What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire - Daniel Bergner (2013)
Chapter 7. Monogamy
Alison’s husband, Thomas, was a youth league basketball coach. He taught the pick-and-roll, the defensive stance, the proper way to catch a pass, the correct preparation for a free throw. He believed in fundamentals. He believed that if his eleven-year-old players learned nothing else, and if they never touched a basketball again after their season with him, their practices and games under his tutelage would be worthwhile if they gained a set of twelve basic basketball skills, or at least recognized their importance. Life, in his opinion, was a matter of fundamentals as well, and his hope was to have some part in getting kids ready not to win at a sport but to thrive in the years ahead. He was also a corporate lawyer. But he looked forward to the Blazers’ Wednesday evening practices and Saturday morning games a good deal more than to anything he did at his high-paying job.
Alison knew the twelve skills by heart, or anyway nine of them, or at any rate she had been able to list nine four years ago when their son, Derek, had begun his basketball career. But two years ago, Derek had retired. He had become the official G.M., scorekeeper, trainer, and unofficial towel boy for his father’s team, and since then Alison’s recall for the fundamentals had dwindled.
Derek’s retirement had been brought on by his realization, as a fourth grader, that he just wasn’t much of a player, that he was not only shorter and chubbier but slower and less coordinated than his teammates. He raised this in a matter-of-fact way with his parents. When he said that he would prefer a spot in “the front office,” they laughed, talked the decision through with him, hugged him, and agreed. Yet in his first season in his new position, Alison had gradually stopped coming to practices and soon also to games, because of her own work as an attorney, she told her husband and son, and because Derek’s younger sister was getting old enough to have her own schedule. What Alison suspected, though, what she suspected with something awfully like certainty, was that she wasn’t merely avoiding the sight of her son draping towels around the shoulders of the boys and girls on the team (the league was coed) or the cooing, complimentary remarks she received about Derek from the other moms, but that she was avoiding a new—no, a partially new—vision of Thomas. She just didn’t want to see him teaching the box-out technique or charting another play on his clipboard in a time-out huddle.
Then, as Derek’s second front-office season was about to start, her son begged her to watch the opener. So, after Thomas had cooked Saturday pancakes, scrubbed the griddle, loaded the dishwasher, and driven off with Derek to the New Jersey community center to make sure all was ready for the Blazers’ arrival, Alison helped Derek’s sister pick out a special outfit and followed in her car.
A circle and a line defined a debate in sexology, a debate about the natural course and velocity of female desire, a dispute entangled with a question: how well do marriage and monogamy work for women’s libidos?
Rosemary Basson, a physician and professor of psychiatry and gynecology at the University of British Columbia, had started devising and drawing the circle over a decade ago, sketching it for female patients and couples, for women worried about their lack of lust. She was just past sixty now, feathery brown hair cropped above her ears. Her voice was wispy, her skin pale. As we talked across a coffee table in her Vancouver office, she wore a flowing skirt with a pattern of leaves; she seemed almost formless, ethereal. Yet there was something quietly stern, no-nonsense, governess-like in her speech. She’d been pulled toward the field of eros as an internist in England. Assigned to a ward of patients with spinal-cord injuries, a floor with a steady supply of men left paralyzed by motorcycle accidents, she found herself confronting, now and then, a man who had worked up the courage to ask how—or whether—he could ever have sex. She asked a supervisor for advice. “Change the subject,” he told her. “Change the subject.” She still remembered his tone: tight, panicked. She’d been dealing with the subject of sex ever since.
Pen in her white fingers, she drew her circular flow chart for me. Proudly she recalled its first journal publication. Now the psychiatric profession’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, was about to enshrine her thinking in its pages. A massive volume filled with criteria for conditions from autism to sexual dysfunction, the DSM distinguishes the normal from the abnormal. In her diagram, Basson rendered a picture of women’s desire as intrinsically slow to build. It was the result of a series of decisions; it was hardly a drive at all. “We’re just not talking about an innate hunger,” she said.
The intricate diagram was meant to evoke the step-by-step progress of a successful sexual encounter for women, beginning with a box at the top of the circle. Inside the box—the outset of the encounter—was the phrase “reasons for sex.” Raw desire wasn’t likely to be the reason, though the chart allowed for it as a possibility. Much more probably, Basson said as she sketched, the woman was going to make a deliberate calculation based on the hope of outcomes like “feeling positive emotionally, feeling loved.” About two-thirds of the way around the circle, the words “arousal” and then, finally, “desire” appeared; at this belated stage, physical sensations, pleasure, and wanting took over, to some degree. But this depended, she explained, on the partner showing “respect,” on the woman feeling “safe,” on the couple’s being in “an appropriate context,” on the partner’s touches being considerate, being just right. Listening, it was hard not to imagine flowers given, a bedroom with the lights low or off, a wife with basically cuddly inclinations, a husband’s gentle caresses.
And what waited at the circle’s end? What was the culmination? “Sexual satisfaction +/- orgasms” was on the diagram, but in some versions it wasn’t even part of the chart’s main track; the physical, the carnal, didn’t matter all that much. At the end was “non-sexual rewards . . . intimacy.”
For Basson, such was the natural state of women’s sexuality. She didn’t make this case based on formal research; she’d developed her chart, she said, from her own clinical experience, and grateful patients had begged her to publish it. Yet while it seemed that her diagram might well represent the wan realities of many women’s bedrooms, her assertion that she had drawn a picture of the inborn ignored the immediate genital reactions of Chivers’s women, the overwhelming randiness of Wallen’s monkeys and Pfaus’s rats. She put forward a quaint and demure portrait, and strangely, stunningly, it was being adopted by the psychiatric profession—from the editors of the DSM to hordes of sex therapists—as though it were something wise and new.
One reason for this backward reeling was aesthetic and political. Basson’s circle was supplanting a line, a diagram—credited to Masters and Johnson, along with psychotherapist and sexologist Helen Singer Kaplan—that had long been applied to both men and women, its progression going something like this: desire (first rather than laggard and nearly last) followed by physical arousal followed by pleasure. The line, the linear, could seem, from a certain feminist angle, phallic and patriarchal, decidedly unfemale in its symbolism, and at last Basson had provided an alternative, no matter that her lust-free woman was almost a Victorian paragon.
Another reason was bound up with a David-and-Goliath battle that some therapists saw themselves fighting heroically against the drug industry—against its rush to find, win FDA approval for, and market what was loosely known as a female Viagra. Since the late nineties, when pharmaceutical companies had begun making billions by assisting erections with a chemical that affected the capillaries of the penis, the corporations had been seeking an equivalent for women. But this hadn’t been going smoothly, because women’s sexual problems usually aren’t genital; they’re entrenched in psychological complexities. Meanwhile, a set of clinicians had taken up a campaign, waged mostly within the psychiatric profession but also through the media, to make sure that the industry didn’t manage to persuade huge numbers of women that they should feel more drive, that they needed a drug, soon to be discovered, to help them. The circle served as a useful emblem for the campaign, which was led by a New York University psychiatry professor, Leonore Tiefer, the author of a collection of polemics. Its title, Sex Is Not a Natural Act, amplified Basson’s words, “We’re just not talking about innate hunger.” As for Basson’s own attitude about the industry’s search, she told me, “There are already enough date rape drugs around.” Men would be sneaking lust pills instead of sleeping tablets into women’s drinks to ease their assaults. Female modesty needed protection.
