She was freezing in spite of two layers of pants and three layers on top—four, counting the scarf. But despite a rough post-holiday month with her husband—first holiday living together, first holiday married—a glimmer of something like contentment glowed in her chest. Joseph had his arm around her, and they were sharing one of the best hot chocolates she’d ever had. It felt like when they’d first started dating—all the reasons he’d eventually asked her to marry him, in spite of everything, and she’d said yes. He was her person, and her own personal heater as they walked through the traveling circus.
According to some of their friends, Arcanium had come to town several times before. Neve couldn’t believe she’d never heard of it. A circus-slash-carnival with freaks, steampunk and horror? It was so totally up her and Joseph’s alley. How’d they miss it all those other times?
It was small and cheap-looking from the outside—such was the travail of a nomadic business, she was sure. At a distance, Arcanium was just clusters of tan canvas tents and wooden booths—easy to erect and tear down. The fences were solid and good quality, and the gate entrance was beautiful, but the limited rides were, at first glance, a weak offering.
That is, if a person didn’t get close enough to notice that the carousel was one of a kind, each mount custom rather than generic or cheap and delightfully weird, with a squid, spider and a few saddled men to accompany more traditional mounts. Parking lot carnivals had higher Ferris wheels with brighter lights, but sometimes one of the performers or oddities would creep into a swing with someone to give them a good selfie from the top. And although they hadn’t visited yet, Neve was looking forward to the haunted funhouse.
Heck, she’d come back for the hot chocolate alone. She didn’t care what their special chef of odd delicacies might have put in the drink, whether it was cricket legs, coffee extracted from civet droppings or cocaine. It was amazing and warmed her up from the inside, where Joseph couldn’t reach.
Walking with him through Oddity Row was an exercise in trying to figure out which one was the humbug—and how they faked it—and which one was real. The best part was that it didn’t matter.
If the oddities were real, it was a testament to the awesome variety in the gene pool that hadn’t been, or couldn’t be, completely eliminated. As the only pale redhead in an immediate family of tan brunettes, recessive genes and genetic anomalies had been an amateur fascination since elementary school.
But if the fakes were just that good, kudos had to be given to the person responsible for such exceptional, consistent illusion.
The Bearded Lady, the Man Made of Stone, the Human Spider with all her lovely spiders and insects, the snake charmer with all her wonderful reptiles, the Sphynx, the Cyclops, the mermaid, the Rotting Man… And those only tapped the surface, since many oddities were walking out and about, mingling with the guests.
Neve had thought freak shows had been mostly banned and eliminated in favor of acrobatic performance art and gross-out sideshows—which she loved, too. But she was oddly thrilled that an actual freak show still existed outside cable TV, whether the freaks were real or not.
“You want to ride an elephant or go to the haunted funhouse? I hear it’s nice and dark in there, sometimes even sexy.” Joseph kissed her forehead, his lips lingering there.
There had been plenty of oddities and performers who were as sexy as they were strange, like the harlequin clowns with their painted monster faces and their raunchy vaudeville pantomime. Like the contortionist in latex, with the dragon fire-eater led behind her on a silver leash. Like the Human Spider in leather and bound in white rope into her web. Like the strongman and the snake charmer showing off their bodies by limiting their costumes. Skimpy attire was par for the course in a circus, but Arcanium walked the line between teen-appropriate and adult, obeying the letter of the law, if not the spirit.
But Neve could only really tell sexy based on other people’s reactions and the empirical facts right in front of her, like clothing types and movement, the way Joseph’s pupils dilated and his easily red face flushed to his hairline.
Bodies were just bodies to her. Anatomical curiosities, sometimes walking pieces of art—and quite a few pieces of eccentric art were walking around the circus. Neve had always seen bodies differently than most. That had only been confirmed after her beautiful white wedding. She loved bodies, and she loved Joseph’s. But it wasn’t quite the same way he loved hers. His expression as he looked at her now gave her an all-too-familiar pang in her chest.
“Sure.” She hoped her smile appeared sincere, because she didn’t want the good day to sour like New Year’s Eve all over again. “I’m looking forward to the scary more, though. If you want romance, why not win me a Cthulhu and ride the Ferris wheel with me?”
