Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.3]

I believe we resonated so strongly because we were both wounded people who’d been able to heal ourselves, for the most part. We had both learned to give at the expense of ourselves and had spent our lives trying to be who we thought other people wanted or needed us to be. Both of us realized we were married to someone we shared NO mental space with. We both had complicated inner lives and liked to live in our heads, but no one had ever taken the time or had the desire to come inside them with us. So, in a sense neither of us had ever felt “known.” If anyone had loved us, it wasn’t because they really knew who we were. Worse, we’d both come to believe that we weren’t worthy of being known. We’d both never felt loved or desired before. It was shocking to find out there was someone else out there who thought the other was amazing.

The truth of the matter was, I felt insane desire for Jonah. So much so, it scared me. I found Jonah sexy and sensual and deep and dark and beautiful and complex, and well, fucking amazing. I’ve always had an ability to feel warmth and empathy for people and that’s what “desire” felt like in my other relationships. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I’d never felt real sexual desire before. I began to feel every cell in my body come alive.

As luck would have it, a mutual friend of ours was getting married in my hometown in two weeks. It just happened to provide Jonah an excuse to return. I thought our first visit would be more awkward than it was. We met in the park and sat at a picnic table tucked away from the main road. He’d brought me a book! Kavalier and Clay. I fit perfectly in his arms, and we clung together like magnets. Trembling, we hugged, kissed, and studied each other’s faces. Very few words were exchanged. After an hour, I left to get ready for the wedding, and Jonah left to meet up with the guys who were technically his alibi (although they hadn’t a clue about me). We’d agreed to show up at the wedding separately, within thirty minutes of each other, and then he would leave after an hour or so, and I’d sneak out at my first available opportunity. That all played out well, and I followed him to his hotel.

Within ten minutes we were naked in bed together under the covers. This was a bit more awkward. We chatted and kissed for a while and then Jonah made an effort to arouse me. I found myself clenching up. I yelled at myself, “Let go, damn it. You want him! Don’t screw it up.” But the harder I tried, the more disengaged from my body I became. I was shocked to find all my usual feelings in the room with us. Disgust, pain, insecurity, recoil…and my annoying thoughts. Will I be rejected later for giving myself to Jonah now? Wasn’t sex designed for procreation? Since we’re clearly not trying to make a baby, why are we really doing this anyway? Food—salivate; bell—salivate; sex—pain; physical intimacy—recoil. Ugh—Will Pavlov and Skinner ALWAYS be in the fucking bedroom with me????!!! My brain told me to override my panic. It was too late.

I worried that my inability to enjoy myself might mean my feelings for Jonah weren’t what I thought they were. To my own horror and disappointment, I watched myself playing out the old script. To Jonah’s credit, he read me well. He sensed I was not comfortable. He asked me several times if I was okay, and I lied and said I was. After a long, but futile, effort on his part, I felt I needed to give something back. I asked him to make love to me. I assured him several times that’s what I wanted. He watched my face, but I couldn’t make eye contact. He refused to enter me and said, “You know what? I get the sense something’s off and that you’re not really enjoying yourself. Is this too much for you?”

I felt the tears coming as I admitted that my head was ruining everything. I told him what sex had always been like for me and how I’d coped with the feeling of being “taken” by disassociating. I had hoped it would be different with him. But clearly, negative emotions were so strongly associated with sexual intimacy, I worried that I was just ruined forever. Jonah listened then said, “I understand. I’m sorry those things have happened to you. It really breaks my heart. You aren’t ruined. This is just another layer of you I get to explore. You are the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. Let me help you. I never want you to feel ‘taken.’ I only want us to offer ourselves to each other equally.”

The next morning, Jonah and I met for coffee before he left town. I remembered what he’d said the night before, but still, I sincerely hoped I hadn’t ruined things. He knew I was worried and moved over to sit next to me in the booth. He started by saying, “Have you ever heard about Gormenghast or Petersburg?”

“No…tell me about them.”

“Well, ‘Gormenghast’ is this wonderful, wonderful British fantasy book. Gormenghast is about Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Groan. This little boy. He lives in the palace of Gormenghast, which is this absolutely massive place. It’s like a city or a world. And at the end of the second book, you realize that Gormenghast itself is actually the main character. ‘Petersburg’ by Andrei Bely is the same kind of thing. The city becomes the main character. It’s an amazing book, too. And then in ‘The Sandman,’ by Neil Gaiman, there’s this character, a great fat jolly man in tweeds, who looks a lot like GK Chesterton. And no one can figure out who he is. Well, it turns out that he is Fiddler’s Green, which is sort of like heaven in sailors’ mythology.

“So, he’s actually a place that decided it was sick of being a place and turned itself into a person. My point in all this rambling is that you’re like a place to me. You’re like this magnificent palace or cathedral with all these rooms, and bit by bit, the spirit of the place lets me into all these rooms. Like a person who is a place. And this place feels simultaneously completely new and just like home. You’re this place I get found in. You’re like this place I’ve been looking for my whole life.”

“Wow, Jonah. That is certainly the most incredible—and creative—compliment anyone’s ever given me. I’m grateful to you for it. I love that I feel familiar to you somehow.”

“Michelle, you really do. And so, my point is that every new room is miraculous and lovely and part of the whole place. And what you call your needy needs, or idiosyncrasies, I call new rooms. I’m quite serious. Every new layer of you that I see, every new part of you that you uncover for me, just makes me adore you that much more.”

“Jonah, there are layers of loveliness and sweetness in your sentences. Your words are gifts to me. Very precious ones.”

“I think you’re the only person who’s ever noticed them.”

“Thank you for being so kind. I really do adore you, too.”

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