Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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“I’ll be the one with the long white beard,” my old boyfriend tells me. His voice on the phone is low and hesitant, but he’s coming to pick me up right away. Thirty-five years ago he was my first lover, and I am coming back to visit him because I’m alone in England, where he lives, and so is he. His last lady friend has meandered back to her ex, and my last lady friend broke up with me in May. I’ve spent the summer traveling in Europe, and now, at the end, I’ve arranged this spontaneous, short rendezvous with Nelson.
I refrain from telling him, I’ll be the one with thirty extra pounds, but I warn him about my short hair. “I’m afraid you won’t like it,” I murmur, as coy as if we’d just met. I know he won’t like it: the short cut makes me look more like the middle-aged lesbian I am and even less like his teenage lover from 1976.
“Walk back to the coach station,” he tells me. “I’ll be there shortly, fifteen minutes at the most.”
It’s late on a chilly afternoon, and I don’t have a sweater. Petulant, I say, “Why don’t you meet me here?” I’m calling him from a nice old pub with a small, cushy bar overlooking the river.
“Just walk back across the bridge,” Nelson repeats. “Look for a white van.”
I wait in the pub, thinking critical thoughts. Why can’t he meet me where I’m comfortable instead of in the stupid parking lot? When we were together, he always chose the destination for our dates, often not even telling me where we were going or why. I didn’t question it as a teenager, but at fifty-one I am accustomed to negotiation and agreement.
But then I remember that this is what I came for: I want someone else to lead.
Over the past eighteen years I’ve had four relationships, all with women, and most of the time I’ve been the head cheerleader, main driving force, and primary stakeholder. Now, following my spring heartbreak, I’m looking to bask briefly in a summer glade where I’m pretty sure I’ll be the brightest attraction in my companion’s day, season, and possibly even year. This man is going to wholly admire and enjoy me, I hope, and then he’s going to let go.
After waiting fifteen minutes and then passive-aggressively waiting five more, I cross the bridge over a river dotted with ivory-colored swans, the descendants of the swans I saw when I lived here in the seventies. Only a few cars are parked in the lot, and only one is a van. From its driver’s side a man with glasses gets out, but he looks too old and too intellectual to be Nelson. Possibly it’s some other aged hippie with a white beard and a white van waiting in this spot for someone else, probably someone younger and slimmer and with much longer hair.
But I recognize his posture: wide across the chest and square-shouldered. He stands tall and moves gracefully. As I get closer, his eyes through the new, heavy glasses show warmth and trepidation. He’s trimmed his mustache, making it neat but askew. When he speaks, his teeth seem different too.
“You’re lookin’ good, lady.”
I hug him politely, then stand back and say, “You look different.”
He gazes into the mid-distance, pretending chagrin. “I look exactly the same!” He pronounces the word with a distinct pedantic t, which is so unlike him that it makes me laugh.
“You have new glasses,” I say. His eyes, though, haven’t changed.
“I had to get those,” he says comfortably. “Eyes and ears wear out, don’t they? I shall soon be going deaf. I shall get a hearing aid.” His voice is deep and earthy; he pronounces hearing aid elegantly, and with horror.
He always talked about being old, even when he was thirty-four.
In 1976 I lied about my age to get the barmaid job at the Golden Lion. On my second day of work Nelson came striding across the pub as if it were his own living room. He looked lean and solid in his blue-gray boiler suit, with a worn, slouchy cap and a ponytail. I decided I wanted him as my first lover. He took the corner stool, faced me, and winked so fast I wasn’t sure I’d seen it, saying, businesslike, “Pint of bitter, please, miss.”
After the pub shut for the afternoon, as I washed up the dirties, I said to the landlady, glowing, “I like Nelson!”
“Ayeh, he’s a character.” She wiped a glass with an almost dry towel and then held it up to the light for inspection.
I stayed quiet, hoping she’d say more. Was Nelson married? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he want a girlfriend?
And she, knowing that the answer to all those questions was yes, said again, “He’s a character, he is.” She set the clean glass on the shelf with dozens of others.
That Friday night, Nelson came into the Golden Lion with a woman, somewhat blond but largely obscured behind her ugly metal-framed glasses. She was older than I, and her home-bleached hair wasn’t nearly as long as mine. She wasn’t plump like me, but there was a beer belly under her jeans, and her face had no expression. She walked in behind Nelson, furtively lighting a cigarette and standing aside as he took his place among his drunken cronies. His first order was a pint for him, a half for her, and “One for yourself, miss?” which meant he was offering me money to buy myself a drink. I already had plenty of drinks paid for, since that was the form that tipping took, but I accepted his coins for a half of lager, waiting to be introduced. But he didn’t mention the woman by his side all evening. She kept close and closemouthed, and when he excused himself “for a quick whiz,” he lifted her hand and squeezed it.
