FICTION: Average Temperature by Emily Madapusi Pera

She stepped out of the shower with her hair tangled and her legs dripping with water that was the exact temperature of urine. The water-drip felt like pee rivulets down the side of her leg; maybe she was peeing, a little. Ever since she turned thirty, her bodily functions seemed less and less under her control. She idly wondered how this temperature – of her body, roughly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, that is – compared to the temperature of the universe. Immediately she realized this was an asinine question. You’d have to think about the average temperature, of course, for there were varying levels of heat and cold all around. There were billions of suns to consider; black holes and dying stars; and in between, vast yawns of nothingness. She attempted to reconcile the variables. Surely the universe, on average, was well below the freezing point of water. And wouldn’t that temperature be falling, if the universe was expanding? Had they taught that in school; or had the finding been rebutted? She frowned at her lack of certainty.

She rubbed her calves and then the sides of her temples. They both ached. Everything ached. From the drinking. And the yoga class this morning, meant to counteract the drinking. She was kidding herself, she saw now. Nothing counteracted the drinking – the resultant puffiness and the nausea; the deep black troughs under her eyes. Though, she didn’t drink all that much, she told herself; most of her friends drank far more than she did. Even so. She was getting too old for this.

She started to get dressed, but gave up and went to her side of the bed to lie down. 10:15 in the morning. She hoped it was technically late enough for a nap, though who did the judging of such things, anyway. Her husband was gone from the house, she reminded herself; she needn’t justify herself to anyone. She worked from home, with no one to observe her habits or lack thereof, except for the electronics – the Nest camera, which she prayed was switched off, and the Google thingamajigs, sprouting in corners like metallic fungi. Over her general protests, her husband had installed one in nearly every room of the house, including the bedroom and both bathrooms. What, then, was the purpose? The Google-fungi were there to listen to every utterance. To parse. To respond, when called upon – always to answer the inanest of questions. Who won the first Super Bowl. What the tweeter-in-chief had said most recently. The weather report, ten times a day. Or…

“Okay Google,” she began tentatively, “what’s the average temperature of the universe?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“The average temperature? Of the universe?”

“The average high temperature in the month of May in Massachusetts…”

“Stop. Pause. For the universe, what is the average temperature?”

“The average high temperature in the month of May in Massachusetts, located in the United States of America, is 66.1 degrees Fahrenheit. The average low temperature…”

“Pause.”

This command, at least, it knew.

She had a theory that the programmers of these machines had designed them to be better at deciphering the average male’s pitch and cadence of speech, rather than the average female’s. Repeating herself to make her query understood, she felt like she was talking to her husband. She reached instead for the battery-powered rubber device under the bed. This one was much better suited to comply, and the best part was that she didn’t have to say a word.

Floating her damp hair on the pillow, she readjusted her panties and loosened her bra. She warmed the plastic between her fingers. No matter what, she had to think about her ex – that is, a particular ex. This was a critical part of the routine and had been for years. She reflected on this truth. Once, she wouldn’t have been able to say it out loud – she wouldn’t have been able to admit to herself that she had a masturbating routine, and that such routine involved frequent invoking of an ex – not inside her own head or anywhere. She closed her eyes and stared hard into the dark space. The truth was, she couldn’t get off unless she thought about those strange times in high school, those afternoons on the camper cot. The afternoons with Adrian.

How long had it been? Twenty years, maybe more. The Google-fungi would have had a more precise answer. But it dealt only in the hard, cold facts of existence. Only she could conjure up the scents and touches of that era.

Adrian was two years older than she was. As a sixteen-year-old, she had imagined him to be much more experienced. He slept on a fold-up cot, though the room was plenty big enough for a bed. The flannel sheets were dirty and warm, like underwear.

She would let herself in through the back door, the wing of the house with no doorbell and no adults around. No one to ask how she was, or to glance up from the TV when she entered and exited. She’d pass through the mud room and make an immediate right, into his domain. The first few times she was there, she’d check her reflection in the hallway mirror, to straighten a stray hair or two. But she soon dispensed with the ritual. He ushered her into his bedroom with a Cheshire cat grin and a hard-on, and didn’t notice her hair, not when it was so quickly tucked behind her head on the pillow.

Opening his door, entering the room, and lying down on the cot took about twenty seconds; her anticipation would already be heightened, almost to the breaking point.

He would take off her skirt without any further preliminaries, start stroking her belly, and then move further down. Sometimes, she’d be able to come just from her belly being stroked, while groaning against the friction of the pantyliner in her underwear.

It was inaccurate to call him an ex from this timeframe of their relationship – in the months of the cot, they weren’t dating. They were involved with one others’ flesh. Actual dates, with actual conversations, came later – dates that turned him into a boyfriend, leading to expectations and subsequent emotional turmoil. The camper cot days preceded any relational labeling. She didn’t know or care what she was after with him, other than looking forward to him pulling off her skirt, stroking her belly, peeling down her underwear, and at last diving his face in.

He was unusual at eighteen. Most boys wouldn’t. Taboos had set in at the same time as adolescence. She wondered why that was – how taboos against cunnilingus were transmitted from one generation to the next – and filed the thought away for future anthropological study.

She sighed into rubber and tried to let the external world float away.

Closing her eyes, she ran her pinkie across her belly. Then, concentrating on her right breast, she caressed beneath the bra. Right breast, left breast, then a plunge with the vibrating rubber, along the lace pantyline.

