For Gretchen Breese, who saw the world and the art in it as well as anyone, and for whom the marriage bed was a pleasure. We will miss you deeply, and may you stay with us.
This image caught my eye while I was flipping through a book, doing “research” for Speak, Wood. It was so obviously a couple having sex in bed, or you might think (if you didn’t stop to read the caption) upright.
But I did stop to read the caption in JN Postgate’s book Early Mesopotamia; Society and Economy at the Dawn of History where I found it, and I can tell you it’s definitely a bed. More particularly, it’s a terracotta figurine of a bed housed in the British Museum—that perhaps greatest of all repositories of plundered treasures from the Ancient Near East. And I can also report that models of beds like this “are frequent in the later third and early second millennium BC[E], often with detailed representation of the construction.”
So, let’s look again at this image. See how well-constructed, how weighty, this model of a bed is. Maybe reflect a little on how important beds must have been four millennia ago if people so frequently created such solidly crafted, detailed icons of them. And I can confirm this too, having read Postgate’s chapter, “Household and Family,” where this image appears: Old Babylonian beds were indeed “well constructed pieces of furniture” and furthermore, “both the models and the royal hymns make it clear that they were the right place for making love.”
So, now let’s go back to what really caught my eye (and probably yours): not the bed itself—that impressively imposing frame, that rigid rectangle—but the people in the middle making love. And let’s read the caption’s second sentence in which Postgate informs us: Examples like this complete with human occupants are probably more common than the rarity of published examples might suggest.
And as we parse this scholarly addendum, maybe you’ll sense something a little intriguing, perhaps even a whiff of something suppressed, emerging from Postgate’s mild-mannered, somewhat convoluted prose. Because isn’t he really telling us that the truth has been obscured? Alerting us that these beds with “human occupants” aren’t really all that rare, though we’ll probably never see another one. And you might, if you’re like me, start to feel a little gratitude towards this honest scholar for showing us what we would likely otherwise never have seen, never have known was there.
And, really, doesn’t it makes sense that a cloud of censorship would obscure such ritual objects depicting lovers in flagrante delicto, in blazing offense as the legal term would have it (or, as I used to mishear before my faulty Latin was corrected, in flagrant delight)? After all, wouldn’t you too, if you were a publisher hoping to get your textbook into, say, the Texas public schools, avoid this more “complete” artifact from the dawn of history? Because isn’t it actually kind of pornographic?
So, okay. We can thank Postgate for giving us this published example of a more “complete” bed—the one with people having sex in it—and for letting us know how relatively common it is, despite its modern-day absence from public view. But then, what do we make of its presence as we try to understand the sexual and marriage practices of the people of Mesopotamia from 4,000 years or so ago who evidently produced so many of these beds and would have been so familiar with them?
The Marriage Bed
So, it was with this image and these questions accompanying me that I made my way into Genesis in my pursuit of Dinah. And as I did, I began to refer to this rare but “complete” figurine as “The Marriage Bed” and even named an early chapter of Speak Wood “The Marriage Bed” as well. It’s in the chapter where Dinah retells the story from Genesis of that terrible night, as told to her by her aunt Bilhah, when her mother Leah and her aunt Rachel are first set against each other in the marriage bed. The night Dinah’s grandfather Laban sends Leah in to lie with Jacob disguised as Rachel, Leah’s younger sister, the sister whom Jacob actually desires and thinks he’s married.
It’s kind of an awful story, really, of betrayal and humiliation. And it only gets worse as the sisters (both now Jacob’s wives) jealously grapple to best each other by producing Jacob’s children—or more specifically, sons. And embedded in it all along are references to the marriage bed.
For instance, before his uncle Laban tricks him with Leah in the marriage bed, Jacob says to Laban, “Give me my wife… let me come to bed with her.” Then when Laban gives Jacob his second daughter in marriage as well, we’re told, “And he came to bed with Rachel, too….” Then later in what I began thinking of as the marriage-bed battles, as Rachel hatches her plan to finally secure a son via Bilhah, Rachel instructs Jacob: “Here is my slave girl, Bilhah. Come to bed with her, that she may give birth on my knees, so that I, too, shall be built up through her.”
