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|The Bliss of Solitude
by Terra Diane Ziporyn
A Dialogue of One
Big soft flakes are falling tonight, and we are watching them lazily gather on the windowsills that overlook the back porch, watching them gather into thick waves that remind me of the wax lips we used to buy at the drugstore on the way home from junior high. We have just tucked Lydia into bed downstairs, no mean feat, since she’s been wildly running up and down the stairs for several hours since the conclusion of her belated fourth birthday party. Last year we made the mistake of inviting fifteen preschoolers from Lydia’s daycare to ravage our sparse living space, but this year we have triumphed: by inviting just three other little girls and serving a pretty baby tea of cookies and cupcakes (and putting off the event until after the holiday season), we have managed not only to keep the apartment relatively tidy but now feel uncharacteristically in control, as if after four years of trial and error we have at last mastered the art of parenting.
Carolyn also has just managed to light a masterful fire, the kind you don’t have to jump up and coax every ten minutes. She picks up her Nadine Gordimer novel from the floor and comes to sit beside me on the two-cushioned sofa, actually a rather rococo love seat covered in an apple green silk brocade. We recently have acquired this piece at a local antique dealer’s after years of admiration and have set it facing the fireplace at the expense of two raggy armchairs that have now been appropriated to the studio downstairs, right outside Lydia’s door, for the impatient family members of our customers. Originally I had intended the loveseat for the studio, aiming to upgrade our atmosphere and thinking that perhaps we might even write it off as a business expense. But Carolyn insisted on for once keeping something nice just for ourselves. She added that the customers felt they were getting a better deal by deluding themselves into thinking that they had found this hole-in-the-wall sweater shop in the midst of one of the country’s most affluent, elite resort areas. They could get charming furniture in just about any inn around, Carolyn argued, but threadbare armchairs were vintage quaint.
Carolyn tucks herself into the far corner of the loveseat and opens her novel to a page she has marked by folding the corner into a little triangle. Within a minute, though, I see her gaze scale the page and move toward the polka dots of snow that are still swirling outside, brushing against the window pane, and floating back up for one last dance before drifting down to whiten the barely visible wooden porch railings. I, too, find myself recurrently mesmerized by the natural grace of this freefall, and I can’t seem to propel myself into the kitchen where I still have dishes left to do.
“I think we only made one mistake today,” I say at last. “With the party I mean.”
She turns to me and lays the Nadine Gordimer flat in her lap. “What? I thought it was a smashing success.”
“It was. Definitely a coup. I just mean that instead of indulging four-year-old girls in bone china serving platters, we should have gone with a consistent paper plate theme. Then I’d be done for the evening.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. There are two or three platters in there at most, and at least this way we can feel we did a little less disservice to the environment. Besides, you know we won’t be using them again for three or four more years, so if they grow a little concrete frosting on them, that’s okay.” She carefully refolds the triangle on the page, closes the cover, and lays the book on the crocheted doily that covers the small Herman Miller table beside the loveseat. “You know what I think we deserve? A glass of wine. You wait here—I’ll get it.”
“I’ve got an even better idea. Let’s have that bottle of champagne left over from New Year’s Eve. We deserve a celebration.”
A few minutes later, Carolyn returns carrying the only two matching glasses in our eclectic yard-sale collection: two thick, stubby white wine goblets bubbling over with the Cordon Negro brut that one of our oldest and most loyal customers presented to us several weeks earlier as a New Year’s present. Both Carolyn and I were feeling too low then to enjoy it, neither of us having had a date in six months and neither of us having had even a party to attend that night. It was the most dismal New Year’s Eve I could remember since high school. We moped over a packaged macaroni and cheese dinner with Lydia, put on our pajamas to watch several inane situation comedies, and all three of us went to bed around ten p.m., relieved to wake up on New Year’s Day and find the ordeal behind us—a dispensation to go on with our normal, albeit unromantic, lives.