She knew what she’d ask of him, in the present tense. And he would do it. She knew. He’d do it.

All she had to do was to ask.

Ask him to meet her halfway. Say, in New York City.

Ask him to meet her at a restaurant. An understated one, but known to people in the know. Maybe a little farm-to-table Mediterranean place – not Italian, though that was her usual preference, exactly because it was too typical for her, and she’d be seeking anything but the typical. She’d show up ten minutes before the reservation time to pick out a bottle of wine and an appetizer. A tartare, say. Something to demonstrate her exquisite taste and the fact that he didn’t know her anymore, couldn’t know what to expect from her, but as for what would ensue later, well. She wanted to signal: all that followed would be utterly delightful.

Ahead of time, she would have made a few statements, provided a few details, so he’d know that dinner was to come first, with the later part implied but not guaranteed. Over their entrees, she’d take the temperature of their meeting. If all was going well, she’d slip him a note. Written ahead of time and carefully stowed in her purse, it would say:

Follow me after we leave the restaurant. There’s a place up the street where I have a room. When we get inside, turn off the lights and pour me a whiskey from the minibar. Whiskey straight up.

She imagined how his face would look as he took the folded paper from her – perhaps a mild panic at first, which he would try to mask with stoicism. But after reading it, she could imagine the look of sheer lust emanating behind the Cheshire cat smile.

Yes, he would accept, she thought. If she wrote to him. She started stroking more quickly.

He was probably married, as she was. But that wouldn’t matter, she assured herself. It wouldn’t count as cheating. Because, at a formative time in their lives, they had known each other’s bodies. He had seen her dreadful bras, the ones designed with too much fabric and which bunched around her armpits. She had seen him squatting in front of her, his scrotum dangling down as he reached for a Nintendo controller.

During the official time they dated, they would regularly buy cheap vodka at highway rest stops and down shots in her single dorm room. When they had had anal sex, she hadn’t even noticed, she was so drunk. Only because of the soreness later had she suspected what happened. It wasn’t clear that he had intended to go there, either. The day after, they got soft-shell tacos and didn’t talk, because they both had splitting hangover headaches. Then, when they did talk, words turned into an elaborate tango of mishearings and unmeant insults.

That wasn’t the time to break them up, though it still simmered in her memory.

In the year – no, eleven months – that they dated, she was in college and he had dropped out and returned home, to the camper cot. He was trying to figure out what to do with his life, though he wouldn’t talk about that with her. Not until after he enlisted.

They didn’t fight about the big things, she remembered. Not about their future, with him going into the military and likely to be deployed to Iraq. No, their blood curdled from the quotidian, the passive-aggressive bullshit that filled time between sex.

She tried to push these thoughts away and reached for the Vaseline. Concentrate on the unexpected reunion, she told herself. Concentrate on the whiskey straight up, the silk sheets of the nice (but not too nice) hotel that she would have researched and booked ahead of time.

They had suffered enough. Now they could skip to the good stuff, she thought. The better things in life. Nice restaurants on nice blocks in New York. Hotels with silk sheets. Chilled whiskey glasses in minibars. Room service.

She was sure he would accept. Inside the restaurant she’d pick a perch with a view of the door, to see him before he saw her. He’d scan the dining room anxiously – had she shown up? was he in the right place? – and when he spotted her face, illuminated by soft candlelight, she’d see him relax. She thought about how pleased he’d look, to find that she’d aged so gracefully. He’d reach across the table from her, unsure if he should hold her hand or not, then finally resting his lightly on top of hers. She’d thrill to his warmth and his uncertainty – was this a meeting of old friends, or did she mean what she’d implied in her letter? Then she’d stroke his pinkie, ever so gradually making her way to explore the other fingers. In this image, she peaked with the battery-powered rubber held firmly between her legs.

She sighed and stretched, pointing her toes under the duvet.

For the rest of the day, her vagina bore a distinct aroma of plastic wrap. She checked several times and the smell still had not gone away. When she reached down, her nose getting close, it felt damp and warmer than 98.6 degrees. But, after she hunted down the thermometer, she was reassured that everything was normal. The puffiness under her eyes diminished, her calves felt better, and she got some writing done.

In the late afternoon, she was inspired to cook dinner for herself and her husband, rather than ordering out. Sweet potato gnocchi with roast chicken, she thought. Easy and classy; one of her husband’s favorites. Plus, she already had gnocchi in the freezer.

While cooking, she asked the Google-fungi to play a podcast. After a moment’s contemplation and whirring, it obeyed. The room filled with the sound of Terry Gross’s voice and the smell of sizzling onions and garlic.

Waiting for the water to boil meant an interlude of a few minutes; she pulled out her phone. She typed in the search bar, “How cold is the universe?” and learned its average temperature was approximately 2.73 kelvins, or negative 454.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Indeed, significantly under the freezing point of water, she thought.

She was well pleased with her deduction from before, and anticipated opening a nice bottle of wine with dinner. In fact, she decided to open it right then and there, having a glass while she finished cooking. She looked forward to quizzing her husband on the trivia point. They’d laugh together and maybe test the Google-fungi with more random questions, then watch television. An average Wednesday night, in the warmth of her own home.

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Emily Madapusi Pera

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Emily Madapusi Pera is a writer based in Providence, RI. Previous credits include Scout & Birdie, Back to Print, and Tuck Magazine. She would like to thank her husband for being her first reader, and for de-installing the Google-fungi in her writing room.

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