“A sedoretu,” says Lila, “is a way of bonding two sensate clusters together. You’ve never heard of this, Wolfgang?”
“Where would I have heard of it?”
“Where did you hear about blockers? Where did you learn about anything?” Lila smiles sharply. It’s supposed to indicate a point won, maybe, or maybe bitterness at his continuing refusal to tell her anything much about his cluster except that…well…he has one, and that there is a girl. She knows about Kala. He’s still disappointed in himself that he let it slip.
“Tell me about sedoretu.”
Lila is half naked in his lap, even though he is alone in the park, watching the people pass by. It’s terribly lewd but at least she’s wearing underwear this time. He doesn’t want to start having sex with her in public. If it were a member of his cluster he probably wouldn’t care—he can still remember the one time he got caught up with four or so of them at once, half in his body and half out of it, filtering through the sensations of every group member, fucking a different man or woman every other second. But that was different. He’d hardly been aware of himself then, and besides, it was with his own cluster. Lila is different.
Her arms are draped around her neck. “One man and one woman from each cluster. We meet in physical form. We marry. And then, although we are technically the only ones married, it forms an alliance between the two groups…”
“There are various ways to go about it. Nothing really set in stone.”
“Why one man and one woman? Isn’t that kind of gender essentialist?” Sometimes these days he hardly knew whether he was a man or woman, the way he floated around in other people’s minds and bodies. No, at the end of the day he was a man. But he knew certain members of his cluster would never want to marry someone of the opposite gender.
“Then bring a man if you want.” Lila shrugs. “I thought you might like to include your girl. I have my own second ready.”
“You act like this marriage is only between the two of us.”
“It will be a joining of our clusters as one total,” Lila says. “Afterwards, our clusters will be able to visit each other freely. We will all become one. But you and I are the only ones who know each other, Wolfgang. As yet.” She smirks on the word “know”.
“I’ll talk to my cluster about it.”
“Do so. Oh, but about your girl. The two members from the same cluster can’t have sex with each other.”
That sounds even more like bullshit. “Why?”
“Upsets the balance. Well, don’t ask me. I’m no expert.” Lila presses a kiss to his neck. “Until we meet again.”
Technically there’s no leader in a cluster. They’re all equal members, and they all help each other equally. In practice, however, Capheus and Sun and Lito and Kala and Riley, while in the loop, generally were more useful for specific problems and emotional difficulties than for sensate issues, issues with fellow sensates or BPO or Jonas or Angelica. For matters like this, everyone goes to Nomi and Will.
Wolfgang thinks about how he needs them, and he finds himself standing next to Will at Nomi’s place, looking over her shoulder at a computer.
Despite it being Nomi’s place, they all know Wolfgang is the one who called them. Nomi glances up from the computer. “What’s up?”
“I met with Lila again.”
Nomi and Will both frown. They don’t entirely trust Lila and her cluster. Always the cautious side of the group, those two—well, those two and Kala.
He explains to them about the concept of a sedoretu. They are skeptical.
“I’ll ask Jonas about it,” Will says. Not for the first time, Wolfgang wishes Will weren’t the only one who can actually talk to Jonas. Having better access to information would be useful, besides which he can tell that seeing Jonas so often wears on Will almost as much as seeing Whispers. He feels guilty, even though he shouldn’t.
Nomi says, “It sounds kind of interesting. Not what I’d go for, but the idea of such rigid guidelines to a polyamorous relationship…I wonder if there’s anything else like that out there, that’s not just a sensate custom.”
Over the next couple weeks, Nomi does research and Wolfgang conveys the proposition to the rest of the cluster. It’s a marriage that involves all of them, so they all need to give consent. Some are more enthusiastic than others.
Riley sides with Will on the need for caution, but says, “It sounds like a good way to connect with more people. Easier than holding a concert like me. More controlled. Ideally, the members should all have similar natures and all be trustworthy.” She grimaces slightly, and Wolfgang remembers what she’s told him about some of her own visitors—one, in particular, who she would rather not meet with again.
“I can’t say Lila is totally trustworthy.”
“I’ve never met her,” Riley says. “I can only trust your judgment.”
Capheus is ambivalent. He’s very distracted y his political campaign lately, and by his new girlfriend. He tells Wolfgang, “If you marry her, I will be proud to accept her as my sister.”
“She’ll be more like your wife,” Wolfgang warns him.
Capheus frowns. With Zakia in his life, he doesn’t like the idea of being involved with anyone else, not that way. But, he says, it sounds more like an expansion of family than an extended sexual relationship, for those outside the sedoretu itself. And he is always willing to accept more family.
Sun’s opinion is that Lila sounds like a shady bitch.
“You haven’t even met her.”
