The Naked Truth
I drove along the sweltering Pennsylvania highway like a demon, hoping to make it to the Philadelphia Airport in time. My flight took off in less than an hour, but suddenly, stopped cars littered the road like confetti. A summer traffic jam caused, I kid you not, by drivers slowing down to look at a couple walking two Jack Russell terriers. To have any chance of making my flight, I had to keep swerving my dented black minivan around idiotic drivers who did not have a plane to catch. And whose cars presumably had air-conditioning that still worked.
Despite the traffic and the heat, my heart felt light with joy, because for the first time in nearly twenty years, I was on a trip by myself, with no one in the car to fight with me. After ending an abusive marriage in my twenties, I’d just gotten divorced again. All I wanted now was to hang out with my two teenaged kids and our pets. Although it had been three years since I’d had sex, my wildest dream was to never get into a car, or sleep in a bed, with any man, ever again.
I pulled the van into the airport lot and parked in the first open space I found. I ran through security, my Rollaboard stuffed with books rattling behind me, checking the time on my iPhone as I went. I clattered past a Hudson News store and didn’t recognize myself in the plate glass window. I had on a stretchy black top and my favorite Lucky jeans. Not surprisingly, my forty-nine-year-old reflection looked stressed, my
forehead wrinkled, as if I were a once-sexy T-shirt that had become faded and crumpled after being washed too often.
But somehow, I also looked thinner, younger, prettier, more myself than I’d looked in ten years. I’d gotten my hair streaked blonde and was wearing lipstick again on a daily basis for the first time in two decades. I’m never going to look like Gisele Bündchen, but I’d lost about twenty pounds since the split, via what my girlfriend KC called “the divorce diet.” All that anxiety about custody, legal bills, health insurance, and the leak in the bathroom ceiling had a silver lining after all: smaller jeans.
When I got to the gate for the flight to Long Island, in addition to sporting a layer of sweat, I was hyperventilating. I had ten minutes to spare until takeoff. I pulled the chrome handle on the industrial gray door leading to the jetway. It was locked.
“Fuck!” I yelled at the door. “Double fuck!”
The frosted-hair clerk at the gate spoke without looking up from her mauve fingernails flitting across the computer keyboard.
“Flight’s delayed. Thunderstorms.”
I looked quizzically at the jets parked outside the window behind her. The sky was blue and cloudless.
Feeling paradoxically pissed off and relieved, I whirled around, looking for an outlet to charge my phone, or at least an empty chair to collapse in after my Olympic sprint. To my horror, as if in slow motion, my purse knocked over someone’s coffee on the high top charging station behind me. Black liquid poured over the table. I watched as it slowly dripped onto the industrial airport carpeting.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Let me buy you another cup . . .”
My voice trailed off as I registered the man whose drink I’d knocked over.
The drink’s owner was, quite possibly, the best-looking man I’d ever seen. Cropped dark hair. Deep blue eyes. Two decades younger than me. A chill zigzagged through me as my eyes met his.
To my surprise, instead of being annoyed, he offered me
a lazy smile. His eyes held mine, replacing my shiver with the warm cloak of a cashmere sweater. No man had smiled at me like that in years. Entire decades had passed during which I thought a man would never look at me like that again.
“You don’t need to buy me another coffee,” he protested, mildly, faint smile lines creasing his tanned cheeks.
The man had to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He looked like an executive dressed for business-casual Friday, a blue button-down shirt tucked into dark Levi’s. However, his hands were bare and brown, rough and calloused, and he wore scuffed construction boots, as if he worked outdoors.
“Please? I feel terrible.”
Did I sound like the mom who wanted to make everyone’s skinned knee better? I tried talking again, willing myself to say something normal, clever even.
“Are you also on the flight to Long Island?”
Not the wittiest repartee, I know. But it worked, because it kept the conversation flowing.
“Yeah, I take it all the time for work.” Mr. Blue Eyes sighed. “I’m based in Richmond, so I change planes here. This afternoon flight is always delayed.”
He had a lovely baritone voice. He’d be good on the radio. Or a sex chat line. How would it feel to be naked in front of him? Why was I thinking about taking off my clothes in the middle of an airport? With a stranger half my age? When I never wanted to have sex again as long as I lived?
“Can I please take you to Starbucks? I would feel better getting you another coffee,” I explained, squeezing my suitcase handle from sudden, excess adrenaline. I badly wanted him to say yes.
He looked at me, raising his eyebrows in assent. The repressed grin on his face reminded me of the expression my grandmother called “a cat with a canary in its mouth.”
“Of course,” he said politely. “Very nice of you.”
We mopped up the spilled coffee with napkins from my
purse and then I looked around for the green Starbucks mermaid. Fortuitously, there she was, only one gate away. I carried two iced Americanos to a wrought iron table we’d snagged, squeezed between the pastry display and a concrete pillar. We were so close, I could smell him. And boy, he smelled good, like wood chips mixed with clean laundry hanging in the sun to dry.
We sat across from each other, awkwardly holding our cold plastic cups. The people in line for lattes and macchiatos snaked around us. A voice came over the airport loudspeaker announcing another flight delay, this one bound for Florida. A passenger in a pin-striped wool suit standing behind me groaned and shut his eyes in frustration.
“So what are you doing on Long Island?” he asked. His soft southern drawl sounded polite. And still amused. By my airport rush? By the coffee fiasco? By . . . me? I felt almost giddy that I’d entertained this man, whose name I still didn’t know.
I smiled at him. Was I flirting? Did I still even know how? I hadn’t had coffee with a man besides my ex-husband in twenty years. I hadn’t even had coffee with him in at least ten.
“I have a beach house there . . . I just dropped my daughter off at camp so I’m going there to work.”
I took a pull on my straw out of nervousness. Iced coffee flooded my mouth. I swallowed as quickly as I could.
“I’m a writer,” I continued, racing to head off an embarrassing silence.
“Wow.” He grinned again. He had straight white teeth with one slightly crooked bottom tooth. “That must be pretty amazing to work at something creative.”
Was it possible that he was flirting with me? That seemed improbable. But he did sound curious. As if he wanted to know more about me. Something I also couldn’t remember sensing from any man since I’d started having kids in my early thirties. My stomach fluttered. I was curious about him, too.
“What’s your work?”
He looked back at me, his gaze softening as he met mine. God, he had beautiful eyes.
“I run a construction company, kind of. It’s a small business my granddad started that we expanded together.”
He glanced sympathetically at a frazzled woman carrying a screaming, squirming, red-faced baby. Her face looked as if she wanted to scream, too. I wondered if he had kids.
“Hey, that sounds kind of creative. In a different way. What kind of business?”
His looks and his voice morphed into the perfect combination of Abercrombie & Fitch model and every country singer on my Apple Music playlist.
“Um, it’s unusual. Not your typical day job. I work in quarries. I guess the best way to describe it is that I’m in explosives.”
I furrowed my brow at that one. Explosives?
“My specialty”—he paused and looked at me with unruffled blue eyes—“is drilling and blasting.”
I coughed involuntarily, more like a gasp, trapping a half sip of cold coffee in my throat. I tried to swallow but couldn’t. Then, against my will, I spit out the coffee, as well as a chunk of ice. It skittered across the wrought iron tabletop toward him.
I blurted out the first words that entered my head.
“I could use some of both!”
I blushed. I cannot believe you said that! a voice in my head shrieked. He looked like he was going to spit out his coffee.
Luckily, right then our flight was called over the loudspeaker directly above our table. I stood up as quickly as I could, hoping to disguise my mortification, and grabbed my Rollaboard handle. He stood up, too. Lost in the throng of passengers rushing the gate, neither of us even said good-bye. We boarded the plane separately.
I thought about Mr. Blue Eyes for the hour it took to fly to Islip. Did I have the guts to ask for his name, or give him mine? Once we landed at the tiny, almost deserted Long Island
airport, I walked as slowly as I could to the rental car counter, looking for him, hoping he might be waiting for me.
But before I tell you how I tracked down the twenty-nine-year-old explosives expert I met in the Philadelphia Airport, and how we blew up two decades of marriage and thirty-six months of celibacy, first I have to go back in time and tell you about getting rid of my husband, Marty.
Please, don’t think I’m being callous.
Trust me, my husband wanted to get rid of me, too.
I felt sorry for Marty’s butt. From behind, my husband’s tush looked like two sweat socks, grayish and wrinkled from sitting in a gym locker for months. It was the peak of summer, and we were at our shingled beach house in Southampton, New York. My beloved of nearly twenty years, wearing brown swim trunks, trudged down our grassy hill toward the garage we were planning to turn into a bunkhouse for our kids and their friends. It had been almost two years since I’d seen his actual ass, but I could have drawn you a picture of what it looked like.
We’d been married that long.
Tigger, our white Lab mutt, was panting with his pink tongue hanging out, sprawled on the grass overlooking the pool, watching the kids swim as if he were the official lifeguard. Both sixteen-year-old Timmy and fourteen-year-old Bella were crazy about the pool and the ocean. Thank God Tigger didn’t like swimming. There’d have been so much dog hair to skim off the water, I would have stuck a fork in my eye.
I made my way across the lawn to Marty, who was checking the Rolex he’d bought himself on his last birthday. We had agreed to meet here, next to the sliding garage door by the pool, because we needed a semiprivate place to talk as a
follow-up to our last couples therapy session. The psychologist had given us an assignment: we each had to share the “critical success factor” we needed to make our marriage work. As much as I hoped we’d make some progress today, I dreaded hearing more details from Marty about the ways in which I didn’t meet his needs.
Over the past two years, Marty and I had spent an hour a week in therapy, the most excruciating way an unhappy couple can spend money on each other. We had two children we adored, a gracious home, a cute Christmas card. But our love had developed a kind of gangrene. Even though I slept next to him night after night, I’d never felt so alone. Years had passed without his telling me I looked pretty, or that I was a good mom. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d complimented him about anything. I suspected my husband of at least one affair, maybe more. In therapy, I had asked him, jokingly at first, and then pleadingly, to make a list of reasons why he’d married me. I’d been waiting two years for him to answer.
However, that day in Southampton, I played the highlight reel of our relationship as I headed to our rendezvous point. Our sweet, easy friendship in our twenties. How sweaty his palms got the first time we kissed. The six months we spent dating long distance, me in Chicago, counting down the hours until I flew to his bachelor apartment in Philly. How we both pretended he didn’t have an engagement ring in his pocket as we traveled to a friend’s wedding in the Czech Republic.
That morning in Southampton, Marty had just come back from working out at Big Dick’s Boot Camp, where he hooked up with all his business buddies from New York and Philly who also had second homes here. The truth was, boot camp was a place to get away from us wives, to make up for too many late nights at the office and rich dinners with clients, and to network with the boys without making it seem like work. But it was cheaper and a shorter time commitment than golf, which took at least half a day and cost about twenty times as much, so I never complained.
As I got closer to him, I noticed a shimmer of sweat covering his forehead. He’d slathered 100 SPF sunscreen in white
streaks across his bald spot, which now counted for most of his head. I always found bald guys attractive, but I’d never been able to convince Marty of that. He still snuck special hair-regrowth shampoo into the shower, assiduously turning the label toward the wall, as if I didn’t know he used it.
He looked at me now with his Wall Street lawyer face, the expressionless mask he wore when he talked to anyone, including our children, his mother, and me. He examined us as if we were companies he was planning to take over and sell within a few years. As if he were trying to ascertain how much we were worth in dollars.
This was not the man I married on a beach in Maui twenty years ago. That man had worn a batik sarong in the Hawaiian sunshine. That man had played me an off-key solo on the mahogany guitar his parents had given him for his thirteenth birthday, to convince me that I was the most wonderful woman in the world to him. Tears had wet his eyes as he sang to me.
I hadn’t seen a tear in Marty’s eyes for at least a decade.
But you know what? I wasn’t the same sweet, eager-to-please twentysomething woman Marty had fallen in love with, either. I was resentful about the compromises marriage and motherhood had extracted, and bitter that Marty had not made the same sacrifices for our family. I’d gained at least twenty-five pounds since our wedding day and I often didn’t brush my hair until after noon; I didn’t care how I looked to Marty or anyone. As hurt as I was that Marty did not seem to value my contributions to our family’s well-being, the truth was, I never told him anymore that I appreciated his temperance and steadiness, his commitment to providing for us financially, or his love for the two most precious humans in the world to me. Marriage and parenthood had taken its grim toll on both of us, driving us apart rather than bringing us together, in insidious ways neither of us could have predicted on that sunny day in Hawaii when we held each other tight and promised we’d always be there for each other.
Today, we didn’t have much time for reflection, because the kids would inevitably interrupt us within minutes, and we would invariably let them. Tapping into perverse, almost
evolutionary survival tactics, the more desperately Marty and I needed time alone together, whether it was for sex (never these days) or arguing (almost always these days), the more insistently the kids interrupted us. As if sensing the deep trouble we were in as a family, we all colluded in disrupting and postponing our marital conflicts.
Marty pulled open the garage door with the purposeful air of a gardener searching for a rake, but I knew he was simply trying to avoid talking to me.
I took a deep breath to calm my heart rate, and cut right to the chase.
“Honey, we have to discuss this. Now. You’ve been avoiding this conversation all week.”
A white Learjet roared overhead, some Hollywood or Wall Street tycoon coming in for the weekend. Marty’s face stayed rigid. He didn’t say a word.
“We have such a wonderful life,” I went on, reaching for his hand, running my fingers over his wedding band. “The kids are incredible. I love you. I want this to work. But I can’t do all the emotional heavy lifting alone. I need you to be here, too.”
Hope-junkie me meant every word. As a writer, I believed that carefully chosen words, said the right way, could solve any problem. Unfortunately, Marty was a numbers guy.
He looked out at the forty-foot pines that held our hammock, and blinked uncomfortably. For him, this was a big reaction. At moments like this, I knew to blow air on the embers, to inflame the emotional flicker into something strong enough to get him talking, before he could figure out how to squelch his reaction.
“Come on, we haven’t had sex in two years. Two years?”
I tried to lock on to those gray-green eyes that I had stared into lovingly more times than I could remember.
Tell me I still matter to you, I thought, examining his face as if I held an invisible magnifying glass.
“Honey, no matter how much I love the kids and our life together, I can’t stay if I’m not still the most important woman in the world to you.”
I felt as if I was begging him to respond. I was begging him to respond. Marty’s Adam’s apple clenched and he looked away again, this time at Timmy’s baseball pitch at the bottom of the gravel driveway.
I went to put my arms around my husband. I wanted to pull him close, to feel the warmth from his body, to smell his sweat and sunscreen. But it felt more like I was grabbing him, pleading with him to react to me. To care.
“Please, honey! If you say I’m one in a million, I’ll do anything to make this work. But don’t you see I can’t do this alone, with you ignoring me?”
He stood stiff as a corpse, refusing eye contact. His arms hung at his sides. Despite his shiny forehead, his body felt as if it’d been stored in a refrigerated meat locker. I pulled away.
Then, finally, he spoke.
“I don’t like the way . . .”
Another jet thundered overhead. I held my breath. I was ready for whatever he had to unveil.
He started again. “I don’t like . . . the way . . .”
He froze, as if surprised by the sound of his own voice.
“The way you hug me.”
My head jerked up. Something burst in my chest. Maybe it was what was left of my heart. Sweet Jesus. That was his emotional breakthrough? His daring risk that would revive our connection? Like a pot boiling over, I unexpectedly became so furiously angry, I could hardly stop to inhale.
