Maybe Sex for Christmas
by Larkin Vonalt
Writing about sex is troublesome for me. That’s something of a puzzle, because I can (and do) talk about sex: at the dinner table, in public, in casual conversation, in bed. I’m not shy that way. I said something mildly scandalous in that realm this afternoon while we were all sitting in the livingroom drinking cocoa. My husband muttered his protestations about propriety, to which I responded “What? This from someone who put something called ‘Lady Monkey Butt’ in my stocking?” I think the cocoa shot straight out of my mother’s nose.
But when it comes to writing descriptive narrative about sex, I can’t quite get it together. The rhythm eludes me, the delicate balance between the vulgar and the poetic. In December 1940, Henry Miller received an offer to write erotica for a “collector” for a dollar a page. He tired of it in short order, and his friend and lover, Anais Nin took up the slack. She never met the “collector,” but the intermediary, an art dealer, would tell her “The old man likes it. But concentrate on the sex, not so much poetry.”
“So I began to write tongue-in-cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought he would realize I was caricaturing sexuality,” she wrote in her journal. “But there was no protest. I spent days in the library studying the Kama Sutra, listened to friends’ most extreme adventures.’Less poetry,’ said the voice over the telephone. ‘Be specific.'” Anyone who has spent a moment (or more, or less) reading the dreck that passes for contemporary literary erotica can tell you that the stuff “without poetry” has an ugly crudeness that works opposite its desired effect. Just like certain marital aids, if you apply it long enough, you will eventually arrive at your intended destination, but you won’t have enjoyed the journey much.
Nin’s stories, on the other hand, are brilliantly balanced, progressing steadily in their long waltz to culmination. In “Artists and Models,” (an 8500 word story from the collection, Delta of Venus) she wrote:
“When she stood by the big iron bed, waiting, he said, ‘Keep your belt on.’ And he began by slowly tearing her dress from around it. Calmly and with no effort, he tore it into shreds as if it were made of paper. Louise was trembling at the strength of his hands. She stood naked now except for the heavy silver belt. He loosened her hair over her shoulders. And only then did he bend her back on the bed and kiss her interminably, his hands over her breasts. She felt the painful weight both of the silver belt and of his hands pressing so hard on her naked flesh. Her sexual hunger was rising like madness to her head, blinding her. It was so urgent that she could not wait. She could not even wait until he undressed. But Antonio ignored her movements of impatience. He not only continued to kiss her as if he were drinking her whole mouth, tongue, breath, into his big dark mouth, but his hands mauled her, pressed deeply into her flesh, leaving marks and pain everywhere. She was moist and trembling, opening her legs and trying to climb over him. She tried to open his pants.
As we truly only know what goes on inside our own heads during sexual congress, I couldn’t possibly say if that description of response is universal in any way, but it is damn close for me. As she develops the story over time, the language changes, growing coarser, more urgent. (You’ll have to go looking for that yourself. If I read too much, I’ll be distracted, and this project will be abandoned for the night.)
When I was a senior in high school, I’d translated an interview with Nin from the French Vogue for a class. It was a fascinating piece and it noted the titles of two books of short stories that had been recently published. I asked for them for Christmas, really having no idea what they were. My mother had a look at them in the local bookshop and demurred. When I discovered them for myself my freshman year in college, I was relieved that she hadn’t bought them for me. Not that it was an act of censorship (my parents were never like that) but it would have been a weird gift to get from your mom.
For a long time, I didn’t even try my hand at writing erotica. Even garden variety love letters felt forced and false– I found that I was cribbing from “real writers” like Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds to express myself. Then about ten years ago, a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is a jazz singer by trade and of course, she had no health insurance. So we had a Valentine’s Day fund-raiser for her. I was fairly well noted in my own community then, and I offered to contribute an original one-copy-only signed erotic short story for auction. To sweeten the deal I included a plateful of handmade bittersweet chocolate truffles laced with cayenne. (I was sure of those, I knew they were sublime. The story was another matter altogether.)
I’d seen how many other writers had handled sex scenes and often cringed. I feared and expected that same response to my own efforts. I may be able to fuck you on top of a car in a National Park but I can’t write about “throbbing members” or “moist folds of the flower” without giggling. Even if you can’t hear me giggling you can read it between the lines.
