From TODD WALTON
Under The Table
“How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.” Helen Gurley Brown
Why am I writing about Helen Gurley Brown, famed editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and a champion of sexual freedom or a promoter of sexual enslavement, depending on your particular socio-political orientation? Well, because Helen Gurley Brown just died at the age of ninety, and though many people consider her a traitor to feminism, and many others see her as a pioneering feminist and social revolutionary, Helen was one of the very few magazine editors in America in the 1970’s and 80’s who would publish my short stories about the challenges facing men and women in the chaos of sexual and social change that arrived with the birth control pill and the dawn of the feminist epoch; thus I have no doubt about where I stand regarding Ms. Brown’s place in the history of psycho-sexual discourse.
Ironically, or appropriately, I intended all eight of my stories that were eventually published in Cosmopolitan to be published in other magazines, notably Esquire and The New Yorker, for I did not read Cosmopolitan or have any great desire to be published therein. But I was not famous, nor was I a member of the literary society with access to the editors of those seemingly more sophisticated magazines, and so despite the valiant efforts of my incomparable literary agent Dorothy Pittman, I was never able to publish a story in either Esquire or The New Yorker, though we received many flattering rejection letters from editors at both magazines.
The very first short story I ever sold for actual money (as opposed to the mere glory of seeing my name in print) was to Cosmopolitan in 1975 for the staggering sum of one thousand dollars, with ten per cent of that fortune going to Dorothy. In one fell swoop I was lifted out of poverty, for in those days my monthly nut was seventy-five dollars: thirty dollars rent (I was living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon), thirty dollars for food, fifteen dollars for everything else. One day I was surviving on rice and beans and barely making ends meet with minimum wage work, the next day I was writing full-time and buying the occasional chicken to round out my menu.
Naively, I thought the publication of Willow, a provocative tale of a woman boxer who gets a shot at the male welterweight crown,would quickly be followed by more sales to Cosmopolitan and other magazines, but the gods did not so smile on me again until those nine hundred dollars were long gone and I had moved to Medford, Oregon to work as a landscaper. But oh how I relished that year of unfettered scribbling, a twelvemonth that saw the completion of my novel The Gimp that would be published three years later as Inside Moves, which publication procured for me a few more years to concentrate entirely on my writing and music.
And so I owe my fleeting success as a writer to Helen Gurley Brown, who, lest we forget, published her wildly successful and influential book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Ms. Brown is also widely acknowledged as the first editor of a mainstream women’s magazine to publish frank discussions about sex and sexuality as ongoing centerpieces of her editorial content. Speaking of which, in honor of Helen Gurley Brown, I unearthed my cache of ancient Cosmos so I might revive herein my story Annihilation, published in the American Cosmopolitan in 1982 and subsequently reprinted in the Australian and Italian editions of that fabled rag.
“Annihilate me,” Alana whispered.
He tried to annihilate her. He tried to be brutish. He had to think of things that made him angry. Income tax. His alcoholic father. Alana’s former lover. He began to lose his erection. He opened his eyes, looked at her belly, her taut little breasts, her dark honey hair, her pleasure-wracked face. He was renewed, yet filled with feelings of tenderness.
“You were marvelous,” she said afterward.
“Thank you,” he said, unable to look her in the eye. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said.
“How am I being silly?”
“Love,” she said, shrugging. “We’re animals. The real pleasure comes when we don’t try to tame the animal with ideas. Just take me. That’s all I want sexually.”
“Which animals are we?” he asked. “Lion, tiger, hippopotamus, bullfrog?”
“Don’t spoil it,” she said, getting out of bed. “Just be the animal you are. And be wild.”
“I cannot be wild on command,” he said to his psychiatrist.
The doctor smiled over her glasses at him. “I like that. Would you mind very much if I used that? For my book?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Glad to be of assistance.”
“That’s one of the big problems, isn’t it?” she said, nodding. “I call it feminist backlash. They finally get the gentle, caring person they were so adamant a man should be, and they find him inadequate. They want what they were lobbying against. To a certain extent.”
“And the solution?”
“And lose Alana?”
“Or lose yourself. And here you are just discovering what that is.”
“Do you wish for annihilation in sex?”
“I really don’t think it appropriate…”
“Sorry,” he said, biting his thumbnail. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Over breakfast one morning.
Alana: You were…you took so long. (A quick smile) I loved every minute of it, but I was wondering if…
Him: If what?
Alana: If you enjoyed it.
Him: Every minute of it. Though I must admit that lately I worry about…
Alana: You worry too much. Everything is fine. Isn’t it?
Him: Is it?
Alana: Of course it is. What’s wrong?
Him: (Blurting it out) Am I wild enough? Do I annihilate you adequately?
Alana: Yes. I was a fool to have ever started talking about it. Forgive me?
Him: Yes, if you’ll forgive me.
(She rises, goes to him, undoes her bathrobe, and cradles his head against her breasts.)
His friend Arthur, a notorious rogue, sat across the table from him at Chez Annihilation and gave him a rundown on the week’s activities.
“Monday night I destroyed the little brunette who sells skin cream. Massacred her.”
“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Tennis for two hours. Early to bed. Saving myself.”
“My day off Wednesday. Bombarded Sarah from nine till noon. Then, finally made it with You Know Who in the late afternoon. Decimated her.”
