Sexusby Henry Miller
“At times uproariously funny . . . may be Miller’s masterpiece.” —Choice
Henry Miller’s monumental venture in self-revelation was begun with his Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, which on their American publication were hailed as “miraculous,” “superb,” “ribald,” “brilliant,” and “shamelessly shocking.” Sexus is the first volume of a series called The Rosy Crucifixion, in which Miller completes his major life work. It was written in the United States during World War II, and first published in Paris in 1949. Of this remarkable project, Lawrence Durrell has said: “The completion of his seven-volume autobiography, if it fulfills the promise of what he has already given us, will put his name amongst the three or four great figures of the age.”
“At times uproariously funny . . . may be Miller’s masterpiece.” —Choice
It must have been a Thursday night when I met her for the first time—at the dance hall. I reported to work in the morning, after an hour or two’s sleep, looking like a somnambulist. The day passed like a dream. After dinner I fell asleep on the couch and awoke fully dressed about six the next morning. I felt thoroughly refreshed, pure at heart, and obsessed with one idea—to have her at any cost. Walking through the park I debated what sort of flowers to send with the book I had promised her (Winesburg, Ohio). I was approaching my thirty-third year, the age of Christ crucified. A wholly new life lay before me, had I the courage to risk all. Actually there was nothing to risk: I was at the bottom rung of the ladder, a failure in every sense of the word.
It was a Saturday morning, then, and for me Saturday has always been the best day of the week. I come to life when others are dropping off with fatigue; my week begins with the Jewish day of rest.
That this was to be the grand week of my life, to last for seven long years, I had no idea of course. I knew only that the day was auspicious and eventful. To make the fatal step, to throw everything to the dogs, is in itself an emancipation: the thought of consequences never entered my head. To make absolute, unconditional surrender to the woman one loves is to break every bond save the desire not to lose her, which is the most terrible bond of all.
I spent the morning borrowing right and left, dispatched the book and flowers, then sat down to write a long letter to be delivered by a special messenger. I told her that I would telephone her later in the afternoon. At noon I quit the office and went home. I was terribly restless, almost feverish with impatience. To wait until five o’clock was torture. I went again to the park, oblivious of everything as I walked blindly over the downs to the lake where the children were sailing their boats. In the distance a band was playing; it brought back memories of my childhood, stifled dreams, longings, regrets. A sultry, passionate rebellion filled my veins. I thought of certain great figures in the past, of all that they had accomplished at my age. What ambitions I may have had were gone; there was nothing I wanted to do except put myself completely in her hands. Above everything else I wanted to hear her voice, know that she was still alive, that she had not already forgotten me. To be able to put a nickel in the slot every day of my life henceforth, to be able to hear her say hello, that and nothing more was the utmost I dared hope for. If she would promise me that much, and keep her promise, it wouldn’t matter what happened.
Promptly at five o’clock I telephoned. A strangely sad, foreign voice informed me that she was not at home. I tried to find out when she would be home but I was cut off. The thought that she was out of reach drove me frantic. I telephoned my wife that I would not be home for dinner. She greeted the announcement in her usual disgusted way, as though she expected nothing more of me than disappointments and postponements. “Choke on it, you bitch,” I thought to myself as I hung up. “At least I know that I don’t want you, any part of you, dead or alive.” An open trolley was coming along; without a thought of its direction I hopped aboard and made for the rear seat. I rode around for a couple of hours in a deep trance; when I came to I recognized an Arabian ice-cream parlor near the water front, got off, walked to the wharf and sat on a stringpiece looking up at the humming fretwork of the Brooklyn Bridge. There were still several hours to kill before I dared venture to go to the dance hall. Gazing vacantly at the opposite shore my thoughts drifted ceaselessly, like a ship without a rudder.
