Due to Desire
A would-be poet and photographer from Tidewater VA, I struggled to find my niche at Dartmouth in 1982. I didn’t like contact sports. I didn’t ski, drink, or rush. Why had I even chosen Dartmouth? No doubt the school’s selectivity ratio seduced me, but I had other reputable options, including Columbia. Somehow I made the squash team, but after one less than stellar season, stopped. As a sophomore, I was cast in the lead role of a student production of Tennessee Williams’ play Vieux Carré (the only line I remember is “Writers are shameless spies”). I spent Friday evenings in the stacks of the otherwise vacant art library, poring over books of black and white photographs by Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Evans, Frank, Adams, Weston; serendipitously, I found E.J. Bellocq’s “Storyville” portraits of New Orleans prostitutes.
At twenty, I yearned to shed my virgin status.
One bitterly cold February Friday, I called Dad in Manhattan to see if he had any ideas about solving my dilemma, and he said “Why can’t you get laid, baby, with a face and bod like yours?” I still had a full head of hair then, and Dad, a most-of-the-time homosexual, had repeatedly assured me of my good fortune: I was one of the “beautiful people.” I explained that I wanted no part of the drunken, beer-pong social life prevalent in Hanover, and weekdays, on their way to classes, seemingly all of the coeds made a point of wearing gray, baggy sweatpants (how dare they prioritize their own comfort!) and avoided my gaze.
“What would you recommend?” I asked. Dad proceeded to claim that “Venus,” an Italian bartender at his restaurant F-Sharp, had said to him–after she saw me once prepping vegetables in the club’s kitchen–she thought I was hot, and that whenever I was next in the city, she would gladly introduce me to Venus’s arts.
The next Friday I called Dad from the public dorm phone, and he told me that Venus and her band would be playing at CBGB Saturday night, and she was inviting me to hear her sing and spend some time together after. I asked Dad why Venus would have the slightest interest in me. “Because she’s 38, and she likes ‘chicken,’” he said. “Capeesh?” A green naif from the daffodil fields of eastern Virginia, I had to ask him to explain the “chicken” reference.
Deciding not to overthink the apparent inevitability of her offer, I took a taxi early the next morning to White River Junction, and from there a Vermont Transit bus to NYC. I stopped at Dad’s apartment to say hi and swap out my campus casuals for some black dress pants, a tight turtleneck, and a pair of his Wallabees, which clashed conspicuously, but were an upgrade from my sneakers.
At CBGB, I took a seat at a table close to the stage, so Venus could see I was actually there, calling in her offer. Her costume and attitude smacked of Jett and Benatar. I ordered a Coke and gave her my full attention for an hour and a half, while she belted out hard punk lyrics which I couldn’t understand (I assumed not understanding was the point); I could even ignore the screeching guitars: Her spandex-wrapped curves and bulges brought me to moist rapture. During the show, Venus did not favor me with any looks or gestures, but when she finished her set, and descended the stage, she came directly to my table and said “Hello fresh air; let’s get out of here.”
As we walked from CBGB towards her Little Italy studio, she grabbed and held my hand; we didn’t talk, but we swung our linked hands like boyfriend and girlfriend. Just inside her apartment, an immaculately groomed cat she called Isis rubbed Venus’s calves, prompting her to shake some food into Isis’ bowl.
“Make yourself at home, you” she said to me. She excused herself to the loo. When she returned, she wore only a tight black teddy, which proffered her deep cleavage and voluptuous thighs. She reminded me of my favorite Bellocq photograph. “Want a drink?” she asked. “I won’t tell anyone you’re not twenty one yet.” “No thanks,” I said. “How about some of this?” she pointed to the lit roach in her mouth. “No, I’m good,” I said. “Damn, you’re too easy,” she said, crossing to her couch, which was already folded out into a neatly-made bed. I sat in a chair on the other side of the coffee table between us. She lay on her side, propped by a pillow, and toked the weed, staring at me as she exhaled.
