REBECCA ROSE felt about Park Slope the same way she felt about her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Abbie: basic unconditional love mixed with frequent spurts of uncontrollable rage. On this particular Monday afternoon, the rage was winning. It was two-thirty and Abbie was napping. Rebecca had already cleared the lunch dishes, folded the clean laundry that had been sitting in the dryer for a week, and spent an hour reworking an article she was writing for Cosmopolitan called “Beauty Secrets You Don’t Want Your Man to Know About.” Her final order of business was to sit on the living room couch, pop in a DVD of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, and masturbate to the scene of Polanski molesting Isabelle Adjani in a darkened Parisian movie theater.
As she lay back against the cushion and fast-forwarded to the scene, she was startled to see a man outside her window. He was not a muscular and Chippendales-esque Peeping Tom seeking to witness her afternoon transgression but a Pakistani facade worker named Rakhman who liked to sing praises to Allah while applying scratch coat. He was working his way down the building. The lower shutters were closed, but Rebecca had forgotten to close the upper shutters, which meant that Rakhman could see right in.
Rebecca and her husband Theo’s four-unit brownstone coop building was populated entirely by yuppie couples with kids, including Apartment Four: a gay black guy who lived with his teenage son and his boyfriend. Since Rebecca and Theo had bought their apartment two years before, the coop board had authorized interior painting, new carpeting, boiler replacement, and facade renovation. All the renovating was good for Rebecca’s property value but bad for her profligacy, because it meant a constant parade of workers out the window. This was one of the unfortunate consequences of being bourgeois: Your life was in such a constant state of improvement that it became nearly impossible to live.
The neighborhood itself was testament to this. On Rebecca’s block alone, Carroll Street between Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West, half a dozen buildings had undergone facade renovations in the past year. Rebecca could not even push Abbie down Seventh Avenue to Connecticut Muffin to grab a French roast without bracing for the roar of jackhammers. Down on Fourth Avenue, a gritty strip of tire repair shops, gas stations, and glass cutters, new modernist buildings featuring million-dollar lofts were going up each day.
The Rakhman sighting made Rebecca too uncomfortable to pleasure herself in the living room, even with all the shutters closed. If she wanted to come before Abbie woke up, she would have to do it on her bed, an area that these days was better suited to the excretion of baby poo than any more appealing bodily fluids. As Rakhman trilled loudly in Arabic about his black-eyed virgins (a term that made Rebecca picture women who’d been socked in the face), she made a quick escape down the hallway to her bedroom, tiptoeing in so as not to wake Abbie in the baby room next door.
For a moment Rebecca considered using Rakhman as masturbatory fodder; in his early thirties, he wasn’t bad-looking, with a lean fit body and shiny brown skin. Still, although she had married a gentile, she could not imagine making love to an Arab. Too scary, too Munich.
She shut the bedroom door, closed the curtains, and turned on the air conditioner. It was only the first week of July but a hundred and three outside, thanks to global warming. She lay under the crimson high-thread-count Calvin Klein bedspread, leaned over the side of the bed, and pulled out a Chanel shoe box. In the living room, with the added stimulation of the DVD, she used nothing more than her right index finger and a small dab of lube, but in the sexless and toy-cluttered bedroom, she was going to need special assistance.
Inside the box, along with an assortment of other toys, was Rebecca’s pale pink Mini Pearl egg vibrator. She had bought it at the sex shop Toys in Babeland on the Lower East Side, before there was a Babeland in Park Slope, right next to Pintchik hardware.
The “egg” was smaller than a real egg, closer to the size of a jumbo wine cork, and it was attached to the battery compartment by a slender white cord. During her twenties, Rebecca had used it with many of her paramours, on them and on herself. “Paramour” was a title the men probably didn’t deserve. Most of her relationships premarriage lasted only a few months or half a dozen dates, whichever came first, just long enough for the thrill of new sex to fade or for her to find a guy who interested her more. Unlike some of her friends, who found one-night stands dehumanizing, Rebecca enjoyed them. She would pick up the men—comedians, drummers, actors, or screenwriters—at bars on the Lower East Side or in the East Village, usually with a girlfriend as a wingman, thrilling in the chase.
