When my mother was a young woman a man used to follow her to work every morning and masturbate, in step behind her.
My mother had only a fifth-grade education and a dowry of medium-grade linen dish towels, but she was beautiful. It’s still the first way I think of to describe her. Her hair was the color of the chocolates you get in the Tirolean Alps and she always wore it the same way—short curls piled high. Her skin was not olive like her family’s but something all its own, the light rose of inexpensive gold. Her eyes were sarcastic, flirtatious, brown.
She worked as the main cashier at a fruit and vegetable stand in the center of Bologna. This was on the Via San Felice, a long thoroughfare in the fashion district. There were many shoe stores, goldsmiths, perfumeries, tobacconists, and clothing stores for women who did not work. My mother would pass these boutiques on the way to her job. She would look into the windows at the fine leather of the boots and the burnished necklaces.
But before she came into this commercial zone she would have a quiet walk from her apartment, down little carless streets and alleys,
past the locksmith and the goat butcher, through lonely porticoes filled with the high scent of urine and the dark scent of old water pooling in stone. It was through these streets that the man followed her.
Where had he first seen her? I imagine it was at the fruit stand. This beautiful woman surrounded by a cornucopia of fresh produce—plump figs, hills of horse chestnuts, sunny peaches, bright white heads of fennel, green cauliflower, tomatoes on the vine and still dusty from the ground, pyramids of deep purple eggplant, small but glorious strawberries, glistening cherries, wine grapes, persimmons—plus a random selection of grains and breads, taralli, friselle, baguettes, some copper pots for sale, bars of cooking chocolate.
He was in his sixties, large-nosed and balding, with a white pepper growth across his sunken cheeks. He wore a newsboy cap like all the other old men who walked the streets with their canes on their daily camminata.
One day he must have followed her home because on a clear morning in May my mother walked out the heavy door of her apartment building from darkness into sudden light—in Italy nearly every apartment house has dark hallways, the lights dimmed and timed to cut costs, the sun blocked by the thick, cool stone walls—and there was this old man she had never seen, waiting for her.
He smiled and she smiled back. Then she began her walk to work, carrying an inexpensive handbag and wearing a calf-length skirt. Her legs, even in her old age, were absurdly feminine. I can imagine being inside this man’s head and seeing my mother’s legs and following them.
One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.
She could sense his presence behind her for many blocks, past the olive seller and the purveyor of ports and sherries. But he didn’t merely follow. At a certain corner, when she turned, she caught a movement out of the side of her eye. The stone streets were naked at that hour, in the toothache of dawn, and she turned to see he had his penis, long, thin, and erect, out of his pants, and that he was rapidly exercising
it, up and down, with his eyes on her in such a steady manner that it seemed possible that what was happening below his waist was managed by an entirely different brain.
She was frightened then, but years after the fact the fear of that first morning was bleached into sardonic amusement. For the months that followed, he would appear outside her apartment several mornings a week, and eventually he began to accompany her from the stand back to her home as well. At the height of their relationship, he was coming twice a day behind her.
My mother is dead now, so I can’t ask her why she allowed it, day after day. I asked my older brother, instead, why she didn’t do something, tell someone.
It was Italy, the 1960s. The police officers would have said, Ma lascialo perdere, è un povero vecchio. È una meraviglia che ha il cazzo duro a sua età.
Leave it alone, he’s a poor old man. It’s a miracle he can get it up at his age.
My mother let this man masturbate to her body, her face, on her walk to work and on her walk back. She was not the type of woman to take pleasure in this. But I can’t know for sure. My mother never spoke about what she wanted. About what turned her on or off. Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father.
My father loved women in a way that used to be considered charming. He was a doctor who called the nurses sugar if he liked them and sweetheart if he did not. Above all, he loved my mother. His attraction to her was evident in a way that still makes me uncomfortable to recall.
While I never had occasion to wonder about my father’s desire, something in the force of it, in the force of all male desire, captivated me. Men did not merely want. Men needed. The man who followed my mother to and from work every day needed to do so. Presidents forfeit glory for blow jobs. Everything a man takes a lifetime to build he may
gamble for a moment. I have never entirely subscribed to the theory that powerful men have such outsize egos that they cannot suppose they will ever be caught; rather, I think that the desire is so strong in the instant that everything else—family, home, career—melts down into a little liquid cooler and thinner than semen. Into nothing.
