Happily Ever After

All these stories are about beginnings, all meet-cutes. But any of us who has been married, or been in a relationship, knows the beginning is just that, a beginning. The assumption, or the Hollywood ending, or the fairy tale ending, is that once the initial conflict has been smoothed over or sorted out, then love and a blissful life together just happen. But, like I said, many of us know that’s not even close to how it works in real life. The beginning is often the easiest. That’s when the attraction is strong because it is sating something that was missing. But what happens once that initial burst of attraction and satisfaction passes and day-to-day life becomes the routine? Then what? Then the truth about whether two people are not just compatible, but ready to be in a relationship comes out. Is there a way to write about that that is sexy? That has some intensity to it?

Who is a rich person?

I escaped from the city for a night to a friend’s house upstate. I was texting with a different friend who asked, “Is that a rich person’s place?”

I was taken aback. What did they mean by that? Where is the line between a rich person and a regular person? Then I realized. This is how I answered:

“The short answer is yes.”

“The longer answer is, from what I can tell, being a rich person is a lot like being an alcoholic. Everyone else knows that’s what you are, but you don’t know it, you don’t feel like one, and you always feel like there’s somebody else who is richer than you, who is a REAL rich person.”

It seems to me that somehow the label “rich person” carries baggage. Like somehow if you are labeled as such, then your hard work doesn’t feel hard, or your pain hurts less than other people’s pain.

Anyway, I wouldn’t know, because I am definitely NOT a rich person.

What was I thinking?

(I’m continuing this story that seems to be writing itself, so I gave it a name and a tag: Fool on the Hill. If you want to read all of it, click on that tag and start from the bottom.)

What was I thinking? Why did I say yes to that guy? It’s like he picked at the scab, and poured salt in. I bet he’s one of those work hard, play hard idiots. Driven, have to step up, have to, what was his expression? Make something happen. I don’t want to step up. I don’t want to “make something happen.” Who is he to criticize me? Jerk.

Everybody wants me to mature, to step up. Well screw them, all of them. Mom especially. Amy found a husband, and does her life look so awful? Would it be so bad if you did the same? She’s so happy with the twins. And here you are, living all by yourself, is that any kind of a life for a young, attractive woman? You know they say people who live alone and don’t get married aren’t as healthy and don’t live as long. Doesn’t she know how painful it is to have to explain over and over that after the way it ended with Justin I just don’t want to do it again, maybe ever. I can think of fates a thousand times worse than being single and living alone.

Everybody has their big, dramatic, grand tragedy. I mean, Mom when Dad left her. What a spectacle. And why doesn’t she have a husband now? Huh? Next time she comes after me, I’m going to say all the things I usually hold back. I’m going to hurt her. Well I don’t have a grand tragedy, but the thought of living through what happened with Justin is grand enough for my purposes. That slow, silent death of excitement, of love, of sex. Watching the disappointment in his eyes when I said I was going to get a “real” job instead of pursuing my painting. Of the way we stopped having sex and then he stopped being affectionate. And then I didn’t want to touch him, didn’t want to sleep next to him, didn’t even miss it. The way we were still friends and would laugh and gossip and tell each other how our days were, but there was no fire left. It would have been better if he beat me, if he cheated, if he spit on me. All because I didn’t want to face those canvases any longer. Because I ripped myself up and turned myself inside out and threw my blood and guts all over those panels and no one cared, no one saw it, all I ever got was, “What are you trying to do here? I’m not sure I understand why your palette is so muted.” Don’t you understand, that’s where the beauty is, in a palette that shifts subtly, not some lurid puke of all the colors of the rainbow that’s like pouring bleach into your eyes. No. No one got it. Certainly not Justin.

Cranberry Angora

I got really excited when it seemed like she actually wanted to hear about motorcycle racing. I don’t think she really cared, but it occurred to me she enjoyed seeing how worked up I got. Regardless, it was with great enthusiasm I demonstrated how I was holding the handlebars as I went into a turn and swept across the table right into her cranberry vodka and managed to launch it cleanly to the next table. Well, not to the table exactly, but square into the chest of the woman seated at the table. The woman wearing a snow white angora sweater.

I turned the color of a ripe tomato in the split second it took for the woman to scream and jump up. I was so embarrassed I think I almost started crying. “Oh my God, I am so sorry. Oh my God.” Jennie, my date, was stifling a laugh. Angora sweater woman was definitely not laughing. Mercifully, a waiter came running over with a pile of napkins and started mopping the table as he made apologetic noises. I stood there stupidly, as there was nothing I could do. “I am so sorry. Can I …” But I couldn’t finish the sentence, because there was nothing I could do.