Sit with the weirdness of this for awhile—Bilhah acting as surrogate for Rachel by giving birth (and also copulating with Jacob in the marriage bed?) between Rachel’s knees. And think about the weirdness (though maybe not) that Jacob so readily complies with his wife’s order: Have sex with my slave.
So, yes, in the stories of Genesis, we can see, the marriage bed is filled with “human occupants” and often in strange situations and positions. But one passage further on in these two sisters’ rivalry for sons underscores another feature of relations in the ancient marriage bed—still strange but also tinged with something perhaps a little more appealing to a modern feminist like me. It’s when Leah trades the mandrakes her son Reuben has found for her (the roots of which the ancients believed could stimulate fertility) with her still-barren sister Rachel, in exchange for a night with Jacob (who still prefers Rachel). Listen to how imperiously Leah speaks to Jacob, “With me you will come to bed, for I have clearly hired you with the mandrakes of my son.” A deal has been made; Jacob has been hired. And again, perhaps a little surprisingly, Jacob complies.
So what do we make of the significance of the marriage bed now? Aren’t we beginning to see it as a place where sex and power converge? Because clearly sex—well, sex in the marriage bed—is a decidedly political, and apparently not that romantic, transaction. Sex in the marriage bed is, it seems, as much as anything an act of defining and securing property, status and power, through offspring.
And as I pondered these spare lines that convey the marriage-bed saga of Dinah’s family depicted in Genesis, what was beginning to especially intrigue me about the way marriage relations seemed to work back then was that it appears women were not outside of the political equation. Women had power. They asserted their potency, they made their will known, they commanded their husbands:“Fuck my slave”; “Come to bed with me.” They weren’t all exactly what I’d imagined—muted and downtrodden—in the marriage bed. And sure enough, in Postgate’s text, although he details much about marriage in ancient Mesopotamia that was already dictated by concerns for patrilineal succession (insistence on female virginity, the dowry, etc.), he also confirms: “…in law and in custom the women of ancient Mesopotamia seem to have been treated more equally than in many more recent societies…”
But where did this relative equality for women come from in this still-on-the-road-to-monotheism “dawn of history,” before they were relegated to a place so close to chattel, reduced to their station beneath God and Man on the chain of being? Because, really, what these patriarchal narratives from Genesis are telling us about is that beginning—the transitional period as monotheism was gaining traction through the ambition of Abraham and his descendants, but before the Israelites held sway in the way their new-found god was promising them.
Yes, what back then—for it was also an end, this last gasp for the still-dominant prehistoric pantheons out of which the cult of a single God was arriving—gave women their power, and what did it look like? That seemed important to understand.
Look at the Gods
Whether you believe that a god (or gods) made us in His (or their) image or, as I believe, we make gods in ours, it really doesn’t matter much—at least as far as this particular question is concerned. Because can’t we all agree that we share vital traits with the gods who created us or they share vital traits with us, the mortals who created them? So doesn’t it follow, in either case, we would do well to look at the gods in order to understand the people who worship them?
And to add to the case in the instance of the ancients, those who lived in prehistory, it’s clear that for them the sacred and mortal realms appeared far more permeable, and relations between mortals and gods far more intimate, than even the most zealous believer of today would likely perceive them—the way, frankly, only a person with schizophrenic delusions would envision the presence of non-mortal entities in the mortal realm. So we can imagine that the ancient gods and mortals reflected each others’ images even more closely than we and our God(s) reflect each other today.
And now with this in mind, at the same time as I was reading Genesis with such intent, I was also beginning to look back at the many gods and their many stories from the Fertile Crescent out of which Genesis sprang—the Mesopotamian myths Dinah would have grown up with, as well as the myths from Canaan where her great grandfather Abraham first met the father god El (who, unless I’ve really gotten it wrong, becomes the One God of the Bible and the Quran) and where her family will eventually settle.
