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The Courting of Anatomy


beings have a barrier, a membrane that separates our everyday life from our
sexual life. I call it the sexual membrane. It’s a protective device, enabling
us to function in a day-to-day way during the day, but also, by lifting it
up or pulling it aside, a sexual passionate part of ourselves is also available.
Anne had such a thin membrane it was sometimes hard to tell what side she
was on. Not that she was always thinking about sex, or engaging in sexual
activity, but that to go from the everyday side to the sexual side took very
little effort. Which is the beauty of the membrane: this permeability. It’s
possibility to go back and forth as many times as you want. And although
it’s designed to allow for easy crossing, from one side to the other, sometimes,
when you’re on one side of the membrane, you tend to forget that the other
side exists.

    I was about a half hour outside of Salina, Kansas, and I parked the car in a small gravel area at the side of a county road. I walked through some weeds and crossed over a sagging barbed-wire fence into a sandy opening in the trees near a streambed, with rocks and roots and water flowing past. I settled myself in the sand of this area, and under the sun, fortressed by rocks and brush, that’s where I pulled down my pants and began to try to masturbate. I say try because I wasn’t feeling especially sexy or sexual or turned-on. I just wanted to feel what those things felt like.

    Something in me was definitely willing, at least to try,
to bring into my mind some fantasy, or a series of fantasies, and they came and
went but something else in me was not willing or just not interested.
I walked back to the car, got in, drove back to the main road, and continued
on my westward trail.

    Desirelessness can be a good thing, no doubt about it, but for me desirelessness was not the cessation of desire, it was the loneliness of no desire. Losing Anne was, in my imagination, the same as losing everything. And although I still believed I would find Anne, and still desired to find her, the membrane

have desire you had to get past the craving for outcome.

between me and my desire, I could feel, was thickening. I wanted to puncture the membrane or open the membrane, and to do that, even in my mind, I had to make an effort. And this effort involved focusing on Anne. Which was easy enough, except my thoughts alone weren’t getting me through the membrane. The memories came but not the breaking through.

    I stopped somewhere on the plains of Kansas and got some
gas. A short distance down the road leading back to the interstate, at the edge
of the gas station, two people, a man and a woman, were sitting with a few bags.
I slowed down as I approached, pulling to a stop in front of them.

    They said they were coming from a festival, and from
the way they were dressed — he with the long hair, she with a feather in
her braided hair — you might have guessed the Woodstock festival, or a
Woodstock reunion. They were polite and appreciative, and as they put their canvas
bags in the back seat they said they were going to Boulder, Colorado, which was
where I was going.

    The man, whose name was Fletcher, did most of the talking.
The girl, whose name, appropriately, was Feather, sat in the middle of the back
seat. She had lips like the lips of Brigitte Bardot, and I could see, in the
rearview mirror, that her light brown hair was cut very short in front, so that
it stood up, as in photos I’d seen of Chief Joseph, the last great chieftain
the Nez Perce Indians. Although Feather didn’t talk much, her wide eyes were
full of enthusiasm. Life for her was all about learning and growing, and since
I’d been overlooking those aspects of life, I found her innocence and honesty
attractive. Fletcher was also attractive and honest, and I was glad to have them
in the car.

    During the getting-to-know-you stage I asked them questions
about themselves and it didn’t take much to get them talking about their theory
of love, which was really a theory of desire, according to which, love was just
an echo of desire. “There’s only desire,” Fletcher said, and that’s what they
were after, a state of continual desire in which love would flourish. It wasn’t
pleasure exactly, but like pleasure, it existed for itself. To have desire — and
specifically desire untethered to an object — “You have to get through
all the other stuff, society’s stuff.” You had to get past the craving for outcome.

    The back seat was small, especially with their luggage, but at some point Fletcher climbed in back with Feather and I could see in the rearview mirror that they seemed to be in love. They would have called it something else, but whatever it was, they stayed there in the back seat, nestled in their canvas packs. I would occasionally look back at them and occasionally my eyes met Feather’s, and though she didn’t look like Anne, her eyes reminded me of Anne. They seemed to be saying, “Remember this? Remember desire, existing without cause or reason?” They seemed to be trying to show me how thin the veil was between the desire side and the other side, not talking, but in a way urging me to break through to that side, giving me a pretty clear invitation to cross the boundary to what I wanted to imagine, and the only problem was, I was driving the car. Instead of watching them, I turned my attention to the fence posts that were racing past the highway.

    We drove across the flat expanse of prairie, watching
the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains coming into view. As were drove
through Denver and up to the town of Boulder, I told them a version of my story,
and they seemed optimistic about the probability of finding my wife. If desire,
physical desire, was in me, and if I could access it, they practically guaranteed
I would do what needed to be done. Both of them, they said, could see a little
bit into the future. Fletcher said, “You can tap into the other world,” and they
both nodded as if they were acquainted with that other world.