Though the sex itself was rarely spectacular, Rebecca loved the lead-up: the banter, the glances, the hand-holding, the cab ride, and the very first kiss, which she felt was pure no matter how drunk both of them were. She didn’t see one-night stands as tawdry or cheap. She felt they were perfect, in that she could write the biography of herself that she wanted to (confident, witty, sarcastic, sought after), then say goodbye before the guy knew her well enough to see how much of it was fiction.
Rebecca was not unattractive, but even as a teen, she’d been aware that her body was a bigger selling point than her face. She had curly Andie MacDowell–style hair and deep brown eyes, but a pinched, angry expression no matter what mood she was in. Once, at a party at Barnard, she had overheard two women whispering about her, and one of them had remarked that she was a “butterface—a great body, but her face.”
Rebecca had been humiliated but after a few minutes realized that the girl had verbalized something Rebecca had known all along. Her face had never hurt her in the eyes of men, who cared much more about her body. They almost acknowledged as much, saying things like “Your breasts are the perfect size” and “You’re so fucking hot,” which was different from “You’re so beautiful.” Because she knew her selling point was her figure, she took great pride in her body and felt at ease in bed in a way she didn’t always feel out of it.
In her bedroom Rebecca regarded the Mini Pearl as an old friend, remembering the days when she and Theo had used it together, to spice up the sex or to get a laugh. Before Abbie, they had made love a few times a week. When her married friends complained that they were having less sex married than when they were single, she would chuckle sympathetically but secretly pity them, certain it would never happen to her. You must not like sex, she would think. Or, Didn’t you know your husband wasn’t into it before you married him? Even late in her pregnancy, her drive hadn’t tapered off, and she had been surprised to find that Theo’s hadn’t, either. They had even joked about the therapy the baby was certain to have once it uncovered the memory of the penis knocking at its skull.
But then Abbie came, a hurricane, and everything changed. At Rebecca’s six-week postpartum appointment, the midwife, a mustachioed mother named Leeza, examined her and told her, “You can have sex whenever you want.” She asked what Rebecca was planning to do for birth control, and Rebecca, who had not had to use contraception in over a year, shrugged and said, “Condoms, I guess.”
That night she brought home a bottle of chilled East End chardonnay, put Abbie to bed, and handed Theo a pack of lambskins. The pain during sex surprised her, since Abbie had been delivered by cesarean, by the attending OB, after two hours of fruitless pushing. But Rebecca was not discouraged. She reasoned that the sex would take time and more chardonnay to improve.
A few weeks later, after no overtures from Theo, she touched him tenderly in bed. He moved her hand away and turned to her with an expression she hadn’t seen before: terror. “We don’t have to rush this,” he said, and that was that. In the ensuing months, though he kissed or massaged her occasionally, he had not once initiated sex.
It had been sixteen months since they had made love, a period so staggeringly, embarrassingly long that Rebecca didn’t like to think about it. As the drought continued, she grew too hurt to try to make a move herself, and the two of them had become cool to each other, like hostile roommates.
She had thought about separation, but the possibility made her uncomfortable and anxious. Though she considered herself a feminist whose needs were as important as those of her husband, she was also a product of a nuclear Jewish family, and she saw divorce as a shame, a shanda. She knew this was an outdated way of thinking but could not shake it.
If she had been prepared for Theo’s rejection, she often told herself, she might have been able to cope with it. But of the many worries Rebecca had had about becoming a mother, prolonged involuntary celibacy had not been one of them. For a man to reject his own wife, an attractive wife with intact anatomy, no less—that was galling. Didn’t he know what he had in her? Did he honestly think he could shut her out, for this many months, without repercussion?
Other new moms she met complained about their husbands’ boyish libidos, fretting guiltily about their own lack of interest: “Gary wanted to do it before my episiotomy stitches had even healed” or “After my post-partum checkup, I lied and told Dave the doctor said six more weeks.” Not once had Rebecca heard a mother infer, even obliquely, that she was hard up. There was no chapter in What to Expect When You’re Expecting entitled “Daddy’s Drive: Dead or Just Dormant?”
