Prose March 2011

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Norwegian Wood

by Tobi Lopez Taylor

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I teach one of the most popular, hip classes on the Northern Arizona University campus, “The Anthropology of Sex.”  First, we do a little light reading — articles about clitoridectomy, polygamy, and penis mutilation — and then I send the students out to do ethnographic research closer to home. The males have to read a couple of issues of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Redbook, and the females buy Men’s Health, Outside, and GQ. They also have to interview someone of the opposite gender about sex, using a set of questions I’ve devised. I always hope, usually to no avail, that by the end of the semester the students can make the leap from sexuality in world cultures to their latest relationships.

A few years ago, a student came to me during office hours to ask me why I thought her boyfriend, a firefighter for the nearby Coconino National Forest, always came home from a fire so extraordinarily horny. For starters, she was extremely beautiful — tall and blonde, athletically built, her breasts indifferent to gravity. The expression on her face was classic Barbie: mouth habitually relaxed, eyes as large and wide as a doe’s.

“Let’s see,” I replied, “he’s spent weeks taking a long, red hose into the bush, as it were, to quench some flames. Does that say anything to you?”

Her face turned as red as the hose. “It’s just that he doesn’t want anything to do with me when it’s not fire season.” This I found hard to imagine. Only in my dreams are my wrists that narrow, my calves that well formed, my hair the color of potato chips.

“Look — Tiffany —  I’m not a marriage counselor. I just play one on campus.” My standard line, which usually gets a laugh, but not from this girl. I want to tell these students that if they knew about my marriages, they’d never come asking me for advice. “I’m glad you’re taking the idea of sexuality so seriously, but if you’ve been doing the readings”  — though the ones who came for help rarely did —  “you’d see that for many cultures, sex is so fully integrated into the fabric of life that many aspects we obsess about can’t even be translated. Frequency, multiple orgasms, ‘coming out,’ S and M — they’re all considered ‘frills.’”

She stared blankly at me.

“Okay, pretend that sexuality is like a buying a new car. For some people, a car or truck is simply a means to get you from one place to another, and you don’t buy the optional window tinting or the CD player, you get a stripped-down Ford Aspire that you drive around until the doors fall off. There are other people who believe they absolutely must have a fully loaded Lexus SUV. Now, if you’re living in a society where you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from, you’re probably going to choose the Aspire, or, in this case, sex mainly for the purposes of procreation, with a little recreational intercourse thrown in. In industrial societies, people have a lot more time on their hands, and they’re exposed — pardon the pun — to more variability in sexual styles. And, just like the Lexus driver, many people feel inadequate if their vehicle — meaning their sex life — isn’t as good as their neighbor’s. Do you see my point?”

“Yeah.“ She wasn’t getting it. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“Not at all.”

“Thanks, Professor Wells.” She left, and I glanced out into the corridor. For once there weren’t five people all waiting to tell me about their sexual problems. It was a good day.

* * *

Even though I make the first exam of the semester a lot easier than I should, I usually see a 25 percent drop in attendance after that, and I get even more students than usual making a pilgrimage to my office to plead their cases.

Tiffany the Barbie clone was back, no doubt to talk about her poor score on the test rather than about her boyfriend and his hose. It was obvious she’d been crying, a not-uncommon reaction to the exam.

Tim, my husband, was in my office installing some floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to support my ever-growing library. He can’t be relied upon to be on time, to order the right kind of wine, or to remember to pay the water bill, but when it comes to woodworking, he’s a master. In our poorly funded Anthropology department, my colleagues and I fight like sharks over bookshelves that even as grad students we wouldn’t have pulled out of a dumpster, just to get our books off our floors. I’ve been a loser in the bookshelf wars long enough, so I finally turned to Tim for help. He seemed pleased that I’d asked him to do anything involving his primary area of expertise, and today he‘d arrived on time  with a wheelbarrow full of pre-cut wood.

I motioned Tiffany into my office, and she flopped into a chair with a decided lack of grace for one so young and lithe. Still, the blotchy tear stains couldn’t mar the under-twenty-five glow of her skin.

“What can I do for you? If it’s about the exam, we can talk about it, but I warn you, I don’t change grades.”

I watched her eyes focus warily on Tim, whom she no doubt took for a university employee, then shift back to me. In a whisper, she said, “It’s about John.”

“I beg your pardon? You don’t have to whisper. That’s just my husband over there.”

“Your husband?” She seemed puzzled for a moment, then shook it off.  “It’s about my boyfriend. The firefighter.”

It was the usual story of these twenty-somethings. She’d figured out a little of what made her tick, and he’d retaliated. More specifically, she’d told him that she was tired of faking orgasms just to keep him happy. His retribution was a little more creative than that of the typical spurned young male, though: he’d burned her textbooks for this semester.

“He does that with things he doesn’t like: my clothes, pictures, whatever. He’s a real pyro.” She described it all so calmly, and without irony. The trouble was, she was living in a world where such things were normal, where John was probably better than her previous boyfriend, who was better than the one before that, and so on.

“So, are you dropping the class?’ My hand automatically reached for a drop/add slip on my desk.

