Another Kind Of love
Richard was a tall man with long spindly arms and legs which he moved about with the delicate grace of an insect. Like many tall people – he was six foot seven – he walked with a stoop, as if apologizing for growing past the average measure of human height. He had lank black hair and wild black eyes. These, together with a Russian grandmother, associated him in my mind with characters from Russian novels - one of those tortured clerks who order and cancel a meal three times in succession before rushing out of the restaurant in shame and confusion, a victim of brain fever.
But Richard’s appearance was deceiving. He wasn’t like that. On the contrary, he was a man of deep self confidence, a creature of steady, regular habits. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t take drugs. He liked women but kept them at a distance. His days were as regular as clockwork, making his living working as a lawyer in a small office in the old downtown. Weekends he spent in intellectual pursuits - the sciences, mostly astronomy.
He was my wife’s first cousin. That’s how I came to know him. My wife and I met and married in a far off city but after a year we moved to Axelburg, her hometown. A week after we arrived he invited us to dinner. After the meal he gave us an Inuit sculpture for a wedding present, a woman carrying a child on her back in a skin bag. To me it seemed conventional and unremarkable but I kept my mouth shut. My wife loved it. It was very expensive. We were both a little embarrassed by its costliness. It was easily more valuable than all our other possessions put together. When we arrived home we gave the sculpture a place of honor on a shelf in the living room. We invited Richard to our place for supper a week later. After some back and forth we settled down to an exchange of monthly Saturday suppers. The first Saturday he came to our place and the third we went to his.
Richard read science. He could give an account of the latest Mars exploration or a detailed explanation of some phenomenon in molecular biology. He subscribed to all the scientific magazines and belonged to a science book club. In his bedroom he had a map of the universe covering an entire wall, glossy and brightly colored. The bookshelves in his living room were filled with three complete sets of scientific encyclopedias. When I first met him all this made me wonder why he didn’t become a scientist. Once, when we were eating a delicious souffle, baked by my wife, I asked him. He replied,
“Tunnel vision. Most scientific practice today is tunnel visioned. Produces results, mind you, but very boring. It has become a matter of tiny niches and interlocking committees. The practice of law, especially criminal law, my firm’s specialty, involves a broad landscape of human behavior. Much more interesting.”
This is the way Richard spoke as if he were far away on some other planet and sending back terse messages packed with information.
Richard lived in an older brick block, once apartments, now condominiums. He had a fireplace. Excepting in summer, after supper, he lit a fire. He laid the wood and paper in a precise, methodical way and lit it with a long fireplace match. Then he turned off the living room lights and we sat in the light and shadows cast by the fireplace and drank coffee. My wife and he would speak for hours about people in the family. I knew most of the people but not the way they did. Some were dead. Aunts and uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers. While they talked I kept the coffee thermos full and fed the fire. Halfway through the evening my wife and Richard would tire of family gossip. Then he would speak of a scientific article he read that week or give a summation of the arguments about whether Pluto should be called a planet or described the recent discovery of strange creatures living at the mouth of warm vent holes at the bottom of the ocean. Then he would ask me about poetry.
“What are you reading now?”
“Yes. I read Paradise Regained twice but that’s it. I paid my dues. The omniscient ego exacting adoration is tedious. Lucifer, on the other hand, is magnificent. Lucifer is an egotist as well but there is something about a defeated egotist infinitely more attractive than a triumphant one. For me it is impossible to relate to Milton’s God. Lucifer, with his pride and desire, is close enough to human nature for us to comprehend.”
“The Feminists don’t like Milton.”
“I see nothing wrong with criticizing Milton’s ideas. It seems to me that even in his own time they were narrow, literalist and superficial. His conceptions of the role of women come in a long line from the Greeks and Romans. Militarist societies produce remarkably similar views on gender relations. Milton’s worth lies not in his ideas but in their expression. But ‘ists’ are ideologues and ideologues see literature as only a forum for ideas. With such an arid conception it is a wonder they like anything.”
