This story is not safe for work, children, or jealous lovers.
You could say Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s story has sex but is not erotic. You could say it’s not safe for work but it’s not naughty. You could say a lot of things about this tale of love, intimacy, and then hangups lovers have over each other’s pasts. But what we loved about this fantasy story is that it shows you sex and love as they happen in real life. Awkward. Emotional. Tender. Confused. It feels so real – except for the spirits, naturally.
Don’t miss our nonfiction Story Doctor article by James Patrick Kelly that analyzes this story!
Sleeping with Spirits
by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Nolan had just dozed off when the first spirit arrived. His girlfriend Wendi screamed. “The fuck is it?” he yelled, bolting upright. The covers fell from him. A blue-tinted body floated above the mattress. It was naked. “The fuck is that?”
The spirit looked like every jock in the movies. Broad shoulders, a strip of white across the nose, brown helmet hair. Beefy, not like the ghosts Nolan read about in cheap horror novels, although the spirit’s circumcised penis hung limp. And when this spirit spoke, there was no echo in his voice. All in all, they’d lucked out as far as spooks were concerned. It was difficult to be frightened by a naked man.
“Long time no see, huh, Wendi?” the spirit said.
Nolan looked over at his silent girlfriend. She’d scurried out of the blankets when she’d woken. Now she held her legs to her chest. Her modesty surprised him. He’d known Wendi to strip to her underwear and wade into pools at their friends’ parties.
“Who is this guy?” Nolan asked.
“I should ask the same question. Who’s this bean pole?” The spirit looked Nolan up and down.
“Fuck off,” Wendi said. “What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you since freshman year of high school.”
“Was that a while ago?” The spirit scratched his head. Flakes of transparent blue dandruff fell into the bed. Nolan realized that the spirit hovered right above the wet spot. After making love Nolan had offered to sleep on it, but he’d rolled off and away from Wendi as the urge to sleep dry took over. Now the spirit’s ghostly body seemed to rise from it. Nolan felt a combination of pity and pride.
“Yeah, it was a while ago. Shit, dude, what’s this all about?” Wendi said.
“How long?” the spirit asked.
“Five years ago?”
“How do you guys know each other?” Nolan asked.
“We used to date,” the spirit said.
“Trace was my first. We only slept together twice.”
Right, Nolan thought, his stomach twisting. Now he remembered: Trace. Trace had been popular, a junior when Wendi was a freshman, and Wendi lost it to him in the back of some car. She had wanted, she told Nolan, to lose it fast, without much thought or consequence, and she thought Trace would do it and leave her alone. But he wanted to do it again and again, even when his friends wondered what he was doing with a crazy freshman art girl.
When Wendi told Nolan that story, he knew what Trace’s friends didn’t: that Wendi was something special, the bravest person Nolan had ever met. She made you feel at home around her, like you’d been friends since you were born. You could hear her confidence in her voice. Always lilting upward, as if on the verge of laughter. Except now, with the spirit of Trace between them.
“But you’re alive. I’ve seen you on Facebook.”
“You’re friends with him on Facebook?” Nolan asked.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Wendi pulled her shirt from the floor, slipped it on. She found her undies in the covers and slipped those on too. “High school? What part?”
“You,” Trace said. “I remember you, and me, together. In the back of Mom’s Tahoe.”
“The first time we did it?”
“The second,” he said.
“After the Valentine’s Dance?” Wendi asked.
“In the parking lot outside Green’s Grocer. It was awesome.”
“You didn’t even go down after.”
“Ew,” Trace said. “I don’t do that.”
“Real men do,” Nolan said.
“Okay, string bean. Real men weigh more than their girlfriends.”
Nolan didn’t know how much more he could handle of Wendi’s naked ex. Sure, he’d met some of Wendi’s exes before. Hell, her circle of friends was littered with them. But they were always the ones who had stuck around because they were more than that to her, friends as well as lovers. He hated that this asshole’s hands had been all over his girlfriend.
