The sleepless flight from Europe becomes a blur of images in my mind: the silvery Atlantic seen from 30,000 feet, an endless text on my laptop screen, the long descent into Boston, a line of weary travelers snaking their way through Customs. Then I emerge from the airport into a blast of August heat. Dog days of summer. Home at last after three months studying ancient fertility figures, well-rounded female nudes from 20,000 B.C. A summer’s delight for any anthropologist. What was Paleolithic sex like? The real thing would have been better.
“Maybe it’s the water,” my wife says when we finally try.
“What do you mean,” I ask.
“Maybe something in the water affected you while you were away. We can try again later.”
So it goes for several days. “Do you still find me attractive?” she asks.
“Of course I do.” But the real answer is much more complicated than that.
“Tell me about your research,” she says while we pack for vacation.
“The usual. It was exciting at first, but then it got to be boring and frustrating. Now I’m stuck.” Carol gives me that intense look of hers and I try to explain. “Something is still missing. I keep coming back to who made them and why. Sometimes I try to imagine myself carving the figures and then burying them in a cave.”
“That’s not very scientific,” she says.
“When all else fails, I use imagination.”
“Nothing. I have enough for a short paper. But even if they are authentic, they’re not as important as the figure from Willendorf. That’s the competition.” I think about the journal articles from my laptop.
The so-called Venus of Willendorf is a miniature sculpture found in 1908 near the town of Willendorf, Austria. It measures a mere 4 3/8 inches high and is dated between 30,000 and 25,000 B.C. It is carved in such a way as to emphasize the reproductive aspects of the nude female figure. Because of this and its great age, the sculpture is considered to be an important icon of the Paleolithic era.
The next day we head for the shingled coast of Massachusetts. Driving down the interstate towards the Cape, we join an endless stream of traffic beneath a high blue sky. We pass small trendy cars in bright metallic colors and drab refrigerator trucks enroute to seafood shacks along the coast. On the oldies radio station, Frankie Avalon sings “Venus, goddess of love that you are.” We move across a painted valley with white clouds floating above dark green foliage. The brilliant sky and its reflections below dissolve into an impressionist landscape.
My sister Pam and her husband Tom have been asked to share our vacation. Carol says that is only fair since they invited us to their place last summer. Closer to the Cape, the clouds get larger but still the sun shines brightly through. “Go away, clouds,” Pam says from the back seat, as if a few puffy ones would block the sun from her pasty skin. We leave the interstate and follow narrow roads along the coast in search of Chatham, our destination for the day. Pam and Tom have learned a new word: upscale. As in this upscale restaurant and that upscale mall. On the way we hear about their neighbors, their spoiled children, and the advantage of leasing an upscale car. My grown daughter likes to call them yuppies, to which my wife replies, “What does that make us?”
Tom is an accountant, an avid day trader of stocks, and an aggressive hunter of profits. He is tall and muscular, with little or no body fat. The older he gets the leaner he seems to become. His nightly routine before bedtime consists of doing a hundred vigorous sit-ups and an equal number of knee-bends. Then he removes and cleans his contact lenses, flosses his teeth, and gargles loudly with mouthwash. It’s like listening to a commercial for good personal hygiene. Before children, my sister was a dental hygienist, which is how they met in the first place. I used to think that Tom was rather bland and nondescript, but his true personality has emerged slowly over the years, morphing into something livelier but also with harder edges. He is quite different from the person my sister first married. Pam, on the other hand, has moved in opposite directions: her personality seems to have narrowed as her hips have broadened.
The statue depicts a corpulent woman with pendulous breasts, swollen abdomen, deep navel, wide hips, and solid thighs. The face, the arms, and the legs have been reduced to mere vestiges. For this reason, it is generally regarded as a fertility goddess or Mother Earth figure.
We finally reach Chatham and the narrow streets are clogged with cars. There is no parking near the beach, but for twenty dollars we find a space in the parking lot at the center of town. The well-tanned college kids in charge tell us that the nearby public restrooms can be used to change our clothes. After doing so, we head down the narrow path towards the ocean, passing between tall prickly shrubs and leaning into bushes so that people coming from the beach can get by. “Don’t worry,” Tom says, “it’s not poison ivy.”
