When I arrived at my first arts residency, one of the composer fellows said, “Welcome to Paradise.” Even Dante and Milton couldn’t have imagined a heaven such as this: three meals a day and two quiet rooms for work and sleep, with views of apple-stealing horses and complacent cows. All real-world distractions banished—even sex.

Since I lived only an hour away, my family came to visit. That morning, I shaved and showered meticulously, then slipped on lacy undergarments, even though my eight-year-old daughter was accompanying my husband, so he wouldn’t have a moment to linger on my lingerie.

We squeezed into a booth at the only open restaurant in town, slurping runny omelets and sucking our straws, my toes seeking the bare skin above James’s socks under the table. When Ella rose to marvel at the animated carousel horses, he cupped my thigh. His touch felt novel and naughty.

I showed them my bedroom after lunch, and when Ella went to the bathroom, James stroked my belly, then squeezed my breast. I immediately replaced my shirt as Ella started opening the door. James whispered in my ear, “Thanks for letting me steal second base. On our next date can I go all the way to third?”

We continued heavy petting when she wasn’t looking. When she was, we held hands and I slipped my fingers into his back pockets. We copped feels with our eyes. We weren’t an old married couple any longer. We were virgin teenagers with a crush, longing someday to score.

To have him this close and not be able to actually have him was titillating. I wanted him even more since he became fruit just out of reach.

We left my bedroom and I showed them the studios in the barn. “Don’t look in the windows!” James warned, shooing us away. “Naked people,” he whispered in my ear.

“A nude model posing for a painting?” I suggested.

He raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m not that naive. I know what you artists do.”

Then we gamboled through the meadows and fields while Cole, one of the photographer fellows, took our portraits with an old-fashioned accordion-style camera on a tripod. He hung pink bed sheets to filter the low-in-the-sky, harsh December light. I was as sensitive to James’ touch, as we pressed hip-to-hip to fit in the frame, as if this was our first time.

At dinner, my family gone, Cole confessed that he’d forgotten to hide some sex-shop photo montages in his studio before Ella entered it. “I don’t think she was paying attention, though,” he said. When I told James that story later on the phone, he chuckled. “If only Cole knew what we’d been up to.”

We’d planned on hiking after the photo shoot, but James had a cold and wanted to rest, so we returned to my bedroom, where Ella sat in an armchair and lost herself in a Hardy Boys mystery. James and I sprawled on the double bed, first over the covers, then under. That’s all we meant to do.

An hour later, my family drove back home, and I sat at my regular spot in the library for our daily writers’ group meeting. Alice sat at the table, her notebook open.

She said, “I’m glad you had such a good conjugal visit.”

“You can tell?” I asked.

“You’re glowing,” she said.

“Yes.” If only she knew why. I felt my face, warm and elastic, as calm as the beatific cows out the window.

“I heard something,” she said, “and wondered if you and your husband were having sex.”

She knew! “I was so sure we were being quiet,” I said, “so Ella wouldn’t hear.”

“Don’t tell me she was in the same room?” Alice said.

“It’s a big room,” I said, as if size was all that mattered. “She was on the other side, absorbed in a Hardy Boys book about vampires she’d found on the shelf.” Ella didn’t hear us, I’d convinced myself. When she reads, she’s absorbed in a fictional world and blocks out all else. She doesn’t hear the phone or door, doesn’t hear the bell at the end of recess. Her teachers have to tap her on the shoulder.

“If I could hear you,” Alice said. “I’m sure she could.” Her bedroom was right next to mine.

“Everybody heard,” I said. “We might as well have been on a stage.”

Alice nodded. “The walls are thin.”

“Heard what?” Lori, the other member of our writing group, asked, eager as if for lurid gossip, as she sat down at the library table. Who knew married sex could be so scandalous?

“In the same room?” Lori said, after I told her.

“We didn’t mean to,” I pleaded.

“I could have taken Ella for a walk,” Alice said, “if you’d asked me.”

“We didn’t plan it,” I explained. “Ella was reading on the other side of the room. James and I slid under the covers with our clothes on, to take a nap.” He was a little sick, and tired from driving. so we spooned each other. Hands moved under shirts on warm skin, fingertips fell on thighs, pants dropped below our waists—just low enough. Legs scissored, his belly still against my back. It’s a pose we perfected during my high-risk pregnancy, a way to continue intercourse while keeping baby Ella still and safe in my belly. We moved very little–not enough, or so I’d thought, to squeak the springs.

“Did she say she heard anything?” Lori asked.

“She said she heard us snore. We slept a little, afterwards.”

I didn’t tell them that as a baby Ella had an uncanny ability to awaken when we were on the brink of orgasm. Her piercing cry killed our desire, and I always rushed to nurse her. Maybe reading the Hardy Boys book and allowing us our fun was her way to give us back a little lost time.

“She didn’t seem disturbed,” I said. Did she?

