Perhaps he slipped in too quietly.

Maybe she wasn’t paying attention.

Either way, she didn’t hear him come to the attic, and since she had the volume turned down, he almost called out before he spotted a couple writhing around on the TV. She wasn’t exactly the type of woman he could picture watching porn—a tad demure, skirts past the knee, loose blouses—and he considered clearing his throat to make her aware he was seeing this, maybe as a joke, making her blush. But 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 forgotten what his previous wife looked like naked—if previous wife was what she was. He’d always questioned if that was the proper way to put it—ex didn’t seem right and he’d never liked late. She had passed away six years before, and in those years he’d picked up the pieces and remarried, but he’d never completely forgotten her. And though he hadn’t viewed this tape since her death, he’d never had the heart to throw it out either. Getting rid of it had felt wrong, destroying this final artificial image. Yet, keeping it felt strange, too. So, he’d stowed it away. But he’d never been good at concealing things. He should have known his new wife—if after two anniversaries, new was what she was—would find it.

He now regretted keeping the VCR.

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

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

He and his first wife, Alicia, had made the video 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 closeups of penetration from his point of view, zooming in on her face, eyes closed, mouth curled to moaning, teeth biting her bottom lip, the thin arch of her neck as off-camera she lifted her body toward him to draw 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 drunken state, he figured he’d edit the footage later, use it to get them both going or maybe rely on it whenever she wasn’t in the mood. They’d only screened it together once, since she was embarrassed by the sight of herself in the heat of passion, yet she didn’t make him erase it. She admitted she liked the possibility he’d use it if she was out of town on business or working late. They were in love, young, seemingly healthy. They hadn’t foreseen that other type of absence. They were so caught up planning for the future, for children, careers, and eventual retirement, that they never considered it wouldn’t happen.

He kept expecting the click, the remote control’s death throe, a fade to black, once his now-wife Bethany understood what she was watching. He couldn’t withdraw, afraid the steps would creak, so he stayed where he was. In her place, he’d have been sick to his stomach, seeing him do things with Alicia he’d never done with her. But Beth didn’t stop. He’d never discussed Alicia with Beth, and that might have been part of the problem, the curiosity spurring her on. Shut out entirely from this segment of his life, Beth must have been curious. She wasn’t trying to catch him out, since she didn’t expect him home until later. But the attic was his space, the place where he relaxed after work. She rarely spent time here, preferring books or arts and crafts to television, so there was an element of invasion in her presence. He wasn’t sure how to react, ring the alarm and endure the resulting fallout, or sneak off down the stairs? If she became accusatory, he could counter with the fact that she had no right to go through his private things, and she’d say, it’s a marriage, we don’t have private things, and though this wasn’t true, it would be hard to protest without coming off like a prick.

He took another peek at the screen. Alicia was mounted on top of him—her breasts firm, pert, with the wide nipple circumference she was self-conscious about when they met. Her chest had flushed red as it often did right before orgasm, so healthy, vivid, a startling contrast to how she looked in the end, the decay of her body, loss of weight, skeletal features. When they met, she was twenty-three, with a sleek, athletic figure and a zest for life. They’d stayed together ten years before she got sick and succumbed, and he’d tried to follow. At thirty-four, he’d started smoking to kill his lungs, but it wasn’t happening fast enough, so he took to drinking heavily, too. His internal organs were enemies to be fought, decimated. He’d darken his alveoli with soot, shrink his liver down to a dark brown shriveled numb. There’d be no sneak attacks, no unexpected illnesses. He’d control the demolition. At the height of his self-destruction, he couldn’t recall large chunks of time, three to five months lost to him here and there, and then he’d ended up in the hospital, having knocked down and dragged a mailbox fifty yards before flipping his car and skidding into an intersection, sparks shooting from the ground where his hood scrapped the street like a matchstick, short bursts of flame embedding themselves into his inebriated brain. He’d been wearing his seatbelt—or so him dangling upside down as the scene unfolded would indicate—and if he’d buckled up, he must, in some way, have wanted to survive. So, he’d set about recovery, glad, once he’d sobered up, that the only person he’d injured was himself.

The camera 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 longer than he’d ever had endurance for. He couldn’t imagine the effect this was having on Bethany. He strained to see her face, its profile concealed in the soft glow, but he couldn’t discern if she was angry, upset, impassive.

He and Beth had encountered problems he’d never had with Alicia, which led to some strain in the marriage, the main point of contention being that she wanted to have children and he didn’t. He hadn’t always felt this way. He and Alicia had discussed it, planned on it, and they’d agreed to start just before Alicia got sick. And though Bethany was only twenty-four, he was nearing forty. Having children seemed ill-advised. “By the time the kids get to high school,” he’d argued, “I’ll have one foot in the grave.” But there was more than that. What if Beth miscarried? What if there were complications and he lost both her and the baby? What if, when the kids were older, they were riding their bikes and got hit by a car? What if, what if, what if? He was full of what ifs. What worried him most was that he couldn’t take another loss like Alicia. It would destroy him. It had been hard enough to let Bethany into his life when he knew that one of them would eventually lose the other. But to lose a child was another matter entirely. He wasn’t prepared for it. It was supposed to be a blessed event—having a child. That’s what people 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 to that beautiful woman, that beautiful woman with that perfectly healthy body, and that body had gone to decay, as would the body of the woman sitting, watching, as would his.

