July 9, 2013 | by Kate Levin
The last time I slept with Carolyn she pushed me off her in the midst of our lovemaking and turned away from me.
At first I did not understand what it was she wanted. But she bumped her behind against me until I realized that was what I was being offered, a marble peach.
No, I said.
Try it. She looked over her shoulder. Please.
I came up close behind her.
Just easy, she said. Just a little.
I went in too fast.
Not that much, she said.
She said, Oh.
I pressed in, remained, pumped. She arched, clearly in some pain.
And I found, suddenly, that I was thrilled.
I started raiding my parents’ library on the belief that reading their books would let me reproduce their thoughts. Same words in, same ideas out: the alchemy made sense to a middle schooler. When I started plucking novels from their shelves in an investigative frenzy, I was surprised that my parents didn’t seem more concerned about their privacy. Couldn’t they see that I was about to tunnel into their psyches? Wouldn’t their jig soon be up?
A nice theory, but a book or two later, the ominous fog of adult tension that drove me to espionage in the first place still pervaded our house, inscrutable as ever. If novels couldn’t help me decipher it, I consoled myself, at least they could help me escape it; that much I knew from an established history of total, meal-skipping absorption in the Lois Lowrys and L. M. Montgomerys on my own bookshelf. So I kept at my parents’ paperbacks with a shrug of “why not?”—feeling at times engaged and accomplished, at others bewildered and bored—until the day I picked up Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and wandered into that passage, in which the narrator found, suddenly, that he was thrilled.
And I found, suddenly, that I wasn’t in Anastasia Krupnik’s world anymore. That there were, in fact, human experiences more dizzying and transgressive than Anne and Diana getting tipsy off of Marilla’s raspberry cordial back on Green Gables. Turow’s characters were, clearly, engaged in one of them—and I too, just by reading about it, had embarked on another. I was thrilled.
Now, this wasn’t my first discovery of sex: I had peeked through my parents’ attempts to cover my eyes during R-rated love scenes; had watched the William Kennedy Smith trial on TV, with all its attendant testimony about groping and penetration and the condition of the victim’s panties; had even unearthed, in my best friend’s brother’s room, a campy gem of a porno mag called Ballin’ the Boss. Nor was it my first time reading about sex. A few years earlier, someone (a well-meaning family friend, I think) had gifted me a book on the human body, one of those scientific but accessible guides with elaborate explanations of every system from respiratory to reproductive, which my mother confiscated after I’d asked her if the vagina did indeed produce a natural lubricant during intercourse, as the book said. But the Turow experience was qualitatively different, and not just because, at twelve, I was now old enough to feel ashamed of sex, to prefer walking through fire to asking my mother about any sort of sexual lubricant, natural or otherwise. No, there was something about reading sex in fiction, about following characters into a racy encounter—described not in self-contained, clinical detail but in allusive strokes (“marble peach”) that required something of you to achieve real heat and life—that was powerfully sensual.
Seclusive reading, sexual excitement, and the novel—these connections were well established long before I ever stole away with a copy of Presumed Innocent. Reviewing Walter Lacquer’s Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation in The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt noted that a heightened cultural hysteria around masturbation coincided with the publication of Daniel Defoe’s novels in the early eighteenth century: “Reading novels—even high-minded, morally uplifting novels—generated a certain kind of absorption, a deep engagement of the imagination, a bodily intensity that could, it was feared, veer with terrifying ease toward the dangerous excesses of self-pleasure.”
It’s fair to say that this particular suspicion of novels had subsided a bit by the early 1990s, but in any case, no one need have worried about this little bookworm veering toward the dangerous excesses of self-pleasure, because I knew nothing about self-pleasure. For me, masturbation occupied the same realm as whatever it was that Turow’s characters were doing: dimly comprehended, and only distantly related to the physical stirrings I felt as I read. In short, it never occurred to me to do anything with the “bodily intensity” I was experiencing—except turn the page.
After that, I became something of a literary peeping Tom: dirty parts in books weren’t merely stumbled upon, like the naked neighbor accidently glimpsed through a window—I stalked them, choosing novels that seemed promising, whether because of title or cover art or just a certain ineffable potential that I got good at detecting. What began as an attempt to invade my parents’ privacy, to gain access to their inner, intimate lives, became, instead, the project of cultivating my own. What an amazing thing it was to have no one know what I was thinking or feeling as I read, no matter how shameful or audacious. What an amazing thing, this mental curtain, fortified by the book, protecting my secrets, shielding me from the secrets of others.
Later that year, my father moved out. Not far—just to the next town over, where he rented a little furnished cottage from retired Columbia University professors, a married couple who now lived mostly in Florida but who’d left behind many of their things. A fat dictionary splayed open on a music stand enjoyed a place of prominence in the living room, like a turkey on a Thanksgiving table, and a rich library spanned almost the entire second floor of the house. You can see where this is going: it didn’t take me long to dive in and root out Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which, I could tell immediately, was exactly what I was looking for. Just when I needed to retreat behind the mental curtain most—when I was desperate to trade fact for fiction, the sad slog of external life for an inner realm of private thrills—I’d found the Holy Grail of literary smut.
And so I read, furtively, in the soft armchair the professors kept next to the built-in bookshelf. Every piece of fiction I’d ever encountered had described experiences that were foreign to me—what did I know about killing devilfish on the island of the blue dolphins?—but I was accustomed, at least, to assembling the words into a recognizable picture. With Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as with the other works I’d been plundering for their erotic content, this was harder to do, as ordinary verbs took on obscure meanings: “‘And when I’d come and really finished, then she’d start on her own account, and I had to stop inside her till she brought herself off, wriggling and shouting, she’d clutch with herself down there, an’ then she’d come off, fair in ecstasy.’”
Come, finish, start, stop. These were words I used every day, but evidently there were layers of significance I was missing, a world beneath the world, like those dimensions of my parents’ lives to which I had no access. It would be a while before I learned to speak that other language. For now, there was nothing to do but sink deeper into the book, a warm current thrumming through me, like a second, secret heartbeat, quickening at the promise of the next page.
Kate Levin is a writer and teacher in Los Angeles.