When finally I picked myself up and staggered off I was like a man under an anesthetic who has managed to slip away from the operating table. Everything looked familiar yet made no sense; it took ages to co-ordinate a few simple impressions which by ordinary reflex calculus would mean table, chair, building, person. Buildings emptied of their automatons are even more desolate than tombs; when the machines are left idle they create a void deeper than death itself. I was a ghost moving about in a vacuum. To sit down, to stop and light a cigarette, not to sit down, not to smoke, to think, or not to think, breathe or stop breathing, it was all one and the same. Drop dead and the man behind you walks over you; fire a revolver and another man fires at you; yell and you wake the dead, who, oddly enough, also have powerful lungs. Traffic is now going East and West; in a minute it will be going North and South. Everything is proceeding blindly according to rule and nobody is getting anywhere. Lurch and stagger in and out, up and down, some dropping out like flies, others swarming in like gnats. Eat standing up, with slots, levers, greasy nickels, greasy cellophane, greasy appetite. Wipe your mouth, belch, pick your teeth, cock your hat, tramp, slide, stagger, whistle, blow your brains out. In the next life I will be a vulture feeding on rich carrion: I will perch on top of the tall buildings and dive like a shot the moment I smell death. Now I am whistling a merry tune—the epigastric regions are at peace. Hello, Mara, how are you? And she will give me the enigmatic smile, throwing her arms about me in warm embrace. This will take place in a void under powerful klieg lights with three centimeters of privacy marking a mystic circle about us.
I mount the steps and enter the arena, the grand ballroom of the double-barreled sex adepts, now flooded with a warm boudoir glow. The phantoms are waltzing in a sweet chewinggum haze, knees slightly crooked, haunches taut, ankles swimming in powdered sapphire. Between drumbeats I hear the ambulance clanging down below, then fire engines, then police sirens. The waltz is perforated with anguish, little bullet holes slipping over the cogs of the mechanical piano which is drowned because it is blocks away in a burning building without fire escapes. She is not on the floor. She may be lying in bed reading a book, she may be making love with a prize fighter, or she may be running like mad through a field of stubble, one shoe on, one shoe off, a man named Corn Cob pursuing her hotly. Wherever she is I am standing in complete darkness; her absence blots me out.
I inquire of one of the girls if she knows when Mara will arrive. Mara? Never heard of her. How should she know anything about anybody since she’s only had the job an hour or so and is sweating like a mare wrapped in six suits of woolen underwear lined with fleece. Won’t I offer her a dance—she’ll ask one of the other girls about this Mara. We dance a few rounds of sweat and rose water, the conversation running to corns and bunions and varicose veins, the musicians peering through the boudoir mist with jellied eyes, their faces spread in a frozen grin. The girl over there, Florrie, she might be able to tell me something about my friend. Florrie has a wide mouth and eyes of lapis lazuli; she’s as cool as a geranium, having just come from an all-afternoon fucking fiesta. Does Florrie know if Mara will be coming soon? She doesn’t think so . . . she doesn’t think she’ll come at all this evening. Why? She thinks she has a date with someone. Better ask the Greek—he knows everything.
The Greek says yes, Miss Mara will come . . . yes, just wait a while. I wait and wait. The girls are steaming, like sweating horses standing in a field of snow. Midnight. No sign of Mara. I move slowly, unwillingly, towards the door. A Puerto Rican lad is buttoning his fly on the top step.
In the subway I test my eyesight reading the ads at the farther end of the car. I cross-examine my body to ascertain if I am exempt from any of the ailments which civilized man is heir to. Is my breath foul? Does my heart knock? Have I a fallen instep? Are my joints swollen with rheumatism? No sinus trouble? No pyorrhea? How about constipation? Or that tired feeling after lunch? No migraine, no acidosis, no intestinal catarrh, no lumbago, no floating bladder, no corns or bunions, no varicose veins? As far as I know I’m sound as a button, and yet . . . Well, the truth is I lack something, something vital. . . .
I’m lovesick. Sick to death. A touch of dandruff and I’d succumb like a poisoned rat.
