, tell me about the first one," she said, and she put down her magazine, leaned her head back against the plush brocade headboard, and closed her eyes.
I had received this question too. Women seemed to think it was romantic, conjuring up the vulnerabilities of that first time, hoping that it would draw two strangers closer together, that then our sex would be tinged with adolescent innocence.
I paused, and my wife opened her eyes, staring at me as though she was going to pounce at my words.
"Fine. Okay," I cleared my throat, and I told her about being sixteen at a ski lodge, meeting the girl from a state I joked did not exist--North or South Dakota, maybe, or Rhode Island. Both her parents and mine mainly went to ski lodges for the bar, so we snuck into her hotel room while our parents were on their fourth White Russians. I remembered her braces catching my lip. I remember wondering for days if what we had done counted for something, if I had really lost it.
"Keep going," my wife said, and until then I had not noticed what she was doing. I almost forgotten she was in the room, but now she was moving over me, and her lips were brushing mine.
"Close your eyes," she said, and when she kissed me I felt the quick burst of frost from the lodge window. I felt the scratch of her braces against my tongue.
"Wanna do it?" The girl from North Dakota said. I sitting on the polyester comforter and I was thinking that yes, I did want to do it. I was wondering what was next. I was saying something about a condom, and she was saying that she didn't need one, and then she was on my lap and I was putting my hands in obvious places and she was taking off her shirt and I saw something like a burn scar, like the world's biggest hickey, under her left breast. And she was saying it was a birthmark, and then she stood up and took off her clothes and looked at me, waiting.
And then I knew what was next; I knew what was going to happen and I knew that my wife was watching somewhere, my wife knew and she was not going to let me forget my awkward climb on top of the girl, the thrusting and the few minutes of the girl sighing, the slickness between her legs and then me bringing my hand up after putting myself in her and seeing the red, not connecting it to the girl's body. My fumble, my pale face, her "Jesus, what's wrong with you?," her knees knocking mine as she got out of bed, her face furious with embarrassment, my jeans around my legs.
I wanted it to stop. I wanted to come up for air.
"Please?" I said, and my lip was between my wife's teeth.
"What's next?" she said, and I opened my eyes and we were back in the hotel room and the wedding dress was hanging from the bedpost.
"How are you doing this?" I asked, but then my wife was Gemma Hawkins and we were in a closet in her parents' basement and she was telling me to finger her.
"But no more than three, okay?" Gemma said, and I counted my fingers as they entered her and I knew I wasn't going to fuck it up this time.
"You play guitar?" she said between gasps.
"No," I said, and I felt cool enough to be someone who might play guitar.
"Then cut your fucking fingernails," and she pulled her hips away from me but she didn't open the closet door. Instead she went to her knees and gave me cautious licks, her tongue rolling around me until she came back up and waited, and this time I knew to lift her skirt. I knew to give her my hand to bite and then, halfway through, I knew with an awful confidence that I was making faces. I heard my wife laugh.
"No, I'm sorry. Keep going," she said.
But I didn't have a choice. I was back there, and then after the closet I was in college and I had a girlfriend and she came over between classes and I learned how to unhook her bra, the kind that unclasped in the front. Then there was the string of girls at parties while the girlfriend was studying in Berlin, then there was Berlin. Then there were the bar bathrooms, the arcade, the video store supply closet, the beds in Brooklyn and Jersey City, the beds in Maine and Texas. There were the hotel rooms of varying rates and there was the stripper in Detroit.
I don't know how long it went on but finally there was meeting my wife at a party we both considered ourselves too young and too cool for, the mutual friends who were married and who served us wine in glasses bought from a museum gift shop. There was my wife and only my wife, and then we were back and we were married and she was writhing on top of me as I lay stunned. Until she rolled off of me. Until she told me, "My turn."
All that was a year ago, or maybe two. We missed our flight to Tahiti. We missed our honeymoon. The hotel bills are outrageous, but somehow they get paid. And I'm still on number one, on Jorge and Mexican sunsets. I hadn't realized how difficult this could be. I hadn't realized what great power my wife had, conjuring forty seven wives in only one night.
The last thing my wife said was, "I was in Cozumel and my parents went snorkeling for the day. He bought me a drink and climbed into my hammock."
It is not an easy scene to recreate. I've gotten close, she tells me, but each time I bring her back there to the beachside hammock, something goes wrong. Once I put an umbrella in the piña colada, where in reality Jorge had dropped a lizard into her drink and she had watched its tail flailing as the hammock rocked. Once I spaced the sound of waves too far apart, and it took her out of the moment, she said, but not before she had undone the drawstring of Jorge's bathing suit. Sometimes I worry she is going to keep me trapped here in the Mexican surf town, with the street dogs and our drinks rimmed with cane sugar, always on the verge of knowing this man who knew her first. Sometimes I think she doesn't want to leave.
BIO: Catherine lives in Ohio, where she is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green and Assistant Editor of Mid-American Review. Her fiction has appeared in various publications, including Word Riot, Tin House's Open Bar, Flyway, and North American Review. She writes book reviews for The Rumpus.