“We’ve been married for twenty years.” The fury I’d squelched over a decade of Marty ignoring me made me so enraged, I was actually spitting the words at him. “The last time we had sex is a long-lost memory. And you say you don’t like the way I hug you?”
Marty looked down at the hairs on his bare toes. The skin was translucent from years trapped in the custom-crafted wing tips every law firm partner in Philadelphia seemed to wear.
I had not planned to end our marriage that afternoon. But I couldn’t bear one more talk like this. Ever. I had tried my
damnedest to reach Marty, opening my psyche to him in the therapist’s office, and giving him every drop of love in my body over our years together. In return, he’d kept his hopes, dreams, and body to himself, ignoring me on my birthday, Mother’s Day, and our wedding anniversary. And I’d sunk to that level and repaid him with unrelenting anger and resentment. Suddenly, it was crystal clear to me: I never, ever wanted to be in a therapist’s office, our car, our beach house, or anywhere else with this man, much less naked in a bed in his arms. And he didn’t want me there either. Which obviously would make it tricky to stay married.
Heart racing, blood pounding in my temples, I realized in a rush that this wasn’t a talk. It was the talk. Now I was the one with the poker face, even as the hollow of my stomach clenched.
“I think we have to admit that our marriage is dead, Marty. It died on its own. I’m not sure we can revive it, no matter what we do.”
I searched my husband’s face for heartbreak. Or fear, or even anger. Instead, what I saw was worst of all: relief.
Tears came to my eyes as I tried to pinpoint the exact moment our marriage had died. Maybe years before, when he first refused to kiss me on the lips when I had bronchitis, claiming he couldn’t afford to get sick at work then. Months later he still averted his mouth every time I went in for a smooch. I should have known it was over then. Isn’t the way a man kisses you a clarion bell for how he really feels?
Now he was talking again. His words made my head spin as if I’d stood up too quickly.
“Obviously, I haven’t been in love with you for several years.”
The “obviously” and “several” burned as if he were holding my palms to a hot stove. As did his blithe, matter-of-fact tone, as if everyone in Southampton and Philadelphia knew he hadn’t cared for me in years. Maybe they did and I was a fool.
“It would be better, for me, if you moved out of the Rittenhouse place.”
His voice rang toneless and rehearsed, as if he were explaining cash flows at an investors briefing, not asking me to
move out of the home I’d raised our kids in. We’d fallen in love with it almost eighteen years before, an 1800s three-story redbrick town house with six sandstone steps leading up from the sidewalk to glossy black double doors with a brass knocker in the shape of a pineapple. We faced the southwest corner of Rittenhouse Square, a manicured oasis built in the 1680s, with flower beds surrounded by wrought iron fences and old-fashioned streetlamps, halfway between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. The famous bronze Duck Girl statue in the reflecting pool looked like she was walking on water, holding a mallard under her left arm. Timmy was born a few months after we moved in. We’d cried together the day we brought him home from the hospital, tucked like a doll in his immaculate new car seat, a yellow duck pattern on his baby blanket, so placid he didn’t even cry when he woke up to nurse.
I wasn’t sure Marty had thought of where the kids and I would go. He was acting as if the critical factor was how inconvenient it would be to move his suits. I was too stunned to respond. Unfazed, he carried on.
“And, ah, have you given any thought to how soon we can start seeing other people?”
I stared at his face through my tears, which were drying up pretty fast. Marty paused as the neighbor fired up his buzz cutter to trim the hedges between our properties. Then he leaned in so close to me, I could see the saliva in the corners of his lips.
“I’ll start working on your severance,” he announced, to my amazement, looking at the blue sky and clapping his hands as if we were executives at a board meeting finally getting down to business.
“My . . . severance?” I whispered. My voice, and all my faculties, threatened to fail in the shock of the moment. “Because, after two decades together, I’m fired? As your wife?”
“That’s not what I said!” He took a step backward and held up both palms. “That’s not what I meant! I meant . . . your . . . you know, your settlement.”
“Fuck you, Marty.”
It was hard to keep my voice low now.
“You and the horse you rode in on. I’ve tried so fucking hard to be a good wife to you. Despite the way you’ve ignored me. Despite that lingerie I found under our bed. There is no goddamn way I’m leaving our house and I don’t give two fucks when you start seeing her openly. Keep the kids out of it, motherfucker.”
The sound of a splash came from the pool, followed by Bella shrieking “Mom, heeeeelp!” as the kids roughhoused, oblivious to the fracture between us. I stood frozen for a long moment. I didn’t feel anything. I stared at Marty, hard, one last time. Did he notice, or care, that I’d finally had enough? I couldn’t hear the birds in the trees or the jets overhead any longer. I willed myself to walk to the pool to make sure the kids were okay.
Our marriage was over. For good.
In fairness, Marty did one nice thing. A week after that marriage-ending fight, when he was back in Philadelphia for work, late one night, my phone lit up with a three-word text from him. I miss us.
It was so damn sweet, two tears popped out of the corners of my eyes. But only two. I put my phone away without replying. One three-word text did not come close to making up for years of neglect and condescension. I was done.
The next day, Marty conceded, via email, that he’d move out of our house once the children went back to school.
Two weeks later, we told the kids we were splitting up. Marty drove out from his office to Southampton for one night, so we could break the news together. With a kid on either side, all holding hands, we clustered around the glass-topped table where we’d spent many summer evenings playing I Doubt It and Tunk and other absurd card games. I felt as if I’d swallowed Drano, but both kids looked at me, tears dripping down their cheeks, with a surprising measure of relief. With that intuitive kid sense, Timmy and Bella may have already realized, probably even before we did, that our problems weren’t fixable.
Back in Philly in September for the first day of school, I took
pictures of the children with their squeaky clean, carefully brushed hair, new backpacks, and first-day-back outfits. For Timmy, back-to-school meant a fresh buzz cut, shorts, and a T-shirt. Bella had spent days Snapchatting different ensembles to her friends. She’d finally settled on short-shorts and a loose white V-neck over a gray camisole. To me, their clothes looked exactly like every single thing they’d worn all summer. But fine. The pictures I snapped were in the top 10 percent of cuteness.
As I watched the kids trudge out the double front doors, I could smell the water the doorman from the apartment building next door had sprayed on the sidewalk with his hose. The water made the sidewalk smell clean and fresh, even though it did little more than wash away the top layer of grit. I slid the brass lock on the doors as Marty came downstairs lugging his Hartmann suitcase. He looked exactly like he had a hundred times before, taking off for yet another business trip. No emotion on his face, no reluctant body language to mark the fact that this wasn’t just any old good-bye, this was the good-bye.
The kids didn’t know Marty was moving out today, that this crisp morning marked our last occasion as an intact family. He planned to break the news once he’d settled into the house he’d rented a few blocks away. I did not object, although it felt like subterfuge, because now it was Marty’s subterfuge, not mine.
I stood in the kitchen next to the butcher-block island, motionless. He headed toward the back door. I remembered him half carrying me, in labor with Bella, out that same door to the hospital. If you’d told me, at that moment, that Marty would be leaving me and our kids behind in a mere dozen years, and that I’d be relieved to see him go, I would have said you had us confused with another less committed, less in love, less hopeful young couple. Divorce was never going to happen to us.
Marty paused to grab the suitcase handle. Without looking at me, in a chillingly nonchalant tone, he said:
“I thought I’d be married to you forever.”
With that, he turned his back and walked through the sunroom filled with early-morning September light. He paused to get a better grip on the taupe suitcase handle. I held my breath. I waited for the words that would capture—and maybe set free—the sadness, the relief, the uncertainty, the love we’d felt together in this place.
In our sun-dappled living room, if he’d asked me to try again, if he’d taken my hand or broken down and told me I was one in a million, he’d do anything to fix what was wrong between us, told me he wanted to be married to me forever, I would have hugged him—if I could figure out the way he liked—and never let go. But I’d begged enough. Words had made no difference.
Instead he offered a weak wave. His left hand looked naked, his fingers oddly bare. I realized he had already removed his wedding ring. His back was still to me. He didn’t turn around.
“See ya,” he said.
He walked out the back door.
I stayed there for a few moments, listening to his luggage wheels squeaking. I crept to the French doors and watched him walk across the flagstone deck and past the cedar hot tub where we’d spent many evenings catching up at the end of long days, past my mermaid sculpture. I’d spotted the mermaid ten years before outside an antique store on Route 27 between Sagaponack and East Hampton. She was made from copper, gone to green with gold highlights. Her head was bowed over her gracefully curled tail. Her naked breasts were spectacular. I’d found the perfect spot for her, on the brick wall by the hot tub, under a red-leafed Japanese maple my mom had planted while she was still strong enough to garden. As I watched, Marty went down the steps and through our garden, surrounded by ten-foot-high, ivy-covered brick walls. I heard the back gate clang shut, and then the chirp of his BMW unlocking. The opposite of love is not hate, my mother once told me. It is indifference. I felt like my heart was out in the alley, packed inside my husband’s suitcase. My future spread
before me like the slate-gray Atlantic Ocean at the end of summer. Were there mermaids or sharks under the surface? I didn’t know. All I was sure of was that I was done with indifference in my life.
Safe to say, the next several months sucked. As you might imagine—though I never did until it was my daily reality—separating my life, and my financial future, from a control-oriented lawyer with an ambiguous relationship to the truth was hell. I actually think, now that I’m on the other side, that all divorces are hell, no matter what anyone tells you. Amicable ex-spouses are urban legends, on par with boa constrictors coming out of bathtub drains. But at the time, I thought our split would be straightforward. Rather laughably, I actually said to my girlfriend KC that I thought Marty would make a great ex-husband, because he was unemotional and rational, and had always forgotten our marital spats quickly. Instead, I was surprised by how excruciating the transition was for the kids and me, and probably for Marty, too, although it was hard to tell since he openly started dating another woman six weeks after moving out. Paradoxically, those months were also boring, like a predictable but occasionally amusing sitcom about a lawyer divorcing his wife, hopefully played by Jennifer Aniston or Reese Witherspoon. If you could measure months in money, the transition was also astronomically costly, because, like wedding planners, divorce lawyers maniacally add zeros to their bills, knowing clients will pay without a peep.
But we survived. Somehow. Barely. And then, to my relief, it was finally summer again.
Now we can go back to that June afternoon in the Philadelphia Airport. It was early summer, that brief window between the breezy last day of school and Philly’s dog days of hellish humidity. I’d put Timmy on a bus to baseball camp at six in the morning, and then Bella and I drove to sleepaway camp in rural Pennsylvania. It was the first time the kids and I would be apart for more than a few nights since the August day Marty and I had broken the news to them that we were getting a divorce.
Bella and I stopped at a McDonald’s off the highway to get French fries and vanilla shakes. When I restarted our Honda Odyssey, I realized I couldn’t get the air-conditioning to work. Another thing for me to fix on my own. So we drove the rest of the way with the windows rolled down and the smell of fresh-cut hay filling the car.
In the cool, pine-scented Pennsylvania woods, I unpacked Bella’s trunk. As she picked her cuticles, anxious and adorable in Daisy Dukes and One Direction T-shirt, I fluffed her pillow and sleeping bag.
“You’re going to have another great two weeks here, honey,” I told her as I smoothed the extra blanket at the foot of her cot. “Thank God this year is over. We both need a break. If I can make the last flight, I’m going straight to the beach. I need to get some writing done.”
I kissed the part dividing her silky brown hair, taking in one last breath of her coconut shampoo, and said good-bye.
Then I drove to the airport. And knocked over that coffee. And tried to flirt. And hoped that a perfect stranger would be waiting for me when we both got off the plane on Long Island.
And found out he wasn’t.
After leaving the Long Island airport in my maroon Kia Soul rental car, zipping east on Montauk Highway in the end-of-day traffic, I called my friend KC. In addition to being a former colleague from the Philadelphia Star, she was my divorce sounding board and impromptu dating coach. As the traffic thinned out, replaced by summer fireflies and giant sunflowers like fence posts lining the highway, I told her everything without taking a breath.
“KC, he was so, so, so cute! Do you think he was flirting with me? Can you believe he works in drilling and blasting?”
KC was a working mom, too, a few years younger than me, a blunt, no-nonsense, brainy South Carolina belle with a drawl more commonly heard offering iced tea in a Broad Street mansion drawing room than plotting circulation strategy in
an urban newsroom. We started out as colleagues a few years before, when my kids were in middle school and I was still a full-time manager at the Star, dreaming of becoming a full-time writer. We collided trying to save a failing division that corporate later unloaded. The day we met, she had on a brown giraffe print wrap dress, her blonde hair skimmed her shoulders, and her glossy peach-pink nails matched her lipstick. I trusted her as soon as we shook hands.
About two years before I left Marty, KC abruptly left her husband, Nick. He was a ruggedly handsome, smart, frustrated, subterraneously angry and deeply troubled Philadelphia detective she’d met the year after she graduated from Clemson with a degree in business. When he started getting physical—kicking their dog, grabbing KC’s arm hard enough to leave purple bruises she showed me in the office supply closet—that was it. Overnight.
“My daddy always said he’d kill any man who laid a finger on me,” she told me one day in her southern accent as we washed our hands in the women’s restroom. “I’d kill Nick myself, but divorce and alimony are better than murder and prison.”
A year after they split, she started dating online, which intimidated the hell out of me. I flatly refused despite her exhortations; I couldn’t handle the frank inspection and rejection she faced every time she logged on. Plus, from my view, online dating seemed limited to the two narrow objectives society gave women: finding someone to screw once, or someone to marry and screw forever. KC was open to both. These days, I didn’t know if I wanted either.
As I flicked on the rental car’s cruise control, KC snickered into the phone.
“So, what’s his name, honey? Where does he work?”
“Um . . . yeah . . . I . . . uh . . . I didn’t get his name. Or the name of his company.”
An exasperated, distinctly un–southern belle snort came over the phone line.
“You are kidding, right? This is Dating 101. Get the goddamn name.” She sounded as southern, and as tough, as Johnny Cash. “Why do you think guys used to ask six times,
‘You’re Leslie, right?’ back when you were at bars in college? You cannot track someone down without a name.”
I passed an old Toyota pickup truck with jacked-up monster wheels. Montauk Highway narrowed to two lanes curving between potato fields. Only another twenty minutes to go.
KC paused to collect herself, like a boss frustrated by a wayward intern, digging deep for the patience to deal with my inept dating skills.
“Hey, look, there cannot be that many men”—she pronounced it mayhhn—“who work in that specialized a field. I bet you could find him.”
KC made it sound like a threat, as if her next step were putting me in the pokey. Like if I tracked him down, she’d let it slide that I’d been too insecure to exchange names with a man I found attractive. She knew exactly how to push my buttons.
“All right, KC. I’ll try. Stay tuned.”
I got to the beach house shortly before nine o’clock. I closed my eyes in bliss, even though I was driving, at the sound of the tires crunching on the gravel drive under the canopy of beech trees overhead. I pulled into the parking cutout, and my heels crushed the wild mint as I carried my bag to the slate steps, filling the night with a sweet tang. I headed to the blue front door, which matched the hydrangeas in bloom so heavy their stems bent toward the ground. I found the spare key hidden on a nail under a loose shingle.
Inside, the place still smelled like spray-on sunblock from last summer. On the screened-in sun porch I used as an office, I unzipped my computer from its case and plugged the cord into the electrical outlet under the scratchy jute carpet. And then I began my online search, per KC’s directive, relishing the quiet, dark house normally overrun by kids in wet bathing suits and sandy feet, clamoring for a bonfire and s’mores.
