This very evening. Right after I get home from work I will take my husband by the hand, walk him into our bedroom and have sex with him. I’ll unbutton his shirt, spread my fingers over his swimmer’s pectorals, the perfect spread of chest hair, a mix of brown and silver. I will place my lips there and the salty hairs will prickle my nostrils. I will unbutton his pants. He will stand above me rubbing my shoulders and try to kiss me, but I will be busy doing other things to him.
This plan develops as I drive home from work on a Monday. I head south on I-5 with a glittery Lake Union to my west, the sun pushing gold against the clouds, sprays of light landing on the shiny dynasty we call Downtown. Sex on a Monday, after work, what a fun surprise! It will get us out of our slump!
I change the radio station, from news of a suicide bombing to a piano sonata. My stomach growls. The idea of dinner pushes its way in. Maybe we’ll eat first, and then the sex parade will start. And this, of course, is my first tactical mistake. A full stomach does not lead to sex in our household.
Earlier that morning, five a.m., I watch the beautiful back of my husband rise out of bed. He doesn’t see me turning my owl head to watch him. The swimmers shoulders rolling up and away from me. The ruffled silver hair. A hand stretching back to pat me. “Good morning,” that patting hand says.
While my husband goes off to swim, I lie in bed and stare out the window, at the clouds hanging like an old man’s eyebrows in the sky. I spend a half hour thinking about the sex we didn’t have all weekend. We weren’t too busy; there were no arguments and no body-part problems. There were two straight days of rain, a lot of cozy time in bed, plenty of napping and cuddling and binge-watching our favorite British mystery. And no sex.
I’ve counted. I’ve kept score. In the beginning there was so much regular sex for middle-aged people, something sexy popping and fizzing every day, every night despite my bladder infections, the new sensitivities, despite the doctor’s visits, the antibiotics—we powered through. And then. It whittled down. Normal, right? First, a few times a week, then two, then the weekends for sure. But there was always an element of playfulness even as the snap-crackle-pop evened out. Sometimes I’d roll over in the morning, say, “Quickie?” and my husband would wolf grin and come my way. Or when we both worked at home, I’d send a text with the word “nooner?” Ten seconds later, footsteps stomped down the hallway.
We held at twice a week then fell to once, on the weekend, still able to blame my delicate sex organs, the sensitive bladder, an inability to bounce back so fast. Consecutive days were pretty much out for us. I saw naturopaths, shifted my diet, and took my “estrogen poppers” to settle some of my womanly discontent, and things did improve.
Then I just got lazy.
I need to address something. Did you know that a woman’s vagina atrophies? Did you know that the general story arc of our orgasms—timing, intensity—can change with age? I guess it makes sense. Our skin loosens, our boobs sag; the butt drops, our muscles soften, the joints ache. And our vaginas are part of this aging ride. It’s different for everyone, of course, but this is how it went down for me.
Let’s say you’re a woman in your mid-forties. You’re single. You’ve had a relatively inactive sex life for that decade and then suddenly—you meet a man when you’re forty-seven. You’re ready to rock and roll.
You could be in for a few surprises.
After a succession of bladder infections, I eventually went to see a urologist. This is the kind of doctor I thought specialized in the dick problems of old men. My dick doctor, as it turned out, was a woman, about ten years younger than me. She was petite and no-nonsense, and she gave me a precise de-briefing on what my body had been up to while I was mindlessly careening through my forties.
“Your vaginal wall gets dry and droopy just like your skin as you age,” she said, pulling on her perfectly smooth forearm. “Gravity gets it just like everything else.”
She diagnosed me with Sensitive Bladder Syndrome, recommended acupuncture and gave me a list of foods to avoid. Her philosophy around having sex with an atrophying vagina was bold. “Really go for it—pound away!” she said banging a fist into one of her open palms. “Get in there and see what works.” Then she handed me a prescription for painkillers.
My husband and I weren’t young when we married. I was forty-nine; he was fifty-seven and a widow. It was his second marriage, my first. The ceremony took place at a friend’s house. My parents walked me down a sprawling lawn to an open-air altar. We stood before our friends and family, beside a small lake populated by the white blooms of lily pads. Three days later we went on a road trip to the Canadian Rockies.
We didn’t have a lot of sex on our honeymoon. I started my period, the beds were so soft that my back hurt, and I was also having some of my sensitivities. Instead of waking up mid-sleep to make love with my new husband as one might imagine, I woke up and reached for my Kindle to continue the science fiction trilogy I was obsessed with.
During the day we sat at the mountain town cafes and watched people go by. We explored the ice blue rivers of Banff, stood with hung jaws before the crystal green of Lake Louise; we hiked through wildflowers and past the high glaciers of Jasper. At night we cooked dinner in our wooded cottage, and I stared out at the small lake giddy with the fact that I never had to answer the question of whether I would find a mate and who that mate might be ever fucking again. We rifled through the collection of DVDs and glommed on to a long-running British series we became enamored with called Midsomer Murders. The show falls under a genre I call “gentle garden mysteries.” While bodies fell and the investigation heated up under the charge of fifty-something Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby, I was lulled into a deep state of relaxation by the comfort of the mature cast, the bursts of trees and bushes, so much Eden green, like the worst calamity the universe can conspire is the death of a water colorist.
We went to bed tired and content, spooned our warm bodies in the soft bed, my husband’s breath on my ear. His hand on my breast, my foot stroking the bone of his shin, and in my right hand my Kindle, where I blissfully continued on with my sci-fi drama. It rained at night, the scent of sage breezed through the open windows, the air was cool against our shoulders and arms, the rest of our bodies snug under the comforters. There was nowhere to go, nobody waiting for us. We were so happy. I was home.
It’s Monday morning. As my husband swims laps in the pool I lie in bed imagining him next to me later that night, and I choreograph: how I will open my legs, throw one over my husband’s resting, unsuspecting body; put my hand on his chest, move my mouth over his neck, over the light brown belly hair, down his body, the lean legs. Move around the canvas of his body slowly—kiss here, kiss there, swirl a body hair in my tongue, rub my teeth against his rough skin—and then spend the other half of the night returning to the home of his lips.
But here’s what really happens Monday after work.
I drive into our garage at five-thirty with a hunger headache from too little for lunch. Visions of seduction are long gone; they fell away somewhere between Lake Union and merging onto I-90.
“Lovergirl is home!” my husband exclaims in his usual way, popping his head out of the garage door. He walks toward me opening his arms, right to my car door. When I stand up he gives me his lips, a full kiss. Every night I come home, he’s there for me right on the lips. I lean into him, my cheek against the tee-shirt he’s been gardening in all day. I breathe in the smell of bark and branches. He grabs my bags and we go into the house.
All the overhead lights are on, the news blaring. I see the crumbs and salt flakes in clumps on the small kitchen island, and pick up a sponge to wipe them off. Why do I make cleaning the stupid island more urgent than seducing my husband?
We have dinner, watch an episode of Midsomer, and go to bed where I don’t make one tiny move on my husband. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll be on it. I won’t get side tracked; I won’t look at any kitchen surfaces; I’ll stay focused on those blue eyes, the swimmer’s hips. Tomorrow!
Tuesday morning I wake up slowly, next to those pillowy lips and the bent, crooked nose I love, those arms that reach for me, after an argument, when I shout in my sleep. I think back to how it was in the beginning. What I remember are flashes of body parts over the bed, under the covers—yes, we’re conventional, but so what? I remember him inside of me, his fingers on me, feeling lost among my own body parts, the undulations of narratives building and bursting in unexpected waves. We were a story—a romantic thriller—unfolding beneath a tangle of sheets.
We get up and go swimming together. I am filled with resolution. Tonight, I tell myself as I swim sets of two-hundreds in line with my lane mates. Tonight, I tell myself as I speed over the express lanes of the I-90 floating bridge. I am determined! When the day is done, I’ll drive into the garage, greet him with a kiss, grab him, pull him by the crotch of his pants down the hall to our bedroom, take off my shirt with the other hand. First my jacket, then my shirt, then my camisole, maybe keep the bra on for him to remove—I’ll position myself on the side of the bed, ass down, legs up and parted and wait for him.
“Do anything,” I’ll say, and he will and it will be exactly what I expected. Over dinner he will turn to me with a gooey smile, the blue of his eyes will darken and my husband will say “Thank you,” which I still find strange. I will look back at him, put my lips in a kiss position and respond point blank, “You’re welcome.”
After making love he will be so content! He will take my hand as we glow in the reflection of our day’s end Midsomer Murders. It will be the episode that features a hospital for troubled people in one of the villages, and a spate of “suicides” that were really murders committed by a trinity of jealous children.
“There’s no way all three of those kids would do that!” I will exclaim.
“Oh, it keeps the old folks on their toes,” my husband will say in his soothing voice. Then, at the moment of reveal, just as Barnaby confronts the nymphomaniac mother of the murderous children; just as I’m concentrating on the British-accented dialogue, those blue eyes will turn to me and proclaim, “You’re my love.”
He’ll move in closer, stroke my cheek with his gardener’s fingers. “Oh my love,” he’ll murmur, coming in for a kiss.
I’ll miss the climax of the show and I’ll try not to be irritated because—and I have to remind myself of this—we can always rewind the scene and play it later.
TATYANA SUSSEX is working on a collection of stories about being a late bloomer. She writes, swims and coaches big dreamers from the watery city of Seattle. You can visit her blog at Everyday Creative Coaching.
I’m reading my way through a romance series. I’m on the fifth installment, and I’ve gotten a feel for the unique quirks of the books as well as for the ways the books heed romance novel conventions—especially the less enticing conventions.
The convention I’m having trouble dealing with most, one of the most common romance novel conventions of all, is this: All of the heroines, no matter what their age, no matter what century they were born in (there’s some time-traveling involved), are virgins when they meet the heroes.
