by Miss Jane
You may remember, but in case you don’t, let me remind you: I’m over 40 and a virgin. I’m not talking Clintonesque technicalities, but actual fact. Absolutely.
And now I’m off with a married man, on a three-day trip two states beyond home. His wife isn’t jealous. My aged parents aren’t concerned. No one’s eyebrows are raised. It’s generally known, or at least generally assumed, that I don’t – well, do anything that raises eyebrows.
This man is probably the least touchy-feely person in all my acquaintance. He’s a northern European type who needs a wide zone of personal space. He doesn’t go for casual hugging; he shakes hands, but mostly under duress. I’ve known him for several years and never once have I seen him flirt. When someone else does, his discomfort is palpable. It’s charming in its way. Enjoyable to watch.
Not that I get to watch him routinely; we live many miles apart. However, we’ve managed to become good friends, mostly be e-mail. He has a deep well of technical information and a broad range of eccentric interests. So do I. He writes delightful narratives of daily life. So do I. And about four times a year, we see each other for some event or a meal and a stroll and a good conversation. Consistently kind and solicitous, he always maintains a proper distance. For both of us, it’s a nice, safe relationship.
Several times over the years, we’ve been together at out-of-town meetings, and that’s what we’re doing now. He comes for me and my van at 8:30 a.m. We hope to arrive at around 6:30 p.m. to hook up with the first in a tag team of personal assistants I’ve lined up. His continuing presence is a critical part of the logistical plan. He doesn’t do the tasks that involve removing my clothes or reaching under my skirt, but he’ll cover me between the appearances of the women who do.
Our drive is not entirely free of external stressors. There are a series of phone calls; I leave messages at various places for the first scheduled PA, but fail to get the reassurance I’d get from talking to her directly. And there is the distance. We’ve measured it on the highway map, but we don’t really know how we’ll manage it. I trust my tailbone and bladder will hold out, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
It’s definitely a relief when we find the hotel only 30 minutes later than projected and the PA there waiting. We go to our separate rooms. A bathroom trip, a half hour lying down, and I’m back in my chair.
We go to the hotel restaurant. When we finish eating, I tell him, “We’re trapped for the duration.” My night-time PA, an adventurous young woman who is flying in for the meeting, isn’t due until late. “Your place or mine?”
“Yours.” Something in the way he answers tells me that, as mild as it was, my remark was enough to make him a little uncomfortable.
I park my chair beside my bed. This isn’t the first time he’s put me in bed, but I talk through the steps. It’s for his comfort, more than anything else, to make the touching and closeness practical, matter-of-fact. I instruct him to pull down the covers and fold some of the bedding into a pallet to cushion my bony parts. I ought to travel with an egg crate, but the women of my family make a fetish of traveling light. When he gropes deep into the folds of my twisted torso to release the seatbelt, I sense that he’s being brave. This must be strange for him. But gamely he takes me in his arms and carries my body on his. With care he lays me on the pallet and arranges my pieces — back, neck, hips, arms, legs — the way I say. Propped and cushioned, I breathe deep and can’t hide how good it feels to be off my tailbone at last. He pulls my shoes off swollen feet and steps out of his own.
He offers me the TV remote control but I yield. “I don’t care at this point. Something stupid would by fine.”
He stretches his body on what will be my roommate’s bed and finds something way beyond stupid, something perfect for two road-weary travelers. We continue our conversation in a desultory way, but we’ve been talking for about 13 hours by now, and soon we fall silent. Soon after that, we fall asleep.
Some time later, I wake up, disoriented, grumpy. The television is still blaring, the lights on. I’m ready for quiet, ready for dark, ready to go to sleep in earnest. Why can’t he turn off the television? Why can’t he make it dark? Why can’t he get these unnecessary clothes off my aching bones, make me cozy under blankets?
And, for that matter, why must we maintain this ridiculous distance? Why can’t he just occupy that extra space in my bed, crawl in with me? Why can’t he lie close enough to let me smell his ear, taste his chin, warm myself with his body heat?
Why not? I should just ask him. He’s never denied me a single request in all the time I’ve known him. What if I just tell him I’d like him here with me?
I suppose there is a problem. You might call it lack of an exit strategy.
In such a situation, a man is expected to be overcome by animal passion, isn’t he? If he isn’t won’t the woman be disappointed? Won’t she be, in fact, profoundly hurt?
And if he does what is expected, what then? Assume the woman, having invited the man to a situation that calls for animal passion, rejects such a passion when offered. Doesn’t that make her a monster? Wouldn’t that hurt him? I’d never do such a thing — to anyone — and certainly not to a friend I hold dear.
And I will be honest. The truth is, if he suddenly came at me with uncharacteristic animal passion, I’m not sure I’d be inclined to balk. At the moment, as cranky as I am right now, a little animal passion might be exactly what I want.
But we’re not animals. We’re humans. For humans, passions come hooked to relationships and relationships are played out in roles. He’s married. That means my role would be Other Woman. Not my style; I sure don’t look the part. The other option: One Night Stand. Do I want to exchange a friendship I treasure for a gig like that?
