Mat walked up to the pool, crouched down, and dipped his hand in the water. The air outside was crisp and cool. Summer had fallen apart all of a sudden this year, and the leaves were already turning to bright yellows and reds in the middle of September. The pool water felt warm on his hand, and so he left it in and let the water flow around his fingers while he looked at the level. He’d noticed earlier that week the waterline was almost below the skimmer. The pump would be sucking air in soon enough, he thought, so there was clearly something wrong.
“Where are you???”
He had been outside barely a minute when Catherine txted him. Three question marks meant she was annoyed with him. “Backyard,” he txted back, “checking on the pool.”
“K” she wrote back, and then, in a subsequent msg: “Was calling you from upstairs…” And then: “Giving Joey his bath. Ready to go soon?”
He replied “whenever you are,” then decided against adding a smiley face and kissing emoticon. He couldn’t be sure of her mood based on the tone of these txts. Maybe she was annoyed with him for not answering her in the house. Maybe she wanted him to prepare the diaper bag and get everything ready to leave for Eric and Vee’s, where they were expected for supper around 5h. But since he hadn’t been napping, or drinking, and was actually doing something constructive—keeping the pool from turning into a swamp—maybe she’d reconsidered, and maybe she thought she’d cut him some slack.
He went to the shed in the back of the yard where the water pump and filter were, hoping he would see an obvious leak that he could easily fix. The shed was an exact replica of the house, or rather, it had been built at the same time in the early eighties, using the same materials, so as to imitate the style of the house. But thirty-some years later, with its crumbling roof shingles, broken window panes, and the dark stains of thirty winters and springs all over its white vinyl sidings, it looked like an abandoned, post-apocalyptic version of that house.
The mix of lawn-mower gas, chlorine, fertilizer, mold, and rotting wood had always given the shed a distinct stench that left a foul taste in his mouth, but now it seemed to be somewhat worse than usual. ‘Vile’ was the word that came to his mind. How long had it been since the last time he had set foot in there? Two weeks, maybe more? There was a leak at the juncture between the filter and the water return pipe. Water trickled down to the floor and followed a gentle slope to a corner of the shed, where it escaped through a fist-sized hole in the rotted plywood. He noticed several flies buzzing around the dark hole, and without thinking about it too much, he reached down and using the edge of the hole as a lever, he pulled hard on the sheet of plywood until it cracked around the middle of its length and tore off completely.
He stood over the gaping breach in the floor of his shed and stared, perplexed, at the decomposing corpse of what looked like either a groundhog or a raccoon. Whichever was bigger between the two—evidently a raccoon, he decided—was crawling with maggots and flies under the floor of his shed. The trickling water poured right through the putrefying animal while maggots squirmed and thrashed and squished all over the liquefied flesh and tissues. Mat, standing over it, was both repulsed and fascinated by the confusing mess of fur and mud and slimy rotting organic matter. For a long time, he couldn’t look away.
In the basement, Mat looked for tools that might suggest a way to fix the leak. He fiddled around with pliers and screwdrivers, then threw them back in the toolbox with frustration. He wasn’t much of a handyman, and so he felt inept and emasculated every time something broke around the house. He sat on the couch and stared at the crumbling stucco ceiling and sighed loudly. Eventually he took his phone out and brought up his Facebook newsfeed. He saw right away that Vee had uploaded a new photo of Tommy, her nine-year-old boy, standing proudly in his blue and green soccer uniform, one foot on the ball, hands on his hips. Mat clicked on her profile picture and thought: Hellooo SMILF—soccer mom I’d like to fuck. On that photo, she was looking at the camera and smiling broadly, as if she’d just heard a good joke—a candid, natural smile that was meant to broadcast the superior joy and fulfilment of her current life. Mat appropriated that smile and turned it into an expression of unbridled lust—for him, no less. He imagined it would be the smile she would give him as she slipped her hand inside the front of his jeans and said something playful like: “Oooh, aren’t you happy to see me!” or “Just relax. It’ll be our little secret.” He felt the beginning of an erection.
From her profile picture album, he selected his favorite and unbuttoned his jeans. It was a photo of Vee wearing a yellow bikini on a resort beach in Cuba, or Mexico, or wherever. When he masturbated, he always focused his gaze exclusively on the shape of her breasts and her cleavage. From that picture, he could even approximate the size of her nipples, he thought, and the way her breasts would bounce up and down as she straddled him.