“You can’t trust even people who seem trustworthy. Not always.” Sun gives him a look. “How can you trust a woman who you know is hiding things from you?”
“She’s trying to protect her cluster.”
“That’s not it. You know that’s not it.”
Wolfgang isn’t sure why he feels the need to protect Lila in conversation when he too worries about her loyalties in real life. “She’s in a difficult situation, like us. We all need more allies.”
Sun says, “It is true people who seem hard and cold often have goodness in them.” She knows that much from prison. “Just be careful.”
As for Lito, he says, “I’d want to know who the man is Lila is bringing in.”
“I’d get a chance to meet him before we did the deed.”
“Hm.” Lito considers it. “On the one hand, one should not marry for reasons other than love. On the other hand, people thrown together by the hands of fate can often uncover unexpected passion for each other. Especially if it doesn’t seem at first like it would work out.”
At this point it is obvious Lito is thinking about movies, and not real life. But on the other hand, his theatrical ideology has guided Wolfgang well at times in the past. “So is that a yes or a no?”
Lito says, “I leave it up to you, my friend. Do you love her?”
There is one woman whom Wolfgang knows that he loves, but all week she avoids him, no matter how hard he tries to visit her. Finally he runs into her by accident, as he has so often in the past, in the bathroom of a club. (Felix’s club now, which is an odd thought.)
She is looking at her own reflection in the mirror. Pretending he is not there.
“Kala. You have to tell me what you think of it.”
She knows what he’s talking about. News, important news, travels through the cluster very quickly—she’s known since the day Lila told him, only she’s not eager to discuss it.
“I am already married.”
“Well, this won’t be exactly a legal matter.”
“You know I don’t trust her.”
“She could help us. I trust her.”
She gives him an incredulous look. Fine. He doesn’t completely trust Lila but he doesn’t distrust her either, and he does believe she helps those who are on her side. Even if she has a bit of a ruthless edge to her.
“I think,” Kala says, “you just want a chance to marry me. You’re jealous of Rajan.” She shakes her head. “Unbelievable. She said we wouldn’t even be able to have sex with each other anyway.”
“We already aren’t having sex.”
“All right, fair, but…”
She trails off.
She somewhat agrees that it’s a good idea. He can see it in her eyes. She would never be this cross about something that didn’t appeal to her. She likes the idea of marrying him as much as he likes the idea of marrying her, and she’s not as cautious as he thought—she also knows how to go on the offensive. Forming an alliance is as appealing as the romantic element to her, to both of them.
“I couldn’t tell Rajan,” she says softly.
One more betrayal, one more secret, on top of a pile already so high it threatens to tip over on her every day. Her married life somehow remains obliviously stable while she balances seven psychic alter-egos on the tip of her nose. Maybe adding another eight secrets to the pile doesn’t matter.
“He could meet them someday,” Wolfgang says. “Meet all of us, maybe. But for now…we have to keep ourselves safe, Kala. It keeps him safe too.”
“Don’t try to tell me I’m doing this for him.”
“Fine. You’re doing it for us,” Wolfgang says. “Unless we don’t matter to you as much as he does.”
He doesn’t specify what he means by “us”: The two of them and their love? The entire cluster? Maybe at this point there is no difference between the two. They are the cluster and the cluster is them—where one or two are gathered in its name, there they all stand.
Kala thinks about it. Her thoughts are closed off from Wolfgang, as they have been so often lately. Then she looks over at him. “I was going to wait to have sex with you.”
“I was going to divorce Rajan or tell him about us or…something…and we were going to meet in person. Maybe after BPO was gone.” She shrugs. It’s a daydream and they both know it. “Do you want to make love tonight instead?”
They meet in Berlin. Lila and Wolfgang are already there, after all. Kala makes her excuses to Rajan and flies in. Wolfgang meets her at the airport.
He kisses her tenderly. After the ceremony they won’t kiss on the lips again. They were given one night and they made the best of it, and he will always remember the taste of her, the feel of her. Now he inhales the scent of her hair, spicy and sweet, and he feels nostalgic for a childhood in Mumbai that he never actually had.
They meet with Lila in a back room in Felix’s club. Lila’s second is a man named Maitake. Japanese, quiet. He smiles at them politely.
“Hello, my husband and my wife.”
Wolfgang looks at him and wonders. His husband had not been something he had thought much about. He had thought about diplomacy more, and about Kala and Lila. But this man is a mystery.
Probably in a couple hours they’re going to be fucking. That or Maitake’s going to be making love to Kala. Lila told Wolfgang that sex in a sedoretu sealed the bond, consummating the marriage and fully connecting the two clusters. Wolfgang has had sex with strangers before but always on the spur of the moment, often slightly buzzed. This feels colder.
