After This

Kristen M. Ploetz


On the night of her 40th birthday, vermouth still on the back of her tongue, Val moaned at the top of her lungs and grabbed the iron bar of her headboard with her left hand as her right hand pressed her new rabbit vibrator hard against and inside her slick, most eager parts and ecstatic waves pulled her under into some kind of warm, alien abyss she never knew before, never wanted to leave now that she’d finally found it. Before that, she unplugged the fully charged vibrator from the USB charger stationed on her desk next to the signed copies of documents her attorney couriered over the day before. Before that, she stretched open the paper accordion of instructions and studied the twelve patterns she had to choose from, wondered whose job it was to translate vibrations into dual line drawings of waves and stair steps and some kind drunken cha cha, wondered if they drew them in real time at home with pen in hand and discerned the pulses and downbeats and rise and fall through their hungry vaginas or did they take notes while they palmed it chastely from an office chair instead? Before that, she marveled at the sleek packaging containing her new purchase, the intimidating, mesmerizing pop of hot pink daring her from behind the clear plastic window; it was the most she’d spent on herself in the last three years, at least for something she never deemed necessary. Before that, she thanked the FedEx man that afternoon as she glanced down at the return address before catching his stare, wondering whether he knew. Before that, she tracked her rage-release purchase over the Internet for five days, watched it meander from California to Tennessee to the Local Processing Facility to the box truck driving all over her town that morning until it reached her front door in the chapped hands of someone she’d probably once consider fucking but figured he’d also be underwhelming and not worth the awkward hassle afterward so she let the feeling pass as she leaned out the door. Before that, she slipped her new credit card—the one with the name she reclaimed but no longer recognized—back into her wallet. Before that, she angled her laptop screen so no one at the coffee shop would see her open multiple tabs to cross-reference brands and speeds and noise levels and prices and reviews (she wanted to meet MsRumble224 with her one-star rating because the highest setting wasn’t strong enough…what a woman she must be!). Before that, she hung up her cell phone without saying goodbye to her ex, telling him he had just two hours to get the last of his shit out of their bedroom closet and the garage, that he couldn’t take the good snow shovel because she was going to need it. Before that, she quietly tore “This Is How You Masturbate” out of a dated Cosmopolitan and slipped it in her bag as she waited for the dental hygienist to call her name and lecture her about flossing. Before that, she got off the call with her mother telling her for the last time Yes, I’m sure this is the right decision for us and no, I don’t want to meet your new neighbor who makes his own beer. Before that, she got off the call with her colleague on the fourth floor confirming their Friday night plans to celebrate her birthday over a huge plate of fettucine carbonara and several martinis before meeting the rest of HR at the usual spot. Before that, she felt the pressure build behind her eyes as she held back the tears, the flex of her neck to keep her voice from cracking when she told him what she no longer wanted, the tears and flexing the relief and release and regret of a stone lodged too long in the toe of an ill-fitting shoe. Before that, she settled and spent thirteen years faking it: the happiness, the ease, the thrill, the interest and intrigue, the desire, the orgasms, the shared eye on the future. Before that, she held out her left hand while he slipped the platinum band on her finger. Before that, she met him at a pool party through a friend of a friend of a friend; he had a stable job and looked decent enough in a pair of swim trunks—after years of looking he was as good as it was going to get. Before that, she had more than a dozen one night stands that cumulatively amounted to mere hours of her getting nothing in return except a couple of UTIs because she never knew how to ask for what she didn’t even know she was missing, wondered what all the fuss was about, wondered if there was something wrong with her, if people were just making shit up to sound cool. Before that, she accidentally found her roommate’s powder blue dildo while looking for a sweater to borrow for her boss’s retirement party, held it in her hand and considered its weight (lighter and heavier than she expected), contemplated questions she knew she’d never ask about it, gingerly placed it back in the drawer like it was a sleeping kitten and pulled out a low cut cashmere in a matching shade of blue. Before that, she skipped over the women’s studies courses listed freshman year and went right to the ones her mother said would be practical and helpful until she got herself married, got caught up in the frat party scene and found a boy who said he knew a thing or two about how to make girls happy but after seven months realized he didn’t know shit. Before that, she wrote her name as Mrs. Langley in her calculus notebook, slowly made uniform but slanted loops across the back cover, black ink staining the side of her left hand. Before that, she watched tired mothers and bored aunts and unhappy grandmothers and vacant-eyed neighbors and frazzled teachers and the starry-eyed look of friends’ older sisters and Hallmark Channel rom-coms and The Bachelor and commercials for Zales and Jared and Vera Wang and David’s Bridal and Sandals Resorts and Pampers and despondent widows on park benches, cumulatively misled and misinformed and mistaken about what she should want, what she deserved, what she could refuse and reject what life could otherwise be. Before that, while doing her homework in her bedroom she wrote her name as Mrs. DePetrio and Mrs. Johnston and Mrs. Langley and Mrs. Epstein and Mrs. Shoemaker, scribbled hard inside the covers of her algebra notebook. Before that, every Saturday night and for never more than two minutes—she knows because she always timed it with her glow-in-the-dark watch—she heard the muffled sound of her parents’ headboard knocking against the other side of her wall, her father’s double grunt, her mother tip toe down the hall to use the toilet but there was no laughing no whispers no crescendo moans from either one of them, not like she’d seen in the movies she wasn’t supposed to watch. Before that, she studied the scintillescent glint on her mother’s left hand every morning while she silently made lunches-to-go and put her father’s coat near the front door. Before that, her mother scolded her for riding the arm of the living room La-Z-Boy because the microfiber was starting to get worn there, the same day she heard her mother loudly whisper dry humping to her father in the other room. Before that, she drew an irregular shaped heart in red crayon on yellow construction paper, wrote her initials above D. L., hung upside down on the monkey bars and watched him play kickball at recess. Before that, she made Ken and Barbie kiss as she listened to her mother chirp in the background One day you’ll get married and have a baby too! Before all that, on the morning of one February some forty-one years ago when the basal body temperature was at its lowest and she’d eaten a plate of oysters the night before, her would-be mother moaned at the top of her lungs as she fucked her would-be father and hoped for a baby girl, one who she could teach all the things that lead to a fulfilling life, one she was supposed to want, at any cost, one who she’d never let her hear quite like this after she was born.


Kristen M. Ploetz (@KristenPloetz) lives in Massachusetts. Her recent short fiction has been published by The Saturday Evening Post, The Normal School, Joyland, Atticus Review, Wigleaf, XRAY Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 Wigleaf Top 50, 2020 Best Small Fictions, and 2019 Best Microfiction anthologies. You can find her at