When the subject first came up, we were finishing the bottle of cheap white wine, chilled as cold as we could make it in our freezer. The heat in Montréal was almost unbearable that summer without the icy knife of dry whites. Our son, chirping to himself in the next room, drew endless pictures of bizarre Edward Gorey-style creatures. My wife looked disheveled by the heat, which made her even more gorgeous. I wanted her, knew that I would have to wait until after my son had gone to bed, and of course I had to hope that the heat, the weariness of the day, and the lingering effect of the wine would not send us both to sleep before I could seduce her.
She was telling me about the time the chair of our former department—until recently we were both professors at the same school in British Columbia—had propositioned her. She thought. She wasn’t sure. She had told me the story before, but she was telling me the story in a new way. Her eyes always pulled off into the distance when she told me the story; she was still trying to understand it, I think, trying to puzzle out what she should have done. That look in her eyes always made me angry.
I get jealous when she tells me funny, fond stories about her successful and charming and extroverted ex. I even get a bit jealous when she watches male biathletes on the Winter Olympics with such close attention, the corner of her lower lip tucked into her upper teeth in rapt attention.
Even there the jealously feels a bit like foreplay, a bit of teasing fun before we start tugging at each other’s underwear.
Whatever feel this story had, it didn’t make me feel turned-on or jealous.
“He stood, about, well, less than a foot away from me.”
“Oh? How close?”
She came up to demonstrate. I could feel her breath on my forehead.
“He stood there, and he told me… told me that his commitment to his marriage wasn’t… well, that he wasn’t really committed to it.”
“You’ve told me that part before, many times. You never told me that he was standing so close.”
“I don’t know if it was a proposition…”
Anger makes me emphatic. “Of course, it was a proposition. Of course, of course it was. He wanted to kiss you. He wanted you to kiss him. He wanted to take you to bed, start an affair, right then, right there. He wanted you. Who wouldn’t? But I’m surprised he got that bold about it.”
Her blue eyes focused back on me. She smiled just a little. She was trying to make me feel better about it, and that made me even angrier.
“I don’t think he had the guts to try anything real,” she replied. “He would feel too guilty.”
Our son had heard the slight change in my tone of voice, the shift of mood in the room. He came into the dining room. The evening carried on.
I grew up afraid of sex.
I really don’t how else to put it. I was raised in fundamentalist and evangelical circles. We were mostly Baptist, but after a move to a new town in high school, my mother was drawn to a “non-denominational” church. Hilariously this was because she thought that the church, based on a few sermons we heard at the church at the beginning, was more open to other faiths. She used the word ‘ecumenical’ when we started attending regularly.
The church turned into a nightmare: terrifyingly literalist in its interpretation of the Bible, relentlessly socially conservative, and just generally loopy. Its idiocy would eventually, by the time my family left it, reach new depths because of one fanatical youth pastor. We weren’t asked to sign contracts about our virginity, but the church anticipated the inanity of that “purity” culture that was in the non-too-distant future.
As frightened of sex as the Baptist churches had been, these non-denominational Protestant “Bible” Churches were utterly terrified of it. That one problem—this sex-phobia that seemed to accompany a kind of weird mystical awe around the act of intercourse—accounts for a lot to my mind. I grew up thinking the worst thing you could do was have sex outside of marriage. Or perhaps the worst thing you could do was have an abortion or countenance an abortion after having had sex before marriage. But obviously the two went together: fundamentalists defend their fanaticism over abortion on the grounds that it is murder; their critics claim fundamentalists want to control women’s bodies. I mostly agree with the critics these days, but I have wondered if the anti-abortion, anti-birth control crowds aren’t simply afraid that that most pleasurable of acts is finally being severed from any consequences. Fucking just for the fuck of it, having a bit of fun with your body—ironically, hilariously—this is what fundamentalists fear most.
A gay friend who hadn’t grown up in such churches once asked me why they were so homophobic. I felt guilty, felt I owed her a personal response. And maybe, just maybe, when you’ve been a part of such organizations you do owe the people affected and excluded a response.
So I spent a week thinking about it and over coffee I somehow ended up spending an hour on the conversation. Of course, the churches were homophobic, but I couldn’t help but think that the churches were even more fundamentally sex-phobic. And so, when someone openly says, I’m a woman and I enjoy going down on other women… or I’m a guy and I like to kiss other guys…
Well. The same-sex thing might be part of the problem, but the real problem might be that you just said you enjoy sex. And if you’re gay, or trans, or bi, you might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says: I LIKE TO FUCK. The sex drives of the gay community are, of course, as varied as they are for the rest of humanity. There’s likely more than one gay guy out there who really could take a pass on the clubs and prefers a quiet night in with a gin and tonic and a well-worn copy of Emily Dickinson.
But that’s not what evangelicals see when they see a rainbow flag: they see an open declaration of orgiastic pleasure.
