Love and Air-conditioning

Simon and Jessica Kissing in the Pool, Avignon, 2001Photo: Nan Goldin

The Girl Who Cursed My Sex Life By John Wray My Dealer’s Girlfriend By Richard Hell Wet T-Skirt Contest By Shalom Auslander “Don’t Worry. I’ll Get You Riled Up.” By Darin Strauss King for a Summer By Wesley Yang How I Met My “Career Pornographer” Wife By Geoff Nicholson My Guy. And His Friend. By Kate Christensen Holed Up in Gramercy Park By Jill Eisenstadt Ménage à Trois. With Chien. By Rivka Galchen Sex With My Boss, and His Brother By Stacy Horn Shore Leave By Julie Klam Love in the Time of Shock and Awe By Lily Burana

The Girl Who Cursed My Sex Life
By John Wray

I was living in a tent in a basement in Vinegar Hill, trying to write my first novel. Summer never quite made it down through the cement. She didn’t bat an eyelash when I first showed her the place; she didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about a 30-year-old man living in a tent in a basement in the middle of New York City, which made her worth knowing already. She also happened to be beautiful: six feet tall and vicious-looking, like she’d give the knife a twist after she stabbed you to let air into the wound, which was something I’d convinced myself I was into. I was listening to a lot of Scandinavian metal that summer, probably too much. She showed me the official-looking laminated I.D. that she held up for people to read when she abused them on the street, identifying her as a bona fide sufferer of Tourette’s syndrome. She explained that Tourette’s syndrome provoked muscle spasms at inopportune moments, sometimes causing her to strike those in her immediate vicinity, which was why her body was so fit. I never found out whether she had Tourette’s syndrome. I cut back on the Scandinavian metal toward the end of the summer, and as soon as I’d done that I realized she frightened me. Also she had sex with somebody else, which didn’t bother me as much as it should have, but bothered me enough to get me thinking. When I broke up with her in September, she put a curse on me, predicting that until I had sex with someone with her Christian name—her Christian name exactly—I wouldn’t have sex with anyone at all. Fortunately her name was Jennifer.

John Wray’s most recent novel is Lowboy.

My Guy. And His Friend.
By Kate Christensen

The summer I turned 13, I spent eight weeks at a wilderness camp in upstate New York. We were six boys and six girls. We lived in tents in the woods, ate biodynamic vegetarian food, and sang madrigals around the campfire. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for hanky-panky, but we did our best. I had crushes on two of the boys, Tony and Guy, and they both liked me back. I spent most of my time trying to choose between them, agonizing, actually: Guy was sweet and chubby and gentle; and Tony was more of a dude, if a 13-year-old can be a dude. He was good-looking and funny, anyway. It should have been the easiest decision in the world, but something about Guy got me, probably the fact that he flat-out adored me, whereas Tony was a little player. He liked me, but he also liked Rachel. I talked on and on to my tent-mate Tina about my impossible choice—Guy or Tony? She, meanwhile, was nursing a hopeless crush on David, a badass kid from Wyoming who had coupled up with Cheryl. They were actually having sex. I was flabbergasted by this.

Finally, on an overnight canoe trip, I let Guy kiss me: I had chosen. We were officially boyfriend and girlfriend. This ignited the competitive fury of Tony, unused to losing out to Guy, his best friend. He now pursued me hotly, relentlessly. My agony increased: Suddenly he seemed to adore me as much as Guy did, but he was so much cuter and cooler. But I was Guy’s girlfriend now; I couldn’t dump him. Right?

Finally, camp ended. We all rode the train down to the city together. Guy held my hand the whole way, and Tony sat across the aisle from me, smoldering and bantering. We all said a tearful good-bye in Grand Central, vowing never to forget one another, as kids always do. But I still remember them, and I know they remember me, too.

Kate Christensen’s new novel is Trouble.

My Dealer’s Girlfriend
By Richard Hell

Summer romance sounds so romantic—wistful and innocent, passionate and irresponsible. Mine was like that, too, even though it was about sadism. Drugs also played a role. Specifically methedrine.

