EMPTY BED, FULL LIFE.
Karen Mahlsen had inherited easily enough money for her
lifelong needs from her mother’s will and so when her father died, when
she was thirty-one years old, and left her lots more together
with his huge apartment on the Upper East Side and the estate in the Hamptons,
and all the rest of it, her total worth bordered on the preposterous for a single
woman who lived alone.
Well, not quite alone because she employed a maid and a cook but neither of
them ‘lived in’ and they had both been taught to be unobtrusive to
the point of invisibility. They weren’t exactly happy about being close to non-existent in her eyes but as long as she was prepared to keep on paying them five hundred odd dollars a week they’d put up with just about any rules. Because of their personal circumstances they had to spend those same five hundred odd dollars a week on rent and basics for their families which left them baffled as to how a single, healthy woman wanted to employ them, or anybody. They knew that she couldn’t boil water nor turn bread into toast but she could learn, couldn’t she?
Her not having even one child of her own mystified them too.
She no longer kept pets of any kind because, over the years, she
had tried each type and had been disappointed in them every time.
She been turned off cats since the time that a Romanian gardener who was employed in their place in the Hamptons had pointed out to her that cats swallow their own dirt after licking it off themselves. When she went back to Manhattan at the end of that summer she played with her cat as usual but she kept an eye it and she saw that it wasn’t only the dirt in its fur that it licked and swallowed and consequently she couldn’t bring herself to let it near her ever again. She shuddered when she remembered how she had regularly kissed it on the mouth.
She liked some breeds of dogs but all dogs need to be walked everyday and even though it’s easy to pay someone to do that for you inevitably and regularly something goes wrong, usually at weekends, and there’d be no substitute available for a
large variety of perfectly reasonable reasons and so, all too often, she’d find herself in the park on the end of a leash being pulled from one vertical object to the next – ‘pillar to post’ – all the while pretending that this wasn’t happening to her. She was also very aware that, when pulled to a complete halt for several minutes when the finicky animal had finally found a spot that it approved of, she couldn’t get away with pretending that she had nothing to do with what was happening on the other end of the, now way too short, leash. Also, the fact that she had to carry the necessary equipment for the clean up made her aware the whole time that getting the dog to ‘act’ was the focus of the whole walk instead of being merely a tiny, disagreeable event in the course of it as it was when she was letting them run on her Hamptons estate.
She had also owned various birds that ranged from hideously expensive ones down to one dollar Canaries but they were messy creatures and she knew that, no matter how much loving care that you gave them, if you opened their cage when a window was open they would be gone forever in a flutter of feathers which made you very aware that
they shouldn’t have been caged in the first place.
She had once had a huge aquarium but one morning before going to school she’d noticed that the water was cloudy and had asked a maid to see to it that it was
changed for fresh and whoever did it – no one owned up – had used water from the tap and so when she came back home she found every one of her fish – carefully collected over the years by size and color and attractiveness – floating upside down, on the surface. She didn’t insist on finding out who was responsible, actually she’d become a little bored with them for some time by then, but that was the end of her relationship with fish, thank you.
Most of her friends had gotten married and had either moved away physically, or as good as. She wasn’t invited to many of the parties that she’d have liked to attend because attractive, rich, single women were usually far too much of a threat for some of the other
guests and / or the hostess. Being escorted to them didn’t solve the problem because almost invariably her escort was someone who had never been seen with her before and
therefore did not lesson the long term threat that she poised.
The reason that she couldn’t keep any of her boy friends around for long in spite of being an attractive woman was partly because if she found out that he was living on family trust funds, as so many of them were, she didn’t allow their relationship to get properly started and partly because she never did learn how to disguise the fact that she did not like having sex.
There was a long list of reasons for that: She hated the way that all boys, and, later, all men invariably changed a pleasant enough kissing session into a disgusting exchange of saliva by bringing their tongues into play. That always appalled her and sickened her to the point of having to fight hard to keep from humiliating the guy by making retching sounds there and then.
Then there was their nasty habit of assuming that if they were allowed to rest a hand on one of her breasts on the outside of her dress in a friendly way that became license for them to reach back and undo her bra and then expose both breasts for kissing and then sucking on them like babies! Even closing her eyes while it was going on couldn’t stop her from reducing the guy to infant status in her mind and about ten seconds was all that she could force herself to sit still for it.