“Listen, Wendi, I don’t know why you feel like this guy’s better than me. I don’t care what people say. I want you to be my date for prom,” the spirit said.
“Fat chance,” Wendi said. “Prom’s long over. I went stag. Liz and I had the time of our lives, danced all fucking night. You got so wasted before you never even made it inside. Mrs. Kelly found you passed out in the parking lot and called your parents.”
“That wouldn’t have happened if you were around,” Trace said.
Nolan climbed out of bed.
“Where are you going?” Wendi asked.
“Kitchen,” he said. “This guy’s a moron.”
The kitchen tiles were cold under Nolan’s feet. He made two sandwiches, ham and mayo on wheat bread. Cut and arranged them on a plastic plate with two pickle slices. Sat on the worn living room couch. He could hear Wendi and Trace’s back-and-forth from the bedroom. Finally Wendi appeared in the door.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what that’s about.”
“He’s got the ball, he’s going for it. I think he’s gonna make it!” Trace yelled from the other room. “He’s at the ten, the five. Touchdown!”
“He’s reliving his best moments on the field,” Wendi said.
“You hush,” she said. “Like your first was any better.”
Nolan’s first time happened junior year of high school, seven whole years. Back then Nolan told his dad everything, but he never told his dad about the time he’d undressed a woman in his childhood bed. It was a snow day; up north snow days meant more than an inch of snow. (That was the first thing that made him aware that Riddle, Texas was another world—the first time they canceled classes for “snow.”) Nolan’s father had called to let Nolan know he’d be late; he would have to wait to drive home from the office.
Nolan’s high school sweetie’s name was Kate. She was in the book club with him; they bonded over their mutual distaste of the club’s choices. They were fans of robots and aliens and monsters from other worlds.
Kate’s brown skin was spotted with freckles. Nolan had zits on his face and back, and he was wary of taking off his shirt, but Kate eased him into it. He didn’t remember the specifics, but he did remember the way his pants caught on his feet, how he had to hop around on one leg to dislodge them. He was reminded of that moment every time he had sex afterward. He remembered that she tasted like winter, the goosebumps on her arms. The condom, how when he unrolled it the latex caught in his ball hair. He’d expected it to go quickly—he’d been warned—but it just kept on and on, as he was too nervous, too wrapped up in is this happening? Is this happening? Finally Kate pushed him off.
“I’m tired,” she said. “And I have to get home.”
He walked her to the door but no farther and kissed her with too much tongue.
Those were the things he remembered.
At the time he’d thought he loved her. Rarely had he slept with someone he didn’t think he loved. There was that once, twice, that he hooked up drunk, sure. But that first time had been special.
“Listen, we have to get some sleep tonight,” Nolan said when he came back from his assistant job at the library. His boss had caught him sleeping in the bathroom stall and accused him of doing drugs; with his performance review in two weeks, he couldn’t afford to fuck up. “I can’t work on so little sleep.”
The raccoon bags under his eyes made him look dead while Wendi looked like she’d just stepped out of the shower. Her dark hair hung in strings down her back. She held an open bottle of IPA. She took a swig then held it out to him. “Do you want this? It sucks.”
“It’s the hops,” he said, hanging his keys by the door. “You don’t like hops. What I want is some food.”
“We have leftover Chinese.”
He opened the fridge. “No, we don’t.”
“Oh, shit. I ate it for lunch.”
Nolan wanted to be mad at her. The apartment looked a wreck, her dishes in the sink—they had a dishwasher, for God’s sake. Her clothes on the floor in the hall. The TV on even though she wasn’t watching. Giant tubes of colored saran wrap that she used to make her collages scattered across the couch in a transparent rainbow. But she was cute, and the beer gruff in her voice made her sound sexy, and she had, after all, been through a lot these last few weeks. When she’d lost her waitress job at the sushi place, she hadn’t cried in front of him, but he heard her little sighs at night. There were so few businesses in Riddle, it would be a long while before she found another.
“Pizza?” he said. “We can walk and pick it up.”
