“Men in Trees” by Martha Moffett

Issue 13 / Spring 2018

 

Morgan Mayfield was, by and large, a contented man. That was why, when the brochure came in the mail, he threw the glossy envelope unopened into the large cane wastebasket that sat under the table in the hall. 

The second time it arrived, it came in a plain envelope, and he was tricked into opening it. “Does Sex Have to Be Boring?” the cover letter asked. 

Evidently the answer was no–at least not in the sylvan setting of the Institute for Interpersonal Interaction (I.I.I.). On the first fold of the brochure, a group of slender, stylized individuals, genitals blurred or turned away from the camera, were staring into a patch of woods as if they expected the great god Pan to materialize. Opening the accordion-folded sheet further, Morgan saw the group was standing near an estate, half country-house and half institution, which had a caption floating over its chimneys: “Can you invest one weekend to revitalize your sex life?” 

Again he threw the brochure away, but because he had glanced at it this time, he was immediately aware of what Charlotte was talking about that evening when, at the end of a particularly good meal, she began a conversation with the observation that, statistically, married couples enjoyed sex less often than any other segment of the population. “Why do you suppose that is, Morgan?” 

As she unfolded and smoothed the brochure he had last seen in the cane basket and placed it beside his empty plate, he realized that this was a plot that had been some time in the making. “What’s this?” he asked innocently. 

“It’s a workshop in sexual renewal,” explained Charlotte. “Next weekend is for married couples only. It’s held at a private estate near Katonah, and it’s run by Dr. Madge Sinclair, a clinical psychologist.” 

“Madge!” he scoffed, as if of course it would be run by someone with that sort of name. “Who on earth goes to these things?” he wondered aloud. “Idiots who don’t mind being swindled out of their money, I suppose,” he answered his own question. “Well, I hardly think we need treatment.”  

“Therapy,” Charlotte corrected him. “Sex therapy.” 

He opened his mouth. 

“Fifteen hundred dollars,” she informed him. “I’ve already sent a check. No, it’s neither refundable nor deductible. And your bag is packed.” 

“I won’t go,” he told her. 

*** 

Morgan was a happily married man. He had made sure of that. It was perfectly simple. He had eliminated the gymnastic aspects of sex–the heaving and grunting and thrashing around. He’d had enough of that as an adolescent. Once he was married, he felt he deserved an undemanding sex life. Marriage wasn’t based on performance. What was it based on? Charlotte had asked. A shared perspective, he answered. Shared tastes, common goals. He and Charlotte had those things, didn’t they? Could she complain? After all, his way worked for her, too, didn’t it? It worked for both of them. 

They had met in college, he a junior, she a wide-eyed freshman. He thanked heaven for his luck, setting out to entertain her, to help her with her course work, to be everything to her and make her his girl; his unspoken pledge was to protect and support her forever. After the first time they had sex, in his off-campus studio, he held her in his arms as she sobbed and asked, “Oh, Morgan, is that what people do?” He kissed away her tears, stroked her hair and said, “Yes, my darling girl, that is exactly what people do.” 

They married soon after he graduated, and he continued his tutelage until he felt he had trained Charlotte to make love to him in a way that satisfied them both without his having to stir himself. And for the past ten years everything had been great. Sometimes he lay in their bed as relaxed as protoplasm, pleasure lapping him from head to toe like a flannel blanket. His involuntary muscle system worked satisfactorily with no help from him. On its own, flesh could leap and leak.  

Things had not always been so easy. Morgan had once even feared Charlotte. That was early in their marriage when he perceived that she was determined to wrest some triumph or distinction from their union; it was when she had her hand on him that he feared her. By small touches and hoverings and approving pats and complicated breathing patterns he gradually clarified what it was he wanted from her. And he had never failed to say “Thank you” when she got it right. The only discordant note in the entire process was her recurring surprise at the proof that his system worked. She always seemed unprepared for it. It was a thing that vaguely irritated him, although he could think of no way of conveying to her his unformed idea of what her manner at the moment of climax should be. Just, not surprise. 

