Jesse Kornbluth thinks character and hard work are great and all, but this essay is about women (oh, and drugs too).
Everything I know about being a man I learned from women, especially when we were stoned and in bed.
Men who have reached the AARP age, if my conversations with my brethren are at all typical, do not think this way. We’re “above” sex now—or at least above talking about it. When we take the measure of our lives, we speak of mentors and character and hard work, and if we can stand to offer a reason to explain the good things we’ve got without beating the drums for our personal excellence, we may even throw in luck.
Thanking the women who took us into their bodies? When I mention that, guys give me the look that says, “You’re weird.”
If I were the careful sort, I’d assign sex and drugs to the rock ’n’ roll phase of my life—and pretend that phase ended long ago. Because in the Gospel according to Media, life has this arc: When we were children, we acted like children and smoked dope and lay with women whose breasts bounced free and easy under their tie-dyed shirts, but now we are men, and we’ve put away childish things, and drink Bordeaux to self-medicate and need Viagra to rouse us on those rare nights when we feel the urge to bend one into our wives.
I have always feared the male of my species. And with reason.
Several times, when I was 4 or 5, I would look up the wide stairway of our house in Kansas City and see, behind the gauze curtain on the landing, the shadowy figure of a man. Much later, I learned that he was Carl Austin Hall, the former owner of the house. He had returned because he was broke. He was casing the joint.
My mother did laundry in Hall’s old champagne tubs; we were chump change. Another family in our neighborhood was dramatically richer, so Hall kidnapped and killed their 6-year-old son before coolly collecting a $600,000 ransom. His arrest soon followed, and, eventually, his execution.
A few years later, after my family had moved to a Boston suburb, it seemed like a good idea for me to join the Cub Scouts. I was small and bookish, but the members of my pack took to me immediately: They cocked their BB guns, told me to start running, and blasted away. Thus ended my scouting career.
I eventually escaped to one of the most exclusive New England boarding schools. T.S. Eliot went there, as did Bobby Kennedy. The academics thrilled me. But my classmates were, for the most part, a sorry bunch of Old Boston losers for whom school was a low priority; when I volunteered a correct answer, they were likely to pound me in the back.
My response to a decade in the company of my gender?
An all-consuming desire for revenge, disguised as ruthless ambition. Global success and massive wealth, yeah, that would show them. So I not only got into Harvard, I skipped my freshman year. Having written my senior thesis in what should have been my junior year, I wisely decided to stick around for a fourth year—our government was on such a rampage that a thousand Americans a month were coming home in body bags from Vietnam—which is how I came to be the first member of the Harvard Class of ’68 to publish a book.
Then I ran out of visible targets, and I had no mentors to suggest that creative work could come from an inspiration other than “I’ll show them.” At 22, I had hit the wall. I had no idea what to do next.
Fortunately, from the beginning, there were girls.
At the age of 8, I published a book review in the local newspaper, which was for me what scoring a winning touchdown might have been for another kid. Girls noticed—smart girls, anyway. So I kept at it. Soon my best friends were theatrical girls, girls who wrote poetry, girls overlooked by the football captain and student council president. But a peck on the cheek was the most they gave me; as late as the ninth grade at my suburban junior high school, girls wore full girdles on dates.
Boarding school was a revelation. Just like me, the rich girls had libidos that revved high. I joined every extracurricular activity that involved my mouth. And after the debate and the drama rehearsal and the yearbook meeting, there was likely to be a make-out session that left me wanting more.
In college, the dorms had rules that limited female visitation, so I moved off-campus. The revels commenced promptly. Weekend evenings assumed a pleasant pattern: jug wine, Mexican weed, “Going Home” by the Stones or “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds on the turntable. I never needed to lunge. Long before the room started spinning, we’d be reaching for one another.
There was a war on, and that heightened the urgency of my liaisons. There was an antiwar as well, and the saying had it that girls say yes to guys who say no. Because I was saying no to the government and its filthy war as often and as publicly as possible, many college women said yes to me; they said yes, yes, yes! After a while, I couldn’t remember how many women I’d slept with or even that much-cooler statistic, the number of consecutive days I’d gone from one to another.
