A Quiet Word | Two Strangers Meet
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Two Strangers Meet

Image courtesy of Sheena Mathieson http://www.woman-made.biz

I met Tina in Catherine Deveney’s excellent Gunnas writing class http://www.catherinedeveny.com. We happened to be sitting next to each other and had to tell a bit about ourselves so we could introduce each other to the class. Tina is beautiful and intelligent. She talked about a fascinating life, born and raised in Indiana (with a smattering of Red Indian in her heritage), how she had lived in Manhattan where she practiced as a lawyer, working in Alaska and the Bronx. And she wrote erotica.

Tina wore a beautiful red summer dress that had been her mum’s and something very special. That dress showed off her wonderfully formed, smooth and long legs, absolutely to the best advantage. Her legs sent strong messages to my brain, triggering an erotic surge of chemicals through my blood stream and through my body. I was very aware of her presence next to me the whole day. We got on well, sharing humour and comments as we engaged passionately with our writing tasks and with the other participants. At times through the day I was fantasizing about gently touching her foot, running my hands over her ankles and legs. I lacked the courage to engage in any foot-play, and wondered about the ethics, but I did manage to touch one of her toes with a finger. She had painted her toes in a multi-coloured, sparkly nail polish that I told her I admired and she said she’d pinched from her daughter.

During the day Tina told me she was going to read some of her erotica that night at Open Studio in Northcote. This was titillating, compounding my attraction. I was enthralled. However Dev had given us a deadline of 10 o’clock that night; anyone who managed to get a piece of their writing to her by that time would get published on her website. I was ambitious in wanting to be published, so listening to Tina read erotica became my intended reward for working hard to get a piece of writing in to Dev. That expedient tactic worked well. Pleased with what I had written I submitted it for publication and was free to see what the night with Tina beheld.

I arrived at Open Studio in Northcote’s High St strip, somewhat tremulous. It was stifling hot and Melbourne’s 2014 heatwave was well entrenched. Despite this, the long, narrow room was overflowing. People looked hot, relaxed and enjoying themselves, despite the stuffiness of the room. The audience was focused on the stage that happened to be located beside where I stood at the venue entrance. This heightened my feeling of conspicuousness. I was late for the start of the show and worried I had missed Tina’s reading, especially when the friendly woman at the door said that the performances were nearing the end and I didn’t have to pay the cover charge. I stood with some others just inside the door as I tried to surreptitiously scan the room but I was disappointed to not see her. I considered leaving and going home but felt curious. There was a large woman on the small stage, almost within touching distance. She was wearing a slip and performing an erotic song with bump and grind—I felt a strange mix of embarrassment and intrigue, along with fascination & fear. Also standing next to me waiting to perform, was a striking, slim middle-aged woman with red hair. She was nervous and slightly agitated. She enticed the man next to me to hold the end of the material that wrapped her body while she quickly, with elegant show, spun out of its confines to reveal she was dressed in a shiny black, satin teddy. This move also revealed she was a man, and he performed his own long, erotically charged poem with theatric gusto. I noticed he, like me, was also experiencing a mix of fear and exhilaration. Overwhelmed by this scary, intoxicating environment, I was only hearing half of what was being performed but my interest was piqued. Carrying a rock in my gut, I self consciously and tentatively made my way through a tight, sweaty, diverse crowd to the bar at the rear. I walked a gauntlet, a mix of people, both exotic and mundane. I took a quick peep at the outdoor garden, feeling very obvious and observed. It felt depleting not seeing Tina there. I also worried if I fitted in.

Wanting to run, I was held by my curiosity and ordered a Coopers. I was given what felt like, a disparaging look by a man with the appearance of a well-muscled bikie. I imagined him thinking “What the fuck are you doing here?” but I ignored this—I was hooked to this scene. It was impossible for me to hear the performance readings and as I edged forward to hear better, found myself surrounded and gently jostled by women in couples, who were embracing and stroking each other, oblivious of me. The bikie was suddenly on stage. I worried what might be coming. He read a friend’s poem that took me in with its clever use of language and a wonderful, humorous twist in the last line—the aggro bikie suddenly became an openly vulnerable, humorous man. He went from closed and suspicious, to open and talented. I was glad I had stayed.

Then Tina, thrillingly for me, stepped onto the stage, dressed in a subdued black dress—she was nervous but determined and I felt apprehensive for her. Her first reading was a story written a few years ago and she described how erotic she found libraries. She wrote some wonderful allusions to sex, describing her various loving and enticing engagements with books and the library. I can’t do her clever, funny style but her writing alluded to the thrills of new literary relationships, the sensuality of running her finger down a spine, her admission of being a serial seducer, the turn on of a new cover, running her fingers seductively through the pages of a smart young book etc. That’s my spin but she wrote it so intelligently and brilliantly, her words pulling me in to the whole experience. Her reading reminded me of my years as a naïve young man studying at Monash University in the early 70s. I had similarly found my university libraries incredibly erotic places—her story brought back some enticing memories of sexually charged distractions from my overwhelmingly mundane science studies.

Another fascinating link for me was a tale within her story describing how she was sitting next to a stranger at the library doing some research when their feet accidently touched. She wrote so realistically about how her mind became totally distracted by the touch of his feet. She couldn’t concentrate on her research and became absorbed in the interaction, eliciting some beautiful fantasies and humour. She was sure he had no idea of what was going on. I was moved and surprised by the synchronicity of this with my erotic experience of Tina earlier that day in the writing class. I’m intrigued to know Tina, if you were aware, like I was, of the proximity of our feet and did you also find that exciting? Did you consider playing that game with me? Or was that just my own, lonely erotic fantasy?