There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, of course. Lots of people are virgins, even into their mid-twenties (or later), just like the heroines of the novels I’m reading. But lately, the way virginity is used as a trope in romance novels has started to get to me.
With few exceptions (Courtney Milan, I’m looking at you), one can’t read a historical romance novel, or even many that are set in contemporary times, without encountering a virginal heroine. It’s simply that common of a genre convention.
What’s the big deal?
The big deal, for me, is the particular trope of virginity-as-sacred-gift to the hero. The big deal, for me, is the other trope of virginity-as-stand-in-for-honesty, resolve, valor, courage, and an assortment of other qualities that a romance heroine has no other way of proving she possesses except by guarding her hymen.
In a romance novel that uses these tropes, when the moment of truth—that is, cherry-picking—finally comes, and inevitably the reader enters the hero’s point of view for at least a moment, he feels such gratitude that he’s the one to have received the gift of the heroine’s virginity. And in that moment, he truly admires her.
And in that moment, I feel sick and cheated. I feel like a failure. I wonder why I’m reading the book and consider stopping. Every time. But I set aside my bad feelings and keep reading. After all, it’s not the romance novel genre’s fault that I was raped when I was a child and never had a chance to be a virgin at all.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was a girl named Bel. She and I were walking through the student union during what turned out to be rape awareness week. I, of course, was so wildly unaware of everything in college that I didn’t know such a week even existed.
A campus activist group had set up a long, white bulletin board—a memorial. It stretched as long as the building itself. When Bel and I found it, the board was covered by a flurry of yellow index cards, so many that the board looked like a field of daffodils. On a nearby table were more cards, pens, and push-pins so you could write a note and stick it on the board.
I’d never told Bel what happened to me as a child, so I was nervous about writing anything on a card. But she strode to the table, picked up a card and wrote a note, and then stabbed it into the board. Her note read, For the girl who never got to be a virgin.
For a moment, I had a strange feeling that Bel had read my mind. She could have written that note about me. She hadn’t, though. I quickly wrote a note for myself, and we walked outside onto the quad. We sat in the spring North Carolina sunshine on a patch of grass by the gothic-inspired chapel and told each other very similar stories.
Then, Bel told me she had a theory. It went like this: Since she never had a chance to choose whom to have sex with the first time, she got to be a virgin forever.
Bel was an eternal virgin.
At first glance, Bel’s theory seemed similar to the advice given by nurse practitioner Carol F. Roye, in her article about the uselessness of our cultural misconceptions about hymens and virginity: “I believe that virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity. The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.”
But in reality, Bel had flipped Roye’s advice on its head. Bel had declared herself a virgin for as long as she wanted to be one.
Roye, however, was not advising a perception of virginity until you felt like you weren’t a virgin any more. On the contrary, she was advising women to take a broader, not narrower, view of virginity loss: “If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself. Is oral sex ‘de-virginizing?’ Anal sex?”
Roye’s article didn’t consider me or Bel at all. How do you think about virginity when yours was gone before you were sexual being in the first place?
Just a few months before my conversation with Bel, I’d had sex for the first time since since I was raped by a grown man when I was in middle school.
My first adult sexual experience was not the most romantic experience in the world. In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted it to be. I think I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t have a hymen (metaphorical or no) to discard, but I did have plenty of baggage. I chose someone I knew I would never see again—an ex-boyfriend from high school. I selected him carefully for a one-night stand.
Before we went at it, I told Ex-Boyfriend I was raped when I was a child—I’d never told him before. He seemed, weirdly, relieved. “So you’re not a virgin, then.”
What did that question mean? That he was going to do things differently? Would he have done things differently if I’d said nothing? What if I’d had the eternal virgin conversation with Bel sooner and kept my rape a secret from him? What if I’d told him I was a virgin—what would have happened then? Did he think my body was transformed somehow by its less-than-virginal status, his own duty to me therefore lightened?
Sarah Wendell at the romance novel website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books addressed what she called the “Surprise Virgin” trope in romance novels. It goes like this:
The hero figures out the heroine is a virgin because he encounters some resistance (which, don’t even get me started) and she flinches and of course he Is Very Alarmed and tries to stop but she tells him not to so it’s ok for him to get on with it.
Then after they’ve crested and reached peaks of joy and done the dance as old as time, he says something about how if he’d known she was a virgin, he’d have done it all differently, been more gentle or something.
Wendell has all kinds of criticisms of this particularly weak trope: “First, why would you not bring your A game the first time you sleep with a woman you have major lust pants for? If you groin is on fire and it’s not because of Gold Bond, why would you not do your very best scrumpin? What is this ‘I’d have been more gentle and sensitive’ crap?”
Ex-Boyfriend and I had the awkward I-was-raped conversation. Then I, with my non-virginal eighteen-year-old body, and he, with his extremely non-virginal twenty-year-old body, fucked in my friend’s guest room. It hurt like hell. I cried and made sure he didn’t see. Sex felt terrible, and I never wanted to do it again. Maybe that was his A game. Maybe it wasn’t.
My de-baggaging (you really can’t call it deflowering) did not involve peaks of joy.
I was an unusual species of surprise virgin. I’d been deflowered, yes, when I was a child. But in no way was I sexually experienced. Bel was right, in this instance—that night I was an eternal virgin.
But I didn’t understand any of this back then. After my de-baggaging, I was in so much pain that I believed my body was broken. When Ex-Boyfriend asked me what was wrong—he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t sense that something was off—I insisted I was fine. He fell asleep. I didn’t sleep at all.
I was probably in shock.
The romance novel is a beautiful genre. That’s why, despite these painful virgin tropes, I keep reading them. When they’re written well, books about the struggle to find human connection—emotional and physical—are deeply gratifying.
Some readers criticize the predictability of the genre. But, like it does for most genres, predictability makes romance novels more enjoyable, not less. Romance is predictable as any genre is predictable: as predictable as a Sherlock Holmes story, as predictable as a sonnet.
“Predictable” simply means that the books share genre conventions to which they must conform and use to tell their stories. These conventions can be constraining, like the quatrains and couplets of a sonnet. But they can also create a freedom within that constraint, as any author of metrical poetry will tell you. Readers appreciate an author who can dazzle from within those conventions.
Any acrobat can flip and twirl. The acrobat who flips and twirls on a tightrope is astounding. The tightrope is the genre with its constraints and conventions.
But here’s the other thing about genres: they are allowed to grow and change as the needs of their audiences grow and change.
Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan, in their book on romance novels, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, take on the trope of innocence—usually depicted using virginity—in romance novels of all stripes, not just historicals:
One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.
Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance.
The virginal heroine and heroic wang are long-entrenched conventions of romance novels. But they need to go. They need to go along with the interminable whiteness of the characters of most romance novels, and other sad holdovers.
Romance writers do push genre boundaries. They stay on the tightrope but retrace the conventions in ways that allow for new ways of thinking about sexuality. For readers like me, for rape survivors, abuse survivors, for those of us whose virginity never was ours to begin with—we are grateful.
Courtney Milan, in her historical romance novel Unclaimed, features a virginal leading man, Sir Mark Turner, and a courtesan, Jessica Farleigh, hired to seduce him and destroy his reputation. The book is sexy, conventional (genre-wise), and wound up tight. And yet it flips the virginal heroine trope on its head. That Milan could do all of this and remain on the tightrope only makes her writerly acrobatics more amazing. Milan avoided the plague and maintained the backbone. And with the rest of her novels, she does it over and over. Other writers manage to avoid the plague as well. (Hello there, Alisha Rai.) But they are rare, still.
I know that having sex for the first time is not usually like it is in a romance novel. Even friends who aren’t rape survivors have told me that their first time was similar to my de-baggaging. Terrible—painful, with insensitive partners who are snoring before you know it’s over.
But usually a girl or woman gets to choose whom she’s with when she loses her virginity. I never got to choose. Bel never got to choose. But more than that, we never got to be virgins. From the moment I was aware of my sexuality, I was already not-a-virgin. The first person to press his lips to mine was the first person to stick his dick in me. I didn’t know what a condom was, and, no, he didn’t use one.
I lost so much that day. Not just my virginity.
It’s curious that we say “lose” when we talk about virginity. The language of “lose,” of “loss,” implies that virginity is something that can be found again. After all, few things are lost forever. The old-fashioned term “ruined” seems far more accurate. Thomas Hardy, ever interested in ruination, wrote a poem called “The Ruined Maid,” taking on Victorian notions of virginity and its close bedfellow (heh), ruination.
“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town? And whence such fair garments, such pros-per-ity?”— “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks, Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks; And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” — “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
And on it goes, the poor country girl amazed by the dazzling jewels, dress, and speech of her former counterpart, now “ruined,” the reader supposes, by a coincidence of her sexual actions and the rigid moral dictates of society.
What’s not mentioned in the poem is that the ruined woman must be well provided for in her new role as a rich man’s mistress. Ruination in Victorian society did not immediately mean wealth and education, after all, but it could. And, by the end, it appears that both women—the poor working woman, aged early by her hard life, and the rich man’s mistress—are ruined after a fashion. The double meaning of the word “ruined” makes the poem work.
Nevertheless, the line of demarcation is clear. The overworked country girl and the socially ruined mistress are not the same.
A girl does not come back from being ruined. What’s lost cannot be found. You just have to pick up the ruined stuff of yourself, and move on.
KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor living in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. When not writing, she teaches creative writing and works as freelance editor. Find her on Twitter: @krgpryal.
My brother-in-law is a big sports fan. Me, not so much. Recently, he asked me, “In baseball, do you know what they call one ball, two strikes? A Mickey Dubrow.” He laughed and then apologized. There was no need. It was a good joke. I had had testicular cancer and one of my testicles had been removed. I was lucky. I had a type of cancer that is highly curable, and once the tumor was taken out, I was cancer free.