“Dare I ask about yesterday?”
“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Stayed in bed last night. Watched television. Great National Geographic show—Life and Death in Africa.”
“Anything on for tonight?”
“What’s Alana doing?” He laughed.
“Leave her annihilation to me, please.”
“It’s depressing,” he said, turning to the woman beside him at the bar.
“That’s an interesting opening line,” she said, winking. “But tell me, how did you know I was a neurotic?”
“Four gin and tonics at three in the afternoon?”
“I might just be an alcoholic.”
“True,” he said.
“The whole notion of sexual annihilation.”
“Ooh,” she cooed, her eyelids fluttering. “Sounds divine.” She moved closer. “You’re quite attractive, you know.”
“Well, among other things, you have very nice eyes.”
“No, why does annihilation sound divine?”
“Because to be annihilated is to be totally lost, and we only totally lose ourselves when we let go of everything, and we can only really let go when we are overwhelmed, when we simply lack the strength to defend ourselves, and have no choice. The decision is made for us by the overwhelmer. We escape our fears by becoming our fears. Ecstasy through annihilation.”
“You say that with such sureness,” he said.
“I know when I’m happy.”
Him: (As he takes the glass of wine from her) Alana, have you ever…that is, since we began sleeping together, have you ever wanted another man?
Alana: (Eyeing him suspiciously) Have you?
Him: I prefer females.
Alana: Other females?
Him: I asked you first. Have you…
Alana: Of course. But as Mae West used to say, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, just so long as you eat at home.”
Him: And where exactly do you get your appetite?
Alana: At the movies, in the car, when I close my eyes, when I see you, when I don’t see you, when I look at pictures of naked women, when I…
Him: Really? Naked women?
Alana: Naked women. There is nothing so erotic as a beautiful naked woman.
Him: Naked men?
Alana: In my mind, yes. And you. Otherwise no.
Him: Why naked women?
Alana: Perhaps by seeing an idealized picture of myself, posed ideally, I can more easily see the ways in which a man might…
Him: Annihilate you.
(Alana closes her eyes, sighs deeply.)
Annihilate: To reduce to nothing; to cause to cease to exist; to destroy completely; to exterminate.
Professor Cardin was speaking on the sexual basis of war.
“Long ago,” began the professor, addressing a full house, “the connection between fighting and mating was obvious. One had to win a mate. Not only did one have to defeat other males, but the female had to be subdued, too. This is genetic reality.”
Several women in the audience booed.
“I am not saying that this need be manifested in a purely physical way. Courtship, after all, can be largely non-violent, but consummation must be satisfactory, and this usually calls for a modicum of physical strength.”
Several women in the audience applauded.
“With the advent of a social order wherein weak, as well as strong, individuals could survive, the population began to expand at the phenomenal rate that continues to this day. Yet, the genetic need to conquer, especially that need in the more aggressive males and in females wanting those males, began to manifest in warfare.”
Several men in the audience booed.
“Yes, gentlemen. It is threatening to realize that the major wars throughout history have been fought because of the inadequate sexual identities of a handful of men.”
Several more men in the audience booed.
“Furthermore, we stand on the brink of complete annihilation because a handful of sexually frustrated old men with severe personality disorders hold the reins of power in this country and abroad. What should be a fierceness and physicality in bed is transmuted into bullying and genocide on a global scale.”
Several people in the audience applauded.
“The solution may be in a true sexual revolution. One in which the frequency of intercourse becomes as important as the orgasm.”
The audience reaction was greatly mixed.
“Well,” said his mother, serving him a bowl of ice cream. “When are you planning to have some kids? Soon, I hope.”
“Kids are not so much the issue,” he said.
“No. What is?”
“Well, I’m not so sure I’m giving her what she wants.”
“You’re speaking of sex?”
“Not sex so much as the kind of sex.”
She sighed, then sat down and shook her head. “I never told you this, but your father…” She hesitated. “He was extremely tender when we made love.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He couldn’t help it. I learned to accept it.”
“You were taught to be accepting,” he said, pushing his ice cream away, his jaw tightening. “Times have changed.”
“Now,” said the instructor, a Burt Reynolds look alike, “hitting is not a good idea. However, shoving, grabbing, spanking, shaking, and pulling are all techniques we’ll be investigating and practicing.”
“What about verbal abuse?” someone asked.
“The entire third and fourth sessions are devoted to that,” said the instructor, nodding. “But the main thing we’ll be working on is attitude.” He pounded the blackboard with his fist. “The first thing I want to hammer into your heads is that through disdain and contempt, by learning to be an emotional brick wall, you’ll have women crawling all over you. It’s attitude, attitude, attitude.” He scowled. “Now, sure, some women want a little warmth, a little sibling give and take, but they’re the exceptions. You can handle the exceptions once you know the rules.”
He practically kicked the door down. He flung the flowers at her feet. As she knelt to pick them up, he placed a foot on her shoulder and pushed her onto her back. She looked up at him, her eyes filled with terror. He was undressing. She started to get up. He growled. She lay back down.
“Take off your clothes,” he whispered fiercely. She did. He dropped to his knees, took her roughly in his arms, and annihilated her.
“Darling,” she said in the darkness, “you exhaust me.”
“I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said.
“Anything,” she said, pleading with him.
“Prove it,” he said. “Annihilate me.”
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)