*** 

“Slow down,” said Charlotte, looking for a sign that would indicate that they were near their destination. 

“I want to go home,” said Morgan, gearing down for a curve. On his right was a running wall, over which he could glimpse the tops of trees. On his left, woodlands approached the road as near as a crumbling low stone wall allowed. 

“There!” As the road straightened, Charlotte pointed, he thought, to a yellow caution sign printed in large capital letters, “MEN IN TREES.”  Morgan gave a wild twist of his head, from one horizon to the other, before the erratic waver of the car forced him to concentrate on the road ahead. In a moment of free-association, he had mistaken the road-work sign for the institute sign. It led him to imagine man returned—restored—to an earlier refuge, taking once more to the high green branches, and then to a fantasy of himself set loose in a pelt, with a club, to find food and shelter. This vision was followed by an image of men as green as pears dangling and ripening in the sun, each dreaming of the woman who would pluck him. 

Morgan spotted workmen who were clearing the telephone lines of encroaching branches. They were on his side of the road, working along the circumference of the wall. As the car swept past, one man, standing high above the road in an extended basket lift, laid a vibrating saw against the thick limb of a tree. Morgan could see the leaves begin to tremble. Then he saw the discreet sign bearing the name of the institute. “I won’t go around with no clothes on,” he told his wife. 

“Nudity is optional,” Charlotte said, with no attempt to be reassuring. 

*** 

Minutes later Morgan and Charlotte were at the gate of the Institute for Interpersonal Interaction, where a plaque on the spear-topped iron gate informed them that the grounds were private and that access to the institute was by permission only. Morgan pressed a button at the entrance, looking through the iron bars into the trees. 

“Do you have your plastic card and code number?” a voice issued from a speaker mounted on the gatepost.  

Morgan scrabbled in the papers on the dash. “No … wait … it’s not here. We seem to have misplaced it.” 

“I’m sorry, you cannot be admitted without the card and the code.” 

“Well, that’s that,” said Morgan, lifting his hands from the steering wheel and throwing them in the air. “I give up. Let’s go home.” 

“Here,” said Charlotte. 

He buried his face in his hands and took a deep breath. “You had me worried for a minute,” he said. He took the card from her extended hand. “What do I do? Insert… punch in….what number? Oh, it’s the last four digits of our phone number. Well, here goes.” 

The iron gates opened slowly. 

“Mr. and Mrs. Morgan Mayfield, proceed to the front entrance of the main building. You will be met. Welcome to I.I.I., the Institute for Interpersonal Interaction.” 

*** 

“If only you knew—” Morgan emerged from the bathroom, wrapping a towel firmly around his middle.  

“Yes?” 

“If only you knew how out-of-place I feel.”

“Then?” 

“Then your heart would be—” 

“What?” 

“Wrung!”  He tucked in the loose corner of the towel with finality. He looked at her. Charlotte stood before a long mirror and twisted from side to side, her towel tied like a sarong. She made an effort to stay in shape, with her tennis dates and her exercise club. “Or maybe not.” He had never expected to have to strip in public before anyone but his physician and had allowed himself to gain a little weight in the middle, permitted his body to soften and go slack. “I wish I were home,” he said. 

“Do try to get something out of this now that we’re here,” Charlotte said to him. 

The telephone rang. Morgan took the call. 

“Who was it?” asked Charlotte. 

“She sounded like Anna Netrebko.” 

“You mean she sang to you?” 

“No, no, but the voice. It was our group leader…” 

“Madge.” 

“Madge, reminding us of the morning schedule of activities. Where are you going?” he asked in a panic as his wife opened the door of their room. 

“I’m going to the tai chi exercises in the conservatory, which I know you’re not interested in, and then I’m going to breakfast and then I’m going to the ten o’clock seminar on sensual dreaming. We’ll do couples exercises in the afternoon.” 