I was also lucky to have a damn good doctor. I remember the first time she checked my testicles for lumps. As she pulled on her rubber gloves and sat on the stool in front of my naked lower half, she said, “This is the part we both hate.” In my head—let me repeat that—in my head, I replied, “I don’t know, I kind of like it.” But out loud, I said nothing because she was my doctor and you don’t say stupid shit like that to your doctor.
During a yearly physical, my damn good doctor noticed that one of my testicles was larger than the other. You’d think that would be something I would notice, but it went right by me. She arranged for me to see a urologist. The urologist ordered a scan that showed that the inflation was caused by a tumor. The only way to find out if the tumor was cancerous was to remove it. I asked if there was any other way to find out, because what if they took it out and it was just fine? I didn’t want to lose a ball for nothing. The urologist assured me that there was no other way.
I worried that the surgery would damage my sex drive. I knew that I only needed one testicle to continue having a normal sex life, but sexual desire is as much mental as physical. I was afraid that I would convince myself that the surgery had destroyed my sex life.
My sex life is completely vanilla, but I’m one of those guys who thinks about sex a lot. Like all the damn time. I read stories with lots of sex in them. I write really good sex scenes. One of my life goals as a young man was to be a good lover. Let other men climb mountains. Pleasing my sex partners was my Mount Everest.
Men are supposed to have sex on the brain all the time, except when they’re thinking about sports. Since I’m not into sports, I have extra time to think about sex. I’m not quite Portnoy and I have no complaints, but my sex drive is part of who I am.
How sex obsessed am I? Just about every woman I look at, I imagine what she looks like naked. I don’t include underage girls and the very elderly, but every other female is fair game. In fact, if you’re a woman reading this essay, I’m imagining what you look like naked reading this essay.
I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed by my obsession with sex. I have never understood the argument that sex was only for procreation. Animals have sex for procreation only. Humans have sex for all kinds of reasons: recreation, expression, stress reduction, revenge, etc. Having sex for fun is what elevates humans from mere animals.
The cancer surgery went well. Afterwards, the urologist met with my wife and me. He told us that the tumor was malignant, but Stage 1A which meant that once the tumor was removed so was the cancer. It was an odd moment, to find out in the same sentence that I had cancer and that I no longer had cancer.
My wife and I waited until I had healed from the surgery before we attempted having sex. We moved slowly. She did most of the work, handling me gently, and with loving kindness. As I approached orgasm, fear gripped me. What if something went wrong? There was nothing to substantiate my fear, but fear is often irrational. The orgasm did happen and I felt tremendous relief. The last time I felt this emotional during sex was the first time I had slept with my wife. I knew that something more than sex had taken place.
Most days I forget that I only have one testicle. I’m not sure why anyone would dwell on it, even someone as sex obsessed as myself. You work with the tools you have.
Before the surgery, I thought of myself as invincible when it came to my health. Even though I was in my mid-fifties, I believed that my body would always bounce back from any disease and from the abuse I’d put my body through with too many drugs, too much alcohol, and generally not taking care of myself.
The surgery didn’t destroy my sex life, but I was convinced that I came out of it with two strikes against me. The first strike was the realization that my body was no longer invincible. The second strike was the realization that my body was aging. As I get older, my body won’t be able to ward off disease as easily and eventually age may dampen my sexual desire. This all sounds terribly depressing, but I’m not worried. In baseball, a batter with one ball and two strikes still has a chance to score.
MICKEY DUBROW has been an award winning television promotions writer/producer for major cable networks for over twenty years. His essays have appeared in Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Jewish Times, Prime Number Magazine, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Under the pen name, Allan Kemp, he is the author of the Black Phoenix urban fantasy series.
Jim and I were on the phone, discussing his recent love-gone-wrong, and, boy, did he feel like shit. He wondered if it’d be possible to have a do-over for that threesome. Get it right.
And I wondered if it was possible for the sex to go wrong. Or is it always the relationships that go wrong and cause the sex to falter? I mean, barring force, coercion, infection or… can sex go wrong? Or is it the relationships?
The do-over would be reparative, Jim explained. They’d invite that guy back again for another threesome. Jim had it worked out in his head. They could fuck him like this, or like that. Make eye contact with each other at just the right moment. Get everyone in the groove.
I listened. Unconvinced. Even Jim was not convinced as he made the argument.
“But sometimes there’s such ecstasy in a threesome,” said Jim. “I mean, when it’s great, it’s great. And when it’s not?”
My mind answered the question: There’s emotional turmoil and feelings of inadequacy, or disrespect, or abandonment and you think about it for days, weeks, months. Had it been a year since their first go of it? He added, “The problem wasn’t the threesome.”
I nodded silently, on the phone, when he said it.
Really? Jim met Mr. Threesome for drinks just to get his take on the situation, even after Jim and his partner had parted ways. From the invited guest’s point of view, everything was great. Mr. Threesome is involved in his own drama with his husband divorcing him to move to Brazil with a younger man, though. What does he know? No, definitely, everything was great.
It’s sort of a miracle when two people make enough of the same story of their interactions, their looks, their words, and alliances in order to have a good experience, settle down and enjoy some time. Definitely a miracle to make it last.
During the lengthy catch-up with Jim, I have also begun thinking about the most recent person I dated. Just a week, then friendship. “Flirtatious friendship,” she said.
“What are you getting out of that?” I grumped.
Something went wrong. Or maybe it went right. How could I know which?
About a year ago, I overheard a conversation that has stayed with me. I was in a gallery where a woman’s art was being shown, and someone smiled and marveled at her domestic feat—she and her husband: forty years together this year! Her husband said, “Yeah, no trick really. If you’re lucky to meet someone when you’re both young enough, you grow up together. All of your likes and dislikes develop together. How you handle things. You know what the other person means. That makes it easy. We get along. ” They both smiled and nodded, like a postcard image from the land of happy relationships.
Maybe it’s lucky that I still have some growing up to do.
See how I did that? Went straight to optimism rather than saying, god, you’re screwed really, if you try to partner up as an adult, an older adult, an adult with your own ways of coping and finding beauty in the world, thank you very much. Don’t harsh my mellow, babe. I already know how things work. One could see it like that instead. I’m always so fucking optimistic.
“Doesn’t there have to be some kind of effortless frisson in a good threesome?” I said to Jim. “Or some kind of arduous planning? I mean, as soon as you’re trying to make it go well, it’s already not going well. So, the do-over would never work. The two of you with the plan would be maneuvering the third in order to get it right. And then that third guy— that guy who’s not part of your relationship, that guy who’s really great and really hot and carrying around his own drama—that guy’s just a prop.
“I don’t relate to sex like that,” I said to Jim.
But, of course, sometimes I do. I’m always telling some kind of story in my head—I think everyone does that. I am also feeling the body. And perceiving the other person. It’s not like we respond to one another based on animal musk alone. We have interconnected stories. Sometimes our stories rub each other the wrong way, though there can be attraction in that too. And what about emotions? Always a river of emotion just beneath the skin. A grip that leaves bruising can mean pleasure and the most tender touch, pain. An embrace soothes one day, stifles the next. The lexicon is unstable. It’s amazing we ever understand each other at all. Perhaps the range of human stories is smaller than I’m willing to admit.
“You showed me tenderness,” my date said.
And I learned that was a bad thing. Only not bad, because, wow, who would call that bad? I didn’t even know what I’d done that could be interpreted as tender. I’m just being… human, I thought. But yeah, that can look a lot of ways. Tenderness caused distance, which wasn’t what I was hoping for. It wasn’t what she wanted either, at least not at first. She was so interested in me at first—and remains so, though in an oddly constructed sort of way. I pouted and pondered. Then I laughed at myself. Always back to compassion and amusement, still a little weird and nervous; hopeful me.
Even with two. Even with one. We are telling ourselves our stories. My body and mind don’t always know each other. Emotions spring from both, make a wet mess or a happy puddle. How can it feel so good to sleep in the wet, metal, acid, musty funk of sex, body truly relaxed? Body rent, spent, heavy with sleep, still whole. Is “good sex” even about knowing someone, or just imagining what we mean to each other, what we ourselves have become, with the other?
I’ve felt alone in a loved one’s embrace too.
“I have issues with trust.” My date said. And I was listening and trying to understand, but I didn’t understand. Why would a person let that shit win? Yeah, so what? That’s my story. Maybe I was not listening well enough. Try again. Stop. Don’t try too hard to understand. I could just listen. Just. Be a good. Was I listening or telling my own story? I couldn’t tell.
Here’s a story about a threesome that went wrong. Jim keeps talking about the sex-gone-wrong like it’s the important part. And my mind is traveling.
This was a long time ago so I have nothing but perspective, which is all I ever really had even when it was happening: mine. I am just one person after all. We were three one people. Two of us, long-term lovers, thinking that we already knew each other. We didn’t know ourselves in that situation. I’m not sure I know us now, so I’m grateful that the past is pliable and lets me re-mold it according to my current understanding. This is the story that came to mind when Jim was saying, “What if we could just have a do-over? Maybe then it would all turn out okay.” Maybe then Jim wouldn’t be meeting his former partner in the park, for a walk, rather than wasting another meal he couldn’t eat after those kinds of awful conversations they have now.
My lover was an angry, jealous sort. And wow, that can take up a lot of time and supplant ease and many of the good feelings people have for one another. She perceived an interloper, interested in my affections. I rolled my eyes. Tedious. “So what if she’s hot for me?” I said about the interloper. “I can’t do anything about that.” I said. “I’m totally not into her or I’d have already done something about it!” I made a bold statement. I wouldn’t let her think she was bullying me. I’d have had sex with the interloper if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
(My eleven-year-old son laid it down for me once, after an evening we spent with this same interloper: “You’re stupid if you don’t know she likes you.”
I replied, “I know she likes me, but what can I do about that?”
He answered with the buggy eyes of a kid who had to tolerate adult stupidity. “You could stop encouraging her!”)