But maybe most of all, the circle was being consecrated as psychiatric doctrine because it gave sex therapists and couples counselors a solution to one of their most prevalent and stubborn problems—women’s faint or non-existent desire for their husbands or long-term partners. The solution was low expectations. Clinicians had latched on to the diagram. They’d distilled it into a three-word lesson that they taught in treatment: “Desire follows arousal.” They taught that arousal might take some time. Patience was a necessity; slowness and faintness were entirely fine; “lust” should be banished from the vocabulary. By lowering the bar, the circle offered therapists a standard for treatment that they might have a chance to meet.
And all the while, monogamy seemed to hover like an invisible angel above Basson’s diagram. Occasionally Basson acknowledged that the new might be a key to combustion. But commitment, faithfulness, trust, familiarity—for her, these were the allies of female eros. Tenderness and intimacy ushered women along the circle toward the grand prize of yet more tenderness and intimacy.
Basson’s colleague at the University of British Columbia, Lori Brotto, served on the DSM’s sexuality committee. It was a group of thirteen, and, with the manual about to be fully revised for the first time since the early nineties, she was in charge of the work on female desire. She had high cheekbones, a face that was all angles, hair cut fashionably close to her jaw. About women with the condition the current DSM called “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” or HSDD, she told me, “Sometimes I wonder whether it isn’t so much about libido as it is about boredom.” For her, monogamy was less hovering angel than grim reaper.
A psychologist whose sexuality research ran from hormones to acupuncture, Brotto treated women for HSDD in solo therapy and group sessions. “And unless you’re talking about lifelong HSDD, which is rare, the impact of relationship duration is something that comes up constantly.” In middle-aged women, she said, directing me to an Australian study that tracked hundreds of subjects from their forties onward, through menopause, hormones probably weren’t as much of a problem as the length of time a woman had been with the same partner. (The Australian psychiatrist Lorraine Dennerstein, who had conducted that research, was more emphatic: “The sexual feelings of a new relationship can easily override hormonal factors.”)
Yet Brotto, who was in her mid-thirties, who had been married for eight years, who was pregnant with a third child when we first met at a psychiatric conference, didn’t mean to cast an all-encompassing pall on the ideal of long and loyal relationships. She was speaking about one aspect, about sex. And since monogamy simply was the prevailing standard—not only within the culture but within her profession—for success as a couple, and since it had a scarcely questioned status within the thinking of her committee, she was writing Basson’s ideas into the DSM. They were ideas Brotto used with her patients, most of them long attached to one lover. She taught the circle, taught “desire follows arousal,” taught these concepts as a way to begin to address disinterest in sex.
Seven years? Two? Less? More? Long attachment was impossible to define, turning points impossible to predict. But if Brotto could help her patients to become more responsive to the touches of their partners, if she could help them to feel more physically aroused, then even if they started out, in any given encounter, indifferent to their partners’ overtures, they might reach a state of desire. To this end, she employed a little tub of raisins, passed around at her group meetings: six women sitting at a pair of pushed-together beige tables in a small windowless conference room. She asked each patient to take exactly one. “Notice the topography of your raisin,” she instructed in steady cadences, her Canadian accent abbreviating some of her vowels. “The valleys and peaks, the highlights and dark crevasses.”
Her career, her path to the raisin exercise and to her rarified spot on the DSM committee, had been mapped out by chance. As a first-year undergraduate, she knew only that she wanted to do research, no matter what the discipline. She hadn’t thought about studying sex at all. “I grew up in a strict, Italian Catholic, don’t-talk-about-sex environment.” Even now, a silver cross hung from the rearview mirror of her car. She had knocked haphazardly on professors’ office doors, hoping for anyone who would have her as an assistant. No one would; she was too young. But at last a professor invited her to help with his study of antidepressants and their effect on male rat libidos, so, for the next few years, she clutched a stopwatch and tallied copulations. Then, as she headed toward a doctorate, she steered away from animal research and toward clinical work, “because,” she said, “the rat room smelled.”
During her advanced training she did a stint with borderline personality patients. The condition mangles self-image to the point of horror: self-perception grows hideous. People are driven to cut or burn themselves; they ache to replace infinite despair with finite pain. Brotto’s supervisor had developed a treatment that borrowed from the Buddhist technique of mindfulness. The idea was that keen awareness of immediate and infinitesimal experience, down to the level of breath or the heart’s beating, might help to hold patients within the present and reduce their feelings of limitless torment.
While she was working with this supervisor, Brotto was also trying to help gynecological cancer patients with their sexual problems after surgery. The women who talked about lost libido, she thought, described their disconnection and sadness during sex in a way that was similar to the language borderline personality patients used to depict their entire lives. She wondered if mindfulness could help draw these women away from detachment and connect them to sensation.
She did some experimenting on herself. She didn’t see herself as lacking in desire, but she did like to view herself sometimes as “an n of one,” a single test subject for her ideas. Along with mindfulness, the treatment her supervisor had devised for borderline personality used cognitive therapy, with its stress on transforming patterns of thought, on reversing habits of damning self-assessment. And one day in yoga class, Brotto tried the combination.
As she arranged her body in her usual yoga poses, she attempted “a cognitive reframe. I said to myself over and over, like a mantra, that I was a highly sexual woman, a highly responsive woman. Not that I wasn’t a sexual person, but now I was very consciously telling myself these things, taking on this persona. And there was the mindfulness. That’s a part of yoga anyway; you’re deeply aware of what your body is doing. You’re aware of your breathing, your heartbeat. But that day there was a deliberate intent not only to listen to my body even more than I would normally in yoga but also to interpret the signs from my body as signs of my sexual identity. So my breathing was not just breathing through the pose; it was breathing because I was highly sexual.”
Sensation and self-image became linked. She was in a tricky position, bent over and balanced on one foot and one inverted hand, when she had a profound moment. It wasn’t that anything she was trying mentally was in itself so stunningly new. The power of positive thought was a cliché. And the acute concentration on the sensory harkened back to a style of sex therapy practiced by Masters and Johnson decades earlier. Yet by melding the two, something revelatory happened. Suddenly her straining muscles and racing heart were affirmations “of my sexual vigor, my arousability.” She finished class and walked out onto the street and bicycled home with an exhilarating sense of her own body, her potency.
