As an engineer, I understand the phenomenon known as a 'race condition.' This is when a system has lots of things going on at once that are competing for attention. If the system can't sort out the priorities and keep things in order, all the competing things will crash into each other and eventually the system locks up and stops working. Or crashes and burns.
This is what my mind was experiencing as I lay in bed, trying to process what I'd just heard my six-year-old daughter proclaim.
"I am NOT a baby cuz that thing you do that you said wasn't for babies I do that too and Mommy even helps me."
By 'that thing you do,' it was quite clear that Caroline was referring to masturbation. The little one had caught her older sister in the act. I knew this, but was hoping it hadn't resulted in meaningful knowledge transfer. In retrospect, it was inevitable that Caroline would emulate anything she saw Stephanie doing. This shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone.
'Mommy even helps me' was another thing entirely. An utterly bewildering, fascinating, frightening and perhaps unbelievable thing.
The race in my head played out something like this, over the course of about five seconds: Denial. Kids say strange things. Caroline may just be making that up and saying it to impress her sister. Guilt. Fuck. I started this. Now it's out of control in some very strange way. Rationalization. Caroline was probably inferring something that Carol hadn't intended. Carol had 'helped' Stephanie in a way, explaining things to her in simple terms. Perhaps this was like that. Fear. If this conversation goes any further, it could wreck us as a family. And me. And Carol. And the kids. Empathy. Carol might well be feeling a similar conflagration of thoughts and feelings. Curiosity. What if it was true? What would that mean? Yes, my warped mind went there. When I thought about things later, that was quite telling.
Fortunately my brain sorted out the jumble quickly enough for me to take action before another word was spoken. I needed to pull my family back from the brink of... something. Immediate intervention was required. I didn't have time to think through the details. I yanked on a pair of sweat pants and dashed.
In the bathroom, Carol and the girls were staring at each other. Caroline was defiant. Stephanie looked to be in some fugue state between shock, anger and amusement. Carol had her back to me but I saw her face in the mirror. Helplessness. Sadness. A hint of fear. It broke my heart.
Carol startled when I put my arms around her from behind. I held her tight across her chest and tummy, felt her heart racing, her body tense. In the mirror, her eyes closed. I decided to normalize.
"Good morning, my beautiful family. Since we all love each other so very much, it's quite silly to argue over something as dumb as the sink, don't you think?" I saw Stephanie's mouth open to speak. I gave her the most meaningful look I could. My eyes screamed at her and I shook my head slightly. No, Stephanie. This is not the time for you to one-up your sister by announcing that you get your masturbation lessons from Daddy. Thank God, she closed her mouth.
I didn't wait for a response. "Go get dressed for school, girls. We're running late." I wasn't able to completely control the tone of my voice. The intensity of the moment added a sharpness to my words. The girls scampered.
In the mirror, Carol was crying.
My Daddy is confusing. I guess he's confused and so am I but geez. I wish he'd just make up his mind.
When we went to the pool without Mom or Caroline I thought it could be like it used to be. I had it in my head all the way to the pool. It's weird but it makes me warm down there when I think about it. When I think about taking my clothes off in front of Daddy. It used to scare me but now I know how it makes his eyes go funny. And how it makes other things happen.
So then he goes off to the boys' room and just leaves me standing there. He didn't even say anything. It was like he was saying what we did was bad and we're never going to do it again. I felt so totally stupid. I was a stupid baby that thought I was grown up and that Daddy liked me that way and we had something special that was just for us and our secret and he loved me. And I knew that all those things weren't really true and that I was only pretending. And that made me sad and mad and I felt really really really alone, because I thought Mommy didn't love me either. I wanted to go home right then but I had to go to the pool. A nice lady in the lockers asked me why I was crying but I just said I had a fight with my sister. That was kinda true. The lady said not to forget that we'll be sisters forever. Do grownups have a book or something that they all read with things to say to kids?
I couldn't hide how I felt. Daddy saw me. I don't know if that's what changed his mind. I don't care, really. I was just following him and trying not to cry til I saw where we were. He had the door open. He looked surprised, which was weird. I mean, he brought me there. I went in. He came in after. We only had our bathing suits on so it didn't take long to be naked. I was cold and shivery but not for long. Daddy was big. I think bigger than the first time, even. That made me happy.
