I went out with Brazilian Felipe again, twice over the weekend. On Saturday I brought him to meet Wayan and the kids, and Tutti made drawings of houses for him while Wayan winked suggestively behind his back and mouthed, "New boyfriend?" and I kept
shaking my head, "No, no, no."(Though I'll tell you what--I'm not thinking about that cute Welsh guy anymore.) I also brought Felipe to meet Ketut, my medicine man, and Ketut read his palm and pronounced my friend, no fewer than seven times (while fixing me with a penetrating stare), to be "a good man, a very good man, a very, very good man.
Not a bad man, Liss-- a good man."
Then on Sunday, Felipe asked me if I'd like to spend a day at the beach. It occurred to me that I'd been living here in Bali for two months already and had not yet seen the beach, which now seemed like sheer idiocy, so I said yes. He picked me up at my house in his jeep and we drove an hour to this hidden little beach in Pedangbai where hardly any tourists ever go. This place that he took me to, it was as good an imitation of paradise as anything I'd ever seen, with blue water and white sand and the shade of palm trees. We talked all day, interrupting our talking only to swim and nap and read, sometimes reading aloud to each other. These Balinese women in a shack behind the beach grilled us freshly caught fish, and we bought cold beers and chilled fruit. Dallying in the waves, we told each other whatever was left of the life story details which we hadn't yet covered in the past few weeks of evenings spent out together in the quietest restaurants in Ubud, talking over bottles and bottles of wine.
He liked my body, he told me, after the initial viewing at the beach. He told me that Brazilians have a term for exactly my kind of body (of course they do), which is magra- falsa, translating as "fake thin," meaning that the woman looks slender enough from a distance, but when you get up close, you can see that she's actually quite round and fleshy, which Brazilians consider a good thing. God bless Brazilians. As we lay out on our towels talking, he would reach over sometimes and brush sand off my nose, or push a mutinying hair out of my face. We talked for about ten solid hours. Then it was dark, so we packed up our things and went for a walk through the not-very-well-lit dirt road
main street of this old Balinese fishing village, linked comfortably arm-in-arm under the stars. That's when Felipe from Brazil asked me in the most natural and relaxed of ways (almost as if he were wondering if we should get a bite to eat), "Should we have an affair together, Liz? What do you think?"
I liked everything about the way this was happening. Not with an action--not with an attempted kiss or a daring move--but with a question. And the correct question, too. I remembered something my therapist had said to me over a year ago before I'd left on this journey. I'd told her that I thought I wanted to remain celibate for this whole year of traveling, but worried, "What if I meet someone I really like? What should I do? Should I get together with him or not? Should I maintain my autonomy? Or treat myself to a romance?" My therapist replied with an indulgent smile, "You know, Liz--all this can be discussed at the time the issue actually arises, with the person in question."
So here it all was--the time, the place, the issue and the person in question. We proceeded to have a discussion about the idea, which came out easily, during our friendly, linked arm-in-arm walk by the ocean. I said, "I would probably say yes, Felipe, under normal circumstances. Whatever normal circumstances are . . ."
We both laughed. But then I showed him my hesitation. Which was this--that as much as I might enjoy to have my body and heart folded and unfolded for a while in the expert hands of an expat lover, something else inside me has put in a serious request that I donate the entirety of this year of traveling all to myself. That some vital transformation is happening in my life, and this transformation needs time and room in order to finish its process undisturbed. That basically, I'm the cake that just came out of the oven, and it still needs some more time to cool before it can be frosted. I don't want to cheat myself out of this precious time. I don't want to lose control of my life again.
Of course Felipe said that he understood, and that I should do whatever's best for me, and that he hoped I would forgive him for bringing up the question in the first place. ("It had to be asked, my lovely darling, sooner or later.") He assured me that, whatever I decided, we would still keep our friendship, since it seemed to be so good for both of us, all this time we spent together.
"Although," he went on, "you do need to let me make my case now." "Fair enough," I said.
"For one thing, if I understand you correctly, this whole year is about your search for balance between devotion and pleasure. I can see where you've been doing a lot of devotional practices, but I'm not sure where the pleasure has come in so far."
"I ate a lot of pasta in Italy, Felipe." "Pasta, Liz? Pasta?"
"For another thing, I think I know what you're worried about. Some man is going to come into your life and take everything from you again. I won't do that to you, darling. I've been alone for a long time, too, and I've lost a great deal in love, just like you have. I don't want us to take anything from each other. It's just that I've never enjoyed anyone's company as much as I enjoy yours, and I'd like to be with you. Don't worry--I'm not
going to chase you back to New York when you leave here in September. And as for all those reasons you told me a few weeks ago that you didn't want to take a lover . . . Well, think of it this way. I don't care if you shave your legs every day, I already love your body, you've already told me your entire life story and you don't have to worry about birth control--I've had a vasectomy."
