stone garden

Chapter One

Genre: Erotic Romance. 

Target Publication Date: July 1, 2013. 


Sayuri and I designed the Japanese stone garden in our backyard to be perfectly round, but some time ago our daughters added a rivulet of gravel connecting it to the forest.

The addition was crude, lacking any refinement whatsoever. The stream of tiny white stones emerged from the garden’s main body, passed between two young oaks that our daughters named after themselves Mie and Sara, and cascaded downhill into a dense bamboo growth. It split our backyard with a messy, bold line, such as a toddler may draw across a piece of paper with the full strength of his unsteady hand.

On Sunday afternoons, when the kids would be away playing with the neighbors, Sayuri and I took to sitting on the opposite sides of that convoluted line. With our backs against the oaks, we’d gaze at the perfection of our surroundings, sometimes reading, sometimes listening to music, hardly ever talking. It used to be a comfortable silence in the midst of a well-tended garden. But lately, some of the hedges began to need maintenance; and neither of us had bothered to fix them. Slowly, without me noticing it, the silence took on heavier undertones.

This Sunday was different.

This Sunday, I could no longer pretend it was a peaceful stillness between us. After working my way through half a bottle of the local rosé, I zipped my coat against the autumn chill and swallowed the ball in my throat. “We don’t talk much anymore, do we?”

Sayuri had been leaning over the gravel line, adjusting some small stones inside it. Her long hair had fallen over her face, and I could see nothing of her expression. She became still and turned into a perfectly black statue—black hair, black overcoat, black pants and shoes.

“So?” she asked in a quiet, reasonable voice.

I shrugged. “Just wondering why we’re still together. If we have nothing to talk about, I mean.”

Sayuri sat up straight and brushed her hair back gently, revealing her delicate features. A pair of tranquil eyes the color of obsidian met my stare. “Wait,” she said. “Are you talking about divorce, Misha?”

I had to take a pause. I was merely suggesting that we should start talking again, work towards improving our marriage. I picked my glass from the picnic blanket, swirled the wine and watched it settle down. “That word came out of you awfully quickly. No, I wasn’t talking about divorce,” I said. “I love you. But I can no longer live in this silence.”

“Don’t be dramatic.” She pressed her temples with both hands. Her slender fingers pulled the skin around her eyes back, accentuating her high cheekbones, giving her a wilder look, more like the Asiatic nomads from tales of my childhood than the urbane Japanese woman that she was.

I wanted so much to lean over the white dividing line between us, to kiss the soft corners of her eyes, to caress her fragile hands. But I did none of that; any physical show of affection in our marriage had become awkward long ago.

“Darn this headache,” Sayuri said. “Where did it come from?”

The sharpness in her voice broke my train of thought, and I cleared my throat before answering. “You must’ve caught that germ from the girls,” I said. “Since you always sleep in Mie’s bed.”

“That’s because she needs me.”

“And I . . . I sleep alone, and I’m healthy.”

Sayuri picked a handful of little white stones and let them drop one by one out of her hand. A thin veil of dust drifted through the breeze away from me. So much like Sayuri, I thought.

“Is it that conversation again?” she asked.

“What conversation?”

“About sex.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s probably about sex.” I know I sounded terse, but in that moment I saw myself the way she probably saw me, a lecherous man in search of gratification. But sex wasn’t the only thing I was after. What I wanted most was the warmth of intimacy, the excitement of being desired, the comfort of a loved woman returning my touch.

She gave out a small groan and reclined against her oak. She looked up, and I couldn’t tell if she was gazing at the tree’s branches or rolling her eyes.

“Let me see,” I said, taking a sip of wine, giving myself a few moments to think about this. In my mind, I counted the number of times we’d been intimate this whole year so far.

There was one time in January, during our holiday on the Red Sea, after we each knocked off a bottle of plain Israeli wine. Then we made out in June, after getting inebriated at a business soiree, and then in August when on a holiday in Andalucía, having had a little too much of the local red. Then once recently, after a party with our neighbors. We got so wasted, we almost passed out between their door and ours.

