SEX AT 58 (MARCO'S JEW)
Marco and I crossed paths every so often at conferences and festivals. He was ending a marriage and in love with another woman, and I pretended I didn’t know these things. What? I would say to myself. What was that? He was thick, planted, and meaty with the intelligence dogs reflect in their unmasked eyes and anxious brows. It was an absurd attraction. They are all absurd. We don’t know who we are or what we are doing. If we are the sum of our actions and you include attraction, I will go to hell. I was 58, and I believed this kind of thing wasn’t going to happen to me again. I was wrong. I think I knew at the time I would be wrong, but when has anything you thought about the future turned out right?
The thing about arousal is that when you’re not feeling it, you forget how you exist in it. It’s the damnedest thing, something so sweeping and ephemeral. Marco was smoking at a table in a bar. I moved my chair near his, and we began a conversation. Other people I knew were around, but soon we were talking only to each other, or rather I was listening to him. I was wearing my listening face. He described an essay he was writing. I was interested but really I couldn’t focus on anything but his lips circling his cigarette or perching on the rim of his vodka tonics. I am the cheapest drunk on the planet, but I wasn’t drinking because I don’t need alcohol to enter one of these states.
Another night we were on a train. This time I had had a drink, but I was clear. Marco drank tons. He had a really large problem, but like many drunks he remained steady. He was reading an account by Walt Whitman describing visits to wounded soldiers during the Civil War, and Marco liked the way Whitman eroticized the men’s bodies. I was reminded of Florence Nightingale’s similar response to soldiers maimed in the Crimea, the way her mind liked to drift to the bodies of naked men. We discussed Nightingale’s reform of the British military and of public health in India. What are the odds of meeting someone with the same affection for the fanatical founder of the nursing profession? The train rattled through blustery darkness. The sleeping passengers looked like they were wrapped in the same dream, their heads thrown back, their throats soft and unguarded. I was slumped in my seat, looking up at Marco’s puffy eyes, and it felt like we were pulling a sheet across a bed.
We were separated for several months then found ourselves together again. His body reminded me of the bodies of other men I had wanted, but I had also wanted different kinds of bodies. I can’t say for sure if it was his body, although when I was out of its range, my sense of myself changed. I preferred to be away from him, but this wasn’t always possible. If I was near him, I became aroused, and I couldn’t see or hear anything. I was one big nerve ending, and, really, what is better than this stupefied feeling?
One day we were walking when he asked if something was going to happen between us. A sense of peace came over me, and I said no. He reminded me of a man I had known some years earlier, but Marco was crazier, more confident, and more dependent on women. His hands and feet were wide and callused. When I took off my clothes, I told myself to remember the way things looked in the room, although afterward I couldn’t remember anything the way I had wanted to. I liked the parts of sex that didn’t have words and the parts that did, although afterward I couldn’t tell the difference. There was a way Marco was both female and male. He cried easily, and his hair was long. I liked that he took risks, but I didn’t like his carelessness with me. I mean, really, I don’t like it, even though it doesn’t stop me. Neither love, nor respect, nor knowledge has ever stripped me of my inhibitions.
At the time, I was reading the works of Georges Bataille, and I liked the lack of affect in his erotic writing. The narrator of Story of the Eye, for example, relates scenes of absurd sexual activity busting through the fabric of ordinary life. A frisky girl thrusts her naked ass into a bowl of milk. A young man imagines the white buttocks of his paramour to be two hard boiled eggs and feels an impulse to piss on them. That sort of thing. The events unfold as if they were ordinary life, without apology or interpretation. The narrator’s containment allows the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader.
This is what we always want in literature, and you get something of this effect in life when you go to bed with a person you don’t know. Marco was polite. He came from one of those backgrounds, and I couldn’t guess what he was thinking, and I liked in theory that people harbor secrets and what you guess isn’t always right. I liked being wrong, at least in theory, like so many other things I like only in theory, such as ambiguity.
One night Marco and I stayed up late. He was brooding about his far-away love. I was brooding about him. Everywhere I went, I scanned for his shape. We reviewed the events of the past week, recalling the times we had felt estranged and the times we were connected, and I relaxed because we had the same habit of keeping notes. At three in the morning, we walked into the California countryside. A lace of clouds was moving swiftly over stars that illuminated the night. The ground was damp. I heard an owl cry as we came to a clearing beside a pond, and we flopped on the grass. The air smelled of earth. We wrapped our arms around each other like blankets.
Marco had grown up in Virginia with a minister father. God was real to him, although he no longer practiced religion. His specialty was 17th Century literature, and he was writing an essay about Midsummer Night’s Dream. He said he liked Shakespeare’s view of sex, where people are interchangeable. He said, You love the one you’re with. Sex doesn’t mean anything. It’s passion that can ruin you, the way it does Marc Antony. Marco said, Power, not sex, is what matters in Shakespeare.
I asked what he made of the beginning of Midsummer Night’s Dream when Hermia’s father says to her, in effect, Either you marry the boy I pick for you, or I put you to death. The law says I can. And then Theseus backs him up, telling Hermia she should view her father as a god because he created her. She’s merely wax, and it’s up to him to spare or disfigure her.
Marco said, The play salutes lovers in nature where they can escape these laws. Hermia disobeys her father, gets the boy she wants, and doesn’t die. It’s a celebration of fertility and marriage. It’s a comedy. I said, Some comedy. The women wind up married. He said, The play is set in ancient Athens, by way of Elizabethan England, not in your head. Comedy is about not dying.
I knew what comedy was about. Comedy was something I knew about, and I was trying not to die here, as the sky blushed with rosy light. I was trying not to be a person who screws up tender moments with friction, but that ship had sailed. We stood up and brushed off our clothes. The other women in Marco’s life came up, as they invariably did. I thought of one as The Mother and the other as The Magician. Who am I? I asked unwisely, as we strode over bumpy ground. He thought for a moment, shooting me a sideways glance. He said, You’re my Jew.
It felt like a splash of icy water. It felt like laughter about you through a thin wall. I had not talked to Marco about being a Jew. I asked what he meant. He exhaled and said, The way you ask questions. The way you have sex.
Was there a Jewish way to do these things? Perhaps if you were not a Jew it might seem there was, although it looked to me like a category mistake. Laurie is a Jew. Laurie does these things. Therefore they are Jewish. I wondered what mistakes I had made with Marco, but mostly I couldn’t assess that because he remained unknown to me. It didn’t matter. His category was sex, and that did not change after his remark.
Freud maintained that dreams contain a secret wish, no matter how disturbing their content.
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