With that wonderful, familiar rush and a great thrashing of hips, I erupted into my wife’s mouth as she kneeled, naked, over me. Ellen — Elly — had had her orgasm first, and was now totally focused on doing her best for me. After more than three decades as lovers and several conversations about the fine points of fellatio, she knew exactly what I liked — one palm placed gently on my scrotum, the other grasping my shaft, milking it, while her lips toyed with my little head. When I was all finished, she raised her head and swallowed loudly. Elly doesn’t like her sensitive vulva touched for a while after she comes. But I like her hand to linger between my legs. That’s what she did as she lay down beside me and nestled into my chest.
“Let me guess,” she murmured. “You liked that.”
“Mmmm,” was all I could manage.
The music played on our bedroom boom box — an old Stones recording. In the candlelight, Elly’s auburn hair looked darker than it actually was, and the gray streaks disappeared. She hates the gray, and has been toying with coloring her hair. I think the streaks add character to her mane, and that hair dye is a waste, but on this subject, my opinion doesn’t matter. She’ll do what she wants to do. Back when we first got together in 1967, neither of us had any gray, and we had no idea we’d be lovers long enough to discuss what, if anything, to do about it.
Elly and I have been lovers for 34 years now — married for 30 — and our sex feels more fulfilling than ever. That’s been a big surprise to me. The conventional wisdom I grew up with held that sex starts out with a bang and then, over time, fades to a whimper. Our trajectory has been precisely the opposite. I wouldn’t claim that Elly and I are unusually sexually gifted. We’re pretty ordinary people. But somehow — perhaps through a combination of hard work and dumb luck — over the years, we’ve groped our way to mutually fulfilling sex that has grown steadily deeper, more intimate, more erotic and more satisfying.
Of course, Elly and I have also had our share of sexual contention — mostly me wanting sex more frequently. Our struggle around this issue has been a chronic, sometimes tense sore point. But despite it, over the decades, our lovemaking has grown continually more fulfilling. It’s always struck me as odd how satisfaction has had no bearing on the chronic tension over our sexual frequency, and vice versa. I’m not sure how we’ve managed to separate the two. But we compartmentalize other chronic disagreements while, overall, still loving one another and hanging in there.
I’ve thought a lot about why we are still together. I work in publishing, and have read more sex-book proposals and completed manuscripts than I care to recall. But I’ve never seen anyone tackle the evolution of a long-term sexual relationship that works. I guess we’ve just figured it out as we’ve gone along.
I’m 54. Elly is 52. When we first got together, I thought sex was as static as eye color. I had no idea how it could evolve and mature. We’re not two horny college kids humping our brains out on a single mattress to Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” LP. We still do it to music — in addition to the Stones, there are Springsteen and Indigo Girls CDs stacked up on our boom box — but now we’re on a king-size bed surrounded by scented candles, and the action has mellowed. I forget who said it, but it’s true: Older sex is less like the Fourth of July, more like Thanksgiving. In our case, it’s a feast with the occasional bone in the stuffing — the bones being our enduring difference in desired frequency.
Elly and I met in college. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a screening of an obscure movie, “Lilith,” with Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda and Gene Hackman, about a therapist who falls in love with a patient. (Every now and then when we notice it’s on TV, we try to catch it.) Elly was a freshman, all of 18. I was an “older man,” a 20-year-old junior. We have kids those ages now, and it amazes us how immature they seem. We ask each other if we were that clueless, and suppose we were. It never occurred to us when we were that age that life is long, and that we could grow and change together — as individuals and partners in marriage and in a sexual relationship.
I guess it must have been around our third date that things between Elly and me first became sexual. It’s fuzzy, but I know we were in my room and wound up rolling around on my bed, a single mattress on the floor near brick-and-board book shelves. Elly has a marvelously alluring body with curves that would inspire a painter — or an amateur photographer such as yours truly. Our first year together, as a surprise gift, she had a friend take a set of come-hither nude photos of her that she assembled in an album and presented without a trace of self-consciousness. I went crazy with lust when I saw it. We jumped into bed and had great sex. But almost immediately after, Elly became more demure, more concerned about her privacy. She’s never let me photograph her nude, much to my chagrin, and video has always been out of the question.