Wendi dressed and hid her wet hair in a towel. As they walked down the cracked sidewalk, every other shop empty and boasting FOR LEASE, Wendi belted out lyrics to a song she was writing on the spot. She had the voice of a gospel singer. She sang as often as she could, in clubs or the car or the shower. When she painted.
At the pizza shop they bought a six-pack of Shiner. Back home they drank the beer at the three-legged coffee table they’d bought in a garage sale and then fell at each other and into bed. They woke atop a wet spot with a spirit above their skin; he was so close Nolan could feel the chill along his arms.
“Dude…” This spirit had long, thick black hair all mussed up and a gauged ear. He too was naked. “I never thought you’d do me like this.”
Wendi pulled her cheek from Nolan’s chest. The sweat had stuck them together, and when she got up it sounded like she was peeling the skin from an orange.
“I’ll be in the kitchen when you need me,” Nolan said.
There were two after that, more names Nolan didn’t care to remember. He was feeling overwhelmed; his job at the library was a coveted position in a small town like Riddle, and his boss wasn’t impressed by his underslept performance. His goal had always been to one day take the place of head librarian, which wouldn’t happen without that good review. The worst part was that wasn’t the main thing bothering him, although he felt like it should have been. The thing bothering him was this: he didn’t know how many people Wendi had slept with, and now he was afraid to ask. Truth was, he cared for Wendi as if she were part of him. But there had always been this quality he couldn’t touch, this restlessness he’d always felt wedged between them. He wondered if this was part of it, these exes. Maybe she felt like he could be one of them in years to come.
The next one, Wendi informed him, should be Mike, if they kept going in the order in which they had entered her life the first time around. Mike was one of the friends who’d hung around. They’d known each other since high school, but it wasn’t until one drunken college night that they’d been confused and drunk enough to act on the inconsistencies in their relationship.
Nolan liked Mike. He had a funny way about him, like he might not be all the way there but could be brilliant. He was a painter, like Wendi, who saw the world in abstracts.
“I have an idea,” Wendi said. “Let’s get Mike over here for this one.”
They called him up, and he came with a flask full of whiskey. If there was one thing Mike was it was drunk. They downed whiskey and sodas, and when the time came they set him up with a Flintstones blanket on the couch and fell into bed, into their routine. It was like second nature by now. Wendi’s hand over his jeans, her fingers on his lips. The buzz of his skin when she kissed the hair below his bellybutton. Wendi was usually sexually voracious, but this every-night sex was different. Nolan thought maybe she was trying to get it over with, this spirit thing.
A younger Mike materialized out of the wet spot. His eyes were bloodshot.
“I don’t know about this. Who’s this guy? I don’t know. Is he chill? I want someone who can give and take. I mean, where’d you find him? Did he come from the moon?” Spirit Mike laughed the wild laugh Nolan knew from the flesh-and-blood version. “I’ll try it. Shit, just let’s get naked already!”
“You’re already naked,” flesh-and-blood Mike, present-day Mike, said as he trudged into the room, his blanket wrapped around him, the top of the liquor bottle peeking out from underneath.
“Holy shit, I think I’m tripping balls,” spirit Mike said.
Mike smiled. “This is that night we did those three hits of acid. I remember that.”
“Me too. We were pretty far gone,” Wendi said, her voice soft. She and Nolan had dressed and sat close on one side of the bed. They looked from one Mike to the other.
“You look so young,” Nolan said. “What the hell happened?”
“I don’t think I want to have sex with myself, Wendi,” said spirit Mike.
“You don’t have to. Nobody’s having sex with anybody.”
“What the fuck is going on?” spirit Mike said.
“Hey,” Mike said. “I’m future you.”
“Future me? Crazy. What happens to me in the future? Do I fuck this guy?” spirit Mike motioned to Nolan. “Cause he’s been giving me the eye, man. I think I’m interested.”