He stood silent. 

“Well, don’t stay in the room, Morgan. Do something. Take a walk. Meet people. Will you meet up with me at breakfast? Or at the seminar?” 

“If I can find them,” he said reluctantly, looking at himself in the mirror. At once he resolved to go on a diet while another part of his mind wondered how well they could expect to be fed at the institute. Surely some part of their fifteen hundred dollars would be spent on decent food. 

*** 

Morgan found that if he walked fast, he could almost ignore the fact that he was in his towel. He thought of being in his towel as he might think of being in his bathing suit or in a pair of jeans. He was in his towel, as were several people he passed. To walk fast effectively, he had to keep picking destinations. Now he headed toward the woodland on the far side of the grounds. 

In a clearing on his left, a tea table had been brought out and set up under the trees.  A group sat in sun-dappled leisure, with their sex in their laps like small furry pets temporarily asleep. Some guests departed as he approached, leaving two people, a man and a woman, seated in lawn chairs, still sipping from their cups, reminding Morgan of the coffee he’d forgone when he skipped breakfast. The woman called out to Morgan as he passed their glade. “There’s a little tea left!” 

“How about a cup?” the man asked. 

Morgan sank into a chair, clumsily relaxing his grip on his towel in the process, grateful for the couple’s matter-of-fact friendliness. “Are you enjoying your stay here?” he asked, reaching for a topic. He found he felt more comfortable sitting down than standing.   

“We took the two-week special. It’s like a vacation for us,” the woman said. 

“We’ve especially enjoyed the long walks and the nude volleyball,” said the man. 

“And in the evening we retire and watch TV,” the woman added. 

“Channel Thirteen,” said the man. 

“Last night we watched—tell him what we watched, Arnold.” 

“Oh, ah, you mean…yes, we watched a documentary about that woman, that woman, American painter, lived in the desert. Do you know who I mean?” 

“Georgia O’Keeffe?” Morgan guessed. 

“That’s the one. It showed a lot of her paintings and, well, a lot of them looked like—like—you know.” 

“Female genitalia?” Morgan offered. 

“Exactly! You got it! Well, Lily here noticed right away and put me on to it. And we waited for the narrator to say something about it.” 

“But he never did,” put in Lily. 

“And after a while, Lily says to me, do you suppose he doesn’t know? Do you think he  hasn’t noticed?” 

“I said to Arnold, we have to write a letter to Art News. We have to write to the television station.” 

“I believe it’s generally well known that Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings contain sexual imagery,” Morgan told them diplomatically, a little embarrassed at their naiveté. 

“Oh, dear,” said Lily. “We thought we were the first to notice.” 

Morgan smiled and tightened his towel around his middle again. “I think I’ll go inside for a while,” he said. “Excuse me.” 

“Try the recreation room,” Arnold called after him. “Always something to do there.” 

*** 

The floor of the softly lit room was lined with upholstered flat rectangles like wrestling mats.  Morgan, entering late and searching for a spot to settle, felt a sinking feeling as soon as he looked around. A woman with the voice he’d heard earlier on the telephone was explaining to the encircling group how to take full advantage of a process she called “sensual dreaming.” According to her, it was possible to enlist the unconscious in adding extra dimensions of sensuality to your life. People in the room were taking turns, around the circle, recounting their favorite erotic dreams. 

Morgan prayed that he would not be called on. He could remember begging for the same dispensation as a student in grammar school. He had never been quick in class. It was troubling that it never occurred to him to pray for any but trivial things—to be spared embarrassment, to avoid confrontation, to be left alone. He had never prayed for the reunification of the two Irelands, for example. He never prayed for the world’s poor, or for peace in the Middle East. He prayed not to look like a fool. 

“I had this dream,” a young woman was saying, and a smile lit her face. “I dreamed that I was in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art and a man, a stranger, suggested that if I would sit in a certain way, with my skirt free, he would slip this—this object—” 

“What was it?” came from the circle of nude and towel-clad listeners. 

