Every once in a while, I go to Banff to work. It’s a place to get outside of myself, to be struck dumb by wonder. On the last morning of a recent trip there, I got up early and went for a walk. As I stood on a small slope watching the clouds settle around Mount Rundle like a blanket, something moved on the road below me. It was large and four-legged, a grey shape with a curving tail—a wolf? After I watched it trot several paces along the road then slip into the forest, I walked back the way I’d come. I was thinking of Russian novels and fear and Omar Sharif, in that order, and then, because it was morning, of coffee, and perhaps because of the grandness of the animal and the surrounding mountains, I chose a restaurant that was outside of my usually modest needs. I entered through carved wooden doors into a room with upholstered chairs and large, wood-mullioned windows. The room looked lived in, but cared for: the kind of place that makes me feel expansive and at the same time slightly unworthy. I had been standing there a few moments when a man in neat black pants and a white shirt approached me. His hair was grey at the temples, and he had fine wrinkles around his dark eyes and two narrow lines next to his mouth. “Are you all right?” he asked me. I couldn’t answer at first for wondering if it was an existential question or if I should tell him about the wolf. It was still early, and I was in that state where things aren’t quite certain. Maybe it hadn’t really been a wolf. Maybe he wasn’t really a waiter. I asked would it be all right if I had just a coffee, and he said, “Of course,” and pointed to the newspapers on a table nearby. “Help yourself,” he said.
The man never smiled, and we didn’t speak more than a few words, but he appeared at my side every time my small cup was nearly empty, so I began to think of him as a person tuned to my thoughts. It could be I was simply enjoying having an attractive man serve me, or it could be that there was something in the quality of his attention that was true and real. Whatever it was, I became aware of the man, and then of desire and the way it can appear out of nowhere, then settle in, like a small song or a person humming.
The hum lasted all the way back to my hotel and made it into my notebook, and then it ended. While it was there, I felt buoyant. I felt things were possible that otherwise would be impossible, and I felt lighter and clearer and happier all round. My ideas about family and work were all still in their cherished places in my mind—I wasn’t dreaming of running off with the man with the fine eyes and the lines by his mouth—not exactly. But the idea of it made me feel new again, remade.
I don’t know if it’s possible to determine where or why a hum begins. Perhaps there’s a level of recognition that goes beyond the surface construction of self. Maybe I didn’t have my outside self on yet that morning. The wolf may have shaken it loose. Then too, the man had asked me if I was all right in a way my husband might have, with a familiar note in his voice and his head tilted to one side as if to get a clearer view of me.
Some years ago I took part in group therapy. There were several bits of homework assigned. One was to stare into a partner’s eyes for an extended period of time without talking. The therapists paired us up, and we did this first with the opposite gender, and then with the same. In both instances we acted as if it was a staring contest and made Ha-ha-isn’t-this-silly faces at one another. But with silence you can’t carry that off very long, and soon the nakedness of it feels shocking and strange. Each time there were tears, empathy, recovery, a period of reasonably comfortable “conversation” and then out of nowhere, unimagined and unlooked for, desire would appear. The fierceness of it and its reliable and startling presence was disturbing to all of us. It happened in each of the pairings, whether people were of the same sexual orientation or not. The worst was not being able to look away, having to negotiate an “Oh god I’m so sorry I don’t really want that and I’m sure you don’t either” sort of conversation without saying a word. It was excruciating and delicate and strange, and by the end of it we all agreed that if we went about staring into other people’s eyes for any length of time without talking, we’d want to have sex with just about the whole world. But that wasn’t the point. According to our deeply twisted therapists (not really, but definitely they had me wondering at times. You want me to do what?), the idea was to teach us about our common responses to intimacy, to learn that we could survive them, even fall in love a little, but still have our lives.
Brain cells communicate by shooting chemicals and electricity into the synapse between them. The communicating arm of a cell, called the axon, looks like a tail. The chemicals that are propelled through this tail by electrical pulses are picked up by small nubbins called dendritic boutons on the next cell. It’s not exactly intercourse—not exactly like the spawning of salmon with the females laying their unfertilized eggs and the males spreading clouds of sperm over them—but it does sound pretty sexual: ideas spraying through our minds like ejaculate. Which makes me wonder: are we like cells walking around, and is the membrane of our skull a sufficient barrier, or are some electrochemical messages so powerful they spill out into the air?
