The Price You Pay

In the pre-AIDs era, our sex lives were less complicated. Or so it seemed.

My life was blighted by the expectation that women I knew would be different from how they were and by the expectation of those women, similarly deluded, that I would turn out to be just as they had first imagined me. We men should have given up on the pretence and noticed when women were pretending too.

My old friend Sandra, who did know me, had had two children, had left her husband and had invited me to stay in her flat for a night or two on my way home to Ireland. This had been friendly but I had tactlessly explored the possibility of taking it further and she had seen my problem.

This was that I needed a lover. I thought the problem was just that I needed a shag.

A single heterosexual man is ever alert to sexual opportunity and the way in which he appraises every woman he meets to assess her availability is usually more transparent than he supposes. Other people are in relationships.

They are not hungry for sex. He is. Sex is not an urgent matter for those for whom it is even modestly regular. But a man needs to know where his next coupling is coming from. And so long as he is content that his partner will receive him warmly in a week or so, he can concentrate on other things; he can relate to women in practical and friendly ways, without being distracted by imaginings that they might be coaxed with a smile or a drink into jeopardising their own relationships just to enjoy his body for an hour.

Sandra was fine and didn’t need sex right now, and even if she did she would not have been keen on me. But she knew someone, she seemed to confidently imply, whose need matched my own.

‘Pauline will meet us in the Brown Horse.’

I don’t know what Sandra said to Pauline but I wish I did. I suspect there was more insight into female psychology available in that one short phone call than in many books. Perhaps she just said: ‘I have a friend in town, would you like to join us for a drink.’

I was tempted to ask outright if Sandra had simply offered Pauline a bed-mate for the night. I should have done. The more I had known about her friend’s intentions, the better I might have been able to judge whether they fitted with my own; but then I didn’t know my own very well either.

‘I just have a feeling you’ll get on.’

So the terms were not discussed or agreed on. I was going to meet a nice girl and she was at least open to the suggestion that we might sleep together. I think I understood that much.

Sandra and I sat at a little round wooden table in the pub waiting for Pauline. She arrived when she said she would, and she was lovely. She was wearing denim dungarees that accentuated her hips while the bib shielded the front of her breasts from close scrutiny. She had straight long blonde hair and blue eyes and she looked just creamy and gorgeous. She smiled and sat down, and from the side I studied those breasts and saw that they were firm and large, like big eggs stretching the fabric of the shirt she wore, as if they wanted to tumble out at the sides.

We talked. She was Irish herself but didn’t go back often. I said she should come and visit me. Sandra sniffed, as if to suggest that that invitation was a little early. And afterwards, she left us and Pauline took me back to her flat. It could not have been easier if it had been a business transaction. We didn’t know each other but we seemed to agree that we’d get closer under the duvet.

In the kitchen she made mugs of tea and then we went to the little bedroom. There was a single divan with a blue patterned quilt, posters on the wall, a dimplex heater and a record player. She put on Springsteen’s The River album which was just out that year. I kissed her on the lips, probing. She kissed me back. I opened the snaps of dungarees and she said, ‘why don’t we just get undressed?’

I watched her, wondering if I should wait until she had thumbed off her knickers or if there really was no etiquette governing which of us should be naked first.

The sheets were crisp and clean. That was nice. Perhaps she had changed them after the call from Sandra. Her body was gorgeous and it seemed an act of unwarranted generosity to uncover it for me. Big round breasts, smooth belly, brown pubic hair, and the line of her belly into her groin sloped like an invitation or pointer towards hidden delicacy. Perhaps the discreet concealment of the vagina at the end of the line that draws the hungry eye is a little joke of Nature’s. She has others.

We got under the duvet and started rubbing each other. I felt like a child at Christmas. I was blessed by the touch of her flesh against mine, all along my body. Of course, all that had happened was that two people had met, liked each other and chosen freely to fuck. Yet, in my life, this was not happening in such an uncomplicated way very often.

I presumed this was uncomplicated.

I asked her if she was on the Pill. She mocked me. ‘Of course.’ This was  before AIDS so there were no other pressing safe-sex considerations. I felt her. I kissed her. I could hardly take my eyes off those glorious breasts yet I wanted to explore below too. Soon, we were wrapped around each other and after the gasp of entry it all seemed fine. Was I heavy? No, she said I wasn’t heavy. And there was so much to attend to, the texture of her neck, nipples to suck, firm buttocks to squeeze. I didn’t want to seem over curious, too busy about helping myself to her. She held onto my bum and kissed me wetly. Well, if this wasn’t perfect, she would be up before me in the morning to let me know, with a cup of tea and a goodbye kiss, that she had no taste for more. But we sat up in bed afterwards, listening to the music, talking about Ireland.

