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.