I slept with my cousin’s boyfriend in December of 1972, after riding a Greyhound bus 724 miles through the night and the snow. The trip took nearly 24 hours: its high point, a middle-of-the-night stopover in Fargo, North Dakota. As the snow fell steadily, sparkling in the beams of the streetlights, I walked the few blocks of downtown, which had an innocent feel of times gone by. I could almost imagine what it was like in the mid-1800s, when the Wells-Fargo stagecoaches rumbled through what was then called the “gateway to the west.” The air was crisp and dry, the snow just beginning to pile up on the streets and sidewalks like soft confetti—festive and decorative—not yet a burden to be hauled away with shovels and plows.
The only place open was the coffee shop of the lone hotel—a once-grand old red brick structure—the dull yellow lights of its windows muted like an Edward Hopper canvas. I went in, mostly to warm up, and sat with something …an egg and coffee, perhaps—served on those heavy white dishes sparsely decorated with a single green stripe. Then I returned to the abandoned streets, entranced by their desolation, the fairy-dust snow, and the silent air. I felt like I was alone on the earth, wandering its empty streets in peace. Somewhat reluctantly, I reboarded the bus that still had many stops and miles to go before it would reach my destination of Winnipeg, across the Canadian border.
I arrived at the charming old Victorian house that my cousin and her boyfriend shared with another couple around mid-afternoon the next day. The light was already faltering, a casualty of the northern latitude. The boyfriend was the only one home. We knew each other slightly, but had never been alone together. He was tall and skinny, stork-like, with a big beaky nose that appealed to me.
Maybe there was a greeting hug. Maybe an offer of a back rub. I can’t remember anymore. Before I knew it, we went upstairs to the bedroom he shared with my cousin and had sex in their bed. The room was dim, a mere film of light pressing through the thinly-curtained window. I took a nap afterwards, catching up from my long bus ride. When my cousin came home, we told her what we’d done, unashamed. She was remarkably unperturbed and did not even seem particularly surprised. We went on to cook dinner and enjoy the next two weeks together.
Over the holidays my cousin and her friends showed me around Winnipeg—the boyfriend’s hometown. As a Wisconsin native, I was used to cold weather and prided myself on my hardiness, but this was the coldest place I’d ever been, and the challenge of it was thrilling. We all went out to party on New Year’s Eve. I could feel a crackle as the tiny drops of moisture along each nostril hair hardened to instant icicles. Yet I quickly learned not to inhale through my mouth. When I did, the force of frigid air speeding straight to the lungs felt like I had been stabbed in the chest. It was easy to imagine frozen fingers snapping off like a child’s poppet beads. In January, the mercury plummeted to an astonishing 35 degrees below zero—and that was before wind chill.
Still, it was lovely. The Assiniboine River, which wove through the city, was sunk like a heavy cable in the high banks of snow. Everywhere, trees poked bravely through the whiteness, yearning for the sun. We shopped at an old-world market that sold things out of barrels—pickles, herring—and visited the Winnipeg art museum’s Inuit collection. I still have a postcard that I bought: the background an eternity of white with simple, thick black lines—two Inuit in heavy parkas pulling a walrus carcass.
Over the years, I’d heard tales of Inuit men “lending” their wives to visitors. These stories conjured images of ice-crusted men, traveling miles across the frozen tundra with only their sled dogs for company and shelter against the wind and the cold. What a kindness it would be for a man to lie down in an igloo, under heavy furs, between the thick legs of a blubber-fed woman, nestled into soft belly and breasts, while the northern lights danced wildly in the night sky. Of course, the woman’s consent was another issue.
But recently I tried to find out more about these legends, only to learn that they are mostly apocryphal. The offering of wives, it seems, was practiced under very limited circumstances—generally as part of a ritual or ceremony rather than a convenience to the beleaguered traveler. Even so, might my cousin’s easygoing ability to share her boyfriend with me have been a link in that tradition?
From the distance of more than 40 years, I have been reflecting on this tryst—an event I had not considered for decades. I am baffled and perplexed by my youthful behavior, and deeply mortified—a remorse I hadn’t felt at the time. It is part of the assortment of guilt candy that I munch in private, relishing its discomfort like a broken tooth or a scab—painful, but irresistible. I am at a loss to reconstruct my motivation—whether it was an impulsive act of sexual attraction, a buried resentment of my cousin that I couldn’t openly admit, or a simple case of thoughtless self-absorption. Although this lone infidelity didn’t have a negative impact on my relationship with my cousin, I couldn’t have known this at the time.
So I mustered my courage and asked my cousin what she remembered of this long-ago affair. She told me, “We were in a pretty comfortable relationship… I knew he had sex with a few other people and was never threatened by it.” I was relieved that she didn’t harbor animosity over my ancient indiscretion, but more, I admired her unflappable security in that relationship, even though they parted ways within a year of my visit.
When I was a teen, my father broke up our family when his protracted affair led to divorce and remarriage. My mother became like a trembling bunny, lonely and uncertain, leaning on me for emotional support. I was glad to escape home when I left for college, but her phone calls and tears followed me, weighing me down like lead boots that would sink me to the bottom of Lake Mendota, whose borders skirted the Madison campus I attended. In different ways, I felt abandoned by both parents and bore these feelings internally like a jagged scar—a hidden wound pressed deep under my ribs. These experiences imprinted me with a conviction that sexual infidelity was a hurt from which one could not recover. It was many years before I considered other possibilities.
But at 20, my love life was like the snow-covered winters of Wisconsin, Winnipeg, or the Arctic – bleak and chilly. I had a frozen heart that had been broken by my father and wasn’t ready to thaw. My cousin’s boyfriend offered me a sexual adventure, an island of heat amidst the cold, and my cousin was generous enough to go along with it.
In my senior year of college, I began to contemplate where I would start a new life after graduation—certain that I would leave the Midwest. Over the spring break, I traveled to Washington, D.C., where a friend picked me up at the airport. As we drove along Rock Creek Parkway toward her Dupont Circle apartment, a seemingly endless ocean of spring daffodils flowed over the hills along the winding road—their yellow faces pushing earnestly through the hard earth. In that instant, I decided to move to Washington, lured by a vision of sunny hope.