Machiasport is a remote town about as far Down East as you can go. It is in the middle of nowhere. I bought a house there in 1993 with Len because it was beautiful, wild, and affordable. I had hoped it would give Len and me some pleasure after his stroke and be a place to heal our lives.
Rachel was staying at the house in 2000, finishing college classes for her BS at the University of Maine at Machias. The weathered Cape-style house sat on sixteen acres of wild blueberry fields rambling down to Holmes Bay. It was a feast of sky, fields, and salt water. Eagles often flew overhead with fish in their talons. Fox, bear, and moose roamed about and outnumbered people. The population was 1,100. It wasn’t a popular vacation area even though it sat close to the water and was full of wild areas to explore. I liked that it wasn’t a tourist destination.
The Machias River runs behind the Machias Motel on Route 1, and in the spring you can watch seals frantically chasing the alewives in a flurry of splashing water, open mouths, and shiny skin and scales. The nearest movie theaters are in Ellsworth, an hour and ten minutes away to the south, or St. Stephen in New Brunswick, Canada, an hour and fifteen minutes to the north. Living there reminded me of the TV show Northern Exposure: remote, quirky, rustic, and wild. Especially the people.
I spent New Year’s Day 2000 hiking alone an hour northeast of Machias in a place I considered my spiritual home: West Quoddy Head Light. Located in the town of Lubec, Maine, it’s the easternmost point in the United States and the first place the sun rises. The park is actually a cliff walk along the Quoddy Narrows, a rustic and wild shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean.
The trail is rugged and narrow with waves smacking the rocks below, pine trees perfuming the air, and two ancient bogs thriving with arctic plants.
Whenever I hiked there, I felt like a pilgrim arriving in uncharted territory. It felt exciting to walk on such wild land. The silence there lay deep as though under a muffling of snow until the wind drummed through trees, creaking joints and rotted-out trunks. Glacial rocks smothered in moss often took on anthropomorphic shapes.
I felt the most at home there, the most alive and blessed. As soon as my feet hit the hard dirt path, I breathed the clean fragrant air, settled into the silence, and all my worries, pain and sadness melted away. The earth took me in and God was alive.
I thought about moving to Machiasport after Len and I separated, but feared it would be too isolating for me as a single woman.
Once Rachel finished college, she was supposed to move on to a school in Seattle and become a naturopathic physician but stayed in Machias instead. She and her partner decided to open a health food store there.
When the store opened in September, she called me asking for help. It seemed that they were having problems with their cashiers and needed someone they could trust to help run things. I jumped at the chance to leave Portland, to be closer to the land I loved, and have people to socialize with. I considered it an adventure.
I rented a small house in Machiasport so I could have privacy. I was still hopeful about dating, even there. In fact, the last guy I had met in Portland was a German high school principal, Claus, who was being transferred to, of all places, Machias. I didn’t expect much from him. He was rather cold and showed barely any physical interest in me, but he was someone to talk to and have dinner with occasionally. If I was driving through China, Maine, where he lived, on my way to Machias, I might spend the night there to split my driving time.
He was an odd duck. He lived in a sprawling house with large windows over looking China Lake. He had a German Shepard named Adolph who he spent more time play.ing with than talking to me. He showed me his hot tub room, which looked like the set for a Cialis commercial with two white enamel footed-tubs placed side by side. “How weird,” I thought. He never asked me to take a bath in them, thank God. I wouldn’t have anyway. It was just a friendship of convenience.
When I arrived in Machias to stay and help out, it was October 2000. I was forty-nine. I will never forget my first night in the house because there was a meteor shower. I happened to catch a dramatic neon green streak flashing across the sky; it looked like the Northern Lights, but next-day reports said a meteor had caused the light show that went from DC to Maine. It was an omen.
At the store I worked long days, arriving around 7am, bringing in muffins from a local baker, and helping Rachel and her partner set up before customers came in. Often I mopped floors, stocked shelves, cleaned bathrooms, and emptied trash as well as cashiering.