It was the later part of the seventies, and I was in my later twenties. My dealer’s girlfriend was the sweetest-smelling, quietest, loveliest, palest, thin-voluptuous blonde F.I.T. student you can imagine. She was always poised and preoccupied at the edges of his loft, like a moth. The dealer was kind of slimy, cultivating downtown-nightlife figures because he thought they brought him status. I was a downtown-nightlife figure, and one night, after partaking of his product, I resolved to exploit his weakness and take his girlfriend home with me. He more or less allowed it.

It was a sweltering night, and the moment L. and I got inside my apartment we started shedding clothes. Speed, like all recreational drugs, reduces inhibitions (if for no other reason than one knows one can blame the drug). She’d told me she liked to lose control during sex. That seemed fairly innocuous, until I realized that she meant she liked to be dominated. I was game.

I had no idea how complex and interesting it could be to agree to accept those extreme roles. The first thing I realized was that by designating herself as submissive she actually got control of the situation. I was new to this, and I was a romantic, in a broke-down way, and, though I relished being her dominator, I knew that it was in the service of her pleasure, and I had to continuously improvise activities and, more challengingly, render psychological contexts for the activities that would excite and satisfy her. I was making art in the medium of sex. It was a revelation, and the summer romance of all summer romances.

Richard Hell is the author of the novel Godlike.

Holed Up in Gramercy Park
By Jill Eisenstadt

We were at a wedding in D.C. when Michael turned on the TV to find our neighbors on CNN being interviewed as “survivors.” Our co-op, on 20th Street and Third Avenue, had been the epicenter of a massive steampipe explosion. Back in August 1989, such an event was considered a major New York City disaster; several people died. When our co-op board found asbestos in the boiling mud that spewed through our broken windows, we were not allowed back in for months. Con Ed sent us to live in the still-seedy Gramercy Park Hotel.

By then, we’d been dating for three years. At the wedding, I’d been wondering when and if we might be married ourselves. I was 26 and losing faith. But the blast instantly erased my impatience. Stranded together with no belongings, it seemed as if we’d only just met. It was our first glimpse of how one another reacts to a crisis (I turn mute. He makes himself useful).

At the hotel, then a favorite of bands and foreign publishers, we lay awake in our new Con Ed–funded pajamas as beer cans rained down through the air shaft. Despite or because of the loss all around us, we felt … exhilarated. Shedding past possessions let us fantasize wildly about the future. We’d move to Fiji, or Brooklyn, learn to cook all the fungi at the Greenmarket, design disaster-proof clothing, tend poppies on a roof with a view of the skyline. Paint.

When the air conditioner was working, we’d jump up and down on the bed like children. When it failed, we’d wander downstairs to the bar for a dinner of Pepperidge Farm goldfish. There, a guy in a light blue tuxedo shirt would play his Casio, leading us urban refugees in song: “Hello, Dolly,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “New York, New York.” By summer’s end, we were engaged and busy planning an August ceremony at the World Trade Center.

Jill Eisenstadt is a novelist and screenwriter.

Wet T-Skirt Contest
By Shalom Auslander

Reveille, except for Sabbath, was at 6 a.m. sharp. We crawled out of our bunks and made our way down to the flagpole, where we raised the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Then we raised the Israeli flag and sang “Hatikva.” Then, as the birds began to sing and the warm sunlight crept across the baseball fields and basketball courts, we went inside and studied the word of God.

The boys’ campus at our Orthodox summer camp was half a mile through a dark forest from the girls’ campus, but if you crept to the edge of the woods, you could see the girls at the lakefront, laughing and shivering. They wore long white “T-skirts” over their one-piece bathing suits—double- , sometimes triple-XL men’s T-shirts that covered them from neck to knee. The slutty girls wore V-necks; but never was Fruit of the Loom more erotic than it was on Yael N.: brown hair, blue eyes, and a T-skirt that I was pretty sure, after spying her through the trees one morning, was only one XL.

“Your parents,” said Rabbi Cohen, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me from the woods, “would be very proud of you.”

I was watched more closely after that, my attendance at Talmud class and Torah class and Prophets class more monitored. Additional rabbis were sent to patrol the woods. But Yael was half a mile away, and all the rabbis in the world couldn’t keep me from her.

