OCTOBER ISSUE: Desire

mage from author’s collection: Book of Life - The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia

This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack spoke of desire: the kind we suffer in secret, finding no outlet for it in our waking lives. It comes from a time when I’d begun writing a mile in public beside the outdoor pool in my small town: a strange self-made way of expanding my life that brought much joy – while also unleashing less comfortable emotions. I asked readers to tell me a short true tale on this theme in return. Here is where any responses will be showcased.

Sheila Knell

October extract

OFF THE PILL and with my wedding ring thrown away in temper, I sat sleepless in the attic. New and unhappy night-time routine since midsummer when I felt the season begin sliding towards the pool’s September closing day.

Nye and the children were in separate rooms on the floors below, but I was still crowded, caged. Like a vixen in heat, I wanted to be outside the house, skirting fields and fences, laying scent trails, lying in wait. Not sitting spinster-neat on a single bed, hemmed in by the books of bolder women: Anaïs Nin noting in her diary that all days should be so good – the sperm of seven men by bedtime; Frida Kahlo lying laughing on the grass with a female lover; Lee Miller posing naked for the camera of Man Ray, equals in bed and art; Georgia O’Keeffe likewise with Stieglitz; Simone de Beauvoir delighting in a first orgasm at almost forty, just as she’d been resigning herself to losing youth and beauty.

[Full extract on Substack]

The Cure for Sleep

Reader responses

I have blocked myself from feeling too much desire…

*

I have schooled myself to not want too much.

And then I remembered the day that I cried at the beach.

We were with friends this summer. It was a glorious day – we don’t get many of them – we relish them when we do. Everybody was in the water, but me. I had a Hickmann line sticking out of my chest. I had to stay dry.

Now, I’m not a strong swimmer. I’m lucky that my nearest beach is a long, shallow beach. I can stay in my depth and feel safe. I have no eyebrows any more, so I struggle with keeping water out of my eyes. I do what my dad would call ‘canal stroke’ – breaststroke with my head out of the water. But I do it all year round. In November, when the sea is as grey as the sky. In February, when feet and fingers go numb.

It’s my reset button. In there, there’s nothing in my head but sea. My body is all sensation – the sound of the water, the buffeting of the waves, the taste of salt-water. I am entirely in the present.

I try to carry that present moment with me, like a child might carry a pebble home from the beach.

And I cried for that, on that sunny beach in Wales.

Just to reassure you – I’m back in the water. I have a new, sub-cutaneous line – my skin is intact again. I have a window when my immune system is at its strongest. I take my moment. I allow the overwhelm. I relish it. I have that pebble in my pocket again.

Sarah Connor

The Amber Man

*

A very long time ago, when youth and desire to eat the Apple shadowed my everyday and fed off my internal female being (a hunger never satiated), I found myself waiting for a train in Jackson Heights.

I had recently moved to NY and was going to the city to look for work. Everything was new to me. The noise, smells, the patchwork of people and cultures, all a maiden voyage filling my senses with possibilities.

As I stood on the platform I noticed a man who noticed me. He was aglow with vibrance, his amber eyes seduced me at a glance. No words were exchanged . A train pulled up, alas not mine. As the doors slid open he moved forward and – as he boarded – he turned and sought me out. I stood and gazed in mounting disappointment as this perfect man was about to glide out of my life. He quickly shot his head out and said ‘You are beautiful’.

With that the train sped off. No compliment has been so fine so honest so accepted to this day.

Thoughts of this man occupied me. In my mind he had been heading to Rockaway where he lived in an apartment high up that faced the Ocean. We lay on white sheets on a sunlit bed. Bird song, mingled with human passion. Wordless space with no intruding thoughts, just a perfect blend.

In time my Amber Prince faded and the place where life approaches perfection melted into a distant dream to forever be a part of my internal landscape and memory of a desire based on escape to Shangri-La.

I avoided that platform for some time. Reality could never be the dream.

Louise Newman

The L Word

*

I hadn’t known it was possible to cry with laughter while having sex, but it was.

We would spend hours together in bed captivated, talking, laughing, exploring. He had a thing for older women and I had…

What did I have? A new found lust for life since near death from sepsis, choosing – after recovery and ending my long affectionless marriage – to live beyond the rules, to follow the joy. Grasping every precious second. If doing something was more fun than not doing it, I was in. Exhilarated and fascinated to be so close to someone so young was like reliving my lost youth. He was 25, I was 44 and nobody knew.

This shouldn’t be happening and couldn’t last, but just one more week. And another. On paper the age difference was a disaster but together we were magic. It was, fleetingly, so perfect.

Gazing at me intently with his beautiful dark eyes, I would watch his face, holding his look with an unexpected confidence, feeling more connected, seen and adored than I had in years. How I loved to be near him.

Love. That was a word we mustn’t say. ‘Don’t say the L word, can’t go there.’ He was right, of course. Yet I found myself, after only three weeks, wrapped heady in a blanket, watching him step out into the darkness with the words forming in my mouth.

I love you.

I bit my tongue to hold them in, shaken. I was not allowed to fall in love with this one.

I did.

Years later I still think of him. Every. Single. Day. My star-crossed lover. 

