I can only imagine what it's like to sleep with many different women, and that's OK -- I have a pretty good imagination.
The truth is, there's only one I want.
Her name is Elaine. She's barely 5 feet tall and has big round eyes, a shy smile and a sweetness in her nature that makes people think she is somehow innocent, even at 46.
I know better. I have had her hold me down and fuck the daylights out of me while I protested that my wife would be home any minute. She just laughed.
I know for a fact that she has seduced her brother, spanked her husband and taken another woman to bed just for fun. I know because I was there -- I was those other people. And Elaine is my wife.
You see, Elaine likes men and is amused by our predictability. She knows we can't help ourselves. We are drawn to legs and breasts and shapely bottoms, and should we fail to notice them, she will point them out for us.
Her own body is not perfect. Her chief complaint is that her legs are too short and her bottom too big. And just this once I won't lie: She's right. But it's those things that melt my heart when I watch her get dressed in the morning.
You see, I love women, most of all Elaine. I have imagined myself with Victoria's Secret models (indeed, I find it difficult to throw out the catalogs and still have favorite editions dating back to the summer of 1986), but I know the difference between fantasy and reality.
Lingerie straddles the border between the two realms. It's often assumed that when a man buys lingerie for a woman, he is giving himself a gift, and there's certainly some truth to that. But lingerie works for women, too. They buy it for themselves and wear it for themselves.
It doesn't matter if they're single and not dating or even really looking. I have it on good authority (not Elaine this time, but a close friend) that women sometimes choose to wear sexy lingerie just for the way it makes them feel.
Lingerie is powerful stuff. I'll give you an example of just how powerful: To me, a woman with tiny breasts pushed up and in by a padded bra can be far sexier than a full-breasted woman. Why is that?
It's because she's asking me to look at her, inviting me to admire her form, even if it's not entirely hers. It's how she wants to be seen.
I'm willing to go along with the fantasy -- it's not real, and yet it is. To see someone as she imagines herself is a real treat. (I used the word "real" without thinking just then. But I see now how apt it is. A woman's imagination may not be tangible, not like her lips or hair, but does that make it any less real? Would you be you without your imagination?)
Some of what I've just said is hypothetical. Elaine's breasts are not tiny. But I do like to see her in a push-up bra, because I know I'm going to get laid.
Elaine knows the difference between fantasy and reality as well as I do. That's what allows her to point out pretty girls and laugh about the time I drove over the curb, distracted by a woman bending over to pull a weed from her flower bed.
I've talked to other men about this, and some report similar experiences. I know one whose girlfriend said, "Just tell me what you like and I'll point them out." I know another whose wife has given him permission to sleep with Shania Twain, should he ever be lucky enough to have the opportunity. I doubt that Elaine would go that far, but since there's little chance of my meeting Juliette Binoche or Lena Olin, I can lust after them all I want.
I know Elaine gets hot watching Mel Gibson in "The Bounty" and Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans" and that's all right with me. Sometimes I like to imagine myself as a sailor torn between love and duty or a rugged frontiersman attracted to a spirited Englishwoman.
Our life isn't all fantasy. The reality is that Elaine can be jealous and stubborn, even irritating at times. She works hard, and for years made far more money than I. She leaves her stuff scattered everywhere and tends to throw herself into creative projects that keep her up till all hours of the night.
Some of that is charming; some of it is not.
She has a sharp mind and can be alternately shy or boisterous. She is, in short, much more than the object of my sexual yearnings. But that's what this piece is about.
I met Elaine when I was still a virgin -- a nice Christian boy at a small college in the great Northwest. (I don't know if Elaine was a virgin; I've never asked.) We started dating and, 11 months later, we were married in a park in pouring rain. That was about 25 years ago. She is still the only woman I've done the nasty with, so you could say I have limited experience. You could say that; I wouldn't.
So, how is it that this has gone on for damn near a quarter-century?
People are invariably surprised when they find out how long we've been married. That's fine. We get a kick out of it. It means that if you don't look too closely, we still look younger than we really are. What gets annoying, or at least awkward, is when people ask me why our marriage has worked out when so many others have failed.