When I left at 10:30 PM, the official closing time, Nelson and the woman stayed on for the illegal after-hours session. As I swung on my green cape and slid out the side door, the landlady was drawing the curtains in the front, so no one passing by — especially not any policemen — could see in. The brewery knew, and the landlords knew, and the locals knew about the after-hours sessions, which were the most lucrative time of the day, but if the bar got caught, the fines ran to thousands of pounds.
Similar fines were in effect for the employment of minors, but I was tall, busty, and American, bigger in many ways than the local girls. No one ever asked for proof of age.
That Sunday at lunchtime the blonde with spectacles, whose name I’d learned was Debbie, was back with Nelson again, and I guessed that they’d spent the night together. When she ordered a half of bitter, I pulled it into an unladylike mug instead of a straight, slim glass. Handing it over, I said, “What are you doing today?”
“Dunno, really,” she said, abashed. “Bit of washing later. Then I’ll make us some supper.” I moved away to serve another customer, disturbed to learn that they lived together and embarrassed for her sake that drinking at the pub and standing silently by Nelson’s side as he flirted and told stories was the extent of her plans.
The next afternoon, while Debbie was at work, Nelson and I were alone in his house. He’d invited me for a walk and then in for coffee. He showed me around the bottom floor, explaining what features he’d put in for his wife, Ann, and then how he’d changed it for Debbie after his wife left him. He didn’t say “ex-wife,” because they’d never bothered to get a divorce. Though he rarely saw her, they were still married. He mentioned that Debbie had not known what to say to my question about her plans the day before: “The poor girl was confused.”
I claimed to be sorry I’d made her flustered. “But,” I protested, “it was an easy question!” I’d been raised in the southern U.S., where asking someone what they were doing that day was small talk, not an interrogation.
He laughed pretty hard. “An easy question, was it? For you it was. But Debbie’s not like you.” He stroked my hair. I’d braided it the night before when it was wet and then slept with the braids in, so that now, loose, it fell in thick waves around me — until he reached beneath it. “No one in this whole town is like you,” he said.
It was true. Raised in the U.S. by an English mother and an Australian father, I had been granted a wider worldview than the locals, many of whom rarely left the town. I was taking courses at a technical college many miles distant, which made the pub owner’s children say, “She’s a student, she is. Jilly’s clever.” Also, at sixteen, I was open-minded enough to claim to be both atheist and bisexual.
Beyond the personal and cultural differences were class distinctions. My father worked on the American military base, where he was a doctor, not a serviceman. And because of his status and salary, we lived in a stout, pale-pink, 150-year-old dwelling with a name — “Heathercrest” — instead of a number.
In Heathercrest I had my own suite of rooms, enough space to feel far from my parents, who had little to do with me.
On the train in 2011, heading north and east through the rain-swept counties to see Nelson, I noted in my journal that I hadn’t had sex with a man in eighteen years, not since I’d declared my romantic allegiance to women. I guessed that with any man except him it would be
sort of deadish — lacking that aliveness and tenderness and mysterious excitement of being with a woman.
But with him it will be — if it is at all — familiar in some ways and, I think, exciting. I would like for a change to feel that my partner’s excitement is leading me. I’d like to be the object of desire instead of, or as well as, the co-instigator. I want him to lead — even though I remember that men always, always go too fast. But, hey, at sixty-eight maybe he’ll have slowed to a lesbian’s pace. Or my pace. Am I still a lesbian?
“Lesbian bed death” is the term for the waning of passion that some long-term female couples experience, which is sometimes made up for by tenderness and intimacy. The corresponding term for a decrease in tenderness and intimacy in hetero couples should be “heterosexual heart death.”
After the long ride I am in Nelson’s bedroom in his new house, which he’s built by hand. This is after he’s picked me up from the station and we’ve gone to the Royal Oak — the Golden Lion having closed years ago — and he’s bought me the softest hard cider they have and we’ve walked home and I’ve wanted to take his hand as we strolled side by side down the familiar pavement but stopped myself. It’s after he’s carried my bag up to a bedroom at the top of the stairs and we’ve spread fresh blue sheets on the bed and he’s shown me the bathroom and said deliberately, “I’ll see you in the morning, then,” but I’ve stepped closer to him and said, “Oh, I’m not staying up here; I’m coming downstairs with you!”
His private quarters are a two-room apartment on the main floor: a big kitchen full of windows, and a bedroom full of old, interesting, handmade things, including a roll-top desk and brass figures of horses. The fireplace smells like wood smoke, and his bed (a gift from an ex-lover) stands high off the ground, piled with plump cushions, surrounded by mirrors, and swathed in silk.
The curtains around the bed are French, the roses embroidered by hand. They are definitely the curtains from my bedroom at Heathercrest, though Nelson doesn’t remember where he got them. One of his jobs is carting off the unwanted belongings of Americans on the military base and upper-class English families too important to touch their own discards. He has boxes of linens, first editions, original paintings, and high-end electronics. He has baskets of phones and jewelry that he sells from his truck at weekend markets; his pantry is stocked with imported delicacies; he has caches of cameras and car parts and cash.
