“We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
On October 1, 1966 I married a gay man. I didn’t know he was gay, nor did he, really, not for decades. How could we have stayed in the dark so long, me straight and him gay? How did that work? What did we think was going on? What about consequences?
You would have taken Ben and me for an ordinary couple. We met as students, liked each other, talked, had fun, sang, studied, went to plays, made friends. Sex was wonderful once – one time -and then it wasn’t. The secret might have come out at that point, but that one time was fantastic, and by then we’d decided to get married, and anyway, things had to improve, didn’t they? We were people of good will, we were smart, we loved each other. I had two or three inklings, and Ben had more, but we didn’t really want to know, and in that we were successful. Privileged girls in my generation were innocent by design.I hardly understood the word “homosexual.” A decent man could not be that.
We were not happy, but we were game. We made a sort of bewildered love, bought a house, raised children, supported each other’s work. So far so good, right? But the consequences were piling up, some of them ugly. Sex never worked, and that was disappointing, painful, even maddening. Much of the time one or the other of us simply avoided it, for apparent reasons that were not the real reason, and this preserved our home. We forged a partnership with so much good intertwined with the bad that it was never certain there was much to worry about. We were each other’s sounding board, we shared friends, music, theater, we rehabbed the house, we bought a sailboat. We always hoped that eventually we would find the happiness that inexplicably eluded us. Very late in the game, after a long period of celibacy, I got interested in sex again and forced the issue of whether any such happiness was possible for us. That was when the secret came out and unraveled everything.
Ben Noble and I were grad students together in the late 60s. I was in teacher training, and he had a job videotaping student teachers, trundling the huge machines of those days into classrooms and recording us,so that later we could review with our advisers how the class went. Ben reported that a couple of professors saw my tape and thought I was terrific. Naturally I warmed to the guy. For our first date, he sold a car so he could afford to take us to dinner. Over the next weeks we discovered guacamole, saw movies, talked about our families, rode his Vespa, threw pies at each other on Halloween.
Ben was going to be a filmmaker. He had a patient intelligence that saw different sides to issues. Perfect for documentary. I imagined he would make great feature films as well, like Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Laurence Olivier. The other film students were all crazier than he was. They played “Michelle, Ma Belle” all night in the back yard, constructed papier maché thrones and sat on them in makeshift ceremonies, made movies about purple gliding into blue. Ben fit in, though. People liked him, he was reliable, and he was serious in his own way. His movie was about diabetic children at a summer camp.
Ben’s mother was a teacher, and he had no prejudice against women working. That was a revelation to me. Raised as a debutante, a future housewife, I was thrilled to imagine that I could have an independent life, children and all. Not that Ben’s mother was much of a model. His film embarrassed her. She was nervous about it and snippy, and that was my opportunity to ride to his rescue, to supply the appreciation unavailable in his family.
I’d had a few friendly sexual encounters that didn’t amount to relationships. In fact, I’d hidden my contraceptive foam in the garage,because it turned out I liked sex, and I didn’t want to be tempted with someone who was not a keeper. For Ben I went out to the garage and got the stuff, feeling amply justified. Sex with him was fine, okay, a little hasty. When you’re falling in love, you forgive any little awkwardness, right? I was confident about Ben. He was gray, I decided, not all-colors, like me, but solid, sober, quiet, calm, reliable. I needed that. By then, I’d seen him with a neighborhood kid, and I knew he would make a good father. He told me he’d signed up for the Peace Corps in South America. He didn’t want to let me go, he said, but he had to”slay some dragons” before he settled down. This appealed to me, because I wanted to see life as a mythic quest. I felt generous, driving across country to release Ben to his ineluctable destiny.
We had an ecstatic night in the Tetons, camping under a tarp clothespinned to a guyline, drunk on the long road and the stars and each other. The shadows of the mountains, the dry, friendly night, the pines and cedars, the sense of being on the brink of life, our juicy physicality and metaphysical renunciation – it was all erotic. It was gorgeous. “That was the most tremendous experience,” Ben said, “Never in my life …” It was the same for me. After that, though, sex was tepid. Who knew why? It seemed to me he was just doing what he was doing. It didn’t feel like we were in it together.
