“Beneficial and Destructive Outcomes; Joe California and Audrey” by Rachel A.G. Gilman

Rachel meets Joe in a chatroom that she enters when thinking about what it might be like to kill herself; when the small death of orgasm becomes a cold, strange alternative.

Joe is 50, Rachel 24. He isn’t her top choice for a digital, long-term partner, just one of many men she messaged, treating the conversations like preparing pizzas in that video game where the object is to serve as many customers as quickly as possible. He is the first one who asked if they could move to G-Chat, and because Joe hadn’t sent unsolicited nudes or asked how big her tits were or talked about watching her screw other men while screaming about the smallness of their cocks, Rachel agrees, creating an alias account. He goes by Joe California, she by Audrey.

Audrey and Rachel differ minimally. They both work in New York book publishing, but Audrey has a roommate she eats dinner with every night and Rachel lives very alone. They both suffer from high sex drives: Audrey has a lengthy list of partners who have torn her panties whereas the only thing boys have broken of Rachel’s is her heart. Most importantly, though, Audrey can keep red dye intact for more than three weeks whilst Rachel watches the colour swirl down the drain every time she shampoos.

Really, Audrey is aspirational for Rachel.

It takes a few days for Audrey and Joe’s timing to sync up again. They eventually connect late on a Tuesday afternoon. Joe starts off by saying that Audrey is compelling, that he doesn’t give out compliments haphazardly, that it’s fifty degrees and raining outside his San Francisco office where he thinks her warmth would be quite welcome. Then he asks her what she’s wearing.

Rachel describes her workwear pre-pandemic: white, slightly sheer blouses and black jeans paired with glitter eyeliner and overpriced lingerie. It’s a far cry from her current costume of the least fuckable trousers imaginable—jeans with a drawstring waist and a vanity fly to appeal to those who have mostly given up yet aren’t quite ready for the world to know—but it turns Joe on, more so when he discovers they both don Doc Martens.

They’re a relic of my art school days, Rachel as Audrey explains.

Joe replies, I have an incredible weakness for art school girls.

He tells Audrey how sexy he finds everything about her. The dark humour. The delicate ‘u’ she pairs with ‘o’ in places where most Americans would not. The decision to get an MFA and gamble everything on intellectual passion. Most especially he likes her name. Rachel does, too.

Slowly then, sex creeps into their conversation. Joe asks for a description of Audrey’s bra and Rachel provides details of forest green and smouldering blue lace in her as of late untouched underwear drawer. Joe questions where his hands might be if they were together, if sliding two fingers down her neck between her breasts and over her belly on the way to her clit might work, and Rachel has Audrey say yes, adding how she’d simultaneously run her cold toes over his legs.

The messages that follow aren’t written in full sentences but they’re too eager to hit send to care.

They imagine themselves in the kitchen of a large weekend home. Audrey stands at the sink unpacking groceries. Joe surprises her, coming up from behind and sliding his hands into her shirt, slowly undoing the buttons. He smiles while bringing goosebumps to her skin, his palm over her nipple causing the skin to grow hard and tighten. Audrey responds by pressing her ass into the already tented front of his trousers. Joe follows her signals, tracing the lace cups of her bra while taking her multi-pierced earlobe between his lips, the shoulder straps on the garment sliding off as he undoes the clasp and turns Audrey around to kiss harder, more diligently. She lifts herself onto the counter to give him access between her legs. They briefly make eye contact as Joe removes her jeans, discovering a swollen clit and pair of black lace, cum-filled panties. He finishes undressing them both before rubbing Audrey, bringing her quickly to her first orgasm. She grabs his hand to suck off the stickiness as he enters her. They find a rhythm. Muscles start to coil but Audrey slows it down, wanting to taste Joe first. They rearrange their bodies so their mouths can eagerly explore each other, Audrey’s tongue tracing a thumping vein in Joe’s penis while he makes her cum again and again with his mouth. He eventually finds his own release in taking her from behind, a lock of her hair coiled around his hand that he pulls just slightly before finishing deep inside.

Joe asks Audrey if she thinks they work together. Rachel isn’t sure, but she’s curious (read: depressed) enough to continue to see.

Their next conversation is all questions; the kinds of things you might bring up in a post-coital emotional mess when tracing the moles and scars of your partner, the kinds of things that don’t usually arise out of sex talk chatrooms. Joe asks Audrey to describe her bedroom with the posters on the walls and the vintage quilt on the bed; her hands with art on the nails and anxiety-torn cuticles. He wants to know about her reading and writing, wondering if he’ll ever become fodder for a story, and admits to getting an erection learning of all three institutions where she went to university and post-grad. He dreams of them being the same age, of kissing her so passionately under a storefront awning in the rain that he immediately brings her to orgasm.

After five days, Joe is calling her love and imagining them together on a cool, rainy day—a miasma, he writes—where they can converse profound and silly, where he can pretend to read a book whilst actually sneaking glimpses of Audrey in a big, comfy yet unspeakably sexy sweater, where they’ll experience sexual ecstasy beyond anything reasonably imaginable.