As I began to write this book, a book about human desire, I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings. The way they could overturn an empire for a girl on bended knee. So I began by talking to men: to a philosopher in Los Angeles, a schoolteacher in New Jersey, a politician in Washington, D.C. I was indeed drawn to their stories the way one is drawn to order the same entrée from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again.
The philosopher’s story, which began as the story of a good-looking man whose less beautiful wife did not want to sleep with him, with all the attendant miserly agonies of dwindling passion and love, turned into the story of a man who wanted to sleep with the tattooed masseuse he saw for his back pain. She says she wants to run away with me to Big Sur, he texted early one bright morning. The next time we met I sat across from him at a coffee shop as he described the hips of the masseuse. His passion didn’t seem dignified in the wake of what he had lost in his marriage; rather, it seemed perfunctory.
The men’s stories began to bleed together. In some cases, there was prolonged courting; sometimes the courting was closer to grooming; but mostly, the stories ended in the stammering pulses of orgasm. And whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often just beginning. There was complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event. In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.
Of course, female desire can be just as bullish as male desire, and when desire was propulsive, when it was looking for an end it could control, my interest waned. But the stories wherein desire was
something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative, that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain. It resembled pedaling a bicycle backward, the agony and futility and, finally, the entry into another world altogether.
• • •
To find these stories, I drove across the country six times. I loosely plotted my stops. Mostly I would land somewhere like Medora, North Dakota. I would order toast and coffee and read the local paper. I found Maggie this way. A young woman being called whore and fat cunt by women even younger than herself. There had been an alleged relationship with her married high school teacher. The fascinating thing, in her account, was the absence of intercourse. As she related it, he’d performed oral sex on her and didn’t let her unzip his jeans. But he’d placed manila-yellow Post-it notes in her favorite book, Twilight. Next to passages about an enduring bond between two star-crossed lovers, he’d drawn parallels to their own relationship. What moved this young woman, what made her feel exalted, was the sheer number of the notes and how detailed they were. She could hardly believe that the teacher she so deeply admired had read the whole book, let alone taken the time to write such insightful commentary, as though he were conducting an advanced placement class on vampire lovers. He had, too, she recounted, sprayed the pages with his cologne, knowing she loved the way he smelled. To receive such notes, to experience such a relationship, and then to have it abruptly end: I could easily imagine the gaping hole that would leave.
I came across Maggie’s story when things were going from bad to worse. She struck me as a woman whose sexuality and sexual experiences were being denied in a horrific way. I will be telling the narrative as seen through her eyes; meanwhile a version of this story was put before a jury who saw it very differently. Part of her narrative poses for the reader the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed—and when and why and by whom they are not.
• • •
history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. They love them or half-love them and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into their doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again. Meanwhile, women wait. The more in love they are and the fewer options they have, the longer they wait, hoping that he will return with a smashed phone, with a smashed face, and say, I’m sorry, I was buried alive and the only thing I thought of was you, and feared that you would think I’d forsaken you when the truth is only that I lost your number, it was stolen from me by the men who buried me alive, and I’ve spent three years looking in phone books and now I have found you. I didn’t disappear, everything I felt didn’t just leave. You were right to know that would be cruel, unconscionable, impossible. Marry me.
Maggie was, by her account, ruined by her teacher’s alleged crime, but she had something that the women who are left rarely have. A certain power, dictated by her age and her former lover’s occupation. Maggie’s power, she believed, was ordained by the law of the land. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t.
Some women wait because if they don’t, there’s a threat of evanescence. He is the only one, in the moment, whom she believes she will ever desire. The problem can be economic. Revolutions take a long time to reach places where people share more Country Living recipes than articles about ending female subjugation.
Lina, a housewife in Indiana who hadn’t been kissed in years, waited to leave her husband because she didn’t have the money to exist apart from him. The spousal support laws in Indiana were not a reality that was available to her. Then she waited for another man to leave his wife. Then she waited some more.
The way the wind blows in our country can make us question who we are in our own lives. Often the type of waiting women do is to make sure other women approve, so that they may also approve of themselves.
