Dirty or Clean?


Desire is not simple. – Anne Carson

(For Juliana Jones-Munson)

On my dishwasher is a magnet; one side reads DIRTY and the other reads CLEAN. I flip it around each time I load or unload the dishes, and it creates a weird sense of satisfaction in me; this notion that something can be so easily turned around, every day, that in such a simple, steady habit there exists an important reminder of the little mundane demands of life: you eat, you load the washer, you empty it, you flip the magnet. Life goes on, no matter how difficult it might be.

And each day when I flip this magnet around, I think of boundaries and how they’re marked, how they shift and morph; how they’ve changed so deeply for me during the process of grief; I think especially of how my attitudes about intimacy and sex are so different than they were even a year ago. In other words, I’ve become a bit of a pervert, meaning that I have turned away, in some sense, from what I was taught, in my Protestant upbringing, was the “right” approach to sex; namely, we don’t discuss it, you shouldn’t do it until you’re married, and you definitely shouldn’t enjoy it too much. Oh, and never ever talk about it.

Early this year I had a conversation with two good friends who are also writers. We were talking about how a person “presents” him or herself and about general perversion and who gets to draw the line and why, and we were categorizing one another. “Are you dirty, clean, clean/dirty, or dirty/clean?” The categories had less to do with actual practice than with vibe (and nothing to do with hygiene, except that if you are actually dirty, you are not really capable of being classified as clean).  But someone who presents as outwardly edgy and pervy might be secretly shy in the bedroom; someone who presents as generally a bit uptight or conservative might love trash talk in bed.  Clean/dirty and dirty/clean, then, referred particularly to a secret self underneath the surface energy or social presentation.

In other words, I’ve learned to be a switch hitter.


Years ago in my early 20s, when I was engaged to my first husband, I was having coffee at a Montana diner when I picked up a copy of the local personal ads. Next to the announcements for furniture and car sales were earnest requests: Old carpenter who likes to fish and camp seeks woman who can sing for companionship, long walks, more? Or Divorced white female, 42, seeks a good man who likes kids and can balance his own checkbook. I sipped my coffee and giggled meanly. How pathetic! I remember thinking, because I was about to be married to a man I thought was a super hot stud, I was young and hopeful and smart, and I would never have to look for love again. Check. Off the list. I thought about that diner – the bad coffee, the sassy waitress, the view of the mountains through the window – when my first marriage ended a year after it had begun, and I was moving my furniture and books into a sweltering hot storage unit in Austin, Texas with my sweating and worried parents helping me move boxes from the back of a rental truck.

I thought of those ads again this past year after my son Ronan was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I thought of them when I drove home from a nightclub, my hair full of sweat and smoke, my shirt askew, wondering “what just happened?” I thought of them when I looked at a bar menu on a date, ordered another gin and tonic and wondered if Ronan was having a seizure, and how the babysitter or his father would be managing it. I thought of them when I tried to pick out an outfit that was sassy without being trashy, and talked with my friends about how far it was appropriate to go on a first date. Most couples do not survive the loss of a child. My second husband and I fulfilled this statistic probability, although in the midst of our great sadness we made valiant efforts to reach each other. We failed. Grief morphs people; it dissolves direction, focus, desire, supposedly unbreakable bonds. We decided to separate and then we decided to divorce. The gap between us had become unbridgeable; the lives we imagined going on with after our son’s death incompatible.

