On Intimacy

I lived in Amsterdam for a while, it now feels like a different lifetime, perched in the attic of a Flemish house along Watergraafsmeer. The rest of the three-storey building accommodated the owner, a lady of Polish descent, and her rubicund daughter. They would have a bath together every evening, screaming and splashing each other with water, while at night the Polish lady would go on solitary drinking bouts, mourning her departed spouse… My room, with its slanting ceiling, was sparsely furnished with nothing but a bed, a table and a chair. There was a CD player, too, and a few CD's I kept listening to during the first days of my stay there, until I came to know them by heart. Outside my window the rain kept pouring down like I'd never seen it before, in a yellowish sort of perpetual twilight, and it was to go on like that for months on end. Loneliness was driving me out of my mind. While at the faculty, I would teach elementary Romanian to a small number of students. During the evenings, when I was going out, I would walk for hours through the city, a dripping umbrella held above my head. I would follow the semicircular canals, cross the arching bridges, get lost down narrow lanes with tiny shops arousing my suspicion… As I was wearing my hair hideously long and had a leather jacket on, I always got accosted by marijuana dealers, mostly blacks and Asians, who would shove into my face tiny plastic bags held together with rubber bands. To escape my despondency, I would walk into sordid bars and huddle close to the hot pot-belly stove, steam rising from my clothes as I drank a jeneever on my own, next to the odd Lesbian couple kissing sensually, with a sense of ostentation. I would frequently wander off into the red-light district and merged anonymously with the tide of men ogling the windows, as we milled past bars and erotic-show halls casting the glare of their signs over the sombre flow of the canals crammed with floating homes. Women wearing red gowns and fabulous ultramarine wigs would get hold of my arm on occasions, in an attempt to persuade me to enter some hall or another where you could watch the live orgy on stage while having some drinks. Every building was a brothel. Windows in their hundreds displayed women dressed for sex, nothing but lace and Day Glo garters, young women, old women, some of them slim, some – with spilling bellies, sweet as dolls or hard and masculine, of all races, colours and… sexes, too, for every so often one of them turned out to be, on closer inspection (yet you needed good eyes to figure it out), a boy heavily made up and carefully epilated, after the fashion of Elizabethan actors, giving you a winsome smile and beckoning you in with his finger. As I was drifting past those resplendently baroque windows I pondered on how strikingly similar they were to the fantasies of my adolescence when, wrapped in sheets clammy with sweat and pheromones, I would imagine naked women, obscene women, shameless women, faceless women devoid of personality and a will of their own, pure sexual animals proffering to me a flurry of buttocks, thighs and fragrant napes. Now I was alone in Amsterdam, as if roaming my own adolescent imagination, the infernal paradise of my eroticism, and all I had to do in order to make my visions come true was enter any of those chambers. All of them were available to me – I could have easily acquired a sexual experience impossible to come by anywhere else. As I was almost earning the equivalent of an average Dutch salary, I could have easily afforded one girl per week, one girl every three days, one girl whenever I'd felt like it. I would occasionally look one of those girls in the eye, and saw her suddenly projecting herself in my direction, blossoming as if unexpectedly brought face to face with her lover, and tried to imagine what a night would be like in her arms. And… continued on my way till I was out of that carnival-like zone, only to re-enter the austerity of the Protestant city, crammed with the distant spires of churches. Each time I would make it back home to my cubicle, happy to be alone and not in the arms of some sexual object. During the whole of my long stay in Amsterdam, I never once seriously considered getting involved with a prostitute. I don't want to sound hypocrite. I am a man like any other. The level of androgynous hormones in my blood is ten times higher compared to a woman's blood. My brain is awash with sexual hormones. Many a time I've experienced pure erotic unrest, many a time I've been turned on by some unknown female on a bus, and have oftentimes lost myself within the labyrinth of dark, violent fantasies populated by exactly this type of sexual objects in complete subjection to my will. Pornography does not always disgust me – in my capacity as a male I do acknowledge the tens of thousands of sites on the Internet, and the hundreds of magazines no woman would ever buy – and there are moments when I positively crave for orgiastic images. Still, it was regret that I felt each time I made love to an unknown, indifferent woman. And that not because risks are high, or because I'm troubled by fidelity-related considerations. I just happen to believe that sex