SOME DISCONTINUOUS OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LOVE

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Thanks to the give-and-take most book groups require of their members, I recently found myself obliged to read a novel by Penelope Lively called Moon Tiger.  I didn’t like it, despite the promise of its early chapters.  (A woman in her seventies, dying of cancer, looks back on her life and the important people in it.) But there was one aspect of the story that really held me — so much so I would gladly, and with excitement, have read more and more, and never mind the rest.

The heroine has a brother one year older. They grow up together and in late adolescence become lovers. No one suspects.  After a few years, the physical expression of their feeling for each other fades, but not the feeling. No one she meets subsequently, except for a British captain with whom she has a brief (and unconvincing) love affair during World War II, can compare with the brother. Throughout the rest of their lives, this feeling between brother and sister seems to trump any emotions either of them can experience for other potential love partners. When he is about to die, she rides with him and his wife in a taxi to some last meeting he insists on attending:

He goes on talking and she goes on talking and interrupting and beneath what is said they tell each other something entirely different.

I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things — love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness. I do not need to tell you, any more than you need to tell me. I have seldom even thought it. You have been my alter ego, and I have been yours. And soon there will only be me, and I shall not know what to do.

Sylvia [the wife], she sees, is weeping again. Not quite silently enough. If you don’t stop that, thinks Claudia [the protagonist], I may simply push you out of this taxi.

I was an only child. I yearned for a slightly older brother when I was growing up. But I did understand early on that as a first-born, I could never have an older sibling, except by adoption, which I felt wouldn’t have been the same. Lacking this much desired older brother, I made one up. [SeeFairy Tale,” an account of my childhood fantasy, its development as I grew older, and how it looks to me now.]

This is not to say I truly believe I could have fallen in love with a male version of me who I had known all my life.  Lively’s heroine believes that brother-sister incest requires narcissism in both parties. As I didn’t love myself enough for much of my life, narcissism does not seem to have been my problem.    What I yearned for was an alter ego, someone who would accept me as I was, knowing everything about me. Someone who was my other half.

 

Diana Athill, last mentioned in this blog for having at the age of 89 written “Somewhere Before the End,” a trail-blazing account of old old age — has come up with a sequel of sorts now that she’s 97; it’s called “Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter.In her introduction to this new book, she observes that persons in retirement homes spend a good deal of time just sitting and thinking. In her case, it’s been thinking about events in the past which were enjoyable.

Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, “Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.

Athill has now moved on from thinking about men to thinking of pleasurable scenes in nature. But let’s do a rewind for a moment: How is putting oneself to sleep by reviewing past bedmates “indulging in foolishness?”  As the saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, talk, write, or think about it.  I do have some years left before my nineties, but I too have sometimes counted “sheep” in somewhat the same way as Athill and her acquaintance; I review the sexual particulars of those relatively few men I have biblically known, with emphasis on the memorable ones.

However, and getting back to the theme of this piece, I don’t do that very often.  More frequently, I make up erotic stories.  They’re short on variety. I provide only two or three mises-en-scene; the two principal characters are always in their late teens or early twenties, and two or three years apart in age; I play both parts, moving in my mind from the point of view of the young man, then the young woman. But irrespective of the details of the flimsy “plot,” the underlying theme is always the same: these two grow up together, a tragic separation tears them apart, they cannot find each other, some time later, quite by accident, they do. Then nothing, nothing at all, can keep them from each other. Yes, they make love, occasionally in satisfying detail. But what is most exciting and rewarding about these pre-sleep lullabies, of which the physical “coming together” is just an expression, is the emotional coming together after having been so painfully separated.

 

The last time I read Plato’s Symposium in its entirety, somewhat unwillingly, was in the fall of 1949, when I was a sophomore in college. However, one section of it made a sufficient impression on me that I have revisited it on several later occasions.  For those of you who haven’t read it, or read about it, the Symposium is a disquisition on love as the ancient Greeks viewed it.  Since Plato wrote it, we may assume that in its entirety it represents the Platonic ideal. Briefly, six or seven of Socrates’ disciples gather with him at a dinner where they will all speak, in turn, about each one’s view of this important emotion.  The fourth in order is Aristophanes, who attempts to describe the feeling of love in “historic” terms he fears will be laughed at.

