All too often, sex writing is bad writing. There are, of course, various theories about why this is. On a recent New Yorker fiction podcast, Michael Cunningham mentioned that he thought it was because desires are so different. What’s sexy to me, isn’t necessarily sexy to you. To an extent, I agree. But I have my own ideas. You ever meet people who curse and when they do, it just doesn’t sound right coming out of their mouths? Like they drop the F-word, and you can’t help thinking, please don’t ever use that again. And it’s not because it offended me. Profanity, in general, doesn’t offend me (I only use F-word here to keep my blog clean enough for PG readers, which given the story below probably makes no sense). There are other people who use profanity in such a natural way, it sounds Shakespearean. The difference, I would say, is that the first type, the type that uses profanity badly, thinks of the word they’re using as dirty. They’re unpracticed with it. And for this reason, when they drop curse words, the words come out stilted, if not comical. I think it’s the same with sex writing. If you’re writing about sex and hoping to titillate by dropping in dirty forbidden words, you’re going to fail. If you feel more comfortable calling a male sex organ  “purple headed monster” than “penis” with no underlying sense of irony,  you’re going to fail. Now we could argue about this all day, and you’re free to have a different opinion than me, but it’s my belief that sex in writing should be treated as an everyday occurrence. We shouldn’t try to dress it up in language that masks any discomfort with it, that keeps what’s going on hidden and taboo. Almost all of us think about it. Many of us, if we’re lucky, get to do it on a regular basis. In short, I think when you’re writing sex, you need to suppress the five-year-old’s snickering and treat it like an adult.

To that end, what I’m posting here is a story I published in the final issue of Avery Anthology way back in 2011. Oftentimes, magazines will provide authors with a PDF proof of their stories prior to production. I will review it and provide corrections and then sit on that PDF until a year has passed and then post the story to this site. You can find samples of my writing throughout these pages. In some cases, however, I did not receive a PDF for review prior to publication. In these instances, I’ve decided that, over the next few months, I’ll be posting the stories with a slight introduction. I should note that I’m not editing these stories to suit my sensibility now. For better or worse, they will appear as they did at the time I composed them. That said, it’s been a while since I looked at “This is Hardcore.” I wrote it because, quite frankly, I like to engage sexuality in my fiction. It falls into the category of a sex story, but my intention wasn’t necessarily to write something arousing, for it also falls into the category of stories about illness. This category is a popular one throughout the literary world. And, as with anything that’s been done to death, I like to try to find a unique way in. I hope I’ve done that in combining the sex story with the cancer story. But I’ll leave that for you to judge. And now, with no further ado:

This is Hardcore

This is Hardcore
Jason M. Jones

Perhaps he slipped in a bit too quietly.

Maybe she wasn’t paying attention.

Either way, she didn’t hear him come into the attic, and since she had the volume turned down, he almost called out before he spotted a couple writhing around on the TV and hid behind the door. She wasn’t exactly the kind of woman he could picture watching pornography—a tad prudish, skirts past the knee, loose blouses, vanilla preference with a dab of experimental positions on special occasions like his birthday or Valentine’s—and he considered clearing his throat to make her blush, yet after noticing who the actors were, he held off. It had been so long since he’d seen this video, he’d forgotten it was stashed away above the ceiling tiles. He’d also almost forgotten what his previous wife had looked like naked, if ‘previous wife’ was indeed what she was. He’d always questioned if that was the proper way to put it, tending for obvious reasons to avoid the subject. After all, she wasn’t an ex, but had passed away six years before, and in those years he’d picked up the pieces and remarried, but he’d never completely forgotten, and though he’d never viewed it again, he didn’t have the heart to throw it out. Initially, getting rid of it felt wrong, destroying this final artificial image of her, but keeping it and reliving his erotic entanglements with Alicia felt just as strange, so he stowed it away. Yet, he’d never been good at concealing things. He should have known his new wife—if following two anniversaries ‘new wife’ was what she was—would find it, and he regretted arguing to keep the VCR.

“We don’t even have any tapes,” she’d said.

“I’ve got some old movies stashed in a box somewhere,” he’d countered, without realizing his mistake.

He and Alicia had made it as a passionate, drunken lark, spur of the moment, its inception as unplanned as its execution was amateur. Long shots from a tripod, shaky handheld close-ups of penetration from his point-of-view, zooming in on her face, eyes closed, mouth curled to moaning, teeth biting the bottom lip, then the arch of neck as off-camera she lifted her body toward him, pulling him deeper, strands of wavy brown hair sticking to her forehead with perspiration. He was surprised she could get that aroused when he kept stopping, removing himself, sculpting her limbs before starting again, but she didn’t seem to be faking. In his mind’s eye, he figured he’d edit the footage later, but once he sobered up, the idea seemed ludicrous. They’d only screened it together once, since she was embarrassed by the sight of herself in the heat of passion, and yet she didn’t make him erase it. She admitted she liked the possibility he’d use it if she were out of town on business or had to work late, but they hadn’t foreseen any other type of absence. They were so caught up planning for their future, for children and careers, and off in the distance, retirement, that they never considered none of it would happen.

