I’m not a young woman anymore. At thirty-four, I can still manage a night out drinking, but I pay for it with two days of sloshy headaches, low energy, and a depth of shame. Dropping my phone in the toilet. Losing money. Slipping and falling in front of a crowd. Those all used to be laughable offenses, but now I’m supposed to be more dignified. The exuberance of youth looks desperate on me.
There’s one day a year in the small Bulgarian town where I live, when none of that matters: Carnival. If you ask twenty different people what Carnival is about, you’ll get twenty different answers.
A child: It’s about cotton candy.
An old woman: It’s about the parade and the food.
A teen: It’s about the light show in the center of town. Oh, and the fire spinning.
A young adult: It’s about dressing up and drinking.
All of these answers are true. But my favorite answer, given by a friend dressed like a mad criminal recently escaped from jail, is that Carnival is about being someone other than yourself for a day. Being someone else sounded delightful, so I played along, getting myself ready in thirty second spurts between velcroing my four-year-old into his Spiderman costume and trying to trick the toddler into thinking her gingerbread hat was cute.
It’s hard as a mother of two to step into high heels. Forget that wrangling the kids becomes an olympic sport. The arches of my feet fell during my pregnancies, and even walking around in the slightest of heel is a hell I couldn’t imagine when my feet were fresh and my ankles strong. But I did it. I wiggled into a dress two sizes too small, dusted my face with silver glitter, and split open a buckle-adorned skirt meant for hips that haven’t spread with childbirth. And just who was I pretending to be? A sparkling goth princess? No, the glitter, heels, and mini-skirt echoed something more poignant: My twenty-two year old self.
Of course, twenty-two year old me didn’t have to run after two rambunctious kids at Carnival. She didn’t have to prompt her son to get up on stage during the kids’ parade or stop to pop her swollen breast from her straining dress to comfort the toddler. But despite the differences, the mask of me was comfortable and familiar. I played along, adoring my husband with the shining eyes of youthful romance and relaxing the rules for the kids. The main street was closed to traffic, and dozens of kids ran freely from booth to booth. The American fears of child abduction only skitted briefly across my brain once. It was like running to home base and yelling, “Safe,” and, for once, believing we were. For one day, worries were gone, and I was someone else.
I let my husband buy me a bracelet that was out of our budget, because twenty-two year old me didn’t have a budget or worry about money. All she cared about was the shining crystal, harvested locally, clasped into the leather strap that matched the all-black outfit perfectly. Although my husband had never known me when I was twenty-two, he drank heartily from my giddy enthusiasm. He’s the type of man who enjoys, more than anything, seeing me happy, and I could tell he was managing the day to keep me in that blissful state.
After the kids’ parade we tucked the kids away, one in the stroller and the other in a carrier, and my husband retrieved my sandals from the car for me. Shedding the heels felt like a betrayal, but my husband didn’t care that my weight shifted back to its thirty-four year old position, lower, sagging, not quite so perky. He continued stealing kisses at every pause in our journey up a back street to a small restaurant. There, we met up with friends who were also twenty-two years old once upon a time and were now settled with kids.
At the table, there was an older man, the type of which I probably couldn’t have resisted when I was twenty-two. He was comfortable in his skin, liberal with his smile, and warm with his words. Something about his thin frame, black leather jacket, and graying ponytail caught my eye. Our gazes locked and held. He dipped his head to me, and a flare burst through my chest. It was a rusty flare that hadn’t flown in awhile, but if I wasn’t mistaken, it was the flare of attraction.
After lunch I was three glasses of iced white wine deep and on the edge of swooning over this stranger. But of course, I had a husband and kids. I couldn’t very well let myself fall into the ease of a flirtatious one-time adventure with a man I knew nothing about. Or could I? My husband and I had talked about having an open relationship before. Laying in bed, discussing theory, it had sounded like a good idea to both of us. But in real life, faced with the possibility of it, I was timid.
We walked to the parade site as a group, the stranger offering to push my daughter’s stroller as we chatted about his older daughter and his recent girlfriend’s children. Despite our language barrier, the conversation was easy. If I made mistakes, which I suppose I did, he forgave them, listening for my meaning, eager to keep the conversation going.
