My books LIMELIGHT (forthcoming 2018) and SMALL ADMISSIONS are works of fiction, stories I made up to entertain and amuse. I used settings I already knew something about and then further researched, and I invented characters and situations to create drama and humor. However, I, like pretty much every writer I know, have a novel “in the drawer” – the one that never got published. That book is about a small town called Longview, Texas, and although Longview is very real, the events in the book I wrote are not. But — and this is a big but — the book makes use of many biographical features of my own family.
Imagine a married couple living in a house they planned and built, a house that has his-and-her bedrooms. The husband and wife that live in this house together are loving and affectionate with each other; however, they have made a decision to sleep separately. A lot of couples do this, of course. But I don’t know many couples who have constructed a home with separate bedrooms, making the decision official and permanent. This couple has even decorated their rooms – pink and floral for her room and mahogany and navy for his, making their living arrangement blatantly clear. How would this situation come to be? Are they sleeping separately but still having fabulous sex, visiting each other’s rooms every night? Does it add an element of excitement to their relationship? Or are they affectionate as a couple but really just loving, platonic friends? Has the romance between them fizzled? Did the sexual attraction dissolve over time? Is one of them gay? Is the sex so lousy between them, they’ve decided to give up on it while staying married? Is impotence an issue? Would a sex therapist be able to fix their problems? Do they even have problems? What is behind their choice to sleep alone?
I have often mulled these questions over, even before my book was ever written, because the truth is my grandparents lived in exactly that way: They designed and built a home for themselves when they were still quite young (in their sixties) that had his-and-her bedrooms. I always wondered why. They were extremely devoted to and affectionate with each other, were married their whole lives (into their nineties), held hands, and seemed very close. They provided a model for me of a perfect, loving marriage. And yet they had made this unusual choice to sleep alone. Were they celibate or was their living arrangement in no way a reflection of their sex life? I mean, what was with those separate bedrooms??
I decided to write a book about such a couple. And I did what writers do: I made the most interesting version of events I could come up with to justify how such a couple chose to live their lives. A bad back, for example, isn’t very interesting, and insomnia (I can say as someone who suffers from it) is boring as hell. So for the purposes of spinning a good tale, I thought and thought about the story of a marriage in which a devoted couple winds up sleeping apart.
But it gets awkward. These characters are not my grandparents – but they are on some level fictionalized versions of them. I borrowed many events from their lives, from their passionate elopement (true) to the intercom system they installed so they could talk to each other at night (also true). And, obviously, I had to make up scenes that dealt with this couple’s sex life. I wrote a few hot sex scenes from their younger years, and a couple fumbling attempts later in their marriage. And I created a justification for what transpired in the bedroom to make them decide to give up once and for all.
Sometimes I’m glad this book has not been published. My family members would recognize all of the parts of my grandparents’ lives that I stole from real life, and that might make it difficult to see the book as fiction, which it is. But I admit it’s a hybrid of fact and fiction and perhaps that was disrespectful or even unethical of me. I know nothing of the intimate connection between my grandparents (duh), nor do really want to, so how dare I make assumptions about such topics? And the truth is I didn’t. The version of events I wrote is – I am certain – not the truth. Far from it, I would wager. The truth, I’ll bet was much more mundane. But it is nevertheless awkward, to say the least, to confront a topic like sex when your grandparents’ life story is involved.
In any case, here’s a scene I wrote from SEPARATE BEDROOMS. Peggy and Rodney have eloped, and Peggy gets pregnant on the honeymoon. In a desperate moment, the newlyweds move into the stately home of The Warrens, Peggy’s parents (which happened in real life), and Peggy is put on bed rest in her own room, after which she suffers through a very difficult labor (also true IRL) and has been instructed not to have any more children. This scene takes place at their only son Warren’s first birthday, a party attended by Peggy and Rodney and Peggy’s parents.
Peggy drank a great deal of whiskey that night when no one was looking, and tried to throw suggestive glances at Rodney who either didn’t notice or ignored her. She got tipsy, turned on a record, and asked Rodney to dance with her.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Don’t be a fool,” Mr. Warren said.
But Peggy took Rodney’s hand, saying, “What’s so foolish about a woman asking her own husband to dance?”
She took hold of Rodney, who turned red and made a dumb, guilty face at his father-in-law, and she pressed hard up against him, putting her face close to his. She whispered, “Remember dancing with me, Rodney? You used to like dancing with me.”
“Not here, Peggy,” he said.
She pressed harder and moved her hips up against him.
“That’s not like any kind of dancing I’ve ever seen,” Mrs. Warren said. “What is that called?”
“Call it what you like; it’s making me want to vomit,” Mr. Warren said, turning off the music. “Now quit this nonsense, Peggy,” he said. “That’s enough now, you here? The party’s over.”
Peggy went upstairs without saying a word. In the middle of the night, she tiptoed downstairs to Rodney’s room, leaving baby Warren sound asleep in the middle of the bed. She didn’t knock. She slipped into his room, took her nightgown off, and crawled into bed beside him.
Naked together for the first time in almost two years, they were crazy for each other, but then there was a loud creak in the ceiling, the kind of creak a big old house makes all the time, and all of a sudden Rodney’s erection lost its balance, staggered around, and fell down flat on its face before either of them knew what happened.
“What’s wrong?” Peggy asked, kissing him all over his face and neck, relieved to find that all that cologne he’d started wearing was washed off.
“I thought I heard something.”
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“Listen.” He paused, his eyes darting around the ceiling. “I think maybe I heard your father.”
“So what? We’re married, for god’s sake. It’s ok.”
“Shh. Listen,” he was trying to sit up, but Peggy was on top of him, making it hard for him to move at all.
“I don’t want to listen. I want you.”
“He’ll hear us.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me,” Rodney said. “I’m not comfortable doing this here, in his house.”
“Then it’s high time we got our own place.”
“We can’t do that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Your daddy wants us here. Besides, I can’t afford a place anything like this.”
“So? We don’t need a big house.”
“He won’t let us move.”
“Let us?” Peggy said. “We’re not children. We can do whatever we want.”
“It’d hurt his feelings if we left.”
“Are you saying we’re going to sleep in separate rooms forever? You don’t ever want to have sex with me again?”
“I don’t mean forever. But for now it doesn’t feel right—”
“What then? We don’t touch each other until daddy dies?”
And then they heard a thud, a loud one, followed by the baby’s screaming cries, footsteps, and yelling.
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