I've always wondered: If love is blind, why is sex so much better with one's eyes open? There's an essay in Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House that addresses that question in reverse fashion. If the person having sex is blind, is their love more visible?
"You Don't See the Other Person Looking Back," a romantic account by essayist Michael Lowenthal of a sea cruise for blind gay men, makes a point of the association between love, sex and vision when the latter is impossible. And it opens with one of the best leads we've encountered in a while: "They say animals resemble their masters, so I shouldn't have been surprised that Oscar, Tommy's Seeing Eye dog, the instant he was unharnessed, rose to his hind legs and humped my knee." The theme here is relevant to all attraction, sighted or blind, straight or gay. "When blind people—without the aid of visual inspiration—feel the burn of sexual desire," Lowenthal writes, "is that desire, I wondered, deeper, more authentic?" In other words, is visual inspiration necessary to sexual attraction?
These and other heady questions pop up throughout Do Me. Tin House is one of the most widely read literary quarterlies, and it's easy to see why from this stimulating collection. Even the least complicated sex in these 22 pieces carries deep meaning of the kind everyone discovers in their romantic attachments. And therein lies one of the book's many lessons: There is no such thing as casual sex.
Other truisms arise, as well, such as the ever-popular motto of relationship counselors: Sex changes everything. Whether it's fellatio in an amusement-park funhouse, an adulterous rivalry between two sisters, or a married man's hour with a prostitute in Las Vegas on Christmas Day, the stories all turn on the act. Or, in a tale of phone sex, its impending possibility.
It's old news that well-written eroticism can be as big a turn-on as hardcore porn. But that's not always the case here. Some of these tales are meant to stimulate the intellect rather than the libido. Some arouse both. And it's hard to feel any arousal in Victor LaValle's tale of a group of New York 13-year-olds who run straight into reality when they pool their resources to hire a streetwalker.
Many of the authors collected in Do Me are professors or graduates of writing programs, and it follows that the scenarios are often of the ivory-tower sort (what could be more phallic?). Two English teachers meet at the Modern Language Association convention and begin a phone-sex relationship; a professor fucks one of his students while his colleagues discuss Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Freud. One story is in the question-and-answer form of a midterm exam. Yet little of it is stuffy or scholarly—this is sex, after all—and some of it seems delightfully white-trash. "My mother rarely spoke of my father's family history," opens Mark Jude Poirier's "I Maggot," "but when she did, she spoke in threats: 'Ask one more question about that cousin-fucker, and I'll kick the queer right out of you!'"
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Not surprisingly for adult subject matter, the best stories deal with adolescents and early sexual confusion. Steven Millhouse's "The Room In the Attic" is a spooky tale of a troubled high-school girl shuttered away in a lightless attic—the vision thing again—and her touchy-feely relationship with a kid her brother brings home. In Dylan Landis' "Like Jazz," a middle-school girl wonders, truth-or-dare fashion, if her father's friend is raping her. The innocence of cross-generational attraction is suggested in Sarah Sun-lien Bynum's "Sandman," in which a teacher tries to get her eighth-graders to take seriously the threat of sexual predation. "Want some candy, little girl?" one student sneers back.
But the most tangible presence here is death. It's often claimed that sex is our reaction to mortality, and that inevitability is here battled again and again. The recipient of that amusement-park blowjob is shocked to learn its young and lovely bearer is later "carved up" by cancer. The voice in Carol Anshaw's "Touch and Go" has a lesbian affair with her dying mother's doctor; her brother deals with it by watching porn.
Not everyone wants to watch what they're doing or see who they're doing it with. The subject of Lucia Perillo's "Sick Fuck," a twisted, scarred victim of disease, asks his lover how he can stand such a "freak." "That's what eyelids are for" is the answer. Maybe, after all, it's desire that's blind, and it's the sex that's a sort of vision. Just the thought is a turn-on.
Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House collected by the editors of Tin House; Tin House Books. paperback, 352 pages, $18.95.