Near the fireplace is a maroon leather settee that he was paid to take away. We talk — a touch self-righteously — about the wastefulness of people, especially American military personnel, and the benefit of keeping goods out of landfills. I am the first person to see the settee here, he says; no one else has entered his inner sanctum for years.
Every wall is hung with artwork. Some are original canvases Nelson has bought or traded for, some are framed prints, and some are photocopies from books. In a niche by the fireplace four photos are lined up in a pleasing row: they remind me of the pinups Nelson kept in the secret room in his previous house, the room where I lost my virginity. All four images are of young women, all topless and smiling, fresh with morning allure and innocence. Three are pages clipped from men’s magazines, and one, I realize, blinking, is a blown-up Polaroid of me at seventeen. As I approach for a better look, Nelson says warily, “This could get interesting.” He’s afraid I’ll be angry, as if by displaying this image he’s taken something from me that I didn’t want to give.
I remember his taking this picture. Nelson was always arranging me into erotic poses. Sometimes he took a Polaroid, which developed enticingly in our hands; other times he simply gazed at me, his penis stiff and his eyes soft and keen. The day this image was taken, we’d just made love outdoors, and I hadn’t yet put my clothes on when he told me to lie back on a massive fallen log and stretch my crossed legs along the wood. He draped my hair so it fell in Lady Godiva ribbons down my chest and between my breasts. I am smiling and relaxed except for the arm held over my belly, which I was trying to hide because I thought I was fat. I am gorgeous.
“I hope you don’t mind me havin’ this here,” he says shyly. “It’s a nice picture, isn’t it?”
It is. At the time of that photo, when I was evolving from girl to woman, my father didn’t talk to me. I remember his coming into my suite of rooms only once — storming in to turn down some music. My parents had arrived home unexpectedly early, and I’d been playing Janis Joplin at top volume.
More than once, I came home late to find myself locked out of the house. More than once, confused, with nowhere else to go, I broke a window to get in and then later had to reimburse my father for the cost of repairs. The broken glass would be reported to and repaired by Kenneth, a friend of Nelson’s, who would come in the pub at lunchtime, flush with the easy money, and say, “I hear you’ve been having a smashing time again, Jilly. One for yourself?”
On one of my first days working at the pub, Nelson had chatted me up by asking what music I liked. My favorite was Janis Joplin, and we agreed that “Me and Bobby McGee” was a great song, as if we’d already hitchhiked together across America, as if we knew how it had been to share a single sleeping bag under a bridge and say goodbye on Highway 1.
Detesting the little-girl name everyone in the pub called me — “Jilly” — Nelson referred to me as “hey, you” or “Miss” or sometimes “Suzy.” The first time we kissed, after a walk in a light, first-of-the-season snow, in the hour before Debbie got home, he put Janis Joplin’s Pearl on the turntable and went to make coffee while I looked at the objects on his mantel. Coming back into the room, he stepped behind me and set a hand on my shoulder. As I twirled to face him, he put his arms fully around me and said, “I had to touch you.” We kissed standing up. I’d kissed only a couple of guys before. He nuzzled my neck and whispered, “Janis — that’s your name to me. OK?”
A few minutes later, still embracing me, he turned away to squint at the clock. “What time did you say you have to be going?”
What choice did I have? Debbie would soon be back.
That night I wrote in my diary, “Strange to be in his arms and yet not feel passion.” But I loved being held, answering to a secret name, and being wanted.
A few weeks later we were spending the afternoon together, and because it was raining and we couldn’t go for a walk, he took me to a locked upstairs bedroom, which he said Debbie never entered, to “listen to music.” He slid Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here out of its cover, blew the dust off, and set it on the turntable while I got comfortable on the huge pile of cushions that were the only furniture. He sat down nearby, pulling the pillows and folded horse blankets into a makeshift bed.
As he was setting a white sofa cushion under my feet, I said, “I have two secrets to tell you.”
“Go on, then.” He stuffed a green silk bolster behind our backs.
“The first one is that I’m only sixteen,” I said.
He stopped arranging pillows and paused, looking like a person who was calculating an age difference or trying to recall the age of consent. “OK,” he said. He unbuttoned his denim shirt, shrugged it off, and let it fall near our feet.
Assuming that this was how people initiated sex, I pulled my sweater over my head and tossed it away. I lay back down, self-conscious but pleased in my satin-like pink underwire bra, the one that matched the panties hidden under my skirt. (Later he told me he couldn’t believe his luck: he’d just removed his shirt to get comfortable in the warm room, and there I’d halfway stripped for him.)
“What’s the other secret?” he said, sliding an arm around me.
I sat up so I could see his face as I announced it. “The other is that I’m a virgin.”
Gazing at me solemnly, he asked, “And would you like me to make love to you?”
“No,” I said. “I’d like you to make love with me.”
Now Nelson moves around the large room, talking, while I wait for him on his new leather settee, which no one else has ever sat on. I remove my shoes and run my fingers through my too-short hair. I invite him to sit down with me.
