Apart From Sex

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"I seduced a deep submissive away from an extreme dominant,” a man leaned over and said to Elaine. Well, how do you respond to that? Job well done? She was in a café. The man was at the next table, wearing green hospital scrubs that strained against his belly and thighs. A short, dark beard sprouted on his cheeks. His ears were oddly pointy. Was he really a doctor? Maybe she’d misheard.


    Elaine asked what he’d said, and he repeated his accomplishment, his eyebrows rising expectantly. Kinkiness, Elaine supposed, had become so ordinary and everywhere it was like talking about stock fraud. Still, she felt a stirring. She was having a dry spell, which had turned the absence of sex into a sleepwalking shadow that made her move toward heat in an indiscriminate way.
    Her friend May arrived, hair tousled and eyes puffy. She was wearing a white angora sweater and a pleated plaid miniskirt, beneath which shapely legs tapered into black flats. The outfit suggested Japanese schoolgirl porn, but Elaine thought May had absently thrown it together after racing out of bed with Sammy. Sammy had been Elaine’s friend first. He possessed the kind of beauty — sultry and carved — some men found burdensome. When Elaine was near him, she imagined lying against his skin. She didn’t tell anyone.
    “See that guy?” she tilted her head at Scrubs. He was eyeing an Asian beauty eating at another table. The woman’s body jerked in response to something he said that Elaine couldn’t hear.

“The clit is as outside the body as the cock,” Elaine argued. “And as far as inside/outside goes, lots of guys like to come with a finger in their ass.”

    May shifted around to look.
    “Am I giving off a vibe that invites nuts to talk to me?”
    May waved the idea away. “He was flirting with you, sharing a nice little moment in his day.” She cupped her face in her hands. “And what did you offer in return?”
    “I said I’d cleaned out my bathtub drain.”
    Scrubs began building a fortress of sugar cubes and muttering to himself, as if casting a spell. A waiter arrived at the women’s table smelling of Chanel No. 5. Rail thin, he wore lipstick and eye makeup, a pageboy wig and a short skirt. He could have posed with May for a Japanese calendar. Elaine ordered cappuccino.
    “Skim or whole milk?”
    “Whole,” Elaine said, picturing the blow hole on the top a whale’s head.
    May ordered an espresso and a Napoleon. “I had a multiple orgasm last night.”
    “Mazel tov,” the waiter said and took off.
    Elaine was used to May’s drive-by confessions. It was her way of relaxing people’s backs, allowing them to lean over and return to the posture where their noses were level with other people’s tails. Humans, Elaine thought, had stood up too fast, before their haunches had developed sufficient mass to support them. They still longed for the old tastes and smells.
    “What did it feel like?” she asked, more out of friendship than curiosity.
    May smiled. One of her eyeteeth jutted out. “You come and come and as the contractions slow, your partner keeps stroking you, gently, so you can tolerate it. You come a whole other time, and it can go on and on. You can do it to yourself. It’s easy. The instructions should be posted on cereal boxes.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Men can have only one orgasm at a time. They don’t feel things inside the way women do.”
    “One guy I knew did Tantric exercises, and he said he felt energy raying out of his stomach and thighs,” Elaine argued. “The clit is as outside the body as the cock, and as far as inside/outside goes, lots of guys like to come with a finger in their ass. I knew a man who could come and a few minutes later come again. That’s pretty close to a multiple orgasm. Closer than I’ve ever gotten, anyway.”
    “Well, you could have them if you tried. You’re just stubborn.”
    Elaine supposed she was, but the matter was conceptual, like the hole in Wales where sex collected when ships passed in the night. The waiter placed May’s Napoleon before her, and at that moment Asia left her table and joined Scrubs.
    Elaine had read a book by a physicist who said that matter was always interacting and that there really were no coincidences if we could understand the connections. Particles were escaping from black holes, and there was Scrubs flicking his tongue over Asia’s lips. She was wearing spike heels, and her nails and lipstick were fire-engine red. She rooted around in his beard making a sound like a faraway beaver in trash. He pulled her onto his lap, grabbed the hair at the back of her neck, and held a sugar cube in front of her mouth. Her lips opened like a security gate.
    May’s back was to the couple, and no one else seemed to care. Their dance cards were full. They were listening to whales speaking across the seas. “When are you coming back?” Elaine imagined them asking.