In particular, I was drawn to the goddesses from the “local” myths—especially the two goddesses Ishtar/Astarte from the Mesopotamian myths and Anat from the Canaanite ones. Of course, at the most basic level it’s significant that in these ancient pantheons female gods exist—not yet replaced by the one male god. And that therefore sex can and does happen, lots of it, in heaven.
But also, these two goddesses are powerhouses. Like the Greek Aphrodite (Roman Venus), they appear as supreme in both love and war—vanquishing their enemies and the hearts of gods and humans alike. Ishtar, for instance, braves Hell to wrest her lover, Tamuzi, from her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld (herself no slouch), bringing him (and the world) back to life in the spring. In her turn, Canaanite Anat, often pictured standing on the back of a lion, single-handedly defeats the army her brother raises to kill her lover Ba’al. And she storms the compound of the Canaanite Father God El (also her own father who has had sex with her himself) knife raised, forcing him to build a house for Ba’al, her lover from the North.
Surely these powerful goddesses of love and war should be welcome characters for a feminist to encounter in the ancient myths—and they were for me. And, yes, it makes sense, I think, to conclude that women would have been more empowered in an era in which such goddesses were their sacred counterparts—with whole cults dedicated to them, city walls built in a goddess’s name to secure her protection.
And yet, as I thought about it, that wasn’t really what I found most intriguing as I stared at that marriage bed Postgate had so helpfully let us see. Perhaps women’s relative power, their relative equality, contributed to what was there, but it was the sex itself, the way the coupling appeared, that made that image of the marriage bed linger so vividly in my mind.
First Comes Love… or Everything Is Sacred
So, it’s true, up until now, as I was making my way deeper into these stories of Genesis, the stories of Dinah’s family, the way I’d come to perceive this image of a bed with its human occupants, this marriage bed, was as a site of grappling. This image of wrestling in the bed inside that heavy border of law that hemmed its occupants in, was what had accompanied me along, helped me see, I thought, what was there, what Dinah would have seen. All starting from what she would have witnessed growing up—her mother and her aunt grappling over their shared husband and their inheritance of sons; and the grappling of her grandfather with her father over livestock and kin. And then there would have been her growing awareness of what was always there in the background, that other grappling that preceded her existence, that had forced her father into exile into Paddan-Aram where she was born: the wrestling of Jacob and Esau in the womb, which now will return to terrorize the whole family as they too are forced into exile to face Esau’s threatened revenge on their return to Canaan.
And it all kind of made sense—because much of Genesis, I began to see, is about grappling for power in the marriage bed, and in the family that the marriage bed spawns, between sister-wives (Rachel and Leah), between twins in the womb (Jacob and Esau), the murderous grappling of brothers (Cain and Abel) and the rape of daughters (Lot’s), and slaves forced into sex by barren wives (Dinah’s aunts, her great grandmother Sara’s slave Hagar), and eldest sons sleeping with their father’s concubines (her brother Reuben, Jacob and Bilhah), and widows getting revenge on their negligent fathers-in-law (Tamar with Dinah’s brother Judah) …all this seemed to be at the core of the stories that accompany that great grappling for the inheritance of the earth in the name of the new patron God of the Israelites, El Shaddai, as history dawns.
And so that’s what I was focused on: this grappling in the marriage bed, mortal law its heavy border enforcing the terms of mortals’ sexual relations (the guarantee of male descent). And as I followed the family out into the wilderness, still grappling, an image, a dream image, even found its way into my head unexpectedly, and into Dinah’s, of grappling infants, as if this primitive grappling were the source of all.