So, my lover and I were on a road trip and I was starting to get pouty about the whole trip blown to hell because of her jealousy and nonsense and soon she’d go stoic and not even speak to me. But then something different happened. She said, “Okay, what if I do something else with this feeling? What if I embrace it? What if I see it for what it is: someone thinks you’re hot. Why wouldn’t she? I think you’re hot!” I brightened a bit. Could this be? She continued. “Yeah, she and I are alike enough that I could totally even see what she’s into about you. Yeah, I like her! I mean, I do actually like her. It’s not like I’m mad at her about anything. I get it. You are hot.”
Mobility was one of the things I loved about her, the ability to come up out of something tricky and think about it, move to see it another way. It had just never happened before on this theme. I was nodding, not minding at all being thought of favorably now by both of these women—the interloper and my lover, with whom I was not going to have a bad weekend after all. Then she said, “Yeah, I’m totally getting into the idea of watching her fuck you.”
“Hang on. Are you serious?” I was stunned that she’d gone straight from angry and jealous to this. She’d gone straight to watching us fuck from giving me side-eye and saying, “Never a minute’s peace with you. Every butch dyke within four hours of here comes sniffing around your porch wondering if you neeeeed anything.” That old saw exhausted me, of course, and I whined about how they never meant anything by it, but I was not sure her new turn would be an improvement.
It’s not that I’m against threesomes. I’m just not a fan. If the moment seemed right, my optimism would likely kick in again, though I’d doubt my competence. In theory, great. It seems like communication is all it takes, but meh. I’d sort of relegated threesomes to youthful experimentation. I’d experimented. I prefer connection and depth with one person, with myself, and, well, whether or not I always get those things has nothing to do with the thrill of a third person.
“But what if something amazing can be enhanced?” Jim said.
“What if it can?” I countered. “At what risk to some greater, longer-lasting peace?”
But, hey, it was fun to see her so animated about something that normally installed a rain cloud over her head. And then it was fun to speculate, with my lover, about the desires and propensities of this third person, to review the small things the lovely interloper said that were evidence of what she would think or want or like or do. And my lover and I had a good time on that trip, and good sex, and ease. That’s what I want really. Ease. Just let there be ease, kindness, affection. Of course I want good sex. Maybe I want more than I realize.
Just before our fourth date in one week, the woman with trust issues asked me whether I enjoy affection, somewhat public affection. We both noted the small thrill of our legs leaning together on a previous date, in the theatre, and I was thinking about how a small thrill can take up residence and exude a larger loveliness than expected. And about how much I loved the clarity of a direct question like, “Do you enjoy public affection?” And we would be in that theatre again that very evening. I am not often one to make bold gestures, but I think, good. I have made space for her simple gestures, bold gestures. I was receptive and looking forward to affection. Quite so. I was possessed of a small thrill, just in the talking. The talking, indeed, was what had happened between us, nothing else. Yet the loveliness was large. But that night, something was off. She didn’t touch me all evening, even after asking to earlier in the day. Not even her leg leaning into mine.
By the second day of our road trip, after the swimming and strolling, during the long and scenic drive toward home, my lover and I were planning to ask the interloper (who had then become the third party, or even the sweet friend) if she wanted to… you know. How will we ask her and what mood will be made of this? The planning was a small thrill, growing larger, and we were fairly sure she’d say yes. She’d been doing some work on the house and that’s why my lover became fixated on her in the first place. The two of them worked all morning on the house and I worked inside and then made lunch and the three of us ate and then they got back to work. Every evening when we were alone, my lover fixated on how the interloper looked at me and flirted. And I said, no, that kind of flirting didn’t mean anything. It was just appreciation, recognition. And my lover curled her lip in disgust.
We were planning the threesome, so sure we knew what was coming, but how on earth could we have known each other, our own minds—let alone her? We were just happy for the relief of jealousy and anger. Well, I was, and perhaps that relief made me extra hopeful, because usually I’m a think-and-talk-things-through kind of gal. And I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the interloper, our sweet friend, to be uncomfortable in any way.
I phoned while we were on the road and left a coquettish message saying how we’d been keeping company so much lately, what with the home improvements and all, and that my lover and I had been thinking about her and could we talk soon?
It’s not the who’s-doing-what in bed, it seems to me as Jim talks. It’s who’s looking at whom and how. The flow of the eye contact; the flow of connection. Who feels important and why. It’s the wanting and fulfillment of desire for something that’s not just physical. I’ll accept that some people are better at these encounters than others and it seems that, for Jim, it’s gone well numerous, numerous times. He’s a directive sort, after all, and I’m sure he steers well around tight corners, maneuvers out of a cul de sac with ease. Maybe it’d be easier with three strangers, I muse, during our conversation. “No,” he says, “it’s particularly sweet when two of the people really care for each other.” I realize that I’ve never been “the third” in a threesome. I’ve always been one of the two partnered people. At some point, I’ve always thought, Why are we doing this? even if the whole thing was… nice.
The interloper did indeed agree, said she felt like suddenly it was Christmas. I felt my first heart-clench of overwrought expectation.
We had a simple candlelit dinner and my lover was suave, sexy, and a bit removed. She had already turned voyeuristic. We had discussed nothing of our fantasies with our invited guest. Truth is, I’m not even sure I had my own specific fantasies. Which was strange for us. Usually I was the one steering the romance, though she was driving the sex. I smiled, winked, and beckoned with one painted fingernail; I tapped my shiny lower lip, raised an eyebrow and she leaned in for a kiss.
This was so different—her imagining and discussing the unfolding event, during our road trip. I was excited hearing all of the set up she envisioned, all of the anticipation she’d mustered. She had really talked it through and that was the thrill for me. I recalled how, when we were first together, it took her a while to get good at phone sex. I give good talk; she was more action than language.
I’d already had what I wanted. The ease. The talk. The twosome.
Did I mention I wasn’t into this woman? I wasn’t lying. That was the truth. And as soon as she was kissing me, I panicked. What the fuck kind of stupid idea was this?! And then she was kissing my lover and I swear to god my lover was having the same thought because, you know, who invited that kiss? Not me. Not her. I’ve been with women who turn into giant homophobes about the thought of a butch-on-butch kiss. That wasn’t it exactly, but what was it? And what was happening to my lover and her assertiveness? As we moved to the bed, as if on a conveyor belt, I was already thinking how to maneuver into the driver’s seat. We were careening out of control. I didn’t know how weird things had gotten for my lover until she looked at me, stricken, with the interloper kissing down her back, and mouthed, “Help.”
Oh, this is good, I thought. And then I started noticing the interloper’s energy and how she would turn to me ravenous, then back to my lover, perfunctory, and I said, “Hey, let me just put words on the dynamic here. I’m not sure there’s a charge happening between the two of you in the same way that both of you have a charge for me.” And it was like I’d just given two magnets permission to fly apart—but when they both instantly attached onto me with a powerful zeal, I thought, lord help me, what have I done? And who were these sniveling cowards I was in bed with anyway? Neither one of them had any voice of her own.
“I just didn’t want you to feel left out,” said the interloper to my lover and they practically shook hands, all forgiven.
It’s also true that I felt a sweet protective feeling toward my lover. And that’s not totally hot. And then there they were, like a hundred hands and mouths and, okay, she didn’t know me, but Jesus, do not bite my nipples. Too much was happening at once.
And maybe it’s this: Nothing they were doing was about me. It was about them, only not really that either. It was about some idea of each other, and some idea of me and some idea I had about ease. And they’d have just carried on, only I’m not keen to be the vessel for something in which I’m not really participating, and so I sat up and said, “I’m very sorry, but this isn’t working for me.” And I stood up and started putting on a bit of clothing, just enough to be clear, polite. I was apologizing and my lover sat back to watch me do my thing. She knew me and respected my voice, my sexual intuition, and my sense of things. She often took my lead because she trusted it.
We went back to the table and I served dessert and what could we say? Our interloper was apologizing and re-strategizing and trying to get us all back to bed. And I was done. My lover had gone back to her stoic observer role, waiting for me to find the kind and comfortable way out of all this. She was definitely still in her sexuality, but like a vacuum-packed container of her sexual self—no scent of anything, nothing in the package to be affected by the outside air. I knew we’d be doin’ it when the interloper left, and the trouble was, the interloper knew it too. She was hurt and felt excluded because she had been. And not just by me.
I’m not sure what happened between the two of them, but they remained friends in the coming months, became closer even, as they sat on the porch and drank beer, my lover affectionate toward me, the interloper a bit chilly to me when she’d say hello or goodbye. It took years before the interloper and I were on truly good terms.
I’ve learned this lesson before, in childhood, and how many times since? The person who finds the voice stands to lose the relationships. And I’m always trying to grow up enough to find the kindness in the voice. I still stand to lose, even as I soften so my voice doesn’t sound like, “Well, fuck you, at least I’m still standing.”
My date said those trust issues weren’t about me and that was some small relief, but she didn’t want to keep dating me either. Those issues influenced how close I could be to her. I’m still drawn to her, and yet I cannot come near. What use is the attraction? There’s some meaning in that word, isn’t there? Attraction. Something magnetic, like metal, wood, blood, the scent of sex or purpose. Does purpose have a scent? Does sex have a scent before it happens? Everything contains its opposite too: repulsion. I read once that organically occurring perfumes, like those containing wood or flowers, will always be more compelling to humans than synthetic scents. Synthetic scents are all good-smell. The natural ones also contain feces and decay.
“I’m definitely attracted you. This is all new territory for me,” my date said. “I enjoy/adore you and for whatever reason…” She didn’t remain compelled. Or maybe it was that she felt more compelled to withdraw. Not my business to know.
Something was in decay; stillborn. And I was suspiciously eyeing her. Her inability to remain true to a simple attraction made her seem untrustworthy, and somehow, more interesting. Is that even true? Maybe it’s more trustworthy to actually see a person’s errant whims and fears, rather than them being hidden. Such strange start-stop inconsistencies and fear-pleasure combinations. I was noting the inconsistencies—in her and in me too. Single. Separate. Still interested. Irritated. Accepting. Still engaged and observing.
