Driving down Route, 89 south from Montpelier toward White River Junction, I tried to remember exactly how long it had been since I’d had sex. Although we didn’t actually separate and agree to divorce until February of 1993, the last time my husband and I had made love–and the last time I’d had sex–was in late May of 1992, and here it was, the Fourth of July, 1994. Two years and one month later, One hundred and nine weeks. Seven hundred and sixty five, days.
The numbers mattered. They were real when little else seemed to be. But each day arrived like a new witness for the prosecution, reiterating the case against me and leading me further from the truth.
I had just 24 hours off from school. One free night in an 11-day residency. The annual Fourth of July poets vs. fiction writers softball game would go on without me that afternoon, and with me or without me, incredible as it sounds, the poets would win this year as they did every year.
It had been 14 years since I’d slept with Kevin Stevenson. Fourteen years. I’d done the math weeks before, at Kevin’s first invitation to visit him over Fourth of July weekend when we’d both be in Vermont instead of Los Angeles and New York. We had seen each other few times since our year together, most recently over drinks at my hotel two months earlier when I happened to be in New York.
Except for a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses and a bit of gray in his sandy hair, Kevin had looked very much the same in the bar of the Essex House. Still extremely fit. He said the same was true of me. While I am the same weight as I was at 25, I know better than to believe that either my face or my body is the same as it was at 25.
In fact, I no longer had any idea of what my body really looked like. Its image had been wildly distorted, first by my husband’s disinterest, then by his abandonment. My scorn had followed his. I looked at my body every morning as I stepped into the shower or out of the tub and tried to see it–to see it with kinder eyes than his–but could not. And now I was taking this 14-years-older body to a man who remembered me as I remembered him–sexy, fun, responsive–and I was afraid. But also very interested.
Two days earlier, I’d sat with my new faculty adviser to discuss my plan for the last semester of my MFA in writing. Sena had asked me to bring a list of what I wanted from the final six months. From the way she’d phrased the request, I felt she meant what I wanted beyond the most obvious aspirations of a couple of good new stories for my thesis manuscript. So my list was topped by these wishes: I want to stop feeling like a fake, and I want to be excited by my own writing.
“I can help you with these,” Sena said in her gentle, Southern voice. “I’ve helped others.” She did not look away from me as she said this and I thought of another student’s description of her, “an iron fist in a velvet glove.”
We agreed I needed to write more. I was a classic avoider/resister, writing in spurts, against deadlines, late in the afternoon when I’d run out of all possible distractions. I’d quit my job a few months earlier to focus on my writing and was, instead, napping and reading a great deal. My new writing schedule would be 8:30 to noon, Monday through Friday.
“No newspaper with breakfast,” Sena said. “Make it your first reward with lunch. No phone calls, no interruptions, no exceptions.”
How would I find something to say every day? I’m not one of those writers who has a back room packed with new story ideas. Three and half hours every morning without a thought in my head, just me and the voice in my ear saying, “You don’t have anything to say.”
“You need to nurture yourself when you write,” Sena said, and I knew I was in trouble. Nurturing myself is not in my nature. Not in writing, not in
“I don’t know how to get the critic out of the room,”, I said. “I understand the concept, but. . “My voice got very small, barely squeezing out of my throat. Even to myself I sounded slight and lost and 10 years old. Still she didn’t look away.
“I can help you with this. Start writing right now.”
“With you here?” It was as if she’d said, “Okay, now strip.”
“With me here. Come on.” An iron fist steeped in Southern Comfort.
I opened my notebook. She waited. “I don’t know what to write,” I said.
“Just write that down.” I wrote.
“There,” she said, practically purring, “you’ve begun. You’ve got your first sentence. Good job. Now another.”
Blinking back incipient tears of shame and exposure, I wrote, “I don’t know how this will become a story.”
“Good, Joan. You’ve got two sentences. You’re on your way. Now look outside, how does the light look to you?”
After two or three seconds, I wrote: “The light is soft, diffused, promising.”
“Promising,” Sena read. “I like that. Go on, tell me more.”
Instantly I wrote: “It reminds me of the mornings on the island, by the sea, the whole day ahead.”
“Now you’re interested aren’t you?” she asked.
And I was. Interested and full–almost to bursting–with relief.
“You can do this,” she said. “I know you can.”
