Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“Suzy, we are too old to be controlled by our hormones,” Ellis says to me.
I say, “Don’t you realize that a thirty-eight-year-old woman has the same sex drive as a sixteen-year-old boy?”
“There is no scientific proof to substantiate that.”
I hit my chest and say, “Here’s your proof!”
He says, “Suzy, you know what I think of anecdotal evidence.”
“Oh, fuck you anyway,” I say.
He says, “I don’t think this is a very productive conversation.”
Later Ellis claims to have known right away, but I say, “Yeah, you figured it out, all right. After I told you about a hundred times.” Even the kids knew before he did.
“Mom, is that the one?” my little girl asks me.
We are at table three, which gives us a clear view of the kitchen.
“No, honey, that’s Sam, the cook. Jimmy Lee is washing dishes.”
We look over to the sink and there he is, bent over a fifty-gallon aluminum soup pot, a cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth: the most charming man in the world.
“Anyway, there isn’t any man as wonderful as your papa, and don’t you ever forget that.”
And I mean it, too: there isn’t any man like my husband. The way I feel about Jimmy Lee has nothing to do with anything lacking in Ellis or anything missing from what we have together. Whatever there is between Jimmy Lee and me is just between the two of us. Nobody can understand it. Everybody knows how lucky I am to have a husband like Ellis, and they’re always telling me so. I know it, too, but how can I explain to them what I can’t even explain to myself?
Jimmy Lee started working at the restaurant last winter, right after he got released. I knew something was going to happen the first time I laid eyes on him. Sometimes you get this feeling about someone just by looking at them. Or just hearing their voice, you know it’s a voice you’ve got to hear in your ear, a voice you’ve got to feel on your neck, a voice that’s got to say secret things to you and call out your name in the dark. You know that just by hearing it one time. And partly it’s the way he whirls around and catches me watching him and our eyes meet for one second. In that second he tells me he knows what I’m thinking, and I tell him that I know he knows, and he tells me he knows I know, and on and on forever in the one second it takes before I turn away and pick up a plate of food.
I say to Ellis that I think the dishwasher is pretty cute, and he says, “Oh really?” because I’m always thinking someone is pretty cute.
People tell me I’m an idiot for saying anything to Ellis about it. They say it’s just plain meanness on my part. Everybody thinks they know what happened, like it’s happened a million times before. But for me it’s all new, like I invented it myself, so I have to make up the rules as I go along.
One night I stand at the beer cooler, which is right next to the sink, and say, “I think you’re pretty hot, Jimmy Lee,” which is totally unlike anything anyone would expect me to say — but he doesn’t know me, so he doesn’t know that.
He wipes his hands on his apron and says, “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?” He looks at me so hard that I blush and look away. Then he takes one finger and puts it on the soft skin at the bottom of my neck, and he traces a line straight down my chest.
“Meet me tomorrow,” I say. I’m thinking, we should talk. I’m thinking, I should clarify things — when I know there is nothing to clarify. “Meet me at four o’clock at the ice-cream parlor on the corner of Oceanside and Fourth.” Just like that, like I’ve done it a hundred times.
If there is any mystery in what we are doing, Jimmy Lee is unaware of it. I start explaining about Ellis, but he puts his fingers to his lips. “Shhh,” he says. Jimmy Lee knows when to press forward and when to back up. He knows where to put his hands and how to press his hips. We’re leaning against the wall of the ice-cream parlor staring into each other’s eyes like we’ve got this big thing, like we’re in love or something, and I’m thinking, he’s probably an asshole. It registers with me, but it registers far away, like a phone ringing in the apartment downstairs. Like something that doesn’t have anything to do with me.
Jimmy Lee slips his hands under my T-shirt, traces the outline of my lips with his tongue. I open my legs and he moves in between them. When I draw his hips into me I can feel his outline against my belly. I put my hands on his face as he kisses me, touch his lips with my fingers.
“Jimmy Lee!” the other waitress says when I tell her about it. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Life is a mysterious thing,” I say in my defense.
How can I explain those hands on my belly, those hips against my hips, that voice in my ear? Whatever has gotten into me has gotten in deep and won’t let up. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Jimmy Lee’s body is out there somewhere, like a wolf on the hillside with its head back, howling. I have only one appetite. Ellis notices that, but he doesn’t notice anything else.
Maybe it isn’t Jimmy Lee. Looking at him I wonder, how can all this be about Jimmy Lee? Maybe he was just in the right place at the right time. Maybe it just hit me and there was Jimmy Lee, bent over the sink. Like a whooping crane opening its eyes, I was stuck with the first thing that came into view.
I look at my kids and my husband and think of all the things we are together, and I think, isn’t it odd to be willing to risk all this so I can fuck some guy who washes dishes and whispers nasty things in my ear? Isn’t it a mystery?
Jimmy Lee is an alcoholic. He lives in an old motel with weekly rates, and he just got out of jail for robbing a convenience store. He tells me these things right away so I don’t have to be surprised.
I shrug. I don’t care about any of it — what he does or says or thinks, the way he lives, what he knows or doesn’t know: none of it matters. The thing between us is in our blood and bones, in our skin. There’s something pure about it that nothing else can touch. It is as pure and sweet as a mother’s love for her newborn baby. Nothing can turn me away from it.
One night the owner calls to say he is sick and can I stay and close the restaurant? I say sure, and I’m thinking, now I can be alone with Jimmy Lee. Suddenly I have a secret agenda. Though it’s only eight o’clock, I turn over the sign on the door and shut off the outside lights. I tell the guy at table six that we’re out of crab, because it takes everybody at least an hour to eat crab and I don’t have an hour. I start sweeping the floor, just to make sure everybody gets the picture, and I don’t offer anyone dessert. I refuse to make eye contact unless people are ready to pay. So the cook cleans up and leaves, the customers pay their bills and leave, and I don’t care if they complain to the boss tomorrow and I get fired, because the only thing that exists for me is what is right in front of me, and nothing else.
