She flips to page 369 of John O’Hara’s “From the Terrace”says to me “read this” and me, twelve years old, dutifully takes the book from my older sister, and asks, “should I read it out loud?” but “no-no” from pursed lips she utters “read it to yourself” and the words on the page say “When he entered her….” Something is happening between a man and woman, what are they doing? Reading again and “I don’t understand what’s happening” and she says “you really don’t know?” to my shaking head, my fog head, she makes a circle with her thumb and first finger and steers her left pointing finger in and out of the “O.”
I’m stunned by the anatomical finger circle, really a portal to adulthood, beckoning.
“He’s doing what?” I ask and her voice, forced, authoritative, “He’s putting his penis inside her.” Her hands still reenacting sexual gears in action, “It’s called sexual intercourse.”
“Where are they doing this? In a hospital?” I imagine two adults sprawled on white sheets wearing hospital robes falling open in the back. “No. They are in a bedroom. They are having sex. Making love.”
“It’s also how you make babies,” she instructs. “How we reproduce the human species.”
“Oh. I see.” I don’t really see.
“It’s what men and women do when they love each other,” then, “you have to be married to have sex.” She admires the large diamond on her finger from the young medical student she’s been engaged to for two years, flashing the stone as she brushes to another page and a different sex scene. “If a man and woman love each other, they get married and this is what they do.”
I know parts of my body are more tingly than others, but can words set off the tinglies? John O’Hara’s words subliminally weave into my waning adolescence and into my teens as I read and re-read page 369 under my bed covers — the words are the same but elicit stronger sensations, so curious how words quickly bypass your brain and directly stimulate parts of the body.
And more intense later on, reading them as a freshman at a distant upstate New York college while raging hormones pulse a primordial drive, an inner life all its own like humming an acapella solo against the contrapuntal reality of the times, the horrific unjust Vietnam War, our growing anger over the rampant discrimination of African Americans, the sixties, outrage as kids my age are war casualties dying continents away in a morally bankrupt, senseless war while in our own backyard we stand next to embattled people of color as we take to the streets and he is there, a senior music composer nearing graduation and eligible to be kidnapped by the military draft, deployed to Vietnam against his will, too scared to shoot, to kill, the polar opposite of creating music. He and I share our mutual fears and passions as his fingers lightly trace the back of my hand, a buzz zips through me, the rush of bodily fluids and we end up, both nervous virgins, in the college hotel – the crowded bar below – the night-rate rooms above. Shy, awkward, we gently touch each other while kids downstairs dance to pounding rock music we feel through the thin mattress as each pore is caressed. It feels right, the planet is exploding and I am living the words of the great O’Hara in time-stopping sensual rapture.
Nothing like it.
Enveloped by waves of sexual passion, craving the next time and the next, but wait – here it comes, my sister’s whispery voice creeping into my psyche: “You have to be married to do this.” Her warning conjures up her cartoonish demonstration of the hand-made “O” – transmitting the moral dictum that having sex means mating for life. As I luxuriate in sensual bliss the crescendo of my sister’s caveat for having sex is marriage is louder, percussive, pounding out the guilt and the young man lying next to me is the man I’d have to marry — right away — if the sexual me is to survive, right?
I call my mother.
“We want to get married,” I tell her.
“Is he Jewish?”
“No, mom. He’s Roman Catholic Irish.”
“Oy. What’s the rush?”
I blurt out, “We — we love each other.”
Mom, who believes in true love, never shies from planning a party, she is the perfect companion for my dad who holds sway in local politics. She excels at reading people and knows the key players to invite to a shindig, empowering her strong sense of social intuition and now with a quick wedding she is off and running. So are the parents of my husband-to-be, and now there’s a tiny diamond ring on my finger. Parents meet, did they know we were having sex?
Teetering between engaged lady and party girl, giddily flashing the bright little stone around, fantasizing of the march down the aisle and immediately ascending a stairway to a red velvet bedroom and then, and then, AND BLAAM, its April 1968, exploding images on TV, the esteemed civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated, gunned down in cold blood, a world stunned, shocked, we huddle in front of the TV unable to make sense of the violence, like the pain of President Kennedy’s assassination in middle school, and no one, no teachers, parents, rabbis or priests offered any explanation. No comforting words and now the King assassination spirals us back to helplessness, bringing on incensed, enraged, words of insurrection in our afterglow utterances, holding each other, shielding our intimacy from the harshness.
Wedding plans are in their own expanding bubble, mom energized by the planning, printing invitations, reserving the temple and its banquet room, the music. The rabbi (a sweet, gentle person I know for most of my eighteen years) summons me and my non-Jewish fiancé to chat in the chapel in front of the arc holding the sacred scrolls within. We listen politely. (Can he see the lust in our eyes?) We wonder at the words ‘commitment,’ ‘honor,’ ‘respect.’ My fiancé asks, “And breaking the glass?” The rabbi’s warm smile explains the symbolic loss of virginity, thankfully without hand gestures and I imagine the snap of cracking glass that, as the rabbi puts it, “celebrates the joy of your union but reminds us of the splintering shards in a world desperate for healing” Can we rear our children in the Judaic faith? We slowly nod.
