My main options were to have sex with my students or to have sex with my former students. I've always viewed my students in a sisterly way, and despite the relatively relaxed mood about that sort of thing in Missouri, I knew it'd be poor form to pursue relations with undergraduates.
The women on OkCupid and Tinder in Missouri tend to have a more advanced knowledge of firearms, camouflage, and child-rearing than I'm comfortable with, so those apps offered little help during my off-hours.
Most nights I just stared out my window at the bean field.
The field got great reception. There were plenty of people I missed back in Seattle, and my phone gave me nearly immediate access to them. I'm not going to argue that sexting is a new kind of poetry, but I will say the form challenges a writer to offer the reader maximum sensation using the minimum number of words. I thought I might like it, and I worked almost nightly to get better at it.
Perhaps you already suspect that a man attracted to the writerly aspect of sexting is not a man who "gets it." You'd be right.
For example, I could not for the life of me figure out a way to take an attractive dick pic. How? How can it be done? I still don't know. The "full naked body in mirror" shot seemed medical, anatomical, presented as if for diagnostic inspection. But "cock from below" rendered my dick comically larger than my face. The "from above" angle resulted in a small-looking penis. "Pants pulled down a little bit"? Get out of my life, Justin Bieber. Get out of my god damned life.
On top of all that, the women with whom I was sexting seemed born with the gift of telephonic sexual presentation. They used all kinds of angles. Different sorts of underwear. Themes. All of it looked good. Compared to their mastery, I was a tenderfoot point-and-clicker trembling in a badly painted bathroom.
It could just be that I'm a lousy photographer. But I'd like to think that at some point I could photograph myself in such a way that I didn't have to squint and grimace and think "Here goes nothing" before hitting send.
The second and most embarrassing issue: my sexual imagination. Until a year or so ago, and despite my eclectic taste in pornography, I'd been a practitioner of vanilla sex. Not even French vanilla. Plain vanilla. Up against something, on top, on bottom, from behind. The basics.
That don't fly on the phone. In the absence of real touch, a sexual partner needs a kind of linguistic rocky road. But how rocky should I make the road? Being open about one's needs and expectations is the obvious thing to do—but in the moment? As in poetry, sometimes you have to make the unexpected move. Hop to the next level. Tell someone you want to cover their body in green paint and fuck them in a field of flamingos. You can tell how bad I am at this.
All sorts of unforeseen ethical concerns suddenly arose. Whole gardens of faux pas and cordiality bloomed. This must be the case whenever technology and sex intertwine in a new way. When the first emperor saw the first carriage, he must have said, "That'll be nice for getting around on," before turning to his guard and adding, "...and for fucking in." Ditto the automobile. Ditto the internet. Ditto the smartphone.
Which brings me to my subject. In the annals of human conundrums, this one may be a first for us as a people. If I was not the first, certainly I was among the first.
I was driving—as I said—from Seattle to Warrensburg. I was in a Toyota coupe stuffed with all my possessions. Lamps. Ice trays. A futon. Visibility through my rearview mirror was low. Have you ever traveled the Oregon Coast unable to see out your rearview mirror? Twists and turns abound. If you're not careful, you'll wind up in the drink.
My college pal Adam was sitting shotgun. He's Lewis to my Clark—or else we're both Lewises. Buddy that he is, he'd flown all the way from Chicago to help me clean up my apartment and keep me company as I traveled the Reverse Oregon Trail. Adam cannot drive a stick, so I'd enlisted him to work the phones and snacks for the length of the drive.
He provided me with a good stream of chatter, took notes on ideas as I had them, navigated via Google Maps, and handed me scoops of granola as needed.
But then we got The Sext.
There was no doubt what it was.
It was from a woman I knew.
It was a photo of her favorite part of her body, which is also my favorite part of her body.
Her entire backside lit by a window.
I have no idea how she took such a beautiful photo.
And I had no idea what to do.
Of course, she didn't text me the photo, she texted Adam the photo, because Adam was holding my phone and he was the first person to see it.
Silently, he held the phone within my field of vision.
He was embarrassed and a little proud. I was also embarrassed and a little proud.
We allowed a few refrains of power lines and sierra pines to pass by before either of us said anything.
I told him I'd never sexted before. He told me he hadn't either.
Sure, I'd done some cybering in my day, before smartphones were invented, so I knew a few basics. I knew I wouldn't be able to reply with something brief. I knew instinctively I'd have to respond with more than that, respond enthusiastically, respond with an elaborate fantasy. Otherwise I'd risk hurting her feelings or leaving her hanging.
To write "I'm busy" didn't seem like the right response. "Wow, that's totally hot, but I'm driving right now" didn't seem any better.
Meanwhile: Adam and I were hunched over my phone, knocked blind by the beautiful woman simply standing there.
I was anxious to engage, but I was also anxious not to kill us. And let me just say right now that I wasn't about to sit there and fuck with that voice-to-text nonsense.
