9/29/2020

Derek

The last generation of pre-Internet kinksters, queers and sluts are nearly all collecting Social Security by now (those of us who are still alive). We look backwards and see a sequence of electronically mediated resources, from Fetlife back to Usenet back to BBSs – bulletin board services. These got their name because you left messages for everyone to read, like a bulletin board (the closest analog today is probably a listserv).

Some people I still hold very dear came into my life on BBSs, notably Barbara aka Bigboobs aka Snow White, who I met on an adult BBS called Virtual Pleasures and who is the first and so far the only woman toward whom I’ve felt romantic love (hi Barbara!).

The other important connection I made in those days was Derek, whose life has woven in and out of mine in complex patterns for nearly 30 years. Derek was Muse on Nirvananet, a general-audience BBS on which I was one of few women and fewer people over 30[1]. These days he’s Uriel, another good choice – Derek was, and is, a bit other-worldly in a Stranger in a Strange Land kind of way, so the names of supernatural beings are an excellent fit for him.

I knew before meeting in person that Derek was around a decade younger than I. The nice thing about meeting people online, though, is that you can get to know their minds before getting a look at their exteriors. Before we met for coffee, Derek told me to look for a guy who was 6’3”, thin, with long curly hair and a high-bridged nose. Based on what I knew of him, I was sitting in the diner looking for a central-casting geek – Weird Al Yankovic with duct-taped glasses and a stretched-out t-shirt. So when a Burne-Jones angel came up to my table and asked if I was Janet, my first impulse was to hide: the guy was clearly out of my league.

But it turned out that Derek is one of the few human beings I’ve met who genuinely doesn’t care about appearances. His girlfriends – not many; he tends to stay with the people he loves for as long as they’ll have him – have been of all imaginable shapes, sizes, ages, colors and gender presentations. So as we talked, my troublesome body image issues slowly dissolved.

It didn’t take long, of course, for me to get around to propositioning him. (One of the many things I love about sex-positive communities is that women get to ask for what they want.) I showed up at his apartment at the agreed-on time, bearing coffee and pastries because feeding people is the way I roll. We chatted and ate, and then I said, “Well, this could go a couple of ways. We could have vanilla sex, or I could tie you up a bit and experiment, or we could try a little painplay.”

Then I looked at him. He had shrunk into a position of pure fear: arms and legs crossed tightly, pupils contracted.

Oh, I said to myself. You forgot. There are still normal people in the world.

Clearing my throat, I suggested, “How about we take our clothes off and you lie down?” He did. We made out a bit – some massage, some fellatio – I think he came, but I can’t remember whether I did. (This was the session that taught me to ask about someone’s experience before the clothes come off – it turned out that I was only his second partner, and his first blowjob.)

We became what I guess today would be called friends with benefits – hanging out, fooling around, discovering each other’s quirks and kinks. Derek was not particularly into BDSM, although he was happy to offer spankings on request – but mostly, he loved being around people who asked for what they wanted and said no to what they didn’t.

Jay and I had him do a bit of work for our nascent publishing enterprise, which I was running out of the dining room of the big rambling house we were renting in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco. He was a regular visitor, with us more days than not.

At the time, Miles and Ben were with me weekends and most of the summer. Derek was an instant hit with both of them, particularly twelve-year-old Ben, who shared Derek’s love of all things game-related. More weekends than not, the three of them would settle into the living room with stacks of Magic: The Gathering cards and They Might Be Giants on the stereo – I’d see them only when I opened the door to throw in a pizza or a bucket of chicken.

One afternoon, Derek and I went together to see Spanking the Monkey, a movie about a teenaged geek’s not-quite-consummated affair with his mother. Derek squirmed in his seat; I could see out the corner of my eye that he was at least partially erect. I was feeling a little damp myself, but also feeling kind of grossed out – the movie made it quite clear to me that our friendship was verging on the incestuous. When I told Derek I couldn’t continue the sexual part, I don’t think I was imagining that he looked a bit relieved.

Derek, an avid cyclist, was determined to get me back on a bike for the first time since grade school. He helped me choose an affordable and idiot-proof bike sized for my short legs, and guided me on a few gentle trips around the block. He then decided I was ready for the next step, so we biked the few blocks to a small lake in Golden Gate Park and set off to circumnavigate it. Breathless, wobbly and nervous, I hung in there to the best of my ability, until I realized that we were the perfect human avatars for Kermit and Miss Piggy’s bicycle trip around the lake in The Muppet Movie – at which point I was done with the whole enterprise. He and I walked our bikes home and I never rode mine again.