“Forget it. Just stop.” Angora woman was not feeling conciliatory. She grabbed her purse and stomped off in the direction of the ladies’.

When she was safely out of earshot, Jennie burst out with a full-throated laugh. “That was brilliant,” she said, and not kindly. The date had been going well enough I suppose up to that point, but I could tell I had condemned myself to being thought an idiot, and not unjustifiably either.

“Not my best moment. I can be a bit clumsy at times,” was all I could muster in response. Thankfully, we had already finished our entrees, so I signaled for the check and ended the evening as quickly as possible. Bitter disappointment was my companion as I walked home. Jennie had been the most promising woman I had been out with in forever, although she had been hard to read through the early part of the evening. It was clear as we parted there wouldn’t be a second date.

Following the Jennie dinner debacle, as I had come to think of it in my head, I had decided it was time for a break from dating. Two months later I was sitting in the window of my favorite neighborhood place finishing my dinner when the waitress came over with a cranberry juice and a check. I hadn’t asked for either the check or the juice so I looked up at her confused. “I didn’t order this.”

“No, the ladies at the table over there ordered it for you and said you would pay their check.” She indicated with a nod towards a table across the dining room. It was close to closing time and the room was almost empty, so I had no trouble seeing. It was angora woman and a companion. She looked straight at me with a defiant look, as if to say, “You wouldn’t dare refuse.” The waitress, who recognized me as almost a regular, looked like she didn’t know what to expect. “So, um, is that OK?”

“Yeah, I suppose it is. How much is it?” I gasped as I saw that they had dined well and had drunk a nice bottle of wine. “It’s fine, I’ll take care of it. Might as well bring me my check and I’ll settle everything.”

After paying, I sat sipping my cranberry juice and fuming a little. It had been an accident after all. I suppose I owed her for the sweater, which I’m sure was absurdly expensive, and making me buy her dinner was clever, but the brashness with which she had handled it got under my skin a little. I decided I need to get something for my money.

“Hi. Is this seat taken?”

Angora woman looked up at me and then turned to her friend. “Watch out Clarissa, you might want to move back from the table. There’s no telling who will get hit with a drink next.”

“Ha. Ha. I suppose I deserve that. But if I’m going to buy you dinner, you could at least spend 10 minutes with me and introduce yourself and your friend.”

“Oh, so I guess you didn’t get a second date then?” She was mocking me, and not nicely. “I suppose you can sit for a few minutes, but please try not to douse anyone.”

The woman who appeared to be Clarissa said, “Oh come on, be nice to the poor boy. The way you described it, it did sound like an accident.”

Permission

In order to write the way I want to write, and to put those words out into the world, not hoard them, not hide them, I need permission. I want to write about emotions and experiences, physical experiences, sensual experiences, not just ideas. I want to tell stories about characters who are lusty. Characters who drive too fast, who take risks, who gobble their dessert instead of savoring each bite. Characters who have sex. I have an internal voice, a strong voice, that denies me permission. This voice tells me to be careful about what I publish, to not risk giving the wrong impression, to not risk offending anyone.

Up until now, occasionally I would seek out someone to give me permission to do something not careful, not safe, not boring. Because of the way my mind works, there are certain people from whom I would accept advice and encouragement to take risks, to have adventures, to live less carefully. But only occasionally. Here’s the thing I have figured out: I need to give myself permission. I need to take MY word for it.

I find myself asking how do I find that permissive voice? But when I ask the question in those words, I’ve already lost the game. By asking that way, I’m saying I don’t know, and I’m waiting for the answer to come to me, when the truth is I already do know. I give myself permission not by asking about finding the right voice, but by daring. By being fucking uncomfortable. By writing words that make me cringe, make me curl up in a ball on the couch and feel embarrassed and ashamed and worried I’m going to get in trouble. By telling stories I want to live inside of, stories about characters who take risks and live messy, screwed-up lives, but characters who I am rooting for, who I love and hate. Stories and characters who make me feel.

And then when those words and those stories are out there in the world, and people are reading them, learning to live with the discomfort that generates. Learning to trade the comfort of safety and invisibility for the exhilaration of exposure.