“So, shall we at least talk some first?” she said. “Have an actual conversation?” I felt my penis lengthening inside my pants. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. She stubbed out her joint and said “OK, come on over here, you.” She told me to liberate and suck her nipples; I eagerly did as instructed, rock-erect now. She lifted my chin, so we were looking into each other’s eyes; she pressed her lips to mine, thrust her tongue into my throat, so I tasted her smoke-infused hunger. She unbuttoned my pants, pushed my underwear down, stroked my penis. “Make me naked,” she said; she peeled my pants all the way off while I considered how to remove her teddy. “Let’s try this first,” she said, pulling me onto, and guiding me into her warm wet. As I thrust, I felt her long fingernails, pressing and cutting into my contracting butt cheeks. “Ooh, that’s nice,” she said. “You seem to like me,” she whispered into my ear. In less than a minute, I could no longer contain myself and, moaning loudly, exploded inside her. Afterward, I lay still on top of her, my face next to hers, inhaling her cologne and sweat, my tongue curling from the salt of her neck.
Did I feel appropriated or exploited? To the contrary: my mind buzzed with unqualified gratitude and contentment.
“No sleeping yet,” she said. “Will you do something for me now?” I nodded. “I want you to kiss me here,” she rubbed her black mound of pubic hair. As I licked her salty wetness there, she lay back, pressing my head with both hands into her. “Can you feel with the tip of your tongue the nub of flesh at the top of my vagina?” “You mean here?” I said, probing with the tip of my tongue. “Yes, that’s it; I want you to keep massaging that with your tongue. And you can fondle my ass with your hands. This is a way you can help a woman come.” She said no more, turning her attention to her own gathering orgasm.
We opened the bedcovers; I remember the sheets felt starch-fresh. We slept side by side, my groin against the radiant warmth of her backside, my arm over her waist, my face in her hair.
At some point in the middle of the night, I woke to a car alarm outside, and realized that I was becoming erect again. Still facing away from me, she was reaching behind, and stroking me stiff. Without words, she turned over, scooted down and took me into her mouth; she licked and sucked until I came; she swallowed all. Eager to show I was an appreciative student, I pressed her thighs wide, and worked my tongue around her clitoris. Her fingers were combing my thick hair, as she mashed her vulva into my mouth, and slowly climbed to climax. When we lay still again, she said, laughing, “I want you to know, my schoolboy, you’ve passed your progress check.”
We woke to street noises and the bright light of morning coming through her curtains. My raven-haired Venus rose, naked, and tiptoed to the loo. When she returned, she positioned herself on her elbows and knees in front of me, backing her ample Storyville derrière into my growing penis and said, “Let’s try this.” I first probed the cleavage of her buttocks with the head and then the whole length of my penis, until she assisted my entry with her hand. She then began to grind her hips back and forth, tightening her clasp around my engorged shaft. I began to thrust again and again, finally able to sustain going and going without coming. Soon, shuddering, we were both moaning uninhibited, climaxing together.
We slept blissfully, and when I next opened my eyes, she was facing me, and smiling. I noticed the smudged, Jett mascara around her hazel eyes, and thought how beautiful she was, and told her so. Venus kissed me and said, “How about a late breakfast, schoolboy?”
While I showered, Venus made a feast of eggs, bacon, buttered English muffins, and espresso. I put back on the clothes I had worn to CBGB, took a seat at her small table for two, and wolfed the food. She ate slowly. “What will you do today?” I asked her. “I have an exam to study for,” she said. “I’m earning a Master’s in art history from Bard. And you, are you heading back to Dartmouth?”
“I don’t like it there,” I said. “I’m thinking of transferring, maybe to Pratt, so I can get a commercial photography degree,” I said.
“Seriously? Get your Ivy League sheepskin, while you can” she said. “It may help you avoid schlepping your way through life: I promised myself years ago, to not schlep for anybody.”
“But if I go to Pratt, I could stay here with you, and commute,” I said, smiling and forming a question with my eyebrows.
