What the Hell is This?

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? — Muriel Rukeyser

Buon Appetito February 23, 2011

I only seem to get really sick once a year now, and it’s been about a year since the last bout. Some nasty bug gave me a fever and a painfully sore throat with a cough last Friday, which I have apparently (mostly) defeated by ingesting apple cider vinegar, Vitamin C, cayenne pepper, and raw garlic. (This last item I would only recommend in emergencies, as it scorches an already inflamed mouth and makes tears sting in the eyes. Sure clears out the sinuses, though.) I was determined not to have to go to the general hospital E/R, where they charge us uninsured a nice fee up front before they’ll even admit us.

It’s been a bit of a welcome break. I lost my voice again (!), which means I haven’t been able to work. (The metaphorical implications of this I’ll leave alone for now.) I haven’t had to step outside my little studio and deal with people, Ted included, for almost a week. Not that I was actually dealing with him in any way, shape, or form. But when you can barely swallow and you have a temperature of 101º F, other concerns recede for the moment.

**

On the dreaded Valentine’s Day holiday I went back and read my ‘Candy Candy Candy’ post from 2009. Once again, unfortunately, it was all too relevant. Once again I’m finding myself confronting the same shame and paralyzing fear (not to mention the same agonizing frustration) surrounding my overwhelming but rarely satisfied erotic longings.

And I’ve never even told you about Greg Schulz, the Star-Trek-geek bookseller who consumed my imagination for most of my twenties. I wasted six whole years, between twenty-three and twenty-nine, hopelessly obsessed with a guy who not only spurned me, but at one point almost reported me for sexual harassment.

To be a woman rejected by Greg was truly a badge of shame. The only way I could have lived through more humiliation would have been if I were a staunchly conservative politician caught soliciting homoerotic dalliances in a public restroom.

**

Why was I so attracted to Greg? He was nice-looking, to be sure (with the kind of large, expressive brown eyes that never fail to slay me behind round nerd glasses), but there was also something extremely sexual about him — he “oozed sex,” in the words of a thoroughly unimpressed coworker — which made most of the other young women find him somehow creepy. These, of course, were the women he pursued. Aggressively. To the point of actually being accused of sexual harassment himself. He already had an unflattering reputation when I arrived on the scene.

Perhaps we had a similar injury.

The craziest thing is that I felt tacitly encouraged by Greg, even after he explicitly turned me down. Repeatedly. Maybe he enjoyed the unexpected admiration, but placed little value on it (and on me) as it had cost him nothing. I was a hound, not a fox — no doubt a turnoff for another hound — and I came running, hard.

Too hard. Desperately so. I couldn’t bear to accept rejection. It wasn’t all about Greg…perhaps it was very little about Greg. (“When you chase someone this hard,” as Tony the surly music critic said, “it’s never about the other person.”) I’m sure I was desperate to prove I wasn’t unlovable and undesirable to those who “mattered” (i.e. those who aroused my own desire). He must have been driven by a similar demon, forever turning his unwelcome attentions on extraordinarily pretty, fashionable young women, one of whom was the lead singer in a local underground band.

Truthfully, I felt not only crazy much of the time, but also ashamed, as if my lust for him were monstrous, and the sexual feelings themselves were what turned me into some kind of repulsive monster. Sometimes when he sauntered by in his butt-hugging jeans and shot me a knee-withering glance, which seemed like nothing so much as an invitation, I thought I would explode. I fancied I felt my ovaries literally aching — and, in fact, after two years of this torture, I started to develop painful ovarian cysts that would require invasive emergency surgery and a lifetime of medication. (One reason why I’m a big believer in the mind-body connection.) This madness continued for six years, and only ended when he left the employ of the bookstore.

I don’t like revisiting this memory, which is why you haven’t heard about it until now. It’s one of the most humiliating episodes of my past, in a past that hasn’t been short of humiliating episodes, and one that casts me in the most unflattering light.