Because straight people are supposedly the norm, we can all pretend, we can conveniently forget all those moms and dads actually had sex once or twice, at least enough times to explain those little runts in the church nursery. Certainly, the way evangelical and fundamentalist couples dressed suggested that they didn’t actually think much about sex much beyond the handful of procreative acts that had made them fathers and mothers. We didn’t really think about Susan and Jim in the fifth pew having just a fantastic fuck on a Saturday night after a beer or two, and that’s the way we liked it.
I’ve studied enough church history and history of theology to have a rough understanding of what happened in broad historical terms. St. Augustine was freaked out by his own sexual desires. St. Augustine just happened to be one of the most compelling thinkers and writers the church has ever produced, and his heebie-jeebies around the act of intercourse started a domino chain that led to the celibacy of Catholic priests. Sure the Protestants found the courage to let their clergy marry, but the religious sexual revolution never went much past that. The rest of us in the Western church have been sentenced to fear the pleasure our genitals can bring for seventeen centuries. You might not have ever read his Confessions, but St. Augustine’s sex-phobia shaped the Western hemisphere.
Evangelical and fundamentalist protestants are even more invested in the rules—and the “rule-book”—than most Catholics and traditional Protestants, so if a bronze age writer even hints that something is vaguely bad about fornication, then, well: follow the rules buddy. Put it back in your pants. If you must fuck, fuck your husband, and try not to enjoy it. And make sure he doesn’t masturbate either: that erotica—whether it’s a sixteenth century play like Romeo and Juliet or some twentieth-century smut like Penthouse—it needs to go in the garbage. That’s just, you know, pure pleasure, and we don’t want to think about you using your hand that way when we shake it at the end of Church. And remember that the Song of Solomon is all about Christ’s love for the church: we don’t generally go in for metaphor, but we’ll make an exception for that steamy ten pages in the middle of your Bible. If your English professor at school teaching that “Literature of the Bible” class says something different, we all know he just has a dirty mind.
And he’s gay anyway.
The biggest act of rebellion I committed against my upbringing was to enjoy the act of fucking.
At the age of 39 I’ve had sex with exactly two women, and I was married to both of them for the majority of the sexual encounters I had with them. Unless you count straying from the missionary position, and maybe the odd bit of fun with some lingerie or a blindfold, I think you can safely say the hetero, straight sex I had was pretty vanilla. I take my lawfully wedded-wife from behind after a beer or two on Saturday nights, but that’s about as wild as it gets.
Yet not feeling guilty about fucking my wife still feels like a middle-finger to my upbringing. The taste of my wife’s vagina on my tongue, or the sensation of growing large in her mouth—that feels like a real revolution, an act of heresy, and riot all at once.
My wife had told me about this colleague coming on to her before, but that August was the first time she told me that that clearly. The story had come out in parts, over years. She wasn’t hiding anything, exactly. Or, to be more precise, she wasn’t hiding anything from me. She may well have been trying to hide something from herself, but even that doesn’t sound quite right.
It felt more like she didn’t know how to respond, or even how to articulate what had happened to her.
It was a full year after #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey had washed over the continent, a dirty tide full of the flotsam and jetsam of ruined lives. We lived more in the literary world, and while the scandals surrounding writers were not splashed across the tabloids, or blared from CNN, they often felt even seamier. Editors pressuring young poets for blowjobs in exchange for looking at a manuscript just a bit more carefully. Creative writing professors pressuring promising novelists who had yet to reach the age of 25 to stay out for another drink, and to switch from beer to whiskey, when they really should be going the other way, towards home. Experienced novelists offering to “mentor” novelists twenty, thirty years their junior. And all under the not-so-subtle implication that the promising young novelist might find herself blacklisted if she didn’t agree to a bit more bourbon or a lingering kiss.
After our son went to sleep, my wife told me a bit more. Or rather we went back over the times, all the times: after the birth of his daughter, he had kissed her on both cheeks. When introducing her at events, a careful hand at her back that, all the same, pressed a little too hard, came a little too far to the side, a little too high up. Compliments about her hair, her nails. Emails that came at 2am, felt designed to be innocuous, but dropped the lightest of hints towards the end.
Nothing clearly stated; nothing obvious ventured or committed; nothing reportable written.
And then one afternoon in a back office when he lingered, and spoke about his failing marriage. A man looking for a female face to tell his troubles to, perhaps; that was what I had told myself at the time. A lapse in judgment? Or a pattern of behavior?
He stood a little too close, whispered a little too urgently.
The first time I had sex:
My girlfriend was sitting on top of me as we kissed. She asked me. I muttered something about pregnancy, she assured me she was on the pill. I nodded, and she grasped me between her hands, mounted, inserted. She rocked back and forth twice. Maybe three times. I exploded.
She was kind about it, and perhaps she was flattered I was that turned on. The story is hardly unique: a lot of men can tell similar stories about their first times.
