When people marry they think it’s forever. Theirs will be the union that defies the odds and stands the test of time. They will weather all storms, take on all comers, and live in marital bliss until they pass away (love never dies) holding hands in adjoining hospital beds. Their bodies will always be beautiful and perfect and never fail them. The sex will always be spiritual and hot. Their children will be model citizens. Best friends to the last.
“Old friends/Sit on a park bench like bookends…
Can you imagine us years from today/Sharing a park bench quietly/
How terribly strange to be seventy…” –Paul Simon.
I didn’t think of forever. I couldn’t picture us years into the future. For me, getting through the day-to-day was enough. The future was for other people. This is not to say I don’t plan at all. The circumstances of my upbringing have made me a compulsive planner. I always have a plan.
My first friend got married at 17, practically a week after she graduated from high school. She was divorced at 18 and had her daughter at 20. The next clutch of friends married at nineteen. Some marriages survived, others didn’t. I remember sitting between two friends who had just returned from college on winter break, each discussing what she would borrow from the other when she got married. Where had my friends gone and who were these changelings? The next group married at 21, then 23, then the last at 25; the last except for me. I was 34, long after my family and friends had given up hope.
My mother was at a loss. She asked when I was going to get a boyfriend like my friends. Why didn’t I have a date to the prom like my sister? (My sister is the only person I know to go to two senior proms without having repeated a grade.) When I was 19 my mother asked if I was a lesbian. I asked her what if I was? Her response was to say she would throw herself off the nearest bridge. When I would come to her for hugs she would say you’re too old to get love from your mother. You need a boyfriend. My relationship with my mother has always been complicated. It’s as though because she’s my mother she thinks she knows me when she knows nothing about me.
When I was 21 I fell very much in love with a friend of a friend of mine. He was tall and solid with long fingers and large brown eyes. He was quiet and shy to the point of endearing. I had friends who claimed to hate him because he didn’t talk. We talked all the time. One afternoon he phoned me as he watched a little boy on his Big Wheel ride up and down the block. He’s so happy, he said, he nearly put his Big Wheel under a car. I wish you could see it. I tend to romanticise him and make more of our situation than it was. I fell in love where I was his rebound relationship. His girlfriend had left him without explanation and just like one of my wiser friends warned at the time, when he needed a shoulder I was there. At the same time he was my first love and my introduction to the adult world of intimacy and pleasure. My sister and I learned about sex fairly young-we were shipped off to a sex education class taught by a nurse practitioner organized by a group of parents-sex was not a topic of conversation. Our mother saw sex as a duty, an obligation, a means to an end. (If she didn’t actually see it that way, she certainly didn’t let on.) Intimacy was never discussed and pleasure was not even on the radar.
He wasn’t my introduction to the adult world of sex. That came much earlier. When I was nine years old I went to school one day and during a private music lesson my teacher told me to sit on his lap, unzipped the fly of my pants, and reached inside. He told me he was making sure I was breathing properly. He was very quiet after that. I felt small and strange and ashamed. There was a lump in his trousers. We sat in absolute silence. I was never alone with him again. His attention didn’t waver, it changed. He teased me about my clothes and my hair. That I wasn’t a teacher’s pet told me there were others. When he was caught a decade later I learned how countless those others were. I came home that day a different girl-one who stopped talking. The silence of that afternoon infected me and I’ve been silent ever since.
An evening in May started with me sitting on the roof of a red Nissan Sentra in the pouring rain giving the brunette man in the driver’s seat a come-hither glance through the windshield. Charlie Parker played through the open windows as he slipped behind me. As we listened, he softly, almost imperceptibly, kissed a drop off my neck. We’d been friends for long enough that he knew everything and hadn’t run screaming; instead reassuring me with patience, gentleness, and we don’t have to do anything you don’t want. That night holding him in my arms, caressing his neck, his back, his shoulders-feeling that mass, that heat, that gravity-I felt a connection to my own body I had never felt before and have struggled to find since. And then he did something extraordinary. He began asking my permission, barely above a whisper. May I kiss your throat? May I touch your leg? May I touch your thigh? I consented time and again, and then I gave the orders. That night changed the dynamic of all our future encounters. Then one day he said, I care about you very much but I can’t do this anymore.
I hate that a man took my connection to my body from away from me. I’m angry that I have to fight to get that connection back. It saddens me that I stopped feeling that connection to myself in my marriage. My natural state, it seems, is to glide above the surface or disappear beneath the waves.