A Risk

I’ve been writing for years, but have shown almost none of what I’ve written to anyone. I am afraid to make my words visible, to let people see. In particular, words about sex. So this piece is straight-up erotica, nothing else. No character development, no story line, just sex, and not even full sex, just a blowjob. And I’m posting it here. It’s a story about taking a risk, but more importantly, it feels like a huge risk to me to post it.

It was an unremarkable day in November, with the exception that is was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. From then until Christmas, New York would be in its annual frenzy of holiday retail. They build a holiday market every year at Columbus Circle with temporary stalls set up for vendors of all sort. They start building the stalls the day after Thanksgiving when the grandstands for the big holiday parade have been cleared away. By Sunday the stalls were built, but not yet occupied, with tarps covering the open sides to keep out the weather and riffraff.

Mila and I had become friends earlier that year, and although we flirted more heavily than prudent for a bachelor and a married woman, we had never crossed a line that would constitute infidelity. We met in a café that afternoon, seeking refuge from the cold and grey. There was just a hint of mist in the air, and even by mid-afternoon the sun already seemed to be failing, giving a sense of intimacy to being tucked inside the warm café.

We had pastries, and, as usual, our banter became lightly flirtatious. When the treats were gone, Mila said, “Let’s walk!” and off we went towards the park. We crossed the avenue and made our way through the unoccupied stalls.

“Hey look, this tarp isn’t tied closed. We could totally sneak in here,” I pointed out. Mila stopped and pulled the tarp back. Without hesitation, she stepped in and pulled my hand. “Whoa, wait, do you think this is a good idea?” I looked around to see if anyone was paying attention. There were numerous people around, but no one was paying us any mind. She tugged again on my arm and I went inside with her.

We pulled the tarp shut, and had the strange sensation of being completely alone in the midst of a crowd. There were people walking by and we could hear snippets of their conversations as they passed. Our eyes adjusted to the dim half-light and we grinned at each other. I whispered, “This is pretty funny. It’s like a secret hide-out.”

She looked into my eyes and then without warning pulled me to her and kissed me. I was shocked. We had never crossed this line before and I had intended we never would. She was a good kisser, and not reticent. After a delicious moment of enjoying her warm lips, her tongue started to explore my mouth, beckoning my tongue to play with hers.

The electricity of this unexpected delight was coursing through me. I was acutely aware of the people walking by on the other side of the tarp, but I could tell no one had any idea we were in there. I relaxed my vigilance and let myself sink in to the kiss. Mila’s urgency increased and we stepped into each other. Her hips started to grind against mine slightly and I could feel myself stiffening with the thrill of contact.

Her hands were wrapped around my back, but now one crept down to the front of my jeans and cupped my now fully excited and ready self. Involuntarily I pushed against her hand and she grabbed the outline. A low groan I wasn’t aware of rumbled deep in my throat. She stopped kissing for a second and pulled back to look at me with a devilish gleam in her eye. “What’s this I’ve found?” she teased. I found myself too drunk with unexpected excitement to respond coherently. “Oh Mila,” was the best I could come up with. I leaned in to kiss her again.

She pushed me back slightly and looked at me with that gleam again. “James. I have wanted this for months. We are not going to waste this opportunity.” She pulled down the zipper of my jeans and I gasped as her chill fingers found their way inside my boxers and wrapped around me. I twitched back away from her and she stopped. “OK? Are my hands too cold?” she asked.

“No, you’re good,” I moaned more than said.

She pulled me out into the cool evening air and sank down to her knees. I was startled. “Whoa, wait, what are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing, Silly?”

“Mila, no. I mean yes, but you don’t have to, I mean… Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“I have wanted to do this for months. I love this. Just relax.”

“But wait, there are people walking by… What if someone stops and hears us?”

“So be quiet then. And who cares? Let them find us.” She looked up at me with her hand wrapped around me.

“Oh Mila. Oh. Oh, yes please.” I leaned back slightly and shut my eyes.

“I’m really good at this. I want to make you feel amazing.”

And with that she stopped talking and took me into her mouth. She was good at it. Amazing in fact. I slid my fingers into her silky hair and rubbed her scalp as I got lost in the sensation of mouth, her tongue on me.

It seemed like within seconds, I was already close. “Mila, Mila, wait, stop.” I pulled back slightly.

She stopped and looked up at me. “Are you OK?”

“Yes, yes, better than OK. But I’m going to come.”

