Karen shows me a photo of the sex toy she uses with her husband. It's pink and made out of silicone. There's a pink ring attached to a nubby paddle the size of a pumice stone. It looks like the scalp massager I've considered buying that helps wash your hair without any shampoo.
She says the ring keeps her husband's penis erect, since he usually can't maintain an erection, and the paddle-end stimulates her clit because she usually can't feel his penis.
"Does it make the sex good?"
She shrugs. "It makes it better."
She says she still has to wear the blindfold.
I am about to ask how blindfolds affect sexual sensation, if she is turned on by the feeling of mystery or powerlessness, but then she tells me it's because she hates the faces her husband makes when he orgasms.
I try to suppress my facial expression of amazement/ terror/laughter but she sees it, so I feel I have to speak. I say, "My therapist says good sex is about intimacy."
She says, "My husband has seen a head come out of my vagina."
We continue following her little white dog around the sidewalk of the strip mall. I remember when I was a kid and I thought the word "strip mall" referred in some way to erotic dancers.
Karen' shoulders are impossibly slender while mine are broad; her hips are generous while mine are slight. We are like two triangles that fit side by side to make a rectangle if you flip one of the triangles over. She is the shape of a butternut squash and I am shaped like an ice cream cone or an upright harp.
Karen is carrying a tote bag full of dog treats and poop bags, and though her daughter is away all weekend, I can see there are diapers, tiny socks, and something called Nom Noms packed inside.
The tote bag is printed with a large Moomin, the big white Scandinavian cartoon character, and I remember when I first met Karen at a sparsely attended community meeting about climate change she told me she was basically a Moomin herself. Half Swedish, tall, obsessed by natural disaster preparedness. She had volunteered that she was a bit overweight but she didn't mind it because it allowed her to have unwrinkled skin.
"At a certain point you have to choose between the ass and the face," she told me once when we shared a hot fudge sundae.
We suddenly stop walking, following the lead of the ball of white fur who lowers its rear toward the ground and poops onto the sidewalk. I accidentally make "eye contact" with the dog's anus and can't look away when the poop comes out. I am disgusted by the dog's anus, by the poop slowly descending from the dog's body.
Karen squats in a motion that's somewhere between a baseball catcher's and a plié and scoops the poop up with her hand enrobed in a green plastic bag. She accidentally includes a few small twigs in her handful, and when she turns the bag inside-out to enclose the poop, the twigs poke a hole in the tender tissue-like bag so that suddenly there is poop all over Karen's freshly manicured palm.
She smiles, her hand covered in poop, and the dough on her cheeks forms nice little rounds, the way Santa's does on the Christmastime Coca-Cola ads. She throws the bag into a trash can.
"So you can tolerate animal poop on your hands but not the face your husband makes when he comes?"
She pulls out a baby wipe from the Moomin bag and wipes her hand.
"I can tolerate it but it doesn't bring me any sexual pleasure," she says.
The little white dog jumps around merrily, and she gives it a treat, some processed whey pressed into the shape of a dog bone. I tell her I am willing to concede that the source of the unconditional love that parents have for their children is the mystery that maintains our species, but that that should extend from us to dogs feels unnatural to me.
Karen tells me there are many things I don't understand about life and love, invoking her seniority. Karen's husband is handsome. He is tall and has dark curly hair and a broad, wolf-like face. When I had dinner at their house, he ate ravenously, shoveling the food into his mouth as if it were sloppy joe meat and not a whole roasted branzino. Afterward, to my surprise, he did the dishes, and I thought somewhat mournfully, now that's a man.
I feel happy learning that his penis is small, that he needs the help of something pink, something made from chemicals and with technology invented within his lifetime, a thing operated by triple A batteries.
"I don't mind not feeling him inside of me," she says, as we walk past the dollar store. Her legs are long, and with each slow step she covers much ground. The dog has to move its legs so quickly to keep up with her that they're practically blurred. "What's so difficult is making him believe I can feel it, when he knows I can't."
"How does he know?"
"I told him."
She lets the dog off the leash and we sit on the curb beside the grassy island in the middle of the parking lot. The dog hurries away so quickly it appears to be hovering, like those Russian beryozka dancers whose long gowns hide their tiny steps and it appears they're floating.
"The dog is chasing after a squirrel," I say.
"She's called Lulu," says Karen.
"You know the squirrel?"
Karen rolls her eyes but I wasn't kidding. I forgot the name of her dog.
"Do you still love him?" I say about her husband.
"Of course I do," she said, looking at the dog even as I faced her.
The grit of the cement curb is digging into the bare skin on my legs and I get up to avoid the dull pain. I stand in front of Karen, and she puts her arms around my bare legs, rubbing them to warm them, like my mother used to do when I was small. I hold her head at my stomach, covering her eyes.
I see the dog running toward us. Lulu is holding something brown in her mouth. She drops it at our feet.
"Good Lulu," I say, clutching Karen's head, keeping her face pressed into my t-shirt. "That's a good girl."