Have you ever considered completely upending your life and moving to the San Francisco Bay Area? he asks after saying he misses her when it’s only been two minutes. There would be enough material in that for a novel.

Joe also refers to what’s happening between them as a relationship. ‘A relationship?’ Rachel responds, intoxicated by the intimacy.

I believe you will find something in the dictionary like “an ongoing set of interactions between two or more parties resulting in beneficial or destructive outcomes or various combinations of both,” Joe replies. So yeah, a “relationship.”

They continue over the coming days to create fantasies. Joe thinks of taking Audrey to a hotel in DC and doing her over a glass dining table as a man in an office across the way watches and jerks off, too. Audrey proposes fucking on a bench in Prospect Park so the last boy that hurt Rachel might see them while riding around on his bicycle, perhaps catching a glimpse of fresh hickies on her neck that could’ve, in another life, been his doing. This pretend world is one where Joe has time to read or make soup and where Rachel doesn’t think as much about using her paring knife on anything other than fruits and vegetables.

The actual world, however, has left Rachel touching herself during conference calls at Joe’s littered-with-devil-emojis-typed-out guidance, but in the comedown not actually feeling much of anything at all.

She asks questions of Joe to distract herself from this, about the ten years he claims to have spent as CEO of a multimillion-dollar company before going independent to solve climate change and social injustice, and about the other women he’s done this sort of thing with (the 22-year-old legal fellow that on the third date he hooked up with in a posh, outdoor hot tub; the 30-something artist he had phone sex with for over four years; the new employee at his old office who undid his shirt buttons at a bar then came over to screw while his wife was away for the weekend. Yes, of course, Joe has a wife, and Rachel becomes more fascinated by her than she ever is in him.

She only receives vague details about the woman’s greying blonde hair, Fulbright scholarship, and dulled aspirations of academia, but Rachel imagines Audrey’s stray red hairs on Joe’s jacket for the wife to find, to perhaps become curious about; or of what it would be like for Audrey to suck Joe’s cock while he’s on the phone with the wife, wrapping her lips around his scrotum as he answers questions about fabric for new curtains. She even contemplates what it would be like for them all to drink dry white wine together. His children—a 16-year-old daughter in model UN and a 12-year-old son that plays soccer—linger in Rachel’s brain, too, as does the uncomfortable image Joe conjures when she mentions her own fucked up family: all four of them sitting down for dinner, her allowing a man older than her biological father to run his hand far too high up her leg.

This discomfort oozes into what Joe scratchily refers to as their “play.” They venture into
territory where he takes control, writing about Audrey’s skin between his teeth before pushing
her head into a pillow and finishing on her back; a piece of flesh I use for what I want, he writes,
adding that the sensation of ejaculating in her mouth would finally make him feel complete.
Rachel doesn’t really care but Audrey tells him he’s got a thing for power. Joe doesn’t like that,
calling it instead “strength.”

He jokes about having a Jeffrey Toobin moment one day before admitting he doesn’t want Audrey to always feel safe with him, that this is with her best interest in mind. Also, his cock would feel so good in her ass. It’s something he thinks about while touching himself twice a day, how he would like to lock her in his backyard shed so they can fuck whenever he chooses and she can find pleasure in pain, a love of giving over her independence.

Rachel knows that she would not find this enjoyable because the fact that Joe always wants to be in charge is extremely boring—the opposite of what she liked in the boy she wants to see her bruised, the one she can’t stop missing—plus Joe’s use of the word ‘funnest’ is somehow more insufferable than the therapist who once told her she gives away the milk without even making someone look at the cow. She can’t believe Joe can’t see that these conversations aren’t a reflection her willingness to surrender to him but rather a manifestation of her loneliness, her depression, her all-consuming boredom. She looks down at her laptop-wrinkled sweatpants and suddenly can’t understand why, if she’s aware of this, she’s still participating.

One month after their first conversation, Joe messages Audrey and asks what his love is doing that weekend. She takes a few minutes before replying with Rachel’s plans: coffee with a blonde boy, beer with a brunette, then some other kind of beverage with a redhead. Joe asks if she’s being serious and when she doesn’t respond sends something about how it’s fine she’s going out and having her fun, that he knows he’s different from the real boys, that it’s not like they ever agreed to be exclusive, anyway.

Rachel isn’t sure why but this message feels better than any of the ones Joe ever sent with orchestrated orgasms for Audrey. Combined with sliding on a blush pink bra from the lingerie drawer and her decision not to answer, it’s almost enough to stop the still-prickling sensation of wanting to end everything entirely, to feel nearly certain she won’t ever pretend to be Audrey again.

Rachel A.G. Gilman (She/her)
Rachel A.G. Gilman’s work has been published in journals throughout the US, UK, and Australia. She is the creator/editor-in-chief of The Rational Creature, a columnist for No Contact Mag, and was editor-in-chief of Columbia Journal Issue 58. She holds an MFA in Writing, Nonfiction from Columbia University and an MSt in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She lives in New York and works in publishing. More at rachelaggilman.com.