I haven't had a lover for six months when you arrive in my life. It's not that I intended to be celibate, just that I no longer have the patience for bad sex. And bad sex is any sex that doesn't let me kiss, doesn't care if I come, doesn't look me in the eye tomorrow, doesn't ask for some part of the dance to begin again.
While I have no patience for bad sex, whatever willingness I might once have had for loveless sex, recreational sex, is gone, too. I’m almost forty, and I want to have a baby. I want to have my man and our baby. I want to give and receive love. I want a normal life.
But in the meantime, while I wait, my life is not exactly normal. I’ve always lived a bit outside the crowd. The last man who could not love me could not accept my work as a surrogate partner in sex therapy. I had trained for it and worked about a dozen cases. I found that I enjoyed helping scared men lose their fears; the world could do with fewer scared men. As it turned out, my own man was scared, too. I had retired my hands for him, and then he left anyway. But that’s another story.
So here I sit with you in your therapist's office. You've come all the way from your Brazilian coast to our American west, seeking this brand of pioneer. You probably don’t know that this treatment paradigm goes back to the 1960’s; that famed sex researchers Masters and Johnson identified the dysfunctions of sex that maim people and rend relationships; and that they trained surrogates to serve as cooperative partners for single clients. All you know is that you found the website for the International Professional Surrogates Association. It looked valid, said something about training and a code of ethics. It said I would teach you how to communicate, touch, and create intimacy. You just hope that I will be kind, and maybe pretty.
You're “desperate.” You've tried “everything.” Yet you cannot make love. Your hope is to overcome this problem so that one day you can have a woman of your own, and a family. You’re only twenty-six, yet this is your last stop before invasive implant surgery, with its severed nerves and uncertain outcomes.
How does this happen? Maybe your father was driven, a perfectionist who never allowed you to feel exceptional. Perhaps your mother was intrusive, causing you to wall yourself off. You might have been a second act, following but never catching up to an older, more accomplished sibling. Or someone might have more clearly violated you. Whatever the reason, from the mundane to the outrageous, it’s astonishing – the things people do and call them “love.”
I sit next to you as your therapist explains our course: you’ll meet with both of us each day, though separately; you and I will each tell him of what occurred; and then he’ll help plot the direction for the next day. You’ve chosen well; some therapists can be too cautious to undertake this journey. Others stay shallow, think of me as a sandy beach for you to land on. This man is a particularly skillful river guide. He will push the boat that carries us out into deep water. Carefully, but fearlessly.
I know that what he says means little to you now, consumed as you are with just wanting to look at me. I know you're wondering, Will it work? Will she finally be able to help me? Of course, I could wonder the same thing. I could be overwhelmed by the burden of this responsibility, the ever-present knowledge that we have only fourteen days to solve a problem of eight years' duration, your entire sexual life. But I can't afford to doubt this process. I must present a confident presence, so that you will be confident. Will believe that sex therapy can work. Will come to know that I, an ordinary woman, have seen miracles happen in the space between another person's skin and mine.
I look at you, in your conservative power suit (one that still can’t hide your lack of power here), and remind myself of what you will look like in two weeks: naked above me, your head thrown back, skin sex-flushed, erection hard between my legs; you'll open your eyes and stare at me, first in disbelief, then in triumph, fully the man you have so yearned to be.
We set our appointments. Things start slowly. I go to my other job, see friends, shop. I've blocked off three hours a day for you, and for three hours I begin to talk and touch and teach. It's innocent, fully clothed, hands and hair and face, communicating who we are a paragraph at a time, just as other strangers do. I tell your therapist of your reactions, how eagerly you follow my lead. You say, "I'll do anything you want, just tell me." "That will change," your therapist observes dryly, "as you move closer to being equal partners." Equal partners. In spite of the snapshot I conjured the first day, it's hard to imagine that ever happening.
But things do get interesting. We're naked, and for the first time I wonder what you think of my forty-year-old body. I see not only your boyish face, but your hard, soccer-playing legs, and your penis – brown, uncircumcised – beautiful! Far from disabled, it rises to meet me before I even touch it. I want to touch it, to suck and straddle you and satisfy myself, but I must not. I'm keenly aware that, should I unleash the full force of my pent-up mature woman's sex, it would wash over you like a tidal wave, and all this new ground would be lost. So I bide my time and wait for you. More and more, my days begin to revolve around seeing you and talking about you with your therapist. We kiss and caress. We have our first shower under the red glow of a heat lamp, all slick skin and steam. You rub yourself all over my body and finger me almost to orgasm. When you leave, I smell you in my sheets at night and think, Only a few more days.
Shadows begin to circle under the gondola of my bed. In your honesty, you tell me that you don't think of me at night. You go out to a club, look at twenty-something girls, disgusted with yourself for not having the courage to talk to them. After the one day that we don't meet, I ask you how you felt. "I missed it," you admit. I’m sure it’s true, and you think it’s what I want to hear, but something turns over inside me. "Missing 'it' is not missing you," says your therapist. And I have come to want you to miss me.
We both try to tell you what this means, but you don't seem to understand. Frustrated, you ask your therapist how we can solve your problem when we each see a different problem: You say it's your penis; he says it's that you can't relax enough to forget about your penis; I say it's that you can't connect enough to relax enough to forget about your penis. He reassures us that we all see the same problem; it's all related. And you need to get this, because the days are ticking by.
