Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Reading Erotica to a Crowd

Or, Sharing Your Sex Life With Strangers

Two free drinks, free copies of Penthouse, free cupcakes, too

I probably won’t have to do this again — thank god — but the other night I read a very erotic scene from my book “Free Fall” to a large and lively crowd in a dimly lit bar in SoHo. The scene, from pages 238 to 243, features me as the actor and Jim as the happy recipient. It’s Jim’s favorite sex scene in the book.

What happened was more of a performance than a reading. I hasten to say, I didn’t perform the scene but I performed the reading, liked a staged reading in theater or like I did back in college in my class called Oral Interpretation of Literature. I am shy and the class taught me to slow down, enunciate, broaden the vowels so I sounded less “Western.” To prepare for my erotic bar reading, I rehearsed several times in advance, made notes in the margin, underlined words I wanted to emphasize. Too bad, in a way, that I won’t be reading this again out loud because I worked hard on the preparation.

I expected this to be the reading from hell. I agonized over what to wear. I made a special trip to the colorist to be sure my roots were the same color as the rest of my hair. I taught myself to keep smiling regardless. I should have mentioned first thing that those in the audience were at least 20 or 30 but more likely 40 years younger than I am. I wrote this book, with glimpses into my erotic life, in a vacuum. I didn’t know what other people do in bed so I had no idea how different sex at 58 was from sex at 21. People tell me all the time that it was courageous of me to write about my sex life but, no, that part was fun. It’s courageous to be 61 and read about your sexual activities to kids to whom you could have read “Hop on Pop.”

Oops. Maybe “Hop on Pop” is the wrong reference to make here…

When I was writing that scene, it never occurred to me that I would one day be called upon to read it aloud in a bar in lower Manhattan called Happy Ending where, in the low light, I would encounter tables thickly strewn with stacks of porn magazines free for the taking.

I hadn’t looked at porn in years so what I saw surprised me. For instance, women no longer grow pubic hair and most of them now have sex with other women. Men are incidental to the sex act, it seems, except for that one super-enormous male body part that occasionally crops up, sans the rest of the male body. Oh wait. I get it. This is what men want to look at, not necessarily what they want to do.

Seeing all this, I immediately fortified myself with a gin & tonic with one of my free drink tickets (my payment) and found the last two seats in the place for Jim and I. I had no choice but to rest my sweaty drink on the cleavage of a woman featured on the cover of Penthouse “Variations.”

Something else balanced atop the stacks of magazines: tiny cupcakes, little Barbie confections, each distinctively frosted. They seemed completely at odds with beer, gin and tonic, the Penthouse “Forum” and the red wine but, in fact, no. The cupcakes, generously iced and very sweet, suggested lavish excess, over-the-top indulgence, a night of abandon. The event’s organizer, Rachel Kramer Bussel, made the rounds with spicy tortilla chips and petite cupcakes a couple of times. Enjoy, she urged. Have another. Don’t hold back.

It was a standing-room-only situation at the Chinatown bar. As a newly published author, I suppose this was one indicator that I had officially arrived. Hello Happy Ending. Many well-known writers have read here. It was my turn. And it was up to me how I would view (as in ‘spin’) this reading. This is a tough world for shy authors — brand and opportunity and innovative selling require continuous hard work and a deep reservoir of chutzpah.

I am shameless. I wear skinny jeans. I tell the crowd that my book is true and it has sex in it so I must belong here, on the night dubbed “True Confessions.” I try to ‘own’ what started with a call from my book’s publicist. I read sex scenes to the possibly virginal. I smile at Jim and say, “Thanks, Jim, for the material.” I read, the word “penis” passes several times through my lips. None of it is forced. This, I have to admit, is all my own making. I wrote the book. I do what’s needed. Actually, I have a little fun.

I have to be realistic about another thing. For this crowd, a happy ending means only one thing — enthusiastic erotica that in real ways preps one for that important ‘happy ending’ eventuality. My job, here at the In the Flesh reading series, was to titillate. I did my best.

Oddly, it wasn’t so bad.

I spoke into a microphone. I rested my book on a lectern. I squinted into blinding lights and took note of the video camera a reporter had aimed my way. I read, just as I’d practiced, hitting the words I’d wanted to emphasize, rounding my vowels for dramatic effect, and smiling because this was fun as long as I didn’t think too hard. Like giving birth, I wasn’t about to picture what I was actually doing. A baby’s head squeezing through a cervix dilated to 10 cm is just as absurd as a 61-year-old woman describing sexual techniques to twenty-something men.

When it was over, I stood to receive a few cheers. I recall hearing laughs. A few men came up afterward to compliment my writing. I appreciated this. It was the man, after all, to whom I paid homage in that scene. Perhaps I got something right.

The readers that followed were more performer than I was. An obscene folk duo, a storyteller who’d been on “This American Life,” a woman lamenting how oral sex with her well-endowed husband had reshaped her jaw and caused a need for braces. Had I known ahead of time, I might not have had half the bravado I’d managed to summon.

I am still the same writer. Fame and fortune elude me, as they do most of us. But I got through another writer challenge with a certain dignity. I call this a happy ending for me, too.


  1. Congratulations Rae! I'm sure you were a phenomenal hit and I hope you had a cupcake for me!

  2. Thanks, Andie. I like the way you pay attention!

  3. That's a great tale, Rae. I wish I'd been there. Actually, I wish I'd written the book. Actually, I wish I had your life (well, parts of it)!