One time at a speaking event with friends, we were all standing at the edge of the crowd. It was dark, the speaker was riveting, our minds leaned towards his next word. I knew who was behind me. I could feel him there. Not touching. But the space between us, the synapse, was charged. After, he smiled and put his arm around me, gave my shoulders a friendly squeeze, and we returned to our neutral friendship and our partners.
A while ago, the paid hands of a massage therapist drew sighs from me. I lay on the table, half naked, my back exposed to air, his hands pressing on me. No need for words, no need for me to do anything but receive his touch. “Breathe evenly,” he had instructed me at the beginning of the session. “Same length of breath in as breath out.” Fifteen minutes in, and I was putty. Naked putty, my breasts pressed into the warm sheet beneath me. Near the end, he held the covering sheet up like a tent and stood back. “Roll over,” he said. Then he placed the sheet over me and used his fingers on my clavicles, the tops of my shoulders, the spaces between my upper ribs. My body fell away. I was the places he touched, no more.
“You’re all talk,” my husband complains. It’s true. I am. But talk’s good, isn’t it? I love talk. I love the way words slide in, stir cilia, drop like small stones in the brain and set off ripples there. Years ago I was working as a sort of secretary, “sort of” because I wasn’t very good at it. Every once in a while there’d be a voice on the phone that would set off an answering hum in my body. It was just sound, not anything the voice was saying, but I would have to be careful not to drop my own voice to match it, not to speak back with my vowels dripping.
When we have orgasms, our minds are flooded with dopamine. Well named. Dope. It’s the happy hormone. The chemical of fireworks and fluffy clouds with bright shimmery outlines. We all love dopamine. If we could shoot up with it and not kill ourselves with happiness, we would. But we can’t. Researchers have tried it with rats. They died (the rats, not the researchers), looking ragged, knocked thin and worn by surfeits of pleasure.
While searching for more information about hormones and sex, I come across a website proclaiming that we’d all live happier, more harmonic lives without orgasm. The writer argues that the hormones that follow the flush of dopamine—oxytocin and prolactin—are designed more to encourage breeding than connection with a lover, and that although oxytocin is sometimes described as the “cuddle” hormone, it’s there during sex more for mechanical than emotional reasons. Oxytocin makes the uterus contract, creating little sucking waves that pull sperm in. Prolactin is the antidote to dopamine; it’s the hormone that stops us from being sex addicts, apparently, and is at its base the thing that makes us get up, get dressed, and go out the door, thinking of the next person we can spread the seed with—or take it in. I find several more writings on the subject of no-orgasm sex—an article in the Huffington Post among them. They all have slightly different interpretations, but the general consensus is that the explosion of dopamine and the ensuing flush of the downer prolactin can be disruptive to relationships. The advice is that it’s better to encourage quieter, more controlled intimacies that build oxytocin levels rather than dopamine explosions. There’s much good in what they say. Who would argue against greater intimacy? I tell my husband about it, and we discuss fireworks and brain bombs, then agree that our vote is for both: intimacy and risk; even so, the no-orgasm article stays in my mind, and the next time, post lovemaking, I’m on alert for prolactin effects. We’re out in the garden, cleaning up before a trip to a local manure sale. He says something innocuous but typical about the shrubs at the north end of the vegetable garden. They shade his plants, he says. “No they don’t,” I reply. “How can they?” It’s an old argument, not important, but the feeling that wells up in me is so strong I wonder what I was thinking to marry him. At the manure sale, young men haul the bags for us. One of them mistakes another man for my husband and veers towards his car instead of ours. The man is about the right age, but his beard is neatly trimmed, his shirt tucked in, and he has spread tarps, clean and new looking, over the seat and floor of his van. I imagine briefly that the man is my partner, and that my life would be so guided and clean, and I know immediately I would be even more irritated with him than I am with my husband.