Mankind, he [Aristophanes] said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race….

In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different…. The primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods;….

Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts…. then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”

He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson in humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms.  So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last;….

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them — being the sections of entire men or women — and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they mighty breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself….the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment….And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. [Italics mine.]

After my second husband and I separated, I sequentially looked up (and in my older son’s words, recycled) the two significant boyfriends of my premarital life. You may see where, perhaps not entirely consciously, I was trying to go with this coming together after painful separation.  I showed each of them the Aristophanes riff on love.  The first was both tactful and rueful as he turned its pages in bed:  “Here I am,” he said, “thirty-odd years later: same bathrobe, same book.” At least he didn’t laugh.  The second did laugh; halfway through his reading, the phone rang. “Hi,” he said, “I’m reading about these funny round people with four arms, four legs and two heads….”

As you may surmise, neither effort to rejoin what had come apart worked out. There’s a reason the Platonic ideal is called an ideal.  Real life just isn’t like that.  Romantic love, youthful passion, may feel so compelling nothing can get in its way.  But if satisfied, it begins to dilute itself into something else which we also call love.  However, that’s a different love: warm, safe, familiar, comfortable, with cranky moments, boring times, tough passages, and also good ones. A love that leaves time and space for the speculations in this piece.  A love to be explored in some other post.  I invite you to do that.

 

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SOME THOUGHTS (IF YOU CAN CALL THEM THAT) ABOUT SEX

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With all the hard-to-miss whoop-de-do about Christian Grey (“Fifty Shades Of”) and his compliant Ana in the tittering press, in movie box offices (where multi-millions are rolling in) and even in the feminist blogosphere, it perhaps behooves me to deliver a few expurgated observations on the matter from my own demographic. (Female, hetero-, old.) I speak of course only for myself, as I have not yet discovered another woman well over eighty blogging away on WordPress or anywhere else.  (There are two who are seventy-seven and seventy-six respectively, but whatever they’re doing privately, neither “do” sex in print.)

It’s not true that women over seventy have fantasies about sex zero percent of the time. This canard was apparently reported in AARP about four years ago and then picked up to be made sport of by “Life in the Boomer Lane,” written by Renee Fisher, a mere sixty-seven herself.  I can personally vouch for the falsehood of such piggy-back hearsay, and know of at least two other non-blogging women in the demographic who would emphatically agree with me. Since I don’t know many women in the demographic anyway (most of my acquaintances are  younger), two plus me seems sufficient rebuttal on this point.  I draw a veil over why these women plus me are having fantasies instead of, or in addition to, real sex.

There’s a huge disconnect between what’s desirable (or even acceptable) in real life from a real man and what’s desirable in one’s fantasy life from a fantasy man.  I’ve read quite a bit of heated discourse in the past couple of days about how terrible it is to glorify a movie that glorifies female submission and bondage (i.e. “rape”) — this despite the fact that audiences, currently comprised of 68% women in North America, are apparently rushing to see it like lemmings to the sea. The disconnect may not be so true of the young or youngish — although I suspect that even for them if the line between what they see in movies and what they do in bed begins to blur, they can still distinguish between (a) playful bondage by a trusted loved one who lashes them to the bedposts with their own nylons while they both giggle and (b) the really painful stuff with whipcords and duct tape.

