We were just kissing before it happened. My hands on the small of his back, clawing at his black V-neck T-shirt that smelled like airplane and sweat and Nautica cologne and Degree deodorant. I remember the entire outfit he was wearing because as I nervously paced back and forth in front of the arrivals gate at Lisbon airport, I had one of those gasp moments—that moment in the cheesy rom-com where the girl catches her breath when she sees her long-lost love. When the glass doors split apart and he stepped out—the black fitted V-neck, the gold cross I bought him in the Azores bouncing on his neck, the dark wash jeans, the brown suede Timberland boots—I gasped. David. He screamed man. My man.
It had been seven weeks since I had been studying abroad, seven weeks since I had my hands on him.
We didn’t immediately jump to sex. There was the sweaty hand-holding and awkwardness of being so close on the cab ride to my apartment. There were the “Put your luggage here,” “Look at my balcony and its view,” “We can take a tour of the stadium later,” “No, you can’t go to sleep, it’ll be worse for the jet-lag,” conversations. But then there he was in that fitted T-shirt. Not on Facetime. Not a digital, moving picture on my iPad. But in front of me. Breathing.
There was the slow kissing, wet and soft like a half-eaten popsicle. And then there was the rush to take off our clothes like our skin was on fire, like we hadn’t seen each other in, well, seven weeks. His body was on top of mine, my legs stretched out in a wide V underneath him, my knees bent in parallel Vs, too. His face was in my neck, his tongue a puppy, eager, playful. My hands were wolf-like, more ravenous, squeezing, slapping, scratching his back and ass, hungry for more.
But there is a dirty, ugly part of grief that nobody talks about. A dirty, ugly part of myself that I rarely talk about—sex. That primal, animalistic pleasure God gave you to feel, and feel, and feel is stripped, taken and stolen.
The kind of sex that is hair-pulling for that pain-pleasure threshold that’s orgasmically just right. The kind of sex when your thoughts turn to mouths, tongues, and licks, not how many essays you need to grade tomorrow or when you need to call your mother about splitting the cost of the bridal shower Keurig. Sex with the cum on your ass—the kind you used to hate but always agreed to because cum on your ass was better than cum in your vagina—that cum you used to hate, but now crave. Sex that goes beyond fucking.
But after a drunk driver took a turn too sharply, after a guardrail sliced my father’s chest in two, grief transformed my lust for David—for sex—and replaced it with a bleeding, ravaging wolf inside of me. Right before I orgasm, I can feel her gaining traction with every paw, digging her nails into my skin, clawing, thrusting against David, pushing herself out of the warm liquid comfort of her den into the cold ice of the outside.
It is a fuck-thrust marathon. David fucks in. The wolf thrusts out. Fuck. Thrust. Fuck. Thrust.
I am a rag doll, numb and limber. I can’t compete with them. So I just give in. It is a see-saw head-snapping body-banging wolf-sex until yes, there it is, the finish. There is a couple of seconds—and I mean seconds, not anything lasting or memorable—of bursting, burning, ringing echoes of pleasure followed by the rushing ravage.
Sex that ends in deep gasps of air because I can’t fucking breathe. Sex that blinds me in rage and hurt and body. Tears and scrunched eyes and tight fists. When I can’t stop crying. But why, why, I ask again, and again?
If I could tell myself why, if I could look in the mirror, and say there is a wolf inside of me who hurts me, tears me apart, without looking at myself like I’m crazy, like I’m already gone, I wouldn’t be crying.
But I can’t. It won’t stop. Can’t stop. Won’t let me stop. Crying. Crying. Howling.
Nobody talks about the dirty, ugly side of grief. The kind that leaves you wounded, bleeding, yelping like the wolf inside of you.
Nobody talks about the jagged, fatal claws of grief. The kind that will turn you into an animal of the worst kind.
When David and I finished having sex, I huddled in a fetal position on the lower-right corner of the bed, trembling. I sobbed at the hatred I had for myself for crying out of hurt rather than pleasure. My father had been dead almost nine years. And yet.
David went slowly at first, taking his hand and sliding his penis inside me. He rocked his hips slowly, slowly, slowly like hypnotic beach waves. He knew to go slowly. If he goes slowly in the beginning, the wolf is less likely to come out.
But I hadn’t seen him in seven weeks, hadn’t let out the hurt in seven weeks. It was inevitable.
I “freshened up” in the bathroom, my code for “I need to be alone for a few minutes. Alone, alone. With the door closed.” I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself.
How many times had I stepped in front of my mother’s upstairs bathroom full-length mirror, his parent’s first-floor vanity, our apartment’s 1980s gold-hanging lamps, a hotel’s too-bright lights with a too-small hair dryer at my side? How much brokenness was reflected back to more brokenness? How many times had I pleaded for the mirror, mirror on the wall to show me anything but me?