First, I found the company. KC was right, there was only one excavation company with Long Island and Richmond, Virginia, offices. But how to find one specific employee? I was looking for a needle in a haystack.
Then my brain kicked in: He had to be a senior executive in management, or sales and marketing at the very least, although he didn’t look like a slick sales guy. From the executives section on the company website, I wrote down six names. (There was only one woman, Helaine something—the director of human resources, of course.)
Listening to the sound of crickets outside, I went on Facebook and Google to check pictures against the names I’d found. A few were easy to eliminate. Overweight. Old. Bearded. Finally, I discarded all but one name: Dylan Smyth. It seemed to fit him.
Then I turned to Facebook. I found Dylan Smyth immediately. I was so excited, I clicked “Add Friend” before looking. This guy lived in Detroit. His arms, which were crossed in front of his massive chest, were covered in violent tattoos. He was missing his front right tooth.
As quickly as I could, I canceled the request, hitting the keyboard frantically.
This quest was ridiculous. I was never going to find the real Dylan Smyth.
I took a break to unpack and brush my teeth. As my toothbrush whirred, I could hear a lone deer outside the bathroom window, crunching on the hydrangea blooms. I kept thinking about how to find him. He’s an executive. How do executives track each other down? Not through Facebook. Not through pictures on social media sites.
I spit out my toothpaste and ran back to my office. I clicked onto the blue and white LinkedIn icon and typed “Dylan Smyth.”
A fuzzy picture came up of a man wearing a tie. I recognized those blue eyes. It was the man from the airport. Definitely. The pen wobbly in my hand, I grabbed a torn envelope and scribbled down the mailing address in Virginia and the division’s main switchboard number.
Now that I knew the town where he worked, I ran a tighter search. A picture of his college lacrosse roster came up. A jolt spiked through me as I looked at the screen. Even as a college
senior, Dylan Smyth had been spectacular. An athlete with cobalt-blue eyes and a sweet smile and that one crooked lower tooth. I looked for the year he graduated. It was six years after Bella was born. Which meant he was twenty-nine. Then I collapsed back into my black swivel chair and screamed loudly into the night.
For years, sex with Marty had been . . .
How can I put this?
I’m not trying to be vindictive. I admit that, like most exes, at times I have imagined stabbing my wasband with a carbon steel chef’s knife. But right now, I’m simply being honest. Acknowledging the truth about our sex life still takes me by surprise: it was never that good, and it wasn’t Marty’s fault. He was a sensational kisser. I was wildly attracted to him, and even in his late forties his body was thin and toned, with less than 10 percent body fat, on par with a triathlete twenty years younger. But something was always off between us physically, and I was too much of a hope junkie to realize it could destroy us over time.
The grim reality is that Marty never seemed to enjoy sex with me. This is still hard to wrap my head around. I’ve always had such a sweet tooth for sex, even sex with him, that I truly didn’t notice he wasn’t there with me emotionally. Not our first time, not on our wedding night, not on the balcony during our honeymoon in Amalfi. I still feel a queasy regret that I overlooked something so crucial to both of us, and to our marriage.
Marty and I met in our late twenties, at a conference I’d been sent to by a now-defunct financial magazine. I’d left my abusive first husband a year before, and I was still finding my sea legs. Marty and I were seated next to each other at dinner. We became friends first, two very different people occasionally grabbing a meal or going to a concert together when we happened to be in the same city for work. He lived in Philly, and I was in Chicago. After I’d known him for about a year, a
voice in my head began whispering, You should date someone like Marty, which to me meant someone easygoing, gentle, and stable, the polar opposite of my brilliant, volatile, self-destructive first husband. That man had told me I’d make a great writer one day, and indeed, he gave me unbeatable material for my memoir Crazy Love when he held loaded guns to my head and pulled the keys out of the car ignition as I drove our Volkswagen down the highway at fifty-five miles per hour. It’s tough to discuss husband number one without getting sidetracked. Which is why, eventually, I left the Star and wrote Crazy Love about our relationship, and turned my experience into advocacy for abuse victims.
My past may have been messy, but Marty seemed like the key to the happy, secure future I craved. After a few months, that voice in my head replaced You should date someone like Marty with the more insistent, Why don’t you date Marty? The voice was kind enough not to add, You numb-nut.
At the same time, Marty went on vacation to Anguilla with a woman he was dating. He looked down from his beach chair one afternoon to discover he’d written my name in the sand. As soon as he got home, he called me and confessed that story. After I hung up the phone, I dialed my childhood friend Winnie and announced, “I’m going to marry that man.” Things moved quickly after that, and we exchanged vows in Hawaii sixteen months later.
But even when we initially dated, Marty limited sex to once every seven days. In my experience, most men seemed to interpret “early dating” to mean three-orgasm-a-day sexathons, making it hard to bend over to pull on socks without getting grabbed from behind. But Marty treated making love like medicine he had to take. The first night we slept together, I tried for a second round by climbing on top of him in the middle of the night. He had an erection, so I thought he liked it.
“What are you doing?” he asked groggily, sounding genuinely confused. “Stop. It’s two a.m.”
The next morning in his bed in his Philly apartment, I tried to wake him up with my mouth. What guy refuses that? But
Marty did. At first, I thought he was simply shy. But over time I noticed that Marty never responded to my touch, or indicated that he liked anything I’d done to him sexually. What disturbed me the most was that he didn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, look me in the eye when we made love.
But here’s the thing: Marty was stable and reliable, and tender in countless other ways that mattered far more to me than sex. For my thirtieth birthday, he took me for a carriage ride in Central Park because I’d told him I loved horses as a child. When Marty proposed (in Prague, at midnight, next to the Jan Hus fountain), he wept fat tears as he vowed to take care of me forever. I thought I was being mature by choosing reliability over passion. Maybe I was.
After our wedding, we settled into a routine that included making love often enough to have Timmy and Bella. Periodically, I tried to spice up our sex life, but eventually I gave up. I masturbated during the late mornings when he was at work and the kids were at school. I thought this acceptance was another sign of our maturity, of a happy union, of the sleeping-with-socks comfort of a long, mellow marriage. How important was good sex, anyway? Or any kind of sex? Maybe I could live without it. A married friend told me once, as we walked home from yoga, that when her husband was on top of her, to get through it, she imagined eating a tootsie roll. Very, very slowly. So I figured muted lovemaking, doled out a few times a month, was typical for most marriages, and a small price to pay for a stable family life with a kind, reserved man. Or so I thought for a long, long time.
However, once I backed off, Marty reacted as if thrown off by my no longer pursuing him for intimacy. For the first time in our relationship, he was the one initiating conversations about improving our sex life. Alas, his words were like 7-Eleven coffee, scalding and bitter.
“You need to be more spontaneous,” he told me sternly, looking over his horn-rimmed reading glasses one Saturday night in our bedroom, after we’d made love for the first time in four weeks. “I want more frequent sex. Experiments.”
“What kind of experiments?” I asked him. I’d do anything—read bad Playboy fiction out loud, wear a French maid’s uniform, hang naked from our living room chandelier—if it would help us. “Give me a list of three things you’d like to try.”
Marty looked as if I’d asked a question in Kiswahili, unable to answer me with specifics. I had no clue what he wanted, any more than he did. God, did I try, though. I booked an expensive overnight babysitter and an even more expensive suite at the Four Seasons and fucked him in the middle of the night. I bought new lingerie. I ordered a book from Amazon about what women like in bed, which he kept on his bed stand, the pristine spine forever uncracked. I screwed him in the daylight in our own bed for the first time since the kids had been born. I tried getting into the shower with him, but he told me he was in a hurry to get to a meeting at work and then ducked his soapy bald head back under the faucet.
One night, after another awkward tryst in our bedroom, he stared in frustration at my favorite painting of the ocean, hanging across from our bed. We’d been married for fifteen years. I wasn’t sure I could take another fifteen minutes of feeling so badly about myself sexually.
“I think you may be frigid,” he announced. Marty sounded like a surgeon delivering a diagnosis. For a second, I nodded, thinking of course that his erotic reticence was my fault, looking at those hazel eyes I’d trusted for years. I allowed him to blame me because he seemed so sure of himself. But me, frigid? I started having sex at fifteen. I first tried anal in the 1980s, when putting your tongue in someone’s ear had passed for adventurousness.
“Marty, do you want me to pretend that I like what we’re doing in bed, even if I don’t? That everything between us is perfect?”
He nodded, as if to say Of course, that would work fine. But he hesitated before speaking, as if he couldn’t bring himself to say the words aloud. Instead, he told me something that made me feel just as empty inside.
“We have different needs,” Marty explained. “You’re not meeting mine.”
From then on, he repeated this every single time we had sex.
Stupidly, I kept trying to revive our sex life with myriad, inventive attempts to please him. This got harder as he added rules about what I could and couldn’t do. I couldn’t rub his leg when we sat next to each other on the couch, or put my arm around him in a movie theater, because it “tickled.” He asked me not to leave the bathroom without a robe because my nude body made him “edgy.” He wouldn’t kiss me on the lips or let me know what sexual position was his favorite. He acted like a coach disappointed in my performance on the field after every blow job and orgasm. How could someone who supposedly loved me be so unkind? Eventually, being naked in front of my husband felt as warm and fuzzy as spooning a coat hanger. But I stayed married to him.
I’m one of those people who believe everything in one’s life, including sex, starts with your mother. My mom passed away two years before Marty and I split, from breast cancer caught too late. She was having such a terrific time winning golf tournaments in Florida, she couldn’t bother to see her doctor. By the time she did, the cancer had spread ferociously, to her brain, hipbones, and lungs. She died after being bedridden for only ten weeks in our guest room. But when she was alive, Mom was a brilliant, beautiful goddess.
Unfortunately, it was sometimes in the snake-haired medusa kind of way, especially after five or six rum and cokes.
Mom grew up in New York City in the 1950s, in my wealthy grandparents’ emotionally frigid, folded-linen-napkin Upper East Side world with its vague but strictly enforced WASPy etiquette strictures. Especially confusing to me were the taboo subjects refined women of all ages avoid mentioning, as if they simply don’t exist: money, sex, and any form of failure. Throughout my childhood, I never once heard Mom say, “Gee, I’m sorry I got shitfaced again last night,” or “Gee, I love you,” or “Gee, that’s okay, no one is perfect.” That would have been weakness, God forbid.
It was clear that the subject Mom least enjoyed was female
sexual biology. Not me. Starting when I was eight, during Mom’s weekly set-and-curl hair appointment, I scrutinized women’s magazines while I sat next to her under an unplugged hair dryer as big as a Flyers hockey helmet. Forget about Cosmopolitan’s taped up breasts and raccoon eye makeup. Instead, I combed the dog-eared salon magazines for the names of the products the frighteningly exotic models used. Foraging for fungible items to help puberty along seemed more achievable, and realistic, for a fourth grader than did cleavage and orgasm, whatever those things were.
One day, swinging my bare legs and waiting for Mom to finish beautifying, I saw an ad for Tampax. The swirly seventies-era font read “The Carefree Girl!” followed by a photo montage of a laughing blonde teenager in tight white hip huggers on a rowboat, splashing in a lake in an orange macramé bikini, and hiking athletically in terry-cloth shorts that were shorter than the cotton underpants I wore.
On the drive home in our white Cadillac, which was the approximate size of a houseboat, I mustered the courage to speak. My body felt as tense as a stretched-out bungee cord.
“Mom, what’s a tampoon?”
I pronounced the word, memorably, as if it rhymed with harpoon.
Mom laughed with a clenched jaw and without taking her eyes off the road, fixating on the massive tusk-and-flag chrome hood ornament as if she were an addict eyeing a bag of meth. She said I was pronouncing the word incorrectly. She did not tell me the correct pronunciation.
“Leslie,” she said instead, dismissively, as if she had ice cubes in her mouth.
Her tone implied: Jesus H. Christ, how could such an imbecile have come out of my body?
“Leslie.” She said my name again, to make sure she had my full attention, which, I promise you, she did. “Only prostitutes use such . . . unmentionables.”
Her tone made it clear I’d asked a horrific question, but not only had I no idea what a tampon was, I didn’t know what a
prostitute was, either. I shrank into the Caddie’s velvet upholstery, wanting to disappear. Needless to say, Mom did not explain.
A few weeks later, I heard two boys talking on the playground about something called a blow job. Whatever it was, they made it sound kind of fun. That night, Mom was wearing black calfskin heels and a sleeveless Jackie Kennedy sheath as she peeled carrots over the sink for dinner. I stood next to her, holding out my palm to collect each carefully skinned vegetable and pat it dry with a strip of paper towel.
It seemed like the ideal private moment to ask her about the boys on the playground. I thought they were talking about water balloons, a new kind of hair spray, or a technological advancement in bubble gum. If I’d known the answer involved sex, I never would have asked.
“Mom, ah, have you ever heard of a blow job?”
She whirled toward me. The shiny metal vegetable peeler gleamed in her wet hand like a weapon. A few floppy orange strands flew toward my chin like miniature Frisbees.
Apparently, I’d made Mom extremely angry. God, not again!
“It’s a disgusting sex term, Leslie.” She emphasized key words with her teeth clenched. Her gold wedding band and diamond engagement ring glistened with tap water. “Where a girl drinks from a boy’s penis. Only prostitutes do it.”
I stared back at her, so taken aback I could breathe only through my mouth. I tried to digest (sorry) two unfathomables: (1) Mom was talking about sex; and (2) the concept that anyone—obviously not Mom!—chose to swallow urine directly from a boy’s penis.
I still didn’t know what prostitutes were either, but both times she’d mentioned them it had sounded pretty bad. I decided not to ask Mom any more questions. Instead I looked words up in the dictionary and tried to piece together the mechanics myself. I got as far as understanding that a prostitute was someone who got paid a lot of money to drink pee.
It helped significantly when a new girl from New York City with freckles and a turned-up nose sat next to me in fifth grade.
Winthrop Carter Winslow, a Mayflower descendant like Mom, was also from the Upper East Side. Winnie knew so many dirty words, I figured Manhattan must be the mecca of preteen sex education. This puzzled me, because growing up there hadn’t much helped Mom’s comfort with sex.
Winnie told me that a liquid besides pee could come out of a boy’s penis. For a long time, I didn’t believe her. She was also the first person to suggest that, in my own body, there was something else down there besides one hole for pee and one for poo. The day she told me this, I locked myself in the bathroom I shared with my sister, took off my panties, and bent over the toilet with a hand mirror. It was kinda dark and frightening down there, but sure enough, Winnie From New York City was right. There were three holes!
When I lost my virginity at fifteen with my first high school boyfriend, of course I didn’t tell Mom anything about it, including how appallingly, disappointingly unromantic it was. I didn’t even tell Winnie how much it hurt and how let down I felt afterward. Luckily, my mother’s discomfort with sex didn’t stick to me for good. However, I still have a hard time saying “tampon” without stuttering on the second syllable.
Mom got sick soon after Marty and I celebrated our eighteenth wedding anniversary. All she wanted was to watch golf on TV in the guest room where I’d parked her after her oncologist broke the news that the end was near. Marty set up the Golf Channel in Mom’s room, which meant the world to Mom. And to me, although the taste was bittersweet, because it had been years since he had done anything similarly thoughtful for me.
I came down to wake Mom that June morning while the kids and Marty were still asleep. I’ll never forget how still the room felt. I stood on tiptoe, looking at her under the peach guest-room comforter. Afraid to inhale, I willed her chest to rise. The room held the sacred hush of an empty chapel at ten o’clock on a weekday morning.