Once a week, a man arrived at camp in an old van filled with holy books. To maximize sales, he parked on the dirt road that connected the two campuses. “How much for the prayer book?” I asked.

“Fifteen,” I think he said, but I wasn’t really listening, because if you stood at the back of the van, near the Talmuds, you could see right down to the girl’s waterfront. And there was Yael, the wet hem of her T-skirt clinging seductively to her pale, virtuous thighs.

“Your parents,” said Rabbi Cohen, patting me on the back and eyeing my boxed set of the Five Books of Moses, “would be very proud of you.”

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament.

Ménage à Trois. With Chien.
By Rivka Galchen

In July 2001, I convinced Aaron—we were then engaged—that we should adopt a dog. Why, when we were about to declare ourselves a perfect nation of two, was I already seeking outside love?

“You understand me, don’t you?” I used to hear my dad whispering late nights to our miniature collie, one of the dumbest and most beautiful, most devoted dogs there ever was. “You know me for who I really am.”

They say we’re all doomed to re-create our family structures. In the sunbaked, urine-soaked courtyard of the city pound, a “Shepherd Mix, 6 mos,” with paws like clown shoes, looked up at us with eyes wet with love or kennel cough, and I swear I could smell honeysuckle.

That first month with Paloma was like being with a lover. I’d never before noticed the abundance of pizza crust on the sidewalk, nor had I appreciated the rich bouquet of a balled-up tissue. Paloma brought a case of diarrhea home from the pound, and she ate my favorite sweater, but who cared? She would expose her belly to me with utter trust and slight demand. I remember her entering the apartment sulkily, tight-lipped, and then dropping a mauled, muddy tennis ball at my feet, like a jewel.

Before we got Paloma, Aaron had read about a dozen dog-raising guides; I had read a long Icelandic novel about sheep. When Aaron took Paloma out for a walk, strangers would stop him to marvel at her perfect behavior. When I took Paloma out, she liked to tackle me when I turned my back. One sweaty August morning I awoke to a tenderly mumbled “You’re the most beautiful girl in the whole world, aren’t you?” It was Aaron saying that. To Paloma. Who occupied the majority of my half of the bed.

My father had been right. Dogs do know the truth about you. I looked into those wet eyes and saw her thinking, compassionately, well, whatever it was that made her treat Aaron like a king and me like a sibling. She knew my timid heart.

Fall came. We got married. Oh, Paloma. She was already twice the size she’d been when we’d gotten her. But she’s still delicate. When she meets smaller dogs in the dog park, she tries to get down lower than them, to let them know she’s happy to play beta to their alpha. She licks her paws like a cat. She doesn’t like narrow spaces. When there’s a storm, she wants me to hide in the bathroom with her. Our love started off so, well, romantic, so much about difference, about otherness. When it turned out to be a variety of self-recognition—when, for better or worse, we turned out to be equals—we entered the long and beautiful winter of our affair.

Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.

“Don’t Worry. I’ll Get You Riled Up.”
By Darin Strauss

I’d like to say I was 12 when this went down; I was months shy of 20. Sarah and I were counselors at Na-Sho-Pa, a sleepaway camp in the Catskills. We’d made out once, years earlier, a little light kissing, nothing special. (I was expert at making out, when little beyond making out was available to me.) But neither of us, after our half-hour smoochiad, ever found the will to press play on that track again. For the whole 1989 season we not only hadn’t kissed: We hadn’t even spoken. But one night, as the summer burned down to its last embers, Sarah strode right up to me. “Nobody’s hooking up this whole time,” she whispered. “You as sexually frustrated as I am?”

I said, “I don’t know”—when, of course, I did know.

“Tonight,” she said.

Sarah was young—that age when everyone just sort of has this brand-new varnish to them—but she wasn’t young enough to be innocent about the power women have over men in certain situations, certain moods. She leaned in very close; her breath warmed my neck, just under my jaw: “I really think,” she said, “you should do me.”