Derek, however, was deeply attached to getting around hilly, heavily trafficked San Francisco by bicycle – his days of working at my place started and ended with a brutal eight-mile ride all the way across town. But if he was happy with that, I was happy too.

Until the day he was due to come over to do some data entry. I was in my office working when I heard him come in. I called “Hello!” and he answered “Hi!” in a strained voice, which at first I attributed to breathlessness. But then I heard him on the stairs – instead of his usual light-footed tread, I heard an ominous drag… thump, drag… thump, drag… thump.

I was there to help him up the last step or two, while he told me the story: as he was cutting through the Panhandle, the cyclist in front of him had braked suddenly, sending him rocketing headfirst over his handlebars onto the pavement.

The poor guy was covered with scrapes and bruises; however, the only part of him that seemed seriously injured was his knee. Jay, the former ambulance crewman, wrapped it up and packed it in ice – but when it continued to swell after an hour or two, we helped him back down the stairs and I drove him to SF General.

I was teaching classes about pain processing for the kink communities around then, so of course when he was getting the knee x-rayed I went into the well-grooved routine: “Okay, look me in the eyes… breathe with me… you’re breathing in cool clean air and breathing out through the pain….” The radiologist looked at me sharply and asked, “Are you a midwife?” I gave him my best bland smile and said, “Not exactly.”

The results came back: Derek had snapped his kneecap clean in half. They encased his leg in a heavy hip-to-toe cast and sent him home to recover. His roommate was not interested in nursing an invalid, so Derek spent the next couple of months sleeping on a futon in our living room.

Our household at that time was kaleidoscopic and blurry, with the only steady points being Jay, me, and our housemate Tom. Other occasional denizens included, of course, Miles and Ben, Jay’s two kids (his daughter was an infrequent visitor, but his son lived with us for several months while he looked for his first job after high school), and various lovers, friends, friends-of-friends, and barely nodding acquaintances, occupying what Jay had dubbed “the lifeboat,” a small mother-in-law apartment behind our garage. So one more person added to the tangle of personalities made very little ripple, especially since Derek, unlike most of our visitors, took the initiative to find ways to help around the house. (Before I moved to Oregon I always had him over for holiday feasts, mostly because he was family, but also because I never had to clear a table or wash a dish afterward – and, better yet, he corralled Miles and Ben into helping too, teaching by example the proper way to contribute to a gathering.)

After Edward and I moved to Oregon in 2008, Ben moved in with Derek for several months, helping Derek overcome a hoarding tendency[2] by working with him to sort through the accumulated chaos of books, clothing, games, appliances, magazines, papers and sundry other dearly held possessions. They were fairly successful in clearing out some spare rooms, but Derek’s own bedroom was impervious because there was no way to declutter a 12’x12’ room containing two adult males with all their work equipment, clothes and miscellany. The one time I visited them there, I sat in one of the two desk chairs because the only clear-ish surfaces in the room were Derek’s twin bed and Ben’s pallet of mattresses and bedding, plus two computer desks, with paths between. The rest of the room was hip-deep in boxes and detritus that I tried not to look at too closely.

Ben still chats online with Derek almost every day, so that’s mostly how I hear about his latest adventures (he and his girlfriend have moved to West Sacramento, less than a mile from where Frank, Miles and I were living when Ben was born). I haven’t seen him in quite a few years now, but he still figures in the ecology of the folks I consider family: not quite lover, not quite friend, not quite son. He is my Derek, and everyone should have a Derek.


[1] When I got my first tattoo, on the side of my left breast, a poster scolded, “Do you know what that’s going to look like when you’re 60?!” I responded, “Yeah. Longer.” Which, with 60 a few years behind me, is exactly what happened.

[2] It’s worth noting here that all the long-term male partners in my life have had hoarding tendencies – make of that what you will.

9/23/2020

Apologies for the delay in posting! My state was on fire for a while and nobody could breathe, and then I had technical trouble with my drawing tools. But the fires are dying down, the air is… not too bad, and Ben came over here and fixed the problem with my tablet (thanks Ben!). Here’s a short piece for now, and with luck I’ll get a longer one up soon.

Alternate Reality #1

In my freshman year of college, a sex educator comes to campus and, by some miracle, I don’t employ my usual strategy of deciding I already know everything. During her very informative talk, she mentions “S&M” as a normal sex variation, and describes some typical behaviors.

Pow. Now I know. It takes a few months to work it through, but at the end I realize that my sexuality is inescapably linked to pain and power.

It isn’t easy to find partners in 1973, but soon I learn that if a person has had their tongue loosened with wine or weed, they might confess to fantasies that match mine. I start experimenting, learning more about what works for me and for them.

