Save The Date For The Sultanette Dinner

Dinner at the schlass, Jorge Royan.

Dinner at the schlass, Jorge Royan.

Except it won’t be dinnertime (the most wicked fun happens in the afternoon) and it won’t be a “date”  because that term is stricken from The Male Harem lexicon due to its fostering of bazaar expectations and sex-by-numbers. (Third date? You snooze, you lose.)

Minor details aside, stay tuned for The Sultanette’s fantasy dinner hosted by Courtney Price Design. If you’re not following Ms. Price’s tasty blog on culture, fashion, interior design and the best martini in San Francisco, you’re missing critical factoids on the art of living with style and heart. What better venue to  treat The Male Harem in the manner they’re accustomed than @courtneymprice where Emily Post meets C.Z Guest and Madame de Pompadour pops by for an aperitif?

Mae West,1936.

Mae West,1936.

So I’m presently assembling a guest list of philosophers and soldiers, miscreants, roués, and a rock star – alive and consigned to posterity (with respect to Mae West’s advice that the best husband is rich and dead). As with Male Harem membership, relationship status is irrelevant. Married, single, sig other, all that’s required is an informed love of women, high intellect, good manners, and a penchant for raw sex.

And just in time to pre-empt those tedious holiday dinners with Uncle Dick and Aunt Muffie! So be prepared for a feast of the mind and senses with this contrarian curation along with some penetrating remarks from The Sultanette on life, liberty and the pursuit of sex. Finger food only.

“She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”, Gustave Dore.

“She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”, Gustave Dore.

By now, you must be starved for more rousing tales of The Male Harem, and they’ve been collecting faster than The Sultanette can say “Trick or Treat!”. I hope you appreciate that unlike somnambulant marriage, The Male Harem requires constant field work. And that when I’m out there tirelessly testing the waters, allowing myself to be indulged, and cajoled by people with penises, I do it all, loyal followers, for your inspiration and edification.

And just when I wondered if this mad scheme might be climaxing, it’s gotten vigorous new insertions. On a recent Harem Event (no “dates” allowed, see above) Ivy League, Esq., exhibited the full spectrum of his privileged education. He was engaging, gallant, droll, insightful, and adept with hooks and zippers. Another new recruit Sky Walker and I are carrying on a tantalizing digital affair covering everything from Paris in January, Wittgenstein in Vienna, eyeliner in India, neurotic bankers, Norman Cousins, and the orthography of “Yuk!”.

Also a shout out to ongoing member Young Preppie, whose subtly bawdy propriety and impeccable Southern breeding played my +1 to the hilt at last weekend’s New Hampshire wedding. And to Nom de Plume, who just procured tickets to Chrissie Hynde’s New York concert at the Beacon.

"We have an excellent table for you in Novia Scotia, sir." Ericbodden.

“We have an excellent table for you in Novia Scotia, sir, just next to the lavatory.” Ericbodden.

Politically incorrect confession: I revel in the attention of men with the chops to genuinely appreciate the opposite sex. Before you pass this off as the frivolous indulgence of a horny woman, I paid a good price to get here – sixteen years with One&Only who could ignore me better than a waiter at a four-star restaurant when you’ve been seated in Nova Scotia. Confrontation-phobic? Once when I’d managed to wheedle him into a “talk” he jumped up, announced it was time to go to dinner, turned out the lights and bound for the door, leaving me per usual, in the dark.

No need for more examples, you know the drill. The countless incidents you gloss over until what you’re left with is so highly polished there’s not a groove for a toehold. On that night of no return with One&Only, the end of us was the least of it. Staggering away from the expectation that I’d ever be cared for the way everybody says you’ll one day be, was the seminal moment.

Ophelia, Henrietta Rae, oil on cavnas,1890, Walker Art Gallery.

Ophelia, Henrietta Rae, oil on cavnas,1890, Walker Art Gallery.

The sex part of The Male Harem was initiated a few months later in the back stairwell of an Upper Eastside apartment building. Crass? Crude? Tawdry? Yes! After being true to an illusion for sixteen years, that hot, furtive, dangerous body slam was just what Dr. Feelgood ordered.