Maria James

Standing among thousands…

…near the reflecting pool on the Washington Mall, all words were suddenly knocked out of me. I saw her for the first time in almost a year, and I knew: I loved her. I loved this woman with a depth I had not yet known for anyone, and what I knew about myself fell into pieces and began to reassemble in a different shape.

I didn’t speak again for a week. Protesting with throngs, long night on a bus, and then home, where I retreated to the tiny two-storey tower that was part of our rented attic apartment. Windows all around. Day after day, mounds of wet clay took shape in my hands with an energy I did not know was mine. She was not mine; she was linked to someone else, and anyway, this turmoil was about me, not her, not really.

My art professor looked at the pieces, and at me, back and forth, silently. Exposed, vulnerable. I knew. I couldn’t have made anything else.

At the gaping firebox of the full kiln, my friends and I stoke wood into flames for 24 hours, heat melting the hairs around our foreheads. Stars above, searing orange within. Shakuhachi flute playing somewhere in the dark. Smoke-enveloped, soot-marked, stories shared. Silence.

A long day’s wait for cooling, and then we gently pull the warm bricks out of the wall. Inside, the pieces I made in the tower have blown into unrecognizable bits; air and passion having expanded in bubbles within and exploded, flinging shards against the bricks. It was exactly the right ending. Heated to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, so much raw emotion could do nothing else. I tossed the fragments into the shard pile, and moved on.

Amy Boyd

I thought I’d write about sex…

…I once had a lot but not now, and although they say that if I stop looking, people will flock to my door, I can’t and they aren’t. Anyway, now I’m all consumed with getting my book published.

I still am, after all this time.

It would be easier if I let it go, let it lie under a hedge like all the balls that have ever rolled down the hill, unclaimed, in Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking. Or let it float out to sea and just watch it getting heavier, changing colour and sinking slowly, unnecessary. But I simply cannot. I am giving up a nice life for this, I am risking penury for the thrill of penning.

Many women through the ages have shown their desire to write. Radclyffe Hall worked on her first book, aptly named The Unlit Lamp, for 3 years; Patricia Highsmith used a nom de plume, Claire Morgan, for The Price of Salt. (That was the book that excited the film, Carol.) Like Hall, M A Caws wrote that Vita Sackville-West’s ‘essential quality was her great and lasting courage.’ I know what lies behind that: desire.

We’re old lovers now, my reworked manuscript and I. Dedicated but no less desirous. I still wake in the night in the ecstasy of an idea, I continue to fondle her paragraphs until they’re all spent and we sleep again, only to wake early and stroke her page, coax meaning from her, tempt the topic all over again. I am lascivious for phrase and metaphor, I quiver for words which describe and portray, I am simply voracious. Can I sustain such desire? Two years in and we’re getting a little tired of our own company, we’re considering a threesome – she, me and, ooh, an agent?

Tamsin Grainger

Daydream

It’s always summer term when we meet

on the sidewalk outside the library, she invites me

to an impromptu dinner, ‘So we can discuss your writing

without the normal interruptions.’

I drive her the short way home

since her bag hangs heavy on her shoulders

and my car is parked steps from where we stand.

Behind her door we shed our sandals

she opens a bottle of wine

hands me a glass and encourages me to sit.

‘Don’t worry—I remember

you don’t like cheese,’ she jokes

and that she remembers this small bit said in passing

stops me mid-sip. We share a long gaze

until my face flushes and I look away.

A lock of hair falls across my eyes and

the slow motion tumble begins.

We are alone but she shakily whispers it as

she tucks the errant wave behind my ear:

‘I want you in my bed.’

The flush rushes down my neck and

further still when her hand comes to rest

in the V of my shirt.

I can’t meet her eyes so

I settle on the arthritic knuckles of

her other hand that reaches for mine and

pulls me to follow.

It’s easy to follow her

to undress her, let her undress me.

The extra pounds from illness

and inactivity are gone.

My hair is wild and long

instead of medication-thinned.

This daydream doesn’t demand the

energy of real-life fumbling and sexual pursuit.

I am free of real-life’s inflammatory cytokines that

make washing and dressing a burden.

Here

I am wanted.

I grow incandescent

beneath my professor’s gaze.

More alive with the pass of her lips

over my heated skin.

Stronger with each touch.

Imagination’s magic:

I map and explore her body

without exhaustion.

Amy Millios

I wanted to belong somewhere.

Belonging was promised to me by a teacher who knew I didn’t fit in at school, although he didn’t know that I was not wanted at home either: I would find people like me at university.

Keen to escape, I went as far away as I could, to be forever reminded by my family that I was the one who left my roots – which were as weak as a weeds, and as fickle, as it turned out.

Most people had come a short train journey from London. Having grown up together, they had ready-made social connections that were hard to break into. They went home at weekends to friends and family and marvelled over the existence of sheep in the fields next to campus. As a Welsh girl, far from the sheep-strewn fields of home, there was little common ground.

The middle-class kids had an ease in each other’s company that I could never feel, but could observe with detachment and judge as superficial, immature and lazy. I didn’t have the safety net that would catch them when they fell, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it. The few working-class students had either arrived via grammar schools, working their way up to the position of Head Girl, or were chancers, wheeler dealers: things I had wanted to be, but circumstance or temperament failed me.

