I am no sexual dynamo. It takes a big man to admit as much, but I believe that all men are inept lovers to some degree, clumsy and insensitive. On this point most women will surely concur. Among great apes the sex act is not the stuff of Shakespearean sonnets and English flower gardens. Male chimpanzees climax with quickness and ease; they seem to understand the brute necessity for reproduction and the importance of passing on their genes. Human males aren’t so different. On average (and in this regard I am quite average) a man orgasms in a mere four minutes, a disheartening statistic for any woman hoping to fulfill some erotic fantasy, the details of which may have been carefully worked out weeks, or even months, in advance. It is perhaps for this reason that most women in a committed relationship never bother with infidelity. And yet there is a paradox here. Unlike men who tend to be visual creatures, always sizing up height and weight and firmness of tit, women are much more discriminating, selecting mates who will make for excellent long-term partners; they look for certain qualities in a man: stability, intelligence, sanity. A tall order to fill. Odds are much better that they’ll find someone or something--man, woman, vibrator--that can pleasure them physically rather than emotionally and spiritually.
Of course it probably wasn’t a hopeful sign that I, a self-professed man of science, now thought of sex in such absolutist terms, the idea that it might be the sole reason for staying with or leaving someone to whom you’d otherwise feel a close attachment. Call it paranoia if you’d like, but not long after Batya and I started sleeping together I found myself sitting quietly at the edge of the bed, having hardly broken a sweat during our brief roll in the hay, and listing the reasons (often in alphabetical order) why she would remain faithful to me, her fumbling and incompetent middle-aged lover. She tried her best to assure me, told me it was all right, cooed softly in my ear, but sleep wouldn’t come and I spent the night obsessing about the inadequacy of my cocksmanship.
We’d met at a colleague’s party a few months after my wife’s death. Someone had just published a book or received a Fulbright or had finalized a divorce, there rarely was a point to these kinds of things, any excuse to get drunk before the start of a new semester would do, and the moment I walked in the door I was approached by a small woman with short boyish hair who drank glass after glass of red wine and described herself as “a farshikkert chaleria.” There was a smoky quality to her voice that made her words sound more cryptic than comical, and I was entranced by the labyrinthine digressions of her conversation--Greek mythology, Genesis, Gnosticism, the malevolent and implacable demiurge who presided over Creation and drove us all to the brink of madness with pointless suffering.
Like most of the guests at the party, Batya knew of my wife’s passing and seemed genuinely sorry for me. Normally, I squirmed at expressions of sympathy but there was something beguiling about Batya, something wild and dangerous and life affirming. She ran the university’s literary magazine, a small operation, but one that was not without some prestige, a few greats had appeared in its pages, Jose Saramago, Antonio Lobo Antunes, several posthumous pieces by Fernando Pessoa. She had a fondness for all things Portuguese.
“They’re a very passionate people,” she explained, “and their prose has a noticeable effect on my libido.”
Rumors abounded that Batya was something of a sexual omnivore, bedding men or women as the mood struck her, even seducing some of her undergraduate students, giggling girls in knee-highs and pimply-faced boys with grand ambitions to become the next Nabokov.
When it got late and she began to quote Luís Vaz de Camões with a noticeable slur, telling me how his work had inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning to write her Sonnets from the Portuguese (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” she said whimsically, although from the way she twirled her hair with her fingers and let her blouse dip down to reveal her surprisingly ample cleavage it was clear that she was only half-joking) she suggested that we walk back to my house on the other end of campus and scour my shelves until we found the correct poem so she could see the words on the page and enunciate each syllable for me with breathless ardor.
I explained that sociobiology, not poetry, was my area of expertise and that my shelves were lined with books about the autoerotic behavior Bonobo chimps. Although I dimly recalled my wife’s admiration for Browning, I had to admit that I’d never even heard of Camões and Pessoa. This made no difference to Batya, and once inside my door she lunged at me with animal ferocity, something I actually know a little bit about and could assess the next morning by the severity and number of bite marks on my shoulders and neck.