One day, a man tells me about a session he’s done with a professional dominatrix in San Francisco. After several days of waffling, I gather up my nerve to call her. I ask her about her work, and she takes me on as an apprentice.

I quit school – which isn’t doing me much good anyway – and move to San Francisco. After a year as an apprentice, I start taking clients of my own. All the money I can spare goes into the acquisition of fetishwear and toys, and my reputaton grows. 

I start teaching workshops at the kink gatherings that are just starting to be an important function of the coalescing leather scene. I write a book, then another. By the time my age and weight start eating away at my client list, I have a decent if not brilliant income from book royalties and speaking fees.

On a speaking tour in my early forties, I meet a man, fall in love and get married. He’s vanilla, but we fumble our way toward an open relationship so that he can have boyfriends and I can have play partners.

We have no children.

09/03/2020

I was sitting by my in-laws’ pool, watching three-year-old Ben splashing around in the shallow end. “Guess what, Mom!” he called. “I know how to swim now!”

His voice held such utter confidence and sincerity that it never occurred to me to doubt him. For all I knew, he’d had a sudden epiphany in which the physics and body mechanics of swimming had been revealed to him in a vision. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see you swim.”

He strolled nonchalantly out to where the water was over his head. I sat there and watched him – or at least I watched the part of him that was above the water, a circle of scalp about the circumference of a large apple.

It took a minute or two of waiting for the swimming to start before I realized that there wasn’t going to be any swimming. I kicked off my shoes and waded fully clothed into the pool, where I picked him out and carried him back ashore, coughing and spluttering.

The first thing he said when he got his breath back? “Well, next time I’ll know how to swim.”

There is no question from whom he inherited this blithe belief in his ability to do something he’d never learned how to do. I wasn’t much older than him when I believed with all my heart that if I ever really needed to fly, a good running start would launch me into a low graceful Peter Pan soar across the living room – it’s pure luck that I never attempted to prove that belief.

In the six decades since, I have done all kinds of things I didn’t know how to do – mostly very badly, at least at first. Before I founded Greenery Press in 1992, my only experience in book publishing was a part-time gig as a glorified secretary at Jalmar Press, the home of the 1970s classic TA for Tots. (TA, for those of you who missed that era of psychobabble, stood for Transactional Analysis, a trendy way of understanding interpersonal communications. I still don’t quite understand the philosophy but I do remember drawing a lot of “Warm Fuzzies.”)

But in 1992, I wrote, designed, illustrated, produced and marketed my first book, The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners. It was terrible in almost every way. I’d actually been a dominant woman for two or three years, I’d never designed a publication, and I had no idea how to market a book. But SDW went into a fourth edition a couple of years ago, a quarter century later, and is still in print, so apparently I figured it out as I went along.

My early kink scenes weren’t much better, constructed as they were from a knowledge base consisting of a lifetime of wildly unrealistic fantasies, a couple of articles in Penthouse Variations, and a paperback book published in the UK called S&M: The Last Taboo[1]. I hurt one guy significantly (how was I to know that you had to stretch an anus before sticking things in there?!), but other than that I got lucky. Once again, I learned as I went along.

I can’t possibly remember the number of rooms I’ve painted, repairs I’ve attempted, garments I’ve sewn or knitted, items I’ve bought in the cherished and false belief that I’d have enough money when it came time to pay for them, scenes I should have safeworded out of were I not afflicted with what a friend calls “masochismo” – well, you get the idea. Most, thank god, were easily repaired afterwards, when I noticed what a shitty job I’d done.

Another manifestation of the same worldview is my invariable belief that I can fix whatever is wrong with the person I’m sleeping with at the time. News bulletin: I can’t[2].

The only sphere of endeavor in which I lack this unearned confidence is the physical. My mesomorphic frame makes me pretty good at picking up heavy things, and I like doing it – but my 65-year-old back makes that particular pleasure a bit less pleasurable than it used to be. And as for any other physical enterprise, the ones that require stamina and/or flexibility and/or reflexes and/or coordination – well, let’s just not talk about those at all.

But I think my greatest baseless confidence was the day I said to Frank, “Hey, I think I might be pregnant,” and he said, “Huh, what do you want to do?” and I said, “What the hell, let’s have it, how hard can it be?”

I should note here that confidence like mine is a hallmark of privilege, which is why it’s characteristic of so many straight white guys my age. I think I’ve been able to maintain it all these years simply because I’ve rarely encountered serious consequences for getting stuff wrong.