Joseph’s eyes crinkled when he smiled. It lit him up like a yearlong Christmas tree. When he wasn’t smiling, he had what would be called Resting Bitch Face on a girl. On a guy, it was just a scowl. But she loved the furrows and his strong brows as much as she loved his smile.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said.
One stuffed tentacled elder god later from her amateur baseball pitcher husband found him and Neve waiting in line for the Ferris wheel, which, like the carousel, looked so much better up close—with gears and scrollwork over the enclosed swings and integrated into the wheel structure itself, like a giant faceless clock mechanism reduced to skeleton plates and cogs.
“Mind if I join you?” A short woman in a feathered bustle and sparkly red corset and shoes walked the fence around the ride as though she wasn’t wearing four-inch heels on a railing no wider than two fingers. When she flipped to the ground, her barely contained breasts quivered from the landing, lending credence to Neve’s theory that most of Arcanium’s people were actually glued into their costumes.
Joseph checked with Neve, as though he thought she’d be threatened by a beautiful, bosomy woman joining them. Why he thought she didn’t know he noticed other women’s tits as much as her own was beyond her. They were his favorite parts, after all. Neve’s only rule was Look, but don’t touch, but he still got jumpy about the look part now and then.
Neve nodded in encouragement, happily allowing the Arcanium performer to tuck her arms into both of their elbows like Dorothy in Oz, the very embodiment of ruby slippers. As soon as the ride was ready, she stepped up into the enclosed swing and beckoned them to follow.
“Either of you afraid of heights?” she asked.
“If that’s a subtle way of asking whether we can rock the swing at the top,” Neve said, “how about no?”
The woman laughed. “I’m the tightrope walker. I had to get over my fear of heights pretty quick. It helps when you know you won’t fall.”
“I’m fine on a Ferris wheel as long as it’s stable. How long have you been a tightrope walker?”
“A few years now, not long after I joined Arcanium. I started as the magician’s assistant, but they like you to have multiple skills around here.” She sat next to Joseph, across from Neve, and she crossed her strong, shapely legs to nudge Joseph’s knee with her shoe.
“I’d think it would take just that long to learn how,” Neve said.
“Apparently all you need is the right motivation.” The woman’s smile was dazzling, especially with the deep red lipstick she wore to match the corset, shoes and scarlet pigtail falls that fountained out on either side of her head. “No net.”
“Seriously?” Neve said.
“This place isn’t for the weak of heart.” She kept her arm hooked around Joseph’s next to her, but her harmless flirtation seemed directed at both Joseph and Neve together.
“I can take a lot, but I don’t like the idea of falling. Some of my worst dreams are of falling,” Neve said. “You know, the ones where you jerk on the bed when you wake up because you died hitting the ground.”
“There are some good kinds of falling,” the woman said. “Here we go.”
Neve kept a hand on the edge of the swing. As long as she sat still, she was fine.
It was interesting to see Arcanium from above. From here, she could see the caravan of semi-trailers, recreational vehicles and pickup trucks huddled together on the other side of the big top tent. The funhouse gargoyle poised above the haunted house entrance, ready to startle the unwary. She watched children riding the placid elephants, watched the carousel spin. Guests and performers mingled in the crowd, the monsters and freaks almost indistinguishable from the average people around them from this height.
“Want a picture?” The woman stood up to shift around to Neve’s side. “You’re not going to get a better shot in all of Arcanium—not while it’s open anyway.” She winked, with long false eyelashes that appeared to be made of fine, tiny black feathers.
Neve handed her phone to Joseph to take a high-angle picture as the woman sidled close, her breast against Neve’s. She kissed Neve’s cheek during one of Joseph’s pictures.
“Just a little souvenir,” the woman whispered in Neve’s ear. Then she shifted back over to Joseph’s side and handed the phone to Neve.
Kudos also went to whoever was responsible for the makeup and manicures, because those were exceptional as well. Neve worked in a lab, where long nails and latex gloves didn’t mix, so she always loved looking at other people’s nail art—right up there with enjoying other people’s tattoos while not interested in enduring one herself.
