Last weekend, at an intimate, impromptu dinner with friends I hadn’t seen in some time, they asked me quite innocently what I’d done on New Year’s Eve. We were gathered around a broad marble kitchen island in the Oakland hills, spreading expensive cheese on paper thin crackers, surrounded by redwood trees and light rain. The cheese was left over from a New Year’s Eve party that I hadn’t been invited to. Since I’d had a baby nine months earlier, I was invited out less and less. And I understood, completely. Like my friends, I was not a baby person. I loved my own baby, of course, but I wouldn’t have invited him to a dinner party either. Especially not a dinner party in a pristine, midcentury modern house in the hills, with no men, no children, and only the smallest, most well-behaved (and well-dressed) rescue dogs.
On the night of the dinner party, the baby was with my parents in Berkeley, and my husband was home alone at our house in San Francisco. I was a week into Dry January, but these were wine-savvy friends from my restaurant work days, and I couldn’t resist a perfect pour of plummy, violet Cru Beaujolais. Try January, another friend called it. And I was trying. Trying to be a writer and a mother. Trying to get out of the house. Trying to stay in touch with friends. Trying, if I’m being honest, to avoid my husband.
I’d rung in the New Year, I told my childless, lesbian friends, in bed with a book. My husband had put the baby down around seven thirty and had passed out, as was his custom these days, around eight. I couldn’t complain, really. He took the morning shifts so I could sleep in. I got into bed far earlier than I ever had, but after years of working at night, I was still incapable of falling asleep before midnight. And so, I read. And read and read. And in the chaos of my days—the baby scampering toward wires, the dog howling, the unfolded laundry and sink full of dishes reappearing in an endless loop—I watched the clock and waited for that scarcest of commodities in my current life—quiet.
My friends nibbled and sipped, glanced at each other, and offered their condolences. I insisted that it was the solitary New Year’s Eve celebration I’d wanted—that I loved to read—but they were (rightfully) unconvinced. To dispel the murky tinge of pity in the air, I did what I always do in such situations, which was to spin the story toward the darkly comic. On New Year’s Eve, I was at home with a sleeping baby and passed-out husband reading Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, a new collection of essays co-edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters. And not only that, but the essay I happened to read that night was Melissa Febos’ “Song of Songs” (originally published in The Believer) about “multiorgasmic women” and their “infinite feedback loop of pleasure.” Febos, a former dominatrix, current professor, and author of the memoir Girlhood and the collection Body Work, is no stranger to the topic of desire. Had my friends heard of Melissa Febos? They had not. You’re welcome, I said, then refilled my glass and scratched the warm belly of a raccoon-like dog named Georgie. All the dogs had androgenous names—Georgie, Louie, Frankie. But Georgie was the only one with the taut pink nipples of a mama dog. She’d had two litters before being adopted by my friends, and, on hearing this, I felt something even worse than pity. I was jealous. Jealous of this wiry, big-eyed dog. I only had one baby, but oh, how good it felt to leave him behind, if only for a night, to be enveloped by the warmth and wonder of these sophisticated women, swirling Beaujolais and grilling salmon in the urban wilds.
I read Melissa Febos’ multiorgasmic essay on the furthest edge of my king-sized bed, separated from my snoring husband by a barricade of pillows. The irony was not lost on me. Nor was the fact that I’d chosen to review a book called Wanting: Women Writing About Desire. The book’s cover was a swirl of pink and red, deliberately O’Keefe-esque and vaginal. In coffee shops and libraries, I felt an equal pull to display the book for all to see and to cover it with brown paper, elementary school style. At home, I felt the same competing desires. Look! I wanted to say to my husband, the word WANTING scrawled across the cover in bright yellow, as if calling out from our kitchen table in mute distress. Look how desperate I’ve become! But also, I wanted to secret the book away from him, to sink into its hidden pleasures on my own time. To feel, if not orgasmic, then at least at peace. “So much of my early sexual interactions,” writes Febos, “were governed by performance, and, partly as a result, devoid of pleasure…Such is the conditioning of heterosexual hegemony. A fundamental reason why my sex with women is so much better than with men is the freedom it grants from performance scripts. With her, more so than with any lover before, I follow my pleasure without fear of shame.” When had my desire for my husband become performative? How had our script gotten so argumentative, so full of awkward silences? Was this the last act of my marriage?