In Chicago, sitting on a borrowed bed in a disappointment neither of us mentioned, we faced the future. Ben was due at Peace Corps Washington the next day. This was 1966. Peace Corps or Vietnam. I had separately applied to volunteer in Africa, but my heart was full of Ben. This was the real thing, and the proof was my willingness to let him go. But he suddenly changed his mind. “I don’t want to lose you,” he said. “If the Peace Corps will let you come to South America, will you marry me?”
“I’d marry you any day,” I said, wanting to match the risk he’d taken, wanting to be hearty and definitive, wanting the moment to have style. I heard the false note in my voice, and I didn’t understand it. Had I spoken too quickly? Was Ben’s proposal actually conditional on Peace Corps approval? Should a person pause before giving so consequential an answer? But I didn’t. If Ben noticed the inauthenticity he didn’t say..
We were engaged.
Ben reported to Peace Corps training and got me switched into his program, University Education in Brazil. “I don’t want to stand in the way of true love,” the priest in charge told him. I went home to my family in Boston for the Fourth of July, and Ben flew in, having watched the fireworks unfurling over every town up along the coast. He was a more-than-presentable fiancé, a small-town boy who looked aristocratic in a tweed jacket. We made a smart, handsome couple. I was the first in my generation to get married, and my family put on the dog. Uncle Fran gave me a bottle of Fleurs de Rocaille. When everyone went out one afternoon, Ben and I were free to make love, but Ben didn’t want to.
“Your family wouldn’t approve of sex before marriage,” he said. This was true. “I don’t want to disappoint your people by sneaking around while they’re out.”
“Sneaking” was a highly inflated term for privacy, I thought. We were in bathing suits. I stepped on his toes in my bare feet and breathed on his bare chest, but he was not susceptible. Where was his spontaneity? Ben was being inconveniently proper, too impressed with my family, but arguably noble, perhaps commendable in some way I didn’t have high enough standards for. I adopted the attitude my mother called, “Grin and bear it.” Surely there would be other opportunities. I looked forward to Peace Corps training.
At the university where we were quartered that summer, Ben and I were assigned separate rooms with same-sex roommates and warned to respect standards of propriety such as we would meet in our host country. We were scolded for sitting on the grass holding hands. I was in love, ready for sweetness, touch, delight, lacerated with desire in the classroom, in the cafeteria, especially in the elevator lobby last thing at night, where we hugged and even kissed, though kissing never went very well. We were tired at the end of long days of language learning, lectures on history and culture, service projects in the local community, movies, medical checks. I wanted to give Ben every good thing in the world, and all of myself. He was always kind, polite, glad to see me, even-tempered. He was even interested in sex, aroused sometimes – it was easy to get hard when you were twenty-four – but he put me off and dealt with that himself. I listened to him say he loved me and wanted to marry me, that everything would be brilliant if we were patient now. I had a greater freedom I wanted to infect him with, but he had little difficulty resisting me. I clung to him, breaking off whenever someone came out of the elevator. Ben was prepared to let me go, night after night, to my separate room on my separate floor. I couldn’t figure it out. Was there no better idea?
One weekend on a deserted beach, my longing to touch Ben and be touched merged with the pull of the tide, irresistible.The breeze tasted of salt, cloud wisps checkered the moonlight. The sand was still warm.
“Come on,” I said.
“No,” he said. “No sex. I don’t think we should.”
