“I don’t understand . . . ”

And honestly, he was certain that no matter how many times she sat down and explained it to him, he never would. Perhaps he was the last in the world—the last of his kind: the sole believer in monogamy. At night he prayed for it. During the day he searched for it and handed it to each potential partner in passing, but they scoffed and turned away.

“I guess it’s complicated.”

It didn’t seem to bother her. Mel, the epitome of carelessness and nonchalance, wasn’t one to give a rat’s ass about the tumultuous feelings of others. She hated her husband in the morning but loved him while he was away. She fucked him in the evening and brooded over his annoying habits during dinner. And afterwards, she stayed awake until the sun rose, toying with other men and her paints and her lingerie. Such a chameleon.

“How do you bounce back?”

“You don’t.”

She spoke as though it were so simple—like grade school literature. “Each time is different and you come back a different person than you were before. With each man I fuck, I’m reminded how much I love my husband. I compare them. And every other man that climbs on top of me is a much lesser being than my husband could ever try to be. They put him on the pedestal for me and I can come home cheery and horny and appreciate him before the high wears off.”

“The high…” he nodded, drinking in her words while admiring her ignorance. “How long do you plan on doing this?”

“However long I want.”

“What if it goes wrong?”

“I don’t see how.”

“What if you fuck a man of equal merit?”

She stared at him, challenging his curiosity with her own level of frightful intensity that made him regret ever asking. Had she ever thought this all through? Or did she wholeheartedly believe that she had found the best and the brightest and that no one else could compare?

It was hard talking about sexuality with such an overtly sexual being. He was forgetting how to separate wet dream from reality because they overlapped so often. He could fit in her lifestyle—a small piece of it. Frankly, he was already a part of it. By simply participating in these conversations he was entering a realm that contradicted all of his prior thoughts and moral sense. Had he walked into a trap? Alone, trapped in the web that was her solo studio apartment above Chinatown, he writhed in sexual frustration as the elegant but pernicious Mel sank her glittering fangs into his neck to sip what remained of his freedom from his body.

“You don’t agree with my lifestyle.” Obliterating his question, she lit a cigarette and decided to do her own prodding.

He squirmed, obviously uncomfortable. “It’s not that…” She waited as he formulated his lie. He stalled by hurriedly packing his pipe with clumsy, thick fingers. She watched the tobacco stain the tips. “I just don’t understand how you can say you love him . . . but then break one of the fundamental vows of marriage? You’re . . . you’re literally poking fun at the foundation of marriage—the sacrament of marriage.”

“Are you religious?”

He shrugged. “I have mixed emotions…”

“Well, then, you can’t call it a sacrament if you don’t believe in it.”

“Fine.”

She tried her best to not appear smug. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t understand. He was putting forth a remarkable effort to figure it all out, but none of his puzzle pieces fit, for she’d given him a fucked-up set to begin with.

There were a small amount of people who really understood her marriage—why she and Avan acted so heinously. Their mutual adultery reaffirmed what little love they truly had left for one another, but more importantly made them realize how much they needed each other to continue on existing. At certain points during the day, the month, the year, Mel felt like she couldn’t breathe without Avan. Some nights, she would reach out for him in the darkness to make sure he hadn’t left yet—to make sure he was still as chained to her as she was to him. “I love you” had turned into “I need you because no one else can handle my shit, because no one else will hate me and love me like you.”

Jon sat back on the couch, embracing their silence; their attempted conversation had fizzled into nothingness again. Cigarette poking from her lips, Mel concentrated on the idea of his being translated to paper, rather than making good use of his company. He was getting used to it—her eyes running almost through him as she changed him into an object to be observed and scrutinized down to each and every vein in his baby toe. She was damn good at it. The few times his eyes had been allowed to wander they landed on masterpiece after masterpiece, and this only excited him more.

