In A Great Man's Bed
by NATALIE ELLIOTT
In the first adult night you know sleeplessness, you lie vanquished, blinking at the ceiling. In this bed, the man you wanted snores next to you. His successful belly larger and quivering in a way you didn’t expect from the smoothed look of his professional-man V-neck sweaters. You have been pursuing him for months — waiting with methodical patience, you joked, like an Austen character. You’d never had to wait for a man so long. Now, it seems, he doesn’t want you. Or he does; he wants you, but you haven’t slept with him yet. He held you and kissed you and then said some untoward things about how he couldn’t date you, as if dating was ever your only goal. You find yourself both mystified and repelled: Well, yes, let’s be frank. You wanted him to wither in his love for you. Like the Southern belle you so violently resist being, this was the only imaginable outcome.
But you’re not a belle any longer, and this isn’t your territory. Slowly, over the past two years, you’ve been gradually unlearning the role of the petulant chit. By this point, you’ve been sexually rejected a healthy amount of times to declare yourself unencumbered any longer by that illusion, and you’re grateful for this development, because most belles take even longer in life to learn rejection. They prattle into their thirties, lazy tumbler of Jack & Diet in hand like a scabbard, balking and gasping in the first moment of being unwanted, like giant, drunk toddlers. You’ve seen it. One day soon, when it becomes obvious you’ve crossed over, your male friends will take pleasure in reporting these moments to you. “They even had boyfriends!” they’ll say, incredulously, like that impediment would actually stop a woman from setting her snare. In a sick, competitive way, you will delight in their downfall. “Well,” you’ll think, “It has to happen sometime.” Like any true Southern woman, you were taught to be a tactical misogynist at heart. It’s a deformity you will spend your entire adult life correcting.
So here you are, in a great man’s bed. It’s an insignificant moment, but for this last hurdle. It’s that hour of reckoning in which you must process that a man isn’t in love with you, and because you are a well-oiled insecurity-powered machine, it’s difficult, almost impossible, not to blame yourself. But this is the first time you’re resisting that impulse. It’s a battle, because he is lying near you, sleeping negligently. You could choose to cry quietly in the darkness, or to cling to him, to curl up against him and make an empty demand or two. You are fighting it so hard you can’t sleep, and it’s kind of amazing, because you’ve never fought at all it before.
After a while, you conclude that there’s nothing wrong with you, and that he must not understand. Then, with this resolution passed, you commit to the idea of having sex with him, but never letting it be more than that. You know you’ll get what you want out of it somehow.
It’s a lovely period of time. You perch on his sofa reading copies of The New Yorker with a blanket tucked around your legs, sipping Maker’s Mark in the afternoon. He makes you a lot of great sandwiches. The behaviors are reminiscent of a love affair, but not. You never go out in public together and that’s all right. You tell him one day your plans to read magazines at the bookstore, and an hour later, he’s standing above you as you pore over a copy of Scientific American. It’s an ersatz spontaneous gesture so self-consciously romantic it reeks of sociopathy. Later, it seems to have been the moment of climax. He loses interest within a week, and with one swift conversation, you don’t call each other anymore.
You find, within six months, when you are now pretending to be in love with a lawyer in New York, that he isn’t done with you. You’re chums. At lunch one day, over chips and watery salsa, he casually reveals he’s never experienced anything “like that” with a woman before. You understand he means the same thing you felt the night you lie awake in his bed; the distinct feeling of someone not being in love with you. Beneath the table, you cross your legs in triumph, even though that day you have a heat rash on your thighs.
Throughout the summer, you’re still obsessed with the lawyer, but you start sleeping with another writer. It’s one of those exchanges where you’re attracted to someone solely for their mind. You let that sort of thing happen more often than not, as if coming into intimate contact with brilliance will supernaturally benefit you. He’s fun and gives you what you ask for, and you don’t feel compelled to coquette around him, except maybe the heavy-drinking part. He delivers a box of gourmet cookies to your office when you’re in deadline. He falls asleep with his head on your thigh during My Man Godfrey, and you know then that despite the fact that maybe you should, you could never be in love with him. He’s moving soon, so you spend every night unconscionably at his house. He wants more from you, and it makes you weep, because your heart is pledged to the lawyer, who, every day, is becoming more like a bearded figment of your imagination.