Scent triggers memory. Who am I to her and she to me? And what do I care if some stranger doesn’t want to date me any more? The body wants complexity, not just the good. I am attracted to sweet-clear-something-not-quite-right-complexity, already waking up in the warm puddle of it, though alone.
My life is good. I am alone. In the hammock, I’m listening with interest to Jim’s story about his recent loss of love. “We didn’t communicate enough,” he said.
And I said, “It sounds like you communicated all the time; you just didn’t want the same things.”
He disagreed, and we carried on discussing the terrain of speaking and listening and sometimes deciding to do what doesn’t feel right, or what feels right in the moment but you know it won’t be later.
Jim said, “He knew it would hurt me to leave with the guy from the threesome, and he did it anyway. He even acknowledged it later. He knew he could’ve simply stopped and connected with me and then called that guy afterward if he was going to do that. That would’ve been unpleasant, but not the same as leaving with him, barely a goodbye to me.”
I sighed at the pain of this. “It wasn’t the lack of communication.” I said. “It was the follow-through.”
Now my date and I only communicate via email. All this speaking and listening and writing and reading, and my erotic body doesn’t understand why it’s been left out of the conversation. The body is how I know things, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this odd bit of dating, my mind shouldn’t be in charge. It’s too unstable and is far too fond of its own notions. If I’d been Jim, I would’ve wanted a kiss, touch, and fondness, too, before my lover left the house. That scenario makes me want to cry. More zeal for a stranger than kindness for an intimate. More desire to stay separate from someone significant than to risk being close. Even knowing what made sense, Jim’s lover couldn’t do it. Even with so much spark and talk and enthusiasm, my date decided that even kissing me once, just to find out what attraction was there, would be too much.
Whether it’s three, two, or just one person, we learn the shifting terrain of love and sex slowly with a combination of fear and pleasure. Never the same river twice. New bodies and stories bring new meaning.
But the mind can maintain the same river, step into it the same way, again and again. The mind can make pleasure or fear, depending on what it expects, creates, endures.
I told a friend about the dates gone wrong and she said, “Don’t push the river.”
“I’m impatient.” I replied. “I want to know what’s possible; what’s not.”
I also know this: Love listens and is patient. Fear wants speedy resolution and will get all up in someone’s business to find relief. I have trust issues. But why would a person let that shit win?
I pose no threat. I am more thoughtful and communicative than most. I know the importance of sex. Consistency and tenderness help me overcome fear. That’s my story. Jim is also kind and thoughtful and yet, when he said, “no more,” his partner was wrecked and angry, devoured by loss. We inhabit a shifting terrain and come to know it intimately, no matter whom we keep at arm’s length. Distance just placates the mind and keeps pleasure at bay. Managing a bit of hunger can seem better than feeling sated and vulnerable. And why not? It’s all just a story.
I know what I want, and there’s risk in it but not too much. I will almost always choose the risk of two, probably not three or more. I am fairly content with one. Jim and I are talking about communication, and that means memory and longing and whether what we want can match up with our abilities to achieve it. When I’m confused, the body tells me when to hang on, when to let go, when to stand up and put my clothes on. That’s my story. I trust that wanting means I’m alive. It’s good to be alive. I rely on the beauty of being able to stand up again after feeling broken. So far, that’s what’s always happened.
There’s wisdom in optimism. That’s my story.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
1986. I was sixteen, and I was spending the night alone with my boyfriend, M. We were at his house, but his parents were gone. His father was dead, actually—he’d died several years earlier of cancer. He’d been forty-two, which sounded old to me, but everyone remarked on how young it was. It’s younger than I am now. His mother was out of town with his sister. My parents were divorced, and I was playing them against one another; each thought I was with the other, and their inability to speak to each other without shouting was, for once, working to my advantage.
So we were alone. And young, and inexperienced, but safe. His house was on a dead-end dirt road and no one was around for miles. It was summertime in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The August evening air was already crisp, and we were snug in the tree-hidden house at the end of the drive. No one knew what we were doing. Not even us.
M had shoulder-length hair and spent the summer in bare feet; his soles were calloused. He had ice-blue eyes and a quick, wide smile. He was skinny and a little nerdy; I was a sucker for smart and funny. That never changed. He loved comic books and the Beatles; a homemade Beatles cassette was on constant play in his car, a red VW Rabbit that he drove barefoot, and where we spent hours parked. The White Album. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. We leaned over the stick shift and put our hands in each other’s shirts, longing for more privacy, more space. Now we had it. M also loved old movies, which is why we were watching The Man Who Fell to Earth when we first got completely naked with each other.
In 1986, VCRs were still kind of a fancy thing to have in the rural place we lived. Neither of my parents’ households had VCRs. But they were mainstream enough that there were plenty of movie-rental joints, including one at the arthouse cinema, which is where we found the David Bowie classic. I had been in first grade when it was originally released; a lifetime ago. It was still early evening when we popped the tape into the VCR, but the sun was setting. It was late summer in Vermont and the crickets were just warming up, reminding us that soon school would start, soon our parents would get wise, soon we wouldn’t be sixteen and seventeen anymore.
I was surprised to see what Bowie looked like, white and redheaded and young, his eyes fierce. He’d recently made his comeback in popular culture, and in 1986 he seemed so old to me, so grownup in his suits and his dress shoes, doing his improbably debonair dancing on MTV next to Madonna and Bruce. Bowie was younger in the eighties than I am now. But in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was younger still, and looked more like me and my seventeen-year-old boyfriend—smooth, pale, unlined. Newly emerged, on a strange planet.
I remember almost nothing else about the movie. Shortly after the opening credits rolled, M traced my arm, starting from the spot where my collarbone connected to my shoulder and slowly making his way to the tip of my index finger, and my insides turned upside down. I hadn’t known a single touch could do that. I rolled over to face him and melted into what we were really here to do, which was to find our way in new territory. And the movie played as we removed one article of clothing at a time, exposing bare expanses of taut young skin, smooth and warm.
By the time the movie ended, we were both fully nude and it was time to do what we were pretty sure it was time to do. M began unwrapping the condom. I was shaking head to toe. I wanted to and didn’t want to. I couldn’t look M in the eye, suddenly aware and embarrassed of my youth. And then M gave me an out. “I think this may have expired,” he said. “It may not be safe.” The condom.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this, then,” I said slowly.
“Maybe not,” he agreed. And then I could look into his ice-blue eyes again. It wasn’t just me who needed the out. Neither of us were ready. I was a little disappointed—I hadn’t yet arrived where I thought I was headed. But mostly I was relieved and grateful to be in a safe place with a nerdy boy who was content to kiss and touch and laugh with me for the night.
That night I looked through the skylight at the moon, round and unusually red, and thought I could never be so happy ever again, never feel so much again. I wouldn’t lose my virginity for a couple more years, but something had shifted nonetheless. My heart drummed in my chest, strong, insistent, never-ending, ever-expanding. But I was sixteen, and I didn’t know anything. M and I broke up shortly after school began, several weeks later, off to explore new lands, gaining fluency. And now Bowie is gone, also cancer, leaving the world decades older than M’s father did, but now that seems too soon to me, too. My parents found a way to speak to each other again; my father visited my mother on her death bed last fall, also cancer. And I am older than I ever imagined being when I was sixteen and had just fallen to Earth and had so many roads open to me and so much time that I could pause a while before deciding which one to take.
NAOMI SHULMAN is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Cognoscenti, Yankee, and on New England Public Radio, as well as the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.
I’m not sure when I started telling my husband bedtime stories to get us in the mood, but the why is clear: We had begun looking at each other at the end of the day with the erotic gaze of two poached animals. After checking off our entire list items for the day, we had become just one last to-do.
Fact: The last thing on your list never gets done.
“Should we?” I asked Adam.
“I don’t know—do you want to?” he said.
The truth is, I didn’t. Adam might tell me he is game nearly a hundred percent of the time, but there was something weighing on us. The feeling was: not yet, or maybe, not here. The room. This room! It was infected with everything left from the day. It was like someone had stuffed the last twenty-four hours in a canister and had set it off like a bug bomb in our bedroom.
“It’s this place,” I said. “It’s haunted by the specters of our godforsaken lives!”
We stared at the ceiling for a while.
“What if we weren’t here,” I suggested. “What if we pretended we were… somewhere else?”
“Are you going to go all Fifty Shades on me?” he asked.
I hadn’t actually read the book, though I got what he was implying. “That reminds me… I have never even asked you what your fantasy is.”
We both looked around the room. We looked at each other.
“I’m kind of happy with how we do things,” Adam said.
“I don’t have any problem with how we do things, either, you know.”
“Maybe if we had better furniture?”
“What if we just pretended we were someplace else?”
And that’s when the solution became clear to me: I was in search of a Calgon Moment. I’m a travel writer by trade. You know the girl—itchy feet, heart on fire. But I’ve got the whole shebang—kids, husband, house. Sometimes it’s just not possible to wander, so in that moment, in the space between checking off lists and connecting with my husband, I decided we that we would wander through stories.
Adam was game. And so on one of these days, these one-day-in-a-million-same-days, I started in on the spot with what would be the first in a long line of stories created to whisk us away to somewhere else.
“Okay, we’re in Munich,” I started in. “We’re at Café Rischart, that little place on Marienplatz that makes the tiramisu so thick and high it looks like a building. I’m the new apprentice baker. I’m whipping the zabaglione for the tiramisu on my first day alone in the bakery. But oh, look, there you are. You’re a busboy. You are sweeping the front of the store before it opens. It’s wintertime so there is a light flurry of snowflakes falling outside. The smell of coffee and cream is in the air. You’re watching me whip the fluffy cream layer as you sweep, back-and-forth. But then, I drop an egg! It falls to the floor and cracks. You walk towards me to help me clean it up and you flip the switch by the door, setting off the animatronic elves in the front window.”