“You know,” I said, putting down the glass and leaning forward, “if I discount some attention you’ve given me in the shower, for which I’m grateful, we’ve made love the whole of four times this year. We’re now in November. My chances to score before Christmas are slim.”

“You’re exaggerating, as always. And why is this always about you ‘scoring?’” she asked, putting a stone down a little forcefully.

“It’s not. But it would just be nice if you’d show interest in me without alcohol distorting your judgment.”

“Well, maybe that’s your solution,” she said with faint smile in her voice. “Alcohol.”

I allowed myself a matching thin smile. “This rosé isn’t bad,” I said, trying to sound light-hearted, though maybe this was part of the problem. Remaining quiet. Pretending that it was all okay when clearly, it wasn’t. “Want some?”

She glared at me a fraction of a second. “Some other time.”

“Some other time.” I echoed. “You know something?”

Sayuri glanced at me sideways. “What?”

“You used to be so hungry for me when we dated. You wanted me for breakfast, and sometimes for lunch. You wanted me so much at night that we hardly slept. For months. You drove me mad with desire. That’s why I married you.”

“Really?” she said, folding her arms. Her eyes bore into mine. “How interesting. So, not because you love me, not because you wanted to make me happy, but because. . . you thought you’d have sex all the time. Huh. Is sex all that matters to you?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Well, that’s what you just said. You’re mistaking sex for love. You’re obsessed with it.”

“Four times a year makes me an obsessed man?” I felt the rumblings of the familiar anger inside my chest. “Good Lord. When we dated, I thought I found paradise. But instead I’d locked myself into a damn monastery.”

“Monastery?” Sayuri looked at me with interest. “What do you do when you feel your . . . urges?” she asked. “Do you. . . .” She made a yanking motion with her hand. “Like all other men?”

I felt blood rush into my face, as if the old concepts of guilt still had a firm grasp on me. Feeling awkward, I swirled my wine again. “What does it matter?”

Sayuri gave out a gentle laugh, leaned over, and tapped me on the arm. “Are you doing it?” she asked. “You must be doing it.”

She was apparently trying to joke now, but the anger from a moment ago still gripped me. “Of course I’m doing it. If I can’t have you, then what other choice do I have?”

“But it’s so . . . animalistic,” she said, recoiling, sighing. “Sex, sex, sex. As if you have no self-control. It’s just so selfish.”

“Selfish? Sayuri, I can’t apologize for being a man. It’s how I’m programmed.” I couldn’t believe I said something as lame as that. Seeing her lips break into a sarcastic grin, I continued, “Wait, what I mean is—”

“And following your program isn’t selfish?”

“Why? Tell me why. You didn’t always think so. Or was that part of your plan,” I said, feeling as if I was on a roller coaster of sorts, gliding along the rails travelled by millions before me, not wanting to follow the route but doing so nevertheless, “was it your plan to pretend to be into sex…to trap me?”

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. “Oh, yes. Yes, that was my plan to trap you, and I succeeded. You’re doomed now, a captive of an evil old wife.” She pressed a finger to her forehead, grimacing in pain. “You know, I work as much as you do, Misha,” she said in a flat voice. “And there’s so much stress at work, with the sales shrinking and with people getting fired. I can’t lose my job. We need the money to keep the girls in school. Maybe if you made more money, so I wouldn’t have to work, I’d have more time for you.”

I walked to the other side of the picnic blanket and refilled my wine. “You had the chance to stay at home after Sara was born,” I said.

She nodded slowly. “Yes, I had that chance. But we both said that we needed the money.”

Yes, we needed the money. To pay for the mortgage for our beautiful new house, the private school fees, the car payments, everything our hearts could possibly want. “I understand,” I said, having nothing else to offer. There was no point. This was an old argument, and it never led anywhere, much like the circular shape of this garden. Now that trail leading away…

“And then you talk about your . . . needs. So egotistical. It’s all about you, you, you. Not once have you asked me how I feel. It’s always about you and scoring.”