“Why not? I thought you were … We already …”
He was all tweed jacket, arguing earnestly. “I want people to trust us. I want them to think I’m up to snuff. If we don’t play by the rules, Peace Corps will deselect us and I’ll have to go to Vietnam. Can’t you wait until we’re married?”He seemed to want to be admired for his moral strength. Wasn’t there also a touch of distaste at how hard it was for me to refrain? I did think, What’s the matter with him? But that thought was so bad when there was so much good that I discarded it. We were model volunteers, following international politics and the Vietnam war, chatting already in Portuguese. We had opinions on the latest Brazilian coup, the previous and current governments, their land-use policies, their treatment of indigenous people in the Amazon. In preparation for making a film in Brazil, Ben set off, Bolex in hand, to shoot the rough streets east of the Capitol. If an angel had told me that he was repressing secret longings for intimacy with other men, I would not have believed it.
I was young and in love. I was full of desire, but I was a child of the 50s. The man leads. “There has to be a skipper of the ship,” my mother said. “It’s really much more satisfying that way.” I did not believe this, but that was how I was raised, that was what I knew, so I didn’t fight Ben about sex. I was afraid that if I did the whole thing might come undone. I cried a lot, I lingered outrageously late in the elevator lobby, but what I fought was my own desire. Was it normal? “Women don’t have much in the way of a sex drive,” my mother said, so why was I a cat on a hot tin roof? Ben told me I was terrific, he didn’t deserve me, but he didn’t want to touch me. My heart was breaking. Eventually I would tear myself away from the elevator lobby, go to my separate room and lie staring at the ceiling, counting the little holes in the acoustic tile. I didn’t touch myself because I never had and because it would have been such a comedown from what would have been right, the feast of love, the banquet.
I hoped I could change his mind. I didn’t know what we were dealing with. Coming from generations of Calvinist preachers, of mothers who prioritized innocence, I didn’t know how powerful sex could be, how important, how valuable. I knew about the sperm and the egg, but nothing about the experience, the feelings, the role sex might play in a relationship, and I had seen no happy marriages up close. I tried to believe that putting sex aside for two and a half months would be of small consequence, like giving up chocolate for Lent, maybe.
Ben wanted to think his resistance to passion was due to his realistic reading of political, social, and cultural realities. “If we break the rules and I get deselected, I’ll have to go to Vietnam,” he said. I chose to treat his anxiety and puritanism as reasonable. I wanted to think the man I was in love with had right on his side. Warning signals came at me with a shriek, like a wood saw cutting into metal, but I paid no attention. So what if I was crying every night, crazy with irritation about the bridesmaids’ dresses, brain-fogged at the elevators. How could I prove to myself that desire for the man I loved was not sinful or unseemly. What I really felt was that loving Ben was the least like sin of anything I’d ever experienced.
It’s easy to see, looking back, that my being a woman was at the heart of the matter. Ben was never going to want me passionately, but that was still a secret, even to him. He wanted a home, a family, and that required a woman.
Ben tried to explain to me where he came from. His people weren’t sophisticated, weren’t hippies, had old-fashioned country ways. “Nowadays,” he said, “a boy can play with a doll, but when I was four and wanted one for Christmas, I got a tricycle.”He had such a fit that his mother made his father go out next day and buy a doll. What was the harm? The harm came when his father threw the doll at him in disgust. He didn’t have his dad’s ability to play ball, to catch and run. I noticed when we played tennis that Ben couldn’t serve without taking a mincing little extra step. He was more interested than I in the swatches of velvet my mother sent for bridesmaids’ dresses. What was I thinking? I thought how handsome Ben was, how he said I was terrific, he’d caught a prize.
This was a time when most educated people I knew believed that no decent person could be attracted to someone of the same sex, with exceptions made for certain eccentrics – Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein – and the less said about their private lives the better. Everybody knew people whose living arrangements you didn’t ask about, but same-sex attraction was considered a moral failing, or a form of madness.
“Back in college,”Ben told me, “a very cool grad student invited me to dinner. I was flattered until he sneaked up and kissed me on the back of the neck. God! Yechh! I bolted.” Not content with bolting, he wrote a letter excoriating the man and his kind as”perverted” and “degenerate,” self-righteously advising him to get help. Ben was still shaky, remembering all this. What did it mean about him? Nothing, I assured him. He was sorry his letter had been quite so harsh. The way Ben talked to himself, I realized years later, was kinder. “Oops,” he would say when someone attracted him who shouldn’t, so that it seemed like a small thing, easily mended. “Don’t look there; look here.” Meanwhile the letter established Ben’s credentials as a red-blooded male.