And they always wanted more! Hands that had been on the small of her back to pull her close for a nice, snatched stand-up kiss would slip down and grasp her buttocks and then pull them in to let him grind his pelvis against her, and – surprise! – he’d usually
have an erection that he was proud of and wanted her to know that it was present and available.
Sitting on a sofa with one of them in private inevitably led to a wrestling match and whatever liberties she allowed were never enough. A hand on her thigh that was left alone for two seconds tried to become a hand high up between her legs and once it was there and inside her panties – through a moment of weakness on her part or because he was very quick or wouldn’t be denied – things got ugly quickly and she’d have to hurt to assess the situation and then decide on either fighting her way clear or going along to avoid getting hurt, which entailed putting everything up on the table for grabs, as it were.
While she got some pleasure from an expertly wielded tongue, down there, she couldn’t bring herself to even touch him in return and if she found herself being moved into the sixty nine position, in spite of her protests, she’d reach for a pillow and use it as shield.
The worst part came for her when the guy imperiously indicated that she was to lie back and receive him because having to accept him inside her caused her a whole of distress and made her feel used and abused and she learned early on that she preferred almost any position over the conventional one because that limited the confrontational aspect and lessened her direct involvement.
Another thing that she hated about it was that every one of her lovers demanded and expected nothing less than to be given complete control of her body and also expected to direct the proceedings from beginning to end. They all became dominant as if by divine right. For instance, if he wanted her legs wide open then, instead of requesting her to comply, he’d use force to spread them apart with his own. If he was the type who liked having her legs wrapped around his body he’d nonchalantly position them there just after getting started and she learned that she’d better leave them there and accept having to stay ridiculously and embarrassingly wide open for him if she didn’t want him to put them back up there, using an unnecessary amount of force to do so the second time, and then holding them there by clutching at her thighs until some other whim occurred to him. Once fully inside her all of them felt free to drive in and out as savagely as they could and it became very evident to her that, without exception, the transfer of fluids into her care was the be-all of a man’s existence as soon as nature made him speed up until his hips were moving in a blur. It was clear to her that during that time she’d lost her identity completely and had become only a pleasantly smelling, warm, soft, moist, support system for him to use.
Even so, having to put up with all of that wasn’t the main reason why she wasn’t interested in trying to get one of her suitors to marry her. She knew that once their union was legalized she’d have to sleep in the same bed as the guy every night, and let him do it to her as often as he wished, and – horrors! – he’d probably want her to have his babies!
She liked babies well enough but the very thought of being that huge and having to waddle through life for all of that time, and then, when the parasitic creature was good and ready, having to be there while it was forcing itself out – doubtless doing enormous damage on the way down her unimaginably ill-proportioned tubes, and, uh, ducts – was totally unacceptable for her.
The kicker for her, if one was needed, was knowing that if that happened her husband would, a few months later, blithely start in on trying to fill her up again.
However, she did like having escorts. Very much so.
They opened doors literally and socially but, unfortunately for her, in the end, even the nice gentle ones turned out to want to do the same tedious and unpleasant things ‘to’ her while trying to insist that it would be ‘with’ her.
She developed a method that encouraged them to stick around for a while, to solve her immediate problem, and she hoped that sometime, somehow, someway, the long term problem would resolve itself but she didn’t for a moment expect to find that the solution would come from finding a man who would make her actually tolerate doing it for him no matter about with him.
Her M.O. with new beaus was to offer only a handshake in the taxi at the end of the first date and a kiss on the second one and a little touching on the couch while having a drink on the third. Knowing full well that there had to be some progression she’d allow a little serious groping on the fourth, maybe, but never any visiting between her sheets until at least the sixth and all of those dates would have had to have been quality dates. Black tie dates. Dinner and a show dates.
“Let’s catch a movie”, wasn’t counted as a date.
Every time that she had to finally get naked with one of them who’d qualified she’d go along with him and force herself to take up the next requested position, one-that-was-likely-to-be-even-more-ridiculous-than-the-last-one-had-been, when prompted but she could never summon up enough willpower to attempt to increase his pleasure in any way and they all seemed to notice this!