I liked cashiering because I got to talk to people. It turned out that one of the other cashiers lived right across the street from my rental house. Her name was also Rachel. Her husband Marcus taught literature at the college and they often had wild parties. What else do you do in a remote place for fun?
Marcus and Rachel grew their own pot in the basement, and their house seemed to be the pot-smoking hub of Machias and Machiasport. By now I felt freed of many of my old restrictions. Before I had kept myself in check because I was a mother. I never strayed from my June Cleaver shtick because I didn’t want to embarrass my kids or lose their respect with any bad behaviors like having affairs, getting drunk, or smoking pot. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about doing those things, but fear of being found out by my kids always stopped me. I wanted to be a good role model. But it was clear to me now I could pretty much do what I wanted.
I was now living in the wilds of Down East Maine where no one was June Cleaver. I found out that pot-smoking was a daily practice for many local folks, from the college professors to the lobster-men. Drinking, wife-swapping, and worse went on regularly. There were drug busts for heroin and oxycodone. Drugs came in over the Canadian border or by boat to any one of the thousands of coves that flourish on the Maine coastline and are impossible to police.
Incest was rampant too. In fact there’s an island off Machias called Beals Island. Five-hundred-five people live there, most with the last name of Beal. I am not kidding!
I remember a local story of a brother and sister who lived on the island with their last remaining relative, a grandfather. The story went that the brother and sister, in their twenties or so, kept going to the grocery store in Machias and buying cartloads of seltzer water. The brother and sister seemed odd to begin with: wearing florescent hunting-orange year-round, not always making sense when they talked, and exhibiting hygiene issues. I heard that the local police went to their dilapidated house and found the grandfather’s body in a bathtub filled with the seltzer water. The story was they had tried to preserve him and that he was actually both their father and grandfather. I have no idea how true this story is, but the fact that local people talk about a story like this and believe it to be true says a lot about life in remote Down East Maine.
Then there was the night I went out to a party with Rachel, Marcus, and a friend. The party was at a house off the grid in an isolated spot in Jonesboro. We went down dirt road after dirt road in the pitch-dark night and were hopelessly lost when we finally stopped at the first signs of life: a lamp lit in a window of a trailer home. As we drove up the dirt driveway, the headlights spotlighted the side yard with an array of plastic baby dolls sitting at small tables having tea, dirty stuffed animals perched on sticks and on top of doll houses, and plastic flamingos and plaster gnomes and fairies covering the remaining space. A chicken wire fence surrounded this madness, and on every other fence post sat an impaled doll with what looked like blood dripping down her neck and torso.
My mind flashed the name Stephen King, and I figured this is where he got the inspiration for the stories he wrote: rural Maine. We never knocked on the trailer door to get directions.
Another time Rachel, the cashier, confided in me that an ex-CIA guy would come into the store to chat with her occasionally. He was tall and looked skeevy, scrawny, and half-shaved. His cowboy boots were always caked in mud and his clothes layered in dirt. Rachel told me he liked to keep a harem of women at his beat up old farmhouse and play Russian roulette with them as well as order them around like slaves, making them work scrubbing floors and digging fence post holes.
They all seemed to like having sex together while some.one held a knife or a gun to someone’s throat for a dangerous thrill! Yeesh!
I was curious, but at a distance. I only watched The X-Files with the potheads on Sunday at Rachel and Marcus’s, listened to the crazy stories, and went to a party once in a while. I was not in Kansas anymore.
Rachel and Marcus invited me to their Halloween party a few weeks after I had arrived in Machiasport and settled in. I came in my gorilla costume. I loved my costume. It always made a splash when I wore it because it was so unexpected and funny. And it became a great way to break the ice in a room full of people I didn’t know.