Electricity is everywhere. We are electrons with legs. We feel each other through air, click together or are repelled. At a party recently, I was talking to a group of women. The room was crowded. I looked across it and saw my husband talking to a woman I didn’t know. They were at the edge of the crowd, his head bent just slightly towards hers. Something about the angle of his head and their separateness made me look again. We don’t have a jealous marriage. We are secure in one another. Thankfully. Gratefully, secure. So this feeling of my husband’s attention flaring towards someone else was rare. I’m not writing this because it bothered me. I’m writing it because he was fifteen feet away from me, twenty other minds were shooting their own electrochemical stews into the air between us, but I knew. I could feel the lean of his mind towards hers. Later that night, he told me about her, how quickly they’d connected, talking about riding their bikes to work, and then, without thinking how it sounded or what he was saying, he sighed, “I could have talked to her all night.”
Buddhism says we are one, all of us connected—as if part of some giant organism, I wonder? During those moments when we recognize someone like ourselves, is it as if we’re seeing a fellow body part? “Ah, there’s another pancreas. I knew it right off, pumping insulin like nobody’s business.” Oneness. I feel it with women too. That rare and instantaneous recognition. What is it we see?
My aging friends and I sometimes sigh over the loss of our youth, of being attractive just for being young and female. We watch men walk past, then joke about our easy hearts, which sway and lean, following the good hard scent of them, the beauty of their muscled legs and easy laughs, the dark notes in their voices and the potential flare of sex in their eyes.
“We’re sluts,” we say, then laugh and change the topic. What else can we do? We’re not likely to be welcomed by these objects of our desire. Our casualness is defensive, or possibly rational. The good thing about age is that eventually you learn that heat will pass, that it doesn’t always have to scorch you the way it did when you were younger, when every flare felt like a direction signal, like you were a plane lost in the night, getting low on gas and desperately searching for a place to land.
The psychologist Jacques Lacan said desire is about emptiness. To have desire, first you have to have emptiness. We don’t see the objects of our desire as beings (or things) separate and whole unto themselves, but as projections of our own yearning. This makes sense. After twenty years together, my husband is steady, a flame that can be both pilot light and conflagration. He tells me that my theory about the woman at the party is misconstrued. “That’s fine. I don’t mind if you put it in your essay, but you’ve got it all wrong.” He’s smiling at me.
I smile back. “No, I don’t. You liked her.”
“Yes, I liked her, but only because she was someone I could talk to at the party. I don’t like parties where I don’t know anyone. She didn’t know anyone either.”
I laugh, thinking how much fun it is to discuss moments of errant flame.
The other day our cat had a seizure. She’s nineteen. I inherited her as a kitten from the same therapists who had given me the staring homework years ago. I heard a clattering sound in the bathroom and found her there on the heat vent, her legs jerking out in spasms, her claws rattling the metal flanges. As her body convulsed and moans issued from deep in her throat, I patted her head and spoke to her gently. My husband and daughter watched from over my shoulder. I felt their sympathy aligning with mine, all of us pouring love towards our cat. Finally the convulsions stopped, and she lay there looking as if she was broken in the middle, her hind end immobilized. Seizures are electrical misfirings in the brain, like lightning. Objects struck by lightning can catch fire or show no signs of burning at all. The cat recovered, pulled herself up from the floor, stumbled and yowled, until I held her in my arms. When I first met my husband I didn’t really see the potential. It took a year, and then I couldn’t look at him sometimes, for fear I might burn right there on the spot.
The wolf had trotted along the edge of the highway for less than a minute, moving in a straight line before something—a thought, a memory or a smell—had drawn it down the slope into the forest. It had looked so certain. Is that what I found so appealing? Or was it the wildness of it, the palpable sense of “other”? The man in the restaurant wasn’t wild exactly, but he was an “other” with sparks and a sense of mystery in his eyes. I wasn’t close enough to the wolf to look into its eyes, thankfully, but I know if I had been, before the fear struck, there would have been a moment of—not desire, don’t read that here—but excitement in its deepest, most ineffable form.