“It’s all chemistry,” I tell him, leaning back against the pillow, eyes closed. “It’s not about being good, or bad, in bed; I don’t even know if that exists, anymore. There’s no such thing as being empirically good or bad in the sack. It’s about people being good together.” I pause, sit up, lean forward to take a drag off of his cigarette. “Which we are.”
It’s past midnight. We’re lying in his bed, in his, “shoebox of a room,” which is what he said when he asked if I wanted to see it. Indeed, it’s as spare and sparse as a tenement from a 1930s novel, and indeed, the moment I enter it– four bare walls, a full bed with rumpled sheets, a television propped on a weathered dresser– I say, “Wow, it’s like a Tennessee Williams’ play in here.” To which he replies, “I’ll happily be your gentleman caller.” This is part of what I like about him– he’s witty, he’s well read– although, I often suspect that, much like myself, he’s great at making astute references to books he never quite finished, or saw the film version of. But maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’m judging both of us too harshly; after all, I’ve read a hell of a lot of books, which somehow always fall immediately short in my estimation.
Then we tumbled into bed.
Bed is a place we have been together, before, many years ago, before I left for California, was married, divorced, engaged to the father of my son, returned home to live with my parents as a single mother, aged 32. Before he dove headlong into drug addiction, and managed to emerge unscathed– the same person I’ve known since childhood: wickedly charming, grin too big for his face, long and lean and delightful.
Lying there, his hands on my body, my busy brain begins, without warning, to construct a counter argument against the idea that, “It’s all chemistry,” built from its various evenings of clumsy sex, chiefly my worst one-night stand on record: British Brendan, the art dealer on the cruise I took around Italy’s boot in the summer of 2004, when I was working as a nanny. He was darkly handsome. I was tan and chubby. I’d been eyeing him all week, sneaking glances over my borscht and champagne as he walked from table to table in his elegant suits. The night I finally sealed the deal, I was out with the young Polish woman who worked as the maid for our suite of rooms. We’d made friends over the course of the week– she left me with dozens of tiny bottles of the Aveda rosemary and mint shampoo and conditioner they stocked the bathrooms with– and took me dancing with the staff in a pulsing underground nightclub in Capri. And there he was, across the bar, chatting it up with a leggy French girl who was so absurdly beautiful, I had no business throwing my hat in the ring.
But, desire is a funny thing, and somehow I managed to get his attention; before long, we were back in his room, naked in the dark. He kept staring out the window, and lay totally still. I tried getting on top, but the result was the same. Finally, I gave in.
“Ah… you seem really bored. I think I’m gonna go.” He was still inside me.
“No, don’t go, luv,” he said in his clipped, perfect English– it was like fucking a BBC newscaster– never taking his eyes off the window. Maybe he thought Frenchy was out there, rowing a dinghy, prepared to save him from chubby American sex. Then he looked up at me. “We can do lots of fun and exciting things together!” He still hadn’t moved a muscle.
“We’re having a one night stand, we’re not going on holiday,” I said, delivering the last two words in a pitch perfect imitation of his voice, climbing off of him, into my panties, and out the door.
Still, though– maybe it wasn’t that British Brendan was bad in bed. Maybe he was bored with me. Certainly I found him less than thrilling, despite his good looks. There was nothing about him, once we began to speak, that drew me to him, made me want to know— who he was, what he was, what he could make me feel. It was sport fucking. It was something to do. In those days, I counted my men, racked them up. A story to tell– once, on this cruise ship, in Italy…
Back in the shoebox tenement with my Gentleman Caller, I am another woman, different from my week-a-day self– laminated. It doesn’t hurt that this place, his room, in his old-fashioned, funky house in Ventnor’s back streets, really does resemble something from another time; outside the window, the August heat seeps in, slicking us with sweat, and we never stop touching. I do feel like a creature from a novel, or a play, my own life going fuzzy: I can hear errant kids running up and down the streets. It’s past midnight. Once, we– as in He, as in I– were those kids– we met in the summer before 8th grade. When I think of that time, he is suddenly there, fully formed and alive in my consciousness, one of those faces that is somehow more clear than others. First, he’s at a going away party I threw for a friend who was moving to Chicago; then, he’s wandering the streets of our tiny island town with the pack of ill-behaved boys who were his friends, who were mine, peripherally. Once, he double rode me on the handle bars of his bike to the end of the boardwalk. The salt air clung to my long, braided hair; I could hear him breathing behind me. When we reached the rail that signaled the end, he stopped. We stared at one another, shyly. One of us said that we should turn around– I can’t remember who. There was an unspoken sense that we should kiss, that we wanted to kiss. But we were both late-bloomers, sexually. We turned around.
That unspoken, unfulfilled kiss has never really left my sense of who he is, of who we are together– it is filled with the tingling of possibility. It is charged air, charged bodies. The morning after we sleep together, I walk my son to school in the bright September sun, writing a cheeky poem in my head that begins, “Having been lit up like a switchboard…” For months, we have been flirting, texting, emailing, snarking at one another on Facebook, trying to get together and failing– opposite schedules, opposite lives. When I finally drive over to his house, I’m flushed, and somehow still a little shy– will it be the same as it was? The first time we slept together, all those years ago, is a blur of laughter and sex, hours of sheer pleasure, watching the sun come up. And kissing. So much kissing. There are some people who just kiss the way you like– no, need– to be kissed. He is one of those people. I was mad about him, then; after that first night, I thought for sure we’d see one another again, soon. I was wrong.
In bed with him, it is like it always was, despite my fears that that inimitable something would have vanished between the two of us– he kisses me and time stops, or at least suspends. I am momentarily drawn out of myself and into his. As my friend Rich says– “When it is good, there is nothing else in the world; the good kissing creates its own sweet territory. Like there was nothing either before it or after it.” As ever, when he touches me, I forget not only my own, sometimes difficult, exterior life– I forget myself. In the daylight, I am a wretchedly self-aware person, always slightly posturing, brain on constant overload, three steps ahead of every conversation. But here, in this shabby bedroom, I am momentarily free, I am the epitome of Donne’s great lines: “… some might almost say, her body thought.”
Back at home, the baby wakes almost as soon as I walk up the stairs. It is nearly 1 am. I gather him up, and we lie in bed, the weight of his body wholly, differently, separately lovely, from the weight of my lover’s just moments ago. I am amazed at the rapidness with which I can switch gears. I soothe him back to sleep, and collapse in my own bed, my own eyes closed against the dark of my various lives.