Happy words for a 19-year-old virgin. Or, if I wasn’t a virgin technically, nobody would call my one succinct and fumbling bed session triumphant sex. The truth is I was as nervous as I was excited.

At midnight on a warm and clear Tuesday, when she and I rendezvoused at the hill near the roller rink, nothing went well. I was aroused (of course I was) but tense, way too tense. I knew I had little in the way of sack savoir faire; I worried how my haste would affect my—equipment. And she, I swore for years afterward, had angled herself on the grass at a totally unwieldy angle. My body wasn’t able to find purchase, not anywhere.

She took me, you might say, in hand. “Don’t worry,” she moaned. “I’ll get you riled up.” And like that, I got riled up. Too riled up, it turns out. When she said: “Now. Now. Please, now!”—I no longer had anything to work with. I was spiritless; worn out too fast. I think I managed to say, “Sorry,” while she dressed and walked away, fuming. In my shame, I had no idea that there’d be other girls, and women after them, and that such encounters would become easier—and actually fun—before adult love would show up to make the romantic world a nest of thorns again.

Darin Strauss’s most recent novel is More Than It Hurts You.

Sex With My Boss, and His Brother
By Stacy Horn

It was the summer of 1975 when I had bad sex on top of a bar, after everyone else had gone home. My only excuse is that I was 19, and really, that’s all the excuse I need.

I was working at a discothèque-restaurant in Amagansett, and he was only the second person I had had sex with in my life. The first guy was so good and so sweet I stayed with him all though high school. We’d only broken up when I went away to college because I wanted to explore.

The guy on the bar constituted my first “exploration” and my first mistake. First, he was my boss. Worse, I wasn’t even attracted to him. He was older, that was interesting, but he had an icky seventies Hugh Hefner look and attitude that was dated even then. We had sex, it was awful, I pretended it wasn’t, and that would have been that.

Except then his youngest brother asked me out. I said no. He kept asking. By the end of the summer we were in love, and at some point he asked me to marry him and I said yes. I had told him at the start about my night with his brother, and he very understandably was not thrilled about it. His large Catholic family, who all knew, called me a slut. “Is there still such a thing?” I asked.

Eventually I got tired of defending myself and called off the marriage. The bar burned down not long after. A friend and I drove all the way out in the winter in order to see it and gloat. I still have a picture of that friend, posing with a blackened cocktail glass.

Stacy Horn is the author of Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory.

King for a Summer
By Wesley Yang

I attended the second and third sessions of the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. There we were encouraged to think of ourselves as we already did: as people set apart from the ordinary school population by the curiosity and talents that our peers (the prematurely mustachioed boys and the girls with the big hair) were intent on snuffing out. By now we know that all of the children of college-educated parents in America are above average, but back in the summer of 1987, the idea of running a camp consecrated to this proposition still seemed obnoxious. Of course I wanted to go.

There I would learn my first significant lesson in love, which was also a lesson in society. The camp was an artificial setting that reversed the hierarchies of the American public school, giving the assorted nerds, drudges, grinds, closet homosexuals, and Asians who attended a taste of social preeminence they might not otherwise experience. As was usually the case in such instances, the popular people turned out to be the ones who still had it going on in the conventional sense. A clique of wealthy, attractive, and stylish—according to the curious standards of 1987—Asian people turned their ethnic solidarity into an instrument of domination over others. I was happy to discover that I was not excluded from this solidarity, though I was not myself wealthy, attractive, or stylish. The Asian kids came from Bergen County suburbs like Tenafly and Alpine, and they had discovered music—New Order, Erasure, and Depeche Mode—that felt more interesting and subversive than alternative music has the capacity to feel anymore. We looked down on white people and coined a derisive term, “meegs” (short for a Korean term for “white person” — itself derisive), to refer to them.

It was my first exposure to true self-entitlement (that there were people far more self-entitled, and for better reasons, did not change the effect it had on me), and I did what I could to adopt it. With surprising success. Because by the end of the first weekend, when everyone had begun to pair off, I found that my ruminative nature had somehow earned me the affection of the bubbly center of our little clique—adorable, sparkly eyed, baby-fat Carissa—with whom, by the end of the camp, I would finally reach a milestone I would not reach again before college: first base.

