In spring 2018, I flew to California from my home in Virginia to visit my sister Theresa or Tee as her family and close friends call her. It was a celebratory girls’ week of sorts. Tee had completed her final round of chemo for ovarian cancer, and we had big plans for massages and superfluous spending to celebrate. Our previous 2017 plans to hang out by her pool, laugh until our sides hurt, drink lots of wine, and binge-eat Oreo’s were shattered, along with my heart, by her unexpected stage 4 diagnosis that year. I still flew out to see her, but instead of wine and Oreos, we drove north to Stanford Hospital for one of her chemo treatments. 2018 would be our do-over, a chance to swap out those chemo memories with some happier ones.
And we did. We pampered ourselves with a spa day, where the kneading and copious applications of lotion left us softened and stress free. The next day we drove an hour east to Palm Springs, stopping at an outlet mall on the way to buy things we didn’t need, like ludicrously expensive purses that had been marked down to mere ridiculous prices. Arriving at our destination by late afternoon, we checked into our hotel, enjoyed a drink at the poolside bar, then went for dinner at a place whose menu offered cultured-sounding sustenance like foie gras, braised beef cheeks, and squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese. We opted for cuts of meat sans facial features (filet mignon for me and duck breast for her) and splurged on dessert, Grand Marnier soufflé with Tahitian vanilla sauce, which tasted as heavenly as it sounded. Even the ambiance was delicious with outdoor seating, white tablecloths, and rope lights winding around tree trunks that grew up from the floor like nature’s patio umbrellas. Our girls’ week was off to an expensive and tasty start.
The next day the two of us strolled down Palm Canyon Drive, aptly named since it was lined on both sides by 70-foot trees that teased tourists into thinking their frond caps might just cast some shade down below. Tee and I appeared to be the only nonnatives there. Coachella fans had left two days earlier, and locals were roaming the street with expressions of relief, offering Tee and I looks that asked why are you still here?
It was April, but a July-like heat was beating down on us. I knew come evening it would switch magically to chilly October-esque temps. After 30 years of visiting Tee in southern California, I’d learned to pack both tank tops and sweaters. The dramatic swings in temperature were as predictable as the hazy orange smog that rimmed the horizon.
“I have to admit that when I visited you last time, you were no fun at all,” I joked as we walked along the endless stretch of shops. She’d spent much of that previous visit laying on the couch and counting the minutes to her next anti-nausea pill. “This is already a much better trip.”
“It wasn’t all bad,” she reminded me. “They had that classical guitar player in the hospital lobby when we were there.” The Stanford cancer facilities were top notch. Aside from the musical entertainment, Tee’s private, curtained-off treatment area had its own TV and leather reclining chair that looked straight out of a Sharper Image catalogue, complete with remote to glide her effortlessly into any position imaginable. I’d missed the harpist who showed up at her first treatment, but my brother-in-law texted me a photo. “Seriously???” I’d texted back. “All my hubby got during his chemo treatments was the banjo player from Deliverance.” I was rewarded with a string of laughing emojis.
Ry’s chemo set up was a bit less plush. He sat in a huge common area where the main entertainment was sneaking glances at fellow patients and wondering what kind of cancer they had. Ry had a recliner as well, but his required a stiff jerk of a side handle to prop up his feet. No harp. No wandering minstrels. It played well into our ongoing joke that no matter what it was, it was better in California. Even cancer.
“We probably look like a cute lesbian couple,” I said to Tee, moving the topic away from cancer and chiding myself for even bringing it up. She laughed and linked her arm in mine. “Speaking of which,” I added, “Liam wants me to get him a Palm Springs t-shirt.” My son Liam, off at college studying political science, told me Palm Springs was the political gay capital of the country with significant LGBTQ representation on their city council.
“Cool. We’ll look for one,” she said. Tee was one of the few family members who knew Liam was gay. At that time, he’d told his closest friends but wasn’t ready to tell the whole world, including certain older family members, i.e., grandparents, whose antiquated views on sexual orientation were contentedly set in like the wine stain on my living room carpet.
“Did I tell you Liam and I were in Target over Christmas? I was standing in front of a wall of nail polish and asked myself out loud, ‘Hmmm, what color should I get?’ And he said, ‘I can’t help you, Mom. I’m not a fashion gay.’ So, then I said to him, ‘Well then what’s the point of having a gay son if I can’t get fashion advice?’”
Tee laughed loud enough to draw attention from passersby. Her laughs were the real deal, the adult version of a toddler’s laugh, so infectious and nourishing that it could feed the soul of anyone within earshot. I loved her laugh and had missed it, and her, so much.
