Best Sex I Ever Read

Nov­el­ist Emily M. Dan­forth on the tac­tile plea­sure of Pa­tri­cia High­smith

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - plain bad hero­ines will be pub­lished by William Mor­row on Oc­to­ber 20.

“Carol’s fin­gers tight­ened in her hair, Carol kissed her on the lips, and plea­sure leaped in Therese again as if it were only a con­tin­u­a­tion of the mo­ment when Carol had slipped her arm un­der her neck last night. I love you, Therese wanted to say again, and then the words were erased by the tin­gling and ter­ri­fy­ing plea­sure that spread in waves from Carol’s lips over her neck, her shoul­ders, that rushed sud­denly, the length of her body. Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was con­scious of Carol and noth­ing else, of Carol’s hand that slid along her ribs, Carol’s hair that brushed her bare breasts, and then her body too seemed to van­ish in widen­ing cir­cles that leaped fur­ther and fur­ther, beyond where thought could fol­low. While a thou­sand mem­o­ries and mo­ments, words, the first dar­ling, the sec­ond time Carol had met her at the store, a thou­sand mem­o­ries of Carol’s face, her voice, mo­ments of anger and laugh­ter flashed like the tail of a comet across her brain. And now it was pale-blue dis­tance and space, an ex­pand­ing space in which she took flight sud­denly like a long ar­row. The ar­row seemed to cross an im­pos­si­bly wide abyss with ease, seemed to arc on and on in space, and not quite to stop. Then she re­al­ized that she still clung to Carol, that she trem­bled vi­o­lently, and the ar­row was her­self. She saw Carol’s pale hair across her eyes, and now Carol’s head was close against hers. And she did not have to ask if this were right, no one had to tell her, be­cause this could not have been more right or per­fect. She held Carol tighter against her, and felt Carol’s mouth on her own smil­ing mouth. Therese lay still, look­ing at her, at Carol’s face only inches away from her, the gray eyes calm as she had never seen them, as if they re­tained some of the space she had just emerged from. And it seemed strange that it was still Carol’s face, with the freck­les, the bend­ing blond eye­brow that she knew, the mouth now as calm as her eyes, as Therese had seen it many times be­fore. ¶ ‘My an­gel,’ Carol said. ‘Flung out of space.’”

nov­el­ist Emily M. Dan­forth, author of The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Cameron Post and Plain Bad Hero­ines, hadn’t yet come out when she first en­coun­tered this pas­sage from Pa­tri­cia High­smith’s The Price of Salt back in her 20s. At the time, she wished the scene had been more anatom­i­cal.

To­day, it’s High­smith’s sub­lime metaphors that pull her in. Al­though she ap­pre­ci­ates Todd Haynes’s film adap­ta­tion, Carol, Dan­forth in­sists there’s some­thing inevitably miss­ing from this iconic scene. “She’s a fuck­ing comet arc­ing into space,” Dan­forth says. “That’s some­thing you can only do in prose, that you can’t mimic with two ac­tors in a ho­tel stage room.” as told to lila shapiro

it be­gins with

“ter­ri­fy­ing plea­sure,” this plea­sure that’s so big that Therese is scared of it even as she’s walk­ing into it. But then the phys­i­cal de­scrip­tions fall away. There’s such speci­ficity there—the use of leaped, her body van­ish­ing in widen­ing cir­cles, that beau­ti­ful line “beyond where thought could fol­low.” And then sud­denly Pa­tri­cia High­smith is re­mind­ing us of all those things that have hap­pened to Therese and Carol to get to this mo­ment. If there was a hand­book for writ­ing an erotic scene, I’m sure it would say “Don’t do that.” You can’t pull out of the mo­ment—we’ve lost the hair on the breasts and the tin­gling plea­sure. But that’s what I love about the scene.

High­smith was adept at con­struct­ing th­ese very tightly plot­ted crime nov­els, and she brings that tal­ent to bear in The Price of Salt. From the mo­ment Therese en­coun­ters Carol in the de­part­ment store, we are re­ally build­ing to­ward this scene more than a hun­dred pages later. That also puts an un­bear­able pres­sure on this scene to work.

Through­out the novel, Therese is look­ing for in­struc­tion from Carol as though she’s fill­ing some sort of parental void. So this is an in­cred­i­bly pro­found mo­ment, one that’s so rec­og­niz­able to me as a queer woman—that Therese has a cer­tainty, and she doesn’t need it de­fined or ex­plained or sanc­tioned by any out­side force.

I spent a good part of my late teens and early 20s read­ing all the les­bian lit I could in or­der to be the best les­bian I could be when I came out. When I first read the scene, in my mid20s, I didn’t want it to be art­ful. I wanted it to be an in­struc­tion man­ual. It does feel goofy to ad­mit that, but I re­ally wanted to do it cor­rectly. This was in the late ’90s and early aughts. I read a lot of up­set­ting les­bian books; I started with The Well of Lone­li­ness and worked my way from there, sto­ries where the queer cou­ple are pun­ished in some way. Read­ing this book, even some 48 years af­ter it had been pub­lished, had a huge ef­fect on me—the hope­ful­ness, the en­dorse­ment of

Therese’s feel­ings.

Now, when I reread the pas­sage, it’s the miss­ing anatomy that I love.

I’m fill­ing in the de­tails. High­smith al­lows space for the reader to do that work at ex­actly the right mo­ment. She’s tak­ing the reader into the realm of the in­ef­fa­ble.

As a young reader, that is what I wanted the ex­pe­ri­ence of sex to be like. I knew I had th­ese de­sires, but to act on th­ese de­sires—that ter­rain still felt very fraught to me. So this idea that sex would be so beau­ti­ful I wouldn’t even be able to find the words for it, that felt very im­por­tant.

This scene lodged so firmly in my brain that it bub­bles up in ways I’m not al­ways aware of when I’m writ­ing. There’s a mo­ment in my new book when three of the char­ac­ters make out in an or­chard, and each of them is think­ing in th­ese re­ally spe­cific, sen­sory terms of images that they’re go­ing to re­mem­ber later. I love that shift from tac­tile writ­ing into meta­phoric writ­ing that al­lows the reader to fully live in a scene so that it feels true, which is re­ally what I ask of fic­tion.

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