"So Julia, are you involved in your husband's endeavor?" Tom eventually asked.
"Just as a hostess," I said.
"Demanding job. I see Jill doing it and feel pity for her. Not too rewarding, is it?"
"Actually, I think it is." I had my mask on.
"Bullshit," Sam whispered on my other side and then joined in our conversation. "Union. How rewarding can it be for you to meet and greet and make polite conversation with strangers night after night?" Devil's advocate was a role he was well suited to.
"I get to know them, and then they're not strangers; they become our friends." It wasn't the answer I wanted to give but the one I was required to give.
"Look around this room and tell me honestly how many people here are your friends," Sam demanded, but before I could even come up with an answer, he answered for me. "Four. If you're lucky."
He turned back to his tart and I checked on Tom, who was now engaged with the woman to his right.
"You're good at this -- being someone you're not, aren't you?" Sam asked.
"I don't know what you mean," I said, hedging.
"Bullshit. You know exactly what I mean. I'm talking about inventing a persona and hiding behind it. Don't bother to refute me. I know the signs; I've studied people my whole life."
Rather than continue the discussion, I glanced past Sam to Jill Foley, who was staring off into space, and drew her into a conversation. For a few minutes, everything went smoothly until Sam made a reference to the institute.
"What institute is that?" Jill Foley asked.
"My wife and I run the Butterfield Institute," Sam said.
"The sex clinic?" Jill frowned.
"Yes. Have you heard of it?" Sam asked.
"It's hard not to. Every time I open a magazine, it seems you or your wife are being quoted. It's impossible to avoid your radical theories." From her tone, she obviously disapproved.
Sam examined her pinched face for a long moment before responding. "We need air to breathe, food to eat, a roof over our heads. And we need sex. It's a primal urge, not an intellectual decision, although our Judeo-Christian ethic has done everything in its power to make it one, screwing up people along the way." He shook his head for emphasis and his white hair flew around him like a lion's mane. "Someone has to undo some of that damage. That's what the institute's for."
Jill Foley clasped her hands together as if she were praying. "We're already far too open as a society," she argued.
Sam enjoyed defending his position. "We're not open at all. We may allow movies, television, and books to depict explicit sex, but shit, as human beings, we're still uptight and puritanical."
"I can't agree. We're much too permissive and altogether too tolerant of deviant behavior. Our whole value system is corrupt." Jill was adamant.
"C'mon, is it deviant or dangerous when two animals mate? Of course not. It's the church, in its effort to control people, that has created these arbitrary boundaries and rules to corral our sexual appetites. They've made us ashamed and guilty about our genitalia because they're too close to the part of the body that produces waste. In our culture, we're fucked by the time we're toilet trained."
"Do you mean to imply other cultures with a different relationship to sex are better off?" she asked contemptuously.
It was well past the time for me to interrupt and change the subject. Jill had become belligerent and Sam, argumentative, but I was too curious. I wanted to hear Sam's response.
"Well, yes. Certain eastern cultures see sexuality not as a fall from grace but as a way to ascend to a state of grace, to a state of self-realization. Achieving transcendental knowledge is their goal; their means is through the body." Even though he'd been answering Jill's question, Sam had been looking at me. So now Jill was insulted as well as indignant.
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