Neve scrolled through the pictures Joseph had taken as the Ferris wheel did another rotation. She smiled. The woman’s lipstick had left a blood-red lip mark on Neve’s cheek.
“Love it. Your turn, Joseph.” She set her Cthulhu stuffie on the seat in preparation.
As soon as the Ferris wheel stopped again at a good angle over the circus, Neve raised herself up, and the woman tucked herself close to Joseph.
“Want a souvenir of your own, sweetheart?” the woman asked.
“Absolutely,” Neve said, although she quashed the first irrational pangs of jealousy.
The woman kissed Joseph soundly on the cheek, leaving another mark behind, then smiled for the camera.
Not for the first time, Neve thought she was being grossly unfair and had been for a while. She recognized Joseph’s body language—not to mention the less subtle bulge in his jeans.
From the beginning of their relationship, she’d warned him that while she loved him to pieces, loved the closeness they had when they kissed, she didn’t seem to have what other people called a sex drive. She got more excited by kittens or the good pizza place near his house than the conclusion of date night.
They’d been traditionalists, which meant no sex until the wedding night, but there had been plenty of red flags before. Like when he’d been hot and bothered after a make-out session, and she’d just felt warm and fuzzy inside—no urgency, no regret they had to stop, no challenge in waiting. When she was younger, she’d thought she just hadn’t found the right boy. Now she’d found her soulmate, and six months in, they were subsisting on unenthusiastic once-a-week sessions.
At the beginning, they’d told themselves she just needed to get used to sex for it to start feeling better. Then he’d tried being more romantic, which had never been the problem. They’d bought marital aids—which was nice, but that was all.
She’d sworn to herself she would never be this person, never put her husband through a sexless marriage. It wasn’t like she’d ever been particularly conservative. She and Joseph were middle-of-the-road Christians, and she had a bit of a pagan streak to accompany it. Most religions were pretty clear about how cheating really wasn’t okay—hence her no touching rule. But as long as she simply wasn’t interested in sex, would it really be so bad to let him seek it elsewhere? Say, if this woman’s flirtation weren’t so harmless. There was certainly biblical precedent.
Neve forced herself to keep grinning and took the pictures, pretending it was all in fun. Now wasn’t the time to make a scene over something best aired in the office of a marriage counselor.
“It’s been wonderful to meet you,” the woman said. “Don’t forget to tag Arcanium in anything you post. We mostly depend on word of mouth.” She licked her lips then reached into a small purse at her side to apply a new layer of lipstick.
“How should we tag you?” Joseph avidly watched the lipstick’s progress, hiding his erection with his coat.
“Sky High Maya,” the woman said. “I’ll admit, not as catchy as the Human Spider, but it does the trick. Hope to see you both again at the performance tonight or down by Oddity Row.”
Neve hugged her Cthulhu to brace against the cold, because Joseph kept looking back at Maya as she vaulted over the barrier to the ride and headed toward the midway.
“She kind of looks like you, don’t you think?” Joseph said.
Neve laughed. “Sure. Except for the cyberpunk falls, darker skin, darker eyes and being seven inches shorter.”
“No, I mean shape. You’re both kind of the same curvy.”
“You mean she’s busty,” she said.
“No, it’s not just that. I mean, yes, she’s top-heavy and so are you. I mean…” Every time he tried to backpedal, he just got Italian red and even more tongue-tied.
Neve patted his shoulder in sympathy. “Your bigger brain isn’t getting much of the blood right now, is it, honey?”
Relief came out as his own laughter, and in a parody of Maya, he held out his arm for her to take the crook of his elbow. They strolled back through the midway toward the food court and fortune teller tent.
“It was supposed to be a compliment. I can see you wearing something like that—not in the middle of winter to visit the circus, but maybe for a more private performance,” he murmured near her ear where Maya had whispered to her. “Our own little three-ring circus. You bring the corset, and I’ll bring the flogger.”
“I think I’d like that.”
