Title: Sex in America

Author: C.K. Stead

In: Sport 12: Autumn 1994

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 1994, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 12: Autumn 1994

C.K. Stead — Sex in America

page 66

C.K. Stead

Sex in America

This is the moment when he relaxes. He thinks he may only have learned it recently—learned it consciously—and even now it doesn’t always happen It’s when all the anxiety goes, and all the effort. He is no longer worrying whether he is pleasing her, whether she wants more or less, slower or faster, where they are going, when they will arrive. All of that deliberateness collapses and dissolves into this sense of the pleasure of it, body and mind that have become one, bathed in it, irradiated. There is nothing else he wants in the world, only this moment when he can stop like a rower resting on his oars, gliding between banks, listening, looking.

He is now that part—exclusively has become—it. Hooked in hard. Locked by her at base. Anchored. That’s where his sense of himself is clearest. No boundary: himself as part of her; herself as part of him.

But no—not ‘exclusively’. Not quite. Isn’t he also most of his skin? A nose breathing her hair? Two eyes turning sideways to see the nameless couple on the big hotel bed in the big hotel mirror?

Seeing, yes—and recognising the self that is not-self, the voyeur, registering what it sees, taking private note of it. Remembering.

He meets her eyes in the mirror, half-answers her half-smile, her eyes looking, then rolling back as he moves slowly down and out, up and in, back into the lock.

She is small, perfectly made, laid out there on the sheets, one neat leg thrown wide and hanging off the bed. He likes that image which makes him look so large, over her, in her.

If they were talking about this moment rather than living it—if they should talk about it afterwards—he might say to her, naive, laid open and made innocent by the pleasure of it, that he wonders whether fucking is like this for many, or most, or few. Why should there be so many shadows over the landscape, so many storms, so much violence? Why is the human world not full of benign and stupid sex-junkies, high and happy on their drug?

But they have not talked in that way—not in words; only in the language of skin and hair, textures, moistures, groans and sighs.

When, two days ago, he was woken in her apartment by her climbing over him, getting out of the bed, trying not to wake him, saying ‘Reste, mon page 67 ami. Ne bouge-toi’—because she had to go to work while he, the visitor, did not—he was not able to remember her name. While she was in the shower he scrabbled through her pocketbook to find it; and then didn’t at once recognise it—Catherine Demas—because she pronounces it in French: ‘Cutreen’.

‘My Cutreen-Cunt,’ he thought, lying there in her bed, the first morning after the first night, a cable car clanking by on the hill—trying to live it as if he, who has never been to Paris except in his mind, were Henry Miller, and she some wonderfuck from Quiet Days in Clichy.

That first night there was more of the anxiety, the effort, the need to prove something (this was, in brother Greg’s phrase, ‘Sex in America!’); less of the pleasure. Or rather, the pleasure was in the excitement—because it was happening—to him; because he was doing it, and well.

She has thrown her head sideways and is shuddering—once, a moment later a second time. These shudders are what she told him last night were her ‘Leetle comings’. ‘Ze beeg one’ she likes to save up, hold off…

He responds to something, moves as she seems to require, and wonders how this can be, how it works, that already, like long-established dancing partners, some intuitive monitor in each feels what it makes the other feel— and responds.

But there is separateness too. He recognises it as he recalls, sees behind closed eyes, the sea lions among the wharf piles in the harbour at Monterey, lolling back in the green water, barking for scraps, and the huge pelican birds looking down at them—some part of his consciousness going randomly off on a track of its own, indifferent, and then puzzling at itself.

It is as if the mind were a series of shut doors any one of which he can choose to open and look into. Here are the sea lions. Here is the beautiful monastery on the hill. Here are the shade-trees, some species of pine, and the white sands at Carmel; or the barren slopes of Big Sur about which Henry wrote his only boring book.

