Two One-Night Stands, 26 Years Apart
Mama, sorry, this one is definitely not for you. One you can read coming tomorrow or Wednesday.
Saturday, November 7, 2015: Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, La Cienega and 3rd Street, 8;30PM.
I shouldn’t have had the garlic hummus. Seven hours after an epic Israeli Shabbat lunch, the taste remains in my mouth. I’ve brushed my teeth twice and chewed half a pack of Mentos, but to no avail.
If I’m lucky, after 26-and-a-half years, it won’t matter.
Joanna walks in, gives a little wave. I rise. We hug. Her hair smells like mango, and I worry instantly my cologne is not disguising the garlic. My heart is pounding, and, not for the first time today, I wonder if I’m thinking with my 21 or 48 year-old self.
I buy her tea, and grab myself a Perrier. We sit, smile. I reach for her hand, and she squeezes it, warm and tight.
“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she says softly.
Tuesday, March 28, 1989 — Berkeley
I am two months away from finishing my undergrad degree at Cal. I have a senior honors thesis on John Wyclif to finish. I have a fiancée who lives in Los Angeles to whom I am chronically unfaithful. I have a worsening drinking problem.
I usually drink alone, on the roof of my building.
I also have some wonderful housemates with whom I live in a co-op on the Berkeley northside. And Joanna, just turned 22 and a senior at UC Irvine, has come to spend some of her spring break visiting one of those housemates, her high school friend Mary.
I meet Joanna on Monday, and on Tuesday night, Mary invites me to her room for drinks. It’s just the three of us, drinking vodka, Kahlua, and beer. At some point, Mary makes herself scarce.
I remember Joanna’s shoulder next to mine. I lean into her, a little tipsy, turned on. The lean is diagnostic, and my answer comes. Her lips find the side of my neck and linger.
“I have a fiancée,” I blurt out. I’m not trying to stop Joanna. It’s just that I’ve begun to learn that it’s wiser to come clean up front. I’ve had the You asshole, why didn’t you tell me first? speech a few times now, and I hate that.
I like sex, but I like being liked even more.
Joanna kisses me again. “There’s nothing wrong with just making each other feel good.”
We’re only 21, but we’re old enough to figure out that’s hardly true. But when you’re tipsy, horny, and grasping for any reason to justify the indefensible, mutually agreed absurdities are all you need.
I exhale with relief, and turn to kiss her.
In 1989, in my circles at Cal, we didn’t call it “hooking up.” We called it “groveling,” and though there were other names for a casual sexual encounter, that was the one that stuck. “Who did you grovel with?” we’d ask, or “Was that a fun grovel?” or say, “She’s not my girlfriend, just someone I grovel with sometimes.”
This grovel lasts seven hours. Joanna kisses my neck around 11PM, and I leave Mary’s room around 6AM. (Mary generously sleeps elsewhere.)
There had been grovels before and there would be many grovels after, but this one, two days after Easter and two months before graduation, is one that would stick in my consciousness for decades.
The thing about having had a great many sexual partners is that you remember some so much better than others. There are people I know I’ve forgotten entirely; there are people I know I slept with but could not summon the details even with a gun to my head; there are a handful who are emblazoned on my consciousness. Joanna is very much in this small final group.
After a long time, recollections distill down to snapshots. I remember that first kiss on the neck. I remember the way she pulled her t-shirt over her head, forgetting her glasses were still on her face. They went flying across the room, and I rose up to retrieve them. I remember Joanna held me back. “I don’t need them this minute, Hugo.”
I remember the way Joanna came the first time as I stroked her, raising her hips and shuddering and saying not the usual “Fuuuuck” or an “Oh My God,” but a surprised and breathless, “We got it!”
“You can’t be inside me,” she says a few minutes later. “I’m too Catholic for that.” We both laugh. Our first conversation had been about religion.
“That’s okay,” I tell her, full of excitement and college-boy bravado. “I’ll make you come till dawn.”
The thing I remember best from that night is how Joanna laughed when she heard that, warm and throaty and ready. “Holding you to it, boy.”
We are as good as our word.
When I walk out of her room at 6AM, without a second of sleep, we hug goodbye. “Have a safe drive home,” I tell her.
I don’t get her number, and that’s deliberate. To follow up when sober would be to compound the sin of infidelity; as long as there’s no chance of further contact, I can pretend it was a drunken lapse in judgment. And of course, there is no email or social media in 1989. This is how a grovel is supposed to end, with a hazy, happy memory lingering on the skin and nothing more.
