MADE IN THE U.S.A.
is a button the woman next to me wears on her black hat. She holds a child’s hand, and you wonder what kind of woman wears her vagina on her sleeve, so to speak.
Now she walks off, and I see her girl has Minnie Mouse’s head protruding from her knapsack.
It’s spring, and the breasts of Manhattan return from a winter sojourn. A man, seeing them flounce on the streets all around him, must tell himself, “I am happily wed, and this is no reason to stop.”
If I touch one, my life and my wife’s will be ruined, I think, just to goad me to hysteria.
But it fails.
I never touched women as a desperate virgin. Why should I as a thirty-six-year-old with tendinitis?
When you get old, women seek you. Coming from our poetry class in Brooklyn Sunday, six of us wedged into Johnny Stanton’s car, Fate dictated a youthful Lee Ann Brown sit on my lap, for four miles, with her plum-like rear.
“You have nice thighs,” she told me. I walked up First Avenue determined not to let Violet know.
Sex is all over everything, like dust, in this world.
Marcus recently called a live sex line and spoke to a woman named Hope. He’d intended to hold his genitals, and lost his nerve.
“What’s your name?” Hope asked.
“John,” Marcus said.
She began to describe her embraces. (She didn’t bother to take off his clothes. On the phone, everyone is naked.)
“Does this feel good?” she asked him, over and over.
“Uh-huh,” Marcus said, over and over.
Finally, he hung up in fear.
She had a friendly, fresh voice like a woman who makes airplane reservations for you.
I think that’s worse than having sex; to me the imagination’s more sacred than the body.
Hope is waiting right now, by the telephone, looking out the window at a plant on her neighbor’s sill, but I won’t call her.
I wonder if Hope is her actual name, or if she is impersonating a virtue.
The Broadway Local
In August, on my fiftieth birthday, the children (my daughter, stepdaughter, and stepson) give me a kitten. In December, my period comes for the last time. In January, the cat is scheduled for neutering before she goes into heat. On the way to the vet I am flooded with doubts. What if she’s already been in heat and is pregnant? Suddenly the possibility of life in her seems sacred.
“Don’t spay her if she turns out to be pregnant,” I say to the vet. “We can’t tell until it’s too late,” he explains. And then, gently (could he tell he was talking to a woman in the throes of menopause?): “Why don’t you leave her here and go home and think about it. We won’t do anything until you’re sure.”
At home, as with all important decisions, I consult A Course In Miracles for advice. I open at random and read: “Think of the love of animals for their offspring, and the need they feel to protect them. That is because they regard them as part of themselves. No one dismisses something he considers part of himself.”
I call the vet, tell him not to spay.
I bring the cat home, toss sexual responsibility to the wind and let her run free. Sometimes she comes home at night, sometimes not. No big deal, I reason. How hard can it be to find a home for a few kittens?
Now it’s April. The cat is a furry watermelon with legs. I stroke her and take her on my lap. I hold her up against my stomach, put my hands on her full roundedness. The babies inside her shift. I remember that same soft movement inside me from twenty-one years ago. How careful I was with birth control all those years. How sure I was that one pregnancy was all I wanted. When I married for the second time at thirty-nine I resisted my husband’s yearning for another child. I had my career.
Now I sit here on the stairs, this cat in my lap, and I cry out to all those babies I decided not to have. Fat tears roll down my cheeks and drop onto the cat’s shiny black coat. I’m keeping these kittens.
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
For almost fifteen years, I have lived with the same man. He gave up booze more than seven years ago. Four years ago, I bore him a son. After our child was born we went through a period of three years without sex. During that time I found myself in the arms of three other men.
I carefully chose the first two: I questioned each of them; we met several times to discuss the arrangements; each promised to wear a condom. I felt comfortable. I felt sexually responsible. For my third affair, I threw all caution to the wind: no questions, no condoms. Maybe it’s because I’ve known him almost a decade. Maybe it’s because we used to be neighbors. Or maybe it’s because he had a vasectomy.
Or maybe it’s because he is married to my sister.
“Come on,” he said. “Just get in.” I didn’t like the look of his face, pale and flabby. “I’ll give you a ride home.”
“No thanks, it’s only a mile up the road.” I had just come from a gay dance, 2 in the morning and the town asleep. I walked with that despair I learned early in my adult life, when no one wanted to sleep with me. It was the only judgment that mattered in those days: did someone want me? My gratitude for being wanted approached the slavish; you could get anything from me.