“Whoa, hold on, bucko! What we’ve just shared has been so sweet and free, but believe me, you would tire of me, day after day, and, truth be told, I would get bored with you, even come to resent you”; when she saw my deflated expression, she said, “don’t take it personally–you’re a beautiful kid–it’s just what happens; routine kills desire; I know.”
I found myself wondering how she made ends meet, working as a part-time bartender, singing in an obscure punk-rock band, and pursuing an art history Master’s. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she’d be offended, so I didn’t ask.
“Will I see you again?” I asked.
She lit a cigarette. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve taught you everything in my lesson plan; and it would be untrue to say you failed the course.” She smiled, a coy gleam in her eyes. “I think you’d better get going, schoolboy, before I pull you back into my bed. I’ve got that exam to study for, and you’re a distraction.”
“Can I call you?” I said.
“You can call, but if I don’t answer. . .” I nodded that I understood, although I could not accept the prospect of never seeing her again.
“Tell you what, how about I put something on, and we’ll go out so I can take a few photos of you; you definitely have a post-virgin flush going on. Who knows, maybe the photos will help you get an agent, if you choose to be in front of, as well as behind, the camera.”
So we went out into her neighborhood, found a quiet side street, and with my Nikon, she took some photos of me, leaning against a brick wall, putting on the Dean, as countless others had before me in this town. I pulled her against me, kissed her, sucked her ear lobes, cupped her buttocks with my palms, tried to slide my hand inside her underwear, which prompted her to push backwards: “Nope,” she laughed, “can’t go there here” she said. We walked slowly back to a hole-in-the-wall deli, across from her studio, and ordered coffee. We held hands and gazed into each other’s eyes, delaying the inevitable.
The next weekend, I took the bus back down to the city. Hopeful, more like desperate, I came up out of the subway at Spring Street, walked to Mulberry Street and called Venus from a corner payphone; I left a passionate, albeit pleading message; I followed up immediately with a second call, so she would pick up: She didn’t.
* * *
I did enroll in Pratt, for six months. Commuted from Dad’s apartment. For a prerequisite life drawing class there, I worked for weeks from a Richard Avedon photo of Mick Jagger’s companion Jerry Hall; after all of my earnest labor, my drawing–especially Hall’s nose–turned out overwrought, and hideous. I had failed to achieve verisimilitude, let alone beauty.
Disillusioned by the Pratt experience, I returned to Dartmouth, and finished my English degree. Upon graduation, I took an entry level job at Macy’s 34th street factory, in their retail copywriting department. I had my own cubicle. I slept in Brooklyn in an unremarkable house, in a marginally-safe neighborhood. I shared the rent with three other singles, with whom I had a monosyllabic rapport. Like hundreds of thousands daily, I schlepped the subway to Manhattan and back, after using my imagination to sell smoked salmon (“it’s a rare occasion, when values such as these, come into the shallows!”)–until Macy’s decided to trim its copywriting team, and I was laid off. I decided to try my luck in Boston, where I wrote poetry and plays in the morning, took a bartending course, and found employment in Harvard Square. I commenced a series of short-lived liaisons with unattached waitresses.
Forty years later, amidst a stack of journal notebooks, I’ve come across the black plastic envelope containing the photos Venus had taken of me at twenty. I realize how utterly oblivious I, in my hormone-juiced monomania, had been that night we walked out of CBGB. Objectively speaking, the city was already ground zero for the AIDS epidemic. Dad, given his orientation, presumably knew but said nothing, surmising that if he did, I would not go through with Venus’ invitation. In fact, only two years after my initiation, Dad would die due to desire–emaciated, hallucinatory, and alone, in his Upper West Side railroad flat. His death plunged me into a years-long depression, which I survived, but not without guilt.
I have never seen or spoken to Venus since the day I left her in the deli. I ended up becoming an English teacher, marrying, and stewarding two sons: I imagine Venus would say I became a schlep. If she’s still alive, she’s seventy eight. I can’t for the life of me remember what was then her last name. If I could, if I do, I will Google her.