The other night, my friend K. and I slip out of a meeting to sit in swanky leather chairs at the bar where the heads of great stuffed beasts look down on us as we sip pinot gris.
We talk about men.
“He called me to tell me he was dating someone,” she says. “Just so that I would know.” “Considerate,” I say, and we both turn back to the menus. “And then there’s P. who’s practically stalking me.” She pauses, puts her menu down. “I went for drinks with him the other night. I shouldn’t have, but I did.”
I look at her, nod, let her go on.
“I didn’t go home with him. I thought about it, but I knew it was a bad idea. I mean, I have to keep working with him.”
This town is small, and we keep looking around in the bar, to make sure the people we are talking about have not suddenly turned up, that we have not ourselves summoned them by invoking their names, and that they are not now making their way toward to us, their arms raised, mid-greeting. It is not as if that has never happened.
“I’m lonely,” she says. “And every time I turn around, there he is.”
K. is the process of uncoupling after nearly two decades of marriage. She is stunningly beautiful, but a long, difficult separation has drained her confidence. Even now, the men in their pin-striped suits in the bar with us eye her longingly from their tables.
I remember reading something – some interviews with women in their forties. They were being asked about sex and desire in mid-life. One woman, married, responded by saying, “In my forties, all I wanted to do was have sex with every man who was not my husband.”
“And what did you do?” the interviewer asked.
“I held on. And eventually, that feeling passed.”
I share this anecdote with K. “Held on to what?” she asks.
We have family friends who have been married to each other for fifty-five years. At a celebration for their fiftieth anniversary, the woman made a toast, and in it, she thanked her husband for remaining faithful to her, for not straying from their marriage all those years. She has tears in her eyes as she lifts the glass toward her husband, who raises his back toward her. I feel my own tears well up too, despite my distaste for this particular public display. Certain intimacies and complexities of a marriage, I think, should remain known only to its participants. But I am no expert.
“Fidelity is the new sexual liberation,” my friend R. says as she shows me a slick ad in a magazine where a young husband appears to be resisting the advances of a group of scantily-clad women. “Good,” I say, almost involuntarily, my twelve years of Catholic schooling peeking out from beneath the kind of muddled progressive post-feminism I wear around these days. R. looks at me for a moment, her head cocked, quizzically. I shrug: “I mean, whatever works, you know?”
My French friend S. is standing with her husband when she says she’s promised to take care of him if he gets sick and infirm in old age, “but I’ve also said I plan to have many affairs with young suitors,” she says. Her husband smiles good-naturedly, shakes his head. Neither of us thinks she is kidding.
We are a lot of bravado, my friends and me. Exposing our sexual appetites seems somehow to leave us less vulnerable than to talk about other kinds of longing. About wanting to be seen, or heard, or read. About wanting to be successful or trying to define success. About how we miss our childhood friends. About how we miss our mothers, our fathers. About how frequently, even in each other’s company, we feel alone.
I often think of the men I know – the sensitive, progressive men – and how confusing these relationships must at times seem. We want so much of them, I think. We want strong and confident and kind. We want sexy and sad. We want rugged. Ironic. Romantic. We want poets and band boys. Who drive their own cars and have their own health insurance.
We are sitting around the kitchen table of one of my friends, a group of us, all women. I have said this out loud, this sexy-sad-rugged-man thing. “The sad thing might just be you,” N. says, and we all laugh. I suppose it might be.
Back at the bar, K. is talking about P. “I mean, I am sure he’s had affairs since me. He doesn’t seem to do well on his own.” “But isn’t he still married?” I ask. She nods. “No one knows why.”
We drink the last of our wine and consider another, but it is getting late. Standing outside by the parking lot, she checks her phone. “He left me a message,” she says, raising the phone to her ear. As she listens, I wave, blow a kiss. “I’m not going to call him back,” she calls after me, as I make my way to my car. “Not tonight at least.”