by Michelle Ross
For our ten-year anniversary, Ben surprises me with a sheep festival in Idaho. The crowning event is the herding of the sheep through the center of this little town, migrating from a depleted pasture to a lush pasture. ‘So many sheep you can’t walk,’ Ben said when he told me about the trip. We looked at photos of onlookers penned in against storefronts, the street blanketed in wooly white.
We haven’t experienced the herding yet ourselves because it’s only Tuesday, the day of soap-making and sausage-eating and fucking between lunch and dinner. That’s our itinerary, Ben tells me after spitting a mouthful of mint into the hotel sink.
These days, fucking between lunch and dinner is as out of the ordinary as soap-making. Fucking at any hour is out of the ordinary at this stage of our marriage. But our four-year-old is with Ben’s parents for the week, and we’re far, far away from our dirty house with its smelly laundry and crusty dishes and sticky floors. So if we don’t fuck on this trip, then that means we have a more serious problem than the temporary problem of being exhausted parents of a four-year-old.
This is a lot of pressure.
It’s akin, I tell Ben, to going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. Sitting before a plate of oysters, a single red rose in a vase between us, surrounded by so many other hetero couples sitting before plates of oysters, single red roses in vases on their tables too, I feel as sexy as a sheep traveling in a herd to greener pasture.
‘Would you rather we don’t have time alone?’ Ben whispers in the soap shop.
He passes me bottle after bottle of essential oils. I sniff and shake my head at every one.
‘That’s not what I mean,’ I say. ‘I just wish we could have normal, no-pressure time alone, like sitting on the sofa with our feet up, eating leftover take-out Thai for dinner. Like we used to.’
‘I thought you liked traveling. I thought you liked trying new things,’ he says. He’s been really excited about this trip. Proud of himself for taking initiative, proud for coming up with a novel idea that would pass my anti-herding-mentality sniff test. His brother, Craig, and Craig’s wife, Lottie, are always going on cruises or to plasticky beach resorts for their vacations, and Ben, who wouldn’t mind a week at a beach resort himself, knows me well enough to know that he’s not going to get a moan out of me at a beach resort.
‘I do,’ I say. ‘But when it comes to sex—’
Here, Ben puts his finger to his lips, tells me to lower my voice.
‘The problem is we don’t have a baseline,’ I say.
‘We have a baseline. It’s just zero,’ Ben says. Eucalyptus oil in hand, he heads to the colors station. He doesn’t look at me. He focuses hard on the colored soaps, trying to look like he actually cares a lot about the color of soap.
‘Not zero,’ I say, slipping my hand into Ben’s back pocket. ‘Maybe twelve on a scale of a hundred?’
He smiles in spite of himself, and we have a good time after that. We stir warm sheep’s milk with lye and eucalyptus and the green dye Ben picks out. We pour our mixture into molds. Because the soap takes a day to set, we leave it behind while we eat sausage and drink red wine from clear plastic cups.
‘You know just how to seduce me,’ I say between bites of sausage-on-a-stick doused in hot mustard. Ben reaches under the table and rubs my thigh.
After a bottle and a half of red wine in plastic cups, we stumble hand-in-hand through the town back to our B&B.
As we circle past the main house to our cottage, I see the caretakers through the large kitchen window. He is standing by the screened door smoking a cigarette. She is drying a blue bowl with a dingy dishcloth. She looks so tired. She told me earlier when we arrived that between three kids and the B&B, she barely has time to wash her hair, and I thought to myself, her hair does look a little dirty.
She made time to bake us tiny currant scones sprinkled in powdered sugar, though. She made time to assemble a platter of grapes and cheeses and crackers. We find these sitting on the dining table of our cottage when we open the door. In the fridge is a dainty pitcher of lavender lemonade.
When Ben puts his mouth on mine and backs me into the bed covered in a pretty pale blue quilt, I can’t stop picturing that tired woman in the window drying that bowl. I picture her stirring the scone batter in that bowl. Picture her slicing thin slivers of cheese, washing the grapes. I don’t tell Ben this, though. He’s worked so hard to get me here. The woman in that window has worked hard to get me here, too. I shut my eyes, and I moan.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Milk Candy Review, The Pinch, and other venues; and her fiction made the Wigleaf Top 50 of 2019. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com.