You begin to resist me. For the first time, you refuse something I ask you to do: to show me how you please yourself. "Why should I do that?" you ask, annoyed. Because it's instructive. Because it's erotic. Because being erotic to me should interest you. Because given where we are, everything about me should interest you, the way you have become interesting to me. But it doesn't. As I become more vulnerable, wanting you, I see you becoming less so, asserting yourself − and missing the point entirely. I talk to your therapist, our deep water navigator, who points the compass: "We’ve gotten to it at last. He fears that he will lose himself in intimacy. This is the real work."
Meanwhile, we keep moving forward, but the current pushes back, and it is more like work now. I feel like I’m losing myself, losing that confidence and equanimity with which I met you. You pull further back and even begin to lose your erection again. I think of you all day, but my thoughts have become darker. I question why I am working on your future instead of focusing on my own, the man I want to find, not this resistant youth.
Just as in other relationships, the waters of surrogate partner therapy become murky. My life, which used to be balanced, has become more and more centered around you. And because I don’t have a lover of my own, I’m almost overcome by the thought of you inside me. My fantasies even become a little crazy: What if we fell in love? Who would move for whom? Could I give you the babies you desire? Almost in a panic, I call your therapist, who gently steers me. He reminds me that besides the obvious age disparity, cultural difference, and geographical challenge, we would be unlikely as a successful couple. And I remember: assuming that you will soon be able to match me stroke for stroke, there would always be a subtle power imbalance. In the meantime, both of us are where we need to be – me standing before you with my arms open (arms that will remain open even after you are gone), you backed up against the wall of your dysfunctions. Your main concern is to come out paddling, confident of your oar; but relationship is so much more than a penis, or a vagina. I can't make love to someone who doesn't even see me.
"How did you feel when you were looking at those twenty-year-old women who didn't even notice you?" I ask. "Foolish," you admit. "Well, that's how I feel when I'm looking at you and you don't notice me. I need you to feel something for me! Engage with me! Don’t stay so safe! Get involved!"
"WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?" you finally explode. "I am going to leave and never see you again! How can I afford to get ‘involved’ with you?"
“Baby," I answer sadly, "how can you afford not to?"
Suddenly, a day earlier than planned, you're inside me. I don't think you've earned the privilege, yet I'm up against my own walls of deadline and desire. I think I may have let it happen also as a way of saying, “Notice me, asshole!” It doesn't matter, because you're erect, your condom is on, and you're in. Not having had a lover for six months, I savor the feeling. I wrap my arms around you, bury my face in your warm skin, moan, arch up. Then I remind myself that I haven't had a lover for six months, but you haven't had one...ever. I begin to attend to you. You thrust, but the act of thrusting makes you remember the problem. The problem; the solution. Not you. Not me. In that split second of out-of-body-into-brain consciousness, I feel you losing it, slipping away, leaving. "Stay with me," I whisper. "I'm here with you, stay here with me." For a moment, everything stands still − time, sweat, blood, heartbeats − waiting to see what you are going to do.
You begin to kiss me with those searching lips. Calling upon your learning, you run your hands over my hips, my breasts, shoulders, neck, face, hair. You pull back and look at me. "What?" I whisper. "I want to touch myself for you," you say. You slip out, take yourself in one hand, me in the other. I see you above me, the rise and fall of my breasts, your hand moving, your gaze locked with mine, not in embarrassment but in pride. And I realize that, with only slight variation, this is the way I had pictured you before − less than two weeks ago, and yet a twenty-six-year-old lifetime. I marvel at the wonder of how we have gotten here. And then you lean down, kiss me, enter me again. We begin moving, sometimes in unison, sometimes asymmetrically, finding our rhythm. Rhythm takes time. Relationship takes time. But for now, at your will, and in service to our pleasure, you give yourself to me.
After you withdraw, we discover the condom has broken. We fall back on the pillows in surprise and talk about the possibilities: If this, if that. Certainly it’s one of the risks when people blend their bodies. It’s one of the reasons some therapists won’t work with surrogate partners − fearing pregnancy, disease, professional censure. Yet ironically, risk is the very fulcrum upon which change teeters. "Whatever happens," you say, "it's our problem." OUR PROBLEM. I realize that, for the first time, there is a "we" in this room, and in this relationship. And who can find the relationship that is free of risk? Who would want to?
Too soon, you and your therapist and I have our goodbyes, and you leave. People wonder how we can do it – bond deeply and then go our separate ways. Most relationships end; this one will, too. But this one will end in hope, not despair. And you will take home unexpected riches from the streets paved with gold.
I am still here, in the tangle of my heart, with the possibilities for what you’ve left behind. Your therapist knows where I’ve been and where I want to go. He talks me through the tall trees and sticky vines. “Remember,” he says, “if you are pregnant, it’s your decision."
The days go by. I smell you in my bed, and I picture the chance that I might have life growing inside me. I try to feel what it would be like to have an abortion at age forty, wanting a child. I imagine having the child without the man. I hear you telling me that having a child this way would spoil your pleasure in your accomplishment, would be “impossible.” But how can I tell you that things that seem impossible at twenty-six can seem eminently possible at forty? That nothing is as you expect, that everything turns inside out and becomes something else again. That all we can do is take calculated chances and know that even a crisis becomes an opportunity.
I imagine you in Rio, feeling as a man − looking at young women, choosing one for your own, having your love and your family. Time passes. The memory of your face becomes softer, a little more blurred each day. I begin to picture a man with gray in his beard who will look into my eyes and see worlds. I sense him circling the crowd, looking for me. I feel the space you’ve left in my bed that is waiting to be filled. I wash my sheets of your smell, readying myself for him to come. Planets turn. Tides pull. And then I bleed.
But my arms, my heart, my womb are still open, open. Everything is as it should be.