"Here,” I said, and gave her a petite, tourist shop bell. “If you’re stressed out, bored and want an orgasm, ring it.” She stared at me and a cascade of emotions washed over her face.
“Are you serious?” She asked. Sitting next to her, I placed it in her palm. “Want me to wear a bowtie and white gloves? You can call me Mr. Belvedere.” She playfully punched my chest. “Don’t bring up ‘80s television, it was a bad time for everyone.” After studying the bell, she put it down. “Why are you doing this?”
“I want to be on the right side of history,” I said. She shook her head and splayed her hands with a What-Are-You-Talking-About look.
“The orgasm gap.” I breathed in big, then exhaled. “Men get off more and more often. I thought about what you told me about your last partner. I want to, I mean, I think it would be good to try to make up for lost pleasure.”
“My orgasms are not orphans,” she said sharply.
“No, I know,” I replied.
“My orgasms are not runaway kids sleeping under a bridge,” she pushed. “It’s not your job to rescue them.”
“Of course,” I said. “Of course.” She held the bell up and without looking at me said, “I’m sorry. You know, it’s true, I’m shy about coming. When I do, I look away or bury my face in the pillows.” I nodded and kept quiet. “It’s always been like that.” She turned to me. “I mean, I love sex.” Her voice lifted in apology and then her eyes lowered, as if sifting the silence for a way out of the awkwardness.
She didn’t ring the bell that day, or the day that followed. I made the daily circle between home and work. Sometimes she was with me, sometimes she wasn’t. The bell sat on the desk. I eventually forgot about it, except when we made love and she buried her face in the pillows.
Under the Silence
Before leaving my apartment, she stuffed her books and video camera into a backpack that hung on her like a giant snail shell. She’s a visual artist and weeks ago, had sent me a link to her work. In one clip, holding her high school diary, she read her adolescent confessionals to a packed room.
It was raw, uncomfortably raw. I cringed at the rising panic in her entries until it peaked in a stark moment of her saying, “I am ugly. No one will love me.” Watching the clip, I heard the audience gasp, then say, “Awww.” They wanted to reach out to her and embrace the hurt, confused, self-doubting young girl, but she was buried deep within the adult who made a career of recreating herself in public.
The power of her performance wasn’t in the exposure of adolescent pain but in the strength to look back and measure its distance. The next day I taught my college literature class, read students’ papers and saw how close those hurts still were for them. Many of those painful experiences had just been lived, and some of the wounds were openly bleeding into the pages of their memoirs. And of course it always hit the women hardest.
I asked the female students if they’d ever felt themselves to be ugly. Nearly all raised their hands. I asked if they or if someone they knew had been raped. Nearly all raised their hands. I asked the same question about secret abortions and sexual harassment. In the tense silence, one of them looked around the room, filled with arms standing like flagpoles and said, “Why is this happening to us?”
The Sexist Gauntlet
On my way home, I heard her question over and over in my mind. And asked myself, what if I was a woman? Same butter pecan complexion, same curly hair. I have big hips for a guy, been told that my whole life. But as a woman my ass and hips would be a swinging bull’s eye for men. Would I straighten my hair? Yes, because I’m vain and ambitious. All in all, I thought, I would be a sexy fucking lady.
But when I looked down the street and saw the men there, some of them my friends, I felt naked, vulnerable in my imagined body. I wouldn’t be able to just walk by them. They would dissect my breasts and legs with their eyes. They would catcall. They would order me to smile. Some would walk beside me, trying to pull my name or get my number. And if I didn’t answer they’d curse me.
Every day, I would have to untangle myself from their voices that crisscrossed the sidewalk like fishing lines. I would wear headphones like a helmet to shield myself against the blast of their open lust. If I stayed late at work or wanted to go out it would be an issue. At night, whole sections of the city are off-limits to a woman.
What if I was a working-class woman and no Prince Charming came for me? If I were a straight woman, I’d have to find a lover among these men. Behind closed doors, I would be near their volcanic egos that spewed hot chunks of hurt. Building a life with them would mean having to trust someone who seemed to be sinking into debt, into jail, into a bottle or just into bleak-eyed work that, like mine, left little time to find oneself.
And what if I as a woman met me? How would I as a man treat me as a woman? I wondered about the silent judgments that would be made. Would I have to prove my worth to him? Would his male privileges be a lacquer that glazed his thinking? Would he hurt me? Knowing my combustible mix of arrogance and insecurity, I was forced to admit that yes, yes I would.
Turning the corner, I imagined the weight that women must physically feel. Sure, some have class or racial privileges that lessen it, but even just this brief fantasy made me feel like a spectacle for men. I hated having my movements hemmed in by fear. Anger knotted my forehead. I looked at the men I knew, who saw me and waved. I gritted my teeth.
The Bell Curve
When I saw my lover the next day I apologized for the bell. “It was a stupid idea,” I said and shrugged. “I thought about the self-judgment, the fear, the limits that women feel and I felt angry, ashamed. On a systemic level, men have to work with other men to push against sexism, I get that, I do but instead of ‘blah, blah, blah’ why can’t we actually commit time to repairing some of the damage? And pleasure can heal.”
She eyed me without saying anything. She was a quiet thinker — radiant constellations flashed continuously in her eyes but it took days before she told me about her decisions. And now she studied my face and I felt like glass.
“It’s about justice. A straight man in a relationship with a woman should be getting her off at least four times a day. I don’t know.” I threw up my hands. “Call it Affirmative Action Orgasms.”
“Is that really all it’s about?” she asked. “No,” I muttered and went to my desk. “It’s my way of penance.” Sitting down, I began doing school work.
Then I heard the bell ring. Turning around, I saw her smiling. She patted her inner thighs. “Reparations?” I got up laughing and we fell in together. An hour later, I was doing work again when she rang the bell. “Seriously?” I asked. “If you want world peace,” she said making gang signs over her pubic hair, “Come eat me out.”
When she rang, I answered. If I was cooking and heard the bell, I turned off the oven and went to her. If I was reading or writing and heard the bell, I put the work down and went to her. If she was in the shower and rang the bell, I came in.
Over those first two weeks, I saw a bright joy begin to illuminate her face. Her body’s rhythms became as sweeping as ocean tides that erased and redrew her self-image. An easy, flowing generosity filled our nights together.
One evening, I was drinking with friends when my cell phoned beeped. I answered it and heard a bell ringing. Instantly I got up, and they asked where I was going. “I have to do reparations,” I said. They looked at me, eyes scrunched, not understanding. “You guys should definitely look into getting bells,” I said smiling, and left.
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