“Sex without Love”
by Sharron Olds
How do they do it, the ones who make love
with out love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardiovascular
health--just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is
the single body alone in the universe
A woman is sipping a cup of tea aboard the Chinese space station. Alone, in the corner of the cafeteria, she is relaxing after a long day of work in the biology lab. There are a few other astronauts sitting, slumped at tables on the other side of the room, cradling warm drinks of their own in quite solitude. At the bar, the tender is wiping down the counter with a shinny silver rag and whistling a melancholy tune. In the middle of the room, like a warming fire, the holovision is on, creating dancing shadows on the cold metallic walls. From behind her cup of tea, the woman is watching the holovision program with curiosity and wonder. A holographic man and woman are having sex in the middle of the cafeteria, a lonely, sixty five thousand feet above earth.
The same program plays repeatedly day after day in homes and businesses across the solar system. A vision of sex without love. Zipperless sex, hailed the purist of human acts by popular intellectuals. An occasion in which zippers melt away and pleasure is experienced without the slightest bit of transference or spiritual communion between people. It is required by law that a person spend at least one hour a day watching the holovision program. However, the constant popup advertisements on the computers and the sexually explicit animated billboards add many more hours of program viewing to a persons daily routine. The result of this programming has taken the sacredness out of sex and has left the populace emotionally empty and socially isolated, two conditions that make people easier to control by those with power.
Why would one adhere to this desolate doctrine? Not all people do, but the allure of an immediate pleasure without the consequences of a failed love and a lingering pain, coupled with bandwagon propaganda campaigns, sway many to this self-defeating philosophy. Love is a contemptible thing in the space program. A full dedication to work does not allow time for love. The people on the space station have traded human love for the love of work and power.
The woman in the corner is staring deeply into the holographic lovers, as “[the] light ris[es] slowly as steam off their joined skin”. Jealously, she asks herself, “how do they do it, the ones who make love/ without love?” She has always been partial to love, a maladaptive trait in a modern egotistical society. In her moist round eyes, the reflected image of the mating couple resembles ice dancers gliding in unison over smooth clear ice. There is so much grace and agility in those strong athletic bodies. Hypnotized by the couple, she ponders--how do creatures designed to walk on earth move so freely on ice, or, how do people designed to love, make love without love?
Her pupils constrict and the image of the beautiful ice skaters shatters, replaced by the reality of two sweaty animals thrusting against each other, their “faces red as steak, wine, wet as the/ children at birth whose mothers are going to give them away.” They are hot and wet, drunk with lust and pleasure, and yet like an unwanted child, are deprived of a bosom embrace. The woman also sees embarrassment in those red faces. The embarrassment one feels when naked and vulnerable in front of strangers. But the raw quality of the red, steak like bodies also evokes an erotic, primitive, excitement in the woman and she squirms in the titanium chair.
“How do they come to the come to the come to the God come to the still waters, and not love the one who came there with them[?]” A reflection of the couple’s perfervid climax rolls down the woman’s soft cheek in a tear. She remembers the last time she made love to her lover.
Years before, in a clearing, in the middle of a dense green thicket, she wept for her departed lover, called to war, to fight the evil Martians. He had left that morning to catch a transport to the moon with his battalion. As she lay wounded with sorrow in the sand, she felt the presence of another behind her. When she turned to investigate she was overcome with joy to see her square jawed, cleft chinned, lover before her. He had managed to book passage on a later transport. His Martian red fatigues, contrasted against the green of the wood, accentuated greatly her love for him. He picked her up and carried her into the still water of the pond nearby and made love to her. That afternoon of ecstasy gave way to much suffering two years later when she received an email, informing her of her lovers brutal but courageous death on a far away world. Becoming the chief botanist on this space station was her way of fleeing the memories of her lost lover.
The holovision flickers and flashes off the air, an after image is left in the woman’s eye of the professional sex actors, smoking cigarettes and dressing themselves with indifference to each other. Oh how she misses her lover, envious of those who fuck without guilt or attachment.
Putting down her cup of tea, she pulls her blue hemp space poncho over her shoulders to keep warm in the cold of space. Out of the corner of her eye she catches a glimpse, through the cafeteria window, of the station Commander jogging in the promenade, wearing tight red athletic shorts and a red white and blue head band. He is the “true religious, the purist, the pro, the one who will not accept a false Messiah, love the priest instead of the God”. The Commander has rejected all the noble qualities that separate man from beast in order to gain his high position of power as Station Commander. He has never, “mistake[n] [a] lover for [his] own pleasure”. Unlike the woman, who gains pleasure in sharing herself with another, and yet feels pain in his absence, the Commander does not feel the void of separation because he has never been whole in another.
The Commander has always distanced himself from attachment and love, making it easier for him to send his troops to certain death in battle. At the academy the commander was known as a playboy and was promoted by his seniors for being promiscuous. In this culture he is hailed as an enlightened one, finding power in himself rather than in others. He embodies the message of the holovision commercials and magazine adds which advocate selfishness and vanity, characteristics rewarded by modern culture and yet, in opposition to love.
The love story is a lost medium in this age, supplanted by the exaltation of pleasure and self gratification. Those that succeed in this new love are looked at as gods by the rest of society and are emulated by others until the humanity is socially bred out of mankind.
A chill blows over the woman, over the metal hull, over the promenade and over the commander. She watches as the commander jogs by the window and out of sight, to the dark recesses of the space station--to his bedroom. She wipes away the tear from her cheek and with it the memory of her dead lover. She reaches into her poncho pocket and pulls out a tube of red lipstick. She applies the lipstick generously and follows the commander down the corridor, to his bedroom, conforming to societies so-called truth--that, “[she is] alone in the universe against [her] own best time.”