We had to go back to the lockers to get our stuff after. The nice lady was there again. She asked if I was feeling better. It was kinda awks cuz I was naked when she asked. She only had on underpants and I tried not to look at her chest. Thank God she wasn't one of the old ones. I just said, "Yes, Ma'am."
She said, "Swimming is wonderful that way, isn't it? It washes away your cares." She pushed my wet hair back behind my ears with her fingers. She had a nice smile.
I couldn't help giggling. "Yes Ma'am. Swimming is awesome."
The lady bent down a little. "Aren't you just the most polite little girl. Are you going to shower, sweetie?"
Awks. I said, "No, I already did." I wondered if she saw me and Daddy come out of the other room.
She touched my cheek and said, "Ok then. Maybe I'll see you here again."
So then we get home and Daddy is being confusing again, almost pretending it didn't happen. I know he's alone in his room after Mommy goes to work. Sometimes I feel bad because I know it's Mommy's room too. I try not to think about what they do in there. They're supposed to do it. That's how come you get married. They do stuff that's just for grownups. But sex with yourself together is supposed to be for grownups too. I don't get it.
I figured out that I could make Daddy change his mind. He's supposed to be the Dad but he pays attention to me. He said he wasn't sorry about what we did. So I decided to do stuff. Thing is, I didn't really know what to do. I woke up early and listened until I heard Mommy leave. It was embarrassing when Daddy caught me outside his door with no underpants. But the way he talked to me that time made me think that he wanted to. He said we didn't have time. He didn't say I was being a stupid baby. I wanted him to see me naked. I think he watched when I took off my shirt.
The next day I made sure we had time. I took off my underpants in my room and I opened Daddy's door really quiet and I closed it really quiet and he was asleep so I took off my shirt so he'd see me as soon as he woke up. He looked so nice asleep. He just had a sheet over him. There was a bump in the sheet. It moved a little. I thought about it. I guess I started to move my arm. Then Daddy opened his eyes.
He kinda jumped when he saw me. It was funny. I looked to see if the bump got bigger. It did.
I'd seen Daddy do it three times by then. The first was when he didn't know I was there. Then the two times we did it together. The first time was so weird that I didn't really remember what I saw. The times together it was hard to watch him since I was doing it too and that's what I was thinking about most. I wanted to see better.
So I pulled the sheet off and I bent over the bed and got close to it. Daddy was looking at my butt. I think he likes it. That gave me the guts to tell him what I wanted.
It's so totally strange but so amazing, like it's alive. You can see his heart beating in it cuz it moves a little each time. It bends just a little and the end part looks like a hat and there's all these bumps and different skin colors up and down it. There's fur around it but it's short and there's not any on it but I can see where it would be. I guess Daddy shaves there like Mommy does. I was glad since it makes it easy to see everything.
The underneath part is the strangest of all. That's where the book said the baby stuff comes from. It moves too. Almost spooky. You're not supposed to kick boys there. Andrea did once and she got in a lot of trouble, but he had it coming. The boy rolled around on the ground for a long time.
Daddy was pulling on it so hard I was afraid it would come off. I saw how he moved his hand and squeezed and how it got leaky and then it got slippery and his hand moved faster. And he had that look in his eyes. Looking at me.
At the end it gets even bigger. The skin is so tight on it that you can almost see through it. I got really close. When the stuff came out I could even smell it. Kinda like clean dirt. And blood, like if you suck on a cut. And metal that's wet. But not like pee at all. Weird.
Daddy made pancakes and we got to school on time, so he didn't have any excuses anymore. I thought everything was perfect. Til the next day.
Mommy said that Caroline isn't a baby anymore. But one thing I know for sure is she can't keep her mouth shut, and that's a baby thing. She says whatever she thinks without thinking. Like she'll just say, "I farted." Awesome, thanks for sharing. Like we didn't know already.
Still it was really strange what my sister said in the bathroom. I didn't know what it meant exactly. Of course I thought about me and Daddy and I wondered if it was like that. But I wouldn't have said Daddy helped me. I would have said he showed me, or he did it with me. Caroline said 'helped.' But she doesn't know what she's saying half the time. I was about to ask what she meant when Daddy came in. The way he looked at me made me think I shouldn't say anything at all.
