It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out.
—Hamlet (IV, 7)
My first night in Vegas, I dreamt I was making love to a man who was also a bird. It wasn’t surprising that I was dreaming of sex; I had come to Vegas to do research for my second erotic novel. The bird-man was lanky and soft-skinned. He reminded me of a Vietnamese boy I knew at Brown who paid off his college loans by playing blackjack. In my dream I was worried, because I was violating one of the few editorial rules I had been given for my novel-in-progress: no bestiality.
No bestiality, no incest, and no rape are the most common rules in commercial porn. In my first erotic novel, for example, I was allowed to keep the two sisters in the same sauna for the climactic orgy scene, but only after removing the sentence “Bella reached out and softly touched Sophie’s feet.” I was also allowed to keep the scene in which two shoe salesmen penetrated each other with Manolo Blahniks, although a reader in the test group said no one in her right mind would be aroused by that.
In my dream, the bird-man kept fucking me despite my protests that our scene would almost certainly be cut by my editors at St. Martin’s Press. Young bird-men and bird-women appeared, watching us. I looked over at a bird-girl in a red lace bra and was overwhelmed with embarrassment, but then I thought, Who cares what she thinks about me?
Sin City was already working its magic. In real life, I am tortured by what others think. I’m worrying about what you’re thinking right now. If I could add up all the hours I spend worrying that people are laughing at me the minute I leave the room, it would prove to be the biggest waste of time in my life, edging out masturbation, Facebook, and learning French.
I was six years old when my mother found me playing Wonder Woman in the nude with my uncle David. The whole thing was very innocent. My autistic uncle and I were great friends and spent hours together tape-recording burps, listening to an album called Forty Funky Hits, and playing Wonder Woman, which involved spinning around until we got so dizzy we fell down.
There were visitors in the other room, and my mother was angry at my wild behavior. As a sort of punishment, I suppose—she would have her first manic episode three years later and was already behaving erratically—she carried me kicking and screaming into the kitchen, where she held me aloft, naked, before the room of grown men. Everybody laughed. Six is that odd age at which innocence can turn to shame in an instant. I finally shook myself free and ran up to the attic, where I collapsed. My other childhood memories have faded over time, but this remains seared into my mind in a permanent present tense.
Emily Dickinson wrote, in "XCVII":
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
Reverie is an essential thing for writing, particularly essays, the form closest to a rambling walk. Yet reverie requires safety, and sometimes my mind feels less like a prairie and more like a construction zone. I take neurotic alternate routes to avoid damaged areas, just as I take a circuitous path to the Bergen Street subway stop to avoid the laundromat where I once accidentally sent in my dildo with the sheets. (It was a particularly embarrassing dildo called “Nubby G” that was supposed to make me female ejaculate but didn’t and was returned to me in a small plastic bag atop the clean laundry. I don’t know if they washed it.)
Sharing shame seems to lessen it, which is probably why I write porn. The woman I was staying with in Vegas turned out to be a prostitute. I had found her on Craigslist and paid $200 cash to stay a week with her and her twin, incontinent corgies. When I told her I wrote erotica, she showed me her old photo albums. She had toured the country as a headliner at strip clubs and worked briefly as a NFL cheerleader, but she never quite broke through.
I looked over at a bird-girl in a red lace bra and was overwhelmed with embarrassment, but then I thought, Who cares what she thinks about me?
“It’s hard to imagine that’s me,” she kept saying.
I lied and said she didn’t look that different. She was pushing 60 now, worn around the edges and at a weight where her fake breasts looked real. She showed me a misty nude, stretched out on the rocks in the desert outside Vegas, and said if I wanted I could use it for the cover of my novel. My heart broke a little. I told her I didn’t have control over the covers. She showed me a dominatrix shoot.
“I wore that wig during my live show, too, until I accidentally set it on fire with a flamethrower.” She hesitated. “It gets pretty raunchy on the next page.”
“I don’t mind a little pink,” I said, trying to sound cool by using porn lingo.
“I guess I do,” she said. “I guess I mind pink.”
The next shot showed her lying on her back with her legs wide, reaching down to spread herself with her fingers. I could feel the heat of her shame filling the space between us on the couch.
“That must have been hard to do,” I said.
“Yeah. I went outside and cried.” She shrugged. “But they make you. You just have to put on your game face and keep going.”
As she closed the album, she smiled. “You know, it helps to show someone these. It makes it better.”
We went upstairs to sleep, she to her two corgies and I to my bird-man dream, at the end of which the bird-man rolled me onto my back and reached down to spread me wide apart.
“Sarah,” he said. “This is better.”
He pressed down into me so that we were chest to chest and forehead to forehead, and I woke up filled with the gratitude and wonder that only comes from an adult wet dream. I stepped over the diminutive mounds of corgie shit in the hall and went downstairs to make coffee.
If there is any way to heal shame, I think it is through penetration. It comes from letting someone else’s soul enter your own. Souls are like birds, which makes this a risky business. They might sing you a song. They might shit on you. They might give you an exotic disease. You just have to put on your game face and keep going, let shame say what it will.