Not really. So I drag one arm over my eyes to block the light. I listen past the television noise and take in the friendly drone of his snoozing. And now, once again, I find I’m glad he’s there, and glad I’m here. Short moments after its first appearance, the body hunger is gone. In its place is sweet contentment.
My roommate arrives after a trip that began and ended hours later than ours. My friend staggers to his room and leaves us alone. She’s young, astonishingly energetic. “What first?”
“I’m desperate to get out of these panty hose.”
She laughs in sisterly solidarity. How we hate panty hose, but we wear them anyway! She peels them off, then fans my legs with my big skirt to celebrate my liberation from nylon bondage.
“I got here as quick as I could. I hope you were OK. What did you do all evening?”
“We ate supper here. Watched some television. Slept a while. We were tired from the trip.”
“You sleep together? And he doesn’t take off your panty hose?”
“We don’t sleep together. We sleep in the same room, at the same time. He doesn’t take my clothes off.”
“So what’s his story? Wait. Don’t tell me. He’s one of those guys that lives with a cat, right?”
“Yes, he lives with a cat. And a woman. The three of them have been together since some time in the 1980s.”
She doesn’t ask any more questions. She’s caught on that I’m tired and want to sleep.
We join a mob of lively people from several states who do the kind of work we do. Being among new and slight acquaintances makes me conscious of the many small intimacies that pass between my friend and me. When we sit down to lunch, he doesn’t need instruction to tear up my bread and apply butter liberally. He slides things in and out of my reach as needed. He finds something tasty on his plate and offers me a bite from his fork. When it’s time to pay, he rifles through my pocket book without the terror men usually display around women’s purses. He has an easy familiarity with my gas tank and with the pile of junk on the floor of my van.
I encourage him to tell some of his narratives. I need no prompting to do the same; my narratives are typically born and evolve in conversation with appreciative listeners, and he’s one of the best. I’m at ease in his company. In most of my relationships, I must be vigilant to guard the boundaries. With him, his reserve takes care of all that. His distance lets me draw near; his reticence opens me up. If heat is transferred from warmer to colder objects, so then his coolness brings out my warmth.
My string of PAs are puzzled. I have to tell each one that he is a good, helpful friend who doesn’t take my clothes off. For most women, I suppose intimacy with a man comes only after sex. They don’t know how delightful it can be to sleep in the same room, but not together. They don’t know how to appreciate affection that stays within bounds, or love that is more like a fugue than a symphony. They haven’t lived the way I live. They’d be shocked, I suppose, to know I have many loves like him.
When we begin the long return trip, the prospect is no longer daunting. Having measured the distance by experience, we know we can negotiate it comfortably enough. The hours roll by, pleasantly accompanied by a varied landscape and selections from his eclectic music collection. Spanish guitars. Blues poetry. A powerful woman vocalist nearly wasted on commercial-country sentimentality. Now we travel free of logistical distractions; I’m headed home, where familiar people are waiting to render whatever help is needed and hear the first spoken narratives of our trip.
He stays for a quick supper and it is time to say goodbye. He crouches down to give me what must look like a friendly hug and kiss. But his lips stop short of my cheek; the arm wrapped around my back doesn’t quite touch. The only point of physical contact is my left shoulder blade, where I feel pressure from the tips of five fingers. This is a man who carries my body in the hollows of his body, who makes me comfortable in bed, who digs through my purse — and he doesn’t give me so much as the palm of his hand when the situation calls for a fond farewell.
It’s funny. Part of his charm, really. I lean toward him until I’ve narrowed the distance between us to the tiniest fraction of an inch. I could easily close the divide all together, but I respect his space. From him, the pressure of five finger tips on my shoulder blade is entirely sufficient.
I’m home in my own bed. I sink into my mattress whose hollows exactly fit my body. Below me, the egg crate reaches up to my bony parts like so many friendly finger tips. Above me, feather-light blankets warm me with my own body heat. It is quiet. It is dark.
I hope my friend is as cozy in his own bed, with his cat and his woman, as I am in mine all alone. Such a good soul deserves a place where it’s cozy and warm and quiet and dark. Our places are in different towns, separated by other towns and countryside and industrial parks. We live very different lives, in very different bodies, and yet each of us has discovered a peculiar way to care for and receive care from the other. His way makes me trust. And for the first time it occurs to me that I am not the only one. He too has trusted me.
His body shyness is for me a king of mystery. I don’t understand why he needs those boundaries. They are foreign to my experience as a woman who has never known what it’s like to bathe or dress or get in bed on my own, or even to tear up my own bread. Being who I am, living the way I live, I keep pushing against his walls. He must sometimes have an urge to retreat, but he doesn’t. Instead he has opened himself to my unusual demands, has followed my detailed instructions, has freely offered me his time, his company, and his body strength.
To do that must take trust. He must trust that I won’t abuse his kindness, won’t exploit his solicitude, won’t overwhelm him with the power of my needs. And if, late in the night, I wake up with a pang of body hunger, he must trust that I’ll keep it to myself, and let it pass.
Miss Jane wrote “Confessions of a Sensuous Spinster” for the February 1999 issue of NM.