Some of the mothers who complained about being chased were fat or unkempt, and Rebecca would listen to their laments, in shock that men would find them desirable. Five-seven and naturally slim, she had shed all her baby weight soon after having Abbie. Once large B’s, her breasts had bloomed into small C’s, and she had no stretch marks on her belly, unlike the Baby and Me swim mothers she saw in the Eastern Athletic locker room, with long purple scars winding down their abdomens. Even her cesarean scar was below the hairline.
She had always enjoyed sex more than Theo did, but he had never turned her down. And she liked it that way, liked initiating with the certainty that she could make him hard after only a few seconds.
She and Theo had met at a mutual friend’s birthday party in December 2003. She had just turned thirty-one, and though she wasn’t anxious about marriage the way some of her peers were, she felt that she had slept with every smart artistic cutie south of Fourteenth Street and was beginning to wonder how she was going to meet anyone new.
She’d been standing at the cocktail table in her girlfriend’s apartment —littered with tonic, liquor, and sodas—when Theo came up next to her and joked that no one had opened the Mountain Dew yet. His riff didn’t seem to come naturally to him, and she’d been aware that he was flirting, trying to be clever because he had noticed her. There was something charming about this to Rebecca after her long run of one-night stands and so-called boyfriends. Theo wanted to court her, and she couldn’t remember the last time any man had courted her.
They got very serious very quickly, with him moving into her Fifth Avenue apartment in the Slope the April after they’d met. Theo was an architect and had a maturity and self-sufficiency that the hipster guys lacked. The opposite of the coddled Jewish boys who brought laundry when they went home to their parents, Theo was a solitary, independent WASP who had been raised by a single mother and learned to take care of himself early on. On their first official date after the birthday party, he invited her over to his Lower East Side apartment and made four individual pizzas, his own tuna tartare, and a strawberry rhubarb pie with a lattice crust.
Dark-haired and trim, he resembled Clark Kent. Unlike the drummers and stand-up comedians, Theo had a real job, though he was scrimping by as a junior associate when they met. He was worldly and well traveled, having lived in Madrid and worked for Rafael Moneo after graduate school at Harvard. His cramped one-bedroom was filled with original modernist furniture pieces, like a Carlo Mollino side table and a few mismatched Eames chairs that he had bought at el Rastro flea market. Rebecca, who had grown up in a suburban Philadelphia stone cottage whose decor had not changed since the early seventies, admired Theo’s aesthetic sense and, more important, the fact that he had cultivated it on his own.
After he proposed to her at Lever House, his favorite building, and slipped his grandmother’s engagement ring on her finger, she felt only joyous anticipation about what was to come. She’d had her wild years and was ready to become part of a twosome. She loved all the couply things she got to do with Theo. They went to museums and gallery shows, read Malamud aloud to each other in bed, and visited ethnic restaurants in Queens. She felt confident that even after they had children, their mutual need for each other—his to take care of someone and hers to be adored—would be the glue that held them together. Theo would be a good father. He was clearly the better cook, but he also knew how to use a hammer and mop a floor. Naturally, he would know what to do with a baby. She could do the breastfeeding and leave the rest to him. But she never anticipated that he might care about the baby so much, he would stop caring about his wife.
Now, after all these months of rejection, she vacillated between worrying that he found her ugly to raging that he found his own behavior acceptable. Knowing how important sex had been to her before motherhood, had he somehow rationalized that she no longer cared? Or had he envisioned this happening at the dinner party three years before, when he told her she could cheat?
It was at Lisa and Kevin Solmsen’s apartment in Carroll Gardens that Theo gave her cunt blanche. She and Theo had been married a year and were, she thought, truly happy, besotted for different reasons, but in a haze of mutual new love. She was a senior editor at Elle, and he was at Black & Marden architects in Tribeca. The other guests were mainly publishing people and artists, married couples, some with babies. Everyone was chewing overcooked duck and getting drunk on Chilean merlot, and somehow the Clinton marriage came up, which naturally led to a discussion of the definition of adultery.