I love the way a woman’s body ceases to be fascinating and becomes familiar and normal after sex; the way being naked together becomes unselfconscious. She sat with those nice breasts pressed into her raised knees and I lost the need to stare at them. We lay back and got sleepy and sensual again and had sex again and then dozed off, first facing each other, her warm breath on me, then like spoons, first away from the wall, then towards the wall.

She was great.

I had known guys who went to pubs and clubs and slept with different girls every weekend, but I had never managed that myself. What I might be learning from Pauline, I thought, was that sex could be easier and more accessible, that it was not the problem I had made of it. I had been no good at attracting girls to one night romps, I supposed, because I was too serious.

In the morning, she brought us breakfast in bed. We shagged again, deep and close, and dozed off. It was early evening when we went out to do a little shopping in the market for our dinner. I bought the wine. We finished the bottle in bed. I felt that we were living the life I had inadvertently missed.

We were Bohemians, indulging the comfort of each other’s flesh. There was spunk now drying on the sheets and spunk on her thighs and my belly; spunk everywhere. I was really getting to like Springsteen too.

I felt privileged to be in her bedroom, to smell her perfumes and powders, to see her tights tangled in her knickers on the floor, to watch her brushing her hair or crouch naked by the pile of records, flapping through them for Neil Young or Joni Mitchell.

The prospect of love excites because it is an opportunity to set aside parts of yourself that you fear are tired. That is why, when a woman sees her former lover with the new woman she often says, ‘would you look at that carry on’. She sees him behaving in ways that he never behaved in with her. ‘But he never wanted children; he doesn’t like classical music; I could never have gotten him to wear that jumper; what has she done with his hair?’ In the new relationship or new job, we say ‘I feel like a new person’. And it is that sense of the possibility of being a new person that makes a new context, a new partner, so enchanting. And when rejected, the soaring lover, who had come to think after one kiss that all life’s problems were being solved by a miracle, feels the loss not just of the other, and the intimacy that seemed promised, but of all hope.

I was basking in the haze of her bedroom smells and fresh sheets while she was talking about the horrors of childhood and the people she hated. Girls do that, I said to myself; they say horrible things about their friends. Pauline was telling me what a slut Sandra was.

I was finding that I could ease her out of her little spasms of anger and contempt with offers to massage her body. At times she seemed inordinately fretful. She told me a story about being beaten with chains when she was in her pram as a child and I didn’t believe it. But I reasoned that if she was a bit mad, well, I could be good for her.

I don’t know why she asked me to leave; she didn’t say. If she had another life, that she hadn’t been sharing with me, she perhaps thought it was time to get back to it. She didn’t return calls and she didn’t write. She made a blunt decision on the third day that it was over and it was. I never heard another word from her. And that should have been acceptable, given that I had received her as an unwarranted gift of lavish intimacy, a holiday from the single life, but I felt instead that I had lost everything and my life had been stripped of meaning.

Suppose Sandra had been more explicit and said, ‘I have a friend who will take you into bed for the weekend and shag your brains out. But don’t expect it to last.’ Would I have accepted that? Of course. But why then did I feel worse off, after this sexual treat, than I would have done had I not gone to Pauline at all?

I had come under an enchantment and forgotten my real life. It happens in fairy stories; the prince meets an angelic being, loves her for a night and then loses her. Afterwards he is condemned to pining. I had come to believe that I was living in a bohemian romance, and the effect of being spurned at the end of it was a realisation that I had nothing but my real life and that it was not enough for me.

I had to fight my obsession with her, much as I had struggled to give up smoking. I had no choice but to let the poison drain slowly and painfully from my nerves, and to wonder why I had reacted so badly. Sex is not like chocolate. You don’t feast your fill in it and then walk away.

I had been looking for things I didn’t own up to. Where Sandra probably saw me as a sexual opportunist, a hunter, I was driven by desires that I was hardly aware of until the flouting of them made their strength plain. The sating of Pauline’s sexual curiosity about my body had left her content that she could now be peacefully rid of me. We had wanted different things.