During the parade there was more wine and laughter while I snuggled up to my husband. Both kids fell asleep, and I took the opportunity to wrap my arm around my husband’s waist, kiss his cheek, and rub my forehead into the slope of his neck. The entire time, I remained vaguely aware of this stranger’s eyes glancing over at us occasionally. My sexual energy, stunted from constant childcare, began to flow, spilling between the comfort of my husband and the possibility of this stranger. The lubrication of cheap wine helped it come faster and harder.
As the parade ended, my friends suggested heading back to the restaurant, and my husband decided to take our cranky, tired children home.
“You go with them,” he offered. “Have fun.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, guilt at leaving him with both kids while I partied the night away rising up, threatening the pleasant buzzing sensation in my brain.
“Yeah, just help me get them in the car. I can’t drink anyway, and it’s not going to be fun to have the kids at the restaurant. You go. Enjoy.”
Walking back to the car, just our own little family, I whispered to my husband, “Can I kiss someone?”
It’s a question twenty-two year old me would not have had to ask and probably wouldn’t have had the courage to ask if the situation arose. But my thirty-four year old self, even sloppy drunk, still loved and respected my husband enough to ask his permission. Because what’s the fun in a casual encounter if it’s tainted with guilt?
He said I could, and asked who I was thinking of.
I couldn’t believe he hadn’t felt the tension I had been basking in for the past three hours. His lack of awareness made me question whether it was all in my head. But I told him about the glances with the strangers and said, “You know, I’m not sure anything will happen, but just in case… you know?”
He wished me luck, and gave me forty leva for my bar tab that I tucked between my breasts. In that moment of freedom, my twenty-two year old self surfaced fully.
The first thing I did as my twenty-two year old self was accidentally drop my phone in the toilet. Luckily, I was just drunk enough to thrust my hand into the water and fish it out before it stopped working. Returning to the table, I brazenly sat next to this stranger, his teasing, “I don’t bite,” drawing me closer to him.
I ordered another pitcher of wine and two sausages, simply because I knew he liked the way I said sausage in Bulgarian from our encounter at lunch. My thirty-four year old self stepped in and ordered a club soda as well, to help quell the rising swell of tipsy. Then, just like I used to, my twenty-two year old self ignored the conversations buzzing around the table and focused on the man whose jeans pressed lightly against my bare thigh.
As the night drew on, our glances became gazes until I was giggling at the slightest twitch of his lips, the attraction having blossomed into something almost tangible between us. When the thickness grew too heavy, we cut it with light touches that sent sparks through my body. Something new, something taboo, someone fresh… it made my heart pump faster to collect the electricity from the teasing touches.
He leaned in close and whispered, “It’s too bad you’re married.”
The married woman in me gleefully explained that my husband and I had an understanding, that I had the right to kiss him, to play with him. I mentioned, clearly and responsibly, that there were borders we could not cross. I told him I wanted to play. With those admissions, brazenly adult, the twenty-two year old in me dissipated. Why let her have all the fun? She had it years ago. It was my turn.
We left the restaurant and found a dark corner where our hands ran freely over each other’s bodies. His stubble scratched my cheek, making the softness of his tongue all the more enticing. We danced up to the borders, moaned with delightful frustration when we couldn’t go past them.
He walked me home, stopping several times to kiss me along the way. I ran my hand up under his shirt, my fingertips brushing the smooth skin of his back, and sat on my meaty bubble of desire with glee. Not childish glee, though, full-grown, adult amusement at the tension we had created.
At home, my husband asked how my night had been. I told him about the encounter as I slipped off the goth-skirt and too-tight dress, realizing the money he had given me earlier had slipped out somewhere along the way. Free from my constraints, my no-longer nubile body that could still feel pleasure and passion, relaxed against my husband.
We made love, if you can call the grunting, hair-pulling, hard-kissing and hunger making love. I can, because beneath the rough, rawness there is always love with him. The familiarity and ease of being with him combined with the adrenaline rush of my previous encounter made the touches more powerful. The orgasms were the same ones I always had and yet somehow more thrilling.
I waited for my new friend to call. One day, two days. On the third day I stopped waiting and buried myself in the comfort of my family. My twenty-two year old self would have continued obsessing over the man, wondering why he hadn’t called. My thirty-four year old self could shrug and realize a single moment can be just that and doesn’t always have to be explored fully to be exquisite.