No, Melanie’s silk underwear did not mean she was saying yes, or even wanting to be asked. Silk like cool water flowing through my fingers, warming in my palm, alive with fluid movement. A perfect pairing with the beauty it enclosed. It made no other statement than itself and held no meaning not taken on like body heat from Melanie. No Andalusian rose to draw me down, her silken works of art were for herself.
A few years before I met Melanie, I was an organizer for a democratic socialist fringe group. I’d been a straight-up Trotskyite when Nixon was in. Back then, dialectical materialism was the order of reality. Bourgeois relationships and sentimental attachments were decadent and reactionary. But my stridency faded with my liability for the draft, and when the Democrats got the White House in ‘76 it seemed to make more sense to go with electoral politics. The group I caught on with was led by a big movie star and her radical pol husband. It was a lot more fun than being in the Spartacus League.
At the beginning of a big voter registration drive in Orange County, they threw a party for the workers. There were twenty or thirty of us at a mansion in Hacienda Heights. After a couple of drinks there was open agreement that the big hope was for the movie star wife to put in an appearance. As soon as Mr. Counterculture Hero arrived, his people cut the music and herded us into the biggest dining room I’d ever seen to hear him speak. Sitting in a pool of overhead light at the end of a long, dark table, he extended his arms, palms down, and leaned forward with his receding chin almost touching the table. He looked around at the expectant faces like he was about to tell a solemn secret, making eye contact with each one of us. He seemed to be making sure we knew he was serious.
He began barely above a whisper. “The work you are doing is very important,” he said. “But I know most of you are here for another reason. And I want you to know that it’s OK.” There was a noticeable shuffle in the room. The closing circle angled forward. Did he know what we were really here for?
“I know that most of you are here to find someone and get laid.” Everyone in the room seemed to silently hiccough at the same time. Looks of shock were all around and a few chuckles began, but his unmoved face silenced us as he continued. “As long as getting the job done is at least your number two concern, we’ll do just fine.”
So, the night I met Melanie, it was clear in my mind that the volunteer work I was doing at KPFA was priority number two.
We were on the phones, drumming up money from subscribers before the big pledge drive. We sat at adjoining desks for a couple of hours, giving the same scripted spiel over and over. I worked the list down from Abbot while she was coming up from Zymechus.
I’d tried to catch her eye when we were introduced, but she showed no interest. While we worked, she didn’t look in my direction. That gave me a chance to gaze without the usual pseudo-casual eye-darting men do when they are checking out a woman they suspect wouldn’t appreciate it.
I figured her to be about ten years older than me—pushing hard on forty. Her face was plain and strong, round and scrubbed a glowing pink. Cropped, shiny black hair curled in toward large, dark eyes, giving her the old-timey look of a flapper. Her face seemed sad, but settled and knowing; accepting, though with a reserve of hope so deep and quiet that it must have had its roots in faith. I didn’t know the meaning of any of this about Melanie when I first saw it in her eyes. Much about Melanie I only understood years later.
She continued avoiding my lingering invitation to interact, so my attention drifted back to the series of short, almost identical phone calls that were supposed to be the reason we were there. At one point I realized we were making a pitch in unison, both pausing the same few seconds for a response. ”Uh-huh,” we said together. Melanie looked up at me and smiled. In the next moment, we were quoting the same catch line from the list of prompts, in sync and with the same inflection. “Any additional amount will help.” It was too much and we started to laugh. Our hand sets hit the cradles at the same time and she turned toward me for the first time. “One of us better change the tape,” she said, “or we’ll both be wasting our time.” Her voice was high and warm like a kiss on the forehead.
The evening took off from there. As each of my calls ended, I would cheer her on with a smile and a nod. She began to do the same.
I hadn’t shared a bed with anyone for longer than one night in over a year. For the last three months I’d been subsisting solely on the five sisters. That in itself was enough to sharpen my interest in Melanie, but she was also just my type.
She seemed like a woman who would be flattered by careful romantic attention. She was older and a little heavy by the ridiculous standards of the day. She seemed at home with her body—bralessness was a Berkeley standard of the decade she seemed comfortable with—but I was sure that like most women she was not satisfied with the way she looked. She looked beautiful to me; big-boned, but soft-fleshed, the roundness of her upper arms plumping out slightly from the constriction of her short sleeves. Girlish breasts rounded the fabric above the high waist of her floral cotton dress that spread to her knees around generous, patient hips. She wore no wedding ring. I guessed that she was an old-school feminist, fundamentally suspicious of marriage, but that her commitment to being single was more a reaction to believing that she would never find an acceptable partner.