While all of this was going on, a pale and solitary white girl with a drawn expression and long butterscotch blonde hair had conceived of a crush on me. I recall her sad eyes regarding me as I engaged in the antics that the camp setting had empowered me to unleash. The look in her eyes is one I will never forget, though of course I affected not to notice it. It was pure ardor. And so the little tableau I want to paint for you here is just this—sitting in the front seat of the short bus with Carissa’s head against my shoulder, and the pale blonde girl—I never did learn her name—in tears in the back seat. I knew back then that I was gaining a privileged glimpse into what genuinely rich and popular boys would experience all the time, as often as the world would allow—the exquisite pain, and pleasure of breaking a young girl’s heart. What I experienced at that moment was a premonition of what I knew I was going to see more of throughout my life: women preferring to be used and discarded by worthless men who cared nothing for them. It made me sad for two reasons: because it was sad in itself, but also because I knew then that my glimpse into an experience outside of my own allotted portion—the experience of being among the popular, rich, and stylish people that others would look upon with longing—was an accident that fate was quickly going to correct.

Wesley Yang is a frequent contributor to n+1.

Shore Leave
By Julie Klam

In the summer of 1989, I was living on the Upper West Side near where my friend Leslie worked as a bartender at Lucy’s, the legendary surf bar. Every night while she mixed Sex on the Beaches and Blue Moons, I’d sit at the end of the bar looking as unalluring as possible under the water-colored lights, reading a novel, eating a brownie and drinking a big glass of ice water with plastic mermaids hanging all around the rim. On the sweltering July night when three U.S. Navy sailors strolled in, I was feeling restless. They were talking very loudly about what to do in New York; they’d already seen all the key tourist attractions and only had one day left before they set sail. “Coney Island?” I suggested. They were really excited. They’d heard of it! One of them, named Tommy, pulled out his subway map and while I was crayoning the route, he looked at me and said, “Well, you have to come!” I chuckled. The guys appeared to have popped out of a Preston Sturges movie, and the sweetness was so surprising I said yes.

The next day, I put on a thirties-style dress, red lipstick, and scuffed Mary Janes. Only Tommy and his crappy camera were at the subway station; the other two guys had gotten Yankee tickets. We took the 1 to the D train, and I was completely self-conscious. People smiled at us like I was with my guy who was about to ship off to the Pacific Ocean Theater. Tommy pressed up against the windows when the train went above ground, snapping pictures of the distant Statue of Liberty. By the time we reached Coney Island, the hazy sun was lowering in the sky like a big orange egg yolk, and we walked down to the boardwalk talking closely. It’s a strange kind of thing where you go somewhere new with someone you don’t really know and when you get there you know him better than the strange place, so a sort of false intimacy hatches. I, Tommy’s tour guide, had never been to Coney Island before, but I acted like I knew what I was doing and where I was going. We ate a Nathan’s hot dog (which twenty years later is still repeating on me) and held hands. We stopped at a photo booth so he could get a picture of himself in front of a brightly painted backdrop of frolicking mermaids. The Korean photographer screamed at me to get in the shot with Tommy even though I kept insisting I was not his girlfriend. But then I worried the photographer thought I was a hooker, so I got in the picture. Tommy and I walked down to the water and he told me how strange it felt to look out at ships from the shore. “It must be weird to you that I’m more comfortable out there,” he said. On the train ride back we talked like old friends, he kissed me, but it was very held-back. Walking me home from the station, under faint city stars, he kept shaking his head and saying proudly, “Oh, sometimes I hate what a respectable guy I am!” He gave me a kiss good-bye and I sauntered up my stairs. When I got inside the vestibule I watched him walk up the street, stopping to take a picture of my deli.

Julie Klam is the author of a memoir, Please Excuse My Daughter.

How I Met My “Career Pornographer” Wife
By Geoff Nicholson

I guess it was the skintight leopard-skin pants that first drew my attention. And also she was wearing a piece of jewelry that she told me was made from a human knee bone, though frankly I’ve always been skeptical about that. And when she told me she was a “career pornographer” who edited Juggs magazine, among others—well, a guy would have to be intrigued.