At that point, he laughed.
We were there. Or rather, we weren’t there—at least, not in that room haunted with the ghosts of the day.
But would it work again?
Over the next couple of months, Adam and I met at tea ceremonies in Japan, at a terrarium bar where we reached into the same glass globe of air plants. We become those people who have stood in the electricity of proximity while waiting for an hour outside a trendy brunch spot. We both wax on about the just-melted cheese atop the huevos rancheros and the silken avocados until yes, there we are stepping out of line and heading somewhere, and fast. We’ve been solo travelers on a cruise ship, a rain-soaked logger and a soup chef, two lost people at a meditation retreat, a wedding dress designer and the girl who’s just about to marry the wrong guy, a mover with one last box to carry me over the threshold, two people who at a shelter trying to adopt the same cat.
Any writer worth her ilk will tell you there is fun to be had in placing characters in a new setting and watching them do the unexpected — that if Flaubert had set Madame Bovary loose in Marseille, she might not have ended up drinking that bottle of arsenic. But while the settings always change, some elements are always the same: The two of us meet cute somewhere far, far away and interact until that point where we look at each other and it’s become the inevitable.
We are going to have sex.
There is no stopping it because this story can’t end any other way.
“We are in the grocery store, and we’re both carrying those shopping baskets because we live alone. We’re looking at cereal. I can’t find the Rice Krispies. You look at me, and I’m just about to cry because I had a bad day at work where I’m sure the guy I share my office with is trying to destroy me. You’ve got pine nuts and fresh fronds of basil in your basket and were headed to the pasta aisle when you saw me there in my shirt, slightly askew because the buttons were off by one. You say, ‘General Mills, I think that’s over there, on the bottom row,’ and you bend down and pull it off the shelf for me. Kneeling, you hand it to me and say, ‘I love Rice Krispies, too.’ We put our groceries in one of our carts and ditch the other one.”
Isn’t this what we really have to overcome in the long-term relationships: to meet again and experience the thrill of what it felt like to be the only high line-item priority to another person, the only truly necessary thing on the list?
I’m getting better in the telling as I concoct more stories for us. The stories get easier to relate, the situations more specific, our jobs and pasts more complex. I always throw something in there to make Adam laugh—I give him some creative manscaping, or I’m wearing platform shoes with aquariums in the heels a la I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and my heel fish is depressed and, surprise! Adam’s the only fish expert in the city who can help. I pick places I know would make him happy: two solo hikers in an old-growth forest, a man and a woman who showed up at the same show on the wrong night. Two people lost without a map who have to rely on their more animal instincts to find their way out of the city.
But most of the time I am picking settings just for me. I am a harried office worker joining the laptop brigade over a latte, he’s a sailor just in from his ship, tying knots to make a handle for the cold brew station at my favorite coffee shop.
“I can sense you there beside me. What are you doing? You’ve got the black rope in one hand and are affixing it to the top of a ten-inch-long cylinder of wood with a line of thin duct tape. It’s long and about one-inch wide, smoothed by hand. I type away, and you are weaving the rope in and out in a braid around the long, thick handle of wood. I’m watching you but trying not to seem as if I am. You’re about a third of a way down the wood now. Occasionally you whip a thread of paracord to the left and it lands on the soft skin of my right inner thigh. You don’t even notice, and I don’t tell you, but it keeps happening. Thwap. I’m typing, typing away as the barista steams milk for my latte and there’s this guttural swirling sound moving from a low grumble to a high-pitched scream. My fingers are typing faster now, though a few minutes later I can’t even say what I’ve written since all that I can sense is the light flick of paracord hitting my thigh. Thwap. You’re close to the bottom of the handle, now. Thwap. You’re almost finished with it. Thwap. You tie off a knot at the end and then look up at me.”
EMILY GROSVENOR is an independent journalist and essayist based in McMinnville, OR. She blogs at www.pioneerperfume.com, and you can follower on Twitter @emilygrosvenor.
“Did I tell you? I’m multi-orgasmic,” said my eighty-three-year-old mother. This was her conversational style—ditch the segue and go straight to another chat about sex. I was taking our picnic gear from the trunk of my car and needed a minute to process. “I learned that word in the book you gave me.”
Walking along our favorite beach with its long, easy-going shoreline gave my mother and I time to talk more honestly after my father’s death. In the process, we became friends. She was like a broken piggy bank as her collected stories spilled out. I was the first woman she had ever talked to about sex; from my teen years on, I knew more than she did on the subject.
On one of our earliest walks, she revealed that for their first twenty years of marriage, the missionary position was the arrangement. And for the last thirty years it had been husband-directed abstinence. Once I was past my do-I-really-want-to-know-this reaction, it was distressing to think how sexually unfulfilled she must have been her whole life.
Even though my father had enjoyed dirty jokes and recited smutty limericks, I realized as an adult how unworldly, if not prudish, he was. On one occasion after a lesbian couple had visited, my mother brought up a new topic of inquiry—how do two women make love? When I started to answer, my father said, “You can’t be serious,” in a tone freighted with yuck, and fled to the living room to watch The Brady Bunch with my kids.
“Now that I know more,” my mother said on another beach walk, her voice thick with resentment, “I realize that sex with your father was strictly for his benefit.”
I asked her to say more. She hesitated, her eyes taking my measure, as if to see whether I was grown-up enough. “The fact is,” she said, her face flushing with embarrassment, “I never had an orgasm during intercourse in my marriage. I’ve only had them in my sleep.”
“I’m really sorry, Mom,” was all I could think to say at the time.
The more she revealed, the more I was struck by the difference one generation can make.
When I was nine, the Big Talk with my mother consisted of her buying me the book OnBeing Born, which contained not one mention of how people “did it.” Ten years later, my mother’s second attempt at instruction came shortly before I walked down the aisle. She offered this as my sendoff: “Sex can be beautiful.”
With the advent of the women’s movement and the freedom to have intimate talks with women and men, I enjoyed a good lover or two. Unlike the women of my mother’s era, I knew how to take care of my sexual needs with or without a partner. A bonus was frequenting, without the slightest embarrassment, the paraphernalia treasure house in Berkeley called Good Vibrations.
I would have taken my mother to choose her own vibrator, but I didn’t trust that she could remain as composed as the sophisticates who shopped there. Only in the Bay Area could women pretend it was no big deal to see an entire shelf of hefty Day-Glo dildos. And so for my mother’s next birthday, I bought her a small, basic vibrator and the book Sex for One by Betty Dodson. I insisted she open my gift at home, after a birthday lunch with my daughters.
Later that evening my phone rang.
“Were you trying to kill me?”
“Mom?” I barely recognized her throaty voice.
“Who else? Your gift almost took the top of my head off.”
Then I remembered her special present.
“Well,” she tried again, “this is the best gift anyone has ever given me. I had no idea.”
With that it started. Sometimes, when my mother and I chatted on the phone, catching each other up, her tone would soften. I knew what was coming. It was as predictable as the ochery sky that precedes a Midwest summer storm. And sure enough, she would pause for a moment and then share, “Mr. Right dropped by today.”
I would picture her mischievous smile and appreciate her late-in-life pleasure all over again. “How nice for you,” I would say and mean it. “There’s nothing like an attentive lover.”
I was happy for her in private, but her did-I-need-any-batteries remark in the aisle at Rite-Aid made me—her enabler—blush. I was more comfortable in the roles of sympathetic listener and occasional sex educator. There were still things my mother wanted to know about in detail into her nineties.
She was curious about the younger generation. What did they use for birth control? She thought the morning-after pill was great, but she worried that kids took sex too lightly and had it too early. “It should be special,” she said lost in thought while we drove along the winding coastline after a day at the beach. “I hope it was for you and the girls.”
We never talked about my sex life and how my mother had openly fretted over my getting pregnant before marriage—ironic, since she hadn’t provided a single method of avoiding it. Several girls in my high school had been sent to “their aunts” for extended vacations. Their pregnancies were the narrative that dominated my mother’s vigilance until I was safely married off without the proverbial shotgun. Later, when she occasionally dug my first and sweetest love, Jerry, out of her memory vault, my feelings of resentment at being spied on by her reconstituted like a glass of Tang. Reliving my adolescence when sex was half terrifying and half aching required me to stop and take a breath before I could appreciate why she worried. It took a while after the Jerry exchanges before we were back on the friendship track.
After a memorial service for a family friend, my mother brought up the topic that was most on her mind. I anticipated another gloomy pre-death drill on where to find the money she had stashed in various shoe boxes if she “croaked.” Instead, it was what if she died in bed and the paramedics found Mr. Right? What would they think of her at her age?
I wanted to honor our unique end-of-life discussion and not go for the easy retort, you’ll be dead. Instead I said, “I’m sure they’ve seen it all. Besides, they might think you’re really worth saving. Ignore the DNR on the fridge door and keep you going.”
We never stopped talking about sex. I should say my mother never did. We would laugh about the way intimate details of sex were being hinted at in the new century. “How ridiculous,” my hip mother said after watching a vaginal fragrance ad of a woman dancing through a field of lavender after the implied douche. “We need information, not crap like that.”
On one of our last trips to the beach, my mother said, “You’re a writer. You should write about the fact that there are a lot of old ladies out there, like me, who think they have to go without. We still have all of our urges and body parts, but no one talks about it. And their daughters aren’t as thoughtful as you were.”
“If I did, it would be about you.”
“You could wait until I’m dead,” said Mom—the eternal shock jock. “It won’t be that long.” She could move between death and life in a matter of minutes, going over the details of her imminent departure in the parking lot and then once inside Safeway buy two half-gallons of ice cream.
“Oh. What do I care?” she said with a devilish grin. “Go for it.” She asked me more than a few times how this very essay was coming along.
We didn’t always have serious talks about sex. One time we settled on our beach blanket, and with a little wine to loosen our imaginations, made up commercials for vibrators, delighting in our witty jingles until the tears streamed down our cheeks. I miss those times.