**

But I return to it now because I’m sure the whole ordeal only reinforced that feeling I had already, of being some kind of sexual pariah (even the sexual pariah rejected me!), as if the very act of desiring itself was what made me so undesirable.

Of course, I had long been taught that “good girls don’t.” Truly, a conservative fundamentalist church and youth group is no place for a curious, hot-blooded young woman to come of age. Particularly when one’s very protective and territorial older brother precedes one among said youth.

I believed, as a teen, that none of my attractive male peers would come near me because there was something inherently amiss with me, that I was in some intrinsic way deficient in beauty or charm. Now I am willing to allow that maybe all those heavy religious prohibitions against unchaste pursuits, along with the looming shadow of my wrathful protector, might have acted as kryptonite to any interested parties (other than parentally-approved Jerry Baines, who seemed about as exciting as my dad).

At any rate, my idolatrous obsessions with certain comely members of the opposite sex seemed more commensurate with the breathless infatuations of my more worldly, “secular” girlfriends than in any way analogous to the wholesome games of basketball my popular friend Katie was playing with the church boys who adored and dated her.

I had learned early on to hide my inordinate sexual curiosity and feelings. The tight lips, the stiffening that occured in the spines of my parents when certain subjects were broached, told me that such subjects were shameful and not to be spoken of  — regardless of what they might dutifully if uncomfortably call the Joys of Married Life. (Mind you, I never saw any evidence of such Joy.)

In my last year of elementary school, I endured the single most mortifying incident of my life when my very pious and equally nosy mother found an innocuous-looking ruled notebook in which my unsaved Catholic friend Adriana and I had scribbled a tale which could best be described as pornographic. (We were both almost morbidly fascinated with the male sexual organs at the time, objects largely foreign to us, and these figured prominently, if inaccurately.)

She confronted me when I came home for lunch. I can still taste the Kraft macaroni & cheese turning to orange sawdust in my mouth as she lectured me for what seemed like hours about God’s Sacred Gift To Married People and the Tragedy Of Cheapening His Wonderful Intention For Our Bodies and all that precious holy bullshit that bore absolutely no resemblance to the nonverbal messages I’d gotten from both my parents since forever.

Staring at the yellow and green happy faces painted on my milk glass by the Wyler’s Lemonade company, I found myself hoping that the Four Horses of the Apocalypse would crash through the back screen door and whisk me away from our kitchen table, interrupting what was surely a fate worse than death and hellfire. As I recall, I didn’t get spanked. I might have gotten grounded. But my mother’s speech was punishment enough.

I hid my dirty stories in my desk at school after that.

**

I’m revisiting my Hall of Shame because I believe these past things shaped my present beliefs about my own sexuality. I suspect that at heart I still fear I am monstrous, that my sexual longings are something to be ashamed of, and that any frank expression of desire on my part will be met with violent repulsion and humiliating censure.

It’s true that Sonny, surely the most godlike of mortals ever to grace my boudoir, seemed unfazed by the expression — a thing for which I am still grateful, God bless his chiseled Greek torso and priapic attributes, not that size is necessarily preferable — but he was also a self-professed sex addict, as I recall. I was only one of many. The same could be said of my friend-with-benefits Jim, man-whore of the book-store (but even then, he made the first move, not me). What am I to think of that? That only the warped and the complusive can successfully come together in their complementary illnesses? My initial feelings for Sam, as you know, were not primarily overwhelmingly sexual. Had I come at him from that angle, would he have responded as positively?

Granted, it’s difficult to untangle these desires from what are earlier, pre-sexual spurned desires involving family and peers. Every rejection is a painful reminder of every other rejection. I clung to Greg like a rabid dog rather than accept that I might be unwanted — unwanted like the uncoordinated toddler banished from the vacant lot by the neighborhood kids, or perhaps unwanted like the daughter who wrote dirty stories in her notebook.