And here, behind this door (she twists on him and it springs open of its own accord, slamming the others shut) are simply colours—greens and purples and plum-reds, strong, heavy, dark …

And there are thoughts. Thoughts about thoughts, about thinking, about not-thinking. Thoughts about images. About time …

‘Timeless’ is the word that comes to him. And then a phrase—‘No yesterday. No tomorrow’—at once rejected (she has turned on her side like a swimmer, resting, and he adjusts the angle, slows the pace) because it page 68 belongs not to reality but to Hollywood. There is before; there will be after. Yesterday was the day of the Berkeley Campus, and Fisherman’s Wharf, and the deer in the garden at Wildcat Canyon Road. Tomorrow will be whatever comes to fill the blank space that represents it. Today is now—this body-surfing, this skin-skimming, this cave-craving.

So why, in the midst of it, should he receive at precisely this moment, like a brief urgent interruption at once cut off, a sensation as if he were hearing screams and breaking glass? Is one of those mind-doors marked ‘Future: Enter at your own Risk’?

A few weeks back in a bar in Los Angeles he met a scientist—Austrian originally, now American. Otto Bergman. Theoretical physicist—his subject, Time. Otto talked about relativity. About (for example) how old you would be if you set off at age twenty and went through space and returned after one hundred earth-years. Tried to explain that, no, you would not be one hundred and twenty—then gave up and told it another way. (Or was it an unrelated anecdote?) Once when he was a child in Vienna, lying in the dark drifting towards sleep, he was jerked into full waking by the sound of the large single electric light fitting that hung in the centre of his bedroom crashing to the floor. He yelled in fright. His mother rushed in, turned on the light switch, and the light fitting crashed to the floor …

He leans back and without withdrawing puts one hand down where the curls of her public hair lightly brush his fingers and palm. Pleasure: the desire not to be other than this, and here, and now. Or rather, the absence of the desire to be other. The loss of ego in the discovery of self: ‘Is it’ (the question comes, he thinks, from Moby Dick?) ‘I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?’

On the dressing table under, and reflected in, the mirror is the Manual. Why did he bring it on this journey? Glossy. Plastic. Hard and bright. Not those in-the-head velvety colours of sex. The pages perforated and slipped into place over multiple wire hinges so its drug company information can be brought always up to date. Quick-fire, easy-to-use, for hard-pressed physician-subscribers.

In that little back room of the gallery where she showed him the Mirós two days ago, she asked was he a travelling salesman. It was the Manual— hated object—that prompted the question …

She is making strange sounds now, in the throat and between the lips— murmuring, twittering—in French, Esperanto, Desperato, Ecstatica. Her fingers going (so to speak) to the keyboard, going at it, scripting it, all action, the eye of her storm making precarious his control, her tongue forced page 69 suddenly, big and unmoving into his mouth. He does what he can with it, sucking on it hard as on a great lozenge …

He came (he told her in the little room among the Mirós) from a far country away to the south, down under the earth’s curve, Ireland’s matching state, you might say (some of his forebears were Irish)—much rain, many cows and no serpents. Travelled then, in his early twenties, to its nearest neighbour, notable for arid spaces and many serpents. Then, after some years, came here to America, and had still not, despite his best efforts in that neighbouring southern vastness, and more recently here in the Land of Free and the Home of the Brave, seen a living snake—not until this day. The day of the snake. The day of the Mirós. The day of (he would forget her name, and find it on a card in her pocketbook while she sang in the shower her comic-gravel Piaf imitation, ‘Je ne rrrregrrette rrrrien …’) Catherine. Cutreen.

He had scored (it was a long story) a green card, scored a job working out of LA, and so rode in his company car the highways of the West Coast States—California, Oregon, Washington—and even inland through desert and canyon and mountain country, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, signing on medical men, supplying those who were already subscribers with the latest updates, collecting their annual subscriptions. He was no salesman, liking the desert routes best where there was least business, the strange, down-at-heel, off-the-main-highway motels, the red rocks, the more-than-mansize cacti holed by nesting birds, the coolness of morning in desert towns like Phoenix, their gardens under sprinklers in the clear dry early light.

And then there was Yosemite. Long ago and far away, as a child in that innocent dismal-distant home-place, listening to rain on the iron roof and seeing it fall on the green garden while registering also the intolerable melancholy of a bird that called itself the riro riro, he had read in National Geographic about Yosemite, looked at pictures of its steep rock-faces, its redwoods, its cabins under them by rushing water; had read, imagined, hunted there in his head, sat around campfires; had played it out to the hilt, until the invented stories lost, by dint of repetition, not their charm, but their power to remove, and so had been set aside in favour of stronger drugs. Set aside and forgotten.