I lock both doors and go to the kitchen. It’s a hot August night, but the back window is open and a little breeze blows in off the ocean. I sit on the table we use for cutting fish and say, “Come here, Jimmy Lee.”
I pull my knees apart so he slides in close. He pushes my skirt up my thighs.
“Whew, you are wet.” He puts his mouth to my ear. “What does that mean?”
I giggle. “It’s my Pavlovian response to you,” I say, looking into his face. I realize then that I am about to risk everything to fuck a man who has never heard of Pavlov.
That night, I ask my husband, “Would you divorce me if I fucked another man?”
“Why would you want to do a thing like that?”
He has a point. Things between us are hot. They’re so hot that it made me start looking around. Can you understand that? Things between us are so good that it set off something in me, and I want more and more. So it’s a compliment, but no one understands that.
Meanwhile, I’m talking to everybody I know about it. And every woman my age is going through the same thing. Every one of them is feeling the way I feel. And how do I feel? Like I’m in a convertible driving eighty miles an hour down a two-lane highway without a scarf on my head, wearing lipstick, playing the radio full blast. Maybe that’s how people feel right before they totally fuck up their whole life, but I don’t care. I don’t want to feel any other way.
“I feel like I’ve joined a secret club,” I tell Ellis. “It’s like when you have a baby and you realize there’s a secret club of women who nod to each other on the street, who meet in line at Safeway and talk about their episiotomies. They’re strangers but it doesn’t matter, because they belong to the same club. When I got a dog, I realized there’s a secret dog club, too. And now I’m in the secret sex club. I can tell by somebody’s face if they’re a member. And it’s not like you can just fuck someone and it will go away. That’s just throwing gas on the fire.”
“You’re having a midlife crisis,” Ellis says. Like that makes it less than what it is.
“All right, then. I’m having a midlife crisis. Then let me have it.”
They give it names like that to make it seem foolish. The erotic impulse is so frightening that we have to dress it up in a pointy hat and crooked nose so we can forget its power.
I say to Ellis, I don’t know how my feelings can have so little to do with any other part of me. It’s as if they have a life of their own.
“Fuck your feelings!” he shouts. “I’ve had enough of your feelings!” I start to cry, and he says, “OK, I’m out of control. I apologize. I’m beside myself. I’ve stopped making sense.” For Ellis making sense is very important. “You’ve got to decide,” he says.
So I apply the brakes. So what if the top layer of my skin is peeled back and all my nerves are exposed. I make a hard turn to the right. I quit my job. I stop remembering how his hands felt. I stop touching my lips, remembering. I run five miles a day. I run looking straight ahead, forgetting about Jimmy Lee.
The only thing appalling regarding Alison Clement’s “Suzy Joins the Sex Club” is Lisa Cohen’s letter [Correspondence, September 1994]. The story shows a woman making a difficult decision, one she has to live with. She did not “yield” to anyone. The story doesn’t imply that there is no sex in Suzy’s marriage. In fact, Suzy says that things between her and Ellis are “hot.” Maybe Cohen wouldn’t choose a long-term love relationship over short-term passion, but obviously Suzy would.
I found Alison Clement’s “Suzy Joins the Sex Club” [July 1994] mostly appalling. I’ve had many of the same sexual feelings that the character Suzy has, but I’m not thirty-eight, or married with children. I’m a twenty-year-old lesbian who is proud of her sexuality and sensuality.
The story degrades women. The main character appears strong and independent, yet in the end she yields to her husband, repressing her sexual energy.
When people (usually women) are having fun or expressing themselves more than usual, others (mainly men) say they are crazy. So Suzy had a run-in with the “sex club.” The reader assumes she’s now recovering in the mental hospital or sitting in her wicker chair doing needlepoint, waiting for her husband to come home so she can serve him.
Just think — it was a woman who wrote this. That doesn’t make me feel any better.
I usually read The Sun from cover to cover — even the letters. But lately some of them are starting to get on my nerves. Like the one from Lisa Cohen, who was “mostly appalled” by “Suzy Joins the Sex Club” [July 1994]. It was a good story. It had something to say, and I really related to it. People like Cohen seem to think that everything degrades women — that they’re more easily degradable than men.
Then a while back there was a letter complaining about Sally Bellerose’s “The GirlsClub” [September 1993], a fine, moving story about a lesbian with a colostomy bag. Someone said it wasn’t well written. And someone else wrote that Sy Safransky ought to hang it up as a writer — that he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag. First thing I do when I open The Sun is check out whether Sy had something to say this month.
And how about all the bluenoses who get bent out of shape if somebody says fuck in print? If they want Reader’s Digest, why don’t they read it? Another idiot was repulsed by Bob Saltzman’s great photo of his wife, complete with underarm hair [March 1994]. And then there was Wendy Ellyn’s great little one-page breathe-through poem “Daddy” [January 1994] that some misogynist thought was incestuous. That’s where he’s at.
Sometimes an article or story doesn’t particularly blow up my skirt, but neither is it appalling, or disgusting, or badly written. And the most inspirational pieces always stop short of sentimentality. They never make me feel ripped off like the stories in the New Yorker, Harper’s, or Atlantic Monthly sometimes do.
Maybe when the dust of my life settles and I’m not holding down two jobs and my three twenty-something kids are done sucking on my tit, I’ll have time to submit something to Readers Write. I read all of those too. They’re better than the letters.