Tony and I stood a few paces from the dance floor. He had been dancing and I had been watching him dance. I was grinning at times—so happy to be around him—as he jacked his body to the music. Goodness, he had plenty of dance for the both of us. I wasn’t jealous. I was grateful for the way he made energy seem so simple, the way newspapers used to be written so that a child could understand the two inch lead. Even standing with me his eyes trotted, looking at me and looking away, high, then low, and high again, like birdsong in a man suit.
We were lamenting gay sex, how it was such a hard sell in mainstream Indie Lit. Last month he’d received a “top tier” rejection from a “top flight” publication. He was proud of it but annoyed by it too. My anal sex is crucial to developing a character from time to time, he implied. I nodded appreciatively, two fingers crossed behind my back. I was too high to dance but I wasn’t too high to mislead him. And no one had ever accused me of not agreeing with what I couldn’t fathom.
Not the sex. That I understood. I’d read so much about it in the glory days of Gary Indiana when sex was still something you could die from. But it was Tony’s placing it on page one or page two that made me tremble. I wanted at least 150 pages to get to know the thousand little hurts and wishes of someone before the silver fly slid down its neat scaffold, or the skirt was hiked over its pleat, or the samba chest heaved with percussion.
I wanted to feel married to a character; to know the character in light before discovering him or her in dark, in some private inscrutable moment of un-self-conscious feeling. And I wanted scenery. It seemed important to know whether the action was taking place in the Butler valley north of Pittsburgh, or if the night had begun with eight bridesmaids draped in matching Kelly green attire.
It was. It had. Our friends Brian and Jess were haltering their long courtship. Tony and I were alone. His partner was home preparing for a legal session in Albany. “If he wins it will mean he’s created case law,” Tony said, beaming, but sad. Mine had stayed back too, nursing a blackened face which was bruised in another riding mishap.
At home I imagined my lover was reading one of those very books Tony hoped to write. Julia was a great fan of choices—having options diminished her feeling of claustrophobia—but she disliked making one. Choosing one thing meant choosing not to have or do a dozen others and what if she’d made the wrong choice? The judge without a face—judgment itself—would hang her. So she was often the victim of Amazon’s turn-key marketing strategies: if you liked this book—smells of seawater—then you might like that one—has metal parts—or this one—pools.
No question, the sex images in Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls had won her attention. You knew what would happen in the first few pages, but nearly two hundred leaves would turn in her hands before the first button popped. “The summer’s first romantic page turner” was followed by Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove—“an urgent meditation on female desire”—and now, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, a violet shudder of lesbian tendencies. At this rate, I half expected to return home to find her engrossed in The Story of O, reading it beside an oscillating fan that would turn the pages for her more quickly.
I said none of this to Tony. Both of us were compulsive in our own terrified ways, but we knew how to manage our compulsions. Even drunk, we seemed capable of adult conversation, and this held our furtive sexual addictions at bay. Rather than reveal that Julia had often wanted to pee on me to simulate her releasing a masculine orgasm, I suggested we have another drink. My Long Island friend heartily agreed, but not before asking why I always referred to Julia as my lover and not my husband.
“Do you have a problem with heterosexual marriage?” he asked.
There was a sign at the wedding reception bar recommending Old Fashioneds and Greyhounds. I asked for the latter. “Greyhounds are awfully fast,” I said to the keep. “Could you make me a slow one?” While he or she or they dribbled some vodka into a glass I remembered a lost night in Idaho betting on actual Greyhounds, the way they circled the track gunning for “Sparky” the electrified jackrabbit, the beauty of crazily orchestrated motion, the dance of it. I’d gone to the dog track with a poet and some short story writers and some horse racing fanatics. We’d come from distance: William Pitt Root from Arizona, Theresa Jordan from Utah, myself from Maryland. The driver was from New Jersey, a middle aged poet whose verse was tendered with images of brie and jonathans. I’d disliked him from the first apple. And then the bartender handed me my crippled greyhound and the taste of that lost night fell into the back of my throat.
“Here’s Sparky,” I said to Tony. The ambivalent red cherry in his Old Fashioned neither floated nor sank as he cocked his arm in friendship. Surely we could have passed as cousins. Everyone at the wedding seemed related. Parents were everywhere, and a pile of boys that the groom Brian had known growing up in Philadelphia. There were brothers and sisters and photographs of dead grandparents. One bridesmaid wept as she toasted her older sister, the bride, and Brian’s best man wept too as he toasted Brian’s dead father.
“Most of the people here will go back to their hotel rooms and do something no one would want me to put into a story,” Tony said.
“Have you ever tried to write simple masturbation?” I asked.
“In spurts,” he said. We collapsed in a tumult of snorts. What a laugh that one has, I thought. Isn’t that what’s to do, to laugh at what scares you?
“It’s just sex,” Kim Meier told me as I nervously led a mare to her stallion Test Pilot. It amazed me that fifteen hundred pound creatures could make it look so easy and efficient and still convey intense, disfiguring, desire at the same time. My mare flung her urine. He tongued her hip. She closed her eyes. He rose and pushed into her from behind. She buckled a step. He lightly bit her withers. For two minutes the world stopped spinning.