Rebecca was enjoying the repartee when Theo, usually shy, put down his glass and said, “I wouldn’t care if Rebecca cheated on me with another man—as long as she didn’t fall in love. I mean, as long as there are no feelings involved, I don’t care if she gets her pussy eaten by a businessman in St. Louis.”
The other couples fell into stunned silence. Rebecca arched an eyebrow, stood up, and said, “Excuse me while I go book a flight,” and everyone roared in laughter.
Despite her glib reaction, she had been shocked. Why was he saying this in public? If a man loved a woman, wouldn’t the thought of her with another man send him into a fit of wild rage? What kind of man (who wasn’t a cripple) felt it was all right for his wife to stray? She could not tell whether he had said it out of braggadocio (“This is a bluff; my wife would never cheat because she loves me too much”) or honesty, and eventually decided on the former, chalking up his pronouncement to the red wine and late hour.
But lately, she had been thinking a lot about St. Louis, the metaphorical city. It was as though Theo had known that someday he wouldn’t be able to meet her demands and, in the guise of tipsy dinner-party chatter, preemptively offered her an out.
In order to have an affair, she had to find someone to do it with, and in Park Slob that seemed impossible, so neutered were the men. Rebecca wasn’t even attracted to most Park Slope fathers, but she pursued them because they were the only men she interacted with on a regular basis, since she was self-employed and worked at home. In hopes of arousing interest on the playgrounds, Rebecca dressed for sex. While other mothers wore cargo shorts, P.S. 321 T-shirts, and sneakers, Rebecca chose Marc Jacobs minis, Splendid scoopnecks with high-end push-up bras for maximum cleavage, and four-hundred-dollar Miu Miu fuck-mes. Just the week before, when Sonam, her part-time Tibetan babysitter, was with Abbie, Rebecca had trekked into Nolita to buy herself a gold lamé romper at a boutique.
But even her romper drew no interest. Standing next to a sideburned dad at the Lincoln-Berkeley playground swings, she would arch her back and wait for him to ogle. He would allow himself to be engaged in conversation but then drop the phrase “my wife” in the first few sentences, as though she didn’t already know he was henpecked by the fact that he lived in Park Slope, an urban Stepford teeming with young white families. Earlier that summer a cute blond dad in an Obama T-shirt had struck up a flirtation, but after a few minutes he mentioned something about his partner, Rick.
Children of miserable seventies divorces, these nesting, monogamous thirtysomethings had 1950s morals—New Victorians, a newspaper article had labeled them. If there was sex going on in their households, it was impossible to see from the way the parents related to each other. The parents of two were the most depressing, the bodies gone to pot, the looks of resignation and regret. They traded children, barely acknowledging each other, their faces lighting up only when a baby clapped or smiled. They were like factory workers on the same assembly line, watching the clock and thinking, Only eighteen years to go.
Rebecca wished she’d come of age in the era of ‘ludes, key parties, and women’s lib, when sex was everywhere and cheating was a given. At least then if your marriage was sexless, you had an out. That new TV show Swingtown was trying to tap into seventies nostalgia, but Rebecca had grown bored after a few episodes, feeling it was too PG to be hot.
Whenever Rebecca thought about her lover, she imagined him as a gray-haired man in his forties who carried his money in a clip and smoked without apology. Maybe because she had seen the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape when she was coming of age sexually, she always pictured Peter Gallagher.
But until she found Peter Gallagher, she had to resort to pleasuring herself every afternoon during Abbie’s nap to iconic seventies films: the paraplegic Jon Voight going down on Jane Fonda in Coming Home (the hottest portrayal of impotence in American cinema), Donald Sutherland and Fonda in Klute, George Segal raping Susan Anspach in Blume in Love. In these movies she had found the archetype she was seeking, a man who took without asking.
In the bedroom she wriggled out of her jeans and sheer cornflower-blue Cosabella boyshorts, placed the Mini Pearl against her, and flipped the switch on the battery pack. Nothing happened.
She turned the switch off and on again. Still nothing.
The batteries were dead.
Then she remembered Abbie’s mobile.