The absence of sex wiped out a person’s hard drive. You had no history. You were hungry all the time. You would follow strangers and shiny objects. You became a camera.

    May dismantled her Napoleon. She was afraid of food. “I’m happy. Who is ever happy?”
    “In our species.”
    Elaine didn’t answer.
    “I’m writing a monologue,” May said, “about making porno films with this feminist production company in Australia. They were aiming for warmth and connection but wound up embracing hardcore. Warmth was sickening.”     A tall woman swept in as if to jagged strains by Stockhausen. Sun streamed through the windows and glinted on the white tile floor, but the woman ushered in German Expressionist gloom. Her hair was dark and pulled severely off her forehead. She was wearing a dog collar, one stud of which was outfitted with a Webcam. Elaine had seen these accessories at Barneys.
    Dog Collar sat in Asia’s chair and nibbled a roll left on the table. She balled it into an angry blob and stared at Asia, as if across the Bering Strait. Elaine wondered what the camera was shooting and who was looking at the broadcast. She felt the way monks did in medieval monasteries when they looked at the sky and imagined being watched. Asia ran her nails through the chest hair poking out of Scrubs’ shirt, and Elaine felt excited and hopeless, the emotions blending into an itchy fuzz.
    May licked her finger. “In Australia, I thought I’d go to art school and wind up in the suburbs. Remember the suburbs before they leaked back into the cities? Did we only imagine there was a beginning and end to things then? Maybe the edges of things look more blurred as our vision sharpens.”
    Elaine didn’t think it was age. She thought it was sex. Sex got you to do things that would ordinarily cause food poisoning. The absence of sex, conversely, wiped out a person’s hard drive. You had no history. You were hungry all the time. You would follow strangers and shiny objects. You became a camera.
    “Sammy can’t love women,” May said. “He idolizes men.”
    “Men are so pretty. They’re hard to resist.”
    Elaine watched Scrubs withdraw a messy wad of bills from his pocket and give the money to Asia. She straightened her skirt and sauntered over to Dog Collar, laying the cash on the table. Dog Collar’s lips trembled. She sat up taller and began to inflate, and for a moment it looked like she would do something violent. Elaine wanted a scene of surreal clarity. She wanted to hear the strange language of whales. Dog Collar pocketed the money, pulled herself out of her chair, and skulked to the pastry window, where cakes sat on glass shelves, each with a different dare: blueberry, chocolate mousse, whipped cream.
    “I need to tell you something you’re not going to like,” May said.

“With two men,” May said, “I don’t have to worry about showing either of them how much I want only one.”

    Elaine has heard this line many times. She and May had been friends since the late 1980s when May had come to New York. They’d met waiting tables at a jazz club on Avenue A, and when May had started performing Elaine had directed her shows. In time, May had helped her career, too. Actors wanted to work with her. The women often functioned as a team, but they also measured themselves against each other, each wanting to fly ahead and win, even if only by a nose. Whenever May cooked up a plan she feared that Elaine would find selfish, she began with her warning. Each time Elaine responded, as she did now, “Then why tell me?”
    “You’re involved.”
    May inhaled and let the air out slowly. “I’m having an affair.”
    “Gosh, doesn’t everyone on the planet know about you and Sammy?”
    “It’s not Sammy . . . well it is, but he’s not the news.” She looked down at her hands. “It’s Jack.”
    “Jack”! Elaine felt slapped, though she wasn’t sure by whom. She and Jack were only friends, but she’d begun to feel an opening. He had broad cheekbones and a sensual mouth. Sitting next to him at a bar, his face close enough so she could smell scotch on his breath and feel the pleasant weight of his arm on her shoulder, she’d imagined them on a jetty with seafoam in the air. Jack and Sammy were best friends. Several times a month the four of them assembled at May’s loft, where she videotaped them talking. Sammy cooked.
    “It just started. No one knows but you, and I didn’t tell Jack I was telling you.”
    “I thought you were in love with Sammy . . . all the sex.”
    “You’re having sex with both of them.”
    “Yes. It’s good. Different but good. I’m developing a taste for Jack’s imperfections. The downward tug of his flesh meshes with his downward view of history. Sammy takes up too much space inside me because he isn’t really there. With two men, I don’t have to worry about showing either of them how much I want only one.”
    Elaine grasped the logic, but May was wrong about men. They did feel things inside, and it wouldn’t take long for this mixture to explode. Sammy would be hurt, despite the pain he’d caused women in the past. May would have to chose. Maybe she’d pick Jack, and maybe Jack wouldn’t want her to himself. Maybe Jack was attracted to the threesome. The combinations hurt her head.
    Lately, Elaine had come to think she’d invested too much meaning in sex. There was so much else to care about. During the time May had been with Sammy, Elaine had been rehearsing for a play, looking for ways to make money, demonstrating against the government’s indecent wars, trying to tire herself with exercise in hopes of falling asleep. She’d begun waking up at night, shouting out, “Not yet” and “Don’t forget.” But the world kept entering her through her senses. She felt envious and confused. Why was May drawing all the men and she none? What arrangement of particles was responsible?
    Elaine sipped her cappuccino. Asia returned to Scrubs. Asia faced Elaine, her eyes at half-mast, her lipstick smeared, and for moment Elaine could taste the world of chaos and dreams. Asia slipped off her chair and slid under the table and knelt there, unconcerned about running her stockings or getting crumbs on her skirt. Dog Collar paced back and forth, her camera blazing.