I loved how vulnerable the act made the male. If he didn’t taste and bite her just as she wished she could send two hooves into his groin with the force of a beheading. The beauty was in the coaching, her coaching him to defy his nature, to exhibit passion on her terms but without subtracting anything from his charisma. Imbalance is frightening to a top heavy four-legged beast but each had to be themselves to make it work. She had to relax her cervix in spite of carrying him on her back. He had to nip. And to ask. And to promise.
I once said to someone as I held her: You are irresistible. She replied: No man is incapable of resistance.
It wasn’t that no one had tried to coach me, but that I needed so much coaching to begin with. The openness baffled me. I was wary of penetration in the abstract and its reality scared me double. A different sort of man might have been aroused by his own discomfort. Me, I just shook from it, turning on my side away from my lover as she murmured sweet forgiveness. Why did we have these different parts? Why couldn’t we just kiss and after twenty miles of kissing agree that it was time for a canteen of water and then sleep? A woman—Ursula—who once had written me letters about what she’d do to me if she could—bite my lip until it bled, crush me with her sex—had wanted to know…why are you so Victorian?
I wasn’t asexual. I thought about sex all the time. It was like some bronze statue of a wild boar in the middle of a town square. I went up to it, I rubbed its snout for good luck, I passed my fingers over its furious eye teeth no mouth could contain, and then I walked away with a hurried step before the creature rose out of its malachite surface to devour me. Around me, all the new talk in the Piazza della Signoria was about sex and sex and sex. Megan Boyle had written a five page summary poem, Everyone I Ever Had Sex With. Although I was approaching the speed limit, fifty-five, my Boyle poem would have been haiku.
The joke was that Julia had to wear a raincoat if we were making love because I wept so much, foreshadowing my actual orgasm by a few seconds with cascading teardrops. Crying from happiness or sadness—it didn’t matter. Every night was full of so much try, and then hysteria, and disappointment. A man who wakes to this and sleeps to this and dreams to this becomes a man of indirection.
Fuck it slant, Emily Dickinson might have said. Our foreplay was a comfortable routine of back rubs. Instead of waving the gold key—it unlocked the trunk at the foot of our bed where she cached various sexual contraptions—and leading me upstairs to the dungeon, Julia would complain of a tightness in her hip, or knots in her back. A generous sort, she would completely disrobe so that I could more effectively rub out the kink in her neck.
Her prepared spontaneity, and twenty years of being used to each other, let us have some mild satisfying version of the rest of the world’s chipotle. The object of my desire was to not have any object. Did we really have to know where we were driving to? Couldn’t we just enjoy driving and stop from time to time for an egg salad sandwich?
But sex seemed all that I was writing and all that I was reading and all that anyone else was writing and reading. Was it a problem of testosterone? Hardly. As recently as last year I was having erections from reading books of poetry. Victoria Redel—she could keep her lover. But I wanted to run away and elope with her book, Woman without Umbrella. I fantasized a honeymoon in West Florida, collecting sand dollars on Marco Island while her poems blinked at me, asking me to read them again. They wouldn’t have to ask twice.
You don’t need binoculars to see that my problem with sex was a problem with intimacy. And like many, I’d decided that what was best in my own life—the slow build—was best for literature. Maybe I should be thinking about sex in the front of a book, closer to how Tony thought about it. And did it even matter if it was between a man and a man or a man and a woman? Wasn’t the important thing the duet itself and not whether the alto tenor could make breast milk?
Writing poetry is about singing towards empathy. Every poem a kind of sexual connection, an intimate bravery, a breath of honesty in a life of misadventure and concealment. Each stanza I tried to make brought me closer to the sleeping beast, to the long teeth chaffing its lip, to the death of mystery.
My secret place was the Dickens desk. The replica of the table top that gave us Miss Malaprop and others had traveled from the home office of Julia’s father after he died. We kept it in our daughter’s vacant bedroom. Inside one of its drawers was a leather Dopp kit where instead of razors and face brushes I stored old love letters from Ursula. In my youth I’d been a vigilant correspondent, willing to make love day and night so long as it involved postage.
Those weren’t just letters. They were hand written evidence that I could be intimate. I vowed to type them all up so I could relive each word. I typed before coffee, and all day, and at night I typed on my side. I hurtled past off-repeated words—really, really—and—thank you, thank you, thank you. I typed the long faithful way—dotting, crossing even underlining. I typed so long and hard it made my back sore. I typed with one hand, holding a lamb kabob sandwich in the other, typing the split screen of my life and my love. I typed over cabernet—love, love, love, and my sweet and kisses and touches and hot dreams. I typed in the bath. I typed over history, my history, through potassium cyanide in Tylenol, through Grenada, and the Mets winning under Davey Johnson. Bang, bang, bang went my fingers on the eighty-eight keys of my Bach invention. Bang, bang, bang: I have known a love that once made me shake.
Returning to the Econo Lodge, Tony and I detoured into the dusky twi-lit breakfast lounge. It wouldn’t be open for a few hours but the night clerk kept a pot of coffee and we wanted half cups to let the booze settle before risking the elevator. We planted at one of the tables in the soul-less kitchen and I waited for him to speak and he waited for me but I was waiting for him more, so there!
“Truth or dare,” Tony said. It was our old college game. “You have always wanted to have sex with me!”
The problem with truth is that it’s so truthful.
I took the dare.