THE ROOM HAS THE APPEARANCE of something from a science-fiction film—all white, sterile, windowless, with a digital clock hanging high and centered on each of the four walls. I sit in the long black leather sofa that rests by the door, concentrating on the wall in front of me. It is grotesque, but necessary to the experience. Heads—faceless, hairless, porcelain heads—protrude from the wall with open cavities from the nose down.
At the top of the hour, these open spaces will be filled with the mouths of women. I won’t be able to see anything except their mouths and they won’t see me at all because the faceless heads have no eyeholes. And for sixty minutes those partial faces are all mine.
This is not a free service. At Previews, the Kissing Room is only one of the rooms offered. There are other rooms. My friend Roger goes to the I-Room. My belief is that anything goes in the I-Room. I don’t know this for sure because Roger hasn’t told me much. In the brochure there is an asterisk by the I-Room option, Clients must sign non-disclosure statement. The I-Room is insanely expensive—twelve hundred per hour.
The light comes on just on the other side of the wall, and soon the empty mouth holes are filled with actual mouths. Once all those empty cavities are filled, I have my choice of head. I’ve paid for sixty minutes to kiss any of those mouths that I want, or just one if that’s all I want. Or I can sample every one of them, which I often did when I first started at Previews.
All of the mouths are very attractive and very different. The first one from the left is bright red lipstick. Second is bright red lipstick with gloss. Different colors go down the line, alternating between non-gloss and gloss. Pink is next, then darker red, black, and plain. Of the ten heads on the wall, I’m stuck on pink with lip gloss, fourth one from the left, and have been for the better part of six months. Because I know her. She’s Roger’s wife. I think.
Sometimes when I’m kissing Cindy I feel like making a show out of the experience. I don’t make any sounds other than the slow and moist sounds of the kissing itself, though I want to. I want the person on the other side of the wall to know what I’m feeling. The last few times I’ve dedicated myself to Pink Lipstick with Gloss, the Fourth Head from the Left, I’ve had the sense that she was into the experience, trying just as much as me to turn off her instincts and stick to the script.
The clock is down to eleven minutes and I’m thinking too much. I want to go through the wall. I feel like I have to know. But I tell myself it’s Cindy behind the wall and that works long enough for me to enjoy the rest.
For the rest of the day, all I do is wonder if the head is Cindy. I never get any work done on Thursday afternoon. I play around on websites and go to the restroom a lot. I wonder if Roger knows his wife works there.
After work I stop by Roger and Cindy’s house under the pretense of returning a deck of cards that I borrowed a long time ago. Cindy is reclined on the couch, her feet propped against their coffee table so that her knees are in the air. The golden crescents of her calves are flush. The moist backs of her thighs curl into her denim shorts. I feel my face warming.
“Hey Cindy. Is Roger here?”
“He’s in his room. Bad day you need to rehash?”
“No, just returning these,” I say, holding up the deck of cards.
I’m staring at her mouth. There is no way to know for sure. “I’ll see myself to his room. See you, Cindy.” I walk to Roger’s room in the back of the house. Roger is listening to music through some earbuds and reading a digital magazine. “Hey.”
“Hey, Roger. I have this deck of cards that I borrowed from you guys a while back and I was in the neighborhood and everything.”
His eyes narrow into slits. He doesn’t believe this for a second. “Okay, throw them on the desk behind you.”
Roger’s room is decorated in the Junior High School Boy fashion. He has posters of athletes and rock bands on his walls, hung by pushpins and thumb tacks. On one wall hangs a calendar of supermodel photos. This month’s picture has her lying in the surf on a beach, her bathing suit only half wet. “Good picture,” I say.
“Sometimes I look at it for fifteen minutes straight. You can see her nipples through the swimsuit.”
As soon as someone tells you something like that, you have to look.
“Don’t you wish the women at Previews looked like this?” I say.
“Some are pretty close. Believe me. Last week even I was in the I-Room, and there was this girl, had to be Latina or something. I can never tell. But she was almost flawless, just a scar from having her appendix removed. That’s the thing with these supermodel pictures. That pic has been doctored. Every imperfection has been edited out.”
“So the women at Previews might look like this?”
“Like I said, some are pretty close.” Roger takes one earbud out. “And there’s freckles too, especially in the light-skinned ones. But that’s all I’m saying. I’ve already said too much.”
“It’s not like they’re monitoring you. I can’t afford anything above the Kissing Room anyway.”