So he came home to Yosemite as to a previous life. He didn’t tire of driving through it. Whenever possible, even when it took him some page 70 distance out of his way, that was the route he chose.

The deserts too, and even the Grand Canyon, were landscapes out of a Western-addicted childhood. These were the territories where he had learned to ride and to shoot. Driving through them now, the Manual-man with the accent some thought was Boston, others (closer) identified as Crocodile Dundee’s, he made unscheduled stops, wandered off the road among those cacti that looked like set-props left when the movie-making came to an end, turning stones over with his toe (public notices and the local lore warned against it) seeking sight of what was still denied. Scorpions, spiders, lizards, fungi—yes; but a snake—never! Was there upon him some spell, some reverse curse, the luck of the Irish which was the blessing of St Patrick, determining that where others saw serpents, and even sometimes died of their bite, he should see none?

Or not (he explained to her, his eyes sometimes on one or another of the Mirós, sometimes on her perfect upper lip) until this morning, the morning of this visit. He was to come up by air from LA, take the shuttle flight, a break from his work, his endless driving on the roads. He had a room booked in a hotel. He was to see Parsifal—that was his purpose, the one which circumstance, or more precisely she, would forestall—at the San Francisco Opera House. Ticket by courtesy of a satisfied customer, a lonely Las Vegas medic, lover of opera, fanatic of Wagner, who enjoyed talking to this bringer-of-the-Manual, and looked forward to his next visit (now it would be an embarrassment—or could he read up Wagner in a library and pretend?) when they could discuss the music, the drama of the king’s wound, the king’s bath, the holy spear, the magic chalice, and the sexual charms of (could he have said she was called?) Kundry!

So he was walking that morning down Pearl in Santa Monica to Lincoln Boulevard where the bus ran that would go all the way to the airport. In no hurry. Knowing it was early, and that the planes flew on the hour …

And there it was. Right there. Moving. Rippling along in the gutter, keeping pace with him. Bronze back, yellow sides, beady eye, flickering tongue. Not much more than a half metre in length. Not happy to be where it was, nor to have him watching it—and when it came to a car access it turned and made its way up from the roadway, slipping, hesitating, seeming to find the smooth concrete uncongenial, unhelpful to its means of locomotion. So he had time to take out his camera and photograph it— once, twice, a third time—before it reached the front garden of the house and slithered quickly away among low shrubs at the side of the drive.

page 71

She talks constantly of Paris, longs to return, is glad that he knows some French, can read it, even speak it a little, however haltingly; that he seems to understand her francophone jokes, her little obscenities; that Paris is high on the list of sacred places he plans to set foot in before (and that will be soon) he reaches thirty—the age when, for some reason no more explicable than why Cinderella should have to cut and run at midnight, he sees his wanderjabre coming to an end with a return to that green dark under-region of rain and cows.

Naked, they sprawl in her bed, on the rug beside it, on the divan in her sitting room; or sit in kimonos (she has one from a past lover that fits him) at the table in her kitchen drinking coffee, eating fruit yoghurt and croissants, looking out over the rooftops towards the Bay where the morning fog is lifting, while much of her talk is of Paris, or of the means to get back there.

Yes France is home. Yes she can return at any time. But she plans to go with money, enough to open her own little gallery in Paris. Otherwise it will have to be the provinces, Dijon perhaps, or her home town of Macon, and that is not what she wants.

She tells him about the little Paris street she lived in when she was a student. The gravelled square at one end with the big church and the fountain and the two cafés with tables out on the pavements. The two bookshops, three picture galleries, the épicerie. The boulangerie on the corner half way up the cobbled street, where once (once only) she let the baker fuck her in return for a gateau, trés grand, trés sculptural, for her boyfriend’s birthday, and came home with puffs and handprints of flour on her quickly-lifted skirt. And at the end of the street the palace and the fountains, and the extensive gardens so full of statuary you kept coming on some famous head or torso or figure you hadn’t seen before, peering out of a clump of bushes or crouching among them, just when you thought you knew them all.