Living on my own again, I realized that I had returned to a place I had happily abandoned for five years: the weird world of dating. At first this was exciting. I was gripped, compelled, shoved around by this desire to live, which manifested in some bad decision making and situations (late night booty calls and the kind of drunken hook-ups I hadn’t had since my 20s, only I’d end up weeping when it was all over). Some of these experiences felt exhilarating at the time – it was so good to feel something other than sadness – but they left me feeling emotionally strained, confused, and more shattered than I already was. I was “connecting” with people, sure, but it was not intimate and it did not fuel or nurture me at a time when I was already running on emotional reserves I didn’t even know I had until they were tapped out. I felt like an arrow of sheer desire, flying through the air in a small town and emblazoned with this unfortunate tag line: “Newly single mother of a dying baby.” Not exactly the description of somebody’s dream girl. And I didn’t care. I wanted to fuck and be fucked. I felt like I had a t-shirt that read TRAGEDY stenciled across it in rhinestones; I was bedazzled by bad luck. And I also had the sense that I was always about to fail a pop quiz. It’s like the dream when you imagine you missed math class and didn’t get your degree and then all of your teeth fell out. You wake up worried that all of your accomplishments are lies, your fingers groping frantically inside your mouth. In other words: dating created anxiety as much as it provided much-needed distraction. Would I ever have sober, enjoyable, connected sex again?

Of course it’s not all a bad dream reenactment. I enjoy the conversational aspect of dating, the literally “going out” to have new experiences with someone who sees the world differently from you. It feels like receiving a new pair of lungs to spend time with someone who doesn’t know that they’re facing the death of their most loved one in the very imminent future. I love getting to know new people (which isn’t unlike building a life in a brand new city or country, which is also a great love – and a unique talent – of mine). But I don’t like what seems to be the necessity of subterfuge, which constitutes the bulk of recommended behavioral currency in the (truly, not-so-modern) dating world. A sampling of advice: by their nature men like to chase and are hunters; women should play hard to get, make sure they see (and present) themselves as “prizes.” I am a sad mother watching her baby die who spends a lot of time alone in bed, picking the chocolate pieces out of trail mix, snuggling my son, weeping and watching action films and yes, writing. I also like to have dinner with my friends, hike, hear music, dance, drink martinis, and I have two full-time teaching jobs. Do I want to be saved from this existence? Not really. I just want someone to be able to hear about it without getting up from the table (literally or metaphorically) and running away.

Some other dating world beefs: I don’t like that being honest and trusting has become a totally unsexy liability. I grew up as the child of a pastor, in a world where you could sit on any man’s lap with zero fear of being molested, where people were true to their word, and where most of us were poor or on the edge of being poor and the winters were long and windy, and where my parents loved me even when I was acting like a maniac, which in my teenage years was most of the time. I hate that trying not to be self-conscious about an old-fashioned Midwestern-type farm upbringing (which involved working on an actual farm) makes me feel more self-conscious and uncool in a world where we’re supposed to be slick and street smart. I don’t like being told to quiet down or that I’m “too much” when I’ve spent most of my life working my butt off to be a writer, a teacher, and a decent person with a life full of purpose and meaning. I spend plenty of my life in utter quiet, happily whirling away in my inner life, which is a secret and complicated place, a world that is wholly my own and that I will never again give up in service to a relationship. But I do not want to be a nerdy hermit all of the time. When I’m with another person I want to know them, which requires talking and listening, not just observing and trying hard not to reveal anything that suggests vulnerability. Otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing or watching one of my favorite police procedurals on Netflix. I like to write stories, but I don’t want to be one. I like to have sex, but it’s not super fun to have a lover who bursts into tears when you’ve untangled yourself from her.

“What would you want in a relationship?” my girlfriends have asked me, while gently advising me that now may not be the best time to begin one. I thought long and hard about this. Did I want to keeping having ill-timed liaisons with people who cared little for me, or who, like me, were subconsciously seeking the distraction of drama and connection without true intimacy? Should I start dating women? (Tried that. Nope). Was “sex without attachment,” as I had rationalized it, a way of proving that I could live when I’m often so sad I think it would be better to die? No. That didn’t reduce attachment; it just made me feel empty and inauthentic. And who wants to feel more shattered than we already do in this sad and wacky world? I was giving myself a nasty head trip. I was flipping from dirty to clean and back again so much I was making myself sick.

