Bilkish Vahed

Rebellion & Romance

Tag: desire

The Prosaic & the Wild

Loving is easy. In my day-to-day exchanges with strangers and people I don’t know well, often I feel a clear, warm feeling coursing through me. My heart swells as I listen to their stories, or simple comments, observations about this or that. Our common humanity sparks my love which pours forth with no effort. It’s simple and I’m gratified.

Relationships, even though anchored in love, are different.  Repositories of so much stuff – of the individuals and the partnership – accumulated over time, make a relationship a complex animal, full of moodiness, varying flavours, intense whirling swoops and dark heavy dips. But in this very tactility lies its preciousness. 

Egon Schiele, ‘Self Portrait in Jerkin with Right Elbow Raised’ 1914
Egon Schiele, ‘Seated Semi Nude with Hat and Purple Stockings’ 1910

Romantic relationship is much like performance art that requires the other. Only in this edgy relational playing field can one let the subtle bubbles of the deep erotic self rise to the surface. Egon Schiele had an uncanny way of penetrating this self. His art asks: Is there space in the relationship to express the diverse aspects of the self, even those less acceptable, not conventionally pretty parts that are none the less urgently real? Is there space to perform our hidden, under the skin desires?

Whilst we crave the anchoring sense of loving “home” with a romantic partner, still our internal antennae are in revolt at the first hint of stifling constraint. In revolt when we find ourselves having to suppress our desires. Cherishing the other is at the heart of relating, but safeguarding our erotic vivacity is paramount, as we grapple to make space for both the prosaic and the wild. 

Celibate in Paris

BOOK – THE ART OF SLEEPING ALONE

Imagine being at a party, people milling around drinks in hand, conversation is interesting then momentarily tedious, when someone suddenly says quietly: 

“For a long while, and I really don’t wish to say when it was or how many years it lasted, I chose to live in what was perhaps the worst insubordination of our times: I had no sex life.”  

This is Sophie Fontanel’s opening admission in her memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex (2013).

It’s true that I’ve had intimate unasked for details of sexual exploits foist upon me, by a tipsy bragging man or woman at a party, but talk of no sex life? Not that, which makes Fontanel’s opening claim surprising and even shocking.

Spontaneously I flicked to the back jacket cover, and was greeted by a smiling, radiant, attractive woman, who has been an editor at French Elle for more than a decade, I read. What had prompted this decision, I wanted to know? Fontanel did not apparently find herself simply going through a dry period where no lover materialised to flame her desire; hers was, she tells us, a determination, a choice to be celibate – why? 

For a few months Fontanel’s friends tolerated her solitude and state of abstinence with curiosity. Curiosity soon gave way to harassment – had she met someone yet? Why was she not dressed properly – showing more leg, more cleavage and where in heavens name were the high heels?  They urged her, shoved her towards a man, any available man, but she was having none of it.

“I’d had it with being taken and rattled around. I’d had it with handing myself over. I’d said yes too much.”

In breezy prose and loosely connected vignettes, the narrative goes on to tell about the sexual lives of Fontanel’s friends. The guy who had been a star but who now is alone and melancholy and lives with his Monet; Henrietta who “bound herself to a man” through love, because she figured that “without anything, one has nothing”; the woman from Basel who extolls the wonderful sex that she has with her industrialist husband, though she still hankers for other men and her husband fantasises about a threesome; the neighbour who has been suffering for five years because his wife won’t let him touch her, as she finds the male body repulsive. 

Dissatisfied, compromised, sad lives – what did they tell me, if anything, about what sat at the heart of Fontanel’s story?

‘If you force yourself to make love, if your sex life isn’t as good as the one you dreamt of or expected, if you don’t feel respected, can you just stop? 

‘The answer is yes. And the fact that women can make love when and how they want is sexual liberation. But sexual liberation is also to not do it, if you don’t want to.’

Fontanel talking to the Telegraph

Could the key lie in the experience of the young girl who at thirteen looked sixteen? The precocious teenager who followed her lust into a hotel room with a handsome tourist from Mexico, twenty years her senior, a stranger who took what she had unconsciously offered, irreversibly. Did that first sexual experience shape everything that followed? 

At twenty her first serious boyfriend had his way with her. He woke her in the middle of the night but she was never grumpy. In bed, he tugged her head this way and that but she didn’t bat an eyelid. He strode around the apartment imperiously. She remained impassive and mysterious but something else lurked within.