He had to focus his gaze because children were also in the picture, playing in the sand in the background. Every time they entered the periphery of his vision, even if only for a fraction of second, they seemed to be talking to him: “You’re deranged,” they murmured. “You’re a total fuck up.” “You’re disgusting.” “You need professional help.” Focus, he told himself, focus dammit. With the right effort of concentration, he was back to her wonderful breasts bouncing up and down, up and down, like a hypnotizing GIF playing in his head, and eventually that was enough to make him come.
Mat felt slightly despondent once he was done. The basement looked unfamiliar and ugly, and he was sitting there like an imposter. There was something unsettling about the whole situation, and he couldn’t pinpoint what the problem was. Wasn’t he supposed to feel relaxed, euphoric even, after an orgasm? Stupid endorphins don’t even work anymore, he thought. Do they lose their effectiveness with age? Does it work like heroin, and your body gets more and more accustomed with usage? He decided to look up ‘endorphins’ on Wikipedia, and he entertained for a second the possibility of ordering some online. Surely he could find a synthetic equivalent on the Silk Road. But then the image of the decaying raccoon under the floor of his shed resurfaced. In his mind, the beast turned its head away from the gooey mud, looked straight at him, smiled, and rolled its eyes. He’d have to get rid of it before they left for the evening.
Mat had just dropped the black garbage bag with the dead animal in the bin on the side of his house when he saw his neighbour turn into the driveway across the street. Roger stepped out of his car and waved before Mat had time to escape to his backyard.
“Hey Mat, viens icit voir—come over here, buddy!” He started walking across the street, so Mat had no choice but to meet him halfway.
“Hello Roger. How’s everything?”
“Great, just great, big guy. My wife, she go to her sister for the weekend, you know?” He said it with an exaggerated smile and a conspiratorial chuckle. If they’d been closer, he would have nudged him in the ribs. Roger was a fat, bald, mid-fifties car salesman at the local Ford dealership, and he spoke to everyone—man or woman—as if they were Monday Night Football drinking buddies.
“Oh, okay. Are you staying home alone? Or maybe you’ll go fishing with a few buddies?” Mat had always made a point to stay civil with Roger, if only in the spirit of neighbourly kinship, but in truth he had no tolerance for his barnyard-level small talk and sexist jokes. The way he spoke to Cath had been at times borderline objectionable.
“Ha! Non, non. Take a look,” Roger said.
Mat hadn’t noticed the black plastic bag Roger was holding in his hand and was now opening up for him to peer inside. He understood at once, but again, to remain friendly, he took a quick peek, enough to see a few bottles of lubricant and massage oil, and an array of rubber toys for him and her. Mat looked up and tried hard to keep his face impassive, so as not to let his disgust come through. Roger was glowing.
“Je vais avoir de la visite this weekend—a private party.” He winked. “And not the cheap, dirty ones. Really really good looking ones, you know, eh?”
“Jesus Christ, Roger, don’t tell me that!” Mat said. “This is shit you should keep to yourself, okay? Jesus… I warned you before about stuff like that.”
“C’est beau, c’est beau. Nothing to be stressed, big guy. It’s just in case you want to knock at the door, you know? Don’t come knock at the door.”
Mat’s phone vibrated with another txt msg. “Where r u?” it said again.
“B right there,” he txted back.
“Vous autres pis vos téléphones,” Roger said.
“Okay, Roger, put that stuff away. Look, I have to go now, alright. I won’t come knocking…Christ…I promise.”
“We’re going to be late,” Catherine said with a sigh. It was five and they were stuck in traffic on the overpass across the highway. “It’s kind of weird, all that traffic, but only for their side of town—only going towards their neighbourhood,” she reflected out loud. “I never hit any backed up traffic around our exit. Do you?”
“Hmmm?” Mat was staring out the window, momentarily lost in his thoughts. “BMWs, Lexus, Benzes… oh look, a Range Rover,” he murmured to himself. “They probably all have pool guys to clean and fix their pools—probably don’t have dead bodies rotting under their sheds either…”
“What’s on your mind?” she asked.
“Nothing much,” he said, “just appreciating all the nice automobiles around us.”
After another very audible sigh, she said: “We talked about this, Mat. So long as I’m staying home with little Joey, we’re not committing to another car payment. You’re such a…keeping up with the Joneses guy.”
“I was just talking to myself, honey. I didn’t mean anything by it…The car is fine.”