If I lasted longer than my allotted four minutes that first night it was only because I was cross-eyed drunk and kept yelping with pain and pleasure whenever Batya, who was quite generous with her body, did strange and unusual things to me, slapped my ass, tore my hair (or what’s left of it), shouted filthy words in Yiddish, demanding that I make her scream with my langer lucksh, that I abuse her with my batampte shmeckle. For a woman who seemed so in control, Batya yearned for abuse in bed, wanted to be dominated. I tried to oblige her until at the final moment, the supreme moment, she groaned between clenched teeth, “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach!” Words a man isn’t used to hearing from a woman.
I’m sure her lurid and passionate caterwauling kept my son Tim up half the night and I felt a little guilty about this. I was weak, I know, but sometimes a man’s weakness can be his best asset. After all, isn’t sin preferable to celibacy? Sin opens a door to the world of possibilities, virtue only slams it shut. Besides, in this day and age most seventeen-year old boys are pretty savvy about these kinds of things. Nearly half the kids in Tim’s graduating class came from broken homes and surely had been witness to intrigues and scandals of all kinds.
To my credit, Batya was the only woman I’d brought home since the funeral. Like most middle-aged widowers I’d resigned myself to living the lonely life of a bachelor, but shortly after our riotous night of romance, Batya and I began seeing a lot of each other. She converted me, you might say, to a whole new world of hedonistic pleasures, but my conversion was only temporary. Domesticity is a force to be reckoned with and tends to burn its heretics at the stake of public opinion. Even Batya knew this. While she may have been the most modern of women, she apparently found it difficult to do away with tradition altogether and said that it was best that we live in separate houses because it wasn’t decent for unmarried adults to cohabitate.
“Also,” she pointed out, “your wife has been dead for less than a year. She’s not even cold in the ground yet. What, you don’t think people will talk? The neighbors? The dean? Your students?” And so after a few wild weeks of pure animal sex we began to calm down a bit. In fact, our relationship soon developed into one that can only be described as respectable and dull.
As I read the paper one Sunday morning, alternately shaking my head at the implausibility of the arguments on the editorial page and sipping my coffee, Tim walked into the kitchen, went to the refrigerator, drank straight from the bottle of orange juice, smacked his lips, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then after letting out a low, gurgling belch stood beside to my chair like some foreboding idol dug up from sacred ground and stared at me with eyes small and dark and still swollen with sleep. Usually he didn’t emerge from the stinking lair of his room until well past noon, accustomed as he was to laziness and a chronic lack of self worth. In this regard Tim was an ordinary teenager. I always teased him about it, said that he’d end up getting bedsores. “That joke was funny the first hundred times you told it,” he sneered. Dealing with teen angst used to be my wife’s forte, not mine, and I didn’t particularly want to hear about his problems. I put the paper down with some reluctance, hoping that he’d catch on and decide to leave me alone, but he continued to stand there and glower.
“Is Batya still here?” he asked.
“Batya? No, she left last night.”
Tim crossed his arms. “That’s too bad. I was hoping she’d still be here.”
“And why is that?”
“I’m going to Sunday services.”
I blinked. “You’re going where?”
“To church, Dad. It starts in…” he glanced up at the clock but the words were already coming from his mouth “…less than an hour. I wanted to know if Batya would like to come along. I know how you feel about these kinds of things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Religion. God. The hereafter.”
I sipped my coffee very slowly and watched the cream spiral into a vast nebula. Aside from my wife’s funeral and the occasional wedding ceremony, I never went to church, and while I didn’t forbid religious talk in our house, I didn’t exactly encourage it either. Metaphysics perplexed me, and it was only by consulting the books written by my colleagues in the religious studies department that I could ever hope to understand the differences between the warring Christian denominations that flourished and spread like hearty molds in the steaming malarial swamps of the American spiritual landscape. It seemed to me that the level of devotion among the faithful was in direct proportion to their hypocrisy. I was raised a Roman Catholic so I know something about this.
After some consideration, I agreed to attend Sunday services with my son, wanted to see what he was up to, surely he was up to something, all seventeen-year old boys more or less are, but I insisted that he drive, handing him the keys with great ceremony. This was an important step, and I was pleased to see that he was still a very conscientious driver, always coming to complete stops at intersections and looking both ways before proceeding.