I wanted dating to feel like connecting, not strategizing, and I didn’t want to feel like I was required to buy someone else’s farm on the first date or worry that they might want to buy mine, or whether we’d soon be negotiating which parts we want back. You can have the pigs, but I want half of that cornfield back, dammit. And get those chickens out of my back yard while you’re at it. I wanted a situation that feeds my soul, not just my ego. I didn’t want to rent any UHauls or think about renting future UHauls to live in homes where I might live with future children, although I would like to be a mother again, whatever that might look like. I didn’t want to make any promises but I wanted to have integrity in thought, word, and deed. (A VERY clean and Protestant wish). I wanted to live like it might be my last day without tapping into utter wildness and irresponsible behavior. I didn’t want to decide what I wanted to do with the second half of my life after Ronan dies, because I have no idea how I’m going to feel or in what direction my desire will run. I was dancing around in my living room to candy pop music one moment and the next I’d be catatonic on a friend’s couch weeping about how the future is a black hole of hopelessness. My emotions are not predictable; and frankly, I don’t think anyone can calibrate how they’ll feel from moment to moment unless they’re heavily medicated or trying not to feel anything at all, or anesthetized by a drug or an activity of choice. The only way, I think, to live on after an almost unfathomably shitty situation is to actually experience it, and that’s what I’m trying to do, and it’s messy. But I’m human. I want connection, true connection, for however long it lasts, and I want space for my complicated and deeply sad but also full and happy life. I’ve realized that people have trouble holding contradictions when they think of “dating.” They have a checklist of criteria to match up against a list of their own fears and phobias and issues, only this latter list is often invisible to them, even though it dictates their actions. Oh, it’s confusing. I’m vulnerable. In this social arrangement, who isn’t? To not be seems a much more frightening concept. Why can’t we just be as clear as possible?

I don’t expect anyone to love my child the way that I do, because nobody can or will. I don’t need anybody to fix my big fat broken heart, because nobody can or will, although that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be happy. I do. I want to live. I want to be, quite simply, accepted and desired for the sum total of who I am, and who I might become, and for the experiences that have contributed to both. I don’t want anybody to feel as though they have to prop me up, but I also want – and need – support. And yes, I want romance. Long walks, maybe more?

I would never judge those Montana ads now. I would hope the best for those people. I would hope that they got what they wanted without giving up an essential part of themselves, as so many people do, as I have done. I would understand that none of us knows when we might be abandoned. I wish I could meet them and say, “Hey, Other Human Person, you’re so great! Hold out for what feels good! And just remember that nothing lasts forever!”

This newly found compassion doesn’t mean that being the mother of a dying child has made me a better person in the superficial way we have come to understand that phrase, which is usually meant to describe someone who does the “right” thing, whatever that means. As Nietzsche would argue, our notion of ethics and morality stem from a source that itself might be completely bunk and doesn’t provide an appropriate baseline for assessing our activities as right or wrong, because these words don’t mean anything on their own or when randomly applied to real-life scenarios that are not just abstractions. Mothering a child who will only live for three years while being robbed of all his faculties has made me edgier, but also softer; it has made me more authentic and less judgmental, but also less tolerant of superficial concerns. It’s made me totally fearless and absolutely shit scared. It has dissolved the person I thought I was and helped me find the girl who used to write in the closet with a flashlight without thinking about if what I wrote was any good, just loving the feeling of creation, the sound of the words in my fingers. I’m 38. My life is over. My life is just beginning. I feel like a two thousand year old teenager.

I find that my previously quite detailed dating criterion has disappeared. I don’t really care about finances, or occupation, or education, or age, or a particular “type” of look or even a series of common interests or “shared goals” or “deal breakers,” these last two being overused and pointless phrases that people throw around in therapy and in casual conversation. I care about how I feel; it’s taken me almost four decades to understand that I don’t need a checklist, I need a heart match, and this latter requirement is not quantifiable and its physical manifestation cannot be anticipated. But if I say that on a date, I feel like I’m quoting dialogue from a Lifetime movie, or sound like a new age hippie, or maybe have a secret drinking problem that I’m afraid to admit. As if having a dying baby wasn’t enough of a melodramatic plot that makes people want to run from the room.