Her wardrobe had never been particularly provocative, with the exception of the sweetheart neckline on her wedding dress, because Joseph had wanted that. But when a girl was ‘top-heavy’ most of her life, she didn’t need a low-cut top for men to notice her. It had been a point of private embarrassment, bewilderment and sometimes guilt ever since puberty, when she’d started growing much sooner and faster than the other girls, earning catcalls and commentary from boys and even men who should have known better—back when she’d still just wanted to play soccer and do ballet and not have to adjust to a new body and what it meant.
But in the effort to kickstart their love life, Neve had discovered a love of sexy costumes and lingerie—when she found something that fit—and she wasn’t averse to some of the basic S&M they’d experimented with, either. All of that was Endorphins 101. The only problem with those little experiments was that they still hadn’t led to the kind of sex Joseph had been going for.
“Would you?” he said, his lips brushing her neck like a kiss.
That whisper in her ear was supposed to do something to her. She could tell, because he always squirmed when she did it to him, and he did it to her when he was in a mood.
When they reached the fortune teller tent, he guided them not to the entrance but behind it. There weren’t a lot of places to hide from other people in an open circus, but he chose the side where fewer people would see them, a dead zone between Oddity Row and the fortune teller.
“God, you’re beautiful.” Joseph stroked her cheek, which must have been as flushed as his, but from the cold. “I don’t tell you enough. They don’t know what you look like under those winter layers, but I do, and I keep seeing you in all the girls’ tiny costumes. Dancing, flirting, tumbling, walking a tightrope… It’s hot.”
She knew what he liked, and she met his kiss as he opened his coat and pulled her against him, accepted him when he unbuttoned her coat, too. Their thick coats provided cover as she brought her hips against his erection and he palmed her breasts. He’d come once just from handling her breasts, nearly smothered between them at the time, which she thought might qualify him for something in the realm of fetish. It didn’t bother her in the slightest.
It was comfortable for her to have him there against her, holding her, but it just wasn’t hot, and no matter how she tried to pretend it was, he could tell. Maybe she had to know what it was like to enjoy sex to fake it.
In fact, realizing she was faking it just frustrated him more, which sent him right over the edge to angry. And she hardly blamed him.
But she couldn’t explain in a way he could understand that he did turn her on. He lit up something wonderful and exciting in her, but it wasn’t lust. She wanted the former to be enough, or at least she wished she could fake the latter well enough to make both of them happy.
Hard to do when any suggestion of sex these days made her stomach drop and her throat tighten. Dread wasn’t much of an aphrodisiac in the bedroom—or out of it, when one’s husband was trying to be young, impetuous and frisky like a teenager in a sexy circus that was supposed to drive people this kind of crazy.
Joseph sighed, leaning his forehead against hers. He kept his hands on her breasts, under her sweater but over her bra. He had big hands that couldn’t hope to hold all of her, which was apparently how he liked it. He gave her all the back rubs she wanted to help her deal with the backaches, and when she didn’t have access to a heavy-duty sports bra, exercise was out of the question unless she wanted to risk boob punches and pain. Her biggest problem with them, though, was entirely how others reacted. But she could stand her husband’s attachment if it meant he hadn’t noticed the way she’d stiffened.
No such luck.
“I just don’t understand it,” Joseph said, eyes still closed. “I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”
“I’m trying, Joe. It’s not you. You know that. Please don’t leave.” She reached after him as he withdrew, adjusting his coat back around him. “We can go back to the car and I can take care of you…”
“It’s not about you taking care of me.”
Neve glanced around to see if anyone had heard him, because he wasn’t whispering anymore.
“It’s about being able to take care of you,” he said. “It’s about sparks and chemistry. And let’s face it, baby, we might not have it.”
“You used to love kissing me.”
“Back when I thought you loved kissing me back.”
“I do,” she said.
He turned away, pinching the bridge of his nose. “When you’re more afraid I’m going to ask for sex now than back when we were dating, something’s wrong.”
“Well, if you didn’t pressure me by expecting it to be mind-blowing every time, maybe I wouldn’t get so tense. I love you, Joseph, but you can’t turn me on and off like a light switch.”