He goes to the kitchen, then comes back and circles his room once more, adjusting a lamp and touching his lucky leather hat. When he finally takes the far end of the couch, I swing my legs onto his lap and ask him to rub my feet. He has strong hands. He strokes my sock-clad soles as if they were kittens, talking about trucks and dogs and horses and ex-girlfriends.
Unreasonably turned on, I move closer and take his hand, and he rubs his thumb against my skin as he talks. Finally he puts his arms around me and holds me, my back to his front, and we stay that way for a long, silent time. I smell his outdoor, hay-and-bonfire scent, and comfort melds with humming excitement in my center.
Later, when he enters me — the first time in eighteen years that any man has — I gasp. It sounds theatrical, as if I planned it, but the noise excites us even further. Gasping is good, and so is the sliding together of muscle and slickness. So is his lean pelvis pushing my thighs wider apart and, after a while of more-deeper-harder, a slight soreness. It is exactly the same as when I was sixteen, but this time I know how to enjoy it.
Later, as we are getting into bed, I sigh. “I’m so fat now. I’m thirty pounds heavier than I used to be.” Undressed, I’m painfully aware of the difference between my present figure and that of “Janis” on the wall.
He turns me toward the mirror, showing me my curves, and says, “If you hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t even have known.”
“I’m fighting every impulse in me to ask you to turn off that light.”
He switches off the lamp, then steps across the room to light a tiny oil lantern that casts a flattering glow. Coming back to me, he grins. “You look at least fifteen pounds slimmer now, sweetheart. Is that all right?” I move on top of him. It’s all right.
Looking into his eyes as we make love, I feel our union on every level at the same time that I feel the mystery of our separation into different bodies. I think of the Christian idea of the two becoming one flesh, and later, when I tell my best friend about it, she’ll say, “It sounds like what happens when two people have been together a long, long time, and it’s worked. It’s like you two have been happily married for thirty-five years.”
I’ll cherish this romantic idea and repeat it to another friend, who’ll shake her head so hard her curls will flop around, saying, “No, Gillian, that’s not it. It’s good because you haven’t been married for thirty-five years.”
“You are beautiful,” Nelson told me often in the seventies, pronouncing it “boo-tiful” because his accent was pure working-class Suffolk and because he meant it. I’d never thought I was beautiful, but I believed he thought so and that my beauty was why he loved me.
One afternoon, a month or so after we began seeing each other, we were kissing goodbye in his kitchen, moments before Debbie would turn her key in the front door. He was washing the coffee mug that I’d used — so Debbie would find only one in the sink and conclude that he’d not had company that afternoon — and I was hugging his strong back. After putting the cup away, he turned around in my embrace and pulled me to him. He moved me like a puppet, making me feel light and helpless. (I was not light.) “You are boo-tiful,” he said; then he kissed me succinctly and added, “And I love you.” He said it as if ordering a pint of beer.
Hoping to be boo-tiful, I wore platform heels to work behind the bar, which made me taller than all the other women and helped me look “proportionate,” as Cosmo put it. But I still weighed ten and a half stone — 147 pounds. Sometimes, for photos or before we made love, he’d have me raise my arms above my head, to lift my breasts into a more provocative shape. “Nice, Janis,” he’d say, sucking in his breath. And then he’d lay me down and play with me, and I’d feel happy and slim and suck his cock until he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Nelson carved my secret name on a shapely piece of bone and hung it on a black-leather cord around my neck. I never let anyone else see what it said, and I never took it off. The necklace dangled as I leaned over at the bar to wash dishes, but it didn’t slip out of my shirt. The regulars asked for new glassware with each round — so I’d have more washing-up to do — and discussed the happy life of the hidden pendant. “Ayeh, how I’d love to be that little bit she wears around her neck,” one of them murmured after a few gin-and-its, as if I weren’t close enough to hear. I didn’t answer, just touched the jewelry through my top. The men laughed and said I was blushing, and Nelson seemed the most amused of all.
Whenever Nelson and I said goodbye on a Friday afternoon, he’d promise to ring me Monday. All the long weekend I’d see him only across the bar, with Debbie inexorably by his side. When I wasn’t busy serving, Nelson stroked my hand on top of the bar towel and made sweet sounds, as if cooing over me in public would convince Debbie that we never met in private. From her position at his elbow she nattered at him to stop, but he took my hand more securely, saying, “I like the girl.”
She was unhappy then and tugged at his other arm, asking him to drive her home or muttering that I was a slut and would lead him astray. She actually said those words to me: “He’s easily led.” He laughed about that phrase when we were alone, saying, “Lead me, Janis,” and pulling me on top of him, pulling off my clothes.
I laughed then, glad to have a secret joke with him at her expense, or at anyone’s expense, even my own. My desire to be with him trumped my good sense and consideration. Years later I’d realize how badly I’d behaved and how I’d hurt Debbie, and I’d regret my selfishness but still be glad I’d been with him.
