When I was 15 years old, I set out on a quest to cure my homosexuality with a Freudian analyst, who promised I could be heterosexual. He said that not only would I begin to desire women, but I would eventually no longer be attracted to men. This sounded like a pretty good deal to me back in 1962, when my kind were referred to as homos and fairies, and there was nobody around to say it gets better. Given a choice of homo or “normal,” I chose normal.
The psychiatrist wasn’t an ogre; he was a good person who saw that I was suffering with my fate and offered me hope. He convinced me that Socratic analysis could cure my homosexuality if I wanted it enough, therapy’s shameless equivocation. I went to this well-meaning psychiatrist for over 13 years, sometimes four days a week, lying on a sofa facing a print of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, free associating and interpreting dreams, in search of the roots of my sexual aberration.
The key element of my therapy was to regularly have sex with women. It was like any other doctor’s prescriptive: Take one at bedtime. Except that after the first six years of analysis, I was still a virgin at age 21, with either men or women. I had never seen a vagina up close in person. My only exposure to the recesses of the female body was from the dirty pictures my father kept in the back of his top drawer wrapped in a brown paper bag. And from those blurry photos, taken in the 1940s and ’50s, the big bushy vaginas didn’t look too alluring.
It was only when my analyst threatened that analysis could go no further until I slept with a woman that I enlisted the help of a slightly older, pretty fashion illustrator, who was flattered to be asked to introduce me to the mysteries of a woman’s body. When I shared the impending loss of my virginity with a wealthy friend, he offered to pay for two adjoining hotel rooms in Philadelphia. For some reason he believed that my being away from New York would make the situation more relaxed, and if it turned out I couldn’t have sex with my fashion-illustrator friend, it would be less embarrassing if I had my own room to which to retreat — I suppose to weep with humiliation at my failure.
But that’s not what happened. If consummation was my goal, then my lovemaking was a success, but of course in reality it was not lovemaking. It was more like “show and tell.” It mortified me to have my own body noticed and touched, although I responded like any 21-year-old to oral sex. The fearsome vagina up close neither thrilled nor repelled. It was okay, but I was disconcerted by the new tastes and fragrances, and the occasional suction sound the vagina made during intercourse. I had never considered before that someone might pass gas during sex, and I was so uptight that I wasn’t amused when it happened to her and me. Cunnilingus, at which it turned out I excelled, was nevertheless a dark and smothering experience.
Nevertheless, losing my virginity was a big step forward in my cure, and encouraged by my analyst that I would learn to love the vagina, I began a succession of affairs with women over the next five or six years while abstaining from sex with men. Since I approached the whole sexual thing as more of a tourist than a native, I became a connoisseur of the female body the way a Jew appreciates the Vatican. It was a matter of responsibility to be a tender, satisfying partner, so I performed all of the obligatory sexual acts in appropriate order. (Petit déjeuner, déjeuner, and diner.)
In pursuit of love through sex, as the writer J.R. Ackerley put it, I would bed a woman for three or four months and then wander off when things began to get serious. Many of the women I dated were in search of a lifetime companion and progenitor, and I felt like a cad. It was a depressing and guilty time for me. I was pretending to be earnest in my affections when it was really a science project. I was leading these women on because I knew in my heart I was a dead end, and when I moved on it was heartache, sometimes for them and always for me.
It wasn’t hard for me to get laid once I started to try. I liked women, and they liked me. I was an early version of a 1970s metrosexual, good haircut, nice clothes, knew all the cool restaurants — and I wrote a pop-culture column for a major metropolitan newspaper. But more important, when straight guys hit on women there’s some underlying hunter-and-prey chemistry, and my sub rosa indifference was a turn-on. One night, at a trendy Columbus Avenue restaurant, I met a spectacular young woman through mutual friends. Let’s call her “Smithy” and disguise other identifying details, except that she had black hair and hazel eyes and the tiniest space between her front teeth that I found a charming flaw. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had seen since Julie Christie in Darling. She was the daughter of a stockbroker, went to Brown, and was finishing up her second year at Columbia Law School, after which she wanted to be a public defender. She was clever, too. After one drink she asked me if I was gay. “I’m not gay,” I said. “Why, do I act like I’m gay?” She gave me a suspicious look, so I took her back to my ramshackle townhouse on West 11th Street to prove my manhood. I was prepared to roll out my well-rehearsed sexual repertoire; instead I went off autopilot. It was intense and dirty.
Smithy raised the stakes on my quest. With Smithy sex was different, uninhibited — at a time when we weren’t yet inundated by millions of examples of sexual peccadillos on the internet. The next time I saw her she gave me a set of new sheets. “If this is going to continue we can’t have sex on Dudley Do-Right sheets,” she said. She gave me a nickname, too, the first time I had a petit nom d’amour: “Cowhead.” I was smitten. Love, sex, and status in the same package. Maybe therapy was working. With encouragement from my therapist, I made myself believe she was my future.
After a few months of dating I was invited to meet her family at their weekend home in Rye. On the way up on the train with Smithy, I fantasized about how I would become a part of the family, how I would charm them into approving of me, and how I would marry their smart daughter who was a lawyer and live happily ever after, financially cushioned by my rich in-laws. I woke up from my reverie when I saw Smithy’s older brother waiting for us at the train station. He was God’s cruel prank, sent to remind me of what was really possible in my life and what was not. Her brother was Smithy, the same dark hair and hazel eyes, but as an athletic Irish god. I knew the whole day would be hell. I was so deranged by my attraction to him that I couldn’t raise my head for fear of gazing at him too long. To make things exquisitely worse, Smithy’s demon younger brother, a pimply 16-year-old who was onto my game, shot me sideways glances whenever his older brother entered the room. I was uncharacteristically quiet all day, and eventually Smithy took me aside and whispered, “What’s the matter?” I pretended I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I think she knew what the matter was. On some level everybody in the house knew I wasn’t exactly who I said I was.
I never felt as much of a fraud as I did at dinner with the family that night, being sized up by her father, “Call-me-Pete,” who had primate hair on his knuckles and played squash at the New York Athletic Club, because “tennis is for girls,” he said, sipping Macallans neat. I drank too much red wine at dinner, and the low point of the visit came when I choked on a piece of steak and needed the Heimlich maneuver, applied by the handsome brother, who wrapped his arms around me and popped the steak out of my mouth like he was burping a kewpie doll.
Smithy didn’t say much on the way back to New York. I dropped her off in a taxi at her apartment building. We talked on the phone a few times, but her heart wasn’t in it. I thought of telling her I was gay, but she knew, no matter what happened in bed. I saw her on TV 25 years later, a talking head on a cable TV news show. She was a public defender in San Francisco, still just as beautiful, but the space between her front teeth that I liked so much was gone.
After Smithy there were other women I thought I loved, but not completely. And although I enjoyed the intimacy of sex with women, I was driven by nature and design to love a man more. Diligently pleasing a partner is not the same as making love. And making love is not the same as lust. Even psychiatry didn’t claim to know how to make people lust. And lust is the glue of love. Oh yes it is. At least at first.
Adapted from One of These Things First, a memoir, which will be published on August 8 by Delphinium Books. Preorder it here.