“It was a gherkin, and he slipped it under my skirt. It was an indescribable sensation. I could feel it even though I was asleep.” 

Morgan stared at the girl. That was the best dream she could come up with? A gherkin? He leaned on one elbow, hiding behind two lotus-seated bodies as the recounting of dreams continued. He was still smiling at the girl’s story when he found himself going over her dream again and this time thinking how original it was. Nobody else had dreamed it. He looked across the room and spotted Charlotte, who was listening intently to the next speaker. Do you realize, he wanted to tell her, that in dreams we are all original?  

“Let’s do an exercise in sexual confidence,” the director suggested brightly, and Morgan ground his teeth in irritation at hearing the wonderful voice misused. “Everybody say something positive to the person next to you. Here, I’ll start it.” She turned to the man on her left. “You are your own best lover. Keep it going!” 

The man turned and said something to an older woman at his side, but Morgan could not catch what it was. He sat up abruptly. The woman had twisted around until her eyes encountered Morgan. She leaned toward him. “You look like a sexually generous man,” she said to him kindly. He wanted to deny it. Shrugging, he turned to the body on his left, a bony young woman in her late twenties. “I’m a good fuck—you’re a good fuck,” he said grimly. 

The director’s voice struck him from the other end of the room. “Thank you, Morgan.” What a waste of a voice, Morgan thought. “Now, let’s take a break and enjoy a little of this lovely weather. I’ll see you in the Commons before lunch.” She raised her hand over the group. “Peace and sexual understanding,” she pronounced.  

“Peace and sexual understanding,” Morgan involuntarily repeated her benediction. He filed out with the others. As nearly as he could tell of unclothed strangers, the other people there seemed to be rather like himself and Charlotte—middle class, upwardly mobile, uptight. If it didn’t cost so much and if it wasn’t called therapy, they would probably not be there at all. 

Was he expected to mingle? Would he be called antisocial if he did not? Would it be a black mark on his record? What was a passing grade here, anyway? Perhaps Charlotte could mingle for both of them, he thought, watching his wife being led away by a youngish bearded fellow with large thighs. He did not look like someone who could understand their process, their way, even if Charlotte could explain it. Their way was unique, original.  She looked back at Morgan with a shrug that was not quite as helpless as she perhaps meant it to be.  

Just then a firm hand lifted his elbow and propelled him forward. The distinctive voice warmed his ear.  “Come with me, Morgan,” Madge said.  

*** 

 

Their steps wound downward to a large carpeted room with low lights and throbbing music, lined by shelf-like structures along the wall.  “Most people are out on the grounds or in the woods or in the pool during the afternoon, but sometimes people want somewhere more private.” 

Who would want to have sex on a shelf? wondered Morgan, but then he saw that the supports of each shelf end created cubbies where a semblance of privacy could be obtained. “Let’s sit there,” she suggested, and they crawled into a cubby and he piled pillows at the entrance until he had walled them in to a small, close space. They began their conversation again, and as they talked Morgan found himself idly stroking the shoulder next to his. He found that he could talk and stroke at the same time, something he had almost forgotten how to do. “More,” the woman said when he forgot to move his hand. “That? You like that?  asked Morgan. Charlotte had never expressed any interest in that. So he proceeded, one thing leading to another, unthinkingly leading her into doing what he liked, just as he had led Charlotte that first time. There was just one snag, right after they began, but when Morgan explained that it simply meant starting over again from the beginning, she nodded and said, “I know,” which he thought was reassuring but a bit mystifying.  

*** 

Morgan climbed out of the cubby and retied his towel. He felt good, almost as self-confident as if he had his clothes on again. He offered his hand to Madge, and they stood there getting their balance back, Madge arranging her hair with her free hand. Morgan was on the point of saying “Thank you” to her when she looked up at him.   

“Adequate,” Madge declared, “and more or less as Charlotte described it.” Morgan was gratified for a moment until the words registered. When had Charlotte talked to Madge? At breakfast that morning? 

