There’s a radio show called “The Moth” where people get up and tell stories, often highly personal and self-revelatory. I’ve wondered what story I might tell. Well, here’s one.
When I was a kid, I was sick a lot, and small and shy, and skipped some years of school making me younger than my peers, all of which retarded my social development. I must have been the youngest in my law school class, and still lived at home. I had little interaction with anyone, let alone with girls – unthinkable for me while under parental scrutiny. My hormones were normal, but I just repressed it.
In 1970, almost 23, I became a lawyer and moved away, and finally felt free to pursue women. It was akin to a new toy when I discovered I could get dates on the slenderest of pretexts. Like a supermarket check-out girl: “Hey, I’ve seen you in the cafeteria,” I said. “Wanna go out?” She did. Quite attractive and intellectual too.
So I dated a lot. But building a relationship was a different matter. How a couple reaches a concordance to have sex was a mystery to this still inhibited and somewhat clueless fellow. I wanted more, a real intimacy (especially because I still didn’t actually have friends), but it seemed elusive.
Active in politics, it was at a 1971 political meeting that I first met “Jane McCall.” School board candidate, wife of “John” (my ward leader, a charismatic man with a romantic Scottish burr), mother of two, Jane was thirty, petite, honey-colored, lovely, articulate, vivacious, enthralling. I suddenly saw everything I desired in a woman. On the spot, I all but fell in love with her.
Edvard Munch: “Despair”
I walked home with a leaden ball of despair in my heart. Of course Jane was unattainable; that was a given; but how could I ever hope for one like her? Jane McCall made all the girls I’d been chasing seem trivial, third-rate, a waste of time. It wasn’t that Jane herself was out of reach; the ideal she represented felt unattainable.
Years went by; further Jane McCall encounters only intensified the feeling. Meanwhile, with the girls I dated, sometimes a relationship might seem to be developing, but it never panned out. I would see romantic couples everywhere, and yearn for what they had.
In 1974 there was “Rosemary Ryan.” A tall, long-haired, slender sylph, warm, funny, gentle, smart. After our first date, her reaction was an enthusiastic, “Wow!” I could hardly believe this; virtually Jane McCall caliber. We dated for a while, it was lovely, we seemed like soulmates, and of course I ached to take it to the next level. But she confided that she was having an affair with a guy she couldn’t even talk to, who only wanted her for sex. She even took me to a party where I met him. What fun. In the end, Rosemary avowed, weeping copious tears, that she and I could never be lovers. Her last words to me: “You haven’t suffered enough.” Well, maybe; but I thought I was suffering plenty right then.
A vicious cycle was operating. The more I wasn’t having sex, the more intimidating it seemed. In hindsight, some girls I dated might have been seducible, but I was too timorous. I felt myself sexually handicapped. I wasn’t bad looking, but rather short, and realized this was a deal-breaker for many women (including, finally, Rosemary). But it seemed there was more to it. I came to feel like a sort of untouchable, wearing sign on my back reading, “Don’t have sex with this man.” Or maybe even, “This is not a man.”
I had dated a fellow lawyer during stints at hearings in New York City. In my usual timid pattern, I had tried to get romantic – up to a point – but when “Karen” failed to say, “take my clothes off,” I would desist and say goodnight. But, unusually in this case, after the relationship fizzled, I continued to see her occasionally as a friend. Following the Rosemary Ryan debacle, I opened up to Karen about my problem. And she explained to me The Facts of Life. How a woman has sexual desires too, but may be shy and inhibited, waiting, even hoping, for the man to be the initiator, and probably wouldn’t slap him. Karen’s sage advice came down to one word: just “ask.”*
This sounded like a good plan, and I resolved to try it at the earliest opportunity.
Soon after, an acquaintance told me his wife had left him. I assured him how sorry I was to hear this terrible news. Then I ran to the phone and asked her out. She, after pondering for some minutes, said yes.
Following dinner, we went to my tiny one room apartment on some vague pretext of playing chess. Sitting on the bed, she said, “Well, what now?”
Taking a deep breath, I replied, “We could play chess, or . . . go to bed.”
Good God, I had said it.
Her hand rose to my cheek, but not to slap it. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes – an uprush of hunger.
In that instant my life was transformed; from black-and-white to Technicolor. And this was not just any woman. This was Jane McCall caliber.
In fact, it was Jane McCall.
It’s so ironic. I’d dated a parade of girls, some second rate, or third rate, some borderline sluts, and not with any of them had I been brash enough to just “ask.” Now here is Jane McCall, the one woman I’d worshipped, on a pedestal, for years, the unreachable dream incarnate, and the first moment I’m alone with her, almost vulgarly, I just “ask.” And she leaps into my arms.
My romance with Jane did not last long. A callow lover, I myself was not Jane McCall caliber. Even naked in my arms she was still a fantasy for me. And losing her didn’t even hurt, because afterward I was a different man. No longer was I the man with the sign on his back. Now I was The Man Who’d Slept With Jane McCall.
Another irony is that never again would I “just ask” – at least not so crudely. In 1975 I met a girl with whom I spent twelve years. It was a troubled relationship, and she finally left me. Within another year, I found Therese, and we’ve been happily married for almost a quarter century. In relation to all those I’d ever pursued, Therese is absolutely the finest of the lot. And I’m more in love with her now than ever; still constantly viewing our marriage through the lens of my history four decades past. It’s this story that brought me, by a long tortuous path, to Therese; and this story that makes our love so powerful for me.
* “Ask” became a chapter heading in my autobiographical memoir. Years later I read physicist Richard Feynman’s, and was amused to see a similar chapter heading: “You just ask them.” (His answer, too, for bedding women.)