My body is heavy as lead when I throw it into bed. I pass immediately into the lowest depth of dream. This body, which has become a sarcophagus with stone handles, lies perfectly motionless; the dreamer rises out of it, like a vapor, to circumnavigate the world. The dreamer seeks vainly to find a form and shape that will fit his ethereal essence. Like a celestial tailor, he tries on one body after another, but they are all misfits. Finally he is obliged to return to his own body, to reassume the leaden mold, to become a prisoner of the flesh, to carry on in torpor, pain and ennui.
Sunday morning. I awaken fresh as a daisy. The world lies before me, unconquered, unsullied, virgin as the Arctic zones. I swallow a little bismuth and chloride of lime to drive away the last leaden fumes of inertia. I will go directly to her home, ring the bell, and walk in. Here I am, take me—or stab me to death. Stab the heart, stab the brain, stab the lungs, the kidneys, the viscera, the eyes, the ears. If only one organ be left alive you are doomed—doomed to be mine, forever, in this world and the next and all the worlds to come. I’m a desperado of love, a scalper, a slayer. I’m insatiable. I eat hair, dirty wax, dry blood clots, anything and everything you call yours. Show me your father, with his kites, his race horses, his free passes for the opera: I will eat them all, swallow them alive. Where is the chair you sit in, where is your favorite comb, your toothbrush, your nail file? Trot them out that I may devour them at one gulp. You have a sister more beautiful than yourself, you say. Show her to me—I want to lick the flesh from her bones.
Riding towards the ocean, towards the marshland where a little house was built to hatch a little egg which, after it had assumed the proper form, was christened Mara. That one little drop escaping from a man’s penis should produce such staggering results! I believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, in the blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Ghost, in Adam Cadmium, in chrome nickel, the oxides and the mercurochromes, in waterfowls and water cress, in epileptoid seizures, in bubonic plagues, in devachan, in planetary conjunctions, in chicken tracks and stick-throwing, in revolutions, in stock crashes, in wars, earthquakes, cyclones, in Kali Yuga and in hula-hula. I believe. I believe. I believe because not to believe is to become as lead, to lie prone and rigid, forever inert, to waste away. . . .
Looking out on the contemporary landscape. Where are the beasts of the field, the crops, the manure, the roses that flower in the midst of corruption? I see railroad tracks, gas stations, cement blocks, iron girders, tall chimneys, automobile cemeteries, factories, warehouses, sweatshops, vacant lots. Not even a goat in sight. I see it all clearly and distinctly: it spells desolation, death, death everlasting. For thirty years now I have worn the iron cross of ignominious servitude, serving but not believing, working but taking no wages, resting but knowing no peace. Why should I believe that everything will suddenly change, just having her, just loving and being loved?
Nothing will be changed except myself.
As I approach the house I see a woman in the back yard hanging up clothes. Her profile is turned to me; it is undoubtedly the face of the woman with the strange, foreign voice who answered the telephone. I don’t want to meet this woman, I don’t want to know who she is, I don’t want to believe what I suspect. I walk round the block and when I come again to the door she is gone. Somehow my courage too is gone.
I ring the bell hesitantly. Instantly the door is yanked open and the figure of a tall, menacing young man blocks the threshold. She is not in, can’t say when she’ll be back, who are you, what do you want of her? Then goodbye and bang! The door is staring me in the face. Young man, you’ll regret this. One day I’ll return with a shotgun and blow your testicles off. . . . So that’s it! Everybody on guard, everybody tipped off, everybody trained to be elusive and evasive. Miss Mara is never where she’s expected to be, nor does anybody know where she might be expected to be. Miss Mara inhabits the airs: volcanic ash blown hither and thither by the trade winds. Defeat and mystery for the first day of the Sabbatical year. Gloomy Sunday amongst the Gentiles, amongst the kith and kin of accidental birth. Death to all Christian brethren! Death to the phony status quo!