But back to our first time: I remember how much I loved undressing her, slowly revealing her curvaceous beauty, the soft pillows of her breasts, the magical triangle of her pubic hair. As I recall, we enjoyed the sex the first time, but with hindsight I have to say that it was pretty awkward. We were two dumb kids and didn’t know what we were doing. We weren’t virgins. We’d each had a couple of previous lovers and considered ourselves “experienced.” But that’s like saying that after your third time behind the wheel you know how to drive. We were well educated, and attending an elite university, but knew very little about sex.
Elly was on the Pill, so she was ready to be responsibly sexual. But as far as sex itself was concerned, she was pretty passive. It was up to me to orchestrate things. In my grossly incompetent 20-year-old hands, our early sex was mechanical and brief. We would kiss and hug for a little while. I would play with her breasts (still my favorite sex toy), and suck on her nipples. Next we would fondle each other’s genitals until I felt the first hint of dampness between her legs. Then I’d mount her, push my way inside, and come almost immediately. The end.
A few months into our lovemaking, we added a few additional moves to our repertoire: woman-on-top, doggie style and oral. The new positions were fun. As for oral, I’d never given or received it before, and soon learned the same was true for Elly. There was no discussion beforehand. I remember deciding to go down on her. I boldly kissed my way south from her mouth to her neck to her breasts to her belly, always wondering if she’d call a halt to it, until I arrived at her vulva. Once down there, I recall realizing with a start that I didn’t know what to do. I was surprised, embarrassed and a little panicky. I just stuck out my tongue and licked all over between her legs. Years later, the Elvis Costello song, “Mystery Dance,” described the experience quite aptly: “Well I remember when the lights went out/and I was tryin’ to make it look like it was never in doubt./ She thought that I knew,/and I thought that she knew, so both of us were willing, but we didn’t know how to do it.”
From the moaning sounds Elly made, I inferred that she enjoyed having her labia licked. I felt delighted. After a while, I climbed back up and presented my erection to her lips. She took me inside her mouth, tentatively at first, then more confidently. I loved it. When Elly sucked me, I was crazy in love with her. I think I proposed marriage the first 10 times she did it. She had the good sense not to take those outbursts seriously. In addition, she never objected to my coming in her mouth or to swallowing my semen. I’ve always felt tremendously grateful for this erotic gift. I know it’s an issue for many couples. Years ago, when Bo Derek starred in the movie “10,” the numerical rating given to the perfect woman, a joke made the rounds among my friends: What’s an 11? A 10 who swallows. I feel sorry for men whose lovers won’t do that.
Oral sex quickly became a regular part of our lovemaking. As I mentioned, when I licked her, Elly moaned — and added a new element, running her fingers through my hair, massaging my scalp. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think anything of it. Later I learned that she was actually trying to pull my tongue up to her clitoris. But who knew? I was a dumb 20-year-old. I had only the vaguest notion of the clitoris, and no idea where it was located in relation to the labia and vaginal opening.
Elly kept trying to pull my head up, but never once did she say words to the effect of: Hey, bozo, lick me up here already. When I think back on those sexual experiences, I marvel that Elly put up with me. Fortunately, she was as sexually naive as I was. We were two kids falling in love, having a good time together and getting along well. We both just accepted the sex we were having as the way sex must be.
Then one night after about six months of almost nightly fucking, after I’d finished and Elly was wiping herself with a washcloth, she mentioned offhandedly that it might be nice to have an orgasm with me sometime.