The place was charmingly crummy, with a miraculous view of the city and all of the little nuances that made Chinatown so iconic. At night the orangey-red glow of the lanterns cast a beautiful light. He could stare through the bay window for days. The apartment was oblong, with a wide steel sliding door and warm, minimal lighting. The walls for the most part had been covered in black chalkboard paint that had now turned a whitewash grey from so much use overtime. The kitchen was a small cubicle of space divided by a long plank of wood serving as a seating area. It had the basic appliances and just enough room for one person to maneuver. The lofted bedroom space was quite lovely and the only real area that remained clutter-free. She kept all of her books and magazines in old wooden crates along the walls. String lights hung from the thick wood panels on the ceiling and there were plants on either side of the bed and scented candles. Her clothes were strewn about in wicker baskets. Too often he’d thought about fucking her in that room.

“Do you love him?”

“Of course.” She didn’t even bother to look away from her work.

He waited a few minutes before his next question. “When did it start?”

Her response was quick, as if rehearsed. “Right before I had Sebastian.” Her lips pursed and she was silent for a moment, not really looking at the painting—more so lost in thought. “Avan and I had been together way longer than either of us had been used to and he was getting antsy . . . When I caught him cheating I laughed. He thought I’d gone crazy.” She snickered. “Probably. It just didn’t seem fathomable that it was that simple of a solution.”

“She was an ugly thing. She had fucking green hair. Green hair—a grown ass woman. Maybe he thought it was playful or . . . or different.” She waved her fingers and her eyes bulged mockingly. “She looked like a damned donkey, to be frank. And I thought it was so funny. Really, what did that bitch have to offer him that I couldn’t? I was giving him a baby, I think that’s pretty fucking significant.” She sighed. “I don’t know . . . I was so mad that I was calm. I never yelled at him. I never threw a fit. I think I just retreated so far inward that I was just a shell of a woman . . . an incubator of a little life form I wasn’t even sure I wanted.” Her eyes had glazed over and she stared off into whatever distance, cigarette burning away between her paint-stained fingers. “My first affair was about a year after Seb was born. I’d allowed myself to simmer in my resentment for long enough, and when the chance presented itself I grabbed it. And it was amazing . . . just how simple it was. You know you always picture infidelity as, like, this giant hell-pit surrounded by flames and lava and dancing demons or something. And Lucifer looms over you cackling and damning you to an eternity in hell and all your friends know and scorn you and you have an adulterous ‘A’ stamped on your forehead forever . . . But then you do it and nothing happens. It was like saying a curse word for the first time and not having the floor open up and swallow you whole. Like . . . like stepping on a crack and then realizing your mother’s fine!” She laughed. “It was such a monumental moment for me. Everyone’s moping through life miserable about this, that, and the other, and I had just found the quintessential key to happiness: doing whatever the fuck you want.” She took a long drag and, as she spoke, smoke spewed from her lips. “When you spend so much of your life relying on the happiness of others…making sure you’re doing right by someone else instead of dealing with your own shit, life becomes a damn bother. It’s cumbersome. And I just felt I had reached the peak of my psychosis: I was carrying the child of a man who, for all I knew, was still balls-deep in that green-haired donkey—the cause of my true demise. And then here was the solution for dealing with whatever problem Avan threw at me. Just fuck the shit out of somebody and get over it. That’s that.”

Jon stared at Mel. Mel, the beautiful fool. He was inebriated with her fiery aura and incredibly intrigued by her way of life. “So it’s all just revenge . . . ”

“It started that way.”

“And now?”

“It’s how I cope.”

“How can you even be sure he’s just as unfaithful as you are?”

“I’m not unfaithful.” She was defiant and sure. “No, see, an unfaithful woman would have left. An unfaithful woman would have, shit, probably aborted the baby. An unfaithful woman would have cursed him and gone on her merry way. I didn’t. I accepted his apology, I let him stay in my home, I gave birth to his son, I took care of him, I fed him, I am his better half. Without me he’s nothing.”

Nicole Edwards is a junior Illustration major at the School of Visual Arts. A Baltimore native, she is an avid moviegoer, sugar fanatic, and coffee lover. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, and baking.