Yes, that was the way to look at this picture, I thought: the image of that great sturdy rectangular circumference holding the grapplings of sex in its binding laws. To make sure that the child that came of it, this union, if child should come, would be insured as his, the male’s, that what the father spawned in the marriage bed belonged to him, his seed. This is the beginning, I thought, a fierce negotiation where sex is deeply embedded in the official marriage bed, drawn squarely around, enclosed in the heaviness of harsh mortal laws dictating the terms of property and inheritance—a reinforcement perhaps of what held sway in those animal societies where dominant males held sway over multiple females, but now encoded, rigidified, in social law.
But I was moving along, finally, and the family was entering Canaan—where I decided I’d better really get to know the turf—and it was again the stories of the gods I began to steep myself in, as Dinah would have been introduced to them, through “the daughters of the land.” For this is the heart of Dinah’s story, as much as her story is told in the Bible, this will be how she strays from her father’s cult: she will go out with the “daughters of the land” of Canaan. And from them, she will be led to their prince.
And it was now, as I became immersed in these sacred stories, the epic of Ba’al and Anat, as these girls will introduce her to that great love story, that I began to see this picture a little differently. Because, after all, sex is at the core here, isn‘t it? And isn’t the sex, actually—or couldn’t we look at it as—something more compelling, more fun, really, more pleasurable, than just grappling? The way these bodies intertwine, and the wonderful way that one leg is hiked, knee to buttock, that quirky little gesture that somehow makes the sex so real—so contemporary almost—in its specificity. What the artist is conveying of that moment. It’s not that grim, really, is it? Does it have to be? Or as I began to imagine it, not so grim.
Yes, the bed is there, this heavy circumference. But as I looked again, the relationship shifted some. The sex, as is natural—isn’t it?, doesn’t our eye insist on it?—is at the core, the marriage bed peripheral, no matter how ponderous, no matter how much the contemporary “public” version has the sex air-brushed out?
And really isn’t sex truly at the core? In that dawn of history, in that prehistoric era, it was true, not just some Monty Python gag, everything was sacred. Everything was god-filled, a god—the food you ate, the west wind, the dawn, weird gods like “Lord Reed Bundle” (Enuru) from Ur…. And sex certainly was godly. Gods came down and had sex with people, and the stories of the gods are filled with sex, with desire. Desire compels the stories so often—as it does in the story of Ba’al and Anat, and not only desire, love actually, Ba’al’s great love for Anat that makes him imagine their union will “bring peace into the bowels of the earth.” And Anat’s great love for Ba’al which charges her fearsome confrontation with her father and her slaughter of the army her brother mobilizes to kill this storm god from the north she now adores. Their sex, of course, because they’re gods, is sacred, but it’s also capable of bringing its sacredness into the world of mortal men—the end of strife their tenderness will evoke both in Heaven and on earth.
So, now, there was a loosening, the story was loosening, Dinah was going out with the girls, in the lushness of the land of Canaan, that land of milk and honey, and hearing these stories told of the gods for whom this land was their favored spot, where they came to lie down, to bed in the lush valley between the mountains, lured by their worshippers, this Rain God and his adored mate, the daughter of El, to bring the spring rains. And sex was in the air.
And sure enough, the image, as I went back to gaze at this ancient artifact, this amorous pair in their bed was loosening, gaining new impression. It was a gentle image, wasn’t it? or couldn’t it be? Of affectionate embrace.
And look at that, what I hadn’t really contemplated before, how androgynous this couple is. Which is male and which is female? How much alike they are in size and shape, And look at that, their hair, even, for a modern eye, gives nothing away. You can study the differences if you blow up the image. And okay, there may be a hint of a beard and balls on the one on the left (interesting it’s left, at least from the viewers’ point of view, since left in our day tends to the subordinate), but otherwise how balanced, how what’s really shown is the connection, not the physical parts, which we can imagine as we like—the breasts, vagina, penis…. Here it’s the limbs entwined, the holding of each other in embrace.