coupled with intimacy is better than sex devoid of intimacy. I have deliberately avoided bringing in love, although that's what it all boils down to, ultimately. Love as a sentiment does inhibit sexuality at times, and consequently fidelity becomes hard to stand in bed. Sex implies a drastic restriction imposed on conscience, a dramatic plunge below social and ethical conventions, an act of discarding taboos and disgust, and a quest for pleasure in areas governed by interdiction and associated with perversion. Love, in its turn, with its marked cultural component, invites elimination during the more intense moments of the sexual act, alongside the cerebral shell draped over our nudity. With many couples, the fantasy of depersonalizing the partner, becoming oblivious of the true nature of their relationship, augments erotic pleasure. Nevertheless, something of this psychological bond belying the true couple and commonly called love, something essential and insufficiently discussed, survives even the most devastating act of symbolical stripping. It is, for want of a better term, the intense love between two bodies. Even when minds and personalities have dissolved in irrepressible sexual pleasure, the intimacy abides and bestows upon an otherwise violent and brutish act something childish and touching, something you're bound to remember, after the pleasure as such has been forgotten, as the only true joy of those moments. Since I don't hold with fantasies put into practice (for the simple reason that once actualized, they unceremoniously fall from their ideal estate: I can, for instance, have fantasies about a sex party, but an actual one must be quite disappointing due to a plethora of all too concrete details), a sexual act entered by unfamiliar bodies would, by the same token, be doomed to failure from the word go, in my opinion. My own body is deeply attached to that of my woman. In actual fact I possess two bodies, and consequently, the whole of my life is double. Even if I were to have my cerebrum removed in an experiment, my body would continue to be in love with that of my woman. My need of intimacy with my mate goes far beyond our sexual life. Some are appalled at the prospect of living together as a couple since it would entail their having to see each other in sordid situations. Now that's exactly what my love thrives on. I love going shopping with her, having coffee with her, watching her in the bathtub, chatting with her on the topic of UFOs. I love watching her as she eats or hangs out the washing. When making love, our intimacy is the most precious thing, and our pleasure entirely depends on it. In actual fact, it is the love-making of two bodies infinitely familiar with each other and at the same time infinitely thrilled to be rediscovering each other. I know exactly what she is going to do the next moment, yet she never fails to surprise me. The more familiar I become with her skin and sinews and lines and gestures and words, the more intense, the more desperate my curiosity grows. My intimacy with my other body is permanent, when asleep, I do know in my dreams she's beside me, yet during the moments of physical love, this intimacy reaches its absolute peak. In such moments I can no longer distinguish between look and touch, tenderness and violence, joy and sorrow. She is the only one I desire because she is the only one I know. I allow my eyes to wander between her thighs and rest upon "the butterfly with wings stuck drowsily together", and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is, indeed, the most beautiful thing I could ever see and touch. Our intimacy, in our home, in our bed, does not diminish but rather safeguards our erotic joy. This intimacy renders everything erotic, and everything, no matter how coarse and daring, is protected from vulgarity. It is only in such a sheltered space that your body and your mind can be totally open to exploring the other. In this respect, sex is akin to dreaming more than to anything else. During our dreams, our muscular tonus is abolished and our whole body is paralyzed, thus giving the mind free rein to hallucinate. Conversely, during love making it is our mind that's abolished, while our body succumbs to voluptuousness. A final detail comes to emphasize this strange and fascinating parallelism: whenever we're dreaming, our sex is in a state of erection, regardless of the contents of our dreams… I am reminded of a stupid joke of my childhood, which had woman defined as "something you hold on to while making love". Without true intimacy that's exactly what both men and women are: a sort of handlebars to be grasped while performing some acrobatic number. It can at times be entertaining (particularly for the man), not unlike going on the swings, but as far as I am concerned, it is a primitive, infantile and unsatisfactory way of having sex. You truly reach sexual maturity only when you have entered an uncanny solipsism of two which makes you say: throughout the whole universe there are only two beings that can be said to make love in all truth: I and the woman I love. from The Whys and Wherefores of our Love for Women, Humanitas, 2004

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)