I called the hospice nurse from my cell phone outside Mom’s room.
“If you think she’s dead, she’s dead,” the nurse announced.
She was correct.
To my surprise, in the chaotic, grief-filled days that followed, flashes of relief lightened the inevitable shock and sadness. I felt gratitude that Mom had died without pain or drama, sure. But I also experienced waves of unexpected relief for . . . me. I’d be driving or loading the dishwasher, and I’d hear a quiet voice say, It’s okay to leave him now. I hadn’t known I’d stayed married to Marty in part to assuage Mom, to reassure her that I was taken care of by a good provider who loved me. Then, one night a few weeks after her interment in the family plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Marty asked me casually, “So, when are you going to be done with this grief thing?” as if my dead mother were something I needed to wash my hands of.
The last time Marty and I had sex was on a Friday night in July, a month after Mom died, two years before our marriage-ending fight in Southampton. Under the covers, our bodies performed the necessary functions, but emotionally, Barbie and Ken had a deeper connection. Of course, I had no idea it was the last time we’d have sex. Unfortunately, in real life, unlike in the swirling dark of the movie theatre or the pages of romance novels, there’s no narrator telling you This is the last time, sweetheart, enjoy it for all it’s worth.
The day after, I kissed Marty good-bye through the minivan window as the children and I left for almost a month in Southampton, a respite after Mom’s passing. I’d pleaded with Marty to come with us, even for a few days, but he said he had to stay in Philadelphia. His entire firm was prepping for a biotech IPO scheduled for the first week of September.
The kids and I got back to Philly on a stifling August afternoon around five o’clock, two days before school started. Working late again, Marty didn’t meet us. After I’d made the kids some fish sticks and tater tots in my typical supermom fashion, I went upstairs to unpack. Looking under my and
Marty’s bed for one of the cats who always got spooked by the long car ride, I saw a small red pyramid that, at first, looked like a dust bunny. Gingerly, I reached for it. I stood up and looked in my hand: it was an unfamiliar red lace bra and skinny thong. The fabric was twisted, in the way of lingerie taken off in a hurry. At first, I was puzzled. When did I get red lingerie? Then the answer dawned on me: These are not mine. I dropped them like someone else’s used handkerchief, appalled that I had been cradling them in my palm. They landed on the wood floor, crumpled like tissue paper.
But then I picked them up, because I couldn’t resist looking at the sizes. The thong was one-size-fits-all. The bra was 36D, two sizes larger than what I wore.
That night, Marty got home around ten thirty. The kids were in bed. I shut our bedroom door gingerly, the way you do when you put down a sleeping baby and you’d sooner drink chlorine than startle her. Busy taking off his shoes in the chair by his side of the bed, Marty took a few seconds to notice me standing in front of him. His eyes widened when he saw me.
“Yes?” he said, as if I were a secretary who had disturbed the boss with an ignorant question. I could hear cicadas rattling outside the French doors of our bedroom balcony.
My body shook with that trembling feeling you get when you cradle the toilet right before you throw up. Had another woman been in my bed? Had Marty been inside another woman in my bed? The dread interlaced itself with treacly hope that made my mouth taste like Sweet’N Low. Surely Marty had a plausible explanation. He didn’t even like sex, anyway. So why would he have an affair? Maybe he’d failed to mention some houseguests?
“I found these under our bed,” I said, as steadily as I could, standing in front of him, feeling tears pooling in my eyes. “They are . . . not mine.”
Please, please have a good answer. I was desperate for a logical explanation, one that would still the queasy feeling in my stomach.
Marty looked back with the unflustered gaze of a crocodile motionless on a riverbank.
“I bought those for you, honey,” he said, looking straight into my eyes, his irises clear and dark, not a titch rattled or guilt-ridden. He imitated my trembling cadence. “You are . . . so paranoid.”
His mockery was like a chopstick thrust into my jugular notch. I was alarmed by how easily he lied. It sickened me as much as his infidelity. But this was marriage, to the father of my children, to a man I still loved, despite his betrayal. I needed time to figure out how to proceed, how much I could handle, how to protect myself. That night, we brushed our teeth together, standing in front of our his-and-hers sinks, as we had one hundred other nights before. Then we got into our bed as if nothing had changed.
It took me over an hour to fall asleep, my back to Marty, hugging my arms around my chest so I wouldn’t cry. I never slept in our bed again without wondering who had been there, and what she and Marty had done together. I started to question every woman in our lives who had bigger breasts than I did. Was his lover that pretty younger mom I’d seen him talking to at the school auction? An old girlfriend? A legal secretary from his office?
Obviously, it was someone who had wanted me to find her cast-off lingerie. Or maybe both she and Marty had wanted me to find it, laughing about how clueless I was. Otherwise, why would she have left my house without her underthings?
I never asked Marty about the red lingerie again.
Risking his lying to me would be like pulling out that chopstick in my throat; better to leave it. I couldn’t share my suspicions with anyone else, not even KC, or Winnie, who’d heard about nearly every diaper I’d changed. Speaking the words out loud felt too raw. Or worse: if I told anyone, it might make the truth, oddly, more true. If the red lingerie stayed inside my head, I could deny our problems and cherish the moments we were still a family. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas Eve. Sunday mornings making blueberry pancakes. The kids blowing out the candles on their birthday cakes.
However, I couldn’t lie to myself forever. Cheating is not the worst thing you can do to a spouse. I came to the same truth while coping with abuse in my first marriage: emotional
abandonment is as destructive as terror and bruises. Withdrawing and making a person feel invisible, the way Marty did with his contempt for my fears, did far more damage than my suspicions about his infidelity. After the way he reacted to my discovery of the red lingerie, I couldn’t contemplate sex with Marty without crying. Which, I promise, is not an aphrodisiac.
I didn’t know what to do. We’d been married for almost two decades. I still loved him. Did infidelity mean he didn’t love me? What else had he lied to me about? What on earth would we tell the children if we split? How was I going to pay for health insurance if we got divorced? Could we stay married if we never had sex again?
At the end of my weekly yoga class, I’d lie on my back in Savasana. The teacher always emphasized the pose as the most important time of practice, even though we were all just lying there. She said the posture signified rest and renewal, the end of one life and the beginning of another. My life made me feel like I was stuck in poured concrete. As badly as I’d ever craved anything in my life, I wanted someone to hold me and look in my eyes with love again. Most of all, I wanted Marty to. I let the tears roll down my cheeks onto my purple yoga mat because I knew he was never going to.
During the two years we stayed together after the lingerie discovery, there were other red flags in my and Marty’s marriage, of course, problems more subtle than our lack of sexual connection. Behind our shiny front doors, we became adept at compartmentalizing the petty bickering over who made the bed each day, or how long a delay was acceptable before returning a spouse’s phone call. (“Sometime before I die,” was what Marty once told me.) It was harder, for me, to dismiss years of his forgetting Mother’s Day, the business trips he scheduled on my birthday, the time he took the necklace he’d bought me for our anniversary and gave it to his mother because he’d forgotten her birthday.
As if I were swallowing gum, I sucked down my feelings on the nights he walked through our front door three hours late. Or when I took out the trash and found him sitting in his BMW,
in our alley, finishing a call while I’d been waiting at the candlelit dinner table for an hour, wondering where the hell he was. How ironic that during this time I wrote a book, Mommy Wars, about work-family balance. Yet I showed up solo to Timmy’s baseball games, most kiddie birthday parties, and the annual parent-teacher conferences, and I got into bed each night next to a man who refused to come home before nine o’clock and never asked how my and the kids’ days had gone.
No one could see this from the outside. Our marriage appeared so idyllic that the Philadelphia Star featured us, and our redbrick town house, on the cover for a real estate broadsheet on the gentrification of Rittenhouse Square. The inside spread showed off the house’s inlaid floors and fireplaces. When the issue first came out, Marty plastered the reprints across the coffee table in his law firm waiting room. He also hung a framed copy in our entrance hall. I cringed at how matronly the woman in the photo looked. I wore a pink pseudo-Chanel top over a striped black and pink skirt, my makeup carefully applied, my hair styled in a conservative blonde bob. I looked like I was auditioning to be a politician’s wife. We had our arms draped lovingly around each other’s waists, but as the photographer clicked away I kept thinking how unfamiliar it felt to have Marty hold me, how long it had been since I’d smelled his neck.
Whenever I passed the Star cover Marty had hung in our hallway, which happened about twenty times a day, the worst part was looking at that woman’s face staring back at me: a plastic pink-lipstick grin forming a half-circle under mascaraed eyes. I appeared vaguely confused, like an Alzheimer’s patient thinking, How did I get here again? I felt baffled by the woman I saw. Whom was she trying to convince that this was the perfect life?
Then came the day the radiologist’s office called. I was washing the breakfast dishes after taking the kids to school.
“Ma’am, there’s a spot on your annual mammogram we need to check out,” the scheduler said in a practiced, kind voice she probably learned in cancer training school.
Instead of bursting into sobs as I held a wet sponge in one hand and the phone in the other, instead of feeling scared and horrified at the possibility that I had breast cancer like my dead mother and would die an ugly death leaving two motherless young children, I hung up and dialed Winnie, my voice giddy with . . . joy.
“Hey, Win, the radiologist says I have a mark on my left breast. If I have a double mastectomy, I’ll have a really good excuse to never have sex with Marty again, right? I’ll never have to have sex with anyone ever again!”
My voice cracked like I’d had too many glasses of champagne. There was a long moment of silence as Winnie took this in.
“Les,” she finally said. “Listen to yourself. You’d rather die than have sex with your own husband?”
She made a good point. What had happened to me that I could be glib about cancer?
The lab eventually confirmed the black spot on the film was a false positive. Of course, I was relieved. However, Winnie’s complete silence on the phone following my crazy no-sex-ever-again confession, her shock at what marriage had taken from me, made me cringe more than the mammogram contraption squeezing my flesh. Like a bell I couldn’t unring, it echoed inside me as months of fruitless couples therapy went by, and I realized I was never going to have sex with Marty again, because one day, when I mustered enough courage, I was going to ask him for a divorce.
“Found him!” I crowed triumphantly over the phone to KC the next morning, taking a sip of Citarella’s French roast from my Little Miss Sunshine mug. I was out on the slate deck with the Southampton rays warming my skin. KC was already at work. After leaving the Star, she’d become the CEO of an international save-the-world nonprofit with a long acronym like SFFRRAWNGO. I could never quite remember what it stood for.
“Congratulations, you cougar.” She pronounced it couga.
“His name is Dylan,” I crowed. “How old do you think he is?”
“Any American male named Dylan was born in the late eighties. He’s probably not even thirty. You got his number and address, I assume? A young explosives expert is exactly what you need. What are you going to do? Call him?”
Even with her southern accent, the girl could talk fast.
“No way,” I said. “I’m going to send him a card and tell him if he comes out to Long Island again, I’d love to take him for a boat ride. You know, to show him how nice the area is, since he only comes here for work. Totally innocent.”
Which is exactly what I did.
Later that day, I dropped the stamped note, handwritten on a watercolor reprint of an idyllic beach scene, in the Southampton Village mailbox next to the library on Sea Road.
Three days later, I was at the drugstore dropping off an allergy prescription for Bella, whom Marty was putting on a plane to fly up to the Hamptons the next day. Timmy would join us in a few weeks once baseball camp ended. In the bright red aisles, Manhattan teenagers who looked like swimsuit models in ninety-dollar Tory Burch flip-flops were buying sunscreen.
My phone rang. I froze when I saw an unfamiliar area code. Could it be . . . Dylan Smyth? I contemplated the screen, as dazed as a red-eyed stoner, as the call went to voice mail.
I abandoned my cart and hurried out to the car in a far corner of the parking lot. I sat there with the windows rolled up so no one but me could hear as I listened to the message on the rental car speakerphone.
“Hi Leslie, this is Dylan . . . Dylan Smyth.”
My heart did a somersault.
“Uh . . . hey . . . yeah. Of course I remember you.”
His voice, at first, sounded laid-back and sexy. Then he cleared his throat.
“I got your letter today. I really liked meeting you. I would like to take you up on that offer. The boat ride, I mean.”
He slowly counted out the ten digits of his cell phone number. Then he said, and spelled, his email address. Twice. Each.
I listened to his message six times. My favorite part came a few seconds before he hung up, when he added one final note: “Please call me. Soon.” I loved the urgency of “soon” and the way his drawl cracked like that of an anxious teenaged boy. Which he practically was.
Although I was elated to hear from Dylan Smyth, I forced myself to wait twenty-four hours before returning his call. I didn’t want to come off as overeager. Plus I needed a full day and night to calm myself down.
The next day at sunset, after collecting Bella from the Islip airport and getting her settled at home, I drove to the Coopers Beach parking lot. The beach was deserted. Alone in my car watching the waves break, I picked up the phone. My hands shaking, I tapped the numbers Dylan left on my voice mail. It took me three tries to get the sequence right.
He answered after two rings. I had no idea what to say. I forced the words out.
“Dylan, uh, hi, this is . . . Leslie?”
I sounded like an ICU patient whose breathing tube had recently been removed.
“You know, Leslie Morgan. From the airport?”
I felt as if I had swallowed a tennis racket.
“Ahhh . . .” I heard on the line. It sounded like he was smiling over the phone. My chest unzipped. It seemed so unfamiliar, so nice, that a man who was not a relative, a waiter, or the plumber wanted to talk to me.
“Leslie, um, thanks for calling me back.”
He sounded as anxious as I felt.
“I was hoping I’d hear back from you. It was funny when I got your note. At first I thought it was an early birthday card . . . my birthday is coming up. Then I realized it was you.”
There was silence. I attempted to take a normal breath. The intensity of male energy, after a twenty-year absence, felt as revitalizing as inhaling smelling salts.
Then he said, “Wait a sec—I need to pull my truck over. I’m on my way to see my daughter.”
He spoke easily, like he’d already told me he had a child, as if we had a casual intimacy with the particulars of each other’s lives. I pictured Dylan, sitting in his truck, pulled over on the side of a Virginia country road, windows down, his tanned forearm hanging out the driver’s door.
“Nice,” I said, even though he seemed young to have kids. “How old is she?”
“Five. She’s . . .” He sighed. “Amazing.”
I was about to ask how long he’d been divorced when he cut me off.
“I want to be honest here, Leslie. My wife and I are separated. She’s still in our house with my daughter, and I rent a condo near my office. I don’t think we’re gonna make it over time, but I care for her. I love our daughter. I still have dinner with them every night.”
Dylan paused as a truck rumbled by. Dating a married man was not something I’d ever considered doing. Separated, however, was okay, especially because he was being up-front about his marital situation, and I wasn’t technically divorced yet myself. I sat motionless in my car, stunned by how transparent he was being. And he wasn’t done.
“The thing is, Leslie, I didn’t date much in college. I’m from a small town. I was shy and playing lacrosse all the time. She was my first girlfriend. It felt right at the time, but now . . . We’ve been separated for about six months. I got married too young. I’m figuring out what to do. How’s that for a lot of honesty from someone whose coffee you knocked over in an airport?”
I’d been pressing my cell phone so hard against my head, my ear felt like a slice of Velveeta smashed between my skull and the phone.
“Hmm . . . actually, I’m into honesty, Dylan.” I tried out saying his name. I liked the way it sounded. “I haven’t had much of it in my life lately.”
Taking a deep breath to relax, I decided to be as blunt and bold as he’d been. Leap and the net will appear was one of my favorite new sayings. I leapt.