Mommy seemed upset. As I was going to get dressed I thought maybe it was my fault because of how Caroline saw me. I didn't want Mommy to be more mad at me than she already was. But Mommy talked to me about it, so she probably talked to Caroline too. I didn't know why Mommy would feel bad. I just hoped it wouldn't ruin things.
Actions have consequences. I see this every day. The thing is, people don't think about consequences. It's not that they don't find the potential punishments scary. Perpetrators don't think they're going to get caught. This is why the death penalty isn't the deterrent that many people hope it to be. You don't worry about the electric chair because you're the smart one who's going to get away with it.
I knew that Caroline was too young to filter what she said. That had been evident after her first trip to the Family Changing Room with her father, when she'd casually mentioned that she'd seen Daddy's penis. At the time, it was cute and funny. Right now, standing in the bathroom with my two daughters and enduring what seemed like the most painful and awkward silence of my life, I wondered if these two events were somehow connected. My husband didn't allow me much time to consider this, or to think about anything else.
My body went stiff when I felt Rick's arms around me. A natural reaction, since it was a surprise. But unlike all the other times, when I realized it was him I didn't relax and flow back into his embrace with a smile. His sudden presence could only mean that he'd heard it. I was rigid, faintly nauseous. Was he here to strangle me from behind? Would the arm over my chest move up to my throat and slowly tighten? I heard Rick tell the girls to go get dressed as though from a distance outside myself.
His arms didn't move. He pushed the bathroom door behind us closed with his foot. I felt his lips at the back of my neck. This seemed unlikely to be a prelude to violence. My mind started to reengage. This was Rick. He wouldn't prejudge. He was the calmest person I knew. He'd reassured me over my self-torment around the situation with Stephanie.
I swallowed. "Rick. I... I didn't. I mean..." I felt a sob rise and couldn't stop it.
He held me. "Carol. Shhhhh. Breathe. It's ok, I promise." I started to breathe. My stomach backed away from retching, but tears fell.
His voice was soft. "Sweetheart. Love of my life. My forever. It's ok. Tell me what happened and we'll deal with it together."
The first words I'd said were 'I didn't,' but I never had any thought of denying it. It was inconceivable that I'd call my daughter a liar or try to gaslight her into thinking that nothing had happened. What I'd been trying to say was 'I didn't mean for it to happen.' This was perfectly true. Nothing was planned. But things happened. That I felt I could tell my husband and was willing to accept the consequences was perhaps what saved us.
I swallowed. I let myself swim in his embrace. His hands were strong at my hips. Still, I couldn't turn and face him. I let my curves fit him and crossed my arms over his. I closed my eyes and I told him. I told him about the first bath, about Caroline at my breast. About the memories and the needs it recalled. How I'd let her suckle, surprising myself. That I'd touched myself as she did. That I'd recalled that night, when Rick had taken me while she was in bed with us. How she'd asked for another bath, and that I'd seen her little hand where I didn't expect to see it, doing what I didn't think she knew. How I wondered if I'd taught her somehow. How I came to know how she'd learned, and how I still blamed myself for that. How at bedtime her tiny hand went into her underpants, utterly without shame. She hasn't been taught about shame. Not yet.
Rick listened. He rocked me slowly. By then the tears had stopped but my eyes were still closed. I hadn't gotten to the end, though. Rick didn't let me get away with that. I didn't want him to let me escape. I just needed a little prod. He gave it.
"What did she mean, about helping?"
I told him.
"You touched her?"
"I touched her hand. Her hand was inside. Mine was outside. Outside of her panties. But on her hand."
Oddly, he kissed my neck. I wanted to explain. "I don't know why, Rick. I honestly don't."
That was the only lie I'd told. I did know why.
"You miss her. You wanted to be close to her. You... wanted to share her feelings."
He was rationalizing for me. He was right. I let those words rest. I nodded.
"How can you not be angry, Rick? Or disappointed. Or... disgusted."
"I'm still understanding, Carol. I want to understand." He paused for a moment. "When did it happen?"
I tensed again. Oh fuck. My head dropped.
"Last Thursday night, when I put her to bed."
Rick's body shifted against mine. Neither of us were likely to forget what had happened when I came to bed that night. I didn't want to think about what was in his mind just then.
A moment of silence. The second most difficult moment of silence in my life. And of that morning.
His arms. His breath at my nape.
