This happened years before I married, years before I even met Sandy, my wife. I was teaching a workshop in memoir at the local library. An elderly woman I’ll call Z enrolled. She was working on a remarkable story about the early years of her married life. Her husband was a noted professor of art history at Tulane University. They had three children, all under the age of ten. They were talking about a fourth. They lived uptown in the Garden District close by Audubon Park, where she used to take the children and their two pet whippets. She’d unleash the whippets and they’d rocket away as if fired from cannons and disappear, it seemed, over the horizon, and then seconds later reappear, only to start the same loops again and again and again. Sometimes people stopped to marvel at their speed, their grace, and the distance they managed to cover in a blink. The children—the two older ones—played with each other, indifferent to the dogs. The younger one slept in the stroller. I told Z that this was a perfect metaphor. She said for what? And I said she’d have to keep writing to figure that out.
Then a famous art critic named Walter Burch appeared at the university. He began a series of lectures on Art Since 1945 that later became quite famous in their own right. Burch championed some of the most difficult of his contemporaries, obscure abstract expressionists, pop artists, minimalists, conceptualists. An anointing by Burch translated to sales in the millions, while the artists were still alive. He became enormously influential. He was interested most particularly in work existing right at the intersection of sex and politics, an intersection he discerned in nearly everything. Z attended the lecture series and fell instantly in love. At receptions following the lectures, Burch noticed her fixation and soon they were launched into an affair that, by Z’s account, made her a terrible mother, a worse wife, but a great, even a phenomenal lover. She wrote, “Every time I lied to my husband—and I lied a lot, every day I lied—and got on a plane to join my lover, I felt like I was flying off to meet myself.”
But those were the good times, the carefree times. The conflict began almost two decades later. Burch died, and one of his famous friends wrote a play about the secret affair he’d carried on with Z. Once it opened, there was no mistaking who the “mistress” was. Z’s telephone rang before the final curtain came down. Her life was upended. Her husband left her, her children didn’t speak to her for years. The play was made into a movie. The movie did well, it received awards. Z attended ceremonies where she was treated as a celebrity.
Now, in my class, she was nearing her 85th birthday, wrinkled, hunched over a walking stick. She didn’t hear well. Her hair was falling out by the tuft. But she still took great care in coming into our sessions well-groomed. She had lovely suits made of fine fabrics that I expected ladies of her generation wore quite casually, but in the current time seemed not only old-fashioned but bizarre. Some of their materials you might expect to find on upholstery. Her writing had candor, and fever. Everyone in the workshop responded to it with great enthusiasm. We encouraged Z to push further and further into the experience, to go deeper into the sex. She wrote of passionate nights in strange cities—Buffalo, Milwaukee, Portland. Burch often lectured in these godforsaken towns and he’d call her from them unable to sleep at two in the morning. If she didn’t come, there would be wild fights, then fervid reconciliations. Once, after hitting her, he’d sent her a Rothko, she wrote, one that the artist had given him. She kept it in storage for nine years—how could she explain a Rothko to her husband?—until the divorce was final. We were, all of us, dazzled. She basked in our praises—her eyes pooled and she left each session glowing. But she wasn’t quite sure she trusted our encomia completely. Something, she insisted, something essential was missing from the manuscript.
One day, I received a letter from her.
Dear Professor X,
This may seem presumptuous at best, and I acknowledge at the outset that the request I am about to make is, well, outrageous. But here is what I propose: It would mean so much to me if, before I die—and you and I know that even best-case scenario that can’t be terribly far away—I finish this book that I’m working on in your class, and that you’ve been so kind to compliment and encourage. In other classes before yours, I’d always felt that the encouragement was perfunctory—oh, let’s just make an old broad happy. But yours, it’s so specific, it gets what’s truly at the heart of the manuscript, and that means what’s truly at the heart of me. And here comes the outrageous part: there’s only one thing I can’t fully capture in the writing without a boost from some present activity, and the chance of getting any present activity (which I’ll define in a moment) is slim to nil. That’s why I’m just going to come out with it and be blunt: I must have some moderate contact with a penis, for a week, maybe two. It will sound crude, I know, but I feel honestly that that’s the only way I’ll get the juices flowing around that important part of the book. I think you know this, too. And that’s why I need to at least try to make this outrageous proposal, because I’d like that penis to be yours.
However you want to do it. Quick, your pants around your ankles, your shoes don’t even have to come off. Me on my knees between your knees. If you like more elaborate, we can go more elaborate. A drink, a bottle of wine, music. You can stay, perhaps, for the length of a Bruckner Symphony. We can face the television. If it helps, we can screen pornography, the hardest, basest, most repugnant sort. Or you can watch reruns of Gidget, whatever gets you off. All I ask is that you grant me access to your penis, and that you allow me to bring it to climax—in me, on me, any part of me, but to climax. One week at least, several times. Two at most.
I can’t pay you—and, honestly, I wouldn’t think of doing so, but I will reward you, should the book ever materialize. How I’m not certain. But the immediate reward will be in your firm knowledge of having provided an old woman with a last bit of excitement on this earth, excitement I believe I deserve—we all deserve—and which I’m certain you can provide, if you have a will.
What surprised me even more than the proposal was my reaction to the proposal. I had actually thickened, and I could feel in my boxers the dewy presence of some pre-ejaculate. What, I wonder, would anyone think of me, especially the other students, if they knew I followed through, that I availed myself of this outlet, and that I did so for the full two weeks and then some? Well, actually, I don’t wonder, or wonder much. I can’t imagine too many people would find my decision too commendable, too virtuous, but nevertheless … I’m sure stranger things have happened.