    When we pulled into Boulder I found a pay phone and called
the number Linda had written on the piece of paper. The British fellow answered,
and he gave me directions to a house in the foothills outside of Boulder. My
two companions didn’t seem to have a place to stay, so I invited them to come
with me. They accepted the invitation and we drove up several roads to a mailbox
in front of a driveway. A man with dreadlocks pointed out where we could pitch
a tent — they had a tent — and when we found a nice flat spot on
the pine needles, that’s what we did.

    Other people were camping on the property around this
house but they were barely visible through the trees. We laid our sleeping bags
in the tent, which was probably a two-person tent, but they didn’t mind and I
didn’t either. Not only did I have my sleeping bag, now I had — it wasn’t
a teepee but I thought of it as a teepee — the sense of being a Indian.
Light came in from the top of the tent, and also from the walls, which were made
of this green nylon. Since there was going to be a gathering that evening Feather
and Fletcher decided to walk up to the center of where that gathering would
be. I lay back on my unfurled sleeping bag, watching the sky pass by over my
head and listening to the generalized hum of voices preparing for the party.

    That night, I stood with my cup of punch, a little away
from the main group physically, yet feeling oddly connected to the general hubbub.
I stayed there awhile and then I walked back to the tent. Feather and Fletcher
tent, sitting cross-legged on the sleeping bags, their hands on each other’s
They invited
me in
me about the LSD in the punch. Which didn’t matter to me. I sat down, also cross-legged,
creating a triangle inside the tent, and we didn’t

felt the stirring of desire, but every time I tried acting
on it, then the desire faded.

speak. The party voices were audible in the distance.

    Fletcher turned toward Feather and looked at her. And
then he looked at me. I looked at him and she looked at me, and we were all looking
at each other in a way that made it unclear who was looking at whom.
Either way, there was a lot of looking going on. And at some point Fletcher slid
across the sleeping bags, and with his fingertips, he began touching the base
of my neck, pressing against my spine and spiraling his fingers down the bones
of my back.

    In the car, when they’d talked about sexuality, they’d talked about a desire that transcended mental and emotional and even physical accoutrements. They’d talked about the possibility of reaching the place of untainted desire, and now it seemed they were practicing it.

    As Fletcher continued kneading my back I was facing Feather,
who was sitting very still, looking at me, letting me look at her, and something
in her look, or the permission in her look, let me change her, or try to change
her, into something else. And it wasn’t that Feather became Anne, or that the
bones in her wrist and the hairs on her arm became Anne’s bones and Anne’s hairs,
but because I wanted Anne, even though she was Feather, I was feeling the excitement
of being with Anne.

    That’s when Fletcher left the tent. He nodded to me as
if he were giving me something, giving me an experience or a wish, or giving
Feather. He seemed aware of what was happening. He said, “If that’s what you
want,” and what he was doing by saying “If that’s what you want” was stepping
aside. I don’t imagine it was easy for him, but he was trying, I think bravely,
to live the principles he advocated. Then he left the tent.

    When he was gone Feather turned so that she was facing me directly. When she’d adjusted her position so that she was sitting close enough to reach out, she did. Our eyes were fixed on each other and she reached out, took my hand, and placed it on her heart. It wasn’t exactly her heart because it was higher than her actual heart and more toward the edge of her chest, so that beneath the material of her shirt — between my hand and her heart — I could feel the outline of her breast. She was saying, “Feel my heart.” And although that was something Anne would never say, I wanted to feel the heart, and feel the person, or radiance even, emanating from that heart.

    Because in my mind it was partially Anne’s heart, it was also Anne’s breast, and I felt something stirring. I felt the stirring of desire, but every time I tried — or thought about — acting on this desire, I though of Anne, and then the desire faded. And Feather seemed to understand this. It didn’t seem to be a problem for her. I was all part of weeding out impurities. She was willing to accept whatever my so-called impurities might be, without judgment. And because human experience is full of complexity it’s possible to have simultaneously conflicting impulses.

   Which I did.

    All the time I was thinking this my hand was shivering.

    “It’s just a breast,” she said.

    “I’m fine,” I said.

    And something about my saying that brought my attention back to my hand, feeling the heat from her body, the softness of the flesh, and the structural framework of the body beneath that flesh.

    But I didn’t cross to the other side. She’s there, I
thought, on one side and I’m on the other side. And yes, I could have gone over
and joined her except for the membrane. The thing about the sexual membrane is,
once you’re on one side, the other side seems very far away.

    We sat like that for what seemed like a long time, and although I was looking into her eyes and she was looking into mine, what our eyes were saying were different things. I didn’t know about my eyes, but her eyes were saying, “You almost made it. Almost, but not quite.”