“ ‘He for God; she for the God in him.’ is a bit thick, don’t you think?” my wife asked.
“Thick but beautifully expressed. Milton accepted the conventional views of his day on the roles of the sexes. He was a deeply conservative man. But that doesn’t remove the beauties of his language.”
“Shakespeare was more enlightened,” said Richard.
“Shakespeare was quicksilver to Milton’s granite. He was a gender bender and a class bender too, fascinated with the illusory nature of social roles, social appearances. But Shakespeare’s life was spent as an entertainer, a bohemian pagan, while Milton was a wealthy bourgeois Christian. Like many bourgeois Milton was obsessed with ideas of order and authority. That makes his ideas staid and creaky as time goes on while Shakespeare’s sense of anarchy and poking fun is remarkably contemporary. Milton is stentorian, heavy with gravitas, while Shakespeare is light on his feet, a great counter puncher. But it should be remembered that Milton’s great character was Lucifer, a rebel. In the end his artistry over rode his conservatism. Some bright young PHD student, into revisionism, might, some day, argue that Lucifer rising from hell to journey to the newly created earth can be seen as an allegory of emancipated woman rising from the ruins of European militarism.”
“Quite a stretch,” said my wife.
“Not for a revisionist hot on the trail of a PhD.”
My wife and I always left Richard’s before eleven. She claimed that any later would throw off his schedule like an asteroid hit might throw off the orbit of a planet. We walked to supper and walked home no matter what the weather. Parkas in winter, umbrellas in the rain. When we arrived home we took a bath together in the huge claw foot bathtub in our apartment bathroom. One night, after sex, my wife asked,
“I wonder what Richard does for sex?’
“Whacks his weenie most likely.”
“Maybe. But then again maybe he has a secret lover.”
“If you and your sisters haven’t discovered her by now she must be a very secret lover.”
“It might not be a she. It could be a he.”
“Do you think he’s gay?”
“Perhaps, but he might just be asexual. It happens.”
This exchange put a bee in my wife’s bonnet. Two weeks later when we were sitting at the Saturday breakfast table she said,
“Allissa says Richard goes to the bordello.” Allissa is my wife’s older sister.
“And what does he do there I wonder?”
“S and M says Allissa.”
“He beats or she beats?”
“That’s what Allissa says and she’s usually accurate.”
That Richard had his bum beat at the bordello did not make me think less of him. Sexual perversion is more pervasive than we think. It seems to me that even the great sex surveys under report it. There are taboos and it is deeply human to hide such things even during an anonymous interview. If S and M was his portal to orgasm that was his business. That was my attitude. My wife was more judgmental. Women usually are, for perversion introduced into the sexual drama removes woman as a highly individual personality and lover, from its center. Nobody likes to be removed from center stage. If I said this to my wife she would accuse me of terrible things. I myself, for instance, might be harboring a hideous perversion. Silence is the best policy when it comes to such delicate matters.
But my wife’s judgment was a mild one and it was over ridden by her love of Richard. They went back a long way into the early days of childhood. And Richard was a very lovable man, generous, funny, intelligent, not the least bit pretentious. He was eccentric, yes, but a deep and genuine eccentric, the kind whose eccentricity make his close friends love him all the more. She was just as warm towards him, even more so perhaps, after Allissa’s revelation, than before.
Two months after, on the Saturday morning of supper at our place, Richard phoned and spoke to my wife.
“That would be fine, Richard, of course,” she said into the receiver. Then she put it back in its cradle.
I was working on a painting at the kitchen table. “So, what did he want?” I asked.
“He’s bringing someone with him to supper.”
“A woman someone.”
“Will she be wearing black leather?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“It might be nice to have someone walking around here in black leather once in a while.”
“You are disgusting.”
When Richard came to our place he arrived by cab. He didn’t own a car and went everywhere by cab. They arrived at seven-thirty, the usual time. My wife was watching the entrance of the building through the front window over looking the street.