“Oh, I want to stay in the class. I think what you’re saying is really interesting. My friends think it’s so cool that I get to read Glamour and Cosmo for credit.”

Great. Another incentive to pursue higher education. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Tim’s smirk. “Tiffany, I’m glad you want to stay, but at this rate you’ll be failing. You may want to reconsider dropping.”

She whispered again. “I’ve already had to drop two classes. I don’t want to drop them all.”

“Let’s see how you do after the next exam, okay?” I gave her my “time is up” smile, and when she didn’t move, I stood and gestured toward the door. Tiffany walked past me to the bookshelf, which Tim, down on one knee, was carefully assembling.

She reached out tentatively and caressed the wood. “It’s birch, isn’t it?”

Tim glanced up, surprised. “Yellow birch. It comes from Norway.”

“Isn’t it kind of soft for this sort of project?”

Now she’d done it; he’d be off on a rambling monologue about the relative merits of various woods, glues, joints, whatever. I had to put a stop to it.  “Tim’s a carpenter. He knows what’s what.”

Tiffany looked me directly in the eye, surefooted on this subject. “My father is a carpenter, too. He always says that you have to use the wood best suited to the task.”

Tim was all set to expound on this, but I broke in again. “That’s something to think about — your father works with wood, and now your boyfriend burns it.” She got that Disney doe-eyed misty look again, picked up her purse, and left.

After the sound of her clunky, chunky heels drifted away, Tim grinned sheepishly. “She’s probably right, you know. This birch may not have been the best choice, but it’s all I had left over from that last job I did.”

“I don’t care what it is as long as it lasts until I retire. After that, we can use it in the fireplace.”

Tim winced at that. He’s always been a weenie about wood.

* * *

When Tiffany showed up at my office again, it was obviously not about the coursework. I noticed her appraising Tim’s bookshelves.

“They’re nice, aren’t they?”

She was looking intently at the way he’d done the corners. “Joints like this are hard to do. He didn’t use any nails, did he?”

“I told him he couldn’t be hammering in here — I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”

“So he did it all with dovetail joints.  I’m really impressed.”

“I’ll pass that along to him.” I changed gears. “Now, what can I do for you?” I was getting a little tired of her. Three visits in a semester was a bit much, unless you were male, tall, and blond, and could quote at length from my latest article in American Anthropologist.

“I wondered if your husband would be willing to fix some of my stuff.”

“He doesn’t do handyman work, as a rule. He does cabinetry. Really expensive cabinetry.”

“Oh.” She looked down for a few seconds, then glanced up — a strategy my Labrador retriever has perfected — and launched into a tale of woe.  It turned out that the boyfriend had dumped her, he’d left their apartment in shambles, and she wanted to get some furniture repaired before her parents’ annual visit.

“So get your dad the carpenter to fix them.” What was I, the den mother?

“They’re things my dad made, like a jewelry box made of zebra wood, and a desk.”

“When’s your father coming?”

“In a couple of weeks.”

I reached into my desk drawer and handed her Tim’s business card. “I don’t think he’ll be interested, but I’m sure he can refer you to somebody who can do it.”

She took the card and stood up.

“How’s your interviewing project going?” I tried to keep the acid out of my voice. She’d probably forgotten about it.

“Great. Just great.”  She was a terrible liar.

* * *

On Sunday, I was lying in bed reading a book about the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, and Tim was stretched out next to me making notes and sketching some plans for Tiffany’s various projects.

“Want to hear something creepy?” I asked.

“Sure.” Tim didn’t take his eyes off his work, and his mouth hung slightly open. I recalled a time when I’d thought that was endearing.

“When Chang and Eng were getting older, they started worrying about what would happen if one of them died before the other, so they asked their doctor to be sure to cut them apart, no matter what. Can you imagine waking up attached to a dead body?” I shivered.

“Who cares about how they died? How’d they screw?” That was classic Tim.

“I don’t know. I haven’t read that part.” I’d skipped to the back, to see how it all came out. That’s just my way, with everything.

“Well, Dr. Anthropology of Sex, I’d have thought you’d be reading that first.”

“How about I find out, and we practice? It’d be like Twister, but better.”

He smiled and shook his head. “Later.” It had been “later” lately, ever since he’d gone to a workshop at the local woodworker’s supply house. There he’d learned even more of the intricacies of building furniture without nails or even glue. Everything he’d been making for the past six months had slots and tabs. Previously, I could determine the stage of each project based on various noises: drill, hammer, jigsaw, swearing. And now, after the nail-less revolution, nothing.

“Come on. We’ve both got slots and tabs and things. What do you say?”

“I really need to finish up these plans. Tiffany’s folks are going to be here in two weeks.”

“That’s what she gets for dating a firefighting pyromaniac. Why do you have to step in and save the day?”

“Her father does beautiful work. It’s like copying one of the Old Masters.”

“If she’d just tell him the truth, you could stay home with me.”

Tim put his pencil down and turned to look at me. He spoke slowly. “You didn’t have to give her my card. I want you to know that I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for you.”