I had dated younger versions of Melanie before. They were so much easier to take than many of the so-called beautiful women I’d known, playing hard-to-get and militant with their boots and lipstick-butch attitudes, all the while looking for a macho stud with the right philosophical rap and a source of money. Yeah, I was bitter.
For all their feminist rhetoric, the Movement people I knew—both women and men—still clung to a hierarchy based on beauty. I don’t know what combination of radical-chic, pop-commercial, Euro-art culture informed the aesthetic, but it was rigidly enforced by those who accepted its subjugation. A straight woman who stuck to her guns as far as sexual politics was concerned could easily end up middle-aged, single, and celibate not by choice.
I sought out women like that—like Melanie, as I’d hoped for her to be. I was their male reflection—the slightly unacceptable partner. I wasn’t able, so I pretended I didn’t choose to make the grade in the competition for women: money, good looks, self-assured and capable, yet sensitive and caring (don’t forget sensitive and caring). I was an average guy with sub-par looks at best, and believing I wasn’t good enough to be wanted by attractive women at all, and not by any woman for long, I had developed a calculating sexual desperation.
“Where do you work?” Melanie asked.
We had been walking aimlessly around downtown Berkeley for an hour swapping rumors and gossip about station politics. Now we were eating falafels in a tiny shop on Telegraph Avenue.
“County Social Welfare. Adoption case worker,” the jargon drum-rolled from my mouth. It cannot be overstated what a great come-on line that was for me among women in political groups—even before it was actually true.
“Oh, really? MSW?”
“No, not yet. Still an intern.” I tried not to sound as deflated as admitting that made me feel.
Strolling side by side, talking about other people, we had kept a certain distance. Her eyes met mine politely at the right moments in the conversation, but were evasive. Now, as we spoke about ourselves across the table, she faced me with a steady, assessing gaze that challenged me with its honesty.
“So, where do you work?” I asked.
“At home,” she said.
“OK… so… do you mean you’re… a housewife?” I said with overstated irony.
This seemed especially funny to her. “No,” she said and laughed. The high, sweet clarity touched me again in a way I did not understand. “No way. Never been married.” She smiled intently at the pita bread she held in her hands as if it were an amusing book. She seemed to be waiting for me to ask the right question.
“OK, so what do you do… at home?”
“I sew.” I felt like she was holding back a punch line. Her pursed mouth held a smile like a secret.
“Oh, you’ve got a little sweatshop going.” I glanced about in mock suspicion. “INS trouble?”
“No, it’s just me. Solemente.”
My next question was just a puzzled look.
“Actually, I make my own designs and sell them.”
“Wow.” I was impressed, but by the way she sucked her breath in around her teeth I knew there was something more. “But what kind of stuff do you do that you can make a living at it?”
“I work exclusively with silk.”
“Yes, it brings a good price because, well, it’s silk—it’s hard to work with, you know—you need special machines and most people don’t know how to do it right.” Her pride was obvious even as she tried to hide it. “I’ve actually gotten really good. I started out doing a lot of resewing for people salvaging imports that were coming apart, but now I do my own designs, and they sell about as fast as I can make them.” She gave up trying to hide her pride, settling back in her seat with a self-satisfied smile and a bit of a blush.
“That dress is cotton, though, right? Do you make, like, super fancy stuff that you’d never wear yourself?”
“No, well, yes, it is pretty fancy, I am wearing one of my pieces, but, you know, it’s all underwear.” Her cheeks darkened a shade.
In the span of a breath I read her blush and knew that Melanie was not thinking of me as a co-worker or a client—with whom I know she could have talked underwear without a blush for hours. “Oh. Yeah. Very cool,” I crooned. “Very interesting.”
We talked of other things for a while, pretending that I was not interested in Melanie’s underwear and that she had not been blushing. As we talked our eyes stopped playing contact tag. There was a moment when our eyes met and we held them in silence for seconds that seemed like minutes. We were both startled by this and began to eat in earnest, our foreheads nearly touching as we leaned over paper plates on the tiny table between us to bite our dripping falafels.
She trusted me enough to let me walk her home. Enough to invite me in. I drew her trust along by seeing her only to the front door of the subdivided Victorian where she lived. I suggested a time and place for us to meet the next day. She trusted me enough to agree.
When we got to her flat the next night, the first thing she wanted me to see was her work.
“Well, this is my little sweatshop,” she said, switching on a blare of work lights as I emerged from the top of the pull-down attic stairs. With a stoic crew of dress dummies and mannequins crowding around long, wide work tables piled with shining fabric, it did have the look of a busy workshop in still-life. Only Melanie animated this world.