The interesting thing about my story are the details at the corners.
She became my first wife. I was twenty-three.
I had masturbated for the first time two months before.
Later, when I later told her that had been a first time, for me, she couldn’t stop weeping. She found my virginity disturbing, it made her feel dirty, and I wondered what on earth had possessed me to tell her, how the hell I had been raised, what the fuck had been wrong with me.
My wife had simply stepped out of that back office. Excused herself politely.
“I mean, I had just had your baby.”
I nod that stupid nod men make when they are trying to communicate that they get it.
“I mean, Rick was eight months old.”
“I know…” Selfishly, narcissistically, I wait for the part where we talk about how in love she…
“I mean, you and I—I was completely in love, and we had only been together, what, sixteen months. I had just had a baby. An affair with some guy twenty-five years older?” Her voice is incredulous. “I was still in the middle of a love affair with you…”
I do know.
She was bright, her red hair gathered around her face like a flame, she was pre-law, she was sunny without being vapid, and yes, her freckled breasts looked perfect in the linen dresses she wore while sitting in the first row.
I felt the distinct risk of turning into a cliché. When films and television shows show affairs between teachers and professors and their students, the straying male is invariably an English professor. The student is some starry-eyed poetry-lover whose innocence and enthusiasm he cynically targets. Recent events suggest that the tired trope has a basis in reality.
Or, even worse, the grizzled English professor takes his student to bed almost reluctantly, stewing in the clammy guilt produced by repression.
I would like to point out a few things.
- Nothing ever happened. I never asked her out, never touched her, not her wrist, not her hair. I looked into her blue eyes a touch too long, meditated on the shape of her neck one day at the library when I was loaning her the DVD of the movie she had missed watching in class.
- You’re already suspicious of my defensiveness, and you’re right to be: I obsessed over her, fantasized about her in a way that I had never fantasized about another woman before.
- I was twenty-eight. She was twenty-three. My point: if we had met at a bar, if we had both been single, if we had had a few beers and fell into bed the way that twenty-somethings attracted to one other sometimes fall into bed together after a drink or two or one too many, no one would have had anything much to say to us.
Not unless they were one of the fundamentalist creeps I grew up with.
Today she has a practice in San Diego, a handsome husband, three gorgeous red-haired daughters, the eldest only a year younger than my son.
I wanted her.
Did I manage to find the self-control? I congratulate myself that way some nights in the wee hours after a couple of drinks.
Other nights I know it was that unholy mess of guilt and fear and shame left over from a fundamentalist upbringing.
I wasn’t making a moral choice. I was a sexual coward.
She still drops me a note once in a while.
My wife is sexy the way that only a woman who is comfortable with her own sexuality and the power it grants can be. That comfort, that self-knowledge is not always conscious or manifest; she has her insecure moments, the way any woman would in our image conscious, sexist society. But underneath that insecurity there is a deep well of confidence that comes from unapologetically enjoying the pleasure and power sexual pleasure and attraction brings.
I watch men’s eyes linger a little too long in the subway, I watch the way a man’s smile tries a flirt with her when she buys a bottle of white out of the cooler at the corner liquor shop. She smiles, she tells me I am imagining things, that she’s too old, that the flirty young things with long legs in tight shorts and low-cut tops and sleeve tattoos and pierced bellybuttons around our neighborhood in Montréal are the main attraction.
She half-believes these things. She enjoys my earnest contradictions.
Foreplay for a middle-aged couple with a school-aged son.
That day she walked back out into the hallway for a drink of water, and just didn’t come back to the office until the next morning.
Her job was never quite the same. No acknowledgement of what had happened, really, on either side, no accusations, no law suits, no angry social media rants.
Yet he seemed angry and embarrassed, and he was her boss. Our boss. Meetings become tense.
She stopped going to them. At parties, he became subtly aggressive, although there had been that hint of hostility from the first time he shook my hand.
A colleague passed around the first piece I ever published: he read about the first time I made love to my wife.
We’ve been judged by the man who wanted my wife.
The first time I kissed her, we were standing in her hotel room.
I wasn’t divorced yet, but my first wife and I had, after two years and marriage counseling and fighting and drinking too much, had, almost out of exhaustion, had just decided to bury the marriage. The paperwork had started; we hadn’t been living in the same apartment for almost two years.
And now I stood with this tall, beautiful blond in a Portland, Oregon hotel room, where we had been for a conference. We had stayed up until 1am, talking, they had kicked us out of the hotel bar. She invited me up for another drink.
She only had rosé in the hotel fridge. I told her I didn’t want rosé.
I told her I wanted her.
I kissed her for what seemed like an eternity.
She came up for air and told me she was with someone, a decade-old relationship.
I kissed her again.
I came up for air myself. I told her I was married.
She kissed me, this time, and reached for the buckle on my belt at the same time I put my hands up her skirt and pulled at her panties.
I asked her if she wanted me.
She said yes.