    Feather, still looking into my eyes, raised a finger and tapped me on my chest, gently pressing her finger into my breastbone. I felt the sensation passing through my skin and through my breastbone, and I didn’t think I’d asked any question but, as if answering a question, she took my hand and led me along a path in the pine trees to a Volkswagen van parked on a dirt road in the middle of a clearing. Fletcher was already in the van, the door open, eating rice from a bowl, using chopsticks. The whole back of the van was a

was now massaging her neck and her legs and everything between.

platform with a foam pad and sheets, and when
Feather and Fletcher began taking off their clothes, I assumed that they
would want to be together when whatever was going to happen started happening.
Which was fine with me. And when it did start to happen — first some
light touching of feet, then rubbing of feet and ankles and lower legs—I
was ready to go. As I started to squeeze past Feather she took my hand
and placed it on Fletcher’s foot. She grabbed his other foot herself and
together we started rubbing. I imitated her massaging style, using my fingers
and the knuckles of my fingers to dig as deeply as I could into the emotion-filled
muscles and fascia of the ball of his foot. I could hear raindrops hitting
the roof of the van when Fletcher sat up, took me by the shoulders, and
positioned me so that I found myself straddling Feather, who was lying
on her stomach. My hands were kneading her large gluteus muscles and Fletcher
was behind me, rubbing my back through my shirt. I still had my clothes
on, unlike Feather, who turned over, so that I was now massaging her neck
and her legs and everything between.

    The whole interweaving dance had a mind of its own, and
it continued until, at a certain point, Fletcher was massaging Fletcher’s back,
and the only person not massaging was me, flat on my stomach, face tilted to
one side, eyes closed, feeling the skin of my neck and back and buttocks exposed
in the air. I could feel my belt being unbuckled and I knew that hands were
touching me but I couldn’t tell whose hands they were. And when I heard the metal
of the van swing open I couldn’t tell who left or who came until I heard Fletcher’s
voice asking me to turn over. And when I did I could see that Feather was gone.
I could see that I was aroused, and I could feel it, but I was too relaxed
or too lost in experience to do anything but notice.

    One aspect of the sexual membrane is that once you’re on the sexual side, you don’t really care what happens next. In a sense I’d gone to a movie, and I was watching the movie, and at some point — I didn’t know when — the movie became a different movie, and by the end of the movie I was enjoying whatever movie I was watching, and had forgotten a switch had occurred.

    And as Fletcher continued massaging, the distinction
between sexual organ and other organs — skin, say, or brain — disappeared,
and in the middle of that disappearance I experienced something. I wouldn’t call
it cataclysmic, because it was effortless and sudden, and while I and my body
were experiencing all the physiological things that happened in the aftermath
of that, Fletcher unrolled some toilet paper. Even wiping my stomach was a kind
of massage, and it wasn’t absolutely clear if clean-shaven Fletcher, his hair
tied out of his face, was being sexual. There was no sign of that. It was only
clear that he was attempting to be kind, and for me, at the receiving end, there
wasn’t any difference between attempting to be kind and being kind itself.

    Of course when it was all over I went back to the other side of the membrane, the nonsexual side. Fletcher became no longer a pair of practiced hands dancing the dance of pleasure; now he was a stringy-haired hippie manqué, and while I still liked him, as a human being, I didn’t want to be with him. So I decided to take a walk.

    There was a trail that led up from the van into the hills
and I walked on that trail up the hill until I came to a wooden ladder over what
might have been an electric fence. I stepped over that, walked out into a field,
and in the middle of this field I came to the proverbial two roads diverging.
Actually they were two trails diverging, an unused fire road and a smaller trail
worn into the hillside grass.

    Normally it wouldn’t have been a question. I would have just picked a trail and kept walking. But I’d been thinking about desire and the twin poles that comprised desire: want and need. There was moment-to-moment craving on the side on the one hand, and on the other, something that led to long-term satisfaction and fulfillment. Like everyone else, I believed I wanted satisfaction and fulfillment, so I stood at this junction, looking at the two roads, one less traveled than the other, and I knew it wasn’t just the two roads, it was the meaning of the two roads. I somehow imagined that my choice would determine, not only where I went, but by virtue of that choice, what my world would be. It wasn’t that one road was Anne and one road was Feather; both roads were going in the same direction. It was merely a question of knowing what it was I needed, and based on that, where I needed to go.  

Excerpted from AMERICAN PURGATORIO by John Haskell, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2005 by John Haskell. All rights reserved.

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©2005 John Haskell and
John Haskell is the author of a short-story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock(FSG, 2003). His work has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, Conjunctions, The Believer, and Ploughshares. He is a contributor to the radio show The Next Big Thing. He lives in Brooklyn.