The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving”. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn…
— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Chapter 42: Phoenix
Finally got to Phoenix. Out the windows of an all-night diner, I thought I saw ground fog blurring city lights like vapor off wet fields. The waitress snorted: ”That’s dust. Never settles this time of year.”
I reported to agency headquarters next morning. I had tried to hold out past elk season but they said I was urgently needed. An information office audio-visual guy introduced me around the offices. Nobody knew what the urgency was. Not even the agency director. My division chief? Oh, he’s gone hunting.
I held my temper. Okay, I’ll go hunting too. Can I buy a license and elk tag here? Strained silence. You can’t just buy a tag! You enter a tag-lottery the summer before and hope for luck. My interviewers never mentioned a lottery. I was not happy. Flat-out asked the director to issue an agency tag to compensate for my lost season. He went all official game-cop on me: the law forbids issuing employees special tags. I said after three years covering western game agencies, if that’s true you’re the only director I know without the authority. Didn’t call him a liar. Not the most politic way to start a new job. Didn’t care — I was angry enough I hoped they’d say go home.
Instead they acted glad to see me. The AV guy and his wife had me over for dinner. I was introduced to a secretary who rented a “mother-in-law” apartment to department employees. She got me out of the motel and hooked me up with a real-estate friend to look at houses. My division boss, back from his hunting trip, was all irritated about how I braced the director. The AV guy said ignore it. “Irritated is his default mode.” He was right. Squint, as I came to call him, hated giving up their old slick magazine format, but the budget only allowed tabloid newsprint like the Seattle outdoor paper. We issued a contract to a print shop. I started working on stories.
My landlady was “of a certain age” the French would say, snug silver helmet of hair, wry sense of humor, interested in everything in the world. Knew all the agency secrets and tensions. Romantic relationships were her favorite topic. Which biologist’s wife had a thing with a married field man. Which fisheries guy made field-trip detours to bed a game ranger’s wife. And all who lusted in their hearts, like the Georgia peanut farmer just elected President. She began to write me into the scene.
First with her real-estate friend, undeniably cute, a woman who showed me houses and took me to dinner. I thought dinner flirtations part of her sales technique. My landlady rolled her eyes at my density. Next she spoke of a curvy fit wildlife biologist, also a friend of hers. At a desert research site this woman walked me into the ground as I backpacked her heavy supplies, including a truck battery, up a dry wash to a remote wildlife-entrapment pen. I could barely keep her snug denim butt in view. Figured she had fun wearing out a headquarters desk-jockey.
“Then why,” said my landlady, “did she slip into the men’s bunkhouse that night to invite you to watch the desert moon-rise?” And how the hell did she know that? She just smirked. So cramped-up with Charlie horses from our death march I couldn’t budge, I thought the athletic woman disdainful of my weakness. My landlady laughed at me. ”She was just disappointed.”
One night she called me to her bedside, nightdress hiked above her knees and studied me. Said she liked me and all, but damned if she felt the magnetic appeal her female friends talked about. Which one was it going to be? I said, “Look, I’m married.” She shrugged: ”You must trail pheromones like a crop-duster. Gonna be tough to take advantage when your family gets here.”
Despite her coaching, and her friends always hanging around, my one Phoenix sexual slip-up involved none of them. Crass as it may sound, it was an act of mercy. After two lonesome months I drank in the New Year alone in a piano-bar. Joked around with a guy and two women. The bar closed after a Baby Grand rendition of Auld Lang Sine and flurry of phone-number exchanges. The guy gave the blowzy blonde a quick hug, left her standing in the cold while aerial fireworks sparkled and boomed. Her girlfriend, headed home to hubby, patted the blonde’s arm: Told you you were wasting the night on him.
So there I stood with a fat blonde crying on my shoulder. She said her friend thought her pathetic. Admitted she felt fat and drunk and stupid, because she really thought he was going home with her. There was not a thing I could think to say. Just let her smear makeup on my lapel and patted her back. She tried to pull herself together, runny mascara a sad raccoon’s mask. Said she was okay. Really, she was fine. Sniffle-sniffle. Thanks for the shoulder.
I saw her to her car and drove to a diner for a roof on my load. But my conscience nagged. I dug out the napkin with her number and called to see if she made it home. She picked up first ring — I wasn’t the California friend she was expecting. It was an hour earlier on the coast, and she’d hoped…say, would I mind stopping by to help her wait for her friend’s call? She hated to ask, but just felt so lonely and sad, a friendly face would be a big help…
When I got there she still had not heard from her friend. We drank her instant coffee. She tried others. Nobody home. When she left messages her voice quavered, asking plainly for a comforting call to help her make it through the night. She spiraled down and down. I knew depression of old, and it had her by the throat. The more coffee she drank as alcohol fumes lifted, the worse it got. She was despairing. Humiliated by her despair. Said please don’t leave me alone until my friends call. I feared she was damn-near suicidal.
“You’re a kind man, but even you have to admit if you’re honest I’m a shabby fat slut not worth fucking…” If that was a pickup line, she deserved an Oscar. I said she was none of those awful things, she was simply in pain because she trusted her emotions to the wrong guy. As her friends would surely tell her when they called. Wasted breath. When depression has you, kind words bounce off.
But she listened. She dried her tears, went to the bathroom, scrubbed her face clean and returned looking even more vulnerable. I watched her gather the shreds of her courage almost visibly and wondered what came next. Was not terribly surprised when she baldly asked me to take her to bed. Empathy can be a dangerous thing. Any momentary hesitation would have been crushing. I did not hesitate.
I felt honor-bound to pull her out of her tailspin. If honor is the right word. Her pain resonated with a young man’s misery when rejected — almost forgotten beneath a vast reservoir of wonder given me by the amazing women of my life. I undertook the task of easing her depression with intense orgasms — only sure medicine I knew for melancholy. It was simple to concentrate on her because I needed nothing in return.
But when the sea-change of satisfying sex suffused her and lightened her, she insisted it was my turn. Ugly she was not, but she really was fat, a hard mound of belly bigger than a nine-month pregnancy. Large as I am, I had to suppress a laugh when I mounted. Knew how a rodeo rider on a Brahma bull must feel, high above the sawdust. But I stayed through the buzzer. Then we slept.
When I woke up, she brought in her teenage daughter to meet me — still in bed with nothing but a sheet — as if to say look what I found! The daughter’s expression was carefully neutral, Mom’s sexuality something she’d rather not confront. But Mom almost preened — she’d showed the kid there was life in the old girl yet!
She fixed me a huge breakfast, a sunny smile to go with, and brewed coffee this time. Happily said one California friend called while I slept, glad to hear she felt better. While I ate she took another call. Fairly gushed: “The evening turned out fine after all!” When I left she fondly said, “You sure know how to please a woman.”
My landlady was curious about my overnight absence: Anyone I know? I said I have no idea what you mean. Riiight. Feeling a peculiar form of virtuous, I went duck-hunting on a nearby lake. Saw no birds, but on the way back caught a coyote in a highway borrow ditch, stalking black lambs I’d seen gamboling on the way in. When my VW popped out of the woods he did a comical double-take, like the cartoon Wiley. By the time I stopped and dropped two shells in my Lefever, he was skedaddling. Shotgun pellets sped him along like a spanking. I was just doing good deeds right and left.
Years later back in Washington a friend showed me a Doonesbury cartoon: a dissipated shades-wearing hungover sybarite asking his nerd friend How would you feel to wake up with a blowzy blonde you don’t even know? Nerd: Very idea makes me break out in a cold sweat! My friend wrote “Ish” above the sybarite, “me” above the nerd. It pleased him how hard I laughed. But I never told him why.