But he thought about the Joneses. Who were his Joneses? He’d certainly have a hard time keeping up with that fucking pervert Roger. How much did a pair of classy escorts for the weekend set you back these days? Could you pay pimps with bitcoins? Or maybe the Joneses were at the office—maybe it was Big Boat Benoit he was secretly trying to keep up with. Crazy, how much he resented that guy, and his wakeboarding 20 footer…and his five bedroom chalet on Lake Archambault.
“Don’t be so envious,” she added after a beat, obviously not ready to let go of it.
“Well, you’re one to talk, Mrs. wrong-side-of-the-tracks, omg we’re living in the ghetto!”
“Not the same thing,” she said. “It’s a fact that their neighbourhood is much nicer than ours… There’s a better school and such a pleasant little park. But I’m not saying we should move there right away.”
“Isn’t it nice to think so,” Mat said, and he saw the faint outline of a smile across her face.
She said: “Why don’t we wait and see if you can keep that job for twelve straight months, maybe make a dent on one of the lines of credit, and then we can start dreaming.”
He’d decided he wouldn’t tell Cath about the dead rodent under the shed. Somehow he felt responsible, as if he had viciously tortured and murdered the poor innocent thing and hid it under the floorboards, like a maniac would do. But all this about the pool and the leaking pump had led him to an altogether different train of thought. “If we had a guy who cleaned the pool,” he finally asked her, “would you be tempted to sleep with him?”
“What are you talking about? This is sick. What sort of conversation—”
“I mean if the guy was good-looking, you know, young and tanned and muscular, cleaning the pool bare-chested, and you were a bored stay-at-home mom. Would you be tempted to sleep with him? Just for the…adventurousness of it?”
“I…I don’t know, I mean, of course not…Is that some twisted way of telling me you want me back to work?”
It wasn’t that at all. Mat was genuinely curious about her answer, and it occurred to him he would not have been devastated had she said yes, she might be tempted. The whole idea was so preposterous, so completely disconnected from reality, that the thought itself—Cath sleeping with some make-believe pool-cleaning hunk—did not bother him.
They were all standing around the black quartzite kitchen island, drinking gin and tonic. Eric was massaging kale in a stainless steel bowl. In the living room, Tommy was playing on the carpet with baby Joey, pushing big wooden cars one into the other to simulate horrible crashes.
“Did you hear about Julia and Phil?” Vee asked.
“What’s up with them?” Mat said. “I haven’t spoken to Phil in a while, not since our golf round for that charity thing last month.”
“They started going to couple counselling sessions,” Vee said. “Like a therapy, right? She came over last week and told us all about it. Things are not going well for them, let me tell you.”
Eric looked up at Mat and said: “Poor Phil. It’ll take more than therapy to get this guy out of the doghouse.”
“Poor Phil?” Vee repeated, swinging her glass around with exaggerated emphasis. “Oh no, you don’t get to feel sorry for him. He doesn’t deserve our sympathy after what he did. Oh no. He’s lucky she didn’t just leave his ass and file for divorce. That’s what would’ve happened if it was me, mister. Believe it. Poor Phil, he says!”
“What happened?” Cath asked. “He cheated?”
“Mock-cheated,” Eric retorted, before Vee could say anything. “Mock-cheated, fake-cheated, pretend-cheated…not sure what’s the best way to describe it.”
“Oh, will you shut up!” Vee said. “It started with her using his computer for something or other. His browser window was still open—”
“Oh my god! She found incriminating emails? Facebook messages?” Cath said.
“I believe,” Eric said, visibly enjoying the moment, “that the page was open to his eHarmony profile, and—”
“And that was only the tip of the iceberg.” Vee continued, “Julia did a quick search through his internet history and found he had a profile set up on Elite Singles, Match.com…and what was the other one, Eric?”
“I believe it was an Ashley Madison account, the extra-marital affair website? Very damning stuff. And Tinder also. On his phone. You forgot Tinder.”
“Yes, he was using the Tinder app as well,” Vee said.
“That’s crazy!” Cath said, genuinely disturbed by the news. “So, he was cheating on her for sure, then. He was leading a double life! Did she confront him? How many other women was he seeing?”
Mat leaned in on the counter, looking downright enthralled by their common friend’s story. Vee took a sip from her gin and explained how thorough Julia had been. How she’d thought something wasn’t adding up, and so had gone undercover on Phil, found all his passwords, sifted through his emails, dissected his Facebook, rifled through the PCs recycle bin, backlogged through his phone’s txt msgs. Mat felt uneasy. How long had it been since he’d cleaned his own browser history? Did Facebook keep traces of his searches as well, he wondered.