A few days passed without any sign of life from her. In the kitchen, after my wife had retired, I would sit and write voluminous letters to her. We were living then in a morbidly respectable neighborhood, occupying the parlor floor and basement of a lugubrious brownstone house. From time to time I had tried to write but the gloom which my wife created around her was too much for me. Only once did I succeed in breaking the spell which she had cast over the place; that was during a high fever which lasted for several days when I refused to see a doctor, refused to take any medicine, refused to take any nourishment. In a corner of the room upstairs I lay in a wide bed and fought off a delirium which threatened to end in death. I had never really been ill since childhood and the experience was delicious. To make my way to the toilet was like staggering through all the intricate passages of an ocean liner. I lived several lives in the few days that it lasted. That was my sole vacation in the sepulcher which is called home. The only other place I could tolerate was the kitchen. It was a sort of comfortable prison cell and, like a prisoner, here I often sat alone late into the night planning my escape. Here too my friend Stanley sometimes joined me, croaking over my misfortune and withering every hope with bitter and malicious barbs.
It was here I wrote the maddest letters ever penned. Anyone who thinks he is defeated, hopeless, without resources, can take courage from me. I had a scratchy pen, a bottle of ink and paper—my sole weapons. I put down everything which came into my head, whether it made sense or not. After I had posted a letter I would go upstairs and lie down beside my wife and, with eyes wide open, stare into the darkness, as if trying to read my future. I said to myself over and over that if a man, a sincere and desperate man like myself, loves a woman with all his heart, if he is ready to cut off his ears and mail them to her, if he will take his heart’s blood and pump it out on paper, saturate her with his need and longing, besiege her everlastingly, she cannot possibly refuse him. The homeliest man, the weakest man, the most undeserving man must triumph if he is willing to surrender his last drop of blood. No woman can hold out against the gift of absolute love.
I went again to the dance hall and found a message waiting for me. The sight of her handwriting made me tremble. It was brief and to the point. She would meet me at Times Square, in front of the drugstore, at midnight the following day. I was to please stop writing her to her home.
I had a little less than three dollars in my pocket when we met. The greeting she gave me was cordial and brisk. No mention of my visit to the house or the letters or the gifts. Where would I like to go, she asked after a few words. I hadn’t the slightest idea what to suggest. That she was standing there in the flesh, speaking to me, looking at me, was an event which I had not yet fully grasped. “Let’s go to Jimmy Kelly’s place,” she said, coming to my rescue. She took me by the arm and walked me to the curb where a cab was waiting for us. I sank back into the seat, overwhelmed by her mere presence. I made no attempt to kiss her or even to hold her hand. She had come—that was the paramount thing. That was everything.
We remained until the early hours of the morning, eating, drinking, dancing. We talked freely and understandingly. I knew no more about her, about her real life, than I knew before, not because of any secrecy on her part but rather because the moment was too full and neither past nor future seemed important.
When the bill came I almost dropped dead.
In order to stall for time I ordered more drinks. When I confessed to her that I had only a couple of dollars on me she suggested that I give them a check, assuring me that since she was with me there would be no question about its acceptance. I had to explain that I owned no checkbook, that I possessed nothing but my salary. In short, I made a full clearance.
While confessing this sad state of affairs to her an idea had germinated in my crop. I excused myself and went to the telephone booth. I called the main office of the telegraph company and begged the night manager, who was a friend of mine, to send a messenger to me immediately with a fifty-dollar bill. It was a lot of money for him to borrow from the till, and he knew I wasn’t any too reliable, but I gave him a harrowing story, promising faithfully to return it before the day was out.
The messenger turned out to be another good friend of mine, old man Creighton, an ex-minister of the gospel. He seemed indeed surprised to find me in such a place at that hour. As I was signing the sheet he asked me in a low voice if I was sure I would have enough with the fifty. “I can lend you something out of my own pocket,” he added. “It would be a pleasure to be of assistance to you.”
“How much can you spare?” I asked, thinking of the task ahead of me in the morning.
“I can give you another twenty-five,” he said readily.