“Maybe women become men if they go without sex for a long enough time. Doesn’t that happen to some fish?”

    Elaine imagined Dog Collar’s life with Asia before Scrubs appeared on the scene. The women had taken martial arts classes together and picked raspberries on their upstate farm. They’d made jam and packed it in jars. Their long-haired dachshund was named Nell. They gave each other multiple orgasms and frequented a sex club in the Meatpacking district. That’s where they’d met Scrubs. He’d spanked Asia in a way she liked, and his smell had mixed with chemicals in her brain.
    “I like having orgasms one at a time,” Elaine said, defiantly. She was angry at May, even though May had never before been this irresistible. And what about Jack? How did screwing his best friend’s girlfriend square with his vaunted ethics? Maybe he’d convince himself he was better for her than Sammy, that he wouldn’t abandon her, not knowing, as Elaine did, that the impenetrability of Sammy was what gave May her big orgasms.
    “Like a man,” May said, looking relieved the conversation had moved away from her.
    “Maybe women become men if they go without sex for a long enough time. Doesn’t that happen to some fish?”
    “I think the male fish have babies if there are no females around.”
    “What happens to the females?”
    “They get tired of waiting for the males to feel something.” May ate a piece of icing. “We consume the people we love.”
    Elaine flashed to an image of Jonah inside the whale, and then she saw herself, Jack, and Sammy in the belly of May.
    The waiter placed a latte in front of Scrubs, and Asia remained curled under the table. Scrubs withdrew a mirror from his bag and worked a nail between his front teeth, trying to dislodge a poppy seed. As he flicked he made a braying sound, and Dog Collar saw an opening. She marched forward. Asia peeked out from under the table and sniffed the air. She rose, brushed herself off, and her tongue met the other woman’s mouth just as it arrived in front of her.
     “I don’t want to hurt Sammy,” May said.
     “Yes, you do. Trample people if you have to, but at least don’t lie.”
    Color drained from May’s face. The women hardly ever fought.
    “Look,” Elaine whispered, “sex hurts if you have it and hurts if you don’t. It hurts if it’s perfect. It hurts if you want more. It hurts if it’s where you’re most open or where you’re most a fraud. Not to mention the fact that Sammy has been a bastard to women. Maybe you want to show him that men aren’t the only pricks. Have you thought about the look on his face when he finds out about Jack?”

There had been periods in her life when sex and love had come together without destroying any friendships, but those times seemed far in the past.