The training program was challenging, and we needed each other. There were hours of brute boredom in the language lab, breakdowns in the program, the complex culture of our host country to contend with. I was second only to Ben in excellence at Portuguese. I gave a speech at the university. Ben met President Johnson. They extracted our wisdom teeth, and we rode home on the bus, trying to talk with jawfuls of bloody cotton, to the horror, we secretly hoped, of the other passengers. We steeled ourselves to work in neighborhoods where roaches swarmed the watermelon and rats chewed their way in through the floor. All the time we were watched, on trial. Somebody we liked was deselected, we didn’t know why.
I thought it was wrong to stifle our physical relationship. What waste and loss. I wanted to love him and grow. I dared say at last,”This isn’t good for us. This isn’t right.”
“Only six weeks till we’re married.”
“We could go to a hotel.”
He hesitated. Careful vigilance had become second nature to him. But he nixed the idea. “I don’t want to do anything sordid,” he said.
It wouldn’t be sordid. But if he thought so, then it would. I was out of ideas. There was no one to talk to. The Peace Corps psychiatrist was repulsive, my mother out of the question.
There were a couple of opportunities. We rented a canoe one afternoon, paddled up the river, and went ashore in a secluded woods. Ben wanted sex. I did too, but I was pissed. All this talk about wait till we’re married and now you want to? The whole thing boiled up when he touched me, the deprivation and heartache I’d been trying to be a good sport about for weeks. Here we were, what I’d said I wanted. But all I could do was cry. He went ahead without me.
On a visit to friends soon after, we had a room to ourselves. Ben was willing, but it didn’t feel good, the way he was pumping against dryness, like there was some way I should do it to get it right. I threw up in the morning, coming back on the train.
We were getting married and then going in-country. Two nights before the wedding there was a dinner, and I suddenly couldn’t get dressed because everything was impossible. I screamed and cried like a child. Why? Maybe there were too many presents to acknowledge. Maybe I was going too far away, for too long. It never occurred to me that I didn’t want to marry Ben. My parents and friends calmed me down and put me back together without my having said or even thought that I didn’t know if I wanted to get married, and I got a second wind. I was ready to go through with it.
It was a large wedding, mostly my relatives, a few of his. It rained. The porch and garden, blazing with chrysanthemums, had to be abandoned. Everyone got wet outside the church. My life was passing into the unknown, but I was bound by my love, my promises, my hopes. I said my vows, and meant them, though it felt stagey, a kind of play-acting. In all the photographs my expression is sardonic. I wandered through the reception like a stranger, saying nothing consequential to anyone, and no one had anything to say to me. I had caked my face, for once, with makeup. The food ran out. So did the wine.
Ben and I staged a cool getaway down a long, curving stairto hop on bicycles and ride around the corner to a car, accompanied by the usual cheers and jeers. We had a long drive to someone’s holiday cottage, an old New England farmhouse where we cooked a steak and ate it sitting on the buckling kitchen floor. For some reason there were no chairs. We managed brave faces – was it hope? – but our voices had a lost sound.
The bedroom was colder than a room has any right to be. I hadn’t really thought the wedding night would work a miracle, but it felt as if our limbs and body parts were some Laocoön struggling for life against a fatal disconnection. Ben seemed to be doing something with himself on my body. It was meaningless and hopeless. I saw it was no good and involuntarily shut down. I heard the portcullis clang shut, with no idea how traumatic and permanent that shutting down would be. Ben wasn’t having a very good time either. I wished and tried, against the verdict of my body, to make love to him. I had loved him and desired him and now could not reach him or even want to any more. I was devastated. He tried to comfort me, but everything stayed very bad.