I took it and thanked him warmly. I paid the bill, gave the waiter a generous tip, shook hands with the manager, the assistant manager, the bouncer, the hat check girl, the doorman, and with a begger who had his mitt out. We got into a cab and, as it wheeled around, Mara impulsively climbed over me and straddled me. We went into a blind fuck, with the cab lurching and careening, our teeth knocking, tongue bitten, and the juice pouring from her like hot soup. As we passed an open plaza on the other side of the river, just at daybreak, I caught the astonished glance of a cop as we sped by. “It’s dawn, Mara,” I said, trying gently to disengage myself. “Wait, wait,” she begged, panting and clutching at me furiously, and with that she went into a prolonged orgasm in which I thought she would rub my cock off. Finally she slid off and slumped back into her corner, her dress still up over her knees. I leaned over to embrace her again and as I did so I ran my hand up her wet cunt. She clung to me like a leech, wiggling her slippery ass around in a frenzy of abandon. I felt the hot juice trickling through my fingers. I had all four fingers up her crotch, stirring up the liquid moss which was tingling with electrical spasms. She had two or three orgasms and then sank back exhausted, smiling up at me weakly like a trapped doe.
After a time she got out her mirror and began powdering her face. Suddenly I observed a startled expression on her face, followed by a quick turn of the head. In another moment she was kneeling on the seat, staring out of the back window. “Someone’s following us,” she said. “Don’t look!” I was too weak and happy to give a damn. “Just a bit of hysteria,” I thought to myself, saying nothing but observing her attentively as she gave rapid, jerky orders to the driver to go this way and that, faster and faster. “Please, please!” she begged him, as though it were life and death. “Lady,” I heard him say, as if from far off, from some other dream vehicle, “I can’t give her any more . . . I’ve got a wife and kid . . . I’m sorry.”
I took her hand and pressed it gently. She made an abortive gesture, as if to say—”You don’t know . . . you don’t know . . . this is terrible.” It was not the moment to ask her questions. Suddenly I had the realization that we were in danger. Suddenly I put two and two together, in my own crazy fashion. I reflected quickly . . . nobody is following us . . . that’s all coke and laudanum . . . but somebody’s after her, that’s definite . . . she’s committed a crime, a serious one, and maybe more than one . . . nothing she says adds up . . . I’m in a web of lies . . . I’m in love with a monster, the most gorgeous monster imaginable . . . I should quit her now, immediately, without a word of explanation . . . otherwise I’m doomed . . . she’s fathomless, impenetrable . . . I might have known that the one woman in the world whom I can’t live without is marked with mystery . . . get out at once . . . jump . . . save yourself!
I felt her hand on my leg, rousing me stealthily. Her face was relaxed, her eyes wide open, full, shining with innocence. . . . “They’ve gone,” she said. “It’s all right now.”
Nothing is right, I thought to myself. We’re only beginning. Mara, Mara, where are you leading me? Its fateful, it’s ominous, but I belong to you body and soul, and you will take me where you will, deliver me to my keeper, bruised, crushed, broken. For us there is no final understanding. I feel the ground slipping from under me. . . .
My thoughts she was never able to penetrate, neither then nor later. She probed deeper than thought: she read blindly, as if endowed with antennae. She knew that I was meant to destroy, that I would destroy her too in the end. She knew that whatever game she might pretend to play with me she had met her match. We were pulling up to the house. She drew close to me and, as though she had a switch inside her which she controlled at will, she turned on me the full incandescent radiance of her love. The driver had stopped the car. She told him to pull up the street a little farther and wait. We were facing one another, hands clasped, knees touching. A fire ran through our veins. We remained thus for several minutes, as in some ancient ceremony, the silence broken only by the purr of the motor.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said, leaning forward impulsively for a last embrace. And then in my ear she murmured—”I’m falling in love with the strangest man on earth. You frighten me, you’re so gentle. Hold me tight. . . believe in me always . . . I feel almost as if I were with a god.”
