“Promise Me” by Carmen Maria Machado

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By the time he returns from the bathroom, his date is already coming. Although he wants her, he thinks it better to sit and watch, figuring some things are worth watching without interference. Meanwhile, an onlooker in the next apartment building is also watching, thinking of her wife and their adventures on board a cruise ship.

About the Author
Carmen Maria Machado’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, NPR, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. Her short story “The Husband Stitch” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson and Nebula Awards, awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, and longlisted for the Tiptree Award. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the University of Iowa, the Yaddo Corporation, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She teaches creative writing in Philadelphia.
Promise Me

By the time he returned from the bathroom, she was already coming. The orgasm was twisting through her like a vein of copper through stone; charging like the moment before the leap of lightning from ground to sky. He wasn’t a miner and he wasn’t a meteorologist and he wasn’t ready; he fumbled with his collar for a moment before sitting down to watch. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her and it wasn’t that he didn’t care; he just felt like some things were worth watching without interference. His hands were still damp from the sink, and they smelled like her lavender soap. Her apartment was spare; with only a single photograph from an old National Geographic pinned to the wall. (In it, a middle-aged woman emerged from a cloud of Kansas dust.)

Beneath her skirt, his date’s cunt was a dusty purple, like a bruise at the height of its power, and he felt the ache in his own navel. There was a spark and fire bit the kindling of his arousal and suddenly he knew this was how it was going to happen. It was, he thought, like her ghost had crawled out of her on its hands and knees and was now stroking the tender boundaries of his ghost. He would come this way, he was certain, if he waited long enough.

From the adjacent building, from a window four stories above, a woman watched the two of them. It was late fall so her window was closed against the elements, but she pressed her face against it to see what was happening below. The people in that apartment seemed to be moving and not moving at the same time, muted and miniature like insects in a terrarium. As she watched, she was struck with a clear memory from some point in the distant past, when she was freshly married and her wife and her decided to take a cruise to Alaska.

They’d departed from Vancouver and spent most of their time in their cabin. Her wife loved to bend her over the dresser in front of the room’s window and pull her hair and fuck her with a dildo they’d bought from a store that specialized in nonhuman fantasy sex organs. It was supposed to be a chimera’s cock. It was short and thick and snow-sky gray and practically a work of art, and it made the woman feel like she was being penetrated by a particularly robust hobbit. (Which had not been an option.) Her wife was a competitive person and committed to her orgasms with intensity. “Four,” she’d say. That night, “Seven.” At one in the morning, when the woman desperately wanted to sleep, she agreed to one more—“Twelve”—before drifting away.

She, the woman, felt perpetually loose and shaky, like she’d lost the taut energy that celibacy provided. She grew to hate that dildo, which had seemed so bizarre and beautiful when she’d first removed it from the box. (When they’d used it that first time, she’d imagined her wife gripping her with the chimera’s claws, that she was inches away from being torn into pieces and eaten bit by bit in the chimera’s raggedy tower nest.)

One night, as they neared their destination, they’d ventured up to the decks and it was freezing and silent except for the ship cutting through the water and something that sounded suspiciously like two members of the ship’s crew hooking up in a nearby broom closet. They were wrapped in winter coats, and she could feel the trails of arousal on her thighs go cold. Her wife leaned over the railing and said, in a voice that nearly stopped her heart, “What if I threw myself off this boat right now?” The woman had never heard her wife talk in that voice before. When her wife turned back around, her pupils were huge, her eyes almost entirely black. She sounded as if she was speaking from the bottom of a well.

From the broom closet, someone came with a loud, hard moan. “Oh fuck,” said a man’s voice, and there was silence.

“Promise me you won’t?” the woman said. “Throw yourself over, I mean.”

Her wife laughed it shattered the spell like a bullet through a window.

Later that night, the woman woke up and took the dildo to that same spot and hurled it as hard as she could into the black water. It twirled away in a beautiful spiral and penetrated the darkness and she did not hear it land. A few days later, they admired Alaska’s austere beauty, took hundreds of photos, and filed for divorce as soon as they got home.

In her apartment, many years later, the woman watched the people in the adjacent building feel their way through pleasure. She herself was not married again but was living with a lover, a woman who never took to the edge of long drops and posited dangerous scenarios in a dire and threatening voice. She was content. When they went to bed her lover tugged on her clit with her index and middle finger and it was like making yourself come with warm water from a faucet. When they slept it was deep as if they both had colds and had taken Nyquil and were covered in a down comforter sneezing tiny feathers. It was a dead and trusting sleep. As she watched the man and woman in the adjacent building, she thought to herself: No one ever expects to be where they are at any given moment. Maybe that’s what helps us keep going.

As the man in the adjacent building watched his date, she came. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen; her body bowing like she was having a seizure, her eyes fixed on some distant point, and she made the sound of someone pushing past their own mind in the final stretch of a race—a full-throated, unearthly howl. Then she softened, her body sinking back into the couch. She asked him for some water, which he brought to her. His erection strained against his pants. She kissed his cock lightly through his jeans and then pulled an afghan over her body.

“You can let yourself out,” she said. “Take care of yourself at home. Then come back tomorrow and tell me all about it. Promise me you will?”

He promised. The whole way home, he watched the faces of passers-by and filed them away in his mind. Later, when he stood in his living room and pulsed his hand over his cock, he imagined them all watching him, smiling, and telling him everything was going to be all right.


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