But for those of us raised in a faraway time when the proper response to going “too far” was always “No!” even when all your senses were begging “Yes!” — fantasy rape had, and may still have, a certain initial appeal.  When I first came upon Candide in college and read of pure sweet Cunegonde, Candide’s lady love, being raped by Bulgarians, my first thought wasn’t horror but “Hmmmm, what do Bulgarians look like?”  However the problem was that you’d have to decide which Bulgarians, and how many, would be allowed to have their way with you (even in a fantasy), and that didn’t seem likely (even in a fantasy).  In fact, it’s always a given in fantasy rape that you have to secretly want to be raped by that particular man — whose hunger for you (and your unavowed hunger for him) is so overpowering that it cannot be gainsaid, despite your feeble struggles.

[Note to militant feminists:  The preceding paragraph most certainly does not mean I agree with those Yale students who were suspended for marching through campus with a banner proclaiming, “No Means Yes!” Read more carefully. The Bulgarians are fantasy. Yale is real.  As a Yale parent several times over, well aware of the tuition involved in even being on that campus, I can assure you Yale is very real, and no most definitely means no.]

Admittedly, “Fifty Shades” is only “soft” porn. Even so, what’s so exciting about a former Calvin Klein male underwear model pouring wine into the belly-button of the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson while she bites her underlip apprehensively?  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen not yet in my demographic.  If your memory is long enough, you may recall those first ads (in classy magazines no less) for Calvin’s teensy-weensy BVDs with the CK logo-embossed elastic band that barely cleared the groin area.  Well, the guy in those ads was Mr. Christian Grey himself (shorn or retouched of all chest hair) — a scrap of pristine white cotton between us and his, ah, member — posed in a full frontal come-hither slouch that must have turned on at least 95% of the gay community who saw it but didn’t do much for me.  Yes, Jamie Dornan has a four-year-old daughter now and probably hopes that when at some time in the future she sees her daddy’s comely rear cheeks beautifully photographed above a naked lady who’s not mommy, she won’t ask questions.  (I know, I know, it’s my age talking.  Young Miss Dornan probably just won’t care.) But he still doesn’t do much for me, even with wisps of chest hair.

As for young Miss Johnson, I suppose what she does is her own business. But as I remember her mom in “Working Girl” before she did that ill-advised thing to make her lips fuller and they came out much too much fuller, and also recall her dad was the one in “Miami Vice” who made wearing only a white tee shirt under a jacket look really cool — seeing her naked underneath naked young Mr. Dornan would be like watching one of the neighbors’ kids put out for a vacant-faced muscled guy with impossibly huge scads of money and power, plus really gorgeous clothes (before he takes them off).  I mean, come on.   Who’re we kidding here? If we’re talking soft SMBD porn, Mickey Rourke with his ice cube in “Six Weeks” was much more like it; at least he looked the part. (Except look at him now.)

I do admit that typing the word “naked” twice just now was somewhat exciting. But that’s probably a demographic thing too.

Drinking wine out of belly buttons is not new. Trust me on this one.  Back in 1948, Charlotte P. read aloud a story in Creative Writing I  that had seventeen-year-old me writhing with jealousy, envy and lust;  it was about her previous summer on an Israeli kibbutz where it was apparently not unusual to sip wine from the mouth of another and then have the other lap more wine from one’s belly button. (I believe they kept their jeans on, though.)  Oh God! I immediately filed this away as something to try at the first opportunity. (And you see? I still remember, after all these years.) Of course, you would have had to be an innie and not an outie. I’m not sure how outies took to Charlotte P.’s story.  What would Christian G. have done if Miss Steele had turned out to be an outie when her clothes came off?  Torn up the contract?  Or improvised with some other declivity?  (That should keep you thinking for a bit.)

Since we’re talking about porn, in my demographic “hard” porn is for men.  Sometimes we ladies do sit through their kind of thing to be accommodating (or in some cases because it’s easier than working them up ourselves). Yes, we sit patiently all the way to the money shot, with mess sprayed here and there over the other party, which to me has always been the erotic equivalent of a cold shower.  But candidly, I could go on quite happily for two or three more lifetimes without seeing any more.  Men get excited by shapely female breasts (or unshapely ones, swollen monstrously by silicone), lovely rounded buttocks gently parted, spread-eagled vulvas, luscious lips slurping eagerly, close-ups of piston-like activity, the camera eye right in there like a third participant.  Why would a heterosexual woman want to look at any of that?  It’s not part of our sexual experience, even without eyes shut.  As for threesomes — apparently another real stiffener — forget it. I never did like sharing and just can’t multitask.