But I also know that while it’s easy to write here about how I long to do this and that with Mister So-and-So, I blush and tremble to think of saying such a thing to the person in question. On paper I may talk like Erica Jong, but in real life I might as well be Christine fucking O’Donnell. I expect to be punished. Rejected, perhaps, for being the “unfeminine” bad girl, the one who doesn’t wait to be wanted first. (As the late, former anorexic Caroline Knapp wrote in her brilliant book Appetites, “To be sexy is to be found sexy, to be permitted to want, you must first be wanted.”)

If it’s “unfeminine” or bad, it’s also who I really am.

**

What an interesting time to have lost my voice: while I’m beating myself up about my inability to say a word to Ted. I have had a conversation with him many times in my head. More of a monologue, actually. It goes something like this.

“Ted…I want you to know that my actions — the shunning and all that — have been actions of desperation. I just didn’t know what else to do.

“You saw 127 Hours, didn’t you? That guy cut off his own arm to escape. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and he had to get free. He didn’t see any other options. So he did something extreme, something painful, something that meant he had to lose something.

“I didn’t know how else to get free. I’m stuck, too.

“Look, you’ve got your Good Thing. You’ve got your place in the sun, right? I want my own Good Thing. I want my own place in the sun. I deserve to be happy as much as anyone else. I’ve been dating, but guys keep passing me up because they can tell I’m stuck.

“I had a really great guy, the whole package — smart and hot and totally into me — just up and walk away from me. He said I was stuck, and he wasn’t willing to be patient. He didn’t want to hear that he was my ‘healthy, conscious choice,’ or an attempt to ‘be better to myself.’ He didn’t want to hear that my decision to spend time with him was a deliberate, rational act. He didn’t want to hear that I was waiting for my feelings to catch up with the rest of me.

“Then again, what guy really wants to hear those things?

No, he wanted to hear things like: I want to taste your sweat. I want to feel the weight of your body on me. I want your hot breath on my neck. I want to feel the hair on your chest brushing my bare skin. I want to inhale your scent and feel your big, warm fingers rove my thighs. But not only your fingers. And not only my thighs.

“I couldn’t honestly say these things, because I didn’t feel that way…about him. God knows I wanted to. All that energy is just stuck. It’s not moving.

“You’ve had me on a chain, and you could yank it every now and again by smelling my hair or whatever — but I don’t want to be any man’s bitch if he’s never going to give me a nice bone.

“I don’t want to be stuck. I want to be happy.”

**

I also want to know how the italicized words would fall on Ted’s ears. Because they’re hot words. Not the explicit words you’d find in erotica, which seem to have more in common with comic books than with how people actually talk in casual company, but words you’d seldom hear a woman speak beyond closed doors with someone other than a Sure Thing. Words that attempt to start a fire in public — in the break room or the hallway or out on the sidewalk. They communicate my powerful sexual feelings for Ted in an unexpected context, blindsiding him while talking about another man.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that it bothers me to no end that he doesn’t even know they exist. When I spoke with him last fall, I was still just Christine fucking O’Donnell, professing nothing more than a chaste affection. As if I were ashamed of how I really feel.

I have misrepresented myself. Not that it would necessarily make all the difference, but at the end of the day, perhaps it’s better to be rejected as Erica Jong, if I’m going to be.

Would Ted be offended by these words? Aroused? Are they beside the point, because he’s way more serious about Ms. Whomeverthehell now, or already too angered and alienated by my silent treatment? Could he even handle hearing them? Lordy, he is a big old nerd. I could just see him turning beet red and giggling like a schoolboy. It’s almost embarrassing that he’s done this to me.

Of course I wish he’d be aroused….and ready and willing to do something about it toute suite. Perhaps fueled by an impassioned combination of relief and anger. What’s more likely is that he’ll just get defensive, and sing me some version of the old song It’s Not My Fault, that one we all know so well and learn so young. I’ve heard it a hundred times from various men, including Greg Schulz.

But maybe I’d get my own voice back for good.

 

 
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