Some Mondays Nelson didn’t call. Even so, I would prepare for my Tuesday lunchtime shift as if for a date: washing my yard of hair, braiding the front bits and pinning them back like a headband the way he liked, and dressing in evening clothes. I’d go to serve in the pub, and when no one was paying attention, he’d lean across the bar — his coarse curls and beard near my face, his copper-pipe bracelet clanking, his rough hands trapping mine — and whisper into my hair, “Can you come round later, darlin’? I’ve missed you.”
Sometime after we make love on Sunday night or early Monday, I find myself telling Nelson the conclusion I’ve reached over decades of reflection: that he powerfully shaped my sexuality. He was not only my first lover but also the first real romance I’d had.
My subsequent partners were always subject to comparisons with him, the ur-boyfriend. For the most part the men I later dated were not strong, not working-class, not graceful and confident, and not able to do much with their hands. I never again dated a man who’d built his own house or could even build a fire in the woods. After Nelson there was a stream of Deadheads and preppies, editors and software engineers, men with good hearts and happy dicks and endearing manners, but none of them ever made love to me in a secret room; none kept chickens or cut a rose for me every single time we went out. And none of them, I realize at fifty-one, had such an equine penis. Of course, none of them got falling-down drunk and clutched me to his chest while having heart-attack-like symptoms, either. And none was married or living with another woman, let alone both at once.
In bed Monday morning, keeping my middle-aged body covered, I describe to Nelson how he impressed me when I was a nubile teenager. Toward the end of my monologue I say something about “imprinting,” but from his lack of response I can tell that he isn’t familiar with the word. He left school at the age of fourteen, and though he can lay brick, overhaul a transmission, frame a building, tailor jeans, pull a lamb, lie under oath, move a piano, weld steel, grow vegetables, jackhammer pavement, shoe a horse, steal a car, take down a tree, drink God into oblivion, and kiss like the devil on LSD, he has never taken Intro to Psychology, where I learned how the experiences we have at an early age can “imprint” us for life. It doesn’t matter.
Later in the day, on the glassed-in back porch, Nelson is telling me a story when I see the red puff of an English robin. Cuter than its American cousin, it’s the size of a ping-pong ball, as bright as blood, and utterly distracting. I touch Nelson’s solid shoulder and point. “Look!”
“Ayeh, I keep a pair of robins.”
“You mean you feed them or something?”
“That too, but there’s a breeding pair here in the yard, just the one pair. They chase off the others, don’t they?”
Along with the peahens and the peacock, the chickens and the cream-yellow rooster that roam the yard, there is a pair of robins in love.
Nelson tells me how he was pulling down the shed in back of the greenhouse, and he found a robin’s nest and four baby birds in it and the mother flying about. He moved the nest to a spot under the eaves of the barn, and the parents found the chicks. “So that was all right, then,” he says.
I want to embrace him in celebration of his goodness to the hatchlings and the natural world in general, but he’s not looking at me.
“But later, when they had to leave the nest, all the little robins came and sat round me in a circle.” He points in an arc to the ground at his feet, slowly, as if pointing to four light-brown birds tilting their heads up at him. “I had to shoo them into the bushes, didn’t I? Where they’d be safe.”
I’m in love. He still isn’t looking at me.
“My face was the first thing they’d ever seen, just hatched like, so they all stayed close.”
“I know how they felt,” I say. “Imprinted.”
One afternoon, after we’d been seeing each other for a few months, Nelson opened the safes and cupboards inside the secret, locked room to show me some of his treasure. A junkman — or “general factotum,” as he called himself — he collected attractive and valuable items. I felt flattered to be shown his pirate’s hoard, his antique harness brasses, his gypsy artwork. I wore only silver by choice, but he put a thick gold hoop in my ear, after piercing it with a cork and an ice pick. “That’s two holes you’ve made in my body,” I told him. He repeated the line later to his mates in the pub, which was risky, and which I enjoyed.
We made love in that room every weekday that it was raining — and, it being England, it rained most days — fitting our romance around my school and work schedule. I’d hurry to dress and get out before Debbie came in from work. Her bus stopped across the street at 4:55, and it took her a minute to cross the pavement and insert her key in the lock. In the kitchen he made me wait until she started opening the front door, so her entry would cover the sounds of my going out the back.
Although Nelson was my only love for two years, I was never his one and only anything. He wasn’t even legally separated from Ann, and he was living with Debbie, his “common-law” spouse, who he worried might figure out that she was legally entitled to half his assets whenever they broke up. He discussed with me what he could do to make sure she couldn’t take his money or his house when she left. Secretly I wished he’d let me replace her — I’d never ask him for anything he didn’t want to give — but he said that it worked for him to have her around: she cleaned the house and paid her share of the bills and provided sexual relief on weekends.
“I like Debbie,” he said to me once, when I’d made some remark about her. We were standing in his kitchen, twenty minutes after making love, and I was brushing my hair. “Debbie is about my number-one woman.”
“What about me?” I said.
“You?” He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me in. “You are a very close second.”