“Cheers.” Carolyn is now sitting beside me, tapping her glass to mine. I tap hers in return and swallow most of my champagne in one gulp, wanting that wave of giddy enchantment to wash over me as soon as possible. Carolyn sips her champagne delicately, letting the sweet fizz rest briefly on her tongue before swallowing. Between sips she speaks wistfully of our foolishness on New Year’s Eve and how such delicious champagne would have instantaneously revived what was now a lost evening. It is only when I drain my glass and start bending for the bottle, which Carolyn has placed at our feet, that I notice her leg touching mine. Through my peripheral vision I can see that it juts out almost at a 45-degree angle from her hip, as if she has to exert force to keep it from returning to a more natural position. I shift away from her while I pour another glass for myself but find that within a few seconds, her knee is touching my thigh again.
I have known Carolyn since we were twelve years old, gone to her slumber parties, carpooled with her to ice skating lessons, sat with her in algebra classes, studied with her, gossiped for hours in her parents’ living room, and, of course, lived and worked with her in the same rather small quarters for nearly half a decade, but she has never before touched me, not more than briefly in passing. We never even hugged upon greeting or put our arms around each other in comfort. This action of hers therefore is an entirely different animal; it transforms good old reliable Carolyn immediately into an unpredictable stranger. And it fills me with the same certainty that I have had many times before with men, that certainty that there is no longer any question about intentions but that there is still room to back off without embarrassment. Carolyn, I become convinced, is touching me purposely; she is sending me a signal, and if I don’t get up quickly and pretend to ignore it, one or both of us will have crossed the line barring us eternally from maintaining any semblance of ego, self-respect, or even friendship.
It takes just a glance at Carolyn, however, a sight of her familiar intent face and her chocolate brown eyes, to relax me. Carolyn is Carolyn, I realize, and a leg touching a leg is just a leg touching a leg. My panic is nothing but a vestigial response, appropriate in other contexts but certainly not this one. Clearly Carolyn is as drunk as I am, and she doesn’t notice what she is doing. I am no better than our foul-minded neighbors, who, I have known for a year or two, are vaguely suspicious about Carolyn and me. Now and then the cashier at Shaw’s or the pharmacist will hint broadly, and occasionally a familiar but unnamable group of women gossiping in the deli or in the library will abruptly cut off conversation whenever the two of us walk in together. Once Lydia’s daycare teacher even asked me outright if Carolyn and I were lovers, as if she were afraid of the effect on the other children, and I laughed in her face. The whole idea of it seems beyond comprehension. I just attribute these comments to the narrow minds and narrow lives of rural Vermonters. They are simply suspicious of us the same way they are suspicious of the three middle-aged women we’ve seen who run a farm together and emerge only for church and shopping on Sundays: any female who doesn’t actively seek a man, or at least brave a solitary life, is obviously a deviant. It never seems to dawn on them that there are people like me, who, for the most part, go through month after month without feeling the least bit of desire for anyone, male or female, self or other. I am happy running the business, watching Lydia grow, talking and laughing and planning with Carolyn. Sex rarely enters my mind.
I always assumed that Carolyn knew about these suspicions about us too, but we have never discussed them. I attribute our silence to the tacit but shared conviction that such rumors are ridiculous beyond words; now, as she presses against my leg, I wonder if there may have been more to our silence, at least on Carolyn’s part. And yet, as for me, I am almost certain that there has been no desire aforethought, even unconsciously. Admittedly, hindsight adds weight to past trivialities. And, indeed, in the past I have seen Carolyn emerge from the shower, stand before me ingenuously without clothing or towel, her firmness of form surprisingly drawing my admiring eyes. Her body is compact and, it seems, almost perfect, just the way I wish my body would look when I live for weeks on grapefruit and water and stare at myself nightly in the mirror. Her skin is tight and her limbs lithe, the only curves a slight roundness in the belly and hips, her black pubic hair as neat and puffy as the hair I had seen under her arms the day I met her, when she was too young and unselfconscious to even think of shaving it. Above all, whenever I watch her strut around like that, I feel awed by a relaxation in Carolyn, an implication that she loves her body and feels comfortable in it—the feelings so strong that I realize that her recurrent bouts of bulimia have nothing to do with her body image—and I suspect that even had she been overweight and a bit flabby this relaxation with her physical self would make me admire her just as much.