So what is erotic for women?  I won’t deny my demographic still appreciates a nicely built unclothed male torso (although it’s not essential for powerful attraction).  However, speaking only for me and not for the other two known members of this demographic, I far prefer the sight of work-made muscle to the barbell-crafted kind. Attractive construction workers, not gym rats.  Just to check myself (and also, of course, in the interests of thorough research), I typed “naked straight men” into Bing.  (It seems Apple is at war with Google and switched search engines when I wasn’t looking.)  Did I get brought up to date fast!

Tattoos all over the place!  I mean with no inch of skin except the face untatted!  Yuck! (Demographically speaking, of course.)  And photos of bare men of every ethnicity enjoying each other in every which way you can imagine. (Is this what Bing thinks is “straight?”)  And photos of other bare men smirking or scowling at the camera with a “Look what I have for you!” expression on their faces. (I once had a husband, now dead — although not at my hand — who actually pronounced those very words.  It did him no good whatsoever.)

And I’ve got to tell you what some of those bare men had for us couldn’t possibly have been for us at all.  It’s true my experience has been quite limited, but I know — I just know, and to hell with the demographic  — there isn’t a woman alive, of any age, who wouldn’t flee at the thought. These were appendages of such extraordinary length as must have been attached to the unfortunate straight fellow a therapist once told me about: he had to wear a very thick rubber donut before any woman would even consider — I’m looking for a nice clean word here — congress.  And then the faces of those guys on the Bing-sourced websites!  What could you talk about with them before you began? Can they talk? I know, I shouldn’t be mean. (I do think though that Apple could reconsider its position on Google.)

I might also add before leaving this possibly controversial section (in which I may have recklessly destroyed all the good will I’ve slowly built over the past year) that there’s a color photograph of a nicely built unclothed male torso, with pleasantly smiling face attached, that’s practically perfect. It’s cropped just above the pelvis so it’s also perfectly decent, and it’s right here on WordPress.  It belongs to the nephew of one of the Australian ladies who occasionally drops by this blog. I remember admiring it when she posted it and wishing I were at least sixty years younger.  But I’m not and probably you’re not either, so I’m not looking up the URL and you’ll just have to wonder forever.

Well, if not photos, then what?   I’ve actually considered that question quite a bit before embarking on this post.  What really turns on my demographic? (And maybe other female demographics too?)  I think it’s faces, voices, words. Words above all. A well turned phrase — even on the screen — and you’ve got me interested.   My demographic, and perhaps also  yours, wants a story; we want to hear things and see things that maybe promise and maybe don’t, we want hope and uncertainty, and lots of hide and seek, until it’s just about all we think about.  Imagination is a big part of it, too. (And who needs photos with a good imagination?  After a certain age, eyes shut and imagination trumps photos every time.)

One of the more erotic things I’ve read recently turned up in a first novel published about thirty years ago which I discovered at a used bookseller.  Near the end of the book the protagonist, a thirteen year old boy, and a somewhat flat-chested girl his age, who are both staying in the same house that summer weekend, play a game together that’s rather like strip poker.  Round after round, the garments very slowly come off each of them, one by one.  They look at each other. She offers to do one more thing for him since he won, but he can’t think of anything. So she goes off to bed.  Still naked, and now erect, he thinks about her and thinks about her in his own bed, and then gets up and creeps down the hall to her room. She is sleeping, in a nightdress.  He slides under her sheet from the bottom and lies there naked and erect with his head between her legs.

That made me breathe faster than the dreary plod through the three free chapters of “Fifty Shades” you can get from Amazon Kindle.