“He’s here,” she said. I was in the kitchen making salad. The pot roast was in a roasting pan in the oven reheating. I always make it the day before and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. That way the flavors of the meat and vegetables mix together making the dish even more delicious than when you eat it right after baking. “Ten minutes!” I called out to her.
My wife had already set the table. She walked over to the door to await the knock. When it came she opened the door and ushered them inside. They sat on the sofa in the far end of the living room. My wife sat across from them and engaged them in conversation. From the rhythm of the mumbling I could hear through the kitchen door they seemed to be doing fine.
When I came in with the pot roast they were seated at the table. Richard introduced me. Her name was Helen. She was wearing a bright red dress and five inch high heels. Perhaps she was attempting to bring her eyes up closer to Richard’s for in sock feet she would have stood perhaps five foot six. She was a little younger than he, making her in her late twenties. She had long, fine chestnut hair done up at the back of her hair in a bun. She was exquisitely beautiful, so much so that during the meal I had to make a conscious effort to keep my eyes moving about in a normal way rather than let them rest on those finely chiseled features. My wife noticed this but pretended not to. Women are wiser in the ways of biology than they let on.
Helen didn’t say much during the meal or afterwards. She seemed content to listen. After all, much of the conversation concerned people she had never met. As well, since both my wife and I assumed she was one of Richard’s prostitutes out for a trial social run, we couldn’t very well ask her direct questions to break the ice, such as, “Now, Helen, what do you do for a living?” Richard didn’t volunteer any information other than her name and that she was a friend.
“What kind of a friend, do you think?” My wife asked after they were gone.
“A friend tied and true, perhaps.”
“A friend in need. Of stern correction.”
“A friend indeed, especially in the clinches.”
We went on like this until we were in stitches and unable to continue. When she had recovered sufficiently, my wife said.
“Poor Richard. We are so mean to him.” But I don’t think Richard would have minded. He had a wicked sense of humor himself.
It was two weeks to the next supper at Richard’s and my wife and I spent many hours speculating on whether Helen would be there acting as hostess when we arrived. Sometimes we leaned to a definite no, sometimes to a definite yes, but finally we decided we didn’t really have a clue and gave it up as hopeless speculation. On the way over, however, walking under our umbrella in a fine spray of rain, through streets so quiet and empty that it seemed to us the houses were abodes of the dead or emptied mysteriously by disease or social upheaval, we decided that Richard’s experiment was unsuccessful and Helen would not be there. We were wrong.
Helen opened the door. This time she was wearing a blue dress and the heels were gone. On her feet was a pair of Richard’s slippers. Unlike at our place she wore no makeup and her narrow, classically boned face looked all the better for it. She ushered us in and sat us down on the sofa in front of the empty fireplace, then went into the kitchen to get us drinks. When she laid our drinks on the coffee table she sat down on a wooden armchair opposite.
“He says it will be ten minutes,” she said.
“Fine,” said my wife.
“Long enough for us to have a chat,” said Helen.
My wife and I did not reply but we did smile vaguely. We were unsure what a ‘chat’ meant.
“You will be wondering about who I am and where I came from so Richard and I decided it would be best for me to tell you. He is impossibly shy about such things as you probably already know.” Helen smiled cheerfully and took a sip of wine from her glass.
“We met in the bordello. No doubt you know that he used to go there.”
“Yes,” said my wife.
“These things get around,” said Helen. “For the first year he went to another woman but six months ago he started coming to me. The exotic pleasures offered by the bordello are expensive and Richard could only afford them twice a month. We took a liking to one another and after three months decided to cut costs and meet in his apartment. This, of course, is against bordello policy but what they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?” “Right,” said my wife.
“After three months of meeting like that we decided that I should move in. So here I am.”
“I see,” said my wife.
“I was part time at the bordello. I’m a student. In a year’s time I will be finishing a PhD in French Literature. Richard has generously allowed me to live here rent free until I am finished my thesis and get a teaching position. Richard tells me you like Baudelaire.” This she directed at me.
“Very much,” I said.