Then we emerge from the shadows onto a vast and brilliant beach of a thousand bodies. I want to seek out some corner of privacy, but Pam insists on finding just the right spot from which to watch the breaking surf. Armed with our beach chairs and umbrellas, and stepping gingerly among the sunning crowd, we inch our way toward the sea. At last we stop among clusters of young people who turn to watch us set up our things and then resume their chatter to the hip-hop beat from a radio. Nestled there among the blankets and nearly naked bodies, we lie for some time beneath the boiling sun. I listen to the surf and the passing powerboats, to the slap of paddleballs and the sound of crying children. I think about my research and the bulbous image of the Woman from Willendorf.
In recent scholarship the term Woman is substituted for the name Venus, a change that has created a shift in how she is perceived. Such demystification allows us to approach the figure on its own terms and affords a better chance of interpreting its true meaning.
Suddenly I hear some animated conversation in a foreign tongue, a girl telling her story to several friends in Spanish, punctuated every now and then by a single English sentence, “What is your name?” Every time they hear that phrase, the other two girls burst into laughter, as if it is the punch line to a joke. I turn to look at them from beneath my hat and sunglasses. The one telling the story is tall and rather pale. She has on a lavender two-piece swimsuit that is not very revealing. I try to guess her age and imagine what the story she is telling might be. After a while, I decide it is about some guy who tried to pick her up.
Tom nudges me with his elbow and nods toward the girl’s two friends. The youngest one is darker than the other two and wears a wrist band made of leather on each hand. Her long black hair is neatly braided in concentric rows, and she sits low in her beach chair with the straps of her bikini top unfastened. When the three get up to head for the water, Tom is disappointed that she remembers to tie her top. As they run past us, her bikini clings tightly to her hips and is creased in the middle, so it is easy to imagine what lies beneath.
There are seven concentric layers of plaited hair wrapped around the figure’s head in horizontal bands, and both wrists are decorated with bracelets or wrist bands. Her breasts are full and appear soft but the nipples are not shown. The genital area has been deliberately emphasized, with the labia of the vulva carefully detailed and made clearly visible.
They run into the ocean and hold their arms up high as if the water is too cold. They laugh and scream and bob among the cresting waves. After twenty minutes or so, they return to their blanket and the youngest one gets out a cell phone. She has an animated conversation with someone in Spanish and then rolls her eyes at the other two when she hangs up. She says something in English about a guy coming to meet them.
In the afternoon, Carol and I take our usual stroll along the beach. We pass a man throwing a leash to his dog in the waves. When the dog eagerly retrieves it, the man throws it out even farther. We pass little children sitting in the wet sand, their bottoms brown and gritty. Carol coos over a toddler being coaxed into the water by two adults, remembering our own daughter at that age. By now the clouds are streaky and stretched to membrane thinness. We walk hand in hand along the hard wet sand and let the swirling pools of receding waves coddle our feet. I think of other similar walks we have taken together over the years.
“I’m going to watch what I eat while we’re on vacation and try to exercise every day,” she says.
“Doesn’t sound like much fun to me,” I reply.
Then out of nowhere she says “Maybe you should see someone.” It takes me a minute to realize that she is referring to our sex life.
“Like who, my doctor?”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” she says. “Maybe he can prescribe something.” I don’t respond but notice some stones half buried in the sand, worn round and smooth by the ocean. I look for the Venus of Willendorf but she is not there.
The statue is made of an oolitic limestone not found in the region, which means it was most likely carved elsewhere and brought to that location. It is not unlike the sacred pebbles collected and revered by many Stone Age societies. Her navel, which is the central point of the design, appears to be a natural cavity in the soft, rounded stone.
Later, I take a longer walk along the beach with Tom. He comments on a pair of women we pass who are holding hands. “Lesbians,” he says under his breath. He prides himself on being politically incorrect. He refers to the foreign cab drivers in the city as towel heads. He says men are better than women at doing almost everything, especially sex. He sends me raunchy jokes on e-mail and shares investment advice. But we never, ever talk about personal matters. Now, in a moment of unexpected candor, he breaks this unspoken rule.
“Our marriage is falling apart,” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask, squinting into the sunlight to find the thin straight line where sky and water meet.