One day her boyfriend was in bed watching a television show about dog handlers. Contrary to what the public think, a colonel explained, the dangerous dogs are not those that bark and carry on, appearing fearsome, for those dogs give someone a chance to actually plan an approach and form a relationship with them. The dog that appears placid, on the other hand, that allows you to approach, doesn’t growl, welcomes your pat, then suddenly whips around to tear off your cheek because you have unknowingly touched her on “some nondescript place” – that’s the tricky dog. A picture of a female Dalmatian appeared on the screen. Fontanel chillingly realised – she was that tricky Dalmatian.

Ours is a culture where to admit to having no sex life is to open oneself to ridicule. Someone who is not doing it  – frequency is crucial – can feel like a pariah condemned to silence. Fontanel’s slim volume goes a way to lifting the veil of silence, but more needs to be written with sensitivity and intelligence about the unravelling complexities of desire.

An Old Crush

When I was nineteen, I had my first crush on a real man. Before that there’d been heartthrobs – John Wayne, Donny Osmond, Clint Eastwood, Mr Rochester. Heart throbbing was that delicious sensation of insatiable longing for the unobtainable. A crush involved a real man.

Nobody says, “crush” any more. So passé. Nobody confesses to infatuations anymore. Nowadays, women and men don’t skulk in the shadows. Pursuing desire, knowing what you want and reaching for it, is the expected way. But then today’s social dance towards intimacy is a whole other conversation.

So I fell deeply into this crush for T, a young man a few years older than me, gorgeously handsome. Every woman in my family, and friends agreed on that point – he was truly dishy. They all sussed that I felt more for him than I ever, ever admitted to. 

I was not shy, not retiring in manner, but when it came to flirtation and seduction, I was as switched on as a door mouse. He was suave, cool, beautifully turned out, but never talkative, not to anyone. He affected me. I would inwardly quiver if he came anywhere in my general direction, feel wobbly, squirmy. 

As I reflect on this nearly four decades later, what I omit to tell you, the crucial part of this narrative is that I never spoke to him. Not once. Never. Though others tried to pave the way for us to connect, we never did.

But why dredge up these memories now, you ask, all these years later? Thing is, I met him again. In a shopping centre we bumped into him, my sister and I, and they began chatting. I said hello, smiled, then listened and looked, and felt.

He’s still handsome, but heavy now. Hearing him converse was listening to a stranger. I strained, my inner tendrils reached and arched and sought, but landed on nothing. Nothing stirred. He touched nothing in me.

Had he felt anything for me – lukewarm or ardent – all those years ago? I’ll never know, and it can’t matter. But the malaise of my nineteen year old self, her confusion and strangling reticence give me pause. And though it sounds glib I know, not drenched in psychological complexity, I suspect that what kept her choked up in silence before this man, was her entrapment in an overweight body. I was fat then.

It’s extraordinary really. But when the body is shut tight, then seduction, seduction is an impossibly closed book.

You & Me

A TRIO OF MINIATURES

I

it took me a long time

to see, to finally see

that you never really liked me

not all of me, not me

 

only a part of me

some part  that enticed you

you wanted a part of me

but there i stood grotesque

oozing all of me

 

you chipped away

chiseled, hacked and sculpted

tweaked and reshaped

i became your sticky version of me

 

flickers of awareness

darted in my dreams

skipped and slipped and tripped

disappeared unseen

 

it took me a long time

a long time to see

 

II

When my eyes were averted, you slunk around me

Spinning a tender lattice of awareness

Wilfully piercing my consciousness, forcing me to awaken

When my eyes were averted, you wanted me.

 

Irresistibly I turned and looked back at you

Smiled, said something, let my eyes laugh into yours

You drew back surprised, disoriented, your radiant face darkened

When I looked back at you, you closed up on me.

 

Stunned, confused, awash in shame, I collapsed in a heap, grew small

What had I done, I called out to the night, what had I done?

 

Effulgent comprehension arrived slowly and in its wake,

Indignation, purple anger, rage bubbled and frothed until

Raucous laughter burst forth, my blood ran warm and

I grew large, enormous, and full.

 

III

I miss the letters you used to write me,

Chock-full of aliveness and vitality,

Brimming, luscious and uncensored,

Tales of your day to day in raw openness let slip,

Unheeded into the soft container of our affection.

 

Abruptly a sliver of discomfort has slipped between us,

You write me posts, comments, tweets, texts,

You write to me and to all of them at once,

The silent ones who watch and listen are now a cryptic presence,

Between us, in the midst of us.

 

The murkiness of otherness has altered your voice, changed you,

But I know the colossal beauty and brilliance of your unfettered self,

I want you back, I want you back again,

Unconstrained by the cameras and the din.

I miss you. I miss hearing from you.

© 2019 Bilkish Vahed

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