This man was ugly in more than a physical way. There was something furtive and guilt-ridden about him, but he was insistent, and I had my despair.
“Come on, what else were you going to do? I’ll just drive you home.” I got in, and then there was all the excitement of what was coming next, even if it was with someone I didn’t want. There was that silence, dotted with meaningless questions, then the heated looking; his sideways gaze down to my crotch. We got to the bottom of the hill where I lived and he swerved right, taking the lake side road.
“Let’s go back to my place for a while,” he said.
“But I still want to go home after.”
We left the clutter of collegiate boardinghouses behind, sweeping down a curving avenue of elms, leafy and fluorescent under the sulfur lamps; the still lake with its reflection of the moon; the large, well-kept houses lining the shore. He continued the eye game as he drove, moving his hand from the stick shift to my thigh, asking, “What are you studying?” and, “Where do you come from?” His hand was rough, kneading my crotch, not with any pleasure in the feel, but hard, taking. We drove up a gravel driveway, at the end of which was a large brown house.
He pulled up in front of the porch and said, “Duck down now. Stay out of sight.”
“It’s just for a minute, while I bring Mrs. Rutledge out to her car.”
“The baby sitter. She’s with Tommy. He’s two.”
I went down to the floor, lay cramped on my back; I could see the house leaning down on me like a reflection seen from underwater. I caught a quick upside-down glimpse of a plump, gray-headed woman, chuckling on her way to her car. When she had driven off, he opened the car door and I sat up, brushing the dirt from my hair. “Where is your wife?” I asked.
“In the hospital. She had a girl this morning.”
“You hire a baby sitter while your wife’s giving birth so you can go out and look for men?”
“When else can I do it?”
There was a picture of her on the bedside table while we screwed, his heavy weight grinding above me. He didn’t take me home afterward like he promised, but fell asleep while still on top of me. Ten minutes later a child in the next room started crying. The crying seemed to last for hours, while all the time he snored on top of me. I felt my limbs tingle, then go numb, while the wife, blond and athletic, stared at me with a breathless smile.
In the morning we had Cheerios with Tommy, who commanded all attention from his highchair. He was blond and sturdy like his mother and sat in the car seat, singing, “Row row row your boat,” while the guy drove me home.
Mark S. Matthiessen
Santa Fe, New Mexico
When a friend of mine in North Carolina found out I was living close to San Francisco, she sent a card saying, “Keep your weenie clean.” I guess I never told her more guys tried to pick me up in Knoxville, Tennessee, than on Castro Street — and I mean nicely dressed men in four-door sedans cruising around after Sunday school.
Almost everyone I know in the city has been affected by AIDS: either directly, by losing a friend, or indirectly, by fear. The fact that I haven’t been — in either category — almost seems something of which to be ashamed.
I just can’t find it in myself to believe AIDS is natural. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn HIV is a man-made strain, a biological secret weapon that escaped the vial. Are we to believe instead that it has some evolutionary purpose, that Nature or God has use for it? What — to decrease population? Then why doesn’t it just rain down on us?
And surely no one can really believe AIDS is a punishment meted out to those whose sexual practices stray from the monogamous, heterosexual norm. People have been straying for eons. Desire is what makes us stray, and desire is what makes sex work. Sex is what got us here. What kind of God would punish people for engaging in the very act that brought them into existence?
Of course, if we evolved by accident, and the whole thing is a fluke, then maybe AIDS does make sense: a fluke in the fluke. All the pain would lead nowhere, there would be no reward, no afterlife, and our lives would indeed be meaningless; in which case we’d have ample reason to tell the world — and AIDS with it — to take a flying leap. We’d be right to laugh at pain and death, just to spite them. Go rollicking into that good night.
I suppose it’s easier to know how not to be sexually irresponsible than it is to know how to be sexually responsible. If you’ve got something, for Pete’s sake, don’t pass it on! But beyond that, what’s the solution? Wear a rubber? Get a case history? Abstain? Here’s a disease you can get by pricking your finger on an infected needle.
Two years ago I had a girlfriend who insisted we both have AIDS tests before making love. She was worried: one, because she had no way of knowing my sexual history; and two, because she’d had a one-night fling with a guy who’d previously had a one-night fling with another guy. Well, we had the tests, but ended up sleeping together before the results were in.