“So, have you ever been with anyone else, besides your wife, since you got married?”
“Fair question, I guess.” Dylan didn’t sound uneasy anymore, either. “The answer is yes. Last year. Someone at work. Which was stupid.”
He laughed painfully, like he had rocks in his throat.
“When I ended it, she called my home. My wife said if I ever did it again, she’d leave. We live in a small town, like I said. My mom and dad own a house up the block from us. My job, my kid . . . my wife would take everything. So, we’re doing this separation thing so that both of us have time to figure out what we want.”
“Oh, that’s pretty extreme.”
“You have no idea, Leslie. My wife saw this therapist on Oprah who says I have to give her my phone and computer passwords and she can check all my emails and texts twenty-four seven. You know, because I betrayed her, and this is how we rebuild our trust.”
“Wow. I’m not sure that’s the way to rebuild trust, Dylan.”
“Tell me about it. And trust—I can be trustworthy. But that’s our second-biggest problem, not the first. The real problem is I cannot live the rest of my life in a monogamous relationship. I’m too young for that.”
Another truck roared by in the background.
“Anyway, I want to let you know something else about me. It’s about you, actually. You realize I’m younger, right?”
By twenty years, Dylan. I didn’t say that part. I hoped he didn’t know how much older I actually was.
“I’ve always wondered about older women. A woman like you. I’m twenty-nine. Is that a problem for you?”
Was he kidding?
“No, it’s actually a plus, Dylan. A big plus.”
“God, you’re beautiful, Leslie.”
I couldn’t remember the last time Marty had told me I looked pretty. Possibly never. It felt as priceless as finding a red diamond to hear a man—a younger man, beautiful himself, someone who’d met me only once—tell me that.
“You look like you’re from Manhattan,” he added.
I stopped myself from bursting out laughing. Dylan Smyth surely didn’t know it, but that’s the one compliment every woman from Philadelphia secretly dreams about hearing.
“My rule is that no one gets hurt here,” he continued. Clearly, he’d thought about this, and had already decided that he wanted to sleep with me. “Not you. Not me. Most especially, not my daughter. But I want to see you. I come to Long Island for monthlies, the second Friday of the month. Can we meet then?”
That was in two weeks. It was obvious what we were going to do when he got here. I took a deep breath and exhaled two decades’ worth of sexual frustration.
“Dylan, I can’t imagine anything I’d enjoy more,” I said.
If my grandmother could have seen my face as I hung up my phone, she would have said I was the cat with a canary in its mouth now.
Was I thirteen again?
For the next two weeks, every weekday afternoon around five thirty, Dylan Smyth called me from his Silverado on the drive home to have dinner with his daughter. It was like high school, when a boy calling me was the apex of my week. One night, I actually wrote I ? DS on an old Citarella receipt while talking to him.
Even though we hadn’t met up yet, I felt like this was Gone with the Wind, with me playing Belle Watling, the wise madam who intuits that men need someone to listen to them, even more than they need sexual variety. I was learning a lot from
Dylan about unhappily semimarried twenty-nine-year-old men. Plus he had a very arresting phone voice.
“You are helping me so much, Leslie,” he told me one evening, his pickup truck stopped by the side of the road so we could finish our conversation before he pulled in the driveway. “It’s like that Zach Brown song, ‘God didn’t make me a one-woman man.’ And Zach Brown is married with something like five kids and he sings all the time about how much he loves his wife. Can’t I love my wife and want another woman, too?”
If my own husband had asked me this, I would have wanted to cut his vocal cords. Maybe I was being naive, but as far as I could tell, Dylan had no desire to hurt his wife. He’d gotten married a few months after college and become a father right away. He wasn’t even thirty years old. He’d had sex with three people. I’d be going crazy myself. Maybe anyone would be. And although perhaps it was unethical for him to pursue me, given that he might stay married, I saw that as his choice and his conscience to wrestle with, not mine.
I didn’t know how much I was helping him, but I was pretty sure he could help me when he came to Long Island, which was in four days, six hours, and twenty-seven minutes. First, though, I was going to have to buy at least one new bra. Mine were all worn-out beige with sturdy straps, married-mom armor bras, not a seductive stitch of black or lace anywhere. However, except for an excuse to buy new lingerie, I didn’t want anything material from Dylan Smyth. I did not want his money. I certainly didn’t want to make babies with him. I didn’t want to ride in his pickup truck. Or go out with him on Valentine’s Day. Or wake up in the morning next to him.
I didn’t want any of that from Dylan or any man.
I’d married two husbands full of confidence, hopeful and in love, and both marriages had eventually made me feel as if my hands were nailed to a Formica table. As KC often says, Marriage is a sucky institution for women. The last thing I wanted was to be someone’s wife again. But I also was looking for far more than a one-night stand. What I needed is hard to admit
because it sounds egotistical, but it’s the truth and it goes a lot deeper than mere ego: I wanted men to desire me. I wanted to feel good about myself, attractive and valued, after the heartbreak of my early abusive marriage followed by almost two decades of Marty’s sexual negativity and betrayals.
How could that be too much to ask?
A Victoria’s Secret dressing room is not the ideal place to rebuild one’s sexual self-esteem. Especially at forty-nine. A few days earlier during plank pose, a yoga teacher had poked my abs and told me to suck in the small, flesh-covered pouch of marbles near my belly button. “That doesn’t suck in,” I whispered back, humiliated. But surprisingly, in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room, my potbelly, framed by sixty dollars’ worth of black lace push-up bra and matching lace thong, looked passable. Possibly even cute.
On the drive home, it occurred to me, with a jolt, that Dylan might expect oral sex. A wave of anxiety made my gut flip. It had been three years since I’d given a blow job. Had I forgotten how? Did I ever really know how? Fortunately, you can Google anything. I couldn’t wait to get back to the beach house and my computer.
Once home, surrounded by pink Victoria’s Secret bags, I typed “How to Give a Blow Job” and waited for guidance from the universe. Awash in paranoia, I actually looked around to see if anyone was monitoring me. Of course, no one was. But I felt like Mom was slut-shaming me from heaven.
I scrolled down a page of links to porn sites. A blog by a former dominatrix caught my attention. I double-clicked. The first thing she wrote was, “Ladies, your grandmother was wrong. The way to a man’s heart is not through his stomach. It’s through his dick.”
She said the key to a good blow job is a good hand job. I’d never thought of it that way. This didn’t improve my situation, though. Personally, I always found giving a hand job even harder than giving a blow job. But the sheer practicality of her advice reassured me. I felt like writing notes in pen on the back of my hand.
The subsequent, far more valuable, bullet point was, “If he likes what you’re doing, don’t stop.”
Absolutely. I could remember that one.
Her final tip was the best one. “Every man will tell you that enthusiasm for his dick, his most prized possession, is the critical success factor for an outstanding oral sex experience.”
After three years off the job, enthusiasm was not going to be my problem. My shoulders unclenched. Maybe this would be okay.
My phone buzzed with a text from Dylan that afternoon as I was writing in my sunny porch office. I looked down at the screen. It was the name and address of the hotel he’d booked. I looked the place up online. It was one of those boutique suburban chains, a Sheraton dressed up to imitate an expensive New York apartment, thirty minutes from my beach house and thirty minutes from his Long Island office.
I clicked through the website photos of conference rooms, vast inviting terraces, an indoor pool, and various suites. I tried to picture the two of us alone together in bed in the rooms. I had never met someone in a hotel to have sex. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like. Sleazy? Anonymous? Smoking hot?
Was I really going to do this?
The next morning, I woke up early, too fired up to sleep. I took Bella to the beach, then spent all day getting ready, because I had zero ability to concentrate long enough to write a sentence or do anything mundane like pay bills or fold laundry. I showered and shaved my legs and underarms. Walking through the living room, I caught sight of myself in the mirror over the fireplace and started hyperventilating, imagining what it would be like to see this man again. I gave myself a pedicure and painted my toenails fuchsia. I soaked my skin in body cream that smelled like bergamot oranges. I practiced deep breathing.
Was this finally happening?
I checked my phone in between ablutions.
This is crazy! read a text from Dylan. Then he sent a smiley emoji. I can’t wait.
At five o’clock, I dropped Bella at her friend Alice’s for a carefully orchestrated sleepover. Alone at home, I changed into my new lingerie and pulled on my favorite sleeveless black sundress and sandals. Right before I left home, and twice in the car, I touched up my eyeliner and lipstick.
I hoped I looked good enough, but honestly, I had no idea what he was expecting me to look like.
I was so jittery, I drove five miles under the speed limit, clutching the steering wheel like a grandma. A dump truck honked at me, and I flinched like it was a gunshot. At the postmodern hotel portico, I parked a few spaces from the entrance. Practically tiptoeing, I made my way into the air-conditioned lobby, sat on a Creamsicle-orange love seat, and began hyperventilating again. My fingers quivering, I texted Dylan.
I’m here but I can’t breathe.
He sent me another smiley emoji.
Be right down.
Watching the elevator doors, I tried to steady my heart rate. It wasn’t easy.
Then, the elevator pinged, announcing its arrival in the lobby. The two doors opened and there he was. Dylan walked toward me like Brad Pitt in a slow-motion movie scene. He was shorter than I remembered from the Philly airport. His eyes were bluer.
“Hi,” he said awkwardly as he stopped in front of me. He put his hands in his khaki pockets and then took them back out. I laughed, unable to move, frozen to the fuzzy orange couch like a panicky four-year-old waiting for shots at the doctor’s office.
He took my hands and pulled me up for a hug. His body felt strong and warm against mine, his brawny back slippery with muscles under his soft cotton shirt.
“It’s nice to see you again, Leslie,” he said, holding me at
arm’s length, smiling like he was trying not to break into a huge grin. We were both obviously so happy to see each other, like teenagers on a first date, that my anxiety dissipated, replaced with a surge of adrenaline that made me feel as if I’d heard my favorite song on the radio.
We drove in his rental car to the closest restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory. I wanted to sit next to him in our teal Naugahyde booth, so our legs could touch and my forearm could brush his accidentally, but that felt geeky, so I sat across from him with my hands clasped together on the table to keep them still. To any outsider, it might have looked as if we were simply acquaintances. Not two people twenty years apart in age who met randomly at an airport and were going to shamelessly rip each other’s clothes off in a hotel room in less than an hour.
I couldn’t follow our conversation thread. Maybe there wasn’t one. My effort went into breathing normally and proffering small talk about his work and my writing. We ordered, dishes arrived, and we ate. I didn’t taste a bite.
Then the pace screeched to super slow motion. We drove back to the hotel. We got into the elevator. He pushed the button for the ninth floor. The air in the elevator felt suctioned up by our silence. We walked down the hallway to his room.
Inside the twilit hotel suite, the door banged shut, and we turned to each other a few feet inside the room. I dropped my purse on the floor. He cupped my face in his hands. Then, for the first time in years, I was being kissed, slowly, softly. And kissed. And kissed. His mouth was delicious.
Without stopping, we moved to the couch by a window. His hand inched up the soft inside of my left inner thigh.
I folded my hands over his to stop him.
“Dylan, wait a minute. I need to go slowly. Because . . .” I paused, my cheeks flushed like a child with fever. “I haven’t had sex in over three years.”
I was afraid of how he’d take this news. I needn’t have worried. His cobalt eyes lit up like he was getting an expensive present.
Incredulous, he asked, “You’re a MILF virgin?” Whatever a
MILF was. He took my hands and held them, looking honored. Then his face lit up. “A virgin with about a hundred times more experience than me.”
He took me in his arms and started kissing me again. After a few minutes, he reached under my dress and paused with his fingers under my lace thong.
“Can I take this off?” he asked. I nodded wordlessly. I didn’t trust my voice.
I unbuttoned his shirt and slipped my hands inside. His tanned chest was hard and smooth, the kind of skin I remembered from making out with eighteen-year-olds in high school. I would have been happy to kiss him and bury my head in his neck and slide my fingers over his muscular pecs for the entire night.
Dylan Smyth had other ideas. He pulled me up to stand about halfway between the king bed and the couch. In one fluid movement, he reached for the hem of my black sundress. Before I could stop him, he’d lifted the dress straight up over my head.
I froze. I was standing in front of him wearing only my black heels and the black lace Victoria’s Secret bra.
The lighting in the room came from two flattering yellow wall sconces. But embarrassment made the hairs stand up all over my body. Had he ever seen a woman my age nude? I had given birth to two eight-pound, full-fucking-term babies. My belly showed the telltale signs. I’d nursed both babies as well, and at times my breasts looked, from my view at least, like wet paper towels.
It felt as if a strobe light were scanning my body, accompanied by a police megaphone booming, Step away from the old wrinkled lady now! I looked down at my saggy breasts in my bra and the cellulite on my belly. I wanted to scream in horror and cover myself in shame.
He took a step back. “Oh. My. God,” he said.
What was he thinking? Was he going to leave, even though it was his hotel room?
“Oh my God, Leslie,” he said again. “You . . . you have a spectacular body.”
Me? The same person Marty told, again and again, you don’t meet my needs sexually? The one whose husband insisted she wear a robe so he didn’t have to see her naked? I did not have a spectacular body. How could he see it that way?
I felt like Dylan might be joking. Were we even looking at the same physical entity? I started to tremble involuntarily. How could I possibly trust this stranger, even if he was the best-looking man I’d ever kissed?
“Leslie, you have to know this.”
He paused and looked right at my face. He grabbed my hipbones and squeezed them, and then moved his hands behind me to cup my ass with his palms. He drew me to him, and then buried his face between my breasts. I could feel him getting hard against me. He took a deep breath and then let out a full-body sigh. He looked up, his eyes blue and sincere.
“You have nothing to be embarrassed about.”
He’d read my mind.
“Your body isn’t perfect,” he said, cupping my very imperfect breasts. “Although maybe it was when you were eighteen.” He smiled, and ran his hands slowly down my rib cage and over my hips, as if he wanted to absorb my skin with his palms. “Your life . . . makes you even more beautiful. Every inch of you.”
Dylan slowly slipped his hands under his waistband to show me the line of dark hair disappearing under his boxers. He unzipped his pants and slowly pulled the boxers toward the floor. And let’s just say, I got over my embarrassment.
Later, I lay naked in Dylan’s arms on the titanic hotel bed, which spread like an ocean around us. At some point he had turned off the lights. The hotel room was now filled with bluish gloaming twilight. My body sank into the soft mattress as if I’d spent an hour in a eucalyptus-scented sauna. I felt delirious with sex, sore in all the right places, smelling salty like Dylan’s saliva and sweat and more. Although here’s a secret: the sex itself was
awkward and fumbling, and I didn’t even get close to coming. I was so anxious I couldn’t get wet. Dylan didn’t know how to get me wet. We were as tense as you’d expect two strangers in a hotel room would be. None of that mattered. I was overjoyed to be having sex again, even mediocre sex. And apparently, Dylan didn’t know the difference.
His responsiveness and enthusiasm made up for his inexperience. At one point, prior to the actual, much-anticipated consummation, as we were kissing and I was in general marveling at how tanned and smooth his torso was, I noticed a whitish scar on his right shoulder. Without thinking, I leaned down and kissed it. I flushed for a second. Was that the kind of thing I’d do to my kids if they had a boo-boo? To my relief, Dylan lay still as if he enjoyed it, closing his eyes to absorb the sensation more fully. So I let my lips travel down to his right nipple. I kept them there and sucked gently, all wet and warm the way I liked it, using the tip of my tongue for emphasis. This made Dylan shudder and moan. Which was unexpected and very nice. What came next was even nicer.
