Let’s Talk About Sex

True confession: I spent the last 48 hours trying frantically to write about my sex life.

You heard me. In a burst of bravado I pitched some ideas to a women’s magazine. To my horror, the editor asked me to write one. I was at REI, queuing to buy socks for Chris, when her email arrived. I went hot and cold, then dizzy. Was buying his favourite socks going to be enough to make up for dishing personal information in a public forum?

“Is your husband comfortable with you being this open about your sex life?” the editor asked.

Good question.

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That night, after a couple glasses of wine, I took the plunge: “So, how would you feel about me writing about our sex life?”

To my relief, he was good with it, as long as he got a preview.

That, it transpired, was the least of my concerns.

Travelling from Oregon to London to Ibiza to Manchester in the space of a week left me short on creative time. I finally sat down to write in Manchester. Perched on an uncomfortable hotel chair, in my pants, I tried to render in words the elusive emotions of an intimate encounter. Quelle surprise, words went belly up on the page like fish in a dynamite pond. It wasn’t moving, it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t even coherent.

Thankfully Chris got back from work so I could quit for the night.

My Wednesday deadline was poised like the sword of Damocles. Saturday night I caught a train to London while my husband got on a plane to Denmark. It made perfect sense to spend 10 hours on a slow-mo Hackney bar crawl with Ruth, rounded out with another bottle of wine at her flat.

I was wide awake at five o’clock Monday morning, heart pounding, anxiety’s fingers wrapped around my throat. Too dizzy to read or sit upright, I lay on the sofa chanting, “All is well” in the vain hope it might be true. Needless to say, the essay went untouched.

Tuesday I flew to Spain. Rather, I caught traversed taxi-plane-bus-train-taxi transport sequence that got me from Finsbury Park, north London to Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz (best known for its sherry and horses). En route I had plenty of time to think about the ways this personal essay was not working. In a burst of desperation/inspiration I emails to a couple of Portland (OR) based sex therapists. They both responded and, thanks to the nine-hour time difference, I found myself with an 11PM and 2AM interview.

The first one was easy enough. It is light in Jerez till after 10PM so another hour wasn’t a stretch. I set two alarms: 1:40 and 1:45. The fidgety timekeeper in my brain booted me awake at 1:37. Chris was wide awake in Helsinki so we texted till five to two. Then I hit the call button on Skype and snapped into chipper journalist mode.

On the evidence of the interviews sex therapists are a delightful bunch. Both women sounded like people I want to be friends with. This gave me hope. Maybe their wisdom would bleed into my writing. Maybe their sensibleness would make sense of my nonsense.

After chatting to Chris I fell asleep around 3AM, slept through my alarm, and woke beneath a cloud. Must write personal essay. Must find a place to live. Must… must… must…

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Crawling back into the surprisingly comfortable twin bed, plugging my ears and waiting for the world to go away never looked so good. Behind all this, the nagging thought that I could have asked for an extension on the essay. Hitting deadline is one of my sacred principles though, the freelancer’s code. I didn’t want to look like a flake on my first outing. Nor did I want to send something that would shame me as a writer.

Midday came and went. Two more drafts begun. A plate of rice and beans eaten on the terrace. Phone calls to an estate agent to arrange a 5PM viewing of a flat 4km away. That’s a 50 minute walk according to Google, which dispensed no wisdom on public transport. I mentally blocked out the afternoon: write till 4. Walk, view, walk back. Then I had till 10PM to send the piece, based on a 5PM finish in the magazine’s New York office.

By the time I set out I’d hatched a new strategy. Ditch the narrative essay. Focus on the key message: How this experience helped me overcome my relationship fears. Write it one-two-three-four. There was a conclusion tacked onto an earlier draft that I could live with.

“If I can write the essay to fit that conclusion, it’ll be okay,” I said to Chris.

He took my panicking over writing about our sex life better than I would. It’s unlikely the tables will ever turn, but if they do it is going to take an effort of will to sit back and let him be frank.

Jerez Norte is a dead zone during siesta. Avenues, parks and office buildings uniformly deserted. I walked along, past HiperAsia, Lidl, Mercadona, mounting pieces of evidence that my destination isn’t where I want to be.