Brotto took what she learned treating borderline personality—the raisins came from that training—and what she discovered in yoga class, and tested it first with her gynecological cancer patients, then with a range of women who rued their weak desire. These days she sent her groups home to repeat over and over and over, “My body is alive and sexual,” no matter if they believed it. And she guided them in the conference room, “Lift the raisin to your lips. . . . Notice that your mouth has begun to salivate. . . . Place the raisin in your mouth, without chewing it. Close your eyes and just notice how it feels. . . . Notice where the tongue is, notice saliva building up in your mouth. . . . Feel your teeth biting through the surface. Notice the trajectory of the flavor as it bursts forth, the flood of saliva, how the flavor changes from your body’s chemistry. Notice the clenching of your jaw when chewing, the sensation of the raisin passing down the throat as it is swallowed. Notice the aftertaste and even the echo of the aftertaste.”
Her results, published in the leading journals of sex research, showed her patients reporting stronger libidos and stronger relationships, though she was quick to note the caveats: that desire isn’t easy to measure; that people are prone to claim improvement on questionnaires given by those who treat them; that just about any method that gets someone to think of sex can increase her interest in having it. And Brotto wasn’t maintaining that she could grant her patients what they actually wished for. She had quoted to me from their files: “I want to have sex where I feel like I’m craving it.” She sighed. She couldn’t provide that, not without a semimiracle or someone new in the patient’s bed.
I asked her about an irony within her DSM work: that while disorders were supposed to be abnormal, HSDD seemed to be a normal abnormality, a condition that was largely not psychiatric but created by our most common domestic arrangement. This was confirmed by all the women she met with who, she said, hadn’t stopped desiring but who had merely stopped wanting, or had trouble wanting, their partners. Yes, she agreed, there was this tangle in psychiatry’s reasoning.
She dwelled for a minute on the way our dreams and promises of forever seemed inevitably at odds with our sexual beings. “There is an element of sadness,” she said, “when I think about the women I see, when I think about the couples I know, when I think about myself personally.” She let out another sigh—or something akin to a sigh, a wordless note of grieving in a lower octave.
Leaning against the rail of his viewing tower, staring down at his monkeys and remembering the small cages that distorted the sexual interaction between females and males, Wallen thought that monogamy was, for women, a cultural cage—one of many cultural cages—distorting libido. He spoke about the research Brotto had mentioned: hundreds of women followed for fifteen years or longer, their relationships, biochemistry, desire relentlessly recorded. “The idea that monogamy serves the natural sexuality of women may not be accurate,” he said.
Meana was sure that it wasn’t. “I have male friends who tell me about new relationships. They say they’ve never been with a woman who’s so sexual. They’re thrilled. And I’m thinking, Just wait.” Not only did monogamy not enhance female sexuality, but it was likely worse for women than men. There wasn’t enough research on the topic, she said, but she talked about a German survey of committed relationships, showing that women felt desire wane more swiftly.
One reason for this, in her mind, stemmed from narcissistic need. Within the bounds of fidelity, the heat of being desired grew more and more remote, not just because the woman’s partner lost a level of interest, but, more centrally, because the woman felt that her partner was trapped, that a choice—the lust-impelled selection of her—was no longer being made.
Like Brotto, Meana wasn’t arguing against loyalty, against marriage. She alluded often to her husband; with adoration, she described his career as a professor of literature, a life she’d once wanted for herself. But when she discussed the work she did with couples, she made clear that she expected only very rare success in the realm of eros, if the measure of success was reviving lust. In around one-third or so of her cases, she could bring back something more mild.
Her method sometimes came down to scheduling sex, whether or not it was wished for, if sex hadn’t been happening. She became a monitor, an enforcer. It was as though she were trying, almost brutally, to spade free something buried. “Fuck night,” one of her female patients named it caustically. One of the married women I interviewed saw this kind of scheduling in a happier way. It was like exercising, she said, if you were one of the majority of people who would rather be reading or watching TV. By the time you left the gym, “with the endorphins going,” you were glad to have been there, though you might not be anxious to turn around the next day and go back.
Therapists who claimed to restore lust on a regular basis, to instill desire in a high percentage of their patients, Meana thought, weren’t judging their outcomes in any rigorous way, were deluding themselves, deceiving everyone. “This is big business—the books, the workshops. You could write a book full of promises every year, and every year you could have a bestseller.”
She recalled giving, at a conference, a candid speech about her track record. One therapist, she said, approached her afterward with a common story. In sessions, a wife had suggested that if only her husband would be sensitive enough to help out around the house, she would want him in bed. So the therapist set him to work. She had him scouring pots. She had him tidying. She had him taking the kids to school and picking them up. But the sex didn’t follow. “We tell men to water this little bonsai of women’s desire,” Meana said to me, “we tell them the bonsai has to be treated just so—and guess what?”
She wasn’t objecting to men doing their half of the chores, any more than her eye-rolls about intimacy meant that she didn’t nurture, in counseling, empathy between couples. It was just that these things weren’t likely to undwarf the tree’s constricted limbs.
While Meana explained the problem with monogamy through her theory of narcissism, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a primatologist and anthropology professor at the University of California at Davis, raised evolutionary reasons. Her ideas challenged evolutionary psychologists who insisted that women are the less libidinous sex, the sex more suited to be monogamous. Hrdy had begun her career studying langurs in India. Within these monkeys, their jet-black faces surrounded by cloud-colored fur, the males commit rampant infanticide. They swoop in to kill newborns not their own. The same goes for the males in a number of other primate species. And female promiscuity among these types of monkeys and baboons evolved, Hrdy believed, partially as a shield: it masked paternity. If a male couldn’t be sure which babies were his, he would be less prone to murder them. This insight didn’t apply to all of our close animal ancestors; among the rhesus, the males tend toward caution and infanticide is seldom seen. Piecing together evolution’s logic was an incremental process, full of incomplete patterns, causes that weren’t universal. But Hrdy, with her theory of promiscuity as protective, added a compelling element within our ancestry.
And alongside this theory, she put forward an idea that might be relevant to countless species. It revolved around orgasm. Female climax—in humans and, if it exists, in animals—has been viewed by many evolutionary psychologists as a biologically meaningless by-product, a hapless cousin to male orgasm, with no effect on reproduction. Male nipples fall into this category; men don’t give milk and don’t need to for the sake of perpetuating humankind. The miniature look of the clitoris, compared to the penis, has helped to make the argument that female climax has no Darwinian importance, because the clitoris can have the appearance of a puny afterthought.
Somehow, this perspective has survived the recent mapping of the organ’s underlying bulbs and wings. And the length of stimulation some women need to reach orgasm has reinforced the by-product argument; if the event had evolutionary significance, it wouldn’t be elusive, unguaranteed. Especially during intercourse, it would happen more readily.
But the clitoral expanse—touched through the vagina—rivals the penis in total nerve-suffused territory. And as for the slowness of ecstasy, Hrdy flipped predominant thinking upside down. Her vision was a vivid example of substituting a female lens for a male one. Female orgasm could well be thoroughly relevant among our ancestors. Its delay, its need of protracted sensation, wasn’t a contradiction but a confirmation of this; it was evolution’s method of making sure that females are libertines, that they move efficiently from one round of sex to the next and frequently from one partner to the next, that they transfer the turn-on of one encounter to the stimulation of the next, building toward climax.