Did I want to be with women? I did not. In my next life, I always said, I’d be a rich gay man. Or a rich gay man’s dog. But this was just something to say for cheap laughs, a blatant oversimplification. Like Febos, I wanted to escape the performative confines of heterosexual hegemony. And OK, I also wanted to be a multiorgasmic woman. To “hear myself,” as Febos writes, “like the dazzling long-held howl of some animal so close by it must be inside.” But I did not wake my husband. I left the barricade intact. Lately, even our chaste kisses before bed felt performative, accented, as they were, by the rote love yous of shared obligation and responsibility. Maybe, I reasoned, as I buried my animalistic desires yet again in the pages of a book, what I really wanted was solitude. Like Amanda Petrusich, another essayist anthologized in Wanting, I was “seized by two dueling impulses: to be alone all the time and to never be alone.” I complained constantly about the isolation of early motherhood but refused to join a mother’s group. Instead, I scrolled through listings for writer’s residencies, wanting, like Petrusich, “institutional validation of an otherwise shameful need to briefly disappear.”
Why, as women, do we need to validate our desires? And why do our desires so often fill us with shame? Babies, dinner parties, multiple orgasms, solitude—I wanted them all, and more. And not in some filtered, Instagram facsimile of balance, purchasable for a not-so-modest fee. In “When I Imagine the Life I Want,” Larissa Pham writes, “I don’t want to have to balance what I want with what is attainable because I want it all. I want it all.” I wanted, like the Michelle Yeoh film I’d snuck out to see by myself, in the actual movie theater with a giant bowl of butter-drenched popcorn, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Or maybe I just wanted fingers made of hot dogs. Maybe I just wanted to laugh. To lighten the mood. Like Merritt Tierce in “Notes Toward a History of Desire,” “I wanted to laugh at it, and be modern and cynical and chill.” Maybe I didn’t want enough. Maybe I wanted too much. Maybe I didn’t know how to coherently want for myself. Like so many women, I was well-versed in anticipating other people’s needs, in fulfilling their desires before my own. And I was good at it. So good, in fact, that I’d made a profession of it in the restaurant industry. A profession I’d only left to attend to yet another (albeit small and helpless) person’s needs. Did I mention that the baby was a boy? Of course he was a boy. But I was raising him to be The Man of the Future, or the Person of the Future, unencumbered by heterosexual hegemony or archaic notions of gender. Attuned to his own desires as well as to the desires of the women in his life. But the future felt far off. Unattainable, even.
The one thing I wanted, unequivocally and without hesitation, was to write. And to read. And so, while another woman took care of my child, I highlighted passages from Wanting, red cover blazing. And then, in the precious quiet, sat down to write this review. In curating this anthology, Kahn and McMasters found that “the experience of desire—the pleasure and the pain of it—ultimately came down to something one experiences alone.” In reading Wanting, I found camaraderie in the sheer breadth and diversity of that solitary longing, and catharsis in seeing the rawness of that longing so openly expressed on the page.