“So do I. Anyway, that’s the whole story more or less. But Richard told me you would be interested in the details. Generalities are unsatisfying. If you so wish, he said, I should fill you in. Don’t be shy. He said you would be.”
“We are,” I said. My wife gave me a quick, censorious glance but when Helen continued I noticed that she hadn’t plugged her ears.
“Fine,” said Helen. “Richard is a bottom. I am a top. Do you understand that?”
My wife and I nodded our heads.
“That’s a general description but not definitive. Sometimes we change up for fun and Richard becomes the top, myself the bottom. We wear rubber clothing. We sometimes do mild flagellation and bondage. And that’s about it. Far less unusual or weird than most people think. All sexual relationships contain elements of dominance and submission, and many couples play such games with or without gear. But one thing I should tell you. Outside of the bedroom we are perfectly normal. I would say that most people observing us would assume Richard to be the dominant personality. Often that’s the way it is. The play in the bedroom is a kind of role reversal. I no longer work at the bordello.”
Helen paused for another sip of wine and then continued. “Richard asked me to tell you all this because you are his closest and most intimate friends. He thought it might cause uneasiness and even misunderstanding for you to be left in the dark and that you had a right to know. We will be telling this to no one else. For them this is our own personal affair.”
My wife and I didn’t know what to say to this and were mulling over a few, no doubt, inadequate responses, when, fortunately, Richard called out from the kitchen. Helen leaped up, went in through the doorway and began bringing dishes to the table. The subject was not reintroduced during the meal. Richard was his usual urbane self, chatty and funny as if Helen had not spoken to us at all. We talked of neutrinos, Victor Hugo, Papal birth control teachings, Baudelaire’s girlfriend, Asimov and human imperialism into space as an extension of the American Empire, politics in the family and Allissa’s new BMW. Helen, contrary to the evidence of our first meal together, was a wonderful conversationalist. Perhaps what she had told us released a pressure allowing her to be more comfortable with us.
“What do you think?” my wife asked when we were on the sidewalk, walking home.
“Seems to work for them.”
“They seem happy, satisfied. What do you think?”
“I think they are lucky to have found one another.”
Richard and Helen continued living together. When Helen received her PhD she began teaching at a small university close to Richard’s condo. We continued to trade suppers every month. I was delighted to hear Helen read Baudelaire and Genet aloud in the original French. Richard’s scientific interests extended to a brand new refractor telescope. He had a camera attached and sent us emails of his favorite heavenly bodies.
Two summers latter, at a family gathering, Allissa asked my wife point blank, “Was she one of his whores?” We were standing on the grass in Allissa’s backyard, a place which makes me think of the Romanov’s summer palace or the summer home given by a king to his favourite Duchess, comparisons ridiculously overblown, for a heart surgeon (Allissa’s husband), from our bohemian position, is elevated, yes, but not that elevated. Yet it was impressive and we loved to go there. Several acres of manicured lawn, bordered by flowerbeds, spreading from the house in a series of five or six plateaus ending at the river where a sailboat sat tied up to a floating dock. To the right of the sailboat, on a slight prominence, was an immense wrought iron gazebo.
“Certainly not,” replied my wife, “she’s a perfectly respectable person, a university professor no less.”
This seemed to disappoint Allissa but she let it go. She still had her suspicions but she knew how stubborn her younger sister could be when pressed. A strategic retreat might give her a chance of wheedling the truth out of her sometime latter. Little did she know that my wife would always be an impenetrable wall on the matter and all her wily techniques would be of no use whatsoever. She didn’t bother to corner and grill me for she considered me a hopeless case. She might as well ask the gardener.
The evidence given by the new couple was discouraging to Allissa. They were socially smooth, eloquent, charming and in synch, presenting a united front. They arrived in a new Japanese car, much more modest than a BMW but with a cache of financial wisdom and environmental responsibility. But sometimes Allissa saw a smokiness in their eyes, a fire between them, intense and unusual. But they were still new to each other, so she put that down to a regular round of orgasms and to what even she had to admit was true - that, at times, she had a much too vivid imagination.