He kept expecting a click, the remote control’s death throe, that fade to black. He couldn’t withdraw, afraid the steps would creak, so he stood still, patent leather shoes against hardwood, a swish of gray silk suit whenever he moved his legs. In her place he’d have been sick to his stomach, seeing him do things with Alicia he’d never done with her, but Darcy didn’t stop. He never discussed Alicia, and that might have been the problem. Shut out entirely from this segment of his life, Darcy must have been curious. She wasn’t necessarily trying to catch him out or incriminate him, since she didn’t expect him home until later. The attic, however, was traditionally his area, the place where he relaxed after work, and she rarely spent time here, preferring books or arts and craft projects to the television, so there was an element of invasion in her presence. He wasn’t sure how to react: ring the alarm and take his chances in the subsequent shit storm or sneak off across their amplified stairwell? If she became accusatory, he could counter with the fact that she had no right to go through his private things, but she’d say “It’s a marriage. We don’t have private things,” and though this wasn’t true, it was hard to protest without seeming like a prick.

He turned and took another peak through the door.

On the set, Alicia was mounted on top of him—her breasts firm and pert with a wide nipple circumference she was sometimes self-conscious about. Her chest had flushed red as it often did right before orgasm, so healthy and vivid, caught from below like a goddess, a startling contrast to how she looked in the end, the decay of her body, loss of weight, skeletal features.

They’d met when she was twenty three with a sleek athletic figure and a zest for everything, and they’d stayed together for ten years before she’d sickened and succumbed and he tried to follow. At thirty four, directly following Alicia’s interment, he started smoking to kill his lungs, but it wasn’t happening fast enough, so he took up drinking too. His internal organs were enemies to be fought and decimated. He’d darken his alveoli with soot, shrink his liver with a hard liquor flood. There’d be no sneak attacks, no unexpected illnesses. He’d control the demolition. At its height, he couldn’t recall large chunks of time, two to three to five months of memory lost, and then he ended up in the hospital, having knocked down and dragged a mailbox for fifty yards before flipping his car and skidding into an intersection, sparks shooting from the ground where his hood scrapped it like a matchstick, the short bursts of flame enough to ingrain themselves into his otherwise inebriated brain. He was wearing his seatbelt—or so him dangling upside down as the scene unfolded in slow motion would indicate—and if he’d buckled up, he must in some way have wanted to survive.

The camera had panned down to where their bodies met—an intense, graphic shot, the swath of pale flesh exposed then hidden away in syncopated rhythms. They must have been nearing the end, but it seemed interminable, the runtime far longer than he’d ever had endurance for. He couldn’t imagine the effect seeing him screw another woman was having on Darcy. He strained to see her face, its profile concealed in the soft glow, but he couldn’t discern if she was angry or upset or impassive.

He and Darcy had encountered problems he’d never experienced with Alicia, and this led to some strain on their marriage, the main point of contention being that she wanted to have children and he didn’t, but he hadn’t always felt this way. He and Alicia had discussed it and planned on it, and they’d agreed to start in their thirties, but when she got sick it wasn’t an option anymore. And though Darcy was only twenty four, he was now nearing forty, and it seemed ill-advised. “By the time the kid’s in high school, I’ll have one foot in the grave,” he’d protest. But there was more to it than that. What if Darcy miscarried or there were complications and he lost both her and the baby? What if, when the kid was older, he was riding his bike and some drunkard struck him down? What if, in his twenties, their kid became that drunkard and suffered for it and hurt the people around him? It was hard enough to let her into his life when he knew one of them would eventually lose the other, but to let a child in was another matter entirely. He wasn’t prepared for it. It was supposed to be a blessed event. That’s what people always said, but this was only the case if you ignored the inevitable presence of mortality in the act, and there it was splashed up on the TV. He’d once given himself fully to that beautiful perfect woman with a beautiful perfect body, and that body had turned to rot and decay, as would the body planted before the screen and the body hiding behind this door.

And yet, he imagined he spotted tears of tenderness on Darcy’s cheeks, a translucent sheen reflecting her reaction. Her eyes weren’t angry, but empathetic, as if she understood his reticence toward fatherhood, but more likely he was just projecting his internal conflicts on her. There was no kindness or sensitivity in dirty movies—that raw pink rubbing, the visceral exchange of fluids. There was craving or revulsion and little in between. If he wasn’t a coward, he’d charge in and destroy it, eject the tape and stomp on it with his loafers, prove he’d moved on and this was all a mistake, but he wasn’t the kind of man who made grandiose gestures. Instead, he decided to take his chances with sneaking off, braving the squeaky steps and pretending he hadn’t seen what he’d seen. He’d undress and get into bed and leave it for tomorrow, hoping she’d calm down by then. Of course, she’d suspect that since he’d gone to bed without greeting her, he’d discovered what she was doing, but right then, he couldn’t formulate a better plan, and in the case where both parties agreed to mutual silence, ignoring these incidents was a part of married life. They’d converse on other topics with tension, and that tension would either fade or escalate into an argument that had little to do with the actual issue at hand.