Shortly before her death at ninety-seven, we were having coffee in her kitchen. “I want you to take this box,” she said, moving our cups to the side and putting a small silvery box on the table. She lifted the lid and I saw the very dog-eared book Sex for One and Mr. Right wrapped up like a mummy. “I think my time has about run out, and if your brother gets here first and finds these, he might think the worst of his old mother.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, honey. I don’t think I ever thanked you adequately for that wonderful birthday present. It changed my life.”
When I saw how frail she was, I took the box.
Just when I was about to break down in sobs, anticipating how much I would miss her, she cut through my sentiment in the formidable directive tone I knew from my childhood. “And don’t put it in the dumpster outside,” she said, her eyes fixed on me until I nodded yes. “They probably go through the trash here. You never know these days who’s spying on you.”
BARBARA CLARKE works as a freelance grant writer and written extensively for corporate clients, trade magazines, and newspapers on a variety of topics. Her memoir, Getting to Home: Sojourn in a Perfect House, was published in 2009. “How Many Writing Books Does It Take to Write a Novel, Memoir, Nonfiction or Something besides an Annual Holiday Letter?” appeared in the 2010 debut issue of Line Zero, a literary-arts magazine. She is currently completing a novel that includes socially relevant topics on the health insurance industry (where she worked as an executive for fifteen stressful years), the pre- and post-Feminine Mystique generations, and the various ways of love. She uses Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as both her personal and writing guide. Her blog is www.thiscertainage.com, and her website is www.barbaraclarke.net.
To become a parent in a hospital in a city somewhere in the United States you hear: Beeping machines, the institutional whir of apparatus such as a metal birthing bar that automatically lowers from the ceiling with the click of a switch, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum sheen, the medical snap of a glove pulled on, the growl and roar of a woman who you are later surprised to learn is yourself, the knuckled clenching of her hands on the metal bar, a pause of silent fear, the bleat of an up-to-the-minute new, miniscule person.
To raise an infant you understand that you must become the owners of mountains of items, gear, devices, such required equipment as strollers (newborn carriage; upright jogger; portable umbrella stroller; add-on car-seat click tray with SafeAssure™ technology), vibrating bouncy seats, bottle warmers, feeding timers, car-seat adapters, and automatic milk pumps. This gear helps you transport, feed, comfort, but it also must be parented in turn—assembled, folded, stored, charged, disinfected, adjusted. You have a whole catalogue of new children now, littered around the house.
You hear: The din of advice from family, advice from friends, advice from co-workers, advice from your husband’s boss, advice from mommy bloggers, advice from elected representatives, advice from newscasters, from grocery clerks, from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the hated Pinterest, advice to slow down to rock her to sing louder sing more softly to bathe once a week at maximum to vaccinate right away to wait to let her cry try gluten free soy free dairy free to switch detergents, but whatever they say you infer what they all really mean is, never let anyone see your nipples.
As you learn a new, completely clock-worked dance with your partner, there sounds the tinkle of a very old tune, perhaps a Scottish fiddle song, to which couples have been swirling for centuries and the days roll into nights that collapse into days that become nights and you realize at some point that you are not really sleeping or even touching each other at all because she eats and cries a lot and life while beautiful is not really a Scottish fiddle tune but now more of a platonic Metallica marathon.
Someone advises you buy a white noise machine. You learn this is a lunchbox-sized device, available at all baby superstores, takes four AAA batteries. On one end of the cloud-colored box is a speaker, on the other end is a dial that adjusts to the settings: BIRDS, OCEAN, WIND, RAIN, HEARTBEAT. That night after swaddling the baby in the style passed down to you by the ancient tribes, you lay her in her bassinet and your partner switches on the white noise machine, which he is calling the noise maker (this would be funny to you—he never gets the names of things quite right—except that you are too exhausted for funny). He moves the device to the loudest setting and the baby’s crepe paper eyelids leaf down obediently.
In your own bed you lay flat on your back like the mummies, arms by your sides, and you hear the white noise of the noise maker floating down the hallway and into your airspace, sidling up to your ear, rolling in, an auditory fog that lulls you quickly into your own twilight sleep. Next to each other, holding your breaths, your pinkies brush.
It works. Your daughter is approaching a trimester old now, and she can get her frequency turned up pretty good (colic, they say, or reflux). The magical combination, you have finally discovered, is to turn the bath tap on as soon as the fall sun sets. You sit on the edge of the tub with your tiny person and your sore, flappy body parts, listening to the rush of the bath filling. Her face is out of this world, from another place you’ve never heard of. Her eyes are open more often these days; she looks like an endearing alien, all shock and pucker. In the tub, you cradle her sideways and latch her onto your breast. The tap is still gushing, baby gulps drowned out. It must sound to her like she is eating inside Niagara Falls, or somewhere more familiar, her former planet.
After the bath meal, drying off, the laying of hands, lotioning, swaddling, rocking, shushing, she is placed in her cradle with the noise maker on high. You have become loyal to the OCEAN setting. It works every night, despite the creeping feeling that this enchanted solution could in fact fail any minute, leaving you back in Metallicaland. You and your husband steal into your own bed down the hall. The synthetic, looped surf pipes in through the crackling baby monitor, which has a transmitter in the baby nursery and a receiver placed three inches from you on the bedside table. A fake ocean filtered through a transmitter carried by invisible radio waves, pushed through a plastic speaker into your ear, soothing you all, with a manufactured quiet, into the natural state of sleep.
One night at the end of that first trimester of parenting, you lie in the bed and think suddenly it must be time to give your body back to your partner, to yourself. You hear the faint remembering of a previous system of connection, long slow sessions of fusion, swift slam of thirst-slaking, rustle knock tear knead soft moan all that fucking. As the battery-powered waves roll onto their radio beach you reach for each other, sift around, try to be the way you’ve been before. But your body is an alien, come from a place as out of this world as your daughter. It is in its inchoate state, too, a nautilus. The lull of the ocean of rest is so loud that you cannot hear your foreign body at all. You return to your arrangement as mummies, bound together, and drift off.
More weeks pass. The baby settles in, acts more and more like she might stay around. You hear everyone tell you how to navigate—buy this brand of sippy cup, ask these questions when interviewing day cares, lay her down at this angle to prevent unexpected crib death. A turbulence. But quiet, too, is terrifying. Alone at home with the baby all day, you use as many devices as you can. The TV is turned up. The Internet always there. Tea kettle, radio, coffee pot, the toaster’s glowing coils and companionable ding. A swing that oscillates. Tesellating mobiles.
The energy of the earth is a circuit from pole to pole, you realize: zings and jolts supplying the system, sometimes knocking things out, towers and wires strung over the hills, in and out of houses, of hearts, of tiny pink mouths, an electrocuting love.
One night sleeping to the looped white noise of OCEAN, you dream a memory of the real ocean. You are a girl, about eight, visiting your grandparents in Florida. You have your own bedroom facing the Atlantic, which is about 150 feet from your windowed wall. You lie in bed at night, the giant breath of the sea inhaling, then crashing, in the black just outside. This, the ocean’s waves, its body, shushing, thunders over you, three-dimensional sound, wet and gaping. You remember.
Your daughter a couple of months older now. The world is still talking at you about how to be her mother. The strollers and wipe-warmers have made room, too, for toys―blocks that play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and baby dolls that go “waaaah.” It is getting busy in the house. You pack a box, items you feel you should let go of, to make room for other items, board books, doorway bouncer, something called a play mat (monographed)—the catalogue children helping you to raise the organic one. You place the noise maker on the top of the storage box.
That night the three of you lie in the mysterious new quiet. The sheet bunches. The baby whistles unconsciously down the hall. A neighborhood dog howls. You hear the zzzzzzt of desire click on, like the buzz of conductivity when a wire in the dark canister of a device brushes against its charged opposite, the sound of a current in a bedroom somewhere in the United States in a house in the suburbs.
NATALIE SINGER-VELUSH is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post; Brain, Mother, the blog of Brain, Child magazine; Literary Mama; Alligator Juniper; Clamor; This Great Society; Huffington Post; and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie is the editor of ParentMap magazine, where she also writes about parenting issues. She is earning her MFA in creative writing and poetics from University of Washington and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She can be found @Natalie_Writes.
I wear my tall brown boots and short white dress and walk with you like we haven’t been married over a decade and don’t have three children. They are at your parents’ house, baking ginger cookies and picking daffodils and dandelions, for me, because they’re sweet.
We will not talk about the kids tonight, not because we do not love them, but precisely because we love them.
“Just imagine, in four years,” you say, “we could tell Lydia we’ll be back in a few hours and just… leave.” I try to imagine it and can’t.
We talk about anything except upcoming coach-pitch practice, Cub Scouts, and gymnastics. We order two sides and a couple of drinks at The Lockview. It’s our kind of crowd, our kind of bar, hipster, and you secretly love hipster-ish things.
“I can’t pull off hipster,” you say.
“Yeah, skinny jeans don’t work for you,” I say.
“No way, but if big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans were popular, I’d be in.”
“We could market that,” I say, “It has a nice ring to it.” We drink and people-watch. That guy diagonal from us, he could be my grandpa’s cousin. “Maybe he is my grandpa’s cousin,” I say.
Grandpa’s been dead for over seven years. Our middle son, Elvis, was four months old when I sat alone next to Grandpa’s hospice bed and prayed for him to give up his spirit while Mom and Grandma rested, my skin prickling as he sighed one last time and I half-spoke and whispered, “Brandon? I think he’s gone.” You came in quick with Elvis in your arms, our tiny cranky infant who nearly died just four months earlier because he couldn’t breathe as he exited my interior, capillaries sticky and stubborn.