“Ahh,” he said. “No one has ever done that to me before.”
And I thought: really? Wow. He was actually more the virgin than I was.
We lay there, nude under the cool sheets in the shadows, his muscular arms wrapped around me, for what felt like hours. I wanted the night to last forever. I pressed my butt and the backs of my thighs against his smooth abs, soft penis, and scratchy pubic hair like I was trying to use my skin to memorize the contours and unfamiliar sensations. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be in a man’s arms, and the indescribable feeling of having a cock inside me again.
“You haven’t missed a beat, babe,” Dylan said in a husky voice from behind me, hugging me tighter, burying his face in the hair at the nape of my neck. “I’ve never been with a woman who enjoyed sex as much as you just did. Have you always been like this?”
The answer was so complicated, I didn’t even give it a try. I had no desire to darken the moment with tales of Marty’s twisted attempts to shame me sexually. Instead, I rolled over and pressed my naked body against his naked body and kissed him.
Dylan kissed me back. Then he whispered, laughing a little, “You’re pretty pleased with yourself, aren’t you?”
I closed my eyes and buried my face in his neck. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Because I was.
At about ten the next morning, Alice’s mom dropped off Bella. I sat on the living room couch, in a daze, drinking black coffee. My lips felt like ripe raspberries, bruised and swollen. I was still wearing my new bra and thong under my pajamas. Every few minutes, I caught a delectable whiff of Dylan. He was like perfume on my hands and skin. Every inhale was like taking the last toke of a joint before entering rehab. I was not planning to shower until I saw Dylan again. I hoped that would be soon. However, it had felt too awkward to bring it up at midnight when we’d said good-bye at his hotel room door, so I’d said nothing.
Seeing Bella, I remembered that mothers usually greeted their daughters after sleepovers.
“Did you have a nice time, honey?” I forced out the correct words. Bella didn’t notice how stiff they sounded.
“Yeah, Mom. It was great.” Her words echoed like they were reverberating through that voice distortion machine the kids’ favorite radio station used to disguise a caller’s identity. “How was your night, Mother?”
Bella was looking at herself in the mirror, twisting a strand of hair, not paying attention to me. Which was good, because I could feel myself blush pink and freeze.
I managed to squeak out, “Um . . . I went to bed early!”
All through that day, I felt as if the barista had slipped an extra espresso shot into my latte. The sky was a shade bluer; I could make out individual blades of grass on the neighbor’s front lawn.
After lunch, Bella and I drove to Coopers Beach. I pulled the car headfirst into a space overlooking the sand so, as the kids and I joked, the car could have an ocean view, too. I got
out to sniff the salty air. Bella grabbed her beach bag, adjusted her Ray-Ban aviators, and went off to find Alice.
It was a sunny, breezy weekday in June, and Coopers Beach was packed. The adults on the beach were almost all moms, with a few grandparents, babysitters, and nannies sprinkled about. Kids of all ages were spread out on towels and splashing in the surf. At first, the most noticeable men were the skinny teenaged employees trolling the parking lot for cars without the coveted “Southampton Village Resident” decal assiduously displayed on the rear window.
And then I noticed . . .
Now, the Town of Southampton usually staffs three to four lifeguards at each twenty-foot-tall white lifeguard chair. This means that I probably saw over a thousand Southampton lifeguards wearing their signature red swim trunks over the course of twenty years of marriage. The waves here are rough. There are frequent riptides. Lifeguards are a necessity. Part of the scenery, so to speak.
Apparently, in my married state, I had failed to notice that lifeguards are tanned young men who work without their shirts on. I did now. Despite Dylan, I was not yet looking for men. I was looking at men. I was not ready to fall in love again. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready for any kind of lasting intimacy with a man. But I was definitely ready to fantasize about it.
Instead of heading home to write, I decided to stay at the beach. I stumbled to an open square of sand and spread out my towel. I felt the tiniest bit drunk. Hanging out at Coopers as a spanking new divorcée who’d had sex again for the first time in three years felt like watching a soft-core porn movie. I had the bizarre sensation of seeing the world in color for the first time.
There was one dark-haired, tanned lifeguard who kept turning my head. I casually moved my towel a few feet (okay, several yards) closer. I couldn’t tell if he was eighteen or thirty-eight, but he was dazzling. Tousled dark hair, a deep tan, ripped calf muscles. Bisecting his washboard abs was a narrow,
vertical strip of dark hair leading into his red bathing suit. I hoped my sunglasses hid how much I was staring.
The lifeguards were not the only men on the beach with their shirts off. There were dozens of them! I did not stop smiling for four hours. Although I’d spent decades of my younger life as a feminist railing against male objectification of women, and two wrongs definitely don’t make a right, objectifying those lifeguards felt as refreshing and innocent as a glass of lemonade. There is no way to prove this, but I think a few of those shirtless men were looking back at me in my pink and black bikini. I wanted them to objectify me; I hoped they were objectifying me.
Then, as I walked back to the car in a daze, a twentysomething jogger with washboard abs (did every man under thirty have them today?) ran toward me. Our eyes met briefly. He whispered “Hi” as he passed, leaving a trace of twentysomething sweat wafting after him.
Where had all these men been for the past two decades? And me. Where the hell had I been?
But even more entertaining than spying on lifeguards and joggers was imagining seeing Dylan again. With his shirt off. He had worked a form of magic on me. It was like being given a bite of a sandwich, and realizing I’d been starving. Ravenous to be held, to be loved, to let a man inside me. To my surprise, the first reward of a starvation diet is that when you’re famished, everything tastes amazing.
Dylan didn’t call me for several days. This struck me as strange, since we’d been talking nearly every day for weeks, and I felt closer to him now that we’d had sex. But since I was out of touch with modern hooking-up protocol, I didn’t reach out to him. Then he sent me a text that read Leslie, I’m dying to see you again, can you meet me in Baltimore? We set a date via text, I booked my flight, and he sent me the address of an Inner Harbor hotel. I picked out a white eyelet minidress and bought a new set of white lace Victoria’s Secret lingerie.
I was even more excited to see him again, because I wasn’t as frazzled or disbelieving as the first time. My body hummed with the sensation of being on the verge of having sex, craving every kiss and touch. I kept finding myself at my desk, or washing dishes, daydreaming about what we were going to do this time around. I had dozens of questions to ask him, things I wanted to talk to him about, and a list in my head of small sex acts, like kissing his nipples, that I guessed he’d never experienced before, that I would introduce him to. I could not believe how lucky I’d gotten, to meet, and then track down, this exquisite, smart, open younger man who wanted my body, but didn’t seem to want anything more.
Then, twenty-four hours before my flight, he sent me a text:
I need to talk to you today. I’m sorry. This will probably be the last time.
What? Why? I had been counting the minutes until I could see him again. My brain couldn’t grasp that the first time with Dylan might turn out to be the last time. But my heart, rocking behind my ribs, got the news loud and clear.
This time, I didn’t force myself to wait to call him. I drove all the way to East Hampton, to Georgica, my favorite beach, to cushion whatever news he had for me. I parked in the public lot squeezed between two hotel-sized beach houses. Then, once again, I dialed Dylan Smyth’s number from a sweltering car overlooking the ocean.
“Dylan, hey, it’s me. Can you talk?”
“Yes. Thank God you called.”
I heard him get up to shut his office door.
“Leslie, I’m dying inside. This weekend I took my daughter camping. I kept looking at her playing in the creek, and I couldn’t stop thinking about you, and it all felt wrong because I’m still technically married and my wife would destroy me if she found out. I felt so damn guilty about seeing you, wanting you, and worrying about my wife, it was hell.”
He sighed and then inhaled deeply.
“If I didn’t like you, it’d be easier. If it weren’t for my situation, I’d come see you every week at the beach. But . . . my daughter is so little. And I like you. It’d be easier if I didn’t. You’re not the one doing anything wrong, but I kind of am. I don’t think it’s going to work with my wife, but I have to stop seeing you now, or I’ll be in trouble because she’ll catch me one way or the other. I’ll call you again if I figure this out. But now—I can’t do this right now.”
I sat in my car, windows rolled up, as my heart crumpled in on itself. The summer humidity made the sweat pool in the crook of my collarbone. Despite the heat, I felt cold with dismay. In one measly night, Dylan had made me feel sensual and feminine again, like the blissed-out model with her eyes half-closed in perfume ads. I wanted more more more of Dylan Smyth, not none.
“Hold on, Dylan, give me a minute to take this in.”
Maybe I should have seen it coming. Perhaps he was simply jettisoning me now that he’d gotten a tryst with an older woman on his conquest belt. Many people believe that’s all men want from women, anyway, and maybe they’re right. What I thought likelier: Dylan Smyth couldn’t trust that I wanted only sex (and respect) from him. He probably worried that over time, I’d want things he couldn’t give, wheedling blow jobs and pussy for money and security. And, if spurned, I’d retaliate by blowing his cover and calling his wife, like stereotypically angry, vindictive women allegedly always do.
I wasn’t the kind of woman who would ever want to hurt Dylan or reveal what we’d done to his wife; I’d been on the other side, and I didn’t want to make the situation any messier than it already was. But also, the idea of Dylan divorcing his wife for me made me dry heave. I wanted to be held, and yes, to be fucked, by a sexy, younger, unthreatening, uncomplicated man. But anything vaguely resembling a commitment jolted me like hitting a pothole on the highway.
Damn it. How many older men, fresh off divorce, sought shallow sexual relationships with pretty, pliable, twentysomething women with impunity, with approbation, with a nod of understanding from our culture? Why couldn’t I do the same?
Was our culture really that hypocritical, that sexist, that traditional? Once in my life, I wanted to act like a man and get away with it without society’s criticism or ostracism.
I pushed the button on the driver’s-side door to roll down my windows to catch a gust of ocean air. I felt like a kid watching her ice cream cone fall onto the sidewalk after one lick. No more Dylan. No more cute crooked front tooth. No more stolen late-afternoon phone calls from his truck on the side of the road. No more sex. It was too much to lose all at once.
“Dylan, okay, you have to do what you feel is right. But tell me one good thing. Something I can remember when I’m missing you. A memento of how you woke me up after so many years of being asleep, of being dead to men. I don’t ever want to forget how you made me feel.”
There was silence on the other end of the line, and I could hear the waves crashing. He sighed like an hourly employee about to head to an assembly line shift at a job he despised. Then Dylan made a husky sound under his breath, the same rueful noise he made when I first knocked over his coffee in the airport a month before.
“Oh, Leslie, there are so many things about you that any man would go crazy for. I love your body—your shoulders, your stomach, your blue eyes, your blonde hair. You have the softest skin. Your lips . . .” He blew out a big puff of air, as if gathering strength to cram ten bullet points into one paragraph.
Then he laughed, a chip of joy mixed with the regret in his voice as he began again.
“You have the most spectacular ass. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you it’s too big—it’s perfect. I loved being your first after so long. I can’t believe what it’s like to be with a woman who lets me know what she likes. I’ll never forget you.
“But I guess the best thing I can say is that . . . Oh, Leslie, it’s that you remind me of my wife. In all the best ways.”
I was so appalled by this, I couldn’t respond. Dylan meant it as a bittersweet compliment, the biggest one he could think to give me. But to me, being compared to his wife was almost
an insult, the most confusing accolade any man could have offered me at that moment. After a long silence, I said, “Okay, Dylan. Take good care of yourself.” I hung up the phone and threw it on the passenger seat. I drove home, alone, his words echoing in my head.
In a raw twist of timing, forty-eight hours later, I returned to Philadelphia for my and Marty’s final divorce hearing, to officially become an un-wife.
The date had been set for months (getting legally divorced in Pennsylvania takes forever). According to my lawyer, it was not the kind of appointment you reschedule. So instead of coming back to Philly blissed out by a Baltimore sex-fest with Dylan, I flew home alone and cried in the Odyssey in the airport parking lot before heading to family court. I wasn’t sure if I was crying over Marty or Dylan or both and it didn’t matter; I felt filled with endings, sad about the past, while also excited about the future, a tumultuous emotional combination.
This was the official, legal end of my and Marty’s union. I’d walk into the courthouse married, and walk out a divorcée. I had the sensation of being weightless at the prospect of getting our divorce finalized, because for years I had thought I was handcuffed to Marty and his condescension. I also felt dirty, ashamed of our marital failure. I dreaded dissolving my marriage in front of a judge, a stranger who’d never met us, who didn’t care what our children’s names were, and whom we’d never see again.
Everything about the day felt peculiar. It was like the black-and-white beginning of The Wizard of Oz right before the twister comes. The barometric pressure drops, the farmhands look at Dorothy quizzically, and she knows something’s off with Toto and the horses and the wind, but she’s not sure what, exactly, is about to happen, or whether it’s going to be pleasant, painful, or both.
My lawyer texted me directions to a seldom-used underground court entrance to avoid the long lines filled with people called for jury duty.
An impressively large security guard by the metal detector remarked to us, “Y’all here to get married?”
“To each other?” I quizzed him.
“Yep. You both look so happy. Like you’re gonna live happily ever after.”
My lawyer and I locked eyes and burst out laughing. On the day I was getting divorced, how could anyone mistake me for a bride? My wedding date and divorce date were like that old joke about boats, that the two best days are the day you buy your boat, and the day you sell it. The guard had it backward. I was happy to be getting unmarried, not married.
We took the elevator down a floor, emerging into a narrow, semidark hallway outside a half dozen subterranean courtrooms. My lawyer left to locate Marty’s lawyer. Marty himself, wearing a gray suit, pressed white shirt, and blue tie as if he were heading to a job interview, stood in silhouette at the end of the hallway, checking his phone. I felt nauseated at the idea of exchanging pleasantries with him.
My attorney believed that given Marty’s fury and the months of petty motions his lawyer had already filed, even after today’s proceedings it could take months to settle custody, divide our assets, and resolve several complicated issues related to Marty’s partnership. Marty didn’t want me anymore, but he also didn’t want to let go of any of our married life without a fight. I couldn’t figure out why a man who hadn’t been in love with me for years would still want to punish me for not wanting to be with him any longer. It felt like another layer of betrayal, as excruciating as his laughter when I found the red lingerie. Instead of approaching our divorce with Hey, we had a good run, thanks for bearing and raising two awesome kids with me, have a nice life, Marty’s stance seemed to be You fucking bitch, you deserve nothing from me and if I get my way, the kids will hate you and you’ll be eating cat food at seventy-five.
My mom had been through a messy divorce, too. Her and Dad’s relationship had begun like a 1950s fairy tale, at the Brattle Theater candy counter in Cambridge at a time when
American men wore felt hats and skinny black ties and women wore cashmere sweater sets. Mom fell for him, a poor Oklahoma boy from an uneducated Baptist family, and broke off her engagement to her brother’s boarding school roommate. Mom’s salary as a special education teacher paid for Dad to go to Harvard Law School, which led to his long corporate career and judgeship. I’d grown up watching her whitewash Dad’s lack of sophistication by throwing bridge parties for the law firm associates, presenting stunningly at social events as a snappy sexpot in her 1970s halter dresses, and beating the partners at golf and tennis outings, all while raising us unaided while Dad spent twelve-hour days at the office. And we kids had not been easy to civilize.
Then, after thirty-two years together, pretty much as soon as she’d raised us and gone back to being a teacher full-time, their relationship collapsed. My father decided he wanted to start over with a younger woman. I didn’t have a choice when it came to loving Mom. Dad apparently did.