Sloane, a poised restaurant owner, lets her husband watch her fuck other men. Occasionally there are two couples on a bed, but mostly it’s him watching her, on video or in person, with another man. Sloane is beautiful. While her husband watches her fuck other men, a coveted stretch of ocean froths outside the bedroom window. Down the road, Cotswold sheep the color of oatmeal roam. A friend of mine who thought ménage à trois squalid and nearly despicable in the context of a group of swingers I met in Cleveland found Sloane’s story illuminating, raw, relatable.
And it’s relatability that moves us to empathize.
• • •
I think about the fact that I come from a mother who let a man masturbate to her daily, and I think about all the things I have allowed to be done to me, not quite so egregious, perhaps, but not so different in the grand scheme. Then I think about how much I have wanted from men. How much of that wanting was what I wanted from myself, from other women, even; how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful. In the end, it all comes down to fear. Men can frighten us, other women can frighten us, and sometimes we worry so much about what frightens us that we wait to have an orgasm until we are alone. We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need.
Men did not frighten my mother. Poverty did. She told me another story; though I don’t recall the precise circumstances of the telling, I know she didn’t sit me down. The story wasn’t dispensed over water crackers and rosé. More likely it was Marlboros at the kitchen table, zero windows open, the dog blinking through the smoke at our knees. She would have been Windexing the glass table.
The story was about a cruel man she was seeing right before she met my father. My mother had a number of words that intrigued and scared me. Cruel was among them.
She grew up very poor, peeing in pots, dotting her freckles with the urine because it was said to diminish the pigment. There was a single room for her, two sisters, and their parents. Rainwater came through the ceiling and dripped onto her face as she slept. She spent nearly two years in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. Nobody visited her, because no one could afford to make the trip. Her father was an alcoholic who worked in the vineyards. A baby brother died before his first birthday.
She eventually got out, made it to the city, but just before she did, in the maw of February, her mother fell ill. Stomach cancer. She was admitted to the local hospital, from which there was no coming back. One night there was a snowstorm, sleet smashing against cobblestones, and my mother was with this cruel man when she got word that her mother was dying and would be gone by morning. The cruel man was driving my mother to the hospital through the storm when they got into a terrible fight. My mother didn’t provide details but said it ended with her on the gravel shoulder, in the heavy snow and darkening night. She watched the taillights disappear, no other cars on the frozen road. She didn’t get to be with her mother at the end.
To this day I’m not sure what cruel meant, in that context. I don’t know if the man beat my mother, if he sexually assaulted her. I’ve always assumed that cruelty, in her world, involved some sexual threat. In my most gothic imaginings, I picture him trying to get laid the night that her mother was dying. I picture him trying to take a bite out of her side. But it was the fear of poverty and not the cruel man that stayed with her. That she could not call a taxi to get to the hospital. That she lacked agency. Lacked her own means.
A year or so after my father died, when we could get through a day without crying, she asked me to show her how to use the internet. She’d never used a computer in her life. Typing one sentence took a painful few minutes.
Just tell me what you want, I said, at the end of a day spent in front of the screen. We were both frustrated.
I can’t, she said. It’s something I need to do alone.
What? I asked. I’d seen everything of hers, all her bills, notes, even the handwritten one she meant for me to find in the event of her sudden death.
I want to see about a man, she said quietly. A man I knew before your father.
I was stunned, and even hurt. I wanted my mother to be my father’s widow for all time. I wanted the notion of my parents to remain intact, even after death, even at the cost of my mother’s own happiness. I didn’t want to know about my mother’s desire.
This third man, the owner of a vast jewelry empire, loved her so much he’d gone to the church to try to stop my parents’ wedding while it was under way. A long time ago, she’d given me a ruby-and-diamond necklace, something she seemed to be giving away to belie how much it was cherished. I told her she could try to figure the computer out herself, but before she could, she got sick.
I think about my mother’s sexuality and how she occasionally used it. The little things, the way she made her face up before she left the house or opened the door. To me, it always seemed a strength or a weakness, but never its own pounding heart. How wrong I was.
Still, I wonder how a woman could have let a man masturbate behind her back for so many days. I wonder if she cried at night. Perhaps she even cried for the lonely old man. It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us. This is the story of three women.