What? I gasped, incredulous. You mean you don’t? This precipitated our first real sex discussion and, in my view, our first sexual crisis. I felt mortified. If she wasn’t coming, I was an incompetent lover, a failure as a man. But who knew? Elly had never said a word about not coming. And I’d never seen or felt a woman’s orgasm before, so I couldn’t tell she wasn’t having any.
Meanwhile, I also felt angry and betrayed that Elly had kept such important information from me for so long. She was surprised at my reactions. She considered her lack of orgasm no big deal. It was easy enough to fix. After I fell asleep, she masturbated to climax. That made me feel even more inadequate. But since the subject had come up, she said it might be nice if I would lick her clit. I thought I was, I groaned. Where the hell is it? She spread her legs and pointed it out. Oh. I recall feeling surprised that her clit was so high up and so small.
The Orgasm Crisis, as I called it, was a shattering experience for me. I thought I was a good lover, a stud even — we were doing it every night. Then all of a sudden, my sexual house of cards collapsed and it turned out that I was the Joker. I alternately apologized profusely for being a bumbling idiot, and berated Elly for her unseemly silence. She insisted that she wasn’t in a big rush to have orgasms with me. She figured they would happen sooner or later. But she was miffed about my anger. She’d never talked about sex with any previous partner. How could she possibly know I wanted her to speak up?
The Orgasm Crisis was a difficult passage, but it had two positive results. One was that Elly and I began talking about our lovemaking, checking in about what felt good, and what didn’t. “Communication.” The big buzzword. That’s what all the sex books talk about — and my house, like most major publishers — has released dozens. Some are informative, but most are a waste of good trees. I’ve never read one that actually helped me discuss lovemaking with Elly. We just bumbled our way into talking about the subject.
Neither of us has ever found it easy to discuss what we want in bed, to make specific sexual requests. But over time, we’ve both managed to spit out a few. I was able to say that I wanted Elly to take my erection in her hand early on and not let go until I was inside her. I was able to ask her to lick my balls and play with and suck my nipples. And despite her reticent nature, Elly was able to ask for gentler nipple fondling, slower penis insertion and more oral. It felt great to be able to make — and grant — such intimate requests.
Even now, after spending more than half of our lives together and as veterans of many sexual discussions, we still have trouble discussing our sex. Elly is still on the passive side, so it’s usually up to me to raise the subject, and I confess I just don’t do it that often. For many years, we used to have our sex talks in nonsexual contexts, for example, when out to dinner just the two of us. But for about the last 10 years, we’ve been checking in immediately after sex, during afterglow, when we both feel relaxed and close. The latter works better for us.
When I was in my 20s and 30s I thought there would be less and less to discuss as the years passed, that we would eventually thrash out all there was to discuss about sex. Yes and no. Elly and I feel more comfortable with each other sexually than we ever have, which makes some discussions easier. For example, early in our relationship, she wanted both breasts treated equally. If I sucked on one for five minutes, she used to want the other nipple sucked for five as well. Maybe 10 years ago, she decided that equal time was no longer so important to her and had no trouble saying so.
But as we age, the sex changes and a whole new crop of difficult subjects comes up. Now we’re checking in about her menopausal vaginal dryness. We also check in about my penis, which is slower to rise to erection than it was way back when, and every so often has a problem getting up there at all, usually after drinking more than I should. Whenever a new issue comes up, I feel like I’m 20 again, clueless about how to raise it.
Another benefit of the Orgasm Crisis was that I hit the campus bookstore and stumbled onto a copy of Masters and Johnson’s “Human Sexual Response,” which had just appeared in paperback. It was a revelation. It had a drawing of women’s genital anatomy, with the clitoris considerably north of the vagina, right where Elly said hers was. Incredible. In addition, I recall feeling especially astonished by Masters and Johnson’s assertion that vaginal lubrication is the firstsign of women’s arousal. Stupid me. I thought that when Elly’s vulva got the least bit damp, she was ready to fuck. I asked her about it. Yeah, she said, you dive in before I’m really ready. Which led to more self-loathing on my part, and another strained round of: Why didn’t you ever say anything about this?