During the act itself her main recourse to keep from rebelling at the unfairness of being born a woman and having to suffer through being penetrated and pounded with a weapon that was almost always as big and as hard as a baton was to sing to herself something from Gilbert and Sullivan or maybe something silly by Noel Coward. If it went on too long and, in desperation, she couldn’t bare another second of it without some form of relief she’d let the words escape, and, while it never stopped any of them from continuing to drive into her until completion, hearing “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” or “Modern Major General” always made them quit trying to prolong their pleasure and concentrate on concluding the business at hand.
If that happened there was rarely another date.
Given her circumstances and her attractiveness there were always plenty of hopefuls but they all ended up in the same sad way and so she eventually got tired of making the effort and she was in deep despair one day when it occurred to her that maybe the reason that she didn’t like having sex with a man was because she really wanted to be with a woman. She’d never tried it but she’d always liked what Gertrude Stein had said on the subject, “We don’t do anything disgusting to each other”.
She found out which was the best gay bar for her purpose and she showed up there one weeknight at around nine o’clock. She’d had her hair cut short but she wore something light and frilly because she wanted to confuse everybody and thus maybe slow things down.
She sat at the bar and ordered a drink but she wasn’t allowed to pay for it because she was mobbed by a series of heavily butch women who were strongly attracted to her.
However, they were all experts at finding out if a new face belonged to someone who was ‘on the edge,’ and who would slip over it easily, or to someone who would never go over it and was there for the thrill only, or was merely slumming or sight seeing, and
they put Karen down, quickly, as being in the ‘never in life’ category and because they weren’t there for training purposes, or long term hand-holding, they had, one after disappointed other, all drifted away and she had to buy her own second drink.
She’d noticed a little earlier that a woman, probably a few years younger than she was, had come in and was sitting at the bar, five stools down, and had undergone the same barrage from the same dykes that Karen had. She too had been abandoned, eventually.
Karen didn’t want to admit defeat yet so she took time to compose a semi-humorous approach line and then she took up her drink and went over and sat down next to the woman and asked, “Did you come here looking to get out of the cold or did you come here looking for a larger closet to move into?”
They talked for a half hour, comparing experiences, and they liked each other and eventually Karen asked her, her name was ‘Janet’, what could they lose by going back to her, Karen’s, apartment to have another drink and maybe do a little experimenting?
When they got inside they had more white wine and they talked back and forth some more and they eventually agreed to go to her bedroom and to get undressed in the dark and to meet under the sheets and then let things develop on their own.
When they were in the middle of the bed they tentatively cupped each others breasts and they kissed a little but neither of them could make herself push her hand lower than the other one’s belly button and so, when that became obvious to them both, Karen pulled away and sat up to put a light on and they giggled about it and marveled and wondered, yet again, why all men were obsessed with their always-ugly-due-to-their-having-an-unfinished-look and often-unpleasantly-messy centers and, amazingly, would happily nuzzle away down there for hours if allowed to.
They put on robes and went back to the living room and got better acquainted and, when it got to be time to get some sleep they – to make a statement and to hammer down an established fact that had taken a good deal of effort on both sides to make happen – climbed into the same bed. They held hands, briefly, before turning away and composing themselves for sleep.
They started meeting for coffee and occasionally went to movies together and they became good friends.
As the months went by Karen began to wonder why she hadn’t ever been invited to
Janet’s place but she stopped wondering when she found out that she lived in a poky little, unredeemable studio apartment on Avenue “A”.
Karen was ashamed at how much better she had it than Janet and saw that here was a chance to share a little of her good fortune and so she tentatively proposed that she come and move in with her.
Her offer was immediately accepted.
Janet held down many duties in a small Art Gallery uptown and was delighted with being able to easily walk to work from Karen’s place and she would leave just before ten o’clock each morning, five days a week, and wouldn’t return until eight at night, sometimes even later, and so she never got in Karen’s way and that alone would have sealed their agreement but, besides that, they got to be closer because they liked each other more and more as time went on.
Because of the weird way that they had met up they had gotten over a big hurdle in their relationship right at the beginning and so they often slept together and cuddled as they presumed all sisters did. Karen was an only child and Janet had moved east to leave her three brothers as far behind as was possible as soon as she’d graduated from high school.
