At an estate sale I bought an oil painting in a gilded frame of a severe-looking man who I do not find attractive. The painting is skilled—a glint in the man’s eye and a flush in his face make him seem animate—but the man himself appears harsh, so I do not often look at him.
The painting hangs on the wall my desk faces. I notice in moments when I’ve stopped typing on my keyboard, when I’ve been staring into oblivion, that his eyes are like mine—shadowed by the weight of his brow, the outer corners downturned—or rather, they are the eyes of my father, who passed them on to me and who was also severe.
I can tell by the strength of his nose, the tight crease between his lips, that the man was distinguished in his time. His unattractiveness did not prevent him from standing proudly for hours while a talented painter preserved his face for future generations. His black cloak and white collar suggest gainful employment in an official position, but more than his clothes, his face and bowled hair—the tufts of gray muffing his ears—emanate final decisions.
I admit, I’ve tried to force him to look away, to blink first. The angle of his chin antagonizes. When I grow tired of his steady attention, I tilt the frame.
At the restaurant where my father and I ate our dinners, the walls held ordinary landscape paintings, evenly-spaced. My father would gaze past me into their distance when I spoke to him, until he grew angry at me for talking too much.
I can’t make out the signature on the back of the canvas, but the date remains: 1881. I don’t know enough about history to say definitively if he was a live man painted at that time, which I assume, or a dead man painted from a photograph taken thirty years earlier, which is a possibility. Either way, he’s dead now, like my father, except on the wall above my desk, where his judgement lives on.
I used to have more sex than the other women I knew—the men too. I wondered, is a behavior automatically abnormal if it falls outside a norm? I would step on each stair, the four flights up to my studio, reminiscing the moles, the wrinkles, the stray, squirrely hairs. I used to wonder if something was wrong with me.
A friend once said I hunted sex, but that was dramatic. I had no violence in me or need to mount trophies. I was no conquistador or adolescent boy.
A few times, when I was motivated by loneliness, I did commit a foul. My desperation dulled the party. My desperation, like an old high school friend in from out of town who I was stuck bringing along. But most of the time I found no reason for shame. Besides certain meals—roasted crab, wild mushroom and chard risotto—there’s nothing better than sex with someone you’ve never smelled before, nothing better than catching an eye, the camera focusing on one flower in a field. The first, careful words and ensuing flirtation. The unbearable anticipation while searching for four private walls. And at last, his bare body, a brand new New York City. All the dirty alleys, all the splendor.
The sex I had wasn’t wholly spectacular; occasionally a penis wasn’t for me. Some were discolored or shaped like an overweight banana. Some were attached to an alcoholic and a bit soft. I found this more in my thirties than my twenties. The sexual dysfunctions of unmarried men.
That’s not why I no longer have sex. I guess I became interested in other quests—to rebloom my orchids year after year. But I wish I’d had more sex before my libido waned. In middle age now, I think of the hours of dark I wasted, the even more men I could have traveled.
I do miss bodies—some touch other than the dog’s, other than the hugs of my friends. If only I wanted sex now, I could have touch anytime. The technology exists. The online menu of willing men.
It’s true that life is short but also long. I don’t know why people don’t have all the sex they can while they’re young and driven to it.
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