After a few moments that seemed more like one hundred thousand years, Adam asked if I wanted him to be my sexting huckleberry. We shared an eye and a thought.
She'd already crossed the amorous Rubicon. I was standing beneath the mirror ball. She was extending her hand and asking for this dance. I didn't want to leave her feeling vulnerable, alone in the fat of the day and unfulfilled in her fantasy. And even though Adam looks and talks like a thinner-but-just-as-grizzled version of that guy Philip Seymour Hoffman played in Charlie Wilson's War, I trust him implicitly.
I steeled myself and asked Adam if he wanted to learn how to do this sexting thing. With me. Together.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Are you kidding me? Not only did you start sexting with a woman who didn't know there was another man present, but now you're writing about it? What kind of monster are you?"
We'll get back to that.
So there I was on the Oregon Coast, best friend at my side, my phone in his hand, and we were riffing. We were learning how to sext together.
"Tell her I miss that whole part of her," I said.
"And the whole the parts make up," I added.
"Got it. She says she misses your perfect banana emoji."
"Tell her I miss her mouth wrapped around my banana emoji," I said.
"Your phone doesn't have emoji," he said.
"Just say dick, then."
"How about cock?"
"Let's try it."
"She says she misses your little drops of come on her tongue," he said.
"Tell her I miss shooting in her mouth."
"She says that never actually happened, but she gives you full permission to do anything you want to her in this fantasy," he said.
And so it went. Me tossing things out there, her replying, Adam learning more about me than I ever thought he would through the triangulation of her and me and him.
I wonder what the pioneers on the Oregon Trail would've made of this scene. Probably they would be too consumed with mourning the hundred pounds of flour, the wheel axle, and the son they lost trying to ford the Green River to be concerned.
And so we continued on across the states, past the tin rib cage of the Air Museum, over the cream-colored beach, the stony beach, and the razor grasses, into the bathrooms of all the Chevrons, Shells, and Mavericks, past Burnt Ranch and the banks of Trinity, past the firs that melted into ponderosa, the ponderosa that melted into dwarf pine, through that renunciation of life, the Great Basin, through eagle country with two crows watching, past the throat-slit clay mountains of Colorado and the broken-record prairie of Kansas—our bodies not in the mountains and valleys but in the hot tectonics pushing them up, every crumb of sand and blade of grass raked with her, and me, and him, her reader, interlocutor, platonic Lucky Pierre, my friend and navigator, Adam.
Okay, so that's a nice sweet bromance thing for me and Adam, but what about her?
For months, I felt guilty and ashamed. I would like to promise you I never did this again, but I cannot tell a lie: This same situation happened with another woman on the same road trip. We heard a ding. Adam picked up the phone, saw the ass, and seemed embarrassed, and ultimately we decided to just roll with it.
Now, I'm not such a monster that I would actually write about this in The Stranger without first calling both women and confessing. So I did.
I called them. To confess. To tell them the story and to see whether they felt as if they'd been violated. To ask forgiveness. To ask about their reaction to all this.
I was halfway through explaining myself to the first woman when she said:
"So we had a ghost threesome?!"
"Yeah," I said. "I feel as if I've broken your trust and invaded your privacy."
"I don't really feel violated," she said. "He's a friend of yours, and I don't really know him, so that makes it easier. If you had told me at the time that you wanted to have a sexting threesome, I would have been a little shocked, but in retrospect it's funny. Plus, there have been instances where I've been with a girlfriend and we get a sexy message from a guy and then we conspire about what we want to say to him."
When I asked what she thought of the quandary in general, she said:
"If you're a consenting adult, there's a risk that you take when you send a photo or a sext over the phone. There are all kinds of ways that it can be shared with others, and so it comes along with the territory of engaging. I felt like a consenting person in that. If you were a different kind of person and had different kinds of friends, it would feel more like a violation. We had an intimate relationship before, and so I very willingly sent those things. And you're a writer. I kinda expected that something like this might be used in the future."
It didn't surprise me that she would be more articulate and thoughtful in these matters than I had been. Before we hung up, she gave me a few tips on how to take a good dick pic. It won't surprise you that I couldn't quite understand her instructions. In any case, I told her that I understood, then we shared a laugh and a hope to see each other soon.
Then I called the other woman. I was halfway through telling her about Adam when she said, "I popped both of your sexting cherries! I'm like your sexting Mrs. Robinson."
"Well, there was another woman, too."
"Who came first?" she asked.
"I can't remember," I said. "But do you feel violated? Are you offended at all?"
"I'm not particularly shy," she said. "I would have felt a little bit weird about it at the time, but also, who gives a shit? It's my ass. Some words. I think it's kind of funny. And anyway, I've always wanted to have it with two guys. Maybe my dream just came true, but only through sexting?"
Then she added, "I am kind of curious, though: Should I be sexting your friend instead of you? I mean, what was his and what was yours, Rich?"
And then she assured me: "Next time you send me a sext, though, I'm going to send you a photo of a big dude's ass. A real hairy one. Wait—are you into that?"