“I’ve done the Kissing Room once or twice,” says Roger. “It’s not enough, though I do like how you can’t see anything. That makes it hot.”
“I go to the same face every time. I think I’m in love with her.” I start to laugh here. I’m in love with Pink Lipstick with Gloss, Fourth Head from the left.
“I’m in love with this Latina girl. Seriously. Don’t tell Cindy though, dude. But I think I know what you’re getting at. You want to meet this woman. Outside of Previews.”
Either that, or make love to your wife. Maybe they’re one and the same. “Is it possible?”
“I’ve been told—and I don’t know if it’s true—that the employee entrance to Previews is actually two streets over, on Canal Street, at that deli run by the bald guy.”
“The one with the weird accent?”
“Yeah, him. Apparently, all those buildings are connected from Canal Street. This is just what people have told me.”
“You think this is true?”
“Do you think you’re the first person to have this idea, who thought you were in love with one of these girls?”
He picks up a video game controller and he pops his earbud back in.
“I’ll see you at work. There’s your cards.”
“Thanks. Good luck.”
I see Cindy again on the way out. She has changed into a T-shirt and running shorts in preparation for her evening run. Her hair is up, something I have seen only one other time, when she and Roger invited me to join them in Florida for a week. We took a walk one morning along the beach because Cindy wanted some seashells. Roger walked to her right. I was just behind her on the left. Her hair was up in a ponytail and I took the opportunity to savor every taut muscle and tendon in her neck. This was next to the last day. I had thought I would use the week to have a few one-night stands and just have a good time. Instead I spent the week being a third wheel, hanging out with Roger and Cindy at their timeshare every night, getting drunk off their wine and passing out on the couch.
There was one night when I insisted they go to dinner without me. They went to one of the nicer places on the pier, Cindy all made up and in a black dress. I went out myself, to a dive bar looking for a lonely woman or a vacationer who had broken up with her boyfriend. Instead I found a married local who smoked heavily and had stretch marks the likes of which I had never seen, made more visible because of her deep tan. I made fast and somewhat dull love to her in a motel that rented by the hour. Her name was Janice.
When I got back to the timeshare, Cindy and Roger were clearly angry with one another. He was out on the back deck with a half-empty bottle of rum and she was in bed. I walked outside and sat with Roger. “You guys have fun?”
“She went to bed in her dress. That dress is very expensive. It probably shouldn’t be slept in.” Roger was lightly rocking his highball glass and making it swish like an angry ocean. He wasn’t looking at anything, just in the general direction of the security light of the timeshare next door.
“It can be dry-cleaned I suppose.”
“She said she wants to do something, again. Like a job. That she’s bored.”
“How is that a bad thing?”
Roger looked at me. “It happened to Stevens and his wife, and Musselman, and Rodriquez. None of them are married anymore.”
“Come on, you think Cindy would cheat on you?”
He laughed. “Maybe, if she got out more. I’ve cheated on her.”
This I knew.
“No, I just don’t want to get a divorce and lose so much. She’s at home all day. All she does is shop, get makeovers, read romance novels, and look pretty. If she met some new people and had the opportunity, who could blame her really? We all get lonely.”
It was similar to what Janice had said. She brought up her husband and I just dove right in. I found married life so strange, but appealing, because I felt like I was made to be married, that it would be what saved me. Janice talked it up like a death sentence—long days of raising children and fighting with your spouse, of forgetting how to talk with each other, taking it out on the kids and each other, and finally looking to drown your problems in booze or through sex with anonymous strangers, i.e. me.
Janice seemed grateful for the conversation more than the sex. She gave me her number on the back of one of my business cards. If you’re ever in town again, it said.
She left the motel first and then I took a shower to wash the smoke out of my hair. My hair was still wet out on the deck as I talked to Roger. I should’ve been the one who had married Cindy, but I never would’ve met her without Roger. It was just one of those things that felt like it should be, but it wouldn’t be. I would have to pine from afar and love her secretly. I would probably marry someone else, have a family, but still love Cindy. I played scenarios through my head in mere seconds, of me with different faceless wives and faceless kids out in the backyard with my grill and my Kiss the Cook apron, making burgers.
“Look, I’ll get over it, okay? She will too. This kind of thing happens when you get married. You’ll see.” All of a sudden I felt he was talking too loud.
I walked back inside and grabbed a beer from the fridge. I’m not the kind of guy who usually downs a beer quickly, but I did this time.