Enrique was in his car, smoking and texting. Tufts of nasal hair, like Meyer Wolfsheim. We stood in the shade next to a bar and he told me this was the best zone of the city. It looked like Marina Botafoc without the yachts: soulless blocks of flats with high gates and artificially turquoise pools. We looked at one of the flats. Sterile, ugly, with a tiny oblong that passes for a terrace in this town. The walk back was, mercifully, quicker for being familiar.

wallaceHome, straight to the laptop. Write. Write. Write. As I hacked away, the thought kept repeating: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. David Foster Wallace’s essay of that title is turgid and self-important beyond belief (it encapsulates the experience of reading his work) but it is a great title. And captured my precise feelings about writing the damn essay. It should have been fun. A yomp. I was just asked to write about my experience. What could be easier? Pulling teeth, for one.

Even with the wise, candid sex therapist input the essay veered like a rudderless sail boat. There’s a Spanish saying: va viento en popa means to go extremely well, to be on a roll. My roll was more kid-backwards-downhill-on-skates (waiting for a crash). I scrabbled for my best writing teacher advice: Break it down, tackle small sections, don’t edit, keep writing.

I meant to pour a glass of wine to aid the creative process but couldn’t bring myself to leave the desk for that long. Sentence by clunky sentence I inched towards the conclusion. That kept changing too, but it was low on my worry list.

Around half-eight I plunked the last words in. It wasn’t good, but there was an introduction, four main sections and a brief conclusion. It was 1037 words. I spell-checked and proofread, consulted their website for the therapists full names and titles. After it was done, I read it again.

Chris was messaging from the gig in Helsinki. “Have you sent it?” he asked, 20 minutes after I told him I was finished.

“Just now,” I said, opening an email window.

The editor replied not long after: “Thanks, I’ll send notes tomorrow.”

Dread oozed back into my bubble of relief. It is without doubt one of the worst things I’ve ever written. Easily beyond repair. So far, nothing from New York today. I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.

George Orwell remarked that writing a book is like a long bout of a painful illness –and he was a man with ample knowledge of both those things. Writing a personal essay to order is acute, like projectile vomiting in public. The topic of my essay was a huge confidence boost, writing about it smashed that confidence to fragments.

Win some. Lose some.

If you must write about sex (or anything) get help

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Walking London, West End

The other morning I met a friend at the V&A. We toured the Undressed exhibit then lunch. Afterwards, I wrote in my notebook:

He tells me, “I’ve lived in London for 25 years and been so busy I’ve never walked through Regent’s Park”. Now he walks everywhere, to pace himself amidst the rush of the city.

His words struck a chord. For seven years I nine-to-fived in London. Walking as part of a commute is the antithesis of the mindful ambulation endorsed by philosophers from Epictetus to Henry David Thoreau. The commute walk is head down, upper body tense and tilted forward, watching for gaps in the flow of bodies approaching the ticket gates on the Underground, gauging the steps you need to cut past the guy with the roller bag and hit the escalator before the mum with the double buggy makes it impassable.

Work-day walking was a little better. At Q, I ran errands: shopping for a piano-key tie on Carnaby Street, collecting prints from Soho, buying biscuits and net bags of clementines from Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street. These forays acquainted me with Liberty of London’s faux-Tudor architecture and elaborately dressed windows; with the vegetable vendors and record shops of Berwick Street market; with the Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street; and the assorted production houses, coffee shops and restaurants clustered thickly on Soho’s small streets.

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West End London

What I missed in these region-specific forays was a sense of the city’s continuity. Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street, Waterloo were dots on the Underground. I knew the area around them, but couldn’t traverse the spaces in between. It is only this year, as a visitor, I had time to walk between stations.

When my friend and I parted ways after lunch I set off on foot through the West End, stringing together beads of memory.