    May looked like a little girl, her forehead wrinkling and her bottom lip sticking out—but that was how she looked at her most tyrannical, too. “Sammy may not be as torn apart as you think. He may find it exciting. Men like screwing the same woman. It’s a way they bond without having to worry they’re gay. Sammy doesn’t want to fulfill my needs.” She looked at the ceiling.
    “I think he loves you. Maybe Jack loves you, too. Maybe the world is in love with you.”
    “But not you.”
    “Jeez, May, is all this about testing our friendship?” She looked at May, and May’s eyes darted away. “No, I can see you didn’t give me a thought. All you were thinking about was giving me the blow by blow.”     May pushed her plate away. “We always trade stories.”
    “So you can chop them up and put them in your monologues.”
    “You sound like you hate me.”
    “I do, sometimes.”
    “I’m sorry you’re in pain, but I’m not the cause, and if it’s any consolation, we’ll trade places soon enough, like we always do.”
    “I’ll never be the one juggling Sammy and Jack! That’s ridiculous!”
    “You never know. Who ever dreamed I’d be in this position?”
    “You did.”
    “So have you. Admit it, Elaine. It won’t bite you.”
    Elaine didn’t know what she wanted. All the options looked reckless or desolate. There had been periods in her life when sex and love had come together without destroying any friendships, but those times seemed far in the past, and she couldn’t remember their taste.
    “Are you going to leave me?”
    Elaine wanted to make May suffer, but when she saw her effect — a coating of sweat on May’s upper lip and May clutching her hands and looking confused and helpless — Elaine said, “Where would I go?”
    She was wondering, really, where she might escape to. She wanted her friends to sort out their bodies without her. Then she saw they were already doing that. She was on the sidelines. She felt dead, but she didn’t want to force a change. She would move from liquid to solid or from human to animal by some process other than will, and in the meantime she’d be a camera. It wasn’t May’s fault that two men wanted her at the same time and that one of the men—well both, actually, if Elaine was honest — were objects of her own desire. These things happened in Shakespeare comedies all the time — beautiful women, too, were in thrall to asses, imagining them demon lovers—and no one finished bloody. What made them comedies, she supposed, was that the characters accepted their barbarisms.
    May touched Elaine’s hand. “Remember junior high? The sweaty urgency?”
    “Dancing with a banana against your leg? Who knew what the banana could become?”
    Elaine remembered when boys were indistinct and she’d been blurry from the trance of being alive. She remembered when another person’s pain had first penetrated the trance. She had also forgotten causing pain and had to discover it over and over . . . like the timing of a multiple orgasm.
    Asia held Dog Collar in front of the pastry window and snuggled into her neck. Scrubs dumped the contents of his bag onto the table: a stethoscope, tongue depressors, cotton balls, a hypodermic syringe. He returned the contents to his bag, as the waiter sat down beside him, his eyes overflowing with tears, although whether from an excess of joy or of suffering Elaine couldn’t tell.
    May opened and closed her date book. “I’m going back to Sammy’s. Happiness can’t be stored. Can it?”
    Elaine watched Asia and Dog Collar leave the café and run down the street with their arms entwined. She saw worry around May’s eyes. Maybe she was reflecting what she saw in Elaine’s, or maybe it was that even when sex was driving the most powerful engines of hope that creatures were capable of feeling, it was still suffused with grief.
    “I won’t remember any of this in a little while. I can already feel the headiness fading.” May said, squeezing Elaine’s hand. “Friends?”
     “I’ve been sentenced.”
     “So few sentences fit the crime.” May swam toward the door, her eyetooth jutting out. Scrubs stared at her, as if she was Lady Godiva riding naked on a horse. Elaine wanted to scream about the injustice. Was she the only one seeing these things? Was this what deprivation had done? Just then Scrubs turned his attention back to her, and although she had work to do and appointments to keep, she kept sitting there.  

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©2003 Laurie Stone and
Laurie Stone is author of the novel Starting With Serge, the memoir collection Close to the Bone and Laughing in the Dark, a collection of her writing on comic performance. A longtime writer for The Village Voice and The Nation, she has been critic-at-large on Fresh Air, has received grants from The New York Foundation for the Arts and MacDowell Colony, and in 1996 won the Nona Balakian Prize in Excellence in Criticism from the National Book Critics Circle.
  For more Laurie Stone, read:
Two on One: Survivor
Two on One: Dirty Pictures
Two on One: “Picturing the Modern Amazon”
Eat and Be Eaten