And the possibility of multiple orgasms compounded libertine motives. Another opioid rush—or a series of opioid infusions—might be in store with the next mounting. The advantages female animals get from their pleasure-driven behavior, Hrdy asserted, range from the safeguarding against infanticide in some primate species to, in all, gathering more varied sperm and so gaining better odds of genetic compatibility, of becoming pregnant, of bearing and raising healthy offspring.
Hrdy’s stance on female orgasm as something probably much more than an evolutionary footnote was supported in another way. The data Pfaus had spoken about, of orgasm-like contractions in rats leading to greater chances of conception, matched fledgling, controversial evidence in women of climactic spasms guiding sperm up into the uterus. But even if female animals weren’t actually having orgasms, weren’t having the all-consuming subjective experience that we do, Hrdy’s basic position about female pleasure held. Abundant stimulation was its own reward, reproductive benefit was its ultimate payoff, and in our near ancestors, this augered against monogamy.
Hrdy noted, too, proclivities in species more distant, polyandry from prairie dogs to sparrows. Or take the female of an arachnid called the book scorpion. Let her have sex with one male and, afterward, offer her that same partner. Forty-eight hours will have to go by before she’s interested in mating again, though he is full of sperm and fully motivated. She seems wired to accrue an assortment of lovers and an array of sperm. Present her with a new male, and she is primed for sex within an hour and a half.
Meana, Wallen, Chivers, Pfaus, Brotto, Hrdy—all, in their different ways, from their different work in labs and observatories, in sessions of therapy and in the animal wild, pried apart assumptions about women, sex, constancy. Then there was Lisa Diamond, who began our series of conversations by emphasizing emotional bonding as the basis of women’s desire.
Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, was a petite woman whose winning, raspy voice was always accompanied by big gestures. She talked with her hands, her shoulders, her neck, her dark eyebrows. When she and I first met, before a lecture Chivers had invited her to give to her department, she had just made herself semifamous with a book titled Sexual Fluidity. It carried the academic blessing of being published by Harvard University Press. “In 1997,” she wrote in her introductory lines, “the actress Anne Heche began a widely publicized romantic relationship with the openly lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having had no prior same-sex attractions or relationships. The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two years, and Heche went on to marry a man. The actress Cynthia Nixon of the HBO series Sex and the City developed a serious relationship with a woman in 2004 after ending a fifteen-year relationship with a man. Julie Cypher left a heterosexual marriage for the musician Melissa Etheridge in 1988. After twelve years together, the pair separated and Cypher—like Heche—has returned to heterosexual relationships.” The opening went on to catalogue the sexual shifts, in both directions, of several more female figures, then asked, “What’s going on?”
Diamond was a tireless researcher; the study at the center of her book had been running for more than a decade. Through long interviews and questionnaires, she’d been monitoring the erotic attractions of a hundred women who, at the outset, declared themselves lesbians or bisexuals or declined any label. From her analysis of the many leaps they made between sexual identities and from their detailed descriptions of their sexual lives, Diamond concluded that the direction of female desire was, above all, fluid. And after the book was published, she began collecting data among heterosexual women that helped to solidify her argument, that left her evidence less blurred by subjects whose sexuality seemed inevitably more likely to bend and transform.
Diamond, whose longtime partner was a woman, didn’t claim that women were without innate orientations. But, she contended, female desire was generated—even more than traditionally assumed—by emotional entwining. Attachment was so sexually powerful that orientation could be easily overridden. Despite Diamond’s provocative book title, in a way her thesis couldn’t have been more conventional: closeness was almost all.
Yet something lurked, unaddressed, within her data on fluidity; her subjects weren’t staying close to the same person. Relationships were being traded in periodically, and in the realm of sexual fantasy, they were being betrayed all the time. And suddenly, two years after our first meeting, when I mentioned the predicament of a woman whose story I will recount here in a moment, Diamond said, “In the lesbian community, the monogamy problem is being aired more and more. For years, gay men have been making open arrangements for sex outside the couple. Now, increasingly, gay women are doing it. It’s interesting that lesbians like to call it polyamory, as though to stress love or friendship, instead of just letting it be motivated primarily by sex.” She sounded almost like Meana; there was impatience with the veneer. As she continued, she turned to lesbian tastes in the X-rated, to “the difference between what’s feminist-approved and what gets you off,” to the doubtful presumptions that women need more narrative and more emotional meaning in their pornography, while men are more visual, more objectifying. “The stereotypes of male versus female, that male desire is far more promiscuous, seem more and more open to question.”
Massage oil, a blindfold: the items Isabel had bought—hoping to alter the feeling of Eric’s touch—when she ventured into the sex-toy boutique. On their visits, Calla and Jill weren’t so reserved. Several months before, they had purchased a double-headed dildo—long shaft, two heads. Bodies arranged in the right way, they could penetrate each other.
These are four unions, four stories of loyalty and its limitations:
“Jill is more black-and-white than I am,” Calla said about her girlfriend. “By personality, she’s a jock. She’s feisty. Things for her are either/or. I think maybe commitment comes more naturally for her. Once, maybe in our second year, when we were walking down the street, down the stairs actually, on Queen Anne Hill—there was this thick bed of ivy there—I started crying. I told her I’d never felt such unconditional love.”
This was how she saw the woman she’d met four years ago in a lesbian bar, the woman she’d been living with now for a year. And this, that phrase, “such unconditional love,” would reverberate later when I listened again to Meana, when she told me about an approach she took with only a few of her couples.
The bar had two levels. When their eyes had caught at a distance—Jill standing upstairs and Calla below—Jill’s had refused to let go. “Ballsy,” Calla remembered, and recalled other impressions: Jill’s sharp features, her combination of dark blond ringlets and green irises, the spareness of her athletic body, and the way that, when Calla had wandered off from their first conversation to flirt with someone else, Jill reappeared and announced, with whimsical flair, that she intended to compete. Calla took her home. For most of the year leading up to their meeting, Calla, who was in her early forties, had kept herself celibate in an effort to purge all the forces that had led to her last relationship, her last quick, eager pledge of fidelity, her last attempt at living together, her last disappointment, her last flight, her last repetition of this process, and that night with Jill, short, sinewy, brazen Jill, the sex went on ceaselessly, as though somehow a year might be pressed into hours.
For Calla, there had been a moment. One afternoon back in high school, in PE class, on a volleyball court two courts away from her own, with blue and white balls and black and white nets and cut-offs and gym shorts between them, she had noticed a classmate, a girl she’d seen and briefly spoken to before. But she’d never noticed her in this way, never had this reaction, this sense of invading chaos. Filled with dread, within days she gave herself a test. “I proceeded to go through in my mind the act of going down on her,” she said. “And when I was done, I thought, No, I don’t want to do that.” To her great relief, this meant that she wasn’t a lesbian.
