When she had been in high school, she had read Isadora Duncan’s autobiography called “My Life,” and never forgot a few sentences where Isadora said of her first lover, “You have never known true happiness until you have slept with someone you love.” She was so naive that she thought Isadora meant really “sleep” but she agreed with her own version.
Euphemisms are always a little tricky because they are the culture’s metaphors and not one’s own. “Sleep” suggests unconscious, flat, no climax, not even a lot of passion. Just innocent in a dark way. Dark. Can’t see. Psyche dripping wax on Cupid. Dream not real.
But in fact her first lover really was wonderful to innocently sleep with. He had a high body temperature and relaxed totally. He didn’t move around a lot but if she did, it didn’t wake him. She loved his body, the first other person’s body she’d had real access to explore since she was an infant. Fingertips up ribs, down spine —bumps in a row. She loved to cup one butt cheek in her palm. Mostly she didn’t look at him until summer mornings when he pushed the sheets off. They didn’t wear nightclothes, not even baggy old t-shirts. It was skin-against-skin. When she slid as close as she could get, he didn’t pull away or make room, he just stayed solidly anchored, bubbling and pulsing with life.
He was a good lover but not splendid or inspired. The truth was that she was a little too heavy and inflexible to be as responsive as she felt she ought to be. She read and learned and explored herself with a vibrator but felt protective about it and didn’t tell him. She didn’t climax but pretended well.
She slid her palms down from his armpits along his silky sides to the Adonis belt she studied in summer, thinking about the tops of his thighs and how they fitted into his body. That fuzzy tousle she named “Short” and “Curly.” She cherished the little bird in its nest and gently embraced and pressed his balls, teased his . . . oh, there were so many euphemisms and she couldn’t remember what Isadora used at a time when no one ever said penis out loud, not even a doctor.
So all was well for years and then he got restless. His body didn’t change; he played sports and was reasonable about eating. Neither of them watched television in the bedroom, partly because it mostly meant they would go sleep while it was nattering and wake to the unpleasant feeling that the world had gone on without them. Then one day he bought an e-tablet and began to read in bed, not even needing to switch on a light or rustle pages by turning them.
At first she didn’t mind, turned her back against him and enjoyed feeling that. He was reading politics, then he spoke about running for office, and pretty soon he had joined the staff of the local state senator. He was driving a lot and sometimes was too far away to make it home for the night. When he did, he kicked and jerked with dreaming. But he was very pleased with the work and she was satisfied with hers, which was academic clerical. She didn’t want to teach, but she enjoyed editing.
There was no real conflict or unhappiness, but when he felt ready to move to the federal level, meaning actually moving to Washington, D.C., the silky bulk of the physical relationship had thinned and stiffened. It was easy to just let it go. She reflected that as much as she loved him, they had not reached any big ecstatic heights, neither emotionally nor erotically. It was a steady happiness and she knew that was rare and valuable, that some women were beaten and abused, so she was grateful.
When he went, he left his reading tablet behind because by now he was constantly in communication with unseen people on a smartphone — no time for reading. She looked at his books, wasn’t interested, learned how to delete them and loaded books she really wanted, most of them natural history with a strong poetic flavor.
When she had burned through Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and all the other carefully shifting kaleidoscope of female attention to the planet, it seemed necessary to be more of an activist, but she was not inclined to leave home and sleep on a cot under a mosquito net in some remote place. Nevertheless, she began to investigate the many groups all over the planet struggling to know and protect little creatures, even the nasty ones. She signed up for websites and newsletters. That’s how she met him.
She had no idea what he looked like and didn’t care, wasn’t even aware of his age or credentials. It was his “voice” in print that strangely rang in her ears. The precision and color of what he said was more eloquent than poetry, though he was only explaining how things worked. His specialty was the tide pool. He was working from the Oregon Coast, along the edge of the ocean in the tide pools.
Not the tanned young man with bleached hair we associate with the California surfing crew, but rather a bearded older guy like a Steinbeck character. Someone who looked at the world slantwise, peering into relationships, tides and cycles. Moon jellyfish — she had not known there was a such thing and, when looking at them on vids, was smitten with them. The real moon, the planetary satellite, that had more to do with us that we thought, its subliminal pull sliding under the windowshades and into female flesh with a tide of blood. The embeddedness of the ordinary in the cosmic.
He explained sea urchins which were his specialty. “Urchin” meant “hedgehog” and so, she thought, a feral child in the streets instead of a kelp forest, might be — in his spiny resourcefulness — a kind of tidal creature scraping a living from offal as though it were algae, a street urchin in the surge of the city.
They were not bilateral, those sea urchins, but globular, and related to sea cucumbers with a five fold pattern like flowers. Indeed, they looked like spherical flowers and she spent hours looking for photos of their splendid tiny explosions, which he said were so thick in little depressions on the black volcanic rock that one couldn’t help but step on them. Red urchins, pencil-spined urchins — the slide shows she found and liked the best were the ones that included diagrams and scientific explanations. “Sea urchins’ tube feet arise from the five ambulacral grooves. Tube feet are moved by a water vascular system, which works through hydraulic pressure, allowing the sea urchin to pump water into and out of the tube feet, enabling it to move.”
“Sea creatures have no muscles,” he explained. “They operate through the dynamics of their own body fluids within the context of the sea water. This is totally unlike the muscle-worshipping humans who work by leveraging against bones, always working in paired opposition.”
She moved in her chair, the bilateral smooth curving of gluteus maximus trying to make a bit more room for her internal swelling sea creature. Her mouth puckered as though to whistle and that was also a swelling. She felt her heart, that muscle, swell and squeeze and then her whole body. This must be an orgasm, she thought. It was her first, mind and flesh together, and she went to the moon.