I started practicing being alone. One birthday, I passed on dinner with friends and took myself to a play about Shakespeare’s women, appropriately called Women of Will. It was performed in a church basement in the Village. When I resurfaced, Washington Square Park was laced with a fairy dusting of snow. I snagged a spot for dinner at the bar of Minetta Tavern and ordered a flaming desert.

I didn’t want to do this long enough to become a habit. Just long enough to know I’d never again be tempted to sublet in someone else’s life. Along with going solitaire, I began cultivating The Male Harem. Nearly three years later members continue to appear like the magi, bearing gifts of cleverness, candor and desire. As for the emotional intimacy bit, I prefer to get that from girlfriends who are always better at it.

For my birthday this year I accepted the offer of Abdul, the cook at my neighborhood café, to cater a dinner party. A dozen friends showed up – half longtime loyal chums, half new harem members. We sat on a mound of pillows on my living room floor around the low table Abdul provided and drank copious liters of wine haphazardly paired with an unending parade of Yemeni perfections. There were soups and stews. Meats and birds roasted, spiced, marinated and sauced. For dessert, Abdul’s wife had prepared a multi-layered pie soaked in honey that, like sex, you could only partake of with your hands and totally surrender to sticky fingers.

Now that’s what I call a real Male Harem dinner. Imagine what happens at the fantasy version. See you there?


Let’s Stay Together

Wife hands husband her chastity belt key, Neinrich Wirrich, c1590, British Museum.

Wife hands husband her chastity belt key, Neinrich Wirrich, c1590, British Museum.

Sure they had their marital snags – the usual irreconcilable differences – but was it worth splitting up over? Creating a rift that would upset the world order?

No, The Sultanette isn’t talking about Jay Z and Beyoncé. The Male Harem has weightier issues to mull over than the fate of JayBey (though I’d trade these pins for Beyoncé’s thighs faster than you could say “booty call”). The marriage in question united Scotland and England in 1707. The question now was whether to call it quits after three-hundred-seven years or stay together. YES or NO. Black or white. No surprise, NO won.

So why is breaking up so hard to do? Why are we so easily seduced into thinking we’ve found true love and so resistant to admitting it’s over? Is love blind or the end of it?

Take a Leap, Eron Main, '06.

Take a Leap, Eron Main, ’06.

There’s a thing about walking away: the unknown. It’s always a leap. Yet conventional wisdom tells us that taking a ride on the bungee is sheer folly unless we’re able to know exactly how we’ll feel diving towards an unpredictable bottom before defying gravity to meet up with terra firma again.

Just look at how the rhetoric, collected from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, played to both sides of the Scottish Independence Referendum. The We’re Outta Here side was fed a diet of dire warnings about market uncertainty, volatility, sensitive interest rates, currency suffering a fall, and the prognosis of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s broken heart.

On the Better Together side, wafted words like stability, relief and recovery, buttressed by wisdom, rationale and safety. Finally, as in all cases when the kids are rough-housing, mom was called in. As reported by the FT, the Queen’s media advisors orchestrated a “chance remark to a churchgoer near Balmoral that Scottish voters should ‘think very carefully about the future’”.

Who was that masked man?, 1956.

Who was that masked man?, 1956.

Though The Sultanette has never been invited to Balmoral, I’m no stranger to Scottish castles – or taking a dip into the unknown. The summer after my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, I worked on Princes Street in the shadow of Edinburgh castle selling tartans to Germans. I had never been that close to a castle or so far from home. Never before understood that there was an entire other world that didn’t look, feel, dress, eat, talk, or think like people in the Midwest. It was thrilling.

My college roommate Ellie’s father, a University of Wisconsin professor, had arranged the trip through an exchange student of his. Neither of us had seen the other side of Madison’s Lake Mendota let alone the Atlantic. Except for a trip to California when I was five, documented in volumes of photo albums, the only escape I knew was holiday visits to aunts and uncles in Milwaukee. So when Ellie asked me if I was up to sending resumes to The Tartan Gift Shop and living in University of Edinburgh student housing, my answer was an unequivocal YES.