Our awkward phone sex leads us beyond John O’Hara, catapulting us into the steamy realms of Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Erica Jong, we whisper, fumble through verbal foreplay in anticipation of the wedding night.
Wedding menu, floral centerpieces, bridesmaids, best man, seating charts, a floor length wedding dress mom gets on sale at a costume store, a heavily embroidered gown with fake pearls embedded in layers of lace, and a matching veil and long train. The wedding clamor dims the thunder of the Vietnam War protests, the country divided, the death toll climbing, male friends escaping to Canada, the presidential election looms and anti-war candidates sing our song. Our hopes rise when Bobby Kennedy runs in the primaries, he would end the insanity of war, champion civil rights, after the wedding we will campaign for him, go door to door, put him in the White House.
It’s night as we whisper into the phone our hands roaming our bodies, then I hear mom scream, “No! No!” I rush into her room, she’s white, “What, mom? What?” Her eyes frantic, “The rabbi just dropped dead!” her hand still holds the phone to her ear. “Yikes,” I say, “is it because I’m marrying a Catholic guy?” She rolls her eyes, “Be serious. It was his time but his crazy wife, the rebbetzin, wants his body to lay in state, in the temple! for a week!” Totally unheard of, Jews bury their dead within 24 hours but the congregation, fearing the rebbetzin’s proclivity for histrionics, has complied so people can pay their respects even as I get married in the next room, and maybe? Yes? The rabbi, as he passes to the other realm, would be at peace about the mixed marriage if he hears the glass breaking… But NO, my mom adamant, “I won’t have my daughter getting married with a dead body in the building!” She grits her teeth. “That’s never going to happen.”
God’s hand is in this, shaking me senseless over the high price of lust masquerading as love, now spiraling out of control.
For hours mom’s voice escalates to an urgent shrill on the phone, pleading the caterer to fix it, “Now.” She calls over 100 guests, her fingers numb, pencil stuck behind her ear finally emerging jubilant, “Guess where you’re getting married?” “You mean it’s still on?” “Oh yes, my daughter is getting married at the very elegant Crystal Room at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, so exciting, what do you think of that?”
“The…Where? Who will be marrying us?
“Some rent-a-rabbi, he’ll be fine,” and the single arrow of a young woman’s sex drive careens and splinters into a series of unlikely events as we speed down the West Side Highway to the glitzy hotel, ushered into the luxurious wedding suite, climbing into the dress, putting on the extra-long veil, the headdress of respectability, a borrowed string of pearls. The last time we were in a hotel the floor below was shaking to rock music the roar of intoxicated college students, but now, gracefully waltzing below are servers in bow ties padding on thick floral carpet serving horsd’eurves on polished silver trays, exotic cocktails, the ceremony’s prequel to the dreamlike steps down the aisle, my husband’s foot cracking the glass and the ‘Mazel Tovs!” – my married sister relinquishing her nod of approval while her gynecologist father-in-law hands us a six-month supply of birth control pills wrapped in five $100 bills as we revel in the jubilant moment, a buffered reality to what was happening in the outside world. At that moment, we imbibe, dine, exchange furtive glances of needing to escape and head for a night of ravishing lust and we rush through our goodbyes, shed our wedding husks, catch a cab, eager for the honeymoon suite at the Edison Hotel and, and, falling into each other’s arms, I say “wait,” disappear, slip on a slinky negligee, my real wedding dress. Aroused, lingering in the mirror anticipating guilt-free sex, the TV goes on. I brush my hair, we have all night and the rest of our lives. I slowly open the door. I’m so ready and he is sitting at the edge of the bed staring at the TV, tears streaming down his face, looks at me, “They just assassinated Bobby Kennedy,” and for the next few hours we watch, dazed, the replay of Kennedy’s last moments, fresh from winning the California presidential primary. A room crowded with ecstatic supporters, the gun shot, his fall, the shards of our future, we cry, shudder with fear and uncertainty, we hold each other as the portal of raw reality opens and we drift off to the troubled sleep of two adults spiraling in the circle of life.
Abby Luby is a writer and journalist who, for over 20 years, has reported for The New York Daily News, SolveClimateNews, The Villager, The Real Deal, The Westchester Examiner, The North County News and the Record Review (www.abbyluby.com). Her feature writing on food and the arts have been published in Valley Table Magazine, Edible Hudson Valley, Roll Magazine, Living@HomeCT, the Poughkeepsie Journal, The Stamford Advocate/Greenwich Time. She lives and works in the New York City Metropolitan area.