Desire and war make a recipe for hot, frenzied sex—but not intimacy. In my late teens and early twenties, intimacy was beyond me; my needs were too urgent, too desperate. It had to be obvious to the women I was seeing then that they were a haven for me, shelter from the storm. Maybe that was enough. Maybe I was a haven for them as well.
Still, those early couplings were important preparation for what was to come. And I don’t just mean deeper connections; I mean loftier highs: peyote, LSD, and mescaline. These drugs gave deeper sensation, purer flashes. They also generated hours of consciousness. When you took them, you couldn’t have sex and then collapse like a drunk into heavy sleep. You had to either get up and go out or talk. I chose to talk.
I can’t remember these conversations, but I know that my lovers and I would exchange ideas and swap stories. And I clearly recall that I would listen to these women and take them seriously and accept them as a being as hopeful and as damaged and as scared as I was.
Janet (not her real name) was a friend of the sister of a sometime girlfriend. The connection was a little close for comfort, but that sort of thing happened a lot back then. We had a relationship that couldn’t have been simpler: When we saw one another, we ripped off our clothes.
Ours was an understandable attraction. I was short, intense, Jewish, and not very interested in outdoor sports. Janet was tall and blonde, with a model’s long legs and an athlete’s body. We were exact opposites, and we attracted. There was no guilt; we were a romp together, a time out from our lives. Our sex was hot, but innocent. We liked each other a lot, but nothing was at stake.
On the night I’m recalling now—a night I’ll cherish until my last breath—Janet was still living in Cambridge, and I’d moved to a communal farm in western Massachusetts. The male-female ratio was wretched there, and the heroic males wore overalls. After weeks of solitary nights, I could feel the sap rising dangerously.
I drove to Cambridge, mescaline in my pocket. I mentioned it right off. Janet was open to taking it with me. Her only question was about its quality.
Oh, the mescaline was good, I said. A guy at the farm had dropped some and an hour later, he was face down on the ground, humping Mother Earth. Back then, that constituted an endorsement. We popped the pills.
A psychedelic can take an hour to come on, so we went for a walk. It was a warm night, and the trees were newly heavy with leaves. For the ecstatic, Cambridge was a showcase: Anything green soon began to pulsate with life energy. Even the traffic lights were sending messages.
Somehow we found our way back to Janet’s apartment. I didn’t stumble to the record player and put an album on, as I usually would. I understood that on this night, we’d be the music. Slowly, as if we were swimming underwater, clothes dropped off. And then we sat, as languid as junkies, and just touched one another.
I can’t reconstruct the physical part of the encounter, but I’m sure there was nothing special about any of it. The thrills were all internal. I’d never been more present, more responsive, more in sync with every move and emotion. Everything that happened seemed predestined and yet utterly surprising.
And the biggest surprise was the love I felt.
Not that Janet and I had a future. She’d go on to a man handsome enough for Hollywood, and marriages and kids; I would have a decade of broken romances before I married, for the first time, at 39. But the future wasn’t an issue. There’s nothing harder in life than being here now—giving the moment and your partner your complete attention. Well, I did.
I don’t know where we went or how long we were gone, but the return was gentle. This was a new feeling, and it had unexpected power. We held each other and whispered, and there was a sweetness about those moments that was as thrilling as all that had gone before.
I’ve known a lot of gentleness since, and I’ve been the recipient of more female kindness and tenderness than I probably deserve. John Updike once described another writer as a man who saw woman as a giant lap. But I know I wasn’t hiding from the world in the beds of my lovers; I was trying out a little tenderness, exposing myself, daring to risk.
Now I’m in my final marriage, and my wife is the beneficiary of lessons learned from the women who came before her. The weed has changed; now it comes from somewhere in Northern California. And the music’s more international; we’re as likely to play Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as Led Zeppelin. But the essential transaction remains unchanged. Slowly, slowly, in bed with a woman, I am learning how to be human.