“Nah,” Mike said. “Not Nolan. He’s Wendi’s guy. The first guy you fuck isn’t worth it. He’s a real squirrely dude, no offense, Nolan. I’d save it for the third guy, Ryan. He’s all bulk and brains, and he knows what’s up.”
“Ryan? Okay, I will.”
“You won’t. You’re gonna be really curious when the first one comes around. But listen, you got to lay off the acid. You’re gonna have a bad trip, man, and it’s gonna scare the fuck out of you. You won’t paint for a year.”
“Bad trip? Yeah right. Sure. Can anybody tell me what’s going on here?”
“I don’t fucking know,” Wendi said. “Far as I can tell, post-coital versions of all the people I’ve had sex with are popping up after Nolan and I do it. To fuck with me, or maybe there’s some kind of lesson I’m supposed to learn, or maybe they’re just gonna run through the whole lot until it’s Nolan pops up every time we do it. That’ll be a trip, won’t it, babe? Maybe we can have a threesome.”
Nolan had never seen her quite like this, her face all red. She wiped her hand across her forehead where a couple of sweat beads had formed. Her hands were shaking so slightly that Nolan seemed to be the only one who noticed.
“It’s okay.” He pulled her to his chest. “We can figure this out.”
“I didn’t mean anything by this, Wendi. Hell, I just always thought you were hot, and we were both into it and stuff. I can leave now,” spirit Mike said.
“Can you?” Wendi and Nolan said together.
Spirit Mike shrugged. He closed his eyes and scrunched up his face. When he opened his eyes, both Mikes sighed and shook their heads.
“Sorry. I don’t think I can,” spirit Mike said.
“If you two want my place on the couch, I’ll stay in here with myself,” Mike said. “I’d love to pick my own brain. See if I can talk some sense into it.”
Wendi and Nolan curled into the couch. They were lulled to sleep by the lullaby of Mike’s doubled laughter in the next room, an echo each time.
The next night conjured up an unknown lover from the bar where Wendi spent the bulk of her time in college. The night after that, a woman Wendi had met in her psychology of sexuality class. After that, another friend Nolan had met. Her name was Cathryn. She’d always been elusive in their company. Nolan could never quite say he knew her, but there, hovering above the wet spot, her body bared for him to see, her shaggy sex hair, he felt like he was gaining a glimpse of who she really was.
They had a nice chat, the three of them. And when Wendi fell asleep, Nolan and Cathryn stayed up, immersed in a discussion of the merit of remaking Planet of the Apes. Cathryn, as it turned out, had read the book in the original French.
“I didn’t know you liked it,” Nolan said. “We could’ve been talking about this all along.”
“So we’ve met before?”
“Yeah, we’ve met. We hang out together sometimes, less frequently these days. I guess Wendi and I have kinda been wrapped up in ourselves.”
“I’m sure I understand.”
They lay there for a silent moment, Wendi’s snores drifting over from her open mouth. Drool pooled on her pillow.
“Look at her. The face only everyone could love,” said Cathryn. “Wish I would’ve known this was the last time.” She moved her hands down her body. In her faint smile Nolan could see something he’d never before considered: at one time, Cathryn must have cared for Wendi. Maybe she still did. At one point, Nolan thought, maybe everyone who meets Wendi cares for her.
“Look, Cathryn, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure thing,” she said. She was already beginning, along with the wet spot, to fade.
“How many people has Wendi slept with?”
“That’s something you have to ask her. And I think, before you do, you should figure out if it’s really important that you know.”
He scratched his head. He didn’t want her to go. “Thanks for taking such good care of her.”
“Of Wendi? She doesn’t need anyone to take care of her. She took care of me.”
Cathryn didn’t say more; her body was evaporating, and Nolan wasn’t sure she would have been able to keep speaking even if she wanted to. Nolan thought what she had said made a nice end point. He let that be the thing between them, the bond only he would remember in the light.
When Nolan returned home from another rough work day, Wendi was lounging on the couch. Pink Floyd played over the stereo, “Wish You Were Here.” He hoped the song wasn’t relevant in regards to one of the spirits.
