People always want you to write graphically about sex. “What happened next?” they ask, or “what did it feel like?” But when it comes to writing, I believe in the fade-out. Look at Jane Austen; she’s a master of the fade-out and no one writes about sex like Jane (it’s called sub-sexting). Or take Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which Tom Baxter, a dashing character in a 1930s movie, steps off the screen and falls in love with Cecilia:
Tom : Always when the kissing gets hot and heavy just before the lovemaking, there’s a fadeout.
Cecilia: Then what?
Tom: Then we’re making love in some private, perfect place.
Cecilia: That’s not how it happens here.
Tom Baxter: What, there’s no fade out?
The fade-out – making love in some perfect, private place – may be just the way you dreamed it would be – his breathing ragged yet soft, his embrace urgent and yet gentle, as though he wants to share his pleasure with you. But sometimes sex turns a man into something (or someone) drastically different from what you imagined– not violent but grotesque with an aggression and abrasiveness you never dreamed he was capable of. Suddenly he is desperate and sweaty and ugly; it’s not that he’s passionate, but that he’s insensitive. Most particularly he’s insensitive to the fact that you don’t find his behavior attractive.
This happened to me with a highly successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. It was the 1970s; he was in his mid-forties, I in my mid-twenties and working as his secretary in San Francisco, a job I found relentlessly boring. Previously I had a challenging job as assistant to the elderly president of a large company that involved everything from chatting with toy manufacturers in Hong Kong to visiting bulb growers in Israel. In my current job, I just shuffled papers and served men coffee in Styrofoam cups, my high heels sinking into the soft carpet of the executive suite.
My entrepreneur boss was attractive and charismatic and I started to fantasize about having sex with him. In my journal I droned on and on about how I wanted to melt in his arms under the stars. I was ridiculously idealistic, believing that if you had sex with a man, it meant he was in love with you – or soon would be. Forget that this man was engaged and about to get married.
To signal my increasingly tender feelings, I brought him a cookie with his coffee that had the word “nice” imprinted on its brown, buttery surface. But my boss didn’t want a cookie, he wanted a blow job. I agreed. (This was long before Bill and Monica, and even before “sexual harassment” was a well-defined concept.) He shoved his penis in my mouth in the private bathroom off his office during a busy work day. In the middle of the blow job, a business colleague opened his office door.
“Hey, buddy, are you in here?”
“I’m in the bathroom; I’ll be right out!” he called back cheerfully.
I think the risk of being caught enhanced the excitement for him. He wanted more blow jobs. He asked me to stay after work.
“Sweetie, can you stay late tonight?”
“Ahh, no – I have to go to the dentist. He gave me a late appointment.” I sounded apologetic. I didn’t want his penis in my mouth. His breathing wasn’t ragged and intimate, his lips were not hot on my ear, he wasn’t sweet and urgent; he was bold and crude like a half-crazed bull. He didn’t love me. I quickly fell out of love – and fantasy – with him. Still, our “affair” dragged on for several months. When I finally managed to ease out of it, he offered me a job working for his married partner in his suburban office.
“He’s lonely,” he said. “He needs a good secretary.”
I couldn’t believe it. He was passing me around like a tasty hors d’oeuvre. I said “no.”
Next, he tried to fix me up with his rich friends. I kept saying “no.” I had no illusions about his rich friends. I had harbored an illusion about him – about being in love with him and him loving me back.
My earlier, older boss (boss no. 1) had offered me an apartment on Nob Hill and a wallet full of credit cards if I would sleep with him on Wednesday nights.
Wednesday nights? Was he kidding?
“I can do anything I want on Wednesday nights,” he explained. “My wife and I have an agreement. No questions asked.”
I might be young and idealistic, but I wasn’t a whore. I had moved to San Francisco to go into Reichian therapy. Reichian therapists believe in love-oriented perfect orgasms. Why would I give up that, or the hope of that, for an apartment in Nob Hill and a wallet full of credit cards?
I went back to my sadistic boyfriend, the one I had been trying to break up with for two years. At least he wasn’t offering me anything in exchange for sex or trying to pass me around to his friends and business colleagues (on the contrary, he was jealous and possessive) and he breathed right, if a little selfishly.
During this time, I swam every day after work at the Jewish Community Center. In my mind, I negotiated dangerous waters with amazing agility, gliding through alligator-infested swamps, across choppy channels, and down swiftly flowing rivers. As I swam I pondered my future. Would I ever find someone to love, have a child, or realize my dream of becoming a writer? I fantasized joining the Dolphin Club and swimming across the bay – one boat per swimmer, to look out for sharks. But before I could put this plan into action, my Reichian therapist died suddenly and my boyfriend left for a year’s sojourn to Japan, entrusting me with his Samurai sword as a consolation for his absence. After he left, the pool cracked during an earthquake. It would be out of commission for months.
I decided it was time for a radical, life-altering move. So in 1981, I moved to New York, leaving behind the first and second boss, the samurai sword, and an angry letter from my boyfriend.
It was December, and the icy wind blasting off the Hudson River cut like a blade through my thin velvet coat from San Francisco. In the beginning, I stayed with friends out in Long Island. I felt as if I had been exiled to some bleak northern country. To me, New York was the basement of cities, hard and walled in, while San Francisco was the attic with its lacy Victorians and gentle hills rising over the bay. But it was in New York that I found – or stumbled into – true love with my husband-to-be. This love was and is far more beautiful than anything I could have imagined; it is also kinder and more patient.
Ten years after I left San Francisco, I was sitting in my writing room in the country house I shared with my husband, when the phone rang. It was him – boss no. 2. He was breaking up with his second wife, the one he married while I was working for him.
“Do you still like to fuck, angel?” he asked congenially.
“I’m married now,” I said. I paused. “And anyway, if I were an angel I wouldn’t like to fuck, would I?”
“Oh,” he said. And then, without missing a beat or maybe to cover his discomfiture, he asked if I remembered whether or not he had a prenup with his wife. I listened dubiously. This guy would know whether or not he had a prenup. He was a multimillionaire with an army of lawyers.
“I don’t remember,” I said, which was true.
I’m not sure what he wanted that day he called me. Phone sex? A whirlwind weekend in San Francisco? Marriage? I doubt that.
He’s married himself again now. I saw a photo of him recently and he looks happy – and very very rich. I don’t hold what happened between us against him. I was willing. He just didn’t breathe right, didn’t say the right words, didn’t act like the man I thought he was or would become, with sex. He was a stranger and sex made him more of a stranger.
I’m not proud of these misadventures (I can hardly call them exploits). But I’m forgiving of self and for the most part, of others Still, I feel sorry for the young woman I was, and for all similarly confused young women. My heart was pure, if befuddled. But I was so dazzled by the prospect of romance, and earnest in my search for the perfect orgasm that I didn’t watch where I was going.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote. The same goes for sex. Good sex – the transcendent experience – is best left unstated. But bad sex – the specific experience – demands the full story – the fade-in.
I recently finished writing a memoir in which I write about meeting my husband, John – a colorful, larger-than-life professor at NYU. I allude to sex in the story, but I’m glad that when the kissing gets hot and heavy, I can employ that most graceful and erotic of artistic devices – the fade-out.
Check out the book trailer: Memoir Book Trailer
Fade Out: The Art Sub-Sexting
Guest Post by Pamela Jane
I am a children’s book author, a columnist for womensmemoirs.com, and coauthor of Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic. My new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story describes how I, an idealistic young newlywed, dreamed of a bucolic future in a country house with children running through the sunlight, while my husband plotted to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills. This conflict that resulted in explosions of various intensities, drove me mildly mad, and ultimately led to my becoming a writer.