Monday, December 7, 2009

Leather and Lace

Mary took the mirror from the wall and threw it on the floor. It broke up into many angled pieces. Each piece reflected something of their house and the clothing of their children hung on pegs on the wall, and one large piece shone with the image of the sky and its early-morning adornment of cottony clouds overhead tumbling southeast in the early breeze and the bright dots of cottonwood leaves.

Two married people found themselves on separate and barren planets, alone in a place called Young County in the remote land of Texas. In an instant they realized that the bonds between them were not strong at all, but very fragile, and if these were broken they would be solitary and isolated for all eternity, and all that they had made together and the children they had made between them would be thrown out on long orbits like minor comets. . . . They were caught up in a rage of destruction, both hoping at some point the other would realize how serious this was.

--Paulette Jiles, The Color of Lightning

We have a painting in our hallway to our bedroom. It's called Lovers Running, and shows a man and a woman dressed in white on a green hillside, holding hands, and running in their bare feet. Sometimes, I get the title mixed up and call it Running Lovers. The same artist, Brian Kershisnik, has done another painting, which he calls, The Most Difficult Part. It shows a man and a woman in black leotards trying to perform a gymnastics move. One figure's standing on its hands while the other holds the feet. While the bodies look smooth and plaint, the move itself looks difficult and the stance is clumsy. Brian has said this piece is his metaphor for marriage. Not the only one, but one of those images that helps him makes sense of marriage. I know what he means. There are times in my marriage that I would feel more comfortable doing the reverse backhanded double Swedish helicopter backtuck with a triple twist, than in going forward.

At those moments, precipitated in particular for me when I have not been what I had hoped I would be for Kevin, I feel myself pulling away. I am literally the running lover. And I'm running to the corner, putting myself there and waiting for Kevin to come find me. I become silent, and watchful. I don't initiate any conversations, and my replies are brief. I try to take my cues from him. I suppose I want to know that I am still loved, despite my inability to even remotely balance a checkbook while being able to use one with dexterity (one of my difficult parts). But I can't articulate that. Some part of me won't say it. I want him to feel that and sense my distress. I want him to be my emotional GPS beacon. I want him to come running, my personal St. Bernard to rescue me from the avalanche in which I continue to sit.

All he sees is that I am gone. Tessa is gone, somewhere else. I won't speak to him, engage with him, flirt with him, touch him. So, he searches his memory for what he has done to precipitate this kind of distance. He doesn't know that all I want is for him to come find me and to reassure me that, despite it all, I am still loved. Instead, he feels that he is not loved, that t here is something innate within him that must be unlovable because his actions certainly don't warrant such a withdrawal. Therefore, it must be him. And if it is him, the very essence of him, then what can be done about that? How does one change one's very nature?

These are our individual thoughts, as we grow further and further apart. There we spin the two of us, in orbit around each other, wary, and always aware that the other is in the room.

It is during these times that I want to touch Kevin so desperately my teeth ache. I orient myself to where he is, to the distance between us on the couch and to the console between us in the car, and his right hand resting on his thigh. The pull to him is actually physical. But, because of some rule I have devised about who makes what move first and when, I don't actually close the gap. I'm sure there are some of you out there who find this behavior completely baffling. You touch easily and often. Your preferred manner of sitting next to your family on the pew or in the car includes a backrub. That doesn't come easily for me. I watch people who touch easily, wondering how they do it. How do they push past the force field of personal space and march in with arms outspread, hands at the ready to grab shoulder, or wrist, or, our personal favorite, perform the double-thump man hug?

At night though, my resolve crumbles. It's hard to sleep in the same bed with your lover and not touch him. More than hard, it's unnatural. The entire exercise seems like a farce: Get into bed, speaking politely, take care to wonder what the other one wants to watch on TV, blankets pulled up, both lying flat on our backs, not turned to the other or turned away as comfort dictates. Kevin manages to slip into sleep slower than the three seconds it normally takes him—a full five minutes or so. He turns his back to me. I start to read signs in the sheets.

Obviously, I don't sleep well. After much soul searching and bluster, I decide I'm just going to use his body for my own gratification in a reverse of gender roles. I reach out and slip my left foot into the space between his ankles bones. He doesn't respond. His breathing doesn't even change. I then spend the hours calculating what it means that he doesn't respond. Perhaps the snoring should tip me off that he is actually just fast asleep and doesn't feel me reaching out. But still I think and ruminate, my mind hesitant and fearful.

My body cannot wait though. I push my foot further, turning my body to spoon against his. I slide my right arm around his chest, and slip my left under his pillow. I rest my head against the broad of his upper back. Then, in his warmth, whether he is asleep or not, I don't know, I can finally sleep. Sometime during the night, the rigidity in his back will loosen, and he will sink toward me. His arms, which have been folded over his chest, will unwrap themselves, and his right hand will find mine. No longer lovers running. And maybe not then, but soon, just lovers. After, always the words: explanation, seeking forgiveness, giving forgiveness and reassurance, the laughing, the disbelief, the sheer relief that we are back together again.

