For our inaugural “The Best Sex I Ever Read” column, Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel, selects Rachel Ingalls’s 1982 book Mrs. Caliban, about a woman who meets a hot amphibian.
From Mrs. Caliban:
He stepped forward, took off her bathrobe, letting it fall on top of the bed, and started to take off her nightgown from top to bottom, but quickly realized that it must be made to work the other way. He picked up the skirt from around her knees and lifted it over her head. He put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her down gently on the bed. He sat beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”
She didn’t really know. What the hell could it mean in such an encounter?
They made love on the living room floor and on the dining-room sofa and sitting in the kitchen chairs, and upstairs in the bathtub. And they talked. Most of their talk consisted of asking and answering questions. She asked, “Where do you come from? Does everyone make love so many times in one day?”
I was somewhat alarmed — and then my alarm turned to curiosity — that this was the first book I thought of. I was like, “Okay we could talk about James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, or any number of Michael Ondaatje novels, or Mary Gaitskill.” But maybe there’s something about just really committing to that first, sudden, alarming impulse.
There’s also a lot of writing around sex that ultimately as a reader is just kind of forgettable — that is, much like in life, neither the best or the worst. For obvious reasons, this scene with Mrs. Caliban did really stick in my mind. One thing I love about this scene is that when we first meet Dorothy, we know that she keeps hearing radio ads that are directed at her personally. She asks herself if she might be going crazy.
So the book definitely opens the door to the possibility that Larry is not real, but a fantasy Dorothy has generated. Dorothy is very isolated, she’s a homemaker and she’s lost two children, and her husband has turned very cold. She really has no outlet for the emotions she’s feeling, not in her ordinary life. And Larry needs help because he’s escaped from this terrible laboratory that has a Shape of Water vibe. But it’s written in such a straightforward way, it takes on the weight of the real — whether it’s real or not becomes somewhat irrelevant, because Dorothy’s experience with it is so completely real.
There’s a bit I I love from Jia Tolentino’s review of The Pisces about the broader trends of women falling for Aquamen, and she says that people don’t have sex with sea creatures unless the world has failed them. Unless people have failed them. We suspect early on that Dorothy’s husband may be having an affair. One thing that’s moving to me about this is there’s this deep loneliness that’s being assuaged. From this scorched earth of failure that’s surrounding Dorothy, she’s imagining or accessing a new path for herself, not only as a person, but as an erotic being.
I do think that there is something of particular interest about this trend of women and mer-creatures. This is an old narrative in a lot of ways, but we’re getting a new permutation of it. I wonder if being a hetersoexual man is not a great look at the moment. I say that as someone who is married to a wonderful man and knows many wonderful men, but between this nightmare of a president, and seeing #MeToo unfold, it’s not a great look. It’s back to: “You don’t turn to sea creatures unless the world has failed you.”
There is something naturally erotic about it, too. I love swimming, and if you think about swimming, you’re usually not wearing very much clothing, or perhaps you’re wearing no clothing at all. For some people, of course, water is the most terrifying thing. But as someone who grew up near water, I’m aware of the pleasure and I’m also aware that it’s really dangerous, and pleasure and danger go together, I do think that’s an erotic charge.
But I love how completely mundane Ingalls’s handling of sex is. If you looked at the scene and you stripped it of context, it’s very ordinary in a lot of ways. It could be any two people. And the dialogue really sums up the relationship between Dorothy and Larry: “I feel good, but it’s very strange.”
Mrs. Caliban is never explicit about the sex — unlike The Pisces. I’ve been talking a lot about horror films lately because of The Third Hotel. One thing I’ve been talking about is The Babadook, an Australian horror movie in which a mother and son are being menaced in their home by this creature called the Babadook. But you never actually see the creature, the Babadook, in full. And so the movie ends up toeing this very interesting line of ambiguity where, as with Mrs. Caliban, we wonder: Is the Babadook a real entity, or is the Babadook psychological? When you show the monster, it becomes a different narrative.
It’s also rather unusual to read sex scenes that feel egalitarian. We learn, actually immediately after this scene, that Larry’s been horribly abused in this laboratory where he’s been held. Sexually abused. That kind of history makes anyone vulnerable in highly specific ways. So they’re both able to take turns asserting themselves throughout the scene, and they’re both bringing this deep vulnerability to the moment. It’s equally weighted in a way that might make you ask, Where is the trouble? Where is the friction? Where is the tension? — and we don’t necessarily find that in really tender, super-egalitarian sex. But I think the friction comes from these two characters creating this new beautiful world together. And then the friction is: How long can this shelter be preserved before it’s torn asunder by the world around them?
Maybe with Mrs. Caliban I’m in sort of a weird sex phase, because I wrote a scene in The Third Hotel where the protagonist has sex with her dead husband. The protagonist has shaved her head and they’re covered in hair and so on. I always approve getting weird in fiction in a variety of ways. But more broadly, I pay a lot of attention to how the character will navigate the layers of the self. I think about the public, private, and secret self. The public, out-facing self is present pretty readily; the private self is that part of the self that we are aware of, that we have some understanding of. But what interests me most as a writer is the secret self. That’s the area where we have the impulses and actions and feelings that make us stop and go, “What the fuck?” And to me, sex is often so much about the secret self.
When we’re in the realm of, “What is your kink? And what are your deepest desires? And what are your fantasies?” that stuff is coming from an unconscious layer. That’s part of what makes it erotic, actually. Too much scrutiny or too much understanding, for me, deadens the sense of eroticism. When we have a haze, a mystery, we are more erotic. In this scene in Mrs. Caliban, there is the possibility that Dorothy has imagined this for herself, and Larry is the thing that has sprung from the secret self. Like, wow.
Writing about sex is hard, but everything in fiction is hard. My work tends not to be overflowing with tons and tons of sex. I’ve been working on stories this year, and I have a couple that contain some highly unpleasant and not entirely consensual sex. Sex is the realm where violence can play out in an intimate scale, in ways that we don’t always anticipate, or that aren’t even completely obvious to us. It’s always tough to say whether you got something right or not, but that’s the particular conflict I’m currently interested in capturing as precisely and complexly as I can.
My personal rule is that it has to be doing something besides the literal sex — revealing something that could only be revealed through that sexual dimension, and the introduction of that erotic dimension, into a world. If you have a character walking down a sidewalk, that scene needs to be doing something more than the literal passage down the sidewalk. Even if presumably the literal passage down the sidewalk is quite important, it needs to be revealing the conventions of the character, the world, via that physical transaction. So when I’m reading, I get bored — unless it’s really sexy sex. It’s gotta be super hot, though.