Soon she was writing the girl poetry. Soon they were applying each other’s makeup, telling each other how pretty they looked. She spent nearly all her nights at the girl’s house, in her bed, the two of them in their underwear, tickling or running fingers along lengths of limbs. Things went no further. It wasn’t until her freshman year in college that Calla stole away from a party, went to a dance at the university’s LGBT center, wound up thoroughly immersed in a woman’s body for the first time, and, in the wake of that night in that graduate student’s bed, “realized how crazy girls made me.”
Two decades had gone by since then. Cautiously she had put off living with Jill until the initial thrall subsided; meticulously she had tallied the pros and cons of how they were together; insistently she had promised herself that she wouldn’t repeat the betrayals and disappearances of the past. The small apartment they shared was on Queen Anne, where she had wept gratefully on the ivy-ensconced stairs. Nowadays, after an evening out together, they might stand at the plate glass window that overlooked Puget Sound and share a rare cigarette and gaze out at the dark water, at the island’s faint outline.
Sex sometimes began here, usually after six or seven or eight chaste nights. “Should we?” Jill would ask, inflecting her question with humor, with a sly reference to the count of nights that had gone by.
Calla would answer that they should.
“You don’t sound too excited.”
“Get into bed. Get out the toy and get naked.”
“I’ve been forcing myself to push through my own resistance,” she told me. “When Jill asks, it’s like, I don’t really want to, I should want to, I feel guilty about not wanting to. I tell myself I need to let go, that it’s been too long. And then when we do start, it’s playful, and I can feel her getting turned on, and that makes my body more focused. And meanwhile I’m fantasizing—it might be about other women, sometimes it might be about a man. Is there something wrong with me that I have to fantasize to be with her? I think maybe there is. I didn’t have to at the beginning. Anyway, I orgasm pretty easily and so does Jill, and most of the time we orgasm again, and it is a release. And afterward my head is emptied out, and even with everything my mind was imagining I feel closer to her. So sometimes I ask her, ‘Why don’t we do that every night?’ I say, ‘We should do that every night.’
“Then a night goes by. Then another. I let them go, I make sure they go. I don’t know why. And then the nights after that.”
Susan wanted a low headboard. The master bedroom had banks of windows; she wanted the headboard to look right, not to block the panes. “And I wanted it to be good to hang on to during sex, which might have meant old-fashioned brass with bars, but that would have been too high. So I found a wooden one that went with a platform bed. It had these circle things, these circular openings, cut out of it.”
The windows looked onto the suburban town where she lived with her husband. Below were their birch trees and the bird feeder he’d built for their son. At night, though, she recalled, “the windows kind of freaked me out. There were too many of them, and they turned into black holes of nothing. I think I must have been feeling something about my father. When he was dying, the hospice people moved him from his bed, which had a beautiful headboard by the way, with this blue silk upholstery, to a cot in front of a window that faced an air shaft.” He was in his early fifties and single; he and her mother had divorced years before. “I was in college, and when I would come back to New York to visit him, I felt like someone was going to come in and snatch him there. I knew he was going to die anyway, but I felt like he was going to die sooner. He seemed so exposed next to that back window. I felt like it was stealing away his virility. It’s funny, because there was another window in his apartment, a set of windows. And I remember nude sunbathers out there. They were on towels on a roof. That must have been east. The light that way was lovely.”
With no transition, she said, “It was heartbreaking to lose my attraction for my husband. I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t want to hurt him. And in a superstitious way, I felt like if I admitted out loud that it wasn’t there anymore, it would never come back. I just prayed that it would. I get the feeling that for women it goes away more quickly than it does for men. I get the feeling that women are more dissatisfied than men are. It’s the norm, but it’s not talked about, and a lot of women struggle with the reality that they’re not attracted to the spouses they’re supposed to be with for the rest of their lives.
“We were very passionate in the beginning. But I think there’s this whole misconception about women needing to be emotionally invested. I think it might almost be the opposite, that in the first part of a relationship the attachment is the product of the attraction. Sometimes, in long-term happy relationships, maybe, sex ends up serving the relationship, but at first it’s the relationship that’s serving the attraction.
“I don’t know, though. Is that right? We were friends before anything else. It wasn’t like I looked at him and thought, Oh, he’s incredibly hot. It was the way he sounded. It was the way he smelled. It was the whole person. But I definitely found him really attractive.
“I remember one night our younger daughter came into our room. We’d just been starting to make love. I snuggled with her. I had no desire to be physically close with my husband. It had been like that for quite a while—that headboard never did get much use. She’s a really good snuggler, and those windows were threatening. I could feel their presence. I’d had curtains made. In the winter they were heavy velvet. We did have sex maybe once a week, but it didn’t reach me. My body would respond, but the pleasure was like the pleasure of returning library books.
“I had a friend who used to say, ‘The longer you’re married, the larger the bed you need.’ And the thing about being repulsed by him was, I felt like my body was a room that I didn’t want to mess up. Unlike that openness in the beginning when my body was a room and I didn’t mind if he came in with his shoes on—when I wanted him to come in that way.
“He’d gained some weight, not a lot—I don’t think I really noticed. And then I must have, on some level. It sounds crass. Maybe it was thirty pounds. You’re taught that it shouldn’t matter. He also started losing his hair. He’s Jewish—black hair and dark skin and brown eyes. And I was very attracted to that. I’m freckles and fair. So he had all this nice black hair, and he started losing more and more of it, and it bothered me that he wouldn’t do anything about it—he knew that I liked his hair, and he wouldn’t use anything, and I felt like, I do all this stuff to try to look good, why can’t you do that, too? He said that it shouldn’t matter. And I said, ‘Really? If I gained a hundred pounds you wouldn’t mind?’ And he said, ‘I’d be worried about your health.’
“Somehow I lost my generosity toward him. I don’t know how. It certainly wasn’t just his looks. For women, it’s not necessarily a beauty contest. Feeling generous isn’t the same as feeling passion, but it can create a happier situation in your sexual life.
“I have a friend who told me about an article she read about how to heat up your marriage. One of the things on the list was having your husband jump you in the laundry room. She just laughed. ‘My husband feels like my brother.’
“We never went to a psychologist until the end, when we were ready to divorce. I felt like seeing a therapist was only going to result in more tips like the ones I read in books—books written by therapists. We could try a hundred different emotional exercises. We could try new positions.
“So I just lay on that bed, holding my daughter. She truly is a gifted snuggler. It was like taking a muscle relaxant. I clung on to her and thought my morbid thoughts, She is the last physical intimacy I’m going to have before I die, she is the last physical intimacy I’m going to have before I die. And I felt those windows, even though I kept the velvet curtains closed.”
Sophie and Paul’s romance had begun when they were in nursing school. One night, ten years ago, a group of students had gone out to a bar and decided to play telephone. Paul sat directly to Sophie’s right. “Sophie,” she whispered to the woman on her left, “will you go out with me?” The question made it all the way around the circle, word for word.