Someone I’ve never met in real life who writes extremely well recently suggested via email that there was probably a big commercial market for “elderly erotic stories” and how would it be if a woman writer and a man writer collaborated to write such stories.  That’s pretty much how he put it (very politely), together with a possible opening paragraph and the caveat that the stories be about people of at least sixty. In my view nothing about people sixty or older would be erotic reading to the elderly because the elderly are turned on by the same stimuli as the young.  That is, elderly men probably want to picture young nubile beauties in their dreams and even elderly women fantasize about firm male bodies, not old ones. I didn’t write that though, but merely objected to his opening paragraph for other reasons, and suggested another opening.  He wrote back.  And then I became uncomfortable, because of course I was the “woman writer” and he was the “man writer” we were writing about and I am twenty-three years older than he is and he’s not safely far away in Australia but about fifty-two miles from Princeton, and it was becoming exciting even though I don’t really know what he looks like. It was crossing the line from fantasy to real, at least for me if not for him. And therefore time to stop.

Words, you see.  Words do it every time.  And now that I myself have written 2,314 words on this stimulating topic it’s time to go do something else.  What that might be I leave to your imagination.

SKARA BRAE: MY KIND OF PLACE

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Bet you’ve never heard of Skara Brae.  Don’t pretend. You haven’t, have you?  I hadn’t heard of it either, until I found it in this book with a really dumb title.

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I mean, come on.  1001 historic sites you must see? Before you die?  Like The Smolny Institute? (p. 669)  Or The Bank of England? (p. 290) Or Old Melbourne Jail? (p. 926) And if you don’t manage to get to them all by deadline, then what?

But after a day of windy rain and robo-calls and waiting in doctors’ offices for probably unnecessary checkups and/or “procedures” (the bane of an older person’s existence — if the older person has health insurance, that is), and after the cleaning ladies have canceled at the last minute and you discover the car has about a quarter of a cup of gas left on which you may just possibly manage to coast into the nearest gas station on a wheel and a prayer — after all that, stress builds to a point where Skara Brae, the one thousand and first site in the book with the dumb title, begins to seem like heaven on earth.

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This is what 1001 Historic Sites says about it (after telling you it’s in Orkney, Scotland):
Five-thousand-year-old homes with evidence of orderliness and comfort

This Stone Age village was buried beneath sand dunes for centuries until a huge storm blew the sand away, around 1850. What was revealed gives a vivid impression of ordinary life more than 5,000 years ago. Despite their great antiquity the houses are remarkably uniform, so much so that they have been likened to a ‘group of prehistoric council houses’ ….

Built of stone, the houses would have been roofed with turf or thatch. Their wooden doors opened off an underground maze of narrow passages …. Each house, however, had one spacious main room, measuring about 20 square feet (6 sq. m.). The fitted stone furniture inside included two box beds, possibly one for the man and the other for the woman and their children. The family would have slept on heather or bracken, under blankets of animal skin, and the stone floor would have been made more comfortable with strewn furs and skins.

The Skara Brae families had ornaments and used cosmetics, and each house had the same regulation two-shelf stone dresser, apparently placed to display precious objects to visitors. Stone shelves and cupboards were built into the walls. In the middle of the room was a hearth for burning peat. There are small cells that seem to have been lavatories, with drains, and one of the huts was apparently a workshop….The people of the village kept cows, sheep, and pigs, grew cereal crops in their fields, went hunting, and gathered shellfish. The occasional stranded whale would have been a blessing.  At about 2,500 B.C.E. sand dunes began to encroach on Skara Brae and the settlement was abandoned.

Orderliness, comfort, ornaments, cosmetics, toilets. Fragrant heather mattresses, leather blankets, fur rugs, heat.  Steaks, lamb chops, bacon, oatmeal, oysters. A workshop for weaving things from sheep’s wool or practicing a prehistoric reed instrument.  What more could you want, after you’d grown your crops, hunted, gathered your shellfish and displayed precious objects to visitors?  There was probably also plenty of sex.  I don’t know why the editor of 1001 Historic Sites thinks the man slept in one bed, the woman with the children in the other.  I would have put the man and woman together in one of the two beds, and all the children in the other, where they could giggle and play games in the dark under their leather blankets while their parents disported themselves, quietly, across the spacious main room.