Here's the problem: I don't know why. I think I've just been lucky. I chose well, but there's no way I could have known how well -- we were too young and it happened too fast.
Maybe it's just chemistry. I know I like the way her skin smells. Maybe it helped that we were so young and not set in our ways. But that could just as easily have backfired; we could have grown apart instead of together.
Choosing not to have kids (a decision we made before we were married) certainly simplified our lives. But that's clearly not for everyone. Even we had second thoughts.
We like a lot of the same music and have similar tastes in art, literature and furniture, but is that the secret to a happy marriage? If so, then ours is just luck.
Maybe it comes down to the old adage about never going to bed mad at each other.
I do know that sex is part of it. A vital part. But maybe not a big part. In fact, maybe there are no big parts.
I realize that, by most definitions, I am inexperienced, but I read a lot. I know about things like ball gags and safe words, for instance (though I'm confused about how they're supposed to work together). So I don't really qualify as naive, but I do have a sort of willed innocence that tends to shield me from temptations.
For one thing, I'm usually quite surprised when a woman finds me attractive -- a side effect, I think, of being called conceited when I was in the sixth grade. (I didn't think it was true, but I didn't want anyone else to think that either, so I never assumed anything after that.)
Still, over the past 25 years, there have been a handful of cases where the attraction was unmistakable, even to me. Here are three of the most provocative things women have said to me:
"You can always stay at my place."
In the first instance, I was deep in thought, staring into the middle distance, when a woman who happened to step into that middle distance broke my train of thought with her one-word response. I said, charming as ever, "What?" She looked me straight in the eye and said it again -- "Yes" -- then tossed her head and walked away.
In the second instance, I was working in a restaurant, opening half a dozen bluepoint oysters, when a waitress aimed a rubber band at me and fired her double-entendre.
In the third, I was working late on a magazine deadline and worried that I might miss the last train home. A somewhat perturbed bystander interjected, "He's married, Diane." To me, Diane said, "That's OK. Your wife is welcome, too."
Then there was the intern who stood in front of my cubicle eating a banana and marveling at its size. Well, sometimes a banana is just a banana. But I still think the woman at the trade show who mistakenly got off the elevator on my floor may have had ulterior motives. I'll never know for sure.
The thing is, I tend to look farther ahead than most people. I don't mean that I'm some sort of visionary. Far from it. I don't even play chess, because it requires you to think three or four moves ahead -- more, for all I know. But I think it's pretty easy to see when you're not really compatible with someone and that the relationship is likely to end badly.
I dated quite a bit in high school and college, so I know about heartbreak, tears and recriminations. I always felt like an honest effort was worth the risk, but why put yourself through all that -- to say nothing of the other person -- if you know it won't work?
Some people seem to be able to treat sex very casually. I'm not one of those who call it "making love" -- it's fucking, screwing, balling, doing the nasty -- but I still think it's powerful stuff.
If I could spend a night with Lena Olin and no one would ever find out about it, no one would be hurt, would I do it? Yes, under those circumstances, but in real life there are lots of unexpected and unintended consequences.
I chose not to follow up on any of the incidents I described earlier, but it wasn't uncertainty that held me back. It was certainty. The certainty that Elaine is the best thing that has ever happened to me. The certainty that no one will love me harder, longer or sweeter than she does.
I'd be a fool to fuck that up.
Having said all that, I should probably mention my midlife crisis. I was working for a high-tech company under new managers who were even more pigheaded than I am, and most of my friends had already abandoned ship. Then Caitlin joined the company and took the office next to mine. We hit it off immediately.
I suppose it's a pretty conventional story. I was over 40. She was under 30, bright, attractive, funny, talented. We worked well together. We had lunch together the first day and every day after that, often just the two of us.
"People will think we're having an affair," she said.
I said, "So I should stop telling everyone we are?"
My boss mentioned Caitlin and my improved performance in my annual review.