And I’m a fairly quick study. I didn’t know anything about being a parent or a publisher or a partner or a dominant or a homeowner, but I figured it out – generally, thank god, before I’d made any mistakes I couldn’t unmake. And now that I’m old enough to have some dough and also old enough that my oblivious marches into the unknown are a bit riskier than they used to be, I’ve gotten a little better about hiring people to do the things I can’t or shouldn’t[3] – although I doubt I’ll ever learn to like doing so.

But I guess I can stand by my results. My kids are good human beings. Greenery Press published some terrific books. My exes are better off (I think) for having known me. And my current house contains no embarrassing paint jobs whatsoever.

I still can’t catch a ball to save my life, though.


[1] This book, charming as it is, reinforced my belief that “S&M” consisted entirely of spanking, plus maybe a bit of bondage to get them to hold still while you spanked them. There was no mention of D/S, or even of other types of sensation play. Which was fine for me, given that my tastes run that way anyway – but it came as quite a surprise, a few years later, to learn that kink comes in more flavors than breakfast cereal.

[2] Although I do take some pride in leaving them in better shape than the way I found them.

[3] I still suck, badly, at telling people what to do. I let Edward do that part.

08/26/2020

As I write this, late in the summer of 2020, Santa Cruz is on fire. The UC Santa Cruz campus was evacuated earlier this week, and photos showed the Boardwalk glittering against a backdrop of ominous orange, with a setting sun of otherworldly magenta.

Santa Cruz was a major character in the first half of my life, and has been an occasional correspondent since. Watching it suffer feels like visiting the hospital bed of an old but no longer dear friend.

Frank and I met when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman at UCSC: I saw a card posted on the dining hall bulletin board, from three people looking for a fourth for bridge. Given that I’d spent most of the year vacillating from depression to terror and back (the serial killer Edmund Kemper was picking off girls my age and leaving them strewn in pieces around the campus’s many forests, crevasses and ridges), the idea of an occasional bridge game was compelling. But I had no idea what a big part of my life the game, and the three of them, would become – we wound up playing cards more nights than not, often piling into a VW Beetle to go downtown at 2am and eat fresh donuts from Ferrell’s, a local haven. Sometimes we came back and played more cards after that.

Scott, our informal leader (and the owner of the Beetle), was tall and slim, with wavy sunbleached hair and an engagingly crooked smile. When you asked Scott what his goals were, he said “getting rich”[1]; last I looked, he was the Chief Technical Officer of a huge national media empire. Maureen, dark-haired and easygoing, was one of the campus’s very few female math students. Scott’s roommate Frank was taciturn and wry, and was majoring in chemistry.

I made a move on Scott, who gallantly pretended not to know what I was trying to do. (He knew.) So it was Frank who wound up in my bed – his first time, my eighth or ninth. And when I realized that another year in the dorms would be hazardous to my mental health, it was Frank who I invited to share a large off-campus room with me, near a campus bus route.

We lived together for a pleasant, if very stoned and sloppy, year. Then he changed his major to Civil Engineering and transferred to UC Davis, back in his hometown. I stuck it out in Santa Cruz for a year, working as an “usherette” in a movie theater and going to classes when I felt like it, which was seldom. Then I dropped out and moved to Davis, where we found an apartment together.

But Santa Cruz wasn’t through with me yet. Frank’s family owned[2] a huge old beach house on the west side of town, overlooking the vast stretch of the Pacific. So for all Frank’s and my decade and a half together, we spent nearly all our vacations – first with my big crazy standard poodle Mac, then with Mac and Miles, then with Miles and Ben – in that house, along with a shifting cast of a dozen or more grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. (Those vacations spurred my earliest impulses toward extended family: there was no question that both the kids and the grownups were calmer and saner with a lot of loving company to blunt the harsh edges of any particular relationship.)

It was also in Santa Cruz that Frank and I decided to end things. We left the sleeping kids with his folks, drove far enough out of town that we were unlikely to be seen by anyone who cared that we were sitting over coffee with tears running down our faces, and together sketched out our separate futures.

I was no longer welcome at the Santa Cruz house after that, but the kids were still spending lots of long weekends there with Frank and his family. Today, they both adore Santa Cruz in the way that any kid loves the site of repeated fun and affection: Miles had hoped to have his wedding to his wife Destiny there, although the logistics proved impossible – they ended up marrying in Long Beach, Southern California’s closest analog to Santa Cruz.