“Pam has lost interest in having sex.” I don’t know how to respond to this, or even if he expects me to, since we are treading on unfamiliar territory. “But that’s O.K.,” he says. “She’s put on a lot of weight since her operation. Her hips have gotten broader and her breasts larger, and I don’t find that very sexy.” I think about his new addiction to physical fitness and wonder if he is substituting for sex or getting in shape for someone else.
“Maybe you should try seeing a counselor,” I manage to say before we turn around. He makes no reply and we head back in silence, passing our own wet footprints pointed in the opposite direction.
When our wives leave the beach to change out of their bathing suits in the cramped restroom, Tom turns his attention to the three Spanish-speaking girls, who by now are combing their hair and getting ready to leave.
“See those three Hispanic chicks?” he says. “How old do you think they are?”
I wonder why he asks and then I realize how close they are to his own children’s age. Another twenty-something girl comes running out of the surf and passes us. She stops at a nearby blanket and shakes her head to wring the water from her long blond hair, thrusting her breasts upward to the sky as she does so. She brushes her hair vigorously while talking to a female companion lying on the blanket. I see the broad hips from behind and guess that it must be her mother, or else the Venus of Willendorf at last.
“Man, we could do some serious girl watching here,” Tom says. I think of his earlier remarks about my sister and then it’s time for us to leave. As we climb back up the narrow shaded trail, a tanned and leathery woman passes us on her way down to the beach. Tom looks back and comments on her slender figure, her skin color, and her likely age. “Nice, but I think she’s on the rag,” he says and I try not to react to this.
At the time of its discovery, traces of a red ochre paint were detected on the surface of the figure’s pudenda. This may have represented the menstrual blood of women as a life-giving agent. There is also evidence from the Paleolithic era that links menstrual blood with the blood of animals spilled by male hunters.
When we reach the restrooms, Carol and Pam are still inside and I see the three Hispanic girls in the parking lot. Tom fails to notice them since they have changed into their street clothes: brightly colored halter-tops with black shorts and high platform sandals. When our wives are ready, we decide to stroll through the center of town and look for something to eat. We pass the usual tourist shops and real estate offices, and Tom offers his opinion of overpriced waterfront properties. In front of a cottage set back from the street, I see a sign that says Clinical Psychology. Under the doctor’s name is a list of his services: Personal Empowerment, Relational Trauma, Marriage Enrichment. In very small print at the bottom, I read the words Specializing in Eye Movement Desensitization and Thought Field Therapy.
While the others order ice cream from a frozen yogurt shop, I watch a pair of teenage lovers kissing in an alleyway. The boy has dyed blond hair and pierced eyebrows. His lean tanned body is naked to the waist and he has no hips. The girl’s breasts are clearly outlined against the pale yellow shirt that clings to her slim figure. There is a silver chain around her ankle and she wears bright red shorts that are cut off just above her buttocks, which is where the boy is rubbing her. Their long passionate kissing and slow caressing of exposed flesh are erotic in a voyeuristic kind of way. I linger over the sight of them and then turn to see an older woman staring at me. She has the same features and languid look as the girl, and for a moment I think perhaps it is her mother. Then a slight smile passes over her face and she turns back into the street.
At the far end of town there is a small park by the water, and we see a wedding party posing there for pictures. The women all have on lavender dresses and the men are in formal black tuxes. They stand in front of a white gazebo where the ceremony will apparently take place, while in the background small yachts bob up and down in the water, their ropes clanging against aluminum masts. By now the late afternoon sky is a clear brilliant blue with not a single cloud in sight. I see the Hispanic girls, who have also gravitated toward the park, perhaps to check out the wedding scene or the lavender dresses. When we cross the street to head back to our car, they disappear into the crowd, lost for good this time.
There are numerous interpretations concerning the significance of this sculpture. The facelessness of the figure lends it an anonymity which suggests that is was the depiction of a sex object rather than of a specific person.
On the way to our rented house farther up the Cape, we stop at a seafood shack to order fried clams and oysters. When the others go to pick up our order, Carol asks “How are you two getting along?”
“The usual,” I shrug. “He’s funny, but a week together is the limit.”
“You need to talk to him. Your sister is a mess.”
“My sister is always a mess,” I say. “Besides, we never discuss personal matters.”