“Yes, that’s what I want. I want you to come in my mouth.” And she took me in again. Within seconds, I could feel all my muscles tense and my breath practically stopped. She gave me a final swirl with her tongue and I went over the edge.

“Mmmm,” she groaned as well. She looked up at me. “Did you like that Baby?”

I was struggling to stay standing. My legs felt weak. “Yes. Yes, I did,” I said with my eyes closed. I swayed back and forth slightly. She stood up and I put myself back together and zipped up. “Kiss me,” I said. She leaned in to kiss me, and I found her tongue with mine. I could taste a hint of saltiness. When I opened my eyes, she was looking at me, still with the same gleam. “That was amazing.”

We waited until it sounded quiet before pulling back the tarp to make our exit. When we stepped out, we almost bumped in to an older woman who was walking quietly past. She looked surprised, and then assessing us, displeased. She looked us up and down with a scowl, made a sound of disapproval, and moved on. Mila looked at me and we laughed. “She’s jealous. I bet she hasn’t blown anyone in 40 years.”

Hiding

I couldn’t step up today. I sat down to write at least three times and could not find the courage to write something honest. I wanted to write something trite, something easy, something safe, which is the same as hiding. At least three times today I went to sleep and then woke up later from a dream that disturbed me. Dreams that I was so relieved were only dreams. Dreams that I wanted to extract myself from and be back in my safe, comfortable apartment. In my safe, comfortable life. I am appalled at the way I am hiding in my safe, comfortable life.

Subway Platform

(Without planning to, I seem to be writing a story in installments – this post is a continuation of the previous narrative. If it continues I suppose I will have to come up with a name for it and start tagging the pieces.)

A woman I hadn’t noticed earlier is getting off the train in front of me, and she looks kind of familiar. She’s crazy pretty, but in an unexpected, not-obvious way. In an instant it connects, yes, this summer, the hill at the meditation center. The picture-perfect day, the offhand comment about her book, her storming off. Before I had completely recalled all the pieces of the story, I had touched her lightly on the arm. Did I really just do that? The pit in my stomach was already telling me it was a mistake. “Hi, do you remember me from this summer? The field at the meditation center?” Oh shit, I’m in it now. Her eyes flash. She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, I remember you. You’re an asshole. What do you want?”

“Um, I …” I don’t know what to say. I know what I want to say. What I want to say is “Look, what I said obviously provoked a really strong reaction, and the strength of your response intrigued me, so I couldn’t resist saying hello and seeing if you wanted to explain it. I wanted to see if you even understand it yourself.” That’s what I want to say, but obviously that would be a colossal mistake. I try for a more conciliatory approach, “I feel terrible I wrecked your peaceful afternoon. Would you consider letting me buy you a cup of coffee and explain what I missed in the book?”

“Why would I waste one more minute of my life with you? So you can ruin another day for me?”

“No, not that. Because I will listen to what you have to say and maybe I can understand the story differently if I hear it from your perspective. You could consider it a service to the author.”

I’ve never done anything like this and my heart is pounding. Usually I run from any sort of confrontation. She starts to say something and stops. We’re on a crowded platform and there are people pushing past us, but she stops and turns so she’s facing me fully. She looks intently at my face as if she’s deciding whether to tell me to drop dead. Again, she starts to say something and stops. Then she says, “OK, I will have one cup of coffee with you and explain the story that you’re too thick to understand. But that’s it.”

My Own Personal Virgil

In 1320, Dante finished the The Divine Comedy, which describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His guide through the first two parts is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid. At the beginning of the story, Dante, age 35, meets the ghost of Virgil after going astray in the dark forest of sin. I love this part of the story because I feel like it mirrors what I experienced when I was 40. I felt broken and lost after my marriage ended in divorce and I met a therapist who showed me the way to this world’s version of paradise by walking through my version of hell. I frequently think of her as being my own personal Virgil.

Here is the description of that meeting in Dante’s words, edited for brevity by me:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.

And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.

At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
“Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man.” And it replied:

“Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred

in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises’ noble son

who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you–why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy

which is the seat and first cause of man’s bliss?”
“And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?” My voice grew tremulous:

“See there, immortal sage, the beast I flee.
For my soul’s salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me.”

And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
“He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers

before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.

Therefore, for your own good, I think it well

you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried

in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain

souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.

And I to him: “Poet, by that God to you unknown,

lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter’s gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell.”

And he then: “Follow.” And he moved ahead
in silence, and I followed where he led.