You’re relieved when it’s over. Something about it feels too familiar. You recall a young man in the city before this city, the one who would take you out to dinner and drive you around town at your behest, like a hired car. You were both enduring acrimonious breakups, and it seemed only natural to have some kind of miserable companionship. He kept you in liquor and once even tried to buy you a pair of shoes, like an Emirati prince or something. He introduced you to his most dazzling friends and you had a good lark, but couldn’t help but feeling friendlier about things than he did. There was never any hesitation about thanking him for his generosity with sex. Once he gave you $40 to take a cab out to a party at his home when you were downtown and couldn’t drive. You showed up with nothing but a clutch full of lipstick. You referred to that period as your “fancy prostitute” days. You didn’t realize they weren’t over.
Often you joke that you’re married to your job, which is a robust, ironclad lie, but gives you a fine excuse for emotional unavailability, like a man would have. Regularly you work ten-hour days, because you’re actually expected to. Your desk in the office is the fortress from which you weave most of the fantasy of the lawyer; you only have hundreds of interminable hours to stare longingly into the nearly wordless white space of his emails.
It’s too difficult for a young woman to be alone. You can’t decide if this is just another stupid cultural vestige or a universal lady-thing, and it’s not worth deciding. You feel like it’s still important to keep a coterie of admirers — men who will buy you dinner and fawn over you, or at least tepidly try to sleep with you, that fateful action that affirms for the Southern woman there’s still a pulse humming beneath her delicate wrist. When the younger girls at the office discuss similar behaviors and misadventures, you resist the urge to vomit in the wastebasket. You wonder how you all became sufferers of the same affliction.
Eventually, something strange happens. The great man approaches you about a writing job. He doesn’t have time to work on a script and needs you to do it. The pay is excellent, possibly better than anything you’ve tackled up to that point. You don’t even meet in person to discuss the project; a few email exchanges are all that’s required. When it’s all said and done, you fill out a tax form and zip it over to his accountant. You slept together and didn’t speak for months at a time. Now he throws you work every once in a while, which, from your current position, feels more comforting than sex. So far, he’s funded a trip to Milwaukee for a friend’s wedding and at least one month’s rent.
A while later, when you find yourself gambling on elective unemployment, you call up the writer like he’s your trusty older brother, just to hash out this big decision you’re making. All along, you’ve carefully followed each other’s careers, but haven’t nosed in much more than to send a kind note. He’s one of those slick self-marketers; this is a skill you wish you’d gleaned from him somehow. He charitably dumps all of his publishing contacts on you like he’s been waiting for this moment for years. He talks about you like a promising racehorse. He never spares the opportunity to deliver a sunny blandishment of the most chivalrous nature, even though you’re living with another man now.
Think of all those nights you lurched onto a sofa in a dimly lit room with a friend of a friend who paid you the right compliment. Who leaned in and mumbled something nearly devastating while you pouted, selecting Everly Brothers songs on the jukebox. Who had a fascinating job but a stunted, teenage personality. Who addressed you only as “Lady” like you were a shadowy noir archetype. The way you gave into their advances half-heartedly, out of a temporary, bloodshot reverence and a pitiful predatory struggle against loneliness. It’s all been a doubly selfish act. You couldn’t stand yourself, so you broadcasted your need for momentary suitors to serve as a patient, blurry mirror, maybe just for an evening or six.
But now you’re married and hidden in the private violence of matrimonial passions. If you must be honest, you always nursed a remote fear that it would hurt too much to belong to one single man. The thought of relinquishing your sweet, schlubby cast of lovers is almost too much for the belle to bear. It came more naturally than expected. You were sincere in your desire to marry. You entered into it with everything — all those womanly forces of insecurity hewn into one fine point, directed at one totally kind and unfortunate person.
It was freeing to give up on people you didn’t really want. And no matter how cruelly you thought you may have treated them, they’re just elegantly narcissistic men, who either don’t remember or never noticed. You had no idea that each of those specious interactions would become some kind of respectable transaction, some goods exchange. They sit with the late-night memory of you drawn behind a murky velvet stage curtain. From what you hear, they seem to revisit it fondly. Perhaps it’s because your deception was so bald and fanged they enjoyed your honesty. Or more likely, it’s because your maudlin personality felt like a wild and forbidden comfort — the only remaining purpose of those learned Southern behaviors, the stuff of any good hooker worth her heart of gold. There are still so many favors to call in.
Natalie Elliott is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about her marriage. She writes the column Miss On Scene for The Oxford American. You can find her twitter here.
"Sleep Late, My Lady Friend" - Nilsson (mp3)
"Without Her" - Nilsson (mp3)