"Here's what I know, Carol. I know that you love me completely. I know that you love our daughters even more. The idea that you could do anything intentional to harm any of us is unthinkable. You know this too. And you didn't. You didn't hurt anybody. I see how it drains you, how being away is eating at you. I see how Stephanie has started to separate and I know how that can feel. You know that I understand from when I was away. You reached for Caroline, in your need."
I trembled. I nodded slightly. "I shouldn't have."
Rick's hands moved. "I'll be last person to tell you that, Carol. Because I know you, and I know that you always do the right thing, more than anyone. Caroline misses you too. She's seeking comfort. She's found a comforting thing and couldn't imagine that it would be bad to share it with you. I can't honestly find anything wrong in that."
"For her part, no. Of course not."
"She needs you. Stephanie needs you. This family needs you. I need you most of all."
His arms tightened. As I pressed back against him, I felt his hardness. He was always hard in the morning, but in this moment it was a surprise. The bigger surprise was me. His hand moved down my stomach, palm pressed flat, into my shorts, into my panties, his fingers into my sex. I was wet. How could I be wet? Before I could answer myself Rick had yanked my shorts to my ankles and bent me over the sink, his hands up my shirt, clutching me against his chest, fingers twisting at my nipples. They had betrayed me too. He must have seen them, under my thin top.
These were the facts of the case. When later I imagined trying myself in court, my closing argument always summed up with this last dramatic point, presented to the jury with cold precision. "Ladies and Gentlemen, if you have any doubt as to what this woman was feeling about her actions, know this: She came first. When her husband took her at that pivotal time, her orgasm preceded his. I leave it to you to consider her fate."
We were all late to everything that day. Everyone was quiet. Caroline seemed to sense that she'd caused a ruckus and didn't want to make any more waves. I took Stephanie aside and told her not to poke at this, that we'd talk about it later. She felt the seriousness too and just nodded.
Carol and I hadn't looked at each other while we were fucking in the bathroom. It wasn't easy to look at each other afterwards. The implications of what passed between us that morning were complicated to say the least.
What did it mean that I didn't condemn her? What did she imagine I thought about her arousal? What did she think of mine? Round and round these questions swirled. It seemed forever to dinner. We were all exhausted. Carol and I sent the girls to bed early and retired to our room.
It wasn't like us to not talk, even when it wasn't easy. I relied on Carol to open the tough conversations. She seldom shied away.
"What happened this morning, Rick?" It was a fair question, and a dangerous one. She's too smart for me. I wanted her to take my words at face value. That I understood what she was feeling, and how it could have led to what happened. That I needed her and the family needed her.
"I meant everything I said, Carol. I've been thinking about it all day. Of course. But I wouldn't change a word of it."
She was on her side, facing away. I tentatively moved behind her, hand on her shoulder. Still difficult to look.
"It seemed like an odd time to fuck."
I've always liked that she knew how to use that word. It represented an intimacy between us. Sometimes we made love. Sometimes we fucked. This morning was fucking, without doubt. How like her, to go right to the heart of the matter.
"I guess it was odd. But I guess it was perfect, too."
She turned her head to me and looked. Really looked into my eyes, for the first time that day. It seemed to break the tension.
"I said that I need you most of all. I do. Nothing could ever change that. I felt it, right then. I need you and I needed you to know that I need you and that nothing else matters. You are the better half of me. Maybe you made a mistake. It didn't hurt anybody. That's all I know."
"So you still love me."
"Of course I do. That you could tell me, that you could be that open... I've never loved you more. Don't be silly. But the fucking, that was about need. I imagined what it would mean if we let this come between us. It scared the shit out of me. I wouldn't let that thought linger for even a second. I wouldn't exist without you, Carol."
"That's such bullshit." There was an edge to her words, but a softness in her face.
"Please don't ever try to prove that by leaving me."
She swallowed and closed her eyes. The next words came slowly. "You almost have to think that it turned me on."
I'd hoped that we could get by without going there. I have to give my wife credit. She won't let anything lie until she's plumbed the depths of it. I took a moment to decide how to answer. I tried to think like a lawyer.
She opened her eyes. I was surprised that she wasn't overtly angry at the question. She turned her head to the side. I tried to pull her close but she resisted. She was struggling with the answer herself.
"It wasn't like that. I mean, I didn't think of it that way."
"That Thursday night, when you came to bed..."