I was a respectable English literary novelist at the time, though I had just published a racy novel about foot fetishism, and I’d come to New York to publicize it. I actually met this woman at the launch party for my book, and asking her to go out drinking with me the next night seemed like the right thing to do, but also just a little obvious. This, after all, was the kind of encounter that respectable English literary novelists fantasize about: a reckless, improbable but in a way predictable fling while visiting New York.

And if the story had played out in the obvious way, there would have been a few days of drug-fueled, fetishistic, transgressive sex, and at the end of it we’d have said it was not to be and I’d have returned to England with some bittersweet and excitingly tawdry memories. But it didn’t happen quite that way.

The next night, martinis were duly drunk in a small, dark Spanish bar on Crosby Street, and even though my memories of the occasion aren’t quite as clear as they might be, I do know that at some point I found myself saying, “Look, why don’t you just marry me?”

All too sanely she replied, “But you’ve already got a girlfriend in England. Why don’t you marry her?”

And then I said, “I don’t wish to marry her. I wish to marry you.”

I think she was somehow impressed by my stilted, Noel Coward dialogue. The imagined fling turned into a decade-long transatlantic courtship, with many missteps, many hesitations and uncertainties, endless difficult farewells at airports, reunions that were sometimes even more difficult, and many moments when it just didn’t seem this thing could possibly work. And yet in the end, it did.

Geoff Nicholson is the author, most recently, of The Lost Art of Walking.

Love in the Time of Shock and Awe
By Lily Burana

Summer came early in 2003. American troops had entered Iraq only months before and the conflict was hogging the headlines. I was a newlywed War on Terror bride with a soldier husband halfway around the world sweating in the desert. Fretful and alone, I was afraid to watch the news. I was also host to a case of heat rash that made the inside of my right thigh look like it was covered in pink candy dots.

I’d recently moved from New York to Maryland, where my husband was stationed. It was a tough transition for us—not just because we were both New Yorkers (him by birth, me by choice), but because we knew a deployment would likely pull us apart. We had come together from opposite sides of a daunting cultural divide. He was a Reagan-worshipping blue-collar whiz kid from Woodhaven, Queens, and I an ex-punker dropout from suburban New Jersey. I didn’t understand the acronym-heavy military jargon (APC, PCS, COB); he had never heard of X.

New York had been our playground, our courting turf. We’d met in a graveyard in Brooklyn. We were together the first time he’d ever walked the Brooklyn Bridge. Even when prowling my old haunts together on the Lower East Side, country music was the bridge between us—George Strait, Patsy Cline. So to reach across the 6,500 hundred miles that now kept us apart, I sent a care package containing CDs of songs with lyrics more plangent and earnest than a cynical punk-rock girl would dare express herself. I liked knowing that my husband would lie in his cot at night, Sammy Kershaw delivering a valentine from me: “You are the love of my life. You are the reason I’m alive.”

We talked on the phone whenever we could. I’d told him about my heat rash—not exactly pillow talk—and he said that in the 120-degree days, he was dependent upon the Johnson’s baby powder he’d bought at the camp. Even apart we found things in common: We were both miserable.

After the hazy Old Southern sunsets, I’d settle in for lonely nights of Gold Bond and steel guitar. I imagined my husband’s return, when we could finally pack up and move back to New York, these sweet songs playing, us slow-dancing among the packed boxes.

It wasn’t meant to be. When he came home from the war, he accidentally left the CDs on the plane. That was okay—we didn’t need them anymore.

But we did get to move back to New York—to West Point, an hour north of the city, easily within orbit. While our Army quarters were being renovated, we holed up in run-down temporary single-room housing on post. With 130-degree Mideast days and endless lonely Southern nights behind us, the muggy New York weather—gritty, familiar—seemed pleasant by comparison. He was home. We were home. We lay side by side in our dark, chilly West Point room, the ancient air conditioner growling away, healed and whole. The powder stayed stashed in our luggage. We knew this would be the coolest summer ever.

Lily Burana’s new memoir is I Love a Man in Uniform.

Love and Air-conditioning