He whirled back around. “I can’t turn you on at all. And we’ve done everything right, haven’t we? Counselors, doctors, switching things up. But there’s just nothing! You’re a fucking gorgeous woman. I want to make love to you all the time, and you feel nothing. If I’d known we were going to go dry so early in our marriage, I wouldn’t have…” He stopped, running both hands over his buzzed head.
“What? You wouldn’t have married me?” Neve was suddenly cold all the way down to the bone, hot chocolate heat long gone. “As I recall, we had similar discussions before the wedding, and we still went through with it.”
“That was when we still thought something would work.”
She threw her hands up. “So that’s it? You want to toss a whole relationship out the window, not because I won’t have sex with you, but because I can’t enjoy it as much as you? All the other aspects of our marriage—our Netflix binges, late nights, experimentation adventures, the fact we’re so good together—none of that means anything because I don’t have, or really need, earth-shattering orgasms? That’s the hill you’re going to kill our union on?”
He sighed. “Look, I’m really mad right now. I’m going to go cool off. You go ahead and do a fortune telling. We can discuss this later, when we’re less upset. And frankly, when I’m less horny.”
Neve tried to smile, but it died halfway through.
He took her face in his hands. “I love you, Neve, and you’re my best friend. I just… I don’t know how the sex part is going to work with us.”
“Neither do I. But don’t you think six months is too early to call it quits?”
“Maybe earlier would be better for both of us. But I’m not wanting to quit yet. I’m just frustrated.”
She nodded, not quite meeting his eyes. “Sure. Go on, then. Cool off. I’ll see you at the funhouse.”
“It’s a date.” Joseph walked back toward the midway, hunched over with his hands in his coat pockets.
Neve stood behind the fortune teller’s tent alone for much longer. It was too common a fight for her to cry over it anymore, but she continued to foster that niggling doubt that, though he wasn’t handling the issue well, she was really the one at fault here. After all, why shouldn’t someone expect their spouse to be more than happy to have sex with them, especially in the early honeymoon phase? It wasn’t supposed to get stale before it even started, wasn’t supposed to be scheduled until they had children.
Variety was natural, of course, and Neve defied normal in her family in many ways, but she would have been just peachy with a normal marriage. She was used to succeeding at whatever she put her mind to—not just succeeding, but being exceptional. Sex was the only thing she’d ever wanted that she couldn’t do all by herself, so maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that that was where she failed so spectacularly.
What made this whole thing even worse was that she’d be fine the way she was. After everything, despite her willingness to try new things, she was beginning to think this wasn’t something she could change—no matter what she did, how she worked, what new ideas she conjured from self-help forums. This was what she was, and she wanted that to be okay, because when she and Joseph were doing anything else but trying to enjoy sex—and even sometimes during—she was so stinking happy. And she’d thought he was, too. But maybe things had always been more unbalanced between them than either had believed.
She’d been more or less honest about her nonexistent sex drive—as much as she could have been when she’d never had sex before. But Joseph had never indicated to her until today that the rest of the partnership had been in any way inadequate or didn’t compare with his sexual needs. If it was bad enough that he wished they’d never married, then who was the real dishonest one here?
No. Now was no time to start the blame game. This was their marriage, so it was their problem.
Maybe she needed to start thinking even farther outside the box to satisfy them both and keep him in her life. There was always a solution. If she couldn’t find one, it was usually because she wasn’t looking at the problem from the right angle.
Neve rallied herself, the way she had since her older brother first told her girls couldn’t be mad scientists. She’d come to Arcanium for fun. There was no reason to stop that now just because of a little fight.
There was already someone in the tent when she went back around, so she turtled herself in her lovely, warm scarf and waited, watching one of the guests at the picnic table try a fried grasshopper. Amusement eased her tension.
A couple stepped out of the tent with matching expressions of wonder and bafflement. That probably spoke well of this particular fortune teller. She wasn’t sure how she felt about the whole flimflam profession, but they were an amusing diversion to challenge her mind, and a good fortune teller, like a good magician, always kept her guessing. Knowing the trick just wasn’t as fun these days, although she’d loved solving the mysteries as a kid.
“Do come in,” a male voice called from inside the tent. “I have my own space heater. I think you’ll appreciate it.”