I tried, once, to vacation in Santa Cruz myself, building a few days’ break around a speaking gig at a downtown sex shop. But the topography of the town had shifted after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, so many of my haunts and landmarks were gone; those that remained all carried a ponderous weight of memory. I drove home in an odd, sad, might-have-been mood, wondering if what I’d gained was worth what I’d given up.

Les Dudes continued to report back to me about the doings in Santa Cruz. Their great-grandmother was there and then she wasn’t, and then their grandmother, and then their grandfather. Cousins I remember as infants came, played, went to the Boardwalk and for walks on the beach, left for college and other towns, and their kids came back to Santa Cruz.

Over Labor Day weekend of 2006, Ben heard a noise from Frank’s room. When he went to investigate, he found Frank on the floor in the throes of what turned out to be a major stroke. But a few months later, he drove Frank back to Santa Cruz, where the deaths of the family elders had left the wheelchair-accessible bedroom available. The family, its topography changed by the earthquakes of life, still gathers at the house several times a year.

I’ve had one more visit to Santa Cruz. When Edward and I got married, we spent as little as possible on what was at our ages a fairly unexceptional rite of passage (the County Clerk’s office, then later a modest gathering in a church meeting room, with some cheeseboards and some champagne and a cake). With the money we had left, we took a “honey-asteroid”[3] at a place in downtown Santa Cruz that billed itself as a “bed, bud and breakfast,” run by a pair of dyke cannabis activists who turned out to know Edward already from the queer and activist communities.

Santa Cruz, on that trip, was the end of another story: the site of the last full-on kink scene I ever did, and also of the last time I had genital sex (making the place a Bed, Bud, Breakfast, Bondage and Blowjob). Another landmark, I guess.

By the time I get back to that part of the world, it will have shifted yet again: the fires are still uncontained, and whatever remains of the town and the campus will be irrevocably changed. But you can’t change the past, and Santa Cruz is a permanent part of my brain and my heart.


[1] Contemporary college students might not recognize how startling a statement that was in 1972, particularly at “Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp.” For comparison, imagine asking a fellow student in the 2020s what they want to do after college, and having them say “I dunno, man, just hang out, smoke a bit, figure out who I am, you know?”

[2] Still does.

[3] Too small to be a honeymoon.

08/17/2020

Cinema Avec Dudes #1

I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time, but Miles was the kind of calm baby that invariably falls asleep while nursing. So I took him to his first movie at the ripe old age of three months: Allegro Non Troppo, a charming Italian animation set to classical music (yeah, Disney did it first, but Bruno Bozzetto did it better – or at least more wittily).

I picked a matinee with a starting time that coincided with his usual naptime. Any parent can tell you how seldom that actually works, but he was the exception to the rule – as soon as the house lights went down, I opened my shirt, stuck him on a breast, and enjoyed the movie with a warm armful of slumbering infant. It should be noted here that this is an excellent strategy for making sure you have several rows to yourself.

During that first year, when I was struggling to adapt to life as a stay-at-home mom, we went to a lot of movies. The first time we chose a movie for him, though, was when he was three: Frank was out of town, and the drive-in was playing The Muppet Movie.

Did I turn my child into a puppeteer that night? Perhaps. All I can report, over the intervening four decades, is that he adored every minute of it. (Except the moment when a newly gigantic Animal burst from the roof of a house. That made him cry – but maybe the trauma served to cement the film into his brain. Ask your favorite psychiatrist.)

I’d gotten a little cocky with my cinephile toddler, though. When Ben came along, I was expecting another child with Miles’s placidity.

Hah.

Ben was resistant, wired and easily overstimulated. Once in a while, he’d react to the loud sounds and flashing lights by going to sleep. (That tendency persisted for quite a while: at seven, he slept soundly through all but the first five minutes of Die Hard 2.) More often, he’d twitch and then start screaming, and I’d have to carry him out of the theater – which didn’t go over well with a school-aged Miles.

Fortunately, in the five and a half years between Miles’s birth and Ben’s, the VCR had become affordable for young families like ours. If there was a movie Frank and I wanted to see, we’d take the kids to their grandparents’ and send a couple of their favorite tapes with them – which was nice, because if I’d had to listen to Pinocchio one more time, I was going to reach into the television and tear that little fucker’s nose right off.

Before too long, though, they finally matured enough that I could take both of them to movie theaters. After the divorce, movies, and later live theater, became part of the small new family we were building together – and remains so to this day.

After I’d seen The Princess Bride in New York, I couldn’t wait to get home and take them to it. New flicks were slow to come to Sacramento back then, but finally it showed up and I took them to a matinee. I made it into a bit of a special event, talking up the movie and its wonders, and even springing for two small popcorns instead of making them share a medium one.