He spotted tears on Bethany’s cheeks, a translucent sheen reflecting her reaction. But her eyes weren’t angry. Could it be that she understood in seeing this how he felt? Or was he projecting his conflicts onto her? There was no kindness or sensitivity in dirty movies, no empathy—just a raw pink rubbing, the visceral exchange of fluid. There was craving and revulsion and little in between. If he wasn’t a coward, he’d charge in and destroy the tape, prove he’d moved on, that this was all a mistake. But he wasn’t the kind of man who made grandiose gestures. Instead, he decided to take his chances now, sneak off, brave the steps and pretend he hadn’t seen what he’d seen. He’d undress, get into bed, leave it for tomorrow. Of course, she’d suspect that since he’d gone to bed without greeting her, he’d discovered what she was doing, but he couldn’t form a better plan, and in the case where both parties agreed to mutual silence, ignoring such incidents was part of married life. They’d converse on other topics with tension, and that tension would fade or escalate into an argument about something else.

He wasn’t blind to what a baby would mean. The absence of family photographs on the walls or end tables pointed to a void in their relationship, and though they needed something to fill it, he wasn’t sure how he got by day-to-day beyond sheer survival instinct. His old self-destructive impulses were held at bay mainly out of concern for Bethany. He couldn’t in good conscience bring a new person—someone dependent on him—into the world with that constant threat hanging above them. There were so many times in the years since his accident when he could have used a cocktail, when his tongue scraped the dry, thatched roof of his mouth and he longed for the sweet salve of whiskey, and even though he could have used one right now, he stripped his clothes, got into bed, and pulled up the covers.

Bethany was twenty-two when they met. She’d only had two lovers before him—one, the high school sweetheart to whom she’d lost her virginity after three years of dating, and the other, a boy she’d met in college and slept with a couple times but who’d stopped calling after three weeks. She’d never known whether she wanted to sleep with him or not, but he was aggressive and she want along with it, and it wasn’t necessarily a violation because she’d agreed, but it felt like one anyway. He’d listened, her new husband, roused to anger by this. And though his younger self, with raw heat in his veins, would have fantasized about doing violence to the boy, his older self, grizzled from tragedy and perhaps more patient because of it, had focused instead on helping her heal. His sex drive was now lower than it had been in his twenties, and she admitted the boy hadn’t ruined things for her, but he’d made her more cautious, conservative, so their lovemaking was slow, filled with questions, soft caresses. Even if others looked askance at the fourteen year age gap, Bethany’s youth had served to allay concerns of losing her the same way he’d lost Alicia.

He lay there with his eyes closed while upstairs his doppelgänger must have finished ejaculating and rolled to his side, panting, wilted. He heard Bethany’s feet padding above him. She’d flicked off the TV and was headed downstairs. Sometimes, when she entered the bedroom and found him asleep, or seemingly so, she’d undress and nestle against him, put a hand on his chest, and though he didn’t expect her to, she did so tonight. Perhaps she’d reconciled his past with their present, let it go. There was a maturity in their relationship that hadn’t been there with Alicia, and he had to admit it was her. He told himself their relationship was more about security and respect and less about the ownership and possession he and Alicia felt for each other. But it wasn’t just that. It was a way Beth had of remaining calm at things that would have made his blood boil. Sometimes, he missed Alicia, though it was hard to tell if he missed her or missed being young with her, knowing he’d never be that young again, as young as he was in that video. He and Beth had never had sex like that, and he wondered if this bothered her. He wondered if he could do it anymore. Like an athlete past his prime, he relied on fundamentals rather than vigor, and he seemed to satisfy Bethany, though her light panting and squeals were never as clear an indicator as Alicia’s chest flushing red.

She deserves a younger man, he thought. I was wrong to marry her.

But he loved her and wanted to be with her.

When her breathing slowed, he grasped her hand and placed it on the mattress, kissing her palm and fingers. He considered whispering something sweet, something her subconscious might register, but nothing came to mind. He got out of bed and stood at the threshold, the moonlight seeping past their shades, glinting off the mirror that hung from their door, offering a wan reflection of his sunken eyes and receding hairline. He shuffled about, perhaps a bit too loudly, then reached out and grabbed the doorknob, but before he left, she stirred.

“Jim,” she sighed, rolling toward him. “It’s been a long day. Come back to bed?”

And as he sat down on the edge of the bed, she leaned over and kissed his neck, his shoulders, the length of his back. She reached into the front of his boxers, and as she worked at him, he decided he wouldn’t check, either the next day or any that followed, to see if she’d put back the tape. He recognized that, under the circumstances, it was the smallest sign of gratitude he could afford.