In my previous dating life, long before I went through anything from which I might have needed saving, I wanted to be saved: from uncertainty, from the possibility of loneliness, from the inevitability of loss. In short, I didn’t want to die, and I thought yoking myself to someone else’s life would stave this off. Unpacked in this way, such thinking is completely idiotic but all of us do it unconsciously all of the time. Of course I only made this connection fifteen years later. I look at my son and know that I am more yoked to him than I have ever been to anyone, that I would kill anyone if I thought it would save him, that I would die with him if I thought it meant I could go where he’s going and help him out in that place that nobody has visited but hope exists. I don’t believe that you don’t know love until you have a child. Love is not quantifiable; to say so is to demean both its power and its mystery. I do know that I’m capable of loving more deeply now than I was before my son was sick and dying. Why? Because I am bereft of certainty, cleaned of at least this one misguided desire to be saved by anyone or anything. I’ll never be okay again, mothers of children with terminal illnesses often write to me. But are we ever?

So, if not salvation, which most people are subconsciously looking for, what is there to want in a romantic relationship?

I want a witness. I want to be held while I weep like an animal and not be told that I’m strong or that things will get better. I also want to cry on my own and sulk with a good book and bad television. I don’t want to be lied to. I want big-hearted accompaniment in this wild and frightening place of grief that is unexpectedly beautiful, shimmery, weird, and unpredictable; which is to say, it’s just like life, only magnified, deepened. I want someone who can see me in the ultimate moment of weakness and view it as an expression of human strength, because that’s what it is.

Every year, the citizens of Santa Fe build a giant puppet – Zozobra – and watch him burn in a public park in the middle of town. Everyone is invited to place their gloom, whatever it might be, in a box, and that, too, is set on fire. My good friend is the mistress of gloom, and being late to the gloom table, I almost didn’t get mine into the puppet. Break the rules! I begged her, but I wasn’t the only one. She slipped some gloom in the pot for me, texting me from the stage I wish I could see you. This is what grieving people truly want – to be seen. In all their mess and humanity and roaring, groaning, rock-back-and-forth sadness.

Most people think they don’t want complication. But it comes anyway.


To let go of the thing you most want to hang onto is to experience desire with all its unmatchable threads, its sharp and feathery edges, its weird geometry and turbulent mathematics, its dark corners and wacky, spontaneous bursts of light. To say that someone is the love of your life is to admit that if they are taken from you, your life will be unfathomably altered and there will be a hole that’s impossible to fill. What I’d like to say on a date: “To love is to burn. You dig?” And then wait for the answer before asking (or not) for the check. I do not want solutions, platitudes, or promises. I want to cry in the dark. I want to cry in the car. I want to pound my fists against a surface and scream. I want to listen to the rain on the roof, that slow and steady rhythm that is so like the beating of a heart, so unmistakable, so easily changeable so ready to stop. Everything still stop. The heart will stop: Ronan’s, mine, everyone’s. So here’s my ad:

SWDF, both dirty and clean, depending on the day, seeks someone to put their arms around her and say, “I’ve got you.”

A former Fulbright scholar and graduate of Harvard University, Emily Rapp Black is the author of the books The Still Turning Point of the World and Poster Child: A Memoir, in addition to many essays and stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Bark, Bellevue Literary Review, The Sun, Body + Soul, StoryQuarterly, Good Housekeeping, The Texas Observer, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers' Award, a James A. Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas-Austin (Michener Center for Writers), and the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence fellowship at Bucknell University. She has received awards and grants for her work from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Jentel Arts Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Fundacion Valparaiso. She has taught writing in the MFA program at Antioch University-Los Angeles, where she was a core faculty member, the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and UCLA-Extension. She is currently professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She is at work on a novel. More from this author →