Eventually I took the gorilla head off and I could see more of the range of people and costumes at the party. Right in front of me stood a funny-looking guy in a pink lace-trimmed bathrobe and furry leopard open-toed slippers. He wore red lipstick, had a scruffy beard, and smoked a cigarette like a drag queen as he sized me up and down.
He said, “Ahnnnd whooo are yoooouuu?” kind of like the Cheshire Cat. If I had felt like Alice in Wonderland watching the montage of costumed, pot-smoking people punctuated with cackling laughs, I didn’t feel at all ready to zoom in on this energy.
I was too shy and didn’t feel playful enough to respond to this guy. He seemed a little creepy. I kept thinking: “Just go away, weird little man…leave me alone.” But the guy was determined to find out who I was.
Everyone knew each other there. I was the only unknown, so this guy made it his mission to get my name.
Marcus came over and said, “Don’t let the weird Frenchman rile you. He is harmless.” Then he introduced a few more people to me and the French guy went away.
I decided to duck out early. The party scene wasn’t for me. But as I walked towards the end of the driveway to cross the street to my house, the French guy scooted out of Marcus’ house and insisted on walking me home. Okay, he was beginning to grow on me, making me laugh at his ridiculous manner as he spoke in broken English. His French accent made everything he said sound exotic. He called me “Dell” and said his name was Eric. He liked my costume. He said he was a chef from a long line of cooks who had had bistros near Toulouse. In the two-minute walk to my back door he talked nonstop.
I cut him off mid-sentence, went inside, said good night, and shut the door on him and his cigarette. C’est dommage, Eric.
That was Friday night. Sunday night I returned to Rachel’s house for dinner and to watch The X-Files. Eric showed up. He had cooked a silky, savory quiche that melted in my mouth like cotton candy. His skills impressed me, but I still felt wary of him. Rachel told me that he lived down the road with his wife, a teacher at the college working on her doctorate.
He tried to engage me in conversation but I didn’t want to talk to him. I went home early. He tried to come back with me and I told him to get lost.
At 11pm that night, I was in bed reading when I heard a car go down the dirt road in front of the house. This was unusual because only three people lived on this road. The car stopped, then a car door opened and slammed shut.
I jumped out of bed and saw in the moonless dark the red-hot end of a lit cigarette moving toward the house. I watched the red ember as it seemed to float in the night air, the glow of it rising and falling like a crescendo until the dim wattage of the lone street lamp illuminated the walker: Eric.
“Shit,” I thought, I put on some clothes, ran downstairs, and switched on all the lights inside and out, half-scared out of my mind and half-excited by the danger of it all, and got to the door before he knocked so I could beat him at his game. “What the hell do you want Eric?” I kind of growled at him. “I don’t knooows,” he said. “Can I cum eenn? Itz cold out herrre.”
Before I could say yes or no, he came in, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them to get them warm. He looked at me and smiled. He had a goofy, toothy grin and looked like an impish boy in the fluorescent kitchen-light.
“Okay, Eric,” I said, “you’ve had your fun. What is it that you want?” Then he put his arms around me, brushed the hair out of my face, and looked me in the eyes and kissed me, just like a B movie.
“Geez,” I thought, “that was kind of good.” He looked into my eyes and kissed my forehead, my nose and lips again. He said, “How loooong has it beeeeen, Dell, since you half beeeen kizzed?”
How did he know? Was it written on my forehead: No sex for seven years! I just looked at him and shook my head. “You’re married, Mister, and I…”and he did it again. Damn, this felt good, bad, exciting, crazy, wrong, wonderful. I felt alive, sexy, really sexy. Where did that come from?
“Eric, how old are you?”
“Thirteee-twoo,” he said.
“Well, I am forty-nine and you are just too young.”
“How oold iz your oldizt zun?”
“Twenty-nine” I said.
“Then nooo problem,” he said and grabbed me harder, tighter, and kissed me again. He took a drag on his cigarette, exhaled it upward, and walked out the door just like he came in: with his cigarette in his mouth, its red ember leading the way, floating like a phantom back to his car.