We decided that I’d visit her, that I’d come over in the late afternoon—tea time—and that before or after she might provide a snack of some sort with coffee or sherry. Her building was suitably baroque, as was her concierge, with epaulettes that could sweep a sidewalk and enough braiding to dressage a horse (if such a verb exists). I was taken up in an elevator manned by an equally baroque footman who slid the gate and brought the elevator floor plumb level with her floor without any discernible effort.
Inside, we enjoyed the late afternoon light—no other illumination, that would have been unkind, and quite possible detumescing. She thanked me for coming, I took a central location on an enormous sofa trimmed with cherry wood and covered in ornate pillows. It could have fit in a room at Versailles, I imagined. As could her perfume, a pronounced yet elusive fragrance that still causes me to shiver. We kept her brassiere on and fastened and so for a view, a late afternoon view with only natural light, I had the thinning hair of an mid-octogenarian arranged in such a way as to camouflage most of the scalp exposure, the bony clavicles, and the black straps of what might have been a sexy bit of business on a woman fifty years younger. But good enough. I sat back and on the wall across from me hung that gifted Rothko, maroon and dark brown, something in the three-feet-by-five-feet size range. One similar had only recently sold for over $80M. I thought, well, if you can’t climax to a Rothko, what then?
I was a fan of the author Henry Miller, whose crude and hilarious musings on sex had once likened the sensation of the mid-coitus penis to a dolphin on the oyster banks. A dolphin on the oyster banks. Dwell on that for a moment: the shape, the thin marine lamination of slime that covers all creatures of the sea, the soft yielding and soaked contours of the oyster, and the sporting playful exuberance of the dolphin, cushioning into all that yielding wet tissue, tissue sort of alive, sort of stimulated to massage. This is what I thought looking up into the fathoms of that maroon Rothko while spelunking the caverns of Z's mouth and tonsils and throat. I say spelunking, but that’s inaccurate really, it assigns the activity to me, whereas for all intents and purposes it was Z, acting out of some primordial muscle memory, some chthonic longing deep-buried in her cells, and she moaned, and she hummed, and she throated and licked and purred and coaxed until she sampled the first jolt of what she claimed she needed to finish her project. And she remained remarkably glued to my dolphin, if you will, until its tumescence had thoroughly subsided and its fluids thoroughly drained. We remained like that for another good fifteen or twenty minutes, the sonatas of Scarlatti performed by some keyboard expert tinkling divinely in the background. She looked up, finally, her eyes glistening with tears.
“Have you ever seen a woman cry when she comes?” she said.
And I said, “You came?”
She nodded almost comically solemnly. She said, “When you come, I come.”
I said something like, “Extraordinary.”
“Burch used to say that physiologically I was the most perfectly designed woman in the world.”
I said, “That has to be in your book.”
She said, “It will be now.”
I excused myself, washed up a bit, looked at myself in the mirror. What did I make of me doing this, I wondered, because honestly, it felt like it was happening to someone else’s body—the pleasurable lightness of my loins notwithstanding.
And that’s what it was like for the next couple of weeks. More or less every other day, a walk through the park, a tip of the hat to the doorman, a rendezvous upstairs, a little Scarlatti keyboard or a Ravel trio, and I was off. And I became better company in the aftermath of these visits. Freer, less determined to do what I was supposed to do, and more relaxed about following the impulse of the moment.
On several occasions I caught an early screening of a film. Double Indemnity was one, Wings of Desire another. No theme, no plan, no pressure.
I ate dinner alone at tables in the window, or tables outdoors, enjoying the food and the parade of citizens going about their rigid structures. What, I wondered, would any of them think if they had even the slightest idea of what I was doing?
In the midst of this, we had two meetings of the workshop. Z was the model of discretion, not an iota of betrayal of our intimacies. And the work—she produced new material for each session—the work was met with resounding approval. After the second session the students insisted on taking her for drinks, they needed to know how she’d arrived at what they experienced as the memoir’s key, its carnal spirituality, one called it, the tone that opened up the entire experience in such a way that she—the narrator—was transformed from being either an ogre to her husband and children or a victim of her paramour to being instead the embodiment of sensual agency.
“I want to be this woman,” several of the females in the workshop had said. “I mean, the way she just owns desire, amazing.”
And then, of course, Z died.
I appeared for what I was going to tell her would be our final assignation. The concierge with the epaulettes informed me with pools in his eyes of her passing earlier that day. Family, he said, was still upstairs. Did I want to go up, he’d ring them.
The manuscript, of course, disappeared, despite its appearance in her will. She’d left it to me, and her daughters and son, each in their mid-to-late sixties, apologized profusely. Could they offer me something else from the estate to compensate?
I said, “Well, I wonder if she owned anything by Rothko.”
They exchanged looks nervously, then laughed, relieved, it appeared, at hearing only a preposterous request. Their attorney, god bless him, was less amused.
He said, “That is, of course, an outrageous proposal.”
I said, “Of course, one has to try.”
I left the rest to them.
Several weeks later I received a small package with a note from the youngest daughter. “Our mother,” she wrote, “spoke very fondly of you. We thought you should have something.”
I unwrapped the package carefully. It was about the size of a composition tablet. I snipped the cord and unfolded the wrapping paper. Deep inside, very well protected indeed, was a framed photograph covered with glass. It was a black and white portrait of a pair of whippets seated in front of the fireplace in a tony Garden District home. Sandy, my wife, asked me about its significance. It had none, I told her, just a gift left behind by an old friend.
Photo courtesy of Katie Bernotsky.