He wasn’t blind to what this baby would mean. The absence of family photographs on the walls or end tables or furniture, pointed to the void within her, and though she needed something to fill it, he wasn’t sure how he got by day-to-day beyond the sheer survival instinct—his old self-destructive impulse held at bay only out of concern for Darcy’s well-being—and he couldn’t, in good conscience, bring a new person—someone wholly dependent on him—into the world with that constant threat hanging over his or her little head. There were many times in the years since his accident when he could have used a cocktail, when his tongue scrapped across the dry, thatched roof of his mouth and he longed for the sweet salve of whiskey, but even though he needed one now, he stripped his suit, got into bed, and pulled the covers to his chin.

At least by not being caught in the room, he’d saddled her with the onus to address it, and since they rarely discussed sex, he presumed she’d be unable to. “Honey, I discovered a videotape of you engaged in…” She’d probably use the word coitus. He could hear the innocent query tumbling around in her head: “Why do men like to watch it go in and out so much?” but she’d never have the courage to pose it. She preferred gentle, clinical terms to dirty ones, and when he met her, this was part of her charm, how nice she was. She’d only had two lovers before she married him—one, a high school sweetheart to whom she’d lost her virginity after three years of dating; the other, she’d confessed one tearful evening, a boy who’d taken advantage of her in a state of intoxication after a college party and whom she categorized as a lover for the act alone and not the emotion. At this, he held her and wiped the tears away and moved as slowly as she needed him to. His younger self, with raw heat in his veins, would have fantasized about violence toward the boy, considered crushing him into a bloody paste, but he was older, grizzled from his own tragedies, and he focused instead on helping her heal. His drive now was lower than it had been in his twenties, so his patience was greater, and she admitted that the boy hadn’t ruined things for her, but had made her cautious, conservative. Their sessions were slow—filled with questions and caresses—rather than rough and tumble romps like the one he’d recorded with Alicia. Even if others might have looked askance at the age gap, Darcy’s youth and health served to allay his concerns of losing her the same way he’d lost Alicia, and he liked to believe that his knowledge of the female form eclipsed her previous inexperienced fumbling.

He lay there with his eyes closed while upstairs his doppelgänger must have finished ejaculating and rolled onto his side, panting, wilting. He heard Darcy’s slippered feet above him, vibrating at a pitch only his ears could register, the intonations, familiar notes, a tune danced to his favorite rhythm. He could recognize her footfalls anywhere, distinguish them from any stranger. It was a habit one picked up in living together so long, when one paid attention to all the minutiae.

She’d flicked off the movie and was heading downstairs.

Sometimes, when she entered the bedroom and found him asleep, she’d undress and nestle warmly against him with a hand on his chest, and though he didn’t expect her to, she did it tonight, and it made him happy she hadn’t yet taken this small pleasure away. Perhaps she wouldn’t. Perhaps she’d reconciled the past with the present, prepared to let go, ignore it, push it away. There was a maturity in their relationship that was missing from his marriage to Alicia. He told himself that it was more about security and respect and less about the ownership and possession he and his first wife had sought in each other. Sometimes, he missed Alicia, though it was tough to tell if he missed her or missed being that young, and what scared him more than Darcy’s potential anger or the threat of her leaving was that she’d want him to do to her what she’d seen him do to Alicia. Like an athlete past his prime but still in good shape, he relied on fundamentals rather than sheer vigor and joie de vivre, and he seemed to satisfy, though Darcy’s light panting and squeals of delight were never as clear as Alicia’s chest flushing red and getting goose pimples.

She deserved a younger man, he thought. It was wrong to marry her.

When her breathing slowed, he grasped her hand and placed it on the mattress, kissing the palm and fingers, calloused from her latest needlework project. He considered whispering something sweet, something her subconscious might register and view in his favor, but nothing came to mind. He got out of bed and stood at the threshold, the moon’s light seeping past their shades and glinting off the mirror that hung from their door, offering a wan reflection of his sunken eyes and receding hairline. He considered sleep on the futon they kept in the guest room downstairs to give her space. He shuffled about, perhaps a bit too loudly, then reached out and grabbed the knob, but before he left, he heard her stir.

“Darling,” she sighed, subtle but magnanimous, as she rolled toward him. “It’s been a rough day. Why don’t you come back to bed and get some rest?”

And as they drifted off together, he decided he wouldn’t check, either the next day or any that followed, to see if she’d put the tape back in its hiding place above the musty rafters. Given the circumstances, he felt it was the smallest sign of gratitude he could afford.