How one man's "vices" taught him about humanity.
I learned everything I know about being a man from women, especially when we were stoned and in bed, f***ing and/or talking.
And fortunately, from the beginning, there were girls.
At eight, I published a book review in the local newspaper, which was for me what scoring a winning touchdown might have been for another kid. Girls noticed — smart girls, anyway. So I kept at it.
Soon my best friends were theatrical girls, girls who wrote poetry, girls overlooked by the football captain and student council president. But a peck on the cheek was the most they gave me; as late as the ninth grade at my suburban junior high school, girls wore full girdles on dates.
Boarding school was a revelation. Just like me, the rich girls had libidos that revved high. I joined every extracurricular activity that involved my mouth. And after the debate and the drama rehearsal and the yearbook meeting, there was likely to be a make-out session that left me wanting more.
In college, the dorms had rules that limited female visitation, so I moved off-campus. The revels commenced promptly. Weekend evenings assumed a pleasant pattern: jug wine, Mexican weed, "Going Home" by the Stones or "Eight Miles High" by The Byrds on the turntable.
I never needed to lunge. Long before the room started spinning, we'd be reaching for one another.
There was a war on, and that heightened the urgency of my liaisons. There was an anti-war as well, and the saying had it that girls say "yes" to guys who say "no".
Because I was saying "no" to the government and its filthy war as often and as publicly as possible, many college women said "yes". They said "yes, yes, yes!" to me.
After a while, I couldn't remember how many women I'd slept with or even what then seemed like an even cooler statistic, the number of days I'd gone from one to another.
In my late teens and early twenties, intimacy was beyond me; my needs were too urgent, too desperate. It had to be obvious to the women I was seeing then that they were a haven for me, shelter from the storm.
Maybe that was enough. Maybe I was a haven for them as well.
Still, those early couplings were important preparation for what was to come. And I don't just mean deeper connections; I mean loftier highs: peyote, LSD, and mescaline.
These drugs gave deeper sensation, purer flashes. They also generated hours of consciousness. When you took them, you couldn't have sex and then collapse like a drunk into a heavy sleep. You had to either get up and go out or talk. I chose to talk.
I can't remember these conversations, but I know that my lovers and I would exchange ideas and swap stories. And I clearly recall that I would listen to these women and take them seriously and accept them as a being as hopeful and as damaged and as scared as I was.
Soon I was feeling quite the adult. And then came spring, 1969.
Janet (not her real name) was a friend of the sister of a sometime girlfriend. The connection was a little close for comfort, but that sort of thing happened a lot back then. We had a relationship that couldn't have been simpler: When we saw one another, we ripped off our clothes.
Ours was an understandable attraction. I was short, intense, Jewish, and not very interested in outdoor sports. Janet was tall and blond, with a model's long legs and an athlete's body.
We were exact opposites, and we attracted. There was no guilt; we were a romp together, a time out from our lives. Our sex was hot but innocent. We liked each other a lot, but nothing was at stake.
On the night I'm recalling now — a night I'll cherish to my last breath — Janet was still living in Cambridge and I'd moved to a communal farm in Western Massachusetts.
The male-female ratio was wretched there, and the heroic males wore overalls. After weeks of solitary nights, I could feel the sap rising dangerously.
I drove to Cambridge, mescaline in my pocket. I mentioned it right off. Janet was open to taking it with me. Her only question was about its quality.
Oh, the mescaline was good, I said. A guy at the farm had dropped some and an hour later, he was face down on the ground, humping Mother Earth. Back then, that constituted an endorsement. We popped the pills.
A psychedelic can take an hour to come on, so we went for a walk. It was a warm night, and the trees were newly heavy with leaves. Cambridge was a showcase for the ecstatic: Anything green soon began to pulsate with life energy. Even the traffic lights were sending messages.
Somehow we found our way back to Janet's apartment. I didn't stumble to the record player and put an album on, as I usually would. I understood that tonight, we'd be the music.
Slowly, as if we were swimming underwater, clothes dropped off. And then we sat, languid as junkies, and just touched one another.
I can't reconstruct the physical part of the encounter, but I'm sure there was nothing special about any of it. The thrills were all internal. I'd never been more present, more responsive, more in synch with every move and emotion.
Everything that happened seemed predestined and yet utterly surprising. And the biggest surprise was the love I felt.
Not that Janet and I had a future. She'd go on to a man handsome enough for Hollywood, and marriages and kids. I would have a decade of broken romances before I married, for the first time, at 39.
But the future wasn't an issue. There's nothing harder in life than being here now — giving the moment and your partner your complete attention. Well, I did.
Our orgasm was alchemy. One moment we were locked together, then we became one, and then — poof! No bodies, no names. We had disappeared.
I don't know where we went or how long we were gone, but the return was gentle. This was a new feeling, and it had unexpected power. We held each other and whispered, and there was a sweetness about those moments that was as thrilling as all that had gone before.
I've known a lot of gentleness since, and I've been the recipient of more female kindness and tenderness than I probably deserve.
John Updike once described another writer as a man who saw a woman as a giant lap, but I know I wasn't hiding from the world in the beds of my lovers; I was trying out a little tenderness, exposing myself, daring to risk.
Now I'm in my final marriage, and my wife is the beneficiary of the women who came before her.
The weed has changed. Now it comes from somewhere in Northern California. And the music's more international; we're as likely to play Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as Led Zeppelin. But the essential transaction remains unchanged.
Slowly, slowly, in bed with a woman, I am learning how to be human.
Jesse Kornbluth has been a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and editorial director of America Online. Read more from him at Head Butler.
This article was originally published at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission from the author.