Mom was fifty-five. I was twenty-two. In my mother’s WASP world, gentlemen did not leave their wives. She was the first woman in her family to stare down divorce. I heard her crying behind her bedroom door, stunned and shamed by Dad’s abandonment.
Even worse was something I didn’t know at the time: Dad tried, mightily, to mangle my mother financially, despite her years of support. Dad had a pension and investments. Mom earned less than a tenth of his judicial salary teaching autistic children. Despite her parents’ wealth, she hadn’t inherited enough to live on. I suspect Dad thought he’d get away with landslide penury because he was a judge. Mom fought back. She confronted his fiancée at social events, bringing the woman to tears. She called his former law firm partners at their offices. During billable hours! It got ugly.
I myself, having recently graduated from Harvard, was working at Seventeen magazine in New York and was fiscally responsible for the first time in my life. “Responsible” is a relative term, since I earned only seventeen thousand dollars a year, but still. In my sophomoric flush of independence and
feminism, I thought Mom cowardly to ask for alimony, to fight to keep the house she’d raised us in, to beg my father for financial support. Oddly, I thought she’d have been a better heroine by going it alone. Like, I don’t know, Ophelia or Juliet, who, I should note, both killed themselves.
I didn’t realize at the time how important economic independence was, or that she was fighting for respect, not simply a monthly check. At the time, I believed Dad’s version. But eventually, a family court judge awarded Mom a generous settlement. When I was older, I came to despise my father’s choices, and respect Mom for gritting it out in order to take care of herself. It took guts, pragmatism, and self-respect. It was not until I had to face Marty in divorce proceedings that I realized how strong, and alone, my mother had been.
Twenty-five years after my parents split up, as I eyed my soon-to-be ex-husband, I wished I’d had Mom back, to teach me how to muster some of that same grit. I didn’t think my dead mother would understand about Dylan or the lifeguards. I have no evidence she ever experienced an orgasm herself or even enjoyed sex. I’m sure Mom would have cheered me on, regardless. The details were different, but like she had been, I was fighting for my future.
As I stood waiting to go into family court, a woman came out of the bathroom, a gray ghost in the dark hallway. Something about her struck me as familiar. She was tiny, barely five feet in high heels. To my surprise, she walked toward me.
“Leslie, is that you?”
I still couldn’t see her face clearly, but I knew her voice. It was Rebecca, the kids’ former favorite babysitter. Rebecca had recently graduated from Yale and started working at a child protection agency in downtown Philly, which explained why she was in family court. I never imagined seeing her, or anyone I knew, here, much less that she’d be the only other person in court. She probably didn’t know we were getting divorced. How could I explain so many years of disappointment in thirty seconds?
Her smile sank when she saw my face. And then, as if she completely understood, she wrapped her arms around me
wordlessly and held me tight, the same way she held the kids when they were afraid of the dark.
“We’re getting divorced,” I whispered in her ear. “Please don’t say hi to Marty. He’s been such a dick.”
She held me at arm’s length, grinning. “Marty who? I don’t even think I’d recognize him. Go get ’em. You got this.”
She gave me a pat on my tush and click-clacked away, not even looking at Marty, who had crept up behind us and was standing near a long wooden bench, looking at his cell phone again. I’m sure he didn’t even know who Rebecca was, even though she’d been in our house a dozen times and slept in our bed when we were out of town together.
After I signed approximately 327 legal documents, I was officially single again. A divorcée. The judge barely acknowledged us. Our paperwork, critical and painful to me, seemed to scarcely register on his daily radar. Marty stuck out his hand to shake mine after we signed the last document, as if we were business associates who’d closed a routine financial transaction. As repulsed as if his hand were a rattlesnake, I shook my head no, unable to speak, and rode the elevator up to the exit alone.
My lawyer had instructed me to dress blandly, so I had on a black blouse, an old flowered skirt, and black heels. Despite my shoes, and the fact that I felt like I’d been run over by a Mack truck, I needed the long walk home in the afternoon sun to put space between the sadness of signing my divorce papers and the house that held my favorite family memories. The summer breeze cooled me off, and although I was still sad, the grief was like watered-down iced tea, weak from ice cubes melting. The melancholy faded away.
A man, about forty, passed me on his bike, heading downtown. He wore a short-sleeved, gray Penn dental school T-shirt and faded jeans. He had strong forearms and windblown brown hair. Something in his face prompted me to smile at him.
A minute later, he circled back. He stopped and leaned his ten-speed bike over on one foot. He had on black Puma sneakers, the kind that cool soccer players wore back in high school.
“I have to tell you,” he said, looking at me with basset hound eyes. “I’m not trying to pick you up. But you look so pretty bopping along in your skirt and heels. I had to stop and tell you,” he repeated. “You look . . . happy inside. Have a wonderful day.”
I stood there holding my purse—as dumbfounded as Dorothy when Glenda tells her to click her heels three times—as he got on his bike and pedaled away.
“I have someone lovely to set you up with,” a woman’s voice chirped out of my voice mail two days after I officially became a divorcée.
My stomach twisted. This had happened a few times before, as word had trickled out to acquaintances that Marty and I had separated. I knew what was coming. I called her back anyway.
She lived in a large stone house in the Philly suburbs, a stay-at-home mom who had been in my class in college. She’d worked in the mayor’s office for three years in her early twenties, then married, quit work, had four kids, and climbed aboard the school-charity-kids carousel with a simplistic gusto I envied but could never match. Her toenails were always painted the coral shade my grandmother favored. The last time I saw her was in Chico’s before Marty and I separated. I was trying to use a gift card my mother-in-law had given me, but there was not a single hot outfit in the entire color-coordinated nursing home. My neighbor had filled two dressing rooms with clothes. “My favorite store!” she’d exclaimed.
Today she picked up after two rings. After perfunctory pleasantries, she started telling me about a man named Dave.
“He is so sweet. I knew him from the mayor’s office. So sad they split up, but you know how it goes. Of course you do!”
I made a murmur of assent into the mouthpiece.
“He’s about your age. Dean of the law school at Widener. He asked if I knew any nice women. You were the first one I thought of!”
She sounded like she was handing me a five-carat diamond. Like she expected me to put out my hand and say,
“Thank you so much for this priceless gift,” because of course I must want to get remarried again as soon as possible to avoid the ostracism, loneliness, and financial and social uncertainty of being a single woman, struggling and stigmatized.
I wanted to groan at the barely masked pity. As a gleefully married woman on the other side of the invisible divorce divide, she could not possibly know that the last thing I wanted was another husband.
“Hey, that is so nice of you!” I told her. “I’m not really dating now, but I’ll let you know if I am.”
After I hung up, I went to the kitchen computer to Google this Mr. Perfect to be sure I was right in my assumptions. He looked like a clone of Marty. Bald—which, granted, I like. But he was not sexy bald. On the law school website, he looked embarrassed about having no hair. His pinched mouth and frowning forehead telegraphed arrogance and superiority, probably fine qualities for a legal giant. But to me, he resembled the kid on my block growing up who liked to rip wings off flies. Plus he was at least ten, maybe fifteen, years older than I was.
How was any divorced woman in the fiftyish range supposed to feel when this was the attitude of the sisterhood—that after years of sacrificing our careers and independence for our families, a downgrade in husbands was the best we could hope for? I felt the same way when women told me not to fight Marty over money in the divorce. “It’s not worth it,” almost everyone said, as if imparting great wisdom. But we are worth it, I wanted to protest. Statistics prove that women who don’t fight for their share of marital assets and alimony almost always experience a significant, demoralizing drop in standard of living, which often force us to look for another man to marry for economic stability. Without a fair financial settlement after divorce, it was nearly impossible to recoup decades of lost earnings and career immobility, even for a woman like me who’d kept working part-time in exchange for flexibility so I could be my kids’ primary caregivers. I had no regrets about putting my children first and only a few about supporting Marty’s career
moves, weekly travel, and late nights out with clients. But now, what good would it do to have gone silently, to be the smiling, submissive ex-wife, to let Marty take the lion’s share of our assets, future income, financial freedom and security? Instead, I hired a lawyer and fought hard so that I could take care of myself, and my kids, for the rest of my life.
Precisely so I could find someone who treated me better than Marty. And in the meantime, I wasn’t going on a single damn date with a man like the guy on the computer screen. I bet five million dollars no one told Marty standing up for himself wasn’t “worth it.” Or tried to set him up with a woman fifteen years older.
Now, every time a well-meaning but clueless married friend attempted to send me on a blind date, it was as if she assumed there were two options for a fiftyish divorcée: a serious downshift in lifestyle and economic security, or remarriage to another man as similar as possible to the ex-husband I had jettisoned. It was as if, because I was divorced and past my prime by society’s carbon dating, another serious heterosexual relationship was my best (or only) option, and that I was searching the globe to find another Marty, only somehow older and even less attractive. I’ve already had that, I felt like saying. I never, ever want that again Don’t you think I’m worth more than that?
It was sufficiently debilitating that my own husband made me feel worthless for years. But now, to have female friends reiterate my lack of value felt like heavy artillery shelling my self-esteem. How could other women be so unimaginative and uninspiring, to think I still wanted what I’d already rejected, a life of being treated like a maid by someone I’d given my heart and body to for twenty years? Don’t all women have the right to feel beautiful and treasured, at every age?
Maybe they’d accepted a reality I couldn’t stomach. After her divorce, a good friend from Minnesota with an MBA from Harvard Business School considered paying thousands to a high-end matchmaker who worked with men who all made more than $250,000 a year. Trish had long, blonde hair and green eyes, and was a successful management consultant at an international firm. I wanted to date her myself.
“You’re wonderful,” Trish told me the group’s founder announced after her ninety-minute interview. “Exactly the type of woman I’d want as my best friend. But I need to reject you.”
She’d be hard to place, the woman explained.
“Because you’re smart, with an impressive education. Because you’re independent and striking. Because you barefoot water-ski at fifty.”
Trish was stunned. So was I when she told me what the matchmaker said next.
“All my male clients will want to go out on a date with you,” the matchmaker explained. “They’ll love you for about three months, the novelty, your mind, your fire. Then, they’ll come back to me and ask for someone more ‘traditional.’ These types of men say they want a partner. In reality, they don’t. They want someone to make their world prettier, to ride in the backseat of their life.”
Ugh. Were there any men out there who appreciated women as equal partners? Was I insane to think men could play a positive role in my life over the long run? All I knew, for certain, is that rather than sell out again to a man like that, I’d sleep in my California King bed by myself forever. Alone.
Beams of sunshine spliced through the interior of the empty Starbucks where KC and I sat on polished dark wood stools. KC looked every inch the corporate woman in strappy white sandal heels and a tight white sleeveless BCBG power suit that I could not have fit one leg into even back in third grade. We were sipping iced coffees while I waited for the minivan’s AC to be fixed, finally. I brought her up to speed on the details of Dylan’s abrupt departure, the divorce finalization, and the latest inane blind date offering. Then I plunged into what I’d really been considering. It was so audacious, I wasn’t sure that even KC would understand.
“I can’t go on blind dates with losers and I can’t ever let one man let me down like Dylan did,” I told her. “I am not—”
I paused, keeping my voice low, as if I were plotting a drug deal.
“Not that sad, submissive, sexually cauterized wife. I’m a woman who loves men. The way they smell. The way they talk. The way they fuck.”
KC raised her eyebrows in surprise, and then nodded in agreement, her mouth full of lemon square. She knew I was just gathering steam. Forget about keeping my voice low; we were generals charting life and Starbucks was our war room. “Marty only loved me when I met his needs. Marriage was a gilded jail cell. I need to focus on me for a change.”
“Hold on,” KC said when she was done swallowing. She riffled through her purse for a pad of yellow legal paper and a pen. “I’m going to write this all down.”
“Number one. I can’t look for another husband, or even a serious relationship right now,” I told her. “I’m too fragile. Too pissed off about how Marty treated me. Too hurt and vulnerable and warped inside. But I need men in my life. I can’t figure out what I want from men in some kind of sterile vacuum of self-help books and yoga.”
KC tilted her head at me, scribbling with a black Sharpie.
“Here’s what I want: one year, a bunch of men, no commitments. All guys like Dylan. Sweet, cute, smart, transparent, nice. Just fucked-up enough to be interesting, but not too much. Crazy about me. No affair-seeking sleazebags. Any race, religion, profession, location. Aged . . . hmmmm . . . thirty-five to sixty-five. No assholes. Men who make me feel amazing about myself. I’ll have enough men in my life that I won’t get too attached to one. Then, after a year, I’ll figure out what I want long-term.”
Pondering this, she looked out the Starbucks plate-glass window at a Philly city bus letting off passengers at the corner. She put down the yellow legal pad on the table between our coffees.
“So girl, you’re sayin’ the amusement park is open for business.”
I tried not to spit out my coffee, causing a small cold squirt to shoot up my nose. KC’s salty verbal bluntness, delivered in her buttery southern accent, always created a shocking juxtaposition. She handed me a napkin with the green Starbucks mermaid on it. When I recovered, I elaborated.
“I want two boyfriends in Philly,” I explained. “And three in other places. So . . . five. Five seems like the right number. Then I can lose one or two and still have a majority left.”
“All at the same time, right? No monogamy or exclusivity?”
“None of those rules. I want to explore men like I’m Queen Isabella conquering the Americas.”
Channeling her inner Wall Street numbers cruncher, KC probed the weaknesses of my plan. She lectured me about condom usage. We decided to tell my kids that I was dating a bit, not looking for anyone to marry, and to keep it at that.
“We need a title for this project, honey. Hmmm . . . How about the Five Boyfriend Plan?”
“But, they’re not gonna be boyfriends, KC.”
“Well, we have to call them something. Fuck buddies, boyfriends, baby daddies . . .” She was smirking behind her coffee cup.
“Those are all terrible. I don’t know what to call them.”
“Wait,” she interrupted. “One more thing. Do you tell the five about the others?”
“Oh, God, KC, I don’t know.”
Those were the only issues that stumped us both. We decided neither mattered.
Then I told her Dylan’s parting compliment, about how I reminded him of his wife, which I hadn’t been able to bear confessing before. She laughed so hysterically, I thought she might fall off her bar stool.
“Stop, KC.” I felt like bending back her pinkies the way my brother did when I was eight. “Why did he have to ruin it all by saying I was like her? That’s the last thing I want any man to think about me.”
“Oh, come on, girl. Forget it. He made your year. Fixed up everything Marty tried to destroy.”
She took a draw of her cold brew.
“Marty tore you apart, tried to annihilate every bit of self-confidence you had about yourself as a mom and a woman
and a wife. He didn’t hit you, but what he did—the way he neglected you emotionally, neutered you sexually—no decent man does that to a woman. You need repair, honey. Hot sex with a twenty-nine-year-old was precisely the medicine the doctor ordered. Even if he was using you, even if you never see him again. And trust me, there’s a Ram truck full of men like him watching you every day. Waiting. You’re such a MILF.”
“Dylan told me in the hotel room that I was one of those MILKs. I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant. What is it?”
“It’s a thing, Leslie. Men—boys, really—who like older women, especially moms. You’ve had your married-blinders on for too long. Those young’uns have probably always checked you out. Isn’t it fun?”
“Um . . . I guess. Yeah, sure. But what does MILK stand for?”
KC tittered. Two stools away, a girl in her twenties with a silver cross stud in her nose looked at us suspiciously.
“MILF. Not MILK. With an F. For Vitamin F. Mom-I’d-Like-to . . .”