Vermont highways are very different from our California freeways. Just two lanes wide in each direction–half the size of even the oldest LA freeway–yet still uncrowded to the point of sparsity. And Vermont has it all over Los Angeles in terms of speed: 65 mph limit, no cars, no cops. It was still 2 1/2 hours before I got where I was going.
Kevin and I ate tuna sandwiches and went for a good hike to nearby falls. I never thought I’d join those two words, good and hike. My ex-husband loved to hike, but he would understate the steepness and length of trails, making me feel snookered into more than I could handle, and he didn’t look back often enough to be sure I was right behind him. Hours were spent watching his back, fantasizing about just stopping; sitting down and waiting to see how long it would take him to notice I was gone.
But with Kevin I had a good hike. It was late afternoon and the woods were sleepy and still under the surprising heat of that July day. Kevin walked beside me. He pointed out good handholds, warned of loose, dead trees and slippery rocks. With a disposable Fuji camera he took pictures of me, sweaty and smiling, beer in hand, surrounded by falling water. Kevin moved over the trail with the natural grace of a man raised outdoors, and being with him in the woods, I felt cloaked by his instincts.
Later, after serving cocktails, dinner, a bottle of wine and a sky full of stars, Kevin took my face in his hands and began kissing me. Nothing that happened after those first kisses surpassed them for pure pleasure and excitement, and everything that followed was wonderful and easy and natural. Exactly as I’d hoped it would be. Those first kisses, though, they were beyond even my fantasies. In that small moment of hands and lips and breath, I was brought back. Resuscitated. And the life that rushed back into me was so strong it almost knocked me to the floor.
I had expected my visit with Kevin to be a fun fling, a rare chance to relive the sexual delight of my younger self I was completely unprepared for how profoundly touching, how deeply moving it would be. I’d known I “needed” sex, but the extent of my need for kindness had been buried; had I anticipated the full impact of our encounter, I doubt I could have undertaken the trip.
Yes, Kevin had done everything right–waiting on me, providing sufficient quantities of liberating substances, wanting me and showing me his want, saying my name aloud as we made love–but it went beyond his careful orchestrations. I felt more known having sex with Kevin–a man I truly no longer know and who hardly knows me anymore–than I’d ever felt making love with my husband. And to be knowable is to be familiar and unalien. Visible, memorable, lovable. It is to be a part instead of apart.
I returned home from Vermont optimistic and ready to begin anew. The residencies have always had the effect of refueling, but this time I returned home feeling that I held a secret next to my heart. That first Monday I sat down in my chair, pen in hand, and the words came. A story that had been floundering three-quarters finished for months shook itself out and found its missing pieces. Three-and-a-half hours resulted in eight good pages and, finally, the recognition of the path the story would take to get from here to that final there.
By the end of my first week back, I’d finished that story and begun another. The new story excited me. I was with my character and we were traveling and her world interested me. My imaginative landscape was suddenly teeming with life, everyone crowding around the bubbling watering hole.
Of course I’m suspicious. Of course I expect this small gift to be taken back as unexpectedly as it was given. But despite this fear, I feel wonderful. Better than I have in years. No matter that I’m making no money and have dates with men I don’t like. I have stopped eating what I’m not hungry for and turned off my TV. Dogs like me again. I am going to the gym and calling old friends. I notice men noticing me, the way my walk has a bit of hip-swing to it now. In quiet moments, I hear two voices inside, echoing. The first is soft and Southern: I know you can do this. The second, hoarse, urgent: Oh Joan, now. Now, Joan.
And so I ask myself, Is it the sex or is it the writing? Which one has renewed my membership in the world?
Is this flood of imagination and possibility the result of Sena’s special brand of Southern faith healing, her laying-on of writerly hands, or a happy byproduct of making love again? Of making love in that way that connects us, one to another, yet at the same time reminds us of our secret selves, just as good writing does.
If only for awhile, I no longer feel like a fake and am excited by my own work. But this time has been long enough to see how good these goals are–for life as well as for school.
A friend told me that there is a place we each hold inside ourselves that remains uninjured and alive even under assault from the worst life has to offer: divorce, the death of a loved one, the loss of a certain future. She described it as a place that sometimes seems to go dark, a place we cannot always remember our way back to. But the way is there. Sometimes we find it through just the right set of words, or the right moment in the woods, or the right touch.
I believe my friend. I believe that the truest expressions of both my body and my mind originate in that sacred inner room. And the final happy truth of it all is that writing begets writing, and feeling lovable begets love.