They had been married now for eight years. They had three small children, the youngest under a year old; they both worked; and whatever time was left for them as a couple was swallowed by his studying and training for an advanced degree. Yet their bedroom seemed nothing less than anointed.
When she had first told her friends that she wished—wished badly—that Paul would ask her out, they looked puzzled. “Really?” they said. They thought of him as a dependable friend, not as the subject of dreams. But the man Sophie had just broken up with was a painter with a nipple ring glinting amid the muscles of his chest. He had done her portrait with dark flamboyance, depicting her as a corpse. It all seemed laughably melodramatic now, but for a long while she had been intoxicated not only by the Goth-style art, the gleam of jewelry, and the torso, but by the air of indifference—he rarely even bothered to brush his teeth—that seemed to keep women clustered around him always. He was unfaithful to her on a regular basis.
Then one day at nursing school, shortly after that relationship came to a cataclysmic end, Paul traded his light blue scrubs for a navy blue suit and delivered an assigned presentation. He was supposed to discuss an ethical dilemma that a nurse might confront, and he turned his task into a game of Jeopardy!, with himself as host and his fellow students earning points for posing the right questions to analyze and address the problem. He was animated; he came alive for her. She adored his ingenuity and eagerness; there was nothing nonchalant about him. Her memories of being rendered, in luxuriant brushstrokes, as a woman ready for burial started to fade. . . .
At the beginning of their first date—following the game of telephone—Paul steered over to the side of the road, stopped, bolted out, opened the trunk, and returned with a bouquet of roses, saying that he’d decided not to bring the flowers to her front door because she lived with her parents and the moment might be awkward. She was charmed by this hint of shyness and by the deliberateness of his buying the bouquet in the first place. They were deliberate together. Their dates lasted through entire nights, yet they postponed sex for two months and then made sure they weren’t at her house or his—he lived with his parents, too. They planned the event. He booked a room at a nearby resort. When they finished making love for the first time—sex that was about as brief as she’d expected, given how long they’d waited—her eyes welled up.
He asked if she was hurt. She assured him she was not. He asked if she was disappointed. She told him that she was tearing up because she knew she would never have sex with a new lover again, and he, understanding that she was grateful, told her that the same was true for him. She did feel a level of regret that she kept to herself, an undertow of loss, but soon they were enmeshed again, and this time the lovemaking lasted, and over the next two years, until they married and moved in together, they conspired to find hours when they could have sex in their parents’ houses without causing their parents discomfort, and the conscious intent involved in this collaboration, the plain acknowledgment of their desire for each other, the absence of all coyness about their feelings, taught them that a particular kind of magic could be created through simplicity and candor.
Boredom did not creep in behind this habit of transparency. Eros, for them, did not depend on suspense, on worrying if wanting was reciprocated. Some things weren’t possible with three young children. The likelihood of the children’s needs interrupting her and Paul’s nights meant that she no longer slept naked, no longer had the radiating pleasure of feeling her nudity as a constant provocation. The eruption of the children’s energy on Saturday mornings meant that those hours were no longer a time when her and Paul’s desires could sprawl. And lately his training had cut their evenings apart. But distraction and fatigue didn’t drain away lust. Their lack of guile somehow kept the attraction between them taut.
“We’re really not subtle at all,” she said. “My line is, ‘Are you going to pay attention to me tonight?’ Or he’ll say, ‘Am I going to get any action tonight?’ And I’ll tell him, ‘Well, if you get off your study call and come upstairs before I go to sleep.’ Or we’ll agree to wake up at three in the morning.”
She went on: “We never stop admiring each other. I’ll say, ‘You got your hair cut; it looks great.’ And he still tells me all the time how good I look, even after the kids. ‘Oooo’—this is one of his subtlest lines—‘I love you in those jeans; can I get in them?’ We make out in the kitchen. While we watch TV I’m touching him, or he’s touching my breasts—even if there’s almost no way it’s going to lead to sex. I love that he loves to see me in these tight gray yoga pants I used to wear in nursing school.”
Then, abruptly, she mentioned something hidden. She was a baseball fan, and when she had trouble reaching orgasm, or wanted to make love with Paul but felt that arousal was remote and needed beckoning, she tended to think about the Yankee’s shortstop Derek Jeter. She smiled at the comedy of this confession. It was only sometimes that this extra help was required, she explained. “Jeter is the ultimate Yankee. Tall, all-American, everyone loves him—he’s it. He comes home to me after winning the World Series. He’s still in his uniform, and he throws me onto the bed and kisses me in a frenzy all over and thrusts right into me without me being really prepared for it. He just ravages me.”
Yet even when she enlisted another man, she said, she felt little distance from her husband. It wasn’t something they had ever talked about. “We’ve never asked each other. I don’t think your partner needs to know. The fantasy is only a device. When you’re with the same person for a long time, it’s fine to use your mind to escape. I’m still with him, I’m still touching him. It’s still him.”
The woman in the zebra-striped cowboy hat lay on a blue blow-up raft at the shallow end of the swimming pool. Passie, watching her, was in her late fifties. The woman was on her back, one leg draped over either side of the raft and dangling in the water. Long, dark hair fell from beneath the black-and-white hat, a thin chain adorned one ankle, and, in between, her body was padded without being obese. “There were about twelve guys around her,” Passie said. “She was nude. Big breasts. And vocal, because these men were playing with every existing part of her.”
Four decades earlier, when the worshipfully maintained mansions of her hometown were opened to the public, as was the tradition for one spring week each year, Passie had been selected to be a hostess. Once, great quantities of cotton had been shipped through this hub of the South. More than a century later, in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, when Passie was in high school and college, the town poured its fragile pride into this annual display. She sat on one of the porticos. The crepe myrtle was in bloom: blossoms of purple and white and watermelon clouded the lawns and cascaded along the walkways. Her hoop skirt—pale pink—billowed. Her long gloves were dyed to match. “It feels surreal,” she said now, “to have grown up in that time, in that place.”
At twelve, in the Southern Baptist church where her father taught Sunday school and where she sang in the choir, she had stepped to the front of the sanctuary to have the minister press his hand to her head and lay her backward in the baptismal tank, to be saved. In her late teens, she pledged to meet the standards of the Little Southern Debutantes: to “at all times bring honor to herself” and to “be representative of the wholesome American girl.” At the area’s best women’s college, she was taught how to swivel modestly in and out of an automobile, how to pause for a gentleman to guide her by the arm down a set of stairs, and how to pose in a group photograph if she was in the front row, with feet turned and hands folded and positioned to one side, so that the body suggested an elegant and demure S-shape below a straight, poised neck. “To this day I look at pictures and think that if women would just sit properly they would look so much better.”