"I know, Rick. That's why you almost have to think... that."
I waited. Anything I said would probably have been the wrong thing.
After a time, she went on. "It was about need. I needed you. I was empty inside. I was afraid I was losing my family and it was making me... crazy."
I kissed her forehead and waited. She read my eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was gentle.
"Like you. This morning? Needed me?"
We understood each other through each other's heart. I kissed her lips, lightly. She let me hold her. We slept that way.
Over the weekend, Carol and I slowly got back to some approximation of normal. We were both still working to understand things, but we'd come through it far enough to know that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn't an oncoming train.
I reflected on our talk, when I'd asked her directly about her feelings. She'd said, 'I didn't think of it that way.' I fully believed that the sex on that Thursday night was just what she'd said, that it was about need. I also had to believe that there was more to the story.
We've been married for ten years and have been lovers for sixteen years. I know her body. I'm proud of how well I know it, and she appreciates this. That Friday morning, in the bathroom, the signals from her body were quite clear.
We were both in a strange state of mind at that point. She was frightened and guilt-ridden. I was confused and dealing with my own guilt. But as she opened up and told the story of her times with Caroline, in the bath, in the bed... there was no denying it. I knew what I'd find when I put my hand into her pants. As this became evident, my own reaction was inevitable.
Can we (meaning human beings) completely separate our higher-level emotions from our baser instincts and physical responses? Do our bodies react even when we're distraught? As a man, I can say with certainty that this can happen. For us, the evidence is indisputable. It's been a bone of contention (can't help it sorry) in legal matters involving men who have been raped by women. 'If he really didn't want it, he wouldn't have gotten hard.' Well no. He couldn't help it, even if he hated every second.
I didn't know what to think about this, much less what to do about it. It didn't make me think less of my wife. I tried to avoid considering any further implications, though at some level I knew such thoughts were inevitable. For the moment at least, it seemed best to just let it be. We did normal things and talked about normal subjects and had normal meals and the girls had normal fights and by Sunday night, things seemed almost... normal.
Monday morning. I opened my eyes. Looked at the clock. Seven fifteen.
I wasn't alone. There was a shape under the sheet next to me. A small shape. It was moving.
I pushed the sheet down. Stephanie grinned up at me.
"Good morning, Daddy." She said it like she wasn't naked. She was profoundly naked, curled up with her head on my chest.
"Seven fifteen, Daddy. Shush."
With that, my daughter put her hand on me. Her eyes moved from her hand to my face and back. Her hand, tentatively at first, was decidedly and unavoidably wrapped around my cock. It was hard. She looked proud.
"Stephanie." I had to stop to take a breath as she started to move her hand. "Stephanie..."
"Whattttttt?" She sounded impatient.
"What are you doing, sweetheart?"
Her one word answer was, I suppose, to be expected.
"Helping." It was clear that she didn't expect an argument. Her expression became more concentrated as her slender fingers explored me.
"Oh God." Not to be outdone, was my eight-year-old. Her sister would never have anything on her.
She'd watched me, last Thursday. That was the day before last Friday. So she sort of knew what to do. The idea of stopping her crossed my mind. It crossed in a flash and passed out of sight into the wilderness of forgotten ideas, never to be seen again.
I let my hand rest on her bottom. Her naked bottom. I'd had her naked bottom in the crook of my arm when she was tiny. I'd swatted her bottom playfully through her clothes. I'd watched her bottom and stared at her bottom since we'd started our journey in the Family Changing Room. I let my hand rest there, but it wouldn't just rest. It felt even better than it looked, the curvature perfect, the smoothness immaculate, the paleness between the tan lines compelling.
"Harder, sweetheart. You won't hurt it."
She nodded, her smile seeming to spread. I'd accepted her assistance. Her arm moved faster. She had elegant little muscles now. Swimming is good for that. I squeezed her rump.
When I was close, I wrapped my hand around hers, around hers and around myself. She let me take control but didn't relinquish her grip. Her gaze met mine. I was helpless. A gasp. I held her there. Her eyes were wide as she felt the surges. And after a long and indescribably perfect moment, we were sticky. She made a slight scrunchy face and wiped her hand on my chest.
"Omelettes please. We have time. Seven twenty-five." Apparently breakfast-to-order was now also part of the expectations.
I couldn't take my eyes from her bottom as she bounced out of the room.
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