* * *

The interview portion of the course is my secret pleasure, my window on the world. I like to imagine that one day I’ll get enough students’ responses coded to finally write a book of my own. Or maybe get my own radio show, leave this academic bullshit behind. Or not. Deep inside, I know I’ve been in this rarified pond so long, I probably couldn’t breathe on the dry land of popular culture anymore. I’ve adapted too well, and now I’m stuck.

I always plan my time with the interviews over a long weekend, turn the ringer off on the phone, draw as hot a bath as I can stand, and sit reading for an afternoon. I can’t really grade the responses, just whether the students did the interview properly.

This semester, most of the papers were depressingly predictable: the straight, younger male interviewees were uniformly without depth or much insight, their gay male counterparts slightly better. The younger females were either depressed by their bodies, repressed by their companions, suffering from “lesbian bed death,” or openly, hostilely, rapaciously sexual. The middle-aged females, of which there were only a few, were insightful but frustrated. The middle-aged males, even fewer, were interesting because either they wanted desperately to nest, or they were tired of nesting and wanted to become shallow and predatory once more.

As I worked my way down the pile, I came upon Tiffany’s interview, in an expensive purple presentation folder. She’d ignored my advice to drop the class, and had actually gotten a B on the midterm. I flipped open her interview to the front page and found something I never would have expected: a post-it note in her curly-girl handwriting, telling me to thank Tim for letting her interview him.

The parts of my body not immersed in the water went cold. Tim hadn’t mentioned anything about an interview. In fact, Tim hardly talked to anyone except me, and even then, our conversations mainly revolved around home repair, who fed the dog, or the relative merits of various woods. I’d found that a welcome change from my first marriage, to an actor named Brian, who felt entitled, obligated, even, to let everyone know how he felt about everything. When Brian began to philander, he couldn’t even keep that to himself; he would take me to an expensive dinner, or a weekend trip for two, and then, before bed, he’d give a well-orchestrated, tortured, sobbing confession, replete with the minute details of his conquest, and, at last, hours later, he’d make a promise, a pledge, a troth to override his dark Scorpio nature. And then he’d want to screw. In comparison, if I even so much as asked Tim about his sexual fantasies, he’d say they were just about “torsos,” and he’d change the subject — and then we’d screw. How the hell had Tiffany been able to worm fifteen pages out of him?

I took a breath and turned the page, skimming her introduction and methods section, and going for the meat.  Tim told her he’d begun masturbating at age 12 and lost his virginity in his late teens to a married neighbor whose husband was serving a tour in Vietnam. Then, in college, he’d been taken under the wing of an old mother hen of a professor, and after that there was me. (I found that interesting, and telling: all of us older women, all of us playing Yoko to his John, Lou Salome to his Rilke, Susan Sarandon to his Tim Robbins.) He described his most exciting real-life sexual encounters, all of which had taken place years before Tiffany was even born, and none of which included me. She even got him to indicate whether they induced exuberance, satisfaction, closeness, anxiety, guilt, anger, or all of the above. He had the usual parental and religious hang-ups for a man of his age and socioeconomic background, had never been sexually abused, and had never done anything sexually that was against the law.

And then I skipped to the last question, the most important one, the one that would dictate the rest of my life with him. “Since you entered your primary sexual relationship, how many other sexual partners have you had?” If he’d screwed her, would he have the nerve to tell me in this way? I turned the page.

He’d answered None. But was he lying, or was that before they’d screwed?

I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at spotting made-up interviews. And I’d already found two fakers for this semester, their projects as obviously phony as the “phishing” emails, riddled with misspellings, supposedly sent from Visa or eBay. But this was different. Tiffany had gone right down the line and asked each question, and Tim had answered her, in more detail than I’d gleaned in twenty years of sleeping next to him, and with him. And yet, what he was telling her didn’t add up. If he was trying to get laid, it stood to reason that he’d either give her a bunch of macho, hard-on answers, or he’d be painting me as a frigid, shut-down menopausal academic to win a sympathy fuck. He’d done neither.

It was time to find out what was going on. Confrontation, theatrics, hadn’t been a part of our marriage, and we both seemed to like it that way. Clearly, although I’d chosen the opposite of what hadn’t worked for me in the past, this wasn’t working for me either. I heaved myself out of the bathtub, pulled on my robe, and strode down the hall and out to Tim’s workshop, his sanctus sanctorum.

I flung open the door, felt it wobble on its hinges, shocked at the force of my anger. Lying on a long counter were various projects inching toward completion, including Tiffany’s repaired jewelry box.

Before I realized what I was doing, I’d grabbed the box and heaved it at the opposite wall, where it cleaved into two pieces and clattered onto the floor. In that moment, I understood Tiffany’s boyfriend the pyromaniac, the finality and transformative nature of his actions. But immolating everything was not the answer, and neither was breaking it.

I pulled my bathrobe more tightly around me and sat down at Tim’s work bench to think. The shop was empty, clean, and quiet. I sat for a while, looking at all the tools perfectly aligned in their holders above the workbench. Then I reached for a bottle on the shelf and went over to pick up the newly bifurcated box.

I laid the pieces on the counter and drew a line of yellow glue along each opposing surface. Then I slid the pieces together and held them, held them until Tim returned home.

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