Thank you one and all!
To the people who changed my life
For my ex-wife Pat…
to celebrate your Long Night’s Journey into Day
Without honesty we are lost.
Before introducing Pat, it's worth taking a few minutes to set the stage and introduce the cast. Back in the 1950s Pat and I were part of the laid back Berkeley scene – not the wildly beat, compulsively druggie contingent, but a casual, relaxed extended family who migrated with easy familiarity from coffee house to coffee house and from bed to bed. Our corporate sex life was friendly and rather conversational in tone. Mostly they were good conversations – we were generous lovers. Violent, agressive, sado-masochistic sex? I never experienced it, or anything remotely close. Even in relationships that ended unhappily, in bed we were rarely less than decently civilized.
The pill wasn’t yet available and so most of the girls I was acquainted with used a diaphram. Venereal diseases weren’t a problem among us, aids hadn’t yet appeared, and there was general agreement that condoms were a psychological as well as a physical barrier.
In the course of my amatory adventures I suddenly met the body of my dreams. Chris worked in the Cal architecture library and we shared a love of the wonderful buildings of Bernard Maybeck. We also shared a highly active libido, but Chris was determined that it would only be satisfied in the marriage bed. I was not prepared to suffer the dry agonies of baffled lust and so I proposed to her and was immediately accepted. The fact that she was a devout Christian Scientist was a detail that I chose to ignore—love would find a way around such minor differences.
The army draft had finally caught up with me and so we were married immediately, just three weeks before I was to go off to basic training. Penetration proved to be too painful and so her religion was put on hold while she submitted to surgery, thus delaying the magic moment even further. When it finally came, the residual pain made consummation rather less than glorious.
During basic training I started to receive letters from her that were full of quotations from Mary Baker Eddy. I found her earnest exhortations decidedly counter-erotic, and I was unable to seal her lips with a kiss. Certain irrelevancies disturbed her so much that I tactfully (!?) suggested psychiatric help. That did it. She divorced me within half a year and I never saw her again. I give her credit that at least she did not try to prolong her army dependent allowance.
When I got my discharge a couple of years later and returned to Berkeley, a friend told me that Chris, before going to a library job in the mid-west, had been seduced by the rather greasy rubber-lipped Cal student that I had taken Joyce away from four years before. She was so fastidious—how could she let him touch her? I prefer to think that he got more pleasure from the revenge than from the act itself, and she little or none.
My counter-revenge came a decade later when I encountered him and his new bride at an academic conference in London. I looked steadily at him, then at his wife, then back at him. His eyes were brimming with abject terror. I smiled, wished them happiness, and went to my seat. I hope he had to change his underpants.
When I came back to Berkeley from the army in 1956, my first regular but not exclusive companion was Carol, a High Church poetess (the word was still permissible back then) one of whose Christmas carols was later published in the American Anglican hymnal. Tagging along to one of her North Beach poetry readings got me into Jerry Stoll's and Evan S. Connell's wonderfully evocative collection of Beat Era photos, I AM A LOVER [that's me lower left].
My ardent poetess was one of the few women I’ve known who, when it came to oral sex, believed that it was just as blessed to give as to receive. This she did with a delicate finesse such as I never again encountered. In return I taught her how to masturbate manually, without the aid of a mechanical contrivance. Would you believe that this elementary skill was not already part of her repertoire? In these ecologically conscientious times, such sustainable methods are particularly to be encouraged.
Finally, after all that prelude, we get to the principle theme. Pat was a long-time mutual friend of Carol's with whom I ultimately ended up in bed on a good night during which, without any particular effort, we achieved a very satisfactory simultaneous orgasm. (Later, alas, she took to faking it.) We set up joint housekeeping shortly thereafter and discovered that our tastes in food coincided as well – it was to be a marriage made, if not in heaven, at least in the kitchen. It's no accident that Alex Comfort chose to call his book of amatory recipes The Joy of Sex, an echo of Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking. Section titles in both books included "Starters" and "Main Courses". Alex concludes with "Sauces and Pickles"—the act itself is assumed to include its own just desserts. In the kitchen, JOC was our bible, but Alex's book didn't come out until 1972, and so in the bedroom we were on our own. It wasn't yet the Comfort zone.
Together we took a large old house in lowland Berkeley (2417 California St., Ernie Lowe reminds me). It had a generous open L-shaped living-dining area with a hallwaybetween and well-worn but beautiful unpainted redwood doors, skirting boards and picture rails. The wall space in between I papered with grass cloth bought cheaply by the yard from Cost Plus. (The close-up is from a photo taken a few years later by Ernie, my first KPFA boss, who took over the house when Pat and I moved out.) It would become a favourite race track for our Siamese cats, who chased each other in parabolic curves up and down its claw-shredded surfaces.
My long-suffering father, who had sanctified my first brief abortive marriage, consented to officiate again, which he did in a private ceremony with a few family and friends in our big comfortable living room. (It happened about ten feet from where this phoyo was taken.) I don’t know how he felt about it; he never delivered a private sermon to me about my habitual changes of partners along with my concomitant lapses in judgement. The latter were heavily influenced by the vestigial remnants of my upbringing, which dictated that sex and marriage were necessary bedfellows.
My marriage to Pat went along smoothly and happily until we started to get experimental. She had a long-standing desire for a mixed-doubles night with a couple she had known from her Radcliffe days. He was a high-raking naval officer and she was—well, I suppose, chief of navel operations.