“This will give Ella juicy memoir material, ten or twenty years from now,” Lori said. “Would any of us have become writers if our parents hadn’t traumatized us?”

I have vivid memories of my own parents having sex, or rather, what I now recognize as sex, but might not have then.

At five, I hovered with my brother and sister outside my parents’ bedroom after dinner. When our father opened the door to go to the bathroom, we caught a glimpse of our mother naked before she grabbed her robe and shooed us to bed. In my memory, it happened every night, but I’m sure it didn’t. Now that I’m a parent I recognize the exaggerated recall of young children, who will say “Every day you picked me up late from school” even if it happened only once, because it feels that way.

I have memories of my mother’s boyfriends, too, after my father died. Bob, the Armenian mailman, was my favorite. When I was a little older than Ella, we often tagged along for our mother’s dates at Bob’s apartment. We children lingered in the living room, eating Little Caesar’s pizza and watching Three’s Company or The Three Stooges while Bob and our mother sequestered themselves behind the bedroom door. Did I know they were having sex? I’m sure it wasn’t the word they used. I don’t remember thinking about it much as a child—only now, since I have a child myself.

I’m grateful that my mother kept her sex life private. She wasn’t like the white trash single mother in the movie “Eight Mile,” who complains to her son that her boyfriend “won’t go down” on her. My mother never let boyfriends spend the entire night, either.

I’m glad my mother slipped away for sex with Bob the mailman or Tim, the electrician with six children; or Roy, the refrigerator repairman who favored corny jokes; or David, who liked to bet on greyhounds; or Frank, the romantic. I’m glad she stole some kisses away from us to give to them. As Amy Bloom says, in the story of the same name, “love is not a pie.” You don’t slice it and distribute it until it’s gone. There’s an infinite supply.

I’m happy that my mother socked away a few hours to take care of herself, not just her family. That’s what I did at my first arts residency, nurturing my novels, stories, and self instead of everyone else. Every day there I took my mother guilt—about not being home to cook meals, help Ella practice piano, and nurse James’s cold—and tried to channel it away from the black hole that has made women throughout history disappear inside their family duties.

“Do you think I’m a bad mother?” I asked Alice and Lori after my confession.

“No,” they both said. “Of course not.” What else could they say? “Yes, and by the way, do you know the phone number of child protection services?”

Will Ella be traumatized because she heard her parents having sex? I wasn’t ruined by my parents’ erotic noises. Mostly, I am bemused that I didn’t know then what they meant. Is it bad childrearing to expose a child to parents hungry for each others’ bodies even after almost ten years of marriage, diapers, bills, and dishes?

I hope Ella learns from my residency that women are allowed to be greedy for sex and time, to make art not just babies, and to have a room of their own (or two—a bedroom plus studio—if you’re in Paradise). Maybe she’ll even be inspired to return as a fellow. I can imagine her pulling the Hardy Boys vampire book off the shelf of what was my bedroom, as the memories flood back. “Oh,” she’ll say. “Now I know what those squeaky sounds from the bed were. How did my parents get away with it?”

 

Photo credit: Andrew Palmer.

 

I held the restaurant door open for a young couple. “Thank you, sir,” the young man said. I followed, walking in late.

It was more than twenty minutes past noon. Twenty minutes past the time I was supposed to be there. At the service I’d lingered, said goodbye to a couple of pastors.

There were crowds of people in the restaurant. A bottleneck at the hostess station.

She already had a table so I slipped through. “Just walk straight in,” she’d texted.

I was looking down at a pair of shoes in front of me when I looked up and spotted her across the room. Dark hair. Skin like the half-hidden woman sitting among other women in Paul Gauguin’s painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Her head was tilted too. Had she just stepped from the rolling edge of a paintbrush soaked in lovely brown tones? She leaned a little to the left. Not talking. Maybe she just did. Or was about to. Her hair was as black as island darkness. Her lips were a splash of red-brown even from so far away.

Making my way past booths and tables I sat down next to her daughter. The girl wore a fabric pink flower in her just braided brown hair. She hugged me, gave me a kiss. “It’s been a long time since you gave me one of those,” I smiled.

She gave me a drawing. On it there were squirrels, trees, a beaver, a river, beetles. She’d colored it. I pictured her imaginirium surrounded by crayons and stuffed animals.

Across the table her mother’s lips looked as soft as I remembered. I looked at them and thought of a drink from a fountain, grapes, the moment thirst is broken by wetness. Flashes of dew drop kisses. Sprinklers wetting summer grass. Lips warm and soft rubbing across dry fingertips.

The girl’s mother pushed a small white plate of fried zucchini toward me. “You need to eat your vegetables,” she said.

A few days ago she knew I went on a twenty-mile bike ride. “I hope you stayed hydrated,” she’d written.

I spoke to her daughter and ate the zucchini. The girl nuzzled. “Will you make me a picture of the ocean like you did of the desert?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, soon having a stare-off with her mother across the table.