When the lights came up after the credits, I looked over to see how they’d responded. They were both dazzled. Four-year-old Ben was so mesmerized that he’d completely forgotten to eat even a bite of his popcorn, so we took it home for him to eat it later. And for months afterward, ten-year-old Miles compulsively drew ROUSes[1] that we hung all over his door, the refrigerator, and anywhere else in the house that had room for a portrait of a mutant capybara.

The Muppet Movie and The Princess Bride have an elusive quality in common: they offer a plot and characters that are simple and engaging enough for kids, but they also work at a meta level, commenting wryly on themselves in a dog-whistle that can be heard by the adults in the audience. Rocky and Bullwinkle was the pioneer of the form, although most of its topical humor from the early 1960s flies far over the head of contemporary kids.

If you think that’s easy, try writing a story like that yourself – I think you’ll find that walking the tightrope between “too juvenile” and “overly earnest” is work for virtuosi like William Goldman and Jim Henson.

I spent most of the Dudes’ childhood seeking out entertainment like that, and rarely finding it. As a result, I wound up sitting through a lot of dreck (Problem Child, oh my god, comes to mind), and they wound up watching a bunch of stuff that was far too adult for them. On the other hand, now that they’re grown, they’re finding it useful to have seen a lot of cultural touchpoints that their peers missed out on, even if they didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Every now and again, even at their ages, we’ll watch a classic, and all of a sudden they’ll understand some joke from The Simpsons that went way over their heads at the time. Which is not the best argument for cultural literacy, but it isn’t the worst, either.


[1] In case you’re one of the four people on the planet who have never seen The Princess Bride, that stands for Rodents of Unusual Size.

08/08/2020

My friend Paul hates going to the movies alone. He’s spent more of his life single than he’d prefer, and soloing at the movies feels to him like he’s failed somehow; he’ll miss a flick rather than go by himself.

I, on the other hand, have generally had much less solitude than I wanted – between my partners and my children, I haven’t spent as much as a year living alone. And I’ve never quite understood the logic of a movie date: I want to spend time with you talking and getting caught up and enjoying each other’s company, so let’s go somewhere where we can sit silently side-by-side in the dark… how’s that again?

I love going to the movies alone. I don’t have to stand outside glancing at my watch and trying to decide whether to wait or give up, I get to eat all the good buttery popcorn from the top of the bag and throw the rest away, I can sit in the third row where Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy sneer is the size of a Volkswagen. And, most of all, I don’t have to do that thing where, as you’re walking out, you quickly assess whether or not your companion enjoyed the movie more than you did, and immediately readjust your “man, I should’ve burned a $10 bill and saved the two hours” to “hmmm, not sure this one really worked for me.”

A few decades ago, I had forgotten what solitude felt like. I was 32, writing high-tech ad copy in Sacramento, raising two grade-schoolers, going through the motions of a friendly but passionless marriage. I struggled to figure out the narrative of my life: was I doing this, I wondered, because it was all I was able to do? Or was I capable of something else, more creative, more glamorous, more outrageous?

So I went to New York – by myself, just for a week. I went there to get acquainted with the single, talented, successful advertising genius I thought I might have been in a different lifetime. I have family in New York, but I didn’t tell them I was there; instead, I stayed alone in a cheap little tourist hotel uptown, the kind of place where you don’t have to worry about rapists but you may have to worry about roaches.

I figured out the bus and subway maps and rode where I wanted to go. I browsed in bookstores, drank cappuccinos, sat in the park and watched pale New York children climbing the monkey bars. I transformed myself so convincingly into my single urban doppelgänger that tourists asked me for directions.

And on my last night in New York, a Friday, I did what the other me would probably do: I went to a movie. I’d heard about something that was opening that night, a new movie with pirates and giants and other things I liked, so I took the bus downtown to see The Princess Bride.

It was mobbed. “Single seats only,” called the cashier. Hah! I was single!

I shoved my way to the front of the line, handed over my six bucks, and found the only seat left in the enormous, packed theater, in the second row next to the left-hand wall. The film was weirdly distorted by my seat position, and the crick in my neck was to persist for several days, but I didn’t care. I was enchanted – the flick was sheer romance, with just enough of a satirical gloss that I could immerse myself without embarrassment. I swooned over Inigo Montoya, fell in love with the sweetness of Fezzik the Giant, roared with laughter at the tail-turning cowardice of sinister Count Rugen.

A few times in a lifetime, you see a movie and at the end of it you say, “This was my movie. They made this movie for me.” Well, of course, a few million other people feel the same way about The Princess Bride. But as far as I was concerned that night, both of us – the Sacramento wife and mom, the brilliant New York copywriter – had just seen our movie.

