Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sex and Marriage

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage

Sex and marriage, however, go together like apple pie and chopped liver.

Sinatra was married four times, to the original Nancy, Ava Gardner, Mia Farrow and finally for the last 22 years of his life to the former Las Vegas showgirl who was the widow of Marx Brother Zeppo.  He also had very public affairs including engagements with many prominent ladies that included Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Juliet Prowse, Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson. Clearly he loved women, but was it for marriage or for sex?

I've only been married three times, and the half dozen or so serious relationships I've had over a long life never made it to the engagement stage.  Was Sinatra ever a model for me, more so than Hugh Hefner, the guru of Playboy?  Someone once told me I looked like Old Blue-Eyes and I did not take it as a compliment.  Or maybe they said I resembled Humphrey Bogart.  The mind plays tricks at this age.

Why did I marry?  With my first wife, it was to ease her high anxiety that I might leave the small room in Berkeley with the fold-out bed where we were living and never come back.  One night I had to coax her out from under the bed where she was indulging in a bit of hysteria.  She hated lying to the landlord about being a Mr. and Mrs.  So to soothe the troubled waters at home while I worked as a summer replacement reporter across the bay at the Chronicle, I consented to marry her, a possibility that had not before then crossed my mind.

Conveniently, my father's cousin who lived in Marin County was an Episcopal priest.  Years earlier my family had visited him in Tucson where his wife's hefty inheritance maintained their country-club lifestyle.  But in his mature years he saw the light, turned his back on a mediocre sales career and became a man of the cloth. During a "fish-in" for native fishing rights near Tacoma, Washington, he was arrested with Marlon Brando.  At Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he was assistant canon to the noted liberal Bishop James Pike.  Who better to marry us?

During a leisurely lunch by their pool, my relative the priest and his wife soon ascertained that the woman I wanted to marry and I were sleeping together in Berkeley and had been for some months.  This was 1963 when puritanical attitudes about sex and marriage still prevailed, and "shacking up" was rarely an option for the middle classes.  In the City by the Bay to the south the beats were about to transmute into the hippies and all moral hell would break loose.  But for my relative the priest it just wouldn't be proper to marry someone who was already cohabitating.  During a subsequent phone call to discuss arrangements for the wedding, he asked: Would you mind sleeping apart before the ceremony?

That would never do.  So we headed south where my college roommate and his wife were staying in the beach house of his step-father, and we were married by a justice of the peace in Laguna Beach. Our honeymoon dinner was held with some additional friends on the patio of a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. For dessert, we visited a notorious bar where female performers were rumored to do nasty things with a donkey.  My best man snuck upstairs with a waitress, much to the displeasure of his wife.  Back in the U.S. that night, a nasty sunburn prevented my new wife and I from any thoughts of wedding night sex

Contrary to the dreams of teenage boys, marriage does not guarantee a steady diet of sex.  I think I realized this not that long before the woman I had been sleeping with became my wife.  Six months earlier I had been living in the lonely isolation of a basement room in an Italian lady's house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village.  Intent on a writer's life, the only outlet I found was to type passionate love letters to the woman I'd met at my going-away party in Pasadena.  We spent the night talking before my train left for the east, and during the cold New York winter I imagined her to be my muse.

She liked the attention, I'm sure, but did not respond in kind; clearly I was not yet her white knight. So at the first sign of a thaw, I returned to California and set about wooing her into bed. Initial resistance only fueled my desire.  On a picnic I dropped a wine bottle and seriously cut my hand on the broken glass.  My wounds appeared to open her heart.  A day or so later we got into the shower together and afterwards in her bed consummated my campaign to capture her heart and unlock the mysteries of her body.  Was it love?  Hardly.  Was it just about sex?  Humans seem unable to rut with the animals without clothing the act in fine linen.

I learned everything I know about sex during furtive discussions at the back table with other 8th grade boys in the lunchroom at our junior high school.  Vaginas, one aspiring physiologist told us, took time to move from the lower stomach of a girl down to between her legs.  If you want to get her excited, blow in her ear.  But not too hard.  Watch out for braces which could be dangerous. Girls that disappear (and there were a few) got pregnant and had to go away to have the baby. Run round the bases as fast as you can, from kissing to fucking.  But in those early days all kinds of sex was equally imaginary.

In my home sex was never a topic, though my parents did have a copy of Alfred Kinsey's book on their shelf next to the Reader's Digest abridged book collection.  I thumbed through copies of National Geographic looking for the photos of naked natives.  Love wasn't discussed much either beyond the obligatory professions required of children in exchange for...everything. The lives of my parents did not seem all that different from that of the bumbling adults in the numerous family sitcoms on nightly TV we watched while eating our meals from TV trays.  Mom bickered and Dad responded with indignant silence.

Girls played with dolls and engaged in extended foreplay over weddings and marriages and babies.  In my experience, boys never aspired to marry and raise a family.  It was simply not one of the choices we imagined for the future.  The models presented to us on television, in the movies, and in our own homes, of marriage were not appealing.  I wanted to be a movie actor, a musician, or a famous writer, but never did the thought of being a husband cross my mind.  If anything, it was the consolation prize in a life that failed to live up to one's expectations.

Sex was a territory to be conquered.  I recall long, sweaty make-out sessions that finally yielded a flash of bare skin, smooth to the touch.  It was a contest with the girl holding back until she could be certain that the abandonment of her modesty would hook the attention of the desired object, a pimply-face boy who might prove to be an asset in the complicated social setting of a school yard. Love at that stage was the ramped-up desire of infatuation,  an accidental by-product of the hand-to-hand combat of an adolescent boy and girl (though same sex equivalents may have taken place, I have no knowledge of it). On a New Year's eve while a one friend drove us from Pasadena to Long Beach and back, another friend and I dipped our fingers into the honey pots of our dates. Unchartered territory!  Bliss!  A year or so later I finally did the ultimate deed, rutting in the front seat of my parents' car at the drive-in while watching "Bambi" with a willing companion.  As sex goes, it was more fumbling than fucking, but at last I'd made it to the finish line.  After that, it was all down hill.

My first wife and I stayed married for nearly ten years.  We were both unhappy much of the time and the sex was mostly unreliable and not very satisfying.  As the mother of our two sons, I would be reluctant to deny feelings of love for her but they were drenched in the grip of obligation.  She was jealous of my life outside the family cage and her attempts to break free took a disturbing turn.  When she initiated a threesome, it turned out that she was having an affair with the other woman's husband.  Moments of honesty led to brief intimations of new possibilities. But her deep despair, like the anxiety on the eve of our wedding, could not be assuaged with valium and serial sex partners.  I walked away feeling a failure at everything I'd tried with her: marriage, sex, and fatherhood.

Sex and love: two sides of the same coin?  A marriage without one or the other would be a mistake.  But what is marriage anyway, other than a socially sanctioned way to guarantee the protection and survival of the offspring by the father and to prevent the mother from soliciting other sperm donors on the sly? Admittedly, that's the cynical view.  In a more romantic perspective, it's the seal of approval by the community when two hearts beat as one.  My second marriage might qualify under that rubric, although toward the end my wife would claim she only agreed to marry because her mother refused to speak to her unless she did, having learned she would soon be a grandmother.  This time it was me arguing for the value of marriage and the seal it gave for the permanency of the union.  But that's another story.

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