In the morning I called my parents and begged them to meet us one last time in town, blaming my red eyes and puffy face on homesickness, clinging to the idea that Ben and I could someday work this out. I strung anecdotes together – the velvet dresses, the escape by bicycle – to make the wedding seem classy, a success. My family did not rescue me. They put us on the plane.
Arrived in Rio, I cheered up. Everything was new, and I was fascinated by the shimmer of Guanabara Bay, the heaped mountains, the black-seeded breakfast papaya. I got a note from an aunt, wishing us well, addressed to Mrs. Ben Noble, which was thrilling. I had a new identity, a man’s name. I had made it. I was speaking in public, adventuring in a strange land, mastering a foreign tongue, but at the same time, in an older layer of women’s experience, I longed to be desired and possessed, and I was not. What I had was words on an envelope. I began noticing another volunteer in our group, someone bright and sane. It made me happy to look at him. I wondered what it would be like to be married to him. “Oops,” I said to myself”Don’t go there.”
In Brasília we took the bus to the university and did our jobs. For Ben this meant drinking endless cups of cafezinho while the other professors, too jealous to allow him to teach, granted each other masters’ degrees, not to be outdone by his. I admired his patience and was glad he had at least one friend on the faculty. I was teaching and busy, enjoying it. On my first birthday since our marriage, Ben was sick, and I nursed him in the hotel room where we lived for the first six months. I didn’t mind spending my birthday heating up chicken broth on a hot plate, but after Ben recovered and a week went by, two weeks, and no celebration, no present, no card, nothing, I was hurt, and this surprised him. Was it some romantic fuss I wanted? I wanted to be wanted, and I wasn’t. Oops. Don’t go there. I chose to forgive Ben and believe we would do better in the future.
Our shared experiences bound us. At a small-town Good Friday procession where the faithful carried a wavering cross with a life-sized, bloody Jesus, we got a lesson in fraternity when a lady invited us up to her balcony so we could see better, advised us to boil our water, and even brought us cafezinhos. “Brazil is a country of contrasts,” Ben remarked, quoting our teachers and pointing out a young woman with an up-to-date medicine gun taking advantage of the crowd to offer vaccinations.
On a hot Saturday, one of Ben’s colleagues drove us out to his uncle’s farm, had us admire the artichokes and cashews, and pressed upon us heaping plates of feijoada, a rich bean stew with sausage, chicken, pork and vegetables. He plied us with caipirinhas made with the strong local cachaça, and not just one. I couldn’t. Ben made an attempt. The uncle took him aside to say we had very fertile soil here, and what was it with me, I should soon become fertile as well, if not already. Ben gravely agreed with all this, not mentioning the birth control pills I was taking. The uncle regrouped to talk fertility to me. It was impossible to get away. With no car, we were stuck for the afternoon. Such situations were easier and funnier because there were two of us. I felt safe and at home with Ben.
Sometimes thugs arrived on campus with the acquiescence of the military government and shut the place down. They slouched around with guns, big bellies,and big leather hats like Lampeão, the famous outlaw of the Northeast. They let off U.S. surplus tear gas, and one day shot up the physics lab. We kept a low profile so that the Peace Corps could continue to operate in the country. Sometimes this wasn’t easy. One of the students we chaperoned on a plane to Manaus was targeted by the pilot, an army colonel, as a leftie, and Ben was invited into the cockpit to snitch on him. Of course he didn’t. Anyway, the kid was about as much of a leftie as Bobby Kennedy. Ben and I talked such things over between us. We were each other’s best friend.