Lila says to Kala, “It’s nice to finally meet you where we can both see each other. I hope I can cherish you as much as Wolfgang.”
Kala smiles reservedly and says, “I hope that we can get along.” Clearly her hopes for this marriage are not as high as Lila’s.
The ceremony that follows is brief. Lila brings out an old book with certain vows in it which they each say—simple wedding vows tailored to fit a marriage with four spouses, vows of faithfulness and love. It’s a much shorter wedding than Kala’s last one, not at all according to Hindu rites. They’re not exactly what Wolfgang would have pictured for his wedding either.
When they are done, Wolfgang tries to picture the rest of Lila’s cluster. He can’t.
“I told you,” Lila says. “The bond is cemented with sex. We haven’t consummated it yet.” She glances at the door. “You’re sure this location is secure and private? No one’s going to walk in on us?”
“Yes.” They could go to a hotel instead, or to Wolfgang’s house or Lila’s, and any of those options might be more circumspect or at least more formal, but Lila’s already sliding the straps of her dress over her shoulders, and Maitake has taken off his coat. He glances at Kala, both of them unacquainted. Lila takes Wolfgang’s hand.
“Relax. This isn’t your first time, after all.”
He strips. Lila naked in the flesh looks a bit different from how she appears to him in visions—her torso is less evenly tanned and there’s a small scar on her ribcage that he doesn’t ask about. He wonders what causes the difference but he doesn’t ask. He sinks down onto the booth and Lila straddles his hips, grinning wide. How much of her lust over the past few weeks, he wonders, has been real, and how much of it is performative even now?
He leans back and pulls her upper body in closer and…
…and Maitake is kissing him—no, kissing Kala—on the lips, firm and eager. He’s still wearing most of his clothing, taking it much slower than Lila, and Kala is reaching out to unbutton his shirt…
But Lila whispers in his ear, “Pay attention,” and he strokes her back as she starts to ride him, slow and steady, rhythmic and practiced. He tries to think about Kala, the night they shared only a brief time ago, and he finds himself suddenly touching her, his hands on her waist as she undoes his last button, smiling at his shyly because she doesn’t know him—but that’s Maitake, not him or Kala and...
…and miles away Will and Riley are eating lunch, but they’re beginning to get distracted, and Riley pulls Will away from the dining room table and over to their shared mattress. She shoves him down and they land hard on soft wool blankets. But Wolfgang is sitting on a booth with a leather cushion. Lila’s on his lap, and her eyes are wild. Sun’s looking over her shoulder with a smirk, and he glares at her, and she laughs and walks across the room to wink at Kala, who is sitting next to Maitake now on the booth, both of them tense with waiting.
He is Kala, and she is unsure what to do. She’s only had sex with two people before: Rajan and Wolfgang, both of whom she knew for a long time beforehand. But her body is full of the memories of seven others, and Wolfgang’s arousal makes her vagina ache with want, her blood rush with adrenalin. She touches Maitake’s face, and he reaches down and pulls her skirt up over her thighs.
He is Lila. She touches his face and he can feel the touching from both sides at once, yet it is not like touching himself. She is as eager for this as he is, but she wants him to come first. What started as a ritual has become for her a competition—she wants to see him fall apart. “Come for me,” she murmurs.
He is Maitake, choking on his own spit, trying to stay focused on touching Kala as a wave of pleasure rushes over him. He is Lito, standing on his porch and taking in an evening breeze, enjoying a moment of solitude. He is Lila, still working towards her own orgasm but close, very very close, and Kala who finds she suddenly likes Maitake more than it should be possible to like any stranger and Nomi working on a computer program who suddenly feels an urge to text Amanita, who is out for a couple hours.
He is an albino woman at a concert (not Riley, not Riley, shouldn’t that be Riley?) and a black man with long dreads who has paused in front of a lunch because he’s afraid he’ll gag. He is in a business meeting trying to focus, fiddling with a pencil. He is standing on the beach watching the waves stroke the sand.
Lila comes with a moan and falls against him, more graceless than she has ever been. “I can feel them,” she says, breathless, eyes bright. “Those—is that your cluster?”
He cradles her close to his chest as Kala, only a couple feet away, begins to gasp. “I don’t know,” he says. “Are the people I’m seeing yours?”
They feel familiar. As if they have been members of his own cluster all along, and he only missed seeing them because they were in his peripheral vision.
In his arms, Lila begins to cry. Her face screws up, ugly and uncontrollable, with the need to howl out the overload of pain and pleasure and love and anger and sadness and fulfillment. Wolfgang thinks back to Lito. Does he love her? And this new cluster, can he love them?
He thinks, having gone this far, he has no choice.