Because of having to work such long hours, when Janet came home she wanted to do nothing but eat something and then watch TV but on her days off they went to Museums – Karen was a long-time member and benefactor of most of the bigger ones – and maybe a movie or to the preview, or the opening night, of an exhibition that Janet, as you’d suppose, often had tickets for.
Karen dated less when she had Janet living with her but when she brought a man home, after a third date or a fourth or a fifth or a sixth, they had a signal, like in college,
and Janet stayed away from the living room and after getting something to eat and to drink would spend her evening looking at TV in the library at the far end of the apartment.
Janet liked men and loved having sex with them and she was like most other women in that she wanted to have babies some day but, in her life so far, she’d had so many – not bad exactly but certainly poor – experiences and had found such a total lack of commitment out there that she shied away from further hurt by not encouraging potential suitors.
One day Karen’s lawyer informed her that her Investment Advisor had quit his company and so she’d been assigned a new one and he suggested a meeting with him to see if they were compatible and if so to go over her account and her goals together. They picked a day and time that was one month ahead to give the new man time to study her portfolio.
Two days later she was surprised to receive a call from her old Investment Advisor who asked her to go out on a date with him. He explained that he had long admired her and now, at last, he was free to ask her out. She had always found him attractive too so she accepted.
His name was John Hersey and she knew that he was divorced and that he had two children. He was six feet tall and well built and rather pleasant looking and he wore his
clothes very well as she had often noted.
He was such a pleasant companion that Karen got her hopes up as to maybe having found someone special.
When the obligatory five dates were out of the way she allowed him into her bed on the sixth one and, to her vast relief, she only had to sing one verse and two
choruses of “A Wandering Minstrel I” to herself before he was done.
Unfortunately for Karen he’d been married for ten long years to a girl that he’d met in college and she had not evolved with him into liking sexual experimentation and he’d found, about two minutes after closing with Karen in the bed, that she was equally up-tight and because good, probing and reciprocal sex was essential for him he did not call to set up another date with her.
On the day before her appointment with her new Investment Advisor she received a call from him and he said that he’d been studying her account and some changes had been made in it that were worrying him because there weren’t any instructions from her to explain why they had been made. He hastened to tell her that she hadn’t loss anything due to the changes, in fact the opposite was true, but the size of her account was so large that the slightest change in it without her written direction was “of direct concern.” He told her that he had asked her old advisor to come to their meeting the next day.
John Hersey was there already when she arrived for the appointment and when he was told what the discrepancy was he opened his briefcase and took out a folder that had a copy of a letter of hers that spelled out exactly what changes she had wanted and why.
It was to do with moving funds from ‘environmentally dirty’ companies over to ‘green’ ones.
She’d written it years before and had forgotten about it a minute after she’d dropped it into a letterbox. Why there was no copy of the letter in her file was a mystery.
Vast relief all around by the lawyers and soon John left them to let his successor start in on trying to impress her.
Karen knew from living with her father how much importance all lawyers attach to such trivialities and her conscience plagued her so much from exposing him to even that little bit of suspicion that she invited John over to her place for a dinner party that she was giving (it was her turn among a group of her old college friends and they all always
brought someone with them) and he accepted.
Janet liked going to carefully selected movies and to various other public places but she hated going to parties and to anywhere else where more than six unrelated people talked at each other in the same room. She had to attend a dozen or so parties every year in her Gallery and she thought that that constituted far more than the fair share of misery that, in all fairness, she should be subjected to in her life. However, she agreed to come home early on the day of the party to help the caterers set everything up seeing that doing that wasn’t one of Karen’s strong points.
The party turned out to be easily as good as any that Karen’s friends had given and that was all that any of them aimed for. Only a few of them used the same caterer so it wasn’t quite an automatic thing!
John and Janet ‘found’ each other.
Inseparable all evening.
Virtual exclusion of all others and then – “Ooops! Am I the last one here? I’d better go. Please give me a number where I can reach you.”
“Let me see you to the door.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
When they were alone Janet came to her senses and she approached Karen, in the kitchen, most apprehensively. Karen was a little upset but only because Janet hadn’t helped her keep the other guests amused although how she could have helped Janet couldn’t guess because there had been a babble of talk and laughter all evening long. But even so.