I had the first orgasm of my life as I lay on Nelson’s right side, after sex, with him nearly asleep and fingering my genitals absently. I didn’t let him know about the waves of sensation building under his hand, then washing through me and cresting in a red-and-gold cascade. As he drifted into sleep, I lay next to him, satisfied and relaxed in a new way.
That first orgasm embarrassed and thrilled and shaped me. For much of my life since, my partner’s distance and lack of attention have worked strangely to heighten my arousal. After I left England and went to college, even in the eighteen years I spent with only female lovers, I sometimes still dreamt about Nelson.
Now and then in my relationships with women, one of us would strap something on or plug something into the wall or find some other new way to fuck, but to me many of the arrangements seemed awkward if not unnatural. It’s hard to look into a woman’s eyes while using a dildo.
Now, in an effort to bond with Nelson, I admit to him that lesbian sex can be hard work. We’re walking across his yard continuing our conversation about all things sexual. “I love women’s bodies, and I’m turned on by them. . . .” I am recalling Jen, the sight of whose twenty-five-year-old bodybuilder’s body in my waterbed brought feelings of gratitude and lustful amazement — followed by exhausted disappointment after hours of trying to coax her to climax. “But sometimes I feel like it’s almost too much trouble or something. I mean, I’m pretty easy, but it’s hard to give another woman an orgasm.”
“Yeah?” Nelson asks. It’s one of the few questions he poses in the two days we’re together. “I’d have thought one woman could do that with another woman pretty easy. She’d just show you which bits to press, and you’d know from your own body, and you’d be all right then.”
“You know it’s not that simple,” I say.
He shrugs. “I was never any good at it myself.”
Speechless, I stare at the side of his face and almost stop walking. This is the man who first made me come without even trying — without even being fully awake! Before I can contradict him, he says contemplatively, “I had one lover who used to reach down and touch herself when we were making love, and that really was good, to see a woman so excited like that.”
“That was me!” I exclaim. “Are you talking about me?”
He shakes his head. He’s thinking of someone else, and I don’t want him to.
“I can’t believe you don’t remember that!” Hearing my own shrillness, I try to speak calmly. “I can remember exactly the first time we did that,” I tell him: We were in his living room in the afternoon, when Debbie was out, and I was leaning against an armchair, and he was entering me from behind, and I reached down and touched myself and had an orgasm. He said, “I bet you could do that again,” and I did.
I tell Nelson all of this, and he tilts his head to one side, not remembering.
“You were very excited,” I say crossly.
In bed a few hours later, in plain view of the silk-swathed mirror, we reenact that first wonderful drama, and later, when we’ve collapsed in each other’s arms in the pink, mirrored swirl, I say, “Remember?”
“Oh, yes,” he says, eyes closed, smiling. He remembers.
Sometimes, after we’d had sex in the secret, locked room at the top of the old house, before he’d rouse me and tell me to wash myself and get dressed because Debbie would soon be home, Nelson would lie looking at the wall, which was papered with soft-porn magazine photos and felt-tip drawings of his wife and former lovers, and I’d ask him, “What are you looking at?” to find out which other woman he was contemplating.
After we’d been together several months, we were lying together one afternoon and talking when he squeezed me and said, “Ask me what you usually ask.” He was staring at the wall.
“What are you looking at?” I responded obediently.
“You.” He pointed with his chin to a new portrait: my face beside the face of a horse, in intertwining lines of purples and blues and red and white. Both the faces were large-eyed with waving hair, and both wore matching expressions of integrity and calm intelligence.
I stood up, thrilled, and traced the lines with a finger.
“I’m the horse,” he said. “And this is how I’ll always remember you, after you go.”
I cried then, because he’d drawn us, and yet I would leave him, to go back to the U.S. for college, to go to big places and meet fascinating people and be with all the “young studs” he said would be lined up, snorting and pawing the ground, to seduce me.
“You’ve got a lot of people to love,” he told me more than once. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, and your world is a whole lot bigger and brighter than this place and me.” He knew I’d have stayed in that small town with him forever if he’d asked me to. He didn’t ask.
In between bouts of sex and laughing, we talk about the possibility of Nelson’s coming to visit me in the U.S., and he wonders if he can get a visa. It’s been thirty years since he was last arrested, but it was for possession of firearms, a felony in England.
The cops had broken into his house to look for him after he’d wrecked his truck. Drunk, he’d walked away from the Ford and the tilting street lamp and escaped unsteadily down the path to hide in one of the places he used to take me near the river. He spent the night there, building a fire to keep warm while the police made a thorough search of every cupboard and drawer in his house. That’s how they found the guns.
The following week the policemen returned with a search warrant, and they tore through his belongings again as he watched — handcuffed, sober, and livid. First they took the Winchester rifle down from over the fireplace. American, unregistered, and stolen many times, it was worth a few hundred pounds, but he used it as a decoration alongside a steer’s horns, a Western saddle, and harness brasses.
Then the policemen — all younger than Nelson, who had known them since they were born — started opening doors and drawers. They found handguns and switchblades and no licenses, locks, or receipts.