After the accident I was certain he’d refuse to drive a car ever again.
The Church of Endor was a newly constructed stadium-sized mega-church that fit in nicely with the rest of the urban sprawl of our community, hardly distinguishable from the big box retailers along that busy stretch of highway. When I said the name sounded like a mysterious planet in a low budget sci-fi film, Tim rolled his eyes and assured me that Endor was the name of a real village in the Old Testament, an oasis with a spring on the edge of the wilderness where King Saul traveled with his retinue to consult a necromancer from whom he hoped to receive guidance from the spirits of the dead. I was not much of an authority on scripture, had been forced by the nuns to read Samuel as a child, but the stodgy parataxis style of biblical prose with all of those arcane rules and soul-stifling thou shalt nots filled my mouth like the dust and grit of the Sinai Desert itself. Over the years I’d forgotten much of it.
We walked through the doors into a brightly lit and spacious atrium encased in glass, a marvel of modern architecture, I.M. Pei meets the suburban mall, complete with giant ferns and sparkling fountains, an internet café, a gift shop, even a bookstore that sold the latest bestsellers, or at least those titles the ministry deemed appropriate for its meek flock. Inside the church, thousands of people, many in their teens and twenties, raised their arms heavenward and gyrated rapturously as a young woman with long shapely legs and a piercing voice strummed a guitar and belted out a syrupy melody about love and compassion, but when she finished her ditty the crowd, rather than erupt in applause, settled into a reverent hush.
The lights dimmed. A spotlight came on. Across the stage (that’s what it was, a stage, with red velvet curtains on either side) walked an extraordinarily tall man, perhaps close to seven feet in height, a genetic aberration if ever I saw one, whose greased and sculpted black pompadour glimmered like the stained glass windows behind him. There was no podium from which to deliver a sermon so he paced back and forth on the stage, and in a clear, strong baritone delivered a sermon about the evils of this world.
“No one here is really a sinner. The problem isn’t with you. No, the problem is out there, beyond the doors of this church. If people commit shameful acts against their fellow man and shun the Lord God it is only because they have been influenced by the increasing secularization of the world. Abortion, drugs, homosexuality.” He paused, allowed his words to sink in. “Look no further than your college classrooms where liberal professors teach things like evolution and feminism and free love. These elitists, these intellectuals in their ivory towers who have placed the fate of their eternal souls in the hands of a dogma like humanism instead of the goodness and love of the Lord Jesus Christ, these are the evildoers.”
The usual string of clichés, the kind of thing one heard on AM radio every day. Nevertheless, the crowd murmured its approval. The preacher had abandoned the old mythological imagery, Beelzebub sharpening his horns and pitchfork and taking time out of his busy schedule to pose for another Hieronymus Bosch painting, secularization had done away with the plausibility of this once revered iconography, and yet the need to personify evil was something so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that any preacher wishing to turn a profit had to provide a devil of some kind, not unlike an amateur magician at a roadside carnival who must pull a rabbit from his hat in order to appease an impatient and belligerent mob, and so by god this man was going to give these good folks a devil, a devil so insidious and clever that he lived right next door to them and sidled forth from his white colonial to wash his car in the driveway, mow the grass and weed the garden, a devil who on Monday mornings went off to the university where he committed the most unspeakably wicked acts, claiming that the universe was fourteen billion years old and that human beings were nothing more than clever little chimpanzees with a penchant for sodomy and masturbation.
My son sat in the pew with a hymnal tucked under his left arm, hands folded in his lap, an impudent smile smeared all over his face. Unbeknownst to the pious souls all around, he’d managed to lure a real live devil into their church. I couldn’t understand it. If he needed the consolation of religion or wanted Barnum & Bailey theatrics he need look no further than the cathedral where my grandparents, emaciated immigrants from County Mayo, once worshipped on their knees with their fellow countrymen.