And during college, she was pinned. This was the pulse of those four years. First, she would begin to date a boy from the state university nearby. Then he would give her a lavaliere with his fraternity letters to wear proudly around her neck. “Will you be pinned to me?” he would ask in the next step, and if she said yes, he would affix his fraternity’s embossed shield to her blouse above her heart. About a week later he and all of his brothers would appear at the foot of her dormitory porch. She would come outside, and they would serenade her with their fraternity song: “And the moonlight beams on the girl of my dreams.”
“I had a traditional vision of life, a fairy princess vision. My desire was for a Prince Charming who lived in a palace to sweep me off my feet. As a child, desire meant the wish for a new dress. As a teenager, it was wanting the right date for parties. At college, it was collecting the right fraternity pin and falling in love. You have your song and you dance at the parties on football weekends and you think he’s going to be your husband. Lust didn’t factor into it that much; it wasn’t the driving force.”
Nelson arrived as a blind date for her roommate, when, after her graduation, Passie was teaching French at a college a few states away. She had broken with convention in this way, choosing a career rather than marrying quickly, just as she had pushed against convention earlier: winning public speaking contests as an undergraduate and getting herself elected president of her state’s Youth Congress, the first woman ever to hold the office. When the date with the roommate didn’t work out, Nelson and Passie discovered, over Cokes, a little of what they had in common: loving theater (he sold silos for a living and acted with the town’s amateur theater company) and classical music. “I found him an appealing person. And he was nice-looking. Not terribly handsome. But appealing. By that time I’d dated my share of men who were self-absorbed. He did things to make me feel special. I traveled with the foreign languages team, and if I was coming home late, he would have brought over food and left it for me in the refrigerator. He liked to leave my radio tuned to an Indianapolis station that drifted in from three hundred miles away.”
As she recalled this, we were in their kitchen, Passie, Nelson, and I. Nelson sat in a leather wing chair, while she, on the other side of the counter, made a brisket for dinner and brownies for desert. Their home, near the college where she continued to teach and a few miles from the silo company from which he’d retired, was a single-story brick house on a leafy, trim cul-de-sac. The street might have run through a thousand American neighborhoods in a hundred towns and cities, the trees young, the smooth blacktop driveways outfitted with basketball hoops. Inside, Passie and Nelson’s walls were decorated with landscapes: a nearby lake with a fisherman casting his line from a dinghy; a picket fence and horses bending to the grass of a field. Nelson wore a green golfing shirt tucked in tight over a loose middle and had a face and neck at once soft and strong, broad, generous. She wore a bright floral blouse and jeans that were slightly roomy over her slender, nimble frame.
About seven years ago, and thirty years after they were married, they were on vacation with their children and grandchildren, and while the rest of the family wandered through a fairgrounds one evening, the two of them went out to dinner at a favorite chain restaurant and had one of the few brutal fights of their decades together. She had already left their bed at home. At first, she had begun to sleep in the den sometimes because she had trouble with insomnia, but the separate sleeping arrangement had become permanent. Once, in the years before children, they had spent entire weekend days in bed. Later, after they’d started their family, if they were in the car together, just the two of them, she liked to read him the letters from his Penthouse magazines, turning herself on. But by the time they were in their fifties, she joined him in what had become his bed once per week, on Friday nights, joined him for what might be only a few minutes. He tried to thrill her, tried in all the ways they had, years before, learned together, tending to each other’s bodies, listening to each other’s skin. But the surface of her flesh seemed far off to her, let alone to him, and even a perfunctory orgasm had grown impossible. He came; they cuddled; she left.
And on vacation, her endurance disintegrated. All week she had felt entrapped by his wanting. With their children and grandchildren around them in their rented condo, she felt less than nothing in return. “This is not working,” she erupted at the restaurant. “I know you’re angry. I’m angry. If you come home one more week and say, ‘Oooo, it’s Friday night, you know what that means,’ I’m going to leave the house. I’m not going to have sex with you anymore. I can’t. I’m just not going to.”
“I don’t think I said too much,” Nelson remembered. “I had felt this level of frustration in her for a good while, but we never talked about it. I knew something was going wrong, but I didn’t know what to do.”
Back home, they bought and read books of marital advice. Defeat followed determination. When Nelson heard an acquaintance say that he’d visited a clothing-optional hotel in the Caribbean, he mentioned the resort to Passie, half-jokingly, as a far-fetched idea that might rescue their marriage. “When he brought it up, I realized that I was interested—interested but very, very uncertain. I wasn’t sure I could bare my body. I didn’t know if I had the courage. No woman is ever convinced that she looks good enough to do that—definitely no woman of fifty-something. We thought it was just nudity, but they have lifestyle weeks when it isn’t.”
A month later, they were checking in for a weekend—in the front lobby, nudity was not allowed—and stepping tentatively from their room in bathing suits and, for her, a wrap.
“But even before I reached the pool, I threw caution to the wind. My bathing suit came off. I buried it in my tote bag. The guests were every age from twenty-five to eighty. There were women I tried never to stand next to, because they looked so good, and there were women who didn’t look good at all. There were cesarean scars and hysterectomy scars and women who were totally out of shape, and I thought, If they can stand there and expose themselves, why shouldn’t I? Bodies aren’t perfect. The pool was up on a platform; you went up five or six steps to get to it. Every chaise lounge was filled with someone naked. There was a gal fondling someone’s erection while she was having a conversation with someone else. There was a gal going down on another woman. And these men were rotating the float with the zebra-hat woman on the water, stroking her arms, kissing her breasts, stroking her legs, licking her clit. I spent thirty minutes watching her.”
“I used to bemoan the fact that I’d never have sex with another woman in my life,” Nelson said from his leather chair. As Passie cooked dinner on the other side of the counter, he listed two or three of the sessions he’d had with women at the events they’d been attending, at hotels in surrounding states, every few months over the last seven years. His tone sounded vaguely rote, bewildered. It wasn’t celebratory.
“I wanted to throw away my inhibitions. I decided she was going to be my role model,” Passie said about the zebra-hat woman.
“Looking back, I think she had a stronger desire for other partners than I did,” he said. “I think she felt it before that first trip.”
“Subconsciously,” she said.
On the table she set a basket of bread that their farming area claimed as its invention.
“We still have sex with each other.” It seemed important, to him, that I know this.
“Nelson is my husband,” she said. “I love him. He is the father of my children. When I say I love him, I mean it.” She explained that at the events, she made sure he had someone to “play with” before she went off to another man’s room.
“It’s a paradox that I’m laying before them.” Meana was speaking about a method she tried with just a few of her couples. Most of her patients weren’t ready, she said; they didn’t really want to take such risks. Her prescription didn’t involve anything like alternative lifestyle gatherings. But it required a kind of divide. It meant the surrendering of safety.