Covent Garden, 1997

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Covent Garden shopping

My sister took me to the UK as a high school graduation present. I was obsessed with England, my idea of it, anyway. Growing up, she read me British books: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, Sherlock Holmes. Fiction and reality collided in Covent Garden, a familiar name exploded to vivid life. We walked the cobbled square, ogled the glittering windows of the tiny arcade shops, stared at the silvered street performers frozen beside their upturned top hats. It was the beginning of my realisation that London could be more than just a fairy tale.

The Strand, 1999

One of my reasons for being an English major was Penn’s exchange program with King’s College London. Our lectures were in Aldwych, next to Somerset House, the nearest tube: Charing Cross. The Strand, which connects the two, became as familiar as the main street of my childhood. There are two pubs there where my friends and I drank, for reasons lost to history and habit.

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Lyceum Tavern, The Strand

One, the Coal Hole, was where I tried to impress James by drinking a pint of bitter. In the end, I had to order a pint of lemonade as a mixer. The Lyceum was our other haunt. It’s where we drank till closing time then staggered up to Trafalgar Square in pursuit of night buses, where we celebrated birthdays and end-of-term. Where we argued, made out and made up. It was such a part of our emotional landscape that it’s where we met for welcome back drinks when I moved to London in 2001.

The London Eye, 2002

Millennial projects like The London Eye were still fresh when I started life in London. My first boyfriend in the city took me on a ride in the London Eye before it was even branded. It was a lovely, romantic gesture. I was thrilled until we got about halfway up and my lifelong fear of heights kicked in. The glass bubble felt unspeakably fragile, the motion of the wheel excruciatingly slow. For most of the ride I stared stiffly at the horizon, trying to convince my body it wasn’t hundreds of feet in the air.

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London Eye from Hungerford Bridge

Charing Cross, 2003

The messiest, most joyous years of my London life were spent in 4 Mallet Road, Hither Green, SE13. My university buddies Andy and James were kind enough to let me move into

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Charing Cross, south facade

the spare room. The carpet was threadbare, the plumbing shot, the heating unreliable, and my behaviour for most of our joint tenure, outrageous. But it had a beautiful garden, an accommodating sofa, and they were — are — two of my favourite people on earth. Charing Cross was our London terminal. I can’t walk through it, or past it, without a rush of gratitude for the years it represents.

Old Vic, 2012

All love affairs go through phases. In 2007 I left London for Ibiza. For the next few years the city was at most a stopover. Then, in 2012, in a fit of respectability I got a staff writer job based a couple streets away from the old Q office, moved into my ex-husband’s spare room, and resumed the commute.

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The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut

The chief bright spots in that long, grey year were weekends with my friend Ruth. It was she I roped into going to Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic one Saturday night. It was with her I drank three bottles of wine the night before. She had to steer me from the station the the theatre, and wait while I was sick during the interval. It wasn’t a great production of Playboy but it was an unforgettable outing.

Big Ben, 2016

My boyfriend and I made our first trip together to London. It gave me the pleasure to which Tom in The Great Gatsby alludes of feeling more at home in place by virtue of introducing it to someone else.

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Big Ben and Houses of Parliament

When he wasn’t working I took him to my old haunts like Bistro in Soho, Gordon’s Wine Bar on Embankment, and Itadaki Zen in King’s Cross. We discovered new ones together: Tostado on St Anne’s Court, Simmon’s in King’s Cross, Artisan Gluten Free Bakery on Upper Street.

I also introduced him to one of my favourite walks — along Victoria Embankment, over Hungerford Bridge, and up the Southbank to Blackfriars. On this route you see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the National Theatre, the Shard, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, and strange, sleek new buildings like The Shard. It is a journey that makes me fall in love again. For all its flaws and foibles, London is the city that shaped my life.

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St Paul and Blackfriars Bridge from Southbank London

Writing, like walking, is a way of paying attention. It takes us deeper into the world around us. Thinking or talking can be like the commute — you get from A to B but don’t notice the surroundings. To write, you must slow down, look close. It is difficult, though not impossible, to blurt onto a page. (Write “I love you” or “I hate you”. Compare it to the feeling of saying the words out loud. The very act of typing, or forming words with a pen, adds a layer of composure, whether you like it or not.)