I ran upstairs and watched him out the window. He turned the car around on the gravel road and drove away. The rest of the night I lay in bed just like a teenager thinking about the new boy I had a crush on. The last vestiges of Mrs. Cleaver and my self-imposed good-girl rules were fading away fast. My kids were all adults and on their own. I wanted to try some things out and felt strong enough to deal with the consequences. I was about to do what I should have done when I was seventeen: sow some wild oats instead of thinking of marriage.
The next day at work I saw Rachel the cashier and told her about Eric. She laughed and said how juicy a story it was. I asked her if he did this all the time and she said he never came on to anyone else that she knew of. She said he and his wife lived a quiet life and didn’t socialize much. I found that hard to believe.
Eric wore me down. It didn’t take much, though, because I had given up trying to hold back, to be good, to be reasonable. What did being reasonable ever get me? Now I just wanted to have something I craved: real sex with a knowledgeable partner.
Eric told me he and his wife were not monogamous. He convinced me that there were no innocent bystanders, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered to me if there were because I was learning how to say yes to what I needed.
He came back to my house every night. It was the same routine. He never parked in the driveway but always just down the street. I’m not sure why, but it made things more exciting. He was very French in his approach to sex and love. When I saw the movie Unfaithful with Diane Lane years later, it was like watching my affair on the big screen.
It seemed clear to me Eric wanted to teach me the ways of love, uninhibited sex, and total sexual freedom. It had to do with incorporating body, mind, and heart the French way. He taught me to be shameless, to love my body and feel sexy in my mind. He taught me how to be sensual, to flirt effectively, and to hold my power as a woman. I had no idea what I had missed out on before Eric. Every woman should have such a competent teacher. He broke me down in order for me to let go of my resistance and fly. I learned about the power of sex from a male perspective. No longer would I wait to be asked like a polite girl. I learned to take what I wanted and create my own rules.
Eric thought I was beautiful, juicy, and crazy-sexy. Not fat. Me, crazy-sexy? It was great to be seen that way. I no longer felt like the nebbishy, goody-two-shoes, little wife and mother. I felt more like a Cosmic Goddess full of power! He got me to grow my hair long and wear sexy French underwear and low-cut necklines.
It was amazing how good sex with the right person made me feel so full of self-esteem. I wished I had known about this years ago, but if I had done this when I was younger it probably would not have been such a powerful experience that I learned so much from.
We had a few passionate unrestrained weeks with each other. Late nights by candle-light infused with all kinds of new experiences. We made love in the kitchen, in the living room, on the stairs, in the shower. One night, as Eric bent me over the kitchen table, by chance I looked out the window facing me and saw, out in the snow-covered field under a craggy apple tree still heavy with snow-coated fruit, a fox in the distance with his head cocked looking back at me through the window. One lone candle on the table lit the kitchen and reflected many times in each windowpane. It looked like snow, fire, and the wild eyes of the fox mingling and having sex with me. I remember feeling a spontaneous connection to everything untamed. Eric yanked my hair when he came and I felt mesmerized still looking into the fox’s eyes.
A few nights later, Eric shocked me a bit when he suggested we invite his wife into our little party. I felt like I might be over my head with this affair, but I was now hooked on the heroin of sex. Here was my chance to experience it with a woman: an opportunity to be very naughty, very bold, and do something I think most women fantasize about but never have the freedom or nerve to try. Maybe it makes them smarter than me, too.
I think I strayed so far and felt so able to break so many of my rules because, let’s face it, I’d felt repressed always trying to make things better for everyone else but me. I had always tried to do the right thing, be the good little Catholic or Jewish girl. This was an opportunity to break some of my last taboos.
It definitely caused me some stress and anxiety, but I decided to meet Eric’s wife. She was an interesting person. She was working on her PhD. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and teaching for academic credit at the local college.