He pushed the empty cellophane tubes onto the floor and sank into the cushions beside her. He’d taken to trying to sleep on the couch each night, to ward off temptation, and the couch was imprinted with the shape of his body twisted in a fevered half-sleep. But every night without meaning to, he rose and stumbled back to their bed, where Wendi’s sleepy fingers massaged his scalp until it grew sore and he had to kiss her.
In his throat the words stuck like peanut butter. When he spoke they were garbled and in a voice that wasn’t his own.
“How many before me?” he asked. He hadn’t known he would ask it when the day began, but if he could see an ending in sight, he felt as if he would be able to keep himself from losing his sanity. Already, whenever he was home, he felt as if he might lose consciousness at any moment. He saw lines in his vision, symptoms of sleeplessness, of stress. After he ate dinner, he always felt a flutter in his chest, but he was too young for heart attacks. And Wendi, she’d grown quieter.
She hadn’t replied. Her fingers twitched as she stared off at one of her collages, a boat in a rocking cellophane ocean, overstuffed with people, so many that some of them had toppled into the water and were flailing limbs in an attempt to swim. She’d told him once they didn’t know how. It was an old painting, one she’d done before him.
“Four more,” she said, and he realized she’d been counting. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“No,” he said. His stomach knotted. “Of course not.”
“You think I’m a failure.” She stomped one of the paper tubes at their feet. “I can’t even afford more fucking cellophane or canvas or brushes and paint or food or even the rent this month, actually.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. My parents say I can go back home if I want.”
“You talked to your parents about moving back?”
“Is that what you want?”
“Is it what you want?”
They were only a foot or so apart on the couch, but Nolan knew he couldn’t reach out and touch her without breaking through air thick as a hundred canvases pressed together. Instead they both stared off at that damn collage, which would never have the same meaning for him again.
“It’s not what I want,” Nolan said, and the air cracked like old paint. He grabbed hold of her stiff shoulder and pulled her to his chest. “Don’t you dare go. I can take care of you for now. If you let me. Everyone needs that sometimes.”
Wendi’s body loosened. He kissed the top of her head, and she shook in his arms. “Five more,” she said. “Can you handle it?”
“They better not be better looking than me,” he said.
The next four passed without too much incident. They were people Nolan had never even met before, never heard of, in fact. It bothered him, made his stomach turn, that there could be people Wendi had slept with who had not even warranted mention, but he reminded himself that it was almost over, that she loved him now, that after him there would be only him.
Then two of them came at once, which surprised him. One wore a black leather collar around his neck with a chain that disappeared into the wet spot. The other’s hands were bound by cuffs that clinked as he struggled to elbow the other from the limelight. It looked as though, if they were to cut their mattress, they would find the chain’s end on the other side, a ghost Wendi in leather lingerie clutching it in her fist. She asked them to shut the fuck up so she could get some sleep. They listened. It was as easy as that, though Nolan could tell by their faces that they expected to be rewarded for their silence.
“It was a phase,” she admitted over early morning sandwiches. “It’s nice, though, having two men fight over you in bed.”
“I’ll bet it is,” Nolan said. At first, Nolan’s body ached with jealousy, but once he forced himself to breathe, he felt a warmth creep into his cheeks. He was glad she had experienced that. She deserved to have two men doting, attending to her every need. Although he was glad that she no longer felt she needed that, it made her seem softer somehow, that she should have felt she needed that once, before him, and that he might have filled a hole she once wanted two men to fill.
The night that Nolan was due to arrive in all his ghostly glory, Nolan got cold feet.
“It’s just you,” she said. “I promise. What’s the matter?”
“What if I’m bad?”
“What if I look bad, weird?” Nolan turned away from her. His stomach grumbled. “Want a sandwich? I’ll make us some sandwiches.” He sat up.
