Girls in their summer dresses we all know about, but what about boys in their summer bathing trunks? Him, in particular, his long-legged body, not hideously six-packed in the current style, but elegantly constructed—beautiful even, in an antelope kind of way. His smooth olive-tone skin tanned to an almost non-Caucasian pitch, and my own much lighter skin burnished to a red-brown by incessant and patient exposure.
He always wore the plainest of business suits, black or navy, not a man to take sartorial chances—or risks of any sort, really, except in bed, where he kept leading me forward, closer to the precipice, that moment where you drop off the boundary of your own precarious identity and into someone else’s terrain. “Do I own you now?” he used to ask me breathlessly after some particularly entwined bout of lovemaking. Neither of us tended to speak much during sex, except for his habit of punctuating the silence with cursory yet infinitely flattering statements like “Someone should bottle you” after he rose up from nuzzling me below. So the ownership question came out with the force of a mission statement, one I signed off on. That summer, at least, he owned me. What was the point in pretending otherwise?
Who can forget a summer swimming in sex? Even now, far from those days and that sort of abandon, I have only to conjure up that time, more than two decades ago, to feel cramped with longing, a sensation of something dropping deep inside of me. That was also the summer I was introduced to a kind of sex I hadn’t yet let myself in for, either because it wasn’t available or I wasn’t. Nothing to do with nipple clamps or threesomes or licking honey off a prone and naked body—none of that would have appealed to me then, as it doesn’t now. No, it had to do with the way he took forever about gliding into me and the way he pushed me into new positions, and new submissions as well, not overtly of the S&M kind, but with a subtext that always hovered around the issue of power, intimating at the unspoken questions: How much do you want this? and What are you willing to do for it?
I can still recall, as though it happened yesterday, walking out of the ocean that Saturday, aware of him studiously pretending not to watch me from where he lay on his towel, conscious of the way the brief dip had made my already conspicuous nipples stand out and the way my wet, slicked-back hair brought out the angles of my face. That was the summer my body was quite something in a black one-piece. I’ve always preferred the subtle eroticism of one-pieces to the soft porn of bikinis, but sometimes I wonder if these were the kind of preferences that drew us apart in the first place. That, and his wish to toy with me, not in a good, tantalizing way—although he did that well too—but with a steely withholding style that made me madly in need of sustenance, like a hungry baby looking for a breast.
For a while, I was willing to do anything—bend over with my head on the bed and my posterior high in the air, for instance, so that he could approach me from underneath. I liked neither of us seeing the other’s face, which is often taken to be intrinsically demeaning and developmentally arrested, but which I found to be the best way of getting past the endlessly scrutinizing aspect of sex. For a while after we parted (the final time we parted, I should say, since by then parting itself had become a kind of coming together), I’d lie on my bed and try to reenact this particular position in my mind—a monologue pretending to be a dialogue.
He took up all the available space in my head that summer, even though I was supposed to be busy pursuing my Higher Literary Calling. To which end I’d gone off at the beginning of July to spend a month at Yaddo, a writers’ and artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. You had to jump through various hoops to be accepted to the place, and I guess I should have been flattered that they took me, someone with only a sheaf of book reviews and two published short stories under her belt. But what hope did Yaddo, with its mosquitoes, its self-conscious poets and networking novelists, have of holding me when he (for want of anything else, I’ll resort to the slightly French affectation of using initials and call him J.C.) was back in New York City? I wanted his hands sliding down my body as though he were just discovering my contours. I wanted him lying, exhausted by exertion, next to me as we slept.
For 10 days, I went dutifully to my studio in the woods and tried to write. I think in all that time I managed to finish the second half of a book review I’d started back in the city, when I wasn’t lying by the pool or talking with other Yaddo residents about suitably bookish things. Mostly, I was lost in visions of J.C. playing with his rubber duckie in the bath, J.C. tracing and retracing his long fingers around first one of my breasts and then the other, J.C. putting his mouth on mine as if he were planning to suck the air out of me, kissing me with consuming but unslobby ardor. What was it about him that so moved me? This seemed far more important for me to parse than why—for the sole purpose of improving my own standing in the colony’s tacit but very obvious hierarchy of talent—Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer was my favorite contemporary novel.
On the second Friday, I gave up on the charade. I first booked a round-trip train ticket, so as not to lose my blinding sense of intention, and then explained to the writer who ran the colony with his much older (and more famous) wife that a dire family emergency suddenly required my immediate but short-lived attendance back home. I was torn, I assured the director, about whether to go and interrupt this extraordinary opportunity to convene with the woods à la Thoreau, but I would make it as quick a stay as I could. He bought into my bald excuses with utmost grace. How was he to know that under my serious-seeming writerly self was a creature deranged by sexual longing, an updated and less provincial version of Madame Bovary, dying to escape her small-town existence and have another fling with the callous Rodolphe?