She must have been used to people being dumb-struck when first seeing her attic. My mouth formed a continuous “Wow” as she intoned in a tour-guide voice the name of each strange-looking sewing machine and pointed out the finished products that adorned the mannequins: bras and panties, camisoles and tap pants—from the lightest pinks to the deepest purples and black. I could not have imagined that silk could look so many different ways.
“In the last couple of years I’ve gotten ahead enough to invest in top-of-the-line equipment and material. Now I can pretty much make anything I can design—and fast enough to make it worth the effort.” She stood before me, awaiting my reaction.
The musky scent of the silk, or of Melanie, the intimacy of the narrow spaces in the dormer attic, the new, searching look on her face, the suggestion of the silken shapes, my loneliness, all combined to induce an unexpected arousal.
“Melanie, Melanie, this is so…cool,” was all I could croak.
It may have been the look on my face, something in my voice, or she may have noticed the erection distorting my jeans, but she abruptly ended the tour. I never went into her attic again.
Over the next few weeks we spent many evenings together, in her “parlor,” as she liked to call her living room. With a curated mix of craftsman antiques and polished redwood burl, it was a near-cliche of cozy comfort—large enough to balance with a black and gold Persian at the center, but with quilt and pillow nests on window seats, couch, and overstuffed chair, each in its own sphere of warm lamplight. The shelves that hid the lath-and-plaster walls were hidden themselves by blooms of books, their spines obscured here and there by framed family black-and-whites.
We listened to old Bob Dylan records over and over—Freewheelin’, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde—I Shall Be Released, Sweet Jane, Positively 4th Street—songs, we discovered, that had filled both of our lives. Neither of us much liked the newer stuff.
We talked politics and told our stories.
My story was a drug-induced epic of road trips and street life. Our hero survives the post-Viet Nam collapse of phony hippie idealism and emerges as a neo-progressive spiritual feminist, ready to fight the good fight but no longer willing to go to the barricades. She was interested and empathetic.
Her story was of her father fighting in Spain with the Lincoln brigade, of being raised in a community of card-carrying communists, of the political and personal rebuilding required of them as they came to grips with the reality of Stalinism. She told me about Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, about trips to the south with SNCC, and of starting a commune in Sonoma, of farming and textile art. I was enthralled.
I did not speak of my calcifying cynicism, the bitterness I was only vaguely aware of at the time, the emotional dishonesty that led to my loneliness.
She did not tell the more personal stories that I imagined had led to her solitary life—of struggling with the male domination of the movement, of fights with former lovers, or of breakups.
Every evening, after the Dylan and storytelling, we sat on the couch and listened to KJAZ, getting closer in the quiet of the music.
There are times when everything happens with the first touch—when both people know from the start that the preliminaries are just building up the potential they know will explode on contact—when the car, the hall, or the kitchen floor will become the scene of urgent consummation. But I could tell that Melanie needed me to court her.
We went from listening to snuggling within a few nights, but we never moved on to kissing. I saw in her face a reflection of the anxiety I was feeling. Who would take the lead? Would our intensity match, or would one of us feel embarrassed, disappointed, and guilty, the other distant, stingy, and guilty? We avoided the problem without words by going directly to giving each other massages. Using back rubs and foot massages, we danced around the edges of sex. We became intimate without a commitment beyond the massage itself, keeping an emotional distance. Both of us were aroused, but neither wanted it to be obvious—I because I was cultivating her trust, and she because she was taking care of herself by testing me.
We avoided conversation while we touched, using only our hands, moving wider and deeper, releasing the will of the muscles, the tension of fear. But each night around midnight, as we made plans for the next day and said our reserved good-byes, our faces were nearer, our pauses longer.
As Melanie became more trusting, we shed more of our clothes for our massage sessions. Within a week we were down to our underwear. I stripped to my boxers at Melanie’s first indication, but it was a slower process for her—the slipping down of a cotton shoulder here, the drawing up of a hem there, some unbuttoning and unzipping now and then—every step taken with silent request and approval. Beneath Melanie’s simple dresses were the camisoles and tap pants I had seen in the attic. No mannequin wore them now, and the liquid silk, black one night, red the next, tickled my eyes and the backs my hands, my palms and finger tips absorbing her warmth, and more than once by body conspired to give away the excitement I was trying to conceal.
I was confused by my willingness and ability to be so patient. In the midst of client home visits and intake interviews I found myself yearning for our time together, planning on it as with a lover. But what was going on? We weren’t even sleeping together, and I was beginning to think we probably never would. I had never spent this much time with a woman I was attracted to without a sexual payoff. That’s what I had been thinking of with Melanie at first, but my feelings changed. I found myself thinking that if we started having sex, she would soon become wise to me and discover that sex was all I really wanted in the first place—that that was all I ever aspired to in a relationship—that the rest was just a ruse.