“I simply want. . . .” I started, before realizing that, indeed, I was talking about my needs again. But wasn’t that my responsibility in our marriage? To tell her what my needs are? I would expect her to do the same. But what bothered me most was why we both felt compelled to defend ourselves.

I had begun our talk with a question that, I admit, came out a little aggressive. But I only did it out of desire to provoke honesty, rather than to offend. Now, seeing how the conversation had progressed into feelings of resentment, I regretted my words. Avoid conflict at all costs, that was me.

A talk dead on arrival. A lemon. We were having just another lemon conversation.

There was no question in my mind that I loved Sayuri. I should’ve clarified that that was my reason for marrying her, but now it was too late to say it. She would think I was backpedaling.

But it was true. Every day since meeting her, I’ve carried that love inside me. In the frenzy of the first dates, I saw my love reflected in her keen eyes, in her smile that came into being for me only, in the warm touch of her delicate hands. Back in those days, I wasn’t the only one starting the intimacy, and I still craved that feeling of being desired by the woman I loved.

“I just want love,” I said flat-out, feeling a little pathetic about putting my emotions into such banal words. But it was the truth.

“You have my love,” Sayuri responded. “What you want is sex.”

I picked a knife from the blanket and stabbed a cube of cheese on a paper plate. The knife slashed through and lodged itself in what felt like a root of one of the trees underneath the blanket. Swearing under my breath, I wrenched it out. “You can’t separate the two,” I said. “Sex is the utmost expression of love.”

“Maybe you can’t separate them, but I can. I don’t need sex.”

Anymore. Because she did at one point. I know, I was there. I remember. “But you enjoy it, Sayuri!” I almost shouted. “I know what happens to you after your . . . after we do it. You become so welcoming. So . . . warm. How could you not need nor want that?”

She sighed and flipped a hand up, letting it fall flat on her lap. “When it starts, I may enjoy it. But if it doesn’t start, I never think of it. I’m sorry, Misha, I just don’t.”

“Sometimes, even when it starts, you remain dry.” Something that has silently plagued me over the years.

She held my eyes a moment, then went back to playing with the stones. “I don’t think we should be discussing that.”

“But I can’t take this anymore. I feel . . . .” I searched for the right words that wouldn’t offend her, another thing that has plagued me for years. Why must I always walk on eggshells around her, worrying about which words may offend? When did she become so easily offended by sex, a supposedly normal thing between husband and wife?

“You feel betrayed,” she suggested.

“Yes.” How did she know? Then again, she is my wife. I suppose I should give her credit for knowing me.

“All that talk about how much sex we used to have. I didn’t betray you, though. I really liked sex with you.”

“You wanted kids.”

“Oh, that’s so wrong! How did you . . . conclude that?”

“Just look at our history. You wanted me until your first pregnancy. And then, when Sara grew out of her nappies, you wanted me again. The facts speak for themselves, Sayuri.”

“Yes, I wanted you,” she said. “So? It was that kind of time. You talk about being programmed a certain way. Well, so am I. It made sense. It’s what my body wanted.”

Now I was really regretting bringing up the programming idea. In a short while, we had said enough, and yet with a chill in the pit of my stomach I realized I wasn’t quite through. “And after Mie was born . . . poof,” I said. “As if the thread was cut. How am I supposed to feel?”

“You’re getting it wrong. I didn’t make love with you because I wanted kids. I had kids with you because I loved you.” Tears were threatening to spill at her lower lids, but she kept them in. She was good at that.

“But the reality confirms what I say.” Silently, I cursed at the choice of words, so formal and detached. Damn it, I thought, always having to speak in a foreign language, even with those I loved.

“Look,” Sayuri said, reaching out to place her hand on top of mine. It felt dry, neither warm nor cold. “When I was married to Ichiro . . . I didn’t want kids. So we protected ourselves. I didn’t mind making love, but I didn’t want his kids. So I enjoyed my life. I danced, I travelled. I used to love my life with Ichiro.”