So for now, this image was the one I wanted—of this amorphous unity of limbs. Because, as my “research” promised (think of Gilgamesh and his passionate love for Enkidu) love between same-gender partners was far more common, more openly expressed, more understood and validated in the stories and the songs of that ancient era than the ones where later on it would be viciously repressed. And now it worked its way into mine, this image still accompanying me, as something else, as Dinah falls in love with the daughters of the land, or at least the two who take her out into it and sing her their sacred songs.
And as I wrote about her infatuation with these girls, I began to see this image differently, once again. Because, who really had told me it was a “marriage bed” after all? I went back to look—yes, it might have been, since as Postgate tells it, speculating himself, “there is some evidence” that in ancient Mesopotamia, “the bridegroom would come with his male accompaniment”…and “[n]ot surprisingly, a bed played a role at this stage”. But who was this “male accompaniment,” and how did he or the bed “play a role”? That’s left foggy. And yes, beds were erected, the records show, “in the context of diplomatic marriages.” So, it could be a marriage bed, but then it could also just be a bed for making love, for sex, because as Postgate has told us, beds were considered the “right place” for making love. And what kind of love that would be, come to think of it, was quite inclusive, quite indiscriminate, unbiased in its reach. Gods and mortals, men and women, all ended up in bed together. Not the marriage bed, but the bed for love-making. In fact, marriage or not, it was for sure a love-making bed.
And so the emphasis in that image again shifted, not in space so much, but in time. It was the love-making that had come first, of course, and the secular boundaries of marriage afterwards. Desire, and mating—it was original to earth and to Heaven. And then marriage was built around it. To meet the needs of the earthly accumulation of goods. Of course, the gods too married, just like we did, and built houses, and vied for inheritance. They were like us. They were in our image. But it was true, love came before marriage—love-making did. Marriage as we know it was an imposition of secular society, a legal affair imposed later. And here, still, in this pre-patriarchal era, the sex was very much at the core in Heaven and on earth, the essence, revered, exalted, praised, depicted without shame, not to be air-brushed out.
Sex with a God
So, in some ways this had been a relief, this writing about Dinah’s time spent, her infatuation, with these Canaanite girls—because what came next, I was beginning to realize, was going to be hard. I’d kind of looked forward to it, the fun part, the juicy part, when she falls in love with the prince, but now as it was approaching, now as it was upon me, it was getting a little daunting. This passage with the girls, I was thinking, had actually become the juicy part, the part that was fun, the way sex is supposed to be, with its lushness—the land, the land of milk and honey, an opening up, a sharing across cultures, a sensuous pleasure in each others’ presence, in each others’ flesh. This had come, almost naturally, without the great onus of a love affair, by surprise. And I had actually enjoyed writing about this off-to-the-side glimpsed sexual pleasure, but a pleasure that was surely there—the sexuality, the sensuality that somehow morphs into desire, that had infused her time with these girls. And it didn’t seem weighed down so much by all those expectations of the approaching love story with the prince. The daunting challenge of telling one in writing.
Yes, this next part was going to be kind of a bitch. I mean, what do you do with a story that’s the stuff of romance novels, the story that, as my students would confirm, is the essence of “cheesy”? That corny stuff my graduate school writing prof would have called “Redbook” fiction. Worthy of derision. Worthy of being laughed out of the room, sneered out of the writing workshop. Contemptibly sentimental.
She fell in love with the prince.
And probably rightly. How could I? Christ, how could anyone tell such a story, freshly, in an original way that would get past the literary censors? The Phillip Roths and Norman Mailers, the John Updikes and Ernest Hemingways—well maybe not him so much, he was sentimental in his own way. But you get the picture, I was feeling what I’d guess lots of women and probably some men must feel—when they launch into a love story. And in this case an over-the-top mythically charged love story of the love between a prince and a shepherd girl. How was I to write this, in front of the literary giants, that great male pantheon, that patriarchal legacy, of potentially contemptuous scrutiny—which included, actually, my own professor father, the Jewish patriarch, the eminent literary critic?
Did I have the chops?