Then, embarrassed at having talked so much and with such enthusiasm, she asks him again to talk about his home. He tells her instead about Santa Monica, his apartment there not far from the sea—one long white room with kitchen and bathroom off—and how he has furnished it: at one end his ‘office’, a white-topped desk on white enamelled steel legs, a small black computer (company issue, for his records), three black shelves for books and CDs, red plastic trays for paper, a white phone and fax machine and black page 72 office chair. On the wall above the desk a pink-faced electric clock that advertises piston rings; and along the outer wall under a window, the red futon on which he sleeps.

That, he explains, is ‘the working and sleeping end’; and when she frowns at this conjunction he explains that if she should visit LA, when she visits, the futon will be opened out to make a double bed, and everything on the desk will be shut down, the computer and fax machine switched off.

At the other end is his kitchen-eating-living space, with small dining table and chairs, divan with florid cushions, and two chairs, in dark red canvas, DIRECTOR in black on the back of one, SCRIPT EDITOR on the other. This is the end where be eats, sits, watches television, and (very seldom) entertains.

Out there, through the windows, is his sandy back garden, watered daily, his small patch of lawn, with a lemon tree, and bougainvillea over the high enclosing fence.

And (turning to the left past the windows) the long blank wall on which he imagined the Miró …

Ah the Miró. ‘Miróir de l’homme, II.’ Her eyes light up. ‘You will buy it. You will buy it, mon amour. Il faut, absolument. You must.’

She pushes him to the floor, and as he crawls away she throws a leg over, bestrides him, rides him around the room, tightening her knees on his naked flanks, asking can he feel what she calls, mixing French and English, her ‘levers’ kissing his back.

Suddenly he tips her sideways on to the rug and falls on her, pinning her down. ‘What was it like with the baker?’

His plane left late. There had been an hour, more than an hour, while it had waited, fully loaded in the Los Angeles sun, for word that a backlog of planes stacked to come in through fog at San Francisco had reduced sufficiently for this one, heading there, to be cleared for takeoff.

When, after the delay and an hour’s flight, they got there, the fog had lifted. He took the bus into town, checked in at his hotel, the Holiday Inn at the City Centre, made sure that he knew the route to the Opera House, then headed for Union Square.

He was strolling, looking for somewhere to sit down, drink coffee, read a newspaper, when the painting (if that was what it was) took his eye. It was in the window of a small art dealer just off the Square. There was a vivid central column, just off-vertical, rising as if from two mounds and ending page 73 in a sky containing streaks and puffs of bright colour that might have been fireworks or fantastic clouds. He did not know what kind of art work it was, what technique it exemplified, only that its strange mixture of billowing unbounded colour and fine hard dark ink-lines excited him, and that he imagined it (not ‘seriously’, not thinking of himself as a person who ‘buys works of art’) hanging on that emptiness of white wall which had seemed, the better he made his apartment look, the more to demand that it be adorned with something bright and bold.

He looked at the work, enjoyed, moved on, returned, noticed a detail: around the base of the colour-column a small serpent curled, its eye black, its forked tongue flame-red as if the mouth were filled with fire.

It was not the name, Miró, which he now saw at the bottom corner beside the date, 1970, but the serpent—that fortuitous conjunction with what be had seen only a few hours before in Santa Monica—which made him step into the gallery guessing he must look as he felt, tentative …

There, however, to be greeted reassuringly by a young woman—strong French accent, small neat good looks, a manner that mixed neutral practicality and unobtrusive charm.

The Miró, she told him, was one of a series. Number 66 of 250. The technique, aquatint and dry-point. As for the form (she was talking as she removed it from the window)—phallic obviously, wasn’t it so?

And he saw now that the central column ended in a kind of arrowhead; while the two mounds it rose from might have been symbolic testes. ‘Maybe about the Fall,’ she suggested. ‘It’s called “Miróir de l’homme, II”.’