“That is such a guy thing,” she says. “You really need to do this. They are on the verge of getting a divorce.” Before I can reply, Pam and Tom return with the food. We eat our meal in silence as the sun drops behind the trees. I enjoy the oysters, the salty smell of the ocean breeze, and the sound of other people’s children teasing each other at a nearby picnic table.
The house at Wellfleet is not what we expected: it doesn’t look as nice as the brochure and some of the appliances don’t work. “Great!” says Pam. I call the real estate agent with a list of complaints and she promises to take care of them. Then we all unload our things from the car and head for the front porch to watch the full moon rising through the pine trees. Carol and I sit on the old fashioned swing. She snuggles next to me and senses the tension in my body.
“Did you bring your laptop?” she asks.
“No, I left it home. Why?”
“Good. Forget about the research. You really need to unwind.” Then she leans her head on my shoulder and together we watch the moon climb higher. A shooting star flares briefly in the sky and Carol says, “Make a wish.”
Due to its small size, the figure may simply have been used as a good luck charm carried by male hunters as a reminder of their female mate. The hair braided in seven concentric circles is also linked to the belief that seven was a magic number which brought good luck to the bearer.
“I’m being eaten up by mosquitoes,” Pam finally says and goes inside alone. Shortly afterward Tom leaves too, and soon we hear them arguing about something in their bedroom. Carol shifts uncomfortably on the swing and gives me her intense look.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I wish we could be alone this week. Let’s try again.” She reaches out with her bare foot to the porch railing and with one graceful movement pushes the swing into motion. In the pale moonlight the blue veins of her ankle stand out against the milky white skin. I am reminded of the girl in the alley with the silver chain around her ankle.
After we unpack, Carol goes into the bathroom and runs the hot water for a bath. I look at the clothes she has laid out on the bed: several pairs of shorts and tops, a soft linen dress, her worn leather sandals, and a few simple pieces of jewelry. I admire the earth colors she is so fond of. Then I open the door and go into the bathroom. I smell the sweet aroma of her bath gel and sit on the edge of the tub to rub the back of her neck. She smiles with pleasure and asks what else I would like to do. Her breasts are large and full, and when she slides farther down in the tub they seem even larger, like the fullness of her hips and buttocks. I am reminded of the time, years ago when we first started dating, when we tried having sex in a bathtub. She was slim then, these same breasts small and firm, and I would cup them in my hands during our lovemaking.
Given the figure’s tiny size, it is not surprising that it fits comfortably into the palm of the hand. In this position it is transformed from a piece of sculpture into a remarkably sensuous object, its flesh seemingly soft and yielding to the touch.
Now, when she stands up to get out of the tub, Carol’s skin is pink and soft, and I touch my tongue to her flesh. She pulls off my shorts and gently touches me with her warm moist fingers. We make love in the humid air of the small windowless room, and I do not imagine her any other way. I do not pretend to be seducing a younger woman, caressing a leaner body, or touching a stranger for the very first time.
Later, lying in the darkened bedroom, I think back over the day and wonder why I paid so much attention to the young Hispanic girls. I recall the psychologist’s sign advertising Eye Movement Desensitization, and wonder what it meant. I listen to Carol breathing next to me and caress the soft, ample folds of her naked body. Half asleep, she mumbles something in response. I think of my past transgressions, both real and imagined, and wonder how she always seemed to know, even though I never told her.
There is the further possibility that the figure was carved not by a man but by a woman, and that the society which created it was matriarchal. Some scholars believe that the sculpture may have represented a Mother Earth goddess and that it was used in religious ceremonies associated with the worship of a supreme female deity.
The moonlight fills our bedroom. It pours through the windows and falls in perfect geometric shapes along the far wall. When it appears in the skylight above our bed, there is a strong attraction to its glowing fullness, perhaps as strong as the tides in the nearby ocean. Just for a moment I imagine myself being pulled from the bedroom toward the sea, soaring over the landscape and floating high above the dark water with whitecaps barely visible far below. It is a magical moment, as real or unreal as our perfect day at the beach. I think about my sister’s likely divorce and the problems with the Paleolithic sculptures, and I decide that there is only one Venus of Willendorf. Everything else is an imitation or a fake.
Copyright © Gerard Marconi 2003. Title graphic: "My Venus" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.