They sat down to finish an opened bottle of champagne and Karen explained, to put her at ease, that she and John had tried but had failed to find a rapport and so that was
now “water under the bridge” and so Janet could meet him as often as she liked and do with him what she wished but, “Perhaps not at another of my parties, if you don’t mind!”
She felt that she should warn her friend that he was in financial difficulties and she knew about that because he’d let slip, on one of their six dates, that his ex-wife had been brutal regarding alimony and very tough regarding child support and consequently he was now living in a one bedroom apartment in Washington Heights.
Janet herself was living from paycheck to paycheck because now that she didn’t have to pay anything for rent or board she had decided to take the opportunity to treble the
payments on her student loan which was still at more than $60,000 even though she had been paying it off over the four years that had gone by since she’d received her third degree, which incidentally, had turned out to be as much use to her as her first two had been!
In the next few months Janet started going up to Washington Heights rather than home to Karen’s place most nights after work and Karen realized that not having a non-earmarked dollar bill between them wasn’t going to deter them from being together and she feared that soon she’d be living on her own again.
The prospect of future loneliness looms up as a vast menacing emptiness in a person’s life if it has been experienced and banished before.
But what to do?
If she did nothing Janet would move away and she would see her maybe once a month, if that, after the wedding or after the ‘moving in’ together bit.
She got an absurd idea and she dismissed it with a sigh.
It came back.
She pondered on it and then she acted on it.
Very few people are docile enough to willingly embrace loneliness. Fewer still below the age of seventy.
She didn’t discuss it with Janet because she realized that if it was going to work John would have to be 100% in agreement with her and then he could do the explaining and
the cajoling for her. If he rejected her idea out of hand then she’d plead with him to forget that she had even brought it up although she well knew that the chances of his keeping it from Janet for long were slim but if it didn’t work she was going to lose her anyway so why not?
She called John at his office and asked if she could come to see him there on a personal matter.
“It’s not a financial proposal at all,” she assured him but as she said it she thought ‘proposal’ was exactly the right word.
After the usual preliminaries were out of the way she said, “John, dear. You know better than I do the extent of my portfolio and you told me about your present financial
straits and we both know that dear Janet, whom we both love, has nothing but debts to her name. Am I right? Well, you two are obviously getting closer and closer to each other and I don’t want to lose her so I’m proposing that we form a triangle, a menage a trois, to solve all of our problems.
“Sorry. I know it’s a shock for you but I have to be blunt because there is little or no accepted protocol to follow in this particular situation. This is what I want to happen. I want you to marry me and then come and live with me and Janet in my apartment! Now wait. Please let me finish and promise me that you’ll think about it before you say anything.
“We would all gain from this. You and Janet can have your own living area and we need only meet up at dinner, and not even then if you want to be alone together sometimes. You know as well as I do how much she wants to quit work and start her own family and you also know that she dislikes, as much as we both love, attending society gatherings and parties and theatre and you must admit that we make an attractive couple. Don’t we? Be fair, we do. Yes, I know that you know we do.
“Well, that’s it. I’ll leave now so that you can think about it. I’ll agree to any clauses about ‘parties of the second part’ and ‘wheretofores’ and all the rest of it that you lawyers love to complicate things with and I’ll agree to set up trust funds for your children and any future children of ‘ours’ and any reasonable settlements or the like that you and Janet think that you may need to let you establish a solid foundation and to guarantee your independence from possible future whims of mine. Do please think it over carefully and then talk to Janet before you get back to me.
“Goodbye dear. Please don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”
The wedding, which was held in her house in East Hampton, was the event to be invited to that year and their honeymoon is still being talked about, to this day, in Tahiti because the hoteliers, and hence the islanders, had never before heard of a bridesmaid accompanying the bride and groom on their honeymoon and, especially hard to accept, sharing the bridal suite with them.
Their first child, born less than one year after they got married, was a girl and Karen loved playing with her for an hour or so every day and would then give her back to Janet
to nurse or whatever.
A couple of years after that, when Janet was already huge with their second child, Karen made it known that she’d like this coming baby to be another daughter and that after that she hoped that she would have gained enough experience and courage to be able to cope with having a son or two.