That was the first question that occurred, and luckily so. Because it’s always good to focus on technique when you’re feeling daunted, getting a little uptight, a little scared at what lies ahead.
So my first go-through I sort of held my nose, and went, and kept the sex at a distance. I concentrated on everything else, of which there’s lots, once you try to make your way, in some way that makes sense, through this tumultuous unraveling, from a prince falling in love with you and the grand sacrifice he asks his people, his male followers, to all impose upon themselves, to circumcise, to accompany him in this sacrifice so he can marry you. And then for your brothers to slaughter him for raping you (or so they will tell it) along with all of his male followers.
But it was the sex, a friend said, that was missing. The grim part, the slaughter, I’d gotten pretty well. But I’d pretty much skipped over the sex. And how could you tell your story, as Dinah had to, of a prince falling in love with you, and saying he will give anything to marry you, and not have sex more there at the core?
And of course, when I thought about it, she had a point.
And so I retraced and revised, and this image, yes, once again, of course, accompanied me, but still in a sort of nice way, since now it had been converted in my eyes from that grappling of the first part—the stories of Dinah’s ancestors, the stories that she lived inside as she grew up—into something else, less cruel, less bludgeoning in its oppression than the stories of the patriarchs. Something that came before. Not perfect, of course, but somehow still on the side of life. Untrampled life (the trampling herds, I was thinking of, the livestock that always accompanied Dinah’s herder family), of couplings, of love, of adoration. Of women’s power not just to slaughter enemies, but to woo, to win the heart, to overpower the one she loves with lust, and to be adored for it. To be equal partners in the sex. Before Eden. And the downfall in Eden. Before that vindictive cruelty of the patriarchal God and the scapegoating of Eve.
But this was getting kind of existential, heady, really, because now I was getting back into the mentality of those myths. And what I started realizing, what I hadn’t yet let occur to me was this: in all likelihood, just given the culture and the way that the Bible presents him, this man, this boy really, this prince, was also probably adored as a god by the Shechemites. And that god would be Ba’al, the great god of the second generation that comes and falls in love with their princess. But now, and this is part of it, it will be reversed, here in the next generation on earth—he the prince, she from the north…. I was beginning to see how it worked in, this human mortal story, with the story of the gods. How they were starting to mesh.
But, now, what I was really realizing was that this was really over-the-top. Bad enough to have to write a love story with a prince, but now, with a god?? And in those days, with those gods, it was straight-up sex, they didn’t mess around with mediators like Holy Ghosts to get the job done, to distance God from mucking around with mortal, not immaculate, conceptions. So, to think about this relationship as they would have, the people of Shechem, as Dinah would, as the prince would, was getting kind of freaky.
And so, there was still a certain amount of strategizing as I felt my way. Of how to approach the over-the-top love affair and not fall off the cliff into maudlin sentimentality and weirdness. Some colorized epic drama like “The Ten Commandments.”
So back to the drawing board.
But of course, it wasn’t exactly the drawing board I was going back to. It was partially the drawing board, but it was partially something else that was getting in the way. It was me.
It wasn’t just that I didn’t have the chops. It was that I didn’t know how to write about sex, because it made me totally uptight. I was the wrong person to write about sex. I’ve had a very boring sex life. Despite my nasty cynicism about marriage, I could be the poster wife for family values. I’ve lived with the same guy, slept with the same guy for over 40 years. I even married him, we raised two children…. Partnered for life, as they say. And, yes, he’s a nice guy but…
So now, how could I presume to enter into this young girl’s experience of having a foreign prince—who’s worshipped as a god—fall in love with her? Vow he’ll do anything to marry her, including, as it turns out, hacking away part of his penis and all the penises of the men of his city, the city with which he shares his name, in ritual circumcision in the name of the Father God, the god of her father, as her brothers demand before they slaughter all of them, the men they have tricked into disabling themselves with pain—for her.
It was, truly, over the top.
