At the beginning of 2012 I bundled up my life as I knew it – my home, my job, my marriage – and ditched it by the curb. I didn’t have a car so my mom drove me away from Portland where up until then I’d lived my whole life, and dropped me off 6 hours later in Moscow, Idaho to stay with a friend and mentor. I needed an escape, I needed space to think, to sort some things out before I could return and pick up the pieces I’d left behind.
The University of Idaho in Moscow has an MFA writing program, and there were often readings at the local independent bookstore. As I settled into my new life, I got into the habit of biking into town to attend. Steve Almond was maybe the third reading I went to, and I was immediately drawn to his work. He was goofy and sarcastic during the reading – interrupting himself by cracking jokes about the audience – and his writing held the same humor. He also wrote with a biting tone of truth. I purchased his short story collection, God Bless America, that night; inside the cover he wrote Ginger (not prawn), – a reference to the story he’d read – Your job is to love hard every day.
After the reading I began picking up more and more of his books: Almond quickly became one of my favorite authors. Each of his collections reads clean, with precise language and characters who constantly face their own demons through often humorous external conflict. And let’s be real, he writes about sex…a lot. Now sex scenes aren’t necessarily something I seek out purposefully. I didn’t run out and buy “50 Shades,” and I’ve still never read it (though I’ll admit reluctantly to watching the movie). My own sensuality is something that I’ve always struggled with, and there was a time when Almond’s writing might have made me uncomfortable. But the particular way he writes about sex is refreshing because he calls it out as the sometimes-amazing, sometimes-humiliating, always-vulnerable, trouble-making act that it is.
In his collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, Almond takes on sex – and love and pain and betrayal and heartbreak – in nearly every piece. The title story tracks a cheating protagonist in a long-distance relationship. Later we see an office worker lusting after her IT guy (“Geek Player, Love Slayer”), and a democratic lobbyist sleeping with the enemy (“How to Love a Republican”). He gives us lines like “I reached down and Claudia threw her legs a little wider. Her mouth went sloppy. Her eyes half closed,” and “I kissed my way down her body — the damp undersides of her breasts, her bumpy sternum, the belly she lamented not ridding herself of. Always, I could feel the tendons of her groin tensing. I nipped at them occasionally.” I can sheepishly admit that after reading my way through the book as a whole, I tend to end up a little hot and bothered.
In a review of Heavy Metal in the Houston Chronicle, Eric Miles Williamson writes, “When Almond writes of sex, which is often, he presents it in stark form, showing the act in its physical, mental and spiritual aspects. For Almond, the sex act is not something that needs to be hidden by blackouts, nor is it something that needs to be overblown for shock value.” Which is true. Almond isn’t writing romance stories, his main characters are often destroyed by the very love he is explicating. He doesn’t fear the reality that sex isn’t a sterile performance act. He gives the reader the details that lead to a greater connection. We see his characters at their most vulnerable and blissful so we understand their aches, their loss even more. When his protagonist does something hurtful, we hate him, but pity him, and understand that love is inherently messy, that sex is messy, and more often than not it can lead to hurting or being hurt.
Almond doesn’t shy away from this theme in his work. He teaches courses on the subject and wrote a self published set of books called Writs of Passion with covers that depict an orgy when laid out together. In his collection of essays (Not That You Asked), he has a section titled “How to Write Sex Scenes: The 12 Step Program” which is referenced in articles all over the internet. In that particular essay, he employs a lot of humor, but he also speaks very seriously about the subject. In an interview for Numero Cinq Magazine, he says:
There’s a certain kind of writing, including some of my more cheeky writing, that tries to portray sex like a sitcom and only glances in the direction of the deeper moments of self-loathing, doubt, or anxiety about our own pleasure or our capacity to give pleasure or whether we’re going to be lonely all our lives. That’s fucking scary shit. All I’m doing is saying, ‘yes, it’s scary,’ and when my characters go through it I try to draw from the parts of myself that are still kind of haunted by that.
For me that seems like a very universal feeling. Sure, sometimes sex can simply be a fun diversion. And that’s definitely what pop culture seems to be feeding us. But the truth is, I’ve never felt particularly sexy. At least, not according to normal societal expectations. And don’t sex and sexy go hand in hand? That’s an internal battle that affects me more than I’d like to admit. I spent a long relationship being made to feel undesirable. I have my own ghosts. “Why don’t you try harder?” “Why don’t you do this? Wear this? Be this?” “Why can’t you be more like her?” “If you don’t change, how can I want you, love you?” and eventually “If you don’t change, no one ever will.” I had an idea of myself as worthy of love and pleasure, but it was quickly manipulated until the only thing I knew for sure was that I was not. I was inadequate. As if there was a rule book out there somewhere and I missed the memo.
In reading Almond’s work, there’s never mention made of skimpy lingerie or elaborate sexual advances. No cookie cutter porn tropes or rom-com candy-coated romance. The intentions are laid out with no frills and no room for ambiguity. Sometimes they are ugly or uncomfortable. Sometimes they are funny and relatable. And this isn’t to say the scenes aren’t sexy, they are. But he starts with desire and longing and then gives us the actual act – with all of its pleasures and pain, body parts and fluids, actions and consequences.
It was serendipitous that I stumbled upon Almond during my time in Idaho. It was a time of healing for me. A time for moving forward and reconnecting with myself. Was sex on my mind? Yes, in the sense that I’m human (hello!). But no, in the sense that I was buried deep in my own shame; young and terrified of reestablishing human connection. It’s a perpetual struggle. But as I re-read his stories now, I know that they sunk into the back of my head somewhere. They were telling me that it was okay to break through the stereotypes, to breath through my past and discover my own version, a new connection to that vulnerable, blissful, sometimes heart wrenching, but ultimately wonderful act.