On the rare occasions when we had sex, it was a paint-by-numbers affair. Ben fumbled at me, felt for my clitoris, clumsy, tense, impatient, thinking, I’m sure, that he had to be fair to me, because he was a decent man. Wrong place. I guided his hand, hopeful,embarrassed, tired of his dumb obsession with this one spot. Why didn’t he touch my breasts, or … but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went at it too hard. I fought his hand off but made encouraging noises. I didn’t want him to give up. After all, I wanted to feel something. He’d slather me with Vaseline, get his penis going, put it in and come. I was always unfinished. I had been in love with this man, but now I was the engine that turns over but doesn’t catch, the pump that sucks air, the straight screwdriver when you need a Phillips-head. Ben wanted to be irresistible, so he was disappointed that I was unhappy. Neither of us understood that he wasn’t meant to commit his full emotional and sexual energy to a woman.
Friends and partners nonetheless, we trudged through the red dust of Brasília, puzzled over the gnarly politics of the university, endured 24-hour bus trips to Rio over the endless, stupor-inducing scrub plateau which threw up every few hours a wooden shack selling cigarettes and once or twice a stop with bathrooms, often up to the ankles in sewage. We endured. We could take it. One night we woke up when our bus hit a car. On the empty road, in a profound silence, the smashed car sat diagonally shipwrecked across both lanes with a dead man in it, still registering a frozen horror on his face, as if he had fallen asleep and waked up just in time to see his fate looming in the oncoming headlights. While we waited for authorities to arrive, I paced the macadam, hugging my elbows, glad that Ben was there.
There was no one to talk to about our missing happiness. I told myself sex wasn’t that important. Inexplicably, though, I became covered with eczema, scaly red itching patches on the insides of my elbows, on my neck and face. I slathered on cortisone cream at night and taped plastic over my arms.
The doctor who prescribed this routine, a kind, married man from a small town on Puget Sound asked, “Is everything all right with you and Ben?”
“Oh yes,” I lied, ashamed that I had virtually no sexual, intimate, emotional life as I imagined others must have.
A visitor called Urs came to stay a few days. While he was there, I broke a glass in the sink, slashed my finger, and yelped. Before I fully realized what had happened, Urs was beside me. He seized my wrist, held my finger up, put pressure on the cut. Ben was still sitting on the camp bed that served as our sofa, maybe dreaming up a film. Weeks earlier he had set off with the Bolex to shoot the empty ribs of the cathedral, but lately I hadn’t heard anything about a movie. This stranger, Urs, had been a sort of nuisance in our house, small as it was, yet he responded to me with an alacrity I’d never felt from Ben. I couldn’t help noticing.
We wanted children. Back in the States we tried to conceive one. I took my temperature every day to predict the time of ovulation, and we showed up accordingly, ready to go. We called it screwing. It wasn’t love that we were making. It was arduous, exhausting, dispiriting, like a punishment imposed on children. “Light every one,” my mother said, sending me to the beach with a box of kitchen matches. She wanted to make my pyromania go away, to make fire itself tiresome. “Every single one. “I thought I was pregnant once, twice, but I wasn’t. Back to work. I wanted my grandmother to see this child, but she died in the fall. It was up to me then to carry her spirit on, the spirit of the family, the spirit of women who prevailed. Problems? Unthinkable. Divorce? It never occurred to me.
I did wonder. I was horribly inexperienced – I had never masturbated to orgasm, too shy – but I knew you needed lubrication, and Vaseline was a distant second best. Why didn’t I get wet? I read in a book that there was such a thing as “frigid.” I was that, I supposed, though it made no sense when not so long ago the juice had run down my thighs if ever Ben touched me, but as the months and years piled up, and he seemed to be functional and I was not, we agreed tacitly that I was the problem.
“You’re terrific,” he’d say, cheerleading, when I was glum. “Anyone would be lucky to have you.”
I didn’t want anyone. I wanted him. I wanted to love him and give him everything, all of myself. What he was, though, was a partner, so I filled my life with friends, books, gardens, projects, sports. I got a tough teaching job that took countless hours and more emotional energy than I would ever have. I loved my husband. He liked to cook. He could be funny. I got mad sometimes, of course. Once I threw a dozen eggs at him and ruined a leather jacket. On the whole, though, we’d been through a lot together and he knew who I was. It was better not to dwell on what we didn’t have.