The occasional stranded whale I would pass on. It would also be nice to have a few books to put on those fitted stone shelves.  But I won’t carp.  Even without the books, Skara Brae sounds like a welcome change from electronic devices pinging, telephones ringing and the washing-machine breaking down just when there’s no more clean underwear.  (I bet they didn’t even wear underwear in Orkney five thousand years ago, clean or otherwise.)

All right, so maybe Skara Brae isn’t for permanent relocation.  But a nice vacation?

And then those sand dunes came along 4.500 years ago and ruined everything!  Why do these things always happen to me?

FAIRY TALE

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[Re-blogged from November 24, 2013]

FAIRY TALE

[Spoiler alert:  If you’re extremely proper, this post may trouble you.  It is different. Think of it as back story, and see if that helps. Or you could just skip the bits about sex.]

When I was a little girl in the 1930s, my favorite story was Hansel and Gretel.  I was an only child.  But after my mother had tucked me in and turned out the light, I would close my eyes and not be me anymore.

Alone in the dark I became Gretel, with a brother two years older and much braver than I.  We would live in a rough-hewn cottage deep in the woods — German woods, of course; there were no woods in New York City — and our parents were always away. But my brother would take me by the hand and lead me out of that dark place, where we were hungry and cold, to search for something better.  And no matter how difficult the journey I would feel safe and happy, because I was with him.

I got over wanting to be Gretel when we began to have Current Events in school and I learned that in real life, Hansel would probably wear a Hitler Youth uniform with a swastika on it and shout, “Sig Heil!” —  whereas I would have to wear a yellow armband and die in a camp, after which Hitler would make a lampshade of my skin.

That wasn’t the end of Hansel, though.

He resurfaced in the theater of my imagination three or four years later, Mediterraneanized.  Sometimes he had a name, Greek or Spanish or Italian or gypsy, but mostly he didn’t.  What he had was dark hair and smoldering eyes, plus rage at how things were, clenched fists, and a will to survive.

He had also developed a hard-muscled adolescent body and hungry genitals that were always seeking to escape the worn fabric of his ragged pants whenever he wasn’t being consumed with defiance at the injustices of life.  [He never wore underwear.  We were too poor for him to have any.]

As for his heart, it had long ago hardened and was accessible only to one other in all the world.  But ah, how he loved her — for her goodness, her sweetness, her gentleness. To him, she was beautiful.

And the best part was that she never actually had to do anything to earn his love except be true, which was easy.  Others might look down on him because he was poor and homeless and unlettered, but she knew that he was good [though a brawler], and therefore she trusted him and loved him and [eventually] opened her body to him.  Every night she did this, if I didn’t fall asleep first.

Now, of course, he was no longer her brother. I would make him her half-brother, or step-brother, or cousin. More often, though, they would have met when very young, cast out into the world as human detritus of the war — or of some other huge, unidentified societal calamity — so that they would have lived for years like brother and sister before they became lovers and made up for everything with the pleasure they took in each other’s flesh.

I would lie perfectly still under my clean sheets, blankets and white cotton chenille bedspread from Macy’s, devising on the screen inside my eyelids their meeting and growing up together. The rags they wore, the scraps of food he stole and scrupulously divided with her, the boxcars, abandoned shacks, and shelters for the homeless in which they slept, huddled together under straw — no detail was too insignificant for my careful consideration.

Both cunning auteur and excited audience, I also arranged for them to conceal — at least for the first hour or so — their immeasurably deep feelings for each other, watching breathlessly as she restrained her impulse to smooth back the lock of dark hair falling over his forehead and hid from him her heartache when he returned to her after a street fight with torn bleeding mouth and a fresh cut under his eye.  [Fortunately, both of these always healed without a scar.]

