For a year or so, when our marriage was in trouble but before it was actually over, my husband and I used to go to a sex club in San Bernardino. It was a moldy old place that probably hadn’t changed since it opened in the seventies, a slightly dreadful place that perfectly reflected the state of our marriage, although I was strangely fond of it at the time.
It was raining the first time we went, on a Saturday night in what passes for winter in Southern California, and the drive from Santa Monica was long and tedious. The freeways were wet and slick and predictably jammed up. As we left the Westside and made our way through the Inland Empire–Upland, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga–I asked myself the question the suburbs of Los Angeles always produce in me: What in God’s name am I doing here? Mercifully, we turned north, into the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, and the abrupt decrease in cars and lights and shopping centers came as a momentary relief. As my husband, who’d been anxiously gripping the wheel, began to relax, I surrendered to the pleasures of the starry night. Surrendered, that is, until I began to remember the way the kids looked at me as I tucked them into bed that night, wary and suspicious, as if they knew where we were going. They didn’t know, of course, and how could they have known (so strange is the institution of marriage) that it was their very happiness we were trying to protect.
When we got out of the car, in a makeshift parking lot beneath a grove of rain-slicked eucalyptus trees, I heard a train whistling in the distance, a sound you never hear on the Westside of Los Angeles, and the sound of that whistle was the first thing that sparked my interest, took me back, in fact, to my first sexual experiences, some of which occurred in a grove of trees not unlike the one we’d parked beneath, some of which were accompanied by the close or distant sound of trains–whistling, coupling and uncoupling, rattling by in the night. It seemed like a fortuitous sign. As we walked into the club and looked around, however, checking things out with a mixture of curiosity and queasiness, there didn’t seem to be many people either one of us would have liked to have sex with, and when there were, the women he would have liked to have sex with were never with the men I would have liked to have sex with and vice versa. This meant we had to have sex with each other, which had pretty much been the problem from the start.
Still, there was nothing to do but take the plunge, so that’s what we did, climbing up a makeshift ladder to a roomy wooden platform where we rolled out our towels and diligently tried to amuse ourselves alongside several other couples in various positions and stages of the night. Honestly, it was pretty tame, nothing like the gay clubs I used to sneak into with my friends when I was younger, with lithe young men, children almost, and older men, jaws set. Most of the couples in San Bernardino seemed to be contractors and their wives, the sexually robust couples you expect to find in a place like this. But what I remember most about that place were the sounds—laughter, moans, soft low voices and the hard, wet sound, in an array of rhythmic combinations too crazy to score, of flesh hitting flesh.
I think it was during these infrequent visits to the sex club in San Bernardino that I realized our marriage was never going to work–if you can’t have a good time in a sex club, what hope is there — so there I was one night, trying to get through the next few hours without giving in to the despair I was beginning to feel, when something startled me. Someone was stroking my arm, but it wasn’t my husband–his hands, I knew, were somewhere else. When I turned to look, I saw a tall man with narrow hips, a pale man with a pleasant face. At first glance, I thought he might be French. He had that fleshy pout, something that rarely interests me, but there was a kindness in his eyes that I liked. The man was inches away from me, on top of another woman, and one of his hands was moving in slow, even circles on my arm. This is what’s supposed to happen in a place like this, it’s what you hope for, but I was so startled by his hand on my arm and the way he was watching me, intensely, so astonished, perhaps, to see another man’s desire up close, that I had no idea how to respond, although we stayed like that for a long time, his hand warm and soft on my arm.