When we met, she was very up front about what she wanted from this relationship: physical intimacy with a woman and friendship. I had an out-of-body experience just listening to her, wondering if I could do something like this. But as I looked at my life up to that point, nothing I had tried, except being a mother, had brought me much lasting happiness. In fact, all the married couples I knew were having affairs, unhappily married, not interested in each other, or going through painful divorces. Was this a better way?
I put this experiment in the context of the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and others were part of this eclectic group of artists in the early twentieth century. These artists, writers, and philosophers were some of the brightest minds of their time. They lived together, supported each other’s work and careers, and also explored living as a collective community, that was open to all gender experimentation and to interchanging sexual partners.
Okay, so I was looking for a way to justify this risky business. I took precautions by telling my friends about it and getting their feedback, then I opened the door and walked through.
The three of us started off having a great time together. When you are the new person in a threesome, there are many advantages. You are the center of the others’ attentions. They want to please you, explore you, and make you happy because it’s exciting to them. It wasn’t just about the sex either. In fact, the sex was secondary to how comforted and loved we all felt together. We had a polyamorous relationship. In the beginning my role as the new arrival put me in a place of special significance with each of them. They both saw me as the person who brought good things into their marriage and life. I felt like a star!
Things were going so well between us that we decided, in order to keep things going forward, that maybe we should take the next step and open a small restaurant together in Portland. Eric was a phenomenal cook. In fact, on weekend mornings he loved to go all-out and make an elaborate brunch for his “two girls.” His wife, who was clever and smart, also had some restaurant experience as a host. Her teaching assignment finished up at the end of December and she could work on her dissertation long-distance from Portland.
We left Machias in February and went to Portland. I had my lawyer draw up a contract between us since I signed the lease for the space we found. We worked together from February till June planning the dining space, the kitchen set up, and the menu. We did food tastings in Portland for groups of friends and for other events to market ourselves.
But the closer we came to opening the restaurant the more difficult Eric became to work with. He kept arguing with me about everything from chair styles to oven knobs to menu fonts. He kept having one tantrum after another. It was like he wanted things to fail.
His wife saw his behavior and was concerned. She want.ed things to succeed. She then confided in me that he was bipolar! I had no idea what that really meant. I didn’t notice anything diagnosable about Eric other than that he acted like a spoiled brat if things didn’t go his way.
When he manically tore all the newly-planted flowers and shrubs out of the little garden on the side of the restaurant as a way to punish me, I decided that I had had enough of this experiment. He was crazy as far as I was concerned.
I told Eric I was no longer a partner in the restaurant. Since we had a legal agreement that protected me, giving me the power to end things, he and his wife had to abide by it.
That didn’t keep him from going off the deep end. He harassed me with angry phone calls and followed me in order to confront and argue with me on the street. He even came into the restaurant space one day as I was winding things down and threatened suicide by calling the police!
It was a nightmare. I filed a restraining order against him and his wife. Our Bloomsbury experiment was over. My lawyer called them and said that if they would leave Portland as soon as possible, I would let them take some of the restaurant supplies so they could start again wherever they relocated.
They left town shortly after that. I never spoke to either one of them again. Weeks later, though, I did receive a creepy voicemail of someone just whistling. I’m sure it was Eric’s voice.
My friends and my lawyer were very supportive. With the best intentions, I had tried something that was kind of crazy. My friends stood by me. No one judged me, at least not to my face. I appreciated their support.
Now stuck with a half-built restaurant space, I tried to figure out my next move. One thing I knew: I would never lack so much judgment again. I had learned my lesson the hard way. I had acted like I a seventeen-year-old, taking risks to see what would happen. But I was fifty now. I couldn’t keep living in an X-rated version of the show Arrested Development. It had to stop.
Crandall came to my aide. We had a good laugh and cry about everything. He helped me by suggesting that I open a shop in the leased space. I had done some interior design work for him a few years earlier and he thought I had a lot of talent. He said he would help me buy stuff cheap at auctions to get my inventory going. I knew nothing about buying antiques or running a store, but I knew design and wanted a project I could throw myself into. I took the leap and did it.