He in turn also had to experience emotions too deep for words. As when, for instance, I had him come upon her unawares as she bent diligently over her needle, patiently repairing, unasked, the rents in his few garments.  In fact, dialogue was generally an unnecessary item in these nocturnal dramas, except to trigger heart-rending, albeit temporary, misunderstandings.  However, for variety I did occasionally permit him to swallow his pride and beseech her, humbly, to teach him to read.

And each night I would need to determine anew whether his frayed pants should unbutton or unzip when it was time for him to release their swollen contents.  On the nights I managed to stay awake until it was time for this delicious decision, the passion then unleashed, after he had deflowered her (as painlessly as possible) left me with pounding heart, gasping, and unable to sleep at all.

Then I went away on full scholarship to a prestigious college for women, where I was invited to mixers and football weekends at Ivy League schools.  And the screen went dark.

********************

One of the perks of getting old is the leisure to reflect.  When I look back now on those fevered nights of my girlhood, what do I make of them?

I still love the sex parts. They’re so creative. Especially as my actual knowledge then derived entirely from what I had read in my mother’s copy of “Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living” and had discovered under the sheets with my finger.  Hands-on experience with a real other person came later. Alas, much later.

I  am surprised that my nights were so dark with calamities. I had never gone hungry or cold.  Safe on the other side of the Atlantic, the war  – World War II — never reached me.  I had heard about it, read about it, adults were always talking about it.  But I cannot say it colored my daily life in any meaningful way.  On the other hand, there were movies, Hollywood war movies — and I loved movies. And there were my immigrant parents, who had known horrors, and who loved me, and who had therefore surrounded me with the clouds of their fear.

I am sad there was never an “I” in my stories.  ”He” and “she”  enjoyed the action, but I could only watch. Even at night, in private, I was never off the leash.  What a creature of the culture I was!  You imbibed it with your mother’s milk: Men didn’t marry spoiled goods.

I am bemused at the notion that goodness and sweetness will get you a man. Or that someone will love you for being “true” — plus mending his garments and knowing how to read.

And why did I think you needed a Y chromosome to put bread on the table?  That was my mother’s model. I was taking Latin and Algebra and Physics and Chemistry in school.  What was that all about if the goal was to sit home and wait to be fed?

I did not grow up to be what you might call a feminist.  But sixty-odd years have certainly put a different spin on things.  Also, you hang around, you learn.

I do admit that the idea of not wearing underwear remains exciting.  Although it may lead to more frequently having to launder your jeans.

FAIRY TALE

Standard

When I was a little girl in the 1930s, my favorite story was Hansel and Gretel.  I was an only child.  But after my mother had tucked me in and turned out the light, I would close my eyes and not be me anymore.

Alone in the dark I became Gretel, with a brother two years older and much braver than I.  We would live in a rough-hewn cottage deep in the woods — German woods, of course; there were no woods in New York City — and our parents were always away. But my brother would take me by the hand and lead me out of that dark place, where we were hungry and cold, to search for something better.  And no matter how difficult the journey I would feel safe and happy, because I was with him.

I got over wanting to be Gretel when we began to have Current Events in school and I learned that in real life, Hansel would probably wear a Hitler Youth uniform with a swastika on it and shout, “Sig Heil!” —  whereas I would have to wear a yellow armband and die in a camp, after which Hitler would make a lampshade of my skin.

That wasn’t the end of Hansel, though.

He resurfaced in the theater of my imagination three or four years later, Mediterraneanized.  Sometimes he had a name, Greek or Spanish or Italian or gypsy, but mostly he didn’t.  What he had was dark hair and smoldering eyes, plus rage at how things were, clenched fists, and a will to survive.

He had also developed a hard-muscled adolescent body and hungry genitals that were always seeking to escape the worn fabric of his ragged pants whenever he wasn’t being consumed with defiance at the injustices of life.  [He never wore underwear.  We were too poor for him to have any.]