“She basically strip-searched his online identity, went deep in every cavity, and came up empty,” Eric said.
“Empty?” Mat repeated, in between gulps of gin. “What about all the profiles on the dating websites?”
“Fun and games,” Eric said.
“Not fun and games at all,” Vee said, “but when it was all said and done, she couldn’t find any evidence that he’d acted upon his…impulses.”
“Or that he had these impulses at all to begin with!” Eric said, adding air-quotes to the word ‘impulses.’
“What do you mean?” Cath asked. “What was he doing on all these websites otherwise?”
Oh, but Mat understood completely. As it turns out, Julia hadn’t been able to find any reason to believe Phil had the intention of cheating on her in real life. That was the twist in the story, Eric explained, the other turn of the screw. Phil had created a completely fake personae for his online profiles. He even had a separate Facebook account. So he was lying to all these women, and it had been going on for months, but as Julia found out by going through the history of his chat discussions with all these women: he had no intention of ever meeting any of them. He kept coming up with these elaborate lies to avoid having to meet them.
“So it was all just a big fantasy,” Mat said, looking down at his empty glass.
“Exactly,” Eric said. He pushed the gin bottle across the counter towards Mat. “It’s like he was playing an online multiplayer game, and the object of the game was adultery. Come to think of it, game like that would probably make a killing!”
Cath insisted: “But how could Julia be so sure?”
Phil had never mentioned any kinky beyond-the-bedroom sex during their recent golf rounds, Mat thought. Didn’t guys like bragging about that stuff? Mat had been working at a new office for a bit under a year, and he knew of at least three over there who were loud and proud about their affairs. And in Phil’s case, working almost a hundred hours a week, still managing to spend quality time with the kids, and almost never out with friends, it was easy for Julia to have pretty much every minute of his everyday accounted for, Mat figured.
“She didn’t confront him until she was sure she had all her facts straight,” Vee said. “Seems like his fooling around was purely virtual. Doesn’t excuse anything, if you ask me. It’s still a complete betrayal of her trust.”
“Is it, though?” Eric asked. “So the guy has a sexual fantasy that involves having an affair. What’s wrong with fantasizing if you don’t act upon the fantasies in the real world?”
“The implications are real, the feelings are real!” Vee said.
“The women he was chatting with, they were real!” Cath added.
“Allegedly!” Mat said, “Who’s to say they weren’t as imaginary as he was?”
Cath said: “So what, then? The things you do online and the person you choose to be online don’t matter in the real world?”
“I don’t know if that’s exactly how I would put it…” Mat said, emptying the bottle in equal parts into each glass.
Vee thought about it a moment, then she said: “Well… the medium is virtual, but the things you do online and the things you do in real life, they’re the same. You’re the same person.”
“Of course not!” Mat budged in. “Online is like a fantasy life. People are always happy and sexy and fulfilled on the internet. There’s nothing real about it.”
“You still think there’s a distinction between the real world and the internet when so much of our life happens through a web page?” Vee asked. “Isn’t that a bit naïve?”
“Of course there is! That’s real,” Mat said, knocking on the counter. “That’s real and you’re real. I can touch you.” He put his hand on Vee’s arm and squeezed gently, then he took his phone out and put it on the counter. “That’s make-believe,” he said, pointing to it. Yes, she was real, Mat thought. He had touched her and there was something excessively real and tangible about her.
“Well I’m not interested in those kinds of fantasies,” Cath finally said, as if to drag the conversation elsewhere. “There’s something really twisted, really unhealthy and wrong about all this.”
The idea seized him all of a sudden. He excused himself and made his way down the hall towards the bathroom. Once he couldn’t be seen from the kitchen, he went upstairs and headed straight for the master bedroom. He felt suddenly very drunk and his movements had a stop-motion quality he found amusing. He sifted carefully through the chest of drawers, without making any sound, and found Vee’s panties and bras. He grabbed a pair of black silk panties, brought them to his face and grabbed his crotch with his other hand.
The smell! The feel of the soft fabric on his skin! Nothing could top this!
He tiptoed to the adjacent bathroom, closed the door, brought his pants down and sat on the toilet. With the silk panties wrapped around his penis, he thought he would come almost immediately. When the putrefied raccoon lifted its head from the mud, maggots dripping from its eyes, and said “Peekaboo! I see you, you sick fuck!” even that wasn’t enough to distract him. Even when she flung the door wide open and stood there dumbfounded, even then he couldn’t be sure any of it was real.