But we’re not talking about them now, because the sun is shining and it’s just us this evening, just us and your Old Fashioned, my Lemon Ice martini. I am determined to take as many selfies with you as you do with the guys when you’re on the road for work. I tag it on Facebook, “Bold and the Beautiful?” and you say, “You mean baold and the beautiful,” because it’s been almost twelve years since we married and you feel bald and old, though you are neither. It doesn’t matter because you feel it, my Mr. Smooth who walks slow sometimes, suave through his back pain, knee pain, elbow pain. Mr. Smooth’s hairline is receding but come on, husband, I don’t notice. You grew out your goatee again, and I love you with a goatee, its bristles against my chin when we kiss.
This is the second time we’re seeing Lyle Lovett and the third for John Hiatt. You raise your drink and toast, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” these tickets a gift from me to you. One Valentine’s Day, we saw a Christian rock group and the next we spent in the hospital for a follow-up miscarriage procedure. It’s April 26 and the second time we’ve been out together this month, with so many road trips and conferences, gymnastics and softball practices.
I have my hand on your thigh and your hand covers mine. Our knees are touching in orchestra row J, seats three and four, and we are keeping time to the beat with our touching knees. John Hiatt finishes singing, “Marlene, Marlene, my love for you’s obscene,” and Lyle Lovett says something to John Hiatt about his songwriting, how he knows Mrs. Hiatt and Mrs. Hiatt’s name isn’t Marlene. Hiatt has been married twenty-nine years, and I squeeze Brandon’s hand. I try to imagine life in another seventeen years.
The guy in front of us is passed out and hasn’t moved for at least an hour. You lean in close and whisper-yell how that happened to you once at a Merle Haggard concert, back when you were dating Devin, maybe? We call that “BS,” before Sarah. The guy in front of us will have a crick in his neck when he wakes up. He still isn’t waking up, even as Lyle Lovett sings, “Some things, my baby don’t tolerate from me.”
Twenty-four hours ago, you asked, “Do you mind if I go play golf with Jerry?”
I stuffed one sock inside the other as I folded laundry and said, “No problem. Do you know when you’ll be back?”
You smiled with your golf gear in your arms and said, “I don’t know.” I grabbed a shirt and folded it the way my mom taught me.
“Well, are you going to play nine holes or eighteen, are you going to eat dinner together? Do you think you’ll go to sing karaoke after?” I replied, the way my mom never replied, and you laughed, “I just don’t know, okay?”
I dropped a pair of Henry’s underwear into the stack of minion-printed briefs, the way you prefer because it’s stupid to fold boys’ underwear. It’s underwear, you say.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s only fair to give some clue as to when you will be home—it’s not that I care, I don’t,” I lied, trying to negotiate the same space as usual, quality time and childcare and your priorities and my neediness. “I just want to know so I know whether to be excited you’ll be home soon at eight or to settle into an evening of reading, knowing you’ll be back after I’m in bed. Either way is fine. I just want to know.”
“I don’t like these kinds of restraints,” you said, and I started to say, “Then maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.”
As the words fell out, I remembered our confessions just a week earlier, my blubbering, “Why can’t you just say you think I’m pretty?” at the most intimate moment, when things weren’t working in harmony, in that fragile space. You rolled off of me and sobbed, “You make me feel like such a failure!” How we held each other, how we apologized, how we touched each other’s faces and whispered all our truths into old wounds.
I remember this as the words drip, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.
When we hit an impasse, you angry and calling off your golfing, me angry and finishing folding laundry, I carried our daughter’s clothes back to her bedroom to find her with her friend tucked behind the door. “What are you doing?” I asked, reading their guilt.
“Nothing,” they said, “You can leave those on my bed, I’ll put them away,” Lydia said and left. I wondered what she overheard, what she was listening for in between our living room remarks. I thought back to my own ear against the door eavesdropping on my parents as my dad yelled his frustration in the dark of night. “You never…” he said, my ears too young to hear or know what she never did but old enough to know my mom was crying and lying in bed, my dad standing somewhere in the dark bedroom. I wondered if they might divorce, maybe even cried into my pillow and prayed before drifting off to sleep.
“She said they weren’t listening to us,” you told me when I returned to the living room, “‘We didn’t hear one word you said,’ she said.” We rolled our eyes and smiled thin lines. You went out to the front of the house and I went out to the back of the house. Later, we would lean close into each other in our bedroom and forget, but until then, you shot hoops and I cut shrubs all afternoon, one of each of our children by our sides, separate.
But we’re not talking about them now, or that. Like love keeps no record of wrongs, it took me a long time to remember exactly what it was Lydia and her friend might have overheard, and now that I have I’ve remembered, too, a long list of other wrongs dealt and received. I flinch a little because now John Hiatt is singing, “I’ve been loving you for such a long time, girl, expecting nothing in return, just for you to have a little faith in me,” and your fingers are interlaced with mine. This is the song you burned onto that CD you made me a month after we met, along with a dozen others I remember.
I remember it all again in a moment, it’s all here, Grandpa and my parents and your parents and our exes, our vices, our joys, John Hiatt singing, “Have a little faith in me,” all of it is here between us now, held in between our interlaced fingers.
Okay, so our love keeps record of wrongs, but also mercies. After all, we are here. We hold our wrongs and mercies together in careful intimacy. I run my fingernails across the grooves in your big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans and you put your hand on my knee, just below my dress’s white hemline.
At any moment, I think John Hiatt’s voice might splinter and that’ll be it, but he just keeps hanging on to those notes, he just keeps singing, Won’t you have a little bit a, a little bit a, please! Please! Please, now baby! Ohh, won’t you have a little faith in me? By the time the concert is over, the drunk man in front of us is up and clapping. It’s only 9:16—you guessed 9:15 and I guessed 9:30, so you win. We want them to play more, longer, but they are finished.
We slip out the side exit, your fingers grazing the small of my back as we walk through the sheep-shuffle concertgoers. “Want to get a drink and a bite in the Valley?” you ask, even though it’s Sunday and I have to get up for work tomorrow, you have to take our children to school. We are not tired, and our children might not even be asleep yet.
Let’s stay away a little while longer, darling.
SARAH M. WELLS is the author of a nonfiction e-book, The Valley of Achor, a collection of poems, Pruning Burning Bushes,and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Her essays have been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, and 2014. She recently completed a memoir-in-essay collection about love and attention, marriage, parenting, and desire titled American Honey. Sarah serves as the Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and as Associate Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
I’m an unlikely editor for this anthology about love and sex among people well into adulthood. The only adult love and sex I’ve been wrapped up in started twenty-four years ago when two drunk nineteen-year-olds hooked up at a fraternity house. (If there are any younger readers here, a word of advice: We are what you call a statistical anomaly.)
So, outside of my own marriage, I live adult romance vicariously. I’ve edited many a Match profile, once saving my youngest sister from the possibility of suggesting that she’s all about the back door, if you catch my meaning. I’ve engaged in some Facebook-spying to catch evidence of a friend’s husband’s affair, my screen saves entered into their real-life divorce proceedings. I’ve read Biblical verse at my cousin’s wedding, winking at my own beloved sitting in the pew with our son.
And I’m a sucker for a love story because every love story is a story of risk, the plot already built in. The stakes are high, as they always are when you invite someone into your heart. You hope she’ll take her shoes off. You hope he’ll be mindful that some of the furniture is rickety—the End Table of Body Image with its one wobbly leg, the Curtains of Trust held up by a rod that someone else bent long ago, the Armchair of Hope slightly worn, but still pretty damned comfortable. You hope that she won’t care that it’s a little messy in there; hey, the music is still good.
When you look at your lover and growl, I want you inside of me, this is what you mean, this metaphor made into flesh. Well, that and an orgasm.
The risk doesn’t go away. Brandon and I got married in our early twenties, much earlier than any of our friends. We’d been together four-and-a-half years at that point, and we’d already become linked to each other, which is what happens when you meet when you’re still forming your identities. We literally wouldn’t be the same people without each other, then or now.
Like everyone else, I didn’t know, on our wedding day, a lot about what could happen. I couldn’t have known then that someday, a few of my friends’ marriages would break under the weight of infertility. I didn’t know that, years from this day, my own brother-in-law would be dead at forty-two, leaving my sister with an implosion in her heart. I didn’t know that some marriages are subject to a gazillion paper cuts of resentment or that “for worse” includes some unimaginable shit. I didn’t know if we’d escape these and a thousand other fates.
But, as someone who lived through her parents’ divorce, I knew that people change. As two pragmatic romantics, Brandon and I chose Elizabeth Bishop’s “It Is Marvellous to Wake Up Together” as the reading on our clear, spring wedding day. Brandon stood there up front in his finery, our grandfathers both alive and healthy and beaming from the front row, my dad marching me down the aisle before the song even began. We looked into each other’s eyes as our friend read the poem that ends:
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.
Why do we do it? Risk all this vulnerability and potential heartache? I think you already know what the answer is for you.
This anthology is the answer to why other people do it, whether they’re single, married, divorced, or widowed. The answers are universal and varied. Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of them. I didn’t arrange the essays by whether the relationships depicted therein worked out or not because it’s just not how life works.
I have to say that I’m blown away at how each writer depicts love-and-sex and all that it entails. These are some majorly talented people giving their takes on a subject that’s been tackled since time began. I hope it’s as good for you as it was for me. Hand me my water glass, would you, baby?
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People.
• It’s a fantastic read. Click on the link above to see the feedback from the likes of Jill Talbot and Sue William Silverman, and see who the writers are. I was damn lucky to get them for this book.
• It’s a great way to support Full Grown People. I don’t have any institutional support in the way of a university or a corporation or grants, so this and the tip jar are it, bebbies.
• Over half of the essays are brand-new. If you’re a sucker for work about truck-stop loving (Deesha Philyaw), a break-up and a brain injury (Louise Sloan), snapshots of people who seem indispensable to one’s life (Elissa Wald), or the allure of redheads and the mixed emotions it raises in a Black woman (Dionne Ford)—just to name a few—this is a book for you.