After the service, as we walked out to the parking lot, Tim mentioned something about spending his spring break traveling the back roads of America with other members of the church, doing missionary work, converting heathens and heretics and unbelievers, but before I could voice my opposition I noticed that a Jesus fish had been glued to the back bumper of my car. In a sudden and inexplicable rage I started clawing at the fish with my fingers, hammering at it with my fists, kicking it, cursing it. Finally, I used a tire iron to pry it loose. The parishioners stared, they gasped, they inched away from me as though I were mad, but their alarm did not deter me. I refused to drive around town with something so insidious and absurd on my car, and when it finally snapped off I tossed it into a puddle and shouted triumphantly, “Thank god!”
While most kids his age tried out for the football team or played video games or joined a band or pilfered a few beers from the fridge to share with their buddies around a bonfire, Tim spent his weekends locked in his room, paging back and forth through the Gospels, trying to fill in the lacunae with his tortured reasoning, writing rambling essays on Jesus’ use of the word Gehenna, and after hours of prolonged bible study, he emerged from his room, resembling some obdurate Iron Age patriarch, thin, gaunt, hollow-eyed, a kind of momento mori staring back at me with bloodshot eyes that were too busy calculating the distance between the present moment and death to take in the reality all around him. At first I considered stealing his books of exegesis and leaving them on the steps of the church like a terrified mother abandoning her newborn babe, but of course there was nothing preventing him from going to the library and getting more books. Indeed, the resources for a young zealot were practically limitless, and after a little investigating I quickly discovered that our local library carried many more books about religion than about evolution.
Late one night, shuttered up in my gloomy den, I fired off an angry letter to the mayor, something about my tax dollars being squandered on superstitious nonsense, but Batya spotted the letter on my desk and, after reading it with occasional bursts of laughter, ripped it to shreds. If Tim was experiencing some kind of crisis, she said, it was my fault, not the library’s.
“You never even took the time to sit down with him after the accident to discuss his feelings,” she said in a caustic tone of voice.
How she knew this, that I never spoke to Tim about the accident, seemed irrelevant to me at the time, but looking back at it now it seems to make sense. Had she been spending time with my son, acting as his shrink, as his biographer? Would I perhaps open up the new edition of Batya’s literary magazine only to find a thinly disguised memoir about a boy and his emotionally paralyzed father? Up until that moment I never suspected Batya of having a nurturing side to her character. That she actually cared about my son’s well-being and mental health startled me, and I became suddenly defensive.
“Irish Catholics don’t talk about their feelings,” I explained. “We internalize our despair. It probably has something to do with generations of poverty. That was the only thing the Irish had to keep them warm at night--their neuroses. It’s all very complicated. We’re talking about general evolutionary conflicts and group selection.”
“You’re a damned fool,” she said.
She was right, of course. I’d been neglectful in some of my duties as a parent and I hoped that Batya could fill the role of comforter. Then one day after class I walked into the living room and found them together, Batya and Tim, heaving and panting, their clothes disheveled as though they’d been in a wrestling match.
When he saw me, Tim shouted, “Jews are doomed to burn for all eternity!”
Batya crossed her arms, tapped a foot. “Is that so, sweetie?”
“Yes, every last one. Stanley Kubrick and George Gershwin and Groucho Marx.”
She laughed, a high, shrill sound. “You forgot to mention Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen.”
“You don’t need to go through the list,” he said, straightening his hair. “I’m simply telling you the facts.”
“Well, you’re not being reasonable,” she said.
“It’s not me, it’s God. You can’t reason with God. He does what he pleases. He makes up the rules and enforces them. And He said that a man must be saved through his son the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A look of absolute conviction came into his eyes as he delivered this nasty little speech, and I realized with some chagrin that he was actually experiencing a moment of unadulterated bliss, and I half expected him to fall to the floor, arms and legs thrashing about in a fit of ecstasy.