The words burned. “Don’t talk rubbish. You divorced him because he bored you with his lack of imagination. You didn’t share his nationalistic ideas, either.”

She sighed. “True. Some parts of that life I hated.”

“You hated more, or you wouldn’t have left him. But what happened between us? Did I change so much?”

“No. Work. Responsibilities. Kids. That’s what changed.”

I sat back against the oak and plucked at a blade of grass. “What about vacations? Neither work nor responsibilities when we go on one. And yet, we still get no sex.”

She looked down, playing with a bit of something between her fingertips. “The girls are growing up. Maybe when they’re independent—”

“What? You’re kidding me! We’ll be in our fifties!”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Sayuri, you’re making excuses. First work, then kids, then stress…when does menopause come again?” I was pretty much shouting now, I knew it, but part of me didn’t care anymore. It was clear she was trying to rationalize, but rationalize what, I wasn’t sure. Did she still love me like I loved her?

She waved her hand at me. “Calm down,” she said, leaning on her hands, rocking gently back and forth. “I won’t talk to you if you keep yelling.”

I stood and walked behind my oak, toward the dark, old forest after which our house was named. Villa at the Forest’s Edge. The home of Michael Sokolov’s happy suburban family.

I knew she meant what she said. Back when we began living together, I used to fly into easy flashed of rage when I felt something in me was stung: my dignity, my freedom, my rights, my whatever. Over the years, Sayuri managed to soothe that part of my character, reacting with a calm smile as I seethed around her, never saying a word, making me feel an uncouth barbarian. In a way, she had civilized me, loosened my inborn impatience.

I breathed in and out, looking into the forest, wishing I could be as serene as those old trees; as composed as my wife.

After a while, I returned to my blanket and refilled my glass.

“You know,” Sayuri said, “I was talking about this with some friends at work.”

I narrowly avoided choking on my wine, and some of it spilled out. I reached for a napkin. “You discussed our sex life at work?”

“Only with my best friends. I was wondering if this was a Japanese thing. But it’s very common. Many working couples have this problem. Husbands demand sex all the time. It’s so tiring for us.”

“All the time?” I said, unable to keep the mocking intonation out of my voice. “Sayuri, having sex four times a year doesn’t add up to all the time! You realize I’m more than fair. I’m not some boorish husband who demands sex thrice a day.”

“My point is simple. Sex isn’t as common in marriage as you think. You must accept this. And anyway, the more we talk about it, the less I want it.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Just like she had her research, I had mine. I’d read that the average working couple had sex a few times a month, maybe not every day like I’d have liked, but surely more often than in our best months. But I was tired of having to explain myself. Some things were supposed to come naturally, and having to convince my wife to love me enough to want me was not something I ever envisioned.

“Me too,” I said and folded my hands in my lap. “I feel no desire for a woman who doesn’t want me.”

“Good,” she said just as coldly. “Then we’re in balance.”

Unbelievable. I sat brooding over my wine, stabbing the cheese cubes over and over. Soon, nothing remained on the blanket apart from tiny, smelly shreds.

“I also have my desires, Misha.” Sayuri said. “I love shopping. Dancing. Singing. You don’t do any of that with me. You refuse to dance. You spend your time writing your books, ignoring me, just like you accuse me of doing to you.”

I looked at her in surprise. It was the first time that she mentioned it. Or maybe, it was the first time I noticed it?

“Every day,” she said, bringing it home with a firm look into my eyes, “I want to dance.”

“Uh,” I said, searching for words. “I feel awkward dancing. You know that. Maybe you can join a group, to dance with someone who’s good at it?”

After a silence, she said, “Thanks for saying that.” And after another thoughtful pause, she added, “That’s my point.”

I stopped exterminating the remaining bits of cheese and glanced at her. “Say exactly what you mean. Please.”

“If dancing is important for me, and you can’t do it, I can dance with whoever I want.” She fixed me with her impossibly black eyes, as if waiting for me to get the clue. I did, and I wasn’t sure I liked what I was hearing.

“Go on,” I said.