Pat was so dedicated to this endeavour that she purchased an expensive new king-sized bed for the occasion. I went along with the program, although with no particular enthusiasm. When the night came, I was slightly surprised to find that, when faced with the unpleasant necessity, I was able to perform all the various operations as required with no emotional involvement whatsoever, either positive or negative. Had I missed my calling?
Both our bed-guests were middle-aged, rather overweight and, to my taste, singularly unattractive—for me, it was a love feast motivated solely by marital duty. The next morning we had a civilized but socially somewhat formal breakfast and they departed, never to return. I wondered whether all their mixed-couple nights were equally uninspired and uninspiring—a search for a Holy Grail that proved to be perpetually empty.
That was only a one-off—things got more confused when Pat and my best friend Vern started making the beast with two backs. Vern had just introduced me to the songs of Jacques Brel, whose first American LP had just come out on Epic. His heart-wrenching Ne me quitte pas took on a whole new multilayered significance!
Pat and I had given up making love some time before, but suddenly she insisted on a night of unprotected sex and would give birth slightly less than nine months later to a boy who looked rather like Vern. Meanwhile, I was getting deliciously close to Claire, a young Cambridge graduate from a distinguished English family who had rented a room from us and whom Vern fancied rather more than he did Pat. Together the four of us trooped off to San Francisco to see the newly released La Dolce Vita. We all came away none the wiser.
Pat's best friend, Silvia, was very sympathetic to us both. She spent countless hours in helpful counselling. Her sympathy for me was so heartfelt that her comforting embraces gradually evolved from vertical to horizontal.
Does this sound complicated? It gets worse. By this time I was training volunteer announcers at KPFA and I suddenly took off with one of them in our family car for a wild couple of days and nights driving up the coast road towards Canada, in the course of which we invented several new ways of doing it in the back seat. She was a chirpy little flautist—she’s still a music teacher and children’s entertainer in the East Bay, though not quite so little. Not surprisingly, when I returned I was not welcome at home and so I took up temporary residence in my parents’ trailer. How non-judgementally supportive they always were—it couldn’t have done my mother’s ulcers any good!
I later took a flat for a while with my flautist. She was subject to migraine attacks for which the only cure, she insisted, was for me to screw her blind. I was always happy to oblige.
In the course of all this feverish activity, Pat and I had been piling up wasted hours and huge bills with a marriage councillor. When we split up we agreed to share the cost, but when I moved to London shortly thereafter I discovered that she had somehow contrived for the whole of it to be taken out of the bank account I had set up to support me while I was trying to find work. Suddenly I found myself, as the saying goes, f*cked and far from home.
Move the calendar forward a couple of years. I’m newly married to Mary and we’re living in a basement flat at Marble Arch. The front door intercom buzzes. It’s Pat, come all the way to London to ask my forgiveness. What???!!! I refuse to let her in. She camps out on our doorstep, holding us prisoner. Finally we go upstairs, make a dash for our car and drive away as she beats with her fists on the windows.
After a couple of days' phone calls I agree to meet her. Our friend Eric advises neutral territory, so I suggest the Festival Hall café. Face to face, Pat is quietly reasonable and explains that since our separation she has been unable to form a sexual relationship with another man and that she had decided the only answer was to come all the way to London on a Lourdes-like penitential pilgimage and beg my forgiveness for what she had done to me.
I am deeply touched—such behaviour only takes place in fairy tales. I readily grant her request and ask for her forgiveness in return. We part better friends than we had been for years before our separation. A few months later she writes to me that she’s happily remarried, living in Seattle and no longer sleepless.
Some years later I’m there on tour with Electric Phoenix. By this time her husband has died and she has decided to take Holy Orders. She’s already been ordained a deacon. It’s Easter Saturday and I accompany her on her pastoral calls. She is wonderfully supportive and sympathetic—just the sort of person I’d want to talk to if I had serious personal troubles. On Easter Sunday I go to mass, take communion from her and am given a well-upholstered pastoral embrace. Am I dreaming? The skinny bitch who kicked me out all those years ago has blossomed into a living buddha! My eyes are not dry.
A few years later I’m in Berkeley and we meet again. This time she’s just graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific and is now an ordained priest. We have dinner together, hold hands, and agree that if we were still together, we’d probably make a happy couple. Meanwhile, both Claire and Silvia had also taken holy orders. Is there something about me that drives women into the arms of Jesus?
There’s another little post script. Within a year or so I enquired about my eligibility for Social Security. My employment in America had been so irregular that my records were all over the place and Pat, who was working at a high level in the US federal government at the time, was able to access them and bring them together so that a pension would be forthcoming.
Pat’s immediate superior was a woman who for some unspecified reason had it in for her. She discovered what Pat had been doing, which was strictly illegal, and went for the jugular. I got a desperate letter from Pat, asking me to certify that her efforts were with my permission and for my benefit. I promptly wrote the most fulsome letter of which I was capable, took it to our solicitor, had it notarized and sent it off special delivery. It did the trick – Pat told me later that my letter had saved her job.
After all those years of mutual flagellation, what a wonderful final reciprocity! I have no faith in mysterious forces (other than those inexplicable channels of energy I’ve written about elsewhere in these pages), but out there is something that transformed Pat into a credit to the human race. Whoever or whatever it is, I wish it weren't so niggardly with its favours.
Pat died 18 November 2016. I mourn for her. Her obit on a friend's Facebook page tells me that she had remarried her first husband but makes no acknowledgement of the fact that it is indeed a remarriage. Life is an infinite procession of insolubale mysteries!
John Whiting can be reached HERE