I opened one of the first interior design stores in Portland and it became a great success. I put the loving/living experiment behind me the best I could and focused on creating a successful, well-run, and creative business. I had several employees, a furniture restorer, and an upholsterer. I opened the store in November 2001, just a few weeks after 9/11. It was a challenging time to open a new business, but our customers loved us.
Eventually the Portland lease ran out in 2004 and I opened a second location in Marblehead, Massachusetts. By then I had been living in Portland for seven years, and although I hadn’t been actively looking for a partner, I knew I’d have a better chance finding someone in Massachusetts. I thought Marblehead was a good location with the right demographics for my second store.
After such an awful ordeal with Eric and his wife, I thought I might stay single for the rest of my life. I had my children, my grandsons, my friends, and my store. I finally felt balanced and fulfilled. Life was beautiful. I was okay with learning things the hard way because it had brought me to such a happy, successful place.
Owning a business had made me grow up the rest of the way. I learned to confront issues head on and not cower when I felt threatened or insecure. Learning to run my store and deal with all the personalities and strategy issues that arose taught me how to negotiate, survive, and take charge of my life.
My relationship with Eric and his wife may not have been a graceful way to learn things, but the only person I had hurt in the end was myself. I could live with that. The lessons I learned were invaluable. I felt that I had become a much stronger, self-reliant person because of them.
I moved to Marblehead in the fall of 2004. I wanted to leave Maine and return to civilization again. My store succeeded in Marblehead and took my work as an interior designer to a new level. I moved into a 1,500-square-foot-space, designed the interior rehab and lighting myself, picked the merchandise, and implemented the marketing strategies. At times it seemed a daunting task, but I did it. I had great support from my store manager, and the two of us worked hard to make it happen.
Except for the unexpected five-month relationship with David in 2003, I had not really wanted to date. By 2005 the Marblehead store was on its feet and I had moved twelve miles south to Charlestown, in Boston, doing a reverse commute to work every day.
I was really suffering from empty nest syndrome by then. My children all had active, independent lives away from me. My sense of a family center didn’t exist. I was lonely. I wanted someone to share my life with, but did I have it in me to do the hard work it would take to find someone?
During the four years after the big blowout with Eric, only David had presented himself. I took another risk with him. He did a very good job convincing me of his good intentions, but I should have known better than to trust a married guy.
Although I didn’t trust anybody after these events, something in me wouldn’t give up. I doggedly entered the dating arena one more time in 2005. By then, you dated online. With a little effort, I figured out a way to make it work for me. I decided, for a while at least, I only wanted sex. It was empowering. I felt like a frat boy. I decided I would call the shots, take it or leave it.
I wanted the real deal of a committed and meaningful connection, but until I found it, I wanted to have fun. I’d take charge and play around just like men do. Maybe it wasn’t my most shining moment, but I was wined and dined and had a great time. I had one-night stands because I didn’t want any involvement unless I felt like this was the one. Men seemed to be falling all over me. It felt strange to feel that kind of empowerment. It was like a drug for a while. Who knew? Treat men badly and they just want more! It was antithetical to everything I had thought I’d known. At least I‘d enjoy myself during the search.
I have always been an optimist. I have always had this driving force that I could make things better, and it continued even in the face of all my defeats. It is one of my strengths, and I can see now that I received part of this ability from both my father and my mother, each survivors in their own way.
I was going to find the person I was meant to be with, someone who would love me, warts and all, and still see me as beautiful, kind, intelligent, and determined—and who would also want my love without an agenda.
Most of my girlfriends had given up the search. It was too hard and demoralizing. I knew now that I wouldn’t stop until I succeeded. Finding real, healthy, unconditional love became my life’s work. I wouldn’t settle for anything less, but I damn well wanted to have a good time along the way!
back to top