“Wait. Are you serious?”
“That’s what they call it. Google it. There’s even MILF pornography.”
She raised her carefully threaded Charleston eyebrows.
“And . . . you’ve done it, too?”
“Yes, ma’am. Probably half of the guys I met on Match were babies. Every one of them was hot, ambitious, and superconfident. That’s the only type bold enough to go after an older woman.”
“Why? What do they see in us?” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Don’t they want to be with other twenty-nine-year-olds?”
“Far as I can tell, an older mom—an attractive, confident older babe—is erotic and captivating. A dare to them, maybe? Plus, no pressure. We don’t want to marry them or have babies or vet how much money they make. Do you remember being twenty-nine? We were bounty hunters, trolling for a mate who’d give us a diamond ring and a house with a picket fence and a bunch of babies. Women like that are too intense for men who aren’t ready to settle down.”
Miss Nose Stud gave a splutter of disgust.
“Also.” KC paused. “One of my young guys told me that older women are much better in bed. Experienced, confident, eager in ways that younger women aren’t.” She gave our audience of one a wink. All of a sudden I imagined Whole Foods, Starbucks, the airport, the sidewalk as hunting grounds for a wrinkled wannabe sex goddess.
“But KC—was twenty-nine too young? How young can I go?”
“Twenty-one. Keep it legal so the sheriff doesn’t come after you with his shotgun. Don’t ask questions. After what you’ve been through, you deserve it.”
She was right. I did.
Hey Leslie. Thanks SO much for all the Facebook love, much appreciated.
The afternoon following my coffee with KC, an email popped up from one of my high school boyfriends, Jake Bryant.
In high school, we all dressed the same, the boys in polo shirts, we girls in gauzy white sundresses and Guess jeans. (It was the eighties.) We all went to the same three bars and drank the same liquor, always St. Pauli Girl or Cold Duck or anything we could decant from our parents’ liquor cabinets without getting caught. All the girls dated the same boys. I’d break up with one boyfriend, and he’d ask out my chem lab partner the next day. Winnie and I lost our virginity to the same older guy, Lyon Nash, a few months apart. Without killing him or each other, although a few times we came close.
All our boyfriends grew up to be the kind of men I think women are lucky to marry. Nice guys, still wearing Polo shirts, more contentedly mated than I had been. At least that’s how it looked on Facebook and in person every few years when I saw them at high school reunions or at a random classmate’s Fourth of July barbecue.
Except Jake Bryant. Jake never went out with Winnie or my
other friends. He never got married. He never had kids. And I had never slept with him.
Jake was a year younger than I was. When we’d dated my senior year of high school, I’d been reluctant to be his first lover, for reasons I can’t fathom now. He was a tall, rangy basketball player who wore his black hair short and spiky, known around school for awing our English teachers with his creative writing. Plus he was the only junior brave enough to sneak into Philly’s punk rock music clubs. What struck me most vividly about Jake from the beginning were his eyes, gray-blue in striking contrast to his black hair, and with a naked shine to them like a newborn’s drinking in the first moments of life.
Basically, all Jake and I had done back then, physically, was kiss. Okay, plus a little of what my middle school health teacher liked to call “heavy petting.” We’d gone off on many other adventures, including a crazy last-minute ski trip on a school snow day. I spent a weekend teaching him how to drive my stick shift Chevy Chevette, and shortly afterward witnessed his first car accident, on his sixteenth birthday, his maiden voyage driving his parents’ station wagon. Mostly, we talked, shared our dreams to be writers, and listened to his edgy mix tapes in my Chevette, holding hands with our eyes shut. After Princeton, he became a writer, too, which led to documentary film production, which gave us an excuse to keep in touch on a semiregular basis. His black hair now had streaks of silver, but he still wore it short, looking like Joe Strummer, the front man for the Clash, that great mix of tough and sweet that I’d always found irresistible.
Apparently, other women shared my taste. Jake lived in New York and dated mostly models and actresses. A few years back he’d been on six or seven dates with Katie Couric, one of New York’s most notorious cougars. Rumors had it that a celebrity rag had run a picture of the two of them that read “Joe Strummer still alive and dating Katie!”
These days, Jake lived in Greenwich Village and had a writer’s cabin in the Connecticut woods. I’d met his latest girlfriend
a few times. Like most former models I knew, she was paradoxically haughty and insecure. At a reunion two years ago, she stood under the basketball hoop in our high school gym, looking elegant but unapproachable with her arms crossed over her chest, giving us looks like we were all waiting to stick our tongues down Jake’s pants as soon as she went to the bathroom.
“What the hell is he doing with her?” Winnie asked after they left.
Jake’s latest film had recently come out, a droll exploration about the ways men face (and avoid) growing older. It was nominated for a Sundance Film Festival award. Jake and I had Facebooked a few times recently about the movie.
So when I got an email from him that June afternoon, I wasn’t surprised. At first. Jake’s email read:
Your re-post of the award nomination seems to have worked. For a brief, shining moment, I was #4 on Amazon’s Best Documentary! I credit you, naturally. I’m speaking at the Philadelphia Film Academy this fall, followed by a screening party near Rittenhouse Square. Invite attached. Anyway, would love to see you at either or both events. Or if not, I’ll be around that whole week so maybe we could have lunch or a drink. One way or another, you’re going to be forced to watch the movie . . .
Hope all’s well,
Well, well, well. This was a little friendlier than normal. Three separate invitations in one email, two months in advance? Did Jake still have that same girlfriend? Every time I’d seen him since graduation, he’d been with a woman guarding him like a German shepherd, and so I had no inkling whether Jake still had feelings for me. Probably not, especially since thirty years had passed since the last time we made out. But you did hear
about old flames connecting via Facebook all the time. Maybe Jake had heard through the high school grapevine that Marty had moved out. Perhaps he’d finally had enough of his girlfriend’s jealousy. Maybe, pushing fifty, Jake Bryant and I would get another chance to try all the crazy things we’d missed out on in high school.
Naked this time, of course.
“I’m your therapist for life,” Sara had said, almost two decades before, the last time I’d seen her in person before she moved to California. “Call whenever you need me.”
Sara was the therapist I found in the wake of my physically abusive first marriage. I saw her twice a week for six months of intensive sessions that felt more like cheerleading than analysis. Go Leslie! You can overcome this! You’re a rock star! She didn’t literally make up chants for me, but our sessions felt that upbeat and confidence inspiring. She’d forbidden me from too much introspection, instead spouting wisdom that still echoes in my head today: Your ex-husband is the one who needs psychoanalysis for trying to destroy you; all you did was fall in love with a troubled man. She was like my fairy godmother, sprinkling advice that served as mental magic spells. Promise yourself you’ll never accept abuse again Instead of a broken boy you think you can fix, look for a man who shows you kindness, respect, and love. For the first several years with Marty, I thought I’d found one.
I decided to start working with Sara again long-distance. I had few regrets about divorcing Marty, but before embarking on something as audacious as acquiring five lovers at forty-nine, I needed a professional opinion from a woman I respected. What did I require from a man to be happy over time? Did I even need one to be happy? All I knew for certain was that I never wanted to get trapped in an unfulfilling relationship again.
At the start of each session, Sara searched for a single adjective to describe that day’s precise shade of blue coloring the Pacific Ocean outside the living room window of the high-rise
condo she shared with her husband of thirty years. She did this to remind both of us of how blissful life could be. She also always popped open a Diet Coke can to kick things off.
“Cerulean blue today.” Click, went the Diet Coke tab. She took a sip. “Ahh, that’s good.”
She’d laughed out loud in our first session when I told her about my five-boyfriend plan. Today she had feedback.
“So, I’ve been pondering your idea. I see two areas for improvement.”
Sara never said I had problems; they were always opportunities.
“One, you’ve never had any difficulty connecting with men.” She paused. “You need to focus on picking better ones, men who can meet your needs in the long run. That’s the mistake I see so far in your love life.”
“I’m with you, Sara. Tell me more.”
“You grew up in an alcoholic home. Fundamentally, this means that the people who loved you, who were supposed to take care of you, didn’t protect you. It is why you’re so independent, and yet paradoxically susceptible to abuse and manipulation by those closest to you. In close relationships, we all look for what feels like ‘family’ to us. In your case, that’s problematic. Even though it’s great progress that Marty wasn’t physically abusive, he was emotionally abusive. In some ways, equally as destructively as your parents and your first husband.”
She paused in that wise therapist way, to let her words sink in.
“But Sara, how do I love any man again, and not let him hurt me? I feel so vulnerable right now, given what I went through with Marty and in life in general. I cannot survive another abusive relationship. I’d be better off alone, for the rest of my life.”
“Perfect segue to my second point. You wouldn’t be better off alone. There’s great value in trying, and failing, and trying again. Most people think the biggest emotional risk in relationships is loving someone. It’s not. Especially for you. You’re great at loving with abandon, opening your heart and soul to your mother, your kids, your friends, and both husbands.
For you, the biggest risk is letting yourself be loved by a man. That’s your next giant step. You need to allow a good man, or five good ones, to love you back.”
I hesitated to say anything. She was right. I tried to absorb it all. Sara understood me like no one else. She’d uncovered the rationale behind my crazy dating plan.
“Sara, what if all I want now is to fuck a lot of hot younger men who adore me? Is there anything twisted about wanting that?”
“Leslie,” she replied with a hint of admonishment. “You are a grown-up. You don’t need my or anyone else’s permission. It’s your body, so you make the rules. Trust your instincts. They may lead you into unexpected situations and relationships, but they’ll never let you down.”
I let out a full-body sigh of relief. “Okay. That’s what I thought. Just checking.”
“There’s a Spanish proverb that goes like this.” Sara paused. “?‘God says, take what you want. Then pay for it.’ There’s gonna be some pain, Leslie. In love, there always is. But still, take what you want. If that’s five ‘boyfriends’ or however many”—she paused to let out a chuckle—“go for it. Know that you are strong enough to take risks and pay the price, because that’s how a good life is lived.”
Could I handle naked hotel yoga? I’d flown to Ohio for a speaking engagement, and now I was alone in a beige hotel room in Cleveland. I had a free hour before getting dressed for a luncheon keynote in the elegant ballroom downstairs, raising money for Ohio’s oldest domestic violence shelter by telling my Crazy Love story.
I needed to unwind before baring my soul to eight hundred strangers. I plugged my phone into the hotel TV and flicked on a yoga travel podcast. Which was exactly when, rustling through my suitcase, I realized I had no yoga clothes to change into; I’d forgotten to pack them.
Standing nude and alone in front of the burled wood hotel mirror in the middle of Ohio, I suddenly felt a wash of tension, an inner voice so loud it sounded like a loudspeaker had been
miked into my brain, telling me to put on a robe to cover myself up. Why? A twenty-year-old memory spliced through me. It was from my early days with Marty. One night as we crawled into bed in his apartment, he’d left a love note under my pillow that proposed a new tradition.
Every year, let’s have a Naked Week. Seven days. No clothes. Madly in love with you.
The next morning, as Marty brushed his teeth, I lay naked on his black-and-white zebra pattern carpet, holding the soles of my feet like a bug on its back, stretched into Happy Laughing Baby, studying my toenails. I felt like a happy laughing baby myself, in love with Marty and how free I felt with him.
I heard Marty open the bathroom door. For a second I thought, Close your legs. Happy Laughing Baby Pose invites exposure, even when you’re fully clothed. But I thought his note meant Marty actually liked my nakedness. He loves you and your body, he wants a whole week of you naked, a whole lifetime of you nude, don’t zip up the cleft. So I didn’t.
I felt a ripple of air as Marty walked by, wrapped in a navy blue towel. He stopped moving. He looked at me, and my vagina, on his rug. He uttered one word, five letters that I can still hear today.
I curled up into a ball instinctively. I was too shocked to respond.
If Marty had laughed, I would have joined in; we would have been laughing together. Some yoga poses do make the human body look inherently awkward. Maybe the vagina is funny-looking, too, at least to some people. Before that moment, I had never thought of my most special body part as anything but fascinating. A bizarre, incredible trick of nature, the maker of orgasms and babies. Miraculous and beautiful in its own way, like the pearled inside of a conch shell.
I never did naked yoga in front of Marty again. I packed the memory of those five letters in a mental suitcase, ignoring his dismissive crudeness, trying to balance his rejection of my body against how thoughtful he seemed to be in other
ways, how steady and stable and uncomplicated he appeared on the surface. After we married, I gradually began covering up my body whenever I was around him. Instead of our getting closer, invisible walls grew between us. We never practiced Naked Week. Starting that day, bit by bit, the part of me that loved my body and all the fabulous things it could do—make a baby, feed a baby, master Wheel Pose in yoga, have a mind-blowing orgasm—shut down. Marty hadn’t prized any of that female magic. Sure, he valued me as a woman who produced babies, a wife with Ivy League credentials and social skills who assisted his career, a woman who took care of the home and the kids and used the correct salad fork at his firm holiday party. Marriage to Marty had shut down the parts of me that made me me. You become what you don’t leave, my mom told me once. That’s exactly what happened.
So the question now, twenty years later, was: how did I find my body and myself again?
At first, I was afraid to look in the mirror, which took up most of the wall. It felt like twenty years since I’d seen myself completely nude. I told myself, as kindly as I could, Reality is your friend. So while stretched in an inverted V shape for Downward-Facing Dog, I snuck a peek.
Wait a minute! I was nearsighted. I had to see myself as others saw me, or it’d be cheating, fooling myself. I found my glasses on the TV console and slipped them on.
Oof. Stretch marks. Cellulite on my legs. Flapping skin on my upper arms. And belly. Ugh. My nipples, which had pointed skyward before I nursed my kids for a year apiece, now pointed down as if reaching for my toes.
Wait. See yourself through Dylan’s eyes. Maybe if I tried, I could see myself the way he had in that other hotel room, during our never-to-be-repeated night together.
I looked again and saw pretty parts in the mirror. Golden shoulders. The clavicle, and the ribs around my breasts protecting my heart, were strong and attractively bony, at least to me. Upside down, the spiky blonde hair on my head looked surprisingly good.
Don’t zoom in on the flaws, I advised myself, the way I would Bella when she compared herself to her skinniest friends. I remembered a study I’d reported on years before, data that showed a trick American men play on themselves when they look in the mirror. Unlike women, men see a stronger, more muscular body than they actually have. They smile and suck in their beer bellies, as if they’re still twenty-four. American women do the opposite, magnifying the parts of our bodies we hate, falling victim to a body dysmorphia brought on by years of seeing airbrushed models in Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions and thousands of Photoshopped glossy ads for products we don’t actually need.
Imagine you are better than you are. Trick yourself like men do.
I tried it.
I paused in Eagle Pose, a twisty one-legged position where you wrap your arms and legs around each other, turning your body into a figure-eight hourglass. I felt as if I were noticing myself for the first time.
Wow, I had curves. My waist cut in nicely. My hips flared out. The skin wrapping my hipbones and ass was as smooth as it had been when I was eighteen. The triangle of blonde pubic hair seemed . . . discreet and tasteful, seductive, promising.
I saw a grown woman in the glass. Not a sexy twentysomething body that you’d find strutting on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk. But even through my prescription lenses, the body I saw was curvy, soft, and appealing. This was me. If my forty-nine-year-old body still turned me on, it was a short hop to imagine it had done the same for Dylan, and could do the same for other men, if I (and they) were so lucky in the future. Not every man on the planet. But definitely one or two.
The woman in the mirror smiled at me.
Or maybe even five.