I decided to go to bed. No brushing teeth. No washing up. No removing the smoke-scented clothes. Just bed. Roger and Cindy’s bedroom was across from mine, and I noticed the door was cracked. I stepped up to the door and listened, half expecting to hear Cindy sniffling or sobbing from her fight with Roger. But there was nothing. I walked inside and slowly made my way to her bedside, kneeling down. I did so very quietly, thinking that I’d downed that beer too fast.
Her eyes were open. “What’s wrong? Is Roger doing something foolish or has he passed out already?”
“No, nothing like that. Just checking to see if you were okay.”
The covers around her shoulder moved suddenly, with a slightly jerky motion, like she was shrugging. “We’ll be fine.”
I leaned over to give her a hug. I had never hugged her before, but I felt this urge, this need to hug this beautiful woman who at that moment I was convinced was my love. She still smelled faintly of the perfume she had worn for going out that night. She had not taken her jewelry off. She didn’t reciprocate the hug, so the event was more like that I leaned on top of her and gently put my face to her face, with my left arm loosely around her shoulder. It felt awkward and unpleasant, and I knew I had stepped over some sort of line in the man-woman friendship code. Intimate touching is not allowed. I rose up and looked at her face, expecting to see horror. But she was smiling at me—not a big smile, not even a happy smile. The thought that goes along with that smile is something akin to I knew it!
And then she leaned up and kissed me. Really kissed me. This would never be mentioned again.
When the trip was over, I went back to Previews and there was a new face—Pink Lipstick with Gloss, Fourth Head from the Left. I was convinced it was Cindy. From staring at her face and her mouth so much, I knew it was her. And then, when I kissed the mouth, I recognized the style and the softness and even the taste, strangely enough. It was her. It had to be her. She had gotten a job after all.
The next day is Thursday, the day Cindy will be working. I’m thinking about what Roger said about the secret entrance to Previews. I pull up a map on my phone and look up the Previews area. Several buildings are connected. One of those other businesses could definitely be a secret entrance to Previews.
The thought of discovering Cindy is the prevailing thought on Thursday morning. I pay little attention to my choice of attire and I do very little work at all. I am up a lot, walking, going to the printer despite the fact that I have printed nothing. The morning seems long and Roger is holed up in his office. I stop by there several times to tell him any random tidbit I can think of. He is annoyed after the second visit but he soon figures out the reason for my nervous energy.
“Today is Thursday,” he says. “I know why you’re so worked up. But here’s the thing, even if you do manage to find the employee entrance and even if you do see this mystery girl, you’re not even going to know it’s her. You don’t see her face ever, right?”
“I think I’ll recognize her,” I say.
“No, what you’ll do is convince yourself that you saw her and you’ll have the wrong girl. But that’s okay. Maybe that’s what needs to happen so that you’ll leave this alone.” Roger smooths out the lapels of his jacket. He is wearing a charcoal suit with very white pinstripes, like something gangsters wore in the twenties. His pink tie with the black parallel stripes tilt at a thirty-degree angle. It is a sharp outfit.
“You’re going today too, it appears.” I say.
“This is the day my dark-skinned beaut is there.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you there.”
There is a bit of animosity or annoyance in our conversation. It is hard to figure out why either of us would be edgy. I leave for lunch early and walk to the café run by the bald man with the untraceable accent. I want to beat the lunch crowd so I can pick a table in the corner, out of the line of sight of anyone walking in. When I get there, the place is completely empty and they let me have my spot.
I wish the place had some music playing in the background, like elevator music, something I could hum along to. I order a coffee and pretend that I am waiting for someone to join me. A lot of time passes and no one walks in. The bald owner keeps sending looks my way. He shrugs his shoulders and talks to his employees. I am loitering in his store and it annoys him. Either that or he realizes that I know about the secret entrance.
A room directly behind the counter has a No Admittance sign on the door. None of the deli employees go in. The bald owner never goes in.
Eventually people start coming in. At first it is people who are eating, trying to beat the lunch crowd just like me. They go right to the line and order their sandwiches. But then a woman walks in alone, carrying a garment bag. She is blonde and attractive. She dodges the line and pushes a key into the No Admittance door and walks in.
After that, every few minutes another woman comes in and heads straight for the secret door. Some have garment bags. Some have shopping bags. Some have gym bags. They all walk by the line, attracting the attention of the men who stand waiting, and then they disappear into the door.