And after an experience like that, neither of us wanted to clamber back onto a dirty crowded New York bus. So we – I – walked all the way back to the hotel. It was a crisp, starlit autumn night in New York, and the walk was some forty blocks up Park Avenue, past some of Manhattan’s ritziest real estate. Every building had a doorman, and it seemed as though all of them were smiling; I said “hello” to each one. At one building, limousines were pulling up to the curb, spilling out slender men in dinner jackets, women in furs and diamonds. I could hear piano music, laughter, the clinking of glasses inside.

Perhaps the other me would have been invited to that party – after all, she’d won a couple of Clio Awards by now and was probably making six figures. This me smiled and said hi to the doorman, strolled the rest of the way up Park Avenue, let myself into my hotel room, and began packing to go home to my husband and kids.


There are certain foods that you just don’t want anyone else to see you eating. This is one of them.

Solitary Decadence

One slice whole wheat bread

Crunchy peanut butter

Brown sugar

Toast the bread very lightly and let it cool. Spread with peanut butter. Cover with a thick layer of brown sugar. Broil the whole thing until the brown sugar darkens and bubbles and turns crunchy.

Resist temptation: let it cool a couple of minutes before you eat it, or you will inflict third-degree burns on the inside of your mouth.

This must be eaten, of course, with a tall cold glass of milk, while wearing your most reprehensible shabby-comfy clothing. Then tuck yourself into bed all alone with a trashy novel, and cherish your solitude.

Ben was not about to give up his ramen when he didn’t have Edna around to cook for him anymore. He was tall enough and responsible enough by then to use the stove, so he started fixing his own.

Back then, the only ramen most Americans knew about was Top Ramen, which as far as I can tell has not changed an iota through the decades: noodles boiled and softened in a broth of artificial meat flavor, herbs and a heaping helping of MSG. Not health food, but quick, tasty and filling (25c/serving back then – tough to beat!).

As soon as he learned that he could add other foods to his ramen, he started asking for ingredients: eggs to poach in the broth, greens and peas for flavor and texture, leftover chicken and pork for protein.

Ben had always been fascinated by food preparation – as a toddler, he would pull each of the pots and pans out of the cupboard and announce its purpose – so as soon as he had access to the fridge and stove, he began inventing his own food.

A decade or so later, when Ben was living with me and attending community college, my mom came up from LA to visit. I had a pre-existing commitment to teach a spanking class, so I suggested Ben cook dinner so the two of them could spend some time together. Mom valiantly soldiered through a big bowl of stew á la Ben ­– which included many chunks of tripe, which she loathed. What a trouper!

Ben’s Ramen

1 egg

1 package Top Ramen (Ben preferred the pork flavor, but Top Ramen doesn’t seem to make it anymore – substitute Oriental flavor, or the pork flavor of a similar inexpensive brand of instant ramen)

1 handful raw spinach

1 handful frozen peas

1 oz. chopped cooked meat – chicken, pork, ham, etc.

Bring water to a boil according to package directions. Drop noodles into the water. Loosen them with a fork until they are separated and flexible. Add the flavor packet and stir it in. Break the egg into the simmering broth. Lay the spinach leaves on top and simmer, until the egg is cooked and the spinach is wilted. Add the meat and peas and simmer for a moment till they’re hot. Serve. Don’t forget to make extra for Grandma Sue if she’s visiting.

Frank and I separated when Ben was six and Miles was eleven. We did it, we thought, because of an irreconcilable sexual difference – I was kinky and he was not. Bless him, he tried, but somebody has to occupy one end of the bell curve, and he was it. I was imagining orgies, dungeon parties, climbing to ecstatic heights with pain and role-play – and he wanted genital sex, which didn’t and doesn’t do much for me.

In hindsight, of course, our separation was a lot more complex than that. Each of us had gotten horribly dependent on each other to do things we should have known how to do ourselves: he had to ask me how one went about renting an apartment, and I had to borrow money from him to cover my missed quarterly self-employment payments. But he started writing poetry again, for the first time since we’d been in college (he would go on to become a skillful, published poet). And I began exploring play with partners of all descriptions.

Meanwhile, though, there were the kids. They dealt very differently with the news of our breakup. Miles matured overnight, and began relating to Ben more as an uncle than a brother, while Ben regressed a little bit – he started wanting to sleep with all his stuffed animals on the bed with him, which he hadn’t done for a year or two.