I've written before about the capacity of the mother's body to teach me what I didn't know I needed to know. Things like the capacity of the body to provide sustenance for a child even though the spirit is unwilling. About the sacrifice required to mother well, giving all the body has to provide a safe haven for children entrusted to my care. Lately, I've been thinking about another lesson my body teaches me: when my heart and mind are so at odds with themselves that I cannot see straight and cannot talk straight, and when the distance between Kevin and I grows longer and longer, my body aches for him. I want him, with a hunger that's not, at least for me, a daily occurrence. I want his hands, his bare flesh next to mine, his fingers in my hair, his feet against my calves, our fingers knit together. I have been taught since childhood to learn to subdue my body, to discipline it, and to shape it, to take control of it and to push aside the urges and desires. In this case, wisely so, I am learning to listen to my body talk.

This hunger is, I think, my body's way of getting to where I want to be when I cannot get there myself. When my thoughts are so jumbled, and my ideas so convoluted, and my motives not even apparent to myself, my body knows with a wisdom beyond my own experience that what I want—body, mind and soul—is to be one with Kevin. My body knows how to start the process of healing, of restoring unity, and it will drive towards that with a pressure that cannot be stopped. It's my body's way of saying, this unity you seek, this oneness, where he reads your mind and you read his, that's not attainable yet (or ever). But this love, this physical unity, is . . . and it is the taste and the mirror and the bedrock and the promise of what can be.

I know some couples can't make love until it's all worked out, until all the talking is done. (Sometimes the talking takes months, and that's really too long of a time to ask somebody to wait.) But I cannot talk freely until I have made love. Chest to chest, with his arms around me, with my forehead pressed against him, I can talk. What I say then is what matters. It's not the jumbled thoughts, the half-formed recriminations, and the accusations that filled me before when most of me was worried I wasn't loved or even lovable. It's just my feelings, my fears, my thoughts, and my reasons for doing and for reading into what he did. And it's half of what filled my head before. The rest has settled or been blown to the wind, like the chaff, that inevitably grows up amongst the marriage wheat.

Title: Stevie Nicks, Leather and Lace.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I know that for me personally, that tried and true wedding advice "never go to bed angry" is terrible! Often, the reason I am angry is that I am tired--and I am NOT good with tired! A good night's rest (even better when my hubby is home and I get some love!) makes almost everything better in the morning.

    I know when I am feeling stiff and prickly, my husbands arms can melt my heart, and help me sort out my troubles. Glad to hear I am not alone!

  3. Amen, Prism! I SO agree. Great point...(-:
    And Tessa, what a comfort it is to read posts like this one and know that I'm not the only one who has moments of "reading signs in the sheets." You have such a gift for putting into words what I (and probably a lot of us) experience but can't articulate into words.

  4. The underlying impulse behind this post was to put into words the feeling that sex between a man and a woman, particularly a married man and woman shouldn't be used like a reward for good behaviour. (Of course, there are times when you can promise a really interesting experience in return for his completing a particularly horrible job, like fixing the chimney flue:)). By this I mean, there are those times (days, weeks, months) where the state of the married union is tenuous. Where we find ourselves, like Mary and Britt in the quote, staring across at each other and realizing we are fragile.

    We get married precisely so that we can love, in all sense of the word, our partner. And when times get shaky, we reject the one resource that can soothe and strengthen more than any other. The impulse can be to withhold intimacy until you are on stronger ground. But I don't know that there is a way to get onto stronger ground without sharing physical intimacy. A therapist told my husband who was counselling a couple that the couple could get through their problems IF they continued to have sex. Without it, there wasn't much hope. I've thought a lot about that.

    It seems counter-intuitive to withhold intimacy, but to reach out at those tense times requires a certain amount of blind courage and deliberate vulnerability that draws upon the idea that I want us more than I want to preserve my sense of self. In my own (admittedly very limited)experience, sex for a man refocuses him to the woman, and sex for a woman opens her heart. By its very nature, it requires you to turn toward each other both physically and emotionally and that opens up space for dialogue.

  5. Interesting thoughts, I am a bit older and have now lost my loving husband. I remember a time in the early years due to differences in focus that we drew apart and there was an unfathomable distance between us. We felt we were falling out of love. We were blessed with an illness and a long trip that gave, for us, what it was we needed for renewal of our relationship that never went away again. We talked and read together for almost a week. After that we would take trips and one would read to the other and we would discuss what we read. There was discussion of dreams and hopes and together plans. It was hard at the end of 38 years to know, I didn't have a friend to lay and discuss the future with any longer. Sex is good, but sharing and dreaming together has a level all of its own.
    Thank you for letting me comment.

  6. Frances,you're right. Dreaming and sharing is part of the joy of being mated i.e., paired up for the length of it all, like swans. Sometimes it's hard to see that future when you feel that "unfathomable distance" between you, a chasm that has opened up and seems to be getting wider and wider on its own. I like that phrase you've chosen to describe that moment when you look at each other across the kitchen and it feels like its far longer than the 14 feet.

    For me, dreaming about a future is closely connected to wanting the present. So, when the present is unsettled, unsatisfying, unpleasant, the future becomes even more frightening.

    Creating oneness, on a physical level, for me, is teaching me to open up and be vulnerable. I'm not saying that sex is always the answer: sometimes there's nothing that beats a good book, in the bath, with a Diet Mountain Dew, and a quiet midnight house. But intimacy is always the answer, and when you've lost the easy, honest, intimate flow that exists most times, and find yourself sinking, then physical intimacy is, despite all inclinations to withdraw, a way to reboot and to reach out.