Belonging wasn’t meant for me. It was tiring to try for it and devastating when it wasn’t felt. Being shameful to admit to (this was also not – I discovered – a good strategy for attracting invitations to belong).

I learnt to pretend.

I belonged everywhere, so no-one could see I belonged nowhere.

I danced in the dark.

Laura

The forces that forged the earth, its collisions and crashings, fused the very molecules that are me. My primal desire reaches deep into nature’s fold, is carved into my human rock and embedded in my psyche. I am Fire. I am Earth. I am Water. I am Air. I cannot deny my lineage. I cannot exile myself from nature, it would be a betrayal of my origins.

Everyday, I breath in the truth of who I am and expel the mystery from within. The magic thread that binds us all together was blown in on a cosmic wind; one long breath of life. I have a calling echoing through my DNA strands; a desire to feel beauty and to articulate the songs of nature. A thirst of mind that feels the ebb and flow of the earth’s natural forces; a sense of gut inner knowing.

I wrote a letter to the spirit of the land, exposed my true colours and gave breath to my desires. I pronounced my unfaltering longing to seek out its secrets; walk gently upon its mantle, leave no footprints and tread softly in the footsteps of Edward Thomas.

The Green Man came for me, tore me from my concrete bunker; whispered rainbows in my ears and re-tuned my broadcast and sharpened my eyes. My frame of reference is the rock I stand upon, the seasonal changes that twist and stretch my perceptions. I have no sense of isolation, only a feeling of unity and connection to the equinoxes and solstices that rhythm the land

Steve Harrison

The lichen, yellow-splattered, blooms on the detritus of the already mottled rock…

…it doesn’t seek permission to grow here; it doesn’t check if its presence is having an impact on others, if it is worthy of their company or their notice; it doesn’t justify its existence in any manner at all. I scramble down through the long grass of the headland to sit with the rocks who hold up the more fantastic lives of the moss and of the lichen – the rocks who hold their space in silence and with a solidity of being that I understand. Here are my kin. I press my hands onto the rock and seek a steadiness in this connection I feel – for I, too, hold up the lives of others; I, too, allow others to flourish on the foundation of my existence.

And yet … and yet … 

I find myself yearning for the courage to be the lichen, to have what is within be seen without. There is a life that is being lived inside my mind, a life that I have always revelled in in glorious anonymity, safe and steady as rock. But now I am feeling such anger and frustration at the disparity between the world of the mind and the world of obligations – that ‘real’ world where it seems that I am so necessary to the daily functioning of others and yet so invisible to them at the same time. I look to the rocks, to the lichen, to the words on the page. I cleave to solitude and books and quiet. I dwell in the possibility of one day living my inner world here in this one – of being both the lichen and the rock. I don’t know how to do this yet.

emily Tamas

PRE-NEST

I am from a long line of women who never got good at themselves, women whose personality changed depending on audience, women of undiagnosed depression, women of this is just how life is, women of it could be worse, women who tried to speak their minds like the books say but no one listened and they didn’t know what to do with that sense of being stuck. Women who put up with it. Women who maybe dreamed, but tried to avoid it. Women who gained weight or didn’t, prayed to Catholic saints or sent money to Oral Roberts or played Jesus Loves Me on the organ and sang along or didn’t. Women who sat until the arm of the couch wore out watching soap operas. Women who smoked Winstons and Marlboro Lights and, in an effort to save money, but not her life, generic ultra lights. Women who have been told to wait. Women who have been told they were crazy. Women who have been told to be quiet. Women who only get asked about what’s for dinner. Women who learned to sneak packages in the house. Women who learned to count calories and keep their stomachs sucked in, sucked in tight, and to suck opinions right in there too. Women who learned to be silenced. Women who learned not to mess up the cupboards, to keep things tidy. Women who learned not to be late. Women who learned to keep the kids quiet. Women who worked hard to not get upset him. Women who were eager to please. Women who said yes, just not to themselves. Women who asked for permission. Women who didn’t follow through. Women who hid. Women who swallowed tears whole and whose bodies turned anger into cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease, obesity.

NEST

I became the Goddess of Responsibility. I will make the bread and simmer the soup. I will cut vegetables, so many vegetables. I will give the kids a schedule and a chore chart. I will get approval from teachers and paediatricians.

Why do you care so much what the pediatrician says? My husband asks. You know you are a good mom.

It’s still nice to be validated, I explain, you don’t understand what it’s like to not have your level of confidence.

I will start eating breakfast and throw out the scale. I will make eggs for my son every morning because cereal would never last him until lunch. I will make kale smoothies. I will keep track of story hour schedules and school schedules and hockey schedules and soccer schedules and musical schedules and immunization schedules. I will read stories before bed. I will buy the gifts and get them wrapped. I will make sure bills are mailed on time and drawers are full of clean socks. I will make sure the animals are fed. I will get them to the bus stop on time. I will make them laugh every day and I will make sure we have plenty of insurance. I will always have a Plan B.

SHEilA Knell
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