What sexual responsibility means to me is the responsibility I feel to the woman I am about to make love with. I want to make sure she has a good time. I want to make sure some serious love gets made. A few years ago I got involved with a young woman who informed me — just moments before we became lovers — that it was her “first time.” Recalling the loss of my own virginity (which was a grand disillusionment), I got suddenly very nervous. Here was a starry-eyed twenty-year-old who’d chosen me to be the usher at the gate, the man with whom she’d share a crucially symbolic — and vividly real — passage into womanhood. My principal desire, I found, was that her first time be fireworks. Talk about responsibility!
I was leaning against the big oak tree, watching my boyfriend adjust the timing on his Fairlane.
“Things don’t have to be like this,” I said, looking at the top of his head. He was good with cars. “It isn’t our fault that things have been so bad between us. It’s the structure of our relationship that’s wrong.” I watched his arms; he had big biceps. His mother had run off to Las Vegas when he was a baby, and a tree fell on his father. You had to give him some breaks.
“We can have as much love as we want from as many people as we want,” I said. “It’s not like money: you give some away and it’s gone. There’s plenty for everyone.”
It was a beautiful spring day, the sky delicate, pale blue. The flat midwestern prairie stretched out on all sides. It’s odd how a day can stick in your mind; you can call it back years (decades!) later and there it is — the smells, the feel of the air, the grass against the skin.
“You resent me because I can’t give you everything you need,” I continued. His last girlfriend was a pianist; she saw auras around people’s heads. “But two people can’t be expected to fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. It’s not us. It’s monogamy that’s the problem.” I’d never said so many sentences to him all at one time. I was encouraged by his silence. I watched him work. He had big, brown, childish eyes; thick, square palms with no heart line.
“We don’t own each other,” I went on. “We can fall in love as much as we want. We can do anything we want.”
He pulled his head from beneath the car’s hood. “You are full of shit,” he said.
I wake. I roll onto my back and stretch as far as my arms and legs will reach. I recall the dark woman in my dream and how she taught me to kiss. Tongue flicks in and out. I throw on my old sweats and sneakers, slip on my cotton gloves and slide the door open to my garden. Even if the ground is wet, nothing comes between me and the earth. I crouch on my hands and knees, or sit to one side. I grasp a broad-leaved weed, or a patch of clover in my hands, and pull. The moist soil sets the roots free. I water the sunflowers, carnations, African daisies, letting the water soak in deep.
I practice tai chi on my lawn, allowing the sponginess of the earth to support me. I sink low into my thighs and pelvis. My eyes take in the panorama of apple tree blossoms, the hanging red geranium, my house. Then I place my cushion under the shade of my deck and sit cross-legged. My cat curls into the triangle between my legs and purrs.
I fill the tub, letting the hot water trickle in. I run my toes up and down the porcelain walls. I submerge my head and torso and blow bubbles. My dog comes to the edge and I give him my fingers to lick. I remember the dark-skinned man in my dream. His invitation was a broad grin. I squeeze the last drop of water from my hair and smooth jasmine-scented oil on my breasts, belly, arms, legs.
I slice apples into a brown bowl, add raisins, walnuts, yogurt. I sit on the redwood deck with a cup of herbal tea and buttered whole-wheat toast.
By then it’s 11. Soon the afternoon will begin.
In this time of AIDS, two men that I have loved are gone. Although men have always died before their time, this particular war, this invisible and internal war, forces us to look in profoundly new ways at how we touch each other.
After three years of celibacy, I face a man whose dark eyes invite me into his heart. I ask him honest questions. He answers — as honestly as he can. Once, that would have been enough. Realizing that, sadly, I return alone to my bed.
This bed is a ship. I have sailed through many waters on its deck. I have dreamed of many different men. But this bed invites me back into its solitary embrace. It says, “Andrew, the ability to respond begins with yourself. Only when you are able to touch yourself with the tenderness you hunger for, only when you are able to caress yourself with the fire you yearn for, only when you are free enough to love yourself — only then will a man come into your life who is able to speak all the truths you need to hear.”
I lay my head on this pillow. The air of this late April night is warm. I reach out hands to this most familiar of bodies and realize it is a stranger. I do not know the lines of it. I do not give it time to awaken. I grab it, rush it, force it. The cheek that loves to be touched feels nothing when I touch it. The arms that love to embrace turn to myself, empty.
The bed says, “This is the path.” I trust the bed. It has never lied to me. How many people can make love to themselves, with themselves? To be able to respond to myself — that is the beginning of sexual responsibility. I am thirty-nine and have not learned it yet.
Brooklyn, New York