If you want to fall in love with your life, start writing about it. You will begin to see small beauties in the quotidian blur. You will find clarity in hard situations and peace amidst emotional turmoil. If you can, write. If you feel you can’t, walk till the words flow.

Home to America, 2000

In the spring of 2000 I was an exchange student from Penn to King’s College London. During my hiatus from I wrote a bi-weekly column for The Daily Pennsylvanian. The following was published at the end of April, as my second and final term ended. franny

Nearly 17 years later, I am experiencing the same mix of nostalgia, love, and uncertainty. As Salinger wrote in Franny & Zooey “There are no real changes between eight and 80.” Here’s to the never and ever-changing self.

As James Joyce no less said, “It is dangerous to leave one’s country, but still more dangerous to go back,” words that resonate more to me with every day that creeps toward my dreaded farewell to England. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was staring from the window of a 747 down on a grey-green smudge of island and thinking — half in panic — I live there now; I’m going home. Then, in September, thinking of London as home was an exercise in abstraction, like visualizing myself as a plant.

In a way it was terrifying, surrounded by 18-year-old first-year students, all as adrift as me. Mercifully, the common-sense British attitude toward alcohol meant we spent the first fortnight getting rolling drunk together, which greatly accelerated the bonding process. There were still moments of sober anxiety, though, sitting looking at the dirty cream walls of my room wishing they enclosed a more hospitable space.

From being surrounded by love and friendship in Philadelphia to being utterly alone and unattached in London was a shock. Sometimes I despaired of ever finding another circle of friends. Not having had to make friends for the better part of two years, I was sure I had forgotten how to, at least I couldn’t remember what had worked back when I was a freshman.

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To be honest, I still don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I’m as inundated with companionship here as I ever was at Penn. Which has a lot to do with my burgeoning dread of the day I get on another transatlantic flight.

How do you leave people you’ve loved, fought with, partied with, worked with, stayed up all night smoking and talking-with? I’ve done it once before, so I ought to be able to answer that, but I can’t. It makes my heart almost burst to imagine saying goodbye, so I try to pretend it won’t happen.

Instead, I concentrate on living, and every day find myself more in love with a life that I’m going to have to leave in a matter of months. The smallest daily routines are rife with flashes of magic, like taking a double-decker bus into central London and rumbling past the postcard-perfect scene of Piccadilly Circus. Or taking a break from lectures and wandering to Victoria Place to munch on sandwiches as you gaze across the Southbank skyline from the Tower Bridge to Big Ben.

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And there are the bits that don’t make the guide books: standing in Trafalgar Square in the freezing cold at 4 a.m. with a nascent hangover, waiting for a night bus; stumbling into kebab shops at 2 a.m. for a lethal dose of Turkish cuisine; arguing with minicab drivers; going to the gym and seeing Rupert Everett doing crunches; or sitting around on a Friday night trying to work out whether or not you can afford a pub or if you’ll have to go out for some cheap wine instead.

What is also rarely mentioned in the Rough Guide is how lovely British people really are. Five months working at a pub has given me an unparalleled opportunity to observe the Brits in their natural habitat, and I can safely say that their reputation for being snooty, superior and generally “up their own arses” is almost without exception undeserved. Sure, some are obnoxious jerks — Chelsea Football Club fans for example — but the vast majority are laid back, friendly and unfailingly courteous.

Another facet of England’s considerable charm is the refreshing safety of even its largest city. I will never forget walking down the street one day and spotting a poster advertising that day’s Evening Standard, “Man killed in ‘drive-by’ shooting” was the headline — complete with apostrophes. Awe-struck, I just stood there, gaping at the words, trying to wrap my head around the idea that in Britain drive-bys are so unheard of they still deserve quotes.

Sadly, though, the clock is ticking, and unlike Joyce I don’t have the option of staying happily exiled. So, for now, I’ll brace myself to return to grubby, lovely Philadelphia, and the wonderful friends I’ve made there. Hoping only that I won’t find the return too dangerous and that someday, when I’m home again, I’ll look back on my final year at Penn with as much gratitude and delight as I remember my first year in London.

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Your turn: Dig out an old notebook and share a story from your younger self.
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