Our first lunch lasted about two hours even though we never left the campus, and toward the end, I mentioned Elaine and how long we'd been married. It didn't really fit into the conversation in any natural way, and that may have contributed to Caitlin's shock.
"You don't look old enough," she said.
I was flattered, of course, but that's not why I said it. I said it, first of all, because I despise men who hide their marriages from single women. More to the point, I find that most women are loath to interfere in a happy, long-standing relationship.
In short, I felt that Caitlin and I had a certain chemistry, and it scared me.
I find all kinds of women attractive, and I've already mentioned a few of the temptations that have come my way, but this was different. Caitlin and I were continually popping into each other's office to brainstorm or just to chat. We even traded e-mails frequently, despite being right next door.
It got to the point where I'd tag along with her on lunchtime errands.
She'd say, "I need to get my car washed at lunch."
I'd say, "Want some company?"
I even accompanied her on shopping trips, which made Elaine furious because I hated shopping and rarely went with her.
"This is different," I'd say. "The alternative is eating lunch at my desk. Anyway, there's a time limit." (A slight dig, but I didn't say it to be mean.)
The truth: I had a huge crush on Caitlin and could easily imagine having sex with her. I'm sure you've heard this one before: I felt like a teenager. Only now I knew what sex was like, beyond the clues that adolescent masturbation once provided. Plus, I was no longer a tongue-tied teenager. Caitlin and I could talk about anything and everything. All my stories were new to her, and hers to me.
Around that time, a movie called "Indecent Proposal," with Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, came out. I never saw it, but everyone was talking about it. The central question: Would you let another man sleep with your wife for $1 million?
Caitlin put it another way. Would I sleep with another woman for $1 million?
I gave it some thought. "I don't think so," I said.
"So I should stop saving my money?" she asked.
It was one of the nicest things anyone other than Elaine has ever said to me, but I think we both knew by then it wasn't going to happen. Caitlin knew I was happily married, and I knew she was still in love with a close friend of the family, and had been for the past 10 years.
The guy in question, Greg, knew nothing of Caitlin's feelings for him -- she had stupidly denied them years ago -- but it was clear from the e-mails Caitlin showed me that he felt the same way about her.
The way I see it, you don't mess with that kind of love, except to help it along if you can.
Today Caitlin and Greg are married and have a beautiful baby. Elaine picked out baby clothes and a little stuffed animal to send them (they live in another part of the state) and everything is as it should be.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Elaine and I have a quiet life together. We rarely fight, but I wouldn't call that the measure of a good marriage. We know another couple who have been together nearly as long as we have and they fight all the time, or so they say. That's just their style. They have thick skins, I think. Elaine and I can too easily wound each other, so we try hard not to.
Even so, I'd like to think our marriage could survive anything -- I just wouldn't care to put that to the test. After all, if mere words can cut to the quick, what would infidelity do?
I know what Elaine is worth. I know what her love is worth.
I've been asked, "Don't you ever want to try a different flavor of ice cream?" Interesting question. Vanilla is my favorite, and I'll tell you why: It's the most versatile. You can put any kind of topping you like on it and it will still taste great.
As I look back on the words I've set down here, I see that I've been too facile in some places (the ice-cream analogy, for one) and not really honest in others.
I made it sound as if I were much wiser in my dating years than I really was. To be certain, I did things I'm not proud of. I caused a lot of needless pain, to the girls I dated and to myself. But, hey, I was just a kid.
I said that I would do the deed with Lena Olin, assuming all the circumstances were right (the big assumption being her willingness to do it with me). What man in his right mind would not, right? Well, I'm not sure I would. It's hard to explain. I think some secrets are fine and good, but others can damage you even if no one else knows about them.
I also said that sex is a vital part of a good marriage, though maybe not a big part, that maybe there are no big parts. But there is one, for me at least, in both sex and marriage: trust.
I love coming home to Elaine, sleeping with her and waking up with her. She's my refuge, my resort, my escape from the daily grind. I'm completely relaxed around her. I can only imagine what it must be like to come home from a bad day at the office only to have a bad night at home.
I'm not an expert. This is the only life I've known. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.