This way of thinking about women had never troubled me before—I was just trying to get laid, after all—playing the game in what I thought was an ethical way. But there was something about the way I felt when I was with Melanie that made me want things to be different this time. So, I didn’t press the issue as I always had in the past. I’d been pressing the issue since I was fifteen years old. I never thought of doing things any differently. That’s just the way men are, right? Advise and hope for consent. But now I thought somehow things could be different. Maybe Melanie and I would work out in a way I had always thought could never be.
Early one evening that seemed later because the clocks had just been turned back, Melanie startled me at the end of the massage. At the point where she was usually almost asleep, she abruptly flipped herself over on her back, nearly toppling me into an antique tea table.
“I want us to read together.” She was propped on her elbows, craning her neck to face me directly, eyebrows arched as if she’d just had a brilliant idea.
I was slack-jaw surprised. Through the music and the backstory-chats we had only briefly talk about books—the What-are-you-reading, What-are-you-reading exchange. She mentioned a few titles and authors I had heard of but “Hadn’t had a chance to read, yet.” I offered 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Brave New World—all I could remember from what I’d scanned in English classes—finally asserting the practical rationalization that I was essentially a student with a full-time job and only had time for non-fiction. That was our only book-talk until that night.
Before I could respond to her declaration, she eased back and rolled her eyes to the side. “Well, you don’t have to read,” she said, then locked her eyes on me again. “But I think I want to read to you.”
She lay between my legs in a maroon camisole, eyes darting from one bookshelf to the other as if browsing titles in her mind. Taking in her elegant beauty and feeling the sexual nature of our position, I lost the thread of what was being said and felt blood flow to my penis as I had not allowed it to do since our moment in the attic. Feeling it move like an independent entity and find the hem of my boxers, my voice thickened, “I’m reading you right now. Am I reading you right?” I said.
Certain to have felt me, but without looking down she said, “No, we’re not ready yet,” and elbow crab-walked out from between my legs.
The next night, the Sunday before a staff retreat in Monterey, was the last of our ease and comfort together was.
She massaged me first, as I lay stretched out on the parlor rug. A blissful half hour later she was warm with exertion as I began on her. A sheen of sweat dampened the wisps of hair on the nape of her neck and moistened my hands as I worked her back beneath her camisole. She relaxed nearly to the point of sleep.
When I moved down and began firm, kneading strokes up her thighs, she seemed to enliven, moving her legs to the rhythm of my hands. Her eyes closed as usual, cheek against the back of her hand, she raised her hips slightly in a way she’d never done before. Her softly closed mouth glistened with escaping saliva and her nostrils widened to take in long, slow breaths, releasing sighs like whispered wind. The sweetness of her breath reached my face, mint tea mingling with the body-warmth that enveloped us both.
Angling her hips still higher, she seemed to draw my hand toward the space between the purple silk and the ivory-pink of her skin. I became aware of the scent of her sex. I held my breath and entered. Eyes closed, the memory in my fingertips I found the edges of her vulva and the pulpit of her clitoris. With her wordless guidance I followed the motion of her body in an easy, quickening rhythm until she came with rain and tremors in my hand. Silently elated, I finished the massage by stroking her with the tips of my fingernails from head to foot while she drifted in and out of sleep.
At the door before I left, we kissed for the first time—a lingering kiss, our lips slightly parted, a beginning exploration without intrusion or urgency. We spoke briefly about where and when we would meet when I returned from Monterey on Friday, then we held each other quietly for a few last moments.
At the retreat I met Julie, the woman I would live with for the next four years. It was classic. We met at the reception. We went from casual conversation and a couple of drinks, straight to her room. We blew off most of the retreat fucking whenever we got the chance.
I had been pacing while I told Melanie of my misdeed. She did not speak or react in any way. She simply sat on the arm of the couch eyeing me with the same sad, knowing look I had noticed but not understood when we’d met. I still did not understand. When she left abruptly and went downstairs to the flat below, I thought for the first time of her having an emotional ally, a friend at hand. “Just a minute,” was all she said.
I was deflated of the righteous energy of my honesty and slumped to the floor in front of the couch. I stared at the ceiling, my mind playing a game of strategic ambivalence. I did not consider leaving. On one hand, hanging in there and allowing Melanie to ream me before she told me she never wanted to see me again was cleansing penance for my cheating. In fact, the more anger she showed, the sooner I would feel better about having betrayed her. In that case I would be calling Julie when I left. But I also hoped she would forgive me. After all, jealousy was a bourgeois affect—a remnant of patriarchy. As long as I came clean, we could pick up where we left off, right?