Edinburgh Ale, “a potent fluid, which almost glued the lips of the drinker together” c1844, Met Museum.

We joined the flock of shop girls watched over by the roaming eye of the store’s supervisor, Mr. Wood, who would fetchingly lift his kilt above his knee when anyone asked what was under it – a question he wholeheartedly encouraged. On the way home we’d pick up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and dine in the crackling warmth of our coin-operated space heater – Scottish currency only. For exercise, there were pub crawls featuring beer that had no resemblance to the Pabst back home.

One Saturday we hiked up to Edinburgh’s famous outlook. I no longer remember its name, the climb, or the friends who joined us. I only remember the clouds. Not the distant ethereal shapes that floated above my hedge-lined backyard in Wisconsin but magnificent billowing masses that scudded in from the sea like separate continents.


Wild haggis, Loch Lomond, StaraBlazkova.

At lunchtime we’d head for kippers on High Street where everyone shared tables before communal dining was chic, and the proprietor burst into arias above the clatter and conversation. It was there that I met Alistair, a lawyer from Aberdeen, red-haired, tweeded-out and fully adult. Alistair introduced me to the finer themes of Scottish lore – single malts, the Firth of Forth (the name alone could have existed nowhere else) and haggis, a dish rumored to be made of sheep innards but sworn by the Scots to be stewed from a furry, four-legged creature that was a Highland delicacy.

Proof of Alistair’s hardy resilience was that he put up with my last gasp of virginity. I was at the ALMOST stage then. Almost convinced I could toy with a man’s sex without penetration. Almost sure I didn’t have to save myself for my husband. Almost stupid enough to believe it was worth it. Alistair, if you’re reading this now, The Sultanette is ready to make it all up to you!

Undaunted, he invited me to the family home in Aberdeen. I have no idea the impression I made on his uppercrust parents. Maybe they saw me as a charming bumpkin. Hopefully, coming from the American hinterlands, I was forgiven everything.

I believe I concealed my amazement at their country club the first night when an entire dairy department of cheese rolled up on a trolley. I know I kept my mouth shut at a family dinner when Mother, suddenly rankled over something Father had said, rose up as if to fetch more tea, and instead, pitched her shoe in a perfect arch at him across a half-mile of fancy porcelain to the opposite end of the table.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 78th Highlanders Regiment, Wm. Dyce, c1840.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 78th Highlanders Regiment, Wm. Dyce, c1840.

Who were these people, so properly defiant, whose national dish was the stew of a mythical badger? Who distinguished their fierce, warring clans by variations on plaid pleated skirts, and dangled tasseled purses over their packages? An FT piece on the referendum quoted George Bernard Shaw as saying, “God help England if she had no Scots to think for her.” So in not flying the coop, was Scotland merely being kind to its bloviating cousins? Or prudently resisting the unknown? Anybody who’s been in a relationship that overstayed its welcome has considered the maxim, better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

In September, I kissed Alistair good-bye, sold my last tartan, and headed back to Wisconsin. We continued to correspond and one day a package arrived – an ivory cameo with a note attached in his lawyerly hand. Would I come back and consider a life with him? I was taken aback. There was still school, piano lessons, football games, losing my virginity. Still so much to sort out. My souvenirs of that Edinburgh summer weren’t of an enduring love but clouds with a bigger imagination than me. And so to a Scottish union, I said, NO.

What if …? Arun Kulshreshtha, 2006.

What if …? Arun Kulshreshtha, 2006.

Years later, after a marriage and move to Paris had segued back to single life in New York City, I came upon the cameo among collected keepsakes. Was the college co-ed too fickle to appreciate the finer points of a singular man? Was Alistair mad to think he could import a novice, unseasoned by experience, into his clubby world? Would we now be sipping single malt together by the fire? Would I have become adept at hurling shoes across fine china? Does life have a way of sorting out who we are?

There are times to stay and times to go. Times to make peace with the familiar and times to make a mad dash for the unknown. You can always say NO and stay put. But you’ll never escape WHAT IF.