November 7, 2015
“I can’t believe this is happening either,” I say in the Coffee Bean.
Joanna assesses me. “Are you sure this is good for you?”
Like many others, Joanna witnessed my 2013 public self-immolation in real time. She doesn’t want to trigger me back into something dark.
I am trembling with eagerness. “I’m good. We’re good. Shall we go?”
She smiles. “Thought you’d never ask.”
I’ve spent years thinking about Joanna. She is permanent marker where others are watercolors that wash off. The images of her body arching and writhing beneath my fingers has been a perennial “go-to” in my private erotic memory bank. In my fantasies, I am inside her at last.
Knowing her last name, I’ve googled over a few times over the years to no avail. This time, I search for her on Facebook. Joanna’s face is instantly recognizable, two decades on. I friend request her; she accepts within moments.
We banter a bit, and I ask her out for coffee. She doesn’t live far.
We meet. In 2009, we are in our early 40s, starting to show our age. Joanna has never married; I’m on my fourth, with a new baby. The chemistry is palpable, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is memory and how much of that is the present.
She tells me she’s gotten off to the memory of that night for years. I grin, and tell her I’ve done so even more often. We blush and laugh.
We part with an awkward hug. I sense what’s coming.
That night, Joanna messages to say she can’t see me again. She has a long history with married or taken men — including my 21-year-old self — and has pledged to never cross that line going forward. There’s too much chemistry between us, she says, and too much pent-up fantasy.
For the next six years, we are Facebook friends. We comment on the other’s posts. We don’t dare meet.
November 7, 2015
In my tiny apartment, we undress each other. We are both nervous, as if we are college kids again without the anxiety-flattening assistance of vodka and Kahlua. As she unbuttons my shirt, I warn her about my scars.
“You’ve been sleeping with women who weren’t even born when we first got together. How do you think I feel?”
She is teasing, mostly.
They say the body regenerates itself every seven years. We’ve been through nearly four regeneration cycles since we were last naked together, so in a real sense, we have never known each other before. I think of this as I kiss her, caress her arms and her neck, feel her hand slide across my belly.
These are the same people who touched in 1989. These are not the same bodies.
It is completely unfamiliar, which is both relieving and, strangely, disappointing.
When the moment comes, I suspend myself over her. We look at each other.
“Still too Catholic?” I ask with a grin.
“You’re impossible,” she groans, and takes my erection in her hand, guiding me.
I’d thought about sliding into Joanna for years, and I want to look at her as I do so. But at the instant it happens, we both squeeze our eyes shut.
48 year-old Joanna and 48 year-old Hugo are fond of each other. This is hot in the here and the now, but it’s not as hot as what we’ve been holding on to well over half our lives. We close our eyes because we’re each retreating to our memories of a night more than half a lifetime ago.
This isn’t about a hookup between two middle-aged (and at last, single) people. This is about that most overused and tiresome of concepts: closure.
A few hours later, I walk Joanna to her car. We thank each other and laugh and hug, but there’s a melancholy in the air as we say goodbye and promise to see each other soon.
It’s not that the 2015 sex was disappointing. Far from it. The adult Hugo and the adult Joanna are far more skilled than their drunken younger selves. It’s that this now iconic memory is both diluted and enhanced by a second one. Middle-aged Hugo and Joanna had playful, warm, tender sex – the kind lots of people have the first time they sleep together, if they’re lucky. As good and welcome as that is, it cannot compete with the hazy, elusive memory of what was.
March 29, 1989
When I leave Mary’s room, it’s just getting light outside. I have an 8AM class — Viennese Literature — I don’t want to miss. I consider a shower, but I don’t want to wash the smell of Joanna’s body off my skin.
Besides, I am high.
At 21, I already know what sex can do to my head.
In a famous Bruce Cockburn track, he sings that he wants to “kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” I’ve kicked at the darkness a thousand ways, but in my world, only sex makes the darkness bleed. I’ve known this since I was 17, and next to my family, it is my truest thing.
I decide I won’t shower. I’ll go read on campus until class starts. I grab my backpack from my room and pop into the co-op kitchen.
Eugen, a Romanian engineering grad student, is the only one there, making coffee. I dance up behind him, and unable to control myself, throw my arms around him and kiss his cheek.
He growls, but indulgently. “Too happy too early, Hugo.”
“I love you, Eugen,” I say, as I spin in a circle and grab a bagel for the road.
“Of course you do,” he sighs.
I inhale Joanna’s scent from my own skin. “I do! I do!”
I burst out the front door into the foggy morning. I take the front steps, three at a time.