Stopping to get her bearings, Tee noted that the store we were looking for should be on the next block. Our first stop would be an adult store she’d found on Google that morning. I’d never been to an adult store, and she’d made it her mission to rectify that. As her younger sister by 13 years, I’d been the lucky beneficiary of her hand-me-down wisdom, which she offered freely and without judgement, even when shocked by my naivete, especially in matters of sex. I was nearly 50 years old before I bought, online, my first vibrator, with her virtual help. I texted her links to various selections, and she’d sent “yes, no, maybe, or you might want to try the smaller one first” responses. She had the more educated eye on electric sex, whereas mine were like a puppy’s just starting to open. “I wish you lived in California,” she’d texted during our vibrator exchange. “I would take you shopping for one.”
That day had finally come (no way to get around the pun).
Sensuality, a Store for Her sat between a Thai restaurant and a skin care store—crotchless underwear sandwiched between hot noodles and cold creams. Palm Springs shopping was as diverse as its population. As we approached the narrow, glass-fronted business, a man sat on a chair just outside the door scrolling on his cell phone. A cross on a silver chain hung around his neck, and I smiled at the juxtaposition of virtue seated at the door to sin. Was he waiting for his wife who was shopping inside? Stealing the only shade available on the street? Or was he a last-chance redeemer for those considering purchase of a teddy of turpitude? And was he aware that a mannequin in a lace bra and panties was looking over his shoulder?
As we stepped over the threshold into the store, my stomach churned with a familiar hollowness, like when I needed to eat or was nervous, but I wasn’t hungry. I kept reminding myself I was a grown woman, not that 15-year-old girl trying to sneak into the drive-in to see Porky’s.
“Come on in. We just got in a shipment,” said a woman yelling at us over her shoulder as she carried a box toward the back of the store. “There’s this amazing new vibrator that actually sucks your clitoris. You can orgasm in less than one minute. Less than a minute! Have a look around. I’ll be right back.”
Her words whirred by my ears in rapid fire like I was front row at an erotic auction. Do I hear orgasm for one minute? Who’ll give me one minute? Sold! To the woman with the saucer eyes and eyebrows up to her hairline. I turned to Tee with a look of OMG did she just say sucks your clitoris using her outdoor voice, but Tee wasn’t there. She was already browsing the lingerie. She had a gift for looking 50 shades of normal, even when everything and everyone around her was crumbling to dust or melting from embarrassment.
Trying to shake off my shock, I joined her in perusing the selections of fishnet stockings and red polka-dotted chemises. That’s when a teddy caught my eye. I plucked it off the rack and held it up for Tee’s inspection. “What do you think?”
“That’s really pretty. You should get it.”
Over my arm it went. My mantra for the week was “Why not?” and I saw no reason to hedge now.
“Don’t you want to try it on?”
“Nope. I’m good.” Unfounded as they were, my thoughts were conjuring a two-way mirror and a security guard collapsing from laughter while watching me try on a thong.
We made our way toward the back of the store, where racks of adult toys waited anxiously to mortify me.
“Oh! Look at this. I have one of these,” said Tee, picking up a box with the word “Butterfly” in pretty script on the front. “These are great.” She turned the box over, showing me the photo of its contents and filled me in on the details of how it worked, noting important particulars like length, texture, vibrating wings, and antennae. I noticed there were no claims of how long it took to reach orgasm, which I figured was important as one minute was the benchmark here.
“What color do you want? Pink or Blue?” she asked.
“Uh, blue?” And she handed me a box. Less than 15 minutes in the store and I was already carrying two items. I had a feeling this was going to be like my quick trips to the grocery store where I intended to grab a half-gallon of milk but ended up juggling armfuls of groceries to the check out because I stupidly thought I wouldn’t need a basket.
“Ooh! You have one of these, right?” Tee lifted a small plastic package from a sagging wall hook. The pink rubber ring inside looked like the adult version of a candy ring pop, only this one didn’t slide onto your finger.
“We have several,” she told me. “This goes around him and then this part touches you.” She handed it to me and kept moving down the aisle. I lingered a bit longer, studying my new acquisition—THE BIG O. The packaging took a cereal box-approach in its graphic design, with a thick font and chunky arrows pointing to features that shouldn’t be missed, like 2x FUNction with Steady On + Variable Pulse! or BONUS Toy Keeper and Replaceable Batteries! Or my favorite, Fun Pleasure Knobs! The backside explained it was to be Worn with motor on top and ticklers out, but in case there was any question, a crude but effective little drawing showed part A sliding over part B. As a veteran assembler of IKEA furniture, I found this quite helpful. $23.99 seemed a bit pricey for something that would likely never be worn. Ryland’s finger rarely sported his wedding ring, and I couldn’t see him wearing a ring anywhere else. But when in Palm Springs…
I glanced up to see Tee on her tip toes reaching for another plastic-encased item. “They have beads! Have you ever tried beads? Sometimes they’re called pearls.”