But never have I translated this admiration into desire. I have always liked looking at female bodies better than male ones, but I never thought there was anything abnormal in it: my college psychology professor had told us about a study that showed both sexes preferred looking at females, males for arousal and females to compare themselves. For as long as I can remember, I always have taken in the bodies of my female associates, both unclothed in the locker room or fully dressed on the street, ruthlessly noting whose thighs are too thick, whose have rolls of fat around their midriffs, whose breasts hang too low or sit too high. When I watch movies, too, I always have found myself eyeing the women more than the men, and I just assume it is part of the same phenomenon: I want to know how I stack up. Men’s bodies in contrast seem gawky, awkward, with a few appealing features like wide shoulders and narrow hips, but most of the time pretty revolting with dangling and disproportionate hair and flesh. Up until now, I have never believed that such thoughts interfered with my heterosexuality. Nor have I thought that gawking at Carolyn’s gleaming wet body means very much either. I certainly don’t think I am attracted to her. I never once felt like flinging my body onto hers the way I once had with Jack. It has always seemed more like aesthetic appreciation, the way you might look at a Rubens or a Titian.
It is truly a surprise then, tonight in front of the fire when she leans a little closer to me than normal, and I experience an unmistakable tingling, a thrilling tickle in my cheeks and chest, and the feeling that I am being rushed down a river with the current. Still, even now I don’t make too much of it; I have felt inappropriate vibrations many times in my life, sitting on some airhead jock’s lap on the way to a high school party; being hugged warmly by a maternal teacher; dreaming about men, women, all sorts of taboo relatives, the thought of whom sexually would make me shudder as soon as I awoke. I have always figured that the sexual part of myself was unconscious and inhuman, triggered by physical forces that I have been taught to master socially, and a rush of attraction here and there meant nothing. It is snowing, there is a fire blazing, Carolyn is warm and slow, and she has brushed against my leg. It is no big deal.
As a college student, meeting avowed homosexuals for the first time, I had occasionally wondered if I had in me the capacity to be one myself. It wasn’t that I felt any sort of attraction to females—beyond the aforementioned pleasure in gazing on their bodies—but neither had I any revulsion to the idea of touching them. But upon reflection it did seem that such intimacy with another female would be impossible for me, if only because it seemed I would never be able to relax enough to truly enjoy myself. I wouldn’t be able to relax because females knew too much; they were too critical. I, for example, could look at a woman that my male friends found stunning, and coldly, or perhaps snottily, calculate that she dyed her hair or painted her cheeks, as they said in the old days. I could lie in bed with Adam and suck in my flabby tummy, and he would think—or at least I could convince myself that he would think—that my flesh was smooth and flat. A woman would never fall for that. She would know just where my flesh stuck out undesirably, just where my eyebrows were uneven, just where my pimples distorted my face. And my awareness of her awareness would kill any possibility of sexual pleasure.
