It was one of the things I most liked about you at first—how easy it was. Just a crop top and you would follow me anywhere.
The thick vines of my Catholic upbringing had only begun to secede a couple years into college, so when I found you, I was twenty-five on shaky, heathen knees. “Heathen,” that was your joke. Another thing I most liked about you.
I was taught men are dangerous. I pretended to understand how you grew up in a family without any god at all until I actually understood. We went to the museum, and you lifted my hand in yours to point to the hanging pterodactyls, telling me about your prehistoric childhood dreams. Around Christmas time you asked me to join you feeding the homeless. Your flannel chest was so broad in that white apron. You looked so tall, I blushed with greed. I knew you did it to impress me, and it worked.
You showed me the source of your atheist values, and I finally had new, clean earth to root down in. I wasn’t sure I was really an atheist, I just knew I wasn’t Catholic anymore, and your atheism was so infinitely available.
You didn’t make a huge deal of my virginity, and I knew when it was gone you wouldn’t make a huge deal of that either, so I gave it up in your shaded bedroom. That was way before you told me about the belly thing. I learned all the basics, and liked them.
That’s all it was at first: love, and my belly. I teased you, lifting the hem of my shirt, making silly Groucho Marx eyebrows while you stooped like a caveman and bulldozed me onto the couch. We laughed until you’d stop laughing to kiss me. I giggled as your mouth dotted the space above my jeans, nibbling until I warmed and let you take them down.
It wasn’t a belly thing, though. The word “bellybutton” has become so porny in my mouth. Today I am wearing a maxi dress to feel impenetrable. Sometimes I get a little resentful. With a dress, you have to work from the bottom up.
At seven or eight, when the stork would no longer suffice, my mom told me babies were born out of bellybuttons. She mentioned it briefly, abruptly handing me three butterknives and asking me to set the table.
I imagined the center, some unfindable speck in the unplanned swirl of it, stretching like putty, backwards-swallowing a baby, tightening back into a solid. I would take a piece of gravel or a plastic bead and push it in, demanding the satisfaction of uncovering that gooey threshold, feeling a little like a pervert but more like a scientist. If it can stretch one way to let out a baby, surely it can stretch the other way. My bellybutton would be pink and sore before I finally gave up.
My parents about died when we moved in together, which I knew they would. The bungalow your dad had left you was white and chipped, the kind of house that begs for vintage florals. I loved the sound of “bungalow”—so Americana-exotic. “Bungalow!” you shouted, making a grand leap off the back porch onto the crabgrass lawn, as if it were a waterfall, to make me laugh. I potted plants in fresh soil as I watched you pot plants in fresh soil, your big hands silent in the soft dirt. We grew vegetables. The only ones worth remembering were the tomatoes. When we went to buy cages the hardware store guy said it was a garbage year for tomato-growing. I felt so proud when ours swelled fat and romantic.
It was after the thirtieth time we had had sex, at which point I stopped counting. I was resting naked between your legs, my back to your chest. We were dewy and lazy on our sky-blue sheets, and I was thinking about how the feeling was spiritual. The light coming through the sheer curtains was like in a Bouguereau painting of angels. Your hand was petting my belly so rhythmically I could have fallen asleep. You murmured that you had something to tell me. Your hand rested across, button at the center of your palm. You didn’t sound nervous, more remorseful. You stalled.
The word “fetish”—so severe, it slashed through the haze of the room. I turned to face you, and there it was: this man I loved in his entirety, and this secret piece of him coming to the surface. You almost cried, describing this itch that had nagged you since childhood. The obsession you finally knew would not be quieted. The more you held back, the louder it got. I held your face. Minutes passed before you looked at me.
Then, I loved you in an urgent way, almost a panic. That was when I started with the crop tops. Only at home, only when I was too busy to let you touch it. At the stove, stirring something, feeling the wall of your warm obsession wrap itself around me, my bare midriff bragging while I stirred a pot and sang. We’d make eyes at each other all through dinner. For dessert, the allowance of your tongue, swirling that tight, knotted center, and me, pretending to be curious and pleased.
You had been so vulnerable. And now this sacred thing cried out between us, needing to be carried. I felt protective and chosen.
I feared—I think we both did—that for this magic trigger between us to be sustainable, we had to pace ourselves. We learned to pencil it in. You didn’t want it to be a burden. So we agreed one day a week was bellybutton sex day. Usually Sundays. Intense bellybutton-cunnilingus, followed by ravenous sex. Then, your taste broadened, evolved: coming onto it, and watching my delicate fingers swirl gently the tiny pit, cream-filled like the smallest pastry; asking me to play with it while my other hand properly masturbated; mashing your erection into it, as I made doe-eyed sounds of wonder.
We haven’t gotten married yet, but we both want children. One, maybe two. Neither of us has acknowledged the punchline, because it isn’t really a joke—what will happen to my bellybutton during pregnancy? What will happen to you?
When my mom was pregnant with my younger sister, it was impossible to imagine Mary being so disfigured. My mom’s belly was no radiating orb. An uneven darkness slashed down the center, and her bellybutton pushed outward in a vulgar way that embarrassed me. The skin around it was rippled with tightness. After you and I talked about kids, in however abstract a way, the first thing I did as soon as I was alone was Google “pregnancy, bellybutton” and learned with relief it goes back to normal.
Now, in my maxi dress, my bellybutton is sore and red. It’s like that most of the time these days. Not just Sundays—whenever we make love, you have to reach around, your clumsy fingers rubbing and pinching the thin skin. When we’re out with friends, you give me a squeeze, whisper that you love me into my hair, and drag your fingertips across it, over my clothes. I allow you to. Our secret gossip of ownership, so brazenly exchanged.
Of all the bellybuttons in the world, mine is the one you are allowed to touch. I enjoy sex more than I ever thought I would, having learned about the pains of it so thoroughly and far before the pleasures. You’ve become so ravenous toward my bellybutton, it’s like I have to coach you back to patience. While I gate my bellybutton from your constant hunger, letting you in only as often as I can bear, just enough to keep you from enveloping us both in your singular obsession, I find myself teaching back everything you taught me. Holding you in the space anticipation, where ticklishness becomes intrigue. Working your way up from my legs, my pussy presents itself. I make you work for the bellybutton, in a way that balances each of our needs. I am the gamekeeper. I am the one keeping track of your lust and mine, doling out each in even portions.
I’m the one who knows the whole truth of how badly you need a bellybutton like mine. I’m the one who loves you around the burden of your fetish.
And I do love you. Even though I recognize how lucky you are to have me. Even though I recognize my sexuality is far less nuanced, and therefor duller, easier to set aside, than yours. Even though I have to work to keep mine front and center, to share the stage with your wild, feral, arrow-tight cravings. I still love you. Watching you work in the garden outside, I lean back on our vintage floral couch in my maxi dress, pull the hem up to my spread knees and place a hand on my belly. As soon as you come in, tapping your shoes on the doorway before kicking them off, you’ll see me. I will press my finger through the cloth, expose the shape of that little dip, to see you beam with admiration and bright, glistening gratitude.
Alex Benke is an MFA candidate living in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared most recently in The Thought Erotic.