Thanks to Masters and Johnson, our sex life improved considerably. We extended our foreplay, became more sensual, adopted more of a mutual massage approach, and got into touching each other all over, not just around her breasts and both of our genitals. My tongue found her clitoris. And I didn’t enter her until she’d been good and wet for quite a while. Best of all, Elly began having orgasms with me. Consistently. Lovely, shuddering, hip-jerking orgasms. I was thrilled. Here was proof nightly that I was, finally, a skilled lover, maybe not the stud I’d fantasized being, but good enough.
As our skills evolved, so did the atmospherics we created for lovemaking. As members of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” generation, Elly and I have always made love to music. Back in our early days together, I had a cheap stereo on which you could stack five LPs. John Lennon’s “Imagine” album was one of our favorites for a while. Motown, too, especially Marvin Gaye. Now we have a CD boom box in our bedroom. When we set it up on my dresser, our daughter was maybe 6 years old. She said, “Why do you have that in your bedroom? You never play it.” We told her we don’t play it when she’s awake, but that when she’s asleep we enjoy music while making love. She seemed satisfied.
As for sex and drugs, Elly and I have made love high on a variety of substances. Of course, we’ve done it intoxicated on alcohol. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed sex drunk. It’s not a sensual high. It’s too sloppy. And now that I’m in my 50s, it doesn’t take much alcohol to make my erection balky. One glass of wine with dinner, sure. But no more than that, and none within an hour or so of getting started. We did it once on cocaine, once on speed. Elly liked them. But I didn’t. Except for coffee, stimulants don’t agree with me. When I said never again, Elly sighed wistfully, but didn’t object.
Then there’s marijuana. We used to smoke a fair amount, and both considered it wonderfully sex-enhancing. We smoke a lot less now, but continue to enjoy pot for sex. Getting stoned beforehand continues to be part of our preparations, really part of foreplay. We smoke pot maybe half the time, depending on the circumstances. My house once published a book that, among other issues, discussed the scientific debate over the sexual effects of marijuana. I found it difficult to believe there was a debate. There is none in our bed. Both Elly and I agree that pot improves sex. It focuses the mind and body on the sensual, on the moment, on the here and now. Sometimes I imagine Elly and me in our 80s, fumbling with matches and rolling papers before making love. I hope we live that long and are healthy enough to keep doing it. Maybe pot will be legal by then.
And there was porn. Around 1970, after Elly and I had been together a couple of years, a couple we knew suggested that we all go to the porno theater on the outskirts of town. Both Elly and I had seen our share of Playboy and Penthouse, and nudie art. I’d seen porn films once or twice before, but Elly never had. She was transfixed — and very turned on. After maybe two movies, our friends leaned over to us and said, “We’re going home to fuck now. See you.” Almost immediately after they left, Elly tugged on my sleeve. It was clear what she wanted. Our sex was intense. Seeing all that over-the-top fucking loosened up both of us. We returned to the porn theater a few more times, then Elly decided she’d had enough. It was all the same. It was boring. There was no plot, no characters to care about. Then there was the feminist argument, that porn is produced by men for men, a total male fantasy ride. Of course, she was right. But I really didn’t care. I’m a guy, and porn showed fucking. I was enough of a voyeur to enjoy watching. But Elly felt differently, so we stopped going.
Years later, when VCRs allowed porn viewing at home, we never rented any X-rated videos. But Elly loves R-rated romantic comedies, and sexy, atmospheric, R-rated melodramas. They often put her in the mood for sex. As a result, I became very accommodating about movies: “Whatever you want, honey …” To this day, Elly picks the vast majority of the movies we see — and sometimes I get lucky.
Tomorrow: Living together is not the easiest thing to do.
Barry Sallinen is a writer and editor in New York.More Barry Sallinen.