But luckily that too kicked in. If you can keep in mind it’s over the top, maybe you can do it, I told myself, maybe you can understand how she too would feel it’s over the top.
As I tried to make it more sexy.
So, it became an obsession, as work sometimes does when it feels very hard. How was I to understand this? How was I to write this? And as obsessions do, it managed, floating out from the back of my mind, to occupy my thoughts at odd, and sometimes not entirely welcome, times.
And one place it appeared, came floating in, I have to admit, was my own marriage bed. A kind of floating carpet now this bed became, floating in that pair and their accompanying question, how can I imagine this? How can I enter into what they’d feel, this amorous couple, these youthful lovers, the Canaanite Prince Shechem and Israel’s daughter Dinah, and all the time there behind them, the image that must have been accompanying them, that overshadowed them, the amorous pair who were meant to inhabit them—Anat and Ba’al—the ones for whom they, on mortal earth, must take the role of the mortal reenactment?
Yes, floating in, this image came, the bed now akin to a floating carpet a la Arabian Nights, carrying that amorous pair, Dinah and Shechem, that epic pair Ba’al and Anat (because now they were intertwined in the story and in my mind) so remote from my own love-making, into my marriage bed.
And I’d try to chide them out. Yes, this was heady stuff, hard to imagine, hard to find my way into. But still, letting work into the marriage bed, the love-making bed, I understood was generally not good… opening up to the deluge of daily life, the clutter of what-will-we-have-for-supper?, the note-to-self (write that email!)—this doesn’t belong there.
And yet, field work would be limited, I knew that. And they wanted to come in. So, at spare moments, I would, I’d let this image in. Because what or whom did it really hurt? And the more friendly somehow these fellow occupants seemed to become. They didn’t impose, they didn’t start romping widely, they didn’t impinge on the live occupants, flaunt their superior sex; they were simply friendly floaters at the edge. A warm embrace accompanying us.
And it was interesting to realize when they arrived. Usually at the end, during that stuporous repose at the end of sex, when the man, particularly, lies there depleted. They’d come wafting in—my friendly floaters, my androgynous couple, some simple hymn to coupling, and yet so mortal, that leg slung, hiked, over the rump like someone climbing a tree. That sense of limbs entwined as pleasure ebbs, lying face-to-face, and side-by-side—that would be the image.
And, yes, of course, obsessive as I was, I’d think again, about that, and wonder, Was that the truth? Was that really what the carver, the artist, was depicting, the moment at the end when lust has been fulfilled, desire depleted, and the bodies remain enfolded, grateful and affectionate? Was that the moment we were seeing, over the millennia?
And now, as I thought of this, I also thought more literally, back to the drawing board, but could it have been that he or she (because it could have been a she; there were female artists, as there were scribes, priests, rulers…) just didn’t know how to carve the pair of lovers any other way? Was it just an Egyptian kind of thing, this sideways pose, where we see them both in profile, entwined on the bed?
And maybe it was, maybe I could have found out, but it would have taken a lot of digging, and really, anyway, how much did it matter? It was what this image provoked, evoked, spoke over the centuries that mattered to me. It was what I saw.
But then, sometimes, I could imagine them in the middle, maybe prolonging it a bit by taking a break, as she rolled him over to the side. Then too this might have been the image in the artist’s eye.
And how about, even, in the beginning, before it really has begun? You could imagine them, there, too, at least if they were a comfortable couple easing in. Older and well-worn….
And so I worked my way forward, letting them in, taking notes, saying to myself, it’s OK, writing this part is supposed to be steeped in pleasure, right? The sex. You can’t write well about sex unless, in some way, you’re letting it in however it comes…
And it was kind of nice, after all, to open up my marriage bed to them, these androgynous and friendly, companionable bedmates. To enjoy the tenderness of their perceived equality, side-by-side, of equal sizes, naked, simple and similarly coifed but still different, that one’s leg thrown across the other’s, that blip of idiosyncrasy that made her or him so human…they weren’t bad bedmates at all.
