Harriet was looking at a display of three plaster mice laid out on a rubber piece of toast. We were at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles -- a dusty, dark series of warrenlike rooms, featuring exhibits on whatever caught the fancy of an evidently insane curator. "Did you know that dead mice are thought to have curative powers?" she asked, reading the brochure. "It says so right here. It says you can give them to children to ward off diseases."
"And what is this supposed to be?" I peered in the case. "A serving suggestion?"
Harriet shrugged. "I told you this place was odd."
Since we arrived in Los Angeles, Harriet had been grilling me on why I was afraid to commit myself to an "even semi-serious relationship." I just had to jump into it, she said -- otherwise I'd never know if it was going to work. Did I want to be alone and loveless for the rest of my 30s and beyond?
Happily, the exhibits of mice-on-toast, fingernail parings and trailer park memorabilia seemed to waylay her. But not for long. We came upon a heavy old work shoe trimmed with lace lying forlornly in a case. "It says that the bridegroom should leave one of his shoes untied when he gets married so he may deflower the virgin without any problems," I said. "What if she's not a virgin to begin with?"
"I know you may find this hard to believe," responded Harriet in a low voice, "but some people do wait."
"You're right. I do find that hard to believe. Not that people wait, but that they're such fools to think that not having sex gives them some sort of moral fortitude." We moved on to another little room that was filled to bursting with the decrepit memorabilia of a 19th century opera singer whom I'd never heard of.
"Is that a pointed comment?" Harriet whispered as a couple moved past us. "I'm not judging you for having sex with your ex. I don't think it's good, mind you, but whatever turns your crank." She pretended to read the brochure intently.
I looked at her. "Haven't you ever had the transitional sex with the ex?" I whispered back.
She studied a display featuring a faded corsage tucked around a pair of long velvet gloves. "What do you mean 'transitional'?"
"Why are we whispering?" I said loudly into the empty room. "You know. The time after you decide to stop seeing one another. And you get together as friends but you still sleep together. Everyone I know does this. It helps the transition period."
"Oh, really?" Harriet shook her head. "No. I don't know how you can do that. Why don't you just take a knife and stab yourself in the stomach? When I stop seeing someone, I stop. None of this 'friends' stuff. None of this Sex with the Ex. Clean breaks are the only way to do it."
"Well, I like it," I said firmly. "While it lasts, it helps. Plus, they already know what you like and you know what they like. The rhythm's all there. You just have to provide the venue and inclination. And afterwards, you can get up and go home or kick them out and there's no bad feelings."
"Yes, while it lasts," Harriet said. "You're talking about human feelings here. Not a cha-cha lesson." We moved into another dark room. "How long can this Sex With the Ex last, seriously?" she whispered in my ear.
I considered the empty case in front of me. "Well, admittedly, it's a short-term arrangement."
"And you think it helps you get over each other?" She shook her head again. "Is this the one that has the special technique? Is lust driving all this?"
"Lust has a lot to do with it," I said. "If you can compartmentalize the sex, and try to leave the emotions out ..."
"Like a man," she interrupted.
"OK, like a man, if you have to resort to clichés. The special technique is, I admit, a plus. If word gets out, I'm telling you Harriet, women are going to be lining up around the block outside his apartment. But never mind."
Harriet bent down and put her eye to a microscope. "Look there," she said. "Little figurines inside the eye of a needle. Talk about special technique. So, how did your ex learn his nifty trick?"
"How do you think?" I asked, squinting one eye. "I taught him. And that's another reason why Sex with the Ex can be preferable. You don't have to re-teach someone all over again."
"I don't know, Courtney," Harriet said darkly. "From all that you've told me, it seems you're in the wrong business. If you're so good at compartmentalizing, you should be capitalizing on that. Just think, you could be the Jerry Maguire for good male sex partners. Invest yourself in improving the sex lives of women everywhere -- it's good feminism."
"It sounds more Keynesian to me," I said. "I know you disapprove, Harriet. But you must admit that transitional Sex with the Ex is no stranger than, say ..." I waved my arm around the room, "mice on toast. Who's to say what's wrong or right? You do what works for you."
"God, I knew there was a reason why this place would appeal to you," she muttered. "Next time, we're going to the nice, conventional Getty Museum."