My Sex Mentors

Barbara Stanwyck, meet Janet Reno

DON'T know whether it's true, but my husband claims I cut myself off from him and it's wrecking our life. Am I depressed? Don't I realize the fun before us -- a lifetime of bouncing on a lifetime of beds stretching into the twenty-first century? Because that's all it is. He'll prove it again -- if I need proof -- right now! That's what he says.

This morning, when I realized I was sitting in my nightie actually wringing my hands, I canceled my dentist appointment and tried to just lounge around till I had to get up and start packing, because we are going on vacation tomorrow. I turned on C-SPAN and watched Janet Reno in a press conference till the tension got to me. Then I flipped to a movie, and there was Barbara Stanwyck, sitting against a background of venetian blinds being told by a suave gangster that he was going to buy a racing stable but the deed would be in her name, because she was "clean" (a fantastic chance for her to double-cross him in the future). She just said ignorantly, "But I don't know anything about horse racing!" I felt sorry for her; her hair had been very tightly pin curled and she looked half-witted.

I changed it back to Janet Reno. In fact, my husband was on a plane with Janet Reno last week. (She rides way in the back, in the ordinary small seats.) If they'd happened to get into conversation, she could have told him that as a woman, I'm supposed to get plenty of say in what I do in my sex life. Surely that's U.S. law!

Then I flipped over again. It was an outdoor scene. Barbara Stanwyck was leaning on a fence with an attractive elderly man, sort of like E. B. White only with a stopwatch, and they were rejoicing at how fast a young filly named Happy Girl had just flashed by. Obviously Barbara's character was having the simple pleasures that I think a slum background had made impossible for her up till now.

Of course, I feel more comfortable with Barbara Stanwyck when she's mean and wily (though that didn't keep me from feeling sorry for her when she had those bangs like awnings in Double). I was wondering what she would advise me to do or say when he says that "it's just bouncing on beds and it's just fun" thing about something that to me -- the woman -- is more akin to, well, alligator wrestling! I closed my eyes, trying to imagine what her advice might be. Her face flickered up to me as if from the bottom of a dark pool when I pictured her in Ball of Fire -- always either in a showgirl costume or in Gary Cooper's bathrobe, which he gave her just to help her out -- and I thought about The Lady Eve and Remember the Night, the most touching movie ever made. I conjured up the hurt expressions Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper wore while she was doing mean things to them. (I did not think about those movies where she co-starred with Wendell Corey -- too confusing.) Why, she'd say I should live my own life. Then, when I still looked blank, she'd say, "Honey, are you in a jam?"

NOT like my mother, whose genteel face would harden and she'd say, "You be nice to Mr. So and So," in tones of menace. Unrelieved obedience that would make my husband turn pale! It was like that when I was three, and it was like that when I was eighteen. Be nice to Mr. So and So! Unless Mr. So and So wasn't nice to her! Because if he wasn't her special friend too, then forget it; even if Mr. So and So was my own boyfriend I'd never get to see him. It was ten times weirder than Stella Dallas!

Once, I had a boyfriend who came over smoking a cigar and I was getting him to throw it away so that he could come in. But next thing I knew, he was saying something to my mother and she was pretty much wound around the banister. "Oh, not at all! I adore the smell of cigars!" she was saying. Of course, I stayed with him as long as I could! I could practically stay out all night with him.

Once, my mother and I were going to discuss some of these things from the past, and we actually sat down to do it, but it turned out to be a ploy to sell me some Tupperware!

Of course, it makes me somewhat mad that all this is now impinging on my life and my husband's. If my early years could unwind before us like a video, my husband's eyes would fly wide open. "Honey," he'd say afterward, "don't you worry. Forget all I said about beds and whatever. You don't have to do a thing." Then -- because men are dogs -- in six weeks or so what would happen? "Honey, suppose we forget about the beds, and bouncing, but try it sitting up in a chair, honey, and I'm not pressuring you, dear, just asking about it. It could be a blast."

"No, I can't," I'd say, shaking my head. "I know I should, but I'm just bad! A bad wife. Sorry!"

"Stop saying you're bad!" he'd say. "You always say you're bad."

"I am bad. You deserve somebody normal and good."

"How can I be good and you bad? You're the one who's always worrying about the little puppies!"

I don't know the answer, though there may be one. We'd sit there awhile. He's so cute and kind. Maybe we could try it.

"Promise you won't take advantage of me sitting up in the chair like that to make me look at bills -- mainly the Visa?"

"Babe," he'd say, "I don't care if it never gets paid."

The Atlantic Monthly; November, 1996; My Sex Mentors; Volume 278, No. 5; page 42 - 43.