The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing by Daniel Bergner
“Riveting….Powerful…as much about desire and what’s normal as it is an exploration of why we are the way we are, whether we like it or not.”
—New York Times Book Review
Subtitled “Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing,” Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire is a literary exploration of science and sex that will appeal to readers of Mary Roach and Natalie Angier. A cross between “a top-rated HBO series [with] provocatively graphic sex, humorous dialogue, and moral ambiguity,” (New York Times) and a profound, deeply humanizing study of sexuality, The Other Side of Desire has been called, “a foray into extreme passion, in quest of the human soul” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and its author, Bergner, “a keen storyteller but above all a humane one” (Salon.com).
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of three previous nonfiction books: The Other Side of Desire; In the Land of Magic Soldiers, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year and winner of an Overseas Press Club Award and a Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage; and God of the Rodeo, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Chapter One Jacob Miller loved Toronto. He thought of it every day. He was American, and lived in a snowy American city, but a Canadian flag, with its broad bars of red and its red maple leaf, hung in his home office. A printout of the flag, on a sheet of computer paper, was taped to the wall between his kitchen and dining room. Pasted to the rear window of his car, a flag decal hinted at his love. When he dressed casually in wintertime, he favored a letterman's-style jacket. The leaf, big and bright, adorned the back.
If he'd won the lottery, he would have retired and moved to Toronto. If he could have designed his own world, that city would have occupied his entire planet. "When we had our son, I wanted what I call a T-R name," he said, laughing at himself. "Tristan. Troy. Trice. I didn't tell my wife why. I didn't tell her, 'Because it would remind me of Toronto.' She said, 'I'm not naming him Tristan, kids are going to make fun of him. I'm not naming him Troy.' She said, 'What kind of name is Trice?'"
Toronto was a realm where everyone was accepted. On Yonge Street, during a visit in his twenties, twenty years in the past, he'd seen the kids in their punk gear, the parents pushing strollers, the beggars with their cups, the prostitutes in their spandex, the gays hand in hand, all intermixed, passing each other on the sidewalk, tolerating each other, yes, but more than that, seeming tacitly to welcome each other. He'd filled the beggars' cups. Toronto, he felt, was a place even for monsters, a city for men such as himself.
Jacob owned a tidy wooden house not far from downtown in the city where he'd grown up. In the living room, plants cascaded from the mantelpiece; a flat-screen TV was mounted above the greenery. The furniture was soft and stylish. A small white-haired dog trotted across the carpet. The ashes of another, a terrier-beagle he still mourned a decade after its death, sat on a shelf in a box painted gold.
In the driveway, in the months when it wasn't covered in snow, he played basketball with his eight-year-old son, his only child. Ben was dark-haired, frail. They shot at a portable hoop Jacob had bought, lowered to a height the boy could manage. Jacob himself had never been much for sports, but Ben had lately taught him to play Pig. "It's easy, Pop!" he'd cried out. "It's easy!" So they shot and talked, shot and talked. Ben had suffered a stroke during his fifth month in the womb and had cerebral palsy. In the winter months, Jacob was teaching him to ski.
He'd been married to Ben's mother for sixteen years. He'd thought her beautiful when they met; he thought her beautiful now. "I've had men say to me, 'You're a lucky guy.'" She had a profusion of black hair and smooth olive skin and large dark eyes. She was petite and full-breasted. She'd come from a small town, and he took her, on their first date, to a restaurant she saw as dazzling. Over a dinner much more expensive than she was used to, he learned about her job for an airline, at a ticket counter, which allowed her to fly for free. This struck him as glamorous. And he told her about his success as a salesman. "This gorgeous woman," he remembered. "She put me on a pedestal, and I put her on a pedestal."
He still felt they were wonderfully matched. "We're homebody people," he said, listing the things they loved to do together: sit on the porch and watch Ben ride his bicycle or his electric scooter; go to craft shows and collect southwestern ceramics decorated with a flute-playing figure called Kokopelli. After sixteen years, they still called each other from work three or four times a day.
Jacob had put together this life of comfort and love despite at least two relevant obstacles. One was a learning disability so extreme that, in his mid-forties, he could read sentences and calculate numbers no better than most fourth-graders. He'd been given special glasses as a child, with cardboard frames and one green and one red lens. For much of each school day, he'd been made to wear this clownish gear.
The remedy hadn't worked; the only way he'd kept up at all was that classmates read his assignments into a reel-to-reel, and at night he lay in bed, listening. When Jacob was in his late thirties, the head psychiatrist at the hospital of Johns Hopkins University had used him to instruct his students. With Jacob's consent, the psychiatrist had placed him within a U of sixty pupils, and asked him to imagine having seventeen apples and giving away five-how many would he have left? Jacob couldn't answer. There were more questions like it, and a simple paragraph he stumbled through and couldn't comprehend. Then, after the stymied gasps of the psychiatrists-in-training, the head made his point about people's ability to overcome. For Jacob was prosperous, thriving in his job. He kept his customers, across a vast swath of territory along the Great Lakes, unfailingly supplied in the goods he handled, and he supervised a team of junior sales-people. Painstakingly, he managed never to jumble his accounts. He could have carried out his business almost entirely by phone and the Internet, but, always anxious that no one should be unhappy with him, he drove for hours and hours each day to present himself in person, a slightly short, husky man, neatly dressed in a jacket and turtleneck or tie-just to shake hands and chat for a few minutes, just to ask his customers if they had any complaints and reassure them that he would make all adjustments.