I slumped down into a chair, rubbed my temples, prepared myself for an all out shouting match, but when I turned to Batya I saw something equally distressing in her own eyes, a look I recognized from months ago when we first met and she lured me back home and tore the clothes off my frail middle-aged limbs, the dominant female conquering a weaker male. Like a great white shark trolling the seas, the scent of a wounded fish sent her into deliriums of desire, and now it was clear that far from being angry with Tim she had an uncontrollable urge to devour him as she had so many boys before him, those docile and delusional scribes who worked on the literary magazine late into the night, gangly and bespectacled copy editors who leafed through piles of dog-eared manuscripts and smirked at me, the ridiculous cuckold with the thinning hair and noticeable paunch who sometimes showed up at the office to meet the editor for lunch and, time permitting, to straddle her atop one of the creaking cherry wood desks.
“Well, that’s it!” Batya shouted. “You’re son has finally lost his marbles.”
Tim smiled and crossed his arms. “You’ll burn, you’ll burn…”.
“Stop it, stop it, both of you!” I cried.
Tim marched toward the front door. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll leave you two alone so you can fuck all you want. Go on, Dad, fuck her brains out.”
I thought I caught a conspiratorial twinkle in Tim’s eye, the subtlest hint that perhaps his relationship with Batya was more complicated than I could imagine, and when I spoke my voice wavered and cracked like a boy going through the earliest stages of puberty. “I’ll be sure to do that, sport. Thanks for the tip.”
He left the house and I didn’t try to stop him. The whole incident left me a bit shaken but secretly I hoped that Batya, still boiling over with lust, might push me onto dining room table and straddle me and that after a moment or two Tim would slink back into the house, a pologetic and remorseful, only to find us inflagrante delecto, our bodies lubricated with the drippings from our kosher meal, but Tim did not return and Batya only shot me a dirty look as though I’d somehow spoiled her fun for the night and without kissing me goodbye made a hasty retreat.
A temporary madness came over me. At first I was more concerned about Batya than I was about Tim. I paced the halls, wondering why she hadn’t called, kept thinking about all the different people she might be with, men and women, boys and girls, there was never a shortage of willing partners, real or imaginary, and my jealousy was boundless, and all throughout the following day I left on her voicemail a series of messages that ranged in tone from anger to despair to desperation. Finally, when I could no longer endure this torment, when I thought I might actually become nauseous, I drove to her house and pounded on her door and when she didn’t answer I waited in her driveway for hours until a police cruiser made slow progress along the street and paused at the corner to observe me.
The next day, almost as an afterthought, I turned my attention to Tim. It had been over forty-eight hours since he’d been home but I failed to accept the enormity of this nightmare, tried to brush it off as of minor importance. I began my search by calling each of his friends but when that failed to produce any results I went to the Church of Endor, and even though I knew there was little hope of finding him there (the church employed a battery of clean-cut professionals who had an expertise in creating tax shelters, not shelters for runaway teens), I mustered up the courage to speak to the pastor who from his lofty heights nodded with a strange indifference as I recounted the entire story in more detail than was really necessary, and when I finished my breathless confession he clasped his enormous hands together closed his eyes.
“Terrible pain resides within your heart, friend, but alas your son is no longer here. He joined a group of missionaries. They’re traveling across the country even now, spreading the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Do you know where they might be?” I asked.
“Somewhere in southern Ohio I believe, a small town in Appalachia. Gehenna. The group tries to keep in touch with us but it’s difficult. You see, we don’t allow our missionaries to use any of the conveniences of modern life, computers, cell phones…”
It took me all day to drive to that remote corner of the state and at one point I turned down a gravel road that twisted its way between densely wooded hills, ending abruptly on the banks of a muddy creek where ramshackle bungalows seemed to teeter just above the rushing waters, but eventually I managed to find my way back to the main road and, just as dusk was setting in, finally tracked down the missionaries who’d sent up camp on the edge of town. Like creatures not yet evolved, small and misshapen and scarcely conscious of anything other than their own unceasing hunger, they huddled around a fire and stared at the flames. There were maybe seven or eight of them in all, kids hardly out of their teens, but to my great disappointment Tim was not among them. When I asked about my son they shrugged their shoulders and said that a woman had come for him that same afternoon, that he’d gotten into a car with her and had sped away in a cloud of dust.