And still sometimes, even after I’d reached the end of Dinah’s story, they’d come floating in, my old friends, the conjoined couple in their heavy marriage bed, the tenderness of them floating into my mind, enjoying the aftermath, or resting along the way, or easing in…in those interstices that they occupied, lying side-by-side, not in the throes of their young desire, but in its ebb, or as they slowed themselves down, or as they first embraced… as I had imagined them through the eyes of that unknown artist from 4,000 years ago…
And it was a little funny, really, because really these floater thoughts, this image that still floated in once the work of writing was done, were pornographic, in a way, I guessed. The way the Texas censors would see it. Because wasn’t that what pornography did, what it was supposed to do in its best iteration? Not always some laughingly over-the-top ludicrous come-on, though those could be fun, I suppose, the nun, or the nurse, some transgressive peep show, but also something more like this could count—surely there was room for this in the broad tent of pornography, of sex-enhancement, of pleasurable bedmate image, this very mild kind of porno that encouraged a companionable easiness with sex, a sense that it is good, that it is the sex itself, the coupling in bed, or the taking pleasure for yourself, that is the important part, not the flaunting of the flesh to the outside world, the exhibitionism of all those push-up bras, and thongs, the lure, the high heels and garters, the baby-girl poses—maybe that’s OK, it might be fun—but this not just playing-parts thing, but the thing itself. The love-making in bed. The connectivity, the pleasure of each other’s pleasure, in whatever way it came.
And why didn’t pornography belong in the marriage bed? For me, at least, this tender, egalitarian couple as I had come to know them did—this image from 4,000 years ago, they were welcome in my bed. Yes, welcome in, I thought. I think I’ve seen you right.
Occupy the Marriage Bed
And then one day last year, a surprising story arose, out of the present, out of the news…. Came sailing in—Marriage Equality had been declared! Gays and lesbians had been allowed in, or rather they’d broken down, that rigid rectangle of law, at the highest level of the land, at the Supreme Court. They’d won the right to occupy the marriage bed. Same-sex partners had been let in.
And I felt it then, as the fundamentalists must have felt it, as a major crack. I believed, as they did, that the marriage bed had been transformed, that it would never be the marriage bed of our mothers and fathers, the marriage bed of the millennia that preceded us, anymore. I felt the basic origins of that great heavy hemming in, those stern and punitive mortal laws under siege. The frame was cracking, the bed was opening up. Desire, for its own sake, female, or male, or whatever it was that we thought we were, for ourselves, for each other, this was to be let in. It was true. This was a victory for the “other side”—the ones who didn’t believe in all the rules, the anti-pleasure punishment. It was a victory for us who wanted the tenderness of sex between equals. It was transgressive, in that truly deeply transgressive (not a thumb-to-the-nose posturing) way.
Because that motive for what went on in the marriage bed simply couldn’t apply to same-sex partners. Such imprisonment of women, the patriarchal laws, thou shalt not commit adultery (or let yourself be raped or in any other way desecrate the marriage bed) or you’ll be stoned to death or otherwise destroyed, made not much sense for same-sex sex. Same-sex partners occupied the bed with one intent, and one alone: it was a good place for love-making. That was where it started, and for them, that’s what it was still. Sure, the marriage that now was allowed for them surrounded their love-making with all the same legalese as for straight people, and yet inside the bed, it truly was different, the laws really didn’t apply. Monogamy, OK, that could be a mutual choice or not, but the imperative of keeping sex in the marriage bed “pure” (for women) to ensure patrilineal descent, that didn’t apply.
And the rush of this, this thrill, really, to welcome in the marriage-busters, who occupy the marriage bed for love-making, felt so good. Move over, let them in, I thought, these folks for whom sex can’t be air-brushed out, the desire of their coupling, who can help free us all from disgust or shame, all the dour laws and impediments, the punishments for too much pleasure. Yes, welcome in.