“Intimacy is about the experience of saying to another person — not necessarily in words — ‘This is who truly I am and what I want. Who are you? What do you want?’ ” writer Michael Lowenthal says. “If that kind of honest exchange is combined with physical touch and pleasure, it’s all the more profound.”
In his newly published short story collection, Sex With Strangers, about which he’ll be giving a virtual talk and reading on Wednesday via East End Books Ptown, Lowenthal takes the reader beyond raw, brief sexual acts between strangers to reveal moments of true intimacy. Some of the encounters he describes are passionately, even desperately, physical. In others, the connection between strangers transcends any need for physical touch.
A young caretaker lies down in bed next to an emaciated, dying AIDS patient twice his age and realizes, “The closer to his death, the more aware I was of his still-aliveness.” A homely busboy discovers his own beauty when a singer invites him into her changing room, pulls down his pants and orders him to look in the mirror while she brings him to orgasm. “Don’t forget,” she tells him before leaving. On a cruise, a middle-aged woman about to renew her marriage vows confides to a novice priest that she longs to leave her husband for a woman she met online. “I feel I’m finally there,” she says. “You know what I mean. Everything else dissolves.”
Through the experiences of people who are gay, straight, male, female, young, and old, Lowenthal shows that “life gains meaning through sharing it intimately with others.” And, despite the undeniable biological imperative of our sexual desire, what we ultimately long for is a connection to others.
Even so, it’s a painful fact that “intimacy can often go hand in hand with — and can even provoke — profound loneliness,” Lowenthal says. “The longer I live, the more I’m struck by the inescapable fact that no matter how much we bare our souls to one another, no matter how passionately we insert our body parts into one another, we can never, never, never know how it feels to be another person. And even if we could really know other people, maybe we’d have much less drive to get intimate with them. That would be the truly sad thing.”
Lowenthal, who has published four novels prior to this, his first short story collection, realized when compiling the stories for the book that he’d been focused on themes of sexuality, sexual relationships, and intimacy ever since he began to write.
“There was literally only one story I’ve ever written that couldn’t have fit well into this collection,” he says. “I’m sure this has to do with growing up gay in the ’80s. I felt like a non-native to the language of sexuality and intimacy the world around me was speaking. I knew that my own language had a different vocabulary, but I didn’t know how to articulate that.”
The good fortune of meeting the writer John Preston shortly after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1990, Lowenthal says, “expanded the scope of what I thought I could write about.” Preston was a proponent of gay and lesbian literature during the 1970s and ’80s, as well as an author of gay erotica and editor of gay anthologies. He read about Lowenthal in the New York Times after the young man revealed in his graduation speech, in front of an audience of thousands, that he was the college’s first gay valedictorian.
In the years that followed, Preston became a mentor to Lowenthal. “He persuaded me that writing about any topic — even transgressive sexual stuff — could be worthy of a wide audience, as long as the writing was good enough,” Lowenthal says.
Preston died of AIDS in 1994. Before his death, he entrusted Lowenthal with the task of completing two fiction anthologies he was editing, as well as a collection of essays, Winter’s Light. “John considered it a gift that I agreed to finish his work. I think it helped him feel more settled about dying,” Lowenthal says. “But, to me, it was he who was giving me an incredible gift, not only to do something for him out of love, but also to get a jump start into the publishing industry.”
Lowenthal published his first novel, The Same Embrace, a story of sexual and religious identity struggles, when he was 29. Now, as part of Lesley University’s creative writing faculty, he mentors young writers and considers it an essential aspect of his work. “I think about what John gave me and try to pay it forward,” Lowenthal says. “I love the experience of seeing something in young writers that they may not even yet see in themselves and helping to nurture that.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the theme of self-discovery is a thread that runs through Lowenthal’s stories. “Breathing by myself had lost its point,” the busboy thinks to himself after the singer wraps her mouth around his nose. A man who is unfaithful to his long-term partner admits, “For us, sex was never an end in itself, but just a means, a way to buttress the love we built together.”
At the core of Lowenthal’s stories lies the astonishing message that during sexual intimacy with a stranger, in the words of one of his protagonists, “the stranger I discovered was myself.”
The event: Virtual talk and reading with Michael Lowenthal, author of Sex With Strangers: Stories
The time: Wednesday, March 31, 6 p.m.
The place: Register with Eventbrite for a Zoom link at eastendbooksptown.com
The cost: Free