She sighed and raised her shoulders in a barely perceptible shrug, as if resigned to my slow wits. “If sex is important for you, and I don’t need it, maybe you can sleep with whoever you want.”

I could no longer stand the intensity of her glance. She was challenging me, testing to see what I would say, how far I would go. I turned away, feeling defeated. I wouldn’t take her bait.

“What are you saying here?” I asked.

Sayuri rubbed her temples with soft, circular movements. “As long as your needs are purely physical, I don’t mind you sleeping around.”

There was a pang seep in my stomach. My woman was giving me away. But I stayed calm, controlled. I refilled my glass. “This is so damn Japanese,” I said. “This is so damned pragmatic.”

“You’re insulting me.”

“No, of course not. I love you. I’m just . . . .” How was I to I tell her that the same words that might send another man into a fog of bliss was making the very core of my heart cold?

“You’re too selfish to see this, Misha,” Sayuri said. “Our whole life together is about you, your writing, your travel. Your sex. But we have responsibilities. We have daughters.”

My sex? When did that become mine only? “I don’t think you’re being fair. Everything we have, we have because you wanted it. I live for you. I don’t ask for much,” I said. “When we make love, I feel in harmony with you. I want to do things for you, together with you. Maybe I’ll even dance with you. That’s what you are too selfish to see.”

“So, in the end, it’s all about sex,” She remarked, throwing her hands up.

“Dancing and making love. These things are so different.”

“Really? Not to me, Misha.”

I had expected her to sound acid, to escalate the kindling conflict. Instead, her voice had become soft, her intonation gentle. “I have a practical solution for you,” Sayuri said.

I grunted. “I’m not sure I want to hear it.”

She smiled, genuine and patient, and waved my objection aside. “You’re going on a business trip tomorrow,” she said. “Was it Mexico?”

I nodded, unsure where she was taking the discussion. A decisive and somewhat aloof expression on her face, however, informed me that I may not like what was coming.

“I think I understand your problem, Misha,” she said. “You married young the first time, didn’t you? How old were you, twenty?”

From experience, I knew that with Sayuri’s reliance on intellectual constructs rather than emotions, with her preference for logical thinking, she could get carried away pretty far.

Yet, despite my better judgment, I went along. “Twenty-two,” I said. I was just out of my military school at that time. After five years tucked away in barracks and remote shitholes. Not counting a few flings that had led nowhere and didn’t last long, my first wife was also my first woman.

“You see. I was thirty when I married the first time. I had eight more years full of parties, one-night stands, holiday romances, and. . . .” Sayuri studied my face, her eyes warm and attentive, her cheeks flushed. She must’ve realized that she was hurting me. She opened her mouth to speak but remained silent for a while. Eventually, she said, “You understand my point. There was a time in my life when I explored my own boundaries, and all that.”

“I was late to the party, huh?” I said.

“No. Back then I was a different person.” Sayuri sighed, though whether it was a sigh of nostalgia or regret, I didn’t know.

“Now tell me something,” she said. “Were you loyal to Olga?”

“Of course I was.”

“And after divorcing, did you enjoy some time being single?” Her raised eyebrows suggested she didn’t really need my answer.

“You and I started dating soon after my divorce,” I said all the same. “You know that. But I, well, had a few. . . .” I did have a few liaisons in between my marriages, affairs that lasted a few weeks or a few months each. One of those flings was with a stripper from a bar in Tokyo, another with a fast-talking, witty fitness instructor in Seoul. I even had my very own one-night stand, a threesome with dancers I met in one of Singapore’s trendier nightclubs, an experience that still held a special place in the most secret compartment of my heart.

Mentioning any of those events to my wife felt awkward. If I hadn’t spoke of them at the beginning, I wasn’t going to do so now. “Why are we talking about this?”

“I’m making my point,” Sayuri said. “Tomorrow is Monday, November fourteenth. Take some money from our common account, and go stay in a good hotel. For one month, sleep with whoever you want, have sex, visit massage parlors, knock yourself out. Exhaust yourself, get it out of your system. Then come back to me.”