“Hell,” he tells me, laughing, “there was thousands of quid worth of stuff I’d forgot I had.”
The youngest cop forced open a hidden drawer inside a cabinet and withdrew a large pistol. Nelson told him it was a replica, but the cop said it looked real to him. Nelson still seems proud of what he said next: “Oh, right, I forgot I was talking to a policeman. Replica is a big word that means it looks like the genuine article.”
The cop smashed the gun into Nelson’s mouth. Heavy, solid, and not a replica, it broke a tooth. Then they took him to jail, and now he’s not sure about a visa.
As he tells the story, I’m sitting on the leather couch, nestling my feet in his lap. “You didn’t have guns when I knew you, did you?”
“Yes, I always traded in guns,” he says. “They’re valuable and easy to hide.”
“Wait, what?” I reach out and touch his arm. “When we were together? In the other house?” The 150-year-old flint-brick house where, in our special bed in the secret room, he took my virginity as gently as he could? In that house he stored firearms?
He takes my offered hand without comment, and his touch feels so warm I can barely think. “That house was fulla guns.”
I’m excited and silenced by the image of my virginal self being seduced while, a foot away from my tousled hair, my lover hid a fortune in illegal weaponry. Somehow this makes me feel valuable and precious, like one of his secret treasures.
After he says “fulla guns” in that factual, unimpressed way, I slither along the settee until I’m right next to him, bewildered and aroused. “So, you had the guns just to sell, to make money, not for self-protection?”
“No, I had them for self-protection too. But I never shot anyone with them.” I take a slow breath before he adds, “I shot at people, but I’ve got bad aim. Never hit anyone.”
The last time we make love, the Tuesday I have to leave, I’m not wet, but I welcome him in anyway. His penis feels especially stiff and large. It’s painful at first, and my breath escapes in jagged, rhythmic response.
A few hours later, traveling alone toward London, I sit high in the train car with my forehead pressed against the window, reviewing every memory of our forty hours together. Sometimes I sigh, and sometimes I feel physical contractions in my body, as well as a metaphysical expansion. The center of me misses the center of him. In London I ride the top of England’s red buses and walk lightly through the wet gray world, feeling voluptuous and giddy. From the train station I mail Nelson a postcard, saying, “I feel I’ve been forever changed.” I think at first that it is just new-old love, but my face reflected in the rain-dark window glows, as if I’ve received an infusion of moonlight beneath my skin.
Even as I travel away from him, I am everywhere and all the time in a bubble of joy, radiating — I can tell by the way people look at me — something that everyone wants. All the next week, as I visit my brother and prepare to go back to the U.S., strangers keep talking to me, offering me cups of tea and their life stories. Men especially smile at me, sit nearby, and start conversations. It’s like being sixteen again, a long-haired, large-eyed newcomer, only this time I understand that it isn’t me they’re seeing. It isn’t the hot pull of sex, either; it’s something grander, more transparent.
As I savor the memories of our two days and nights together, I keep coming back to the moment when Nelson and I were looking into each other’s eyes while making love. Realizing what this means, I call him from a pay phone and say, “I’m in love!”
He sounds joyful. “Yeah, in love with life! You go around smiling at everyone, and they all think you’re mad.”
“No,” I say. “With you.” There is a strange dip in my voice.
“Yeah?” He seems dubious. Slowly he adds, “I think we could safely say I reciprocate the sentiment.”
“I’m like a sixteen-year-old!” I burst out, like a sixteen-year-old.
“That will fade,” he says, like a sixty-eight-year-old.
But my misty-eyed afterglow doesn’t evaporate; it thickens. Euphoria sets in. I cradle my sister-in-law’s cats like newborns and tell my impossible brother that I love him. I beam at shopkeepers and feel wildly alive.
Going back to the U.S., I don’t know when or even if I’ll see Nelson again. Maybe the distance and time will put things in perspective; maybe he’ll fly over to be with me; maybe I’ll come back. There are many maybes.
Sometime early in our reunion, after he came inside me, Nelson lay down and said with wonder, “I’ve never felt that way with anyone, ever.” I felt awed too, by the force we’d unearthed or re-created. There wasn’t time to consider or contemplate; we were too busy enjoying it.
After I’m home, I talk with my best friend about what drew me back to Nelson. And she, who met him in the 1970s and who knows my heart better than I do, suggests that I am trying to heal something from my past: At the age of sixteen, in the pitiful, predictable way of many daughters who feel rejected by their fathers, I had sought out a relationship with an unavailable older man, as if I could make up for growing up without paternal love. But, also predictably, I couldn’t. And, my friend thinks, at the age of fifty-one I went back to try again.
Denial of my friend’s facile psychology rises up in me — so fast that I know she’s right. But she’s also wrong, because the thing is, my unconscious plan worked. What I felt from and for Nelson was unfettered, undemanding, happy appreciation. Without Debbie, without the pub regulars gossiping about us, without a teenager’s curfews and conditions, and without any commitment, we were finally free to love each other.