It was a black-and-white Tiny Love Symphony-in-Motion that her parents had brought Abbie as a newborn gift on their first visit. On the mobile you could select Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven, and when Rebecca’s father mounted it to the crib, she had joked, “How come there isn’t any Mahler?”
Every day for Abbie’s nap, Rebecca would deposit her in the crib and turn on the mobile, and it would lull Abbie to sleep. If Abbie stirred, Rebecca would flip on the mobile. Hypnotized by Beethoven’s Fifth, Abbie would go back out.
Abbie was most likely in REM sleep now, so Rebecca was pretty sure she could sneak in and grab the batteries without waking her. She crept to the mobile, pried out the batteries, turned, and padded out.
She shut her bedroom door tightly. Batteries in place, underwire bra unlatched and hiked up, left hand on right nipple, right hand on egg, panties and jeans in a fireman pile on the floor, she got to work. She was Isabelle Adjani, and she had beckoned Polanski to the film because she was oddly attracted to him despite his ratlike appearance. Inside the dark dampness of the B-movie theater, she found herself so drawn to him, perhaps sensing his future pedophilia, that she put her hand on his crotch. He got hard immediately, looked both ways, and slung his arm around her, dropping his hand to her breast and squeezing it. Instead of being repelled, slutty IsaBecca reached for him and kissed him sloppily on the mouth, not caring about the dirty old men all around.
Rebecca ratcheted up the vibrator to level two. She squeezed her nipple harder, imagining the soft unsullied director’s hand of Roman Polanski. As her muscles tightened and she began to sweat, certain she would come within seconds, she heard the clear, near cry of her baby girl.
Rebecca went into denial. This wasn’t a full-out waking but a slight stirring, a shifting of position, and Abbie would soothe herself back to sleep in a moment or two.
A louder and more urgent cry. Rebecca flicked the vibe to level three, thinking of Roman Polanski. She put the pillow over her head, giving up on the nipple stim. But through the foam she could still hear her daughter wailing. It sounded like a poopy cry.
Goddamn it. She threw off the pillow and went into the bedroom. As soon as she walked in, she could smell it. She picked Abbie up and carried her to the changing table silently. The less you shook things up, the better the chance of her falling back asleep. Rebecca changed Abbie swiftly, depositing the used diaper in the bin. “Shhhh,” she said, and put the baby back in the crib. “Go back to sleep. Shhhhhh.”
Abbie stared up at her indignantly and screamed at the top of her lungs. The mobile hung above her face, mute. Rebecca had to make a Sophie’s choice: her own orgasm or her daughter’s sleep. Tiny love or Tiny Love.
She knew what Marc Weissbluth, MD, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, would say: Babies with inconsistent or too-short naps were more likely to develop attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, and adult insomnia.
Still, it was with great reluctance and considerable irritability at the many ways motherhood had ruined her life that Rebecca trudged back into her bedroom, removed the double A’s from the vibrator, and replaced them in Abbie’s mobile. Abbie fell back asleep within minutes, but Rebecca could not gather the energy to conjure The Tenant once again. She lay on her bed, arms folded across her chest, glaring at the useless pink phallus beside her. A few minutes later, her intercom buzzed.
Prospect Park West
Novelist Amy Sohn's sneak peek into life in Park Slope
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Brooklyn’s famed Park Slope neighborhood has it all: sprawling, majestic Prospect Park; acclaimed public schools; historic brownstones; and progressive values. In the park, at the coffee shops, and on the playgrounds, four women’s lives come together during one long, hot Brooklyn summer. Melora Leigh, a two-time Oscar-winning actress, frustrated with her career and the pressures of raising her adoptive toddler, feels the seductive pull of kleptomania; Rebecca Rose, missing the robust sex life of her pre-motherhood days, begins a dangerous flirtation with a handsome neighborhood celebrity; Lizzie O’Donnell, a former lesbian, wonders why she is still drawn to women in spite of her sexy husband and adorable son; and Karen Bryan Shapiro finds herself consumed by two powerful obsessions: her four-year-old son’s wellbeing, and snagging the ultimate three-bedroom apartment in a well maintained, P.S. 321–zoned, co-op building. As the women’s paths intertwine and sometimes collide, each one must strugg see more