“But, Morgan, a ten-year loop? Really, it won’t do.” 

*** 

“I’ll drive,” said Charlotte. 

Morgan did not bother to argue but lowered himself into the passenger seat, relieved that the weekend was over, longing for his pajamas, for his own bed. They drove silently away from the Institute. On the service road, before they reached the highway, they came to a halt. The road crew had brought down several heavy branches that now were blocking the way. Morgan looked into the deeper woods beyond the downed limbs and remembered that he once knew how to shinny up a tree trunk and reach the higher branches.  

“They’ll have it cleared in a minute,” Charlotte said, putting her hand on his thigh. “And then we’ll soon be home.” 

He sighed. 

“Oh, Morgan. Didn’t you enjoy any of it? Did you get anything out of it?” 

He thought. He reviewed the weekend, a combination of summer camp and freshman orientation and awkward moments spent with complete strangers. Then he remembered the young woman with the peculiar dream.  

“I did,” he said. “I learned that we are all original in dreams.” 

“And in sex?” Charlotte asked. 

She turned her head and looked at him while they waited for the road ahead to be cleared. He delayed his reply, thinking. Had he not been original? Inventing their lives together, the whole system, its order, its methods, its rewards? “And what about you,” he asked. “Anything…new?” 

“Yes,” she said. She continued slowly. “I see now that we need more variety, more choices in our lives, Morgan. Maybe more…drama.” He shuddered. “I need to take more responsibility, and you, you need to be less reluctant. Don’t be so reluctant, Morgan! Or maybe we just need to relax. We need to be more casual,” she added, “more spontaneous, more unscripted. Surprise me sometimes.” 

His hand was already on the door, and a second later he was out of the car and running for the woods. A tree beckoned him and soon he was halfway up, already among the leaves. He kept climbing until he reached a notch where two limbs branched out, making a comfortable hammock. From here he could see the forest in all directions, the road they had been following discernible in the distance. There were birds overhead, but there were birds below him, too, and he studied them in flight, amazed at the beating wings, the effort it took.  

He glanced down to see Charlotte’s upturned face as she paced around the trunk of his tree. Her voice rose, cajoling, promising. She said that things would be the same, that she was sorry she had dragged them to the institute, it had been a mistake. None of her words were convincing; the only thing he believed was her offer to make Gordon Ramsay’s Perfect Scrambled Eggs if he would only come down so that they could go home. He realized that sooner or later he would have to descend; weariness would drag him back to earth like gravity. 

But before his hands tired of their grip, a workman showed up with an extension ladder and expertly guided his feet back down the tree’s great height. He was smugly, boyishly pleased with how high he had risen. 

The mood stayed with him, even after their return, and that night he regarded his life with wry amusement as he and Charlotte took to their bed and pulled the covers up. Charlotte as usual waited for his move. Finally he reached for her. She responded, and they fell into their old, familiar, cherished habits. It lasted until she reached for him, at the wrong moment of course, and her hand closed on him. He couldn’t help it–he screamed.  

He turned away and pulled his pillows around his ears, shutting himself into a quiet world where he could fall asleep wondering when his life would return to its old path, and how soon they could get back to their tried-and-true routine. Not another ten years, he hoped. 

 

Martha Moffett grew up in a tiny Appalachian town (no paved roads, no movie house, no library); in the high school, there was a big Webster’s, an encyclopedia and one work of fiction–The Count of Monte Cristo, which Moffett read every year until she left school. She went to the state university and then to New York City, where she did the kitchen work of publishing–copy-editing, proofreading, etc. She wrote her first novel (The Common Garden) while going back and forth to work on the subway. Now she lives in New Jersey, where everyone she meets is writing a novel, a memoir, or a dissertation. 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin T. McEneaney

    Lean, concise, quite amusing with wonderful lines like “On its own, flesh could leap and leak,” which appear self-evident yet are laced with wit and irony.

    Reply

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