The Cure for Sleep: Desire
Season 1, 008: the kinds we suffer in secret, finding no outlet for it in our waking lives.
“In beautiful prose, Tanya Shadrick writes her own fairy tale of becoming. She is fearless in her depiction of female desire – I think many women will find themselves in these pages.”
Katherine May, author of Wintering
This month’s advance extract from The Cure For Sleep is about desire: the kind we suffer in secret, finding no outlet for it in our waking lives. It speaks of a time when I’d begun writing a mile in public beside the outdoor pool in my small town: a strange self-made way of expanding my life that brought much joy - while also unleashing less comfortable emotions.
After reading, do share a short true tale of your own - no more than 300 words – on this theme in the comments section. What have you yearned - passionately - to do or pursue? What held you back? How did you decide to act on it? Or did you somehow reconcile yourself to letting it go?
Read the Season One stories contributed by readers over on The Cure For Sleep website: bedtime stories | memory games | bonding | choosing | promises | size & shape | time | desire | regret | faith | rebirth
OFF THE PILL and with my wedding ring thrown away in temper, I sat sleepless in the attic. New and unhappy night-time routine since midsummer when I felt the season begin sliding towards the pool’s September closing day.
Nye and the children were in separate rooms on the floors below, but I was still crowded, caged. Like a vixen in heat, I wanted to be outside the house, skirting fields and fences, laying scent trails, lying in wait. Not sitting spinster-neat on a single bed, hemmed in by the books of bolder women: Anaïs Nin noting in her diary that all days should be so good – the sperm of seven men by bedtime; Frida Kahlo lying laughing on the grass with a female lover; Lee Miller posing naked for the camera of Man Ray, equals in bed and art; Georgia O’Keeffe likewise with Stieglitz; Simone de Beauvoir delighting in a first orgasm at almost forty, just as she’d been resigning herself to losing youth and beauty.
‘It’s like a veil has been lifted.’ What an earnest friend had said to me at the end of our twenties, she having stopped her contraception in the months before marriage. ‘I am smelling men, everywhere. Seeing them. Their shape, how they move. Wanting their weight.’ Sex had been in the head till now, she suspected; driven by a wish to be admired, coupled up. How appalling, we agreed, if the very thing we’d taken to prevent pregnancy since our teens had, all along, been a kind of chemical veil. Taming and containing us like the hood on a hawk or cloth laid over a birdcage. Putting to sleep our wilder desires. God. How awful. But we turned away from where it might have led us, such knowledge, and continued going from shop to costly shop looking at finishing touches for her fast-approaching ceremony and reception.
Now, arriving at a creative life in my mid-forties, I was newly off the pill for the same reason I knelt each day to confront yard after yard of blank paper: to see what I was made of. I wanted to learn my monthly ebb and flow and use it to propel my writing in those last years before the menopause and the unchosen changes it would make to the body I’d been born to.
So I could rise fast each morning for my work at the pool, I’d also stopped the sleeping tablets I’d been taking since the emergency and its damage, and this only added to the raw nature of my wakefulness. A flood of strong hormones. Nerve pain. New estrangement from Nye. All these made for uneasy nights at home, but I accepted them as the price of my enlivened days.
When I did reach dream, I was often now a woman turned beast. Brought to all fours by an unseen force, and with my tendons straining at their new shape, I suffered being sewn into a wolfskin and driven from town. Running then, for hours, leagues; chased, escaping; low to the ground and tasting the air. Making a repeating pattern in the soil of three paws and a single handprint: the one that writes, which I found between my legs on waking.
It was to do with sex in its unmannered, amoral form, the sort that makes for the gap in the fence, forgetting the fold – what a feminist writer from an earlier era called the zipless fuck: the fantasy of having it anywhere, often, with anyone, at no cost to family or social standing (although there is always a cost if one loves and belongs).
But it was also about power. Range and expansion of territory. Energy. Appetite. Ambition.
And this made me monstrous, of course. That I was a woman not simply glad of a few school-day and weekend hours in which to write politely, but one who wanted more time, more time, more.
At the pool the next day, I shivered in the sun, while the hand that supported my chin felt naked. Its ring finger a mollusc, unshelled; white and damp and shrunken in the place where the band had always been.
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Standing among thousands near the reflecting pool on the Washington Mall, all words were suddenly knocked out of me. I saw her for the first time in almost a year, and I knew: I loved her. I loved this woman with a depth I had not yet known for anyone, and what I knew about myself fell into pieces and began to reassemble in a different shape.
I didn’t speak again for a week. Protesting with throngs, long night on a bus, and then home, where I retreated to the tiny two-story tower that was part of our rented attic apartment. Windows all around. Day after day, mounds of wet clay took shape in my hands with an energy I did not know was mine. She was not mine; she was linked to someone else, and anyway, this turmoil was about me, not her, not really.
My art professor looked at the pieces, and at me, back and forth, silently. Exposed, vulnerable. I knew. I couldn’t have made anything else.
At the gaping firebox of the full kiln, my friends and I stoke wood into flames for 24 hours, heat melting the hairs around our foreheads. Stars above, searing orange within. Shakuhachi flute playing somewhere in the dark. Smoke-enveloped, soot-marked, stories shared. Silence.
A long day’s wait for cooling, and then we gently pull the warm bricks out of the wall. Inside, the pieces I made in the tower have blown into unrecognizable bits, air and passion having expanded in bubbles within and exploded, flinging shards against the bricks. It was exactly the right ending. Heated to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, so much raw emotion could do nothing else. I tossed the fragments into the shard pile, and moved on.
I started writing one thing and this other thing demanded airing. I share it uneasily because I don't normally write things like this (far too much vulnerability required) and because while it is daydream material the other woman IS real, and I still get caught up in the old horse chestnut "what will others think of me!?" I'm trying to get at more than just the fantasy here, though...a little of the pain behind it, and what chronic illness has not let me explore in the fully adult way I wish. To just act with abandon an fall into bed, the pursuit and the chase. My imagination lets me conjure a mirage when needed and helps me get through the difficult moments, gives me the illusion for a small period of time that I'm living another life. I would never have had the courage to share something like this had you not gone first, Tanya. Certainly this poem is not finished and polished, but when it is I imagine it won't be skating on the surface so much.
It’s always summer term when we meet
on the sidewalk outside the library, she invites me
to an impromptu dinner, “So we can discuss your writing
without the normal interruptions.”
I drive her the short way home
since her bag hangs heavy on her shoulders
and my car is parked steps from where we stand.
Behind her door we shed our sandals
she opens a bottle of wine
hands me a glass and encourages me to sit.
‘Don’t worry—I remember
you don’t like cheese,” she jokes
and that she remembers this small bit said in passing
stops me mid-sip. We share a long gaze
until my face flushes and I look away.
A lock of hair falls across my eyes and
the slow motion tumble begins.
We are alone but she shakily whispers it as
she tucks the errant wave behind my ear:
“I want you in my bed.”
The flush rushes down my neck and
further still when her hand comes to rest
in the V of my shirt.
I can’t meet her eyes so
I settle on the arthritic knuckles of
her other hand that reaches for mine and
pulls me to follow.
It’s easy to follow her
to undress her, let her undress me.
The extra pounds from illness
and inactivity are gone.
My hair is wild and long
instead of medication-thinned.
This daydream doesn’t demand the
energy of real-life fumbling and sexual pursuit.
I am free of real-life’s inflammatory cytokines that
make washing and dressing a burden.
I am wanted.
I grow incandescent
beneath my professor’s gaze.
More alive with the pass of her lips
over my heated skin.
Stronger with each touch.
I map and explore her body