“Where did you learn that?” her mother said, returning the glare and then smiling.

“From you,” the girl whispered.

“I’ll draw you pictures of ocean life,” I soon said to the girl. I imagined sitting on a beach with a pad of paper, holding a sand crab flipped onto its back. My pen strokes would capture every detail.

Later we left the restaurant. I glanced at her mother’s dark shoulder. A ridge of delight. Taut muscles. Sweet curves so soft you couldn’t find a cloud more heavenly. In the Gauguin painting the very same island woman shows just a hint of shoulder.

And there she was, head cocked to the side, thinking—just like in the painting.

Just like in the painting where there are plants and animals and a wash of exotic uncertainty.

Just like in the painting where a mysterious blue island statue casts an eerie glow opposite from the woman.

When I got dropped off I hugged the girl and tried not to cry like I did in church.

I always do that.

Cry in church.

I looked over at the girl’s mother, said goodbye, closed the car door and turned away.

The lawn was wet. There were drops everywhere. Just moments before there must have been rainbows. I imagined them in the clouds, floating above an island of uncertainty and beauty.

As I found my keys I caught a glimpse of their car driving away.

 

“Oh my God,” I yelled, peering out the window. “Daddy’s had a heart attack. Wait here.”

I ran down the freshly paved path to the far end of my property where Ricky was lying face up, arms splayed, snow shovel at his side.

“What are you doing out here in pajamas?” he asked. “You’re going to get sick?”

“What the hell are you doing lying on the ground? I thought you had a heart attack.”

Soaked through his wool hat and down jacket, he looked like he’d been to a sweat lodge, not shoveling.

“I got tired. I’m taking a rest,” he added, laughing.

“Not funny.”

Marching back up the path I said to myself that’s it, next year we’re hiring a professional plowing service.

We live on a mountain precipice 500 feet above sea level. There are times when Nyack gets rain and we, high above it, get snow. Our property is a plowing nightmare. You need to walk roughly 40 feet along a stone path to get from our front door to the edge of the driveway. The driveway slopes westward, and precipitously downward. Last year we finally had it graded because it was nearly impossible to get cars out after a storm.

Our first winter here, a mortgage broker from the city came to our house (ah the good old days) to do a re-finance. It had snowed the day before. He walked up the path gingerly, wearing his pinstripe suit and laced-up brown leather shoes. “Welcome to the country,” we said. He thought it looked so charming — until he tried to get his car out of the driveway. After spinning his wheels, he and Ricky spent an hour digging him out.

“Let’s hire a professional plow company next year,” I’d said. “Don’t be ridiculous.” Ricky answered. “We’re rugged individualists. That’s why we live on this mountain.”

Winters two through four were pretty much the same. Not a terrible amount of snow, which made the job of plowing manageable

But 2010 was the year of the snow storm. By mid-February, I’d lost track of the inch/foot total.

We were woken at 4:40 am by a deafening scraping sound. Ricky flew out of bed and pulls up the shade. “Will you look at that?” he said, observing the McMansion across the street. “He’s got a plow service that comes in the middle of the night.”

At 5:30, more scraping. This time from the guy next to the McMansion, who has his own plow. Back and forth he goes, clearing snow, spitting gravel into the road.

By dawn, bzzzzzzzzz. Our neighbor who loves his power toys was blowing the snow.

“Hasn’t anybody around here heard of a shovel?” my husband grunts, unwilling to admit he has snow-removal envy.

A few weeks ago, I was home alone. Our path and driveway were an icy mess again from the most recent storm. Ricky had done a bit of plowing but I was afraid to go outside, let alone move the car. Looking out the window, I saw two men in sweatshirts carrying shovels over their shoulders. Either I was having a religious experience or this was my lucky day.

I ran out and asked if I could hire them to dig us out.

“Okay,” one said. “Forty dollar.”

I would have given him $50.

When Ricky came home that night he gave me a giant hug.

“Wow, sweatheart, thanks.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I crowed.

Then the big one hit. 24 inches fell over 48 hours. It was paradise to behold. Julia said, “Mommy, it looks like the Nutcracker ballet out there,” and it did.

The next morning, Ricky started plowing the path. It was like watching someone try to empty the ocean with a spoon. I left Julia behind to finish the snowman we were building and trudged through waist-deep snow to the top of our driveway. I flagged down a guy with a plow on his car and offered to pay him.

He pulled into the driveway, and when he tried to maneuver the shovel with the car, his wheels spun. He was stuck. He wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was the snow. For the next hour Ricky and he shoveled out his car – which only made a small dent of snow clearing at the end of the driveway.

That night Ricky soaked in the tub, complaining how much his knee hurt.

The next day I called someone who sent two guys to shovel us out. They did a stellar job.

“So are you ready to get a professional service next year?” I asked Ricky.

“Why don’t we get a heated driveway,” he suggested, a clearly reasonable alternative to my preposterous suggestion.