I was back in the city and in J.C.’s low and not particularly comfortable bed by Friday evening, but something had gone wrong the next day, after we had subwayed and ferried over to Fire Island. I may have said something mocking but affectionate that he took to be merely mocking. I only know that by the time I walked out of the ocean, we were no longer on speaking terms. J.C. ignored me as I settled back on the beach towel he’d brought; he continued to lie silently on his side of the towel, his arms folded behind his head and his eyes closed as he gave himself up to the peak rays. I lay on my stomach, staring out onto the crowded beach that seemed to shimmer in the heat, wondering why I’d ever succumbed to a man who disliked me as much as he lusted after me right from the start. For the next hour or two, as the afternoon grew cooler and my skin took on the crunchy texture of sand mixed with tanning cream, we coexisted without a word passing between us. I made several firm decisions in my head, scrambling to find a foothold in the chaotic intermittence of J.C.’s affections. (1) I’d pay more attention to my writing upon my return to Yaddo. (2) From here on, I’d stop trying to endear myself to men who viewed me with a mixture of hostility and curiosity, as though I were an exotic species of female that happened to crawl out from under a rock. (3) More specifically, I’d try to bring this day to a close without getting teary or angry, and then, calling on whatever lingering strength of character I had, I’d put J.C. and his bedroom skills behind me forever.
Somewhere between leaving the beach and the ferry ride, we started talking again. Once he decided he’d been punitive or distancing enough, J.C.’s relational style was to act as if nothing had gone awry—no rift, no icy walls between us. By this point, I was so reduced by his ability to leave me behind like a piece of debris that I embraced the chance to be part of a couple again, my girlfriend to his boyfriend. It was in this humbled but also agitated spirit that I went back to his apartment with him. He warmed up some uninspired leftovers, and we sat at the small half circle of a table that stood against a bare wall in his minimalist studio apartment and made desultory conversation. I had spent 10 days at Yaddo daydreaming about going to bed with him, which was why I went home with him rather than holding my head up high and bidding him a cool adieu the minute we hit the city. I assume he knew this as well as—if not better than—I did, but at some point I gathered up the few remaining shreds of false dignity I had and murmured that I had to make the last train back to Saratoga Springs. As if on cue, J.C. got up and sauntered over to his bed, which was all of a few feet away, and lay down on it. “Come over here,” he said. “You don’t really want to go now, do you? I bet I know what you want.”
You bet he did. What’s the point of fighting the insinuating nature of desire when it won’t leave you alone, won’t shut up until you attend to it? I walked over to the far side of J.C.’s bed and stood there shyly, like a girl fresh off a Nebraska farm. I was wearing a long, flimsy skirt, circa the late 1970s, and I stood there silently wondering how to move the scene forward without completely selling myself out. And then, in his deft, wordless way, J.C. rolled toward my side and pulled me toward him. He stared into my face with his large, somewhat wary brown eyes, as though he understood that things were difficult for me, a girl dealing with too many inner conflicts (none of which, it was understood, had anything to do with him), and then he put his hand up under my skirt and pulled down my underpants—not all the way down, but somewhere in the vicinity of my ankles. He continued to watch me closely as he put his hand up under my skirt.
The frenzied feeling of being away from him, followed by the thwarted day at the beach, followed now by the way he seemed to coax me into my own need for him, all worked in desire’s favor. “You feel so milky,” he said. When he came inside me, smelling of Old Spice and the faintest whiff of something musky coming off his skin—he was the most excretion-less man I’ve ever been with; I don’t think I ever saw him sweat—it all made sense again. “Do I own you now?” he asked, as though the whole point of our tortuous dance was to corral me like some undomesticated beast and lead me on a rope into the tent he had pitched against the encroaching darkness. “Yes,” I whispered, like I always did.
I returned to Yaddo the following day, after J.C. went to work, dressed in his aspiring professional uniform, but by then it was already too late to pretend I was serious about becoming part of a writerly community. I was a loner at heart, looking to be taken up by another loner—someone who understood that under my barricaded demeanor I was bursting to open my gates to the next proprietary male. Ownership made sense to me, it always had, suggesting a kind of safety in confinement. It couldn’t last, of course, that kind of is-this-love-or-is-this-hate entanglement, but I swear it makes my brain smoke just to consider it all these years later.
Excerpted from Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, edited by Erica Jong.
(Source: elle.com - BY DAPHNE MERKIN)
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