Pushing on his chest, Wendi sent him toppling back into the sheets. “Hush,” she said, lifting the shirt off his head. “Everything’s going to be okay. We’re at the end now.” She unbuttoned his pants, pulled his underwear over his penis, which sprung out like a jack-in-a-box. She began with her lips, and when they were through they watched as Nolan, two years younger, materialized. His naked body was indeed thin and pale, but only in that ghostly way they all had been. Compared to the spirit, the real Nolan seemed tan and bulky.
“I look weird,” Nolan said.
“Scared shitless,” Wendi said. “I intimidated you.”
“Still do.” Nolan stood from bed and circled the spirit Nolan, whose eyes had yet to adjust to the new light. He squinted down at them, curled into his own naked body.
“Another stress dream,” spirit Nolan said, sighing. “What are you going to do to me now?”
“We’re not going to do anything to you.” Wendi smiled, reached out her hand to touch the spirit, but it went right through the mist. “We’ve got ghosts, right, and we’re at the end here. You’re the last of them.”
“I didn’t think about this before,” Nolan said, “but how am I here, in spirit form? I thought these spirits manifested as they were the last time you had sex with them. This is very clearly one of the first.”
“The third,” spirit Nolan said. “I’ve slept with her three times, not counting these dreams.”
“It’s not a dream,” Wendi said. “I remember that time. It was the last time you ever acted like this around me. After the third time, we had that fight, I cried on your shoulder. You were you after that.”
Nolan remembered too the hot warmth of Wendi, her red face, that first rare time he had seen inside of her. Spirit Nolan glanced her way, then looked back to Nolan. “She makes me so nervous,” he said.
“I can hear you,” she said.
“But you’re not real,” spirit Nolan said. “So it doesn’t really matter.”
“I think this might work better without me.” Wendi slipped on her big blue robe.
“I’m not a dream,” Nolan said. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked up through himself into the ceiling above, where the ceiling fan spun cool air down onto his bare body. “I’m you in a few years.”
“Fine. Say I accept that. We’re still with Wendi?”
“We’re still with her,” Nolan said. “There was never any other way.”
“Does she love us?”
Nolan said nothing. He didn’t have to.
“Is she worth it?” spirit Nolan asked.
At first he didn’t speak, didn’t want to cheapen the answer. But spirit Nolan looked so eager, so curious, and he felt that if he didn’t say something, he would never really know if he meant what he’d been thinking. “Yes,” Nolan said. “She is.”
The next day Nolan came home from work with a plastic bag from the pharmacy. At work his boss had mentioned that he seemed much better, even complimented him on his smile. When Wendi saw the bag, she twisted her lips into a skeptical scowl.
“I don’t want to keep meeting myself,” he said. “I don’t want to take the chance. I just want to have sex with you, and have that be the end of it.”
“Those pills don’t work,” she said. “They’re just a scam.”
“I didn’t get pills.” From the bag he pulled a bright purple hairdryer. Wendi laughed and made a lewd gesture with her hips. They ran into the bedroom, the hairdryer trailing behind them. They did it with the hairdryer between them, waiting, already plugged in. They turned it on and held the heat on each other’s bellies. They laughed until it burned. They let the noise cover their words, not the words Nolan had always imagined sex would be full of, but different words, better words because they were true—ow, wait, oh, don’t you dare come I’m not ready yet. He felt like because they could talk, because they could be so informal with one another in such raw moments as these, they must be close, even if there were parts of Wendi she could never show him, parts of her he could only guess at, they had more than parts. The spirits, maybe they came back because they felt that, because they wanted to remind her of the pieces she had traded in. Maybe they were jealous, too.
Once they had fallen apart and their breath steadied, their bodies back to room temperature, down from the heat that lit them up like Christmas, they pointed the hairdryer at the wet spot and switched it on. They saw a faint spiritly outline trying to force its way up and out, but they kept the hairdryer on until the spot vanished.
This, they knew, would be something they did now, like rolling on the condom, like how Nolan would begin each night with his tongue—he was a gentleman after all—and they would find a way to make it work for them. In some ways they already had.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.