So auctioning off this story was a little like auctioning off one’s knickers, and I felt a bit shamefaced all night long. A local architect bought the truffles and the story for $75, and I still turn slightly pink when I think about it. Maybe he just ate the truffles and threw away the story, I never heard. The climax of the evening was a celebrity spelling bee, star-studded with the local literary luminaries. And me. (This is Livingston, Montana we’re talking about. If you throw a rock in the street, you’re more likely to hit a writer than not.) Damned if I didn’t win– and the Calcutta style betting had me as a long shot. Among that group were numerous men who were a bit notorious for their sexual adventures and proclivities. I wasn’t known for my sexual proclivities, I was married.
Well, I guess they were married too. I understand the problem, though. People fall in love with writers. They underline phrases on a page. They utter “yes” when some passage resonates. If the writer is similarly in love with themselves, it’s easy to succumb to this society of mutual admiration. Thank God I have a patient husband, and luckily I haven’t given him too many instances to be patient about. I have been told, more than once, by more than one man that I am the “manliest woman (they’ve) ever met.” It is meant as a compliment (coming from a man, after all) and I take it as such. What they are acknowledging is a temperament that is neither squeamish nor shrill, along with somewhat masculine appetites: good whiskey, raw oysters, rare meat, sporting dogs, leather, European cars, and bawdy jokes.
I had a friend in college, another writer, who could match me stride for stride on most of that, though she had a real predilection for the most ridiculous pumps. Starting in college, and continuing for about twenty-five years, she maintained an affair with a man we both knew. He was tremendously ambitious and in time, tremendously successful. Eventually, her husband -working in the same field- found out, and was understandably furious. In turn, he took up with a woman he’d just met at a fundraiser, and eventually left my friend and married the woman he’d turned to. What happened next ended our nearly 30 year friendship: this beautiful, intelligent woman chose to wear a scarlet letter– not the “A,” you might expect, but “V,” for Victim. It’s invisible of course, but it colours her every action and decision. I couldn’t believe she’d grown up to be such a hypocrite.
Twenty-five years of sex without being compelled to make a partnership isn’t love, it’s just sex. She could have saved her marriage and the pain she embraced (and visited on her three kids) by just owning up to it when it was discovered. A mistake, but one that she compounds with self-righteousness. But then, that’s the golden question, isn’t it? Is it more egregious to be in love with someone (and never act on it) or to engage in a sex act with someone you don’t love? I don’t know the answer. In a perfect world this would never come up, we would each be forever satisfied with our spouse, and no other person would make our pulse quicken. Years and years ago, we had a pastor who was kind of attractive in that “Jeremiah Johnson” way. He had a very plain and unhappy wife, and I imagine he’d wrestled this question more than once. He said one day “To be attracted to someone is human nature, but you don’t have to act on it.” So that was his answer, and it’s fine advice for keeping a happy home.
Long, long ago I loved one particular man fiercely, and that love went on for years. We spent quite a lot of time together, but we never, ever touched. Not in passing, not on purpose. That’s kind of hard to do– think about all the times you lay your hand on someone’s arm, or hug them, or shake their hand, in the most casual and platonic manner. When we were talking (and God, we talked a lot) the air seemed to shimmer around us. People noticed. I never touched him. He never touched me. I don’t know if we were afraid that once we crossed that threshold that we wouldn’t be able to stop, or if we would spontaneously combust. Or both. It’s all long over now, but the question still hangs. I’m not sure if you can help yourself in those situations though– do we even choose them? And certainly you can decide with whom you will take off your clothes and fall into bed.
So each night I fall into bed with the man I married nearly twenty years ago, when I was just a slip of a girl, all elbows and sharp edges. That first ache to close the distance between two humans is ancient history now, a shared common image, family folklore. There is comfort in knowing the roadmap of his bones as well as my own, and joy in the occasional surprise. Now, older, rounder, I am less pleased with my own over-upholstered body, but when he whispers you are so beautiful, it carries the ring of truth. Perhaps not to anyone else anymore, but to him, there is still a loveliness in my soft flesh. Allowing for cricks and kinks, the architecture of connecting is familiar as breath, this goes here. Just for a moment we are pliant as newlyweds, bending, arched, couldn’t stop now if the Pope himself walked through the door. Then, like stepping from the Tilt-a-Whirl, we take a minute to regain our bearings. Pillows are adjusted, plumped, the quilt is smoothed. We settle together like spoons, witless into sleep.