Frank and I had agreed that we wanted joint physical and legal custody. That required that we see each other at least a couple of times a week. At first it was difficult – the first time he came to my new apartment, I tried to hug him goodbye, the way I’d do with any friend. He stiffened in my arms, and stepped back to break the embrace .

Gradually, though, as the months wore on, we eased back into the friendship that was the natural setpoint of our relationship.

He had rented an apartment in our old neighborhood. I was never invited to visit, but I heard from the boys that it was dark and cramped – I was pretty sure that he’d fallen into depression, and it was hard for me not to try to fix it – but I’d sworn off trying to fix people[1], so there wasn’t much I could do to help.

I’d decided to do my best to atone for the separation by finding a place where they could, for the first time in their lives, have separate bedrooms. Given the realities of my budget, we wound up in a decrepit three-bedroom flat on the second floor of an elderly Victorian in downtown Sacramento.

Our weeks fell into a comfortable pattern. Monday through Friday, I’d pack lunches, drop the boys at school, do my work – I was a freelance marketing copywriter at the time – pick them up at their after-school program, supervise homework and TV, then tuck them in.

Frank would pick them up on Friday. As soon as I heard his car driving away, I’d get started spending my weekend slutting around with my new circle of what would now be called “friends with benefits” – kinky people of all shapes, sizes and genders, with whom I practiced both my own fantasies and theirs (and discovered that “spanking” was not synonymous with “S/M”). He’d drop them off at dinnertime Sunday, and it would all begin again.

There was one exception. On Wednesdays, we had Laundromat and Pizza Night.

Our weird little flat, unsurprisingly, did not include a washer or dryer. Fortunately, we lived a couple of miles from a reasonably nice laundromat – and better yet, there was a Round Table Pizza, complete with a video arcade, two doors away.

Wednesday afternoon, I’d gather up laundry: Ben’s clothing from the kids’ department, Miles’s from Young Men, mine from Misses (this was before I began acquiring the specialized wardrobe which included garments from the fetishwear store and the men’s department). I’d strip the bedding from all three beds, and pick up the unreasonable number of towels needed by two growing boys. I’d retrieve the boys from their after-school program at the Y, and we’d head over to Round Table.

Our order was always the same: one large combination and a pitcher of root beer. While the pizza was baking, we’d go start our laundry. I’d dispense the first of several handsful of quarters, then peacefully watch my laundry go round and round while they entertained themselves with electronic mayhem[2].

When the pizza was ready, one of them would come get me, and we’d scarf it down (only those who have never fed two growing boys will be surprised to hear that we were able to kill an entire combination pie in a couple of minutes). I’d sigh and pass out more quarters, and  go transfer the clothes into the dryer. My plan in creating L&P Night was that the boys would help with the folding, but that almost never came to pass – although I did insist on another pair of hands to help with folding the sheets. Full, wired and freshly laundered, we’d head home just in time for bedtime.

Later, when we moved into nicer digs that included a shared laundry room, Miles asked, “Do we have to stop doing Laundromat and Pizza Night?” Sadly, we did – the new place was pricey enough that my budget didn’t include all those weekly quarters – but we all missed it.

Adult Ben and Miles playing air hockey, with silhouettes of themselves as children.

[1] An oath that I still struggle with, 30 years later.

[2] To this day, anytime they get together they try to play a few rounds of air hockey.


09/14/2020

Author’s note: It seems to me that the things which didn’t happen to a person are as important as the things that did. Several of these “alternate realities” will appear throughout the book.

Alternate Reality #3

The marriage license in our filing cabinet says it’s really much too late to be coming out to anyone about anything – but in my own defense, I didn’t really understand my own sexuality for the first near-decade of our marriage. And then it takes me several more years to work up the courage to tell him, stammeringly, about my desires.

We play a few times. Although my fantasies are mostly about topping, I am happy to play bottom if it means I get to play at all – but as it turns out, neither role works for him.

We are at an impasse, and talking about divorce. We decide to try to spend more time together, and follow our reading interests to one of the early science fiction conferences. Together, we attend a discussion of alternative family structures in science fiction, and consider for the first time the idea of an open relationship.

That saves us. It isn’t easy – we often bemoan the lack of an informative how-to book that will help us over the hurdles. But eventually, he finds a girlfriend who likes vanilla sex as much as he does, and I find myself a couple of regular play partners, nad somehow it works, mostly.

He and I rarely have sex anymore, because that energy mostly goes to the outside partners who are better matches than we are. But all the things we like to do together – raising our kids, going to the movies, talking at length about books and music and theater – still give us great pleasure.

It’s not most people’s idea of marriage, but it works for us.