The girl turned woman I’ve stared at is always someone else. I never recognize the puffy green eyes, the snaggle front tooth, the beauty mark on the right breast, and the puny thin shins and feet. The girl turned woman in the mirror wraps her arms around her stomach. I don’t feel it. I never do. There’s nothing in there. Not even bones.
When I finally got the courage to talk to my therapist about moments like these with David, she asked me why I thought this was happening.
“Is David pressuring you into having sex with him?” she asked.
“God, no,” I said, sternly. “He would never do that. The problem isn’t David. It’s me. He’s perfect actually. I couldn’t imagine him handling it any better. He stops whenever I’m brave enough to ask him to, or if he hears me start crying. And he always picks me up and holds me until it stops. And he never asks if we can finish after. He just wants to take care of me.”
“It sounds like he is,” she said.
“He is,” I said.
“So if he’s taking care of you in a manner that you find satisfactory, why do you think this is happening?” she asked.
“Because I’m broken.”
She let the words hang there without saying anything. I stared at her waiting for her to respond but she remained silent. I hated when she did this. The awkward silence prompted me to speak.
“It’s like I can’t experience such intense love because I’m still harboring so much pain.”
But the dirtier, uglier secret, the one I’ve never told anyone, not David, not even my therapist, is that the wolf only comes out after sex. She doesn’t come out after I pleasure myself.
She doesn’t come out when I have a shower head pressed against me tighter than tightly, when I have my two-tone purple vibrator going full force on the third speed setting, when my hungry, wandering right hand inches down my stomach and below the elastic waistband of my black sweatpants.
I orgasm fast and loud and panting. I lay there on my back, my legs outstretched with my toes touching in a V, my right hand over my heart rising and falling with my breath, my left arm outstretched. My heart thuds deep in my chest and for a few seconds that’s all I hear, all I feel. I stare at the dropped ceiling of me and David’s bedroom. The off-white squares. I am breathing in and out, in and out of my mouth, hard. My abs are tight, burning, from scrunching upward in a wide C trying to get the orgasm out. The ceiling is spotted. Is that the ceiling? My eyesight? A single tear of pleasure, maybe two, slide down the corner of my left eye, and drop into my ear, tickling me. It makes me shudder. I stick my left index finger in my ear. Dig it out. And then my breathing slows.
No tears of pain. So I wait. And wait. And wait.
But there is only my breath that slows, my heart that slows, and my brain that slows. Everything slows to still. There is no pain. Only pleasure.
And then guilt.
Guilt that I know my body so deeply that I can make it combust, feel that intense pulsation of pleasure that vibrates from below me all the way to my eyebrows, my earlobes. And that David knows it, too, but knows it only in the most trepid way, the way a soldier covered head to toe in camouflage steps his way onto unfamiliar land.
I am foreign to him. Filled with booby-traps and landmines that he must avoid and leap and dive away from. I will explode at any moment. A grenade. A ticking time-bomb. How awful it must be for him to lay with someone like me? The only woman he’s ever known intimately. I repeat to him, “Not all women are like this,” hoping, secretly hoping, that I am wrong, that there are others. That I am not an outlier.
Secretly, I wish for his body to transform like mine under the moonlight, for him to howl into the night as I do, to know grief as I do. As much as we try—he tries—to connect, to mold his body onto mine, it will always be just close, but not enough.
We are of different packs.
It is not about trust. I trust him with my body, my skin, my rusty blonde-brown hair. I trust him in his touch, the soft way he holds my legs, smoothing them like ruffled bedsheets. I trust him in his hard touch, the way he grips my love handles, slaps my ass, and grips my hips, my body, onto him.
It’s the wolf that doesn’t trust him, doesn’t trust anyone but me.
Alone, I try to force her out. Try to make her claws, her teeth, come out. I scrunch my body upwards, throw my legs up in the air in imaginary stirrups, and try to push her out. Yell. Scream. A deep, burning call from my insides.
I try to prove to myself that I can overcome this. That if I can pleasure myself, I should be able to let my most trusted partner pleasure me, too. That I can allow someone to love this part of me.
But the wolf stays in her den where her eyes are yellow, her teeth a slobbering, shiny white. She growls but then blinks and disappears into the darkness. She stays in there, hidden from me, hidden inside of me.
She attacks David. Has attacked anyone who tries to come inside, get too close.
An animal that hurts and protects.
Sarah Chaves is a former Fulbright scholar who currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Her most recent work has appeared in Glamour, The Washington Post, and The Lily among others. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sarita_chaves Gem Blackthorn is QMT's Sex Columnist, and the author/curator of Lust Thrust Thursdays. Send her your submissions and questions at sexsexsex [at] queenmobs.com