Embracing her, trembling with the warmth of her passion, my mind jumped clear of the embrace, electrified by the tiny seed she had planted in me. Something that had been chained down, something that had struggled abortively to assert itself ever since I was a child and had brought my ego into the street for a glance around, now broke loose and went skyrocketing into the blue. Some phenomenal new being was sprouting with alarming rapidity from the top of my head, from the double crown which was mine from birth.
After an hour or two’s rest I got to the office, which was already jammed with applicants. The telephones were ringing as usual. It seemed more than ever senseless to be passing my life away in the attempt to fill up a permanent leak. The officials of the cosmococcic telegraph world had lost faith in me and I had lost faith in the whole fantastic world which they were uniting with wires, cables, pulleys, buzzers and Christ only knows what. The only interest I displayed was in the pay check—and the much talked of bonus which was due any day. I had one other interest, a secret, diabolical one, and that was to work off a grudge which I had against Spivak, the efficiency expert whom they had brought in from another city expressly to spy on me. As soon as Spivak appeared on the scene, no matter in what remote, outlying office, I was tipped off. I used to lie awake nights thinking it out like a safe-cracker—how I would trip him up and bring about his dismissal. I made a vow that I would hang on to the job until I had knifed him. It gave me pleasure to send him phony messages under false names in order to give him a bum steer, covering him with ridicule and causing endless confusion. I even had people write him letters threatening his life. I would get Curley, my chief stooge, to telephone him from time to time, saying that his house was on fire or that his wife had been taken to the hospital—anything that would upset him and start him off on a fool’s errand. I had a gift for this underhanded sort of warfare. It was a talent that had been developed since the tailoring days. Whenever my father said to me—”Better cross his name off the books, he’ll never pay up!” I interpreted it very much as would a young Indian brave if the old chief had handed him a prisoner and said—”Bad pale face, give him the works!” (I had a thousand different ways of annoying a man without running foul of the law. Some men, whom I disliked on principle, I continued to plague long after they had paid their petty debts. One man, whom I especially detested, died of an apoplectic fit upon receiving one of my anonymous insulting letters which was smeared with cat shit, bird shit, dog shit and one or two other varieties, including the well-known human variety.) Spivak consequently was just my meat. I concentrated all my cosmococcic attention on the sole plan of annihilating him. When we met I was polite, deferential, apparently eager to co-operate with him in every way. Never lost my temper with him, though every word he uttered made my blood boil. I did everything possible to bolster his pride, inflate his ego, so that when the moment came to puncture the bag the noise would be heard far and wide.
Towards noon Mara telephoned. The conversation must have lasted a quarter of an hour. I thought she’d never hang up. She said she had been rereading my letters; some of them she had read aloud to her aunt, or rather parts of them. (Her aunt had said that I must be a poet. She was disturbed about the money I had borrowed. Would I be able to pay it back all right or should she try and borrow some? It was strange that I should be poor—I behaved like a rich man. But she was glad I was poor. Next time we would take a trolley ride somewhere. She didn’t care about night clubs; she preferred a walk in the country or a stroll along the beach. The book was wonderful—she had only begun it this morning. Why didn’t I try to write? She was sure I could write a great book. She had ideas for a book which she would tell me about when we met again. If I liked, she would introduce me to some writers she knew—they would be only too glad to help me. . . .
She rambled on like that interminably. I was thrilled and worried at the same time. I had rather she put it down on paper. But she seldom wrote letters, so she said. Why I couldn’t understand. Her fluency was marvelous. She would say things at random, intricate, flamelike, or slide off into a parenthetical limbo peppered with fireworks—admirable linguistic feats which a practiced writer might struggle for hours to achieve. And yet her letters—I remember the shock I received when I opened the first one—were almost childlike.
Her words, however, produced an unexpected effect. Instead of rushing out of the house immediately after dinner that evening, as I usually did, I lay on the couch in the dark and fell into a deep reverie. “Why don’t you try to write?” That was the phrase which had stuck in my crop all day, which repeated itself insistently, even as I was saying thank you to my friend MacGregor for the ten-spot which I had wrung from him after the most humiliating wheedling and cajoling.