Really? It was that simple to her. This wan’t a problem that needed ‘getting out of my system,’ as if I’d come back a new man who suddenly wouldn’t want sex anymore. I looked into my glass, realizing it was empty. I picked the bottle and poured some more. Then, suddenly, a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before reared its head. “Wait,” I said slowly. “I don’t understand. Are you … seeing someone?”

She laughed, shaking her head. I knew my wife’s reactions, and I didn’t think she was lying. “Of course not. But maybe I will, during this month.”

My unease must’ve reflected on my face, because she laughed again, with some embarrassment. “Don’t look so worried. Maybe I’ll sign up for the dancing school. A new Zumba class just opened next to Balexert . . . Not quite dancing, but it’ll do for me.”

So this whole suggestion of me going off was mostly to give her the freedom to explore?

This wasn’t the solution I was looking for. It seemed that too much had just been said, and I wasn’t sure it would ever be the same between us again.

“I can’t begin describing how stupid this idea is,” I said, setting down my wine glass firmly. “It’s—”

“It’s not stupid at all,” Sayuri interrupted. “Our marriage is about to fall apart. A silly thing would be to sit around and watch it crumble. What I suggested may just bring the desire you want back into our lives.”

“So you’re sending your husband to sleep around. You realize that sounds counterintuitive, don’t you?”

“My husband,” she said, leaning forward and fixing her intense eyes on me, “missed a step in his development as a man. He doesn’t appreciate the stability of our marriage. He lusts over each pair of nice legs he sees in the street. Doesn’t my husband think I see that? Every night, my husband wants to force me, but he’s too nice of a man to do that, yet too self-centered to find a way to make me desire him. And today my husband suggested divorce.”

Yes, and there was no faster way to send us there than by forcing me to sleep with someone else. Of this I was certain. Still, one thing she said caused me to stop. Did I really miss an important step? What if she was right?

I dropped my glass on the blanket, stood up, and trudged to our house on legs I didn’t feel. As I rumbled down the staircase into our wine cellar, my mind whirled in a maelstrom of thoughts.

One month break from the marriage, to save the marriage itself?

She knew me too well. She knew her suggestion would gnaw at me on a basic, instinctive level. She was giving me a cart-blanche to cheat, but if I had her permission, was it still cheating?

I’d never cheated on her, not physically. But many a time I fantasized about breaking out from the confines of our sexless marriage, about finding compassion—and yes, sex—in the arms of other, more willing women. If I didn’t fantasize about it, what would be left of me?

“This is so damned left-brain of her,” I muttered under my breath. Still, images of women, all shapes and sizes, bare and tempting, assaulted my mind. My left brain was fighting hers, but my right brain … wasn’t this a husband’s dream come true?

I waited in the wine cellar for what seemed an eternity, going over every option in my mind. Could I handle it? Would I return to my wife a satisfied man or more frustrated than when I began?

Would I even return?

Finally, I emerged from the house with a bottle of red wine. Marching to my familiar place under the oak, I tripped over the picnic basket, sending boiled eggs and chunks of salad fly in all directions. Great way to look confident, Misha.

Sayuri leaped to her feet to catch me inches before my head slammed into the tree trunk. “Are you okay?” she asked, holding me firmly with both hands.

“Am I okay?” I asked. “How would I know? This is new to me.” Sitting under my oak and staring at our house across the garden, I finished the second bottle of wine all by myself.

At some point, the girls returned, their giggles and shrill shouts a sharp contrast to the cold and quiet discussion that just took place in our garden. Sayuri left, saying nothing else.

Bits of her conversations with the girls reached me through the open windows. When the afternoon turned into evening, and the November chill pierced me even through my warm coat, they began singing Japanese children songs. Their laugher lasted well into the night. “Where’s Daddy?” I heard Mie asking her mother.

“He’s outside thinking. Let’s let your Daddy think. He’ll be in soon.”

It became dark and cold, so I relocated to the kitchen and sat there for a long time, holding my empty glass, staring at my own reflection in the window.

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