"Felipe," I said, "that's the most appealing and romantic offer a man has ever made me." And it was. But still I said no.
He drove me home. Parked in front of my house, we shared a few sweet, salty, sandy day-at-the-ocean kisses. It was lovely. Of course it was lovely. But still, and again, I said no.
"That's fine, darling," he said. "But come over to my house tomorrow night for dinner, and I'll make you a steak."
Then he drove off and I went to bed alone.
I have a history of making decisions very quickly about men. I have always fallen in love fast and without measuring risks. I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential. I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and then I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.
I married young and quick, from a place of love and hope, but without a lot of discussion over what the realities of marriage would mean. Nobody advised me on my marriage. I had been raised by my parents to be independent, self-providing, self-deciding. By the time I reached the age of twenty-four, it was assumed by everyone that I could make all my own choices, autonomously. Of course the world was not always like this. If I'd been born during any other century of Western patriarchy, I would've been considered the property of my father, until which time he passed me over to my husband, to become marital property. I would've had precious little say in the major matters of my own life. At one time in history, if a man had been my suitor, my father might have sat that man down with a long list of questions to establish whether this would be an appropriate match. He would have wanted to know, "How will you provide for my daughter? What is your reputation in this community? How is your health? Where will you take her to live? What are your debts and your assets? What are the strengths of your character?" My father would not have just given me away in marriage to anybody for the mere fact that I was in love with the fellow. But in modern life, when I made the decision to marry, my modern father didn't become involved at all. He would have no more interfered with that decision than he would have told me how to style my hair.
I have no nostalgia for the patriarchy, please believe me. But what I have come to realize is that, when that patriarchic system was (rightfully) dismantled, it was not necessarily replaced by another form of protection. What I mean is--I never thought to ask a suitor the same challenging questions my father might have asked him, in a different age. I have given myself away in love many times, merely for the sake of love. And I've given away the farm sometimes in that process. If I am to truly become an autonomous woman, then
I must take over that role of being my own guardian. Famously, Gloria Steinem once advised women that they should strive to become like the men they had always wanted to marry. What I've only recently realized is that I not only have to become my own husband, but I need to be my own father, too. And this is why I sent myself to bed that night alone. Because I felt it was too soon for me to be receiving a gentleman suitor.
That said, I woke up at 2:00 AM with a heavy sigh and a physical hunger so deep I didn't have any idea of how to satisfy it. The lunatic cat who lives in my house was howling mournfully for some reason and I told him, "I know exactly how you feel." I had to do something about my longing, so I got up, went to the kitchen in my nightgown, peeled a pound of potatoes, boiled them up, sliced them, fried them in butter, salted them generously and ate every bite of them--asking my body the whole while if it would please accept the satisfaction of a pound of fried potatoes in lieu of the fulfillment of lovemaking.
My body replied, only after eating every bite of the food: "No deal, babe." So I climbed back into bed, sighed in boredom and commenced to . . .
Well. A word about masturbation, if I may. Sometimes it can be a handy (forgive me) tool, but other times it can be so acutely unsatisfying that it only makes you feel worse in the end. After a year and half of celibacy, after a year and a half of calling my own name in my bed-built-for-one, I was getting a little sick of the sport. Still, tonight, in my restless state--what else could I do? The potatoes hadn't worked. So I had my way with myself yet again. As usual, my mind paged through its backlog of erotic files, looking for the right fantasy or memory that would help get the job done fastest. But nothing was really working tonight--not the firemen, not the pirates, not that pervy old Bill Clinton standby scene that usually does the trick, not even the Victorian gentlemen crowding around me in their drawing room with their task force of nubile young maids. In the end, the only thing that would satisfy was when I reluctantly admitted into my mind the idea of my good friend from Brazil climbing into this bed with me . . . on me . . .
Then I slept. I woke to a quiet blue sky and an even quieter bedroom. Still feeling unsettled and unbalanced, I took a long stretch of my morning and chanted the entire 182 Sanskrit verses of the Gurugita--the great, purifying fundamental hymn of my Ashram in India. Then I meditated for an hour of bone-tingling stillness until I finally felt it again-- that specific, constant, clear-sky, unrelated-to-anything, never-shifting, nameless and changeless perfection of my own happiness. That happiness which is better, truly, than anything I have ever experienced anywhere else on this earth, and that includes salty, buttery kisses and even saltier and more buttery potatoes.
I was so glad I had made the decision to stay alone.