This day and night had been a push and pull of competing desires. It had awakened me to an ongoing internal dialogue I have been having for years, around the conflict I feel between my intention for life-long fidelity with my partner and my frequent sexual fascination with women and the infrequent bloke. The only way I have been able to resolve this tension was by holding my desire, being aware of it but not acting on it in a physical sense and then getting to know the other person as a friend. The erotic charge could be there within me unexpressed, on hold, and then I could get to know the person more deeply and intimately. With time, the desire that I assume drives sexual affairs, wears off. In addition my strong ethic of not manipulating or abusing friendships kicks in and reinforces my intention of not betraying my wife or my friend. This works well for me and I have become better at it over time.

The ancient art of flirtation, was a helpful circuit breaker for people who wanted to avoid fully engaged sexual affairs while keeping alive, access to safe sexual play and their feelings of being attractive. I think erotic play and flirtation, without enacting physical sex, could be a healthy circuit breaker for men today. Men get confused about women and often get into, what I think is a destructive trap. Always acting on their sexual attraction to women by seducing them into a one-night stand. I think men believe that this is a form of intimacy when in fact it’s often just a fuck; often also a power game. A lot of men miss out on real intimacy because of this. I remember young men who used to compete with each other to see who could collect the most single earrings from girls they had seduced; they kept them on display on the fridge—hunters’ trophies. I believe young women today might be engaging more in that behaviour too. I’m not saying that young people should not be experimenting with sexual relationships, its just sad how often they get hurt or manipulated and consent is often absent. People can mistake sex for something else—an authentic deep friendship.

In my experience women generally seem more skilled at erotic play that drops short of a messy, and upsetting physical, sexual liaison. Women seem to get satisfaction from the subtleties of flirting and have a better sense of the boundaries between this and an upsetting physical sexual experience. Men by contrast, often seem to want to win through sexual conquest, which damages others and increases men’s isolation from women and each other. Consequently those men probably miss out on the benefits of deeper emotional relationships with female friends. Also as an example, the old pejorative “cock teaser” that some men use, communicates to me, a significant and dangerous misunderstanding of the various, safe, more subtle forms of emotional communication and sexual play between people. I am not making a moral judgement about people who, with mutual consent, engage in brief and diverse sexual experiences with strangers. There is a wide range of sexual experiences available and we are free to make up our own minds about what we enjoy and will participate in. Respect and consent are the necessary elements to enable this to work well and safely for everyone involved.

I found Tina incredibly fascinating and a little intimidating. I had been apprehensive about reconnecting with her that night. We were in close proximity after the show, as we happened to both be chatting with the poetry reading bikie. I had been unsure how to reconnect with her but this mutual conversation with an intriguing stranger provided a great opportunity for us to segue into a conversation with each other. I am often challenged and can sometimes become awkward when I find someone fascinating and sexy. I guess at some level the stakes are higher and I want that person to be attracted to me too and to find me fascinating. This of course doesn’t necessarily happen. I am much more skilled, now that I am sixty, having those conversations with curiosity to see where they might lead but without raising my expectations too high. There is a lot of satisfaction for me in the exploring and most people have something to offer in the interaction. Some can become good friends.

Tina spoke a lot about her husband, who had cheated on her for three years with a woman he now lived with. We talked about what we believed makes an authentic marriage. We agreed that for us a successful marriage is a decision you make and then work at continuously over time. There are a lot of attractive, fascinating people out there, who of course you may feel an erotic attraction to. However, we found we shared a belief that you make a decision to commit to one person. It’s a life decision from which you build respect and fidelity. The basis of a long, loving marriage for us is being honest, respecting each other and working through the issues as they arise. There are other essential ingredients for me—each person having their own private life, so they bring fresh energy back into the relationship; each person making sure they get what they need, while also putting time and energy into the relationship to keep it fresh and strong. I also fundamentally need fidelity. We agreed that this type of marriage was an achievement we both valued, which made her current situation of managing a dishonest and betraying husband very poignant. We also recognised that there where many different ways of having a relationship apart from a traditional marriage. Like sexual relationships, everyone should be free to determine what is their preferred relationship and live that without shame or interference.

Tina and I ended our night by walking together to the wall above Westgarth in High St with its incredible view of the city. A romantic spot but there was no romantic spark between us. However we did talk a lot about relationships and for that I was grateful. I’m not sure that I will ever fully get the hang of intimate relationships; every person I meet has a different set of experiences, values and different ways of understanding and approaching relationships. We’re all human, different to each other but also in a lot of respects, the same. Perhaps that is the beauty of it and the danger. There are no universal, unshakeable rules cut in stone for centuries, to guide us. There is just what we learn from talking honestly with others and through reflecting on our own lived experience. Over time we can come to understand and value our personal preferences, needs and ethics. There seems to be a multitude of ways for couples to have a successful, intimate relationship, whether they are a formal couple or just good friends. Honestly negotiating boundaries and expectations with each other seems to be an important part of any successful relationship, as well as living with an agreed set of ethics.

I’m not sure when or whether I might see Tina again. The day and evening with her was an enjoyable and stimulating encounter. It made me think deeply about myself and my motivations. On a lighter level, metaphorically, aspects of it were like a day long game of footsies under the library table. I’d like more experiences like that.

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