She took him into a small back room, closed the door, and hung the picture under perfect lighting. She brought out other Mirós to place beside it for comparison; showed him documents of authentication which came from a dealer in New York; opened books on Miró and showed how ‘Miróir de l’homme, II’ was characteristic of the artist’s last phase; talked about recent Miró prices in London and Paris, and suggested they were higher there; told him she had a client whose way of financing his summer holiday in Europe was to buy a minor work by a major Modernist here on the West Coast, and sell it in London, Paris or Madrid.

Somewhere in all of this a price was mentioned, $3750, though she thought her employer, the owner of the gallery, might consider a lower offer that was not unreasonable.

In some part of his mind be was trying to disentangle his interest in the page 74 painting from his interest in the woman. Before this moment he would have said he did not have $3750 to spend on a work of art. Not even one thousand. But why not? He was employed, and saving. He would have spent that much—more—on a car, and only did not because the company supplied one. This might even be a profitable investment, if the Frenchwoman was to be believed …

It was late afternoon. When they emerged from the small room, the gallery was closed, the staff had gone. He said he would now have to go away and think seriously.

‘Ah mon ami,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Thinking is not so good as doing. In this art business you must strike … What do you say in English? While it is hot?’

While it was hot, he struck. He asked her to let him take her to a restaurant where they could continue to talk about it. He was surprised when she accepted; and there was even a moment of regret about Parsifal, which he would now not see.

That night and the next he spent at her apartment. The third, because she had a friend coming through town to whom she had promised a bed for the night, they went to his hotel. The day after that he was to return to LA.

The storm (his and hers) is passing, passes, is passed. The big hard lozenge has been removed from his mouth. They roll apart, holding hands, legs (his left, her right) still interlocked, murmuring, staring up at the ceiling which is dimly lit by a single bedside lamp. They drift into sleep.

Later they half wake, pull covers over one another, rearrange legs and arms, switch off the lamp, kiss as sexlessly as sister and brother, and sleep again.

After how long—one hour? three?—he is dreaming of Parsifal, the opera he has not seen, when the characters’ singing changes, becomes shrieking, screaming. Something is shattering. Now it is a scene in the movie of Dr Zhivago when a sheet of ice that has filled the open door of a railway wagon is smashed. No, not ice. Glass. And the voices—yelling. Calling for help …

‘Cheri.’ She is speaking into his ear—he can feel her hair against his cheek. ‘Réveille-toi. Wake, darling.’

She shakes him gently. He can hear sirens now. ‘Something is happening.’ ‘Some sing is ’upning?’ he says, imitating her.

page 75

They are on the eighth floor and their room is in darkness, but light comes in from outside. Naked, they go to the window. There is a fire in the next door hotel, the San Franciscan. It seems to be on the floor exactly opposite theirs, and the one above. Elevators are not working and fire has cut access by the stairs, trapping those in the two top floors who have not already escaped. Corridors are filling with smoke. People are shouting down into the street, some unfurling useless ropes of knotted sheets. In a room directly opposite a man, very calm, very orderly, goes to the window and looks down, goes to the door and looks out into the smoke-filled corridor, picks up the phone and speaks, sorts things in his room, returns to the window and looks down where two ladder trucks have arrived.

The ladders ascend. Soon rows of dark huddled figures are climbing out on to their platforms, helped by firefighters. Some people have to be encouraged, even forced, but the line keeps moving. There is less noise now as they clamber down the eight or nine floors to the street. Other firefighters wearing masks are up there with hoses. Some appear to have the job of breaking every window on the two top floors. Panes, smashed out, crash down to a street now full of police cars, firetrucks, ambulances, and a small late-night crowd held back behind a police line. There are shouts of encouragement, cheers, flashlights.

He stands behind her at the window and feels her begin to push back against him, moving from side to side. He looks down. She is leaning forward, legs apart, arms forward, propping against the sill. The vaguely-diffused light from the night city gleams on the perfect white curve of her buttocks. She turns her head to look at him. She is like some lovely animal. ‘Do it, mon vieux,’ she says.

He tries, spreading his feet wide, bending at the knees, but his legs are too long. He can’t quite get in under, and up.

On the floor there are two books of the San Francisco telephone directory. She moves them into place and stands on them. ‘Now,’ she says. ‘Do it.’