Ben was working for government clients. It was an income, and more or less in his field. I figured some day he would make real movies, and I thought that if I’d been crazy in love with him, obsessed with him, cooking, cleaning, dressing for him, I couldn’t have done my own thing, which I had so wanted to do and which I was doing. That’s what I told myself, anyway. The more successful our life as friends and partners, the more was at stake, should that life be disrupted. The failure of intimacy had to be ignored, kept secret.
Then I got pregnant.
The natural childbirth instructor sat on the floor, a big loose woman with black curly hair. She had a large four year old who scooted around on a sleeping bag during the session, sometimes pausing to take possession of his mother’s breast and nurse. Enormously calm, Phyllis was undaunted by the mysteries of birth and given to oracular statements like, “Eighty percent of men and sixty-five percent of women are completely ungrounded,” or “You’ll find that you are happier if you give up meat,” or “The exploitative medical system means that your doctor, even if well-intentioned, can’t support a healthy birth experience.”
I was abundantly happy in my pregnancy. I played tennis up to the last week, and with all the breathing and stretching my body felt good and strong. The birth took me into a rhythm of its own, spontaneous and powerful. Despite the pain, I was absorbed and exhilarated by the wisdom and purpose of it all, out of all comparison better than bad sex. It was tremendous. Ben came into the delivery room, if not the lover and intimate I might have wished for, still a trusted familiar. He admired my body doing its thing and gave way to actual amazement, one of his few frankly emotional moments. A beautiful baby was born, and we loved her. We outfoxed the nurses who didn’t want to bring her to me. We endured the visit of my mother who wanted more pillows but could only say passive-aggressively, “I should think you’d want more pillows.”I sat for hours with the baby, watching the sun light up the marigolds in the copper pot on the windowsill. The milk flowed easily. I had never imagined such physical happiness.
When it was time for sex again, I tried. Another session with the petroleum jelly. It didn’t work any better than before. I tried to accept Ben as he was, but I wasn’t feeling very much from him. Because now we had a child together, I felt some urgency to find the source of our sterility. I figured that in principle at least fifty percent must be my fault, and if so, I could do something about it, maybe. That calculation preserved my faith in the man I had chosen, the man who would define my identity as Mrs. Ben Noble.
Like a good child of Calvinists, I was serious about blaming myself and came to believe that something really was wrong with me, or in the counterculture parlance of the time, I was fucked up. Multiple gurus in the seventies offered you some kind of work you could do to straighten yourself out. I chose one who prioritized “bodywork.” You hit a bed with a tennis racket to get in touch with your anger, or you lay backward over a stool to experience your desperation. If you could feel what was all tied up in your body, your energy would be released and you would become spontaneous and whole. The theories and exercises dug up a lot of past stuff but didn’t shed much light on the present, I thought.
However, one day I stopped in the middle of the indecent ritual that passed for sex between Ben and me, got out of bed straight into the shower, turned on the tap, and washed it all off, the abortive touch, the fruitless kissing, my own heavy breathing that went nowhere. Hope had died. What did I care that I was reneging on a wife’s duty to be receptive to her husband, to accept him? “I’m never going to do that again” I vowed, “unless I want to.”
Soon after, on the third day of a special intensive bodywork session, I noticed the blue-collar guy sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was prematurely bald, with a shy, open grin and different hangups, as we’d seen in the session, from my sort of people. There was something specifically male about him. That evening I found myself standing near him in the dusk by the tennis courts. It was simple. I wanted to. He moved without fuss to kiss me. Drawn by a tide of longing, as if I’d always known how, I kissed back.
Catherine Bell has published fiction in some twenty journals, including Solstice, Northern Virginia Review, Concho River Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and South Carolina Review. GHLL published her story “Gull” in 2013. Bell’s novel, Rush of Shadows, a story of an attempted cross-cultural friendship during the Indian genocide in California, earned honorable mention for the 2014 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction (reviewed in GHLL)