“I’m a very difficult person,” Jeremy Irons.
Untwist your knickers, scandalmongers! The Sultanette is not looking to add Jeremy Irons, aka “serial snogger” aka “the thinking woman’s pin-up” to The Male Harem. Yet. He does however, share one thing in common with each and every harem member along with wicked charm, a shameless love of the feminine form, artful duplicity, and the basic requirement for membership, a penis. They are all difficult men.
I may have denied this last feature even to myself before reading Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love. Women who are drawn to rascals must “secretly believe they don’t really deserve a ‘good’ boy,” writes Nehring. ”It’s chalked up to low self-worth.” But when men pursue women who cause them “trouble and turmoil” Nehring contends, it’s credited to their “high spirits, predatorial adrenaline, to chutzpah, competition, and courage.”
As you know, I hold the harem in the highest regard for their intelligence, sophistication, and cultivated manners. But that doesn’t rule out the fact that they are rascals. So emboldened by Nehring’s revelation, I hereby confess that I have a history of men who behave badly beginning with the kid who tied me to a tree in grade school.
I met my first gut-wrenching kick-in-the-teeth heartbreaker fresh out of college after moving to Chicago to work as an advertising copywriter on Oscar Mayer Bologna at J. Walter Thompson. Forget the ex-frat boys with rich futures on the Options Exchange who packed the singles’ bars on Rush Street. (Their life expectancy may have been short but I would have been a rich, young widow.) My sights were set on Bad Boy, the mop-haired director of the agency’s research department who had dropped his PhD thesis at Northwestern to major in cannabis.
Coming from my cracker-barrel Wisconsin roots, I was awed by his lineage. He’d grown up in a John Cheever short story in Connecticut. His father, a bona fide Mad Man, had commuted everyday between Y&R and their Frank Lloyd Wright home in Westport where Bad Boy had actually mowed Paul Newman’s lawn for extra change. That’s when he wasn’t getting thrown in jail with his buddies after raiding the wet bars of the Eastern aristocracy. (His mother finally tossed his books into the cell and told him to study for a change.)
Bad Boy’s other exotic credential was a motorcycle. I was soon on the back of his black BMW cruiser heading for the local bike races – testosterone-fueled events starring teenage daredevils who catapulted around the track creating clouds of Castrol that hung heavy in those sultry Midwestern watermelon nights. Dinner on the way back was the insiders’ wiener treat at the Tastee Hastee stand in Gladstone Park where, awash in red and yellow fluorescence, your dog rolled down a mini-gauge metal conveyer getting heaped with the works.
Then Bad Boy started packing the BMW into his Ford van and unloading it for camping tours in the Rockies and the Four Corners. I bought my first sleeping bag, threw jeans and vintage silk blouses in a backpack, and found my inner biker chick: tucking into a nest of pine trees off a mountain road or under the flat starry sky of Monument Valley to bed down for the night; breathing in the desert after a rain – the smell of a vast damp basement; passing through abandoned mining towns and stopping at roadside diners where sullen rednecks hunched over Formica counters; huddling under a shelter of lashed-together windbreakers at the timberline when black clouds marbled with lightning blew in; experiencing a psychedelic sunset that filled the biggest sky I’d even seen while streaking down a ribbon of road at a hundred miles an hour.
I loved the peril Bad Boy exposed me to, with him it all seemed safe. I could even overlook his fierce and unpredictable temper. His steely anger was never directed at me but existed in a place that was off-limits for my affectionate groping to make us whole. Though it kept a part of him beyond reach, after three years I was in thrall.
One day Bad Boy said, “Why don’t you ride your own motorcycle?” Who me? Yes! That Christmas I found a tricked-out café-racer under the tree, a white Honda to his BMW black. Given my 5’2” height it was no hog but I was ready to burn rubber. Bad Boy took me out to a parking lot and showed me the basics. I started off falteringly. The bike felt ungainly powerful under me. Filled with sudden doubt and real fear, I was tremulously making my way across the lot when I heard him shout, “You’re riding like a girl!” Who me? Fuck you! I took off. Nobody was going to challenge my moxie.
She called one day when I was cooking dinner – the lawyer he’d met on those business trips he was taking for focus groups in San Francisco. I had not a clue. Sheepishly for a change, he told me he was moving there. It’s the only time my legs crumpled under me. When I called his mother to tell him we were finished she said, “He’s a dog.”
A month later, still staggering from the body blow, I remembered that the motorcycle race we’d planned to go to was coming up. As the day approached, I knew what I had to do. The freeway seemed bigger that night but my café racer slipped easily between the eighteen-wheelers. I parked in the surrounding field along rows of bikes and found a spot on the bleachers. Watching the race from this vantage point was different than the one I had borrowed – more vivid and personal, sadder but somehow cinematic. It was my movie now, no leading man.
After the race, I blended into the thick crowd heading for the parking lot in a litter of crushed beer cans and the sweet smell of pot. It was late and the ride back to the city felt long. First one, then another biker began revving up around me, filling the night with grumbling engines and the surreal blaze of headlights. How would I make it out of here? Find my way back home on the freeway? Suddenly out of the cacophony, I heard Bad Boy’s indictment, “You ride like a girl!” I kicked my engine to a start and navigated my way across the rutted ground. When I hit the entrance ramp of the freeway, I revved the gas handle hard and blended into the trucker traffic with a surge of grace.
“Could it be that the feistier members of both sexes actually go for bad boys and bad girls,” Nehring asks, “not by accident but on purpose, not because they have been traumatized in their childhoods but because they have been emboldened and have courage and enterprise to spare? Could it be that the choice of a challenging love object signals strengths and resourcefulness rather than insecurity and psychological damage, as we so often hear?”
Some men soothe our souls, coddle our insecurities, allay our fears, and protect our feelings. Some kick up our mettle, challenge our doubts, fuel our daring, and trample on our sacred ground. Who says which one is good or bad? Right or wrong? You?
I most likely would have found my nerve without Bad Boy’s help but I wouldn’t have learned how to ride a motorcycle. The following year, I sold the bike and took off for New York City.