The one encounter I did have with a woman mainly confirmed this suspicion. I was at a fairly small party in college one night where we played a game of Spin the Bottle, the first time I had participated in that game in my life, having missed out on all the infamous junior high parties that I heard girls like Elyse Friedman and Laurie Hanson giggle about in the hall. This game was a more grown-up version, moreover: you were to kiss whomever the bottle pointed to after a spin, regardless of sex. And the kisses soon became more than friendly pecks and moved from long, lingering embraces to full-fledged deep kisses with tongues flitting and saliva mingling. Each pair felt an unspoken need to outdo the previous pair in intensity of kiss, all of course with the implied message that this kiss meant nothing, no attraction, no desire, no sexuality, but was merely a mockery of a silly junior high game that most of us had missed out on due to our childhood brains or social ineptitude. At first I spun only to boys, and it was strange enough feeling forced to lay my lips on theirs, knowing everyone in the darkened room, my friends from the dining hall, the girl from across the landing who talked to me through the shower door about the weather, and a few eager and self-consciously sophisticated strangers, were watching me, my technique and my level of passion, intensely. I had never been an actress, and only the fortification of several beers was allowing me to go through with this. But when at last Carol Creston, the girl from the shower, spun onto me, I felt a sense of panic. Surely she would kiss my cheek, even though I had already seen her heartily embrace several other females. But, of course, she grabbed me across the circle, pulled my mouth to hers, and proceeded to tongue me without the slightest hesitation. I remember expecting to feel nauseated but instead feeling rather content and even proud about the whole business. Proud, but not stimulated. The only thing I could call close to titillation came through the knowledge that this was a forbidden and somehow perverted activity; it thrilled me to think of myself, someone always regarded as serious and straight, participating in what I took to be sophisticated, bohemian, leftist, liberated, and slightly illicit behavior. But I never suspected this feeling to have anything to do with homosexuality. After all, I had felt the same thrill the first time I smoked a joint.
Carolyn watches me refill my champagne glass, swallow another quarter of it, and then pulls away from me briefly only to set her own glass on the side table. Sometime later, how much I’m not really sure because I am still spinning from the alcohol, she takes my free hand and warns me not to get too drunk, removes my glass from the other hand, and, before I can respond, presses her body against mine and merges our lips.
A myriad of thoughts swarm into my skull, and I know that I must quickly choose the ones I care to nurture. For what must only be an instant I notice a surge of shock, horror, even revulsion, but that quickly dissipates and leaves what can only be called a sort of intellectualized surprise: a surprise that her body feels so small and soft, so rich and deep, so suggestive of layers and something inner, and so unlike a man’s hard, obvious grasp. Warm and comfortable, connected, contained, I don’t move, just let her rove her lips over mine, let her run her fingers through my hair, gently massage my scalp. I am so dizzy that the actual fact of her kissing me, kissing me full and long and lustfully, does not seem anything other than a dream, and a rather pleasant one at that. Now and then I hear a vague message to enjoy the moment, and I realize that although I don’t feel any deep compulsion to continue, the warmth and softness keep me from feeling any deep compulsion to stop.
Only when Carolyn starts to run her hands under my sweater, massaging soft little circles around my midriff and around to my back, do I realize exactly what is happening. I let her continue, amazed at the pleasure and baffled at my complete innocence of its possibility. Indeed, as we continue to kiss and cuddle, grope and massage, it strikes me that I not only desire Carolyn. I truly love her. And yet how I could love her violates all my notions about love. I know this woman, almost as well as I know myself. I have seen her engaged in the most unattractive of activities, plucking hairs from between her brows, rolling deodorant under her arms, even sitting on the toilet and shoving a tampon between her legs. My attraction to her cannot be regarded as anything but narcissism, I tell myself, masturbation, a loving of myself, or of what I wish myself to be. She is not a complement to me, the way I saw Jack, the oh-so-different Jack as being, but rather my friend, my confidante, myself. And yet there is no denying that it feels good to be with her, much better, more comfortable and warm and complete, than it has with any man, most particularly Jack, with whom I couldn’t possibly have felt more uncomfortable. As for the other men, and there have only been a few, the only fair way to characterize my reaction would be utter indifference.
Maybe it is narcissism, this feeling toward Carolyn—God knows what the academics have to say about such things—but it works. And it works for Carolyn, too, because for weeks, months, years afterwards we will not only do this again and again, but, even more important, she will smile at me and give me hugs and cook linguini for me and bring me hand-picked violets and ask me what feels good, patiently, slowly, enticingly, just like a lover, and she will do it for years, which no man ever did.