I thanked them for the information and tossed some crumpled bills on the ground. They were very grateful and said they would pray that God intervene on my behalf. Then they asked me to join them in their simple meal. Between them they split a can of beans, a bag of overripe apples, thin strips of smoked meat. The church did not provide funds, they explained. Missionaries were expected to go from door to door, begging for alms in imitation of the saints and prophets, and because Gehenna was one the poorest towns in the entire state, a kind of proving ground, they’d failed to collect any money. But the people down here were used to seeing roving bands of missionaries and had given the group what little food they could spare. One family had even supplied them with several jars of moonshine, white lightning, made in distilleries hidden deep in the mountains and legendary for its ability to induce visions. The missionaries sipped from these jars now, unfettered by any kind of restrictive dogma, and I could plainly see that they were drunk.
Wasn’t it a sin, I asked, to pollute their bodies in this way, but they told me that they were eager to look upon the face of God no matter how questionable the methods. Moonshine sometimes did the trick, shocked them into a new awareness of the world, helped them to escape from the confines of the ego, a prerequisite for seeing the Almighty as everyone knows. Then they handed me the jar and I drank deeply from it, and before long I was very drunk, too, and sat down in the dirt and listened to the group sing hymns beside the fire.
They were right about the visions, many came to me that night, and as I continued on my journey, I imagined that I was driving along the same stretch of winding road where the accident had taken place last fall. We’d been visiting colleges, Tim at the wheel, his mother commenting about the idyllic scenery, the magnificent vistas, the smell of cow shit in verdant pastures. Her laughter was infectious. She made us laugh all the time, Tim especially. They were very close, Tim and his mother. Then Tim, still laughing, jerked the wheel hard to the left and suddenly the car was tumbling down a steep embankment, spinning through the air, and the branches of the hardwood trees that battered the windshield seemed to reach into the car and snatch my wife right out of her seat.
I drove through the darkness, I looked for some sign of my son, flowers placed on the side of the road, a cross hammered into the soft earth, but it was foolish of me to think these things, this wasn’t the road, it couldn’t be, so I continued on, until a few moments later I came upon an unambiguous sign of his presence. With my tongue still shriveled with liquor I uttered a prayer to wife. Life, I told her, is a feud between man and the devil, God wants no part of it, and in the end suffering was the great “answer” everyone was seeking, the proverbial meaning of life. Certainly it was the one constant in life. Happiness was illusory and impermanent. But perhaps suffering was only a prelude to even greater depths of despair, hinted at something far more wretched.
I pulled into the parking lot of the decaying roadside motel and stopped next to Batya’s car. Inside one of those rooms, where cockroaches scuttled across filthy tiled floors and guests left remnants of their carnality on the bed covers, unholy and unpardonable things were taking place by the flickering blue light of a television set. I gasped, shook with fury, trembled with barely restrained emotion. A prominent socio-biologist once defined jealousy as a fear and rage reaction that indifferent evolutionary forces had hard-wired into the species to protect, maintain, and prolong the intimate association of love. But this fact did not answer my deepest questions. Whom did I love? And at whom did I direct my rage and anger? I was a jealous lover just as Tim’s god was a jealous god, and I could no more control my emotions than my beating heart. Like everything else about human nature, jealousy was genetic, as immutable as a mathematical equation.
I ended up sitting there in my car the entire night, gazing at the windows of each room and waiting, waiting. For a little while I considered driving back home but then I chuckled sardonically at the misnomer. A home is the closest thing we’ll ever know to death. A home, we are told, is a sanctuary from the cares of the day and a refuge from the hostile forces that rule the world, but this idea is the product of indoctrination, a lie that we’ve perpetuated through the ages. Call it the propaganda of family life. The truth is that there can never really be a place on Earth where mere mortals will feel completely safe. And maybe, with time and experience, my son would realize this, even as his lost saints wept in heaven while he slept in the comforting arms of a woman who had vanquished his childhood faith, a woman who in the end would prove utterly incapable of protecting him from the terrible forces that ruled the world.
(C)opyright 2007 Kevin P. Keating All Rights ReservedSend us your comments on this article