Oh God, please let it be a candy necklace, I thought.
It wasn’t a candy necklace.
When she turned to look at me, she must have seen my OMG sucks your clitoris face that she’d missed earlier, and the reality of the situation dawned for her. She’d once helped me buy a vibrator online, but I had not yet learned to fish. She gently placed her hand on my arm, with the “you poor thing” expression one reserves for the loveable but clueless. “Ok, so…” And her lesson on beads began, delivered with a comprehensive account of where beads go, what beads do, and why I should want some, finishing with the words, “I would recommend wearing a glove.”
With my eyebrows still in the fully upright position, I responded, “Only if it’s a full-body glove.” I was no longer clueless but sufficiently grossed out.
We moved on, dipping further toward the back of the store, reaching a shelf of large, faux male members arranged in a police lineup, shortest to tallest. “Oh my God,” I said as my eyes landed far right.
“I think Susie has one of those,” Tee said.
“Is her vagina a Tardis?” Susie was our oldest sister. Her vibrator collection was well known by her neighbors and the nice firemen who braved the fire raging in her house to rescue her collection and lay them on display in the driveway along with other items they had so valiantly saved. The story was a treasured antique that was dusted off and admired often, especially at family gatherings.
We perused a bin of DVDs from which Tee selected two, and then headed back to the front to pay for our goodies. The woman whose coital commentary was still bouncing around my amygdala had returned from her trip to the storeroom and was seated behind the small counter. Her short brown bob, tucked behind both ears, showed faint streaks of grey, telling me that she was at least in the general vicinity of my age.
“So, what did you pick out?” she asked. “Did you see the new one I was talking about?” Before we could answer, she grabbed a box from under the counter and opened it, pulling out a white-handled vibrator with gold trim that looked several price points above my blue butterfly. “Let me show you how it works,” she said as she loaded the base with two AA batteries. When she hit the on switch, the tiny suction cup on its tip quivered to life. Telling Tee to lean in, she placed the cup on the tip of Tee’s nose.
“Feel that? In one minute, I’m telling you. It’s great.”
She indicated I was next, so I leaned in too. As the cup touched my nose, I felt a gentle sucking along with intermittent little puffs of air. I could envision the possibilities, but ultimately lacked the confidence to spend $70 on it. I was still in the elementary stages of my erotica matriculation, and this felt graduate-school level to me.
We spent the next 30 minutes being entertained by chapters from this woman’s sexual memoir. Her chronicles included men, women, an open relationship, and a brief marriage to an engineer, to which my sister added that we were both married to engineers. She offered us her sincere condolences. She found engineers lacking in sexual imagination. I felt that was a bit of an over generalization, but what did I know? I’d been with my engineer since high school. I’m sure she would have found our successful attempt at shower sex, even though executed successfully without injury, to be rather pedestrian.
She told us about her date with the sadist who had a great sense of humor, which she indicated was not unusual. “They aren’t all about pain,” she said. She explained the importance of signing contracts to solidify boundaries, touching on the finer points of negotiation by pushing her stool back and slapping her own ass, saying, “And I told him you can hit me harder than that.” As the woman finally got the last of our items into opaque plastic bags, she added as a final thought that monogamy was ridiculous. How could you spend your life with just one person? It didn’t make sense to her. Not much from the last 45 minutes had made sense to me either.
Later that evening, Tee and I had dinner at that Thai restaurant, and the food was great. I’d even found a cool T-shirt for Liam. It seemed every place we visited was carefully curated to delight and entertain. Maybe it was my rose-colored sunglasses rounding the hard edges of everything around me, or maybe it was because my sister was back from the brink of death with no visible signs that she had ever been sick, but that trip was near perfect. It made me temporarily forget that I’d almost lost her and happily misplace the statistic that her cancer had a 70 percent recurrence rate.
I’ve since learned that cancer memories burn themselves in, and the best you can hope for is a salve of better ones to lessen the sting. While my memories of that earlier cancer trip would never be fully erased, that trip to Palm Springs was just the balm I needed.
Today, that teddy is still whiling away the days in my lingerie drawer, and the BIG O sits in my nightstand like some dusty collectible still in its original packaging. The butterfly, however, has been put to good use. I can’t provide a one-minute testimonial, but I will go on record as saying it does its job well. And I’ve since upped my price point on pleasure, acquiring new and more expensive items for that R-rated drawer in my nightstand.
I might just be ready for grad school now.
Kelly Barlow has been a writer for others for 30 years: employee newsletters for a major shipyard, human interest features for her hometown newspaper, and technical articles for the nation’s favorite space organization. Now she’s finally writing her own stories.