In the introduction to Wanting, Kahn and McMasters write: “Historically, of course, female desire was defined by men; women’s voices on this subject were conspicuously absent from the page. But women want to want. And wanting—which demands hunger and autonomy—remains, for women, a dangerous concept.” This book is an attempt “to create a space for women to interrogate and luxuriate in their desire . . . as the main subject.” If I could not morph into a rescue dog doted on by childless lesbians, at least I could luxuriate in this anthology. I could indulge in my insatiable hunger. I could feel, at least for a moment, the autonomy I felt I no longer possessed. The book’s title, write Kahn and McMasters, has a double meaning: “The act of wanting…also reflects the lack that is often overlooked in the process.” How I felt the pang of recognition in that sentence. How much, in middle age, I still wanted. How much I still lacked. How late I’d arrived at the party. How I wanted to linger. How I wanted an afterparty. How I wanted to take a man home. How I wanted to go home alone. How I wanted a home of my own. A home I could afford, for just my son and me. Kahn and McMasters also co-edited the anthology This is the Place: Women Writing About Home, and although that collection complicates notions of female domesticity, the essays in Wanting burn the proverbial house down.
Although many of the essays are overtly and unapologetically sexual (“The book began,” write Kahn and McMasters, “during a conversation over dinner with Esther Perel, the brilliant sex and relationship psychotherapist and author”), I found myself drawn more to the entries that approach desire as an abstraction—the desire for time, for example, felt particularly resonant. But also, the desire to surpass the confines of class, race, gender, and age. The desire to want without judgment, to indulge without addiction. Even the desire to overcome desire itself—in “On Not Getting What I Wanted,” Elisa Albert calls herself “a prisoner of want,” and writes: “I wanted not to want. I wanted it so, so bad.” In “An SUV Named Desire,” Jennifer De Leon, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who “moved countries, states, and neighborhoods…never mind language, class and culture,” just wants to belong: “it wasn’t the car itself but rather the illusion that I would ever fit in.” In “Desire in the City of Subdued Excitement,” Rena Priest’s desire for $500 cowboy boots goes beyond the material as well. As a native woman, Priest has
an aching and persistent desire to write without all this baggage . . . without having to overcome stereotypes . . . Call it cultural appropriation. I want to dress up and play at cowboy culture. I desire the power available to the self-assured cowboys of the American West. The kind of arrogance required to swagger in, take what I want from this world, and feel 100 percent entitled to it.
“Desire is messy,” write Kahn and McMasters—no anthology can fully capture the multiplicity of women’s desires, but in just over 300 pages, Wanting really does have something for everyone. I highlighted so many passages of “There is a Name for This,” Joanna Rakoff’s essay, that my pen ran out of ink. What sounds on the surface like the premise to a rom-com I’d never watch (middle-aged woman reunites with college boyfriend at a party) turns into a siren call to the self, a self that can only be formed in solitude, through writing. A self that demands the delay of romantic and sexual gratification. As a young woman, Rakoff leaves an otherwise blissful relationship because “I could no longer write . . . I couldn’t think either . . . My mind no longer seemed my own.” Decades later, on her way to the party where she’ll run into her ex, Rakoff luxuriates in her own company. Alone, if only for a night, Rakoff steps out of her role as wife and mother and rediscovers not only her lost love, but also that she is the subject, finally, rather than the object of desire:
I wanted him, in a way I had never, not ever, wanted anyone before. Every encounter that preceded it had stemmed from some boy’s desire for me, rather than mine for him. I’d felt, purely, grateful to be wanted. My own desire had never even factored into the equation.
With this reversal comes empowerment, and Rakoff finds “the courage to move toward him, rather than run away, run back to my children and my husband.” In “Splitting the World Open,” Lisa Taddeo laments the pitfalls of our post-MeToo moment: “Finally, as a gender we are speaking about what we don’t want. But, perhaps more than ever, we are not speaking of what we do want.” How refreshing, then, to watch Rakoff run toward her own desire. Alone, in a beautiful black dress.
In the acknowledgements, Kahn and McMasters thank their families, “especially our sons . . . who are always wanting something, and someday will understand that we have wants, too.” Someday I will give my son a copy of Wanting, and he too will understand that his mother has desires of her own. In addition to the women who run my son’s daycare, I’d like to thank Kahn and McMasters for anthologizing these remarkable essays. Finally, a mother’s group I want to join. And a dinner party I’ll run to afterward, gloriously alone.