I am on my fifth cup of coffee so I feel very jittery when I see Cindy walk in. I almost do not recognize her. She is wearing sunglasses and a scarf over her hair. She has no bag except her red purse. My insides start doing back flips. And that feeling, mixed with the unusual amount of caffeine I’ve had, makes me feel sick.
I wait for Cindy to walk into the secret door, and then I walk quickly to the men’s room and throw up. I decide to go to Previews right away. I pop three mints into my mouth and pay my tab. Everything slows down finally—my heart rate, the thoughts in my head, time itself. I feel normal again. I have not been seen. All I can think about now is my dilemma and the inevitable solution. I am going to have to keep this a secret from Roger. I will never say anything. Even though Cindy has to know it is me she kisses for an hour every Thursday, I will play the game of keeping it all a secret.
When the lights come on in the Kissing Room, I freeze where I stand. Some of the mouths are smiling. Some are pouty. Some lick their lips. All are very attractive and enticing. But Pink Lipstick with Gloss, Fourth Head from the left has changed. I can tell right away it is a different head. Cindy is not in the room anymore. I sit down on the leather sofa and stare dumbly at all of the faces again and again hoping that maybe she’s switched heads or that my brain is deceiving me. Eventually the mouths stop smiling and flirting and instead look impatient or confused. The red digital timer ticks further and further to zero and with around twelve minutes left, I walk out.
Weeks go by and I continue to return to the Kissing Room on Thursdays, hoping that Cindy had been temporarily reassigned to a different room. Eventually I realize she isn’t coming back and I stop going altogether. I sink into a sort of seclusion for a while after that, just going to work and quietly doing my daily tasks. I feel angry and betrayed by my best friend’s wife. I make up excuses to avoid lunch with Roger or dinner at his house. One day I randomly ask a new co-worker, Karen, out on a date. She seems thrilled.
Karen is a boring woman, but she’s nice and not altogether unpleasant to look at. She styles her hair like a much younger woman, almost like a teenager—straight and parted down the middle. I can tell on the first date that she wants to please me, that she really wants me to like her. She laughs at any half-assed attempts I make to be witty. She touches her hair and her face often and smiles whenever I look at her. When I take her back to her place, she invites me up. It is all too easy but it feels nice to be wanted. Lying in bed afterward, I think I could make a go of this. I feel like I have to.
After a few weeks dating Karen, I bring her over to Roger and Cindy’s for dinner. Cindy goes all out on the dinner, making three courses and a dessert. Everything tastes great. She and Roger can’t stay away from each other. It is like they are the ones who just started dating. Cindy looks different too. She has dyed her hair so that it is darker. She wears red, which is something I’ve never seen, and her face is different too. Different makeup, bolder. Different lipstick—now it is a dark red. She hardly looks at me during the entire dinner and makes only small talk. I am like someone that she’s just met.
After dinner, I follow Roger into his playroom under the pretense of listening to some new album he has acquired. “Things have really stepped up for Cindy and me. I’ve got to tell you something.” He leans in close like he’s going to whisper in my ear. “Cindy works at Previews now, in the I-Room.”
“I know, but it’s not bad, because she only works one shift a week and I’m her only client. I’m not into objectifying my wife or anything, but this has saved us. I’m not sure you know how close to being over we were. It’s like we’ve found each other again. There’s something about not having ownership of your spouse, or at least not feeling like you do … whatever. It’s amazing. Plus she looks so much hotter when she walks into the I-Room at Previews. We are like two people who have never made love at all. Every time we go at it, it’s like new, and Cindy will do things that I never thought she would do.”
I’m nodding. I can think of nothing to say. “I know. This is weird. Sorry man. Karen seems nice.”
“She is.” And we leave it at that. I walk out of the room. The ladies are talking pleasantly. We all sit together for a while and catch up. I feel like I’m very quiet and that Cindy is too. Roger and Karen do most of the talking. I offer to help Cindy with the dishes.
In the kitchen, we hardly speak. I rinse the dishes off and hand them to her to put in the dishwasher. The most we say is “Here you go” or “Thank you.” When the dishwasher is loaded and started, we finally look at each other. She gives me a half smile, what appears to be a conciliatory grin. There is absolutely nothing to say. “We should get back out there,” she says as she stops and places her hand on my shoulder. Then, she gives it a squeeze. And she’s gone.
Mark Cravens used to spend his time teaching math to eighth graders. Now he spends his days with his four boys, providing them with bad habits and lots of sugar. You can read more of his fiction in Bird’s Thumb, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, and The Bicycle Review.