He does. Flames are licking out through the smashed window of what was the orderly man’s room. He sees fire through the wild aureole of her hair. The smell of smoke has begun to reach into their room. Shouts come up from the street, where the whirling lights of the firetrucks spiral round and round. Glass continues to crash down. Men dressed as for a spacewalk can be seen moving from room to room, in and out of patches of light. Someone still left on the top floor yells for help, and the space men turn and page 76 look at one another and lumber off in the direction of the cry.

‘Harder,’she says. ‘Harder!’

He drives up into her with more force, grunting, thighs slapping upward against buttocks and the back of her legs. She is lifted with the force of each thrust.

‘Harder,’ she says.

Next morning they had room service bring them an early breakfast. He was looking in the paper for news of the fire when she said, ‘Mon cher, today you must confirm.’


‘The purchase, darling. The Miró.’

‘Ze purchase duh-leeeng.’

She cuffed his head. ‘Don’t imitate me. I’m serious. You must sign the paper. Put down a deposit.’

He rolled over and looked at her. ‘I can’t buy the Miró.’

‘Why not? You like it. You want it.’

‘I don’t have the money.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Well, let’s say I have it but I need it.’ He saw her expression and decided to make it clear. ‘I mustn’t accumulate…things. That’s all. I’m on the road, Honey.’

‘You could make a profit.’

‘If I sold. But would I? I don’t know the market, the dealers … Look, I’ve thought about it, carefully. The Miró’s lovely. But not for me. Not this time.’ In case there should be doubt he added, ‘That’s final, Catherine. It has to be.’

It was as if she had been shot out of the bed by the release of a spring. Naked, her face set hard in an expression he had not seen before, she fumbled to put on her bra. ‘So it was all a lie.’

‘What was a lie?’

‘All this.’ She waved a hand at the bed that was like a battlefield. ‘All this fucking me…’

Silence, until he said, in a voice that sounded strained and weak, ‘You mean you fucked me so I would…’

She was not listening. She had found her underpants. Now she dragged her skirt over them. The face was still hard, but there were tears. ‘You are not a man of honour.’

page 77

‘A man of… Jesus. Did you think I was the baker? Did you fuck me for a cake?’

Silence. She had dragged her shirt on and was tucking it in, roughly so there were creases and lumps. She went to the mirror to look at her tears and touch them with her finger.

‘What do you get for making a sale, Catherine? A commission? Ten per cent?’

No answer.

‘Is that what you’re worth? Ten per cent of three seven five zero? 375 bucks? For three days of heavy sex? One two five a night? Is that how I’m supposed…’

He got out of bed, his movements expressing indignation, displaying it. In his travel bag he found his chequebook. He went to the table and wrote her the cheque. He held it out to her. ‘Take it.’

She was standing looking down at it. He did not think of it as the payment of a debt—did not really expect that she would accept it. It was a way of making clear to her …

She took it, read the figures, folded it, and tucked it into her pocketbook.

He had a window seat. Down there the arid landscape of Southern California rolled and lifted away towards the mountains, with here and there startling green patches where irrigation water had been pumped in from the north. Through the windows on the opposite side he caught the broad glare of afternoon sunlight striking off the ocean. They had begun the long descent into Los Angeles.

His tray table was down and there was a post card lying on it. He had addressed it, and written ‘Dear Greg,’.

Greg was the brother who had sent a card saying all was well, life was boring, the Government was going to fall, and ‘tell me about Sex in America!

He remembered what she had said when he asked, ‘What was it like with the baker?’

The baker, she had said, was nice. But he was—not old, but not a young man either, and they had done it standing up in the back of the shop. When it was over he had slumped to the floor and removed his tall white baker’s hat. She had never seen him without it. He was bald, and there were beads of sweat shining on his brow.

page 78

‘’e was very nice,’ she said. ‘Very sympathique, zat bak-aire. But I would never let ’im do it again. I was afraid I might kill ’im.’

In small neat spider-letters be wrote on the card, ‘Have just spent three beautiful nights with a beautiful French mercenary. Won’t see her again. Thought I was after (your phrase) Sex in America. Feel now as if I’m in love. Can you explain that, mon vieux?’