When I came to him, confused and sad from my recent breakup and shaky from months of travel, Nelson offered practical solidity in a house he’d built by hand. He cooked eggs from his chickens and vegetables from his garden and bought cheese and bread at the market to toast for me. We ate quietly from tin plates on a table covered with the local newspaper, and when we’d finished eating, one of us did the few dishes by hand, and then we went to the pub and came home and made love as if for the first time.
Nelson was my first lover, and he tells me now that I am the only woman ever to have really loved him.
Back at home, I continue calling Nelson, probably too often, and we talk about the weather and what’s happening in the pub or growing in his garden. Once, I ask why he never rings me.
“I don’t call people!” he protests. “It’s not something I do.”
“You used to when I was in college.” The phone would startle me from sleep in my little dorm bed: Nelson calling to say the sun was up and it was boo-tiful and so was I.
“That was the last time I called anyone.”
I laugh and ask him to write down my number in case he wants to use it, but I don’t ask him to ring me. The only thing he asks of me is not to ask anything of him.
In all the time I knew Nelson, he never went to a doctor. Now he tells me he has to go every six months. “I’ve got some growths in the front of my head; they put a camera up my nose. And there’s something wrong with my prostate, and it might be cancer.”
“Isn’t growing old lovely?” I say, and he laughs softly.
Grasping the phone tight and gesticulating with my free hand, I say, “All that stuff — if you go deaf or you can’t get an erection or you need a hip replacement and can’t walk for a while — all that is OK with me. I just want to be with you.” I mean it vehemently, suddenly aware that at sixty-nine or seventy or beyond, he may not get a better offer, and at fifty-one or fifty-two or beyond, I might finally be his only lover.
He says something about my putting that in writing, then tells me that a barmaid leaned across the counter last night to give him a kiss, and he had to wipe the lipstick from his beard, and everyone in the pub had a laugh. I laugh too, but the top of my stomach caves in, and I say, “Should I be worried?”
“I like the girl!” he says. And then he tells me about a horse he might buy.
Maybe in his dotage Nelson will make me the one woman he wants to be with, but by karmic rights it would be only fair if, after I’d been living in his house long enough to feel it was my own, a younger, more confident woman bounced into his local pub, and she didn’t know or care about his American live-in but liked Nelson and offered him something that he didn’t even know he wanted. In a fair world I’d come home and notice an extra coffee cup in the sink. I’d see scratches on his back that he’d tell me were from when he slipped and fell against a fence. When the cream-yellow rooster woke at dawn, crowing and showing off, I’d rub open my eyes in the big, pink-curtained, mirrored bed and find that Nelson was gone, and I’d remember: He’s easily led.
When I first was separated from Nelson, at the age of seventeen, I wrote him frantically. Nearly every day for six months I’d walk from my rented room to the Princeton public library, go upstairs to a soundproof cubicle, sit down at the humming IBM Selectric, and set its margins to the width of a blue aerogramme. Then I’d single-space my teenage adoration and loneliness, writing many variations of how I wished he hadn’t let me go, and how I missed making love with him. Most of all I typed — and then repeated, longhand, above my signature of the secret name he’d given me — that I loved him more than anything and always would, signing every letter with an effortless “Yours forever,” as if I could have known then what that might mean, as if I actually would continue to know him and love him for the rest of my life.
Gillian Kendall’s compassion, intellect, and brutal honesty give hope to those of us over fifty who also wish someday to reach our “wise old crone” stage of femininity. Her essay “Easily Led” delivered a double whammy: the knowledge that most of us spend our lives trying to re-create our first great love; and that, even thirty-five years and thirty pounds later, we are still capable of the miraculous psychosis known as “the real thing.”
I love a good love story, and Gillian Kendall’s “Easily Led” is among the best I’ve read. That it’s a true story rather than fiction makes it even better. It reminds us that a love some would consider wrong can be even more right than the socially acceptable kind. Renegade love can feed our soul and transform our deepest self.
What bothers me the most about Gillian Kendall’s “Easily Led” is that men like Nelson, who refuse to be monogamous, seem to have a special power over women. Many times I’ve wondered how these women can endure, much less enjoy, playing second fiddle to another.
It bothers me not only because I definitely do not have that power but also because, the few times I have had the opportunity to be unfaithful, I have denied myself the quick and easy pleasure because it doesn’t sit well with my conscience. The reward for my choice never comes, however. I write this alone in my house in the woods. Why am I perpetually single while less-ethical men seem to find love so easily and so frequently?
Give me a reason why you published Gillian Kendall’s “Easily Led” [November 2012]. Give me a reason for not canceling my subscription. Her essay is well written but trite, narcissistic, and vapid. The sex scenes are not the problem. The problem is simply the emptiness of it, eight pages of beautifully written nothingness — like the rainbow that reveals itself in the skin of a dead mackerel or a puddle of motor oil. If this is where The Sun is heading, then count me out.