As for his heart, it had long ago hardened and was accessible only to one other in all the world.  But ah, how he loved her — for her goodness, her sweetness, her gentleness. To him, she was beautiful.

And the best part was that she never actually had to do anything to earn his love except be true, which was easy.  Others might look down on him because he was poor and homeless and unlettered, but she knew that he was good [though a brawler], and therefore she trusted him and loved him and [eventually] opened her body to him.  Every night she did this, if I didn’t fall asleep first.

Now, of course, he was no longer her brother. I would make him her half-brother, or step-brother, or cousin. More often, though, they would have met when very young, cast out into the world as human detritus of the war — or of some other huge, unidentified societal calamity — so that they would have lived for years like brother and sister before they became lovers and made up for everything with the pleasure they took in each other’s flesh.

I would lie perfectly still under my clean sheets, blankets and white cotton chenille bedspread from Macy’s, devising on the screen inside my eyelids their meeting and growing up together. The rags they wore, the scraps of food he stole and scrupulously divided with her, the boxcars, abandoned shacks, and shelters for the homeless in which they slept, huddled together under straw — no detail was too insignificant for my careful consideration.

Both cunning auteur and excited audience, I also arranged for them to conceal — at least for the first hour or so — their immeasurably deep feelings for each other, watching breathlessly as she restrained her impulse to smooth back the lock of dark hair falling over his forehead and hid from him her heartache when he returned to her after a street fight with torn bleeding mouth and a fresh cut under his eye.  [Fortunately, both of these always healed without a scar.]

He in turn also had to experience emotions too deep for words. As when, for instance, I had him come upon her unawares as she bent diligently over her needle, patiently repairing, unasked, the rents in his few garments.  In fact, dialogue was generally an unnecessary item in these nocturnal dramas, except to trigger heart-rending, albeit temporary, misunderstandings.  However, for variety I did occasionally permit him to swallow his pride and beseech her, humbly, to teach him to read.

And each night I would need to determine anew whether his frayed pants should unbutton or unzip when it was time for him to release their swollen contents.  On the nights I managed to stay awake until it was time for this delicious decision, the passion then unleashed, after he had deflowered her (as painlessly as possible) left me with pounding heart, gasping, and unable to sleep at all.

Then I went away on full scholarship to a prestigious college for women, where I was invited to mixers and football weekends at Ivy League schools.  And the screen went dark.

********************

One of the perks of getting old is the leisure to reflect.  When I look back now on those fevered nights of my girlhood, what do I make of them?

I still love the sex parts. They’re so creative. Especially as my actual knowledge then derived entirely from what I had read in my mother’s copy of “Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living” and had discovered under the sheets with my finger.  Hands-on experience with a real other person came later. Alas, much later.

I  am surprised that my nights were so dark with calamities. I had never gone hungry or cold.  Safe on the other side of the Atlantic, the war  — World War II — never reached me.  I had heard about it, read about it, adults were always talking about it.  But I cannot say it colored my daily life in any meaningful way.  On the other hand, there were movies, Hollywood war movies — and I loved movies. And there were my immigrant parents, who had known horrors, and who loved me, and who had therefore surrounded me with the clouds of their fear.

I am sad there was never an “I” in my stories.  “He” and “she”  enjoyed the action, but I could only watch. Even at night, in private, I was never off the leash.  What a creature of the culture I was!  You imbibed it with your mother’s milk: Men didn’t marry spoiled goods.

I am bemused at the notion that goodness and sweetness will get you a man. Or that someone will love you for being “true” — plus mending his garments and knowing how to read.

And why did I think you needed a Y chromosome to put bread on the table?  That was my mother’s model. I was taking Latin and Algebra and Physics and Chemistry in school.  What was that all about if the goal was to sit home and wait to be fed?

I did not grow up to be what you might call a feminist.  But sixty-odd years have certainly put a different spin on things.  Also, you hang around, you learn.

I do admit that the idea of not wearing underwear remains exciting.  Although it may lead to more frequently having to launder your jeans.