She returned to a phrase, a dream, she had criticized before: “You complete me.” The seeking of a lover to embody these words; the pining for a love that will be unconditional; the search for a union that is absolute; the sense that our partners should give us what we were given—or what we believe we should have been given—by our parents; the craving for reassurance—tell me I’m special, tell me I’m beautiful, tell me I’m smart, tell me I’m successful, tell me you love me, tell me it’s forever, no matter what, till death do us part—these were, for Meana, scarcely more than a child’s cries. Yet most of us could not bear to give up on these longings. Most of us could not stand to relinquish the yearning for someone to be our fulfillment, our affirmation, because to turn away from such hope would be to acknowledge that we are, inescapably, navigating our lives alone, supported by love if we are lucky but, finally, on our own. Few of us want to navigate this way.
“There has to be an Other for there to be sexiness,” she said. Yet in trying to save ourselves from our solitude, we strain to make our Others one with us. We flail; we grasp. We pray that selves will give way, that souls will combine. And eros, one of the forces we employ in our struggle, is crushed as we try to wring distance forever from our domestic lives. She wasn’t suggesting that couples shouldn’t turn to each other for comfort, for solace. “Love has to exist in different dimensions.” Still, for most of us, in her eyes, something was out of balance: the longing to depend, to be propped up and protected, was given too much power.
With the couples who seemed willing, she liked to ask, “Why should she desire you?” or “Why should he desire you?” She demanded, “Tell me what’s desirable about you. . . . And sometimes they look at me in a way that says, I can’t believe you’re asking me that. Sometimes they hear that as an insult, a slap. Sometimes my question hangs there for weeks. But slowly they realize what I’m doing. I want them to focus on what it is, to know what it is. I want them to work on what they see as desirable in themselves, to strengthen what they see as their strengths. And I want them to think about what they themselves wish for in a lover and try to turn themselves into that. I want them to make themselves better.”
Her technique incorporated, too, tricks of disentanglement. Going out to dinner should begin with arriving at the restaurant separately. Date night should hold to the forms; it should mean a date. And chances should be seized to view the spouse apart. “If I can, I will have them watch their partner perform some function that has nothing to do with them. When I see my husband give a literary talk, and I’m in the back of the room, it’s amazing how attractive that is to me. There he is in a way that has nothing to do with me, and my gaze gains a little bit of the gaze a stranger has on him.”
None of this, she said, would lead to anything spectacular every time—or half the times—you made love as the years together accumulated. But sometimes, because the grasping had ceased, you might find yourself within a momentary, miraculous paradox, a brief merging after all. “It’s about looking at each other in the midst of sex and feeling like you just dove into this pool of somebody else. It’s about being astounded. It’s about feeling breathless with that dive. That union. It’s the fusion of two people with no differences in that instant. It’s a complete I-am-yours-you-are-mine-I-don’t-know-where-my-body-starts-and-yours-ends.”
Had it only been Derek’s failure as a player that deterred her from going to the Blazers’ games, Alison knew she would have given herself a quick lecture and been there on the sidelines. Had it only been his chubbiness, his hovering as towel boy, and the irksome praise of the other mothers that had preyed on her, she would have told herself that the compliments were probably sincere, in their way, and reminded herself that her son was in fact a wonderfully spirited and open-hearted child. Though she might have felt that it would be nice to be the mother of the Blazers’ leading scorer instead of the team’s avid helpmeet, still she would have gone to the community center every Saturday—or many Saturdays, anyway—with hard-fought pride.
What plagued her, though, was that her minor issues with Derek and basketball mirrored her less ignorable issues with her husband and her life. She tried not to think about the parallels. And because she was a busy woman with a career as an editor that could easily crowd out other thoughts, she sometimes succeeded in keeping herself unaware. But she was also an analytic woman who reflexively drew connections. Thomas was pudgy and had never been much of an athlete, and Thomas’s obsessive devotion to teaching the box-out to elementary schoolers was about on a par with Derek’s alacrity with the towels—or would have been, except that Derek’s role with the team was just one positive part of who he was, while Thomas’s commitment to instilling basketball fundamentals seemed quintessentially Thomas. It seemed, more and more, to define him.
Until two years ago, while Derek was a player, her husband’s faith in the character-building potential of his twelve basketball basics had struck her as maybe somewhat nuts but also admirable and poignant and slightly life-changing for the kids. But with Derek retired, the sight of her husband with his clipboard was a lot less sentimental. And his lengthy talk, over family dinners, about a new method for inculcating one of his twelve lessons—which might, for his players, carry over from the court and eventually help them to achieve thriving careers or happy marriages—made her feel that she might be serving a life sentence. Occasionally she imagined something devastating: that one day one of the other mothers would come over to her and pay her husband the same kind of cloying praise that she heard about her son.
As all of this was taking place at the community center and in her mind, two other things were happening. Thomas had purchased some stretchy bands, some dumbbells, and a video, and was putting himself through a persistent and hapless routine in the basement. And she and her husband were leaving their Manhattan offices once each week to meet together with a therapist, who liked to assign them exercises. In one, they had sat facing each other, palms resting on the other’s palms, their breathing synchronized. Recently they had moved on to spooning, clothed, Alison behind Thomas, one hand on his heart and the other on his groin, or he behind her with hands positioned the same way, their inhaling and exhaling, the rising and falling of their chests, in gentle and exact alignment. They were supposed to let lust gather at its own pace, to postpone anything more sexual until desire coalesced within each of them, to feel no pressure to progress beyond this exercise, to understand that weeks might go by. They were supposed to simply experience the unity of breathing and allow this unity to permeate their hearts and genitals. But she, whose wanting felt extinguished and who was the target of the program, sensed no change aside from more and more futility.
This was the situation as she walked into the rec center gym clutching the hand of Derek’s pretty younger sister. There, with about fifteen minutes before the jump ball of the season’s first game, was Derek, giving a shoulder rub to the Blazers’ captain. And there, farther along the sideline, was Thomas in a Blazers black jersey. This was something she’d never seen and hadn’t prepared herself for, her husband wearing the top half of the team uniform above his jeans—most of the coaches wore polo shirts or sweatshirts, as Thomas himself always had—and it was jarring enough that she didn’t see it precisely but perceived, instead, a semishapeless, almost blurry display of bloatedness and pallor: his shoulders and arms. She was already starting to remind herself that his misguided choice of shirt made no difference, that actually it was an endearing demonstration of caring about his and Derek’s team, when she watched a mother step down the bleachers, taking long strides from level to level in her high-heeled, ankle-high boots, and stand next to Thomas.
His shoulders and arms, she recognized over the next seconds, and realized more fully over the following minutes, might be ghostly white, but they weren’t puffy in the least. An outline of bulky strength was emerging. The woman in her suede boots, the mother of one of the Blazers’ better players, started to chat with him, shoulder to shoulder, smiling. Whatever subject the woman raised—something about basketball, Alison assumed—it was plain that she spoke with affection. And as the minutes went by, it was clear that she was flirting with her son’s basketball coach, with a sturdily put-together man who had been drilling sound principles into her child, lessons imbued with larger meaning.
Alison waited her turn. When it came, she pressed herself against her husband quickly from behind. She put one hand on his heart, told him where she wished the other one was and what she wanted tonight to be, and rejoined their daughter to watch the game.