Melanie was gone long enough for me to slide into a dreamless sleep. Into the blank of my mind as I awakened, the old self-loathing oozed like puss from an infection. I was just reorganizing my defensive rationalizations when Melanie returned.
“I wasn’t at the station that night to ‘meet someone.’ You were an accident.” She was standing over me, speaking in a firm, matter-of-fact voice. Her face was red and her eyes were puffy, but she was not about to show me any tears.
I started to get up, partly relieved that I was about to be permanently dismissed, but she thrust her hand out above my forehead in a gesture like a shove. “Stay here. I’m going to read you something before you go.” She turned and went down the hall to her bedroom—a room she had never invited me into, and one that I would never see.
I had heard of it long before I ever read any of it, or even knew what it was. It was something for the record books, like antidisestablishmentarianism—a curio, a road side attraction: World’s Longest. At thirteen I thought Ulysses was The Odyssey. I imagined Kirk Douglas battling the Cyclops in a movie I’d seen on television. Joyce was an older girl who lived down the block. Even that last night in Melanie’s flat I was ignorant of Stephen Daedalus and Molly Bloom.
The book was small, but thick, with a dark green cover on which I could see no writing. She held it just below her breasts with two hands, elbows at her sides. She began somewhere near the end, a place at which the book fell open out of habit.
“…well I suppose he won’t find many like me where softly sighs of love the light guitar…” she began. I did not know what I was hearing, but her surging, releasing tone enveloped me.
“… or if the woman was going her rounds with the watercress and something nice and tasty…” Now Melanie was the one pacing the room as the rhythm of the words expanded to rolling waves sustained through a series of images that overlapped and interwove until they seemed to enter me and mingle with my own memories.
In a dream without time, Melanie’s voice drew me through a cascade of overlapping déjà vus. “…first I must clean the keys of the piano with milk…”
Scenes and feelings from my past surfaced and receded, riding the power of the unfolding tapestry that filled the room. “…and all the kinds of splendid fruits all coming in lovely and fresh…” I was stealing from my brother, vandalizing a school room, raiding my mother’s purse.
“…I don’t care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering…”
A montage of previous transgressions—moments of decision, error, buried shame streamed by like a highlight reel of moral bloopers, each one familiar and accompanied by its own echoing excuses and compensating lies.
“…and the sea, the sea, crimson, sometimes like fire, and the glorious sunsets, and the fig trees in the alameda gardens, yes…” Melanie’s energy rose, filling the room above and all around me.
“…and all the queer little streets, and pink and blue and yellow houses…” I began to see images of our brief time together. But they were immediately intruded upon by memories of every girl or woman I ever pushed, prodded or pressured into compromise. I was the older boy, despoiling freshman girls, supplying the liquor, feigning love for the night, “…where I was a child of the mountains, yes…” a room full of sleeping bags, “…when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used…” ignoring the protests of a girl who had trusted me, “…and how she kissed me under the Moorish wall…” slipping into her bag, hearing her whisper no, no, no, into my ear and not caring as I came in spite of her whimpering pleas, “ …and I thought, well, as well him as another…” feeling the sickness in my stomach that would overtake my life only after rolling off and turning my back to her quiet sobs in the dark.
“…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again, yes…” Curled up on the kitchen floor, in front of the sink, I realized that the sound of a bird calling from far away was my own convulsive keening. Melanie was leaning over me, close to my snotty face. With a low, measured voice, the open book now pressed against her chest, she delivered the final tide of truth, “…and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume, yes, and his heart was going like mad, and yes, I said, yes, I will, yes.”
I saw Melanie walking toward me on the street the other day. I hid as from a vengeful enemy, though I know she isn’t the kind of person who ever hated anyone. Through all the years I don’t believe she’d given me more than a passing thought. But I’d thought of her every day as I struggled—rededicating myself to my work, to the families and the kids, to being a good partner to Julie, and voraciously reading—to overcome the things she made me see were true about myself.
Now, seeing her again, it was as if I’d seen my light come shining.
I watched through a café window as she passed. She was with two men and a woman. Possibly couples, I’ll never know. She strolled by no more than a few feet from me in a vintage summer dress that made the sidewalk glow. The man behind her spoke into her ear. She stopped and laughed out loud, hands on hips, mouth open to the sky. They embraced and were gone. Gratitude swelled within me like laughter. Then something else stilled my heart and drew my breath—something that I now believe was grace.